MYSTICISM: The First Step To Contemplation, by John Rüsbröck

From Reflections From the Mirror of a Mystic

When the soul has arrived at true life, and all her actions are referred to the glory of God, she feels herself suddenly stirred by a desire to see what her Spouse is like, asking who and what is he who has become man for her sake?  He who has died to save her, and has given himself to her?  This Jesus, who on leaving the Earth has left her his sacraments and promised her his Kingdom; this Jesus, ever ready to provide for the needs of the body and the consolation of the soul, what is he like?  And the soul, full of questions, feels the desire of seeing her Spouse increase within her; the longing to know what he is like, what he is in himself; for the knowledge, such as it is, which she gathers from creatures does not content her.

Then the soul does like Zaccheus the publican, who wanted to see; she goes on in front, far from the crowd, from the multitude of creatures, which keep us low, and prevent the getting sight of Christ.  She mounts the tree of faith which has its root in God, and spreads into twelve branches.  [The twelve articles of the creed.]  The lower extend towards the humanity of Jesus, and the world’s salvation; the upper tell of the Divinity, the Trinity, the Unity. – The soul mounts like Zaccheus to the top of the tree; for Christ is going to pass by with all his gifts.  Reaching the summit she sees the Son of Man; but the light says to her, “Behold the Divinity, infinite, incomprehensible, inaccessible; and all created light stops short.  This is the abyss! – and the soul reaches the highest knowledge of God which can be procured here below; viz., ignorance and the confession that she understands not.

But in the midst of the light, in the midst of the desire, Christ speaks, saying: Come down quickly; today I must take up my abode in thy house.

This rapid descent which God requires of us is simply an immersion in the abyss of the Divinity, incomprehensible to the intellect; but where the intellect stops short, love advances and goes in.

When the soul, having gone beyond the understanding stoops and leaps down, she dwells in God, and Jesus Christ in her; when having gone down into the depths inaccessible to created things, she walks in the light of faith, she goes forth to meet Jesus, and, bathed in his splendor, she sees how impossible it is for her to understand.

Whensoever desire plunges us in the incomprehensible God we go to meet Christ, who fills us with his gifts; and when above his gifts, above ourselves and all creatures, we repose in him, we dwell in God and God in us.

This is how Jesus and the soul meet at the highest point of the active life.

ADVENT: Stripped Naked

Like today where I live, it was a time that wrapped itself close in darkness; night falling in the afternoon, morning blinking itself awake.

And so, for me, it was a time of wrapping myself in the darkness of the nave, letting the music fill me, the words caress me.

Advent.

It was a year, however, that had given me a significant study: a study of evil that I could almost touch.  I could sense it, surely, but I had never encountered a force of evil that dominated an entire space.  It, too, liked being wrapped in the darkness of a church.  Safe and warm.  Hidden.

I had to define it.  I had to track it.  I had to find it.

And I did.

All this meant to me was that I was in flight, in that realm that lies between Earth and God, where my feet walked on sidewalks while my imagination defined My Reality.  It meant nothing to anyone else.  I still drove to work every morning, cooked dinner every night, helped a child wrestle with a homework assignment.

Swept the floor.

And went to church.

Flights are very, very hard on the body.  For one thing, they take up my nights, so my days are malnourished yet still crammed with both life and God’s life living in me.  Two worlds, demanding of me at the same time.

But there is only one time.

Only one time to do both things.

And I was on a cusp.  I was finally willing to “give away” what I had learned in my “first level of learning,” so that I could enter my “second level of learning.”  Of course, I had no idea what this really meant.  I knew what I had learned.  I understood the concept of “giving it away.”  But this whole second level.  What did it mean?  What was the big deal?  Why was there an entrance fee?

And how, exactly, was I supposed to put what I learned into “English” and sculpt the resulting words into something that could be communicated to someone else?

I have spent my life shrouded in invisibility.  Mostly, just by blending into the background behind me.  Sometimes, in reality, actually becoming unseen by the person standing right in front of me, when a slight motion on my part brings me into visibility and startles them violently.  Realizing that I had been there, looking at them, all along.  And they hadn’t perceived me.

Boo!

There are even times when, hidden up underneath my hood, someone cranes around and looks up into my face.  And screams.

I don’t know what they see, exactly.  But the screams all sound the same to me.

No, boo! here.

Just silence.

And a taking off of the hood.  And more startled stares.

Just the face of a woman, after all.

It was that time of year.

I was, in my terms, up to no good.

I was on the hunt.

It never, ever occurred to me, in my whole life, that I, too, could be become the object of someone else’s hunt.

I wasn’t being hunted for my evil.

But for my wonder.  My glory.

Someone had heard tales about me.

I could see it in his face over the years.  The double-takes when he saw me.  The wide eyes.  The increased excitement.

Sometimes, I even knew the time and the place that information was being transferred.  Acquired.  Amassed.

Seeing him talking, whispering, with someone from my past.

The arched eyebrows.

The quick turn of the backs towards me.

For a long time, this growing awareness in me of his growing awareness of me amused me.

It did, in the long run, mean nothing to me.

Until it did.

Until I became an exhibit in his cage.

His zoo.

And the stories about me spread about the church.  A congregation does so much with words.  Not like a small town, where an open reaction might flare up at any time.

No, in a church community reverence is paramount.  Or the appearance of it is, anyway.

There was a time, years before this, when I was doing a lot of praying and studying at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.  Back before the days of it serving as a yoga studio and a mosque.

And as I would walk towards the front doors from the choir, people, scattered about in the rows of chairs and in the aisles, would fall to their knees as I walked past them.  I had never spoken to them.  I had no idea what was going on in their heads.

It was at this time, in this place, that the Dalai Lama, in the middle of a lecture to a packed house, stopped speaking, and started looking about the nave.  He finally found what he was searching for – Me – leaning against a pillar (there were no chairs available), in one of the wings.  He looked long at me, took a deep breath, and turned back around to finish his talk.

But the difference between That Time and the one I’m describing here was that I could walk out of the cathedral, into the fresh air.  I could walk out of the rarified experiences of being seen and into a world where no one saw me.  I could go from being Somebody to reveling in the glory and wonder of being nobody.

Alleluia!

But this Advent, this year, the one I am writing about, I was trapped.

I was on assignment.  I couldn’t turn my back on it and walk out.  And I was massively confused: I didn’t know what “the second level of learning” was.  Was this it?

All I knew was that I had to go forward.  Finish the assignment.  It was always what got me through these flights: the idea of the end.  Landing.

And so there I was.

Being gawked at.  Talked about in tones too low for me to hear.  People arranging themselves to accommodate me.

Me.

And all this in my own church.  A place I considered more my home than anywhere else on Earth.

But the shape of the home was rearranging itself around me.  As I watched.

I went from being a person that no one noticed, really, to the Main Exhibit.

The Spectacle.

The biggest problem was that as they looked at Me and thought they knew what they saw, the sum total of their real knowledge of Who I Am was an absolute zero.

They had absolutely no idea of what they were looking at.

Or who.

I was the first elephant ever to be captured and dragged back into “civilization” only to have every assumption made about me be totally wrong.

But how does an elephant explain itself?

It doesn’t.

Having a spotlight glaring down on me after a life of living in the shadows was more than uncomfortable.  It was intimidating.

And as no one ever really talked to me about “it,” there was no relief.

Just Mass after Mass, anthem after hymn, prayer after prayer.  Steps on my path.

I tried to shut “them” out and focus on my assignment.

And it was, in addition to everything else, the time when the “big” assignment was given to me.  The one that had lurked in the shadows of my consciousness for years and years, parts of its dimension being revealed to me here and there.  Bit by bit.

An assignment that I did (and still do) take very, very seriously.

So I was there.  My work in front of me.

The dynamics of my relationship with God being picked through and held up for scrutiny by people who thought they Just Knew what they were doing.

But didn’t have a clue.

The cruelest aspect of it all was that my captor, the one who had created this environment around me, didn’t like what he saw.

I wasn’t performing to his ideals.  His dreams.

He must have seen himself as the ring master, the one who, in the end, will be the one in the spotlight, getting all the applause.

This is all mine! he must have been thinking.

Except who he had captured was Me.

He wanted me, in truth, to belong to him.

But I belonged to God.

I kept thinking that he wanted me to be the genie from the magic lamp.  He could rub, and he could wish, and I would make his dreams come true in a poof.

Except there was no poof.

No magic.

Just me.

Such a disappointment.  That turned into real anger.

His anger.

His resentment.

He discovered, much to his chagrin, that he couldn’t control me.

He couldn’t dictate to me.

And, worst of all, he couldn’t out-think me.

He tried, I’ll give him that.

But one mighty fine advantage of being me is that I can get knowledge ahead of time.  I can “know” things.  My father had that ability.  My grandmother (on my mother’s side) had that ability.  So I got it from both sides of the family.

And I could see him coming.

Every single time.

And rearrange myself in a manner that was sure to disappoint.

Tsk.

So there was, in the end, no turning of water into wine.

No healing of a crowd of lepers.

No procession of a long line of saints and angels to join the chorus in songs of worship.

No.  There was just me.

On my knees.

Praying.

Until the line that I had drawn around me was transgressed.

And I committed an act.

Not an act that will ever be written about and studied, like Jesus walking on water.

Not an act that will be remembered for its glory.  Or its wonder.

Instead, my act was one of defiance.

Of a raised fist.

But I am good at what I do.

It was the act that freed me.

That allowed me to walk in the world again as I am.

Unseen.

Unremarked upon.

Alone.

Nobody.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

MYSTICISM: Looking Out In Prayer With Contemplative Eyes, by Richard Rohr

From Silent Compassion

To speak of mysticism in simple terms means we speak of experiential knowledge of God instead of merely mental or cognitive knowledge of God.  And when you really experience the divine, you naturally move to a higher (or deeper) level of consciousness.  When most people hear the word mystical, they think it means something impossible for most of us or only available to those who are ascetical for twenty-five years.  However, mystical encounters come to people who are still weak and sinful, as Jesus makes very clear in many of his stories (The Prodigal Son, the woman “who was a sinner,” and the Publican and the Pharisee stories, for example).

A mystical or unitive moment is not something that can be accessed by the left brain, but by the whole brain – right and left – and the heart and the body and the soul together.  It is an intuitive grasp of the whole and by the whole!  That is what makes it so convicting and transformative.

God is another word for the heart of everything and for everything precisely in its connectedness.  When you say you love God, you are saying you love everything.  Immature religion becomes an excuse for not loving a whole bunch of things and reveals that you have not had an authentic God experience yet.  Rigid religion and compulsive religiosity, all unloving religion, is a rather clear sign that you have not met God!  Once you have had a unitive experience with God, reality, or even yourself, your life invariably shows two things: quiet confidence and joyous gratitude.

That’s why mystics can love their enemies, can love the foreigner, can love the outsider.  They don’t make these distinctions that low-level religion does.  Low-level religion is more tribal, a social construct to hold an individual group together.  Some believe, “I’m Catholic because I’m Irish,” or, “I’m Catholic because I’m Italian.”  This is just group identification, and not even close to mystical experience, and, in fact, this often becomes an avoidance of it, as Jesus says to his own Jewish compatriots who tried to claim superiority because they were “sons of Abraham,” (Luke 3:8).  He even seems to say that the stones beneath his feet could be more fruitful than such futile reliance upon group or blood affiliation, (Matthew 3:9).

Organized Religion and the Mystical Path

Organized religion is an example of incarnation.  You have to start with the particular to go to the universal.  You have to start with the concrete.  And, in fact, you need a holding tank, a container to hold you in one spot long enough to learn what the real questions are and to struggle with them.  And that’s what organized religion does for you.  Some form of religion is almost necessary to carry on the Big Tradition, to give you at least the right words to tell you that mystical experience is even desirable or in any way possible.  Otherwise, you have to start from zero and go in all ridiculous directions, as often happens in our time.  Organized religion is an accountability system that holds your feet to the fire long enough to know what the issues really are, who God might just be, and what your own limitations might also be.

So, in my vocabulary (and that’s all it is) organized religion is very good and almost entirely necessary for what I call the first half of life.

Now, the trouble is that organized religion usually tells you that mystical union with God is possible, but just don’t really expect it!  That’s only for special people.  This ends up making mystical moments something very elitist and distant and only available now and then and to a few.

Organized religion often becomes problematic – not wrong, I’m just saying problematic – when you move into the second half of life because it tends, in most instances, not to answer the questions that the soul is asking.  Many people have found various forms of para-church, like the Franciscans.  But not everybody is called to be a priest or a nun or even to the Franciscan Third Order.  You need to find some way to learn or study or to pray alongside your Sunday worship community, some form of para-church grouping, which some today call the “emerging church.”  The Sunday service alone seldom leads people on deeper or even real journeys; we must begin to be honest about this.

All that organized religion can do is to hold you inside the boxing ring long enough so you can begin to ask good questions and expect bigger answers.  But it seldom teaches you how to really box with the mystery itself.  Organized religion does not tend to cook you!  It just keeps you on a low, half-cold simmer.  It doesn’t teach you how to expect the mystery to show itself at any profound level.  It tends, and I don’t mean to be unkind, to make you codependent upon its own ministry, instead of leading you to know something for yourself, which is really the whole point.

It’s like we keep saying, “keep coming back, keep coming back” and you’ll eventually get it.  But you don’t because the whole thing is oriented toward something you attend or watch and not to something you can participate in 24/7, even without the ministrations of priest and ministers and formal sacraments.  Again, I mean no disrespect.  If God-experience depends on formal sacramental ministry from ordained clergy, then 99.9 percent of creation has had no chance to know or love God.  That can’t be true.

And if the clergy themselves have not gone on a further journey, they don’t know how to send you there or guide you there because they have not gone there themselves yet, (see Matthew 23:13).  Nemo dat quod not hat, we said in Latin, “You cannot give away what you do not have yourself.”

The Mystical Path and Daily Life

Father Karl Rahner speaks of “the mysticism of daily life.”  It’s a good phrase.  We’ve got to stop making mysticism something that happens only to celibates and ascetics and monastics.

That’s precisely what Francis came to undo in order to bring religious life back to the streets and to the laity and the normal parish, who have always been made to feel like third-class citizens of the kingdom.

You do need to be given a new operating system.  I don’t care what you are doing.  You cannot approach that daily work, that daily job, your family with what I call the dualistic mind, the judgmental, comparative, competitive mind, which most of us are entirely trained in – so much so that we think it is the only mind.

Jesus refers to this as the judgmental mind.  That’s why he says, “Do not judge,” (Matthew 7:1).  Maybe we would simply say, “Do not label” things.  It is just a way of trying to take control and often a game of superiority.  The judgmental mind tries to know everything by merely comparing it to something else, which is to start with a negative first step.  It is far removed from knowing things in themselves, by themselves, and for themselves.  Such low-level attempts at knowing will never get you anywhere close to mystical experience.  That’s the simplest way to say why the great spiritual teachers always have some form of “Do not judge.”  The judgmental mind is all too self-referential and closes down the open horizon right away.

The original word for this different mind, this alternative consciousness, and that’s what it is, was simply prayer.  That word has been so misused and trivialized to mean merely petitionary prayer, reading prayers, social prayer (liturgy), or reciting prayers.  I’m afraid we Catholics are even known for that: learning formulas and reciting formulas.  Many of us had to stop using the word prayer and instead use the word contemplation so others know we are talking about something different.

I’m not saying that formulaic prayer is wrong, but that is not what was taught by the Desert Fathers and Mothers in the first three or four hundred years of Christianity.  That’s not the original meaning of prayer.  We see this from Jesus’s many and long forays into the desert alone, and that the disciples had to coax him to teach them what we call the Our Father, (Luke 22:1).  Temple prayer or social prayer is not what Jesus is known for, although he surely would not have opposed it unless it became too ritualistic, legalistic, or transactional, as we see when he cleanses the temple.  The Gospel does say Jesus and the disciples “sang psalms together,” (Mark 14:26; Matthew 26:30), the Hallel or Psalms 113-118, which opened and closed the Passover Meal.

Prayer is looking out from a different set of eyes, which are not comparing, competing, judging, labeling, or analyzing, but receiving the moment in its present wholeness and unwholeness.  That’s what I mean by contemplation.  It takes years of practice to switch from our normally dualistic thinking to allow non-dual, receptive prayer to become our primary mode of consciousness.

For many, prayer still means reciting Our Fathers and Hail Marys, and I’m not trying to put down such prayers, especially when they are the spoken fruit of deeper prayer.  But I know Catholics that have said Our Fathers and Hail Marys all their lives, priests who have said Mass all their lives, and do not know how to pray.  That is not a judgment on them, because no one taught them any differently.  It is more a deep sadness, because I know without access to the deeper stream, their lives, their celibacy, their ministry will be more about function than unction, to quote Pope Francis’s words to a recent clergy gathering.

The goal of prayer, as any good Christian would agree, is to give you access to God and to allow you to listen to God and to actually hear God, if that does not seem presumptuous.  But mostly, prayer is to allow you to experience the Indwelling Presence yourself.  You are finally not praying, but prayer is happening through you, (see Romans 8:26-27), and you are just the allower and enjoyer.

The only way you can do that is to work to maintain an open field, and, yes, it is work to remain open to grace.  What a total paradox.  However, it does not mean that grace cannot break through anytime and anywhere.  In fact, that is the most common pattern.  But we want to enjoy the fruits of grace 24/7 and not just now and then.

If you lead off with the left brain, if you lead off with the judging, calculating, dualistic mind, you will not access the Holy because the only thing that gets in is what you already think, what you already agree with, and what does not threaten you.  And God is, by definition, unfamiliar, always mysterious, beyond, and more.  So if you aren’t ready for more and mystery, how can you possibly be ready for God?  Your intake valve will be very tight and guarded.

Contemplation is non-dual thinking; it emerges when you don’t split the field of the moment between what you already know and what you don’t already know as if it is totally wrong or heresy or evil or sinful.  I am afraid dualistic thinking is the common mode of thinking, and, of course, the evidence for that is just about everywhere, especially in religion and politics, which is why we cannot meaningfully talk in those split fields.

Can We Trivialize Prayer?

If a whole lot of people are praying for the same thing and apparently at the same time, then there is a tendency to think that prayer is going to bend the arm of God.  “More is always better,” is the operative assumption here.  At this point, I’m not really loving or serving God; I’m trying to get God to be on my side and give me what I want.  It necessitates neither love nor surrender, but it is just well-disguised desire to be in control, very often.  The wonderful news is, of course, that God is already on my side, so such thinking is futile and a waste of time.  It is another way to try to manipulate mystery, as if we could.

There is something compassionate about asking God to heal your grandmother – of course, that’s beautiful.  But it is still you in the driver’s seat trying to get God in your car as a passenger, when God alone can be trusted with the driving.  So first you must listen for God’s possible will, and not yours, and then, and only then, can you pray in the Spirit.

Jesus warns us about this verbal prayer when he says, “Why do you babble on like the pagans do?  God already knows what you need,” (Matthew 6:7).  He also warns us against telling God what God already knows better than we do, (6:9), and I must say many times the formal prayers of the faithful at a Catholic Mass sound more like announcements than actual prayer, especially given the fact that they are done in the third person and not addressed actively as if God is in the room, which would lead us to pray in the second person.  (You have to go to Pentecostal or black churches to hear that!)  And in that same Gospel, Jesus even warns us against too much public prayer, (6:5), since it has too many social payoffs.  We must be honest and admit that we have not followed Jesus’s basic advice on prayer, and, in fact, often directly disobeyed it.

Jesus does tell us to ask God for what we want, (Matthew 7:7-11).  He does seem to affirm what we call petitionary or intercessory prayer.  Why did Jesus say such a thing?  Not to talk God into what we want.  Not to announce it to God since God knows and cares about suffering more than we do.

I believe intercessory prayer is important because we need to hear our own thoughts and words out loud.  We need to jump on board with what we hope is the will of God and what may well be the will of God.  It is an exercise in participation, in unitive caring together with God, what Paul calls divine and human cooperation, (Romans 8:28).  God does not need our prayers as much as we need to say them to even know the deepest will and desire of God – and our own.  Our prayers are simply seconding the motion.

The first motion is always from God’s Spirit working in the soul, making you care about human suffering and need.  So when you pray sincerely, God has already spoken to you, and you are just saying, “yes,” to what God wants even more than you do.  That is why prayer leads you to fall in love with God, because you know you are not doing this good thing.  It is being done unto you and through you.

It also seems that we don’t know our own needs, feelings, thoughts until we speak them.  So we all must keep praying “with groans unutterable,” (Romans 8:23), until our prayers match the much deeper caring of God, and we discover our own will and God’s will are finally the same.

Is Happiness on the Path of Mysticism?

Here is an image that many have offered before me.  You don’t catch a butterfly by chasing it.  You sit still, and the butterfly alights on your shoulder.  You don’t find happiness by directly seeking happiness because that leaves you too self-centered.  It is still all about you at that point, although you don’t know it yet.  “I’m going to be happy today,” we think.  And maybe you’ve had days like that, where you realize that you are trying too hard.  It is too self-conscious, it’s too intentional.  Ego consciousness is still steering the ship.

Remember what I said earlier about the old mammalian brain.  Deep contentment is something you drop into – not anything that you consciously work too hard toward.  Have you noticed how the happiness of a goal achieved rather quickly passes, and all you do is create another supposedly higher goal?  There is an inherent restlessness – and defeat – in the conscious seeking of happiness.  Happiness is much more in the realm of gift and surprise, like an alighting dove or a tongue of fire, which is surely why these metaphors are used for the Holy Spirit.

Happiness is too often selfishly defined, and thus it never works for long.  We first, like children, define happiness in a largely sensory way, like a satisfying meal or a beautiful hotel room or a wonderful sexual experience, which is all understandable.  But those things, of themselves, do not make you happy.  If you don’t bring happiness into the hotel room, you’re not going to be happy.  You’ll just be pleased for a few minutes.  But it you are already happy, you can be in a mediocre hotel room, or even in a not-so-nice hotel room, and you’ll still be able to say, “I’m happy and content today.”

Sometimes simple things can give you even more and deeper happiness precisely because you know you are drawing upon a deeper well and stream – and it can be accessed all the time, even without a five-star meal or fantastic sex.

Happiness is always a gift from first seeking union or love.  If love is your actual and constant goal, you can never really fail, and happiness comes much easier and more naturally.  Please think about that, and you will know it is true.

The purifying goal of mysticism is divine union and nothing less.  The goal of prayer is divine union – union with what is, with the moment, with yourself, with the divine, which means with everything.  Such things as healing, growth, and happiness are admittedly wonderful byproducts of prayer, but they must not be your primary concern.  It pollutes the process.  So you don’t want to make the goal of mysticism or prayer your personal happiness.  That keeps you as the reference point: “I want to be happy.”  This important purification of motivation is quite central, and because we have not insisted on it, we have a lot of church involvement being nothing more than very well disguised self-interest (high premium fire insurance), and not the love of God at all.

As a priest, I am aware that most of the official prayers in the Catholic Sacramentary are praying in some form, “That I might go to Heaven.”  Don’t believe me?  Check it out.  As if there is no higher concern or greater need in the world than for my personal eternal livelihood!  I do not know how priests continue to recite such self-centered and individualistic prayers day after day.  If the rule is true that “lex orandi est lex credendi,” (the way you pray becomes the form of your belief), then it is no wonder that the Christian people have such a poor record of concern for the suffering of the world and have themselves initiated so many of the wars and injustices on this Earth.  We did not teach them how to pray!

You must first seek union itself with God, and with everything, and then the butterfly will most assuredly alight gently and firmly on your shoulder.  Then happiness comes along as a wonderful corollary and conclusion, as a gift, as a rich icing on the now well-baked cake of life itself.

POETRY: The Temptation Of St. Joseph, by W. H. Auden

From For the Time Being

I

JOSEPH
My shoes were shined, my pants were cleaned and pressed,
And I was hurrying to meet
My own true Love:
But a great crowd grew and grew
Till I could not push my way through,
Because
A star had fallen down the street;
When they saw who I was,
The police tried to do their best.

CHORUS [off]
Joseph, you have heard
What Mary says occurred;
Yes, it may be so.
Is it likely? No.

JOSEPH
The bar was gay, the lighting well-designed,
And I was sitting down to wait
My own true Love:
A voice I’d heard before, I think,
Cried: “This is on the House. I drink
To him
Who does not know it is too late;”
When I asked for the time,
Everyone was very kind.

CHORUS [off]
Mary may be pure,
But, Joseph, are you sure?
How is one to tell?
Suppose, for instance. . . Well. . .

JOSEPH
Through cracks, up ladders, into waters deep,
I squeezed, I climbed, I swam to save
My own true Love:
Under a dead apple tree
I saw an ass; when it saw me
It brayed;
A hermit sat in the mouth of a cave:
When I asked him the way,
He pretended to be asleep.

CHORUS [off]
Maybe, maybe not.
But, Joseph, you know what
Your world, of course, will say
About you anyway.

JOSEPH
Where are you, Father, where?
Caught in the jealous trap
Of an empty house I hear
As I sit alone in the dark
Everything, everything,
The drip of the bathroom tap,
The creak of the sofa spring,
The wind in the air-shaft, all
Making the same remark
Stupidly, stupidly,
Over and over again.
Father, what have I done?
Answer me. Father, how
Can I answer the tactless wall
Or the pompous furniture now?
Answer them. . .

GABRIEL
No, you must.

JOSEPH
How then am I to know,
Father, that you are just?
Give me one reason.

GABRIEL
No.

JOSEPH
All I ask is one
Important and elegant proof
That what my Love had done
Was really at your will
And that your will is Love.

GABRIEL
No, you must believe;
Be silent, and sit still.

POETRY: Mary And Gabriel, by Rupert Brooke

Young Mary, loitering once her garden way,
Felt a warm splendor grow in the April day,
Out of the gold air of the afternoon,
One knelt before her: hair he had, or fire,
Bound back above his ears with golden wire,
Baring the eager marble of his face.
Not man’s or woman’s was the immortal grace
Rounding the limbs beneath that robe of white,
And lighting the proud eyes with changeless light,
Incurious. Calm as his wings, and fair,
That presence filled the garden.
She stood there,
Saying, “What would you, Sir?”
He told his word,
“Blessed art thou of women!” Half she heard,
Hands folded and face bowed, half long had known,
The message of that clear and holy tone,
That fluttered hot sweet sobs about her heart;
Such serene tidings moved such human smart.
Her breath came quick as little flakes of snow.
Her hands crept up her breast. She did but know
It was not hers. She felt a trembling stir
Within her body, a will too strong for her
That held and filled and mastered all. With eyes
Closed, and a thousand soft short broken sighs,
She gave submission; fearful, meek, and glad. . . .

She wished to speak. Under her breasts she had
Such multitudinous burnings, to and fro,
And throbs not understood; she did not know
If they were hurt or joy for her; but only
That she was grown strange to herself, half lonely,
All wonderful, filled full of pains to come
And thoughts she dare not think, swift thoughts and dumb,
Human, and quaint, her own, yet very far,
Divine, dear, terrible, familiar. . .
Her heart was faint for telling; to relate
Her limbs’ sweet treachery, her strange high estate,
Over and over, whispering, half revealing,
Weeping; and so find kindness to her healing.
‘Twixt tears and laughter, panic hurrying her,
She raised her eyes to that fair messenger.
He knelt unmoved, immortal; with his eyes
Gazing beyond her, calm to the calm skies;
Radiant, untroubled in his wisdom, kind.
His sheaf of lilies stirred not in the wind.
How should she, pitiful with mortality,
Try the wide peace of that felicity
With ripples of her perplexed shaken heart,
And hints of human ecstasy, human smart,
And whispers of the lonely weight she bore,
And how her womb within was hers no more
And at length hers?
Being tired, she bowed her head;
And said, “So be it!”
The great wings were spread
showering glory on the fields, and fire.
The whole air, singing, bore him up, and higher,
Unswerving, unreluctant. Soon he shone
A gold speck in the gold skies; then was gone.

The air was colder, and grey. She stood alone.

MYSTICISM: The Call Of The Mysteries, by Carl McColman

From Answering the Contemplative Call

Life is filled with mystery.

Probably the biggest mystery of all is the simple fact that we exist.  Why should there be something instead of nothing?  Why are there mountains and waterfalls and forests and beaches?  Why do the heavens exist, filled with planets and stars and galaxies?  The sheer reality of nature, of the cosmos, is basically a mind blower.

If you haven’t already had the privilege, someday may you be present at a birth.  Even the birth of animals is wondrous.  But the birth of a human being?  Wow!  Sure, we have plenty of science that can help us understand the processes of reproduction, of cell division and growth, of the development of an embryo to a fetus to the world shattering moment when the baby emerges from its mother.  But the science just helps us to understand the processes; it cannot explain the mystery – the joy, the wonder, the beauty – of a new life, emerging with eyes dancing full of light and a smile (or a cry) to greet the world.  Like nature itself, birth is a profound mystery.

Fast forward to the other end of life.  For death, too, is a mystery.  There’s the obvious enigma that none of us has a very clear sense of what to expect when our time comes.  Sages and saints from around the world have offered up various ideas about what happens – from reincarnation to resurrection to never-ending rest.  And some researchers have collated stories of unusual occurrences during life-threatening trauma or illness, leading to popular books about near-death experiences – traveling through a tunnel to a Being of Pure Light, and so forth.  But all these teachings and speculations cannot erase the profound silence of someone who simply stops breathing.  Like birth, death is something that, when encountered, can usher us into a powerful sense of wonder.

Death can be a harrowing, terrifying mystery, for we mourn those we’ve lost and we fear the loss of others (and of ourselves).  Another painful mystery is the mystery of suffering.  From the raw jagged edge of grief or a broken heart, to the agony of unrelenting back pain or fibromyalgia, to the slow undoing of dementia or the murky despair that characterizes a deep clinical depression – there seems to be no end to the ways in which suffering can constrict a life or vanquish joy.  Even when torment is relieved, it can leave physical or psychological scars.  Why do we suffer?  Why must those we love feel such pain?  What can we do, when it seems that there is nothing that can be done?  These questions defy easy answers, if they can be answered at all.  And when we resort to the canned comforts of religions (“God has a purpose in this”; “Your faith will see you through”), we run the risk of sounding glib and out of touch.  Yet even in its darkest forms, suffering can be a threshold to a most profound place of wonder and awe.

Before the mysteries of death and suffering tempt us into cynicism or despair, consider also one of the most blithesome of mysteries – the mystery of love.  That the person who causes my heart to skip a beat can feel the same way about me – words simply cannot describe the joy, the excitement, the reverie, and the hope that love brings into our souls.  Love fills a drab world with color and brings a song to the most cacophonous of settings.  It is a force for healing by which our hearts are refreshed and renewed.  Best of all, love takes many forms, each filled with its own grammar of delight.  Beyond the love of sexual and romantic union, there is the love of parents and children, the love of family and friends, of pets, of homeland and nation.  We love people, places, and things, and our loves form who we are.

And yet, who can explain love?  Why do two people fall in love, while another two simply cannot hit it off?  What inspires passion?  Or sustains it?  Or repairs it when it is wounded?  We cannot force ourselves to love any more than we can compel ourselves to be happy, and yet to love is at the heart of being human.

Another mystery that takes many forms is the mystery of creation (creativity).  This is related to the foundational mystery of existence, for all things seem to have some sort of beginning.  On a strictly human level, however, creation defines who we are as beings engaged with our environment.  Obviously, there is artistic creation, from making music to writing to painting to dancing (among many others).  But the mystery of creation is not limited to the fine arts.  Creation is all about impermanence and change, and each of us changes the world we live in, in small or large ways, pretty much every day we breathe.  A businessman creates new opportunities through his deals and sales; a scientist creates out of her research and theories.  Even soldiers can have the opportunity to create peace out of the conflict into which they have been sent.  While plenty of life’s changes are for the worse (leading to suffering), creative changes appear to generate light, life, and joy where nothing of the sort existed before.  How?  Why?  We marvel and we wonder at such a mystery.

Finally, let me touch on the mysteries of right and wrong, and of mercy.  A child doesn’t have to be very old before he or she can figure out the difference between what is fair and what is unfair.  Nobody likes to get the smallest piece of the cake – and everyone, if we admit it, harbors a capacity for sneaking the big piece of the cake when no one else is watching.  We recognize basic qualities like fairness, decency, kindness, and honor, but we almost always fall far short of our own standards of what is right or good.  Why is this?  How do we unravel both the capacity for goodness and the capacity for cheating?

Closely related to the mystery of right and wrong is perhaps the even more puzzling question of mercy.  If we think someone gets mercy they do not deserve, we become indignant – but if the tables are turned and we are the ones in judgment, we beg for mercy, even knowing how unfair it would be.  Mercy is a breach of fairness, and yet it is something we honor and respect, and (when necessary for ourselves) something we desire.

Where, then, do right and wrong come from?  Sure, many ethical principles are culturally relative, but others seem knit into the very DNA of humanity.  The origin of justice is an enigma, and mercy seems just as inexplicable.  Justice and mercy, like each of the other great mysteries of life, bring us to a place where knowledge yields to wonder, in the recognition that these essential components of the human experience can never be fully explained or understood.

All these mysteries shape what it means to be alive, to be human.  We cannot explain our very existence, our births or our deaths, our capacities to suffer or love or create, our common recognition of the demands of justice, or the gift of mercy.  Yet we cannot imagine life without these realities either.  The mysteries of life represent the frontier where the sensibility of our lives shades off into areas we cannot control, cannot comprehend, and cannot manage or contain.  Faced with the mysteries of life, we become vulnerable, undefended, open to the marvels that can fill us with the liberating uncertainty of wonder.  And even though we live in a world that tries to manage or at least contain the mysteries – hiding birth and death away, medicating the suffering, putting creative folks on pedestals, and settling for a legal system that reduces ethics to a conflict between competing interests – despite all our efforts to control every aspect of our lives, the mysteries are never very far away.  They crop up when we least expect them – when we meet someone new and fall in love, when an old friend dies suddenly, when a sudden flash of inspiration leads to the creation of an artistic masterpiece.  We never know – literally from one moment to the next – when the mysteries will crack our safely constructed lives wide open.  And we never know whether they will fill us with joy or with pain.   But they always fill us with wonder.

To mystics, the mysteries of life are our teachers.  It’s no accident that mysticism and mysteries are such closely related words, both evolving from the same Greek root.  What makes something a mystery is that it is hidden from the peering, penetrating efforts of the human mind to analyze, categorize, and understand everything.  Mysteries defy any kind of mental classification.  They point to an inscrutable reality that is beyond our mental or physical grasp.

Here’s a comment that Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, a monk of the twelfth century and a renowned mystic, once made about nature – one I believe could just as easily be applied to any of life’s mysteries.  “Believe me as one who has experience,” said Bernard, “you will find much more among the woods than ever you will among books.  Woods and stones will teach you what you can never hear from any master.”  Strong words from a man known for his preaching and teaching skills!  Consider this: Bernard is not rejecting the kind of wisdom or understanding that can be found in books or from a spiritual director.  He just recognizes that nature – even the silence of “woods and stones” – is an even greater teacher.  And, of course, it may be the silence of the woods that Bernard is praising.

But I think it is just as likely that it is the mystery of nature that appealed to this medieval mystic.  And all the mysteries – not just the beauty of the forest, but also the awe-inspiring realities of birth and death and suffering and love and all the rest – can teach us better than any book or master.  For the mysteries open us up; that is to say, they evoke in us a sense of wonder.  And wonder is a key to the contemplative call.

PRAYER: Contemplative Prayer — A Warning and a Precaution, by Richard J. Foster

From Prayer

O my divine Master, teach me this mute language which says so many things. (Jean-Nicholas Grou)

Contemplative prayer immerses us into the silence of God.  How desperately we in the modern world need this wordless baptism!  We have become, as the early church father Clement of Alexandria says, like old shoes – all worn out except for the tongue.  We live in a wordy world with our sophisticated high-tech telecommunication systems.  We now have the dubious distinction of being able to communicate more and say less than any civilization in history.

Isaac of Nineveh, a Syrian monk, once observed, “Those who delight in a multitude of words, even though they say admirable things, are empty within.”  We today stand under the rebuke of this observation.

Contemplative prayer is the one discipline that can free us from our addiction to words.  Progress in intimacy with God means progress toward silence.  “For God alone my soul waits in silence,” declares the Psalmist, (Psalm 62:1).  The desert father Ammonas, a disciple of Saint Anthony, writes, “I have shown you the power of silence, how thoroughly it heals and how fully pleasing it is to God.  Know that it is by silence that the saints grew, that it was because of silence that the power of God dwelt in them, because of silence that the mysteries of God were know to them.”  It is this recreating silence to which we are called in contemplative prayer.

A warning and a precaution

At the outset I need to give a word of warning, a little like the warning labels on medicine bottles.  Contemplative prayer is not for the novice.  I do not say this about any other form of prayer.  All are welcome, regardless of proficiency or expertise, to enter freely into adoration and meditation and intercession and a host of other approaches to prayer.  But contemplation is different.  While we are all equally precious in the eyes of God, we are not all equally ready to listen to God’s speech in his wondrous, terrible, gentle, loving, all-embracing silence.

A baby is given milk rather than steak because steak will do the baby no good.  An apprentice electrician is not allowed to do the tasks of a journeyman because he is not ready for those tasks, and for him to undertake them could, in fact, be dangerous.

So it is in the spiritual life.  We must learn our multiplication tables before we attempt calculus, so to speak.  This is simply a fact of the spiritual realm, and it would be wrong of me not to tell you about it.

C. S. Lewis tells his friend Malcolm how early in his Christian experience he attempted wordless prayer with little success.  He writes, “I still think the prayer without words is the best – if one can really achieve it.  But I now see that in trying to make it my daily bread I was counting on a greater mental and spiritual strength than I really have.  To pray successfully without words one needs to be “at the top of one’s form.”

Lewis is correct.  Contemplative prayer is for those who have exercised their spiritual muscles a bit and know something about the landscape of the spirit.  In fact, those who work in the area of spiritual direction always look for signs of a maturing faith before encouraging individuals into contemplative prayer.  Some of the more common indicators are a continuing hunger for intimacy with God, an ability to forgive others at great personal cost, a living sense that God alone can satisfy the longings of the human heart, a deep satisfaction in prayer, a realistic assessment of personal abilities and shortcomings, a freedom from boasting about spiritual accomplishments, and a demonstrated ability to live out the demands of life patiently and wisely.

It is not that we must be accomplished in these areas.  It is that clear progress must be occurring.  You may want to ask yourself several questions of examination to help evaluate your own readiness: “Am I becoming less afraid of being known and owned by God?”  “Is prayer developing in me as a welcome discipline?”  “Is it becoming easier for me to receive constructive criticism?”  “Am I learning to move beyond personal offense and freely forgive those who have wronged me?”  If, after this small experience of examen, you sense that you are not yet ready for unmediated communion with God, then feel perfectly free to pass over this material.  Do not worry; a time will come when there will well up within you both a yearning and a readiness to “read the text of the universe in the original.”

I also want to give a word of precaution.  In the silent contemplation of God we are entering deeply into the spiritual realm, and there is such a thing as supernatural guidance that is not divine guidance.  While the Bible does not give us a lot of information on the nature of the spiritual world, we do know enough to recognize that there are various orders of spiritual beings, and some of them are definitely not in cooperation with God and his way!

I say these things not to make you fearful but to make you knowledgeable.  You need to know that “like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour,” (1 Peter 5:8).  You also need to know that “the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world,” (1 John 4:4).

With respect to spiritual warfare, I want to encourage you to learn and practice prayers of protection.  Here is the prayer that Luther used: “Shield us, Lord, with thy right arm.  Save us from sin’s dreadful harm.”  My own approach is to preface a time of contemplation by speaking this simple prayer: “By the authority of almighty God I surround myself with the light of Christ, I cover myself with the blood of Christ, and I seal myself with the cross of Christ.  All dark and evil spirits must now leave.  No influence is allowed to come near to me but that it is first filtered through the light of Jesus Christ, in whose name I pray.  Amen.”  These, of course, are only suggestions – you are free to pray in whatever way is most comfortable to you.

PRAYER: Towards Contemplation

From Approaches to Prayer, Henry Morgan, editor

You yourself are even another little world and have within you the sun and the moon and also the stars. (Origin)

Introduction

There is much confusion about terminology.  Often people use the word “meditation” when they really mean “contemplation,” while the Ignatian tradition uses the word “contemplation” when referring to what others call “meditation”!

By “meditation” (sometimes “discursive meditation”) we will be referring to the active use of the mind, the feelings, the imagination, applied to a passage of scripture, or our own situation in life, or to any active way in which we try to understand God or ourselves in relation to God or God’s world.  This activity brings in a great richness and may well lead us to the expression of joy or wonder, thanksgiving, penitence, or intercession.  Bringing in rather than excluding.

Contemplative prayer is in some senses almost the opposite.  Some temperaments, or some people at a certain stage of their life, come to find that the ideas, the images, the imagination, the feelings, good though they are, somehow get in the way between God and themselves.  They wish to be open to God as he is without anything getting in the way.  So in contemplative prayer we shall try to put aside all the interesting thoughts and ideas that come to us, and simply home in on a single word or phrase or symbol.

This is not a question of self-hypnosis.  It is not trying to imagine we are having lovely feelings.  After the first few months of practicing contemplative prayer we are more likely to find ourselves in a desert of blankness, wondering whether there is any point in what we are doing, and yet still unable to let go of something to which we believe we have been called.

We are simply waiting upon God, being open to God, being available for God, longing towards God in a kind of inner darkness, which though dark is nevertheless friendly.

Contemplative prayer is not for everyone, and those for whom it is not helpful should never feel they are somehow second class in the work of prayer.  In the same way those who genuinely do not find Bible meditation helpful must never be made to feel that they “ought” to be able to do it.  Our enthusiasms all too often carry us away and lead to a lack of sensitivity to the fact that others may be coming from a different place.  It is a question of temperament, and to find the right way of prayer for us at any given time is far more important than trying to pursue a current fashion.

It follows, therefore, that while most prayer groups will probably want to explore contemplative prayer from time-to-time, a prayer group which is specifically contemplative (or for that matter always doing Bible meditations) will need to be selective in its membership.

Having said all that, it remains a fact that simple contemplative prayer is helpful to many more people than used to be thought.  If we are taking it really seriously we shall be wise either to have a spiritual director we can talk to, or belong to a contemplative prayer group where we can share with others, because we can sometimes find ourselves in quite deep water and may feel bewildered.

A simple method

(a) Begin with a simple awareness or relaxation exercise, and/or a breathing exercise.

(b) Silently recollect and then let go of all the things which are worrying or burdening you in your own life or in the lives of those near to you.  Recollect and let go.  We might imagine we are taking off a very heavy rucksack and putting it down for God to look after for a space.  Offer the words to be repeated silently, “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest,” (shortening to “Come to me and I will give you rest”).  Be brief and businesslike; this is not the heart of the work, this is simply clearing out what gets in the way between God and us for, say, two or three minutes.

(c) We now take a simple phrase and hold it in the mind, in the heart, in the will.  Let’s take an attribute of God – PEACE: “My peace I give you, not as the world gives do I give you,” (shorten to, “My peace I give you” or simply “My peace”).  Whenever our minds wander we come back to the watchword.  Through the indwelling Holy Spirit that divine peace is already potentially within us and we are simply trying to be open to that peace, not in any sense of trying to induce lovely peaceful feelings, but in order that we shall be more peaceful people in the world, that we shall be able to express something of God’s peace in our lives.  If we do have a deep sensation of peace then we may thank God for it, but the purpose of contemplative prayer is not to cultivate feelings; the purpose is to allow ourselves to be conformed more closely to the likeness of Christ.

It is important for people to realize it is likely that nothing will “happen”; rather we are placing ourselves as completely as we can for the time being at God’s disposal in a longing towards that which we know only dimly.

(d) Intercession is not as far from contemplation as is sometimes thought; in interceding we bring another person into our contemplation of God to share in the sunlight, as it were.  Christians cannot keep good things to themselves and a contemplative prayer time may well find a gentle inward pressure to end with a period of intercessory prayer.

Other suggested watchwords

“These things I have spoken to you that my joy may be in you and your joy complete,” (shorten to “My joy in you” or “My joy.”)

“Dwell in my love, for apart from me you can do nothing,” (shorten to “Dwell in my love”).

“Whoever finds me finds life.”

“All power is given to me in Heaven and on Earth, and I am with you always,” (shorten to “All power is give to me” – but remember that divine power is frequently manifested in weakness”).

Contemplation can, of course, also concentrate on the visual – a tree, a flower, a bowl of water, a seed. . . remember Dame Julian’s hazelnut!

(e) You may like to round off the exercise with a suitable prayer.  Robert Coulson, founder of the Fellowship of Contemplative Prayer, always ended prayer session with a prayer which ran roughly as follows:

We thank you, Lord, that you have heard us and we offer to you, as far as we are able, as an emptiness to be filled with your peace [or joy or love], which flows ceaselessly from you, as rays from the sun, we offer to you, as far as we are able, all that we are, all that we have, and all that we hope for.

He who looks outwardly, dreams; he who looks within, awakes. (Carl Jung)

SATURDAY READING: Tide In — Confessions Of An Introverted Convert, by Carolyn Weber

From Surprised by Oxford

You are so young, so before all beginning, and I want to beg you, as much as I can, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves – like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue.  Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them.  The point is, to live everything.  Live the questions now.  Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer. (Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet)

Regina took me in for Easter weekend.  She owned a unique ability to provide people with just what they needed.  In academia.  Regina herself was a rare specimen.   A respected female fellow of the college, she was an esteemed historian, a successful mother, and had been a loving wife.  She stayed at home raising her four children, writing and teaching part-time, until her husband, a famous historian at Oxford, suffered a massive heart attack and died.  Regina stepped into his place, finishing his lectures and submitting his grading, at first to help the students who had been initially left in the lurch, and eventually, talented and beloved, she assumed the position entirely.

Now, with her children grown and on to their own adventures in various parts of the globe, she was a vibrant grandmother dedicated especially to women’s issues and supporting diversity in Oxford colleges.  A long line of admiring students constantly vied for any crumb of her attention outside her office door.  A mentor figure, she was a clever, funny, sophisticated, hip wisp of a woman, who somehow managed to be down-to-Earth.  And oh, did I mention?  She was also a committed Christian.

I remember the very first lunch I had with her.  She treated me to soup and salad at the Museum of Modern Art, around the corner from St. Ebbe’s Church.  I knew her casually, but I did not know yet that she was a believer.  I was a brand-new convert and spouted out my conversion before the soup arrived.  She laughed at my joy.  “Thanks be to God!” she cried, giving me a huge hug.  “Let’s eat, and then let’s go to Evensong and celebrate together!”

I had never thought of going to church as a form of celebration before.  So celebrate we did.  After chapel, back in her office, she poured me a whiskey.  “À votre santé!”  She clinked my glass.  “For now you know true health.”

I looked at my whiskey tentatively.  I had never celebrated with anything like it before either.  This dainty lady across from me, however, downed hers easily.

“Drink up!”  She smiled warmly.  “You’re going to need all the fire you can get if you’re going to be a woman and a believer in academia.”  Then, turning her glass in her hand, she added, “If you’re going to be a committed Christian in our world at all.”

I swallowed the golden liquid down with a shudder and then settled back, feeling the warm afterglow.  “Regina,” I began, “how did you do it?  I mean, why did you do it – forfeit a promising career when you married, stay at home, and then work now so tirelessly to help the underprivileged study and thrive here?  Especially in the face of all these, well, men.

Regina sat quietly for a few moments, looking pensive.  Then she stood up, sweeping her arm across her office.  She began banging on things, smacking her printer, knocking on her computer monitor.  She thumped on her stack of ungraded papers and roughly pushed aside the committee work to be reviewed and signed on her desk.

Maybe she can’t hold her whiskey after all, I thought.

But when she turned to face me, I could see without doubt that she was completely clearheaded.

“Carolyn,” she began earnestly, “all of these ‘things’ mean nothing in and of themselves.  They are just objects, just means to an end.  What does it matter what committee you serve on?  What promotion you get?  That book you labor to write and push to publish, someone will end up resting a coffee cup on, without any care as to your sacrifice.  Your children are only young once.  Your marriage provides you a chance to put someone else first daily.  Such things refine your soul.”  A fond, faraway look passed over her eyes, and I caught myself remembering that she was a widow.

“Jesus wanted freedom for women too,” Regina continued, “but his notion of liberation is very different from our limited one.  His teachings are for the most part genderless; they apply to everyone.  What is important is that my identity doesn’t lie primarily in being a professor, or being a wife, or even in being a mother.  Those things will always fall short.  Entire careers get swept away at a moment’s notice at the presentation of a pink slip, a vote of the elders, an accusation of a student, a cut in the budget.  Marriages face infidelities, for instance, and end up like car wrecks from which people can recover but are never again the same.  Children grow up and move far away and forget to write or call – as they should.”  She smiled wistfully.  “The point is, if you have your identity in any of these things, it’s surefire disappointment.  Anything man-made – or woman-made, for that matter – will and does fail you.  Having my identity in Christ first and foremost gives me the courage – yes, the courage – to live my life boldly, purposefully, in everything I do, no matter what that is.”

I studied this woman in front of me, small as a wren but majestic as an eagle.

“Living your faith is risky, but it’s worth it.”  Regina swooped down beside me.  “So you’d better rest up, and drink up.”  She winked.

§

When I really thought about what Easter meant, the reality of the cross unnerved me.  “I’d rather stay in the manger,” I told Rachel the morning after the Passion Play while sitting by a cozy fire at a teahouse around the corner from Christ Church.  We had planned to walk the meadows before catching my train to Regina’s, but the weather turned.  We looked over the wall at the daffodils and crocuses, somewhat blighted by frost and now bent under the heavy rain, but persistently poking their vibrancy into the gray of the day.

“Sure,” said Rachel.  “Who wouldn’t want Christmas every day?  The ultimate Neverland.  I get you.  A newborn baby.  Sweet-smelling hay.  Gentle animals and great kings adoring.  Sure beats the stench of blood, the hurling of insults, the wretch of tasting vinegared wine.”

I nodded, though I felt annoyed, betrayed.  Peace and joy and comfort and love and all that stuff – these were some of my favorite things.  I wanted to wrap myself up in them, nice and cozy, as a new believer.  Spring should promise these, but Good Friday did not allow for that too comfortably.

“Rachel,” I ventured, “sometimes I’m afraid. . . .”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“Well. . .” I stammered.

They called our number for our order.  Rachel returned with a tray laden with goodies, a big pot of tea, and two dainty teacups.  My mom was an excellent cook; even one of her reheated dinners late at night far surpassed any expensive restaurant food.  But still, I had never eaten so consistently well, let alone “out” so often, before my scholarship money, I thought with gratitude.  The still-warm scones tasted all the better against the sound of rain outside.

Avoiding her eyes as I ate, I thought of something TDH told me his father once said: “Sometimes the loftiness of one’s gifts outweighs or exceeds the depth of his character.”  Maybe my so-called gifts were actually lost on me after all?  Maybe I couldn’t rise to the occasion?  Parably put, maybe I was poor soil?

I set down my scone and tried again, looking right at my friend.  “Rache, maybe I’m wrong?  Or maybe I’m not strong enough?”  There, I finally said it, or rather, asked it.

“Caro,” Rachel said reassuringly, “we all have these fears at some time or another.”

“Well, if I’m honest, I’m not always so sure about this marriage,” I told her flatly.  “Look, at this point I’m way more concerned about my commitment than God’s.”

“If you mean, where is the promised peace, all that constant love and joy?  Or where are the answers?  Then I understand,” she replied warmly.  “It’s the typical morning-after scenario, Caro.  We all go through it to some degree.  And as if that’s not enough” – she yawned for effect – “Christians often grow world-weary themselves, even God weary.  We get ‘used to him'; we become pretty chuffed with ourselves and our better-than-others supposed stance, our righteous worship, all our perfect acts.  It’s a hard habit to crack – especially for an overachiever – than over-achieving means nothing in his eyes.  And grace is even harder.  Accepting it is one thing, but really believing it and living it out – yeah, living in it – is not.  The cross reminds us of all this.  A much-needed humbling memento mori among all the lilies, if you will.”

“It stinks,” I said.

“Yeah, in-betweens often do.  When we’re really called to have patience, when we’re really left to rely on faith.  No wonder Jesus visits hell between the crucifixion and the resurrection.  In a sense, so do we.  But remember, Caro” – Rachel half-grinned as she poured the tea – “it’s Friday (actually today, it’s Saturday), but Sunday’s a-comin’.”

I went to remove my spoon from my cup, to get it out of the way, but Rachel stopped my hand.

“Keep the spoon in the cup,” she insisted.  So I did, resting it against the rim as I watched the brown steaming liquid cover the intricate flower pattern of the china.

“Keeping the spoon in the cup keeps the china from cracking under the heat,” she explained.  I looked up at her, surprised.  “The metal of the spoon becomes a conductor, protecting the delicate china from the extremes in temperature.”

“Interesting!” I marveled at Rachel; she always knew this stuff.

“You need to keep your spoon in the cup, Caro,” she said gently, “especially when things get hot.  God lifts us up, but he also grounds us.  Fear will get into the cracks; fear, ultimately, is what breaks us apart.  Jesus’s constant refrain is to not be afraid.  Whenever the angels appear, they tell you not to fear.”

I interrupted.  “I used to think it’d be amazing to be visited by an angel, but now I’m not so sure.”

“Caro, think of what you sang, just yesterday.  Of this grace, so amazing.  Of how you cannot be plucked from his hand.”

“I know, Rache.  I’m beginning to realize just how much I love hymns.”  I sighed.  “But what about when hymns don’t cut it?  What to do when it gets really difficult, both with the world and with God?”

“Keep your spoon in your cup, and you won’t crack,” Rachel reminded me as she passed the sugar.

§

MYSTICISM: Of Abandonment To God, by François de Lamothe-Fénelon

From The Maxims of the Saints

Writers often speak of abandonment.  The term has a meaning somewhat specific.  The soul in this state does not renounce everything, and thus become brutish in its indifference; but renounces everything except God’s will.

Souls in the state of abandonment not only forsake outward things, but, what is still more important, forsake themselves.

Abandonment, or self-renunciation, is not the renunciation of faith or of love or of anything else, except selfishness.

The state of abandonment, or entire self-renunciation, is generally attended, and perhaps we may say carried out and perfected, by temptations more or less severe.  We cannot well know whether we have renounced ourselves except by being tried on those very points to which our self-renunciation, either real or supposed, relates.  One of the severest inward trials is that by which we are taken off from all inward sensible supports and are made to live and walk by faith alone.  Pious and holy men who have been the subjects of inward crucifixion often refer to the trials which have been experienced by them.  They sometimes speak of them as a sort of inward and terrible purgatory.  “Only mad and wicked men,” says Cardinal Bona, “will deny the existence of these remarkable experiences, attested as they are by men of the most venerable virtue, who speak only of what they have known in themselves.”

Trials are not always of the same duration.  The more cheerfully and faithfully we give ourselves to God, to be smitten in any and all of our idols, whenever and wherever he chooses, the shorter will be the work.  God makes us to suffer no longer than he sees to be necessary for us.

We should not be premature in concluding that inward crucifixion is complete, and our abandonment to God is without any reservation whatever.  The act of consecration, which is a sort of incipient step, may be sincere; but the reality of the consecration can be known only when God has applied the appropriate tests.  The trial will show whether we are wholly the Lord’s.  Those who prematurely draw the conclusion that they are so expose themselves to great illusion and injury.

LOVE: Compassion, by Gregory Boyle

From Tattoos on the Heart

In 1993, I taught a course at Folsom Prison.  “Theological Issues in American Short Fiction.”  From the beginning, the inmates said they wanted me to teach them something.  Just not scripture.  I mentioned that I had an MA in English.

“Well, yeah, teach us that,” they said.

So we would sit around in the chapel, some fifteen lifers and myself, and discuss short stories.  I ended up teaching three classes of this short-story course on all three yards.  (As in most prisons in California, they have three yards: A [special-needs yard or protective custody]; B [a tough and generally wild yard]; and C [a moderately “programming” yet very high security yard].  I settled on short stories so I could Xerox copies of really short ones and we’d read them out loud and discuss them.

One of the stories was Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard To Find.”  After they read it, we come to the Grandmother’s transformation of character (“she would of been a good woman. . . if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life”).  My students speak of this woman’s change and seem to use these terms interchangeably: sympathy, empathy, and compassion.  Like any teacher stalling until the bell rings, I ask these felons to define their terms.

“Well, sympathy,” one begins, “is when your homie’s mom dies and you go up to him and say, ‘‘Spensa – sorry to hear ’bout your moms.'”

Just as quickly, there is a volunteer to define empathy.

“Yeah, well, empathy is when your homie’s mom dies and you say, ‘‘Spensa, ’bout your moms.  Sabes qué, my moms died six months ago.  I feel ya, dog.’

“Excellent,” I say.  “Now, what’s compassion?”

No takers.

The class collectively squirms and stares at their state-issue boots.

“Come on now,” I say, “compassion – what’s it mean?”

Their silence is quite sustained, like visitors entering for the first time some sacred, mysterious temple.

Finally, an old-timer, down twenty-five years, tentatively raises his finger.  I call on him.

“Well, now,” he says, all eyes on him, shaking his head, “compassion – that’s sumthin’ altogether different.”

He ponders what he’ll say next.

“Cause,” he adds humbly, “that’s what Jesus did.  I mean, compassion. . . IS. . . God.”

God is compassionate, loving kindness.  All we’re asked to do is to be in the world who God is.  Certainly compassion was the wallpaper of Jesus’s soul, the contour of his heart, it was who he was.  I heard someone say once, “Just assume the answer to every question is compassion.”

Jesus pulled this off.  Compassion is no fleeting occasional emotion rising to the surface like eros or anger.  It’s full-throttled.  Scripture scholars connect the word to the entrails, to the bowels, from the deepest part of the person.  This was how Jesus was moved, from the entirety of his being.  He was “moved with pity” when he saw folks who seemed like “sheep without a shepherd.”  He had room for everybody in his compassion.

In the earliest days of our storefront office, along with thousands of gang members from some forty gangs in the neighborhoods of the Hollenbeck Police Division, we’d be visited by countless kids making their way home to the projects from school.  I had known all these kids and their families during my years as pastor, so they’d drop by from Second Street School and Hollenbeck Middle School.  They’d just sit on the couch in the waiting area or play video games on the computers.  They were dry, emaciated sponges hoping to catch a drop of adult attention.  All of the staff got into the habit of asking each kid, daily, “So, what did you learn today that you never knew before?”

They got to dreading this question, because it forced them to think.  “Buffalo – I learned about da buffalo.”

“Fractions.”

One junior high kid said, “I learned not to pick on girls.”

“Oh, yeah, how’d you learn that?”

“I got slapped.”  (That’ll do it.)

Errands were an almost daily occurrence.  Someone on my staff would go to Office Depot or Smart & Final to pick up supplies, and the project kids would race to the staff member’s car.  The luckiest one would get to ride shotgun.

One day a tiny kid, twelve-year-old Betito, rests his head on his fists on the front of my desk.  He looks forlorn and asks sadly, “Hey, G, are ya goin’ anywhere?”

“No, mijo,” I say.

He comes alive, “Can I go wit ya?”

The destination, apparently, was less important – it’s the “going with” that counted.

Betito is a funny kid, bright and energetic, who comes alive when he steps into our office on First Street.  He becomes a fixture there, and you can count on him arriving after school, greeting each one of my staff at their desks as he works the room.  English is not his first language, and though all of us speak Spanish, Betito challenges himself in this, insisting on “English only.”  Betito is always picking up English expressions he hears on TV.  He walks in one day, armed with some idiomatic argot courtesy of a Pollo Loco commercial.

“Hey, G, you know what you are?” his accent thick and halting.  “You da real deal.”

At a dollar ninety-nine.

Routines get born this way.  Betito and I would try to catch each other.  “Hey, Beto – you now why she said that about you?”

“No, why?”

“Cuz you’re da real deal.”

We both try to make the answer to every question, “the real deal.”  This even becomes our nicknames for each other, “Oye, qué ‘onda, Real Deal?”

Betito is precocious for his age.  He walks into my office one day, and stands in front of my desk, “Hey, G, kick me down wit twenty bones, yeah?”

I’m taken aback by his straight-out-there boldness.

“So what do you need twenty dollars for?”

“Takin’ my lady to the movies.”

“YOUR LADY?” I say to him, not feigning shock.  “How old are you?”

“Twelve.”

“TWELVE?  How old’s your lady?”

“Sixteen.”

“SIXTEEN?”

“Yeah, he says, calming me down with the flick of his hand, “but she’s short.”

(Oh. . . here’s your twenty dollars, then.)

One Sunday evening, Betito is playing with his cousin in Aliso Village.  There is no school the next day – some Monday president’s holiday or something.  There are two gang members standing in front of a nearby dumpster, smoking frajos.  A van pulls into the projects, with two gang members in the front seat.  When they see the two smoking cigarettes in front of the dumpster, they open up fire.  A bullet catches one of them.  He drops.  Everyone runs.  Every man, woman, and child knows that when gunfire begins, you run, you duck, you hunker down behind some car or slink in between buildings.  You move.  Betito knows this.  For some reason, though, he freezes there.  And because he hesitates to seek cover, a very large bullet enters his side, above the waist, travels through, and exits the other side.  They call these “through and throughs.”

The doctor, a friend of mine, who would treat Betito, told me a week later that this bullet was the highest caliber he had ever seen.  The sheer reverberation of the bullet traversing Betito’s body rendered him paralyzed from the waist down.  And the bullet hadn’t even touched his spine.

Word gets to me, and I go straight to the hospital.  Betito’s grandmother and I keep vigil through the night, while the surgeons operate for some six hours.  You don’t really keep vigil; it keeps you – suspended in awkward silence and dead air – desperate for anything at all to stir some hope out of these murky waters and make things vital again.

Betito survives.  But two hours into his recovery, I watch through the window of his room in intensive care as a team of nurses and doctors rush in and surround him.  They pound on his chest.  They beg and plead with his heart to cooperate.  His heart finally deafens to their entreaties, and he dies.

Betito was precocious, funny, bold, and only twelve-years-old.  He was the Real Deal.

If we long to be in the world who God is, then, somehow, our compassion has to find its way to vastness.  It would rather not rest on the two in the van, aiming frighteningly large-caliber weaponry.  I sure didn’t.  When they were caught and I found I knew them, it was excruciating not to be able to hate them.  Sheep without a shepherd.  And no less the real deal.  But for lack of someone to reveal the truth to them, they had evaded healing, and the task of returning them to themselves got more hardened and difficult.  But are they less worthy of compassion than Betito?

I will admit that the degree of difficulty here is exceedingly high.  Kids I love killing kids I love.  There is nothing neat in carving space for both in our compassion.  I can recall a woman in the audience at a talk I gave in Orange County, rushing me during the question-and-answer period.   She wanted to do me real harm.  People had to restrain her and remove her form the audience.  Her daughter had been set on fire by gang members.  I represented to her the victimizers.  It was a sobering moment, underscoring the precariousness of being too glib here.  Sometimes it’s enough simply to acknowledge how wide the gulf is that we all hope to bridge.  But isn’t the highest honing of compassion that which is hospitable to victim and victimizer both?

Dante speaks of having compassion for the damned.  We need not feel ourselves as soft on crime if we see this kind of compassion as its highest calibration.

Jesus says if you love those who love you, big wow (which I believe is the original Greek).  He doesn’t suggest that we cease to love those who love us when he nudges us to love our enemies.  Nor does Jesus think the harder thing is the better thing.  He knows it’s just the harder thing.  But to love the enemy and to find some spaciousness for the victimizer, as well as the victim, resembles more the expansive compassion of God.  That’s why you do it.

To be in the world who God is.

Here is what we seek: a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.

In the midnineties, I return to the office after a morning meeting to our storefront sandwiched between the Mitla Café and the furniture store.  It’s noonish.  I stand in front of the desk of the receptionist, Michelle, who hands me my messages.  As I sift through them, someone taps me on my left shoulder.  It’s Looney.  He gives me a big abrazote.

“Oye, mijo,” I say, “when’d you get out?”

The smile is bigger than he is.

“Ayer.”

Looney is a fifteen-year-old from a gang located close to our office.  He is a chaparrito, barely reaches my chest, and he has just been disgorged from one of the twenty-four probation camps in Los Angeles County.  His sentence was a mere six months, but it was his first such detention.  Having been put on probation for writing on walls, his probation officer cited him for a violation when he stopped going to school and sent him away.

Emily, one of our office workers, sidles up to Michelle to cheerlead and add to the welcome, project-style.

Emily turns to Michelle and conspires.

Oye, look at Looney. . . he’s so ttttaaaaaallll.”  Her words seem to elbow Michelle in her side.

“Yeeeaaahhh,” Michelle adds, “he’s so bbbiiigggg.”

“He’s a maaaaan already,” Emily plants the finishing touch.

Looney is both loving this attention and thinking maybe six months more in camp would not be so bad.

Michelle and Emily have taken it upon themselves to kill the fatted pepperoni and welcome home the prodigal Looney.  When five extremely large pizzas arrive, they hand me the bill, which I don’t seem to recall from the gospel account.

We cram ourselves onto the tiny couch in the even sparser reception area and eat our pizza.  All the office staff join in.  Looney is luminous and giddy in his awkwardness, eyes darting to all of us gathered around, trying to measure our delight in his return.  He can barely believe that it’s so high.

I’m sitting on the arm of the couch, eating my slice, and Looney leans in to me, with a whisper, “Can I talk ta ya, G. . . alone. . . in your office?”

I gather my grub and sit behind my desk.  He moves a chair, situated too far for his liking, and presses it very close to the front of my desk.  He extricates a long envelope, squished in his side pocket, and proudly slaps it in front of me on my desk.

“My grades,” he announces, “from camp.”

His voice has moved to a preadolescent octave of excitement, and I scurry to join him at the parade.

“De veeras,” as I relieve the transcript from its container.

Looney straightens his back and hops a little in the chair.

“Straight A’s,” he says.

“Seeerrriioo?” I say.

“Me la rallo,” he says.  “Straight A’s.”

Like a kid fumbling with wrapping on a present, I get the transcript out and extend it open.  And, sure enough, right there before my eyes: 2 Cs; 2 Bs; 1 A.

And I think, Close enough.  Not the straightest A’s I’ve ever seen.  I decide not to tell Looney he’s an “unreliable reporter” here.

“Wow, mijo,” I tell him, “bien hecho.  Nice goin’.”

I carefully refold the transcript and put it back in the envelope.

“On everything I love, mijo,” I say to him, “if you were my son, I’d be the proudest man alive.”

In a flash, Looney situates his thumb and first finger in his eye sockets, trembling, and wanting to stem the flow of tears, which seem to be inevitable at this point.  Like the kid with the fingers in the dike, he’s shaking now and desperate not to cry.  I look at this little guy and know that he has been returned to a situation largely unchanged.  Parents are either absent at any given time or plagued by mental illness.  Chaos and dysfunction is what will now surround him as before.  His grandmother, a good woman, whose task it is now to raise this kid, is not quite up to the task.  I know that one month before this moment I buried Looney’s best friend, killed in our streets for no reason at all.  So I lead with my gut.

“I bet you’re afraid to be out, aren’t you?”

This seems to push the Play button on Looney’s tear ducts, and quickly he folds his arms on the front of my desk and rests his sobbing head on his folded arms.  I let him cry it out.  Finally, I reach across the desk and place my hand on his shoulder.

“You’re gonna be okay.”

Looney sits up with what is almost defiance and tends to the wiping of his tears.

“I. . . just. . . want. . . to have a life.”

I am taken aback by the determination with which he says this.

“Well, mijo,” I say to him, “who told you that you wouldn’t have one?  I mean, remember the letters you used to write to me from camp, telling me about all the gifts and goodness you discovered in yourself – stuff you didn’t know was there.  Look, dog, I know you think you’re in a deep, dark hole, pero la neta, you’re in a tunnel.  It’s in the nature of tunnels that if you just keep walking, the light’s gonna show up.  Trust me, I can see it – I’m taller than you are.”

Looney sniffles and nods and seems to listen.

“You’re gonna be just fine. . . . after all,” and I hand him back his grades.  “Straight A’s.”

If you read scripture scholar Marcus Borg and go to the index in search of “sinner,” it’ll say, “see outcast.”  This was a social grouping of people who felt wholly unacceptable.  The world had deemed them disgraceful and shameful, and this toxic shame, as I have mentioned before, was brought inside and given a home in the outcast.

Jesus’s strategy is a simple one: he eats with them.  Precisely to those paralyzed in this toxic shame, Jesus says, “I will eat with you.”  He goes where love has not yet arrived, and he “gets his grub on.”  Eating with outcasts rendered them acceptable.

Pizzas all around – Looney’s home.

Recognizing that we are wholly acceptable is God’s own truth for us – waiting to be discovered.

POETRY: Answered Prayer, by Kathleen Norris

I came to your door
with soup and bread.
I didn’t know you
but you were a neighbor
in pain: and a little soup and bread,
I reasoned, never hurt anyone.

I shouldn’t reason.
I appeared the day
your divorce was final:
a woman, flushed with cooking
and talk, and you watched,
fascinated,
coiled like a spring.

You seemed so brave and lonely
I wanted to comfort you like a child.
I couldn’t of course.
You wanted to ask me too far in.

It was then I knew
it had to be like prayer.
We can’t ask
for what we know we want:
we have to ask to be led
someplace we never dreamed of going,
a place we don’t want to be.

We’ll find ourselves there
one morning,
opened like leaves,
and it will be all right.

POETRY: He Sits Down On The Floor Of A School For The Retarded, by Alden Nowlan

I sit down on the floor of a school for the retarded,
a writer of magazine articles accompanying a band
that was met at the door by a child in a man’s body
who asked them, “Are you the surprise they promised us?”

It’s Ryan’s Fancy, Dermot on guitar,
Fergus on banjo, Denis on penny-whistle.
In the eyes of this audience, they’re everybody
who has ever appeared on TV. I’ve been telling lies
to a boy who cried because his favorite detective
hadn’t come with us; I said he had sent his love
and, no, I didn’t think he’d mind if I signed his name
to a scrap of paper: when the boy took it, he said,
“Nobody will ever get this away from me,”
in the voice, more hopeless than defiant,
of one accustomed to finding that his hiding places
have been discovered, used to having objects snatched
out of his hands. Weeks from now I’ll send him
another autograph, this one genuine
in the sense of having been signed by somebody
on the same payroll as the star.
Then I’ll feel less ashamed. Now everyone is singing,
“Old MacDonald had a farm,” and I don’t know what to do

about the young woman (I call her a woman
because she’s twenty-five at least, but think of her
as a little girl, she plays that part so well,
having known no other), about the young woman who
sits down beside me and, as if it were the most natural
thing in the world, rests her head on my shoulder.

It’s nine o’clock in the morning, not an hour for music.
And, at the best of times, I’m uncomfortable
in situations where I’m ignorant
of the accepted etiquette: it’s one thing
to jump a fence, quite another to blunder
into one in the dark. I look around me
for a teacher to whom to smile out my distress.
They’re all busy elsewhere. “Hold me,” she whispers. “Hold me.”

I put my arm round her. “Hold me tighter.”
I do, and she snuggles closer. I half-expect
someone in authority to grab her
or me; I can imagine this being remembered
for ever as the time the sex-crazed writer
publicly fondled the poor retarded girl.
“Hold me,” she says again. What does it matter
what anybody thinks? I put my other arm around her,
rest my chin in her hair, thinking of children
real children, and of how they say it, “Hold me,”
and of a patient in a geriatric ward
I once heard crying out to his mother, dead
for half a century, “I’m frightened! Hold me!”
and of a boy-soldier screaming it on the beach
at Dieppe, of Nelson in Hardy’s arms,
of Frieda gripping Lawrence’s ankle
until he sailed off in his Ship of Death.

It’s what we all want, in the end,
to be held, merely to be held,
to be kissed (not necessarily with the lips,
for every touching is a kind of kiss).

She hugs me now, this retarded woman, and I hug her.
We are brother and sister, father and daughter,
mother and son, husband and wife.
We are lovers. We are two human beings
huddled together for a little while by the fire
in the Ice Age, two hundred thousand years ago.

LOVE: Compassion And Nonviolence From New York To Afghanistan, by John Dear

From Christian Peace and Nonviolence

Reflections after September 11th

Like thousands of other New Yorkers, I started volunteering immediately after the World Trade Center disaster.  Within a few days, the Red Cross asked me to help coordinate the chaplain program at the Family Assistance Center, the site run by the government and the Red Cross for families.

I’ve been working there ever since.  These past few weeks, I have met some 1,500 grieving family members, police officers, and firefighters.

All we can do is stand with them in their grief, share their pain, listen, hold them, pray with them, encourage, and bless them.

I remember the Long Island Catholic man who came to turn in DNA evidence only to discover his missing brother-in-law’s name on the short list of recovered bodies; the retired New Jersey couple looking for their son, sitting with them as they swabbed their mouths for DNA; the young man who flew alone from Italy looking for his missing mother, crying and shaking; a young man looking for his missing father; holding several mothers weeping for their lost sons.

I recall the young wife desperate to find her husband, asking me through her tears and anger, about God; the many firefighters who stopped me and asked for a blessing; the young woman looking for her husband, wanting to pray and become a Christian; the businessman who lost over fifty colleagues on one of the top floors; and the many low-income security guards, window washers and restaurant workers who narrowly escaped with their lives, who now mourn the loss of their friends and seek financial assistance.

There are so many people that I no longer remember them all, but I lift them up in prayer.

After a week, I stood at Ground Zero amidst the twisted steel and debris, and spoke and prayed with hundreds of workers.  Then, I began escorting fifty family members at a time by ferry to Ground Zero, only to hold them as they wept before the horrific devastation.  I felt like John standing with Mary and the women on Calvary, at the foot of the cross.

The grief has been overwhelming.  But though September 11th remains horrific and still impossible to take in, unfortunately, it is understandable.  We mourn nearly 5,400 people who died at the Trade towers in New York City, but in Iraq, they mourn over one million children and women dead from the US sanctions imposed since 1990.  In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, parents mourn the hundreds of young people shot by Israeli soldiers.  Tens of thousands die daily from starvation around the world, a result of Western economic and military hegemony.

As we begin to realize the massive grief around the world, we begin to understand why after years of bombs, sanctions and killings, powerless people are enraged with anger, and why several pursued the insanity of suicidal terrorism.

These days, I find myself walking from grieving families to Ground Zero to peace vigils, comforting the sorrowful, and speaking out against retaliation and war.

The U.S. bombing of Afghanistan began as 10,000 of us marched through Times Square with the message that inflicting further grief on the Muslim, Arabic world would only insure further terrorist attacks upon us.  At another rally, I told how one crying mother, who lost her thirty-year-old son on the 105th floor of the First Tower, said that the deaths of innocent Afghanistan women and children would not bring her son back or make her feel safe, only increase her sorrow.

As we live through these sorrowful times, our task is to proclaim the simple Gospel truth that war is not the answer, that war doesn’t work, that war is not the will of God, that war is never justified, and that war is never blessed by God.

We need to pray for peace, forgive and ask for forgiveness, pursue social justice, and teach the lessons of peace: that there is no security in war, nuclear weapons, bombing raids, missile shields, or greed, only in nonviolence, love, justice, compassion, and the God of peace.

As war fever spreads, we can quietly quote Gandhi’s insight: “An eye for an eye only makes the whole world blind.”  Violence in response to violence only leads to further violence.  State-sanctioned terrorism will not stop terrorism, but only lead to further terrorism.  Missile shields will not protect us from hijacked airplanes.  Peaceful means are the only way to a peaceful future and to the God of peace.  These are hard lessons, but they are the teachings of Jesus.

Jesus lived, taught and practiced the third way of active nonviolence.  If we dare be his friends and followers, we too must live, teach, and practice loving nonviolence.

The Gospel is crystal clear: love your enemies, forgive those who hurt you, bless those who persecute you, seek justice for the poor, and be compassionate like God.  In other words, practice creative nonviolence.  It’s the only way out.  We are not allowed to kill.

Standing at Ground Zero, I think of Jesus as he approached Jerusalem, weeping, saying, “If only you had understood the way to peace!”  When his disciples wanted to call down “fire from Heaven” upon their enemies, he rebuked them.  When they took out the sword to defend him, he cried out, “Put away the sword.”

In his name, we call for an immediate end to the war, the bombing raids, the sanctions on Iraq, the oppression of the Palestinian people, and the international debt.  We insist that our government throw away the Star Wars proposal, dismantle every nuclear weapon and every weapon of mass destruction, undertake international treaties for nuclear disarmament, and redirect those billions of dollars toward the hard work for a lasting peace through international cooperation for nonviolent alternatives, interfaith dialogue, feeding every child on the planet, joining the world court and international law, protecting the Earth, and showing compassion toward every human being on the planet.

“The moral to be drawn from the tragedy of destruction is that it cannot be resolved by counter-bombs,” Gandhi said after World War II, “even as violence cannot be ended by counter-violence.  Humanity has to get out of violence only through nonviolence.  Hatred can be overcome only by love.  Violence can only be overcome by nonviolence.”

We can find hope in these dark days by remaining faithful to the nonviolent Jesus.  He is the light in our darkness.  By staying close to him and his story, we can find the courage and the love to gather for prayer and scripture study in our communities, to hold candlelight peace vigils in our towns, to organize teach-ins on nonviolence, to befriend our Muslim sisters and brothers, and to act publicly for an end to war, nuclear weapons, and injustice.

The grieving families of New York City have taught me once again that life is precious, that violence breeds violence, and that our only hope is in the wisdom of God’s nonviolence.

But they give me hope.  If we can walk with the grieving and suffering at home and abroad; love one another and love our enemies; and offer the truth of disarmament and nonviolence, I believe we will sow seeds of peace that will help bring a harvest of peace.

All we have to do is turn back to the God of peace with all our hearts.

LOVE: The Vow Of Compassion, by Jean-Yves Leloup

From Compassion and Meditation

What is the vow of a person who is animated by compassion?  Is it wise to devote one’s life to the welfare of all beings?  Is it even rational to make such a vow?  Is it not a dream, or even a form of megalomania, to make such a vow?  What are the motivations and justifications of this vow, both personal and impersonal?

We might concern ourselves with the welfare of others because we discover that our own welfare is thereby increased.  This is not necessarily a bad thing.  To open to others is a way of opening our heart, as well as our intelligence.  It is perhaps the best means of “going beyond ego.”  On the path of the bodhisattva there is a very personal motivation: our own liberation.  To become free and happy through loving.

There are other, more impersonal justifications.  Through the practice of compassion, unconditional love is possible because we have within us this capacity to give because our true nature is Love and Light.  In the language of Christianity we say that we have the spirit of Christ, his Breath (Pneuma, the Holy Spirit), his energy.  And it is from this reality “more truly us than we ourselves,” that we can work for the welfare of all living beings.

Yet to wish for the welfare of all beings from the ego-space of “I want!” is to risk a narrow limitation, which can well be catastrophic for others.  To wish happiness for others according to our own ideas of happiness is to invite difficulties.  The quality of being and loving, known as compassion, is never centered on this “me.”  It is not “me” who loves, because it is precisely this “me” that is incapable of love.  With all the lacks and disappointments it has accumulated over a lifetime, this “me” seeks only to perpetuate itself.  It constantly demands to be loved, and it never gets enough.  Only the Self is capable of true giving and unconditional love.

We must awaken to a quality of being, consciousness, and love, which is our essential nature, to allow it to first manifest within us, and then to allow this capacity of giving and this quality of awakening to grow, so that all our actions are permeated with it.

PRAYER: The Prayer In Secret, by Catherine Marshall

From Adventures in Prayer

In the summer of 1960 – when I saw for the first time the Sistine Chapel in Rome – I was intrigued to learn something of the working habits of Michelangelo Buonarroti.  The four years that it took the great Florentine to paint the vault of the chapel were largely spent in isolation behind locked doors.  While very young, Michelangelo had found that for him, work of integrity was impossible without secrecy.

Learning this reminded me again of the power that lies in secrecy.  It was in connection with my first book, A Man Called Peter, that I experienced its validity.  After a rough outline had been approved by the publishers, some instinct told me that until the book was completed, the work should be kept as secret as possible.

Looking back now, I can see at least two reasons why this secrecy was right.  I knew that the creativity necessary for the writing was a delicate plant indeed.  It could easily wither and die under discouragement or nonconstructive criticism.

I also knew that the ideas of others might cloud my own, could dull and confuse those deepest inner convictions that had to be followed for writing integrity.

Many another writer had found that when he shares an idea for an article or a book too soon, his ability to get the idea on paper sharply deteriorates.

Ernest Hemingway, for instance, has described the trouble he plunged himself into while working on the manuscript of The Sun Also Rises.  The setting was the village of Schruns in the Austrian Alps.  Around the fireside of a winter’s evening, Hemingway made the mistake of reading aloud portions of his novel, the danger to him was not negative criticism, rather damage to his own critical judgment through too much unthinking praise, as he describes in A Moveable Feast: 

When they said, “It’s great, Ernest.  Truly, it’s great.”  I wagged my tail in pleasure. . . instead of thinking, “If they. . . like it, what is wrong with it?”  That was what I would think if I had been functioning as a professional – although if I had been functioning as a professional, I would never have read it to them.

It was after I had discovered the power of secrecy in the arts that I realized its strength in the equally creative realm of prayer.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reveals the mysterious spiritual power in secrecy: “But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: That thine alms may be in secret: and they Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.”

In addition to charitable giving and good deeds, Jesus applied the principle specifically to two other areas – prayer and spiritual disciplines such as fasting.

One man who took these words literally was George Müller.  The result was a story of prayer power that amazed the world.  Müller, a German with a practical businessman’s mind, was seized with the conviction that he should establish orphanages in nineteenth-century England where there were few provisions for homeless children.

Especially astounding in view of his business background, was the way in which Müller determined to raise the money for this project – by secret prayer.  His associates were appalled when he spelled out some of the details:

•  No funds would be solicited directly.  The method for obtaining contributions would be by prayer alone.  No worker could give out information about specific needs.

•  Names of contributors would also be kept secret.  They would be thanked privately.  Nor would prominent names ever be used to advertise the institution.

•  In spite of these seemingly unpromising preconditions, no debts were to be incurred – all transactions were strictly cash.

George Müller then set aside one hour each day for prayer.  As punctually as a Swiss watch, George would retire to his room at the allotted time.  On his knees he could concentrate on meeting his Lord, pouring out to God his wishes and hopes and dreams for his work and the needs of his orphans.  Once every week, he met with all his associates in a session of prayer – also behind closed doors.

There was something so irresistibly challenging about Müller’s formula that despite his aversion to publicity, the news traveled and purses were eagerly opened.  Starting with one rented house, two workers, and forty-three children, in time there were five new buildings and 110 workers for 2,050 orphans.  In all, during his lifetime, 121,000 orphans were sheltered, fed, educated – a million and a half pounds sterling administered.  (Müller kept careful records of every transaction.)  The work is still going on as a monument to faith.  And at its heart was the Prayer in Secret.

As we walk with Jesus through the Gospel narratives, we find him acting on this principle himself.  On one occasion when he had just healed a leper, we are told that “Jesus sent him away. . . with the strict injunction, ‘Mind you say nothing at all to anybody.'”  At another time, when Jesus had raised Jairus’s twelve-year-old daughter, we read that her restoration sent her parents almost “out of their minds with joy.  But Jesus gave them strict instructions not to let anyone know what had happened.”

The Prayer in Secret need not conflict with praying two-by-two or with small-group prayer.  When Jesus raised Jairus’s daughter, there were seven persons in the room – the girl, the child’s parents, Peter, James, and John, and Christ.  Yet following such a group experience, Jesus seems to say that additional power is released if there is no gossip about it outside the prayer room.

When I first read these accounts of Christ’s ministry, I assumed that he wanted certain miracles kept secret lest he not be able to cope with the eager crowds or because this might speed him on his way to the cross prematurely.  But I believe that a more significant reason is involved – that answers to prayer can be diminished, even nullified, by exposing the experience to the comments of the unbelieving.  When Jesus returned to his hometown, Nazareth, where the townspeople thought of him merely as the local carpenter’s son, we are told: “And he did not many mighty works there because of their unbelief.”

Since this happened to Christ himself, then how much more easily it could happen to any of us!

How Jesus loved to pray in secret himself!  He had a habit of “rising up a great while before day” and going outdoors – to a mountainside or some other deserted place – to pray.  Perhaps because of the small, crowded Palestinian houses, that was the only way he could find privacy and solitude.

Before major decisions – such as his choosing of the twelve apostles – he would pray alone an entire night.  And going back to the beginning of his public ministry, we find Jesus going off into the desert for forty days and forty nights of seclusion and concentrated prayer.  He knew that power was needed; in secret he would find it.

There are other reasons why Jesus instructs us to pray in secret.  Real power in prayer flows only when man’s spirit touches God’s Spirit.  As in worship, so in prayer: “God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.”  Secrecy helps us get rid of hindrances to praying with our spirit.  For instance, in our room with the door shut, we are not so likely to strut and pose and pretend as we are when another human being is present.  We know that we cannot deceive God.  Transparent honesty before him is easier for us in isolation.

Then too, there is the necessity of shutting out distractions – the doorbell, the telephone, the laundryman, the children.  God asks that we worship him with concentrated minds as well as allowing the Spirit to direct our wills and emotions.  A divided and scattered mind is not at its most receptive.

There is also the matter of our spiritual balance sheets.  When we perform a good deed, we are usually quick to advertise it, display it, collect the credit – use it up.  Unworthy or bad deeds we hide.  The “credit” (i.e., debit) of the bad acts stays with us, accumulates.  Thus our personalities are always on the debit side.  Spiritually we remain chronically bankrupt.

Jesus told us that if we want to become fulfilled and productive persons, we must reverse the process.  That is, we are to divest ourselves of weaknesses, faults, and sins by confessing them openly, while kindnesses and good deeds are to be kept secret.  The result is an inner reservoir of power.

As the reservoir begins to fill, we experience the Father’s “reward” as promised by Jesus: God’s presence in our life and affairs with all the attendant blessings.

What these blessings turn out to be can be shared with others only long after our Prayer in Secret has been answered.  That is why I can now tell about our prayer for the Stowe family.  (Of course, this is not their real name.)

It happened one autumn when our children were small.  We knew Mr. Stowe because he was a schoolteacher in our son’s school, a man who gave all of himself to his profession.  As such, he symbolized to us all those unsung citizens who serve selflessly but often with small pay.  The Stowes had five children, lived in a house too small for such a large family, and were having a hard time making it financially.  Yet they could always be counted on for community projects.  But we knew that they themselves had too few of the necessities and none of those extras of the good life that some of us take for granted.

Our concern took the form of dinner-table conversations followed later on by some prayer for the Stowes during one of our family times.  Then we asked the question, “Lord, is there anything you would like us to do for the Stowes?”

The answer was not long in coming.  We were directed back to an old novel we had all but forgotten, Lloyd C. Douglas’s The Magnificent Obsession.  As we refreshed our minds about the story, we remembered that Randolph, a sculptor, found that when he gave money away as Jesus instructed in the Sermon on the Mount, without letting anyone discover his generous action, power flowed into his life through new energy in his work, fresh sureness and poise in relationships with people, and answered prayers.  The sculptor’s petition was not for money or fame, but rather for his work: “the capacity to do just one credible work of statuary.”

Randolph’s prayer was abundantly answered – he became a gifted sculptor.  Eventually in fact, fame and material benefits followed as well.

In Douglas’s book the “secret of keeping a secret” was then passed on to others – including a brain surgeon – with equally startling results.

All of this led to our deciding to make the Stowes’ Christmas a family project, and to keep this a secret from the Stowes as from everyone else.

Other ground rules were laid down: We were to make as many of the presents as possible – like cakes and cookies from cherished old recipes, sequined and beribboned Christmas ornaments; a tiny Christmas tree for the birds, decorated with eatable goodies for them.  In addition, our children were to save or earn the money for at least one gift for each of the Stowes.

By Christmas Eve a large carton was filled to the brim with gifts.  Attached was a note explaining to our friends that these gifts were to try to say to them how much their continual unselfish giving had meant to many in the community; that since this gift was from the Christ child, himself, other names were not needed.  With each gift went a prayer for God’s abundant blessing on their family.  The box was then left on the Stowes’ doorstep.

And the giving and Prayer in Secret was marvelously answered.  Word came to us that the Stowes had one of the greatest Christmases of their lives.  Not long after that, Mr. Stowe was offered a better position with a larger salary.  Suddenly, the whole community began to show more appreciation for the Stowes’ selfless service.  The children found various ways to go to college.  Blessings for all of us came out of the experience.

Because the prime condition of this prayer is secrecy, illustrations beyond one’s personal experience with it are not easily come by.

SATURDAY READING: Three Bartlett Pears, by Alice Mattison

From The Threepenny Review

Memoir

Edward, my husband, lay in a bed with raised sides in the Medical Intensive Care Unit of Yale-New Haven Hospital.  His wrists were tied to the sides of the bed, and a wide belt – in incongruous blue and green plaid – crossed his belly to keep him from sitting up.  A white bandage on his nose, attached to a tube that went into his nostril, made his face hard to recognize but I could see his graying, reddish beard and pale orange eyebrows.  Occasionally a nurse hung a bag of liquid on one of the three poles, each holding several dripping bags.  A rigid tube going into Edward’s mouth was connected to a ventilator – a big blue machine – with expandable hoses.  Yet another tube came out from under his white thermal blanket and led to a bag of urine.  Behind his head, a screen showed numbers: pulse, blood pressure, blood oxygen level, and breathing rate.

It was Tuesday, March 24.  On Sunday, Edward and I had extended our usual two-and-a-half-mile walk with our yellow dog, Gracie, next to the Mill River in East Rock Park, New Haven.  A network of trails leaves the riverside and winds up a ridge toward a red cliff that gives our neighborhood a comfortable sense of limit.  As we walked, I said, “Let’s go up Whitney Peak.”  Mid-March in southern New England: the snow was gone, but it was cold.  There had been little rain lately, and the trails were dry.  Tips of branches were red, willow trees yellow, but I saw no other signs of spring.   When the leaves came out the woods would seem larger, and it would be less obvious that we live in a city, that the park is cut by a road spiraling to the summit of East Rock, that some of the park’s edges are near old factories and other industrial clutter.

Whitney Peak is one of several low summits, a short climb on a trail that intersects the one we take every day.  We turned left on a third trail, and in a few minutes walked to a scrubby, rocky height from which we could see a new water treatment plant in one direction, and the town of Hamden’s sprawling businesses and highways in the other.  We looked around, then descended, crossed the paved road, and came to a lookout, Gracie and I going first.  She’s a shrewd shelter mutt, mostly yellow lab, along with something smaller and leggier,  She has intense golden eyes that look conscious, like the eyes of a talking dog in a cartoon.

It was the first spring walk that could remotely be called a hike.  I hurried to the edge of the lookout, giving a happy shout.  Below was Lake Whitney, a reservoir.  A dam and a waterfall – the turnaround place for our daily walk – were dramatic from above.  I’d never realized that this spot, which we’d driven past often, was just above the place we walked to every day.  Edward caught up and looked around amiably.  He’s an easygoing walker who emits little noises, grunts, and puffs.  “Fuffle!” he may say, negotiating a rough place.  From the lookout we took still another trail, which soon rejoined our usual path next to the river.  We were away from home just an hour and a half.

That afternoon I cleaned the kitchen.  We put a photograph we bought months ago into a frame, and hung it on the wall.  Edward vacuumed the house.  He’d recently taken over the dusting, and was better at it than I.  I heard him in the next room, talking – apparently to the dust.  We ate dinner out.

Monday morning Edward said he’d had chills during the night, and now he thought he had a fever.  I took his temperature with a thermometer I must have bought when our kids – three sons in their thirties – were children: 98.9.  He said he’d go to work.  The small nonprofit he directs argues with government, runs training programs, and does whatever else comes along that might benefit people who have a psychiatric illness, are in recovery from addiction, or are homeless.  He attended an early meeting, came home and drank his usual third of a mug of coffee, and took Gracie for a short walk.  We drove downtown together – he was going to his office, I to a soup kitchen where I volunteer on Mondays.  On the way, he said, “I think I’m coming down with something.”  At one P.M. he had to run a meeting of his board of directors.  When Edward is sick, he sleeps, so I encouraged him to come home and nap after the meeting, knowing he’d try to avoid that because I’d be working at home in the afternoon, and I can be grouchy about interruptions.  When I got out of the car a few blocks short of the spot where he’d dropped me on other Mondays he looked bereft, which made me impatient.  I wasn’t ending the marriage, I just had an errand on my way to the soup kitchen.

I’m a novelist – a solitary – and the volunteer job is the one time in the work week when I’m with other people.  The soup kitchen is ordinarily fascinating – because of the mix of people and a sense that it’s okay to be emotionally honest there – but not on that particular Monday.  Guests who were quieter than usual filled the long tables in the church hall.  We had plenty of workers.  I handed out plastic forks and spoons and packets of sugar or artificial sweetener, discussing with the woman handing our desserts whether people are likelier to choose pastry on the side of the tray they come to first.

I don’t eat at the soup kitchen – my usual lunch is oatmeal – and I stopped downtown for a bowl of soup, then walked home, where I greeted Gracie and sat down with an apple.  I took one bite and the doorbell rang.  I put the apple on a shelf, opened the door, and there was my friend, Lezley, who works with Edward.  “We just sent Edward to the hospital,” she said evenly.  “Get your coat.”

I’m not sure I said anything.  I went into the kitchen and got my cell phone, which I mostly forget to carry.  It had been plugged into its charger on the counter.  We left and I locked the house.  I said, “Did someone drive him there?”

“No, we called an ambulance.”

“Is this like a heart attack or like flu?”

“Like flu.”  I couldn’t imagine someone getting sick enough for an ambulance in so few hours.  I was alert, oddly calm, choosing to postpone deciding how frightened to be.  But Lezley ran to her van and I ran too.

During the board meeting, she reported, Edward had made less and less sense.  He trembled and had chills, but refused to adjourn until a board member insisted; someone dialed 911 as he collapsed, and Lezley rushed to find me.  She’d been to my house several times in the last few minutes, and had searched nearby streets.

As we drove, I phoned our son Ben, who would want to know what was happening immediately.  He works nearby,and said he’d meet me at the hospital.  Another son, Jacob, works in New Haven as well, but I didn’t think he’d mind if I waited to phone him until I knew more.  Our third son is an English professor in Ohio, and he too would be willing to wait.

Lezley dropped me off.  I didn’t know how frightened she was – how frightened I should have been – until much later.  A uniformed guard let me in and I searched a crowded room and spotted Edward in an open cubicle.  He was hooked up to an IV pole and a monitor, and beeps of varying pitches sounded.  A young resident told me he had an infection.  I think someone said, “Your husband is very sick.”  Edward was glad to see me and said he felt tired.  I stood at his side, clutching my coat.

I can’t remember why, after a while, I crossed the crowded room to the nurses’ station.  I suppose I had a question.  I was distracted by something, and turned to look at a man lying on a stretcher, whose face made me take a step in his direction, when it turned into the face of my son Jacob.  “What are you doing here?” he asked – incredulous, friendly.

I asked the same question.  “I’m fine!” he said.  During a lunchtime walk, Jacob had had chest pains that got worse when he walked uphill.  He called his wife, a nurse, who said he’d better get himself checked out.  A colleague had driven him to the hospital.  The pain was gone, but he’d had blood drawn, an EKG.  He’d just had an X-ray and was on his way back to his own cubicle.

A friend hearing this story the next day from our third son, Andrew, wondered how I survived.  Among strangers, many of them sick, I didn’t cry or panic.  I added the new problem to the other one, and went back and forth from Jacob’s side to Edward’s.  I think this coincidence seemed less strange than it might have.  Somehow all rules had been suspended.  I was supposed to be home, finishing my apple, checking emails and phone messages, trying to work on my novel.

Ben, waiting to ask the guard outside the ER for permission to see his father, heard the man in front of him ask about Jacob.  “That’s my brother’s name,” Ben said, and found out what had happened.  If I’d checked my answering machine before Lezley arrived, I’d have heard messages about both emergencies.  Would I have fainted?  Laughed?  Dropped dead?

Jacob was eventually declared, indeed, to be fine, but meanwhile the hospital had him spend the night so he could take a stress test in the morning.  Edward was admitted to the medical ICU with a urinary tract infection that had spread to his blood.  Ben and I followed his bed through corridors and an elevator.  At the unit, we waited in a lounge that felt so distant from Edward I was afraid I’d never see him again.  We’d been told a phone there would ring when we were allowed to go in, but the phone did not ring.  Finally we waited at the door of the ICU until someone opened it, then demanded to see him.  He was in bed.  A doctor interviewed him and he answered questions clearly.  Eventually we left.  Edward promised me he wouldn’t die in the night.

§

Weekends, in our ordinary life, Edward is home, taking up emotional and physical space, and I don’t write.  I don’t write much on Mondays because of the soup kitchen.  Tuesdays through Fridays I write (except for one week each month that I spend on student work: I teach in a master’s program at Bennington College that proceeds mostly by correspondence).  My days alone are unlike other days.  Edward and I walk Gracie in the morning and then he goes to work until well into the evening.  I try to focus on the book I’m writing, which feels like flying slowly around something in increasingly smaller, less frantic concentric circles.  Eventually I can bear to read some of what I wrote the previous day, I can decide what I need to know to write the next sentence.  Then, at last, I write that sentence.  Then, after another pause, another sentence.  Then pages exist that I don’t remember writing.  I’m tired, and it’s late afternoon.

Lunch is always the same.  I eat oatmeal with raisins, yogurt, nuts, and cut up fruit – in the cold months an apple or a pear.  Yellow Bartlett pears are what I like best, but Bosc pears are good too.  Edward and I generally shop on Friday evenings, and I buy some apples and three unripe pears: greenish, plump Bartletts or elongated brown Boscs.  If I buy more, I can’t always eat them before they are overripe.  My first oatmeal lunch of the week is on Tuesday, and usually the pears are not yet ripe, so I cut up an apple.  With my oatmeal on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, I eat a pear.

The week Edward got sick was to be ordinary in some respects, not in others.  I’d have spent Tuesday through Friday at home writing my novel except for Thursday afternoon, when I’d been invited to visit a writing program at a high school.  Tuesday evening would be a reading in the Ordinary Evening Series, named for Wallace Stevens’s poem, “An Ordinary Evening In New Haven.”  Three other women and I bring writers, once a month, to the basement of a New Haven bar, and twenty or thirty people come to hear them.  My friend Douglas Bauer was reading for us that Tuesday, and I planned to meet his train, then introduce his reading.  We’d all have dinner late – organizers, readers, and a couple of husbands, including Edward.  Doug would spend the night at our house.  For breakfast we’d eat raisin scones I planned to bake when I finished writing on Tuesday.

 §

MYSTICISM: from True Christianity, by Johann Arndt

Book 3

Prologue

Just as our natural life has its stages, its childhood, manhood, and old age, so too our spiritual and Christian life is set up.  It has its beginning in repentance, through which a person does penance every day.  A greater enlightenment follows after this like middle age, through the contemplation of divine things, through prayer, through the cross, through which all God’s gifts are increased.  Finally comes the perfection of old age, being established in complete union through love, which Saint Paul calls “the perfect age of Christ” and being “a perfect man in Christ,” (Ephesians 4:13).

I have taken up this order in these three books in so far as I could, and I think that the whole of Christianity is necessarily described in them, though the prayer book is to be added.  Even though not all the description is perfect, nothing could be desired in carrying it out.  I want to add a fourth book so that someone can see how scripture, Christ, humanity,and the whole of nature agree, and how all these things flow back again and lead into the one, eternal, living Source who is God himself.

In order to understand me rightly in this third book, know that it is directed toward how you must seek and find the kingdom of God in yourself, (Luke 17:21).  In order for this to happen, you must give God your whole heart and soul, not just your understanding, but also your will and your sincere love.  Many people think that it is quite enough and even excessive for their Christianity if they grasp Christ with the understanding, through reading and disputation.  This is the general “study of theology,” which consists in pure “theoria” and in science.  They do not realize that the other chief power of the soul, namely the will and the dear love, also belong there.  Both must be given to God and to Christ if you wish to give him your whole soul.  For there is a great distinction between the understanding by which one knows Christ and the will by which you love him.  We understand Christ as far as we are able; we love him as he is.  It is of no use to know Christ through pure understanding and not to love him.  It is a thousand times better “to love Christ than to be able to say and dispute much about him,” (Ephesians 3:19).  Therefore, we should seek Christ with all our understanding so that we can love him with our sincere will and pleasure.  The love of Christ comes from true knowledge of Christ.  If we do not perform this, we shall surely find him, but to our great shame, for this is what we read where the Lord says in Matthew 7:21: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall come into the kingdom of Heaven.”  There are then two ways to gain wisdom and understanding: the first is to read and dispute much, and this is what is called being “learned”; the second is through prayer, and through love, and this is called being “holy.”  There is a great difference between the two.  Those who are learned and have no love are proud and filled with themselves; the others are lowly and humble.  Through the first way you will not find your inner treasure; through the second you will find it in yourself.  This is the subject matter of the whole third book.

How wonderful, and precious and lovely it is that our highest and best treasure, the kingdom of God, is not something exterior, but is an indwelling good that we always have with us, hidden from the whole world and from the devil himself so that neither the world not the devil can take it from us.  For it, we need no great skill, speech, or many books, but rather a heart released and surrendered to God.  For this purpose let us diligently turn within to this inner, hidden, Heavenly, and eternal goodness and kingdom.  What should we seek for externally in the world, we who have everything within us, the whole kingdom of God and all its goods?  In our hearts and souls is the true school of the Holy Spirit, the true workshop of the Holy Trinity, the true temple of God, “the true house of prayer in spirit and in truth,” (John 4:23).  Although God is in all things through his general presence, not contained within them, but in an incomprehensible way filling Heaven and Earth, he is still in a special and singular sense in the enlightened souls of those people in whom he dwells and has his resting place, (1 Corinthians 6:19; Isaiah 66:2), as in his own image and likeness.  There he performs the works that he himself is.  There in our heart he always answers our sighs.  How is it possible for him to deny those in whom he has his dwelling, whom he himself moves and draws?  Nothing is more delightful and pleasant to him than to give himself to all those who seek him.

All this belongs to a refined, quiet, and peaceful soul.  The soul becomes quiet and peaceful when she turns herself away from the world.  Even the pagans have said of this: “Our soul will finally become wise when she is quiet and peaceful.”  Saint Cyprian rightly says of it, “This is,” he says, “constant rest and security, if a person is freed from the continual storms and winds of this world and lifts up his eyes and heart from the Earth to God, and draws near to God with his mind (mente DEO fit proximus), understanding also that everything among worldly things that is held high and costly lies hidden in his heart and mind.”

There is great wisdom in these words and herein is a summary of this third book.  Often the hidden treasure in our hearts is aroused as in an instant, and this instant is better than Heaven and Earth and all the charm of creatures.  As Saint Bernard says: “A soul that has once rightly learned how to turn herself within and to seek God’s face and to taste God’s presence in her interior, I do not know if for such a soul it would be more painful and terrible to suffer in hell for a time than, having known and experienced the sweetness of this holy exercise, to have to return again to the pleasure, or rather to the displeasure and trouble, of the world and the flesh and to the unsatisfied desire and unrest of the senses.”  For such a soul not only finds the highest good in herself if she turns to God, but also the highest wretchedness in herself if she loses God.  She well knows that she lives in God as in the source of her life if she dies to the world; and on the other side, the more she lives to the world, the more she dies to God.  Such a soul who has died to the world truly lives in God, and is God’s delight and joy, a sweet and ripe grape in Christ’s vineyard, as the Song of Solomon says, (Song 5:10).  The other hearts that seek the world are bitter unripe grapes.”

See, here is the true perfection of the Christian life.  For perfection is not as some think a high, great, spiritual, Heavenly joy and meditation, but it is the denial of your own will, love, honor, a knowledge of your own nothingness, a lasting completion of God’s will, a burning love for neighbor, a sincere compassion, and in sum a love that desires, thinks, and seeks for God alone as far as possible in the weakness of this life.  This is also true Christian virtue, true freedom and peace, in overcoming the flesh and fleshly affections.  You will read more about this in the third book and find its exercise.  To that end I desire both for you and for me the grace of the Holy Spirit, which begins, carries on, and perfects everything in us to God’s honor, homage, and praise.

Amen.

HEALING: Perfect Hell

I am not obsessive-compulsive.

I have actually been tested.

The same test, however, showed that I am a perfectionist.

When I saw how high on the scale of perfectionism I tested, I felt an urge to sit down right there and write tearful apologies to my children.

I had always considered myself a patient parent.  But perhaps my patience had really been aimed at generously waiting for them To Get It Right.

As I wrote, tearful apologies are way overdue.

Back in the days when I roamed the Earth in Brooks Brothers suits, with gleaming nails on hands and feet, when I found myself having to meet the challenge of working with both attorneys, with their own ideas, on one end of the spectrum, and printers, with their own ideas, on the other, being a perfectionist was clearly an asset.  I could remember everything.  And not just that.  I could remember everything accurately.

I once defined a print-production manager as Hitler in heels.  And I meant it.

But then came the “signs.”  I began to feel impatient with layouts of menus in restaurants.  And, when I drove about, I would edit the copy on billboards.

I couldn’t stop myself.

I liked having something for my mind to straighten up and get right, but when the urge to straighten never changed to enjoyment or even boredom, then I knew my time in the corporate world was over.

And when Bank of America called and asked me to write a letter saying that I really, really wanted the job as Manager of All In-House Publications that they really, really wanted to offer me, I changed out of my suit, packed up my belongings, and drove out of Dodge.

Well, Berkeley, really.

In one way, though, I was very lucky.  I had God in my life.  Whenever I wanted to work with him, or not work with him; whenever I wanted to get closer, or get away from him, no matter what I did with relation to God, I always found myself tangled up and flat on my face, proving me, yet again, impotent and wrong.

Perhaps it was a good thing that I was a perfectionist.  Instead of letting being always wrong get me down, perhaps because I was trying so hard to straighten out God and my visions, being consistently kicked in the shins just sobered me.

Humility comes hard to a perfectionist.

But it comes.

Maybe.

I like to take sunshine as a model for perfection.  I mean, how can sunshine be considered anything else but perfect?  All it does is its job, consistently.  And it keeps doing its thing no matter what.

No matter how many clouds clog up its path, its there, shining away, waiting for a hole, or a parting, or even a clearing to appear so it can get back to satisfying its customers.

Perfect.

The warmer, human side of sunshine as Model of Perfection is how it doesn’t insist on being everywhere at all times.  There is darkness, even in the middle of the day, beneath a bush or in a cellar with no windows.  And it will shine on everything.  Everything.  Just think about it.

It doesn’t care if when it shines through a window the window is squeaky clean or streaked with dirt.  And it doesn’t discriminate between shining on a field full of wildflowers or a trash heap.

I learned, slowly and with much discomfort, that when one works with God, how one works is not the same as how one works in the world.  Perfection becomes an entirely different thing.

One’s goal is to get through the experience with sanity and with as much health as possible.  Think of Abraham.  Think of Job.  Think of Jesus.

The path is there before him.  And he must accomplish it.  In truth, he doesn’t know what is going to happen.  But accomplish it, he must.

So learning to get through a God experience is a long, long lesson in moving gently.  In stopping and listening.  In allowing trust to refill your heart and soul so that another step can occur.  It is a practice of learning to touch others so that no harm comes to either them or you.  Which is the greatest challenge sometimes.

In the “real” world, the goal is to get what you can.  The brass ring.  The vacation home at the beach.  A retirement fund.

With God, the goal is to piece together what is in front of you so that you can get home again to a cup of tea.  The path is the getting, not the stuff gotten along the way.

It makes us all the same.  Unlike in the material world, where education and cleverness and ambition can separate us from one another.  With God, it’s a matter of willingness, faith, love, and gratitude, things that we all have in our packs if we just search, that shape the accomplishments.

And there’s attitude.

Always, there is attitude.

We can treat our life in the world as a long, arduous toil, blinking in the hot sun.  We can count each and every drop of sweat that falls off of us as marks of our suffering and endurance.  We can resent the effort.  Curse the demands on our time and energy.  Kick those around us.

Or, we can see ourselves as gardeners, tending a garden.  Our families can be the rose bushes; our work the beds of perennials.  When someone from church calls to ask us to help on yet another task, we can see it as a gift of a begonia, to put on the windowsill and watch blossom.

Life doesn’t always have to be an act of giving.  It can be a relationship.  With everything around us.  Even the dirty bathtub and the silent neighbor.

All flowers under our care.

Of course, perfectionism isn’t something that goes away.

I am in my first few months of learning Biblical Greek, and just the other day when I saw an advertisement for the store, The Gap, I didn’t see the word, Gap.  Instead, I saw, γαρ, and thought, γαρ: for (postpositive).

In the end, there’s always room for a sigh.

Amen.

LECTIO DIVINA: The Way Of Friendship, by M. Basil Pennington

From Lectio Divina

This question is often raised at workshops and retreats: “What should I read at my lectio?  How do I know what text to use?”

As Saint Paul told Saint Timothy: “All scripture inspired by God is useful for teaching and refutation, for correction and putting us in the way that is right with God, for communication and communion.”  For our lectio we can use any text of scripture we want.  Some like to open the Bible at random to see what the Lord has to say to them today.  This is fine, though we should avoid all superstitious attitudes, looking for the Lord to give us through the Bible infallible answers to particular questions.  That is not usually his way.  He has given us a mind to use and the constant help of Holy Spirit.

Many prefer to use the readings of the day for their daily lectio.  This is very good.  Listening with the church, there is special grace present.  Apt passages from the Hebrew Bible and the apostolic writings are given us as a rich setting for hearing the Gospels.  When these texts are used at our lectio we can then easily share with others in the church who are doing the same.  However, restricting ourselves to these does have the disadvantage that some passages of scripture will never be read, for they are not among the passages used in the liturgy.

Others like to follow the lectio continuata, which has been the common practice in monasteries.  Certain books of the Bibles are assigned to particular seasons of the year: Isaiah for Advent, Jeremiah for Lent, Lamentations for Holy Week, the Epistles of John for the Easter time, and so on.  During the assigned season, the book is read through, chapter by chapter.

Most find their preferred lectio in the Gospels, and so some will read these through.  The Gospels certainly are a good place for beginners to start.

Some of us have favorite passages in scripture and like to return to them.  But we soon enough find, sometimes to our surprise, that these much-loved passages can be used by the Lord to bring us very different messages on different days.  For the Lord always speaks to us right where we are today.  This is one of the things that makes lectio such a rewarding experience.  It is always relevant, and therefore it is always new.  It is a living Word speaking to us in the onrush of life.

We can also choose texts from men and women of faith, friends of God.  As long as they are “faithful” in their writings, theirs are writings drawn from and reflecting the Word of God.  Indeed, the writings of those special friends of God, whom we call the Fathers of the church, are often so full of the inspired Word that they are veritable mosaics of scripture.  They leave us with the strong impression that these writers knew the Bible by heart, indeed, carried it in their heart.

However, I personally think that for the most part we do best turning to the inspired Word itself for our lectio and using the other texts more for study and motivational reading.  Among my favorite texts are the words that came so directly from the heart of Jesus as he spoke to his chosen twelve at the Last Supper.  He tells us then: “I no longer call you servants, but friends, because I make known to you all that I have received from the Father. . . .  You have not chosen me, no, I have chosen you.”  Wondrous, indeed, it is: to be the chosen friend of God himself!

§

Let us take a little look at this tremendously beautiful reality called friendship.

How does it begin?

Well, first we get acquainted.  Perhaps we go to a party.  As we enter, the hostess comes over to greet us and guides us across the room to meet another guest: “Maria, this is Robert.  Robert, this is Maria.  I know you are both interested in scuba diving.”  Then our charming hostess glides off to welcome someone else, leaving us standing there facing one another.  “What did you say your name is?”  We take up the conversation.  “Where are you from?”  “Are you really interested in scuba diving?”  If the evening goes well, there is a good chance that before it ends Robert will say to Maria: “What are you doing Saturday?  Would you like to go scuba diving?”  Robert and Maria will have become acquainted.

Well, they do go scuba diving on Saturday, and soon they are doing other things together.  As they do, they begin to know each other better, more now through the way they act and the things they share than just their words.  They get to know each other’s likes and dislikes, what they value, and where they agree.  They get to be quite friendly.

If this goes on for some time, they may come to be real friends.  A friend is someone who is there for you, one you can count on.  If you are going away for the weekend, you call on your friend to take care of the dog.  If you run out of gas, you call your friend.  If you need a shoulder to cry on or want to share a deep personal joy, you turn to your friend.  Your friend won’t let you down.

As a friendship matures, it can give birth to a deep sense of oneness.  There is a joy in being together, a good sense of being.  And it might well happen that Robert and Maria will walk down the aisle and make their vows so that they can be together until death does them part.

From acquaintanceship friendly relationship can grow to produce true friends, who can come to know a deep oneness or union in spirit.

The traditional Christian way of lectio takes our Lord’s words seriously.  It is a response to his overtures, his choice.  It is a way of friendship.

We get acquainted with God through his Word.  Of course, he knows all about us, but we need to get to know him.  And getting acquainted is not a once-and-for-all thing.  Very many marriages fail, sometimes after years of married life, because the man is still in love with the woman he went on the honeymoon with and does not know the magnificent woman who has matured at his side.  And vice versa.  There is a wonderful movement called Marriage Encounter.  After an initial, vitalizing, long weekend, the participants are sent forth with a commitment to “ten and ten.”  The partners commit themselves to spend ten minutes each day writing to each other revealing just where they are in their life’s journey and in their relationship with the other.  Then they exchange the letters.  After they have had time to read them and reflect, they spend at least ten minutes talking frankly about what they have written.  The Lord has sent us wonderful love letters in the Scriptures.  Our lectio is part of our “ten and ten,” enabling us each day to become more fully acquainted with him, and in that relationship getting more fully acquainted with ourselves.

As we carry the word we have received at lectio with us, the Lord walks with us, commenting through that word on the things we experience through the day.  It enables us to begin to see things more the way he sees them as well as to experience that he is there with us, helping us and supporting us in all.

Let me share just one experience with you.  I usually do my lectio early in the morning.  On this particular day, the Lord just didn’t seem to show up.  I had turned to my favorite section, the Last Supper discourse, but nothing really opened for me.  So at the end of my time I had to choose a word to carry with me.  I chose our Lord’s words: “I am the Way.”

A few hours later, I was walking down from the monastery to the guesthouse.  As I walked along, my word was with me.  Suddenly, I realized that I was not just walking down a road.  I was walking in the way.  That all the walking I do, whether in the cloister, or out on the road, or in the streets of the city, or along corridors – it is all in the way.  It is in the Lord and with the Lord and on the way to life eternal.  Since that morning all my walking has been different: it has been in the way.  Through his Word, my Friend enabled me to see things more his way.

When I arrived at the guesthouse, there was a young man waiting for me.  He had all the problems in the book and a few that weren’t.  As I sat there listening to him, I was asking the Lord: “What do I say to this poor dear lad.”  Then the Lord sort of poked me in the ribs.  Oh, yes!  And I told the young man about my Friend, who is the Way.  As I shared this word with this fellow, it was as if great burdens were falling off his shoulders.  Now he had a way to go.  The Lord had given me that word that day not only for myself but also for this other friend of his.

Later that day, around 4:45, I was climbing up the steps to the church.  There are more steps between the guesthouse and the church than I have ever had the courage to count.  I was exhausted.  It had been a very full day.  And I was saying to the Lord: “Lord, how will I ever get through Vespers?  I will sing every note flat.”  And once again he kind of gave me a little poke.  “Oh, yes!  You are the way.”  And I went on to sing Vespers with my Friend with a lot of energy and joy.

Our Friend is someone we can really count on.  Saint James tells us in his epistle that the reason our prayer is not heard is because we are like the waves of the sea: up and down, up and down.  I believe, I don’t believe.  I trust, I don’t trust.  Our Lord has told us that if we tell yonder mountain to move and do not waver in our hearts, it will move.  But we waver all over the place.  Through lectio and meditatio we come to know what  friend we have in Jesus.  We arrive at the place where we can truly pray.

And then there are those times when enough is said.  We don’t need any more words.  We just want to be there with the Lord.  We hear his pressing invitation: “Come to me, you who work hard and are overburdened.  I will refresh you.”  And we sit quietly there, content with the poverty of a single simple word that says it all.

Lectio Acquaintanceship
Meditatio Friendly companionship
Oratio Friendship
Contemplatio Union

It is the way of Christian friendship.

“I call you friends because I make known to you all that the Father has made known to me.”  

“Listen to my voice,” the Lord said through the prophet Jeremiah, “then I will be your God and you will be my people.”

“Hear, O Israel.”

God is not truly God for us if we do not listen to him.  If God is who God is – if we know this, we listen to him.  We acknowledge all this by listening.  If we do not listen, we virtually deny that he is God, at least in relation to our lives.  This is just the fundamental relationship between Creator and creature.  By its very self, our listening postulates lectio.  But we have been called to so much more.  Not just creatures called to listen to a Creator who has every right to demand anything and everything of us.  Not just servants: “I no longer call you servants.”  But friends.  What are the rights that a friend has to demand that we listen?  And what kind of a listening can he or she rightly expect?

We dare to come to lectio as friends with heartfelt longing truly to hear our Friend, truly to understand, that we might understand him and be more and more one with him.  We come to lectio with a great longing for union, the union we call contemplation.  (That word, too, might well be retired to give place to a word not so loaded with baggage.)  Our lectio postulates a very special kind of listening, a listening that gives tremendous meaning to our lives.  It is a listening that is filled with faith and trust, hope and love.  It is the kind of listening that makes lectio one of the most wonderful things in our lives.  In this listening, our lectio is a time that comes to be filled with what is the greatest joy of human life, a time of being with – being with our most intimate Friend.

For the wonderful gift of lectio, can we ever thank you enough, O Lord?  For here you show us that indeed you are our Friend, for here you make known to us all that the Father has made known to you, all the deepest meaning of our lives, all the secrets of your own life in the Trinity, all that we are called to, all to which we aspire, all the longings of our heart.

POETRY: Rowing, by Anne Sexton

A story, a story!
(Let it go. Let it come.)
I was stamped out like a Plymouth fender
into this world.
First came the crib
with its glacial bars.
Then dolls
and the devotion to their plastic mouths.
Then there was school,
the little straight rows of chairs,
blotting my name over and over,
but undersea all the time,
a stranger whose elbows wouldn’t work.
Then there was life
with its cruel houses
and people who seldom touched-
though touch is all-
but I grew,
like a pig in a trenchcoat I grew,
and then there were many strange apparitions,
the nagging rain, the sun turning into poison
and all of that, saws working through my heart,
but I grew, I grew,
and God was there like an island I had not rowed to,
still ignorant of Him, my arms, and my legs worked,
and I grew, I grew,
I wore rubies and bought tomatoes
and now, in my middle age,
about nineteen in the head I’d say,
I am rowing, I am rowing
though the oarlocks stick and are rusty
and the sea blinks and rolls
like a worried eyeball,
but I am rowing, I am rowing,
though the wind pushes me back
and I know that that island will not be perfect,
it will have the flaws of life,
the absurdities of the dinner table,
but there will be a door
and I will open it
and I will get rid of the rat inside me,
the gnawing pestilential rat.
God will take it with his two hands
and embrace it.

As the African says:
This is my tale which I have told,
if it be sweet, if it be not sweet,
take somewhere else and let some return to me.
This story ends with me still rowing.

POETRY: Hope, by Lisel Mueller

It hovers in dark corners
before the lights are turned on,
it shakes sleep from its eyes
and drops from mushroom gills,
it explodes in the starry heads
of dandelions turned sages,
it sticks to the wings of green angels
that sail from the tops of maples.
It sprouts in each occluded eye
of the many-eyed potato,
it lives in each earthworm segment
surviving cruelty,
it is the motion that runs the tail of a dog,
it is the mouth that inflates the lungs
of the child that has just been born.
It is the singular gift
we cannot destroy in ourselves,
the argument that refutes death,
the genius that invents the future,
all we know of God.
It is the serum which makes us swear
not to betray one another;
it is in this poem, trying to speak.

PRAYER: Seven Principles Of Lectio Divina, by Michael Casey

From The Undivided Heart: The Western Monastic Approach to Contemplation

Experience confirms that the most ordinary cause of “dryness” or “staleness” in prayer is a defect in genuine spiritual reading.  Without consistent intake of the Word of God, prayer never comes naturally and interest in prayer declines.  On the other hand, the first step in any program to revitalize the practice of prayer is always a renewed contact with God’s Word.

However, many people continue to experience such dryness even though they do devote regular periods to spiritual reading.  This is usually due to the fact that the reading is not done in such a way as to provoke prayer.  If no distinction is made between the manner in which one approaches lectio divina and the way in which one’s ordinary professional or leisure reading is done, then prayer will not easily follow.  Lectio divina is not simply a matter of reading books about the spiritual life, theology, or the Bible.  Lectio divina is chiefly distinguished from other reading by the way in which it is done.  Even the most suitable material can fail to yield results if approached in the wrong way.

This article is intended to recall the most fundamental differences between genuine lectio divina and other forms of reading.

Principle 1

Lectio divina is aimed not at confirming and reinforcing our individual approach to life, but at breaking into our subjective world and enriching it from the outside, delivering us from the prejudices and limitations of closed convictions and ideology and exposing our lives to the fullness of revelation and not simply to that part which presently appeals to us.

Historically, the expression “lectio divina” was first used in connection with the proclamation of the Scriptures in the liturgy.  When people were less literate and books were rarer, more reliance was placed on public reading as the means of daily renewal.  The drawbacks of such a system are obvious, but there was one advantage.  The reading was outside the individual’s choice; there was always an element of unpredictability.  This meant that the Christian was forced to adapt his thinking to suit the reading, rather than model his choice of reading on his personal preference at a given moment.  In this way there was a possibility of real dialogue between the Word and the person.  In opening his life to such reading the person was giving God carte blanche.  On the one hand, this meant that any comfort or consolation received in the course of such reading was the stronger for being unsolicited.  On the other hand, the possibility was left open for one’s life and values to be subjected to the saving judgment of God’s Word.

In all our lectio divina we must be prepared to be surprised.  This is why it is important that our intake be somewhat fluid.  Reading only familiar passages from the Scriptures and other “old favorites” is like owning a tape-recorder but having no radio.  It has the convenience of being able to provide something to suit each mood as it comes along, but it has no power to cater for our developing range of moods and needs.  The danger is that we grow weary of what used to be so apt and have nothing with which to replace it.  Our reading should always have some element of adventure about it; it should not be static or stale.

Insofar as lectio divina is a means by which we progress toward the fullness of revealed truth and leave behind the narrow limits of our subjective world, it is a significant factor in our communion with the church.  Since most disunity is a result of partial views of the truth rather than from positive untruth, it follows that harmony among Christians is powerfully helped by a search for the whole truth.  This is why it is important for us to expose ourselves to something broader than the type of reading dictated by our immediate needs.  There is much to be said of a certain objectivity in our choice of reading.

Ecclesial writings form the best basis of genuine lectio divina.  The Bible has first claim on our attention.  But it is a great mistake for us to limit ourselves to the Scriptures.  Throughout the centuries there have been many other works which have been of considerable assistance to Christians in their efforts to put the Scriptures into practice.  Having rediscovered the Bible it is time for our generation to renew contact with the great spiritual masters of antiquity.  Notwithstanding the cultural difficulties inherent in understanding these ancient authors, almost any effort we make in this direction is a source of ample enrichment for our lives as Christians.  Finally must be mentioned among ecclesial writings, the official documents of the church, conciliar decress, encyclicals, and so forth.

Principle 2

Lectio divina is a long-term activity.  It is not a source of immediate gratification as much as general provisioning for life.  Fidelity and constancy are most valuable adjuncts to such reading.

It is wrong to think of lectio divina as being like a quick trip to the refrigerator for a snack when one feels a little hungry.  It is more like the regular meals which constitute life’s basic source of energy.  It is quite important that we are convinced that it is impossible for us to remain genuine followers of Christ without continued contact with his Word.  Our own feelings of need are not always an accurate gauge in this respect; our effectiveness in conveying Christ to others is voiced long before we ourselves begin to decay.  The fact is that to the extent that we are involved in apostolic activity we must be prepared to carry excess baggage.  We cannot transmit to others what we ourselves have never learned.

Lectio divina is not always thrilling; sometimes it severely taxes our sense of dedication.  But it is always obligatory.  If we find ourselves regularly spending less than two or three hours per week in free, personal contact with God’s Word we can, in most cases, expect trouble.  To excuse ourselves from this minimum is to step off the common way and it would be prudent for us to consult with a plain-speaking director.

Principle 3

Lectio divina is connected with our personal sense of vocation.  The aim of our reading is to hear the call of God clearly and concretely in our present situation.

Lectio divina is never part of a program of self-improvement.  It is a response to an invitation.  The first fidelity required of a disciple is that he be open to accept guidance and concrete directives from his master.  By exposing himself fully to his master’s influence the disciple becomes imbued with his attitudes and values and is progressively aware of how to shape his life.  In lectio divina we give God a chance to get at us, to guide, us, to teach us, maybe to call into question some of our bright ideas and pet projects.  Turning aside, for the moment, from our own beliefs and plans we concentrate on being responsive to God’s call.  We go to our reading in a spirit of submission, prepared patiently to cede the initiative to Christ.

The trust, reverence, and submission necessary for true lectio divina points to the necessity of care in our choice of readings.  It is imprudent to credit everything that is published with total reliability.  The books we use for lectio divina must be substantial enough to sustain our reverence.  They must be for us an opening out into the whole truth, not a closing in on part of that truth.  If we have books we can trust, we can afford to relax our critical faculties and allow God’s Word to speak to our hearts.

Principle 4

Lectio divina applies the Word of God to our own life-situation, allowing revelation and experience to overlap.

The Holy Spirit, who sustains faith in the church, is active not only in the expression and recording of revealed truth.  He makes his presence felt also in the reading and reception of what has been written.  Through our reading, the Spirit intends to renew our lives, to reshape them according to God’s plan.  Because this is so, it is important that our lectio divina be done not in isolation from real life, from our past and present, our joys and sorrows, our pluses and minuses.  The Word of God speaks to us in the here-and-now, as we are.  It has now no interest in what we used to be or what we might have been.

We do not read in order to garner information.  Most of us have probably already acquired sufficient brute facts to last us through several lifetimes.  The purpose of lectio divina is to allow us to interpret our experience of life with all its ups and downs in the light of God’s Word in the faith of the church.  It is not a question of opting out of life, for example, by pretending that our problems do not exist.  Lectio divina involves accepting the incredible truth that God speaks to me only as I am.  It is most important that in my reading I leave aside all fantasy and play-acting and be myself.  It is only the discovery of our native neediness that motivates us to seek from God power to rise above it.  It is only when our search for light and strength in the Scriptures is imbued with a certain urgency that success is in sight.  If our reading lacks seriousness and depth and is merely a dabbler’s hobby, nothing permanent will result from it.

Principle 5

There is a certain purposelessness or gratuity about lectio divina which is reflected in the leisure and peace which surround it.  Lectio divina is done in such a way that it may be punctuated by prayer.

Central to the very notion of lectio divina is its lack of utilitarian value or purpose.  It is possessed of a certain freedom, or vacatio, which comes from having nothing particular to achieve.  There is a place for useful spiritual activities which include reading about the spiritual life, studying theology, and working with the Sacred Books.  Sermons have to be prepared and religious instructions planned.  None of these useful activities, however, is lectio divina.  Beyond the religious tasks imposed on an individual which may involve activity in the same area as lectio divina, time must be left for a leisurely reading which leaves room for God’s grace to impact and which is more like prayer than work.

Quiet and stillness invest reading with an atmosphere of mellowness.  Prayer thrives in such a climate.  When, during lectio divina, prayer comes naturally, it should not be elbowed aside but allowed to spread.  When one’s heart is inflamed or one’s interest captivated, no pressure should be felt to keep moving.  In lectio divina the “interruptions” are habitually more important than the reading itself.  Having allowed God’s Word entrance into our hearts we should extend to it also the possibility of moving without restriction and of exercising its influence over us without stoppage or hindrance.  For this to happen, any form of pressure must be eschewed.

Principle 6

Reading is not merely an “inner” exercise.  As far as possible our whole body should participate in our lectio divina.

When we are engaged in lectio divina our whole person should be involved in this quiet opening to God’s Word.  Some attention to posture is necessary to ensure that we are at once relaxed and disciplined.  It often helps, if we are the sort of people who are professionally involved in much reading, to have a particular posture for our lectio divina (e.g., away form our desk or even on the floor) that we do not employ for other activities.  If we are alone we should begin our reading with a deliberate Sign of the Cross or something similar to remind ourselves what we are about.

In antiquity, reading always meant reading aloud; it was far from the rapid eye-scanning that we associate with the term.  Even for us moderns there is a certain value in mouthing the words as we read.  It has the effect of slowing down the reading and of rendering it more deliberate.  By more completely involving ourselves in what we are reading, the text becomes richer for us and, to the extent that such bodily participation keeps us busier, it acts as an effective block to distractions.  So long as we avoid turning our lectio divina into an exercise in amateur dramatics, reading aloud can be a valuable aid in giving more impact and feeling to our contact with the Word of God.  And it will certainly slow us down.

Principle 7

When something is encountered in our lectio divina which particularly speaks to us we should endeavor to retain it in our memory lest any of its savor escape us.

From time-to-time in our reading we come across something which specially appeals to us or which seems to apply very aptly to our particular situation at a given moment.  We should make the most of such opportunities and spend as much time with the text in question as we can.  If it helps we can write it out and keep it before us for a few days, allowing ourselves the leisure to ruminate upon it and really let it become part of us.  If it is something particularly attractive to us and is fairly short we can use it as the basis of our prayer.  When occasion presents itself for brief or even momentary prayer during the day, we should take this as our starting point.  In this way we are trying to give full scope to a text which the attraction of grace has signaled to us as being of special relevance.  When the attraction fades we should pass on to something else without regret.

Our lectio divina should be conducted in such a way that we develop a sensitivity to the call of grace.  In the beginning the texts which cause us to come alive will usually be of a confirmatory nature.  As our sensitivity increases other texts will begin to clamor for our attention, texts which offer challenge rather than comfort.  To these also we must learn to submit, knowing that it is in this way that God renews our life.

PRAYER: How To Practice Lectio Divina, by Christine Valters Paintner

From: Lectio Divina – The Sacred Art: Transforming Words and Images into Heart-Centered Prayer

First Movement – Lectio: Settling & Shimmering

Begin by finding a comfortable position where you can remain alert and yet also relax your body.  Bring your attention to your breath and allow a few moments to become centered.  If you find yourself distracted at any time, gently return to the rhythm of your breath as an anchor for your awareness.  Allow yourself to settle into this moment and become fully present.

Read your selected scripture passage or other sacred text once or twice through slowly and listen for a work or phrase that feels significant right now, is capturing your attention even if you don’t know why.  Gently repeat this word to yourself in the silence.

Second Movement – Meditatio: Savoring & Stirring

Read the text again and then allow the word or phrase which caught your attention in the first movement to spark your imagination.  Savor the word or phrase with all of your senses, notice what smells, sounds, tastes, sights, and feelings are evoked.  Then listen for what images, feelings, and memories are stirring, welcoming them in, and then savoring and resting into this experience.

Third Movement – Oratio: Summoning & Serving

Read the text a third time and then listen for an invitation rising up from your experience of prayer so far.  Considering the word or phrase and what it has evoked for you in memory, image, or feeling, what is the invitation?  This invitation may be a summons toward a new awareness or action.

Fourth Movement – Contemplatio: Slowing & Stilling

Move into a time for simply resting in God and allowing your heart to fill with gratitude for God’s presence in this time of prayer.  Slow your thoughts and reflections even further and sink into the experience of stillness.  Rest in the presence of God and allow yourself to simply be.  Rest here for several minutes.  Return to your breath if you find yourself distracted.

Closing

Gently connect with your breath again and slowly bring your awareness back to the room, moving from inner experience to outer experience.  Give yourself some time of transition between these moments of contemplative depth and your everyday life.  Consider taking a few minutes to journal about what you experienced in your prayer.

PRAYER: Thinking About Speaking And Listening, by Marjorie Procter-Smith

From The Church in her House

Prayer is simply conversation.  Granted, it is conversation with the Holy One, who is creator and sustainer of all that is, so not just any kind of conversation.  But it is best to begin by thinking about the character of ordinary conversations, in their simplicity as well as their complexity, before we turn our thoughts to divine conversation.

The best conversations we can think of are, at heart, occasions of reciprocity.  We engage both in speaking and in listening.  When we speak, we aim to be as truthful and clear as possible.  When we listen, we aim to be as attentive and compassionate as we can.  And when both conversation partners aim for both, then true conversation takes place.  Such occasions, we know, can be quite rare.  They grow best in the soil of radical equality, in a relationship of equals.  But when they happen, we have a glimpse of what divine conversation can be.

In terms of content, conversations may either offer something (information, encouragement, or thanks for example).  These same categories apply to prayer conversation as well.  That is, we might offer something to the Holy One in prayer: thanks, praise, gifts.  Or we might ask for something from the Holy One in prayer: healing, forgiveness, protection, or simply to be heard.  But when we begin to think of conversation in terms of conversation with the Holy One, creator and sustainer of the universe, we begin to wonder, what can the nature of such conversation be?  If the best conversations are heart-to-heart, in honest speaking and compassionate listening, how can such a radically equal conversation take place between humans and the Holy?  Traditionally this dilemma of difference has been resolved by assigning to God the status of a human ruler or authority of some kind: king, father, or master, and by assuming that if the Holy One has much power, we humans (or other beings) must have less.

But must difference always be symbolized by hierarchical models and zero-sum definitions of power?  What if difference is just that: difference in kind, in substance, in any other category we care to name?  What if the difference between humans and the Holy One is like the difference between humans and a hawk, for example, or a deer, or a bear, or a whale?  Once we ask this question, we recognize that other religious cultures have made precisely that identification, as has our own.  God is like an eagle; God is like a mother bear; God is like a tiny seed.

This approach to understanding the One to whom we pray invites another model for prayer, that of encounter.  And in encounters between unlike beings, speech is likely not the best means, or at least the only means, of communication.  We may still understand this encounter as conversation, but now the meaning of the word conversation must shift.  The language must shift, and the temporal context must shift, and the spatial context must shift.

There is the language of gesture, movement, and posture: a language of bodies that we also use among humans and at times in our encounters with nonhuman animals.  The shift of body weight on the back of a horse, the movement of hand or eye to a dog or cat – we have some familiarity with this language.  Among humans, we use body language extensively, including not only gesture and movement, but also our very expressive facial muscles.

There is also the language of color and light.  This is a language widely used by birds, who seek out food sources, at least in part, by color.  Hummingbirds famously seek sources of food that are colored red, and they can be enticed to include among the red flowers they feed from your backyard feeder made of red plastic.  Humans make use of this language also when we wear bright colors to express (or create) feelings of joy and celebration or subdued and dark colors to express sorrow.  All living beings respond to light and darkness and require both in order to live and grow.  Humans use light and darkness not only for cycles of work and rest, but also for artistic and dramatic expressions.

Then there is the language of scent.  The power of pheromones is found among insects, plants, and mammals, as olfactory communication that can convey alarm, territorial limits, or sexual availability.  Insects and nonhuman mammals depend on this means of communication for survival.  For humans, olfactory communication typically takes place at a level beyond (or below) conscious awareness, but we often employ scents intentionally to affect the environment, to express peace or sensuality or to stimulate appetite.

Conversations, then, can take place in a wide variety of languages, languages in which we as human beings of particular cultural and linguistic groups may not be fluent or even conversant.  How much more complex, and even alien, is the language in which we converse with the Holy One?

The history of Christian prayer, especially public prayer, has made use of all of these languages at some time or another.  We have used words: spoken and amplified and intensified, at times, with music.  We have used sounds: bells, drums, organs, and harps.  We have used gestures: bowing, making signs of the cross, lifting our hands in praise, clasping our hands in entreaty.  We have used color in priestly vestments and banners and glass and paint.  We have used light, in darkened chapels and rooms full of light, in candles and in light filtered through colored glass.  We have used scent: incense, candle wax, perfumed oil.  And sometimes, when our need to be heard was intense, we have used them all at once.

And, of course, in addition to these, or better, as a complement to these, we have used silence: silence of our own prayer, silent waiting on the response from the Holy One.  And in our waiting, we do well to remember that we are beings who live short and hasty lives, compared to the everlasting life of God.  Our human interactions teach us of the power of silence as a means of communication: the companionable silence of dear friends, the expectant silence that draws out true conversation, the patient silence in times of pain.  We know that silence is not absence of communication, but yet another language of communication.

If we use all these languages in order to communicate, not only with one another but also with the Holy One, is it possible that the Holy One, in turn, might choose to communicate with us by means of the same languages?  Because we often give priority to verbal communication, and because prayer, Christian prayer, has traditionally focused on worded prayer, we sometimes assume that the Holy One will respond in like kind.  but we do well to learn to be attentive to the many languages around us, languages in which the Holy One may choose to speak to us: in sound, in silence, in breath of air, in song of bird, in scent, in light, and in darkness.

The wisdom discovered through feminist ritual pathways may provide helpful guidelines in thinking about prayer as this rich conversation with the Holy One.  The wisdom of our lives teaches us to long for true conversation, to hold fast to what poet Adrienne Rich calls “a dream of a common language.”  We cannot be content with language of prayer that is banal, superficial, inauthentic, or manipulative.  The wisdom of our bodies teaches us to seek communication that employs all our senses and that, in employing them, honors them.  This bodied wisdom teaches us to give careful attention to the nonverbal aspects of prayer, lest we incorporate, literally, behaviors of submission and passivity.  It teaches us to embody and enact our prayers with joy and fearlessness.  The wisdom of our suffering and struggle cautions us to take care that our use of prayer be attentive to the needs of others, to listen attentively and with compassion.  This wisdom encourages us to explore means of practicing resistance to suffering (our own as well as that of others) by learning forms of lament, exorcism, and even curses, and by learning practices of blessings for those who resist with courage and grace.  The wisdom of our relationships teaches us the values of openness, honesty, patience, and compassion, and shows us the blessings of true conversations of the heart as models for our prayers to the Holy One and as means by which the Holy One may choose to speak to us.  Our relational wisdom also teaches us to attend to our connections to the nonhuman world in which we are enmeshed, to listen for their voices, however different from ours, to learn from their lives, to see in them new possibilities for communication with the Holy One.

POETRY: The Anger That Breaks The Man Into Children, by César Vallejo

Translated from Spanish by Clayton Eshleman and José Rubia Barcia

The anger that breaks the man into children,
that breaks the child into equal birds,
and the bird, afterward, into little eggs;
the anger of the poor
has one oil against two vinegars.

The anger that breaks the tree into leaves,
the leaf into unequal buds
and the bud, into telescopic grooves;
the anger of the poor
has two rivers against many seas.

The anger that breaks the good into doubts,
the doubt, into three similar arcs
and the arc, later on, into unforeseeable tombs;
the anger of the poor
has one steel against two daggers.

The anger that breaks the soul into bodies;
the body into dissimilar organs
and the organ, into octave thoughts;
the anger of the poor
has one central fire against two craters.

PRAYER: Anger And Prayer, by Gabriel Bunge

From Dragon’s Wine and Angel’s Bread

The Teaching of Evagrius Ponticus on Anger and Meekness

From everything that we have heard up to now, it is clear that anger is an odious vice.  It “animalizes” man and turns him into a “demon.”  Furthermore, whoever allows himself to be dominated by this vice becomes a plaything of the demons, who terrorize such bold person through frightful nocturnal visions.  Had Evagrius nothing more to say on this subject, studying his writings would hardly be worthwhile.  But we stand only at the beginning!
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LOVE: Anger, by Kathleen Norris

From The Cloister Walk

His abba, taking a piece of dry wood, planted it, and said to him, “Water it every day with a bottle of water, until it bears fruit.” (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers)

If it is true that the Holy Spirit is peace of soul, and if anger is disturbance of the heart, then there is no greater obstacle to the presence of the Spirit in us than anger. (John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent)

One night, many years ago, I was angry at my husband.  He’d had good news – the galleys of his second book of poems were coming in the mail – but he’d responded to it by growing more distant and then driving off to God-knows-where.  When he hadn’t returned by evening, although I was worried about him, it was anger that woke me up in the middle of the night.  Hoping I could get back to sleep, I lay in bed, my mind suddenly racing with all the things, great and small, that I held against my husband. As good as it felt to review this little catalog of slights and injuries, it brought me no satisfaction; instead, I soon found that I was in a stew over someone else, a man who had treated me with contempt.  Then it was someone else that I fussed and fumed over, a grudge I thought I’d forgotten.  I was building an impressive storehouse of grievances, and I thought to myself, sleepily, this could go on forever.
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PRAYER: An Angry Prayer From A Lost Soul, by Ian Punnett

From How to Pray When You’re Pissed at God

God, there is no poetry to my prayer.  Poetry, like so much else, disappeared for me a long time ago.  I have been either forgotten or deliberately forsaken by you, God, if you even exist.

I spent the first half of my life searching for you, O Lord, searching everywhere with endless study.  Still, I am empty and without hope, angry, and finally numb, faithless, and forsaken.
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MYSTICISM: Bread, by Daniel Berrigan

From Love, Love at the End

Want nothing small about men – except perhaps their words, modest and thoughtful and almost inaudible before their deeds.  For the rest, bigness; heart, brain.  Imagination too; let it take the world in two hands and show us what it’s like to be!  Tell us about it, we’re hungry.  Doesn’t the Bible call truth bread?  We’re starved, our smile has lost out, we crawl on a thin margin – a life, maybe, but so what?  Where’s the man who says yes, says no, like a thunderclap?  Where’s the man whose no turns to yes in his mouth – he can’t deny life, he asks like a new flower or a new day or a hero even: What more is there to love than I have loved?
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