POETRY: Song — If You Seek. . ., by Thomas Merton

If you seek a heavenly light
I, Solitude, am your professor!

I go before you into emptiness,
Raise strange suns for your new mornings,
Opening the windows
Of your innermost apartment.

When I, loneliness, give my special signal
Follow my silence, follow where I beckon!
Fear not, little beast, little spirit
(Thou word and animal)
I, Solitude, am angel
And have prayed in your name.

Look at the empty, wealthy night
The pilgrim moon!
I am the appointed hour,
The “now” that cuts
Time like a blade.

I am the unexpected flash
Beyond “yes,” beyond “no,”
The forerunner of the Word of God.

Follow my ways and I will lead you
To golden-haired suns,
Logos and music, blameless joys,
Innocent of questions
And beyond answers:

For I, Solitude, am thine own self:
I, Nothingness, am thy All.
I, Silence, am thy Amen!

LENT: God And His Saints, by Evelyn Underhill

From Concerning the Inner Life

The inner life means an ever-deepening awareness of all this: the slowly growing and concrete realization of a Life and a Spirit within us immeasurably exceeding our own, and absorbing, transmuting, supernaturalizing our lives by all ways and at all times.  It means the loving sense of God, as so immeasurably beyond us as to keep us in a constant attitude of humblest awe – and yet so deeply and closely with us, as to invite our clinging trust and loyal love.  This, it seems to me, is what theological terms like Transcendence and Immanence can come to mean to us when re-interpreted in the life of prayer.  A saint is simply a human being whose soul has thus grown up to its full stature, by full and generous response to its environment, God.  He has achieved a deeper, bigger life than the rest of us, a more wonderful contact with the mysteries of the Universe; a life of infinite possibility, the term of which he never feels that he has reached.

The saintly and simple Curé d’Ars was once asked the secret of his abnormal success in converting souls.  He replied that it was done by being very indulgent to others and very hard on himself; a recipe which retains all its virtue still.  And this power of being outwardly genial and inwardly austere, which is the real Christian temper, depends entirely on the use we make of the time set apart for personal religion.  It is always achieved if courageously and faithfully sought; and there are no heights of love and holiness to which it cannot lead, no limits to the power which it can exercise over the souls of men.

We have the saints to show us that these things are actually possible: that one human soul can rescue and transfigure another, and can endure for it redemptive hardship and pain.  We may allow that the saints are specialists; but they are specialists in a career to which all Christians are called.  They have achieved, as it were, the classic status.  They are the advance guard of the army; but we, after all, are marching in the main ranks.  The whole army is dedicated to the same supernatural cause; and we ought to envisage it as a whole, and to remember that every one of us wears the same uniform as the saints, has access to the same privileges, is taught the same drill, and fed with the same food.  The difference between them and us is a difference in degree, not in kind.  They possess, and we most conspicuously lack, a certain maturity and depth of soul; caused by the perfect flowering in them of self-oblivious love, joy, and peace.

POETRY: Intricate Fasting, by John Ashbery

This little bridge
three of them
blasted a recess in the rock
hoovered the mountains
played with a squirrel called Scrawny
(hangnail on the forefinger of Death)
a hundred yards from my home
what home you haven’t got a home
I do so have a home

Mottled later the pattern recedes
into my marvelous life
Hey how are you life
never been better
that’s good
’cause I want you to take care of yourself
understand
Yeah I understand
Aw for the love of Pete
The pattern’s got on mushrooms now
on the clothes of aborigines on magnets
They are sending a boat for you a
private launch

Tired of feeding the muskrats in this shithole
getting ready to tidy up and go
leave this wooden structure that doesn’t love me
Wait there are one or two small items to regulate
before you can go
I repeat I want my life out of here
dissolved in memory
Bring on the aromatherapy
boys there’s a job to get done

Me always in the middle
me whining
me probably not such a nice person after all
me on the stadium
me persiflating in the dire blue strait
me up to my ankles in woe
me rejoicing in the realization of my perfectibility

Loggerheads come on down
They’re waiting for you
in the cabin
this way please,

And that should be about right—

LENT: God And Commitment, by Evelyn Underhill

From The Golden Sequence

“Unto Him who is everywhere,” says Saint Augustine, “we come by love and not by navigation.”  Talk of the “Mystic Way” and its stages, or the “degrees of Love,” may easily deceive us unless the divine immanence, priority, and freedom be ever kept in mind.  We may think of the soul’s essential being as ever lying within the thought of God; and, equally, of His creative love as dwelling and acting within that soul’s ground.  These are contrasting glimpses of that total truth “of which no man may think.”  And the true life of the spirit requires such a gradual self-abandonment to that prevenient and all-penetrating presence that we become at last its unresisting agents; are formed and shaped under its gradual pressure, and can receive from moment-to-moment the needed impulsions and lights.

Here we find a place for that mysterious attraction or compulsion which is perhaps the most striking of the ordinary evidences of the Holy Spirit’s action on souls.  The persistent inexplicable pressure towards one course – the curious attraction to one special kind of devotion or of service – the blocking of the obvious path, and the opening of another undesired path – all these witness to the compelling and molding power of the living Spirit; taking, and if we respond, receiving the gift of our liberty and our will.

This indeed is what the spiritual life has always seemed to the greatest, humblest, and most enlightened souls; whatever symbols they may use in their efforts to communicate it.  It is God, vividly and intimately present in all things and in us, ever setting the demand of His achieved perfection over against the seething energies of His creative love, who works in and through that world of things on us.  And He demands our entire subjection to His creative action, our endurance of His secret chemistry; that He may work through and in us on the world.

PRAYER: On Intercessions, by Walter Wink

From Engaging the Powers

No doubt our intercessions sometimes change us as we open ourselves to new possibilities we had not guessed.  No doubt our prayers to God reflect back upon us as a divine command to become the answer to our prayer.  But if we are to take the biblical understanding seriously at all, intercession is more than that.  It changes the world, and it changes what is possible to God.  It creates an island of relative freedom in a world gripped by an unholy necessity.  A new force field appears that hitherto was only potential; the entire configuration changes as the result of the changes of a single part.  An aperture opens in the praying person, permitting God to act without violating human freedom.  The change in even one person thus changes what God can thereby do in that world.

LENT: God And Prayer, by Evelyn Underhill

From Abba

“In faith,” says Kierkegaard, “the self bases itself transparently on the power which created it.”  The whole life of prayer is indeed a committal of our separate lives into God’s hand, a perpetual replacing of the objective attitude by the personal and abandoned attitude; and though a certain tension, suffering, and bewilderment are inevitable to our situation, yet there is with this a deep security.  The pawn does not know what will be required of it or what may be before it; but its relation with the Player is always direct and stable, and the object of the Player is always the good of the pawn.  “Our souls are God’s delight, not because of anything they do for Him, but because of what He does for them.  All He asks of them is to accept with joy His indulgence, His generosity, His Fatherly love.  Consider all your devotion to God in this way, and do not worry any more about what you are or are not.  Be content to be the object of His mercy and look at nothing else.

Christ seems to have been deeply aware of the fragility of human nature; the folly of heroics, the danger of demanding or attempting too much.  Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation.  The spirit may be willing; but do not forget your lowly origin, the flesh is weak.  Therefore, even in your abandonment, remain spiritually alert.  Watch steadily.  Gaze at God: keep your minds attuned to His reality and His call and so elude the distractions that surround you.  Pray.  Seek His face.  Lift up to Him your heart and speak to Him as one friend to another.  Reach out towards Him in confident love. “By two wings,” says Thomas à Kempis,”is man borne up from Earthly things, that is to say with plainness and cleanness: plainness is in the intent and cleanness is in the love.  The good, true, and plain intent looketh toward God, but the clean love maketh assay and tasteth His sweetness.”  So doing, you are drawn more and more deeply into His life, and have less and less to fear from competing attractions, longings, and demands.

PRAYER: When Persecuted, by Miles Coverdale

O God, give us patience when the wicked hurt us.  O how impatient and angry we are when we think ourselves unjustly slandered, reviled, and hurt!  Christ suffers strokes upon his cheek, the innocent for the guilty; yet we may not abide one rough word for his sake.  O Lord, grant us virtue and patience, power and strength, that we may take all adversity with good will, and with a gentle mind overcome it.  And if necessity and your honor require us to speak, grant that we may do so with meekness and patience, that the truth and your glory may be defended, and our patience and steadfast continuance perceived.

Amen.

PRAYER: When Persecuted, by Miles Coverdale

O God, give us patience when the wicked hurt us.  O how impatient and angry we are when we think ourselves unjustly slandered, reviled, and hurt!  Christ suffers strokes upon his cheek, the innocent for the guilty; yet we may not abide one rough word for his sake.  O Lord, grant us virtue and patience, power and strength, that we may take all adversity with good will, and with a gentle mind overcome it.  And if necessity and your honor require us to speak, grant that we may do so with meekness and patience, that the truth and your glory may be defended, and our patience and steadfast continuance perceived.

Amen.

LENT: God And Self-Offering, by Evelyn Underhill

From The School of Charity

“O support me,” says Newman, “as I proceed in this great, awful, happy change, with the grace of Thy unchangeableness.  My unchangeableness, here below, is perseverance in changing.”  The inner life consists in an enduring of this deep transforming for our own soul’s sake, but for a reason which lifts the devotional life above all pettiness – because this is part of the great creative action which is lifting up humanity to the supernatural order, turning the flour and water of our common nature into the living Bread of Eternal Life.  So, the first movement of our prayer must surely be a self-giving to this total purpose, whatever discipline and suffering it may involve for us.

Our entire confidence in that One God who is the Creator of all things, the Father of all His creation, and whose wisdom “sweetly orders” the working out of His undeclared design, must include such mysterious operations of grace as this.  Again and again the sufferings of His children are made part of the yeast by which He changes and sanctifies all life.  In our own inward life and prayer, this must mean a perpetual and peaceful self-offering for the hidden purposes of the Divine Charity, whatever they may be; and especially the sacred privilege of giving a creative quality to all pain.  This is perhaps what von Hügel had in mind, when he spoke of “getting our suffering well mixed up with our prayer.”

The same principle applies to our own daily existence.  “The Kingdom of Heaven,” the supernatural order, is like yeast.  And we are required to be part of the Kingdom of Heaven: sons and daughters of God.  That means that we too have our share in the creative process.  We live and die within the workshop; used as tools if we are merely dull and uninterested, but accepted as pupils and partners with our first movement of generosity in action, prayer, or love.  The implications of that truth must be worked out within each separate life: beginning where we are, content if our handful of meal can make a cottage loaf, not indulging spiritual vanity with large vague dreams about ovens full of beautiful brioches.  Most of us when we were children managed sometimes to get into the kitchen; a wonderful experience with the right kind of cook.  A whole world separated the cook who let us watch her make the cake, from the cook who let us make a little cake of our own.  Then we were filled with solemn interest, completely satisfied, because we were anticipating the peculiar privilege of human beings; making something real, sharing the creative work of God.  We, in our measure, are allowed to stand beside Him; making little things, contributing our action to His great action on life.  So we must use the material of life faithfully, with a great sense of responsibility; and especially our energy of prayer, with a due remembrance of its awful power.

LENT: Sanctify A Fast, Gather The People, by Thomas Hopko

From The Lenten Spring

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast;
call a solemn assembly; gather the people.
Sanctify the congregation; assemble the elders;
gather the children, even nursing infants.
Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber,
Between the vestibule and the altar
let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep
and say, “Spare Thy people, O Lord,
and make not Thy heritage a reproach, a byword among the nations.
Why should they say among the peoples,
‘Where is their God?'” (Joel 2:15-17)

The Lenten season is inaugurated in the church with the words of the prophet Joel.  The message is proclaimed in the midst of the congregation: “Sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly.  Gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land to the house of the Lord your God; and cry to the Lord,” (Joel 1:14).

The fast is proclaimed because the people have sinned.  They have lost the protection of God because of their offenses.  They have been unfaithful.  They have gone after false gods.  They have served the creature rather than the Creator who is God over all.  Their minds have grown dark.  Their hearts have become hard.  Their necks have grown stiff.  Their bodies have been defiled.  They have lost the joy and gladness that comes from communion with the Lord.  They have all gone astray, every one to his own way.  And the power of wickedness has overcome them.  So every one of them, from the least to the greatest, must return to the Lord.  It is a corporate action, a total effort from which no one is excluded.  It is an act of the church herself.

“Yet even now,” says the Lord, “return to Me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
and rend your hearts and not your garments.”
Return to the Lord, your God, for He is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and repents of evil. (Joel 2:12-13)

These words of the prophet concerning the goodness and mercy of the Lord are familiar to those who know the scriptures and participate in the services of the church.  They are first recorded in the Law of Moses, revealed on Sinai itself. (Exodus 34:6)  They are repeated by all the prophets.  They are sung over and again in the psalms at the liturgical gatherings of God’s people.

The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide,
nor will He keep His anger for ever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor requite us according to our iniquities.
For as the heavens are high above the Earth,
so great is His steadfast love toward those who fear Him.
As far as the east is from the west,
so far does He remove our transgressions from us.
As a father pities his children,
so the Lord pities those who fear Him.
For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust. (Psalm 103:8-14)

It is before the merciful and gracious Lord that all are called to mourn and weep for their sins.  It is before the Lord who abounds with steadfast love that we are to “rend our hearts,” and not simply our garments.  It is to Him, whose steadfast love is better than life, that we are commanded to return. (See Psalm 65:3.)  He is the father in Christ’s parable of the prodigal son.  He stands waiting in the opened door of His house with robes in His hands, music playing, the table abundantly laid.  He runs to meet His children who return home.  He takes them in His arms and returns them to the joy and gladness of their proper inheritance.  He pours out upon them all the riches of His fatherly goodness.

The Lord answered, and said to His people,
“Behold, I am sending to you grain, wine and oil,
and you will be satisfied;
I will no more make you
a reproach among the nations. . .

“Fear not, O land; be glad and rejoice,
for the Lord has done great things!. . .

“Be glad, O sons of Zion,
and rejoice in the Lord, your God;. . .

“You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,
and praise the name of the Lord your God,
who has dealt wondrously with you.”
(Joel 2:19-26)

The message of Joel ends, as that of all of God’s prophets, with words of restoration and blessing.  It is this that we seek in the Lenten spring.

Rich and fertile was the earth allotted to us,
but all we planted were the seeds of sin,
We reaped the harvest of evil with the sickle of laziness.
We failed to place our evil fruits on the threshing floor of contrition,
So now we beg You, O Lord, the Master of the harvest:
May Your Love become like the wind that blows away the straw of our worthless deeds,
and make us like the precious wheat to be stored in Heaven,
and save us all! (Sunday of the Prodigal Son vespers)

LENT: Creation, Change, Holiness, by Evelyn Underhill

From The School of Charity

But the creative action of the Spirit penetrates the whole of life, and is felt by us in all sorts of ways.  If our idea of that creative action is so restricted that we fail to recognize it working within the homely necessities and opportunities of our visible life, we may well suspect the quality of those invisible experiences to which we like to give spiritual status.  “I found Him very easily among the pots and pans,” said Saint Teresa.  “The duties of my position take precedence of everything else,” said Elizabeth Leseur; pinned down by those duties to a life which was a constant check on the devotional practices she loved.  She recognized the totality of God’s creative action, penetrating and controlling the whole web of life.

A genuine inner life must make us more and more sensitive to that molding power, working upon His creation at every level, not at one alone: and especially to the constant small but expert touches, felt in and through very homely events, upon those half-made, unsteady souls which are each the subject of His detailed care.  A real artist will give as much time and trouble to a miniature two inches square, as to the fresco on the cathedral wall.  The true splendor and heart-searching beauty of the Divine Charity is not seen in those cosmic energies which dazzle and confound us; but in the transcendent power which stoops to an intimate and cherishing love, the grave and steadfast Divine action, sometimes painful and sometimes gentle, on the small unfinished soul.  It is an unflickering belief in this, through times of suffering and conflict, apathy and desperation, in a life filled with prosaic duties and often empty of all sense of God, that the Creed demands of all who dare recite it.

Jesus chose, as the most perfect image of that action, the working of yeast in dough.  The leavening of meal must have seemed to ancient men a profound mystery, and yet something on which they could always depend.  Just so does the supernatural enter our natural life, working in the hiddenness, forcing the new life into every corner and making the dough expand.  If the dough were endowed with consciousness, it would not feel very comfortable while the yeast was working.  Nor, as a rule, does our human nature feel very comfortable under the transforming action of God: steadily turning one kind of love into another kind of love, desire into charity, clutch into generosity, Eros into Agape.  Creation is change, and change is often painful and mysterious to us.  Spiritual creation means a series of changes, which at last produce, Holiness, God’s aim for men.

LENT: Fasting, by Harold A. Buetow

From Embrace Your Renewal

Fasting isn’t the same as dieting.  The purpose of dieting is to improve the health and beauty of our bodies.  The purpose of fasting is to turn our attention to God, other people, and ourselves.  Dieting means the regulation of food intake as a health measure – as in low-calorie, low-fat, or low-sodium foods.  Fasting as we mean it in religion is to abstain from food voluntarily for a time and to eat sparingly as a spiritual exercise.  Though both dieting and fasting can have physical benefits, only fasting gives spiritual ones.

Like mortification in general, the practice of limiting the amounts and kinds of our food and drink are forms of penance common to all great religions.  People fast partly in order to overcome an indulgent spirit which seeks comfort and pleasure above all else.  Thomas Merton wrote that the desires for food, drink, sex, and pleasure are like little children – insistent, constantly clamoring for attention.  A real fast – the kind which truly honors God – is the kind of self-denial which, in the prophet Isaiah’s words, results in deeds of justice and compassion, in freeing the oppressed, in sharing one’s bread with the hungry.

Prosperous countries like the United States can perhaps benefit most from both dieting and fasting.  With the exception of the population of a few Pacific islands, our citizens are the heaviest people in the history of the world – a nation of fat behinds and paunchy stomachs.  Early in the 20th century, the principal causes of death and disability in the United States were infectious diseases.  Today, many health problems are related to the overconsumption of calories.  Overeating unsettles metabolism and increases the likelihood of chronic diseases like hypertension, coronary heart disease, some cancers, stroke, diabetes, and others.

In the year 2000, United States inhabitants spent $110 billion on “fast food”: more than on higher education, personal computers, software, or new cars – the main reasons being inexpensiveness and convenience.  One writer said that McDonald’s golden arches are better known around the world than the Christian cross. Fast food is so processed and denatured that it’s necessary to manufacture much of the taste and aroma, a technological feat that’s performed in a series of large chemical plants off the New Jersey turnpike.

Why Fast?

Pope St. Leo the Great wrote: “There is a great difference between the pleasures of the body and those of the heart.  In carnal pleasures the appetite causes satiety and satiety generates dissatisfaction.  In spiritual pleasures, on the other hand, when the appetite gives birth to satiety, satiety then gives birth to greater appetite. Spiritual delights increase the extent of desire in the mind even when they satisfy the appetite for them.  The more one recognizes the taste of such things, the more one recognizes what it is that one loves so strongly.”

There’s something in many of us that seeks a reward of virtue.  Napoleon is reported to have said, “men are led by such baubles.”  George Patton said in 1918, “I’d rather be a second lieutenant with a DSC (Distinguished Service Cross) than a general without it.” In life, as well as in the military, people like baubles: ribbons, medals, certificates, trinkets.  But maturity has to set that straight.

Jenny, a bright young teenager on the brink of maturity, was shopping with her mother when she spotted a beautiful imitation pearl necklace.  She asked her mother if she could have it.  Her mother said, “Well, it’s a pretty necklace, but it costs a lot of money.”  Seeing how badly Jenny wanted this necklace, she added, “I’ll tell you what.  I’ll buy the necklace for you and when we get back home we can make a list of chores you can do to pay for it.  Okay?”

Jenny eagerly agreed.  She worked on her chores every day until she finally paid off the necklace.  She loved those imitation pearls so much that she wore them everywhere, even to bed.

Jenny’s father observed how much she loved her necklace and would from time-to-time ask her if she would be willing to give it to him.  Each time she responded, “Oh, Daddy, not my pearl necklace.  I love you very much, but I can’t give you my necklace.  But you can have my very favorite CD album – or you can have my very favorite. . .,” to which her dad interrupted, “No, that’s OK,” and brushed her face with a tender kiss.

Then one day, expecting her dad to ask her for her pearl necklace again, with trembling lips she greeted him with, “Here, Daddy!” and held out her beloved necklace.  She knuckled the tears from her eyes.

With one hand her father accepted the imitation pearls and with the other he silently pulled a blue velvet box from his pocket and handed it to her.  When Jenny opened the box, her eyes went wide with joy.  Nestled in the blue velvet inside was a string of genuine pearls, luminescent with beauty.  Her father had been keeping them all along, patiently waiting for Jenny to give up the fake, cheap stuff so he could give her the real thing.

Our Heavenly Father is waiting for us to surrender the cheap stuff that our flesh so loves, so that He can replace it with the beautiful and eternal treasures of the spirit.  Fasting corrects our faults, raises our minds to God, helps us to grow in holiness, and offers us the reward of everlasting life.  As Isaiah said, “Would that today you might fast so as to make your voice heard on high!” (58:4)  There are, in fact, many other good reasons for fasting.  One is that voluntarily abstaining from food as well as other legitimate pleasures makes us less attached to things, more in control of our lives.  Another is that, by giving things up, we might appreciate them the more: One who has to leave home for a while comes to an enhanced appreciation of home.

How to Fast

There are many ways to fast.  The Pharisees of Jesus’s time used fasting for display – they whitened their faces and wore old clothes so people would know they were fasting and, they hoped, admire them.  Jesus advised, however, “When you fast, you are not to look glum as the hypocrites do.” (Matthew 6:16)

The church asks all of us to abide by certain (really rather minimal) restrictions with regard to amounts of food and the abstention from meat.  We can add others: skipping a meal occasionally, and donating the money we would have spent on it to the poor.  Or at times – perhaps on a Friday here or there – we can engage in a “black fast,” consuming only bread and water for the entire day.

Perhaps we can move imaginatively into the experience of Jesus in the desert and confront our demons – those finite goods that most threaten to take the place of God in our life: power, money, esteem, sex, pleasure.  St. Athanasius wrote: “Devils take great delight in fullness, and drunkenness, and bodily comfort.  Fasting possesses great power and it works glorious things.  To fast is to banquet with angels.”

When to Fast

One of the most frequently quoted texts of the Old Testament is the passage that begins, “There is an appointed time for everything.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1)  The Christian calendar prescribes days and seasons of feasting and fasting.  They interact: fasting makes feasting more joyous and feasting demands fasting to make it intelligible.  For fasting, Lent is a very good time.  Catholic sections of the world have gotten it right: they celebrate the joyful anticipation of Lenten fasting.  The German fastnacht, mardi gras in the French tradition, and carnivale in the Italian custom are all celebrations in anticipation of the beginning of the Lenten season of fasting.

Some of John the Baptist’s disciples and the Pharisees were accustomed to fast, and Jesus’s disciples were not.  When asked about this, Jesus used an analogy that people at that time would have understood well: a comparison of himself to a bridegroom, a figure John the Baptist had used (John 3:29). He was comparing his disciples to the “sons of the nuptial couch,” a picturesque Semitic term for the closest friends of the bridal couple who by their talk and songs saw to it that the wedding party went off with panache.  The bridegroom, like most people of that time, worked hard and didn’t go away on a honeymoon; he stayed home amid continued rejoicing that lasted for a week.  Wedding guests, who came and went during the week,were exempt from the rules of fasting.  It was supposed to be the happiest week in anyone’s life.  Fasting will be appropriate, Jesus says, when the wedding party of his physical presence is over.

LENT: God Makes, Loves, Keeps, by Evelyn Underhill

From The School of Charity

If the Reality of God were small enough to be grasped, it would not be great enough to be adored; and so our holiest privilege would go. “I count not myself to have grasped; but as one that has been grasped, I press on,” says Saint Paul.  But if all real knowledge here is a humbly delighted knowledge of our own ignorance – if, as the dying artist said, “The word we shall use most when we get to Heaven will be ‘Oh!'” – still we can realize something of what it means, to consider our world from this point-of-view.  It means that everything we are given to deal with – including ourselves and our psychological material, however intractable – is the result of the creative action of a personal Love, who despises nothing that He has made.  We, then, cannot take the risk of despising anything; and any temptation to do so must be attributed to our ignorance, stupidity, or self-love, and recognized as something which distorts our vision of Reality.

“He showed me a little thing,” says Julian of Norwich, “the quantity of a hazel nut in the palm of my hand; and it was as round as a ball.  I looked thereupon with the eye of my understanding and thought: What may this be?  And it was answered generally thus: It is all that is made. . . .  In this Little Thing I saw thee properties.  The first is that God made it, the second is that God loveth it, the third, that God keepeth it.”

That is a saint’s comment on the first article of her Creed.  It is a vision that takes much living-out in a world in which injustice and greed are everywhere manifest; full too of tendencies which we are able to recognize as evil, and of misery and failure which seem the direct result of corporate stupidity and self-love, offering us ceaseless opportunities for the expression of disapproval and disgust, and often tempting to despair.  “All-thing hath the Being by the Love of God,” says Julian again.  And then we think of a natural order shot through with suffering, marred at every point by imperfection, maintained by mutual destruction; a natural order which includes large populations of vermin, and the flora and fauna of infectious disease. It is easy to be both sentimental and theological over the more charming and agreeable aspects of Nature.  It is very difficult to see its essential holiness beneath disconcerting and hostile appearances with an equable and purified sight; with something of the large, disinterested Charity of God.

To stand alongside the generous Creative Love, maker of all things visible and invisible (including those we do not like) and see them with the eyes of the Artist-Lover is the secret of sanctity.  St. Francis did this with a singular perfection; but we know the price that he paid.  So too that rapt and patient lover of all life, Charles Darwin, with his great, self-forgetful interest in the humblest and tiniest forms of life – not because they were useful to him, but for their own sakes – fulfilled one part of our Christian duty far better than many Christians do.  It is a part of the life of prayer, which is our small attempt to live the life of Charity, to consider the whole creation with a deep and selfless reverence; enter into its wonder, and find in it the mysterious intimations of the Father of Life, maker of all things, Creative Love.

LENT: God And Self-Love, by Evelyn Underhill

From The School of Charity

For God, not man, is the first term of religion: and our first step in religion is the acknowledgement that He Is.  All else is the unfolding of those truths about His life and our life, which this fact of facts involves.  I believe in One God.  We begin there; not with our own needs, desires, feelings, or obligations.  Were all these abolished, His independent splendor would remain, as the truth which gives its meaning to the world.  So we begin by stating with humble delight our belief and trust in the most concrete, most rich of all realities – God.  Yet even the power to do this reflects back again to Him, and witnesses to His self-giving to the soul.  For Christianity is not a pious reverie, a moral system or a fantasy life; it is a revelation, adapted to our capacity, of the Realities which control life.  Those Realities must largely remain unknown to us; limited little creatures that we are.  God, as Brother Giles said, is a great mountain of corn from which man, like a sparrow, takes a grain of wheat: yet even that grain of wheat, which is as much as we can carry away, contains all the essentials of our life.  We are to carry it carefully and eat it gratefully: remembering with awe the majesty of the mountain from which it comes.

The first thing this vast sense of God does for us, is to deliver us from the imbecilities of religious self-love and self-assurance; and sink our little souls in the great life of the race, in and upon which this One God in His mysterious independence is always working, whether we notice it or not.  When that sense of His unique reality gets dim and stodgy, we must go back and begin there once more; saying with the Psalmist, “All my fresh springs are in thee.”  Man, said Christ, is nourished by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.  Not the words we expect, or persuade ourselves that we have heard; but those unexpected words He really utters, sometimes by the mouths of the most unsuitable people, sometimes through apparently unspiritual events, sometimes secretly within the soul.  Therefore seeking God, and listening to God, is an important part of the business of human life: and this is the essence of prayer.  We do something immense, almost unbelievable, when we enter that world of prayer, for then we deliberately move out towards that transcendent Being whom Christianity declares to be the one Reality: a Reality revealed to us in three ways as a Creative Love, a Rescuing Love, and an Indwelling, all-pervading Love, and in each of those three ways claiming and responding to our absolute trust.  Prayer is the give-and-take between the little souls of men and that three-fold Reality.

LENT: The Three Counsels Considered, by Evelyn Underhill

From The Fruits of the Spirit

First, think of Poverty.  Even outward Poverty, a hard and simple life, the dropping for love’s sake of the many things we feel we “must have” is a great help in the way of the Spirit.  Far more precious is that inward Poverty of which it is the sacrament; which frees us from possessions and possessiveness and does away with the clutch of “the I, the Me, and the Mine” upon our souls.  We can all strive for this internal grace, this attitude of soul, and it is a very important part of the life of prayer.  The Holy Spirit is called the Giver of Gifts and the Father of the Poor; but His cherishing action is only really felt by those who acknowledge their own deep poverty – who realize that we have literally nothing of our own, but are totally dependent on God and on that natural world in which God has placed us and which is the sacramental vehicle of His action.  When we grasp this we are ready to receive His gifts.  Some souls are so full of pious furniture and ornaments, that there is no room for Him.  All the correct things have been crammed into the poor little villa, but none of the best quality.  They need to pull down the curtains, get rid of the knick-knacks, and throw their premises open to the great simplicity of God.

Chastity.  The counsel of Chastity does not, of course, mean giving up marriage but something much more subtle and penetrating.  It really means the spirit of poverty applied to our emotional life – all the clutch and feverishness of desire, the “I want” and “I must have” taken away and replaced by absolute single-mindedness, purity of heart.  This may involve a deliberate rationing of the time and energy we give to absorbing personal relationships with others – unnecessary meetings, talks and letters – to special tastes and interests, or, worst of all, self-occupied daydreams and broodings about ourselves, cravings for sympathy and interest.  We have to be very firm with ourselves about all this, making war on every kind of possessiveness, self-centeredness, and clutch.  From all these entanglements Christ’s spirit of chaste Love will set us free; for it is a selfless, all embracing charity – friendship with God, and with all His creatures for His sake.

Obedience.  This means the total surrender of our wills, which are the greatest obstacles to our real self-giving to God.  The more we get rid of self-chosen aims, however good, the more supple we are to His pressure, the nearer we get to the pattern of the Christian life, which is summed up in “not my will but Thine be done.”  Then, not before, we are ready to be used as God’s tools and contribute to His purpose.  Since God is the true doer of all that is done, it is always for Him to initiate and for us to respond, and this willing response is the essence of obedience.  Obedience means more freedom not less, for it increases our power of effective action by making us the instruments of God’s unlimited action.  When the whole church is thus obedient to Him it will be what it is meant to be, “a fellowship of creative Heaven-led souls” with power to fulfill its vocation of transforming the world.

POETRY: Our Father, by James Schuyler

This morning view
is very plain: thou art
in Heaven: modern
brick, plate glass, unhallowèd,
as yet, by time,
yet Thy Name
blesses all: silver tanks
of propane gas, the sky,
Thy will,
is lucent blue, French
gray and cream,
is done: the night
on earth
no longer needs
the one white street globe light
as the light, it is
in Heaven.
Give us this day
—and a Friday
13th, August ’71,
at that:
our daily bread
and breakfast
(Product 19,
an egg, perchance: the hen-fruit,
food and symbol)
and forgive us our
trespasses
too numerous
to name as we
forgive our debtors: “pay
me ;when you can:
I don’t take
interest”
how green
the grass! so many
flowering weeds
Your free
will has freely
let us name: dandy-
lion (pisse-en-lit)
and, clover
(O Trinity)
it is
a temptation
to list them all,
all I know, that is:
the temptation
to show off—to
make a show
of knowing more,
than, in fact, I
know, is very real:
as real as a twelve-
pane window sash
one pane slivered
by a crack, a flash,
a mountain line
that stays
to praise
Thee,
Your Name and Your
creation
let me surrender
ever—
poets do: it
is their way
and deliver me
from evil
and the Three
Illusions
of the Will—
for the power
that flows electrically
in me is thine
O glorious central,
O plant,
O dynamo!
and the glory
of this cool a.m.
now
all
silver, blue
and white.

LENT: The Three Counsels, by Evelyn Underhill

From The Fruits of the Spirit

Each person’s discipline, of course, will be different because what God wants from each of us is different.  Some are called to an active and some to a passive life, some to very homely and some to hard and sacrificial careers, some to quiet suffering.  Only the broad lines will be alike.  But no discipline will be any use to us unless we keep in mind the reason why we are doing this – for the glory of God, and not just for the sake of our own self-improvement or other self-regarding purpose.  Our object is to be what God wants of us, not what we want of Him.  So all that we do must be grounded in worship.  First lift up our eyes to the hills, then turn to our own potato field and lightly fork in the manure.

All this suggests that though this outer discipline is very important for us, there is something deeper and more secret that God asks of us, if we really desire to give our lives to Him.  Our Lord demanded great renunciation of those who wanted to follow Him.  He never suggested that the Christian life was an easy or comfortable affair.  The substance of what He asked is summed up in what are called the “evangelical counsels” – Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience.  We know that those who enter religious communities accept these counsels in their most literal form.  They do not give up all their possessions, their natural and human relationships, the freedom of their wills. But in one way or another, something of their spirit is needed by everyone who really desires to follow Christ.  The New Testament means what it says when it demands poverty of spirit, purity of heart, and filial obedience from all who would do this.  And the reason is, that each of these qualities in a different way detaches us from the unreal and self-regarding interests with which (almost without knowing it) we usually fill up our lives.  They simplify us, clear the ground for God; so that our relation of utter dependence on Him stands out as the one reality of our existence.  So it might be profitable for us this Lent to meditate on the three counsels and see what light they cast on our own lives.

LENT: The Spiritual Life – Belief And Prayer, by Evelyn Underhill

From The School of Charity

The spiritual life is a stern choice.  It is not a consoling retreat from the difficulties of existence; but an invitation to enter fully into that difficult existence, and there apply the Charity of God and bear the cost.  Till we accept this truth, religion is full of puzzles for us, and its practices often unmeaning: for we do not know what it is all about.  So there are few things more bracing and enlightening than a deliberate resort to these superb statements about God, the world and the soul; testing by them our attitude to those realities, and the quality and vigor of our interior life with God.  For every one of them has a direct bearing on that interior life.  Our prayer and belief should fit like hand and glove; they are the inside and outside of one single correspondence with God.  Since the life of a prayer consists in an ever-deepening communion with a Reality beyond ourselves, which is truly there, and touches, calls, attracts us, what we believe about that Reality will rule our relation to it.  We do not approach a friend and a machine in the same way.  We make the first and greatest of our mistakes in religion when we begin with ourselves, our petty feelings and needs, ideas and capacities.  The Creed sweeps us up past all this to God, the objective Fact, and His mysterious self-giving to us.  It sets first Eternity and then History before us, as the things that truly matter in religion; and shows us a humble and adoring delight in God as the first duty of the believing soul.  So there can hardly be a better inward discipline than the deliberate testing of our vague, dilute, self-occupied spirituality by this superb vision of Reality.

These great objective truths are not very fashionable among modern Christians; yet how greatly we need them, if we are to escape pettiness, individualism, and emotional bias.  For that mysterious inner life which glows at the heart of Christianity, which we recognize with delight whenever we meet it, and which is the source of Christian power in the world, is fed through two channels.  Along one channel a certain limited knowledge of God and the things of God enters the mind; and asks of us that honest and humble thought about the mysteries of faith which is the raw material of meditation.  Along the other channel God Himself comes secretly to the heart, and wakes up that desire and that sense of need which are the cause of prayer.  The awestruck vision of faith and the confident movement of love are both needed, if the life of devotion is to be rich, brave, and humble; equally removed from mere feeling and mere thought.  Christian prayer to God must harmonize with Christian belief about God: and quickly loses humility and sanity if it gets away from that great law.  We pray first because we believe something; perhaps at that stage a very crude or vague something.  And with the deepening of prayer, its patient cultivation, there comes – perhaps slowly, perhaps suddenly – the enrichment and enlargement of belief, as we enter into a first-hand communion with the Reality who is the object of our faith.

ASH WEDNESDAY: Chapter 3 — In Which I Am Hungry, Crabby, And Grateful On Ash Wednesday, by Kerry Weber

From Mercy in the City

As I’m waking up on Ash Wednesday morning, my first thought is how glad I am that I didn’t decide to make morning workouts part of my Lenten routine.  My normal coping mechanism after a late night – a vanilla iced latte – doesn’t seem to be in the spirit of the traditional Ash Wednesday fast, so I walk past the coffee shop near my office and instead fill up my water bottle before sitting down at my desk.

The morning passes relatively quickly, and at noon I join my coworkers, Jesuit and lay, in the simple chapel on the fifth floor of our office building, which doubles as a Jesuit residence.  One of the nice things about having priests for coworkers is that on days like this, I don’t have to worry about missing Mass.

I read the first Scripture passage of the Mass (Joel 2:12-18), which is a cry for action, for vigilance, for repentance, which all sound somewhat frightening.  But it is also a call for a return to a just God, to a God who – “perhaps” – will have mercy on us.

In the Gospel reading, I hear:

Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.  But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash you face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret.

I sit up a little straighter.  It’s strange to hear this and then to think about heading home through the city where everyone on the subway will see the ashes, which proclaim to the world: I am Catholic!  I am fasting!  Or, at the very least: I like going to church on days when they hand out free stuff.  It sometimes seems oddly contrary to what this Gospel calls us to do.  Still, public expression of religion isn’t unusual in New York, and this is one of my favorite things about the city.

On any given day I might see the payot of Orthodox Jewish men trail out from under large black hats.  A group of robed Hare Krishna singing and playing a tiny piano and finger cymbals while sitting on blankets in Union Square.  On the subway, people with booming voices and ragged jackets proclaim the end of the world.  The man running the halal cart lays out a piece of cardboard on the sidewalk as a prayer mat and faces Mecca.  And with my ashes, I feel united with all of them in our shared path of faith.

Occasionally, I see an older Filipino woman clutching a rosary as she walks, or a teenage Latina girl reading her Bible.  On the whole, though, Catholics aren’t identifiable at first glance.  Yet, on Ash Wednesday I’m always surprised by the number of people I see on the streets and in the subways sporting black smudges on their foreheads.  And sometimes, despite the tacit but rarely broken code of not making eye contact on the subway, someone will notice your ashes and you’ll exchange The Nod, a kind of half-smile and tilt of the head that acknowledges that we’re not as distant from each other as we think.

Of course there have been times when the black smudge felt more like it marked me as an outsider than inviting interaction or connection with others.  During my junior year of college, I studied in England. On Ash Wednesday, I walked down the street a short while after having received my ashes, though already they had become slightly smudged and turned down at the corners of the cross.  I happened to run into a British friend of mine.  He looked at my forehead and then looked closer, appearing to show some concern.  “Why,” he asked politely, “do you have the Batman symbol on your forehead?”

And I am thinking of all these past Ash Wednesdays when the presider says, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return – and hope in the resurrection.”  I feel the grain of the ashes settle onto my forehead, I am marked with the sign of the cross, and there, in our small community, I do indeed feel hope.

But by 3:37 p.m., my hunger has overwhelmed my hope.  Almost all enthusiasm that I felt leading up to Lent is sapped.  Despite my small bowl of soup for lunch, I am tired and crabby, and I am certain that I will feel exactly like this for the next forty days.  Somehow I make it through the afternoon and walk through the cold to attend the weekly RCIA session, where Fr. Collins takes a few minutes toward the end of class to further discuss the liturgical season that is just beginning, and with which I am beginning to have a fraught relationship.  He explains the concept of fasting to Jackie, Lauren, and Zubair: three small meals, two of which, when combined, do not equal the third.  And, as always, he delves beyond the logistics into the larger context.

“Always make sure that last meal on Mardi Gras is pretty good,” Fr. Collins says with a laugh.  “But when you’re fasting, you should feel a little uncomfortable.  It allows you to cultivate a hunger for other things.”

I know friends who derive great spiritual nourishment from fasting.  Mostly I derive hunger pangs.  I need to work on this, I think.

“For centuries we were told simply to avoid evil,” Fr. Collins says.  “But we must do good and avoid evil.  People think: if I get to the end of the list of things not to do, and I haven’t done them, I’m a good person. That just falls a little short of what we’re called to do.  It can’t be everything; it has to spur you to do more.”

ASH WEDNESDAY: A Time For Self-Examination, by Evelyn Underhill

From The School of Charity

Everyone who is engaged on a great undertaking, depending on many factors for its success, knows how important it is to have a periodical stocktaking.  Whether we are responsible for a business, an institution, a voyage, or an exploration – even for the well-being of a household – it is sometimes essential to call a halt; examine our stores and our equipment, be sure that all necessaries are there and in good order, and that we understand the way in which they should be used.  It is no good to have tins without tin openers, bottles of which the contents have evaporated, labels written in an unknown language, or mysterious packages of which we do not know the use.  Now the living-out of the spiritual life, the inner life of the Christian – the secret correspondence of his soul with God – is from one point-of-view a great business.  It was well called “the business of all businesses” by Saint Bernard; for it is no mere addition to Christianity, but its very essence, the source of its vitality and power.  From another point-of-view it is a great journey; a bit-by-bit progress, over roads that are often difficult and in weather that is sometimes pretty bad, from “this world to that which is to come.”  Whichever way we look at it, an intelligent and respectful attitude to our equipment – seeing that it is all there, accessible and in good condition, and making sure that we know the real use of each item – is essential to its success.  It is only too easy to be deluded by the modern craving for pace and immediate results, and press on without pausing to examine the quality and character of our supplies, or being sure that we know where we are going and possess the necessary maps.  But this means all the disabling miseries of the unmarked route and unbalanced diet; and at last, perhaps, complete loss of bearings and consequent starvation of the soul.

Lent is a good moment for such a spiritual stocktaking; a pause, a retreat from life’s busy surface to its solemn deeps.  There we can consider our possessions; and discriminate between the necessary stores which have been issued to us, and must be treasured and kept in good order, and the odds and ends which we have accumulated for ourselves.  Most of us are inclined to pay considerable attention to the spiritual odds and ends; the air-cushions, tabloids, and vacuum flasks, and various labor-saving devices which we call by such attractive names as our own peace, our own approach, our own experience, and so forth. But we leave the superb and massive standard equipment which is issued to each baptized Christian to look after itself.  There are few who cannot benefit by a bit-by-bit examination of that equipment, a humble return to first principles; for there we find the map and road-book of that spiritual world which is our true environment, all the needed information about the laws which control it, and all the essentials for feeding that inner life of which we talk so much and understand so very little.

CHARITY: Treatise IX. On the Advantage of Patience, by Cyprian

Argument. — Cyprian Himself Briefly Sets Forth the Occasion of This Treatise at the Conclusion of His Epistle to Jubaianus as Follows: “Charity of Spirit, the Honour of Our College, the Bond of Faith, and Priestly Concord, are Maintained by Us with Patience and Gentleness. For This Reason, Moreover, We Have, with the Best of Our Poor Abilities, by the Permission and Inspiration of the Lord, Written a Pamphlet on the Benefit of Patience, ‘ Which, for the Sake of Our Mutual Love, We Have Transmitted to You.”

  1. As I am about to speak, beloved brethren, of patience, and to declare its advantages and benefits, from what point should I rather begin than this, that I see that even at this time, for your audience of me, patience is needful, as you cannot even discharge this duty of hearing and learning without patience? For wholesome discourse and reasoning are then effectually learnt, if what is said be patiently heard. Nor do I find, beloved brethren, among the rest of the ways of heavenly discipline wherein the path of our hope and faith is directed to the attainment of the divine rewards, anything of more advantage, either as more useful for life or more helpful to glory, than that we who are labouring in the precepts of the Lord with the obedience of fear and devotion, should especially, with our whole watchfulness, be careful of patience.2
  1. Philosophers also profess that they pursue this virtue; but in their case the patience is as false as their wisdom also is. For whence can he be either wise or patient, who has neither known the wisdom nor the patience of God? since He Himself warns us, and says of those who seem to themselves to be wise in this world, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I will reprove the understanding of the prudent.”3 Moreover, the blessed Apostle Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, and sent forth for the calling and training of the heathen, bears witness and instructs us, saying, “See that no man despoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the elements of the world, and not after Christ, because in Him dwelleth all the fulness of divinity.”4 And in another place he says: “Let no man deceive himself; if any man among you thinketh himself to be wise, let him become a fool to this world, that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, I will rebuke the wise in their own craftiness.” And again: “The Lord knoweth the thoughts of the wise, that they are foolish.”5 Wherefore if the wisdom among them be not true, the patience also cannot be true. For if he is wise6 who is lowly and meek-but we do not see that philosophers are either lowly or meek, but greatly pleasing themselves, and, for the very reason that they please themselves, displeasing God-it is evident that the patience is not real among them where there is the insolent audacity of an affected liberty, and the immodest boastfulness of an exposed and half-naked bosom.
  1. But for us, beloved brethren, who are philosophers, not in words, but in deeds, and do not put forward our wisdom in our garb, but in truth-who are better acquainted with the consciousness, than with the boast, of virtues-who do not speak great things, but live them,-let us, as servants and worshippers of God, show, in our spiritual obedience, the patience which we learn from heavenly teachings. For we have this virtue in common with God. From Him patience begins; from Him its glory and its dignity take their rise. The origin and greatness of patience proceed from God as its author. Man ought to love the thing which is dear to God; the good which the Divine Majesty loves, it commends. If God is our Lord and Father, let us imitate the patience of our Lord as well as our Father; because it behoves servants to be obedient, no less than it becomes sons not to be degenerate.
  1. But what and how great is the patience in God, that, most patiently enduring the profane temples and the images of earth, and the sacrilegious rites instituted by men, in contempt of His majesty and honour, He makes the day to begin and the light of the sun to arise alike upon the good and the evil; and while He waters the earth with showers, no one is excluded from His benefits, but upon the righteous equally with the unrighteous He bestows His undiscriminating rains. We see that with undistinguishing7 equality of patience, at God’s behest, the seasons minister to the guilty and the guiltless, the religious and the impious-those who give thanks and the unthankful; that the elements wait on them; the winds blow, the fountains flow, the abundance of the harvests increases, the fruits of the vineyards ripen,8 the trees are loaded with apples, the groves put on their leaves, the meadows their verdure; and while God is provoked with frequent, yea, with continual offences, He softens His indignation, and in patience waits for the day of retribution, once for all determined; and although He has revenge in His power, He prefers to keep patience for a long while, bearing, that is to say, mercifully, and putting off, so that, if it might be possible, the long protracted mischief may at some time be changed, and man, involved in the contagion of errors and crimes, may even though late be converted to God, as He Himself warns and says, “I do not will the death of him that dieth, so much as that he may return and live.”9 And again,” Return unto me, saith the Lord.”10 And again: “Return to the Lord your God; for He is merciful, and gracious, and patient, and of great pity, and who inclines His judgment towards the evils inflicted.”11 Which, moreover, the blessed apostle referring to, and recalling the sinner to repentance, sets forward, and says: “Or despisest thou the riches of His goodness, and forbearance, and long-suffering, not knowing that the patience and goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance? But after thy hardness and impenitent heart thou treasurest up unto thyself wrath in the day of wrath and of revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who shall render to every one according to his works.”12 He says that God’s judgment is just, because it is tardy, because it is long and greatly, deferred, so that by the long patience of God man may be benefited for life eternal.13 Punishment is then executed on the impious and the sinner, when repentance for the sin can no longer avail.
  1. And that we may more fully understand, beloved brethren, that patience is a thing of God, and that whoever is gentle, and patient, and meek, is an imitator of God the Father; when the Lord in His Gospel was giving precepts for salvation, and, bringing forth divine warnings, was instructing His disciples to perfection, He laid it down, and said, “Ye have heard that it is said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and have thine enemy in hatred. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, and pray for them which persecute you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven, who maketh His sun to rise on the good and on the evil, and raineth upon the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward shall ye have? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye shall salute your brethren only, what do ye more (than others)? do not even the heathens the same thing? Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.”14 He said that the children of God would thus become perfect. He showed that they were thus completed, and taught that they were restored by a heavenly birth, if the patience of God our Father dwell in us-if the divine likeness, which Adam had lost by sin, be manifested and shine in our actions. What a glory is it to become like to God! what and how great a felicity, to possess among our virtues, that which may be placed on the level of divine praises!
  1. Nor, beloved brethren, did Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, teach this in words only; but He fulfilled it also in deeds. And because He had said that He had come down for this purpose, that He might do the will of His Father; among the other marvels of His virtues, whereby He showed forth the marks of a divine majesty, He also maintained the patience of His Father in the constancy of His endurance. Finally, all His actions, even from His very advent, are characterized by patience as their associate; in that, first of all, coming down from that heavenly sublimity to earthly things, the Son of God did not scorn to put on the flesh of man, and although He Himself was not a sinner, to bear the sins of others. His immortality being in the meantime laid aside, He suffers Himself to become mortal, so that the guiltless may be put to death for the salvation of the guilty. The Lord is baptized by the servant; and He who is about to bestow remission of sins, does not Himself disdain to wash His body in the layer of regeneration. For forty days He fasts, by whom others are feasted. He is hungry, and suffers famine, that they who had been in hunger of the word and of grace may be satisfied with heavenly bread. He wrestles with the devil tempting Him; and, content only to have overcome the enemy, He strives no farther than by words. He ruled over His disciples not as servants in the power of a master; but, kind and gentle, He loved them with a brotherly love. He deigned even to wash the apostles’ feet, that since the Lord is such among His servants, He might teach, by His example, what a fellow-servant ought to be among his peers and equals. Nor is it to be wondered at, that among the obedient15 He showed Himself such, since He could bear Judas even to the last with a long patience-could take meat with His enemy-could know the household foe, and not openly point him out, nor refuse the kiss of the traitor. Moreover, in bearing with the Jews, how great equanimity and how great patience, in turning the unbelieving to the faith by persuasion, in soothing the unthankful by concession, in answering gently to the contradictors, in bearing the proud with clemency, in yielding with humility to the persecutors, in wishing to gather together the slayers of the prophets, and those who were always rebellious against God, even to the very hour of His cross and passion!
  1. And moreover, in His very passion and cross, before they had reached the cruelty of death and the effusion of blood, what infamies of reproach were patiently heard, what mockings of contumely were suffered, so that He received16 the spittings of insulters, who with His spittle had a little before made eyes for a blind man; and He in whose name the devil and his angels is now scourged by His servants, Himself suffered scourgings! He was crowned with thorns, who crowns martyrs with eternal flowers. He was smitten on the face with palms, who gives the true palms to those who overcome. He was despoiled of His earthly garment, who clothes others in the vesture of immortality. He was fed with gall, who gave heavenly food. He was given to drink of vinegar, who appointed the cup of salvation. That guiltless, that just One,-nay, He who is innocency itself and justice itself,-is counted among transgressors, and truth is oppressed with false witnesses. He who shall judge is judged; and the Word of God is led silently to the slaughter. And when at the cross, of the Lord the stars are confounded, the elements are disturbed, the earth quakes, night shuts out the day, the sun, that he may not be compelled to look on the crime of the Jews, withdraws both his rays and his eyes, He speaks not, nor is moved, nor declares His majesty even in His very passion itself. Even to the end, all things are borne perseveringly and constantly, in order that in Christ a full and perfect patience may be consummated.17
  1. And after all these things, He still receives His murderers, if they will be converted and come to Him; and with a saving patience, He who is benignant18 to preserve, closes His Church to none. Those adversaries, those blasphemers, those who were always enemies to His name, if they repent of their sin, if they acknowledge the crime committed, He receives, not only to the pardon of their sin, but to the reward of the heavenly kingdom. What can be said more patient, what more merciful? Even he is made alive by Christ’s blood who has shed Christ’s blood. Such and so great is the patience of Christ; and had it not been such and so great, the Church would never have possessed Paul as an apostle.19
  1. But if we also, beloved brethren, are in Christ; if we put Him on, if He is the way of our salvation, who follow Christ in the footsteps of salvation, let us walk by the example of Christ, as the Apostle John instructs us, saying, “He who saith he abideth in Christ, ought himself also to walk even as He walked.”20 Peter also, upon whom by the Lord’s condescension the Church was founded,21 lays it down in his epistle, and says, “Christ suffered for us, leaving you an example, that ye should follow His steps, who did no sin, neither was deceit found in His mouth; who, when He was reviled, reviled not again; when He suffered, threatened not, but gave Himself up to him that judged Him unjustly.”22
  1. Finally, we find that both patriarchs and prophets, and all the righteous men who in their preceding likeness wore the figure of Christ, in the praise of their virtues were watchful over nothing more than that they should preserve patience with a strong and stedfast equanimity. Thus Abel, who first initiated and consecrated the origin of martyrdom, and the passion of the righteous man, makes no resistance nor struggles against his fratricidal23 brother, but with lowliness and meekness he is patiently slain. Thus Abraham, believing God, and first of all instituting the root and foundation of faith, when tried in respect of his son, does not hesitate nor delay, but obeys the commands of God with all the patience of devotion. And Isaac, prefigured as the likeness of the Lord’s victim, when he is presented by his father for immolation, is found patient. And Jacob, driven forth by his brother from his country, departs with patience; and afterwards with greater patience, he suppliantly brings him back to concord with peaceful gifts, when he is even more impious and persecuting. Joseph, sold by his brethren and sent away, not only with patience pardons them, but even bountifully and mercifully bestows gratuitous supplies of corn on them when they come to him. Moses is frequently contemned by an ungrateful and faithless people, and almost stoned; and yet with gentleness and patience he entreats the Lord for those people. But in David, from whom, according to the flesh, the nativity of Christ springs, how great and marvellous and Christian is the patience, that he often had it in his power to be able to kill king Saul, who was persecuting him and desiring to slay him; and yet, chose rather to save him when placed in his hand, and delivered up to him, not repaying his enemy in turn, but rather, on the contrary, even avenging him when slain! In fine, so many prophets were slain, so many martyrs were honoured with glorious deaths, who all have attained to the heavenly crowns by the praise of patience. For the crown of sorrows and sufferings cannot be received unless patience in sorrow and suffering precede it.

PRAYER: I Come To You In Prayer, by Dominic Gaisford

Lord, you know I come to you in prayer in all sorts of moods and shapes.  So often I come to you in duty bound and because I am dutiful and cold, I find you academic and cold; Lord, you know that our conversation then is a sort of skirmish, circling around the things that are troubling or irritating or weighing me down.  It’s all a heavy effort of will and I get bored by you – as you probably are with me.  It’s like talking to a member of my community who bores me and I feel I ought to talk because he and I have this radical link of belonging to each other.  But the heart of me, my inner longings and interests, aren’t really met or satisfied, so I leave feeling empty and yet satisfied in that I have done my duty.  It’s funny, Lord, but so often my prayer is like that.

How I want to be on fire with you and yet I am not.  Why?  Do I lack faith in you, Lord, as a real living person?  I think I do.  Am I so steeped in the mess of selfishness that I really have no time for you when you don’t seem to give me what I want?  I think this is part of the answer.  I sometimes wonder – no, fear, but I don’t like admitting this very often – that the root cause of my dull, frigid, dutiful praying is the nasty fact that I’m not good at loving, that I have a small heart.  I love myself, yes, but can I love you, or indeed anyone, with that reckless absorbing passion that is so giddily wonderful?  This reflection makes me curl up, Lord, when that I long for – I think I do truly long for it and it’s not just make-believe – is to have you passionately, to hold your feet like Mary Magdalene in the garden and just look at you, saying, “Rabbi.”  Lord, you know that this is what I want but I haven’t got this love in me to give you.

Lord, I think that what I really want from you in prayer is a huge pulsating heart to love you and other people, to live for you and others, be enraptured in you.  But I don’t seem to have it.  I”m not being mock modest, Lord; my heart is small and fickle and you know it.  I know this because there are so many things I want that aren’t you, and if I don’t have them my prayer is no satisfaction and my moods are governed not by you and prayer but by the emptiness I feel.

I think I used to be worried that you didn’t seem to answer prayers, for myself, for friends, for all sorts of things large and small, but this doesn’t really worry me now.  I am often saddened, Lord, that you don’t give good health or happiness or faith to the people I”m praying for, but this doesn’t make me doubt you.  It just makes me realize I don’t comprehend you, I don’t comprehend how you love others, or me, that you are a stupendous mystery; but I do believe that the only thing you have and can give is love, though I don’t understand very often how you give it.  You are mysterious.

But I think, Lord – no, I know it –that what you have given me over the years in prayer is a peace that is a yearning.  In my inner heart, I am not bored by you at all, and you have helped me to understand, though I do it badly and fitfully as you know too well, how to love you, how to love others, how to work and how to accept myself.  You sometimes suffuse all those jealousies and pettinesses, cruelties and lazinesses, that are part of the fiber of my being, with your peace, and I feel you are healing me and helping me to grow into your likeness.  I thank you, Lord, that you have transformed and do transform my life.  This is a lovely experience.  My yearning is to have you do this totally now, though this all too often gets covered up and submerged in daily affairs.  But it’s there, and I can feel it growing in pain and am frustrated when it’s not growing.

I think, Lord, that what you give me and everyone in prayer is a new vision, or a new dimension.  The people I am fond of and love, the things I like doing, the places I like, are in some intangible way different, added to, increased by you.  You don’t possess or own anyone or anything in an obsessive, grasping, desperately clutching way, and this tender compassion is what you are slowly giving me in prayer, and it’s wonderful.  The people and places and activities (like golf!) which I love and like become different in you.  The threats, menaces, pangs of loss and absence somehow don’t matter when lapped around in your peace and your yearning, even though they hurt.  But they hurt in a new way, the way you give us when you say, “Let not your hearts be troubled.”  And this is a wonderful revelation and I thank you for it.

Lord, I may be being heretical or untheological, but I don’t mind and you know what I mean, when I say that your abiding presence – yes, that’s it, Lord, prayer is your abiding presence made real – somehow takes the sting out of my sins.  They matter but they also don’t matter, because of you.

What I long for is for others, for everyone, to persevere in praying, in letting you yearn and groan and doubt and rejoice in their prayer. I want you to come alive in others so that they can taste and see you and have another vision and dimension in their living.  In all the sorrow and bitterness and heaviness of heart I see in people, I yearn for them to find you in prayer.  You don’t make the pain or the problems less, but you make them different, you transform them.  And this, Lord, is your peace.  Please give it.

I don’t know where all this outpouring has taken me, it’s so full of “I,” but I think it’s shown me that prayer means that you come alive in the heart of everyone who prays.  Your Spirit begins to take over and it’s through you living, struggling to breathe in me, yearning, that I am coming to realize, in odd moments, that it is in prayer that we live and move and have our being.

MYSTICISM: The Characteristics Of Lovers, by Angela of Foligno

There are three properties peculiar to lovers which we must be aware of.  There are also certain signs of love which show each of us whether he or she is a true lover or not.

The first property is to be truly transformed as the will of the Beloved decides.  It seems to me that the will of the Beloved is his life as he demonstrates it in his own self.  He shows us his poverty, suffering, and contempt, which we must all certainly experience, and when the soul is strengthened and practiced in these things it is quite proof against all vice and temptation.

The second property is to be transformed in the qualities of the Beloved, of which I shall mention only three here.  The first is love; that is, to love all creatures as is due and seemly.  The second is to be humble and gentle.  The third (which God gives to his true children) is steadfastness; for the closer the soul is to God, the less it changes in its own self.

The third property is to be wholly transformed in God, when we are beyond all temptation.  Then we no longer live in ourselves, but in him; yet when we fall back again into our misery we must beware of too great concentration on any other creature and on our own selves.

Keep control over yourselves.  Do not surrender to any creature, or lend yourselves to anything whatsoever; but give yourselves wholly to the one who says: “You shall love the Lord with all your heart,and with all your mind, and with all your soul, and with all the strength that you have.”

LOVE: The Discipline of Love

In a few days there will be Valentine’s Day, a day of frenzied chaos for some or a day of soothing quiet for others.  It’s a day of chaos for those running around looking for last-minute restaurant reservations or a shop that still has some red flowers.  It a day of serenity for those who turn their back on it and instead curl up and read Jane Austen.

It’s clear to anyone alive, even to a 120-year-old women like myself, what the focus of Valentine’s Day is.  There are glimpses of headlines of advice columns that try to convince a wife to not be too hard on your husband for getting the “wrong” gift.

There are suggestions of why a couple should stay at home instead of going out.

There are endless recipes for heart-shaped desserts that include such unchocolate ingredients as pistachios, fennel, or ginger.

But, in the end, we have, in reality, turned romantic love into something that needs to be celebrated once a year.

Because like having a mother, or a virgin giving birth, or even the act of potentially warring cultures reaching out to give and to receive, holidays celebrate what confounds us.

And romantic love, most certainly, confounds us.

But it was this year’s growing list of helpful suggestions on how to grab hold of this concept of romantic love and shake out all the ways of getting through the celebration intact that finally made me sit and sort through the messages.

First, it is most clear that romantic love is about fulfilled expectation.

That’s what Valentine’s Day is for, it seems.  For your partner to bring you What You Expect.  (There are, in fact, a line of soldier-like exclamation marks that follow that phrase, but I just didn’t have the heart to insert them.)

I didn’t WANT an orange zazzle, I WANTED a lime-green zazzle with an orange edge! (Yes, this, too, could use more exclamation marks.)

Valentine’s Day has become chaotic because it has become all about meeting someone else’s expectations.

Demands.  That come attached with a review sheet that assesses how well the partner has met that demand.

And so I wondered about it all.

And I came to the realization that, as with most things confounding, we, the people sort of miss the point of the concept.

But why shouldn’t we?  There’s no manual sent to us when we reach that age to experience romantic love.  And, like faith, there are few real words that can be used to explain it all.

So, I’ll rehash what I’ve come up with so far, and then extend it.

First, romantic love cannot be an emotion.  It may stir up our emotions.  But then, it stirs up our bodies, too.  And our thoughts.  And even our actions, sometimes.  It’s a complete something (whatever that something is).  A total, consuming something.  That leads.

Us around by the nose.

Perhaps that’s one of the most confounding elements of romantic love: that it leads us.  Not the other way around.  We don’t fall in love with whom we have pictured we would fall in love with – if we even ever bothered to picture someone.  No.  We fall in love with whom we fall in love with.

(This kind of makes me think that love is some kind of virus.  Something that gets in you, replicates itself, and then takes over.)

But, anyway.

But since we naturally want to control our lives, we want to edit all that is around us, continually, love comes along and we want to grasp it.  Mold it.  Tame it.  Teach it.

And romantic love, it seems, will have none of that.

It is what it is.

So in a relationship, how does a system of having two (count them, two) anarchic systems existing at the same time in the same place work?

Service, I think, is the key.

I (person one) serve you (person two).

And I (person two) serve you (person one).

Which means that both people have to surrender to the other in order to learn just how to serve the other.

It means having to study how to say and then to apply the word, Yes.

(There is the discipline of learning that when one says, Yes, one isn’t necessarily going to have to go down the road indicated.  Take Abraham, for example.  He’s the perfect example of how willingness is the key to obedience.  Saying, Yes, and then doing your best doesn’t mean that at some point you are not able to say, Here is as far as I can go.)

So, fundamentally, if one’s focus is on service, then it can’t be on making demands.  You say you love me, then what I want you to do for me is. . .  becomes, What is it that I can do for you?

Romantic love is, in the end, a means of finding your way out of selfishness.  Which is, interestingly, what aesthetics attempt to do by their disciplines.  Learn to no longer put their self first.

But this process goes in both directions at the same time.  I have to be unselfish with you while you find your way of being unselfish with me.

It really is confounding.

The bottom-line really is: I want to give to you but what you want me to give you is a way for you to give to me.

A complete circle.

Instead, what we have surrounding us are endless examples of supposed romantic love that are more like tennis matches, smashing things at each other until the other misses the return and the “winner” gets to celebrate.  (More exclamation marks needed here, it seems.)

The Bible has a lean outline of how it could stack up: the wife should respect her husband; the husband should understand and honor his wife.

Respect.  Understand.  Honor.

In the end, then, what the outcome would be if these behaviors were applied religiously is gratitude.

So a truly complete circle.

Service.  Respect. Honor.  Gratitude.

Love.

Amen.

ANGELS: Angels Unawares, by Sophy Burhham

From A Book of Angels

In the beginning the immortals
who have their homes on Olympos
created the golden generation of mortal people
These lived in Kronos’ time when he
was the king in heaven.
They lived as if they were gods,
their hearts free from all sorrow,
by themselves, and without hard work or pain;
no miserable
old age came their way; their hands, their feet
did not alter.
They took their pleasure in festivals,
and lived without troubles.
When they died, it was as if they fell asleep.
All goods were theirs. . . .
Now that the earth has gathered over this generation,
these are called pure and blessed spirits;
they live upon earth,
and are good; they watch over mortal men
and defend them from evil;
they keep watch over lawsuits and hard dealings;
they mantle themselves in dark mist
and wander all over the country;
they bestow wealth; for this right
as of kings was given them. . . .
Hesiod
Works and Days

⊹     ⊹     ⊹

It is said that angels come as thoughts, as visions, as dreams, as animals, as the light on the water or in clouds and rainbows, and as people too.  Are they walking on this Earth as people in disguise?  Or do they appear for that one moment and vanish into ether again?  Or is it really us, mere humans, who for a moment are picked up by the hand of God and made to speak unwittingly the words another needs to hear, or to hold out a lifeline to another soul?

Once a man on the highway saw me pull over in my faltering car and stopped to help.  This was on the New England Thruway, on my way from New York to Cape Cod.  It was eight o’clock on a Saturday night in a slashing rain.  My car kept stalling out at 60 miles an hour, which was the safe high speed.  The motor would die and I would watch in terror as my pace sank to 25 miles per hour, while I stabbed on my warning blinkers, wondering if I’d be slammed from behind.  A man stopped his pickup, seeing me helpless at the side of the road, and accompanied my failing car in his truck for miles and miles out of his way, his flashers protecting me.  That wonderful man spent six hours trialing me (imagine!), six hours of his time to ensure that I limped safely to my destination, I tried to find him later in New London, to thank him, but either I had misunderstood the address or he had left.  There was no such man at that address.

For each moment of horror in the world we find these acts of goodness, by the hands of angels.  Here is how another helped my reconciliation with my mother when she lay dying.  My Jamaican angel, a charlady, come to give me back my life.

My mother was a great lady, small and muscular, endlessly active.  She would haul the Gravely tractor around the lawn, then slap together a salami and tomato and lettuce and cheese sandwich on Wonder bread with imitation mayonnaise.  She would eat two of these for lunch, standing at the kitchen counter, drinking several cups of coffee, as if sitting were a waste of time.  Then off again to play a round of golf or rake up leaves or meet a friend in town or run to market or the bank.  She was always moving, yet her favorite words to me were, “Relax!  You’re so jittery.  Just sit down.  You don’t have anything to do here now but sit.

Which would set my teeth on edge, because the babies (her grandchildren) needed feeding or changing or something to divert them, and she was always picking, pecking at my skin.

And at her own.  All her life she suffered from eczema.  She was in constant pain and never talked about it.

There came a time when David and I moved from New York back to D.C., and I began an effort to mend my relationship with my mother.  It took several years.  She had had one bout with breast cancer and half her side had been lopped away.  An Amazon removing her breast in order to draw her archer’s bow would not have shown more disdain for her body than my mother did.  After breast cancer she got lung cancer and had a piece of lung removed.  That made her stop smoking, though she continued to sit in the study with my father, who lit one cigarette after another in the stuffy room, while the fire belched out clouds of smoke (the chimney held swallow nests which my mother decided would be too expensive to remove).  At the end of her life my mother was so unhappy, stricken with grief by my father’s stroke and her incapacity to help, embittered at the cruel trick fate had played, and her pain and anger often came tearing out at me, barbed and cutting.

“Oh, journalists,” she snorted.  Both David and I were encompassed in that term.  “New York!  You’re all so provincial.”

Sometimes she would turn on my writing.  One book in particular she loathed.  She never explained its offense, but for several years she could hardly look at me without recalling it: “What an awful book.”  She said it again and again.  “I was just ashamed reading that.  Ashamed.  I don’t know how you can hold up your head in public, knowing you’ve written that.”

“Well, what exactly didn’t you like?”

“The whole thing.  You can only hope it doesn’t sell.”

It would be a lie to say it didn’t hurt.  Once I fled the house before her assaults.  But I also wanted a reconciliation.

One day she telephoned to say that she felt a little under the weather and had gone to bed.  The doctor diagnosed it as walking pneumonia.  Also she had slipped in the bathtub and hit her ribs, so she had a terrible pain in her side.  My brother and his wife and David and I talked in whispers in the kitchen, as if she could overhear from upstairs.  The sight of our mother lying down was still new to us.  In forty years we’d hardly ever seen her sick, and then suddenly he’d had the two battles with cancer.  We worried the pneumonia might be serious.

A month later she was in the hospital.  I moved to Baltimore to be nearby.  Every day I drove to see her in the hospital, and every day she bickered and quarreled with me.  Reporters at the The New York Times had gone on strike: my husband was out of work, our financial situation precarious.  I had taken a job as a consultant to a federal agency and was keeping my sanity and reducing my grief with bouts of intense hard work.

My mother picked and picked at me.  Why didn’t I relax?  Just sit in the garden?  Take it easy and do nothing for a while?  Did I always have to work? What was wrong with me?  Intermittently she would worry about our finances: Were we all right?  Could David find another job?  But usually her attention focused on the fact that mine was divided.  Looking back I see the quarrels were partly my fault.  I didn’t comprehend her fear.  Why didn’t I tell her I was scared for her – and for myself?

One day in the hospital she lit into me again.  Peck-peck.  Nothing I could do was right.  I sank deeper in my chair, desolate: what was I doing there, when all she did was tongue-lash me?  At this moment a broad-faced, black woman came in to mop the floors of this cramped hospital room, hardly big enough to fit a bed, a chair, a chest of drawers.  My mother was sitting straight up against her pillows.  She wore a nightgown with a little bedjacket over it.  Her hair, freed from its customary bun, lay thin and loose on the pillow.  Beside the bed stood an enormous oxygen tank with a plastic tube running to her nose, and this she had removed and waved in one hand like a pasha with his hookah as she shot off her charges at me, complaining about the way I dressed and my pathetic efforts to write, scorning my present assignments on urban affairs as trivial and pointless.  Not even the entry of the hospital attendant quieted my mother’s tirade.

I hunched in my chair, hurt and angry, wondering if I should simply get up and leave.  Here was my mother, dying.  There were things we should be saying to each other, not nagging, picking at me so.

“I grudge you the mother-talk.”  The Jamaican charwoman stopped her mopping.  My mother and I both looked up startled.  Neither of us had understood her lilting Island accent.  But a thrill of recognition ran through me.

“What?”  I sat up straight.

“I grudge you the mother-talk,” she repeated, looking from one to the other of us, smiling with a broad, gold smile.  “My own mother died when I was twelve,” she sang, “and I’ve had no one in all these years to give me mother-talk.  It is so nice to hear.”

My mother looked embarrassed.  I sat up even straighter, hit by joy.  Of course!  She was cuffing the cub, was all.  I had not understood.  It took only a few moments for that beautiful, dark-skinned woman to finish with the floor – three swishes of her mop and she had done.  She left, but she left us in a different state.

I did not consider her an angel at the time, but marveled at the synchronicity of the encounter, this woman walking in to explain my mother’s behavior and walking out again.  From that movement our relationship took a turn.

We began to talk on another level.  We could approach the topic of death, say how much we cared for each other.

A week later she was dead.

POETRY: Evening, by Thomas Merton

Now, in the middle of the limpid evening,
The moon speaks clearly to the hill.
The wheatfields make their simple music,
Praise the quiet sky.

And down the road, the way the stars come home,
The cries of children
Play on the empty air, a mile or more,
And fall on our deserted hearing,
Clear as water.

They say the sky is made of glass,
They say the smiling moon’s a bride.
They say they love the orchards and apple trees,

The trees, their innocent sisters, dresses in blossoms,
Still wearing, in the blurring dusk,
White dresses from that morning’s first communion.

And, where blue heaven’s fading fire last shines
They name the new come planets
With words that flower
On little voices, light as stems of lilies.

And where blue heaven’s fading fire last shines,
Reflected in the popular’s ripple,
One little, wakeful bird
Sings like a shower.

POETRY: The Bright Waterfall Of Angels, by Susan Firer

Everywhere that summer there were angels,
hanging over the lake piers deflated with prayer,
blowing like soap bubbles past night windows,
flying from the weekend colored skirts
of young girls. In August, under the full
moon, I walked Oakland Ave., and a night
bus, windows burning yellow with angels, passed.
And still, I could see people praying for more
bird angels, drug angels, kaiser roll angels, money
angels, love angels, health angels, rain angels.
There were angels with hearts large as bagpipes
who circled our village’s ice cube houses
and flew bright loud into our bang nights.
There were angels in movie houses and in sweet corn
stands, and angels who dropped like catalpa
snakes from summer. One angel followed
me into our Chang Cheng Restaurant. Where
were the angels that summer when the neighbor-
hood women were being hunted and ripped
open like field animals? Or when the man
who walked away from DePaul Rehab gave up
on my garage? When I came home from “The Wizard
of Loneliness” the Flight for Life
helicopter was landing in my front yard.
And a young man was leaning against my garage,
his throat an awful open clown smile.
Rivers and streams of dark blood
ran down the alley. All the children
awakened by the helicopter ran barefoot
and pajamad through the actual
blood and night. Mary,
the neighborhood nurse, kept telling
everyone there was a murderer loose.
“No one could do that much damage to themselves.
I’m a nurse, I’m telling you that no one could
do that much damage to themself.”
And the police, and firefighters, and pilot,
and attendants their rubber gloved hands filled
with the moon, and someone held up the knife
the man had used on himself. Off they rolled
him on a cot into the helicopter.
When they took off lighted and loud into the mid-
night sky, I saw angels of despair, windfull
and spinning happy on the helicopter blades.
There were angels who wrote their names on leaves,
and show-offs who rode August’s tornadoes.
Nights the sky was often a thunder of angels,
a heat lightning sky, where angel wings fit
together in crossword puzzle perfection.
At the State Fair that August, the great
chefs of Wisconsin came to convince the world
of the superior beauty of carved cheese over carved
ice for table centerpieces, and although originally
they had come planning to carve cows and swans,
always the cheddar blocks turned to the gold
cheesy beauty of angels. Angels hid
behind apples, behind goldfinches, hid in foot-high
Mexican-stuffed toads who stood forever on
their back legs, their front legs shellacked forever
into playing red painted concertinas.
And if someone would have come to you as many
years as you are old ago, and told you:
You will be slapped around, a man will cut your
mouth open, only because he says he loves you,
and you will have to give up lovers, before they are,
and children before they are yours;
friends will call you from sexual assault centers
and their stitched together voices will tell you
things done to them that you will never be able to forget.
Some friends you will bury and children and parents, too.
(Your mother and father will breathe flowers
from their graves.) Your body’s skin and bones
will cartwheel around you, tilt-a-whirl around you
until you are nauseous and dizzy and uncertain.
The money angel will never like you; often
you will sleep with razor blades. Often
you will fall out of the trap door of yourself
and have to climb back up and start over, and
sometimes the angels will help and often they won’t,
and you can never count on either. And if someone
had come to you, as many years ago as you are old
right now, and told you all this, and more,
would you sign up for the bright waterfall of angels?
Would you be silent? Would you whisper, or shout:
Bring on the tour, the bright waterfall of angels tour?

ANGELS: What Is An Angel?, by Pascal P. Parente

From The Angels

“The angels are spirits,” says Saint Augustine, “but it is not because they are spirits that they are angels.  They become angels when they are sent, for the name angel refers to their office not to their nature.  You ask the name of this nature, it is spirit; you ask its office, it is that of an angel, (i.e., a messenger).  In as far as he exists, an angel is a spirit; in as far as he acts, he is an angel.”  The word, “angel,” comes from a Greek word meaning, “messenger.”  In the scriptures of the Old Testament, the most frequently used name to designate the angels is mal’akh, which means, messenger or legate.

This generic name, “angel,” does not reveal anything about the real nature of those celestial beings besides the fact that they are occasionally sent on a mission as messengers or legates of God to men.  Because only on such occasions, and in such a quality, they make themselves visible to men, they have been given the name of messengers from the most common duty and office they fulfill towards God’s children here on Earth.  “And to the angels indeed he said: ‘He that maketh his angels spirits, and his ministers a flame of fire.'” (Hebrews 1:7)

The office of being a messenger, an angel, is neither the most important nor the most common among the duties of the celestial spirits in the court of Heaven; it alone does not offer enough ground for speculation on their true nature and operation.

Heaven is the true country of the good angels: “Their angels [of the little ones] in Heaven always see the face of my Father who is in Heaven.” (Matthew 18:10)  Even while engaged here on Earth as guardians of the little children, they remain the blessed comprehensors, enjoying the vision of God, “the face of my Father.”  They are by grace the happy citizens of the Heavenly Jerusalem from the beginning.

“Let us remember,” writes Saint Bernard, “that the citizens of that country are spirits, mighty, glorious, blessed, distinct personalities, of graduated rank, occupying the order given them from the beginning, perfect of their kind. . . endowed with immortality, passionless, not so created, but so made – that is, through grace, not by nature; being of pure mind, benignant affections, religious and devout; of unblemished morality; inseparably one in heart and mind, blessed with unbroken peace, God’s edifice dedicated to the divine praises and service.  All this we ascertain by reading, and hold by faith.”

All this is really what we gather and ascertain by reading the sources, scripture and tradition, regarding the nature, character, and blessed condition of the Angels.  All the qualities of the Angelic spirits listed here by Saint Bernard are most beautiful and they are theologically correct.  However, we have omitted one of the qualifications from the above passage in order to make the quotation perfect.  The words omitted are these: “having ethereal bodies.”  On this very important point of the perfect spirituality of the Angelic nature there still remained some confusion in the days of Saint Bernard, as it had been the case for several centuries during the Patristic period.  Saint Bernard expresses his doubts and hesitation on this point when he adds: “As regards their (the Angels’) bodies some authorities hesitate to say not only whence they are derived, but whether in any real sense they (the bodies) exist at all.  If anyone is inclined to think the derivation of these bodies a matter of opinion, I do not dispute the point.”  It is Catholic doctrine today, even though not yet an article of faith, that the Angels are pure spirits, incorporeal substances, free and independent from any material body, ethereal or otherwise.

By “pure spirit” we understand a subsistent intelligent being whose subtle and transcendent nature is in no wise whatever composed of matter, however refined and ethereal.  An angel then is such a spirit.  Both his existence and operation are free and independent from matter; nor is the angel related to a body, like the human soul, which even though perfectly spiritual, is naturally related to the human body as an essential part of the whole human nature.  The angelic nature is wholly spiritual, man’s nature is composed of body and spirit.

One of the reasons why so many of the ancient writers, including a good many among the Fathers, attributed subtle bodies to the angels, even while admitting their spiritual nature, is the fact that for them the words “body” and “spirit” did not have that definite and perfect philosophical meaning which those words acquired especially during the Scholastic period of Christian philosophy.  Such a cloudy philosophical notion, for example, appears manifest in the Catecheses of Saint Cyril of Jerusalem.  For him, whatever has not a gross body can rightly be called a spirit; so that the air we breathe, any vapor or gaseous matter was called spirit or spiritual body.  They attributed such kind of bodies to angels.  Others made a distinction between Earthly bodies and Heavenly bodies, attributing a subtle, rarefied nature to the latter.  They were confirmed, it seems, in this erroneous opinion by a false interpretation of Genesis, chapter 6:2 ff., according to which the “sons of God” mentioned there, who took to themselves wives and procreated children, were human beings, the descendants of the religious and devout Seth and Henos.  Then again, they were led to believe that those ethereal human forms assumed by the angels in their various apparitions here on Earth were part of their angelic nature.  Saint Basil the Great believed that the angelic nature was a “breath of air or an immaterial fire.”  This is why they are localized, he said, and become visible, in the form and shape of their own bodies, to those who are worthy to see them.  We find these notions about ethereal bodies both among the Greek and the Latin Fathers.  While Saint Jerome has nothing definite regarding the nature of the angels, he rejects the argument in favor of a corporeal nature inferred from Genesis.  Saint Augustine thought it more probable that they had subtle bodies.  According to him the demons, before their fall, had such Heavenly bodies; since their fall, however, their bodies consist of damp, thick air.  Cassian clearly expresses the same opinion in these words: “Even though we define as spiritual some of the substances, such as the angels, the archangels, and the other powers, as also our own souls and certainly this subtle air, nevertheless they are by no means to be regarded as incorporeal, for in their own way they possess a body whereby they subsist, even though it is a much more subtle one than our own.  Hence it appears that God alone is incorporeal.”  It is more surprising to find the same opinion expressed by Saint John Damascene, who knew the writings of Pseudo Dionysius on this subject for which he had great admiration.  While expressing some hesitation regarding the true nature of an angel and while defining him as asomatos (without a body) he finally agrees with the current philosophy of calling the angelic nature “gross and material” if compared to God.  “An angel is an intellectual substance, endowed with liberty, perpetually active, without a body, serving God, having attained immortality by a gift of grace, the form and the limits of whose substance only its creator knows.  However, it is said to be incorporeal and immaterial only in reference to us, for anything compared to God, who alone is incomparable, is found to be gross and material.  The divine nature alone is immaterial and incorporeal.”  In the West, Saint Gregory the Great, while not completely free of the philosophy of “spiritual bodies,” inclines vigorously towards the opinion of Pseudo Dionysius that makes the angels pure spiritual beings.”

Discussing the term “incorporeal” Origen writes: “The term ‘incorporeal’ is disused and unknown, not only in many other writings but also in our own scriptures.”  He then explains the expression “an incorporeal demon” by saying: “It must be understood that he [Christ] had not such a body as demons have, which is naturally fine and thin, as if formed of air (and for this reason is either considered or called by many incorporeal), but that he [Christ] had a solid and palpable body.  Now, according to human custom, everything which is not of that nature is called by the simple and ignorant incorporeal; as if one were to say that the air which we breathe was incorporeal.”

From what has been said so far we must conclude that the terms “spirit” and “spiritual” were not taken by all in the same sense in which they are taken and understood today, in reference to the angelic nature.  A number of the earlier Scholastics retained the view of ethereal bodies in the case of the angels, as Rupert of Deutz, Saint Bernard (as we have seen), and Peter Lombard.  On the other hand Robert Pulleyn and Hugh of Saint Victor contended that the angels must be regarded as pure spirits and immaterial beings.  Owing to the position taken by the IV Lateran Council, the latter view became more common during the first part of the the thirteenth century.  Even though the doctrine had not been defined by the council, it had nevertheless been made quite clear to what class of creatures the angels belong.  The council divided all creatures into three classes: the purely spiritual, the angels; the purely material, the material world; and the partly spirit, partly matter, human beings.  By one of his subtle theories, Scotus is said to have ascribed bodies to angels but in an entirely different sense.  Saint Thomas with Saint Albertus Magnus, Henry of Ghent, Durandus, and many others were in favor of the spirituality of the angels in the strict sense of the word.

This opinion of the Angelic Doctor regarding the nature of the angels has become the common doctrine.  They are pure spirits, not composed of matter and form, but composed of essence and existence, of act and potentiality.  This doctrine is found already in the writings of Pseudo Dionysius and of a few of the Fathers, whom Saint Thomas follows closely in this question.

In his work on The Celestial Hierarchies, Pseudo Dionysius thus describes the Godlike immateriality of the angels and their superiority of nature above all other creatures: “Those natures which are around the Godhead (the angels) have participated of it in many different ways.  On this account the holy orders of the celestial beings are present with and participate in the Divine Principle in a degree far surpassing all those things which merely exist, all the irrational living beings, and rational human beings.  For molding themselves intelligibly to the imitation of God, and looking in a supernal way to the Likeness of the Supreme Deity, and longing to form the intellectual image of it, they naturally have a more abundant communion with him, and with unremitting activity they tend eternally up the steep, as far as is permitted, through the ardor of their unwearying divine love, and they receive the primal radiance in a pure and immaterial manner, adapting themselves to this in a life that is wholly intellectual.”

Because of their wholly spiritual and immaterial nature, the angels occupy the first and highest place in the scale of created things.  Man himself is second on the scale of creatures: “Thou hast made him [man] a little less than the angels.”  Just like an angel because of his spiritual, immaterial soul, less than an angel because of his material body.

Every angel is a distinct being, an individual subsisting in an intellectual nature; consequently every angel is a person.  The classical definition of a person, by Boethius, applies to them most perfectly: A person is an individual substance of a rational nature.  Every angel is an individuated nature, endowed with intelligence and liberty, placed outside of its cause in the world of reality.  All the essential elements of an individual personality are clearly manifest in those manifold accounts of angels appearing in this world and dealing with man, as reported in the Bible, for example, the Archangel Raphael and young Tobias; Gabriel and the Virgin Mary; Gabriel and Saint Zachary.  Rightly, therefore, Pope Pius XII condemns the opinion of those who “question whether angels are personal beings.”

Not only are the angels real personal beings but because of their spiritual nature wholly untrammeled by matter, their personality is far superior to human personality.  Human beings differ from each other merely as individuals of the same species; angels on the contrary, according to Saint Thomas, differ from each other specifically; so that we may say that there are not two angels of the same species; each of them is his own kind.  This fact implies a far more perfect individuality, a higher form of personality than the one known to us.  Because of this specific difference, it follows that every single angelic creature reveals an entirely new aspect of the eternal beauty and glory of God.  To them apply the words of Saint Paul: “Star differeth from star in glory.”

This is the wondrous angelic world that the Lord created at the beginning of time.  In our Earthly way of thinking we may conceive it as a living diamond whose myriads of facets reflect constantly and harmoniously the divine splendors of the eternal glory of God.  Among all created things the angels are the best reflectors of the divine light: “As our sun, through no choice or deliberation, but by the very fact of its existence, gives light to all those things which have any inherent power of sharing its illumination, even so the [supreme] good sends forth upon all things according to their receptive powers, the rays of its undivided goodness.” (Pseudo Dionysius)

ANGELS: What Is An Angel?, by Karen Goldman

From The Angel Book

Angels are reminders of what we’re really here for.

Angels may be likened to great poetry.  They lift the soul out of its cage of limitations.  They return the heart to a reflection of its larger, freer self.  They bemuse the spirit with at least a sparkle of the raptures of Heaven.  And when an angel reminds us, for even an instant, of our own journey Home, our place of Origin, our lightest Self, it has caused a miracle within us.  And that is not only the greatest poetry ever known to the soul – it is Everything.

If we ever wish to know angels for what they truly are, perhaps it is we who first must learn to fly.

  • An angel is a whole being.
  • An angel is not a thing.  An angel is someone. . . like you.
  • An angel’s song is sweeter than any bird’s, any river’s, any sound known on Earth.  Their music is not based on sound.  They are the instruments of love.
  • The sound of an angel’s voice can unlock your hidden feelings.
  • Angels sail through our lives like ships of light visiting us through the portals of our hearts.
  • Angels reveal the presence of goodness in all things.
  • Angels make us feel welcome in this world.
  • Angels give us direction.
  • Angels bring out the goodness in us that is ours already.

Why They Are Here

Angels are here to show us our own possibilities.  They are here to let us know we haven’t been forgotten.  They are here to extend a hand to us whether we need a lift or not.  They are here to re-acquaint us with everything wonderful about living.  They are here as a gift.

PRAYER: Praying With Our Angels For Healing, by Eileen Elias Freeman

From Angelic Healing

Then, if there should be an angel, a mediator, one of a thousand, one who declares a person upright, who is gracious to the person… who prays for that individual. . . . (Job 33:23, 26)

If forgiveness is often the basis of healing, then prayer is its fuel.  Prayer is speaking to God with words, whether aloud or silently, conversing with the loving Source of all we are and have.  And because God is conscious, aware, purposeful, caring, and not some deaf celestial clockmaker, God speaks in reply to our prayers.

Meditation, insofar as it is related to prayer, is the process by which we try to free our minds of words and concepts, so that we can listen with all of our attention to what God says to us, either directly or through our angels.  Some kinds of meditation, particularly those designed to help us focus on our needs, are deliberately self-centered, and this is not necessarily bad; but the meditation side of prayer aims at kenosis, the emptying of the ego, in order to be filled with God’s presence.

Contemplation is active, God-directed prayer without any words or even mental concepts or images, like direct current in contrast to alternating current.  Contemplation, like God’s reply or like the visit of an angel, is a gift independent of our efforts, although we can and should practice the kinds of God-seeking that leave us open to such moments.

Prayer is as simple as any other kind of speech.  The difficulty for us humans is that the other party in our conversation, God, is normally not visible or perceptible to our senses, and there is nothing we can do to change that.  God manifests the divine presence in ways and at times that we cannot control.  As a result, we often stop praying, because God doesn’t respond when or how we expect.

This is a serious mistake.  We have a basic need to seek God; it’s inherent, it’s as necessary to us as breathing and eating. Blaise Pascal, the French philosopher, once said that there is a God-shaped vacuum in the center of every human soul, and that we are driven to fill it up. Saint Augustine said, long before Pascal, “Our hearts are restless, O God, and they cannot rest until they rest in you.”

Every people, every society, every culture, seeks God in whatever ways it knows how.  The earliest human literature from ancient Sumeria is about God.  Stone Age burials from Neanderthal times already show evidence of a belief in a world beyond our own.

The problem occurs when a society forgets its spiritual purpose.  For too long, we have worshiped an unholy trinity called Money, Power, and Prestige.  And we have become steadily impoverished, robbed of power, and humiliated as a result.  Why?  Because what we have given our souls to is no god at all, and our immortal spirit, our soul, cannot be nourished except by God.  We need to recover our priorities if we want to heal our lives.  Our angels know this, because their priorities are as they should be: God before all, and everything in God.

We live on this planet for a short time, and we must do the very best with the talents and gifts we have, but our destiny is not for this world.  When we shed our space suits, that is, our bodies, our immortal spirits enter an eternal realm where our perceptions of God are heightened beyond anything we can even conceive of here on Earth, a realm where we can grow and develop and evolve forever within the love and wisdom of God.  And the way we orient ourselves toward God in this world – as preparation for our eternal future – is through prayer.

All conscious creation prays or speaks to God.  The angels pray to God, just as we do, but because they are spirits and are not weighed down with space suits, their prayer is one of contemplation, unconcerned with words or concepts as we know them.

Prayer is at the heart of every angel’s being.  Long before there was an Earth to protect or humans to be guardians of, the angels existed to reflect joyously back to God the glory of the divine.  In Job 38:4, 7, God asks Job, “Where were you when I laid the cornerstone of the Earth, when the morning stars sang together, and all the Heavenly beings shouted for joy?

We pray, alone or with others, for many reasons.  Most of our reasons have angelic counterparts.  The more we can pray not only with the angels but like the angels, the more we understand who we really are and the better we can heal our lives, because we will be in closer contact with the one who is our healer.