2 day break

Because of very busy life circumstances, I will take today and tomorrow off. Here’s a quote for your to ruminate on for these Holy Days:

We must carry Jesus in our hearts to wherever He wants to go, and there are many places to which He may never go unless we take Him to them. None of us knows when the loveliest hour of our life is striking. It may be when we take Christ for the first time to that grey office in the city where we work, to the wretched lodging of that poor man who is an outcast, to the nursery of that pampered child, to that battleship, airfield, or camp. – Caryll Houselander

“St. Christopher” Taken from http://holy-icons.com

Palm Sunday

“Lamentation at the Tomb” Taken from http://gabrielsmessage.files.wordpress.com/

Today is Passion Sunday, aka Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion. We have at last arrived at Holy Week. This week, culminating in the Three Days (Triduum), are the axis of cosmic time and human history. As the Carthusian monks word it, Stat crux dum volvitur orbis, “The cross is steady while the world whirls around.”

This week the Maker of time and space, the One who fashioned humanity to be “little less than a god” (Psalm 8:5), has set his face on Jerusalem, enduring for us and our salvation the terrors of the grave, tasting, and then harrowing, hell. Today’s first Gospel, taken from St. Matthew, walks us through Jesus’ triumphal entry into a “shaken” Jerusalem where he is jubilantly (though wrongly) hailed by the palm-waving crowds as the hoped for conquering Messiah. The allusions in this scene to the successful Maccabean war for religious freedom less than two centuries earlier (1 Maccabees 13:51) must have both worries the Romans and created a confused set of expectations among the Jews in Jerusalem who had come us to celebrate that great feast of God’s overthrow of political oppression in favor of religious freedom, the Passover.

However, our vision of Messianic triumph is suddenly set off balance we we hear Isaiah speak of a prophet beaten, beard-plucked and spat on; as we hear the Messianic psalm give voice to his cry of abandonment as he is savaged by his enemies before a silent God; as we hear St. Paul sing to us of a God-made-slave whose obedience reveals crucifixion and death as the cost of exaltation and victory. Our vision has been stunningly clarified.Then, at last, in the Gospel we happen on Jesus transubstantiating the meaning of Passover with his own sacrificial death; on his agony and betrayal; on his trial and condemnation; on his torture and crucifixion. We stand at the foot of the cross to see him nailed naked and bloodied to the gibbet, mockingly (and rightly) hailed as the treasonous “King of the Jews” whose death targets not the overthrow of Caesar, but the “despoiling of the principalities and powers” (Colossians 2:15); the overthrow of sin, death and the prince of darkness. But we are left at the end of this exhausting journey with us exiles from Eden “fixing a seal to the stone and setting the guard” at the tomb of God to make certain that He who expelled us once from the Garden and set a guard at its gate can Himself no longer threaten our rebellion with His terrifying love.

Meditation

Today’s feast, therefore, permits us to enter into the opaque mystery of these coming days, leading us right to the very threshold of the grave where hope and despair vie for supremacy. Is not where we live and where faith abides?

I will share with you a meditation of Passion Sunday I wrote a dozen or so years ago, that I think I have shared here before. I pray it will help you open your heart a bit more to the quiet power of these days of awe, leading you even beyond the grave…

Like a Dish Cast Down
In this world of shallow depths
what is fair to the eye, and clean
is held aloft in highest esteem;
but what is broken, unpleasing to the eye
we shun, hide, judge worthily despised.

But should it be so?

No! and God, to shatter such folly chose
to stoop lowly low from soaring height
downward to a womb, all silence enclosed
from whence arose His needful cries
labored into Judah’s deep and waning night.
Now see! look, be still and surely know
That His Highness came down, mercy-crazed,
to shatter our enslaving shackling chains
by being bound, whipped, beaten, dazed,
led, gently along to silent slaughter,
to rescue in time Zion’s daughter,
give her undeservèd reprieve.

Behold! Immortal Spirit gasping to breathe,
the suffocating, waning Ancient of Days.

Love became mercy here,
the Just and Almighty Word
bloodied,
sullied,
spittle-drenched,
mocked and pierced;
wailing, lamenting cry,
gathering all flesh up
in a “Why?”
Silent is His tear-soaked death,
God slumping to earth,
breathing out eternal Breath.
Marred contours of clay, re-figured,
Heart welling up and over
emptied, out-poured to perfection.

Blood-writ icon of Triune life:
God from God,
One-shattered into an Other,
Substance wholly spilled,
wholly received, wholly returned;
yet now into our flesh!
Broken-God now risen,
turned up in ceaseless gaze
upon the Father’s Face,
as from all ages, yet now,

O Now!

He sees that Face with ours.

Entry into Jerusalem | The Palm Sunday Icon Taken from http://iconreader.files.wordpress.com

My Brother, Father Drenched long ago, chrism’d flow Whet your thirst, the Vault outburst; Unleash of torrent grace, a deathless Face Impressed into your soul, Seraphic Coal Plucked of immaterial Fire, celestial choir Hymned your Day, dawned for human clay To carve your face paternal, icon of Eternal Begetting God unborn, forever His side torn To Beget a Word, in you whose whisper heard Recreating heart and star, those near, those far. We laud your life this hour, time of mercy’s Power That gave you as priest, rising from the dawning East. Amen.

“Listen carefully…and incline the ear of your heart” — Rule of St. Benedict

Someone I know took on as a penance this Lent a wonderful practice (that, as ever, I got permission to mention here): going out of his way every day to speak to someone that he finds difficult, boring, irritating, unpleasant. He shared with me a few funny stories and some of the deeper personal insights he’s gained by this daily practice. In particular he mentioned what he considered to be the core revelation God has given him about himself: “When it comes to people I am not interested in, I’m a terrible listener. If they don’t have something immediately interesting to me, I zone out.” He added, “It’s really humbling to see this part of me.”

I cannot imagine that anyone who honestly attempted this penance would not find themselves saying something similar.

I have found in my experience that the art of listening is really the art of loving, and that, in a real way, listening to others can be far more powerful as a transforming agent than speaking. Let me make a few points in that regard.

“There’s a lot of difference between listening and hearing.”
― G.K. Chesterton

I know a therapist who writes as her first prescription for nearly every client, “Spent 30 minutes a day in total, undistracted silence.” Her rationale is threefold. First, you can’t be human if you can’t be quiet. Second, when you’re silent you allow your mind to surface important insights, fears, feelings, memories that later can be explored in therapy; but when you are always talking, busy or stimulated you tend to hold them at bay. Third, to work through many of the relational problems that people bring to her they must be capable of listening, really listening to others; and if you can’t be silent when you’re alone, you can’t truly practice the inner silence needed to listen to others when they’re communicating.

I would add here that the same goes for prayer: if you can’t practice silence you simply cannot hear God.

She also added an interesting addendum to this practice of therapeutic silence. She said that probably half (or more) of the people who come to her for psychological healing simply have no one to listen to them, and so they pay her money to simply listen in a caring, patient, and interested way. No one wants to listen to these people, she said, no one has (or makes) the time or the patience; and when you listen to them you often understand why. They have lots of problems, pain, baggage, anger, and it’s hard to listen to that. But not being listened to can lead to lots of accumulated pain. Even more than the sage counsel, she said, bottom line it’s the act of listening deeply to them, affirming that they are noticed and cared about, that truly helps them blossom. And, she added, the more frenetic and distracted our world gets, and the more social media (ironically) isolates and superficializes our communication, the worse it gets.

She used a beautiful phrase, “I listen people into health.” And is that not a form of loving?  You’ve likely heard the saying, “Friends are those rare people who ask how we are, and then wait to hear the answer.” But the truth is that this should be a standard ascetical practice for Christians called to love especially those “who can’t pay you back” with interesting conversation or warm affirmations. In fact, you might say that doing this is merely an imitation of God who, as we presume whenever we turn to pray, is always waiting in rapt attention, ready to listen to whatever small or large thing we have to say.

And I’d argue that only someone who has tasted this truth of the Listening God in prayer can in turn make the words of Samuel their own, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”

Such an asceticism of “listening love” was well described by early 20th century American author Alice Duer Miller,

People love to talk but hate to listen. Listening is not merely not talking, though even that is beyond most of our powers; it means taking a vigorous, human interest in what is being told us. You can listen like a blank wall or like a splendid auditorium where every sound comes back fuller and richer.

Do not hide your face from me when I am in distress.
Turn your ear to me; when I call, answer me quickly. — Psalm 102:2

A last personal thought on listening.

For almost any parent it can be a penance to listen to your child’s endless questions and stories, especially those stories that are really colorful strings of fragmented tales linked by nothing other than a lively imagination and sustained in unbroken cadence by an extraordinary lung capacity that admits of almost no discernible breath-breaks.  However, whenever I discipline myself to listen carefully and respond appropriately, I always, always leave feeling more of a father than I did before I listened. Why? Because I chose to love them by coming out of myself and entering into their world which is, as St. Paul says in Philippians 2:3, “more important than my own.”

Funny aside, my kids say that they can tell when I’m “not really listening” because my punctuated comments — Really? Wow. Huh. — have no real relationship to what they’re saying. One child calls the “elsewhere” expression on my face, “the look.” “Dad, you’ve got ‘the look again.’” Still working on that.

A closing story on this point. My daughter Maria came up to me one eve when I was working intently on the computer (maybe writing for this Blog!). As she spoke, I continued to type, periodically saying “uh-huh,” or “oh!” Again and again she would shout, “Dad, Dad, Dad!” Finally, losing my patience, I barked back, “I’M LISTENING!” She replied, without missing a beat, “But your face isn’t.”

When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about the joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces? – C.S. Lewis, “Till We Have Faces”

Take time today and “dig out” from someone words of meaning by listening deeply, attentively, and with your face.

Pope John Paul II forgives assassin Mehmet Ali Agca Taken from http://prosanctityoflife.com

Mystic Junkies

[written long ago, saved for a rainy day when my time to write is small]

I was talking the other day with a sanjuanist scholar (i.e. a scholar of St. John of the Cross), and he made some really fascinating comments which I will attempt to summarize here. As I do sometimes, this will be a blend of my comments and his.

We were talking about St. John’s severe critique in the Ascent of Mount Carmel of what this scholar dubbed “experience-junkie mysticism,” which might be loosely described as a dedicated pursuit and acquisition of spiritual experiences. You could even say that the Ascent-Dark Night was specifically written (for Confessors and spiritual directors) as a sustained critique of such an approach to the Christian life of faith, especially in the Discalced Carmelite Reform which was begun by a nun famous for her very public mystical experiences.

The Sanjuanist Critique

A tiny bit of background to this experiential mysticism. There was a movement begun in the late 15th century in Spain by Cardinal Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros, a powerful Franciscan reformer-bishop and adviser to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, to bring about a general reform of Church and State in Spain by encouraging a certain brand of mysticism among laity, religious and clergy. Often referred to by the name of its most prominent method of prayer, recogimiento, “prayer of recollection,” this Cisneros-reformation was especially focused around the translation of spiritual texts into the vernacular; texts that emphasized extraordinary mystical phenomena (e.g. visions, locutions, raptures). The core idea was that such visionary mysticism abides at the heart of all previous (medieval) ecclesial reformations, and that it fit well with the intensely apocalyptic air of late 15th and 16th century European Christianity. Cisneros’ initiative gave rise over several decades to a wide diversity of religious reform movements that more or less emphasized various forms of mystical pyrotechnics, as well as a highly interiorized and individualized form of spirituality. One of the more prominent and, from the Spanish Inquisition’s perspective, troublesome branches of Cisneros’ unwieldy reformation were dubbed by Inquisitors the alumbrados, “the enlightened ones.” These late medieval illuminati spread like wildfire throughout Spain and into the Spanish colonial territories throughout the 16th century and beyond. Many of these alumbrados, especially the pious women (called beatas, or “blessed ones”), were attracted to Teresa/John’s reformed Order. For this reason, both John and Teresa felt it imperative to subject the various expressions of the “mystical reformation” movement, and its diverse ascetical-mystical ideas, to a rigorous critique that would preserve the good and excise the not so good.

That is, I believe, why Teresa chose John, the brilliant and rigorous ascetic-mystic, to join her Carmelite reform: to integrate, interpret and interpolate her own mystical charism into the Discalced Carmelite vision and create a spiritual literature specific to its unique demands.

As this was my dissertation topic, I have lots to say more but, for now, this will suffice for background.

Application

I contacted my scholar acquaintance originally to share with him my concerns regarding a variety of contemporary movements in American Christianity, some of which were aversely impacting my work, that embodied a mysticism that was more akin to what I might call a spiritualized psychological binging. Not only do these movements share a resemblance to certain elements of those I’ve mentioned from 16th century Spain, but they also resemble elements of the wildly emotive, experiential and broadly influential American “Great Awakenings” of the 18th and 19th centuries.  In any event, I will not get into the specifics of those resemblances, but rather would like to share some of the insights that came from our lengthy conversation. He was comfortable with my offering his insights here, though they are, as I said, here blended with my own thoughts in the conversation.

There are a lot of parallels between these groups you mention and what John found most troublesome about the alumbrados, at least in regard to those whom he considered off-base.

What John found to be especially mistaken was not their claim to mystical experiences per se — he assumes these things happen — but their well disguised, disordered addiction to spiritual experiences in general; to what Teresa called the “sweets and candies” of the way of perfection. We might better call these “experiences” not mystical per se, since mystical for John transcends the senses, but rather the psychological “kickbacks,” or experiential “feedback” that is produced by religious activities or, if genuine, by God’s activity. But these sensual experiences are inherently ambiguous at best and, at worst, can become dangerously seductive by enticing us to not seek God’s will as much as the pleasure and thrill of more kickbacks; more feedback.

For John, these off-base folks have embarked on a misplaced journey, they’re chasing after the wrong goal. As his co-reformer St. Teresa would put it, “These seek the consolations of God and not the God of consolations.” If John used modern lingo he might call them “experience junkies,” pious men and women who pursue experiences of God with an almost gluttonous appetite, and see religiosity as a way of squeezing out as much spiritual pleasure as possible. These junkies were addicted to the sweet feelings, to histrionic bouts of tears, to visions and locutions that accompanied their devotional practices, and to the admiration of their pious comrades. When they would lose these “goodies,” John argued, they would grow agitated, fret, and strain to get more, assuming they must be doing something wrong or that God was displeased. They would see the spiritual life, John says, as a set of strategies engaged in to get more experiences, as a way to get another shoot-up of these mystical drugs.

John also said that they were compulsive in talking endlessly about these experiences with others, secretly feeding their driven needs for approval or attention with the adulation they received. Though they often put on the appearance of rebuffing the attention with a humble rhetoric, as soon as someone offers a criticism they grow agitated or angry and interpret any critiques as rejections of God. For John, this was just a re-directed form of disordered sensuality, but instead of it being a “carnal” sensuality, he says it’s an affective or spiritualized sensuality. And, as he reveals in his review of the spiritual guises of the seven deadly sins, that may be far worse because it’s so well disguised. While John, of course, allows for sensual experiences of God — he pours out lots of ink speaking about their variety, meaning and means of discerning — he is quick to say that spiritual experiences should never be sought. They should be only accepted if they are genuine, never clung to, and always surrendered back to God once they happen. In fact, he says the safest and best response to a mystical experience is to ignore it for the sake of humility, discretion and pure faith, and if it’s genuinely of God he will make certain the grace intended will be given.

You almost get the sense in the Ascent of Mount Carmel that, in the face of most of the things people would claim as amazing spiritual experiences, John is yawning, really unimpressed by most of it. For him, if experiences are truly from God in the deepest sense, they have already had their effect in the spirit once they occur. Once they happen they should be let go of at once. If we cling to them, become overly curious or fascinated by them, or seek more of the same, the door is flung open to diabolical pseudo-mystic mimicry or to the temptation to squander God’s good gifts on our own ego-driven passions, and not on growth in faith, hope and charity; on a love of the Cross. Satan, he says, is all to happy to provide abundant phenomena, especially if he sees its feeding a need-driven ego. For John, you can avoid all of this very simply by exercising detachment, humility and keeping your eyes fixed on the real goal of the mystical life: loving God and neighbor with the very love of Jesus on the Cross.

John loved the well known story from the Life of St. Antony of the Desert. After having had a vision of the desert filled with snares, he heard a voice command him, “Walk!” When Antony replied in anguish, “What can get me through such snares?,” he heard a voice say, “Humility.”

For John, among the key signs of genuine spiritual experience, and a genuine reception of that experience by a mature person of faith, is growth in self-forgetfulness, detachment, hatred for sin, the virtues (especially humility and charity), love for the Cross and for one’s critics, and the like. And if we want to hear God’s voice, John says, then open sacred Scripture and start praying it. Scripture is the real gold of God’s Voice; the rest, for him, are mere trinkets; or incitements to turn back to Scripture. Experience junkies, for John, always look for new revelations, new words, new sensations, become ever more self-absorbed and flee both hardship and the Cross. The saints, on the other hand, are more than content with what has already been revealed by God in Scripture and Tradition; more than satisfied by the hiddenness of the Sacramental Christ; find faithfulness to the demands of the present moment’s duties as a supreme mode of communion with God; and, the more they “experience” God, the more other-focused, God-and-neighbor absorbed they become, the less obsessed they are with the goodies, kickbacks or feelings feedback. The more genuine the experience, the more interested they are in their present responsibilities, their own state in life calling. In a word, they are more interested in God and his will than in themselves and their will.

And this is all perfectly summed up by that funny play on the word mysticism — myst-I-cism. If it all leads to more mist, I and schism, it’s not from God, i.e. if it leads to unreality fantasy thinking, ego absorption, isolation from the “messy” Body of Christ and the rabble of humanity, it’s fatally flawed.

St. John himself

Let me leave you with a selection from St. John himself. Here he speaks of the spiritualized form that the capital sin of gluttony takes in those who, though well along in the spiritual life, are still in need of deep interior reform and purification. It’s an addendum to the above, is long, and so as I have done in the past I will not post again tomorrow to allow space for you to read it carefully if you wish.

With respect to the fourth sin, which is spiritual gluttony, there is much to be said, for there is scarce one of these beginners who, however satisfactory his progress, falls not into some of the many imperfections which come to these beginners with respect to this sin, on account of the sweetness which they find at first in spiritual exercises. For many of these, lured by the sweetness and pleasure which they find in such exercises, strive more after spiritual sweetness than after spiritual purity and discretion, which is that which God regards and accepts throughout the spiritual journey. Therefore, besides the  imperfections into which the seeking for sweetness of this kind makes them fall, the gluttony which they now have makes them continually go to extremes, so that they pass beyond the limits of moderation within which the virtues are acquired and wherein they have their being. For some of these persons, attracted by the pleasure which they find therein, kill themselves with penances, and others weaken themselves with fasts, by performing more than their frailty can bear, without the order or advice of any, but rather endeavoring to avoid those whom they should obey in these matters; some, indeed, dare to do these things even though the contrary has been commanded them.

2. These persons are most imperfect and unreasonable; for they set bodily penance before subjection and obedience, which is penance according to reason and discretion, and therefore a sacrifice more acceptable and pleasing to God than any other. But such one-sided penance is no more than the penance of beasts, to which they are attracted, exactly like beasts, by the desire and pleasure which they find therein. Inasmuch as all extremes are vicious, and as in behaving thus such persons are working their own will, they grow in vice rather than in virtue; for, to say the least, they are acquiring spiritual gluttony and pride in this way, through not walking in obedience. And many of these the devil assails, stirring up this gluttony in them through the pleasures and desires which he increases within them, to such an extent that, since they can no longer help themselves, they either change or vary or add to that which is commanded them, as any obedience in this respect is so bitter to them.

To such an evil pass have some persons come that, simply because it is through obedience that they engage in these exercises, they lose the desire and devotion to perform them, their only desire and pleasure being to do what they themselves are inclined to do, so that it would probably be more profitable for them not to engage in these exercises at all.

3. You will find that many of these persons are very insistent with their spiritual masters to be granted that which they desire, extracting it from them almost by force; if they be refused it they become as peevish as children and go about in great displeasure, thinking that they are not serving God when they are not allowed to do that which they would. For they go about clinging to their own will and pleasure, which they treat as though it came from God; and immediately their directors take it from them, and try to subject them to the will of God, they become peevish, grow faint-hearted and fall away. These persons think that their own satisfaction and pleasure are the satisfaction and service of God.

4. There are others, again, who, because of this gluttony, know so little of their own unworthiness and misery and have thrust so far from them the loving fear and reverence which they owe to the greatness of God, that they hesitate not to insist continually that their confessors shall allow them to communicate [receive Holy Communion] often. And, what is worse, they frequently dare to communicate without the leave and consent of the minister and steward of Christ, merely acting on their own opinion, and contriving to conceal the truth from him. And for this reason, because they desire to communicate continually, they make their confessions carelessly, being more eager to eat than to eat cleanly and perfectly, although it would be healthier and holier for them had they the contrary inclination and begged their confessors not to command them to approach the altar so frequently: between these two extremes, however, the better way is that of humble resignation. But the boldness referred to is a thing that does great harm, and men may fear to be punished for such temerity.

5. These persons, in communicating, strive with every nerve to obtain some kind of sensible sweetness and pleasure, instead of humbly doing reverence and giving praise within themselves to God. And in such wise do they devote themselves to this that, when they have received no pleasure or sweetness in the senses, they think that they have accomplished nothing at all. This is to judge God very unworthily; they have not realized that the least of the benefits which come from this Most Holy Sacrament is that which concerns the senses; and that the invisible part of the grace that it bestows is much greater; for, in order that they may look at it with the eyes of faith, God oftentimes withholds from them these other consolations and sweetnesses of sense. And thus they desire to feel and taste God as though He were comprehensible by them and accessible to them, not only in this, but likewise in other spiritual practices. All this is very great imperfection and completely opposed to the nature of God, since it is impurity in faith.

6. These persons have the same defect as regards the practice of prayer, for they think that all the business of prayer consists in experiencing sensible pleasure and devotion and they strive to obtain this by great effort, wearying and fatiguing their faculties and their heads; and when they have not found this pleasure they become greatly discouraged, thinking that they have accomplished nothing. Through these efforts they lose true devotion and spirituality, which consist in perseverance, together with patience and humility and mistrust of themselves, that they may please God alone. For this reason, when they have once failed to find pleasure in this or some other exercise, they have great disinclination and repugnance to return to it, and at times they abandon it. They are, in fact, as we have said, like children, who are not influenced by reason, and who act, not from rational motives, but from inclination. Such persons expend all their effort in seeking spiritual pleasure and consolation; they never tire therefore, of reading books; and they begin, now one meditation, now another, in their pursuit of this pleasure which they desire to experience in the things of God. But God, very justly, wisely and lovingly, denies it to them, for otherwise this spiritual gluttony and inordinate appetite would breed innumerable evils. It is, therefore, very fitting that they should enter into the dark night, whereof we shall speak, that they may be purged from this childishness.

7. These persons who are thus inclined to such pleasures have another very great imperfection, which is that they are very weak and remiss in
journeying upon the hard road of the Cross; for the soul that is given to sweetness naturally has its face set against all self-denial, which is devoid of sweetness.

8. These persons have many other imperfections which arise hence, of which in time the Lord heals them by means of temptations, aridities and other trials, all of which are part of the dark night. All these I will not treat further here, lest I become too lengthy; I will only say that spiritual temperance and sobriety lead to another and a very different temper, which is that of mortification, fear and submission in all things. It thus becomes clear that the perfection and worth of things consist not in the multitude and the pleasantness of one’s actions, but in being able to deny oneself in them; this such persons must endeavor to compass, in so far as they may, until God is pleased to purify them indeed, by bringing them into the dark night, to arrive at which I am hastening on with my account of these imperfections.

9th Century Byzantine icon Taken from http://www.byzantinemuseum.gr

Speaking of silence…

As promised yesterday, I will not Blog theology today. So consider this a faux post.

As American novelist William S. Burroughs once said, “Silence is only frightening to people who are compulsively verbalizing.”

So let me at least feign for a day that I am not a compulsive verbalizer.

Our Wild God

God Appears to Moses in Burning Bush. Painting from Saint Isaac’s Cathedral, Saint Petersburg, Russia. Taken from http://upload.wikimedia.org

A friend of mine shared with me a story last weekend about a malapropism that found its way into the pre-Mass announcements at a parish one Sunday morning. The opening song for that day was that wonderful hymn, written by 19th century British composer Fr. Frederick Faber, There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy. The lector, who is quite excellent, got up before Mass began and read the opening announcements. When she got to the end, she proclaimed in a loud and confident voice:

Please join us in singing our opening song, “There’s a Wilderness in God’s Mercy.”

The choir cracked up.

Felix Culpa

After chuckling a bit myself, I began, predictably, to muse on the theological possibilities found in this happy mistake. I thought of the meaning of the word “wilderness,” which comes from the Old English wild-deor, “wild deer.” It refers to lands populated by untamed, undomesticated animals that escape the control of human beings, or, more generally, to the wider natural world that is unconcerned with the orderly concerns of human culture and enterprise. It is a world fraught with danger and mystery, strangely seductive to those who loathe the sleepy comforts of an overly-controlled suburban contentment that populates our more or less gated lives. Wilderness is where the sleepy must go if they are to awaken and escape from their binding attachments that turn comfort into an idol, safety into a prison, sameness into ossifying chains that keep suburbanites from soaring into the City of God. As Thoreau said in Walden,

We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.

I have a friend who loves the to engage in period forays into the wilds, to trek outdoors where he loves hiking and camping, adores the discomforts of grunge and sweat and mosquitoes and unexpected downpours. He’s been hit by lightening (via the water his boat was floating in), bitten by snakes and attacked by hawks when he ventured too near their nest. By week, he’s a professional businessman. I asked him once why he felt so drawn to such things and he said,

It’s what keeps my soul from going stale. It’s where I see God most clearly, when all the clutter and busyness of life peels away. It’s where I can drop the Type A obsession with neatness and be messy in God’s order of things. Out in nature it’s like God’s saying to me: you humans, you’re so small, and you’re part of something much bigger than yourselves, a world you just can’t control. You don’t try to control it, you just find your place in the ecosystem, in an order not of your making. It’s got a beauty that’s way too easy to forget is already all around you all the time when your surrounded all day by concrete walls and papers and virtual media. It’s like the week that grows in the sidewalk crack, defying our claim to bend all nature to our utilitarian will. After I get back from being in the forests and swamps, I can see God much better in the paper and concrete; and in the people around me.

Wild at Heart

God created the wilderness and asked man to make of it a Garden, but Man, having rebelled, was expelled from the Garden into the wilderness. But our vocation remains, a vocation to transform the wilderness into a Garden or, maybe, to discover in the wilderness the Garden God is fashioning. Something like that.

In the Scriptures God, who is himself a wandering Nomad of sorts, has a certain affection for journeying with his chosen people into the wilds of a trackless and barren desert. It’s the place where God leads Israel when they’ve become overly controlled or controlling, enslaved in pseudo-worlds of their own making. These are worlds populated by false gods, or by a domesticated God fashioned into an idol, a work of human ingenuity that strips God of all his dangerous attributes that threaten to expose humanity’s injustices, deceptions, guilt or inhuman malice.

If there’s anything that true about the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, it’s that he is essentially wild, fearfully uncontrollable, and absolutely free from all necessity save the exigencies of his own divine nature (e.g. his truth, goodness, fidelity, mercy). Every biblical character who encounters God must be at once told, “Do not be afraid!” because to meet God is to be set off balance as unclean meets the All-Holy, injustice meets the All-Just, or some such juxtaposed contrast that shatters petrified hearts, refashioning them in the Potter’s free-wheeling Hands. Even in the Christian mystical tradition, one frequently hears the mystic describe the “shock” of encountering God with the stock phrase, “of sudden!” God’s coming, without warning, comes like a sudden squall, though, unlike the natural phenomenon, the divine Storm comes to wreak havoc only in order to recreate and restore the original order.

You might say that the essence of the covenant God makes with Israel, fulfilled in Christ, can be summed up as an invitation of God to us, and our affirmative consent, to allow “God to be God” as God with us. That’s what Emmanuel means, “God with us,” but on on God’s terms, not ours. That’s who Jesus was and is, God with us on God’s terms, even (and especially) in the face of our violent resistance and rejection — and there, crucified, God-with-us reveals himself to be, beyond all our wildest imaginings, unrelentlingly merciful. And one need only think of the resurrection appearances — strange, unexpected, terrifying, bewildering, awful, inducing worship — to sense that this revelation of God is ruinous for the preconceptions of sinful men and women who wish God to be God on their terms.

There’s something gravely dangerous, disconcerting, about surrendering to God’s uncontrolled nature, especially inasmuch as our fallen nature, fashioned originally in his image, has marred the divine likeness by attempting to seize control of the divine image by fashioning idols, staging a coup to overthrow God and, ultimately, plotting to slay him. Those who choose thus set themselves at odds with God, against his Face and his wildness, suddenly discover that he appears, to the reprobate, to be wrath. As God has not changed, and cannot change, we discern that it is our posture toward him that has altered. But God, whose justice is ever-rife with prodigal mercy, reveals to us the way back, draws us by “bands of mercy” (Hosea 11:4) toward the path of life, which is life lived in concert with God’s untethered, unstrained and pity-full love. When the author of Hebrews 10:31 says, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” we might read there not only divine wrath but, for those willing to repent of their deadly coup, God’s far more fearful mercy. It is an unyieldingly, mercilessly relentless mercy that effects in the willing a total and complete remedy that heals our sins to the deepest roots.

St. John of the Cross speaks so powerfully of this “labor of mercy” in the Dark Night. There he argues that those who consent to permit God’s unchained mercy a free reign in their deepest depths feel simultaneously out of control and absolutely secure as God, the absolutely trustworthy Divine Surgeon, sees to the death of death within us. Here, John says, prayer becomes challenging as we sense that God is remaking us within, deconstructing our sins and distortions, and recreating within us the Kingdom of God. Those who pass through this final purifying “night” discover within them the Dawn’s rising, and they themselves become wild with the folly of the Risen Christ, wise with the wisdom of the Cross, are propelled to and fro by the freely blowing Spirit, drunk with divine love’s madness and freed (as Augustine says) to love and do as they will. But none of this can be had until they have been freed from self-will, from illusions and flights of fantasy, grounded in the Commandments and the virtues, for there is no true freedom until one’s will has been chained to the divine will by obedience. Those who seek freedom without obedience worship themselves and seek a false wilderness that leads to death and the land of illusions.

Wild in Mind

A last meditation on the “Wilderness in God’s Mercy.” In our theological tradition, we affirm that human language has the capacity to reveal the truth of God’s transcendent nature (called kataphatic, or “saying” theology), but we also affirm that human language is very fragile in is capacity to comprehend God’s nature (called apophatic, or “unsaying” theology). Theologians try to balance these two in “the ascent of the mind to God,” climbing an analogical ladder that we are at-once climbing and being lifted up on. Our knowledge of God, as we grow in intimacy with him, increasingly enters into contact with this unstable tension between “saying” and “unsaying,” stammering and singing our way into the mystery of what Meister Eckhart called the “vast and silent desert of Divinity.” God is vast beyond our every capacity to “think big” about him, which, for the theologian should not stand as a reason to despair but rather as a reason to give thanks! In the words a small child in Iowa who once misspoke at Mass, miming the proper liturgical acclamation that follows the biblical readings, “Thanks to Big God.”

It’s a tension that elicits with the theologian (or any person of faith) humility, wonder, desire, longing, terror, dizziness, joy and ecstasy, widening our horizons and making us evermore capax Dei, capable of God. It’s why theologians must also be men and women of prayer, as we strive to experience the Mysteries we explore and render ourselves vulnerable to suffering the coming of the real God, the true God, the living God, and not the God of our puny imaginings or warped desires. In other words, theologians are those whose hearts, having been purified, can see God under the form of an inchoate glory and called to share our vision with the Church. Or, for those of us who know we are far from that purity, at least give voice to those who have seen thus.

Saints of God, come to our aid!

Let me end this already too-long post (which I will give you rest from tomorrow with a post-less day) with some fav quotes from two of the great Masters of God’s wilderness, St. Gregory of Nyssa and Ps-Dionysius.

St. Gregory:

The feelings that come to a man who stands on a high mountain peak and looks down onto some immense sea are the same feelings that come to me when I look out from the high mountain peak of the Lord’s words into the incomprehensible depths of his thoughts. When you look at mountains that stand next to the sea, you will often find that they seem to have been cut in half, so that on the side nearest the sea there is a sheer drop and something dropped from the summit will fall straight into the depths. Someone who looks down from such a peak will become dizzy, and so too I become dizzy when I look down from the high peak of these words of the Lord: Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. These words offer the sight of God to those whose hearts have been purified and purged. But look: St John says No-one has seen God. The Apostle Paul’s sublime mind goes further still: What no man has seen and no man can see. This is the slippery and crumbling rock that seems to give the mind no support in the heights. Even the teaching of Moses declared God to be a rock that was so inaccessible that our minds could not even approach it: No-one can see the Lord.

To see God is to have eternal life – and yet the pillars of our faith, John and Paul and Moses, say that God cannot be seen. Can you understand the dizziness of a soul that contemplates their words? If God is life, whoever does not see God does not see life. If the prophets and the Apostle, inspired by the Holy Spirit, attest that God cannot be seen, does this not wreck all the hopes of those who seek his Face?

It is the Lord who sustains our floundering hope, just as he sustained Peter when he was floundering in the water, and made the waters firm beneath his feet. If the hand of the Word stretches out to us as well, and sets us firm in a new understanding when these speculations have made us lose our balance, we shall be safe from fear, held safe in the guiding hand of the Word. Blessed, he says, are those who possess a pure heart, for they shall see God.

Ps.Dionysius:

How then can we speak of the divine names? How can we do this if the Transcendent surpasses all discourse and all knowledge, if it abides beyond the reach of mind and of being, if it encompasses and circumscribes, embraces and anticipates all thins while itself eluding their grasp and escaping from any perception, imagination, opinion, name, discourse, apprehension, or understanding? How can we enter upon this undertaking if the Godhead is superior to being and is unspeakable and unnameable?

Offering up our Owning up

Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.” The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply, “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied to him, “Amen I say to you today you will be with me in Paradise.” Luke 23:39-43

Yesterday I mentioned a powerful homily I heard at a private retreat, preached by the retreat master, on the problem of suffering and evil in the life of Christian faith. The focus of the retreat was on cultivating a spirituality of the Cross, and his particular interest was in helping us learn how to trust God enough to give ourselves entirely, without fear’s reserve, to the hard work of the spiritual life; and that even, and especially, in the darkest times. It’s true enough, he said, that for so many of us the larger part of our failure to progress in Christian perfection is staurophobia, fear of the cross. This fear takes many forms. It could look like anything from an unwillingness to work hard at the difficult virtues, to a reluctance to die to our cherished vices or disordered attachments, to a mistrustful fear that God will not shepherd us along the way into the final safety of eternal life. That last one, he said, is a cherished lie of the Enemy, who Itself hates the cross with a perfect hatred.

The retreat conferences were sweet but, like the scroll John ate (Rev. 10:9), while they were sweet to my mind they were bitter to my passions and will!

If you, O Lord, laid bare our guilt,
Lord, who would survive?
But with you is found forgiveness:
for this we revere you. — Psalm 130:3-4

third point he made, which I’d like to mention briefly today (and I am tight on time, which is to your benefit!), was about how we are to face the sufferings caused by our own bad decisions and stupidities, our own sins. His last Conference, incidentally, was on how to redemptively face the sufferings caused by others. Maybe another day I will sum that one up here.

He commented on how important it is for us to inventory our own lives, our own decisions and personal responsibility, whenever we face hardships. We would do well to ask, In my present hardship and trials, where am I paying the price for past imprudence, impatience, rash judgment, anger, lust, greed, envy, pride, laziness, lack of discretion, ignoring good advice or warnings, and so on? While in our culture we are quick to blame our folly on factors beyond our control, the Christian must honestly come to terms with free will, personal culpability and discern his or her own responsibility in the unfolding of life’s events.

Though we need not identify specific sufferings and trials directly with divine “temporal” punishments (this, he said, is too complex and dangerous to sort out in detail), he continued, nor do we need to wallow in paralyzing guilt or self-pity over our misdeeds, we should humbly and honestly own our own responsibility in the present state of affairs, repent of wherever we may have been culpable for sinful decisions, and face with serene hope the hardships that have flowed from our poor decisions with trust in God’s merciful, redemptive, purifying Providence. “We must face our sinful past with Peter’s bitter tears, humility and rekindled love, and not with Judas’ self-centered, self-reliant, self-pitying despair,” he said.

How many times, I thought, I have moaned and groaned over trials that are largely attributable to my own bad past decisions! And it’s true enough to say that there are few things more distasteful than enduring the protests and kvetching of someone who bemoans the real-world consequences of their own poor decisions. My spiritual director would often say to me, “Your failures are supposed to food for your virtue and the greatest source of your humility. So get to it!” How marvelous, he’d say, that every off-key note you insert into God’s unfolding symphony can become, when you humbly surrender your junk to His mercy, the first new on-key note in a new movement within that symphony.

The Paschal symphony! It became a new theological analogy for me to think about everything. The terrible dissonance of the Cross, resolved by God into a new and unspeakably lovely harmony rising from the Body of the Risen Christ. What a fresh view of what Liturgy is! For me, that’s the heart of hope that motivates me to get up after I fall.

“Dear Sir: Regarding your article ‘What’s Wrong with the World?’ I am. Yours truly, G.K. Chesterton”

I had a friend years ago who was what you might call an “old salt” or a brilliant rustic. He blended faith into his acerbic, curmudgeonly personality in a singularly unusual fashion. He would often say that the greatest cross God gave him was himself (though that may be said to simply be a universal truism)! Anyway, once when we were having a “holy smokes” chat (cigars and God-talk), he shared with me in a particularly rare and vulnerable moment that he had once made a “deal” with God years ago that went something like this (used with his permission):

Lord, if I willingly accept all the thorns you permit in my life as merciful remedies for my past, present and future sins, please do me the favor of sparing me Purgatory and making me into a most unlikely creature: a saint.

What I love about his approach is that, while he knows his own follies wreak plenty of havoc in his life, he’s not scrupulous about it, but very matter of fact in admitting he’s had a hand in his own travails and God can turn those in his favor if he’s humble and trusting about it all. To me, that’s humble in the deepest sense: the ability to look at our broken reality truthfully, without rationalization, but to do so through the lens of mercy that alone can make of our imperfections a way to perfection. Only the humble can be hopeful, while the arrogant despair. As St. Silouan of Mt. Athos starkly puts it,

Keep thy mind in hell, and despair not.

Salvation is about God, and while rationalization makes salvation about me, repentance and and hope make salvation about God. My rustic friend trusts that God’s mercy is what counts, and his own willingness to say fiat voluntas tua, “Thy will be done.” He trusts that whatever may come to pass in his life will yield ultimate good for him if, as he said, “I let God have His way and not insist on my own.”

His words reminded me of King David’s response to the prophet Gad when, after he had yet again sinned against the Lord, David was offered by God through Gad the chance to choose among three different punishments for his offense. When Gad said, “Which do you choose?” David responded,

I am greatly distressed. But let us fall into the hand of God, whose mercy is great, rather than into human hands. — 2 Samuel 24:14

Et clamans voce magna Jesus ait: Pater, in manus tuas commendo spiritum meum, “Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’” — Luke 23:46

 

 

Paschal Providence

I heard a really superb homily a number of years ago at a retreat, and it was on the mystery of suffering and evil as seen through the lens of faith in Christ. That’s a rare homily to hear anywhere, but it’s undoubtedly true that people of faith long to hear the “Gospel of Suffering,” as Bl. John Paul II dubbed it in his own post-assassination-attempt meditations published as an apostolic letter, Salvifici Doloris.

[As this post will not be a comprehensive exploration of suffering-evil's "mystery," let me recommend four readings if you want more: A. Nichols' chapter on the philosophical-theological issues at stake; R. Shaw's theological-existential reflections; Peter Kreeft's concise summary of an apology on suffering; and D. Hart's challenging musings on the deep structures of the theological problem of evil-suffering.]

It was the kind of homily that makes one search through their wallet for a piece of paper to write notes on. The quotes from the homilist I include here are all “glossed,” meaning I wrote them as an interpolation mixed with my own simultaneous insights. So it’s a hybrid homily.

The homilist made several excellent points, but I will only comment on two of them here (I’ll hit a third tomorrow).

Divine Providence, not Fate

First, he addressed the way Christians view divine Providence, or God’s wise governance of history. “Divine Providence,” he said, “is the key to finding meaning in life and history.” He noted that the Christian tradition (drawing from its Jewish heritage) rejected a pagan worldview which asserted that history, and even the gods, are governed by a universal and impersonal force called Fate, which is itself essentially blind to justice, terrifyingly capricious and ultimately unconcerned with humanity’s temporal or eternal well-being. Rather, he argued, Christianity proposed a radical Jewish view that all things and all history and under the sway of one Creator-God who is all-wise, all-powerful and all-good, and that the ultimate defining power that stands as judge and ruler over the cosmos is divine hesed-emet, “steadfast mercy.” And even more specifically for Christians, steadfast-mercy as it is revealed fully in Jesus crucified, dead and risen from the grave.

This, he said, was arguably among the greatest thought-revolutions of the ancient world, and one that, as a church history professor of mine once felicitously worded it, “elicited from pagan converts a collective sigh of relief,” i.e. so that’s what stands behind this worn and weary world. Deo gratias!

The homilist continued, saying that though the exact nature of how God governs a history marked by oscillations of good and evil without overriding creatures’ own natural freedoms is largely shrouded in mystery, there are some things we can affirm. One of them, he said, was powerfully stated by John Paul II in his superb book, Memory and Identity, where the pontiff said,

It could be said that human history is marked from the very beginning by the limit God the Creator places upon evil.

God’s Providence, therefore, guides history by limiting the progress of evil, which only advances as far as God permits. The space of this divinely limited permission is, he contended, a “safe space” where we can “hide,” as the psalmist says in Psalm 91, under God’s sheltering wings in absolute trust. This is really, he said, what the sixth and seventh petitions in the Lord’s prayer are about (“lead us not…deliver us”), and is what St. Paul has in mind when he says in 1 Corinthians 10:13,

God is faithful and will not let you be tried beyond your strength; but with the trial he will also provide a way out, so that you may be able to bear it.

The idea really runs through the entire biblical narrative and stands at the epicenter of the Paschal Mystery: the Passion, death, burial and descent into hell is evil’s farthest boundary, the edge of God’s No, while the resurrection, God’s Yes, is the sealing of that boundary’s Gate by which redeemed humanity passes into the Paradise of eternal well-being.

Permitted in view of…

Then he noted, briefly but succinctly, that within those limits God permits evil and suffering only in view of the “greater good” he draws from it (again, think here Paschal Mystery as the interpretive lens). But he added an important qualifier:

We should not think of God’s permitting evil in view of some greater good as God somehow positively desiring evil things to happen to make even better things happen through them. No! Rather, God permits evil only inasmuch as He foresees greater goods can be drawn out of them by His Providential plan. While you might say God’s permission for evil is the “space” required for the evolution of finite freedom toward infinite perfection, you should not say that God wills evils in the same sense that he wills goods, or even in the same sense as He wills the goods drawn out of the permitted evils.

This is important because it means that God’s ordained will (i.e. what He directly and positively wills) and His permissive will (i.e. what He allows but does not directly/positively will) are both defined by His good-will, i.e. His love. He always and in all things desires and wills the ultimate and final good for all. That’s really important to remember if you’re going to have a place to drop your anchor in the storms of suffering; it’s where hope finds a sure hold, the rock of God’s good-will that’s backed up by an infinite power and wisdom by which He is able and willing to accomplish that good-will.

This, he said, is the rock-bottom foundation of our absolute trust in God’s provident care for us, and is what St. Paul meant when he said in Romans 8:28,

We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

And it’s for those “who love God” not because God is some sycophant who benefits only His devotees, but because such “lovers” alone are able to pattern their lives in harmonious accord with the patterns of Providence, which are the patterns of love. And that love looks like Christ, who is “the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully [revealing] man to man himself and [making] his supreme calling clear” (Gaudium et Spes 22).

Divine Providence, I.N.R.I.

I’ll try to keep this short for fear of excessive length). The second point he made (alluded to above) flowed from the first, and that is that God’s Providence, the divine care we entrust ourselves to unconditionally, is to be understood only through the lens of the Paschal Mystery, the death and resurrection of Jesus. God’s Providence is a “paschal providence.”

He quoted the Latin dictum, per cucem ad lucem, “through the cross to the light,” and said that we simply cannot comprehend the divine-human meaning of evil and suffering as a Christian unless we saturate our own “linguistic universe” with the “word of the cross” (1 Cor. 1:18) refracted through Christ’s traditional seven last words. This was a wonderfully new thought for me! He said,

The Seven Last Words of Jesus sum up, you might say, a Christian grammar of faith in the night of suffering; a faith that engages both a sinful, fallen world and a silent God in a very specific manner. This vision of faith is only intelligible, you might say, from the vantage of a dying God who, though struck down, looks up in trust and dies in the hope of “the joy that was set before him.” But the fact is that this language, these 7 words, apart from faith, are folly, absurdity, madness, scandalous. Those who make that language their native tongue will be seen as fools, even as they become capable of a hope and a love that are truly otherworldly; supra-human.

In case you are not familiar with the tradition list of those seven last words, let me share them in summary for here:

  1. Luke 23:34: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.
  2. Luke 23:43: Truly, I say to you, this day you will be with me in Paradise.
  3. John 19:26–27: Woman, behold your son. Behold your mother.
  4. Matthew 27:46 & Mark 15:34 My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?
  5. John 19:28: I thirst.
  6. John 19:29-30: It is finished.
  7. Luke 23:46: Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.

Horizon-stretching!

For me, those insights were earth-shaking, horizon-stretching ones that pulled together things I knew already in one way or another, but joined them into a new and fresh portrait. Seeing my whole life, my own (weak and fitful!) personal trust in God’s provision for my welfare through the translucent icon of a Crucified Christ through whom all of history finds its meaning, judgment and fulfillment, was, let’s say unsettlingly comforting. It also gave me a new theological lens through which to read a saying my very first spiritual director shared with me when I would fret about the twists and turns of my life,

Trusting God only means something when you’re suspended naked above Golgotha. No need for trust when you’re building tents on Tabor.

[These references, if they are not clear, are to the sites of Jesus' crucifixion (Golgotha) and transfiguration (Tabor).]

When Divine Providence becomes our vision

I will end this unwieldy reflection with a quote I have shared before. It’s by the Russian saint-martyr, the eldest daughter of Czar Nicholas II, Grand Duchess St. Olga. Shortly before her murder by the Bolsheviks in 1917, she penned a prayer that reflects this brash trust in God’s “paschal providence,” and bears within it the refracted grammar of the dying Christ:

Send us, Lord, the patience, in this year of stormy, gloom-filled days, to suffer popular oppression, and the tortures of our hangmen. Give us strength, oh Lord of justice, our neighbor’s evil to forgive; and the Cross so heavy and bloody, with Your humility to meet.  In days when enemies rob us: to bear the shame and humiliation, O Christ our Savior, help us. Ruler of the world, God of the universe, bless us with prayer and give our humble souls rest in this unbearable, dreadful hour. At the threshold of the grave, breathe into the lips of Your slaves inhuman strength — to pray meekly for our enemies.

St. Olga Nikolaevna Romanova from http://upload.wikimedia.org

Shabbat

from sd.keepcalm-o-matic.co.uk

Today is the Jewish Sabbath, the Shabbat, a day of ceasing from all servile labor in which God’s people breathe deep the sweet fragrance of the Torah and exhale on high a new song of praise and thanks to their Creator and Redeemer.

The Sabbath, commanded by God to shatter man’s slavery to unrelenting work, creates a free space in time for joyfully and thankfully receiving the sheer gift of existence itself afresh from the Hand of God. It also creates a space for us to remember the mirabilia Dei, “the wonderful works of God” that have taken place in history as the eternal God again and again broke into time to save humanity and establish with us an everlasting covenant of mercy.

For Christians who celebrate the fulfillment of the Sabbath on Sunday, the 8th and final day of creation, the day the Spirit-breathing Christ rose from death, the Sabbath is especially a day consecrated to liturgical worship and prayer. Liturgy is, you might say, the God-designed manner by which each man and woman enters into the restful Sanctuary that abides at the thrice holy Heart of the life-creating Trinity. On Sabbath we are not just invited to come near to God, but to plunge into Him, to eat and drink of His immortal life and love. Sunday is our weekly foretaste of that entry into the Unthinkable, the Unspeakable, and Holy Mass is where we amble into the veiled threshold of Mystery.

Not a bad reason to plan your Sunday trek to Mass as a day “set apart” for God.

To-be

As an aside, regarding the character of Sabbath as a day to be joyously grateful for the gift of existence, I had an insight in February that I’d like to share here. Here’s my journal entry from February 7th (which I won’t indent to keep the italics):

Here’s an an insight it seems that the Lord has given me about the “everything” for which we give thanks – an opening into a certain “mysticism of being” (or maybe an ontological mysticism) that claims within me an irrepressible and moment-by-moment joying gratitude over the surplus of meaning, the superabundant beauty that impregnates the Genesis 1:31 “very good” fact of existence itself, i.e. that even before meaning and goodness and discernable purpose are located by us within in distinct āctūs, “acts” of being (e.g. my health, the birth of a child, a lovely dew-drenched rosebud), meaning and goodness and purpose worthy of laud are already/always found simply and without qualification in that fact of esse, of “to-be” itself, regardless of the particular existential colors being presents in any given moment. Just “to-be,” as a reception of the pure-gratuity of God’s eternal-creating Act, should suffice to vacate all boredom and meaninglessness from every moment. And every moment of to-be that is this received within such a “eucharistic heart” wells up through us, blended with Seraphic hymns, into imperishable eternity.  This point is what for me gives such force to Meister Eckhart’s catastrophically simple saying: “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is ‘thank you,’ it will be enough.” It’s been a revolution within a revolution within a revolution for me.

Cahill’s Shabbat

I recall the day I first read through Thomas Cahill’s fascinating book, The Gifts of the Jews. I was bowled over in particular by his insights on the Jewish Sabbath. These insights made me grateful in a new way for this singular gift the Jews bequeathed to the world and to the Church, and it made me more keenly aware of the tragedy of a Christian people who have largely forgotten what a precious pearl they have to offer the world. Here’s the quote that really took me:

No ancient society before the Jews had a day of rest. The God who made the universe and rested bids us do the same, calling us to a weekly restoration of prayer, study, and recreation (or re-creation). In this study (or Talmud), we have the beginnings of what Nahum Sarna has called ‘the universal duty of continuous self-education,’ Israel being the first human society to so value education and the first to envision it as a universal pursuit – and a democratic obligation that those in power must safeguard on behalf of those in their employ. The connections to both freedom and creativity lie just beneath the surface of this commandment: leisure is appropriate to a free people, and this people so recently free find themselves quickly establishing this quiet weekly celebration of their freedom; leisure is the necessary ground of creativity, and a free people are free to imitate the creativity of God. The Sabbath is surely one of the simplest and sanest recommendations any god has ever made; and those who live without such septimanal punctuation are emptier and less resourceful. Those people who work seven days a week, even if they are being paid millions of dollars to do so, are, in the biblical conception, considered slaves.

JP2, We  You

One last point, to avoid making this post obscenely long.

Soon to be Pope St. John Paul II wrote a whole letter on the meaning and celebration of Sunday (click here), and it’s well worth reading. It’s theologically and historically rich, and is filled with plenty of excellent practical ideas for keeping the Sabbath “holy.” I’d like to end today with my favorite 2 paragraphs in the document. It’s a tad long, but worth the read.

Imagine a world of 2+ billion Christians carrying this out every 7 days. Now, let’s pledge to move from image to reality…

The Eucharist is an event and programme of true brotherhood. From the Sunday Mass there flows a tide of charity destined to spread into the whole life of the faithful, beginning by inspiring the very way in which they live the rest of Sunday. If Sunday is a day of joy, Christians should declare by their actual behaviour that we cannot be happy “on our own”. They look around to find people who may need their help. It may be that in their neighbourhood or among those they know there are sick people, elderly people, children or immigrants who precisely on Sundays feel more keenly their isolation, needs and suffering. It is true that commitment to these people cannot be restricted to occasional Sunday gestures. But presuming a wider sense of commitment, why not make the Lord’s Day a more intense time of sharing, encouraging all the inventiveness of which Christian charity is capable? Inviting to a meal people who are alone, visiting the sick, providing food for needy families, spending a few hours in voluntary work and acts of solidarity: these would certainly be ways of bringing into people’s lives the love of Christ received at the Eucharistic table.

Lived in this way, not only the Sunday Eucharist but the whole of Sunday becomes a great school of charity, justice and peace. The presence of the Risen Lord in the midst of his people becomes an undertaking of solidarity, a compelling force for inner renewal, an inspiration to change the structures of sin in which individuals, communities and at times entire peoples are entangled. Far from being an escape, the Christian Sunday is a “prophecy” inscribed on time itself, a prophecy obliging the faithful to follow in the footsteps of the One who came “to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to captives and new sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Lk 4:18-19). In the Sunday commemoration of Easter, believers learn from Christ, and remembering his promise: “I leave you peace, my peace I give you” (Jn 14:27), they become in their turn builders of peace.

 

Spent Love Wins

“Wastefulness is the original Christian attitude…The entire Passion occurs under the sign of this complete self-wasting of God’s love for the world.” — Hans Urs von Balthasar

A few scattered thoughts on a Lenten Friday.

I was recently talking to some seminarians about how Catholics view the Gospel of Prosperity, which (in caricature) essentially affirms that following Jesus leads to temporal surplus and worldly/physical well-being.

The Catholic view, which of course cannot be justly summarized in a quick phrase, might sound like this: following Jesus means that we will be given all that is necessary to carry out our personal vocations, to become the sort of saint God made us to be, and that any temporal surplus and well-being that may come our way is an evident sign of His love for all those whom He has placed in our sphere of beneficent influence. In a word, following Jesus means the Cross, which is the supreme symbol of human and divine life broken and poured out “on behalf of all and for all.”

The saint says with gut-level conviction: “My life is not my own. It belongs to God ‘and the children that God has given me’” (Hebrews 2:13), and those “children” refer to any and all whom God places under our care.

St.Paul refers to the blessings of prosperity this way,

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich…You are being enriched in every way for all generosity. — 2 Cor. 8:9; 9:11

Unworthy

Let me share a story that Fr. Tom Hopko referred to in a lecture he gave once on the Cross. It makes my point in a very startling way.

Mother Teresa was being interviewed by a reporter who complained that she (Mother) was healthy, while those she served were sick. The reporter said, “If God supposedly loves them so much, how is that fair that they are sick and you are well?” Mother replied, “If I am blessed with health, it is so that I can spend my health in caring for the sick.” The agitated reporter then went on to argue the unfairness of the general human plight of suffering. Mother attempted to respond by averting to the Christian story of the tragedy of sin and suffering, and God’s compassionate desire to share our sufferings in Jesus. “But,” the reporter interrupted her, “you, you yourself do not suffer. How is that fair? Why do they suffer but you do not?” Mother replied, “Yes, you are right. I am not worthy to suffer so near to Jesus as they do, but I have been made worthy to be near the suffering and love Jesus in them.”

Gasp.

Spent Love Wins

Worthiness. Suffering. Love. Compassion. Health, Sickness. All is gift, inscribed with a law of love and received in order to be given. All. Even the darkest elements of life, the worst of the worst, because of the Cross, the Tomb and the Resurrection become worthy offerings as darkness has been re-purposed by God and filled with a love stronger than death; a light blazing from the Body of Christ rising from death. God is love, and it is love alone that grants enduring worth to all things. Love, which is to will the good of another, “wins” in those who choose to love with the very love with which God loved us in Christ crucified.

The choice to love thus, super-human as it is, must always be preceded by the consent to be loved by the God of Jesus Christ. In fact, God desires to be allowed to love us. To turn a phrase from the old Baltimore Catechism, God made us so that He might “know, love and serve us in this life and be happy with us forever in the next.” Pray on that for a time. And only those who really and truly believe in, or, better, into this God can look and act like Him. As 1 John 4:10 says it,

In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also must love one another.

Ignite

On this Lenten Friday, when we reflect on the infinite lexicon of love compressed into the “word of the Cross,” a lexicon we are called to master and employ by the eloquence of our lives, let me leave you with these words of Saint Ignatius of Loyola:

If God gives you an abundant harvest of trials, it is a sign of great holiness which He desires you to attain. Do you want to become a great saint? Ask God to send you many sufferings. The flame of Divine Love never rises higher than when fed with the wood of the Cross, which the infinite charity of the Savior used to finish His sacrifice. All the pleasures of the world are nothing compared with the sweetness found in the gall and vinegar offered to Jesus Christ. That is, hard and painful things endured for Jesus Christ and with Jesus Christ.

Matthias Grünewald, 1510