“God is the friend of silence” — Mother Teresa

[In keeping with the demands of an incredibly busy semester, I will likely not post again until Friday]

Archbishop Theophilus came to Scetis [a monastery in the Egyptian desert] one day. The brethren who were assembled said to Abba Pambo, who had said nothing as the archbishop entered his cell, “Say something to the archbishop, so that he may be edified.” The old man said to them, “If he is not edified by my silence, he will not be edified by my speech.”

My first spiritual director, a Trappist monk, wrote me once that among the most important signs of a man’s greatness is his capacity to be at home in silence. He said, “If you can’t be at home with yourself alone and in silence, you are not yet fully human … Praying demands more listening than speaking. Thinking requires a space free from noise. Friendship demands an intimacy that transcends words. There are those who have no place for inner silence and talk out of compulsion, and there are those who are at home with silence and speak deliberately with serene freedom. While the first leave you unsettled, the second bring you peace.”

A seasoned marriage therapist I know asks couples who reach an impasse in a counseling session to stop and sit in silence for a period of time, just looking at each other. She says, “It’s almost always the case that when we resume, the dispositions are better and more open. In the quiet, both relearn how to receive the other as they are.”

Recently, a friend of mine texted me after he had gone to spiritual direction with an elder priest who, I can say from first hand experience, is about as close to human sanctity as I have gotten. Here is what my friend said, which I will leave as the last word today:

All I will say is that towards the end, he finished a comment and we sat in silence for 4-5 minutes. And in that silence I learned more than discussion with him over the past 2 years. It was indescribable. Felt like heaven just ripped the veil and sat there with us. I don’t quite have words to process it. I feel like I need to go back and do a time of lectio on that silence. Don’t know if I have felt the presence of a person more powerfully. Like his whole life, everything he stands for spoke for itself…it was the humility of his silence…the humility of someone who knows how to be silent like that and doesn’t feel need to fill the empty void with idle chatter. I kept being tempted to fill it. A minute, three minutes went by. He was unphased, like he could have been there for an hour like that. I actually think it was longer than 5 minutes…it was the sense of the humility of this man. Only thing I can compare it to is the humility of heaven. So present, so exposed. All his words to me earlier took on a whole new meaning in that silence…

How to say Yes to God, No to others

A time ago, I was speaking to a young woman about her attempts to discern God’s will in her life. She gave me permission to share her story.

She came to me because she felt paralyzed by the instability in her life. The last eight years had been marked by erratic, disconnected, short-term commitments. I asked her to share with me how she goes about trying to discern God’s will. After a few minutes of listening, it was clear to me her approach was dominated by emotional reasoning, a fear of long-term commitments, and a claim to immediate and infallible access to God’s mind and will. I especially noted how many of her references to “God said to me” were the very things leading her in circles, convincing her God was as chaotic and indecisive as she was.

We met a few times, and I tried to help her gain some stability by thinking very practically through some of her basic life decisions, and tried to convince her that her over-reliance on the unfiltered claim to immediate mystical access to God’s voice was making her vulnerable to canonizing her whims and preferences. I also said, “Do you see that when you tell me, ‘God told me,’ or ‘the Lord put it on my heart to,’ it shuts me down. What could I possibly say in response to that? No, I’m sorry, God’s wrong?” We laughed.

We spent several meetings talking about discernment as integrating emotions with reason and good judgment informed by faith. We also talked about the longer term work of cultivating hard-nosed virtues that would help her sustain commitments for a longer time and face inevitable hardships courageously. This, I said, would help her avoid the trap she had fallen into of equating “this is hard” with “God is obviously leading me elsewhere.”

I also tried to convince her that her conception of God’s will was riddled with an erroneous view of predestination. She believed that God had picked out all the details of her life in advance, and so her terrifying job was to guess in each moment what those specific details were. She lived in a mortal fear of failure, which drove her deeper into the hyper-mystical path of seeking infallible access to God’s real-time “dictation” voice in every moment, i.e. “My daughter, do this; don’t do this.” I said,

Yes, sometimes God in extra-ordinary circumstances gives us mystical graces to communicate His will and bypasses the normal process of exercising common sense judgment. Those charismatic moments can be beautiful, though even they need to be tested. But ordinarily, God acts through careful thinking about how we can best love Him and our neighbor in the moment; through praying for divine light, striving for purity of heart, making the maximal use of our gifts to better church and world, relying on wise mentors for advice and correction, making our best judgments and then going forward with a will to persevere and carry the cross; all-the-while open to correction along the way.

I also tried to help her discover in God’s will a wonderful freedom and fun, arguing that God allows us a spacious space in which to exercise a real creativity which positively contributes novelty to His plan. I said, “God is a Father not a dictator, a lover not a puppet master. He doesn’t give us freedom only to render it irrelevant. Yes, He wants us to have the heart of the child, but also the mind of an adult [1 Cor. 13:11].” I shared with her a quote from Peter Kreeft that she found liberating,

Take a specific instance where different choices are both equally good. Take married sex. As long as you stay within God’s law—no adultery, no cruelty, no egotism, no unnatural acts, as, for example, contraception—anything goes. Use your imagination. Is there one and only one way God wants you to make love to your spouse? What a silly question! Yet making love to your spouse is a great good, and God’s will. He wants you to decide to be tender or wild, moving or still, loud or quiet, so that your spouse knows it’s you, not anyone else, not some book who’s deciding.

At our last meeting, I gave her a quote from St. Augustine that I wrote out in a note card and told her, “This is the core of what I’ve tried to share with you. If we get this, we’ve got it all and can’t go wrong.” May we all embrace and live this unto God’s revolution.

Once for all, then, a short precept is given unto you: Love God, and do what you will. Whether you hold your peace, through love hold your peace; whether you cry out, through love cry out; whether you correct, through love correct; whether you spare, through love do you spare. In all things, let the root of love be within, for of this root can nothing spring but what is good.

Like being for the first time seen

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“It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance.” ― Annie Dillard

Only twice in my life can I say that I had the sense of someone looking into my soul through my eyes. One was back in 1991 with an elderly woman who was a Holocaust survivor. She was unquestionably a mystic, a person whose life was highly porous to the spiritual world. She had suffered greatly in her life. A priest I knew connected me with her, and offered me an opportunity to pray alone with her. It was at once terrifying and thrilling.

She took my hands into hers and prayed for me to God the Father. As she prayed, she mentioned in vivid detail an event from my childhood that was very difficult and, looking in my eyes, said, “God wants you to know He saw what happened to you and was with you. And wants you to know that He will bring great good from what you suffered. But first you must forgive and you must give it to Him. Only then can He bring good from it.” Then she said, “Through the cross to the Father.”

Needless to say, I was stunned and shaken. I had never encountered anything like this in my life. But what stood out most to me was that awareness of being “seen into,” of being known in such detail. How can I best describe it? It was like the feeling of being intensely loved by someone who really cares about you, and having them ask you to reveal some painful memory to them. You feel safe letting them in, not violated or ashamed, even though you’re absolutely vulnerable.

And to receive counsel to “let go and forgive” from a woman who had endured what she did?

When I shared this with my spiritual director later, he said, “Well, remember, mystics simply remind us in an extraordinary way what is already ordinarily the case. Granting God admittance to your deepest self and allowing Him to see you is prayer. He doesn’t want to know facts about you, He wants to know you. To get into your stuff and just be with you. If you give it over, as she said, He can recycle the raw materials of your soul into treasures that enrich others.”

Then he said, “Now all that’s nice, but it’s had its effect. Let it go. Don’t focus on the extraordinary details and do the hard work of the cross now. And remember, this didn’t happen because you’re special, but because the people who rely on you having your act together are…”

Be still.

You have to allow a certain amount of time in which you are doing nothing in order to have things occur to you, to let your mind think. — Mortimer J. Adler

I gave a retreat this week for a school faculty. Teachers are one of my favorite groups to lead retreats with, as they are by profession hungry to learn, called to be the world’s experts at wondering.

As I often do, I spoke on the power of silence to open an inner space for creativity, honesty, freedom and prayer. Carving out time in each day to be still, to simplify your attention, to listen, to not be productive, to allow unattended thoughts and feelings to simply surface, without analyzing them — this is a royal road to inner peace and stability. To being fully human.

Among the most important practices of my day, I would rank at the top beginning every morning, not with music, news or internet, but with 5 minutes of total silence followed by at least 25 minutes of lectio divina on the day’s Mass readings. On the days I don’t do this, the effects are very evident. In a word, I lose my center and become dissipated.

Robert Cardinal Sarah said that “the life of silence must be able to precede the active life,” precisely because silence allows us to re-center ourselves within and become true actors and not just re-actors. Constant exposure to external noise, distraction and frenetic activity alienates us from ourselves, removes our anchor from God-in-the-soul and hooks our soul’s powers in the shifting sands around us.

I once had the opportunity to spend an hour in a car driving the Trappist monk and author, Fr. Raphael Simon, back to his monastery. What an honor, what a holy man. He heard my confession as I drove! I asked him what holiness looks like in his experience. He said,

In my experience, you can see greatness when words become fewer, weightier, more measured, emerge from a place of depth. Because of this, their words are like arrows that penetrate deeply into others. They also become exceedingly reticent to criticize anyone, and when they do, only with a sharp awareness of their own faults. You see, in silence God is able to reveal you to yourself in His light. But if you remain in noise, you remain in ignorance.

Easy to Please

Inside the Chapel of the Holy Cross, Sedona, AZ. gatewaytosedona.com

Though Jesus Christ is very hard to satisfy, He is very easy to please. Think of that and it will help you a little. He is very easy to please, but very hard to satisfy. If you will but let Him in, and you have not much to put on the table. He will be so pleased, if it be but a cup of cold water that you can give him. Let it be something genuine, something real. – George MacDonald

During a major transition in my life years back, I was in a dark place. I felt alone, adrift, a failure. As so often happens with people of faith, I projected my own warped sense of self onto God and assumed God’s view of me simply replicated what I felt about myself. If I felt good, God was pleased; if I felt bad, God was displeased. It’s a twisted game, and it made me withdraw from prayer, posture myself in self-defense against God and hide.

During this time, I traveled to Phoenix, Arizona with a friend. We decided to take a day-trip to Sedona to visit the Chapel of the Holy Cross. As I sat there in the quiet, looking at the spectacular view, I felt a strange sense of what I can only describe as “home.” I wrote in my journal that night, “Today I finally sensed God with me, and it didn’t evoke pain. I sensed powerfully He was a rock, an immovable lighthouse, faithful no matter what. Small insight, vast implications.”

We traveled back to Scottsdale that evening, and the next morning I went to Confession at a local parish. After I finished confessing my sins, the priest said,

Let me read you something from 1 John. Whenever our hearts condemn us, we have to remember God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything [3:20]. You clearly want to do God’s will, and he knows that. Know this: God is so pleased with your desire to please him. I can sense it. He is grateful you are here today giving him your sins and fears. God is grateful. Isn’t that a beauty to behold?

As I write these words, I realize I cannot convey the power they exerted in me at that moment. He spoke them slowly, with intention and sincerity. His words seemed to emanate straight from the mouth of God. For my penance, he said, “I want you to go outside the city tonight if possible and find a place where you can look out at the stars. Allow the immensity of the skies to overwhelm you, and then remember the God who made all of that loves you, tiny as you are, like that.”

That was a turning point in my life, and I came out of hiding. I had come back home. Years later, my wife said something that brought me back to that moment. When we were discerning whether or not we should leave Tallahassee and move to Iowa, I told her, “I don’t feel right taking you away from a place that’s been your home for almost 30 years.” She took my hands and said, “Wherever the will of God takes us is my home.”

Being-taken

Sano di Pietro: St. Catherine of Siena drinking from the side wound of Christ, mid-15th century. wp.com

Beloved, let us love one another,
because love is of God;
everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God.
Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love. — 1 John 4:7-8

In today’s Mass readings, this selection from the first letter of St. John accompanies the Gospel account of Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the 5000. What a remarkable juxtaposition of themes.

Years ago, I was asked to give a talk at a parish on the meaning of eucharistic transubstantiation. I called the presentation, “Extreme Presence.” As I prepared the talk, I was struck by the fact that Jesus chose food and drink to transform into Himself. Yes, the Passover meal context is a clear rationale, but somehow the radical “substantial” identification of God with the act of feeding and drinking — nourishing — jumped out at me. It seemed to me to provide a whole new language for rendering St. John’s defining of God as love.

One night as I thought on this point, preparing for the talk, it occurred to me that the words of consecration begin with verbs: take, eat; take, drink. I wrote in my notes,

The Real Presence is not an immobile rock, a steady mountain, but a perpetual earthquake, a volcanic eruption, a streaming fire, a gushing geyser. In the Eucharist, God reveals Himself as feeding and giving drink. No, even more! As Godbeing-taken. Given up, handed over, broken. As the Real Presenting.

My God.

God isn’t a static noun, God is a verb, is actus purus, “pure action,” an eternal act of loving, appearing under the form of being-taken as food for the hungry and drink for the thirsty. God is sating and slaking.

What a magnificently earthy manner God has chosen to manifest divinity, offering to make us “partakers in the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4) by means of chewing, swallowing, digestion. Like a nursing mother, God is bonum est diffusivum sui, is “the good giving itself away.” God is not just Being, but Being-eaten, Being-drunk, Being-taken.

About six months after my return to the practice of the faith back in 1987, I was walking back to my apartment from Subway one evening with my footlong seafood sub. I had not eaten since breakfast and was really hungry. As I walked through the parking lot of my apartment complex, I saw a man in the dumpster rummaging about. I had seen him there before, and imagined he was looking for food. I felt the impulsion to give him my food, which he promptly scarfed down as we sat next to each other on the curb. I felt gratified by the exchange.

That night I had a hard time sleeping with the combo of hunger pains and an intense headache. The next morning I went to 7:00 a.m. Mass. After Mass I saw a friend of mine, and when he asked me how things were going, I said, “Well over all, but I feel like crap.” When he asked why, I told him the story about the homeless man, and ended by saying, “But man, I sure was hoping that God would have spared me the pain afterward since I did a good thing. Oh well!” David laughed, and said, “Isn’t that really missing the point?”

Crucified on a Crutch

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I have always found it odd and even comical when the Christian vision of eternal life is described as “a crutch” or “cheap solace.” After all, according to Christian belief the first thing awaiting us beyond the gates of death is God’s judgment. On the contrary, isn’t “cheap solace” precisely the notion that death is the end of everything and we don’t have to answer to anyone for our lives? ― Tomáš Halík

Yes. Yet, Christians who profess belief in just such a “crutch and comfort God” give credence to this claim. This creed sounds something like this. We believe in a God who is necessary to profess only when human power or explanations fail; a “God of the gaps.” A God who is on the side of our ideologies and partisan politics. A God who exists to make us feel good and give us what we want. A God who canonizes our preferences and choices. A God who looks kindly on the misdeeds of the Generally Nice. A God who admits all into eternal reward without cost or distinction. “A God without wrath [who] brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross,” as H. Richard Niebuhr famously wrote.

We believe in a therapeutic God who mostly looks like our human egos, writ large.

But Judaism and Christianity certainly propose no such vision of God. And when He came and confronted our diverse projections, He suffered our violent rejection.

I was listening to a lecture by Iain Matthew on St. John of the Cross, in which Matthew makes clear that for St. John, approaching the God of Jesus Christ poses to us one core challenge: hand over your possessions, your relationships, your past, present and future, your mind, memory and will, your good and evil — your entire life — to God’s total deconstructing and reconstructing action. Surrender, be crucified, die, rise, be made wholly new, i.e. capable of loving like Jesus on the cross.

And if you pass beyond the gates of death in His grace, not having fully embraced this radical purgative journey, God Himself will lead you through it as you near His absolute unyielding Presence as infinite truth, justice, love, mercy.

The peace we seek in God is a peace that only comes to us “through the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:20). A costly Solace, crucified on our crutch.

So yes, indeed, there is comfort and solace in such final peace, but only for those ready to sell their idol factory, go through radical detox and finally become the image of God.