Prayer as Listening

Recently we received some conferences on prayer in the monastic tradition by Fr. Daniel Hombergen OCSO.  I was moved by Fr. Daniel’s reflections of Enzo Bianchi’s book, Why Pray, How to Pray especially the chapters On the subjects of The Initiative God takes in relationship,“ and “The germinating of authentic prayer where there is listening.”  Fr. Daniel differentiates two movements with our relationship to God.The first is the strong initiative taken by God in searching for humanity, calling us, questioning us, as well as asking us to listen and receive what God has shared with humankind from Genesis to Revelation.  The God who “first loved us” (1 Jn. 4 :19) speaks. God begins the dialogue with His people.  Enzo Bianchi states, “God has turned Himself towards human beings in order to enter into relationship with them, in order to open up dialogue with them which is directed toward communion” ( Why Pray? How to  Pray, p.24). “God reveals Himself as Word and makes of Israel a people who listen, even before making them a people of faith, unveiling to them their vocation: the call to listen” (p.25).

After God’s self- revelation throughout history human beings respond in faith, blessing, laudes, thanksgiving, adoration, supplication and the confession of one’s own sins (Why Pray, How to Pray, p.22-23). This second movement,  being incomplete, is the human person’s response to God, directed at love for God and the neighbor. This movement can be a distortion if our human attempt at prayer is limited to our own effort and if we believe we can pray solely by ourselves. “If human prayer, as the desire for God, presents an ascending movement of words toward heaven, listening on the other hand, is characterized by a descending movement, by a descent of the Word of God towards the human being; the one who truly prays, from Abraham  onwards (Gen. 12:1) is the one who listens, who opens his ears to God” ( Why Pray? How to Pray, p.25).

Authentic prayer germinates where there is listening; it is integral as it precedes our capacity to reply. We hear this most poignantly in the gospel readings for the feast of the Transfiguration, namely; “Then a cloud came, casting a shadow over them; then from the cloud came a voice, ‘This is my beloved Son. Listen to him’ ( Mk. 9:7, Mt. 17:2, Lk.9 :35).  “Speak Lord for your servant is listening” ( 1 Sam. 3 :9). This is the first act of prayer, which, unfortunately, we are tempted to reverse into “Listen, Lord, because your servant is speaking” (Why Pray? How to Pray, p. 26). Enzo Bianchi re-states, “Listening is already praying and should have absolute priority, as it acknowledges God as the One who takes initiative for our encounter with him” (p.26).  An example of a response to active listening in the Old Testament is 1 Kings 3 :9.  God asked Solomon what he wanted, the young Solomon replied, a “heart capable of listening,” not a docile heart.”  It pleased the Lord that Solomon asked for this (1Kings 3 :10).  St. Paul in his epistle to the Romans also says, “faith comes from listening.”

Enzo Bianchi cautions, “when one searches for formulas and gestures to give shape to prayer in which an individual is particularly in search of assurance  and satisfaction, prayer can degenerate into an expression of spiritual arrogance, a substitute for really performing God’s will" (Why Pray? How to Pray, p.27).  By being aware and attentive to the Word of God, namely listening, we will hear the Lord speaking ( Dt. 4 : 32-33 ) and loving ( Dt.7 : 7-8) for our God truly loves us!  Jesus when asked what the first commandment was replied, “Listen” knowing very well that it is from the capacity to listen that the capacity to know and love God and neighbor flow ( Mk. 12 : 29-31).  Enzo Bianchi notes then that the movement of Christian prayer is delineated:  from listening to faith, from faith to knowledge of God and from  knowledge to love, the ultimate response to God’s gratuitous love for us (p.27).

We, for our part, struggle to pray because in our lives we encounter the 8 vices or thoughts of gluttony, fornication, avarice, melancholy, anger, acedia, vainglory and pride of which both Cassian and Evagrius write about in the Conferences and Praktikos respectively.  To counter these negative thoughts, we have the example of Christ the Incarnate Word, namely, to cry out to our “Abba”, your will be done, not mine, and have mercy on me a sinner as we hear the tax collector say in Scripture. We are powerless over these vices in our lives and it is only by God’s grace and mercy that our thoughts may be purified by reaching out to our “Abba.” Hopefully our little mustard seed of faith in God and renunciation of the ways of the world will help us to convert distracting struggles into occasions of prayer so a greater self-knowledge and a pure heart can be created in our being.

Sr Ann-Marie, OCSO
As our listening deepens and matures we enter into the mystery of dialogue between the three persons of the Trinity. This communion of love between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is fed by reciprocal listening, as some of the Words of Jesus demonstrate: “I have made known to you everything I have learned (heard) from my Father” ( Jn. 15:15).  “When the Spirit of Truth comes…, he will not be speaking as from himself, but will say only what he has learned (heard)” ( Jn. 16:13).  “Father, thank you for hearing my prayer” ( Jn. 11 : 41) ( Why Pray, How to Pray,p.28).

The Father’s gift of Jesus to us provides an excellent model on how to be a daughter/son  by listening, in order to do the will of God, even in the times of suffering and struggles.  We know that love overcomes as we remember the Paschal Mystery, and that the Holy Spirit is given as gift to reassure us that God’s presence is always with us. The mystery of Love is incomprehensible, however let us foster a deep listening in our lives as we daily come to Christ in prayer and are nourished with his wisdom and love.


Celebrating the Humility of St Bernard of Clairvaux

What would be a way to celebrate St. Bernard today in this 21st century?  Perhaps one way is to ponder:  what would he strive to be in the sight of God and what would he call his brother monks to be?  Or, what did Bernard so often refer to in his teaching, which forms the essential framework of his monastic theology?  It can be described, I believe, in one word: love, charity.  For Bernard, St. Benedict’s ‘school of the Lord’s service’, became the ‘schola caritatis’, the school of charity, the school of love.  He taught about this school of love in many different ways and it pervades all of his writings. 

“You will never have real mercy for the failings of another until you know and realize that you have the same failings in your soul…” (The Spiritual Teachings of Bernard of Clairvaux, John Sommerfeldt, p.89-90).  Without humility our love for our neighbor is weak and empathy is not possible.  Imagine: “Empathy is possible only to someone who is truly humble” (p.93).  Humility embraces the truth of our selves; it recognizes our own weaknesses.  When through the eye of the heart we see the failings of another, the first movement must be to return to our selves, this movement is already the beginning of a humble posture, for then we are better able to recognize that we have this same failing as well.  It is only when we have this connection first to our selves that can we reach out to the other in true compassion.  I wonder: can there be authentic love of one another without humility?  The truth of our selves first puts us on humble ground, then mercy, compassion freely flow to our neighbor.  Then we can truly be empathetic for the other.  Bernard underscores this in these words: “Look well first to your self, brother, sister, so you may know how to be compassionate with your neighbor” (p.93).

Holding this relation of humility and love of our neighbor, here is another nuance, in the words of John Sommerfeldt:  “The experience of one’s true self in love enables one to experience others in love” (p. 104).  And from Bernard in the Song of Songs: “…If you are to experience your neighbor as she is, you will actually experience her only as you do your self, for she is what you are” (p.104).  ‘She or he is what you are’:  again this is saying we are not so different from the sister or brother we are criticizing.  What would it feel like if we saw our sister or brother as we are?  The plain fact is that we are not living from our true self nor living from a humble posture when get caught in our negative criticisms and fail to exercise loving kindness toward our sister.  Bernard’s medicine is that experiencing our true self in love opens us to experience others in love. 

And finally, Bernard says, in this most radical statement, from the same passage in the Song of Songs: “The love that is open does not permit the refusal of some feeling, however small, to any person, even to one’s greatest enemy” (p.104-105).  ‘The love that is open’:  what makes our love ‘open’ and not closed in on itself?  I go back to Dom Thomas in the retreat he gave us: the abasement of Christ…that total self-emptying, kenosis, which enables love to flow live a stream, like a river…healing us and our neighbor.  Jesus on the cross with outstretched arms: he is totally open: on the cross is God’s love open to all, every person, even those who attacked him and put him on the cross.  And what of us?  Those daily ‘martyrdoms of the heart’, an ancient monastic metaphor that describes an essential dimension of the monastic ascesis.  Can we with the sisters and brothers we live with each day and the persons who cross the threshold of this monastery, can we say that our love is open, both individually and as a community?

This daily ascesis will be before each one of us as we face the usual irritations, reactions, one to another, the hurts and misunderstandings, our individual ways of controlling and pushing our own agenda and so on.  Will our love be open?  Will our love be open to help us find our true self rooted in a humble heart?  Will we take the first step back into our selves before responding in a conflict?  Will we trust enough the God who is always with us, whose Spirit is ready to breathe life and healing forth into a heart whose windows are open?  Let’s keep the window of our heart open, let’s keep our love open, always the first movement inward, to re-find our true self and then the movement outward toward our neighbor exercising the transforming power of God’s love, loving our sister as we have been first loved.

Christianity:a love that does not cease to ask and to give

In February we had conferences on John Ruusbroeck, the Flemish mystic of the late 13th / 14th century.  I was struck by a question that was posed to us during the course of the week.  I thought and felt then, that this question could provide a fruitful entrance into Jesus’ passion and resurrection, and even lead us into a ‘renewed encounter with Christ’, to use the expression of Pope Francis, as we interface Jesus’ life with our own.  The question is this: ‘What happens when we open ourselves to love without condition?’  We can imagine that this could have been a question, perhaps expressed in different words, which Jesus addressed to his followers.

I feel this question is an important one to ponder given all that is happening in our world and the invitation of Pope Francis to a ‘renewed encounter with Christ’.   To walk with Jesus, to let this question pulsate within our heart and soul, will lead us into the paschal mystery, and will reveal what Christian discipleship is all about.  The sacramental life of the Church on Holy Thursday is, in many ways, at its richest and deepest.  In the Eucharist we witness and participate in an embodied love as Jesus offers his life in the words:  “This is my body, this is my blood given for you.”  And then again in the washing of the feet, which in the gospel of John is another type of ‘Eucharist’.   The words of the evangelist sum up this profound ritual: ‘He loved them to the end’.

Br. Christophe, in his journal titled Born From the Gaze of God, wrote: “Christianity is the great adventure for through it one is called by an infinite love that is, by a love that does not  Called by an infinite love that asks something of us; called by an infinite love that never ceases to give us something, always.  The love we receive, as we take it into our lives naturally leads us to want to do something with it…to give to others and in this way we are giving back to God.  It is an amazing exchange of love: of God’s covenant, ‘My love will never leave you’ and of our ‘yes’ to follow and to live from the impulses of the Spirit, allowing God, as Mary did, to work through our lives: ‘Let it be done to me according to your word’.
cease to ask and to give” (p.16).

Loving without condition:  if not in small ways we will never do it in larger ways…Keep in mind during these days, Jesus’ journey with his disciples: the figure of Peter who betrays him, who often does not understand, though, still step by step he changes…James and John as they argue about who is the greatest…the rich young man, a would-be disciple, who Jesus looked at and loved and then asked him to follow: who could not quite take the leap and turns away…Such human stuff that we all know and all fall into…and yet this call of infinite love remains: whoever would follow: take up your cross and come…and how often we hear Jesus say, ‘Do not be afraid’…we are afraid…we do not know where we are being led or what we are being led into…still we have the One who goes before us…

Loving without condition involves ‘kenosis’:  a kenotic opening of heart, mind, and body.   Without kenosis, without this self-emptying process, whatever we do ends up being more about us than about God.  To lose this self-centered, non-clinging, controlling ego, opens us up to the immensity of God’s love, to freedom.  With each kenotic opening, where we ‘lose our lives’, we are lifted up as God’s love pours forth gracing us with a renewed heart and mind, giving us the capacity to serve and to be stewards of God’s mysteries, not counting the cost.

Cynthia Bourgeault, in her book, The Wisdom Jesus, wrote: “In Jesus everything hangs together around a single center of gravity, and you need to know what this center is before you can sense the subtle but cohesive power of the path he is laying out.  What name might we give to this center?  The apostle Paul suggests the word kenosis… ‘to let go,’ ‘to empty oneself…’” (p.63).  And later she writes on this same theme: “The act of self-giving is simultaneously an act of self-communication; it allows something that was coiled and latent to manifest outwardly” (p.68).  This is the humble power of kenosis: it unleashes God’s transforming love not only within our lives, surely as well, in our communities, our Church, our world.

The Eucharist and the washing of the feet: sacramental rituals that reveal and proclaim one message: He loved without condition.  Last year for my Holy Thursday talk I emphasized that both these rituals, happen within the context of community.  Several days ago I received a letter, which included these words of Dom Helder Camara:  “When we are dreaming alone, it is only a dream.  When we are dreaming with others, it is the beginning of reality”.  We gather during these days as one community.  As we live into the discipleship call ‘to love without condition’, let us dream together of peace for our world:  a peace that begins with us as we follow Jesus, and live his embodied love, in the daily happenings of our lives and in the larger ways that this call of infinite love will continue to ask of each of us. 
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A "Yes" That Overcame All Fear

“Her willingness was her magnificence.  This we know and marvel at when we recall how You first came to us,” (Upon A Luminous Night, Christine Rogers, p.9).  Mary’s willingness was echoed in her ‘yes’…her ‘yes’, says the poem further on, “to a thing she only partly understood” (p.9).  This ‘yes’, which was encircled with mystery, with fear, not knowing what it all would mean or ask…still she proclaimed her ‘yes’ and never turned back.

No wonder she is the icon of our ‘yes’.  This Advent season asks each one of us to utter with our lives this ‘yes’ once again…‘yes’ to the promise that God will be born in the humbleness of human flesh…our flesh, our lives, no matter how imperfect, how much struggling we are going through.  But, (there is always a but!) it all pivots around our saying again ‘yes’, ‘yes’ to the Spirit who is hovering over our lives right now.  Even if we do not sense the Spirit hovering, God is present ready to breathe new life, ready to become more in our lives.

Holding the reality of Mary’s ‘yes’, I want to turn to some of the images put forth in the readings for this third Sunday of Advent: ‘strengthen the hands that are feeble’, ‘make firm the knees that are weak’, ‘be strong, fear not’; ‘be patient’, ‘make your hearts firm’.  While we may feel weak, not strong enough, fearful, our ‘yes’ can root us beneath these fears and weaknesses…remembering the Spirit is overshadowing and waits our ‘yes’.  Mary had her doubts but she sensed and felt something more and after some pondering gave her assent in these words: ‘Let it be done to me according to your word.’ 

In the annual Pax Christi Advent and Christmas reflections Sr. Anne-Louise Nadeau, for this Sunday of Advent, focuses on what she calls the “tyranny of fear”.  She writes: “The common element that appears to limit the fullness of life is fear.  Fear blinds our eyes to seeing our own possibilities, our own shadow side, our own goodness, and the goodness of others.  Fear closes up our ears to the truth and distorts our humanness” (p.18).  It is striking how much we hear in the Advent scriptures ‘Fear not your God is coming’.  At Mary’s Annunciation after the angel’s greeting, she is ‘greatly troubled at what was said’ and then she ‘pondered’, she went deeper, stretching to understand what this all could mean.  She went deeper than her fears and found faith, enough faith to face and accept the message that would change her life.  The angel’s response to Mary as she pulls back and ponders is ‘Do not be afraid’.  Fear in and of itself is not bad; it can be an opening into the life of God, into deeper listening and understanding about our existential situation and that of our world.  The Holy Spirit is always hovering; we are not alone.  But we have to be ready to meet our fears with faith.  God will not disappoint.  Her willingness, even with her fear of what all this could mean, even with so much that she did not understand, became her magnificence.


The Interior Space of Advent

“O dark dark dark…I said to my soul be still and let the dark come upon you, which shall be the darkness of God” (“East Coker”).  As we reflect on these poetic and familiar words of T.S. Eliot I am sure they conjure up many things for each of us.  As we begin Advent, could we pray the grace to let the darkness come upon us, remembering, feeling into with faith, that it is the darkness of God, that it is a darkness describing a pregnant time for us very personally, for us as a community, for our world?   The soul: veiled in darkness, where there lies a seed of life planted by the Divine hand.  Our faith experience proclaims that God wants Life, new life for humanity and creation.  The liturgical seasons of Advent and Christmas come at nature’s darkest time of the year.  The darkness of Advent is not the darkness of death; it is pregnant with new possibility, new hope.   

This new life, that is to be born, begins dark, small, hidden, deep within.  We may ask what is the posture, the inner demeanor that will help us stay watchful and awake to these inner stirrings of God’s unfolding new life?  Any contemplative practice is about cultivating awareness and attentiveness within and without.   But Advent asks us to stretch even further for who wants to let ‘the dark come upon them’.  We may resist this darkness at least initially until we can trust or sense that this darkness is about God’s Spirit hovering over our lives, like Mary at her Annunciation.

It is interesting to move from T.S. Eliot to John of the Cross.   Eliot was influenced by the poetry of John of the Cross, especially his image of the ‘dark night of the soul’, as we can see in “East Cocker”, which I quoted above.  Fr. Ian Matthew in his book, The Impact of God has this to say about “the right kind of emptiness” in the writings of John of the Cross: “The one thing needed now is some space, so that what is coming can come…for John, God is an approaching God, and our main job will be not to construct but to receive; the key word will be not so much ‘achievement’ as ‘space’.  ‘Making space for God in order to receive’ (p.35).  What Fr. Matthew says in reflecting on the spiritual experience of John of the Cross is so apt for Advent:  ‘God is an approaching God’ and we are to be there to give ‘space’, interior space in order to ‘receive’.  The emphasis is “not on our forging a way, but on our getting out of the way” (p.37).  God is “lavish in bestowing himself ‘wherever he finds space’” (p.37).  And God will not disappoint…

Here we are, at this first Sunday of Advent; here we are called to dwell within our heart’s depths, letting the darkness come upon us.  Advent is preparation for the birth of Christ in the human soul once again.  At Christmas we will celebrate the birth of Christ in history. But now the preparation is for this gift, for this new manifestation of Divine life, God’s gift of God’s very Self.  We need this Divine birth, each one of us, and so does our Church and world.  This birth within us and in our midst is about the birth of peace which only the Christ of God can give, it is about the budding forth of hope, mercy, forgiveness, love, inclusive love, a love that evil can not and will not overcome.  Will we lend our flesh, give our ‘yes’, to letting Christ be born in us this Christmas?  God is coming: do we have enough faith…just a mustard seed of faith is enough to move us to utter the words, ‘let it be done to me according to your Word’.  Advent is about letting Christ’s life grow in us, root more in us, open our hearts more, expand and deepen our consciousness to be more like his.

Fr. Matthew writes that as John of the Cross allowed the symbol of night to speak to his heart, two words can be highlighted from John’s meditation: “blessedness and mystery.  Night, that which comes and curtails control, is greeted as ‘sheer grace!’…a night of beatitude” (p.54).  Letting the darkness come upon us curtailing our control, greeting the night as ‘sheer grace’: what powerful, stirring images.   Attentive and watchful in the silent darkness, clearing the inner landscape, creating enough space for God’s new ‘gesture of love’: this is a way to describe the contemplative posture that I sense this first Sunday of Advent invites us to with its gospel call to ‘stay awake’ and the epistle of Romans, ‘now is the hour for you to awake from sleep’.


A Sacred Pause to Listen

The poet David Whyte has a book on ‘words’.  He takes a word, presumably a word that has evoked something within him, and he writes a poetic prose reflection.  It is as though he is doing lectio divina on each word that he reflects on.  For example, here is how he begins his reflection on the word ‘confession’: Confession “is a stripping away of protection, the telling of a truth which might once have seemed like a humiliation, become suddenly a gateway, an entrance to solid ground; even a first step home” (Consolations, p.33).  In his ‘lectio’ reflection Whyte opens this word up for us showing its fuller reality, its deeper meaning and how it leads us to our true home.  We use words so easily and so quickly without too much thought on what they are communicating.  We all know the Rule of St. Benedict begins with one word: ‘Listen’.  Have we, though, taken this word enough into our consciousness to let it guide and instruct how we live, how we are in our prayer and daily interactions at any given moment?  What if we would each take this one word ‘listen’ and write a prayer reflection on it as we begin our day?  I wonder if this type of lectio on this ONE word would help our listening, deepen our listening, open our hearts just a little more to hear the Word, Christ.

‘Listen’…and then listen with the ‘ear of the heart’: this is the beginning of the Rule and this one word is like an arch, it spans the entire Rule.  If we don’t grow into listening in the monastic way we will not ‘arrive’ (the last word in the Rule) at what we are all seeking: freedom, union with God, becoming one with the heart of Christ and his consciousness.  In our retreat with Abbot Paul Mark he began one of his conferences with a quote from Sr. Macrina Wiederkehr, osb, who was writing about “sacred pauses”.  To me the following quote from her expresses one very important dimension to ‘listening’.  She writes: “Sacred is the pause that draws us into silence.  Nourishing are the moments when we step away from busyness.  Teach us the wisdom of pausing.  Reveal to us the goodness of stopping to breathe” (Seven Sacred Pauses, p.82).  How quick we are to respond in conversation with one another.  How quick the thoughts come up when we sit in silence to pray.  What about this sacred pause?  What is this all about?  The pause draws us into the silence of the heart….but for what?  What do we hear?  It seems to me that pausing interiorly enables us to hear the ‘small still voice of the Spirit’.  At Jesus’ baptism the voice of God says: “listen to him”.  Does the Divine voice compete with all our other voices?  I don’t think so.  I think it is ever-present…present in the pause.  What would happen if we did pause, just long enough to hear the Divine voice speaking to us, reaching into our consciousness with its wisdom word, its word of life, its healing word?  Today if you hear God’s voice harden not our hearts: this is the evocation of psalm 94….Always and today the Divine voice speaks.

The other aspect of ‘pausing’ before speaking is that it enables us to become aware of the emotional content that circulates around our words:  sometimes our words are laced with hurt, anger, resentment.  Other times our words are put forth to puff us up before others.  The pause helps us to hear this stuff and then the Spirit can cut through it so that we can back off from it and meet the other with more authenticity and truth.

The fruit of contemplative prayer in daily life is to remind us of the ‘sacred pause’, a listening moment that helps us re-center, re-connect to the One who is our life and is the foundation of all that we are and do.  There is no contemplation without listening.  Imagine if we would practice, outside of prayer times, as we are being ‘busy’ with ‘many things’: ‘pausing’, pausing to listen, pausing to drop beneath our many words so that we hear the one Word which is Christ.  Perhaps we would less react to one another.  Perhaps we would learn something about how God becomes ‘all in all’ in simple ordinary lives, lives lived with such consciousness, dedication and hope.  Perhaps our many words will become less and have a new quality about them, the quality of silence, a silence that is breathing God forth in and through our lives.

With the Eyes of Christ

How does Jesus see?  How do we see?  In an essay titled, Person to Person: Becoming Present by Barbara Newman she writes: “I do not think we can see with God’s eyes until, at least once, we have had the experience of being seen with them.  If we are lucky, that happens in ordinary human love…But the ability to see everyone in such a way—not just our friends or people we admire, but everyone, from the screaming infant to the dangerous enemy—is both a discipline and a gift.  Like every gift of the Holy Spirit, it is given freely.  But…we first have to ask for it and show with our whole life how much we long for it” (Spiritus, 16.1, 2016, p.100).  Do we long to see with God’s eyes?  Do we continually ask for this gift, do we importune God in prayer for this daily grace?

How does Jesus see?  How does he challenge us to see as he sees?  One could do a lectio reading of the synoptic gospels just on these questions.  How do we see?  Imagine if we interface our seeing with Jesus’ way of seeing.  How would this interfacing with the Incarnate One expand our horizons, purify the intentions of our heart, the eye of our heart?  One could, as well, include in this lectioreading of the gospels the ‘not seeing’ of Jesus’ disciples and the tainted seeing (often with evil intent) of the Pharisees.  Let us not forget the teaching of Cassian: the way, he says, is ‘purity of heart’ for it is the pure of heart that truly see, see God in all things and all persons. 

Just to get a sense of how Jesus sees let’s look at a few random selections from the gospels.  In a story from Mark’s gospel, we have Jesus going into the synagogue where there was a man who had a withered hand.  Here in this story we have two different ways of seeing.   First we have the Pharisees “who watchedJesus closely to see if he would cure him on the Sabbath so they might accuse him” (3:2).  Already the inner eye of the Pharisees is tainted: they are watching Jesus closely in order to trap him.   Jesus sees the heart, he sees what these religious leaders are up to: “Looking around at them with anger and grieved at their hardness of heart” (3:5), Jesus proceeds to heal the man with the withered hand on the Sabbath.  He looks around and sees: he is grieved at what he sees: he sees their hardness of heart, he sees their deceptive motives!  And another story from Mark’s gospel of the rich man who asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life.  Jesus recites the commandments and the rich man responds: “Teacher all of these I have observed since my youth” (10:20).  Jesus looks at him and loves him, then tells him the one thing he lacks.  Jesus sees the man in his totality and out of a loving gaze challenges him by telling him what he lacks, what he still needs to do.  A final story from Luke’s gospel of the ‘Good Samaritan’ (10:25-37): This passage also begins with the question: “Teacher what must I do to inherit eternal life”.  Jesus replies with the great commandment of loving God with the whole of one’s being and one’s neighbor as oneself and the lawyer to justify himself asks ‘who is my neighbor’?  Jesus then tells the story of the ‘Good Samaritan’.  One of the poignant features of this story is ‘how one sees’: ‘A priest happened to be going down that road but when he saw the wounded man, he passed by on the opposite side (vs:31).  Likewise a Levite came to the place, and when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side (vs:32).  But a Samaritan traveler who came upon him was moved with compassion at the sight’ (v:34).  Seeing for the Samaritan evokes profound compassion.  This compassion is what Jesus wants us to see and then to live.  Jesus also wants us to be aware of our partial, selective seeing, or, of how we do see and then ignore what we see, or when our seeing is blurred or blinded by a hardened heart.

The Incarnation, Barbara Newman says, provides the lens God gives us to see, to see as Jesus sees.  She continues: “Through this lens alone we truly see God and the world.  So many other lenses obstruct our eyes, like grimy windows or distorting mirrors, that we are not even aware of them” (p.100).  It is important to ponder: what are those ‘other lenses’ that ‘obstruct our eyes’ and thus cloud and mire our vision?  No wonder St. Benedict will exhort us to keep daily custody of our hearts, the eye of our hearts!

Barbara Newman goes on to say that: “Only through the Incarnation do we truly see the world….To see with the eyes of Christ is to see both at once, the divine beauty and the complicated work-in-progress that each one of us is.  To see in Christ also means to see other persons as images of Christ, possessing infinite depth and value” (p.101).  So how can our ‘seeing’ in community become more Christ-like?   One essential way is to step back, pause, reflect on how I am seeing in any given moment, a person or a situation, and bring that ‘seeing’ into prayer.   To ponder in the silence of prayer, how would Jesus see this person, how would Jesus look upon this situation that I am facing: will this not begin to shift our seeing, to transform the eye of our heart?   If we are to ‘show with the whole of our life’ that we long to see as Christ sees then we will run quickly to prayer, praying to see with the clarity, the truth, the inclusiveness, the compassion that Christ sees with.


Tools of Good Works

How do we build up community?  How do we build up this body of Christ that we form?  The body of Christ: this body of love, this body of forgiveness, this body of mercy…is this not what Jesus incarnated and now expects us to do the same?  How do we build up this community?  I ask this of myself and I ask it of each of you.  The ‘body of Christ’ that we are proclaims our oneness in living and embodying the gospel way.  And it means in the words of Bernard Lee, SM: that “we are already and always interrelated and interdependent individuals whose only choice is to redeem our relatedness by our love” (The New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality, p.104).

I have a sense (and I have had this for some time) that we need to look at the quality of our relationships with one another.  Every community needs to do this from time to time and every community needs on-going renewal in its relationships.  Conflicts that we experience are a normal part of what it is to be human and a normal part of any community life.  And so within this context I pose some questions: What has been or is at present a difficult experience with another sister?  How have I moved with it?  Have I gotten sufficient distance that I have received the grace to let it go?  Or, have I grown in enough trust to take the step to go my sister and to reconcile with her?  Have I done the self-knowledge work that has helped me be less defensive, more open to come to some new understanding and healing in the relationship?  Have I sufficiently prayed about it?

How do we build up community?  How do we truly become and be this body of Christ that we form?  I excerpt the following from the Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 4, The Tools of Good Works:
“First of all to love the Lord God with one’s whole heart, whole soul, whole strength.  Then to love one’s neighbor as oneself.”  And here are concrete ways of living this love:
“…to honor all and not do to another what one does not want done to oneself.”
“…to prefer nothing to the love of Christ.” 
The context of this love of Christ: “Not to carry out anger: not to store up wrath, awaiting a time of revenge, not to cling to deceit within the heart, not to give a false greeting of peace, not to turn away from love.  Not to swear, lest you swear falsely: to bring forth truth from heart and mouth.”
“Not to return evil for evil.  Not to cause injury, but rather to bear it patiently.”
“…Always to clearly acknowledge and take personal responsibility for the evil one does.”
“To keep custody at every hour over the actions of one’s life.”
“To instantly hurl the evil thoughts of one’s heart against Christ and to lay them open to one’s spiritual father, to keep custody of one’s mouth against depraved speech…”
“To prostrate frequently in prayer, to daily confess one’s past faults to God in prayer with tears and sighs, to amend these faults for the future.”
“To hate no one; not to have jealousy, not to act out of envy, not to love contention, to flee from conceit.”
“In the love of Christ to pray for enemies; to make peace with opponents before the setting of the sun.”
“And never to despair of the mercy of God.”

How am I, how are you living these tools?  Do not these tools give us a concrete way of building up community, a community that is called to be a witness of God’s love and mercy, a community that is to witness to the active presence of God and God’s peace?  Wherever there is this quality of relationships there is Christ, there is his peace.   Every one of these tools that I read is about breaking open the heart from its hardened, stony ways…however, nothing will happen if we are not ready to take responsibility, responsibility for our own life and responsibility for the life of this community.  At Noon Prayer yesterday we heard these words from Edith Stein: “Only the person who…no longer struggles to defend or assert herself, can be large enough for God’s boundless action” (source?).  Jesus, with outstretched arms on the cross, totally giving of his whole Self so that the life and love of God will continue to spread everywhere.  We are part of his body: what stops us from putting down our defenses and to go to our sister and to make peace before the setting of the sun? 

Our world is armed with guns and violence.  And what of our hearts?  What would happen if we prayed like Dom Christian of Atlas who after the visit of the ‘terrorists’ on Christmas Eve in 1993 said: “After the visit I said to myself, those people, that person with whom I had such a terribly tense conversation, what prayer can I offer for him?  I can’t ask God to kill him.  But I can ask God to disarm him.  Later on, I said to myself, do I have a right to ask God to disarm him if I don’t first ask God to disarm me and disarm us in community?   This (now) is my daily prayer…” (A Heritage Too Big, vol. #2, p.27).   And what if this would be our daily prayer: ‘Disarm me, disarm my heart O God, disarm us in community’.  If we prayed this daily and put our attention on living from this disarmed posture, how would it change the quality of our relationships?  A disarmed heart, the disarmed heart of a community radiates the face of Christ and is a living body of Christ’s love and forgiveness.


On Trinitarian Life

Today, Holy Trinity Sunday, bringing before us the all-encompassing mystery of God, a mystery that lives and sustains our world, humanity and creation.  Last week for Pentecost Sunday I mentioned that one obstacle of the journey into the inner world, an obstacle which we all face, is that we can get too self-preoccupied, too caught up in ourselves…and still, with this happening as it will, it is essential to go deeper for there we find not only our true Self but we find also the God whom we are seeking.  In The New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality there is a profound essay on ‘Trinitarian Spirituality’.  The authors lay out the connection between the Trinity and the spiritual life where they call attention “to the many dimensions of the human person and of the God-world relation, not just the ‘interior’ dimension or the ‘inner life’ of the person” (p.980).  I think that if we understand what is at the heart of Trinitarian spirituality it will serve as a counterpoint to when there is too much focus on ‘me’ and my individual journey.    

One definition of Trinitarian spirituality in this essay is the following: “Spirituality considered from a Trinitarian perspective is not anything other than Christian life in the Spirit: being conformed to the person of Christ and being united in communion with God and with others” (p.968).  To repeat what is said here:  Christian life is life lived in the Spirit; and this practically means we conform ourselves to the person of Christ…meaning to have our lives lived in a similar way to his…we strive to love as he loved, to see from his perspective and consciousness, to have the same ‘attitude’ as Christ.  To live in this way is how we become united with God and with one another.

The following text I believe gives a clear understanding of the doctrine that grounds Trinitarian spirituality: “The doctrine of the Trinity affirms that it belongs to God’s very nature to be committed to humanity and its history, that God’s covenant with us is irrevocable, that God’s face is immutably turned towards us in love, that God’s presence to us is utterly reliable and constant” (p.969).  We behold, we witness these amazing affirmations about God’s very nature in Jesus.  Jesus mediates to us through his person that God’s essential nature is commitment to humanity and its history, that God’s covenant with us will never be broken, that the face of God is always turned towards us in love, and that God’s presence to us is constant…even when don’t experience or sense it.

If this is God’s very nature, if this is how God is towards us, what does it say about how we are to be and to act in turn as followers of God’s Son?  Augustine believed “that the structure of the individual human soul was a mirror image (vestige) of the Trinity.  By knowing oneself, one would know God” (p.970).  However this reality is not to be separated from “the communitarian dimensions of the Christian life” (p.970).  Trinitarian spirituality emphasizes person, relationship and communion (p.970).  While the human soul is a mirror image of the Trinity as Augustine so profoundly expresses it, this means that we are meant for communion, for relationship:  “Since human beings are created in the image of an inherently relational God, human beings are not created as selves in isolation, but they are who they are, through and for others.  This is the central mystery disclosed in the economy of salvation in the incarnate Word” (p.971).  The implication of this text is that whatever grace we receive in prayer, whatever the fruit of self-knowledge, whatever deepening interiorly in our individual conversion work, whatever the process of our ‘individuation’ work, it needs to turn outward, to be reflected in our relationships one to another, to be shown in selfless service, to be given back in self-donation.  To me what stretches the mind and heart is the reality that the Divine nature is relational…God is not an island unto God’s own Self and nor are we!  The relationship within the Trinity, the relationship that IS the Trinity is stamped upon our hearts.  God is always coming towards us seeking relationship and this relationship we have with God interiorly turns us outwardly in communion with one another and all of creation.

To show the breadth and depth of mystery of the triune God I quote the following:  “The triune God is the paradigm of all human relationships.  The divine Persons exist in a relationship of diversity, equality, mutuality, uniqueness, and interdependence.  Theological reflection on the mystery of the triune God…is critical of modes of relationship built on domination/submission, power/powerlessness, or activity/passivity.  Since the relational pattern of divine life is the norm of human life, relationships that respect difference, nurture reciprocity, and cultivate authentic complementarity are iconic of divine life” (p.980).  Can we become a community rooted in the triune God, living in relationship where we honor and respect diversity, equality, uniqueness, where we are aware that we are interdependent, that my life does impact all other lives, where mutuality is cultivated, rather than ‘my way’ or else ‘no way’.  Our society today, our world community today is in such need of Trinitarian life, of this quality of relationship.

Finally a prayer from William of St. Thierry:

You, the Beginning, to whom we are returning,
            the Pattern we are following,
the grace by which we are reconciled,
You we worship and bless!
To you be glory for ever!
Amen.             (On Contemplating God, p.64)


Transformation in the Spirit

In the second reading from first Corinthians for this feast of Pentecost we hear: “To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit” (1 Co  12:7).  We each are given a ‘manifestation of the Spirit’ an  “We were all given to drink of one Spirit” (1 Co 12:13b) and we participate in the one, same Spirit.  This unifies the body of Christ that we form.
d it is for a benefit, a benefit not just for ourselves but, as we form one body, it is a benefit for the larger community as well, the immediate community here at Redwoods and the larger community of the Church and the world.

In John’s gospel for the feast of Pentecost Jesus breathed his Spirit upon his disciples, he breathes his Spirit now upon you, upon me…Really sisters and brother what excuse do we have for not embodying and exercising this power given to each of us, to bring forth peace, God’s healing, and reconciling love?  In many ways all our excuses come down to ego stuff.  Sure our wounds are real, however, what keeps us imprisoned within them?  This Spirit can use our very wounds for life, for love, for deeds of selfless service, for creativity, for wisdom.  Jesus enters the upper room where the doors are locked: nothing can keep the Spirit out…This power from on high, this gift of God is present…it is everywhere:  What is it then that makes us reduce, diminish our lives and that of one another?  How come we stay stuck in our fears and negativity, in our controlling ways rather than giving ourselves over to receiving God’s Spirit, to being led and transformed by the Spirit, the Spirit that hovers over our hearts and hovers over the horizon of this community?  

In his book, Prayer In The Cave of the Heart, Fr. Cyprian Consiglio writes: “The Spirit that is in us is not meant to stay put—it is power…that is meant to flow through us, course through our veins, and pour out of us in love and service” (p.25). These words of Fr. Cyprian state the reality so clearly:  God’s Spirit ‘is not meant to stay put’ or dormant; it permeates our lives and is waiting for our response, our willingness to give our flesh, to be this on-going vessel of God’s life.  Obviously we need prayer, contemplative prayer, which in Fr. Cyprian’s words “is our means of accessing that power, that Spirit that has been poured into us, accessing it as Jesus did when he went out to deserted places” (p.25) to pray.  And once we ‘access’ or get in touch with it, wonderful things can happen in and through our weak, vulnerable, human flesh. 

In speaking of the inward journey Fr. Cyprian uses an expression from Anthony Bloom ‘it is a journey through my own self’ (p.37).  “Through the Self”: what precisely does this mean and how is it related to living our life through, with, in the Spirit?   As we focus on the inner journey we can get caught in “self-preoccupation”, too much focus on ‘me’.  Thus in Fr. Cyprians’ words: “We are going through ourselves to get beyond ourselves.  The journey is through our own experience, through our own souls, through our griefs, joys and pains—but it is through them, in the belief that there is something on the other side of them if we don’t get caught up in them, in the belief that our deepest selves lie hidden, as St. Paul says, ‘with Christ in God’” (p.36).  I wonder if this is not the key to where we often get stuck and miss so many opportunities for the Spirit to be manifested in our lives.  We remain too caught up in ourselves, too identified with ‘my’ hurts, ‘my’ likes and dislikes, ‘my’ whatever rather than going deeper with the faith and knowing that the Spirit can transform and change our attitudes and create us anew, making us more Christ like in our consciousness and service.

Pope Francis in his homily for Pentecost this year notes that “the Spirit is at work in individuals and communities”…“the Spirit,” he says, “makes them capable of recipere Deum (receiving God), capax Dei(with capacity for God)…”  So this is our capability…we are endowed with the capacity for God, the capacity to receive Divine life, to be renewed and guided by the Spirit in an on-going way.   How does this capacity get stymied?  Here is what Pope Francis says:  “The world needs men and women who are not closed in on themselves, but filled with the Holy Spirit….There are many ways one can close oneself off to the Holy Spirit: by selfishness for one’s own gain; by rigid legalism…; by neglect of what Jesus taught; by living the Christian life not as a service to others but in pursuit of personal interests; and in so many other ways.”  Could we each notice and reflect in the coming week how we get too closed in on ourselves, how our selfishness and self-preoccupation closes us to the workings of the Spirit?  This capacity for God, this capacity to receive the Spirit is always intact…we don’t lose it.  ‘Going through ourselves in order to get beyond ourselves’ will lead us into the open, fresh, hope-filled space, healing space of the Spirit.  We may, in the end, just find ourselves happier, freer, more united to God and one another…we may just find the One who we are following, who is breathing forth his ‘peace’, teaching us how to forgive and to love, to be vessels of God’s life.

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