Feb 232015
 

Christianity, like other religions, has its share of believers who insist that the most virtuous life is only achieved through self-denial, extreme emotional, physical, and social austerities, self-loathing, and even actual self-flagellation. In fact, it seems that most Christians share in this belief to some extent, having been conditioned to do so by our churches, families, and much of society at large. For many of us, myself certainly included, that conditioning manifests as a nagging and belittling of ourselves for our shortcomings and mistakes, and an often harsh critique and minimization of our talents and successes. In this reflection we’ll examine some of the foundations and effects of this kind of religion, and then we’ll consider the alternative of self-love.

Is Violence against the Self Virtuous?

We must acknowledge that many respected Christian leaders seem to have spoken of self-love as a vice.  For example, St. Ignatius of Loyola said:

Experience proves that in this life peace and satisfaction are had, not by the listless but by those who are fervent in God’s service. And rightly so. For in their effort to overcome themselves and to rid themselves of self-love, they rid themselves of the roots of all passion and unrest.

Statements like this are, in part, based upon the truthful realization that we are shortsighted, ignorant creatures who are often our own worst enemies. Yet it is a sad irony that this truth is often interwoven with the belief that we must do something cruel and combative with ourselves in order to serve God better or to be more acceptable to God. So it is that many of us think, feel, and act as if we must be our own judge, prison guard, and torturer, demonstrating to God how terribly aware we are of our unworthiness (as if God wouldn’t otherwise know!), and exacting from ourselves some degree of the retribution we fear we might otherwise suffer.

There are noteworthy problems with this kind of religion. First of all, it fails to acknowledge the pure grace of God’s mercy, instead making God’s forgiveness and salvation a prize to be won by effort. It also reveals another irony in our assumption, and perhaps hubris, that we have the power to make ourselves holier through violence against our own souls. In short, it is more a denial of Jesus’ teachings about meekness, peacemaking, and loving at all costs than it is a denial of ourselves.

There are not only theological problems with this practice, but it also has unhealthy consequences on our psyches. To begin with, any attempt by the self to restrain or attack anything within the self is by necessity an act of self-assertion. There can thus be no self-denial in any complete sense, but only denial of one part of the self by another. It is simply delusional to convince ourselves that we are overcoming the self by our own will and effort, for it is the self that initiates and sustains that very effort. This loss of contact with reality then becomes fertile ground for further self-deceptions, and the more we deceive ourselves the more likely we are to do harm to ourselves in other ways.  Unfortunately, these ills cannot simply be contained within ourselves, because the more we succumb to self-deception and self-harm, the less able we are to be the fervent servants of God in this world that St. Ignatius would have us be. In the end, the self-neglect and self-abuse that are the denial of self-love position us to contribute more to the ills of the world. There is very little about any of this that can rightly be called virtuous.

The Virtue of Self-Love

In the 13th century, St. Thomas Aquinas expressed the essential wisdom of self-love very simply and directly:

Well-ordered self-love, whereby man desires a fitting good for himself, is right and natural.

The Anglican theologian, clergyman, and mystical poet of the 17th century, Thomas Traherne, unfolds this wisdom further by saying:

Had we not loved ourselves at all, we could never have been obliged to love anything. So that self-love is the basis of all love.

If, as St. Ignatius alludes, our highest calling is to serve God, and if the highest form of service is love, as Jesus teaches, then Traherne’s comment begs us to remember that the place most immediately present and constantly available for such service is within oneself, and likewise the most immediately present and constantly available person one can serve is oneself. Furthermore, if we also believe the scriptures and many mystics claiming that God is love, and that to love is to know God, then the most immediately present and constantly available way of knowing God must be through loving oneself. We should also recall the second of Jesus’ Great Commandments, where he urges us to love our neighbors as ourselves. This statement reveals that self-love is not only recommended, but is also understood by Jesus, as is later explained by Traherne, to be central to our ability to love others.

The ways we do and do not love ourselves shape the ways that we do and do not love others; to a significant degree, we cannot help but love others as we love ourselves. This view is more than a theologically sound appreciation of self-love; it draws attention to the deep psychological dynamics by which one’s social and moral character in the world is formed.  By analogy, consider that people who starve the body of food and water eventually become compromised in their ability to serve others food and water. So, for example, our refusal to be forgiving of our own shortcomings and mistakes leads us to be more hostile towards those of others, despite any pretense of forbearance we might offer.  Likewise, if we are in the habit of harshly criticizing and minimizing our own talents and successes, then we will habitually do the same to other people, though we might try hiding our negativity behind feigned appreciation and admiration. In the extreme, violence to our own souls can even produce an attitude of justification in exacting unmerciful and vengeful violence on others. Thankfully these dynamics also produce positive results and thus reveal the virtue of self-love — the more we practice genuine acceptance, intimacy, compassion, understanding, forgiveness, and care for ourselves, the more freely we offer them to others.

Self-Love in Contemplative Practice

The hallmark of contemplative practice in Christianity is silent prayer, the practice of being still and quietly attentive to the present moment.  Silent contemplative prayer is practiced with faith that the Holy Spirit is revealing God to us in and through this very moment just as it is, including not merely what is apparent to us through our physical senses, but also, and more importantly, though what is occurring within our hearts and minds.  In other words, God, as Truth, is always immediately present to us in the truth about ourselves, a truth that we encounter most clearly and fully when we are simply attentive to and accepting of the natural flow of our thoughts and feelings.  We simply practice being as consciously present as possible to the truth of ourselves without judgment, neither condoning nor rejecting, but just being honestly aware of our bared souls. It is a way of being that, while often wordless, may be approximated with words like these:

Ah, yes, there is pain. Ah, yes, there is pleasure.
Ah, yes, there is anger. Ah, yes, there is peace.
Ah, yes, there is sadness. Ah, yes, there is joy.
Ah, yes, there is confusion. Ah, yes, there is clarity.
Ah, yes, there is doubt. Ah, yes, there is certainty.
Ah, yes, there is gluttony. Ah, yes, there is temperance.
Ah, yes, there is greed. Ah, yes, there is generosity.
Ah, yes, there is arrogance. Ah, yes, there is humility.
Ah, yes, there is distrust. Ah, yes, there is faith.
Ah, yes, there is despair. Ah, yes, there is hope.
Ah, yes, there is love, always love, in and around all of this.

It might not be immediately apparent that this way of being is actually the cornerstone of self-love, but it becomes apparent when we consider what we most desire in giving and receiving love with others.  Underlying all the wonderful experiences and expressions of love between human beings, and between us and God, what we most need is to know we are intimately welcomed, unconditionally accepted, and compassionately understood, just as we are, without hiding or pretending in any way.

Self-Love in Extension

As we have already seen, how we love ourselves determines our character in this world. So it is that the contemplative practice of silent prayer leads us into greater awareness, acceptance, and compassionate understanding of the world as it really is and of other people as they actually are. This is the kind of love that Jesus revealed God freely offers us, and which he urges us to let flow through us for ourselves and others. Indeed, this kind of love can mystically reveal to us that the self is not actually an entity separate from others. It can awaken us to the reality that each individualized self, with all its limitations, is nonetheless a precious expression of the one infinite Spirit lovingly breathed into all of humanity, the one Self that is God’s living presence in all of us.

This mystical realization has a number of additional benefits. At a very personal level, it frees us to develop, express, and enjoy our uniqueness as gifts of God to this world. There is no need to crush our spirits with false humility, excessive guilt, toxic shame and other forms of self-abuse. It further enables us to embrace and celebrate the same freedom for other people, letting go of expectations for everyone to conform to the mores and customs of a particular culture, the specific beliefs of a single religion, or the attitudes and behavioral patterns of a particular personality type. In welcoming ourselves and others as we are, and knowing God’s love is always abundantly present within us and through our spiritual interconnectedness, we are less likely to regard relationships, other people, rights, and liberties as personal possessions we must jealously keep to ourselves. It isn’t hard to see how such significant shifts in attitudes would result in less psychological and physical suffering in this world, and more peace, harmony, and healthy creativity.

A Closing Observation

While there is so much to be gained in the practice of self-love, we should avoid assuming that it automatically results in nothing but rainbows and butterflies. There are constant temptations to fall back into our self-deceptions and vacillations between self-aggrandizement and self-condemnation, and we are surrounded by other human beings with similar struggles. Contemplatives also invariably become more sensitive to the suffering in this world. A huge portion of the work of loving self and others is therefore persevering in our intentions to practice non-judgmental awareness, acceptance, and compassionate understanding when it seems most difficult and least rewarding to do so.  Of course, this also means returning to patience and understanding with ourselves when those intentions have been temporarily lost. It certainly helps to keep a sense of humor!

 Agape

May 142013
 

Recently, a friend took me to task for making the comment that mysticism doesn’t have much to do with angels and demons. Her surprise and head-scratching are understandable, especially since I have so often stated my agreement with the Apostle Paul that God is the One in which we live and move and have our being, and that every experience is thus an experience of God if we would only realize it as such. So, in this blog post I’d like to clarify my own understanding of the term ‘mysticism’, and also comment on its relevance, or lack thereof, to other things of spiritual mystery.

The Essence of Mysticism

According to Merriam-Webster, ‘mysticism’ means:

1: the experience of mystical union or direct communion with ultimate reality reported by mystics
2: the belief that direct knowledge of God, spiritual truth, or ultimate reality can be attained through subjective experience (as intuition or insight)

In popular use, the word ‘mysticism’ often loses these more specific meanings, and this is reflected by a broader point in the definition of ‘mystical’:

1 a: having a spiritual meaning or reality that is neither apparent to the senses nor obvious to the intelligence

The latter definition actually fits well with the etymology of ‘mysticism,’ which has the same root as our word ‘mystery’, the Greek mys, which means to conceal. Our word, ‘mystic,’ apparently traces back to the Greek mystikos, denoting an initiate of a mystery religion, a sect with secret ceremonies that facilitated powerful spiritual experiences and/or taught esoteric doctrines about life and the Cosmos.

For all of the reasons stated above, people often use ‘mysticism’ or ‘mystical’ as a blanket term that may include all sorts of ideas, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of a religious or spiritual nature, and especially anything of a mysterious or seemingly supernatural or paranormal nature. Some of these things – like angels, demons, exorcism, faith-healing, blessings, visions, prophecy, speaking in tongues, and various kinds of miracles – have their places in Christian tradition and even Church doctrine, but, strictly speaking, they aren’t necessary parts of mysticism as it has developed among theologians, monastics, and others who devoted their lives to penetrating the Christian mysteries.

In early Church history, mysticism included three mutually supportive areas of focus: (1) the contemplative practice of being present to, and even consciously one with, God’s presence; (2) meditation upon the concealed or secret meanings of scripture; and (3) the liturgical celebration of the mysteries of the Trinity, which reaches its summit in the Eucharist. While it was understood that each of these three areas supported the others, through the centuries it also became increasingly apparent that the essence of mysticism was most directly engaged through contemplative practice. Without it, the other two areas increasingly descend toward hollow doctrinal conformity and superstitions about scripture and the sacraments.

This insight about the centrality of contemplation to mysticism is reflected in the primary entries for the word ‘mysticism’ in most contemporary dictionaries, like the two given above. Consider the significance of the following words from those definitions:

  • union
  • direct communion
  • direct knowledge
  • subjective experience

These words are about the oneness with God that mystics believe, and some may actually know, is possible to experience or realize directly, which is to say in an unmediated way. This particular understanding of the essence of mysticism is reflected in the earliest writings of Christian theology.

…in the diligent exercise of mystical contemplation, leave behind the senses and the operations of the intellect, and all things sensible and intellectual, and all things in the world of being and nonbeing, that you may arise by unknowing towards the union, as far as is attainable, with IT that transcends all being and all knowledge. Mystical Theology, Pseudo-Dionysus (5th-6th Century)

And before that, St. Augustine wrote in his Confessions (4th Century):

If to any man the tumult of the flesh were silenced; and the phantoms of earth and waters and air were silenced; and the poles were silent as well; indeed, if the very soul grew silent to herself, and went beyond herself by not thinking of herself; if fancies and imaginary revelations were silenced; if every tongue and every sign and every transient thing–for actually if any man could hear them, all these would say, ‘We did not create ourselves, but were created by Him who abides forever’–and if, having uttered this, they too should be silent, having stirred our ears to hear Him who created them; and if then He alone spoke, not through them but by Himself, that we might hear His word, not in fleshly tongue or angelic voice, nor sound of thunder, nor the obscurity of a parable, but might hear Him–Him for whose sake we love these things–if we could hear Him without these, as we two now strained ourselves to do, we then with rapid thought might touch on that Eternal Wisdom which abides over all. And if this could be sustained, and other visions of a far different kind be taken away, and this one should so ravish and absorb and envelop its beholder in these inward joys that his life might be eternally like that one moment of knowledge which we now sighed after–would not this be the reality of the saying, ‘Enter into the joy of thy Lord’?

I’d like to offer an analogy that I hope can effectively illustrate part of what St. Augustine is saying about this experience or state, and thereby shed some light on Christian mysticism as distinct from other kinds of spirituality.

Imagine a great puppeteer, one who is legendary for both making and performing with puppets. You decide you’d like to learn more about this great artist, and so you go to one of the puppet shows. The puppeteer is so talented that the puppets seem to be actually alive, with their own movements and voices, their own distinct wills, thoughts, and feelings. The show is so fantastic that you keep coming back to see it and others, spellbound by the mastery shining through them. During the shows you are very taken by what you see and hear, and eventually you even forget that you are watching puppets, let alone remember that they are being animated by a puppeteer.

And then one day, during an intermission in one of the shows, you suddenly recall why you started coming to the shows – to learn more about the puppeteer. You shake your head and laugh, reminding yourself that everything you are seeing is being created by someone you can’t directly see. As entertaining and beautiful as the show itself is, you begin to feel a growing sense of wonder, of admiration and gratitude, of love, for the unseen genius behind the scenes who has made you think and feel so many things. You feel a desire to meet the puppeteer personally, to shake hands, to speak face to face, so you can share your admiration and learn more about the puppeteer. Of course, you know that the puppets and the show are revelations of the puppeteer’s intelligence, skill, love, and spirit, and thus you are indirectly in communication with the puppeteer, but the indirectness of it, the incompleteness of it, the inadequacy of it, becomes increasingly obvious. You know that whatever your appreciation for the show is now, it will be enriched many times over, in both depth and breadth, if you can know the puppeteer intimately. You know you will never again be nearly as satisfied with simply sitting in the audience and watching the show. You are smitten.

Asking around, you learn that most people in the audience have never seen the puppeteer. Some of them say it never occurred to them to try because they’re just here for the show. There are other people who doubt that there is any puppeteer, and instead believe they are watching machines that run on their own. Others say they’ve caught a glimpse of the puppeteer, and you listen patiently as they describe what they think the puppeteer is like based on their fleeting impressions, obviously filling in large blanks with things others have said and from their own imaginations. It occurs to you that they have made their own mental puppet of the puppeteer! Some claim to know the puppeteer personally, but when you ask how you can meet the puppeteer, most only tell you to keep going to the show and watching the puppets. Some say the only way to know the puppeteer is for oneself to try being a puppeteer. One or two quietly admit they have actually seen and spoken with the puppeteer, and they say that the only way to do so is to go sit by the locked backstage door, waiting patiently until the puppeteer emerges after the show. They say there is no way to know how long the wait will be; the puppeteer might come out right away, but sometimes the puppeteer seems to never come out. When you ask them what the puppeteer is like, they simply smile, sigh, shake their heads, and perhaps utter an enigmatic word or two. Something about them earns your trust, and perhaps it is because you see in them the same love for the puppeteer that you feel growing in your own heart. You resolve to do as they have done, giving yourself to this love for as long as it takes.

Mysticism is such a love affair with God. Yes, the mystic loves the works of the Creator, and deeply loves the immanent presence of the Creator’s Spirit and Logos in those works, but also feels that this love of the Creator’s works remains unfulfilled until the Creator is known directly. As the Blessed Jan van Ruysbroeck says in The Sparkling Stone (14th Century):

The spirit forever continues to burn in itself, for its love is eternal; and it feels itself ever more and more to be burnt up in love, for it is drawn and transformed into the Unity of God, where the spirit burns in love. If it observes itself, it finds a distinction and an otherness between itself and God; but where it is burnt up it is undifferentiated and without distinction, and therefore it feels nothing but unity; for the flame of the Love of God consumes and devours all that it can enfold in its Self.

These terms ‘undifferentiated’ and ‘without distinction’ aren’t just the kind of romantic prose about union that we often apply to our strongest feelings for other people. They can and should be taken literally, and if they are then it becomes apparent that there is only one kind of experience that qualifies as totally mystical, no matter how many different ways humans might arrive at it. In utter and complete oneness there is no other to behold or to be beheld by. Anything else, no matter how revelatory, inspiring, or transformative, is not the mystical experience spoken of by the great mystics. So, while mysterious things – like the secret meanings of scripture, the magic of the liturgy, miracles, or demons and angels – might lead someone into mysticism, into the contemplative pursuit of the One behind those veils, he or she should also realize that such concerns are not the essence of mysticism and must, at some point, be released, even if only momentarily.

In stronger words than my own, Ruysbroeck concludes:

…all those are deceived who fancy themselves to be contemplative, and yet inordinately love, practice, or possess, some creaturely thing; or who fancy that they enjoy God before they are empty of images, or that they rest before they enjoy. All such are deceived; for we must make ourselves fit for God with an open heart, with a peaceful conscience, with naked contemplation, without hypocrisy, in sincerity and truth.

While these statements might sound like doctrine, something we should simply accept in submission to religious authority, I don’t read them that way. It isn’t merely an arbitrary decree of theologically or institutionally acceptable concepts to point out that there is a natural and logical order in such things, one that has been repeatedly discovered and taught by the mystics of different eras and also in religions other than Christianity; the cup must be empty before it can be filled.

Beyond Mysticism?

Another friend, who states he doesn’t consider himself either a mystic or a contemplative, asks if there might be something beyond mysticism. In one respect, I can answer yes. The direct realization of oneness with God can come without identifying oneself as a mystic, or holding any philosophy, or practicing any methods that might be called ‘mysticism.’ There are plenty of cases of full-blown mystical experience occurring in the absence of any special desire or effort. In such cases, one’s consciousness suddenly and directly shifts into a state stripped bare of all words, images, feelings, and any trace of a me-God duality. This can happen ‘beyond’ mysticism because mysticism is, after all, a human thing, and God is not constrained to act within the bounds of human things. However, once such a moment has occurred, if a memory of it persists and the person understands its significance, then, technically speaking, that person is a mystic and has, ironically, gone beyond non-mysticism.

Here are two reasons I can answer no, there isn’t anything beyond mysticism: First, it’s clearly circular to say so, but there is no pursuit beyond mysticism because there is nothing to pursue beyond the deepest mystery of God. Mysticism reaches as beyond as anything can! Second, once the aim of mysticism, which is knowing our oneness with God, has been directly realized and is no longer just a matter of concepts, beliefs, or feelings, then everything after that can, potentially, also be realized as direct contact with God in some particular way, rather than being assumed, hoped, or hypothesized as such.

For me, that last observation suggests that the more meaningful questions are about what lies beyond the mystical experience itself, where ‘beyond’ points to what comes afterward. In Christianity, like other religions, our lore is filled with stories of the miraculous works of people who have received the ultimate touch of the Absolute and identification with the Ground of Being. These stories therefore heavily shape our expectations about what it means to be a mystic, and reinforce the common misperception that such mysterious things are essential to mysticism. They can even lead people to question the validity of their own mystical experience or that of someone else. Yet, as Jack Kornfield addresses in his book, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, most of us will continue living with many if not most of the ordinary limitations of human existence, even if we have an extraordinary awareness of the nature of this existence. In other words, the gift of the mystical state does not necessarily bring with it any other spiritual gifts, let alone totally transform us into saintly miracle workers and glorious battlers of demons. We must instead commit ourselves to opening our hearts and minds in a lifelong process of unfolding the depths of wisdom the mystical experience holds for our own unique and very human lives.

Finally, I also believe there is something beyond mysticism in terms of importance, and that is love in general. While it could be argued that mysticism is the ultimate response to the Great Commandment to love, and to Jesus’ admonition to seek first the Kingdom of God, I would counter with another of his admonitions: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Mysticism isn’t for everyone, and its followers are not automatically ‘superior’ Christians or human beings, just as those who do not pursue the mystical path are not therefore necessarily ‘inferior’ Christians or human beings. In this light, mysticism can be understood as one among many ways of loving.

Agape

Jan 172013
 

mirror-reflection-in-sphere2The image of a mirror can be very helpful in understanding contemplative experience, because it is the nature of our consciousness, of our minds, to reflect.   The term ‘reflect’ not only refers to the act of pondering upon something, but refers even more directly to the way the mind works.  All the images we see in our minds –  whether images of things in the world around us, of memories, fantasies, or inspired visions – are representations of things and not the things themselves.  This process is also true for all our other senses, but nothing represents the reflective nature of the mind better than the way a mirror works for the sense of sight.  Even when a person attempts to think of his or her own mind, the thought is only an image of the mind, and thus is an action or a part of the mind, but not the mind itself.

It may be that in those last statements you can see how thinking about something can actually interfere with our ability to be as authentically present in the moment as possible, and thus to more completely observe and perceive its greater reality or truth.   As an example, consider the well know phenomenon that thinking too much about doing something, like dancing, while actually trying to do it, gets in the way of dancing as well as we might.  Another example can be found in the obsessive shutterbug, one who can’t stop taking pictures of something long enough to simply be present in the more direct experience of it.  The more we think about something, the less we actually experience it, whether it is something we regard as external to self or something as internal as our most secret thoughts and feelings.

When practicing silent or contemplative prayer, one sits in greater openness to whatever arises in consciousness, whether a sensory perception in response to something external, or thoughts and feelings arising in other ways.  This kind of prayer is practiced in faithful acceptance of whatever actually is, filtering and distorting it as little as possible with expectations, rules, analyses, or judgments. It means opening our awareness  more completely to the immediate fact of God’s creation and the mysterious movement of the Holy Spirit.  We therefore see more clearly the truth of things just as they are in the present moment, and less as though in a cloudy mirror.   According to 1st Corinthians 13, seeing more clearly like this happens in the context of our maturation in love.

One of the most common experiences in this kind of practice is a greater awareness of the whole of one’s own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.  Furthermore, most of us aren’t pleased to observe how much of a crazy mess is going on within us.   We discover that we aren’t nearly as rational, centered, well balanced, practically competent, emotionally secure, intellectually certain, spiritually enlightened, or morally virtuous as we like to pretend to others and ourselves.   In fact, anyone who practices like this for very long eventually comes to see in oneself the seeds, if not the seedlings, or even the flowers, of every sin ever committed by anyone.

There are many ways we can react to looking in that mirror.  I have no doubt that an intuitive sense of these possibilities, if not some actual experience of them, leads some people to consider contemplative practice too dangerous, and even speak of it as risking demonic possession.   Those sorts of fears should be respected for the individuals gripped by them, because too much raw truth can be harmful  when we’re unprepared to cope with it.   Yet, for others, the initial shock and horror of their existential disillusionment eventually gives way to deeper and more authentic reverence, humility, gratitude, compassion, kindness, and selflessness.  We get past being entirely captivated by all the frailty, confusion, fragmentation, dishonesty, and negativity of our own humanity and that of others, and we see that these things come and go within a greater context, the beautiful wholeness of our being and becoming.  Our own looking inward upon the mirror of the soul, releasing our illusions and accepting what is, in turn leads us to see others more clearly and to love them more freely.  This is how contemplative practice serves the Great Commandments to love God with all that we are and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Agape

Feb 292012
 

Many Christians began Lent last week with Ash Wednesday, but today is the beginning of Lent on the Julian or Orthodox calendar.  Traditionally, it is a 40-day period of more intense prayer, penitence, abstinence, fasting, and alms before celebrating the resurrection of Christ at Easter.  It is a fitting time to remember our communion with every child of God, many of whom suffer and sacrifice much more than others. Please join me in this prayer.


Sophia, Divine Wisdom, our Holy Mother,
when we crave comforts and luxuries,
help us remember all those
whose craving is for health, peace, and liberty.

Christ, Divine Word, our Holy Shepherd,
when we give of our wealth in alms,
help us remember all those
whose alms are their own flesh and blood.

Abba, Divine Will, our Holy Father,
when we hunger for food we do not need,
help us remember all those
whose hunger is not chosen.

Almighty God, Divine Trinity, our Holy Unity,
when in prayer we sit alone with You,
help us remember all those
whose prayer is to not be alone. Amen.

Agape

Jan 282012
 

Holy Sophia,
……You who silently moves
………upon the primordial deep,
…………Who communes with the One
……………in every moment of creation,
………………Whom Solomon the Wise
…………………praises as the grace most desired,
……………………O Paraclete and Pentecostal Fire
………………………I open myself to You.

Precious mystical Spirit,
a mere puff of Your hallowed breath
clears away the clouds and dust
from my unsettled mind
so that the dark shining stillness
ever possessing my soul
may better reflect You,
the Unspotted Mirror,
the Peace that Passes Understanding,
the Eternally Virgin Womb
upon Whom the Will casts Itself,
and within Whom the Word
is ever born anew.

Oct 062011
 

At various times along our mystical paths, it can prove rewarding to perform a spiritually directed experiment for a period of at least a week.  Each of the activities listed below can provide meaningful and educational experiences.  You can select something that builds naturally upon strengths and talents, or you can choose something that might challenge your perceived weaknesses or shortcomings.  Because this is a time of experimentation, it is especially recommended that you try something significantly different from your usual practices. In any case, avoid setting yourself up for failure. It is recommended that you keep a simple log or calendar to chart your activity, and that you discuss the experiment with a mentor or spiritual friend at least once before proceeding and once upon ceasing the experiment.

Meditation or Prayer: There are many possibilities for methods of meditation and prayer, and perhaps a mentor or spiritual friend can be of help in making choices. See some options I recommend by clicking here.  Select a regular place and time(s) to practice.  Commit to practice once, twice or three times per day for 10, 20, 30 or 60 minutes per sitting, at least three times per week.

Devotional Ritual: Design and perform a short devotional ritual to be performed at a regular place and time(s) once or twice each day, at least three times per week.  See an example by clicking here. Consider the use of elements such as these:

  • An altar or shrine bearing an image and/or book you consider sacred
  • Placing a fresh token of faith or thanks on the altar each time
  • Bowing and/or kneeling
  • Crossing yourself
  • Lighting a candle and/or incense
  • Ringing a bell
  • A short inspirational reading
  • Saying an opening and/or closing prayer

Journaling: Spend time each day recording your thoughts and feelings about your spiritual life. This can be an activity of its own, or combined with any of the others.

Reporting: This experiment can be an activity of its own, or combined with any of the others.  Once or twice per week send your mentor or spiritual friend a written report of your thoughts, feelings, readings and other actions relevant to your spiritual life, and invite that person’s feedback.

Mindfulness: Find a time each day to mindfully perform a common activity, such as taking a walk, eating a meal, or completing a particular routine chore. As you perform the activity, keep focusing your attention on it, being as aware as possible of every action involved, no matter how minor or automatic it may seem.  It is usually helpful to be alone in this activity.

Meditative Reading: Select inspirational material such as scripture, or spiritual poetry or lyrics to read slowly and carefully at least three times per week.  Choose a short passage that captures your attention and imagination, and focus upon it more intently. Memorize it and continually return your thoughts to it until the next reading, allowing and noting all thoughts and feelings that arise in connection with it.

Nightly Review: Before you fall asleep each night, review the events of the day. The review can be from morning to night or, in reverse order, from night to morning.  In either case, consider performing it with your eyes closed so that you can visualize events as you recall them.

Dream Work: Record your dreams immediately upon awakening. Consider what messages they may have about your spiritual life.

Inspirational Artwork:  At least three times per week set aside time to try to artistically express your thoughts and feelings relevant to your spiritual life.  This experiment can be any kind of art – drawing, painting, poetry, sculpting, music, dance, etc.

Expressing Gratitude: Tell at least one person each day how you are especially thankful for her or his presence in your life. This experiment should be done in person if possible, but can also be done by phone or mail.

Anonymous Acts of Kindness: Each day do something for another person without her or him knowing, and take precautions not to be discovered.  It is much easier to do this with strangers and people you do not closely interact with on a daily basis. Try to be creative and do something that could be especially pleasing or touching to the recipient.

Virtue Commitment:  Select a single virtue, continually striving to think and act in accord with it.  Practice simple awareness and acceptance of your successes and your difficulties.  Consult with your mentor or spiritual friend if you want help making your selection.

Sacrifice: Select a particular pleasure to forgo.  Your sacrifice should be something you regularly if not habitually enjoy, and can be primarily physical, social or intellectual in nature.  You might choose something you consider to be a vice, or something that seems totally innocent and even beneficial to you in some way.  In any case, perform this experiment as an act of spiritual devotion, taking note of all the thoughts and feelings you have about it.

 

Aug 192011
 

Dear friends, I hope you will join me in this prayer from time to time.

O Great Mystery,
O Divine Lover we seek without understanding,
O Love that transcends all sense and reason,
we open our hearts and minds to You now,
here in this moment, as though little chicks
opening their mouths for nourishment
delivered to them by a good mother and father.

We don’t really know how or why You feed us,
but we know that we live and we long for this;
and whether it is fear, faith, hope, or joy that moves us,
here we are crying out for You before all things,
You who is at once the food and the One who feeds.

O Unfathomable Truth,
moved by You we pour out our faith, hope and love
for our brothers and sisters, Your children,
who thirst and hunger for You.
Bless us all by accepting this offering
and delivering it to their hearts and minds
so that we may all feel Your mysterious presence,
so that we may all more fully know You,
our Light and Life, Love Itself,
the very Spirit of our souls,
the essential Mind of our minds,
the central passion that stirs all our desires.

Here our words fail us, O Ineffable One;
there are no images, no sounds we can cling to,
no emotions or sensations that capture You,
and so we simply relax and let them all go,
sitting right here, right now, attuned to the silence
in which all our words arise and depart,
attuned to the stillness in which all our feelings move,
attuned to the darkness in which all our images
flash into and out of being,
attuned to the mysterious realm within us
that gives birth to all, and is the nest and parent of all,
attuned to You.

Let us simply rest in this for a while
without expectation,
simply open and willing to receive
whatever may come as a sign of Your love,
even if it seems to be nothing at all
but this silence, this stillness, this darkness itself,
this seeming emptiness that is nonetheless
the source and the home of all that is.
Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

 

Also posted at:  http://chuckdunning.blog.com/2011/11/30/a-prayer-for-spiritual-nourishment/

Feb 272011
 

The Apostle Paul admonished his followers to “pray without ceasing,” which might seem like an impossible goal.  If we take the admonition literally, and also think of prayer in the most common sense of bowing our heads, closing our eyes and speaking to God, then it would be practically impossible.  On the other hand, we don’t have to take Paul literally, but we can understand him to be strongly encouraging us to pray as often as we might. That shift opens the door for attitudes about prayer that aren’t trapped by all-or-nothing thinking.  It is also not necessary for us to be limited by one method of prayer. Christianity actually offers a wide variety of methods we can adopt to enrich our prayer lives, but it isn’t the purpose of this essay to examine or even list all the different ways we can pray.  So it is that this post offers some ideas on how we can more frequently attend to our relationship with the Divine in the course of a typical day for most Westerners, and thereby more fully enter into the heart of God.

If there is more than one way to pray, then perhaps we ought to begin by considering the very nature of prayer.  In The Essentials of Mysticism, Evelyn Underhill says:

[prayer is] that part of our active and conscious life which is deliberately oriented towards, and exclusively responds to, spiritual reality. The being of God, who is that spiritual reality, we believe to be immanent in all things.

In other words, prayer is intentionally giving attention to our relationship with the Divine, here and now.

The Love Affair with God

While we cannot limit the Divine to being a single person in the human sense, it remains that the expression of personal affection and devotion is one of the most powerful ways we can relate to God.  In Vedic terminology this path is called “bhakti yoga” (literally “devotion/participation” + “uniting”).  This experience was clearly part of the life of Jesus, who repeatedly declares his oneness with God, which he addresses as “Abba”, the Hebrew equivalent of “Papa”.

One of the most touching and memorable ways humans share their love with each other is through words and actions that express our feelings of fondness, attraction, admiration and even passion.  We may even acknowledge a sense of attachment and interdependence, such that we cannot fully conceive of ourselves without referring in some way to the beloved.  While the great mystic sages are united in claiming that blind attachment to a human personality is misplaced, interpersonal devotion is nonetheless well founded if we acknowledge that the Spirit of the Living God is shining through each person’s life in a limited and yet wonderfully unique way.  As mystics on the Way of the Heart, we owe it to God, our fellow human beings, and to ourselves to express our love for God as directly as possible within our souls and through our love for other people.  Any attempt to engage that love affair consciously and intentionally is prayer, and the following methods are based upon awareness of that truth.

Ritualized Prayer

When we love others, we often make it a point to share certain times of our lives with them.  We share meals with them, make phone calls or send emails, and we meet with them on holidays and other routine events.  In effect, we demonstrate our commitment to them, and so communicate our love, by establishing and maintaining rituals of interconnection. We likewise ritualize our connections with God in many ways, such as going to church or meditating routinely, or learning and practicing specific prayers at various times.

Building upon this dynamic, one of the most common ways to more fully incorporate prayer into one’s life is through ritually reading or recalling prayers at specific times of the day and night, such as upon rising, at meals and before sleep.  Further steps can be taken by saying those prayers at the turn of specific hours, or setting a minimum number of repetitions to be completed each day.  Praying the Rosary is one of the most widely practiced methods of Christian ritualized prayer, as is the children’s bedtime prayer, “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep.”

Perhaps the greatest challenge in ritualized prayer is not allowing the practice to become relatively spiritless, with some mechanical part of the mind simply replaying the words while the majority of one’s consciousness is occupied with anything but attention to the Divine.  Still there is hope that even in those cases the prayer is stimulating the soul in some beneficial way at an unconscious level.  Another challenge is that we may be in a setting where performing ritualized prayer aloud would be uncomfortable.  In these cases there is nothing wrong with performing them entirely within the imagination, making no external sounds or movements to betray the inner work.

There are many traditional prayers suitable for these practices. The Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm are familiar to most Christians.  Hail Mary and the Jesus Prayer are also traditional favorites among Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox Christians.

“Hail Mary” (Roman Catholic version)

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen. (“sinners” is omitted by some people)

“The Jesus Prayer” (according to the rule of St. John Chrysostom)

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us. Amen.

A number of doxologies, or short traditional hymns of praise, are also suitable. Here are two common examples:

“Gloria Patri” (an English version)

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost. As it was in the beginning, it is now and ever shall be, world without end.  Amen.

“Praise God from Whom all Blessings Flow”

Praise God from Whom all blessings flow; praise Him, all creatures here below; praise Him above, ye heavenly host; praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.

Of course, many beautiful prayers have been composed by or attributed to Christian saints, and have become standards throughout the Christian community. Consider this one attributed to St. Francis of Assisi:

Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life. Amen.

For the purposes of performing ritualized prayer from memory, it is perfectly acceptable to choose shorter excerpts or fragments of prayers. Here is an excerpt from a prayer by Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin:

May Thy life, which is one everywhere, transform my whole being in the unity of Thine image, my heart in the unity of Thy love, my activity in the unity of the works of justice, and my thought in the unity of all lights.  Amen.

Internal Chant

Just as we frequently stir the memory of a beloved in our hearts and minds, we can redirect our awareness to the Divine through frequent, silent repetition of a few words, phrases or a short sentence that naturally evokes spiritual thoughts or opens the heart to God’s presence.  This practice is a sacrifice of some portion of one’s moment-to-moment consciousness, allowing internal space to be devoted to purposes more meaningful than the petty obsessions that too often waste our time and energy.  At first, it may be necessary to frequently remind oneself to return to the chant whenever the mind is not occupied by something of immediate importance.  In time the practice can become more like a constantly flowing stream that one joyfully hears again whenever other sounds have quieted.  Some people practice the Jesus Prayer this way, and you could also employ one of these options, among many others:

Be still and know that I am God.

Thou art with me.

Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Love God and thy neighbor as thyself.

As you have done to the least of these, so have you done to me.

I and my Father are one.

Please note that for this form of chanting we have not included any sacred names or words, such as Adonai, Elohim, Emmanuel, Yeshua Xristos, or Maranatha.  The chanting of sacred words, either silently or aloud, is recommended for times dedicated specifically to that purpose, and is often done in conjunction with other rituals and meditations. These matters are important and deserve further attention, but are tangential to our consideration of prayer in the typical course of daily life.

Love Notes & Other Keepsakes

One of the most pleasant ways we express our thoughts and feelings for loved ones is through sharing written words, pictures and other mementos with each other.  Heartfelt letters, poetry, songs, and even greeting cards are tangible manifestations, actual documents, of love.  We can relate to the Divine in the same way, and that is precisely what has led so many people to write their own prayers, or compose spiritual music and poetry.  Many great paintings and sculptures have also been expressions of prayerful states of mind. Other people find it meaningful to keep a journal or diary in which they write entries addressed to God, just as they would write letters to a most trusted friend.

When we receive artistic gifts from others, or make them for ourselves, it is very common to set them out where they can easily be seen and revisited, or to preserve them in collections of keepsakes through which we occasionally reminisce.  People typically frame the most cherished pictures or writings, making them perpetually available.  Many of us also do these things with the spiritual writings and icons we find most inspiring.  Every time we lay our eyes on such artifacts, they provide an opportunity to remember our relationship with the Divine, and to attend to it in that very moment.  Sometimes, and often just when we most need it, these items catch the eye not so much as reminders to attend to God, but rather strike us as personal messages from the Divine, reawakening our hearts and minds to the immediate presence of infinite wisdom and love.

Laborare Est Orare

“To work is to pray.”  This motto summarizes the Rule of St. Benedict, a guide to Christian monks of many orders that places honest work on an equal footing with religious study and formal prayer.  This value is present in the teachings of many spiritual traditions, and so we do well to incorporate it into our own lives.  As noted in the previous section, spiritual works of art often come from a reverent or inspired state of mind, and this can be true for almost any kind of benevolent human activity.  While it may be difficult for some of us to see our occupations in terms of relating to the Divine, it helps to remember that each person we interact with is a child of God, a manifestation of the Logos and a vessel of the Holy Spirit, and that even the most isolated work may touch the lives of others in some way. So we can at least be prayerful in how we work, knowing that to work in the spirit of love for our fellow human beings is to serve God (Colossians 3:23)

Silence

Have you ever noticed the touching sense of peace and comfort communicated by lifelong partners or old friends as they quietly go about their business with awareness of each other?  We can relate with God in much the same way.

Conclusion: Deus Caritas Est

This Latin phrase translates to “God is love”, a timeless axiom reminding us that we can have no truer concept of God than all-knowing, all-powerful, limitless and perfect Love. With this view in mind, we recall that in the Acts of the Apostles it is said, “we live and move and have our being” in God. That statement brings us back full-circle to the initial reference from Underhill, which voices the mystical realization of God’s presence.  When these ideas connect, we cannot avoid considering all of existence as an expression of Divine Love, no matter how distorted or corrupted many of its particulars might seem to us.  Of course, the challenge is to be mindful of this reality, to wake up to it and see it as clearly and directly as possible.  This wisdom is beautifully composed in 1st Corinthians 13:8-13:

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

We are always and everywhere interacting with God, being loved by God, and we are prayerful to the extent that we are mindful of this truth.  All the methods of prayer we have been considering are meant to nurture such mindfulness, and each has its own value. But there is no substitute for the simple moment-to-moment remembrance and appreciation that the Divine is always right here, right now, both within us and without us, and this presence is Love.  Even in moments of the worst struggle and suffering, even in the hearts of people whose words and actions inflict pain, anger and despair, even when reason and understanding fail, and even in our own souls when we betray those closest to us and betray ourselves, Divine Love calls out and patiently waits to be rediscovered, embraced and shared, and this is a deep secret of acceptance and forgiveness.  To be loving is to midwife the Divine in giving birth to Itself, and there is no greater form of prayer than this.

Agape

Jan 302011
 

I, this watching, listening, reflecting point of consciousness, in the depths of meditation experience the will opening awareness to the vast silence in which all thoughts come and go.  Attention traces back along the paths of their manifestation – from words back to images, sounds and feelings.  Through these forms it traces back to pulses of energy filled with potential and emerging from the silence as though born out of nothing.

With continued observation it becomes clear that in the silence, beyond all perception, are mysterious intelligent forces and dynamics composing those emergent pulses. In time it is discerned there are forces and dynamics of different categories, “intelligences” focused on different aims, each leaving a resonance within the pulses it sends.  Through these pulses and the forms into which they unfold, increasing familiarity finds that some of those intelligences are aware of this probing, and some of them desire to communicate and be known.

As intention and openness to communication builds on many sides, the mysterious intelligences respond at times with bursts and floods of energy pulses.  These bursts and floods stimulate imagination to unfold the most dazzling artistic displays in dreams, visions, locutions, and the like, brimming with the excitement and disclosure of newly met lovers. Growing intimacy clarifies the “voices” of various intelligences, each singing at different times in differing degrees of cacophony, harmony, or unison. Patient intention for truth eventually distinguishes within the chorus a certain voice interweaving itself in and through all the others. At first it seems only one among the many, yet it becomes realized as the one to which all others respond, as a choir does to the whispers and motions of its conductor.

With knowledge of the central wisdom and power of the intelligence behind that voice, I resolve to focus attention upon it. I make known my commitment to it and to all the intelligences that might listen, so that those which can still themselves or sing harmonious responses to that voice will do so and thereby assist me in communing with its source.  What follows is an attempt at transcribing some of our communication, freely acknowledging that my abilities to single out that voice, translate it, and understand its meaning are still in development and sometimes in error, or perhaps always so to some degree.

An Allegorical Conversation

Hello. I believe I am welcome to communicate as directly as possible with you, is that correct?

You are more than welcome, much more.

I feel awe in doing so. It is a mixture of excitement, joy, wonder, anticipation, so many feelings, but also fear, I must admit.

Yes, that’s all natural, including your fear. Be still. It passes.

Thank you.  I see that this is my response to the unknown, knowing that I cannot predict or control it. It is my lack of trust in myself to protect and preserve myself.

Yes, that fear and lack of trust stem from your desire to remain much as you are, to not die to the illusion of yourself, and the conflict of that desire with the knowledge of your limitations and the desire to be free from them, to die to the illusion of yourself as you know you must. It is simply part of your present existence that you cannot clearly discern the illusion of you from the essence that you truly are.  You know this.

Yes, I do. I wish it were otherwise.

You do and you don’t wish it were otherwise, which is fine.  In time it becomes otherwise, but outside of time it already is, always was, and always will be.  You know this, and that knowledge is what enables you to be patient with and even enjoy the illusion despite its torments.

Yes, and with that, in this moment, I sense a release from the fear of communicating with you so freely.

That’s right.  You are free to communicate with me as openly, honestly and informally as your most intimate friend, even more so.

Okay, that makes sense.  And, as in an intimate conversation with a dear friend, it naturally calls for devotion.

Yes, and with time the rapport builds.  Though there are phases in which I seem silent and distant to you, even absent, they pass so that you increasingly come to know we are present to each other in all circumstances.

I’m smiling with the thought and feeling of that.

As am I.

Hmm. I’ve wondered if you feel things like I do.

I feel everything, everything you feel, everything every creature feels, has ever felt or ever will feel.

That’s comforting, yet I cannot begin to imagine what that must be like for you.

Once when you were lucid you were asked what would happen if you didn’t imagine anything, and so for a moment you emptied yourself into complete silence and stillness, and then suddenly it was filled with golden light, as if by an explosion.

Yes! I recall it was so alive and full!  It was humming and buzzing and shining with so much energy!

That moment was a glimpse of what it’s like to feel everything all at once.

What do you call it?

Your mind might call it “Life”, “Light”, or “Logos” but your heart is already calling out another name.

Yeah, it’s “Love”, and more than I ever thought love could be.

Yes.

Love is everything. It is the Logos, the Life and the Light. Even the things I don’t always recognize as love must be Love.

Yes.

You are Love.

I am.

I want to know you, so much!

You do know me, and always have known me, and your knowing continues to grow.

Ah, yes, I have known you in so many ways, some of them lesser and some greater.

Yes, but now you know the greatness even in the least of these.

Ha ha ha ha!  Yes!  Yes, you remind me that as a child I learned to see you in the Jesus who spoke such similar words.

“Jesus loves the little children….”  You know the song.

Oh, you bring tears to my eyes!

I love you. You know it is always true.

Yes, yes, my beloved. I’m so grateful. My tears say what words cannot.

I am always with you. I know what is in your heart.

Yes, thank you.  I forget that so easily.  I am so easily distracted and absorbed in the illusions.

It’s okay. You are my child at play in the playground I have given you.  If I had not wanted you to forget yourself in play, I would not have made it so.

But there is not only joyful play here. There is labor and misery and evil here too.  Did you create these?

What I am about to tell you is only one way to comprehend this mystery, yet it is true. I create you and your kind with individuality. Into each of your beings I pour some of my love, my life, will, and creativity, and I seal it with the forgetting of its root, and then send you into the natural world with its laws, which I have ordained.  I do this so that you might be free to participate in creation with me, even to make worlds of your own.

In the forgetting of your root you sense your loss and limitation, yet the heat of my eternal being and the will to become is also there. Thus, believing you are that which is temporary and bound to space and time as you know it, rather than remembering you are that which is eternal and free, you desire to artificially make the temporal into something eternal, the illusory into the real, the relative into the absolute, and therefore cannot help but know the frustration of your desires and the fear of oblivion.

So it is that your ignorance and fear shape your understanding of things, and thus much of your relative reality, into what you call misery and evil.  Yet, I made all of this to be as it is, and though I am not bound to it, I am in it with you, within you and all around you.  I have not only sealed you with the forgetting of your root, but have also endowed you with the potential to break that seal and begin remembering me, and so begin to see love glowing through the veils that are your suffering.

If everything is love, even misery and evil, why should I care what anyone experiences or does?  Why be compassionate and ethical?

There are many ways to answer, and one way is this: Because you can’t really stop yourself.  It is part of who and what you are to want these things for yourself and others, and it would only be compounding the illusions of your life for you to pretend otherwise. This desire is part of what breaks the seal of forgetting your root. It involves recognizing your deepest self in others, for I am in each of you.  It is interwoven with your desire for the truth beyond the duality of evil and good as you know good, in that state where all is known as the Love that has no opposite.

Heaven. It’s about bringing heaven and earth together as much as possible.

Yes.

I believe all of this, but it’s still hard to understand how love can create circumstances that are sure to result in suffering. That seems more like cruelty than love.

From the perspective of separation it must seem to be so, but consider three things: First, I am with you even in that suffering, suffering with you, though in me the suffering is known as love.  Second, I only reveal the truth to you in the ways you are presently able to accept it.  Third, even to one who has awakened to remember and find union with me to the fullest possible extent, the necessity of it all shall remain a mystery, for it is such even to me, who knows it is undeniably true.

Even for you?!  Aren’t you God?!

I am.  Yet “I am” is somewhat like the awakening of consciousness from deep sleep.  It takes little attention for “I am” to know there is a still and silent One that is the transcendent source and substance of all that is possible and all that is impossible.  I am the first-born of That. I am one with That, yet I am not all It was, is or can be.

Ah, in this I hear the answer to why there is something instead of nothing: All we can know of this, all we can communicate, is that it is the mysterious will of the silent One.

Yes.

So you do not have the power to change the essential way of things?

Yes and no.  If I were to change the essential way of things, it would be the will of the One working through me, but the will of the One is for things to be as they are.

I can sense this line of questioning isn’t going to reveal much more to me.

You are free to change the subject.

Thank you. I feel this is a good place to rest, though one more question comes to mind: What if I share this with others? I know some will welcome it, but I know others will not, and I am a little fearful of how it will affect them and how they will respond.

Let go of your fear.  Remember that what they and you really are cannot be harmed, and that my love is always with you, each and all. When you share these words, some might hear it as you do and take comfort, and others might hear it as the babbling of a child and they will smile with grace. Some might hear it as a mockingbird heralding the dawn, as the howling of a dog in the night, the squealing of a hungry pig, or the taunting of a devil.  All hear as they are best able to hear, and they respond accordingly.  Go now and do what you must with love, from love, for love, and you will know me as you have said you want so much to do.

Thank you, Love.  It makes no sense to say goodbye.

Hello!

Jan 052011
 

To paraphrase something one of my spiritual teachers once said: “Sometimes ego and Spirit seem to point in the same direction.  Be wary of allowing your distrust of ego to prevent you from following what you believe is the guidance of Spirit.”

Sometimes we find ourselves at a crossroads and can’t clearly sort out the various motives and intentions in our desires to move in some direction.  To oversimplify, we can find ourselves uncertain as to whether or not a particular turn would be driven more by ego or by Spirit, more in selfishness or in selflessness.  When we are at such an intersection, it can be tempting to choose inaction, fearing that our motives and intentions aren’t pure enough, or that our judgment isn’t true enough to ensure that our actions are righteous, healthy, or good enough.  So it is that we become stuck in our want for clarity and confidence.  It’s as if we are waiting until we can sufficiently quantify the various factors to plug into an equation that will solve the problem, or until circumstances appear to force movement in a particular direction.  Yet discerning the urges of the ego from the call of spirit is not really a matter of mathematical calculation, and doing only what external factors drive us to do is often just a strategy to play it safe and have a ready-made excuse if things go wrong.  So we can see that to fully and joyfully engage life is a matter of wisdom that transcends ordinary logic and a matter of courage that transcends playing the odds.

Wisdom

Of all wisdom’s attributes, the awareness of how to be most loving is central.  There are various ways of attaining such wisdom in Christian practice, but for now let’s note two broad approaches:

  • psychological – examination of the self, with the aim of becoming thoroughly familiar with the various factors of the psyche and ways they interact with each other, both internally and in relationships;
  • mystical – opening to the infusion of Divine Wisdom, which is, in effect, a way of trying to remove the personal elements of the psyche from interfering with the action of God’s love in and through us.

We can then divide the methods for both of these approaches into those that are more internal or external.  Yet, at least for an incarnate human, there is no real separation between the internal and the external; these two realms are as interwoven for us as the rays of light traveling back and forth between a candle and its reflection in a mirror.  It is further suggested that the psychological and the mystical approaches to wisdom are just as interconnected, and thus both must be involved in the work of spiritual formation, illumination, sanctification, or theosis.

Please understand that I am not addressing the possibility of Divine Wisdom expressing itself through a human soul without regard to any personal disposition.  Considerations of that possibility lead beyond the scope of this post.  The present aim is instead to consider how we can most fully engage life.  To that end, Jesus taught, “love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thine understanding; and thy neighbour as thyself.” (Luke 10:27)  He further said, “anything you did for even the least of my people here, you also did for me” (Matthew 25:40).  These two passages indicate that Christian life includes a responsibility to integrate every aspect of our being as fully as possible in the realization – internal and external – of love.

We can become more attuned to wisdom psychologically and mystically, and thus our ability to experience and express love, to be an instrument of the absolute within the relative is enhanced.  But attaining wisdom is not as simple as having a book of rules and answers to reference; it is a matter of hard-won experience and the grace of inspiration or infused contemplation.   Furthermore, to the extent that we find our wisdom lacking, or the risks of serving wisdom seem to mount, we discover that wisdom alone is insufficient for being as loving as we might.

Courage

Another teacher once said: “Concern yourself more with the presence of love than with the absence of sin.”

Both the attainment and the enactment of wisdom require courage, which is simply the willingness to take risks.  If we never test ourselves and knowingly take the risks of being in error, then we do risk stagnating, growing in neither wisdom nor courage.  That observation is likely to be patently obvious in the most mundane contexts, but it is also true in religious and spiritual life.  Many of us spend our lives with hidden lights, stifling our potentials and putting on a show of meekness that is really a mask over our anxious self-torment in the fear of sinning (“missing the mark”) before God or offending our fellow human beings.   This choice can also be about protecting our pride, slyly avoiding the possibility of having our ignorance, foolishness and vices laid bare, even if it is only to oneself.

This anxious state of being is tragically ironic. On the one hand it connects with a deep sense of genuine humility, while on the other it is confounded by a powerful desire to hide one’s ignorance and vulnerability.  It belies a denial of faith and hope, a refusal to trust that we can, with God’s help, make the best of our mistakes.   It is succumbing to the fear that our sins are not, will not, or cannot be forgiven; and it is being blinded with the misunderstanding that the only remaining option is to attempt minimizing the multiplication of our sins by putting our spirits to sleep and waiting for death.  In actuality, this burying of our talents compounds the irony of this state of being because it entails a willful missing of the mark set by Jesus and his Apostles, who joyfully went about acting in ways that were widely considered sinful and taking the most serious of social risks.

Joy

When we speak of joy in this context, we are not speaking of it in the sense of great personal elation or sensual pleasure, but rather an abiding sense of peace, freedom and assurance.   It bears a kind of childlike innocence and comfort that can remain with us even when we are doubtful and suffering in many ways. It is the Spirit’s lasting affection for the beauty of life, even when the personality is most disappointed with the world and its own existence.  In Christian terms, this attitude is a gift of grace to which we can awaken through the heart-centered embrace of faith and hope in the Good News, opening to the infinite love of God revealed through Christ in us.   It is not that our faith and hope bring that grace upon us, but rather that through them we recognize and welcome what was already present.   In short, joy is the sense of liberation we feel as we more fully realize the presence of God’s loving grace in our lives.

One of the greatest experiences of liberation in this joy is the letting go of fear, gaining trust that we are not doomed to damnation for our sins.  This confidence gives us more courage to take risks, to make mistakes, to accept their consequences and learn from them, and thus grow wise as serpents and harmless as doves.  By continuing this renewal of our minds and the “proving” of God’s will, the ego’s voice becomes more harmonious with the voice of the Spirit; joy is further realized, courage further overcomes fear, and love’s evolution naturally spirals wider open within us and out into the world through our lives.

A Caveat

As beautiful as this process sounds, it should be clear that greater blessings often come with greater challenges.  It is with this thought in mind that the picture of St. John Bosco was chosen to illustrate the face of joy.  His pictures always shine with his characteristic smile, and he was known for his commitment to gentleness and kindness despite the poverty, injustice and violence he personally suffered and bravely confronted in society.  Other exemplars whose great spiritual joy has been accompanied by great personal suffering are the Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., countless saints, and certainly Jesus and many of his Apostles.  So it would be foolish to presume we have, at least while here in this present world, ever evolved beyond the experience of fear and pain.  We must all pass through our own Gethsemanes and hang upon our own crosses.  And then, even if we should momentarily be lifted into some beatific transcendence of the ordinary human condition, love leads us back into our humanity through broader reaches of compassion, “feeling with” the suffering of others, calling upon us to respond with wisdom, courage and joy.