November 23, 2015

Self-Knowledge and Seeking God

We have been created as wonderful mysteries. God loves to contemplate the hidden glory that He makes known deep in the secret of our hearts and that He wants to help us see with Him. But to see it, we need to seek Him -- and that is why He commands us to love Him with all of our heart.

We are indeed mysteries to ourselves -- being in the image and likeness of God, each person ever made is endowed with unique and surprising spiritual depths and horizons. These inexhaustible places were established by the Lord so that He might find His rest in them. Thus, each particular, unique soul is meant to be a new kind of heaven where His glory is made known in a way that it cannot be known anywhere else in the whole cosmos. Self-knowledge learned in prayer makes us more vulnerable and open to this secret plan of God.

There are, however, many different kinds of self-knowledge.  Not all of it is as beneficial for our salvation.  As we prepare for Advent, it is time to make space in our lives for the self-knowledge to be gained in prayer.

For example, there can be an excessive self-occupation in which we carry out an interior dialogue with our own self. This alienating effort may analyse hidden motivations or constantly evaluate personal failures or grievances, or even stare with nihilism into the deep voids of one's own psyche. It may be the quest for some kind of absolute idea whether to seize upon or reject. It can be the effort to break through to the other side, to go beyond good and evil, to somehow escape the acute pain that haunts our lives in terms of desire, guilt and death. None of this by itself is helpful in the life of prayer  -but can easily become a form of self-torment. When these efforts do not lead to taking responsibility for one's own actions before God, when they do not culminate in repentance and conversion, such self-knowledge no matter how enlightened is nothing more than a simple foretaste of hell.

There is also a so called self-knowledge that is really nothing other than self-delusion. One form of this is a kind of egalitarianism in regards the whims of the heart. The voices that we attend to in our hearts must be carefully discerned because not all of them are true. When we mistake the whims of our own big fat ego for the hidden judgments of God, we are subject to all kinds of rashness. Such magical thinking can even threaten the very integrity of our lives and our connections with those we most love. If one is not careful, it is easy to drown in an abyss not only of capriciousness, but also of pride. Only the truth can hold up the weight of our existence against our fickleness in the moment.

There is also a certain self-knowledge gained through various kinds of therapeutic counseling.  This kind of self-knowledge can be useful and even necessary in helping us identify and learn to manage psychological pathology.  Yet, securing a healthy psyche is still only secondary when it comes to the life of prayer. Indeed, there have been saints who were robbed of this blessing even as they were raised to the gates of heaven.

The self-knowledge that most glorifies God is that which comes when we see ourselves in the light of His own goodness and truth. This knowledge of self suffers a humble vulnerability before God that accepts the reality of who we actually are in His Presence with invincible hope. It is a knowledge that grows the more the heart gives itself to the Lord, the more one allows oneself to be loved and to fall in love with Him. Such contemplation is realized before the Manger, at the Foot of the Cross and in the Breaking of the Bread.

This faith informed "knowledge of self" at once grounds us in the dirt and grit of our lives with holy fear, while heaven's peace resounds within us. We move forward to our final judgement not with timid reluctance but in hope. What we thought could not be forgiven or forgotten has suddenly become a fountain of compassion and intercession.

This confident contemplation keeps before us not what we have accomplished but what He had done for us. It is not a knowledge that beats us up over our inadequacy - but confronts our whole existence with the love of God. It helps us bow our heads even as it gives us standing. More than an intellectual assent, this kind of self-knowledge roots us in the truth that we are not God, that my ego must surrender to the One who gave up everything and humbled Himself for my sake. And the more we lower ourselves in this Light, the more this Eternal Word raises us on high.

This self-knowledge leads out of self and into adoration of God. In this knowledge, heaven's mirth does not allow me to be weighed down by those heavy shackles of self-absorbed thoughts. Even a difficult pathology becomes a little easier to bear because of the patience such grace infused self-knowledge bestows. This powerful secret is a gift that the Lord of Hosts is waiting to share with us -- and He gives it in the measure that our devotion to Him is tested in all kinds of trials and sacrifices. All we need to do is ask, patiently believe, and to love Him with all our heart.

November 12, 2015

Set your Mind on What is Above

Set your mind on what is above, Saint Paul advises in Colossians 3:2. He himself who was once caught up in hatred and rash judgment understood how earthly dreams and worldly influences pull good hearts into irrational currents. Having survived shipwrecks, he knew how easy it was to drown when one allows oneself to be swept away by these deep waters. Through his own weakness, he knew that only the One who is from above can rescue us from the destructive forces here below. Having seen and heard the Risen Lord, he knew how our faith in Christ raises up our mind to see new saving wonders, eternal blessings no irrationality can ever overthrow.

To set our minds on what is above is not a matter of avoiding difficulties and challenges that cause us to question everything. These ambiguities are a necessary part of our existence in this life. Yet we are not to allow ourselves to be anxious or despondent in the face of them. These trials are not meant to destroy our integrity or imprison us in alienation. These things from below are permitted only so that we might raise our eyes to the One who comes for us.

The One who is from above walks towards us on the stormy sea of this life. He has called us to meet Him there. He yearns that we too might find solid footing, that we might follow him on the surface of this world's waves. He takes us out of our loneliness with His own hand and stands us up right even as the ground shakes beneath us. To fix the minds eye on Him and to listen with the ear of our heart is not to escape or evade such a great gift, but to finally begin to welcome it -- to live it to the full!

Contemplative prayer is the effort to keep our eyes fixed on His on the rough waters of this life's journey.  Such mental prayer bathed in holy silence and grounded in the truth is the effort to set our minds on what is above.  As we set out to greet Him on the surface of all kinds of danger and threats, we only make progress to the degree that we gaze into the face of the One who awaits us with love. Even when the storm of this life causes us to lose our footing, as long as we keep our eyes fixated on His, we will not sink or lose ourselves. If our attention is diverted for a moment by surging anxieties and fear, all we need to do is call out and He comes to pull us up with Him.  In this effort to pray, He is saving us from the dangers here below with His power from above.

October 18, 2015

Holy Ground

The Trinity is the ground of our soul. This eternal communion of divine persons in one Nature is given as life-giving soil for the heart with Infinite Humility. Only in this garden can we bear fruit for eternal life. Only this ultimate Truth is able to bear the weight of human existence. We find this ground on which to stand by faith because this is how God has revealed Himself -- the Father has spoken His Mighty Word into the lowly dirt of our humanity so that we might at last behold Him, and see in His eyes gazing back at us the deepest truth about who we truly are.

Prayer that seeks out and welcomes this Word made flesh learns to attend to:
the echoing thunder of heaven's thrown whose majesty and power reign over every circumstance,
the saving truth that sets us free,
the irrevocable promise that does not pass away,
the suffering cry of Mary's Son wrapped in swaddling clothes,
the gentle whisper of a mysterious stranger struck to the heart by our plight,
the comforting call of the Good Shepherd who has sought us through thick and thin,
the soothing song of the Vinedresser who longs for us to thrive and be fruitful,
the urgent prayer of the Suffering Servant who has offered everything for our sake,
the ardent appeal of the Bridegroom who longs for His Bride,
the triumphant shout of our Captain who has vanquished our enemies,
the joyful welcome of the Father who has patiently awaited our return,
and the the answer of many mysterious trumpets
and roaring waters from a glassy sea
and the ringing of crowns cast down,
answering at once, "Worthy is the Lamb!" and
"Come Lord Jesus!"

Like Moses, we can only approach this Life set ablaze barefoot and vulnerable, bathed in unfamiliar wonder. He was sent from above to abide in us and invites us to abide in Him, just as He is with the Father. His breathes His Spirit of Life to convince, to teach, to correct, sometimes even to rebuke, but always to build up, to offer hope. This Gift from above does not destroy or diminish, but comes to heal and make perfect. He consumes and purifies, but does not reduce to nothingness. This uncreated Fire rectifies, raises us above ourselves, planting the Word in our hearts. And the Father rejoices in what He contemplates in us.

October 14, 2015

God's Light and Proportion according to Saint Teresa

"The light God grants you from time to time concerning spiritual joys is a special mercy. His Majesty comforts us in proportion to our trials. Since yours are great, so are His favors."
Saint Teresa of Avila, November 1576.

Father Gracian, to whom Saint Teresa addressed the words above, was a competent and industrious leader. But Teresa wants him to focus on divine mercy, divine love implicated with us in our plight. God gives “light" when we face difficult challenges in His service. Concerned that we persevere when circumstances seem impossible to bear, she knows that the Lord gives us ground to stand on. Everything else in our lives may be completely shaken, but He remains, ever more steadfast for us. Saint Teresa observes that the Lord “comforts us in proportion to our trials.”

We can take this proportion of comfort in trial in two ways.  On one hand, there is a sense of consolation that comes from being productive for the Lord even when we are faced with opposition or difficult circumstances.  Father Gracian was probably familiar with this grace -- even as opposition to the reform grew, God continued to do great things through him. The day would come however when all his achievements for the reform would seem undone, even wasted.

We can also consider this “proportion” in terms of our awareness of God’s presence. While all things are passing God never changes. He is always coming to us in wonderful new ways by grace.  Saint Teresa would probably propose this second kind of consolation as the most important.

God never comes in the way we expect Him -- He exceeds all expectations. Never passive or aloof, He is always active and personally implicated in our concerns.  When darkness seems to prevail, with dawning brightness, He purifies and expands the soul, opening up new horizons in our hearts, and this with even greater delicacy and power the more intense and frequent our trials.

Without faith, such divine brightness remains unseen. His light exceeds our natural powers, overshadowing them in glory. When, however, we seek His presence dwelling in our hearts and choose to live by His love, He uses all kinds of trails and difficulties only to take us ever deeper into the dwelling He has prepared for us.

This mysterious “light” and this sacred “proportion” help us discover the wonder of our Almighty Father. He waits for us at the intersection of human suffering and divine love -- the mystery of the Cross. He is not limited by what is easiest and most comfortable.  He does not confine Himself to the most convenient or successful.  Within the limits of human frailties and needs, lowliness and simplicity, humility and reverence, Saint Teresa knows that His paternal tenderness in limitless glory abides.  

September 21, 2015

To Do Good to Those who Hate Us

Christ Crucified is not embarrassed by our plight or disgusted by our failures when we find ourselves defenseless before those who despise us and what we believe as Christians. He is grieved by the numerous injustices that we suffer more than we can ever grieve for ourselves. He never allows those who despise us to have the final word. Just the opposite. He stands with us, unvanquished.  In standing with us through it all, He implicates those who hate our faith in His definitive victory of good over evil, giving us even greater reason for the hope we have inside.

There is an exquisite grace that the Lord yearns to grant, but He cannot as long as we close ourselves off to Him. He needs our trust for Him to accomplish His Will in us. He needs our vulnerability and our openness before the wonder of His presence. Yet, we cannot be open to wonder and we cannot find confidence in Him as long as we are more focused on ourselves than we are on Him.

When it comes to helping us see just how little we are really open to God, an enemy is like an angel from Heaven. It is true that such a person, especially when friend or family, knows what buttons to press. At the most inopportune time we find ourselves pushed to the brink. If you find yourself at just such a place, it is time to thank God. At brink of human existence, we open to God and God opens to us.

The brink is not a place of mere emotional insecurity but instead an intensely spiritual place of surrender. The harsh judgments to which the scorn or indifference of others incline us are only so many symptoms that our way of life remains out of harmony with the deeper truth written into the substance of our humanity.By faith, we do right to resist the impulse to retaliate and to submit these grievances to the Holy Spirit. Yet the more we love and try to serve those who hate us, the more we discover that deeper and more fundamental lack of confidence in God and His will for us. This interior state of affairs is known only through great suffering, but this knowledge provides the surest ground for the hope we have inside.

Whenever our enemy helps us repent of our distrust of God, the Risen One cuts new and unexpected facets of patience and gentleness in the soul.  It is a painful grace.  Cold stone is rendered into living flesh and the greatness of our Christian faith raises everything and everyone onto unfamiliar heights.
He Himself is the resounding Word that the Father subtly whispers into the depths of our broken existence, making all things new even as all our noble intentions and resolutions come tumbling down all around us. In such moments, He humbly waits for our invitation, and we know that He will not resist the humble contrite cry of love.

This solidarity of human suffering and divine love in such prayer converges on the Mystery of the Cross. When we follow in the footsteps of our crucified Master by such prayer, the scorn of an adversary or the betrayal by a friend can only lead us all the more to this supreme moment.  When we fix our gaze on the One who gazes on us with love, even as the urge to lash out swells, we find the freedom not to render evil for evil, but to do good to those who hate us.