April 30, 2010

Listening for the Voice of God

Oftentimes someone will question what God's will is and how to go about listening to God.  God has chosen to speak through humanity - this is the meaning of the incarnation.  God reveals himself in a human way.  This continues in the Body of Christ.  The Church is where Christ continues to speak to each of us: through the teaching handed on to us, the Bible, the Liturgy, Sacraments and in our relating to one another in his Body.   But to hear his voice, we must learn to listen.  How do we really listen?  St. Benedict precieved the connection between obedience and listening - which are related words in Latin.  Yet to really obey, to really listen, we must go pass the words of a command we think we understand and attend with our whole being to everything being communicated.  This is especially true when we are attending to the Lord in our neighbor (who could be as much a complete stranger as spouse, child, parent or friend).  Anthony Bloom, in Meditations in his reflection on the Pharisee and the Publican sheds some light.

"How different Christ's way is to our own horrible gift of seeing through layers of transparency, of translucence and of light, the equivocal twilight of human imperfection or the darkness of a still unenelightened but rich internal chaos.  WE are not content to judge actions without giving people the benefit of the doubt; we question their very motives, suspect their intentions, instead of 'believing all things, hoping all things.'

"We must act ruthlessly against this tendency we have to judge everything from the viewpoint of our little self.  The first step on the way into the Kingdom is defined by Christ as 'deny thyself.'  We could put it in harsher terms: when we see that once again, instead of seeing or hearing somone, we are wrapped up in ourselves, we must round this obstrusive 'I' and cry out in anger:'Get behind me, Satan.  You think not of the things of God.  Out of my way, I am tired of seeing your face!'"

Those who in beginning to pray learn to listen to God in their neighbor by renouncing the propensity to judge from the view point of 'self'' discover God speaking through the hearts of all those He has entrusted to us.  It is a matter of surrendering our pride and embracing Christ's own humility.  He is the One who yearns to speak to our hearts - He is also the One who delights in listening for our voice.  In this humble listening, we hear the resurrected voice of Christ with His own resurrected ears.  This is how we come to know the will of God.

April 29, 2010

St. Catherine of Siena and Spiritual Thirst

"If you would make progress, then, you must be thirsty, because only those who are thirsty are called:  "Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink."

"Those who are not thirsty will never persevere in their journey.  Either weariness or pleasure wil make them stop.   They cannot be bothered with carrying the vessel that would make it possible for them to draw water.  And though they cannot travel alone, they do not care for company.  So at the first sight of any prick of persecution they turn back.   They are afraid because they are alone.  If they were with the company, they would not be afraid."    St. Catherine of Siena The Dialogue trans Suzanne Noffke, O.P.

Catherine believed that God the Father spoke these words to her to encourage her to abide ever more deeply in Jesus.   Spiritual thirst, desire for God, is the energy that pushes us to the Lord.  It comes from the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit actually communicates into our hearts the desire of Jesus for the Father and the desire of the Father for Jesus.  If we do not feel this thirst, we should ask for it.   The fact is, without God Himself, we are perishing like people lost in a desert.  When these holy desires are in us, we begin to yearn for God, and we have strength to seek Him the more.  

At the same time, this yearning makes us vulnerable.  When one realizes he is dying of thirst, he can no longer be self-sufficient.   He must beg the help of others.   He also discovers that there are others suffering the same thirst - they need his help.  And how can he be indifferent to their plight?  Thus thirst also draws us close together - we realize that we can only come to quench our thirst through the support of holy fellowship.  We protect, encourage and sometimes admonish one another not to lose heart.  Only together can we find Him for whom our heart aches.   

Living by Faith Alone

St. John of the Cross provides excellent counsel for how to begin to live by faith alone.   In his work, Ascent to Mt. Carmel, he uses his poem "Dark Night" as a description for the spiritual life.  In the first strophe, the poem describes a romantic adventure that begins in the stillness of a dark night.  When silence befalls his household, a lover sneaks out to find his beloved.  The stillness and darkness that cloak him are all sheer gift because in this he is completely hidden, unable to be distracted from his passion.  

One dark night,
fired with love's urgent longings
-- ah, sheer grace! --
I went out unseen,
my house being all still.

The Mystical Doctor interprets this stophe to mean that the soul sings the grace it had in departing from its "inordinate sensory appetites and imperfections." This gets to  big obstacle in the life of prayer specifically and the discipline of the Christian life in general.   There are so many distractions in our hearts and in our lives that we often forget about what is truly essential.  This is because rather than surrendering to the gentle movement of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, we live driven by irrational cultural and psychological forces.  The desires of our heart are selfish and out of order, not directed to that which will make us thrive.  John of the Cross calls these often subconscious psychological forces "inordinate sensory appetites and imperfections."  The truth is our spiritual life is often choked out by a myriad of anxieties and concerns - most of which are rooted in the silliness of our own immaturity.   Those who want to break passed this are hungry for practical counsel on how to move forward.  John of the Cross provided this in Book 1, chapter 13 of the Ascent of Mt. Carmel. 

But before we go to this counsel, there is one more element that is key to understanding what he is trying to say.   Namely, the soul that does enter into the stillness of the night, that no longer lives by inordinate passions, but instead lives by faith alone -- this soul sings!   It rejoices with jubiliation and cannot contain itself.  I emphasize this because most people think the dark night is about being somber and depressed.  But quite the opposite is true.  Those who live by faith are on a journey to ever more profound kinds of joy -- and their joy is contagious.   It is not the glee of a simply psychological state -- although it might feel this way at first.  It is the deeper joy of realizing the deepest desires of one's heart, of becoming profoundly authentic, of thriving in the fullness of one's natural capacities - now expanded in a supernatural way.

So what is the first step to find this joy?  What is the quickest, surest way?  John of the Cross says the desire to imitate Christ must become a habit of soul that takes up and consumes one's whole life.   The way to foster such a desire is to prayerfully study the life of Christ in order to know how to imitate him and behave in all events as he would.  His life is dynamic.  That means that the more we attend to it, the more it evokes a response from us.  The only proper response to the life of Christ is love - and friendship love desires above all else to imitate the beloved until the lover and beloved are of one heart.

From this we can better understand the Mystical Doctor's second counsel (one which most misunderstand or otherwise freak out over): to be successful in this imitation, renounce and remain empty of any satisfaction which is not purely for the honor and glory of God.  Do this out of love for Jesus Christ.  In his life he had no other gratification, nor desired any other, than the fulfillment of his Father's will. 

Most people today want to read this counsel within the context of Buddha's four noble truths where the elimination of suffering is caused by the elimination of desire.   I am no expert on Buddhism, so I cannot speak accurately on whether westerners really understand that teacher.   But I do know that the popular understanding of this doctrine in the West provides a huge misconception and misapplication of St. John of the Cross's Carmelite doctrine.   John of the Cross really is not interested in eliminating suffering or desire.  He is interested in making room in the heart for Divine Desire - and in the work of salvation, God's yearning takes up not only every human suffering but every joy and endows these with meaning beyond what this world can contain.   This is the life of Christ poured out for us on the Cross.  To realize it, the Carmelite Mystic is telling us that we must choose to live His life and not our own.  

Those who really think about this claim find it astounding.  They ponder whether it could possibly be true.  And those who embrace its truth soon find that they too sing.  They discover an ineffable and suprising joy which must break forth in total jubilation.

(Translation of St. John of the Cross from The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, trans. Kavanaugh and Rodriguez, (Washington. D.C.: ICS, 1991)).

April 28, 2010

Faith and the Christian Personality

Does my life, my personal decisions, really matter?  One reason many hesitate when it comes to really pursuing God is a fear - the fear that once God is found I will lose myself or else something I hold dear or it will be too hard, and I will give up.  This fear is not completely unfounded.  After all,our Crucified God  told us that to be his disciple we would have to renounce ourselves, take up our cross and follow Him.  And, we also know that even the just man (the person redeemed by God, who lives in faith in Him) still sins and falls short.  Yet He also said that his yoke is easy and his burden light.  So there is a paradox to think about.  How is the renunciation of my very self an easy thing to do?  

One contemplation that might help with this paradox is to ponder another one - that the more we are united to Christ, the more we abide in Him and are mindful of Him; the more we become more fully our true selves.   There is a wideness in God's mercy - the love with which He embraced the whole of our lives.  This merciful love does not crush or absorb us - it makes room for us, provides space that we might thrive.  God is the One who through the resurrection of Christ restores the meaning of the unique and unrepeatable - the inexhaustible differences that constantly surprise us in the beauty of creation.  This is rich diversity also lives unique and unrepeatable in the heart of each one.  Thus, the Lord God loves each of us with a unique and unrepeatable love.  Although we share so much in common - He loves us not merely in general, but specifically, right now in this moment.  It is with this love that He rose from the dead - so that all that is good, holy, noble and true about each of us might not perish, but be saved in Him - that by this salvation we might live forever - unique images of his inexhaustible beauty.

To live for God, to abide in Christ, to pursue Him with all our strength - it leads through the mystery of the Cross and the death of Christ to eternal life - an inexhaustible life to the full, a thriving happiness and beatitude that God has yearned for each one before the foundation of the world.  Yes - your life really matters!

The Great Act of Faith

"We have come to know and to believe in the love Christ has for us."  That is our great act of faith, the way to repay God love for love; it  is the "mystery hidden" in the Father's heart, of which St. Paul speaks, which, at last, we penetrate and our whole soul thrills!  The soul is able to believe in this exceeding love which envelops it,. It no longer rests in inclinations or feelings; it matters little whether it feels God or not, whether He sends it joy or suffering: such a soul believes in His love.  The more tried it is, the more its faith increases because it passes over  all obstacles, as it were, to go to rest in the heart of infinite Love who can perform only words of love.  

These words of Blessed Elisabeth of the Trinity continue our thoughts on faith in the Risen Lord.   Faith in Jesus mean above all to trust in his love.  If we really want to be his disciples, his love alone carries us as we follow Him.  He wants us completely enveloped in the movement of his own heart and he allows all the movements of our hearts to envelop Him.  His love is our true life.  His love is the only way.  

To believe in the love Christ has for us is not mere sentimentality or a pious wish.    Such love burns away sin, even when we fall again and again.  Such love is greater than any discouragement and every suffering.  Such love always lifts up, pushing us forward and pulling us in.  We must allow our hearts to rest only in His love - no other love is worthy of our rest.  To believe, to abide, to rest, to live by this love, in this love, through this love is to live a totally transformed existence of love.  By resting in His love we find the strength to love all those He has given us to love.  Yet to abide in this love requires that we search for it - and through the Holy Spirit, this love that has conquered death is found in the depths of our own heart.  Ask for it - God is a generous giver.  Seek this Love - He yearns to be found.     Knock - Love Himself has already opened the door.

April 27, 2010

Faith in the Risen Lord

What does it mean to believe that Jesus rose from the dead?   It means that by faith in Him, the same power by which He overcame death is given to us.   By this power, death is no longer the last word of our life - the barrier of death is transformed into a gateway.  This power comes from God the Father and it is revealed every time we act in our faith in Jesus.  To act in our faith, our abiding in the presence of Christ, is to express the love that has overflowed from Him through his wounds onto us.  To act in faith is to be bathed in the blood of Christ.

For me, all the disputes about faith and works are resolved when we see that the works of faith come from the inexhaustible depths of God's own heart.  Since they are gifts from Him who loves us, since they were bought at the price of his Only Begotten Son, since they manifest the glory of the resurrection and anticipate the life in the world to come - how can we not share these works with the world?  In light of the Fire with which God loves us, how can we let the lonely go unloved or the hungry unfed or the naked unclothed, or the homeless unsheltered?