Space and the Spirit

It’s no big mystery how the name of this blog came to be. Experience has taught me that it’s impossible to say anything about the spiritual life unless the Spirit itself, this wonderful Muse, dictates it.

So for now, I remain spiritually locked up until the now-distant Spirit decides to let me in on a personal secret or two that I can write about.

These days I ask myself: why has my “inspiration” dried up? Surely I must be doing something wrong. I don’t think I’m alone in typically blaming myself first for anything that seems to go wrong in my spiritual life. But then, as soon as I think or write those self-defeating words, the questions start. Why is something “wrong” just because it’s different from what I was feeling and experiencing just a short time ago? Why is change “wrong”? Where is it written that I must be continually overflowing with ideas, sentiments or (heaven forgive me!) insights?

Because I’ve been given the kind of temperament that looks for reasons, I start looking for them. When I first started writing posts, I saw them as a sharing of graces given. Except for the editing, they rolled almost effortlessly out of reflections on scriptural passages, or from situations in my life. Can I blame the dry spell on the season’s imprisoning weather? Not really. Can it be because I’m sharing deeper conversation with friends and am somewhat used up by talking, instead of filled up by silence? I’d like the inspiration to stay strong. I don’t like the sensation of being dropped, as it were – dropped by the Spirit simply because I may have temporarily diverted my attention. That can’t be the reason.

No. I think this “dry spell” has actually become something to write about. There’s a different kind of lesson here. God is not all around me just for my entertainment, or just for handing out goodies that make me feel privileged to share.

Recently, as I was in my living room, pondering this question and attempting what I sometimes think of as prayer, my eyes wandered to the various pieces of art on my walls. Each is different. Each hangs alone, separated from the others by varying degrees of space. They’re not all hung, one right next to the other. What a disturbing and disagreeable effect that would have on anyone in the room! The violent ocean scene would be scrunched up next to the serene French village next to the embroidered sampler next to my parents’ wedding photo, and so forth. Ancient Latin used to be written like that, without spaces or punctuation. The sentence I just wrote would have looked like this:
ancientlatinusedtobewrittenlikethatwithoutspacesorpunctuation

You get the idea. The perceived emptiness of space is necessary and inevitable. The space we perceive as “emptiness” must exist if we are to find meaning in what emerges from within that space. We can’t appreciate what is until we notice and appreciate what isn’t. I suspect that the emptiness I’m experiencing now is not really space or absence or emptiness, but some thing that’s just different, an entity in its own right.

Each of us is separated from one another. And though we often feel that space between us and God is infinite, it is the miracle of love that moves us to bridge that space and, in fact, to ultimately succeed in finding an undreamed-of unity. For God is even in emptiness. All I have to do is keep my eye on that space and continue my spiritual practices with gratitude.

Conversion

I write this on the feast of St. Paul’s conversion, January 25. And what a conversion was that!

It’s my opinion, produced by experience, that I am repeatedly called to conversion. For me, there was one very big one, so big that I remember the date, place and hour. It was October 4, 1998, in Santa Fe (Holy Faith) at the noon Mass being celebrated at the Diocesan cathedral of Saint Francis. It was the fourth centenary of the Franciscans in the New World. The large number of Latinos at this Mass guaranteed that the liturgy’s music would indeed be celebratory. The contagious joy and enthusiasm of the parishioners acted upon me like Paul’s blinding light: powerfully and instantly converting me, bringing me back to the Faith that I had abandoned 21 years earlier.

Let me say it again: we are repeatedly called to conversion — not necessarily in a grand fashion, but in small doses, mini lights that invite us to make Gospel decisions.

  • Shall I respond harshly to this person to let her know I don’t appreciate her criticism of me?
  • Shall I turn a punishing frown at the guy who practically knocks me over with his shopping cart?
  • Shall I get out of bed for weekday Mass, tired as I am from staying up late to watch a movie?
  • Shall I give in to the “sadness of the noonday devil,”* or will I accept the call to bravery in performing those uninspiring tasks that wait for no one but me to finish?

These are the little conversions, the tiny steps that follow at a great distance from the footsteps of Christ. These are the mustard seeds, the tiniest available, that I’m invited to plant and tend carefully and steadily until they explode into trees, housing flocks of birds.

The Gospel call of the Apostles has always intrigued me. I used to lament that I was not around to be called to discipleship (not that as a woman I’d have been called anyway). There was a kind of magnificence to being called, to being lifted out of the drab dullness of daily drudgery to follow this great healer, preacher, teacher; to view the wonderment of the crowds and to be so intimately connected with the greatness of this man! For me, discipleship represented the best kind of greatness.

Before his call, Saul too had a kind of greatness. He was a leader in the gradual but persistent elimination of heretics who arrogantly claimed fellowship with a blasphemous criminal (as if this were something to be proud of!). Saul’s task: bring them back in chains, let them imitate their master, even to submitting to the same end and manner of execution.

Given his powerful personality, this saint-in-the-making required a proportionately powerful show of God’s great mercy. A mere hint or two wouldn’t be enough. Saul needed a blinding light, a certitude that would impel him to undertake the most trying conditions. In spite of all his sufferings – he recounts shipwrecks, imprisonments, beatings – he considered them as nothing, and himself as the least of the Apostles. Indeed, his new name – Paul – means poor and small. Only in his acceptance of this smallness and the cross could he find true glory.

No wonder “little” Thérèse’s doctrine set the world on fire. Goodness, even holiness, was now presented to the hoi polloi as readily available even to the least of us. This young woman, formally educated only to the sixth-grade level, was named a Doctor of the Church for having taught this humble approach to God. Her longing to be a missionary, even to be a priest, was far beyond the possibilities of her circumstances. She recognized that all God wanted of her was fidelity to what was right in front of her: undramatic daily chores; crabby people; simple prayer which she often slept through. Each choice brought her one step closer to the One she loved “madly!”

How simple are my choices! Not easy, and certainly no longer grandiose as I grow slowly but surely into the reality of insignificance. All that remains is to be totally focused on the desire for the one thing necessary and a dogged determination to live the Gospel.


acedia.jpg* The “sadness of the noonday devil,” a spiritual condition called acedia is a gloomy combination of weariness, sadness, and a lack of purposefulness. It robs a person of his capacity for joy and leaves him feeling empty, or void of meaning.

New Year Inventory

Different peoples celebrate their New Year on dates other than January 1. To my way of thinking, every day starts a new year. We who are Christians are invited to constant conversion. For most of us, a new start – whenever it occurs – brings back hope and confidence.

I won’t go into all of last year’s situations that required hope. Probably if we did a bit of research, we’d find that just about any year in the world’s existence was full of incidents that made us relieved and happy to have the year end, along with the hope for improvement during the coming year.

I’ve now reached the age where some New Year’s “resolutions” are passé. I most likely won’t lose those 10 (or more) pounds in 2018. Nor will I spend a faithful half-hour a day on the stationary bike downstairs. Discipline! What a harsh word! And anyway, resolutions like the ones just mentioned are inspired mostly by my vanity.

This year I’m in an anti-clutter mood. Taking inventory of excess material possessions has inspired me to reduce the contents of my basement storage cabinets. You know the adage, “If you have the space, you’ll fill it!” The pledge to cut down on unnecessary things comes from compassion for my future survivors who will have the burden of disposing of so much stuff after my passing.

The stuff in the basement includes literally hundreds of slides of places visited with my husband. Let’s be honest: for the most part I can find pictures of France, Italy, England, etc., that are more professionally photographed. So one easy decision: those are out. Photos of family get-togethers are harder to revisit, prompting more emotion than I really want to deal with. It’s much more difficult to throw those out, so the kids will simply have to deal with them.

At this point, I’m happy to report that several large trash bags and a few trips to our local charities have helped me keep this resolution. But the other and more difficult inventory has to do with my inner life, my spiritual journey: my relationship with God, family, friends, directees.

Clutter. Just as having more material stuff than we need creates clutter in our home, there’s other stuff that clutters my soul.

Some of the clutter is comparable to my cupboards. There’s stuff in my life that, while certainly not bad (like the photos of our travels) take up space that can be used for better purposes. The real problem with clutter, whether material or spiritual, is that it prevents us from seeing what we need at this moment, or finding what is really important. (I challenge you to find the ordinary house key in the messy drawer pictured below.)

Clutter

For me, interior clutter consists of an excess of wants. “Want” doesn’t only mean “desire”. It also means a lack, something missing from my life. Maybe that something is an absent person; maybe it applies to me wanting to be a person that other people will like and admire. It can be so many things, situations or even persons. If the Lord were truly my Shepherd, I would want for nothing. So clearly, what I want and what’s missing is more of the Lord.

The presence of the Lord fills the empty space of want but only for as long as I invite and prefer it. As soon as I dismiss the presence of Christ, I find nothing but emptiness.

Nowadays, people refer to the ultimate of emptiness as a “black hole.” Oddly enough, a black hole (so Google tells us) is a superabundance of matter, the very opposite of emptiness. “It is a place in space where gravity pulls in so much that even light can not get out. The gravity is so strong because matter has been squeezed into a tiny space. Because no light can get out, people can’t see black holes. They are invisible.”

Isn’t it great to discover that science of the universe conforms to discoveries about the Creator of the universe? At the spiritual level, a black hole is a heart so full of other things, other thoughts, other desires, that even light, i.e. the Supreme Light that is God, remains trapped and invisible to us.

So my clutter, I discover, is ironically an emptiness: wanting that which is withheld from me at this moment, even if they’re good things in themselves. Its opposite is accepting what IS – i.e. Light, God, and what is right in front of me now. What IS, is reality: fatigue when I’d prefer to be energetic; answering the phone when I really don’t want to speak to that caller; accepting the apparent rudeness of a friend, which is really my own thin skin (I know how to behave so much better!); and so on and so on and so on. So much trash in there, so much wasted space hiding God!

But the most cluttering of all desires is the desire to be what only God is and what I’m not: perfect. Awareness of my failure to be perfect is the best gift of all. It keeps me grounded in the reality of accepting this incomplete thing that is my self.

Unlike the black hole, God is total light and draws us, along with all our imperfections, into the total brightness of his loving Being. God is the God of transformation Who ultimately gives us what we lack, what we want, which is God Himself.

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p. s. And here’s the key we were looking for: Clutter-key

The King of Love

I’m not sure where I stand regarding this Feast of Christ the King. Yes, this trait of mine can sometimes be a nuisance, but I need to dig into statements or phrases which, through repetition,  may have lost the full strength of their meaning. I need to test their truth, to be dazzled by the newness of their authenticity.

So what’s challenging about the concept of Christ as king? After all, in the gospel for this Feast, Christ actually refers to himself as a king who separates the sheep from the goats, the charitable from the uncaring.

What causes me to ponder this theme are other contradicting parts of the gospel: Jesus of Nazareth, a man of humble origins (the carpenter’s son!), performs some astounding miracle that so impresses the crowd that they  rush at him to make him king – just like that! No polling or voting on their side, no armed forces on his. For Jesus, king-making has nothing to do with spectacular deeds. Furthermore, he frequently emphasizes the importance of rejecting honors and choosing the last place.

The simple, unaffected man from Galilee has a totally different style. Instead of taking people by force, he issues gentle invitations to a life of inner peace and ease.

Come to me, all you who labor, and I will refresh you. My perfect love for you will lift from you the burden of seeing yourself as unloved. If you come to me, if you come to know me, you’ll realize how lovable you really are by loving me and loving others in me. My way is not to dominate you, to be a fearful tyrant, but to be a comfort to your false sense of worthlessness. And even that invitation will not be forced on you.

Jesus did not want to be associated with empty worldly ambitions, and expressed that early on by resisting Satan while in his desert of preparation. For Jesus, the throne of power came from the God of Love, and the favors to be dispensed were those of Love given, accepted and shared. People were not invited to the feast because of battles won, nor for any splendid inventions or even artistic creations; not for nations founded nor for roads built to connect one conquered people to another; not for taxes imposed, collected by force and used to pay for the luxuries of  higher-ups.

The crown that ultimately was placed on Jesus’ head was one of mockery, meant to shame him. But Jesus couldn’t be shamed because he had already totally surrendered Himself to whatever his Father found necessary. Having already taken the lowest place, he could go no lower. I think he must have even rejoiced to be given that Crown of Thorns. He knew only too well the consequences of ambition and greed: nations at war over which would have the highest place, the most power over people, ownership of immeasurable wealth, buildings and clothing that reflected power and greed.

Christ’s idea of royalty was reserved for the kind, the brave and the caring, even if their lowliness separated them from the haughty and made them the  subject of sneers and mockery.

The kingship of Christ was the last word of greatness: the victory of Love over cruelty and injustice. The hymn expresses it beautifully: The King of Love my shepherd is.

 

How to tell them?

One of the hymns at Mass today was, Rejoice and be glad: yours is the Kingdom of God.

I couldn’t help thinking about Jesus and visualized him as he delivered this astounding message to the poor about, of all things, a kingdom!

I picture him as an idealistic, enthusiastic and brilliant young man, full of compassion. He has recently experienced a baptism by another holy man and has heard the unmistakable message of approval from the heavenly Father. He’s about to select a handful of men who will help him spread his teachings of the Kingdom to many others.

He is ready. Even while working full-time as a craftsman, he has studied sacred Scripture, prayed over it, and has been given to understand its deepest secrets. These “secrets,” however, are not to be withheld from the poor and uneducated. They only need his tender talents to explain, in down-to-earth terms, the noblest mysteries of the Divinity.

Along with Jesus’ teaching abilities are his God-given powers to heal the sick in body and mind. Such power gives credence to his astounding lessons on how to enter the Kingdom of peace and love. For while the lessons are not difficult to understand, they’re mostly the very opposite of what people have been taught.

Jesus must think to himself: how can I present these teachings in such a way that unscholarly people can understand?

Then, after more prayer, he realizes that the poor and the simple have much in common with one another, and that focusing on what they have in common will be the way to teach them.  He therefore devises skillful parables where the situations and characters illustrate (sometimes negatively) the kind of behaviors that prepare them to enter the kingdom: stories of masters forgiving slaves, of slaves not forgiving co-workers. Of men working throughout the day, only to see others getting the same payment after just a few hours of labor. About buying a field where hidden treasures were found by accident. About a woman relentlessly pleading with a judge for justice.

Jesus has lived and worked with people for years and knows that many of them really have a sincere desire to do what God wills. But they’ve been given so many rules that they can hardly remember all 600-plus of them. They already have so much on their minds just to provide the basics for themselves and their families. Nonetheless, religious leaders have taught them that failure to obey the Law would lead to their expulsion from the temple, their only hope for salvation.

An almost endless workday prevents them from studying the scriptures and the law. Not to mention the other unending problems: illness in the family; their own illness; dealing with the many who want to cheat them; dealing with the many who simply hate them for a variety of reasons or for no reason at all.

Too many problems. Too many laws. Is there any way to get out of this maze, to find a clear path to peace?

  • What is God’s will? Which are the most important laws?

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said [in reply], “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.

  • How do I decide whether to obey a law or to give help where needed?

 Again he entered the synagogue. There was a man there who had a withered hand. They watched him closely to see if he would cure him on the Sabbath so that they might accuse him. He said to the man with the withered hand, “Come up here before us.” Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath rather than to do evil, to save life rather than to destroy it?” But they remained silent. Looking around at them with anger and grieved at their hardness of heart, he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out and his hand was restored.

  • How do I treat people who are just miserable to deal with?

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father.”

  • How can I ever atone for my sins?

People brought to him a paralytic lying on a stretcher. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Courage, child, your sins are forgiven.

  • How can I find true peace?

 Let anyone who thirsts come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as scripture says: ‘Rivers of living water will flow from within him.’”Living water

Rivers of living water . . .

Jesus, who wants all to be with him in the Kingdom, has eased the path for them and for us: I am the way, the truth and the life.