Soul Friend

 

I write this on Valentine’s Day, a holiday where friends and family outdo one another in demonstrations of affection. How wonderful! We can never have too much of that!

In my various posts I’ve often referred to my “epiphany” when I was brought back to the church after a 21-year absence. This call was so strong that it drew me to an almost constant sense of wonder and confusion. This strong pull was nothing less than bewildering and I knew from many years of Christian education that I needed a spiritual director. When I heard the homily of a priest new to our parish, I knew that my search was over.

I vividly remember my first visit to this, my first real spiritual “director.” “Now you know,” he said, “I’m not going to tell you what to do.” This was a total shock, as I said to myself: Well, why on earth do you think I’ve come to you?! 

He also asked me to call him by his first name, dropping the Father. This was to remove any artificial and possibly unhelpful distancing between us, as Father denotes a relationship with a superior. 

Since my experience over a dozen years ago, “spiritual direction” has gradually and universally evolved into a more personal relationship as spiritual companion or friend. Even the organization called “Spiritual Directors International” has recently shown a preference for spiritual companion/friend.

So what is this non-directive direction like?

It didn’t take me long to discover and cherish this unique form of friendship. This was a person to whom I could speak freely about my experience of God; one who would not put me down but knew how to gently correct what needed correction; one who encouraged me, who was my spiritual cheer-leader. 

The spiritual friend is an attentive listener, familiar with the spiritual journey through his own experience and through study of the classic writings on the subject. Saints such as Ignatius, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Francis de Sales and his soul-friend Jane Frances de Chantal, and many more have written extensively on the art of holy listening. Probing questions are designed to clarify and discover how the Holy Spirit – the true Director – is working in the soul. 

Even though each seeker is unique, the path usually has the same sign-posts. How do we know we are “making progress”? To put it simply, we know this if we can point to positive changes in our behavior toward others. If, for example, we can see that the anger and grudges we’ve carried around for years have quietly slipped off our back; if we are present to God so that our prayer has seamlessly become more connected with Him in even the most ordinary tasks of our life; if so, then we can probably say we’re more authentically responding to our call to holiness. The love we have for a soul friend can become a model for the love we share with others in our life.

The Angels Are Silent

Gaudete! Rejoice!
     This is the mood and message of the third Sunday of Advent. This moment of joy within the dreary weeks of waiting is like the first kick of the infant in the womb. Hah! There is life there after all!
     The Scripture readings take us closer to the brilliant reality of Christ’s presence among us. Angels galore!
      Gabriel comes to Mary with an invitation which Mary accepts as a gentle command.
     Gabriel comes to Joseph to let him in on the secret and to detail his role as protector of the Holy One and His Mother.
     A whole legion of angels cover the freezing shepherds with triumphant sounds to guide them to the unlikely birthplace of the King and Messiah.
     Both Old and New Testaments tell of Angels who act in a way similar to the prophets’: they deliver messages from God as to miraculous events or appearances.
     Why don’t we hear from Angels anymore? Why are they silent?
     Psalm 8 tells us that we’ve been made “a little less than the Angels.” The Letter to the Hebrews repeats this, saying that now, after years of silence, Someone infinitely higher than the Angels has been given to us. This is God’s own Son, Jesus Christ.
     Yet this great Person made such a silent entrance into our world as the child of ordinary parents, residing in a small town famous for absolutely nothing. It’s as if the Christmas story needed to be announced once and for all amid spectacular angelic fireworks, for the Savior’s  life in the world would be hidden and without any of the trappings of royalty or power.
      Once out in the world as an adult with a mission, Jesus continued to insist on silence: Tell no one of this miracle, or Tell the vision to no one, etc. Why the secrecy?
      I have a theory. Jesus planned his mission as a continuation through his followers, ordinary men and women, and not through Angels. Those who believed in the validity of Christ’s teachings would be the ones to teach the treasures of the Gospel — not necessarily with words but by their deeds. Jesus’ message had to be accessible to both teachers and the taught. Christ’s  presence and example needed to be lowly, thus maintaining a truer imitation of his actions and his gentle (but firm) commands.
     St. Angela of Foligno, fourteenth century mystic, writes:
See how Christ gave Himself as an example. He said: “Learn from me. I am gentle. My soul is humble. You’ll find rest for your hearts here.” Pay attention to what Christ didn’t say. He didn’t say, “Learn to fast from Me” or “Learn from me how to perform great miracles,” although He did these things well. . .
The point is that Christ made humility and gentleness the foundation for every other virtue. Nothing else matters. Not integrity, not fasting, not poverty, not shabby clothing, not years of good works, not the accomplishment of miracles — none of these is important without a humble heart.
     The splendidly orchestrated Christmas messages of the Angels were possibly their last hurrah. Without Christ, we might have thought that holiness required great deeds, the mastery of complicated theological dogmas, perhaps even martyrdom. Surely miracles.
Jesus’ miracles were born of his compassion, not to have people marvel at quasi-magical powers. He had already learned that from his desert temptation.
     No, now is the time for quiet. No more brilliance. No more forcing. No more threats of separation. No more need for virtually impossible deeds that only superhuman angels could perform.
Now is humanity’s time, the time for gently whispered invitations, and for our
quiet, humble  and joy-filled responses.

Light in Darkness

John of the Cross at Christmas

Advent is the time of year we see many references to darkness v. light, symbolic of the battle between evil and good, with light (Christ) overcoming darkness (despair).

We’re instinctively uncomfortable with darkness as a time of peril. We need light to know where we are and where we need to go, symbolic of our fateful search for understanding and knowledge, as in Eden’s tree of knowledge. This is why I love to turn to the well-known poem of St. John of the Cross (feast: Dec. 14), known as “The Dark Night.”

This phrase, “dark night,” is commonly used to describe a period of interior darkness representing fear, confusion, a sense of abandonment, and near despair. Not so for John of the Cross, as becomes clear by a careful reading and translation of even the first stanza alone.

En una noche oscura . . . Oscura, Obscure, denotes something hidden but not necessarily absent. He is not going to roam listlessly. He has a goal in mind.

Con ansias en amor inflamada . . . on fire with cravings for love. The Soul’s only motive is love. It is eagerly embracing this adventure, since it is fueled by love, not by fear and certainly not by despair. His mood is certain, his step is strong.

!Oh, dichosa ventura! O happy destiny! The Soul’s expectation is certainly not dreaded but deeply desired, since it is Love that calls him. 

Salì sin ser notada . . . I went out, unnoticed. He has not been ousted. No: the loving Soul willingly and eagerly leaves the familiar which has not succeeded in satisfying its cravings. Here is an opportunity to do something different: to leave the old life behind in such a quiet way that no one can see any difference or notice anything extraordinary in the lover’s behavior. The lover seems the same on the outside. Who could guess what is experienced within?

Estando ya mi casa sosegada . . . While my household is asleep. All around me are unaware. What the Soul is leaving is only bland, colorless, unfulfilling, in comparison to what he is seeking.

In darkness, there is no distinction between one thing and another. A landscape that seemed to be known and understood in the daytime is now clouded in mystery and unknowing. But because love is the final goal and reward, the Soul presses on, welcoming the darkness which brings peace and understanding of a different nature – perhaps even a strangely new sense of freedom.

The poem ends on a note of ecstatic bliss:

I abandoned and forgot myself,
Laying my face on my Beloved;
All things ceased; I went out from myself,
Leaving my cares
Forgotten among the lilies.

Arts and the Spirit

I sit in front of the modern equivalent of the blank sheet, the bane of a writer’s existence. (Or a would-be writer’s existence.)

What is behind the human compulsion to create? The creative urge certainly has its source in the Genesis story where God made humanity in his image and likeness. God picked up an earthy substance and breathed into it, sending God’s very essence into that unlikely, homely form.  No, it had no form to begin with; it was, literally, just a lump. God, as the first artist, took something material and transformed it into what we ultimately recognize as and name Beauty.

It’s a challenge to see human beings as a work of art, given all the terror and destruction that humans have learned ever since that first experiment in Eden. But humans must be congratulated for having recognized that they and their surroundings were beautiful. This was such an important discovery that they carried it with them after being expelled from the Garden. Carried it with them as a supreme comfort to soothe and enlighten them in that dystopian life resulting from God’s curse. Think of how shocked they must have been at their first gropings at making something, just like the great Creator God had done and was still doing. 

How did those first human-artists get started in their creative process? Could they have been inspired by seeing all that banal material surrounding them? It was said that when Michelangelo first looked at a piece of marble, he saw within it a figure, a person or an element from nature that was locked within the marble. His task was to set that being free so that others could gaze upon the figure and see it as he, Michelangelo, saw it.

Other early humans needed to share the story of their exploits with their tribal family, resulting in basic pictures of where they had been, what they had seen and what deeds were enacted. Again, there was some kind of spiritual element, a thing-ness that they perceived and that was capable of demonstrating and communicating important deeds.

Eventually, perhaps, they found branches within a dead tree that produced a variety of sounds when the autumn wind blew through their hollow center. They were empty tubes of the same substance as the tree, but that unseen (therefore “spiritual”) power created whole symphonies of feelings: festive, melancholic, strident, militant, tender, soothing, cacophonous — on and on, infinitely variable. Somehow, this created sound-thing once again resulted in a merging of matter and spirit, a transformation of the commonplace into the incomparable soul substance. Or was it the other way around?

Words must have been the last substance to have been transformed, spiritualized. Scripture once again spoke the undreamable reality of THE WORD that we know as the Son of God, as God made Man, the Spirit of God becoming the unthinkable Word that gave utterance to all that was or could be created.

The arts have been given to us orphaned humans so that we might be drawn closer to the reality of being eternally joined to the Father-Creator, Son-Human and Spirit-Beauty.

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Haiku: Spirit as Muse


Silent hymn of love.
Soft wind through hollow branches,
Heart-found holiness.

Transfiguration of Christ; Transformation of Christians

This post was first published on this feast day in 2017.

For me, the narrative of the Transfiguration of Jesus is one of the most mysterious in the Gospels.

At the top of Mount Tabor, Peter, James and John were allowed a vision of Jesus in the company of major Old Testament prophets, Moses and Elijah. His position at their center, along with the command of the Father to listen to him, emphasized Jesus’ authority and supreme holiness. No wonder the apostles were astonished and wanted to stay there indefinitely! They had already, through Peter, announced their belief that Jesus was the promised one of God, the Messiah. The Transfiguration vision cemented that belief.

But there is another aspect to this vision that touches us personally.

Jesus, fully human and fully divine, allowed his apostles to observe his divinity. What they were also observing (but weren’t yet ready to understand) was their own eventual transformation into the very image of the divine, since through Christ we are made children and heirs of the Father.

Why did Jesus tell the Apostles to say nothing about this event until after his Resurrection? Could it be because they were far from understanding or accepting so bold a concept as our own divinization? We needed the spiritual strength and insight that would be offered to us only after the Resurrection and the Pentecost.

Are we ready even now?

The late Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner said, “[t]he Christian of the future will be a mystic, or he will not exist at all.” Mysticism, he wrote, is “a genuine experience of God emerging from the very heart of our existence.”

The Transfiguration tells us that our faith must transcend robotic habits. We aren’t meant to spend our earth-years with our eyes half-shut, stumbling through what appears to be a hopeless world. There’s too much that we’re missing if we do not open our hearts to the experience of God of which Rahner speaks.

A constant and growing search for deeper intimacy with Christ and his teachings is what will bring about our transformation into the divine, as Christ showed us and his disciples at the Transfiguration.

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“The days which begin on the feast of the Lord’s transfiguration and end on the threshold of Our Lady’s glorification provide an opportunity for the Christian faithful to reflect on God’s transforming grace at work in their lives, and to seek from the Lord whatever they need to deepen that grace not only in themselves, but indeed in the Church and world.”

These are the opening words of a Transfiguration Novena provided by Father John Colacino of Rochester. If you would like to pray this Novena starting on the Feast of the Transfiguration (August 6) and ending on the eve of the Assumption (August 14), contact me at rosaliekrajci@gmail.com