Presence

A friend asked me why I hadn’t posted anything in a while. I squarely put the blame on an absent Muse. I’ve certainly been trying! So she (the Muse) decided to show up today, suggesting a topic that we’ve written about before: Presence.

It all started when a fellow blogger linked his readers to a talk on YouTube given by Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now. When I checked my book-case, that book was still there, but only half read.

I watched a number of Tolle’s brief but substantive talks, covering topics that plague virtually all of us: depression, negativity, anxiety, anger, etc. Difficulties arise when the mind – frequently our own worst enemy – dwells on past hurts, issues, events that disturb our peace. We keep replaying these old news reels, thus keeping them alive to hurt us over and over again. Thoughts about the future can be a joyful exercise but are problematic when they produce anxiety or fear. Tolle proposes that these negative states can be tamed by learning to live in the NOW. The NOW, after all, is the only thing we have: the past is gone; the future is unknowable.Tolle definitely has made a new fan of me.

However, after seeing the Mass readings for today (16th Sunday of Ordinary Time), the reality dawned on me that what Tolle teaches is most helpful, but not really new. This is not to denigrate either Tolle or what he teaches, because we all need to hear the same thing repeated at different times, in different words, to different audiences in different eras. This morning, for example, we heard the stunning passage from Paul’s letter to the Colossians. He imparts the “mystery hidden from all ages, now, finally revealed to all. This is the mystery of Christ in you.” Christ’s miraculous presence in us.

This is the work of our divinization as we take on the mind and attitude of Christ.

 This is the Presence of grace. Even better: the divine Presence of the Divine Christ.

Some are fortunate to have found this ongoing presence of Christ within, so that everything they do, say, hear, teach, comes from that Presence. Here are just three persons who were given the grace to exemplify what it means to live in the Presence, with Christ in them:

  • St. Ignatius: Ignatian spirituality is rooted in the conviction that God is active, personal, and—above all—present to us. We don’t have to withdraw from the world into a quiet place in order to find God. God’s footprints can be found everywhere—in our work and our relationships, in our family and friends, in our sorrows and joys, in the sublime beauty of nature and in the mundane details of our daily lives. It’s often said that Ignatian spirituality trains us to “find God in all things.”
  • Brother Lawrence, Carmelite monk, Practitioner of God’s presence: “It is enough for me to pick up but a straw from the ground for the love of God.”
  • J.P. deCaussade, S.J.: Author of Sacrament of the Present Moment (also known as Abandonment to Divine Providence), and spiritual director to nuns of the Visitation. He counseled them that the smallest deeds, even outside of prayer, were transformative when performed in union with Christ.

Jesus, of course, lets us know how to find peace in all that we do. In today’s Gospel, he tells Martha that her anxiety, not her chores, is what keeps her from finding joy in Christ. Mary, sitting quietly at the feet of her guest, is fully and peacefully connected with him. They are both present to each other. — How easy!

Van Gogh Rediscovered

Having seen the film, “Lust for Life,” several years ago, I had some familiarity with the life of Vincent Van Gogh. It’s a compelling story and I confess to knowing only the broad strokes (so to speak), the main events of his life. Otherwise, I’ve had only the most elementary appreciation of his style of painting.

As a young adult and son of a minister, Van Gogh made a few tries at different vocations. For a while, his middle-class family financially supported him in these trials. A significant one was his working as a lay preacher, ministering to the very poor miners and peasants of Belgium. Following literally the Gospel, he chose to live in the same squalid conditions of the people he served, illustrated in this somber painting, “The Potato Eaters.”

Ecclesiastical leaders, however, were not pleased, feeling that this life style demeaned his clerical status.

Vincent was rejected from the program. Even at this early part of his life, his father thought he was a lunatic and wanted to put him in an asylum.

Fast-forward to find online a four-part series on his life. Vincent is telling his brother Théo that he now intends to devote his life to painting. Théo angrily asks why Vincent is living once again in the poorest of conditions. “I can understand why you did this as a minister of the Gospel, but now it’s just absurd!” Vincent tries to explain that painting is truly his vocation.

“God is here,” he shouts. “God is everywhere, except in the church and in my bloody family!”

Théo walks away quite defeated, but nevertheless goes on to support his older brother for many years, both financially and emotionally.

What has drawn me to write about Van Gogh this week is his very Ignatian statement about finding God in all things. For me, this explains the vivid character of his art, especially as created in the famous painting, “Starry Night.”Stars are believed to be so steady, so unchanging, that mariners could set their position and destination by them.  But in Van Gogh’s painting they are full of life, energy, movement. This was how Vincent could paint the unpaintable truth that God is the source of all life — not just on our puny planet, but throughout the whole universe.

Once again we discover the creative intuition of an artist. I’m convinced that such artists are given to us to provide an unending stream of  visions of the divine Creator. We cannot yet see the Creator face-to-face, but as in a glass, darkly, as St. Paul reminds us.  “Just show us the Father,” St. Philip asks Jesus, “that will be enough for us.”

Jesus replies, “Who sees me sees the Father.”

All of us, either through art or prayer, have been given the invitation and ability to show others the Father in ourselves; to see him in the created universe and in one another.

Birth of a Post

Since starting my blog almost three years ago, I now arrive at publishing my 105th post. Several more drafts languish in their dusty, segregated folder. Sometimes I hear the question, “How do you decide on a topic?”
First, “decide.” This implies a process something like going through a smorgasbord, looking and sniffing at the most appealing and fragrant food to put on my plate, then happily relaxing and munching away.
How do I decide what to write? Frankly, I don’t. The title of my blog, Spirit as Muse, really says it all. The Muse at work here is none other than the Holy Spirit who, sometimes gently, sometimes urgently, pricks me into action. That is, if the Spirit has found in me a quiet and secluded space in which to act.
There may be some compelling event in the Church, such as the troubling and persistent news about clerical abuse of the innocent, or situations where legalism wins out over Mercy. Or Pope Francis may have made a statement that strikes me, such as, “The Eucharist . . . is not a prize for the perfect, but medicine and nourishment for the weak.” [The Joy of the Gospel] Or some words of Scripture charm me, pushing me to understand and proclaim their reality. Frequently it’s the beauty of art, poetry, music, or the lure of nature that sparks my imagination. Another tease may be the desire to refresh platitudes or rote prayers that have, alas!, lost their true meaning through mindless repetition.
So I put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and let the thoughts come as they may. This is the easy part. The work part is trying to clarify the thoughts, to put them all in an order that will make them as understandable and alluring to others as possible.
It’s like seeing a shiny and precious shard, half buried in a littered landscape. Once a topic takes ahold of me, I allow it to go wherever it wants. Soon I rescue it, uncover it, make it my own, and share it with others.
So, pen glides over page, words jump out of the keyboard as my thoughts dance about, poking here, pinching there, scraping away the moldy stuff that’s been hiding some infinitesimally small but precious nugget.
As the digging continues, the treasure grows and grows,

becoming more luminous (I hope!) with every edit. Rearranging the words is like moving around the props on a stage set. They must be placed just so, so that they will give substance to the reality that had been hidden from the audience. More questions arise, playing the part of the lighting director who points the lamps at different angles until the mystery becomes clear at last.
I so often wish I could be visited by Emily Dickinson’s Muse (in addition to the Holy Spirit, of course), so that everyday words would simply fall together to paint something of beauty; where ordinary expressions would swirl about in all their simplicity until the inspiration that started it all shapes the fluttering words into a transcendent reality that will show, at least in part, the emerging face of God.
For God is in all things, even in words – especially in The Word through which God made all things, and finally us in his image and likeness.

A Touch of Genius

Or, Finding God in Mozart

My new classical music station of choice is WQXR-FM out of New York City. No, this isn’t a paid commercial. I just want to express my appreciation for having this great channel. I even like their style of fundraising and proved it by making a donation! They were playing Mozart at the time, and were offering donors a couple of CDs with the “best of Mozart.” I don’t know how you’d go about selecting M’s best — it’s all so spectacular!

As you may know by now, if you’re a reader of my blogs, sometimes a thought jumps into my head and prompts other ideas to germinate. I consider this a blessing. It keeps my brain from atrophy (I hope) and invites insights and even clarifications  that I might not have had if I had just lolled around with only the one thought.

This time, what popped into my head was the 1984 Oscar winner for best film: Amadeus.

Peter Schaffer, author, capitalized on a rumor that had been floated when Mozart died at the young age of 35. The rumor was that the envious court appointed composer, Antonio Salieri, had caused Mozart’s death. The truth is that Salieri was a highly respected composer and teacher. Beethoven, Schubert and Liszt were among the most famous of his pupils, and they had dedicated compositions to Salieri. Pretty good recommendation, I’d say!

On the other hand, Mozart’s wild manners and foul mouth are well documented. Clearly, Schaffer used this situation as a device to explore the true nature of Genius.

There’s a wonderful scene at the beginning of the movie that shows Mozart horsing around (sorry, no other word for it) with his beloved fiancée Costanza, and using very coarse language. Salieri is disgusted to witness this highly improper behavior when suddenly, from the other room, are heard voices of wind instruments breathing out heavenly strains of music: one of Mozart’s Serenades.

Salieri is baffled. How can this uncouth boy create such glorious music when he, Salieri, who has dedicated his life and talent to God, can produce only hackneyed phrases? Has God no respect for his efforts? How can he favor this unworthy brat over me, a sober hardworking craftsman?

Playwright Schaffer named his play well, using only Mozart’s middle name, Amadeus, which means God loves. Indeed, God loves anyone and everyone for his own reasons, whether or not they’re reasonable to us.

Schaffer made good use of this alleged enmity between the two composers and the unfounded hoax surrounding Mozart’s death. He illustrated an important point about Genius which is this: Genius does not require moral Goodness in those whom Genius chooses to visit. Not all poets and artists, sculptors and musicians were models of virtue. But their lack of virtue or even good manners, never kept the spirit of Genius from entering what we earthlings might consider very foul homes.

I see this same paradox in what Jesus tells Nicodemus about the need to be re-born in the Spirit (John 3). To be born “of the flesh” is merely to follow the dry mandates of the law. Someone like Salieri might be well versed in the rules of harmony and composition, but may lack that special spark, the spark we call “divine inspiration.”

To be born of the Spirit means going beyond our hollow, dry, legalistic approach to God. Our model of divine inspiration is none other than Jesus the Christ. Yes, God has now given us Jesus to rely on; Jesus, The One who has come down from heaven and therefore knows first hand what is heavenly. Jesus taught of being born of the Spirit and even gave his life to prove the authenticity of this teaching.

We are, for now, on the outside looking in, and may not yet be able to know whom the Holy Spirit decides to visit, or why. The Spirit does not require our permission to visit those we consider worthy. Nor does the Spirit need to obey us when we want to exclude those we judge unworthy. The Spirit is like the wind that “blows where it wills. . . you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

That’s why Jesus’ teachings, parables, etc., so often feature  “losers” coming out on top, over the ones we’d consider “worthy.” For example:

  • The Good Samaritan who was a despised foreigner.
  • The laborer who was paid for a full day’s work in the vineyard, though he’d only put in a couple of hours.
  • The Prodigal Son, versus the “faithful” son who stayed home to work the farm.
  • Zacchaeus, who had cheated taxpayers but is now rewarded to have Jesus stay with him, just because he climbed a tree to see him!

Typically, we’re not good judges of character, especially as to who “deserves” to enter the Kingdom of God. On one occasion Jesus bluntly told Peter, “You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” (Matthew 16:23).

We don’t get to barter or bargain with the Almighty; there’s no quid pro quo.

Most of us have no idea what humility is, much less Genius or holiness, even though Jesus modeled these for us so thoroughly.

So tell me, when was the last time you heard a composition by Salieri on your radio?Mozart at 6, in court dress.
Link to a scene from the movie Amadeus:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ciFTP_KRy4

I Will Go to the Altar . . .

On the first steps of my spiritual journey, I thought how very nice it would be to live in a monastery. There, I would be officially called to prayer by the ringing of bells for the chanting of the canonical hours. Here at home, on the other hand, I’m constantly interrupted and distracted. The only bells I hear are from the telephone or my oven timer — not to mention the ongoing clanging of tinnitus in my ears!

In response to this situation, my spiritual director reminded me of Thérèse of Lisieux and introduced me to Brother Lawrence and Jean-Pierre de Caussade. These three holy persons taught that, because God is everywhere, prayer can be offered everywhere and any time. With the intention and desire to meet God more frequently, God can be loved in everything we do. With practice, I was given to understand this principle.

Remember  the old Latin prayer recited by the priest as he began Mass? I will go to the altar of God, to God who gives joy to my youth! I adapted this prayer to fit the ordinary practices of my day.

I will go to the altar of my laptop
As I compose this prayer.

I will go to the altar of my piano,
Where I touch the soul of Beethoven.

I will go to the altar of the sidewalk
That leads me to my neighbor.

I will go to the altar of my phone
As I call or respond to a friend.

I will go to the altar in my kitchen,
As I prepare what God provides.

I will go to the altar of my appliances
That make light work of my chores.

I will go to the altar of my books
That bring food to my spirit.

I will go to the altar in my prayer corner
Where I find the grace to surrender …
To love.