Pentecost: Vision Restored

Isn’t it amazing that, except when Jesus came to them in the upper room, the disciples were unable to recognize Jesus after his Resurrection?

Mary Magdalene, the first one to see him near the tomb, didn’t know him until he broke through her tears to call her name.

The disciples on the way to Emmaus walked with him, talked and listened to him, yet he remained a stranger until he stayed to eat with them. Then they realized how their hearts had burned within them to hear how he described the Messiah.

When the apostles went to the Sea of Galilee to meet the Lord as he had directed, they didn’t recognize him on the shore until he allowed them to make a miraculous catch of fish. 

Luke opens his post-Gospel Acts by telling of Jesus’ farewell. As he ascends into heaven, “a cloud took him from their sight.

In his account of the last judgment, Matthew describes Christ’s followers as unaware even of having kept his commands: Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? (Mt. 25:37)

Veils. Clouds. Except for those visits in the upper room, the disciples’ eyes remained veiled. Their Master remained hidden by a cloud. Did they remember what their Master had told them before his arrest? That it was necessary that he leave them; that he would not leave them orphans but would send them an Advocate, a defender, a power that would enable them to spread the news of the Kingdom.

So they (and we) were given the Spirit as they crouched fearfully in that upper room. The Spirit arrived like a powerful wind, as tongues of fire, images of powerfully persuasive speech to win the hearts and minds of people the world over. 

Yet even with the Spirit as guide, God remains a mystery for the greatest of minds. Though the human intellect finds a cloud concealing his full essence, the Spirit gives us a more certain way to approach the “throne of grace.”  This is through the fire of God’s infinite love as exemplified by Christ and as we practice it today.

The saints understood why Jesus insisted on withdrawing (physically) from us: that we might understand the need to seek him, to look for Him everywhere. 

Mother Teresa saw him in the “disguise” of the poor and the dying. 

St. Francis saw him in the beauty of the natural world. 

St. Ignatius Loyola saw him in everything, even in the everyday events of life.  

The Lord answers our desire to see, but often in ways we couldn’t have predicted. Such super-vision is the gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift to us from the Father and the Son, and it is available to all who merely ask for it. 

I tell you, ask and you will receive… Everyone who seeks, finds. . . Who among you would hand his child a snake when he asks for a fish? . . . If you then, who are wicked know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the holy Spirit to those who ask him? (Luke 11:9-13)

After three years of intimate friendship with Jesus, the Apostles had to bear the sorrow of his absence. For the last several weeks, complying with the rules surrounding the pandemic, we have had to bear the absence of our Sacramental Lord. Being without Communion has perhaps had the good effect of showing us how empty we are without its consoling presence.

Thus, like the Apostles, for our spirit to grow, we need to learn how to rely on the invisible Holy Spirit. Even St. Paul, blinded as he zealously sought the persecution of Jesus’ followers, — even he was changed, his life turned upside-down. He wrote to the Corinthians how the gift of the Spirit in Christ changed his life forever, and how it can change ours: 

Whenever a person turns to the Lord the veil is removed. . . All of us, gazing with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory as from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Cor. 3:15b – 18)

Continually desiring and receiving the Spirit brings us closer to our divinisation, the end for which we’ve been created.

Pentecost celebrates the first arrival of the Holy Spirit in our lives, but even better — the Spirit’s unfailing presence within Christians, giving them voices of fire and passion as we also teach and model the Gospel of Christ. We ask the Spirit to come, even though through the life, death and teachings of Christ, the Spirit is already here in us. The seed is there. Through a continuing awareness of God’s presence within us, we are transformed into other Christs, present in this world and participating in his work of salvation.

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.

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.