Ramblings . . .

About a year ago I decided to start this blog. According to a message from WordPress, SpiritMuse now has 50 published posts. There are several more in draft form which I suppose I may use some day. At the beginning of this spiritual exercise, so many ideas were swirling around in my head that it seemed the natural and necessary thing to write them down and try to figure out what they all meant to my spiritual growth.

I confess that lately it’s been quite difficult. Ideas aren’t exactly rushing in to help me out. In describing prayer, Teresa of Avila uses the analogy of watering a garden. Sometimes we struggle with a bucket to draw up water from what seems to be a very dry well. Which is how I’ve been feeling lately — and am sure to feel again! I readily recognize that anything I write that might be worthwhile to anyone is due solely to  the Holy Spirit who is this blog’s Muse. If it doesn’t come from there, I’m just babbling.

Which is why, last week, I let the Scripture speak for itself on the Solemnity of Corpus Christi. Searching for a way to express the mysterious connection of Word with Bread was like fishing: I’d feel a nibble on the line and impatiently, prematurely, set the hook. Of course the thought simply wriggled free and was gone. For all I know it’s still there in the murky pond of my mind, waiting for me to clear up the debris, the busy stuff. Maybe by next year’s Solemnity I’ll be able to express something minimally worthwhile about this holy sacrament.

That’s the thing about the spiritual life: it’s all around us, but grabbing at it hardly ever accomplishes anything. On the contrary, there’s a need for  an attitude of passivity, of receptivity. For at the same time that God, the Spirit, is around us, we are IN Him.

A spiritual director once suggested that I not try so hard. That was so utterly counter-intuitive! How does one not try to achieve, to attain? Our fierce attempts are the only way to let God know that we’re really dedicated, and that we’re really serious about this adventure he’s called us to! As if God doesn’t know what to feed us, and when! We instinctively think that if we’re hungry, we’re the ones to put food into our mouth.

Not in the spiritual domain. There, we’re the nestlings with open beaks, crying for nourishment and utterly incapable of giving ourselves what we need. 

So here I am, rambling again. Some of these ramblings came to me this morning as I was cleaning off my porch, wondering if I’d be given any ideas for a post. I was wondering if I could say anything worthwhile — maybe on the topic of prayer. I was in a doing mode or, should I say, a do-it-yourself mode, in that delusional state of mind where I think I might have real answers of any value.

I started by thinking of how we need to reserve a time for quiet prayer, meditation, contemplation – whatever we choose to call our intimate connection with the Lord. Quiet solitude is essential to spiritual growth. “Maybe that’s what I should be doing instead of this unspiritual task, sweeping a porch,” say I. “There’s never enough time! ” Sorry; that excuse won’t wash.

I attempt to put order -maybe even routine- into my life. Let’s look at our day, the 24 hours each of us is given. Subtract time for sleeping and eating, including prep time, and we’re left with about a dozen hours. Continuing the math, deduct time at work where we need to earn a living (or keep doctor appointments), plus time to interact with family and friends. By the time we get to that “special” time of being alone with the Lord (if indeed we get there at all), our mind is often so cluttered with distractions that it’s nearly impossible to clear it. Like the stuff on my porch.

Brother Lawrence, a 17th Century Carmelite monk, knew how to handle this issue. It’s similar to the adage: if you can’t beat them, join them.

As Lawrence went about his assigned and unloved kitchen chores, he simply took the Lord with him. He saw himself always in the presence of God: he in God and God in him, praying his way through whatever “unspiritual” tasks he did throughout the day. All of it became  one seamless prayer. 

Thérèse of Lisieux did something similar in her handling of distractions. Even in a cloister there are troubling events revolving around people, situations and chores, that will simply stick to us like burs on a hiker. Typically, all this stuff comes to mind just when we most need to be quiet. Thérèse’s solution was totally practical. She simply met these distractions head on and made them the substance of her prayer. Oh, how unsophisticated!

Her patron saint, Teresa of Avila, had much deeper suggestions and explanations about prayer – which is why she was named a Doctor of the Church. “Little” Thérèse was also named a Doctor of the Church, but had a spiritual method (if you’re the type who needs a method) that was much less impressive and didn’t include levitating (such an embarrassment for Teresa!).

Ho-hum. Isn’t there a line in the Gospel that says something about becoming like little children? Isn’t there another line or two about seeking the first place at the table, being the important  one to sit at the right hand of the Lord, etc., etc.? The rest of us, lowly as we are, like Lawrence and Thérèse, just pick up the crumbs that fall from the tables of the spiritually elite.

And all of this while I was sweeping the porch. Welcome to my world!
Sweeping floor 1

When Words Fail

Would that the Lord would give me (along with Isaiah) a well-trained tongue, that I might know how to answer the weary a word that will waken them! 

First, I would like to be awakened myself. Lent is over and has left me weary. Even Easter has not fully roused me. And as with other events in my life, I try to figure out why.

Maybe that’s the problem right there: trying to figure out what’s going on in my head and spirit. When I once complained about this to a wise friend, she answered with a question: “Can you simply rest in the mystery?” She may as well have been speaking Greek to me. Mysteries, to me, are puzzles meant to be solved. So, like Jacob, I spend my soul’s night wrestling with enigma, wearying myself with unending questions.

  • Since Christ has come, why is the world still in such bad shape?
  • Why do the innocent suffer?
  • Why am I so often empty and dry?
  • What does it mean to “rest in the mystery”?
  • And why on earth am I sending this useless message into cyberspace?

OK, time to close the text book, Rosalie. The answers aren’t there. This is one of the many exams I can’t and won’t ace.

No, the very nature of mystery is that one can’t solve it with whys and hows.

Because of the restlessness produced by not having answers, I was reminded of Augustine (our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee) and then, in turn, to comments about Augustine by Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury. Williams refers to Augustine’s being “deeply, even disturbingly, affected by music” so that where words fail, music steps in to supply the soul’s need for expression. The music of the heart surpasses the music of instruments.

Commenting on the Psalms, Augustine writes of “jubilant” singing:

This kind of singing is a sound which means that the heart is giving birth to something it cannot speak of . . . the ineffable God – ineffable because you cannot talk about him. And if you cannot talk about him, and it is improper just to keep silence, why, what is there left for you to do but “jubilate” – with your heart rejoicing without words, and the immense breadth of your joy not rationed out in syllables?

It seems that such “jubilance” comes from the heart having discovered the beauty and love of God, unable to express it in any way resembling words.

But of course, though this teacher (moi) is no longer in the classroom, the classroom has not left her. What’s the lesson here? What does this all mean to me? I timidly raise my hand:

Could it be what Augustine discovered? That our hearts – my heart – is restless until it seeks its rest in a simple, quiet and even brainless leap into the heart of Christ?

Rowan Williams* and Augustine say it better:

The violent love of God breaks through deafness and blindness; the violent desire of human souls for God breaks through dumbness. The heart has no words, but it cannot contain itself in silence.

 *The Wound of Knowledge, Rowan Williams. Cowley Publications, Cambridge, Mass. Pp. 98-99

And Augustine, in Expositions of the Psalms, writes that the only way to calm our restlessness is to love and desire always:

There is a kind of prayer that never ceases, an interior prayer that is desire… Your continuous desire is your continuous voice. You will only fall silent if you stop loving. Love grown cold is the heart’s silence; love on fire is the heart’s clamor. If your love abides all the time, you are crying out all the time; if you are crying out all the time, you are desiring all the time; and if you are desiring, you are returning to rest.

Prayer Space

Several of my friends have, at one time or another, referred to having a dedicated area in their home for prayer. Some actually have a separate room as their private chapel.

I confess to being quite envious of this practice. My basement is finished and I suppose I could think of it as the catacombs and consecrate it as such. Apart from this, there’s really no satisfactory space I can set up for the sole purpose of prayerful recollection. At one time I was able to use a corner of my office as a little altar. One acquaintance (a religious sister, no less) gave me a look of horror when she heard this. “In your OFFICE?!” I inferred from her look of indignation that God let her know he was highly insulted.

In an earlier post or two I’ve expressed the discomfort I frequently feel regarding the quality of my prayer. Not having a dedicated place adds yet another element to my concern.

These thoughts were on my mind as I was on my way to the mall, pondering whether a furniture store might have something suitable to get me started – like a kneeler, for instance. Instead, my generous and faithful Muse started to speak to me.

She led me (Ignatian style) to the well where Jesus and that disreputable Samaritan woman were conversing. Disreputable she may have been, but she also had what I thought was a healthy concern about the right way to worship. Plus, she was smart enough to recognize that this unconventional man she was conversing with knew a thing or two about God-like matters. Bold as she was, she challenged Jesus:

“Our ancestors,” she said, “worshiped on this mountain; you people (Jews) say that the place to worship is in Jerusalem.”

[Another example of our natural tendency to compete with just about anyone over just about anything! We are so right; you are so wrong!]

Since this discussion had a bearing on my current dilemma regarding prayer space, I listened closely.

“Believe me, woman,” said Jesus, “the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. . . But the hour is coming, and is now here, when true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth; and indeed the Father seeks such people to worship him. God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and truth.” (John 4:21; 23-24)

Of all things! God, the eternal I AM, who is at all times and in all places, is indifferent as to where he is worshiped as long as we do so in Spirit (from the depth of our heart and soul) and in Truth (with sincerity and authenticity).

Time and time again, I’m amazed at how much less fussy God is about things we put great stock in. We’ve devised creative but rigid ways of praying by the numbers and, as described above, definite places for prayer to be done.

As for me, I have contented myself with the exceedingly unorthodox practice of praying while sitting in my living room, looking through the window at the trees, the sky and the birds. God listens to me here as readily as he might were I in a particular church or room in my house. Maybe that’s because he has made me — and you — his temples, and has made his home with us there. Let us adorn it.

Kitty at window
Photo courtesy of Joyce Medovich

 

If Today You Hear His Voice . . .

The perennial nagging concern of my spiritual life has been: PRAYER. What to say? How to do it? When to do it? How long to do it? 

“Do” is the operative word here and one we need to un-do.

The prayer-by-doing-or saying attitude, along with so many others, became established in childhood. Thank God! Yes, I thank him that my mother taught me to say prayers, that my teachers enforced this habit as we prayed together a Morning Offering, learned the Act of Contrition, and other prayers in addition to the basic sacred three: Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be.

However, as a result of these good teachings, I grew up in the conviction that prayer was something I was now going to DO. I would sit down or stand or kneel and say prayers or “do” prayers. In other words, I would be the one to initiate prayer. This may be frequently correct, but it doesn’t take into consideration the other and better half of prayer, which is letting God speak and listening to God.

There’s the Old Testament story of the boy Samuel, growing up in the temple under the tutelage of the prophet Eli. In the middle of the night, we’re told,
         The Lord called to Samuel, who answered, “Here I am.”
He ran to Eli and said, “Here I am. You called me.”
“I did not call you,” Eli answered. “Go back to sleep.” So [Samuel] went back to sleep.

This happened a second time. By the third time, Eli realized that Samuel, a beginner in the spiritual journey, …
          … did not yet recognize the Lord, since the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.

So finally Eli said to Samuel,
“Go to sleep, and if you are called, reply, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’”
 
   (1 Samuel 3:4-5,7,9)

Samuel did not initiate anything. (In fact, being an adolescent boy, it’s a wonder he woke up at all!) When Eli, his spiritual mentor, realized what was happening, the mystery was solved. At the beginning of his spiritual life young Samuel lacked experience to know how to hear God’s voice. What to listen for? What does he sound like? The talking half of prayer is easy, because we’re always ready to ask God for something. We might even be ready to thank Him for his many gifts.

But to listen is a more elusive skill. To recognize God’s voice, to truly listen, takes much attentiveness and practice. Typically, we humans want instant knowledge and understanding, given to us in a way that is of our own making. If we continue to do what we’ve always done, we can’t grow spiritually.

So following Eli’s experienced counsel, Samuel let the Lord know that he was alert to whatever the Lord chose to say. 

How to cultivate the listening habit? We can’t expect an apparition, such as Moses had from within the burning bush or on the mountain top. Saint  Paul tells us this about prayer:
The Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes for us with inexpressible groanings.   (Romans 8:26-27)

Groanings. Not necessarily words. The Holy Spirit’s praying within us may take the form of a sense of longing to be in communion with the Lord. Some days, the only way we can pray is merely by the desire to pray.

Ignatian spirituality teaches us to “find God in all things.” First, however, we have to look for God in all things. Furthermore, we must want and expect to see God in all things. For God speaks in various voices. This means that we need to be tuned in all day to what God might be teaching us through our surroundings: through contacts with others; the state of our physical or emotional health; the books and papers we read; the household chores and the jobs we work at; the music that moves us – all these thoughts, feelings, or activities carry some inner truth from God that will help us learn who he is and who we are in this world. This constant awareness is surely what is meant by “praying always.” Sitting in a lotus position for 24 hours and murmuring prayers is not what we’re after.

It’s what we quoted from Jesuit Father Arrupe in a recent post, about how love directs every one of our actions. (See the closing of “The Divine Romance,” Feb. 12)

To illustrate, let me share with you a recent experience.

It was one of those ho-hum days, gray sky, nothing special happening or speaking to me. I felt that I had failed in prayer that day. But by evening, reviewing what had happened and didn’t happen, and how I responded, here is what I was given to understand: my neighbor asked if I would drive her to Mass. I did. Later, a friend called to vent about some difficult household issues. I let her talk. A third friend texted me that his mother had died that morning; I called immediately to offer him condolences. Finally, another friend called to get my opinion on some job issues. I stayed with each friend as long as needed.

Here, then, were four situations where I was given the grace to help a friend. Was this prayer? I initiated nothing, but by the grace of God I was enabled to listen, which is  part of the dialog of prayer — maybe even the more important part. Furthermore, what I was being asked to do was much better than anything I could have dreamed up on my own because it came from the needs of others and not from me, high upon the mountaintop of my self-initiated prayer.

 Little by little, I’m beginning to learn that the heart of Christian discipleship is not always doing things we consider important. Rather, it’s being alert to the voice of God heard in the needs of others and given to them through our love of God.

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As in a Glass, Darkly . . .

oz-sepiaAs a child watching “The Wizard of Oz” for the first time, I was amazed by the clever use of color. The sepia tone used while Dorothy was at the farm let us know how Dorothy felt there: it was a lackluster, unpredictable place of boredom alternating with danger.

Along these lines, I once watched a PBS program that documented a whole community of people who were not merely color blind, but could only see the world in varying shades of gray to black. I would think that must be a dismal existence, but if that’s all you ever knew then you’re really not missing anything.

Watching this strange report (on color TV no less), I wondered: I think I’m seeing everything in living color, but what if there are colors that I know nothing of, simply because I’m not equipped with the appropriate retinal cones to see them?

In this life we’re not fully equipped, spiritually, to see or understand the splendor that is God. Fortunately, however, St. Paul tells us that even now we may be given a partial glimpse of God’s beauty: We see now indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known. Yes, even in this life, if we are willing, the Holy Spirit will draw us ever closer to God, revealing wonderful things to those who seek him in prayer and acts of love, bringing us an increase of peace.

In the common manner of speaking, words dealing with vision have two meanings: one, our ability to perceive the physical world with our bodily eyes. The other and even more precious meaning is the ability to understand as, for instance, when we use the expression,. “Oh, I see what you mean!” 

St. Paul prays “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ . . . may give us a spirit of wisdom and revelation resulting in knowledge of him. May the eyes of our hearts be enlightened, that we may know what is the hope that belongs to his call, what are the riches of glory in his inheritance among the holy ones.” (Ephesians 1:17-18)

Dorothy didn’t stay in that drab world. After an arduous journey, filled with a variety of threats, she finally woke up, finding herself in a transformed world of brilliant Technicolor: the Land of Oz.

oz

If we earthlings can marvel at technology that accurately reproduces the full range of nature’s colors, how much more of a miracle will God perform for us, transforming the drab colors of our limited understanding and existence into the dazzling reality of seeing the infinity beauty of God in our heavenly home to come. For even the most beautiful sights of our natural world are nothing compared to the wonders of the Beatific Vision. This is what St. Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians:

Eye has not seen, . . . nor has it entered the human heart, what things God has prepared for those who love him.

Corresponding to how closely we imitate Christ, our spiritual vision will ultimately be transformed and we will be given the ability to understand fully, knowing God as he knows us, and seeing him face to face.