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

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.

http://stephencuyos.com

The Divine Romance

I sing of faithful love . . .
Oh when will you come to me? (Psalm 101)

 The romantic comedy, “When Harry Met Sally,” has snippets of fictitious interviews with couples who have been married for many years. They are covered in smiles as they recall how they first met and how their love blossomed. Often the romance had shaky beginnings but ultimately (and we breathe a sigh of relief) the couple managed to work through these uncertainties to a happy union.

Who doesn’t love these romances!

Some of you may have happily discovered (as I have) that your relationship with God shares some common ground with your earthly romance. In addition to my own conversion experience (see last week’s post), I hear it from directees who speak of how their life changed when they realized that God had caught up with them. I hear it from them because when we finally connect with God we have this compulsion to speak of it, to share the wonder of it with any sympathetic listener we can collar.

Often the Divine Romance starts after a realization that something important is missing from life. Eventually there is that magic and miraculous  moment when the One standing at the door and knocking, has finally been let inside. Life changes. There is hope. There’s the chance that maybe, after all, I am lovable. This has certainly been my story, and I know I’m not unique. Having been a “lapsed Catholic” for 21 years and then brought back, I know whereof I speak.

How can I refer to this experience as a Divine Romance? Isn’t this some kind of blasphemy?

There are all kinds of references in the Bible to the divine love affair. Typically the lovers are metaphorical,  where the “husband” is God and the “wife” or “bride” is Israel, as in the book of the prophet Hosea (2:16; 21-22 ) :

I will allure her now;
I will lead her into the wilderness and speak persuasively to her. . .
I will betroth you to me forever:
I will betroth you to me with loyalty and with compassion;
I will betroth you to me with fidelity.

In these biblical situations God takes the beloved out of this world into a desert or away from the “city”, symbol of earthbound desires. She feels totally different from “normal” human beings, a stranger to the city (to use Michael Casey’s book title). There are things going on inside her that make her uneasy, uncertain of where she is going, wandering for ages like the chosen people in the desert. Difficult as this is, the beloved wants nothing else.

The most blatantly romantic book of the Old Testament is the “Song of Songs” which is usually explained as an allegory of the spiritual life, probably to hide its sensual character. Here, we find the couple in a playful hide-and-seek which turns serious as the Bride loses sight of the Bridegroom (3: 1-3):

On my bed at night I sought him whom my soul loves—
I sought him but I did not find him.
“Let me rise then and go about the city, through the streets and squares;
Let me seek him whom my soul loves.”
I sought him but I did not find him.

The Bride’s search reflects the typical spiritual journey with its ups and downs, its crushing moments when the soul feels abandoned by the beloved. At moments like this, we need to hear the Lord speaking these comforting words through Pascal, French scientist and religious writer:
          “Be of good cheer–you would not seek Me if you had not found Me.” (Pensées/Thoughts)

Or in the words of St. Augustine:
          “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee!

Spanish mystic, John of the Cross, writes passionate lyrical poetry about the soul seeking the Beloved in the obscurity of faith,  a night “more brilliant than the light,” because that is where the Beloved is hidden and where it is the lover’s happy destiny (dichosa ventura!) to find Him.

In more recent days we read the beautiful advice of the late Jesuit Father General, Pedro Arrupe, describing how Love, Divine Love, truly makes the world go ‘round.

Falling in Love

Nothing is more practical than finding God,
That is, than Falling in Love
in a quiet, absolute, final way.

What you are in love with,
What seizes your imagination,
Will affect everything.

It will decide what will get you out of bed
in the morning,
What you do with your evenings,
How you spend your weekends,

What you read, Who you know,
What breaks your heart,
And what amazes you with Joy and Gratitude.

Fall in love,
Stay in love
And it will decide Everything.

valentines-heartHappy Valentine’s Day!

New Year’s Resolutions

resolutions-sI was never able to keep New Year’s Resolutions for more moments that it took to speak them.

Much more useful are the resolutions I’ve been making for the last few years, aimed at hopefully nurturing my spiritual life. At my age, I find that the simpler the better, so I limit the number of resolutions to three, and also prefer that they be in the form of ONE word only. Any more than that and I’d tend to forget them. Just three words can be easily remembered and repeated, very much like a mantra.

The three words I chose at the beginning of 2016 are:

  • Silence
  • Mindfulness
  • Trust.

I find these so important and so difficult that I’m keeping them for 2017. Also, as I meditate on these practices to write this Post, I discover how interrelated one is to the other.

Silence.
This doesn’t mean wearing earplugs or keeping the radio off. Actually, listening to music has the effect of shutting off other noise that might be keeping my mind and spirit spinning. By noise, I mean thoughts that whirl around in my head, most often having to do with relationships, such as conversations with others that haven’t gone very well. Or thoughts related to world events that I can’t do anything about – except to pray for the healing of the cruelty, greed and selfishness rampant in the world. I’d do much better to let those prayers enter my head, rather than to continue to want to fix all these problems or to stay angry that I can’t.

Silence also means letting the other person do the talking while I listen. I don’t mean simply nod my head now and then to give the illusion of listening. I mean really listening. I mean not butting in every two sentences to offer my opinion or advice. I mean listening in a supportive way, letting the other person vent, and letting myself be the ventee, rather than the ventor. This practice also serves the Benedictine principle of hospitality, since we are welcoming fully the person speaking to us.

As I practice this kind of Silence, I realize that it is related to No. 2 on the list: Mindfulness.

Mindfulness simply means paying attention to what we’re doing or saying. This includes paying attention to what you’re hearing while you’re being Silent (back to hospitality again). It also means paying full attention to what you’re doing, focusing on each step and not hurrying. Forget about multi-tasking. 

Oddly enough and contrary to what the word seems to say, Mindfulness doesn’t fill our minds. Because it requires focusing on one thing at a time, and that one thing is in the present moment, it results in an emptying of the mind, or at least the removal of mental clutter.

I tried mindfulness recently while I was baking. I had promised to bring two pies and a cake to a family gathering. In the past, I would have scrambled around, concocting all kinds of ways to be most efficient and to finish as quickly as possible. (And by the way, what was I going to do with all the time I saved?? Play computer games?) Scurrying around usually ended in dropping utensils and making a mess that took longer to clean up. This time, practicing mindfulness, I very deliberately completed each step in turn. Though it felt a little like being in a slow motion film, I was actually able  to complete the project in record time and with minimal if any gratuitous mess. Furthermore,  I had been able to remain calm and contented, enjoying the thought of the pleasure I’d be giving to the family.

What does mindful baking have to do with my spiritual life? And why, for heaven’s sake, do I think such tasks are different from my spiritual life? Focusing on the present moment, I am able to keep myself in the presence of God who is present everywhere and in every moment. Thus, even menial activities become prayer, that is, they unite us to God. (For more on this topic, look up the powerful little book by Jean-Pierre de Caussade: The Sacrament of the Present Moment, and Google the Carmelite monk Brother Lawrence whose mindfulness enabled him to remain in the presence of God while performing his kitchen duties. Here’s a link: http://thepracticeofthepresenceofgod.com/onlinetext/)

The practice of Mindfulness is similar to the practice of Silence. Both keep the mind and spirit uncluttered, focused, and more ready to approach everyday tasks in a spirit of prayer. All of us have menial tasks to perform just to get through our days in some kind of order and peacefulness. We frequently complain about them because they’re “boring” and keep us from “prayer time.” Mindfulness allows us not just to perform tasks, but to transform them from the worldly to the transcendent. It allows us to make a prayer of what we thought was just plain boring. Try it. You’ll see what I mean.

The last resolution is perhaps the most difficult: Trust.

Our whole life has been spent trying to increase our mastery over so many things. We work hard to acquire the skills that will give us mastery over an art form, over knowledge and maybe most often, over other people. We even work to gain an illusory  mastery over our prayer life, and try to “do it right,” as if it’s a job and we’re in charge of it.

Trusting in God bolsters our spiritual immune system. Trust is like a spiritual antibiotic: it cures debilitating ills such as fear, anxiety, helplessness, pride, depression, and a whole host of related bad habits. Trust is simply admitting to God that He’s the one in charge, and being thankful that this is so. He’s the only one who knows the true outcome of what we fret over, what we’re afraid might happen. 

It’s very easy to talk about how wonderful Trust is, but quite another thing to practice it continually. This is why I’m keeping Trust on my list for another year. In fact, I need to keep it until death do us part.

Resolutions, like our spiritual life, are unique to each of us. I suggest taking a few quiet moments with the Lord, asking him to help us select a few habits we might want his help in acquiring (or dropping). He loves us, and will love this request. I’m guessing we’ll be given what we need.

Happy New Year!

St. Benedict

Like us, Benedict needed to search and try out different ways of serving God.

Mt Saviour Sculpture
Wood sculpture at Mt. Saviour Monastery, Pine City, NY

I enjoyed hearing about St. Benedict in the homily given on his feast day, July 11.

Like us, Benedict needed to search and try out different ways of serving God. That he would be known as the Father of western monasticism – which he’s noted for – did not come to him in a single great flash of insight or experience.

No. First, he was an “ordinary” Christian like us, going to Mass, reading and pondering Scripture. Because he lived in a somewhat degenerate Rome, he soon realized that living as a hermit would allow him to make a greater space within, a quiet space for the Spirit to fill. He therefore withdrew to a cave near the town of Subiaco, mentored by a monk by the name of Romanus.

He must have lived an exemplary life, for soon a group of monks appealed to him to be their spiritual leader, according to the biography written by St. Gregory the Great. But life lived by the Gospel and as taught by Benedict turned out not to be to their liking, and they planned to get rid of him by poisoning his wine. As Benedict blessed the carafe, it suddenly shattered, saving Benedict’s life, and saving the irritable brothers from grave sin.

For more reading on Benedict, his Rule, and the proliferation of priests, religious and laity dedicated to his teachings, see the following:

  • The Order of St. Benedict
  • Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict, by Esther de Waal
  • Strangers to the City, by Michael Casey, OCSO