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.

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 Fatal Tree

Programmed to send me papal news alerts, my smartphone recently notified me that Pope Francis had approved a new translation for a significant part of the Our Father. Our English translation prays: “. . . and lead us not into temptation.” This is not consistent, says the Pope,  with what Jesus taught us about his Father. Pope Francis has changed that phrase to “. . . and do not let us fall into temptation.”

Thanks be to God for having sent us Jesus so that we could soar above the God of Genesis, the God of tests, threats, and even second guessing as in the following passage:

Yahweh God caused to spring up from the soil every kind of tree, enticing to look at and good to eat, with the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the middle of the garden. . . Yahweh God gave the man this admonition, “You may eat indeed of all the trees in the garden. But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you are not to eat, for on the day you eat of it you shall most surely die.

This narration unfortunately presents us with a Divinity who is deliberately setting up his first humans for a fall. One more example of how scripture, though divinely inspired, cannot be literally true in the light of what Jesus taught us about the nature of God.

First, the forbidden tree is designed to be like all the others: enticing and nutritious. Second, the Divinity places it right in the middle of the garden where Adam (and later, Eve) can’t help but run into it at every turn. Third, why would the Divinity allow the serpent into what was supposed to be an ideal garden?

Last and most puzzling is that having created humans in his image, Divinity endowed them with intelligence, along with its handmaidens, imagination and curiosity. Wouldn’t it be a good thing to know the difference between good and evil so we could choose appropriately?

Good and evil, right and wrong. This dualistic thinking, according to Richard Rohr, OFM, has produced untold miseries among humans. In a recent meditation from his blog, Father Rohr writes:

The dualistic mind, upon which most of us were taught to rely, is simply incapable of the task of creating unity. It automatically divides reality into binary opposites . . .
“Really good” thinking then becomes devising a strong argument for our side’s superiority versus another country, race, group, political party, or religion. It seems we must have our other!  (Center for Action and Contemplation, June 2, 2019)

Back to the creation story, what does the Lord say to himself at the end of each day’s creation?
               God saw that it was good.

Everything that God made he saw as good. If God made it, there was no way it could be bad. Could evil be in the eye of the beholder?

After centuries of spiritual evolution, we still ponder the issue of evil in our world. Here are strong statements from three holy Christians, giving us an insightful perspective about the coexistence of good and evil.

Julian of Norwich, Revelations
We are securely protected through love, in joy and sorrow, by the goodness of God. . . . All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.

St. Paul, Romans 8:28
We know that all things work together unto good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

Thérèse of Lisieux
Everything is a grace!

To hear them, it sounds as if they are unaware of the real presence of evil. Rather, what they’re saying is, “Yes, evil exists. But that doesn’t mean that it must triumph! These three saints know how to confront evil, certain as they are of God’s faithful and loving providence.

True, we have shut ourselves out of Eden, this good place, where ignorance had truly been bliss. In our pride, we claim to possess the secret of the good. In the arrogance of our presumed knowledge, we set ourselves up as the Supreme Judge of what is right and what is wrong. Mostly, we find ourselves in the right and others in the wrong. No longer is everything good.

Thus was division, dis-unity, born. From division came wars, oppression, and even a divinity who takes sides as we pray for enemies to be slaughtered and for ourselves to be given the means to slaughter them. We have made for ourselves a god who has our same  biases.

In the Beatitudes, however, Jesus teaches us how we can transcend a variety of negatives and use them as keys to the kingdom of God. The poor will be given the kingdom . . . the meek will inherit the earth . . . the merciful (forgiving) will receive mercy.

Can evil be transformed into good? Hardly. Can we escape evil? Not while on this planet.

Instead, by allowing God to nurture his presence in us, we are enabled to find greater intimacy with God, even in the presence of evil. Accepting God’s grace which is his life in us, all things – even evils – can truly work together unto good.

What might have been a fatal error, in Christ has become a happy fault.

And God Rested

The ancients who wrote what we call Scripture perhaps didn’t fully realize the profound truths they were inspired to pass on to us — nor do we! God’s “resting” was not to say that he was “finished,” that his work was done. A human artist may recognize when his opus is finally completed. He  breathes a sigh of relief, walks away from his easel to clean his brushes, and frames his painting. Hopefully, he’ll be able to sell it.

God’s work in his universe, and in each of us, is never finished. Scientists are never finished with their exploration of the universe, and the more they learn the more they discover what is yet to be learned. Scientists are continually searching to understand the present by examining the past. Revolutionary concepts, such as those offered by Copernicus and Galileo, are constantly being overturned and humbly accepted.

In caring for our spiritual life, a most useful exercise is to pause now and then to review this life of ours to see how it has changed (hopefully for the better) since its beginning.

Already I’m at a loss with this question: what is or was my beginning? The writer of Psalm 139 is astonished at his own being, recognizing that God knew how his little self would turn out long before anyone else knew of his existence  — or even cared.

You formed my inmost being;
you knit me in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, because I am wonderfully made;
wonderful are your works!
My very self you know.
My bones are not hidden from you,
When I was being made in secret,
fashioned in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw me unformed.

My beginning was in my mother’s womb, as her beginning was in her mother’s womb, as her beginning was in her mother’s womb, as her beginning was in her mother’s womb, as her beginning  . . . etc., etc., etc.

This discovery suggests that my being, my essence, began much earlier than I thought.

Where would I be if it were not for the chain of that first creative copulation thousands of years ago? That chain has brought me to this very moment where I’ve been enabled to be aware of it. The traits I have  — physical, intellectual, emotional (and moral?) — didn’t come merely from the two humans through whom I’ve been generated into this short hour of life.

Because life has come from a living chain of other lives, it’s important to look into our own being, looking back at least as far as the few years of our short life, to examine where we’ve been and how we got to what we are now. And if this is beneficial at the materially human level, how much more enlightening would it be to trace the evolution of our spirituality. When we dare to examine our origin and history, our relationship to God and the people in our life, so much of our past is clarified, understood, appreciated, and even forgiven — as long as we approach this special study with the desire and courage to clarify, understand, appreciate and forgive all that has preceded this moment.

God may have rested, but he did not stop altogether. Out of a superabundance of LOVE, God continues to create. Nor can we stop or let go of that creative hand that is leading us carefully toward the end he wishes for us. Our destiny is to co-operate with God, work with him on this project of creating ourselves. Having been made in his image, we have been given all we need. All we need to do now is to accept His invitation to the Feast prepared for us from the beginning.