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.


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.


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.


Ash Wednesday

Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.
         T. S. Eliot, “Ash Wednesday”

A few weeks ago the Mass readings were taken from Genesis. It told the familiar creation story, ending with what was to have been the crown of creation: Adam and Eve. Then came the problems: disobedience, expulsion from paradise, and punishment. Husband, wife and heirs would have their labors increased and intensified.

Imagine my chagrin to read this new translation in my missal:

          You are dirt, and to dirt you shall return.

Given the context of “dirt” for modern American-English speakers, I was quite put off by a translation which comes across as a profound insult. For this “dirt,” our human flesh, is after all the same material that Jesus Christ took upon himself to become one with us. Without his humanity we would not be able to join in his sacred divinity. We could not become children of his heavenly Father. The Spirit could never find traction in us.

When we begin our Lent this week, reminded of our mortality by ashes in the form of a cross on our forehead, we will be called to a sincere conversion of life and the certain mercy of God, now possible because of Christ coming to us in full humanity.

Rend your hearts, not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is  gracious and merciful, slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment.      (Joel 2:12-13)

Many of us still think of Lent as a time of giving up “stuff” such as chocolate or other treats. What God asks us to give up is the hard heart that separates us from the will of God, from the love of Christ, and from love for one another.

I pray for the strength to give up the sharp response. I pray to give up the desire to have all the answers. I pray that Christ will see me as one of many Christians who truly follow him in the pursuit of goodness and peace.

You do not ask for sacrifice and offerings, but an open ear.
You do not ask for holocaust and victim.

Instead, here am I!                (Psalm 40:7-8a)
                                        +          +          +

Teach us to care: teach us to seek first and with all our hearts the Kingdom of Heaven.

. . .and not to care: Teach us to know that our efforts, with God’s grace, will never descend into anxiety, much less despair.

Teach us to sit still: teach us to trust in our caring Father.

Each Lenten season offers a chance like none other in our lifetime. St. Paul urges us to seize this opportunity now, to accept God’s mercy now and to pass it on to others.

Behold, now is a very acceptable time; now is the day of salvation!     (2 Corinthians 6:2)



I Wish . . .

The words of this title might be the most deceptively dangerous phrase in our vocabulary. We’ve been taught since childhood to place our hopes and desires in the stars:

blue-fairyWhen you wish upon a star . . .

Or –

 Star light, star bright,
First star I see tonight,
I wish I may, I wish I might,
Have the wish I wish tonight.

Surely these seemingly innocent rhymes are holdovers from pagan days of superstition when our fate was believed to be determined by the stars – probably because of their great distance and inscrutability. On the other hand, Shakespeare put words of practical wisdom in the mouth of the ambitious and rational Cassius:

 The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings. (Julius Caesar, Act 1)

In other words, don’t just stand there and let things happen, Brutus. Take control of yourself and your destiny!

The actual truth lies somewhere in between wistful fantasies and the rugged individual’s belief in his own abilities.

I frankly confess that I read the daily astrology column. It’s on the same page as the comics, which is an indication of how seriously I take it. But there really are some sage comments in that column and anyway, I forget them about two seconds after I’ve read them.

But come now, why so strong and unfriendly a condemnation of a harmless habit from childhood? Please explain.

As adults, our “stars” come in different flavors. Our longing might be a return to the past when life was (or seemed) carefree. When we were younger, stronger and more active. When we were better looking.

Then there’s the star of the future. Mr. Micawber in Dickens’ David Copperfield is an example of this as he repeats from debtors’ prison his favorite mantra: “Something will turn up!” He relies on the assumption that he’ll somehow be discovered and will never again have to worry about supporting his family. This is not uncommon among the chronologically or emotionally immature. We long to tell these folks: Get up! Go to work at anything! God helps those who help themselves!

A different kind of daydream regards our perception of other people. We envy in them what seems to be their perfect life. They take vacations to exotic places; their property is manicured; their kids are well dressed. Little do we know about their real life circumstances which might be considerably more difficult than ours.

Some of our favorite – and useless – wishes include the following: I wish s/he would love me, love me more, or love me better. I wish I had a more attractive body: slimmer, or not so thin; healthier, not so sickly. I wish I had a better job where the people are great to work with, where I had a decent salary. I wish I had more leisure; I wish I had something to fill my long, empty hours.

Such dreams have no basis in reality. The words “I wish” confirm us in our attachment to what we don’t have and what we’re not likely to have. Maybe we don’t say these words to ourselves, much less aloud, but such fantasies are often the very underpinning of our fragile human existence. This attitude can become so ingrained that we don’t even stop to examine it. We just know we don’t like what’s happening now and deserve better – whatever that may be.

What would life be like if we scrubbed these futile wishes?

Possibly, it would range from difficult to unbearable, because wishes masquerade as hope. But hope is not the same as wishes.

Wishes encourage us to wallow in unreality, that is, the past which is irretrievable, or the future which is unpredictable.

Wishing produces restlessness. Hope produces security.

Hope, for the Christian, is firmly set on the belief that whatever occurs in our life — and whenever it occurs –fits the divine plan for what we are now and what we are to become. St. Paul tells us: For in hope we were saved. Now hope that sees for itself is not hope. For who hopes for what one sees? . . . We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:24, 28)

God made us to live in the PRESENT, because that’s where God is. God’s self-definition is I AM: that is, God is present in time and present in space. God is always here in the now. That’s where we need to focus, doing what is in front of us in a peace-filled, trusting surrender to God’s plan.

Seek first the kingdom of God . . . and all these things will be given you besides.
Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself.
(Matthew 6:33-34a)

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!