Both Arms Raised

I’m just at the beginning of getting over pneumonia. I feel like I’m walking through a heavy fog, uncertain of every step. During these many days – maybe weeks –when I’ve been unable to attend Mass, I try not only to regain physical strength, but also to recapture my relationship with God.

The readings from this past Sunday were very apt. But of course. We’re always given the food and medicine we need through Scripture, events, or the many “coincidences” that flood our God’s communication with us.

Sunday’s Gospel teaching is on the necessity of persistence in prayer, as Jesus tells of the stubborn widow who pesters the judge until he gives in and helps her, not because he wants to render justice to the woman, but because he fears for his own safety.

“Pay attention to what the dishonest judge says,” says Jesus. “Will not God then secure the rights of his chosen ones?”

What makes persistence so difficult for us is that it seems as if God has disappeared from view, that He is no longer near. It is only through grace that we can be convinced that he has not gone anywhere, but remains not only near, but within our fragile vessel. The persistent effort to see Him is what strengthens our reliance on Him.

This week, however, the reading from Exodus is even more relevant for me.

Amalek has come to wage war against Israel. Moses tells his general, Joshua, to engage in battle while he, Moses, climbs the mountain overlooking the battle. Moses keeps his hands raised to heaven in prayer and while he does so, the Israelites prevail. But Moses, after all, is merely human. His arms tire and fall to his side, leaving the Israelites to flounder in battle.

Moses’ brother Aaron and his friend Hur come to the rescue. They position themselves on either side of Moses, supporting his raised arms so that they can remain steady until sunset and the successful end of the battle .

moses-and-help

While I may not be waging a death-defying war against the nation’s enemies, I have been waging a personal battle: challenges to my faith; concern about an illness that has so suddenly (even if temporarily) replaced good health; insecurity over the future – all those worries that muscle their way into challenging our faithfulness and spiritual persistence.

But God has given me the equivalent of Aaron and Hur. Family on the one side, friends on the other, these keep my arms lifted up to the source of strength. The fact that I’m able to even write this today (flawed, no doubt) is proof of the strength given to me, flowing directly from God through the supporting love of family and friends, restoring my physical strength but also, mostly, keeping both arms raised high in hope and faith.

Lectio Divina: Holy Reading

What is there about reading Scripture that is so scary for some of us?

One reason, I suspect is because reading Scripture is like reading a foreign language whose vocabulary is unlike the words we use every day.

My first exposure to the Benedictine practice of Lectio Divina (Holy Reading) felt like this: foreign and perhaps somewhat regimented. What I was looking for was a way of approaching Scripture that would draw me to a greater intimacy with God in deeper love, understanding and trust.

Traditionally, Lectio consists of four steps: Reading, Pondering, Praying and Contemplation. Depending on the teacher, the number of steps may vary. Some of us (such as the author of this piece!) cringe at the merest suggestion of regimentation where prayer is concerned. However, like learning to play a musical instrument or to master a sport, a certain strictness or method is necessary at the beginning until a degree of comfort or mastery is achieved.

For an example of how to go about this fruitful kind of prayer, let’s study the first part of Psalm 84. I will refer to the writer of the Psalm as a poet, since indeed poetic language is used.

(1) Read (Lectio). We begin by simply reading the verses for their basic meaning.

How lovely your dwelling, O LORD of hosts!

My soul yearns and pines for the courts of the LORD.
My heart and flesh cry out for the living God.

As the sparrow finds a home and the swallow a nest to settle her young,
My home is by your altars, LORD of hosts, my king and my God!

Blessed are those who dwell in your house! 
They never cease to praise you.

Clearly, the poet is attracted by the beauty of God’s dwelling, and longs to be a part of it.

(2) Ponder (Meditatio).
To enter deeply and prayerfully into this text, we touch and savor each word and even pay attention to what is not said. Strong feelings are expressed in passionate words:  My soul yearns and pines.

Yet even these expressions are too tame for the depth of the poet’s emotions, so his language escalates: My heart and flesh cry out!

As we continue this thoughtful reading, we realize that the poet is not giving us a graphic picture or architectural rendering of the Lord’s house, but is giving us a passionate understanding of the Lord’s own home. The poet accomplishes this by omitting any mention regarding the physical aspects of the place: carved pillars, the luxuriant use of marble, gold,  precious stones and fabrics. Excluding outward descriptions creates a stronger impression that what draws us is not a material building, but God Himself as a place of refuge and love.

(3) Pray (Oratio). We ask God to reveal Himself to us.
How often in our prayer we are led beyond words to an almost desperate feeling of longing! We can’t think of words to say, our feeling is so overpowering. What we sense is an absence, a void that only God can fill, for it is in this emptiness that our prayer is intensified.

(4) Contemplation (Contemplatio). We bask in the insights God has granted us in this Scripture.
The poet’s intention is to describe God’s welcoming and tender nature. He is home to the humble, not a palace limited to the great or mighty who parade inside, laden with costly gifts. No, the poet uses the small and the vulnerable (the sparrow and the swallow with her young) to describe the kind of souls God desires to welcome. God invites us to live in the very shadow of his altars where holy offerings are made daily.

We are there to stay. We are permanent residents in this splendidly humble home of the Lord. Unimportant as we may wrongly think of ourselves, we are blessed and welcomed into the holy presence of God. We are safe, protected, loved, and never cease to thank and praise him for his great love.

Our final graced realization is that this beautiful dwelling where God abides is none other than our very soul, the temple of the Lord.

wild-rose
Photo courtesy of Joyce Medovich

 

Seven Blessings

In the Spirit of St. Francis of Assisi

Blessed are you, brother clouds,
Who cover our modest sister sky —-

clouds

Blessed are you, wind,
Who gently carries leaf and snow to visit me far away —-

Blessed are you, sweet creatures of air and earth,
Who people our lonely places —-

Saint-Francis-preaching-to-the-animals-Hans-StubenrauchTwice blessed are you, furry creatures,

Who companion us in our solitude —-

Blessed are you animate creatures
Who sacrifice your life to feed our hunger:
You are our little Christs who nurture us,
Bringing us strength and life —-

Blessed are you grasses and fruits,
Whose colors entice us, whose sweetness gladdens us —-
grass and fruit

Blessed are you, water and wine, slaking our thirst,

Transforming us for the wedding
of our Soul with Love.

Spiritual union

Thérèse and Her Little Way

“Holiness does not consist in this or that practice;
it consists in a disposition of the heart, which makes us always little in the arms of God, but boldly confident in the Father’s goodness.”           Thérèse , 1897

Born into a family utterly devoted to God and Christian holiness, Thérèse Martin was early shown her destiny. Walking one evening with her father, she looked up at the sky where she saw stars in a T-formation. “Look, Papa! My name is written in heaven!”

Her short life of 24 years was one continuously in communion with God. She realized that she could never aspire to a “great” vocation, such as being a priest or a missionary, so she contented herself with what was available to her. She was gifted with a total commitment to divine love that led her to seek constantly little ways of showing God how much she loved Him, and by total abandonment to God’s loving will. She chose to live this life of commitment in the Carmelite monastery in the town of Lisieux, France.

Here she taught herself to accept with joy the many little opportunities to show her love. Here are a few that have always struck me for their unimportance.

During quiet prayer in community, one of the nuns would rattle her rosary beads. At first, Thérèse found this annoying and distracting, but she applied herself to not only accepting this nuisance but even anticipating it with joy. And again, while doing laundry it was not unusual to feel a splash of soapy water on her face. She would refrain from wiping it off!

10-laundry-1894
The Saint, second from left, 1894

These were the kinds of sacrifices that had the added benefit of being totally unnoticed. There was no way that anyone would realize she was doing anything that could be called good, much less holy.. So hidden were her practices of self-denial that one of the sisters remarked, as Thérèse lay dying, “What ever will we say about Sister Thérèse in her obituary? She hasn’t done anything!”

In this way, Thérèse  was able to maintain a humility that was her  “little” way of spiritual childhood as Christ taught: Unless you become like a little child, you cannot enter the kingdom of God. Pope Saint John Paul validated  Thérèse’s little way to holiness by naming her a Doctor of the Church in 1997. Thérèse’s  Memorial Mass is celebrated October 1.

I will spend my heaven doing good on earth. I will let fall a shower of roses.

rose-1

Audio: Chansons des Roses. Words by Rainer Maria Rilke;
Music by Morten Lauridsen

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

 

Taste and See: A Look at Grace.

 As a child, little did I realize how some of my concepts regarding spiritual truths were actually right on target. Grace: what was it? Well, since we prayed, “Pour forth, O Lord, thy grace into our hearts,” I concluded that Grace had the properties of a liquid. But this wouldn’t be just plain old water. It would be sweet to the taste and have some density to make it really important. My conclusion: Grace was something like maple syrup or chocolate fudge. This would ensure that it would be sought after ahot fudge sundaend welcomed by all!

This interpretation was cemented by phrases later learned from the Bible: Taste and see that the Lord is good! (Psalm 34:8) Or,   Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones. (Proverbs 16:24 ); and no fewer than 34 biblical references about the chosen people being led into a land flowing with milk and honey. After all, delicious food is what a caring parent provides.

But as we grew into the upper grades, we learned of totally new characteristics. Grace was sanctifying, actual.  or habitual. Furthermore, we earned it by doing good deeds (even though “Grace” means freely given.) What happened to the sweetness? Couldn’t we have graduated to a concept of Grace that, while in a more adult format, might retain its strong allure?

Finally, after reading probably hundreds of pages on the topic, written by theologians, saints and even by your average laity, and aided by graced prayer and meditation, the meaning of Grace started to emerge slightly from the fog of my childish understanding, even though a great deal of mystery remains.

For example, Thérèse of Lisieux exclaimed, “Everything is a grace!” If, then, it is so widely and indiscriminately dispersed, why is it considered so special? If everyone (even those people who spend most of their lives engaged in crime and living in prisons), if ALL of THEM have total access to grace, why should WE have to work work so hard to get it? Why should we spend our days toiling to follow all the commandments and rules of the Church? Why give up Sunday picnics to go to Mass? Why struggle to get our teenagers to go to Holy Week services?

These questions are at the crux of the parable about the prodigal son. Why did that wastrel younger son get the royal treatment, while the faithful and hardworking son hardly ever got a pat on the back, much less rings, robes and feasts? Why bother, for heaven’s sake?

Let’s look closely at these two brothers. The elder brother, toiling away, was apparently never concerned about his missing brother, whereas every day their father kept watch for the returning figure. The elder brother took no joy in his brother’s return to sanity. There was no forgiveness in his heart. (I personally think he was sorry to see the brother come back, because now the father’s wealth would have to be shared.) In his arrogance and self-righteousness, he felt he had earned rewards while his brother ought to have been punished and rejected.

But God prefers to be seen as generous, merciful and forgiving. The greater the sin forgiven, the greater His opportunity for love, both given and received.

That’s Grace. And it’s sweeter than honey.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.