Social Distancing

I find it fascinating how a potential disaster causes the birth of new experiences, new vocabulary, new phrases. Sheltering in place is one I mentioned in my last post about saint Rosalia, in her lifetime a hermit, and whose prayers are credited with saving the city of Palermo from the plague.

Social distancing is another new phrase we now hear frequently, one that is self-contradictory because the very heart of being social or sociable is being close to one another, not distant.

These quiet days I sit by  my front window, watching parades of folks walking their dogs, and youngsters riding their bikes in company with a parent or two. Nor can I resist taking advantage of the warm weather. Closing in on a fellow walker, we laugh as we pass each other and ask, “Do you think there’s six feet between us?”

These are good days for becoming aware and thankful for what really matters. Youngsters are continuing their studies at home, maybe even speaking now and then with their parents. Getting a hamburger via McDonald’s drive-through is a major outing. Maybe families actually play games together. Friends exchange texts, checking up on one another and performing simple but appreciated acts of service for us older folks. What might be considered a limitation is transformed into an opportunity for new discoveries, even new relationships formed as we enter quietly into our room, closing the door and communing with our inner self or maybe even with God.

Mystics (i.e. people of constant prayer) such as Saints Augustine and Angela of Foligno (13th C.), typically describe feeling the pain of separation from the One they most love. But then they are given to hear Christ’s consoling words in their heart: St. Augustine discovered that God within him was “more intimate to me than I am to myself.” A thousand years later, Franciscan Saint Angela of Foligno records Christ’s message to her:  “I am deeper within your soul than your soul is to itself. I have not kept myself at a distance.”

God’s fidelity and indwelling are constant themes throughout Scripture. Here are just a few of my favorite and most consoling passages:

  • Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him. (John 14:23) 
  • Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you? (2 Corinthians 13:5)
  • What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword? . . . I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers,nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:35;38-39)
  • Behold, I am with you always, even until the end of the age.  (Matthew 28:20)

I suppose one could say that while social or physical distancing is necessary to prevent ill health through contagion, spiritual closeness is essential for our soul’s health. To be spiritually one with one another is to be one with God. To be one with God is to be one with others.

Good health!

 

Where Is God?

Finding a seamless prayer life

As a child in parochial school, I remember being taught basic truths in the Baltimore catechism. Question: “Where is God?” Answer: “God is everywhere.”

Of course, the class smart alecs (mostly the boys) pursued the subject with questions like, Is he inside my desk? In my pocket? On the bookshelf? Et cetera, et cetera.

As with St. Paul, when I was a child I thought as a child, but now as an adult, I ponder the everywhere-ness of God.

When we celebrated Trinity Sunday this year, our homilist offered up the phrase, “In him (God) we live and move and have our being.” So is God in us, or are we in God? And how is this possible?

The difficulty is that our words are so inadequate, so earth-bound: in, everywhere —  words that have to do with location, our physical place in the universe. We exist, we are here. Presence has to do with both time and space: now and here. Since we humans are limited by both time and space, we can’t grasp how we can be in the infinite, eternal and ubiquitous God. What is more, we are taught to pray always.

It’s concerning when someone in spiritual direction tells me how difficult it is to find time for prayer. My first thought is, how wonderful that these folks want to pray, that they feel the need to pray, that they recognize the importance of connecting with this Person we know as God!

I certainly empathize with them. I used to envy monastics who were assured of a regular prayer life, being called to prayer several times during the day for recitation of the Divine Office. My schedule, on the other hand, was always so helter-skelter, so often interrupted by some household emergency or by the need for personal intervention somewhere. It therefore seemed to me that if a person really wanted to be holy, as the Gospel and Vatican II teach, one would have to live in a religious community.

Yes, I truly sympathize with those who experience this spiritual conflict and anxiety. Yet we know that it is prayer that connects us to God, prayer that joins us to the Infinite who is everywhere.

Fortunately, a wise spiritual director guided me to the solution. Not that I was able to arrive there in a single leap, but some books he recommended helped, and I share them with you who read this post.

One was Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk. He describes how irritating situations can be transformed into peaceful acceptance. He speaks of mindfulness which for us translates to awareness of being with Christ, in the Spirit. Hanh writes:

To my mind, the idea that doing dishes is unpleasant can occur only when you aren’t doing them. Once you are standing in front of the sink with your sleeves rolled up and your hands in the warm water, it is really quite pleasant. I enjoy taking my time with each dish, being fully aware of the dish, the water, and each movement of my hands. . . Each thought, each action in the sunlight of awareness become sacred. In this light, no boundary exists between the sacred and the profane.

For us Christians, sacred awareness is being mindful of God’s presence in and with us.

The second book titled The Practice of the Presence of God, is a short collection of letters by a little-known seventeenth century Carmelite named Brother Lawrence.

Brother Lawrence lived in a Carmelite monastery as a lay brother who lived alongside the monks to provide various services, some of a very humble nature. Wouldn’t you know, he was assigned to a chore that he particularly disliked: washing dishes! A friend recorded Lawrence’s way of prayer in these words:

In his business in the kitchen (to which he had naturally a great aversion), he accustomed himself to do everything there for the love of God…  With prayer for His grace to do his work well upon all occasions, he found everything easy during the fifteen years that he had been employed there.

Because Lawrence focused on God present in him while he performed this task, the mundane activity of washing dishes was transformed into an affectionate and personal prayer that connected him to God, more than what might have been accomplished in a mechanical recitation of the Psalms. This simple practice guaranteed that Lawrence would remain in a loving union with the Lord. [Click on this link for some quotes from Brother Lawrence]

10-Laundry 1894
Thérèse doing laundry, 2nd from left

The third book on finding God in the present moment is by a 17th century French Jesuit, Jean-Pierre De Caussade. [Click on the link for more information.] Depending on the translator, it’s titled either The Sacrament of the Present Moment or Abandonment to Divine Providence.

This small but powerful book has long been a favorite of spiritual directors. Its message is profoundly simple: “Embrace the present moment as an ever-flowing source of holiness,” he writes. De Caussade teaches that we don’t have to manufacture penances or even difficult prayer practices. Merely set the eyes of your heart to recognizing every event in your life, both challenges and delights, as gifts from God, as ways of seeing him, accepting and thanking him for all.

These simple prayer practices help us to recognize the constant presence of God in our life and world. God is here; God is in us; God is in others; we are all in God and in one another.