I have considered often the handicap of words in deepening our relationship. Yet I continue with great joy and anticipation to write these letters to You. I consider my knowledge of the form and my persistence in doing this as a great gift from a seminary friend years ago. It is a cornerstone of my spirituality, but one of which I have never really taken stock.Why do I write these letters?
First of all, there is an act of faith involved in them. I am truly convinced that often, through these letters, You speak to me. Many times this does not take place and, in those instances, it is true that I am writing to myself. The honest answer to: How do I know the difference? is – I don’t!But there are times when I firmly believe that the words I put down are not mine. Amidst all the vanity I may harbor about expressing myself well to You, You are, at times, able to overcome me and overtake me. I believe this, and it is this which brings me great joy and anticipation in writing to You.
Another essential at the heart of these letters is the intimate aura they cast upon my personal relationship with You.Whether it’s an item of self-examination, venting my feelings, or sharing my thoughts, it’s a vehicle which, for me, works well between friends in love with each other. There is probably some residual impetus to these kinds of feelings from the fact that the love-relationship with my wife began with letters.
In addition to all of this, I have always been able to express myself better and more comfortably in writing than in speaking. One might consider it a form of meditation. The writing itself helps me to focus and dwell on my thoughts, and to present them to You. Pride in how this form of prayer has evolved for me makes me want to share what I’ve written with others. In this regard, making my spirituality an ego-trip is a danger. It is true that I believe many times that it is You whispering in these letters. There are, among the hundreds I’ve written, some that are revelatory and potentially helpful to others. Ideally I could share them anonymously. But, the other side of the coin is that they are, first of all, letters for You – they are Yours. And I am not clear as to whether You would have me share them or, indeed, if I did so, they would have any meaning to another person. But, ultimately, I believe as Fr. Henri Nouwen does, that "...what is most personal is also the most universal."
Fr. Andrew Greeley quotes a woman: “If you’ve ever held in your arms a child you’ve just given life to and been filled with love for that wondrous little being, you know that’s how God feels about us.”I like this. It gives image. But caution should be exercised with things like this. Our first impression is that it helps us, but the moment we teach a child the name of a bird, he stops seeing the bird. The words and ideas we use to describe God can also be an obstacle to seeing God. It is the fact that we just don’t know what drives us to seek ever new ways of knowing and describing which, in turn, may further veil the truth. We create God for ourselves with the stories, images, and descriptions and, indeed, with the human vocabulary of faith in which we’re immersed.
I like the image described in the above quote because it gives emotional color and warmth to the notion of being the children of a loving father. Yet it, nonetheless, binds and limits the reality we seek. It is very human to respond to such imagery; and human is what God made us. So I’m sure that God expects (even desires) these kinds of responses despite their distance from reality. It is the only way finite beings can deal with the infinite. We use what we know to describe what we do not know. From where God sits, it’s much easier to understand than from where we sit.
A pet only knows and understands the nature of its human master to the extentits own animal nature allows; that is sufficient for it. It does not understand what goes beyond that.
The “our” in the “Our Father” is a very important word. When, among themselves, my own children talk about me, or whenever a group of siblings talks about “dad” with their counterparts, they do not say “my dad,” but “our dad.” No matter what child I may favor or what child may favor me, none can say “my dad,” in a way that realistically excludes the others.It’s the same with You. No matter how much my pride and conceit tell me I’m special to You, no matter how much time, love, service, etc. I give in Your name, You’re still not just “my Father” or “my God” – You are “our Father” and “our God.”Within the little worlds we create for ourselves this is often a hard thing to realize.
These letters themselves, which are so dear to me, are meant to help me establish a more personal relationship with You. In this attempt I am strongly drawn to an exclusivity that says “my Father” or “my Brother” and leaves out the “our.”What I must realize is that others struggle with this daily as I do but, possibly without giving words to it.
There is no way around the fact that as mankind we are all in this together. I am but a small and sometimes rebellious cell in the larger body of humanity. I can contribute to the health of that body or I can be a cancer to it. I do well to remember that I am a part of “our” but not all of it. My personal relationship with You is invariably intertwined with all those whose lives are invariably intertwined with mine.
You see and understand my direction and intent as no one else does. This is the uniqueness and individuality of my “cell.” But You also see how it fits and doesn’t fit into the entire body – and this is something I may not comprehend. The unimaginable meshing in the “big picture” of myriad lives, events and circumstances is the essence of the “our-ness” of our being. But the grasping of this by self-centered fallen man is not comprehensible. “I,” “me,” “my,” and “mine” are easily comprehended and may be the most common words of our thought and speech – much easier than “our.” Others too seek a personal relationship with You. We are all doing this within a context of which the common ground is “our.”
I am, unfortunately, less passionate in living the spiritual life than in reading about it. The great spiritual writers and mystics have so much to offer. They are rich channels of Your graces. I never weary of reading about their spiritual journeys. I cannot deny that there is a residual effect of all this reading. One cannot simply be an objective student of these writings without being touched by them.But, of course, one of the most discouraging residuals is the realization of the wide gap between me and them. In lectio divina the process is more one of gradual absorption and assimilation to one’s own unique life rather than adopting the life of another.The absorption and assimilation is a painfully slow process and demands much patience with oneself. It is the lack of patience with myself that dampens my spirit.
What I fail to realize is that the very individuals whose words I am reading underwent the same type of patience-demanding absorption and assimilation. In reading them one gets the false notion that they were always at the spiritual level they are writing about. Of course that is not true. Nor may it be an accurate expression of where they ended up spiritually; for it is a continual process of growth – a spiritual evolution.
In all the years of my writing to You there have been gradual changes and slow growth based, largely, on the spiritual writings of others. Despite whatever lack of passion I may have for living the spiritual life, I cannot help but absorb and assimilate the wisdom of others. It is important to me to remain open to Your voice through them and to, at least, nurture the desire to live the spiritual life. Spiritual reading is like a map or a series of traffic signs. It gives me direction. It also provides a medium for Your whisper. If, internally, I stamp my feet and say I want union with You right now, it’s because of the patience I lack for being formed by You. The important part of all this right now is the regular slow absorption and assimilation involved in spiritual reading.
I’ve just started reading a new book. There’s a special pleasure and anticipation in starting a new book. In one sense it’s like an adventure with treasure to be found. In another sense it provides a different vehicle through which, in some new way, You may speak to me. The book I started today is about the mystic, Meister Eckhart, and I’m experiencing all the early anticipations of getting into it.
This cycle of reading repeats itself over and over again. It has been firmly established as a “groove” in my spiritual life. It is profitable and I do not tire of it. I would have to say that the greatest spiritual insights of my life have all come through books, but there may be a down side to all this. It may be, in another way, that the emphasis I place on this seeming wellspring of growth is a hindrance. Is the ultimate fertilizer for growth the vicarious experience offered by reading about the spirituality of others? Maybe it’s possible to get stuck on this level – so stuck as to become unaware of other ways. Maybe the next spiritual level is finding You in nature rather than in books. Maybe continual recourse to the printed page hinders this. I have a strong suspicion that the communion I seek in reading might, with practice, be found better in a beautiful day, the laughter of a child, or the pained countenance of loss. I suspect that there are a lot of places in our daily lives apart from prayers, devotions and spiritual readingswhere we could find You just as well, if not better. But this is not so if one doesn’t bother to look - if one seeks only in books.
It is apparent to me that the spiritual “grooves” with which I am so comfortable and of which I do not tire can, in fact, become elements of restraint when it comes to being totally open to all the ways with which You may choose to connect with me. This is not so much a caution to abandon ways I’ve already established as it is a nudge to explore other possibilities as well.I may be currently unaware of many of the levels on which such encounters may ensue, but, if I remain open to their possibility, You will reveal them to me in Your time.
I am at the beginning of an awakening to Your presence in the tides of nature. It is a process of simplification that does not come easily. I am not accustomed to look at a sunset or witness the compassion of one person for another and have everything from Pseudo-Dionysius to Anthony DeMello jump out at me. Yet it is in reading the “book” of life where all this comes together if it is sought.
We wait for union with You. Life on earth is this waiting. Yet, it is not just waiting to die so that we can be spiritually one with God, but also a waiting within this existence for snatches and foretastes of that union. I have used the term “waiting” before as descriptive of life, yet its connotation seems too passive to be precise. Rather than just a period of waiting, a better way of putting it may be that life is a time during which we do what we can to “dispose” ourselves toward this loving union. In disposing ourselves, we find what we do while we wait.
How we go about disposing ourselves is based on how we learn. How we learn is based on others and on what we study. Most of the time what we get from others and from what we study is based on words. Yet it has been said that he who has found no more words has found God.
There is a certain paradox in how intently we hang upon the spoken and written words of others in our spiritual life and how in contemplation we seek a total detachment from everything (including words). We create a void in hopes of You filling it. If we look closely at this we’ll see that, indeed, the background necessary for being able to reach this point is heavily underpinned with words even though when they are all jettisoned we more easily find You. In contemplation we rest better in Your presence the more we are able to stave off words. The more we disconnect from all to which words glue us, the better we dispose ourselves to You. It is Your gift that You move our spirits to attempt this and, hence, a most fundamentally recognizable drive to be followed by disposing ourselves to it as we wait.
We are called upon by You to live our lives in such a way that they bear witness to Your influence and Your importance upon our lives. The daily gospelreadings for the time after Christmas deal with bearing witness to You. The words and actions of our lives should be vehicles of our testimony to You. In the words of St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach always. When necessary, use words.”
Ideally the life we live should be a more eloquent witness than the words we use - but the words fill in the cracks of our failures. Nonetheless, I think it is universally accepted that the cheapness of talk is redeemed by the eloquence of action, and, the most powerful sermons of our experience are those delivered without words.The life of a monk, for example, is nearly silent yet preaches eloquently to those who “listen” closely. This is what St. Francis meant. But where our lives fall short of this it may be necessary to use words.
Sometimes (as with these letters) the words are a means of preaching to myself in order to get past the words and on to the inner life that speaks without them. There is a most powerful manifestation of wordless preaching in the respect, care, love, and even submission given to those with whom we have a difficult time getting along, or even with blatant enemies. To be patient and concerned with those who are impatient with us is much harder than ignoring them or hurling words of “fraternal correction” at them. Certainly Your life preaches this.To have our lives do the wordless preaching of the sermon of our existence is the narrow way, the needle’s eye, the path less trod – but it certainly is eloquent!
It is astounding, when you think about it, how much a person’s spirituality is based on words.I love to read the words of others who tread the same path. What they have written, and what I have written – this is what has formed me – words! Your words in scripture and all the words preached and written in commentary thereof have formed me. Without some form of communicative language it might be said that the spirituality of anyone could not be formed – so important are the right words.
Yet, I somehow feel that, in matters spiritual, words are meant to get us to a point that is wordless. I believe there is this seed deep in all of us. At some point in our lives that seed, if nurtured, takes root and begins to reveal an interiority which words cannot express. We are human but we seek to be divine. We must love as humans. Yet, all along there is the feeling that what is human is not enough – even though that’s all we can ever hope to have in this life. You were human and You knew that with which we struggle. To love as You loved is within the realm of humanity but goes beyond mere words. While You taught us many things in words, it was the wordless example of Your life that was the ground of all You said. You lived, loved and spoke as a human to show us that to do this is our connection to the divine. I, now, at this present moment, in this place (even as I sit here writing this to You) am my connection to the divine. I cannot help framing these thoughts in words.
Your greatest saints and mystics could not avoid words. The seed took phenomenal root in the interior life of John of the Cross and he knew the poverty and futility of words. Nonetheless it was as a human, a great connection to the divine, that this man of quintessential interior silence could not avoid pouring forth poetry to describe his experience. The paradox with words is that they are at once both liberating and incarcerating.
In forms of contemplative prayer the great attraction is the elimination of words and the seeking of total interior emptiness that is not able to be expressed descriptively. Words fail!
The prayer of contemplation cannot be pinned down. There are scores of legitimate interpretations and none of them are wrong. This underlines the factor of individuality in contemplative prayer. One’s own “method” may be recognized in bits and pieces of what others have said on the subject.
DeMello’s idea of contemplation is communication with God without the use of thoughts, words, or images. The “school” of centering prayer championed by Fathers Keating and Pennington would subscribe to DeMello’s idea of no words, thoughts, or images and apply it to a period of resting in openness to God which brings a certain union. Merton says contemplation goes beyond concepts to the Reality within and that it is the highest form of self-realization attained by self-annihilation. Saint Theresa says it is a close sharing between friends, and Evelyn Underhill speaks of “an act of union.” In all cases there seems to be some agreement that words either spoken or formed in the mind get in the way.
It’s not easy to get rid of words. We frame our very thoughts in words. A fast-streaming river of words flows through all our communications with others as well as our communications with ourselves and with You. We are more apt to think of words as extremely useful tools without which knowledge, understanding and interaction would cease. Yet, it may be the very fact that we are so attached to the knowledge and communication of this world as imparted by words that throws up a huge barrier to that “transcendent sense” stirring in the recesses of our being. The quagmire of words in which this sense is buried is not healthy for it. Words stifle it. Words have but the faintest relation to transcendental things.
The mind, as Underhill says, must employ certain devices if transcendental perceptions areever to begrasped by the surface consciousness. The symbols may sometimes present themselves as “visions” or “voices.” Also apropos are spontaneous inspirations and a kind of harmony and rhythm analogous to an improvised creation of music. What also pops into mind is the analogy of our relationship with You as a dance.
Even at the farthest reaches and greatest depths of our conceptual ability we failmiserably because of the distance at which our own humanity (words and all) places us. But WE SEEK, and this is theheart of contemplative prayer to me: “Seek me and you will live,” says the Lord. (Amos 5:4).
You Yourself are the goal, the comfort and the consolation that contemplation seeks. Just as it was for Mary at Your feet – there is nothing else! What was it she sought there? What indeed does contemplation hope for? To gaze at You in love.To recognize and feel the love emanating from You. To be absorbed in it. To focus on it and allow it to disintegrate everything else. If there is a truly pure contemplative act it is this. It seems to be the most supreme act of which our mortality is capable. In it comes the closest touch of heavenly union on earth. Yet it is impossible to remove Martha!Even for Mary it is impossible. Martha’s part is good, but Mary’s is better. Outside of the eremitic life it seems impossible to live Mary and not Martha. Even then it may be impossible. For the “business” of life cannot be separated from our tainted natures. Being patient and at peace then, and persevering in the inner life, may just be understanding and accepting and, indeed, lovingly embracing both Mary and Martha.