The circumstances of my life, the world around me, my own body, these are the inescapable influences upon my intellect.
Our intellect (reason) always precedes our will and our will always seeks the good. That is, it always seeks what the intellect tells it is good. A baby perceives hunger or discomfort in its body, or warmth or love from the world outside and sees it as good. The will moves it to act and seek to acquire the good.
I am writing this during Holy Week and the focus of scripture, as well as our own attention, is Your passion. I am reflecting on the cast of characters surrounding You. I see a cross-section of the world’s responses to You. I see in these people, and, by extension, in myself, the great danger of errant reasoning bringing us to choices wrongly perceived as good. We do not have to look very hard to see bits and pieces of ourselves in Peter, Judas, Pilate, Herod, the Jewish elders, the thieves, Simon of Cyrene, the weeping women, Caiaphas, Joseph of Arimethia, Barabas or Mary. These characters embody a variety of human responses to You. There is much frailty, much wayward reasoning, and great errors of choice rained upon You. But Your response is great love, tolerance, and forgiveness from the ridiculousness of our ways.
In Peter is played out our own hypocrisy, our disability to carry out what we so often say we believe - an exterior heat stoked by an interior luke-warmness. Just as I am, so Peter was not far removed from Judas. Judas accepted You, believed in You right up until the end, but ultimately reasoned that You could not be the One who fit his image of the Messiah. He is the prototype of our own shaping and molding of God into our own image and likeness.
Pilate is no less tragic – a man without the strength of his convictions; one whose ambitions and security in the world outweighed his own conscience; one like us who rationalized his own good and willed it but who had enough doubt to wash his hands and proclaim his lack of guilt. We, as well, have a hard time with blame and yet are so blameworthy.
Herod, so much like us, was only interested in what You could do for him. If You could do Your “tricks” for him, You were of use to him. What You had to say meant nothing; only what You could show him.
The Jewish elders were the stiff-necked, self-righteous purveyors of their own truth. They were threatened by anything that might expand the bounds of their narrow-minded scrutiny. Doesn’t that sound like us?
Scripture says just enough about these individuals, if we are paying attention, to see bits and pieces of ourselves. They become the archetypes of feeble humanity. What makes them so, and what makes us so is the ominous threat of faulty reasoning influenced by the world around us and our own bodies which present bad choices as good. How we know what is truly good can be derived from Your indifference to the influences of the world around You, and from a selflessness that precluded desires for bodily comfort and security.
One’s image of his/her dad may have a strong influence on one’s image of God. In my case, there are some interesting facets to this idea.
I would not describe my dad as an outwardly spiritual or godly man. There were many things about his character that opposed this image. In the lessons of life he left me, there are those with both negative and positive impact. There are things I learned from my dad that I chose not to emulate and things I most surely chose to emulate. As much as possible, I like to brush aside the negative influences and relegate them to forgetfulness. I think, in my dad’s case, the positives far outweigh the negatives for, deep within him was the spirit of a very good person and a loving father at conflict with himself. This man loved fun and loved sharing fun with others. This man had a large and giving heart. This man recognized, many times, that You were pursuing him and he kept coming back to You from places where he’d try to hide. He literally found You and You became a factor in his life right before my eyes. This awakening in his later years, aside from his inherent goodness as a person, only increased my love and admiration for him. In the language of today’s youth, I thought my dad was a “cool dude.” Yet, I’m not really so sure my memories of my dad affect my image of You. I think they more nearly reflect my image of myself.
I too am one who feels the breath of the hound of heaven hot on my trail and keep coming back to You from places where I may hide. I too love my family and want to share in fun things with them. I too am in constant conflict with myself. There are indeed many things in the image of my father that shape me more than my image of You – and I wonder if the same thing is happening in my own children.
If there is even a small amount of truth in the idea that a dad shapes his children’s image of God, then an awesome burden is placed on dad’s shoulders. If my own children’s image of God is based, at least in part, on their image of me then I am really concerned about what they think of You. In this regard I am like my own dad – not particularly godly in the image I project. I wonder if I am even as good a person at heart as my father was.
I have a feeling that the cycle of this child/parent scenario plays itself out repeatedly through each generation and acts more as an obstacle than an aid to the formation of an image of You as our loving Father. That is a most sobering thought. It’s sobering because I’m not so sure my children see the image of God in me, and more sobering still because what they do see in me may work againsttheir image of You.
Those closest to us see well and know our hypocrisies, our lack of humility and our manipulations. These are obstacles for them to see You in dad. How can dad pray so much and spend so much time with God and be so ungodly? It’s a good question. Somewhere in the answer is the reality of humanity, at its best or at its worst, always falling short.
Sometimes what we live for is recognition for what we do or what we suffer. Satisfying the craving for recognition gives us the gratification we think we need. This is perilous to spiritual health. We convince ourselves that what we do or suffer is so praiseworthy and meritorious in Your eyes as to be well worth patting ourselves on the back – even if such praise and merit is not forthcoming from others. We know when we are doing well and suffering silently even when others are so self-consumed as not to recognize it in us. That’s OK, because You can recognize it, and, in my imagination, I get my pat on the back from You and that makes me OK.
It is true that there is a very real human need for some form of affirmation or else You would not have come to us in human form to show us how to live. As St. Paul tells us, and as You show us, while all else fails, love endures - andlove is not self-seeking. The moment we grasp the truth of this is the moment we see that getting recognition, satisfaction and pats on the back are not at all what love is about no matter how much we may choose to think so.The real dilemma, once we realize this, is to avoid the self-satisfaction of having realized it. We give ourselves too much and Your spirit not enough credit for these “insights.” As I write this, I am prone to amazement at my being able to consider this; but it’s not me – it’s You in me.It is here that grace must be credited as the gift from You by which we realize this.
Recognition and satisfaction are like love – we want to receive them, but the truth is, they were only meant to be given. Growth in Your spirit is about the process of replacing our penchant for being loved, being recognized and being satisfied with a penchant for giving love, bestowing recognition, and offering satisfaction. Spiritual matters are paradoxical in the world’s terms, and this is no exception. In order to be loved, recognized and satisfied we must destroy the feeling for this need in ourselves. Once we’ve perfected forgetting it we must concentrate on giving love, recognition and satisfaction to others. When love, recognition and satisfaction come to us we should not be ungrateful, but we should recognize two things: 1) it is You in us for which we are recognized, satisfied, or loved, and 2) it is You in others whom we recognize, satisfy and love.
The good that we admire in what others do or suffer is You, and is therefore worthy of a pat on the back. It is for us to recognize this in others. It is for others to recognize this in us. It is not I who live in You but You who live in me.
It is easier to say than to do, but what we should really live for is the recognition, satisfaction and love by others of You in us while being continually aware that what we do or suffer is You (by the activity of Your grace) acting in us. It is true that our will has the choice of opening or closing this door. Maybe the only thing for which we are worthy of any recognition at all is the willing choice to keep that door open.
The fact that I am a person who would much rather drive the car than be driven says something about both my desire for control and my lack of trust. I use this analogy because I heard it recently in a homily about letting God move into the driver’s seat and take the wheel. The question in my life is: am I willing to do that? The answer, in most cases, is “no.”This “no” pulls my spiritual life up short every time.
If I truly trust, if I truly let go and let You take the wheel then I am able, without hesitation, to commend even those I love most, even the life I’ve established in this world with all its trappings, into Your hands. I want to reach that point, but who I am fights it. If ever I were to get there, truly the rest of the world would think me crazy. For if, without the emotional show and tears the world expects when disaster befalls, I was able to accept Your being in control, my sanity would certainly be questioned.
Letting go is not easy unless we are convinced that by letting go we are placing things in hands more trustworthy than our own. Mary, Your mother, is the model of letting go. We do well to remember her life as the paradigm of trust.
Am I willing to take that risk?Not expecting others to understand is part of it. There are so many complicated side-effects of letting go: the fear of failure is ingrained in us from our earliest school days. It’s remedy is the construction of self-reliance and trust in one’s own ability. Try letting go of years of that! Then there is the desire to be what we believe pleases others. We cannot turn the wheel over to You until we have learned to let go of these fears. And we can’t let go of them as long as we feel their “successful” outcomes are only under our control.
It would be nice to live life with no fear of failure, with no drive to be the fixer of all things and the pleaser of all people – just to be what one is and let the chips fall where they may. Such holy indifference is only holy when we let go and place our failures, our compulsions, and our cares in Your hands and truly resign ourselves to that. It is not so much the lack of such concerns that I extol, but the proper placement of them. The indifference, then, is in regards to the priority of my own instrumentality in bringing about Your kingdom against the instrumentality of God in doing the same. I myself am an instrument for this end and so I must trust that God will use me as such and let Him do it.
There is something in the essence of our being which, for each one of us, can only be comprehended within the framework of our own interiority. Whatever is outside of that, or simply around us, is not needed by it. It is not a secret, but it cannot be told. It is not private, but it is personal. At times we call it “truth,” or “love,” or “reality.”It is this that we must water as the root of all we do.
Meister Eckhart says that it is not so much what we do but the spirit with which we do it that matters. Insofar as something external prompts one to act, one’s acts are dead. That is the key to the detachment we seek. We have begun to touch that interior indescribable reality when it alone, without exterior influence, drives us. This is an extremely lofty level in the spiritual ascent. It is a level of, as a sixth century monk described it, “being free from wanting certain things to happen.”
In my own life, the spirit with which I do almost everything is tainted by desires for certain things to happen – so far am I from this ideal. A lot of reflection on the monk’s words reveals the source of the exterior influences as, of course, the self. Among many prevalent liabilities of indulging the self is a very strong one that colors the spirit with which I do almost everything. I constantly look for even the tiniest snippet of praise for whatever I do. When I reflect upon a day in my life I find many tinges of this even though I try to shun it. It stamps my actions.
To try to do something well, silently and unobtrusively contains, inescapably, an undercurrent of wanting something to happen - in my case, being noticed. Whether it’s being noticed by You or someone else, a need to have a “count” on my “tally” is there.
It is this “is-anybody-noticing-me” mentality that invades the interior truth and reality of a spirit that wishes to be free of it, but has not been able to come to that level. It is this that renders dead what I do. Sometimes the things I choose to do are of the very nature of being noticed. They set me up to be noticed and, of course, I notice I’m being noticed. These actions are the toughest to purify since, in life, there are many things we do that can’t help but be noticed. So ridiculously omnipresent in my life is this residue that there is even the expectation of being noticed that I am trying not to be noticed. It is a chronic spiritual illness that is terminal to growth. Even when, with concerted effort, I succeed in not being noticed in the least by anyone, I retain the hope of being noticed by You.
Richard Rolle says correctly that, “…there truly is a life which no man living in flesh can know but to he to whom it is given by God, and no man genuinely grasps this thing.” But there is something native to our spirit that makes us continue to try.
I don’t think spiritual perfection consists in feeling perfect or in performing perfectly. I think it consists of doing what we’re supposed to do without noticing it. I hearken back to St. Therese of Lisieux’s “little way” in regard to this: doing the little things for others that negate self and becoming so habitual in the doingthat we take no notice of it in ourselves. “Not noticing” is the hard part.Each time we notice, we light up our self a little bit and pat ourselves on the back. This masks Your grace.
The first step in getting the knack of not noticing is to recognize the exterior signs of our noticing. This is, to begin with, easier than removing the interior noticing. What I mean is that we should eliminate any outward sign attached to our actions that others might recognize as a sign of a wish to be recognized. Such outward signals might be recognized in words referring back to oneself:
attention-seeking, body language, or “tooting one’s own horn.”To totally obliterate such displays from our behavior is not easy, but it is easier that eliminating the intention for them from our minds.
Tackling the interior aspect of “not noticing” is where perfection peaks, for it is a fact that there is, within us, always a glow of pride when we negate ourselves exteriorly. It seems to me that the only way is a combination of forcefully sublimating it when it comes up and a practiced sense of indifference to it henceforward. The latter, over time, helps the former. One way of doing this is by focusing wholly on the need of the other and recognizing any action we take as a grace from You.
If, indeed, we are all “works-in-progress” it helps to remember that it is Your work, not ours. In bringing about Your kingdom, in being a witness to Your reign, in the grand scheme of salvation, we are but conduits of Your grace and will. We are more effective accomplishing this when we will as You will; and Your will is that we open ourselves to Your activity within us without a thought that any of it is initiated by us. In not noticing the activity of this commerce as our own we are more apt to perfect the action of Your grace in us.
We enhance our “self” (our ego) mostly by trying to impress others or gain their favor. Spiritual writers indicate that we grow spiritually through the ebb and flow of our relationships with others. What is being implied is that we learn best how to subjugate the “self” through commerce with others. I don’t know for sure, but this may be why so little attention is paid to the eremitic life. Upon a close look it would seem that a life of solitude and isolation would be the easier route to overcoming the “self.”
It is so utterly human and yet so far from God to maintain the curiosity of Peter and say, “what’s in the relationship for me?” This is precisely how we frequently treat our relationships with others and, whether we’re hermits or not, we glide right into this groove towards You too.
As a homilist of recent hearing so aptly put it: “the act of being in a relationship is the end in itself.”Most purely, it is not from anything we can get from the relationship. Daily commerce with others carries such immense amounts of baggage, all with various strings attached, that to be in an unconditional relationship with another is full of risks, pains and disappointments. But that is exactly what You meant by loving our neighbors as ourselves; for we put no conditions on love of self.
In this sense it would seem that the isolated life of a hermit would be much easier to follow in pursuit of a relationship with You. I suppose this is actually what I think. Yet, I am coming to realize that the actual reality is this: it would be most difficult to flourish under the eremitic life-style without having first perfected the ability to enter into unconditional relationships with others. It seems apparent that if my relationships with others are built on what I expect from them, so would my relationship, in solitude, be with You. Reflecting on this I see how often my relationship with You is a reflection of my relationship with others. How often I expect something! How often I make conditions! How often I fail to see the end as simply being in a relationship with You.
Every individual is, in some way, a reflection of the love of God. Even the unsavory and annoying ones receive that unconditional love. I love much about the solitary life, but I just can’t shake the apprehension that there is something a bit askew about seeking isolation from others to love You. I lean toward this, but I know it cannot be quite right. It’s like the placard my dad used to have propped up on top of his TV set: “I love mankind. It’s people I can’t stand.” This is a real issue for me. The life of a full time eremitic seems to smack of this, yet there is such sweetness in being alone with You. Thomas Merton struggled for years with his superiors to enter the hermitage. His importunity finally broke them down, but one grins at the wisdom of his superiors in so long heading off the issue.
The best exposition I’ve ever read on the whole subject is Merton’s own, A Renaissance Hermit: Blessed Paul Giustiniani, in which he quotes Giustiniani as saying: “…false contemplatives…are displeased by everything that deprives them of the rest they think they have found in God, but which they seek, really, in themselves.” This is a dangerous detour on the solitary path and one which can, I think, be overcome by recognizing and loving the inherent solitariness of others.
At the beginning of Your public ministry You chose and called certain individuals to be the special friends with whom You were most intimate in Your life. In a sense, it could have been anyone. You could have made up Your mind one day to go out into the streets and pick the first 12 people You saw. Whether that’s what You did or not, there seems to be something of importance about the fact that You did not choose any of these from among the Pharisees, the Sadducees or the contemporary rabbinic schools. This was as much in non-conformity to Your culture as not picking any women was in conformity to it.
What does it say to us that You chose 12 examples of tabula rasa rather than quasi-intellectual experts filled with preconceived notions, inflexible beliefs and cultural biases? You chose blank slates rather than “religious experts.”A natural poverty and humility of spirit is prevalent in those You chose.
I seek constantly to know more about You. I read, I pray, I think about You – as I am sure the “religious experts” of Your time did. But You did not choose them! It’s not that they wouldn’t have wanted to be chosen, it’s simply the fact that they never would have recognized You. I worry about that in myself. Am I so busy gaining “expertise” about You in prayer and seeking Your presence that I really don’t recognize You and, hence, cannot be one You would pick? Or am I already chosen but, like Judas, lack the poverty and humility of spirit that keeps me directed toward You rather than myself and the world?
It’s not that the apostles weren’t worldly men. They were!The difference is that they were simple enough to be open to possibilities. There is something appealing about rough men who realize their weaknesses and do their best to overcome them. There is not much appealing about “polished” men who know it all and can’t be told anything. Openness to You and to the possibilities of life is very important. It differentiates between those who are able to be chosen and those who are not.
Becoming set on a particular one-dimensional notion of You is, as it was to the Jews, disastrous. What is needed is to walk with You daily and listen, as Your friends did – to be attentive, and to be astonished – and, above all, to be open. I think You continually choose Your friends. We might be a little surprised at who they are.
Awhile back I wrote to You about how certain incongruities give us pause. I had seen a leather-jacketed, bearded, long-haired biker with the sticker “Pray the Rosary” on the back of his motorcycle. What recollected that to me was thinking about its flipside.
At Mass this past week-end I saw a 30-ish man with wild jet-black hair and beard, disheveled clothes, a four or five inch crucifix and rosary beads hung around his neck and his eyes constantly cast upwards. For all appearances this was an aesthetic, a devoted man, a pious man, perhaps a mystic, perhaps a saint. Why then does he evoke in me feelings of skepticism and false display that the biker did not? Yet the biker too now gives me pause.
In the biker I saw one who vindicated my cynicism – a serendipitous slap to my stereotyping prejudices and an affirmation of the reality of not judging a book by its cover. In the “mystic” though, there was none of this feeling. Rather, there was a suspicion of pretension. There was a caricature of the praying publican, a perception that this one could not be as real as the biker for he lacked the humility and self-effacement.
These feelings tell me something about myself. For one thing, it seems that themost potent examples of the reign of God in these times come from the quietest, non-self-promoting, ordinary conformists than from the religiously ostentatious, anti-establishment, non-conformists (into which group I would probably heap the “mystic” ). It is precisely the one who would draw the least attention from us that deserves our attention. We simply expect certain behavior from certain “types.” And when those “types” conform to our expectations, everything’s fine and we pay them no further attention. What I see in the man who looks like a mystic is not so much a witness to You as one involved in a self-satisfying charade for others to fathom. This may be extraordinarily unfair, but the reason for my cynicism is because it’s me! So often I see the witness I give perceived as an ineffective, self-aggrandizing charade in the eyes of others - and worst, I can see justification in it. So, the pause the “mystic” gives me is one that questions the genuineness of my own spirituality in a way that, if I were the biker, it might not.
Francisco de Osuno’s idea of two-headedness and two-heartedness turns me inward. Traditionally the head is associated with the mind, the intellect, knowledge. The heart is associated with the spirit, emotions and feelings. Inevitably the two affect each other.
That which we know is tempered by that which we feel and that which we feel is generated by that which we know. There is a strong proclivity, as we evolve, to lean toward the empirical realm of the head. Such leaning inclines us toward a two-headedness and two-heartedness based on the pragmatism of an hypocrisy of the head and an hypocrisy of the heart that flows from the good and evil in all of us. Basil Pennington would call one of the heads and one of the hearts the head and heart of the “false self.” This head and heart may be the one we most often choose to present to others. It is not the intellect and will at its purest but rather is tainted by what, in a given situation or relationship, we would like it to appear.I am very conscious of adopting a different persona in my own life with my wife, my children (each of them individually), my brother, and each one of my friends.
The second head and heart rear up most menacingly at the beginning of a new situation or relationship when we want to establish whom we think the other needs or wants us to be. From there we develop it, depending on the impression we wish to make.
The head and the heart of the real me is that which I am to You (not in my own eyes, but in Yours) – because, try as I may, I must realize that there can be no guile in this head and heart. I have not shaped it, You did! Ideally it is this head and heart that I present, but my second head and heart are so dominant that I’m not sure I’d recognize them.
There is another expression about being “two-faced” that covers the same territory – seeming to be one way but actually being another. What we try to seem to the other is, more often, not what we are actually. This is a struggle to be taken into account when we try to put ourselves in the place of another for it is a condition of all humanity.
We know that You see the falseness we try to present to others and You know it is not the head and heart we present to You. My relationship with others should be just as it is with You, but I know that You know it’s not. Despite this You love me. Where my heart (and head) is, there is my treasure and it is most definitely possible to be at odds with where one’s heart and head are.
If the primary stream of my consciousness flows with anything other than You, then You become just a tributary rather than the source. If my head and heart are primarily immersed in possessions, or music, or busy-ness, then You are pushed back to second, third, or fourth place despite the fact that I may not wish this and even fight it. While my head and heart may be somewhere else, there is a certain leveling effect in knowing I don’t want it to be there.
The main stream flowing through my heart and head should be You, and all the rest tributaries. St. Paul captured all this duality in a nutshell when he said, “I do what I would not.” I think when Anthony DeMello’s Sadhanna speaks of erasing the self it is this other head and heart, this false self, of which he speaks. This second head and heart are such advantageous tools to use in given situations and they are called upon so constantly that the true self, the head and heart known to You, are often unrecognizable to us.
A truly humble person will never find his/her tongue betraying him/her. Yet how many times my tongue betrays me! St. John Climacus says that what is not in the treasury cannot come out the door. Nevertheless, the “treasures” of my heart find too ready a door in my tongue. The word “betray” here is most appropriate because it connotes that the tongue is a traitor.
My tongue betrays me in many ways. The words it forms often hurt or disappoint others unintentionally. How often the feelings of my heart are ill-expressed by my tongue as to convey nearly the opposite of what I mean. It becomes a weapon of infliction against myself and others.
Sometimes what comes out of my mouth surprises me and is both revealing and upsetting. More and more I subscribe to the idea that erring by silence is better than by tongue; though it too is not the sure cure for a lack of humility. Somewhere there is a most blessed though illusive middle ground.
In the couple of hours I’ve been awake this morning, some disparate voices have harkened me to a point of focus that might be considered Your voice in the matter I wanted to consider here: namely, the differences in perspectives among spiritual writers that might, at times, seem confusing. For example, St. John Climacus talks about the “denunciation of life” while Anthony DeMello talks about the “acceptance of life.” A priest’s homily at Mass this morning reminded me that even within a family with many shared experiences the stories of these experiences vary widely depending on the teller’s perspective. How is it that Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s stories are so similar and John’s so different?
Then, another aspect of the problem was added when the author of a history of mysticism I’m reading pointed out that St. Thomas Aquinas’s mystical experiences in the latter part of his life caused him to abandon his speculative writings which, till then, had been pretty much a life’s work. A seemingly valid point made by this historian is that the mystical experience should precede the writing, not follow it.
The stories people share with us are subject to the changes in their own perspectives. That is how we can have a John Climacus telling us to denounce life and an Anthony DeMello telling us to accept it. What is needed here is a closer examination of the perspective of these men – or, of any spiritual writers. Something we often miss is the fact that writers write within the context of their own experiences.As I write these letters to You from the base of my own experience, from the context of my life – so did they. This is not to say that truth is subjective but rather that it can be viewed from many angles. The life John Climacus is talking about denouncing is the same life Anthony DeMello is talking about accepting.
The vantage point from which any writer examines things that touch the spirit must, even if not known, be considered as an influence on his/her perspective. It is possible that John Climacus is talking about denouncing not life itself but the baggage we attach to it and call life, while DeMello may be talking about accepting every facet of life because it comes from Life. To denounce all the baggage that man has attached to life which supplants life’s true meaning is not necessarily to denounce the acceptance of the gift of life with all its possibilities. It is like rejecting the sin but loving the sinner. There are so many different ways of saying things like this that it may, at times, appear that spiritual writers contradict each other. But actually they are saying pretty much the same things from different perspectives.
I am tempted to think that if another person reads these letters he/she would consider them way too personal and self-centered to be of much value. There are two parts of this that bother me: one is that maybe, deep down, what I ostensibly write to You is shaded by my own thoughts that it might be read by others – thus rendering it an exercise in self-indulgence rather than prayer; and, two, the patronization that what any spiritual writer sets down is the result of a highly personal relationship with You filtered through that writer’s self. We do not experience You except through our “self” – even when we try to negate its false aspects.
Regarding my first concern, if someone else was to read these and make that comment, they’d be, to a large extent, right!These letters are, indeed, very personal and they do, indeed, hold the implicit trap of self-indulgence. I admit that I often wish others might be able to read them.I would hope that they would bring the reader closer to You as, I believe, they have done for me. But I also admit that I must be on my guard frequently against that becoming my purpose.As I’ve said in other places, I do believe that when I speak to You, You speak to me. Whether or not anybody ever reads these should not be a factor.
In regards to my second concern, if they are read, they are, of course, going to appear very personal. Is this not true of any writer who puts down descriptions of his/her spiritual progress? Is this not true of Theresa of Avila, of John of the Cross, of the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, of Meister Eckhart, of Merton, of DeMello, of Nouwen, of The Little Flower?
The joy and insight we receive from Your whisper compels some sort of sharing – even if only with a piece of paper that fences in what we feel inside. King David could not contain his love for You nor his dependence upon You - to the extent that he expressed himself in song. The spirit cannot be contained!
I can’t go beyond the words, the symbols, the images, etc., here because with this pen, on this paper, I have no choice. That is all I can use. But You are beyond all that – beyond words, symbols, and images, yet, when I ask myself who is this God I pray to? Who is this Lord I wish to serve? – all I have is words, symbols and images. They fail!
There is a beautiful Byzantine prayer which I love. It goes: “Serene Light, shining in the ground of my being, draw me to Yourself, draw me past the snares of my senses, out of the mazes of the mind, free from symbols, from words that Imay discover the signified, the word unspoken in the darkness that veils the ground of my being.”Even in this wonderful prayer which acknowledges that the God we pray to is beyond words, it uses words to do so. That’s the problem!
You, Jesus, give us someone of historical flesh. Your reality, in time, does not need imaginatively creative descriptors. We can conceive of You Yourself creating words, symbols and images. But of Your divine nature, what can we say? Of course this is not to say that we don’t attempt, at least in our own minds, to characterize God. We have to have something to latch onto.Our human characterizations of God are what have drawn the lines between religions.We put our faith in what we know about God, faulty and off-the-mark though it may be.
So, it is in this sense that the God to whom I pray, the Lord I wish to serve, is someone who results from the evolution of my own characterization of Him through all the stages of my life to the present. That is my answer to the question: who is this Lord and God? Is it wrong? I know it’s wrong! But there is nothing I can do except hope that in the evolution of this characterization I will actually get beyond words, symbols and images.
Contemplative prayer just starts to touch the edges of this, but that is all because in contemplative prayer we realize our inability to know God. So, the paradox is that I pray to my characterization of God knowing that it is all I can do because of the veil of darkness that covers the ground of my being with my humanity. Indeed, on the surface, there is no objective God. We subjectively create the Lord we wish to serve and there is, of course, great danger here for we constantly fashion God to suit ourselves. In reality You are the Light in the midst of the darkness caused by this veil, a veil which will never be removed until we join You. The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness grasps it not. I pray to that darkness, using words and hoping to illuminate the unknown.
It’s funny how, through the years, you can hear one thing over and over again without it meaning anything special until one day you hear it in a different way and it reflects a whole new connotation. Somewhere in scripture, in the readings for the days after Easter, it is mentioned that You told the disciples not to fear – that the words they needed would be given them. There is much about trust and surrender in this message that I have missed.
I often nurture anxieties about saying the right thing at the right time. I suppose that most people, like me, tend to fabricate their words after the fact. I am painfully aware that I speak most eloquently in hindsight, after the situation and the hearer have vanished. But my formulations dazzle me – if I could only have that opportunity back. The formulation is mine. Those are my words. But the point is that if I trust You and surrender myself to being Your instrument, then You will give me the words. What masterful compositions of language I construct in hindsight!But they may never have been the words You would have given me. There is a skill here that is gossamer.It precedes trusting You to give me the words. It’s the ability to discern what words are from You and which from me.
I often experience a certain anxiety about that regarding these letters to You. There is a fuzzy intuition that pops through now and then that tells me: “that didn’t come from me!”In the matter of discerning what comes from You, this may be all we have – an intuition, along with the hope, as You promised the disciples, that You will give us the words we need. The compulsion to clearly discern first what words are Yours may be superfluous – not to mention impossible. All we have is that feeling – that intuition that comes in various strengths periodically and says: “this is the whisper of God.” And I believe in this. I believe it comes in very personal and unique ways and that, with some reflection, we can discern it.