The feeling has often come upon me in various ways that I am not only an individual to whom You speak but an individual whose prayers are always answered. When I ponder this feeling I realize that it is not as exclusive to me as my pride might wish to think. The distinction is the grace given to recognize, to some degree, this feature of Your love. I now know that You speak to everyone, but not all accept the grace to hear. You answer everyone’s prayers, but only those with results that conform to their wishes might think so. You have Your own answer to every one of our prayers. If we truly understood this, “Thy will be done” would be the suffix to all our prayers. Therefore we should work diligently to cultivate the ability to see Your will in the answers to our prayers.
As my search for You progresses, I feel extraordinarily strongly that You speak to me in all kinds of different ways if I but open my ears to Your voice. Each day the Mass, scripture, other people, events, birds, trees, flowers, sky, music, my reading and writing, and silent stillness are all vehicles through which You speak to me wordlessly but powerfully. So often as I write to You, as I am now, what I want to tell You is something spun off from something I’ve read, but occasionally, like today, it results from an overwhelming feeling that simply spills out and needs expression.
In this life, then, it often seems that the search for You is synonymous with the ability to recognize and single out channels through which You might come to us, and we to You. I do not begin any movement toward You until You begin a movement toward me first. I cannot search for You unless I have already found You, and I cannot find You unless I first allow You to reveal Yourself to me. There is a special grace to be able to recognize Your voice in times of darkness and trouble when, instead of being open to all the possibilities of Your answers to our prayers, we say, “Why is this happening?” At times like these we have a strong tendency to listen to our own voices or the voices of others instead of Yours. Again, it is because we fail to recognize, especially in bad times, that You are telling us that suffering teaches, or that a great opportunity for spiritual growth is being offered to us if we will be still and quit kicking against the goad. What matters is not so much that we are good but that we trust.
It occurred to me recently, during the penitential rite at Mass, that if I was not a sinner our relationship would be drastically different. It’s mind-boggling to imagine. I’m not sure I can even grasp what it might be. There seems to be no other way for me to conceive of the basis for our relationship other than a huge hope in Your mercy and love for such a terrible and constant disappointment as I. We hope against hope that we can draw Your merciful attention to ourselves. But what You give us is totally non-contingent upon who we are. We cannot imagine a relationship different from this because there will never be one. Even in the mythology of pre-fall man, the relationship was one of utter dependence. Because of the fall and Your refusal to abandon us we are even more dependent.
Sin makes us rag-tag, snotty-nosed, me-first children who must be looked after by loving, caring, doting parents. The analogy of God as a parent is scripturally blatant and runs through both the Old and New Testaments. We are children who need to be raised and we often rebel against that upbringing, but when our tantrums are over we seek loving comfort from the only place we know it is guaranteed. When the child of my self gets into trouble, forgiveness becomes important, and Your forgiveness becomes paramount. This is the nature of our relationship. How else can we imagine it? The idealized alternative is heaven itself – the only place where my child matures and can be “let go.”
Somewhere in the literature of spirituality an author (whom I can’t place right now) once referred to original sin as: “Oh happy fault.” The oxymoronic twinge of such a statement tweaks one’s curiosity and, upon serious reflection, is a statement of what underlies the fundamental nature of man’s relationship to God. As the beings that we are, we are incapable, even transcendentally, of any other relationship with God. Sin set the only parameters we know and You Yourself had to operate within those parameters. The reality of sin is that powerful! Yet, the Father’s great love, through You, inflates our hope and encourages our dependency. It’s a shame we don’t know more about the earthly life of Your mother, Mary, in order to understand better the single relationship between God and a human that was defined by the consequences of personal fault. But, on the other hand, it may be the intentional work of God that we don’t; for Mary was probably spiritually more like an angel than a human and, try as we may, we cannot be angels. The faults and weaknesses that define being human are many and they continually lull us to sleep while, as Thomas Merton says, “…we try to stay awake under the moonlit olive trees.”
Apart from what we know of God through You, He is inscrutable. Reflection and meditation on the nature of God is futile. We sense His effects, but, like the wind, we see Him not, nor do we understand His comings and goings. Futile though all attempts to grasp Him may be, love drives us, without despair, to seek Him and to desire unity with Him.
The only “knowledge” of God we can have is characterized by “unknowing.” Unknowing is knowing God! One who thinks he/she knows God knows only something of his/her knowing. As with the wind, understanding on a human level is misunderstanding. God exists beyond knowing and, of course, beyond the human mind. Yet there is something in the mind of man, something spiritual that is itself Your gift that, if we attend to it, urges us evermore toward that knowledge we cannot grasp.
Our gratitude should be immense for God’s sending You to us. Through You we know what is necessary about God. Before You burning bushes, dreams, and voices from the heavens made God known to us in ways we could understand. The reason we see no more burning bushes, dreams and voices from the sky is because we have You. What we know of God through You is a quantum leap from our knowledge before You came. What might the next step be?
The fact that we think the total business of God is man might possibly be what keeps us from the realization of what a second coming actually is. God was not created for man (though our thinking of Him is usually characterized this way), man was created for God. We can but weakly contemplate all this. But it is a joy to do so.
The vocation of the contemplative is to live for God, not for contemplation. That is to say, again, that concentrating on the means of being one with You may, in some instances, distance us from You. Certainly, if we understand it properly, there is to be a balance sought. It is not impossible to go too far the other way. We might convince ourselves that all the tools we are using are nothing but extensions of our own foolish deficiencies and that, ultimately, they just get in the way. But what do they get in the way of? Do they get in the way of some better invention of ours? Will that invention, later on, be perceived as being “in the way” of some later invention? Etc., etc.
The urge to know You is Your gift. You leave it up to us as to how we respond to that gift. We, being finite, fallible creatures, seek paths by which to pursue this urge. I am the one sheep You would abandon the 99 to come after. Once I realize this, my urge to be reunited with You pushes me to do things to help You find me and me find You. Whatever it is, this becomes my response: prayer, meditation, contemplation, reading, writing or whatever else I come up with or You come up with for me. My destiny (vocation) is to pursue You, not to become inordinately focused on the means by which I do that. If the focus is on You always then we really don’t have to worry about whatever we do.
A further extension of that notion is the danger of settling for whatever is comfortable or habitual. Such settling goes against spiritual growth. There is no settling in the spiritual life. When we recognize that seeking You necessitates ongoing active and passive movements of the will throughout our journey, we will simultaneously become aware that “settling” on a means is counter to searching for You. The measures of time, distance and numbers are useless to You. It is we who measure with these measures – not You. What You do is draw us out from those things we measure.
There’s hair on my comb and not much on my head. I’m getting those little brown liver spots on the backs of my hands. I’ve got at least 10, maybe 12 pairs of reading glasses strategically stashed all over the house, in the car, and in the garage. In the morning, when I get up, there are new aches and pains I’ve never had before, it’s harder to remember things from one moment to the next, and my profile has become rounder in the middle. Other than that, I’m as good as new.
Fr. Anthony DeMello says that we can only be free when we lose our fear of loss. The fear of losing our youth, to me, is a strong one. As the signs of our mortality increase, our fear of lost youth, and, more grimly, losing life itself looms larger. I’d be a liar if I said I don’t fear death. What is most scary about death is that it could separate me from You. Death would not be half as scary if I had a guarantee that nothing I did or didn’t do would separate me from You forever. That possibility is the part that’s really scary. I would have much less fear of growing old and dying if only I didn’t have the ominous terror of possibly losing You.
In reading the lives of different saints, it seems that many of them had a supreme and undeniable confidence in facing death because they knew they’d be with You. I do not trust myself not to jeopardize such a position. It’s like diving off a high cliff with a perfectly good parachute but with a gnawing fear that it won’t open. You trust me, though, more than I deserve – more that I trust myself. There’s hope in that. There’s hope too in accepting this stage of life as any other and welcoming each day as another chance to love, to grow closer to You. If I continue to seek to follow the inward path to which my being is drawn and to listen to Your voice in it’s many whispered manifestations, then I cannot help but hear You say, “fear not.”
There is a prayer of Thomas Merton’s that has the following in it: “…I abandon myself to You …because You love in me Your only begotten Son. You see Him in me. You embrace Him in me.”
The fact that the Father sees You in us underlines the importance of me seeing You in others. If what is precious about us to God is that He sees His Son in each of us, then it is exactly this that should make us precious to each other. We are talking here about You as the common denominator of human worth. You give us value, You whom we hurt, embarrass, insult and betray. To what other person in this life whom we hurt, embarrass, insult and betray would we abandon ourselves? In purely human estimation, this is a travesty. Who would unwaveringly give over their faith and loyalty to an individual they had continually mistreated, put down, ridiculed, and ignored? By extension, how could the Father feel anything but contempt for us for the way we treat His son without ceasing? Such forgiveness and loyalty to us is incomprehensible. Yet we are asked to participate in that loyalty and forgiveness in our dealings with others because, as the Father sees You in us, so should we see You in others.
Mountains of pages are written regularly about the psychology of human relationships, about friendship, about love. Talk-show “doctors” are flooded with calls seeking advice on relationships. Advice columnists still flourish. Which one of them would say that we should trustingly and totally abandon ourselves to the one we most insult, hurt, embarrass and betray? The insanity of such a move between men is the keystone of sanity between man and God. Your ways are not our ways, but Your ways have shown us the way our ways should be.
You wept over Jerusalem because it did not recognize You and, hence, Your Father; and because You saw it rejecting You, the living Word of God Himself bestowed upon His people. I believe the only other record of Your publicly weeping was at the death of Lazarus. Yet how many times did sorrow move You to weep that went unrecorded?
Jerusalem can be taken as a metaphor for all mankind. I happen to be a member of that race and I wonder how often You weep over me? How much sorrow do I cause You? How often do I fail to recognize You and, hence, the Father? How often do I reject You? I would not cause sorrow unto weeping in those I love - but I do many things I would not.
There is great hope in Your weeping for it is colored by a sense of painful loss – loss of something loved and valued. If You wept over Jerusalem which rejected You and would kill You, there’s hope in Your weeping over the ways I fail You. I surely must be loved and valued by You. I do not wish on You the sorrow that looking into any heart may cause You. There is a superabundance of meaning in Your tears.
But what about me? For what or for whom do I weep? I suppose the most obvious answer is that I weep for myself – yet another instance of how highly I regard me. It is insightful that it does not occur to me first to weep over the very things that caused You to weep – the loss of others. While You weep over losing me, I should weep over losing You. There is no greater loss and, hence, no greater cause for weeping. Often I find You, but more often I lose You. Joy and sorrow is another paradoxical mixture in our relationship. I wish to less and less cause You tears. Help me to cause You more joy.
We often make the same mistakes the Jews of Your time made. We think of the kingdom of God, or the reign of God in various forms – most of which miss the mark. We tend to slip into mindsets that would characterize it in a socio-political context, or maybe as an era in time, or then again as a widely promulgated religious insight of some dominance, or even as the “reign” of the church itself. While it might be easier to latch on to any of these because of descriptive terminology, it is not so in reality – a reality that cannot be captured solely by descriptions of time, place, insight, or ideal.
The kingdom of God is the kingdom of love. The reign of God is the reign of love, and this, as it is played out in the relationships of our lives as they reflect Your love for us, is what the Jews, and we, missed. If it must be a place, it is in our own hearts. If it must be a time, it is always. If it is an ideal, then it is giving. The kingdom of God is within each of us and because each of us is special and unique it is not exactly the same in each of us.
God reigns in each of our situations if we let Him. God can establish His kingdom on our land, if we let Him. Quite literally then, we control and rule over the reign of God’s kingdom. To the extent that we oppose, or ignore, or simply neglect it, it is weakened and decreased. We know when we help bring about the reign of God’s kingdom and when we don’t. We know when we’d rather ignore Your kingdom and support ours. There are countless doorways to Your kingdom and none are locked. It is but for us to open them. The kingdom is the reign of Your love which we can bring to the world – even if it’s our own little world.
How many times do we excuse faults (our own or others) with the phrase, “it’s human nature?” But how many times do we stop to consider that “human nature” is our own fault? The fact that we have faults is not a gift, it is hereditary. If we consider that out of Your great love was formed a race of creatures meant to be almost as close to You as the angels; and that, like the angels, You gave us a free will; and that with this free will we rejected our given nature in pursuit of something else, we see that “human nature” is the sickness, the weakness we’ve brought upon ourselves. The angels too could choose. Some pursued something else, and that is their fault. Others remained satisfied with what You made them. So, only some incurred the “sickness.” If one or the other of our first parents had chosen to remain satisfied with what You made them, then only all men or all women would have incurred the “sickness.” But both chose to seek something else and so, all their offspring are afflicted with their illness. And now, because this is what we’ve made or ourselves, we use it as an excuse.
We are still Adams and Eves today. Even if the stories of the creation and fall are pure mythology, they still accurately reflect that timeless urge in us to reject You for something that appears better. And whatever it is in our nature that so urges us, it is our own fault, not Yours. We cannot say that You gave us this inclination, only the power to choose it or choose You. That power is necessary, for it is impossible to love without it. So, excusing something because it’s “human nature” is no excuse at all. Our life is a fight against what comes “naturally.”
Certain days like Memorial Day give rise to some thoughts about “life-shaping” events. When you’ve been around for 60 plus years, it’s not hard to look back and see that there are a handful of really major events that have shaped who I am: my grade school days, the seminary, the Peace Corps, teaching, my music, my wife, children, grandchildren, etc. Everyone reminisces. But this morning I wondered how my life and who I am would have been different if I had been in the military. I do have a temper, and am quite competitive, but I do not consider myself a fighter. So, it is interesting to muse about how the training to be a soldier might have affected me. I’ll never know, but I think I would have hated it. I think that when I was done with such service strong reactions within me to that time might have drawn me to deeper spirituality and sensitivity rather than making me more aggressive or macho. On the other hand, if such a time actually was thrown into the mix it would have supplanted some other powerful influence like the seminary or the Peace Corps, and, with that element missing, might have formed a completely different personality in me.
Human beings sometimes react in very contrary ways to their perceived personas. Docile and non-contentious individuals have come out of military service the reverse of what they were when they went in. And cantankerous, in-your-face types (especially after seeing combat action) have come out peace-loving and spiritually oriented. This causes me to postulate the theory that extreme events can turn us around 180 degrees. It may be that the profound events in our lives are the most viable conduits of Your grace, Your spirit. But we seldom recognize them as such. Sometimes these profound events are painful and difficult. Paradoxically, it is most difficult to find You when they are. But often, after a time, we see You in retrospect more clearly – that You were there.
Suffering, which we try to avoid, teaches. Comfort, which we tend to pursue, does not. It might be said that what one is evolves from what is most difficult and painful in one’s life. Being unafraid of such times welcomes Your spirit, Your grace. There is more than a grain of wisdom in the coach’s dictum:”no pain, no gain.”