Every being who ever lived on this earth and possessed any (even the slightest) belief in a god has, at one time or another, imagined the possibilities of that god communicating with him/her. We not only fantasize about it but we actually feel somewhat certain that at various times and in special (sometimes personal) ways our god has spoken to us. I’m not any different in this. I feel You do whisper to me in many ways.
The ways which I feel may be the strongest indications that my God communicates with me are through repetition and/or co-incidents. When a particular event, scenario, or circumstance keeps popping up over and over it gives me pause to consider it a vehicle for You getting through to me. When a particular event, scenario, or circumstance coincides or correlates strikingly with some other event, scenario, or circumstance of the day, I take that too as a vehicle for Your somehow touching me.
If, for example, a certain phrase, sentence, or idea keeps repeating itself in the course of a day, or if the actions of others, or even my own actions,keep recurring within a short time span, I am given to consider it a tap on the shoulder from You. Likewise if something I’ve read about, prayed about, or meditated upon somehow correlates with something else in my day -it is You.
Often others, wittingly or unwittingly, point the way for me to be open to Your whisper. Like Samuel (I Samuel, 3:4) we may need an Eli to point out God’s call. It remains very important for us to remain open to such repetitions, co-incidents, and illuminations through others. A disposition to such openness on a regular basis facilitates the discernment of Your voice in our lives through the lives of others.
As if to affirm what I am saying here, the incident of my starting to write this yesterday morning met with the co-incident of a movie I watched last night about the effects of co-incidents in the lives of a number of characters – Your affirming whisper! Help me to discern more clearly Your hand in random repetitions and co-incidents.
When we’re young and we look at others who are growing up we take it as a matter of course that the various “passages” involved will each come our way in due time. Each passage will bring with it a new phase in our lives. Each will affect the way we see ourselves and the way we relate to others. “Growing up,” then, means changing at various stages the way we relate. This too has an effect on the way we relate to You.
When we ponder the meaning of life, especially insofar as what meaning we give to our own lives, we often think in terms of growing into it, or finding it, as we evolve mentally, physically, and spiritually. If life is Your gift to us and what we make of it is our gift to You – what kind of gift will we give You?
We tend to think of “making” this gift over a lifetime, but I think the gift is already made. We just need to wrap it. How we wrap it depends on our understanding of the gift. In You and Your life the gift was defined. Our relationship with God is to be as a child to a loving father; and our relationship with others is to be as a loving servant. This gift need not be striven for but rather accepted and wrapped as our own gift to You. It is there from our birth to our death. It is not grown into or out of. It is simply there. I am a child of the Father all my life and I am a servant to His other children all my life. This is the gift. It can be neglected and left an unpackaged shambles if I choose, or it can be maintained, polished, and adorned.
What it means to be a child of God and a servant of men is simply that my life, as a gift, was meant for others. My life was given to be given. My life is meant to pass on. The gift, properly cared for and wrapped, was meant to be given. And so, as a child gives himself in totally dependent reliance upon a parent – so is my dependence totally on the Father.
Furthermore, my life is stifled by “self,” but it is a bit more polished and adorned when given as a gift to others. All the “passages” of life are affected by this. “Growing up” is meant to be “growing out” as we grasp the meaning of life’s gift. My gift to You, then, has already been given to me by You. It is already Yours. I’m wrapping it now.
You continuously and unhesitatingly invite me. You constantly beckon me. What You want is that I follow You – that I come to You. As with Your apostles You say, “Come, follow Me,” and “Come and see.” Your invitation precludes all else. There is nothing more important nor simpler – “Follow Me.” To follow You, ideally, seems to mean dropping everything to focus on answering Your call.
I don’t always reply to Your invitation. Sometimes I ignore Your beckoning. Yet, You never stop. There are no conditions to Your love. My love is full of conditions. If there was only a way in me to constantly invite You – to beckon You as You do me. But alas, I beckon too many other things – things that hide or mask Your call. Due to the circumstances, style, and status of the life I have chosen for myself there would seem to be a boatload of cares, concerns, and responsibilities that demand my attention. Yet, You keep calling me. Is it perhaps that I’m so dense that I can see no other possibilities than dropping everything and answering as the apostles did?
Is it not possible that Your invitation is perpetually out there in order that I can take advantage of it? The ideal may be to drop everything. But that is my conception. Yours is more realistic. When You say: “Come follow me,” You know me, You see me, You understand my preoccupations and distractions. It is within their context that You beckon me. The more tragic circumstance would be to ignore You completely while knowing that You never stop inviting me to follow You.
The gospel message is the fundamental guideline for Christianity and for the spiritual life. It is very simple. Its simplicity precludes our proclivity for complicating it. We take various aspects of it and then explain them, and then explain our explanations, and then explain that, etc., etc. Thus we become mired in all the explanations. We become hypnotized by them. Instead of trying to expand our comprehension of the spiritual life the gospels try to contract, narrow, and simplify it all.
Paul was the first expander and explainer and he did a wonderful job. But the message of the gospels is the message of Your words, Your teachings, Your actions. They are Christianity in a nutshell. They are guides to the spiritual life in the simplest most uncomplicated form. In its gospel expression what could be simpler than Your summation of the law and all the prophets: “Love God with all your heart, soul, and strength; and your neighbor as yourself.” Through the ages the expansions upon this sentence have filled volumes, but its statement remains clear and simple.
The poor, the meek, the lowly, the suffering, the peacemakers – all of them You called blessed. The message is simple: “Go, and do likewise.” The message is simple: “Forgive 70 times seven.” The message is simple: “Fear not;” “Believe in Me;” “Do this in memory of Me” – all simple! It is we who add commentaries, explanations, and analyses to the simple – and we always will! It is, in reality, what I do in these letters all the time.
It is as if it’s necessary for me to explain my own understanding of the gospel message and all its nooks and crannies to myself and (get this) to You. I poke, prod, and pinch myself to see what happens and I expand upon it, analyze it, and explain it to You. It is a compulsion I’m sure that was felt by other individuals who expanded upon the gospel message. But it’s good to step back and meditate on the simplicity of where it all came from.
There is no GPS to determine exactly where we’re at in our spiritual journey. We have become scientifically adept and quite precise in our ability to determine where we are at physically, but we are ill-equipped to judge where we’re at spiritually. Dead-reckoning or pure-guesswork is about as good as we can do. In this estimation we tend to fall back on feelings and experience, but they are feeble substitutes for precision. Yet, there seems to be a design in this.
It could be overwhelmingly discouraging to know precisely our spiritual status. It would certainly take all the air out of our egos to know that our prayers, charitable deeds, meditations, and devotions didn’t really amount to very much compared to the state of simply being loved by You – of which we often unintentionally stand in the way, or intentionally avoid. Our strength is in Your incredible love for us.
Though we may not know exactly where we’re at, we can be certain that Your love for us is always there. This is our spiritual status. This is precisely where we’re at – in the midst of Your love for us. If we know and accept where You are in our lives it is all but irrelevant that we know where we are in Yours.
“Self”-concern clouds the issue with haziness and imprecision. We can never know precisely where we are at spiritually because we’re looking at the whole issue from the wrong aspect. Only Your wonderful love is a predictable constant. Your ongoing and ever-renewing graces and mercies are always there, but they do depend on our openness and acceptance. Where You are at in our spiritual lives is the constant. Where we are at is the variable.
At Christmas time I often wonder if You and your family celebrated each of Your birthdays as You grew up. When we celebrate birthdays we think about presents, parties and family gatherings, etc. As we get older the family gatherings are still nice but the rising number of candles bodes something more ominous. I wonder how much of Your destiny You knew as Your birthdays went by and Your “hour’ came closer.
We’re kind of locked in to a receiving mode on our birthdays – a mode of getting and of being the center of attention. If You were fully aware of the panorama of Your life then each year of Your life meant one step closer to giving all and had nothing to do with “getting.”
I remember one Christmas eve at Mass I looked up at the cross and thought, ‘Happy birthday?’ To my eyes, especially at Christmas time, there seems to be an infinite gap between the manger and the cross – but there isn’t! On Your birthday the party and the presents are for us - every year, every celebration of Your birth till the end of time – all for us!
So, in terms of new birth, Your birthday is really our spiritual birthday. From Your birthday we date our redemption. In this sense Christmas is the birthday of each one of us.
I suspect that my perceptions of spirituality and spiritual growth have, like those of other people, a tendency to become settled on a particular track or tradition. But sometimes it’s a good thing to be slightly “derailed” by the spiritual perceptions of others who are on a different track.
I just finished reading a very good biography of Martin Luther whose life and perspectives offer certain nudges worth reflection. The many references in the book to Erasmus of Rotterdam prompted me to get ahold of his biography as well and I’m reading that now with some interest. One of the insights in reading about both these men that has struck a resounding chord within me is the idea of a “purifying” of Christian theology by referring to Your words in the gospels. I was so taken with this idea over the last few weeks that I bought a number of books specifically about Your words recorded in the New Testament. I was so moved by this simple insight and its possibilities for fundamental spiritual meaning and direction that I shared the insight with my deacon friend over dinner recently. This became the occasion of a derailment. He said, “We have no way of knowing exactly what Christ said.” He went on about how those Bibles and prayer books that put the words of Jesus in red annoy him because we have no contemporaneous witnesses to report Your words directly. The evidence is quite strong that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John did not actually write the gospels attached to them. Rather, they were written, at best, decades later by disciples or followers of each of these men who were probably at least one generation removed from You and who, most likely, never saw You.
“But,” I said, “they probably wrote down what was reported to them as Christ’s words, right? He said that was possible, but we just don’t know. So we should not take them as verbatim quotes.
This bothered me a great deal and I mulled it over for days. I asked myself, ‘Upon what is the theology of Christianity based?’ The answer can only be that Christianity is based on Your teachings. But where do we find Your teachings? In scripture, of course! But we don’t know if what scripture says You said is actually what You said. Therefore it would seem the theology of Christianity is, to some degree, based on speculation. Such a premise does a remarkable job of knocking one’s underpinnings somewhat askew.
The prospect of accepting this seemed nearly catastrophic to me so I took it all to a priest friend who is a scripture expert. He said it’s true. We don’t know exactly what You said. But we can be sure that the gist of what You wanted to teach us, as contained in the gospel records of Your life, is true. One reason is that we believe the writers, whoever they were, were guided and inspired by the Spirit of God; and the other reason is the prescience of Christ.
This whole idea of Your prescience in the matter was entirely new to me and it set my wheels back on track. It seems not only quite possible but also highly likely that You foresaw exactly the way men would set down in writing Your words and teachings and, therefore, spoke and acted with an instrumentality toward that end. Thus, while we may not have the verbatim transcription of Your words, we do have what You wanted us to have.
There is a certain analogous similarity in the apostles and us regarding the stages of spiritual growth and acceptance. In the first stage those ordinary and not necessarily religious men from various walks of life answered a call from You. We will never know how many others You called who did not respond. But these 12 men each gave up something because of a powerful attraction to follow You and learn more.
Seeking You in our own lives often means putting aside what we are doing and following a different path. Our spiritual journey doesn’t really begin until we accept this calling. The apostles apparently continued their occupations but more and more time was devoted to You because they were more and more willing to be drawn to You.
The second stage was the quantum leap after Your passion. In this phase they were called upon to commit themselves with great faith in ways they never imagined. Here there were a lot of puzzling questions and a precarious balancing on the edge between doubt and embrace. The comfort that had grown out of three years of being with You as passive receptors and witnesses was erased by a single event fraught with disturbing irony and grief.
Thus it is with us. As we grow spiritually more comfortable with You our susceptibility to fear and doubt jumps out at us at those times when You seem not to be there for us. But we summon our faith and go on in the knowledge that You still draw us if we are open to You. The confusion, wavering, and doubt of this period is erased by the Pentecost Event.
You can and will intervene directly in our spiritual lives in ways we do not comprehend. You touch us and move us as You will just as You did with the apostles on that first Pentecost. At this stage, having gone through the other two, we embrace You wholly.
I remember reading once in a church bulletin a lengthy exposition on love and forgiveness based on a meditation upon Rembrandt’s painting of the return of the prodigal son. It was pretty much a first experience for me to base a meditation upon a painting. But as I think back, there is a recollection of something similar.
When I was a boy I remember seeing holy cards with a picture of You knocking on a door that had no knob on the outside. I always liked that picture. It touched a special chord in me. Not till very recently did I do some research on the internet to find out more about the original painting.
It was done by the 19th century British artist, William Holman Hunt, and is titled The Light of the World. The door metaphor signifies that Your light cannot enter my heart (my life) unless I open it to You from the inside – but You never cease knocking. The closed door admits not a single ray of Your light (Your love). This is the way it is with love. It never enters unless we open to it from the inside.Being open to Your knock and Your light is a disposition that comes from within. Your persistence to show me Your light never fails, but there are plenty of times when I ignore Your knocking.
In a prayer to the Father by Thomas Merton there is a line that alludes to the fact that the Father loves us because He sees His Son in each of us.
Seeing You in another, seeing Your face in the face of another, can make someone about whom we are indifferent seem very precious. But it’s not an easy thing to do. In our lifetime we probably look at hundreds of thousands, maybemillions, of faces; but how often do we see a reflection of You? Indeed, how often do we even look for it? We are far more likely to take the example given by a person’s life as a reflection of You. What we do in that case is to mentally link up things they have said or done that conform with Your own life or what You taught.
But that’s not exactly what I mean here.What I mean is looking at the stark humanity, warts and all, of another human face and seeing You; seeing joy, hate, love, anger, pain, fear, anxiety, worry, compassion, concern, etc., in eyes the same as Yours.
On rare occasions I am able to look upon a soaring bird, a radiant sunset, a verdant forest or garden, or a spectacular blue sky with puffs of white and momentarily transcend my self. In that moment something of what You are is amplified. But in these displays of creative magnificence we somehow put more stock than in the masterpiece of man. Maybe it’s because it’s so much harder for us to find the innocence in man which is more apparent in nature.
I attended the funeral of a friend the other day – a priest and former classmate of mine. The homily was exceptionally long because the speaker had many reminiscences to share about his friendship with the deceased. He extolled the many virtues and charismas of his friend. It was good, but it struck me how we always wait until after a person is dead to explore his/her mystique. Why is it that we wait till after a person is gone to allow the wonder and goodness of him/her to reach our consciousness? We typically wait till then to reflect upon that person’s life – to look for You in them. Everything then is in the past tense.What is it about open eyes, the sound of a voice, the movement of limbs, the breath of life that makes it difficult to remember to look for You? Take these things away and,apparently, it’s much easier. This is all backwards. Once someone is gone we’ve missed our best chance at seeing You in them.