The past two decades (almost) of my life since my retirement have afforded me the time to develop my relationship with You in ways I was not able to pursue when I was working. Since my retirement I have been able to attend morning Mass daily and receive You in communion. I have been able to sit silently in solitude with You for a time each day. I have been able to write these letters to You, and I have been able to volunteer some time to the hungry and homeless.Spiritually, it seems to me, these years have been the most fruitful and grace-filled period of my life. Two thoughts have come to me regarding this time: 1] that I don’t thank You enough for it; and, 2] that it wouldseem fairer if everyone was able to have such a time in their lives.
I am most grateful for Your touch, Your whisper, and Your drawing me in extraordinary and personal ways during this period of my life. I desire strongly to show my love and gratitude by responding to Your beckoning and cultivating further those responses I now make. I hope and pray that my responses are not just what appears to me as contemplation but is, rather, an actually deeper prayer life. At the same time I muse over my seemingly special bequest of such a grace.
Isn’t the time of retirement indeed a fair payment from the master of the vineyard? Is it not also, indeed, a time of learning how to rest in You? I am compelled to think that learning to use the gift of this time is an important final stage of life that should be anticipated and nurtured with at least the same enthusiasm and effort as the other stages of life. I am at least as grateful (if not more grateful) for this time as for my childhood, my education, my raising a family with my wife, my years of teaching and my music.
It has been said that there can be no deep prayer life without there first being love in our hearts. My prayer life grows and is nourished by what I have learned about the reality of love, especially during the last nearly 20 years. Thank-You, and please keep drawing me to Yourself.
Recently, at Mass, on the feast of St. Dominic, the priest read aloud a short biography of him. A bit of advice to his followers included in the biography was the admonition to “bring to people what you contemplate.” These words struck me with great meaning and I’ve been mulling them over.
The things I absorb from contemplation end up perpetually in these letters to You – these letters about which I entertain conflicted notions of pride and humility in regards to sharing them. Exactly what is infused by You and what is simply from me is often fuzzy, but I do believe that the gift of light is from You. True infused contemplation is Your gift and, as such, Dominic was right. It should be shared. With deep and firm conviction I honestly believe that there are times when You speak to me in subtle whispers. This light is Your gift to me and what I do with this light is accept it and treat it as infused contemplation and, as such, it ends up in these letters which I share as my gift to You. That’s what I do with what I contemplate; but then there’s what I don’t do, but should.
I have come to some powerful and influential insights through Your gift of contemplation – things which touch me deeply and steer my life. Many of these things I am hesitant to share with people around me for fear of appearing proud or “holier than thou.” I hold fast to the idea that sharing contemplative insights with those closest to me should be entirely by the way I live my life, not what I say or write. But there is yet a most intimidating gap between the insights I think I have gained and the life I lead. I am, in fact, very often, not the person I think I am. My faults, my failings, my weaknesses, and my mistakes loom large and belie the “me” of my contemplation. It is thus my false self which I share. But I have hope that my true self occasionally shines through.
I have, in my later years, determined that “giving up” things for Lent is not as efficacious as doing something positive to change my “self.” Consequently, for the last few years I have carried on a continuous campaign each Lent (which I hope, with practice, will carry over through the year) to choose what others would choose instead of what I would choose; to say “yes” when I’m inclined to say “no.” In short, to “hand myself over” to others just as You handed Yourself over to others. It’s painfully hard, but, over the years, I have made enough progress to warrant continuing it as my Lenten resolution for future Lents until I get good enough at it to work on something else.
The whole notion of “handing ourselves over” as You did is the foundation of St. Theresa’s admirable “little way.” When, out of love, we surrender ourselves to the will of another, we are doing precisely what You did in Your life.
I am always looking for little “catch-phrases” that are insightful and easy to remember. “To be handed over” seems to describe well the reason we are here. We hand over to You the gift You gave us by handing it over to others. There is a disposition in this of both a passive, peaceful surrender and an active posturing of acceptance.
Useful inspiration can be derived at the beginning of one’s day by regarding oneself as a person “to be handed over.” As the day goes on it is absolutely amazing how many opportunities present themselves for us to be “handed over.” If we are really attuned to this concept we will also come to see, as the day goes on, how often we ignore these opportunities.
In reality there is no salvation without You handing Yourself over for me. It would seem the act is not complete until I hand myself over to You.
We have been given saints from every human condition to show us that sanctity can be derived from all the different circumstances of each of them. There is nothing in our own experience that has not been experienced by someone we now deem a saint.
The crux of sanctity is entirely in HOW the saints and HOW we deal with life’s conditions and circumstances. Despite the faults, failings, and weaknesses of any of the saints, each persisted and grew in love, and that love covered a multitude of sins. The answer to HOW the saints dealt with the conditions and circumstances of life is – LOVE! Yet, what do I do to increase and nurture my love?
The spiritual writer, Fenelon, advises that while we wait for God to deliver us from ourselves we should take a good look at what we are like and not be so surprised when we see that we are stubborn, impatient, quick-tempered, and arrogant – all flaws at the core of my own self. In practical terms what this means to me is that in order to grow in love I should soften my “do-it-now” attitude and learn to wait longer before acting; I should attend sincerely to the proposals of others as they propose them instead of modifying them to suit my own whims; I should learn to exercise silence when everything in me urges me to speak; and I should work on actually accepting the ways of others which, in many cases, are better than mine.
To know that others (even saints) are confronted with the same predicaments in their own lives is a consolation and a paradigm that we must take to heart. But the next step beyond acknowledging and accepting these truths is the part that separates us from the real saints.
Many years ago I read and was moved by an awesome little book entitled On Retreat with Anthony DeMello. In it DeMello described seven tenets of his spiritual path called Sadhana. I was, and still am, blown away by his exposition which beautifully encapsulates the commandments, the beatitudes, and Your teachings. So taken was I that I constructed a framed poster and some laminated bookmarks with: Love Unconditionally; Accept Life; Drop Attachments; Suffering Teaches; Don’t Blame; Erase Self; and Pray Daily written on them. My opinion of these has not changed over the years.
It is fitting that Love Unconditionally is first because if this is mastered it automatically takes care of all the rest, just as mastering all the rest results in loving unconditionally.
To Accept Life means to willingly welcome our present state, no matter what it might be, as the state in which we encounter You. Therefore whatever it is, it is precious and it is Your gift. No matter its conditions, life is the journey to You. In accepting life we should be aware that there are many things: people, goods, events, experiences, power, money, values, etc. that all come with life. Most are good in themselves, but some we become so attached to that they distract and divert us from You. To weed out such distractions and Drop Attachments is essential for growth in our relationship with You.
Many of our attachments are so pleasant that we find them difficult to drop completely, but one thing attached to life that we all try to avoid is suffering, yet we must become aware that Suffering Teaches. It holds more potential for strengthening our understanding of life and our relationship with God than any of the attachments we so reluctantly drop. In accepting life we accept the suffering that is an inevitable part of it. When we accept it willingly and with resignation we unlock its value – and it teaches us.
An easy sidetrack to follow is the blaming game where we attach to some scapegoat our own faults, failings, and mistakes instead of following the tenet that says Don’t Blame. In not blaming, we take personal responsibility for our own shortcomings. In not blaming we cultivate an awareness of culpability and the need for reflection, resignation, and admission in regard to errors of what we say or do; and the key to all this is what is next: Erase Self.
If any one thing is the cornerstone of the unconditional love at the top of the Sadhana list, it is this! The greater the distance from our own construct of reality we are able to place self, the closer we approach our true self - the closer we approach You. Our false self blames, avoids suffering, nurtures attachments, and is not accepting of life when we are not served.
Finally, if we Pray Daily it helps us attain a proper disposition of focusing on our relationship with You and diminishing our focus on self.
I know that I, as well as probably many other people, use a variety of means to guide ourselves on our spiritual journeys: scripture, spiritual writers, the lives of saints, sermons, retreats, meditations, etc. But John’s gospel for Holy Thursday declares clearly in Your own words all that we need, “... I have given you a model to follow...”
The edifying gift of Your public life is all we need to know and follow. You were about making known, teaching, and doing Your Father’s will.
Love, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, and understanding were the hallmarks of Your life. You were the servant of others as well as their patient teacher. The way You went about this was with kindness, no prejudice, and great meekness. We do well to follow closely and meditate upon the gospel accounts of Your life, upon Your words, and upon other forms of “the life of Christ,” for in Your life is contained all we need.
The above phrase from John, attributed to You, was spoken in the context of the Last Supper. We may think of it as referring specifically to what You did that night at that supper, but its meaning can be applied to Your whole life.
We do not do badly to imitate the saints and others who have done a pretty good job of following Your model. Nonetheless, Your life itself is the standard. In recognizing that fact, it struck me how few times it is recorded in the gospels that anyone openly and fearlessly did something for You. Two that come foremost to mind were both women: Mary and her perfume, and Veronica and her veil.
You did not expect to “get,” only to give. Such is Your unfathomable love that Your only desire is to give it and have it be accepted. Yet, personified in Mary and Veronica is our desire to give to You; and in this, just as You gave all things to the Father, You are our model in what we give to You. The circle of genuine love always leads back to You.
I believe that the growth of spirituality is exponential in the sense that each new level reached, each insight gained, is built upon the previous one. While that may seem all too obvious, the reality is that the distractions of the world, more often than not, halt us at one particular level by quashing the desire to make an effort to go on; or, they may make us go backwards by instilling feelings of apathy toward spirituality in general.
I know in my own case moments of insight or discernment (the voice of Your whisper) can be heeded or ignored. Nothing happens, but an opportunity is missed. When heeded, possibilities open up – especially when added to what we already know.
The gospels say that as You aged You grew in wisdom and grace. As we age there should be similar progress. Such progress is exponentially based on what we have already learned and experienced. We control a good part of that exponent in terms of quality, quantity, and pace. What specific means we pursue to nurture our spiritual life, how much of it we embrace, and the rate at which we chose to grow, all factor into the development of our relationship with God. Love, selflessness, compassion, faith, and kindness can each be squared over and over again as we allow each of them to come forth.
The square root of our growth is You. We, if we so choose, can magnify or diminish You. To grow spiritually, to magnify You, we multiply what we have by itself: love times love; compassion times compassion; selflessness times selflessness, etc.
Let the roots of my faith be deeper than my feelings.We know that emotions have a powerful influence over our thinking and reasoning, so we might be a bit wary of them in regards to our faith.
The interesting thing about faith is that it doesn’t seem to reside wholly in our heads or in our emotions. It seems to reside in some middle ground where it is pushed and pulled by the head and heart at the same time. While I may desire the roots of my faith to go deeper than my feelings, I also do not wish my faith to be totally ruled by the intellectual capacity of my brain.
We speak of faith as something that grows and matures. If we categorize the scriptural words You spoke on this earth into various “themes,” the single most recurring theme is “faith/belief.” But I find it telling that the second most recurring theme is “acceptance/openness.” As important as it was for You to teach us about faith, apparently it was just about equally important to let us know that all along our way we should be open to Your spirit and accepting of the things that help us grow. This clearly carries the implication that as our knowledge of faith matures, as we gain more intellectual insight into its meaning in our relationship with God, the process is nurtured, cultivated, and enhanced by our openness and acceptance to ways beyond reason and logic which strengthen and reinforce it. Put another way, our faith grows by the learning imported mutually through the affective domain and the cognitive domain. Faith both knows and feels! I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that a mature faith must have both.
If what I believe resides wholly in my head, faith becomes a problem to be solved, a theory to be proved. But emotion, though lacking the stability of logic, gives human spirit, life, and compassion to faith. In truth, our faith may not be able to grow deeper without feelings.
The art of the spiritual life: toknow that what we cannot do will be done for us; what we cannot meet will be met for us. We must accept this and live it.
St. Thomas Aquinas says the extreme of the human knowledge of God is toknow that we don’t know God. But if we know and accept that(i.e. what we cannot do or meet will be done or met by God) then we do know something of Him. We know that He is a being that fills all our voids if we let Him; and letting Him do that is the art of the spiritual life.
The futile results of pursuing our knowledge of God do not deter us. We pursue it with great hope – great hope that He will reveal tiny bits of Himself to us if we are receptive – and He will! The very action of our doing this is our relationship with God. It is our spiritual life.
There are “Jesus-gimmicks” which pop up now and then which I generally dismiss as fad or fashion; but one that I truly buy into is the current T-shirt-bumper sticker-bracelet question: “What Would Jesus Do?” The answer, in almost every instance, is “Let Go and Let God.” This is what You would do: trusting that what we cannot do or meet will be done or met for us by God. This is the life of the spirit. This is what You showed us and taught us about our relationship with God.
There is only one way to best characterize God’s ultimate act of love for humanity: He continually allows Himself to be handed over to mankind.
Throughout the history of our relationship with God, He turns Himself over to men time after time. He subordinates His will into the hands of men. He trusts men to treat Him fairly and attentively. Historically He not only hands Himself and His will into the hands of men, but He hands Himself physically, in the person of You, into the hands of men – and You hand Yourself over to the whims of Your peers. Handing Himself over is the supreme expression of God’s action toward mankind. It is the most exemplary model left for us to follow. It is the mark of the saints to be handed over in the way God hands Himself over to us.
Any day in our lives offers us plenty of chances to hand ourselves over to others, to You – to say “yes.”That is what handing ourselves over is about. It’s about saying “yes” when our stronger inclination is to say “no.” The key that unlocks the door to spiritual growth as well as the depository of God’s grace is the word “yes” and then handing over ourselves. Handing ourselves over is a fundamental tenet of Christianity, and Christianity is the following in Your footsteps. There is little that works better in diminishing the self than handing oneself over to others. If we would reflect on this idea of handing ourselves over we would come to realize how love, trust, and humility come into play and how elemental these virtues are in seeking You.