It is not I but You who take the initiative in our relationship. All the things I do are sparked by You – not me! I have but to say, “Here I am, Lord. Speak to me.”
In each and every one of us Your initiative resides. When it touches our consciousness we are moved, and often that movement nudges us to act. When we act we mistakenly see the initiative as our own. We give ourselves credit for what, in fact, came from Your Spirit. The only credit we might claim for ourselves is our openness to Your initiatives; but because Your initiatives are graces it is quite possible that the grace to be open to them is itself from Your initiative. This leads us to contemplate the possibility that there is nothing that is good that doesn’t flow from Your initiative – nothing!
Thus, what is not good must flow from some other source. There must be an initiative for what is not good. Enter the concept of the devil – the evil one who comes in many forms, each of which initiates our perceptions of various evils as goods. But it is our perception that is the filter. If we are disposed to perceive the bad as good we override Your initiative and follow our own. The disposition to adhere to such perceptions is the result of our placing our initiative before Yours, and this disposition is magnified the less we make You a part of our lives during life’s journey. We become accomplices in what is not good, but the initiative is not Yours. We often speak of God’s initiative in man as “God’s will.” It is in this sense that we seek an ever-clearer understanding of the will of God that urges us to respond to His initiatives with the words, “Here I am, Lord. Speak to me.”
Almost everything our senses take in, apart from that which is blatantly evil, is, in some way related to God. This point is shored up by simply taking the time to stop and think about it. James Finley in his book, The Contemplative Heart, says that even the things taken in by our senses that annoy or irritate us may realistically be considered as the sights and sounds of peoples’ lives as they travel their own journeys.
One can talk of the simplest and most neglected things and, if reflected upon, they can be related to God. Oxygen is related to breathing which is related to life which is God’s gift. Food is related to energy and strength which is related to movement and activity by which we are enabled to do God’s will. Being raised, nurtured, and educated is related to intelligent thought and reasoning by which we make decisions and choices which come from our will which is God’s gift. Even the urge to be grateful is God’s gift. Then too, and maybe most consequentially, there are the faults, weaknesses, and mistakes, as well as the virtues, strengths, and accomplishments of other people whose lives, again, are God’s gifts.
I could go on like this for many seldom-considered things that each, in one way or another, is related to God. What it all pretty much amounts to is that everything good has a purpose, and that purpose can somehow be traced back to the God who pronounced His creation “good.”. Every thing and every one is a link in the long chain of cause-and-effect that stretches onward from the First Cause. When things are thoughtfully considered in this light we dispose ourselves to make insightful, cosmic discoveries about the dynamics of existence. And where does it all terminate? What is the “end,” the final effect? We are not sure, but I believe it is perfect union with God forever.
It’s true that we just can’t fully know God. It’s beyond the capability of the human intellect. But there isn’t a one of us who doesn’t have an impression of God. That impression is usually based on two things: 1) our knowledge of You, Jesus, and 2) the way our own unique individuality relates, reacts, grows, and disposes itself because of faith. It’s this latter I want to write about here.
The way each of us forms our impression of God is not so much by the acceptance of widely known information about Him as it is our personal and individual conception created by our own unique encounter with Him. This may seem to border on the idea that man creates God rather than vice versa; but it must be considered that our encounters with God are not so much initiated by ourselves as they are by God Himself. It is prayer in various forms, and the way we dispose ourselves to it and react to it that provides God with a platform from which to touch our own unique individuality. In silence and stillness it is more like God reveals Himself than we conjure Him up. The thing we are individually capable of providing for Him is that platform; and we do this through all the ways we dispose ourselves to God’s actions within us and talking to Him about it.
Thus, our impression of God is not so much what we conjure as it is that with which God gifts our individual uniqueness. He knows better than we the best ways for us to know Him, and they will come to light if we pray and are open to the action of His Spirit within us.
My unhindered imagination reads the book of Genesis and paints a picture of God’s creative will for this creature of His called “man:” God is love, and love is generative. God gave His love in a sharing of His own image and likeness, the true self of a being not wholly spiritual but flesh and blood encasing God’s Spirit – a “pet” if you will – a being that met His creative will, endowed with a will of its own. And He looked upon it and pronounced it “good.” And He loved its goodness. In fact the key word for the specification to which we were made is “good.” Good meets everything that God intended in this being with whom He shares His love.
If we look thousands of years forward God still sees “good” in His creation, but it is a “good” that suffers from a condition of our own choosing, not His. When God endowed man with a will of his own He graced man’s spirit with the freedom of choice because love is always a choice we make. If genuine it is a deeply spiritual attraction that selects its object freely. God did not need someone to love, but the Spirit of God, which is love, is generative. It generates a being with free will whose true self is so like unto God Himself that he cannot help but be loved greatly by the Love through which he is generated.
But love must be exercised unconditionally if it is fully Godlike – and it must be embraced by choice. God chose, out of love, to also endow His creature with the power of choice while fully knowing the potential of His creature to flaw what was “good.” But without this choice the unconditional aspect of love could never be free. The options were deceptions provided by forces opposed to the “good.” Choosing from this direction sullied the pure unconditional goodness generated by the will of God in His creatures, but the primal spark of that goodness, the urge within us toward that goodness was never extinguished. The more attractive the deceptions became the more wayward became our choices and the greater space we chose to put between our newly fabricated false selves and the fundamental goodness of our true selves.
God provided, in His great unflinching love, redirection for His pets. The analogy to pets limps but we are nonetheless lesser creatures over whom He fawns, Thus, You, dear Jesus, were given to us as One from time eternal who identified perfectly with God’s creative will for man and that will was embodied in You to share in the same flesh and blood as those to whom You were sent. You orchestrated the redirection and lived the acceptance of God’s creative will in ways to exemplify the role of His pets. God does not wish to keep us on a short leash but He allows us to freely choose that option for ourselves. It is through You, Lord, that God gives us everything we need to make that decision.
I pray to You often for Your help in keeping myself constantly close to You, but without much thought on my part as to how to accomplish this. I try to alot times just for You in my daily routines, but they are just snatches against the nitty-gritty "me-first stuff” that fills my days. The real trick I’d like to master is a continued connection with You in the midst of all that nitty-gritty “me first stuff.”
Of course the “me stuff” is inextricably attached to one or another of my false selves. These false selves are the images of myself that I cultivate sometimes for You but mostly for others. It's the me I think others wish me to be. To create and maintain it takes effort and attention – effort and attention that could well be placed elsewhere.
Spiritual writer, Ruth Burrows, has written, “...To be truly living with Jesus each moment we must be able to ask the question, ‘What am I doing and why am I doing it?’ “ These questions themselves are relevant, but the prospect of uttering them to ourselves with every breath seems more inclined to foster a life of paranoia than a relationship of ongoing love.
The reality of the urge to keep a constant connection with You is spectral. Its practice is shaded by worldly concerns. However the example of Your own life has shown us that sometimes our worldly concerns, when placed in the hands of God with us as His instruments, can be the gateway to keeping ourselves close and connected.
Being Christian means being totally absorbed in a milieu in which You are at the center of everything. How, then, does one go about defining or describing such a milieu? It is the aura, the ambience that surrounds our wakefulness. It is the atmosphere we inhale. To be totally absorbed by it means to be spiritually and sentiently conscious every possible moment of the core and essence of our being. If, in this way, You are the constant center of our milieu, we are Yours – we are Christian!
When we constantly navigate our daily routines within this milieu we habitually encounter You in varying measures of our thoughts, words, and actions. With conscious effort and practice we become better and better at this until that milieu becomes the atmosphere of life itself.
It is often difficult, but never impossible, to see or hear something or someone and connect the reports of our senses directly with this milieu. It’s true that we don’t often speak of the factor of this milieu in the cultivation of a generally spiritual or, even more specifically, Christian, life. I think, in other terms, it is often referred to as life in the Spirit. This Spirit is both the grace by which we are motivated toward the good as well as the gravitational attraction of Your love for us.
There is, of course, what we might feebly use words to describe as the heavenly milieu after this life. The difference would seemingly be this: it would not be an aura, ambiance, or atmosphere in which our bodies, minds, and senses swim to the rhythms of life, but rather we would become absorbed into the reality of the Divine Presence – not a milieu!
In writing about the nature of man, Thomas Merton has said, “...it is the obscure but insistent demand of [man’s] nature to transcend itself...” In a person who is genuinely committed to seeking his/her true self; i.e. the image and likeness of God, there is an inevitable struggle that presents itself. The struggle is between that inner compulsion to transcend our own nature that Merton speaks of and the routine cycles of human life that are part and parcel of our false selves.
From birth to death we compile routines, habits, and activities of busyness that become the self we seek to transcend. But we persist in doing it. We persist in adding baggage to our false selves. So, if we say we are serious in growing in our relationship with You we come to the reality of the dichotomy between the genuine urge we have to transcend our own nature and the proclivity of that nature to root itself in a progression of false selves. The realization of that point is the necessary beginning to our transcendence, for we must first grasp the obstacles before us before we can will to overcome them. But we live in a country where activity is an idol. So steeped are we Americans in a culture of efficient busyness that we don’t often recognize it as something to be overcome.
The transcendence that beckons from deep beneath our pile of accumulated baggage (once we realize that that’s what it is) can only be approached by the steady removal of everything that overlays Your image and likeness in us.
How do we transcend the human nature we have most frequently chosen to follow? The answer is simply and clearly addressed in Brian McLaren’s book, Naked Spirituality. He quotes another spiritual writer, Evelyn Underhill, when he talks about “the sacrament of the Present Moment.” God, he says, always comes to you in the sacrament of the Present Moment. The saints are saints, primarily, because they constantly partook of this sacrament. Partaking of it means we present ourselves as being present to God as He presents Himself to us. Here I am, Lord. Here are You. Here are we.
When I was a kid I considered people who were as old as I am now, ancient! Then, I didn’t think much about the life before me. Now, I frequently think about the life behind me. The most recurring thought is whether that past life has been of value to anyone else but me. The narrower the gap between where I am now and my demise the more I think not of what’s left before me but what I have left in the past. Yet, maybe my childhood approach should be visited with more regularity. Maybe it’s another aspect of what You referred to when You said we must become like little children – living in the present moment and not being concerned about what’s before me and what’s behind me.
Thomas Merton says our lives gain relevance and truth in proportion to how much everything we do relates to being a child of God. I think what that means is that our reliance upon God in the present moment is like our reliance upon the protection, love and guidance we feel in the moment we’re holding the hand of our own daddy. In the presence of daddy a child feels confidence, security, and dependence. He/she is buoyed up by the present moment in which this connection with daddy is made. This feeling, at this time, tends to push away the past or the future.
If we can consistently imagine that we are holding God’s hand and He is holding ours in everything we do, the truth and relevance of our pasts, presents, as well as our futures is all the same. How can a person doubt the relevance of one’s life if he/she has gone through it holding the hand of God? How can our lives not be other-centered with You as our guide? If, as the song says, “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” we need never worry about the relevance of our lives.
In my own life especially, but also in the lives of others I see an ongoing, unconscious tendency to look ahead to “ what’s next?” Oh, yes, we vividly conjure up past memories but we are extolled in our spiritual lives to live in the present – in the moment. But the truth is we very often direct our thoughts to the future. Trying to plan the future is a cunningly deceptive task full of pitfalls because we haven’t yet experienced it . It exists in our imaginations only. It holds no certainty. Yet we delight in planning it, controlling it, and basking in what our imaginations create of it. I’m not just talking about the distant future either. We so often do this simply on a day-to-day basis within our own routines.
Engaging in this practice as we do is not just a source of imaginative circumstances that delight us but also a very real source of anxiety and worry. In our concern for the future we are yet grounded enough to know that the delightful or comfortable circumstances we imagine may, in reality, turn out disastrous. This means we’ve lost control. Our imaginations have erred. Knowing this possibility is stressful. Thus it would seem that, indeed, the present moment is as far as we should go. It is neither the filmy recollections of the factual yet unchangeable past, nor the opaque musings of an uncertain future – it is reality!
Nonetheless, I find a fountain of conversational topics in recollections of the past, and, I am equally guilty of projecting my imagination upon the next ten minutes, tomorrow, next week, or next year. When I open my eyes in the morning, not knowing anything of what this day, in fact, will bring, my mind immediately jumps ahead and begins to lay out plans for the next 16 hours. This is close to the present but not exactly it. Sometimes things happen that upset the flow of what my imagination conjured for that day. When that happens things get jumbled and confused. But I keep doing it each morning because most of the time a day plays out the way I see it. If I am so irresistibly compelled to do this and navigate the risks it entails, and if I struggle with placing You in the present, then I should at least give You a constant place in every aspect of my futures.
I want to talk to You about something that’s not possible for me to do. I’d venture a guess that it’s not possible for the overwhelming majority of human beings. It’s about being able to stop measuring time. When one stops to think of it, because of our mortality, measuring time is a rather grim affair. I really wish I could stop doing it. But living in this world, in this culture, pretty much prevents it. All one can do is try to imagine what life would be like without measuring time – and even that is hard to do! The ubiquitous clock and calendar dog us throughout life. We laugh at the lack of a concept of time in older folks who grapple with senility. But I sometimes think it must be nice.
Spiritual writers talk a lot about learning to live in “the present moment” – the “now.” Whenever that is possible the measurement of time becomes suspended; and that’s a good thing in our relationship with You. The ability to ignore the distractions of the clock and calendar enables us to focus more intensely on You in that moment of “now.” But it takes a great deal of practice and it is not sustainable for us. It’s as if we were only meant to experience it in small, euphoric snatches at a time – or, should I say, “out of time.”
In the gloriously “wasted time” of contemplation we sometimes briefly experience moments of “no time.” In the “now-ness” of listening to or performing a certain passage of music we may also experience moments outside of all time. And then, most obviously, in the dreams of our sleep, measurements of time melt away.
If all the clocks and calendars in the world were removed I’m sure we’d still find a way of measuring time – perhaps the sun, moon, and stars. It’s what we humans do! But within our humanity there is the faint, undeveloped ability to experience flashes outside all measurements of time. Within the flash of “now” we enter Your time – no time! All else swiftly and sweetly drops away. The gossamer reality of “no time” comes, it seems, as a kind of surprise-grace from You -- a foretaste of eternity.