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Posted by on Jan 21, 2015

Gift: The Foundation of All Reality

Gift: The Foundation of All Reality

Gift of FlowersFor a Christian, “gift” is a term for the very foundation of all reality. God in him/herself is gift. The Trinity is by definition fundamentally constituted as a Reality of love which is self-donating. Each Person of the Trinity delights in giving of Himself to the Other and receiving Love from the Other. There is the oddest paradox in this for the human observer. The most majestic Reality with endless glory is also the most humble. And, the greatest delight is to be able to please the Other with the gift of the Self. This sense of gift as the center of Sacred Reality turns the human sense of power on its head. Real power is surrender.

The Scriptures are full of texts describing God’s gifts to humanity. Psalm 118: 25 reads, “The Lord is God and has given us light.” In Isaiah 61: 3 we see, “to give them oil of gladness in place of mourning.” In the New Testament we find reference to spiritual gifts given either for the inner growth of individuals or the Church or for their outer growth, i.e. out in the world (Romans 12, I Cor. 12, Ephesians 4, I Peter 4). All agree that these gifts cannot be earned but are freely given by God and that there is great diversity of gifts.

In the area of Christian spirituality there are many texts that speak of God’s gifts to humanity that are not reserved only for certain people but are the true destiny of all lovers of God. In the Living Flame of Love, John of the Cross describes the highest kind of human development as the gift from God in which a person is so transformed into God’s likeness that the person loves God with a love that is far beyond natural human love (Stanza III, para. 79-81). This experience of loving God with God’s love causes amazing joy to the person because the qualities of love within God’s love, which the person has and gives, are more beautiful and splendid than anything which a human could imagine, create, or give. At this point in the spiritual life, the person has a completely developed sense of his or her smallness relative to God and yet knowledge of the respect and admiration that God has for him or her. The person, though, knows that its love is finite but can forge forward in faith trusting that the finite love can and is transformed by God into an intimate and reciprocal relationship.

The entirety of Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle is about the desire for and reception of gifts from God. Teresa writes of “favors” (mercedes) and “gifts” (regalos). Throughout the book, as she describes the transformation of the soul, Teresa is urging her readers to seek union with God and presents the blessings that will come at every stage even though growth will often be difficult. She makes it clear that God puts desires in us to sustain us. And, that if we are experiencing desire, that is a sign that God intends to give us what we long for. The word “gift” is especially important in the context of Christian spirituality because it emphasizes the priority of God. For Christians, God calls us, desires good things for us, especially intimacy with God, and gives us the strength to stay on the journey to the fulfillment of this gift. We do not make holiness happen.

A belief about human life that has existed from the beginning of the Biblical texts but is growing today is that everything in our lives is a gift. This can be hard to take because it includes what we experience as loss and pain. It also includes people and circumstances that we normally see as unacceptable — annoying people, dirty people, failure, embarrassment, hurt. For those who can embrace the whole of life as a gift, the fact of being alive is good unconditionally. This vision requires us to admit that we do not see the whole picture. We judge things that hurt or seem wrong as objectively bad. Setbacks, challenges and tragedies seem pointless or unacceptable. They certainly do not seem to be gifts. At times we get a glimpse that things have happened for a reason or that a greater good came because something painful preceded it and opened the way to a different choice or path. God’s love for us is often difficult to understand and accept, let alone celebrate. But, Isaiah 55 states, “My ways are not your ways, says the Lord.” It’s a gift to be able to surrender to this.

Every day is a gift. Every day is another opportunity to learn more and more, to give glory to God, and to be happier. When Jesus speaks about giving peace to us in the Gospel of John he is not saying that we will not suffer. He is saying that the gift he wants to give us is to know him and experience his love for us in the middle of our lives. He is calling us to take up our cross, a strange gift perhaps but certainly the way to glory.

Public domain image from Pixabay

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Posted by on Dec 18, 2014

Incarnation: Why Is It Important to Us?

Incarnation: Why Is It Important to Us?

Christ the Savior -Pantocrator
What does the Incarnation mean and why is it important to us?

“Incarnation” literally means “to put into flesh.” In the case of Christ, the term points to the differences among a sacred being who could have been a guest in the created and physical world, one who was united to the physical world, and one who became physical while yet also remaining sacred.   Christ is the latter. He is fully human and fully divine.

Why did God speak his love for us so completely that his talk to the Earth became the enfleshment of the Second Person of the Trinity?

The main reason is that God’s self-communication to us in the natural world (within our minds and consciences) and in divine revelation to the Jewish people (in writings known as the Bible) had not brought humans to justice, compassion and holiness. The historical context of Jesus in first century Palestinian life was the perfect time, place and culture in which the precursors to exceptional human insight and conversion were in place. The fact of sin had by then been explored. The need for salvation was painfully obvious.

Jesus was not a second rate emanation from God. He also was not just a new face or action of a non-Trinitarian God. He is “begotten not made.” He is “one with the Father and the Holy Spirit.” He is the Earthly reality of the pre-existent second person of the eternal Trinity. So, because of these facts, Jesus is a reality that confronted both the Greek and the Jewish worlds of his day: the worlds of multiple and separate deities and the world of one, single sacred reality.

As one of the three persons of the Trinity Jesus shared the divine essence and inter-communication, but in the mystery of the Incarnation his full humanity caused his awareness of this to lie in the background of his consciousness. He learned, planned, acted, and suffered just as we do. He was a fully human person who thought, prayed and regretted as we do. He assumed all the joys and indignities of this life. He was like us “in all things but sin.” He took it all on and therefore redeemed it all. He let evil have the final word in the Earthly sense and then surrendered to the Father who made it good.

What Jesus did was not just good in his regard but rather, because he was fully human and divine, he transformed humanness. He brought humanity into a completely new state and relationship with the Trinity. With God’s grace we are both redeemed and able to know it.

We are called to be like God (Genesis 1). We are called to rejoice in the Incarnation and give profound thanks because we can know and love God and grow in closeness to him.

 

For more on this topic, read:
“Incarnation” from the Encyclopedia of Theology: The Concise Sacramundi Mundi.

A Christological Catechism: New Testament Answers, by Joseph A. Fitzmyer, SJ
Elizabeth A. Johnson’s  Consider Jesus is also excellent.

Image: Christ the Savior (Pantocrator), 6th century image from St. Catherine’s Monastery, Mt Sinai

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Posted by on Oct 24, 2013

Seeking God, Decision-Making and the Ignatian Examen

Seeking God, Decision-Making and the Ignatian Examen

three-candles-by Alice Birkin

Finding Peace and Freedom

We cannot find peace if we are arguing with God in whatever form we perceive the sacred. The Divine Reality loves us without reservation. We cannot find happiness and peace in any other place. Even non-believers will only find peace in the Reality that has created the universe and encloses all of it within Itself. God has given everything in the universe love and freedom. God’s love is total. It encompasses everything that promotes our growth and transformation. We have been created for union with this sacred reality, so we learn and experience during all our lives ways to be like God: to be knowing, understanding, wise, discerning, reverent, courageous and in awe of the transcendent. Everything in the universe has degrees of freedom. The nature of everything determines the degrees of freedom. I cannot flap wings and fly. I cannot breathe under water just as I am. I will always be a middle child. But, there are many ways in which I can determine my course in life, work with limitations or with strengths.

As I live my life I have many possibilities before me. I also have a certain amount of freedom. If I believe in the reality of God, I see myself in a relationship with God, a God who is close or distant. All religious and spiritual traditions have concepts of the relationship of human powers and divine powers. These relationships involve change, improvement, decision, freedom, human failure, consequences and divine intervention. The theological terms often used for these phenomena are: conscience or consciousness, grace, nature, discernment, acts, harm or sin and moral good, and judgment or karma.  If I am thinking about getting more money I have a number of reasons as to why I want more money, what I possibly want to do to get money, and what the pros and cons are with various options. I can look at the decision from many angles. I can line up my ideas and come up with what I think will work the best. I can talk to others or read various sources. I can also present this to God in prayer and say: “Please tell me what You see as best for me.”

This is not easy to do because most people feel that God does not think of my little side to things; God is only interested in the Bigger Picture and saints or martyrs. In fact, God is very interested in individuals. God as most Westerners conceive of God is a personal Reality who sees us fully and knows exactly what would make us happy. We are still not too sure about that because it sounds too mature for us. Attending to our health and saving money may sound difficult, so long term happiness planning may seem very hard. I am the first to say that buying something new sounds like fun. But, wanting to surrender to God as our source of wisdom and a guide is the only way to have peace.  We are also very rational in the West and often think God is so intangible or un-provable as to be neither reliable nor a reality with which we can have a two-way communication.

Time for Centering

Taking time each day to practice centering in God for the direction of our day and our lives is necessary. There are many ways to do this: journaling, walking a labyrinth, and having a spiritual counseling session are ways to think and pray through where I am in my life, where I feel drawn, and what God sees in me that I might benefit from.  Another way to have an experience of being counseled by God is the Ignatian Examen.

Very briefly, sit quietly and think of or imagine things you are truly grateful for. They can be big or small: Clean sheets, good food, your dog, ways you have been loved, accomplishments, a family member or friend, your house or job etc.  Tell God what you are grateful for. See, if God has given you things you are grateful for: a rescue in life, money you needed, safety, a trip you took.  Then think of the things in yourself or your life which you have chosen that have harmed you, undermined your well being, or side-tracked you.  These can also be big or small: being resentful, feeling superior, or not being willing to do something new that you need to do. Ask God to help you with these fears or hurts that have held you away from Him. Lastly, ask God how you can spend the next part of your day or life doing what is best.  You will get answers. You can surrender to what is best and see how much more peace-filled you are. I do this every day, sometimes more than once. I act on what I hear and I am much more at peace.

Image: Three Candles by Alice Birkin, public domain

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Posted by on Oct 16, 2013

Self-Donation is not Self-Mutilation: The Spiritual Practice of Attention to Others

Self-Donation is not Self-Mutilation: The Spiritual Practice of Attention to Others

 

good-friends by George Hodan - public domain

Self-donation and attention to others

Self-donation is the spiritual practice of attention to others. It does not refer to any sort of self-mutilation or injury but rather to the self-control and self-knowledge that allows one person to be attentive to another person.

Attention to others can be extremely difficult. Giving up time for others can feel stressful. There are two things that strike me about these two possibilities. In my own experience I am often in the presence of another person and cannot give him or her my full attention for even 5 minutes! Secondly, my stress is often due to my creating a stressful lifestyle. If I procrastinate with doing stressful but important tasks, then I am jumpy. I have clever avoidance behaviors when faced with things at work such as updating the database (which I dislike) or writing Thank You notes (which are absolutely necessary and can quickly become a huge mountain). I have to do an Examen (an important Ignatian spiritual practice for me) every day in order to commit to a schedule for the day. I decide what time I need to go to bed that night. I set up what I want or need to accomplish that day. I work my way back to where I am in the day. I decide if I will exercise. If I do not do this I get into really negative schedules. I have a background which makes me anxious, so I have to avoid avoiding!

“Avoid avoiding” and “focus” as spiritual practices?

What has this got to do with being attentive to others? When I allow myself to avoid things I do not like or to procrastinate, I am more anxious or depressed. When I feel that way I cannot be at peace. When I feel this way I do not focus on people. I am restless. If I keep referring myself to God or Jesus (in the Examen, for example) knowing that with God’s help I am keeping my commitment, I feel pleased with life and myself.  I get the things done in a day that I need to do. I do both uncomfortable and fun tasks. I get enough sleep. I do the Tai Chi, stretching or core strengthening I need that day. I eat the right things — even the Kale and Collard Greens I need for my liver and to keep my blood sugar down for my “prevent diabetes” regime. I read a few pages from each book I want to finish. I also have time now to go to an older friend’s apartment and give her a massage that she needs. I don’t feel deprived and we enjoy the time together. I hone my acupressure skills and she feels better.

A second thing I have learned is that I often do not really attend to others even when I have the time. I have a habit of letting my mind jump around, trying to think of something clever or even attention-getting to say. I also feel the need to fix another’s situation. But, the more mature part of me just wants to affirm others. I do not have to impress them. Maybe a natural sacrifice would be to listen and support others, not have an opinion? I think others often just want someone to really listen.

Discernment in everyday experiences

Authentic self-donation or self-giving does not have to harm me. I can discern if I would enjoy it. I also can tell if I am over-scheduled and creating anxiety for myself. I can ask God in prayer to show me what he dreams for me. He may want me to buy a greeting card for someone and send it off or maybe he prefers I just draw a squiggle on a piece of paper and say I love you and I am praying for you and mail that.  I feel called to give people quality attention when I am with them. For me that is a key spiritual practice.

It also can be a contemplative experience in the Ignatian sense of the term. I have discovered lately that when I am in some conversations, part of my mind can have a simultaneous conversation with God. I have said to God in abbreviated ways things such as: “Should I say ….. to her?” and I get an answer. I receive very brief images from God or feelings related to the person. Those words, images or feelings are easy to interpret and help me attend to the other and not to focus on me. I feel very loved by God when I am willing to be there for the other. It is about surrender to being loving. It is a gift to the other and a gift to me.

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Posted by on Sep 19, 2012

The First Fruit of the Spirit is Love

The First Fruit of the Spirit is Love

Driftwood Flowers

Writing about LOVE is daunting. What can one say about it that has not already been said? How many songs and poems, plays and stories have been written about it?

But the hesitation about this is based on a false premise. The false premise is that our lives and thoughts are set and not constantly changing. Change scares us but change also frees us and gives us hope.  So, LOVE is always new in us. Everyday we grow and greet life with new thoughts and feelings. These may be negative, but even if they are, we are exploring new ways to reach for love, to know love, to experience love, to be angry at love.

Recently I was wrestling with the tremendous variety in love. From the Greeks forward we know the ancient spectrum of types of love: from pleasure to sacrificial spiritual love — pure altruism.  I have always considered the “ideal love” — the purely altruistic love — the standard against which I judge my feelings and actions. I put myself down for having “Mixed Motives.” I see that I often pursue people for double motives. I may want to help that person or validate that person, but he or she also makes me feel good or important or useful. Does that nullify my help to them? From the point of view of suffering, especially suffering from things such as depression or trauma, the love of things we enjoy, including relationships and sexuality, is rare and to be sought. Many people enjoy very little. If they could get pleasure out of a painting or a meal, it would be a good thing, possibly a very holy thing. So, love should not be interpreted as something free of my concerns or enjoyment. It is possible both to please God and others and also please myself.

Teilhard de Chardin, in The Divine Milieu, speaks of being both attached and detached at the same time. We should love what we do or enjoy but we at the same time must surrender control over the processes or outcomes. Love involves the risk of caring, of getting involved. But if an affinity or pursuit is taking us away from God, we have to detach ourselves from it. So, love includes the maturity of wisdom, of surrendering to what is best, not just to what I want.

Love is said to be generous. Paul in I Corinthians 13 presents a description of extraordinary generosity and lack of ego, patience and kindness. How can love be so generous and still please me? There is a double answer to this. First, we believe that everything is grace. The very ability to love without counting the cost to us, is a sign of God’s work in us. So, being able to do loving actions is a sign that God is close. Secondly, it is a very good thing to see ourselves as loving. We don’t need to feel like failures at life. It is not a prideful thing to know ourselves as happy, as someone who is doing well, or as someone who enjoys giving in appropriate ways.

Love requires discernment. When love is expressed as giving, it can be beneficial but it can also be harmful. Actions that seem to help people may actually be robbing people of their independence or need to do things on their own. Loving actions may be good in themselves, such as cooking a meal for the homeless, but not actually be loving because I may really need to use that time to do something else, such as study for an exam.  As we all know, sometimes the most loving thing is not to do something or not to say something. I cringe at the thought of letting my children make mistakes; but, not trying to control them or lecture them, now that they are grown, is a very loving thing.

Love is often a decision, not a feeling. Putting my mother in a skilled nursing facility was a very painful thing for me. It was the very best thing to do given her level of medical difficulty and my need to work full time. It was a loving thing to do especially since I had visited and researched all the possible facilities and knew my mother’s likes and dislikes. Every step of the way I had to be supportive and creative with my mother’s reactions to her new home, which turned out to be multiple. As she aged and grew more ill, I tried to find the best fit for her in residences. I met a number of people in the same situation who also were making hard decisions that nevertheless were out of love. For the last nine months of her life I drove 40 miles from work to where my mother lived just about every day. She was in pain and often unhappy. I could not fix her or her situation with my love for her. I decided to be there, listen to her and solve whatever problems I could. I wanted to take her off her cross. Oddly enough, that would not have been loving.

Real love always involves some suffering. By its very nature it involves attachment to who or what is loved and when that person or thing leaves, dies or deteriorates we suffer. That is not wrong, but it does hurt.

Love also involves longing. Built into our spirit is the desire to be united to what we love. We feel separation all the time. In developing our own identities we do so in relation to others who are separate from us. It is necessary and good to be our unique selves, but it is also taxing. We sometimes feel that we want to fall back into union with our mothers, or mother images of infancy so that we can get out from under all the responsibilities and worries of life. We also long to be truly known as we really are. We want unconditional love.  These feelings are in all of us and good in themselves. In this life our task is to become our true selves. We travel through a series of experiences which challenge and teach us. One of the things that draws us forward is the desire to be known and loved. God is in the midst of all these experiences — knowing and loving us. The more we see how God loves us into growth, the more we can love this way in our lives. This love can be both sensitive and harsh. If we mediate on the Gospels we can see these two expressions of love in the way that Jesus lived and how he related to people. We can see how he relates to us, to me.

This sense of God’s personal love for me is sustaining. Its gentle and challenging aspects make sense to me. In The Living Flame of  Love, John of the Cross, speaks of God wounding us to get our attention in order to purify and heal us. Love is not always pretty but it is the most important thing in life.

Public Domain image by Christina Spiegeland

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Posted by on Jul 21, 2012

The Fruit of the Spirit: A way to live a transformed life

The Fruit of the Spirit: A way to live a transformed life

 

In his letter to the Galatians (5:22-23), Paul speaks of the “Fruit” of the Spirit. He uses this term in the singular, implying there is just one fruit, with nine aspects or expressions. In Galatians, Paul rejects a meticulous observance of multiple laws as a way to be righteous before God. In contrast, the “one fruit” is transformation in the Spirit, which blossoms into many virtues. The word “fruit” probably alludes to the image in the Bible of a person of virtue being like a tree which is rooted in living water and bears fruit (Ps. 1) or to trees that are cut down and burned because they do not bear fruit (Luke 13).

The idea of conversion and transformation is intriguing in our 21st century world. We have an increasingly secular society which presses us to talk about God in empirical ways. If we can’t prove that God exists in a mode measurable by our senses, then God is dismissed as a product of the imagination. Another common interpretation of belief in God is that the image of God is the fulfillment of a psychological need. In this world, the idea that God is attractive or that I would allow God to have control of my life is either inconceivable or not of importance. Transformation or change for most 21st  century people means that I change myself. It could also include help by others, such as a therapist or doctor. The only limitation to change in this world is a lack of will or skill, either on my part or on that of my helpers. There is the sense that given enough time, a solution to all problems can be found within the scope of human means.

From a Christian point of view, there are limitations and forms of harm that cannot be remedied by human effort. Transformation in this context presupposes an experiential relationship with God. It is the opposite of fixing myself. Transformation implies that I accept my limitations and let myself hear the voice of God, both inside myself and externally. The fruits are then part of the dance between God and me. I cannot make myself love heroically, but I can approach that kind of love if I am enlightened and empowered by the Spirit. I may naturally approach life in a positive way, but the basis of hope and courage in the face of great difficulty is God, whether I know it or not.

Interestingly enough, this topic came up in a conversation very recently with a sister in a religious community who told me that at the homeless program where she works in Portland, the people speak often about their experience of God. Many of them feel God’s presence and God’s love for them. They pray often to God and recognize God helping them. They do not feel alone. So, those who are the least fortunate and have very few comforts experience God’s power in their lives and can let God help them. It is so often the case that those we usually judge as the most blessed do not report a sense of closeness or awareness of God. In my seminars for professionals in the corporate world, it is rare to have someone tell me of the comfort of closeness to God in the day to day, even in private conversations we have about faith. Jesus asks us to become open like children and to come to him for help with our burdens. How hard that is.

The Fruit of the Spirit – Image by Terri Holaday – Public Domain

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Posted by on Jul 3, 2012

The Seventh Gift: Awe and Wonder (Fear of the Lord)

The Seventh Gift: Awe and Wonder (Fear of the Lord)

Baby Galaxies in the Night Sky

When I stare at the night sky, especially if I am out in the country, I get almost overwhelmed at the immensity of the universe.  I am in awe of the beauty of the stars and then amazed at a God who can create and manage such an enormous and complex reality and yet be with me personally.  One billion galaxies!  Possibly two billion.

Even if a person does not believe in God as the reality defined in traditional religious terms, the beauty of the night sky, the roar of water down a canyon, the amazing chatter of birds and animals can take the breath away — almost bring one to tears.

The gift of AWE AND WONDER helps us to know and to feel that God is the fulfillment of everything we desire.  That there exists  perfect love — perfect knowledge, goodness, power, action, discretion, justice, healing.  With this gift we perceive the mystery that God is.  We realize that there is an aspect of the Sacred, the transcendent, that we cannot know on this side of death, but that we get glimpses of such majesty and glory.  We see that God can know, interact with, and sustain billions of people.   It’s amazing.  You either believe it or you don’t.  If you believe in such a possibility then it is mind blowing.  My particularities matter.  I am fully known.  Nothing is impossible.

In 1974 When Annie Dillard published Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, it made two inaccessible worlds available to an entirely new audience.  The first world was the natural world known in a scientific way.  All of a sudden cells and their biochemistry, ecosystems, the interdependence of species, and the rhythms of nature were explained in lay terms and could be understood and celebrated.  Secondly, this joy and excitement was not just intellectual but also solidly spiritual.  There was no separation of the secular from the sacred.  The world was whole and we felt whole in it.  How nice!  My body and the whole physical realm was God’s love and creativity writ big in the awesome processes of life in mitochondria,  chloroplasts, T cells, blood, genes, the periodic table, and atomic particles.

Dillard took all the lovely words, images and sounds of a poet like Gerard Manley Hopkinsand showed us the genius of God, down to the most minute details.  Hopkins’ dramatic words: grandeur, greatness, ooze, dearest freshness, dappled, brinded, original, spare, and strange now showed the grandeur of God as Dillard explained the incredible scientific reality of ooze and freshness, dappled and brinded.  She also opened up very wide the whole subject of suffering and death and gave the reader a new perspective on the meaning and purposes of both.  As a spiritually anemic graduate student, I soaked up the theology of Dillard’s book and saw for the first time the consistency of God in the natural and supernatural realms.  How could God have a cycle of growth, disintegration and integration in the natural realm and not have one in the spiritual realm?  What was all that talk of planting, pruning, cultivating and harvesting in the Bible all about if God was not also doing it in society and in my soul? And was God a genius in nature and then mindless and distant in the spiritual world?  No, we can and do find God in the wonder of the universe and in the many parallel things we know in our lives.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning speaks of awe when she says, “Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God; But only he who sees takes off his shoes.”  Having Awe and Wonder is not automatic.  It is a gift.  We can be so over-indulged or over-stimulated that we miss beauty or grandeur.  Last Sunday morning I saw a small fox trot by a glass door of a building where I was in a meeting.  It was very close.  The sun was shining through its translucent tail all colorful and fluffy.  What a pointy nose and whiskers!  Wonderful round dark  eyes.  Such a lovely animal.  So light on its feet.  I couldn’t dismiss it.  It made my day.  God is near.

 

Red Fox

The fox looked back at us as he or she trotted on.  I wanted to go with it as it ran into the woods.  In Psalm 139 it says that we are wonderfully made.  Yes, we are.  Sometimes squirrely and difficult;  other times sleek and dolphin-like.  But we are all wonderfully made, “The work of his hands.”   And, awe, wonder and gratitude are our best response.  Hopefully we can at times “Take off our shoes” at the thought of all this splendor.  Maybe we can shake off the darkness of this world a little as we drink in “all this juice and all this joy”!

 

Image of the fox from wpclipart.com – public domain.
Image of Baby Galaxies from NASA – public domain.

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Posted by on Jun 6, 2012

The Sixth Gift: Reverence

Reverence is rare in American society yet we love to see it.  We are enthralled by dignity in great people.  We appreciate graciousness and care, attention to detail, kindness to the helpless.  We love to gaze on a photo by Ansel Adams of a ray of sunlight coming down on fern beneath redwood trees and ache to be in that very quiet, quiet place.  Many of us love the scent of incense, the intonation of chant, and bowing before the Blessed Sacrament.  All of us, even non-believers feel humbled by special churches or temples.  If I spy a butterfly up close or gaze on a sleeping baby, I feel taken aback by these, I feel reverence.

Reverence is an attitude and feeling of being in the presence of something bigger and more important than we are.  It is not a feeling of unimportance but rather of an encounter with something one admires and wants to honor and respect.  In order to feel reverence for someone or something, I have to have realized that this reality is special and unique.

St. Ignatius of Loyola speaks of reverence a number of times in relation to God.  He links reverence to honor or service.  He is not referring to the idea that one should honor or serve God as a duty.  Rather he is stating that one wants to honor and serve because God is so amazing and humble with respect to us that we cannot but want to reverence Him.  Teresa of Avila refers to Jesus as the Divine Majesty who desires only one thing — that of humble closeness to us.  Julian of Norwich speaks of Jesus who is so courteous with us that He will not force any aspect of himself on us.

Reverence requires that I am able to be grateful and humble.  All of these are gifts.  It is only by the grace of God that we are not blind and obtuse all the time with respect to what God has done and is doing for us. Reverence implies that I have deference for God, that I acknowledge the majesty and superiority of God and feel deeply thankful for God’s attention to me.

This kind of admiration and gratitude is not automatic.  Our daily lives and problems are so all-encompassing and often overwhelming that we feel little relief.  God does not seem involved.  Where is He?  We have a difficult time finding God in the discomfort.  I often resent the fact that God could eliminate my problems in the wink of an eye if he wanted to.  He could do that.  So why doesn’t God construct a world in which there is no pain and suffering?  He allows the struggle to go on because he envisions a far better outcome for us than we can imagine.  He allows all the challenges to purify us because he is the best possible parent.  He lets us make choices and learn from them.  He lets us live in a world that presents growth possibilities — controversies, complications, tragedies, opportunities.  He loves us enough to risk our hating him.

When I realized that God was calling me, dragging me, carrying me, and letting me be beaten by the most awful forces so that I could be stronger and surer, I began to admire him.  When I watched Jesus in the Gospels be ridiculed, baited, criticized, and threatened, I really grew in respect for what an awesome and holy opponent he was.  Jesus was smart, humble, strategic, direct, disarming, and kind.  What a special person just on the human level! I feel the desire to bow before him any time.

Reverence also extends to  how we feel about other human beings.  This is much harder for us because we have encountered so many who are arrogant and ignorant, childish and irrational.  But, God sees a spark of himself in each one.  We also cannot imagine ourselves being anything less than perfect.   It is so easy to perceive the insensitivities of everyone else.  We do in fact feel the abrasiveness of being in relationships.  People are very hard on each other — demanding.  Real love though is not about enjoying only the pretty parts of people.  Real love is reverent.  It hopes in my potential and that of others.  Real love is not arrogant or overbearing.  God calls us to love each other as we want to be loved.  This is a very hard thing to do.  It means that I wish for the other the joys  and respect that I want for myself.  It also means that I am not superior.

In the past twenty years we have also begun to appreciate the importance of the natural world and our dependence on it.  We no longer take for granted our environment.  We see the beauty and complexity of every scientific process within our bodies and every element of the universe.  While not wanting to cling to physicality in a literal way, we do want to reverence it.  The entire process of living, developing and getting nurturance is an amazing interplay of resources, influences, choices, and challenges.  Our bodies, the solar system, atomic particles, and plants and animals are all amazing.  Learning about these realities should help us to appreciate them and to reverence them — from wanting clean water to finding a cure for malaria.

This humility before God, each other and the universe is reverence and it is a gift.

Two saints to read about in regard to this gift if you have not already done so are St. Peter Claver, S.J. and St. Solanus Casey, O.F.M. Cap.

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Posted by on Jun 2, 2012

The Fifth Gift: Courage

Courage comes from the Latin word for heart cor and the French coeur.  To have the heart for something means to be able to face something difficult or frightening and to persevere.  Courage therefore does not mean not being afraid.  It means to be afraid and go ahead and do the right thing anyway.  Plato, Aristotle and Cicero wrote about this virtue as well as others, just as the authors of the Bible did.  They and later philosophers and theologians recognized the importance of courage for the moral life.  Courage is considered the most important of the virtues by many because without it the others cannot be practiced consistently.

There is an interesting and important distinction between the non-Christian and the Christian traditions in the understanding of courage.  The Greeks, Romans, Buddhists, Taoists, Shintoists and others did not/do not believe in grace. They feel that if someone does not have courage, he or she has not been trained properly, has a psychological problem, has a physical illness or is being compromised or harassed by evil spirits. All or one of these may be true, but at base, Christianity teaches that true courage or heroism, which is not self-seeking, is a gift which builds on the other natural human efforts. Christianity often quotes St.  Thomas Aquinas’ famous teaching that “Grace builds on nature.”

In considering courage, the teachings of Aristotle make sense as a foundation. Courage can be taught to a great extent and moderation is important in exercising it.  A person does not have to take risks all the time or confront every fearful thing in order to be morally strong.  On the other hand, it is good to try new things, to face one’s fears and develop parts of the personality that are underdeveloped.  If I want to be able to dance I can take dancing lessons.  If I would like to be able to do public presentations I can get some personal coaching and feel more comfortable.  From the faith perspective, even these decisions are based on the work of the Spirit.  It is the life of the Spirit, the Paraclete, in the world which calls us and empowers us.

At times I may find truly upsetting or frightening situations in my path.  I may face an illness, the addictions of a child, or the possible loss of my job.  Being at peace or thinking clearly may be beyond me.  I can internalize this crisis and work on it by myself or I can consciously offer it to God and ask for help.  I can practice consciously giving it to God over and over and ask for light on it.

I can also use Discernment to identify if any motions are going on inside me that lead to distress.  These powerful negative thoughts can come from my own psychology but often they come from the Enemy (St. Ignatius of Loyola’s, term for the Devil) who loves to undermine us by introducing negative interpretations and scenarios.  St. Paul confronts these deceptions by reminding us that if at all possible we have to counter anything that does not bring peace.  I might be feeling fairly stable even in the middle of a crisis and all of a sudden a thought comes that is very scary.  The thought says: “This might happen.  That might happen.”  Someone who is seasoned in courage will immediately sweep away speculative frightened thinking.  The only thing that matters in a frightening life or event is the question addressed to God: “What should I be doing right now?”  Cultivating a prayer life all the time goes a long way later on when I need to center myself and ask God for courage.

Courage is a grace.  We get the grace when we need it.  The saints who have done heroic things or died as martyrs were given the grace for that at the time.

Courage also may be needed for non-crisis situations.  It may be needed for a long term commitment to something difficult.  Parents who find that they have given birth to a sick baby may need a lot of courage to live day-to-day with this struggling child.  Courage can be called fortitude or perseverance in this case. Caregivers who take care of a spouse with Alzheimers or any severe condition also have need of great courage in order to live out the other gifts of knowledge, understanding and wisdom.  In both cases,watching another suffer without becoming cynical requires the gift of courage.

It is sometimes startling how far life can challenge and stretch us.  The tragedies, injustice, and atrocities can almost strip us clean of hope and energy. Christ had the courage to take the side of goodness and it cost him his life. We can be called to extend ourselves and donate ourselves for the good of another.  Wisdom and Right Judgement can take us to the point of choice but the Gift of Courage will have to take us across the line.

For an excellent movie on courage rent Of Gods and Men about 7 Cistercian monks in Algeria — good casting — fantastic music.

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Posted by on May 31, 2012

A Fourth Gift of the Holy Spirit: Counsel or Right Judgement

A recent issue of the Costco Magazine, The Costco Connection, included an article on Sir James Dyson, inventor of the Dyson vacuum and an number of other products. The article described the history of the development of the vacuum as a way of also relating the process that Dyson went through in the development of his business and his values.  One of the most compelling aspects of the story was Dyson’s clarity about his decision to produce the best vacuum possible.  Sir James went through 13 years of failures (5,127 prototypes), near bankruptcy, 2 lawsuits, rejections, illicit copycats, and supply problems.  But, in it all he knew his concept was right.  He also did not mind working alone.  Now that his product is a huge success (number one in the UK) he is quite happy to let go of total control of his business to a group of engineers.  He is very involved but not hovering.  Dyson has never been concerned with a certain timeline for getting products from concept to marketing.  He told The Connection, “I don’t care how long things take.”  He also states: “Failure is to be celebrated–That’s how we learn.  I learned from each of my mistakes. That’s how I came up with a solution.  So I don’t mind failure.”  There is not a shred of religious talk in this article but it is in fact full of Gospel values and the basic principles of Right Judgement.

This gift of the Holy Spirit was exclusively referred to as Counsel” until the end of the 20th century.  The more recent use of “Right Judgement”  for this gift points to the balance needed in availing oneself of the gift.  “Counsel” has always emphasized the active need for and role of the Holy Spirit in determining the truth and making decisions.  The term “Right Judgement” emphasizes the role of the person.  In Catholic thinking, both God and the person are involved in the constant process of identifying what is real and what is best and correcting one’s course towards these.  Some religious groups emphasize either the sovereignty of God in the process or the sovereignty of the person. Catholicism holds both in balance.  The Tradition is sufficiently optimistic about humanity to affirm the role of free will and yet well aware enough of human weakness to affirm the need for grace.   Another term for this gift is Discernment.

James Dyson speaks of not being afraid of being alone, of failure, of learning new things, or of long processes.  With these values as his foundation, he is in a perfect place to make good decisions.  The only thing he is missing from this life stance is the place of God in his perceptions and actions.  Why does it matter that God be involved if Dyson is so successful and reportedly happy?

In the article, Sir James reports that he loves to invent and has a passion about setting one goal after another and working toward them.  All of that is fantastic on one level.  On another level, one could ask if a person might let God get a word in edgewise about the over-all direction of his life?  The surrender of that basic orientation of life is incomprehensible  to nonbelievers.  The idea that life is a dance with the Spirit is crazy to the successful person in the normal secular context.  Dyson is happy, so why bother with him?  My inclination is to leave him alone, but a large part of me has had a lot of experience with universal human limitation.  By definition, James Dyson (and all of us), does not have access to the sum of his full potential.  At this point, he is controlling all variables of his life as far as he perceives them.  The idea of consciously referring himself to a high reality is not in his view.

In seeking Right Judgement, a person first lives a life as open to the truth as possible.  With specific aspects of life, such as job, relationships, health, education, finances, civic involvement, or faith, a person is expected to do as much as possible to grow in knowledge of these things and self-knowledge in relation to these things.  Beyond this, he or she can bring these things to prayer.  Doing a daily exercise of putting different aspects of life or the way the day has gone in front of God can open up a type of detachment in which one can sort through how a specific part of one’s life or the whole day feels.  If I ask for an openness to my finances I may see that I fritter away money on creative projects that I end up not doing, supplies I never use.  If I ask for an openness to the truth of my health and consistently feel a kind of anxiety about how I eat, I can let this commitment to the truth carry me past the desire not to see the truth and ask to see why I am troubled.  I may like to collect things, but I may never face the fact that as long as I am in debt I should not be buying anything unnecessary. In Right Judgement, I learn to identify my feelings when I entertain helpful ideas or unhelpful ideas.

Two days ago I knew I needed to get gasoline for my car because I was going to go on a trip the next day.  As I got off the freeway to go to a store, I approached a gas station I know well and a voice inside me said that I should go in there right now and get gas.  I absolutely, positively did not want to do that.  I was tired and sick of errands and obligations and wanted to continue up the street to the last errand and get that over with.  I would get gas later (in some vague gas station– who knows where?).  This was just a bald case of procrastination.  My brain forced me off the road into the gas station.  I saw an inner vision of a taller me as a parental figure leaning over me saying, “You will be so messed up tomorrow if you don’t get gas today.  You will be yelling at yourself as you pay 20 cents more per gallon for gas in San Francisco!!  Go get the d…n gas and quit whining.  You will feel so much better.”   It is the same inner conversation when calling for a dental appointment, walking the dogs two miles, or setting up my durable power of attorney.  I do not want to deal with complications (as if procrastinating on these things will not create any complications!). Right Judgement helps us identify the feelings around the truth versus the feelings prompted by false reasons to do or not do something. With Right Judgement I ask God to send me whatever imagery or feelings will clarify what is His will and what is best for me.

Right Judgement always involves self knowledge.  We often choose out of very deep desires and fears.  If I recognize that I am in pain over never being noticed in my family, then I will understand why I often get depressed at bigger family gatherings.  I will see that I can be quite happy being in the same room with these insensitive people or on a inner tube in a murky river with them if I bond with someone like my sister-in-law or a cousin.  With Right Judgement I will begin to see if I regularly surrender appropriate control of life to overbearing people.  I might see that I give up on things I want for myself legitimately before I even begin to figure out how I might get them.  I will feel the difference between longings I should pursue and guilt or laziness I should ignore.

We can ask for and receive this inner feedback at any time.  We may not want to hear or feel the motions of the Spirit versus our own appetites or emotions, but they are there all the same.  The more we obey the loving, healthy voice, the easier it gets.  Thanks be to God!

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