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Posted by on Aug 20, 2015

St. Ignatius’ Teachings on Creation and Care for Creation

St. Ignatius’ Teachings on Creation and Care for Creation

Vision at River Cardoner - Saenz de Tejada - Jesuit InstituteWe know from the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius and from his autobiography that the physical world was very important to him. In the opening to the Spiritual Exercises, in the “Principle and Foundation,” Ignatius describes his cosmic understanding of all created things as having as their end the “praise, reverence and service of God.” Nothing in creation including the human has been created as an end in itself but rather for union with God. Humans are to seek involvement with created things to help them know and love God. In this context, humans cannot exploit anything for their own ends. The criteria of how anything created can help us praise, reverence and serve God are the standards by which we choose to be in relationship with them. Ignatius taught this understanding of creation and the point of human life as the only way to happiness. So, human desires and actions are within a cosmic context, not a narrower anthropocentric context. That would be at odds today with many world leaders who see the relationship of humans to the physical world as one of survival of the fittest or as one of “trickle-down” benefits of the exploitation of environmental resources to the least powerful groups in society.

Ignatius was also aware of the goodness of created things (cf. Genesis 1). He whole heartedly supported the Dominican religious community in preaching against the heresy of Albigensianism, which denigrated the human body and earthly creation. From the time of his conversion at Loyola to his later years in Rome, Ignatius often spent time in the evening looking at the sky and the stars, which he found very consoling (A Pilgrim’s Journey, Tylenda, Ch.1, Para. 11). An illuminative experience Ignatius had that lasted eight days took place as he sat and contemplated a river (the Cardoner). He was not a strictly urban person. Growing up in his native Basque Country gave him a soul for God’s beauty in nature.

For Ignatius the mis-use of anything was poor discernment, if not sin. After his extreme fasts and the harm they did to his body, Ignatius began to understand that it was surrender to God’s will that mattered, not showing God how fervent one is. (Prin. and Fdn.) Therefore, harming the body was not proper if it was a distraction and led one away from being able to serve God. Ignatius allowed for martyrdom, but it was not something to seek. He was very careful to observe the devotions of novices to make sure that they were not fasting to a point that they harmed their health or fell into vainglory for doing extreme practices.

In the Spiritual Exercises, in the Call of the King and Two Standards contemplations, Ignatius makes it clear that ego, control, power, greed and status are not part of God’s kingdom. Everything comes from God. And, if we stand under Jesus’ banner we will seek to be like him: generous, humble, obedient, truthful, compassionate, and loving. The contemplations on the Incarnation, the Three Classes of Persons and the Three Degrees of Humility all express a profound sense of gratitude for the goods of the earth and the love of God, who is the divine majesty of all, for us.

Ignatius did not write separately of reverence for the environment. It is part of his vision of God as Creator and we as beloved children who are part of creation. His rejection of manipulation and exploitation of any aspect of creation is a rejection of selfishness with the earth and with each other. Ignatius believed that if one practices the daily Examen (or daily General Examination of Conscience) (Sp. Exer. Sect. 43) s/he will see how time, people and resources are used to praise, reverence and serve God. When people practice the Examen or any process of serious and humble reflection they come to see the need not to impede the proper purpose of any created thing. They can also surrender to God’s will for them and move to become the persons they were born to be.

Image: “The vision at River Cardoner (Manresa)” by Carlos Saenz de Tejada, used with permission

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Posted by on Jun 17, 2015

The Sacred Heart Devotion – Love Conquers All

The Sacred Heart Devotion – Love Conquers All

SacredHeart Fanelli 1994

In Catholic culture, devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus has become so widespread that the image has become an icon of Catholicism. Sometimes, the various forms of the image can strike us as a little bizarre, with Jesus pointing to a physical heart on His chest. Others which are more contemporary move us with the more abstract heart on fire with love. Why is this image so central to the modern or post 1500s Catholic imagination? We don’t really find it in ancient icons.

 

Understandings of The Fall

In the 1500s and 1600s, Calvin and other protestant reformers focused on the fall of humanity from grace or the breakup of people from their loving relationship with God when Adam and Eve sinned. The only way that this divorce could be fixed was by God reaching out in love according to St Augustine (in the 300s) because humanity was too broken and too easily fell into sin. This sinful impulse is called concupiscence. The brokenness of humanity is called depravity which comes from the Latin word for crooked. The Catholic Church has always taught that the passion, death and resurrection of Christ has restored humanity and that we are not basically at our core wicked, corrupt, or crooked. Calvin and others taught that human nature is basically corrupt and is covered over by God’s love. Only a few will be saved and God has made up His mind ahead of time who they will be. Those few are predestined by God since there is really nothing anyone can do to enter into this loving relationship with God.

These ideas found their way into a Catholic movement led by Bishop Cornelius Jansen (1585 – 1635) of Ypres in the Belgian Province of West Flanders. In part, this was a reaction to the pre-reformation Catholic notion that you could win your way back into God’s favor by doing good works. Some people had the mistaken idea that God could be “bought.” This was a distortion of the fact that we are supposed to live our faith and show our reunion with God by doing good things for other people. Basically, love is more than words. Love is shown in how we live.

The Jansenist Change of Tone and Attitude

The Jansenist movement took St. Augustine’s view of a fallen human nature and moved toward Calvin’s position that we are so fundamentally damaged and crooked that there is nothing we can do. According to Calvin, we are incapable of reaching out to God’s love but God’s love or grace is so powerful that it can sweep us up and we have no choice in the matter. That’s the only way that we can be saved. While not throwing aside Catholic teaching the way that Calvin and other reformers had done, the Jansenist movement changed the tone and the attitude of how we are supposed to relate to God. We are so damaged and unworthy that we should receive communion only rarely. We should engage in a lot of prayer and penance because God still sees our sinfulness and brokenness and is always “ticked off” or at least supremely disappointed. There was no way that you could be human — loving, caring, and inconsistent — and make God happy, because we are all hopeless “screw ups.” Jesus may have suffered and died for us, but all we do is repay him with sin. The Jansenist attitude causes the loving Jesus to be off in the distance and our relationship with him to become formal and focused on certain types of religious practices that make no allowance for human frailty, weakness, or growth.

The Jansenist attitude became a prominent part of the Catholic Church in the United States since it was brought by Irish and French immigrants and the priests and nuns who accompanied them. One could not receive communion without going to confession first. Many types of minor human mistakes, even the gestures the priest used at Mass could be gravely serious mortal sins that cut us off from the love of God completely. Eating meat on Friday was a mortal sin; owning slaves was not. Not observing certain days of fasting and not eating meat (abstinence) were mortal sins; beating one’s wife or children was not. The tragic legacy of Jansenism and the Calvinism that is a big part of Anglo American culture is that we are seen as beyond real healing and redemption. We are so messed up that God’s healing love, forgiveness, and happiness are not within reach. This has become a major reason for people to give up on God and religion altogether. Such a distorted “god” is inhuman, abusive, and unloving.

Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus

In the 1600s, at the same time that Catholic and Protestant movements were focusing on the brokenness and crookedness of humanity and how far we are from God, St. Margaret Mary Alacoque and St. Claude de la Colombière promoted a renewed focus on the love and forgiveness of Christ. This devotion came to be known as devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Since Christ is truly human and truly divine, this vision brings us an understanding of Jesus as loving us in a completely human way but with unlimited Divine love. This is the Divine love that continuously overflows in creation, redemption, and resurrection in our lives.

The devotion to the Sacred Heart has had its own excesses. There was a tendency to actually worship the heart of Jesus itself as opposed to rejoicing and reveling in God’s love. This is called an error of logical typing, an error which would lead to eating the menu instead of the food. Another problem was to humanize the love of Christ to the point of believing that our rejection of God’s love could somehow “hurt” him in the way that we suffer rejection when others do not respond to the love we offer them. God cannot be other than God, which is love. (1 John 4:16) God cannot help Godself. The divine love is what God is. If we love imperfectly it is because we are human and we love with all of those human limitations. This is the only way we can respond to that divine love that is always creating, redeeming, and bringing new life out of death. But it is not the way God loves.

This understandably human mistaken notion that God can be “hurt” led to a number of practices such as special prayers, fasting, and mortification of the “deadening” impulses related to hunger, thirst, and sex, as well as the deadly sins of pride, anger, lust, envy, gluttony, avarice (greed), and sloth or laziness. While these are important parts of spiritual training or getting “in shape” (called asceticism), they were often done to somehow make up for all of the bad stuff everyone else was doing to “hurt” God. These are called acts of reparation. In this mode we focused on the transcendence of God — the loftiness of the Almighty as separated from everyday creation and living.

The Second Vatican Council (1961 – 1965) focused more on the immanence of God — the presence of God in our daily lives. The Church’s concept of itself was no longer that of a “perfect society” that was complete and sufficient within itself like a strong kingdom or empire. The Church became the People of God on pilgrimage, living in and following the living Christ of the Resurrection. This changed the expression of our devotion to the loving presence of God. Images of the Divine Word Incarnate in Jesus became more human. Jesus became more Jewish looking, more middle-eastern, and more like a young virile man. Many earlier images of a pale, wan, almost effete white man no longer matched the Catholic imagination of the post-modern period that emerged after World War II.

Not all Catholics welcomed this development. Such a generous, understanding, and lovable Jesus who is the image of the Living God seemed to downplay the seriousness and widespread nature of sin. Getting in shape spiritually (asceticism) now focused on changing structures of sin and oppression — human rights, civil rights, freedom, and equality. This was quite a shock to the Catholic imagination which had focused so heavily on the interior and heavenly direction of our relationship with God. By retreating from the world to our “perfect” society we had security due to the certainty we enjoyed. Insecurity returned when we realized that faith is the opposite of certainty. Suddenly, the life of Christ was a not a noble walk of the white Aryan with fair hair through Palestine. The life of Christ as the model for our lives became a struggle to proclaim the Kingdom of Heaven that ends in apparent failure, torture, and death. Yes, the resurrection transforms us all. The death and resurrection of Christ which we live out in our lives is God’s definitive “no” to evil and to death.

Michael Rubbelke in his post “Devotion to the Sacred Heart Today: The Heart of the Poor, Creation, and Mercy” offers an emerging vision of the Sacred Heart Devotion. The images of the Sacred Heart in his post offer a stark contrast. The first is a traditional image of the white serene Jesus. The second is a contemporary icon by Robert Lentz. This image of Jesus is a brown man with tightly curled African hair. He is portrayed in a more South Asian Hindu style, jutting forth from the icon with arms extended and stylized flames bursting from his hands. Perhaps this is the post-modern icon of the Sacred Heart. It gives expression to Pope Francis’ vision of a church of the poor for the poor, a call to be responsible stewards of creation, and a profound call to announce and to become the Divine Mercy.

This is a more challenging and less comforting Sacred Heart. It also brings more of the challenges of a direct, open, and honest love relationship with the Living God.

Image: Sacred Heart of Jesus, Joseph Fanelli,
used with permission

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Posted by on Feb 21, 2015

Light

Light

800px-Sunrise on Mt Sinai in Egypt - June2006 - by Mabdalla - public domainLight is fascinating. At Christmas time we are enthralled with the lights all around us, candles and Yule fires. We feel safe in light. Light is beautiful to us. At Epiphany and the Feast of the Presentation (Candlemas) we hear that a light for the nations has come into the world and that people from afar have come to witness its arrival. Light is a physical, energetic reality so fundamental that it takes on symbolic meanings as well.

An energetic force

Light is so basic and essential that we take it for granted. It travels at 186,000 miles per second. So amazingly fast. It is an electromagnetic radiation, a specific energy, that has a spectrum of forms from short waves (ultraviolet) to long waves (infrared). In the middle are the manifestations of light we can see, such as colors. Its most notable characteristic for humans is that light stimulates the organs that help us see: the retina, the optic nerve, etc. We are richly blessed to see ourselves, people, and objects. Light is so important to humans that we can become very ill if we lack it for a long time.

A symbolic image

But, light is much more. It is also spoken of as mental illumination or insight. The word itself can mean to understand. It can also be used to describe being guided, as John of the Cross describes his own journey in spiritual darkness during which he is guided by nothing “save only the light burning in my heart.” (Dark Night of the Soul).

Light has been experienced as God presence, enlightenment and strength (Psalm 27:1). God is described in the Scriptures as our light, a light that shines in our darkness (John 1:5), a light who calls us out of darkness
(1 Peter 2:9). Jesus himself tells us in turn to be the light of the world and not to hide our light (Matt 5:14).

God is our light. Our lives can be in darkness, darkness from letting ourselves be in agitation from bad habits or denial. We can give in to negative thoughts or fear. On the other hand, if we practice openness to seeing and hearing God speaking in our hearts, we can see and hear a desire in us to be illuminated and strengthened. We can feel the fog lifting and an ability to live in light. It is our choice to say yes to this. We don’t have to earn it or produce it, we just have to consent to it.

Image by Mabdalla, Sunrise at Mt Sinai in Egypt, public domain

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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 Sep 17, 2013

St. Hildegard of Bingen

St. Hildegard of Bingen

 

Hildegard of Bingen

Hildegard of Bingen

St. Hildegard of Bingen lived in the 12th century. A remarkable woman, she founded a Benedictine convent, served as abbess of her community, studied medicine and physiology, including the use of medicinal herbs, composed and played hauntingly beautiful religious music, wrote poetry and morality plays, produced artistic works, and was a prophetic leader and preacher within the Church of her day.

Hildegard was also a mystic, having had visions beginning around the age of three. When in her early 40s, she began writing of her visions and their meaning. These were presented in three major works: Scivias (Know the Ways of the Lord), Liber Vitae Meritorum (Book of the Rewards of Life), and Liber Divinorum Operum (The Book of Divine Works).

Many of her musical compositions have survived to the present and have been recorded by contemporary artists and orchestras. Her music goes beyond the traditional chant of her day, with a much broader range of notes in her melodies than was common at the time.

Hildegard saw humans as the thinking heart of all creation, called to work with God in shaping our world. Humans, and indeed all of creation, are “living sparks,” “rays of his splendor, just as the rays of the sun proceed from the sun itself.” She taught that our separation from God through sin brought harm to us as humans and to all of creation, but through Christ, we have the way for all to return to our original state of blessing.

In her words:

All living creatures are sparks from the radiation of God’s brilliance, and these sparks emerge from God like the rays of the sun. If God did not give off these sparks, how would the divine flame become fully visible?

Hildegard is honored as a Doctor of the Church. We celebrate her feast on September 17.

St. Hildegard, pray for us as we seek to see God’s face in each other and in all of creation.

 

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Posted by on Jul 31, 2013

Becoming Radiant in the Presence of the Lord

Becoming Radiant in the Presence of the Lord

 

Sun Shining Through Clouds

The readings of the Church recently have been focused on the experience of entering into the Presence of the Lord and spending time there. One way of describing the experience of spending time with God is to use the word prayer.* An ancient definition of prayer, attributed to St. Augustine, is this: “Prayer is lifting our minds and hearts to God.” On this feast of St. Ignatius Loyola, it seems fitting to spend a few moments reflecting on ways we enter into the presence of God and the results of doing so.

Jesus taught his followers to be very direct and straightforward in their prayers, asking for what they needed with confidence and persistence. They were (and we are) to ask for the coming of God’s kingdom and that God’s will be done both in heaven and on earth. Their prayer was also to include such seemingly mundane issues as requesting their daily bread and forgiveness for having hurt others,  failing to live in loving ways, as well as the much more serious concern that they be spared from the soul-shaking temptations that sometimes afflict even good and holy people at difficult points during their lives. Jesus himself spoke familiarly and intimately with God, calling him Abba — a word that means Father in the sense of a loving parent, a “Dad,” or even the “Daddy” of a small child. The result of the conversation would not always be the reception of exactly what was requested or preferred (remember the Agony in the Garden and Jesus’ prayer there), but it was always frank and based in trusting love. Those who learn to rely on God for the “little” things (daily bread and forgiveness) become more able to rely on God for the big things (courage to make the hard decisions and accept the consequences of following the Lord).

Among those whose relationship with God we have seen as examples are Abraham, who spoke with God directly, pleading for the salvation of Sodom and Gomorrah if as few as ten good men could be found within their walls. Many years later, Moses met God and entered into the cloud with God for forty days, returning to the people with the gift of the Law that would guide their lives in holiness. When Moses returned to the people, his face was so radiant it was frightening to the people. He covered his face when among them and only lifted the veil when he again entered into the presence of God. Jesus’ friend Martha, who had spent many hours in easy friendship with him, did not hesitate to speak frankly to him, complaining at one point that she had been left to do all the work of entertaining the large group of people who accompanied him on his visit. But Martha also is known for her declaration of faith in Jesus: “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world.” These and many others model for us the importance of speaking directly with God and of doing so on a regular basis.

Ignatius called his followers to contemplation in action, recognizing that the fundamental basis for a fruitful discipleship is the time spent in the company of the Lord. Out of the experience of friendship with God comes the gift of seeing how God would respond to those we meet in our lives today and the courage to act accordingly.

Entering into the presence of the Lord is not for the faint of heart. The great mystery of Love is not tame, nor is it particularly predictable. Love is a powerful force that can sweep away obstacles but can also be as gentle as a mountain stream bubbling through a meadow and washing the feet of children playing by its side. Yet as we enter regularly into the Presence, we are changed subtly and profoundly. Peace, joy, patience, gentleness, kindness, persistence, confidence, compassion, and zeal for justice become characteristic of ones who have spent much time with the Lord. Like Moses, if to a somewhat lesser degree, they become radiant with the joy of that relationship. And when at last they return to their Father and we remember them with love, sometimes we portray that radiance with a golden aura or halo surrounding their heads.

*Philip St. Romain offers a good presentation of Christian prayer and contemplation. See also Fr. Ron Shirley’s reflections on prayer.

Public Domain image by Robert & Mihaela Vicol

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Posted by on Aug 11, 2012

A Quote from St. Clare for her Feast Day

St. Clare of Assisi was a friend of Francis of Assisi and founder of the Poor Clares. Her advice to her sisters and other followers, as well as for us today is this:

Place your mind before the mirror of eternity! Place your soul in the brilliance of glory! Place your heart in the figure of the divine substance! And transform your whole being into the image of the Godhead Itself through contemplation!

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Posted by on Jun 9, 2012

The Feast of Corpus Christi: Celebrating the Mystery of Divinity Transforming Humanity

The Feast of Corpus Christi: Celebrating the Mystery of Divinity Transforming Humanity

 

Corpus Christi Procession

Known as the solemnity of The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ and celebrated on the Sunday following Trinity Sunday, the Feast of Corpus Christi has been officially celebrated in the Roman Catholic Church since the mid-thirteenth century. The feast is the result of a series of visions of St. Juliana of Liege, a Belgian canoness regular (a member of an Augustinian order) and a mystic. The visions occurred over a period of more than 20years before she began to understand their meaning. In the vision, she saw a full moon with a dark spot in it. Eventually she came to believe that the dark spot represented the lack of a solemn feast dedicated specifically and exclusively to the Body and Blood of Christ. Working with her confessor and a group of theologians and Dominicans living and working in Liege, she arranged for the feast to be instituted as a local feast of the diocese of Liege in 1246. She and her confessor, Canon John of Lausanne, composed the first music and prayers for the feast. Later, Pope Urban IV commissioned the composition of an office (a ritual of music and prayers)  for the feast by St. Thomas Aquinas.  Aquinas’ hymn, Pange Lingua, composed for this feast, expresses the idea of transubstantiation— the doctrine that the substance of the bread and wine offered in the Mass are transformed into the substance of the body and blood of Christ without changing in outer appearance.

The Church’s belief in the Eucharistic transformation of bread and wine into Jesus’ body and blood dates to the earliest days of the Christian community. Christians have always gathered to celebrate The Lord’s Supper. The disciples on the road to Emmaus described recognizing Jesus in the breaking of the bread. Understanding of the implications of this great gift, however, has developed and deepened over the centuries.

Like many of the mysteries of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the mystery of the Eucharist defies easy explanation. That’s part of the nature of mystery: part of the wonder and awe we experience in the face of the great love God has poured out into all of creation and each of us through the life of Jesus and the gifts of their Holy Spirit. As St. Augustine explained it in his Confessions, Christ says to us, “You will not change me into you, but you will be changed into me.”  In the Eucharist, the divine takes over and transforms the profane — the everyday reality we experience. We see and experience no obvious change, yet when we eat the bread and drink the wine that have been transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ, we are ourselves transformed into his mystical Body and Blood. Our bodies don’t absorb his; rather his transforms ours and we are strengthened and pulled into his mission of transforming our world into God’s Kingdom.

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Posted by on May 11, 2012

Blessed Julian of Norwich Feast Day — “All is Well”

Blessed Julian of Norwich Feast Day — “All is Well”

 

Julian of Norwich - Stained Glass Window from Church

 

May 13 is the unofficial Feast Day of Julian of Norwich, the English mystic and saint of the Middle Ages.  We cannot be sure of her birth and dates but she lived approximately from 1342-1416.  Her lifespan and location were situated in times of great distress in England.  Three waves of the Black Death had swept over England and Norwich was particularly hard hit as it was a commercial center, especially of the wool-textile trade with the Netherlands, which brought with it the bacteria from the Continent.  Julian was an anchoress at the church of St. Julian.  We have a historical record of people visiting her for advice and prayers.  We do not know why she was not canonized by the Catholic Church.  One reason is likely that she left behind relatively few writings.  Another is likely because her writings contained teachings that would have been considered controversial by some scholars.  Teachings about Christ as mother and that God sees our sins as a way for us to learn about ourselves would have offended or worried many clerics of her day.

In 1373 we read that Julian had 16 visions in which she was saw and heard revelations related to God, creation, evil, sin,  salvation, and the human person. She recorded these revelations at the time and then some 20 years later produced a longer version, called the Long Text, in which she integrated the many thoughts communicated to her by Christ about the meaning of the 16 visions and locutions.

Julian is optimistic in a time of when people questioned the goodness of life and how God regarded them.  She recorded that Christ said to her that “All will be well and all is well.” She explains how all can and will be well. Julian also recounts wonderfully warm images of us and Christ who holds us tenderly and celebrates us as his “crown.”

Another reason to celebrate this great saint is that she is believed to be the first woman to write a book in the English language.  She is also a pioneer, with Chaucer, in creating literature in Middle English.  After many years of Norman control of England, the French and their language were driven out.  The English language had degenerated into a language of the lower classes with a very poor vocabulary.  Julian is responsible for creating many new and very useful words to articulate her scholarly theological presentations and to give colorful descriptions of what she saw in the visions.

Julian’s texts, which she referred to as the “shewings” (Showings in contemporary libraries), are very inspiring and provide satisfying answers to many questions which Christians have.

Image of Stained Glass Window borrowed from Satucket Lectionary entry for the Feast of Julian of Norwich

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Posted by on Apr 9, 2012

What is Holiness? Is it Wholeness?

People often think that being whole or holy involves being perfect in some way.  “Perfect” of course is defined in a million ways, but we can construct a picture and list of qualities that might encompass what we assume is the saintly person.  So, we would expect to see on this list:  seldom angry, patient, kind, generous, courageous, truthful, trusting, reverent, hopeful, zealous, loving, etc.  In her final year of life, as she was suffering from tuberculosis, Saint Therese of Lisieux wrote in her diary: ” Never leave a knife near a terminally ill person.”   She was a realistic and honest person.  She was not perfect in many ways, but she was a whole and holy person.  Saint Padre Pio yelled at people frequently and then was very gentle and kind with others.  Saint Ignatius of Loyola had a temper, but normally used it after a process of discernment.  Teresa of Avila talked back to Christ and questioned him often.

Behaving in perfect ways and trying to feel only nice feelings is a complete distraction from the real task of life.  Holiness, or even wholeness in the most secular terms, is very simple.  It is the ability to listen in a productive way.  There are a welter of voices within and around us.  The culture, our egos, our pasts, other people, God and evil, however you understand it, are all part of the mix of voices in our lives.  Within ourselves we have many levels that all have a voice.  We have the imprint of our parents within our memories: ” Stand up straight.”  “Eat everything on your plate.”  “Susan is bright.”  “You’ll never grow up.”  We have a frightened voice: “You can’t do that,” or a confident voice: “That’s easy.”  There are the lists inside: “First, go to the Doctor’s; then go to the Drugstore; then get gas; then get the kids; etc.”  And, there is the emotional and spiritual report: “I’m uncomfortable.” ” I’m aware that I am procrastinating.”  “I really want to quit repeating this pattern.”  A friend many years ago told me that we had to get married by the time we were 25 years old because after that we would be “all washed up.”  I believed her and sped around trying to meet more men!  It caused me to join a lot of organizations and waste a number of Sunday afternoons listening to types of Jazz I did not like, hiking in places I did enjoy, not to mention the unusual experiences I had attending psychological “encounter” groups.

These days it is very un-PC to say this, but I believe in personal evil and prefer to use the Ignatian term for this entity: “The enemy of our human nature.”  When someone is not in a state of negative thinking and has every reason either not to feel bad or to feel happy and a random and destructive thought or feeling enters his or her consciousness and destroys his or her peace, the classic response from the Christian tradition is to interpret this as coming from the Enemy. We may be hearing, remembering or seeing something psychological, but the intrusion is not just random.  We are not always just talking to ourselves.  God is constantly communicating and so are the enemy and the other voices as well.  It’s subtle and not superstition.  Why is this complex communication happening?  What are we supposed to do with this?  What has this got to do with holiness and wholeness?

This life on the Planet is a exercise in growth.  In the process of life we make choices and determine what we value.  We  are determined by certain factors but we also determine some of the conditions of our lives.  The process of becoming holy, the process by which the world gets a St. Francis or a Mother Teresa, is a process in which those people work over and over at hearing the better voices inside.  When a voice said: “Compassion feels better than money,” these people felt drawn to that voice.  When an inner voice said: ” Status is nauseating, phony,” these people felt its authenticity and took a chance on goodness.  When a voice says: “eat right, drink less, watch less television” or “read this book,” holy people obey the voice if it carries a feeling of peace or rightness with it.  Sorting out the voices, listening to the voice of God or one’s true self and then obeying these best voices is what makes people holy and truly whole.  Listening and obeying are not easy.  It takes a commitment to my best interests.  It is in my best interest not to play games.  I can spend the rest of my life procrastinating regarding the things I need to do to be happy.  I can also stay in a perpetual program to be defensive or angry, to punish people that have hurt me, or to prove that I am fine just the way I am.

At some point I may progress beyond that and also see how awesome God is.  The reality we call God is immense in His/Her intellect and in love.  Many modern people cannot stand entertaining the concept of God.  It is so uncool to admit the possibility of such a reality in many circles today.  But, if God exists and I know God does, this reality can get me to an authentic life.  I could end up happy and fully realize who I am.  Taking time and quiet to listen and note the voices within is a decision.  Admitting that I prefer a sleazy voice is okay.  I want any excuse not to be a grown up.  If a voice says that I should not eat something, say something, or go somewhere or that I should go to bed at a certain time, By God, I want to ask that voice: “who do you think you are…..?”

The path to holiness, exceptional living, being special in the best sense is a surrender to the wisest voice inside.  It has taken me many years to accept this fully.  This is far harder than parading around trying to be perfect.  The authentic voice within might ask you to be better than you think you are; the author may believe in you more than you do.

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Posted by on Mar 18, 2012

Asceticism and Mysticism: The Two are Linked

The point of all efforts to change and grow is happiness. Happiness  involves becoming more and more conscious of who we are, what we want and need, and how to get these.   A lot of life is spent exploring all of this. We enjoy ourselves and suffer in the journey to try things out, learn new skills, problem solve, experiment.  We also react to phenomena,and defend and harm ourselves and others at times.  In the midst of this we learn to distinguish between gains and satisfactions that are short term vs. long term and things that may feel good and are helpful and things that feel good and are toxic.  I may love ice cream but if I eat a  lot of it I may trade away my joy because it can make me sick.

Identifying how I feel when I do things is important.  If I feel peaceful when I make a decision, the decision is probably going to be beneficial.  If I feel uncomfortable when I make a decision but decide to do the activity or acquire the commodity anyway, the end will probably be harmful for me.  If I do something out of fear it probably will ultimately harm me – i.e. marrying someone so I will not be alone is  not a good reason to marry someone.   Taking a job one loaths because the money is needed is something one should only do as a last resort.  It would be wise to ransack one’s soul, talk to every friend, pray and brainstorm about any weird angle on jobs before just settling for a terrible job.  It is often the case that our lives are forcing us to look at possibilities that up to this point we have had a closed mind about.  These interior markers are very reliable if one learns the art of discernment and is also given the grace of discernment.  The famous historian of religion, Joseph Campbell, was asked by Bill Moyers if he had a sense that he was guided when he made decisions.  Campbell replied that he felt the helping hands of many beings when he had the courage to do what he knew was right.

So, making a commitment to live an honest, non-addictive life – a life in which I can be my true self – requires the skills to discern the right path for me.  That kind of life is surrendered to the truth.  It is a life that is not grasping, fearful or egotistical.  It can be a life that is loving, just, courageous.  This is not an easy thing.  From the Catholic point of view, it is impossible unless one is empowered by a love that keeps one from despair.  The more one seeks love and justice, the more one also sees insensitivity and selfishness. We also become acutely aware of our own entanglement in fear, loneliness, pain, anger and disappointment.  We want to feel safe but we want to be creative and compassionate.  How to do that?

If people are connected to a reality that is larger than themselves – a community or a transcendent being – that person can go beyond his/her fears and trust.  The ability to do this has to be rooted in experience.  Faith/trust in life cannot be totally blind.  It has to be based on an encounter with goodness/love.  In the Catholic context people have experiences all the time of peace, the presence of the Sacred, being blessed and guided.  No one can prove the existence of God.  Experts of all stripes can reduce religious belief to a projection of one’s neurons or psychology.  The scientific method can be paraded out and empiricism presented as the only acceptable measure of whether the spiritual is real.  In the end all of those super respectable criteria are a chimera.  We don’t have to accept the idea that our reality fits itself into an instrument of measurement that we have created if the reality we want to define is greater than the instrument – i.e. if God is infinite yet personal, that Sacred Reality is well beyond the physics of our situation as we know it.

In the normal committed spiritual life people educate themselves and have important insights and growth.  But, within the context of meditation and a reflected upon life people also have periodic religious experiences.  These experiences sustain and guide them.  They are not addictive but energizing, healing and challenging.  These experiences are not just for the Saints.  And, becoming closer to God is not a “crutch.”  It is a break through to the way reality is.  Asceticism and mysticism are brother and sister.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Posted by on Oct 15, 2011

“… Love calls for love in return.” Teresa of Avila

“… Love calls for love in return.” Teresa of Avila

Teresa of Avila - by Francois Gerard

The great Carmelite reformer, mystic, and saint, Teresa of Avila, was known for sometimes blunt statements about the spiritual life and life in community. She insisted that the spiritual life was not about being gloomy or depressed. (“God, deliver me from sullen saints.”) Life in community required all to share in the daily work of the community so all might share in the joys of relaxation and the natural world. She knew that the fundamental reality for Christians is the love of Christ, a love that reaches beyond church buildings and monasteries into all of creation.

One of her statements, a sentence from a larger work, struck me today.

“Whenever we think of Christ we should recall the love that led him to bestow on us so many graces and favors, and also the great love God showed in giving us in Christ a pledge of his love; for love calls for love in return.”

What does this mean in my life or in your life? Take some time to reflect on this with me. Be practical. Some might find it means minding a tongue that can speak spitefully or spreading gossip. Some might find it mean patiently reading a story to a small child for the fifth time in one day. For some it might mean getting up and out to door to work. Others might be called to smile at a panhandler and offer a friendly greeting rather than walking past with eyes averted.

Then move to the larger world – regional, national and international concerns. What does love mean in these contexts? How responsible am I for what happens in my city, county, state or nation? Does it matter whether I get involved in political debates or not? Do I have any responsibility to those less well-off than I or to the children of other families? Do we as a nation (community) have responsibilities to protect and support those to whom we are not related by blood? What does love demand of us? What does it mean to love? Can I act in love and still support the national and international status quo?

I don’t have answers to these questions for everyone. I don’t even have answers to all of them for myself. I know I fail all too often to “love in return” in practical ways. Yet I believe these questions must be raised and it seems to me that Teresa of Avila’s reflection on God’s love offers a challenge for us today.

“… love calls for love in return.”

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Posted by on Sep 14, 2011

The Exaltation of the Holy Cross – An Ancient Feast Still Relevant

The Exaltation of the Holy Cross – An Ancient Feast Still Relevant

Feast of the Cross - Russion Icon, 1680

The Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross dates from the fourth century, when according to tradition St. Helena discovered the True Cross on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was dedicated in 335 AD and the cross was kept inside the church. The dedication of the church was celebrated on September 13 and the cross was carried outside the church for veneration by the faithful on September 14. As part of the celebration, the cross was lifted up so all could see it. This was the reason the feast came to be called the “Exaltation” or “Raising Aloft” of the Holy Cross or the Precious Cross (depending on whether one spoke Latin or Greek). Another,  more recent, translation of the term Exaltatio is “triumph.”

Beyond the physical practice of raising the cross up so that people could see it and venerate it, the triumph of Jesus over death on the cross has been a source of hope for people through the ages. In fact, Jesus told his disciples, “If I am lifted up high I will draw everything to myself.” (Jn 12:32)

In The Dialogue, 26, St. Catherine of Siena describes God’s explanation to her of Jesus’ role as bridge between the divine and the human.

“… Do you know when it [this bridge] was raised up? When my Son was lifted up on the wood of the most holy cross he did not cut off his divinity from the lowly earth of your humanity. So though he was raised so high he was not raised off the earth. In fact, his divinity is kneaded into the clay of your humanity like one bread. …

When my goodness saw that you could be drawn in no other way, I sent him to be lifted onto the wood of the cross. I made of that cross an anvil where this child of humankind could be hammered into an instrument to release humankind from death and restore it to the life of grace. In this way he drew everything to himself: for he proved his unspeakable love, and the human heart is always drawn by love. He could not have shown you greater love than by giving his life for you. …

I said that, having been raised up, he would draw everything to himself. This is true in two ways: First, the human heart is drawn by love, as I said, and with all its powers: memory, understanding, and will. If these three powers are harmoniously united in my name, everything else you do, in fact or in intention, will be drawn to union with me in peace through the movement of my love, because all will be lifted up in the pursuit of crucified love. … For everything you do will be drawn to him when he draws your heart and its powers.”

“His divinity is kneaded into the clay of your humanity” and then all raised up, drawn into the life of the Trinity. What a great gift we have received. We no longer gather in Jerusalem expecting to see Jesus’ cross carried out for our veneration. We celebrate the raising aloft of our lives in union with His gift of life on the cross, drawn by love to that union.

(Image is in the public domain in the United States because its copyright has expired.)

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Posted by on Jul 22, 2011

Novena for the Feast of St. Ignatius – Take Lord, Receive – Day 1 – July 23

Novena for the Feast of St. Ignatius – Take Lord, Receive – Day 1 – July 23

Opening Prayer

Take Lord, receive
all my liberty,
my memory,
my understanding, and
my entire will,
all that I have and possess.
You have given all to me.

Now I return it to you.
All is Yours, dispose of it wholly according to your will.
Give me only your love and your grace,
That’s enough for me.

Your love and your grace are enough for me.
– Ignatius Loyola

Placing Ourselves in God’s Presence

Inhale slowly and deeply. Exhale slowly and mindfully.
Relax. Be at peace. Be aware that you are in God’s loving presence wherever you are.

Reviewing Our Lives With Gratitude

Focus on the small and wonderful things in your life this day: the quality of the light, our children at play, the soothing touch of those who love us.

Reflecting on Our Feelings and Spiritual Movements

What am I going through? What feelings and experiences do I encounter? What is good and not so good in my life? Did I reach out in love and consideration? Did I perform my duties well? What do I feel good about? What causes me regret?

Focusing on What Comes to Us

Let your feelings and images well up within you. What strikes you the most about this day? What feeling or images come to you more clearly and peacefully?

Talking With Jesus Our Friend

Converse with Jesus as He is right now, right here – your friend. Share what comes from your heart – in a look, a few words, a smile. Ask for help on this journey; to see Him in all things; to be more in love everyday.

Your love and your grace are enough for me.

IgnatiusConcluding Prayer

St. Ignatius, you signed your letters “pobre de bondad” poor in goodness and called yourself a pilgrim. Please pray for me to be open to what God is calling me to do to announce and build up the kingdom. Transform my petitions into questions of discernment and pray for us to remember that all of our true needs and desires are already known to God. Pray that I be taken beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life.

In your writings and by your example we are reminded to pray for the Church and the Holy Father, for all who dwell in darkness and for the millions lacking food, water, and other necessities. We join our prayer with yours for true openness so that we can contemplate the Divine presence in all things and praise, reverence and serve God Our Lord in action.Pray for us to have the courage to meet and to serve the Lord Jesus in the poor and the suffering.

Praise be to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit
Now and forever. Amen.

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Posted by on Apr 9, 2010

Great Love or Great Suffering – Two Paths to Non-duality

Great Love or Great Suffering – Two Paths to Non-duality

Richard Rohr, OFM

Recently I’ve been listening to Fr. Richard Rohr’s three CD set, Exploring and Experiencing The Naked Now, a recording of two webcasts in which he talks about his work on non-dual thinking and the insights of the contemplative/mystic tradition of Christianity. Rohr’s work provides a fine background for the last couple of weeks of Lent and moving into Easter.

A central insight of Rohr’s work is that non-dualistic thinking is central to experiencing the mystery of Christ and the Trinity. God is One, yet we know God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The contrast boggles the mind when we try to explain, define or otherwise pin down the mystery. Our minds, trained to make logical distinctions and put all we experience into categories of “this/not that,” find it hard to deal with the “yes/and”  of combining such seemingly irreconcilable statements. Nevertheless, Jesus calls us into the mystery and teaches through example, images and stories that seem to contradict each other. In one place, for example, he says that his followers are to turn the other cheek when someone strikes them. In another, he counsels that it’s time to take swords along to the place where he and is friends planned to spend the night. At yet another, he turns over the tables of the money-changers in the temple and drives them out. Then when the chips are down, he heals the ear of the servant of the High Priest in the Garden of Gethsemane and goes to his death without offering resistance. So which is it? Non-violent always or Violent sometimes? Do we simply choose one meaning – the one that suits what we want to do – or are we supposed to try to make some logical sense of the contrasting statements/actions or must we somehow live in the mystery, without needing to explain it logically. And if we do that, won’t we be seen as somehow immature and childish?

Rohr suggests that a return to the contemplative mindset is essential in the long-run. It is the ultimate goal of the spiritual life. Union with God, a return to the non-duality of the Garden of Eden, is the final goal of our lives and quest. We start non-dualistically as infants and small children. We move away from non-dualism around the age of reason and begin to be able to separate from God, make wrong choices, and, dare I say it, to sin. We learn what is right and what is wrong. We learn to make distinctions. Then we think we’ve got it all set for the rest of our lives. But we’re right smack dab in the middle of a dualistic world and mindset. So everything gets phrased in terms of win/lose or “limited good” (a concept from anthropology) — what is good for you will take something from me. We forget, or perhaps haven’t consciously experienced, that God’s love comes to us like water flowing through a pipeline or electricity flowing down a wire. As long as there’s no blockage, it just keeps coming. The critical thing is to keep the pipe open, the transmission line unbroken. But that gets scary. The “what ifs” start raising their ugly heads. And we fight against anyone or anything that seems to threaten the way things are now, even if it’s not ideal. And so we block the flow, partially or totally.

Rohr argues that the only way we can move beyond dualism in our thinking and again enter non-dualistic reality is through the path of great love or the path of great suffering.  In both situations, the normal ways of coping or experiencing reality fall away.  We don’t have the energy to block the flow. We’re too deeply in the joy or sorrow. “Everything’s coming up roses …” as the song says. Or, alternatively, we cry out, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” Where are you when I need you God? In either condition, we are open to experience the wonder of God’s love and compassion without trying to (or even being capable of) splitting it into dualistic compartments or categories. The experiences are too overwhelming, too all encompasing, too intense to allow for separation and dualism. And then we can grow in wisdom. And we experience redemption – a return to union with our God – set free from the normal ties that hold us bound in worry of losing our “secure” duality.

Meanwhile, “back at the farm,” the troubles and tragedies of world events continue through Holy Week.  A small group of people are arrested for plotting to kill a police officer and then kill more officers at his funeral, all in the name of Christ. What madness is this? Bombs explode in crowded places around the world, in the name of God. What madness is that? How can religious people believe that the creator of all of us and of all of the wonders of the universe could want us to be killing each other? And how could we dare to think we do it in his name, by his authorization? How can Christians be terrorists, as Leonard Pitts notes in a recent column? Is our God really so helpless or so impotent that he could condone such action, such dualistic us/them action?

Jesus went to the cross rather than try to force God’s hand to free his nation from the Romans by inciting a rebellion, as some would have liked. He went to the cross rather than deny the truth that God is more interested in the way we treat each other than in the sacrifices we bring to the altar. He went to the cross rather than run away and deny that he had experienced a very special relationship with his Father, one that the Father wants to share with the rest of us too. And redemption came out of that great passionate love and suffering. Easter came to all the world and our separation from God came to a resounding end.

May each of us move forward in this Easter season in joy and trust, building on the faith of our younger years and beginning to enter into the world of contemplation, of not dividing the “real” from the “ideal,” of really believing the Good News, that love is all that really matters, and love will make all the suffering lead to the peace and deep, deep joy of the children of God.

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