the maid a novel of Joan of Arc by Kimberly Cutter

emma-thompson-as-joan-of-arc-by-annie-leibovitz

What would it be like to hear the voice of God or his emissaries?   Not an intuitive prayerful dialogue and raised spiritual consciousness but an actual thundering voice or even an apparition.   What lengths would you go to experience this grace if you could?  What lengths would you go to deny ever having had such an experience?  The Hollywood portrait above is inspiring.  But how about this version:

Joan at the end

Hearing the voice of God or seeing an apparition is perhaps the highest form of Mysticism.  Catholics practice mysticism every day.  An interesting Blog (the Main Event) describes our mystical beliefs in a review of the “war” between reason and mysticism.[i]  The blog interest me as its intent is to provide a forum for the proponents of each camp and sets up a dialectic that is very real in today’s world.   It presumes you cannot be both a person of reason and mysticism.   There is a cultural war to deny the existence of a “God” and all forms of mysticism on one side and to assert the existence of a God on the other.  The more extreme the mystical experience – the more extreme the attacks become by non-believers – and in some cases rightly so.   Authentic spiritual revelation is claimed by many in the course of history under many different names for many different purposes.

The story of Joan of Arc (Jehanne of Arc) exemplifies the difficulties in receiving a “Personal charism to witness god”[ii] and follow the message you have received.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church accepts people are chosen for such revelations.  They are chosen to share God’s word and vision – often at great expense to their own worldly status.

Pope Benedict the XVI excellently depicted her persecution by the Church itself as he stated on January 26, 2011 that the trial of Joan of Arc as a “is a distressing page in the history of holiness and also an illuminating page on the mystery of the Church which, according to the words of the Second Vatican Council, is “at once holy and always in need of purification” (Lumen Gentium, n. 8).” [iii]

This is interesting given a current controversy in the Church.  Certain Bishops have taken umbrage with the Pope on statements like “The contemporary world risks confusing the primacy of conscience, which must always be respected, with the exclusive autonomy of an individual with respect to his or her relations.” Pope Francis went on to say priests must inform Catholic consciences “but not replace them.”[iv]  What does he mean?

My opinion is that he recognizes the church has a rich tradition and is the defacto representative of authentic scripture and revelation but it is still up to the individual to follow their consciences and free will accepting the consequences according to their own spiritual discernment and God’s grace.  The Church is a guide but you remain an apostle and responsible for your own actions whether you live within or external to church doctrine.  In essence, if you seek God and  truly use spiritual discernment including using the gifts of sacred tradition and revelation, prayer and consult, you are yourself a mystic – perhaps not on the level of Joan of Arc – but a mystic nonetheless called to pray, act, and yes, sometimes suffer.

Joan of Arc canonization process started in 1855 and culminated in Sainthood in 1920.  A peasant who opposed the Church teachings and doctrines, defied papal authority, is made a saint 489 years after her death.   Saint Joan did not receive consolation from this world but from God.   Declaring her a Saint is our consolation for our miserable attempts with wielding “Scriptural Authority” and power over the centuries and a need for continual purification with our application of Holy Scripture.  The Church has that challenge.  However, what is your challenge to be a mystic?  Do you have a charism?

As for the book, the author has successfully provided a fictional account that includes a high degree of historical accuracy combined with spiritual imagination to see the events from the eyes of a fifteenth century peasant girl called by God to perform unthinkable heroic acts.

St. Joan has a rich prayer life.  If you are interested in seeking God I find Ignatian Spiritual exercises helpful at times when prayer is difficult.[v]   One contemplative method is to take any Gospel scene of interest and place yourself in the crowd or in the shoes of one of the characters and really explore your visceral response to the scene, to the words, and how you would respond if you were actually there than or how you would respond now is similar circumstance.  Now more than ever women are called to stand strong.    Men should help when they can as they would help anyone of either gender fight for what is right and just.

joan

[i] http://reasonversusmysticism.blogspot.com/2014/02/what-is-catholic-catechisms-view-of.html

[ii] http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p4s1c2a3.htm

[iii] https://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/audiences/2011/documents/hf_ben-xvi_aud_20110126.html

[iv] https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2017/11/11/pope-francis-reaffirms-primacy-conscience-amid-criticism-amoris-laetitia

[v] https://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-spiritual-exercises

 

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Praying the Psalms, Merton, Thomas[i]

A tight rope walk with Thomas Merton on one side of the chasm and King David (and several lesser known authors) on the other still leaves me struggling with the wisdom of the Psalms.  Our busy lives present many valleys to ponder.  Thomas Merton short book explores how the Psalms can be used in prayer to traverse chasms in life.

chasm

The barriers for me I believe is the context of King David’s time and the Old Testament language and experience being applied to modern times in modern vernacular.  More than that the Psalms are not meant to be read – they are meant to be sung in praise and celebration.  Experience any psalm played by talented musicians at the Psalm Project.[iii] Surely this how King David envisioned the Psalms to be used to praise God.

You can really feel the power of the psalms when attending charismatic churches that embrace full musical choirs.  It can be a powerful experiential spiritual journey.  Yet, even alongside hundreds or perhaps thousands of believers (mega churches), you can be left with only fleeting grace, fading before you exit the parking lot.  What is missing is substance.  Your substance:

The problem is therefore not to learn from the Psalms a totally new experience, but rather to recognize, in the Psalms, our own experience lived out and perfected, orientated to God and made fruitful, by the action of loving faith. Ultimately we do this by uniting our joys with the joys of Christ in the Psalms, our sorrows with the sorrows of Christ, and thus allowing ourselves to be carried to heaven on the tide of His victory.[iv]

 20150218-theme-verse-psalms

[v]

Merton knows just how to state things so plainly, so intuitively that you may miss the depth of what such a simple statement implies.  The substance of the Psalms applied to our own life with sincere contemplation (meditation), shared devotion (songs of praise at church or temple), and action (a continual awareness of God’s presence and ability to have all of our actions and decisions be guided by humble discernment).

This is not as hard as it sounds.  Merton describes it as merely only listening and acting to what we already know:

  “I delight to do Thy will, O my God, and Thy law is in the depths of my heart.” [vi]

But there are real human barriers for us all to content with every day:

Obedience:  It is interesting how people struggle with the idea of obeying an omniscient God.  I ask where people think their sense of right and wrong is derived from as individuals and as a collective.  When we are at our best are we not intuitively listening to “something” instilled on our nature, something profound, something universal that we have all come to recognize that all humans share across nations?  Call it the human spirit.  We know when the human spirit is distorted.  We recognize it immediately in our guts whether wrong actions are committed by the individual (Charles Manson), by extreme religiosity (ISIS today, The Crusades, and other religious wars), or by nation states (Hitler’s Germany).

Politics:  Nation states are particularly frightening today recognizing that charismatic leaders can bring their nations down the road of evil through fear, intimidation, and false patriotism with massive arsenals at their disposal. We live in and have a responsibility to be engaged in society.  You can be deceived into believing you are fighting for goodness.  In America we believe we stand for righteousness.  One TV interviewer had a Trump supporter saying whatever Donald Trump says is what God wills. This is a distortion of epic proportions.  Some other nations believe we have it deadly wrong.  Our current President has shaken the world’s confidence that we can stand for moral principles in times of turbulence.  Internally our nation is divided and torn by both politics and race.  We have put our faith in men and parties rather than our minds on truth and God.

Discernment:  It is not political.  It is not a party.  It is not a nation.  It is an individual responsibility.  It is to be actively lived and to be actively engaged with the world.

Selfishness:  How often our own self-interest is put ahead of the world’s poor.  How often are we challenged by our own desires or simply to avoid boredom?

Estrangement:  As a nation gone astray we can especially feel estranged from discernment, feeling isolated and definitively alone with our struggles where we may exclaim something akin to Psalm 12:

 “How long, O Lord, wilt thou utterly forget me? How long wilt thou hide Thy face from me?”[vii]

It can be grueling when as believers we have a “feeling” of spiritual dryness, a struggling moment or many moments piled high days on days on days on end?  Some refer to this as the dark night.  I cannot say I have experienced the “Dark Night.”  I have had many dark nights and times of misery — though I fear experiencing the depth that some saints have experienced before me or even the dark nights that others are experiencing tonight as I sit hear contemplating God and writing about psalms.

All of the above challenges and many more can take us away from truly knowing God or having a proximity to conscious awareness of God’s way from which to draw on for support and guidance.  It is a terrible lonesomeness.

“As the hind pants for the water brooks, so my soul pants after thee, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God: when shall I come and see the face of God? My tears have become my bread day and night, whilst they say to me daily: Where is thy God?”[viii]

Many great mystics and believers feel this same way often.  Many priest.  It is not something we can demand – it is a gift to have even a passing fragrance of God’s presence.

It is easier to fight man’s wars with man’s tools.   We can easily join the noise and fight fire with fire, anger with anger, violence with more violence — especially when we cannot “feel” God’s presence.  How weak are we that we need or year for that presence on demand when we are suffering? If we always felt God’s presence discernment and living God’s will certainly be a great deal easier.

Why turn to God’s way when revenge or counter attack seems called for and perhaps even on its surface, morally the right thing to do?

The reason why we submit entirely to His will is because He is good. We do not obey merely for the sake of obedience, but as a testimony to the supreme goodness of God Himself.[ix]

Again, Merton nails it with simplicity above.  Not with the nails of the cross, but with the reality of the majesty and unknowable goodness of God himself.  Meditating on why we should surrender to God’s way and continue to seek God’s way can be guided by spending serious time with different Psalms.  Doing so can prepare you for any circumstance every day, including the final circumstance, when our physical body surrenders to mortality.

 The Lord is my shepherd: I want for nothing; he makes me to lie in green pastures. He leads me to waters where I may rest; he restores my soul. —Psalm 22: 1-2.[x]

 We cannot by mere human ingenuity or talent exhaust all that is contained in the Psalms. Indeed, if we seek only to “get something out of them” we will perhaps get less than we expect, and generous efforts may be frustrated because they are turned in the wrong direction: toward ourselves rather than toward God.

God knows you – Psalm 139[xi]

psalms

[xii]

End notes:

[i]               Citation (APA): Merton, T. (2015). Praying the Psalms [Kindle iOS version].

[ii] https://www.google.com/search?q=chasm+definition&rlz=1C1TSNJ_enUS718US718&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiwiq-Fh_vVAhVG64MKHQigAtsQ_AUICigB&biw=1366&bih=589#imgrc=-gYZF55lwKu83M

 

[iii]              http://thepsalmsprojectband.com/

[iv]              Page 25 · Location 161

[v]               http://overviewbible.com/psalms/

[vi]              Page 31 · Location 208

[vii]             Page 32 · Location 224

[viii]             Page 36 · Location 253

[ix]              Page 39 · Location 277

[x]               Page 41 · Location 287

[xi] Psalm 139New Living Translation (NLT)

Psalm 139

O Lord, you have examined my heart
and know everything about me.
You know when I sit down or stand up.
You know my thoughts even when I’m far away.
You see me when I travel
and when I rest at home.
You know everything I do.
You know what I am going to say
even before I say it, Lord.
You go before me and follow me.
You place your hand of blessing on my head.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too great for me to understand!

I can never escape from your Spirit!
I can never get away from your presence!
If I go up to heaven, you are there;
if I go down to the grave,[a] you are there.
If I ride the wings of the morning,
if I dwell by the farthest oceans,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
and your strength will support me.
11 I could ask the darkness to hide me
and the light around me to become night—
12     but even in darkness I cannot hide from you.
To you the night shines as bright as day.
Darkness and light are the same to you.

13 You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body
and knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex!
Your workmanship is marvelous—how well I know it.
15 You watched me as I was being formed in utter seclusion,
as I was woven together in the dark of the womb.
16 You saw me before I was born.
Every day of my life was recorded in your book.
Every moment was laid out
before a single day had passed.

17 How precious are your thoughts about me,[b] O God.
They cannot be numbered!
18 I can’t even count them;
they outnumber the grains of sand!
And when I wake up,
you are still with me!

19 O God, if only you would destroy the wicked!
Get out of my life, you murderers!
20 They blaspheme you;
your enemies misuse your name.
21 O Lord, shouldn’t I hate those who hate you?
Shouldn’t I despise those who oppose you?
22 Yes, I hate them with total hatred,
for your enemies are my enemies.

23 Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
24 Point out anything in me that offends you,
and lead me along the path of everlasting life.

Footnotes:

  1. 139:8 Hebrew to Sheol.
  2. 139:17 Or How precious to me are your thoughts.

New Living Translation (NLT)

Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

 

[xii] https://www.google.com/search?q=book+of+psalms&rlz=1C1TSNJ_enUS718US718&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiG4Ljqo_vVAhWIxIMKHQkbBowQ_AUIDSgE&biw=1366&bih=638

 

The Art of Loving God by Francis de Sales

“Discover the secrets to growing holier through the simple things in life work, play, and rest. Learn to avoid the distractions that trouble and weary your soul and you’ll soon be able to focus your energy simply on loving God!”[i]

I encountered this little book in two visits to an adoration chapel spanning the last two weeks.   The pursuit of God’s presence is really human folly.  He is present, here, now and always.  We have to actively work to run from this presence – and have been doing so, both individually and collectively since Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden.[ii]

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From that moment on we have spent our time seeking and desiring things of this world that could recreate the joy and peace of being one with the father.  Nothing made by man has come close.  Not to say that we have not destroyed ourselves and others trying to achieve something akin to being Godlike or obtaining the feeling of worthiness of being in God’s presence.   Great wealth, waging war, addictions, personal achievement, devastating failures, adrenaline seeking, and many other human desires and experiences serve as cheap, transitory substitutes for the real presence of God.

That is not to say all of these desires are evil or bad in and of themselves.  Some are admirable, some are necessary for self-defense, and others are testaments to the human imagination and great gifts we possess as God’s creation in areas like vocational life, arts, sports, music and literature.  And others are perhaps just evil and bad (think seven deadly sins – last post).

There is a great mediator for this if we can learn to be still.  In stillness we can listen to and be guided by the Holy Spirit. With willingness, commitment, humility and healthy desire we can learn to listen and are open to the presence of God while we are performing every action worthy of being God’s work.  God’s work is any work that is done sincerely and genuinely in his name, his true name, as driven by prayer and proper discernment, as by Providence.   This work we can do if we are careful with how we treat and love each other as we are in the presence of God — for somewhere, sometimes deeply hidden, the presence of God is written deep inside everyone you encounter.   To encounter another Human being is to encounter God.

When you achieve living in this manner, no matter the turbulence and suffering around you, the interior of your being remains calm and steadfast in the storm.  Tremendous success, miserable failure, or just plain old mediocre cannot bring you down.  You know intuitively all of these things are temporal and none of them are yours – you live for one thing and one thing only and everything else is but a means to that end.

Olympic champions like the 1936 – 9 man row American Row boat champion’s new what surrender was in action when they gave all they had and then some to each other –in blind trust and being – to transcend the sport and become legendary to this day.  Prayer and the spiritual life can be like that sometimes.  It can take great effort and provide seemingly little return for many a day.   Life can impose serious obstacles to one’s faith.  The boys in the boat faced many as well to just get to Germany – and then many more before they crossed the finish line to win the gold.   By the time they won – most of them knew they had won something far more dearly than a man-made medal and the spectacle of the 1936 Olympics.

cedar

 

I cannot tell you what that one thing is you can live for after reading St. Francis de Sales work or what the boy’s in the boat found in pursuit of excellence.  You have to read for yourself.  The Boys in the Boat Book is by Daniel James Brown.  One read in prayer and the other in leisure – I can say these books can inspire and change you.     The world will look and feel a little different.

Among other things, St. Francis de Sales spends sometime in this book on modesty of bearing, interior modesty, and modesty of speech.   One does not become Olympic rowing champions without excessive practice.  One does not approach a holy life without effort either.   There is a chapter on patience as you seek perfection and also a subtle tricky piece on suffering and surrendering.  The latter can potentially upend your understanding to see both suffering and surrendering being gifts we cannot afford to give away.

This little book makes things that seem very complicated very simple.   All the greats make it look that way!  It is simple if you are willing – greatness will come – though you may become to modest to show it to anyone else!

george

[i] https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/332748.The_Art_of_Loving_God

[ii] https://www.google.com/search?rlz=1C1TSNJ_enUS718US718&tbm=isch&q=adam+and+eve&chips=q:adam+and+eve,g_3:forbidden+fruit&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjuor6LkPTVAhVESiYKHR6ZACcQ4lYILSgA&biw=1366&bih=638&dpr=1#imgrc=NDGuIGCeKADTjM:

 

No Man is an Island by Thomas Merton

If only we could be an Island onto ourselves the realities of our personal, financial, and socio-political situation would be but just a minor annoyance no greater than an industrious fly begging for our attention.  We could be lost in the solitude of spirituality – one with God in a romantic monastery living a simple life – provided physical and spiritual sustenance by God’s providence.  Unless called to this lifestyle with irrefutable thunderous revelations – for most of us this would be benign spiritual selfishness, perhaps malignant if at the expense of some greater calling that we have ignored.

That luxury is not afforded to ordinary man – and I have an intuition that the solitude and serenity comes at a greater price than most of us are willing to pay.  For most of us, spirituality and oneness with God comes from how we deal with others.  In a word, love for our fellow man.   And even this is easily corruptible if we fall prey to self-sanctification by our self-sacrifice for others.  How saintly am I today?   Shall I give everything I have for the other?

“Heroism in this sacrifice is measured by madness:  it is all the greater when it is offered for a more trivial motive.”  Pg. 15

It is easier to be heroic when it is romantic to do so; the reward is great, or simply the accomplishment self-affirming. There is a place for this heroism.  It still has a measure of honor and not to be substituted for cowardice or simple indifference in the face of another’s adversity.

The spiritually heroic abandon themselves to the “economy of Divine Providence.”   What the hell is Divine Providence?

“I must let faith elevate, heal, and transform the light of my mind.  If he is merciful, and if my freedom is a gift of His mercy, I must show my trust in his mercy by making use of my free will.  I most let hope and charity purify and strengthen my human liberty and raise me to the glorious autonomy of a son of God.” Pg. 16

This is where heroic actions get very tedious.  They may not be well received, acknowledged or noticed.  Worse yet they may be noticed and denounced and attract great trouble and discontent.  They act without an expectations or ownership of being the creator of the action – for the hero is simply acting on what he knows has to be done as a result of sincere contemplation and rigorous honesty with himself (or herself) and his/her God .  It is a way of life that is applied to every action – big or small, and yet humbly completed without drawing attention to one self, unless called to do so.

What is not heroic?  We are given so many decisions to make daily in our personal, financial, and socio-political spheres of influence.  Should not our actions and voice be heard and informed by our conscience?   Our actions are not heroic if we take moral short-cuts – if we fail to dive into the complexities and moral conundrums of our time, knowing that we will inevitably fall short of attaining perfection or even near perfection.  How often have we fallen to the following moral short-cut:

“The immature conscience is not its own master.  It is merely the delegate of the conscience of another person, or a group, or a party, or a social class, or of a nation or of a race. Therefore it does not make real moral decisions of its own; it simply parrots the decisions of others.  It does not make judgements of its own, it merely “conforms” to the party line.” Pg. 27

How often have good people been led astray by powerful nation states, charismatic leaders, political party, or religious fanaticism?    How holy is our current president’s actions (United States), beliefs, and policies?  There is a contingent in the United States that stand by this man for their sense of self-righteousness and for perceived gains in their own economic being and sense of power.  Could they really support this President of their conscience allowed them to do a truly deep dive into his behavior and his policies?  I think not.  In situations like this, let me quote Merton again:

We must withdraw ourselves, to some extent, from effects that are beyond our control and be content with the good will and the work that are our expression of our inner life.”  Pg. 118

This does not mean withdraw entirely or to assume without a pause that our position is the right and holy position.  While we maybe sanctified in truth we are equally at risk to use our knowledge to be proud:  “knowledge puffeth up” our sense of importance.

It is with humility that we most find our way.  We have guidepost all around us.  Thomas Merton says, “We judge the invisible reality of His Will by the visible and sometimes contemptible signs which show us where His will is found.”

There are simply too many good quotes in this book to capture in this blog.   Merton goes to great depth to depict the balance between interior purity (pursuit of) and external attention.   He finishes with a startling foray into the moment of our death.  If it comes to us as an unwelcome stranger we have probably failed to manage the balance between interior purity and external attention.  (Pg. 263)

A great primer for understanding prayer, conscience, gratitude, sincerity, humility and pursuit of being in the proximity of a holy life.

merton

Spiritual Direction and Meditation by Thomas Merton

Seeking a greater union with God through prayer and meditation I sought out the works of Thomas Merton.  This very tiny book, Spiritual Direction and Meditation, after much discourse and examination of the benefits of pray informed meditation, enough to provide a course of action and reassurance, takes aim at our human ego just after cresting the mid-way point of the book:

 “Knowing at the same time the weakness and imperfection of my own soul fettered by attachments, I will above all pray earnestly and humbly for the grace without which I can never hope to conquer my impatience, irritability, aggressiveness and self-righteous impulses to judge and punish other men.”[i]

Irrevocably drawn in by the power and beauty of seeking greater unity with God by this point, flight from my own human failings is not an option.   But what if the book started off this way?  Would I have continued to read it with the same investment?  Would you?

I adore many of my worldly attachments to the point of constant distraction from unity with God.  Many of these attachments are perfectly healthy and rational affections that could even be defined as my calling and my duty (family, work, friends, and writing).   Others not so much like chess, poker, political junkie, sports and other adrenaline inducing activities.  Not so long ago the allure of the dark side of alcohol as well.  Aside from the latter, I have no intention of divesting myself from these attachments!

As for my impatience, irritability, and aggressiveness – is this not a normal response to the insanity we are faced with every day?   Some of these attributes drive innovation and success in my life.   Do I have a self-righteous impulse to judge and punish other men?  No, I have a self-directed mission to be an advocate for the oppressed and underserved.  I have an obligation to be decisive and to act.  God did not give us ability to have it buried in the ground hidden away.

It is easy to fall into the trap of arrogance with only a droplet of spiritual attainment being granted to the individual soul.  But note the last part of the quote – “to judge and punish other men!”  How often do we judge other men?  How often do we punish others based on our judgments?  Do not rule this out.   Punishing another can take many different forms that may not be obvious initially and be far from a benevolent act despite one’s intention to right a wrong.

How many fervent Catholics go astray with judging and condemning women walking into Planned Parenthood?  Are they inspired by true compassion and love when they are walking the pavement with murder signs held high?  Are they doing it for the glory of God, to defend the unborn, or to raise their own sense of righteous indignation?  How many are ready to punish these women regardless of any circumstance?

worthy

But what are we to do when confronted with the many evils of today?  This is our suffering.  This is our cross.  Thomas Merton says we are “obliged” to follow the example of Jesus Christ and to reproduce in ourselves his patience, meekness, and tranquility.  “He who does not take up his cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.”[ii] What an order.  All “I” wanted was meditation, prayer, and peace!

No wonder Mystic St. John wrote “The Dark Night of the Soul”[iii] that captures what can be a violent confrontation.  It is easy to get ahead of oneself and get lost in “false mysticism.”  Let’s take a step back.

Hence, entering into prayer and meditation I must pray humbly for grace to guide my meditation, my prayers, and my actions.  Thomas Merton’s book is packed with singular lines that can be expounded on ad infinitum.  However, the true intent is to inspire spiritual meditation that brings one closer to God, but here and now, and at the end of times.

Only way to evaluate the writing is to apply the knowledge.  On completing the book, I decided to apply Merton’s writings to my adoration hour.

“This implies trust in God and a sincere abandonment to the Holy Spirit, from whom we can at any time rely on the light of divine Counsel, provided that we are conscientious religious and try to be men of prayer.” 

This is another metaphysical challenge to jump with for complete abandonment and rely on the Holy Spirit for divine counsel.  I don’t know about you, but most believers, even the most devout, have had the grace of direct revelation from the Father, The Son, or The Holy Spirit.  And the latter is the most challenging concept.  Merton does not pause on this and presents simple direction on practical matters (no one can meditate for you) and principals that can guide (seeking union with God, having patience, having humility, having faith*, and with sincere searching and love ask for guidance).

*“We cannot possibly bring our souls to renounce our most powerful natural desires unless we somehow have a real and conscious appreciation of our contact with something better.”

But where do I begin.  Merton recommended “Lectio Divina” as a normal foundation for an interior life of meditation and prayer.  I am somewhat familiar with this from the influence of St. Ignatius spiritual practices.  Simply stated read sacred scripture deeply and sit with it meditatively or with spiritual imagination.

I placed myself in a sacred space (adoration chapel).  I prepared myself for prayer.  I humbly asked for grace and guidance for the time I was to be present and praying that evening. A large bible was within arm’s reach.  The gospel of John, chapter 14, on Last Supper Discourses was the scripture that presented itself.[iv]

John 14

Spiritual imagination transformed me to being in the room.  Disciples Thomas, Philip and Judas were struggling to accept Jesus’s plan to depart.   Anger, fear, disillusionment permeated the room.  I myself could not accept having travelled so far with Jesus, to have such an abrupt end.  Truth be told I did not think an end would come once I saw his miracles with my own eyes. But now, everything is upside down.  Outside these doors are enemies that I cannot stand up too without Jesus.  I do not hear the word of the father the way he does.  I do not trust my fellow disciples to stay.  My friends and family from my past will ridicule me on return – not listen to me preach the words of Jesus.  Jesus speaks to me.  At this point meditative prayer is broken with the hilarity that I could summon up the words Jesus would say to me!  His words to the other apostles sufficed.

And then, after clearly detailing the inevitability of his departure, Jesus tells me about the advocate he will give us:

The Advocate, the Holy Spirit that the Father will send in my name—he will teach you everything and remind you of all that [I] told you.

This is important to me.  I have been delving for a week or to now into prayer seeking greater understanding of the Holy Spirit and not quite getting it. And hear, Jesus was telling me directly about the advocate.  My complaining about following Jesus all this way above in my spiritual imagination became my complaining about my life journey and its hardships.

In a crack of silence, the journey and providence of traveling from Pelham bay in the Bronx as a child to the middle of Delaware was filled with the unseen hand of God at different turning points in my life.  And still in my obstinacy, despite all the graces I have been given, I question God…..Dela Where?     In an instant the worry and hindsight on how I arrived at where I am today were insignificant.

Significance is that ultimate truth lies within us if we pursue listening to our spiritual consciousness and are open to the mystery of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  The advocate is there for us within us if we ask for it and we look for it with pure intention and sincerity to want union with God.

That sincerity will acknowledge the weakness and imperfection of our fettered souls with a desire to seek him. I do not know about conquering my imperfections.  I can only humbly ask God’s grace to eliminate those that can be ameliorated, help me carry those imperfections that are my cross bear, help me to not hurt others as a result of my weaknesses, and empower me to live loving as Jesus Christ exemplified.

Untethered thoughts cascaded into pleas:

I am no saint.  I am not a bible thumper or theologian.  I am damaged by my own fears and desires. I am engulfed in humanity and vulnerable to the attractions of the seven deadly sins. I cannot possibly meet God’s expectations or even my own!  I am in need of help and forgiveness every day for myself and for brothers.

Solemnity settled into the still room.  Neither elation nor despair was present.  As the disciples knew, challenges awaited them when they left the last supper.  So too challenges awaited me as I exited the chapel – not of course on the grand magnitude of those by Jesus’s side.

The night air was peaceful.  The Moon was bright.  Unseen I departed from the quiet place with my thoughts.   Perhaps I can conquer many things that create distance between me and God with the advocates help and prayerful meditations and actions.  it is not that complicated to pray.

“Meditation is almost all contained in this one idea:  the idea of awakening our interior self and attuning ourselves inwardly to the Holy Spirit, so that we will be able to respond to His grace.”

merton on life

[i] Thomas Merton, Spiritual Direction and Meditation (Action and Union)

[ii] Luke: 14:27

[iii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=21Rwj9sPBTc

 

[iv] http://www.usccb.org/bible/john/14:1

 

The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton

The beginning of a new personal spiritual chapter can bring me anticipatory eagerness and anxiety.  Eagerness to deepen my personal relationship to God, to enrich my faith, and to provide me needed sustenance and perseverance in the face of daily adversities.  Anxiety about the time required, the demands presented, and the worthiness of the venture.

Pope Francis gave a nod to Thomas Merton as he cited Merton as being one of four representatives of the American people to turn to for examples of faith and standing up for social justice, equal rights, liberty, and peace.

By Merton’s account he was no saint or model of purity.   Perhaps that he is why valuable as an example;

‘I came into the world. Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born. That world was the picture of Hell, full of men like myself, loving God, and yet hating him; born to love him, living instead in fear of hopeless self-contradictory hungers.’ [i]

In an instant you can google Merton and find detractors regarding his motivations to enter the religious life (draft dodger) or his human fallibility pre-monastic life or later in life with a woman named Maggie.[ii]  How do we pair the human side of Thomas Merton with the body of work that he left behind after his accidental electrocution in Thailand in 1968? The irony of death paired with this statement in “The Seven Story Mountain” is perhaps co-incidental, yet unnerving:

“That you may become the brother of God and learn to know the Christ of the burnt men.[iii] 

The book has controversy as well regarding attacks that it was highly edited.[iv]   This was also Thomas Merton’s first major work and later in his life he reflected that it would not be the same today if he was to write it again.  How can I not read his later works to see where his spiritual maturity bought him after such an esteemed start?

My read of this classic was easy going.  He tells his early life story and journey with simple language and clarity within the context of a world driven by strife and a world at war (WW II).   Some compare his conversion story to that of St. Augustine.  His use of Dante’s purgatory mountain for his title is telling.  The battle with human affectations (pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed, and sloth) is a battle for Monks as well as laymen. The duality of action and contemplation in harmony is mindfully present in this story.

ll_purgatory

Seeking God for any of these reasons is bound to fail.  The fragility of seeking spiritual perfection is a path of eagerness and anxiety.  The price is high, the path narrow, and time is short (at least for me).

Merton’s introductory work was worth my investment.  There are too many quotes and insights to re-post here.  Hopefully my Merton journey is providential!   Maybe one day I will visit Kentucky.  If you are familiar with the Thomas Merton Society, The Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, or have a favorite Merton work, please comment and give your insights!

[i] http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2015/09/24/443126027/in-pope-francis-congress-speech-praise-for-dorothy-day-and-thomas-merton

[ii] http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/thomas-merton-the-hermit-who-never-was-his-young-lover-and-mysterious-death-1.2422818

[iii] Page 462, Seven Storey Mountain

[iv] http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/10/11/bookend/bookend.html

[v] http://www.monks.org/

[vi] http://www.christianhumanist.org/2010/08/dante-2010

 

Providence, Powerlessness, and Purpose

April 1, 2017

Today I find myself in control of my destiny.  My will and determination is paramount and the world is at my disposal.  If any frustration arises in me at their denseness, I recognize that not all can be blessed with the wisdom that I have attained and patience is the rule of the moment when faced with brothers who remain obstinate to my will and my ideas.  I am kind in all my ways, compassionate when called to be, selfless in all my actions, and next to my fellow-man, as perfected in spiritual attainment as near perfection any human may achieve.  I need not pretend to enunciate how I have achieved this elevation, for to do so, would be contrary to my deep seated humility.  Suffice it to say, I have arrived at my pre-destined place, at one with God’s will, forgiven and renewed in the spirit, never to stray again on the path of un-holiness.   And this I do of my own free will and sheer determination as gifted to me by grace of God.

“In all ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.”[i]

Today is April 1, 2017, by some it is called a national holiday for all atheist.  I do not begrudge atheist or humanists that are able without the aid of a higher power to live a life as close to moral perfection as humanely possible.  I am a humanist by nature, a philosopher by spirit, and an amateur theologian by self-appointment.    That is not enough for me to live the life that I believe mankind is destined to pursue.  Left to my own devices and self-deception I will fail to my own subliminal definition of self that although not as grandiose as the first paragraph, nonetheless is elevated above the reality of my actions and in defiance of my inherited and self-created limitations.    The chasm between the two will create a separation between me and my fellow man, between me and my God, that ultimately will bring chaos and failure to fruition if left to my own devises.

In earnest I am speaking about the dynamism of Providence versus Free Will.  We are powerless in the face of forces of nature, manmade circumstances beyond our control, and the limitations within our genetics and psychological make up that provide us certain strengths and limitations.  For us believer’s, we are also aware of a certain sense of pre-determination, which ultimately if some outcome is God’s will it will be done.  In the face of Providence and Powerlessness that is undeniably present in the human condition it could be easy to lose all hope and drive to pursue individual and collective action to fulfill a calling or life purpose.    When confronted with suffering on so many existential levels and deep rooted soul felt pain, it is easy to abandon Providence or Free Will or both.

The reality is today, April 1, 2017, I find myself in doing everything in my power to do God’s will, not mine.  My will and determination is important but only if it is informed and aligned with God’s will.  Patience is the rule of the moment when faced with brothers who remain obstinate to my will and my ideas while allowing for the possibility and in many cases the likelihood, that it is my own obstinacy that creates frustration and disappointment. I strive to be kind in all my ways, compassionate when called to be, and selfless in all my actions – but I am far from spiritual attainment and perfection.  Pride and humility are a constant dance in my head that color my actions in shades of hue that cannot be defined with any self-assurance of accuracy.

In the face of adversity we are called to make informed decisions and act on these decisions with a ferocity and commitment commensurate with the challenge before us.    What challenges are you facing today?  What is God’s will for you with this challenge?  What is your decision?  What actions do you have to take today?  Who can help you validate your thinking and your plan are in-line with your reality or with God’s intentions?

If you are facing a challenge today, may you find the help you need, the resources at hand, a decision to act in accordance with your destiny, and find serenity in your life:

serenity

[i] Proverbs 3:6

Saints

Pope Francis has taken steps to canonize Fatima Siblings (https://nyti.ms/2mW3nYl) according to New York Times article.  Do you believe in Saints?  The Devil?  The Fatima Siblings had visions and drew thousands of Christians to the Village of Fatima.  There is even a mystery of prophecy by Sister Lucia – the one to escape an untimely death – providing three predictions that many believe came to fruition – one of which may have saved Pope John Paul’s life.  I have sought counsel on modern-day visionaries – and the best advice I got seemed to be focus on Christ – if a message helps me focus more on Christ as a tool, okay, but don’t get lost seeking modern-day miracles – the Miracle was given to us on the Cross.

None the less there remains in Christology messages about the end of times (Eschatology) and the final battle.

Final Battle

Sister Lucia spoke to that as well.  Let’s place the word “Saint” aside.

Have you ever met a person who exudes humility and spirit?  Have you read about great martyrs and sacrifices?

There are heroes among us living their lives so close to the image of God, as imprinted deep within their souls, that we can be rendered speechless by their devotion, steadfastness, and courage.  They are all around us if you look, performing small and large miracles, invisible to the unsuspecting eye, silently passing you on the street, perhaps with a smile or merely a focused precision walk that announces purpose and fiery determination.    They are humans with their heart and soul given fearlessly to be used by their God to heal, to love, to serve others.  Some of them may have been blessed with visions or moments of grace that defy imagination.

I don’t know about prophecies, or mystics, or saints.  What I do know is people among us have the power of the Holy Spirit within their core and are preparing for the final battle now, preparing the  battlefield for us all.

The spiritual imagination and contemplative life can bring you places you never thought possible.

“Catholics are not required to believe in even the most approved and venerated private revelations, but many of us choose to do so. Does this battle relate to the famous discourse Pope Leo XIII was alleged to have heard in a vision between Christ and Satan, which led him to compose the prayer to St. Michael? How long the final battle will last, and what will come after? (http://www.onepeterfive.com/sister-lucia-final-confrontation-between-the-lord-and-satan-will-be-over-family-and-marriage/)”

Thanks for reading my mystical rambling.

The Benedictine Option

st-benedict2

On February 17, 2017 the Wall Street Journal printed a story by Ian Lovelett entitled:  “Wary of Modern Society, Some Christians Choose a Life Apart.”[i]  There is a movement here in the United States that mirrors monastic communities of early Christian times.  The actual rules of a Benedictine Monastery are quite exhaustive.  However, these families are choosing to set up Christian communities near Monasteries and model life on Christian values absent the temptations of secular life found in American communities.

What are these families seeking in pursuing the Benedictine Option?  St. Gregory described St. Benedict this way:

“the model of a saint who flees temptation to pursue a life of attention to God. Through a balanced pattern of living and praying Benedict reached the point where he glimpsed the glory of God.”[ii]

If you have never escaped to a spiritual retreat that provides solitude and prayer I recommend you read and consider an Ignatian retreat center.  An excellent book I have recommended (link below) prior can provide an at home retreat for 8 weeks.[iii]  How many of us can pick up, purchase land near a monastery, and find it possible to live the agrarian lifestyle successfully?

We do not need to flee from the United States, from our communities, from other Christian denominations, from Muslims, Jews, Atheist, Progressives, Liberals, and Conservatives.  Living in a secular society, if you have not been called to the priesthood or monastic lifestyle, is a calling in and of itself.  We live amongst non-believers and fellow believers to perform our calling while simultaneously living our faith as witnesses to Christ.

How do we do that as today’s gospel (February 19, 2017) calls for us to “reprove your fellow-countryman firmly and thus avoid burdening yourself with a sin.”[iv]  We have been far from flawless in this regard.  We have stepped way past reprove to being judge, jury, and hangman on many occasion – thus committing countless sins in the name of Jesus Christ.

ingnorant-reprove

Globalization trends, extreme politics, and scarcity of resources are leading people to make superficial decisions.  Today a segment of our society driven by Christian evangelization is attempting to codify via civil law our beliefs and to impose them on others rather than “reproving” sinners by preaching our beliefs (our churches and leaders) and living our beliefs as witnesses thru “a balanced pattern of living and praying.”  At a high level our policies are not supporting our beliefs and our trust in faith and God’s intimate knowledge of each one of us.  If we did we would not have our current President in chief be able to retain the modest popularity he has based on his “wall plans,” anti-immigration plans, lifestyle, and a host of other issues best left unmentioned here.

If we were confident in our faith we would be able to humbly reprove without the insecure need to demonize and attack non-believers.   As we have seen time and time again, when we are living the true faith non-believers will rise in insecurity to demonize our actions.  We must be prepared to not fall into the trap of committing the same sin.

reprove

We do need to reprove our politicians and fellow citizens.  I reprove abortion in general (not women) though I do not pretend to know the circumstances (medical, spiritual, psychological, economic, rape) or the depth of God’s mercy and intentions.  I reprove our nation’s decision to dismantle health care that helps the poor, to apply indiscriminate and harmful immigration actions for votes, to build a wall when we can be building humanity, and many other systemic injustices.   I reprove policy and presidential actions and words that through either active collusion or incompetence continue to promote racism, sexism, and religious intolerance.  I reprove our highest public servant directing his energies at serving the wealthy and his associates despite campaigning to do the opposite to help the poor and middle class.

However, at a deeper level, spiritual pursuit starts with me – not with the elected class.  Do I know that I am God’s temple and that God’s spirit dwells in me?[v]   How many times have I poisoned by body with alcohol or other acts of gluttony?  How many times have I filled my mind with other sins of the spirit (pride, greed, lust, glutton, wrath, and sloth)?

Take a look at Dante’s Inferno archetype descriptions art for each of these trap doors.  Or better yet take this fictional test:  http://www.4degreez.com/misc/dante-inferno-test.mv

dante

Now, Dante’s work is one of literary imagination- not spiritual or religious dogma.  But if you dared take that test – did it get you thinking a little more objectively about your balanced living and pray life?

How many of us put our own desire for status, financial security, power above the needs of people less fortunate than us through the arms of our nation’s wealth and might?  To be honest, in the short-term, Donald’s plan may benefit me financially in net pay.  However, it is devastating my spiritual beliefs in protecting the vulnerable in our society and the immigrants seeking refuge or already here.  Perhaps a 30 day Benedictine Monastic Month would be good for our nation!  That not being possible – all change starts with the smallest unit.  Me.

However, the family unit is a monastic unit of faith.  It is a calling.  Within our communities if the family units are living the faith, we will have a society and market that caters to that faith without the need for coercion or mandate.  By faith and individual and family action of living the word of God within our own walls we can carry the word of God.  And in our communities we can be replenished and supported by the church.  How many house hunters prioritize visiting the church before evaluating the schools, transportation, crime rates, and other factors that make communities important to us?

We know these things.  That our faith is dependent on our individual lives, family lives, and church being in order. Yet we look to our government, education system, and media to make it easy for us.  We expect them to do the hard work while we hypocritically are consuming the very things we rally against.  Fleeing to another land will not eliminate the turmoil within our own souls or within our church.

flight

So we find ourselves in a secularised community here in the United States.  Internationally people are dying today for their beliefs in Jesus Christ.  Our human inclination is fight or flight.

fight-or-flight

Today’s gospel has some advice on this topic:

“You have heard that it was said, `An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if anyone would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you. “You have heard that it was said, `You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.[vi]

The magnitude of seeking perfection in a secular society is the hardest challenge of mankind.  It is what we are called to do with humility and steadfastness.  We may not be able to escape to a hermitage and probably have not been called to do so.  However, nothing wrong with taking refuge for a minute, an hour, a weekend in contemplative prayer when the seven temptations are at the door.

contemplatative

[i] https://www.wsj.com/articles/communities-built-on-faith-1487349471

[ii] http://www.osb.org/gen/benedict.html

[iii] http://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-spiritual-exercises/an-ignatian-prayer-adventure

[iv] 1 Corinthians 3:16-23

[v] Corinthians 3:16-23

[vi] Matthew 5: 38 to 48

 

Cathedral Basilica, Philadelphia

alter

A minor Basilica located in the heart of Philadelphia, originally built for 75,000 , now is facing a roof repair that cost upwards of 14 million dollars! It is a national historic landmark, a museum, and soon to be home of a shrine for St. Katherine Drexel (http://www.katharinedrexel.org/), and is also an active but aging parish.  
After mass today my wife and I enjoyed a tour of the church.  What a wonderful and instructive tour.  The church, aside from its own splendor, is also a repository of sculptures and artwork from smaller churches that have ceased to be.  As the Catholic church as seen diminishing numbers and the cost of maintaining churches has sky rocketed, valuable and impressive church artifacts are found new homes, including moving saints crypts.   

The mass was classical in style and included beautiful music played on the fourth largest organ in the city:  

organ

Afterwards the artwork and many alcoves tell so many stories of our faith.  Historically art was a way of storytelling and communicating the faith – etched in glass, ceramic, or painted on walls and ceilings.   

ceiling

 

I was also able to sit in the same chair as Pope Francis did when he visited and said Mass on Ben Franklin Parkway.  I think it’s the robes that gives him the air of authority and grace!    
A common theme in my writings always returns to a principal.  A principal I try to teach to up and coming social workers as well.  Often, it is not the words or the glamour of the presenter, the oration or eloquence, the skill level or technique – but genuine compassion, demonstrated empathy, and consistent authenticity.   How are we living today.  Are the American people and our elected leaders practicing genuine compassion, demonstrated empathy, and consistent authenticity?   Pope Francis has challenged us on several fronts as individual Christians and as a nation that we are not living or acting as a Christian nation in the areas of compassion, economic stewardship, social welfare, environment, and many other intrinsic values of Christianity.  Christianity is so much more than Pro-Life – and he has criticized us on that too in many dimensions regarding the value of life on all fronts.  
The church has frequent homeless individuals hiding in the confessionals to get some sleep and un-harassed peace.  The a.m. mass before ours had a homeless person taking one of the contribution baskets and fleeing out with a few dollars in the middle of mass – a common problem in this church that has its share of homeless and impoverished people in the community.   One statue requires a rosary bead to be present – it is replaced daily as it is always taken by visitors to the church. People are desperate and hungry for grace and for food, housing, shelter.  
My thoughts and prayers to the immigrants we are shunning, to the homeless we are ignoring, to the poor who are hungry, and to the spiritually starved who have lost faith in humanity and in God.   I pray with tears in my eyes that we as a nation find humility in our hearts, courage to accept the risk of being true leaders, and strength to demand we treat all people with dignity.   

Here is one of today’s readings.  Read and Reflect if you have time:

Reading 2, First Corinthians 1:26-31
26 Consider, brothers, how you were called; not many of you are wise by human standards, not many influential, not many from noble families.
27 No, God chose those who by human standards are fools to shame the wise; he chose those who by human standards are weak to shame the strong,
28 those who by human standards are common and contemptible — indeed those who count for nothing — to reduce to nothing all those that do count for something,
29 so that no human being might feel boastful before God.
30 It is by him that you exist in Christ Jesus, who for us was made wisdom from God, and saving justice and holiness and redemption.
31 As scripture says: If anyone wants to boast, let him boast of the Lord.

 http://cathedralphila.org/about/about-the-cathedral/

 
http://cathedralphila.org/