Friday, July 31, 2009

Kataphatic prayer

Artist: Francisco Zurbaran

Our friend, Monk-in-Training, reminded me this morning that today is the Feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola. Ignatius, of course, is historically, one of the most well known proponents of kataphatic spirituality - that is, using images in prayer. Here's somethinge brief about that from Inner Compass: An Invitation to Ignatian Spirituality by Margaret Silf:

He began to find himself, in imagination, present in the scenes, conversations, and stories of the Gospels, and he began to participate in the plots of these stories. It was the start, for him, of an adventure into imaginative prayer that was to become a most powerful catalyst for the growth of his personal relationship with God..
Sadly, I've heard some praying people assert that apophatic prayer (without images) is somehow "better" or more authentic than kataphatic prayer. I don't think such an assessment is at all justifiable. The kind of prayer that a person finds accessible is largely a matter of temperament and personality. If our prayer brings us to surrender to God, then it's "good" prayer. If it doesn't, then something needs to be re-examined.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The color of grace

Spiritual rigidity makes it very difficult for us to be open enough to notice divine surprises like this:

Lord, you are like a wildflower. You spring up in places where we least expect you. The bright color of your grace dazzles us. Far from trying to possess you, may you possess us.

Henry Suso

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Absolute mystery

Artist: William Turner

This is the reason it is truly best not to judge other people for their belief system:

I must confess to you in all honesty that for me God is and has always been absolute mystery. I do not understand what God is; no one can. We have intimations, inklings; we make faltering, inadequate attempts to put mystery into words. But there is no word for it, no sentence for it.

Karl Rahner

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Little things

Artist: Jacques-Louis David

Sojourners sent the following quotation out in an email today and I think it goes well with yesterday's posting:

Every spiritual master in every tradition talks about the significance of small things in a complex world. Small actions in social life, small efforts in the spiritual life, small moments in the personal life. All of them become great in the long run, the mystics say, but all of them look like little or nothing in themselves.

- Joan Chittister

We are very easily seduced, aren't we, by the world's understanding of significance. It is wise not to devalue seemingly "little" things. We don't know. We really don't know. Let us, rather, assume that our judgment of what is small or great may very well be distorted.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Scaling the mountain within

Artist: Bunchō Tani

I was very influenced by Elizabeth O'Connor during the period in which I was attempting to discern whether or not to enter the religious life. Here's something quite wonderful that she said:

Every single one of us has a good work to do in life. This good work not only accomplishes something needed in the world, but completes something in us. When it is finished, a new work emerges that will help make green a desert place as well as scale another mountain inside ourselves.

I don't think by "good work to do in life" she means anything particularly grand as the world would evaluate such work. It can be very hidden indeed or really quite simple. Nevertheless, that good work is something that is truly needed and something that helps us grow interiorly as well.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Information versus knowledge

"Jesus multiplies the loaves and fish"
Creative Commons attribution

This morning's gospel reading is, of course, about the feeding of the five thousand. Here's part of a sermon by The Rev. Kate Huey that explores some of its implications:
The disciples of Jesus were overwhelmed by the need before them. If they didn't feel a responsibility to meet that need, Jesus certainly raised their consciousness. They tried to assess the situation, measure their resources, and figure out a solution, but they seemed to feel powerless in the face of so many hungry people. Cheryl Bridges Johns draws a contrast between the power of God that was about to burst forth and the power that we think we have today: the power of knowledge. However, the better word she uses for today's knowledge is "information," and perhaps information disempowers us by discouraging us with the "objective reality" of what lies before us, the statistics and hard cold facts (is it any wonder they're called hard and cold?).

On the other hand, John's Gospel is "all about knowledge as power," not the knowledge-as-information that inundates us but "love's knowledge" which "multiplies the meager resources and makes a way forward when knowledge comes to its end….in the hands of Jesus, little can become much, the few can become the many, and the weak can become strong." Imagine, Johns suggests, God responding to our prayers for the world's needs with the question, "What do you have?"

I found Johns' commentary quite thought-provoking, because I often feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of problems and need of the world. And yet, what would happen if we trusted in the power of God to multiply in amazing ways the resources we have, and what would happen if we saw this as a communal question, not simply a personal one? What if we looked around and saw the extravagant generosity with which God has provided an abundance for us all, and marveled at this great wonder? Would we be moved to be part of a dazzling work of God to re-create our shared life in justice and compassion?
I am intrigued by the distinction made here between knowledge and information and the idea that mere information can, in fact, be disempowering. I'm also very, very moved by the question "What do you have?" in this context.

Aids to contemplation

There's a whole series of marvelous mandalas by this artist over on Beliefnet this morning. I recommend that you go take a look and browse through them all!

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Blue true dream

Artist: Konrad Mägi

Here is a little jewel of a poem:


I thank God for most this
day; for the leaping greenly
spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;
and for everything
which is natural, which is
infinite, which is yes.

-- e. e. cummings

Friday, July 24, 2009

True comprehension

"Abraham and Sara"

This is very encouarging to me right now:

Discipleship is not limited to what you can understand - it must transcend all comprehension. Plunge into the deep waters beyond your own understanding…. Bewilderment is the true comprehension. Not to know where you are going is the true knowledge. In this way Abraham went forth from his father, not knowing where he was going.

-- Martin Luther

"Bewilderment is the true comprehension." What a powerful paradox. For it is the key, I'm sure of it, to letting go.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The mystical experience

Detail: The Mystical Nativity
Artist: Sandro Botticelli
Image from Wikimedia Commons

I think what happens to many of us is that we have our natural mysticism knocked out of us at an early age. And this is very sad:
Every one of us is a mystic. We may or may not realize it, we may not even like it. But whether we know it or not, whether we accept it or not, mystical experience is always there, inviting us on a journey of ultimate discovery. We have been given the gift of life in this perplexing world to become who we ultimately are: creatures of boundless love, caring compassion, and wisdom. Existence is a summons to the eternal journey of the sage - the sage we all are, if only we could see.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Saint Mary of Magdala

Artist: Andrea del Sarto
Image from Wikimedia Commons

So many traditional paintings of Mary Magdalene depict her as a penitent but biblical scholars assure us that there is no scriptual justification for identifying her with the unnamed prostitute in the gospels. And so today I bring you an image of her as the first witness to the ressurection. This even led to her being called "the apostle to the apostles".

Here is a poem by by Rainer Maria Rilke (translation: Ann Conrad Lammers) about the scene depicted above:
The Risen One

Until his final hour he had never
refused her anything or turned away,
lest she should turn their love to public praise.
Now she sank down beside the cross, disguised,
heavy with the largest stones of love
like jewels in the cover of her pain.

But later, when she came back to his grave
with tearful face, intending to anoint,
she found him resurrected for her sake,
saying with greater blessedness, "Do not--"

She understood it in her hollow first:

how with finality he now forbade
her, strengthened by his death, the oils' relief
or any intimation of a touch:

because he wished to make of her the lover
who needs no more to lean on her beloved,
as, swept away by joy in such enormous
storms, she mounts even beyond his

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Contemplation and justice

"The blessed Ranieri frees the poor from a Florentine jail"
Artist: Sassetta

So many people sadly believe that contemplation means shutting the world out. Actually, it is only through authentic contemplation that we can engage the world as it is:

To live a contemplative life, to be spiritual, does not mean that we spend life in some kind of sacred spa designed to save us from having to deal with the down and dirty parts of life. The contemplative life is not spiritual escapism. Contemplation is immersion in the God who created the world for all of us…. And so must we do whatever justice must be done in our time if we claim to be serious about really sinking into the heart of God.

-- Joan Chittister

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Come away to a deserted place

Artist: Francis Cadell

Here's the bit in this morning's gospel reading that really caught my attention today:

The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, "Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while." For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.
And now I want to share with you a short passage from a sermon by The Rev. Dr. Ozzie E. Smith, Jr.:

Howard Thurman in a message entitled The Genuine in You, said, and I paraphrase, failing to listen to the sound of the genuine in ourselves is to render ourselves always on the ends of strings being pulled by someone else. Taking time to be still and know refreshes us to remember both who and whose we are. As Jesus says in this text, "Come, let's go to a deserted place all by ourselves and rest awhile." This, I believe, is pleasing to God and ultimately will be valuable to those we seek to serve.
I actually preached on the above passage myself this morning but I was thinking of the instruction to come to a deserted place as a remedy against burn out. And that it is. But I had not considered that it's the only way we will truly know ourselves so that we will not be manipulated by other people who seek to exploit us.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Instructing ourselves in joy

"Peasant Woman Sitting in the Grass"
Artist: Nicolae Grigorescu

I love Mary Oliver's verse and have for a long time. Here's one of her poems I found today that is new to me:

Why I Wake Early

Every day
I see or hear
that more or less
kills me
with delight,
that leaves me
like a needle
in the haystack
of light.
It was what I was born for—
to look, to listen,
to lose myself
inside this soft world—
to instruct myself
over and over
in joy,
and acclamation.
Nor am I talking
about the exceptional,
the fearful, the dreadful,
the very extravagant—
but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab,
the daily presentations.
Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help
but grow wise
with such teachings
as these—
the untrimmable light
of the world,
the ocean’s shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass?
This poet truly understands the life of mindfulness and contemplation. "Prayers that are made out of grass." Aren't those wonderful words? I think I'll put a little vase of grass on the shrine in my oratory!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Motivation and encouragement

Starfish painting by Earnell

It's an old story and very probably you've heard it before. But, for some reason, I thought about it again the other day:

An old man was walking along the beach, when he came upon a part of the sand where thousands of starfish had washed ashore. A little further down the beach he saw a young woman, who was picking up the starfish one at a time and tossing them back into the ocean. "Oh you silly girl," he exclaimed. "You can't possibly save all of these starfish. There's too many." The woman smiled and said, "I know. But I can save this one, " and she tossed another into the ocean, "and this one", toss, "and this one..."
There are a number of versions of this. In one version, the creatures being saved are seahorses and the person tossing them back is a little boy. The old man says, "What you're doing doesn't matter," and the little boy says, "It matters to this one."

I like to remember this story when I'm feeling discouraged for any reason.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Please don't neglect your silence

"Silence interieur"

Here's why it's so important for us to learn to meditate. Because without meditative skills we will not know how to access the silence of which Merton speaks:

The reality that is present to us and in us: call it being … or Silence. And the simple fact that by being attentive, by learning to listen (or recovering the natural capacity to listen) we can find ourself engulfed in such happiness that it cannot be explained: the happiness of being at one with everything in that hidden ground of Love for which there can be no explanations. May we all grow in grace and peace, and not neglect the silence that is printed in the center of our being. It will not fail us.

-- Thomas Merton

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Simply being alongside another

Artist: Elpidiforowitsch Borissow-Mussatow

It's one of those stories by an unknown author. And it's a good one:

There was once an elderly, despondent woman in a nursing home. She wouldn't speak to anyone or request anything. She merely existed - rocking in her creaky old rocking chair.

The old woman didn't have many visitors. But every couple mornings, a concerned and wise young nurse would go into her room. She didn't try to speak or ask questions of the old lady. She simply pulled up another rocking chair beside the old woman and rocked with her.

Weeks or months later, the old woman finally spoke."Thank you," she said. "Thank you for rocking with me."
I wonder how many hurting people are out there silently pleading with the rest of us, "Don't try to fix me; just be with me."

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

An irresistible and holy desire

Today is Bastille Day, the French national holiday. So it seems fitting to bring you something from an influential French thinker and mystic. I refer, of course, to Jesuit priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who was a paleontologist and a philospopher. He influenced me hugely in the early 70s when there was a revival of popular interest in his work.

There is so much I could quote here. But I bring you two passages which are very meaningful to me today. Here's the first:
In the final analysis, the questions of why bad things happen to good people transmutes itself into some very different questions, no longer asking why something happened, but asking how we will respond, what we intend to do now that it happened.
More and more I am convinced that "Why?" is the most useless question anyone came up with. A better question is, rather, "Why not?" and then for us to move on to "What now?"

And here's a way we can all (any time, anywhere, whether clergy or lay) say Mass and say it rightly:
Since once again, O Lord, in the steppes of Asia, I have no bread, no wine, no altar, I will raise myself above those symbols to the pure majesty of reality, and I will offer to you, I, your priest, upon the altar of the entire earth, the labor and the suffering of the world. Receive, O Lord, in its totality the Host which creation, drawn by your magnetism, presents to you at the dawn of a new day. This bread, our effort, is in itself, I know, nothing but an immense disintegration. This wine, our anguish, as yet, alas! is only an evaporating beverage. But in the depths of this inchoate Mass you have placed —I am certain, for I feel it— an irresistible and holy desire that moves us all, the impious as well as the faithful to cry out: "O Lord, make us one!"
How captivating and awe-inspiring to see the entire earth as one's altar and then to perceive, by faith, the "pure majesty of reality".

What if we said to the Holy One every day, "This bread, this my effort, is my body broken for you."

And then, "This wine, this my anguish, is my blood shed for you."

Really. What if we did this?

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The cost of faithfulness

Oh, there is so much richness in this morning's lessons:

"Righteousness and peace have kissed each other."

"Behold, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people..."

"King David [was] leaping and dancing before the LORD."
But the most dramatic lesson involves the beheading of John the Baptist.

Here's a brief reflection I found on this event:
Here faithfulness and violence, not faithfulness and steadfast love, go hand in hand. This very disturbing scene raises difficult questions for anybody and any community that lives “against-the-cultural-grain.” Should John have said nothing and self-protectively kept his objections to himself? After all, the chances of Herod and Herodias changing their ways just because a locust-eating prophet criticized them were not high. Would silence have been more prudent as well as self-preserving? Or would it have been cowardly and unfaithful, an opportunity to address a significant issue lost? How do we discern which is which?
Just lately, I've had occassion to be very disheartened by the silence and self-preserving prudence of a number of church authorities. It's understandable, of course. (No one wants to get his or her head chopped off!) Still, isn't the Christian faith all about cultivating the fidelity and courage necessary to live out our baptism even when that involves real risk?

Saturday, July 11, 2009

What is God's position anyway?

I found the following comment after an article over on Alternet:

The most dangerous words ever uttered:

"God is ON my side."

The most healing words ever uttered:

"God is AT my side."

Amazing how one little word can make all the difference.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Lectio Divina Meditation

I'm not sure that "Lectio Divnia Meditation" is really the best title for the above video but that's what the producer called it and I imagine the video emerged from her lectio.

It is certainly evocative.

And I like it.

UPDATE: Here's a little article on what Lectio Divina is all about.

UPDATE 2: I just found the following video which offers a very clear and accessible summary of the usual lectio steps:

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The real problem

Look, I don't mean to come across as cynical or anything but I think this guy really has a point here:

The problem is not that the churches are filled with empty pews, but that the pews are filled with empty people.

-- Charlie Shedd

Tuesday, July 7, 2009


There are many, many wonderful stories about the Ba`al Shem Tov. Here's a teaching that is simple and direct but has great appeal to me right now. I love this first sentence:
When you want to pray, it should be with awe. This is the gate through which one enters before God. Say to yourself, “To whom do I wish to bind myself? To the One who created all worlds with His word, who gives them existence and sustains them.” Think about God's loftiness and greatness, and you will then be able to enter the supernal worlds.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Learning how to be

All the great mystics say this - and the great reformers, too. Why then do so many torture themselves trying to "get it right"?

People should think less about what they ought to do and more about what they ought to be. If only their being were good, their works would shine forth brightly. Do not imagine that you can ground your salvation upon actions; it must rest on what you are. The ground upon which good character rests is the very same ground from which a person's work derives its value, namely, a mind wholly turned to God.

-- Meister Eckhart

Sunday, July 5, 2009

What is a prophet?

Artist: Jose Andres de Vera y Paysal

I was looking for something to post tonight that would go with this morning's readings and I found this marvelous sentence:
A prophet is not one who looks into the future, but one who has insight into the present.
It is from a brief article entitled "Who Does He Think He Is?" by Dianne Bergant, C.S.A. in America magazine. It is very thought provoking - the article, I mean - and I recommend that you go on over and read the whole thing. It won't take very long.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

A founding father speaks

Reading, reflection and time have convinced me that the interests of society require the observation of those moral which all religions agree.

-- Thomas Jefferson

Sacred Harp - in honor of the day

I well remember the first time I heard this music live. It stands my hair on end just to think about it!

A Happy Fourth to you all!

Friday, July 3, 2009

Something about the Bible

"Still Life with Bible"
Artist: Vincent van Gogh

The following is not a new idea, of course, to people who visit this site. However it is wonderfully articulated in this paragraph:

Literalism gets its name from its insistence that what we find in the Bible is not just the Word of God but the very words of God. The distinction is of tremendous importance. The phrase "Word of God" as used in the Bible itself, notably in the opening sentences of the Fourth Gospel, is an English translation of a Greek word, Logos, which was in wide use among philosophers at the time the New Testament was written. It connotes the creative, outgoing, self-revealing activity of God. The Logos was not a particular divine utterance, but God's overall message to mankind. It was not necessarily communicated verbally in speech or writing. Indeed, the whole point of Christianity is that the supreme communication of the Word took place when it was expressed through a human life and personality in Jesus Christ.

-- Louis Cassels

I remember reading somewhere that the sacred syllable "Om" is used for that Greek word "Logos" when the New Testament is translated into Sanskrit. Here's a sentence I just found on the web:
"Yet another interpretation equates Om with the Greek, “logos,” “the word”, found at the beginning of St John’s gospel."
You can find it right here.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Christ enthroned

From the Book of Kells

If you're ever in Dublin, please please, please go see the Book of Kells. It is not to be missed!