Christian Life/Personal Holiness: April 2005 Archives

My beloved is mine, and I am his; He feedeth among the lilies
Francis Quarles (1592–1644)

EV’N like two little bank-dividing brooks,
That wash the pebbles with their wanton streams,
And having rang’d and search’d a thousand nooks,
Meet both at length in silver-breasted Thames,
Where in a greater current they conjoin:
So I my best-beloved’s am; so he is mine.

Ev’n so we met; and after long pursuit,
Ev’n so we joyn’d; we both became entire;
No need for either to renew a suit,
For I was flax and he was flames of fire:
Our firm-united souls did more than twine;
So I my best-beloved’s am; so he is mine.

If all those glitt’ring Monarchs that command
The servile quarters of this earthly ball,
Should tender, in exchange, their shares of land,
I would not change my fortunes for them all:
Their wealth is but a counter to my coin:
The world’s but theirs; but my beloved’s mine.

Nay, more; If the fair Thespian Ladies all
Should heap together their diviner treasure:
That treasure should be deem’d a price too small
To buy a minute’s lease of half my pleasure;
’Tis not the sacred wealth of all the nine
Can buy my heart from him, or his, from being mine.

Nor Time, nor Place, nor Chance, nor Death can bow
My least desires unto the least remove;
He’s firmly mine by oath; I his by vow;
He’s mine by faith; and I am his by love;
He’s mine by water; I am his by wine,
Thus I my best-beloved’s am; thus he is mine.

He is my Altar; I, his Holy Place;
I am his guest; and he, my living food;
I’m his by penitence; he mine by grace;
I’m his by purchase; he is mine, by blood;
He’s my supporting elm; and I his vine;
Thus I my best beloved’s am; thus he is mine.

He gives me wealth; I give him all my vows:
I give him songs; he gives me length of dayes;
With wreaths of grace he crowns my conqu’ring brows,
And I his temples with a crown of Praise,
Which he accepts as an everlasting signe,
That I my best-beloved’s am; that he is mine.

I often wonder if there is some way in which poetry and mysticism are linked. I tend to think that there is, as many of the great mystics were pure poets, and many poets show a rather mystical bent. I suspect that it is the strength of language and the usefulness of metaphor. The mystical experience, from all accounts, can barely be talked about at all much less explicated in some elaborate treatise. As the experience is interior and not fully accessible to the merely sensory, it is suggestive rather than demonstrative, and so lends itself to poetic expression more than prose delineation.

I could be wrong about this. But I look at the works of great poets--Blake, Whitman, Keats, Tennyson, Shelley, Arnold, and others--some of them doubters and even atheists, and they show evidence of contact with another world. In this way they are rather like theoretical mathematicians who push the boundaries of our knowledge of math. Perhaps it is working in words--climbing inside and seeing how they tick and HOW they mean and resonate. Perhaps this too is the thing about poetry that tends to discomfit readers of poetry. They are used to the solid, sturdy meanings of words. Poetry is like a glass floor over an aquarium--you begin to see through the words and think that they might fail you and you would fall through them. They begin to mean more than they mean, and so simultaneously they begin to mean less. Our initial encounter with the multiplicity of meanings tends to force us back to strict definition. I remember the awe and wonder I experienced as I began to consider the word "still" in this line from Keats:

"Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness."

The first line of "Ode on a Grecian Urn." At first glance the meaning is solid, there is no question about what it means and yet it sets up its own resonance. What does the word "still" mean? Well, for one thing, it means silent. So the line becomes "Thou silent unravish'd bride of quietness." It also means unmoving. In further stretches of the meaning it become nearly synonymous with eternity, as in "Are you still here?" And another meaning--often urns were made to hold wine and other offerings to the Gods. In this sense the still could be the distillation of the spirits, both alcohol and the communion of the Saints. That is, the urn suggests a connection to all of those for whom the urn was used as vessel or as decoration and with all of those for whom the urn had some special meaning. As such, it also suggests the container itself--the thing within which the distillation is made. We would have to see as we continue exploration of the poem which of these meanings is borne out. I could reasonably argue that most of them are meant and used in the depth of the poem.

This kind of fruitful ambiguity is often very disheartening and very uncomfortable for people who want a word to mean one thing and to mean that thing only. But it is really the gateway to an entirely new way of seeing things. Poetry uses simile and metaphor, in a sense it seeks the connections between all things. And I suppose in this sense it IS mystical, because the ultimate, underlying connection between all things is that God sustains each one of them. There is nothing that is without the constant mindfulness of God with respect to its being. Nothing can exist outside His will and His constant care. In one way poetry seeks to explore this truth even if the poet explicitly denies it. Poetry tends to give us transcendentalists--Emerson and Whitman; but it also gives us the Divine--St. John of the Cross.

Those who deny themselves the pleasures of poetry deny themselves one means of seeing God. Poetry engages the reason even as it engages the heart and it speaks in a way that prose simply cannot speak. The Psalms tell us nothing "new" about God, but they tell us in a way that may bypass resistance and go straight to the heart. "The Song of Songs" while definitely about erotic love is also about the soul's communion with God--it tells us something of the person whose life is utterly dedicated to God.

And the Song of Songs brings us back to Francis Quarles who started our little conversation. First, note the turns on a simple phrase that adorn the last, and sometimes the last two lines. These set up the interconnections within the poem. They set up the resonances, the echoes that draw you into what is being said. They emphasize and reiterate the point of all that occurs before them, and they ring changes on the simple theme, "I am my beloved's and he is mine."

Examine carefully the third stanza and particularly the changes it rings on the line. "The world’s but theirs; but my beloved’s mine." Notice how "beloved's" here has taken on a dual meaning. It means not only the possessive of beloved, but it also reflects the opposite side of the semi-colon and suggests that the mundane world belongs to those who search for wealth, but the world of the beloved belongs to those who cling to him. It's simple, it's subtle, but it opens up the world of possibilities in interpreting and understanding the poem.

Go on then to the fourth stanza where we are told in the final line:

"Can buy my heart from him, or his, from being mine."

This is in answer to the temptation of the nine muses--the entertaining and lively arts of this world. The poet assures us that all these passing pleasures could not lure him away from the beloved. But notice the end of the line--"or his, from being mine." That is that the heart of the beloved becomes the heart of the speaker/poet.

Continue through, examine the changes rung on the theme. See how poetry pierces through the clatter of argumentation and elaborate logical constructs. I sometimes wonder if this is what St. Thomas Aquinas meant about his words being "as straw." That is, they couldn't begin to give an insight into the actual experience he had even though they gave one of the great pictures of what God is like. However, he would have been wrong, because his hymns and poetry do climb to those heights. They get under the weight of the disputations and arguments and reasoning and pull out from them the simple straight contours of what St. Thomas is trying to tell us all in his great work. Obviously the Summa and the other great works are not mere passing fancies--they are not straw, but a powerful means of coming to know about God and thus ultimately to knowing God Himself, if one is properly disposed. I suspect St. Thomas was merely trying to indicate to us the depth and breadth and height that is achieved in the vision of God that comes to one who dedicates his entire life to God's work cannot be expressed in the way he chose to express the reallities of theology. And He chose to tell us in a simile--in a line of poetry, because only poetry is strong enough to contain the meaning he wanted to convey. Poetry is an exceedingly sturdy vessel for both thought and emotion--and because it does not seek to divorce the one from the other, it allows a different angle from which to view the Glory of God.

So, you poetry-shy out there. Get started. Read slowly, read aloud. Listen to the words and explore and play with them. Poetry is a play-date. It is an invitation to joy. Accept and enter this miraculous world in which things are said without being said.

Afterword: This is not at all what I set out to write this morning. And that is one of the joys of writing, you discover new things as you go. I really just wanted to present this wonderful little gem of Quarles's with perhaps a bit of commentary, but as I wrote, I discovered new things to say. I hope this was as pleasant for you to read as it was for me to discover in writing. Oh, and do let me know what you think about Quarles and any new things you may find in the stanzas.

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Ye have heard that it was said of them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire. Matthew 5:21-11 (KJV)

News exclusive. In an insider, exclusive interview today, well-known rabble-rouser and sometime blasphemer, Rabbi Yeshua ben Joseph was quoted as saying, "If you have called your brother a fool, you have already committed murder." When asked to comment on this patently absurd teaching Chief Priest and well-known art critic and man-about-town Caiaphas had this to say. . .

Many of the things Jesus has to say to us are hard sayings. In this country we have, through the grace of God, been granted the freedom of speech. Our wise constitutional interpreters have expanded speech to include nearly every form of "expression" possible, from lap-dancing to flag burning. The gift of free speech is a gift indeed; however, the liberty to speak freely must be separated from the license to speak one's mind. License is always an abuse of liberty and the beginning of its downfall, or at very least of the downfall of the person exercising license.

Jesus is very clear in what he says regarding how we speak and feel about those around us. But, it behooves us to listen well, so I repeat the words of Jesus in the exceedingly annoying and prolix Amplified Bible version:

21You have heard that it was said to the men of old, You shall not kill, and whoever kills shall be liable to and unable to escape the punishment imposed by the court.

22But I say to you that everyone who continues to be angry with his brother or harbors malice (enmity of heart) against him shall be liable to and unable to escape the punishment imposed by the court; and whoever speaks contemptuously and insultingly to his brother shall be liable to and unable to escape the punishment imposed by the Sanhedrin, and whoever says, You cursed fool! [You empty-headed idiot!] shall be liable to and unable to escape the hell (Gehenna) of fire.

I think it is fairly clear here that Jesus doesn't want us speaking ill of our brethren. Now, there may be some who would say it is perfectly permissible to say these things if it is done without rancor; however, I question the ability of any human being (other than Jesus himself) to say these things without rancor, The reason I do so lies in one of the mysteries of iniquity that resulted from the fall.

Human beings by their nature seek to feel good about themselves. In many cases they seek this good by comparison with others. To feel good about myself, I must somehow be better than those around me. It is this chain of reasoning that ends in gas chambers, in Bosnia, in Rwanda, and in the concentration camps of North Korea. When we begin to speak ill of those around us, it gives us license to treat them as we speak of them. If they are fools, then we treat them like fools. If they are reckless idiots, then we are better off without them. If they are "filthy" or speak a different language, or adhere to a different set of standards so far as etiquette is concerned, then it is within our rights to dismiss them, and if they are loud or obnoxious enough, to do away with them.

When we open our mouths to accuse the brethren, we become the accuser of brethren. When we speak ill of a person because of race, nationality, intelligence, sex, sexual preference, ideology, or for any reason, we put ourselves in danger. It is clear. Our Lord taught us that the first step on the road to murder is murder itself. When we say, "You idiot," (or, as I do so that Samuel won't understand me in traffic, espece d'idiot--when someone does dome amazingly outrageous tourist maneuver they wouldn't consider for a moment driving about their own home town) we make ourselves fuel for the fire. (But Samuel sees through even the language barrier (tone conveys a lot) and we get our usual theological lecture from the back seat, "Jesus wouldn't like what you're saying." Oh and it's so hard to hear that because it is so true. Everyone who would speak against their brother should have my child dogging their heels--amazing how many ways he is a gift to me.)

It is simply impermissible to think of one's brother this way, to harbor anger, resentment, or even lingering feelings of superiority or of the inferiority of the other. Admittedly, we are provoked, we are made angry and sometimes say these things. The important point is to let go of them immediately. It isn't so much the saying that is damnable, but it is the lingering impression they leave on the mind as we rethink them. Admittedly, we shouldn't be provoked into saying them to start with. Most often we are provoked by those who have somehow injured our pride or otherwise aggravated ourselves. (More often than not the aggravation is a direct result of the similarity of their action to our own in like situation.) We must grow beyond the need to feel better at another's expense. When we set ourselves up in this way, we will only be knocked down.

What we say has real consequences. It affects our moods of the day, it affects the way we think about things, it affects the way we react to people and events. When we say "I can't" then very often, we cannot. When we call the cherished children of God by names not worthy of them, we shape our thoughts to conform to our words. We have murdered the real person with our image of that person.

So, we are never better off in saying some of those things that cross our mind, and often far worse off. Better then to not let the word issue from the mouth and become "concrete." Better to let the thought pass and replace it with a moment of divine mercy prayer, for ourselves and for those against whom we would trespass.

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A Cry for Help

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E Tenebris
Oscar Wilde (1856–1900)

COME down, O Christ, and help me! reach thy hand,
For I am drowning in a stormier sea
Than Simon on thy lake of Galilee:
The wine of life is spilt upon the sand,
My heart is as some famine-murdered land
Whence all good things have perished utterly,
And well I know my soul in Hell must lie
If I this night before God’s throne should stand.
‘He sleeps perchance, or rideth to the chase,
Like Baal, when his prophets howled that name
From morn to noon on Carmel’s smitten height.’
Nay, peace, I shall behold, before the night,
The feet of brass, the robe more white than flame,
The wounded hands, the weary human face.

This reflects my mood of the day. For some reason I am better at brooding than at sustained celebration. With the great relief of having the new Pope so swiftly installed, I can turn back to the concerns of my life--why am I, despite all good intention, so distant from God? God is not distant from me--why do I choose not to approach more closely?

The answer all boils down to perceived economics. Consciously or unconsciously, I ask myself the question, "What will it cost?" And the cost piles up--I might lose friends (heaven knows I have precious few), I might become "weird" (that's actually much less of a fear as I already qualify in many people's books for that), I might lose esteem from those around me (this one is more difficult to parse, because I don't know why I should care, and yet the question always comes up), but after these surface thoughts we get down to the nitty-gritty--I will have to change. I will not be able to maintain my comfortable routine. I will have to find His way for me, and I do not walk in the dark well.

Frankly, I'm frightened. God loves me, He always wishes my good--He wishes it more than I am willing to see it. A love this powerful is frightening, it's overwhelming--if it were human we'd be thinking Glen Close and Michael Douglas. But it is not human, it is supernatural and transcendent. And that makes it all the more frightening.

I think that is why John Paul the Great's continuing message to us all appealed so much to me. "Be not afraid." My conception of God is not God, my thoughts about God are not God, my fears about God are not God. I am afraid of change. I'm afraid of trusting one to walk in the dark. And I do not need to be afraid.

And all of that wars against this still stronger urge to follow wherever He might lead. He will show me the way home. He will find for me the right path. He will be my friend, my guide, and my Lord.

And vacillating I say, "And what will I have to give up for this great guide?" What will it cost me. Will I, like John Bunyan's Pilgrim, leave my house alone and wander the countryside through Vanity Fair and the Slough of Despond, forsaking what is familiar for what is cold and uncertain? And if I do, what will happen? All of this is colored by past experience, by the antipathy of society for religion, by the antipathy of most for a true follower of Christ. Do I want to forsake what little I possess in the way of positive popular opinion for Jesus Christ? Do I want to sink still lower in the chain of being, so far as those around me are concerned?

The truth is, I am weak. I am led more by my head than by my heart. This was one of the chief reasons St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila spoke so much to me. They are led by the heart. And what is more, my head is not nearly so strong, so useful as I would like to think. I used to have a pretty high estimate of my own abilities, but a few months in St. Blogs will cut that down to proper size. One quickly learns that what one thought to be first rank is once again revealed to be second, third, or fourth rank. That realization is frightening, but in the mysterious way of God it is also heartening.

But all of this is the work of the Holy Spirit, cajoling me along, encouraging me to abandon my opinion of myself, to leave myself behind to emerge as God would have me be.

Inside every single person there is a Saint who desires to be released to effect his or her work on the world. To do so will dramatically change our lives, who and what we think we are. To realize my Saint, I will have to abandon illusion and self-deception. That is why I said that the revelations of a time in St. Blogs are salutary. The self deceptions, the places one uses to hide oneself, are gradually removed. Nothing is left but the raw encounter with the mirror, and with time the Holy Spirit changes our fun-house mirrors into flat reflecting glass. And I, for one, don't much care for the image that is materializing in that mirror. Rather, I should become the mirror that reflects the glory of the Son. That is what Sainthood is all about.

And I become less afraid when I realize that the road to Sainthood is not the road to oblivion, as it would be were I Buddhist. I do not seek the annihilation of the self, but rather I seek to extinguish the false self, the little candle that I carry before me to ward off the dark. And in the darkness that prevails afterwards, there stands revealed the light which is so brilliant that it can be seen only as darkness so long as we are following our own lights. It is like that moment in the old movie Journey to the Center of the Earth when they extinguish their lanterns to discover all around them a phosphorescent glow that gives off far more light that their little lanterns generated. I am afraid of the darkness, but I need not be, because in that darkness I will see the true light, and that true light will show me who I am in Christ. I will not be so much extinguished as lit from within, I will become Light for the World, the lamp to place on a lampstand. And my doing so will not be to my credit, nor will I even see that light. Rather it will all redound to the greatness and the glory of God.

But the human self says, "What will it cost." I'm afraid of spending a few pennies, of losing my hard-won meager human estate because I don't believe that it will result in a wealth beyond imaging. Not mine to hold, but mine to distribute to all the needy--freely given and overflowing--the munificence of God Himself. So I cling to the poverty I imagine as wealth.

This vast "commodius vicus of recirculation brings us back to Howth Castle and Environs,"--the poem that started this chain of thought. Out of the shadows, out of the depths, out of the darkness, I cry, Lord help me. I am drowning in a stormier sea--a storm of my own making in the shallow sea of self--the tempest I toss up every time I want to run away--my good excuse for battening the hatches and closing down all possible access. When I cry out of the darkness, the cry is always the same--save me from my headstrong ways. "My heart is as some famine-murdered land," I am selfish and self centered--completely caught up in me, because after all the vast story of salvation really is all about ME. When I read the Bible, it isn't a message for the world, it's all for ME. I am the center and all circulates about I. I, I. And in a moment it is possible to see that attitude for the ugliness it is. My heart is a famine-murdered land, and yet in that land are the Elijahs, fed by ravens, the Widow of Zarapheth who offers her last food. The sun that burnt this land to dryness because that was the only way to purify it from the weeds that had taken it over, that same Sun will restore the produce of the land, if only I consent to it.

I stand in the darkness of the night of self and call on God to help me out of the shadow into light. I have lived my life in such a way as to swell that shadow to so great an extent that it will require many days' passage to escape from it. And yet, if I am willing, I shall be healed. That is the paradox of the biblical passage. The leper who approaches Jesus and says, if you are willing, I shall be cleansed. But it isn't Jesus' willingness that is the key factor, he is always willing. We learn that he was unable to work any miracles in his homeland--not because He was unwilling, but because those in the land were. It is my willingness that predicates healing. I say in Mass, "Only say the word and I shall be healed." But if I put up a shield and barrier to keep Him out, I will not be healed. I can resist the healing touch, I can refuse change, I can snuff out any candle, and light. But if I am willing, I shall be healed. There is my hope, because I am willing. At the same time as I am frightened, I am willing to be transformed. Like standing at the edge of a vast pool of cold water on the first day of summer, it is only a matter of taking the plunge--of losing my breath for a single moment to emerge in a new world.

Oh, but how the old man resists, how his head is filled with thoughts of how unpleasant that coldness is. How he dips in a toe, perhaps a whole foot. He walks to the pool ladder and lowers himself halfway, but when that cold water reaches his belly, he pulls himself out of the pool as fast as he can. The only thing for it is a trusting plunge--very few make it by degrees. It may not be impossible, but it certainly is the more difficult way. But the old man resists this transformation.

If only I could learn to see the sun and stop staring at the feeble candle I carry thinking it the source of all light. For indeed, it is a greater source of shadow than of light. E tenebris.

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Another Evelyn Underhill Classic


The Life of the Spirit and the Life of To-Day


This book has been called “The Life of the Spirit and the Life of To-day” in order to emphasize as much as possible the practical, here-and-now nature of its subject; and specially to combat the idea that the spiritual life—or the mystic life, as its more intense manifestations are sometimes called—is to be regarded as primarily a matter of history. It is not. It is a matter of biology. Though we cannot disregard history in our study of it, that history will only be valuable to us in so far as we keep tight hold on its direct connection with the present, its immediate bearing on our own lives: and this we shall do only in so far as we realize the unity of all the higher experiences of the race. In fact, were I called upon to choose a motto which should express the central notion of these chapters, that motto would be—“There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit.” This declaration I would interpret in the widest possible sense; as suggesting the underlying harmony and single inspiration of all man's various and apparently conflicting expressions of his instinct for fullness of life. For we shall not be able to make order, in any hopeful sense, of the tangle of material which is before us, until we have subdued it to this ruling thought: seen one transcendent Object towards which all our twisting pathways run, and one impulsion pressing us towards it.

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For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth--Job 19:25

What does it mean to be redeemed? How often have I really considered the depth of the word, and yet paid no attention to what it really meant? How often have I heard the word. Sometimes in various masses one will hear the trinity expressed as "Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier" (a poor expression at best--for where does the creator leave off and the redeemer begin--attempting to define the persons by their functions is doomed to failure as all of the functions belong in greater or lesser degree to all three persons.). We know that we have been redeemed through the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. But what does that mean.

I was thinking through this yesterday and came to no startling conclusions, no brilliant summary; however, here are some thoughts. A redeemer redeems or buys back. Through our sins we "sell ourselves." Think about prior times--when one could not afford to pay one's debts, one was cast into debtors prison (hardly an efficacious way to get one's money back, nevertheless, it was done.) We are in debtors prison, sold for a moment's pleasure to the enemy. A redeemer buys back the bond. He purchases what was sold. If difficult times have come, one might sell something to a pawn shop. If afterwards prosperity returns, one might return to the shop and redeem the merchandise.

So the death of Jesus has done for us, should we choose to accept the pledge. Jesus purchased us back from the depths of imprisonment to sin, self, and Satan. We were lost in the world and He purchased for us a way to heaven. But the way does come with some strings attached. We are not our own. If we accept redemption, then we become the "property" of the redeemer. We are His servants, purchased to do His work now and always. We cannot be redeemed and attempt to keep practicing our old ways. Redemption means we do not serve our prior masters, but rather all of our effort goes to serving Him. There is something in this that is frightening. I am not my own, I am at the service of another. I am under obligation.

What does the obligation of redemption entail? I must do Christ's work in this world and in the world to come. Sometimes this requirement threatens to overwhelm me. I have to work for God and still earn my own living and support my family. The truth of the matter is that working for God is a very, very light burden. For one thing, He does most of the work. I merely need drag my carcass to the right place and He provides the words and the music. At Mass, He is my joy, in the presence of the believers, He is my wisdom and my charity, in the presence of the unbelievers He is my joy, my witness, and my truth. In sum He is all in all and He does all that need be done if I simply step out of the way.

There's the trick--stepping out of the way. Too often I want to be recognized for what I am doing. I want the world to know me and see me and speak to me. When I work, I want payment in currency the world can understand--money, fame, glory, happiness. When these things do not happen, when I do not feel some sort of rush because I have done God's work, I am disappointed. Surely, I am supposed to "feel" something as a result of serving God, am I not?

Feelings do not enter the equation. We can serve God with all our hearts our whole lives and never feel for a single instant stirred beyond the ordinary. Or we can spend our entire lives in ecstasies of service and of knowledge of God. That is God's choice. But my choice is simply to accept redemption and work for the Lord, or to continue to haul the incredible burden I have taken on myself.

Rejecting redemption is hauling a sledge through mud. Once the sledge is sufficiently heavy all I will accomplish is further miring. When I choose to follow myself and my own ways, I doom myself, I am destroyed every day. When I choose redemption, however, I am choosing to give myself up completely—every day is new life. There is no middle ground. "Who sets hand to plow and looks back is not worthy of the kingdom." Redemption is about service. Properly viewed, redemption is also about all-encompassing love. We should be delighted, joyful, and thankful that we have so merciful a God. Redemption is about joy. We take on a new master and shed the grief and the turmoil of the old. Redemption is shedding what is worn with care and worry and putting on what is bright and always new. No doubt, we will have moments when we look back and even actively seek a return to the "fleshpots of Egypt." However, when that happens, I will remember the experience of serving the Lord and the lightness of His burden. Once I have entered redemption, it will be very hard to forget the joys of that state.

So, I know my redeemer lives, and His life is my life. His needs are my service. My duty is to become more and more like Him so that when someone looks at me, they see my Redeemer--Jesus Christ, and they know Him for their own. My redeemer transforms me and in so doing, I am called to become Him and transform the world around me. That also is why sin is so sad a state, our service is rendered fruitless and those who see us are not led to the Lord. If my Redeemer lives (and He does) it is my duty through my life, my work, and my words to make Him known to all the world. When people recall anything I have said or written, it is better that they forget who I am and hear and recall only to Whom they are called. I must decrease so that He might increase, but my decrease is paradoxically and increase beyond all bounds. I grow more powerful in my decrease than I ever was in my ascendancy because I grow into the likeness of my redeemer.

I know my Redeemer lives, and so I should make it known to others. My joy should be the sign that always points to Him and my life should be such as to call all to His throneroom.

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Context is not everything, but it certainly changes a lot:

Sonnet XCVII: How like a Winter hath my Absence been
William Shakespeare

How like a winter hath my absence been
From thee, the pleasure of the fleeting year!
What freezings have I felt, what dark days seen!
What old December's bareness everywhere!
And yet this time remov'd was summer's time,
The teeming autumn, big with rich increase,
Bearing the wanton burthen of the prime,
Like widow'd wombs after their lords' decease:
Yet this abundant issue seem'd to me
But hope of orphans and unfather'd fruit;
For summer and his pleasures wait on thee,
And thou away, the very birds are mute;
Or if they sing, 'tis with so dull a cheer
That leaves look pale, dreading the winter's near.

I thought about this in the context of my own wanderings toward and away from God. I really like the image of the labyrinth as a metaphor for the spiritual journey. If I keep walking it, I will make it to the center; however, along the way I will have a great many close approaches after which the vagaries of human nature causes me to turn away. Then I am walking directly away, for what seems like a long time before the path switches and I'm on my way back. Human nature is flawed. I think many of us have an approach/avoidance encounter with God. I might get close and then I get scared. I turn away because the cost seems to great--I will be deprived on one or another illicit pleasure. Then, I'm back on track.

This may be why the emphasis of the reign of Pope John Paul the Great appeal to me so much. "Be not afraid." Approach God boldly, as any son who knows that his father loves him will approach his Father. Ask for what you need. Don't be afraid, the only thing you have to lose is your fear. This message resonates in me. In a previous post, I called it marching orders. That's how I view it. I need to break through the labyrinth wall and stop following its arbitrary dictates. Of course, I do not do this alone. Nothing worthwhile is accomplished on my own. Only with God as my shield and help will I be able to withstand the blast that would destroy so strong a wall as makes us the labyrinth in which I walk.

So what has this to do with the poem above. Every moment away from God, no matter how good those moment are, are times of winter wandering, desperately cold and dry. Every moment away from His love--"What old December's bareness everywhere!" Everything done without Him is a falseness, a kind of betrayal--the richness of the widow's womb after her Lord's decease. And yet, isn't even this the promise of what one receives from the hand of a generous God.

Reading, reading anything, can activate the mind in the way few forms of more passive entertainment can do. Shakespeare speaks of his dark lady or lost love, but the Christian who encounters the great poet hears the lament of one turning this way and that in his journey to God. Because we are Christians, context is everything. Every work of art is a cocreation. Because of this, I think we know instinctively when we have encountered art and when we have encountered playtime, mockery, or idiocy. Even those who stood steadfast against God could not create in His absence, and their diatribes and writings are inevitable expositions of Him. From Huysmans La-Bas to Lautreamont's Les Chants de Maldoror, from Joyce's Ulysses to the maunderings of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert Heinlein, a gifted writer cannot, despite his own intention, help but reveal the hand of God, because his gift is God-given, and his writing, no matter how overtly directed against God, ultimately shows us who God is, if only as a photographic negative reveals the image.

So, take your pick, Shakespeare, J.D. Robb, Patricia Cornwell, G.K. Chesterton. In the Christian frame of mind you will hear and see things of God. And perhaps one day these things will help crumble the walls of the labyrinth that prevent a direct path toward His glory.

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from "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"
T.S. Eliot, 1917

LET us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question …
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

. . .

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

I have selected the antipodes of the poem, because in them we see the drama of the last century which extends into this one.

As believers we are subject to innumerable challenges. Each of these is God's way of testing us. Testing here means not examining, but rather refining, making us durable--as gold is tested in fire. God does this not to torment me, but rather "to lead us to an overwhelming question." The problem is that too often, like Prufrock, we refuse to ask the question--we divert our attention elsewhere.

God's ways do sometimes seem like a "tedious argument of insidious intent." Indeed, from the point of view of the selfish ego, what God asks of us is insidious indeed. We can see the fear and the crisis it causes in the desires of a million people to reform the Church each in their own image. One group desires ordination for women, another agitates for freedom from contraception, another says that if only we had married Priests we would not have this, that, or the other crisis. Many do not wish to serve the Church as it is. Many do not desire to serve the truth unless they have first recast it in their own image.

But God leads each of us individually to the overwhelming question. He does not ask a gaggle of thousands, He asks me, personally. As a result the events that lead to that question are different for each person. What they call from each person is different.

What is the overwhelming question? I think that the question which has become more pressing and more urgent throughout the last century and into this one, the question that has been prevalent through all of time is "Do you love Me?" The form that this question has taken on more and more is , "Do you trust Me?"

Many of us no longer live in anything recognizable as the neighborhood of our youth. Many have people who live in houses all around them, but there is no communal sharing. In fact, the only contact one is likely to have with one's neighbor is the notice to weed your lawn from the community association, or perhaps a lawsuit for some perceived infraction or another. Some of our priests plunged us into a crisis of trust with the pedophilia scandal. Each day we read headlines that reinforce to us that we cannot be too careful with our money, our children, our possessions, ourselves. In September of 2001 we suffered a tremendous blow against our security which still has many of us reeling. There is nothing to trust. The overwhelming question indeed overwhelms us and we look another way.

But St. Faustina Kowalska taught us, "Jesus, I trust in you." We have so unlearned trust that it is hard to learn this lesson. We need to remake our entire lives to reify this truth--to manifest it to the world. And there are consequences for refusing to do so. There are consequences for not answering the question. These too are spelled out throughout the poem. The person who refuses to face the question turns gradually inward becoming obsessed with everything about himself. "Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?" Who cares? And yet, are these not the truly overwhelming questions that we face and our children face each day? Aren't we often afraid of how we will be judged when people see us? Don't we go out of our way to make a good impression? Look at the advertisements on television--tooth whitener, hair replacement, "natural male enhancement," wrinkle cream, age-spot remover, the list is endless. If you watch enough television you will eventually see an advertisement that leads to a product designed to improve every part of you. All the while we are posing, "I shall wear white flannel trousers and walk upon the beach." Why? Because it will cut an impressive figure. People will see me and they will comment on how romantic, ironic, dashing, or interesting I am.

All because we refuse to face the overwhelming question.

But wait, there's more. Elsewhere in the poem we see yet other consequences of refusal. "Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,/I have measured out my life with coffee spoons." Our lives are not beautiful, romantic, and perfect. They are the apotheosis of automation, of turning self off and turning autopilot on. Time is measured out in coffee spoons, in the mundane acts of the every day. We are weighed down by our trivia. We are weighed down by ourselves. So much so that, "I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.//I do not think that they will sing to me." Perhaps some of the saddest lines of poetry ever written. I have come face to face with the ineffable, and because I refuse the question, because I refuse to look into the abyss of trust, I cannot experience it. I hear them singing to each other, but I am not invited to the chorus. Rather. "We have lingered in the chambers of the sea. . . Till human voices wake us, and we drown." We are submerged once again in the expectations and the forces of those who surround us. We are plunged into a sea of selfishness even though we have seen a better way.

What is the solution? "Be not afraid." Follow Jesus' admonition, listen to how our Holy Father of recent memory explained it. Do not be afraid of the overwhelming question. It is overwhelming precisely because it portends changes. Ask it anyway. "Do I love Jesus? Do I trust Jesus?" And then face the real answer as spelled out in your life everyday. For most of us I suspect the answer shall be, "Not nearly so much as I would like," or perhaps a step beyond, "No, I don't really." Perhaps we love Jesus but we have learned too well from our families not to trust anyone. Life experiences show us that humans are untrustworthy, and perverting the principle found in the first Letter of John, we say to ourselves, "If I cannot trust what I can see, how can I trust what I cannot see?" The irony is that it is precisely what we cannot see that is most trustworthy. We can be certain that under ordinary circumstances hydrogen will form one bond in which it tends to "lose" an electron. We can pretty much rely upon the Kreb's cycle. When we move from the unseen to the seen, we begin to doubt. We are children of the enlightenment. We think Descartes got it right with "Dubito ergo cogito ergo sum." But followed its full length we wind up square in the middle of solipsism, not reality.

Be not afraid. Ask the question. Answer it. And if the answer doesn't suit, choose to do something about it. Trust God. To trust Him you must know and love Him. To know and love Him, you must fill every moment with reminders of His presence. Before you start a new task, you can say, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." Before you begin the day, "This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad." Upon retiring, "I love you Lord, my strength." Hear His word, tell the story He would have you tell. Substitute the useless, self-serving self-talk with God-talk. What He has to say is true, eternal, and infinite, what you tell yourself is limited by your own narrow perceptions.

Do not be afraid to ask the question. This our Holy Father taught. Ask and ask again. Ask every moment of every day. Ask when you know the answer to be negative and turn your heart around. "If God be for us, who can stand against?" We need to recover trust. The end of trust is being in the company of the mermaids, being in the presence of God. The end of distrust is drowning in our human surroundings. There doesn't really seem to be much of a choice. The Lord commands us in Deuteronomy, "Choose life." To do so, we must choose Him, completely and without any reservation.

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from a Sermon by Martin Copenhaver

Leon Bloy once said, "There are places in our hearts which do not yet exist, and it is necessary for suffering to penetrate there in order that they may come into being." This insight comes close to revealing the blessedness of mourning and sorrow. True sorrow opens our being, pierces the smooth veneer of our lives and exposes our inner selves. In sorrow, the depths of our hearts are touched, carved out... carved out to leave a space for God to be received, for it is in the depths of our hearts that God is found. It is when our hearts are truly emptied out, wounded, made vulnerable, that we are able to receive the true comfort which comes from God's loving presence.

The word "to comfort" in Greek is parakalein. The noun form is Paraklete, that is, "Comforter," which is the word John uses to speak of the Holy Spirit whom Jesus promised to send among his disciples when he left them. Only by his leaving, and in their mourning, would they have the Paraklete, the Comforter. But parakalein also means, to summoned to one's side, and it is the word which is used to invite to a banquet. It's a wonderful double meaning. To be comforted is to be invited to life's banquet, and there to partake of all that life has to offer, to partake of both joy and sorrow because both are part of the banquet and both are part of the comfort.

The source

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from A Sermon for Rosh Hoshashana By Rabbi David Stern

Emunah comes to say: if we have not taken the leap of action, then our faith is incomplete. Emunah brings us the Hebrew and English word amen. When we say “Amen” at the end of a prayer, we are affirming our trust in the vision the prayer holds forth, and committing ourselves to making it happen. When we say “Amen” to a prayer for peace, we commit ourselves to working for peace. When we say “Amen” to a prayer of gratitude, we commit ourselves to living with a sense of gratitude that will exceed our sometimes nagging needs. A Jewish “Amen” comes from emunah – and so it means more than “so may it be.” It means, “So may I be.” Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch taught: “Amen does not refer to the contents of the pronouncement, but to the person.”

Find the entire, wonderful sermon here. And first I must say that I mean no disrespect by using this excerpt here. But Rabbi Stern teaches us something important, something that has profound implications if we consider it in light of the Holy Father's reported last word. "Amen" is an obligation, a commitment of person to action. If our Holy Father's last word were Amen, it was not so much a resignation, as an enlistement. As with St. Thérèse, I have no doubt that the Holy Father will spend his heaven doing good on Earth. And so an amen implies.

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On Mourning--from John Wesley


from The Sermons of John Wesley
"Sermon 135--On Mourning for the Dead"

At such a loss, if considered without the alleviating circumstances, who can blame him that drops a tear? The tender meltings of a heart dissolved with fondness, when it reflects on the several agreeable moments which have now taken their flight never to return, give an authority to some degree of sorrow. Nor will human frailty permit an ordinary acquaintance to take his last leave of them without it. Who then can conceive, much less describe, the strong emotion, the secret workings of soul which a parent feels on such an occasion? None, surely, but those who are parents themselves; unless those few who have experienced the power of friendship; than which human nature, on this side of the grave, knows no closer, no softer, no stronger tie!

At the tearing asunder of these sacred bands, well may we allow, without blame, some parting pangs; but the difficulty is, to put as speedy a period to them as reason and religion command us. What can give us sufficient ease after that rupture, which has left such an aching void in our breasts? What, indeed, but the reflection already mentioned, which can never be inculcated too often, -- that we are hastening to him ourselves; that, pass but a few years, perhaps hours, which will soon be over, and not only this, but all other desires will be satisfied; when we shall exchange the gaudy shadow of pleasure we have enjoyed, for sincere, substantial, untransitory happiness?

With this consideration well imprinted in our minds, it is far better, as Solomon observes, to go to the house of mourning, than to the house of feasting The one embraces the soul, disarms our resolution, and lays us open to an attack: The other cautions us to recollect our reason, and stand upon our guard and infuses that noble steadiness, and seriousness of temper, which it is not in the power of an ordinary stroke to discompose. Such objects naturally induce us to lay it to heart, that the next summons may be our own; and that since death is the end of all men without exception, it is high time for the living to lay it to heart.

If we are, at any time, in danger of being overcome by dwelling too long on the gloomy side of this prospect, to the giving us pain, the making us unfit for the duties and offices of life, impairing our faculties of body or mind, -- which proceedings, as has been already shown, are both absurd, unprofitable, and sinful; let us immediately recur to the bright side, and reflect, with gratitude as well as humility, that our time passeth away like a shadow; and that, when we awake from this momentary dream, we shall then have a clearer view of that latter day in which our Redeemer shall stand upon the earth; when this corruptible shall put on incorruption, and this mortal shall be clothed with immortality; and when we shall sing, with the united choirs of men and angels, "O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?"

I am fine with those who choose not to weep and not to mourn, but to rejoice in our Pontiff's passing. I ask only that they respect that I have lost a great friend, a dear guide, a father, whose passing demands of me something more than rejoicing. I rejoice even as I sorrow. He is in a place now to better aid us all, but I will no longer see him among us. His passing fills me with great sorrow because I delighted in his presence.

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One of the most important things I learned from the pontificate, the writings, and the life of Pope John Paul II is about loving God.

At one time there used to be a dichotomy, a kind of question, as to how one learned to love God. There was one school that said, "First we love, then we know." and another school that said, "First we know, then we love." What John Paul the Great taught me is that it is not sequential, it is simultaneous. We love and we know at the same time. The two actions are interpenetrating and mutually reinforcing. You cannot have one without the other. They are representative of the "trinity of the body"--body (or heart), mind, and soul.

As a result, is it not possible to know with merely the mind, the heart must also be involved. And it is not possible to love with merely the heart; the mind must be involved. The heart without the mind is the tenderness that leads to the gas chambers; the mind without the heart is the legal system that destroyed Terry Schiavo. One without the other is only half human, never realizing our full potential.

Loving God requires that we know Him with heart and mind together and that we love Him with heart and mind together. Surely there are times when one faculty is ascendant in either knowledge or love; but they are always working together. Indeed they cannot work apart. Knowledge is always informed by love, by sympathy, by compassionate understanding; and love is always informed by deeper knowledge, by seeing what is really there, by intellectual understanding of what we love.

Throughout his pontificate Pope John Paul II showed me these two faculties constantly in operation. His magnificent encyclicals are beautiful minglings of heart and head knowledge, heart and head love. As a result they are not always satisfying to those who demand a rigorous logic in their approach to theology--there is entirely too much reliance upon metaphor and analogy for their comfort. Further, they tend to be disconcerting to those who want to love without thinking about it; the Pope demands a certain intellectual rigor to be understood.

His actions, many of them criticized during his reign show the same dichotomy. There are a great many who criticized the liturgy for the canonization of St. Juan Diego because so many native dancers and rituals were incorporated into the Mass. And yet, it is the heart that became briefly ascendant there with the consent of the head acknowledging the individual differences in cultures.

You could look at any of a myriad of actions taken during this papacy and see in them this deep intertwining of head and heart, knowledge and love. Pope John Paul the Great brought them to their natural synthesis, their fusion, their integration as parts of a person. We are not merely intellect, nor emotion, nor spirit. We are individual trinities, individual reflections of God in our integration, even though we often ignore or deny it. Pope John Paul the Great with his theology of body, with his encyclicals, his pontificate, and his life, showed us this again and again. He led by example, he taught by being. It will take us a long time to synthesize and to integrate all that he has to say.

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A Tribute to the Holy Father


The Holy Spirit worked powerfullly through this great man to bring me to the Church and to the great hope of salvation. For a long time I was lost in my own sense of self, not worshipping as God would have me worship, but worshipping as I allowed myself to worship, in a limited, narrow, selfish way.

His encyclical Vertatis Splendor came dangerously close to driving me away from the Church in my pride and great hubris. And ultimately it was the instrument of my conviction and of my coming to love Christ as I love Him now--poor though that is.

As he worked on Earth in my lifetime to lead me and a a great many others to Jesus, so his prayers in Heaven will call a great many to God. He is now a fellow toiler with the great Saints, and Saint Thérèse. Like her, I suspect that He will spend his heaven doing good on Earth. He had such a passionate love for all of us.

May God receive Pope John Paul the Great, great soul, into his heavenly court, and may he continue to pray for us all through all of time.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Christian Life/Personal Holiness category from April 2005.

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