Commonplace Book: February 2004 Archives

Magnificent--Thomas á Kempis


This bit of encouragement from the reflections on Christ's Passion.

from On the Passion of Christ Thomas á Kempis

You were not ashamed to express that sadness openly in the presence of the apostles, saying: My soul is sorrowful unto death. O wondrous dispensation of God! Lord of power, who shortly before had fortified your disciples for the combat, now you appear as one enfeebled, totally devoid of strength and courage.

You generously uttered that statement in order to comfort us, who are weak and cowardly, lest one of us, being severely tempted, despair of forgiveness and salvation.

(Book available from Ignatius Press)

We are blessed by a Lord who in the extremity of His own anguish and pain was nevertheless thinking of those of us who would follow. His words provide comfort and sanctuary when we are tried by the lashings of the world. His own passion subsumes all the little passions we force on each other every day.

Perhaps we could consider withholding the lash for a day. Perhaps we could give ourselves and those around us a short break from the continual rain of expectations and expressed disappointments. Perhaps in memoriam of His passion we could call a moratorium on continuing to make small passions that only add to His own. Perhaps we can stop stamping our feet and come home to the Father who loves us, and in doing so accept the family He has given us.

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From the Office of Readings


from a Sermon by Pope St. Leo the Great

There is no more profitable practice as a companion to holy and spiritual fasting that that of almsgiving. This embraces under the single name of mercy many excellent works of devotion, so that the good intentions of all the faithful may be of equal value, even where their means are not. The love that we owe both God and man is always free from any obstacle that would prevent us from having a good intention.

Reading this and the remainder of the Office leads one to understand why he was Pope St. Leo THE GREAT.

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A Moment of Grace

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An award, utterly unmerited in so many ways, for which I am deeply thankful. The people of St. Blogs rightfully awarded this to Mr. Gerard Serafin of A Catholic Blog for Lovers and if he should ever change his mind regarding it I will, with great pleasure, return it to him.

I would like to point out that not only did I not win this award, but even had I won it, I think it unmerited. Mr. LeBlanc, of the awards committee, defines "most pious" to mean most reverent. I am deeply gratified that many people think of my blog in that way, but I would suggest that there are many other more worthy sites--Mr. Serafin's among them, but perhaps Ms. Knapp's would be my choice for such an award.

I belabor the point. I am humbled and delighted by the expression of support and love that it represents, and I am deeply grateful for receiving it. I only pray that I can live up to the expectation set by it, not only on the blog, but in my whole life.

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From the Office of Readings


from Isaiah 58

This, rather, is the fasting that I wish:
releasing those bound unjustly,
untying the thongs of the yoke;
Setting free the oppressed,
breaking every yoke;
Sharing your bread with the hungry,
sheltering the oppressed and the homeless;
Clothing the naked when you see them,
and not turning your back on your own.

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your wound shall quickly be healed;
You vindication shall go before you,
and the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer,
you shall cry for help, and he will say: Here I am!

from A Letter to the Corinthians by Pope St. Clement

Sharing then in the heritage of so many vast and glorious achievements, let us hasten toward the goal of peace, set before us from the beginning. Let us keep our eyes firmly fixed on the Father and Creator of the whole universe, and hold fast to his splendid and transcendent gifts of peace and all his blessings.

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Speaking to a very dear friend yesterday, I was inspired to take one of two paths that seemed to lay before me in Lent. This path wanders down the road of certain classics of a mystical bent. And a good start to this wandering is a small reflection of the first chapter of the first book of Thomas á Kempis's classic The Imitation of Christ. In the first few chapters he is attacking overblown and puffed-up and pretentious knowledge--that is knowledge absent a love of Christ.

In that first chapter we find this reminder for Lent:

"It is better to experience contrition than to be able to define it."

Contrition--" And rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the LORD your God: for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil." (Joel 2:13)

Contrition is perhaps the first turning of repentence. Regret what you have done, the time you have wasted putting a space between yourself and the Lord. And more than mere regret, act upon the knowledge of what you have done. Now is the appropriate time, now is the acceptable season--not merely because it is Lent, but because the present is the only moment we have to make any changes. We cannot walk the path alone, but we can be steadfast in our determination to walk it no matter the cost.

The season of Lent is a gift given to remind us of the necessity and value of walking close to God and speaking with Him frequently. Too often we put everything off for this season and we spend forty days in a workout. (Better forty days than none at all.) But what is the point of Lent if you start a good work and at the end of the time let it go? Lent is about changing your life, not merely for forty days but for all of eternity. It is a time to take a step closer to God and to hold your gains against the ebb and flo of the world. Don't take on the discipline of Lent with a grim determination that you'll make it through these forty days and then it will be over. Take on Lent as a joyous garment, as a coat of many colors, a gift from your Father in Heaven. Dance before the Lord in joy and hope, knowing that He wants nothing more (and nothing less) than all that you are and all that your will ever be. He wants your unstinting love, your total gift of self and in return you will get . . .

Everything. Everything. Everything that the creator of all can bestow upon you--all the love in the outstretched arms of His son, all the love of a true Father's heart, all the Love that gave rise to the Holy Spirit. You will become the true temple of the Lord's delight. You will be the palace of celebration and a sign of joy to all the world. You will be a vessel of the light of Salvation and the apple of your Father's eye.

Reach out in Joy to the Father who reaches out in joy to you. Rend your hearts, not your garments, regret the time together you could have had and let that fuel your desire to come ever nearer. Rejoice that the season of invitation is upon us once again and make good use of that season. Rejoice in the God who loves you and let that love lead to a permanent and obvious change in the way you conduct life. Nothing less is an acceptable return for the wonderful gift God gives us every day.

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On Christian Prayer


A couple of excerpts from an introductory essay:

from "An Introductory Essay" before Walter Hilton's Scale of Perfection
Rev J. B. Dalgairns, Priest of the Oratory

It is very difficult for men living in the modern world to understand a life of prayer; yet they must accept it as a real fact. Thousands of Christians have lived such a life without becoming either praying machines like the Buddhists or fakirs like the Brahmins. The principle of Christian asceticism is as far apart from Manicheism as possible. It is simply the principle of expiatory suffering and prayer involved in the very idea of the sacrifice of Christ. The gulf which separates the anchoress from the fanatic is the love of Jesus. . . .

[quoting from a noted Anchoress]

In another place, after a beautiful and minute description of the crucifixion, and how the "hellbairns" betrayed and crucified Him, she breaks out: "Ah! Jesus, my life's love, what heart is there that will not break when he thinketh hereof; how Thou, that art the Saviour of mankind, and the remedy for all bales, didst thole [endure] such shame for the honour of mankind. Men speak oft of wonders and of strange things divers and manifold that have befallen, but this was the greatest wonder that ever befell upon earth. Yea, wonder above wonders that that renowned Kaiser, crowned in Heaven, maker of all that is made, to honour His foes would hang between two thieves. Ah, how can I live for ruth that see my darling on the rood, and His limbs so drawn that I may tell each bone in His body! Ah, how do they now drive the iron nails through Thy fair hands into the hard rood and through Thy noble feet! Ah, now from those hands and feet so lovely streams the blood so ruefully! Ah, now they offer to my love, who says He thirsts, two evil drinks in His blood-letting, vinegar, sourest of all drinks, mingled with gall, that is the bitterest of all things! Ah, now, sweet Jesus, yet besides all Thy woe, to eke it out with shame and mockery, they laugh Thee to scorn when Thou hangest on the rood! Ah that lovely body that hangs so ruefully, so bloody, and so cold! Ah, how shall I live, for now dies my love for me on the dear rood, hangs down His head, and sends forth His soul? But it seems to them that He is not yet fully tormented, nor will they let the pitiful body rest in peace. They bring forth Longinus with the broad sharp spear. He pierces His side, cleaves the heart, and there come flowing out of that wide wound the Blood that bought us, the water that washes the world of guilt and sin. Ah, sweet Jesus, Thou openest for me Thy heart, that I may know Thee truly, for there I may openly see how much Thou lovedst me. With wrong should I refuse Thee my heart, since Thou hast bought heart for heart. Jesus, sweet Jesus, thus Thou foughtest for me against my soul's foes. Thou didst settle the contest for me with Thy body, and hast made of me, a wretch, Thy beloved and Thy spouse. Brought Thou hast me from the world to Thy bower. I may there so sweetly kiss Thee, and embrace Thee, and of Thy love have ghostly liking. What may I suffer for Thee for all that Thou didst thole (endure) for me? But it is well for me that Thou be easy to satisfy. A wretched body and a weak I bear upon earth, and that, such as it is, I have given Thee and will give Thee to Thy service. Let my body hang with Thy body nailed on the rood, and enclosed within four walls, and hang I Will with Thee, and never more leave my cross till that I die."

If we set our eyes on Jesus and we set our hearts on Him, we cannot fail in prayer or in life. Jesus will carry the burden for us, and our only duty is to walk with Him and talk with Him. We need to listen more than we talk. We need to hear from Him the Father's expiatory, exalting, and exultant Love.

Jesus is the elder brother we do not hear about in the parable of the Prodigal Son. He is the elder brother who rushed out to greet the one coming home and ushered Him into the Father's embrace. So he does for those of us who are willing to spend time with Him. He is the sure sign and the presence of the Father's Love. It is through His tangible and real presence that we come to know what the Father feels for us.

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(although truth to tell--I rather think she's off brushing off her platform). it's time to break out the big, medieval guns.

from The Cloud of Unknowing--"Prayer from the Prologue"

GOD, unto whom all hearts be open, and unto whom all will speaketh, and unto whom no privy thing is hid. I beseech Thee so for to cleanse the intent of mine heart with the unspeakable gift of Thy grace, that I may perfectly love Thee, and worthily praise Thee. Amen.

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The Simplicity of Love


We can argue in the scholastic way that God is simple and all that pertains to God to be of God must also be simple and so it follows that God's love is simple or:

from Jesus Loves Me
Calvin Miller

"Jesus Loves Me" is our simple, world-class anthem. It is rooted in our childhood.

Who can chart the varied ways he comes to us? He sometimes comes upon us suddenly in a rush of overwhelming love. His presence is as warm as a desert wind let loose in the Arctic winter of our despair. He sometimes comes more quietly to touch our lives and set God's grandeur dancing with our need. But always his coming brings joy. I have felt it and wept. Why? Because in the midst of a pointless universe I drink of true significance. I feel Jesus' love. No--I more than feel it. I claim it, deposit it at the bank, and draw daily on the account.

"Jesus loves me" is the heart of all I cherish. Indeed from year to year I revel in it. Its warmth lingers about me in every instance of threat or pressure. This simple song calms me, strips off my threats, and drains my stress into reservoirs of God's serenity.

"Suffer the little children and forbid them not, for of as such as these is the Kingdom of Heaven made."

And I am reminded,

"Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer. . ."

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Someone It Would Be Better Not to Know


from The Spoils of Poynton
Henry James

It was hard to believe that a woman could look presentable who had been kept awake for hours by the wallpaper in her room; yet none the less, as in her fresh widow's weeds she rustled across the hall, she was sustained by the consciousness, which always added to the unction of her social Sundays that she was, as usual the only person in the house incapable of wearing in her preparation the horrible stamp of the same exceptional smartness that would be conspicuous in a grocer's wife. She would rather have perished than have looked endimanchée.

It would be better not to know this person, and yet too often we ARE this person. Perhaps not in matters of attire or anything so seemingly superficial. But it seems to be a quality of the human animal that we must make us/them distinctions. "Oh, we would never go to THAT restaurant, they make lima bean souffle with lard." "Oh we couldn't worship at that church, they hold hands during the 'Our Father.'" "We couldn't consider a mass in the vernacular--it is so completely ordinary and devoid of the majesty and true worship of our Lord and King." And so on. This internal riving is ugly and unbecoming no matter what justification we drum up for it. Yes, it's perfectly fine not to care to hold hands during the 'Our Father.' (In fact, it appears to be the "rule.") Yes, preference for the Latin Mass is perfectly legitimate. It is in making a point of these distinctions that we are becoming like the woman in James's passage. We harden and abrade. We choose our own and exclude those who do not toe the line. We ridicule the One who would dine with tax collectors and prostitutes.

It is very difficult to see sometimes. But perhaps a little time could be spent profitably seeing where we build fences rather than bridges. We do our Lord no justice in supporting an idea or artifact, no matter how good, by hurting people. We do ourselves no good if our self-esteem is erected on the thousand little cuts we need to give those around us.

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C.S. Lewis makes some remarkable points about the sin of gluttony in Screwtape XVII

from The Screwtape Letters XVII
C.S. Lewis

This has largely been effected by concentrating all our efforts on the gluttony of Delicacy, not the gluttony of Excess. Your patient's mother. . . is a good example. She would be astonished--one day, I hope, will be--to learn that her whole life is enslaved to this kind of sensuality, which is quite concealed from her by the fact that the quantities involved are small. But what do quantities matter, provided we can use a human belly and palate to produce querulousness, impatience, uncharitableness, and self-concern? . . . She is a positive terror to hostesses and servants. She is always turning from what has been offered to say with a demure little sigh and a smile, "O please, please . . . all I want is a cup of tea, weak but not too weak, and the teeniest weeniest bit of really crisp toast." You see? Because what she wants is smaller and less costly than what has been set before her, she never recognizes as gluttony her determination to get what she wants, however troublesome if may be to others. . . .

The real value of the quiet unobtrusive work which Glubose has been doing for years on this old woman can be guaged by the way in which her belly now dominates her whole life.

I suppose all of the capital sins show this brand of two-facedness--of excess in at least two directions, one of which is much more subtle and much more difficult to identify than the other. Who would have considered eating a piece of dry toast with weak tea an act of gluttony? But the point is that such a demand focuses all attention on the self and sets one in a habit of thinking about oneself rather than others. Rather than taking what is given, a person is always seeking something other--something bigger, smaller, tastier, less tasty, less fatty, more fatty, less carbohydrate-rich, more carbohydrate rich. It is one thing to eat sensibly and carefully, another entirely to expect the entire world to wait upon you, and yet another except under extraordinary circumstances (highly restricted diets) to "bring your own." And yet people today think nothing of these things.

I am not so clever as C.S. Lewis, but his passage makes me think, what other faces do the Seven Deadlies wear that we might not be quite so sharply attuned to. For example Pride that expresses itself by denying what is ostensibly true in praise coming from another so that the praise is repeated or rephrased. Some call this demurral modesty, but in nearly every case it is fishing for compliments. (There are cases of legitimate surprise--when your work is compared with that of someone you admire deeply and you didn't notice the basis of comparison, or when some other unlikely thing is mentioned that hadn't crossed your mind. Still, the correct response to all of this is a polite, "Thank you, the comparison hadn't crossed my mind before. So-and-so is one of my very favorite [authors, painters, composers, auteurs].

I guess as I approach Lent, I am less concerned about the imperfections I can readily perceive (and thus readily confess) than those that are hidden and mysterious to me. It's easy to see how you might be lustful, but perhaps harder to see how you are being prideful or avaricious. Part of my Lenten preparation and prayer will be to ask that some of these darker, more obscure tendencies on my part be brought to life and healed by the graces of the Lenten journey.

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On The Liturgy of the Hours

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I started to answer this in the comments box below, but both the question and the answer seems far too important for a mere comments box reflection:

Tom asked the question whether Liturgy of the Hours were really necessary to the pursuit of holiness. My long answer follows. My short answer is undoubtedly (and most assuredly from a personal, experiential perspective), "Yes it is." As difficult as it may be to fit into a life, whatever life it is fit into is made better by the discipline of following this great work of the Church.

With the advent of works like Magnificat a version of the litrugy tailored to those with strong time constraints is available to all. Moreover, as the name implies the "Liturgy of the Hours" is the work of the whole body of the church. It is liturgical prayer second in importance only to the Mass itself. Finally, the liturgy of the hours provides structure to the day. It would seem, to instill the discipline necessary to start the practice of the presence of God.

Personal prayer, while commendable, and indeed sanctifying often tends to be somewhat loosely regarded and on-the-fly. The Liturgy serves to structure this otherwise rather free-form mode of expression.

That's not to say you can't become holy without with Liturgy--but rather that the liturgy is so helpful to the process that it should not be remanded to a mere recommendation, but put forth as a sacred treasure whose usage greatly increases the probability of success on the road to holiness by virtue of the grace of obedience and discipline.

Finally, to address the objection, " After all, people in the world do not always have the luxury of living as though they occupied a cloister," I quote from the work of the Holy Father regarding lay participation in the Liturgy of the Hours.

Apostolic Letter Novo Millenio Inuente #34 John Paul II

It is therefore essential that education in prayer should become in some way a key-point of all pastoral planning. I myself have decided to dedicate the forthcoming Wednesday catecheses to reflection upon the Psalms, beginning with the Psalms of Morning Prayer with which the public prayer of the Church invites us to consecrate and direct our day. How helpful it would be if not only in religious communities but also in parishes more were done to ensure an all-pervading climate of prayer. With proper discernment, this would require that popular piety be given its proper place, and that people be educated especially in liturgical prayer. Perhaps it is more thinkable than we usually presume for the average day of a Christian community to combine the many forms of pastoral life and witness in the world with the celebration of the Eucharist and even the recitation of Lauds [Morning Prayer] and Vespers [Evening Prayer]. The experience of many committed Christian groups, also those made up largely of lay people, is proof of this. [emphasis added]

and from Sacrosanctum Concilium

from Sacrosanctum Concilium

83. Christ Jesus, high priest of the new and eternal covenant, taking human nature, introduced into this earthly exile that hymn which is sung throughout all ages in the halls of heaven. He joins the entire community of mankind to Himself, associating it with His own singing of this canticle of divine praise.

For he continues His priestly work through the agency of His Church, which is ceaselessly engaged in praising the Lord and interceding for the salvation of the whole world. She does this, not only by celebrating the eucharist, but also in other ways, especially by praying the divine office.

84. By tradition going back to early Christian times, the divine office is devised so that the whole course of the day and night is made holy by the praises of God. Therefore, when this wonderful song of praise is rightly performed by priests and others who are deputed for this purpose by the Church's ordinance, or by the faithful praying together with the priest in the approved form, then it is truly the voice of the bride addressed to her bridegroom; lt is the very prayer which Christ Himself, together with His body, addresses to the Father.

85. Hence all who render this service are not only fulfilling a duty of the Church, but also are sharing in the greatest honor of Christ's spouse, for by offering these praises to God they are standing before God's throne in the name of the Church their Mother. . . .

88. Because the purpose of the office is to sanctify the day, the traditional sequence of the hours is to be restored so that once again they may be genuinely related to the time of the day when they are prayed, as far as this may be possible. Moreover, it will be necessary to take into account the modern conditions in which daily life has to be lived, especially by those who are called to labor in apostolic works.

and this, from "Instructions on the Liturgy of the Hours"

27. Lay groups gathering for prayer, apostolic work, or any other reason are encouraged to fulfill the Church's duty, [103] by celebrating part of the liturgy of the hours. The laity must learn above all how in the liturgy they are adoring God the Father in spirit and in truth; [104] they should bear in mind that through public worship and prayer they reach all humanity and can contribute significantly to the salvation of the whole world. [105]

Finally, it is of great advantage for the family, the domestic sanctuary of the Church, not only to pray together to God but also to celebrate some parts of the liturgy of the hours as occasion offers, in order to enter more deeply into the life of the Church. [106]

It would seem to me far easier to become holy if one were to spend some time "sanctifying" and "consecrating" the day with the form of prayer specifically designed for that purpose.

For additional comments see here (Cardinal Spellman, 1950), John Paul II, 2001, and John Paul II, 2001

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from The Hidden Life--"Before the Face of God II"
St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross

"Through him, with him, and in him in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all honor and glory is yours, Almighty Father, for ever and ever." With these solemn words, the priest ends the eucharistic prayer at the center of which is the mysterious event of the consecration. These words at the same time encapsulate the prayer of the church: honor and glory to the triune God through, with, and in Christ. Although the words are directed to the Father, all glorification of the Father is at the same time glorification of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, the prayer extols the majesty that the Father imparts to the Son and that both impart to the Holy Spirit from eternity to eternity.

All praise of God is through, with, and in Christ. Through him, because only through Christ does humanity have access to the Father and because his existence as God-man and his work of salvation are the fullest glorification of the Father; with him, because all authentic prayer is the fruit of union with Christ and at the same time buttresses this union, and because in honoring the Son one honors the Father and vice versa; in him, because the praying church is Christ himself, with every individual praying member as a part of his Mystical Body, and because the Father is in the Son and the Son the reflection of the Father, who makes his majesty visible. The dual meanings of through, with, and in clearly express the God-man's mediation.

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from The Hidden Life, "Before the Face of God"
St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross

Carmelites can repay God's love by their everyday lives in no other way than by carrying out their daily duties faithfully in every respect all the little sacrifices that a regimen structured day after day in all its details demands of an active spirit; all the self- control that living in close proximity with different kinds of people continually requires and that is achieved with a loving smile; letting no opportunity go by for serving others in love. Finally, crowning this is the personal sacrifice that the Lord may impose on the individual soul. This is the "little way," a bouquet of insignificant little blossoms which are daily placed before the Almighty perhaps a silent, life-long martyrdom that no one suspects and that is at the same time a source of deep peace and hearty joyousness and a fountain of grace that bubbles over everything we do not know where it goes, and the people whom it reaches do not know from where it comes.

What more need be said?

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The Meaning of Prayer in Work


from The Hidden Life
St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross

But we have the Savior not only in the form of reports of witnesses to his life. He is present to us in the most Blessed Sacrament. The hours of adoration before the Highest Good and the listening for the voice of the eucharistic God are simultaneously "meditation on the Law of the Lord" and "watching in prayer." But the highest level is reached "when the Law is deep within our hearts" (Ps 40:8), when we are so united with the triune God whose temple we are, that his Spirit rules all we do or do not do. Then it does not mean we are forsaking the Lord when we do the work that obedience requires of us. Work is unavoidable as long as we are subject to nature's laws and to the necessities of life. And, following the word and example of the apostle Paul, our holy Rule commands us to earn our bread by the work of our hands. But for us this work is always merely a means and must never be an end in itself. To stand before the face of God continues to be the real content of our lives.

How then do we pray always? We do so when we have invited God to be with us always, when we have reached a level of unity with Him, when we have surrendered everything to Him.

Praying always is something like a marriage of long duration where it is sufficient to be present together. You needn't jabber each other's ears off with protestations of your love and devotion. Your presence together speaks volumes that no words can speak.

However, that comfortable marriage comes only after years of work and of saying the things that must be said and of doing the things that must be done. One does not achieve unity by ignoring one another--nor by simple toleration. There is always a growth in love fostered by the blessings of the Holy Trinity present at the heart of the sacrament of matrimony.

So too, the union with God doesn't just happen. You must take what pains you can to express your love to God, and perhaps more importantly, (and much more difficult), you must allow God to love you. In this grace alone works to open you up to the love of God--an active, invigorating, growing love. You cannot perceive it by trying to do so.

The only way to receive this love is to be obedient to God's commandments and rely upon His Grace, present powerfully in the sacraments, but also present in "the sacrament of the present moment." We live only in the present, and it is only in the present that we can experience God. God's love is eternal, but its expression is in time, in each moment of each day. Every breath is a gift, everything that comes to us in a moment is a love-letter. We need to refocus our vision to find God in the gift of the moment, and open our wills to accept that grace.

Only in this way is it possible to grow in love. His grace opens us up to His grace. The best we can manage is to not get in the way. And so, when we are in a hurry and stuck in the world's largest parking lot, regard that as a moment from the Lord, the gift of the present moment and thank Him for it. No matter what happens, resolve, with His help, to accept it and to converse with Him about it. In this way, you grow toward that union that requires no conversation to complete it because it is a continual conversation in itself. Like those grown old together in marriage, words become unnecessary because there is a communion and communication of being. Much more so then with our Beloved Father, Spouse, and Comforter. All Earthly marriage is a reflection of the true Divine marriage of God to the individual Soul. All that is good in marriage is expressed in this Union and because God is simple in Good, the Divine Union, unlike the human state, can have no shadow of evil in it. It is pure, holy, and good--the transcendant and encompassing marriage. Moreover, it is a gift, waiting for anyone who is willing to open it. God invites us to come and partake,

And the Spirit and the bride say, "Come." And let him that heareth say, "Come." And let him that is athirst come; and whosoever will, let him take the Water of Life freely. (Rev 22: 17).

And more, the message is repeated and repeated throughout the Bible and probably most profoundly accented in the Song of Songs.

I would lead thee, and bring thee into my mother's house, who would instruct me; I would cause thee to drink of spiced wine of the juice of my pomegranate. His left hand should be under my head, and his right hand should embrace me. I charge you, O daughters of Jerusalem, that ye stir not up nor awake my love, until he please." (Song 8:2-4)

Of enormous interest is that this image suggests at once marital union and the embrace of a father supporting the head of the smallest infant. The other day T.S. O'Rama was commenting on the need for us to become little children. And I would say amen to that--very little children indeed. For little children are simple, they accept what comes to them and, in their way are thankful for it. So too we must learn to be thankful for what comes to us from God who holds us tenderly as a Father holds an only child that he has waited years and years to see. His embrace at once protects, strengthens, and comforts us. He is at once Father and Mother to us combining the very best of both human roles to be truly our All in All.

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Crucifixion of the Intellect


from My Only Friend Is Darkness
Barbara Dent

The cleverer the intellect and the more fragile the sense of security, the more we are tempted to rationalize until a tangle of interdependent concepts about the spiritual life and our position in it is formed. Its purpose is to protect the psyche from pain and shock. Unfortunately, it also impedes the Spirit's free penetration of the same psyche, so that divine wisdom and will cannot be implanted deep down where the springs of action have their source. A pallisade of intellectual idols is in the way. . .

The roots of bad and imperfect habits can be uncovered only by means of the passive purifications. The vice-like hold of the intellect upon its possessions has to be broken, and breaking hurts. Yet the Spirit, though implacable, is also tender and healing.

We have and hold nothing. Everything that is "ours" is loaned to us for this brief time on Earth. In a sense, these things we have comprise the toolkit God has given us to approach Him. We must use each implement wisely. However, even with the most careful and adept use, because of the twisting that occurs because of original sin those tools do not effectively bring us within arm's reach of God. And we are darting, slippery creatures, like minnows in the shallows when it comes to truly entering God's embrace.

Some of us fool ourselves that we relax and wait upon the Lord. But the signs of our lives show that the best we do is touch the hem of His garment and back away. We may believe, but we don't really want to be embraced because that embrace will rob us of . . . what? We don't really know, but we do know that we are not ready to make the commitment.

Those who are inclined to think deep thoughts and to consider studiously all aspects of any question have a particularly serious barricade up in the presence of the Lord. To whom much is given, much is expected in return. But the much expected isn't necessarily the fruits of the mind. Rather, it is escaping that comforting ivory tower (all in God's time) to total abandonment in God's loving embrace. And it isn't something we can do ourselves. Only God can effect this change in us. We must be willing to leave, but the barricade effectively keeps us in as well as keeping God out. Our ideas about God, about Jesus, about the spiritual life are as effective at sealing us off as they are at bringing us close.

The intellect can lead us to the throne-room, but ultimately it is the heart that makes us children. And we must let God break down our misconceptions, our notions of what should happen and how things should go. We must let God love us to eternity. If we permit, He will draw us to Him and He will help us to go. We cannot go to Him unless we go as children, thus the necessity of dismantling the intellectual apparatus that has served as a conveyance, but now serves merely as a barrier. If we allow it, God will perfect the intellect with the wisdom only He can give.

Frankly, while I know this to be true in my heart, I can't even begin to imagine what it is really about. I am not that far along in my own journey. But I have seen it time and again in the great saints. I see the total abandonment to love that transforms ordinary men and women into Saints. And I want that. However, to get there, I know that I must even abandon wanting that great union and closeness and I must desire only what God desires for me. He must be my soul love. [I see my original misspelling in review and retain it as a meaningful inspiration] Aquinas has shown God is simple. And what is simple cannot endure union with what is duple or triple. "You cannot serve God and mammon." Equally, you cannot serve God and your own notion of God. So I must abandon all of those things--and here again, I cannot do it myself. I must fling myself headlong into His love. I must be carried where He wills me to be carried by currents unknown to me. The prospect is frightening and exhilirating in turns. And yet it is the call of this life on earth. To be God's alone, to have no idols, to have nothing between me and Him. And so I follow the path marked out by so many saints before and I attempt to do the little that my will can encompass. I try to abandon myself to love knowing that only in that abandonment is there transformation. "Unless a grain of wheat should fall. . ."

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I never fail to be amazed. . .

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that God loves me despite my essentially unlovable nature.

Even the best inclined of us has difficulty being around a cocky, self-assured, self-centered young buck who thinks the world is His oyster and whatever he wants is the pearl at the center.

Yes, that paragraph describes me in relation to the God who loves me. Nevertheless, like the loving Father He is, He reaches out to me. He reaches out to me in my sinfulness and in the utter horror that I am. I think about St. Francis kissing the leper, and I see God's gentle metaphor sent to us. Only leprosy is nearly purity compared to the state I often wallow in.

Nevertheless, God loves me. He gives me each day the light of that day. He gives me each moment what is needed to move forward. He gives me my food, my drink, my joy. And always, I fall short in returning to Him these great goods. There is nothing I can do to repay this love but try to love as greatly in return and try to send others into the torrents of His love. As I am swept along, I can reach out and offer my hand to those who cling to the shore, prefering the safer shallows to that divine cataract. And paradoxically our only salvation is in our abandonment to that raging river. The intensity of His love cannot be stilled. It is at once fire and water. In the words of the KJV:

  Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave: the coals thereof are coals of fire, which hath a most vehement flame.
   Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it: if a man would give all the substance of his house for love, it would utterly be contemned.
(Song of Songs 8:6-7).

Such is God's love. And my strongest desire is to follow His wish--to set Him as THE SEAL upon my heart and THE SEAL upon my arm. For only in utter abandonment to Him may I ever hope to see freedom and light.

Holy Sonnet 14
John Donne

Batter my heart, three-personed God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurped town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but Oh, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betrothed unto your enemy:
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

I repeat this poem often because its message can never be heard loudly enough nor clearly enough. Our only hope is in His Love and His only desire is for our love--complete, whole, and freely given.

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Prayers and Praying

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It is right and good to ask God for all the things we truly need. It is perhaps less good to ask for the things we want, but so long as those things are the goods of the spiritual realm, it is still right and proper. It is of questionable worth to ask for things we do not need but merely want with no real notion of what we would do with them once we had them. But even this is worthwhile because it exposes us to our own depths. These are mere vocal prayers. And yet we are enjoined to ask for what we need each day and to turn to the Lord to supply those needs. From this prayer, properly said, a more exteneded conversation with the Lord can occur.

St. Teresa defined mental prayer,

Mental prayer in my opinion is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us (Life 8, 5).

Mental prayer is an intimate sharing between friends. Such a sharing is not really possible if we are keeping things back. If we have a person with whom we want to be friends, we find that the roadblocks to friendship can be many. But the greatest of these are things about ourselves that we do not want known. The more we keep back the harder it is to share with a friend because we always fear revealing something that would damage the relationship.

However, God knows all. There is nothing we could possibly keep back even if we wanted to. The important point is that while God knows all, He wants us to share it. Often there is great power and tremendous release in simply saying what we know to be true. That is in acknowledging our weaknesses, we open the door to further intimacy. Thus the practice of confession is both about getting our sins out in the open and opening the door to greater intimacy.

Back to the original point--praying for what we want. When we do this, however frivilous the thing we want, we are at least being honest and opening the conversation. Now, if we become obsessed with what we want and continue like a small child to insist upon it in ever detail. conversation may not continue. If however, we are really ready to talk and listen and we say what it is we want, then even those material desires become the ground for intimate conversation and ultimately for conversion. So long as we are not flippant and we are really speaking our heart's desire, we open the gate for the Lord to enter.

Mental prayer is that extended conversation that comes from well-said vocal prayer. If we pray with sincerity and with earnestness, allowing God to peer into us, we start the conversation. Once it has begun, it can continue throughout the day or throughout a lifetime.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Commonplace Book category from February 2004.

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