Loving God: June 2003 Archives

It is time again for me to issue a fairly standard disclaimer. I recognize the presumption inherent in giving advice to anyone about anything dealing with prayer considering the state both of my soul and my prayer life. However, if we waited for those who are perfect to hear advice, we would labor long and hard without hearing a word since the time of Christ. So please forgive me both the arrogance and the presumption and take these as intended--mere bread crumbs to help those who may profit from them--myself among them.

Now to meditation advice. Many are reluctant to start on the path of lectio because they see it as more demanding and difficult than they are up to. Many doubt their own ability to "think" of things to pray about. Many say they lack imaginations and so have difficulty getting into meditation. All of these I understand. And yet these same souls are the ones who pray fifteen or twenty decades of the Rosary each day--whatever in the world are they doing all that time. They are meditating--but they have worn that path so often and so long that it is second nature--the territory is familiar and so the meditation is a natural concommitant of the prayer.

So it will become with lectio, but it may take a while and you may need help at the start. In addition to innumerable books in print about meditation and how to do it (most of which have never been much help to me) there are some helps to get you started. One thing I would recommend is a good bible-study guide, such as those now being produced by Ignatius Press. At the back of each printed gospel are two sets of questions for each chapter of the book. The questions for application make excellent meditation starters. Look at the question and then read the passage associated with it. Read the passage listening for the answer to the question and for the other questions raised by the passage. Do not read looking for some literal answer, but read expectantly, knowing that if we knock it will be answered, and if we seek, we shall find. The presence of application questions indicates that at least one other person found something here worthy of your attention--worthy beyond the mere study of words or understanding of the text--worthy to the point of doing something about what is said. Thus you are offered simply a way into the text--a path for initial meditation.

I hope as we go along to post other helps along these lines, but I welcome the suggestions and the helps of all of those already engaged in these kinds of prayer. They will be of benefit to all.

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One of the first exercises in the Ignatian Retreat I attended was to focus on the fact that as unlovable as we tend to see ourselves, we are, nevertheless loved. This step was necessary before anything else could be done because recognizing that you are loved unconditinally makes it possible for you to let go of things that you tend to hold onto. For example, it made it far easier to feel contrition. You feel far worse for a trespass against a loving Father than you feel for rebellion against a stern tyrant with an iron fist. You are far more inclined to do something for the former than for the latter. And finally, there is the realization that if there is something truly lovable about you, despite your wretchedness, perhaps the same hold trues for the rest of creation. Perhaps service is not only an option, but a requirement. Perhaps others are as worthy of God's love as you, and perhaps, if they are worthy of God's love, they are worthy of your own weak reflection of it.

The meditation served other purposes in the grueling thirty-two week effort, as well. But it was most important for starting with the proper focus, "God loves me as I am, despite WHAT I am." When this really sinks in, the world begins to change. If it is so, then perhaps I will act in conformity with that love--perhaps I will act lovable to be loved. Perhaps I will love others as a share in this divine love.

Take time out to realize that God does love you. Take moments to see evidences of it. Be aware of the grace that surrounds your life. To use the stock terminology--"count your blessings." But really do it. This flows naturally from yesterday's thanksgiving litany. As you are giving thanks for each of these things, recognize in each one the sign of the Father's all encompassing love. Embrace each one as a cherished gift from the Father and send back a heart full of thanks.

Knowing that God loves you is opening a necessary door to love. But really knowing that God loves you takes much more work than you might think. You must break through years of knowledge of your own unlovableness. You must accept and embrace that as part of you. You must know that the Father loves you tenderly as though you were the only person in existence--His only Son or Daughter.

If you are a parent think of the things your child did as an infant or toddler that defaced, destroyed, dirtied, or otherwise diminished those cherished things around you. And yet, you did not stop loving this child of yours. So too with all the things we hold against ourselves. God does not stop loving us. He picks us up, washes us off, if we're lucky He uses His minister to help guide us, and then sends us on our ways. We are dirtied, but He loves us nonetheless. Dig below your own unforgiveness of self and find there the image of His Son, whom He cherishes and bestows upon us. Know that you are loved and you are lovable because He loves you.

The first step to loving is accepting love and knowing what it looks like and what it does. Learn from the Father who showers every blessing upon us. We all are loved, and in His eyes, despite our terrible rebelliousness and sin, we are all lovable. We are worthy of this love because He loves us.

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It seems ridiculous to talk about training in love. We all know what it is, we all know how it goes. Well, true and false. We all know what the emotional aspect of love looks like, but as a fallen people we rarely live out what the emotional aspect calls for.

We all know, intellectually, that love is a movement of will, not merely an emotion. Love can act without an emotion necessarily being attached. More importantly, one of the tremendous pieces of doctrine that St. Thérèse of Lisieux left with us is that love without works is dead. This is a natural outgrowth of the understanding in the Letter of James that faith without works is dead. Faith, Hope, and Love grow together or die together. When one is supported and nurtured, all three thrive. That is why love is so important in approaching God. Love causes faith to thrive and gives birth to new hope that sustains us through the long languors of love.

Training in love seems a good idea. How do we begin to love God passionately if we do not already do so?

Pardon a brief digression here. Wittgenstein is reported by some to have intimated that words shape reality. I do not know if he actually said this, but if it is true, the man obviously needed a psychiatrist. Reality is. The Ground of Being that reifies all that is, is unchangeable, so too the reality built upon His constant attention. That is not to say that things do not change, but that reality is and is discernable and understandable to some extent to the human intellect. (Good thing Wittgensteinian disciples didn't promulgate their nonsense until after we had a firm foundation in the sciences.) At any rate, words do not shape reality. However, they do shape our perceptions of reality. How we talk about or describe something shapes our feelings about that thing. How we talk about or to a person shapes our feelings about the person. Talk is not everything, but it is a powerful way to shape perception. (Hence, part of James's further admonition to "bridle the tongue.")

So my first suggestion for training in love is to change or enhance the way we talk to God. In addition to formal written prayers or spontaneous prayer it might be good to add to our daily routine a litany of thanksgiving. Perhaps the first prayer in the morning could start with a line from Psalms--"This is the day the Lord has made, let us be glad and rejoice in it." From there we could move to a simple litany of thanksgiving, being mindful of the presence of God in morning ablutions and preparations. We thank Him for our own being, for another day, for our spouses and children (if any), for our lack of spouses and children (if we lack them), for our material goods, for our health, and then we move on to thank Him even for the challenges of the day--poor health, difficult tasks, even worries. We hand them all over in thanksgiving, knowing that He will support us through them all. The litany of thanksgiving puts us in the mindframe to be grateful and to perceive God's hand in the events of the day. A very wise Jesuit once said, "A grateful heart finds it hard to be unhappy." And a happy heart finds it easier to love the Person who gave it so much happiness.

Thus my first suggestion--start the day with a litany of thanksgiving. Everything you can think of to praise and thank God for say or sing in your own private litany. Thank Him for all that you have, all that you are, and all that is around you. Thank Him for being present to preserve it all. Thank Him for the guidance He gives and the love He pours out.

Perhaps this starts as mere words, but as the practice develops and continues it grows into a yearning to do something to express thanksgiving, to share with others the fantastic joy of knowing God. This is a first step in the dance of love. We are moved to do something, however small, however seemingly meaningless. We are moved to DO something beautiful for God.

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On Detachment


[Sorry, another long post, but may as well write them as they occur to me--otherwise they're gone.]

You may wonder why I tend to go on so about detachment. Putting aside the fact that it is absolutely central to all of the teachers (and Doctors of the Church) within my Order, there are good and proper reasons for thinking about detachment and taking steps to become detached.

In all of my reading of the lives of the Saints the central theme is one of self-giving love. For one to be able to be self-giving, one must not be too strictly tied down or restricted in motion. One cannot give oneself if one is not free to do so.

Jesus told us, "You cannot serve God and mammon." His statement was not strictly about money, but about split allegiances. You cannot serve two masters. When you are attached to things you are serving the master of self-interest while trying to serve God. These two, while not always diametrically opposed do often tend to take different forks in the road. You cannot travel two paths.

St. Thomas Aquinas has a long discussion of the simplicity of God (practically the only thing from the Summa that I think I grasp). In it, he ultimately proves that God is simple, speaking in the terms of the time, He is of one substance and mind. How can anything that is duple (or worse) hope to unite with what is simple and single? It can happen via miracle, but God prefers methods that are not so invasive of creation and of personal sovereignty. And personal sovereignty, make no doubt of it, is what God is asking us to surrender. We are to give Him rule of our lives. If we are being pulled this way and that by creation, we cannot be drawn as swiftly to the creator.

Detachment is a means to an end. It is a necessary means, but in no way a sufficient means. Grace, sacraments, prayer, and many other attainments of a life lived in accord with God's will are required. But without detachment, all of these other things will not bring one to Union with God--the ultimate aim of all Christians, and an end that is within the grasp of all at God's good pleasure. Every Saint teaches detachment in one way or another, either through their writings or through their practice and the lives that they lived.

Detachment is not easy but it is very simple. On our own it is impossible, with Christ it becomes possible. It is "simply" a matter of learning to live as St. Paul described when he said, "I know how to be rich and I know how to be poor." That is, your state in life becomes meaningless because all meaning is invested in the centrality of God.

Detachment is not easy for several reasons. First, we often don't recognize attachments. Second, even when we recognize them, we often rationalize them. An example--I was in an extended Ignatian Retreat with a gentleman who was very devoted to the Rosary. The retreat master laid out the rules in the first session--there would be no spiritual reading material other than the Ignatian Exercises, the Holy Bible, and The Imitation of Christ. All other habitual devotions should be put aside for the duration of the retreat so that energy could be focused on the intense retreat exercises. The gentleman asked about the Rosary, and while the good Priest praised the devotion, he discouraged it for the duration of the exercise. The gentleman did not return. Now, this could well be a case in which the man discerned through this mechanism that he was not called to the retreat, but equally likely, it could be an example of an attachment getting in the way of a good that could draw one on toward God. I cannot know that, but proper discernment by the person involved could show which was true.

Third, even when we do not rationalize and we do recognize, sometimes we simply do not wish to give up the object, idea, or practice to which we are attached. This is typified by St. Augustine's famous prayer, "Lord make me chaste, but not just yet." Yes, Lord, I want sanctity, but not as much as I want ___________. And the things that fill in the blank vary from person to person.

The first step toward union with God is recognizing that our entire lives are meaningless without it. When we finally come to terms with the fact that God is our meaning and He is the only thing that will completely fill the empty spaces we try to cram with all manner of junk, then we can begin down the proper road. In other words, when love of God takes priority, detachment from things becomes a possibility, but not until then. And detachment is only a means--it must happen, but it doesn't happen necessarily by focusing on it. In some really tough cases, you might have to concentrate energy, prayer, and resources on becoming detached. But detachment is often a natural corollary of loving something else more. I have no difficulty choosing between say flan and chocolate because I have a built-in liking for chocolate. The choice becomes easy. When you prefer God to all other things, it becomes a matter of making choices that reflect that preference--detachment has begun.

Detachment is also somewhat like Zen. If you become aware that you are practicing it, you almost undo its effects through pride and through the idea that YOU are practicing it. Yes, your will is involved and you are actively doing something, but God and the Holy Spirit within you are more important in the overall efficacy. Here again a statement of Jesus applies in context, "Do not let the right hand know what the left hand is doing." Detachment is most effective when you are detached from doing it and its effects.

However, as I pointed out, sometimes it is sufficiently to light wash and rinse the pan, at other times one needs steel wool or scouring pad. At these times, a deliberate, prayer-infused, sacrament-powered pursuit of detachment is called for. Put in the proper context, it is amazing what one person can do. My father-in-law went for a medical checkup one day and the doctor informed him that cigarette-smoking was shortening his life and interfering with his health. He could choose between cigarettes and unassisted breathing. He went home, dumped the cigarettes and never again took a puff. A truly remarkable instance of the power of really making a choice.

So, detachment is necessary--but it is a means that should not be a focus. Detachment comes very naturally when the things to which one is attached are not valued as much as something else. So the next step is to think about the cultivation of active, responsive, all-encompassing love of God.

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Another splendid passage:

from Anger
Thich Nhat Hahn

"Happiness Is Not an Individual Matter"

This does not mean that you have to hide your anger. You have to let the other person know that you are angry and that you suffer. This is very important. When you get angry with someone, please don't pretend that you are not angry. Don't pretend that you don't suffer. If the other person is dear to you, then you have to confess that you are angry, and that you suffer. Tell him or her in a calm way.

In true love, there is no pride. You cannot pretend that you don't suffer. You cannot pretend that you are not angry. This kind of denial is based on pride. "Angry? Me? Why should I be angry? I'm okay." But, in fact, you are not oaky. You are in hell. Anger is burning you up, and you must tell your partner, your son, your daughter. Our tendency is to say, "I don't need you to be happy! I can be on my own!" This is a betrayal of our initial vow to share everything.

Even though Nhat Hanh is a Buddhist, he once again touches gently upon some central Christian themes here. The commentary that follows has little to do with the actual passage, which I find true and meaningful, but with meanings that come from its title and its ramifications in the emotional life of the individual.

The beatific vision does not occur in utter isolation from all other human beings. Nor can we truly be happy on Earth so long as one who is near and dear to us is suffering. We can rejoice in God, but like Mother Theresa, we will work to alleviate the unhappiness. And as we grow in our Christian vocation, more and more of humanity becomes near and dear to us, until, separated from all, we become All and every person is valuable to us.

This is why the matter of hoping for the salvation of all is such a major issue to many of us. The thought of even a single soul not sharing the beatific vision is actually painful. As much as part of us lusts for vengeance and proper treatment of those who have done wrong, as much as part of us longs for justice, another part, perhaps much smaller, longs for mercy. We recognize what wretched people we all are and we pine for the blessing of God's grace and mercy. We hope for this grace for ourselves and as our hearts become more like the Sacred Heart, we long for this same mercy to be received by all souls.

Part of us knows that there are a great many hardened, hurt souls who might possibly refuse this grace and mercy, continually offered, continually showered down upon all. Part of us knows that Pride makes us want to "make it" on our own. But still we hope that grace is ultimately irresistable. Certainly God will not force Himself on any, but perhaps the flow of grace will draw people into it, however unwillingly. I think of the miser in Fraçois Mauriac's marvelous novel Tangle of Vipers and the way that grace eventually works its way upon him.

And I do hope because happiness is not achieved in isolation. Although I suppose if I were the only person in heaven with God, I would be happy in some way but I cannot imagine it. Again, St. Thérèse spoke lightly (but meaningfully) what means more and more to me as time goes on, "I want to spend my heaven doing good on Earth." I begin to know God's hunger for all to return to Him, for there not to be a single soul lost and alone.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Loving God category from June 2003.

Loving God: March 2003 is the previous archive.

Loving God: July 2003 is the next archive.

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