Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Saints of God

On 1st November, some Christian denominations celebrate All Saints Day. Saturday, 2nd November, is designated All Souls Day by the Roman Catholic Church and is exuberantly observed as the Day of the Dead in parts of Latin America. Coincidentally, Halloween is celebrated on the eve of All Saints Day.  Many of our fundamentalist sisters and brothers will correctly point out the Pagan or pre-Christian origins of Halloween. Christian holidays have pre-Christian origins. A new religion simply adopts existing customs. That is how human life works. No reason to get in a snit over it. Eggs. Rabbits. Trees in the house. Get over it.

The word “saint” has a lot of weight for some of us. Was Mother Teresa a saint? Was Julian of Norwich? Will I be a saint? Roman Catholics have an elaborate system - canonization - of determining whether or not a particular person’s holiness during his or her lifetime approaches the required level of sanctity. The Episcopal Church has a canon of sorts, too, called Holy Women Holy Men in which lives of selected individuals are summarized and devotions offered. Others, believe that all professing Christians are, by definition, saints.  

The saints of the church, in whatever canon, are a wonderful study. There are stories of brave and terrible lives, miracles of the breath-taking type, miracles of the eye-rolling type. There are stories of jaw-dropping forgiveness, dramatic conversions, and slow beautiful realizations. No two are alike. Any "Lives of the Saints" volume is a wise addition to your library. Enduring Grace by Carol Flinders, a study of women mystics, is still in print after many years. My favorite Christian writer, Kathleen Norris, tells some wonderful saint stories in Cloister Walk.

We look to stories of saints for inspiration, education, amazement and, if we’re honest, entertainment. Who doesn't love Francis of Assisi stripping naked in the town square to divest himself of his wealth or Lucy gouging out her eyes so she wouldn't be tempted to pride by her beauty, only to have her vision restored? Or, in more modern times, Theresa of Lisieux realizing that sin doesn't matter so much, that all she wants is to win souls for Christ.

Usually, if we call a living person a saint, we are exaggerating their virtue as in “She’s a saint for putting up with him.” But we are made in the image of God and are possessed of a soul that is eternal. Because of the Incarnation, Christ is within each of us. Our greatest moments are grace filled and any one of us is capable of godly action. That we suppress this most of the time does not diminish our fundamental holiness. As C. S. Lewis says: Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object present to your senses.

I do not ever want to be called a saint. The word has too much baggage. I will never call anyone else a saint for that same reason. Yet, carefully looking at any other person, I cannot fail to see a glimmer of holiness, that face of Christ. I know this is true because it does not work with people on television, even people I know to be very wonderful, like Mr. Rogers.

All Saints Day is an extravagant feast, appropriately as Christianity is an extravagant religion. We are invited to consider our own favorite saints, our Biblical heroes, our departed friends and family members and all the untold faithful who have joined our Savior. This day leaves no one out. Paul of Tarsus, my Aunt Mary, your always-in-trouble cousin, the grumpy neighbor down the street. All Saints Day also invites us to see our own holiness and that of everyone we meet. As the hymn goes:

They lived not only in ages past
there are hundreds of thousands still
The world is bright with the joyous saints
Who love to do Jesus’ will.
You can meet them in school or in lanes or at sea,
In church, or in trains, or in shops or at tea.
For the saints of God are just folk like me,
And I mean to be one, too.

For your listening pleasure, here is the entire hymn 

Monday, October 28, 2013

One Sunday I went up to the temple to pray....

“Two men went up to the temple to pray” Luke 18:9

Honestly, don’t you just doze off when you hear this one? It’s so obvious who is in the wrong and who is in the right and even why that is so. In religion class, even the slowest kids understood this story and would answer correctly every time. Jesus should have saved us all a lot of effort and skipped right to the more challenging story of the ten talents. That’s the trouble, though, it’s too obvious. The minute we congratulate ourselves on understanding the parable is the moment we become the star of the show.

One day, I went up to the temple to pray.I glanced around at my fellow congregants. Some people knelt. Some stood. Some seemed impatient, bored. Some seemed not to even care if we were using Rite I or Rite II. Others were deep in devout prayer. Some were appropriately dressed for Sunday; others wore jeans! One woman was smiling at a baby sitting behind her, not even praying at all. 

Such an array of right and wrong behaviors. I was happy to be counted among the properly behaving people, the prayerful, attentive ones, nicely dressed, well-groomed, on time with the responses. I tick every box, fulfill every demand. Prayer as performance art. Hooray for me. 

Over time, God gave me the grace to see myself for what I was (after he finished laughing at me) - the worst kind of Pharisee. Jesus might have pulled me out of my pew and used me as the example of the unjustified in his parable.

When we look at the context of this parable, we see that Jesus was talking to “some who trusted in themselves.” Here is the problem, then. I was trusting in myself. I know the right thing to do. I know how to behave in church. I know how to pray in a congregation. I can navigate the prayer book. It is within my power to offer a prayer, to ask God’s blessing on others.

Actually, no. It’s not.

I cannot pray without God. I cannot direct my own heart and mind to God. I cannot trust in myself. God, of course sustains my life and I can’t even breathe without him, but, more than that, it is God’s grace that turns my heart to him. The minute you trust in yourself you are rejecting God. Isn't that what Adam and Eve did when they decided to set their own course? Isn't that the basis of all sin? Isn't this the soul’s primary struggle?

Where does God end and where do I begin? 

We are taught to be self-reliant. Having confidence is considered necessary in our world. I don’t think God wants us to be incompetent. Doing our work well, managing our affairs, attending to our health, bearing our responsibilities – certainly these are important for life. Holiness is not opposed to survival. But at what point do we become apart from God? When have we begun to trust in ourselves more than God?

We need to be watchful and aware of the way we mythologize ourselves. Do I imagine that God is grateful for my worship but a bit embarrassed by someone else's? It hurts even to ask myself this rhetorically.

Check yourself in church some Sunday. Are you tabulating the right and wrong behaviors you see? How are you looking at your fellow parishioners? With judgement? With disapproval? With approval? Or with love?

Because we know how Jesus looks at us. And love is the antidote to pride. Love trumps judgment. Love puts us back in the hands of God who is love and lets us trust in him totally.


He told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were right and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee standing by himself was praying thus. ‘God I thank you that I am not like other people, thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector standing far off, would not even look up to heaven but was beating his breast and saying, ‘ God be merciful to me a sinner.’ I tell you this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”


Monday, October 21, 2013

Prayer Part IV: Praying with Everything

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. Romans 8:26

Praying with everything was unattractive to me. I didn't like the expression. It was wishy-washy. It was a watered-down way of praying. I pictured someone sitting next to a precious article, Grandma’s watch or Uncle George’s tombstone and praying, perhaps for guidance from these people. Or worse, I imagined someone making the tiresome excuse that they can find God in Nature and, therefore, have no need of church. I suppose I’m a snob about prayer.

Since that time, I have prayed in the ways I just described and have found peace and love in the practice. And I still go to church every Sunday.

In Thessalonians, Paul tells us to: Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 5:16-18. How is a person meant to pray without ceasing? Didn't Paul have work to do, practical problems to solve, distractions? More to the point, didn't he have dry spells, moments of doubt and discouragement?

Paul is asking a lot of us, to be sure, but he also said that: we do not know how to pray as we ought. Paul knows that our prayer is always going to be insufficient. There is always going to be a little too much of us in it, too much crowding out of God. The solution is the Spirit who is there to pray in our place, to add to our prayer with sighs too deep for words.

Imagine the love Jesus felt for this world and all in it, a world he created after all. He came to it, was born of it. He looked at our world and at us and saw objects of his love. We can look around us and see everything in that same way, with that same love. This is prayer. The oak tree whose leaves are browning, the chickadee at the bird feeder, the shirt you are ironing, the face of the young cashier at Target, all holy.

Prayers right there.

It is the Spirit who is always with us, in us, prompting us to see a prayer where we would not, to open our eyes to the holy, to open our hearts to love where we would not dare to expect it.  Imagine! God is so determined that we pray that he has given us the Holy Spirit to pray with us because We do not know how to pray as we ought.

If the universe is God’s creation, which it is, and if all of creation was made holy by the Incarnation, which it was, then surely there are bright moments in our existence that await our understanding, our prayer. We cannot approach these miracles by ourselves. The Spirit leads us, fills in the blanks for us, opens our eyes, whispers in our ears the words that we can neither hear nor utter.

Our neighbor’s picnic umbrella blew off of their deck recently. It was torn in several places. A gusty wind blew it about the yard. Its tatters flopped sadly against the grass. Its once bright stripes were faded. I watched this for a few moments from the warmth of my dining room and without even connecting the obvious dots of brokenness, fading, helplessness Then, I knew I was praying. We do not know how to pray as we ought.

There was no need to connect myself to it. No need to read a lesson into it. That umbrella was a prayer and I prayed it with sighs to deep for words.

Prayer, then, in summary, can be recited, read, memorized. It can be a devout reading of scripture; it can be merely placing yourself in the presence of God. And it can be everything, just as God is everything.

We wonder if our prayers will be answered. They will. Aunt Clara’s cancer might come back, Sandy might not pass algebra. That crush of yours might not propose. Still our prayers are answered because the one prayer that we always say, that we don’t know how to say as we ought, is the prayer that brings us to God. It is the only prayer. It is God’s prayer and it’s ours.


If you have slogged though all four parts of this essay on prayer, thank you! I am adding here a brief bibliography, slim volumes that have helped my prayer. The catechism tells us that prayer is “lifting our hearts and minds to God.” I really can’t add much to that except that humility is necessary in prayer and that “We do not know how to pray as we ought but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”

Barry, William S SJ -  Paying Attention to God
Norris, Kathleen - Cloister Walk
O’Hea, Eileen CSJ - Manifesting in Form
Taylor, Barbara Brown - An Altar in the World
Wiederkher, Macrina OSB - A Tree Full of Angels

Monday, October 14, 2013

Prayer Part III: Praying for Nothing

In this third part of my series of essays on prayer, I want to address the practice of Christian Meditation. Please abandon any notion of mystics sitting for hours in a trance state. Meditation is about less: less atmosphere, less baggage, less fuss.

Here is the website for the World Community for Christian Meditation. It has abundant resources for the new or continuing practitioner.

Even if we have never practiced meditation, most of us have heard about it and read about its amazing benefits to the mind and body. It is a practice that has been around for many thousands of years. Yoga which traces its origins back five thousand years was devised as a means of increasing a practitioner’s ability to sit for longer periods of time.

The earliest traces of Christian meditation date back to the 4th Century CE with the desert fathers and mothers. These individuals, fed up with the increasingly complex ecclesiastical structures of the church (Imagine if they were living today!) took themselves off to the desert where they formed loose communities and prayed.

Their prayer was what we today call meditation. Much has been written about these communities and their more famous members, and I would encourage anyone to delve further into their history.

Christian Meditation today has taken two forms: one is Contemplative Prayer or simply Meditation and the other is Centering Prayer. They differ in major and minor ways, I suppose. Either practice comes under the heading of Praying for Nothing.

I know a good bit about Christian Meditation and almost nothing about Centering Prayer. John Main and Lawrence Freeman are spokespersons for Christian Meditation. Thomas Keating writes extensively about Centering Prayer. If you are research-minded, all these men are fine writers, very worth meeting.
And now to begin.

Praying for Nothing

In meditation, you are praying for nothing. In other words, you have no desired outcome. You aren't asking for anything. You aren't thanking God. You aren't praising God. You are simply sitting intentionally in the presence of God. You are not seeking forgiveness. You have no intention other than to be in the presence of God, which, of course, you are always.

Posture is important. Sit in a natural position, either in a straight-backed chair or on the floor. The idea is to be neither uncomfortable nor too comfortable. Sit up straight. Imagine a string guiding you from your tail bone through the top of your head. Then drop that image.

Follow your breath. Notice the in-breath and the out-breath, but breathe normally. Don’t worry if your breaths seem unevenly spaced. Meditation is a physical practice occurring in the material world and your body is important to it. Your body needs to be present. Feel yourself in every cubic centimeter of your body. Then drop that image. You are merely present in the sight of God. God loves you and is asking nothing of you.

Hold no image in your mind during meditation. If an image comes into your head, even if it is a holy image or an inspiring one, drop it. Gently. If a thought or distraction comes into your mind, drop it. Gently. Do not judge your meditation. Do not become impatient with yourself. Do not struggle. Do not fight. Your meditation will not be perfect. Not ever.

Most practitioners use a mantra. The mantra, or sacred word, helps to keep distractions away. It can be said silently with the breath. Maranatha is the mantra that is most typically suggested. It is an Aramaic word meaning “come Lord”. Because it is foreign, we are less likely to become distracted by its meaning. The first two syllables are said on the in-breath; the last two syllables are said on the out-breath. Ma-ra, breathing in. Na-tha, breathing out. Never stop saying this word during the entire time of your meditation. It is powerfully focusing. Just remember that you are focusing on nothing, thinking of nothing, imagining nothing.

Meditation is a very simple process: sit, breathe, say your word. Simple but not easy. A million distractions will fill your mind: the laundry, a phone call, Downton Abbey, hunger, worry, dirty diapers, the weeds, your boss, your diagnosis. Understand that nothing that comes into your mind during meditation has any particular meaning. It is not a message; it is simply your imperfect being pulling you away from your prayer.

Don’t be angry with yourself. Look at each of these distractions as a sweet child clamoring for attention. Pat that distraction on the head and send it on its way. Keep saying your word. Keep breathing. You may like to smile.

My models for sitting in God’s presence are my cats. At any given time one of them will hop onto my lap, asking no permission, make himself comfortable and just be. Where do my cats get such confidence? I don’t know, but they seem to know that I love them. They take me for granted.

I believe that it is this confidence in God’s love that is the gift of meditation, of praying for nothing. Perhaps it is simply the fruit of nearness.The effects of meditation are most discernible after a while. It was only after practicing meditation for 10 or so years that I was able to see what a different person I had become. Less stressed, more patient, more generous, kinder, gentler, better. How does this happen? Please refer to Paul’s letter to the Galatians where he talks about fruits of the spirit.

But the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Galatians 5:22-23

Knowing that God loves us is good for us. Physically, mentally and spiritually.

For being all about nothing, the practice asks a lot of us. Instructors will advise you to meditate twice each day for about 25 minutes at a time. That's a lot for a beginner. It’s fine to start with once a day, but you should try for 25 minutes to give your spirit time to settle. It is perfectly OK to use a timer; everyone does it. When your time is up, offer a brief prayer of praise or thanks. “Glory be to the Father, to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning is now and forever. Amen” would work just fine.

You do not have to be a mystical sort of person to practice meditation. I am the least mystical person I know. In meditation classes, I've met people from all walks of life, all races and creeds, blind people, people in wheel chairs, triathlon winners. This is a very basic, accessible practice and I can’t recommend it strongly enough. 

I’ll close with some words from my first meditation teacher, Eileen O’Hea CSJ. In her final book, Manifesting in Form, she writes

Most of us have grown up thinking we have to earn God’s love; we have to do so many good things before we can rely on God loving us. This is a fallacy. We are already in love. Because all is one, we cannot be separated from the love that is our very being.
Meditation returns us to our initial state of creation, namely the experience of knowing oneness of being with Divine Being.

Next week: Praying with Everything

Monday, October 7, 2013

Prayer Part II: Praying with Something: Lectio Divina

You will probably have heard people say that they pray with scripture or that they pray the Psalms. Finding guidance and insight in Scripture is a common and effective practice. Lectio Divina, however, is a more specific way to pray with Scripture and this method is what I want to share with you today. Lectio Divina is a powerful and personal method of prayer. It is at once both structured and open-ended, and it boasts a long and respectable provenance.

Literally, "divine reading" has been around a long time. I won't make this a history lesson, but Lectio Divina is traceable back to the 3rd Century cleric Origen and was adopted and later adapted by Saints Ambrose and Augustine. Saint Benedict established it for his monks in the 6th Century, and it was formulated into a four step process in the 12th Century by Guigi II, a Carthusian monk. 

In Lectio Divina you are praying with Scripture. It is not Bible study. It is not looking for answers in the Bible. It is not hermeneutics. Neither is it literary interpretation. Resist the temptation to intellectualize the selected passage. There is a time and place for that, of course, but this is not it. Lection Divina is prayer that recognizes that our Holy Book is the Word of God.

I am indebted to The Benedictine sister, Macrina Wiederkehr’s wonderful A Tree Full of Angels for finally spelling this process out for me. Basically it is this:

First, take a passage of scripture. It shouldn't be any longer than about twenty verses and can be much shorter. Make a specific intention to read this passage with an open heart and in a prayerful way. In other words, ask God for help. Read and re-read it (aloud if at all possible) until you come to a phrase or even a word that strikes you as particularly meaningful, that speaks to your heart. Stop there. Even if your well-trained scholarly self frowns at you for not completing your assignment, stop.

Second, close your book and let the phrase inhabit you. Allow its deeper meaning to unfold within you. Try not to think too much here. Certainly repeat the phrase or word as many times as you like. Long-ish spaces of nothing are fine. Don’t try to close down your thoughts but neither should you over-think it. What does the phrase say to you? What ideas do you associate with it?

Third, speak to God from your heart about the passage and the phrase. Your praying doesn't have to be articulate or literary, just a word or two - or no words. Direct your heart to God with the passage at your side, so to speak. You may go off track. That’s fine but keep the thread alive that ties you back to the phrase.

Fourth, let the phrase go. Let the passage go. Just be whoever you are at this moment with God and know that you have prayed.

Don’t be discouraged if no phrase presents itself to you. This happens often. You still have prayed. You still have opened the Scripture and asked God’s help. You have prayed with the Scripture. You have also prayed with God.

I have found it helpful to write in a journal after the final step, maybe right away or maybe later in the day. Remind yourself of the phrase throughout the day. It will grow in meaning as the time goes by.

Wiederkher compares lection divina with eating. You look at food, inhale its aroma delight the sight of it. You take a bite. It’s yours. You claim it. You savor its taste and texture, its temperature and flavor. You swallow it and digest it. Your body works it without your awareness. Then it becomes part of you. So it is with the line of Scripture that spoke to your heart.

Let me offer one example from my own Lectio. A few months ago, I was reading a series of Easter passages in an attempt to open the mystery of the Resurrection. In 1st Corinthians, I came to 15:6 “…after that he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters…” The words “brothers and sisters” immediately struck me.

Seeing the Christian community as brothers and sisters was nothing new to me, nor was thinking of all of us on this planet as brothers and sisters. On an ordinary day, I would consider the phrase a bit over-used, a cliche. It didn't seem at all trite this time, though. Moreover, the point of the passage was not the Body of Christ as the Church but the fact that Jesus’ Resurrection was witnessed by many. Nevertheless, it was “brothers and sisters” that caught me and kept me for a day.

So what meaning did I find in this very common phrase? Partly, it was Paul’s extravagant inclusion of all these unknown people; partly it was the realization that these early Christians are my own brothers and sisters now, even after two thousand years. I became aware of these holy people and all holy people in a new and very immediate way. Maybe the web that connects us to each other and to Christ is stronger than blood or proximity or friendship.

But that phrase became a part of me in a new way and that was God teaching me a particular truth. That was prayer.