Just A Thought From Thomas Merton

Anyone who knows me knows that Thomas Merton is a major influence on how I understand prayer and contemplation. So, I offer a small bit of his to you all. This is where I am.

When The Road Ahead Is In Darkness – Thomas Merton

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and will never leave me to face my perils alone.


More on My Journey with Ignatius

ignacio1I had promised some months ago to share some of my experiences with the Ignatian Exercises. However, the Exercises took away most of my writing time. Now, with my new work hours, I can take a moment to share a bit.

Over the past 6 months I have experienced prayer and contemplation in new and refreshing ways. Perhaps the most dynamic way has been to visualize and ‘enter in to’ the various stories that Ignatius used for prompts. He chose stories from the Gospels and encouraged others to imagine themselves in the stories. I was encouraged to ‘walk’ with and ‘talk’ with Jesus, the disciples, Mary and others. I found this to be an incredibly potent tool in learning to know Jesus as friend and brother. And, for the most part, the images were vivid, full of light and full of hope and joy.

The past few weeks, though, have been spent contemplating the Passion story. Almost immediately I sensed a change. Where there had been light, there was now darkness. Earlier I had clear images and experiences. Now, the images were obscured, as if a dark cloud was between me and the other participants. Before I had sensed joy. This turned to hopelessness and fear.

I shared these things with my Spiritual Director. I was concerned that I was missing something. Or, that my own shortcomings were a wall separating me from fully experiencing the stories.

He said that this was not unusual since the stories, themselves, were of a different nature. In them, Jesus was separated from others. He was pulled away and arrested. He stood alone before the Council and Pilate. Beaten and dragged away to be crucified, he was alone. On the tree of crucifixion, he was abandoned.

Then he was dead.

Joseph and Nicodemus prepared Jesus’ body for burial. Mary and some other women were present. I looked on and felt the despair. They had all hoped that Jesus was the Messiah, the Anointed One of God who was going to restore Israel and reign over God’s kingdom. Now, all they had was a lifeless corpse. Hopelessness; fear; shadow; darkness; cloud; doubt.

I felt doubts creep in. Didn’t Jesus say that his followers would do greater things than he? He healed the sick and raised the dead! Where is that happening? Jesus taught that the Kingdom of God was at hand? Where is it? Why can’t I experience God’s presence throughout each day? GOD! WHERE ARE YOU?

I’ve read where pastors have asked these same questions. And, not having adequate answers, have left the faith entirely. After all, if we can’t hear it, see it, touch it, taste it or smell it…it must not exist.

However, that was not my experience. I know that God is not afraid of, nor hurt by, our doubts. In fact, I think that God encourages them. It’s easy to say, “I believe.” In fact, many in the Church look at doubts as obstacles to belief. They say that they will lead people astray or hinder their experience of God. I have found, though, that it’s much better to embrace them. It’s harder yet I think better, to doubt and still believe.

I suddenly realized that I had experienced these same feelings. Rather than the images and experiences of being in the story, I had been experiencing the actual emotions of those who lived through it. In the desolation of my prayers and in the depression of my days and in my doubts, God had allowed the reality of these stories to become my reality. I was not an observer, or even a participant. I had become one with the story.

I don’t know where the next stage of the exercises will take me. I am sure, however, that Jesus will continue to meet me and continue to say, “Come…follow me.”

What have been your experiences in your life’s journey? Have you encountered yourself revealed in someone else’s story? How are you writing your own story?

My Journey with Loyola

lectioAs promised, I want to take a few moments to share a bit about my journey with Ignatius Loyola. First, however, I think that it’s important to explain a little about my expectations. Loyola first introduced the Spiritual Exercises to aid people in discerning God’s purposes for their lives. Particularly, those who were considering entering religious service…priests and other Religious. Over the years they have also been employed by people who simply desire to deepen their relationship with God. I have a little of both stirring within me. Not so much considering religious service, but certainly career options. As I wrote in my previous post, my current job is leeching the life out of me. So, I have an expectation that somewhere in this process I will either find peace where I’m at, or will discover another option. Secondly, I desire with all of my heart to know my God deeper and more profoundly. Attending seminary helped me to deconstruct much of the religious crap that I had been floundering in. My life reeked of it. Once most of that was shoveled out and disposed of, I found that I had to rebuild my belief, my faith, in God. Through prayer, reflection, relationships and spiritual disciplines new revelations and understandings have begun to fill that void. As I continue to grow as a spiritual person, Loyola’s Exercises seem to be a next logical step. Most importantly, I believe that God has enabled this desire to grow. I have confidence that I am not on this journey alone. The Spirit of God has joined with me as companion and guide.

This first week is a week of preparation. It is simply labeled, “A week of prayer.” My Spiritual Director explained that many people who begin the Exercises need to learn how to pray. They may not have specific time allotted for this practice. Many may not have been introduced to the particular way of prayer that the Exercises employ. So, the purpose of this week is to familiarize people with the process of prayer.

The primary practice of prayer this week is a variation on Lectio Divina, or literally, Divine Reading. The Exercises approach this as “Praying with the Scriptures.” The purpose, as one writer explains, “it, [Lectio], is undertaken not with the intention of gaining information but of using the texts as an aide to contact the living God.” Theological understanding and exegetical practice are not the focus of this kind of reading. Allowing oneself to be drawn into the text, to participate in the story, is what is important. In this way one can experience the drama, the sights and smells, and, hopefully, the presence of God.

Where will this path lead? I’m not sure. I am trying not to allow preconceptions to cloud the way or prejudice me toward one outcome or another. Openness to the gentle breeze of God’s breath is my goal.

Walking the path of Ignatius Loyola

ignacio1Today I am embarking on a new spiritual journey. My Spiritual Director is going to lead me through what are known as the Ignatian Exercises. For the next 36 weeks, or so, we will travel a path first explored by the 16th century founder of the Society of Jesus, better known as the Jesuits, Ignatius Loyola. Born into the feudal culture of northern Spain, Loyola dreamed of being a part of the grandeur that courtly love and knighthood could provide. He very nearly realized his dream when he was severely wounded in a battle against the French. During the time in which he recuperated from his wounds he read books on the lives of Jesus and the saints. He discerned that people described in these lives exhibited many of the same heroic and chivalrous characteristics that he admired. At the same time, however, he continued to dream about life at court. As he continued to reflect on and examine his thoughts and feelings he noticed that as he contemplated the lives of Jesus and the saints, he felt inner peace and satisfaction. When he thought about life at court, feelings of dissatisfaction predominated. This awareness inaugurated his life quest that culminated in the development and propagation of the Spiritual Exercises. Loyola realized that through prayer, study and a process called examen, perhaps the cornerstone of the Exercises, one could “detect God’s presence and discern his direction for us.”

Ok, so why am I even considering this process? After all, I’m old and feeble. My life has been lived according to the standards and expectations of our culture. I’ve worked hard at a vocation to provide for my family. All of the requisite activities of parenthood and marriage have been accomplished. Yet, like Loyola, I continue to strive with feelings of dissatisfaction and restlessness. I have labored for 40 years in an industry that creates in me anxiety and a great sense of helpless entrapment that eats away at my soul. Even family life does not completely fill the void in my heart that our culture, particularly the evangelical culture that I was a part of, claims that it should. There are those who would say that all I need to do is surrender to God’s will and all will be well with the world. But, that begs the question…what is God’s will? And, I’m not really that interested with all things being well with the world. Occasional happiness and satisfaction would be quite alright. I’m not hoping to experience any profound theological insights. Nor, am I envisioning some kind of neo-monastic lifestyle. The Exercises are about self-discovery. They are a tool for discernment and direction. They are a way to know and experience God’s presence in one’s life. That is why I am forging ahead with Loyola.

As my Spiritual Director and I follow Loyola’s footsteps, I hope to write about the experience here. Perhaps any who read this blog will have insights that can help me and other readers. Please share these in the comments. Do I think this process will be a panacea that answers all of my life’s questions? Not at all. But, even at this stage of my life I must have some direction about my vocation…my calling…in life.

To Suffer…and To Suffer With

In a recent post I mused about God’s relationship with the entirety of the Good Creation. That, perhaps, at the moment that the universe began to grow and form God had shared a part of God’s own essence. We are all interconnected, related, because of the Breath of God that has given to us. In another post I wrote a little about my own journey through depression and self-loathing. The story is painful for me to recount. But, I must share just a tad more.

This week I messaged a young person who is battling her own inner demons of depression. I don’t know why, but something about this person has caused my heart to be open…vulnerable. I have tried to encourage her to ‘keep on keepin’ on.’ In a reply she wrote something that really caught me off guard. I quickly responded with an apology. But, I felt horrible inside. Now, for most people the exchange would have been nothing to be concerned about. The words shared were neither abusive nor inappropriate. However, what I had thought would be helpful was rejected. By extension, I felt rejected. When a person lives with depression, any rejection, real or perceived, can throw that person into a downward spiral into interior depths where all sorts of beasties live. Throughout the remainder of that day I was pretty much lost. It got to the point where I asked a friend of mine why I was such an ‘asswipe.’ Sleep was lost to me that night as I considered and reconsidered what had happened. I beat myself up for feeling bad. I cursed myself for the words, as innocuous as they were. Other unrelated issues began to pop up and cause more anxiety. You see, with me that’s how depression works. It causes all of my strength to focus inwardly. I can see nothing but my own faults and inadequacies.

The next morning as I was trying to meditate and pray, I picked up a book by Brian McClaren compassionentitled Naked Spirituality. I had been reading it recently for, I don’t know, the umpteenth time. I opened it to the place I had marked the last time I had read from it. The words jumped off of the page! He was writing about compassion. Particularly, how we respond to the suffering of others. The word does not, as some have said, have anything to do with having passion, as in “she is passionate about someone or something.” The passion part of the word carries the same meaning as when people speak of the Passion of Christ. It is derived from Latin and can be translated “to suffer with.” McClaren wrote that when we are presented with the suffering of others we can respond in one of several ways. We may become “calloused, uncaring, embittered, or overwhelmed.” I had become clearly overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by this young person’s suffering and by my own inability to deal with rejection. Compassion was what  I needed. And, I needed it now! Compassion forces folks to look outside of themselves. Our gaze looks upward and outward for relief for the object of our compassion. It breaks forth in pleas for mercy. And, as McClaren wrote, it enables us to “choose connection over disconnection, compassion over apathy, commitment and expansion over constriction and contraction.” I began to pray. Prayer for this young person and her life. Prayer for the enlargement of my heart. Prayer that took my eyes off of me and fixed them on the loving Creator who imbued me and this other person with God’s own breath. Have I found a cure for depression? No, it’s something that I will continue to live with. However, I have found another weapon to use against it. Compassion.

Behold, Lord, Your Servant

There has been a lingering question among Christ followers ever since the earliest days after Jesus rose to sit at the Father’s right hand. That question has driven people to take some rather bizarre actions. Jesus told his followers that, in some unexplained way, he would always be present with them. “Abide in me, and I in you,” Jesus told them. In another place he said, “As you are going on your way, make disciples of all nations, baptize them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Teach them to observe the things that I have commanded you; and look! I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” The question is a simple one…“How”?

This question is difficult to answer. Well, actually, there are probably as many answers as there are people asking. Some of them better than others. I have read many ‘How to…’ books and articles. They pore over the Scriptures and try to glean whatever tips they can. The Psalms are a favorite field from which they harvest seeds that sprout into various methods and procedures. A few years ago someone ripped a process out of context and made a lot of money on something called The Prayer of Jabez. There seems to be no lack of people who try to distill some easy, painless way to touch the heart of God. But, in my experience, our Western ‘have it my way…right now!’ mentality will not work.

There were people in the early years of this era who also searched for God. Some of these were called Anchorites and hermits. Men and women would go into the wilderness in order to separate themselves from the distractions of society. The wilderness served as a metaphor for the realm of the devil. This idea came from Jesus’ experience after his baptism. He was taken to the desert where he was tempted. Anchorites desired to follow his example. They spent hours each day in prayer and contemplation. Many reported receiving ‘consolation’ or a special grace from God during these times. God was present with them.

Throughout Church history there have been people who have experienced God’s special presence. These ‘mystics’ practiced many different ways of prayer. In the 16th century St. John of the Cross and Teresa of Ávila offered their lives to God through prayer and service. They worked to establish a lay order called the Discalced Carmelites. (Discalced meaning ‘without shoes.’) Prayer and contemplation were their food and drink. Later, another monk named Brother Lawrence learned how to live in the presence of God through diligent practice. He spent his days serving his order in the kitchen. Nothing glamorous. But, he continually brought his thoughts and mind to dwell on God. These are but three examples of people who sought for God’s presence and found God to be a gracious friend.

As I have studied the lives of people like these, I have found that there is no simple method. There is no ‘Users’ Manual’ that provides step-by-step instructions with exploded diagrams and footnotes. I began my own journey in the inward life by realizing that being present with God was the first step. I took 3 words in Hebrew to describe this: hineni Adonai avedka. “Behold, Lord, Your servant.” These three words were the first ones out of my mouth each day as I prayed. They became a declaration to myself and to God that I was present. I worked hard to focus my heart and mind on being present. It is a discipline that takes time to learn and more time to practice. Please note the words ‘worked hard’ and ‘discipline.’ Evan as the days became weeks, then months, and I began to notice the task becoming more and more a natural part of my day, I had to work at it. After awhile, I realized that God had been providing the necessary grace for me to even begin. What had seemed like my own idea and practice was actually God fulfilling the words that Jesus had spoken to his disciples. Jesus was ‘with’ me. He was present. Maybe, he was just waiting for me to join him.

St. Francis’ Prayer

I’ve been reading quite a lot from blogs and news sources. Listened to people talk. And I find the polarization sometimes disconcerting. Especially, among those who follow Yeshua. I understand that people hold differing positions and opinions on myriad topics. These range from marriage to gun control, to politics, to faith itself. I don’t for a minute think that these differences are bad or wrong-headed. But, what I find more and more distasteful is the vitriol that is being thrown about without any concern for the recipients nor those who are witness to it. When someone on social media writes about hate and destruction, it’s not only those to whom the flames are directed, but all of the others who have access to the heat who inevitably get burned also. The words, paradoxically, then become fuel for more flames and hate to feed upon. There are ways to express opposition and displeasure without becoming hateful and destructive. For those of us who claim allegiance to Yeshua the Messiah, the God who walked among us, there is no choice.
There are few people in history who have grasped this concept better than St. Francis of Assisi. Anyone can search online for details about this son of God’s life. I want to share just one thing that has been attributed to him. It has become simply known as The Prayer of St. Francis.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

Perhaps, if we can let these words sink into the deep recesses of spirit and mind we can actually become instruments of God’s peace; salt and light within a decaying and dark world. The choice belongs to us.

What’s the use?

A couple evenings back I met with my spiritual director. We meet about once a month. I tell him what I’m experiencing and thinking. He gives a different perspective on that which usually challenges me. This week I shared how I am moving toward a more unified view of humans. We in the West have inherited a Platonic dualism that affects pretty much everything we do, including relate to Yahweh. We perform mental and theological gymnastics that allow us to separate ourselves into various compartments. I guess that helps some people organize their lives. But, as I read scripture, I see a more in a more Semitic way. God formed humans and breathed the Ruach Elohim into them. They became living souls. Not living dust and breath. Anyway, I digress. As we were talking I told him that I was finding it increasingly easy to see Yahweh’s love as it is directed toward me. I don’t see God keeping a running tally of my many shortcomings and mistakes. For anyone out there who knows me, that would be a very long list. Rather, I am coming to realize that God knows what I’m made of. I’m dust. God is not surprised when I act like dust. I see God smiling at me as I try to come alongside the Spirit and cooperate. My feeble attempts amuse the Almighty. So, my director’s response to this was to ask if there was any way that I could see God writing, not a list of sin and mistakes, but a love letter to me. I had to stop a moment, but I said ‘yes.’ He then challenged me to take this to God in prayer.
I did that. And, I felt God’s smile. I confessed to Yahweh that I could not understand why I had been chosen out of the billions of souls on this planet. God’s response? “So that you can enjoy Me.”
Not so that my sins would be forgiven, even though that’s true. Not so that I can preach and teach. Not so that I can live a godly life. But, so that I can enjoy God. I can experience God’s love and acceptance. I can, in a word, be free to love God and God’s very good creation.
Thank you, Yahweh!

Preserve us, O God

This is the final part of the discussion on the “Our Father.” This has not been an attempt to present any kind of comprehensive understanding, much less, an exegesis of the prayer. It is simply food for thought and reflection. As a paradigm, the prayer allows us to contemplate our place before a loving and compassionate Father. Yahweh, who has allowed us to be adopted children of God, who has allowed us to be the sisters and brothers of Jesus, has given us this simple prayer on which to build our faith. My hope in these 4 short posts is that any who happen to read them will be encouraged to model their own prayers on it. To use their God given imagination to see into the depths of the Father’s love, compassion and concern for all of God’s children.

And do not lead us into a time of trial, but, deliver us from the evil one.          
Testing is something that we all experience. James wrote that testing proves our mettle. It builds and perfects our faith. The psalmist called on to “Try me and know my anxious thoughts.” Why, then, should we not embrace trials and testing? Why not expect that God, in all of the divine Wisdom, to try us and test us? After all, Jesus was tested in the wilderness and triumphed. This testing that Jesus instructed his disciples to pray that they might be spared is that from external powers. We may better understand it, “Father, do not take your protecting hand from us! Keep us from temptations from ungodly powers.”
We do not forsake the wilderness. It is the place where we are tried and tested, just as Jesus. The desert Fathers wrote about the aridity of the interior environment where the perfect faith was forged. We join with them in this. We agree with James and the psalmist in this. But, we must pray that Yahweh, the God who is near, will keep us and preserve us from the fiery darts and weapons of the enemy of our soul.

There is also a part of this plea that is eschatological. We pray the God’s hand will keep us from harm in the trials and tribulations that accompany the end of the age. Jesus saw this as immanent. The Kingdom of God was breaking into time and space, the end of the age was at hand. “Father, keep us from the persecutions and oppression that is to come. Through the righteous and just testing and proving of our faith, let us stand in Your strength and faithfulness when the time comes.”

Abba, Forgive Us

And forgive us our debts
“Abba, forgive us the debt of sin. We cannot repay this…ever.” Most of us will stop at this point. We jump forward to Paul and claim “Justification!” But, there is more to consider here. We are indebted to Yahweh for everything. Our pray can continue, “Abba, forgive…The debt of having been formed in the womb; of being given the precious Breath of Life. The debt of childhood play and skinned knees. The debt of 1st loves and 1st heartbreaks. The debt of experiencing life with family and friends. The debt of being alone and forsaken by family and friends. All that we are and have and experience are debts that cannot be repaid.
As we forgive those who are indebted to us.
Those who have outright wronged us. Those who have taken a small piece of our life; love; soul and spent it on trivia. Those who have stepped on our toes. Those who laughed when we cried. Those who stole a piece of our innocence and left a wound that scarred and remains with us to this day. Those who have rubbed us in such a way that callouses formed. “O Lord, let Your grace be on us to let go of anything, anything, anything that stands between us and our adelphoi. Let our souls be free from any hint of bitterness that may germinate from holding on to the debts of others. As we have freely received, we do freely give.”