On Loving Oneself

Andrei rublev trinity (C.1411)

Andrei rublev trinity (C.1411)

“To love yourself right now, just as you are, is to give yourself heaven. Don’t wait until you die. If you wait, you die now. If you love, you love now.” Alan Cohen

One of the most difficult things for both religious and non-religious alike is to love oneself. That is, to accept ourselves as we are in the moment and not as we might want ourselves to be tomorrow. It can be more difficult than the giving or the asking of forgiveness. Why is it so hard? “The most terrifying thing,” writes C. J. Jung the well-known founder of analytical psychology, “is to accept oneself completely.” Of course, we are not speaking of egotistical or hedonistic self-worship which has become one of the staples of modern culture given the rise and ubiquity of social media. Loving ourselves for who we are is for the most part insufferably hard because no one knows us as we know ourselves. No one has access to those dark places of the soul which we ourselves possess and would recoil from, if we were to encounter them in another. “But I do nothing upon myself”, reflects the 16th century English poet and cleric John Donne, “and yet am mine own executioner.”

In our hearts we have committed abominable crimes, too despicable and shameful to mention. We know all too well who we really are deep down. We punish ourselves, sometimes mercilessly, for our past misdemeanours and mistakes. We needlessly poison our spirits. We relive the pain we have caused others or which has been delivered to us. And so it must, and it will hurt. But here, in the very place of that agonizing conflict rests our way out from this condition of ‘self-unforgiving’. Only after this toughest of confrontations with one of the most sensitive components of our consciousness, can we come to a true comprehension of what it means to love oneself. Vironika Tugaleva, who fought many life-threatening battles to do with her self-esteem, writes knowingly from her own experience, “You will not love anyone or anything until those eyes in the mirror soften up and embrace the beauty that is already within.”

It is very important to arrive at a place where we are at peace with the present, the eternal-present, to come to an understanding that any absolute resolution can only ever come with our death. For the present let us consider ourselves works in progress imbued with an infinite grace and the potential to accomplish wonderful things. There is no denying the effect and burden of guilt, for real or even perceived failings, volumes have been written on this subject. The underlying consensus of the literature is unless we deal with this pressing weight of self-condemnation (again an entirely different matter to self-correction and interior vigilance), unless we find our own way out, unless we initiate a process where we can begin to be gentle and kind to ourselves, we will only perpetuate the anger or self-hatred. There will be no peace for the heart remains agitated. And so we look for the other, destructive ways out, we abuse ourselves through various forms of addictions and cause damage to both the mind and the body. We set about decomposing and deconstructing “the temple”.

For each one of us the path to self-love will be different, we will be touched and inspired by separate revelations and distinct moments of higher intuition. But there are to be found in each of our stories some very similar signposts. To offer a peace offering where we have offended and to repair a wrong where possible; to make a personal sacrifice in whatever way that might be demanded of us; to not permit for others to diminish or to wound our self-esteem; to surround ourselves with people who practice the art of love; to respect ourselves; to love as we ourselves might wish to be loved; and especially to forgive those who have hurt us. We should try, also, to remember we are fragile and wounded creatures ourselves and that we are dealing with other similarly imperfect creatures. “The other” is living out the conditions of his or her soul’s present state of enlightenment and they too are on the journey to self-knowledge.

So why is it important to love and to be kind to ourselves? Because it is only in loving ourselves can we unleash the great torrent of love and grace which rests dormant with in us, for it is precisely here that one of the greatest spiritual maxims has been spoken, and this by the GodMan Himself, the Lord Jesus Christ: “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Mk. 12:31). Unless we love ourselves, that is, to see the potential grandeur and awesomeness within us which flows from the creative energies of the Creator, we cannot love our neighbour. That is why there is so much hate in the world, and why killing and wars will not end. We have stopped loving ourselves and so we have stopped seeing God in the presence of the other.

Prayer, however we might choose to initially practise it, brings us back into the interior of our being and to the recognition that we are not a random existence. Our presence upon this earth was an act and a movement of infinite Love. We had been loved and known, Jeremiah the OT Prophet gives us to understand, even before we were “formed” in our mother’s wombs (Jer. 1:5). Loving myself means I acknowledge my absolute uniqueness. I establish my self-worth in the originating act and movement of Love proceeding and emanating from the Creator. The acknowledgement of the existence and continuing activity of this originating source of Love which has brought us into being is where the principal foundation of our value and uniqueness is to be found. It is not in our achievements or temporal successes, not in our fame or gilded reputations, not in our possessions or accumulation of wealth, not in our physical attractiveness or in our great intellects.

One of the fundamental teachings of Trinitarian theology, which has also been stunningly presented to us in the Icon of the Trinity by Andrei Rublev, is the reciprocity of love which emanates and flows eternally between each of the three divine persons. There is a “stumbling block” for those who would criticize the Scriptures as pointing to a God who makes too many demands to be loved and to be worshiped. If the Creator did not have this divine sense of self-worth His love for us would be impossibly diminished. It is this self-worth which led to Gethsemane. It is where He empties Himself of His divine splendour to save the world. Here is the highest example of theophany and humanity. The great fruits of this self-love into which we are called, are humility and self-knowledge. “Yet not I”, says Saint Paul, “but the grace of God which was in me” (1Cor. 15:10). There is no place here for self-aggrandizement nor for vainglory. This is not the “self-love” of the beautiful hunter Narcissus who saw his reflection in a pool of water and fell in love with it. He could not detach himself from his image and eventually drowned. These are things we should always guard against and cannot ever be immune from. 

Significantly, in patristic literature when the narcissistic elements of ‘self-love’ are warned against, it is invariably in the context of kenodoxia, which is, vainglory and empty pride.

“Dear Lord, teach me the proper and safest way to love myself that I might draw nearer to You, to discern Your imprint on my hand, to experience You in my neighbour.” 

Compassion

Leunig KINDNESS: Never underestimate the ripple effect

Leunig KINDNESS: Never underestimate the ripple effect

“Compassion is sometimes the fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.” (Frederick Buechner)

The word compassion has a beautiful sound to it. For a long time the word has had an ‘onomatopoeic’ association for the author of this humble reflection. He has connected it to a “bell”, a campana. Not only on account of the similarity in sound, but more so because of the visual image of a heart which strikes like a beautiful bell to bring hope to those nearby. Etymologically, compassion, is originally from the Latin: com [with] and pati [to suffer]. It literally means to suffer together with another. Is there anything in the world more valuable and full of potential than comprehending the pain of another and doing whatever we can to relieve that soul of some of its hurt? We look for that moment when we might jump into the water to save a drowning child or to show our courage by pulling out a stranger from a burning car. Yet these situations where great acts of bravery are required, will more likely than not, never be demanded of us. The irony is that every day we can perform such marvellous acts in different and no less significant ways.

To enter into the pain of another, to share in the affliction of my neighbour, to have empathy and then to go beyond it and to do something in response, that is compassion. To come to the aid of another, is a great step forward in our realization of what it means to be truly human. Buddhism teaches that to realize enlightenment there are two qualities which must be developed, these are wisdom and compassion. It is said that in the Qur’an compassion occurs more frequently than any other word. In the Judaeo-Christian scriptures compassion is at the core of its ethical revelation which for many is summarized in the “Golden Rule” of Christ: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matt 7:12). Compassion is to refuse to give in to hopelessness, not only in our reaching out to another, but also in the very act of loving ourselves. The often misinterpreted German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer has put it succinctly, “Compassion is the basis of all morality”. It is also the seat of love for without it, love is without its flesh.

Compassion can be practised daily, in the ordinary things. If only we could know how many fires of human desperation we could extinguish by these simple and everyday acts. An uplifting letter of support to friend or stranger or better still, to a “foe” who might be suffering; the gift of your coat to somebody who is wet and cold; stepping into a hospital unannounced to ask if you might share some moments with the sick; practising the great art of forgiveness; taking the blame for another who might not possess your strength; stepping over an ant hill on your way to work; giving up your position in the queue to someone in a greater hurry than you; saying sorry when you don’t really have to; helping someone who is unsure cross the busy street; telling a blind man or woman that truly they are beautiful; sending a bouquet of flowers to a random address. Even a knowing smile can save a life. All of these things, this little list of charities which return to the giver a far greater blessing than what is given, have the potential to change lives. This person too, the recipient of your grace, will remember and add to this gift for it will invariably be paid forward.

Often enough compassion might be as simple an act as accepting each other, and understanding that each of us will grow and flourish in different times and in different places.

For others in those extreme places of unfathomable love and grace, compassion might well mean actual identification. As it did for those early missionaries who for the sake of their beloved lepers not only lived together with them in abandoned colonies, but also allowed for themselves to be stigmatized, literally, and to suffer alike in the flesh.

Here is the greatest strength of all, rising above our deepest fears and hidden prejudices. To step into the shoes of the other. There is the beginning.

“My dear Lord, please allow for these words, for these expressions of charity to take on flesh, that my desire to practise compassion becomes real and does not remain hollow. Allow for the eyes of my heart to see the presence of the Creator in each and every hand which might reach out to me.” 

Sorrow Comes to All

“Christ offers us, not a way round suffering, but a way through it; not a substitution, but saving companionship.” (Kallistos Ware)

http://meetville.com/images/quotes/

http://meetville.com/images/quotes/

Where is God during these times? Where is He when bad things happen to good people? How do the words of a preacher help or heal those who have lost their homes, who have lost their families, those who are alone in prison, or in a hospital dying of cancer? The mother whose child is dying in her arms because it is sick or hungry? “Where is God?” ask the poor and the abandoned. “Where is He now?” asks the young person about to put an end to his or her life. The words of no individual, however great, cannot ever eliminate the pain nor explain away the suffering. We would be deluded to think that our words, even though genuine and caring, could wipe away the multitude of tears. And yet, by pointing to divine revelation, that is, witnessing to Scripture and to the “Word” (the eternal LOGOS who was from the “beginning” Jn. 1:1), a sorrowful heart can be shown that there is, indeed, a way through the suffering. However desperate and improbable our situation, always there is hope for we have been “begotten” to a “living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1Pet. 1:3). God is there, sharing in our common humanity, “taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men” (Phil. 2:7), experiencing our pain, empathizing with our humiliation, feeling our rejection, suffering with us in a meaningful and enduring way. He does understand our grief and reveals to us the way through our sorrow.

In His human nature, before His terrible crucifixion, the GodMan prays, “My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death” (Matt. 26:38). He is there in every hospital and prison and orphanage and broken home and mourning heart. “I was naked and you clothed Me” (Matt. 25:36). The Father was there at Calvary when His only begotten Son cried unto Him, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matt. 27:46) There will come a day, Scripture tells us, a specific moment in history when all sorrow and all suffering will come to an end, “[a]nd God will wipe away every tear... there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying... no more pain, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4). God promises, that similarly to Jesus, our pain will be redeemed and a higher understanding will come to us for “now we see in a mirror, dimly” (1Cor. 13:12). This does not lessen the brutality of our toughest battles, but it does mean our tears and suffering are not to be looked upon as ‘wastelands’. These experiences of sorrow ("feelings of deep distress") are not only commonplace in our lives, but often they are the only authentic way of communicating with each other. Real pain, unlike feigned pleasure, cannot be easily counterfeited. Fairy-tales and myths, from the earliest of years when the believing community was persecuted and torn asunder, had nothing to do with a faith ‘blind’ to the outside reality -but it was a belief tested and realized in the world and established in blood.

What may presently be inexplicable, will be made clear to us on that last day to which we do "not know what hour" (Matt. 24:42). We will see that our path, strewn with both joy and heartache, was our unique way through life and that it could not have been any different; in some tangible sense our spiritual DNA. And that He, our Lord, was there with us in ways that we could not ever have possibly imagined. That He was there during those times when sorrow might appear to be robbing us of breath and even of life itself- as the penitent thief himself discovered on Golgotha Hill when he asked the Lord to remember him in His kingdom, “[a]ssuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise” (Lk. 23:43).

Sorrow does not discriminate and it cares little for our religious convictions or philosophies. We all have to find a way through our suffering and to make sense of it. Our profoundest thinkers have encouraged us to not fight the provenance of our pain but to ask the meaningful question: What does this suffering mean for me and how can I use it? There is an assumption of reason here, that we are not dealing with “accident”. The Universe itself we are discovering is not without cause or order. If gravity is just slightly moved, then there is nothing. Physicists and cosmologists are all the more speaking of “fine-tuning” and moving away from theories of random behaviour. We, too, are the stuff of stardust. Let us at least, if we are not able to do anything else, bring comfort to those who are in deep distress. This alone might be one of our great successes as human beings.

“Dear Father, I still do not understand and I suffer at the awful horrors and unimaginable pain about me. How are these dreadful and abysmal things possible when every good thing has proceeded forth from Eternal Love? I weep at the impossibility for wherever I turn, I come back to you, and to you Alone. Yes, my Lord, if there is any small goodness within me, it is on account of my suffering, and if we have performed any good deed, that too, is on account of our suffering that we might learn something of compassion.”

On Being Rejected

“Every time you experience the pain of rejection, absence, or death, you are faced with a choice. You can become bitter and decide not to love again, or you can stand straight in your pain and let the soil on which you stand become richer and more able to give life to new seeds.” (Henri J. M. Nouwen)

http://www.curiositiesbydickens.com/

http://www.curiositiesbydickens.com/

Few things hurt more than the sense or feeling of having been rejected. The pain can enter deep into the bone and marrow and it can ache for a long time, sometimes even a life-time. There are lots of ways which can conspire to make us feel like this: ranging from letters or emails which go unanswered, to losing out on a position for which you were ideally qualified, to being ignored by an old friend on the street, to not being selected in a sporting team, to being dismissed by colleagues and peers, to missing out on the love of a parent, to not having our affection or passion reciprocated. All this hurts, especially if rejection comes from someone we have loved and trusted or looked up to and admired. We are all afraid of rejection. It unconsciously conjures up sickening thoughts of what the word originally meant: “to throw” or “to throw back”. When we experience this emotion we can allow for it to make us feel ‘unloved’ and ‘irrelevant’. It is implied, we are not good, that we are not worthy of the other’s respect or attention and so we are excluded. We are, therefore, made to feel unimportant.

The results of rejection have brought to an end a great number of lives (there is more than one way that we can ‘end’ the life of another), and not surprisingly it is the common denominator to most forms of punishment. Nowadays, we also see this in cyber-bullying and other forms of online terrorizing, which includes the fickleness of ‘friendship’ on Facebook. The fear of rejection, particularly after we having experienced it, can stop us from moving on, it can leave us dead in our tracks. Self-esteem and self-worth can be destroyed. It need not be that way.

Many people from different walks of life have not only been able to rise above numerous rejections, but also to succeed in becoming illuminating signposts. The highest example for those who hold to the Christian faith is Jesus Christ, the GodMan, who was himself “despised” and “rejected” (Isa. 53:3) and during the darkest hours of his life abandoned even by his closest friends (Mk. 14:10-72). Afterwards this rejection would become the cornerstone for the theology of hope and the gift of eternal life (Titus 1:2).

Beethoven, arguably the world’s greatest composer was considered “hopeless” and “lacking in talent” when he was a young man, experiencing plentiful rejections at the hands of prominent music masters. The important lessons of self-belief and determination which he realized along the way would also help him later in life when he continued to compose after he had lost most of his hearing. Beethoven’s grandest work according to many and one of the most played symphonies in the world, Symphony No. 9 (“the Choral”), was composed when he was almost entirely deaf.

What do we learn from such extraordinarily resolute spirits? The lessons are not difficult to understand, and though it takes practice and perseverance to apply them, it can be done. That is, we do not give up; we do not lay down the arms. We refuse to surrender our future to those who might make sport of wounding our dignity. Of course, we are not Christ, and we might not possess the brilliance of Beethoven, yet both in their own very unique way were deeply and profoundly immersed in the potentials and possibilities of our shared humanity.

Rejection does not mean we are failures, often enough it might mean that we are different and “stand-out”. Being marginalized forces us to discover other ways to approach those things which we genuinely desire, and to reconsider afresh who and what truly matter. We learn that to be rejected does not define our identity or determine our self-worth (which can only ever be belittled or diminished by self-rejection). We no longer measure ourselves by another’s ‘yardstick’. Individual freedom is also re-defined. There are times, as well, when rejection is sent by providence to protect us from destructive influences. And importantly, we are forced to look more intensely into the great mystery of why we had life breathed into us in the first place.

On Sponsorship of the World

“Choose not then to cleave to this aged world, and to be unwilling to grow young in Christ” (Augustine of Hippo).

Heartlight, Inc (2004)

Heartlight, Inc (2004)

My Lord do not allow for me to become ensnared by the sponsorship of the world which is at enmity with You (1 Jn. 2:15), to go after the commendation of men who have set their ways against You (Ps. 25). I know how tough and painful this demanding act of renunciation can be, it wars against both the spirit and the flesh (1 Jn. 2:16). Strengthen me and allow for the Holy Ghost to inspire me to “not be conformed to this world” (Rom. 12:2), to fight against this temptation which is ever before me, to forswear earthly prizes and approvals (1 Cor. 1:27). I fall often, but help me to see, my God, that this is a source of great turmoil and of grave danger to my heart (Rom 8:5). For I was created and shaped to serve You alone, I was commanded by Your word to bow down to no one save for You (Deut. 5:7). I cannot have many masters for then I become a “house divided” and will not stand (Matt. 12:25). The more I campaign after earthly praise, the more I will stray from the commendation of Heaven and look for the approval of those around me (Lk. 16:15). I have a choice, the decaying wreaths and short-lived glory of this world which is “passing away” (1 Cor. 7:31), or the incorruptible “crown of life” of Your eternal kingdom (Rev. 2:10). It is difficult to be sure, for I am mocked and scorned, but once I begin upon this consecrated road, establishing myself securely in Your ways, “grace” and the “gift of righteousness” will follow and abound (Rom. 5:17).

Dear Lord, renew my mind, even if this might mean the realization of my most improbable prayers and the putting on of heavy armour.

Memory of Death

“Let the memory of death sleep and awake with you” (Saint John of Sinai).

Francisco de Zurbáran St Francis (c. 1660)

Francisco de Zurbáran St Francis (c. 1660)

We would do almost anything to push the actuality of our death further into the distance, to that place where ‘bad’ things do not happen. We will not die, death is for others, we tell ourselves. The noise and distraction we introduce into our lives makes it difficult to reflect, to go into the heart. And nowadays, too, the ‘spectacle’ via our connection to the electronic ether dulls us to the reality of our mortality even further. To paraphrase a spiritual writer, “It [death] is always nearer than you think.” We also try to remove traces of death in physical ways as well. We look to do this, for example, by attempting to banish the proofs of decay and death which surround us. We commit the elderly, our Mothers and Fathers (the reservoirs of wisdom and of magnificent stories) into exile, and we makeover our faces in futile efforts for eternal youth. Technology is seen as the solution to this dread that our walk upon this earth will one day come to an end. Those who argue we can live ‘forever’ (depending on the definition of existence) place their faith in the ingenuity of human beings. But does not nature itself, the laws of the physical universe, teach us that to all things there is a beginning and an end? Perhaps the key here is that to all things there is “change”.

It is not unnatural or ‘unhealthy’ to reflect upon and to have memory of death. It is one of the common lessons of the great religious traditions and even of our most profound humanist philosophies, to keep in mind that we shall die. It has not meant to go about being sad or morbid or raising the fist to heaven. In the Scriptures our mortality is considered one of the Creator’s providential miracles, that following in the example of Christ’s triumph over death, we will be raised up into new life which will be eternal and no longer subject to disease and corruption (Rev 21:4). The famous funerary text, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, is effectively one long reflection on death and why we should prepare for its inevitability with "examination" and "scrutiny". Nothing of this means that death is not ‘real’ or that its pain and horror should not touch us. It is in fact, precisely on account of its dreadfulness and inescapability that we should reflect upon it, and make it a daily exercise to confront and indeed to befriend it. So why should we have memory of death?

Whatever our goals or successes in life, it is the shadow of death which ultimately hangs over everything. For both ourselves and all we create, however beautiful or profound, will one day vanish. Great men and women have no immunity over mortality, and great civilizations have gone and are lost forever. And yet death need not be that awful and terrible ogre that we reckon it to be. What is common to those belonging to believing communities who hold to an afterlife but also for those who do not (yet who have reflected profoundly on their own passing), is the ultimate meaning of life. Our response to death in many ways determines how we understand and go through life. It defines the sanctity and purpose of our life goals, behaviour, and reactions to obstacles. And yes, our comprehension of transgression and sin. More directly, reflecting on our temporality gives meaning to even the simplest actions and fills them with a deeper significance. Though it is not possible for many of us who live in the ‘hustle and bustle’ of the city, we still can experience something of what the spiritual masters have long understood and have attempted to put into daily practice: the recognition our lives are fleeting presences, “Man is like a mere breath; His days are like a passing shadow” (Ps 144:4). For some of these spiritual masters every breath is precious, the very air we inhale and exhale. Earthly possessions and attainments are understood as temporal and illusory as the hours themselves which turn into years and then into centuries. And so paradoxically it is here, in this very fragility of our existence that our uniqueness and significance is to be discovered.

To rise up in the morning and make every effort to live that day as if it may be our last, is one of the mysteries to a rich and fulfilling life. All things are imbued with a more vibrant colour, the song of the Olive-backed Thrush is even sweeter, the rain upon the flesh and the water of the ocean about the feet inspire gratitude, great music and art and literature penetrate our spirits in new and unusual ways. We strive to perform turns of charity in secret. More importantly, we love almost to the point of a sweet and unbearable pain and we forgive with an ease of spirit, each and every contact with a fellow sojourner can be an encounter of consequence. My children and wife too, I see them in a different light. This does not make us dumb or unresponsive to the horrors which are unleashed about us daily, violence and poverty and disease. We find that we become more quickly compassionate and responsive because we have come to understand life is indeed rightly precious. Whether here, in this place, or before the judgement seat of God, there will be accountability for our deeds and actions. Saint Gregory the Theologian echoes the greatest philosopher of all time, Plato, when he counsels that the present life should be a “meditation upon death.”

And so when it is time for us to leave we hope for our acts, big or small, to have been positive and worthwhile. We pray that our contribution and legacy would have inspired and given aspiration to others. All this and more on account of our learning how to die, as did Saint Paul who “die[d] daily” (1Cor 15:31). Ultimately, this is true memory of death. If I was to die today  am I close or near enough to the man or woman I was meant to be.

“Dear Lord, grant me the priceless gift of the memory of death, allow for me to reflect daily on my mortality that I might discover the hidden wonders which surround me. Permit for my heart to rejoice in the everyday miracles of the small but beautiful things, and for my mind to comprehend that all things touch upon the eternal, that nothing is insignificant. Oh, how I pray, for that knowledge which goes beyond the physical eyes to reveal that in every day there is a lifecycle to be lived.” 

The Torment of Hypocrisy

“Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye” (Matt 7:5).

Quotation-Benjamin-Blech-god-world-human-Meetville-Quotes-203715.jpg

A gnawing fear for many people is being “caught out”. That is, to be saying one thing, and to be found doing another. It is “the practice of claiming to have higher standards or more noble beliefs than is the case.” Are we not all guilty of this offence, or have we not at least fallen prey to its lure. Is there anyone who has not wanted to appear to others in the best light and who afterwards did not feel the shame in speaking words to which there was little, if any, real substance. But is it so clear-cut and simple? We are all too human, let us not depress the spirit of others by expecting them to be what we ourselves cannot. And those few souls who have reached the state of dispassion, they see the potentiality of Christ moving in, and about, in everyone without exception.

An innumerable number of lives with lots of potential have been stunted or discouraged by those who have found it easy to judge. Younger people, whether religious or not, who are especially idealistic and lack the experience to know that life is full of surprises and shocks, are prone to becoming sad or even depressed at the thought that they do not live up to their best intentions or creeds. Older people, whether religious or not, though far more realistic when it comes to the frailty and weaknesses of the flesh, can still suffer if they perceive themselves to be falling short of their own expectations or religious convictions. This is the dreadful and interminable fear, that we are empty talk and full of humbug. But whether young or old we must not be discouraged and never allow for the realization of our brokenness to rob us of our beliefs and inmost  revelations. This does not mean that we do not chastise ourselves for falling short of our ideals nor that we do not hurt at the lost opportunities for the better man or woman. It is not to make easy excuses and certainly, above all, it is not a licence to draw others into our conflict. But it does mean that we make the distinction between hypocrisy as ordinarily understood and the ongoing and never-ending struggle against the “flesh”. It is good that our religious creeds are taller than ourselves. We should aim above and beyond our reach.

And so we will fall. But we get up again. Growing up is not easy.

I must not despair or consign myself to the outer darkness if I cannot live the life of a saint. For instance, I might be waging war against an addiction, and to believe whole heartedly this addiction to be wrong. I fight against it; I bleed against it; I judge it to be wrong; I might even write essays exposing its pitfalls; and yet sometimes I am caught up in its terrorizing and unrelenting grip. I pray for redemption. And my chest burns on account of my tears. Am I then a hypocrite if I speak out against this vice? But who knows better the horrors of this addiction than the addict who is waging war against it? Who can be a truer teacher than the one who is “trying”? It is a different matter to stand up on the pulpit, for example, to preach against the evils of adultery when you reckon it normal and healthy. Hypocrisy is to deceive consciously by not ‘boxing’ the self about the ears. Victory might be late in the coming, but it is always around the corner for it is the sum total of all other little victories.

And so do not destroy the pallet on which your colours have been set because you have given up on the vision you have seen during your brightest moments, when you were picked up by the scruff of the neck and given a glimpse of the horizon. Do not allow for anyone to disfigure the image which illuminates your soul because you are all too human. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Are we not, all of us, engaged in our own secret battles? Are we not beset with a multitude of contradictions? And yet, as hopeless or far remote as it might appear, holiness is still possible and indeed, expected of us.

“Father, speaking Your name is enough to convict me of my powerlessness to keep steadfast to the truths which You have placed in my heart. But what is it that refuses to let me give up and to despair completely? I confess to what You already know… I am a hypocrite and heavy are these chains about my neck… And yet, Lord, thank You, I must not forget that however small my steps or dissembling in the eyes of others, it is these small steps which have brought me here, in this place, before You, day and night.”

Not Tonight My Heart

“Hope is some extraordinary spiritual grace that God gives us to control our fears, not to oust them” (Vincent McNabb).

Marleen De Waele-De Bock's Sadness (2012)

Marleen De Waele-De Bock's Sadness (2012)

Not tonight my heart, this is not the night. If you should move your hand to extinguish the light, this light, it will all be finished, there will be no turning back. This was not how your life upon this earth was meant to end. What has brought you here, to this darkest of places. Who has robbed you of hope? Who has stolen your dreams? And who has sought to diminish your worth? Stay with me for a while. Let us keep each other company, at least until the morning hours. We need not talk, a few words might be all we need, stay with me, at least until the morning hours. If it grows cold, if it gets too dark, I am here, with you. What are you thinking? That no one understands? That people, even those you love, have stopped listening? I know it is what you are thinking. I know. It is frightening to feel completely alone. Yes, it hurts, in places too deep for names. Nameless places, there is no room for alphabets here, only sighs, and moans, and groans. Not even tears they were spent long ago. I know. Your thoughts are real, like a broken bone, but they are not you. Tonight especially you must distinguish between these thoughts, and your will to live. It is difficult to breathe, even to breathe, that too I understand. If only this pain would go away, if it would stop, at last. Your suffering has become unbearable, I can see this, any moment it can break you, break you into a thousand pieces. Is your agony greater now than it was an hour ago? You are still here, you see, all things are possible. I do not ask of you to take a leap of faith into the limitless abyss, but to be still and to incline your ear, listen, sometimes you need to say good-bye to the old self, and it can only happen on nights like these. On nights like these when you are tested, when you are brought to the scorching edge, to be forged, and to be made stronger. Do not allow for despair to swathe its binding around your eyes. Not tonight my heart, this is not the night. Understand pain for what it is; an invaluable helper to keep your spirit awake and alert that you might respond both to the light and to the fire of the Sun. Your fight is not with your pain, but it is a battle against your suffering. Pain is your hurting, but it is your suffering, it is this, which will give you meaning.

And so ask yourself, this is not the time for half-truths and excuses, and so ask yourself, what has brought you here, to this valley of the shadow of death? Let go of things and places and people which are pulling at your soul, allow yourself the joy and lightness of heart which can only come with the great abandonment. Release your ego, it is weighing you down. Just for these next few minutes, allow for yourself to see through those swathes which are binding your eyes, just for these next few minutes. I will let you in on a simple secret, known to angels and anchorites of old, what is unspeakable can yet be lived. Let this suffering be your way to a deeper understanding of who you are, and who you are called to become. Tonight this could be that place of your greatest and most important discovery, here in this bloody battlefield, you are given your second chance. I know you have had this revelation of the ‘other self’ in the past. It is you, it really is you, do not be afraid of the splendor. “So do not fear, for I am with you.” (Is. 41:10) Hope cannot be taken away, it can only be surrendered. Dreams cannot be stolen, they can only be forgotten. Worth cannot be diminished, it is forever a measure of your dignity as a child of God. Your wounds, these great big wounds, which you think are beyond any possible healing let them become windows, dazzling openings to Love and Light. Become the refuge and the source of belief to others. You will have the most to teach.

Do not feel guilty it is all right to sometimes feel like this, for your soul to ask of you to nourish it with new meaning and content, it is shedding old skin. It refuses to become stone. It is good that you can still feel, even down to these very depths of your anguish, this is your proof, you believe in something. Hold tight onto this grace. Is it your own voice you are hearing? Wonderful, this is how the new day begins. Things will be much clearer, you will not have all the answers, but you will be closer to the reasons. You will have drawn nearer to your purpose determined even before the foundation of the brightest star. And so not tonight, this is not the night, let not your trembling hand turn to extinguish the light. I am here, with you. 

The Tremendous Mystery of God

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements - surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it?” (Job 38:4-5).

Saint Basil the Great  St. Sophia Cathedral of Kiev

Saint Basil the Great  St. Sophia Cathedral of Kiev

Atheism is, of course, not new. Though the word can be traced to the sixteenth century (lifted from the Ancient Greek to mean “godless” or to “deny the gods”), its history is as old as some of our earliest materialist philosophies and indeed, religions themselves. But there are two particular periods for us ‘moderns’ that are especially noted for the argument that religion is a superstition with adherents who do not exercise reason, and who for the better part, are fanatics.  At the same time natural science renders any literal belief in the Bible indefensible. What is common to these eras, the Enlightenment or Age of Reason (late 17th and 18th century), and our present times is the great progress in the sciences. Religious have responded in various ways to such titanic movements, some plainly wrong. There have been those, however, who set the good example. They have done so by entering in to the debate, by accepting correction where correction was required, and acknowledging that the tremendous mystery of God rather than being extinguished by the huge strides of science, is made all the more profound and astonishing.

It is indeed right to admit as believers in an omnipotent and omniscient Creator, that we do not know everything, and there is nothing whatsoever to be lost in acknowledging that we can be enriched by others outside our own particular belief-system. Most of us are familiar with the Enlightenment and with its revolutionary contribution not only in the sphere of the sciences but also in the broader area of the humanities. The medieval world-view was effectively put to death and so the idea of the modern world came into being. But what is this ‘new atheism’ so prominently espoused in our days by some very famous and very passionate people?

New atheism is not so ‘new’ after all. It has roots in the cultural Marxism of the 1920’s, though it often claims to be “carrying out” the work of the Enlightenment. This movement above all strong in the 1960’s understood Christian religion as a force which blinded people, particularly the working class, of its true nature and purpose. And so the religion had to be destroyed. But not everything about this school of thought which understood culture as a tool of oppression, is so damning, for instance, its critique of unequal social relations. Nowadays however, the rapid advances of scientific exploration and the modern-day marvels of technology have added an additional prestige to this increasingly popular new atheism movement. Moreover, the open and free access to information has allowed for the abuses of power in some parts of faith-based communities to become exposed… and rightly so. This has further eroded in many minds the beliefs and claims of religious. So how do we respond to these solid attacks on those very things which we hold to be most precious, that is, our belief in a personal Creator, who is not only interested in our lives, but who also continues to act in history. It is not easy in the face of especially eloquent and persuasive arguments in support of the ‘death of God’, often by persons like the incomparable author and polemicist Christopher Hitchens or the charismatic and highly qualified astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Not all of us have the knowledge and the abilities of an Ernan McMullin or a William Lane Craig to answer back to the first, or of a Sir Robert Boyd or a J. Richard Gott to get back to the second. Most of us would fall down, flat on our faces. So what is it that we ‘lesser lights’ can do?

We can accept and learn. And then testify to whatever little shards of the Light we, ourselves, might possess. Sometimes we might surprise with words and insights we never knew we possessed- the legacy of Pentecost and those tongues "as of fire" (Acts 2:1-4). This is to accept it is natural for individuals to disagree on the ‘big’ questions and that people respond to evidence, whether documentary or physical, in different ways. We each possess diverse gifts and we should admire these talents in others without anxiety or fear that this would somehow diminish or weaken our faith and strengthen the arguments of those on the other side. The new atheists can teach us to be more determined and much better read when presenting to the world our principles of faith, and indeed, to consider what example of moral exemplars we are who claim our ethical foundations from divine revelation. Whether we are Christians or members of other faith-based communities let us not fear those attacks from high places. They are not all misplaced. Let us take what is good and profitable to the spirit, rather than becoming unduly defensive and fretful. We should allow for these strikes to make us more sensitive to our responsibilities as faith bearers, but also to understand that science is a discipline which can only bring to us a greater amazement at the wonderment and mysteries of God, or as others might prefer, primum movens, the ‘Prime Mover’.

It does not mean that we too, cannot take offence at arguments or positions which are either not correct or scientifically prejudicial. We can and should take offence when Saint Paul’s, “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things” (1 Cor. 13:11) is flagrantly taken out of context, suggesting that the Apostle to the Gentiles outgrew his faith. This is not only patronizing to readers of the New Testament but also showing that even the best intellects are not immune from an arrant misinterpretation of sources. And also we need not remain silent when elite scientists tell us that religious are “wired” to believe as if that is some sort of crime or evolutionary deficiency. Are we then also to believe the reverse, that those who are “wired” to dis-believe are somehow superior? This position whatever the neurological or biochemical proofs, is not only arrogant but also a terribly dangerous ideology, with consequences too horrible to consider here.

Ultimately, let us go about our own business of trying to become better men and women, and if we believe in a Creator, fear nothing and hope for everything. There is a synthesis here, and it is good to finish in this way. Albert Einstein, who incidentally was not a believer in God- and religious do themselves a disservice by claiming as much for his private correspondence makes it very clear he was not- spoke of his “sense of god” as his “sense of wonder” about the universe. This truly limitless fascination should be a place where we can All meet allowing for the overwhelming awe which grips the heart of the other to inspire our thoughts and to excite our souls. Next to Einstein’s evocative reflection, we can as a community of believers point to a similar declaration from Saint Basil the Great in his Hexaemeron commenting on the cosmogony of Genesis 1:1: “I stop struck with admiration at this thought. What shall I first say? Where shall I begin my story?”

On the wickedness of typecasting

"And Nathanael said to him, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Philip said to him, "Come and see" (John 1:46).

Gioacchino Assereto Christ and the Woman taken in Adultery

Gioacchino Assereto Christ and the Woman taken in Adultery

Has there ever been a terrible wickedness where typecasting has not been involved? Is not typecasting a precursor to all forms of prejudice? Genocides and persecutions and other atrocities are they not founded in the typecasting of the other? Still closer to home, bullying and the mistreatment of our neighbours are they too not the result of typecasting. What does this word mean which we have come to chiefly connect with actors who have become identified with a particular role. To typecast means “to identify as belonging to a certain group.” It is as dangerous and can be as entirely misleading as is the practice of data mining to build a picture of an individual. It is no accident that great teachers do not typecast their students. The surest way to keep a bad habit or behaviour alive in a student is to ‘typecast’ him or her as lazy, or incompetent, or as obstinate. That is, to create the mistaken and horrible idea in their minds that they are without any value and so convincing them that there is “no way out.”

We can also unconsciously (and sometimes not so accidentally) typecast our partners and children or even our best friends. This can only serve to diminish the spirit of the other, and to limit their creativity and inspiration. Ultimately, and worst of all, it is to deny to a creature of God their real worth and true potential. In some instances the typecasting of individuals has led to the infliction of unbearable pain and resignation from all pleasurable endeavours of life, even to the extent of self-harm. To contrast, in the Gospel there are numerous instances each one more striking than the next, where Jesus Christ gives the abundance of hope and releases a dynamic force in the lives of both the sick and the marginalized. Many are familiar with the famous account of “the woman taken in adultery” (Jn. 8:1-11). There is a confrontation between the Nazarene and the crowd who want the woman to be stoned. The crowd is shamed by Jesus and quickly disperses, he does not typecast the woman and so she lives. He does not identify the hapless creature to her transgression. He sees into the future and discerns her undisclosed potential. Yet he does not patronize her, the bar is set high and there is something to aim for: "go, and sin no more”.

By our own attitudes and biases we can force those near us to remain in a deadly rut. We can convince them that they are not capable of anything greater than their current state or that they are slaves to their weaknesses or addictions. On the universal scale tyrants and dictators have typecast entire races of people based on colour and creed in their demonic bid to either obliterate or to control generations of men and women. Typecasting has also contributed to crimes of inequality and to a whole range of discrimination. In the Lotus Sutra the Buddha preached against ‘typecasting’ when he spoke against the caste system, an unjust social structure already established in his time.

“Dear Lord, help me to not typecast my brother or sister, to not be a stumbling block to a soul striving to reach its potential. Let me be a way forward for those under my charge or care. Allow for me to be that person where another might see what wonderful possibilities have yet to be realized… that I too might by Your grace discern my own capacities during those times when I also might be typecast.” 

What is the Apocalypse?

"Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me" (Revelation 3:20).

The Book of Revelation (circa 95 A.D.)

The Book of Revelation (circa 95 A.D.)

Apocalypse is a word which will normally stir feelings of anxiety and dread in our hearts. This is particularly true if the term is connected to the Book of Revelation, especially for those who have not read the book or who might have read it with little knowledge of the text’s rich history and literary context. To begin with, ‘apocalypse’ is from the Greek which means revelation, that is an “unveiling” of things not previously known. Apocalypse does not mean cataclysm or catastrophe, albeit the apocalyptic genre is also concerned with those subjects.

Traditionally apocalypses are created during periods of great upheaval and unrest, during times of natural disasters and war. The literature reflects the fears and hopes of its author and recipients, they have a dread that the world is coming to an end and they want to be saved from the impending doom. But there is much more to John’s apocalypse, more correctly the Revelation of Jesus Christ (Rev 1:1), than his references to seals, and plagues, and beasts, and final conflicts, and that infamous “666”. Importantly, too, apocalypses are not only about prophecy. And in John’s case his revelation is also a letter addressed to the seven churches which are in Asia (Rev. 1:4). This not only has the intent to announce the document’s universal significance, that is, its ‘catholicity’, but also to create a sense of intimacy which comes through the epistolary form. Unfortunately, it is the backdrop of the apocalyptic which will normally transfix readers and keep them anchored to the prophetic or ‘end-times’ scenarios alone. There is, however, something else happening in John’s book as well, outside its tempered use of the apocalyptic symbology (in contradistinction to the non-canonical apocalypses rejected by the early church), that the apocalypse is also a personal address. And it is this marvellous aspect to the book which we too often lose sight or fail to acknowledge as a community of believers.

How then can this ‘fantastic’ prophecy be read on an intimate level? We should remember that it is also a letter, and that in addressing church communities it is at the same time speaking to the individual members who comprise that community of believers. Whether in John’s times when the first Christians were undergoing persecution, or during the Great Wars and other global conflicts when we could destroy each other, or today when it seems unless we concede (if not directly contribute) to the deconstruction of religious faith, the book continues to speak to us. On a personal level most of us will have to live through our own little apocalypses and final judgements, we will enter into our own conflicts and battles and often enough feel that we cannot go on. The Book of Revelation can speak to us, revealing that however hopeless things might appear there is always a deliverance. Whatever the ‘beasts’ or ‘dragons’ we are dealing with, irrespective of any prognosis whether real or of our own making, however dark things might appear, an “overcoming” (Rev. 2:17) over any obstacle is not outside our reach. This does not necessarily mean that things will work out as we might want them, but that the Creator has seen to a better way to “wipe away every tear” (Rev. 21:4). For both the history of the world and our own little smaller individual histories, there will be redemption and unveiling of what it was all about and why it had to be that way.

Look at those who have achieved true greatness and who have brought joy and beauty and hope into the world. Have any of these men and women been exempt from the purgatorial fires of life? Have any of these souls been spared from suffering even of the worst kind? No. Viktor E. Frankl who survived the horror of the Nazi concentration camps sums it so very well, “What is to give light must endure burning.”

Why go to the trouble of writing?

“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face” (1 Cor 13:12).

seanmanchester.blogspot.com.au/2009/03/13.html

seanmanchester.blogspot.com.au/2009/03/13.html

The title to this post is not in reference to the great literature which can realize marvellous responses in us and in many instances also have a marked effect on our culture; rather the question is directly addressed to spiritual writings. So why go to the trouble of writing?  If it is a case of the author trying to convince his or her readers of a religious truth then the effort is largely doomed from the beginning. Language which is a tool of communication, and itself the subject of many definitions, is more limiting rather than revealing. As a result it is a notoriously difficult instrument to share or to express spiritual beliefs which are in themselves typically opaque. For this reason some religious have chosen either to not speak at all or to communicate their theology largely in ‘negative’ or apophatic terms (i.e. what God is not rather than what God is). We need not be adherents of philosophical schools which argue that meaning cannot be reduced to “ultimate simples” to recognize the traps should we reckon our voice possesses some unique clarity outside of the rest. Yet, even universally recognized spiritual writers would not suggest that religious language can capture the underlying essence of their subject, or the motivating desire of their contemplation. What is crucial, however, is to be clear on what we want to say and to have had some experience with the subject. If we are writing on prayer, for example, to at least have made the effort to pray. It is also helpful to remember that often enough it is how we practice our religion which determines our spirituality.

A great poet might ask of their work, “Is this beautiful?” An author on matters of the spirit is not too concerned with technique, he or she will ask, “Is this useful?” Then there are those, like Saint Symeon the New Theologian and the Spanish mystic Saint John of the Cross whose tongues have been set aflame, who might write both beautiful and useful. So when a writer who is fascinated by the ‘tremendous mystery’ and risks speaking on the great topics of God, Love, Faith, and Death, for instance, what do they hope to have achieved? Let us assume that outside unavoidable clichés the effort is genuine and sincere (and that the goal is not self-aggrandizement), what then is the point? Certainly, there are diverse answers, but hopefully the aim of all who engage in this quest will be distinguished by a common goal. That is, to lay out an honest reflection of the soul’s journey and to have been inspired by the need to partake of this spiritual pilgrimage with travellers on a similar path. If these efforts help to guide others with alike intuitions, revealing to them some of the received ways of entering the kingdom of God which is “within” (Lk 17:21), then it is good the risk was taken to write. This is a prime motivation for one of the most beloved books of the Bible, the Book of Psalms, which appeals not only to the congregation but also to the human will with its continuing encouragement: “These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I went with the throng, and led them in procession to the house of God, with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival” (Ps 42:4).

Let us not aspire to be famous

“Fame has also this great drawback, that if we pursue it, we must direct our lives so as to please the fancy of men” (Baruch Spinoza).

An ink and wash sketch on the theme of Percy Bysshe Shelley's 'Ozymandias' (Date Unknown) The Serendipity Project

An ink and wash sketch on the theme of Percy Bysshe Shelley's 'Ozymandias' (Date Unknown) The Serendipity Project

Let us not aspire to be famous and to be highly esteemed. These are two of our greatest enemies, and should we ever rise to such dizzy heights (outside the grace and providence of the Creator) these infernal liars will destroy us, and through us they will hurt others. How long will your fame last? What wisdom will it deliver you? What benefit the praise for a season? How will you respond when your flatterers find fault with you? These ‘terrible’ gifts, if not used correctly and put to the service of others, are self-seeking aspirations which ultimately invite hubris and bring injury to the soul. In a beautiful psalm (Ps 72) where the attributes of a great King are enumerated by Solomon, “fame” is connected to the righteous deeds of the royal ruler and it is in this way that “the name endure[s] for ever”. For the ancient Greeks honour and reputation would ordinarily be conferred after death when the evidence of a life could be weighed and tested. Our greatest legacy is our character which is built up invisibly and in secret. Unmerited fame and artificial praise, history has revealed to us, do enormous damage to our spirit (in the sense of our dispositions and attitudes) and they can result in a caricature of the true self. We are weak and frail beings to begin with, and these worldly acclamations only serve to magnify our flaws and vulnerabilities. Honour and glory are often confused with fame. By all means  let us aspire after greatness, it is a different thing altogether. Our fathers and mothers, those who minister to the sick and to the dying, the poor and abused who have not given up on hope, the orphans and those who are hungry, these are the ones to whom honour and glory are due. The quality of worthiness is to be discovered here. It is here, in these disregarded palaces, that truth and reality are to be found. “Lord, I have too often sought the sponsorship of the world, running after its temporal prizes which rust and crumble but You have taken pity on me, and You have bent me, lest I confuse those things which store grace in me with those which steal them away.” 

You are gods (Ps 82:6)

St. Michael’s Church, Hildesheim Germany Adam and Eve (1192 AD)

St. Michael’s Church, Hildesheim Germany Adam and Eve (1192 AD)

If we remain faithful to their ancient interpretation, these words have nothing to do with becoming super-beings or small divinities. The original meaning has been misconstrued, particularly today where the cult has become the self and modern technology is promoting the culture of ‘self-deification’. We shamelessly glorify ourselves, overestimate our capacities, and take pride in the making of idols. We have warped and twisted the inspiration behind this astounding indication of our potential as sons and daughters of God: you are gods (Ps 82:6). The lessons of the creation account are connected to the ethical dimensions of life, but the implications apply also to other attributes of the Creator. Being made in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:26), that is, having god-likeness, has no end of possibilities. The previously unapproachable “I AM” reveals Himself to Moses (Ex 3:14). He invites worship and glorification and seeks to be made known universally. These outward qualities fundamentally to do with the invitation to commune with Him, are also breathed into us. However, these external attributes in Adam and Eve are suffered in a finite existence which makes them inherently unnatural and so they are corrupted and misused. ‘Worship’ and ‘glorification’ for the created order signify the natural yearning to be loved and yes, to be sometimes acknowledged for a job well done. It does not mean to hunger and to lust over fame and adulation. It does not mean to seek dictatorship or lordship over people. The creation account also tells of an infamous figure, “the serpent” (Gen 3). This was precisely its downfall, it sought to usurp the authority and glory which alone belong to God, but the serpent also sought to convince those who would listen that they were gods in essence themselves. The desire for unrestrained power is at the core of this story. When our fleshly body, infirm and perishing from the moment it enters the world looks to seize at these divine properties, the outcome will invariably result in catastrophic loss. We are to put it simply, not built to live with the ‘shock’ or ‘attraction’ of being called a ‘god’. Physically at least, we witness this phenomenon today when a person wants to remain forever young, and burns his or her face into an almost unrecognizable and featureless visage. Extreme pride, which is connected to hubris and arrogance, can disfigure both the flesh and spirit. It is a denseness of our sensibilities. I will continue to exist not because I will transmogrify into a soulless machine nor because I might be well regarded by the world, but because I have created and left behind good and enduring works which like healthy seeds are not ended when pushed into the earth. You are gods might be transliterated: You have come forth from Me, the great “I Am”, and so you possess all that you need to become the best you can. This is the one necessary step towards the ultimate goal of divinization- to become the best we can- which is to experience something of the Creator’s divine energies, and the one true aim for those who wish to imitate the Christ.

 

The Benefit of the Doubt

“There is nothing more dreadful than the habit of doubt. Doubt separates people. It is a poison that disintegrates friendships and breaks up pleasant relations.  It is a thorn that irritates and hurts; it is a sword that kills” (Buddha).

James J. Tissot's The Soul of the Penitent Thief in Paradise (1896)

James J. Tissot's The Soul of the Penitent Thief in Paradise (1896)

Each day we might look for ways to become better and more compassionate people; a smile here, or a little charity there, perhaps even an encouraging letter to a stranger. Every kind and caring deed helps the heart grow softer to become a more suitable vessel for instruction and illumination. There is also the practice of another action, often forgotten, which brings much joy to both the giver and receiver: the giving of the benefit of the doubt. But what does this mean? It is taking someone at their word despite the doubt, that you are willing to put every suspicion aside. You are prepared to pass the advantage to the other, however difficult this may initially seem. It can save a life and build new futures for those to whom this wonderful grace is extended. It is another chance. Might we at times feel we have been misused? Have, we too, not in some ways misused others or at least the gifts we have received from the Creator? Are we that much better? Is this not also one of the great lessons of Christ’s pardon of the penitent thief on the cross? (Lk. 23:32-43) The benefit of the doubt can also be connected to forgiveness. And have we not all, at some stage of our lives, been desperate to hear similar words of release from a loved one or friend. But this giving of the ‘advantage’ must come with no qualification and with strong love that it survives the test of time. Let us always be encouragers, never shut the door, and have nothing to do with the spread of despair. How much aching we not only lift from ourselves by not remaining captive to the poison of suspicion, but also what joy and hidden possibility we could help to set free in the life of others by simply saying, “I do believe in you, and I am truly sorry if I have caused you hurt by the withholding of my trust." Sometimes a wounded soul might wait for years to hear these words that it may once more dance lightly upon the earth and with gladness look forward to the new day. “Oh, Heavenly Father, allow for me to genuinely practise this graceful act of surrendering the advantage to the other, without doubt or the return of suspicion, that I, too, might be the recipient of such a beautiful release.”

Humility

“For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 14:11).

Ford Madox Brown's Jesus Washing Peter's Feet (1876) 

Ford Madox Brown's Jesus Washing Peter's Feet (1876) 

Few have been able to write deeply on humility, and of these authors only a handful are widely known. The real witnesses to this special grace have invariably been those who have lived by its fruits. So important and fundamental a virtue it is, that all of the great religions understand it as a necessary condition for the acquisition of wisdom and enlightenment. A virtue is something more than a good quality. It is a call to transformation. Many of us are ruled not so much by God or ‘disbelief’ but our pride. And yet, once we understand this actuality in our lives and are able to define it, we can use it to help us grow in the spirit. If we should look honestly into our heart we will find even before we open our mouths to speak, the initial action to be inspired by pride, either in the asserting or refuting of a statement. These are not negative responses in themselves, not always, but typically they will be made with the intent to establish our own credibility or to diminish that of another.

Humility, it is said by those who have studied this royal path, would prefer to silence or to surrender the ego, to throw the light onto the other who is standing opposite. Sometimes it might mean to accept calumny for a season or to suffer an injustice and to respond with charity rather than vengeance. More often than not we will have saved our soul from distress and allowed for the truth to reveal itself in other more meaningful ways. Humility is not a sign of weakness, or giving up on the fight, or hiding one’s talents under the bushel. It is a quiet but powerful statement of a person living through an unshakeable peace, someone that has knowledge of their potential. It also means to be acutely aware of one’s own defects and failings, to be constantly mindful of the log in the eye. The etymology of this beautiful word ordinarily connected to the Latin humilitas for “grounded” or “from the earth” can also be traced to the Old French umelite which can also mean “sweetness”.

So why have I published this piece? Am I not skirting with a terrible danger? Particularly since humility has never been one of my strengths. But I want to get a clearer picture of my mortal enemy- the exalting of the self... so that I could become more familiar with its approach. To discern it when like that clade of lizards which change colour, it might not in every single instance get around me. In the Christian scriptures there is no greater revelation as to the awesomeness and potential of the practice of humility than the lesson of the ‘kenosis’ when Christ emptied himself of his divine glory: “[b]ut made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant” (Phil 2:7). And so there is a bodily labour to humility as well, it is not just talk. Love and humility are co-existent, uniquely powerful as forces of change, and at their most genuine, indistinguishable one from the other.

On Prayer

“The day when God is absent, when He is silent – that is the beginning of prayer.” Anthony Bloom, Beginning to Pray (1970).

Albrecht Dürer Betende Hände (c. 1508)

Albrecht Dürer Betende Hände (c. 1508)

There are many definitions to prayer, for similarly to spirituality, it is linked to the realms of the sacred. For most of us, prayer is an interior invocation reaching out to communicate with a divine entity. Ordinarily, this will be our Creator. We need not be spiritual masters or anchorites to approach prayer with confidence, nor is the mastery of any specific technique essential to begin with. Petition, thanksgiving, and worship are characteristic of prayer. The only condition for prayer to be effective is that we might at least be silent and receptive. We are told by those who do pray habitually, that it helps our prayerful state if our hearts are not weighed down by enmity. Even faith itself is not required in the beginning, only the overwhelming desire to speak and to lay open all before the great “I AM” (Ex 3:14). The skies will probably not open and we may not “be surprised by joy”, in fact, not very much might happen. Very likely the only voice we hear coming back will be our own. It is a first step. We have, after all, been separated from this divine source of communication for a long time and our spirit is prone to distraction. Learning to discern the voice of God is not easy. Prayer itself is simple, but the “art of prayer” is a lifetime practice. The Paternoster (Matt 6:9-13) built around the seven petitions of Christ and often called the “perfect prayer” or a “summary of the whole Gospel”, can help us greatly on our quest to learn how to pray. Prayer too commences with an action, a movement into hallowed ground, whether of the spirit or the body. Either way like most things of the spiritual life, acts of charity are one of its primary manifestations, before and after the opening of the heart where it all begins, and in the bowing of the head where it normally starts.

The Truth

“Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise.’” The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:25-37).

Vincent van Gogh The Good Samaritan, after Delacroix (1890)

Vincent van Gogh The Good Samaritan, after Delacroix (1890)

Many of us are determined for our Truth to be the ultimate expression of the “supreme reality.” After all, we have invested so much time, and effort, and sacrifice to its defence. We have built our dreams and hopes on its sure foundation. One of the most difficult things is to faithfully hold onto this truth and to go about our life quietly, spreading a little of its light along the way. The danger is when we think we are the exclusive possessors of the revelation which has graciously come down to us. Often enough it is precisely that, our own personalized truth, and not even that of the church or religious community to which we profess to belong. Ever since Pontius Pilate asked the one who was about to be Crucified, “What is truth?” (Jn 18:38), we have been challenged as to how we ourselves might respond. Ultimately, it is not so much by our confession that the truth we hold is revealed to the world, but more so by our practice of the virtues. This is wonderfully paradoxical given believers come to truth through faith. The most erudite and inspired theology in the world or indeed the profoundest comprehension of the various dimensions and expositions of truth in mathematics and philosophy, will not quench the thirst of a dying child nor heal the wounds of our neighbour. Often times, the only truths are visceral and come from our agonizing cries for help. The truth will, indeed, set us free, but only to the measure that we extend to it the same degree of grace. And so let us go about our own business of practising compassion through unqualified love, and permit for the Holy Spirit to go about his own simple work of saving.

On Suffering

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (1946).

Léon Bonnat Job (C19th).  

Léon Bonnat Job (C19th).

 

One of the most important confirmations that I have taken away after reading Viktor Frankl and from studying his Logotherapy is that we must detach from self-image, the source of our deepest suffering. This does not mean to deny our pain but we must not be consumed by it. It is the same with negative thoughts- do not fight them, let them go. Do not engage with that which cannot be reasoned. Carl Jung taught that ‘individuation’ begins with a “tremendous crisis” and that this is a personal journey. Suffering should be accepted, experienced, and dealt with. This is in refutation to the ‘new agers’ who bid us to go around our pain and not through it. But pain is real whether physical or emotional, and it must be confronted head-on otherwise there can be no resolution. That’s when life begins. Even in the context of childbirth, from here experience and growth come to us day by day, one step at a time. This is the meaning of suffering, to bear and to undergo, literally to carry. We can spend our lives denying this evident truth or accept its reality. We may never possess all the answers nor comprehend its origins and causes, but we can make our suffering redemptive and understand it as an opportunity for radical change.  And so when that time arrives when we too cry out, “Oh Lord, why has this dreadful thing happened to me?” we might respond in a way that new opportunities and another way might be revealed to us… as it did for Christ in Gethsemane that night when the answer which came back was that he might save the world.

Hope

“And you shall be secure, because there is hope; yes, you shall dig about you, and you shall take your rest in safety” (Job 11:18).

George Frederic Watts Hope (1886)

George Frederic Watts Hope (1886)

Hope is my favourite word. It has helped me survive and not give up looking for meaning during hard times when all appeared lost. It gave substance to the other great words which I needed to trust in: love, faith, and prayer. Why do we place such confidence in these profoundly spiritual expressions of life? I think one of the reasons is because of our 'expectation', that not only are these movements into grace possible, but also do-able. Outside the living-out of hope, this longing for delivery and restoration, how else are we to put into practice those other hope-inspired acts which give purpose and meaning to our lives? Hope is the opposite to despair. It means refusing to surrender or to believe there is no way out. Hope can change everything, and it usually does. Hope is “to bend your ear over your almost shattered lyre,” recollecting George Frederic Watts's evocative painting “Hope” (1886), “to catch the music from the last remaining string.” Needless to say, hope can be experienced in different ways, like our unique reaction to the ringing of a doorbell past midnight.