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.