John of the Cross and the Dark Night

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of St. John of the Cross, one of the most acclaimed of the Christian mystical theologians.  One commentator observed that “John has no peers when it comes to explaining and guiding others to a complete and total union with God in prayer through the mystical and contemplative life.”

One of John’s most persistent prayers was that God would enable him “to suffer and be despised,” a prayer his opponents in the Carmelite order helped answer. He was repeatedly kidnapped, imprisoned and even tortured. At one point, he was imprisoned for six months deep in the bowels of a Carmelite monastery. It was so cold he developed frostbite and he was given so little food that, in the words of one author, “anyone less accustomed to fasting might have given up in despair.”  At another time, he was imprisoned for nine months for refusing to renounce the Carmelite reforms he and Teresa of Avila were promoting.

John’s theology was in the category of apophatic or negative theology.  He believed that before we approach God, we must first own up to the fact that all our ideas and concepts about God may be completely erroneous and may actually hinder us from reaching him as he is. He insisted that only by going through a “dark night” process that could take “some years” would we be stripped of our false assumptions and natural predispositions, enabling us to encounter God in spirit and truth. John spoke of the need “to strip ourselves of everything that is not God, for God.” The idea is to stand before God “detached, stripped, pure and simple, with no way or manner of being.” This allows God to fill all that empty space with His love.

Although John is not always the easiest to read, he wrote some wonderful poetry, in addition to his longer works like Dark Night of the Soul and Ascent of Mount Carmel.  It might make some good reading during these last days of Advent.

Called To Labor With God

The Book of Isaiah opens with a scathing indictment of the arrogance and hypocrisy of the people of Israel, calling them a “sinful nation, people laden with wickedness, evil race, corrupt children!”  But almost immediately, God invites his people, “Come now, let us set things right…Though your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as snow.” 

Over and over again, Isaiah conveys to God’s people both the indictment of their behavior and the promise of a better age to come.  Today’s first Mass reading from Isaiah provides a beautiful description of that promise: The eyes of the blind will be opened, the ears of the deaf cleared…the mute will sing…streams will burst forth from the desert…the thirsty ground will become springs of water, and so on.  In the midst of destruction and death, there is the promise of life. 

It is important that we not read Isaiah purely as an ancient historical narrative.  Our society is not very different from the society that Isaiah witnessed.  Our world has in many ways turned its back on God, replacing God with the idols of rampant individualism and money.  It is a world that rewards promotion of the self to the exclusion of others; that encourages individual pursuits vs. communal goals.  There are, of course people who remain faithful to God, just as there were during the moral breakdown of Israel.  But our world as a whole worships much that is not good, much that is not God.   A world of war and terrorism.  A world where countries execute their own citizens, where parents mistreat children.  A world to which we can hear God say, as he did to Israel: Ah, sinful nation…evil race…corrupt children.

Just as Isaiah’s words were a comfort to the people, it should be comforting for us to be reassured that God is relentless in the desire to be reconciled with us.  One preacher summarizes Isaiah’s Advent message like this: “No matter how much the world shatters into pieces, we carry in ourselves a vision of wholeness that we all sense is our true home and that welcomes us.”

And just as Isaiah called the people to prepare the way of the Lord, we are called to do the same – not only in Advent, but in each day of our lives.  The beautiful vision of the kingdom in today’s reading requires our active participation.  We can’t sit around complacently and wait for the vision to become reality.   Rather, we are called to labor with God to make it so.  God continues to work through us to prepare for Christ’s reign. 

[Note: This is the reflection I wrote for today for the University of St. Thomas Office for Spirituality Advent Daily Reflections]

The Great Divorce

Somehow, I managed to make it through this many years of my life without reading The Great Divorce, by C.S. Lewis.  The book was the subject of a recent book discussion in my parish.  While I could not attend the discussion because I was off directing a retreat, I decided to read the book anyway.  

The “divorce” in the title refers to a divorce between heaven and hell, which Lewis saw as real places.  Based on the medieval idea of the refrigerium, the idea of a refreshment or vacation from hell, the book opens with people from hell getting a free bus ride to heaven, and the ability whether to stay there or return to hell. 

Through the eyes of the narrator, we meet various of the souls from hell, as well as the spirits of heaven who come to meet them to help them to stay.  Alas, many choose to get back on the bus to return to hell. When the narrator asks the spirit who is his Teacher how they can choose to go back, he it told:

The choice of every lost soul can be expressed in the words “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.”  There is always something they insist on keeping even at the price of misery.  There is always something they prefer to joy – that is, to reality.  Ye see it easily enough in a spoiled child that would sooner miss its play and its super than say it was sorry and be friends.  Ye call it the Sulks.  But in adult life it has a hundred fine names – Achilles’ wrath and Coriolinus’ grandeur.  Revenge and Injured Merit and Self-Respect and Tragic Greatness and Proper Pride.

Surrendering to love, to real life, requires a letting go.  And many are unable to do that.  Even more tragic, the thing they hold onto, ceases to bring pleasure, yet it continues to be grasped anyway.  (Which prompts the question in each of us: What are we holding onto that inhibits opening ourselves fully to joy, to love.)

That one episode does not sufficiently convey the book, but my hope is that you consider reading it yourself.

Francis Xavier and Confidence in God

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the meorial of St. Francis Xavier, one of the early companions of St. Igatius.

In 1539, the King of Portugal requested that Ignatius send two missionaries to the Portuguese colony of Goa.  One of the two named fell ill and there was no one to take his place except Francis.  At the time, Francis himself was recuperating from having overworked himself in Venice; he is described as having been at the time “so pale and wasted that he seemed no longer to be a living man but a walking corpse.” 

Yet when Ignatius broke the news to him that he must go to India, Francis didn’t say, “Aw c’mon, why me.”  He didn’t say “it wasn’t exactly my plan to be a missionary in India.”  He didn’t say, “Look, I’m beat and I just can’t handle a tough posting right now.  Can’t I get one of those cushy spots in the wine country of France or Spain?”

Rather, he responded, reportedly with these words: “Good enough! I am ready!”  The next day he left Rome, never again to return.  And when I say left Rome for Goa, remember, not only that the trip would have been long and arduous, but there was no texting or Zooming with friends and family, no phone calls – he was saying good-bye, knowing he would have no possibility of contact or comfort from those he knew and loved save for letters that could take weeks or, more likely, months to arrive.

Francis had unlimited confidence in God, a confidence that allowed him to face obstacles and reversals.  He had a level of trust that allowed him to travel wherever he was sent with a sense of joy and enthusiasm.  One of his companions said that he never met anyone more filled with faith and hope than Francis Xavier.

He once wrote in a letter to the Jesuits in Europe,

I have decided to go to the Moro Islands to assist the Christians in spiritual matters, exposing myself to every danger of death, placing all my confidence and hope in God our Lord, desiring to conform myself, in keeping with my slight and feeble strength, to the saying of Christ our Redeemer and Lord that ‘whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.’

Do we have the level of confidence and trust in God that Francis did?

A Cooperative, not a Competitive Endeavor

Our family plays a lot of board games.  Some of those are competitive, such that there is only one winner, and others are cooperative, such that either everyone playing wins or everyone loses.  We played some of both kinds over the Thanksgiving weekend, and enjoyed them all.

We live in a world that operates like a competitive game.  It prizes a lot of things that have to do with the self: self-reliance, self- confidence, self-expression, self-centeredness.  We talk about my achievements, my talents, the things I have earned.  The concern, if you will, is whether I (or I and my family) win.

Imagine how different our world would be if everyone operated from the understanding that our human existence is akin to a cooperative, rather than a competitive, game.  One where none of us “make it” unless all of us do.  One where the suffering and loss of some means the ultimate loss of all.

I recognize this expresses in different words an idea the Christian tradition has always advanced (but maybe the different phrasing is a help to some). For example, I recently read this from a homily of St. Gregory the Great, a sixth century Pope and Doctor of the Western Church:

Good will means to experience fear for the adversities of another as if they were our own, to give thanks for a neighbor’s prosperity as for our own advancement, to believe another’s loss is our own, to count another’s gain our own.

The rub, of course, is how do we convince people that no one “wins” unless everyone does? That we are , at our core, intimately connected to each other and to our God, that we truly are all in this together.

God Has Not Forgotten Us

On this first Monday in Advent, let me share a reflection written by Jack Treloar, S.J., one of the Jesuits on staff at the Oshkosh Jesuit Retreat House. He writes:

There is a great temptation abroad.  Perhaps one can summarize it as the invitation to weariness.  We certainly have many things around us that encourage us to feel drained.  The fight against COVID has been exhausting and quarreling about vaccination adds to the trial of the disease itself.  Politicians cannot decide anything, and in their disagreement, they have forgotten about the healthy give and take of compromise.  The list of wearying topics is endless.

Amid all our fatigue, we move into the Season of Advent, a season of consolation.  We must realize that Jesus came to a world filled with weariness; but he came to bring good news.  God has not forgotten us. Gerard Manley Hopkins recalls God’s care in his poem, God’s Grandeur.  He says, “The world’s charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out like shining from shook foil.”  Hopkins reminds us that even in dark and wearisome times God’s grandeur is present if we only look around.  As winter approaches can we see the beauty of snow and ice?  Can we anticipate the arrival of one who saves us? Can we give of ourselves to those in need?  Whether it’s snow and ice, or the arrival of the Savior, in our care for others God’s grandeur confronts our weariness letting us know that he cherishes us and even sends us a savior.

Advent is a season of hope! Let’s live into that hope in the midst of the things that threaten to drag us down.

Grounded in Action

Those formed by Ignatian Spirituality are said to be “contemplatives in action.”  Ignatius and his Exercises aim at an engagement with the world that is simultaneously active and contemplative. Contemplatives in action unite themselves with God by joining God’s active labor to save and heal the world. 

To be sure, prayer and retreat are essential – after all, it is God’s plan we are about, not our own. But out of our deepened relationship with God, we co-labor with Christ, doing God’s work in the world.

I thought this quote from John Philip Newell’s Sacred Earth, Sacred Soul, which came via e-mail this morning contains a beautiful expression of this:

Our vision of reawakening to sacredness needs to be grounded in action. It is not enough only to see compassionately. Nor is it enough even just to feel compassionately, as essential as this is. Compassion needs also to be embodied, both in the relationships of our lives and communities and in the structures of our societies and nations.

How will you embody compassion today?

Our Call To Sainthood

Today the Catholic Church celebrates All Saints Day. We can describe the day in many ways, but whatever else it is, the day reminds us of what we are all called to be.

Kenneth Woodward, former Newsweek religions editor, once defined a saint as“someone through whom we catch a glimpse of what God is like – and of what we are called to be.”

One could say that we have all we need in Jesus to see what we are called to be.  And there is some truth to that.  Jesus Christ incarnated was fully human and is, of course, the supreme example of human holiness, the ultimate model for our lives.  My aim as a Christian disciple is to see as Jesus saw, to love as Jesus loved, to be Christ in the world.  And that is important.  But for all our proclamation of our belief that Jesus was fully human, it is too easy for people to say (or at least think even if they don’t say it out loud) – yeah, well easy for him – he was God after all.  So of course it was easier for him than for me.

And that is where I think the Saints are helpful to us.   They serve as examples about whom we can’t say – oh well, he or she was God.  No:  He or she was human – just like us.  These human beings heard Jesus’ call and followed it.  Saints provide examples to us, models, they give us strength for own journeys.

When I visualize the communion of saints, front and center are a variety of folks who inspire me in various ways – Ignatius of Loyola, Teresa of Avila, Francis of Assisi, Vincent dePaul. I suspect you “top” saints might include others.

The variety reminds us that the saints help us understand how God works in the lives of individuals.  James Martin, in his book My Life with the Saints, writes: “Each saint was holy in his or her unique way, revealing how God celebrates individuality.”  And he cites C.L. Lewis, who wrote in Mere Christianity, “How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been; how gloriously different are the saints.”  Martin continues: “This gave me enormous consolation, for I realized that none of us are meant to be Therese of Lisieux or Pope John XXIII or Thomas More.  We’re meant to be ourselves, and meant to allow God to work in and through our own individuality, our own humanity.”

Who stands front and center in your visualization of the communion of saints?  Which saints inspire you and remind you of your own call to sainthood?

My Beloved is For Me, And I am For My Beloved

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of St. Teresa of Avila. I have always loved Teressa, who displayed a remarkable independence of spirit during a time when the Church was not particularly tolerant of independence of thought or spirit and when no one was tolerant of such a characteristic in a woman. She bent Church rules, she barely survived the Spanish Inquisition, she annoyed many with her reform of both the male and female Carmelite orders, and she did it all while suffering debilitating illness through most of her life.

I first discovered Teresa’s writings after I returned to Christianity after twenty years of practicing Buddhism. Even as she engaged in an amazing amount of active service, she authored a body of written work that many would call the cornerstone of Christian mysticism. (Even today, She is one of the most widely read writers in the Spanish language.

While her prose writings are amazing and deep, I am particularly fond of a lot of Teresa’s poetry. She wrote poems not for their own sake, but rather (in the words of one of her biographers) “as a release for the mystical fire she could no longer contain in her heart.”

For your reflection today, her feast day, here is one of Teresa’s Poems. It is titled On Those Words “Dilectus Meus Mihi”.

Myself surrendered and given,
The exchange is this:
My Beloved is for me,
And I am for my Beloved.

When the Gentle hunter
Wounded and subdued me,
In love’s arms,
My soul fallen;
New life receiving,
Thus did I exchange
My Beloved is for me,
And I am for my Beloved.

The arrow hew drew
Full of love,
My soul was oned
With her Creator.
Other love I want not,
Surrendered now to my God,
That my Beloved is for me,
And I am for my Belove

Our Relationship to All of Creation

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of a saint near and dear to my soul: Francis of Assisi. He was someone I always felt a kinship with, even during the years I practiced Buddhism.

St. Francis has been described as a nature mystic, that is, someone who finds God in the beauty of nature and who sees in nature the gift of God’s creation. In everything in creation, Francis saw the love of God; the world and its beauty were gift from God. In the words of Ilia Delio

Trees, worms, lonely flowers by the side of the road—all were saints gazing up into the face of God. In this way, creation became the place to find God and, in finding God, [Francis] realized his intimate relationship to all of creation.

He did not consider himself at the top of a hierarchy of being nor did he declare himself superior to the non-human creation. Rather, Francis saw himself as part of creation. His spirituality overturned the spirituality of hierarchical ascent and replaced it with a spirituality of descending solidarity between humanity and creation. Instead of using creatures to ascend to God (from earth to heaven), he found God in all creatures and identified with them as brother and sister; that is, he found heaven on earth. By surrendering himself and daring everything for love’s sake, the earth became his home and all creatures his brothers and sisters.

As he continued to move more deeply into the mystery of God through his relationship with Christ, he came to realize his familial relationship to creation. He came to live in peaceful relationships with all creatures. To live in the justice of love is to live in peace. For Francis, justice and peace are related to poverty, compassion, contemplation and on-going conversion by which we realize our familial bonds with all living creatures, joining with them on the journey into God.

For Francis, all of nature was a sacrament. It is said that he could find himself in ecstasy “with eyes raised to heaven while holding a waterfowl I his hands. He could sometimes take this too far – one time refusing to put out the fire when his undergarments caught flame so as not to hurt the fire, and another time washing his hands without treading on the water. But, although extreme, he reminds us that, in Karen Armstrong’s words, nature speaks of God.

One of Francis’ most famous sermons was delivered to birds. He begged them to listen to God’s words. Here is an excerpt:

My brothers, birds, you should praise your Creator very much and always love him; he gave you feathers to clothe you, wins so that you can fly, and whatever else was necessary for you. God made you noble among his creatures, and he gave you a home in the purity of the air; though you neither sow not reap, he nevertheless protects and governs you without any solicitude on your part.

Thomas of Celano writes of this event that the birds stretched their necks and extended their wings as Francis walked among them touching and blessing them.

Francis once even preached to the flowers, inviting them, as one of his biographers observes, to join him in his celebration of God!

For all of us who find God in the beauty of creation, Francis is an inspiration.  Blessings on his day.