Fidelity: God’s and Ours

Some years ago, when I was still living in New York, a priest asked the assembly during his homily what the most important attribute of God we learn from the Bible. His answer was: fidelity. God is faithful and loves not for a time, but forever. God is always there, whether we acknowledge it or not and whether we feel it or not.

Like many of the saints and mystics, Saint Philip Neri, whose memorial the Catholic Church celebrates today, had times when he could not feel the presence of God. And, in advice similar to that of St. Ignatius and others, Philip speaks of the need for our own fidelity in times like those. He wrote:

The fervor of spirituality is usually very great in the beginning, but afterwards, the Lord fingit se longius ire, make as though he would go further (Lk 24:28): in such a case we must stand firm and not be disturbed, because God is then withdrawing his most holy Hand of sweetnesses, to see if we are strong; and then, if we resist and overcome those tribulations, and temptations, the sweetnesses and heavenly consolations return.

St. Ignatius also speaks of a sense of absence of God as a sort of test. He said, “We find ourselves tested as to whether we love God or just love the gifts of God, whether we continue to follow God’s loving invitation in darkness and dryness as well as in light and consolation.”

Let’s face it. Prayer, and the Christian life in general, is a lot more fun when I’m in a state of consolation. If I’m feeling the spirit of God so fully and deeply that I can cry out with joy that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God, well it is awfully easy to “follow God’s invitation.” So the test is: can I do it even in period of darkness and dryness, when I can’t see or hear God’s presence.

Mother Teresa felt no presence of God for nearly 50 years. Except for a brief period, she lived in an enduring state of deep and abiding spiritual pain. Yet she continued her ministry. In a similar fashion, I read that Teresa of Avila lacked a felt sense of God for 27 years. This is a woman who was one of the great mystics of the Catholic Church and a woman responsible for great reform of the Carmelite order as well as authoring a body of work many would call the cornerstone of Christian mysticism. Yet she had a long period of darkness. Even Jesus experienced darkness – an inability to feel the presence of his father. Jesus on the cross cries out to his father, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” (I don’t read that as playacting.) Yet he is able to say, “Into your hands I commend my spirit.”

The question is: how do we respond when “the Lord fingit se longius ire? Our fidelity to the call of discipleship and to our prayer in times of dryness and darkness imitate God’s fidelity and help us know that we love God and not just the gifts of God.


Choosing God

I have seen this passage from Rule for a New Brother, by an anonymous author, quoted in a number of places. It touches me deeply every time I read it:

To choose God
is to realize that you are known and loved
in a way surpassing anything one can imagine,
loved before anyone had thought of you
or spoken your name.

And so,
don’t talk too much about God
but live
in the certainty that God has written your name
on the palm of God’s hand.
Live your human task
in the liberating certainty
that nothing in the world can separate you
from God’s love for you.

Some good lines to pray with today:

“I have called you by name, you are mine.” (Isaiah 43:1)

“See, upon the palms of my hand I have written your name. (Isaiah 49:16)

“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, not angels, nor principalities, not present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.” (Romand 8:38).

Seed on Rocky Soil

Each of the synoptic Gospels tells the parable of the sower. In those stories we learn some seed was sown on rocky soil and, as soon as it grew up, it withered away because it had no moisture. Jesus explains to his disciples that the seed sown on rocky ground represents someone who hears the word and initially receives it with joy, but has no roots, so that when tribulation or persecution comes because of the word the person falls away.

I thought of that passage as Dave and I were hiking yesterday. At one point, at the side of the trail was a rock out of which a small pine tree was growing. It was actually small pine branches, that I suspect will never become a large tree, but still, they were growing right out of the side of the rock.

What came to my mind as I looked at it with wonder, was how relentless God is in trying to get through to us. The truth is that we are all sometime like the rocky soil of the parable – we hear with excitement and then get tossed around a bit. We just don’t always get it the first time around.

But God keeps on coming – keeps reaching to us and keeps speaking the Word to us. Over and over again.

And I thought as I looked at that rock: If God can grow a small pine tree out of a rock, God will succeed in getting through to us, no matter how difficult the task.

The Certainty that You are Waiting for Me

The prayer for this morning in Shane Claiborne et al’s Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals included a prayer from Henri Nouwen, someone of whom I am a great fan. The prayer is a perfect one for those times when we feel overwhelmed by the circumstances of our lives.

Nouwen prayed:

Dear Lord, I will remain restless, tense and dissatisfied until I can be totally at peace in your house. There is no certainty that my life will be any easier in the years ahead, or that my heart will be any calmer. But there is the certainty that you are waiting for me and will welcome me home when I have persevered in my long journey to your house.

It is a good prayer. And a good reminder that God’s promise is not that we won’t face tough times, times that try our patience and strength. Rather it is the promise that whatever we face, we do not face it alone. And the promise that at the end of our days, we will live in perfect union with our God. And that promise makes it a lot easier to get through the difficult times.

Relax, and Have a Nice Day

I am spending the weekend at The Retreat, a retreat house in Wayzata, where I’m giving a weekend Ignatian retreat to students and alumni of St. Katherine’s MAT (Masters in Theology) program.

On one of the posts near the entrance to the house, there is a sign that reads:

Good morning.
This is God.
I’ll be handling all of your problems today.
So relax, and have a nice day.

It is a great message for retreatants – to know that they can trust God to keep the world spinning on its axis while they are on retreat trying deepen their relationship with God.

But, in a differen way, although we don’t always realize it, God says the same thing to us every morning – indeed, in every moment of day. God is with us in everything we face. None of our problems are ours alone. And so we can relax, confident that God is handling things with us.

As I asked the retreatants during our morning prayer yesterday: What do you need to let God handle for you so you can relax and have a good day?

Isaiah 1:18

The Book of Isaiah opens with what is called the Book of Judgment – a scathing indictment of the people of Israel, who have turned their backs on God. God calls the people of Israel a “sinful nation, people laden with wickedness,” an “evil race” who “have forsaken the Lord.” He calls them Sons who have disowned him and tells them: “Your incense is loathsome to me….I close my eyes to you.” God seems to condemn completely the entirety of his people, accusing that “From the sole of the foot to the head there is no sound spot.”

But as harsh as the indictments are, God cannot sustain them consistently. Even in the first chapter, God also invites with words that always touch me to the core: “Come now, let us set things right…Though your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as snow; Though they may be crimson red, they may become white as wool. If you are willing.” (Isaiah 1:18)

Those words have such power, conveying to us the incredible reality that God constantly invites us back; is constantly there with arms out saying, I’m here and we can be together….We can be reconciled. You have the choice to come back to me.

When I talked about his line from Isaiah in my talk at the first session of the UST Advent Retreat on Monday, my friend Tom pointed out that the King James Bible translates the first line of Isaiah 1:18 as “Come now, and let us reason together.” The “let us set things right” language I quoted in my talk comes from the New American Bible. Tom wrote to me later that evening saying he had checked out some other Bibles and the line is variously translated as “let us set things right,” “let us reason together,” “let us settle the matter” and “let us settle this dispute.” I then contacted Rabbi Norman Cohen, who I’ve referenced before in posts, who told me that the Jewish Publication Society translation is closer to “let us reach an understanding.”

The different translations evoke very different feelings in me. As I said when the issue arose during the session, “Come, let us set things right” is language that soothes my soul. It brings me back to my early days of returning to Christianity, during which I had great insecurity of where things were between me and God…and the joy when I finally felt that things were “right” between us. So, to me, “let us set things right,” expresses God’s desire for exactly that joyful state with His people.

“Let us reason together” and “let us reach an understanding” are compelling in a different way. They feel less like God scolding us like misbehaving children than inviting us into dialogue, into a collaborative process of healing the relationship, and not letting disagreements stand between us.

“Settle the dispute,” as Tom pointed out to me in our discussion puts one in mind of God’s “legal” case against Israel for breaking the covenant between God and His people.

I am no Biblical scholar and have no ability to judge which of those is the “right” translation. (Indeed, Rabbi Cohen suggested when we spoke that the differences go to prove that whenever we are engaged in translation, by definition there is interpretation involved.) But we don’t really have to come to a firm view on that. I think there is value in praying with the different translations side-by-side to come to a fuller sense of what God is conveying to us. God’s fidelity. God’s desire to see the covenant restored. God’s amazing love for us. And, on our side, our need to accept what God offers, to open our hearts to reconciliation with God.

Viewing Everything Through the Lens of the Cross

I’m still thinking about some of the lines of a sermon I heard on Friday by my friend and colleague Reggie Whitt, a Dominican priest who says the Friday weekday masses at UST Law School. The Gospel Friday was the parable of the wise and foolish virgins who were waiting for the arrival of the bridegroom. The five wise ones, anticipating that the bridegroom might be delayed, brought extra oil with them. The five foolish ones did not. By the time the bridegroom arrived, the lamps of the five foolish women were dying down. When they asked the wise women to borrow some of theirs, they were told there was not enough to share and so they needed to go buy their own, something that would have been impossible in the middle of the night.

I confess that I always thought the five designated as wise acted a bit selfishly, thinking they could have shared some of their oil with the others. Surely they could have spared a bit so that the five others didn’t have to go running around in the middle of the night on an errand that was doomed to failure. But that, of course, misses the point of the Gospel – that what the five foolish women of the story was lacking was not something that could be borrowed from another.

The line in the homily that brought that home to me was this: “You can’t borrow someone else’s fidelity to the Cross; and you can’t expect the world’s ways to supply it for you, if you run out.”

The parable is really, implied Reggie, about the lens through which we view the world. The power and wisdom of God at work in the Crucified Christ, he suggested, turns every other way of understanding the world upside down. And that set up the other line in the sermon that I have been sitting with. The heart of our reality as Christians, what sets the terms of our destiny, is the Crucified Christ and the Cross “is the lens through which all human experiences must be projected, and seen afresh.”

It seems to me it would make an enormous difference in our lives if we are intentional about viewing everything through the lens of the Cross. And that is a way of being, not something we can borrow.

Letting Go

This summer my daughter turned 16. As it happens, her summer has included a number of trips, only one of which – our week on the north shore of Lake Superior – included my husband and me. She went to Newfoundland to sing at a choir festival, on a parish mission trip to Michigan, is just getting back from a trip to the western part of Minnesota for the All-State Women’s Choir, and before her high school year begins, she will make her first college visit.

It is always with a certain amount of anxiety that I watch her go off without me. I console myself that she is very mature, had good judgment and is with adult chaperones, but I still worry about something happening to her. (Let’s face it: as mature as she is, there will be times that the temptation to do something unwise will just be too great….something I know from my own experience.) Part of me wants to hold her close and not let her get too far from me. Nonetheless, I let her go.

As I was sitting in church thinking about this, I thought how similar my experience with my daughter is to God’s experience with us. God could have created us so that we acted as marionettes, with God pulling all of the strings, making all the choices for us. Instead, God gave us freedom, the free will to make our own choices. And God did so knowing that sometimes we’d wander far away and sometimes we’d do foolish and unwise things that are hurtful to ourselves. Given that God loves us even more than I love my daughter, I imagine that it must be difficult for God to watch us get hurt through our acts and the acts of others.

Yet, God loves us enough to watch it happen. To let us decide for ourselves how to respond to each other, the world and to God. And loves us enough to be by our side no matter what happens. And my greatest consolation is that God is at Elena’s side, whether she is here with me, in Newfoundland, western Minnesota, or anyplace else.

Here I Am

We generally attend the 6:00 p.m. Sunday Mass because that is the Mass at which the teen choir (which includes my daughter) sings. There is a song that is frequently sung at communion at that Mass that touches me deeply whenever I hear it. It is a Tom Booth song titled Here I Am. The words to the chorus are

Here I am, standing right beside you.
Here I am, do not be afraid.
Here I am, waiting like a lover.
I am here, here I am.

Whenever I hear the song, as I did at mass last night, the tears start to well up, as I hear the words touching a place deep in my soul. I kneel transfixed, as I hear God saying,

I am here in the face of every child.
I am here in every warm embrace.
I am here with tenderness and mercy.

I am here in the midst of every trial.
I am here in the face of despair.
I am here when pardoning your brother.

The music is sweet, but not extraordinarily fine. The words are simple and not particularly poetic. But still I’m touched. It think it must be because deep down we have such a great desire to know God is there for us no matter what…to know we are not alone. And so hearing God saying over and over again, I am here….I am here, provides a reassurance we so deperately need. (As I was reflecting on the words during my morning prayer, the image that came to mind was of holding my daughter when she was very young and had suffered some hurt and assuring her, “I’m here…Mommy’s here…I’m here.”) The tears, I realize, are tears of comfort and joy and I revel in the secure feeling that my God is by my side.

A Lesson in Faith Learned on the Water

In today’s Gospel, Jesus’ disciples are terrified as they cross the sea during a storm. As their boat is being tossed about, they see Jesus at a distance and hear him telling them not to be afraid. Jesus invites Peter to come to him on the water. Peter does and manages a few steps before he becomes frightened and sinks. “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”, says Jesus when I stretches out his hand and catches Peter.

I had a powerful experience praying with this passage one day. Like Peter, I stepped out onto the water and managed a few steps before I started to sink. In a flash, I felt Jesus’ hand picking me up. Then the “record skipped” so to speak (for those old enough to remember listening to a record before we had tapes and CDs), and that piece of the scene kept playing over and over again. Over and over I sank and Jesus reached out his hand to lift me up. Fall. Lift up. Fall. Lift up. Fall. Lift up. Over and over.

At some point, while the scene still played, I heard/felt/experienced Jesus saying “Do you get it yet? Do you get it yet? Do you see yet that no matter how many times you fall, I’ll pick you up.” How long will we do this, I wondered. “As long as it takes” was the response. Jesus had all the time in the world. “We’ll do it for however long it takes…for however long it takes for you to know that I’m not going anywhere.”

We inevitably will fall from time to time along the way. The security Jesus offers was never that we won’t fall. It is rather the knowledge that Jesus will always be there to pick us up.