29 January 2011

Love's Inner Eye

[I am grateful to William Johnston, SJ for the inspiration for this blog post. I have read most all of his works over the years, but The Inner Eye of Love: Mysticism and Religion caught and held my imagination from the time I first read it in 1978. It was revised in 1997. The image used for this posting is the Helix Nebula taken by the Hubbel Telescope. It is also known colloquially as "God's Eye."]
We may tend to think of mysticism as being in the realm of monastic communities or the rare -- and rather eccentrically spiritual - individual. It would certainly not be a state of being normal to the regular, everyday individual...regardless of our passion for healthy spirituality or disposition toward being part of any religious body (here, specifically Christian). To set this straight, mysticism and the mystical path is not, a) foreign to anyone's capacity to experience; b) something to which one attains; and, c) a state that detaches one from current reality (i.e. not "out there" somewhere).
Let's take these in order. The capacity and capability to have mystical experiences is normative to any human being. In fact (borrowing from Thomas Aquinas), all creation can reflect the mystical element of reality. What is called "mysticism" is the direct intuition of the Holy (God). Carl Jung's typology is helpful here. The four spectra of human typology are Introvert/Extrovert; Sensate/Intuitive; Thinking/Feeling; Judging/Perceiving. Each of us are somewhere on the continuum of each of those four spectra. The complete set is called one's "Personality Type." For instance, I am an INFP (Introvert, Intuitive, Feeling, Perceiving). On the four scales, I am very introverted, very intuitive, moderately feeling and somewhat perceiving. How does this express itself?
For me (as an example), my natural state is to be inwardly directed, comfortable with ideas and abstractions, processing incoming data through emotional systems first and comfortable with rapid change and spontaneity. This is valuable information in knowing what is necessary to have a mystical experience -- or, more appropriately, what tools one uses in responding to the mystical "nudge."
Christian mysticism, specifically, begins and ends in the experience of being loved....loved by the Divine. It is an experience of intimacy. It is intuitive, as described above. Very important: The mystical is not something one attains or manufactures. It is strictly an invitation. It is God's call to us for intimacy and the resulting experience of that intimacy.
I used to think that one became a mystic by studying biblical literature, ritual and reading books and guides about prayer. Sure, all of that is helpful. In the end, however, I realized that folks like Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Peter, Paul and all such persons in our tradition were responding to some kind of invitation. Sometimes the invitation had to be rather abrupt (Paul's being struck blind on the road to Damascus is such a moment). One of the reasons Jesus compared us to sheep (which actually isn't a flattering metaphor) is that we are wilfull, hard headed and easily enough distracted to get regularly lost (thus, requiring us to be "fetched back").
The call of Samuel (1 Samuel 3), is a great story to get how the mystical moment happens. Samuel (as a boy) hears his name called in the night. He arises, goes to his mentor, Eli, and... thinking Eli has called him...says "Here I am." Eli (a mystic) doesn't get it and tells Samuel to go back to bed, because he did not call him. Finally, when Samuel hears the voice the third time, Eli gets it and tell's Samuel to answer the voice directly, should he hear it again. Samuel does and so begins his particular vocation as a prophet that will eventually raise up David as the unifying King of Israel.
Mysticism is not generally a world changing way of being. It is, however, a life changing experience, because responding to the invitation from God opens us to the deeper realization of who we really are and to the vocation that each of us has by nature. I used to think and function with the conviction that, to be fully human and a good priest, I had to be able to love others. I did everything possible to accomplish that and found myself always frustrated and exhausted. It was during my first truly mystical invitation that I cried out, "I am loving folks as hard as I can, and it isn't working!" The quiet voice that vibrated within said firmly, "that's the problem, you cannot simply love others....let go and let me love you and others through you..."
This was an astounding revelation to me. God was working from within me...not from "out there" somewhere. The secret of the fire and energy of every person I cited above as biblical examples was their experience and conviction of being loved by God. Another example of this is Thomas Aquinas.
We celebrated his feast in the Church yesterday (28 January). Aquinas is considered the greatest theologian in the history of the Western Church (perhaps Karl Rahner, who died just a few years ago, comes very close). Thomas Aquinas wrote the Summa Theologica and the Summa Contra Gentiles in the mid 1200s. There is much mystical expression in the theological works themselves. However, the real story is what happened just prior to his untimely death (at age 49).
Thomas -- a Dominican -- was celebrating Eucharist and entered a "frozen" state that lasted long enough for those gathered in community to have real concerns. Emerging from that experience, he became quite agitated and wanted to immediately have all his written works burned (this amounted to what is currenly more than 54 volumes). While his monks dissuaded him from such a hasty action, Thomas continued to insist that, "all this work amounts to nothing but dross..." (straw). He insisted that he had seen the glory and love of God in a way that changed everything about what he had previously experienced and expressed. Unfortunately, we will never know the contents of that mystical moment. He died a few days later rather suddenly.
The reason we read so much of mystical experiences from men and women in vocation is that prayer is at the center of our discipline. I know a number of lay persons who have similar experiences regularly...and are quite involved in their "day jobs" in secular society. In my work among the Lakota, I have found a number of folks for whom encounters and experiences of the Holy are daily occurances. Their work is as varied as that of archeologist, professor, psychotherapist, engineer, medical doctor and many other occupations.
There is no secret to this. It is about openness and being mindful of the deeper parts of our nature. There is something to be said for "taking time to smell the roses." To sit and experience the expanse of a prairie (here in the midwest) or a forest or quietly watching the antics of wildlife are a few ways. We surround ourselves with noise and electronic visualizations. We effectively block any opportunity to hear the invitation of the Holy to experience the awesome power of Divine Love. Do we fear what that will do to us or where it will lead us? Most often, the experience only deepens and nurtures our current circumstances and occupations. It both answers questions and raises new and important ones.
Jesus spoke what seemed rough words to Martha, who was consumed with self important doing of things (and was criticizing Mary for attending to what Jesus was saying and doing). Jesus, as the full expression of God's Love in the world, told Martha to take a break, for Mary had chosen the better part of human nature in that moment. [Note that, later, Mary would be somewhat angry with Jesus for not showing up in time to be a healing presence to her brother Lazarus, who was dead. None of us are always "in the moment."]
Next time, I will reflect more on this key element of human nature.
In Christ's Love,

06 January 2011

Truth and Love

For a number of years now, I have not made New Year resolutions. First, I have found it difficult to stare a new year in the face from a hungover composure. It seems antithetical to what making a resoluton means...."as soon as I get over the affects of this party, I will get serious about this new day." A good number of folks can't even drag themselves up until after noon...and then with hangover meds, coffee and their melons feeling like they need a size 12 hat.

This is not an indictment as much as it is simply an observation of what might be considered typical. So, why a set of resolutions? Such promises for renewal of life and commitment would indicate we that we want to leave some not-so-helpful behaviors behind in favor of behaviors that are healthy, renewing and invigorating to body, mind and spirit. None of this is why I gave up resolutions, however.

I began to realize that, if resolving to launch (or in most cases relaunch) a set of programs for improvement would have permanence, they would change each year. We would accomplish the goals set forth, find ourselves in a new place, celebrate THAT on New Year's Eve, go to bed happy and wake up with a fresh set of goals for the coming year. Yet, every year, the number one resolution (this is according to marketers) is diet. It is followed by exercise programs. Personal health is the big ticket for every new year. And we start that as we are praying to our adopted god O'Rourke while hovering over a hotel, friend's or home toilet. Is there something about this picture that doesn't seem quite right?

So, shortly after college -- while stationed in Scotland with the Navy -- I made my last new year resolution: Never make another resolution and never enter the new year in worse physical shape than I was the morning before (New Year's Eve morning). Instead, I decided to follow something that I started calling the Benjamin Franklin Method. Here is how it works.

  • Make the last days of the current year be ones of enjoying family and getting done what is necessary for one's work life. This is simply being diligent to what composes our life.

  • Enjoy whatever might be planned for New Year's Eve festivities. Change it up so that it includes different folks and different venues. Some years, stay home and enjoy alone time with one's partner.

  • If drinking is involved, stay completely sober. Here is a subtext of the Franklin Method. It is called the Dirty Harry corollary: "Some people just don't know their own limitations." To know the limits of one's capacities and attendant boundaries of civility is an essential element of character. (An aside: I do drink alcoholic beverages -- enjoying good wine, well crafted beer and good single malt Scots Whisky. I do not find it helpful having it turn into an internal toxic soup and thus lose control of my faculties and motor accuity).

  • Start the new year with ONE (yep, just one) area of life that needs attention. Now (and this is important) this is not a resolution. This area of attention is much deeper than that. This is about character....the substance of Self. What needs to shift in such ways that who I am more completely reflects the image and being in which I have been created.
This last bullet point is the heart of the matter. If one's blood chemisty (for instance) is out of whack and causing problems, this one area of attention might begin with a trip to the doctor for advice and resources for getting one's body back in balance. I had such a situation, and it has taken nearly three years to find the formulary that has finally worked. In this journey, the annual ONE thing was to continue making progress. I was never quiting and starting over during the three years. Instead, it was a 'what next, because I am not there yet' continuation. Shortly after shoulder replacement surgery this past fall, I hit that balance mark. Hit it on the head!! So, 2011emerges with a new ONE area of life needing attention. By the way: Just because one "nails" that ONE area needing attention, it doesn't mean walking away from it. Learning what is necessary and continuing its employment is a hallmark of the Benjamin Franklin Method....mastery of one's being.

Being a priest, much of what I find inside myself comes from extended times of meditation and prayer. I use those tools to look at my own character and how I function in the environment around me (which is a lot more than just relationships with other folks). As I spent time on surgical leave this fall, I journaled a question one morning: "Is Truth an external, isolated entity to which I must accede or measure up; or is it an expression of the best sense of Self as it touches the external environment?" This is a tough question by itself, but there is more. Is truth raw and painful, or, is it loving and transformational? St. Paul put these two together in Ephesians 4:15 (bless his heart):

  • Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.
Jumping to the conclusion of my exegetical work on that passage, I learned that "the truth" is intrinsic. It lives inside us, and, if we can touch that place, external reality can be seen in light of the internal character of Truth so that that external experience can be measured as truth. Another way to see it: If a statement, event or experience external to us is called "truth" by others, it is only Truth if our internal character can see and embrace that reality.

In pastoral ministry, I have often found that another person is adamant about what constitutes the truth of a situation. Others walk away in frustration or confusion, because they are not experiencing truth in that situation. What's wrong with the picture? The adamant person is not a pathological liar (another issue entirely) and makes a good case. Something inside me...or others...doesn't make sense. It is here that St. Paul's point becomes fundamental. I must be able to experience the Truth of Self in order to see the truth in my environment. In speaking that Truth, since it is intrinsic, it must be vesseled by love...a positive, tranformational desire for the good of all in my external environment.

We are not taught this way. In general, truth is seen as an external reality that must be weighed, measured and lived up to. It must be defended at all costs; and further, if you do not see the truth as I see it (as an example), then you are faulty. This can lead to all kinds of bad and unpleasant things (including war, fratricide, ethnic cleansing, and, perhaps the most insidious, branding another as a less than normal human). After all this, I found what my ONE area of life needing attention this coming year is: Speaking the Truth in Love.

This is going to take some work. While I always work to be truthful, I don't think I represent myself in a way that speaks truth. I am the "me" that God has created, and I have not always represented that "me" with integrity. I have often "bent" it so that others might be pleased or accepting. Ultimately, this is not very loving -- first to God and then to those folks in my relational environment. As a ready example, I would not have dared write this blog article for (potentially) the world to see even a year ago. But, this is my truth. It is who I am. It is, also, essential that the Truth of Self be delivered NOT as a weapon but as a loving gesture of transformation. Again, the opening lines of Desiderata become meaningful:

  • Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons.
    Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant;
    they too have their story. (from the first stanza)
This is where I start -- not where I end. It is the mandate of my coming year and will be the work of my spirit, mind and body as I press forward. I'll keep you posted as I learn more.

Blessings in this new year!

Fr. Fred+