Saturday, August 31, 2013

God's Labour and Ours

I fear many a sincere person is seeking an ‘experience’, an exalted state of consciousness. But this ‘experience’ is not God. God is surely knocking on his heart, but can he hear him? God’s mystical intervention would mean the collapse of that proud human structure.

Gone the fine control of the mind, gone the sense of being a special person, a superman, a spiritual man. Is it likely that one who has maintained this magnificent goal is likely to make the right choice? This is rather an extreme case but it highlights the choice facing everyone living a serious spiritual life.

God wants to intervene. Will we let him? Everything depends on the answer. Yet how much serious direction has been and still is geared, in reality, not to seeking God’s will in order to surrender to him in fulfilling it, but to self-perfection, self-glorification.

The whole work of [the first stage of the spiritual life] is to do God’s will, that is, fulfill the law. Man is always tempted when doing the works of the law to live by the law, whereas the true disciple of Christ lives by the spirit. He cannot live by the Spirit unless he keeps the law; the Spirit will drive him to an every more perfect fulfilling of the law. But the deadly temptation is to live by the law and make it alone our security.
Ruth Burrows, Guidelines for Mystical Prayer, 19-20

Reflection  - Happy Labour Day weekend! I rather suspect that blog traffic will drop a fair bit the next few days, as people are rightly stepping away from their computers and stepping towards their friends and families for end of summer barbecues and parties.

Oh… you’re still here? OK, then. Burrows here does a fine job threading the needle of law and Spirit, our work and God’s work. We must keep the law. Christianity is not a lawless chaotic religion where you just do as you please. God wrote a moral law, and God communicated his moral law, first and imperfectly in the Jewish Scriptures, then perfectly in the words and deeds of Jesus now transmitted to us faithfully by His Spirit alive in the Church. We must keep that law, and repent sincerely when we fail to keep it, which we all do to some extent.

But living by the Law means putting the whole emphasis of our spiritual life into that dynamic, into that project. There is a law, we are to keep the law, we fail, we succeed, we fail, we succeed… and that’s all there is to the story. But that’s not even the half of the story, from a proper Christian understanding of it. That’s really a small part of the story. The real story is the action of the Spirit, the movement of God, the work of God in you and in me. Not opposing the law, but perfecting it, but perfecting it along wholly different lines.

It’s all about relationship, about communion with Jesus and with the Father in and through Jesus. It’s all about having no security, no ‘goodness’, ultimately no way in life except the way of Jesus and our living, real communion with Him. And in that perspective, we come to see that it’s all about mercy, because we do all fall short of the mark, we do all fail in charity and justice and purity, and the more our lives become taken up with our relationship to Jesus, the more our lives are lives of mercy—mercy received and mercy given.

And in this, then, our whole life becomes a living out of the first beatitude, blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. It is this deep spiritual perspective that is so often lacking in our conversations these days, and why we so often don’t get very far with each other. The whole of life is not a business of self-justification, of proving ourselves and our group ‘right’ and the other person and the other group ‘wrong’. Our whole life is abandonment to the mercy of God, because everyone’s wrong, and everyone’s right (a little bit), and ultimately it is God who sets us all right where we are wrong and strengthens and purifies us where we are right.

In this, we are all together, even if there are serious and protracted areas of disagreement or conflict, painful at times. The deeper spiritual perspective, the realization of what Burrows is trying to communicate here, means that all of us come as poor men and women before the living God and need his radical intervention to unmake and remake us all, without exception.

That’s God’s work. Our work is to, indeed, keep the Law as best we can, so as to dispose ourselves to this divine work. So… happy Labour Day weekend, I guess. Labour well, and let’s rest from our labours a bit so that God’s labours can be achieved in full in us all.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Becoming the Perfect Man

Recently I was asked to read a book… on yoga, but in many ways its teaching corresponds with commonly accepted notions of the spiritual life. It revealed in a startling way the cleavage between it and Christian mysticism, and also the enormous difficulties it creates for God.

There is no question of my discussing yoga in itself. It would be sheer presumption as I do not know enough about it. My concern is only with what is thought to be the mystical experience or awareness. It is quite clear that what is sought [there] is what man can achieve with no transcendence of his own nature.

The yogist, so this book claims, strives by self-discipline and especially by an effort to empty the mind, to free the psyche for an experience of the self. All along it is a question of making oneself perfect, becoming the perfect man, removed from the weaknesses and wearinesses of human life.

This is a most subtle form of pride and a most effective block to God’s love. Christian mysticism is essentially God’s work, and progressively the soul must abandon its own striving, abandon even its own desire for perfection, which in biblical terms is the law.
Incidentally, another point of cleavage with the Christian tradition is the emphasis on the mind, the emptying of the mind. It seems all the energy of the soul is employed in emptying the mind. Is there any left to love with?

Ruth  Burrows, Guidelines for Mystical Prayer, 18-19

Reflection – Well, back into controversy I go. But I don’t want to. People often ask me what my opinion of ‘yoga’ is, and should a Christian do yoga. My response so far has been simple: I am not an expert on the subject, but as far as I can see the mere act of arranging ones limbs and torso into various physical postures that seem to have health benefits cannot logically in and of itself be spiritually injurious. But if the physical movements are accompanied by interior movements of the mind and the heart that derive from some other religious or spiritual tradition, that is where the trouble arises. I may be wrong, and there are Christian voices that insist yoga is intrinsically evil, but I am not persuaded by the arguments I have heard on that subject.

But anyhow that’s not what Burrows is talking about—she clearly takes the same line as I do on this, and confines her remarks here to this one book she read, and does not intend to pass judgment on yoga per se—and it really isn’t what I want to talk about, either. I chose this excerpt, not because she refers to yoga and this is something of a ‘hot topic’ in some circles, but because of the connection she draws to a much bigger and broader topic. Namely, what is our vision of human perfection?

Yoga or no yoga, I think many people have an idea of what being a truly ‘spiritual’ person is, or what being a fully realized human being is, that is more or less what she describes here. Someone removed from the weakness and weariness of life. Someone serene, untroubled, wrapped in some kind of impenetrable armor made of equal parts of tranquility, self-sufficiency, and smugness. Someone who has the answers. Someone who is above the fray, and wafts along on a cloud far above the stinking mass of humanity.

Well, maybe I exaggerate a bit. But I think something like this lurks in the minds of many people as the general idea of what a spiritual person is to be. And I thank God (and Ruth Burrows) that I got exposed to this other vision of perfection and true spiritual life at such a young age.

True spiritual perfection is one thing and one thing only: the perfection of love. And love does not remove us from the fray, send us up on a cloud away from people and their messy problems and pains. Love plunges us right down into the heart of the world, into the anguish of our brothers and sisters, into the passion of the world lived out in the passion of this one, and that one, and that one, and the next one.

I am not even slightly interested in being the proverbial guru popular in Western pop culture, living up on a mountain top and receiving supplicants seeking words of wisdom. Jesus went up on the mountain top and was transfigured there… and came right back down that mountain and plunged into the sufferings of his people, to heal, deliver, console, exhort, teach, and soon enough climbed another kind of mountain to suffer and die for them and rise again.

There is indeed a purification of the mind that goes on in this, but it does not consist in an emptying of the mind, but its right ordering in the order of charity, of love. It is all about love, all about being in such a communion with the Trinity that the love of God becomes the active principle of our life, both the pattern and the source of all our actions, words, thoughts.

That, and that alone is Christian perfection, and that is something so far beyond our capacity that no spiritual exercise, no ascetical practice, no ‘yoga’, no prayer, no nothin’ will get us there. But God will, and God does, and God wants to get us there. And that is our great hope in all this.

P.S. I write this aware that I have readers all over the world, including a substantial number in India. I should clarify that what goes by the name ‘yoga’ in North America, and indeed many of the practices and terminologies of the great Eastern religions, is often quite remote from the original meaning, discipline, and full context in which it arose. I write, as I must, for my largely North American audience, but wish to be clear that the reference here is to the North American appropriation of Eastern religious concepts, and not to those concepts and practices as they actually exist in their proper milieu.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Prayer is Boring

The mystical is of the essence of Christianity, not the privileged way of the few. To be more precise: it means being wholly possessed by God and that is holiness. One cannot be holy unless one is a mystic and if we do not become mystics in this life we become such hereafter. This is the same thing as saying we cannot come to God by our own steam, he alone can bring us to himself.

Now the vast majority of spiritual authors, St. Teresa [of Avila] among them, claim that there are two paths to holiness, the mystical way and the ordinary way. This we cannot accept. The notion of the dual-carriage way derives from a misconception which another modern insight has led us to correct. The mystical has been identified with certain experiences. When these are present in a person such a one is a mystic or contemplative; he or she has received the gift of infused contemplation, not essential for holiness but undoubtedly a great help towards it.

Inevitably you get overtones of a high road and a low road… Firmly we deny the identification of this experience with the mystical grace of God.

Reflection – So now we come to more controversy… albeit not the kind of controversy that’s likely to generate scores of furious comments down below (deo gratias). That we are all called to be mystics, and that mysticism is not to be identified with the specific experiences it has traditionally been identified with, such as the prayer of quiet, ecstasies, trances, interior or exterior visions or locutions and so forth—this is not the majority opinion.

The ‘we’, by the way, of this and other passages is not a royal affectation but reflects that Burrows wrote this book in collaboration with two of her Carmelite sisters who she considered to be in living in a state of mystical union and whose insights were invaluable to her. She used pseudonyms for them, but I understand that one of them was Sr. Wendy Beckett who later attained fame for her art history videos. But I digress.

I agree with Burrows on this point. Elsewhere she clarifies that God is so utterly transcendent, so completely beyond and above us—which is a matter of Christian dogma and beyond dispute—that what we experience in prayer is at most the effect of his presence and not the presence itself. There is a presence, there is a touch, there is an action of God going on in our prayer, but the emotions, movements, sensations, and so forth that we may have at prayer are not God, but at best the effects of his hidden action and love.

This is a crucial insight, and most helpful. We go to pray and we don’t ‘experience’ anything. If we are unwary or badly formed, we conclude that our prayer ‘didn’t work.’ ‘I can’t pray’, we might conclude, and if we are really badly formed and don’t have anyone to help set us straight, we will conclude that we are ‘Marthas’ and not ‘Marys’, suited for service and work, but not for this sitting around with a rosary or a prayer book or a bible, bored out of our minds and wondering when it will be time to get up and do something again. So of course we won’t bother with that any further but just keep working away. This is a dreadful mistake.

You see, God wants us to be bored out of our minds with Him on a regular basis. Without this ‘pointless’ boredom, our work and our service will bear little fruit in our lives. God wants us to just be sitting there, at His door, waiting, trusting, trying to fix our minds on Him, but never dreaming for a minute that the real action of prayer lies in that. Rather, it lies in our trusting waiting, our choice to simply be in his presence, our feeble efforts, themselves only possible by his grace, to open ourselves up to his action and merciful grace.

Meanwhile, most of the time nothing much is going on, and we are distracted with our own thoughts, and feeling mighty dissatisfied with the whole process, and about as mystical and exalted as a sink full of dirty dishes. And that’s quite OK. That’s prayer.

And meanwhile what God is looking for is not someone in some exalted state of mind, but a humble contrite heart, open to his will and surrendered to it. That, and that alone, is the raw material out of which he can fashion a mystic, and that and that alone is the necessary human attitude that attains for us, all and always and entirely by his merciful grace, the kingdom of heaven, union with God, and salvation.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

A Case For Despair

If this book is saying anything it is this: none of us has any grounds for hope and confidence but the sheer goodness of God, the God who never disappoints. Discouragement can only arise when I am thinking that it is what I do that is most important.

No doubt God makes demands of us; all love does, but he alone can enable us to fulfill those demands. All he asks is that we trust him, take him at his word and do what we can and then we shall find that, in him, we can do what we can’t. ‘It is confidence and confidence alone that leads to love.’ We can’t love God; we can only want to love him, and even that ‘want’ is his blessed gift. It is the same whether we are just starting out—we must take God at his word, do what we can to please him, go on trusting, never asking for proofs: or whether we think we are far along the road and then are faced with the shattering fact (in itself too painful to take) that we have scarcely set out—we must cast ourselves into his arms, drop the sense of our own achievement, count it as ‘refuse for the sake of Christ’ and in that act we have leapt along the road further than we can know.
   Ruth Burrows, Guidelines for Mystical Prayer, 7-8

Reflection – I had to promise myself, when I thought of doing a series on the blog of quotes from this book, that I wouldn’t just spend the week in delirious fan-boy gushings about how wonderful Ruth Burrows is, how she answered all my questions when I read this book as a wee lad of 20, and how my whole spiritual life was set on a path of truth and freedom from then on (which is… not exactly the case, alas). I don’t want this blog to turn into a semi-deranged infomercial for Guidelines for Mystical Prayer.

It’s going to be hard to hold to that promise, I have to admit. Partly I am aware that Ruth Burrows may not be as well known as some of the other writers I tend to feature here, like, oh I don’t know, Pope Francis or Pope Benedict. Catherine Doherty is also more well known to many of my regular blog readers. But Burrows is a relatively obscure writer, and she deserves a much wider audience. So if I tend to gush a bit about her, forgive me.

This book certainly did help me, though, I have to be honest. For example, the above quote is very much at the heart of Burrows’ central insights. We have no hope, no prospect of success, no chance of getting anywhere in this life—none whatsoever. Except. Except for the gracious merciful love of God poured out in Jesus Christ.

There is a species of holy despair that does not lead to sadness and gloom but to peace and joy. I cannot be disappointed in myself because I expect nothing of myself. I cannot become discouraged because my courage is not my own, but His. I cannot lose heart at my lack of spiritual progress because I am wholly unconcerned with my spiritual progress which is God’s work, not mine.

My work and yours, as Burrows points out, is to “take God at his word, do what we can to please him, go on trusting, never asking for proofs,” and never imagine for a moment that our efforts are going to secure us any kind of spiritual success. Fr. John Callahan, the first priest of Madonna House and Catherine Doherty’s spiritual director, used to say to his directees ‘Your spiritual progress is none of your business.” Flannery O’Connor wrote in a letter that salvation was a process beginning at conception and extending past death into eternity, and the only part of it that was any of her concern was the present moment and her response to it.

This is a way of life that is actually very joyful and peaceful, once you get over yourself and realize what a small poor person you really are, and that that’s quite all right with God. We just have to do the duty of the moment each moment, and utterly count on God to meet us there and take us along in his grace to where we need to be next in our lives.

The other option is to live life as a project we have to achieve, a work we have to do, a construction we have to complete. Our spiritual life, our life project, becomes a heavy burden, an urgent ceaseless demand on our energies that we have to respond to with perfection and unflagging diligence. Our whole focus has to be on our own spiritual perfection, on getting our prayers right, on our love of God and neighbor being exactly what we think it should be.

In other words, our whole focus is on ourselves. And this is both joyless and futile. Our whole focus is to be on the Lord, not our own spiritual progress and perfection. It is this focus and this ‘holy despair’ of our own prospects for success that paradoxically makes us successful and gives us to some measure a happy joyful spirit along the way. In other words, ‘whoever loves his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.’