Thursday, October 31, 2013

What the Heart Wants

Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God
Matthew 5:8

Reflection –  I didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I started this series on the Beatitudes. Blessed are the poor… those who mourn… the meek… the hungry for righteousness… the merciful… and now the pure of heart. It’s quite something to unpack each Beatitude individually and really look at what each one is. A text we can read in a minute and forget about in the next minute has enough material in it for a life time of meditation.

Blessed are the pure of heart. Purity of heart is an elusive quality in our days of hyper-sexualized imagery saturating the culture, and a million and one distractions, diversions, toys, entertainments. We can know that it is not only about sex—we should know that, anyhow—but that it is about having our desires, our attention, our whole life and being focused on the ‘one thing necessary’ (Luke 10), but that doesn’t make it an easier virtue to attain at all.

Blessed are the pure of heart. But our hearts are wayward, obstinate, changeable, fickle. Mine is, anyhow. Nor has it been my experience, 47 years into the experiment of human life, that I can simply make my heart be otherwise by a sheer act of will. ‘The heart wants what it wants’, wrote Emily Dickinson—and most of us, almost all of us, find within our hearts a welter of wants, a tangled profusion of contradictory desires and muddled up longings.

We hunger and thirst for righteousness… and for other things, too. And that’s the fact of our fallen, fragmented humanity, and never more so in this age of distraction, diversion, culture-wide attention deficit disorder, of serial monogamy of the mind. I want what I want… now. Ten minutes later, it will be something else.

Blessed are the pure of heart. So are we to despair, then? Is God the ‘beatitude Nazi’, like the soup Nazi on Seinfeld, demanding an impossible standard of performance and exactitude before doling out his blessing? ‘No beatitude for you!’ if we don't do it just so?

It is, perhaps, in this beatitude that we are forcibly impressed with the fact that all the beatitudes, and holiness itself, resides first and always not in the frail human heart with its adulteries and idolatries and compromises, but in the Heart of Christ which is given over to us to be our first and greatest treasure.

Christ is the pure one, as he is the merciful, the meek, the mourning, the poor, the one hungry for righteousness. It is Christ and Christ alone who is our beatitude, and who draws us along on the path of the beatitudes. There is no holiness but Jesus, no virtue but Jesus, no love but Jesus. This is, fundamentally, our Christian faith.

I think here of the Madonna House practice of poustinia. Catherine Doherty brought this from her native Russia to us, and brought it forth as a spiritual practice for the community in the turbulent 1960s when so many things in our world were tossed up in the air like wheat and chaff. To sort it all out, to allow the winds of God to winnow our hearts and purify them in truth, she knew it would take radical prayer and silence.

So… poustinia. I realize many of my readers know what I’m talking about, but some don’t. It is, for us, a little log cabin or perhaps a spare room, sparsely furnished, with no decorations save perhaps an icon or two, and a cross without a corpus. There is the Bible to read, bread and water for sustenance, you, and God.

And… that’s all there is to it, really. Poustinia is the Russian word for desert, and that’s the desert: Bible, bread, water, you, God. 24 hours in silence and prayer with no structure, no rules, nothing but the living you and the living God.

Catherine saw that this was the great path to the purity of heart, the refinement of the soul, the washing away, the emptying of our beings of so much junk and folly and useless noise. And so in Madonna House we have poustinias for the past 50 years, and it has blessed our apostolate immeasurably.

I say all that because I think something like poustinia is needed in everyone’s lives today. Our world has gotten noisier and noisier and noisier. The pitfalls and traps and wild clamor of the world abound. If we want to attain any sort of purity of heart, we need some degree of silence, some degree of empty space in which the living God can dwell and drive out the money changers and merchants from the living temple of our souls.

Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God. It is in silence and prayer that we ‘see’ God, and so I leave you with that: we need this, and we need to find our way to it today, one way or another.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

To Have Our Life Made Beautiful

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy
Matthew 5:7
Reflection – Well, this is either the easiest beatitude for me to write about or the most difficult. Easy, because I’ve written an entire book on the subject. Difficult, for the same reason—what else could I possibly say that I haven’t already said.
I have decided to take the easy route today, slightly bleary with sleep as I am still. Here is a section from my book Going Home, from the last chapter called, indeed ‘Blessed’. I have been meditating on the parable of the prodigal son all through the book. Here, I am in the person of the elder brother, grappling with the revelation of the father’s mercy, and struggling to know how to make it my own. I hope you enjoy this excerpt, and if you do, that you buy the book:

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

I Don't Want to Waste Anything

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.
Matthew 5:6

Reflection – If the first three beatitudes confound us with their reversal of worldly notions of a good life—blessed are the poor, the mourning, the meek—then this fourth one simply challenges us deeply to examine our hearts. How much do we really want to be good? Do we hunger and thirst for it? Is righteousness, goodness, a fire blazing within us, a yearning of our whole being? Do we strive with every fiber of our being to seek what is good, to chase after virtue of conduct, speech, thought? Are we willing to pay any price, risk any danger, essay any arduous task, for the sake of righteousness?

Or is it a little more of a milk water affair: ‘it’s nice to be nice!’ Or, ‘Well, of course I want to be a good person, but… (fill in your conditions, exceptions, and limits here)’. A general vague commitment to being somewhat decent most of the time, as long as it’s not too hard or I don’t really want to do something else badly.

The saints—and remember, I’m doing this whole series on the beatitudes in light of the coming feast of All Saints—lived this beatitude to an extreme. That is why we remember them as saints. The phrase the Church uses is ‘heroic’ virtue—not simply a general commitment to a more or less OK life, but heroism in the pursuit of goodness.

So you have young girls getting devoured by wild beasts rather than break the vow of virginity they made to Christ, and countless other martyrs dying rather than denying Him. You have missionaries leaving the comfortable familiarity of their homes to lives of certain deprivation and almost certain death under foreign skies.

You have the great reformers of Church and society, and the servants of the poor—people like Vincent de Paul, Theresa of Calcutta, Philip Neri—who labored hard every day at great personal cost to make the world they lived in more compassionate, just, faith-filled, holy. And all the hosts of ascetics and monastics and mystics, abandoning all worldly good for the righteousness that comes from belonging to God and God alone.

The saints lived this fourth beatitude each in his or her own way, according to the specific call of God and the circumstances of life. But they blazed with a fire, each of them, to do what is right and to see that righteousness take root in the world.

Well, like I say, this beatitude is plenty confronting, certainly for me, and probably for you who are reading this, whoever you may be. We are not made to live comfortably and easily in this world. There is a task, a work, a labor God has given to us, and we really shouldn’t be too at ease for as long as it is ongoing.

But what are we to do? I can’t go to, say, Egypt and offer myself up as a martyr, nor is my specific vocation precisely that of the old school missionary. God has made it quite clear to me that I am to stay here in Canada until further notice. My scope for being a social or church reformer is fairly limited, although I am doing what I can on that score, I think. And asceticism… well, no one will be confusing me with Anthony of the Desert, at least not today.

My mind turns at this juncture, though, to another saint, who was neither martyr nor missionary nor great reformer nor (at least relatively) a great ascetic. I am thinking of St. Therese of Lisieux, who has been my personal best friend among the saints from way back. She hungered and thirsted after righteousness, and this hunger bore her into the Carmelite cloister.

But there, she found the way of this beatitude that is open to all of us, today, no matter what the circumstances of our life may be. Namely, she never missed an opportunity to do what is good, to deny herself, to make acts of faith, hope, love for God. Her life in the Carmelite cloister was a very ordinary one, really. She wasn’t much good at prayer, falling asleep in meditation. She was singularly devoid of sensible mystical graces. And without those kinds of graces, the life of a Carmelite is a fairly stark one: living in a drafty unheated convent, cooped up for life with a bunch of people you didn’t exactly choose and may not like, doing simple manual labor interspersed with long hours of (dry) prayer in a freezing cold chapel.

She simply chose to make the most of everything that happened to her. If she was sweeping a floor, she swept it for love of Jesus. If a sister was unkind to her, she received it with a smile for love of Jesus. If she had a bad cough (first sign of the tuberculosis that would kill her at age 23) she offered it for love of Jesus.

‘I don’t want to waste anything’ – a holy nun of my acquaintance says this. This is the way of the fourth beatitude. At every moment of our life, something is presented to us—a person, a task, a situation. Something. Don’t waste it! Do what is righteous, now. And, now. And, now again. That is the way of hunger and thirst for what is right, and that is the way of the saints.

Monday, October 28, 2013

People Who Aren't Worth Bothering About

Blessed are the meek, for they shall possess the earth.
Matthew 5:5

Reflection – The third beatitude comes to us as a direct challenge to the prevailing worldly attitude. We tend, we worldly people, to think that it is the aggressive and the loud, the pushy and the powerful, who end up winning the game of life and possessing the earth. ‘Whoever dies with the most toys wins,’ was the joke so-called when I was a lad in the 1980s. I don’t think it’s changed all that much.
I’m not sure meekness is even seen as a virtue particularly any more. Who wants to be ‘meek’. Isn’t that being a pushover, a patsy, a wimp, a perpetual victim? What good does that do? And again, as the beatitudes of Jesus so often force us to ask, what on earth is so ‘blessed’ about that?

Well, first, a little Greek and Hebrew to the rescue. This is a case where it actually does help to know the ancient languages. The word in Matt 5:5 translated as ‘meek’ is praus (you’ll have to imagine the umlaut over the ‘u’, as I can’t figure out how to do it in Mac Word). Pronounced: pra-ees. Praus is the Greek word for the Hebrew anaw from which we get the plural anawim, the poor, the lowly ones, the ones who have no defense against life and its ravages, who have no recourse but the Lord.

Blessed are the anawim, the little ones, the poor of the world who have nothing but God on their side. So that clears that up, right? No? Well, for starters, it is a matter of record in the history of Israel that whenever a marauding army of this or that empire would sweep through Israel or Judah, all the powerful people, the leaders of the nation, the intelligentsia, the rich, would be killed or carried off into exile.

The people who weren’t worth bothering with, who posed no threat to the imperial power structure, who were for the most part left alone? The anawim. The am ha-aretz—the people of the land, who de facto inherited the ‘earth’ of Israel because they were the last ones left, because they didn’t matter much one way or the other.

So scripturally the weak and the lowly, the meek and the poor, are the very ones who end up making it through, end up being the remnant who survive. Now, that’s all well and good scripturally, but what does it mean for you and me here and now today? Is it relevant to our lives?

I think it is deeply relevant, of course. As I see it (and I would never claim that my take on it is the last word), it’s all about where we find our security. Is your security in your possessions? One house fire, one natural disaster, one bad economic downturn, and they’re all gone. Is your security in being surrounded by people you love—family, friends? But they might not be there, either—all flesh is passing away.

Is your security in your own strength, intelligence, force of will, charm of body or manner? Ummm… all that has a shelf life, you know, and it doesn’t really secure much, as it turns out. Or maybe your security is in being a really, really good person, being faithful to your religious duties and being nice all the time. That doesn’t work, either. Sin has a way of cropping up in all our lives, and anyhow bad things happen to good people like clockwork in this world.

The only real security is to have no security but the Lord and his mercy and love. That is the one reality in life that does not fail, that cannot fail. The ‘meek’, the anawim, the poor of the land, are forced to this because they really don’t have anything else but mercy to live by. Those of us who may still have one or two other cards to play or at least think we do are nonetheless called to imitate them, to adopt that attitude of heart.

To have nothing but God to rely on, and to rely on nothing but God—this makes you indestructible. To have as your sole prized possession the mercy and love of God means you can never be robbed of anything that really matters to you. The ‘earth’, the land we possess is the kingdom of God, not this or that bit of real estate. And that, as far as I understand it, is what this third beatitude means.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

A Blessing in a Very Good Disguise

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Matthew 5:4

Reflection – I’m going through the Beatitudes this week, in view of the upcoming feast of All Saints. The Church chooses the beatitudes as the Gospel for that feast, and it is the beatitudes that give us the clearest simplest picture of Christian sanctity.

This one’s a tough one. Well, no one has ever said being a saint would be easy. But really, who wants to mourn? Grief is a terrible thing—as it happens, priests find themselves quite often in the presence of grief, both parish priests who of course are ‘in at the death’ constantly, and those of us who do more long-term direction. It is often when people are grieving deeply that they are impelled to seek pastoral care and counsel. Sometimes it seems to me that I do an awful lot of comforting those who mourn - well, at least I do my bit to keep the Kleenex corporation in business.

There is something about serious grief that undoes us, that is just ‘too much’ for us, that sets us adrift in life like nothing else quite does. How on earth can this be ‘blessed’? And how on earth are we to receive this beatitude from the Lord as a blessing, as a path to holiness?

I have to admit that I’m not quite here on this one, understanding-wise. But I think it is, in fact, precisely this aspect of grief, how hard it hits us, how much it undoes us, unmoors us, rocks us off our foundations, that is in fact a blessing in one heck of a good disguise. Because, you know we’re not made for this world and this life, right? We are placed here in this world, and it is our home and we are to love it, but this is not where we will be forever. And there can be a deadly complacency, a worldliness in the truest sense of that word, where we hunker down and nestle in to this life, this world, the little home and little comfortable place we have fashioned for ourselves here. We can make ourselves very much at home in the world, and in consequence completely forget that it’s not forever.

Well, grief shatters all that. It’s brutal, it’s horrible, it’s painful beyond belief, but it shatters utterly our worldly complacency, forces us to face the dreadful fact that everyone we love, everything we care about, and we ourselves are all passing away, are all going to die, and in fact this one who we love has just died and we cannot bear the pain of it.

Tough stuff indeed, and I don’t think anyone but Jesus could get away with saying ‘blessed are you’ when you’re in this state. But, well, it’s true. Or rather, it is Truth, because He is Truth. And of course the corollary is vital: for you shall be comforted. Our complacency and worldly comfort is shattered, and the hope of heaven opens us for us, not perhaps with some great vivid emotional force, but as a matter of faith.

In the face of serious, deep grief, our attachment to this world and this life is, in fact, weakened. We have all seen the phenomenon of a closely united married couple, and how very often when the one dies, the other does not really live too much longer. Grief gets us moving, and combined with faith and hope, it can get us moving right out of this world and into eternity.

And this leads us to the grief of the saints, which is connected to this, but slightly different. In the face of death of one we love, we experience in grief a great outrage, a great offence. ‘This should not happen!’ we think and feel, strongly. And this is true. Death should not happen. The parting, the sundering, the separation-all of this is wrong, all comes from a world that has gone awry.

The saints who mourn deeply do so because they love, not just their spouses or their children, but the whole world. And they see the whole world in its ‘wrongness’, its captivity to death and futility, its fallen state. And they mourn, not because the world is so rotten, but because the world is so beautiful, so precious, so good… and it has been blighted by human pride and selfishness and malice.

None of us shed too many tears when some cheap plastic product bought on sale at Walmart breaks and has to be replaced. But if a great irreplaceable work of art, something beautiful beyond words and impossible to reproduce is marred by human folly or ill will, this is a great loss and sorrow. The world, creation, and the human person is God’s great masterpiece, God’s work of art, and it exceeds human artistry by an infinite degree.

So the saints mourn over the marring of God’s art. And they are blessed, for this grief makes them yearn for heaven with a passionate intensity. Not because they want to escape a lousy world, but because it is in heaven that God’s artistry will be restored and renewed in its perfect beauty.

Grief is all about love. No love, no tears, with love comes tears. The saints love greatly, so there are tears aplenty on the road to sanctity. But it is love that heals the world, and love that bears us over the threshold of the world into a world renewed by love, where the consolation of God will come to all the grieving, all the lost, all those who mourn.