The summer is over, the harvest is in and we are not saved. Jeremiah
You might chalk it up to the waning of the light, or to the overcast skies. Regardless of the cause, the change from summer to fall often stirs up a case melancholy in our souls. The shrubs I purchased last July and watered in their containers through the hot summer are still waiting for me to plant them. A year is winding down and I am looking at what remains undone, unsatisfied, and unfulfilled in my life.
A little mouse has found the bird feeder outside my window. He shimmies up the pole each day and gobbles the sunflower seeds and cracked corn. I suppose I should sic my cat after him, but I haven’t the heart to intrude on his salvation with her teeth in his throat.
Autumn’s teeth are biting into my heart. I don’t notice the pain as long as I am working. Then there it is, asking for my attention. A young woman described to me the pain she was feeling as like a splinter working itself out. “I think I need to just feel the pain I have stuffed for so long.” Another woman avoids sitting still to pray and listen to God. When I asked if it was because that was so painful, she began to weep in recognition.
What is it that will save us? What will rescue us from our incurable wound, as Jeremiah calls the distress of his people? Will the politicians scrambling for public offices? Will the latest technology? Will scientific advances? Will new leadership? Will my working night and day save us?
In the growing dark of autumn, reality appears more nuanced, layered, and resonant to me, than life as we tend to live it — skimming over the surface, subsisting on sound bites, condensation, slogans, and bumper stickers. In my fall funk I am suspicious of easy answers, human arrogance, and frenzied activity.
I am not alone in this assessment. People come for spiritual guidance. They sit down and reflect prayerfully upon their lives. They unpack their days and their opinions, lift and hold them to the light. They savor, grieve, rage, and weep. Sometimes they talk about how they do not fit in at their churches. Some are looking for more depth. Sometimes they ramble and are hard to follow. One person sits and simply says, “I do not know. I don’t know,” over and over. Sometimes they thank me for the safety and freedom they feel here.
I listen and pray and observe the Spirit’s dance in their stories. I witness the subtle shifts and changes in their hearts. These individuals possess that rare gift, an inner life, an examined inner life. They have taken responsibility for what is going on in that inner life. They understand how the truth of their interior reality shapes their outer experience. They are engaged in the serious and critically important work of personal transformation, self understanding, and deepening faith.
What I do is to stay with them in their pain, even when they can’t stand to stay with themselves. I believe, when they cannot believe. I hold up a light, as they discover the healing and freedom that wait beyond their darkness.
Many of us want to foster change in our world and institutions without doing the deep and painful inner work of our own transformation. How can I ask a whole community to change without being intimate with my own pain and my resistance to the cross of suffering in my life?
Thomas Keating invites us to understand our personal pain in a larger context, “Whatever you are going through is your invitation to participate in the redemption of the world.” The implication here is that healing for us all is made available through how we as individuals respond to the pain in our lives. This redemptive, life giving power of suffering love is modeled for us by Jesus.
The French activist and mystic, Simone Weil, writing in the late 1930s, observed that “The moral revival that certain people wish to pose will be much worse than the condition it is meant to cure. If our present suffering ever leads to revival, this will not be brought about through slogans, but in silence and moral loneliness, through pain, misery and terror, in the profoundest depths of each man’s spirit.”
We are all trying to get by the best we can, taking our harvest where we find it. We are still not saved. The cat lurks. The market falls. You can’t find a job.
Perhaps what is called for in this waning of the light is the ability to be compassionately present to our collective suffering with love and faith. Could we not trust that out of the profoundest depths of our spirits, as we die to ourselves and the way we want things to be, unimaginable new life is already putting out tiny rootlets, waiting to emerge in some distant spring?
If you can’t believe that, I do not fault you.
We all have days like that. Besides, it’s autumn.
In the mean time, lean on me.
Read more about prayer www.fromholyground.org, Tracking Holiness – Newsletter
Maybe you have taken on a very difficult and demanding task. Maybe you have been engaged in a burst of creative activity. Or perhaps, you have been involved in the long, slow, steady, outpouring of yourself for family, friends, or your job.
You may have noticed the signs: an anxious, sleepless night here or there; drinking too much caffeine or alcohol; not enough time to get to the grocery store; a sudden attraction to playing solitaire, and a rush of those Please-Lord-give-me-the-strength-to-do-this prayers.
In my case I was following my own devices again, rushing ahead of the Spirit, plowing my own path. Finally I was stopped by a sharp, shard of sorrow in my heart, a sense of restless unease, and the accompanying guilt and self-recrimination about my lack of motivation. I did not miss God’s irony that this should assail me over the Labor Day holiday.
After thirty years of devoting myself to prayer, I am amazed at how hard it still is to expose myself to the direct presence of Christ. I really think I would be the one in the back of the crowd, wanting desperately to push through to touch his robe, but fearful and cautious, and resigned to making the best of things on my own.
Many of us find it easy to read about faith and prayer. Books on these topics are best sellers. Countless people read the Bible. Most of us do not have much trouble telling God what we need. We may even write out a list of our needs and longings and hand it to the person in front of us, asking, “Would you pass this on up to Jesus, for me?”
What I hadn’t done was the simple, radical exposure of myself and my need to God. What I hadn’t done for several weeks was a sustained, still, silent offering of my being to the being of God. This is what I believe truly heals and redeems: contact with Holiness, that mysterious communion and co-mingling of my spirit with the Spirit, a dance of love beyond my understanding or control.
I know why I avoid it and why I, suppose, that I have to write about it. The reason is that this communion may hurt at first. The exposure of a raw, chaffed heart to the burning brightness of Grace can be excruciating. (Yes, that is the word for it: ex- crucifix, from the cross.) It may be the last thing we want to do. So we often just tell God about it, then get up and go on fretting, and look about for something to do, anything other than just sitting there in that fear and pain.
Now think for a moment. If you were sick, would you not pay attention to your symptoms, maybe check them out on the internet, and go to a physician and describe what you are feeling? And then, would you get up from your chair and go home, before the doctor had a chance to ask questions, to examine you, run tests, and prescribe your treatment?
Surely you would you wait for the examination. You would answer questions. You would you lie down on the table, bare your chest to the stethoscope, your arm to the blood pressure cuff, and take whatever tests the doctor advised. You would take your medicine and follow a treatment plan.
I had been making drive-by visits to God, where I would drop off my laundry or tell God what I need for today. I was sipping those devotions for busy people, spouting sound bite prayers on the run. I was not coming before God and disrobing. I was not holding still for God to search my heart and probe my mind. I would not wait for his grace to move into me, to absorb the pain, to refresh and heal me. Further, it was all about me. I was all about me. I had nary a thought of what God might desire or need from me.
We fool ourselves if we think a quick shot of God, a pithy quote, or Bible verse alone will do it. God desires a relationship with us, not a power lunch, and depth relationships require leisure, attention, vulnerability, and mutuality.
Part of us really does desire this. However, another part of us is just not that interested. I hear about this internal conflict over and over in my practice of spiritual direction. People are sincere and have good intentions. Yet nearly everyone I know finds him or herself facing obstacles to a sustained presence to God.
Try it. Find a quiet place where you will not be interrupted. Set a timer. Twenty minutes is good. Ten minutes will do. Even five minutes can hold a miracle. Breathe a while. Just be there and allow yourself to be open to Christ, the patient physician, who has been waiting for you for an eternity. Now right off, you may notice all sorts of responses in yourself: a sudden urge to get up and tend to some task; some buried pain rising up, burning and stinging like really bad heart burn. You will take little sorties into the past and into future. You will write fiction, little novellas, about your life. You will discover some hurt or slight or worry to gnaw on.
Just stay there. Hold still. You are getting a CT scan. Don’t move. This time is for God’s examination of you. What you think and how you feel about this isn’t all that important. The physician is at work. Trust that. You may feel panic or anger or despair. You may feel deep peace and joy. Whatever you feel, just stay there opening yourself to the one who loves and cares for you beyond your wildest dreams.
When the timer rings, give thanks as honestly as you can. Then do the same thing the next day and the day after and the day after. Don’t look for “results,” just be obedient in allowing the doctor to heal you. Thomas Keating calls this form of centering prayer “divine therapy.” You, of course, may also read the Bible, pray in other ways that you are drawn to, do acts of love and service, and whatever else that seems right for you.
Sometimes this prayer is like detox, a weaning from some addiction, and we go through the painful withdrawal of whatever we may have been substituting for God in our lives. Other times this prayer is like the surrendered offering of Mary to the angel, Let it be to me according to thy word.
Always such yielded prayer is an act of faith in the mystery of God’s love and purposeful activity in the human heart and soul.
Hold your eyes on God and leave the doing to him.
That is all the doing you need to worry about. St. Jeanne de Chantal
Posted in contemplation, Prayer, Spiritual Practices, spirituality
Tagged Bible, centering prayer, Christianity, God, Jesus, Religion and Spirituality, surrender, Thomas Keating