The faithful struggle requires a certain intentionality and attentiveness. We must, as the wise author of Proverbs says, “Keep your heart with all vigilance; for from it flow the springs of life.” [Prov. 4.23] Such wisdom — knowledge of the attitude we need in order to press forward and the behavior consistent with the attitude — is essential to the faithful struggle.
Here is what one of the Church Fathers has to say:
“Be attentive to yourself, lest an unlawful word come to be hidden in your heart” [Deut. 15-9]…”Be attentive to yourself,” it says. Each of the animals by nature has from the God who has constructed all things the resources to guard its own structure. And you would find, if you observed carefully, that most of the non-rational animals have without training an aversion to what is harmful, and again by a certain natural attraction, they hasten toward the enjoyment of beneficial things. Therefore also God who is educating us has given us this great precept, that as this comes to them by nature, it comes to us by the help of reason, and as they are set right without reflection, we may accomplish this through the attentive and continuous care of thoughts. And guarding strictly the resources given us by God, let us flee sin as the non-rational animals flee harmful foods but pursue justice as they pursue nourishing grass. So be attentive to yourself, that you may be able to distinguish what is harmful from what is healthful. But attentiveness is of two kinds: on the one hand we can gaze intently with the bodily eyes at visible things, and on the other hand by its noetic faculty the soul can apply itself to the contemplation of incorporeal things. If we say that the precept refers to the activity of the eyes, immediately we would find it to be impossible. For how could one grasp the whole of oneself with one’s eye? For neither can the eye be used to see itself, nor to reach the head, nor to see the back, nor the face, nor the arrangement of the internal organs deep within. Now it is impious to say that the precepts of the Spirit are impossible. It remains therefore to hear what is prescribed as applying to the activity of the mind. Be attentive to yourself, that is, observe yourself carefully from every side. Let the eye of your soul be sleepless to guard yourself. You walk in the midst of snares [Sir 9.131.] Hidden traps have been set by the enemy in many places. Therefore observe everything, “that you may be saved like a gazelle from traps and like a bird from snares” [Prov 6.5]. For because of keenness of sight the gazelle is not taken by the traps, whence also it gives its name to its own sharp-sightedness; and the bird by lightness of wing ascends higher than the plots of the hunters, when it is alert. Therefore, see that you do not show yourself as worse than the non-rational animals in guarding yourself, lest when caught in the snares you become prey to the devil, taken captive by him into his will [2 Tim. 2.26]. Excerpt from “On the Human Condition,” by St. Basil the Great
The faithful struggle, we are coming to realize, is ongoing. It is not what we engage in until we get an answer and then let go of the struggle. God’s ways, the unfolding of His purposes in everyday life is organic. It is like a plant. The next growth emerges out of the previous growth not in packets with empty space in between, but in an unceasing development.
Oh yeah… There is that word “unceasing.” Seems to me that St. Paul uses it to speak our life of prayer. Prayer is not something we do and then stop and then do again later with empty space in between. It is unceasing. Why? Because it is all about union with the unceasing work of God. So, our faithful struggle, our pressing forward, leaning into the Way over against all of the repetitive patterns of the “false self” — death, is unceasing.
Here is where a whole other issue arises. Definitions and preconceived notions about words like “peace” and “rest” that we have acquired do not fit into this paradigm of The Way. It all sounds very contradictory. Is not peace and rest the absence of struggle and striving?? Well yes, according to the Holy Tradition, there will come a time when our current context of struggle will end. The warfare will end, the striving cease, the tears wiped away, etc. Let me quote a famous hymn from the Episcopal Hymnal:
They cast their nets in Galilee just off the hills of brown;
such happy, simple fisherfolk before the Lord came down.
Contented, peaceful fishermen, before they ever knew
the peace of God that filled their hearts brimful and broke them too.
Young John who trimmed the flapping sail, homeless, in Patmos died.
Peter, who hauled the teeming net, headdown was crucified.
The peace of God it is not peace, but strife closed in the sod,
Yet let us pray for just one thing–the marvelous peace of God.
The peace of God includes struggle as an essential aspect in the context of everyday life in this present darkness. This is the peace in which we struggle (learn) to rejoice about rather than rage against. It is a peace/rest that passes understanding but is not unavailable to us just because we do not understand it. It is Mystery. Practical Mystery.
Learning is a struggle. Letting go of definitions and preconceived notions and our little (and big) re-definitions of truth that make our actions OK in our own minds, is difficult. It is a struggle to maintain a teachable spirit. But, struggle we must.
5 Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding;
6 in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight. (Proverbs 3.5-6)
Teach me, O Lord, that my attachment to my current definitions of peace and rest deprive me of Your peace and rest. Grant me grace to peacefully and restfully and unceasingly engage in the faithful struggle.
Today’s readings continue the theme of faithful struggle. (See this link for the texts.)
Let me venture some of my own non-authoritative thoughts regarding this theme. I make no claims to the title “expert.” These are my convictions. You must submit them to the testing of the Holy Spirit. I lay claim to the title, on my best days, “klutzy companion in the faithful struggle.”
Our tendency is to believe what we need is an answer for the situations we face. With answer in hand/mind, we are convinced, we can rightly navigate the situation.
But is this what God desires? That is not what the epistle and gospel reading seem to indicate. They speak of a different approach. An approach that goes against the grain of “worldly training” and “the wisdom of this world” as the readings from Corinthians have clearly indicated for the last several days.
My conviction is that what God desires is an approach of humility. An aspect of that humility is concrete trust in God. It is a willingness to press into the situation with an attitude of yieldedness, receptivity, disciplined intentionality, singularity of purpose and responsiveness (a desire to do whatever it takes to act in agreement with God’s revelation as it unfolds in the midst of the circumstance). Peter is, even in his statement “depart from me for I am a sinful man,” leaning into the struggle to relate to Jesus based on the revelation of the truth. There is nothing sloppy or passive or a “whatever” attitude in any of this.
The answer we need before and as we enter situations about which we are asking, “What is God’s will?,” is faithful struggle.
Now, of course, we are not without a whole lot of wisdom as we lean into the struggle, seeking the blessing of God hidden like a treasure in the field of our circumstance. We have the Scriptures, the tradition of prayer in all its variety, and concentric circles of fellowship environments that are consistently communicating the wisdom and will of God to us. We already know a lot about God’s “M.O.” and have developed a sensitivity to His leading.
Nonetheless, it is the way of the Holy Spirit to make sure we are living in a state of radical dependence on Him and not using what we know as ready-made formulas. He invites us to stay relational rather than revert to propositional living.
Richard Rohr characterizes this humble participation as “receptive awareness whereby you take in all that the situation, the moment, the event offers without eliminating anything. That does not come naturally. You have to work at it and develop practices whereby you recognize your compulsive and repetitive patterns.”
Rohr has commented on another occasion regarding what I am calling the approach of “faithful struggle”:
I am just like you. My immediate response to most situations is with reactions of attachment, defensiveness, judgment, control, and analysis. I am better at calculating… Let’s admit that we all start there. The False Self seems to have the “first gaze” at almost everything.
The first gaze is … too busy weighing and feeling itself: ‘How will this affect me?’ or ‘How can I get back in control of this situation?’ This leads us to an implosion, a self-preoccupation that cannot enter into communion with the other or the moment. In other words, we first feel our feelings before we can relate to the situation and emotion of the other. Only after God has taught us how to live ‘undefended,’ can we immediately stand with and for the other, and in the present moment. It takes lots of practice.
On my better days, when I am ‘open, undefended, and immediately present,’ as Gerald May says. I can sometimes begin with a contemplative mind and heart. Often I can get there later and even end there, but it is usually a second gaze. The True Self seems to always be ridden and blinded by the defensive needs of the False Self. It is an hour-by-hour battle, at least for me. I can see why all spiritual traditions insist on daily prayer, in fact, morning, midday, evening, and before we go to bed, too! Otherwise, I can assume that I am back in the cruise control of small and personal self-interest, the pitiable and fragile ‘Richard self.’
So, the approach of “faithful struggle” is, in and of itself, a “faithful struggle”!!
It seems that “walking by faith and not by sight” is not something we do until we have gathered enough information. It is The Way that is Life-Giving.
“Help us, save us, have mercy on us, and keep us, O God, by your grace.”
7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith; 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Let those of us who are mature be thus minded; and if in anything you are otherwise minded, God will reveal that also to you. 16 Only let us hold true to what we have attained. 17 Brethren, join in imitating me, and mark those who so live as you have an example in us. 18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, live as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is the belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. 20 But our commonwealth is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him even to subject all things to himself.
You could say to me: but the Church is made up of sinners, we see them everyday. And this is true: we are a Church of sinners; and we sinners are called to let ourselves be transformed, renewed, sanctified by God. There has been in history the temptation for some to say: the Church is only the Church of the pure, the perfectly consistent, and expels all the rest. This is not true! This is heresy! The Church, that is holy, does not reject sinners; she does not reject us all; she does not reject because she calls everyone, welcomes them, is open even to those furthest from her, she calls everyone to allow themselves to be enfolded by the mercy, the tenderness and the forgiveness of the Father, who offers everyone the possibility of meeting him, of journeying toward sanctity…
In the Church, the God we encounter is not a merciless judge, but like the Father in the Gospel parable (Lk 15,11). You may be like the son who left home, who sank to the depths, farthest from the Gospel. When you have the strength to say: I want to come home, you will find the door open. God will come to meet you because he is always waiting for you, God is always waiting for you, God embraces you, kisses you and celebrates. That is how the Lord is, that is how the tenderness of our Heavenly Father is.
The Lord wants us to belong to a Church that knows how to open her arms and welcome everyone, that is not a house for the few, but a house for everyone, where all can be renewed, transformed, sanctified by his love, the strongest and the weakest, sinners, the indifferent, those who feel discouraged or lost. Pope Francis , General Audience of 02/10/2013
Labor Day – 2014 – Contemplating the Blessed Sacrament of Labor – Claw hammer, Stethoscope, Washer/Dryer, and Textbook
Today is Labor Day.
I was having lunch with some friends last week. The subject of Labor Day came up and one of them reminisced about how the parish he grew up in had a “blessing of the tools” on the Sunday before Labor Day. All of the members brought a tool that represented their labor. In the context of the Holy Eucharist, the tools were blessed.
What a great sacramental action. The priorities are rightly ordered. It is not our job to figure out a way to fit Christ into our workplace/career. It is just the opposite. We are to place our labor into the context of Christ Jesus. In Him we live and move and go about our daily labor.
Oh yes. Lets let go of the wrong-headed categorization and comparisons of labor in terms of worth. And, it is folly to attempt to measure their worth over against one another or in convenient terms of salary, time/product ratios, etc. The arena of labor and the kind of labor knows no boundaries. It includes school, workshop, corporate desk, kitchen, hospital/clinic, orphanage, homeless shelter, etc. Your labor, no matter the kind, if in harmony with the commandments of God is holy unto the Lord.
And note that it is in the context of the Holy Eucharist. Our labor is a sacrifice of loving obedience to Christ as we abide/live in Christ.
So often we set our daily tasks over against our “time with the Lord” as if they are in competition for our devotion at a given moment. Jesus does not command an either/or regarding our relationship with Him and our daily work. The key is not to figure out a way to “balance the two” or “fit everything in.” Rather the key is to place one inside the other so they constitute a mysterious third option of the not dualistic “both/and.”
This is the Eucharistic option. This is the life-giving option. This is the enlivening option. This is The Way.
John 6.27-40 (RSV)
25 When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” 26 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27 Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you; for on him has God the Father set his seal.” 28 Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” 29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” 30 So they said to him, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see, and believe you? What work do you perform? 31 Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'” 32 Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world.” 34 They said to him, “Lord, give us this bread always.” 35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst. 36 But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. 37 All that the Father gives me will come to me; and him who comes to me I will not cast out. 38 For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me; 39 and this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up at the last day. 40 For this is the will of my Father, that every one who sees the Son and believes in him should have eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.”
Thank you, Lord, for the Mystery of Holy Labor – Liturgy – the work of our hands, minds, hearts, on behalf of all and for the benefit of all – in and through and of Christ Jesus.
There are times when the Lord reminds us of how we got to where we are in our relationship with Him. How we arrived at the degree of maturity we now enjoy. In those moments the Holy Spirit reminds us of where we learned certain things that are for us now, just the way we now naturally see things and live life. He reminds us that there was a time when what is now so natural was awkwardly and painfully new.
Let me give you a real life example from my journey of salvation.
When I think about prayer, I do not think of it as something “I am doing,” but something the Holy Spirit is accomplishing — being and then doing — in me. It is, in other words, Christ Jesus who is praying in me by the agency of the Holy Spirit. I do pray and my prayer is the prayer of Christ Jesus. I do not mean I imitate or mimic Him. No, it is He Who prays in me and that is, mysteriously, my substantial prayer.
It is hard for me to conceive of prayer in any other way. Now, there was a time when that was not the case. I saw prayer as something “I did” albeit by the power of the Holy Spirit. But, it was still somehow separate even though it was by grace.
So, the question is, “When did that conceptual shift take place?” I read a passage yesterday that served as the Holy Spirit’s reminder that that shift occurred when I was in seminary. It occurred when I read a book entitled, The Go-Between God, by John Taylor published in 1972. I still have my copy from the mid-70’s somewhere among all the boxes of books in my garage!
The point is that I now pray a prayer every morning as part of my morning prayers that articulates this very point. But, if I am honest, I cannot say that I learned this concept when I found that prayer although it felt that way. No, the real beginning of the realization, the planting of the seed that has been bearing fruit for the last 15 years or so, was planted back in the mid-70’s.
Here are both the passage from The Go-Between God that was the original seed and the fruit of that seed in my life, the “Morning Prayer of Philaret of Moscow” which Christ Jesus prays in me every morning….
The prayer of the first Christians was simply a reflection of the living Christ in their midst. It was prayer ‘in his name’; and by this, we mean not that a formula was added at the end of every petition, but that in all their prayer they joined themselves to the prayer of Christ himself, and knew that it was his spirit which prayed in them. The best worship they could offer was simply his self-oblation in them. Praying in that Spirit, the Christian’s prayer is immersed in the ocean of the Son’s communion with the Father: ‘Praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God.’ And again, ‘Keep your watch with continuous prayer and supplication, praying the whole time in the Spirit. With constant wakefulness and perseverance you will find opportunity to pray for all the Christian brethren.’ ‘We do not even know how we ought to pray, but through our inarticulate groans the Spirit himself is pleading for us, and God who searches our inmost being knows what the Spirit means, because he pleads for God’s own people in God’s own way.’
To live in prayer, therefore, is to live in the Spirit, and to live in the Spirit is to live in Christ. I am not saying that prayer is a means or a method which we have to use in order to have more of Christ in us or in order to be more fully possessed by the Spirit. I am saying something simpler and more fundamental: to live in Christ is to live in prayer. Prayer is not something you do; it is a style of living. It is living under the witness which the Spirit bears with our spirit that we are children of God. Such a witness lays upon us the aweful freedom of adult sonship. Prayer is our response to both the privilege and the responsibility whereby we cry Abba, Father! To engage in the mission of God, therefore, is to live this life of prayer; praying without ceasing, as St Paul puts it, that is to say, sustaining a style of life that is focused upon God. This is indeed to engage in the mission of the Holy Spirit by being rather than by doing. To realise that the heart of mission is communion with God in the midst of the world’s life will save us from the demented activism of these days. The Go-Between God, by John Taylor
O Lord, grant me to greet the coming day in peace. Help me in all things to rely upon Your holy will. In every hour of the day reveal Your will to me. Bless my dealings with all who surround me. Teach me to treat all that comes to me throughout the day with peace of soul, and with the firm conviction that Your will governs all. In all my deeds and words guide my thoughts and feelings. In unforseen events let me not forget that all are sent by You. Teach me to act firmly and wisely, without embittering or embarrassing others. Give me strength to bear the fatigue of this coming day with all that it will bring. Direct my will, teach me to pray, pray You Yourself in me. Amen.
The Incarnation, Ascension, and Pentecost are the feasts that reveal the nature of God’s absolute presence NOT His relative absence. The following excerpt from one of John Henry Newman’s sermons elucidates this mystery. By the way, for those who have the time and inclination, the whole sermon is well worth reading.
“If I go, I will send the Advocate to you”
Christ really is with us now, whatever be the mode of it. This he says expressly Himself; “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world” (Mt 28,20)… You may be led to explain his declaration thus; “He has come again, but in his Spirit; that is, his Spirit has come instead of him; and when it is said that he is with us, this only means that his Spirit is with us.” No one, doubtless, can deny… that the Holy Ghost is come; but why has he come? to supply Christ’s absence, or to accomplish his presence? Surely to make him present. Let us not for a moment suppose that God the Holy Ghost comes in such sense that God the Son remains away. No; he has not so come that Christ does not come, but rather he comes that Christ may come in his coming. Through the Holy Ghost we have communion with Father and Son. “In Christ we are built together,” says Saint Paul, “for an habitation of God through the Spirit” and: “Strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man, that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith” (Ep 2,22; 3,16f). The Holy Spirit causes, faith welcomes, the indwelling of Christ in the heart. Thus the Spirit does not take the place of Christ in the soul, but secures that place to Christ…
The Holy Spirit, then, vouchsafes to come to us, that by his coming Christ may come to us, not carnally or visibly, but may enter into us. And thus he is both present and absent; absent in that he has left the earth, present in that he has not left the faithful soul; or, as he says himself, “The world sees me no more, but you see me.” (Jn 14, 19).
Blessed John Henry Newman (1801-1890), “The Spiritual Presence of Christ in the Church”