This is a blog that I post to several times a week although not necessarily daily. These reflections are triggered by the scripture found in the lectionary used by many Christian denominations. While I am part of the Catholic tradition, these posts are not --or rarely--sectarian. I try to put myself in the space of a of Jesus Christ and listen to words that come to me as I read and pray the scriptures. Each post also includes a photograph. These rarely have any connection to the content of the post but are simply pleasing images that I capture as I make my pilgrimage through life.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

What keeps me from listening to the Divine One? Expanded and revised

Lookout Mountain, Denver CO
If the Divine One is in everything and in every event, how is it that I don't experience that?  How is it that I don't hear or even listen?  Can it be that I am not present to the reality around me, the reality within which I live and move?

It seems that most of the time I am occupied with my own internal life and simply being unaware.  If I am not aware of the people and events around me--on their own terms, not mine--how can I ever be present to the Divine One?  Just being does not come naturally to me.  It takes a conscious effort to slow down and observe without any kind of agenda.  For me, this is difficult.

Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), wrestled with this problem and came to the conclusion that desire was at the root of the problem.  If we experience other people and things as objects of our desires, we don't really experience them but rather our desires.  He expressed this in "The First Principle and Foundation," a prayer that is central to the Jesuit spirituality he developed.  David Fleming, S.J. wrote a modern version he entitled, "The Goal and Purpose of Life."  While I was experiencing the 19th Annotation of the Spiritual Exercises, I wrote my own prayer based on his.

Goal and Purpose of Life
October 2013 
You created me to know, love, and serve you.  There is no other purpose for my life, nor need there be any other.
All creation is from you and is meant to support me in living out my purpose.  All creation forms a “context of gift” into which you have birthed me.  Nothing you have made is anything else but good, true, and beautiful because all is one with you and is an expression of your unfathomable love.  I can use creation in ways that are conducive to my purpose in life or I can use it to retard that purpose.  It is my choice and it is based on what advances your reign and what retards it..
Thus my fundamental stance is one of a caring, involved indifference toward creation so that my choices are ones that are based on pursuing the goal and purpose of my life.  I should not fix my desire on

  • health or sickness, 
  • wealth or poverty, 
  • success or failure, 
  • a long life or short one, 
  • acceptance or rejection, 
  • order or chaos, 
  • pleasure or pain, 
  • serenity or turmoil, 
  • connectedness or isolation, 
  • strength or weakness, 
  • knowledge or ignorance.  
I pray for the grace to respond ever more deeply to your loving presence within me so I too can say with St. Paul, "Now, not I live, but Christ lives in me."
So it is "desire" that impairs my ability to listen to the Divine One.  It is not what I desire as much as the desiring itself.  Those desires whether for "good" things or "bad" things prevent me from being fully present to my reality at the moment.  If I am not engaged with my reality at the moment, I cannot be present to the Divine One who is always there in that reality.  It is not so much desiring things to be better; it is even in desiring things to stay the same.  The desire itself distorts my perception of and engagement with what is right in front of me and all around me.

My classical Jesuit education reinforced my natural inclination to analyze people and events.  Identifying cause and effect in behavior or events demystifies them.  They become predictable, understandable.  That understanding gives me a sense of order and control amid disorder and chaos.  The problem with the present is that thinking doesn't work.  We can't think about the present.  If we use the present to understand what has happened and its causes, we are in the past.  If we use the present to prepare for what might come, we are in the future.   The present is a flow of thoughts, images, sounds, relationships that comes without our bidding.  As soon as I try to focus on any of these, I step out of the present and into the past or into the future.  If I can't think about the present, what in the world am I to do with it?  How can I be "present" whatever that means?

The current pandemic and social distancing have brought me face to face with this.  How difficult it seems to just "be" in this current situation.  I am constantly listening to and reading media reports on the virus, how we got in this mess and what it will take for us to move forward.  I tend to think about how things used to be and how much everything has changed.  I imagine what it will be like when it is over.  Of all that has changed in my life, what will remain after the crisis?  Will my new way of living continue once the virus is no longer a threat?  What will the "new normal" be like?  I find it difficult to just relax and feel what it is like to be, right here, right now, in just this way.  I think I know why but I want to avoid thinking about that.

I want to be clear.  In no way do I think that the Divine One sent humanity this virus and pandemic to teach us something.  I don't think the Divine One caused this pandemic any more than of the Holocaust, World War II, the AIDS epidemic, climate change or any of the other tragedies of human existence.  I do believe that the Divine One is the source of all life, of all that is and all that happens.  Everything is an expression of divine love and carries meaning for each of us.  All reality--the good and the bad--is meant to teach us something:  the Holocaust no more than the spring warmth and rains that bring the greening and flowering of our world.  There are lessons from both, not one more than the other.  

Life, all of it, is a gift from the Divine One.  Our appropriate response is thankfulness and gratitude.  Sometimes our lessons are easy and comforting:  the beauty and joy of a spring day amid blossoms and sweet fragrances.  At other times the lessons are discomforting and difficult:  human beings freely choosing ugliness, death, and oppression.  I learn that I too can choose evil because I am human.  Hitler was inhumane but he was not inhuman.  I am capable of what he did--though not on such a scale--because I too am human.  I can choose to do otherwise as he could have done.  Eliminating Hitler and people like him does not establish justice and mercy.  Only changing the hearts of people will do that.

So back to why I avoid listening to the Divine One in this time of a pandemic.  In the quiet and isolation, I sense a frightening lesson.  I am not in control.  For someone who values order and calm as I do, this is bad enough.  But there is a further lesson:  no one--not even the Divine One--is in control.  This virus has upended our lives.  This unseen entity has stopped us in our tracks, sickened millions, and killed hundreds of thousands...so far.  And it's not done yet.  Sure, we can change our behavior to "flatten the curve."  This might prevent overwhelming our health care system but the infection will continue to spread, albeit more slowly, and run its deadly and disruptive course.  We can do some things to impact the virus but as Dr. Fauci continually says, "The virus is in charge."

Maybe it's my age, maybe it's just how I think but reflecting on the virus-induced pandemic quickly brings me to my ultimate loss of control, death.  I know I will die but how and especially when are hidden.  People sometimes say that it is in the hands of God but I don't really believe that.  I have had too many friends and relatives die too soon and too painfully to think that God's hands had anything to do with it.  No, death and especially my death is certain but far from under anyone's control.  It would be silly to pray to the Divine One to avoid death or even a painful death.  Like all things in life, death happens.  It just happens.  The Divine One is not a director sitting before a heavenly control board making instant micro-decisions about the lives of billions of people.

I do not believe that the Divine One intervenes in human existence to heal people, to divert hurricanes, to conquer enemies, to protect the weak and vulnerable, to advantage believers or punish sinners.  All that work is up to us, unfortunately.  But I do believe that the Divine One is an active presence in our world who holds the key to eternal life.  I believe that the Divine One wants to engage with me, to enter my life at a fundamental level and change me into the being I was always meant to be, a child of the Divine One, destined to enter eternal life.  The only thing in my life over which I have control is whether or not to accept that offer of life.  Everything else about life and about my life is accidental.

If you are a bit confused about all this, so am I.  My project is a lifelong one.  How can I connect with the Divine in a way that is real?  This has been the question I have been trying to answer my whole life.  Sometimes it has been a quest hidden, even from me.  At other times it has been out in the open, obvious and intentional.  I have tried many different methods.  Childhood prayers and beliefs, highly devotional practices, Baltimore Catechism, Scripture reading and reflection, philosophy, meditation, contemplation, retreats, graduate study in theology, even a monastic experience.  Most of them worked for a while but none became a consistent part of my journey.  I would get a taste, a glimpse.  It was enough to keep me coming back again and again.  Here I am in the time of the pandemic trying again.

Here are my three conclusions.  First I need to sit quietly as reality flows around me without engaging with the thoughts and images that are unavoidable in that flow.  This requires me to set aside some time--15-20 minutes--in a quiet place away from distractions.  While this is often difficult and frustrating, it is the only way for me to be in the now.  This is often called meditation or contemplation.  I have done this off and on for the past 35 years but have never been able to maintain a constant practice.  It is not a question of disciplining myself to adhere to this practice.  I just need to attend to what moves me deeply.

Second, this meditation prepares me to pray.  My prayer is simple.  I ask the Divine One to intervene in my life, not to change my circumstances--see the list in the prayer above--but to intervene in my life by filling me with the grace to accept fully and completely the spirit of the Divine One.  The spirit changes me at a fundamental level into a child of the Divine One filled with divine life.  As a child, it seemed simple.  If I were a good boy and followed all the rules, said the right prayers and gave the right answers, I would go to Heaven when I died.  As I grew older, things became more complex but the central bargain remained:  be a good boy and you get God's favor.  In fact, it was just the opposite.  All those things I thought I had to do to be in God's good graces--things like ethical behavior, almsgiving, church membership, caring for those in need--did not cause my life in the Divine One.  It is the other way around.  The divine life within me bears the fruit of those behaviors.  Mercy, justice, and charity are natural to human beings once they have discovered who they really are and accept that.

Third, my spiritual reading has changed over the last few years.  When I studied theology, I focused on dogma, social justice, sacraments.  Now I turn more to evangelical theologians because of their grounding in scripture, especially the New Testament.  The essence of Christianity is all right there in the gospels, epistles and other books of the New Testament.  Elegant and abstract theological propositions have become more of an obstacle for me.  Just reading the gospels and epistles affects me in ways it had not before.  In some ways, this reminds me of Ignatius.  While recovering from serious wounds suffered in the Battle of Pamplona, he began to read the only books available:  scripture and especially a Life of Christ.  He began to change in ways that radically changed his life.

I am not sure what to make of all this.  Maybe this is another period of quiet meditation and reflection and may not last beyond the isolation of the pandemic.  Maybe it will continue long after that as part of my everyday life.  I pray that it does but I have prayed that before.  So the pilgrimage continues.  I look forward to sharing that pilgrimage with you again in the future.

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