On this feast day of August 15th, I found myself meditating and contemplating our blessed mother, the Virgin Mary. In our catholic tradition, we believe the Assumption Day commemorates the belief that when Mary died, purely and holy as she was, her body was “assumed” into heaven to be reunited with her soul, instead of going through the natural process of physical death and decay. For us, in our state of imperfection, it becomes an invitation that we too can hope for and expect the resurrection of our bodies at the appropriate time so that our bodies can be reunited with our souls.
One of the more pleasant memories from my monthly meetings with my late spiritual director Father Fitz (Msgr. William Fitzgerald, 1931-2015) was sitting in a small alcove in his “house of discernment,” a house for students contemplating the priesthood, which lent for very personal conversations and silent prayer. Just off to my left on one of the walls was a painting of Mary and Eve. This original work was a crayon and pencil drawing created by Sister Grace Remington, OCSO, of the Cistercian Sisters of the Mississippi Abbey. I found the artwork so interesting in that Eve, represented by our fallen nature, so prone to making mistakes as we are often seduced by the material world and the dark side, was being consoled by Mary, who displays by her facial expression so much hope and mercy. Mary looks at Eve with love, placing her right hand on Eve’s shoulder to soothe her and console her, while she takes her left hand to grab Eve’s left hand and places it on Mary’s womb, trying to help her connect with our Lord Jesus Christ. Consider reading Mary and Eve by Garrett Johnson to get a more in-depth understanding of this painting. Using this picture as inspiration, I found myself in meditation and contemplation.
In the Jesuit style of prayer, I placed myself in a garden as a bystander, observing the interaction of Mary and Eve. It is early morning, and the air feels a little humid on my arms, but there’s a freshness and crispness to the air while I breathe the wet bark of the trees and sweet smell of the lilies. The green grass hovers the land and the dew makes my sandals wet. I can hear the buzzing of bumble bees, the sharp peek and yeep of the robin, and the three-second, crescendo and decrescendo whistle song of the cardinals. The rays of sun are just popping through the trees as they illuminate Mary and Eve in the middle of the grass.
I can relate with Eve. The serpent has wrapped itself on her legs, dragging down her movement towards spiritual development and closeness with God. Good and evil reside in me, and I struggle daily to do what is right. I often don’t see with the eyes or hear with the ears of the heart so that I can be in tune with God. Deep down, my heart and soul want to abide by God, but I get distracted often with what surrounds me. In this state, I often feel the tug back and forth between doing the right thing and sometimes falling because I am impatient, or maybe I’m too quick to jump to a conclusion.
You can see from the painting that Eve feels sorrowful, perhaps ashamed. Don’t we feel the same when we fall short of doing what is right? Perhaps, I may feel hopeless and despair because pride gets in the way. It becomes hard to accept my fault and I am tempted to hide behind the trees when God comes into the garden, calling out for me, “where are you?”
As depicted in the picture, Mary comes to me as she comes to Eve. She places her hand on my shoulder and consoles me. She takes my hand and has me touch her womb so that I can feel her son, Jesus. It is an invitation for me to be in relationship with the Son of Man.
For as much devotion as we Catholics have to Mary, we really don’t know much about her from biblical readings. And to the point, as Thomas Merton explains in chapter 23, “The Woman Clothed with the Sun,” in New Seeds of Contemplation, “She remains hidden.” It is in this state of hiddenness where she exhibits her poverty in loving submission to the Lord, in pure obedience of faith. This transparency allows her “to be the perfect instrument of God, and nothing else but His instrument.” It is in this transparency that God flows through Mary, so pure with love and mercy. It would be easy to think that Mary is in God and God is in Mary.
Lately, I have been feeling a pull to understand Mary better and pray to her that she may intercede on my behalf before God. I read several years ago True Devotion to Mary by St. Louis De Montfort (1673-1716) and pulled it out again when we read in our men’s prayer group the chapter from Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation. As the back cover of the book states, “it explains the wonderful spiritual effects it can bring to a person as they search for sanctity and salvation.” He emphasizes that Mary remains hidden and transparent as she brings us closer to her son, the Word incarnate. And as St. Louis De Montfort explains, “the more the Holy Ghost finds Mary, his dear and inseparable spouse, in any soul, the more active and mighty He becomes in producing Jesus Christ in that soul, and that soul in Jesus Christ.”
This concept of “nothingness” is well explained by St. John of The Cross. In his Ascent to Mount Carmel, he draws a picture and uses terms to explain how the soul can reach the top of Mount Carmel, where “only the honor and glory of God dwells in this mount.” On either side of the middle aisle going to the top of the mount are terms that he considers undesirable. On the left he states, “the more I desired to possess them (goods of heaven, glory, joy, knowledge, consolation, rest), the less I had them.” And on the right side of the graph he states, “the more I desired to seek them (goods of earth, possessions, joy, knowledge, consolation, rest), the less I had them.” In the middle aisle on the way to the top of the mount, he writes, “nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing.” He wrote “nothing” six times, that’s how much poverty he felt was needed to experience God.
There were two key concepts that I gathered from Thomas Merton’s chapter:
- Mary’s greatest glory was having nothing of her own, retaining nothing of a “self” that could glory in anything for her own sake. She placed no obstacle to the mercy of God and in no way resisted His love and His will. He was able to accomplish His will perfectly in her.
- All our sanctity depends on her maternal love. The ones she desires to share the joy of her own poverty and simplicity, the ones she wills to be hidden as she is hidden, are the ones who share her closeness to God.
As St. Louis De Montfort explains, we need Mary to be an example for us so that we can attain salvation, “and still the more necessary to those called to a special perfection.” In addition, we can lean on Mary as our mother of humanity so she can bring us closer to Jesus: “Jesus Christ is the last end of devotion to Mary.”
With these thoughts, we celebrate Mary’s assumption to Heaven. It is our hope that we too one day, by the grace of God, can dwell where she is. As Merton states, “if human nature is glorified in her, it is because God desires it to be glorified in us too.”
- https://catholic-link.org/mary-and-eve/. Garrett Johnson
- New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton. New Direction Books, 2007. Original copyright by the Abbey of Gethsemani, Inc., 1961.
- True Devotion to Mary by St. Louis de Montfort, Tan Books & Publishers, Inc., 1985. Copyright 1941 by the Fathers of the Company of Mary.
- The Ascent of Mount Carmel by St. John of the Cross, in The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D and Otilio Rodriguez, O.C.D. Institute of Carmelite Studies, ICS Publications, 1991.
In our prayer group this past week, we had an opportunity to read Chapter 22, The Life in Christ, from Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation. It was a chapter rich with concepts as we discussed the mystery of Christ living in us. There were some basic points that I gathered from the beginning of the chapter:
- We respond in faith and charity to his love for us. God always initiates God’s love for us as we are God’s children. It is up to us to respond to this call.
- There is a supernatural union of our souls with His indwelling Divine Person. This is one of the harder concepts to accept and understand as we go to mass and receive the Body and Blood of Christ.
- We participate in His divine sonship and nature. Being sons and daughters of God, made in God’s image, we too get to embrace our divine nature if we are willing to accept this concept. Acknowledging that we make mistakes in our lives, hopefully we can be merciful with ourselves with God’s love, and then be merciful to others around us as God is merciful with them too.
Taking a trip with the Bible
As I contemplated Jesus living with me, being in me, I was taken to Chapter 17 (BibleGateway) in the Gospel of John. Jesus is participating with the apostles in the last supper and has just explained to them that he must depart so the Holy Spirit can come to them (Chapter 16). As we head into the next chapter, it’s almost as if Jesus takes a deep breath and exhales, and then finds himself in gratitude and does his Highly Priestly prayer. Here, I get to see how Jesus prays for me that we may be one with God the Father and God the Son:
20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me, and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
24 “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.
25 “Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. 26 I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.”
Reflecting with Thomas Merton and Jesus
We become a new person, mystically and spiritually as one identity, who is at once Christ and me. This union is the work of the Holy Spirit of Love. Christ himself becomes the source and principle of divine life in me.
The challenges of life can make it hard to understand this mystical union. When I contrast pain and pleasure, hope and fear, joy and sorrow, living in my body and dying a bodily death, it’s easy to lose faith.
It can be the hardest thing in life to rise above what seems to be external to me: work, friends, politics, the environment, financial security, war, poverty, among other challenges in life. Not that they are not important to deal with as we try to live as a community, but they are external to my interior life.
For me to live in the joy of God, I must let my soul accommodate to God’s will. As Thomas Merton says, “souls are like wax waiting for a seal. By themselves, they have no special identity. Their destiny is to be softened and prepared in this life, by God’s will, to receive, at their death, the seal of their own degree of likeliness to God in Christ.”
In addition to Merton, other saints (St. John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila) talk about a fire of purification so that our souls and will line up with God’s will. There is a heat associated with this fire and it is easy to run away from it. We don’t like it, sometimes if feels too hot. It may seem like this is a major sacrifice and the easy way out is to continue to enjoy life on the surface. But on the surface, we experience that contrast of pain and pleasure, hope and fear, joy and sorrow.
Interestingly enough, this sacrifice is commonly viewed as a hardship, a moral act, a work of virtue. These thoughts and feelings come because we commonly feel the heat and fire of purification. But it is Christ coming to me and dwelling in me as a mystical union that is the actual sacrifice, not the pain that I may endure during this process. As Merton states, this sacred sacrifice “effects a divine and religious transformation in the worshiper, thus consecrating and uniting him more closely to God.” If pain and discomfort is felt in this process, it is an incidental occurrence in proportion to our weakness and fallen nature along with its corresponding will power as in comes into conflict with God’s will.
When I receive the body of Christ, I experience this mystical union so that Christ and I become one identity. In this mystical union, I experience the mystery of the Cross and with it, the redemptive death and resurrection of Jesus. This gives me hope and helps me look forward to my redemptive death and resurrection. And when I attend mass, I do so in communion with my friends and relatives, who together as one body in Christ, we experience this mystical sacramental union in Christian charity and with the love of the Holy Spirit.
This mystical union transforms me, it changes my substance of who I am. With this change, I move closer to the person God meant for me to be, fulfilling God’s promise that I can be God’s son imparting love, charity, and mercy to those around me. By being their brother, I can help people become who they are meant to be, sharing God’s love in this process as God loves you as a son and daughter.
- New Seeds of Contemplation, by Thomas Merton. New Directions Book, 2007. Original Copyright 1961 by the Abbey of Gethsemani, Inc.
- Bible Gateway, https://www.biblegateway.com/
The month of June is that time of the year where we can contemplate on the boundless and passionate love that Jesus has for us. As I reflected on my integrity and humility, I decided to write and post a blog in Finding my Integrity with the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus
I have been gradually learning about www.catholicsonline.com and have discovered a great social media to learn more about the ways we can express our love for God. From quilts to books to shirts and coffee mugs, we can surround ourselves with all things God. Celebrating this month with the Sacred Heart of Jesus, here a few more posts to look at.
Sacred Heart of Jesus Quilt Pattern by Jen Frost
Her talent for quilts is remarkable! Visit her site Faith and Fabric Design to learn about what the Sacred Heart of Jesus means to her and learn more about quilts for other occasions.
Live speakers with Lisa Martinez and Alyssa Sanchez
Lisa and Alyssa have a June program on Saints of the Sacred Heart of Jesus with live speakers on 6/6, 6/13, and 6/20 (YouTube promo https://youtu.be/TD8Syx6p_Qc ). Little with Great Love also showcases several of their art and products (art print, pillows, embroidered hats, phone cases, t-shirts).
You can read Alyssa Sanchez’s post at Sacred Heart Round Up
What is the Sacred Heart of Jesus by Andrea Frey
Check out her post in 7 Must Read Posts About the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Catholic365
Amy Brooks and Prayer
Amy shares with us a very personal and special prayer in PrayerWineChocholate . Also, visit her site for books she has written for girls and boys to journal at Journal for Catholic Girls and Journal for Catholic Boys
The Sacred Heart and Michelle Nott
Michelle shares with us her experiences of moving as a youngster while her father was in the military on her site Raising Small Things with Great Love . Her one constant in her moves was having a crucifix and a picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Sacred Heart of Jesus, I trust in you by Monica McConkey
Monica shares with us ways to stay in prayer during the day. As she states in Sacred Heart of Jesus I Trust in You , “We are called to pray “Jesus, I trust in You” throughout the day, especially during times of struggle or doubt or fear.”
As we approach the month of June and celebrate the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, I found myself in prayer, contemplating God’s boundless and passionate love for us. I sometimes find praying in the Ignatian style to be helpful as I try to contemplate Jesus’ teachings. Part of this prayer is to rely on my imagination as I place myself in the scene. Dealing with the concepts of personal integrity and humility pushed me to be with Jesus at the last supper.
The Last Supper
It was evening and the air was cool. The room was small but cozy, walls painted in light yellow and beige. Pillows were on the floor and the disciples gathered at table with Jesus for his last supper. We had lentil soup, bread, and wine. We dipped our bread in freshly made olive oil made that week. After we ate, Jesus stood up and got everybody’s attention. The gospel of John 13: 4-51 recounts the story:
“So, he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.”
When Jesus came to me, he knelt and grabbed my left foot. The softness of his touch made me hold my breath. As I looked down on him, I found myself thoughtless, wondering what I was going to feel. I wanted to carry a conversation, but the moment told me to be still, to simply feel his presence and his care. He washed my right foot and then dried both feet. He looked at me one last time and smiled. I returned a smiled. I felt special by Jesus’ love and care. I then felt a tear drop down my cheek. My body became warm, and my palms got sweaty as I saw him move to the next disciple.
How confident was Jesus in who he was that he proceeded to kneel before us and wash our feet? The gospel of John, again, helps us understand this identity:
Jesus is explaining to the Pharisees about the good Shepard and his sheep in John 10: 29-30. They are wondering if he is the Messiah and who are his sheep. Jesus replies, “My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.”
Later, after Jesus explains to the disciples that he is the way and is going back to the father, Thomas wants Jesus to show him the Father. Jesus replies, “Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work.” (John 14:10)
Jesus is the incarnate Word of God, the Son of the Father, consubstantial with the Father. The Holy Spirit binds them together, but also binds us together: “On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.” (John 14:20).
What is Integrity and Humility?
It takes integrity, humility, and self-confidence to perform Jesus’ act of washing our feet as he taught us about serving one another. He is not thinking highly of himself, and he is not exalting himself. His firm confidence on who he was allowed him to kneel before me and wash my feet. It would be natural to think like Peter and react with objection, “No … you shall never wash my feet.” (John 13:8). But in accepting Jesus’ desire to wash my feet, I get to feel in my heart his sense of being one with the Father, full of love and mercy. That feeling stirs my heart, and I feel compelled to pass on that love and mercy as well.
I decided to look up in the Merriam-Webster dictionary the definition of integrity: “the quality or state of being complete or undivided.” I also recently read from Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation2, “In great saints, you find that perfect humility and perfect integrity coincide.”
What is humility but being precisely the person that I am before God. I am no greater than or smaller than I actually am. If I think that I am greater than I am, and I am letting pride take over me. If I think that I am being smaller than I am, I deprecate myself against God’s truth of who I am. I playdown and push away against God who is truth. But God resides in me, and God’s divinity is my divinity … thus, this is part of my being that God wants me to attain.
In humility, as I acknowledge who I am as God sees me in a truthful manner, I consent to God being my all and I surrender myself to God. So, what holds me back from being humble so that I can have integrity?
There are attachments to this world that pull me in one direction or another and don’t allow me to be my true self. These attachments can be material, emotional or spiritual. For example, I may feel attached to my house or car (like I really like them and can’t envision myself without them), or to money, to my body and health (I may worry and feel anxious about my health), or to anger and resentment, or as St. John of the Cross would say, even to certain forms of prayer.
The background noise in the world can also affect my integrity. I want to gel with the current movements of thoughts and action. I want to “fit in.” These pressures, mainly stemmed from my desire to be accepted, can guide, and direct my thoughts and action. I may run the risk of compromising my beliefs and values. I may even be tempted to compromise my faith and my relationship with God.
Where do I go from here?
So how do I remain humble so that I can have integrity? I lean on St. John of the Cross3 and try to die to myself slowly but steadily. In detaching myself from the material, emotional and spiritual realms, I become naked before God, and let God see me as I am, as I truly am. Here, I can let God look at me and love me with all my good qualities and faults. In this relationship of love, God heals me and completes me.
As I look at Jesus one more time, His Sacred Heart overflowing with boundless love, compassion, and mercy, I can see he understands our brokenness and lack of integrity. So, I ask Jesus to pray for me, a sinner with many faults, to heal me, to complete me. In this month of June, what a good opportunity to ask Jesus to have mercy on us and heal us, to let us be open to his boundless and passionate love for us!
- BibleGateway, New International Version. https://www.biblegateway.com
- New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton. New Directions Book, 2007. Original Copyright 1961 by the Abbey of Gethsemani, Inc.
- John of the Cross by Kieran Kavanaugh. The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1999.F
I have found myself in this time of lent thinking about the temptations I suffer as a falling creature from heaven. As I see myself in the context of today’s world of war and with the difficulties we have in working together as a community, the temptation of power has surfaced to the top as something to work on. With this backdrop, I have found myself in prayer meditating and discerning with Jesus and the disciples how to deal with the temptation of power as I acknowledge that I may be experiencing fear and anxiety about the future, perhaps feeling a sense of uncertainty and loss of control.
In the gospel of Mark, we hear Jesus predicting his death three times.
Jesus Predicts His Death (Mark 8:31-33)1
31 He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. 32 He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
33 But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
Sometimes I can feel the need to exert my power, even to the point of going against God’s divine providence.
Jesus Predicts His Death a Second Time (Mark 9:30-37)
30 They left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, 31 because he was teaching his disciples. He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.” 32 But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.
33 They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” 34 But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.
35 Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”
36 He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”
I may even feel the need to exert my power over others. I wonder if the disciples felt anxiety and a lack of direction as they wondered what Jesus was trying to tell them, and what it meant for them.
Jesus Predicts His Death a Third Time (Mark 10:32-34)
32 They were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid. Again he took the twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him. 33 “We are going up to Jerusalem,” he said, “and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, 34 who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.”
The temptation of power can bring out the worst in me, even to the point of “mocking and spitting” when I feel threatened by others, but it can be more subtle as I try to control other’s thoughts and actions. During this lent, I can be honest with myself and acknowledge that this negative energy resides within me. I can then go down on my knees, and as the man with leprosy who desires a cure from Jesus, I too ask, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” (Mark 1:40)
This passion that Jesus talks about is the way of the cross that will be an example for me to deal with my passions, and in this specific story, to deal with the temptation of power. But to approach this event and carry my own cross, I must be honest with myself to identify my passions, and then humble myself before God as I acknowledge that this cross is very heavy to carry by myself and I must do so with Jesus’ help. St. Augustine, in one of his sermons, explains:
“Observe a tree, how it first reaches downwards so that it may then shoot upwards. It sinks its roots deep into the ground so that its top may reach towards the skies. Is it not from humility that it endeavors to grow? But without humility it will not reach higher. You want to grow up into the air without roots. That is not growth, but collapse.”2
When we are in this state of being separated from God and falling to these temptations, then we experience what Thomas Merton is saying in New Seeds of Contemplation3,
- We cannot trust each other
- We hate ourselves
- We tend to ease our burden of guilt that is in us by passing it on to others
- We build an obsession with evil
- We associate failure (punishment) with dishonesty and guilt
What Thomas Merton then proposes is:
- We must try to accept ourselves in our mysterious, unaccountable mixture of good and evil
- We have to respect our own rights so we can respect the rights of others
- We have to learn to trust God that God can protect men unaccountably against themselves, and that God can always turn evil into good
- If we can trust and love God, we can love men who are evil. We can learn to love them in their sin as God loves them in their sin
- If we can love the men we do not trust and share their burden of sin by identifying ourselves with them, then perhaps there’s some hope of peace on earth
By experiencing Jesus’ passion on the cross, I too can overcome my passions so that I can live with God’s free gifts and follow the teachings of Jesus as he states in the Sermon on the Mount, with meekness, humility, and purity of heart. In this state of peace, I can then pass on love to others as Jesus passes his love to me.
- Bible Gateway, New International Version.
- Excerpt from the Gospel of John, Sermon 38.2, St, Augustine
- New Seeds of Contemplation, Chapter 18, The Root of War is Fear, Thomas Merton. New Directions Books, 2007. Copyright 1961, Abbey of Gethsemani, Inc.
In prayer group, we recently covered Chapter 10 from Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation, A Body of Broken Bones. I could have titled it, “I am loved in spite of my unworthiness.” In this chapter, Merton talks about God’s grace and unconditional love, compassion and being one with all. A key concept in my being able to love “my neighbor” is to have the belief that I am loved by God. As Merton states, “The root of Christian love is not the will to love, but the faith that one is loved. The faith that one is loved by God.”
It is then, in this state of perfect love and contemplation with God, that “our inalienable personalities, while remaining eternally distinct, will nevertheless combiner into One so that each one of us will find himself in all the others, and God will be life and reality of all.”
Coincidentally, the gospel reading from 2 weeks ago was from Luke 5:12-16, Jesus healing the man with leprosy.
12 While Jesus was in one of the towns, a man came along who was covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he fell with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”
13 Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” And immediately the leprosy left him.
14 Then Jesus ordered him, “Don’t tell anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.”
15 Yet the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. 16 But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.
As I contemplated and prayed on this passage, I went back to my early high school years in Colombia. My mom had gotten me a membership to the Olympic pool at our city of Cali, and I frequented the pool often to swim some laps and get away from the stresses of life. One summer, I developed sores on my feet that gradually became worse. At first, they were itchy and small, slowly turning into scabs as I scratched them. I was hoping they would disappear by themselves but instead they got bigger and slowly began to break open with pus. I continued to play soccer as they did not seem to bother me too much, but they really got my attention when I noticed my white socks were becoming stained with pus. A smell developed from my feet that was repulsive, a smell that today I would describe as “bacterial.” It got my mom’s attention when my white sneakers started showing yellow and red stains. Our family doctor prescribed both antifungal and antibacterial medicines which helped me recover.
Going back to Luke’s reading, I can only imagine how much worse did the man with leprosy feel as he approached Jesus and asked for a healing. With the heat in Palestine, the smell from this person must have been strong. As he was covered with leprosy, I am going to imagine that his peripheral nerves were already damaged and perhaps there wasn’t much physical pain. But the emotional pain had to be significant as he had been ostracized from family and friends.
“Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” How often have we found ourselves asking God, “if you are willing, you can make me clean?” I would say my petitions are strongest when I find myself in a state of humility, be it from a circumstance that was physical like an illness, or maybe emotional from work. It is in these states that I feel Jesus looking at me, extending his arm to touch my shoulder and saying, “I am willing.”
God appreciates the full worth of our souls. He sees our souls possess dignity and wants to love us unconditionally. God made us in God’s image, and God wants the best for us, helping us realize ourselves to the best of our potential. When I embrace these concepts and make them my own, I can then rest in peace knowing that I have guidance through Jesus’ teachings, and I have the energy that inspires me by the Holy Spirit to do what is right, with full freedom to follow and with no attachments, as I know the Holy Spirit is like the wind where I do not where it comes from or where it goes, but it is always right.
In being one with the Triune God, I can lower my guard as I accept my unworthiness, with all my faults and all my imperfections. I let God spread God’s wings to protect me and care for me. In this embrace with God, I can feel the love and peace settling in my heart as I close my eyes and just rest under God’s protection.
It is in this state of love, as I accept humbly my unworthiness, that I can then love “my neighbor” unconditionally. In this process of helping, as I try to be the best that I can be so that we can become One with God, I discover myself with all my qualities that God placed in my heart but also help you realize your potential by helping you see your own qualities. This state of being creates a harmony that we long to have because it is our nature to be one with God. Then, we can embrace in our full humanity and rest in God’s love and peace
- New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton. New Directions Books, 2007. Copyright 1961 by the Abbey of Gethsemani, Inc.
I have been working on the concept of being one with God, feeling the freedom of the Holy Spirit so I can be more like Jesus while I let God the Father hold me and tell me, “You are my beloved son.” By feeling this love, I can then pass on this love to others.
Recently, in prayer group, we read Chapter 9 “We Are One Man” from Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation. He stresses the importance of being there for each other and “empty himself and give himself to other people in the purity of a selfless love.”
A central theme in this chapter is being one with God and he concludes, “Our joy and our life are destined to be nothing but a participation in the Life that is Theirs. In Them (the Holy Trinity) we will one day live entirely in God and in one another as the Persons of God live in One another.”
As I meditated on this reading, I found myself thinking back to Chapter 17 in my book, Finding God Again and Again, and I thought I would share an excerpt of that chapter with you.
It was October 2012 and I had just discovered I had a monoclonal protein that was suggesting the possibility of multiple myeloma. As if having had a testicular cancer in the past was not enough, I found myself wondering about death and dying as I contemplated a new cancer diagnosis. My wife was attending an educational conference at a resort in upper Michigan, and I tagged along since I had some time off. This gave me an opportunity for much reading, meditation, and prayer.
“ … The next day after checking in and Anne went to her conference, I sat on the deck by the family room, overlooking the 18th hole and listening to Native American flute music from my iPhone. The gentle wind blew through the leaves and the breeze turned cool later in the afternoon. I soon had to wear my sweatshirt despite the clear, sunny skies. It was late August in upper Michigan, and it felt like the fall season was upon us. My gaze became fixed on the trees, and I appreciated the mixture of shaded and bright green leaves. The wind blew them in undulating waves as if they sang a song of comfort to my heart, and soon I found myself in deep communion with God.
I began to praise God for being such a good Father, for taking such good care of us. I felt our blessed mother and St. Joseph being there with me. I thanked them for being there with me. I prayed to St. Francis to help me be a good servant. All I wanted to do was to take good care of children, help them get better, be a good father and a good husband. I felt joy to be a servant for God, all for God’s glory. I prayed for my grandparents who had passed. I could feel Grandma Murphy being there with me. I also prayed for my father-in-law, for my uncles, aunts, and cousins, and for patients who had also passed away. I prayed for our friend Annette and her dad, I prayed for their peace and for their communion with God.
Very slowly, my mind began to shut down. I became engulfed in the rhythm of the leaves moving back and forth. I then became thoughtless. I was just being, just resting in God… and then this joy, peace and love overcame me. I felt like a poem wanted to burst out of me:
Your arms engulf me,
Your touch is delicate.
Not by the fire that purifies my soul,
But by your warmth, Father,
I realize you are here to console me.
My heart is at peace,
Weightless and without care,
For there are no regrets from yesterday,
Nor worries about tomorrow,
But simply joy in being here with you,
Joy to be here with my brothers and sisters.
As I rest in You
I feel complete.
I am in You,
And You are in me.
As I rested in God’s arms, I felt like Jesus was with me doing his high priestly prayer to God the Father (John 17: 1-26). In the middle of his prayer, I heard Jesus saying,
“… And I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one. I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know that you sent me, and that you loved them even as you loved me …”
The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit of love all in one as we rested together.
I just rested in God’s arms for some time, feeling love and peace, and not aware of time passing by. But then my mind wanted to get busy:
“Why are you treating me this way? Why are you doing this to me?” I asked God. I felt overwhelmed by this feeling. I was engulfed in this love and wanted to wiggle out.
“I don’t deserve to be treated this way, Lord. I am a sinner with much fault, and You are loving me beyond my understanding.” I did not know how to act. I wanted to move, I wanted my mind to become active, but I felt God tell me to just rest. “Don’t let your mind get busy,” is how I felt. And so, I rested in God again. I let go of my impulse to move away and went back to letting God hold me.”
It is a challenge to give when we are busy with our lives. All the responsibilities from work, home and our children’s extracurricular activities can suck the energy out of us and it feels like we have nothing left. I have found that being mindful in the moment, seeing God in all things and in all people, has helped me take on these challenges and not feel so anxious and exasperated. The pace of life might seem fast, but inside in my heart, I feel peace as I try to see each person as God’s son or daughter just trying to do the best they can and seeing how I can fit in to make their lives easier. We are simply messengers of God, trying to help each other develop in God’s eyes.
- New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton. New Directions Books, 2007. Copyright 1961 by the Abbey of Gethsemani, Inc.
The themes of pride and humility pop up in my life frequently. It seems to me that this is one the major things I’m supposed to work out in my life here on earth. Once more, I come face to face with these topics this week. I have been re-reading Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation1, thinking about and contemplating Chapter 7.
Talking about Union and Division in this chapter, Thomas Merton is weaving in the themes of pride and humility. He spends a good deal of time in this chapter talking about how man chooses to do things on his own and not work with others as he senses competition with others, and compares himself with others to see if he is better or not.
As I contemplate this chapter, I find myself in Galilee following Jesus and his teachings. He has gone up to the mountain sides and has had the sermon of the mount in Matthew 5. In Matthew 6, Jesus talks about giving to the needy, praying the Our Father, fasting and appearances, and not to have anxiety about clothing and food. In Matthew 7, he talks about not judging others, the narrow gate, true and false prophets and disciples. And then Jesus comes down from the mountain side and heads back into Capernaum (Matthew 8)
Capernaum was a fishing village established during the time of the Hasmoneans, located on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. The Hasmoneans were a dynasty of Jewish kings that fought to liberate Judea from Seleucid rule and created an independent state. The family’s name was apparently derived from an unknown ancestor named Ḥashmonay. Capernaum had a population of about 15002. We now come to the passage on Matthew 8:5 where Jesus heals the centurion’s servant.
The Faith of the Centurion (Matthew 8:5-13)3
5 When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. 6 “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed, suffering terribly.”
7 Jesus said to him, “Shall I come and heal him?”
8 The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. 9 For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
10 When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. 11 I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. 12 But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
13 Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go! Let it be done just as you believed it would.” And his servant was healed at that moment.
In the Roman world, the centurion had a very important position. He was an officer in the Roman army whose experience and valor were crucial in maintaining order on the battlefield and ensuring that the Roman’s empire military successes continued over time. A centurion commanded a unit of around 100 soldiers but was also responsible for administrative duties, such as assigning duties and giving out punishments. Centurions had the ability to advance in administrative responsibilities, but the name centurion would be remembered for the veteran who led by the courageous example on the battlefield.4
In the words of Polybius5 (a Greek historian of the Hellenistic period, noted for his work The Histories, which covered the period of 264–146 BC and wrote on the rise of Rome to prominence), “the centurion must not be a venturesome seeker after danger but as men who can command, steady in action, and reliable; they ought not to be over-anxious to rush into fight, but when hard-pressed, they must be ready to hold their ground, and die at their posts.”
With such a prominence in the Roman world, the story is about this very important person being humble before Jesus. This sits in contrast to the points that Thomas Merton makes in his chapter: man not wanting to be in union with other men finds himself in a state of division, wanting to be separate and distinct. Afraid to be challenged by others and be in a world that is forever becoming more competitive, man wants to go at it alone. This division is fueled by spiritual pride, and “is most dangerous when it succeeds in looking like humility. When a proud man thinks he is humble, his case is hopeless.”
So Thomas Merton asks us to set our pride aside, come together in union with other people which will become a means for finding ourselves: “I must look for my identity, somehow, not only in God, but in other men. I will never be able to find myself if I isolate myself from the rest of mankind as if I were a different kind of being.”
Coming together as children of God, acknowledging that we are one with Jesus and accepting in the bottom of our heart that we are made for each other, helps us discover ourselves as we are made of the same fabric: made from the Spirit of God. Keeping this faith helps bind us together.
As Pope Benedict XVI explains in Benedictus, Day by Day6: “… God is no longer the distant and indeterminate God to whom no bridge will reach, he is the God at hand. The body of the Son is the bridge for our souls. Through him, each single person’s relationship with God has been blended together in his one relationship with God so that turning one’s gaze toward God is no longer a matter of turning one’s gaze away from others and from the world but in uniting of our gaze and of our being in the single gaze and of the one being of the Son … [the Kingdom of God] will be complete when the son hands to the father his kingdom, that is, in-gathered humanity and the creation that is carried with them. That is why the purely private existence isolated self no longer exists but all that is mine is yours.”
As I celebrate Advent and move closer to Christmas Day, I pray for our humanity that we can set pride aside, find humility in the bottom of our hearts and come together as brothers and sisters, children of God and sharers of the one and same Holy Spirit!
- New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton, New Directions Books, 2007 Edition.
- https://www.biblegateway.com/ and New International Version (NIV).
- Benedictus, Day by Day, Pope Benedictus XVI, Magnificat & Ignatius Press, October 2006.
There are times when I feel swept up by a passage in the bible, and I then place myself in the bible scene in the form of Ignatian spirituality and prayer.
It was the end of February and the winter in Michigan was growing long. Snow blowing and shoveling snow on a regular basis, sometimes early in the morning around 5 am and then again in the evening, was making me physically tired. Work was demanding and taking care of 2-month-old puppies had become stressful. Having little time to take care of myself physically, emotionally, and spiritually was becoming a challenge. I was craving me-time and it was not happening. I had been praying to God, seeking peace, and asking for strength to help me get through the days, but I could tell that God was letting me stay in this state until I could figure it out, but it just wasn’t happening.
Then one morning around 5:15 am I woke up to Henry’s whining, our boy dog. All was dark in the house, and I made my way down the stairs to get their collars, grumbling in my heart on why I had to do this and lamenting that I could not sleep longer. As I knelt to Henry’s crate and opened the door, he pushed through and into my chest as I put his collar around him, wagging his tail and licking me. I then found myself near Tyre and Sidon in the middle of the day, the sun was bearing down on the dirt roads, people were staying in the shade either by trees or by their houses, and the chickens were picking at the ground looking for food. Jesus and his disciples had withdrawn to this area after rebuking the Pharisees for clinging to their traditions and elevating these above mercy and love. Confrontations were becoming more frequent for Jesus but the time for his crucifixion was not to take place yet, so he needed to withdraw from Israel to this Gentile land.
Tyre and Sidon were 2 Phoenician cities along the coast of the Mediterranean and still present today in modern day Lebanon; Tyre was about 20 miles south of Sidon and about 12 miles from the current-day Israel and Lebanon border. This area was known as the land of Canaan and was dominant up to the years 1250c – 1150 c. BC1 when it is believed a major catastrophe took place, possibly military, that resulted in the dissolution of their land and culture. The bible has this time in history as the invasion by Hebrew General Joshua and the Israelites2. Tyre and Sidon prospered because of their seaports and trade centers. The Canaanites were polytheistic and were considered corrupt and pagan by Israel standards, a threat to Israel’s monotheistic religion and relationship with God. With time, the Canaanites military weakened and became inferior to the Israelites. With this backdrop, I saw the Canaanite woman approach Jesus, crying out to Him, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession.” (Matthew 15:21-28). Mark also recounts this story and places Jesus in a house that he had chosen to have his disciples rest (Mark 7:24-30). The woman is well aware of the rivalry between the Jewish and the Canaanites, and acknowledges Jesus’ superior standing as a Jew, but also is willing to acknowledge him as the Messiah since she called him the “Son of David.” Jesus does not address her initially, and only after the disciples urge Him to send her away, he replies, “I was only sent to the lost sheep of Israel.”
The woman, after initially crying out to Jesus for mercy, knelt near Jesus and said, “Lord, help me!” He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.”
But in her inferiority and humility, she had acquiesced to the role of a dog while acknowledging Jesus as her master. “Yes, Lord” she said, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Because of her faith, Jesus healed her daughter.
While I was holding Henry in my chest and then proceeded to get Margaret’s collar on (our girl dog), I acknowledged that the winter had become long and difficult. It had become difficult trying to be loving and charitable on my own terms, forcing this desire while at the same time having the desire to have my own “me time.” I acknowledged that I had not let God in to help me with this dilemma because I wanted to do it in my own terms. The load became heavy enough that I finally found myself praying to God, “Lord, have mercy on me, I am one the dogs right now and I could eat whatever crumb you let fall from your table.”
At that moment, I felt like humility settled in and I was now ready to accept God’s healing. As we went down the sidewalk with snowbanks on either side, I contemplated the dark cloudless sky full of stars. I was in awe that the universe could be so big and so beautiful, and God had created this. In that silent walk I felt so engulfed by God. My heart felt warm even though it was cold at 15 degrees and steam was coming from my breath. As the dogs searched for a spot to potty on the snow, I continued to feel God in that beautiful sky, just letting myself drift into the vast space of the universe. Peace settled into my heart and for that moment, as Margaret and Henry locked their eyes on me and I looked at them, I experienced a deep sense of love from them, and in return, I felt love for them too. We stood looking at each other for what seemed to be minutes but were probably just a few seconds. No words were exchanged, just simply looks. The cold air began to seep through my coat, and we had to make it back into the house. It was an intense moment, a moment that I was able to bask in that morning but, interesting enough, I forgot the moment in its intensity once I got busy again with life’s routines and schedules.
As I went through March, I could remember the moment but could not reproduce its intensity like that morning in February. I longed for that moment of love and peace, but I could not reproduce it. It reminded me of Peter trying to build three tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah when Jesus underwent the transfiguration. The moment was so intense, so full of love and peace, that he wanted to keep it for himself by building those three tents while they were up in the mountain, but Jesus did not want him to freeze-frame it. As I thought of Peter, I came to realize that Jesus wanted me to understand that these experiences were eternal without a beginning or an end, and although I wanted to keep it for myself, my faculties would not allow me to remember the intensity of it. I have come to believe that this moment was an infusion of love by God.
This excerpt is taken from Chapter 19 of my recently published book, Finding God Again and Again. It highlights the style of prayer in Ignatian Spirituality as “placing oneself in the scene” as I pray in a passage of the bible and let the Word come to me with its message and healing. Placing myself in the scene, I use all my senses as I meditate on the passage: what I see, hear, feel and maybe even taste, if necessary. In this particular, winter story, the prayer happened spontaneously at 5:15 in the morning as I had read this bible story before and was able to recall the facts. But at that moment, I was ready spiritually to let the Word “come to me.” Sometimes I find myself trying to force prayer, even to the point of wanting my will to supersede God’s will. It is only in humility and with patience that I can let God come into my heart.
Depending on the busyness of my day, I go from mental prayer (perhaps saying a few petitions or reciting some prayers) to meditative prayer (as above) to contemplative prayer, where I let God and the Holy Spirit take me where it wills, and as Jesus says, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8)
Lately, I have been reading about Thomas Keating and Centering Prayer. This style of prayer has a monastic Christian love mysticism where I let God into my heart while I turn off my mind. You could say that this is another form of contemplative prayer, and the key part is learning how to turn off the mind. Certainly, a challenge for me but I continue to work on this.
I originally posted this article as a guest writer in Dr. Matthew Welsh’s website, https://www.spiritualmediablog.com/
- Byers, Gary. The Biblical Cities of Tyre and Sidon, Associates for Biblical Research, created January 26, 2010. Retrieved from https://www.biblearcheology.org
- Mark, Joshua. Ancient History Encyclopedia, last modified October 23, 2018. Retrieved from http://www.ancient.eu/canaan/
Life transformation in Contemplative Living
I am called to wholeness and integration into our community, our culture, and our society. My response to this is to be in contemplative living, the activity in daily life prompted by the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Contemplative Living and Contemplative Prayer
I use contemplative prayer to help me with my daily life. This prayer is the development of my relationship with Christ to the point of communing beyond words, thoughts, and feelings. I move from the simplified activity of waiting upon God to the ever-increasing predominance of the gifts of the Holy Spirit as the source of my prayer.
To refresh my memory, these seven gifts of the Holy Spirit are: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, reverence (wonder and profound adoring awed respect) and faith. With all these gifts wrapped up into one state of being, I find myself looking at Jesus face to face, talking with God in silence as One Spirit.
Two Streams of Consciousness
In living life and just being, I find myself in two steams of consciousness. My exterior life with everything and everybody that surrounds me, I find God in all things. As Matthew Kelty, O.C.S.O., says in Sermons in a Monastery, “I touch eternity and eternal life in God by the trivial things I do every day, in every breath I draw, every time I have a drink of water, …” As we are made in God’s image, I see God in my brothers and sisters. As God has made nature, I see God in the dew drop coming off a leaf blade and, in the sun, setting at the end of the day. In all this, I give thanks to God for letting me participate in God’s joy. This joy stirs my heart and allows me to go the bottom of my heart.
In my interior life, where I am silent with God in the bottom of my heart, I commune with God praying with the gifts of the Holy Spirit. It is here that I acknowledge that I don’t have to be holy to love God, I just have to be myself with all my gifts and talents but also with my faults and inadequacies as God loves just the way I am. It is here where I don’t have to be holy to see God in all things, but as Matthew Kelty says, “I only have to play as a child”, full of innocence and with an unselfish heart, devoid of pride but full of humility and reverence for my God.
I can use Lectio Divina to help me move into contemplation. There are four stages as I pray in the style of Lectio Divina: reading (a passage from the bible), meditation (reflecting and pondering upon the words from my reading), prayer (as the reflections lead my will to accept myself being in the presence of the Lord), and contemplation (as I rest in the Lord, speechless and hopefully thoughtless)
I can also use the Jesuit style of praying as I place myself in the scene as I meditate on the scripture reading.
Praying in Capernaum
As I ponder about these thoughts, I find myself in Capernaum with Jesus and the disciples. In Matthew 16, Jesus was in Caesarea Philippi and has told Peter that he will be His rock and the cornerstone of the church. In Matthew 17, Jesus has taken Peter, John and James up the mountain top and has undergone the transfiguration. Now in Capernaum in Matthew 18, Jesus finds himself with the disciples in the middle of the day. I too find myself in prayer as I participate in their meeting and talking. The dry air feels hot but there is a breeze going through my shirt. My forehead is slightly moist from sweat. I am a little tired from the walking we have been doing through the town. One of the disciples has asked Jesus,
“Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
2 He called a little child to him and placed the child among them. 3 And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.
As Thomas Keating explains in Open Mind, Open Heart, “A childlike attitude makes sense in this situation. You don’t have to do anything. Just rest in God’s arms. It is an exercise of just being rather than of doing. You will be able to accomplish what you have to do with much greater effectiveness and joy.”
As I rest with this explanation by Jesus, I let the gifts of the Holy Spirit envelope me and I remain quiet in my heart, in awe and full reverence for God as I let the child in me look at Jesus face to face.
- Bridges to Contemplative Living with Thomas Merton, Book Eight. Ave Maria Press, 2011.
- Sermons in a Monastery: Chapter Talks, by Matthew Kelty, O.C.S.O., 1983.
- Open Mind, Open Heart by Thomas Keating, 20th Anniversary Edition 2006.