Monday 8 April 2024

Let your yes mean yes/no

In the shadow of today's holy feast, we can only sit and wonder at the endless mystery of God's mercy - and He that might the vantage best have took / Found out the remedy (as Shakespeare puts it). All the excitement of the Exsultet during the Easter Vigil is ours (and the angelic host's) again. The Eternal Father intervenes to interrupt the murderous course of human history and lays down the foundations of the bridge that can lead us back towards salvation. This is the Lord's doing and it is marvellous in our eyes.

And in the midst of it all is this quiet figure of the Virgin Mary who will rise from the grimy obscurity of a troubled Roman province of the Late Iron Age - more troubled now than it ever has been - to be recognised and honoured in churches and hearts on every continent as the Mother of the Redeemer. 

Every Colwelian wants to echo Mary's 'yes' today. What today's gospel gives us, however, are the conditions of that 'yes' or rather its gravitational centre. The paradox is that our total 'yes' is a 'yes' that, unlike Mary's, includes a kind of 'no'. 

After all, how will the fulfilment of Gabriel's message come about? As we reread this passage of St Luke's gospel, we note one thing; it will come about primarily through the action of God: 'the Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will cover you with its shadow.' If Gabriel is asking for Mary's 'yes', it is only implicit: he knows she will say 'yes'. God's foreknowledge of her 'yes' does not mean she has no choice; the man who proposes to a woman who totally loves him knows she will say 'yes' freely. Moreover, she does not need to say a coquettish 'no' to prove she is free. Without taking anything away from Mary's freedom, therefore, we can say there is no way in which this creature who belonged totally to God would have said 'no' to such a plan.

Yet more than that, neither was there any way in which Mary would have imagined that her 'yes' was sufficient. She is the one who is not, He is the One who Is. Jesus needs to tell St Catherine of Sienna that but no need to tell Mary whose very soul is consumed by such an awareness of the Most High. So, when she says 'yes', there is no shadow of a 'no' in her reply; for there has never been sin. She is immaculate from her conception. Every dynamic, every movement of her heart, soul and body is a longing for the Lord and to be satisfied only in Him.

Not so her children by grace. As we want to echo her 'yes', we owe it to God to recognise the same insufficiency, and yet we struggle to: we do not have Mary's freedom. In this sense, it is not enough for us to say 'yes' to Him; we cannot echo Mary's 'yes', although we can emulate it. Our 'yes' must be underpinned constantly by the necessary confession of the truth of our dependence on God - a truth Mary never denied but one which we baulk at with every unconscious urge and often some conscious ones. And the corollary of this confession is to affirm our insufficiency. He is the One, not us, and our being and sufficiency can only be His gift to us.

Thy will be done not only means Thy will but also through through Thy means and by Thy grace. It is not just that we must do this Will. We must also ask the means to do this Will; to beg, as the French writer Fabrice Hadjadj says, our very voices from God to announce His praise, to cooperate in His work, and even and perhaps above all, to long for Him. 

And all the while, we must say 'no' - a NO by God's grace of course! - to the incipient rebellion that shakes our being since the Fall and creeps back again and again into the most intimate enclave of our heart to sit in God's place at its centre. How often we ambush ourselves with our own self-sufficiency! Again, paradoxically, we are not at our freest when we take command and act as if we can solve all our challenges, but when we surrender this inner throne to the One who made us and works out our salvation. This is what it means to be anawim - little ones - of the Lord. 

Then, and only then, can we echo Mary's coda: behold the servants of the Lord, be it done to us according to God's word.

Wednesday 3 April 2024

The road to Emmaus

 Today' gospel (Luke 24:13-35) continues the dilemma we saw on Monday. Then, the choice was between following the path of the awestruck disciples, rapt in wonder before the Risen Lord, and that of the desperate guards who swapped the truth they knew for a convenient, advantageous lie. In today's gospel, the choice is no longer about whether we want to be a disciple; rather, it is about what kind of disciple we are willing to be.

The point is that these disciples are going away from Jerusalem, the city of the Most High. Maybe they had business to attend to ("I have married a wife and cannot come"?) Or maybe they were simply escaping the still charged atmosphere of a city where Jesus had just been put to death. The reality is they were deliberately driving themselves away from the conflict. They were agitated.  And because they were agitated, they could not understand what had just happened in Jerusalem. It is not just that we need to be patient with events. We need to be patient with ourselves. We need to have enough humility to recognise when we have kicked up the silt at the bottom of our hearts. And then, we need to be still and wait for the waters to clear.

But sometimes, just sometimes, we might have the extraordinary grace granted to these disciples of having the Lord enlighten us. Why did they not recognise Him? Some say the Risen Lord looked different, and so even His friends did not know Him. St Mark says He appeared "under another form" to two disciples, but the meaning of this is not entirely clear. I think we can be allowed to believe that the barrier to recognition lay not entirely on His side but on theirs. It was not that He looked different; it was that they did not recognise the Lord as He was. It was necessary for them to lose their notions of what the Lord was like, in order to learn to know the Lord who really is. 

Because for all their knowledge, they had no understanding. They knew the faith, but their minds were full of self justifying rationalisations. For all that they were disciples, they were on their way out of Jerusalem, like the first Bishop of Rome, who years later, as he fled the city of Rome, would see a vision of Christ going towards the imperial capital: "Quo vadis?" Peter asks Him (where are you going?). "I am going to Rome to be crucified," replies the Lord. Like the disciples in Emmaus,  Peter turned around and went back to resume his calling.

Why do we leave Jerusalem for Emmaus? What possible reason do we brandish to justify leaving the storm of the present moment for our oh so necessary occupations elsewhere? It is not that in our lives we must only attend to the Lord; we all have other duties. But unless we fill those duties with the Lord, we will inevitably flee from the one thing necessary.

Let us always carry Jerusalem with us in our hearts where the Risen One dwells. Otherwise, the road to Emmaus will not stop there.

Monday 1 April 2024

Two roads diverged in an Easter garden

Today's gospel (Matt 28: 8-15) tells us something about the power of a garden. The women emerged amazed from the tomb and started to run to tell the disciples about what they had seen, but before they had gone any distance, Jesus is there before them. The women are instantly prostrate at His feet. What else would one do when meeting a person one saw crucified two days before? Their souls are filled with a sense of His adorable power, and they receive His message. Those who have encountered the Lord respond in this way. Human nature can only bear so much mystery: thereafter, it must either submit or distract itself. The rapidity with which people talk after prayer is a measure of how far they have travelled with the Lord. We can imagine these women delivering their message to the disciples but at the same time being lost on wonder, not to say flabbergasted, by what they had just experienced. 

Contrast the women with the guards who are in the garden also. In the garden, they know full well what has happened. They have just seen a dead man walking, and no longer towards his crucifixion, but from his tomb into the morning light. These pragmatic, hard bitten Roman soldiers, some of whom may even have assaulted Jesus on Friday, were now the bearers of a hardly-to-be believed report: He's back, and maybe He's coming for us! 

In the garden, they know the truth, but what do they then do? They go into the city. They flee back from the place of truth to a place of counter-narrative and confusion. They leave behind this bucolic vision of reality and open up their ears to the voices of serpents, no longer entwined around a tree but sitting in the judgement seat of Moses. As it were, they stop thinking about what they have seen with their own eyes, and ask their overlords for a new briefing. 

And they are misled. Not only are they provided with a lie, but they are, bribed and promised protection to maintain the falsehood. What matters is not longer what is but how the power of darkness requires things to be. Like all of us, these men now have a choice: accept the bribes and espouse the lie, or risk their all for the truth of something hardly understood but so marvellous that they can hardly believe it. 

But, did not Christ conquer death yesterday? Was not evil vanquished as the Saviour spoke his last words on the cross: It is accomplished? Can't we just put our feet up and let the Easter eggs roll in?

Everything needed for evil to conquer was overthrown; of that there is no doubt. But every individual must live that conflict in themselves, even now. I am just as capable today of raising my hand against my brother as I was on Thursday.  Every human being that breathes has this choice to make: will he submit to the reign of the Lamb or continue to revolt?

And those of us who believe too much in our own piety should ask ourselves too: how can we remain the wonderstruck, adoring servants of the Lord? And likewise, what must we do to avoid becoming those who flee to the city of distraction, accepting the bribes of darkness to engage in the deceits of the powerful, be it the mob or the mobsters, whose bullying voices ring in our ears on a daily basis? 

Only through the all conquering grace of the Risen Lord can such questions be solved.

Thursday 28 March 2024

Lent Series: Self Awareness, Part 7

One of the most beautiful ways towards a greater spiritual self-awareness is by reflecting on our own personal life stories, our faith story especially.  

That each one of us has a 'personal vocation' is a beautiful aspect of the COLW charism that can be discerned through our story and our individual walk with God.  This in an unrepeatable call on our life that God has placed within us, the way He will lead us back to Him and deeper into Himself.  Through examining our life as an unveiling of the stories within our lives to see what they reveal about ourselves and about God as the author of our stories.  

Nothing is random in our stories.  There are no meaningless details, everything has a meaning and is useful for growing closer to God.  In examining our own individual story we can see the gifts we have received, the forming action of our Heavenly Father, His leading and guiding hand and all the ways He has cared for us through life.  We can develop an awareness of where we have been closer to Him in life and where He might be asking us to walk closer to Him again now.

Even our sins are part of our story, when we mess up we need to address our sins, seek forgiveness and work on those areas with hope and courage.  We can remember, with St. Paul, that 'His grace is sufficient' that His 'power is made perfect in weakness' (2 Cor 12 9,10).  Our sins are often based in our patterns of behaviours but also in our gifts too, though this sounds counter-intuitive to us.  Our weaknesses and sins, particularly if we often find ourseleves repeating the same sins or facing the same issues, can inform us further about ourselves.  Through understanding the patterns of our behaviours, looking at our own story, we will see more clearly the gifts we receive from God and our own blind spots, any complusions or where we hurt others and ourselves.  

Part of the value of spiritual self-awareness in and through our own stories and relationship with God is we can see how we seek fulfilment through our own inclinatations and gifts.  Our God given gifts and talents can either draw us closer to God, if used for His service and glory, or away from Him, if used to serve ourselves.  By looking at our motivations, we can see where our inclinations really lie.  This is all part of the journey to greater self-knowledge.

When we come to the Father in true repentance, offering Him the gifts and talents that He gave us in the first place, but this time truly for His service, in His extravegant mercy, His loving and healing action will bind us closer to Himself, even through our sins.  Think of a broken sword welded together, it will never break again at the welded point.  Once healed and offered to His service, our gifts and talents - as expressed in our personal vocation - our sins too become part of our story to cause us to fall more in love with Jesus and with others.  As we will hear in the Exsultet on Holy Saturday - 'O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam' - He even uses our sins for His glory!  Every part of our unique story is a treasure and of infinite value to God.  All the more reason to go to Confession at least monthly, for the healing power of Jesus over our wounds, sins and broken ways of using our gifts the God wants to use to build up His kingdom.

Lent, Holy Week and especially now as we enter into the Sacred Triduum, is a time to reflect on the story of Jesus AND also our own stories.  We reflect on His gift of mercy, salvation and new life that began when we were incorporated into His life at Baptism.  (Note the incarnational aspect of being 'incorporated' into His life, into the corpus of the Church, Christ's mystical body!).  He wants us to be a part of this gift as our daily crosses are already part of what we experience in following Jesus to the cross yet again.  We are part of Jesus' own story by His grace.  Our little stories are part of salvation history and a praticipation in the Paschal mystery - by virute of our Baptism we are 'grafted' into the Paschal Mystery, as the Catechism puts it.  

Every detail of our lives has meaning and is what God has written of our story in our hearts.  We are each made in God's image and likeness.  Once we are able to know and see ourselves as God sees us - through His eyes, as He sees all our potential for goodness, holiness and closeness to Hin, we will reflect even more the image of Jesus in our own unique ways - the way of our personal vocation and unique gifts.  Our unique way of imaging God, to be 'hearers of the Word and bearers of the Spirit', as the Book of Life puts it, is our personal way to give His glory - our own unique way, unrepeatable and dreamed up individually by Him.  In living in His will in this way too God's Divine Will shall also be worked out, in our lives and through us to others.

We can live boldly, with confidence, by looking at the lives of the saints and the courage they had to know thelselves, warts and all, in their reality before God.  The saints are people who knew themselves, lived their personal vocations, made the prayer of Jesus their own and entered into their own stories to live them only for Him. 

Using all that we have learned from St Teresa of Avila and gift of the charism of COLW, reflecting on our lives in our own reality, let's ask the Lord how He is calling each of us deeper into authentic joy and fulfilment through greater self-knowledge and closer union with Him.  

Monday 25 March 2024

Jealousy's path

Today’s gospel (12:1-11) is a reminder to us of one of those uncomfortable truths we do not like to face: if you simply do what the Lord requires of you, and especially if you do something simply for the Lord, you will suffer hostility, even though you do not deserve it. This happens twice in the course of today’s gospel. When you enter the service of God, prepare yourself for tribulation (Sirach 2: 1). Yet the source of this hostility may be more complex than it at first appears.

Mary brings ointment to the feet of Jesus and the smell of it fills the whole house. Jesus instantly provides a commentary on the ultimate meaning of her act: “She had to keep this scent for the day of my burial.”

What surges through this passage, however, is Judas’s hostility to Mary. It was not his only vice. St John reveals here that Judas was light-fingered and his care for the poor was simulated: jealousy induces not only hostility but also deceit. What Judas sees in the ointment is lost revenues: he is the cynic who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. That his remarks are a hostile attack on Mary, however, can be seen in Jesus’ reply: “Leave her alone.”  Her actions have deprived Judas of a glorious opportunity. Who knows how this man who wandered the roads with Jesus was spending his ill-gotten gains?

Yet, jealousy is the root of a compound problem: jealousy is greed multiplied by a competitor’s success. And lest we feel a little smug that we would never be as base as Judas, let us recall that jealousy about wealth has a least a certain understandable tangibility about it. Lovely money!

The subtler (spiritual, perhaps?) forms of jealousy – jealousy of the praise of the powerful for a perceived competitor, for example, or of the apparent status the powerful might inexplicably give someone of our own rank – are much less vulgar and much more insidious. Such jealousy also blinds and deceives its sufferers; the slights it perceives multiply by the dozen before our objective selves have even noticed. And jealousy’s promise is always the same: ‘you will be as gods’ … if only you can have what your competitor has apparently attained. The happiness of the jealous person is always around the corner, always just out of reach ... and the competitor must be trampled (physically or psychologically) in its pursuit.

The second object of hostility is today's gospel is Lazarus, and in some ways the hostility directed towards him brings out the more spiritual side of jealousy: the chief priests wanted to kill Jesus because ‘many of the Jews were leaving them and believing in Jesus’. It was not the money they wanted; it was His power and influence over the people. The currency of their influence was on the wane. Jesus’ star was rising, and Lazarus was a symbol of it since his resurrection was so public and so dramatic. After all, he had been dead for four days and the decay of his body could already be smelt by those near the grave – hard to believe in our days of sanitised death, but a familiar enough odour in poorer cultures or in disaster areas.

What is so dramatic is that this sin of jealousy, with its lowlands of common greed and competition, continues to ascend to attain finally the uplands of a refined but demonic covetousness. The chief priests - the men charged with the holiest tasks of the Jewish religion and men no doubt perceived as models of piety and religion – were driven on by murderous intent. Their religion was not of the one true God they had sworn to serve, but of the one, true self they were committed not to abandon. If their hands reeked of the blood of their holy sacrifices, what did their souls reek of?

If anyone thinks they can stand, let them take heed lest they fall (1 Cor 10:12). By our hostilities and our deceits, our secret idols will be laid bare.

Wednesday 20 March 2024

Lent Series: Self-awareness and St. Teresa of Avila, Part 6

Growth in self-awareness involves tackling how we respond to every situation. 

If we learn about unconscious motivations for things and why we respond to situations and people in certain ways, we see the causes of ‘blocks’ or confusion.  With God’s help, we move forward on the contemplative journey.  We learn what to take responsibility for, confess and seek healing for, letting go of burdens that are not our responsibility. 

Through prayer, God can reveal the cause of frustration or anger, the failing or past hurt and help us unravel the unconscious parts that fear exposure, shame or pain.  This leads, with further prayer and healing, to freedom.  St. Teresa says this stage is necessary on the path to wholeness, healing and union with God.

There is a risk of scruples, in some personality types, or as a result of some wounds.  Excessive introversion, over sensitivity to perceived sin, or not accepting forgiveness, can be damaging and painful to live with.  Teresa was aware of this issue. 

Our openness to learn from God (docibilitas) is essential, to trust what His Word and His Church teaches is true, even if it doesn’t always ‘feel’ true.  Only by learning trust, acknowledging the dignity and value of ourselves and each soul before God, are we able to stand before Him in truth.  Only true self-awareness allows this kind of peace and flourishing to develop.

Modern depth psychology lines up with this approach.  St. Teresa was ahead of her time in understanding the human psyche (which she called the soul).  The necessary work this takes can be done through Spiritual Direction.  However, deeper issues or psychological imbalances are better helped through psychotherapy.  The benefits in working through such issues can be remarkable.  No-one needs to be afraid or ashamed of such a journey.

The first step in self-awareness is to enter into the 'room' of self-awareness Teresa describes in The Interior Castle, through prayer and humility, facing the truth about ourselves, which we may find hard.  Our Spiritual Director can help us see ourselves in truth, looking beyond the blind spots, to say with Paul, 'I don't understand why I act as I do.. I keep doing the bad things I hate….'

We must seek God’s help, through prayer and those around us, reaching out of our comfort zone.  We need learn to be open to God, ourselves and our Spiritual Director - as one of Teresa’s prerequisites for self-awareness - though trust can be hard for a wounded soul.  St. Teresa suggests that we will be unable to express our natural gifts if we don't acknowledge the riches we have been given, even if they seem mundane.

We need to develop the practice of being present to God, becoming present also to our unconscious.  The inward journey also calls for a step outside ourselves.  She must ask God to shine in our dark corners to uncover us to ourselves, in ways we may never have experienced.   This work might resemble that of an archeologist uncovering a treasure slowly and gently, without doing damage to the treasure.  

It might take a while to see ourselves in God’s light and learn who we are in His eyes, due to the many messages of our culture presenting us with so many false messages.  Through her writing Teresa learned to open up about herself, share her experience, expose her spiritual and psychological weaknesses and see her flaws.  We need to learn to do this, with the help of our Spiritual Director.  We will also grow in self- knowledge by meditating on the words of Jesus and reading Teresa’s words.

Unless willing to begin the inward journey, seeking the ‘inner light’ of God’s action within us, this path of true healing won’t begin.  Only when we open up to God in our true ‘interior’, recognising that we can do nothing without His help, seeking His healing through facing our shadows and allowing Him to penetrate our dark corners, will we begin to heal.

We need to develop detachment, letting go on every level in order to be free.  In our consumer society, we need to learn that this goes deeper than detachment from things.  As the spiritual life deepens, we detach from what holds us back from deeper communion with God and others.  We face our limitations, where we had been blind before, especially where we lack love and close ourselves off. 

Once the prayer journey begins in earnest, distractions and difficulties will come into view, even our unconscious areas we have hitherto been unaware of and the realisation of hidden motives, unknown aspects of our character and mysterious obstacles can be frightening.  Fears or distorted self image can block or damage growth in self-awareness.  

Modern depth-psychology agrees that self-awareness is important for healing and gaining a clear insight into hidden parts of the soul and psyche that need acknowledgement, acceptance and challenge, within the self, others and before God.  Learning about hidden motivations are helpful on the spiritual journey, difficult.  Insights from psychological reading can help, however, we may need professional psychological help for more complex issues.  Nevertheless, Teresa expects that growth in the spiritual life will lead to psychological healing too.

The benefits coming from this new self-appreciation are great as God reveals us to ourselves.  From a modern world of exterior and interior noise never imagined by Teresa, once we have learned prayerful silence and meditating on scripture, guided by our Spiritual Director, we begin to value supernatural riches and see the harmfulness of sinful inclinations alongside hidden wounds.  Searching ourselves with the light of God in our soul helps free us from fears. 

Our Spiritual Director knows there is always the risk of self-deception, and a need to discern the light of God from false light.  She will encourage us, return us to the Gospels and prayer to continue the ‘inner work’ of listening to the Father’s forming action as more of ourselves is revealed, leading us to the truth of who we are before Him.  This journey to self-awareness is always ongoing. 

Growth in self-awareness will also lead to growth in virtue expressed in love and good works for others, which Teresa considered an important fruit of spiritual growth.  Gradually, through God’s loving action and inner light, we will notice increased love for others, growth in virtue and openness to God.  Opening ourselves to receive love as well as giving love too.

Monday 18 March 2024

The virtue of forgiving and the vice of forgetting (who we are)

Today's gospel (John 8: 1-11) sees Jesus perform one of His iconic acts of forgiveness. The woman who was brought to Him has been caught in adultery. The law is clear: she must be stoned to death. And yet Jesus blocks this process, inviting only those without sin to cast the first stones. In the end, everyone goes away, and Jesus tells the woman that He too does not condemn her but to go and sin no more.

There are several points that we could reflect on in this gospel. The first is to observe the difference between Jesus’ act of largess and what passes today for tolerance. Today's tolerance wishes to buffer the conscience against all discomfort. But that is not what Jesus does. He does not hesitate to call sin “sin”. Notice that He makes no excuses for the woman to the crowd who are mobbed about her. He does not, for example, suggest that perhaps she was committing adultery because her own marriage was so deeply unhappy, and that in this adultery she was actually clinging to an authentic expression of love. He does not forgive her on the basis that her sin was slight, or that rightly seen, she was really following the light. She was in the wrong. What she needed was not an excuse but a grace. In fact, she could not receive such a grace except from the hands of a Saviour who was intent on rescuing her. But notice finally that He sends her away with the duty to embrace her responsibilities. If she has been forgiven, she too must now change her path, put aside everything wayward, and turn back to the path that leads to God. So must we all, after sin and repentance.

Perhaps the second thing to observe is the risk we run of being that mob. Naturally, we do not want to behave like this towards people whose lives are unfaithful to the path of Christ. But more than that, there is perhaps the risk in us that we behave like this mob towards Jesus. This mob, after all, is not driven by outrage over the breaking of the law. Rather, this mob is instigated by those who are the rivals of Jesus. If the scribes and Pharisees are zealous for the law, they are perhaps even more zealous about their own status, and Jesus is a rival to this status.

So how do we rival with Jesus? Perhaps we do this when we are disappointed by our failure to be perfect. If we try again to be good after sin and repentance, that is no less then Jesus asks us to do: go and sin no more. If we then sin again, the appropriate response is contrition and repentance. But perfectionism teaches us to expect more of ourselves and, therefore, to be disappointed by our failures. Perfectionism, in other words, teaches us to focus ourselves and, thereby, rival with Christ.

The danger for most of the people reading this blog (and writing it!) is not that they, like the woman in this gospel, might fall into marital infidelity (although let’s not rule out the risk entirely!). The danger is that along the path of discipleship, we all might focus on ourselves and thereby forget who we really are: souls called to the friendship of Christ.

Friday 15 March 2024

Lent Series: Self-Awareness and St. Teresa of Avila, Part 5

The necessity of self-awareness for spiritual growth

Did St. Teresa’s pre-requisites for growth in the spiritual life require self-awareness? 

Through her writing, Teresa lists elements she considered for holiness, all underpinned by increased self- knowledge.  

  • We should be living according to God’s will, calling for knowledge of self, to recognise and respond to the forming action of the Father in and through life, to avoid just following our own ideas.  

  • Growth in virtue must take place right now in serving God and receiving His favours.  

  • We need to know ourselves, being honest if we put off our efforts for a more convenient time and being aware of our motivations. Are we really giving God our all?  Self-giving is necessary for growth. How easy it is to deceive ourselves.

  • God's purifying action in us is also needed to grow in union with God’s own purity.  

  • We need self-awareness to honestly face our defects, which will become clearer the closer we come to God.  Being aware of our nature, failings and sins, we will learn to see ourselves in truth.  

  • Penance is also needed. Self-knowledge, of our own capacities and will, are needed if penances are to bear fruit.

God will only allow us to grow closer to Himself, in holiness, when we are ready, respecting our free will. Readiness cannot be contrived, we need to open ourselves to God.  Openness, says Teresa, comes with courage and generosity. 

The journey through 'the mansions of the Castle' is not linear; it is possible to regress as well as progress.  As we become more aware of difficulties, sin, temptations and struggles leading us off the road, we will gradually find it easier to keep our eyes fixed ahead.  Nevertheless, we will need to have learned about ourselves first, and know our own weaknesses.

Growth in virtue deepens prayer.  There is no pretending virtue, we need to put the work in and ask for grace to grow in the virtues we need.  Only when aware of our shortfall in virtue will we succeed in identifying the right areas to work on to really grow in virtue. 

Teresa prescribes determination as the best way to growth because the journey is hard work.  We need to set out fully resolved, ready for trials, troubles, assaults and failings on the way.  These will come from within as well as the difficulties life brings.  If we are aware of our weaknesses and shadows we will be equipped to bring determination along.

Self-knowledge runs as a theme through Teresa’s prerequisites for growth in the spiritual life, and is necessary at every stage.  If we have a clear picture of ourselves we will see ourselves as God sees us and better understand His vision for us.  This brings healing in our relating to Him, seeing Him walk with us through life, once we see Who is the true source and that every experience is His initiative. 

When we understand ourselves, possessing all the qualities Teresa required, we will understand how we relate to God and others in our lives, seeing ourselves in the truth of who we are.

Monday 11 March 2024

Praying for the moon

Today's gospel (John 4:43-54) is an object lesson in the uses of prayer. A court official at Cana had a son dangerously ill at Capernaum. He asks for Jesus' help and receives news of his son's recovery even before he has arrived home. He and his family believed the gospel! He asked for the moon and he got it. Job done... Or is it?

No doubt on that day there were other households in Capernaum who saw no such relief from the miserable burden of the loss of a child. None of them came to ask Jesus for his help, as far as we know. Nobody who asks Jesus' help in the gospel meets refusal. And yet they too surely lifted up their voices to heaven for the recovery of their children. Why was the prayer of this court official heard and yet not all the prayers of parents for their sick children are heard? 

Why, in fact, pray? God is perfect and cannot change. We cannot conceive of His transcendence over creation. This is why some people become fatalistic. Everything that happens is kismet - destiny. No prayer is possible from this position. 

So, again, why pray? We are talking here about the prayer of petition.  We can offer prayers of adoration and thanksgiving, not to mention contrition,  but all these are about what we owe to God; not what He does for us. Do our prayers of petition risk making God into a sugar daddy?

St Augustine's answer to these conundrums is simple: as we approach the living eternal God, source of all, we pray for what God has determined from eternity that we should obtain by freely asking. And here is the wonder. When our court official approached Jesus, Jesus had already thought of him first. He offered him this meeting from eternity, and the court official made a hundred decisions that day that might have risked his not encountering Jesus. And yet at some point, he put aside his business and his work worries; he turned from the lunchtime entertainment in Cana's taverna; and he went in search of the man that everyone was talking about. But God had sought him first. Jesus did not respond to his prayer as a pure response; He inspired the prayer in the man who cooperated with that grace.

So, what about the times our prayers are not answered? Are those prayers useless? Is God being mean by saying no or not yet? Those prayers do not change God, says C. S. Lewis; they change us. Job's prayers did not save his household and his possessions. They took him rather to a much more exalted place of utter dependence on the God who would share His very goodness and happiness with us. When God does not answer our prayers as we wish, it is because there is something much more valuable that we need to focus on. 

Magic tries to manipulate the world to our will. We have to be very careful not to think that prayer is meant to do the same thing. Of course we must ask for our daily bread and our necessities, but in the end God's greatest gift is always himself. 

The unanswered prayer is not a slap from heaven, even when it feels like it. It is a call to go beyond and come deeper into the mystery of a God who longs to give us His Almighty Heart.

Wednesday 6 March 2024

Lent Series: Self-awareness and St. Teresa of Avila, Part 4

Interiority over time

We can move forward in our understanding of ‘self-awareness’ according to St. Teresa by relating it to the concept of ‘interiority’. The ancient instruction, ‘Know Thyself’ is a well known maxim.   When Teresa wrote about the ‘soul’, she included the ‘psyche’ of today.  Spiritual self-awareness and psychological self-awareness were two sides of the same coin and spiritual growth can coincide with deeper psychological healing and maturity.

Reading through the classical lens of Teresa, her Confessors and Spiritual Directors, we hear the influence of St. Augustine’s notion of the ‘self’ sounding loudly.  Augustine grew up studying Plato, who linked the classical notion of ‘psyche’ with the divine.  St. Paul focused instead on ‘spirit’, whereas St. Augustine, joined the two together.  

Augustine’s autobiographical writing may be a precursor for Teresa’s own Life; possibly the original example of spiritual journaling in order to grow in self-awareness - both ‘soul’ and ‘psyche’, becoming humble and ultimately reaching God who was ‘always within’.  Augustine developed the theme of interiority, emphasising the inner-self, focused on bringing out what lies within the soul while experiencing spiritual healing and awakening on a psychological level.  The soul in the Interior Castle goes on a similar journey of self-awareness and awakening to spiritual and emotional maturity.

The ‘interiority’ of Augustine is important for self-awareness.  In the Carmelite tradition, confirming Augustine, the presence of God exists in the exterior, physical world and equally in our own silent, invisible, interior world of our soul or ‘psyche’.  Augustine shows us a technique of finding God within whereby the soul looks to her own experiences, considers the world around, becoming conscious of herself by ‘reliving’ her ‘experience’ through self-examination, and learning ‘the way the world is for itself and on itself as the agent of experience’.  The sixteenth century saw a rise in interest in St. Augustine and Teresa’s Confessors must have known this.  Hidden inner life and developing interiority were Teresa’s focus, following Augustine’s instruction: ‘Do not go outward; return within yourself. In the inward man dwells truth’.  Teresa knew the ‘light’ of God, shining in her soul, which ‘always leaves greater light that we may understand the little that we are’.  The favoured route to self-awareness for Teresa was this light of God.  She followed a long tradition back to Plato’s ‘inner light’ and Augustine’s encouragement to find God within.  

Augustine and Teresa agreed they wouldn’t find the truth in their souls per se, only in the light of God, seeing themselves as God saw them, using His lens.  This takes us back to St. Paul’s approach to self-awareness ast he begged the Romans, Corinthians and Philippians to have the ‘mind of Christ’.  In the Interior Castle, Teresa has met God in her soul and wants her nuns to meet Him too.  She guides them within, as Augustine suggests, on the royal road to union.  This is the way to transcendence; the soul is led upwards, out of herself to God, going within.

Let your yes mean yes/no

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