Following After the God “in Disguise”

“There were also quite a few women watching from a distance, women who had followed Jesus from Galilee in order to serve him. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the Zebedee brothers” (Matt. 27:55-56) (The Message).

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Mary sees the Apostles flee, but she herself remains faithfully at the foot of the cross. Torn by wounds and disfigured with spittle though he was, she knew him as her son. Indeed his bleeding, battered body increased her love and adoration of him. The more viciously blasphemed, the more she venerated him. The life of faith is the untiring pursuit of God through all that disguises and disfigures him, and as it were, destroys and annihilates him. Look at Mary; from the stable to Cavalry she stayed close to that God who was despised, rejected persecuted. So it is with all faithful souls. They have to pass through a steady succession of veils and shadows and illusions which seek to hide the will of God, but they follow and love . . . [Him] even to death on the cross. They know they must leave the shadows and run after the divine sun which, from its rising to its setting and no matter how thick and dark the clouds hiding it, illumines, warms, and sets aglow the loyal hearts who bless, praise and contemplate it as it sweeps along its mysterious course. Let us, then, as faithful souls, happy and tireless, advance after the beloved as he moves with giant strides across the heavens. He sees all things. He walks above the smallest blades of grass and the cedar groves, and treads the grains of sand as well as the mountain peaks. Wherever we have trodden he has been, and if we constantly pursue him we shall find him no matter where we are.

Jean-Pierre De Caussade, Abandonment to Divine Providence, 39-40.

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Einstein on “Mystery”

 

The most beautiful experience that we can have is the mysterious . . . Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are diminished.

Albert Einstein, Ideas and Opinions, 11.

 

 

 

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Are You Seduced by Illusions?

The truth is that we generally only want truth on our own distorted terms. If we are honest, most of us have to acknowledge our preferences for warm, comforting illusions over cold, hard realities. Spinning these illusions is one of the core functions of the defense mechanisms of the ego. Although they accomplish this task in different ways, each illusion distorts the truth of our experience in order to make it more acceptable to us and keep us more comfortable. . . .

Rationalization is one of the more benign ways in which we distort reality. It involves inventing good excuses to cover real reasons. I may, for example, have a work colleague whom I never particularly liked and have never forgiven for something I once perceived as a snub. Suppose this person asks me if I am free for lunch. If I think of myself as a friendly person who can get along with most people and who does not harbor resentment or anger, I might turn down the lunch invitation, saying I am too busy. If rationalization is completely successful, I might even convince myself that this is the real reason. But this small distortion of reality simply serves to protect me from the unpleasant awareness that I am not the person that I want to believe I am.

A simpler but no less effective version of this is straightforward denial–telling our self (and anyone else who might inquire) that we do not, in fact, feel whatever it is that is unacceptable to us. This is often a remarkably powerful way of distancing our self from unpleasant reality. In the example of the unwanted lunch invitation, denial might even be strong enough to allow me to accept the invitation and eliminate all awareness of my hurt or anger.

. . . projection involves a more substantial distortion of the truth of our experience–attributing to others things that we cannot accept in ourselves. By means of projection I might, for example, reinforce my avoidance of my own anger at this colleague by displacing it onto him and treating him as if he is angry at me. If I am capable of this degree of reality shifting–which is the case with many more of us than simply those few who meet the formal criteria of psychosis–I will also likely feel suspicious of his motives for inviting me to lunch. I will probably wonder what treachery he is up to, and my resolve to avoid the encounter will be even firmer.

Reaction formation is an even more dramatic means of denying reality. In this, we display a feeling that is the opposite of what we actually experience, and by so doing, further convince our self that what we wish to avoid is not a part of us. Returning to the invitation to lunch, I would be employing reaction formation if I accepted the lunch invitation and said to myself, “I know he is kind of strange and that some people find him a bit rude, but I actually really like him.” More remarkable than simply thinking that this is the fact that I would both believe and feel it–thus demonstrating the extent of our capacity to live in the castles we build in the air.

By these and other means, most of us regularly choose illusions over reality. The stories we tell our self become part of a web of lies that binds us. If initially we are aware of what we are doing, it all appears to us to be quite innocent. We might think of it as spin, or possibly positive thinking. However, with repetition it becomes unconscious. The counterfeit reality that we have welcomed into our soul will now grow as it collects around it other illusions and builds itself into a foundation of a life of falsity. It is not so much that we tell lies as that we live them. Worse still, we have become a lie.

The more we live in this place of illusion, the more the harsh light of reality feels threatening. At first our preference is simply to avoid, if possible, facing those things that caused us discomfort. But the longer we choose to do so, the more we need to do so–simply to preserve the self we have built on the web of deception.

David G. Benner, Soulful Spirituality, 134-35.

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How Do You Know if Your Heart is Pure?

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Matt. 5:8).

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. . . purity of heart is generally explained in terms of singleness of purpose, inner undividedness, freedom from radical inconsistency, not having mixed motives, single-mindedness. To progress toward this goal is is understood as growth in simplicity.

In this case the image is seen not so much as whiteness, as a matter of being true to one’s essential nature. Pure orange juice is devoid of additives and adulterants. Pure water is water and nothing else. A pure heart is a heart which is fully alive, with all its energies directed to a single end. The only object which has the capacity to hold such an intense outburst of energy is God; with anything less the energies are dissipated and concentration is lost. Purity of heart comes from being drawn to God.

It must be obvious that the perfection of purity of heart is not effected in an instant. It is the gift of grace and the labor of a lifetime. As a result one has to go through life with the burden of being subject to another law, of seeming to possess a “double soul.” The more conscious one becomes of a transcendent ideal [i.e., God and His will], the more one’s very nature seems to rebel against it.

In practical terms, too much attention to the correction of faults and the elimination of vice can prevent the formation of genuine virtue, substituting for a palid blamelessness that is not only barren but usually temporary. Too much vigor expended in bridling the wild energies of the passions can destroy all enthusiasm leaving a residue that is bland and boring. Sin is to be excluded only so that goodness may flourish, not for its own sake.

Purity of heart is not just a matter of deciding on a pattern of life and then resolutely refusing to compromise. There is more to a pure heart than a strong will. One needs prudence and patience to space one’s effort over a lifetime. One also needs to know how to endure. There is much energy within us which has the capacity to upset the balance of the heart and most of it is not amenable to willpower. . . . some problems go through a stage of latency. They emerge only with the passage of time, but when they do appear they are already well-established. We all know the practical utility of “nipping in the bud” destructive behavior, but this is not usually possible with regard to the deep roots from which such conduct grows. Although, theoretically, it is possible to limit the external manifestations of destructive tendencies, the tendencies themselves are intractable. If they were trivial little things which could be handled by a New Year’s resolution, they could scarcely be considered real problems or threats. But those problems which derive from deep inside us cannot be easily dismissed; we will have to struggle with them in various forms throughout our life.

This being so, it is likely that the crucial factor in checking their destructiveness is remaining continually conscious of their presence so that there is less possibility of their catching us unaware. This seems to be the meaning of . . . [the] first step of humility.

This consciousness of our tendency to sin is not a matter of self-depreciation, discouragement or excessive guilt, but just of keeping a wary eye on an aspect of ourselves which will eventually be integrated but which, for the moment, remains unruly and potentially harmful. It is realism as opposed to wishful thinking. The process of integration will take a lifetime; meanwhile it is not very wise to think that because a tendency is not causing any trouble it has entirely lost its sting.

Purity of heart is a matter of grappling with our tendencies to vice: anger, envy, greediness, timidity, melancholy, to name a few. Lust, however, has a special significance. There are a number of reasons for this: sexuality wields a powerful measure of our instinctual energies; sexuality is an area of repression for a statistically significant portion of the population; sexuality becomes especially sensitive in the case of those who dedicate themselves to celibacy and permanent continence. Whatever the relative importance of chastity to purity of heart, it must be seen that purity of heart is the absolute foundation for a chaste life. Only one who is moving toward singleness of purpose will have courage to pursue the virtue, despite temptation and failure.

Michael Casey, The Undivided Heart, 123-25.

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3 Hard Questions to Ask When We Suffer

If our spirituality is to make suffering bearable, it must first help us embrace the suffering, not fight it. Accepting suffering is a spiritual response because, except for the more unusual forms of suffering that we bring upon ourselves, suffering is beyond our control. Aceeptance allows us to move beyond anger and resentment. It allows our meaning system to support us in the face of something beyond the limits of our power. It does this by inviting us to engage with the questions suffering asks of us. This is quite different from the questions we tend to ask when we suffer, which boil down to two: why me? and why now? Unfortunately, these questions are unanswerable. The questions that suffering asks of us, in contrast, include things like the following:

  • Why is this suffering such a surprise? Why did you ever expect to be free of pain?
  • How else might you organize your life other than around the avoidance of pain and suffering?
  • What might change if you were to accept your suffering rather than fight it? Why do you resist such acceptance?

Suffering gives us a chance to deepen our spiritual journey. For this to occur, we must befriend it, not simply endure it. This never happens automatically. On the contrary, everything within us resists befriending the pain and distress. However, if we do manage to succeed in getting rid of suffering before we have answered its questions, we miss the opportunity for growth that it represents.

Spirituality invites us to the development and deepening of a meaning of life, not merely a meaning of suffering. Any such meaning that has even a chance of being strong enough to help us face all that life brings is a meaning that will always have been fired in the hearth of suffering.

David G. Benner, Soulful Spirituality, 76.

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The Heart of Infidelity

The lie that pulses at the heart of every act of idolatry and injustice is that we are unfairly constrained by our promises, duties and obligations–all of which are marks of our creatureliness, our dependence and contingency on others–rather than graciously freed by them. [Playing God] demands not just the chance to make our dreams come true but the freedom to discard our obligations to people who no longer seem to serve our immediate interests.

Infidelity is not just a matter of breaking marriage vows or unspoken romantic commitments. Infidelity is the name for what happens any time we renegotiate our promises unilaterally, for our own interests, when they turn out to constrain our dreams of what life should be. Infidelity is rooted in an implicit belief that if we honor the promises we have made, we will miss out on what we are really made for.

Andy Crouch, Playing God, 235-36.

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Phony Humility

Some who think themselves quite emptied of themselves, confident that they are abased in the dust, are full . . . with the glory of their own humility and lifted up to heaven with a high opinion of their abasement. Their humility is . . . self-conceited, confident, noisy, assuming humility . . . .

Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections, 6.

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Are You in a Bad Mood?

By a bad mood we mean . . . any feeling state that does not come under the influence of the Holy Spirit because it tends to move us away from the desire to love and serve God and others. . . . We must remember that a bad mood is not a sign that God is absent from us; it simply means that God’s presence has not transformed the feeling dimension of our inner experience. . . .

Richard J. Hauser, Moving in the Spirit, 43, 50.

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Christian Mysticism: Some Clarifications

Some [Protestant evangelicals] have been concerned about mysticism in general, believing that it leads to irrationality and an “emptying of the mind,” and the fact is that some of its proponents have carelessly recommended devotional practices that deliberately avoid the use of words or symbols and that therefore bear more resemblance to the practice of Eastern religions than Christianity. . . . As the reader might suspect, this author has similar reservations about any model that intentionally minimizes cognitive content. Without Christian experience being normalized by truth, there is no way to know what deity one is worshipping or what religion one is practicing.

. . . while Protestants have felt that advocates of extreme forms of Christian mysticism are incautious, if not reckless, in their advocacy of “darkness” over the light of Scripture, they freely admit that the human mind cannot be expected to comprehend all of God (Bavinck, 2004; Calvin, 1559/1960; Hodge, 1995; Frame, 1987, 2002). His peace “surpasses all comprehension” (Phil. 4:7), his love “surpasses knowledge” (Eph. 3:19), his judgments are unsearchable and his ways unfathomable (Rom. 11:33). Prayer with him would be expected to lead, at times, to experiences of his transcendence and infinite greatness. Such experiences should be sought, not repudiated; otherwise, we will find ourselves conversing with a finite “god” that our little minds can handle. But orthodox Christian meditative prayer–though it can be overwhelmed by God’s infinity–does not leave truth behind. One can only love what one knows. Rather, such prayer is simply an intense, deep form of prayer, based on truth and open to an infinite God.

Eric L. Johnson, Foundations for Soul Care, 515-16.

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