It is not easy for us the face (let alone embrace) the differences we find within others in our own country, and harder still to face the differences within foreign cultures and religions. We are troubled by otherness. While we try to be accepting of different faiths, traditions, races, and lifestyles, we quietly and politely resist getting too close. We’re frightened by things we don’t understand, and as a result we often tend to exclude or punish those who differ from us. Our first impulse is to protect ourselves. We would rather construct defensive walls around our beliefs and customs than build bridges of authentic dialogue and understanding. But we need to face the otherness we find in our society…and within ourselves. If we don’t, we’ll end up like the US Congress.
God humbly came to the earth He created. Spirituality is not other-worldly; it is found in our relationships, work, attitudes, illness and dreams. Simply put, spirituality is rooted in ordinary emotional, physical, and mental life. The difficulty lies in achieving the concentrated attention needed to observe what is going on, moment by moment, in ourselves and around us, to uncover that spiritual dimension. Redemption and resurrection are only real when they are experienced in the depths of our humanity. Spiritual growth hinges on our ability to see the divine woven into mundane human reality…a feat which will take a lifetime.
The Jewish people believed that God dwelt in the Solomon’s Temple, which was built about 950 years before Christ. Nearly 400 years later, the Babylonians destroyed the temple and the Jews were forced into exile. With the temple destroyed, God’s presence among the Jews was absent…or so the Jewish people thought. Prompted by the prophets, they returned to Jerusalem in 515BCE to build a second temple so God could once again dwell in their midst. But the glory of Yahweh in the form of fire and a cloud that filled the first temple (1 Kings 8:10-13) never filled the second temple. The Jewish people felt their impurity was keeping God away. They felt they could lure God back into the new Temple by perfectly obeying all the laws of God. Strick adherence to rituals and Sabbath purity, along with the ascendency of the priesthood, gave rise to a moralistic religion. Along comes Jesus with the stunning message that God dwells within us not within a building. The fire from heaven that the Jews had waited for finally came on Pentecost…and it descended upon people, all people and not just the Jewish people. The apostle Paul said that we are the new temple and God dwells within us. Collectively, we are the Body of Christ. Thomas Merton said we are all “walking around like the sun.”
Our concern for the poor is both political and mystical, and bringing the two strands of human experience together is our great challenge in the face the tsunami of soulless capitalism and class warfare that is washing over so much of society.
We can look the other way, but no one can say they are not aware of the depths of poverty that is experienced by billions of people around the globe. In clear opposition to Catholic Social Teaching, we have made a god out of the market, which has now collapsed and is in ruin. Sadly, the cost of recovery is falling on the backs of the poorest, the very people who saw no gain during the giddy, greedy days of boom. The stupidity of bankers and Wall Street executives is pushing the poor, the unemployed, the elderly and the disabled into a hole from which they will never escape…there will be no bailouts for them.
Destitution grinds people down. Sadly, we tend to think of the homeless as social nuisances. Jesus had a different point of view and suggested that the poor are portals to God. According to Christ, the poor are a profound, redeeming revelation of God’s presence and grace. But our culture tends to separate us from the poor who live out of sight in hidden pockets of despair and want. We are blinded to the needs of the poor by our own desire for property, comfort and acquiring more material goods for ourselves. At its root, there is only one reason for the existence of poverty: selfishness, which is a manifestation of a lack of authentic love.
Peter Maurin, co-founder with Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker, said: “On the Cross of Calvary Christ gave His life to redeem the world. The life of Christ was a life of sacrifice. We cannot imitate the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary by trying to get all we can. We can only imitate the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary by trying to give all we can. What we give to the poor for Christ’s sake is what we carry with us when we die.”
Our prayer life needs to move from being mechanical and extrinsic to being mystical and intrinsic. Prayer is the natural expression of the friendship that exists between myself and God, a friendship initiated in love by God. A simple heart is a heart where God is. A simple heart is a pure heart, a heart willing to surrender itself to the will of God. The only thing standing between me and God is me. To pray is to surrender your own power. When you enter into prayer, you must leave your self behind.
Contemplation cultivates a spirit of receptivity and a listening heart. To enter fully into silence, we need to drop all preoccupations, being awake only to the presence of the moment.
“Feeling towards God – even without words – is a prayer. Words support and sometimes deepen the feeling. Guard this gift of feeling, given to you by the mercy of God. How? First and foremost by humility, ascribing everything to grace and nothing to yourself. As soon as you trust to yourself, grace will diminish in you; and if you do not come to your senses, it will cease to work completely.”
-Theophane the Recluse
The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology
Waiting, waiting, waiting. Our spiritual lives are a vigil of waiting. We wait with hope for the advent of God. Yet as we wait for God, God is already here with us. And we are with God, yet not fully so, and so we wait, living with paradox and expectancy. Spiritual transformation never ends…it is always new, forever beginning, constantly evolving.
Each of us is on a life-long journey to wholeness. We all want to overcome the fractures and divisions we feel within ourselves and among our circle of family and friends. Our lives are like puzzle parts and we can’t see the full picture. Wholeness and completeness are ultimately only found in intimacy with God. Intimacy with God is only found through desire and surrender. When we desire God above all else and when we let go of our clinging egos and destructive religions, God is free to enter into intimate communion with us.
“If we remain in our ego, clenched upon ourselves, trying to draw down to ourselves gifts which we then incorporate in our own limited selfish life, then prayer does remain servile. Servility has its roots in self-serving. Servility, in a strange way, really consists in trying to make God serve our needs. We have to say to modern man something about the fact that authentic prayer enables us to emerge from our servility into the freedom of God, because it no longer strives to manipulate him by superstitious ‘deals.’”
Contemplation in a World of Action
“A happiness that is sought for ourselves alone can never be found: for a happiness that is diminished by being shared is not big enough to make us happy.”
No Man Is An Island
It is not enough to pray. One must be prayer incarnate. When we have felt the embrace of God’s love we are no longer unwilling to embrace others. When we are filled with God’s boundless love, we have no other choice but to be endless mercy to all. Cloaked in God’s protective and nourishing love, we are free to live a life of childlike vulnerability.
Jesus asks us to love as God loves—without counting the cost or holding anything back. Love gives all away. Love frees us to act for the good of another rather than for ourselves. God’s love is unbiased and all-embracing. It does not ask who we are or how successful we are at what we do.
“Every good impulse, every noble deed we perform is of God. Christ in us. At the very same time there is an evil, complacent nagging going on, trying to discourage us, trying to impugn our motives, trying to spoil everything good we do. This complacency, self-satisfaction, is to be scorned and silenced. It shows pride even to be surprised and grieved at the baseness, like sediment, at the bottom of every good deed. As long as we live there will be a war, a conflict between nature and grace, nature again and again getting the upper hand for the moment, only to be put down rigidly. If we have faith and hope it is impossible to be discouraged.” -Dorothy Day