Posts Tagged With: John of the Cross

Give Your Life Away, So You Don’t Lose You

What?!  Well, that’s what I heard in the Gospel reading for Thursday.

“whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.
What profit is there for one to gain the whole world
yet lose or forfeit himself?”  (Luke 9)

You have to lose your life to save it.  If you lose your life, you don’t forfeit yourself.  Again, huh?  Won’t you have lost yourself if you lost your life?  As I consider this, two nuances on losing emerge for me.

(1) “Losing” your life is not a losing – it is a deliberate choosing and, sometimes difficult, releasing of what seems to be mine or fair or about my prestige, achievement, putting myself forward.  Yes, it is a denying myself the limelight or the best seat or the time or treat I’d hoped for or promised myself – for another’s sake, for love, or just to wean myself from the lack of self discipline we all often fall into, and exercise other muscles.  But denying myself is not denying my self.  In fact, it is a re-finding of my true self (read Thomas Merton, or James Finley on Thomas Merton, or John of the Cross, or some of Richard Rohr).

SAMSUNG(2)  “Losing” your life may also be reframed as giving your life away.  Like Jesus, who “though he was in the form of God, did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at – rather, he emptied himself” (Phil 2).  God – in the Trinity – gives life away. Each person pours all of their life into the other: Father to Son to Spirit to Father to Spirit to Son to Spirit to Father… on and on. Like a water wheel, they pour themselves entirely out into one another, reserving nothing.  And so love is.  And so creation came to be. And then Jesus entering this world is another giving all away to come to a womb, to a stable, to live a life with and for others, to pour out all in deeds, in words, in healings, in tenderness, in praying, in feet washing, in bread breaking, on the cross, and in hope and peace giving.  And the Spirit is given entirely to us and for us to remind us of all we have been taught by Jesus’ giving  (see John’s Gospel).  Of course we will be happiest when we live in the pattern in which we are created and give our lives entirely away too, as we lay down our lives freely.  Meantime we receive over and over again God’s life and grace in us as we give. We are hardly impoverished.  Our emptying makes room for more richness of life.

To give our lives away we find our true self.  And this is a truth to hold on to.  A truth that brings life.  Because this is so, we are encouraged:

Choose life, then,
that you and your descendants may live, by loving the LORD, your God,
heeding his voice, and holding fast to him.
For that will mean life for you…  (Deut. 30)

Importantly, if we don’t find a way to give our lives away, we run thSAMSUNGe risk of losing our very selves.  Why?  Because we’d never grow into who we are!  It would be like a fish refusing to learn to swim, or a tree somehow refusing to reach very far out with its branches, or an artist refusing to enact their art.

We are patterned to give, to pour out, to love.  We don’t have to fear the cost of doing so. The cost of not doing so is much much greater.  Joy and peace and the celebration of being who we are created to be lie in the losing, the giving, the practicing, the releasing, the reaching, the loving, and – through all this – the true living.  May Jesus’ life and, even more, his close companionship with us this Lent help us to learn and relearn this truth, and have the heart (by grace) to enact it in our moments and days.

Find your self.  Give your life.

And, as we wander through these Lenten learning days, let’s hold fast to him, for that will mean life for you and for me.

Categories: Lent | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

Staying Power: Fascinating!

Most of us make decisions over a lifetime about when to stay or go – in a job, a relationship, a vocational path, a degree program.  We’ve heard info about healthy/unhealthy relationships, boundaries, the color of our parachutes, the bliss we are to follow, the love we deserve to find.  Valuing all of what we’ve learned in these areas, I wonder if we give sufficient attention to perseverance, endurance and staying power.

I have been intrigued (again!) over the last months with the life experiences of St. John of the Cross.  This Spanish 17th century saint and doctor of the church is a fascinating man, a poet and pray-er, a leader and guidance-giver.  But one of the most interesting things about him for me is his staying.

Simplifying greatly, he was an agent of reform in the Carmelite religious order of which he was a part.  As such, he gained great enemies within his own brothers.  This enmity found quite concrete expression when his brothers imprisoned him for months – clearly intending his demise.  He was in the dark, in small space, with insufficient light, poor and too-little food, isolated, and threatened by deliberately staged periodic conversations outside his door.  His hope, his physical well-being, his mental and spiritual faculties – all suffered drastically.  And out of this experience he eventually crafted and shared some of the most amazing poetry and prose on the relationship of love with God that has ever been written.  But this ‘rest of the story’ was certainly not evident in the dark, dark days John spent imprisoned, though it prompted an inward and outward journey that was seeded then. 

What intrigues me is that, upon his eventual and daring escape, he did not leave his brothers.  He did not leave the order.  What gave him the power to stay?  

There’s an oft-recounted story of a thief who had a dream one night of a monk outside town by a small lake.  In the dream, the monk took out of his deep habit pocket a gem of great price wrapped in cloth.  The thief woke and, inspired, went out of town in the darkness to the lake.  There he found the monk from his dream and told him he wanted what was in his pocket.  The monk reached deep within the brown folds, surprised to find a lump of cloth.  The monk pulled it out and unwrapped the cloth.  Both men gazed on the gem – the thief with avarice, the monk in surprise.  The monk caught the thief’s eyes and, reaching his out full hand to him, asked, “Do you want this?”  The thief grabbed it and went home, staying up all night staring at the gem.  In the morning, the thief wrapped the gem back in the cloth and returned to the lake.  The monk was still there, and the thief approached him. “Here,” the thief said to the monk, as he reached forward with the clothed gem.  The monk looked up, taking the bundle, asking, “You no longer want it?”  The thief paused, looking at the monk carefully, and said, “No, I don’t want that.  Instead, I want the power that gave you the ability to give it to me.”

There is something in the character of John’s staying that prompts the same kind of wonder the thief experienced.  What gave John the power to stay, when he was clearly not only valued poorly by some, but wished the worst?  This staying was not at all passive, or blind.  There is a power in his choice, and the ripples it makes in his life.  Putting the intervening biographical timeline aside, toward the end of his rather short life he was again in a situation where a superior treated him in illness without respect, and in such a way that clearly impacted his health negatively.  In all of these circumstances, John exhibited a power to be with that was not a victim-codependent-unable-to-stand-up-for-himself-too-facile-21st-century-diagnosis of him.  He was utterly strong in this staying.  What is his secret?  What gave him the ability to do so?  Is this about courage?  The action of someone we somehow suspect behaves in a way beyond us?  What does it say to us? 

An important theme in John’s writing is the need to create space for the Beloved (God, in Christ) as an action appropriate for the seeker.  It is a seeking of the nada, the nothing, that was not for the sake of nothing, but for the sake of everything.  But the everything was not John’s (and is not ours) to create.  The everything is a person – the Beloved.  John seems to have had staying power simply because it was not his power – it was God’s.  In that power John learned over time not to place his focus only on his brothers’ poor (and much worse than poor!) actions.  It was on the Beloved one, on the love story he lived with; the love story he encouraged those he directed to engage; and he believed that the circumstances of his daily life were the wallpaper on the wall in the room, so to speak.  They were important, but not the essential.  If anything, they offered more opportunity and context to see.  He was imprisoned.  But he was loved.  He was treated horribly.  But he was held safely.  He had every reason to hate or run or scream, but he turned and trusted and leaned on the love that was beyond him to provide what he needed to act as seemed right in a moment, knowing too that he failed at times. 

There is something fascinating about the storied monk’s response to the thief.  And there is something fascinating about people of faith.  John Shea told us this powerfully in his now-old book The Spirit Master.  John of the Cross did not choose abuse or imprisonment.  He escaped from them.  He also accepted the gifts he had because of them – in his writings and ways of being with others.  He recognized that he learned things in those circumstances he might otherwise not have learned, or held onto with the same tenacity as truth that would impact his own and others’ lives – effecting some of his time and since, through his writings and witness. 

Perhaps you and I can see a similar pattern as we look over seasons and events in our own lives. 

John’s staying power was not his power.  It was a power he found when he called out to God, “Where have you hidden?” (not too different from Jesus’ call, rooted in the psalms, “O God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).  John’s question during his imprisonment was raw and real, wrapped in hurting flesh and anguished spirit and abandonment by the very community he had given all to as they lived out a particular way of the Christian life together.  Still, in his powerlessness, he found a power that was not his.  He spoke of love provided by God to love with – gained when the nada (nothingness) was filled with God.  He taught of this as he lived it again in his last long suffering illnesses. 

I do not discount the need to leave untenable and unhealthy places and situations.  In fact, I strongly affirm the need to choose.  Discernment in these situations is essential, especially as our vision is so impacted by the experiences’ intensity.  God does not wish our destruction on any level.  Still, I recognize the challenge that John’s witness represents.  In a life commitment he had made he lived out, in trust, a power to stay and be faithful that is a mystery.  His way of staying attracts my attention.  I find it fascinating.  He was healthy and whole in his spirituality and theology, and real in his human journey.  And somehow this staying was utterly right and absolutely the context for his creativity and sharing.  It is in this crucible that he learned to be attentive to how much he was loved by the Beloved, and to turn his attention there.  I wonder at his gratitude for what he suffered, and his peace with it, over time. And I celebrate the way he lived fidelity.

May you and I be granted an ability to look to the God who loves us first, the Beloved who calls us Beloved in turn, and find the staying power we need in our experiences of certain circumstances and crucibles in life.  Some we cannot leave – they just are, and ‘happen’ to us.  Some we leave after a time due to choice or situation.  Others we choose to persevere within.  John left imprisonment (for his life!), yet carried and stayed with its tutoring long after.  He also needed to heal, integrate and write too while he continued his ministries.  We too need to be attentive to the needs we have around deeply disturbing or unsettling seismic shifts: stay or go.  This does not negate our ability to stay, but may change our means of doing so. 

The power to stay with or in an experience, as we are invited to learn and grow wherever we are, is not one we can seek to manufacture in ourselves.  We can let the unsettledness remind us how utterly empty and poor we are.  And remember God’s humility in becoming poor and empty with us – in a stable and on a cross – in love.  From where we stand as creatures before the Creator, we can seek an encounter that is real – whether or not it is felt – with the Beloved, and ask discernment and the companionship of Christ and his staying power.  And we can, with John, choose not to live in what was, but in what now is with new eyes and tutored hearts.

For your reflection, I offer four short scriptural excerpts on endurance, with question/s to ponder about staying’s power and staying power!  St. John of the Cross, pray for us!

Exodus 18:8:  Describes the Israelites, and “all the hardships they had had to endure on their journey, and how the Lord had come to their rescue” 

  • What are the present hardships?  Can we see them in the context of a whole journey, not just in terms of today’s reality?  Can we utilize today to look for the ways the Lord wishes to – and does – come to our rescue?

Romans 12:12-18, 21:  Rejoice in hope, endure in affliction, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the holy ones, exercise hospitality.  Bless those who persecute (you), bless and do not curse them.  Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Have the same regard for one another; do not be haughty but associate with the lowly; do not be wise in your own estimation.   Do not repay anyone evil for evil; be concerned for what is noble in the sight of all.   If possible, on your part, live at peace with all.  Do not be conquered by evil but conquer evil with good.

  • What practices suggested above might we put into concrete action that would help us? 

Romans 5:3-5:  We even boast of our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance, proven character, and proven character, hope, and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the holy Spirit that has been given to us.  

  • Can we look back at other moments of affliction or disturbance in our lives and see what positives it has given birth to?  What can we do to hold on to hope in the present, given it is very difficult to see when one is in the dark?  Choose simple things: we need to learn gentleness and patience in our approach, the same gentleness and patience we would offer another

Revelation 13:10:  Such is the faithful endurance of the holy ones..

  • We are not the only ones who learn to stay.  We are in the company of a communion of friends of God, the holy ones, who have lived this already.  And others will come after us and claim our presence with them when they journey.  Staying/endurance is made possible by God’s power.  Let us lean on those in the communion too for support and friendship on our way.

What is staying power, then, but faithfulness?  In small or large, it is a choice, recommitted to daily (hourly? by the minute?), to be with what is and learn in and from it.  It is a remembering the One who is faithful to us, specifically from where we are.  It is a seeing according to the One’s perspective on whom we set our hearts.  And it is a disciple’s discipline of ongoing stumbles towards a consistency and integrity in our faith lives only made possible through God’s good grace.  No wonder staying power is fascinating.

Categories: General, Saints | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

While We Know Joy, God Discovers Tears: WITH-ness this Lent

In a stable Mary holds her infant son, and wonders at his crying.  The story tells of shepherds, of wise men/kings, of angels and Glorias, the Star, and of celebrating on the part of all the human witnesses.  And Jesus cries, as all babes do – and Mary must have listened – aware of her son, aware of this son – and pondered the mystery.  God takes on human flesh.   “Mary… is stunned at what the exchange is meaning: while [man] is getting to know joy, God is discovering tears.” *

What has this to do with Lent?  It’s the Christmas story.  But we know that incarnation and self-donation and presence and cross and resurrection are all of a piece.  As one Advent hymn lyrically captures 2 Corinthians 8:  “He became poor, that we might be rich: Flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone”.  God’s great desire to be one with us creates the salvation we so long for, and the way home.  God’s desire for us and this salvation are quite literally way and truth and life to us in the here and now.  God, willing to enter tears and joy and all humanity, redefines love.  With Gospel eyes, we can’t miss this love in Jesus.  If only we take off our too-familiar-with-the-stories presuppositions and perspectives.  This is where seeing like children (as Jesus often encourages), with fresh wonder, is essential. 

What if we ask to have the scales fall from our older eyes so that we might truly see the following? 

Faith means literally to set one’s heart by (as has been explored in pre-Lent posts): and we are not the only or the first ones to set our hearts.  God is faithfulness, God doesn’t do faithfulness.  God’s heart is always being set.  In Trinity, we know the Father, Son and Spirit set their hearts on one another and pour out all unceasingly.  This Trinitarian God desires the same kind of communion with us.  It is God, therefore, who “faiths” first: God sets God’s heart on us!  God believes in us.  Why?  That question makes no sense to love, which needs no reason – it is in essence always free. 

God enters all of our reality to save us from the inside out.  WITH is then not only Emmanuel’s translation (God is with us), but our greatest peace.  We are never ever alone, whatever our circumstances and the feelings and thoughts that connect with them.  We can, in trust, cast all our cares on God who cares for us (1 Peter 5).  Why?  Again, because our very identity is found in being God’s Beloved Ones who have God WITH, always:  a loving, humble God who finds it delightful to accompany us at every moment of our journey. 

This Lent, perhaps what bears reflection is this WITH-ness of God, who always sets his heart first on us.  All we do is response and grace.  In response, you and I who know ourselves as desired disciples can follow the One – Jesus.  He showed us what love really is in his WITH-ness with us.  This Lent, we can practice and claim more as our own the disciple’s discipline of WITH-ness too.  God’s WITH-ness, born of love, is witness to us!  🙂 

When you and I practice WITH, we have come in church documents to call it solidarity  – a presence with another or others that is acting according to our connection one with each other.  It is a living in response to the fact that we are all one community, one body, one communion.  There is a special quality of God’s presence to us, as seen in the life of Jesus, that we might practice most deliberately in our own circumstances this Lent. 

Let me describe it with an image.  If my arm hurts, as it has the last few days, the rest of me is compensating.  I make adjustments, reach and twist and sleep and even walk differently.  Something has been pulled and needs perhaps rest, perhaps good stretching.  I am mindful of it. 

In the Gospels we see that Jesus walked among hills, near the sea, in villages and through crowds.  And his attention was often drawn to the “hurting limb”:  the paralytic lifted through the ceiling, the blind man on the side of the road, the woman with a long debilitating hemmorhage, the lepers who knew no home, the bent over woman living on the edges of the temple, the widow who had lost her son, the Samaritan, the Canaanite, the sinner, the poor.  As naturally as my attention goes to my arm due to its soreness, Jesus was drawn to be especially WITH individuals most in need.   

We learn from Jesus’ living that God delights in being WITH all of us, but particularly chooses to be WITH those of us, and those parts of us, most hurting – whether that hurt is seen by others or not.  Since such vulnerability merits God’s special presence and nurturing, healing attention; it merits ours.  Is this the preferential option for whoever is poor?  Perhaps.  And why wouldn’t we want to be WITH in love in the same way the One who saves us shows us?  The way the One who loves us has and is WITH us. 

Therese of Lisieux said at the end of her life that she would spend heaven doing good upon the earth.  She had great desire for other souls’ good during her life, and she wished to keep up this work after her death.  In this, she was very interested in the same things that interest her Love, the One who desired and saved her and was WITH her.  But this was a way she grew into.  She, more than many, told us through her autobiography of her struggles to look beyond herself to be servant and companion to those she found difficult.  Her ‘little sacrifices’ were nothing other than disciplines that helped her get out from her own thinking about her and into the ability to be WITH the other.  She did not assume she knew the heart of another, nor did she need to.  She simply served and chose the discipline to see the other and act in gentleness and compassion, with much prayer, and in small ways, as she could.  These small disciplines, her “little way”, changed her, shaping her desires.  We call her saint.  More importantly, they were expressions of love in the same pattern as Jesus’ love, and so they were life-giving to the other.     

The being present to the part of the body that hurts, to the person who annoys, to the challenge that discomforts us – these are not easy things.  In each of our lives these movements may be expressed differently (and different days offer different opportunities – even different hours or moments!).  But what if you and I attempted to do this to be united with a loving, desiring God who wants all to know joy?  What if we practiced choosing in moments a union with a God who chooses to discover tears in entering humanity — and will choose so much more of our limits and struggles too? 

This is not an invitation to beat ourselves up over our own struggles to love.  Practicing makes perfect.  It’s about bringing a willingness and a hope to be WITH, and trusting grace to help us see and act bit by bit.  It is an invitation to plant small seeds, to follow little ways (like Therese), to see with Gospel fresh eyes, and to count on God’s mercy to help us as we depend on others to support our growing too.

What of acting for the hurting this Lent in some way?  Political action on behalf of the vulnerable?  Looking out for children without sufficient adult support in your circle?  Serving the homeless, or the out of work neighbor, with kindness and respect as well as physical support?  Volunteering at a hotline?  Training with your pet to visit the elderly?  Planting flowers for an elderly relative or neighbor?  Being mindful of those in your circle with decreased mobility who may need driving to appointments or shopping?  Looking into the eyes with an intention of good of those we don’t know how to serve who ask for money?  Carrying granola or fruit bars in our car to give out instead of money at city street corners?  Contributing our unique skills for someone else’s good?  The HOW of this is limited only by our imaginations, let’s broaden them and brainstorm possibilities – perhaps with each other here, or with friends or family, or in small faith communities!

What we choose may not be large or take much time.  But it is a choosing to act in accord with the FACT that we are WITH others with needs in the communion of love that God establishes because we are family in him.  It may be a hospitality too to some hurting part of ourselves, and seeking the care and mercy and support and forgiveness and gentleness we need on our own journeys. 

Whatever you and I do, it is good to remember that it is not to earn or achieve some illusion of ‘now we’re being good people’.  It is as simple as my attention to my overworked arm.  It is appropriate care to a need in our family/in our communion, and we are inspired to it by the life of Jesus which expresses the love and desire of God for us. 

Let us again learn to set our hearts.  And perhaps we can pray and consider our call to be faithful as God is faithful.  In this is a living in our true identity, not a spiritual fix-it project to be a better person this Lent. 

Let our eyes see your willing entering of our tears, O Lord.   Comfort us.  And train us as we choose to practice loving as you love, in being WITH.  Care for those most in need, O God, and make us partners in this presence that is healing and saving and life.    

 * Iaian Matthew on John of the Cross, Ballad seven in The Impact of God: Soundings from St. John of the Cross

Categories: General, Lent | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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