Don’t be ashamed of the flesh of our brother, it’s our flesh!
“The most difficult charity (or fasting) is the charity of goodness such as that practiced by the Good Samaritan who bent over the wounded man unlike the priest who hurried past, maybe out of fear of becoming infected. And this is the question posed by the Church today: “Am I ashamed of the flesh of my brother and sister”
“When I give alms, do I drop the coin without touching the hand (of the poor person, beggar)? And if by chance I do touch it, do I immediately withdraw it? When I give alms, do I look into the eyes of my brother, my sister? When I know a person is ill, do I go and visit that person? Do I greet him or her with affection? There’s a sign that possibly may help us, it’s a question: Am I capable of giving a caress or a hug to the sick, the elderly, the children, or have I lost sight of the meaning of a caress? These hypocrites were unable to give a caress. They had forgotten how to do it….. Don’t be ashamed of the flesh of our brother, it’s our flesh!”
“In turning to God we must first acknowledge that whatever and however he is, he is mystery. We can never, with our finite minds, adequately grasp who he is. If you are searching for a clear and precise notion of who God is, you will not find him in reading this book. And if ever you do find a neat and clear definition, you may be sure that it is false. God is mystery: but that does not mean he is totally unintelligible. We can come to know a mystery and grow in knowledge of it, but the more we enter into the mystery of God, or more accurately, the more the mystery of God takes hold on us, the more we realize that he is mystery.
The truth about God, that he is mystery, is of fundamental importance. Being fundamental, any religion which ignores this truth will certainly lead us astray. We may construct a most elaborate and ingenious religious system, but if it is not grounded in this basic truth that God is mystery, then our elaborate system becomes an elaborate form of idolatry. We are constantly tempted to make God in our own image and likeness. We want to control and domesticate him, giving him perhaps a position of great honour in our hearts, home and country, but we remain in control. God is uncontrollable, beyond anything we can think of or imagine. ‘God’, I once heard someone say, ‘is a beckoning word.’ He calls us out of ourselves and beyond ourselves, he is our God of surprises, “always creating anew.”
“In speaking of our relationship to God and to Christ we have to make use of analogies, but no analogy is ever adequate. We speak of ‘Christ living in our hearts’ and ‘making his home in us’, and such analogies are useful, but it is more true to say, ‘We must live in the heart of God, we must make our home in Christ,’a heart which is always greater than anything we can think or imagine, a home that embraces the whole Universe.” (From : Gerald W. Hughes SJ, God of Surprises, Darton, Longman and Todd, London, 1985, pp. 31 and 161)
Jesus is Baptised. Pouring cold water on my God thoughts.
Baptism – the right to catechise a child.
I don’t remember my baptism but I do know that what I learned of the catechism, by heart, from the age of 5, has stuck. Or it did stick until recently. I’ve not forgotten it but I now see how the answers to questions nobody else asked me in the next 60 years have sat heavily and undigested in a corpulent, almost inert, soul. Once I had been baptised, I could be catechised.
God is everywhere and unchanging. Really?
I learned that God is the biggest and the best so much so that he is unchanging and everywhere. I remember learning this when I was five. The idea stuck and only now, sixty years later do I see how this concept of an unchanging God left little room for a living relationship with God. It was not just because I lived my childhood in Glasgow that I was brought up in a fog. The urge was felt by many to impart doctrine as if it were nourishment for the spiritual life . I was fed a spiritual Atkins’ diet – all meat and fat, no fruit or veg.
Doctrine became the sculpture of God in man’s own words. This is now fully acknowledged in the new Catechism which says that ” Our human words always fall short of the mystery of God. ” (42) In this Catechism the only mention I have found of God as unchanging (260) is a quote from Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity, a mystic’s prayer where “unchanging” refers, of course, to “constancy in love”. A living relationship with God is constantly changing, forever directed to light and love and fresh air, in which we are formed and reformed by the Spirit and God is moved by us and grows with us. God changes: we change.
The Baptism of Jesus
Today on Pray as you Go (The UK Jesuit daily prayer/meditation page), in usual Ignatian fashion, listeners were invited to contemplate this unique event where Father, Son and Spirit manifest themselves when Jesus tells John the Baptist that his Baptism is necessary: Jesus receives the Baptism, an acceptance of repentance, an acknowledgement of inner change. Here, as with so many Gospel stories, like the virginal conception of Jesus, doctrine makes contortionists of us all but prayer, the act of contemplation where words and thoughts are set aside, can fill us with light and love, peace and joy.
“Letting be” the doctrinal complications, pushing all logic aside, I am filled with wonder. I sense an invisible current running through me when I listen to the Baptism story. I know what it means to say, “This is my child, in whom I am well pleased.” It is to say nothing, nothing in words. It is an embrace of the heart full of love, acceptance and joy. Love invades and flows through me for my own children, for all young people, for all of humanity. I am swept up in an ocean of love which is alive with the movement of this God, of Father, Son and Spirit.
This Baptism drowns me in the Trinity which is changed by my presence, by yours and by all creation.
How do I know that my life is changing God?
I had a special, close relationship with a woman who had a son. She read the Daily Mail faithfully in spite of which she had a quick, intelligent wit and was especially gifted with a discerning eye for fashionable clothes. She was a great admirer of Margaret Thatcher.
Her son turned punk and shaved his head. He became a central member of a graffiti team and an expert in planning night excursions to paint motorway bridges and train depots.
One day, on a train entering Paris she surprised me by saying, “This work you see all around here, on the trains and the walls, will one day be treasured as fine art.” She was referring to the graffiti which was everywhere. Her eyes had been opened for her by the delinquent behaviour of her son. Her love for him allowed her to discard her firm belief that graffiti was anti-social and see the beauty of the paintings sprayed onto the walls alongside the railway.
The Trinity, present at Jesus’ Baptism.
I have no Idea what this is.
Immersing myself in the scene at Jesus’ baptism, there is no mystery to the Trinity, no intellectual puzzle. Like a succulent strawberry cream cake it is as well not to linger on an analysis of the ingredients, just on taste and satisfaction. The Trinity tastes good: just as it should.
Here present at this Baptism by John, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit collaborate in John’s call to repentance. In our being with them they change, or rather God is changed, just as a couple are changed when a baby arrives. We enter into the Trinity and it is never again the same.
I can assent to all the official Doctrine as required, but as Pope Francis said when baptising children on the Feast of Jesus’ Baptism, “Some of the babies are crying because they are uncomfortable or hungry. Mothers, if they are hungry give them something to eat..” Let’s not feed children with doctrine, just with love and milk , preferably,from the breast in this wonderful communion to which we are all invited.
the Pope appealed “sincerely” and “respectfully” to those who “feel far from God and from the Church” and to “those who are fearful and indifferent: the Lord is calling you too.” The Lord is calling you to be a part of His people and He does it with great respect and love.”
“The Lord does not proselytize; He gives love,” reaffirmed the Pope. “And this love seeks you and waits for you, you who at this moment do not believe or are far away. And this is the love of God.”
Waiting for a child’s return.
Identifying with God.
While not making any claim to be God, I identify with Him as the Pope spoke of him on the Feast of the Epiphany. Some of my children are far away and will not speak with me; others have stayed close-by and, for others, new avenues of communication are opening up.
I know my children have suffered as a result of things I have done and that they have felt abandoned and uncared for. What I can say, without any hesitation or doubt, is that my love has been seeking and waiting for each of them without cajoling or demanding. It is the love of a father and is without conditions or limits and quite unchanged by my behaviour or theirs. It simply is, as it has been since each life began, through good times and bad.
“And this is the love of God.”
This is simple love, enduring and even growing through human weakness. I can recognise, in my own love, God’s love. “Love melts into love,” said St Teresa of Avila. We look everywhere for God’s love, but we already have it. Famously St. Augustine looked everywhere for God and then found him already nearer than he could imagine, in his own heart.
No matter how imperfect we are this Love is perfected within us.
Towards the end of his excellent little book, “Contemplative Prayer”, Thomas Merton warns, in the strongest of terms, against methods of meditation which don’t lead us face to face with our own emptiness and “dread”. In the following passage the context ( in which Merton may have had in mind the popular meditation of the Beatles) gives way to a caution which is still relevant to us all today, especially those of us who desire to have a life based in contemplative prayer.
“…a form of contemplation that merely produces the illusion of “having arrived somewhere”, of having achieved security and preserved one’s familiar status by playing a part, will eventually have to be unlearned in dread – or else we will be confirmed in the arrogance, the impenetrable self-assurance of the Pharisee. We will become impervious to the deepest truths. We will be closed to all who do not paricipate in our illusion. We will live “good lives” that are basically inauthentic, “good” only as long as they permit us to remain established in our respectable and impermeable identities. The “goodness” of such lives depends on the security afforded by wealth, recreation, spiritual comfort, and a solid reputation for piety. Such “goodness” is preserved by routine and the habitual avoidance of serious risk – indeed of serious challenge. In order to avoid apparent evil, this pseudo- goodness will ignore the summons of genuine good. It will prefer routine duty to courage and creativity. In the end it will be content with established procedures and safe formulas, while turning a blind-eye to the greatest enormities of injustice and uncharity.”
“Contemplation is essentially a listening in silence, an expectancy. And yet in a certain sense, we must truly begin to hear God when we have ceased to listen. What is the explanation of this paradox? Perhaps only that there is a higher kind of listening, which is not an attentiveness to some special wave length, a receptivity to a certain type of message, but a general emptiness that waits to realize the fullness of the message of God within its own apparent void. In other words the true contemplative is not the one who prepares his mind for a particular message that he wants or expects to hear, but remains empty because he knows he can never expect or anticipate the word that will transform his darkness into light. He does not even anticipate a special kind of transformation. He does not demand light instead of darkness. He waits on the Word of God in silence, and when he is “answered”, it is not so much by a word which bursts into his silence. It is by his silence in itself suddenly, inexplicably revealing itself to him as a word of great power, the full voice of God.”
The great pre-requisite: Silence.
In my desire to learn about contemplative prayer I read and I pray and I wait. There is no particular technique for contemplation which “does the trick” although I’ve tried several and followed advice which I have always found useful until I begin to get used to one or other of the practices and then, like driving or walking, I develop my own style, not deliberately but more like wearing clothes till they fit, perhaps untidily but comfortably. There is one condition for contemplation on which all agree, I think, and that is silence.
Thomas Merton, in the passage above from his classic book, “Contemplative Prayer” expands on the emptiness of true silence in a way which echoes his attraction to Zen Buddhism. For me, as a novice in prayer, I am just learning about what silence actually feels like. I have been greatly helped by finding myself attracted to walking long distances. The routine and simplicity of walking and keeping walking on and on for hundreds of miles is one way of entering silence. Having a lot of time, some form of routine and the most basic simplicity are good conditions for incubating silence and stilling competing voices and urges within us.
When I have walked many days I become more silent within. This means that I have few worries or fears or resentments or urges: in general I am not in reactive mode but rather responsive mode. The more silent I become the more aware I am of what remains as noise within me because there is less and less of it. The rhythm of footstep after footstep shakes down and out the junk accumulated in a world of competition, deceit and false promises with battles for power and money and influence which create conflicting desires and confuse my sense of inner direction. My compass becomes fixed on the Way and with regular, continuous prayer I begin to know where I am heading. Yes, I have to keep alert , to notice when I am off my track, but the conditions of not being rushed, repeating the same routine and having little baggage are liberating and free me to note the disturbances which interrupt my silence. Silence grows.
As silence grows it is possible to start listening…………….