Friday, September 25, 2009

harvest-time thoughts

I love to garden at any time of the year, but I got especially excited this fall at the prospect of digging up and replanting the daffodil, tulip and crocus bulbs that I had discovered were lurking below the surface of my front yard. The soil in my front garden needed to be thoroughly tilled and hence the bulbs would have to be moved, at least temporarily. The digging up process really was like a treasure hunt, as I gingerly explored the soil with my trowel, then used my hands to find every last bulb. The daffodils especially had been working hard at reproducing and there were very large clumps of them that needed to be separated.

I've been thinking a lot recently about what it means to be spiritually fruitful. The first thing that strikes me is the necessity of being pruned. Most of the daffodil bulbs I found buried underground would never have been able to sprout and flower if I hadn't dug them up and forcefully separated them before replanting. It take the eyes of faith to regard what I see as needless pain in my life as the hand of God pruning and caring for me.

Another paradoxical phenomenon for bearing good fruit is the necessity of letting some things seemingly go to waste. In order for a fruit tree to reproduce itself in the wild, some of its fruit must fall to the ground and rot. Only when the fruit has completely decomposed and its seeds have been washed deep in dirt and lain dormant through the chill of winter can new life begin. I find that I need humility to let some parts of my life go through a necessary period of rotting: not to insist that every new effort I make result in immediate fruit. After all, God has created us as finite creatures that do not see things all at once, but discursively. I guess if you can't rush nature, you can't rush the supernatural either. Thank God for the gift of His seasons which helps me see the wisdom behind His ways.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

tears as gift

Church fathers such as St. Augustine and St. Isaac of Ninevah speak at length about the gift of tears. Tears in this context are a spiritual phenomenon, a kind of overflow into the body of a spiritual state of intimacy with God. Ordinary tears, on the other hand, are simply the result of various emotional states such as sorrow, self-pity, anger, even extreme happiness.

Many today try to suppress their tears or, if they recognize the value of "having a good cry," make sure this is accomplished alone and behind closed doors. Do we not usually begin apologizing the moment our emotions slip out in public? Even with a close friend or family member whose compassion we can count on, the desire to apologize for our tears may be greater, knowing how hard it is for those who love us to see us hurting.

Faithful Christians, seeking perfect resignation to God's will, seem to feel particular embarrassment over their tears. This should not be so! No matter how selfish we feel their origins to be, tears can be a gift. When parents cry in front of their children, they are teaching them an important lesson in what sorrow is and how one deals with it as an adult. Seeing the suffering of others is essential to a building up of compassion and understanding in the world at large. But beyond the lessons that can be learned, offering one's tears to another human being is a gift in itself. It is a conferral of trust, an intimate self-disclosure.

A whole verse of the account of Lazarus in St. John's Gospel is devoted to telling us that Jesus wept. These were human tears on account of human suffering. Our Lord shared those tears with us. And his desire for us is that even as we wipe similar tears from our own eyes, they remain firmly fixed on Him. He wants to be our rock, our anchor on the stormy seas of life. His heart is full of gentleness and compassion, and it is attracted by our very misery.

So let us give Christ the gift of our tears: our despondency, our self-pity, all our griefs and all our frustrations. In the beautiful words of that great Dominican preacher, Fr. Gerald Vann: "Refuse to despair, and on the contrary take that gift too to the altar: put your very dereliction itself into his hands; and sooner perhaps than you could hope, more richly certainly than you could dream, he will turn those waters of sorrow into the rich red wine of life." Surely he who asked the servers at Cana for water from a well made by human hands cannot fail to do something beautiful with the gift of water stemming from eyes His own hands have fashioned and made.

Friday, September 18, 2009

John Donne says it all in 14 lines

"Batter my heart, three-person'd God; for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn and make me new.
I, like an usurpt town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv'd, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy:
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me."

being filled with the fullness of God

As I have been musing on what it means to me to have a full heart, I've come to realize that it is integrally connected with that little-known virtue of purity of heart. A good, basic definition is that purity of heart is having all our desires subordinated to one: to know, love and serve the Lord. The Lord wants us to open our hearts to Him completely, to invite Him to pervade our whole being so fully that there is no room to be attached to anything which is outside of His will. He wants our hearts "to be filled with all the fullness of God" (Eph. 3:19). But he waits upon our invitation. "Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me" (Rev. 3:20-21).

The imagery here is so vivid; the contrast so sharp. In the first picture, Christ is standing outside a heart surrounded by a wall so thick that his voice cannot even be heard. This is the heart that refuses to make itself vulnerable. Having been wounded, deathly afraid of being hurt again, the heart denies admittance to anything or anyone. The person this heart belongs to may seem deceptively alive, running from here to there, "distracted from distracted / by distraction" (T. S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday). But beneath this busy exterior, this heart is slowly starving to death, having tasted everything the world has to offer without receiving any nourishment.

The second picture Christ puts before us seems simple enough: a shared meal uniting friends. We know that in biblical times, in that nomadic culture so much a part of Israel's history, to share a meal was a very intimate act. To invite another into one's home, to recline at table with him, was to make oneself vulnerable to him. Hence the picture Christ paints for us of the heart that opens the door to him is one of friendship and great trust.

But I think Christ is saying even more than that. In the gospel of Matthew, he asks the sons of Zebedee: "Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?" (Mt. 20:22).
He invites us, just as he invited James and John, to drink the cup of his suffering with him down to the dregs. But he also offers to "eat" our lives, to consume our suffering and joys, with us: "I will come in to him, and eat with him, and he with me." He does not merely offer to eat his meal at the same time and and in the same place that I am eating my meal, he wants to eat whatever I am eating, whether I am feasting on the most wholesome and delicious meal imaginable or choking down the most unpalatable leftovers. Even when "my tears have become my bread" (Ps. 42:3), the Lord is there eating that bread with me, by night and by day. The union Christ offers me is so intimate that there is no longer a distinction between his mouth and mine, his stomach and mine, his heart and mine.

I imagine most of us are in a kind of middle ground, slowly working our way from the first of these pictures to the second. We open the doors of our hearts to Christ only to close them quickly when we fear he is going to take something away from us that we want rather desperately. It is at times like this that I need to remind myself of the words of our dear holy father Pope Benedict XVI at the beginning of his pontificate: "And so, today, with great strength and great conviction, on the basis of long personal experience of life, I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ and you will find true life." It is only insofar as we allow Christ to fill our hearts that we are made able to surrender to him all those "lesser loves". Paradoxically, however, only when we stop clinging to the lesser love are we able to appreciate its full loveliness. For now we will be seeing it and loving it with the very love of Christ.

And we must be think that this loving with the love of Christ means that our hearts will be any less vulnerable. Was not his heart pierced with a lance? We will feel things perhaps more keenly than before -- our own shortcomings, the indifference of our neighbors, all the tragedy, sin and darkness that surround. But we will have peace, knowing that he is suffering these things in us and through us and that, united with His, our suffering can bring life to the world. And when we are saddened by the bittersweet nature of mortal beauty: the changing, aging, and decaying of all that we hold dear on this earth, let us realize that the unchanging source of all this mortal beauty is the Immortal Beauty to which we hope to be united forever in heaven. Then will our hearts be filled to overflowing with gratitude for all the good things the Lord has made and the mysterious ways in which he uses his creation to bring us back to him.