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A Mutual Vulnerability

Wounded Healers

A Mutual Vulnerability
Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Earlier this year, my colleague and dear friend Jim Finley gave an unpublished talk to Illuman, an organization that supports men in authentic spiritual development. Jim shared some stories from his own life, including how he began to heal from his own childhood abuse and trauma with the help of Thomas Merton, who was his novice master and spiritual director at the Abbey of Gethsemani.

When I went in to see Merton for direction, I was eighteen years old, I was just out of high school. Because of my trauma history I had this issue with authority figures. So when I went in to try to talk to him, I hyperventilated; I had a hard time breathing. And he said to me, “What’s going on?” I told him, my voice was shaking, and I said, “I’m scared because you’re Thomas Merton.”

I can remember being so ashamed, because I wanted him to think well of me. . . . He said to me something that really was a turning point in my life. . . . I worked at the pig barn at the time. . . . He said, “Under obedience, every day after afternoon work, before vespers, I want you to come here every day and sit down and tell me one thing that happened at the pig barn each day.”. . .

I remember thinking to myself, “I can do that.” And it leveled the playing field. . . . Just two men sitting in a room, talking about daily work. And he became a father figure for me.

I learned a big lesson, which later really was to affect me in my own therapy and as a therapist, that when you risk sharing what hurts the most in the presence of someone who will not invade you or abandon you, you can learn not to invade or abandon yourself. Even deeper down, when you risk sharing what hurts the most in the presence of someone who will not invade you or abandon you, you can discover within yourself what Jesus called the pearl of great price [Matthew 13:46], your invincible preciousness in the midst of your fragility.

So through humility and through vulnerability, the true strength of being empowered, my manhood came forth, sitting in this room. Out of all the studies I’ve done with Merton, and my talks on Merton, I think nothing went deeper than talking with him about the pigs. Because that’s compassion. . . .

So this is my sense of manhood, I guess: a radicality, a spirituality, that gives me the courage to face the most broken and lost places within myself, discovering through that acceptance the oceanic tender mercy of God that sustains us in that brokenness, so that by learning to be this way ourselves we can pass it on to others. We can be someone in whose presence it’s safe to be vulnerable and to be open, and truly courageous and strong and powerful, as Jesus was strong and powerful, in the truest, deepest sense of the word.

Reference:
Adapted from James Finley, “An Illuman Watering Hole Zoom Event,” (June 18, 2020), unpublished presentation. To learn more about this organization and its work, see www.illuman.org/about/.

Image credit: Resurrection of Lazarus (detail), circa 12th‒13th century, Athens.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Being wounded, suffering, and dying are the quickest and most sure paths to truly living. —Richard Rohr

The Illusion of the Separate Self

True Self/Separate Self

The Illusion of the Separate Self
Tuesday, September 1, 2020

CAC faculty member James Finley studied under Thomas Merton as a young monk in formation. While many have been influenced by Merton’s writings, few have had the opportunity to learn from the mystic himself. Today, Jim reflects on the insights on the True Self and false self that he gleaned from Thomas Merton.

In the following text Merton makes clear that the self-proclaimed autonomy of the false self is but an illusion. . . .

Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self.

This is the man I want myself to be but who cannot exist, because God does not know anything about him. And to be unknown of God is altogether too much privacy.

My false and private self is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God’s will and God’s love—outside of reality and outside of life. And such a self cannot help but be an illusion.

We are not very good at recognizing illusions, least of all the ones we cherish about ourselves—the ones we are born with and which feed the roots of sin. For most of the people in the world, there is no greater subjective reality than this false self of theirs, which cannot exist. A life devoted to the cult of this shadow is what is called a life of sin. [1] . . .

The false self, sensing its fundamental unreality, begins to clothe itself in myths and symbols of power. Since it intuits that it is but a shadow, that it is nothing, it begins to convince itself that it is what it does. Hence, the more it does, achieves and experiences, the more real it becomes. Merton writes,

All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life to which everything else in the universe is ordered. Thus I use up my life in the desire for pleasures and the thirst for experiences, for power, honor, knowledge and love, to clothe this false self and construct its nothingness into something objectively real. And I wind experiences around myself and cover myself with pleasures and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world, as if I were an invisible body that could only become visible when something visible covered its surface. [2]

Richard again: Our false self is how we define ourselves outside of love, relationship, or divine union. After we have spent many years laboriously building this separate self, with all its labels and preoccupations, we are very attached to it. And why wouldn’t we be? It’s what we know and all we know. To move beyond it will always feel like losing or dying.

References:
[1] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New Directions Paperbook: 2007, ©1961), 34.

[2] Ibid., 34-35.

James Finley, Merton’s Palace of Nowhere: A Search for God through Awareness of the True Self (Ave Maria Press: 1978), 33, 35, 36.

Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self (Jossey-Bass: 2013), 36.

For a deeper exploration of Thomas Merton’s teachings, tune into James Finley’s podcast, “Turning to the Mystics,” produced by the CAC.

Image credit: Room in New York (detail), Edward Hopper, 1932.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: My false and private self is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God’s will and God’s love—outside of reality and outside of life. And such a self cannot help but be an illusion. —Thomas Merton

Sustained in God’s Love

Wisdom in Times of Crisis

Sustained in God’s Love
Monday, July 6, 2020

In the light of eternity, we’re here for a very short time, really. We’re here for one thing, ultimately: to learn how to love, because God is love. Love is our origin, love is our ground, and love is our destiny. —James Finley

CAC faculty member James Finley offers a contemplative practice to help us experience the love of God even in the midst of chaos. Living out of that love transforms both ourselves and the world.

What is the practice that matters now? A practice is any act habitually entered into with our whole heart that takes us to the deeper place. Some of these practices, we might not think of as prayer and meditation: tending the roses, a long, slow walk to no place in particular, a quiet moment at day’s end, being vulnerable in the presence of that person in whose presence we’re taken to the deeper place, the pause between two lines of a poem. There are these acts that reground us in the depth dimensions of our life that matter most; so if we’re faithful to our practice, our practice will be faithful to us. . . .

In this contemplative practice, sit and renew your awareness that you’re sitting in the presence of God all about you and within you. As you inhale, inhale God’s silent “I love you,” in which God is being poured out and utterly given away to you as the miracle of your very life. Then when you exhale, exhale yourself in love: “I love you.” And so, we are breathing [along with God], “I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you.” From the reciprocity of love, destiny is fulfilled, and the foundations of suffering are healed.

As we sit this way, suffering arises. The suffering then might be our anxiety and concerns today, for ourselves, for our loved ones, for the world. As we sit in the midst of the arising of the anxiety, when we inhale, we inhale this love of God loving us through and through, anxiety and all, finding no hindrance in our anxiety, loving us so unexplainably forever. Then when we exhale, we exhale ourselves in love, anxiety and all, to the love that loves us. This requires gentle perseverance, because anxiety arises again. It doesn’t automatically go away. We sit with it, we lean into it again, and we hold fast to this love that sustains us in the midst of things. It is in this way, little by little, that we come to understand the unsubstantiality of everything but love. Love and love alone has the authority to name who we are.

This practice, then, experientially grounds us in this love wisdom. This love wisdom—grounded in practice—empowers us to go out and share this with other people in the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

References:
From James Finley, “Practice That Grounds Us in the Sustaining Love of God,” Wisdom in Times of Crisis (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2020), faculty presentation (April 26, 2020), YouTube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-A16N4hKou0.

Epigraph: “Renewing That in Us Which Sees the Light,” Wisdom in Times of Crisis (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2020), faculty presentation (April 20, 2020), YouTube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4I3RVlPCEtE.

Image credit: Cueva de las Manos (detail), Cañadón del Río, Santa Cruz, Argentina. Photograph copyright 2012 Pablo Gimenez.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: As a spiritual practice we can wake up to the possibility of building a new order. We can improvise those possibilities; try them out in the creative microcosm of a shared public life, realizing that our way of life before the pandemic was not perfect. —Barbara Holmes

Freedom: An Infinite Possibility of Growth

Inner and Outer Freedom

Freedom: An Infinite Possibility of Growth
Monday, June 15, 2020

The spirituality of CAC faculty member James Finley has been deeply influenced by the writings of Thomas Merton (1915–1968). In this passage, Jim explores the paradoxical wisdom that true freedom does not come from following our own will but in knowing and surrendering to God’s will for us.

Merton quotes Meister Eckhart [1260–1328] as saying, “For God to be is to give being, and for [humanity] to be is to receive being.” [1] Our true self is a received self. At each moment, we exist to the extent we receive existence from God who is existence. . . .

Our deepest freedom rests not in our freedom to do what we want to do but rather in our freedom to become who God wills us to be. This person, this ultimate self God wills us to be, is not a predetermined, static mold to which we must conform. Rather, it is an infinite possibility of growth. It is our true self; that is, a secret self hidden in and one with the divine freedom. In obeying God, in turning to do [God’s] will, we find God willing us to be free. God created us for freedom; that is to say, God created us for [God’s] self.

Phrased differently, we can say that God cannot hear the prayer of someone who does not exist. The [false] self constructed of ideologies and social principles, the self that defines itself and proclaims its own worthiness is most unworthy of the claim to reality before God. Our freedom from the prison of our own illusions comes in realizing that in the end everything is a gift. Above all, we ourselves are gifts that we must first accept before we can become who we are by returning who we are to the Father. This is accomplished in a daily death to self, in a compassionate reaching out to those in need, and in a detached desire for the silent, ineffable surrender of contemplative prayer. It is accomplished in making Jesus’ prayer our own: “Father . . . not my will but yours be done” [Luke 22:42]. . . .

[Thomas Merton identifies] that freedom from the futility of . . . laying hold of God as a possession.

Only when we are able to “let go” of everything within us, all desire to see, to know, to taste, and to experience the presence of God, do we truly become able to experience that presence with the overwhelming conviction and reality that revolutionize our entire inner life. [2]

This letting-go in the moral order is the living out of the Beatitudes. In the order of prayer it is in-depth kenosis, an emptying out of the contents of awareness so that one becomes oneself an empty vessel, a broken vessel, a void that lies open before God and finds itself filled with God’s own life. This gift of God is revealed to be the ground and root of our very existence. It is our own true self.

References:

[1] Thomas Merton, “Obstacles to Union with God,” audiotape. See Meister Eckhart, Quasi Vas Aureum Solidum, Sermon on Sirach 50.10.

[2] Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer (Image Books: 1996, ©1969), 67.

James Finley, Merton’s Palace of Nowhere: A Search for God through Awareness of the True Self (Ave Maria Press: 1978), 72, 73, 78. Note: Minor edits made for more inclusive language.

Image credit: Sun in an Empty Room (detail), Edward Hopper, 1963, private collection.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Only when we are able to “let go” of everything within us, all desire to see, to know, to taste and to experience the presence of God, do we truly become able to experience that presence with the overwhelming conviction and reality that revolutionize our entire inner life. —Thomas Merton

Made for Infinite Love

Teresa of Ávila and John of the Cross

Made for Infinite Love
Thursday, April 23, 2020

Jim Finley, my friend and fellow teacher at the CAC, began studying the mystics at the Abbey of Gethsemani at age eighteen, with Thomas Merton as his novice master. He remembers when he first read this excerpt from the Prologue to the Ascent of Mount Carmel by St. John of the Cross:

A deeper enlightenment and wider experience than mine is necessary to explain the dark night through which a soul journeys toward that divine light of perfect union with God that is achieved, insofar as possible in this life, through love. The darknesses and trials, spiritual and temporal, that fortunate souls ordinarily undergo on their way to the high state of perfection are so numerous and profound that human science cannot understand them adequately. Nor does experience of them equip one to explain them. Only those who suffer them will know what this experience is like, but they won’t be able to describe it. [1]

Jim describes the effect John’s writing had on him:

Now, I could tell in the first paragraph, I was in deep water, and I could also tell as I kept reading that just a lot of it was going right over my head. But in John’s poetry, and from the very first paragraph of his prose, I sensed that his words were coming from some very deep place inside of him, or really coming from some deep place and [going] through him, and then intimately accessing that deep place in me. There was a certain resonance in realizing he was talking about something that I didn’t understand; but I knew mattered very, very much. And, as I kept reading on in that way, it got clearer and clearer to me. I am now over 76 years old, and I am still reading John of the Cross. He is one of my teachers. . . .

John’s core intuition is that the Infinite Love that is the architect of our hearts has made our hearts in such a way that nothing less than an infinite union with Infinite Love will do. It’s the setup in the beginning. For Infinite Love to create us in the image of itself is for Infinite Love to create us as a capacity to receive the forms of Infinite Love as our destiny. That love is our origin, love is our ground. That Infinite Love creates us as a capacity for love, for love’s sake alone. Love is the fabric of the true nature of everything that’s happening. This is the love nature of life.

[Richard again: Throughout these weeks, I have been praying, trying to understand how, as Jim puts it, “love is the fabric of the true nature of everything that’s happening.” How can it be that God’s love is at work and present in the tragedies around the globe right now? But knowing what harrowing circumstances John of the Cross was in when he came to experience the infinite love of God gives me hope and perseverance.]

References:
[1] John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Prologue, 1. See The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez, 3rd ed. (ICS Publications: 1991), 114–115.

Adapted from Richard Rohr and James Finley, Intimacy: The Divine Ambush (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2013), disc 1 (CD, MP3 download).

Image credit: A Vision of the Holy Trinity (detail), anonymous Brazilian painter, 17th century, Museu de Arte Sacra da Universidade Federal da Bahia, Salvador, Brazil.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: I like to say that Teresa and John were part of the “final supernova” of nondual, mystical consciousness in 16th century Spain, before it all but disappeared in Europe for five hundred years in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the invention of the printing press. Both Teresa and John wrote detailed accounts of their lives and experiences with God, which makes them very accessible teachers. —Richard Rohr

Summary: An Evolving Faith: Weekly Summary

Summary: An Evolving Faith

Summary: Sunday, December 29, 2019—Friday, January 3, 2020

God keeps creating things from the inside out, so they are forever evolving, yearning, developing, growing, and changing for the good. (Sunday)

For me, a true comprehension of the full Christ Mystery is the key to the foundational reform of the Christian religion. Understanding the expansive reality of Christ will move us beyond any attempts to corral or capture God into our exclusive group. (Monday)

Simply put, any notion of a future church must be a fully practical church that is concerned about getting the job of love done—and done better and better. (Tuesday)

One of the most promising things that has come out of the emerging church has been folks looking back and reclaiming the best of their traditions, seeing that it is not an either/or but a both/and—God is doing something ancient and something new. —Shane Claiborne (Wednesday)

This new kind of Christianity can only emerge as a trans-denominational movement of contemplative spiritual activism. —Brian McLaren (Thursday)

The most important aspect of this [new] form of Christianity in the future is simple, obvious, and yet radical: it is about love, as Jesus taught and embodied. —Brian McLaren (Friday)

 

Practice: Love and Compassion

As we begin a new year, I am delighted to share this beautiful practice from my friend and fellow CAC faculty member James Finley, who invites us to awaken to our oneness with love and compassion.

Meditation allows us to see the world through the eyes of compassion. This compassionate vision of the world impels us to live in ways in which our words and behavior toward others embody compassion. Compassion forms the essential bond between seeking God in meditation and all forms of social justice. For the more we are transformed in compassion, the more we are impelled to act with compassion toward others. [1]

When you sit in meditation, your breathing naturally slows. Quietly focusing your attention on your breathing is a way of slowing down and settling into a deep meditative awareness of oneness with God. Breathing out, be quietly aware of breathing out. Breathing in, be quietly aware of breathing in. Each time you realize you have drifted off into thoughts, memories, sensations, and other ego-based modes of being, simply return to your breathing as your anchoring place in present-moment attentiveness.

Your efforts in following the path of breath awareness might be enhanced by repeating a word or phrase with each breath. A practice I have found particularly helpful is to pair breath awareness with the phrase “I love you.”

As you inhale, listen to the incoming breath so intently that you can hear in it God’s silent “I love you.” In this moment, God is flowing into you as the source and reality of your very being. As you exhale, breathe out a silent “I love you” back to God. As you inhale, be aware of the air as being God flowing into you, as the divine gift of your very being. As you exhale, allow your silent “I love you” to be your very being, flowing back into the depths of God.

Simply sit, open to God breathing divine love into the depths of your being, as you breathe your whole being, as a gift of love, back into God.

This one practice alone, engaged in with heartfelt sincerity and devotion, can awaken you to God’s total and complete oneness with you as the giver, the sustainer, and the reality of the sheer miracle of your very being. As this realization of God’s oneness with you grows, you will begin to realize how foolish it is to imagine that God is, in any way, distant from you. You discover how foolish it is to imagine that you could in any way, hide from God, who is wholly one with all that is within your mind and heart, your very being. [2]

References:
[1] Adapted from James Finley, Christian Meditation: Experiencing the Presence of God (HarperSanFrancisco: 2004), 286.

[2] Ibid., 30, 242-244.

For Further Study:
“The Future of Christianity,” Oneing, vol. 7, no. 2 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2019)

Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe (Convergent: 2019)

Image credit: Healing of a Bleeding Woman (detail), Catacombs of Marcellinus and Peter, Rome, Italy.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Jesus was about love first and foremost, in word and deed. Jesus began with love for God, but inseparably linked that love with love for neighbor, with the understanding that neighbor includes the other, the outsider, the outcast, the last, the least, the lost, the disgraced, the dispossessed, and the enemy. Brian McLaren

The Gate of Heaven

Heaven Now

The Gate of Heaven
Thursday, May 2, 2019

James Finley, one of the Center for Action and Contemplation’s core faculty members, was a spiritual directee of Thomas Merton (19151968) at the Abbey of Gethsemani. Drawing from this experience and his own insights as a student of the mystics and a clinical psychologist, Finley helps us get a glimpse of heaven.

When Merton told me that “one thing for sure about heaven is that there is not going to be much of you there,” he was, I think, referring to the mystery that even now we are in God’s kingdom. And that even now we can begin to realize it if we but die to egocentric self-seeking and seek God’s will with a pure heart.

Because God is everywhere God is likewise no-where, meaning there is no “where” in which we can see God “out there.” Closer to us than we are to ourselves, God is too close to see. God is the heart of our heart, the hope of our hopes, the love of our love, the ground of our being.

Where must we go to see God? Nowhere! What can we do to have God? Nothing! All we can do, at least for a moment (an eternal moment) is to abandon all doing and be who we are in God and open ourselves to God’s life within us. It is then that we will at once see God and ourselves in a unity of divine love.

In fidelity to silent prayer there is unveiled the possibility of infinite growth in union with God. We can be so transformed through this unveiling that we existentially realize within us that “for me to live is Christ” [Philippians 1:21]. We realize obscurely in our being, that our simple, concrete acts are open to a transformation through which they are “not only Godlike, but they become God’s own acts.” [1]

There is nowhere to go. There is nothing to do. God is upon and within us. In the midst of our humble duties, our poor, weak selves, our simple being who we are, we can say with Jacob with overwhelming gratitude: “Truly this is the house of God and the gate of heaven and I knew it not” [see Genesis 28:16-17]. [2]

References:
[1] Thomas Merton, What Are These Wounds? The Life of a Cistercian Mystic, Saint Lutgarde of Aywières (Bruce: 1950), 14.

[2] James Finley, Merton’s Palace of Nowhere: A Search for God Through Awareness of the True Self (Ave Maria Press:1978, 1983), 112-113. Learn more from James Finley at jamesfinley.org.

Image credit: La Sieste (detail), Paul Gauguin, 1892–1894, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: The here-and-now has the power to become the gateway and the breakthrough point to the universal. The concrete, the specific, the physical, the here-and-now—when we can be present to it in all of its ordinariness—becomes the gateway to the Eternal. —Richard Rohr

Dying to Ego’s Delusions

Dying Before You Die

Dying to Ego’s Delusions
Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Dying to the false self before our physical death allows us to be reborn as our more authentic and soulful selves. Today James Finley, one of CAC’s core faculty members, reflects on how hard it is for our ego to surrender to the path of descent, to the transformative process:

In meditation, our customary, ego-based ways of experiencing ourselves yield and give way to more interior, meditative ways of being, ways that transcend all that ego can attain. While we may wish for transformation, realizing it to be the way we awaken to our eternal oneness with God, the process is at times immensely difficult.

It is amazing how a caterpillar spins about itself a hiding place from which it emerges and takes flight as a butterfly with delicate, iridescent wings. Similarly, Christ lived as a human being who freely entered into the hiding place of death to emerge, deathless, filled with light and life, utterly transformed. Our faith proclaims that in following Christ we experience the same thing: “Therefore if any person is in Christ, they are a new creature; the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

We sit in meditation so that the last traces of our tendency to identify with egoic consciousness might finally dissolve as our habitual base of operations. We come face-to-face with how deeply entrenched our tendencies to remain identified with ego consciousness are. The truth is, our own ego-based sense of ourselves is afraid to open to unknown depths, transcending its circle of influence and control. We will go halfway, in a willingness to become a caterpillar with wings. This leaves our ego intact, an ego which has now attained spiritual gifts or mystical states of oneness with God. Surrendering ourselves to something as radical as a complete metamorphosis of consciousness itself is too great a risk. The possibility of realizing a life that is at once God’s and our own is beyond what we can comprehend.

When we sit in meditation, we take the little child of our ego self off to school, where we must learn to die to our illusions about being dualistically other than God. We must also die to any grandiose delusions that we are God. In meditation, we learn to wait with compassion and patience until we are ready to take our next faltering step into a deeper realization of oneness with God. This tender point of encounter is Christ, understood as God in our midst, listening, loving, and helping God’s children across the threshold into eternal oneness with God.

This, then, is one way of understanding how to deal with the ongoing loss of our old familiar ways of understanding ourselves. And this is how we can, with Christ-like compassion, be present to the self-metamorphosing process in which, little by little, breath by breath, love dissolves the illusions and fears born of our estrangement from the infinite love that is our very life.

Reference:
Adapted from James Finley, Christian Meditation: Experiencing the Presence of God (HarperSanFrancisco: 2004), 141-145.

Image credit: The Gulf Stream (detail), Winslow Homer, 1899, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, New York.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Those who follow life to where it resides in the heart live life fully. —Stephen Levine

Searching for Love

Love: Week 1

Searching for Love
Friday, November 2, 2018
All Souls’ Day

John of the Cross (1542-1591) is one of many Christian mystics who writes about being loved by God in an intimate way. My friend and fellow CAC faculty member James Finley reflects on John’s Dark Night of the Soul as a journey deeper into love:

John of the Cross says we get all tangled up in suffering, and we get all tangled up in searching for love. The root of suffering is the deprivation of love. Now in reality, there’s no such thing as the deprivation of love, because the infinite love of God invincibly pervades and gives itself endlessly to everyone and to all things everywhere. There is no such thing as a deprivation of love, but there is the deprivation of the capacity to experience the love that is never missing. Therefore, my spiritual practice is to look within for the places that are blocking my ability to experience the flow of an immense tenderness that is endlessly giving itself to me in all situations.

The Dark Night of the Soul as described by John of the Cross is actually a tender, merciful art form of love. It very mysteriously dislodges us from whatever is keeping us in the stuck places. Sometimes it is disarmingly joyful and sometimes it is disarmingly painful; but if we lean into it and move with its rhythm, love charts its own course and brings us to a deep understanding of God’s love.

Thomas Merton once said we spend most of our lives under water. Every so often our head clears the surface and we look around and get our bearings. Then blik, we go back under again. In the moments when we get our bearings, we realize, “Oh my God! Look how endlessly trustworthy life is! Look at the God-given, godly nature of simple things!”

John of the Cross says these touches of love go on and on until pretty soon there begins to grow in us a kind of homesickness or longing for a more daily abiding experience of the depths of love we have so fleetingly glimpsed.

What lovers would be content with chance passing encounters in the street? The more in love with each other they are, the more one with each other they want to be all the time. Likewise, there begins to grow in us a holy discontent for spending so many of our waking hours trapped on the outer circumference of the inner richness of the life that we are living. We long to stabilize ourselves in love throughout the rhythmic dance of life.

The more deeply we experience God’s love, the more elusive its consummation seems. There are flares of love, as we momentarily melt into God and God melts into us. Then, like glowing embers, we live in an underlying habitual state of love’s glow. And, in love’s glow, we come to an extraordinary realization: The absence of the Beloved is the Beloved, giving himself or herself to me as the experience of the Beloved.

Building on Finley’s insights, the Dark Night purifies us of our attachment to feelings of union and comfort. Christ lying in the tomb is still Christ—preparing for a resurrection that cannot even be imagined. Today, on All Souls’ Day, may we choose to live in union with all who are still in the dark tomb, faithfully waiting for a certain resurrection.

Reference:
James Finley, Intimacy: The Divine Ambush, disc 6 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2013), CD, MP3 download.

Image credit: Man praying on sidewalk with food, Sergio Omassi.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Every act of complete self-giving in the name of the fullness, even though you feel like you are isolated, ignored, unconnected, and meaningless, connects you immediately and becomes a sacrament of the manifestation of that dance of perichoresis [the circle dance of the Trinity], the fullness of love. —Cynthia Bourgeault

Freedom from Fear

Suffering: Week 2

Freedom from Fear
Thursday, October 25, 2018

Man suffers most through his fears of suffering. —Etty Hillesum [1]

Over the next couple days, James Finley shares insights on suffering drawn from Jesus’ example and teaching.

I would like to reflect on the role of Jesus as the one whose very presence is incarnational testimony of how to approach our life and the ways we suffer. In the Christian tradition, the cross is right at the center of this great mystery. Jesus is the archetypal master teacher, who reveals his teaching through the very concreteness of his life. What is it that allows Jesus to face all kinds of suffering, including his own, and how can we follow him?

We might start this way: In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus sweat blood because he was afraid (Luke 22:44). It is possible that he was infinitely more afraid than we could ever be. But the difference is: Jesus was not afraid of being afraid, because he knew it was just fear. So why are we so afraid of fear? We are afraid of fear because we believe that it has the power to name who we are, and it fills us with shame. We feel ashamed that we’re going around as a fearful person, and so we pretend that we’re not afraid. We try our best to find our own way out of feeling afraid, but this is our dilemma, our stuck place, that Jesus wants us to be liberated from. But we cannot do it on our own.

When we start on our path, our hope is that we will be liberated from fear in light of the mystery of Christ. Certainly, this includes doing our best to be as safe as we can be and to help others do the same. And when scary things are happening, it always includes doing our best to find our way to safer places and to help others do the same. But as for the fear that remains, Jesus invites us to discover that our fear is woven into God’s own life, whose life is mysteriously woven into all the scary things that can and do happen to us as human beings together on this earth. This is liberation from fear in the midst of a fearful situation.

As we long for and work toward this kind of liberation, it is important not to romanticize a person’s fear and painful experience by speaking in spiritual terms that can leave the person who is hurting feeling unseen and unmet. At a very basic level, any real response to suffering must always include letting the hurting person know sincerely, “I am so sorry you are having to go through this painful experience. What can I do that might possibly be helpful?”

Here we might also turn to our teacher Jesus who was not one who had risen above human frailty; to the contrary, he discovered directly through his presence that inexhaustible compassion and love flow through human frailty. Our practice is to become present to that infinite flow of compassion and love and bring it to bear in a tender-hearted and sincere manner in our very presence to the painful situation. We do this knowing that God is sustaining and guiding us all in unexplainable ways that are not dependent on how the painful situation might turn out.

References:
[1] Etty Hillesum, Diary entry (September 30, 1942). See An Interrupted Life: The Diaries, 19411943 and Letters from Westerbork, trans. Arnold J. Pomerans (Henry Holt and Company: 1996), 220.

Adapted from James Finley, Thomas Merton’s Path to the Palace of Nowhere, disc 5 (Sounds True: 2004), CD.

Image Credit: Jonah and the Whale (detail), by Pieter Lastman, 1621. Kunstpalast Museum, Düsseldorf, Germany.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Jesus says, “There’s only one sign I’m going to give you: the sign of the prophet Jonah.” Sooner or later, life is going to lead us (as it did Jesus) into the belly of the beast, into a place we can’t fix, control, explain, or understand. That’s where transformation most easily happens—because only there are we in the hands of God—and not self-managing. —Richard Rohr
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