Introduction to Lectio Divina

Would you like a more profound prayer life? I can think of no better way to plunge into prayer than Lectio Divina. For centuries, this way of praying has empowered men and woman of Faith to welcome God’s healing grace into the depths of their heart so that He can transform every aspect of their being: their memory, their imagination, their thoughts, their self-awareness, their emotions, their desires, and their choices.

Lectio Divina leads us, over time, into deep meditative prayer. Given the explosion of interest in “meditation” these days, it should be a topic of interest for many.

I am not at all surprised that Christians young and old are finding themselves drawn to meditation. There are several blessings to be found there: taking time out of a busy day, relaxation, deep breathing, allowing ourselves be still, and noticing what is happening in our heart and mind and soul. These are behaviors that modern life has ripped away from us – behaviors that belong in every human life. The sad part is that, due to disillusionment, dissatisfaction, or disgust with the Church, many are looking elsewhere for spiritual wisdom, not realizing what a treasure they are missing!

Unfortunately, not all meditation methods are created equal. Lectio Divina, in its original form, is a Christ-centered meditation. By contrast, the modern meditation gurus often lead people into Self-centered meditation (Self with a capital “S”) or into a complete emptying of our imagination, mind, and will. The former runs the risk of pride and egoism. The latter runs the risk of leaving us vulnerable to spiritual attack by the powers of darkness, who are ever eager to return in full force, enter an emptied house, and reclaim it (Luke 11:24-26).

The gurus show genuine instinct by identifying exaltation and emptying as profound human experiences. But they can offer only a partial picture. We can learn the fuller truth of exaltation and emptying by studying the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden. They gave into the temptation of self-exaltation. If only they had died to their own will, God would have exalted them anyway! Jesus in the Garden showed us what the process of emptying and exaltation truly looks look. Staying close to His Father, humble and obedient, He died and rose. We can do the same by remaining in communion with God and others and self, all accomplished as a living member of the Body of Christ. If we find ourselves thirsting for growth through meditation, great! It is wisest and safest to put Christ firmly at the center and allow what happened in Him to unfold in us.

Just what is Lectio Divina? Literally, it means “divine reading.” It allows our reading of Scripture to draw us into meditation and prayer, and ultimately into close union with God. There are four main components: (1) Reading, (2) Meditation, (3) Prayer, and (4) Contemplation.

In the weeks ahead, we will explore each of those four components in depth. Before doing so, it will be an indispensable help consider two prerequisites for Lectio Divina, without which very little progress will occur. I find that most of our attempts at meditation sputter at first because we are in need of cultivating two serious habits: consistency and silence.

Consistency. As with any great endeavor, consistency is the key to success. Whether we desire to learn a foreign language, take up a musical instrument, eat healthier, or run a half-marathon, we will find so much more success if we learn to be consistent. Better to do a little bit every day than to try to tackle everything in big bursts. This is especially true for Lectio Divina. We can start small. A mere 10 minutes a day – every day – can do wonders. The biggest battle for most people is showing up – consistently. It typically means scheduling a prayer time in advance and honoring it just as we would a new job or a series of departure times from the airport. It typically means getting up a few minutes earlier in the morning – and therefore going to bed a few minutes earlier. This only happens if we learn to say “no” to other things the day before so that we can say “yes” more easily to our new priority. As with other lifestyle changes (exercise, eating, etc.) it often helps to make the change together with a few friends, encouraging each other and holding each other accountable.

Silence. Prayer is born from silence. God often speaks in a “still small voice” (1 Kings 19:11-13). We will not be able to tune in until we learn to appreciate silence. Entering into silence is not easy – especially if it is new to us. We are so used to constant stimulation. There is the obvious need to “unplug” from any distractions caused by our phones or tablets. We may also need to take an honest look at any number of other compulsive “noisy” behaviors that hinder us from silence. We may need to be patient and persevering as we endure the experience of “detox” – unpleasant at first – but ultimately quite liberating. This is precisely the kind of self-emptying that unifies us with Christ and opens us in holy receptivity.

To reduce distractions, it helps to have a sacred place consecrated for prayer. For us Catholics, we sometimes have the luxury of an adoration chapel or church. But we can also pray at home. It may mean getting up extra early or explicitly asking others to give us the space and freedom to pray. Many find it helpful to dedicate a room or a corner or a chair as a consecrated prayer place.

Still, struggling with silence is totally normal. We are, in the words of T.S. Eliot, “distracted from distraction by distraction.” The greatest spiritual giants among the Saints describe distraction as a steady diet in their prayer. It is quite normal to experience racing and random thoughts when we try to pray. I find that it helps to accept the distractions – especially during the first few minutes – and give ourselves a chance to calm down. Taking slow and deep breaths can indeed help. Then we can more easily let go of distractions and gently refocus anytime we notice our mind wandering in an unhelpful way.

Remember my previous bit of writing about “Smoke Alarms and Watchtowers”? If we begin our prayer time by entering into silence and becoming mindful of God’s presence, we are effectively stepping into our watchtower – ready to notice what God is doing. If distractions persist, we can stay in our watchtower, and just notice them. Sure they’re there – they won’t stop God from doing his work. We can trust Him.

Once we are committed to consistency and determined to embrace silence, we will more easily be able to read, meditate, pray, and contemplate. I look forward to discussing those four aspects of Lectio Divina in the weeks ahead!

Healing of our Memory

Many of us go through life carrying heavy burdens from our past. Maybe we cannot shake off shame and regret over our sins and failings. Maybe we struggle to believe that anyone would actually love us for who we are. Maybe we keep clinging to bitterness and resentment towards those who harmed us. Maybe we find ourselves never truly trusting anyone, never letting anyone get too close, tightly guarding our innermost self. If so, over time, we will come to feel ever more alone, misunderstood, and unloved.

The saddest aspect of these burdens is that they prevent us from trusting and surrendering to God as a loving Father, placing ourselves totally into His loving hands, and truly obeying Him in Faith. That loving surrender to the Father is perhaps the deepest holy desire of my own heart – and also that of which I am most afraid! I have always loved the surrender prayer of Charles de Foucauld, although my heart usually clutches as I speak the words. I encourage you to pray it now, and gently notice the lines that you find difficult:

Father,

I abandon myself
into Your hands;
do with me what you will.
For whatever You may do I thank you.

I am ready for all,
I accept all.

Let only Your will be done in me
as in all Your creatures.
I wish no more than this, O Lord.

Into Your hands
I commend my soul.
I offer it to You
with all the love of my heart.
For I love You, my God,
and so need to give myself,
to surrender myself
into Your hands,
without reserve,
and with boundless confidence,
for You are my Father.

What a challenging prayer! But in reality, it is just a variation of the prayer that Jesus taught us. We are so familiar with the Our Father that we sometimes forget how radical the requests are!

Why is it so hard to surrender ourselves into the hands of a loving Father? He knows our hearts better than we do ourselves. His providence is so much more trustworthy and reliable than our own flimsy foresight. He is totally in charge of our past, present, and future.

But there is the challenge! If God the Father was Lord of my past, that means that He willed for me to be harmed in those ways. And if he willed such a painful past for me, then surely it’s just a matter of time before He will harm me again in the future… Blasphemous thoughts, you say? If we tell the unfiltered truth, most of us will admit that we have often felt that way.

The unhealed pain of our past fills us with anxiety and fear of our future. It also causes ongoing pain in our present, as we “overreact” to everyday situations that keep poking at old wounds. Well-meaning Christian friends urge us to “move on,” “forgive and forget,” and “leave the past in the past.” But that is not how human memory works!

Our memory is a marvelous and mysterious gift. Without it we do not know who we are. We’ve all seen TV shows or films in which one of the characters develops amnesia. Disconnected from their past, they are disoriented in the present, and incapable of knowing who they are.

“Memory” translates the Latin word memoria and the Greek word anamnesis. Both words have a strong sense of “mindfulness” in the present – not just dredging up the past. From our Jewish fathers in the Faith we have inherited a sense of “remembering” holy events like the Passover in a way that makes those events present here and now. Every Catholic Mass prays an anamnesis prayer that calls to mind saving events both past and future: the suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, as well as his coming again in glory. We enter God’s eternal memory and the healing it brings.

Memory is the root of our identity. Memory is what makes the virtue of Hope possible. The more integrated our memory of the past, the more our hearts can expand in a deep desire for eternal life – not merely as a future reality, but as something substantial that is present to us here and now. For the Saints, the joy and peace of the Kingdom is present in every moment of surrender to the Father’s will. They become the Kingdom, visibly present and active.

I recently returned from my annual retreat. I was blown away by my reading of Wilfrid Stinnissen’s book Into Your Hands, Father. It spoke deeply to my desire to surrender to God the Father and be blessed by Him. I wept over the pages about surrendering our past and allowing it to be healed by God.

Stinnissen makes a shocking claim: “We receive a completely new past.” As you allow your wounds to be touched by the wounds of Jesus, “the healing goes back into time and transforms the very moment when you were hurt into a moment of grace.”

How is that possible, you ask? Surely you cannot change the past! True. The past no longer exists. But our memory of the past abides, and is often laden with lies. It is partial and fragmented and distorted. It needs to be taken up into God’s eternal love and truth. Jesus teaches us that He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. He makes all things new – even our memory of the past.

Remember that our painful memories are often from the point of view of a very frightened little child. Even secular therapists can be quite skilled at helping an adult to go back in time in order to coach the hurting little child into seeing a much bigger and happier picture.

Faith can do much more. If we ask and seek and knock, God will reveal Himself in our painful memories. He was there blessing us. Our sorrowful memories are then transformed into glorious ones, and we discover our deeper identity in Christ. Our wounds become like the wounds of Jesus, radiating risen glory, and a source of healing and blessing.

Healing of our Memory is not an erasing of the past – quite the opposite. It is a plunging into the whole truth about our past, found only in the Father’s love. Our past becomes more God’s past than our own. We reach a point where we truly give thanks and praise God for our past, because it is part of an amazing story of a child of God who is fearfully, wonderfully made. Healed and integrated, our memory opens us to an abundance of God’s blessing in the present, and a total freedom to surrender our future.

Holy Desires

To be human is to desire. Our hearts are made by God to thirst and to be satisfied, to seek and to find. The very virtue of Hope is defined as a desire for the fulfillment of God’s promises. Our whole human journey begins with small seeds of divine desire planted within us, slowly growing until they reach full fruition.

Perhaps one of the biggest pitfalls for Christians is to think of desire as “selfish.” True, we are ultimately called to lay down our lives in imitation of Jesus. But we cannot make a gift without first having something to give. Far from being a “selfish” thing, our desires are actually the way in which God’s grace effects the most growth in us, so that our self-offering to him will truly be for the praise of his glory.

Let me begin by making a distinction between our urges, our needs, and our desires. They often feel the same to the undiscerning heart, but are quite different once we start paying attention.

By “urges” I mean the daily temptations that entice us to grasp for things that we do not actually desire or need, things which will actually harm our relationship with God, self, and others. Typically that comes in the form of one or more of the seven deadly sins: gluttony, lust, greed, envy, anger, sloth, or pride. In the throes of these urges, we experience them as something to be grasped and possessed, indeed as something that we must have. For a visual, just think of Gollum seeking after his “precious” in The Lord of the Rings.

Resisting unhealthy urges can be a battle – a fierce battle indeed if we have been ignoring our authentic human needs. In my last post, I described those needs – on a physical, emotional, and spiritual level. We can choose to disregard them. But when we do, our humanity is walking wounded, and we make ourselves much more susceptible to urges and temptations that promise us much and deliver little. Our own brain will propose the urges to us as a way of trying to feel better. Or the devil will enter in and attack. The devil is not God; he cannot create. But he is definitely the enemy of our human nature who loves to torment us, to kick us when we’re down. When we are feeling empty or desperate in our human needs, he finds it so much easier to sow his lies and ensnare us in habits of sin.

As important as it is to acknowledge our authentic human needs and distinguish them from our urges, it is our holy desires that matter the most. It is there that the grace of God meets us.

Last year, I had the joy of participating at a priest retreat at the John Paul II Healing Center in Tallahassee. The presenter, Dr. Bob Schuchts, focused on this theme of “Holy Desires.” He reminded us that the very word “desire” is of French origin, meaning “from the Lord.” We discover who we truly are by getting in touch with our deepest and holiest desires. It is there that we encounter God the Father’s love for us, and our own unique identity and blessing from Him.

It is through our desires that spiritual growth happens. One day, Scripture tells us, our capacity for God will be so great that we will see Him face to face and, by that experience, be transformed to become like God (1 John 3:2). The great and mighty Moses was warned that no man could see God’s face and live (Exodus 33:20). Holy desires change all that. Little by little, they help us to become ready. They stretch and expand our hearts, slowly but surely increasing our capacity to receive divine gifts. The more we desire, the more we receive. The more we receive, the more we desire. The process transforms us as we become who we are.

There is an old medieval axiom, quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur – “whatever is received is received according to the mode of the receiver.” In the case of God’s grace, He always fills us when we ask him, but our capacity to receive is limited. Saint Augustine puts it this way: “God wants us to exercise our desire through our prayers, so that we may be able to receive what he is preparing to give us. His gift is very great indeed, but our capacity is too small and limited to receive it.”

In some cases, it is our selfish urges that constrict us. Until we are willing to die to self, we cannot be filled. We are coming to God with clenched fists rather than open hands. I suspect He smiles at us. We are like little children clutching our pennies when he is ready to give us hundred dollar bills. He patiently waits until we are ready to trust and surrender. In other cases, we genuinely have the desire, but need more time to grow. Even though God’s grace moves swiftly, all authentic human growth happens slowly. Little by little, his grace stretches us through holy desires, careful not to break us.

Gregory the Great describes how this transformation happens in our hearts: “When our desires are not satisfied, they grow stronger, and becoming stronger they take hold of their object. Holy desires likewise grow with anticipation, and if they do not grow, they are not really desires. Anyone who succeeds in attaining the truth has burned with such a love.”

Have you burned with such a love? Are you in touch with your deepest desires? They are God’s gifts to you. It is He who has planted them.

As God lays bare our hearts, we might be surprised to discover that what we desire the deepest is also what we fear the most intensely, namely, to lay down our life in love. As we get in touch with those deepest desires, we can start responding and growing in them, removing any obstacles and seeking the nurturing we need. Little by little, God will see to the growth and fruitfulness.

My Needy Microwave

In my last post, I described my oversensitive smoke alarm. It is not the only kitchen appliance that gives me grief. There is also my needy microwave. It emits three loud beeps when the timer elapses. If I don’t promptly get up and open the door, it beeps three times again. Another thirty seconds, and it will beep again. And again. And again. It doesn’t give up! It will literally keep on beeping every thirty seconds, per omnia saecula saeculorum, unless and until you give it the attention it so desperately craves.

Part of me has a vivid and rather morbid imagination. Maybe I read too much Dean Koontz. I visualize myself having an untimely accident. Perhaps the smoke alarm startles me and I stumble into the refrigerator. It falls upon me, and there I lie, my pelvis crushed, pinned to the floor for hours or days – alone, that is, except for my microwave beeping at me every 30 seconds! Hey, stranger things have happened…

Thumbing through the owner’s manual left me in a state of stunned disbelief. There is no way of reprogramming the beeping on this particular model. Seriously, what was that programmer thinking? Was he a misogynist secretly hoping to exact revenge on housewives everywhere? Who in his right mind wants a microwave that never stops beeping?

Well, you know what they say about owners and their appliances: they become more and more like each other over time. I got to thinking that, just as my brain has an overactive smoke detector, it also engages in a regular and relentless beeping, much like my microwave. This crying for attention is not a programming glitch or oversight. It is there by God’s design.

Having needs is a human reality. On a spiritual level, we depend upon God through regular prayer, and depend on others for guidance and faith formation. Physically, there are obvious needs like food, water, shelter, and sleep. We can add to those the less obvious yet quite important physical needs like meaningful touch, regular bodily exertion, and regular relaxation. There are also emotional needs like feeling safe and secure, belonging to a larger tribe, feeling wanted, feeling cared for, feeling calmed and soothed, feeling understood, feeling encouraged, and more. If we are running on empty in some of these basic human needs, our brain will start beeping at us.

Most of us don’t like to think of ourselves as having so many needs. We fear becoming a nuisance like my microwave – constantly bothering others until they pay attention to us. These fears run more deeply for those of us raised in homes that discouraged us from having or expressing needs. Speaking for myself, I definitely came into agreement with the idea that I should put my emotional life on the shelf and learn to be “independent.” Eventually, I came to believe the lie that I don’t have that many needs. I went through decades of my life convinced that I wasn’t a very emotional person and that it was much better not to depend on others.

We can take that approach to life, but not without consequences. God gave us free will –including even the shocking possibility of living against the truth of our human nature. Eventually it catches up with us.

The full truth of our humanity involves being needful and interdependent. God alone can fill us, but we depend upon others in the process. This past Christmas, I found myself often pondering the example of Christ, who shows us what it means to be human. Even though he was exalted and perfect and divine, he humbled himself to become one of us (Philippians 2:6-8). He became profoundly needful, depending totally upon Mary and Joseph as well as upon his heavenly Father. Indeed, he spent most of his earthly life growing and maturing, in dependence upon others (Luke 2:52). He spent only a proportionately small part of his life giving and serving and sacrificing. It was precisely because his human needs had been regularly met that he was able to lay his life down so freely, surrendering to the shame and abandonment and rejection of the Cross. He had no doubt of being God’s beloved Son, chosen and blessed and called. Did everyone love or understand or accept him? By no means. But he did receive all of those things with some regularity from those who mattered the most. As a human being, he needed to receive those things, and did not take any short cuts.

We live in an age of short cuts and quick fixes. Modernity seduces us with the lie that we can reshape our human nature to be whatever we want it to be. Perhaps we ignore our physical needs, eating only what we feel like and living a sedentary lifestyle. In so doing, we ignore the truth that our bodies need nourishment and are made for physical exertion. The end result is an unhealthy body, not to mention emotional and spiritual misery. Or perhaps we ignore our emotional needs –to belong, to be understood or soothed or encouraged or accepted. We impetuously insist that only weak people need to worry about those things. But all the while our internal microwave keeps beeping and beeping. If we repeatedly ignore those needs, then our brains will start beeping in other ways: enticing us to fantasy thinking, unhealthy lifestyle choices, or addictive behaviors.

There are consequences if we ignore what it means to be human. St. Thomas Aquinas defines man as a rational animal. We are “rational” insofar as we are set apart from the rest of the animals, “very good” in God’s own image and likeness. Yet we remain bodily creatures, together with the animals – and are invited to respect the goodness and authentic physical and emotional needs that God has given us.

In so many aspects of life, our bodies and brains work like those of our fellow mammals. Our lower brains have a limbic system that helps us to belong, survive, and thrive as a meaningful part of our social group. Those parts of our brain (including the “smoke alarm,” or amygdala) give us a sense of pleasure or fear or anger. They give us a desire for union with others and for fruitfulness.

When authentic needs are repeatedly ignored, we become especially susceptible to the wiles of the evil one. Our genuine needs morph and twist into insatiable urges for things that won’t actually help us. For example, if we totally ignore our need for safety and security, we may find ourselves constantly craving “comfort food” and having little freedom to resist those urges. If we totally ignore our needs for belonging or acceptance or affection, we may find ourselves having unwelcome fantasies – perhaps in the form of envy or jealousy or rivalry, perhaps in the form of lust or flirtation or pornography.

When these things happen, our impulse as devout Christians is to shame ourselves. Certainly, it is wise to avoid the near occasion of sin. But instead of self-shaming, a more helpful approach is to take some deep breaths, step into our “watchtower,” and calmly notice what is going on, with a childlike wonder and curiosity: “Huh, there goes that alarm bell again. I wonder why it’s ringing this time?” On the surface, it seems like it’s a matter of jealousy or lust or gluttony or greed. Those are the urges we feel. But so often, if we really tune in, we will notice that we’re not actually hungry, that we don’t “need” to make that purchase, that we don’t “need” sexual gratification, etc. Our limbic brain doesn’t know the difference! It’s just programmed to go off when our emotions need attention. It needs to be led and guided from there. In fact, it’s made to be led and guided – not just by our higher brain function, but by healthy relationships with God and others. It is often only when we begin sharing our deepest struggles and deepest yearnings with others that we begin to make more sense out of them. We become more aware of our deepest spiritual and emotional needs, and they begin to be met as we learn to receive from God what has always been there. We gain greater freedom to embrace the full and rich truth of our humanity. We begin to abide in love and truth.

Fish with Fins

In my last post, I described a rather unique homily of Pope Gregory the Great, in which he compares the virtue of compunction to a smelly bucket of dung that we can use to fertilize a robust spiritual growth. By humbly and truthfully acknowledging our sins and through eager repentance, we can receive God’s grace and bear fruit in good works.

Gregory proceeds to consider the woman who has an evil spirit that causes her to be stooped over for eighteen years. As with the fruitless fig tree, he suggests that she is an image for fallen human nature.

He contrasts homo incurvatus with homo erectus. God made us in his own image and likeness: upright, erect, and good. We are destined for heavenly glory, and have those eternal desires in our heart. But earthly desires have bent us over: wealth, honor, power, and fleshly delights. We have stooped low in our sins, and can no longer stand erect. Like the woman, we must cry out to Jesus, so that he can cast his light on our sins and help us to stand once again.

Luke describes the woman as beyond crippled, as “having a spirit of infirmity.” Even in Jesus’ time, not all cripples were seen as oppressed or possessed. Some ailments are explained by natural causes; others suggest a superadded torment inflicted by demons.

This distinction does not escape Gregory’s notice. He describes all sin as hunching us over, causing us to be “stooped and deeply bowed” (Psalm 38:7). But then there evil spirits who prowl like lions looking for the opportunity to torment us. They are enemies of our human nature and envious of our true human destiny to become like God. So Gregory calls to mind the words of the prophet Isaiah, who describes the plight of God’s people in their sins: I will put it into the hands of your tormentors, those who said to you, “Bow down, that we may walk over you.” So you offered your back like the ground, like the street for them to walk on (Isaiah 51:23).

Who on earth would willingly bow down and give their backs to evil spirits to walk on? Well, many of us. Fewer more truthful words can be found than those of Paul: “I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate” (Romans 7:15).

Many of us Catholics find ourselves confessing the same sins over and over again –even sins that we hate intensely. Often it is the lies of fear and shame that oppress us, binding us up. In our false belief that we are not really lovable, we can become mired in habitual sin, face down in the muck. In our darkest moments we think, “Why bother? What does it matter? I’m already ___(fill in the blank)___.”

Deceived by those diabolical lies, it can definitely happen that we bow down and give our backs to evil spirits, allowing them to trample on us. When that happens we find ourselves, like the stooped woman, unable to stand erect even when we really want to. Thankfully Jesus is our Lord and Savior who can bind up the evil one and reclaim our freedom and dignity (cf. Mark 3:27).

Gregory specifically mentions desire for “illicit pleasure” (voluptas illicita) as bowing us over in a crippling way and becoming an entry point for diabolical activity. I think any number of the addictions that are on the rise today (pornography, sexual deviancies, drugs, alcohol, gambling, etc.) can be entry points. Don’t we often talk about “battling our demons”? As Paul tells us, our battle is not just against flesh and blood, but against powerful spiritual beings (Ephesians 6:12).

Jesus is the one who can deliver us from oppression at enemy hands. He is the one who can help us stand erect. He is the one who inflames our hearts with a holy desire for heaven.

To illustrate this point, Gregory turns to the image of fish. The law of Leviticus forbade the Jews from eating fish without fins or scales. Fish with fins are able to leap from the waters, striving heavenward. Fish without scales and fins (in Gregory’s understanding of biology) were bottom feeders, even detritivores, engaging in coprophagia. But for the grace of God, so go all of us. Once the diabolical lies of shame get a grip on us, we can habitually do the things we hate, like the dog that returns to its own vomit (Proverbs 26:11; 2 Peter 2:22).

That is where holy desires come in. Gregory preaches so beautifully about them, here and elsewhere. Holy desires are like the fins on the fish. They propel us to soar heavenward. True, until this fleshly existence is fully transformed, we will always come back earthward, like the fish re-entering the water.

But, returning to the fig tree, holy desires are meant to grow and bear fruit. The greater our desire, the greater our capacity to receive. So often people pray for many years to overcome a certain sin in their life. They imagine it is just a matter of willing the sin away. But God wants to go down to the roots of the tree, to see the whole truth (sometimes painfully), to heal and deliver us. The combination of compunction and heavenly desire will ultimately set us free – thought not always in the way we imagined. Delivered and restored, we can learn to look upward habitually, and so receive ongoing healing and peace.

A Most Memorable Homily

**DISCLAIMER – If you do not enjoy a little earthy humor, then this post may not be for you**

Pope Gregory the Great was a legendary preacher. But he gave at least one crappy homily. That is to say, he gave a homily in which dung was a featured metaphor.

How, you might ask, did I stumble upon this homily? Mainly because of my stepdad’s propensity for poop jokes. They weren’t necessarily his favorite form of humor, but they were a solid number two. He certainly struggled with his woundedness, but no one ever denied his sense of humor. Like many dads, he was an old pro at the “pull my finger” bit. But he also had more elaborate jokes. If we had friends over, when they asked to use our bathroom, he would normally encourage them to write their weight on the wall. When they looked at him in confusion and bewilderment, he would explain, “That way if you fall in, we know how much to scoop out.” My sisters didn’t exactly appreciate him saying that to their boyfriends, but I think all of us far preferred his lighthearted and mischievous moods to his angry ones.

When you do doctoral research in theology, you never know what you might find. There I was back in 2010, sifting through various texts of the early Church Fathers, when I noticed Gregory repeatedly using the Latin word stercus (“dung”). Given my crappy upbringing, I definitely did a double take. I couldn’t resist reading the entire homily. It ended up being one of the most remarkable bits of writing that I’ve ever read, beginning with the earthiness of manure and culminating with an intense heavenly yearning (both in Gregory’s preaching and in my own heart).

The homily ponders two images from Luke 13:6-17: the parable of the fruitless fig tree and the healing of the stooped woman. For three years the fig tree has born no fruit, and the master is ready to remove it. The steward begs the master for one more chance. He will dig around the tree. He will take a bucket of dung and fertilize the tree at its roots. Then, if it still bears no fruit, the master can cut it down.

Gregory compares the fruitless fig tree to our fallen human nature. The works of the flesh leave us fruitless. We are in need of conversion and repentance. We need to become detached and free from our sins – not merely in the moment of acting out, but going down to the roots of our pride.

How does the dung come in? As Gregory explains, “What is the bucket of dung but the mindfulness of our sins?” Remembering the stench of our sins while simultaneously stretching out in works of charity, we grow and bear fruit.

Gregory describes this mindfulness of our sins as “compunction” – a virtue rarely talked about in these decades of promoting positive self-esteem. While I fully acknowledge the damage done by low self-esteem, self-loathing, or shame, I am also convinced of the wisdom of Gregory on this point. Compunction is a humble awareness of our sinfulness and our total dependence on God.  We will never bear fruit without Him.

There is definitely a difference between compunction and shame.

Compunction involves true humility, leading us to rise above our sins and failures and reach out to heavenly truth. Shame, by contrast, is a sort of upside-down version of pride. We prefer denial or minimizing because, deep down, we know that some of our behaviors really stink. We are afraid that other people, if allowed too close to the stench, will stop loving us.

Compunction leads us to have deep compassion towards others, overcoming any anger or judgment we initially feel towards them. If we ourselves stand in so much need of mercy, how can we be hard on others? Shame, meanwhile, can lead to a festering fear, anger, and self-protection. In my stepfather’s case, I am convinced that much of his anger was the only way he knew to protect himself from the painful shame that he felt. He was terrified that none of us would love him if we knew the real him. So when he felt his shame most deeply, he raged the most violently. There are others who see their anger and rage as unacceptable emotions. So they turn instead to self-righteousness, judgment, or passive aggression. Both kinds of anger (active and passive) can cover over our fear and shame, rather than facing them truthfully. Both can become toxic and destructive in their own way.

Compunction is truth-telling about ourselves, whereas shame is laden with lies. Compunction refuses to deny or rationalize or minimize the ugliness of our sins. We have sinned; we have harmed relationships with God and others and self; and we “take full responsibility” – not by saying those words as a cliché but by actually confessing our sins, asking for help from God and others, and sincerely surrendering ourselves to radical change.

Literally, “compunction” denotes poking with a stick. In this case, a stinky stick. Any time we find ourselves puffing up with a false inflation of our ego, we have the memory of our sins to burst our bubble and keep us grounded in true humility. But this only works if it goes hand-in-hand with an unshakable confidence in God’s Fatherhood. We can we become “firmly rooted in love” (Ephesians 3:17), fertilized and nourished by an authentic compunction and humility. It is then that the real growth in Christ begins.

How on earth does this relate to the story of the stooped woman? I’ll finish that thought next time.

NOTE: This remarkable homily of Gregory the Great was given on June 10, 591. If you are a Patristic nerd, you can find the original Latin text in SC 522: 252-266 or PL 76, 1227-1232. If you don’t read Latin, there is an English translation in this book.