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 Imagination

Of all our human faculties, our imagination is perhaps the most powerful. Imagination sparks every moment of human greatness. Without particularly imaginative individuals, we would never have arrived at modern marvels like the lunar landing or the polio vaccine. Personally, I am even more amazed at some of the prehistoric discoveries: the first writing down of speech,  the first singing of songs, the first riding of horses, and, yes, even the first brewing of beer. Without the gift of human imagination, none of those would have happened.

Unfortunately, the best also becomes the worst. Human imagination, when cleverly or deviously seduced, has spawned some of our ugliest moments: the Holocaust, terrorist attacks, human trafficking, and the multi-billion dollar pornography industry. Indeed, pick any addiction you like, and you will find unhealthy imagination at work. The addict, in his desire to numb his pain or fulfill his unmet human needs, will find himself fantasizing about his drug of choice. He imagines how amazing it will be if only he has a drink, makes a new purchase, eats his favorite snack, and so forth. The promised pleasure quickly gives way to emptiness, disappointment, and shame.

The human experience of disillusionment is not unique to addicts; it is universal to our fallen condition. We all know the feeling of a failed fantasy. Consider the clichés: “the grass is always greener…” or “the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.” Lured by fantasies, we easily eject ourselves from the present moment and chase after illusions – whether in our relationships, our career, or our leisure activities. We miss the moment.

It is for good reason that Aristotle once declared the products of our imagination to be “for the most part false.” For every one brilliant burst of insight, there are myriads of missteps. He is not wrong. How do navigate the labyrinth? The answer can be found in a sanctified imagination. It is not a curse to be cast aside, but a gift to be healed.

Previously I wrote about the healing of our memory, which is the root of our identity. Our identity will be either distorted or healthy depending on how fully our memory is integrated into God’s eternal memory. Similarly, an unhealed imagination runs wild and creates chaos, but a healed and sanctified imagination begins to participate in God’s own creative action. He designed us men and women to share in his creativity, crafting us in his own image and likeness and setting us apart from the other animals.

When it comes to imagination, we are both alike and unlike the beasts. Thomas Aquinas compares and contrasts human imagination with animal imagination. We both have the capacity to form and store up “images” – not just visual ones – but all sorts of mental impressions of the experiences of our five senses. We hold on to pleasant sights and sounds and smells – or nasty ones – and learn to seek or avoid them accordingly. Not only that, men and beasts alike form connections between one mental impression and another, and react accordingly. A child learns to associate the words “ice cream” with a pleasurable experience. A dog reacts with equal excitement to the words “dog park.” The same holds true for avoidance of danger or discomfort. Animals learn to recognize the presence of predators and elude them. Children learn not to touch things that are pointy or hot, and they quickly avoid uncles who offer to play “52 pickup.”

Human imagination, however, has the capacity to go far beyond the seeking of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. We can do something astounding that animals cannot do. We can take one mental image and pair it up with other seemingly unrelated images. Thomas gives the example of combining “gold” and “mountain” to envision mountains made of gold.

This powerful human capacity to imagine new possibilities points towards God’s perfection, particularly his infinity and his creativity. He alone is truly infinite, having no limits whatsoever. He alone truly “creates,” making something out of nothing. Yet in his abundant goodness he wills us to share in his infinity and to share in his creativity. Imagination, with its endless potential, plays a particularly important role, whether for good or evil. We share in God’s own creativity when we allow our imagination to be ordered to all that is good and true and beautiful.

By contrast, we rupture our relationships when we employ our imagination to “create” in a manner totally independent of God. That is the original temptation of the devil, who is a liar and a murderer from the beginning. He tempts Adam and Eve by appealing to their imagination: “You will be like gods!” Instead of receiving from God and participating in his plan, they seize and grasp and “create” their own version of truth, goodness, and beauty.

We all share in the sin of our first parents. Our imagination has been wounded, and is now reclaimed by the blood of Christ. In him, we have the freedom to allow our imagination to be sanctified, and we have the freedom to fantasize in a way that disconnects us from God and others and self.

 How is our imagination healed and sanctified? Jesus offers answers.

“Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). When we Americans hear these words (Puritans that we are) we often think of sexual purity. But the deeper meaning here is an undivided heart, consecrated entirely to God. If we have a fragmented and unsanctified imagination, we will feel pulled in a million directions. As we allow our imagination to be sanctified, a true vision emerges: both of God and of ourselves. We can follow the path which he illumines, step by step, and exit the entangled labyrinth.

This slow and steady sanctification is particularly important if we have struggled with addictive behaviors. In that case, our brain has formed many habitual associations between mental images (sights, sounds, smells, etc.). We can easily be triggered. Indeed, the most deviously imaginative advertisers deliberately market their products so that users will be constantly reminded of them and feel the urge without even realizing it.

But there is hope. Ancient and medieval wisdom tell us that bad habits can be reshaped into virtues. Contemporary brain science tells us about brain plasticity. It turns out that you can teach old dogs new tricks – at least if they desire to learn, and if they are patient and consistent. There are two main ways of purifying and sanctifying our fragmented imagination: regular “exercise” and regular prayer.

By “exercise” I mean any number of activities that flex the muscles of one’s imagination in life-giving ways which correspond to one’s own God-given heart. This could include art, crafts, writing, poetry, music, cooking, hospitality, computer programming, etc. The unique gifts vary from person to person. We have to ask which ones truly cause us to feel like a child of God, which ones make our heart sing.

In terms of prayer, if done well and done consistently, it truly engages all our faculties, especially our imagination – allowing God’s grace to soak in and transform us. What kinds of prayer work well? There are many possibilities, but I know of at least two that are tried and true: Lectio Divina and a daily Examen. I look forward to discussing each of those 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.

Asking and Receiving

“The hand of the Lord feeds us; He answers all our needs.” These words beautifully summarize Psalm 145. We Catholics sing them repeatedly when that Psalm comes up in our liturgical worship. I find them so consoling. God will indeed nourish and guide me; He will indeed answer the deepest needs of my heart. I pray to be able to internalize that truth more and more. When I abide in that truth, my life is truly blessed. Many of you can probably testify to the same experience.

To say that God “answers” all our needs implies a dynamic of asking and receiving. It does not just happen. He invites our free and willing participation in the process. Jesus teaches us to depend upon the Father, to beg Him for our daily bread. He teaches us to seek, to ask, and to knock. And when He answers, it is so often by means of the larger community of Faith. We are not isolated individuals. We are made to be dependent upon God and interdependent upon each other, freely receiving and freely giving love in imitation of God who is an eternal communion of love.

Our wounded human tendency is to take or grasp or seize when we feel empty in our human needs. We might use others and then cast them aside. Or we might engage in more socially acceptable forms of violence as we strive to seize control or manipulate the situation. Perhaps we interrupt or raise our voice; we get demanding or demeaning. Perhaps we drop hints or posture ourselves, silently hoping that the other person will notice and step in. Maybe we punish others with the silent treatment. Maybe we even go into self-punishing or self-criticizing mode, figuring others will feel sorry for us and then will surely give us what our heart is looking for.

None of these methods work, of course. They leave us emptier than ever. None of them involve authentic human freedom.

God always respects that freedom, even when we do not. He never forces his love upon us. Rather, he attracts us, arousing holy desire within us. When we learn to express that desire by seeking and asking, he gladly blesses us and fills us with as much as we are capable of receiving at that given moment. Often, we are choosing to pretend that we don’t really have emotional and spiritual needs. We close off our hearts in self-protection. God patiently waits until we are ready to open up and ask.

When God answers our prayers and touches our heart in its deepest needs, his “answer” often comes through chosen human instruments. Is this not a theme that runs throughout the Scriptures? God hears the cry of his people. He chooses small or weak human beings and sends them to accomplish his mission: Moses, Gideon, Jeremiah, Samuel, Isaiah, Jonah, David, Peter, and Paul. In those stories, God connects people together and orchestrates blessing upon blessing, in ways that they the human instruments could never have imagined possible. God is full of surprises, and we never know exactly where our free “yes” to God will lead us.

Still, there are certain patterns in this divine dance, patterns that reflect who we are and what it means to be human. One thing I’ve definitely learned is that it is so much healthier (and so much more effective) to speak our needs humbly and truthfully – and then to remember that the other person is free to say “yes” or “no” to helping us with that need. Perhaps we need a listening ear, some encouraging words, a comforting presence, some instruction amidst our confusion, a hug, advice, feedback, or  assistance with being accountable. When we humbly name what we need and ask someone if they are willing to assist us, they often say yes.

If we have learned the wrong lessons in life, asking and receiving may prove quite difficult. Our family of origin may have taught us (openly or subtly) that it is bad or selfish to ask for help, or that it will get you in trouble. Others may have modeled for us that the best way to (try to) get needs met is to drop hints or manipulate or throw a fit. Or we learned that it’s better not to have any needs (as though that is actually possible!).

Likewise, if we have learned some of the wrong lessons in life, we might struggle to tune into others’ needs, to listen quietly and empathically, or to respect their freedom. Our families (and our churches) are often places in which people barge in to fix other people’s problems. It’s so much easier than facing our own pain or sitting with the pain of the other person. Not all things need to be fixed. We can easily rush in with unsolicited advice when the person really just needs someone to listen or encourage or accompany.

We can watch our words. How often do we find ourselves saying “You need to…” or “You should…”? Is that really for us to decide? Have we learned to wait upon the Lord? He truly knows our needs, but bides his time in allowing us to grow.

Those who frequently say “You need to…” often have difficulty articulating their own personal needs. They are avoiding their own emptiness by rushing in to “serve” others – whether those others desire it or not!

Desire is key here. Even in those moments when we may see with great clarity what other people really need, if they do not desire it, they will not be able to receive. They are not yet ready. God waits for them to be ready. Hopefully we can learn to imitate his patience!

I think of the times in which I have been truly helped in my needs. Far from stealing away my desire or freedom, the other person helped me become more fully aware of what was really going on, of what my heart most deeply needed and desired. I was then free to ask for help and receive it. We typically do not “figure out” our own needs. We learn them in healthy relationships, healthy community. But healthy relationships and healthy community respect our human dignity and freedom. They bring out the best in us, without violence, coercion, or manipulation.

Many of us have a need to expand our experience of healthy Christian community. If we are experiencing struggle or conflict in daily life, if we are harboring resentments, it is often because we are expecting those individuals to meet our needs. We easily forget that no one has an obligation to meet our own needs – not a co-worker, not even a spouse. If we do not humbly state a need and ask them if they are willing to help, then there is no freedom on their part to say “yes” or “no.” We are violating their dignity – and in many cases expecting them to be mind readers. We also are probably expecting things that they could never possibly give, even if they wanted to.

This often happens in the marriage covenant. Husbands or wives sometimes silently expect (or loudly demand) that their spouse is supposed to meet all the needs of their heart. That is not what marriage is for! Certainly, loving husbands and wives tend to say “yes” willingly to being there for each other in moments of need, but ultimately it is God who answers all our needs. No one else can take his place. We’re merely his instruments.

The wisest and most mature Christians that I know have learned this skill of humbly stating a need and asking others for help. Rather than unreasonably placing expectations on one or two people, they tend to build up a larger support network, whether in the form of trusted confidantes and friends, a support group, or a faith sharing group. They have learned the beauty of receiving love and support from God and others, recognizing that they need it and not hesitating to ask with humility and vulnerability. As a result, they are that much more effective and generous when they freely choose to give and share with others who reach out in their need. They know what it means to ask and receive. They know what it means to answer and give.

Smoke Alarms and Watchtowers

The smoke detector in my kitchen is ridiculously sensitive. Over the years, it has been a source of steady annoyance to me and of ongoing amusement for my guests. Take a roast out of the oven – smoke alarm. Fry some bacon – smoke alarm. Even a simple slice of toast will send it screaming. I keep a fly swatter hanging nearby, not because I get flies in the house, but to wave briskly in front of the smoke alarm, hoping to appease its wrath. Sometimes the only option is to reach up, rip it from the wall, and remove the battery until the cooking is over. It is at that point that my guests usually laugh as they hear me say something like, “I hate you! But you’ll probably save my life someday…”

I’ve come to learn that God has also wired our brains with a smoke alarm system: the amygdala. Each side of our brain has a tiny, almond-shaped bundle of neurons designed (among other functions) to set off a swift and strong reaction to threats. For example, I remember the time as a child that I was digging for night crawlers. I began feeling my whole body vibrating heard a deep throbbing hum. I paused in perplexion. Then I felt a sting – and had an immediate realization that I had just dug up an entire nest of ground wasps! My “fight or flight” response flashed like lightning, and I ran a 100-yard dash that could rival any Olympic athlete. Thanks to my brain working the way God designed it to, I escaped with only two small stings. It could have been much worse.

We humans, together with other animals, are hardwired with survival instincts. Our amygdala sends swift messages to other parts of the brain and body. We receive a rush of stress hormones that bolster us for battle.

This instinctive response can save our lives, but it can also yield a daily dose of anxiety, spiritual unrest, and torment. Unfortunately, some of us (myself included) have an internal smoke alarm much more like the one in my kitchen – set off by the smallest stimuli, and disruptive of daily life. Everyday encounters can trigger an overreaction in me. An unexpected interruption or an unreasonable request can bring out the worst in my behaviors – just ask my staff or volunteers! I find myself feeling threatened when there is no actual threat. It’s just the toaster.

Having our internal smoke alarm go off frequently makes it quite challenging to abide in love and truth. Just as cooking in the kitchen becomes much less focused or relaxed so long as the alarm is blaring, so also with our daily life. When our brain is on “high alert” we will find it quite challenging to think clearly, to be tender-hearted and vulnerable, to connect with others, to trust, to have fun, to be spontaneous, or to love our neighbor as ourselves.

I first encountered the analogy of a “smoke alarm” in the writings of Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk. The image immediately resonated with my experience – both in my kitchen and in my daily life. Van der Kolk has dedicated his life to studying and treating the crippling effects of trauma – part of the human experience that is far more commonplace than we realize.

In a truly traumatizing situation, we find ourselves helpless or powerless to do anything. Neither “fight” nor “flight” will save us. We instinctively revert to the “freeze” response and shut down. But our brains can keep producing stress hormones, even years after the threat has passed. This shows up in various undesired symptoms: high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, irritability, peevishness, headaches, muscle tension, nightmares, etc. Hence the title of Dr. Van der Kolk’s book: The Body Keeps the Score.

It is tempting at times to wish away all these unpleasant experiences. Can’t I just take a pill for it? Sometimes we do indeed need to take medications to keep our symptoms under control. But the symptoms (unpleasant as they are) can actually become our greatest allies. They are like the bread crumbs that allowed Hansel and Gretel to find their way back home.

That is where “The Watchtower” comes in – no, not the monthly publication of Jehovah’s Witnesses, but another part of the brain: our medial prefrontal cortex. It is the part of our brain that allows us to survey the scene from above, like a calm and curious observer. In relation to our “smoke alarm,” our “watchtower” can tell us calmly and serenely, “Not a fire – just the toaster.”

In an ideal world, we grow up in a safe, secure, and nurturing environment. We find our physical and spiritual and emotional needs well cared for. Our brain easily forms neural pathways between our “watchtower” and our “smoke alarm.” False alarms still happen, but are then much less common, and we are able to recognize them quickly and calmly.  That is the ideal. In reality, for many of us, these neural connections literally do not yet exist, or are underdeveloped.

Thankfully, there is good news from brain science. The newest research backs up what we already know from our Christian Faith: we are capable of changing our habits and growing in virtue. In scientific terms, this involves (literally) rewiring our brain – forming new neural pathways. Throughout our life, our brain remains “plastic” – able to be reshaped. This best happens when we follow Jesus’ advice and become like little children (Matthew 18:3). In this case, it means rekindling some of those childlike qualities: wonder, awe, curiosity, eagerness to learn, and a willingness to make plenty of mistakes along the way.

Think of little children learning to walk and talk. We do not scold them when they stumble or fall. We do not berate them because they mispronounce a word. Quite the opposite – we find it cute and endearing, and cheer them on. Our steady encouragement and affirmation keeps motivating them to take the next step and learn the next word. All the while their brain’s “watchtower” is fully active – noticing everything with the utmost curiosity, making new connections every single day.

We tend to be hard on ourselves, to criticize, or to shame ourselves, thinking, “Why do I have to be this way??” Instead, with encouragement from God and others, we can learn to “just notice that” within ourselves, without criticizing or condemning. We can say, “Yup, there goes the smoke alarm again” and calmly inquire why it is going off. Even when it is not a fire, it is possibly something that needs our attention. From that calm and childlike wonder and awareness, we are then free to make a rational choice of what we will do. As this space of freedom and spontaneity grows within us, little by little, we can learn 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.