Living and Partly Living

On December 29, 1170, Archbishop Thomas Becket was martyred in Canterbury by knights acting on behalf of King Henry, his former friend. The great poet T.S. Eliot memorialized this event in Murder in the Cathedral. In a previous post, we journeyed with T.S. Eliot into the human heart of Thomas Becket as he came to grips with his imminent death. But Becket’s heart was not the only one impacted by the event. Even more fascinating is the transformation that takes place in the peasant women of Canterbury. Throughout the play, they sing as the Chorus. As the plot unfolds, we witness the conversion of their hearts. Initially, they angrily oppose Becket’s return to England and the inevitable conflict that he brings. Eventually, they surrender themselves to the event, asking Thomas to pray for them and promising to pray for him.

There is a recurring refrain in their singing: “Living and partly living.” It describes their pitiful existence as they scrape by in poverty. They go on surviving, resentful of their misery. But at least the misery is manageable and predictable. It is what they know. By contrast, they are overwhelmed and terrified by the winds of change that propel the sails of Becket’s boat as he lands in Dover. Like most of us, they would so much rather stay mired in the hellhole that they know than venture out into new and scary horizons.

They beg and plead with Becket:

O Thomas, return, Archbishop; return, return to France.
Return. Quickly. Quietly. Leave us to perish in quiet…
We do not wish anything to happen.
Seven years we have lived quietly,
Succeeded in avoiding notice,
Living and partly living.

They describe years of plenty and years of famine; birth and death; joy and fears. Like typical humans, they tend to deny and minimize just how awful things are. They hint at dreadful realities that they regularly endure – their daughters taken by the wealthy and powerful, untimely deaths, oppression, and violence. Somehow these painful parts of life seem “okay” or manageable in comparison with a new beginning of an unknown future.

As the old saying goes, “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.” Rather than face our pain, rather than resolving conflict, rather than humbling ourselves and asking for assistance, we are much more likely to tell lies to ourselves and deny that change is needed. We choose surviving over thriving. Living and partly living.

Or we minimize. Personally, I’ve always had a passionate commitment to Truth and Goodness and Beauty. When those realities hit me between the eyes,  I realize that I can no longer live in denial. But oh, have I been a master of minimizing! For years, I carried painful and unhealed wounds that needed attention from God and others. I acknowledged them as best I knew how. But I shaded the truth. I told myself that it wasn’t all that bad, that other people had it so much worse, that I should be grateful for what I have, and so forth. I was surviving, not thriving. Living and partly living.

Back to T.S. Eliot. As Thomas faces his spiritual battle with the final tempter, the women of Canterbury chime in. They begin shedding their denial, admitting a bit more of the truth:

We have not been happy, my Lord, we have not been too happy.
We are not ignorant women, we know what we must expect and not expect.
We know of oppression and torture,
We know of extortion and violence,
Destitution, disease…
Our sins made heavier upon us.
We have seen the young man mutilated,
The torn girl trembling by the mill-stream.
And meanwhile we have gone on living,
Living and partly living…

As they begin facing the pain, they feel a clutching panic gripping their hearts:

God gave us always some reason, some hope; but now a new terror has soiled us, which none can avert, none can avoid, flowing under our feet and over the sky;
Under doors and down chimneys, flowing in at the ear and the mouth and the eye.
God is leaving us, God is leaving us, more pang, more pain than birth or death…
O Thomas Archbishop, save us, save us, save yourself that we may be saved;
Destroy yourself and we are destroyed.

It is one of the oldest human stories. We recognize the need for change. We begin to accept it. Perhaps we even make a firm resolve and take some serious first steps. Then, as the familiar fades from view, we panic. We become dizzy and disoriented. We feel a fear as of death. All too often, we scurry back to our hellhole. The battered woman returns to her abuser. The addict resumes his familiar rituals, and finds himself “surprised” to be acting out, yet again.

In this case, the women of Canterbury persevere. When December 29 arrives, they choose to be courageous. Even though they feel enormous fear and dread; even though they are yet quite feeble and imperfect, they give their consent:

I have smelt them, the death-bringers, senses are quickened…
I have smelt them, the death-bringers; now is too late
For action, too soon for contrition.
Nothing is possible but the shamed swoon
Of those consenting to the last humiliation.
I have consented, Lord Archbishop, have consented…
O Lord Archbishop, O Thomas Archbishop, forgive us, forgive us, pray for us that we may pray for you, out of our shame.

Thomas enters the scene and affirms them:

Peace, and be at peace with your thoughts and visions.
These things had to come to you and you to accept them.
This is your share of the eternal burden…
Human kind cannot bear very much reality.

Indeed. Truth and Goodness and Beauty transcend us. We receive them and are received into them as we are capable. It is a slow and sometimes painful journey of conversion and growth. It is okay that we stumble and struggle so much along the way. God understands, and so do our true friends.

The play concludes. Thomas is savagely murdered, just as he and the women foresaw. They have already asked pardon of Thomas. Now they ask pardon of God. They are finally ready to confess truthfully their greatest sin – fearing the fullness of God’s love, and protecting themselves against receiving God’s blessing.

Forgive us, O Lord…
Who fear the blessing of God, the loneliness of the night of God, the surrender required, the deprivation inflicted;
Who fear the injustice of men less than the justice of God;
Who fear the hand at the window, the fire in the thatch, the fist in the tavern, the push into the canal,
Less than we fear the love of God.

God only wants to bless us. We are his dear and precious children. Any changes he asks of us, any sacrifices, any sufferings are only for the sake of stretching us, enlarging our capacity, and then filling us superabundantly with his love. We, like the women of Canterbury, cannot bear very much reality. Hopefully we will consent to put to death our old ways, to leave them behind, and to fare forward (to borrow words from another T.S. Eliot poem). Yes, we will feel fear, and probably all sorts of other emotions: shame, guilt, anger, sadness, or loneliness. Still, we can fare forward. With the support and encouragement of God and others, little by little, we can learn to leave behind our self-protective hellhole and step out into the light of God’s love, receiving grace upon grace.

The Prayer of Prostration

“And on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (Matthew 2:11).

For many Christians, prostration is a forgotten posture of prayer.

To prostrate oneself is to lie flat on one’s face, or to bow low and touch one’s face to the ground. It is the ultimate gesture of submission and worship. Our bodies speak outwardly the act of surrender we are choosing with our will.

We are probably more familiar with the prostrations of Muslim or Buddhist prayer, or the acts of groveling that courtiers made toward their rulers in ancient pagan cultures. But prostration also has deep Jewish and Christian roots.

If you google “prostration in the bible,” you might be amazed at how often this posture is utilized in both the Old and New Testament. Whether Moses in the meeting tent or the twenty-four elders around the heavenly throne of the Apocalypse, prostration is a fitting response to the glory of the living God.

Catholics regularly engage in a modified form of prostration by genuflecting in the Eucharistic presence of Jesus or by kneeling during the Eucharistic Prayer at Mass. Let’s face it, we often just go through the motions and don’t really think about the spiritual significance! We would do well to be mindful and intentional each time we engage in it.

Full-blown prostration also occurs in Catholic liturgy, but rarely. On Good Friday the priest and deacon enter in silence, reverence the altar, and then lay on their faces in prostration. The congregation accompanies them by kneeling in silence. The Latin instructions for the Missal use the verb prosternunt for both gestures (lying on one’s face vs. kneeling). Both are acts of humbling oneself and submitting to the living God.

For us priests, perhaps our most vivid memory of prostration is from our ordination day, when we lay face-down on the floor of the cathedral for several minutes. Meanwhile, everyone in attendance knelt down and chanted the Litany of the Saints, imploring all of heaven to pray for us so that God would bless and consecrate us in the ministry we were about to receive. I felt so blessed and loved and connected and supported in that humble moment. All was gift.

All is still gift, but I easily forget that truth. During the last year, I have found myself occasionally returning to that posture of prostration, and receiving much fruit from God.

This past June, as I entered into five days of silence for my annual retreat, I found myself under spiritual attack. It happens. Certainly we shouldn’t try to see “the devil under every rock” or over-spiritualize daily life. Often the devil need not attack us because we are doing a perfectly good job of self-sabotage!

But the devil sometimes does attack– usually in the dark shadows of our heart, trying to get us to believe his subtle lies. Sometimes he ambushes us outright. The words of Paul are certainly true: “Our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens” (Ephesians 6:12).

I found myself paralyzed by fear and anxiety and hopelessness – and without any obvious explanation of why this was coming over me so strongly and so suddenly. I struggled to go to the chapel and struggled to pray. I began reading Galatians and the call to live by faith in Jesus Christ rather than by our own efforts. I recognized that I was being paralyzed by my pride and self-reliance, that I was resisting a total surrender to God. I recognized that I was being oppressed by a spirit of fear and anxiety – indeed by that very spirit who is the evil master of this present age (cf. Galatians 1:4). Feeling the call to surrender to Jesus in faith, I followed a prompting of the Holy Spirit and prostrated myself, then and there. I renounced pride and self-reliance and begged Jesus to deliver me. It was liberating; the change was dramatic and lasting. The remaining five days of the retreat were a time of deep serenity and fruitfulness. Even months later, I find myself still reaping the fruits.

Since then, I have often returned to that posture of prostration – especially when I find my own will getting in the way or find myself struggling to trust and surrender. Mind you, I always look around to make sure that no one is watching. I am still way too insecure and self-conscious.  Even if I don’t physically prostrate myself, I sometimes do so spiritually.

Trusting God as a loving Father has been hard for me. My wounds of fear and shame get in the way; lies about who I am and who God is get in the way. But above all else, my pride and self-reliance get in the way. Jesus alone can deliver me from these lies and proclaim his truth in my heart.

There is nothing magical about the gesture of prostration. But we are a unity of body, mind, and spirit. God made the whole person, not just our souls. It makes so much sense to worship him with our whole self. Yes, we Catholics have much to learn from our non-Catholic brothers and sisters. But on this point of bodily worship, I think we Catholics have much to teach (if only we can appreciate it ourselves!).

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Whether we prostrate ourselves physically or spiritually or both, let us all, like the Magi at Bethlehem, submit ourselves to the King of kings and allow his wisdom to reign in our heart.

Watching and Waiting with T.S. Eliot

I love the poetry of T.S. Eliot. To kick off Advent, I recently got together with a friend and pulled out his play entitled Murder in the Cathedral. It recounts the martyrdom of Archbishop Thomas Becket in the Canterbury cathedral on December 29, 1170. In typical T.S. Eliot fashion, he also offers much for our modern culture to think about.

The play begins during Advent, on December 2. Becket is returning from France, where he has been living in exile for seven years, protected by King Louis (for whom the city of “Saint Louis” is named). Becket had been an old drinking buddy of King Henry II. They caroused and womanized together, as well as engaging in political affairs together. Becket was the brains behind Henry’s operation. As chancellor, he helped the king forge a greater unity in the island and rule more forcefully – sometimes even at the expense of the Church. Henry thought it would be a brilliant idea to promote his friend and chancellor as the new archbishop of Canterbury. Then everything changed. Becket took his identity as priest and archbishop even more seriously than his role as chancellor. He embraced a life of penance and prayer. He resigned the chancellorship and led the flock courageously. He defended the religious freedom of the Church – even when it enraged his friend the king.

The audience is presumed to know the basic story (back in 1935 in England they would have). By December 29, Henry grows tired of Becket’s unwillingness to compromise, he eventually cries out in anger, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest???” Four of his knights pick up on his cue. They arm themselves with alcohol and swords and assassinate Becket at the altar during Vespers. After the fact, Henry II repented, doing penance at Becket’s tomb. Sad to say, it was not the last time in England that a King named Henry would murder an ex-chancellor or a bishop over the issue of religious freedom. 460 years later, Henry VIII came along and killed both John Fisher and Thomas More.

T.S. Eliot loves to explore the human heart. He offers the reader a window into Becket’s soul during his moment of martyrdom. In the estimation of some historians, Becket obstinately and recklessly rushed into his death. They believe it was preventable. There is no question that he saw it coming. T.S. Eliot depicts Becket’s attitude in a way that shows true human freedom and fulfillment.

The beginning of the play is set in Advent and offers some very Advent-y words. Becket foresees the end that is coming, but abides in a time of watching and waiting:

End will be simple, sudden, God-given.
Meanwhile the substance of our first act
Will be shadows, and the strife with shadows.
Heavier the interval than the consummation.
All things prepare for the event. Watch.

It is not the actual moment of trial or martyrdom that is difficult. It is all the successive moments leading up to it. “Heavier the interval than the consummation.” Abiding in love, watching and waiting, is so much harder than a brief moment of pain. I think college students preparing for their final exam can relate!

I have already written about the “already but not yet” of Advent, and of our Christian existence in general. Christ comes to us at each and every moment, standing at the door of our heart, knocking and waiting patiently for us to admit him. We only live in the present moment and can only say “yes” in the present moment. Jesus teaches us that it is by being faithful in small things that we learn how to be faithful in large once. Our “yes” or “no” to God’s will in the present moment sets the stage for the Day of Judgment. That Day of Judgment is already present in each of those moments.

Becket faces four tempters (played by the same actors who later enter as the four knights). One by one, he resists their efforts – tempting him to go back to his old pleasures of the flesh, to go back to the power of the chancellorship, or to ally himself with the barons and stick it to the king. Then comes the final and most enticing temptation: for Becket to position himself as a martyr, admired and honored, with his enemies reviled and repentant. Becket resists. The tempter even tempts him to think of centuries beyond, when his shrine is long since rotted and corrupted, but he will experience endless heavenly glory. Even there, Becket resists. Pursuing martyrdom, even for heavenly glory, would ultimately be feeding his own ego and dishonoring God.

Becket renounces his pride. He surrenders his will to God’s. He neither seeks nor avoids. He neither lets himself  be a victim of fate, nor pretends to be master of his own destiny. He does not disagree with the words of one of the tempters: “Only the fool, fixed in his folly, may think he can turn the wheel on which he turns.” However, Becket sees in faith that God is the one turning the wheel. He positions himself in peace at the “still point” in the very center of the turning wheel – neither active nor passive, neither controlling nor controlled. He is truly free as God’s instrument:

Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain:
Temptation shall not come in this kind again.
The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason…
I shall no longer act or suffer, to the sword’s end.
Now my good Angel, whom God appoints
To be my guardian, hover over the swords’ points.

In holy and free receptivity, his prayer is like that of the Virgin Mary in the Annunciation: that it be done unto him according to God’s Word. As each of us watches and waits for the final consummation of our own lives, may we also abide at that “still point” of God’s love.

God is Faithful

Advent is a season of promise and fulfillment. We abide in expectant hope, confident that God is faithful. He never breaks his promises. We can trust him with total vulnerability and receptivity.

I must confess that trusting God’s promises – really trusting them – has been a lifelong challenge for me. I often surrender myself in faith and hope and love. But I have a pattern of “crossing my fingers” and holding back a little something for myself. There can be a clutching in my heart, a nagging doubt, a lingering fear that God might not really come through for me. I don’t always verbalize that doubt or have awareness of it. But part of my heart still struggles. There is that temptation to cling to an escape clause, a golden parachute, or a “Plan B” – just in case. I am guessing the same is true for many of you.

Scripture offers us lively examples of faith in God’s promises: Abraham, Joseph, and Mary.

Abraham is our father in faith. God commands him to leave behind his country and go to a land yet to be named. God promises make of him a great nation. Abraham trusts and abides. God promises to give him descendants as numerous as the stars of the sky. According to those chapters of Genesis, Abraham is 75 at the time of God’s promise, and waits until the age of 100 for the fulfillment! Yet Abraham trusts and abides. Some years later, God commands Abraham to sacrifice his own beloved son Isaac. Abraham continues to trust and abide, proclaiming to Isaac, “God himself will provide a lamb” (Genesis 22:8). God celebrates Abraham’s faith, and does indeed provide the lamb. He sends his own beloved Son Jesus, places the wood of the cross on his shoulders, and invites him up the mountain of Calvary to offer and be offered as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

That promise of saving us from our sins is also given to Joseph in Matthew 1. God sends his angel in a dream, assuring Joseph that his wife is pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit. He is to name the child Jesus (“Savior”) because he will save his people from their sins. Joseph trusts and abides.

Joseph continues trusting and abiding in Bethlehem, amidst circumstances that would lead most men to panic or rage. This great savior-child is born amidst animals and laid to rest in their feeding trough. Joseph trusts and abides following another dream, in which God sends his angel to command him to rise, take the mother and child, and go into Egypt until commanded otherwise. Joseph rises, takes the mother and child, and goes. He knows not how long they will be there, where they will stay, or how they will be provided for. He trusts that God is faithful. Scripture never records any spoken word on his part. But every single time God issues a command to him, he promptly obeys, abiding in faith and hope.

Luke offers the example of the Virgin Mary. His Gospel begins with two parallel stories, as the births of John and Jesus are announced. Zechariah and Mary are contrasting figures. Both are righteous and pleasing in God’s eyes. Both are promised a very special son under quite impossible circumstances. Both ask questions about God’s promises.

But there is a great difference in their questioning. Zechariah asks, “How can I know this?” He does not fully trust; part of him desires to comprehend and be in control. Mary, meanwhile, trusts and abides. Elizabeth praises her for believing that God would fulfill his promises (Luke 1:45). Mary’s question is “How will this be?” In Greek the grammar is more obvious. If there were doubt about the outcome, Luke would employ the subjunctive or optative (“How could this be?”). But he uses the indicative mood. She believes that the promises will be fulfilled, and desires to understand more deeply. In her lively example, we see that trusting and abiding doesn’t mean that we have to be a helpless victim or a passive bystander. There is a faith-filled way of questioning God. Mary does not shrink back in fearful submission, nor does she willfully demand a total explanation. She freely and actively gives her “yes” and grows in her expectant hope as the mystery gradually unfolds. She does not succumb to any urge to panic or rebel.

Personally, I am quite skilled at what some of my friends call “future tripping.” My mind and heart fantasize about the “what if” scenarios, and I find myself consumed with anxiety or sadness as I grapple to stay in control. God keeps inviting me to be a little child, trusting and receptive. He will shepherd me. He will protect me. He will lead me. He will nourish me. He will heal me. He will wipe away every tear. He will provide for all my needs. He will fulfill each and every one of my deepest desires. He is the one who put them there in the first place.

Advent is a time of promise and fulfillment, a time to trust and abide. The examples of Abraham, Joseph, and Mary are truly inspiring. We can trust the living God, who never lies and never breaks his promises. Paul’s prayer for his people can be a prayer for each of us this Advent:

Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.” (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24).

Watching and Waiting

Advent is a season of watching and waiting, a time of abiding in expectant hope, confident in the coming of the King.

Advent is so much more than preparing for Christmas. The early days of Advent focus especially on the second coming of Jesus. Our watching and waiting for his coming is not static and sterile, sitting here idly until some future day when he eventually comes. Rather, theologians often speak of an “already but not yet.” Christ has not yet come in glory, but he is already growing and bearing fruit in the lives of his holy ones.

There is a famous Advent homily in which Saint Bernard of Clairvaux describes a third coming of Jesus, in between his birth at Bethlehem and his coming in glory. No, he is not talking about “the rapture,” but rather the coming of Jesus into the heart of every true believer. As Jesus promised at the Last Supper, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him and we will come to him” (John 14:23).

This coming into our heart is a process of dynamic growth and nurturing. As we abide in expectant hope, our desire for the Lord increases. That desire is itself springs from a seed planted by the Lord.  The more we desire his coming, the more our capacity to receive him grows. The greater our capacity, the more we receive. The more we receive, the more deeply we desire. And the cycle of “already but not yet” continues until he comes again.

Think upon the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:1-23). Christ sows his Word. Some seeds fall on the path, others on rocky ground, others among thorns, and others into good soil. Advent is a time to become good soil, totally receptive, growing in faith and hope.

That is the sad irony of December in the modern world. In the midst of Advent, we are constantly exposed to commercialism and consumerism and unneeded busyness. The self-indulgence of “the season” in society around us can be a rather different cry from the penitent cry of John the Baptist to “prepare the way of the Lord.” We can easily heap excessive expectations upon ourselves, thinking of all the things that we “have to get done.” Then we find ourselves too busy or stressed out to do any watching or waiting. But are we not free to order our lives as we choose?

With God’s help, we can recognize some of the weeds and thorns in our heart, obstacles that need to be uprooted with firm resolve. We also have hard and dry places in our hearts, tough soil that needs the gentle dew of the Holy Spirit to soften and moisten, freeing us to become totally receptive like Mary and Joseph.

Our free cooperation matters much. But in the end, God is the one who provides the growth and provides the fruit. We are called to abide in love. The watching and waiting is challenging! We are so conditioned to expect instant gratification and easy results.  The parable of the sower reminds us to be patient and receptive.

Henri Nouwen wrote often about our powerlessness, and how challenging it is for us to be humble and patient. We depend totally upon God for the growth – much like the farmer in the field. Nouwen offers the image of an impatient gardener digging up the plant periodically to check on its growth. That tactic definitely doesn’t work! How hard it is sometimes to watch and wait in hope, trusting that we are a beloved child of God and allowing the growth to happen on his timeline.

For the time being, it is the growth that matters. The fruitfulness will come eventually, so long as there is steady growth. By contrast, we will wither and die if we cut ourselves off from the source of all growth.

Healthy Christian community helps so much. True Christian friends will notice what God is doing in us and encourage us. It is good to notice the growth God is working and to praise him for it. That thankfulness and praise stirs up the desire of our heart all the more. There is no risk of pride when our heart is Christ-centered and full of praise.

Psalm 1 offers a image of the tree that is planted beside the flowing waters, putting out its roots to the stream, staying green amidst the drought, whose leaves never fade, prospering and bearing fruit. Contrast that with the ways of the wicked, who linger in the ways of fruitless desires. They are like the chaff that gets blown away.

It is easy – especially at this time of the year – to become anxious or overwhelmed and then plunge ourselves into one of our “panic rooms” – reaching for our phone, grabbing extra food or drink, plunging into pleasures that don’t actually bring peace.

Instead, we can choose to be patient and gentle with ourselves. It is normal to feel unsettled during changes of seasons and when re-connecting with family. Instead of isolating ourselves, we can choose to stay present to our heart, present to Christ, and present to those around us. We can receive grace and grow in patience. The fruit will come in due time.

Advent has always been a favorite season of mine. It touches the deepest desires of the human heart. May God give us all the courage to root out the weeds from our hearts. May he cultivate and soften the hard and unreceptive places. And may he help us to abide in expectant hope, watching and waiting patiently as Christ comes to us, gives us growth, and bears much fruit.