Co-Authoring with God

We all find ourselves in the middle of a story. We have known sweet moments of delight, dark moments of betrayal, intense longing, bitter disappointment, and perhaps long seasons of feeling stuck or lost.

That is how most great tales begin – in the middle of the story in which the featured character faces a seemingly insurmountable dilemma. As we discover the character’s backstory, we gain a better sense of why the dilemma is so hard. It is only when she faces her past that she can move forward in freedom and hope.

As a follower of Jesus, I can ask an interesting question – who is the author of the story I find myself in? Is it God? Is it me? And what roles do other characters play?

Catholic teaching is quite clear about the authorship – it’s both. God is truly the author, and I am truly the author. God is sovereign and all-powerful, but he always respects and honors our freedom and never saves us apart from our wanting it and freely cooperating with it. We get to grow (or wither) in love over the course of our life.

Such are the stories of Sacred Scripture. Throughout the Old and New Testaments, we hear tale after tale of human beings gifted by God, called by God, aided by God, corrected by God, rescued by God, and aided anew – but always in a way that allows the stumbling human characters to be free, to desire, to choose, and to grow (or to harden their hearts and to harm self and others). God never makes anyone do anything, yet somehow remains in charge.

The books of the Bible themselves are co-authored by God and human beings, as the Second Vatican Council taught in 1965. Dei Verbum (“The Word of God”) is the Council document about Jesus as the eternal Word of God. The Word of God is primarily a person, not a book. The Word (Jesus) is truly human and truly divine. Both his humanity and his divinity are profoundly united in the one eternal person of the Son; but neither is dissolved or diminished as a result of that union. In Jesus, all of humanity is invited into a one-flesh union with God that will be celebrated eternally.

This story of Jesus and the Church is then passed on both orally (in the proclamation of the Gospel and in Tradition) and in writing (in the God-breathed books of Scripture). Dei Verbum n. 11 clarifies that God is the true author of each book of Scripture and of the whole of Scripture. But the same paragraph teaches that various human beings are also true authors whom God chose and inspired – fully respecting their freedom, their capacities, and their abilities. God did not dictate Scripture word for word, in a way that would treat the human beings as robots or inanimate pens. Rather, he allowed his story to be told within particular human contexts. At no point did he coerce or pressure of manipulate the capacities or the freedom of the human beings he had chosen. He allowed his inspiration to adapt to the limits of a fully human context, while authentically communicating divine truth.

Fundamentalists (both in the Evangelical word and the Catholic world) tend to be afraid of human reason and academic learning. They want to put all the authorship and authority on the side of God, which lends the illusion of clarity and control. That feel safe! Never mind that God is always radically beyond our “clear” notions of him. Never mind that our feeling in control is an illusion. Fundamentalists resist facing the heartache in their own story and fantasize about getting back to the good old days when all was well (conveniently forgetting the darker deeds of those nostalgic times). They don’t tend trust that the Holy Spirit will keep showing up, and that holy human beings (or even less-than-holy human beings) in every age will answer the summons and cooperate with God’s saving action. God will never tire of saving us, but he also shows a remarkable preference to do so through feeble instruments, respecting the “yes” or “no” of those instruments.

On the flipside of fundamentalism is secular humanism. There are plenty of secular atheists, agnostics, or even practicing Christians who don’t believe that God really shows up or really authors. They see Scripture as a collection of merely human stories. They see religion as merely a human projection of needs, with the doctrines and practices as merely human efforts to make meaning in life.

Both fundamentalists and humanists are well-meaning. Both are partially correct. Both are gravely mistaken.

In the person of Jesus, God has truly shown up in human history; truly lived, truly died, and truly rose. God has really revealed himself; genuinely reconciled us to himself (in a way we could never have done ourselves). He now invites us in full freedom to be in a real relationship with him through his Son, and to follow where his Son has gone. Jesus is the great protagonist of THE human story, into which we are all invited. But he only and ever saves us by inviting us to become co-authors in our own story.

Co-authorship is hard. We will resist it and try to find another way. When we find ourselves in the middle of our story, when the plot becomes particularly intense, we tend to feel stuck. We want a solution that doesn’t involve so much vulnerability or risk. We then enter fantasy thinking – the realm of “if only…”

If only I had what that person has… If only God would send the right partner… If only I had a different job… If only I wasn’t so sensitive… If only I wouldn’t make mistakes… If only God would take this temptation from me… If only that political party got in charge… If only this person would finally pay for what he did… If only…

When we feel particularly overwhelmed in our story, may find ourselves in the broken record of an addiction cycle – which also always begins with the “if only…” of fantasy thinking. Fantasizing about a predictable pleasure may help the present moment feel less unbearable. It brings a certain soothing. But it will ultimately bring us to a familiar place of disappointment and shame. It slowly but surely ruins us.

Like the apostle Paul (2 Corinthians 12), we are likely to beg God to take our trials and temptations away, to rescue us by removing us from the hard spot in the story. Sometimes God does that – but ultimately, he desires us to become heroes who share in the glory of his Son. That will only happen if we follow Jesus closely in his suffering, death, and resurrection. If we do not face the full heartache of where we have come from and where we are going, we will miss out on becoming the full gift that we were meant to be. When we come to accept more fully the story that we find ourselves in, we can proceed in fuller freedom as co-authors of a future full of hope.

The Cloak of Bartimaeus

The cloak of Bartimaeus is a curious detail in the Gospel of Mark (see Mark 10:46-52).  The blind man throws it aside as he springs up and rushes to Jesus. He never goes back to retrieve his cloak. Healed of his blindness, he joins with Jesus and his disciples as they leave town.

What ever became of that cloak? How did he come by it in the first place? How long had he had it? Why did he leave it behind as he followed Jesus? And why does Mark even bother to mention it? Little details like these matter – especially when reading the shortest of the four Gospels. Mark mentions the cloak as a detail because he is trying to teach us something.

“Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!”

It is intriguing that Bartimaeus cries out “have mercy on me!” – in Greek, eleison me – echoing ancient liturgical words quite familiar to Catholics and Orthodox, who chant Kyrie Eleison at the beginning of our Sunday liturgy, as we call to mind our sins and ask Jesus to have mercy on us. It is interesting that many translations prefer to say “have pity on me” – which isn’t entirely wrong, but tends to reduce this story to a simple physical healing of a blind man. Rather, Bartimaeus’ healing is far more comprehensive than regaining physical sight. Whatever the cause of Bartimaeus’ physical blindness may have been, Mark wants us to know that this man was deeply wounded by sin and its effects.

He is a beggar in Jericho, a city readily associated with sin. It was the city in the Old Testament that Joshua had conquered and annihilated because of its depravity. It was the city chosen by Zacchaeus as his base of operations when he was a shameless and shiftless tax collector exploiting the poor.  It gains mention in the Good Samaritan parable, which many in the early Church saw as telling the story of the Fall and Redemption. The “man” in the story represents all of humanity – choosing to distance himself from God’s city of Jerusalem and descending the slope towards Jericho. Already on a bad path, he is then beaten by robbers, who leave him for dead. In that interpretation (almost universal among the early Church Fathers) Jesus is the Good Samaritan who is moved with compassion and hoists up our hurting humanity, anoints our wounds, and entrusts us to the care of the inn (i.e., the Church!) until he comes again to make all debts right.

The cloak of Bartimaeus is so much more than a cloak. It represents a way of life for him – how he had learned to cope and survive in an existence devoid of intimacy, connection, kindness, or care. He was a beggar, yes, but (one can easily imagine) a highly manipulative and cunning beggar who knew how to take advantage of people and get what he wanted without making any actual connections or commitments.

Instead of real relationships, Bartimaeus had his cloak. It kept him warm – warm enough anyway. It wasn’t the warmth of hearth and home, but it was enough to survive and endure. More importantly, he could hide himself in his cloak, staying isolated physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I imagine that, most of the time, he did not want to be seen. Whatever scraps of pleasure he could manage to carve out for himself, he could then indulge in secretly. His cloak was perhaps the closest thing he had to a friend. His life was not one that knew much by way of nurture of soothing. In his cloak, he managed to find fleeting moments of comfort and safety.  I can only imagine, over time, how dilapidated and disgusting his cloak became. But up to that day, it had been his most loyal companion. How many times had other people betrayed him or harmed him, rejected him or abandoned him? His cloak would not do that! It was predictable, even if it was only a surrogate – even if it was providing less and less authentic comfort or warmth.

How astounding it is that Bartimaeus cries out – repeatedly – “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!!” He makes himself so vulnerable. He risks more mocking and rejection.  Apparently he had decided that he had nothing more to lose. He was ready to risk it all.

It is even more remarkable to me that he leaves his cloak behind – even before Jesus heals him. He recognizes that the cloak – his loyal and faithful companion – is actually an obstacle to real connection. It has hindered him from receiving and will continue hindering if he doesn’t change his ways. More importantly, a desire so intense and deep is welling up in his heart – so strong that it overflows and overpowers his “settling” for survival. He wants to be well!  He intuits that Jesus can give him more – so much more. No doubt, he also hears the whispers of his cloak – warning him that he is making a fool of himself, gently enticing him to hide himself away once again and return to the safety of self-protection. But desire wins the day. Bartimaeus not only cries out all the louder; he actually casts aside his cloak and runs up to Jesus. He wants to see. Jesus heals him. He begins following Jesus.

As is so often the case in the Gospels, we don’t hear “the rest of the story.” I am enough of a student of human nature (including my own) to know that Bartimaeus’ following of Jesus in “The Way” was very likely NOT a linear journey, nor a “one and done” moment of salvation. Rather, it was likely a long and arduous transformational journey of conversion, including shining moments of freedom and triumph as well as plenty of other moments of stumbling and shame. We need only look at Peter and the other disciples to appreciate how long and complex the journey of conversion is.

If you are like me, I imagine that you can relate to the cloak of Bartimaeus! Like Adam and Eve with their fig leaves, it sometimes feels safer to isolate and self-protect rather than to surrender ourselves totally into the hands of the living God.

The invitation to Adam and Eve, the invitation to Bartimaeus, and the invitation to you and me is the same invitation captured beautifully in the erotic love poetry found in Song of Songs Chapter 5. The bride has cast off her cloak and pursues intimacy with her beloved. She will not put her cloak back on when he is inviting her to be one flesh with him! These images of vulnerability and intimacy are mere foretastes of the ultimate invitation God offers to each of us in Jesus. He desires to heal every rupture and restore true intimacy and eternal communion with him and with each other, in a way that will satisfy every ache and longing of our hearts.

What does your cloak look like and feel like? Where in your life do you find yourself hiding or isolating, pulling away from relationships, or preferring the predictable comfort and safety of self-soothing or self-protection? How do you feel about casting aside your cloak and running vulnerably to Jesus to be healed? Do you want to be well?  Do you trust that the healing, love, and communion offered by Jesus will be enough?

Perhaps we need time to grapple with these questions. The Lord honors our freedom, and does not arouse our desire until we are ready (cf. Song of Songs 8:4). When we are ready, we can cast aside our cloak and run to the bridegroom!

“Talking Back” to evil

Many of us were raised to view back talk as bad talk. From a young age we were schooled to curb our tongue. Our 3-year-old willfulness was broken down as we learned to be “nice” and compliant. But there is a time and a place to use our will and our words to talk back. This is true in confronting situations of grave injustice, and is especially true in facing the subtle snares of the devil.

Imitating Jesus, the Desert Fathers were masters of spiritual back talk. Whether Anthony of Egypt, Evagrius of Pontus, or Dorotheus of Gaza, they didn’t take any $@#^! from the devil. They used their will and their words as weapons, quoting the Scriptures as a means of fighting back. As trained athletes of Christ, they did so calmly and patiently – but with a decisive swiftness and forcefulness. They let their “yes” mean “yes” and their “no” mean “no.” By the power of God, they sent the devil to the Cross for judgment and reclaimed their human freedom and dignity.

The unique vocation of the Desert Fathers was to go into the wilderness and devote their entire life to sharing in Jesus’ conquest over the devil. As the New Adam, Jesus reclaims and redeems our human freedom, restoring our capacity to overcome evil with good. He freely and firmly renounces the age-old traps of the flesh, the world, and the devil. The early monks made their vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience as a direct means of fighting the same fight. And they weren’t afraid to talk back when needed.

During his forty days in the wilderness, Jesus talked back to the devil. The moment he was tempted, he called upon Scripture to rebuff the evil one. When it comes to fighting temptation, sooner is always better. As with Eve in Genesis, the tempter wants to “dialogue” with us. She could have ended the conversation at his first deception (“Did God really say to you…?”). It would have been a different story. Whatever the forbidden fruit is for us, the longer we linger in debating back and forth whether to do it, the more likely we are to do it!  The devil’s deceptions and lies are so much easier to uproot as seedlings or saplings in the very early moments of temptation than they are when they become tangled trees clutching at our heart.

Saint Benedict, the model of monasticism in the West, appealed to Psalm 137:9 – a deeply troubling verse about seizing babies and smashing them on the rocks. But when applied spiritually to the experience of temptation, it suddenly makes sense. Early on, while any thoughts of temptation are yet in their infancy, while they are still small and not-yet-powerful, we can take them and dash them on the Rock that is Christ.

The Desert Fathers advocated “talking back” (antirrhēsis) as the best way to engage in that fight. Evagrius actually compiled an entire book on the subject, offering suggested Scriptures to use as weapons in confronting over 500 circumstances of temptation! Full disclosure here – I tried reading his book and gave up on it, finding his particular situations to be dated and not as relevant to my own life. But I love the concept, and have often used it in my personal life. When the alarm clock goes off and my body and spirit protest, I can quote Psalm 57, “My heart is ready, O God, my heart is ready … awake my soul … with praise let us awake the dawn.” When I am tempted to distract myself with fleshly or worldly pleasures, I can pray Psalm 62, “O God, you are my God, for you I long; for you my soul is thirsting…”

In addition to the Scriptures, the Desert Fathers used the simplest of prayers – uttering the name of Jesus. I have found it to be an incredible spiritual weapon. Saint Paul tells us that every knee must bow at the name of Jesus – even those under the earth (i.e., the evil spirits). In the very first moment of temptation, simply whispering his holy name deepens our freedom and increases our strength. We can add bodily prayers such as making the Sign of the Cross or prostrating ourselves in surrender to God’s will. Whatever works – it’s hard to argue with good results.

Notice that this spiritual “talking back” is not a dialogue with the devil. By contrast, it is much more like a willful three-year old firmly declaring “No!!” and “Mine!!” and “You can’t make me!!” We tend to look with scorn on the “terrible twos” – which actually have their peak around age three. But learning a healthy sense of “mine” versus “yours” is critically important in our human development – as is learning to let our “yes” mean “yes” and our “no” mean “no.” Jesus calls us to become like little children again. Not childish but childlike. Calling upon his power, uttering his name, or quoting his Scriptures allows our will and our words to become mighty weapons against evil – especially in the moment of temptation.

Many saints have testified to the truth that evil spirits have no power whatsoever over human freedom. We are truly God’s stewards and have a God-given authority. We can abuse that authority (indeed, that is the devil’s goal). But in the end all Satan can do is deceive or threaten; he cannot ever make us do anything. Aided by the name of Jesus and by His written Word, our freedom will triumph.

As we start another Lent, we go forth with Jesus into the desert, ready to reclaim our full human freedom.

Sober and Watchful

“Be sober; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith” (1 Peter 5:8).

The apostle Peter calls us to a sober-minded watchfulness. Far from fear-mongering, he is calling us to a calm and confident vigilance with Christ and with each other. He is calling us to be awake, to be aware, and to abide in the present moment. When we do so, we grow into a very special spiritual gift: the gift of discernment.

Discernment yields a threefold benefit: 1) It unmasks the subtle lies of the devil; 2) it increases our self-awareness and maturity; 3) it tunes us in to the still small voice of God. Recall John’s words: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1). At any given moment, in the depths of our heart, there are many movements. Some are from the Holy Spirit, some from the evil one, and some representing our own needs and wants. The wise and discerning person is able to see with ever greater watchfulness and clarity.

Discernment is a marvelous gift from God. Like many of his gifts, it needs to be cultivated and nurtured through consistent effort. It is not at all like riding a bicycle. It is more like playing the piano or speaking a foreign language. Most of us will need to apply ourselves diligently before seeing significant progress – but it’s worth it in the end. Yes, there are varying degrees of natural giftedness (or in this case, supernatural giftedness). But the gift only flourishes when practiced regularly. It stalls or stumbles when we become inconsistent.

As the passage from Peter indicates, discernment begins with sobriety and watchfulness. It is worth taking a peek at the Greek here. So much gets lost in translation. Peter issues a twofold command: “Be sober” (nēpsate) and “be watchful” (grēgorēsate). We should notice that he uses the second person plural (“Ye” or “Y’all” or “Yous guys” – depending on where you live). Sobriety and watchfulness and discernment of spirits cannot be exercised in isolation. We do so in a faith community, abiding in love and truth with other members of the Body of Christ. The devil’s oldest tactic is to divide and conquer. We are so much more susceptible to his lies and distortions when he gets us isolated. By contrast, when we surround ourselves with wise people who are deeply attuned to our heart, who truly care for our well-being, and who speak the unvarnished truth with love, then we will find ourselves making much more progress in the ways of discernment.

“Be sober” means much more than avoiding drunkenness. The Greek suggests self-denial and fasting, moderating the pleasures of our five senses. So, yes, “be sober” includes choosing against addictive behaviors such as drunkenness, gluttony, narcotics, fornication, pornography, or masturbation. But why? Because they pull us out of the present moment, stealing away our freedom to give and receive love. They are drugs of choice to numb our pain. They leave us fragmented and empty. They are the opposite of watchful discernment. Our “no” to over-indulgence and self-gratification must be combined with a “yes” to the present moment – choosing to be truly present to God and others and self.

Notice that Peter pairs the word nēpsate (“be sober,” “fast,” “deny yourself”) with grēgorēsate (“be watchful”). The Greek here suggests staying awake, keeping vigil, being like a night watchman. A true watchman notices everything and discerns carefully. Some sights and sounds are attention-getting, but insignificant. A skilled watchman knows not to be distracted by them. He calmly ignores them, gently refocusing on what truly matters. Conversely, he is attuned even to the slightest change of environment. No detail is too small if it is new or out of place. The more intimately familiar he is with his environment, the more skilled he is in his watchfulness and appropriate responsiveness. He is also no fool in trying to confront certain evils alone. He knows when to consult a companion for advice, when to call for help, and when to sound the alarm.

So there are three basic steps here: 1) Watch; 2) Discern; 3) Respond. Habitually doing those three things in the present moment (aided by God and others) will yield profound growth and fruitfulness in our spiritual lives. It’s so simple. Why do so few of us do it?

I suppose one of the main reasons is that watchfulness involves much self-denial and discipline. The classic Christian understanding of nēpsate and grēgorēsate is to engage in fasting and prayer vigils. Early Christians, particularly monks and religious, did so for centuries. Although it is not advisable to fast or pray in a way that harms our health or hastens our mortality, nonetheless most of us these days err in the opposite extreme of over-indulgence. Our “no” muscles could use more frequent exercising as we gain freedom from the things that enslave us.

A second obstacle is trying to do it ourselves. We resist being vulnerable to others, sharing our struggles and asking for help. It is easy to deceive ourselves with our own willfulness and ego. It is easy to pretend to be religious, all the while serving ourselves. That is why it is so important to open our discerning hearts to a third-party perspective – perhaps a trusted spiritual mentor, perhaps Church leadership, certainly the whole of Sacred Scripture and the collective wisdom of 2,000 years of Christian Tradition.

As we enter into the depths of our heart with greater watchfulness, we can begin discerning which spirits are moving there. Jesus offers a simple litmus test:  “by their fruits you will know them” (Matthew 7:16). St. Paul lists several rotten fruits (Gal 5:19-21): self-indulgence, sensuality, lust, factions, rivalries, division, anger, hatred, jealousy, etc.  We can add other rotten fruits: obstinacy, rebelliousness, paralyzing fear, discouragement, and despair. The Holy Spirit will never prompt us to these attitudes and behaviors. If we experience them, it is a sure sign that we are not being led by the Holy Spirit and that we need to turn to God and ask for grace and conversion. By contrast, the fruits of the Holy Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, meekness, and self-control. If we experience those positive attitudes in the depth of our heart it is a sure sign we are being led by the Spirit.

Finally comes our response. If we discern the work of the evil one, Peter urges us to resist him with faith. If we resist him firmly and directly, he will flee (James 4:7). By contrast, if we discern the Holy Spirit leading us, we respond with docility. He will act. We need only abide and cooperate freely.

How can we grow in this great gift of watchful discernment? In addition to daily Lectio Divina, there are a couple of other prayer methods that help immensely. I look forward to sharing those in the weeks ahead.

Lectio Divina Part IV: Contemplation

Read and meditate; pray and contemplate. “Contemplation” is the fourth and final component of Lectio Divina. It is the passive and receptive dimension, and the ultimate good fruit that emerges, as God takes over and does what he wills. He is the one who knows our hearts so much more intimately than we do. He knows our joys and delights, our sorrows and struggles. He tunes in to our wants and needs, and to our deepest desires. He is the one who placed those needs and desires there in the first place!

Contemplation is the highest human experience. It is our ultimate destiny and the deepest perfection our humanity can attain. Aristotle understood this. Even without the benefit of divine revelation, he explained that we humans will either sink down to the level of the beasts, mired in selfish and vicious habits, or we will rise up to the level of the gods, contemplating the fullness of truth.

Aristotle understood that being is prior to doing. This truth is a challenging one for our pragmatic American culture, with its Puritan roots. We tend to see value in achieving or accomplishing far more than abiding or receiving or contemplating. We forget that the most precious blessings in life, by their very nature, are “useless.” Whether listening to our favorite music or enjoying a sunset or spending time with the ones we love, we do not engage in the highest human activities because they are “useful” for obtaining something else. Rather, all that is good or true or beautiful is worth delighting in for its own sake!

As Christians, we can take it a step further. Our ultimate destiny is the Beatific Vision. We will see God face to face and live. Not only that, the experience we will transform us into him. Nor is this simply an individual experience, for God is love. He is a communion of persons and invites us to abide forever together in that eternal love and truth. The one Body of Christ will be perfected in glory. We will fully share in his humanity and his divinity, as every tear is wiped away.

You can sense the awe and the eagerness in the Beloved Disciple’s heart as he explains not only how blessed we are in the present – as beloved children of God – but also how truly blessed will be our final destiny in the eternal contemplation of God: “See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. Yet so we are … Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:1-2).

If we wish to appreciate “contemplation,” then, we may need to renounce some of the lies of our culture.

The first lie, already exposed, is exalting doing over being. Our dignity as a human person comes not from what we do, but from who we are. We are beloved children of God and already share in a communion with him. As we grow in prayer, contemplation allows us just to “be” with God, to abide in his presence, and to receive from him whatever he wills to give us. We may or may not understand what he is up to. We don’t need to – any more than a little child needs to understand the delight and nurture and care and protection that his parents are providing. We just need to be receptive and open.

The biggest lie, indeed the original lie to our human race, is that we can “create” the experience, seizing and grasping rather than depending and receiving. The devil enticed Eve, “You will be like gods…” (Genesis 3:5). With this fruit, you can rely on yourself. You can be strong enough not to need God.

Not needing God. It is perhaps the greatest spiritual sickness today. More and more, humans in the affluent nations of the world try to live as though God didn’t exist, as though we can sustain ourselves by our own efforts. And somehow we are stunned at the results. Year by year, month by month, we witness the unraveling, the disintegration, the chaos, the hatred, the confusion, the descent into darkness. The isolation and despair of hell have become daily news. It need not be so.

Herein lies the greatest difference between Lectio Divina and some of the alternative versions of “meditation” that are out there today. It is the difference between the golden calf and the living God. Are we creating the object of our own worship, like those impatient Israelites growing restless in the desert? Or are we learning to abide, to wait upon the Lord, and to receive, like Moses on the mountain or Elijah in the cave?

Yes, we are called to do our part, eagerly and actively, carving out space for the Lord to do his work. We can cut the wood, split the wood, and arrange the wood – but God alone provides the fire. We can plug in the radio, turn it on and tune it in – but God alone decides when and what and how to broadcast. Receiving is so much different than taking or seizing, grasping or manipulating, dominating or controlling.

Over time, for God’s saints, prayer tends to become more and more passive and receptive – much like a truly happy marriage. Couples married 60 or 70 years need not say much or do much to cherish each other. Their presence is enough. Married love is but a sign and symbol. Jesus teaches that no one will be married in heaven (Matthew 22:30). The eternal communion of heavenly love will be infinitely greater. Our contemplative prayer is the next closest thing here on earth. If we are faithful in our daily prayer, we will come to experience that heavenly reality more and more, and even now experience the eternal love of God.

Lectio Divina Part III: Prayer

We continue our exploration of Lectio Divina, the classic Christian method of meditative prayer. By now, you recall the four chief components: 1) Reading, 2) Meditation, 3) Prayer, and 4) Contemplation.

The whole point of reading and meditating is to allow prayer and contemplation to well up within our heart. Our disciplined commitment will begin to pay off. God will beckon us beneath the surface, where most of us prefer to spend our time. If we allow it, he will plunge us into the deep places of our heart, and the real praying can begin.

Scripture uses the word “heart” hundreds of times. So do the Saints. Authentic prayer is always prayer of the heart. The heart is where we encounter the living God.

Isn’t it interesting how a bodily organ becomes so symbolic? Our “heart” represents the seat of all our relationships, the core of our being, and the inner sanctuary in which our truest self is found. Literary experts might refer to this usage of “heart” as metonymy, but it also somehow resonates with our everyday experience! We feel our heart racing when we are attracted or aroused. We feel our heart ache when we are spurned or rejected. We feel our heart go numb when we are ignored or abandoned. We know what it feels like to “open our heart” or to “harden our heart.” We know what it feels like when others do the same to us.

Sometimes people think of “head” and “heart” as opposites. Not so. Scripture speaks of “thoughts of the heart” just as much as it does of rejoicing or groaning or sighing. In the biblical sense, “the heart” integrates all that is core to our humanity: thinking, feeling, imagining, remembering, desiring, hoping, and willing. Our fallen world and fallen human condition keep tempting us to be fragmented and compartmentalized. Our heart is where the integration is meant to happen.

The head and heart need not be opposed, any more than “the gut” and the heart are opposed. Both Scripture and our everyday experiences speak of our guts as the locus of our strongest emotions. We have a “visceral reaction” or a “gut feeling.” We feel emotions intensely there – but do not always know how to handle them.

I know, I know, you scientists in the group will tells us that it is the human brain that generates our emotions and sensations as well as our thoughts. But tell that to a man with a toothache or an ingrown toenail! For everyday purposes, we can definitely understand “the heart” as the core of our being, the seat of our relationships, and the inner sanctuary in which we encounter the living God. It is there that authentic prayer happens.

In that sense, yes, one extreme is to be overly cerebral in our meditation – to stay at the level of thinking only, and never allow our heart to be touched or moved. I have known many Christians who feel comfortable having ideas about God and faith – perhaps even talking about God and faith – but they struggle to describe any actual encounter or conversation or relationship with him. In some cases, a real relationship is there, and shows its good fruit in their lives; they just struggle with self-awareness. In other cases, there are adamantine walls around the heart, protecting the dark or painful places that we long ago compartmentalized in a spirit of self-protection.

At the opposite extreme, we find sentimentality. We can prefer to live in the realm of emotions only, and avoid any seriousness in our relationships. Prayer is not predominantly about good feelings any more than it is about lofty thoughts. Yes, it is common to have our emotions inflamed when we begin to pray in a serious way. We are falling in love with God. But  genuine prayer is not about having a feel-good experience. Eventually we will need to learn to love God more than good feelings about God.

In the end, being overly cerebral or overly sentimental are just two different ways of avoiding encounter and walling ourselves off from meaningful relationships. Avoiding and numbing are so much easier than entering into full communion with God and others. When we learn authentic Christian prayer, we begin to put out into the deep waters – yielding our control and following where the adventure may lead us.

Returning to Lectio Divina, “Prayer” (the third component) translates the Latin word Oratio. Those of you who speak Spanish are familiar with the difference between orar and rezar. Both are translated “to pray.” But rezar has more a sense of reciting prayers, whereas orar describes a heart-to-heart conversation with God. The two are not opposed; we can do them both at the same time. Remember that Jesus taught us to recite the Our Father, and intended us to engage our heart when we do so, truly entrusting and surrendering ourselves to God as a loving Father.

Oratio, the third component of Lectio Divina is the point at which our heart begins encountering God and spending time with him. The experience can vary. It can involve feeling, thinking, imagining, remembering, desiring, delighting, rejoicing, speaking, listening, sighing, weeping, repenting,  firmly resolving, and so much more. Oratio begins happening quite spontaneously, like wood catching fire. We need not and should not strain to make it happen – any more than we strain ourselves in our spontaneous love for spouse or children or friends. As in those relationships, when we have a moment of intimacy, we hopefully learn to drop the other things we are doing and let the moment happen. As in those relationships, more moments happen if we bring a listening ear, an open heart, an attentive posture, and plenty of quality time spent together.

When we find our heart touched in prayer, it is so important not to move on too quickly! One touch of the heart can sustain our prayer for days or even months. When God opens up these heavenly streams in our heart, it becomes a wellspring that we can keep going back to. Ignatius of Loyola offers the image of a sponge slowly soaking up every drop of God’s love. If there is a particular verse of Scripture, image, thought, memory, or impulse that captivates us, we can keep returning to it when we notice our mind or heart wandering. As long as it keeps consoling us, it is working. We will have a sense of when to move on.

As we meditate and pray, we can learn to avoid rigidity (“I have to do it in exactly this way…”) as well as avoiding laziness or complacency. Discipline pays off, but only if we allow our heart to be open – and often to be surprised. God is full of surprises. Indeed, sometimes the biggest graces are given at other times of the day, when we are least looking for God. In that case, be flexible! Allow the moment with him to happen, and then return to that moment of grace the next day, allowing it to become the new content of your meditation and prayer. The more and the better we pray, the more we notice what God is doing. The more we savor what he is doing and respond lovingly, the more and the better we will pray. It becomes a virtuous cycle that leads us deeper into the heart of the living God.

To Be Concluded…