The Mystic Path: Purification

Last time we considered the occurrence of awakening in the mystic path–that happening in our lives when we become awake to the divine or God’s presence all around us. Today’s topic is not as exciting, but I hope not to lose any readers!

According to the mystics once we are awakened to the glory of God, we can become aware of our own imperfections. The path to ultimate union with God leads through a period (or probably periods) of purification.

Some of our imperfections are caused by our environment. Another way to say that is that we are impacted by sin. On the other hand, some of our imperfections are the result of our own bad choices. Or, we commit sin, e.g. we nurture wrong desires or do wrong things.

Our imperfections may appear in a variety of forms. Not being able to distinguish right from wrong is an imperfection in our intellect. When we can’t seem to make a decision or stick to those resolutions we do make, this is an imperfection in our will. Regularly struggling with unhealthy feelings points to an imperfection in our emotional center.

I have largely avoided talking about ‘sin’ because the word has been wildly misused over the years. When I was a young person growing up in rural Alabama in the 50s and 60s, dancing was considered a sin in some circles! And going to the movies on a Sunday was a definite taboo.

Nevertheless, the word sin still has value when we consider the imperfections in our moral center. Jesus taught us to love one another, which means seeking the other person’s welbeing. When we fail to do that, we are imperfect or we are sinners.

Mystics have suggested a threefold way of purification that can help us along the path to union with God. First is contrition–a sense of sorrow for our imperfections or sins. Second is a full confession–acknowledging, at least to ourselves, that we are not perfect. Third is the resolve to change. Of course, for Christian mystics, all of this is done in the presence of God who is ready to forgive and to help us grow into the divine nature.

The Mystic Way: Awakening

The name of this blog site is Pathways to God. Today I want us to begin thinking about the Mystic Way. In the Christian context, three movements are usually affirmed: purification, illumination and union. However, two additional steps are sometimes mentioned. One may occur between illumination and union. It is traditionally called the Dark Night of the Soul. The other is prior to purification. It is awakening. And it is awakening that I want to think about today.

The experience of awakening can happen in at least two different ways. One is to experience the glory of God externally. Nicholas Hermann (popularly known as Brother Lawrence) saw a dead tree in winter and thinking about how it would come back to life, he was awakened to the greatness of God. It was life-changing. Men as different as St. Paul and Rulman Merswin saw a great light and they were never the same. Even Jesus heard a divine voice at his baptism and a ‘normal’ life was no longer a possibility.

The other way is inward. Richard Rolle felt a heat or warming in his heart. (I don’t think it was heat that Tums could ‘fix’!) Catherine of Genoa was struggling in a loveless marriage and perhaps with depression. She went to a priest for her normal Lenten confession, but wasn’t able to say anything. As she knelt, her heart seemed pierced by the love of God. In one moment she saw her own miserable state, but more importantly God’s boundless love. Both Rolle and Catherine became great affirmers in word and deed of a divine love that fills and overflows our hearts.

Awakening comes in different ways, but when it comes the person is never the same. The Divine becomes the ever present reality of their lives. They live for God and God’s will. They affirm the beauty and the love of God.

So, what can we do to be awakened? Perhaps nothing. It comes to irreligious and religious persons alike. We can’t make it happen. All I can suggest is to pay attention to life within and without. All life comes from God and perhaps if we pay attention, we are more likely to experience a moment of awakening that will last a lifetime.

Just say ‘WOW’

Recently I have been reading in a book of excerpts from the writings of George McDonald. In one of them, he noted the importance of growing in child-likeness, not childishness. Child-likeness, he believed, involved a growth in simplicity. I agree, both about the inherent opposition of child-likeness to childishness and the importance of growing in simplicity.

In thinking further about how to grow in child-likeness, it seems possible to do so by learning to live in wonder and unfeigned generosity. It is the first option I want briefly to explore.

We can learn to live in wonder by practicing it. I love to go on retreats, especially to places where I can enjoy the beauties of nature. My wife also likes for me to go on retreats! She says I am always, at least for awhile, a kinder, more loving person when I return home.

Practicing wonder, however, does not depend on my going on retreats. I can practice it daily by looking for beauty and goodness that are all around me. I can look at bluebirds feeding in my backyard and say ‘wow’. I can see the wildflowers growing on the hillside and say ‘wow’. I can meditate on a night sky and say ‘wow’. I can watch a mother hold a baby and say ‘wow’. I can stand and look at a painting made for me by my daughter and say ‘wow’. I can remember wonderful years of life with my sweet wife Pat and say ‘wow’.

Children can and should live lives of amazement. It comes naturally for them. It is that child-likeness that we can achieve at least to some degree. All it takes is to practice wonder and just say ‘wow’.

As always, feel free to share this with others.

Peace, LaMon

 

Haiku Spirituality

This may be the last in this series of blogs on spiritual practices that can help us to sharpen the divine image within. All have been time-tested practices that have helped individuals grow spiritually. We have considered silence, journaling, holy reading (lectio divina), Gospel reading, and meditation. Today I want to affirm a newer practice that I have been doing for the past few years. It is composing haiku.

I write haiku for two reasons. First, it is fun. Yes, spiritual practices or disciplines do not have to be onerous. At least some of them can be fun and bring joy.

The second reason is that writing haiku helps me to be present. It helps me to be present to what I see and to what I read. For example, a day or two ago, I was walking around our neighborhood and noticed a tall weed on a hill-side. The ‘weed’ had a bushy head of yellow.  Almost immediately haiku began to work its way into my consciousness. Eventually I wrote:

Springtime on hill-side

A four-foot weedy plant grows

Topped by yellow blooms

Writing haiku about nature helps me to be present to God in God’s creation.

Writing haiku also helps me to be present to my devotional reading. I have composed at least one haiku for each of the 150 psalms and I am presently writing a haiku in connection with my Gospel reading of the day. After reading a resurrection story in Luke’s Gospel earlier this week, I wrote the following;

Disbelieving men

Wild words of foolish women

Jesus is risen

The haiku form in English is simple–lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables. But straining to make your experience of being present fit that pattern is not necessary. There are times when 4 syllables instead of 5 seem to work best. However, I do try not to have more syllables than the norm.

I heartily recommend Haiku–the Sacred Art: A Spiritual Practice in Three Lines by Margaret D. McGee. This book helped me to get started with writing haiku as a spiritual practice. It is a treasure.

Haiku devotions

Demanding one’s attention

Centering on truth

 

Meditation

I decided to be blunt even with the title!  We have been thinking about spiritual exercises that can help us to sharpen or brighten the image of God within us. We have looked at the value of silence, journaling, holy reading, and focusing on the Gospels. Today, I want to mention meditation.

Meditation can be done in a variety of ways. One may write a non-analytical ‘meditation’ on some spiritual reading; perhaps how it spoke to your current situation or how it opened up new understandings of spiritual realities. (Writing non-analytical is hard for some of us to do!)

One can look intently at an aspect of nature; a leaf, a flower, a gentle stream, a soaring mountain. It is possible to encounter the beauty and creative glory of God in such a sustained look.

A third form (and I am certain there are others) is to use one’s imagination; visualize the scene you have read about and then let it unfold in your imagination. Sometimes, important truths may be revealed.

Here is a short imaginative meditation I experienced some years ago. I focused on Ezekiel 36:26, “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”

This is what I wrote in my journal. “During a meditation on Ezekiel 36:26, I saw God remove from my chest a heart of stone. I thought he would throw it away and give me the promised heart of flesh. Instead he took my stone heart and placed it next to his chest. He held it there and it was transformed. Perhaps it was my original heart decalcified. Or maybe not. It was, at least, my old heart being given new life and pliability. And it was returned to me.”

Imaginative meditations rarely come easy for me, but occasionally they meet some need in my life. They may give me some spiritual insight or encouragement. Just as God can speak to us through our memory and through our reason, so can God speak to us through our imagination. None of these three are infallible, but each one can be useful. So, I encourage you to give meditation a try.

I suggest you might read Luke 9:28-36. Read the story a couple of times. Then close your eyes. Place yourself in the role of one of the disciples. Let the story unfold in your imagination. Be sure to visualize the surrounding environment. What did the hillside look like? What about the sky? The more details, the better. Additions and/or differences may appear from the original story. That is to be expected, since you are now a participant. When the story ends, take a moment to write it all down. You may continue to reflect on this for days to come.

 

Holy Reading

I am looking at practices that have helped me and countless others throughout history to make the divine spark within us glow more bright or, if you prefer, the divine image within us appear more clear. I am examining ways that have helped me to grow spiritually. We have considered the importance of silence and journaling as two such practices.

Today we look at the practice of Holy Reading. As you might expect, in the history of church it has a Latin name: lectio divina. Traditionally, it was a way to read scripture, but its steps can be applied to many different types of literature. It is reading for formation rather than information. The latter type of reading is important in many contexts, but it is not the focus of Holy Reading. In Holy Reading we are wanting to be formed more and more into the divine image.

Holy Reading has four steps.

The first step is to read. Traditionally the chosen passage is read twice–slowly. You are not reading the passage just to get to a check-off place, but to imbibe its spirit. Read it first, slowly. In the second reading, you may notice a word or phrase that attracts you. You can stop the reading there or continue to the end of the passage.

The second step is to meditate on that word or phrase. You don’t try to analyze it–that is the old desire for information creeping in. You chew on it. You turn it over in your mind. Perhaps you make a kind of mantra for it, reciting it silently or softly. As you do so, sometimes the phrase or word will change. That’s ok. Just go with it.

The third step is to pray. Begin to talk to God about whatever that word or phrase is leading you to. The prayer usually flows naturally from your meditation. You might say that the phrase has moved from your mind to your heart.

The final step is to contemplate. In this case, it simply means to rest in God’s presence after the prayer is finished. Some practitioners say that this is the goal–if we must have a goal–of Holy Reading.

Two other points. First, spiritual growth cannot be simply programmed. These four steps may not all happen each time or in the order I listed them. Sometimes, some of the steps will hardly be needed before one rests in God. I often use a truncated version of Holy Reading as I journal, i.e. I look for a word or phrase that attracts me, then I write about why it seems significant to me. Many times I will then write a short prayer.

Second, I believe that God is at work transforming us, so if a particular practice seems to fall flat on certain days or even over a longer period of time, don’t despair or give up. Let us be faithful to do our part and trust God to do the greater part.

My Most Valuable Practice

In writing about practices that have helped me grow spiritually, I began in the last post talking about the importance of silence. I would add one or two comments. Unless you live isolated from modern life, it is almost impossible to escape the roar of traffic or the sounds of neighbors. I have found a free app called Insight Timer that helps me block out most of that noise with quiet sounds like flowing rivers or tinkling bells. It also allows me to set the timer for 10 minutes (or more or less depending on my desire). If you think it might help you, give it a try.

Now on to practice #2. It is journaling. WAIT, don’t quit reading! I know that journaling may not help everyone, but it is the single most important practice that I do because it helps me with most of my other practices.

The value of a daily journal is at least three-fold. It helps us to know ourselves as we write about events in our lives, our thoughts, and our feelings. It can also help us to relate to God. I often find myself talking to God as I write. It also helps us to concentrate. More about that in a moment.

So, what do I write in my journal? I usually begin by writing some comments on my morning scripture reading. Knowing that I am going to write something, helps me to concentrate on the reading. I’m not just reading to check off a daily accomplishment. I am reading to find something meaningful for me in that moment. Journaling helps me to do that.

I also write about my life. Since most of my journaling is in the morning, I usually detail some of what happened the day before and what I plan for the coming day.

And I usually write some short one or two sentence prayers. Perhaps I will thank God for something that happened the day before or an insight I discover in scripture. Perhaps I will ask God to help me in general or specific ways as I reflect on scripture and my life. It’s sort of like sending a text message to God. (Sometimes, not often, I will write out a long prayer, usually of thanksgiving.)

I do a few other things from time to time, but these seem most important to me. I do not spend a lot of money on fancy journals. I often just buy a spiral bound note book.

I began journaling on December 16, 1977. I have written over 2000 pages, maybe closer to 3000. The goal is to write every day, but I don’t. In the past, I might miss several days in a row. Being retired, it is easier to write almost daily. The important thing to remember is that if you miss a week, don’t give up. Simply start up again on the day when you can.

If you are not already keeping a journal, I encourage you to give it a try in 2018.

(As always feel free share any of this with others you think might benefit. Thanks for reading!)

 

The Light Within

The medieval mystics called it a divine spark. The Quakers named it inner light. The Bible pictured it as the image of God. It is in all of us.

Some might want to argue this fact. How, they might say, can anyone believe this in a world dominated by hatred, violence, and darkness? Perhaps some, but surely not all, have something of God within them. Others might look at their own lives, shake their heads, and deny it could be true of them with all their insecurities and troubling doubts.

Still there are voices that continue to affirm the ancient truth. One is Pastor Steven Garnaas-Holmes who writes a regular piece under the internet tag “Unfolding Light”. Recently here is part of what he shared:

  • You are the living image
  • of the Lovely One.
  • God is the sun of love within you.
  • Vessel of divine light,
  • you bear this magnificence into the world.
  • This can’t be changed or diminished.
  • Let this be your confidence, your hope,
  • your courage

The problem most of us face is that the image is so faint or the spark so dim that we can hardly see it at all. And neither can those around us. So, the question arises: how can we polish the image or fan the spark? What can we do that will help the inner light or sun of love shine more brightly, not simply for ourselves, but for a world seemingly enveloped in darkness?

In the next few months, I hope to share about some practices or disciplines that I have found helpful in my own spiritual growth, but more importantly that have been affirmed by persons far more advanced than me in the spiritual life.

 

God is Like a Mother

Sometimes a pathway to God can be opened up by how we think about God or how we imagine God. One image that I have found helpful is to understand that God is like a mother.

This is not unique with me. Julian of Norwich wrote, “As truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother.”  In Scripture, the prophet Isaiah used this image as well. “You will nurse and be carried on the hip and bounced on the knee. As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.”¹

Isaiah pictures God as nursing us like a new mother. This is a reminder that God feeds us with food and drink. Every meal we consume comes from the bounty of God’s creation. Additionally, our hearts and minds are fed on the Word of God. We also have ‘vitamin enriched’ (for lack of a better phrase!) spiritual food in Holy Communion. And instead of being drunk on wine, we are encouraged to be filled with the Spirit.

Next, Isaiah imagines us as being carried on the hip by God. God never casts us away. God always holds us. Like a mother, God will always carry us through the twists and turns of life.

Then, in a wonderful picture, Isaiah, perhaps remembering his own mother’s actions, thinks of God as bouncing us on God’s knees! The word translated ‘bounce’ is only used three other times in the Hebrew Scripture. There it is translated as ‘play’, ‘cheer’, and ‘delight’. As a mother brings a smile to the face of her child, so can God fill our mouths with laughter and our hearts with joy.

Lastly, Isaiah writes that like a mother, God will comfort us. The Hebrew word translated ‘comfort’ is used in reference to God 9 times in the Book of Isaiah. It is the image of someone sighing over the pain of another. So like a good mother, God notices our pain, takes some of it away, and helps us to live with the rest.

I am thankful that God is as much like a mother as a father.

¹Isaiah 66:12b-13a (Common English Bible). Several translations in verse 12b use ‘her’ instead of ‘the’ which makes the phrases refer back to Mother Zion. The CEB is more literal (there is no ‘her’ in the Hebrew) which allows for the interpretation that I have given.

[As always feel free to repost or share this meditation with others, noting that they too can receive my occasional posts in their inbox by pressing the ‘follow’ button.]

 

This Morning’s Meditation

This morning I read Luke 1:39-56 which is called The Magnificat or Mary’s Song. One spiritual exercise that I practice occasionally is writing a haiku related to what I have read. I do this to focus my attention on the text and to find some specific meaning for me at this particular point in my life. This is what I wrote:

Mary’s mighty God

Forgets not His promises

To raise the lowly

Afterwards I found myself praying for our President-elect. The prayer went something like this:

That he might care for the poor suffering people of our world and of our nation, I pray that You would soften his heart. Create within him a heart of compassion and give him the wisdom and courage to oppose those who seek only to increase their power and wealth at the expense of the lowly. May Mary’s God be Donald’s God.

Finally, this morning I turned to a meditation by Richard Rohr in Preparing for Christmas: Daily Meditations for Advent. He also looked at the Magnificat. He pointed out that Mary’s Song and the teaching of Jesus both emphasize that attachments to power, prestige, and possessions will numb our hearts and dull our spiritual perception. I believe he is right.

May the God of Mary and of Jesus be our God in 2017