A Sacred Heart

Is it possible that the immensity of God’s love could fit into a human heart?

Although the very idea sounds absurd, we recognize that it is not only possible but a central truth of our faith.

When the Word became flesh, the infinite God whose very being is love enabled this miracle of miracles to become reality. A human heart that beats just like yours and mine became the vessel of His infinite mercy and compassion in time and space.

Some might object, “Surely you are not referring to the bodily organ we call the heart? You must be using that term to represent something else.”

Well, yes and no.

As with any time we refer to the heart in the spiritual life, we are including both the physical and the spiritual realities. How could we ever separate them?

If, for example, I am to love God with my whole heart, I am to love Him from the depths, from the core of my being. My “heart” seems to represent my very soul.

On the other hand, the physical organ responsible for pumping blood to all the living tissues of my body is very much involved in the action of complete and perfect love.

Indeed, I am proclaiming that I am willing to die for my Beloved when I love with my whole heart. I am giving, I am offering, that which keeps me alive.

The One who has my heart has my life. There is no greater love.

The reality, however, is that I am not the one who has made such an offering; it is God Himself who gives His heart.

Through the flesh and blood of Christ our Savior, the One who created all things demonstrated His willingness to die out of love for His children.

We, the beloved children, have come to know this total giving of His heart as an event in human history. The Lord of Glory voluntarily gave Himself up to the lowest of deaths – abandonment, ridicule, crucifixion.

But unlike all other human gifts of the heart, this gift is eternal. In Resurrection, death has no more power to destroy it. In Eucharist, we consume and are consumed by a holy Love beyond comprehension.

Only a Heart this sacred could love us so profoundly as to transform us, to enable our hearts to beat with the very same Love as His.

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No image can portray Him. No artist’s rendering can express the divine Love that filled His human heart and now overflows into eternity.

But I share with you one unique portrayal I came across as I contemplated this solemn feast: “Sacred Heart”, by French painter Odilon Redon.

Perhaps no one will ever know what moved Redon to create this image of our Savior. And yet with us it remains, ever to awaken in us a vision of His glorious Love.

May it be so.

Learning by heart

I just returned from spending a couple of days at the hermitage that I frequent for brief retreats into the solitary life.

Every time is different from the time before – but always beautiful – as God’s abundant love overflows into me. Even the terrain varies from one Memorial Day weekend to the next, as Nature extravagantly reinvents spring every year.

I do not enter the hermitage with a plan – or at least not a well-formed one. I pack enough for a week, though only staying for two days. Extra socks because of the unseen puddles that always seem to find me. Food enough to nourish this non-faster for a couple of days. A book or two for prayer and reflection; my Kindle Fire loaded with more books – just in case. Usually some art supplies come along or perhaps some sewing to do by hand.

And, of course, camera must come along – just in case there are butterflies.

With ever-changing nature surrounding me and raw materials at hand, things happen. God draws me to Him, near to His heart, that I might listen and learn. I never know how He is going to do it – only that He will.

A couple of weeks before I left, a half-remembered prayer from long ago kept coming to mind. I had had a copy of it back in college –  but where it was among my belongings I did not know. It wasn’t the sort of thing I would have thrown away…

“I’ll have to look that up one of these days,” I told myself. Yet, as is often the case, I kept forgetting to search for it when sitting at the computer. I remembered a phrase or two from the prayer – probably enough to turn it up. So much easier than digging through dusty boxes.

Forgetting as often as I did, one day shortly before I left, I finally remembered. And, without difficulty, I found the prayer online and printed it so that I could have it close at hand.

As I started packing my things, a little voice within instructed me to take the prayer with me to the hermitage.

And so I did.

Many things happen every time I go to the hermitage, some delightful and some not so easy or pleasant. But there is always growth in this holy place of God’s love.

Soon after I arrived, I became aware that I was to learn this prayer by heart. I do not often try to memorize things anymore. I am grateful not to be in school, with exams always around the corner. Looking up information when I need it works well these days.

And my aging brain is grateful – for it has become much more effortful to commit things to memory than it used to be.

(I discovered this a few months ago when it occurred to me that I didn’t know the names of the twelve apostles. I was a bit disturbed to realize that, as a lifelong Christian, I couldn’t list them. So I set out to memorize the twelve names. It’s a little embarrassing to say how long it took to get them all reliably into my long-term memory…)

In any event, I discovered a copy of the prayer at worldprayers.org and it was broken into stanzas. So I began my labor, one stanza at a time. At various intervals during the day, I would repeat the words of the stanza I was on, checking to make sure that I had the wording just right.

It’s funny how something so seemingly simple can be such a challenge. I might be in the middle of reciting it to myself when I would stop and wonder, was it “shall” or “will”? And so on, with each little turn of phrase, thinking I had it correct, only to discover that I was off by a word or two.

But this was good. Because I knew what God was up to.

Some sources say that the origin of the idiom, to “learn by heart”, stems from the ancients’ confusion about which body organ involves learning. Because the heart is such a vital and central organ, it was assumed to be the center of knowledge.

Of course, science now tells us that the brain, not the heart, is the organ that stores data for us. This is indisputable.

But God was using this exercise of my brain to teach my heart. Relentlessly, He was pressing me to learn this prayer, not only with my mind but with the depths of my being.

He is calling me to make this prayer part of who I am.

The prayer, “Radiating Christ”, was composed by John Henry Cardinal Newman but is probably best known for being a favorite of St. Teresa of Calcutta (Mother Teresa).

I have transcribed the prayer for you below, from memory, correcting a few small errors. Every time I think I have it, I find that one or two little words were not recalled just right.

It is good to be so humbled. For as my heart continues its learning of the prayer, surely many, many more errors will need correcting.

May it be so, by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

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Radiating Christ

(by John Henry Cardinal Newman)

 

Dear Jesus, help me to spread Your fragrance everywhere I go.

Flood my soul with Your spirit and life.

Penetrate and possess my whole being so utterly,

That my life may only be a radiance of Yours.

 

Shine through me and be so in me

That every soul I come in contact with 

May feel Your presence in my soul.

Let them look up and see no longer me, but only Jesus!

 

Stay with me and then I shall begin to shine as You shine,

So to shine as to be a light to others;

The light, O Jesus, will be all from You; none of it will be mine.

It will be You, shining on others through me.

 

Let me thus praise You the way You love best, by shining on those around me.

Let me preach You without preaching, not by words but by my example,

By the catching force of the sympathetic influence of what I do,

The evident fullness of the love my heart bears to You.

 

Amen.

On Praying for Others

As I sat in the dark the other night, asking God to bless His people, it occurred to me: “Who am I to ask God, the Source of all grace and blessing, to do what He already does?”

Certainly, God does bless everyone without my help or intercession. And He knows perfectly what blessings each of His creatures needs – much more perfectly than I can even imagine.

He does not need me to tell Him what to do.

As indicated in my recent post, Broken promises, prayer is one of the ways in which God teaches us His holy Way. As we pray to Him for each other, bonds of love are formed that fulfill the greatest of all commandments – to love God with all our hearts, souls and minds and to love our neighbors as our selves.

Hence, praying for others is life-giving for me. And God delights in answering my prayers so that I experience Him more completely as loving Father.

But, the other night, as I sat in prayer, it occurred to me that there is yet another dimension to this glorious gift of prayer.

Researchers have tried to use controlled studies to determine whether prayer “works”. And they have received mixed results.

In some studies, where the positive effects of prayer were reportedly shown in improved recovery times from surgery, the patients did not even know they were being prayed for. And, interestingly, the praying people were from a number of different religions.

Yet other studies, claiming to improve upon this study, demonstrated no difference in recovery – or perhaps even a slight disadvantage for those prayed for.

These results should not surprise us – for a number of reasons.

As we discussed before, we, as human beings know what we want but are incapable of knowing what is best. Who are we to say that experiencing a “complication” is a bad outcome for a given individual? Perhaps that event was to be key in their sanctification.

God is not a vending machine that must give us what we ask for. And the more tightly scientists tried to control the various factors, the more they created a vending-machine expectation. Here are the people who are to pray, this is what they are to pray for – and this is the measure of “efficacy”.

Science, while a good and valuable tool, will never be able to understand God. A good many of His gifts, yes, but never all of them and certainly not Him and His Way.

There is, I believe, something else that occurs when people pray for one another. Something beyond the consolation of feeling loved and the grace of learning how to love.

We know that the history of the Church, from the earliest times of the apostles to the current day, is replete with accounts of miraculous healings in response to prayer.

This is true in both the East and the West. And many of these have been subjected to scientific scrutiny. In the Catholic Church, when a miracle is attributed to someone being considered for canonization, the inquiry is quite rigorous, lest the faithful be misled by hoaxes or histrionics. Often the data are examined by non-believing physicians for greater objectivity.

And they cannot explain it. How could a tumor (a chronic illness, etc.) simply disappear overnight?

Adding to the quandary, miraculous healings such as these are not limited to Christian prayer. What are we to make of this?

The thoughts that came to me the other night reminded me of the teachings of Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica, published in his book, Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives. He writes:

Everything, both good and evil, comes from our thoughts. Our thoughts become reality. Even today we can see that all of creation, everything that exists on the earth and in the cosmos, is nothing but Divine thought made material in time and space. We humans were created in the image of God. Mankind was given a great gift, but we hardly understand that. God’s energy and life is in us, but we do not realize it. Neither do we understand that we greatly influence others with our thoughts.

And further:

We, however, have Divine power, Divine life and Divine energy. On the day of the Final Judgment we shall have to give an answer for the way we have used this Divine power, life and energy which have been given to us: whether we have contributed to the harmony in the universe, or have sown disharmony.

Made in the image and likeness of God, given His Divine power, life and energy, we ourselves have built into us the ability to bless others. But as the Elder notes, “we do not realize it”.

Of course, God’s love is not limited to Christians and so He naturally allows this Divine capacity to sometimes be made manifest in those outside of the Faith. How and when and with whom He does this is part of His inscrutable plan. We are unable figure it out – but we know it is for the good.

And so, when we pray with this Divine power, life and energy living in us, we may become “co-creators” or “co-healers” with the Almighty God. But “we hardly understand that” and so we seldom make full use of this capacity we have been given.

We may wonder, how could I possibly make full (or even partial) use of this capacity?

Certainly not without the help of the Lord Jesus. If we were to try such a thing, it would not only fail but, worse, cause great damage to our souls. To try to use God’s gifts apart from God is at the heart of the temptation to do “good” for my glory rather than His.

And so we pray. We pray, not just to “get” what we want. We pray to grown in union with Christ our Savior.

As we grow closer to Christ, through our prayer, our struggle and our works, His life within us grows stronger, more powerful.

The seed planted in us at conception, this tiny seed of blessing-ability, grows, blossoms and bears fruit.

It is not for us to choose how it will bear fruit. God’s blessings come forth from us in whatever manner He chooses – for He knows what is best: whether it be to heal, prophesy, teach or console.

That seed He placed within our hearts develops and radiates His love – oftentimes without our saying a word.

It may radiate to those we know, but also to the stranger sitting next to us on the bus or to the refugee on the other side of the planet.

It may even heal the earth and its atmosphere, polluted and defiled as they are by our sin.

We do not know. It is only for God to know how it will all come together for the good. But come together for the good, it will.

It is Love that creates. It is Love that heals. It is Love that casts Divine mercy upon us all.

So we pray and we enter the Way, entering the eternal Christ Who is Love Incarnate.

And in so doing, we and those around us become fully alive at last.

To Him be Glory forever. Amen.

On Change, Ego and the Church

During this glorious Easter (Pascha) season, I have particularly enjoyed our annual journey through the Acts of the Apostles.

New details catch my attention, leading me to wonder why I never noticed them before. And that, of course, is part of the beauty of the Holy Scriptures.

One of the things that especially struck me in the last few days was the tremendous change in religious practice that the Jewish believers faced.

First comes the full realization that they, as Jews, did not have an exclusive status with God in this New Life. Not only were Samaritans coming to the Faith, but Gentiles as well.

The very same Spirit the apostles had received descended upon the uncircumcised, leading to Peter’s confession: “In truth, I see that God shows no partiality.” (Acts 10: 34)

And the dietary laws that so clearly separated the Jews from the Gentiles were also largely dropped from the Way. Who could argue with Peter’s vision in which he was instructed to not hold profane anything that God had made clean?

It is relatively easy, from our remote perspective, to accept that Christ’s death and resurrection established a New Covenant intended for all people.

But surely this must have been confusing for the Jewish people who had come to believe that Jesus was the Anointed One.

He was their Anointed One. He was to rule forever from the throne of David, their ancestor.

Although Scripture makes clear that this new understanding involved considerable struggle and debate, it also reports that,

When they heard this, they stopped objecting and glorified God, saying, “God has then granted life-giving repentance to the Gentiles too.” (Acts 11: 18)

And when Barnabas was sent to Antioch to assist with the new Greeks believers, we are told,

When he arrived and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced and encouraged them all to remain faithful to the Lord in firmness of heart… (Acts 11: 23)

In other words, we read that these Jewish believers were rejoicing and glorifying God as more and more “foreigners” joined their ranks and as the Law they had always revered was changing dramatically before their eyes.

From a human perspective this is very unusual, is it not? To welcome foreigners, to accept them as brothers and sisters of equal status? To relinquish centuries old religious practices believed to have been given by God?

Change of this magnitude is virtually anathema among the religious. For, if the Law is true, if God made Israel His chosen people, how could this ever “change”?

For Truth, as we know, cannot change. Truth is eternally true – or it is not Truth.

And although certainly not all Jewish people of this time period accepted Christ or these changes, a great many did. So many that Christianity, as it came to be called, spread through the entire world – and is still spreading with the help of many Gentile believers.

What do we make of this? Does Truth ever become “Truer”?

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As I have been reflecting on this phenomenon in the early Church, another question arose in my mind.

The Gospel of Matthew tells us that the Lord Jesus had this to say:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place.” (Matthew 5: 17-18)

I have noted elsewhere that I am no Biblical scholar – and surely this is evident from my writing. So, reading as a lay person, I had reason to pause as I pondered these words alongside accounts of the changes in the early Church. To me, it seemed as though much more than the “smallest part of a letter” of the Law was being abolished. More like entire chapters.

And all because of Jesus.

To think that Jesus did not know this was going to happen is ridiculous. As believers, we cannot entertain this notion – for Jesus came to carry out the will of the Father.

And these changes all appeared to be endorsed by the Father – through visions and recognizable gifts of the Spirit.

So, in my ignorance, I turned to the footnotes in my Bibles and discovered some interesting things.

One footnote suggests that Jesus’ reference to “until heaven and earth pass away” was not pointing to the dissolution of the material universe. Rather He was pointing to the “turning of the ages” that was to occur with His death and resurrection, i.e. when “all things have taken place”. (New American Bible, Revised Edition)

Interesting. But actually more compelling to me was a simple translation note in a different footnote. The Greek word that in this passage is rendered “fulfill”, literally means “to make complete”. (Ignatius Catholic Study Bible, New Testament)

Thus, Jesus did not abolish the Law but completed it.

With His death and resurrection, the first Covenant was concluded – everything it had pointed to had now transpired in time and space, demonstrating its Truth. At the same time, its completion opened the door to a deeper Truth, the Truth revealed by the Messiah.

This New Covenant was proclaimed by Christ when, the night before He died, He took the Cup, blessed it and gave it to His disciples, calling it, “My blood of the covenant” (Matthew 26:28).

And this changed everything…

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The ever-so-patient reader may, at this point, be wondering about the title of this post.

What does all of this have to do with ego?

While marveling at the “rejoicing” of the Jewish believers in the early Church when confronted with so much change, I began to consider how the issue of “change” is so controversial in the Church today.

Certainly, as a Catholic, I am much more aware of the tensions in the western Church in this regard. But I am also aware that change itself plays a part in that “great divide” between the east and the west.

Some (perhaps many) in Orthodoxy view the Roman Catholic Church as a dizzying merry-go-round of change that makes no sense in the context of unchanging Truth.

Some Catholics (among those who even know what Orthodoxy is) may view the east as stuck in the past, not recognizing the need to adapt to a modern world with its scientific knowledge, expanded view of the role of women and so on.

Within the Catholic Church, there are ongoing pushes and pulls in many directions, with regard to past changes in liturgical practice (e.g. favoring the vernacular over Latin) as well as possible future changes in practice or perspective (e.g. married or female clergy; attitudes toward homosexuality).

On these many issues, there are those who think that the Church has already changed way too much – as well as those who think it needs to change a great deal more.

In other words, there are myriad opinions within the Church.

And human opinion is rife with ego.

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This leaves us with quite a dilemma in trying to understand and approach change in the context of faith and Church.

Short of the Second Coming, it is extraordinarily unlikely that change of the magnitude seen in the early Church is meant to occur during our lifetimes. But does that mean that nothing in our beliefs or practices is to ever change?

If we view attitudes toward change in the Church on a continuum, at one extreme we would see a big “NO”. In other words, there is never to be any change whatsoever. Truth is an unchanging reality, regardless of what generation it is or what we know about the workings of our material world.

If the Truth doesn’t change, neither should we. The Truth was entrusted to the Church and we have no business altering anything – nor does anyone in the Church.

On the opposite extreme of the continuum, we would find an outlook claiming that the core beliefs of the Faith must remain the same, but otherwise the Church must change with the times, the culture, the new discoveries of science.

And failing to do so would stultify the Church and deny the role of the Holy Spirit as teacher and guide to the Church. The Church is a living Body, not a building of stone. And life is always in motion, always changing.

As noted, both extremes on the continuum have something to say for them. Yet, being diametrically opposed, they cannot both be embraced, can they?

Must we choose sides? And how might we go about doing so?

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Let us return to the Acts of the Apostles.

If we read the Acts in its entirety, so as to appreciate the full story, some interesting observations can be made.

First, while the Apostles appear to have relinquished their resistance to change fairly quickly, this was far from a universal response. Indeed, toward the end of the book, we find Paul being arrested and imprisoned when rioting broke out because of his teachings and practices at the Temple in Jerusalem.

Some Jews were passionately opposed to the “changes” they associated with Paul’s activities – in much the same way Paul (Saul) himself had been prior to his conversion. So high were their passions that several of them took a vow to not eat or drink anything until they had killed him.

Prior to this, James, Zebedee’s son, had been executed by Herod Agrippa. When Herod saw that this “was pleasing to the Jews”, he had Peter arrested as well – with the same intent.

How is it that some of the Jewish people of the time embraced the New Life so readily, while others were so passionately opposed to it that they would kill?

Although I can only speculate, my sense is that it all comes down to ego.

Nowhere are we told that Peter taught what he taught because, “After all, Jesus left me in charge and I think that Jesus would have wanted us to treat the uncircumcised with compassion.”

Nowhere are we told that Paul preached the Good News to the Gentiles because, in his opinion, they “had a right” to hear it also.

On the contrary, Peter tells the story of what was revealed to him in a vision. Paul repeatedly relates the story of how he persecuted the Way until Christ appeared to him and revealed a different plan.

Perhaps it is no accident that two of the strongest leaders of the early Church personally experienced deep humiliation before taking on their leadership roles.

If even for a moment, they were to want to promote their own opinions, they had only to remember. Peter would undoubtedly remember the cock crowing three times for the rest of his life. And Paul would remember that he had persecuted Christ Himself through his early persecution of the Church.

They could accept the “changes”, once they saw signs that they came from God, because they had forfeited their egos. Like the Savior, they had emptied themselves in order to give their lives for the Truth they had received.

How could they have “opinions” once they had received the Truth?

And perhaps it is safe to assume that those religious authorities who sought to kill Peter and Paul were much more motivated by their opinions and their egos than they were by the Truth.

Had they too emptied themselves in humility, their passions would not have driven them to attempt to violate the very Law they claimed to defend.

No, had they emptied themselves, they too would have listened – as many did – and heard the Truth.

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As we ponder this and strive to understand the questions of change confronting us, we are hit with a paradox.

In the days of the early Church, we see that those considered the “authorities” on matters of faith and practice were largely those most beset by passions and ego.

And those who were persecuted, reviled and scorned were the ones who spoke with true authority – authority not based on their human opinions and preferences but on signs from God.

The “authority” in the early Church was in the hands of the least, those whose betrayals of Christ were the most egregious. Having been forgiven much, they loved much. They had Christ, not themselves, at the center of their lives.

Thus it seems that we are not to be guided by a general principle about change but by following the proper authority.

But who is that authority now? How shall we know them?

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Just when I think I am nearing the end of this article, I encounter a new dilemma, one fraught with all sorts of risks and traps. Especially given my previous article on how we, the east and the west, are One Church.

Am I to name the Pope as the proper authority? The Patriarch of Constantinople? The Church councils?

To attempt to answer this question, however, would be to miss the point entirely. It is, I believe, far more important to identify who is not the proper authority.

And that is me.

As heretical as it may sound, I believe that it would be acceptable to God if, with sincere faith, I humbly obeyed any of the above-named authorities.

“But, but…” my ego stammers, “What if I make myself obedient to the wrong one, to an authority who teaches wrongly?”

What if, indeed.

I am reminded of an anecdote from the biography of St. Paisios of Mt. Athos. To ensure that he cut off his own will when living a distance from his spiritual father, the Elder made himself obedient to an abandoned 12-year-old boy who frequented the monastery.

Naturally, people who knew of this practice were at a loss to make sense of it. Yet the holy monk exclaimed, “If only  you knew how much good it did me!”

For St. Paisios understood that the only alternative to obedience was to follow his own will and, to do that, would be a far greater danger.

To err while under spiritual obedience is not as serious as it may seem to our modern, secular minds.

For, when we embrace the humility of obedience, our hearts remain open to God in a way they cannot be when we are intent upon following our own wills.

I am reminded of yet another holy person of God, Mother Gavrilia. Every morning, she signed a blank contract with God, giving herself over to doing whatever He led her to do that day. So deep was her trust in God that, if someone asked her to do something, she said yes, confident that God would create an obstacle if it was not His Will.

The only way out of these endless dilemmas is to love.

And to love fully, we must surrender our egos and become obedient to whomever Christ has put before us.

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When giving my life over to Christ in humble obedience, there is no longer room for me to have “opinions”.

Whether I think something should change or shouldn’t change matters not at all. Whom am I to know anything or guide anyone, much less the Church?

My ego fights valiantly against this stance. “It cannot be right to let this continue!” or “If I don’t oppose this wrongdoing, it is the same thing as endorsing it!”

The arguments from within are intense and convincing. And pressure may be exerted from without as well. No opinions? Not taking sides? It is apathy like this that leads to…

But, of course, it is not apathy. Prayer, humility and obedience are a far cry from being indifferent.

A new question arises. What about those whose charge it is to lead, to make decisions in the Church? The priest, the bishop, the patriarch or pope?

Well…are they not to do the same? To do what the holy Apostles did?

To forfeit their egos, to pray, to listen, to love?

And trust that God will make known His Truth if they but follow this Way? Yes, to follow the Way of Christ…

My ego, however, continues the fight.  “And if they don’t? What if this priest/bishop/pope/patriarch is not being true to the Way, as was the case with the religious authorities during the days of the early Church? What then?”

Am I to make the sin of another my excuse for stepping out of the Way? Can I even trust my own judgements about the sins of others?

Most certainly I cannot.

And so I must stay the course.

I give my will to God. I pray. I love. In humble obedience, I listen for His Truth.

May His Love and His Truth be ever made known among us.

Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

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Now that it is May…

While we are all recovering from my last post with its deep spiritual questions, I thought we might turn our attention to the month of May. A lighter subject.

While, regrettably, it is no long National Poetry Month, May has many interesting honors of its own. It is probably best known for Mother’s Day and Memorial Day, both very worthy remembrances.

But let us consider some of the lesser known. Someone somewhere has determined that, in the month of May, we are to remember barbecue, hamburgers and salads. (If you happen to read this post while it is still May 11, you may be also delighted to learn that today is “Eat What You Want” day.)

We are also to watch our blood pressure this month (especially important after all that barbecue) and to be aware of our Mental Health.

Of particular interest to me, however, is that May is “GIfts from the Garden” month and National Photograph month. I am going to help you celebrate them both at once!

(And since there aren’t any rules against writing verse in May, I proffer a short poem as well.)

This morning at 8:36 AM, I received the first of these images. There had been a light shower and the garden was coming alive.

This evening, at 6:11 PM, I received this second image (the same subject) from a slightly different angle.

A simple, natural change, this transition that occurred over a period of less than 10 hours.

What is so extraordinary to consider, however, is that this is but one tiny corner of the earth. Every day, all over the earth, life, in small and large forms alike, is living gloriously, abundantly, through its magnificent cycle.

Opening, closing. Living, giving birth and dying. All because the Creator made it so.

A “gift from the garden”, indeed.

Urban dwellers like me can too often forget what is going around us and in us. Our minds are somewhere else.

May: a time to remember to view the gifts of our earth through the lens of now – and give glory to God.

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But, wait – I did promise a poem. If you even want to call it a poem. (A prize to anyone who can make sense of it!)

i

ris

k

o

pen

ray (n)

son

two

live

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A strange one indeed. perhaps I shall take some time to ponder my Mental Health…  🙂

Broken promises

Learning to follow Christ can be quite a confusing experience at times.

Although He made it very simple for us, we are good at complicating matters. Or at least, I am.

An excellent example of this come from trying to read and understand Scripture. For a long time, I thought I knew how to read the Bible – because I assumed it was like reading any other book.

As a Catholic, I wasn’t raised with the practice of Bible study. It was not that we didn’t value Scripture. It held a very central place in every liturgy I attended. But the notion of “Bible study”, like “Sunday school”, had a sort of Protestant ring to it back in those days. We didn’t do that sort of thing.

So when I started reading the Bible more on my own, I discovered interesting things. Confusing, even troubling things, tucked in between the words of comfort and hope.

And some passages were both comforting and confusing. Here is one:

“And whatever you ask in my name, I will do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything of me in my name, I will do it.” (John 14:13)

There are a number of other passages that offer similar promises that “anything” or “whatever” we ask for will be given. Some passages have specifications for the promised result, e.g. “If two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray” (Matthew 18:19), “believe that you shall receive it” (Mark 11:24), or “if you remain in me and my words remain in you” (John 15:7).

Such assurance is deeply comforting.

At the same time, it is deeply confusing.

How much each of us would love for this to be true! Yet are there any among us who haven’t experienced – or known someone who has experienced – making such a request and having it not be fulfilled?

We might respond to such profound disappointments by excusing God, indicating that Jesus didn’t mean that literally. Certainly He couldn’t have meant that we could ask for anything and we would definitely receive it.

Yet to say that Jesus didn’t actually mean what the Bible tells us He said is a slippery slope if ever there was one. Especially when three of the four Gospel writers report that He said it.

Once we have crossed that line, suddenly central aspects of the Faith are called into question. He couldn’t have meant literally, “This is My Body” when He broke the bread… And so on.

And yet we cannot understand this passage to mean that we can ask for anything, tack on the phrase “in the name of Jesus”, and be sure we will receive it.

To interpret these passages in this way is somewhere between ludicrous and dangerous.

This is where we discover that reading the Bible is not like reading any other book. I cannot simply sit down, open it up, read something and assume that I know what it means.

What could be wrong with taking these passages at face value?

Perhaps the most obvious is that a person might ask “in the name of Jesus” for something that is clearly wrong.

To illustrate the absurdity, imagine the devout mobster praying that the killing tonight goes smoothly so that he doesn’t get caught. Really? Counting on the promise of Jesus that you can ask for “anything”?

I doubt any serious reader of Scripture would imagine that Jesus was promising that. We cannot ask for help doing evil and expect that because we said, “in the name of Jesus”, God must now grant our request.

Minimally, this points to the reality that “in the name of Jesus” is not a magical phrase that we can pull out when we want something very badly. God can never be obligated to us or trapped by our technicalities.

So far, this much seems self-evident. But, if we stop here, we omit from consideration the vast majority of things we pray for that are not evil.

We can readily see that there is a dilemma: how do we know what we can ask for – and how we are to ask – in order to have this complete confidence when we pray?

OK, I cannot ask for something blatantly evil. And asking “in name of Jesus” means something more than just using those words as though they were magic. I get that.

But this is where things get sticky.

What if I am simply asking for something that I want? Perhaps something I desperately want. And something that is not trivial.

Here is where it becomes more than sticky. It becomes dangerous.

Suppose that what I desperately want is for someone I love to recover from a serious illness. Perhaps it is my spouse or my parent. Or maybe even my child.

Suppose the person whose recovery I am praying for is a very good person – or an innocent, like an infant.

Suppose I ask from a heart full of love for God, humbly begging that He grant me this favor. Suppose I am living my life sincerely as a follower of Christ.

Surely there is no evil in this request. I am not seeking “magic” or anything for myself. Can I not then, in this situation, turn to the words of Jesus and feel complete confidence that God will answer my prayer?

The reality is that God will indeed answer my prayer. But not necessarily by granting exactly what I asked for, exactly when I asked for it. Indeed, the person may not only fail to recover; he or she may die.

Herein lies the danger: when the result I want doesn’t occur, it seems that Jesus has broken His promise.

In my pain, I might cry out, “How could He deny me this one thing? Didn’t He promise? What “technicalities” is He going to produce to justify breaking my heart?

In such a moment, faith can be lost, sometimes forever.

And if that were not bad enough, there is another danger lurking behind the first. “Maybe it’s my fault. Maybe I didn’t ask the right way or with enough faith. If I had more faith, my loved one would still be alive.”

To console me, some well-meaning believer then says, “Do not blame yourself. It is God’s will.”

“So God wanted to break my heart, to devastate me? What kind of God wants an innocent child to die?”

What started out seeming simple has suddenly become horribly complex.

The words that once consoled now appear to be lies – broken promises. Why bother to pray at all?

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Before I continue, there are a couple of things that must be said.

First, I must concede that I have never personally experienced such devastation. I have spoken to more than a few who have – but it’s not the same.

What I write next is not intended to talk anyone out of their feelings of pain or anger or sorrow. Feel what you feel and find a loving person to listen as you wail and rage. Anything less would dishonor your soul.

The purpose of what follows is to open up reflection and understanding about why we pray and how we are to understand the promises of Christ.

That being said, I must also concede that I know nothing. Who am I to teach you or anyone else anything? Quite truly, I am no one. I have no answers.

But I offer myself to the Spirit, prayerfully making myself available, should He choose to guide my words.

Acknowledging my unworthiness, I will rest and pray, returning later to see where He leads me.

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Many others have interpreted these promises of Christ, most I am sure, far more worthily than me. I don’t know any Greek or Hebrew. I have no degree in theology.

But I will write of what I am being taught and pray that I not mislead anyone in the process.

Let us back up to the fundamental question: why do we pray?

Often, if we are honest, it is often because we need or want something. But, if it is no more than that, we have profoundly misunderstood the gift of prayer.

Prayer is, first and foremost, a gift. It is the means by which we have contact with God. And we could not have this contact unless God allowed it.

We would not know that God exists, that He is personal in His Being or that He cares to hear from us, had He not first revealed these truths to us.

His revelation, His invitation to us to enter into discourse with Him is gift beyond our comprehension. Considering the immensity of the universe and the billions of people who inhabit our Earth alone, it is almost unfathomable that God should want to hear from me.

And yet He does.

If this is not clear under the Old Covenant, it is certainly made plain by Jesus Who instructed us to pray.

So one reason we pray is so that we might have relationship with God. And, hopefully, this is not just a passing interest on our part but a true longing – a longing with all of our hearts to know God. To love and be loved by Him.

We pray in hopes of experiencing the union with Him for which we were made.

Truly, we do not understand fully what this means – but the longing has been built into our hearts. We will feel it if it has not been buried too deeply under the emptiness and lies that the enemy has planted in our world.

Out of such longings and exchanges with God come forth hymns of praise as we behold the goodness of God and His creation, as we experience His love and mercy. These irrepressible hymns of our hearts are another reason why we pray. We cannot help it once we begin to experience God.

Yet a third motive for prayer is that we recognize we cannot manage life in its current state on our own.

Of course, we were never meant to manage “on our own” for we were designed to live in harmony with our Creator and the Way He laid out for all living things. However, after the Fall and many, many generations of transmitting the impact of that first sin, we have become increasingly aware that we cannot manage.

Not only did our ancestral choice fail to make us gods, it left us with much pain and suffering. The seeds sown by the evil one have developed deep roots and both our personal and our global situations have grown grossly out of control.

And so we pray. We pray for help and comfort, for healing and relief, for direction and answers.

In other words, we ask for things, tangible or intangible, because we want, we fear, we need.

Is there something wrong with our prayers if God does not grant what we ask for? Or did He not really mean that He would do whatever we ask in His name?

As noted above, it is quite problematic if we expect God to always fulfill our every request, no matter how well presented. To understand the problem, we must return to the first purpose of prayer – to know God, be in relationship with Him and eventually live in union with Him.

If we treat God as a vending machine, i.e. I put in what I am supposed to put in and therefore should get out what I have chosen, there is no true relationship. God and prayer, in this model, exist only for me.

In telling Him what I want, I am expecting God to obey me, rather than for me to obey God.

Herein we find the essence of the original sin, me trying to make myself god – thinking that I should be able to control God, that my way is the best way, the right way.

If I approach prayer of petition in this manner, it should come as no surprise that there will not be complete fulfillment of my requests.

Certainly Christ’s promise in Scripture was not intended to elevate the sin of Adam and Eve to become our standard.

If then I recognize that prayer cannot involve an expectation that God obey me, I must concede that it involves me obeying God.

And if it is not for me to control God, I must also relinquish the conviction that my way is the best way.

Which brings us to that thorny problem of “God’s will”.

While humanity has never particularly liked the notion of obedience, it is especially hard for people in modern times to accepting obeying anyone, much less a God we cannot see.

We are intelligent individuals. Certainly we know what is good and bad. It cannot be good for a child to suffer and die. It cannot be good for me to be ill or to lose a job. It cannot be good for tens of thousands of people to be killed in wars and earthquakes.

If I need to tell God that things must be stopped, there’s something wrong.

If God “wills” these things, I want no part of Him. I cannot obey that sort of God.

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Oh dear. We are back in that uncomfortable place again. But let us not despair.

We humans have a lot of confusion about that phrase, “God’s will”. By virtue of using the same word, it seems that we are equating the “will” of God with our own “wills”.

Online dictionaries give definitions to the word “will” as involving choice, power, wish, desire, disposition.

Applied to God, we then take God’s will to mean what God “wants”.

Unable to comprehend God, we anthropomorphize Him into “wanting” things much as we want them.

This, of course, creates mass confusion among us. For if God allows a little child to die, God must “want” the child to die. If God does not grant my prayer for war to end, God must “want” war.

And obeying God then means accepting these outrageous “wants” of God. Or spending all our days pleading with Him to change His mind.

With such misunderstandings afoot, it is no wonder that so many have left the Faith – or never accepted it in the first place.

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So much confusion… what does Christ’s promise about prayer being answered really mean?…why are some seemingly “good” requests not fulfilled by God?…what is the meaning of God’s will, if it is not what God “wants”?

The only thing I know to do in face of so much difficulty is to turn to Christ Himself.

Jesus was a human being who prayed. In fact, Scripture gives us many examples of Him praying. Sometimes He went off by Himself to pray privately. Other times He prayed publicly, before or after performing great signs. Most often, we are given accounts of Him praying for others, not Himself.

There are, however, a few exceptions – and it is to these we will turn.

What happened when Jesus, as a human person on earth, prayed for Himself? How did He pray and was His request granted?

Here is what we find: (similar accounts are found in the other Gospels)

He advanced a little and fell prostrate in prayer, saying, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will.” When he returned to his disciples he found them asleep. He said to Peter, “So you could not keep watch with me for one hour? Watch and pray that you may not undergo the test. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Withdrawing a second time, he prayed again, “My Father, if it is not possible that this cup pass without my drinking it, your will be done!” Then he returned once more and found them asleep, for they could not keep their eyes open. He left them and withdrew again and prayed a third time, saying the same thing again. (Matthew 26: 39-44)

Jesus prayed with humility, He “fell prostrate”. He called upon God as “My Father”. He told His Father what He wanted and how He felt. Then, He placed His will under the Father’s, “not as I will, but as You will”.

All of these aspects of His prayer are crucial to our understanding. But first we cannot avoid the burning question: was Jesus’ prayer answered?

If we are to understand and trust Jesus’ words of promise about prayers, we must know whether His prayers were heard.

An answer to this question can be found in Scripture itself:

In the days when he [Christ] was in the flesh, he offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered; and when he was made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him… (Hebrews 5: 7-9)

“He was heard…” And, even though He was Son, as a human being Who was afraid and did not want to endure the horrible suffering and death He faced, He had to learn “obedience” and be “made perfect”.

Did He get what He humanly desired? It seems not – the Cup did not pass without Him drinking it. He was not “saved from death”. How then can the Scriptures say “He was heard”, implying that His prayer was answered?

We must note that Jesus’ prayer had two parts: in the first, He told the Father what He humanly wanted; in the second, He told the Father that, even more than that, He wanted to act in accord with the Father’s will. If He could not have both, He made it clear that the second part was His choice.

And He was heard. The Father’s will was indeed fulfilled. He both died and was “saved from death” in His resurrection.

But what kind of Father would expect His Son to die such a horrible death?

Back that thorny question of “God’s will”. We have talked about what it doesn’t mean. Let us now talk about what actually does mean.

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Well, I’ve certainly painted myself into a corner here, haven’t I? I’ve led you all to believe that I’m about to tell you what “God’s will” means.

I won’t tell you – but I will point to the words of Jesus so that we might learn from Him. He is the only one who lived God’s will perfectly and therefore offered that perfect prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Jesus announced shortly before He was arrested these startling words: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.” (John 14: 6)

What can this mean? Reflecting a bit further, I think we will see that what we call “God’s will” is the Way, the Truth and the Life. It is how everything is when in its fullest perfection. I will try to explain what I mean.

The Way – the path that all living things are to follow to be in communion with their Creator and to be fully and most perfectly themselves. The Way is automatically followed by creatures not given a free will to choose otherwise. The robin in my backyard lives out its “robin-ness” perfectly. Our sin, of course, is our willful departure from that Way.

The Truth – the One Who created all has full knowledge of the Truth of all that is. As humans, we tend to associate truth with factuality. Since we do not know all things, when we discover something with certainty (or think we have), we call it a “truth”. Our knowledge that the sun always rises in the east and sets in the west is that sort of truth. God, however, knows the essential Truth of everything – all of the how’s and why’s and when’s and where’s for everything that exists – because He brought it all into being and sustains everything as it is meant to be.

(Evil, however, it must be noted, was not created by God nor is it sustained by Him. It is not a created thing. Rather it is the product of the exercise of free will by one or more of His creatures who were given the ability to choose. And, for now, God permits it.)

The Life – God is Life and all life originates in Him. God is love and our created world demonstrates the truth that it is love that creates – not just the emotion we call “love” but also the biology and spirituality of life giving up itself for new life to come into being. Since God is continuously loving, His Life creates more Life, His Love creates more Love, without ceasing.

The pronouncement by Christ , “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life”, is one of seven occasions in the Gospel of John when Jesus employs the words “I AM” – the very words the Lord God gave Moses when asked for His name. Though completely human, Jesus hereby reveals that He is fully one with the Father. He not only does God’s will, but He is God’s will. It is His name.

Can we fully understand this? Certainly not. Our tiny created selves cannot comprehend the Creator and the entirety of His plan. Furthermore, our stepping out of the Way inevitably resulted in our death, our separation from the One who is Life. Trying to live apart from Him makes us even less able to understand.

We must note that it is not that a wrathful God punishes us with death. Rather, we stepped out of Life. It is very much like walking out of the light; we inevitably find ourselves in darkness. It is a fundamental aspect of the Truth of how things are.

And so we would remain, in death and darkness, if not for Jesus. Living the will of God while fully human, He re-opened the Way for us, both by transforming our life from its “dead” state into Life and by demonstrating for us what it means to live in the Way

All we need to do is follow Him.

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Let us now return to the prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane shortly before His arrest – the prayer that I deemed “the perfect prayer”.

One very important component of that prayer was the humility with which it was offered. It is one of the few glimpses into the prayer of Jesus involving Himself. In other words, He wasn’t saying the prayer to instruct others or to execute a healing for someone else.

It was very much about His own mortal life and self. He knew what He faced and, as a human being, He feared it.

His prostration reveals His humility. His words to the Father reveal that, humanly, He knew He was not in charge. “If it is possible” are not the words of someone who is full of his own power.

Next, He addressed God as “Father”. Now this certainly wasn’t the first time that Jesus called God His Father – in fact, this familiarity was one of the things that got Him into trouble. And He had taught His followers to say “Our Father”. But here, in this prayer, it is especially important.

Jesus does not call Him “Father” because He biologically begat Him – rather, because “Father” is the closest human image for the nature of their relationship. Ideally, fathers love, guide, protect and know what is best for their children. Addressing God as “Father” in this moment when humanly He did not feel in control, reveals His ultimate trust in His Father to love Him and know what was for the good.

Thus, in the next part of His prayer, He shared with His Father what He felt, what He wanted. He was open and vulnerable, not pretending otherwise.

And, crucially, in the final part of His prayer, He essentially told the Father that He trusted Him more than He trusted Himself, “not as I will, but as You will”. In such intensity of human fear and dread, He could not trust Himself to see clearly. And He was not about to let His natural feelings cause Him to leave the Way and fracture His union with His Father.

It is not difficult to see that, in so doing, He did the exact opposite of the sin of Adam and Eve.

He humbly brought His dilemma to God, trusted in His Father’s perfect knowledge of the Way and pledged His obedience to the Way, no matter how hard it was going to be.

And why was His suffering and death a necessary part of the Way? Because the Way is inextricably based on and bound up in Love.

As noted elsewhere, Love cannot help but sacrifice for the other – this is the deepest truth we know about Love. The sacrifice could be rooted in love only if made by one who had a choice. And, in order to redeem us, it needed to be a human choice made from the depths of all the fears and temptations to protect the self.

This was Jesus. And He chose Love instead of self.

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It seems as though I have gone off on many tangents from the question where I began. Let us see if, drawing them together, we can better understand prayer in the light of the promise of Jesus.

We have learned some things about what it means to ask “in the name of Jesus”.

To ask as Jesus did is to talk to our Father as Father, humbling acknowledging that He knows the full Truth in a way that we cannot. We tell Him honestly how we feel and what we want. At the same time, we concede that we cannot trust our feelings to actually know what is best. What looks best and feels best to us may be totally at odds with the Truth that transcends this moment in time and space.

And so we trust Him. We trust that His love is greater than our love and His knowledge of Truth far exceeds ours.

Let us return to the enigmatic words I wrote above, that Jesus “not only does God’s will, but He is God’s will. It is His name.” We see more clearly here what it means to pray in His name. It is to pray in God’s will – which we can only do with our lives firmly united to Christ.

And we have come to see that “God’s will” is not some capricious desire of a more powerful Being. No, it is the Way, the Truth and the Life which emerges from the fullness of Love in its most pure and creative form. Love and Being totally beyond our comprehension.

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Some questions may arise in light of the perspective offered here.

What if I do not know how to live my life “firmly united to Christ”? What if I’m not there yet?

That, of course, is perfectly fine, assuming we are genuinely seeking. To describe the promise of Jesus in the above terms does not mean that no prayers will be answered if they do not meet these criteria! Surely not.

God hears and answers every prayer. How could He not hear them, He Who knows the fullness of Truth about all that is? That He answers every prayer is something we believe. Why would the Lord Jesus emphasize that we pray relentlessly if the Father were to selectively ignore some prayers?

What is at issue is that, if not yet firmly united to Christ, the Father’s answer may not appear to be what we asked for. We may not recognize it as the answer or as being best for us because we are still outside of the Way. We are still blind to God’s Way, waiting for Jesus to apply the mud to our eyes that we might soon see.

It might be noted that this is where most of us are most of the time. When we read of the saints, both contemporary and of old, praying with complete confidence, it is because they are firmly united to Christ in their prayer. St. Peter did not pause and wonder if the beggar at the Beautiful Gate would be healed (Acts 3: 2). So united was he to Christ that he knew the man would stand up and walk.

Though we may seldom if ever pray with that level of assurance, recovering sinners that we are, God still can and does great things in us and through us. He is not limited by our weakness.

When He doesn’t appear do the great thing that we had hoped for, it is not that He has broken His promise or that we have not prayed correctly. It is simply that we do not yet have the eyes to see what is best – to see what is for the glory of God and our sanctification.

The question might also be posed as to why we pray, if God can and will do what He already knows to be best.

Returning to the question of why we pray, we are reminded that our primary reason for praying is to have a relationship with God, to praise Him and ultimately live in union with Him.

When we bring to God our feelings, wants and needs, when we come to Him as our Father, we are binding ourselves to Him more and more with each prayer. He is teaching us to trust in Him and He allows us to experience His love.

I read somewhere that God delights in answering our prayers because, through this process, we discover how much He loves us. If everything were given up front, our hearts would not burst with love and hymns of praise (the second motive for prayer described above). Our relationship with God would not be dynamic and growing without this exchange.

Further, the process of praying for one another bonds us more and more deeply to one another.

Through prayer, we are being taught how to keep the commandments, the two that Christ told us summarized all of the Law and the Prophets:

You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. (Matthew 22: 37-39)

In other words, it is through prayer that we learn to love. It is through prayer that we are brought into the union with God and each other for which we were made.

Hence, even if we do not understand the answer to our prayer at a given moment in time, we continue praying as Jesus prayed that we might learn the Way of love more completely.

Surely the apostles did not understand the “answer” to their prayers during the span of time between the crucifixion and the resurrection. But, continuing to pray and love, they understood much more when they saw the risen Lord. And they understood even more completely when the Spirit came upon them.

They were then able to pray and preach and even die “for the Name”.

May this Spirit live on among us.

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Merciful God, forgive me. Who am I that I dare write so boldly of You as though I understood?

I come before You with deep longing…longing for my life to be firmly united to Christ, that I might pray in His name – that I might do all things in His name.

But I am so very weak. And so I pray with the psalmist:

“Let not those who hope in you be put to shame through me, O Lord God of hosts; let not those who seek you be brought to dishonor through me, O God of Israel.” (Psalm 69: 7).

Loving Father, please be with everyone who reads the words that I have written here, that they may understand not what I have written, but Your truth which I have so poorly represented.

Bring us all together in Christ, in the Way of Love, together with the Spirit into Oneness in You.

Amen.

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while it is still April – part 2

As April draws to a close, I must slip in one more bit of verse – though, of course, poetry will continue on and on. It cannot stop – it is in our souls.

Though I had it in my mind to write one of those long, deep, spiritual posts today, the Spirit seems to have led me in a different direction.

Ah, to be led by God and have no will of my own! A priceless thing…

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(This poem is meant to be read from top to bottom, regardless of whether the next line appears on the left or the right side of the image collage. I have also printed the poem by itself below, for those who might find this distracting.)

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they splash in their bath

and sip of its coolness

refreshing

warm dusty feathers

and seedy bills.

spreading forth wings

before sun’s light

they sing –

o glory –

 it is Spring…