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Too beautiful

A couple of years ago, around this time of year, I wrote to you about my King. Well, it is time for us to celebrate His feast again. I’m so excited!

Of course, we celebrate His feast once a week on Sundays – and really every day in between too – but this feast is special. It comes only once a year, right at the end.

As soon as we celebrate this feast, we start all over again and remember how He came to live among us so that we could get to know Him. How fun!

Anyway, in the last few years, it seems, they have been saying something different about my King when His feast day arrives.

They used to say He is King of heaven and earth. So true! But now sometimes they say is King of the universe.

I have to admit, that kind of weirds me out when they say that.

Now it’s not that I don’t believe it’s so. From what I gather, my King was right there when the whole universe was created.

In fact, they say “all things were created through Him and for Him” (Colossians 1: 16). So, of course, He’s got to be in charge of it all. Couldn’t be any other way.

And it’s not that I don’t want to share Him. Not at all. It’s so wonderful having Him live in my heart that I want Him to live in everybody’s heart.

I guess it goes back to this time years ago when I was out in the woods late at night and I looked up at the cold winter sky.

I had seen stars before, of course, but that night, that night I saw stars and stars and stars, filling the whole sky. It seemed like there was no end to them.

The science people tell us that by the time that little twinkle reached me, each star I saw that night had probably gone out of existence. Not to worry though, new ones are being born all the time to replace them.

It was just so grand, so immense.

I’ve told you before that my King lives in my heart and this is true. He lives in the hearts of all of His people (or He’s knocking on their doors) – and there are a lot of people on this earth.

But when I consider all those stars and all of the planets that could be spinning around them, it’s almost too much.

If my King is in charge of all of that, how could He have time for me?

When I’m busy discussing all of my thoughts and feelings with Him, I feel so certain that He is listening. In fact, it seems like I have His undivided attention, so deep and loving is His concern for me.

But how could this be? There are 7 billion other people on earth alone. And all of those stars and solar systems to keep track of – maybe with other people living on other planets?

How could He be listening just to me? I’m nobody in particular when it comes to all of that. I’m certainly no important person and my thoughts and feelings can’t be nearly as significant as all of those solar systems.

Sometimes, when I get weirded out by all of this, I start to doubt. Maybe there is no King living in my heart. Maybe I’ve just imagined it all…

But this doesn’t go on for long. Even though my King knows by now that He doesn’t have to knock to enter my heart, He’ll start knocking again for old times’ sake.

And when I hear that knocking, I can’t help but laugh at myself. How could I ever think I made that up? I’m not that clever!

I may like to tell a story now and then but I could never come up one like this. Not in a million years.

Anyway, when I get weirded out about this kind of stuff, I talk it over with my King’s Father. I think I told you about Him before. He lives in my heart too – and He is so wise and loving that it seems I can ask Him anything and He’ll straighten it out.

So I asked Him about this, about how the King of this immense and wonderfully complicated universe could care about – much less keep track of – all of my little thoughts and feelings every day.

And you know what? He told me. He shared the secret with me!

I’m afraid I can’t explain it very well. It made perfect sense when He explained it but now it’s hard to put into words. It goes something like this…

My King is in charge of everything – but somehow it doesn’t place a strain on Him. It’s hard for me to get this part. Everyone I’ve ever known that was in charge of a lot of stuff got pretty tired and stressed out by it all.

But that doesn’t happen to my King. Since everything comes into being through Him, He knows and understands it all perfectly.

If one of those stars dies, He knows about it. When a new one is born, He gets all excited because He knows that everything that’s born comes from Love.

Yup. Nothing comes into being without Love. He loves His Father and His Father loves Him and their Spirit is a shared loving between them. And their love creates everything.

This means nothing is a secret from Them. In every second, They know what is happening with every created thing – because each and every one is like one of their kids.

And size doesn’t matter. The big things, like solar systems, are no more important to my King than the little sparrows that hunt for seed in my backyard.

In fact, my King announced a long time ago that our Father knows every time one of those little sparrows falls to the ground. And He told us that we have much greater value than them.

(I don’t think He meant to hurt the sparrows’ feelings when He said this. He just has different plans for the sparrows than He has for us. He loves them a lot too.)

How my King can do this, how He can be this way, is beyond me. I have trouble paying attention to even two or three things at a time – so I cannot understand how He takes it all in every second of every day without getting confused.

These things that seem impossible, well, these are the things we call mysteries.

Sometimes when we call things mysteries, the people who haven’t opened their doors yet to the knocking think we just imagined it all. That we made up stories to make ourselves feel good.

I suppose I might think so too if my King was just an idea to me. If I don’t understand an idea, it’s hard for me to believe that it’s true just because somebody else said so.

But my King is so much more than an idea. He lives in my heart all the time and listens to me. I love Him so.

Sometimes He even sings to me. I bet He sings to you too, if you sit real still and listen. It may take a little while to hear it – and you may not hear it every time.

But listen carefully in the stillness. He sings…

And now, on His feast, we sing to Him, together with every living thing in the universe – you sing with your voice and I sing with mine. The sparrows chirp and the lions roar. The bees buzz and the hyenas howl. Even the stars have their own swirling songs of joyous light…

It is just too beautiful for words… Too beautiful, indeed.

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Ginger tea

Dear Readers: as I recover from cataract surgery (left eye this time), I am choosing to wait a bit before taking on any of the longer articles that I might feel inclined to write. The surgery went very well but the eye takes time to heal. So, in the interim, I thought I’d post a poem I wrote some weeks ago. I submitted it to a local literary magazine that is just starting up – but alas, it was a reject. 😦 Such a wonderfully humbling experience. 🙂

However, since I enjoyed the poem, I thought I might share it here. Knowing you to be a compassionate group, I gladly open my work to your comments, critiques and even interpretations. What is this poem about anyway?  (Small prizes will be awarded for particularly insightful, insulting or interesting comments!)

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how to make ginger tea

 

do not trust those little packets

found suffocating in boxes,

like a well-trained choir

in an airless oratory.

 

no, ginger is a wild root

and it must be hunted

in the fresh open air

or it will not sing.

 

try to capture a fat one

its buds still green with life,

and break not its bones

as though it had no spirit.

 

speak to it with gratitude

as you gently skin it,

for it has given its life

that you may be consoled.

 

then slice it and dice it

with swift, firm strokes,

mercifully extracting its soul

as you draw forth its essence.

 

choose a vessel that is pure,

whether pot or cup or jar,

and give the ginger to dwell there

as it awaits the holy surrender.

 

prepare now the kettle,

filling it with all earthly tears,

and ignite the fire beneath it.

the ablution will soon begin.

 

allow the kettle to scream a bit –

it too must release its pain.

then grant it time to rest;

it has labored for this moment.

 

it is time to fill the vessel.

as you pour out the libation,

feel its steam upon your face

and listen for its song.

 

you will smell it,

deep and rich and earthy,

drumming its music in wafts,

rich flavors for the soul.

 

as it thrums and steeps,

slice a bit of lemon to add –

for the journey has been

both bitter and sweet.

 

drink it while it is hot,

allowing its song to warm you.

fear not the wildness of its dance

as it flows like a river within.

 

absorb the ancient comfort –

drink and be cleansed.

sing the root, be lost in song –

until the cup runs dry.

 

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Thinking about myself…

I discovered a most interesting document the other day, while searching for something else.

Certainly I knew that in my “special box” I had some memorabilia and old journals from many stages of my life. I don’t go digging in that box often but, when I do, I occasionally find a real pearl.

This was one of those times.

What I discovered were notes I had written to God during a retreat made in October of 1983, thirty-four years ago!

Wow. And I remember that retreat. It was a silent retreat, directed by no one but God. I was staying in a small suite of rooms at the motherhouse of an order of nuns. I may have said a hello or two in passing but otherwise, it was just me and God.

And the saints, too, of course. It was no accident that I began the retreat on October 1st, the feast of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Or that I ended it on October 4th, the feast of St. Francis of Assisi. They were my friends even then and I do not doubt they prayed for me.

I was 28 years old and emerging from a period in which I had wrestled painfully with anxiety. Though I had made retreats of this type before, I had been avoiding them for a good while because I feared the directions my thoughts would take amidst all of that silence.

But I had decided that it was time. I longed for time alone with God, away from the hectic pace of my young life and I did not want fear to hold me back. (Fortunately, I didn’t know what was coming a year or two later or I would have been far more frightened!)

I realized at the time that there was a strong possibility that I had been keeping myself so busy because I didn’t want to be alone with my thoughts. Too much focus on myself (of the wrong sort) had become a trigger for panic.

I arrived on a Saturday. The weather was beautiful and it was a comfortable place to spend a few days. But I found myself feeling restless that first evening. I kept reviewing in my mind all of the things I could do to occupy myself, intimidated by what seemed like a vast expanse of empty time before me.

Interestingly, my notes indicate a two-fold response to that restlessness. First, came a recognition that, “as I grow in a deeper, healthier love for myself, I can learn to accept quiet moments alone with myself”.

I was learning to accept and trust myself not to go down the psychologically self-sabotaging path that had haunted me for some time.

The second part of the awareness was that, “You are here – I am not alone…And that focusing on myself is most definitely not the purpose of my being here. In fact, I come with hopes of learning how not to do that. I come to learn how to more completely let go of myself and turn toward You. If I become uncomfortable with myself, may that discomfort remind me to redirect my inner gaze to You.”

I had remembered the retreat – but not the profundity of my yearning for God and the immense help He gave me at an age that now seems to me so very young.

I hope it does not seem indiscreet for me to disclose these prayers made so long ago. I share them for a reason.

It amazes me that, decades later, I find myself offering a similar prayer, though in a completely different context.

Quite possibly this is because the same basic temptation seems to being hounding me throughout my life, though in many different guises.

Yes, I am writing again about temptation. This time – the temptation to think too much about myself.

It may seem odd to some that I would consider thinking about myself a “temptation”. Yet I suspect that some of you can readily understand what I mean.

On the one hand, we are necessarily hard-wired to think about ourselves. If we did not, we would never survive.

It is imperative that we notice the condition of our bodies, lest we leave hunger, thirst or injury unattended. Also, since we are social creatures sustained by networks of relationships, tracking our interpersonal (or world) relationships is vital to our well-being.

Yet there is this other sort of “thinking about myself”… Perhaps it springs from the same basic need for survival but then mutates into various sorts of rumination, eclipsing the healthier process of simply noticing.

Thankfully, I seldom if ever suffer anymore from anxiety about being alone with my thoughts. Extensive psychotherapy and God’s inimitable grace has given me considerable relief from that neurotic suffering.

But, of course, the adversary is quite creative in twisting our otherwise benign personality traits, rendering them potential obstacles to our ultimate union with God in Christ.

My personality, for example, is just a trifle obsessive. Had you noticed? 🙂

The sort of thinking about myself to which I refer is something different from the distracting thoughts that plague most of us from time to time when we wish to go to God in prayer.

Or perhaps I should say it is a distinct type of distracting thought and it doesn’t only appear when I try to pray.

The other evening I was driving home after working late and I addressed the Lord, “God, I am so tired.” Okay, nothing wrong with that. Rather unnecessary, since God already knows the state of my being, but He listens well.

However, before the 17 minute drive was complete, I’m sure I had told Him that I was tired at least 5 more times.

Could I think of no other topic to bring to Him? He is very patient – but, at this juncture, I was trying even my own patience.

I often make similar laments when I am not feeling well. But these many thoughts about myself are not only words of complaint.

Sometimes they are replay ruminations, i.e. a replay of all of the things that were just said – or could have been said.

Other times they are anticipatory ruminations, what might happen and how I will react. Entire conversations that will never actually take place are first rehearsed in my mind.

Some are positive in emotional tone while others are negative. It doesn’t really matter, I think, as long as the topic is me.

Interestingly, I do not find myself often anxious about these things, what was said, what might be said – or even the state of my health. It is just continuous, self-referential blather.

Even if no one else is accursed with having to listen to this endless chatter, I cannot help but consider this self-focus to be a capitulation to temptation. Most likely connected to one of the innumerable tendrils of the monster, Pride.

Being caught by the Pride monster sometimes feels like having inadvertently walked into a giant spider web. I didn’t see it coming or I would have taken a different path. But once captured, it clings to me without mercy.

I turn this way and that, thinking I am almost free, when I discover myself bound by yet another little thread that will not let go. And I never come to the end of the little threads.

However, in reality, there is no mythical monster or tiny threads that refuse to release me. I am the one who won’t let go.

For at least 34 years, I have wanted to let go of self, prayed to be able to let go of self – my notes to God bear witness to this – yet still I hold on.

I am a prisoner of my self – not my true Self, known only to God – but the false self I have constructed from the many myths of modern culture.

Is it not said that hell is locked from the inside? With these reflections in mind, I can certainly imagine how true this may be.

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The irony of this post is not lost on me. That, bemoaning how stuck I am in thinking about myself, I then write an article about it… Ha!

However, in bringing up this temptation, I mean to do more than lament my fate.

I am so very grateful. My glance back at my younger self reminds me of how long God has been at work in me, how deeply He works within my weaknesses.

He bears with me – and has, through all of my struggles and woes, every day of my life. I cannot determine whether I’m moving backward or forward in any sort of “progress” toward Him.

But I can see, feel and remember that He has always been with me, giving me the graces I need for the next step.

I still suffer. I do not always recognize these graces right away. But one of the blessings of getting older is developing the perspective to see that it is so.

Gratitude turns my heart Godward. God does not need my gratitude, of course – but He knows that I, in my perpetual self-focus, do.

A remedy for rumination, so close at hand…a simple prayer of the heart.

It is time to add another to the holy repetitions that so often deliver me from myself.

Join me if you will. (Draw in  your breath with the first part of the phrase; then allow yourself to slowly release it with the second part. The second part may be said twice for a longer, more relaxing exhale. Repeat often.)

Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good;

His love endures forever.

(1 Chronicles, 16: 34)

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The better part

(I must apologize for my very limited sketching skills – but yesterday’s Gospel about Martha and Mary triggered an urge to draw.)

What is the “one thing”? What is the “better part”?

I want to be that Mary and choose “the better part” – but what am I choosing?

Please, share your thoughts.

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Temptation

Temptation is a topic seldom broached in our post-modern culture, though it may be tolerated if divorced from such antiquated concepts as sin.

A temptation to violate one’s diet or to skip going to the gym could easily fit into everyday conversation.

However, the temptations that have the most potential to destroy our souls are often considered outmoded, at best. Bringing up these temptations is not unlike mentioning the devil – not to be done in polite company.

Doing so is likely to result in being considered a naive simpleton for believing in such things. Or, conversely, being considered the source of evil in the world for being “judgmental” and thereby inducing guilt in others unnecessarily.

Given that I often find myself encountering temptation in surprising ways, I thought I might post some reflections – in the event that anyone cares to read them.  (I shall not be shocked if no one does.)

I do not intend to judge anyone, except perhaps myself, with these musings – and even myself rather gently.

And I’m going to skip over the obvious ones, such lying, stealing, coveting, disobeying and enticements of the flesh.

Most people who have even a modicum of interest in the topic are likely to already be well-versed in these.

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I have always been a rather sensitive person, I think. As with most personality traits, I probably came to be this way through some inexplicable interaction of nature and nurture.

There is nothing wrong with being sensitive, of course, and it has both its functional and dysfunctional aspects.

Sensitivity, for example, can translate into empathy and compassion for others. On the other hand, it can also result in easily hurt feelings.

Hence, I write this evening about the temptation to have hurt feelings.

What’s the big deal about having hurt feelings? Isn’t that normal?

I will explain.

I experienced this temptation just the other night. Someone dear to me sent me an email, bowing out of a routine social commitment with me.

The reason given was that some other experiences had crowded the weekend and an evening “off” was needed.

Immediately, my sensitivity reactor was triggered and a combination of hurt feelings and angry thoughts began to flood my mind.

Since when was a conversation with me so stressful that time off was needed? My mind was abuzz with other perceived slights, as well as all of the times that I hadn’t bowed out despite my own illness or fatigue.

And something in me desperately wanted to express these hurt feelings, even if only to hint at them.

Temptation is born.

However, the temptation wasn’t just to strike back in some subtle or not-so-subtle fashion.

The true temptation, I believe, lie in the hurt feelings themselves. While this may be obvious to others – and even obvious to me when I see it in others – at the moment of being triggered, it is far from obvious.

It was, after all, about my ego – and my ego doesn’t like to admit its involvement when it is busy blaming others.

How could my friend not want to talk to me? How had I become so unimportant? Blah, blah, blah…

Yup, ego all the way.

Thankfully, God saved me from myself – as He so often does. Not only did He show me that I was being tempted, He helped me see how easily I could be freed of it.

All it took was a bit of compassion.

Instead of thinking about myself, He turned my heart to consider my friend who apparently needed a rest from activity.

I imagined my friend feeling very tired, perhaps ill or just overwhelmed – and then wrote the response of reassurance about how important it is that we take care of ourselves.

Without any effort to suppress them, the hurt feelings simply vanished into thin air.

The compassion that replaced them left me feeling a warm and quiet joy. All is well.

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It was narrow escape. How easily I could have slipped into brooding and resentment, even if I tried to convince myself that this was an overreaction.

How readily I might have nursed the wound, repeating my story of hurt feelings to another, in an effort to garner validation and sympathy.

And how ridiculous that would have been.

But more than ridiculous, it would have been spiritually toxic  – not only to me, but to all who fell into the path of the negative energy I was generating.

My friend would have sensed it at some point, even if I suppressed my initial reaction. Anyone with whom I shared my grievance would certainly have been affected.

And, quite probably, a whole host of other people would be caught in the ripples, unbeknownst to me.

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It is a shame that people so seldom talk about temptation these days.

It is, I think, a great gift to discover temptation nipping at one’s soul. Recognizing the monster, we can then turn our hearts Godward and surely the grace we need will be given.

Perhaps, God willing, I shall write a bit more about temptation…

All glory and praise to our Savior.

The impassibility of God

As I have noted before, I am not typically one to delve deeply into theology.

I want to know God, to experience Him, to be formed and shaped by Him. It is my hope that, in His endless mercy, someday He will allow me to experience union with Him – whatever union a tiny soul like me can experience with its divine Creator.

Knowing and learning about God seldom captivates me in the same way. Too much is speculation or argument about questions to which no one knows the answers.

Opinions, theological or otherwise, do not draw me into the heart of love.

There is, however, the occasional exception.

While I was composing my last post, I was reflecting on an important question: does God suffer?

Naturally, I brought this question to my chief advisor on important spiritual matters, i.e. my internet search engine. 🙂

To my surprise (and subsequent delight) I found an excellent article that addresses this very question:  Does God suffer?, by Fr. Thomas Weinandy.

What I discovered as I read and reread the article and some of its references is that there is some poor theology creeping into mainstream faith.

Or more exactly, some of it had started to creep into my own faith without me having critically examined it.

Allow me to explain.

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It is quite possible that what I am about to share is already well-known to my readers.

However, my own experience of being misled is most likely not. Hence, it is a good confession for me to make and to make publicly.

My first distinct memory of being exposed to this line of thinking occurred just under 5 years ago, when there was the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. A horrible, heartbreaking tragedy.

Someone posed the question of “where was God?” when the killer opened fire on the little children and their teachers.

Someone else responded that He was there, in the classroom, being shot.

Although I interpreted this response as a metaphor, there was something profoundly moving in imagining that God was there, suffering with each and every child who took a bullet.

(I have since learned that a much more famous account, provided by Elie Wiesel, used the same imagery when describing the horrors of a Jewish boy’s death in a concentration camp.)

Without me being consciously aware of it, this emotional appeal started to influence my conceptualization of God. Though I wouldn’t have said it outright, I began to think of God as somehow suffering with us.

This was not so very hard to imagine, given the suffering that Christ our Savior endured.

However, I am now convinced that this is not a theologically sound way to think of God – and that such thinking has the potential to create some serious delusion.

Although Fr. Weinandy provides a much more scholarly explanation that I am capable of, one danger now occurring to me is that this notion might lead one to equate love and suffering.

Something along the lines of this: “If God truly loves us, He must suffer with us.”

Perhaps you have detected hints of this when, in recent posts, I have linked love with sacrifice.

While I continue believe that such a link is valid in the context of the Paschal Mystery – and it may become valid when we prayerfully bring our own suffering to Christ – it is vital that we recognize that love does not necessitate suffering.

To think that it does is a serious distortion of God’s truth.

Belief in this distortion suggests that our God, Whose law beckons us to love Him and one another, must want us to suffer.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

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As I was pondering the points made by Fr. Weinandy, I had to stop and consider why this image of a suffering God held emotional appeal for me.

It is, after all, a rather strange notion when one stops to take a closer look.

How can God be perfect joy if He suffers?

Suffering is, by definition, bad or unpleasant. How could I imagine that God endures either?

If God suffers willingly, suffering is glorified and portrayed as an ideal – which makes no sense. Certainly we do not want to glorify that which is the consequence of evil.

If God suffers unwillingly, then He is not the transcendent and all-powerful Creator to Whom all things are subject. Someone or something else is more in control of the universe than Him.

Both notions are ludicrous.

Fr. Weinandy explains the dialectic between considering God “passible” versus “impassible”.

Impassibility, used in this context, means that God “does not undergo emotional changes of state, and so cannot suffer”*. Passibility, of course, is the opposite.

Because of our human nature, most of us think of emotional responsiveness as essential to love and compassion.

If we imagine God observing horrendous human suffering (such as those mentioned above) and not feeling anything, we most likely begin to feel uncomfortable. At least I do.

The absence of an emotional response in God gives rise to notions that God is passive and indifferent – that He doesn’t care about human suffering.

On a human level, compassion infers something deeper than mere caring. Indeed, the origins of the word carries the meaning of “suffering with”.

If our perception is that God does not even care, how can we consider Him our compassionate and loving Father?

The violent and senseless of death of children is perhaps the most disturbing kind of suffering we humans can conceive of.

Hence, at a time when our doubts are at their peak, the image of a God Who suffers with the children offers us reassurance that He truly is compassionate. Without this reassurance, the world as we know it would seem intolerable.

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Understanding now why the notion appeals to me, I am freer to examine it a bit more objectively.

Relief of fundamental doubt and emotional anguish is so powerfully reinforcing that part of me may just want to drop it there and not explore further.

However, I believe that this would be a mistake. Or perhaps I should say, this was my mistake.

On the most simplistic level, I can readily recognize that compassion, despite the etymology of the word, does not require suffering from the compassionate one.

If, for example, I were to require cardiovascular surgery, I would hope to have a compassionate surgeon. However, I most certainly would not want him/her to feel my fear with me beforehand – or suffer the physical pain of my recovery afterward. It would be disabling to the surgeon.

Similarly, while I strive to be compassionate with my patients, I do not expect myself to experience their suffering with them. Not only would it be impossible for me to do so, it would be of no benefit to them and potentially very harmful to me.

Thus, the rationale for my “need” to imagine God suffering with us deteriorates rapidly upon closer examination.

And that without any argument of a theological nature.

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Yet I found Fr. Weinandy’s discussion so compelling that I wish to highlight some of what it stirred in me.

If we are to consider God as impassible, how then do we contend with the Old Testament, where God is portrayed as having many emotions and even changing His mind?

One of the first thoughts that occurred to me is that the writers, no matter how divinely inspired, were still human beings and therefore limited by human words and concepts when trying to describe God.

To say that God was angry with His chosen people communicated a meaning readily understandable to a human audience.

In contrast, an explanation that the perfect goodness of God cannot abide evil is too abstract to be meaningful, especially in a culture where most teaching depended on an oral transmission of the faith.

Furthermore, as Fr. Weinandy explains, such Scripture passages need to be interpreted “within the deeper and broader revelation of who God is”*.

God was revealed to our ancestors to be One, not just numerically one but “distinct from all else”, or “transcendent”.*

In this complete Otherness, God was known to be Savior – such that He could not be thwarted “by worldly power or might, or by the vicissitudes of history, or even by the limitations of the natural physical order.”*

Scripture makes known God as Creator, intimately bound to His creation, but not part of the created world. Being completely “Other” from all else, “radically placed Him within a distinct ontological order of His own”.*

A final fundamental characteristic of God revealed to His chosen people was that He is All Holy. He was incapable of being defiled, even when His people defiled themselves. Thus, “He could restore them to holiness” in a way that no one else could.

God’s chosen people inhabited a world where their neighbors typically believed in multiple gods who fought among themselves and acted out their own emotions and passions on humans.

Hence, the revelation of these truths about God were a radical departure from the prevalent thinking of the ancient world.

This transcendent impassibility of God (as Other, Savior, Creator and All Holy) was therefore central to first Covenant understanding and thus foundational to the birth of Judeo-Christian theology.

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An interesting point made by Fr. Weinandy is that the shift to thinking of God as passible (and thus able to suffer) is a relatively recent phenomenon.

The early Fathers of the Church and Tradition assumed the impassibility of God without question.  It was only around the end of the nineteenth century that a shift in thinking developed in some circles. (See Fr. Weinandy’s article for further discussion of what led to this shift.)

As familiar as the Fathers were with Old Testament Scripture, they did not interpret its language as signifying mood changes on the part of God.

But what then did this language mean?

And, if God’s disposition never changes, if it is eternally unaffected by anything said or done in human history, how can we experience Him?

Why do I pray if my prayers have no impact on God?

How can I relate to Him, feel connected to Him? It almost seems like trying to bond with a rock.

I just had to say that. Because Fr. Weinandy’s explanation is so perfectly clarifying. This is what he writes:

While God and rocks may both be impassible, they are so for polar opposite reasons. A rock is impassible because, being an inert impersonal object, it lacks all that pertains to love. God is impassible because His love is perfectly in act (“God is love”) and no further self-constituting act could make Him more loving.*

Our author, citing Thomas Aquinas as a source, notes that, as created beings, humans are “constantly changing because they continually actualize their potential either for good, and so become more perfect, or for evil, and so become less perfect.”

God has no need to make such changes as nothing could make Him more loving. He is already “absolutely passionate in His love”*.

We cannot comprehend how God is “pure act”. Yet if we can conceive of Creation pouring forth from the being which is Being, the love which is Love, we may catch a glimpse of its significance.

From this glimpse, we may begin to understand how all things so created “are immediately and intimately related to God as He exists in His perfectly actualized love”.*

Yes, I know that I have risked that abstract communication style that can result in lost meaning. But please bear with me.

Fr. Weinandy offers a profound perspective that draws together Old Testament language, prayer and our personal experience of God.

Being human, he reminds us, requires us to enact our love differently in different situations. This is readily illustrated in parents’ love for their children.

Sometimes parental love is expressed in tenderness and gentle comforting. However, in other situations, it may require correction, sternness or even anger.

Because we are imperfect creatures moving through time, our expressions of love change in accord with the situations we face. And we ourselves cannot help but change as we encounter different experiences.

Indeed, we must change to live effectively in this world – and certainly in order to discover the Way of Love.

God, however, does not need to sequentially change His love to fit different situations. His love is always perfectly there and He is the Way of Love.

He does not change – but we do.

As we change, passing through our varying experiences and levels of maturity, both individually and as a people, we come to know different facets of God’s eternal love.

Sometimes we know them by faith. Sometimes we know them by experience.

In one situation, for example, I experience God holding me in love. In another moment, I experience Him withholding from me, that I might better learn my need for Him.

On other occasions, I experience Him “chastening” me because I need correction. At yet another point, I find myself drowning in His mercy.

As I pass through this process, God never changes. He doesn’t need to. But the nature of what I need from Him is ever changing.

In the perfection of His love, He always knows exactly what I need from Him, even when I do not. And His love for me is always completely and unconditionally present.

It is my awareness of His love is that is often lacking. And this is why I must pray – not to change God but to change me.

In prayer, I learn of my need for Him and I learn of His abundant love.

I become open to asking for and receiving His grace.

Of course, It has been there all along. But I have not seen it, lost as I’ve been in the sin of trying to be god myself.

+++

If we take this lesson and apply it to God’s chosen people, we see how the people of God went through similar changes on a larger scale. They encountered many blessings and many obstacles.

Both by faith and experience, they came to recognise in God’s love a “wrath” and a punishment, a compassion and a promise.

This knowledge of God’s abiding love sustained them through the desert to the Promised Land, through the Babylonian captivity to the rebuilding of the Temple.

Certainly their suffering caused them to struggle, to grumble and doubt. But, in the end, a remnant always remained, “a light to the nations” in the darkness of this world.

God’s people today are no different.

We tend to think of the evils of our day as being far worse than those of ancient times. Perhaps they are – or perhaps we simply have broader knowledge of them. Our electronic culture takes our vision of suffering far beyond that of our own families or clans.

However, in the New Covenant, we have available to us a grace beyond any graces known to our ancient ancestors.

We have Christ the Lord, risen from the dead.

+++

The Son has always been and was not merely invented to appear in human history.

But His incarnation brings us more deeply into an understanding of the nature of our God.

Ironically, His suffering may be cited as an argument in favor of the “suffering God” theology.

If God is impassible, should that not make the Son incapable of suffering as well?

And if the Son of God is capable of suffering, does that not mean that God Himself suffers?

But there are problems with this consideration.

Jesus was fully human and therefore subject to all of the same suffering as other human beings. And He did suffer during His human life, voluntarily, to bring about our salvation.

Still, we must remember that it is not the suffering itself that saves us but the love from which it springs.

There is the human love of Jesus, accepting suffering and pain out of love.

And there is the divine love of the Son who became Incarnate in order to lead us to resurrection and new life in Him.

Both loves effected our salvation and were inseparable in the person of Jesus.

But the human suffering of Christ was temporary and limited to His historical life. The eternal Son of God, our resurrected Savior, does not continue to suffer.

If He did, can we say we would want a share in His eternal life of eternal suffering?

If, as the Head of His mystical body on earth, He continued to suffer too, could we trust Him to sustain us until the period of struggle is over?

Certainly not.

As the chosen people needed to be led by a pillar of fire through the desert, we too need to be led by the Light while passing through this world of darkness.

The compassion we need is not someone sitting in the darkness with us. Rather, it is a compassion that comes looking for us in the darkness and is capable of leading us into the Light.

And this is the impassible, immutable compassion of our God, made known to us through Christ our Savior.

To Him be all praise and honor and glory forever. Amen.

+++

*all quotes so marked are taken from Fr. Weinandy’s article,  Does God suffer?

Is it worth it?

Still more reflections are developing in my mind since having posted, What is lacking.

One of my favorite movies of all times is Shadowlands, a film about C.S Lewis who, not so coincidentally, is also one of my favorite authors.

Among the most memorable scenes for me is one early in the movie when Lewis, a prominent university don, delivers an erudite lecture on Christianity and suffering. The presentation is confidently and competently given and its message is well-received by the large audience.

Later in the film, Lewis is portrayed experiencing both the greatest joy and the worst agony of his personal life. Despite being a lifelong bachelor, he unexpectedly falls deeply in love while in his mid-fifties. His struggle with the premature death of his wife is chronicled in the book, A Grief Observed.

He had spoken so competently about suffering. It was, of course, an entirely different thing to live through it.

Undoubtedly I am drawn to this movie and this scene because I see myself in it (minus the competence and late-life love affair).

The topic of suffering has had a conspicuous presence in my own writing for many years now. Entering the suffering of others has been at the heart of my life’s vocation and so I grapple with it, struggling to make sense of it in the context of the loving God to Whom I have given my life.

Yet my memory of this film prompts me to greater humility, recognizing that words are easy. Theologizing and philosophizing about other people’s misery is a far cry from drowning in it oneself.

+++

The issue I now confront hardly originates with me. But can anyone answer the question:

Is it worth it?

Allow me to explain what I mean.

In my last few posts, I have strung together several concepts:

  • God created us for love.
  • love requires a voluntary choice and cannot be compelled.
  • God created us with a free will so that we would be able to choose love.
  • having a truly free will requires knowledge of evil as well as good.
  • the choice of evil (departure from the Way of Love) leads to suffering.

Let us take a moment (but only a moment) to consider the suffering in the world.

In less than a month, there have been two major hurricanes that have caused extensive damage and devastation for millions of people in the western hemisphere. Mexico had a massive earthquake devastating millions more.

During this same time period, hundreds have been killed and millions more have been displaced by massive floods and landslides in Nepal, India and Bangladesh.

So far this month, there have been 94 terrorist acts around the world.

Of course, I haven’t touched upon all of the regions of the world where refugees are fleeing violence, starvation, etc.

And then there is all of the private suffering that occurs in every nation on earth. Or perhaps I should say in every life on earth.

I must stop here. If I try to cover every part of the world or start going back in time, neither you nor I will be able to bear it. I’ve probably already pushed too far.

We all know there is tremendous human suffering in the world – and there has been throughout recorded history. We do not need more reminders.

+++

Did God make a mistake in creating us?

I do not deny that God’s love, is far greater than anything I can imagine.

But can it possibly be worth all of this suffering?

It is quite possible, of course, that the links I have drawn between the freedom to love and suffering are incorrect. Perhaps it is all unrelated.

But somehow we are repeatedly drawn to the question of why God allows such horrors to occur. If not my explanation, choose another:

  • God is not truly omnipotent. He cannot stop all of the suffering.
  • God is not truly good. He doesn’t care about the suffering.
  • There is no God.

These are some of the other explanations floating around out there – I’m almost afraid to write them here for fear that one more person will adopt the heresies they entail.

I’m sticking to the understanding I have been given, thank you.

Yet, even within my admittedly inadequate understanding of suffering, there remains the question of whether love could possibly justify so much suffering.

Why did God do it? Why did God design creatures capable of love and therefore capable of such incredible suffering?

+++

Oh my. I’ve painted myself into a corner again, haven’t I?

Why do I keep posing questions that I cannot possibly answer?

(I had to stop and pray for a moment to ask God to help me.)

It just occurred to me that perhaps I do this out of love, as strange of an explanation as that may seem.

If I thought I were the only one who struggled with questions like this, certainly it would be wise for me to keep them to myself. Why disturb other people’s peace of mind unnecessarily?

Of course I know that I am not the only one. Books have been written on the topic. Across centuries and cultures.

I was in mid-adolescence when questions of this nature began to erupt in my mind.

Back then, it was about meaning.

Why? Why is there life? Why do I exist? Why does anything exist?

Back then, I felt very alone. As far as I could tell, other kids weren’t thinking these kinds of thoughts.

While I hid my anguish, I didn’t keep the questions to myself, even then. In one of my high school religion classes, the topic I chose for my presentation to my peers was “Christian existentialism”. Hmm…

In any event, from the earliest times I can remember, I wasn’t willing to use religion to hide from the real, raw questions of life. If I was going to have faith, it had to be real faith, tested in the furnace of unknowing.

Perhaps my act of love now is simply to let you know that, if you wonder about these things too, you are not alone. I’m here with you.

Perhaps God can make use of me to ease even a little of the suffering imposed by these questions.

Yes, these questions can be a true affliction for many of us as we try to follow Christ in our broken world.

+++

A few reflections surface as I ponder these questions before the Lord…

First, in my attempts to understand suffering in the manner that I do, I am not suggesting the explanation as a justification for suffering.

It is not as though I think God designed this system with suffering as part of the plan (e.g. “When these creatures of mine disobey Me, I’m gonna make ’em pay!!!”).

Did He know that our suffering was going to occur? Certainly yes, if He is God.

But this doesn’t mean that He “wanted” it to happen – only that He accepted it as an inevitable part of the process.

Now it may seem counterintuitive to suggest that something is “inevitable” as far as God is concerned. How is He omnipotent if He is constrained by some law of inevitability?

God’s omnipotence is not diminished by twists of human logic. My contention is simply that God cannot make us both “free” and “not free” at the same time (at least in the sense we are discussing here).

Neither can He make evil not be evil, thereby preventing it from being the opposite of good.

While I offer only educated conjecture, God alone understands how all things work together.

+

A second consideration essential to this discussion is that, from our current vantage point, we will never be able to judge whether it is truly “worth it”.

There are several reasons I am quite certain this is true.

For one, we are naturally much more attuned to suffering because we see or experience it right now. It demands our attention, both personally and globally.

Love does not do this – and we will not experience its fullness until an unknown point in the future.

The animal part of us favors what is immediate and what is negative because this information is most crucial to our survival.

It is possible, though difficult, for our spiritual nature to transcend this biological hard-wiring.

Furthermore, at present, we cannot see the “big picture” of what events of our lives mean for ourselves or others – or where they will lead us.

I have recognized some significant suffering of my own as very much worthwhile – when I later saw what had grown out of it. But I never would have anticipated this while I was in the suffering.

Finally, we have no ability to imagine the fullness of complete, perfect and unending love. Our human experiences of love clearly don’t approach this. The glimpses God gives us of His love are but glimpses at best – for our view is clouded.

In other words, we cannot really comprehend what love is in its fullness. Hence, we cannot possibly make judgments of its relative worth.

+

A final consideration is that we can allow our judgment to be distorted if we try to ponder all of the suffering going on in the world.

While not minimizing its scope or seriousness, we must remember that each instance involves individual souls traveling on personal paths to God.

In other words, each of us only experiences his/her own suffering, not all that we learn of through the media.

To make this clearer, let us suppose that I am involved in a tragic accident tomorrow. I am driving the Interstate 480 bridge and a defect in the bridge causes it to collapse. (I am using this example for all of the local phobics who fear this lengthy and highly trafficked bridge that carries us over a valley.)

Cars, including mine, fly off the bridge and all of them, along with an immense amount of rubble, fall on the homes and businesses in the valley below. People coming off the bridge as well as those underneath it are injured, trapped, even dying. And I am one of them.

It is likely that an event such as this would make national, perhaps even international news.

And undoubtedly, some people learning of this tragedy would be thinking: “How can a good God allow such a horrible thing to happen? Think of all of the suffering people!”

However, if we were to locate my one little body amidst the rubble, I would still just be me, one soul encountering another life event on my path to God.

It might be my final life event. Or it might be the occasion for a “miracle” in which I emerge unscathed. Or it might be the beginning of a new path, involving recovery from injury and trauma.

Whichever of these variations occurred would constitute the next phase of my journey. The fact that so many other people simultaneously experienced similar unanticipated changes in their life journeys is not greatly important to our understanding.

Every person on and under the bridge is going to suffer in this life and each one is going to eventually die. Whether we experience it as a group or as individuals, this reality does not change.

The world, however, which measures by numbers, would consider the loss of 200 people in the accident a tragedy that God should have prevented. If I alone died (and the others went on to die individually of other causes and at other times), the world would hardly notice.

Until finally united with God, my individual life, like all human lives, can always be expected to involve a multitude of unpredictable twists and turns that involve the potential for suffering – as well as the possibility of joy.

+++

Now it may sound like I am minimizing human suffering when I refer to it as “unpredictable twists and turns”.

This is certainly not my intention. However, I am being drawn toward a new perspective – and am taking you along for the ride.

I just mentioned “the possibility of joy”. In the midst of suffering?

Indeed.

I am currently reading a most extraordinary book: The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, co-authored by the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Carlton Abrams.

Two great spiritual leaders come together for a week to discuss and share joy, with a writer/author asking questions on behalf of the world and weaving the responses into a wisdom story readily accessible to all.

Of particular significance is the fact that both of these leaders have themselves witnessed and undergone great personal suffering. It is not an abstraction about which they speak.

It is something they are living.

In addition to speaking of the nature of joy and its obstacles, they specifically address learning to be joyful in the midst of suffering.

And they identify 8 pillars (each a chapter in the book): perspective, humility, humor, acceptance, forgiveness, gratitude, compassion and generosity.

There are so many wonderful passages in the book that I am tempted to quote them all. But, in actuality, I find that I cannot quote any of them.

The wisdom shared in the book is more than words. Joy bubbles forth from their interactions with each other, from their stories of forgiveness and gratitude, compassion and generosity.

Recognizing that we are all interconnected enables us to turn from focus on ourselves to attend to the other.

And when this happens, we are no longer held hostage by the suffering that is created by our own minds – the greatest suffering of them all.

Let us return for a moment to that definition of sorts by which I described the suffering born of sin: “an acute, conscious awareness of hardship, pain and death”.

Spending a moment with this notion, we observe the centrality of the highlighted word “awareness”.

Not only does this distinguish us from the lower animals but it also helps us to understand the variations we experience in our own personal suffering.

As noted elsewhere, much of my life is spent walking with others as they struggle with their suffering. Since none of us like suffering, our instinct is to find ways to escape the awareness of realities we do not know how to change.

And we humans have found a multitude of ways to do this, some relatively healthy, many of them not.

In our culture, we can observe that people drink to excess, do drugs, spend hours watching TV or movies, surfing the Internet or playing video games. Some people take refuge in comfort food, others in excessive sleep.

We can also pour ourselves into work – or working out, sports, music, art, gardening and many, many other distractions.

All to avoid being aware.

Sometimes this can be adaptive. For example, if I experience chronic pain, I will not suffer from it as much if my attention is caught up in a healthy pursuit.

Other times, this flight from awareness can be immensely destructive and lead to more suffering for ourselves and others.

But to find joy…

Though it is instinctive to attend to my discomforts, I will not find joy by clinging to an awareness of my pain and hardship. No matter how severe my pain, no matter how justified my anger, no matter how profound my sorrow.

But if, rather than burying myself in distractions, I cultivate gratitude, I begin to suffer less.

I recognize that I am no different from others and that we all long for the same things.

I learn to forgive.

I turn to another who, like me, suffers – and build a bridge of compassion.

In my gratitude, I share what I have in acts of generosity.

I smile. I may even laugh.

In time, joy is born – not only in me but in the other as well.

This joy is not merely a passing “happy” sensation because something pleasant has happened. It is who I am, regardless of what has happened or will happen.

Rather than bury that awareness which is born of sin, I turn my awareness to love and my suffering is transformed.

For it is love that has been lost in sin. And when we return to love, we are freed from our deepest suffering and discover before us the path to joy.

+++

Is it worth it? Did God make a mistake in creating us to be free?

As much as anyone else, I can be blinded by my pains and sorrows, absorbed in self-focus, so much so that I feel I have no choice but to suffer.

Lost in my suffering, I struggle to experience gratitude. I am not inclined to turn to another in love and compassion. What I want becomes my focus, not what I can share with another.

I discover that I am weak and sinful.

My old friend humility greets me once again, leading me back to Christ our Savior.

And He teaches me and trains me, over and over, to walk the Way of Love.

He teaches me by His compassion, His forgiveness, His generosity to me in my unworthiness.

He shows me the Way to Love by loving me.

This is a profound mystery I cannot fully grasp. But surely there is no mistake.

I was made free to love and so I choose love – to follow Him who is my heart’s desire.

+All praise and glory to Him.