Monday, March 26, 2012

The Gift of Recollection

Recollection is the simple action of calling yourself consciously into the Presence of God.  Acknowledge to Whom you are talking.  Be awake, be aware of His Presence as you begin your prayers.  The basis for recollection is twofold: Penitence, and Holy Detachment.  But our experience of both is always partial and incomplete.

I have tried to achieve perfect penitence.  The deeper I dig the more I find.  There is no way to confess all one’s sins.  No sooner are we through than something else pops up.  It is rather like the child’s toy with colored pegs in a board and a wooden mallet.  Strike down one, up pops another.  In the end, part of my confession must be that my confession, by force of nature, is incomplete.  I do my best and rely on mercy, grace, and the Blood of Christ to cover the imperfection of my confession.  I pray, “For these and all other sins which I cannot now remember, I am truly sorry” (BCP p. 447).  Even at that, retrospectively I wonder if I am sorry enough.  “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it? (Jer. 17:9). 

One cannot boast of one’s confession.  God knows the heart.  There are no merits from penitence that purchase the Presence of God.  The Presence is pure gift and comes at the mercy of the crucified Christ.  Can it be any other way?  Still we are called to enter into penitence as a doorway through which we must pass, muddled or not.  At least do your best, and do not willfully hold back anything from your God who loves you.

Holy Detachment is also by nature incomplete.  In the words of Henry Suso, “No matter how much one abandons, one repeatedly finds more of one’s self to abandon.”  Yet clinging to the materialism of our age, to our anxieties and worries, only blocks the entry of God.  Make your surrender as best you can.  Take whatever clings to you, whatever nags at your spirit and put it down at the foot of the cross.  Make your surrender at least for the present moment, for the now, and push all the cares of the world out of your heart for the time of prayer.  The more we try to live in the state of detachment from the cares of this world, trusting in grace, the happier we will be.  The more we embrace holy detachment, the more we will make our souls ready for the gift of the Presence of God.

The Presence of God is a gift.  It is a gift given in the Incarnation of Christ, “Lo, I am with you always”  (Mt. 28:20).  The Presence of God is the fundamental reality that is the ground of our existence, “In Him we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28).  The Psalmist cries out, “Where can I go then from Your Spirit?  Where can I flee from Your Presence?  If I climb up to heaven, you are there.  If I make the grave my bed, you are there also.  If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost part of the sea, even there your hand will lead me and your right hand hold me fast” (Psalm 139:6-9).  From a spiritual perspective, the Presence of God all around us is a given.  We do not need to practice the Presence of God.  Rather we are called to practice the awareness of that Presence from Whom there is no escape.

That is only half of the secret, and secret it is.  Paul’s word for it was mystery.  Paul testifies that to the saints, “God willed to make known what are the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles: which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27).  The fact is that not only do we live in God, God also lives in us.  Jesus said, “At that day you will know that I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you” (John 14:20).  At what day?  That day is declared by Jesus in John 14:16-17, “And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever—the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you.”  At the moment of our entry into personal faith in Jesus Christ the living God, the Savior and Redeemer of the world, the Spirit of God makes His home in our hearts. 

Paul speaks forth this glad truth; “You are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you.  Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His.  And if Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is life because of righteousness” (Rom. 8:9-10).  If by faith you have the Spirit of Jesus within you, you have also Jesus Himself within you and you have also the Father of lights dwelling in your soul, for God cannot be divided.  Jesus speaks the simple truth, “you will know that I am in My Father, and you in me, and I in you.”  Penitence and detachment make the way clear for the humble acknowledgment that we not only dwell in God, but that He dwells in us: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Recollection starts with the acceptance of the spiritual reality as a given.  There is nothing you need to do about it.  It just is.  Recollection calls to mind the perpetual Presence of God all around us and within us.  At the beginning of each time of prayer, of each approach to God, recall to mind that He is present all around you, right beside you and within you, within your very souls.  He is the liveable, breathable medium of our lives. 

There are varying levels of awareness in recollection.  Clearly the nature of our penitence and detachment will affect the depth of our recollection.  So also will the level of our experience.  Practice the awareness of the Presence of God by deliberately, consciously, recollecting yourself in His Presence when you pray and at other times on and off throughout the day.  The more you surrender yourself to the Presence of God without and within, the deeper will be your experience of Him.  Christ became incarnate and died for this purpose, that we might live consciously in union with God.         

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Snakes and Vipers and Poisonous Creatures

A Reflection on Elements of Warfare in Teresa of Avila’s “Interior Castle”

You and I have had our share of wrestling with the snakes and vipers and poisonous creatures; but many children of the world, always giving into temptation, have no awareness of the role of tempters.  For the children of the world temptation and tempters are a joke.  Alfie’s song in My Fair Lady tells the story:

The Lord above made liquor for temptation,
To see if man could turn away from sin.
The Lord above made liquor for temptation, but
With a little bit o' luck,
With a little bit o' luck,
When temptation comes you'll give right in![i]

We live in a dangerous world.  And the dangers that confront us can be lethal.  Surrender to Alfie’s temptation can lead to ruined marriages, abused children, loss of jobs, and ultimately loss of life itself.  The joke is no joke.

Isaiah describes this world of ours as a Habitation of Dragons:
Thorns shall grow over its strongholds,
nettles and thistles in its fortresses.
It shall be the habitation of dragons
a court of owls.
And wild animals shall meet with howlers;
the satyr shall cry to his fellow;
indeed, there the night hag settles
and finds for herself a resting place.[ii]

We live our lives in the habitation of dragons, in the den of snakes and vipers and poisonous creatures, and when we approach the door of our Interior Castle they enter along with us.  By our long unperceptive association with them they have in a sense earned the right of entrance.   Our settled habits and accepted weaknesses are dangerous.  Teresa tells us that we are so accustomed to living with that vile horde that they enter the first rooms of the castle along with us, and make it difficult for us to “appreciate the beauty of the castle or to find any peace within it.”[iii]

Teresa gives us notice, “Remember that in few of the mansions of this castle are we free from struggles with devils,”[iv] and that “the devil’s intentions are always very bad, he has many legions of evil spirits in each room to prevent souls from passing from one (mansion) to another, and as we, poor souls, fail to realize this we are tricked by all kinds of deceptions.”[v]

            C. S. Lewis rightly remarks, “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils.  One is to disbelieve in their existence.  The other is to believe, and to feel and excessive and unhealthy interest in them.  They themselves are equally pleased by both errors, and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.”[vi] 

As twenty-first century Anglican Christians, we are much more apt to err on the side of ignoring the reality of devils, than being spooked by Teresa’s clear teaching in this area.  The reason for Teresa’s concern is the negative effect that these devils have on our spiritual perception.  She says, “(I hardly know how to explain myself) because there are so many bad things—snakes and vipers and poisonous creatures—which have come in with the soul that they prevent it from seeing the light.”[vii]   Indeed, “being among such poisonous things, it (the soul) cannot, at some time or another, escape being bitten by them.”[viii]  That may at first glance be uncomfortable, but it is very important.  To change the analogy, if I know where the poison ivy is, most of the time I will try to avoid walking barefoot in it.  Most of the time.  On the other hand we have a propensity to think somehow that we are immune and become careless.

Teresa tells us that “There are a multitude of ways in which he (the devil) can deceive us, and gradually make his way into the castle, and until he is actually there we do not realize it.”[ix]  Our own spiritual experience should tell us that our early warning signals need to be finely tuned.  When the moment comes that we realize we have been bitten by poisonous vipers it is time for us once more to visit the Room of Self-knowledge.  When we have been snake bitten, it is instructive to start where we are and trace our steps backward.  It is rather like trying to find something you have lost.  Walk backward in your  memory and try to find where that particular temptation began to arise.  Sometimes we don’t have to look very far; but at other times we may indeed pull on the end of that thread of memory and unravel a whole sequence of uncomfortable events.

There is a marvellous scene in the movie ‘The Iron Lady’ in which Lady Margaret Thatcher comments on habits.  She says, “Watch your thoughts for they become words.  Watch you words for they become actions.  Watch your actions for they become habits.  Watch your habits for they become your character, and watch your character for it becomes your destiny!”[x]  Our society tends to look for the origin of our problems in our feelings, but what biblical basis is there for this?  Jesus didn’t ask Peter, James, Andrew, or Judas how they felt about things; he gave them a choice, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”[xi] 

It is not that feelings have no importance, after all even a casual reading of the Psalms will make it clear that we are to take our feelings to the God who is the mender of broken hearts, and it is clear that feelings, both negative and positive can be a driving force in our lives, particularly when we don’t recognize and understand them.  Emotions run riot are a symptom of spiritual snake bite.  Note the Biblical emphasis: We are to rule our feelings; our feelings are not to rule us.  “A man without self-control is a city broken into and left without walls,”[xii] and “Be angry and sin not,”[xiii] and “For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.”[xiv]   At every step of our life looking backwards and forwards we have the responsibility that comes from making choices, and each choice is an act of the will.

The search for the knowledge and Presence of God will lead us from time to time back to that room of self-knowledge.   A burst of ill-temper may be only the result of not enough sleep and a poor diet indicating a need for better care for some of the simple basics of life.  On the other hand a burst of ill-temper may uncover a whole thread of unresolved and unforgiven things that need to be resolved.  Some of these things may reach far back into our childhood and to the models set by our parents. 

It is a grace to hear the Lord say, "What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, 'The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge'?  3 As I live, declares the Lord GOD, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel.”[xv]  Through self-knowledge and the grace of God we can arm ourselves in the battle against the vipers, and by grace rule our feelings. 

[i] Alan Jay Lerner, “My Fair Lady”, 1964
[ii] Isaiah 35: 13-14 (Note that the night hag in Hebrew is Le-Leeth, from which we get Lilith
[iii] Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle, E. Allison Peers, trans, and ed. (New York; Doubleday, 1989, p. 33
[iv] Ibid. p.41
[v] Ibid. p.40
[vi] C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996).    p. 15
[vii] Teresa, p. 40
[viii] Ibid. p. 41, (bracket added for clarity)
[ix] Ibid. p. 42
[x]The Iron Lady”, Pathé, 20th Century Fox, 2012
[xi] Luke 9:23
[xii] Proverbs 25:28
[xiii] Psalm 4:4
[xiv] 2 Timothy 1:6-7  
[xv] Ezekiel 18:2-3