Sunday, November 24, 2013

Come As You Are


Ho! Everyone who thirsts,
      Come to the waters:
And you who have no money,
      Come buy and eat.
Yes, come, buy wine and milk
      Without money and without price.   - Isaiah 55:1

            The only requisite for drinking at the wellspring of salvation is thirst.  We have no coin of our own, no works, no penitence, no disciplines, no righteousness, no attributes, and no credits of any kind that will purchase the deep draught of the water of Life.  Come as you are, come in your poverty, come in your grief, come in your abject helplessness and drink freely of the living water.  He did not come for the spiritually affluent but for those who are thirsty.

            Ah!  There lies the rub.  Have you discovered your need?  Do you think you can buy this lively water with your own coin?  He has said that, “No one is justified by the law in the sight of God” (Gal. 3:11).  The only coin you need is deep thirst.  Come as you are to the banquet table of the Presence of God.  Bow humbly and drink.

            Our human condition is such that too often our need, our very thirst itself, is so sharp that it becomes all consuming and drives out the very the thing we need most.  We are filled with grief, filled with self-pity, filled with a sense of inadequacy, filled with helplessness and instead of turning outward to Him we turn inward and become focused on the causes of our thirst. 

The antidote is to surrender our human pain and frustration and begin to acknowledge that He who became one of us, did so because He loves us even when we cannot love ourselves.  This has less to do with emotion than with decision.  The simple acknowledgement that I am loved by the lover of my soul, whether or not I feel it, is the beginning of a step through our difficulties into His Presence.  The decision to accept that love is prior to the feeling that comes from living within that decision.  That decision to accept Divine love is a hinge that swings the door of our soul outward from introspective preoccupation with the causes of our thirst and outward into the light.  Drinking at the well is not a passive experience, but an active and ongoing reception of the love that is offered. It is an old mystical perception that in the desire is the fulfillment.  We must first allow ourselves to desire in order that we may be filled.

            It is not that we should avoid the knowledge of our pain.  What I said was that the acknowledgement that we are loved is a step “through” our difficulties.  We are to come as we are.  We can come no other way.  That acknowledgement of our realities makes possible the surrender of our pain to Him who alone can heal and deliver.  You cannot surrender what you do not acknowledge.  You cannot surrender that which you will not release.  Once you have acknowledged that you are loved, once you have acknowledged your pains and lifted them up in surrender you are already beginning to drink.   

Ho! Everyone who thirsts,
            Come to the waters:
And you who have no money,
            Come buy and eat.
Yes, come, buy wine and milk
Without money and without price.     - Isaiah 55:1

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Devilish Art of Distraction

One of our most common experiences in prayer is the periodic stream of distraction that removes our focus from God and places it on ourselves, on our own worries and concerns, and sometimes on nothing really relevant at all, just the usual rambling nonsense of the unfocused human mind. 

Two things lie at the cause.  First, most human beings would rather be distracted than deal with realities; after all how much time do we spend in everything from television, to movies, to sporting events, to computer games, to thinking about food and a whole host of other things?   Second, there is an Enemy.  Listen to what Screwtape, the Senior Devil, writes to the junior devil Wormwood in the Screwtape letters.

One day, as he sat reading, I saw a train of thought in his mind beginning to go the wrong way.  The Enemy was at his elbow in a moment. . . . I struck instantly at the part of the man which I best under my control and suggested that it was just about time that he had some lunch.[i]

The simple distraction in this case is nothing more mundane than lunch.  The Enemy is Satan, or in Greek, satanas (satanas) which means Adversary.  While you may not be saintly enough to rate his direct and immediate intention, you surely will be tempted at the point of your weaknesses by one of the lesser devils.  That is the point of The Screwtape Letters.  When you start to pray a host of minor distractions will spring into action.  While they may find their root in your weaknesses, the role of the tempters is to use them to distract you from prayer.

St. Benedict also is aware of this temptation to distraction and in his Rule, he writes:

Let us consider then, how we ought to behave in the presence of God and his angels, and let us stand to sing the psalms in such a way that our minds are in harmony with our voices.[ii] 

It takes decision and constant attention for us to sing psalms or pray in such a way as our minds are in harmony with our voices.  To put it another way; mind, heart, and voice all need to be aligned in singing psalms or praying. 

Because of our fallen human nature, we are prone to being distracted instead of dealing attentively with the realities that face us; even when that is the ultimate Reality, God Himself.  That is echoed in the very first temptation.

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God actually say, 'You shall not eat of any tree in the garden'?"  And the woman said to the serpent, "We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, 'You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.'"  But the serpent said to the woman, "You will not surely die.  For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil."  So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. [iii]

Note that in this first temptation, as in every temptation, there is a Tempter. That Tempter is the Father of Lies.[iv]  We do not live in a spiritual vacuum. Nothing he says can be assumed to be true, and when a blatant deception won’t do he loves to resort to half-truths warped and twisted for his own ends. When he questions Eve the very question he poses is a lie.  The only safe thing that Eve could have done is refuse to dialogue with the devil.  Instead of answering the lie she should have said, “Get out! Satan.”

Implicit in the temptation is the simple fact that the temptation woos Eve away from Reality by playing on the points of her weaknesses, “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”  For Eve the temptation is threefold; the still contemporary temptation of good food, of things that delight the eyes, and the temptation to be like God, which if you think about it is a terrifying appeal to pride.  Taken together the underlying fundamental temptation is to put oneself first before God.   This is the classic summary of the three major sources of temptation and of distraction in prayer, “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world.”[v]

For us the temptation may be any one of a number of distractions that draw us away from the task at hand.  Those distractions range from the lazy habits of the disordered mind, to our perpetual worrying over things we should have left in the hands to God, to that kaleidoscopic range of fears that afflict most of us at one time or another, and to the old hurts and resentments that should have been covered with the Blood of Christ and buried in the Tomb with Him. Of these latter things one of the Western Desert Fathers said, “If you have a snake or a scorpion, put it in a box and put the lid on it, and sooner or later it will die.”  All of these things put the self before God and His grace.  The remedy for dealing with most of these distractions is awareness and a renewed surrender to God and a rebirth of faith in His ability to control the things that we cannot control.

There are times when the things that come to mind are indeed things that need to be done; they just don’t need to be done in the midst of your time of prayer.  A simple way of setting them aside is to keep an index card by your Prayer Book and jot down in one, or two words only, the thing that has come to mind; having done that, set the card and that concern aside and return to your prayers.

St. Benedict instructs us to focus our conscious attention on God who is the ultimate Reality with renewed effort and deliberation. He says,

When we wish to suggest our wants to persons of high station, we do not presume to do so except with humility and reverence. How much the more, then, are complete humility and pure devotion necessary in supplication of the Lord who is God of the universe! [vi]

            If you are going to borrow a lawn mower from your neighbour it best to go across the street, knock on his door, and get his attention before you humbly start asking for his lawn mower.  Humility is an essential.  If your neighbour is not present to you, you are not going to get much success following through on your request.  Yet, Christians all too often just launch into prayer without focusing on Whom they are talking with; all their focus is on their cares and concerns. 

Awareness of Whom we are praying to is a decision, and we often need to remind ourselves of that simple reality.  It is not that God is not always present.  Of course He is; it’s just that we are not always present.  That brings to mind the cocktail party syndrome.  Two people are talking at each other, but neither is listening to what the other has to say; instead each person is only attentive to what brilliant and witty thing he might say next after the other person has finished chattering.  Prayer is not a monologue directed at God, but a dialogue in which He, through the Holy Spirit, and through His written Word, has a lot to say to us; and if we are not listening He might just wait until we are.  Those who pray best are those who listen best and are clearly aware of just Whom they are talking with.

Remember the structure of Lectio Divina?  Read, Reflect, Respond, Rest.  Read the Word of God.  Reflect on its meaning and what He is saying to you in the passage.  Respond to His Word in Prayer.  Rest in His Presence.

Don’t ramble in your prayers or expect to pray for too long a time. Benedict instructs us that,

Prayer should be therefore short and pure, unless perhaps it is prolonged under the inspiration of divine grace.[vii]

[i] C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, (New York: Harper-Collins, 1996), p. 3
[ii] The Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 19: The Discipline of Psalmody
[iii] Genesis 3:1-6 
[iv] John 8:44
[v] I John 2:16
[vi]  The Rule, Chapter 20: On Reverence in Prayer
[vii] The Rule, Chapter 20: On Reverence in Prayer