Saturday, September 19, 2015

Wondrous Love

The greatest wonder of my life is that of being loved. 
The love that I have known did not come by heritage. 
It flowed not from the wellspring of my earthly parentage,
      but from a deeper purer well. 
Sin makes one obdurate, one’s own sin and the sin of others.
      My heart was adamantine,
      closed by the vagaries and vicissitudes of life. 
His love is pure,
      a richly flowing stream
      from the wounds in his hands, his feet, his side. 
His love is not in words alone, but
      in a work of such profound humility
      that he left the throne at his Father’s side
            and was born one of us. 
      Bone of our bone,
      flesh of our flesh,
            broken for us and for all who will receive him. 
He is my steadfast love, he who loved me so
To him alone I open my heart and pray in wonder and awe,
      “Enter in and take your place on the throne of my life
            even as you have risen and ascended
            and taken your seat at your Father’s right hand.”
      “Whom have I in heaven but thee, 
       and having thee there is nothing upon earth that I desire.”

Friday, September 18, 2015

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 Christians, we are much more apt to err on the side of ignoring the reality of devils, than be 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  

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

An Exercise in Personal Lectio Divina: Read, Reflect, Respond, Rest.

In reading St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians I have been listening with my heart for the voice of God. In reading the first ten verses of Ephesians Chapter One, the first thing that I hear is that it is not just God, but God the Father, Who is at work. The text says,

 “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he [God the Father] chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him in love” [Ephesians 1:3-4].

The introduction is Christ centered. It is Jesus the Christ who brings us to the Father, and the Father who adopts us in Christ, as His own. This, for me as one who was literally disinherited by my father and mother, is intensely personal. By the redemptive work of Christ, God the Father has adopted me.

Now I know that the pronoun in Ephesians is plural, not singular; it is not me alone who has been adopted, it is me, as a member of the Body of Christ, who has been adopted. Nevertheless, in Christ, it is God my father who has called me also “son,” and in awe I call Him Father. “Our Father, who art in Heaven,” was never meant to exclude me as an individual.

“In love the Father predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of the Father’s will, to the praise of the Father’s glorious grace, with which the Father has blessed us in the Beloved” [Ephesians 1:5].

A number of translations render the Greek word for “adoption as sons,” as “adoption as children,” or even more simply just as “adoption.” But the word for adoption means “adoption as sons.” There is a concern today to neuter texts and make them politically correct; but that is not the same thing as the realization that even the daughters are sons of God.

In love I have been predestined to adoption as a son through Jesus Christ, according the purpose of the Father’s will. The Psalmist says, “The LORD will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O LORD, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of your hands” [Psalm 138:8].

It is the Father’s will that has called me forth out of my family background, with its pains and joys, and adopted me as His son, one son out of many sons and daughters. God the Father, being infinite, has personal private time for me and for each of his children; time bound as we are. To which, my prayer response is very simply, “Father, thank you!”