Monday, June 13, 2016

Prayer makes it possible to make the best out of life's lemons

In doing some research on the topic of the meaning of suffering and afflictions in life, I was delighted to come across a quote from the Greek writer and novelist Nikos Kazantzakis who wrote in one of his books about his metaphorical and mystical journey through life.  In his Report to Greco, he describes an encounter with a monk and asks the elderly monk if he still wrestles with the devil, but the monk responds that as he is grown old now, the devil had also grown old with him.  Instead, he now wrestles with God, and reveals that in this wrestling, he really hopes to lose. 

Noting that this would be a very arduous task, he asks if there was a more agreeable way; or perhaps a more human way, and his response is equally mystical in nature.  There is only one way, and that is the way of ascent.  However, this ascent requires a series of steps.  From full stomach to hunger, from the slaked throat to thirst, from joy to suffering.  God sits at the summit of hunger, thirst and suffering, while the devil sits at the summit of a comfortable life.  The monk then tells Nikos that we really wake up when we choose the former, and ours is the task to choose death before death wakes us up.

To the mind that is not open to contemplation and anything that speaks of mysticism, all that Kazantzakis wrote about could be deemed drivel.  But it wouldn’t take long for a contemplative mind to know that what he has written is gold. 

That success has nothing to teach a truly searching soul is the underlying narrative that spiritual giants worth their meditations extol.  Success easily panders to the ego’s need for aggrandizement and self-assertion, which, ironically, leaves one even more empty and hungry than when one first began.  Instead, the antithesis of this is the pathway to true ascent, deep growth and mature wisdom. 

I was approached by a kindly lady after I celebrated the Eucharist just last week who asked me my secret to being so positive and hopeful in the face of afflictions and suffering, and I think many of my blog readers know that I often do get such questions from people of different walks of life who had heard of my story of living with great hope despite what many might classify as being given a death-sentence. 

As much as my interlocutor wanted a pithy and quick answer, I tried explaining in as simple terms as possible that doing that would not be prudent.  Maybe it is the current mentality that believes that all problems can be solved with quick fixes, pat answers and one-liners.  It would be tantamount to seeing life as a ‘problem’ to be solved.  It isn’t.  Instead, it is a mystery to be lived.  Pat answers are often more a danger than an answer per se. 

In the mystical life, the ascent toward wholeness and holiness is always going to look dark, dangerous, uncomfortable, unsettling and disarming.  That’s paradox.  Without any preparations for this, one naturally will be full of fear, anger, resentment and bitterness when crosses are placed in one’s life-path.  Like the monk said, the ascent will always seem to appear as a descent – down from full to hunger, from plenty to paltry, from joy to suffering. 

It was sheer grace that moved me in the direction of contemplation from the moment I began my priestly training.  But it was an even stronger grace that helped me to see that this had to be truly followed through in daily practice rather just leaving it as a method or a teaching that was good for one’s soul.  And so I persisted through the years of priestly formation, well into the years of my priesthood, sitting an hour a day before the Blessed Sacrament with often nary feeling anything neither particularly stirring nor enlightening.  Day in, day out, month in, month out, year in, year out. 

I had read that the fruit of one’s prayer is never during prayer itself.  It unfolds itself in the life that is lived outside of prayer time.  It was as if I was silently being trained despite myself and my efforts, to become supple enough to be bent without being broken later on in life. 

How does one put all that into a pithy statement?  I think it is near impossible, simply because it will cheapen an entire chapter of life.  Ask any Olympic medalist how he managed that amazing record-breaking victory swim, and he would be at a loss for words to name exactly what it was that helped him to reach that moment in time.  It was not so much that very moment that the race ended, but everything that went on in his life up to that point that made it possible, from early morning trainings to demanding coaches, from sacrifices made on so many levels to dreams unfulfilled in other areas of life. 

Yes, I was ready to endure the impending arduous and laborious cancer treatment when I was told of what it entailed.  Looking at it in retrospect, it would be akin to saying that I was asked to run the marathon at a moments’ notice, and my response was “I thought you wouldn’t ask”.    The only thing that enabled me to do that without rancor was the discipline that I resolved to go through in contemplation because I saw a dire need in life to ascend via a descent in life. 

I once saw a very witty and interesting meme that asked the question “what do you do when life gives you lemons?”  The response was “take out the Tequila!” 

That is not only funny, but also rather true.  But we can only take out the Tequila if we have it in our liquor cabinet.  Contemplation enabled me to have more than a bottle of it in my cabinet. 

I had been given a whole warehouse worth of it. 

1 comment:

  1. Hi Fr Luke, your point about not always feeling anything during contemplation resonates with me, to the extent that I was questioning if I’ve “lost” it. But one of Fr Ron’s recent blog (and now yours) provided assurance. And today’s reading re the Lord’s Prayer is a good reminder of what prayer is. Just as how Fr Terence puts it, all we need is to praise, thank and adore God. And perhaps most importantly, prayer is about listening.

    - S