Monday, January 26, 2015

Getting God out of our minds

Featured in one of last week’s liturgies, the gospel text provided us with a very short but profound insight into the spiritual life.  It came Mark 3:21-22.  It consists of only two sentences, the second of which reveals that the relatives of Jesus were convinced that he was out of his mind. 

This was said in the context of him having healed so many people such that his life seemed to be so overwhelmed with people who were in need of a touch of the divine.  This obviously concerned Jesus’ relatives to the point of their thinking that there was something not quite right about him, causing them to make this remark about his being out of his mind.

Is this not the essence of true spirituality - where one is no longer merely a logic-centered and empirically controlled person, but is able to look beyond what lies before one in life?  Coming hot on the heels of the previous gospel texts in the days before was the term ‘repentance’.  This English term is a very poor translation of the Greek ‘metanoia’ which has a much deeper implication than being sorry for one’s transgressions.  ‘Metanoia’ or ‘metanoiete’ calls for one to go beyond the mind, or to enter into another platform of realization, where one not only grasps truth and reality in a new way, but rather that one allows oneself to be grasped by truth and reality.  No longer just the work of the mind, it is encounter with the eternity of the divine. 

The problem with most of humanity is that it is often purely centered on the mind and nothing else.  One can look back in history and blame it on the advent of the modern philosophy with the work of Rene Descartes and friends, but in truth, I believe that it is something that has been somewhat hardwired in our broken humanity.  We are ‘rational animals’, as Aristotle is often quoted as saying, and he was not wrong.  Neither was he fully right.  He got it half right.

It is a common saying that the longest journey that anyone can make is that from the head to the heart.  Some do not even begin to make that long journey, and prefer to stay on the level of the mind, trying to figure out God and conceptualize God as one being among other beings, instead of the one who is the ground of our very being.  Problems will obviously ensue when we see God as just another being (though with much more power and strength) as he will be constantly competing against other beings that we deal with in life.  This erroneous and diminished view of God weakens our sense of him in his very being, and so, many of us end up looking for ways to give God our time, outside of what other items of our lives demand of our time and energy.  So, for instance, giving God time in prayer can end up being something that we do when we are doing nothing else that is considered profane or worldly, as if God is not in the world. 

Of course, the danger of writing about this is that one can just exonerate oneself from the very act of praying by saying that one is now doing everything with a heightened awareness of God’s pervasive presence in all things.  The temptation would then be to say that there is thus no need to give God dedicated tine in prayer.  Unfortunately, this may well be an indication that one has missed the point of the spiritual life. 

In fact, knowing that God is ever-present and the ground of our very being requires of us a much deeper response to his invitation to be in union with him in prayer, surrendering ourselves more and more, to be soaked deeper and deeper in his pool of divine love.  This will enable us to be more aware of how God can be encountered in our normal everyday activities.  An analogy of this would be how so many people tend to say that as long as they live justly and honestly, that there is no need to be people who worship and pray to God and be religious. 

Timothy Keller, an author whose book I am currently reading, gives a very good response to this, and gives an image of a widow having a son whom she raises and puts through good schools and a good university at great sacrifice to herself, as she is a woman of slender means.  As he grows, his mother imparts wise advice, reminding him to always tell the truth, work hard, and be sensitive to the poor.  This man graduates from his studies and goes on to establish his career and life, but hardly spends time with his mother, hardly even giving her one phone call a month.  If asked about his relationship with his mother, this man would say, “I don’t have anything to do with her personally, but I always tell the truth, I work hard, I have a keen sense of right and wrong, and I do care for the poor.”  In essence, he is saying that he is living a good life (like many atheists do) and would argue that that is all that matters.  Or is it?

The obvious truth is that there is a lack in this man’s life and approach to life, which goes beyond his living a mere moral life that his mother set in his conscience.  This man in actual fact owes his mother far more than just living a ‘good life’.  He owes his mother his love, and his loyalty, and a dedicated relationship with her.

So too for us, when we want to find some good reason to be faithful in prayer, difficult and inconvenient though it may be.  We owe it to God who is the very ground of our being, and to always put him in the centre of our very lives.  This is not a case of logic, which is mind-centered, but a case of the heart, which is being-centered.  Where God is concerned, perhaps we need to be ‘out of our minds’ too.

The truth is, not only was Jesus truly ‘out of his mind’, but that we as Christ’s brothers and sisters, also need to learn how to live ‘out of our minds’ and make that long but oh so necessary journey to the heart.  Only a true metanoia allows us to begin this journey, which I am quite sure doesn’t ever end, even after our physical deaths. 

Monday, January 19, 2015

Back from silence

Having spent almost two years in semi-hibernation as I convalesced at home and in the hospital, with the grace of God I was able to spend about 12 days away to be by myself for some ‘me time’, which explains my two week hiatus from my weekly blog posts.  Somehow, when one has been given a new lease of life from something as amazing as a stem-cell transplant, one becomes very much more appreciative for even the smallest thing in life.  In those days away from home, each day brought about a new gratitude for the new vistas before me, the daily dramatic sunsets and sun rises, and a new thankfulness for the wonder of life itself.

I chose to be incommunicado for those 12 days just to be able to be as cut off as I could from the world.  Not that I have any disdain for it, but like any retreat or chosen period of silence and reflection, it is often after that experience that one gets a refreshed look at all that is presented before one’s horizon in life.  I suppose this is especially true when one gets the rare opportunity to have a new scene unfold each day being on a ship at sea.

I had the opportunity to do quite a lot of reading on my time away, and took a few books with me, some of which were precious Christmas gifts from well meaning friends.  I was delightfully re-introduced to the late Henri Nouwen’s writings.  The one I read with much interest emerged as a result of his seven months spent in a monastery where he was a temporary monk.  This privilege is hardly given to people, as the Christian monastic life is a life-long commitment.  But I suppose that Nouwen being who he was in the spiritual literary and academia circle was given a rare privilege of experiencing life as a temporary monk.  It is indeed a blessing for all of us that he had put into the written word his many and varied experiences of those months in silence. 

Strange as it may seem, my chosen time of a short two weeks of silence saw me reading about someone’s experience of seven months of spiritual silence, where he delved deeper into himself and struggled to understand his own psyche.  Ever the person who wants to truly know himself as much as he could, unveiling all the falseness that he was so ready to face and uncover with unabashed courage and directness, Nouwen does a fine job in inviting his readers not just to do the same, but to want to do this with a fresh willingness, and without the fear that many would associate with such an audacious idea.  He revealed himself to be someone who constantly seemed to struggle with a hidden and unhealthy sense of self importance weighted against knowing how much each of us needs to live in humility and strive for egolessness and selflessness which is so necessary for one who is serious about holiness and eventual sainthood.

It made me very aware that my time of convalescence had in actual fact mellowed and tempered my spirit in ways that I would not have had thought about without the gift and opportunity of my illness and its slow but steady recovery.  I can fully appreciate the frustrations and anxieties which Nouwen experienced in his daily monotonous work of washing huge amounts of raisins each day and greasing the unending line of baking tins for the bread which the monastery made for its means of income. 

One of the most refreshing and yet poignant things that he writes about unabashedly was his struggle to accept that happiness has to be an inside job that begins when one dares to face the reality of the uselessness of recognition, fame, the inflated ego, and a false sense of self importance.  That a notable cleric and academician like Nouwen at many times longed and ached to be noticed, appreciated and acknowledged challenges any reader to humbly admit that there are shades of this in all of us, and that our sense of stability and happiness, or lack of it, is often the root of so many of our problems in life. 

Nouwen struggled much with prayer.  I do not think that I am off the mark when I say that many people think that priests and monks have it easy when they pray.  We do not.  But what plagues us a lot is identifying the difference between praying and talking or writing about prayer.  It is so tempting for one to have a spiritual agenda when praying, to gain insights, to get fresh ideas, to piece together items for a talk or a presentation, to formulate a structured homily or sermon, so much so that one doesn’t really end up praying.  That emptiness that one so desperately needs to grow in the spiritual life then becomes avoided in a very hidden way, and one can even end up comforting oneself that one has prayed, when one has actually been formulating ideas about prayer.  If a spiritual giant like Nouwen could be so frank about his spiritual foibles and personal weaknesses, it gives so many of us so much hope that when we confront ourselves with our own issues of self-worth and hunger for some sort of validation in life, we can begin to identify these stumbling blocks (with a self deprecating honesty) towards real spiritual growth and maturity.  One never really reaches a point where one is fully grown in the spiritual life – one is always merely on the way.

I did meet quite a few people during my time away, people whom I had never met before, and were somehow very interested in my life.  Interestingly, when I revealed that I was a priest, they were intrigued.  But when I said that I was a cancer patient in recovery, they were fascinated, especially when I shared with them just how miraculous my stem cell transplant came about with an anonymous donation of a bag of perfectly matching stem cells from a generous stranger from halfway round the world. 

I returned from my hiatus with a sense of being recharged, and slightly heavier from some weight that I managed to gain from eating in unfamiliar surroundings.  What is more important is that I return to life with a new and fuller appreciation of not just what it can do for me, but what I can further contribute to life.