December 12, 2013

Do Not Be Afraid

"When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the Holy Spirit.  Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly.  Such was his intention when, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, 'Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.  For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.  She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.' All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:  "Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means "God is with us."'  When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home." (Matthew 1:18-24)

It has been said that the most frequent exhortation in the scriptures is, "Do not be afraid."  At the very least, it is the common introduction to all of the angelic messages delivered in our Advent Gospel stories -- the announcements to Mary, Joseph, Zechariah, and the shepherds.

What is our experience of Emmanuel, God-with-us?  What if we trusted that the voice we heard, the feeling in our hearts or guts was really the presence of a messenger of God?  Might we not find ourselves at least a little afraid?

These Advent stories, like our own meetings with angels, may strike us as both familiar and strange.  We may get lost in the familiarity of these scriptures, no longer able to hear the message because we know the words so well.  Conversely, we can get lost in their foreignness.  Can my experience of God in prayer be anything like Joseph's or Mary's encounter with an angel?  Should I be afraid?

One way to renew our sense of awe at the particularity of how God's angel (a word which in Greek means messanger) speaks to us in prayer is by reading the scriptures according to the ancient practice of lectio divina or "sacred reading."  Lectio divina is not Bible study or even devotional reading.  It is a contemplative practice that invites the Spirit to speak through the scripture into my life as it is, as I am, right now.

Fr. Luke Dysinger, O.S.B. has written a beautifully detailed article on lectio divina including instruction for doing lectio with a group, but here is the basic form of the practice:  Lectio proceeds through four phases.  I like to think of them as movements, like in a musical composition or a dance.  The dance metaphor is perhaps more apt, because, while they are always presented in order, my own experience is of sometimes moving back and forth among them as I pray.

The first of the four movements is called lectio, or reading.  This is where we first encounter the passage.  Note that this practice of prayer can be applied not only to scripture, but to any reading that inspires the heart.  What's more, I have found that these movements, this way of thinking, applies as well to things I might see or experience, an encounter with nature, a conversation with a loved one, an image that strikes me.  So, while we call the first movement, "reading," it is really about becoming aware of the details of the object of our prayer.

If we are dealing with a text, lectio is the time where we read for understanding.  What is happening in the text?  What are the meanings of the words?  If we are reflecting on an image or an experience, this is the time for noticing all the sensory details.  Just get to know the object of our meditation.

For how long should we remain in this phase?  Until we feel our hearts drawn more deeply into our reflection.  We then pass quite naturally into meditatio, mediation, the second movement.  In the Benedictine tradition, from which this practice comes, meditatio is also called rumination, literally, chewing on, as a cow chews her cud.

During the process of meditatio we allow the text or the image or experience to speak to us in this moment.  What do we notice?  Is there a word or a phrase that seems to stick with us?  Does an image come up?  What do we see or hear?  I experience meditatio as the heart of the experience.  If I trust the Word to speak, I almost always notice something arise that wants my attention.

Once I recognize the something that is speaking to me, I just attend to it.  I let it unpack itself in me.  Why that? I might wonder.  I listen for the thing in me that feels resonance with the word or phrase or image or idea that has come up.  Where is this awareness leading me?  What is it pointing to in my life?  What does it have to teach me?  Of what is it reminding me?

As I recognize how this text or image or experience is speaking particularly to me in this moment, I am led to the next movement of the prayer, oratio.  Oratio means prayer.  Here I reach out to God who is reaching out to me through the Word.  What response does the awareness that has arisen in meditatio call forth from me?  Does it remind me of my need or the needs of others?  Does it lead me to thanksgiving?  Does it call forth praise or awe?  Whatever it is I express it to God.

As God has now spoken to me through the Word and I have responded to God, there is nothing left to say.  At this point we are invited into the final movement of the dance, contemplatio, or contemplation.  In contemplatio we simply rest in the presence of God.  There is nothing to do, only to be.

As we abide in God and allow the message we have received to rest in us, we begin to experience the peace on which the angel's exhortation rests:  Do not be afraid.


Using either the passage from Matthew above, last Sunday's Gospel, or any devotional reading or passage that comes to you, try the practice of lectio divina.  Give yourself twenty minutes of quiet.  Don't worry about doing it right.  Slow down and let the passage you have selected open itself up to you.  As a wise Benedictine sister said as she introduced us to lectio, "You may have heard this scripture passage a hundred times, but you haven't heard it today."

If you want more information about the process, you can refer to the article cited above or try this one, which is brief and direct.

If you want to go deeper into learning about the practice, try here or here.

After you have experienced this form of prayer, notice how it felt to you.  What was the experience like?  Are you willing to try it again?  What did you like about it?  Did anything trouble you?

Consider using a different sort of text or an experience from your own life.  There is nothing that comes to us in which we cannot discover sacredness.

Next week:  "Let It Be Done to Me"

Who Would Pope Francis Have Named "Person of the Year"?

He would choose someone poor.  Not 'The Poor,' but a someone who happens to be poor.  It would be Someone, a person with a face and a name and a particular story.  Maybe the story would be sad, a story of loss or of suffering.  Maybe the story would be happy, of hope and restoration.

He would make sure that we knew that this particular Someone was not simply an example.  He would not make of him or of her an anecdote.  The meaning of this Someone's story would not illustrate any point or serve as a metaphor for something else.  The individual person and her story would stand only for what they are.

Pope Francis' Person of the Year would live in a poor country.  He might be Catholic or Hindu or Buddhist.  It wouldn't matter.  What would matter is that this person would be otherwise unknown to the world at large, but not unknown to God.  Pope Francis would lead us into the heart of this Someone, who to the world is no one, and in knowing her heart, I, another no one to the world, would discover my own heart.

In Pope Francis' Person of the Year, I would glimpse the face of Christ.  In glimpsing Christ in him, I would see the Christ in me.  In seeing Christ in me, I would see myself anew.  I would see my poverty and my loss or suffering or hope or restoration.

Pope Francis would raise up this very particular Someone not as a way to garner attention or sell a magazine, but in awe and wonder, respecting the mystery of soul breathed into dust by God.  He would raise her up the way he raises the bread and the wine and calls on the Spirit to make them holy, knowing that they already are made holy and that we raise them up in order to remember and restore the unity of Spirit and creation and humanity that God intended from the first fiat.

We would watch the raising up and know our own participation in it, in the raising and in the being raised, if only we allow that it is true.  As we never stop seeing the bread and the wine, even as we receive them as the Body and Blood, neither would we stop seeing the Someone in all his uniqueness, flawed and gifted, but we would see too the transfiguration of man, of woman, into the Body of Christ, glorified.

This is sacrament, the raising, the recognition of truth in the breaking of bread, in the breaking of bodies and spirits by a still-sin-filled world, through which brokenness the light of Spirit breaks in and heals and makes whole and makes holy.

Not metaphor, but sacrament, this Person of the Year.  No magazine cover can capture this truth.

As for me, for you, for us, who would we choose?  Who is our Person of the Year?  In whose eyes have we looked this year and recognized in them the complexity of their humanity and the holiness of the indwelling Spirit of God?  In whose eyes have we seen our own humanity, our own holiness?

December 11, 2013

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Why am I surprised by how easy it still is for me to become lost in myself?  You'll forgive me if I explain.  If I tell you that I've had unremitting joint pain for five solid weeks, you'll feel sad for me.  You'll ask if I'm okay, if I need anything.  You won't think, Wow, how self-centered.  And yet, self-centered is exactly what I have been.

Pain is a funny thing.  It hasn't been intolerable pain.  I've had aches.  I haven't been able to pull the curtains or open a jar or bend my knees enough to reach the bottom shelf.  I've been able to do most everything else, save getting a decent night's sleep.  The thing about the pain and the stiffness, though, is that it makes me especially aware of me.

That could be a good thing.  Every contemplative teacher there ever was teaches us to become more aware.  At first, that was it exactly.  It almost felt good.  I knew something about living in my body that I usually  forget.  It was like having worked out with weights and the next day noticing muscles I had forgot I had.

But it got old.  And I got scared.

It wasn't normal, this pain.  What was it?  I decided I had to know.  I couldn't rest until I knew, because if I knew what it was, then I'd know what to do, and then I would fix it.  Somehow.  So I stopped feeling it, stopped just being aware of it, and turned it into my personal Problem to Solve.

I went to the doctor and reported to the lab and watched them draw vial after vial of (as it turns out) perfectly healthful blood.  Every one of the ten or more lab tests came back stamped with the same result:  Normal, normal, normal.  I was not reassured.

Something was wrong, and I had to know, so I turned to Dr. Google for answers.  Do you have any idea how many ways different ways there are to Google-search joint pain.  If you came and secretly reviewed my internet browser history (and you'd have to do it secretly, because I wouldn't allow it otherwise due to the inevitable mortifying embarrassment I would suffer), you would, doubtless, find dozens and dozens of different queries, each providing its own reinforcing little twist. The truth is out there on the internet, I thought, and I am going to find it.  I googled everything but "Chris Sullivan's joint pain."  It's a small mark in favor of my sanity that I didn't try.

I could never find what I was really looking for, because it wasn't there.  Behind all of that desperate web-surfing, what I really wanted was relief -- not from the joint pain, but from the self-absorption that led me to the keyboard over and over again.

I had turned inward on myself.  I wandered into a dark and all-too-familiar room, inside, where I've habituated myself to retreating at times like these.  As long as I keep scrabbling in the dark I'm in control and I avoid all the messy feelings that come when I stop and rest in awareness. There I was in firm control of the nothingness -- no feelings, no answers, just groping around alone in the dark, safe, but futile.

Then one day a dear friend said, "How can I pray for you?"  In that moment I was caught up short, struck with awareness that it had not once occurred to me to ask for help.  I wanted people to know what was going on, but never once had I thought to ask a real-life person for support.  I was a little shocked.  I thought I didn't do that anymore, withdraw and isolate myself when I was struggling.  I was wrong..

Something opened up in that moment.  It was this little pinhole of light.  I had been so busy looking in that I hadn't once looked out.  I remembered that I was not alone, not in the dark, not being expected to solve anything, not in control and not needing to be.

I saw a real doctor today and trusted her to give me pills to make me feel better while we wait.  Either the pain will go away as my immune system sweeps away the remnants of some never-to-be-identified, pesky virus, or it'll reemerge when the bottle of prednisone is empty.  Then I may be tempted to return, alone, to my dark little room.  I'm hoping to remember that what I want isn't there.

December 3, 2013

The Lord Is with You

"In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David.  The virgin's name was Mary.  And he came to her and said, 'Greetings, favored one!  The Lord is with you.' But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be."
- Luke 1:26-29

"Greetings, favored one!  The Lord is with you."

What does that feel like?  How does it feel for you to hear that you are favored by God?  The Lord is with you.  God, the Creator of the universe, favors you, is with you.

How perplexing.  What sort of greeting?  What can this mean?

How can I be favored by God when I'm so terribly ordinary?  How can I be favored by God if bad things happen to me or to the people I love?

How can I be favored by God if God knows all about me:  My angry outbursts.  My laziness.  My lustful thoughts.  My irregular church attendance.  My sporadic prayer life.  The times I wonder whether God is really good or trustworthy or loving.  Or whether God even exists.

And yet, the Lord is with us.  Emmanuel, the name of God that we hear over and over again in Advent means, God-with-us.

The essence of prayer is the recognition that the Lord is with us.  We are invited to joint with Mary, whose encounter with God, like our own encounters with the Divine, confounds all sense of reason and defies our expectations.  It is about daring to open our hearts to a God who, heedless of the cost, entered into His own creation in the womb of a poor Jewish girl, clothing eternal glory and majesty in mortal flesh -- a God who does the same when, by the Spirit, God lives in and through us.

God comes to us at all times, unbidden.  As the angel Gabriel came to Mary, so God comes to us and announces His favor and His intention to take our flesh and make it one with His Spirit as we are the living Body of Christ.  Our journey in relationship with God is a journey into that reality, the reality that God abides with us, here, now, always.

It is no accident that you are reading these words.  Why have you come?  What are you hoping for?  Are you ready, are you willing to discover what God has prepared for you, beyond your expectations, your hopes, your fears?

The truth is, God is with us by the Spirit right now.  Our purpose together this Advent is not to talk about abiding in the presence of God, but to practice.  My hope is that what you experience in these few short weeks of preparation for Christmas you will be able to take into your continuing practice of the presence of God in your private prayer.


Every one of us has had experiences of awareness of Emmanuel, God-with us.  Maybe you haven't called those times God-awarenesses.  What I am talking about are the moments that felt like more, moments of transcendence or wonder or awe or deep tranquility.  They are the moments when, however briefly, we've had a sense that there is something -- or someone -- some sense of life resonating in us beyond the bare facts of the moment in which we find ourselves.

The purpose of this exercise is to practice listening for God in this moment and discovering what it feels like for you when you experience what I will call the presence of God.  This sort of practice hearkens to the recommendations of St. Ignatius of Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises. St. Ignatius taught that we could employ all of our faculties, including our imaginations and our memories, in approaching God in prayer.

Find a quiet space and time.  You'll need 10-15 minutes.  You'll likely want to read through the instructions a couple of times, so you don't have to stop in the middle of the exercise.  You don't have to do it exactly as it's written.  Use it as a starting place and see where it takes you.

Sit where you can have your feet on the floor.  You should be comfortable, but alert.  Close your eyes.
Ground yourself in your body by taking a deep breath...and letting it out.  Another breath, noticing the air entering...and leaving your body.  Once more...  It is God who provides the very air we breathe. 
Welcome the Holy Spirit to be with you in this time.  Invite the Spirit to open your heart and your mind. 
Take another conscious breath...  We are going to spend some time remembering...
When have you been conscious of the presence of God with you?  Invite the Spirit to lead you, to call your attention to the times, the experiences, the fleeting moments that God may be inviting you to recall.
Maybe you have known God's presence in the work...or the car...with someone you love...with someone who was ill or a time of great joy...  Maybe what you remember is a small, private moment, a moment known only to you...  Continue to return your attention to the Spirit.  Let the Spirit direct your thoughts.  There is no right or wrong.  You may recollect only one experience...or a few...or many.
As you reflect, listening for the Holy Spirit, notice:  Which one experience of the presence of God seems especially compelling to you right now?  With your eyes still closed, hold that experience in your mind, in your heart.
As you reflect on that time, when you experienced the presence of God, notice what you feel in your body.  Do you feel tension?  Lightness?  Something else?  Where in your body do you feel the presence of God.  Place your hand there.
If that feeling in your body had a color or a shape, what would it be?  What is it like?  Does any image arise for you?  This is only for you, so that you can know what your unique experience of the presence of God feels like for you.
Continue to sit with the feeling for as long as seems right for you.
When you feel ready, open your eyes and gently return to the space you are in.
Offer a prayer of thanksgiving for this time.

Next week:  "Do Not Be Afraid"