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An Inspirational Meditation

Fr Richard Rohr OFM, whom I regard as a modern prophet, founded the Centre for Action and Contemplation (CAC) thirty five years ago in the US. Richard’s vision was to encourage people of all faiths and traditions who sincerely desired to take part in action in support of the poor and marginalised to base their work – and their life – on developing a deep spirituality, without which even the best intended actions can become compromised. In other words, to work for God and for the good of humanity, you first have to know God and be rooted in His love through a deep relationship with Him.

Richard rightly stresses the crucial need for a daily practice of contemplation if we are to open ourselves to the divine and allow God’s Spirit to enthuse and direct our actions. But contemplation is challenging to many and sadly has fallen away in the western Christian world to the extent that it became the preserve of small numbers of monks and hermits. Certainly in the Catholic tradition and in my upbringing there was little or no formation in any depth of prayer relationship with God, as Richard gently explains in the following meditation.

This blog is somewhat unusual in that it really is a pointer to another man’s work and wisdom, but I offer it in the hope that it might reach an even wider audience. As such, this link to what Richard calls a ‘sit’ is actually a priceless treasure. If you are open to the ‘real’, that is, the reality that faith in God underpins all creation, then you should appreciate just how special and matchless this meditation is. It may well encourage you to start a practice of meditation that can – truly – change your life.

For myself, since it was first shown on Friday 21st October, I have used it every day to focus my poor attempts at meditation and it has been a real encouragement and support to me. See for yourself just how impressive is this man who clearly practises what he preaches, and therefore speaks from a sacred place.

Be aware of course that YouTube videos usually come with noisy advertisements, but make your way past these to the real treasure!

Virtual Sit Meditation | LIVE Friday, October 21 | Center for Action and Contemplation – YouTube

You can also find out more about CAC here:

Center for Action and Contemplation (cac.org)

Wishing you a very special blessing from God – if you have eyes to see and ears to hear!

Martin

Lapsation or Alienation?

The Catholic Church has always stressed to its members that the Faith needs to be practised, that is, that individual Catholics need to do certain regular and specific spiritual acts such as attend Holy Mass on Sundays. Those Catholics who cease to actively practise their faith are termed ‘lapsed’. The connotation of this word ‘lapse’ tends to suggest a ceasing to do something without perhaps any definite decision to stop – almost a carelessness that over time results in a gradual fading away.

This notion perhaps resonates with Jesus’ parable of the sower (Matthew 13: 1 – 9 and 18 – 23). This parable is unusual in that Jesus actually explains the parable to his disciples. Of the four possibilities of how the seed – the faith – turns out, two may have relevance to this phenomenon of lapsation:

~ some seed falls among rocks, and such people do not persevere because they have no depth to their belief;

~ some seed falls among thorns, and such people may have some depth to their belief but they allow the cares and busyness of life to choke any growth or commitment to their faith.

In terms of the first of these outcomes, who is really to blame if individuals “have no depth to their belief”? From my experience as a priest and a long standing practitioner of the Catholic faith I think the fault lies mainly with the Church itself. In my lifetime and in my personal experience ordinary Catholics were rarely given any formation or encouragement to deepen their faith. They were given a diet of pious exercises and instructed to attend services without being encouraged to actively participate. As such, it really was hit and miss if they managed to develop any depth of prayerfulness and therefore any vital relationship with God. Especially in my youth, churchgoing was largely a numbers game and a ‘going through the motions’. Perhaps no surprise then that so many just faded away from the life of the church, especially once social mores made churchgoing a minority activity?

In terms of the second outcome, the tendency for the cares and busyness of one’s life to smother any spiritual practice is a constant and universal issue. But again, if so many were given precious little formation and encouragement, and were not exposed to the radicality of Jesus’ good news then what chance that they would value their faith and strive to maintain it within the pressures of daily life?

What I’m saying here is that the Church cannot presume that Catholics who have ceased to practice their faith are all backsliders and even that such folk have decided to renege on their spiritual heritage. Again, Jesus’ parable of the treasure hidden in the field (Matthew 13: 44) is surely relevant here: in what way has the Church really communicated the ‘treasure’ of the Gospel? It’s almost as if each individual Catholic has to stumble across the treasure for themselves…

I’m not denying that there are folk who, regardless of how they are nurtured and supported, will never value the gift of faith in the God of Jesus, but I think it’s clear that many of the so called lapsed have been badly let down by a Church that just didn’t feed or challenge them to have a depth relationship with the living God. That said, I think there is another category of folk who have left the Church: those who have been alienated by the Church and may have either gone to another religion, not necessarily a Christian one, or likely just given up on any pretence of belief in God. Some commentators would claim that the huge rise in agnosticism and atheism in the western world is precisely down to the gross failings of the Christian churches.

In my time ministering as a priest I met many decent folk who felt rejected by the Catholic Church, typically because a first marriage had failed for whatever reason and had now found a second relationship that was much more positive, mature and life-enhancing. For them, the Church, while trying to remain faithful to Jesus’ teaching, had nonetheless been experienced as harsh, unbending and unforgiving, leaving them in a moral and spiritual black hole. Others had actually been abused and/or humiliated by priests and nuns who supposedly stood in the place of Jesus. Yet others had thought deeply about the Church’s dogma and rituals and had come to the conclusion that it was illogical and contrary to their honest insights.

God’s ways are strange indeed, and God seems content to allow His public relations team to be comprised of fallible, sinful people! As such, the living and true God often gets a bad press. The Church is both human and divine, and where the human exists there will surely be mistakes, wrong signals and downright evils. And if I criticize the Church I have to remember that I am part of the Church and I have a responsibility to make it into what it should be – the living body of Christ in the world. And it is precisely because it is His body that it matters. It does contain that priceless treasure but often seems to do a good job of hiding it in a field of dogma, piety and reactionary nonsense!

I truly love the Catholic Church and will never leave it – but that does not stop me from seeing it as it is, warts and all,

Martin

God Doesn’t Stand at the Crossroads

I remember once during a parish mission I was leading, that a fine young man was very involved in the preparation week and then came to the first of the big evening services of the mission. But then he never came back for the rest of the week, and I missed him. It was only at the end of the mission fortnight that I met his father who explained that his son had heard God speaking to him through the mission and telling him to be His priest. The good young chap had set his sights on a particular career and marriage, and frankly – he ran away. He didn’t want to face what God was saying to him in his heart.

Some years ago I wrote a poem called “God Doesn’t Stand at the Crossroads”:
God Doesn’t Stand at the Crossroads

What I tried to express in this poem, and it is pertinent to my life, is that, as we journey through our lives we often face decisions, sometimes small but sometimes major, and these decision moments can be like coming to a crossroads or a junction. We can rarely stand still – we usually have to go one way or the other. And having chosen a certain route, and travelled a distance, we may look back and wonder… did I take the right path?

So often, after we have committed to a particular direction, we receive new information and insights that we just didn’t have back then at the crossroads, and we all know about hindsight – how we can condemn ourselves unjustly for not knowing then what we know now.

Often times, our decisions will be right and appropriate for our stage in life, but what do we do when we begin to realise that we in fact took a wrong direction? This wrong direction may not necessarily bring in sin and guilt – after all, none of us has a crystal ball and we can sometimes only hope for the best and even sometimes change direction within our choices. And of course sometimes there is no going back…

Sometimes though, we come to realise that we did take a wrong turn. This wrong turn can be chosen through selfishness, immaturity or peer pressure, or through the complexities of life, etc. But equally we may conclude that we purposely (consciously?) blocked certain facts and chose what seemed to us to be the most appealing (most convenient?) option.

And what about God? I believe that God has a clear purpose for our lives – a purpose that will absolutely be the best for us and for others. A purpose which nonetheless may not be an easy path, and may actually involve the Cross. Whatever path God may want us to follow – our true vocation – He in no way can force us to follow this ‘best path’. He can only hope that we make the effort to discern His will and that other people are there to guide us.

What then can we say when it becomes clear that we effectively dodged His will and purposely took a ‘wrong’ path? Does God, so to speak, stand back at the decision point implacably waiting for us to crawl back? I think Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son makes it very clear that while God cannot prevent or force our path He waits, waits patiently, even impatiently, but with ready forgiveness for when we come to our senses. And if, unlike the Prodigal Son, we cannot realistically retrace our steps, I think God is actually always at our side, ever ready to embrace us with His unconditional love. I think God actually adjusts His will and accepts our ‘now’ and graces us with a ‘new beginning’.

I wonder if that young man did indeed get married and reject what appeared to be God’s will for him? Maybe, maybe not. But one thing is clear – God loves him regardless and is with him always. After all, there is nothing we can do to stop God loving us,

Martin

God’s Ways are Not Our Ways

There is an old story told – I doubt it is a true story – about a woman who lost the key to her cottage door. She was very concerned and upset because she had to wedge the door shut with a chair to make her feel safe at night. As a devout Catholic she had a statue of St Anthony and she decided to pray to St Anthony that he might find her key.

NB there is an old tradition of praying to St Anthony for finding things that have been lost. I think this arose because St Anthony, a Franciscan priest in the thirteenth century, had lost a precious book – it actually had been stolen – and through his prayers it was eventually returned to him.

So she prayed, and she prayed. A day went by, then another, and another, and still the key was not found. After a full week she got so annoyed with St Anthony that she grabbed his statue and threw it out into the field. But then she felt bad and had second thoughts. It wasn’t right to throw a holy statue away. After a while she decided to go and fetch the statue lying across in the field. She went over to retrieve the statue and – lo and behold – beside the statue in the grass was her missing key! She would never have found it otherwise. St Anthony had delivered after all.

A pious story of dubious origin, and therefore not a story worth bothering with? Best consigned to the waste bin of junk religious curiosities and anyway, we shouldn’t be praying to anyone but God Himself. Well yes, but…

I tell this story because I think there is a certain logic, a divine logic, to the story. Let me explain. When we pray and ask God (or pray to Him through His saints) for something, be it a missing key or even something much more important such as the health of a loved one or for peace in the world, we have to understand that God’s ways are not our ways. So often we ask but we really want the answer or the solution to be as we want and we expect it to be. And also to be granted in our own timescale. But often as not God has other ideas. And His ways are always best though we may often not appreciate that.

The woman in the story wanted to find her key. She wanted to find it and she wanted to find it straight away. Her logic. Her timescale. And perfectly understandable. The key mattered after all. St Anthony – but really God – led her to the key. But not in the way she expected.

A corny story, with a cheesy ending? I can’t disagree, and I’m afraid such stories are often given to the faithful as if they are Gospel truths. But, even in such corny tales there can be a morsel of truth. I think the story’s happy ending actually illustrates this profound truth that God’s ways are different to ours, and always have far better outcomes. For God sees with an eternal perspective. He knows what is best for us and everyone. We see only partially. God sees the totality.

I believe God always answers sincere prayer. As Scripture says:

“The prayer of the humble pierces the clouds.” Sirach 35: 21

The humble and sincere person may actually sense what really matters, and may therefore ask more appropriately.

In terms of asking God for something, the lessons may be: especially if we feel that God hasn’t answered our prayer:

~ is our prayer in keeping with His greater purpose?

~ what is God’s timescale for a resolution?

~ is He in fact wanting us to look further and elsewhere to see the answer?

If we only knew how much God loves us we would never doubt that He delights to hear and answer us.

Martin

The Absence of God

A story I’ve told elsewhere and believe to be true is of how a Jewish person scratched with their fingernails on the wall of the gas chamber as they were dying the following words: “There is no God”.

Their sad but completely understandable conviction surely resonates with everyone who has ever suffered, especially when that suffering is great and unsolvable, such as parents facing the illness and death of a young child. And while we religious folk maintain that God has spoken through Jesus, through the Bible, through holy men and women through the ages, and still speaks through the signs of the times, through the natural world, and through our own conscience, it is nonetheless important to acknowledge that for all practical purposes God appears to be absent in our world and in our lives.

It really doesn’t do to try and fudge this issue, and no amount of pious sermonising and religious ritual will persuade decent people who have cast off any pretence at belief in a god. Words, as they say, are cheap. And yet a blog fundamentally depends on words, so what can I say here to honestly address the seeming absence of God?

The first aspect should be to attempt to answer the question: why, if God is supposed to be all-loving, does He hide from us? Why, if He truly is all-powerful, does He not intervene to convince and even to heal?

The answer touches the very nature of love, and it may sound counter-intuitive but God is absent precisely because He loves us! We are created in radical freedom, and this necessitates that God must stand back and allow us choices. Even God cannot have it both ways: either He steps outside of human life and allows us to be ourselves, or He is present and compromises that radical freedom. And so, the absence of God in this life is the very touchstone of His great love and the very guarantee of our great dignity as free beings made in His image. I don’t think there is any getting around this ‘fact’ of life and death.

I believe that God loves all creation, and not just human beings but the entire universe. I further believe that this life is but the momentary preparation for the real life, the eternal life, where choice will no longer be an issue, and will no longer engage and torment us with its complexities and consequences. That eternal life will be fully redeemed and healed, and is where God desperately wants us to be, with Him forever. In that life to come, we achieve our full potential, and there will be no more sin, no more suffering, no more goodbyes, and no more death. We cannot begin to conceive of such a world, and if we but knew a fraction of it we would be enthralled and desirous of arriving at our true home. And full of joy.

So a wonderful future lies ahead of us – but… we have no proof of this. No one has come back from the dead to confirm this, and even the claim that Jesus has risen from the dead cannot be proved. Where does that leave us?

The unavoidable truth is that we need faith. Faith is not irrational. It is not believing in fairy tales. In fact, everyone lives by faith – even atheists and agnostics, since no one can one hundred percent guarantee that what we take in with our senses is in fact reality.

Faith honours mystery. And mystery is not nonsense – it is the limit of our understanding. Faith, based on a judicious evaluation of reality, is actually the honest path – the true way of human life in this world. And as regards faith in God, the revelation of Jesus resonates with what we can discern in our hearts – an inner truth that is common to all humanity.

God appears absent in this life. God will not ‘descend’ in a cloud and sort us out! We have therefore to accept this and work to understand the meaning behind our existence. Ultimately however, it is not formal belief in God that will see us home to our eternal destiny – it is quite simply love.

“He who lives in love, lives in God, and God lives in him.” 1 John 4: 16

For God is love,

Martin