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The Church of Mercy

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Church of MercyThe Church of Mercy
by Pope Francis

This was my companion book for Lent and Easter this year, an encouraging and hope-filled series of reflections. Especially for someone like me, who suffers from such a troubled mess of uneasiness and fear, the refreshing assurance of mercy comes as a fountain of welcome relief, like cool clean water on a hot and difficult day.

Only someone who has encountered mercy, who has been caressed by the tenderness of mercy, is happy and comfortable with the Lord

That sentence at the beginning of the book is the groundwork for all the rest. We need to actually receive mercy — to know it by experiencing it — before we can stop being afraid of God. We trust him because we know his mercy is solid. When I sing ♪ The Lord has promised good to me — His word my hope secures ♪, this is what I am singing about.  All through Lent this year, the recurring hymn reminded me ♪ The name of our God is The Keeper of Word ♪. With humans, we are anxious, asking ourselves whether this or that relationship will be okay, whether I’m going to say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing, and lose someone’s friendship as a result. With God, we are always secure — nothing I say or do will change his steady presence.

Mercy is what gives us that security. But what is mercy? We know it by trusting it, but describing it is harder. Mercy is love, mercy is humility, mercy is patience, mercy is service, mercy is acceptance. When God is presented as a distant judge, we are being frightened away from his embrace by a lie. God is the one who let go of himself to serve his creation, who accepted the limitations of being human, who washed the feet of confused lost struggling people. He asked nothing of us except to let ourselves be loved. Once we accept that love, and become secure in trust, how can we help wanting to say — “Teach me to be like that, too. I want to love like that.”

Beginning in 1987, and intensifying in the early 2000’s, my relationship with God has had its roots in the lived experience of encounters with him. When the people around me share understanding of those experiences, when they also have “been there”, then being with others as Church becomes another way to experience that loving presence, flowing through all of us who want to learn, together, how to love like that. When I’ve found God’s life coming to me through Church, it has been in those times and places where mercy is strongly present, in all its forms — love, patience, forgiveness, understanding, solidarity, humility.

Through all my life, though, I’ve struggled against a darkness that comes over me when I feel shut out by a different kind of churchiness. There has been a church of closed doors and inflexible demands that I earn the right to a place inside, that I do a thousand and one things correctly. Discouragement and anxiety are the fruits of this vine, and yet I’m told that discouragement and anxiety are good for me, that they are making me strive harder to be what I ought to be. But do they inspire me to love more? That’s the stumbling block for me. Even if anxiety makes me try harder to do better, to aim higher, to become perfect — does it make me more loving? I examine myself honestly, and I say truthfully that it doesn’t. In fact, it distracts me from the whole question of love altogether, by demanding that I focus all my efforts on behavior and performance.

I ask myself, then — what does it take to inspire in me a desire to love better? And looking back on the evidence of experience, I have to answer — receiving mercy, receiving love, receiving generously with nothing asked in return, with no rules and expectations as prerequisites for that love. Yes, that is what works unfailingly and without any coercing needed. Being loved is the only thing that makes me want to love. Being forgiven is the only thing that makes me want to forgive. Being trusted with freedom is the only thing that makes me trust in return.

This, then is where Pope Francis is coming from. Here I’ve found a fellow companion, like the companions of my own familiar parish, someone who shares with me the experience of mercy, and by sharing it intensifies it for me, brightens my vision of what it means. Here is someone speaking from a place where I never expected it, saying what makes sense about God. I turn the pages and drink words like a thirsty woman being offered clean cold water. The truth isn’t a list of theories about God, or a list of rules to be followed. Pilate asked “What is truth?”, as though truth were a theoretical thing. Jesus answered “I am truth” — that is, Truth is a person, a relationship to be lived, an encounter with our lover.

We are all called, then, to love. We are called, especially, to express the mercy of love, the aspect of love which humbly accepts another person as the expression of God’s love. The person who is most in need of mercy, that is the person I am called most to nourish by mercy. Like a plant most dry and in need of water, that’s where the water has to be carried first and most plentifully. It’s not hard to discover where to go with love. We just look around and carry it like water wherever we see withering and drooping and thirst. We recognize the thirst because we ourselves have been thirsty. We appreciate the mercy we have received, we can remember the taste of that water, and we can see with our own eyes its effect when we offer the drink to someone else.

Faith is born of an encounter with the living God — He reveals his love, upon which we can lean for security and for building our lives. Transformed by this love, we gain fresh vision, we realize that God’s love is a promise, which will be fulfilled. The promise is a gift for the future, trustworthy. It lights our way, opens the way.

Silent Compassion

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Silent CompassionSilent Compassion
by Richard Rohr

The stumbling-block most often standing between me and prayer is sheer tiredness. Tiredness of heart, spirit, brain, and body. “Help me pray, please. Get me started. Awaken something in me that’s stuck, inert, inattentive, distant.”

At times like this, I want a simple book, something that starts where I am and reminds me of things I’ve known and remembered, whets my desire to go there again. This little book is like that. Here are only as many words as I need to help me get started and not so many as to bog me down in wearisome confusion. Just brief nuggets of thought, sometimes more akin to poetry than prose, and very rooted in ordinary everyday experience.

It’s so easy to forget to remember what prayer is. So much out there masquerades as prayer, calls itself prayer, yet usually leads me away from prayer into empty formality. Church has unfortunately had that effect on me for much of my life. The wordiness, the rigid protocols of correctness, become so distracting that I lose track of God’s presence. My attention is focused on getting through the procedures demanded from me, leaving me too busy and anxious to be aware of him who hovers so near, expectantly waiting.

The older I get, the more unhappy this situation makes me. Especially with the remembrances of that deeper ocean of life-changing true prayer in my mind, recollections of the times I’ve lived in that kind of closeness to God. I want to go back there, and I’m slogging instead through a place of noise and clutter and distraction that wearies me and disturbs me and carries me further and further away from that good place. I know with hungry clarity what I’m missing, what I want, but I keep finding it withdrawn, off-limits and out of my reach. How do I break free? How do I find a way to go where he is?

This little book understands my frustration, encourages me to hope, and shows me a few windows and doors ajar, ways to begin the movement from here to there. It keeps coming back to silence. That’s what I’m so thirsty for — real, deep silence. It’s only in that kind of silence that I can hear God. But what is real, deep silence? If it is the doorway to prayer, how do I open that door?

Rohr points out that there is “an important distinction between solitude and silence. Solitude, of itself, is not silence. Solitude emerges perhaps because … you want to get away from noisy people — or you are just an introvert — and there is nothing inherently wrong or right about that. But there is nothing transformative about this kind of solitude. It is running, the opposite of connecting. A true silence has to fall into a larger silence, a shared silence, something much beyond the absence of noise. True silence holds the contraries in a way that words cannot.”

Before I can hear God speak, I must stop speaking so much myself. Prayer isn’t about the words we say; it’s about the attentive waiting for the one who speaks from a place larger and deeper than words. Stopping all the noise is difficult, though. The famous phrase about “the monkey-mind chattering away nonstop” is true. but as Rohr says, “Walking over the broad road of silence, one is much more humble and less judgmental… Silence does not put words into the mouth of the other … but patiently waits for the other to fully name himself.”

When I start talking, I inevitably also start judging. To say “Help me with this … I need that … This is important … ” — this immediately involves me in deciding what I judge to be important, what I judge to be my needs, what I decide God ought to do about it. When I stop talking, I begin to let go of my own judgement, to simply allow God to be God, to leave the deciding to the only one who really knows it all. Silence is really not about external quiet, but about internal humility, the humility to admit that I don’t know what I’m talking about.

When I let go of certainty in my prayer life, when I stop judging what needs to be done, this attitude will carry over into the world as I go out from prayer into daily activity. If I learn to let go of the desire to tell God what I think is wrong with my life, then it’ll become easier to stop deciding what’s “wrong” with the world around me. Accepting my brothers and sisters in the world for who they are must have its beginning in first accepting God for who God is, and accepting who I am in relationship with him. If I can learn to simply Be with God, then I can learn to simply be with other people.

To simply say “Hello, God — Here I am — Let me sit with you for awhile” — and then stay quiet, that’s all I must learn to do. Simple, though not easy.

Help Thanks Wow

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Help Thanks WowHelp, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers
by Anne Lamott

I’ve read some of Anne Lamott’s other books before. Reading Lamott isn’t so much about learning something new, but about grounding myself more firmly in what I really ought to remember but too easily forget. Especially when life is a whirlwind of such craziness that I can’t catch my breath or get my feet on steady ground, especially when it’s too noisy to do much listening, that’s when I need to be reminded of where the center is. Lamott’s bluntness, her boiled-to-bare-bones directness, her earth-rooted faith, all help bring me up short, to make me pause, take a few deep breaths, and say, “Okay, God, let’s be quiet and then start over again.”

This past weekend was the annual women’s retreat. Women from several parishes spend the time from Friday night to Sunday morning in the retreat house on a lovely hillside overlooking one of the Finger Lakes. After five retreats, I’ve learned to know where to find my best nourishment. Not in the constant round of scheduled lectures and discussions, although I accept that other women find these edifying. But for me, there’s already too much noise, too much talk, too many voices coming between my ears and God’s voice. I remember how the monks found prayer through silence, and that’s what I’m at the lake to enjoy. Not just no phones, radios, or televisions blaring noise at me, but as little as possible in the way of human voices at all. To simply not be distracted, to have no demands at all for this short space, that’s what I want.

It sounds anti-social, but I don’t mean it that way. I smile and nod at the women I pass in the building and on the grounds. But I don’t want to talk about things. To retreat is to walk away from all that usually pushes and pulls at our attention, to be set at liberty from lesser things, just for now. It’ll all be waiting for us when we come back out, but just for now, let’s stick with basics.

I don’t go on retreat with heavy edifying books. I’m there to be quiet and listen. But I need some book, some short simple book, something to “talk me down” from the noisy ledge I’ve somehow gotten myself stranded on. I need a book which will gently remind me of a few basic ground rules, the taproots of prayer, and then back off and leave me to get on with it. This year, it was Anne Lamott’s Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers.  This was a voice that used few words, simple words, to say a few simple things.

  • A nun I know once told me she kept begging God to take her character defects away from her. After years of this prayer, God finally got back to her: I’m not going to take anything away from you, you have to give it to Me.
  • Most humbling of all is to comprehend the lifesaving gift that your pit crew of people has been for you, and all the experiences you have shared, the journeys together, the collaborations, births and deaths, divorces, rehab, and vacations, the solidarity you have shown one another. Every so often you realize that without all of them, your life would be barren and pathetic.
  • If I were going to begin practicing the presence of God for the first time today, it would help to begin by admitting the three most terrible truths of our existence: that we are so ruined, and so loved, and in charge of so little.
  • Prayer begins with stopping in our tracks, with our backs against the wall, or when we are going under the waves, or when we are just so sick and tired of being psychically sick and tired that we surrender, or at least we finally stop running away and at long last walk or lurch or crawl toward something.
  • Grace can be the experience of a second wind, when even though what you want is clarity and resolution, what you get is stamina and poignancy and the strength to hang on.

Starting the weekend with this book was a good way to clean out my cluttered brain, to throw out all the accumulated junk that’s been rattling around in there for weeks or months. When I wasn’t quite ready yet to talk with God, I could begin by talking with Anne about our mutually remembered past experiences of talking with God, getting a grasp on basics, recalling how it feels when it’s real, recognizing when I’m praying vs. when I’m just acting out the motions of praying. After a few quiet hours, the silence began to hold more for me than the book, and I set it aside, went out walking on the hillside, and ended up finding my way into the arms I sought.

Here’s a question I don’t really know how to answer: Why does a book of this kind draw me closer to God, making me desire his friendship in prayer more strongly, while the carefully prepared lectures distance me from God, pushing me away and distracting me with anxiety? Why do I like best a book which is only used casually and then easily discarded for better things?

Joy

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JoyJoy: Meditations on the Joyful Heritage of Christianity
by Louis Evely

It’s easy to find a new book for Lent almost every year, but satisfying books for the Easter season don’t seem as plentiful. This book has been a favorite for many years now, and I still don’t seem to have worn it out. Every few years, I find myself picking it up again between Easter and Pentecost. Despite all the times I’ve read it before, it still has fresh insights to give.

As the author points out in the Introduction, “At Calvary, there were still a few of the faithful who remained, some women and one man. They were the poor representatives of our species. But at the time of the resurrection, no one was there, no one believed any longer, everyone had despaired. Jesus had to convert all of them one by one to the reality of his joy.”  In this little book, the author walks us through Seven Stations of Joy, as a sort of counterpoint to the Fourteen Stations of the Cross.

We begin with Mary Magdalene at the tomb, then we walk with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, we share breakfast with Peter and Jesus on the seashore, we join Thomas in the locked room and Paul on the Damascus Road. We pause to understand the confidence of Mother Mary, and finally we climb the hill of the Ascension. At each Easter visit, we are asked to pause, reflect, and rediscover Joy in a world which seems to argue against it daily.

Mary Magdalene was the first to encounter this Joy. Yet at first glance, she failed to see it. She was looking for death and sorrow and mourning when she came to the tomb. Looking at Jesus, she saw only the gardener, and asked, “Where have you laid him?” He must recognize her first, calling her by name, before she can recognize him.

Yet she was not the first to fail to recognize him. Evely reminds us that “We always take God to be different from what he is. He began by living among us, putting all he was capable of into his prayer, his family, his work, his friendships, and this was the stupefying summation: that after thirty years, no one (not even his precursor) had noticed him.”

God is never only what we expect, as every encounter with him makes clear. He is always infinitely and delightfully better than we expect. We expect pomp, and discover humility. We expect severity, and discover mercy. We expect distance, and discover intimacy. We expect God to be our judge, and discover that he is our advocate. This contrast between the God we have imagined and the God we unexpectedly encounter is the author’s repeated theme, a constant joyful surprise.

The long section about the disciples at Emmaus particularly stayed with me this year. They did not recognize him, either. Yet they invited this seeming stranger to stay and eat supper with them. And this was an important step. We may feel as though we are groping in the dark, searching for God’s hand and not feeling it. I know I ought to see God in every encounter with every person I meet, and yet I struggle and see nothing of the sort. Here was encouragement for me. If I behave as though I do see him, that’s enough.

As Evely points out, there are many of us who will ask God, “When did we ever see you hungry and feed you? That is, we know we should have seen you, God, so we kept trying to, but we failed. We only saw hungry people, but we never saw you.” We must remember God’s reassuring reply, “It doesn’t matter. When you fed that hungry person, you were feeding me, whether or not you were able to recognize me.” These two who asked Jesus to stay for supper at Emmaus had the pleasure of his company, one way or another. They enjoyed that company even before knowing exactly whose company it was. It was only after they had welcomed the stranger and recognized the friend in him that they suddenly became able to recognize Jesus in him.

This is the thought which struck me most deeply and stayed with me the most strongly with this year’s reading. The quotations that have followed me around this spring season are all about this insight.

  • They  were able to recognize with their eyes the one whom they had already recognized in their hearts. 
  • You will find him waiting for you in each of those to whom you bring him.
  • This, then, is our choice: either to complain of not meeting him anywhere, or to rejoice in meeting him at every turn.

Simple Ways Towards the Sacred

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Simple WaysSimple Ways Towards the Sacred
by Gunilla Norris

This was a wonderful book to travel with through the season of Lent this year. It’s a quiet book, a great help towards finding quietness in myself and in the world around me.

The book’s organization is restfully simple. There are four “movements”, so to speak — Our Bodies, Our Dwellings, Our Everyday Things, and Our Gratitude. Within each of these areas, the author encourages us to look closely at one simple object or idea at a time. Under Our Bodies, for instance, we might consider what it means to Breathe, or to See, or to Walk.  When we come to Our Dwellings, we spend a day meditating on the Door, then another day reflecting on the Staircase.  Among Everyday Objects we pause to really notice a Bowl, a Table, and a Clothespin. The fourth section of the book takes us into a fresh style of attentiveness, as we turn our minds towards the act of Receiving with Gratitude. We consider the implications of receiving Nature, receiving Relationships, or receiving Challenges, with grateful awareness of the gifts of each day.

There are 32 “chapters”, which makes this book just a good length for a season like Lent or Advent. Each is only three pages long, yet those three pages provide enough material to carry through an entire day’s reflective prayer.  First, there is a brief one-page essay on the topic of the day, a place to begin by organizing our attention. Then, there is a “Meditation”, a free-flowing poem which helps carry the mind away from the busy-ness of active thought into the quietness of prayer. Finally, there are three questions to ponder, which the author calls “Considerations for the Heart”, suggesting that we would do better to search for the answers with our heart more than with our brain. Roll them around in our being, but don’t over-think them, nor look for a single “right” answer.

The daily “Considerations for the Heart” made up the impulse to each day’s Lenten action.  “Today, could I learn to pause just a little moment before i speak? Might I consider whether my hasty word might limit me or someone else?” … “Could this day be one in which I allow myself to be defenseless for a moment in the presence of another?” … “Today, could I ask if the direction I am walking in my life is my choice, or merely habit?” These were calls to live more mindfully, to be aware of the intentions and the impact of whatever I do.

The poems were what I loved best about this book, because they gave me something to carry with me through each day, little sacred mysteries to ponder. The poems “spoke my language” in the same way Emily Dickinson poems do. I liked to copy them put and carry them in my pocket for the day. During quiet moments, over lunch, while waiting in line, while walking across a parking lot, to take them out and read a few lines, letting them wash around in me like water washing over stones. Here was one of my favorites:

The blind rolls up. Light enters
and shows us where we are.
Windows allow for no fooling.

 What would it mean to realize
that every one of us is a window
where life shines through?

 Could we stand to know
how every moment reveals this?
Anyone paying attention could see if we were open
or shut, spattered or clear!
A blind could not hide us –
we would only be revealed as covered.
No one would be fooled.

 Could we trust that it is safe to be
without subterfuge?
Then we would be clear enough
for light to come through us naturally.

What does it mean, to pray that I may be like a window without blinds? What am I praying for? Do I know what I’m asking for? Am I willing to be that clear and open?

One poem a day, this little book showed me how to come out of a dry desert place into a fresh flowing stream of prayer. Refreshment for the soul, that’s what I found in these quiet pages.

Genesee Diary

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Genesee DiaryGenesee Diary
by Henri Nouwen

I’ve been reading Nouwen for quite a few years now, ever since I was pointed in that direction by a friend in my Thursday night church group. This book isn’t organized around a single topic or theme, but is simply a personal journal of a year that the author spent in the Trappist Abbey of the Genesee in Piffard, NY. Like any diary, it takes one day at a time, recording impressions and thoughts as they come, trusting that a clearer vision of their direction and meaning will come later on.

I love the way Nouwen writes about the human experience of God’s presence. He doesn’t use stiff theological and doctrinal language, but speaks in a natural way about encountering God in the ordinary efforts and wonders of everyday life. I’ve always struggled with discouragement when reading much of traditional church-oriented religious writing. Nouwen writes from a perspective the seems less focused in church and more focused in God, however and wherever he speaks to us.

My favorite story from this book is the one about picking the stones out of the raisins in order to prepare to make the raisin bread, a mundane task that resembles so much of my own daily work, yet one in which God is present. This is where Nouwen speaks my kind of language. How do I get through the busy-work that occupies every one of my days, without losing sight of the patient friend at my side? When I remember to turn my head aside from the work for a glimpse of him, I can’t miss him working beside me. But how do I remind myself to turn my head that way, when the work itself pressures me to give it all my mind? It’s not that I want to neglect the work, rather that I want to not neglect the presence of my divine comrade. Nouwen wrestled with this issue himself, and following him as he learns how to see God in the monotony of raisin-cleaning is a help to a reader like me, too.