I just has a poem published on catheXis. You can read it, and my commentary on it, by going here: https://www.cathexisnorthwestpress.com/the-jogger/
Oil on canvas, 11″ x 14″. Suggested price $300.00. Buy art here.
God of the weed spikes and white flowers,
and half-dusk from the shadows of trees,
help us to shatter carefully arranged light,
the idea that everything must have its place,
the insistence on more symmetry than you require.
oil on canvas, $500.00. Buy art here.
Mark 1:21-28, a retelling
They walked between the olive trees along the lake to the small fishing village of Capernaum, and on the sabbath Jesus entered the synagogue and taught. The people were astonished, because he didn’t teach like the scribes, who thought that the rules which they tediously parsed were all that God had to say to humanity. He taught with authority. A man in the synagogue, who’s spirit was muddled by a thousand things and who was stretched and scratched inside by tearing claws, cried out “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” Jesus spoke directly to the man’s spiritual state: “Be silent! Set this man free!” And the man convulsed and cried out, and all of the jangling brokenness inside of him gathered itself up and came out of him. The synagogue filled with babbling voices – they echoed off of the walls – “What is this?” “A new teaching, with authority!” “He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him!” His fame began to spread around the circle of the lake, where the sun beat down and anemones bloomed on the plains, and fishing boats sailed out on the deep blue of the water.
Caption: St. John in the Wilderness, linoleum block print
I’ve been reading Anselm’s Prayer to Saint John the Baptist and working on several pieces that are about John. Anselm’s poem is a long, heart-rending cry as he looks deep inside himself and struggles with his own nature. He writes:
You refashioned your gracious image in me,
and I superimposed upon it the image that is hateful.
Alas, alas, how could I?
And, even more painfully,
If I look within myself, I cannot bear myself;
if I do not look within myself, I do not know myself.
The poem quickly moves from a reflection on John to a reflection on the soul. This seems strange at first, but I think that’s the point. John the Baptist wants us to repent – to reflect on ourselves so that we may change. And because such reflection is painful, what he’s really calling us into is the death of ego and a wilderness in which we are meant to wander for awhile, undefined. I, like Anselm, often want to resist this call.
I am not always humble, but I have a great respect for humility. It’s the Christian virtue that the mystics seem to have in most abundance. When opening a text like Teresa of Avila’s The Interior Castle or Brother Lawrence’s Practicing the Presence of God, you assume that you’ll find someone full of deep, gnomic wisdom and complicated thoughts and ideas. Instead you find people whose wisdom is chatty and deeply human. You feel like you’re talking to a friend on a long car ride. The conversation is deep but the person you’re with isn’t trying to show that they’re particularly deep – they’re investigating their own questions as you’re investigating yours. Being honest about one’s own questions seems to be the key to having wisdom in humility. There really are no spiritual experts, no one who has figured everything out. There are practitioners, people who have prayed long and hard, and will tell you the fruit of their prayers, and maybe something about their practice, without trying to mystify you with complicated systems or procedures. In the end, the most surprising thing about true mysticism is how down to earth and honest it is. In the passage below, Brother Lawrence talks about his struggles with complex systems and practices. He’s open and honest about the fact that they seemed intent on teaching him something he already knew, and that he didn’t need them. But that’s not because he isn’t humble. It’s exactly his humility that allows him to see through the scaffolding surrounding a life with God, and perceive God’s presence and love for him just as it is, unencumbered by anything that obfuscated or tries to be “mystical.”
The apprehension that I was not devoted to God as I wished to be, my past sins always present to my mind, and the great unmerited favors which God did me, were the source of my sufferings and feelings of unworthiness. I was sometimes troubled with thoughts that to believe I had received such favors was an effect of my imagination, which pretended to be so soon where others arrived with great difficulty. At other times I believed that it was a willful delusion and that there really was no hope for me. Finally, I considered the prospect of spending the rest of my days in these troubles. I discovered this did not diminish the trust I had in God at all. In fact, it only served to increase my faith. It then seemed that, all at once, I found myself changed. My soul, which, until that time was in trouble, felt a profound inward peace, as if she were in her center and place of rest.
Having found in many books different methods of going to God and diverse practices of the spiritual life, I thought this would serve rather to puzzle me than facilitate what I sought after, which was nothing but how to become wholly God’s. This made me resolve to give the all for the All. After having given myself wholly to God, to make all the satisfaction I could for my sins, I renounced, for the love of God, everything that was not God, and I began to live as if there was none but God and I in the world.
This, truly, is for me the most intimidating quote from Brother Lawrence. I am a person who likes methods, practices, liturgies, and literary forms. I feel more comfortable if there’s a roadmap, if I can feel myself surrounded by spiritual mentors and forebears. The very desire to use someone else’s spiritual writings in prayer arises from this tendency. I find many different methods of going to God and diverse practices in books, and I like doing this, and trying out those methods and practices for awhile, depending on my season of life. But Brother Lawrence makes me pause and wonder if all of these spiritual contraptions aren’t simply a distraction. Knowing and loving God isn’t really that hard, after all. You just have to pay attention to yourself and the world, and invite God into your observations. That said, I don’t think I’ll stop dipping into books and looking for the wisdom of others to help me in my prayer life. But it’s good to be reminded that it’s not necessary for me to do so, and that I shouldn’t let these methods become an idol by clinging to them too desperately, or assuming that I have no relationship with God without them.
I have often wondered what the disciples felt at the last supper. I think that their primary emotion was fear. They knew that they were being hunted by Herod, and Jesus had been talking for weeks about how he would go to Jerusalem, would be arrested, and would die. Now they were in Jerusalem, sitting together in a nondescript little room, the smell of roasting lamb drifting down wind from the temple sacrifice. I think that when Jesus picked up the bread and the wine, and said that they were his body and his blood, he was telling them that he would never abandon them, that even when he was gone, they could find him in the smallest, most ordinary things in their lives.
At first glance, Brother Lawrence seems to read this scene differently than I do. Placing himself within the upper room, he experiences tranquility, rather than fear. But this is because he’s already learned the lesson that Jesus was trying to teach the disciples. He’s used to finding God in the most ordinary things. Even in a fretful, busy kitchen, he’s tranquil. He has learned the assurance that Jesus offers to the disciples:
As Brother Lawrence had found such an advantage in walking in the presence of God, it was natural for him to recommend it earnestly to others. More strikingly, his example was a stronger inducement than any arguments he could propose. His very countenance was edifying with such a sweet and calm devotion appearing that he could not but affect the beholders. It was observed, that in the greatest hurry of business in the kitchen, he still preserved his recollection and heavenly-mindedness. He was never hasty nor loitering, but did each thing in its season with an even uninterrupted composure and tranquillity of spirit. “The time of business,” said he, “does not with me differ from the time of prayer. In the noise and clutter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquillity as if I were upon my knees at the Blessed Supper.”
What is the grace that Brother Lawrence speaks of in the quote below? We’re happy when things go our way, and we might think of this as grace, but it’s not. Happiness is a comparatively simple thing, drawing its energy and existence from temporal success or momentary relationships with other people, or, often in my case, the ability to convince oneself of everyone else’s love and regard. But grace isn’t really temporal. For Brother Lawrence, it comes from cultivating and maintaining contact with the eternal. Often, this means simply living in the moment and reaching out to God in the moment. This is the grace of a dancer, who’s physical body seems to occupy space in a way that’s different from the rest of us, but mostly because she’s conscious of that space, and her body’s movement through it. Her grace comes from awareness of present movement and present moment.
In our conversation with God we should also engage in praising, adoring, and loving God incessantly for God’s infinite goodness and perfection. Without being discouraged on account of our sins, we should pray for God’s grace with a perfect confidence, as relying upon the infinite merits of our Lord. Brother Lawrence said that God never failed offering us grace at each action. It never failed except when Brother Lawrence’s thoughts had wandered from a sense of God’s Presence, or he forgot to ask God’s assistance. He said that God always gave us light in our doubts, when we had no other design but to please.
Brother Lawrence tells us that he spent a lot of time trying to be dutiful and follow the prayer methods that everyone else seemed to be using before he finally settled on his own simple way of praying. W/hen I read the quote below, it’s hard not to be reminded of Centering Prayer, and of the carefully delineated method laid out in The Cloud of Unknowing. I doubt that this was a method Brother Lawrence was taught – he speaks more often of rites of abstinence and mortification as the standard practice of his place and time. But even if he was taught some form of Centering Prayer, I can’t imagine him actually sticking to it for very long. His method was much more direct, and, more importantly, it was all his own. As a person who often teaching methods of prayer, it’s important for me to remember that the best kind of prayer is the one that is suited to the person who is praying. And sometimes, as in Brother Lawrence’s case, its a communion with God that is so direct that it can hardly be called a method at all.
He said that useless thoughts spoil all – that the mischief began there. We ought to reject them as soon as we perceived their impertinence and return to our communion with God. In the beginning he had often passed his time appointed for prayer in rejecting wandering thoughts and falling right back into them. He could never regulate his devotion by certain methods as some do. Nevertheless, at first he had meditated for some time, but afterwards that went off in a manner that he could give no account of. Brother Lawrence emphasized that all bodily mortifications and other exercises are useless unless they serve to arrive at the union with God by love. He had well considered this. He found that the shortest way to go straight to God was by a continual exercise of love and doing all things for God’s sake.