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Archive for January, 2022

PRAYER & FREE WILL

In 1962 I developed a relationship with my first ‘Spiritual Director’ – I was eighteen years old.  With his guidance I developed a discipline and capacity for deep meditation and for daily prayer.  ‘Live your life as if it were a prayer’ he counseled.  My tendency then – as it still is today – is to lead with prayers of ‘begging’ (the more proper term is ‘prayers of intercession’).  My first Spiritual Director and each of the Spiritual Directors I have had since then suggested that I might actually lead with ‘Prayers of Thanksgiving.’  So, I continue to strive to begin each day with ‘Prayers of Thanksgiving’ – sadly, I can hear a voice within saying: ‘Get on with it so you can get to the real prayers – the begging prayers.’  On my good days I am able to focus more on my prayers of thanksgiving without ‘looking ahead’ to my begging prayers. 

I am writing about this today because this morning I found myself praying for God to intercede in someone’s life so that the person would make a good choice.  I care about this person and I want this person to make a good choice.  An hour or so later I had a niggle that developed into an insight.  In my intercessory prayer I had attempted to get God to intervene in a way that would prohibit the person from exercising ‘free will.’  If God actually intervened would the person actually ‘make a choice’?  I stopped and asked myself: ‘What are you really praying for?’ 

Do I really want God to intervene so that I – or you or we – do not have free choice?  Perhaps my intercessory prayer could still be intercessory if I prayed for ‘care of the soul’ or ‘feeding the hungry heart’ or ‘healing the self-inflected wounds.’ 

I am now thinking of Jesus and St. Peter.  As I recall, Jesus prayed for Peter prior to Peter’s denial.  Jesus warned Peter – ‘You are going to deny me.’  Not only that, ‘You are going to deny me three times.’  Now Jesus could have taken the position that I almost always take when I pray.  Jesus could have prayed that Peter would not deny him (talk about a powerful intercessory prayer).  This certainly would have felt good to Peter and to those of us who espouse to be followers of Jesus the Christ.  But no, Jesus did not pray that way.  Jesus prayed that Peter’s faith would not fail: “…but I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail, and once you have recovered, you in your turn must strengthen your brothers.” 

Jesus, being Jesus, gave Peter latitude to choose, to make mistakes.  He focused on the care of Peter’s soul: to develop an abiding and enduring faith in spite of – even because of – his mistake.  When we err as Peter did our faith is likely to fail (think, Judas).  We fail because our faith is our own faith, our faith is not rooted in the Transcendent.  Jesus’ prayer was, ultimately, answered.  Peter’s faith was challenged and he wept bitter tears because he ‘failed’ and yet his faith saved him; Peter did recover.  Peter was able to strengthen his brothers because of his experience. 

So my prayer for my friend might well become a soul-full prayer – perhaps a prayer of healing.  I pause. . .  However, I still want God to make it all right for my friend. 

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CONSIDER ‘PROPHETS,’ PART II

The prophet is a witness and his word is a testimony? –Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

What stirs the Prophet so deeply?  Is it a sense of anxiety about the fate and future of mankind?  Is it personal irritation at the violation of moral laws – a reaction of conscience against evil?  Simply stated, is it moral indignation?

The Prophet’s role is complex.  The Prophet is a censurer and an accuser AND the Prophet is also a defender and a consoler.  In the presence of God the Prophet takes the part of mankind.  In the presence of mankind the Prophet embraces the Word of God. 

Heschel reminds us that the main task of prophetic thinking is to bring mankind into Divine Focus.  Given this, the Prophet does not take the direct approach.  Rather the Prophet is an intermediary between God and Us and between Us and God.  The Prophet does not say ‘I love or I judge.’  The Prophet reminds Us that it is God who loves and it is God who judges.

Heschel notes: God’s role is not spectatorship but involvement.  He and man meet mysteriously in the human deed.  The prophet cannot say Man without thinking God.  The Prophet discloses what Heschel calls a Divine Pathos, not just a Divine Judgment.  God is never impersonal – as Lover or as Judge.  A personal relationship binds God to Each of Us and to We humans as a collective.

The Prophet reminds us that We have choice, but not sovereignty.  History is a drama describing the relationship between God and Man.  The predicament of Man is the predicament of God – for God has a stake in our human situation.  Sin, for example, is more than a failure of Man; it is a frustration to God.  God has a stake in our destiny.

The Prophet reminds Us that we are not only an image of God; We are a perpetual concern of God.  Heschel captures this well when he writes: The idea of Divine Pathos adds a new dimension to human existence.  Whatever man does affects not only his own life, but also the life of God insofar as it is directed to man.  The import of man raises him beyond the level of mere creature.  He is a partner in the life of God.

For me, the Prophet reminds me (Us) that even more frustrating that the fact that evil is real is the fact that evil thrives so well in the disguise of the good, that evil can draw its nutriment from the life of the holy.  The holy and the unholy do not exist apart – they are mixed and interrelated.  Ours is a world where Idols are rich in beauty and hence where the worship of God is too often tinged with wickedness. 

It was not the lack of religion but the perversion of it that the Prophets of Israel denounced.  The Prophet reminds us that Piety is at times evil in disguise.  The Prophet strives to remind us that the symbol of God is Man, every Man.  God created all men in His image, in His likeness.  Thus each human life must be treated with the honor due to a likeness representing the Lord of Lords.  The Divine Likeness is something EACH HUMAN shares. 

Have WE forgot or have WE just simply denied that EACH of us has been created in God’s Image?  The Prophet speaks – Am I, are You, willing to listen and heed? 

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CONSIDER ‘PROPHETS,’ PART I

To a person endowed with prophetic sight, everyone else appears blind; to a person whose ear perceives God’s voice, everyone else appears deaf. –Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

During this past year or so I have been immersing myself in Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s powerful treatise, The Prophets.  I have decided to share with you, Gentle Reader, some of what has been emerging into my consciousness during this time of immersion (I call it ‘taking a deep dive into the deep undercurrents’).  I will also be offering you some of Heschel’s own words.

The Prophet embraces God’s invitation and challenge (or is it a demand) to straighten out man’s ways.  To those experiencing the Prophet, the Prophet is strange, one-sided, often an unbearable extremist. 

Most of us, if we are awake and aware, suffer from existential loneliness.  The Prophet, however, is overwhelmed by the grandeur of the Divine Presence.  For the Prophet the realness of God comes first and the challenge is how to live in a way compatible with God’s Presence.  As Heschel notes: Man’s coexistence with God determines the course of history.  I experience Heschel’s words as both challenging and disturbing.

For the Prophet, God’s Presence is a challenge, a never-ending demand.  The demand: To remind us that God is Compassion and Love without compromise.

Now the Prophet’s predictions can always be proved wrong by a person, a people, changing his/her/their conduct.  What can never be proved wrong is God’s Compassion and Love for each person.

Heschel reminds us that: The prophet’s word is a scream in the night.  While the world is at ease and asleep, the prophet feels the blast from heaven.

Who is the Prophet?  The Prophet is a ‘Watchman’ (Hos. 9:8), a ‘Servant’ (Amos 3:7; Jer. 25:4; 26:5), a ‘Messenger’ of God (Hag. 1:3), an ‘Assayer & Tester’ of the people’s ways (Jer. 6:27); ‘whenever you hear a word from My mouth you shall give them warning from Me’ (Ezek. 3:17). 

The Prophet’s focus is always directed to the ‘now;’ the society (think: People of the Book, a Nation, a Global Community) and its conduct are the main theme of the Prophet’s words.  The Prophet’s words are the result of his inclining his ear to God and God’s Voice.  The Prophet is able to hold God and Man in a single thought. 

The Prophet is more than a mere messenger.  The Prophet is a person who stands in the Presence of God (Jer. 15:19), who stands ‘in the council of the Lord’ (Jer. 23:18), who is a participant with God, not a bearer of dispatches whose function is limited to being an errand boy.  I am thinking of the Prophets who challenged God with the result being that God changed His (or was it Her) mind. 

Given this, the Prophet not only conveys, the Prophet reveals.  In a deep sense the Prophet does unto others what God does unto the Prophet.  In speaking, the Prophet reveals God.  As Heschel notes: ‘In his words, the invisible God becomes audible.’ The authority of the Prophet is in the Presence his words reveal.

I will conclude PART I with Heschel’s words: ‘There are no proofs for the existence of the God of Abraham.  There are only witnesses.  The greatness of the prophet lies not only in the ideas he expressed, but also in the moments he experienced.  The prophet is a witness, and his words a testimony – to His power and judgment, to His justice and mercy.’ 

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Consider, Gentle Reader, that there is a difference between knowledge, information and awareness.  Many years ago my spiritual director noted that ‘one cannot do evil in awareness.’  On the other hand, one can do evil rooted in knowledge or information; one can do evil even when one ‘knows’ that the act is evil.  As a Christian Ecumenist I remind myself of Jesus’ words: ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’  They were NOT AWARE of what they were doing.  Consider, if they were AWARE that they were crucifying the Lord of Glory they would never have done so.  As I recall, Jesus also said something like this: ‘The time will come when they will persecute you and they THINK they are dong service to God’ – How often has this been done; how often does it continue to be done by ‘good’ people [I am now taking a deep breath as I choose not to become side-tracked into a rant about the destructive negative political ads put forth by ‘Good Christians’ that at times wash over us like an out of control tsunami].    

We blind ourselves when we have knowledge and information without being awake and aware.  Without awareness it is easy for knowledgeable and informed folks to rationalize the most evil of acts. 

When does our knowledge and information hinder us from becoming aware?  Remember, being aware does not bring comfort; more often than not it brings disturbance.  We have to dehumanize the other(s) in order to shun, in order to marginalize, in order to harm, in order to ignore, and in order to guilt-free kill.  I am thinking of two Christmas Eve incidents – one during WWI and the other, on a smaller scale during WWII.  The combatants actually met and for several hours they ‘got to know one another as human beings.’  They became awake and aware.  Only with threats and interventions from the commanders not present did the fighting resume. 

Now there is a trap here.  There is a belief (common I think) that knowledge and information plus awareness equals change.  Not so.  For years I fought depression.  Then I gained some knowledge and information.  I still fought depression.  Then I gained awareness.  I still fought depression.  I am reminded of the great Chinese sage who said: ‘Before enlightenment I was depressed.  After enlightenment I was depressed.’ 

I experienced less depression when I accepted my depression [I understand that some depression is ‘organically rooted’ and that it can be treated with medication].  That was the paradox for me.  Acceptance of who I am opened the pathway to less depression – knowledge, information and awareness helped but having them did not change me.  Actually, what I often experienced was that the harder I worked at not being depressed the more depressed I became when I ‘failed.’  Learning to be at peace with who I am actually released me from the throes of deep depression. 

My depression has been a gift.  I have been able to embrace the spiritual dark nights of my soul; I have been able to wander in the wilderness and wasteland and not lose hope; I have been able to perceive and savor the little pieces of light that are always present no matter how dark it becomes.  I have been able to dive into the depths and struggle with my version of Grendel’s mother (read Beowulf for a deeper understanding of what a deep dive entails) and surface again into the light, more alive and more healthy in spite of my wounds.  I have been more empathetic with others who struggle and at times find themselves in the darkness.  The dark nights of my soul provide me with the opportunity to learn more about myself; no one else could provide this opportunity or this learning. 

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The temperature has been quite below normal these past few days [an understatement to be sure].  Mark Twain captured this well when he noted that ‘It was so cold that if the thermometer had been an inch longer, we would have frozen to death.’  As I pondered his insightful words this morning it occurred to me that at times we – you and I – freeze to death on words, or we are consumed by their flames and heat.  Here’s a story to remind us of how ‘freezing’ or ‘inflaming’ words can be:

A wise person was speaking to a gathering one day; we will call this person ‘the wizard.’  The wizard was attempting to explain how powerful words are and how we humans tend to become quite emotional when it comes to certain words.  How we humans react (over react) to them; how we listen intently for key words that confirm, affirm, challenge or disturb us – and then how we emotionally react to them.  How words define our reality.  How some words ‘freeze us to death’ and ‘stop us cold’ and how other words ‘inflame us to the point of being consumed by their fire and heat.’ 

All of a sudden a man jumped out of his chair – nearly out of his skin, I am told – and shouted: ‘Who are you trying to kid, words don’t affect me that way; they have no power over me!’ 

The wizard paused, and smiled that knowing smile that only wise folks can smile, then the wizard shouted rather loudly: ‘Sit down and shut up!’  The man became livid, red with rage.  He shouted back, ‘How can you call yourself wise and treat others like this?’ [Well, Gentle Reader, these were not his exact words; I am told that his exact words would not be appropriate for this post.]

The wizard paused again, smiled again, and replied: ‘You are correct.  Please forgive me; I lost control of myself for a moment.  I apologize to you and I regret what I said.’ 

The man then looked a bit sheepish (no insult intended to the sheep by the by), he calmed down and he sat down.  After a bit the wizard said: ‘It took but a few words to get your ire up and the fire in your belly burning out of control. And it took a few words to help you calm down.  This is the power we give to words.’  Words, words, words how freezing to death they can be, for any of us – or how all- consuming they can be, as a fire is that is fed by gasoline.   

Here is a question: How do you, Gentle Reader, get a gentle eighty year old woman to curse out loud?   You have another gentle eighty year old woman yell ‘BINGO!’  Ah…the freezing and inflaming power of words. 

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