“Familiarity breeds contempt.” Yes, it may. In the realm of the spirit, familiarity can more likely breed dullness or staleness, an unwillingness to question or to think, a belief that if one just “believes” what is said, that suffices, and then one can be left “free” to live as one wishes.Then “religious belief” becomes a comfortable way to keep distant from God: perhaps useful as “fire insurance,” but of little or no effect in one’s daily life.That is comfortable for those who want spiritual “comfort” above all else. And it is safe indeed for those who want “blessed assurance,” and “home security.”
For all of us, the Gospel stories about Jesus have become so familiar, that we do not hear them as fresh and alive. We may not even try to listen, but indulge in comforting daydreaming when the Gospels are read, or the homily is preached. Part of the problem for clergy in preparing to preach on this Sunday’s passage from the Gospel of John, and for lay folks who hear it, is that much of this Gospel has been simplified and incorporated into diverse teachings of the Church, and these teachings in turn serve to keep one from hearing the Word sounding within. Jesus’ words to “Receive the Holy Spirit” becomes a formula to the Apostles, who in turn become a means to guarantee the security and longevity of the institutional church, “founded on the Apostles.”
On the other hand, to listen with faith requires that one’s mind is open, that one is searching, asking questions, with an ongoing awareness that one really does not know well the truth of God. “If you think you know, you do not know as you ought to know,” as the Apostle Paul wrote in words that sound genuinely Socratic—and wise. With an attentive, engaged mind, one actually listens to what is being said here and now, not primarily to what one thinks was said years ago to saintly men and women entombed in a book. In other words, you are the one being addressed. The living word of God is always personal, always from the mind of God to the mind of an attentive human being. In the recurring words of Orthodox liturgy: “Be attentive; holy things for the holy.”
Let’s take next Sunday’s gospel, the famous Emmaus Road story, to show how to listen to what the Gospel says to you. One needs to listen to the story in all of its details, and then, in effect, activate the same fundamental experience embodied in the story in one’s own soul or consciousness. Not to let the story engage one spiritually or existentially is not to hear it as it was intended to be heard: to bring one into living contact, right now, with the God of Jesus Christ.
We discuss matters, but rarely about God or Christ or how to live well, but probably about food, politics, sports, ranching, weather, grand-children, sports. Not often do I hear two parishioners speak about God’s actions in the world, although occasionally one remarks on the beauties of creation unfolding before our eyes. God in nature seems to speak even to those who have not yet discovered God breaking into consciousness. Now, how would Christ encounter those whose eyes are cast down, and whose minds are not attending to the things of God at this moment? How could that which we call “Christ” press in? Where is the opening in the discussion to be encountered by the Risen One—especially when there is no rational discussion which the Lord may be moving guiding? If one is not attending to the divine in some form, how does God break in?
Later on, perhaps many years later, someone may realize that God was actually at work, but it was unseen, perhaps unwanted at the time—as dark and as unnoticed as mint roots growing under earth in winter. And then perhaps someone will remember and bring into consciousness that of which one had been barely conscious at all. “There was something about that experience that I have not felt since. What was it? Somehow it was there, and I missed it. Why? What was I thinking? Or was I thinking at all?” In a moment, walking along a wooded path, a glint of light stretches out of the sky, and strikes the rock. Something happens. One then becomes aware of the reality of what had not seemed real, of the presence of that which had felt utterly absent.
If that does not arrest you, consider this week’s Gospel. When did you last turn and recognize the presence of God as Christ breaking into consciousness?
Every religious-spiritual tradition of which I know includes within it two distinct ways of life: the social and religious traditions, publicly celebrated; and its hidden or mystical life, often practiced by only a few, and in solitude. The outward, religious side of Catholicism is rich, having developed over some 20 centuries, not counting our roots in Jewish ritual, practices, and beliefs, nor in those of the Hellenistic world which were incorporated Into Catholic practice and belief in the early centuries. The liturgies of Holy Week are not only the high point of the Church year, but in my opinion, the most meaningful and beautiful services that Christianity has to offer. They center decisively on the suffering, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ—as does every Eucharistic celebration, but often in more muted tones, especially if drowned out by the kind of loud and busy, often social-activist services so common in our country today.
The mystical life of the Church is essentially one with mysticism in other forms, because it is utterly simple: the individual human being seeks internal growth in holiness (the purification of spirit) in order to become one with that which we by tradition call “God.” This process is the growth in love and virtues, even to the point in which one seeks to dissolve his or her own ego or self into divine Presence. St. Paul said it well: “Now I live, yet not I [ego], but Christ lives in me.” He kept renouncing himself, his own will, in order to allow the Risen Christ to live in him and through him. That is the pattern of the mystical life. It is the goal of our Catholic faith, at least as taught by the saints of the Church, but unfortunately, has often been neglected for more external, ritualistic religion, or for social “activism” of one kind or another. Anything is easier than dissolving one’s ego into the abyss of divine love.
If one lives only as a practicing Catholic in the external forms, and does not develop an internal spiritual life, one will not understand the meaning of eternal life. For outwardly religious Catholics, eternal life is usually misunderstood as afterlife, as something that happens to one after one dies. Hence, the celebration of Christ’s Resurrection (Easter) for example, is thought to be about what happens to people when they die. Even Christ’s Resurrection is externalized into stories and beliefs that sound more like a resuscitated corpse—more like Lazarus—than the experience of the Risen Christ in the psyches (consciousness) of selected men and women. In this sense, Catholic religious belief is not essentially different from that of ancient Egyptians, or Greeks, who had stories about life in the “underworld,” and how to escape the “lake of fire” and get to “paradise” or “heaven” in some way. For many people, including for some of our faithful Catholics, it seems that they believe that “getting to heaven” is the goal of life, and what “religion” has to offer. One theological mind called this kind of religion “fire insurance.”
Eternal life is not essentially “afterlife,” nor is it a form of speculation on some kind of futuristic existence beyond death. The term “eternal life” was coined by the Greek philosopher Plato, and it would have had some currency by the time of Christ. It means true life, a life that is true because one practices dying to self, especially in yielding up one’s opinions for truth, and one’s selfish passions for the rule of reason in the soul and in one’s actions. Eternal life is a life of openness to the divine Presence, that “eternalizes” or “immortalizes” the soul from within. At the end of his Ethics, Aristotle notes that the purpose of genuine life is “immortalizing,” and it comes from attunement to the divine mind. This is experientially equivalent to what the Apostle Paul means by “Christ lives in me.” Life in union with God is eternal life, here and now, and it is true life. “This is eternal life: to know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You sent,” using the language of St. John’s Gospel. God’s Life, beyond space-time, is eternal, forever.
We remember what God has done for us and for all human beings in and through the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. We remember with love and gratitude what Jesus Christ willingly suffered for us. We remember God’s action in Christ, and we resolve to live in and for the one “who loved us, and loved us to the end.”
These are the high holy days of the Church of Christ: Passion (Palm) Sunday; Holy Thursday with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper; the Good Friday liturgy; the Easter Vigil of the Lord’s Resurrection; and Easter Sunday, the joyful celebration that “God has raised Christ from the dead.” We who love Christ Jesus suffer, die, and rise with him.
I urge our parishioners to attend each of the liturgies of Holy Week. Each service is unique, and repeated only once a year, in a somewhat different form or style, depending on the celebrant and ministers. All of the liturgies of Holy Week focus on the suffering, death, and Resurrection of Christ, but each with its own emphasis: On Passion (Palm) Sunday, we are presented with an overview of the climatic events of Christ’s life through the reading of the entire Passion narrative. On Holy Thursday, our attention is drawn to Jesus’ Last Supper, in which he interpreted for us the meaning of the Passion, symbolized under the form of bread and wine, and symbolized in Christ’s washing the feet of his disciples: death in love for each and for all. On Good Friday, we remember the suffering and death of Jesus by listening to the Passion narrative from the Gospel of John, and we experience our gratitude and willingness to share in Christ’s suffering as we venerate the cross and receive holy communion.
Holy Week reaches its dramatic high point in the Easter Vigil, the most beautiful and meaningful liturgy celebrated by the Catholic Church. “This is the night when Christ rose triumphant” from death. This is also the night when the faithful renew their faith and commitment to Jesus Christ, to the community of disciples through space and time, to all of our fellow human beings, and to creation itself. This is the night when we receive with joy new members into the Body of Christ, celebrated through baptism, confirmation, and holy Eucharist. The Masses of Easter Sunday continue the celebration of Christ’s Resurrection, and invite each of the faithful present to renew his baptismal vows. So beautiful and rich in meaning is the Resurrection of Christ from the dead that we continue this feast through 50 days of Eastertide, up to the Feast of Pentecost.
We all live busy lives, but I invite and urge all of our people to “come to the waters,” to enter into these liturgies with faith and loving attentiveness, in order to be renewed from within by the unsurpassable gift of the Holy Spirit. We present ourselves to the Lord, open ourselves to his word, resolve to follow Christ faithfully all the days of our lives, and we participate afresh in the inflowing of the Holy Spirit—God’s loving Presence in us, for us, with us.
There is interest in our adult faith class to learn meditation, and hesitation or real difﬁculties in learning to contemplate in silence without words. So I will select some passages from our Scriptures and other spiritual texts to assist you in learning to meditate actively. Here is how to use these passages: choose one passage for a given session. Read it over several times, until it is clearly in your mind. Then turn off the light, ask God to assist you, and think about the passage. The goal is to listen to what God might be saying to you in and through these words, stories, images. A session could last about 10-15 minutes initially, about 30 minutes as you get more skilled and comfortable with it. This exercise is intended as “training wheels” towards silent contemplation. You already pray in words. This exercise uses your mind both to think about what the words mean, and to listen for what God may be telling you. Towards the end of the session, you may usefully distill your thoughts in a single, crisp sentence, pulling the session together. Give thanks to God for assistance. I recommend that you keep still, upright, alert throughout this meditation, to serve the better for concentration, and to move you towards the silence of God. Here are a few passages with which you may begin. Or, you could select your own from the bible or other spiritual texts.
(1). “Philip said to Jesus, `Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisﬁed.’ Jesus said to him, `Have I been with you all of this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. So how can you say, `Show us the Father?’ Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” (John 14:8-10a)
(2). “Be still, and know that I am God: I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted on the earth.” (Psalm 46)
(3). “O God, you are my God, I seek you. My soul thirsts for you, my ﬂesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land without water.” (Psalm 63)
(4). “Jesus asked his disciples, `Who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, `You are the Christ.’ And Jesus charged them to tell no one about him.” (Mark 8:29-30)
(5). “Jesus said, `For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind.’ Some of the Pharisees near him heard this, and they said to Jesus, `Are we also blind?’ Jesus said to them, `If you were blind, you would have not guilt; but now that you say, `We see,’ your guilt remains.” (John 9:39-41)
(6). “This is the judgment: that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one who does evil hates the light and does not come to the light lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God.” (John 3:19-21)
(7). “Jesus said to Simon, `Launch out into the deep, and let down your nets for a catch….’ When Simon Peter saw the great catch of ﬁsh, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, `Depart from me, O LORD, for I am a sinful man.’” (Luke 5:1-8, passim)
(8). “Jesus said to Mary Magdalene, `Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, `My lord, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, `Mary. She turned around and said to him in Hebrew, `Rabboni!’ (which means, Teacher)…” (John 20:11-18, passim)
(9). “Jesus stopped, and commanded that the blind man be brought to him; and when he came near, Jesus asked him, `What do you want me to do for you?’ He said, `Lord, let me receive my sight.’ Jesus said to him, `Receive your sight; your faith has made you well.’ And immediately the man received his sight and followed Jesus, glorifying God; and all the people, when they saw it, gave praise to God.” (Luke 18:35-43, passim)
(10). “Be still before the Lord and wait in patience; do not fret at one who prospers.” (Psalm 37:7)
(11). “The thirst [craving] of a heedless person grows like a wild vine; he runs from life to life, like a monkey seeking fruit in the forest.” (Dhammapada #334)
(12). “Through meditation wisdom is won; through lack of meditation wisdom is lost. Let a man who knows this double path of gain and loss so conduct himself that wisdom may grow.” (Dhammapada #282)
(13). “Come now, friend, turn aside for a while from your daily employment, escape for a moment from the tumult of your thoughts. Put aside your weighty cares, let our burdensome distractions wait; free yourself awhile for God, and rest awhile in him. Enter the inner chamber of your soul, shut out everything except God, and that which can help you in seeking him, and when you have shut the door, seek him.” (Proslogion of St. Anselm, chap 1)
(14).”O Lord my God, teach my heart where and how to seek you, where and how to ﬁnd you. Lord, if you are to here but absent, where shall I seek you? But you are everywhere, so you must be here; why then do I not see you? Surely you dwell in light inaccessible—where is it? and how can I have access to light which is inaccessible?” (Proslogion, chapter 1)
(15). “Lord, you are not only that than which nothing greater can be thought; you are also greater than can be thought.” (Proslogion, chap 15)
(16). “Everywhere you are entirely present, yet I cannot see you. In you I move and have my being, and I cannot come to you. You are within me and around me, and I have no experience of you.” (Proslogion, chap 16)