1st Sunday of Lent – The Dangerous Memory of Jesus

Whenever I’m home, I gravitate to my big comfortable chair facing our television.  I grab a cold beer, a bag of potato chips, and plop down in front of the television to watch for a while.  It’s so very comfortable!  The more relaxed I become, the more I slouch in this soft lazy chair.  If my daughters are out of bed, then the great risk is that they’ll ask me to get up.  Truthfully, it feels like I’m being dragged out of my lazy chair.  It’s uncomfortable, but I get up because my little girl says, “Daddy, come play with me.”  The invitation is too good to turn down.  The Gospel works in our lives in a similar way.  The Gospel of God should make us uncomfortable, because it is a complete interruption to our normal lives.  The Gospels demands much from us.  But, the promise of divine life is too attractive to turn down.

The Gospel is radical, but our familiarity with it blinds us.  So, we need a fresh look at the Gospel to jolt us out of our complacent and dismissive view of it.  The Gospel is the story of Jesus being reduced to nothingness.  The Gospel is a dangerous memory that disrupts the story of conventional society.  The Gospel is lived by being reduced to nothingness with Jesus.  In this way, God frees us from the grips of evil.  God does not fight evil on evil’s terms but by being God: the humble, poor, merciful yet incomprehensible mystery grounding the whole of existence.  The cross, God’s instrument of salvation, is, essentially, about being reduced to nothing.

This is not a theme I choose arbitrarily.  No less an authority than St. Paul says, “God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something” (1 Corinthians 1:28).  God’s plan is to reduce us to nothing so that our inherent oneness with God can be insuppressibly real for us.  It’s a scriptural theme, and we find it in tradition as well.  An obscure medieval hermit named Stephen of Muret says, “If it is the Son of God you wish to imitate – he who emptied himself – you will have to reduce yourself to nothing.”  Such a view of the Gospel has the power to shock us out of our assumed knowledge to perceive just how radically devastating the Gospel is to our conventional American lives.  This is a reduction of ego, of the self to the nothingness of God.  Jesus, in other words, surrenders and lets go and simultaneously reveals God who is humble and so mysterious that Catholic mystical tradition has called God, “nothing.”

Today’s Gospel reading points to the characterization of Jesus’ story and our following Jesus as being reduced to nothing.  Jesus lets the Spirit lead him into the desert.  He gives full attention to God and surrenders to God’s Holy Spirit.  This is the primary way we follow Jesus along this path of reduction to nothingness, for when we allow God to be the center of our lives we stop being the center.  Such an allowance is a reduction of the ego to nothing, for then the ego is not the center of life.  It’s not what we do, but what we allow to be done to us.  Otherwise, whatever practices we choose to do, the ego is still in charge.  Ego cannot be the one directing the ego-diminishing path of being reduced to nothing.

I remember attending a week-long workshop at a retreat center in the Sonoran Desert.  There was a booklet in my room that detailed all the ways the desert would be able to kill me: scorpions, rattle snakes, tarantulas, and, most of all, dehydration.  The desert is a lifeless place and it is ready to kill us!  Yet, Jesus plunges into this deadly terrain.  In the desert, God dries up our ego and kills our polite suburban lifestyle, so we can be truly free, joyful, and loving.

Clearly, the desert is not a comfortable place.  It’s not a place we prefer.  Instead, we prefer the comforts of sit-com culture.  The sit-coms of the various major networks tell the stories of average Americans, shows like Family Ties, Modern Family, or Family Matters (note the bourgeois emphasis on family).  In these television programs the characters are never in any real danger and everything always turns out all right in the end.  Their lives go on as before.  The status quo of making money, succeeding in academics or athletics, and, most heinous of all, complete ignorance of the poor and suffering continue like no drama ever happened.

Jesus is led into the desert, which suggests he consents.  He surrenders to God’s Spirit.  Right at the very beginning of the Gospel of Mark we see Jesus says a wholehearted yes to God’s plan, namely, to reduce him to nothingness.  Jesus keeps surrendering to God and to this path of reduction to nothingness as the Gospel story unfolds and reaches its climax in the passion and death of Jesus.  The desert into which Jesus is led stands for the nothingness.  It’s the Bible’s way of pointing to the divine mystery of transcendence as it coincides with and reveals its inherent unity with poverty, deprivation, humility, littleness, emptiness, and nothingness.

The Gospel is the dangerous memory of Christ Crucified, which is Jesus being reduced to nothing.  This memory disrupts and devastates the basic assumptions we have about life, which underlie our very approach to life.  The Gospel attacks sit-com culture or, as some theologians call it, bourgeois society.  The story of Jesus being reduced to nothingness should cause discomfort.  This should repulse us, but the Gospel is not here to confirm conventional American values.  Instead, the Gospel is the antithesis to the world’s status quo and bourgeois values.  These values include the priority of the market, the accumulation of possessions, success, beauty, competition, comparison, and, especially, autonomy (our cherished freedom to choose).  A reduction to nothing is an opposite path than the one we take every day in polite society.

The Gospel path we all commit to taking as followers of Jesus is the path of being reduced to nothing, and that should be terrifying.  The Gospel of God interrupts all our pretensions, all our niceties, and, especially, all the unquestioned cultural myths we harbor.  We are faced with a terrible decision this Lent: repent and head into the desert with Jesus to be reduced to nothing, which is the route to discovering God, or slink back to the comforts of normal life, of dreary yet familiar suburban/bourgeois culture and remain wholly dead to Divine Life and Happiness, and there to continue oppressing the poor, minorities, and anyone who questions the system because we don’t want the rocking the boat or our secure existence.  Repent!  Turn away from the tempting comforts of life, the all-too-easy rationalizations we apply to those times when God calls us out of our comfort zones into the desert of divine mystery to suffer with others and show divine compassion.  Do we just believe in Jesus or do we follow Jesus?  Will we only believe in conversion and mercy or will we actually repent?

To take this absolutely seriously, to start living the Gospel, Lent focuses us on three Gospel practices: prayer, almsgiving, and fasting.  But the foundational practice is repentance, which means calling into question everything we take for granted about our lives.  It means being ready to give up our cherished bourgeois values of competition, success, and strength to receive the Gospel values of weakness, nonviolence, a joyfully suffering humiliations.  Still we need to give this repentance concrete form in our lives.  So, we fast, give alms, and pray.

Fast from TV, movies, and the internet.  Unplug and slow down.  Give alms, however you choose to donate money to a charity, give alms by personally interacting with someone suffering from poverty.  Get to know their name and listen to their story.  Whatever method of prayer you choose, make sure to pray it contemplatively, which means allowing for interior silence and stillness.  Above all, intend to practice out of love for God and neighbor.  This requires going outside our comfort zones.

The life and teachings of Jesus show how his follower is reduced to nothing through humiliations, weakness, poverty, trials, defenselessness, loss, misunderstanding, service, no support, littleness, insecurity, suffering, hiddenness, anonymity, and interior silence.  The Gospels in our Bibles teach these values.  A vital Lenten practice, then, is to read the Gospels.  I suggest we read the Gospel of Mark, for it is a clearly the story of Jesus being reduced to nothingness.  It is also a direct challenge to us, the followers of Jesus, to take up our crosses and trod the same path as Jesus by repentance.  In doing so, we, like Jesus, become a serious threat to conventional, well-mannered, American life.


Tony Soprano and the Transfiguration

We all wear disguises.  We act one way around friends, and another way around family.  Sometimes we never show our true face to anyone.  Tony Soprano, the main character in the HBO series The Sopranos, is a mafia boss in northern New Jersey.  He is man of many faces, many masks.  He seems to lead multiple lives.  He is one way with his wife and children.  He is another way around his other family, the mafia.  Tony tells the other mafiosos that the crime family comes before their actual family.  He is different around his many mistresses.  Even more, he is different and, perhaps, his most authentic when he meets with his therapist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi.  Oddly, he tries to be a good father and husband.  But, he does not see the terrible disconnect between his criminal life, which includes murder and prostitutes, and his home life.  It is like he is wearing a different mask depending on his social context.  He simply doesn’t know who he really is.  Tony Soprano may be an extreme example, but we all wear these masks.  None of us knows who we truly are.

The story of the Transfiguration can be read as a revelation about our true identity.  The word transfigure means, according to dictionary.com, “a change so as to glorify or exalt.”  The change, enacted by God in Jesus, reveals Jesus in all his glory as the eternal Son of God.  Since he is also human and one of us, the mystery of the Transfiguration is the mystery of who we really are in God.  Our real selves are both divine and human, just like Jesus.  However, we are not convinced that this divine identity is our true nature.  We suffer from the illusion that we are our egos.

A core truth is that we are not our egos.  The ego is self-centered and basically a projection of our personal histories, our family, our culture, and even our religion.  The ego is who we think we are, which is an identity made up of many labels, fears, grievances, and attachments most of all.  One reason we think we are the ego is because we tend to think and act like the people around us want us to think and act.  At least, we act and think the way we perceive others to want us to think and act.  In No Man is an Island, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton writes, “The deep secrecy of my own being is often hidden from me by my own estimate of what I am.  My idea of what I am is falsified by my admiration for what I do.  And my illusions about myself are bred by contagion from the illusions of other men.  We all seek to imitate one another’s imagined greatness.”

Some context for the episode of the Transfiguration may help unlock its mystery.  In the Gospel of Matthew, from which this Sunday’s Gospel reading comes, the Transfiguration takes places after Jesus tells the disciples to deny themselves and lose their lives.  This is the key to the mystery of the Transfiguration and its unveiling of our true self.  To follow Jesus requires the letting go of ego and the realization of our divine identity.  The whole of the spiritual life is a process of reducing the ego, the self we think we are, to nothingness so we realize we are one with God.

This divine radiance is ours, but only when we die with Christ, that is, when we let go like Jesus.  We, too, must deny ourselves and lose our lives.  Thomas Keating interprets the line “whoever loses his or her life for my sake will save it” to mean “whoever becomes nothing for me discovers who she or he truly is.”  The ego is reduced not by anything we do but by allowing life to happen with acceptance and surrender.  That is what it means to become nothing.  As Richard Rohr says, “it is not so much what we do as what we allow to be done to us.”  In the Transfiguration scene, God says about Jesus, “Listen to him.”  Putting Jesus’ teachings on poverty of spirit, forgiveness, seeking first the kingdom, and love, move us from the self-centeredness of the ego to the divine life, our real identity.

In the self-surrender that shares in Christ’s own self-surrender on the cross we allow God to transform us into the same radiant life that shone through Jesus at the Transfiguration.  All it takes is self-forgetfulness, that constant exercise of ignoring oneself and what one thinks about oneself.  Again, Thomas Merton writes, “When we are truly ourselves we lose most of the futile self-consciousness that keeps us constantly comparing ourselves with others in order to see how big we are.”  When we stop paying so much attention to ourselves, who we are in God shines through and the disguises we wear fall away.


Christ our King in light of the election

Crucified naked between two thieves, Jesus reigns as King.  We make startling claims about this Jesus who died a criminal’s death and, seemingly, as a total failure.  Jesus Christ is our King, our Lord.  This is at least paradoxical.  In truth, it is subversive.  We have no other Lord but the God of Jesus.  No leader, no government, no economic system, no country, no religion, and no president trumps the God of Jesus.  The Holy Mystery as revealed in the Lamb is the center of our lives.  Every other power or system is relative to the power of the Lamb.  The nonviolent, gentle, humble, prophetic, purely mystical Jesus reveals a God who is gratuitous mercy on the side of the poor and marginalized, freeing all from within and offering eternal happiness if we but let go.

The early Christians knew well the cost of calling Jesus Kyrios, which is ancient Greek for Lord.  In the ancient world, there was only one Kyrios, and he was the Emperor.  He ruled the Roman Empire absolutely.  There was even a whole religious cult devoted to worshipping the Emperor.  The ancient Christians refused to worship the Emperor, who made peace through violence, subjugation of people, and oppression of the poorest.  He was a man, not God.  To call anyone Kyrios was not only unpatriotic but also a crime.  Still, the early Christians chose Jesus crucified as their Kyrios.  It is through Jesus that the early Christians intimately knew the God of life and love.  It is through Jesus that the early Christians experienced salvation.  They did not have the same experience with the Emperor.

The early Christians chose Jesus as their Kyrios even when it meant death.  Many were persecuted and put to death in Roman coliseums.  Many were beheaded and crucified.  Surprisingly, more and more people became Christian.  The early martyrs, those killed for their faith in the Lord Jesus, attracted others to the faith by their heavenly courage and Gospel resistance to the often-oppressive Roman Empire.  The Gospel spread, and through it God liberated many more people.  These early Christians, the martyrs, could not have witnessed to the goodness of God in Jesus and simultaneously protest the evils of the empire without having a living connection to the Holy Mystery of God as revealed in Jesus Christ.  This living connection is available to everyone right now.

Reigning on the cross, Jesus says to the good thief crucified next to him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”  Jesus our King is saying we, too, can know the Mystery of God by inhabiting today.  We can connect with God by being present in the now.  Today is paradise, where we simply enjoy God.  Paradise is the interior state of pure nothingness, which is the state of consciousness fully inhabiting the present moment and detaching from all false gods or enslaving “things.”  The now is paradise when we live there consciously.

Often, however, we do not experience the now as paradise.  We get anxious, afraid, distracted, lonely, depressed, or bored.  With a new president, many of us are dreading the future while others are excited.  Neither attitude helps.  Getting anxious or excited over what the future holds distracts us from the paradise of the now.  Amid our obsession with past and future, Jesus our King appears to say we can enjoy God this second by letting our minds be quiet and sinking into the indistinct nothingness within.  Then, we are present and can accept the experience of the now.  Change is then possible.

If we accept God in this present moment, we initiate a revolution of the heart.  We need a revolution of the heart.  This is a turning away from hatred and fear toward love and enlightenment.  Some believe Trump’s election is the solution to the country’s problems.  While many others think he represents the revenge of racism and misogyny, which some are labelling “white male supremacy.”  We desperately need this revolution of the heart.  We need people to let go of their hatred and fear.  It is the only way forward, the only way to true justice and peace.  Only when everyone is present here and now, open to divine mercy, and connecting with the God within can they change and see everyone truly as brother and sister.  Thus, being present in the now, knowing today is paradise, is an act of resistance to all evil and to everything separating us from God and one another.  It is a mystical and a prophetic act.  It is the only sane response to our present situation, no matter whom we voted for.  It is to follow Jesus our King.


3rd Sunday of Lent with Therese of Lisieux

There are days when I feel very impatient with my two-year-old daughter.  There are days when I get nasty in my judgments of others.  There are days when I could not care less about other people.  We all have these days.  We get in a mood and we say things or do things we do not really mean.  We are prone to fail, to fall, to break our relationships, and to hurt one another.  St. Therese of Lisieux would tell us, at our very lowest, not to get discouraged but to renew our trust in God.  She would say all we need to do is surrender to the Source of Grace and Mercy.

Therese, the next mystic guiding us through Lent, affirms the message in today’s Gospel.  The barren fig tree in Jesus’ parable represents our lives.  According to Thomas Keating, the fertilizer “is the symbol of our experience of daily life and of our constantly recurring faults.”  Cultivating the ground around the barren fig tree and fertilizing it again and again, for Keating, represents our efforts to keep trusting God even though the same old fault come back again and again.  This practice of persevering in faith despite our failures lies at the heart of the message of Therese of Lisieux.

Therese lived a rather uneventful life, at least by our standards.  Born in 1873, she hardly ever left her hamlet in France, Lisieux.  She moved from her childhood home to the local Carmelite convent, where she died when she was twenty-four, in the year 1897.  Yet, she lived an extraordinary inner life, because she really got – and I mean got! – the essence of the Gospel.  She was like one of Jesus’ parables come to life.  She wrote an autobiography called “The Story of a Soul,” which was published a year after her death.  It became the late Nineteenth Century equivalent of a “best-seller.”  People all over the world reported how their lives were changed by reading “A Story of a Soul.”  Additionally, Therese left behind numerous letters to priests, her sisters, and fellow Carmelites.  In all these writings, she described her “Little Way” of trust, love, and surrender to God.

Therese teaches us God alone is our holiness.  We don’t have to expect perfection from ourselves!  In fact, such an expectation is counter-productive and even harmful to the spiritual life.  If we want to live like mystics, Therese would advise us to surrender when we feel weak and helpless.  She would add, accepting our weakness and failure allows us to take the focus off ourselves and let God’s mercy into our hearts.

Therese came to a profound insight: we cannot change ourselves but God can and will.  All we need to do is surrender in loving trust to God.  Welcome every experience of weakness, failure, and stupidity!  Welcome them because they are more opportunities to open to God in simple trust.  We cannot be big in God’s presence.  We must be little.  We must recognize our own nothingness, not because we are inherently bad, but because this opens us to give ourselves to God.  Being little, recognizing we are poor and in need, forces us to go to God and trust in the Infinite Divine Mercy.

Whenever we get preoccupied with doing something right, or being perfect we have veered off course.  Perfectionism is about self, not about God.  So, Therese says, “Yes, it suffices to humble oneself, to bear with one’s imperfections. That is real sanctity.”  Each of us needs a strong dose of patient self-love.  Getting upset over our faults only makes the situation worse.  If, instead, we can follow Therese at this moment, we will know peace.  Suppose we make a mistake and we get upset about it.  Feelings of stupidity, anger, defeatism, and inadequacy can overwhelm us.  Josef Schmidt reflects, “Thérèse quickly turned these feelings into prayer and thus into stepping-stones for her own growth.”  Precisely in these feelings, we surrender to God.  Therese tells us, “One has only to love Him, without looking at one’s self, without examining one’s faults too much.”  We just look at Jesus without wallowing in the self-pity that normally follows on some disappointment or failure.

Here is our practice: self-acceptance and surrender to God.  When we mess up, we accept our mess and hand ourselves over to God without any fretting over the mess.  “All too often we get agitated instead of relying trustingly on God…our hearts are riddled with fears and doubts,” says Jacques Philippe.  Through the practice of self-acceptance and surrender, we stay focused on loving God and others.  When we experience our weakness, we simply turn to God and patiently put up with ourselves as we are.  God does not expect perfection from us, so neither should we!  “What really pleases Jesus is that He sees me loving my littleness and my poverty, the blind hope that I have in His mercy…This is my only treasure…why would this treasure not be yours?”  “The Little Way” of St. Therese of Lisieux consists of simply and totally trusting in the divine mercy while accepting ourselves as we are.  Bearing our weaknesses, we keep our hearts and minds anchored in God.  Letting God be our treasure is all that matters.  “I see it is sufficient to recognize one’s nothingness and to abandon oneself as a child into God’s arms.”


A Mystic on the 1st Sunday of Lent

First Sunday of Lent Reflection

In the 1980’s Richard Pryor starred in a movie called “Brewster’s Millions.”  He played a lower class everyday guy from New Jersey named Monty Brewster who receives word that his uncle is dead and has left him his vast wealth.  Only, the uncle says he wants to teach Brewster a lesson about saving money.  So, he tells Brewster—via a video will—that he has to spend $30 million dollars in 30 days.  The uncle wants Brewster to be sick of spending money.  If he is able to spend that much in 30 days, he gets $300 million.  So, Brewster starts wasting money immediately.  He redefines the terms extravagant and gratuitous.  He shells out thousands to stay in the best hotel.  He rents hundreds of suits.  He buys everyone dinner and drinks wherever he goes.  He redecorates his hotel suite dozens of times.  He throws away every last dime to get the larger prize of $300 million.

This movie displays a great truth of our faith: gratuitousness.  Like Brewster, God is wasteful and extravagant.  God gives away God without charge and abundantly.  God throws God away—on us, mind you—because that’s who God is.  This is the divine gratuitousness, which calls forth a response from us.  Gratuitousness is a theme of today’s scripture readings and is a central theme for our next mystic guide: a medieval Italian mystic named Jacopone da Todi.

In the Gospel, Jesus definitively walks the path of gratuitousness.  He totally empties himself in response to God’s gratuitousness.  In the desert, Jesus says “no” to all the ways we resist God’s gratuitousness by seeking security, affection, and control as ends in themselves.  In the desert, Jesus was abnormally absorbed in God.  Such is our gratuitous response to God.  We let ourselves, like Jesus, become God-consumed.  The mind of Jesus was strangely and unusually fixed on God.  Letting God so possess us that we become wildly, deliriously, uncontrollably fixed on God, like Jesus, lies at the heart of the message of Jacopone da Todi.  He believed that is God madly in love with us.  God’s gratuitousness is crazy, driving God to become a human being and die on a cross!  For Jacopone, we respond to this crazy gratuitous love of God through wild, gratuitous surrender.

Jacopone da Todi was a fourteenth century mystic born in the Italian village of Todi, He was married at first and worked as a tax lawyer.  When he was 47 his wife died.  This tragedy precipitated Jacopone’s conversion.  He became a Franciscan, moved by the example of St. Francis.  Jacopone had a passion for following Christ Crucified in poverty and contemplation.  Shocked by corruption in the Church, he challenged a ruthless pope named Boniface VIII.  The pope sent him to jail for ten years, and kicked him out of the Franciscans and the Church!  Fortunately, the next pope, Benedict XI, released him.  Jacopone then returned to the Franciscans and lived the remainder of his time with them in peace, a great witness to his spiritual depth. He is known for a series of poetic prayers he calls Lauds.

For Jacopone God becoming flesh in Jesus and dying on a cross displays the utter extravagance and madness of divine love.  It shows how gratuitous God is.  In Laud 65 Jacopone is amazed and even perplexed by God’s desire to become human: “Were these the actions of someone drunk, or out of his senses?  How could You abdicate kingdom and riches, renunciation that verges on madness?”  He speaks to God, “You love So deeply and tenaciously and wildly.”  God’s gratuitousness is tenaciously wild and uncontrollably fierce.

Christ’s emptying of himself through the madness of love is the model of a life of conversion.  “He does not hold back—all of Himself He gives in His desire to be one with you.  Will you not give all of yourself to Him?  Will you not hasten to embrace Him?”  We convert by unreservedly surrendering to this very same love.  In his Lauds Jacopone describes how we surrender to God by immersing ourselves in divine love, dying with Christ Crucified, and submitting to self-annihilation.

In Laud 83, Jacopone confesses, “I long to die drowned in Love.”  We drown in Love when we are immersed in God.  Concretely, immersing ourselves in divine love means remaining in God’s presence as much as we can all day long.  We die drowned in love when we are consciously immersed in God.  We become consumed with the Divine Presence.  Jacopone describes holy people as “submerged in the abyss of Love, overcome by its vastness.”  We become like these holy ones when we let God occupy us entirely.  Such is a gratuitous surrender to God.

For Jacopone, the path of surrender is essentially the path of Christ Crucified.  In Laud 83 he says, “O cross, I fix myself to you and cling to you, that as I die, I may taste Life!”  He knows that by clinging to the cross, that is, by gratuitously letting go of everything, new life emerges.  We have to let go of our private, self-obsessed worlds to become God-obsessed.  Such is new life, which Jacopone describes as “jubilant joy and somersaults of happiness.”  Through the way of the cross we will come to know the delirious joy of God.

The fullness of the way of the cross is our utter annihilation.  Jacopone uses the term “self-annihilation” to describe our total identification with Christ Crucified and our complete gift of self to God.  Jacopone describes the one who is undergoing self-annihilation: “He must strip his soul of all thought…hold on to nothing.”  We let go of all possessing, all thinking, and dissolve in God.  He says we are “reduced to nothing” within and without when God is our all and everything.  But, there is no reason to fear.  Jacopone declares, “the soul, conquered, is conqueror; Annihilated, it lives in triumph.”  Through self-annihilation we discover who we are in God, we discover our Love identity: “What happens to the drop of wine that you pour into the sea?…It is as if it never existed.  So it is with the soul: Love drinks it in.”

Jacopone was “mad with love of Christ.”  Madness is one of his main images for God’s gratuitous love and our gratuitous response.  Jacopone invites us to drown in divine love and to follow Christ Crucified unto self-annihilation.  He calls us to respond to God as Jesus did, by getting absorbed in God gratuitously.  We refuse, though.  We fritter away our love and attention on things that don’t matter.  We prefer our reasonable and safe lives to the wild ecstasy of God: “Sensible people with sensible smiles cannot understand the wildness of your ecstasy!”

Here’s a Lenten challenge: don’t just give something up, but gratuitously surrender to the God who is madly in love with you.  Gratuitous surrender means to let God so consume us that we may become God-possessed and God-intoxicated.  If we follow this path, Jacopone promises that we will be one with God in Christ: “You and your Beloved will become one.”  We will disappear in the mystery of divine love: “The sense of self disappears, for it can never rise to this level, where the infinite charity of God engulfs all.”


Ash Wednesday with Meister Eckhart

We live in a very distracted world.  We are so busy that we have to multi-task.  We are so plugged in to our technology that we get information overload.  Life can seem like it’s too much.  The moment we try to focus our attention we get drawn away by something entertaining or by some task.  Everything in our culture works to distract us from the deeper questions of existence: what happens when we die?  What is life all about?  Why are we here?  Our split-focus keeps us living superficial and unhappy lives.

Among the more typical distractions are worrying about money, excessive entertainment, talking about people behind their backs, fantasizing, wanting to change people, seeking attention, preoccupation with what others think of us, wanting to get back at someone, and complaining.  These distractions are not hot sins but the little ways we get scattered.  Such a life leaves us unable to enjoy the moment because we are so consumed by things coming and going.  If we allow ourselves to be preoccupied by these distractions, we will not know real happiness.  We need guidance.

Over the course of the season of Lent each of our reflections will take a spiritual guide to help lead us more deeply into the Holy Mystery.  We will focus on a Christian mystic each week to highlight a theme from the scripture readings.  What is a mystic, though?  A mystic is a person who actively lives his or her relationship with God in Christ through the Holy Spirit.  A mystic can be anyone.  They are not limited to monks or nuns.  God is within us all!  God invites all of us to be mystics, people centered on God alone.

Centering on God and not oneself constitutes the essence of Lent.  In fact, the scripture readings for Ash Wednesday also hone in on this message.  Conversion is the key word today, and for the whole of Lent.  Jesus calls us to conversion, to turn our attention to God and stop being so preoccupied with self-image and self-concern.  In today’s first reading, God says through the prophet Joel, “return to me with your whole heart.”  To get Lent we have to get conversion.  To convert is to put on the mind of Christ, which is a mind fixed on God.

Turning from self to God is also the goal of our first mystic guide: Meister Eckhart.  He was a fourteenth century German Dominican friar.  He was a preacher, teacher, administrator, spiritual director, and theologian.  He was a very active person: preaching in the cities, running houses of Dominican Friars, and teaching classes at the university of Paris.  He was a mystic in the world.  He was a mystic who preached to ordinary people the way to become one with God.  I chose him as our first guide through Lent because he seeks to free us from ourselves and for God, which, I believe, is the heart of the Gospel and the season of Lent.  Meister Eckhart calls this the practice of detachment.

For Meister Eckhart, detachment is the attitude of seeking God alone by inner nothingness.  It is a fundamental letting go of the exhaustion of possessiveness and control needs to rest in God.  Meister Eckhart writes, “To be empty of all created things is to be full of God, and to be full of created things is to be empty of God.”  To be more precise, detachment does not equal indifference.  It is best understood as a letting go of all, a radical freedom from our addictions and obsessions and radical freedom for God.  As Eckhart says, “detachment is wholly free of all created things.”

Meister Eckhart calls us to “let our intention be purely and only for God” and to “accept God in all things.”  He says, “If you truly have God and only God, nothing will disturb you.  Why?  Because you are totally focused upon God and only God.  Therefore everything is nothing but God to you.”  Similarly, he says, “all things become for you nothing but God, for in all things you have your eye only on God.”  The key is that we focus on God alone, and that means letting go of all our distractions.

To have God alone means to center our minds on God alone and to stop all self-talk and to withdraw from all thinking.  It means silence within and being God-aware.  God, though, is not a thing.  So we can’t be aware of God like we can be aware of an object or a person.  To be God-centered, then, is simply to be aware, present in the moment, not focusing on anything, and not thinking about anything.  It is letting our inner worlds become nothing.  Therefore, Meister Eckhart preaches that we should “sink down out of something into nothing.”  The detached person must remain in “a state of pure nothingness,” for this is the way to know the Transcendent Nothingness of God.

So, detachment is letting go of self and centering on God.  To focus on God necessitates a letting go of our distractions.  Of course, we will still get distracted.  Our worries will overwhelm us.  Items on our to-do lists will consume our attention.  We’ll get lost in busy-ness or in our emotions or in a fantasy world.  It’s human.  It’s to be expected.  When we are distracted, we simply and gently return to this divine nothingness.  We bring our minds back into God’s Presence.  Practically speaking, we may return to God a thousand times in a few minutes.  That is normal, and very good.  Just keep coming back.

The season of Lent, then, becomes clear and challenging.  We let go of self and focus on God alone.  Whenever we are preoccupied, we gently return our awareness to God within.  We come back to the nothingness within.  This syncs up with the traditional Lenten practices Jesus recommends in the Gospel: alms giving, fasting, and prayer.  Focused on God we turn to our neighbors in mercy – alms giving.  We stop those habits that trap us in narcissism – fasting.  We give our full attention to God – prayer.  All three practices are summed up in the word conversion.  Turning away from self and toward God, we are training our minds to focus on the happiness and love we long for.  Meister Eckhart reminds us, if we truly have God alone, nothing will disturb us.  Nothing will distract us.  If we seek God with single minds and hearts, God will transform us and through us, the world.


Insights on Love from Quantum Physics

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time – Reflection
Divine Love is more than feelings, deeper than sentiment. Love is active. Love does something, changing us and the world. If you’ve ever been in a relationship you know this. If you truly love another person you grow, change, and begin to think less of yourself. Last week’s reflection looked at love as transformation. This week the scriptures tell us love is all about connection and that love is eminently practical. God transforms us when we connect to love and it leads to concrete practices: choices, behaviors, and disciplining our minds. So in this reflection we will ponder love’s deep connectivity and practical nature.
We start with Paul’s image of the Body of Christ in our second reading. Paul writes, “As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.” We are all one body in Christ through the Spirit. Even though we may seem separate and like individual parts, we are one whole. This is a startlingly amazing metaphor when we think of what quantum physics now tells us. This branch of science speaks of the unbroken wholeness of the universe. Physicist Fritjof Capra writes: “Quantum theory…reveals a basic oneness of the universe…As we penetrate into matter, nature does not show us any isolated ‘basic building blocks,’ but rather appears as a complicated web of relations between the various parts of the whole.”(The Tao of Physics). This is truly incredible, for quantum physics says we are all one! Just like Paul’s spiritual vision of the Body of Christ, we may seem separate but that is an illusion. Everything is one undivided whole.
Now, because of this undivided wholeness that is the universe, quantum physics also talks about a phenomenon called entanglement. Ilia Delio describes it: “Quantum entanglement is nonlocal interaction or unmediated action at a distance, without crossing space, without decay, and without delay…The idea of nonlocal action at a distance requires a connection that travels faster than light.” This means that something done in New Jersey, for instance, instantly affects people in Mongolia, and everywhere else too! Later Delio notes, “Our human thoughts are linked to nature by non local connections.” Not only what we do, but what we think affects the world, because everything and everyone is part of an undivided wholeness.
So what does this have to do with the love Jesus preached in the Gospels? What we do affects everything and everyone. Whether we are acting selfishly or selflessly in our lives, we are affecting the whole world negatively or positively. Quantum physics confirms what the mystics know, namely, that our thoughts and actions matter. They have a real effect on everything! We can’t afford negative thinking because it hurts the world, literally. Ilia Delio says, “Our thoughts are not neutral or private; they do something.” Our consciousness affects the world for good or ill. Contemplative prayer, then, is incredibly important! We need to commune with the God within. For, with this consciousness of deep connection with God and the universe (which is contemplative prayer), we will transform the world. Our thoughts, actions, and our very consciousness influence everything.
Because love is deep connection, love is incredibly practical. Love becomes more practical than ever! We are so connected, so one, that whatever we do – even whatever we think – has an effect on the universe. If you think negative thoughts, that shapes the world. If, instead, you are thinking about people with love, if you are present and open to God in this moment, that has a much greater and even transformative effect on the universe.
If you want to do something about all the social ills of our time, start by little acts of love – interior acts and exterior acts. Putting it concretely, we can help Syrian refugees by forgiving the person who cuts us off on the highway. We can positively affect the starving through intentional acts of kindness. In short, the liberation Jesus proclaims in today’s Gospel reading is fulfilled when we love.
Jesus reads from Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.”  He announces that this passage is fulfilled because he is love incarnate. His God-consciousness, his absolute oneness with God, made him like a star’s furnace constantly churning out nuclear explosions of divine love that affected all existence because of the undivided wholeness of the universe. He liberates the poor and oppressed because he radiates love. He fends off war, violence, and all evil because he IS love. We will do the same when we love with the love of Christ.
Etty Hilesum makes this connecting and practical love very real when she writes, “Why is there war? Perhaps because now and then I might be inclined to snap at my neighbor. Because I and my neighbor and everyone else do not have enough love. . . . Yet there is love bound up inside us, and if we could release it into the world, a little each day, we would be fighting war and everything that comes with it.”
Love is connection. It is the deep connectivity proved by science and described by Paul. This deep connectivity is possible only because of God. In fact God IS this deep connectivity, its center and power. God sustains and moves this unbroken wholeness. To love most powerfully we have to love with God’s love. We have to plug into the infinite energy of divine love pulsing within us and waiting to be unleashed on the world. We do this through prayer. In prayer we connect with the God within and by doing just this we change the world. For, remember, our thoughts matter. Our consciousness affects the world. Prayer, then, is the most powerful thing we can do! As our first reading from Nehemiah says, “rejoicing in the Lord is our strength.”
Ilia Delio writes, “Prayer is centering the mind on ultimate life-energy—God—through which we are connected to the entire universe.” So, God-centered-ness, God-consciousness or the mind of Christ, will be infinitely more powerful and explosively transformative than anything we do on our own. In truth, we will love only when we are centered in the God within. We truly pray when we let go of our thinking, abandon all our distractions, and center on God by an inner silence and interior nothingness. Only when we are aware and open and empty in the moment are we in God and therefore in love. Then we can change the world through the undivided wholeness that is our universe.