Today’s Bible reading
Come and see what the Lord has done,
the desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease
to the ends of the earth.
He breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
He says, “Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth.”—Psalm 46:8-10
More thoughts for meditation
During Lent we will be learning from great practitioners and teachers of Christian contemplative practice. Their shared wisdom and encouragement will inspire our own practice. Our words for Lent are “We need to feel it.” — our hunger, our lack, our sin, yes, but also the love that casts out fear, the presence of eternity in our here and now and the forgiveness that transforms our lives and the whole world. Contemplative prayer is a powerful way to practice feeling it.
Martin Laird’s A Sunlit Absence is a companion book to Into The Silent Land (Pastors’ Goodreads review here and Daily Prayer entries on that text here). He is one of our aforementioned “great practitioner of Christian contemplation.”
“When we are drawn into the presence of God with our conceptual mind gunning its engines, we are in for a rather rude awakening. … Gregory of Nyssa likens it to stepping onto a ‘slippery, steep rock that affords no basis for our thoughts.’ With nothing to hold onto, the conceptual mind cannot stabilize itself. Saint Gregory likens this encounter with God to being on the edge of a mountain precipice. Finding no toehold or handhold, ‘the mind has nothing it can grasp, neither place nor time, neither space nor any other thing which offers our mind something to grasp hold of, but, slips from all sides from what it fails to grasp, in dizziness and confusion.’
We may have known this liberating purification previously, but it focused more on the surface faculties of the soul, such as greed, gluttony, or lust. Not that these struggles did not give us a run for our money, but in classical Christian theology they are considered less spiritually dangerous. While struggles with these may generate a greater media interest, they are, in the ancient view of things, nearer the surface of the soul and produce more garden-variety suffering than the much sharper pain of confronting more spiritual, and therefore more dangers, intellectual sins such as pride, envy, judgmentalism, and vainglory. When the loving flame of God sets about healing these sins of the intellect it is more painful because they are more spiritual, and we become painfully aware of just how beset by them we are. Indeed we are progressing along the path of holiness but as a result we become aware of just how filled we are with deeply rooted intellectual habits that blind us to the loving light. As St. John of the Cross sees it, this is perfectly consistent with how wood takes on the qualities of fire. Before the wood becomes wooden flame—completely one with fire—the wood spits and hisses and oozes in preparation for becoming all flame. As part of the process of healing we become acutely aware of just how filled we are with arrogance, envy, preoccupation with our reputation, judgmentalism. Indeed these characteristics were all there within us, but we were at most only vaguely aware of them; now the living flame of love is drawing them out and placing them in our site. The problem is that this stage of growth in humbling self-knowledge is singularly painful, with the result that we feel we are falling to pieces when in fact we are becoming one with the living flame of love. As when our prayer was beset by boredom, there is no time limit on these ‘sharp trials in the intellect.’ These trials are intertwined with the tangles of Providence and are trailer-made for each person, but the following are common enough places to undergo them: our relationship with beauty, knowledge, spiritual advancement, idealism—each presents a different opportunity to observe the grasping, clinging mind (this list is by no means exhaustive)…
Study and learning are spiritual disciples with much esteem in the Christian contemplative tradition (as they are in many religious traditions). When this discipline is being strengthened and purified to make the discursive mind a better servant of God, we become aware of not-so-subtle tendency to show off how much we have come to know in all our reading and study. This need not be a public display; we can look down on people less well-read than we are in such a way that they don’t even notice it. When this form of pride or arrogance is being healed we are not only painfully aware of just how much we do this, but it can be painful to study in the way we did before. We find we cannot even read it, for it hurts too much to see our intellectual arrogance so clearly” (Martin Laird, A Sunlit Absence, p. 140-142).
Suggestions for Action
In the final chapter of the book, Laird seems to conclude with how contemplation refines you. It’s a perfect image for Lent. It brings up that which we need to let go of, that which we need to empty ourselves up, and moves us closer to God. We confront our anxieties, our emotions, our thoughts and give them to God, trying to leave all of our worry at the foot of the cross, and leave filled with God’s peace; not just a new idea. What are the trials of the intellect you faced? What are the inner videos you faced? How did you overcome your boredom?
How did the week of prayer for you? What did you learn? How are you moving with God? Journal about your experience, or share them with a friend. All of our prompts this week in “suggestions for action,” could be used to guide your cell meeting or another time of dialogue and connection. Go back and reuse one if it suits you.
Today is Patrick Day! Honor the apostle to Ireland at Celebrating our Transhistorical Body.