God in the noise

Photo of Ukranian orchestra, circa 1920. From Wikimedia Commons.

I am not the first and I will not be the last to observe just how noisy the world has become. There is very little silence in contemporary life and the spiritual effects of this are deleterious.

I have been reading Alexander Schmemann’s Great Lent this year. This book came out in 1969, yet the problem of noise was already apparent to Schmemann. He writes:

Everyone will no doubt agree that the whole style of family existence has been radically altered by radio and television. These media of “mass communication” permeate today our whole life. One does not have to “go out” in order to “be out.” The whole world is permanently here within my reach. And, little by little, the elementary experience of living in an inner world, of the beauty of that “interiority,” simply disappears from our modern culture… If the Christian of the past lived in great measure in a silent world, giving him ample opportunity for concentration and inner life, today’s Christian has to make a special effort to recover that essential dimension of silence which alone can put us in contact with higher realities.

The fact that Schmemann wrote this before the advent of the VCR, let alone the rise of social media, is instructive. In our own day, this deceptive sense that we are interacting with the world when we have not even left our couches has amplified to a proportion that Schmemann could never have imagined. Walk into a room filled with family and friends today and you will see four or five people staring at their phones, each in a separate virtual world, entirely disconnected from what or who is immediately around them. We imagine that “liking” someone’s post on Facebook is the same thing as maintaining a real relationship with them. In such a world, where everything we experience is constructed, curated, and constantly on, there is little space for an authentic encounter with the living God.

Schmemann’s solution is “that the use of TV and radio be drastically reduced during Lent.” It is likely that Schmemann would have approved of the practice of fasting from social media that many modern Christians adopt as a Lenten observance. Undoubtedly, there is some spiritual good to this. Reducing our dependance on anything is good if it is accompanied by prayer and greater devotion to God. I know that my own life of prayer improves when I reduce my interaction with the virtual world. The Lord speaks to us all the time, but we only hear Him if we are listening. The biblical analog would perhaps be 1 Kings 19 when Elijah encounters the Lord not in fire or earthquake but in a “still small voice” speaking out of the silence.

All of that said, I wonder if there is something overly romantic about Schmemann’s vision of a tranquil past in which Christians spent their silences contemplating the presence of God. Perhaps in monasteries it was so, but the average Christian still had to contend with quite a bit of noise. As any parent of young children will attest, there is a constant noise that accompanies the endless busyness of parenting. So too, the mindless work of maintaining a home or working for our daily bread is rarely if ever silent. Life has always been noisy.

What these electronic media offer us that our ancestors did not have is a way of distracting ourselves from the noise of the rest of life with a different kind of noise. For those of us who tend to be a bit introverted and therefore easily overwhelmed by the world, having our own personal electronic culture that we can dip into at the touch of a button is a way of restoring ourselves. For the mother or father who just needs a moment’s vacation from unending parental responsibility, scrolling mindlessly for a few moments through a Facebook feed can be a real relief.

When I was in seminary, the SSJE brothers would regularly visit with us. During Mass one time, one of the brothers preached — I no longer remember which one — and he observed that even in the monastery, it was often easy to lose track of God amidst the busyness of the daily routine. He likened the Christian life to learning to hear a single instrument even when a whole orchestra is playing. “If you listen carefully,” he said, “you can learn to pick out the oboe. And if you learn to know God’s voice, you can also hear Him, even in the middle of a flurry of activity.”

This, it seems to me, is the great challenge for Christians today. God speaks at the same patient, constant level He always has—entreating us, inviting us, calling us into His presence. If we have the opportunity to shut out all the noise and just listen to Him, we should take it. But many of us do not have that opportunity. Yet still, if we attune our ears properly, we can hear Him just as clearly. Accompanying our busyness and noise with prayer, fasting, the reading of Scripture, and the Sacraments orients us towards God. These things give us a feel for Him so that we know His voice anywhere, even when it seems faint.

So perhaps the biblical analog we need is not so much 1 Kings 19 as it is 1 Samuel 3. God calls to Samuel but Samuel does not realize that is what he is hearing. It is only after Eli coaches him and tells him what to say that Samuel is really able to listen to the voice of the Lord. God calls each of us, but most of us are frightfully bad at hearing Him. Even if we had silence, as Samuel did, it is not altogether certain we would notice God’s voice in the midst of it. We need more than silence. We need Elis in our lives to help us. We need to be taught what God sounds like so that we can tune in to hear Him, whether we are in a place of silence or a place of great noise. Even in silence, there is a noise in the rattling of thoughts through our brains that can be deafening. We need to learn the difference between God’s calling and the churning of our own minds.

What we need is not total silence, as ideal and desirable as that may be. What we need is to learn how to listen.

Sickness and nakedness

adamandeve
I am terrible at being sick. I realize that is not unique. Who likes being sick? But I mean that I am terrible at it as a Christian. It is one of my great failings in discipleship.

Over the last few weeks, my whole household has been going through what has become an annual visitation of the plague. At least three separate illnesses have overtaken us, one right after another, so that there’s been little to no break. Nothing life threatening, of course. An upper respiratory thing, a stomach bug, and a case of the Flu (and yes, before you ask, we were all vaccinated – it didn’t help).

It has been terrible, but far less than a life threatening crisis. Yet I find that I have been less and less faithful throughout the days of illness and recovery. In the beginning, I said little prayers, asking for God to relieve the sickness, but as it has dragged on, those prayers have faded, along with my reading of the Daily Office and my now defunct new year’s promise to pray the rosary daily. As I have felt worse, I have become more irritable with family and friends. I have also become more singularly focused on myself, constantly aware of my own “feeling bad,” and obsessed with finding comfort and distraction. I have ignored theology and Scripture, preferring instead to watch countless amounts of junk television.

In short, I have become a spiritual bum.

This is not how a Christian is supposed to face sickness.

In the Visitation of the Sick from the Book of Common Prayer, the priest at one point invokes the Lord while addressing the sick person, asking Him to “make thee know and feel, that there is none other Name under heaven given to man, in whom, and through whom, thou mayest receive health and salvation, but only the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” In the same rite, the priest calls upon the Lord to “sanctify… the sickness of this thy servant; that the sense of his weakness may add strength to his faith, and seriousness to his repentance…” Sickness is not any fun, but it holds within it a great opportunity for a Christian. In the weakness of our sickness, we may come to realize our dependence on God alone. Our sickness may become a tool that God uses to make us holy, cutting away all that holds us back from faith and strengthening our sense that true health is only to be found in Christ.

I have said these prayers many times by the bedside of sick people. I have counseled people going through tremendous physical strain to rely on Jesus to make it through. Yet, when I encounter even the slightest discomfort in my own life, I run in the opposite direction.

Sickness is a clarifying agent. It is the sort of thing that holds a mirror up to us and shows us who we really are. It is easy to be pious when all is well. When our bodies are not working properly, the true condition of our souls becomes apparent. I have seen people walk through terrible illness with true grace and dignity. I have also seen people fall apart, allowing their fears and insecurities to rise to the surface. In myself, I have seen far more of the latter than the former.

Sickness exposes us. It unmasks the lie we live under that says that we are capable of caring for ourselves, by our own steam, with no need for anyone or anything else. Sickness is a kind of nakedness. I hide from God when I am sick for the same reason that Adam and Eve hid from God when they found themselves naked in the garden. The only way that we can maintain the illusion that we are good enough without God is if we never see ourselves accurately. When our wounded reality is revealed, we try to hide in the shadows, not wanting to admit the truth.

As this latest round of sickness slowly starts to dissipate, I find that what I need more than ever is to form a new set of prayer habits. I do not mean by this that I need more devotions to say. I have many of those already and I was quick to discard them when I needed them most. Rather, what I need is the habit of being exposed in prayer for the fraud that I am. I need a regular, constant reminder before God that I am wounded, selfish, and totally incapable of my own healing. I need the shock of that to set me free from complacency and to focus all the attention of my soul away from my own comfort and towards the heart of God.

When sickness comes again, as it always does, I want to be prepared to receive the only medicine that will actually do me any long term good.

Photo taken from the window at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, PA. All rights reserved.

A Tale of Two Marys

lady-chapel-altar

Discerning the voice of God is one of the toughest parts of the life of Christian discipleship. This is not because God is hard to find. Every inch of creation echoes with His calling. That, in a sense, is what makes the discernment so difficult. God speaks all the time. It is literally God’s speaking that keeps the world spinning. But the question I often ask – the question we all ask from time to time – is what is His word for me? It is a bit of a narcissistic question, but it is one that somehow seems inescapable. Yes, God has spoken through the prophets and continues to speak in the Holy Scriptures. Yes, God speaks in the Sacraments. God speaks to me there as much as He does to everyone. But that doesn’t answer the gnawing questions I have about what I ought to be doing with my life.

In my experience, there is no way to cajole God into giving you that kind of a word. You simply have to wait for it. But it helps to do that waiting in His presence. This is one of the glorious things about reserving the Blessed Sacrament. At any time, I can step into the presence of God. Of course, I am always in the presence of God in a sense, but to kneel in prayer, in silence, in the presence of His Body and Blood is different. I do not have the words to describe it. His presence radiates through me when I do this. I feel like I am home.

Today, I happened to be downtown in Philadelphia and was able to attend the midday Mass at Saint Mark’s, Locust Street. I was there quite early and so I was able to make a holy hour beforehand. There are few places as stunning as the Lady Chapel at Saint Mark’s. The altar is made of pure silver and covered in jewels. Every inch is carved into something of magnificent detail. Sunlight streams in through the stained glass and makes the whole place shine.

As I knelt there praying, I tried to focus my attention on the presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, but I kept finding myself pulled to notice the statues on either side of the altar instead. They are both statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary, both made of silver. The Mary to the left of the altar has her eyes closed and her head bowed, obviously praying. The Mary to the right of the altar is looking out into the room in such a way that it is hard not to think she is looking directly at you. Two Marys, one contemplative and one active. They seemed to speak to me out of the silence.

mary-prayingGod does not always respond to my prayers in the way I expect. I began speaking to God, but I heard the voice of Mary answering me, speaking to me sweetly as my mother. I was a little confused at first, but came to realize that she was not speaking alone or of her own accord. It was her Son who was in her, compelling her to speak. I could almost see a line moving from the Tabernacle up through the image of the Lamb at the pinnacle of the altar, over and out into both Mary statues. What she said to me is just between us, so I will not repeat it here, but I was absolutely struck by the way in which God was at work in that moment, answering my prayers in this strange, round-about seeming way, yet so clearly and truly in them.

The two Marys are emblematic of the life of God in the Church. Both Marys represent how Christ is at work, through the Mother of God, to sanctify the world. One Mary prays. Day and night, she is before her Lord and mine, offering up the petitions of the millions who love her and call out her name. Fueling her prayer is the prayer of her Son who offers His own petition, in the form of His very own Body, on our behalf without ceasing (Hebrews 7:23-25).

But the active Mary offers a word of hope and new life that is borne out of the Resurrection of her Son. She does not give easy answers. I wanted God to speak with fatherly finitude and tell me exactly what the path ahead would look like. Instead, Mary spoke to me with motherly love, assuring me that I can take steps in faith because she will always be there to catch me, to wash my bruises and wipe away my tears. She spoke, but He was speaking in and through her, joining all three of our hearts together, and telling me, gently but firmly, to step out in faith.

lambDo you want to discern the voice of God for your life? Go before Him and wait. But do not be surprised if He speaks through an emissary, be it angel or saint, or even someone entirely unexpected. However He speaks to you, if it is truly Him, It will be a word that both holds you and bids you to act. It will be a word that challenges you and also confirms the deepest longings of your heart. It will be a word that lays out a path that is truly frightening and thoroughly glorious. It will be a word that neither takes away nor adds a single syllable to the deposit of faith, but it will bid you to trust that the whole deposit of faith has been given to you through the sacrifice of the cross. God will delight in giving this word to you. Never doubt for a second that you are beloved of God.

The Word of God for those who have no words

An old picture of my boys from a couple of years ago.

It is no accident that my sons, Langston and Micah, are named after a poet and a prophet. I have always found my solace in words. For as long as I can remember, I have been a writer, a reader, and a talker. I’m not good at sports. I’ve never been able to draw. I still count on my hands sometimes to do math. But words have always been both my paint and my canvas.

When I imagined being a father, I dreamed about both sharing my words with my children and having them share their words with me. But that has not been my experience. My boys are eight and four now and they are both on the autism spectrum. While there is great variety in how autism manifests itself, for my children it has come in a form that is probably best described as non-verbal. They both have some words at their disposal, but the number is very limited. They cannot have a conversation. They cannot follow most stories. They cannot read. They live inside a world that is largely wordless.

There are many ways in which the communication challenges that my children face are frustrating for them and heartbreaking for me, but none more so than in the realm of faith. I consider it my most solemn duty as a parent to teach the Christian faith to my children. “Fathers,” says Paul, “do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). My children have trouble understanding the most basic things I say. How can I instruct them in who God is and what He has done for them? “Faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ” (Romans 10:17). But what good is that preaching if they can’t understand it?

As Catholic Christians, we are fortunate to have a few more tools at our disposal than we might otherwise. The Word of God is to be found not only in the words of a preacher or catechist but in every facet of the Catholic life. My wife and I try to surround our children with the things of God. There are icons and crucifixes in our home. There are songs that we sing. Many prayers can be learned in a rote fashion – the only way that my children ever gain language – and so my oldest is now able to make the sign of the cross and recite the Lord’s Prayer with some coaching, even though he has no awareness of what he is saying.

And of course, in the sacramental life of the Church, the grace of Our Lord is given as a gift to all of us, regardless of our capacity to understand it. I had the privilege of baptizing both of my boys as infants. Like all the other babies I have baptized over the years, they could hardly have been cognizant of what was happening, but that didn’t matter because God was at work. It wasn’t about them getting it. It was about Him giving it.

Yet the sacraments come with their own challenges for my family. The height of the Catholic life is the Mass, but my children are hardwired by their autism to screaming fits and other behaviors that many people find distracting or even outrageous. I cannot help my wife to wrangle them during Mass since I am usually up front leading the service. They rarely make it past the peace.

Moreover, my children have never been able to attend Sunday School. What happens when it is time for them to be confirmed? How will they be able to take on the baptismal promises as their own?

How do I bring my children who live in wordlessness to know the God who makes Himself known only through His Word?

“Is not my Word like fire?” says the Lord in the mouth of the prophet Jeremiah. “And like a hammer which breaks the rock in pieces?” (Jeremiah 23:29). The Word which God speaks is not just an ordinary word. We hear it in ordinary words, but its power is far greater. This is a Word that doesn’t just point us towards God, it actually is God. It doesn’t just act as a symbol for our minds so that we can contemplate God, it actually delivers God to us. It is the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us, assuming all manner of human weakness in that act of self-emptying love. God’s Word can break the rock of my children’s autism into pieces. He can speak to them in a thousand ways that I cannot, because He has been one like them. He knows what it is not to be able to communicate. He knows what it is to be cut off from the world.

I wish I could say that I have the answer to these questions. There are, of course, programs that help to make liturgy more accessible to children like mine. There are good people trying to work through this. But it’s hard. It’s messy. It’s uncertain. I pray for guidance every day. Ultimately, it is a question of faith, not theirs but mine. Do I trust God enough to find a way to give His Word to my children even when I am unable to do so? In their baptism, Christ claimed them as His own and marked them as such forever. I know that some day my children and I will share words. We will worship God together in a shared language of prayer, whether on this side of the grave or in the life to come. There will be no wordlessness in the Kingdom.

How to experience the presence of God

Domenico_Tintoretto_-_The_Penitent_MagdaleneI get very irritated with the Lord when He does not show up at my beck and call. This is especially true when I have blocked off time out of my busy schedule just for Him.

Years ago, while on retreat at a convent in Boston, I found myself puzzled by God’s absence. During the first two days of the retreat, though I tried to pray many times, I had no sense of God’s presence. The experience was one of utter spiritual emptiness. I would go to Mass, to the praying of the Daily Office with the sisters, and nothing would happen. After a while, I became not only discouraged but angry. It had taken quite a bit of effort to arrange for this time away with just me and the Lord. I was beginning to feel as if I had been stood up.

Then, all of a sudden, on the last evening of the retreat, I felt the Lord’s presence during Compline. It was like a lightning bolt that struck me and just kept on striking. I felt like I was kneeling in the center of a burst of light and life that had hold of me and would not let go. I was so incredibly grateful that God was finally there with me.

There was a Chapel on another floor where the Blessed Sacrament was reserved, and I decided that after Compline I would go there and make a holy hour so that I could be with the Lord a little longer. But to my great surprise, the Lord told me not to do this. There were not words exactly, but there was a definite intention given to me. I was oddly and yet definitively aware that God did not want me to go pray in the Chapel. What He wanted was for me to go back to my room, pull out the copy of C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair that I had brought with me, and read it.

Again, I was irritated. God finally decides to show up, and now He’s telling me to go away? But, reluctantly, I obeyed.

The Silver Chair is the sixth book in the Chronicles of Narnia and it introduces a new character, a girl named Jill Pole. Towards the beginning of the book, there is a scene where Jill finds herself in a strange place and she becomes desperately thirsty. She sees a stream up ahead and she wants to drink from it, but the great lion, Aslan, is sitting next to it. Aslan, of course, is the stand-in for Christ in the Narnia books. But Jill has not met Aslan before. All she knows is that there is a big, scary lion there, and she is afraid.

“If you’re thirsty, you may drink,” says Aslan.

“Will you promise not to do anything to me if I come?” she asks.

“I make no promise,” he replies.

Eventually, she does go and drink, and Aslan sets her on a great adventure. But what struck me then, just as it does now, is that Aslan was completely free. He made no promise to Jill because he was not hers to command, just as the Lord is not mine to command whenever I want Him to recharge my spiritual batteries.

There are twin errors that many Christians make in how they relate to God. The one is to turn the experience of knowing God into a kind of commodified emotional high. God becomes associated with a certain type of feeling, a certain posture of prayer, a certain smell in the air. The way of having God is to recreate these things. But if for some reason we can’t—if the emotions will not come—then we feel as if we have lost God entirely. Or worse, if the emotions come and they begin to tie us to things that are contrary to God’s Word, we can be led astray.

While that sort of thing is a real danger, there is a greater one that lurks particularly in certain forms of confessional Protestantism. It is a form of anti-mystical existentialism that says that God is only knowable through the pages of Scripture. It shows great skepticism and sometimes even contempt for any person who would point to the experience of God as something that is real and tangible, something that includes emotions and encounters with the miraculous. There was a period of a couple of years when I labored under just such a delusion, trying to rid myself of the notion that I could feel the presence of God, resolving myself to a cold, empiricist view of the Holy Spirit’s work. I almost had myself fully trained to ignore signs and wonders.

And then God smacked me upside the head in prayer one day. And I realized that I had been staring at a picture of someone I loved while ignoring the fact that the person in the picture was actually in the room with me.

The reason why both of these things are errors – both emotionalism and anti-mysticism – is because neither one acknowledges the radical, beautiful, indefatigable freedom of God.

There are normative means by which God discloses Himself to all of us – the Scriptures, the preaching of the Word, the Sacraments. It is absolutely true that God is present in these things even if we cannot feel or sense Him there. Some of the great saints of the Church, like Saint John of the Cross and Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, went through long spells during which they had no active sense of God’s presence and yet continued to be devoted to Our Lord in the Scriptures and in the Eucharist. Their witness is powerful. But rather than discrediting this notion of God’s freedom, it underlines it. God is the one who chooses how we will experience Him. It is our cooperation, our faith, which allows us a foothold into that experience, but it is God’s free decision which allows us to have the experience in the first place. If He decides that we will come to know Him through dreams and mystical experiences, it will be so. If He decides that we will never have a sure sense of Him outside of the concrete reality of the means of grace, then that is how it will be.

Recently, I have found myself often in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament eagerly asking God to make His presence known to me. To my great astonishment, He has done this more than once lately, flooding me with a palpable sense of His overwhelming love for me. It is wonderful, but it is also painful. I find myself craving this deep communion with God but also frightened by it. In the midst of it, I catch myself thinking, “This is great! This is wonderful! Thank you, Jesus! But there are probably things I should be attending to in the other room.” I get overwhelmed. It gets to be too intense. I start thinking about how I might write about the experience as a way of distancing myself from it. I tell God, “Hold that thought,” because I suddenly remember an email I have to send.

And God’s response to such nonsense is always the same. “Shut up. Be still. Be here.”

This is the paradox of my own sinfulness. I yearn for deep communion with God and yet I find it hard to actually have it. I am thrown off both by God’s absence and by His presence. Yet the truth is that He’s never really absent, even when I cannot feel Him. And if He were to unveil Himself and allow me to realize the fullness of His presence now, it would be far more intense than anything He has already shown me.

All of us are Jill Pole from time to time. We stand at the banks of the river, thirsty for God, yet uncertain how to find that thirst quenched. We think that we need to do something to make it happen. Either we need to stir up the waters ourselves, or else we fear that the great lion of God will swallow us up if we start to wade in too deep. But we don’t have any control over any of that really. We don’t tell God where He goes or how He is to show Himself. He comes and goes as He pleases. After all, He’s not a tame lion.

What we need is to trust in God’s love as much as we thirst for His presence. God will decide how He will make Himself known to us. He is completely free in how He chooses to come to us, but He chooses always to love us, which means that whatever way He makes Himself known, it will neither be too much or too little. We cannot capture the experience of God. Like the manna that fell for the Israelites, whatever experience of God we have today is meant for today. Yet we can learn, slowly, to trust that the Lord will never tire of feeding us.

Painting is “The Penitent Magdalene” by Domenico Tintoretto (1560-1635).