The breath of God?

I recalled just now my time at the gym yesterday. As I try to do each day when I’m on the treadmill, I prayed and tried to open my consciousness to God’s presence in that place, in each person, even in all the technology of the aerobic machines.

It mostly started as a hypothetical quandry: If God is in all things, then He must be in this place, this gym, as well…even amidst all the sweat and the noise and the busyness of the rooms full of people working hard to be healthy and fit.

The opening of my spirit to the sense of His presence made my time lighter and, at once, more alive with possibilities. The sense that others there with me, engrossed in their own music or stories coming through their earphones, were His children too led me. Is that woman there aware of her holy lineage? Does that gentleman contemplate anything beyond what he is hearing, how his muscles begin to ache, how much longer he has before he can move on? Am I just projecting my own sentiments on to others? Probably, though we’re all similar in so many ways.

I thought to talk about all this with God as I alternately walked and ran on my machine. I asked Him where He was in this space.

And as I was becoming increasingly steamy myself from my own exercise, I felt this cool breeze blow gently on my face. I know the air conditioning unit just in front of me and overhead had kicked into a different gear, but its breeze gave me the momentary sense that God had answered me with a cooling breath of air.

No matter where I am, He is with me

Merton’s meditation for this first Tuesday in Lent discusses books and how we can be blessed by others’ words and experiences…or not.

It struck home for me. I am just finishing my first mystery novel, since reading Fr. James Martin’s, Jesuit Guide last year. I wrote about the effect the Jesuit Guide had on me and on my walk a while back. I described there how it prompted me to begin this blog.

Martin’s writing (since the Jesuit Guide, I’ve read just about everything he’s written) falls into Merton’s category of writing by “good men.” He says these type of writers “hold us by their human charm; we grow by finding ourselves in them.”

Brother Lawrence’s writing and Saint Augustine’s Confessions and Merton’s own writing and so many of you who share your stories and insights in our virtual world all fall into this category, this place where I ‘find myself’ by reading them.

Merton describes two other categories of writing: “Books that speak like God speak with too much authority to entertain us,” he says. Amen to that.

On the other end of the spectrum he cautions that “Books that speak like the noise of multitudes reduce us to despair by the sheer weight of their emptiness. They entertain us like the lights of the city streets at night, by hopes they cannot fulfill.”

The particular mystery novel I’m currently reading falls into the latter category. Still, the quality of desolation associated with the story — the despair of the characters, their fear at having long-held secrets exposed, the unlikeable nature of even the central character, and, therefore, of the writer, who speaks through her — all provide their own negative lessons. It does nothing to uplift one’s spirit. On the contrary, it makes vivid why we weep for so much of our world — for the anger and fear and violence and deceit and impotence felt by so many, who feed and encourage the evil-doers among us.

I guess I don’t feel a need to eschew all mystery novels forevermore. The attitude and spirit we bring to our reading, I think, has as much to do with their effect on us as any of the meta-messages of the writer.

The take-away for me, especially during Lent, is to remember to include Our Father in all my activities — even when I’m reading otherwise vacuous fiction — to ask for His blessing and His grace and His Light — His presence with me — in even my most mundane activities.

Content ourselves to Our Father’s purpose

In Thomas Merton’s meditation for today, he says:

In order to settle down in the quiet of our own being we must learn to be detached from the results of our own activity. We must withdraw ourselves, to some extent, from effects that are beyond our control and be content with the good will and the work that are the quiet expression of our inner life.

“...learn to be detached from the results of our own activity.”

As much as I would like to believe I understand and have mastered detachment, I find it’s often a bit like planning…Our Father has a very long laugh, as He shows me in the gentlest of ways how far I have yet to go to be truly detached.

As I was reading and pondering Merton’s words, I was periodically checking my blog stats, Facebook, Twitter, my email to see if anyone had yet opened one of my recent blog postings or — better yet — ‘liked’ one of them…sent me a note (I cherish those, even if it isn’t very detached!).

I’m such a child with my emotions being tossed and tugged by every bit of outside opinion. Feeling validated by praise; uncertain when there’s no response. Even though, my brain and my heart know that I have a holy purpose that I’m serving, my ego binds me still with its need for hearing, “you’re okay.”

As I said in Getting Started,

It is my prayer that God has drawn you to this place and that you will find it a blessing along your own journey with Him. It would certainly be a blessing for me, if you were to let me know you’re out there. But, as much as I will give thanks to God for leading you to me, to this place, I really have no other choice but to do this divine work.

Merton goes on in this meditation to say:

We must be content to live without watching ourselves live, to work without expecting an immediate reward, to love without an instantaneous satisfaction, and to exist without any special recognition.

So, on this first Saturday after Ash Wednesday, I ask Our Father’s help to be content with the product of our work together — His and mine. To seek only His approval. To rest quiet in the certain knowledge that He knows who is searching for just the words He and I have written together. He knows whose heart is ready and waiting to be blessed by Him through me.

Yearning, God’s small seed of hope within us

In this second day of Lent, Thomas Merton in Seeking God in All Things acknowledges how stultifying the world can be, especially for those of us living in busy cities, working in noisy factories, or commuting daily with thousands of others.

He reminds us that for so many, the hope – even the seed of a hope – has long been crushed.

For the rest of us — even those of us who feel frustrated by the crowds, deafened by constant cacophony, demoralized by the brokenness we see about us – for us, we still yearn with hope for silence and peace and unity.

This yearning is God’s small seed within us, calling us, reassuring us that we are loved by God.

Our job is to allow this yearning to bless us.

Even this most basic connection to God’s love for us can draw from us feelings of compassion for those others who have lost — or have not yet found — their way.

This small seed of kindness in our hearts may then grow into a prayer upon which our Lord will shine, through which may blossom in us a deep sense of peace and joy.

To stay anchored in God – in this experience of inner peace and joy – we must each find a place each day where we can be alone and silent and uninterrupted, says Merton. Some special space where we can, without obstruction, learn to experience God’s presence, maybe even hear His voice.

In this special place where we surrender fully to God’s loving embrace, we then allow Him to prepare us and repair us…make us whole and clean once again…armed with His Love, ready to venture back into a noisy and messy world.

Surrender ourselves to God, who is in all things

Thomas Merton in his Lenten Prayer, Seeking God in All Things, says God’s presence isn’t found just in our intellectual recognition of Him, nor even in our “contemplative illumination.” God is found, as well he says, in other believers who love and serve Him – people like all of you, whom I’m coming to know in this virtual world He’s created.

God can be found in all things about us – from the smallest grain of sand to the greatest mountain, from the littlest and most wretched among us to the most worthy.

We begin to find God, Merton says, as we surrender ourselves to Him, who is “in all things and through all things and above all things.

Surrender” – this word, in particular, caught my attention as I was reading Merton’s meditation. What does this mean, to surrender? As I go about my day, how do I put that concept to work?

I get surrendering to the fact that I might have to stand in a long line at the grocery store or the bank. Especially if I make the mistake of leaving my shopping until after 3:00, when all the high school kids get out of school.

I can even at my better times brighten the general atmosphere around me by smiling and being understanding and cordial. And even in those times when I get grumpy, I at least know I’m feeling or, worse, acting like a ‘witch with a capital B,’ (as my southern cousin’s been known to say).

But there are other times that my sense of purpose is not so clear. What about with other drivers who, it seems, want to rewrite the ‘rules of the road’ on the spot – okay, for them, I’ll mostly move out of the way. If I’m having a particularly good day, I’ll try to exercise some degree of compassion or understanding for whatever circumstance is bringing out their NASCAR aspirations.

But what about that guy the other morning who blew the four-way stop without even a tap on the brake. Who proceeded to cut off another driver as he rounded the corner. Who then sped up a 25-mile per hour street going at least 50 mph. Whose license number, car make and model I duly noted, as we were both stopped at a traffic light?

That guy I reported to our local police – we’re a small community blessedly and can still ask the police to do this sort of thing. When I called it in, I was assured that someone would go have a little chat with the fellow. Does that count as ‘surrender?’

Or what about the doctors office, who takes the liberty of charging an extra $250 to discuss an issue my doctor coded as ‘non-routine.’ The appointment still lasted less than the 30-minutes allotted for a routine appointment – do I just pay the bill, or do I push back a bit?

You guessed it. I pushed back. But with the greatest amount of Ignatian detachment, I was able to muster. I don’t so much fault the individuals involved, as I do a truly messed up health care system within which they’re operating. What does surrender look like in situations like these?

Tomorrow’s Lenten reflection may hold a glimmer of an answer.

For today, I just want to note for the record that ‘surrender,’ for those of us living in a very noisy and broken world, is a concept that is not so very clear.

Or maybe it’s clear and I just don’t like the answer. What do you think?

Meditation 14 – Return refreshed to the task of living

Well, My child, go now and resume your daily work. Be silent, be honest, be patient, be charitable, love very much the Blessed Mother of Jesus; and tomorrow bring Me a heart even more devoted and loving. Tomorrow I shall have new favors for you.

We’ve reached our 14th and last meditation before the Blessed Sacrament. I find myself wondering,

how on earth does anyone manage to do these meditations in just 15, 30, or even 60 minutes, as they sit with the Blessed Sacrament? It’s taken me two+ weeks to get through them. Do others think or meditate that much faster or more efficiently than I do?’

I get that writing down my thoughts and editing them to capture just the right message takes longer, but even if I adjust for these steps, I know myself well enough to know that if I’m not writing words onto paper, my mind wanders, loses focus, forgets important insights, and is, in a word, undisciplined.

I also find myself a bit relieved at having completed these meditations. I’m ready to go and ‘resume [my] daily work’ in the world, to rest and recollect my larger purposes for this space.

Our Father, knowing I was approaching this place, thankfully prepared the next step in my way. I found it last night in an excellent book I’m reading, Why Pope Francis Leads The Way He Does, by Chris Lowney. I’m anxious to share it with you.

“I’m coming, Lord.”

Meditation 10 – Make me worthy to be called a friend

Are there about you friends who seem less kind than formerly, who neglect you through indifference or forgetfulness, without your having consciously done anything to wound them? Pray for them, and I will restore them to you, if their companionship is good for you.

For me this might just as easily read, ‘Are there about you friends to whom you have been less kind than formerly, whom you’ve neglected through indifference or forgetfulness, without their having done anything to wound you? Pray for them, pray for their forgiveness and I will restore them to you, if your companionship is good for them.

The list is long one — if I’m really honest with all the possibilities — of all those throughout my life to whom I’m indebted, from whom I received some gift, to whom I owe some level of gratitude. If they didn’t try hard enough to hold onto my hand — to our relationship — how much responsibility is theirs alone? How much blame do I share for having not been present and available, cognizant and caring. How much better might I have listened to their story, rather than relating and reveling only in my own?

If they moved on to greener pastures, what did they leave behind? Just a dry and barren field? Or was our relationship like a grasping viney jungle, overwrought, humid, strangling, preventing all but the very strongest to reach the light?

You know their names, Father. Bless each of them with Your loving grace. And in the fullness of time, if Your way for each us should cause us to meet again, make me worthy to be named their friend. Amen.

Meditation 9 – What we ask in faith, God provides

Do you dread something painful? Is there in your soul a vague fear, which seems unreasonable, and yet torments you? Trust fully in My providence. I am here, I see everything; I will not leave you.

I’m such a weenie! I’m still concerned about that dinner party. It’s tomorrow night and it has me losing sleep worrying about silly stuff. Have I put out new hand towels in the guest bath? Did I remember to get new candles? I need mercy from my own silly self! There must be something more worthy in my world to be concerned about than having dinner with an atheist family member?

[Well, and it’s much less him and his belief or non-belief. I’m probably more concerned about my behavior. My words and actions. Is it possible that relaxing some might produce better results? Or that I should be more concerned about his soul than my words? But they might be connected, right? (Editor Angel – Lord, can I come home now?)]

Also, my personal thanks to W. Ockham over at Teilhard de Chardin for this post on our discussions with atheists.]

Still, our gracious Lord, asks that we bring Him even our little worries, so that our faith will be bolstered each time we see His hand at work in our lives. I’m looking forward to a having a wonderful miracle to report soon!

Here are a few more of today’s musings…in no particular order:

I try to say a little prayer each morning for our grown children that they will have a safe commute to and from their work. My daughter reported that she was almost run over as she was crossing in a fully lit crosswalk earlier this week. The driver was looking directly at her as he sped through. Later in the same dark walk to her off-site parking, she was concerned about a man who was lurking around the parking lot. I try to think of these occurrences not so much as evil and harm lurking about, but as God’s loving protection surrounding us everywhere.

I worry that our grandson’s parents have not yet had him baptized. I pray the Lord watch over him, understand his innocence, and regardless of his formal baptism, call him to be His own. I worry, too, that I might have some active role to play in this. If I do, it has not yet been made clear to me. So I pray for guidance.

I worry that I don’t understand why so many of the saints sought out suffering and pain in an attempt to feel closer to Jesus, to share in His suffering. I understand a bit better others who do not pray for relief from suffering, but rather ask for strength sufficient to endure the suffering given them.

I worry about how to respond to street people who ask for money. Police and retail owners caution against giving them money, saying these intended acts of kindness only encourage more aggressive and, in some cases, more threatening behavior. How does one discern the difference between a truly needy person and a healthy person preying cynically on the good intentions of the rest of us?

We have a friend who carries a pocket full of coins and small bills in order to give a little something to others each week. If we don’t carry around a bit of cash, won’t we too often end up missing an opportunity to help someone in need when God touches our hearts?

We can always lift our fears and worry up to God. And relief is directly related to our level of faith in Him, in His greatness, in His judgment of what’s good for us and those we love.

This lesson was most potently demonstrated for me over time as our children were learning to drive and taking the car out by themselves for the first time. As they were leaving for their first date. As they ventured out on their own lives, insisting, right or wrong, to make their own decisions. No longer could I be with them 24/7; no longer was I in full control.

But, with some situation presenting itself on a near-daily basis there for a while, I got lots of opportunities to practice, and as my prayers were answered, small and large, and as I learned to pay attention, to be conscious of His answers to my prayers, my faith grew. Through it all He’s taught me that my relief can be nearly immediate. I ask; God provides.

The question is not how great God is. The key is the strength of my faith in Him.

Meditation 8 – Forgive, forget, move on, be blessed

Have you nothing to annoy you? My child, tell Me your annoyances, with every detail. Who has pained you? Who has wounded your self-love? Who has treated you contemptuously? Tell Me all, and then say that you forgive and forget; and I will give you My blessing.

We’ve just rounded the half-way mark in our 14 meditations before the Blessed Sacrament. I’m curious to hear your reactions, your feedback. Do they give you comfort? Make you think? Make you uncomfortable?  I treasure hearing from each of you and learning what these meditations prompted for you.

In today’s eighth meditation we’re asked to search our hearts for annoyances. Hurts and pains that others might have caused us. Opportunities to forgive and forget and be blessed.

I’ve written recently about a situation in our family that we are still working to heal. And, I wrote a poem, Take My Anger, a while back in which I work through some “righteous rage” as I called it then.

But, I have so much to be grateful for and so little that pains me currently — thank You, Lord — that it feels awkward to speak of the few issues that might have once existed, ungrateful somehow for all the good fortune in my life. Even the most egregious offense toward me, which I describe here, was a blessing in so many ways.

I was raised by a mother whose first question almost always, when I told her of some offense that I felt I’d endured during my day, was, “Well, did you do anything, say something that might have caused that person to do that?” She (infuriatingly, at the time) always figured there were two sides to a story.

Similarly, one of my mother-in-law’s favorite sayings was, “There is never a coin so thin that there aren’t two sides.” She was quoting her mother.

Her son’s standby question for our children when they brought grievances home was, “Well, you have choices about how you’re going to feel, how you choose to react to this situation.”

Still, when we’re in the middle of a painful situation, most of us at some point want to defend our positions with righteous indignation. Some people get satisfaction from retaliation — responding to harm with harm — or by dreaming up verbal retorts filled with hurtful, sarcastic words.

But the sooner we’re able to give all our pain and anger and ‘righteous rage’ to God, to describe it as though it were a real live organism, to pull it out of ourselves, relinquish it and lay it at His feet, the sooner He can relieve us of its burden — whatever those reciprocating feelings are that build up in us —  hate maybe, or helplessness or guilt or shame. He’ll take them all, if we’ll allow Him to, and He’ll help us begin to heal.