Saturday, March 8

Some Spiritual Food for the Soul

Here is a beautiful piece from one of Sister Wendy's books. I don't actually have the book, but I have a copy from someone of this introduction. It took a little while to type out the entire thing from a copy, but I did it because I thought it was worth it. I would imagine that many people would not get much out of this, but for those of you who like me are a ready sponge for this sort of material I thought it very insighful. ---Michaela
PS There may be some type errors (I apologize)



The Mystery of Love
Sister Wendy Becket

Saints in art through the centuries

Introduction

When I was young, I longed to be a saint: what was I longing for? I think it was for certainty that my life had been, in the most profound sense, a ‘success’, that great glorious success that is sanctity. We revere the saints, we imitate them, theirs is the only true and lasting glory. Very clearly, this desire is, unconsciously, as worldly as that of the writer who wants to write a masterpiece or the politician who yearns to be Prime Minister or President. None of theses ambitions has the least to do with what Jesus preached – that lowliness, that love for last place, that readiness to die and be forgotten. Jesus never countenanced anything at all that boosted the ego. If saints want to ‘sit on his right hand and his left in the kingdom’ and then his answer is an uncompromising ‘No’. To be concerned with oneself in any way, to watch one’s growth in ‘holiness’ or ‘prayer’, to be spiritually ambitious: all this Jesus earnestly sets his face against. He tells us that the one sole virtue is obedience: ‘I do always the things that please him’, he says of his Father.

Obedience is the most demanding of all the virtues, because it never allows us a safe ride, a casual following of the rule. No, obedience means always looking at God and making our decisions in response to what we see in ‘the mind of Christ’. His mind is all and only love, but that, too, is no easy answer. Love is an emotional word and in the Christian context is best translated as ‘respect’, or the biblical ‘honor’. To honor others, to respect them, means to put their interests and rights before or at least, equal with, our own. It subdues the ego before the needs of our neighbor, it leads us to listen to what others say and demand, to balance well what is best for them (in our poor judgment, but the only judgment we have). This concentrated respectfulness is obedience to the Father – and it is the way Jesus summons us to live.

There is no space in such a life for ambition, however noble. St. Paul, as so often, sums it up when he speaks of Jesus having ‘become our holiness’. It is worth pondering this and the implications. If Jesus is our holiness, then we have sacrificed a holiness that is our own, self-achieved and self-comforting. It is extremely painful to live without any inner affirmation that one is pleasing to God, though our examinations of conscience may reassure us that we are not deliberately pursuing any act of attitude that we know to be unloving. But who can prove real purity of motive? Or who can assess what lies behind outward goodness? Having Jesus as our holiness means a total act of trust that, if something is to be done or changed, it will be made clear to us. Meanwhile, we set our sights on him, and surrender. Surrender is another word for obedience – that constant looking towards the Spirit with the urgent prayer to be enabled to receive the grace to give what he asks. When our total gaze is upon the Father, when our total prayer is for the grave of the Spirit, when we are totally receptive to the ‘Yes’ that St. Paul says is ‘always in Jesus’, then we will have become saints. But we shall not know it. The self-regard that would see our sanctity is the great disqualifier. In practical terms, holiness is for other people, to be delighted in, imitated, and revered. It is not our own concern, but God’s. What is our part in this? Quite simply it is to pray.

The essential act of prayer is to stand unprotected before God. What will God do? He will take possession of us. That he should do this is the whole purpose of life. We know we belong to God; we know, too, if we are honest, that almost despite ourselves, we keep a deathly hold on our own autonomy. We are willing, in fact, very ready to pay God lip service (just as we are ready to talk prayer rather than to pray), because waving God and a banner keeps our conscience quiet. But as really to belong to God is another matter. It means having nothing left for ourselves, always bound to the will of Another, no sense of interior success to comfort us, living in the painful acknowledgement of being ‘unprofitable servants’. It is a terrible thing to be a fallen creature, and for most of the time we busily push this truth out of our awareness. But prayer places us helpless before God, and we taste the full bitterness of what we are. ‘Our God is a consuming fire’, and my filth crackles as he seizes hold of me; he ‘is all light’ and my darkness shrivels under his blaze. It is the naked blaze of God that makes prayer so terrible. For most of the time, we can persuade ourselves we are good enough, good as the next man, perhaps even better, who knows? Then we come to prayer – real prayer, unprotected prayer – and there is nothing left in us, no grounds on which to stand.

Normally, as we grow older, we become progressively skilled in coping with life. In most departments, we acquire techniques that we can fall back on when interest and attention wilt. It is part of maturity that there is always some reserve we can tap. But this is not so in prayer. It is the only human activity that depends totally and solely on its intrinsic truth. We are there before God – or rather, to the degree that we are there before God – we are exposed to that entire he is, and he can neither deceive nor be deceived. It is not that we want to deceive, whether God or anybody else, but with other people, we cannot help our human condition of obscurity. We are not wholly there for them, nor they for us. We are simply not able to be so. Nor should we be: no human occasion calls for our total presence, even were it within our power to offer it. But prayer calls for it. Prayer is prayer if we want it to be. Ask yourself: what do I really want when I pray? Do you want to be possessed by God? Or, to put the same question more honestly, do you want to want it? Than you have it. That one point Jesus stressed and repeated and brought up again is that: ‘Whatever you ask the Father; he will grant it to you’. His insistence on faith and perseverance are surely other ways of saying the same thing: you must really want, it must engross you. ‘Wants’ that are passing, faint emotional desires that you do not press with burning conviction, these are things you do not ask ‘in Jesus’ name; how could you? But what you really want, ‘with all your heart and soul and mind and strength’, that Jesus pledges himself to see that you are granted. He is not talking only, probably not even primarily, or ‘prayer of petition’, but of prayer. When you set yourself down to pray, WHAT DO YOU WANT?’ If you want God to take possession of you, then you are praying. That is all prayer is. There are no secrets, no shortcuts, and no methods. Prayer is the utterly ruthless test of your sincerity. It is the one place in all the world where there is nowhere to hide. That is its utter bliss – and its torment.

Bliss or no, it is terrible to live with, to face up to its simplicity. I long to tell myself that the reason why ‘I can’t pray’ is that I’ve never been taught, the right books have passed me by, the holy guru never came down my street. Hence the eager interest in books and articles of prayer – all obscuring from me my lack of true desire. Hence the enthusiasm for the holy retreat-givers, the directors, who will serve me as irrefutable alibi. If there we more to do, would I not do it? (I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all I possess …) No, I would not do it, I have no intention of doing it, but of course, to admit this to myself would rack me with guilt. Remember the rich young man? He had all the right words. ‘God Master, what must I do?’ And Jesus tried to jolt him into reality. We use words like ‘good’ when you do not understand them? But he persisted, and Jesus gave him what the young man truly believed he was asking for: Jesus tell him ‘what to do’, and of course, he goes away sorrowful, because Jesus has taken it out of the region of ideals and emotions and rendered his Father’s claims in plain fact. ‘Sell, give, come and follow me’, It was not what was wanted. Do you think this man went away conscious of his inner falsehood and realizing that he was quite unprepared to look at God straight? I hope he did, but I fear he may well have been sad because the Master’s claims ‘could not’ be met, that he barricaded himself down behind the excuse of ‘inability’, which he convinced himself he longed to overcome.

In you desire to stand surrendered before God, then you are standing there; it needs absolutely nothing else. Prayer is the last thing we should feel discouraged about. It concerns nobody except God – always longing only to give himself to us in love – and my own decision. And that too is God’s, ‘who works in us to will and to effect’. In a very true sense, there is nothing more to say about prayer – ‘the simplest thing out’. However, two practical comments. The first is that prayer must have time. It is part of our normal living, the heart of it, and it can’t fit in along with or during other activities, any more than sleep can. Of itself, it must swamp whatever we try to combine with it. It demands the whole of you, to hold you in the consuming Fire, and then you can go about the rest of the day still ablaze with Him. There is a tendency today for people to say, with greater or less distress, that they have no time for prayer. This is not true (forgive me). What they mean is, they have not got a peaceful hour or two peaceful half-hours or even three peaceful twenty minutes. If that is the day God has given them, then he awaits their praying hearts under precisely these conditions. They are testing conditions, surely, but never impossible. Nobody goes through a day without here and there the odd patch, a five minute break, a ten minute pause, if you do truly want to pray, well then, pray. Take these times, poor crumbs of minutes though they be, and give yourself to God in them. You will not be able to feel prayerful in them, but that is beside the point. You pray for God’s sake, you are there for him to look on you, to love you, to take his holy pleasure in you, What can it matter whether you feel any of this or get any comfort from it? We should be misers in prayer, scraping up these flinders of time and holding them out trustfully to the Father. But we should also watch out for the longer stretches which we may be missing because we don’t want to see them. Many things that are pleasant and profitable, TV programmers, books, conversations, may have at times to be sacrificed, but you will make this and any other sacrifice if you hunger and thirst for God to possess you, and this is my whole point. There is time enough for what matters supremely to us, and there always will be. The exact amount of time is up to our common sense. For most people, our would be a norm, remembering constantly that I am talking simply about being there: the quality of a question for God. Tired or out of sorts, I am still equally myself for him to take hold of me. I will feel nothing of it, that’s all.

The other practical point is: what shall I do during prayer? (How eagerly people long to be told the answer! For that would make me safe against God, well protected: I would know what to do!) But the answer is of the usual appalling simplicity: stand before God unprotected, and you will know yourself what to do. I mean this in utter earnest. Methods are of value, naturally, but only as something to do ‘if I want to’, which in this context of response to God means: if he wants me to. I may feel drawn to meditate, to sing to Him, to stay before him in, say, an attitude of contrition or praise; most often I shall probably want to do nothing but be in His presence. Whether I am aware of that presence does not matter. I know he is there, whatever my feelings, just as Jesus knew when he felt abandoned on the cross. What pure praise of the Father’s love; to feel abandoned and yet stay content before him saying: ‘Father, into your hands …’ We cannot sufficiently emphasize to ourselves that prayer is God’s concern, and His one desire is ‘to come and make his abode with us’. Do we believe him or not? Of course, I can cheat. If I choose not to be there for him, and since I am not yet transformed into Jesus, to some extent I always do protect myself against the impact of His love, and then that is cause for grief. But it is creative grief. It drives us helpless to Jesus to be healed. We say to Him: ‘If you want to, you can make me clean’. But he answers: ‘I do want to –but do you?’ That ‘wanting’ is ever the crux of the matter.

Is there any way of telling whether we do want Jesus to surrender us to his Father? Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers has one character ask another when we can know which are our overmastering desires? And she is told: When they have overmastered us. This is a very wise comment. If God has taken you so deeply into His love that he has transformed you into Jesus, then you have indeed wanted Him with overmastering passion. But if this has not yet happened – even if, humbly, you must say that nothing much at all has happened (‘This man went home justified rather than the other’), it can only be because secretly, deep down you have not wanted it to happen. This is something you cannot help – these hidden desires that shape our course are beyond our control. But they are not beyond God’s control. His whole reason for giving us the sacraments is to open up these recesses to grace and change what we think we want into actuality. Our actions show us what we do in fact want – depressing sight, and sadly coexistent with an emotional consciousness of wholly other wants. We have to hand this over to God, both explicitly, and by immersing our poverty in the strong objective prayer of the Eucharist and the sacraments. There we have Jesus giving Himself totally to the Father and taking us with Him. Then we can almost see, acted out before us, what the Spirit is trying to effect in our own depths. Let him effect it – let Him be God for us. Whatever the past or my fears of the future, here and now, O Holy Spirit, utter within me the total Yes of Jesus to the Father.

I have not dwelt in the book on the lives of personalities of the saints, partly because we know little about most of them, and partly because what really interests me is their attitude, their love. This is constant, the essence of all and any holiness. It is our greatest joy to know that, however poorly we love God, there have been and are others who have understood the lonely call of Jesus. They have accepted to hang without support in the terrible nothingness of ‘no holiness of their own’, no comforting inner feed-back. They have agreed to be the last, to fall into the ground and die, to take up the cross, to wash the feet of others.

May we learn to give Jesus utter freedom within us, so that everything we are and do may be used for the mystery of love.

1 comment:

Your Aloha Friend said...

Thanks, Michaela, for taking the time to type Sister Wendy's words on longing to be a saint, and on the essence of prayer.

Her words "It is extremely painful to live without any inner affirmation that one is pleasing to God, though our examinations of conscience may reassure us that we are not deliberately pursuing any act of attitude that we know to be unloving" bring to mind the Mother Teresa, Come Be My Light book I put in your family Christmas box.

Does your family have any of Sister Wendy's little meditation books? Perhaps I should put her Meditations on Silence or Meditations on Joy aside to add to the next box of items we send to Oklahoma. Love, Grandma V.