Setting the World on Fire

April 28 – Wednesday of last week – was the Feast Day of St. Catherine of Siena, the 14th-century saint, mystic, reformer, and Doctor of the Church. I wanted to post about St. Catherine last week, but I was swimming in book edits.

On Catherine’s Feast Day, I noticed the quotations everyone was posting, especially this one: “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.” This is surely Catherine’s most popular saying today. We see in it an encouragement to fulfill our destiny and bring our unique spirit to the world. Very good. Except this isn’t what Catherine said. Not exactly.

The quote we know is a paraphrase from one of Catherine’s letters to a nobleman named Stefano di Corrado Maconi, one of her disciples. For a long time, she tried to persuade Stefano to enter the monastery because she saw his spiritual depth. She also needed his practical help. In a letter, she asks him to use his influence on the Sienese government to support Pope Urban VI against the antipope (Clement VII). At the end of the letter, she says,

If you are what you ought to be, you will set fire to all Italy, and not only yonder.

Setting fire to Italy is no small thing. Italy was Catherine’s and Stefano’s primary sphere of influence. But she adds the words “and not only yonder,” by which she perhaps means the larger Christian world as well.

Stefano is to light this fire by being who he “ought to be.” But not on his own. Reading Catherine’s letter, it’s clear that Stefano should be who he ought to be in Christ. He needs to be filled with the remembrance and love of God and so embrace his true identity. He is to do this in two ways. First, he needs to stop monkeying around about his faith. Catherine quotes the time Jesus warned Christians about being lukewarm:

I, Catherine, servant and slave of the servants of Jesus Christ, write to thee in His precious Blood: with desire to see thee arise from the lukewarmness of thy heart, lest thou be spewed from the mouth of God, hearing this rebuke, ‘Cursed are ye, the lukewarm! Would you had at least been ice-cold!’

CatherineofSienaAnd second, Catherine urges haste. Stefano seems to be dithering in his support of the Church and in what Catherine believes to be his true vocation. She writes her letter to him with an urgency that I love. I read her words as if written to us today. The time is short, she seems to say. The day draws to a close. And I —you, we—are called to step into being who we are in Christ. Don’t be lukewarm! Be on fire for Jesus! Be filled with gratitude. God needs us, so let’s get to work. Now!

Being who we are in Christ is no small thing. It is, in fact, one of our biggest tasks in life. The world needs what we, each of us uniquely, have been gifted. It needs our God-given passions. It needs our fire. It needs us to illuminate our little spheres of influence, “and not only yonder.” But to set our Italys on fire, we need first to be filled with the fire of the Spirit. We can’t do it on our own.

It was only after Catherine died that Stefano embraced his vocation and became a Carthusian monk. How about us? Will we dither? Or will we embrace our God-given fire? Why do we delay? The time is short. The world is waiting.

 

 

WEEKLY PRAYER: ST. ANSELM

Today’s prayer comes from St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033/4 – 1109). Let’s pray with him for all who are afflicted and distressed.

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We bring before Thee, O Lord, the troubles and perils of people and nations, the sighing of prisoners and captives, the sorrows of the bereaved, the necessities of strangers, the helplessness of the weak, the despondency of the weary, the failing powers of the aged.

O Lord, draw near to each; for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

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LIVING IN PANDEMIC TIME: by Prasanta Verma

We’ve heard of kairos time and chronos time. Maybe, tongue in cheek, now we have “pandemic time”. Indeed, how do we define time during a pandemic? There is the slow, thick movement of monotonous days at home during quarantines. Simultaneously, there is the sense of urgency and flurry of activity at a hospital in the epicenter, where mere moments matter in saving a life. Time moves at both of these ends as well as somewhere in the middle, in the in-between. Maybe we are even naming our days “B.P.” for “Before Pandemic” and “A.P.” for “After Pandemic.”

Perhaps this is how we do name this strange time: an in-between time, a “pandemic time”. We are in-between what life used to be and what life will be on the other end of this particular stretch of time. In a sense, though, we have always really existed in an in-between time: we are constantly between any two tasks of a day, between morning and evening, between life and death, between the temporal and eternal.

Yet perhaps now we feel the existence of this middle state a little more keenly than we did before. We are distinctly more aware of this space of waiting, this “in-between” time.

I am reminded of the words of Madeleine L’Engle, who wrote in Walking In Water, “When I am constantly running there is no time for being. When there is no time for being there is no time for listening.”

I ponder these words, “no time for “being.” Who was I “being” before? Who do I need to be now, amidst the pandemic? And how much of the running B.P. (Before Pandemic) was necessary, fruitful, helpful? Does anything need to change? Who do I need to “be” After Pandemic?

What do I need to listen to in the midst of social isolation? Who should I listen to? With the usual face-to-face meetings and group gatherings turned virtual or disappearing for a while, what am I listening to? What was I missing amidst the noise, during the other routine, the before routine? Even now, it is hard to stick to a routine with the lack of structure and all other activities put on hold. Yet, I am asking myself what am I listening to now, and what do I need to listen to after, in this in-between time?

L’Engle continues, “but BEing time is never wasted time. When we are BEing, not only are we collaborating with chronological time, but we are touching on kairos, and are freed from the normal restrictions of time.”

How freeing it is to consider that our “BEing time is never wasted.” Even as we are trying to balance working from home while children may be tugging at our knees, amidst the challenges of finding new routines, new work-flows, the lack of structure, and the new challenges and blessings of more family time, we are not wasting our days if we are truly being in them. Anytime we are truly being in our days is not wasted, pandemic or no pandemic.

“If we are to be aware of life while we are living it, we must have the courage to relinquish our hard-earned control of ourselves,” writes L’Engle. The unique factor about our situation is the encompassing nature of it, as the entire world has been catapulted into a new reality and we all experience it simultaneously, in varying degrees. This situation is occurring beyond our control and we are on the back-end, maneuvering our way through and beyond. While the people on this planet together share the uncertainty and trauma of this new state of being, we are also learning, each in our own unique way, how much control we did not have. We each have new boundaries, new norms, new paradigms, and we will all face a new state of being “after”. As we have never lived through such a pandemic, we have no fallbacks, no “way-back-whens”, no other comparables. We are walking into the future together, yet also separate, in our own aloneness and our own new states of post-pandemic being, with the lessons the pandemic taught us.

While we may be living in isolation these days, L’Engle reminds us that, “Our story is never written in isolation. We do not act in a one-man play. We can do nothing that does not affect other people, no matter how loudly we say, ‘It’s my own business.’ ”

As we stand in this in-between place of Before Pandemic and After Pandemic, we are not truly existing in isolation. While we may not yet be able to visualize the practicalities and realities of our post-pandemic world, we can be certain that even while we operate in social isolation, our stories and our “beings” are all woven together in a social fabric of connection and belonging.

We, as individuals, as nations, as a planet, are undergoing challenges to our previous ways of being. We certainly do not have all the answers yet for those realities, but one thing we can control is our own individual attentiveness to “being” present where we are. It may be months or years before all of the stories and truths learned from these days will be presented or even manifested. But for now they exist, simmering under the surface, breathing silently in these days of isolation, in these in-between days, waiting for the right time to be unveiled. Each untold story being written right now will have its own perfect time of being.

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Prasanta Verma, a poet, writer, and artist, is a member of The Contemplative Writer team. Born under an Asian sun, raised in the Appalachian foothills, Prasanta currently lives in the Midwest, is a mom of three, and also coaches high school debate. You can find her on Twitter @VermaPrasanta, Instagram prasanta_v_writer, and at her website: https://pathoftreasure.wordpress.com/.

 

 

WEEKLY PRAYER: CATHERINE OF SIENA

Wednesday, April 29, is the Feast Day of St. Catherine of Siena, a Dominican laywoman, mystic, mentor of popes, and church reformer. Her prayers and spiritual writings continue to inspire us today.

For our prayers this week, I’m featuring two recent videos in my series, “The Prayers of St. Catherine of Siena.” Each is a burst of encouragement and hope that we need during this time.

In the following prayer, St. Catherine asks God for help in responding to our neighbors with love and generosity–perfect for this time of pandemic:

 

 

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And in our second prayer, Catherine reflects on how God has given us his own nature, which is fire:

 


I hope these prayers bless you this week!

 

WEEKLY PRAYER: ST. ANSELM

Today is the Feast Day of St. Anselm of Canterbury, (1033 – 1109), a Benedictine monk, abbot, philosopher, and theologian. We are praying one of his meditations:

Lord, because you have made me, I owe you the whole of my love; because you have redeemed me, I owe you the whole of myself; because you have promised so much, I owe you my whole being. Moreover, I owe you as much more love than myself as you are greater than I, for whom you gave yourself and to whom you promised yourself. I pray you, Lord, make me taste by love what I taste by knowledge; let me know by love what I know by understanding. I owe you more than my whole self, but I have no more, and by myself I cannot render the whole of it to you. Draw me to you, Lord, in the fullness of your love. I am wholly yours by creation; make me all yours, too, in love.

 

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WEEKLY PRAYER: FREDERICK BUECHNER

A Resurrection prayer from Frederick Buechner:

O Thou who didst rise again,

Thou Holy Spirit of Christ, arise and live within us now, that we may be thy body, that we may be thy feet to walk into the world’s pain, thy hands to heal, thy heart to break, if need must be, for the love of the world.

Thou risen Christ, make Christs of us all. Amen.

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FRIDAY FAVORITES FOR PRAYER AND WRITING

Welcome to Friday Favorites! This week, Prasanta Verma and I are featuring five readings for Good Friday. May God bless you as you mark this day and journey to the resurrection.

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Good Friday: the first 12 Stations of the Cross via Malcolm Guite (a guided experience of the stations)

When It’s Holy Week and You Don’t Feel Holy via Leslie Leyland Fields (why it’s going to be enough, no matter how you feel)

Finding Sacred Space in the Upper Room via Catherine McNeil (how do we do Holy Week in a locked room?)

Lamentation: The Weight of Grief via Shemaiah Gonzalez (experiencing the grief of Good Friday through a startling work of art)

Beneath Thy Cross via Christina Rossetti (a poem for Good Friday)

Cloister; A Poem via Ana Lisa de Jong (for our times)

 

 

Talking to God with Ignatius of Loyola

In 1548, Ignatius of Loyola published one of the most popular devotional books in Christian history – the Spiritual Exercises. This book is a compilation of meditations, prayers, and other practices. It is intended for use of a spiritual director, who is to guide individuals through the exercises.

I haven’t yet had the opportunity to do the Exercises with a spiritual director. Reading through them, however, I was struck by a couple things. One is Ignatius’s use of imaginative prayer, a form of contemplation that places us at the scene of a biblical story, inviting us to interact and converse with the characters. This is a very different type of contemplation than centering prayer, in which the mind is quiet and still, emptied of everything except a prayer word.

I was also intrigued by the “colloquy,” which is a conversation with God. Ignatius says that a colloquy is made “in the way one friend speaks to another . . . now begging a favor, now accusing oneself of some misdeed, now telling one’s concerns and asking counsel about them.” It usually occurs at the end of the exercise.

In the first Spiritual Exercise, which focuses on original sin, Ignatius suggests that we meditate on the cross of Christ. Then he suggests this colloquy, or conversation, with Christ:

Imagine Christ our Lord suspended on the cross before you, and converse with him in a colloquy: How is it that he, although he is the Creator, has come to make himself a human being? How is it that he has passed from eternal life to death here in time, and to die in this way for my sins?

This colloquy could be an interesting exercise for Holy Week. I realize that I am taking it out of context, but I wonder if it could function as a form of visio divina, in which we prayerfully meditate on a scene of the Crucifixion. Ignatius probably means for us imagine this scene in our mind’s eye, but I’m pairing it here with a painting of the Crucifixion (1627) by Francisco de Zurbarán, a Spanish artist who lived a bit later than Ignatius.

Zurbarán, Crucifixion

In this painting, Zurbarán puts the Crucifixion before our eyes with no distractions. There are no other figures in the painting and no background. We become the figures standing before the cross.

As you look at this painting, think of what you might say to Jesus this Holy Week. In the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius suggests three ways we can talk to God. First, as quoted above, he says that we begin by marveling at Christ’s work on the cross: How is it that he, although he is the Creator, has come to make himself a human being? How is it that he has passed from eternal life to death here in time, and to die in this way for my sins?

Ignatius also suggests that we examine ourselves. He says:

In a similar way, reflect on yourself and ask: What have I done for Christ? What am I doing for Christ? What ought I to do for Christ?

Finally, Ignatius suggests simply talking to God. As you gaze on Christ, “speak out whatever comes to your mind.”

Marveling, examining, conversing: three rich ways to prayerfully engage with God this Holy Week.

So . . . what is on your heart? What would you say to Jesus? You can be sure that he is listening to you.

 

 

A PRAYER FOR HOLY WEEK

A prayer for Holy Week by Origen (c. 185–254), early Christian theologian and philosopher:

 

Jesus, my feet are dirty. Come even as a slave to me, pour water into your bowl, come and wash my feet. In asking such a thing I know I am overbold, but I dread what was threatened when you said to me, “If I do not wash your feet I have no fellowship with you.” Wash my feet then, because I long for your companionship.

 

 

FRIDAY FAVORITES FOR PRAYER AND WRITING

Welcome to Friday Favorites! As we continue seeking hope and courage in the middle of a pandemic, Prasanta Verma and I bring you a round-up of posts and podcasts to help you on this journey. Enjoy liturgy, words of faith, writing encouragement, homeschooling tips, and more.

Blessings to you . . . and keep the faith.

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A Liturgy During a Pandemic via Porter C. Taylor (a meaningful liturgy for groups or individuals)

Giving Up via Taryn R. Hutchison (When Lent started, Taryn knew what she wanted to give up. What she actually gave up was something altogether different; something more. You gave it up, too.)

How to Fight an Unseen Enemy via Shelly Wildman (what do we need to remember about God in these times?)

Stand Against Anti-Asian Racism in The Time of COVID-19 via Tasha Jun (every human being is made in the Imago Dei and is worthy of being treated as such; an invitation to take a stand)

Civic Housekeeping + Dietrich Bonhoeffer with Laura Fabrycky via Ashley Hales (now more than ever, we need the lessons Fabrycky brings us from Bonhoeffer’s life)

Poet Laura: Keeping Your Distance with Emily Dickinson via Tania Runyan (finding depth even in distance)

The Myth of Perfect Writing Locations via Erica Wright (do writers really need a “room of their own?”)

Tips for Homeschooling in a Pandemic…and Beyond via Ingrid Lochamire (tips for those who are suddenly faced with homeschooling)