False Self and Creativity: A Guest Post by Ed Cyzewski

I’m pleased to have Ed Cyzewski back at The Contemplative Writer with a guest post this week! Ed is an author and a contemplative who writes with great wisdom on topics such as prayer and the quieting of our soul. Today, this wisdom comes in the form of a post based on his recent book, Reconnect: Spiritual Restoration From Digital Distraction. Reconnect helps us learn to be present to God rather than to the constant call of technology. If you struggle with distraction or the need for validation, both of which can result from social media use, I really recommend Ed’s book.

Below, Ed talks about the effects of social media not only on our souls but also on our creativity.

***

Leah is highly accomplished programmer who has worked on some of the most important features on one of the most widely used social media platforms in the world. Leah also pays someone to manage her social media accounts, especially her Facebook pages.

Why would prompt someone with her credentials to take such a drastic step? Is she naïve to the many benefits of social media? Is she a workaholic who can’t make time for social connections on line?

Actually, Leah is protecting herself from a social media feedback loop that is addicting and destructive. She knows that because she helped create it.

This “Leah” is Leah Pearlman, the co-creator of the red notification button on Facebook.  She had to hire someone to manage her accounts because the red notification button was too appealing and became linked to her self-esteem and daily moods (as of this writing the notifications are a red bubble on top of a bell on the Facebook home page). She went on to say:

When I need validation – I go to check Facebook… I’m feeling lonely, ‘Let me check my phone.’ I’m feeling insecure, ‘Let me check my phone.’… I noticed that I would post something that I used to post and the ‘like’ count would be way lower than it used to be.

Leah even used the word “addicted” in assessing herself: “Suddenly, I thought I’m actually also kind of addicted to the feedback.”[i] 

Even for those generally unworried about the response of peers, social media still prompts us to curate our identity, selecting the “best” parts of ourselves to share with others. This sets a perfect trap of sorts in terms of spirituality, as we have more than enough opportunities to present or live under the influence of a fabricated false self already.

This can be devastating both for our souls and for creativity:

Do we find our affirmation in the integrity of what we create or in the chance reactions of distracted people, many who barely know us, on social media?

Do we find our worth in the chance feedback of social media or in the loving presence of God that doesn’t rely on careful programming, alluring designs, and enhanced algorithms?

When I speak of a false self, I mean that kind of mask or identity we imagine for ourselves. Henrì Nouwen wrote in The Way of the Heart about the pressure in ministry to be relevant and competent, rather than embracing the brokenness we find in silence and solitude.[ii] Whether we try to project ourselves as successful, organized, creative, wise, or smart, the false self steals the security and affirmation we could receive from God. Instead, we face the pressure to maintain and even protect the false self rather than discovering who we are in God.

Social media provides an opportunity to make the false self more concrete—at least in the sense that it becomes something you and others can see. It literally can become an avatar that is projected, and as we become entangled with our online personas and false selves, it may become quite difficult to discern who we are in the security of God’s love.

As more likes and followers amass in approval of the false self, we may fear the loss of this steady stream of affirmation and may do what we can to ensure that it continues to grow. That isn’t to say that every social media user is at the mercy of a false self. Rather, social media offers a perfect opportunity to “incarnate” the false self and to build relationships around it.

Are we truly seeing people as they are? Or are we only seeing a projected image that is meant to appeal to us? As algorithms help us find people who are most like ourselves and as social media results in people migrating toward divided echo chambers, we are at risk of losing touch with the complexity of each other while also reducing people to simplistic labels based on what they reveal online about themselves, such as their religious or political preferences. 

While there are opportunities for connection, community, and encouragement via social media notifications, those notifications can also serve as a source of insecurity that drives us back to social media for another hit of affirmation. This ready-made, daily affirmation from friends, family, and even complete strangers can make it difficult, if not impossible, to give up a social media affirmation hub like Instagram or Twitter—although services like Facebook, YouTube, and SnapChat offer many similar quandaries for users seeking affirmation. You could get “amazing feedback” at any moment if you keep checking, keep posting, and then keep checking. This feedback loop runs counter to the vision for content offered by Thomas Merton:

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

The feedback on social media is quite immediate, especially if you compare it to the older publishing processes, such as a magazine article. We immediately know if our ideas, images, videos, or favorite articles resonate with our family, friends, and colleagues. The elation of that feedback can become addicting.

At the same time, we can also enjoy reading updates, viewing videos, and browsing photos from our friends, which go on in an endless supply. We have no end of sources for comparison and envy. The more we fill our days with the parade of images and videos on social media, the less likely we are to turn to God for our affirmation, identity, and security.

This post has been adapted from Reconnect: Spiritual Restoration from Digital Distraction by Ed Cyzewski (Herald Press, 2020).

Learn more here and get a free study guide.


[i] Hilary Andersson, “Social media apps are ‘deliberately’ addictive to users,” BBC, July 4, 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-44640959.

[ii] Henrì Nouwen, The Way of the Heart: Connecting with God through Prayer, Wisdom, and Silence, 19-21.

[iii] Merton, No Man Is an Island, 127.

FRIDAY FAVORITES FOR PRAYER AND WRITING

One of the greatest joys of being a writer and, well, a person, is that of being in community. It’s always a joy to discover the words of fellow writers and then to bring them to you. This week, Prasanta Verma and I are sharing a collection of links that we hope will inspire you. So much beauty! Be encouraged, and be blessed.

***

Day Begins via Linda Hoye (after dark comes dawn)

My Prayer Mat via Kevin Driedger (channeling Brother Lawrence in the kitchen)

My Cross I’ll Carry via Aarik Danielsen (when you pick up a cross to justify yourself, that cross gives up its meaning)

When You’re Stuck–A Reflection on Exodus 14:19-31 via April Fiet (when we get stuck, we want to turn around and go back–but is “back” where we’re meant to go?)

Days of Awe: A Gentile Discovers Jewish Poetry via Melanie Weldon-Soiset (the poetic history and possibilities of the Days of Awe)

You Do Have Agency: Your Morning Walk with Sophfronia via Sophfronia Scott (as creatives and as people, we can do much more than we think)

When Mystics Meet (Or; We Need One Another)

On September 28, the Episcopal Church (USA) remembers three mystics: Walter Hilton, Margery Kempe, and Richard Rolle. They are not saints but considered to be important ancestors in the history of the Christian faith.

Walter Hilton (ca. 1340 – 1396) was an English Augustinian canon and mystic. His treatise on Christian contemplation, The Scale of Perfection, was well known in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.  

Margery Kempe (c. 1373 – after 1438) was an English laywoman and mystic. She wrote (or more likely dictated) The Book of Margery Kempe, a spiritual autobiography and one of the first in the English language.

Richard Rolle (ca. 1300–1349) was an English hermit, mystic, and writer of spiritual treatises. His best-known work is The Fire of Love.

All three of these historical figures are worth getting to know; Hilton and Kempe play a big role in my forthcoming book on pilgrimage.

In Margery Kempe’s book, we get a glimpse of how these three medieval mystics—and others—were interconnected. For Kempe, meeting other mystics and reading their texts was a way to further spiritual growth. We know, for example, that around 1413, Kempe visited Julian of Norwich in Julian’s cell. The two talked for several days and spoke about the love of Christ. Kempe also told Julian about of her spiritual experiences and received advice from the anchoress.

I’m equally intrigued by Kempe’s report that she had Walter Hilton’s book and Richard Rolle’s treatise read aloud to her by her priest. She says:

[The priest] many a good book to her about high contemplation and other books too, such as the Bible with commentary by doctors, St. Bridget’s book, Hilton’s book, Bonaventure’s Stimulus Amoris, the Incendium Amoris, and other such books (130).

“Hilton’s book” is The Scale of Perfection, and the Incedium Amoris is Richard Rolle’s Fire of Love. The other books mentioned in this list are the Revelations of St. Birgitta of Sweden and the Pricking of Love, which was not by Bonaventure, as Margery Kempe says, but probably by James of Milan and perhaps translated by our friend Walter Hilton!

So . . . Margery Kempe met Julian of Norwich, and she knew Walter Hilton and Richard Rolle through their words. I enjoy discovering that some of my favorite people from history knew one another. It reminds me that these mystics existed in Christian communities; they weren’t left to figure out their faith completely on their own. So should it be with us. We can’t do it alone. We need each other’s testimonies, advice, wisdom, and companionship.

In the Middle Ages, Christian community extended to reading. As we see from the passage about Kempe’s priest, books were often read aloud rather than silently and privately. I picture Margery Kempe, perhaps sitting down to her evening meal. A fire crackles in the hearth. Kempe’s priest sits across the room and, while she eats, reads aloud from one of the authors she admired. Would Kempe have paused the reading to ask a question? Did she request certain passages that particularly spoke to her?

Give this a try sometime. Grab your favorite passage from Julian of Norwich or another mystic and read it out loud. You will be experiencing the text in a very historical way. And you will meet some great mystics!

Flammable — A Poem by Prasanta Verma

Approaching flames
warm hands, wake
mind, sparks sear heart,
ignite fiber of truth—
a thread of hunger burns

Eternal pyre,
inferno of letters,
old stories illuminated—
a pearl, a passion, a phoenix

This skeleton of dust
catches fire,
I know where I
belong.

In red embers
where love transforms
smoking ash,
I find myself:
A fading flower,
temporal vapor,
with flammable soul

***

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/.

A New Book for the Contemplative Community: Recital of Love by Keren Dibbens-Wyatt

This year, I’ll be featuring some new or recent books about once a month. These are books that I think will particularly speak to you, and I’m happy to highlight them as resources for our contemplative community.

Yesterday, the writer and Christian contemplative Keren Dibbens-Wyatt came out with a new book, Recital of Love: Sacred Receivings. Faced with a chronic illness, Keren turned to contemplation and prayer and found God speaking words into her heart. Her new book is a collection of these “seeings.”

Keren records her seeings in beautiful language that’s perhaps best described as prose poetry. These seeings are God’s words to us, as received by Keren, and they sing of God’s wonder, grace, creativity, and constant presence in the world. They really spoke to my heart, and I think they will delight yours as well.

In the excerpt below, we’re invited to marvel at the vastness of God, as if we were being given a tour of one tiny room of a universe too immense to ever fully see — but not too immense to fully love. Enjoy this passage from Keren’s book.

***

Beyondness

There is much, so much more to be said than can ever be said. Words are inadequate for most of what needs to be poured out from my heart to the world. And so, I do not only speak, but sing, and the flowers and birds add colour and harmony. For I am speaking out an endless stream of universes and laughing worlds into existence. Chains of constellations form from the breath expelled from my nostrils! You truly have no concept or words for the wonder and vastness that I am, nor for the longings in my heart, or the love I harbour, even for the tiniest harvest mouse.

I am beyond all knowing. Do not fence me in, therefore, with your words and ideas, but stretch out with your heart-mind and sense instead, with your feelings, the vibrations of compassion and creation that echo through all of time and space, that resound in your own one tiny life.

By all means, chase my glory, watch my ways, gaze at my goodness, know my presence in the stillness of the waiting heron and the swish of a goldfish’s tail. But do not expect, no, never expect to see more than a glimmer of the whole, more than a flicker of light, more than the furthest edge of the universes of my being. You can only catch a trail of stardust, as you gape in open-mouthed awe at my Love and my Being.

You will return home, but for now you are crammed in the rock cleft with Moses as your guide, and you will only sense my passing, unable to comprehend it.

Yet, do not be dismayed! There is enough in this one moment to keep your minds and hearts busy for all eternity, if you truly love me. Think, ponder, write and paint, sculpt and garden, love and worship, sing and compose, set my wonders into stone and colour and rhyme, do these things with my blessing. But do them knowing that all you have seen is the smallest corner of the hem of my trailing robe, galaxies caught up in the stitching, or that what you capture in your words, or your gleaning of imagery is minuscule, and so small a part of who I am.

Because I exist wholly and holy throughout all creation, every quark knows my name. I may be found under the tiniest pebble, or beneath the lark’s tongue. But if you spy me there, do not imagine for one moment that I am wholly discovered. You could live a thousand years and not see. Gaze instead at my reflection, given within your own heart, and sing with it of my love—for here is where we begin our journey back to unity.

     Selah.

Recital of Love by Keren Dibbens-Wyatt
Copyright © 2020 by Keren Dibbens-Wyatt
Used by permission of Paraclete Press

***

Keren Dibbens-Wyatt is a contemplative in the Christian tradition. She writes to encourage others, to know the Lord more intimately, and to share the poetic ponderings of her heart. She lives in southeast England with her husband.

Are You A Contemplative?

As I prepared to kick off The Contemplative Writer this fall, I spent some time thinking about that word in the website’s title — “contemplative.” It’s easy to toss the word around, and I more or less know what I mean when I say it . . . until you ask me. What does this term really mean? What or who is a contemplative? Am I? Are you?

As many of you probably know by now, I often turn to history for answers. A look at Christian history has helped me begin to grasp what it means to be a contemplative or perhaps just a contemplative person (or writer).

Christian contemplation originated early on and in a monastic context. It was one stage in lectio divina, or sacred reading – an important monastic discipline and one that many Christians still practice today. Lectio leads us to read the Bible but is not a form of Bible study. Instead, it’s a way to prayerfully and reflectively engage with a passage and listen to what God might be saying to us through it.

The traditional stages or parts of lectio divina are:

  • Read
  • Meditate
  • Pray
  • Contemplate

In this practice, contemplation is the final stage; it’s meant to flow naturally from reading Scripture, meditating on its meaning, and then praying. During contemplation, we enter a time of prayer in which we “hear” or “speak” the word of God largely without words. We are attentive and open to God’s love. Some describe this as “resting” in God’s presence.

Throughout the Middle Ages, contemplation remained a part of lectio divina. But it also became an independent exercise in The Cloud of Unknowing, a spiritual treatise written in the late 14th century. The anonymous author, a monk, gives guidance and even some steps for contemplation, which include the repetition of a single word to help focus the attention on God. He mostly refers to contemplation as a “special prayer.” Today, we call this practice contemplative prayer or centering prayer. To learn more, check out this book by M. Basil Pennington, Thomas Keating, and Thomas E. Clarke.

Contemplation can sometimes sound a bit esoteric. And historically, it was; it was limited to the literate, the scholarly, and/or to those in a monastic context. But a number of history’s monks and mystics highlight its relevance to “ordinary” people like you and me. The Cloud author, for example, describes contemplative prayer as a yearning for or reaching out to God. Even though God is in a large sense unknowable, our longing for him is the key.

In 1915, the Anglican mystic Evelyn Underhill wrote:

Though it is likely that the accusation will annoy you, you are already in fact a potential contemplative: for this act, as St. Thomas Aquinas taught, is proper to all . . .  is, indeed, the characteristic human activity (from Underhill’s book, Practical Mysticism).

Underhill describes contemplation as “the” characteristic human activity because all seek to draw near to God . . . even if our drawing near happens in a kind of cloud.

Drawing on these historical sources, I might summarize the contemplative life as a deep-rooted, daily desire to draw near to God. Prayer and silent prayer are good aids to this life, and other practices might be, too – Bible reading, general reading, experiencing the natural world, and sacred friendship, to name a few.

I also love this definition by a group of Poor Clares: “The contemplative life is a life long journey to God in prayer and worship, turning from all else that could make the journey less direct.”

We are all on this journey, friends; the journey of life! And this means:

The Contemplative Writer is for you.

Contemplation is for you.

And, above all —

God is for you.

A Pandemic of Noise: By Prasanta Verma

“Somewhere we know that without silence words lose their meaning, that without listening speaking no longer heals, that without distance closeness cannot cure,” writes Henri Nouwen.

In silence, in the desert places, words develop a skeleton, flesh, and bone. Wandering in the wilderness, words develop greater fullness and depth. Faith grows a stronger backbone and a fresh set of wings. Our spirits flourish with greater sensitivity and nuances of understanding. A cacophony of endless words is meaningless; meaning grows out of the silence from listening in quiet, lonely, spaces.

By quiet, lonely spaces I am not necessarily referring to physical spaces, but those thin and empty places in our lives marked by loss, grief, pain, and suffering. Were it not for the silence of those places, I may not have learned or appreciated the full meaning of those words and the full meaning of their opposites. Indeed, joy is much better understood when underscored by seasons of grief. Health is enjoyed more deeply after seasons of illness. The opposites, the pain that I (and maybe you) want to run far away from, is often the very circumstance that teaches me.

So few in our world are prone to listening, yet we truly learn in the silence of listening from each other. Is it any wonder we talk past each other in political discourse, then? We speak too much and listen less. This is no different in our daily lives, too. In my conversations with neighbors and acquaintances, fewer people ask questions of the other. We are too busy, unavailable, judgmental, or self-centered. No wonder we ebb and flow in a sea of longing and loneliness.

Nouwen writes,

It is not easy to enter into the silence and reach beyond the many boisterous and demanding voices of our world and to discover there the small intimate voice saying: ‘You are my Beloved Child, on you my favor rests.’

We are living in an era where the daily barrage of boisterous news and continuous flow of information is almost like an insult to our systems. We are bombarded, and I can’t help but wonder that we need silence all the more. Eden was not a noisy place, I surmise. I imagine serenity, beauty, and the sounds of water and wildlife. What voices were speaking there in Eden, but of God speaking to His creation and of His creation speaking back? Yet today, the more prevalent voice is creation speaking to itself, or rather, screaming in blaring voices, all the time, all around us, so there is no escape. Are we hearing the voice of the One who calls us Beloved, amidst all the other voices? 

We are living in a pandemic of noise, silence is the treatment, and Christ in heaven is the cure.

***

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/.

 

 

 

My Sunday With the Quakers: A Guest Post from Traci Rhoades

This week, I’m happy to feature a guest post from writer and blogger Traci Rhoades. Traci’s new book, Not All Who Wander (Spiritually) Are Lost, just came out; it’s a memoir about going to church and mostly about finding common faith ground in the midst of our differences. Christian unity is such a worthwhile topic to explore right now!

Traci’s post features a subject we’ve discussed many times at The Contemplative Writer: silence. Some historical forms of prayer, such as centering prayer, involve sitting in silence with God. Below, Traci writes about how she came across an entire church service service that met her “deep hunger” for silence. I invite you to savor Traci’s words and maybe to think about where in your own life you’ve encountered God in moments of silence.

***

Never in my entire evangelical existence has my church family sat in silence for sixty minutes. In fact, I recall only one time of silence during any worship service and that was because someone missed her cue. The staff heard about it on Monday morning.

That’s how the Quakers do it though, or so I’d been told. Months earlier, an online friend put me in touch with Jason, a “Friend” in the Quaker sense. He attended unprogrammed services (a time of silent waiting for the Spirit) on the campus of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids. After a few messages back and forth Jason encouraged me to visit when I had an opportunity to do so. They meet on Sunday mornings so it would need to be a time when I didn’t have any obligations at my own church.

A snowy day last December showed itself to be the right time. Surprisingly, my daughter agreed to attend with me. We asked another friend of ours, who asked a friend of hers. The four of us met up on the Catholic college campus to attend the Quaker service.

At first we weren’t sure we were in the right place, until a man rode up on his bicycle and put the sign in the ground by the front steps. The Friends Meeting was in session. A nice man greeted us at the door and asked us to sign the guest book. He assured us they frequently have guests. We took our places in the roughly-formed circle of about twenty individuals, and promptly at 10am, silence fell upon us.

Rhoades blog post
What do you do for sixty minutes of silence? The Spirit didn’t prompt anyone to talk the entire time. I took my prayer rope out of my purse and prayed the Jesus Prayer. I offered up lots of intercessory prayer, for individuals God brought to mind and for each person seated around that circle. I sung a few hymns in my head. I wondered what other people were thinking about. A prominent thought kept popping into my head, you could never leave from here angry. Pacifism came to mind. Quakers are pacifists, correct? My daughter sat pretty still for the first fifteen minutes or so. After that, she fidgeted off and on. The few times I caved and made eye contact with her, she mouthed the words, “how much longer?”

We made it. After the service of silence, we went around the circle and gave our names. When it came time for my daughter to give her name, she gave a made up one. I asked her why and she said, “I wasn’t going to give a roomful of strangers my name.”

After going around the circle giving our first names, a man asked why we don’t divulge our full names. It occurred to me I knew this one. “If we’re a circle of friends, we’re on a first name basis.”

Afterward I talked with my contact, Jason, some more. He shared with me he’d grown up United Methodist. He missed the music offered in a more traditional worship service the most. I thought for the 3,017th time, why can’t a worship service offer it all?

Following this experience I read a couple books I had on my bookshelf, written by Quakers. One author is a Quaker pastor, certain branches of this church tradition do have clergy. In The Same, but Different, Phil Baisley explains that moments of silence are part of every Quaker gathering. “When Friends gather for worship, no matter whether a pastor is present, they are gathering with Christ to worship God in spirit and in truth.” Indeed, this extends to business meetings, classroom settings and basically every conversation a Friend has with another human being.

I enjoyed my first unprogrammed service and will attend again. The people were kind and encouraging, but I left feeling as if I hadn’t gone to Sunday church. Was that a programmed response or do I personally need more? It’s hard to say when you’ve only visited one Sunday.

In Brent Bill’s book Holy Silence, he paints a vivid picture of how God has spoken in moments of silence throughout his lifetime; on Sunday mornings, in his home, at weddings, when he leads moments of holy silence at ecumenical services in their vacation town. There’s more to corporate silence I need to explore. Bill writes, “The deep silence of the soul is our Eucharist.” Maybe that explains my deep hunger for silence. I am thirsty for a word from the Spirit. I love the idea of Him speaking corporately in communion of another kind. The Quakers are teaching me. We need each other. We really do.

 

 

Oneing with Julian of Norwich

The fourteenth-century mystic Julian of Norwich has taught me many things about hope, faith, and divine love. Recently she’s also taught me the value of words. I was reading Julian’s work, the Revelations of Divine Love, when I came across this sentence: “Prayer ones the soul to God.” This passage awakened my inner grammar queen. The last time I checked, “ones” wasn’t a verb.

Evidently Julian didn’t read the same grammar books that I did. Examples of oneing infuse her work, such as:

In our making God knit us and oned us to himself . . .

And the conclusion of this idea:

By the virtue of the same precious oneing, we love our Maker and seek God . . .

Julian’s oneing would not have sounded as jarring to her audience as it does to us. “To one” was a Middle English word meaning to unite or to join. But words change. If used today, oneing would constitute an egregious case of verbing — the act of turning a noun into a verb. You’ve probably seen many examples of this. Adulting is hard. Or, It’s time to introvert!

I think this is why some translators of Julian’s work don’t use her original wording: they’re concerned that she’s breaking today’s grammar rules. These translators often change the word “oned” to “united.” So, Julian’s phrase “prayer ones the soul to God” becomes “prayer unites the soul to God.”

JulianBut I much prefer Julian’s strange little verb. How much lovelier oneing is than uniting! The unfamiliarity of this word makes me pause, reread, and really grapple with its meaning. Uniting implies a joining of forces, but oneing suggests a knitting together that can never be undone, a union so seamless that you can no longer distinguish its individual parts.

Oneing implies more than intimacy. In the works of Julian of Norwich and other medieval mystics, it describes union with God himself. It encapsulates the mystery of our creation and our very being. Oneing is divine, in every sense of the word.

Not all examples of nouns-cum-verbs are as poetic as oneing. But Julian’s treatise has made me look at words differently, especially the trend of verbing. I haven’t always appreciated this trend. But thanks to Julian, I’m looking at it with new eyes. I’m ready to be surprised and disrupted, ready to see something new and possibly divine in the way we use words and break the rules. I’ve been bejulianed.

Perhaps we could all stand to be bejulianed. In an age of increasing verbiage and decreasing attention spans, we need language that disrupts; we need words that teach us about ourselves and the world instead of words that fly under our radar. In fact, it’s a thrill to discover that the English language can still trip us up. So when you see a strange word, perhaps even an example of verbing, pause, reread, think, and imagine. Above all, ask yourself this question: have I been oned with the divine today?

***

A version of this post originally appeared in the journal Upwrite.

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.