We All Wander – But Do We Return?

Perhaps it’s no wonder that I’m drawn to the medieval mystics. Having spent the better part of my life researching and studying, the mystics teach something I need to hear: we come to know and love God not through our intellect, but through our heart.

One of the most popular mystical texts was written by my favorite author — Anonymous. In the late 14th century, this man (probably an English monk) penned a guide to contemplative prayer called the Cloud of Unknowing.

These days, the Cloud of Unknowing is one of the main texts used in the practice of centering prayer. It has many techniques and words of wisdom. I’m especially drawn to the section in which the author talks about failing at prayer. Because we all do. Our monk says:

No sooner has a man turned toward God in love when through human frailty he finds himself distracted by the remembrance of some created thing or some daily care. But no matter. No harm is done; for such a person quickly returns to deep recollection.

I like this monk’s down-to-earth approach. When our mind wanders, we return to God. We don’t worry about it; we don’t dwell on it. We simply return. I find such grace in this message!

One of the most beautiful stories in Scripture, and one of the most familiar, is about returning to God. It’s the story of the Prodigal Son (reference). I love the way Rembrandt paints the moment of the wandering son’s return. The tender embrace between father and son captures, for me, the way God longs for each of his children to come home — no matter what we’ve done, no matter how far away we’ve gone.

Prodigan Son

We often think of the Prodigal Son as a parable about returning to God after a long time spent away. Might it also be about the way we return to God each day? I’ve come to see the Prodigal Son as a metaphor for my everyday prayer life. When I pray, I begin strong. I’m ready to take hold of the riches. Then, despite my best intentions, I begin to wander. Before I know it, my treacherous mind is far from the place it began — I end up, alongside the prodigal son, in a metaphorical pig sty of my own making. But God is always waiting, arms outspread, for me to return.

I hear the reassurance of God’s untiring welcome when I read the Cloud of Unknowing. I can return. We can all return to God.

It’s also nice to hear this assurance from people I know and trust. One day, after “failing” an exercise in contemplative prayer, I told a friend about my problem.

“I had to restart my prayer about thirty times,” I complained.

“Thirty times? That’s great! You actually thought about Jesus thirty times!” my friend exclaimed.

She sounded, in her own way, a lot like the Cloud of Unknowing. And I realized she was right. During my prayer exercise, I’d drifted away. There’s no question about it — I’m full of what our 14th-century monk calls “human frailty.” But when I wandered, I came back. And each time I did, Jesus was there. It’s reassuring to know that I may drift away, but he never will.

We all wander. But do we return? That is the real question.

Weekly Prayer: Hildegard of Bingen

Today is the Feast Day of Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), the “singing nun.” Hildegard was a German Benedictine abbess, writer, composer, and mystic who left us many beautiful words. Today, we’re praying one of her songs of praise.

You’re the Word of our Father,
the light of the first sunrise,
God’s omnipotent thought.
Before anything was made,
You saw it,
You designed it, and
You tucked Your all-seeing nature in the middle of Your sinew,
like a spinning wheel
with no beginning and no end,
still encircling everything.

Amen.

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What I Wish St. Augustine Had Said

When I read Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead several years ago, I was struck by something the character of John Ames proclaimss towards the end of the story: Augustine says the Lord loves each of us as an only child, and that has to be true.” (2004, pp. 245-46)

It certainly rang true to me. It’s hard for me to wrap my mind around the idea that God loves the whole world. Doesn’t he play favorites like the rest of us do? When I read that line in Gilead, I immediately took to the idea of being God’s only child. One of a kind. Special. Uniquely loved.

Historian that I am, I went to look up this quote in Augustine’s works. I was pretty sure it came from the Confessions. But try as I might, I couldn’t find it. As I searched, I came across the same loosely quoted phrase, with no citation, in a nonfiction book. And I’ve seen it other places on the web.

Finally, after consulting a friend who specializes in the early Christian tradition, I discovered what Augustine really said:

You are good and all-powerful, caring for each one of us as though the only one in your care.*

Here’s the context. Before his conversion to Christianity, Augustine’s mother, Monica, wept for his soul. God comforted Monica in a vision. Augustine writes:

How could this vision come to her unless ‘your ears were close to her heart?’ You are good and all-powerful, caring for each one of us as though the only one in your care, and yet for all as for each individual.

In this statement, Augustine paints a vivid picture of God’s overwhelming love. God rests his ear on Monica’s chest and listens to her heartbeat, her tears, her pain. In Monica’s moment of need, everything and everyone else fades from God’s view, and Monica becomes his only care and concern.

But Augustine did NOT say, “God loves each of us as an only child.” He does not explicitly cast God as a parent. Augustine might have been thinking about God as a father, but maybe not. Perhaps he was thinking of God as a pastor, a doctor, a mentor, or a teacher — someone who has another in his or her care.

I have to admit that I was disappointed. How I long to be told that I’m God’s only child! I yearn for the undivided attention of a beloved parent; to climb up on God’s knee and know that I am his only one. He’s not going to get distracted by the other children out there. He’s not going to run out of time or energy for me.

I’m not above acting like a child desperate for attention, either. “Look at me!” I cry out to God. “I bet those other kids can’t do a one-handed cartwheel!” Do you do that, too? (I mean the showing off, not the cartwheel.)

We look to the greats of the Church to tell us about our deepest longings. Augustine didn’t tell me what I wanted to hear, but he did teach me something about myself. My search for Augustine’s quotation, and my subsequent disappointment, reveals the state of my heart: a heart that longs to be someone’s one and only.

I know I’m not alone in feeling this way, since this passage from the Confessions has been misquoted (perhaps a better word is paraphrased) more than once, even by the likes of Marilynne Robinson! I think it points to one of the tensions of the Christian faith — we have a God who stretches his arms around the whole world yet loves each of us as the one perfect and beloved child he’s always longed for. It’s a tension I’ll wrestle with for a long time, since I’ll always be a child at heart.

*****

*Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 3.11.19, p. 50.

This post was originally published on my website, lisadeam.com.

FRIDAY FAVORITES FOR PRAYER AND WRITING

Welcome to Friday Favorites, my weekly round-up of great finds on the web. This will be our last Friday Favorites for the summer — but look for them again when the leaves begin to turn.

Friday Favorites features posts and podcasts on prayer, writing, and spirituality. Today’s finds offer a little bit of everything, from contemplative activism and contemplative history to a short story and a summer reading list. Read, and be blessed.

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Fast for Familias (do something today — fast for an end to the separation of children from families at the border; this event is happening today, June 29)

An “Outsider” Can Show Us How to Love Our Neighbors via Ed Cyzewski (what if the help we need — now or one day — comes from people we wouldn’t have chosen to help us?)

After the Death of a Dream via Tasha Burgoyne (God is at work even when your most cherished dreams come undone)

2018’s Ten Christian Women to Watch via Jenna Barnett (did you catch Sojourners’ list of women who are making and shaping history this year?)

Why Finding God in All Things Leads to Fullness of Joy via Carl McColman (finding joy with the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich)

Friday Feature — National Selfie Day via Prasanta Verma (a light-hearted but serious look at one of our more interesting “holidays”)

The Sparrow via Jane Tyson Clement (a mystical short story about the God who sees every sparrow fall)

20 short novels you can read in one day via Modern Mrs. Darcy (add these short but impactful books to your summer reading list)

WEEKLY PRAYER

A prayer from Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897):

Yes, my Beloved, this is how my life will be consumed . . . I have no other means of showing you my love than by throwing flowers, that is, of not allowing one little sacrifice to escape, not one look, not one word, but by profiting from all the smallest things and doing them out of love . . . I want to suffer for love and even to rejoice for love so that in this way I will throw flowers before your throne. I shall not come upon one without unpetalling it for you . . . Then while I am throwing my flowers, I shall sing (for could one cry when doing such a joyous thing?). I will sing, even when I have to gather my flowers in the midst of thorns, and my song will be all the more melodious when the thorns are longest.

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BOOK OF THE MONTH: THE PRACTICE OF THE PRESENCE OF GOD

Week Two: An Integrated Life
Presence of God cover
This month, we’re reading The Practice of the Presence of God, the spiritual classic by the seventeenth-century lay Carmelite Brother Lawrence. Check last week’s post for an introduction to this practice, which teaches us how to continually remain in God’s presence.

I’ve long admired what Brother Lawrence has to say about work — work in relation to prayer and to being with God. I’m always tempted to segregate my life into compartments, and it’s easy for me to box up my work and see it apart from God, prayer, and the spiritual life. This is true of everyday work, like housework; and guess what? I can do the same thing with my writing on spirituality. I can easily box that up and stow it far from God, too.

Brother Lawrence, by contrast, speaks of living an integrated life, one in which we are always in the presence of God, no matter what we do. He wrote:

It is not necessary for being with God to be always at church. We may make an oratory of our heart wherein to retire from time to time to converse with Him in meekness, humility, and love. Every one is capable of such familiar conversation with God…Let us begin then.

***

We might begin such conversation in the realm of our day-to-day work. Brother Lawrence provides a good example. Upon entering the monastery as a lay brother, he was assigned kitchen duty. He didn’t much like it but came to see even this dreaded assignment as a way to be in the presence of God. He said (this is the famous omelet quotation; you knew it was coming):

[I]t is not necessary to have great things to do. I turn my little omelet in the pan for the love of God; when it is finished, if I have nothing to do, I prostrate myself on the ground and adore my God, who gave me the grace to make it, after which I arise, more content than a king. When I cannot do anything else, it is enough for me to have lifted a straw from the earth for the love of God.

***

Brother Lawrence also affirmed:

 

The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the blessed sacrament.

***

What about you? Have you encountered God in your kitchen today? How spiritually integrated is your life?

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The Practice of the Presence of God consists of the letters of Brother Lawrence, some of his Maxims, and four conversations with him as recorded by a contemporary, Abbe de Beaufort. You can read them here (other editions are widely available).

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For Reflection: 

Brother Lawrence week 2

 

 

WEEKLY PRAYER

Today’s prayer comes from The Venerable Bede (ca. 673-735), an English Benedictine monk, historian, and theologian. This is an especially good prayer to say after spending some time in the Word.

I pray thee, merciful Jesus,
that as Thou has graciously granted me
to drink down sweetly from the Word which tells of thee,
so wilt Thou kindly grant
that I may come at length to thee,
the fount of all wisdom,
and stand before Thy face forever.

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CONTEMPLATIVE PROFILE: ST. AUGUSTINE AND DENISE LEVERTOV

Last week, I posted on a passage from St. Augustine’s Confessions in which Augustine longs for God to come into the house of his soul. A little home expansion is necessary, and this marks the beginning of a mystical journey–a journey inward to meet, love, and be filled by God.

Recently I found a poem by Denise Levertov (1923-1997), an American poet, which riffs on this passage from the Confessions. It’s a wonderful tribute to Augustine that sheds light on the spiritual restoration for which the saint yearns.

Take a moment to relish Levertov’s poem:

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FOR THE ASKING

‘You would not seek Me if you did not already possess Me.’

-Pascal

 

Augustine said his soul
was a house so cramped
God could barely squeeze in.
Knock down the mean partitions,
he prayed, so You may enter!
Raise the oppressive ceilings!

Augustine’s soul
didn’t become a mansion large enough
to welcome, along with God, the women he’d loved,
except for his mother (though one, perhaps,
his son’s mother, did remain to inhabit
a small dark room). God, therefore
would never have felt
fully at home as his guest.

Nevertheless,
it’s clear desire
fulfilled itself in the asking, revealing prayer’s
dynamic action, that scoops out channels
like water on stone, or builds like layers
of grainy sediment steadily
forming sandstone. The walls, with each thought,
each feeling, each word he set down,
expanded, unnoticed; the roof
rose, and a skylight opened.

***

In the last stanza of the poem, we see another theme shared by many mystics, such as Julian of Norwich–the idea of finding God in the seeking; being answered in the asking. Like Levertov, Julian of Norwich often said that seeking God is the same as finding God. But back to the matter at hand.

As I think about my own formation, about what I need to get my journey started (and in many ways it begins anew each day), I like to read Augustine and Levertov together. Levertov’s poem helps me receive Augustine’s words and provides a model for how I might converse with him.

Augustine and Levertov, a Church Father and an American poet, help me to believe that soul-expansion is possible. It starts with nothing more than a cry to God. May this spiritual expansion be mine and yours today–may a skylight open in the house of our soul.

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CONTEMPLATIVE PROFILE: THE MYSTICISM OF ST. AUGUSTINE

Most of us know St. Augustine as a Church Father and theologian. This week, I discovered that Augustine can also be considered a mystic. The church historian Dom Cuthbert Butler called him “the Prince of Mystics” because, in works like the Confessions, Augustine speaks of traveling inward to meet God. He also writes of experiencing the divine presence of God and of seeing God invisibly.

I suppose it’s not too surprising to think of Augustine as a mystic since, according to some–and this is a view I also espouse–every Christian is a mystic. We’re designed to encounter God, to experience his divine presence, and to yearn for greater intimacy with him.

In that vein, I want to quote a somewhat mystical passage from Augustine’s Confessions. I have long loved this passage for the beauty of Augustine’s language and the passion with which he seeks to meet God within. This is a spirituality of longing, and it’s on my heart this week. Early in the Confessions, Augustine calls upon God to come to him–to come into him, in fact. But no sooner does he call than questions arise:

But what place is there in me where my God can enter into me? . . . Where may he come to me? Lord my God, is there any room in me which can contain you?

A little later, Augustine gives the answer. There’s not just a room but a house. However, there are some problems with this house:

The house of my soul is too small for you to come to it. May it be enlarged by you. It is in ruins: restore it. In your eyes it has offensive features. I admit it, I know it; but who will clean it up? Or to whom shall I cry other than you?

We cry out to God in mercy to rebuild and restore the house of our soul. God cleans up the house he intends to inhabit. That’s a good first step on the mystical journey, and it’s where I am right now. I’m feeling my own lack and asking God to restore my house that I might meet him there. I’m encouraged that there’s the potential for such a beautiful and spacious place inside me.

Does your heart similarly cry out to God? Have you ever experienced this intense longing for the Creator?

Read St. Augustine’s Confessions here.

WEEKLY PRAYER: CATHERINE OF SIENA

A prayer from St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380):

O Holy Spirit, come into my heart;
by your power draw it to yourself, God,
and give me charity with fear.

Guard me, Christ, from every evil thought,
and so warm and enflame me again
with your most gentle love
that every suffering may seem light to me.

My holy Father and my gentle Lord,
help me in my every need.
Christ love! Christ love!

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