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The Mystic Path: Illumination

Illumination:

Seeing God in all things

Desire is answered

Perhaps unsurprisingly the last post on “Purification” was the least read post of all that I have posted! Hopefully the title of “Illumination” will attract more readers. However, without the desire to be a better person reflected in the step of purification, the next rung of the ladder leading to illumination can hardly be climbed. One spiritual writer noted that a person cannot reach the top of the ladder without stepping on the first rung.

Perhaps to understand what the mystics meant by illumination we need to go back to the ground level where awakening occurs. Because of our awakening, a desire to draw near and unite with God is born within us. As the desire grows, more and more is revealed to us. The more that is revealed to us, the greater the desire grows. However, it is not as automatic as that makes it sound. I find that I often must pray for an increase in my flagging desire.

In this stage of mystic growth, we concentrate our will, intellect and feeling on God.  Good works or virtues are performed almost spontaneously. St. Paul might call this growing in the image of Christ. St. Peter named it acquiring the divine nature.

Evelyn Underhill noted that in this stage of illumination three elements may be found. The first, is a joyous apprehension of the Divine or God. The nearness of God is enjoyed. The second is experiencing an added significance and reality to all natural things. The Divine is seen in nature and/or in other persons. And third, a kind of spiritual energy is released that may result in visions, voices, etc.

One word of warning about the last one: visions and voices are never to be sought. If they come, they come. And if they come but do not increase a person’s humility and love, they do not come from God.

As always, if you find this post helpful, feel free to share it with others and encourage them, if they like it, to sign up to follow.

May God be more real to all of us this day.

 

 

 

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The Mystic Path: Purification

Last time we considered the occurrence of awakening in the mystic path–that happening in our lives when we become awake to the divine or God’s presence all around us. Today’s topic is not as exciting, but I hope not to lose any readers!

According to the mystics once we are awakened to the glory of God, we can become aware of our own imperfections. The path to ultimate union with God leads through a period (or probably periods) of purification.

Some of our imperfections are caused by our environment. Another way to say that is that we are impacted by sin. On the other hand, some of our imperfections are the result of our own bad choices. Or, we commit sin, e.g. we nurture wrong desires or do wrong things.

Our imperfections may appear in a variety of forms. Not being able to distinguish right from wrong is an imperfection in our intellect. When we can’t seem to make a decision or stick to those resolutions we do make, this is an imperfection in our will. Regularly struggling with unhealthy feelings points to an imperfection in our emotional center.

I have largely avoided talking about ‘sin’ because the word has been wildly misused over the years. When I was a young person growing up in rural Alabama in the 50s and 60s, dancing was considered a sin in some circles! And going to the movies on a Sunday was a definite taboo.

Nevertheless, the word sin still has value when we consider the imperfections in our moral center. Jesus taught us to love one another, which means seeking the other person’s welbeing. When we fail to do that, we are imperfect or we are sinners.

Mystics have suggested a threefold way of purification that can help us along the path to union with God. First is contrition–a sense of sorrow for our imperfections or sins. Second is a full confession–acknowledging, at least to ourselves, that we are not perfect. Third is the resolve to change. Of course, for Christian mystics, all of this is done in the presence of God who is ready to forgive and to help us grow into the divine nature.

The Mystic Way: Awakening

The name of this blog site is Pathways to God. Today I want us to begin thinking about the Mystic Way. In the Christian context, three movements are usually affirmed: purification, illumination and union. However, two additional steps are sometimes mentioned. One may occur between illumination and union. It is traditionally called the Dark Night of the Soul. The other is prior to purification. It is awakening. And it is awakening that I want to think about today.

The experience of awakening can happen in at least two different ways. One is to experience the glory of God externally. Nicholas Hermann (popularly known as Brother Lawrence) saw a dead tree in winter and thinking about how it would come back to life, he was awakened to the greatness of God. It was life-changing. Men as different as St. Paul and Rulman Merswin saw a great light and they were never the same. Even Jesus heard a divine voice at his baptism and a ‘normal’ life was no longer a possibility.

The other way is inward. Richard Rolle felt a heat or warming in his heart. (I don’t think it was heat that Tums could ‘fix’!) Catherine of Genoa was struggling in a loveless marriage and perhaps with depression. She went to a priest for her normal Lenten confession, but wasn’t able to say anything. As she knelt, her heart seemed pierced by the love of God. In one moment she saw her own miserable state, but more importantly God’s boundless love. Both Rolle and Catherine became great affirmers in word and deed of a divine love that fills and overflows our hearts.

Awakening comes in different ways, but when it comes the person is never the same. The Divine becomes the ever present reality of their lives. They live for God and God’s will. They affirm the beauty and the love of God.

So, what can we do to be awakened? Perhaps nothing. It comes to irreligious and religious persons alike. We can’t make it happen. All I can suggest is to pay attention to life within and without. All life comes from God and perhaps if we pay attention, we are more likely to experience a moment of awakening that will last a lifetime.

Born to Rock–Gently

My mother told me that when I was a baby, I would often get in a crawling position in the bed and rock myself to sleep. And I’ve been rocking ever since. My band director in high school poked good-natured fun at me as I rocked back and forth in my chair playing the trumpet. Whenever I go into a room where several chairs are available, I always gravitate toward any rocker I can find.

Rocking is a gentle movement. It’s a gentle activity. And it seems to me that gentleness is a quality our world needs more of.

Father John-Julian wrote a poem entitled “Psalm 23”. The first two lines are perfect: “The unhesitating gentleness / of pure divinity.”* Reading those lines, I realized anew how gentleness lies at the heart of that psalm in the Bible. It is also characteristic of Jesus as he gently touched the sick and patiently taught the multitudes.

One of the things he taught is usually translated as “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” I prefer to translate it as “Blessed are the gentle . . . ”

I think I have come to appreciate gentleness more and more over the years. I love to see gentle butterflies flitting from flower to flower. Yesterday I witnessed one bird gently feeding his mate. Sitting on my back deck (rocking in our swing, of course) I just enjoy watching the leaves on the trees move gently in the wind.

I am not naive. I know that there are violent images of God in the Bible and that Jesus too is pictured occasionally as responding in less than gentle ways. And violence is part of nature.

Nevertheless, I believe that if we are going to have an earth to inherit in the generations to come, we need now to begin practicing gentleness. And we can begin by simply noticing it all around us, affirming that it is announcing the presence of the divine. Such attention has the power change us; to make us more gentle.

Hopes truest measure:

The gentle kindness of God

Is more than enough

*Fr. John-Julian, “Psalm 23” in The Paraclete Poetry Anthology: Selected and New Poems, edited by Mark S. Burrows (Paraclete Press: Brewster, Massachusetts, 2016), 64.

As always, if this meandering blog moves you, please feel free to share it with others and encourage them to become followers too.

Just say ‘WOW’

Recently I have been reading in a book of excerpts from the writings of George McDonald. In one of them, he noted the importance of growing in child-likeness, not childishness. Child-likeness, he believed, involved a growth in simplicity. I agree, both about the inherent opposition of child-likeness to childishness and the importance of growing in simplicity.

In thinking further about how to grow in child-likeness, it seems possible to do so by learning to live in wonder and unfeigned generosity. It is the first option I want briefly to explore.

We can learn to live in wonder by practicing it. I love to go on retreats, especially to places where I can enjoy the beauties of nature. My wife also likes for me to go on retreats! She says I am always, at least for awhile, a kinder, more loving person when I return home.

Practicing wonder, however, does not depend on my going on retreats. I can practice it daily by looking for beauty and goodness that are all around me. I can look at bluebirds feeding in my backyard and say ‘wow’. I can see the wildflowers growing on the hillside and say ‘wow’. I can meditate on a night sky and say ‘wow’. I can watch a mother hold a baby and say ‘wow’. I can stand and look at a painting made for me by my daughter and say ‘wow’. I can remember wonderful years of life with my sweet wife Pat and say ‘wow’.

Children can and should live lives of amazement. It comes naturally for them. It is that child-likeness that we can achieve at least to some degree. All it takes is to practice wonder and just say ‘wow’.

As always, feel free to share this with others.

Peace, LaMon

 

Haiku Spirituality

This may be the last in this series of blogs on spiritual practices that can help us to sharpen the divine image within. All have been time-tested practices that have helped individuals grow spiritually. We have considered silence, journaling, holy reading (lectio divina), Gospel reading, and meditation. Today I want to affirm a newer practice that I have been doing for the past few years. It is composing haiku.

I write haiku for two reasons. First, it is fun. Yes, spiritual practices or disciplines do not have to be onerous. At least some of them can be fun and bring joy.

The second reason is that writing haiku helps me to be present. It helps me to be present to what I see and to what I read. For example, a day or two ago, I was walking around our neighborhood and noticed a tall weed on a hill-side. The ‘weed’ had a bushy head of yellow.  Almost immediately haiku began to work its way into my consciousness. Eventually I wrote:

Springtime on hill-side

A four-foot weedy plant grows

Topped by yellow blooms

Writing haiku about nature helps me to be present to God in God’s creation.

Writing haiku also helps me to be present to my devotional reading. I have composed at least one haiku for each of the 150 psalms and I am presently writing a haiku in connection with my Gospel reading of the day. After reading a resurrection story in Luke’s Gospel earlier this week, I wrote the following;

Disbelieving men

Wild words of foolish women

Jesus is risen

The haiku form in English is simple–lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables. But straining to make your experience of being present fit that pattern is not necessary. There are times when 4 syllables instead of 5 seem to work best. However, I do try not to have more syllables than the norm.

I heartily recommend Haiku–the Sacred Art: A Spiritual Practice in Three Lines by Margaret D. McGee. This book helped me to get started with writing haiku as a spiritual practice. It is a treasure.

Haiku devotions

Demanding one’s attention

Centering on truth

 

Meditation

I decided to be blunt even with the title!  We have been thinking about spiritual exercises that can help us to sharpen or brighten the image of God within us. We have looked at the value of silence, journaling, holy reading, and focusing on the Gospels. Today, I want to mention meditation.

Meditation can be done in a variety of ways. One may write a non-analytical ‘meditation’ on some spiritual reading; perhaps how it spoke to your current situation or how it opened up new understandings of spiritual realities. (Writing non-analytical is hard for some of us to do!)

One can look intently at an aspect of nature; a leaf, a flower, a gentle stream, a soaring mountain. It is possible to encounter the beauty and creative glory of God in such a sustained look.

A third form (and I am certain there are others) is to use one’s imagination; visualize the scene you have read about and then let it unfold in your imagination. Sometimes, important truths may be revealed.

Here is a short imaginative meditation I experienced some years ago. I focused on Ezekiel 36:26, “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”

This is what I wrote in my journal. “During a meditation on Ezekiel 36:26, I saw God remove from my chest a heart of stone. I thought he would throw it away and give me the promised heart of flesh. Instead he took my stone heart and placed it next to his chest. He held it there and it was transformed. Perhaps it was my original heart decalcified. Or maybe not. It was, at least, my old heart being given new life and pliability. And it was returned to me.”

Imaginative meditations rarely come easy for me, but occasionally they meet some need in my life. They may give me some spiritual insight or encouragement. Just as God can speak to us through our memory and through our reason, so can God speak to us through our imagination. None of these three are infallible, but each one can be useful. So, I encourage you to give meditation a try.

I suggest you might read Luke 9:28-36. Read the story a couple of times. Then close your eyes. Place yourself in the role of one of the disciples. Let the story unfold in your imagination. Be sure to visualize the surrounding environment. What did the hillside look like? What about the sky? The more details, the better. Additions and/or differences may appear from the original story. That is to be expected, since you are now a participant. When the story ends, take a moment to write it all down. You may continue to reflect on this for days to come.

 

A More Peculiar Practice

I have recommended three practices that have helped me to grow spiritually. They are silence, journaling, and holy reading. These three can be found in many books on the spiritual life. Today’s practice is more peculiar to me.

Some 20 years or so ago I began to see a spiritual adviser. It was a time when I was considering a change of vocation and/or denominational affiliation. It was recommended that I begin seeing Rev. Steve Holzholb. One thing he advised changed my life. He suggested that I not read quite as much scripture in my morning devotions. At that time I was reading an Old Testament passage, a Psalm, a New Testament passage, and a Gospel passage. He said, “LaMon I want you to read only in the Gospels for awhile and nothing else.” 20 years later, I simply cannot omit reading in the Gospels everyday I do my devotions.

As a Protestant Christian, I had interpreted Scripture and life largely through the writings of Paul. This is the normal Protestant pattern. Paul’s writings become the grid by which we understand everything else.

Following my adviser’s suggestion, I began reading a passage from the Gospels daily. It took months, but eventually, my grid changed. No longer did I see everything through the eyes of Paul, but instead through the eyes of Jesus. I interpreted Paul by way of Jesus and not visa versa. If I am a better person now that I was 20 years ago, one of the reasons is that I immersed myself in the Gospel stories and teachings of Jesus.  I believe this Gospel reading has made me more compassionate, forgiving, and welcoming.

It can work for anyone. Simply determine that, except for some vocational necessity, e.g. teachers, preachers, etc., you will read only in the Gospels for awhile. Do not read whole chapters. Read shorter selections. Read slowly, listening for a word from God about which you might write and pray in your journal. As I said, I started doing it “for awhile” and continue to do it some 20 years later–though I do now add some other readings from time to time.

May Jesus himself be your teacher.

[As always, if you find what I have written helpful, you may share it with others. You might encourage them to ‘follow’ these blogs as well.]

Holy Reading

I am looking at practices that have helped me and countless others throughout history to make the divine spark within us glow more bright or, if you prefer, the divine image within us appear more clear. I am examining ways that have helped me to grow spiritually. We have considered the importance of silence and journaling as two such practices.

Today we look at the practice of Holy Reading. As you might expect, in the history of church it has a Latin name: lectio divina. Traditionally, it was a way to read scripture, but its steps can be applied to many different types of literature. It is reading for formation rather than information. The latter type of reading is important in many contexts, but it is not the focus of Holy Reading. In Holy Reading we are wanting to be formed more and more into the divine image.

Holy Reading has four steps.

The first step is to read. Traditionally the chosen passage is read twice–slowly. You are not reading the passage just to get to a check-off place, but to imbibe its spirit. Read it first, slowly. In the second reading, you may notice a word or phrase that attracts you. You can stop the reading there or continue to the end of the passage.

The second step is to meditate on that word or phrase. You don’t try to analyze it–that is the old desire for information creeping in. You chew on it. You turn it over in your mind. Perhaps you make a kind of mantra for it, reciting it silently or softly. As you do so, sometimes the phrase or word will change. That’s ok. Just go with it.

The third step is to pray. Begin to talk to God about whatever that word or phrase is leading you to. The prayer usually flows naturally from your meditation. You might say that the phrase has moved from your mind to your heart.

The final step is to contemplate. In this case, it simply means to rest in God’s presence after the prayer is finished. Some practitioners say that this is the goal–if we must have a goal–of Holy Reading.

Two other points. First, spiritual growth cannot be simply programmed. These four steps may not all happen each time or in the order I listed them. Sometimes, some of the steps will hardly be needed before one rests in God. I often use a truncated version of Holy Reading as I journal, i.e. I look for a word or phrase that attracts me, then I write about why it seems significant to me. Many times I will then write a short prayer.

Second, I believe that God is at work transforming us, so if a particular practice seems to fall flat on certain days or even over a longer period of time, don’t despair or give up. Let us be faithful to do our part and trust God to do the greater part.

My Most Valuable Practice

In writing about practices that have helped me grow spiritually, I began in the last post talking about the importance of silence. I would add one or two comments. Unless you live isolated from modern life, it is almost impossible to escape the roar of traffic or the sounds of neighbors. I have found a free app called Insight Timer that helps me block out most of that noise with quiet sounds like flowing rivers or tinkling bells. It also allows me to set the timer for 10 minutes (or more or less depending on my desire). If you think it might help you, give it a try.

Now on to practice #2. It is journaling. WAIT, don’t quit reading! I know that journaling may not help everyone, but it is the single most important practice that I do because it helps me with most of my other practices.

The value of a daily journal is at least three-fold. It helps us to know ourselves as we write about events in our lives, our thoughts, and our feelings. It can also help us to relate to God. I often find myself talking to God as I write. It also helps us to concentrate. More about that in a moment.

So, what do I write in my journal? I usually begin by writing some comments on my morning scripture reading. Knowing that I am going to write something, helps me to concentrate on the reading. I’m not just reading to check off a daily accomplishment. I am reading to find something meaningful for me in that moment. Journaling helps me to do that.

I also write about my life. Since most of my journaling is in the morning, I usually detail some of what happened the day before and what I plan for the coming day.

And I usually write some short one or two sentence prayers. Perhaps I will thank God for something that happened the day before or an insight I discover in scripture. Perhaps I will ask God to help me in general or specific ways as I reflect on scripture and my life. It’s sort of like sending a text message to God. (Sometimes, not often, I will write out a long prayer, usually of thanksgiving.)

I do a few other things from time to time, but these seem most important to me. I do not spend a lot of money on fancy journals. I often just buy a spiral bound note book.

I began journaling on December 16, 1977. I have written over 2000 pages, maybe closer to 3000. The goal is to write every day, but I don’t. In the past, I might miss several days in a row. Being retired, it is easier to write almost daily. The important thing to remember is that if you miss a week, don’t give up. Simply start up again on the day when you can.

If you are not already keeping a journal, I encourage you to give it a try in 2018.

(As always feel free share any of this with others you think might benefit. Thanks for reading!)