A Book Filled with Joy and Light

At Play in Creation: Merton’s Awakening to the Feminine Divine (Liturgical Press, 2015) by Christopher Pramuk

I’m slightly embarrassed that a male so clearly and closely articulates the feminine face of God, but maybe we have Chris’ wife Lauri, mother Gladys and daughters Grace and Sophia to thank. It’s hard not to let our friendship and the beauty of his style—the precision of each word—influence my judgement, but still the book stands: clear, luminous, a diamond with many facets to which I’ll return repeatedly. I can read simply for the pleasure of a sentence such as this: “God…saturates all things in a sea of reverence.”

The overarching theme of the book is Merton’s discovery of God as Wisdom, a process in which Rowan Williams says we can observe the dynamic of God and human possibilities. Merton’s awakening is expressed primarily in Hagia Sophia, which Pramuk inspires us to re-read if it’s been a while… Wisdom-Sophia “is God’s call from the future breaking ever into the present.” This book gives us the freedom to know God not only as Father, Son, and Spirit, but also as mother, sister, child, and friend.

Such breadth ain’t the God of your ordinary homily, this “spirit of creativity and celebration.” As the author comments wryly, this spirit is “feared and starved dead for oxygen by an institutional church that seems determined to rigidly choreograph and control every move in the dance. After all, as the logic of clericalism goes, the people in the pews ‘are not theologically trained.’” For those who feel suffocated by such thinking, this book offers a chance to breathe again, and symbols that contradict hopelessness.

Considerably shorter than the author’s other books, this one nevertheless combines his signatures: careful scholarship with lyrical prose and accessible insights. Seems a bit odd that chunks of this book have appeared in previous books, but maybe that’s only a problem for fanatic Pramuk fans like myself, who read every word he writes. So treat yourself to a large draught of beauty, freedom, fresh air and joy.

Stress: A Pathway to Prayer? Part 5

A Tripod for Support

Often under duress, people turn in desperation to the triad of caffeine, alcohol and sugar. A three-legged stool that’s far more stable is church, relationships and exercise. We may trudge to liturgy or another church gathering without much energy to contribute. That’s when the faith community steps in like the friends of the paralytic who lowered him through the roof. The shared belief, homily, song, social interaction and scripture may relieve our anxiety and bring us to Jesus when we can’t quite get there on our own steam.

Some relationships may cause the stress (think wildly dysfunctional family or boss), but others relieve it. A friend or close relative can be the channel for grace if they offer a place to vent, a sympathetic ear, a helping hand or a gentle touch on tight muscles.

Many experts encourage exercise to release the stress that accumulates in the body. Christians who see the body as God’s temple should have even more reason to honor it and protect the flexibility of muscles, the supple bend of spine.

Stressed Saints

If it’s any consolation, the saints didn’t coast blissfully through trouble-free days, popping their spiritual Prozac. They sometimes dealt with worse pressures than we do, yet didn’t let that build an obstacle to prayer.

Catherine of Siena, for instance, was the twenty-fourth child in her family. Picture that large, boisterous Italian crew, always eager for the drama of an argument, and it’s understandable why she retreated to the hermitage of her room for a long time. According to legend, Jesus led her back—and into some of the worst warring factions of her day. She stood smack in the middle of local feuds—and mediated the fourteenth century dispute over whether the pope should live in Rome or Avignon. Unsurprisingly, she writes in her Dialogue, “my life has been spent wholly in darkness.” Yet she never deserted prayer, where she found the consolation of Christ: “bath and medicine, food and clothing, and a bed in which we can rest.”

St. Gregory Nazianaus lived long before computer melt-downs and traffic gridlock. Yet he could have been summarizing twenty-first century stress when he said, “Alas, dear Christ, the Dragon is here again.” We can speculate what the Dragon meant to him—or fill in our own particular names for this unwelcome visitor.

People who have had near-death experiences consistently report a sense of joy, light and peace. So if death itself has lost its sting, that puts all other stresses into perspective. St. Francis was even able to call death “sister.”

After a recent workshop in another state, I drove for two hours on remote county roads to reach the airport. Fiddling with the radio, I heard the end of a Mass broadcast. The presider must’ve been Franciscan because he concluded with the blessing: “May the Lord bless you and keep you. May he turn his face to you and have mercy on you. May he shine his countenance on you and give you peace.” Across unfamiliar fields shone a beacon. Into a tense car came a peaceful prayer.

Originally published in EVERYDAY CATHOLIC, St. Anthony Messenger Press

Stress: A Pathway to Prayer? Part 4

Bodily Prayer

Humans live incarnate—and the stress on our minds will inevitably transfer to our bodies. When we’re overly stressed, we pour toxins into our systems. Why are we then surprised by the resulting back ache, indigestion or migraine? Deep breathing has been part of every major religious tradition. Many use it to replace the venomous retort, to gain a few minutes to think, or to restore inner calm. In Genesis 1, God breathes life into humanity. In John 20:22, Jesus breathes courage and forgiveness into a confused and frightened group of friends. Yet when we’re nervous, we take short, shallow breaths, not the deep, relaxing ones that could bring peace. Breath is intrinsic to yoga, which can be moving meditation. It helps relieve chronic stress which for most people collects in the neck, back and shoulders.

Collaborating with the Inevitable

Sometimes a difficult situation is beyond our control. If, for instance, our work involves tax preparation, we know that the weeks preceding April 15 will be full. In such times, Piero Ferrucci, author of What We May Be recommends an attitude of acceptance. We can ask in prayer not to descend into self-pity, but to freely choose what we can’t change. The same God who gives the pleasant Sunday picnic also sends the midnight deadline. Can we learn from both, finding enrichment in radically different circumstances, trusting that God knows what we need? One unexpected blessing of the recession has been that with so many people out of work, those who have jobs appreciate them more—even the stressful ones.

The Strange Benefits of Stress

Oddly enough, stress is a mixed blessing. Without it, we might not get much done. Indeed, some folks look forward all year to their two-week vacation. They dream of lounging around the pool doing nothing. Inevitably, the novelty wears off. In a few days, they’re organizing activities: a tennis match, a shopping trip, a hike. They’re consulting the movie schedules and piling the family in the car. Hmmm—almost as if humans were made for action!

So too some who retire to the tropics grow tired of the sameness: one sunny day after another. Nothing like a good blizzard to get the juices flowing and the snow blower humming! With the right amount of pressure—not too much nor too little—we get organized, make efficient use of time, and accomplish great things for God.

As long as we sail through life untroubled, we don’t feel much need for God. But when we start coming unglued, we know how precarious our hold on sanity really is. If stress brings us to prayer, it may not be so bad. No matter how tired, frustrated or frazzled we are, we can end the day with compassion for the self.

I once gave a talk about prayer in a church basement to an audience seated on folding chairs. One plumber told of his experience. He’d met many people confronting the dire situation of sewage back-up. But he commented wryly, “if they’d just say a prayer instead of cursing the flood, they’d be in much better shape when I arrive!” I smiled in response: “you may be the answer to their prayer.”

 To be continued…

Originally published in EVERYDAY CATHOLIC, St. Anthony Messenger Press

Stress: A Pathway to Prayer? Part 3

A Broader Notion of Prayer

If we think of prayer as long, uninterrupted stretches in a quiet church or retreat house, we might get more stressed out worrying that we’ll never achieve that. Instead, we might want to think of prayer in terms of the different voices heard in John 11: 1-44.

It’s definitely a stressful situation. Lazarus, the beloved brother of Martha and Mary has just died. Making matters worse, Jesus has delayed coming, even though he knew Lazarus was ill. His disciples are annoyed with him for returning to an area where the Jews were just trying to stone him.  Emotions must be running high, but various forms of prayer appear during the crisis.

Lazarus, Mary, Martha and Jesus all love each other—so the sisters must wonder why Jesus waited so long to come. We can only imagine their anxiety increasing as Lazarus grew worse, and their dear friend didn’t appear. Martha’s complaint, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” may sound like whining. On the other hand, it is honest expression of her feelings—and her respect for Jesus.

Later, Mary weeps; her friends join her, and Jesus also weeps. This could be our prayer when we have no words left, and silent tears are eloquent. Jesus is “greatly disturbed,” but begins his prayer by thanking God. Despite the annoying criticism of the crowd (“Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”), he can still be grateful. In that stance lies a message for us—no matter how stressed we are, we can still be deeply thankful.

Jesus speaks with great confidence to God: “Father…I knew that you always hear me.” Then from the depth of his inmost being tears the wrenching cry, “Lazarus, come out!” It is the call to life, a stirring invitation to renewed engagement with the family Lazarus loves.

None of this occurs in a silent chapel. Indeed, the background noise of the crowd must be irritating. Prayer doesn’t always convey the polite emotions. Martha’s distress is as raw as the anger which rages through some of the psalms (See Ps. 88, 120, 137). No one consults a Bible or a book of prayer—all of it is spontaneous; some of it is wordless.

How does the gospel scene translate to our prayer in stress? Sometimes—when the gas guage nears “empty” or the thermometer spikes over 102–we may use “arrow” prayers, brief, direct beams to God’s heart. They may be simple as “Help!” “Please!” or “Thanks.” In short, they tell God we’re at the end of our rope. We’ve exhausted our limited resources. We don’t know what to do. We desperately need God’s intervention—or appreciate it.

Sometimes, our throats are tight and our minds are numb. We’re too tense to know what to say in prayer. Then, we can turn to scriptural mantras. We repeat consoling words in calming rhythms. For instance, when time, money or resources seem scarce, Jesus recalls to us the abundance of the Kingdom. We repeat then the father’s assurance to the elder son in the parable of the prodigal son: “you are always with me and all that is mine is yours” (Luke 15:31). Or Jesus’ words at the last supper tell us of his abiding presence, no matter what we’re going through. “Do not let your hearts be troubled….I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14: 1, 3). Water often calms and refreshes; Jesus says, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and let the one who believes in me drink” (John 7:37-8).

 To be continued… 

Originally published in EVERYDAY CATHOLIC, St. Anthony Messenger Press

Stress: A Pathway to Prayer? Part 2

Restored Perspective

During our “time apart” we remember we’re not alone in the current dilemma. Nor have we been apart from God in any other crisis. We invoke God’s enormous power and creativity to help us squeak through another tight spot, as God has done before.

Just as the tabernacle lamp draws attention to God’s presence, so prayer is our response: we stand before God in need—again.

We’ve all muttered tensely through gritted teeth, “if you want me to do this ___ (fill in the blank), God, I’ll need your help!” Indeed, I once survived seven flight cancellations, to give talks in Manhattan NY and Manhattan KS during the same blizzardy weekend, all fueled by prayer. As I sprinted through airports, I sang silently Amy Grant’s song, “Breath of heaven, hold me together…Pour over me your holiness, for you are holy.”

One benefit of prayerful journaling is the ability to read back over tense times in our past. We can see not only what troubled us, but how remote it seems now. Not to discount issues that were once important, but most of us can’t even remember the problems we lost sleep over three years ago. In God’s grand, cosmic design, our little snits and tensions seem like small potatoes indeed.

When we don’t have the perspective of time, prayer gives us a similar distance. In even a few moments, we can slow down, breathe deeply, and remember it’s all in God’s hands—whatever trouble “it” is now.

During a crisis that makes us want to scream with frustration, the deep breath of prayer can remind us that this one will pass as others have. Some wonderful surprise could also emerge. As playwright James Goldman wrote in “The Lion in Winter,” “in a world where carpenters get resurrected, anything is possible.”

To be continued… 

Originally published in EVERYDAY CATHOLIC, St. Anthony Messenger Press

Stress: A Pathway to Prayer? Part 1

Your refrigerator just conked, your boss is threatening more lay-offs, your back aches, your checks bounce, your head throbs, and your dog ate the neighbor’s newly planted pansies. The last thing you need is some chirpy voice from the remote land of spirituality counseling, “pray.”

But maybe that’s exactly what’s needed. We tend to avoid prayer when we desperately need it most. It could be similar to this situation: the computer geek explains a short-cut that takes twenty minutes to learn. Knowing it will save hours! But do you learn it? Of course not! You’re too busy to take that twenty minutes.

Such short-sightedness can also interfere with a habit of prayer that could take even less time. If you’ve got an hour to crash in front of t.v. or the time it takes to fix a drink and consume it, you’ve got breathing room to pray. And the rewards will be much greater.

Stress is here to stay. So what are the blessings in this darkly wrapped package? How can it become a pathway to prayer? Several suggestions follow.

Jesus and Stress

If we think of Jesus as floating amiably three feet above earth, never dirtying his hands or his garments, always surrounded by a golden aura and enjoying a perpetual serenity, the gospels quickly correct that image. John 6, for instance, tells of Jesus crossing the Sea of Galilee, followed by a large crowd. Tired and hungry, he sits down to rest with his friends. But guess what? A large, demanding, hungry crowd invades their privacy.

Some of us would run the other way. But Jesus asks Philip where to buy bread to feed them. That leads to the miraculous feeding of five thousand. Afterwards, realizing the people want to make him king, Jesus “withdrew again to the mountain by himself” (15).

That alternation between action and prayer seems to be a constant rhythm in his life. He never says, “today I fed five thousand, or cured a leper. I don’t need to pray.” Or, “those Pharisees are really stressing me out! No prayer today!” He seems to draw the strength and energy for draining work from life-giving “times apart” with his Father. As regularly as we feed our bodies, he feeds his soul. And if he who was God needed such nourishment, how much more do we limited humans!

To be continued…

Originally published in EVERYDAY CATHOLIC, St. Anthony Messenger Press

Pentecost

Jesus’ breath over the disciples in today’s gospel (Jn. 20:22) echoes back to that first breath of God in Genesis: hovering over the dark waters, the formless waste. Just as God breathed life into creation, so God breathed God’s life into human beings, bringing us fully alive.

 

Just as creation was in chaos, so too the friends of Jesus were disrupted, definitely NOT their best selves, cowering in fear behind locked doors. As God once brought peace and order to creation, so Jesus brings peace to them.

 

When Jesus says “receive the Holy Spirit,” whom does he send? In the Hebrew scripture, the Spirit of God was called SH’KEENAH, God’s dwelling among the people. This vibrant presence accompanied them to encourage them, to be the compassionate one in their midst, to give them vitality in their struggles.

 

Today we invite the Spirit to come again, continuing this work, because creation isn’t a one-time event. We call among us the spirited energy we need to heal, free, playfully lure us into the depths of love. Come, Spirit: inspire joy, care for the environment, and the transformation of systems that oppress and destroy.