In the Bible, it is primarily the books of Job, Lamentations, and Psalms that express the darker side of our journey to God. The bright side is perhaps best described in the Song of Songs.
The Song of Songs sings of the only essential thing in life for which we were created: Love. And it does so with spark, enthusiasm, and an irresistible faith in love. “Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it” (Song 8:7).
This unparalleled poetry shows us how the world could have been had we not lost paradise. Love is enough in itself. For those who live in absolute love, few words are needed to talk about God. Innocence or sin are not treated. Love encompasses all, and neither questions nor answers are needed any longer.
This devoted and burning love points to the new fire which the new Adam has come to light on the earth (Lk 12:49). It is a prophecy of the jubilant love dance of the blessed at the wedding feast of the Lamb. It sings of the love between Christ and the Church, between Christ and every Christian. Such is the Christian life, such as it ought to be. The two who enjoy each other “among the lilies” (Song 2:16, 6:2) are the great Lover, God, and his beloved bride, humankind.
The Christian life has nothing to do with objectivity and cold duty. To the ones who enter into relationship with God, life becomes and adventure of love.
~ A Meditation by Father Wilfrid Stinissen, O.C.D.
“O night, that guided me! O night, sweeter than sunrise! O night, that joined lover with Beloved! Lover transformed in Beloved!”
Saint John of the Cross, O.C.D.
We are besieged with endless babbling, and we become too weary to listen; we need to set aside a time to encounter the Lord. He can be encountered in many places, but one way is to find him in the poustinia (the Russian word for “desert”).
A poustinia can be a room or a small cabin—simple, even stark, so that nothing takes away from meeting God there. It has plain walls, a crucifix without a corpus, a table, a chair, a Bible, paper and pen, a loaf of bread and a thermos of coffee or tea, or simply water. The bed will be hard, for anyone who wants to follow Christ into the desert needs to do some penance; prayer and penance are two arms one simultaneously lifts up to Christ.
The poustinia is a place of solitude and peace, exterior and also interior. Everything needs to “quiet down”: the wings of the intellect are folded so that speculation and intellectual evaluation are quiescent. The head enters the heart, and both are silent.
The Bible is the only book found in the poustinia. The Scriptures become a million love letters from God, to be savored and meditated upon, absorbed so that you almost become one with those eternal, fiery, yet gentle words. Reading Scripture is a conversation with God.
When you enter the poustinia, you take humanity with you. You lift everyone before God, with their pain, sorrows, joy. The poustinik walks immersed in the silence of God. Our life of service and love to our fellow men is simply the echo of this silence, this solitude.
Then your own heart becomes a poustinia. You are there when you are travelling the subway and hanging onto a strap with your arms full. You go to a dance and you are in a poustinia. You play cards, wash dishes, you talk to people. That does not interfere with your poustinia, because the poustinia is the secret place where the Lover meets his beloved. God meets man!
~ A Reflection by Catherine de Hueck Doherty
Counsel for Silence
Go without ceremony of departure and shade no subtlest word with your farewell. Let the air speak the mystery of your absence, and the discerning have their minor feast on savory possible or probable. Seeing the body present, they will wonder where went the secret soul, by then secure out past your grief beside some torrent’s pure refreshment. Do not wait to copy down the name, much less the address, of who might need you. Here you are pilgrim with no ties of earth. Walk out alone and make the never-told your healing distance and your anchorhold. And let the ravens feed you.
~ A poem by Sister Miriam of the Holy Spirit (Jessica Powers), O.C.D.
There are those who wonder why Christians must talk about contemplation and mysticism when the Bible itself says nothing about it. The answer is that the Bible says a lot about contemplation. The yearning to have God show himself is a reoccurring theme in the Bible.
“Make your face shine upon your servant” (Ps 119:135). “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?” (Ps 42:2). Or in Psalm 27: “Your face, Lord, do I seek. Do not hide your face from me.” All these texts express a yearning to behold, to contemplate God. In the New Testament, Jesus promises that he will show himself to the one who loves him and keeps his commandments (Jn 14:21).
Heaven promises to be an eternal, contemplative beholding of God. But for the one who lives a life of prayer it is possible to taste some of the happiness of this contemplation already in this life.
Still, it is not the most important thing that we get to behold God. Long before we could even fathom what it is to see God, God has seen us and let his light shine upon us.
The gift of contemplation is none other than human beings having their eyes opened to meet God’s gaze, which has rested eternally upon each one of us.
~ A Meditation by Father Wilfrid Stinissen, O.C.D.
When encountering suffering—whether in ourselves or in someone else—the important question is not “How can God love us when these things are allowed to happen? but rather “We know that God loves us, so what is God’s meaning in allowing such sufferings?”
‘Why doesn’t God, who is almighty, interfere?” many ask. But God’s power is the power of love. And “love” is patient, bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things” (1 Cor 13:4, 7).
God refuses to be dragged into the spiral of violence. If God were to use power and authority to end all evil in the world, he would be no better than we are. God does not dictate; he respects us.
God has given us the unfathomable honor of letting us be collaborators in the work of creation. He has shared his intelligence and freedom with us and let us participate in the completion of creation. That God has taken a great risk in doing so is something we experience daily.
But God has esteemed us so highly as co-creators that he doesn’t hesitate to pay the price.
If God wasn’t love, it would be easy for an all-powerful God to take away our freedom and reduce us to marionettes and mechanical puppets. Then everything in the world would be perfect. But we would also be robbed of our dignity.
~ A Meditation by Father Wilfrid Stinissen, O.C.D.
O Lonely Christ of Charing Cross
O lonely Christ of Charing Cross, Rue de la Paix, Boulevard Anspach; O lonely Christ of a thousand celebrated thoroughfares and foreign-sounding streets. Why is it that I have to meet you here, so far from home, When I have seen you lonely, too, in Harlem and Fifth Avenue? In Edmonton, Yukon, and Portland, Oregon; in Chicago, San Francisco, Toronto, Kalamazoo, you were lonely too.
O lonely Christ of everywhere, why stand you there and here, so still, so sad, looking at the hurrying crowds who pass you by—Why?
Why are your eyes so full of hunger, longing, pity and compassion? Why do you lift your nail-torn hand and then let it fall again with so much sadness, as though you were a beggar about to beg, alas?
Why is it that I have to meet you across all continents, all celebrated thoroughfares, small, dingy streets and palatial avenues, as well as wild and distant places?
You answer nothing. You just look. O Christ of Charing Cross, so lonely, you weep because the multitudes are hungry for your love and know it not. And because you hunger to be loved by those who know you not.
Give me the key, Beloved, so that I may open your loneliness and, entering, share its weight. Behold my heart that you have wounded with your love. Make it a door for all to come to you. Give me your voice and words of fire that I may show them you.
We bear a tremendous responsibility for one another.
Each of us is a minister of Christ.
Each of us has to witness to him.
Everything we do, say, or even think has either a positive
or negative effect on others.
Nothing is neutral.
Bad example, carelessness about faults, lack of charity;
all these things effect the purity and love of a community.
And following from that weaken the charity of the whole Church.
St Paul entreats us no to trifle with the precious grace of God.
This grace, which is nothing less than God offering himself is available now.
Now is the acceptable time,
Now is the significant time.
If we had a lively faith, grasped this fact, we would indeed give no offence —
put no obstacle in another’s way.
Do not trifle with the precious gift of God.
~ A Meditation by Ruth Burrows, O.C.D.
For a Proud Friend, Humbled
In that least place to which all mercies come I find you now, settled in peace, at home, poor little one of Yahweh.
On your face only response of love lies, with no trace or drifting hint of what had brought you low.
Down steps of like unworthiness I go weighted with heart (and how heart can oppress!) to see you humbled into gentleness (and into innocence) so utterly.
Pray me, my blessed, into your company.
~ A poem by Sister Miriam of the Holy Spirit (Jessica Powers), O.C.D.
It is only meaningful to listen to the Holy Spirit and obey him if he speaks.
Does God really speak to us? Are there not many people who, instead of hearing God speak, feel they are encountering absolute silence? And among those who do hear him speak, are there not a good many who are merely hearing themselves, their own thoughts and fantasies?
There are people who, no matter what they do, feel affirmed by God. If they have success, it is clear that God is with them and blessing their plans. If they have opposition, it is even more clear that they are doing right. Everything that comes from God should be marked by the Cross, they say. Did not Jesus himself fail . . . ?
Are you hearing your own voice or the voice of God? Is it you who are speaking to yourself, or are you listening to God speaking to you? Perhaps the question is not nuanced enough. It need not be a question of either/or. God can speak through your own self. And that is usually what he does, provided that you stand before him in all honesty and live from the basic attitude of wanting to do his will. As soon as you want to listen to the Holy Spirit, he becomes active in you, for no one can begin to listen to God on his own initiative. The will to listen is already a work of the Holy Spirit. “It is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom 8:16), so the Spirit speaks together with our spirit about what God’s will is. The Spirit uses our deep, true self to make understand what God wills.
I am often asked the question: “Does God want me to enter a monastery?” My immediate reply is: Do you want it? Do you have the desire to enter a monastery, not only with a theoretical, abstract desire, but are you drawn there, do you believe you will be happy and find your home there? If you truly want it, it is likely that God wants it also, that he wills it through you. Then it remains to be seen if you have the necessary qualities of physical and psychological health, common sense, and a certain spiritual maturity, and if the religious community to which you are drawn wishes to accept you. A vocation consists mainly of these three elements:
(1) a personal desire; (2) the capacity to live the life; (3) a religious community that opens its doors to you.
God seldom speaks directly with audible, perceptible words. He speaks, for the most part, indirectly, via your own deep, truth-seeking will. I say “deep” will. For alongside the deep will there are many superficial “wills” , namely, all the small opposing desires that often drown out the deep will.
God also speaks through events, circumstances, encounters with other people, and through books. Much of what is happening around you contains a secret message from God. It is a question of deciphering and interpreting it. In everything that happens, you can gradually learn to recognize a You. The impersonal becomes personal. Apparently random events become personal messages from God.
God speaks uninterruptedly. He instructs, encourages, challenges, and comforts. He truly walks in our garden of Eden (cf. Gen 3:8). Yes, our life becomes again something of a paradise when we continually meet God.
If we read the Bible, it is, among other things, to learn this fact: that God is constantly speaking to us. “And God spoke to Moses and said. . . ” How often we read that phrase! It does not mean, of course, that Moses constantly heard God’s voice. But he was so in harmony with God, so completely on the same wave-length, that he thought the same thoughts as God. For the most part, we deserve this mild reproach from God: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts” (Is 55:8). But that can change! We can come to the point where we think God’s thoughts, where God thinks with our understanding and loves with our heart.
We can eventually receive “the mind of Christ” (see Phil 2:5) and, like him, encounter the Father in all things. When he admired the lilies of the field and saw how the birds were fed without sowing or reaping, he saw in this the Father’s love and care (Mt 6:26-29).
When he heard talk of the collapse of the Tower of Siloam (Lk 13:4-5), he saw it as a call to conversion. In everything he met a You.
It would be wise to take few minutes each day to examine one’s conscience and ask oneself: What has God wanted to teach me today? Where have I encountered him, or where should I have encountered him?
If you object that one should consider one’s sins during the examination of conscience, I can answer that this is one of our greatest sins: that we do not recognize God, who walks in our garden.
Since God has become human, he himself has become your closest neighbor. He so identifies with us that we can meet and love him in each and every human being. “If you have met your brother, you have met God,” the desert fathers said.
We can only truly love our neighbor if we see him or her as God does. God sees right through our exterior into our depths where the Spirit witnesses that we are children of God (Rom 8:16). God says of every human being: This is my child, my beloved (Mt 3:17).
Jesus Christ is the light of each of us, a light that shines in the darkness (Jn 1:4-5). Love sees this light. To encounter this light is to meet the most personal in your neighbor, the center where he or she is most authentic.
Humanity is most human in the divine. John of the Cross writes: “The center of humanity is God.” Love doesn’t attach itself to nonessentials: talents, character, intellect. Love jumps over all obstacles that the other might have erected, and meets him or her in the center. When you behold the core of your neighbor, you love and revere God in that one and that one in God.
Love, I think, is an arrow shot by the will, and, freed from every pull of earth, flying straight at God with full force, it infallibly strikes His Majesty. Once it has pierced the Heart of God, absolute Love, it rebounds with immense graces…
O secrets of God! We must silence our understanding admitting that, never of itself can it fathom the greatness of God. Let us remember here Our Lady the Virgin, how she, in her great wisdom, surrendered in this way, and to her question to the angel, ‘How shall this be done?’ , received the answer: ‘The Holy Ghost will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.’
~ Saint Teresa of Avila, ‘Conceptions of the Love of God’
Whenever a human being belongs to God so completely that God can do what he wants in and through him or her, such a person is called a mystic. A mystic is someone who no longer lives his or her own life. God has “taken over” and lives his/her life. Saint Paul has given us an unsurpassed definition of mysticism: “…it is no longer I who live…it is Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20).
The mystics teach us that Christian life is much richer than we imagine. “Don’t be content with so little,” they tell us, “don’t live a maimed life; you are greater than you suppose.”
We need these close friends of God to shake us up…we who so often reduce the Christian life to some commandments and obligations. They have a message for us.
“Poor you,” they say, “why do you stand there freezing? Place yourself under the sun, enjoy the warmth. Why are you so thirsty? Place yourself under the waterfall and drink. There is plentiful water. Your life doesn’t have to be so impoverished. You think God is far away, yet you don’t even have to search for him. He is inside of you. You carry a treasure. Is it not time for you to wake up?”
Without the mystics we risk seeing Christianity as a cold and dead skeleton of dogmatic statements and moral admonitions. The mystics show us that the skeleton in reality is a living organism, a living body. Christianity is full of life, a life that makes us happy. The mystics teach us through their own example that God can make a person “drunk” with love and joy.
~ A meditation by Wilfrid Stinissen, Carmelite friar