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I Will Not Leave You Orphans

Even as our days remain filled with many activities, we can still remain close to God, we can still “abide” with him (Jn 15:4).To remain with him we need to develop a habit of love: hospitality toward his coming in love throughout the day. Of course, we need to go to the Blessed Sacrament to pray, but we also need to learn how to receive his love throughout the course of a workday or during family commitments. In order to receive his love, we need to be affectively vulnerable toward him and become adept at noticing when he comes to us within these affective movements of love.

How do we maintain our availability?

Married couples will oftentimes fill their workplaces with photos or reminders of their spouse so that, throughout the day, they can emotionally connect with one another by glancing at these icons, even if only for a short moment. The heart in love wants to stay connected with the one it loves. God loves us and so he too wishes to initiate an affective and intellectual connection with us. This initiation by God becomes prayer if we respond in faith, hope, and love, regardless of where we are in our daily commitments.

Each day, we are busy with many challenges, but we can still receive his love in the midst of them.  Unfortunately, what normally happens is that daily events rob us of a sense of his Presence. If we are not vigilant, the daily “grind” mistakenly communicates that ordinary life is spiritually lifeless; our days are simply filled with my own and others’ agendas. Our daily life becomes enclosed, airless, and self-absorbed. Over time, we can lose a sense of transcendence. This loss of the spiritual is similar to a marriage that loses its erotic energy; instead, the spouses become defined by “work,” “success,” or some other duty that economic need presses upon them. In this press, they lose one another. The most humanizing of realities—intimate communion with the one we love—becomes undermined by the clamoring of economic and familial demands vying for immediate attention. God too can be lost in such a tumult.

Also threatening our intimate communion with God and those we love are the unattended emotional wounds within us; those neurotic promptings that bid us to protect, promote, and over-analyze ourselves. Here too, like the attention we give to achievement and work, our lives become stuffy and airless—filled only with the self. Such emotional wounds need therapy; in this way, we might become free to donate ourselves to God and our vocation. Such therapy is sought in the Eucharist, spiritual direction, psychological counseling, serving others, and in obediently responding to the sometimes subtle invitation of spouse, children, friends and God to “come spend time with me—just come and be with me.”

Coming right within these suffocating realities of self-absorption and economic busy-ness is a subtle invitation from God to come and rest with him. As we progressively fill our hearts with his Presence through a life of hospitality and worship, our interior spiritual senses become more acute. We come to notice more quickly how he moves to console us (thereby counteracting our grief), or how he identifies a damaging lie that we believe about him, ourselves, and others. We come to see, in other words, that we are never alone. This is vital because our perception of loneliness, or the reality of prolonged loneliness, is an ignition to sin and despair. God wishes to heal the loneliness that is at the core of our wounded human nature. It is why he came to live among us in Jesus, and why Jesus formed a community around him; so that we might see that, despite the weight of sin, reality is a communion of love. Near the opening of Genesis, we see God’s attitude toward loneliness: “It is not good for man to be alone” (Gen 2:18). Coming to sense his Presence enfolded within our ordinary days refutes the condition and lie of loneliness that Satan wishes to exploit.

How Do We Notice God’s Movements of Love?

Our hearts and minds can be cluttered with streams of thoughts and images that have very little connection to our present concerns or work. We are very busy inside ourselves; either intentionally by thinking or unintentionally by the continuous flow of content that seemingly runs on automatic pilot. Within and among all these “pictures” and “voices,” God wishes to speak to us. He longs to sound a voice of love or an invitation to conversion.

How can we better listen to him and for him amidst this interior jumble of voice and image? First, we can cultivate the habit of interior silence. Interior silence is a character trait that makes room for a voice beyond one’s own. Interior silence is hospitality deep within the soul rendering us available for visits from God. Ironically, this kind of interior silence is cultivated by committing ourselves to some external silence during our day. Periods of external silence, where we intentionally seek a silent environment, gives birth to interior silence. From such interior silence, we can more easily live in communion with God, which fulfills the very purpose of his indwelling. “The same [Holy] Spirit who moves and motivates God in his actions is now also in us and impels us to live in the same way as God.”[1] Interior silence cultivates a state of diminished interference between our heart and the Trinity and prepares us to receive and remain in communion with God. In marriage, silence is the necessary prerequisite to a kiss. One cannot kiss or be kissed by a talking spouse! By giving silence a key position in our spiritual lives, we create an environment conducive to our abiding with the Trinity. Silence creates the condition for the possibility of a Divine kiss. “The spirituality of St. Bernard’s conception of the mystic kiss of Christ . . . signifies nothing else than to receive the inpouring of the Holy Spirit . . . [t]his gift conveys both the light of knowledge and the unction of piety.” [2]

We want to receive this inpouring by way of our interior hospitality; our silence communicates an attitude of total availability to God’s love. The work of the Holy Spirit is to bind us to Christ and thus to the Father; the Spirit is Holy Communion. He seeks us out in the ordinary circumstances of our day to assure us that Heaven is not far away: it is coming to us from within the ordinary. We only need to notice his Presence moving our affections from within; his voice gently speaking to us and confirming that Heaven is not “up there.” Heaven entered human existence with the coming of Christ, and is now a stable Presence in the Sacraments and within us by the indwelling Spirit. If only we come to discern his Presence lodged within the crowd of feelings and thoughts that inhabit us, we will know daily life as saturated with God. Silence is the essential medium for prayerful union with the Trinity. Having an interior silence can provoke a change of heart, because silence is not emptiness but rather conveys a promised and anticipated union; a union fostered by the activity of listening and desire. Silence is filled with listening and eager desire and reaches its crescendo in an act of self-gift; a quiet handing over of oneself to Jesus. Silence is not the absence of words but the fullness of presence, a presence ordered toward gift.

Our popular culture is afraid of silence because it may sense within it the very death of its own superficial, relentless, and noisy emptiness. Popular culture keeps yelling louder, realizing that what the noise offers is only momentary and without consequence. The Divine Presence that is filling our hearts confidently voices his love in calm and consistent tones. He has no need to shout, as he is not passing away like the current insecure “age” (Rom 12:2).

God Moving Within Us

God will help us to pray in a silent room, as well as within a silent heart in the midst of a noisy city or venue, because he awakens our desire to cradle silence within us. We can be assured that he will give us the grace to love silence because it facilitates our capacity to receive his love. God’s usual way to communicate to us in prayer is from within our deepest affections. From within, he assures us that there is hope, that we are not alone, and that we are good and do not disappoint him. From within our affections, he reminds us that we are capable of resisting temptation and choosing new behaviors. He shares himself with us when we love and express goodness toward others and when we resolve to pray. When we refuse to love or pray, he encourages us from within to start again. In other words, God is communicating himself to us in our struggle to receive all the graces he wants to share with us in our journey to holiness. We want to push against any negative stream of thoughts or images that crowd our minds and hearts. We want to begin each day in praise, adoration, and thanksgiving, thereby clearing a space in our hearts for his presence. In many ways, God is like that little child who bounds into the parents’ bedroom early in the morning; joyful, smiling, and yearning to be with his parents. In listening for his movements within our hearts, we come to host him more securely. We want to internalize his Presence; welcome and guard it as we begin our day. “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth which the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows it. But you know it, because it remains with you, and will be in you. I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you” (Jn 14:16ff). Our God is a God who comes to us—do we sense him doing so?

From within the images, words, and affections that reside within us, God communicates to us what is true. As we receive communication from him, our faith, hope, and love deepen. Both reason and affect combine to define what the Church calls the heart. From within our affectively imbued mind or heart, the indwelling Spirit both speaks to and guides us (See: CCC, §2562). Perceiving God is never a matter of merely reason or affect; it is always a matter of my whole self discerning God’s Word. My reasoning mind affected by both what is true and who I love. We have to learn to listen to and for him. He will “sound” different than the normal stream of noise spilling in from the popular culture.

His Voice

His voice brings an invitation to choose life, and life to the full (Jn 10:10). His voice always sounds like both consolation and challenge. The consolation is aimed at alleviating our real burdens, and the challenge is given to invite us to live with him and not simply in the passing age (Rom 12:1-2). His voice awakens us to our true dignity and his voice is always delivered to us in peaceful confidence; never extreme in tone or emotion. It has to be this kind of voice; God is self-possessed and nothing influences him except his own loving nature. Most of our lives should be spent trying to learn the ways of listening only to his voice in our heart. Of course it is crucial to seek guidance from our spiritual director and pastor in order to discern if we are really hearing God, or simply our unhealed thoughts or emotions. “The heart is the place of decision, deeper than our psychic drives. It is the place of truth, where we choose life or death. It is the place of encounter, because as image of God we live in relation: it is the place of covenant” (CCC, §2563).

To learn to listen to and follow such a heart is to live a simple life. Our lives are complex because we disobey the heart. We keep thinking that disobeying what is true will somehow give us more, when in fact, there is no “more” than the truth. To live in the truth is to live in reality and reality for the Catholic is to live within the beauty and limits of our vocation. Our sacramental vocations are given to us as our way of participating in reality. That is why Christ invited us into our vocations and sustains us in them through the Eucharist, Reconciliation, and the service that each vocation demands. To be baptized, confirmed, and perhaps married are the ways we participate in all that is his; that is, his life and his mysteries of love. To look beyond our vocation is to overreach and court temptation to fantasy. When we choose fantasy (i.e., some form of infidelity to our vocations) instead of reality, we have left the simple life and entered the very definition of complexity.

Since the popular, political, and economic cultures have imperceptibly formed our consciences, we now have to consciously form them anew. This new formation of heart is founded upon our relationship to Christ in the Church. Pondering the loving action of Christ in the Eucharist and listening to him in the Scriptures, the lives of the saints, and the content of the Catechism are sure sources of formation. These sources lead to inner peace, simplicity of life, and creative generosity toward others. If we recommit ourselves to walk these sure paths into Christ’s own life, then our lives will stay simple, our consciences will be properly formed, and our behavior will mature over time to generous self-giving.

The Crux of the Gift

Human happiness is more gift than task. Here is the crux of that gift: the more we attend to the mysteries of Christ in prayer, participate in them at the Eucharist, and meditate upon them in Scripture, the more our imaginations will brighten with Christian creativity and our wills ignite in charitable behavior. From all this we become happy, whole, integrated, simple, and holy. Such attending, participating, and meditating are the attitudes which express our availability to receive love from God as well as surrender ourselves to him. Love always includes both receptivity and self-donation and it is self-revelation, the adhesive of all love, which secures this receptivity and self-donation. Anonymity is the very opposite of love; Christ is the deep desire of God to make himself known. Christ then, is the revelation of God’s true intentions toward us; to invite, attract, and seduce (Jer 20:7) all into his “house” (Lk 14:23) by his action of self-sacrifice upon the Cross and the unrelenting life that flows through the Resurrection. Even this momentous revelation does not effect immediate conversion in us; most change in us is progressive and developmental. God has the power to wait, influence, and “suffer” our conversions at levels of love we cannot even imagine—we need patience as well. Sometimes because our conversions are slow, we give up on the relationship; however, it is God’s constitution to never give up on the relationship. Trust in that truth and return to him often. God never counts how many times we stray; he only longs to welcome us back to his table for the feast of love (Lk 14:23). To love God, then, is more his gift to us than our gift to him. It is certainly a real, freely entered relationship that we have with God, or it would not be worth suffering. But his life and love, which are grace, always take the initiative and sustain the communion; such is the depth of his desire to be with us (Lk 14:23).

What ignites the leading edge of inner peace for which we are longing is knowing that God searches for and wants to remain in communion with us. Such a belief saves us from joining the error-prone quest for perfection; the quest to catch God’s eye with our ethical achievements (i.e., “See how good I am, now will you love me”?). There is nothing we can do to “earn” God’s love—his gift of self to, and communion with us, is freely given; it is already a “done deal” in and through his Son’s journey of love on earth. If we simply position ourselves at the weak points of creation—those places where God’s love flows freely—such as the sacramental life, our vocations fully-lived, the Scriptures encountered as prayer, and the poor received in their pain, we will be taken up into a Holy Communion.

God’s desire to offer himself to us happens in the folds of ordinary living. The drama of our lives is this: will we miss the hour of our visitation, the hour of hospitality we show to the God who moves within us as Spirit, toward us as Sacrament, and for us as the Gift of happiness we yearn for and sometimes lose in the complexity that is our daily lives? Look for him attempting to make those days less so by his offer to abide with us.

SEE ALSO:

Where Does the Ministry End and the Apostolate Begin?

Editorial Statement: During the month of April, Church Life Journal will consider the nature of the liturgical imagination in art, music, sacramental prayer, and ritual action.

Featured Image: James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne in Blue and Silver: Chelsea, 1871; Source Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.

[1] Wilfred Stinissen, The Holy Spirit, Fire of Divine Love (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2017), 21

[2] Dom Cuthbert Butler, Western Mysticism (New York: Dover, 2003), 98

 

 

 

James Keating

Deacon James Keating is director of theological formation for the Institute for Priestly Formation at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska.