I wanted to put a few thoughts down as I continue to reflect both on the lectures by Bernard McGinn and many ongoing questions. Having this time away gives me room to think and imagine. It’s like having a bit open room with table tops where I can lay out all the file folders and notes on scratch paper and really explore them more deeply.
I wanted to write on Lectio Divina, but an underlying theme came out of both last night and this morning’s lecture: the way we understand prayer and our perspective or attitude toward God.
Last night, Prof. McGinn was reflecting on the richness of Lectio, drawing on Guigo the Carthusian and William of St. Thierry. We looked especially at this wonderful little nugget from I Corinthians 6:17: The person who adheres to God becomes one spirit with God. It’s a remarkable little image, so powerful, reflecting on the movements along and between the “stages” or aspects of Lectio Divina: Lectio (intently reading), Meditatio (ruminating and reflecting), Oratio (praying), and Contemplatio (resting in a contemplative state)–or “posture” as I call it more and more. These are not a rigid ladder to be climbed, leaving the “lower” ones behind as much as they are a fluid movement, a dynamic experience that flows within one’s heart and mind as we reflect on the Scriptures.
But this image of the person who adheres to God becomes one spirit with God has me hooked.
And, this brings us to Meister Eckhart and Julian of Norwhich, who we explored this morning, and their perspectives on prayer. One of the 15 articles of Eckhart’s that was condemned (remember HE was not condemned but these 15 articles, taken out of context, were rejected by the Pope) focused on prayer and what he understood as the proper or correct attitude toward prayer. Eckhart said that he who prays for anything particularly prays incorrectly. Those who pray for anything but God pray wrongly.
It’s a provocative statement, and Eckhart was a provocative guy, but he’s correct, I think. When we look at this understanding of William of St. Thierry, reflecting on what it means to adhere to God, we come to understand what Eckhart and so many others try to teach us: when we come to prayer laden with our preconceived expectations, we are thwarted in our relationship with God.
We see this all the time in the contemporary church I think, where we struggle against this consumer model and this image of God as Santa or some kind of ATM. There is indeed such a business relationship with God: deposits and withdrawals. And this is not prayer.
Eckhart said if the only prayer we ever say is “thank you” that will be enough. We cannot (or should not) come to God–approach God in prayer–in terms of how we wish to change God’s will. Indeed, we cannot change God’s will in terms of altering some future decision or action because God exists outside of our concepts of past, present, and future. To pray in this was is an illusion and only continues our own warped, agenda-laden practice of faith. For Echkart, the problem was attachment and the way we are called to detach from our agendas. This is such a key aspect of contemplative spirituality, yet it is perpetually difficult.
Prayer is union with God, that is (as he expressed in four sermons for Christmas Season) best experienced or embodied within stillness, silence, and the emptying of the soul.
Now, to Julian of Norwhich, who complements this in so many ways. The heart of Julian’s theology was, of course, love. Love is the key to understanding God’s relationship toward us and our relationship toward God–as embodied in her visions of Christ’s Passion that she reflected so deeply on.
Julian writes about the seasons of dryness that she experiences in her prayer life, about the struggles she has in feeling close to God. What more can we do? How are we to understand this perceived distance? As McGinn described, Julian’s originality comes out in her description of how God is the ground of our beseeching.
I am the ground of your beseeching. It is my will that you beseech it. It is my will that you ask for it. Therefore, you need not think that you are distant at all from God’s love. It’s a remarkable image that gives enormous comfort. Rather than the locus of prayer being within us, the locus of prayer is actually within God!
And, in this spirit, we move from beseeching to beholding, when we come to rest more and more in God’s presence, trusting and knowing that we are held and loved. All shall be well, indeed.
Now for two images from the Chapel of St. Basil here at the University of St. Thomas. The first is one of the 14 traditional scenes from the Stations of the Cross, that are all placed on one wall. This is the crucifixion scene:
When you look at this image, you can tell it is three-dimensional. Yet the remarkable thing is that the depth, you might say, isn’t coming out toward you, but is actually going into the wall. It is an impression in the stucco of the wall that changes as you walk past and look at it from different angles. The darkest portions of the image are the deepest. That’s worth meditating on, I think.
I thought of this when we were reflecting on prayer. We so often think of prayer as beginning with us, laden with our petitions and our concerns (and selfish desires “O God just give me good grades, etc.). But the reality, I have come to see, is that God presses in on us. Prayer is a pressure that God applies on our hearts, on our souls, that gives depth to our existence. We do not go out; God goes in. And that makes all the difference.
The next image is, of course, of Blessed Mary and the Christ Child, from the chapel as well:
It’s a powerful image, isn’t it? What is the first thing you notice?
I noticed her hands. Open and vulnerable. At any moment Jesus could, one might imagine, leap off her lap and run off somewhere. Precisely.
The Blessed Mother is open and vulnerable. She is offering herself as a carrier for Christ, not as a possessor of Christ. It is such a remarkable image of prayer that we can reflect on more and more.
More to come…