Category Archives: Reflection

Penitence as a Way of Life

Dear Brothers and Sisters of Penance,

Greetings from the Misty Mountain, from Pirrial Clift tssf

I have a friend who lives interstate: we have long chats on the phone about books we are reading and our understandings of ‘Life, the Universe, and Everything’. Recently we spoke of penitence, that hoary, hairy hobgoblin that made life utter misery for many Christians living in the shadow of a fierce and frosty God. My speaking of penitence from a perspective influenced by St. Francis and other friendly Saints intrigued her, and she asked me to write my thoughts down. I offer them here for your consideration as the strangest Holy Week the world has experienced in a long time breaks open most poignantly Jesus’ profound identification with human suffering.

Penitence as a way of life.

In a group of pithy sayings written for his Brothers – ‘the Admonitions’ – Francis said: ‘Consider O human being, in what great excellence the Lord God has placed you, for he created and formed you in the image of his beloved Son according to the body and to his likeness according to the Spirit. And all creatures under heaven serve, know and obey their Creator, each according to its own nature, better than you. And even the demons did not crucify him, but you, together with them, have crucified him, and are still crucifying him by delighting in vices and sins.’

Let’s unpack that a little: the way I understand it, Sister Water for example, praises God by being water – pure, humble and precious. Brother lark by being a lark – the flowers by being flowers. Similarly my daughter Nicole, who won first prize in the Mortlake Show with a handmade teddy bear, found the praise came to her, the creator … ‘Oh isn’t it lovely! Isn’t she clever!

Alone amongst God’s created beings, humans are not content with being what we were created to be – human – made in the image and likeness of God, able to love and reason and create. Not content with being made in God’s likeness, we want to BE God. We crave the power that belongs only to God. [Scripture says, for example Ps 62.11 Once God has spoken, twice have I heard this; that power belongs to God. Verse 12 continues ‘and steadfast love belongs to you, O Lord.’ Power over other human beings and other creatures is sought and fought over by humanity, and alas! It is not accompanied by love. Power to put people down, to corrupt, to violate, to harm in many sad and cruel ways.

In St Francis’ time our Sister Mother Earth was still seen on the whole as a force to be reckoned with – the terrors of the wild oceans, maps marked by signs saying ‘Here be dragons’; the decimation of whole populations by the unseen forces of disease -there were many conundrums which modern science has unlocked. If Francis were alive today he would know that human power has been unleashed against our Sister, Mother Earth herself! As a species we abuse and degrade the one who feeds us in our greedy lust for wealth and power. For instance in many places Sister Water is no longer pure, she has been polluted and defiled…

When we see human beings behaving cruelly we say their behaviour is inhumane – it is an aberration, it is not normal. Human beings were created to reflect God’s goodness. St Irenaeus of Lyon, born in Smyrna Turkey in 150 AD – a theologian, and one of the Church Fathers, said “The Glory of God is a human being fully alive.”
Jesus was fully human, fully humane, as his behaviour while he walked on Mother Earth revealed. Fully humane, as he rejected human glory and success and gave himself for others. No skerrick of lust for power over others lurked in his heart; he was all about celebrating humility, healing, giving new life in various ways – and forgiving people’s sin.

Jesus saw sin as offending, wounding, hurting God. Sin was to be wept over, as he wept over Jerusalem I can get that. I know a woman whose son is in jail, she is grieving and weeping. She asked me to pray, but I have no idea what he’s done – it is so painful she cannot speak the words. We are God’s children, though we often forget it. Jesus, like a mother, is grieving and weeping over our sins and lack of love.

The canticle in AHB [p428] written by Anselm begins:

Jesus, as a mother you gather your people to you:
you are gentle with us as a mother with her children.
Often you weep over our sins and our pride,
tenderly you draw us from hatred and judgement….

Sin also harms the sinning one. Wounds to the soul, the spirit. Wounds which hamper the flourishing of relationships between us and others, and God – sometimes we even hate ourselves.
What some holy people have said about repentance.

Julian of Norwich tells a story that goes something like this: A Christian waits beside the Lord, bursting with love; ready to serve. The Lord makes a request and off she runs, eager to please – but she slips and falls. Up she gets and off she goes, but again she falls, hurting herself so that now she must walk. Too soon she stumbles into a hole and when she clambers out, realising that she cannot go on, she limps back to Jesus, covered in bumps and bruises, wounded and bleeding, her head hanging low – she has failed. Jesus gently lifts her up, heals her wounds, embraces her lovingly, kisses her better – then sends her off, happy and free again.

John Mountney, in a book on Julian entitled Sin can be a Glory, argues that sin can work for us rather than against us if after our inevitable falls we immediately and habitually turn back to Jesus for healing.
Repentance is turning around. Turning from what is harmful towards God; looking at Jesus; occupying ourselves with whatever brings us closer to God is the foundational message of Lent, and was Francis’ foundational message.

St Clare, praying day and night for decades before the San Damiano Crucifix, spoke of gazing at Jesus. Her words have been put to music by Breige O’Hare OSC.

Look, look on Jesus, poor and crucified<
look on this holy one who for your love has died,
And remember as you contemplate the sacred mystery
This Jesus who you gaze upon
loves you most tenderly.
Look, look on Jesus see he is calling you.
Run to him and do not fear, for his love is true.
Let your heart desire him and burn with deepest love
Look how he shines on you
the one from heaven above.

Look, look on Jesus, upon the sacred tree
And as you pass along the way, ponder, attend, and see
if there is any sorrow, like the sorrow he endures
and wonder at the amazing love
which is for ever yours.
Look, look on Jesus see he is calling you.
Run to him and do not fear, for his love is true.
Let your heart desire him and burn with deepest love
Look how he shines on you
the one from heaven above.

Jesus the God of love.

Clare of Assisi
St Francis preached repentance wherever he went – as Jesus himself did. Francis was head-over-heels in love with Jesus, and kept him always in his heart, on his lips and before his inner eyes.

St. Teresa of Avila describes our journey toward God in the Interior Castle. To the baptised she says that Jesus is in the very centre of the castle/our soul, and he is shining, shining. We make our way to him through a myriad passages and rooms with stairs randomly leading in and out; up and down… our task is to keep the light in view; if we cannot see him shining faintly in the distance, we are going the wrong way.

It is imperative that we are aware of our sin. Imagining ourselves perfect is a recipe for disaster, every vestige of humility goes down the drain, and humility is the key to holiness. However it is very important to remember our sin is powerless in the face of God’s eternal love and mercy.

For all the wickedness in the world, that humanity can do or think, is no more to the mercy of God than a live coal dropped in the sea. William Langland

St Bonaventure speaks of the burden, the weight of sin. It weighs so heavily that sometimes we struggle under the load. The psalmist laments about this too. Ps 38. 5
The tide of my iniquities has gone over my head,
their weight is a burden too heavy to bear.
My wounds stink and fester because of my sinful folly…

An overburdened person walks with his head hanging down; his focus is on his misery and the weight on his back. If he were only to look up and fix his eyes on the shining Son – Bonaventure explains – he could be free again.

Focusing on the most important thing.

Allowing oneself to become obsessed with one’s sins is not what repentance is about. Especially when the matter is serious the ancient steps of contrition, confession, and restitution remain vital, and any consequences must be borne with as much grace as we can muster. Then it’s time to re-set our course – turn our eyes away from ourselves, and gaze upon the beauty and goodness of Christ. … beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Phil.4

One way of understanding repentance as a way of life is to imagine being aboard a little boat. You set your compass according to your desired destination and set sail – the great ocean swells and currents, the buffeting winds and rocky outcrops, don’t permit sailing as the crow flies: when the wind drops or you sleep, the boat drifts with the tide. You need to repeatedly correct your course, checking your compass to keep heading in the right direction.

[Search Google Images for Odilon Redon, ‘The Mystical Boat’.]

Those who brood darkly on their sins for too long lose sight of Christ! This unhappy state can lead to a kind of inverted pride, where one comes to believe that ‘my’ sins are so vast that God cannot or will not forgive, putting the lie to the scriptures! Others, who gaze on Christ, returning to him constantly after slipping and falling, will find healing and wholeness.
As Margaret Attwood wrote:

As you travel on through life sister, whatever be your goal,
keep your eye upon the doughnut and not upon the hole.
Which just about sums it up.

pax et bonum,

Pirrial

Coronavirus, liminality and meditation

Let me make clear that there is nothing frivolous about this heading and this is not a flippant suggestion that liminality is some weird psychology and that meditation is a cure for coronavirus.

This reflection also in no way seeks to undermine all that we need to do to stay medically as safe as we can, and to stay connected and caring in appropriate ways.

But it is most likely that most of us will suddenly find that life is no longer “normal.” That our normal routines and rhythms have disappeared and that we find ourselves in unfamiliar territory. This just goes to show how much we are creatures of habit and of regularity.

When these patterns of living suddenly change, and particularly when this is due to external factors, many feel that they have been “thrown off their perch.” Scholars call this entering into a “liminal” space. Liminality has the idea of being in unfamiliar territory and in an “in-between” space. The old has suddenly been interrupted and the new is unclear and uncertain. While one may pine for the “old” and impatiently seek to grab the “new,” the liminal space invites us to something different. While this difference may well involve impatience, we need to embrace a creative waiting. And in this waiting the most productive impulse is “what can I learn here,” and “what may need to change,” and “what new things/patterns need to emerge”? Thus, liminality is akin to pregnancy or being in a “womb-like” state.

Also, we may find that we have more “time on our hands” than usual. This is particularly true of those who can no longer temporarily go to work or who have permanently lost their jobs. And while some will constructively make the most of this extra time, for others this may only increase their anxiety. And this may well result in unhelpful and even destructive forms of behaviour.

One positive and challenging move is to become more self-reflective. The well-known Australian journalist, Paul Kelly, has made the point that the cultivation of “a strong inner life is essential” at this time. He goes on to note that this has certainly not been a preoccupation of “contemporary culture.” And ends with the probing question: “do people [still] know what an inner life means”?

Towards an answer to this challenging question, here are some basic suggestions:

First of all, don’t binge out on all daily barrage of news. Don’t become fixated. Be selective in listening to reliable news sources.

Secondly, develop some new routines in your daily life. This may involve some more time in the garden or walking in the park or reading a good novel or playing games with your children.

Thirdly, in thinking of others find new ways to remain connected, while staying safe.

Fourthly, seek to also become more attentive to yourself.

Fifthly, set some quiet time aside each day to think about some of the following basic issues –
a] How are these changes impacting me: physically, relationally, economically and spiritually?
b] What am I most anxious and concerned about?
c] What changes for the better can I make in these difficult circumstances?
d] What strengths or weaknesses of mine are coming to the fore in this changed environment?
e] What can I hope for regarding the future?

In quietly engaging these and related questions one may use deep breathing techniques, differing forms of prayers, journaling, and art or music.

This call to turn “inward” is most appropriate, not only because of the changed circumstances, but also because this is something we have neglected in the more ordinary realities of life where we are busy, distracted, preoccupied, and non-reflective. In normal life one minute of mindfulness does little to ground and orient us.

And the turn “inward” is not about selfishness. It is to become more aware of ourselves in order to relate better to others and life around us.

For those who are happy to do some exploring within the Christian faith tradition, here are some rich resources you may wish to engage in order to deepen your reflections and your meditative or contemplative practices –

St. Augustine. The Confessions. Translator Maria Boulding. Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2001.

Bernard of Clairvaux: Selected Works. Editor Emilie Griffin. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005.

Ilia Delio. Franciscan Prayer. Cincinnati, OH: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2004.

Hildegard of Bingen: Selections from Her Writings. Editor Emilie Griffin. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005.

Julian of Norwich. Revelations of Divine Love. Translator Clifton Wolters. London: Penguin, 1966.

Bernard McGinn, ed. The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism. New York: The Modern Library, 2006.

J. Philip Newell. Celtic Treasure: Daily Scriptures and Prayers. Norwich, UK: Canterbury Press, 2005.

The Desert Fathers. Translator Helen Waddell. New York: Vintage, 1998.

So, keep safe. Stay connected as appropriate. Change some of your routines. Don’t be afraid of this “in-between” space. Do become more reflective. And journey a little deeper into the rich resources of Christian spirituality.

Shalom,

Charles Ringma, tssf.
.

Christians, Covid-19 and Martin Luther

In 1527, the reformer Martin Luther was asked how Christians should respond to the plague. His response is gentle and challenging. You can download the whole letter from Lutheran Witness here.
His words are surprisingly relevant for us in 2020 as we face the upheaval of Covid-19. These are the four points I gleaned from his letter.

1. Trust God – not tempt God
‘Why bother with all this social distancing and hand-washing? God will look after us.’ It is disappointing to hear this from fellow-Christians. Luther claims to admire those who have such strong faith, but most of us need to do what we can to minimise risk to ourselves and to others. Christians who ignore expert advice and carry on hand-shaking and not taking precautions are ‘putting the Lord their God to the test.’ (DEUTERONOMY 6:16)

2. Love your neighbour, which is loving Jesus.
This is a time to look out for your neighbour, particularly your vulnerable neighbour. We should be ‘caremongering’ and not scaremongering. Caring for neighbour, even if that somewhat elevates the risks, is the way we show love for God. ‘Even as you did not do this to the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ (MATTHEW 25:45)

3. Don’t run from responsibility
There are people who are loading their vehicles with stores and heading out to farms where they plan to live ‘off the grid’ for as long as the pandemic runs.
Luther begins his letter by addressing ‘Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague’. In itself he can find no sin in running from the plague. Luther’s concern is that people with responsibility in both spheres of life, preachers and politicians, should not run away from their duties.
Clergy need to stay in their post to accompany their parishioners on their journeys through illness and death. Even if they cannot be physically present with their people, they should devise means of encouraging them in a time of fear. Our age has the internet, and churches are using email, Skype and live-streaming to maintain Christian connection as well as possible.

4. Choose life – not resign yourself to death
We Aussies sometimes say, ‘If your number is up, it’s up’ in a fatalistic acceptance of death. Christians, however, should ‘choose life’. (DEUTERONOMY 30:19)
Death is part of life, and we should not fear it. We should approach the possibility of our own death through this time of plague with the assurance that whatever we think follows this life is better than we can imagine. (I CORINTHIANS 2:9) On the other hand, we should honour the life that we have been given now by living it to the full, in self-giving to our neighbour and in gratitude to God.
To me that means living mindfully and choosing to find and share joy where we can.
– Ted Witham tssf
– 21 March 2020