Study Guides for ID Groups

Meditations for Study Groups

The following are a selection of meditations that speak to the heart of the Christian spirituality that Imago Dei seeks to encourage.  These are offered as an aid to those who are perhaps new to the emphasis of spiritual theology.  They will also be helpful for those who wish to simply be reminded of their heart’s most profound desire—to live intimately with God.

If you are presently meeting in a small group, these meditations might serve to deepen your fellowship around these themes.  You can select whichever ones seems suitable for your group at the time and copy them to print.  The questions at the end of each meditation are given as springboards for discussion.  Do feel free to edit these questions or to add your own as they apply to your group.

If you are not presently meeting in a group, perhaps these might be an encouragement for you to gather with others to explore the mysteries of our relationship with God.  These questions, of course, can also be used for personal meditation on these topics.

MEDITATIONS AND QUESTIONS ON THE SPIRITUAL LIFE

1. “Giving Your All to God”

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God–this is your spiritual act of worship.

Romans 12:1

During prayer I found myself asking the Lord, “What is best for me to be doing when I pray? What is most profitable to spiritual growth?” I was reminded of Paul’s instructions that our most complete offering is to present ourselves as “living sacrifices.” If my desire is that God dwell more fully in me, this seems like a reasonable first step. It’s the only way I can ever hope to claim the identity that Paul had for himself when he wrote: “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” (Gal. 2:20)

Contemplative prayer is an offering whereby we place ourselves on the altar of spiritual formation and let God create in us whatever is needed. We sacrifice our right to self-will and determination in deference to the Lord’s will and determination. As a living sacrifice my prayer is simply to present myself daily to the Holy Spirit. Once I put my life on this altar, it is no longer mine but His, to do with as He pleases.

According to Paul, God recognizes such a life of self-offering as “holy and pleasing.” This was the relationship with the Father that Jesus modeled while He was on earth, and which He calls us to imitate in our relationship with Him. As we continually offer our lives as a sacrifice to God, we will surely grow in the experience of Christ, who lives in us.

Questions:

  1. What does it mean for us to be a “living sacrifice” to God during our prayers?  What is required of us for this?  What is not required of us?
  2. What conditions in our inner life would be necessary for us to be able to say, as Paul does, “the life I live is not my own, it is Christ who lives in me”? (Gal. 2:20)
  3. The meditation states: “Once I put my life on this altar (of prayer), it is no longer mine but His, to do with as He pleases.”  How is this true in our prayer experience?  What are some of the ways that we “take back” our lives after having offered them to God in prayer?

Prayer: Consider the “holy and pleasing” sacrifice that submissiveness in your prayer represents to God.  Ask the Holy Spirit to give you a sincere desire to present yourself more and more to God in this way.

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© 2009 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT

2.  “Embracing Poverty as Blessed by God”

Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of  heaven.

Matthew 5:3

In the Dark Night of the Soul, St. John of the Cross encourages us to “make perfect the inner poverty of spirit.” St. John teaches that, as we approach God in our journey, we inevitably enter a realm of mystery where we recognize that we are no longer in a position to lay down the terms and conditions of the relationship. In order to progress in the spiritual life we must lose our sense of mastery and control over it, our sense of being able to deal with God on our own terms. In so doing, we move beyond our own version of reality—one that is largely self-constructed—and more towards truth as God defines and reveals it to us.

As we walk along a path that is no longer self-determined we are stripped of all guarantees which are rooted in our selves. We begin to truly live a life of faith, love, and trust in God as the sole Author and Finisher of our faith. It’s no wonder that this undoing presents us with such difficulties. St. John of the Cross teaches that such growth will naturally be accompanied by a sense of loss which will lead us to experience the true poverty of spirit that Jesus is referring to here.

In the paradox of faith, when you feel that you’ve lost your sense of competence in your spiritual life it could well be a sign of real spiritual progress in the direction of a deeper dependence on God. An awareness of inner poverty, of having nothing of your own to offer God, should be cause for peace rather than disturbance since it is, in Jesus’ teaching, the very condition that ushers in blessing.

Questions:

  1. What are some of the ways that we try to manage our relationship with God on our own terms? In what ways do we “lay down terms and conditions?”
  1. What might we be afraid of in asking God to reveal who God is to us?  What might we fear losing?
  1. If “poverty of spirit” means to recognize our “creaturehood” (or dependence) before God how easy is this for us to accept?  How might the idea of being a child, versus being more adult-like in our relationship with God, apply to this?

Prayer: Ask Jesus to help you accept the poverty of spirit in your life that He calls blessed.  Consider what it means to let go of whatever “competence” you think you have in the spiritual life.

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© 2009 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT

3.  “The Upside-Down Ways of God”

Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

Matthew 11:39

Each of the gospels repeat this important teaching that Jesus gave.  In a variety of ways the Lord is trying to make us understand something crucial . . .  “The one who loves their life will lose it, while the one who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. . . . If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself. . . . Any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.”

The same Jesus who came to give us a more abundant life cautions us about holding on too tightly to the one we have. Rather than love our lives directly, we are to let go and look beyond them, in order to follow more closely the Giver of life.

In what ways might your relationship to life be obstructing your relationship to God? What would it mean for you to “lose your life” in order to find it in Christ? These are the questions that need to be asked if we’re going to experience the truth of one of Jesus’ more difficult sayings.

The Lord invites us to examine our lives in light of this teaching and to explore for ourselves the paradoxical wisdom by which He leads us to greater Truth.

To advance spiritually we must be still . . . to grow we must become small. . . to accumulate we must let go . . . to have perfect freedom we must perfectly submit our wills to God . . . to gain life we must learn how to continually lose it.

Welcome to the kingdom of God. It’s not what you’d expect.

Questions:

  1. Consider the question raised in the meditation: “In what ways might our relationship to life be obstructing our relationship to God?”  How are we overly pre-occupied with “finding our life?”
  1. What challenges do we face in trusting Jesus enough to let go of our lives?
  1. What alternatives do we come up with to the upside-down ways that Jesus prescribes?  What are some of the outcomes we usually experience in following our own instincts?

Prayer: Talk to Jesus (and to one another if that seems appropriate) about some of the fears we have that cause us to maintain an anxious grip on life.  Ask Jesus (or others to pray for you) for faith to trust Him enough to explore the concept of “losing your life in Him” for yourself.

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© 2009 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT

4.  “God Gives us Spiritual Life”

Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

John 20:21

I met with my spiritual director last week. In the course of our time together we examined the mystery of how we participate most with our spiritual growth by simply being receptive to God. This is the age-old “to be or not to be” question to which prayer inevitably leads us. What part do I play in my spiritual life? What part does God play? And at what point does my own participation actually begin to hinder my spiritual growth?

In speaking of this matter, Jeanne Guyon, a 17th century Christian contemplative, used the metaphor of a ship that leaves the port. All the sailors are working hard, pulling at the oars in order to make the ship advance. But once the vessel is at sea and has found favourable winds, the pilot simply spreads the sails and holds the rudder. She writes,

Oh what progress they make without becoming the least bit tired. They are making more progress in one hour without any effort than they ever did before, even when exerting all their strength. If the oars were used now, it would only slow the ship and cause fatigue . . . they are now useless and unnecessary.

Jesus’ command to His disciples was to simply, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” What is the life God is inviting you to receive, without effort, from Him?

I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.

Mark 10:15

Questions:

  1. Is it difficult to imagine that our well-intentioned contribution to our own spiritual life might actually be in the way of God’s more direct work in our life?  List some of the things you “do for God” and consider how they might possibly prevent you from receiving other things God has in mind.
  2. What type of spiritual preparation might be the equivalent Jeanne Guyon’s metaphor of rowing the ship into position?
  3. What disposition are we called to in order to better “receive the Holy Spirit?”  In what ways do we slow down the ship of our prayers by keeping our “oars” in the water?

Prayer: Talk to Jesus about what He might want you to receive from Him.  Ask the Lord to give you faith to let go of the ‘work” of prayer.

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© 2009 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT

5.  “Leaving the Orbit of Self”

Burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require. Then I said, “Here I am, I have come…. I desire to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.”

Psalm 40:6-8

It is easy to turn our relationship with God, especially our prayer relationship, into a method or a technique for self-improvement. But God has ordained that the door to intimacy remain closed to anyone who would try to enter by any other means than love. Our love for God reaches beyond the veil that encloses us. It alone can release us from the force of gravity that binds us to ourselves.

Dionysius the Areopagite spoke of a “dart of love” that we must throw outwards from ourselves towards God. Like a grappling hook it will pull us out of the confines of our self-orientation into the arms of God. There is no other way out of the closed system of self than to reach out, in love, to the Divine Other.

O Father, we thank You for relationship with Jesus Christ in whom we are poured out as a love offering. Receive us that we would be caught up in the movement of Your Spirit. Pull us upwards, towards the Love that is You.

Questions:

  1. How do you relate to the “pull of gravity” of the self?  How does this natural inclination become a problem in your relationship with God?  With others?  With yourself?
  2. What other means, besides love, might we be using to approach God with?
  3. How does God work in you, to draw your focus away from self-orientation and towards God?

Prayer: Consider the prayer at the closing of this meditation and God’s “pull” towards His love.  In prayer, let yourself be “lifted up” in the love that the Holy Spirit gives you for Christ.

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© 2009 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT

6.  “Spread Out Thinly”

Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with dissipation.

Luke 21:34

dis-si-pate: vt. (from the Latin ‘dis-supare’ meaning to ‘throw away’) 1. to scatter 2. to make disappear 3. to waste or squander

Jesus gave this warning to His disciples as a way of bracing them against the confusion of the end times. The disciples were secure while in the presence and proximity of Jesus but He warned them, knowing that He would soon depart, to be careful not to let the fine wine of the Spirit become diluted—watered down by the anxieties and distractions of life. It is advice intended for us all—that we not let the many concerns of the day spread our lives out so thin that the concentration of the Spirit would seem to disappear from our souls.

Like sun rays shining through a magnifying glass, the spiritual life needs to be kept in sharp focus if it is to remain intense. With the glass held at an optimum distance the rays concentrate into a burning light. This optimum distance is a very precise one and, as it applies to our souls, is one that we each have to discover and maintain for ourselves. Moving a magnifying glass back or forward, even slightly, will dissipate the rays and weaken their intensity.

Be careful Jesus tells us. It is easy to lose the intensity of your spiritual life. Keep focused. Be aware of the daily state of your spiritual passion and watch for signs of it being squandered.

Jesus goes on to offer an ounce of prevention to help us keep our spiritual focus. “Be always on the watch,” He says, “and pray.”

Watch— be attentive to the subtle changes that take place in your spirit every day. And pray—take the time to ensure that God’s rays remain at optimum focus in you.

Questions:

  1. Consider how, in your own life, the “fine wine of the Holy Spirit” becomes diluted.  What does it feel like to be ‘watered down” in your spiritual life?
  1. What particular anxieties or “concerns of the day” are causing you to lose your spiritual focus at this time?  How does prayer help you, like a magnifying glass, regain this focus?
  1. Why is being attentive to the changes in our spirit such an important part of the spiritual life?  How can this be cultivated in our lives?

Prayer: Ask God to help you notice when you are becoming dissipated or weighed down in your heart.  Ask the Holy Spirit for the resolve that will help you choose to protect your heart from dissipation.

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© 2009 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT

7.  “What Do You Want Lord?”

The LORD came and stood there, calling as at the other times, “Samuel! Samuel!” Then Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

1 Samuel 3:10

There are many times in life when we are desperate to hear a word from God. Who am I? Who are you? What should I do? Where should I go? Our desire to hear from God often comes from the pressing needs we have for which clear Divine direction would be the most direct remedy. But, in the story of Samuel, we see another disposition towards hearing God’s voice—where the need that is being responded to is not ours, but God’s.

How often do we feel God tugging at our hearts with an invitation to approach Him? It might not come in the form of a complete sentence but it’s easy to know what God is communicating when we sense the gentle breeze of desire for spiritual intimacy pass through our hearts. Perhaps, like Samuel, we need to cultivate the simple response of being attentive to God whenever we feel our hearts being called. Here I am Lord. I heard you call. Speak, for your servant is listening. What would You like from me? For Samuel, listening to God had much more to do with what God might need from him than what he might need from God.

Can we hear the voice of the One who loves us, beckoning our names? We have opportunity, every time we sense God calling us, to respond with the simple act of showing up—to harken as quickly as we can and be attentive.

“Here I am Lord.” This was Samuel’s posture for listening attentively to God. And in 1Sam. 3:19 it is written, “The Lord was with Samuel as he grew up, and he (Samuel) let none of His words fall to the ground.”

That’s what it means to be attentive.

Questions:

  1. Do you feel God calling you, at times, to draw near?  How does God do this?
  2. What are some of the ways you respond to or resist God’s beckoning?
  3. How would your prayer be different if its intention was simply to ask God, ”What would You like from me?”Prayer: Confess the ways that you perhaps let God’s word to you “fall to the ground.”  Ask Jesus to help you be more attentive and more immediately responsive to God’s word as it washes over you in your day.  Thank God that God’s communication with us doesn’t depend entirely on our hearing correctly, or at all.

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© 2009 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT

8.  “Being Good Ground for God”

When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is the seed sown along the path. The one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away. The one who received the seed that fell among the thorns is the man who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful. But the one who received the seed that fell on good soil is the man who hears the word and understands it. He produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.

Matthew 13:19-23

If God is continually sowing the seed of His word in my life how much of that seed gets snatched away by the evil one before I’m even aware of it landing on me? How much of it moves my heart for a moment but, as troubles or pleasures distract me, ends up ultimately dying? What percentage of God’s word actually takes root and becomes fruitful in me? In short, what type of ground am I?

I am increasingly aware of the changing consistency of the “ground” of my soul throughout the day. At times I find I am quite receptive to God and to other people. At other times I feel closed off, more superficial, less porous. The seed no longer penetrates deeply.

The depth of our ground is certainly one of the things Jesus is drawing our attention to in this parable. The rocky places have no topsoil. There is nowhere for the seed to take root in order to bear fruit. The good ground however is able to receive the seed deeply—to nurture it, to provide it with nutrients, and to remain uncluttered enough for a plant to eventually push through.

A spiritually-minded person spends time preparing the ground of their heart, keeping it loose and receptive through prayer, adding nutrients through study and meditation in order to create the optimum conditions for God’s seed to grow. They work to keep the weeds of anxiety and self-pampering at bay so that their ground can be used for more noble purposes. They learn how to nurse the seed to ensure it will germinate after it has touched their hearts. Perhaps they keep a journal so that they can later return and deepen the knowledge or experience that this seed has represented. Or perhaps they introduce new disciplines into their lives, the result of some insight God has shown them about their spiritual growth.

Learning to maintain good ground is one of the most essential conditions for spiritual growth. It is according to the state of your soul that you both receive life as well as beget life. Our “ground” is the place in which we are created, as well as the place from which we create.

Jesus wants us to consider the ever-changing ground of our souls. If  our souls are kept in good condition we will receive God deeply into our lives and bear rich fruit beyond ourselves, into the lives of others. All we do will come from a good place.

By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit.

Matthew 7:16-18

Questions:

  1. Take a moment to consider the “ground” of your heart.  What do you think might happen to the seed that God  sows in this type of ground?
  2. What makes you more or less receptive to God’s word?  Are there things that you can choose to help you be more so?
  3. What does it mean for you to nurture the seed God has given you, to provide it with nutrients and to keep the space around it uncluttered?

Prayer: Ask God to show you how you might more consistently maintain good, receptive, ground in your life.  Express your desire to not only receive deeply the things of God, but also to bear the fruit that the Lord desires in you.

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© 2009 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT

9.  “Free to Walk”

Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.”

Isaiah 30:21

Listen and you will hear. Could it really be that simple? God, directly influencing our way, whether we turn to the right or to the left? It reminds me of the words to an old hymn, ”for those who live a life of prayer God is present everywhere.” In this passage we find encouragement that, no matter which way we go, we can always hope to hear the Lord’s assurances in our prayers: “This is the way, walk in it.”

How often do we carry in our minds the image of a fork in the road? We assume that one way is necessarily God’s will and that the other will lead us away from His Presence. Though it is always necessary to ask for clarity in making choices it is not appropriate for us to overly fear being out of God’s will if we are people of prayer. If we are constantly open to being redirected, His voice is always behind us saying, “This is the way, walk in it.”

Jesus knew the assurance of the Father’s constant presence when He said in John 8, “the one who sent me is with me; He has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases Him.”

This is the same assurance the Lord offered His disciples when He said: “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Whether you turn to the right or to the left, I am with you always; whether you are in temptation or not, I am with you always; whether you believe it or not, I am with you always.

You are not lost. This is the way, walk in it. May we be people who listen continually for that blessed assurance.

Acknowledge the Lord in all your ways and He will direct your paths.

Proverbs 3:6

Questions:

  1. In what situations does “fork in the road” thinking usually show up for you?  Are there imminent decisions in your life that you fear might move you away from God’s “plan” for you?
  2. How does prayer give you confidence that whether you turn to the right or the left, God is saying, “this is the way?”
  3. How might simply seeking to “always do what pleases God” guide us in our decisions?  What other considerations might take priority over this one?

Prayer: Ask God to show you the things that are most pleasing to Him about your life at present.  Consider choices you are about to make, big ones and small ones, and ask the Lord where His pleasure might be in these.

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© 2009 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT

10.  “Testing Spirits”

No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit.

Luke 6 :43-44

Anyone who regularly practices the Awareness Examen (see website) will become much more attentive to what happens within them each day. As we discover the many shades of experience that take place in the course of a day we come to recognize both the good and bad spirits that influence the choices we make. It’s important to be able to distinguish between these spirits. In 1 John 4 :1 we are cautioned to “not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God”’ Jesus shows us, in the Scripture above, one way to do this—by examining the fruit a spirit bears within you.

What are you experiencing in your spirit and what has led you there? Is the spirit that has led you to this state of soul truly from God? Or is it a spirit you shouldn’t be heeding?

St. Ignatius of Loyola taught his disciples to distinguish between spirits that produce consolations in the soul and those that produce desolations of the soul. If we picture our inner life as a weather system it might give us an idea of the varied states of light and darkness our souls pass through each day. The word consolation, from the Latin, literally means “with the sun.” Desolation, in contrast, means “without the sun.” These are important distinctions to note as they each bear quite a different fruit in our spirits.

In his Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius identifies the spirit of consolation as causing “an increase of faith, hope, and love, and all interior joy that invites and attracts to what is heavenly by filling it with peace and quiet in its Creator and Lord.”

Desolations he defines as:

darkness of soul, turmoil of spirit, inclination to what is low and earthly, restlessness rising from many disturbances which lead to want of faith, want of hope, want of love. The soul is wholly slothful, tepid, sad and separated, as it were, from its Creator and Lord.

In his diagnosis of the effects of desolation Ignatius adds,

it is characteristic of the evil spirit to afflict with sadness, to harass with anxiety and to raise obstacles based on false reasoning.

Sound familiar? You will know a spirit by its fruit. A bad spirit produces a souring of the soul. Awareness that this is happening should be the first indicator that the voice you are following is not from God. It is time to let go of whatever your mind, heart or actions have been pursuing and to wait on God for redirection.

The church has handed down to us important wisdom with regards to living the spiritual life. As we learn to pay more attention to our souls we will be able to more wisely choose which voices to follow.

My sheep follow me because they know my voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.

John 10:4-5

Questions:

  1. If attentiveness is essential to making good choices, how can we cultivate this wisdom?
  2. Ignatius says that “it is characteristic of the evil spirit to afflict with sadness, to harass with anxiety and to raise obstacles based on false reasoning.”  The fruit of this spirit is that “the soul is wholly slothful, tepid, sad and separated, as it were, from its Creator and Lord.”  In what ways do we unnecessarily blame ourselves for such states of soul rather than the spirit we’ve been following?
  3. Once such a “souring of the soul” has been noticed what can be done about it?

Prayer: Ask the Lord to help you be more attentive to what takes place in your soul each day.  Ask God for wisdom in choosing which spirits to follow in your inner life and which to run away from.

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© 2009 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT

11.  “Finding and Keeping Your Heart”

Above all else guard your heart for it is the wellspring of life.

Proverbs 4:23

Where are you situated within yourself? What aspect of yourself do you most identify with? Perhaps a pianist would say his hands. An artist might say her eyes. Many people might say their mouths are the place they feel most identified with. Take a moment before reading on to examine this in yourself. Where are you? Where do you operate from most of the time?

I would imagine (an ironic clue in itself) that most of us identify with our minds more than any other aspect of our being. Our minds lay claim to a significant portion of our personhood. We think, and therefore assume that we are what we think. This Cartesian assumption however can also prove problematic. Many of us know, or have known, what it is like to be victims of our own minds.

The Bible is clear however that we are not our minds. According to Scripture, it is the heart that is the center of who we are. The Hebrew word labe (translated “heart”) is understood as the seat of our feelings, will and intellect—the place we come from, the wellspring of life. That is why the contemplative desires to dwell as much as possible in his or her heart.

The Desert Fathers taught their disciples how to pray with their minds in their hearts. They recognized this as a deepening degree of prayer. As their hearts were warmed by concentration on God their thoughts melted, being transformed more into feelings for God. As Bishop Theophan the Recluse wrote, “whoever has passed through action and thought to true feeling will pray without words, for God is God of the heart.”

To find one’s heart requires much more simplicity than your mind is usually comfortable with. One has to learn to descend deeper, below the choppy surface waves of who we are. As Simon Tugwell writes,

What is important is that our prayer should reach down to the core of our being, the point of unity with our identity. This is something deeper than and underlying all our intellectual and emotional activity. It is from there, if anywhere, that our thoughts and feelings can be ‘taken captive in Christ.’

It takes grace to recover our heart-identity. But once we have found it, the wisdom of Proverbs tells us to be careful to guard it above all things. Learn how to remain there—in the truth of who you are—because, there, you will discover the wellspring of your life.

Teach me your way, O LORD, and I will walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart.

Psalm 86:11

Questions:

  1. How aware are you of the movements of your heart in the course of a day?
  2. In what ways have you felt like a “victim of your mind” at times?  What habits of thought produce anxiety and a deflated spirit in you?
  3. How can you identify more with the movements of your heart as your truer self?  How can this identity be “guarded?”

Prayer: Ask the Holy Spirit to “take captive” your thoughts in Christ and to make more evident to you the movements of God’s spirit that take place in your heart.  Consider Psalm 131 as you desire the simplicity of the spirit of self-poverty that will lead you away from “great matters” and more towards the quiet murmurs of the heart.

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© 2009 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT

12.  “Trusting Enough to Let Go”

Cast your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will find it again.

Ecclesiastes 11:1

One thing that prayer teaches us is that we have to keep letting go in order to advance further. You have to loosen the grip on what is in your hand in order to gain the next thing, or simply to gain a freer relationship to what you already have. Sometimes this requires remaining in a place of nothingness—a place between letting go and receiving—in faith that God will return us to ourselves. We learn to wait, sometimes many days, for what the waters may bring in.

Cast your bread upon the waters. The only way to know for sure that what you have is really God-given is to hold it loosely. Your vocation, your possessions, your status, your lot in life—these are given things. And it is faith that this is so that lets us hold on to them loosely. We cast them back upon the waters of life confident that, if they are from God, they will be found over and over again to be ours.

The alternative to this type of faith is to covet our gifts, fight for our possessions, become anxious about our vocation, or manipulative about securing or bettering our lot in life. We can easily be deceived into thinking we have something to protect.

What is the sustenance (i.e. the “bread”) that God is calling you to cast upon the waters? Is it a vision that you are now running headlong with? Is it a status or a security that, after all these years, you have finally achieved? Or is it an anxiety that has been driving you to perform or achieve something in order to feel more significant or complete? Try casting these upon the waters of God’s life and see if you don’t feel a little freer. Let yourself be surprised at what comes back to you. Notice how the thing has been transformed in its return. It will certainly look different than when it was first in your hands.

Questions:

  1. How does “casting your bread upon the waters” express faith that what you have has been given to you by God?
  2. What do you feel when you try to overly covet life?  What fears usually inspire this approach to life?
  3. What areas of your life are you not sure that you can trust God about?

Prayer: Ask God to show you places in your life where you lose your freedom because of a fear that you need to protect something in your life.  Pray for a trusting spirit that will gently hold all the things the Lord has given you.

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© 2009 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT

13.  “All By Itself, It Grows!”

This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain–first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.

Mark 4:26-29

Where, and at what stage is your ministry? Or to use Jesus’ metaphor, what is the maturity of the grain in your soil? Perhaps the seed is still at the sprouting stage. You believe that you have a ministry but you don’t know what it is yet. Every now and then you feel definite promptings of love and joy that deeply move the desires of your heart. It could just be a wish, a dream, or a direction of how you would love to be applied in life. As you continue to nurture and care for that mysterious seed buried within you, visible stalks eventually appear above ground as you recognize opportunities in life to cultivate the seed further. It might be a person you meet who shares a similar vision, or an opening to volunteer with a group that is doing something in the general direction of your calling. Perhaps you feel led to take initiative in equipping yourself to serve better in this area.

As you continue discerning, not only from the promptings within you but now also from the formation that comes from the outside, your plant soon develops its head. You know with greater confidence who you are in life and you now move with a stronger sense of purpose towards intentional ministry. It’s a slow process that can’t be hurried any more than you can rush your geraniums into bloom.

And if your ministry should grow to the stage of producing a “full kernel in the head,” it will now have its own reproducing seed. God will use your ministry as a way of birthing something similar in another person. It’s an amazing process that is always taking place throughout the kingdom of God.

In all these mysteries of spiritual growth one thing is certain:  we are all being applied in ministry by virtue of the salt and light that Jesus’ increasing Presence represents within us. Believe that kingdom ministry is taking place through you and you will certainly see it happening. We don’t look for, nor choose a ministry as though we didn’t have one. But, by being more attentive to the plant that God is growing within us, we discover the one we already have ……. first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head.

Questions:

  1. What do you feel called, not necessarily to do, but to be in this world?  Take time to consider this, and then ask yourself what stage the seed of this calling seems to be at according to this meditation.
  2. Do you have faith that “whether you sleep or get up” this seed will grow and produce the fruit God has planted in you?  Why is there anxiety or impatience in us at times about this?
  3. What are some of the signs that our seed is becoming more defined, and that we are being called to make more intentional choices to nurture and care for it?

Prayer: Ask God to give you faith and joy regarding the “seed” of your life, whether you can see its fruit yet or not.  Express your trust that God is doing a good work in your life.

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© 2009 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT

14.  “Too Scattered to Pray”

Be clear-minded and self-controlled so that you can pray.

1 Peter 4:7

Praying doesn’t start when you sit down to pray. That’s the time you get to go deeper from wherever you are. But this question of the shifting state of “wherever you are” is important to our prayer experience. Our state of soul keeps fluctuating throughout the days and weeks and we need to be reminded that we have opportunity to steer it always in the general direction of prayer.

For centuries contemplatives have tried to pursue Paul’s instructions to “pray unceasingly” (1 Thes. 5:17). This of course can’t mean to be in constant dialogue, or monologue, with God every minute of the day. Unceasing prayer is to be understood more as a grace of spirit that pervades the day. It’s an ongoing openness and attentiveness to God’s action within us that gets cultivated throughout our lives. And according to Peter, in order to be prayerfully attentive we first need to be clear-minded. What does this imply for our day?

If we think of a water well whose surface is perfectly still we might get an idea of what Peter means. When the water surface is still and calm, you can sometimes see all the way to the bottom of the well. But if the water is being constantly stirred up or splashed around it’s hard to see anything beyond the surface.

Let’s not underestimate the effect a day’s agitations can have on our spirit of prayer, nor the opportunity we have to counter this by practicing stillness each day. As prayer becomes more and more central to our lives we will learn to interpret everything in terms of what contributes or detracts from it, and we will make life-style changes accordingly. We will apply self-control to our inner life for the sake of a better relationship to prayer.

If we seek such peace and learn to pursue it in our day, prayer will certainly be the natural expression of minds that are controlled by the tranquility of God.

In patience you shall possess your souls. To possess fully our souls is the effect of patience, made more perfect as it is less mixed with disquiet and eagerness.

—St. Frances de Sales

Questions:

  1. What are some ways that you might practice the grace of spirit that will keep you more open and attentive to God’s action in your day?
  2. What prevents you from being clear-minded in relationship to the spirit of prayer?  What stirs up the well of your heart so that you can no longer see God’s movement there?
  3. What life-style changes might contribute to less agitation in your spirit, “so that you can pray?”

Prayer: Ask the Lord to give you a growing love for prayer, and a desire to be in the proper state of mind and soul so that you can pray.  Ask God to help you arrange your life in ways that are more conducive to a prayerful spirit.

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© 2009 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT

15.  “Waiting to Receive”

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; whoever seeks finds; and to they who knock, the door will be opened.

Luke 11:7-8

Jesus’ words in Luke were given in response to the disciples asking Him how they should pray. Jesus here teaches us the disposition we should maintain while awaiting an answer to prayer. We have our role to play in this relationship, and so does God. And we need to learn how to make room for God’s part.

If we look at the grammar in this passage we see two sides of the prayer coin: the active and the passive parts. This is the gracious dance of faith that prayer leads us to.

Ask and it will be given to you. Is our disposition towards the things we ask for in prayer that of a person preparing to receive something, or is it more like someone expecting to get something? A “getting” posture is one that counts on prayer to achieve the outcome we desire. We already know what we want and we’re hoping that prayer will secure it for us. A “receiving” posture, on the other hand, doesn’t presume the shape our petition will take as God hands it back to us in the form of an answered prayer. It takes practice in prayer in order to learn how to receive freely from God, i.e. to allow something to be given to you.

Seek and you will find. We have images of God, of ourselves, and of life that we keep returning to for assurance. There is nothing really to “find” in this type of prayer. To seek means to look for something we don’t already have. It’s the prerequisite to the authentic experience of finding—more like a child discovering something brand new, something they would’ve never imagined existed. It takes faith in prayer to be open to finding things we weren’t necessarily expecting.

Knock and the door will be opened to you. Once again the same grammar applies. We can push doors open on our own, sometimes even producing the results we wanted. The satisfaction though is very different from that of knowing that a particular door has been opened for us by God. There is no greater security in spiritual direction than to know that the Lord is inviting you to walk through a door that He Himself has opened. It takes patience in prayer to wait in front of a closed door, giving God the freedom to open it or not.

Trusting God is the essence of prayer, and Jesus assumes that, given what we know of Him, this disposition should be so natural for us as to make the alternative laughable. That’s why He ends this teaching with the ridiculous notion of a son who would ask his father for a fish, only to get a snake instead (Luke 11:11-12). The son then asks for an egg, and his father gives him a scorpion. It’s ridiculous to think that a father would act this way towards his child. But is this what our fears and anxieties sometimes look like from God’s perspective? How does peace of mind, and confidence in His provisions, honour God’s care for us?

To wait until our prayers are answered before allowing ourselves to have peace is to miss out on Jesus’ great teaching here. Prayers are meant to produce peace in us, long before they are answered.

Questions:

  1. What is the disposition that you usually wait for your prayers to be answered in?
  2. How prepared are you to receive the answer to your prayers in a quite different form than you were imagining?  Can you pray without necessarily imagining the outcome for yourself?  Are you prepared to find something in God or in your spiritual life that you never imagined was possible?
  3. What challenges do you feel in giving God the freedom to open the doors you’ve knocked on, or not?

Prayer: Ask the Holy Spirit to help you honour God with peace of mind and confidence in His provisions for your life.  Ask God to show you ways that you can more graciously receive the things given to you, the things revealed to you, or the doors that are being opened for you.

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© 2009 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT

16.  “When You’re Feeling Out of Joint”

He makes me lie down in green pastures,

he leads me beside quiet waters,

he restores my soul.

Psalm 23:2-3

People go to chiropractors when they feel their bones are out of alignment. One disc out of joint sets the whole vertebrae into painful compensation. Luckily, the skilful hand of a chiropractor can tell what is out of line and can physically manipulate it back into place. With everything set in right order there is peace and proper functioning once again in the body.

As I come to prayer, I am often similarly aware that my spirit is out of sorts. I feel internally crippled, as though my soul was in some contorted state. Perhaps it has been battered by my emotions, or is in a spasm over a disturbing thought I have been obsessing about. Sometimes it is fear that causes my soul to close in on itself, tightening its grip and cutting off the circulation of the Spirit within me.

Like chiropractice, prayer is also a time for setting things in their right order. The shrivelled hand is restored to its original shape. That which is lame is made free to walk again. That which was blind can now see and what was deaf can once again hear. Only the Holy Spirit knows what my restored self looks like and, as I trust in God’s re-creative power, I am once again set in right order through prayer.

Before a chiropractor can manipulate your bones however you must first learn to relax. If you remain tense you can actually worsen your condition. Similarly with prayer, the Holy Spirit works according to the degree of trust we have. As we rest in God, there are times when we can actually feel the gentle manipulations of the Spirit working deep within our soul as slight adjustments are made, freeing up the movements of our spiritual life.

But, as anyone who goes unfortunately knows, a visit to a chiropractor is not a one-time event. No sooner do we step out of the clinic, refreshed and in proper alignment, do we start walking, bending, sitting according to all the bad habits that brought us there in the first place. It can be a costly and very temporary recovery program. Lucky for us though, as it applies to prayer, we have a great medical plan in heaven that allows us to return to the Great Physician as often as needed for restoration.

May wisdom teach us to not delay before seeing the Doctor at the first symptoms of spiritual contortion.

Questions:

  1. What are some signs that tell you that your soul needs restoration?  What causes such needs in you?
  2. What are some ways that you either try to deal with these yourself or simply resign yourself to the mis-alignment you feel?
  3. What would help you remember, as the meditation suggests, to come sooner to the “Great Physician” at the first symptoms of spiritual contortion?

Prayer: Make a choice to seek God the moment you begin to notice disorders in your thinking, behaviour or attitude.  Present yourself to the Lord and ask Him to gently work out the “knots” in your system and to help restore you to a place of inner freedom.

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© 2009 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT

17.  “Making Waves”

Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage. As they pass though the valley of Baca, they turn it into springs.

Psalm 84 :5-6

Geese know how to organize in a V-formation in order to give them optimum efficiency when flying in a group. An air turbulence is set up by the geese ahead which carries you further than the effort you are expending. Something similar seems to happen when you fly around those who have “set their hearts on pilgrimage,” i.e. those who are cultivating the pursuit of God in their lives. You find yourself being carried further than you ever could on your own.

To pursue God is to blaze a trail that gets deeply etched in life. But it is not just for ourselves that this path exists. Our individual journeys give courage and direction to those around us as well. Like a boat that sets its point forward through the water, there is a wake that forms, influencing the direction of things behind it.

When I was younger I had a small motor boat and would often go for short excursions on the St. Lawrence River. Big ships passed through the channel each day and, if I wanted to make better speed coming home, I could easily put myself in the wake of a cargo ship and be carried swiftly alongside it.

A person who has cultivated the discipline of prayer in their lives likewise has a life-turbulence around them that seems to encourage a similar direction in those who are near. Anyone with vitality in their prayer life naturally inspires those who sense similar possibilities for themselves. They remind those around them of what is also the deepest desire of their hearts. Love for God is contagious and it is something that is usually caught more than taught.

Isn’t this the way God always seems to work? Not only do we benefit from His Presence, but He ordains that there is a spillover effect whereby dry deserts turn into springs of life. As we are drawn to God, the Lord takes occasion, through us, to draw others as well.

Consider the people, both past and present, who have had this effect on you—those whose intimacy with God has reminded you of your own spiritual potential—and you will know the phenomena that the psalmist is describing here: as they pass through the valley of Baca, they turn it into springs.

Questions:

  1. Who are the friends you feel are on a similar pilgrimage as you are?  How would you define this particular fellowship?  What benefits do these friends bring to your consistency with God?
  2. Who are those, past or present, who through their own commitment to God, have drawn you deeper into your own spirituality?  How did God inspire you to believe that what you saw in their lives, was also possible in yours?
  3. How does your own commitment to seek God also benefit others?  Who are those in whom you recognize the “wake” of your own influence? Who are those whom you wish could also be there with you?Prayer: Thank the Lord for the “communion of saints” who are around you in your life.  Be grateful for the many sermons, books, conversations or prayers you have had with others that have inspired your vision for the spiritual life.  Express your desire that God would also encourage others through you as your own heart is increasingly “set on pilgrimage.”

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© 2009 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT

 

18.  “Shopping for Pearls”

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.

Matthew 13:44-46

It’s hard to find time to pray. And even when we do, it’s often a struggle to keep focused on seeking God rather than pursuing the many other interesting thoughts and tangents that come to mind. The discipline of prayer is certainly a forum where making good spiritual choices is a constant challenge. As one of my mentors, Dr. James Houston, once said, “Prayer is ultimately a battle of the will. The battle makes us choose what, in the end, we really want.”

This first parable tells us of man who stumbles upon a treasure and then takes steps to secure what he really wants. Likewise, when the merchant of the second parable finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all he has in order to purchase it. In both cases the assumption is that the person does not yet possess the desired item, but has to acquire it through an exchange of goods. He has to sell what he has in order to get what he would prefer having. To think of our prayer life in such consumerist terms can be helpful. Consider these three parallels:

The first would be to compare having read about prayer, and feeling excited about the possibility of acquiring such an experience for ourselves, with catalogue shopping. The items in a catalogue are meant to draw our attention to their selling features and to convince us to purchase them. At some point the catalogue has done as much as it can and it’s now up to us to choose whether we want this item for ourselves or not.

A second, more developed relationship to prayer might be compared to window-shopping, or browsing in a store. You can spend a lot of time examining a beautiful jacket that you’re considering purchasing. You can look at it from all angles, feel its material, perhaps even try it on for size. And you can come back the next day to do the same thing all over again. But as much as you admire the jacket, it will never be yours until you’ve actually bought it. You can’t take it out of the store until you’ve exchange goods for it.

And lastly, a third relationship to prayer might be compared to test-driving an expensive car. If we’ve had even minimal practice in the discipline of prayer, it’s likely that God has allowed us to experience some of the delights of spiritual experience first-hand. Like any salesman who believes in his product, it would be fair for God to assume that, having now sampled the goods, we will quickly empty our wallets to secure this wonderful item for ourselves.

It would be an odd parable wouldn’t it, if Jesus had spoken of a man who found a pearl of great value but, though excited and intent on buying it, got distracted on his way to the bank by a piece of granite on the side of the road. And yet wouldn’t this be an apt description of the way we often stray from our spiritual goals?

What keeps us on track? In this parable, Jesus tells us that it is joy for our goal that directs us. It’s what kept the merchant focused on his intentions—in his joy, he went and sold all he had. Because of the joy we have experienced in His Presence, Jesus expects us to make it a priority to sell all we have in order to procure this precious pearl. It is surely worth more than anything else we could ever desire.

Questions:

  1. Do you see the thoughts and distractions that happen in your prayer time as choices that you have made?  How does God use this ambivalence in us to purify “what, in the end, we really want?”
  2. Using the three “consumerist” examples, where would you situate your own relationship to your desire for prayer?  How does this tendency show up in your response to the spiritual life?
  3. What “goods” must we exchange in order to secure the precious pearl that we have seen?  What helps you to keep your desires for the spiritual life at the forefront of your thinking?Prayer: Meditate on the joy that is calling you forward in Christ.  Ask the Holy Spirit to help keep your deepest desire for union with God at the forefront of all that you do.  Ask yourself what distracts you from this joy and pray that God would help you choose the better way.

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© 2009 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT

19.  “Straightening the Crooked Timber”

Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Matthew 6:10

This petition is certainly the underlying prayer of the contemplative life. Thy will be done….and let it begin with me. When everyone on earth reflects this prayer we will live as a multitude of perfectly orchestrated expressions of God, in other words, heaven on earth. I suspect there is an inner sense in us that already knows that such a day is not only possible, but the inevitable solution to all that is wrong with life.

As we pursue God through prayer, a spiritual intuition is at work in us that desires, above all things, to find and follow the immediate will of God. We sense a distortion in our lives that confuses our personalities, our direction, and the effect we have on others. We recognize the dubious nature of the choices we make and how they contribute to the disarray around us. And something in us suspects that the solution to this discrepancy lies in a more perfect obedience to the will of God.

The fact that Jesus put these words in our mouths is proof enough that “what is” is not “what should be.” That we pray for God’s will to be done on earth is an acknowledgment that we recognize a re-alignment is necessary in order for us to become what heaven truly has in mind.

But Jesus isn’t telling us to get to work correcting this problem. That would be an impossible task. As T.S. Eliot put it, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” Instead, the Lord offers us a remedy in the form of a prayer that looks to God for both personal and social transformation. These eleven words recognize that such restoration can only come from above.

To be willing to submit to a Way that is higher than ours is what is implied in the petition, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” And the request that this prayer expresses is what is most required of us in order for it to be fulfilled—the sincere longing that it be so in our own lives.

Questions:

  1. Consider what your unique personality would be like if you followed every inclination of God’s will that moves you.  What desire does this produce in you?  Are there other responses that you feel in considering this?
  2. What are some of the distortions you can identify in your own life that “confuses our personalities, our direction, and the effect we have on others?”  How do you feel about this?
  3. How is the sincere longing for God’s realignment of our wills enough to give us hope that change will occur?

Prayer: Read the beginning verses of Psalm 119.  Ask the Holy Spirit to give you a genuine love and desire for God’s will in your life.  Ask Jesus to help you to not assume responsibility for straightening out the “crooked timber of your humanity” but to look to “Our Father in heaven” to answer the desire of this prayer.

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© 2009 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT

20.  “Digging Holes For God To Fill”

Deep calls to deep
in the roar of your waterfalls;
all your waves and breakers
have swept over me.

Psalm 42:7

Do you remember being at the beach as a child, digging a hole in the sand and then watching it fill up with water? Because the water table is so high you don’t have to dig very deep before it comes pouring in. But soon after, mud starts falling in from the edges, fills the hole, and once again you have to dig out new space for the water. When I remember this I can’t help but feel there’s something very similar happening in my spiritual life. It also helps me understand the relationship between my spiritual disciplines and the infilling of God’s spirit.

The contemplative life, in a very basic sense, is a matter of creating holes in anticipation of God filling them. There are lots of ways we can dig holes in our lives: fasting, prayer, silence, humility, tithing, submission, etc. These disciplines create space within us. But as our childhood experience teaches us, it doesn’t take very long for the ocean to fill a hole that is dug close to the shore. We know how the contours of our lives, like sand falling in from the edges, soon begin filling up the hole again. That’s why it takes ongoing spiritual disciplines to keep space open for God.

As Deep calls to deep we are led to what is most profound within us. To be a spiritual person is to learn to live deeply. The very word profound is a composite of the Latin for pro, meaning “toward,” and fundere, which means “bottom.” The word that contrasts with this depth of life is the word superficial, which means to be “above the face,” to remain on the sur-face of things. Being shallow is a concept that can easily apply to our spiritual life at times.

But God wants better for us. He calls us to live deeply. And prayer is the prescribed exercise for finding and remaining in the place that is most profound within us. As we discover the depth of wisdom and truth that lies in each of us, Psalm 42 testifies to the experience of God’s infilling Spirit rising up, like Living Waters, within us. All your waves and breakers have swept over me. Let us dig deep holes and, in faith, live lives where being “swept over by God” might often be our experience as well.

Questions:

  1. What, in your experience, produces space in your life for God to fill?  What other things can fill in those spaces so that God seems pushed out?
  2. What are some of the disciplines you have built into your life to keep these spaces available to God?  What are some new ones that God might be calling you to set up in your life?
  3. How would you describe your “profound” self? Your “superficial” self?

Prayer: Talk with God about God’s desire that you would live a deeply profound life.  Ask for insight into the relationship of prayer to the “inner space” required for this.  Pray that the Holy Spirit will sustain the desire you feel for a profound spiritual life.

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© 2009 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT

21.  “Grace, Welling Up Within Us”

Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.

John 7:38

In her wonderful booklet, The Prayer Life as a Garden, St. Teresa of Avila speaks of four stages of prayer. These are not necessarily progressive steps, nor are they experiences that everyone who prays will recognize as consistent with theirs. But they are helpful markers of a direction that Jesus promised would well up in all those who enter and pursue God’s stream of life.

Teresa calls us to be good gardeners of our lives who, with the help of God, must see that our spiritual plants grow. “We should water them carefully,” she writes, “so that they will not die, but rather produce blossoms.” Teresa describes four ways by which our garden can be watered, beginning with the most labourious, and ending with the most effortless

The first way she compares to simply drawing water in a bucket from a well. This refers to the effort of being disciplined in prayer, returning to it often, and drawing what we can from meditating on thoughts of God.  She says that “working with the understanding then, is like drawing water out of the well.” This form prayer she calls meditation.

The second way of prayer is like a water wheel which draws the water up from the well for you. You arrive at the well to find a bucket, already full of water. This, Teresa compares to the prayer of contemplation, which “now touches on things that are divine, which it could never do by any effort of its own.” It is a time when grace freely reveals itself to the soul. Our wills have somehow become subject to God’s will. We now merely consent to being captured by the love of God. Teresa writes,

Everything that takes place now in this state brings the very greatest consolation. The labour is so light that prayer, even if persevered in for some time, is never wearisome. The reason is that the understanding is now working very gently and is drawing much more water than it drew out of the well.

In this mode, the soul dares not move nor stir for fear that the blessing it is receiving would then disappear from its hands. Teresa stresses that “it is very important that the soul which reaches this stage realize the great dignity of its position and the great favour that the Lord has bestowed upon it.” The soul, through this experience, becomes aware of a love it has for God that is much less self-interested. It now desires to find solitude more often in order to enjoy that good love all the more.

Teresa then describes a third way of prayer which is like finding streams in your garden that only require being directed towards the flowers. The soil is now more thoroughly saturated and there is no necessity to water it as often. The labour of the gardener is simply that of directing the stream that flows constantly into its garden, towards the flowers. In this state of prayer there is less distinction between our work and God’s work within us. We assume more readily that the life welling up within us is, in fact, the Holy Spirit. It is contemplation in action. Our will is active, but mostly in consenting to the action of God within us. If the second way of praying was more characteristic of Mary, sitting without stirring at Jesus’ feet, this third way Teresa likens to also include the active nature of Martha. “The soul is living both the active and the contemplative life at the same time.” It is active in the world and yet understands that “the best part of the soul is somewhere else.”

Finally, the fourth way of prayer is when you find that it is raining all around you. The garden is being watered all by itself and there is nothing left for you to do. This is the effortless perfection of receiving our lives completely from the hand of God. The heavenly water “flows to our very depths and spreads within us.” In terminology that we can only imagine, Teresa refers to this experience as “the soul entering within itself.” This is the Mystical Union with God that so many saints have spoken of.

People who often pray will likely recognize elements of each of Teresa’s four stages in their prayer experience. For those who are just being introduced to the fruit of prayer, Teresa’s words will hopefully excite your heart and help identify a real passion that exists within you for love and intimacy with God. Either way, it is wonderful to have spiritual ancestors like Teresa who write from an experience that confirms the heart’s instinct and desire for union with God. Whoever believes…streams of living water will flow from within. Let us be encouraged to seek growth in the knowledge of God so freely offered, in Jesus’ words, to “whoever believes.”

Questions:

  1. Which of the ways that Teresa describes for watering our garden seems most familiar to your present experience of the spiritual life?
  2. What is your experience of grace, freely revealing itself to your soul?  How do you respond to God in these times?
  3. From your present experience of God, which of these four experiences of “drawing water” would you desire to grow in?

Prayer: Ask God to show you, in the metaphors that Teresa lists, how to understand the movements of your own prayer life.  Talk with God about the desires you feel when you read about some of the other ways that people have experienced God.

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© 2009 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT

22.  “Fear of Falling”

For in him, we live, move and have our being.

Acts 17:28

I had a strange dream once. I’m not usually inclined to fantasy in my dreams but this one certainly had all the elements of a Twilight Zone episode. The fact that this dream created such a change of perception in my life tells me that it was probably a “Word of God”—the type that doesn’t come back empty but accomplishes what the Lord sent it out to do.

In the dream I had somehow ended up in the middle of outer space, suspended on a cube-shaped scaffold. All around me, in every direction as far as could be imagined, there was nothing but infinity. The scaffold was the only thing I had to hold on to. As I was trying to come to terms with my predicament, I suddenly became aware of a large hand materializing out of nowhere. With thumb and finger it began pulling at one of the bars of the scaffold. I somehow knew that this hand belonged to God and I immediately protested, “Why are you doing this?” The hand ignored me and then disappeared, taking with it one of the supporting bars of the cube. My state of affairs was now even more precarious than before. After the initial shock had subsided, having no other choice, I accepted my loss and went back to contemplating my options.

It wasn’t long before the hand reappeared and started pulling once again at another bar. Again I went through all the motions of shock and protest, as well as the confusion of why God was doing this. But the hand continued its merciless work of dismantling the structure that was keeping me afloat. This same exercise repeated itself again and again until finally, I was left with one remaining bar—the only thing keeping me from falling into the deep abyss below. And once more, to my horror, the hand reappeared.

I remember pleading with God, explaining how I will fall if He removes this last bar (as though He didn’t understand my predicament). But my cries went unheeded as the hand reached out to remove the last remaining bar. I braced myself for whatever would happen next as I felt the bar slowly being pulled out from the tight grip of my hands.

Somehow I still had faith that God would not let me fall, but how? Would He quickly reach underneath to rescue me? Would He offer me His own hand to hold onto? Or would He create another scaffold below me to land on? I waited, bracing myself for whatever might follow. But nothing happened. To my surprise, I didn’t fall. I was still floating in open space, in the same place where the scaffold had been. My belief that the structure was what had been keeping me afloat turned out to be an illusion. And all my fears, as well as the emotional investment the scaffold represented to me, were for nothing. Sound familiar?

This was a dream that challenged me to take stock of all the other scaffolds in my life that I presumed to be supporting me. It was also a call for me to start exercising more faith in the free-fall of life. It taught me that, as long as I am holding on to my self-made securities, I will never recognize the security of the God who is actually sustaining me.

In Him, we live, move and have our being. The contemplative life invites us to let go of our self-made constructs in order to discover God, the One who actually sustains us.

Questions:

  1. This meditation suggests that the securities we set up for ourselves might prevent us from experiencing God’s own provisions in our lives.  How do you relate to this thought?
  2. What are some of the “bars” that make you feel secure on your scaffold?  How do you respond to the thought of losing or letting go some of these?
  3. What might be the faith alternative to some of our own fear-rooted prayers?

Prayer: Begin by confessing your fears to God, who certainly understands our need for security.  Ask the Lord to teach you other ways of relating to the things you fear.  Praise God by expressing your trust in His love and care for you.

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© 2009 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT

23.   “It’s All in the Name”

Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.

Genesis 2:19

This passage reveals how honoured we are in the relationship God chooses to form with us. It shows us how our Father delights and is keenly interested in how we respond to His creation. When we read that the Lord brought the animals to Adam in order “to see what he would name them,” it implies a certain amount of uncertainty that we don’t usually ascribe to God. He is curious about how we will respond, and He looks to us to put the final label on what He has created. Perhaps this delight is the same as that of a father giving a kitten to his child and waiting to see what she will call it.

To name something, of course, is more than simply giving it a label. It expresses a relationship or an impression we have of something. It is how we respond to the thing before us.

If God leaves the final interpretation of His creation up to us, how does this apply to the various circumstances He brings before our lives? What are the “names” we give to these circumstances? Fearful? Opportunity? Good? Bad? Punishment? Reward? Success? Failure? A test? A blessing? And how does the “name” we give contribute to how we experience them? “Whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.”

The naming of things is one of the noble privileges God has given us, but it can also be a two-edged sword if we’re not careful with the names we choose. What we call something will determine the relationship we form with it. Jesus once told His disciples “what is bound on earth is bound in heaven.” We need to be careful to not be too hasty in choosing names.

Questions:

  1. What are some times that you remember when you had “named” something in your circumstances wrongly?  What happens when you misinterpret what is happening in your life?
  2. What type of names do we put to the various relationships in our lives?  Are they always helpful?
  3. How can we change the name of something when we suspect that we have mis-labeled it?

Prayer: Consider the ways and the reasons you have “named” various circumstances or relationships in your life.  Ask God to show you where you might have to reconsider the label you have chosen.  Then, from the mystery of “not knowing,” ask the Lord for wisdom in choosing a new name for this, hopefully the same name that God would choose.

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© 2009 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT

24.  “Things Aren’t What They Seem”

The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God

Luke 18:11-14

You can’t tell a book by its cover, and sometimes even its content can deceive us. According to this parable, our inner feelings about our status with God are not always the best judge of where we stand. How often, in the paradox of spiritual life, might our sense of distance from God actually indicate our closeness to Him? And how might our feelings of self-satisfaction with our spiritual life actually be an indicator of a tepid spirit?

The Pharisee thought himself to be in a state of consolation. He was enjoying a wonderful sense of well-being with regards to his relationship with God. In his mind all things were as they should be. He stood confidently before the Lord, giving thanks for the abundant blessings of his life.

Acknowledging God’s grace is of course the great antidote to the sense of self-accomplishment that so often tempts a blessed life. No danger of that faux-pas for this saint. The Pharisee acknowledged his good fortune, and didn’t hesitate to give all the glory back to God. He felt satisfied, highlighting the obvious evidence of his gratitude—his regular disciplines of fasting and tithing. You can just hear the beginning words of the hymn forming on his lips, “It is well, it is well with my soul.”

The tax collector, on the other hand, stood at a distance. Not only physically, but also in his sense of relationship to God. Ignatius of Loyola, in his Spiritual Exercises, describes the state of desolation as that of feeling separated from our Creator. The Lord allows such experiences at times in order to purify our love, our faith and our desires. Standing near the real Presence of God has always led saints to a sober awareness of their relative unworthiness.

In Jesus’ parable, the Pharisee was the one who was blind to the truth. He presumed God’s favour and was immune from correction. Though he felt accomplished in his spiritual life, this sense of well-being was unfortunately an illusion—the fabrication of his own imagination—and not a true consolation from God.

The tax collector, humble and contrite, could not even imagine himself in relationship to heaven. He felt alienated from God. It was all he could do to muster the faith to set foot in His house. “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God.”

How important are our own judgments of our spiritual state? Jesus teaches us to be wary of self-justification. You can’t always judge where you’re at with God simply by how you feel. This is the paradox of heaven.

Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.

Isaiah 40:4

Questions:

  1. How much do you depend on your feelings to assess your own status with God?  How can these deceive us?
  2. Imagine yourself as the Pharisee, confident of his standing with God, but wrong.  Then imagine yourself as the tax collector, who also assumes a wrong status with God.  Is it difficult for you to accept that, unless God reveals it to you, you don’t really how you stand?
  3. What disposition can we walk in that would avoid the two errors or self-justification or self-condemnation?

Prayer: “As God judges us, so we are.”  Considering this fact, ask the Lord to help you remain as a child with regards to second-guessing God’s judgment.  Pray for a spirit of peace in the midst of not knowing.

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© 2009 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT

25.   “The Place Where We Meet”

Love and faithfulness meet together;

righteousness and peace kiss each other.

Faithfulness springs forth from the earth,

and righteousness looks down from heaven.

Psalm 85:10-11

Psalm 85 offers a beautiful image of the intimacy of spiritual relationship that is possible between ourselves and the Lord. We see that our spiritual life is not a matter of propelling ourselves willfully towards God. Nor is the objective to passively wait for the Lord to channel His spirit through us. The psalmist tells us plainly that the ideal of spiritual life is a “meeting together” of two wills, joined in the beautiful freedom of an embrace. These two wills are personified as love and faithfulness. Like good lovers, they always meet each other half-way.

In these verses, God is also identified as righteousness. As we embrace righteousness, the result is peace. The psalmist likens it to a kiss—the gentle, intimacy of lovers. It is an expression, at its exquisite best, of two parties, each acting freely, as both giver and receiver.

We are told that this spiritual embrace is a longed-for event that is anticipated by heaven. Righteousness, looking down, searches for evidence of faithfulness springing forth, as God, like a father, runs to embrace His approaching son or daughter. What a joy it is that our faithfulness causes such delight in God.

Questions:

  1. What are some examples that you recognize in your own life where “faithfulness springs forth” to meet God’s love?
  1. In what ways are you and God both givers and receivers?
  1. How do you “embrace” righteousness?  What delight comes to your heart as you imagine God searching and finding evidence of faithfulness in your life?

Prayer: Speak to our Father about your desire to bring delight to God’s heart.  Offer your faithfulness as a “meeting place” for God’s love to be with you.  Give thanks for such a tender relationship that is yours to enjoy.

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© 2009 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT

26.  “Trying to See in the Dark”

My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.

John 17:15-19

Most spiritually-minded people living in the city are probably like me—a bit of a hybrid. There’s a part of me that is deeply rooted in a timeless spirituality, while another part seems so much a product of this world. Being an enigma is one of the hazards of trying to live the spiritual life with a foot in two worlds. It splits you down the middle if you forget which side you come from.

As we read Jesus’ words we are reminded once again of the mystery of our new origin. He sees us as in the world, but not of it. We come from somewhere else. It would make sense that only those who are “not of the world” can ever be “sent” to it. But it’s a real challenge to keep that distinction in focus.

Let’s not underestimate the forces that work against living a spiritual life in the city. Far easier to be in a monastery, on a retreat, or alone in the middle of creation. One of the reasons the early monks set out to live in the desert was to flee the confusion of the city. If the cities of the third century were too distracting for their spiritual focus what would they would make of our present-day treadmill?

Our contemporary life places unique demands on us, most of which have little to do with our spiritual needs. The way we plan our day, the environment in which we raise our children, the things we do in order to stay afloat in the city, all call for a different application of life than any of us would likely choose for ourselves. And the result is that we often feel disoriented, with a particular weariness that quenches our spiritual vitality. It can feel like you’re only holding onto faith by a thread.

Being in the world is certainly a challenge. But this is where we belong, even if it goes against the grain of being a spiritual person. The Lord has placed us here, in a world where His light is easily obscured. And for the sake of those around us it’s important that we learn how to keep our torches lit.

How do we do this? How do we remain credible as spiritual men and women? What boundaries are needed between us and the seemingly endless demands of contemporary life? What type of rule do we need in our lives to ensure that we are not being tossed to and fro by every wave of life-option?

Even in their times, Augustine, Benedict, Bernard and Francis recognized the necessity of having a “rule of life” in order to remain rooted in God. Whether living the cloistered life, or that of a free mendicant, a rule of life was seen as essential to prevent waywardness or dissipation of the soul. What about us? What would such a rule of life look like? What template would you provide for your day, your week or your year that would ensure you don’t stray from your spiritual calling and formation?

These are important questions to ask ourselves. As a community of faith committed to spiritual growth we need to consider our way of life in order to remain fruitful in our goals—to protect God’s investment in us, and to ensure our faithful response to the things He has already shown us.

The world needs contemplatives deep within the fabric of its cities, not only on the outskirts of its walls. It is the Lord who has called us here, and there is surely special grace given to those who pursue God in the confusion of urban life. Let us learn to do this well. And let us be careful to not lose the distinction between being in the world, and of it. This was Jesus’ prayer for us.

The world is now in dire need of a living witness of faith issuing from a soul that has a true relationship with God. Such a witness out-weighs and outshines a thousand books on doctrine, faith, or prayer.

—Matthew the Poor

Questions:

  1. What are some of the constraints you feel living a spiritual life while also trying to meet the demands of this world?  How do these demands disorient you from God?  What spiritual life would you imagine for yourself if you had no other restrictions?
  2. How has our new birth, in a sense, “ruined” us for this world?  How do you see yourself sent to this world as though from some other vantage point?
  3. What helps you to keep your own torch lit in an environment that always threatens to extinguish it?  How would you define your own “rule of life” at present?  What adjustments in your life would be needed to help you maintain your “spiritual identity?”

Prayer: Ask the Lord to make clear to you the boundaries that you should keep with the world.  Ask for wisdom and grace in the ways you love this world so that you can enjoy the temporal life without losing yourself in it.

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© 2009 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT

27.  “Knowing When You Need Help”

. . . He restores my soul.

Psalm 23:3

A farmer can’t make a plant increase in size any more than a mother can cause her baby to grow. But both can contribute to an environment where growth is likely. Progress in the spiritual life, as well, is natural when an environment conducive for growth is present. There is no need to push forward in your faith, nor to pull yourself up by the bootstraps if you are in a healthy state of soul. Growth comes as naturally then as it does for a healthy baby.

The call to prayer is a God-given invitation for our souls to come and be restored to a condition that is optimum for spiritual growth. We experience the greatest sense of joy and fulfillment when we are in such a state of health. But there are many times in life when we are not thriving as we could. In the course of our days and weeks, our souls sometimes become ill, contaminated by deception, disappointment or fear. We lose our appetites, or we feel spiritually nauseous from something unhealthy that our hearts have ingested. Like all things in life, our spiritual health frequently needs to be restored before growth can continue.

One of the best prescriptions for someone who is ill is to simply rest—to allow the body time to re-gather its strength. For some sicknesses, fasting is also a natural remedy. The body instinctively knows that it doesn’t want to eat, but needs to focus its energies on what ails. The inclination to withdraw and to sequester, which is so natural to the body, is also an instinct of the soul. Whenever it is in need of healing, our soul naturally desires to withdraw to a quiet place where it will not be taxed by any concerns other than its own restoration. We have all felt the need for such remedy at times.

To come to God often for the restoration of our spirits is simply good health care. It keeps us fresh, and in the optimum state for continuing growth. To recognize when you are ailing, and to be wise in doing something about it, will automatically bear good fruit in your life. As we are attentive to keeping our spirits restored, the progress of our souls will be the natural outcome.

Questions:

  1. What environments have you found to be ideal for your own spiritual growth?  How would you describe your state of soul when you are thriving in these environments?
  2. What are some of the signs that tell you that your soul needs restoration?  What, if anything, do you usually do about this?
  3. How can you give your soul time and space to catch up with itself?

Prayer: Ask the Lord to make the care and maintenance of your soul a priority in your life.   Ask for an obedient spirit so that when you hear Jesus say,  “Come away with me,” you will not hesitate to respond.  Thank the Lord that restoration, in time, is so easily available to us as we seek it.

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© 2009 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT

28.  “Beholding the Glory of God”

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts. The whole earth is full of your glory

Isaiah 6:3

These are the words Isaiah heard being prayed before the throne of God. It is a prayer recognizing that all of creation is filled with God’s glorious Presence. And it is to the praise of this truth that a growing spiritual life inevitably leads us. With eyes wide-opened to the face of God, the automatic response of our souls will one day be in awe at the evidence of the Lord’s Presence, reflected in everything we see. The veil will be lifted. We will recognize the glory that has previously been hidden from view. And hearts, made pure by the grace of Christ, will see God as He is. This is the inevitable destination of our long spiritual journey. It’s good to keep this in mind in the context of our day-to-day lives.

Most of our pursuit of God is naturally rooted in our temporal concerns. Where am I going? What should I do? How do I get this, or avoid that in my life? But even on earth, people who practice prayer notice a significant shift in focus that matures in them. The ultimate question changes from ‘where is God in my life?’ to ‘where am I in God’s life?’ It is this shift in emphasis that prepares us for the glory of eternal prayer.

Matthew the Poor writes in his Orthodox Prayer Life,

If we restrict prayer to the satisfaction of our needs and demands, or to responding to our pleas in this life, it loses its essential greatness. Through hallowing the name of God, paying homage to him, thanking and honouring him with pure praise, a person is transformed into a spiritual being. They thus join the heavenly host in their transcendent ministry.

Referring to this Isaiah passage he adds, “in its truest essence, prayer is a communion with the heavenly host in praising their Creator.”

God certainly invites us to seek and find Him in our day-to-day experience. Signs of His participation in our lives are necessary assurances in our pilgrimage. But ultimately, it is the act of recognizing eternity in this life that joins us to heaven’s praise. Every time our hearts are lifted in recognition of God’s Presence we participate with the song sung by the already existing choirs of heaven. Some day soon we too will join them in full awareness of the Lord’s majesty. We will be captivated by the beauty and glory of God that fills heaven and earth. And with senses wide-opened, our souls will respond with the only words appropriate to such an experience: “Holy, holy, holy….”

Questions:

  1. Can you imagine the day when “we will recognize the glory of God that has previously been hidden from view?”  How would you describe the feelings that your heart experiences in imagining this?
  2. How do you relate to Matthew the Poor’s suggestion that the recognition of God in praise is what ultimately makes us a “spiritual being?”
  3. How might we keep this vision of the spiritual life in mind as we live our day-to-day lives?

Prayer: Consider the praise that God enjoys from those who recognize the Lord’s hand in all things.  Ask the Holy Spirit to open your heart and eyes so that you can join the chorus of those who recognize God in all things.

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© 2009 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT

29.  “I Am With You”

So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.” But Moses said to God, “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” And God said, “I will be with you.

Exodus 3:10-12

On the occasion of his conversion, it is said that St. Francis of Assisi wrestled all night in prayer with two simple questions: “who am I,” and “who are You?” The answer he received to these questions dramatically altered his perspective and caused him to fearlessly commit the rest of his life to the God to whom he had prayed.

Moses as well, asks an important “who am I” question. The Lord has called him to a task and Moses’ immediate response is one of questioning the wisdom of God’s choice. There is an apparent disagreement between God and Moses as to who Moses really is. But the Lord’s answer to Moses’ question is an unexpected one.

If someone came to me with self-doubt my immediate response might be to assume they needed affirmation. I would consider ways to bolster their confidence with regards to the task ahead. But God takes a different tack with Moses. To the question “who am I?,” the Lord responds with an oblique statement that seems to bypass Moses’ query. “I will be with you.”

How often do we feel similar self-doubts in our lives? Who am I that I should be in such a ministry? Who am I that I should presume the love of my brothers and sisters? Who am I to think that God has purpose for me? There are many ways that we could go about assuring ourselves, or one another, in the face of such doubts. You can do it. You’ve got what it takes. It’ll all work out somehow. But God’s word to us here seems quite different from the usual assurances we think we need. He simply states a fact of life that is meant to overarch all our doubts and fears: “I am with you.” This, the Lord assumes, is all the information we need to muster the courage to obey.

It is good to consider in our own lives how God’s assurance that “I am with you” represents the answer to all our “who am I?” questions. The Lord seems to think that this reply should be sufficient for our needs—that it will make a world of difference to your identity, your vocation, your future, your past, to be simply reminded that He is surely with you.

Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.

Matthew 28:20

Questions:

  1. What type of affirmations do you feel you still need from God before you can be who you are, or do what you feel God has called you to do?
  2. How does God’s assurance of walking with you in all aspects of your life make a difference to the questions you have regarding your identity?  Your vocation?  Your future?  Your past?
  3. Is this sufficient enough information to give you the “courage to obey?” If not, why?

Prayer: Confess the areas in your life where you feel hesitant in your response to the Lord.  Ask God for a deep understanding of your fears and for faith to believe that the Lord’s presence in your life is sufficient to counter these.

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© 2009 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT

30.  “Hungry for More”

Lead me to the rock that is higher than I. Psalm 61:2

A lot of what Jesus had to say about the kingdom of heaven had to do with how things prosper and bear good fruit because of their proximity to God. To be close to Jesus, the true vine, is synonymous with growth, and conversely, spiritual growth in our lives is a sign that we are living in the realm of God’s kingdom.

It is possible however to stop growing in our faith. We find ourselves on a plateau of spirituality, assuming that the depth of relationship we have experienced with God thus far is all that the Christian life has to offer. But thankfully, the Lord has made this conclusion an uncomfortable one for us. More often than not we feel restless in our spirits as we pine for an experience of spiritual life that is greater than the one we presently have. And the very fact that we hunger for more is evidence of the Spirit’s activity within us.

Before a next stage of growth occurs, God often instills a deep desire for change in us. This sets up a momentum for growth that continues to thrive long after the initial spurt. Many saints have identified how desire for God leads not only to satisfaction, but often to an even greater experience of desire. Hungering and thirsting then are signs of a deepening relationship with God. They represent the outreach of the soul for its next stage of maturity. To simply have this desire for growth is to participate with divinity.

Julian of Norwich, a 14th-century mystic, once received a word from the Lord that helped identify this relationship to the God-granted desire within her. In one of her many “showings,” the Lord revealed Himself to Julian saying, “I am the ground of thy beseeching. If I caused you to beseech, will I not also grant you the object of your beseeching?”

The desire by which Julian was led to seek God was also the evidence that the object of her desire was within reach. God caused her to long for union with Him, and this longing itself was the God-given assurance that her desire would inevitably be fulfilled.

Questions:

1.    In what ways does the desire for union with God usually express itself in your heart?

2.    This meditation suggests that a dissatisfaction with your spiritual life can actually be a gift from God.  What other less positive ways might we respond to our dissatisfactions with the spiritual life?

3.    Why do spiritual hunger and thirst represent signs of a growing relationship with God?  How might the lack of such desires be seen as signs of an unhealthy state of soul?

Prayer: Our deep longings, far from revealing inadequacy, can be welcomed as precious gifts, tokens of what is to come in their satisfaction.  Give thanks to God for whatever desires you presently feel for the spiritual life, and reflect on how God has placed these within you in order to cause you to seek Him.

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© 2009 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT

 

31.  “Attached to God”

As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. Psalm 42:1-2

We are, by nature, desiring beings. We can’t help it. And though our attachments to our desires often work against us, they can also serve God’s purposes in leading us towards union with Him. We are used to thinking of attachment, especially in its extreme forms of addiction, in negative terms.  But there is also a positive form of attachment where similar features of craving as well as the discomfort of withdrawal can actually work in us for the good of the soul.

As easy as it is to become addicted to external stimulants we can also be addicted to our inner moods and dispositions—depression, shyness, fear, anger, cynicism. As we habitually favour these responses to life, our psychology and our physiology naturally default to them in a given situation. This is the negative side of our inner attachments. But this same principle of habituation to a particular inner state can also apply to our being “attached” to positive behaviours.

People who regularly practice prayer, for instance, find that their mind, body and soul become more and more identified with this inner state of spirit. It becomes a “mood” that they come to expect as a norm in their lives. Once the state of prayer becomes established as a norm we also begin to recognize symptoms of withdrawal—a longing, or craving to return to what is familiar—if we depart from that norm for too long. Our physiology will register discomfort whenever our prayerful inner state has been neglected for a longer than usual period. Of course, if we continue to remain absent from a regular prayer pattern it will eventually establish a new norm for us—one that presumes that prayer is the foreign state rather than the normal one.

The more we understand the principle of habituation the more we can apply it positively to our lives. We can intentionally choose to habituate ourselves to whatever we consider beneficial. It takes time and intentionality but, once our physiology gets over the initial resistance to a new behaviour, it will eventually habituate to it as a new norm. Once It does, it will not only anticipate the new disposition each day, but will even crave it when it is absent. Our physiology will then serve to help us stay on track by alerting us, through the uncomfortable symptoms of withdrawal, whenever we neglect the new habit that we’ve established.

In a nutshell, we are attached to whatever makes things normal for us. The longer a norm continues, the more things will become associated with it and the more rooted it will become in our lives. We can apply this principle positively to whatever we deem beneficial as we seek to become more and more habituated to the norms of a spiritual life.

Questions:

1.    How is your spiritual life sometimes hindered by habitual behaviour that leads you away from love, peace and the presence of God?

2.    What are some of the signs that your life “craves” for God?  What are some of the “withdrawal symptoms” that would indicate to you that your life is drifting away from God?

3.    What would help you to become more attached, through habituation, to the state of prayer as a norm for your life?

Prayer: Consider the state of soul you wish to see established in your life.  Ask God to help you be more consistent in seeking and establishing this state as a new norm for your life.

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© 2009 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT


32.  “The Short Life of Discouragement”

You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. Heb. 10:36

Perhaps the spiritual life is like rocket science after all. Its goals are just as far-reaching and, with every failed attempt, the reasons for quitting seem just as compelling. If you’ve ever seen the movie October Sky you’ll remember the homemade rockets that, for a few seconds, carried the hopes of being propelled all the way to outer space only to peter out and fizzle a few hundred meters off the ground. Sound familiar? What is it that motivated rocket scientists to persevere in spite of so many setbacks if it wasn’t the certain faith that, one way or another, outer space was within reach. How many times must we too go back to the drawing board before we see the results we hope for in our spiritual life?

A new insight often grips us with fresh motivation and a commitment to aspire to what it indicates possible. We suddenly find it easy to envision change and, with that fresh wind, we feel the incentive to try new ways or to adopt new practices. Perhaps we’ve read Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God. We’ve tasted something of how simple the spiritual life can be, and it has inspired us to cultivate such attentiveness in our day. Or perhaps, in a sudden epiphany, we’ve come to recognize once again how every person is uniquely loved by God, and we immediately want to start including that insight in all our encounters. Maybe we’ve come to a deeper appreciation of prayer, of its essential relationship to progress in the spiritual life, and we feel a renewed dedication to making more time for it in our week.

In these and many other initiatives we usually begin strong as we zealously set out in the direction of transformation. Visionary courage becomes the fuel that puts our faith into motion. And, with our rocket launched, we watch with hope as it reaches out towards its goals. But what happens once the immediate enthusiasm has gone, when our rocket peters out and lands unceremoniously back on the ground?

Discouragement (lit. loss of heart) is the fizzling of visionary courage that first accompanied our resolve. Rather than staying the course and keeping to our inspired path, we feel frustrated by our apparent failure and are tempted to give up. How we respond to this experience determines much of our future course. Perhaps we feel more hesitant to ever make such resolutions again lest we risk failure. Or perhaps we begin to rationalize our setback in a way that makes genuine enthusiasm less possible. “I guess I’m not cut out for this.” “Surely this practice is not necessary for everyone.” “Maybe I was being too idealistic.” “Others have more time for this stuff than God can expect from me.”

But what if the experience of frustration, far from being grounds for quitting, were actually an essential part of the journey. What greater distance could we travel if our first resolve was to never let go of our initial hopes? Discouragement would then be just a temporary but necessary state that we only have to bear with until the next updraft.

Experience teaches us that if we hold on to our first hope, courage will likely return and once again fuel our faith into action. Like rocket science, perseverance will pay off and, sooner or later, our spiritual hopes will break free from the forces of gravity that keep them earthbound.

We must not break the strings nor throw out the lute when we find a discord; we must bend our ear to find where the disorder comes from, and then gently tighten or relax the string as required.

-St. Frances de Sales

Questions:

1.    How do you respond to spiritual discouragements in your life? How long does it take you to get back on track again?  What helps?

2.    What helps you sustain your vision for the spiritual life after the initial enthusiasm is gone?

3.    Which of the responses to discouragement in paragraph 4 do you most relate to?  Do you “feel more hesitant to ever make such resolutions again lest you risk failure?” Do you “rationalize your setback in a way that makes genuine enthusiasm less possible?”  Other responses?

Prayer: Consider a recent burst of enthusiasm you’ve had for the spiritual life.  What stage are you at now?  Ask God to help you sustain the vision to which He is calling you to.  Ask for the gift of sustained hope and perseverance.

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© 2009 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT


33.  “Is it from God Just Because it Feels Good?”

For Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. 2 Cor.11:14

Do hardships, closed doors, persecution, or inner turmoil mean that you are moving away from the Lord’s direction in your life? Maybe, maybe not. Does the experience of inner peace, of all things coming together, of unimpeded progress necessarily mean that the Lord is blessing your life’s direction? Maybe, maybe not. How we experience our life’s circumstances, in itself, is not enough to determine whether we are on the right path or not. So taught St. Ignatius of Loyola who wisely recognized that our relative experiences of peace or disquiet in life might have as much to do with which direction we are facing than with the leading of the Lord. Our enemy can just as easily lead us through experiences of both peace or disquiet.  St. Ignatius, in his Spiritual Exercises, puts it this way,

Both the good angel and the evil spirit can give consolation to a soul, but for quite different purposes. The good angel consoles for the progress of the soul, that it may advance and rise to what is more perfect. The evil spirit consoles for purposes that are the contrary.

All consolations are not necessarily from God and it is important that we not run too far ahead on that assumption. The Spiritual Exercises counsels that if we are in a state of consolation we should continue to discern the effect this state of soul is having on us throughout the evolution of its fruit. It is quite possible that something which starts off as a consolation can later lead us astray. At times, according to Ignatius, the “evil angel” can even appear to be walking in agreement with our virtues only to be better able to pervert them later.

It is a mark of the evil spirit to assume the appearance of an angel of light. He begins by suggesting thoughts that are suited to a devout soul, and ends by suggesting his own.

On its own, an experience of peace does not give us enough information to determine whether it is the Lord who is leading us or not. We need to also ask which direction we are facing at the time of the experience. This, more than anything else, will determine how we experience either the influence of God or the influence of an evil spirit. Are we in a season of drawing nearer to God, or are we moving away from God? Our experiences of the good spirit or the evil spirit will differ accordingly. According to St. Ignatius, whenever there is vitality in our spiritual direction we will likely experience the actions of both spirits as follows,

In souls that are progressing to greater perfection, the action of the good angel is delicate, gentle, delightful. It may be compared to a drop of water penetrating a sponge. The action of the evil spirit upon such souls is violent, noisy and disturbing. It may be compared to a drop of water falling on a stone.

However, if we are moving away from God, Ignatius observes how we will experience the very opposite.

In souls that are going from bad to worse, the action of the spirits as mentioned above is just the reverse. The reason for this is due to either the opposition or similarity of these souls to the different kinds of spirits. When the disposition of the soul is contrary to that of the spirit, they appear to enter in with noise and com- motion that are easily perceived. When the disposition is similar to that of the spirits, they enter silently, as one coming into his own house when the doors are open.

Depending on which spiritual direction we are facing we will appear more or less hospitable to the Spirit of God—either welcoming His gentle promptings and corrections, or else feeling irritated or at odds with His counsel. The same is true of the evil spirit. One way or another, we are inevitably spiritual hosts. And being honest about which direction we are facing can at least give us opportunity to wisely discern which spirits we are to welcome, and which ones we should be inhospitable to.

Questions:

1.    Do we consider our feelings of well-being in the spiritual life as necessarily coming from God?  How might our enemy take advantage of that presumption?

2.    Can you tell if you are presently in a season of drawing near to or away from God?  According to Ignatius, how might you interpret your experience of God differently depending on the direction you are facing?

3.    What assurance do you have that the spirit you are experiencing is truly from God?  What effects would we expect from a spirit of consolation that comes from God?  What effects would a spirit coming from our enemy eventually produce in us?

Prayer: Ask God to search you and help you honestly see which direction you are facing.  Are you growing towards God or more lukewarm in your love for God?  As you consider the areas in your life where you are experiencing peace, ask the Lord if these consolations are leading you to a greater love of God or of self.

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© 2009 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT


34.  “Braced for Growth”

Train a child in the way he should go.    Prov. 22:6

One way or another, life grows. We have very little say in the fact that it grows, but we do have say in how it grows. In other words we have opportunity, as Scripture encourages, to train our life—like one would train a child—in the way it should go.

Once, in a class on spiritual formation, the instructor brought in a miniature bonsai tree to help us understand how spiritual growth is encouraged. For aesthetic as well as other reasons, limbs on a bonsai tree are trained to grow in certain ways, and discouraged from growing in others. The analogy to spiritual life is obvious.

The way a particular growth pattern in a bonsai tree is encouraged is by wiring the branches in such a way that they are pulled, as they grow, in the desired direction. It’s a slow but sure process that trains the tree by channeling its growth in a preferred direction. In order to protect the branches and to ensure that the desired outcome is achieved there are important rules to follow when wiring bonsai trees.

Here are five important lessons I’ve learned about wiring a bonsai tree that also aptly apply to spiritual direction:

• The wire needs to remain in place for at least three months in order for the branch to become trained in the new direction. During this time the wire should never become loose.

• Care must be taken to ensure that, as the tree grows, the wire does not bite into it, causing scarring. It can take many years for wire damage to grow out. The wiring should be constantly adjusted, as growth takes place, in order to avoid this.

• Wiring works by bending the wood to the point of stressing and purposely damaging some of the cells in the former bend. The tree, while repairing the damage, now grows back according to the new shape imposed on it by the wire.

• It is pointless and potentially damaging to wire an unhealthy tree. If you wire a tree that is not in full vigour it might be unable to complete the repair and you could end up harming the branch.

• You should never wire a bonsai tree that has just been repotted. It’s also important to give a tree adequate time to recover from one wiring before you begin another.

The Book of Proverbs encourages us to “train a child in the way he should go.” We apply this wisdom to ourselves as we learn to adopt beneficial “habits of the heart” that help channel our growth in a preferred direction. In the example of a miniature bonsai tree, God shows us how easy it is to take a branch that is growing in one direction, and train it to grow in another. It’s simply a matter of learning how to keep beneficial patterns in place long enough that they become the new norms for your life.

Questions:

1.    What “wires” do you presently have in place that are directing your spiritual growth?  Are they helping or hindering your growth?  Are they too loose to be really productive?  Or are they perhaps too tight?

2.    Do you have spiritual scars in your life from wires that have been too tight on you in the past?

3.    Do you feel strong enough at present to take on a new spiritual discipline, or would you be wise to wait until you have more spiritual vitality?

Prayer: Consider how these prayer principles apply to your life.  Ask God to show you what “training” He is encouraging in you these days.  What wires would He have you tighten and which ones loosen?

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© 2009 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT


35.  “Slaves, Servants or Friends?”

Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long.     Ps. 119:97

In Theologia Germanica, a 14th-century manuscript that Martin Luther considered second only to the Bible, the anonymous author speaks of four different relationships one can have to the law. It’s easy to recognize aspects of ourselves in each of these four dispositions, and perhaps this medieval wisdom can help us understand what it means to be in right relationship to God’s precepts.

The author presents the first relationship as that of a person who sees the law as a regrettable, but necessary constraint in life. People who have this type of relationship with laws, be they civil, spiritual or self-prescribed, try to have as little as possible to do with them, seeing them as a hindrance that they would rather avoid in life. They acknowledge the law, but wish it weren’t there.

The second relationship to laws and precepts is the one that assumes reward, as in the case of the person who thinks of gaining credit or approval by keeping them. People who follow this second way are unfortunately also the ones who most live in fear of breaking a law. Rules and disciplines become for them an external taskmaster and they fear the consequences of stepping out of line with what has been prescribed. The burden of obedience is heavy for these people and they need to be encouraged towards a different disposition. As the author of the Theologia Germanica writes, “to serve God and to live for Him is easy to whoever does it for love, but it is hard and wearisome to anyone who does it for hire” (TG 38) We must always remember that Jesus invites us to be His friends, not His slaves.

A third way of relating to the law is to simply ignore it—to side step it completely as though it were not needed, or did not apply to our lives—an approach that neither the author, nor the Scriptures recommend. This form of anarchy mocks those, including God, who value laws and ordinances, by attempting to “enter the gate” by some other means than the demands of obedience that Jesus Himself modeled for us.

The fourth and preferred way is that practiced by those who follow the law, not for reward, nor from any constraint or guilt, but because they recognize that the law is good. They obey God’s precepts for the simple reason that they love the ways of the Lord. Like the psalmist, their disposition in life is one that proclaims, “Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long.” (Ps. 119:97)

In this disposition, Jesus recognizes us acting as friends of the law, not as hirelings. In agreement with God—that His law is good—we finally experience the relational freedom that friends are meant to enjoy.

You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. John 15:14-15

Questions:

1.    When it comes to your relationship to prayer, Scripture or church, in what ways are you motivated, even unconsciously, by a fear of what might happen if you didn’t practice these disciplines?  Is this necessarily a bad thing?  In what ways does that put you in the disposition of a slave, fearful of the consequences of disobedience?

2.    In what ways are you perhaps motivated by an expectation of rewards?  Is this necessarily bad?  What type of relationship to God does this imply?

3.    In what ways do you see yourself motivated in your relationship with God by love?  How does this compare, especially from God’s perspective, with the other two dispositions?

Prayer: As you come to prayer ask yourself why you are doing this.  Ask the Holy Spirit to lead you, in your disposition to the spiritual life, to the relationship that God truly desires to have with you. _________________________________________________ © 2009 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT

 

36.  “Losing Our Center”

Now He was telling them a parable to show that at all times they ought to pray and not to lose heart. (or, “not to faint,” KJV) Luke 18:1(NASB)

Like most of us, when it comes to keeping a tab on my soul I seem to be prone to chronic spiritual amnesia. Jesus, in this passage, prescribes an antidote for this type of forgetfulness—“at all times they ought to pray.” Prayer, the Lord teaches us, helps keep our spiritual heart at the forefront of our lives. It keeps us from falling asleep or fainting by helping us stay awake to the fact of our souls.

Often, when I am in prayer, I feel that I am recovering something essential to my being. Prayer helps me return to a place of truth that I had wandered away from without even knowing it. Only after I have once again found myself in this way do I realize how absent I have been from my true self. Maybe it’s from overly identifying with my thought life, or perhaps it’s the busy pace of a day that is at fault, but it seems that awareness of my spirit-life often follows the old adage of “out of sight, out of mind.”

The focus of prayer helps me identify once again what and where my soul is. As I rediscover my “heart of hearts” I am reminded of its place as the centre of who I really am. It seems that God has to keep recovering this basic truth for me—that I come from a much deeper place within myself than I think I do. I also sense that, ultimately, the Lord wants me to be operating from this deeper place at all times.

Prayer cultivates sensitivity to the spiritual life that is always active at the core of our being. It’s no wonder that Jesus tells us that we ought to always pray—so that we won’t lose sight of what is essential to our lives. This is the prescription that the Great Physician recommends for the recovery of our souls. We would be wise to follow it and even wiser, once we have recovered our heart, to learn how to not lose it again.

Prayer makes us realize how far from God we were. P.T. Forsyth

Questions:

1.    What other centers do we find ourselves at times operating from besides our “heart of hearts?”

2.    The book of Proverbs tells us “above all guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of your life (Prov. 4:23).   How is your heart the “wellspring of your life?”  What clutters up this wellspring so that it no longer flows freely?   In what ways can you “guard your heart” from such clutter?

3.    What might the disposition of being “always at prayer” look like for you in your day?

Prayer: Take time to commit your intentions to God regarding the direction you wish to see yourself more established in.  Ask the Lord to help you remember and to consistently choose a more heart-centered life.

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© 2009 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT


37.  “When the Well Runs Dry”

Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life. Prov. 13:12

The experience of prayer can sometimes be discouraging, even for those who are quite disciplined at it. We wrestle time out of our busy day to finally show up for that long-promised appointment with God. We offer ourselves to the Lord, and then we spend the next 20 minutes or so in an endless variety of thoughts that we could just as easily have had while driving or doing the dishes. We come to the discouraging conclusion that not only do we not know how to pray, but neither have we the will nor motivation to lead ourselves to the place of learning. Prayer seems impossible and we feel like giving up rather than subjecting ourselves to any further discouragement. Though such an experience always appears as a failure, it is also a very normal and predictable stage towards a deeper and more truthful relationship with God.

The inability to pray as we would want to is a common experience, but there is a tendency to see this failure as conclusive, and we need to be careful to avoid this misinterpretation. The ancients referred to this despairing tendency as acedia, the temptation to assess your spiritual progress negatively and then to give up. Acedia, or the “noon-day devil” as it’s sometimes called, is a spirit of discouragement that afflicts the soul by sapping it of its strength to persevere. Our hopes for prayer are disappointed and our heart is sickened, resulting in spiritual languor. The very thought of God becomes a burden to us.

Spiritual languor is a dis-ease of the soul that mostly affects the will. It weakens our attempts to pray, and quenches our hope of persevering in the spiritual life. The desire to pray may still be present but the power and will to do so seem absent. In the end, even the desire to pray starts fading. Proverbs 13:12 recognizes that when we lose hope, we feel ill. But, curiously enough, this fact is also the surest evidence that all is not without hope. The very reason that the heart is sickened is that it recognizes the terrible loss that languor represents. And it grieves this loss. The discomfort we feel in this state is proof enough of the Holy Spirit’s presence and continuing activity in the soul’s desire for prayer. As St. John of the Cross observed,

It is clear that this darkness does not come from lukewarmness because the very nature of lukewarmness is that it does not care, nor is concerned with the things of God. In the ebb and flow of our spiritual lives, it is important to recognize how the Holy Spirit uses seasons of languor in order to help strengthen and purify our desire for God. We should not measure our spiritual life only according to times of light, warmth, joy and fruitful activity.

Times of impasse, of coldness towards God, of darkness and grief at the apparent loss of contact with the Lord are also active forces in our spiritual formation.

In times of spiritual languor it is important that we avoid the temptation to jump to hasty conclusions—especially if they’re based solely on our own interpretation of the experience. Faith and patience, even in the midst of apparent failure, are always our best and most fruitful recourse.

Questions:

1.    How would you describe your own experience of a discouraging prayer time?  What unhelpful conclusions might such experiences sometimes lead you to?

2.    How do you relate to the idea of it being a sickness of the heart when even the thought of God, or prayer, or Scripture reading feels like a burden?  What are some of the good or bad ways you’ve seen yourself respond to these feelings with?

3.    What encouragement does it bring to you to consider that the very fact that you grieve the loss of your spiritual vitality is a sign that you haven’t lost it?

Prayer: Consider the particular quality of faith and patience that times of spiritual languor require of you.  If you are presently in such a time ask God to help you accept this dryness as a place of purification.  If not, consider how, in anticipation of your next period of dryness, you will respond to your inability to pray or seek God as you wish or ought to.

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© 2009 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT


38.  “Does God Curtail Our Spirits?”

Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me. Psalm 51:12

Acedia, or spiritual languor, is an experience that is especially common for people at the beginning stages of trying to establish a discipline of prayer in their lives. They have a desire to pray but are not able to be consistent in focusing their will in order to persevere in this desire. To feel discouragement at this stage is understandable. But people with a disciplined prayer life can also experience an erosion of their will-to-pray. For them, the reasons for spiritual languor are often mysterious, and perhaps more related to God’s direct activity within their souls than to their own lack of initiative.

Matthew the Poor, a Coptic contemplative, says that one of the reasons God allows us to experience spiritual languor might be in order to curtail an over-ambitious soul. This can apply to us at any stage of our pilgrimage, whenever we are tempted to turn our spiritual hopes into spiritual goals. He suggests that such a soul might be attempting to go beyond its ability to endure, beyond that which its foundations can stand. We can sometimes ask for, or expect, spiritual experiences and knowledge beyond our present needs or capacity. When such presumptions fail us we feel discouraged. We find our spiritual reserves exhausted from having overextended ourselves.

Spiritual languor, in this context, can actually be seen as a gift of mercy as God protects us from the spiritual pride that would result if we were to claim spiritual heights that we are not yet ready for. Weakness of the will then serves to bring the soul back to the lowly steps of a beginner. It should be welcomed as a merciful corrective that empties the soul of self-willed ambition. It also re-establishes the right order of relationship between our spiritual disciplines and our experience of God.

One of the particular dangers of a disciplined spiritual life is to presume that diligence and faithfulness to our spiritual practices are directly linked to our relationship with God, as though they somehow qualify us for the love and grace of God. If that is the case, rather than allow us to persist in such an illusion, God is obliged to deprive the soul of its own energy and will in order to challenge our faulty premises.

The discipline we apply to the pursuit of God is not the price we pay for His love and acceptance, but only a response to these. Whenever God withdraws the grace of zeal from us and the soul loses the power and energy to be disciplined in its spiritual work, the spiritual poverty that results can serve to correct a misunderstanding of the relationship that binds the soul to God.

How can we know if these correctives apply to our present state of soul? Perhaps the very questions we ask ourselves when we feel tepid in our spirits are what most reveal the presumptions of relationship that we are dealing with. Has God forsaken me? Is it because of my sin? Have I provoked God to anger by my sloth and laziness? Is my prayer no longer acceptable to Him? Each of these questions reveals a faulty premise with regards to who is in response to Whom.

 

It is easy to believe that, if we no longer have a will for God, God no longer has a will towards us. This is what happens when we are tempted by acedia.

Questions:

1.    What discouragements do you experience that seem to become obstacles to a more consistent prayer life?

2.    How do you usually interpret what this implies about you or your relationship with God?

3.    When you consider other reasons for this discouragement besides your own neglect or lack of willpower how do you relate to the following possibilities: ·    God might be curtailing an over-ambitious zeal in you ·    You might be expecting too much, too soon from yourself in terms of spiritual capacity ·    God is protecting you from the pride of spiritual achievement ·    You have wrongly equated your spiritual discipline as an indicator of your relationship with God

Prayer: Ask God for a discerning spirit, to tell the difference between what is the result of being lukewarm or negligent, or the result of His direct hand on limiting your capacity for prayer for the sake of humility.  Prayerfully consider how God is calling you to respond to either of these reasons.

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© 2009 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT


39.  “Images of the Spiritual Life”

Then Jesus said, “What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to?” Luke 13:18

It is difficult, if not impossible, to describe the spiritual life directly. You have to “tell it slant,” allude to it, use metaphor, allegory, poetry and other imagery. Even Jesus, when speaking of the spiritual life, often seemed constrained to similes in describing the kingdom of God as “like this” or “like that.”

How do you picture your own spiritual life? What metaphors do you use when interpreting your experience of God? Evelyn Underhill, in her classic book on mystical theology, refers to three of the most common symbols of the spiritual life: the Pilgrim, the Lover and the Alchemist. You might recognize your own metaphor in these.

The first symbol, the Pilgrim, describes the Abrahamic quest. It appeals to our longing to go out from the “normal world” in search of an anticipated “home” or promised land. Examples in literature include Dante’s Divine Comedy, or John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. In these, the soul is seen as outward bound, journeying towards an anticipated goal. Its destination, or home, is something perceived in the distance. The intuition for the Pilgrim is one that interprets the spiritual cravings of the heart as indicating the longing for a “Place.”

The symbol of the Lover on the other hand identifies a different interpretation of this longing—one of “heart for heart,” of the soul for its perfect mate, of love for its lover. The idea of betrothal and marriage is one of its common allegories. The spiritual temperament in this disposition is that of deep desire for an intimate and personal relationship with God. This intuition is one that understands the spiritual cravings as indicating a ‘Person.’

That the imagery of human love and marriage should be enlisted as a metaphor for the spiritual life is, of course, natural. In the Song of Songs, the bride and bridegroom can represent the progression of the soul’s surrender to the embrace of Perfect Love—from attraction, to knowledge, to growing intimacy, to union. It parallels the sequence of states through which our spiritual consciousness unfolds in its progress towards intimacy.

Where the Pilgrim responds to the “seek and ye shall find” promises of Scripture, and the Lover follows the desires and passions of love, the Alchemist longs more for a transformation of the soul. He is guided by Jesus’ promise, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” The symbol of the alchemist represents the inward search for purity—the “Magnus Opus,” or “Great Work of the Soul,” where the need to be born again, or regenerated, is the first necessity. Paul calls it a matter of exchanging the old man for the new.

Alchemy is the art of purification—bringing forth the latent “gold” which lies obscure in the metal, or in the self. The longing for righteousness, perfection and sanctification in the spiritual life is a response to the call to “be holy as I am holy.” The intuition of the Alchemist understands the spiritual cravings as mostly indicating a “State of Soul.”

These three images are of course only partial descriptions of the subjective experience of spiritual life. Which ones best represent your present experience? Consider how exploring some aspects of the other metaphors might enrich your interpretation of the spiritual life. Of course none of these symbols are exclusive, and we perhaps all share elements from each. But they are helpful to consider as we appreciate the variety of spiritual experiences that are identified in us through such imagery.

Questions:

1.    Which metaphor best represents how you understand your relationship to the spiritual life?

2.    How do you relate to the other images of longings?  Is there one that you feel particularly resistant to for some reason?

3.    How do you imagine other people in your life might relate to these three images of the spiritual life?  How might this help you better understand what moves them to pursue God?

Prayer: Take time in prayer to form a relationship to the metaphor that you are least familiar with.  Consider others who relate to God in these ways and how you might better empathize with their longings through understanding what motivates their spiritual lives. _________________________________________________ © 2009 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT


40.  “Embracing Our Poverty”

Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Matt. 5:3

The assurances we hear in the Beatitudes—that the hungry will be filled, that those who mourn will be comforted, and that the meek will be victorious—can sound like “pie in the sky” being offered to those who have no other hope on earth. But to see them as invitations through which Jesus calls us and reveals to us important identifiers of the spiritual life would be a more likely interpretation.

St. Francis of Assisi certainly understood the human predicament in these terms. He knew, firsthand, how we are fundamentally incomplete, fragile and broken people. It would be easy to think that such a state of affairs is a serious problem that needs correcting. But anyone who has studied the saint’s teaching knows that his description of humanity refers not only to our starting point, but to the end we must accept as well.

According to St. Francis, the most accurate theological definition of the human race is that it is made up of people who are “striken with egoistic tendencies, always tempted to affirm themselves as self-sufficient.” Francis identifies this as resulting in them “abandoning themselves far too often and disfiguring the image according to which they have been fashioned.”

But, according to St. Francis, there is also good news in this diagnosis. Jesus, in the Beatitudes, has proposed for us a way of conversion. He invites us to embrace our poverty—our fragile, broken and incomplete self—as not only the beginning, but also as the end of our spirituality. In order to enter into the full blessing (literally, the “happiness”) of the Beatitudes we must, according to Francis, learn to both “experience and assume the radical poverty of our being.” To adopt this tack will immediately challenge the direction that most of our efforts at sanctification take.

Most of us have spent years, and much psychological energy, trying to distance ourselves from the poverty of our being. Or we have tried to correct our inconsistencies on our own. We tend to see our brokenness as a temporary problem, an impediment that we hope to overcome on the road to true freedom.

But if Jesus, in the Beatitudes, is teaching us the proper disposition of blessing, then our attempts to undo the poverty of our being might actually be spiritual energy spent in the wrong direction. If Jesus is right, we should be learning instead how to accept, even to embrace, our deficiencies rather than trying to distance ourselves from them. Like it or not, they are the truth of who we presently are.

The call of the Beatitudes is to a radical change of agenda from how we normally understand our spiritual direction. This is the call—to deeply experience and to assume as our spiritual path a growing acceptance of the incompleteness of who we are. This is the call—to welcome our fragility and so discover a new type of blessing that we have perhaps never known.

Jesus sees our poverty as blessed. This is reason enough to embrace the teaching of the saints in this matter.

Questions:

1.    Would you agree with Francis’ observation that we are a people who are “striken with egoistic tendencies, always tempted to affirm themselves as self-sufficient?”  How does this tendency rob us of the blessing of peace that Jesus gives to those who are poor in spirit?

2.    How easy or difficult is it for you to “embrace your poverty”—your fragile, broken and incomplete self?  Can you accept it, not only in resignation or as something to eventually overcome, but as an end in itself?

3.    In what ways have you tried to distance yourself unhelpfully from your own poverty of being?  How does this serve to disfigure, as Francis suggests, the image of God in us?

Prayer: Consider, in prayer, the call of the Beatitude —to deeply experience and to assume as your spiritual path a growing acceptance of the incompleteness of who you are —to welcome your fragility and so discover a new type of blessing that you have perhaps never known. _________________________________________________ © 2009 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT

41.  “God’s Timing”

The wise heart will know the proper time and procedure. For there is a proper time and procedure for every matter. Eccl. 8:5-6

Throughout his ministry, Oswald Chambers, the author of My Utmost for His Highest followed a daily motto to simply “trust God and do the next thing.” He was comfortable with the fact that he could not see the whole picture, and in the knowledge that the journey can just as easily be made by a thousand small steps as by a few giant leaps. This is the type of wisdom that faith inspires.

Faith rests in the knowledge that the Lord has already prepared a path for us to walk each day. If we just wait long enough, it will reveal itself. We might not know where this path is leading us. We might not even like where it’s going. But there is definitely a path for each one of us to walk, and Jesus has identified it as none other than Himself—the Way.”

Seeking and waiting for Jesus each day is how we come to know “the proper time and procedure for each matter.”  The book of Proverbs agrees with the wisdom of patience when it comes to finding our path. In Prov. 4:26 we are encouraged to “make level paths for your feet and take only ways that are firm.” There are many times when we must wait for the dust of confusion to settle before the way can be revealed to us. To start walking any sooner, on what is still rough and uncertain terrain, is seen as foolishness.

Wisdom knows that it is best to wait until “the proper time and procedure” is revealed before moving ahead.  To wait on God, of course, is a test of our faith. It means staring into the void and feeling secure enough to do nothing about it. We are not very comfortable with uncertainties. We often panic when we don’t know what to do. And in our anxiety we feel compelled to take any action rather than no action at all. But the contemplative life encourages us to give proper time for things to unfold before we act. New information will show up tomorrow that you could not possibly have known today. Your own disposition and state of soul will be different an hour from now than it is at present.

There are patterns of direction to all things in life and they will emerge in their own time. You will know which way is firm, and the proper time and procedure for every matter. And, until you do, you are counseled to wait.

Questions:

1.    Do you believe that, in your life, the Lord has already prepared a path for you to walk each day?  How does trusting this to be true change how you interpret and approach your day?

2.    What does the alternative to trusting this look like in your life?

3.    What effect does seeking and waiting for God’s way produce in you?  Impatience?  Confidence?  Anxiety?  Faith?

Prayer: Is there a situation in your life where God is telling you that you should “make level paths for your feet, and take only ways that are firm?”  Take time in prayer to confess how your faith and trust are challenged in this.  Ask God for the peace that comes to those who truly trust that He is directing their lives. _________________________________________________ © 2009 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT


 

42. “Worthless Desires”

Each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed.

James. 1:14

To appreciate how this passage applies to spiritual direction and to the purification of our desires we need to first redeem the word “evil” from its usual associations with morality. The Greek word that James uses here is kakos. This word for “evil” does not necessarily describe the moral quality of something as much as the negative effect it has. What makes something evil is that it is injurious in its effect, making something worth less than it could be. In this sense, an “evil” desire is one that takes away from the spiritual potential of our better desires. Its association with sin, then, is also in the sense that it causes us to “miss the mark” or fall short of the prize.

The apostle James exhorts us to take stock of the inordinate desires that lure us away from the God-given goals that our purer desires are otherwise calling us to. Jesus’ temptation in the desert, for example, was an attempt to lure Him away from the better focus of His life, i.e. to entice Him to miss the mark and fall short of the prize.

Some desires are more worthwhile than others. If we follow every one of our desires indiscriminately we will make a rabbit trail of our lives. Our lesser desires will entice us towards lesser goals, and cause us to lose sight of the noble vision we once had for ourselves. But, if we endeavour to fan the flame of our God-given desires, it will lead us to a deeper experience of relationship with the Divine “object” of our longings.

Lord, lead us not into temptation, but deliver us

from worthless things.

Questions:

1.How does a wider definition of the word “evil” help you see its effect of fruitlessness in your life?

2.How do “worthless desires” entice you?How do they drag you away from what is more noble in you?

3.What criteria might you use to distinguish between the lesser desires that compete with your more noble ones?

Prayer:Ask God for the attentiveness to recognize the enticement of worthless desires in your life, and the wisdom to know which ones will lead to noble ends and which ones will dissipate your soul.

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© 2009 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT

43. “Prepared to Serve”

The disciples asked him privately, “Why couldn’t we drive (the evil spirit) out?” He replied, ‘This kind can come out only by prayer and fasting.’

Mark 9:28-29

The Lord gives us wonderful gifts with which to serve others. But if these gifts are not vitally connected to the Giver of our gifts, we will likely fall flat on our faces in terms of our effectiveness. This is the hard lesson the disciples had to learn.

God has empowered us to influence the world for good, but let us not underestimate the inner work that is required in order for our outer works to bear their intended fruit. The type of spiritual transformation that we are meant to be agents of in this world can only come about by diligence in remaining close to God—the “prayer and fasting” that Jesus prescribes.

To be spiritually applied in this world requires that we give ourselves not only to the needs of the world around us, but also to God. We must tend to both the horizontal and vertical necessities of each. Only that which comes from God can truly serve God in this world. In order for us to be spiritually effective in our influence He must be the source of our empowerment. The disciples’ failure here is an object lesson for us all to heed.

In the story that precedes this passage from Mark, Jesus has just spent the night on the Mount of Transfiguration with Peter, James and John. In His absence, the remaining disciples have been dealing with a concerned father who has brought his son, possessed by an evil spirit, in the hope of receiving healing. The disciples, though initially buoyed by their recent successes in healing and casting out demons on their own, are unable to help. They appear as fakes to the scribes and mockers who deride them. To the father who had put his faith in them, this seems to be nothing but a cruel hoax. The disciples are speechless, humiliated by their spiritual impotence and exposed as much less than their reputation among the villagers had promised.

In John 15, Jesus speaks of a branch that is severed from the vine which, now withered, is only good to be thrown away. Surely these words must be resonating in the disciples’ thoughts. But Jesus’ parable also provides the antidote to their ineffectiveness. Remain in me and you will bear much fruit..

The lesson that this failure taught the disciples is that of the importance of preparation. It’s a lesson we have to learn over and over again, usually through the humbling experience of our own of failures. Lord, why aren’t we more successful in our ministry? Why do I feel so spiritually impotent? Why does the church seem so ineffective in bringing about spiritual change in the world? This kind can only come out by prayer and fasting.

Questions:

  1. In what ways have you felt like you have failed in your attempts to serve God?
  2. How do you understand the relationship between the inner work of your preparation and the outer work of your application in life?
  3. If, as this meditation suggests, “only that which comes from God can truly serve God in this world” how might we better prepare ourselves to serve the needs around us?

Prayer:Take time to pray, for no other reason than to prepare yourself for God’s service.Receive from the Lord, the very Spirit by which you will serve Him in your day.

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© 2009 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT

44. “Doing the Word we Hear”

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does.

James 1:22-25

For decades I’ve been attracted to the vocation of a painter. I am a reasonably good amateur watercolourist. I’ve had exhibits, sold paintings, been affirmed by others in this and enjoy seeing my works up on the walls of friends. But the busy-ness of life and other priorities have, for many years, made it impossible to realistically call myself a practicing artist.

Whenever I visit galleries and see beautiful works that others have created, I often leave with a great sense of excitement and vision for the type of art I might be capable of producing myself, if I could only find the time. I recognize, in the joy I experience viewing the work of other artists, an invitation to find that same profound potential within myself. But that joy will never, on its own, lead me to becoming a good artist. The only way I will ever reach this aspiration is by getting down to some serious painting.

Many people feel a similar attraction to the contemplative life and practice. It represents something of the state of soul their hearts long for as they recognize their own desires in the writings of the saints, especially in the descriptions of the intimacy they enjoy with God. God has placed such a cloud of witnesses all around us, but it is important that we not confuse firsthand experience with what is secondhand. God’s invitation is not to live vicariously, but to enjoy directly the experience of the Spirit that is uniquely ours. As A.W. Tozer put it, we are each called “to push into sensitive living experience into the Holy Presence of God.” And more and more people, it seems, are hearing this call.

Anyone browsing the latest titles in a Christian bookstore will recognize that there is a growing interest in spirituality. As Eugene Peterson observes in his Christ Plays In Ten Thousand Places, In our times “spirituality” has become a major business for entrepreneurs, a recreational sport for the bored, and for others, whether many or few, a serious and disciplined commitment to live deeply and fully in relation to God.

Though it gives us cause to hope that a growing interest in the spiritual life will translate into spiritual fruit, this is not necessarily the case any more than an increase in people attending art galleries will produce a crop of artists. Reading book after book can give us the illusion of spiritual growth, but it will never amount to the transformation that spiritual practice offers to anyone who “does what the word says.” The desire that inflames the heart whenever we hear or read about intimacy with God must somehow translate into our own journeying in the direction of that intimacy. James’ encouragement—to be doers and not only hearers of the word—certainly applies to the call to “push into sensitive living experience into the Holy Presence of God.”

For those who already enjoy a regular discipline of prayer, the apostle John assures you (1Jn 2:27, below) that you are in the place of instruction whereby the Holy Spirit will continue to lead you directly into all the subtleties of this relationship. For those who are not yet able to enjoy such a regular discipline in their lives, may your longing for such be the prayer and hope that God has claimed you for this end.

As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit—just as it has taught you, remain in him.

1 John 2:27

Questions:

1.What excites your heart with joy for the spiritual life?What are the “mirrors” that remind you of your heart’s deep desire for God?

2.In what ways might we confuse the mirror of second-hand experience for the reality of our own?How might a vicarious experience of the spiritual life actually serve to distract you from that which is uniquely yours?

3.What challenges might you face as you try to personally “push into sensitive living experience into the Holy Presence of God?”

Prayer:Consider your own relationship to 1John 2:27.Ask the Holy Spirit for confidence in the unique teaching God brings to you through the circumstances and understanding of your own experienceof the spiritual life.

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© 2009 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT

45. “Uprooting Bad Growth”

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

Psalm 139:23-24

The values of prayer are many. Anyone who practices it enjoys the assurance of Divine relationship in all aspects of their lives. It gives them hope in their petitions, a path through the uncertainties of life, and a real sense of participation with God’s purposes in the world. Prayer also leads us to wisdom and self-knowledge. It is the laboratory where the subtleties of the spiritual life are closely examined, and where we can hope to discern the mysterious forces that move us to think and act as we do. Prayer is also the place of new beginnings—where life gets birthed, fresh from the Word. In so many ways prayer is a wellspring of spiritual growth. But one of the often unheralded benefits of prayer is that it also prevents certain things from growing. It is a place where bad growth is curtailed.

Growth happens imperceptibly, especially bad growth—the negative attitudes we cultivate, the prejudices we develop, the priorities we misplace, and the misinterpretations of God’s will that can cause us to gradually wander from the truth. Without prayer these harmful growths go unchecked. Prayer is the place of pruning where such things are nipped in the bud. It prevents them from ever taking root in us.

In prayer we ask God to examine all aspects of our lives in order to avoid such errors. Like shining a flashlight in a dark basement we look into this corner and that one, holding all things up to God to see if there is anything that needs to be adjusted. “What do you think of this Lord? What about my relationship with so and so? What about this choice or action I made today? What about this attitude I feel growing in me? Is that ok with you? Is everything alright? Is there anything offensive in me?”

Prayer is the place where we get to re-examine and adjust the assumptions we are operating under. It is where we come to have our lives redirected as needed. To ask God daily for verification is the simple ounce of prevention that will make unnecessary the pound of cure that any wrong tangent will eventually require.

Each one should be careful how he builds. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work.

1 Cor. 3:10-14

Questions:

1.How does prayer help you catch “negative growth” that is taking root in you?How can it be a place where we invite God to examine our attitudes and presumptions?

2.How are you perhaps challenged by the thought of God “shining a flashlight” in the dark corners of your basement?Is this something that you welcome or resist?

3.How does daily prayer help us hold our spiritual direction lightly so that, if needed, we can always be redirected by God?

Prayer:Consider the many assumptions that presently define your life.Invite the Lord’s counsel and redirection in all these areas, asking God questions such this meditation suggests:

What do you think of this Lord? What about my relationship with so and so? What about this choice or action I made? What about this attitude I feel growing in me? What do You think? Is everything alright? Is there anything offensive in me?”

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© 2009 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT

46. “I Am Not My Work”

By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.

                                                                                                Gen.  2:2-3

From day one of creation, God’s method has been one of separating, in order to define—making distinctions between darkness and light, the waters above and waters below, the land and the sea, etc. Here too, on the seventh day, God creates an important distinction, this time between work and rest. In so doing He makes a clear separation between Himself and His work. He distinguishes action from being.

Imagine if, on the seventh day, God would have just continued adding more and more amazing feats of creation to His accolades. Imagine if the Genesis story was simply a story about God’s work. It would still be pretty impressive to create a whole universe and set man and history into motion. We would still marvel at God, the Creator. The problem with this story however is that we would naturally identify God in only one mode—that of Worker-Creator. We would see Him as an active God who is forever busy creating. Instead, Scripture makes an important distinction. On the seventh day the Lord rested from His work. In other words, the Lord returned to His first identity—who God is, independent of His work.

Taking rest from work is one of the most affirming statements we can make about the work we do. “It is finished.” “It is good.” “It has its life and I have mine.” It is also one of the most affirming statements that we can make about ourselves. “I am not my work.” We stand apart, in wonderful relationship to it, but not exclusively defined by what we do.

It is good.Sabbath is the place from which we get to practice and cultivate such wonder. In order to do so we need to maintain a healthy sense of objectivity in relation to our work-life. If we focus too closely on success, mastery and competence as the foundation of our being, we easily lose this sense of objective wonder. Our work becomes the justification of our existence, and the phrase, “It is good,” soon begins to imply that “I am good.”

Sabbath, then, is a time for us to cultivate restful objectivity in our relationship to work. It is a God-given opportunity to get rid of the idols we might have created during the week—our inordinate attachments to what we do. God’s exhortation, as well as His example call us to practice times of detachment—to intentionally rest from our work, just as He did from His.

Questions:

1. In what ways does your active life define who you are?How does the success or the competence by which you say “it is good” start implying that “I am good?”

2. How might we, like God, make clear separations between ourselves and our work, between being and doing?How might a greater objectivity allow us to delight even more in the wonder of our work?

3. How does unfamiliarity or even discomfort with the sufficiency of our being cause us to always be striving for something more to define our lives?

Prayer: Take time in prayer to welcome the sufficiency of your being—who you are before you even begin to express yourself in the active life.Then, from the perspective of your ‘first identity” consider anew your relationship to the work you do in the world.

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© 2009 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT

47. “Knowing Your Limits”

Who shut up the sea behind doors when it burst forth from the womb, when I made the clouds its garment and wrapped it in thick darkness, when I fixed limits for it and set its doors and bars in place, when I said, ‘This far you may come and no farther?

Job 38:8-11

The Lord sets limits to all things. This far you may come and no farther. While God calls us to grow, He also places boundaries that limit our growth. If we can accept the fact that there are God-ordained purposes to the limitations of our life we can perhaps be more open to acknowledging them and learning how to work within their constraints.

Our lives are as circumscribed as the contours of the sea. If we could draw a topographical map of the shape of our gifts in terms of the present limits of our capacities, we would recognize what God sees and we would know why our grasp is often much shorter than our reach. This far you may come and no farther. To accept the God-set contours of our lives doesn’t mean settling for mediocrity, nor does it offer divine justification for us to be underachievers, but it does allow us to consider the possibility that limitations, in themselves, are not necessarily problems to overcome on the road to self-fulfillment.

If we consider the vision we perhaps had for ourselves in our youth and compare it to the relatively less impressive life we have since lived, we might feel like we’ve failed in achieving our potential, or that we’ve been short-changed in life. But could it be that God has directed you as much by your limitations as by your potential? Could it be that you are exactly where you are because God didn’t give you the capacity to be anywhere else at this time? And could it be that He sees the limitations of your life more as an opportunity than as an impediment? In directing our lives God is able to use the things we lack as much as the things we have.

Perhaps the Lord has given you a measure of talent, but no more. What is His purpose in this limitation? Perhaps God has given you these few resources to work with, but no more. What is His purpose in this limitation? Perhaps God has given you some opportunities for ministry, but no more. What is the purpose in this limitation? Or perhaps the Lord has given you insight, allowed you to understand this much truth, and no more. What is the purpose of this limitation?

The Lord establishes limits to all things, and Christian theology assumes that freedom is realized through and in relation to such purposeful constraints. It is the narrowness of the river banks, after all, that gives strength to the river.

Questions:

1. How easy is it for you to accept the limitations that God has placed on your life?How are you tempted at times with discouragement or even shame because of the poverty of your God-given finitude?

2. In what ways have you had to adjust your expectation or vision of yourself when confronted with God’s word, “This far you may come and no farther?”

3. How does forming a right relationship to the limitations and finitude of your life make you more free to be who you actually are?

Prayer: Consider the ways that you feel limited in your life and take time to thank God for these constraints.Ask for insight into God’s wisdom and the opportunities for creativity that these limitations provide Him with.

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© 2009 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT

48. “Establishing a New Norm”

The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.Matt. 26:41

It is a dismayingly common experience, having finally settled down to pray, to find that you are not able to do so. The mind seems to suddenly become more active than usual with a thousand concerns, all unrelated to our goal of prayer. Why is this? Is there any hope that we can ever adapt to the Spirit of stillness and become what prayer requires of us? The late psychiatrist and spiritual director Gerald May thought so, and in his book, Addiction and Grace, offered a physiological explanation of what takes place within us as we set out to pray.

Over the course of our lives, each one of us has established what our bodies understand as their “normal” inner disposition—a particular equilibrium that it strives to maintain. Even if the “normal” that we live with is an uncomfortable one, it is the one that we have become accustomed to and any attempt to alter this inner state is going to be met with physiological resistance. We are, in a sense, “addicted” to whatever constitutes our norm and, as Gerald May puts it, “I don’t let that normality change without a struggle.” He identifies the struggle involved in any attempt to transform our norms as similar to that of someone withdrawing from an addiction—in this case, an addiction to self.

For many modern spiritual pilgrims, the simple matter of taking time for daily prayer can become a battle of will excruciatingly reminiscent of that encountered in chemical addiction. Issues of control and willpower, surrender and defeat all rage within the drama of a true spiritual warfare. Increasing numbers of us are discovering that we would rather stay the same than experience the real discomfort that becoming peaceful produces in us.

Prayer, by its very nature, encourages an altered state of reference within us. It seeks to establish a new norm. We should not underestimate the withdrawal process that such transformation entails. We have, after all, spent years establishing a “norm” for ourselves, apart from God. As Gerald Mays puts it,

Mediating all the stimuli they receive, the cells of our brains are continually seeking equilibrium, developing patterns of adaptation that constitute what is normal. Thus the more we become accustomed to seeking spiritual satisfaction through things other than God, the more abnormal and stressful it becomes to look to God directly for these.

This logic particularly applies to the abnormal demands that the practice of prayer places on our physiology. It also explains why, at least initially, our bodies register this sudden change of inner state as discomfort. Since we are addicted to a much more active inner life, we naturally have trouble letting go of it as we attempt to enter a state of prayer. As Gerald May notes,

If a person takes a vacation or tries to settle down to pray, the sudden removal of external stress immediately causes the body to generate less stress chemicals. The neurons, having been adapted to high levels of stress chemicals, now react as if something were wrong. They send signals, ironically, of stress to the rest of the body, trying to get things going again.

Prayer is a catalyst for transformation and, for this reason alone, we should anticipate that it will imply a struggle between the flesh and the spirit. Adapting to change will inevitably mean going through the stress of withdrawal from our old normality, until our new one is established.

Questions:

1.  How do you relate to the struggle between “the flesh and the spirit” when it comes to prayer?How would you describe the physiological experience of resistance to prayer?

2.  In what ways do “issues of control, willpower, surrender and defeat” show up as you try to establish peace in your prayer?In what ways can these be seen as symptoms of withdrawal?

3.  How does prayer establish a new norm within you?What do you hope might be possible for your life if that is the case?

Prayer: Take time in prayer to focus on the resistance to peace that you experience.Confess your need for conversion and express your desire to be weaned from the addictive tendencies that keep you from being able to truly rest in God.

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© 2009 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT

49. “Love is Precarious”

I am my Beloved’s and He is mine.Song of Solomon 2:16

Love is possessive, in the best sense of the word. It desires, recognizes and assures us that we belong to the One who loves us, and that the One we love also belongs to us. But this status of “belonging” is not something that we can ever secure for ourselves. It must be given freely by the other person. That is why love, by its very nature, is always precarious.

The word “precarious” is curiously rooted in the same Old Latin word from which we derive the word prayer. It refers to the risk involved when something depends wholly upon the will of another. In other words, to rest in the statement “I am loved by you” means to be in a place of precarious vulnerability, requiring utmost trust of the other person. We need to understand how this applies to our relationship with God, as well as to one another, if we are to appreciate the risk and responsibility that love entails.

It is natural that experiences of fear and vulnerability often accompany the growing edge of love. As we put our lives on the altar of its flame, love demands that we trust the precarious power we have given the other person. This is also the risk that God has taken in granting His creatures the freedom to love Him or not. And it is the risk that any believer must take in trusting that God’s love for us is greater than our fears would imply. The confident assurance expressed in the statement “My beloved is mine, and I am His” represents the victory of such trust over our fears.

Love leads us in the direction of trust through a slow process of transformation as we come to recognize the many layers of fear and insecurities that need to be overcome on the road to “possessing” it. We “possess” love only insofar as we receive it in trust. One of the oldest definitions of the word possess is of something that we “hold, occupy, or reside in.” Resting in love, then, means to reside, or feel at home, in the assurance that we truly belong there.

Questions:

1,  In what ways do you feel anxious about love?How does this apply to the love you seek from God?From others?From yourself?

2.  How does the precariousness of love also apply to God, in His love for us?

3.  What would it require for you to be able to more fully rest in the statement: “I am loved by you?”What unnecessary fears rob you of that assurance?

Prayer: Consider the disposition of trust that is implied by the statement: “My beloved is mine and I am his.”Take time to meditate on how this presently applies to your relationship with God.

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© 2009 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT


50. “The Desire for Innocence”

Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. 2 Cor. 7:10

In the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, there is a story of Abba Sisoes who is lying on his deathbed. He is surrounded by his disciples who see that he appears to be talking to someone. “Who are you talking to Father?,” his disciples ask him. “See,” he replies, “the angels have come to take me and I am asking for a little more time—more time to repent.” “But you have no need to repent,” his disciples say to him.” “Truly” the old man replies, “I am not sure if I have even begun to repent.”

Anticipating the purity of heaven, Abba Sisoes desires more time to repent. He realizes that there are aspects of his life and of his relationship with God that he has been putting off or willfully ignoring and he knows, without a doubt, that he will soon have no further opportunity to deal with these. The heightened awareness that he is about to meet the Lord inspires a heightened desire in him for innocence and truth. And he hopes for more time to respond to the call to repentance. This could be an anxious moment if not for the promise that this type of “godly sorrow” leaves no regret.

Spiritual repentance hones us to the correct measure of heaven’s gate. It chips away the excess that we would otherwise regret. The godly sorrow that becomes our prayer results from the inner workings of the Holy Spirit whose purpose it is to convince us of our sin (John 16:8). And it is to our benefit that we learn how to participate with this merciful agenda. To know our sins in the context of God’s love is to be free from the illusions that otherwise make us complacent and rob us of any real incentive to be holy.

True repentance brings with it a balm that heals our souls. It has nothing to do with self-loathing, which only brings death. If our repentance is taking place in a spirit of hope, its fruit will be freedom, not guilt. St. Ignatius tells us how to discern the opposite effect of “worldly sorrow.” He says that it is characteristic for a negative spirit to “afflict with sadness, to harass with anxiety and to raise obstacles based on false reasoning.” If this is the effect our “worldly” repentance is having on us we can likely suspect that its origin is not in the Holy Spirit.It is the kindness of God that leads us to true repentance (Rom. 2:4). And it is by embracing it as such that we most honour the work of the Holy Spirit within us.

True repentance has a joyful note to it. The ice of

hard-heartedness and self-righteousness has been

broken and spring has entered the heart.

Like a spring breeze the Holy Spirit blows through

the heart enabling it to weep over its sins but to

rejoice in the Lord’s forgiveness and grace.

What a blessed gift repentance is!

Sr. Basilea Schlink

Questions:

1,  In what ways do we put off dealing with aspects of our lives that God is calling us to change?

2.  Consider Jesus’ parable of the presumptuous steward who, sooner than expected, heard the words “This very night your life will be demanded of you” (Luke 12:20).What changes might you wish you would have given more effort to make in your life?

3.  Are you inspired to repentance by the “desire for innocence and truth?”If not how might this desire be kindled in you?

4.  How do you see repentance as God’s way of honing us to the “correct measure of heaven’s gate?” How can we remain open to the conviction of the Spirit in order to more humbly participate with this end?

Prayer: Consider the attitudes, presumptions or illusions that make you complacent and rob you of the incentive to be holy.Ask the Holy Spirit to inspire you with a desire for the beauty of innocence.

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© 2009 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT


51. “Grace in a Critical Environment”

It may be that the LORD will see my distress and repay me with good for the cursing I am receiving today. 2 Sam. 16:12

The story of Shimei, openly cursing David, and of the king’s unexpected response (2 Sam.16:5-14) is one that anyone who is familiar with suffering, with temptation, or who has lived long in a critical environment can certainly learn from. If you haven’t read the story in a while here’s how it goes…

King David has just been usurped by his renegade son, Absalom, who is now on his way to Jerusalem to assume his father’s throne. David is fleeing the city with his officials. As they reach the outskirts of Jerusalem they are met by Shimei, of the same clan as Saul, who boldly curses the king and his entourage, pelting them with stones as they march by.

“Get out, get out, you man of blood, you scoundrel!” he heckles from the roadside. “The LORD has repaid you for all the blood you shed in the household of Saul, in whose place you have reigned. The LORD has handed the kingdom over to your son Absalom. You have come to ruin because you are a man of blood!”

Abishai, one of the King’s commanders says to David, “Why should this dead dog curse my lord the king? Let me go over and cut off his head.” David’s response is not one you would expect from someone who is used to absolute authority. And the way he interprets this situation is both surprising as well as a lesson for any of us who need forbearance in dealing with a sustained negative circumstance.

David tells his commander not to interfere—to let Shimei continue with his curses saying, “If he is cursing because the LORD said to him, ‘Curse David,’ who can ask, ‘Why do you do this?’ Let him curse, for the LORD has told him to.” He then adds, “It may be that the LORD will see my distress and repay me with good for the cursing I am receiving today.”

And so David continues along the road with Shimei following the whole way along a hillside “cursing as he went and throwing stones at him and showering him with dirt (v. 13).” We too know such voices in life that curse and shower us with dirt along the way. Perhaps it’s in the form of difficult trials that can’t be avoided, or perhaps it’s an inner voice that curses us throughout our day. Or it might be a person who always seems critical towards us. There are many irritants that seem to accompany us our whole life and we wish we could somehow shut them up. The thought that these voices might actually be messengers from God is not necessarily the first interpretation that comes to mind.

But David, in one of his nobler moments, believes this to be the case. He is a man, humbled by circumstances, who is prepared to believe that God’s blessing might mysteriously be present in the painful situation that now afflicts him. He even hopes that the Lord might have pity on him, and repay him with good for the suffering he endures today.

The chapter ends with an understandable statement, “The king and all the people with him arrived at their destination exhausted.” We know how such trials of the spirit can harangue us to the point of exhaustion.But the verse continues, “and there he refreshed himself.” If there is a lesson for us in David’s example it is this—that we not be too quick to presume the origin or purpose of the negative spirits in our life. If they are there because God has permitted them, who can say “Why do you do this?” As we bear, in faith, the things that can’t be changed in our lives, perhaps our hope might be like David’s—that the Lord will see our distress and repay us with good for the things we suffer today.

Questions:

1,  How do you usually fare when you find yourself living in a critical environment?How do you respond to personal attacks?

2.  How does David’s acceptance of Shimei’s curses challenge you?What would you need to be able to respond similarly to criticisms?

3.  How would it change the way you receive criticism if you were to interpret this as coming from the Lord?How can we offer even our distress to God in the humility of prayer?

Prayer: If you are presently in a “sustained negative circumstance” pray for the spiritual fruit of forbearance and for the insight to see God’s humbling hand in this.If you are not in such a circumstance pray for grace in anticipation of such inevitable times in your life.

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© 2009 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT

52.  “Zeal for the Spiritual Life”

It is fine to be zealous…and to be so always and not just when I am with you.

Gal. 4:18

There is a bit of a misnomer in the term “spiritual direction,” especially as it applies to the helper who is often called a “spiritual director.” It would be easy to think that a spiritual director is someone who is somehow going to make you grow spiritually. But spiritual direction is more something that you do in between the times of outside guidance. It’s much more accurate to consider the term “spiritual direction” as referring to the path or momentum that, at times, we are in. At other times, it might be quite honest to say that we are without spiritual direction—that we are wandering.

In the Scripture above, Paul tells us to make sure that we maintain our spiritual direction, especially during the in-between times, when we are not at church, or with a mentor, or at a prayer group. It means doing whatever we can to keep our day-to-day lives pointed towards growth in the Lord and not letting ourselves get side-tracked from this direction.

To learn how to remain zealous and focused in a sustained response to God’s invitation is the art of the spiritual life. Once this response is in place in our lives, we can truly say that we are living in the momentum of spiritual direction. Spiritual guidance can then become a helpful ally to your journey.

It takes a lot of energy to get a ship moving but, once it is cutting through the water, a slight adjustment of the rudder is enough to guide it all the way to port. In the same way, a spiritual director, more than being the wind in your sails, is someone who helps you consider the adjustments to your rudder that will help you stay on course. The presumption, however, is that your life is already in motion towards God, or at least, that that is what you are desiring.

Ultimately every believer is invited to find, for themselves, the motivation of love that will encourage them in their daily walk towards God. Neither spiritual directors, mentors, books, prayer partners, nor the church can be any more than outside influences in this. As the folk song goes,

You’ve got to walk that lonesome valley.

You’ve got to walk it on your own.

Nobody else can walk it for you.

You’ve got to walk it on your own.

This necessary “aloneness” is part of the incredible privilege that comes from being uniquely loved by a God who calls us into personal relationship.

Questions:

1,  It’s often been said that “if you give a man a fish you feed him for a day, but if you teach him how to fish you feed him for life.”How does this apply to the things that feed your spiritual life?In what ways might we be over-dependant on books, church or other people for motivation for the spiritual life?How can we more readily sustain that motivation on our own?

2.  How do we nurture, during the week, the flame that is kindled in us at church or other intentional gatherings?What are some things we can do to “keep our day-to-day lives pointed towards spiritual growth?”

3.  What are some early indicators that we have lost momentum in our spiritual direction?Where do you go to adjust the “rudder” of your spiritual life?

Prayer:Consider the motivation of love that encourages your zeal for God.Ask the Lord to sustain this “living water” in you as the source of your daily renewal.

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© 2009 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT

53. “The Cross Tempers Us”

For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on themselves.1Cor. 11:29

Receiving bread and wine in the spirit of Eucharist tempers us in the direction of the sacrifice it represents. As we prepare to approach our Lord in humble remembrance of this event we have opportunity each week to align the disposition of our hearts to that which is most appropriate for this encounter.

From the earth, Jesus claimed the fruit of wheat and vine as the ordained place at which to meet Him in this focus.In this prescribed act, we also prepare for the day when we will soon meet our Lord face to face.No longer will bread and wine be the necessary symbols of His sacrifice.Christ’s visible wounds themselves will forever be our prompt for remembrance and thanksgiving.

We, along with all creation, will one day gather in God’s presence before the reality of Christ’s historic sacrifice.The prophet Zechariah recorded the words of Jesus saying, “They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn” (Zec. 12:10).The apostle John as well saw how the whole world will come to recognize its culpability in necessitating the death of its Saviour.“Every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and all the peoples of the earth will mourn because of him” (Rev. 1:7).It is in anticipation of this day, and in the soberness of humility, that we who appreciate its significance prepare ourselves.

In Communion, the tempered soul bows in remembrance of Jesus’ suffering and sacrifice.We allow this remembrance to impress us deeply as we acknowledge Christ as the remedy for our past and present sins.To do otherwise is to remain conspicuously out of sync with the reality of what is being offered here. That is why Paul tells his flock that they should be careful to examine themselves before they eat the bread and drink the cup.“For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on themselves” (1Cor. 11:29).Our mindfulness, or lack thereof, willinevitably judge the disposition of our hearts as either properly recognizing Christ’s sacrifice or not.

On this side of its full revelation we have opportunity, as often as we come together, to prepare for this meeting with Love’s sacrifice.For Christians, this involves properly discerning the body and blood of Jesus in the bread and wine of Communion.We gather in remembrance of what the Lord has done for us on the cross and, as we allow the Spirit to lead us in our discernment, we also anticipate the healing of all that is otherwise superficial in us with regards to our salvation.

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© 2009 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT


54. “The Art of Following God”

See, I have given you this land.

Deut. 1:8

There is no greater security than to know that you are where you are because the Lord has led you there. After a decision has been made, the most satisfying state to be in is to be able to say, with some degree of confidence, that this is the house, the job, the person, the purchase, or the course of action, etc. that I believe God has led me to. Taking the time to ensure a good discernment process in charting our spiritual direction will help free us from the self-doubt and fear that often accompany any major decisions in life.

But how does one go about discerning God’s will in order to enjoy such confidence in the choices we make? Thomas Green, a contemporary Jesuit spiritual director, has much to say about this in his book, Weeds Among the Wheat. Green stresses that, as spiritually mature men or women, we are responsible to judge and discriminate between authentic and inauthentic “voices” of God as we discern our way. The apostle John agrees, “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God (1John 4 :1).”

Discernment, like prayer, is something that can only be learned by exercising it. As we practice the art of seeking God’s will for our decisions, we will come to recognize more and more the Divine promptings by which the Lord leads His sheep. The perfecting of this art will also be for the purification of our souls as what usually complicates our discernment is our entanglement with self-love and our inordinate attachments to security, control or significance.

Green lists three qualities of heart that are essential dispositions for anyone who seeks to discern the will of God. The first one is humility. We must be humble simply because faith situations are always obscure, and our discernment is always impeded to some extent by our own sinfulness.Throughout the process of discernment the soul should always let itself be tempered by healthy self-doubt and by an openness to be guided by the Lord through others.

The second essential quality is courage. Discernment is not a substitute for faith; it is a way of choosing how to act in faith. The only way we will ever tell if our process of discernment is accurate or needs adjustments is by acting, in faith, on what we sense God telling us. Green writes,

Faith gives us the courage to risk. The healthy self-doubt that comes from humility does not lead to timidity, or paralysis but, in the discerning heart, to the courage to risk. We might be mistaken, but the Lord does not ask us to always be right. He asks us to act in faith, always true to the best understanding of His will that we can attain. Both a subjective certainty of having discerned God’s will, as well as an objective uncertainty of where the Lord is leading us can co-exist.

And finally, Green identifies the disposition of peace as the most confidence-establishing quality we can have, “The Lord always speaks in peace. Turmoil, anxiety and restlessness are never signs of His voice since they are forms of desolation.”

The process of discerning the particular ways that God guides us in our lives will help attune us to the Shepherd’s voice that leads us. And, to the degree that we have done our best to discern God’s direction for us, and are prepared to act in faith that this course of action “seems right unto the Spirit,” we will enjoy confidence that the Lord is not only leading us, but also delighting in watching His purposes unfold in our lives.

Questions:

1,  How confident are you that God’s will is something that we have the ability to discern?How has this confidence helped or hindered you in the past?Do you generally err on the side or timidity or recklessness?

2.  Jesus says in John 10, “My sheep will recognize my voice.They will not follow the voice of a stranger.”How do you feel about the trial and error that we seem invited to explore in this discernment?

3.  How does our own “our entanglement with self-love and our inordinate attachments to security, control or significance” confuse our capacity to discern God’s will?What type of humility, courage and peace do we need to counter this confusion?

Prayer: Take time with God to come to terms with the hope or discouragement you feel regarding your own ability to discern God’s will in your life.Offer yourself to be led by God expressing, once again, your confidence that He desires to show you His ways.

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© 2009 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT

 

55. “The Discomfort of God’s Love”

You always resist the Holy Spirit!

Acts 7:51

It was Stephen, the church’s first martyr, who addressed these words to the angry Sanhedrin mob who were about to stone him. It is easy to see how such an accusation rang true for those unbelievers. But there is something about this statement that I too find uncomfortable. In many subtle ways, I too resist the Holy Spirit, especially when I am being drawn towards the awesome intimacy of a true encounter with God.

In her book, Spiritual Direction: Beyond the Beginnings, Janet Ruffing elaborates on the many ways we have of slowing down the process of intimate encounter with God. Something in us resists deeper experiences of God, especially in prayer, because we often feel overwhelmed or out of control in the face of the Lord’s initiative. Ruffing writes,

People frequently move away from God’s inbreak into their lives because something about the experience frightens them. This something might be the surprise of God’s initiation in the relationship, the intensity of God’s presence, the intensity of their own response to this, a perceived threat to self-image, a change in the way prayer is experienced, or a sense that unpleasant or undesirable consequences will follow.

Resistance to prayer often manifests itself in the all too common experience of being unable to find the time to pray. We conveniently become too busy. If that is not plausible, we find other ways of avoiding close encounters of the direct kind. Even when we do make ourselves available for prayer, we often sabotage our intentions. We busy ourselves with countless mental preoccupations instead of communicating with God as we had intended.

Another way we resist the immediacy of God’s initiative in prayer is by simply resorting to our safer, more familiar methods of prayer. We try to control the experience by using some self-directed means of prayer regardless of what the Lord might be doing. As Ruffing puts it, “One can easily go through the motions in prayer without ever making themselves available to God.”

Resistance usually happens unconsciously so there’s not much we can do about it until, by God’s grace, it becomes conscious to us. The particular issues of fear and distrust that cause us to pull back from God are deeper than most of us have immediate access to. But, for those who sincerely desire close encounter with God, there is good news—the Lord is not thwarted by our tactics.

God understands, and has already factored in our still-developing capacities for intimacy. He is much more persistent in luring us into real relationship than our responses would ever warrant. Despite our many forms of creative resistance, the Lord is determined to ultimately meet us in the awesome intimacy of love. In the midst of our ambivalence, He patiently awaits us.

We are either in the process of resisting God’s truth or in the process of being shaped and molded by it.

Charles F. Stanley

Questions:

1,  How do you relate to the fact that we both long for and resist intimacy with God?What frightens you about the reality of God’s initiative in your life?Or of your response to that initiative of love?

2.  How does being unable to find time to pray, or resorting to more controlled ways of prayer, represent subtle resistances to God?Is this something you recognize and can confess in yourself?

2.  What does God have to overcome in you in order for you to be more at ease with His loving advances?

Prayer: Take time to confess, and accept, your resistance to God’s initiatives of love.Spend time as well with your desire for this same intimacy and express this to God in prayer.

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© 2009 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT

56. “The Living Word”

For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit.

Heb. 4:12

The desert hermit Carlo Carretto refers to the Bible as a book that “marries heaven and earth.” In his Joyful Exiles, James Houston similarly says,

The Holy Scriptures constitute the ladder of communication between earth and heaven on which there constantly ascend and descend the heavenly messengers sent out to help lift up our hearts and minds to God in spiritual communion with Him.

It would seem, for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear,that the Word of God is a very active environment. But for most of us, our hearts are not always as open to the same expectations as our theology might be. We easily lose the connection between heaven and earth that Scripture promises us, and our enthusiasm for the Bible can wax and wane accordingly.

There is a particular way that people who begin to discover God through contemplative prayer experience this waning as the Lord changes their relationship to reading the Scriptures. At first, this reorientation can be quite disconcerting as we begin to notice a weariness, or even an aversion come over us with regards to Scripture reading. It is not uncommon, for instance, to hear someone in spiritual direction say, “I used to read three chapters of the Bible faithfully each day, and now I don’t even feel like opening it. What’s happening to my faith?”

As we grow in a more direct intimacy with God through contemplative prayer we should not be surprised that this will as well imply a new relationship to other aspects of our faith—to worship, to the church, to our understanding of evangelism and mission, and to the way we approach Scripture reading. In light of the new reality of God’s activepresence that such prayer introduces us to, the Holy Spirit will likely call us to reexamine many other aspects of our faith as well.

Correctives often need to be applied to years of self-directed spirituality and to all our well-meant efforts that might not have had their origins in the Spirit’s promptings. The order gets turned around as we recognize, more and more, that God alone is the Author and Finisher of our faith. As a necessary part of our maturing process, the Lord weans us from our self-directed ways, often by first taking away the satisfaction that we used to feel according to the presumptions of our old approach. He does so in order to lead us toward a more “received” relationship—one that is closer to truth than the perception that we, in any way, apprehend God through our own initiatives. This more profound integrity then brings a much deeper satisfaction to the soul, and to the Lord.

As it applies to Scripture, a contemplative re-orientation will invite us to a more Spirit-related form of reading—one whose objective is not primarily understanding, but communion with God. This shift in purpose might require us to read more slowly, perhaps going over a passage or verse a few times rather than simply skimming over it with our mind. As we learn to “feel” our way through a passage, we will detect signs of God’s presence within us that confirm His active presence in the Word.

Recognizing the living nature of God’s Word represents a different form of knowledge that ultimately transforms the act of reading into yet one more place of intimate communion with our Lord. We will discover the same presence of God that we have come to know through prayer, now revealed afresh through the Spirit-accompanied reading of Scripture. And, like the double-edged sword that it promises to be, the living Word of God will penetrate us deeply, creating a clearer distinction between the initiatives of our own spirit, and those of the Lord’s active presence in our soul.

Questions:

1,   Have you had seasons of hungering for God’s word?What were you seeking in those days?What did that feel like?Have you, at times, also felt an aversion to Scripture?How do you interpret or respond to that spirit within you?

2.  What relationship is God inviting you to have with Him through the Bible?What would have to change in your approach to Scripture to read it in a more “received” way?

3.  What changes do you need to make in your approach to Scripture so that your understanding of the Word is not at the expense of your communion with God?

Prayer: Take time to enjoy God’s presence in your prayer, then turn to Psalm 23 and seek the same living presence in God’s Word.Return to prayer whenever you feel you have lost that sense of immediacy with God.

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© 2011 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT

57. “Witnesses of God’s Presence”

For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.

John 17:19

What the world needs from Christians, more than anything else is first-hand wisdom concerning the nature of our experience in God. In his letter to the Romans, Paul tells us that the world actually “groans” for such sons and daughters to be revealed (Rom. 8:19). Our personal spiritual growth then, is something that creation both needs and longs for, and we will serve it best by our becoming what most reveals the Lord’s work within us.

The desert hermit Carlo Carretto reminds us of this—that as we seek God personally, we do so not only for our own benefit, but also for the sake of others.He writes,

Do not be in a hurry to leave your place of prayer. Do not become obsessed with time. Enjoy that peace as much as you can. It will begin to shine like a light in your face. And that will be the light your friends will be needing when you return to them. Evangelism consists in passing on that light, not the hollow sound of your own words.

For the sake of those we love, we press on in our pursuit of God. And, from the wellspring of our daily re-acquaintance with the Living Water, we invite and encourage those around us to seek the same. The people who are able to most effectively extend this invitation are those who are most faithful in responding to this invitation themselves. They carry, within their very countenance, the attractive news of God’s living “presence.”

But, like God’s gift of manna, the spiritual life is something that must be sought afresh each day if it is to truly feed souls—our own and those of others—in an immediate way. Carretto speaks of the winsomeness of such fresh experiences of God.

Only the person who truly contemplates the face of God can effectively say to his brother or sister: come and see, and understand for yourself how sublime He is. To lead others to contemplation: this is the soul of evangelism. Come and see, come and try for yourself, come and experience, come with me to the holy mountain.

Ensuring that the light of Jesus is a living reality within us is the one indispensable condition on which our ability to shed light on someone else depends. Like Jesus, for the sake of those we love, we sanctify ourselves. And, in faith, we trust the mysterious and attractive operations of God’s light to do the rest.

Questions:

1, How would you describe your first-hand experience of God to someone else?

2. In what ways does your own endeavour of seeking and finding God serve those around you?

3. How might our love for others spur us to sanctify ourselves for their sakes?

Prayer: Consider those you love and offer yourself to God, that He would sanctify you for their sakes.Express to God your desire that, for their sakes, the light of Jesus be a living reality within you.

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© 2011 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT

58. “The Intentional Choice To Not Be Afraid”

So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

Matt. 10:30

Most of you will remember what it was like as a kid (or perhaps even now) to walk into a dark room or basement. You can’t see a thing and yet the blindness seems to cause your imagination to become more vivid and wildly creative than normal. In the darkness, all things seem possible, even the fantastic—monsters, giant spiders, a hand reaching up to touch you from behind. Fear mounts with every step, your heart beats faster, your spine tingles as all your senses are piqued for the irrational threat that you’re sure is gathering all around you. But, as usual, nothing happens.

Odd isn’t it, how darkness can produce such a heightened sense of negative anticipation in us. In the absence of information, we often tend to project our deepest fears. We fill the void with imaginary worst-case scenarios and we respond, and sometimes even act, according to the fears we project.

Lack of certainty about our future can also create a similar response in us. When we’re not sure what lies ahead, our propensity for fear seems heightened. Curious isn’t it? Why do we find it so hard to believe that what we don’t know, won’t hurt us? Why aren’t we more disposed to anticipate good from the hand of the unknown?

The satirist, Mark Twain, once wrote, “I have been troubled by many threats and dangers in my life. And some of them actually happened!” Mr. Twain identifies with the curious bent we all have for living our lives in a fearful-future tense.

It would seem that a big part of the Holy Spirit’s ministry with us is trying to convince us that we really don’t need to fear things as much as we think we do. Jesus often settled the anxieties of His own disciples’ fears with the authoritative words, “Peace be with you.” In many ways the Lord continues to minister similar assurances to us.

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” (Matt. 10:29-31) If the Lord is to minister His peace deeply within us we will have to also let Him deal with our irrational fears. Faith—the intentional choice to not be afraid—is the option He commands. Let us put this option into practice as part of our daily act of obedience.

Questions:

1, How do you usually respond to the unknown?Do you generally project fear or hope?How disposed are you to anticipate good from the unknown?

2. In what areas of your life do you think the Holy Spirit might be trying to convince you that you needn’t fear as much as you think you do?

3. How does the fact that “every hair on your head in numbered” help alleviate your fears?How do you relate to faith being “the intentional choice to not be afraid?”

Prayer: Consider how fear causes you to retreat into yourself.Consider as well how faith can help you stay with God, especially as you face the unknowns of your life.Ask the Lord to show you the faith alternatives to your fears and to help you be more disposed to trusting God in all things.

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© 2011 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT

 

59. “As A Garden Grows”

Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it, and that produces a crop useful for those for whom it was farmed, receives the blessing of God.

Heb. 6:7

According to this passage God’s blessing seems to follow an ecological cycle. Like land that often gets showered with rain, we too are often blessed with optimum conditions and opportunities for growth. Each day we have occasion to drink this rain deeply into our lives. And, like any well-watered garden, we eventually produce a crop, the result of the Lord’s blessings showered upon us.

But it doesn’t stop there. According to this Scripture, the crop that we grow is not only for our own benefit. It is especially a blessing to “those for whom it was farmed.” In other words, God grows a crop in us that is primarily designed for someone else’s good.

Consider how this might apply to you. What has God cultivated in your life that is ultimately designed for someone else’s sake? Is it a talent? A knack for hospitality or money-making? A cheerful disposition? A sober outlook?

It is both humbling as well as freeing to think that much of what you are—the crop of your life—has actually been given to you for the benefit of others. How does this change your relationship to God’s blessings—to know that they belong more to others than to you? How might it motivate you differently in the cultivation of your gifts?

People will often do far greater things for the sake of others than they would ever do for themselves. They might acquire new skills, study a discipline, learn a craft or overcome certain fears or insecurities simply because others need them to do so. These are some of the ways that land, which “drinks in the rain often falling on it,” bears fruit for the sake of others.

As we produce such an other-oriented crop in our lives we participate in the cycle of blessing which concludes, according to this passage, with the reward of yet more blessing from God. Presumably this blessing comes once again in the form of good rain showering upon us, which starts the cycle all over again. Rain falls… we drink it in… a crop grows… others are blessed by it… more rain falls… we drink it in again… another crop grows…..

Questions:

1,  What are some of the “optimal conditions and opportunities for growth” that the Lord has showered on your life?What “crops” have resulted from the Lord’s blessing of your life?

2.  In what ways have you witnessed the “crop” of your life being a blessing to others—to those for whom it was farmed?

3.  What does it encourage in you to consider that your gifts and talents have been cultivated in you for the benefit of others?

Prayer: Take time to offer all that you are, all that you have, and all that you are becoming to the service of others.Consider the joy of cultivating the gifts God has given you so that others may be blessed by the fruitfulness of your life.

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© 2011 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT

60. “Not Taking Sides”

It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other. The man who fears God will avoid all extremes.Eccl. 7:18

Everywhere we look we see signs of tension between nations, ideologies, people and purposes. It’s hard to know where to position yourself in relation to many of our contemporary cultural and global issues. And it’s easy to feel that to not have a firm position on any given issue is a sign of irresponsibility, or worse, apathy. It’s not a very comfortable place to be. But, for peacemakers it is often a necessary one.

One can easily get rid of the tension inherent in any complex issue by simply adopting one extreme position or another. In other words we grasp one side, while letting go of the other. But the writer of Ecclesiastes tells us that we should avoid such easy options. And so does Jesus. To bear the cross of Christ means learning to live in that very place of tension where opposites meet.

In his book, Hope Against Darkness, the Franciscan priest Richard Rohr observes how the greatest souls around us seem to be those who have the capacity for holding opposites together in their lives. He writes,

By temperament, most of us prefer one side to the other. Holding to one side or another frees us from anxiety. Only a few dare to hold the irresolvable tension in the middle. But to be cross-bearing as a Christian means exactly that—to put yourself in the “middle” without letting go of either party in order to bear, in your body, the dilemmas of the world. It is a call to stand in the gap between opposing sides of every issue—between nations, between people and their sin, between wisdom and folly, between power and weakness. It means learning how to bear vulnerability, nakedness, exposure and even failure in our body just as Jesus did, so that a bridge between the polarities might be encouraged and, eventually, formed.

The choice to willfully bear such tension is, of course, the “folly” of the cross. It is a selfless disposition in which you are no longer trying to prove that your side is right but are prepared to hang in the balance, between the good and bad thieves of every issue, for the sake of reconciliation.

This is the only option whereby peace be achieved without forfeiting relationship. Jesus stood in the gap between sin and God’s law and bore, in His body, the reconciliation of both. “Go and do likewise.” our Lord says.

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.

                                Eph. 2:14-16


Questions:

1,  Do you find yourself often choosing sides in a dispute?When has this not led to a helpful outcome?

2.  What situations in your life come to mind at the suggestion of living in “the place of tension where opposites meet?”How does this capacity suggest a “greatness of soul” that is more Christ-like than fighting against one side or another?

3.  What would it require of you, for the sake of reconciliation, to situate yourself on the cross between the good and bad thieves of life?

Prayer:Consider a specific personal or social issue where God might be calling you to serve as a bridge between polarities.Ask God for insight into the disposition of Jesus as He hung in the balance between sinners and the righteousness of God.

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© 2011 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT

61. “The Maturing of Love”

Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!

Isaiah 49:15

St. John of the Cross expresses a beautiful metaphor for our progressive awareness of God in the image of a mother’s love for her baby. It is one that affirms both the constant nature of God’s love, as well as the evolution of our response to that love as we mature in our faith.

When a baby is newborn it is not yet consciously aware of its mother’s presence, other than that its basic needs are being met. For months following its birth, the mother often holds the baby in her arms and gazes lovingly at her child. Though the love that flows from the mother is directed towards it, the baby is not yet responsive to that love.

As the baby matures however, it gradually becomes aware of the mother’s loving attention. As it anticipates her affection, the infant begins responding more and more to the experience of being dawdled upon. It giggles and responds to the mother’s affection, loving the very idea of being loved.

But it is only later, when it is more mature, that the infant begins to respond lovingly to the mother’s affection on its own initiative. It now recognizes both the mother’s love that is directed towards it, as well as its own capacity to return that love. Throughout each of these stages of development, whether the child was responsive or not, the mother’s love remained constant. But it is only at this point that it can be said that the child is in a reciprocal, loving relationship with its mother.

Every minute of every day God is similarly gazing upon us, loving us as a mother would her newborn baby. At some point in our maturity we too become aware of this love that is being directed towards us. We awaken to the reality that we are the object of love, and we delight in the experience and warmth of the Lord’s affection for us. As we mature however, we grow beyond simply loving the experience of being loved, and we find more and more creative ways to reciprocate the affection that God has for us—we return love for love.

The apostle John says that, “we love God because He first loved us” (1Jn 4:19). Our spiritual maturity is established as we, in response to Divine love, grow in our capacity to “love the Lord our God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind.” Like the “weaned child” of David’s affection, we bask in the recognition of love received, as well as in our mature desire and capacity to reciprocate it.

I have stilled and quieted my soul within me.

Like a weaned child with its mother is my soul within me.

Psalm 131

Questions:

1,  How easy is it for you to imagine yourself as the baby who is unaware of the mother’s constant love for it?How do you respond as you consider God’s love for you?

2.  What are some of the signs that would indicate a person has matured to “loving the very idea of being loved” by God?What is your own respond to such a realization?

3.  In what ways have you grown in your capacity to return God’s love out of your own initiative?

Prayer: Consider the ways you reciprocate God’s love for you.What else might a mature love for God inspire you to do in the coming week as a gesture of your intentional acknowledgment of the Lord’s love for you?

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© 2011 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT

 

62.  “The Shape of Prayer”

 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son.                                 Rom. 8:29

 In 1962, the French and British designers of the Concorde unveiled their superspeed jet to the world. Within months of this unveiling Russian scientists, who had also been working on an aircraft that would surpass all previous speed records, showcased their model as well. To the surprise of many (and to the suspicions of others) the Russian model looked very similar to the French/British Concorde, with its sleek body and characteristic down-turned nose. But engineers from both nations knew the reason for this similarity in design. It wasn’t because of some intrigue of espionage and stolen plans. It was the unseen laws of aerodynamics that dictated the shape of both these jets. If you want to design a plane that will overcome the resistance of aerodynamics in order to travel at more than 1,400 mph you will, by necessity, have to conform to the familiar shape of the Concorde. The air is what will ultimately dictate the shape one must take to travel through it.

 In the same way, there is a particular shape that prayer requires from us in order to “travel” through it. There are laws of spirit-dynamics that we must conform to if we want to enter the atmosphere of prayer. Jesus once used the metaphor of passing through the eye of a needle for those who would seek to enter the kingdom of heaven. Not every shape is capable of passing through such a particular opening. But those who, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, continue to seek passage towards God will gradually find themselves conformed to the shape of Christ—the humility and righteousness that this particular gate requires.

 Our regular practice of prayer is the most direct sculptor of our spiritual formation. The very nature of the Divine-human relationship that it represents forces us to become smaller, more humble, more receptive in order to be rightly related to its summons.

 To pray “according to the Spirit,” we must learn to let go of our own design preferences in favour of the demands the spiritual environment we wish to enter will inevitably place on us. As we assume the shape dictated by the Creator’s hands we will be transformed into that which conforms perfectly with what we were ultimately designed for—relationship, in form and essence, with God. Like thread that has been brought to a fine point in order to fit through the eye of a needle, prayer and the life of faith fit us more and more perfectly for heaven’s gate.

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 © 2009 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT

 

 63.  “The Forbearance of Love”

 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth……

 1 Cor. 13:4-6

 The overall gist of Paul’s famous list of attributes is clear—love is a pretty complex subject. Don’t try and reduce it to just one thing, especially not to its more extreme expressions. When we think, for instance, of our love for God it’s easy to picture ourselves worshipping the Lord with our hands raised (or not), our hearts pouring out affection, and our mouths singing praise. This is one overt expression of love, but it certainly isn’t the most common one. Nor is it something that could be sustained for very long without soon becoming wearisome for both parties. Love is much more subtle than that.

 Love nuances our many responses to life. It shades how we react to others, how we interpret and respond to them. It directs our movements. It holds us back at times, and moves us forward at other times. Love is the desire to make whatever changes are needed in ourselves in order to remain close to someone. It’s the corrective that we welcome in ourselves, for the sake of a more “fitting” relationship.

 Love expresses itself not only as something offered, but mostly in how we receive the other person. It is the choice we make to let a person enter our lives, and stay there. It’s what closes the doors to rejection. Love gently tempers whatever excess it meets. It creates space and removes barriers by simply not entertaining anything that might deny it the right to receive the other person.

 Love is the preferred option to bear discomfort for the sake of another. It is what we will willingly inconvenience ourselves for; what we will put up with; what we will ignore or overlook; and what we will take on at the expense of our own preferences.

 Love is equilibrium. It is the ballast by which all other behaviours are adjusted. Though its stability is often shaken, love instills hope that life will always return to its original shape.

 Love is all this, and many things more. It is important that we learn to recognize and celebrate its subtle forms as well as its more overt expressions.

 

 …..it always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.

 1 Cor. 13:7-8

 

64.  “We Cannot Hinder God’s Grace”

 There was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan ,to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.                                  2Cor.12:7-9

  How often do we presume that God’s work is somehow limited by our deficiencies? For those who long for transformation, how prevalent in our thinking is the assumption that our progress will somehow translate into more opportunity for God? I suspect that this was a big part of Paul’s motivation in pleading with God to remove the “thorn” he recognized in his flesh—that it was something that made him a less effective servant of the God he loved. It is easy to think in these terms isn’t it? As though God’s purposes were somehow impeded by the quality or quantity of what we have to offer.

  If it was out of such concern that Paul so desperately prayed that this thorn be removed, we can certainly understand how he might have been disappointed, at first, by the response he got. The Lord never even acknowledged the issue that Paul identified. Instead, Jesus took occasion to express the sufficiency of His grace—as something that is not fostered, enabled, nor limited by Paul’s disposition towards it.

  For Paul, the Lord’s answer to his prayer was yet another Damascus experience. In the space of two verses he expresses the full conversion of his weakness—from being the subject of his tormented plea, to now becoming the very object of his boast. Without it ever being removed from his life, Paul’s “thorn” was nevertheless redeemed. It was transformed from an impediment, into something that actually increased glory for the Lord he loved.

  Is God limited by the quality or quantity of what we have to offer? It seems not. Can even our weaknesses be Christ-glorifying? It would seem wonderfully so. Let us, like Paul, learn to delight in the paradox of such amazing grace.

 Questions:

 1,   By what criteria do you assess your own “usefulness” (or lack of) to God?

 2.   In what ways do we assume that God’s grace is either enabled or limited by our disposition to it?

 3.   What would it mean for you, in accepting the sufficiency of God’s initiative of grace, to boast even in your weakness?

  Prayer:  Consider how your own weaknesses are forums in which God’s grace is made more perfect in you.  Give thanks, even now, for how this mystery is at work in our life.

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 © 2011 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT

 

65.  “Prepare to Meet Your Maker”

 Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.

 Psalm 116:15

 Imagine the precious hour of your own death. What relationship do you think you will want to have with God at this moment? What type of familiarity, confidence or trust will you hope to have cultivated with the Lord by now?

  No matter what age you are, it is good preparation to ask how you might apply your life today to that which will best serve you at your final hour. Consider this inevitable moment in your life and what relationship you might want to have developed with the Maker you will someday meet. Here are some familiarities you might hope to have cultivated.

  In the final realization that you are approaching God’s judgment, where “everything hidden will be revealed,” it will be good for you to have developed an honest acceptance of the whole truth of who you are. It will be especially important for you to be certain of your theology of salvation—that Jesus accepts you as you are, and that His sacrifice on the cross is truly sufficient to forgive all your sins. If you think you might wish you had more time to prepare yourself before meeting God, it might be a sign that you have missed the very point of Christ’s sacrifice for you.

  Perhaps, as you approach this greatest unknown, you will be glad to have cultivated a life-long disposition of yielding to God’s will in all things. In these final moments, when all your faculties for self-direction are useless to you, it will be good to have developed faith in God’s direct hand on your life, and confidence that His sure guidance will continue to lead you in this moment, as it always has.

  If you have lived a life of detachment it will naturally be easier for you to accept loss than if you have always found your bearings according to what you do, or to the things you own. It will be good for you to have lived according to Job’s sober remembrance that “naked I came into the world, and naked I will depart” (Job 1:20).

  If you have any trust issues with God you will be glad to have taken the healing of your relationship seriously, while you could still do so at your own pace. It will be better to have developed a healthy and genuine relationship with God beforehand than to be approaching this moment of uncertainty with unnecessary fears and misgivings about the character of God.

  It will be good as well to have learned how to genuinely accept the truth of God’s particular love for you. If you are confident that you are preciously loved, it will make it much easier for you to abandon yourself into the Lord’s arms than if you are uncertain how God really feels about you.

  And finally, if throughout your life, it has been your disposition to offer all that you are and all that you do for the Lord’s purposes, it will be natural, once again, to offer the time and means of your death as a final way to serve God’s purposes in life. If you have given yourself in this way, you will have good reason to anticipate that whatever happens in this final stage of the journey will be in accordance with this prayer.

  Lord, I will trust You.

 Help me to journey beyond the familiar

 And into the unknown.

 Give me the faith to leave old ways

 And break fresh ground with You.

 Christ of the mysteries, I trust You

 To be stronger than each storm within me.

 I will trust in the darkness and know

 That my times, even now, are in Your hand.

 Tune my spirit to the music of heaven,

 And somehow, make my obedience count for You.

                                                                      —St. Brendan (Irish contemplative)

 

 Questions:

 1,   Imagine, as best you can, the moment of your death.  What do you imagine your disposition will likely be?  What fears will you likely have?  What faith?

 2.   To what degree do you presently live in the knowledge and acceptance that “everything hidden will be revealed?”  In what areas of your life do you feel most challenged to prepare yourself for in light of this scrutiny?

 3.   How do you feel when you imagine the stark “nakedness” by which you will depart this world?  How does meditating on this help you remain more detached now, with regards to your earthly status?

Prayer:  Jesus’ final words, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” model the disposition of trust and confidence in God’s love which we should adopt not only at the hour of our death, but every hour of our lives.  Take time in prayer to practice, even now, this Christ-like disposition.

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 © 2011 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT

66.   “Leaving Room For God”

  I wait for the LORD, my soul waits,   and in his word I put my hope. My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning,

 Psalm 130:5-6

 We will never know the Lord’s initiative in our lives if don’t learn how to stop taking the initiative ourselves. This is one of the most important things that the practice of contemplative prayer teaches us—to wait, in order to receive from the Lord.

 Contemplative prayer is a time we set aside each day in order to stop, listen, and seek the Lord’s direct action in our lives. It is a time when we loosen the grip we have on our preconceptions, our plans and our life strategies in order to allow God’s creative initiative to be revealed to us. It is also one of the rare times we get to ask not only what we are to do, but also who we are, and who God wishes us to become, apart from our own preconceptions.

 In prayer we place ourselves as a living sacrifice on the altar and we wait, confident that the Lord will receive our offering and use it for His good purposes. The offering of contemplative prayer, however, is something that needs to be kept in place, sometimes for a much longer period than we had anticipated. It is too easy, after we’ve placed our life on the altar, to remove it from there once we’ve grown impatient or have  lost faith that God is actually there to receive it. We feel alone. We find ourselves becoming restless, or tempted with despair. After a short period of waiting, we often give up on the hope of God’s initiative and resort, once again, to our own agenda.

 But the person who sets out to “wait on the Lord” must inevitably pass through this desert of uncertainty. They must resist the temptation to prematurely withdraw their offering if they hope to ever see the dawn of God’s initiative emerging.

 In the desert of silent prayer, the contemplative learns to wait in the stillness of faith. Like a watchman, he anticipates the dawn of God’s subtle initiative. And, it is in this very act of waiting that his offering is perfected. As Andrew Murray once wrote,

 Waiting honours God by giving Him time to have His way with us. It is the highest expression of our faith in His goodness and faithfulness. It brings the soul towards perfect rest in the assurance that God is truly carrying on His work.

  Because we anticipate the initiative of God’s movement, we watch and wait in faith.  And as the practice of such patience becomes easier for us, we will increasingly come to know the immediacy of God’s faithfulness in our lives.

Questions:

1,   In what ways do you create space in your life for the Lord’s initiative?  Silent prayer?  Offering your plans to the Lord?  Waiting?  Leaning not to your own understanding?  Fasting?  Tithing?  What other ways can we make room for God’s initiative in our lives?

 2.   How difficult is it for you let go of your own preconceptions of yourself and your life in order to hear something new and unexpected from God?

 3.   How do you respond to restlessness when you are waiting for the Lord in prayer?  How can you move beyond the first impulse of giving up on waiting for God because of your own impatience?

 Prayer:  Choose a set time in which you will wait upon God in prayer.  Resolve to not leave your prayer regardless of how restless or impatient you become.  Ask the Lord to help you defer more to His initiative by helping you let go of the prevalence of your own initiatives in this relationship.

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 © 2011 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT

 

67.  “The Yoke of Gentleness”

 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.                                 Matt. 11:29

 Let us consider gentleness and its place in relationship to prayer and to the spiritual life. Gentleness is a quality that Jesus identifies with His own character and one which He invites us to share, as though yoked together, with Him.

 The spirit of gentleness is what our prayer life ultimately produces in us. It comes from, as well as leads us to, a place of rest. Such was St. Frances de Sales’ experience of gentleness in prayer.

 As I pray, I perceive deep within me a certain sweetness, tranquility, and a gentle repose of my spirit in divine Providence, which spreads abroad in my heart a great contentment, even in its pains.

 Gentleness is a disposition that gives a beautiful grace to life. It is wonderfully free of the anxious grip of imperatives as it lets itself be led by the slightest breeze of the Spirit. As the 16th century spiritual director, Francois Fénelon taught, “A humble heart is always gentle and capable of being easily led in its center.”

 In its essence, gentleness represents the courage of faith. It is a bold statement to the principalities and powers above that we rest secure in the hand of God, since faith has freed us from our fears. Only the faith-filled man or woman can afford to risk such gentleness in life.

 As we allow ourselves to be yoked with Jesus in this virtue, we will experience transformation in all of our relationships, including our relationship with ourselves. As Henri Nouwen puts it, “Through prayer we will learn the mastery of the gentle hand. Under this gentle regime, we will find ourselves once again becoming masters of our own house.”

 Questions:

 1,   Is gentleness a quality that you generally associate with Jesus?  How does it influence the way you relate to Him to be reminded of this?

 2.   How does prayer lead us to cultivate a spirit of gentleness?  What effects of grace would you expect to see in your life from this virtue?

 3.   How does the “anxious grip of the imperatives” in your life contend with the gentleness that Christ’s yoke is leading you to?  How does gentleness make you “master of your own house” again?

 Prayer:  Consider the submissive aspects of gentleness in your prayer.  Explore what it means to be “easily led in the center” of who you are.

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 © 2011 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT

 

 

68.   “The Colour of Rest”

 Six days you shall labor, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even during the plowing season and harvest you must rest.

 Ex. 34:21

 Leaves changing colours in the fall are always a feast to the eyes. They delight our senses and imaginations, and have provided poets, preachers and prophets with countless metaphors of life and death. My wife Ruth, who works for a Christian conservation organization (www.arocha.org) taught me something important about how the changing colours in a leaf are also related to the beauty we discover in ourselves whenever we rest in God.

 During the summer months, when the sun is closer to the earth, leaves are busy providing the tree with glucose. The sunlight helps the leaves transform water and carbon dioxide into a kind of sugar that the tree needs in order to live and grow. This process of photosynthesis (which literally means “putting together with light”) activates a chemical in the leaf called chlorophyll, which is what gives the leaf its green colour. This, of course, is rudimentary knowledge for most. But perhaps the association of the green in a leaf, as the colour of work, might be new for you.

 As summer ends and the days get shorter, there is not enough light nor water for photosynthesis to continue. The trees rest from their work and now live off the energy that has been stored over the summer. As the “work engines” shut down, the green chlorophyll disappears from the leaves and now the yellow, orange and red are revealed—colours that have always been present in the leaf, but were covered over by the green hue of summer activity. The leaves now display their beautiful autumn palette—their colours of rest.

 Consider how this phenomenon relates to the changing seasons of your own life—the daily, weekly, monthly or yearly patterns of work and rest that you enjoy. The “green” seasons in our lives—our work colours—are, of course, also beautiful to behold. They represent the vitality of all the productive work going on in and around us. But, every autumn, the Lord reminds us, through the changing leaves, that there are other beautiful colours inside us as well, lying just beneath the surface of our work colours. In order for those colours to be revealed we need only stop our work and allow time for the yellow, orange and red colours of rest to come to the fore. It’s a pretty easy recipe for uncovering beauty in yourself.

  Throughout the year, may we all enjoy days and seasons of Sabbath when we too can display the wonderful array of our restful colours. It will bring as much delight to those around us as the autumn foliage brings us each fall.

Questions:

 1,   How would you describe the “colour” of your active life?  What produces the “chlorophyll” in your day that helps keep you green?

 2.   Are you among those who don’t really know what they look like in a state of rest?  Do you see it as a problem when the “green” of your active life starts to diminish?

 3.   What aspects of yourself return to you as your “work engines” are shut down?  How would you describe your colours of rest?

 Prayer:  From a posture of rest, make note of the shades of life that return to you.  Consider how the display of these “colours of rest” brings delight not only to yourself but to others as well.

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 © 2011 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT

 

69.   “God in Our Day”

 Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.                          1Kings 19:11-12

 Most of us tend to look for God’s guidance in the big sweeps of life. What job should I take? Which church should I attend? Who should I marry? There is, of course, divine guidance for us in these important matters. But like Elijah who, at first, sought the Lord’s word through the larger expressions of life—in the metaphors of strong winds and earthquakes—we often find that the more subtle, day to day work of the Holy Spirit actually takes place in the metaphor of gentle, but constant, whispers.

 To sense the daily nudges of the Holy Spirit guiding you on your path is something that can be easily gained through the cultivation of prayerful attentiveness. An ongoing practice of prayer helps you recognize the movements of spirit that are, and have always been, taking place in the foundations of your life. Though it may only be a fleeting experience, there is nothing more reassuring than to be reminded that, moment by moment, whether you are aware of it or not, God is guiding you. As Elijah discovered, it is the practice of stillness that makes us more attentive to the subtle whispers of God. Awareness of this gentle movement brings with it not only guidance but also the confidence that, even when we don’t perceive it, this action is still taking place within us.

 As we grow in relationship to God’s active presence within us we will come to appreciate more and more the ministry of our Creator, whose hand is always on the rudder of our hearts. With simple adjustments here and there He is constantly directing the navigations of our lives.

Questions:

1,   Do you seek God in the day to day small decisions of your life, or do you tend to do so only in the big moments of life?

 2.   Do you believe that the Holy Spirit is always guiding you in your day?  If so, how can you become more attentive in anticipating this movement within you?

 3.   How can the knowledge that this movement is going on in you, even when you can’t perceive it, give confidence to your faith in God’s guidance—that His had is always on the rudder of your heart?

 

Prayer:  Take opportunity in your prayer to practice the “stillness that makes us more attentive to the movements of God.”

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 © 2011 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT

70.   “Our Sense of God”

 But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear.

 Matt. 13:16

 Years ago, when I studied portrait painting, I was always mystified when the teacher would speak of the shades of purple and green that she could so easily detect in the shadows around the face and head. To my untrained eyes, shadows along the neck or in the eye socket simply looked gray. There are, of course, many subtle hues of light within a shadow, but it took years of cultivating a sensitivity to this light before I could ever appreciate the beauty my teacher recognized.

 Similarly, there are many subtleties of divine presence and movement all around us that often escape our notice. As the Jesuit author, William Barry notes,

 Whether we are aware of it or not, at every moment of our existence we are encountering God, who is trying to catch our attention, trying to draw us into a reciprocal conscious relationship.

 The soul is the God-given “sense” through which we recognize the divine actions that grace every moment of our existence. Like the eye that detects the presence of light, and the nose that recognizes fragrance, the soul similarly identifies the presence of God within and around us. And, as men and women throughout Christian history have discovered, our souls have a capacity to grow in their sensitivity to divine activity.

 The metaphors that are often used to describe the qualities and capacities of the soul would indicate that it operates, in many ways, like our natural senses do. When the Bible tells us, for instance, to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8) it is not referring to our literal taste buds, nor to our eyesight, but to a particular sense of the soul that is related, metaphorically, to our natural senses of taste and sight. Similarly, when the Scripture speaks of “listening” to the Lord it is referring to a particular form of hearing that, though similar to the one we know of through our ears, is such that only our souls are capable of.

 Our natural senses gather information much like a satellite dish receives radio signals. They magnify for us the smells, sights, sounds, flavours and tactile presences in this world by focusing our attention on them. In the same way, our souls seem to be able to “detect” the presence of the Lord. They “hear,” “see,” “taste,” “smell,” and “touch” information from God which then allows us to discern what is being communicated.

 A satellite dish needs to be set up and carefully adjusted in order to pick up the particular signals you wish it to receive. Perhaps our souls also need to be properly “aimed” in order to best receive the information they seek. That is why the Scriptures so often urge us to seek and desire God above all things—so that our souls will be focused to recognize the beauty of the Lord that is otherwise hidden in the shadows of life.

 So how are we to more fully enjoy the blessings that Jesus refers to—of having ears that truly hear and eyes that see such beauty in and around us? Perhaps it is as simple a matter as William Barry suggests when he says that, “the religious dimension of experience is encountered mostly by the person of faith who is on the alert for God.” Intentionality, it would seem, is the mother of reception.

  Jesus claims that we are already blessed with souls that have the capacity to see, hear, taste, smell and touch God. Let us grow then in this sense-itive, living experience of our Father, who delights in catching the attention of His children.

 Questions:

 1,   How do you experience the presence of God?  What are some of the signs in your own soul that would indicate your awareness that the Lord is near?

 2.   How do you respond to the suggestion that, throughout your day, God is “trying to catch your attention, trying to draw you into a reciprocal conscious relationship”?

 3.   How can we better “aim” our soul towards God in order to more fully receive His communications to us?  How can we live a life that is more alert to the presence of God?

 

 Prayer:  Consider the sensory metaphors of tasting, seeing, healing and touching in your experience of God.  Take time to delight in your exploration of these “senses” of the soul—the many and varied ways we might recognize God within us.

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 © 2011 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT

71.   “Waxing Hot or Cold”

 The mountains melt like wax before the LORD, before the Lord of all the earth.                                  Psalm 97:5

If mountains melt like wax before the Lord, it is no wonder that our hearts do as well. Many of our most profound experiences of God are also often accompanied by physiological responses—sensations of peace, warmth and well-being.* And it is often through these responses that we discover, once again, how very tender and fluid our hearts can be as they “melt like wax” before the Lord.

While a candle is burning, the hardened wax turns to liquid and either makes a pool under the flame, or else begins to flow freely down the candlestick. Once the flame is extinguished however, or the wax has dripped below the range of its heat, it hardens into whatever form it has cooled down to. We know that it will remain in this state until the candle is lit again, and the heat of the flame causes the wax to melt and be fluid once more.

Our hearts, as well, “harden” into various shapes whenever they are away from the light of God for too long. We feel stuck, unfree, not as fluid as we once were. As we return to God however, we sense something loosening up within us. This is often our experience when we worship, read Scripture, or pray in the presence of God. Our hearts warm up to the Lord’s light and begin to “melt” before Him.

 There is another image of wax that also helps identify this dynamic of spiritual life. For those who have never heard of a lava lamp, this curiosity was an enclosed, glass lamp with a light bulb at its base. The glass was filled with oil, with a large blob of wax floating in it. As the wax sank to the bottom of the glass it was heated up by the light bulb and would then slowly start floating upwards. All sorts of mesmerizing shapes were created as the wax broke apart and reformed in wonderfully indeterminate ways. Once it got to the top, away from the direct heat of the light bulb, it would cool down and start descending again through the oil. The wax would dance up and down the lamp like this, depending on how close it was to the heat of the lamp.

 The most curious aspect of a lava lamp is how such a mindless activity could, for inordinately long periods of time, delight those watching it. What was it that made such a phenomenon so attractive? Perhaps, in the ebb and flow of the wax to the heat of the light, we subconsciously recognized something familiar—a similar movement in our own souls as they move towards and away from God.

 Like wax being warmed by a flame, or else cooling down when it is distant, our hearts are always changing according to their relationship to God’s light. It is because our Father wants us to enjoy a freely-flowing life that we are repeatedly invited to draw near the warmth of His presence, where we are told that even hardened things like mountains end up melting like wax.

  * This is not to say that our experience of God is the only indicator of His presence, nor that the lack of an experience of God implies His absence. It is simply to recognize the fact that spiritual experience, when it does occur, is often accompanied by physiological signs.

 Questions:

 1,   How do you relate to your heart being either “fluid” or “stuck” at times?

 2.   How might the relative state of freedom in your heart be an indicator of your nearness or distance from God?

 3.   What state of heart do you imagine God desires for you?  Why?

 Prayer:  Take time in prayer to offer the state of your heart to God.  Confess any sense of hardness that you are aware of and express your desire to be more fluid in God’s Presence.  Notice any signs of your heart “melting” as your prayer unfolds.

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 © 2011 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT

 

72.   “Praying From a Deeper Place”

  The mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace.

 Rom. 8:6

 Prayer often begins in the mind. The decision to pray is usually followed by thoughts of what to do about it, a reflection perhaps of the purpose of what we are doing, and a recall of methods and means that we believe will help us in that purpose. But the mind itself cannot lead us to contemplative prayer. By its very nature it hovers above the spirit—observing, learning, and informing the will. It can never become, nor lead us to our souls.

 But often, as our prayer progresses, we recognize the presence of another Guide. From the place of stillness, the subtleties of the Holy Spirit are revealed in the heart. In a gentle, interior movement that is usually imperceptible to the mind, the Spirit of love, peace and spiritual joy now offers to lead us in the direction of deeper prayer. We are invited to follow its ways, and therein begins the gradual transformation of our desires—from the desire to know, to the desire to “be.” The mind, now controlled by the spirit, promises to lead us to an experience of life and peace that we could never attain on our own.

  Contemplative prayer that emerges from the heart is of a quality that is immediately recognized as more profound in truth and essence than any other form of knowledge. Though foreign at first, its language is one that resonates with the deepest instincts of our being. We sense as well that it represents an opportunity to re-identify ourselves according to this new, and truer center from which we can learn afresh who we are, and where we are going.

 Once we have recognized the deeper self within us it is very difficult to return to anything less. We now have an experience of profound life as revealed to us by the Spirit, and we become more acutely aware whenever we stray from this place of deeper truth. A subtle tension results when we become aware that we are no longer operating from our center, and this tension beckons us to keep returning to the deeper truth that we know exists within us. It is this tension, and our continual response to it, that gradually re-habituates us towards a deeper place of origin—a place born of the Spirit, rather than of ourselves.

  Once this pearl has been identified as precious, we more naturally and willingly respond to God’s invitation to exchange all we have for all He wishes to give us. We choose, even if it means letting go of our familiar habits of thought, to let our minds be more and more controlled by the Spirit.

 The mind controlled by the spirit…Imagine the different experience of life that this new order will offer us. In submission to the Holy Spirit, we are told that we will find rest and renewal in the freedom that God has saved us for.

 Questions:

 1,   How do you relate to the distinction between your mind and spirit?  What is your experience of peace according to each of these faculties?

 2.   How do you sense the Holy Spirit communicate to you the invitation to go deeper in your prayer?  How do you respond to this invitation?

 3.   How would you describe the state of soul that you long to return to?  What would you need to “exchange” within yourself in order to more fully embrace this precious pearl?

 Prayer:  Consider, in prayer, what it means to let your mind be more and more controlled by the Spirit.  Welcome the life and peace that God promises will be the result of this submission.

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 © 2011 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT

 

73.  “Praying From a Tepid Place”

  What a man desires is unfailing love; better to be poor than a liar.

 Prov. 19:22

 People who pray regularly recognize and must accept that they don’t always desire God as much as they wish they did. It is an uncomfortable truth that requires a certain amount of courage before we can even admit it to ourselves. But once we do—once we accept that we are weak in our desires for God—a new path opens up for us. We come to recognize that it is “better to be poor than a liar.”

 From such a place of honesty we are now free to choose whether a genuine desire for God is something that we really wish to have or not. If it isn’t, then at least we are being truthful with ourselves and can now ask God to continue working in us so that this might someday become something we actually desire. Perhaps this is the very “poverty of spirit” that Jesus spoke of as, paradoxically, a blessed state. If, however, a desire for God is something that we do wish for ourselves, we can simply and earnestly begin asking for it.

 If we recognize, in examining ourselves, that our hearts have become tepid, it is quite legitimate for us to take a step back and pray for the desire to desire. If we feel that we have lost our passion, we can simply be honest about it and ask the Holy Spirit to increase our desire for God, to restore us to our first love, or to wean us away from the things that now distract us.

 A sincere desire for God is something that can always be restored to us. But, before that can happen, it might be necessary for us to first recognize and admit to ourselves that it is absent.

 O Jesus, my desires are often weak and wayward,

 and I don’t know what I can do about it.

 I wish to see them increase and to have my life directed more

 towards what I know I desire most—You.

 Thank You Lord that this relationship

 does not wholly depend on me.

 For I know that I would be lost and without hope if it did.

 Thank You that You continually create for me

 the path that I am to follow.

 I know that there is nowhere else from which to begin this path

 than where I am right now.

Thank You that, though You call me to seek You,

 You also reveal Yourself as the One who has already found me.

 In such faith, I know I am saved.

 Amen.

 

 Questions:

 1,   What fears might prevent you from admitting that you don’t love God as much as you should?

 2.   Do you have faith that you can actually ask God for the desire to desire Him?  How does this option change your relationship to the love you feel for God?  In other words, where does this love come from and who sustains it in you?

 3.   What are some ways, other than coming to God for restoration, that you opt for when your heart has become tepid?  What hesitations might you have to asking God to wean you from things that dissipate your heart’s desires?

 Prayer:  Consider your love for God.  If it is strong, give thanks to the Holy Spirit for this gift of relationship.  If it is lukewarm, ask the Lord to restore the love for Him that you know your heart is capable of.  Express your desire for this love to God.

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 © 2011 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT

 

74.  The Command to Rest

“Who is it he is trying to teach?
To whom is he explaining his message?
To children weaned from their milk,
to those just taken from the breast?
 For it is:
Do and do, do and do,
rule on rule, rule on rule;
a little here, a little there.”

 Very well then, with foreign lips and strange tongues
God will speak to this people,
 to whom he said,
“This is the resting place, let the weary rest”;
and, “This is the place of repose”—
but they would not listen.

                                                            Isaiah 28:9-12

There is a repeated theme throughout Scripture that has to do with the invitation (or more often the command) for us to rest in God.   Jesus, for instance, instructs us to take on His yoke so that we will find rest for our souls (Mat. 11:28).  The invitation, in this case, is given to us in positive terms.  But more often we see a similar exhortation in Scripture followed by either a warning or else an expression of God’s disappointment in our refusal to obey this ordinance to rest in Him.

The book of Hebrews, for instance, describes a “Sabbath rest that awaits the children of God” (Heb. 4:9).  It encourages us to “make every effort to enter this rest (Heb. 4:11).   But it also warns against refusing this invitation, charging those who do so with disobedience, akin to the Israelites’ rebellion at Meribah  (Heb. 3:15, Ps. 95:7-11).

We are familiar as well with Isaiah’s verse where God tells us that “in repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength” (Isa. 30:15)  But do we also remember the convicting phrase that follows this verse: “But you would have none of it?”  The Lord is dismayed by our refusal to accept such a gracious offering.

Elsewhere, in Jeremiah, we are told to “ask where the good way is, and walk in it,”  counsel that comes with a promise that we will then “find rest for our souls” (Jer. 6:16).  But once again, we hear the Lord’s discouraged response at our refusal to accept this invitation, “But you said, ‘We will not walk in it.’

And finally, in our passage from Isaiah 28, God invites us to Himself saying, “This is the resting place, let the weary rest.  This is the place of repose.” And once again we hear God’s disappointment in our response when He adds, “but they would not listen.”
To refuse God’s rest is seen in Scripture as not only a loss on our part, but as an act of childish rebellion.  It grieves the Lord who is disappointed by the immaturity that this represents.  God expects us to heed His call but in respect of the freedom He has given us, He also allows us to disobey.  He lets us go our own way.  Or, in the language of Rom. 1:24, the Lord “gives us over” to the frenetic life that our rebellious choices inspire.  Isaiah puts it this way, “therefore, the word of the Lord will become for them: “Do and do, do and do, rule on rule, rule on rule.”   It is an indictment that describes too well the oppressive lives many Christians are living today.

The Lord “agrees to disagree” with us by letting us taste the consequences of our disobedience.  Though He “gives us over” to our own way, God surely wishes it were otherwise—that we would simply heed His counsel in the first place.

 

There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, “Thy will be done.”

                                                                                         C. S. Lewis

 

QUESTIONS

  1.  How optional, in your view, is God’s invitation to rest in Him?  Does it help to see this more as a loving command than as simply a suggestion?
  2.  In what ways do the consequences of “do and do, rule upon rule” describe aspects of your life at present?  Might the oppressive spirit of a driven life be God’s way of telling you that this is not what He would prefer for you?
  3.  What changes would you make in your life if you were to respond more fully to this invitation?  Consider some practices of “resting in God” that you might explore in the coming week and plan to share your experiences when you meet together again.

 

 PRAYER:  Take time to speak with God about the choices you presently make that lead you away from His peace in your day.  Ask the Holy Spirit to give you a more consistent desire to obey God’s command to rest.

 

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 75.  “Hope for the Fruitless”

Jesus told this parable: “A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’

 “‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it.  If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’”

                                                                                                            Luke 13:6-9

Good sermons are worth repeating and the one I heard last Sunday at The Church at Southpoint (http://www.southpoint.ca/) certainly warrants a second run.  Pastor Anne Smith spoke on the parable of the fig tree and her exposition of this text is helpful for identifying places in our lives where, like the vineyard worker, we prematurely lose hope in something, or someone.

Jesus’ parable is often understood as referring to Israel, and to the “last chance” God is giving them by sending His Son.  But the story also has many applications for our own lives.  It represents two very different postures we can have in relationship to anything that is not bearing fruit as we were expecting.

The first posture is that of the vineyard owner who is disappointed with the low yield of his investment.  He has lost hope of any return for his efforts.  We can imagine ourselves saying similarly, “For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this tree and haven’t found any.”  We too might say, as like the vineyard owner does, “Cut it down.  Why should it use up the soil?”  Our propensity for judging things (or ourselves) more absolutely than we should is often arbitrary and self-serving.  As Anne points out,

 We judge things prematurely as fruitless, requiring way too much effort and time from us to invest ourselves.  We do this to our marriage, to our kids, to social problems, to the homeless, the addicts.  We disengage, we turn our backs, we walk away, assuming that these are too broken to be fixed, too sinful to be made whole, too fruitless.  And so we abandon them, because it all requires too much from us.

 The second posture contrasts this lack of hope with its opposite—the tenacity of patience.  It represents the person who keeps faith in spite of the seeming fruitlessness of a situation.  Instead of cutting their losses they say “let’s leave it alone for another year.”  And instead of self-righteously blaming the tree for its fruitlessness, it serves the faint hope that remains saying, “I’ll dig around it and fertilize it.”

It doesn’t take much imagination to apply this parable to our own relationships in life.   Where are we tempted to prematurely give up on something, when perhaps a little more faith would serve God better?  Anne praises the tenacity of those who persevere in hope saying,

 It takes seven years of healing for a woman to come out of prostitution.  Who does that?  Who sticks by someone that messy for seven years even though you have no guarantee your efforts will bear any fruit.  And what about those who counsel people week after week with such little signs of transformation.  Who does that?  Who makes a vocation of listening and counselling when you see such little fruit?  Who does that?  A true vinekeeper does that.  Whenever  we do something that seems fruitless, and still stay with it, we’re a true vinekeeper.

 The parable raises two simply questions.  Do we give up on others or on ourselves too easily?  Or do we have the tenacity to keep hoping for situations that, for all appearances, seem hopeless?   If the Spirit is indicating this first tendency in you, Anne suggests a few areas in which repentance might apply.  She invites us:

 

  • To repent of our confidence in our own judgments.

 

  • To repent of our confidence in our own self-righteousness.

 

  • To repent of our lack of hope that causes us to turn our back on people, on places, and on issues that are hard, difficult, messy, uncomfortable and, by all appearances, fruitless.

 

  • To repent of our apathy that keeps us at a distance, uninvolved and disengaged from things that appear not worth our efforts.

If, on the other hand, the Spirit is indicating the second tendency in us, Anne reminds us that when we persevere in the tenacity of hope, we are most like God.  Her sermon concludes with these inspiring words,

God is merciful.  He holds out hope for us, holds out grace for us.  Long after we’ve given up on ourselves and each other, God is kneeling in the soil of our souls, with a spade in His hand, digging up the hard ground, and pouring in the fertilizer so that we might be fruitful again.

 God is tenacious in His hope for us.  We are certainly called to be likewise in this world.

 

QUESTIONS

  1.  What motivates us to judge something as hopeless?  Does the relief we feel from no longer engaging with a difficult person or situation seem questionable?
  2.  Choose a situation in your life where this parable might apply.  What would it mean for you to “dig around and add more fertilizer” to this situation rather than give up?
  3.  Any real change in society or in ourselves comes from the perseverance of those who do not give up.  What would you have to do to be one of those people who does not lose faith about the possibility of change?


PRAYER:  Take time to confess the ways you participate with the diminishment of hope.  Ask God to give you faith in situations that demand the type of hope that will help keep the doors of opportunity open for longer.

 ___________________________________

76.  “True Repentance

   I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.  I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’  So he got up and went to his father. 

Luke 15:18-20

 There’s a noticeable difference between an experience of repentance that begins with us and one that originates with the Holy Spirit.  The former is often marked by guilt, shame and an understandable despair that comes from the burden we feel to change ourselves.  But repentance that originates with the Holy Spirit is usually accompanied by hope.  It feels more like an invitation than a task we are being given.

The prodigal son is a good example of someone trying to manage their own contrition.  He comes to his senses, and immediately starts working on a strategy to secure his reinstatement.  Weighing his options, he concludes that his father will not likely let him return to his former status as a son.  He anticipates rejection and in order to preempt this he plans to offer himself instead as a servant.  Without any input from his father, he has decided that this is all he deserves.  And so, with self-conceived repentance in hand, he begins his journey home.

As the son approaches the family estate he sees his father running towards him.  He picks up his own pace, perhaps rehearsing, one more time, his prepared confession.  As the father embraces him, the son begins his appeal, “Father I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like…”  But before he has a chance to finish his speech, the father dismisses his offer.  For it ultimately doesn’t matter what the son thinks of himself.  All that matters is what the father thinks.

The prodigal son was operating from the mindset of self-managed contrition.  It is a strategy that hopes, through self-deprecation, to somehow exact a reward of forgiveness, or at least alleviate some of the suffering we feel we deserve.   It seems to suggest that the more we demean ourselves, the more indebted God will be to forgive us  The problem with this mindset however is that it begins and ends with us.

True repentance is not measured by how badly we feel about ourselves.  All that really matters is what the Father thinks (1Cor. 4:4).  And if we can just look away from ourselves for a moment we will see Him running towards us, arms outstretched to embrace the sinner who is returning home.

 

QUESTIONS

 

  1. Can you think of times when you have experienced a form of repentance that was of your own making?  What were the results of following this spirit?

 

  1. How did the father’s embrace make irrelevant all the son’s careful planning?

 

  1. How do we often obsess more than we should about our sins, rather than just run to our Father’s arms?

 

  1. How might you approach God more directly with your sins?  Do you truly trust His mercy to receive you, just as you are?

 

PRAYER:  Picture yourself as the prodigal son who has recognized the error of his ways.  Imagine yourself coming to the father by another means than second-guessing his response to you.  Let yourself be surprised by God’s abundant grace and praise God all the more for His unmerited mercy.

 

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 77.  “Remain in my Love”

 As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.   John 15:9

 The whole of the Christian’s response to Christ can be summed up in one phrase—“remain in my love.”   All other spiritual growth comes from this one objective.  Simply obeying this gentle command will lead to sanctity, truth, obedience and to every fruit of righteousness.  Remain in Him and you will never lose sight of truth, love or humility.  And neither will you be inclined to sin.

All sin comes from the same error—our leaving God’s love in order to follow our own ways.  And all healing comes from the same remedy—our returning to a life shared with Christ.  Jesus is our Life, quite literally.  He is our Way, and He alone the keeper of our Truth.  For our lives are hidden in Christ (Col. 3:3).

To remain in Christ’s love then is to embrace our truest identity.  It is how we become more authentically who we are in God’s sight.  As the apostle John wrote, “we do not know what we will be, but we know that when we see Him, we will be like Him”  (1John 3:2).

Remaining in Christ is the simple and gracious means God gives us for the healing of our souls.  He uses Jesus’ yoke to straighten our path.  As we obey His word, our lives become more mingled with God’s.  We learn to live more fully in the Biblical reality that Jesus describes as “I in you and you in me.”

Paul says it best: “the life we live is not our own.  It is Christ who lives in us.”  If so, then we repent of every falsity that suggests otherwise.  We welcome the new creation that we are becoming and we participate, in every way possible, with its gradual unfolding.  We turn away from the illusion that the life we live is somehow our own, and we awaken to a life more fully shared with Christ.

By simply obeying Jesus’ command to “remain in my love,” we are participating with the most direct means of conversion that our spiritual direction offers. Through this one objective we welcome the presence of God more deeply in our lives, we give ourselves more faithfully to God’s will in our day, and we live more consistently in the assumption of God’s nearness.

 

QUESTIONS

 

  1. To what degree and in what ways are you presently responding to Christ’s command to “remain in my love?”    What helps you do so?  What hinders you?

 

  1. How is your experience of life, or of yourself, different when you live in the assumption of God’s nearness?

 

  1. How can you fan the flame of your desire to more consistently “remain in His love?”  How can this becomes the foremost objective of your spiritual life?

 

PRAYER:  Take some time in prayer to simply enjoy the experience of Christ’s love for you.  From this place of remembrance commit yourself more fully to  embracing this invitation to stay with Jesus as the foremost objective of your life.

 

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78.  “Bearing the Wounds of Others”

 They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn.

Zec. 12:10

 There are times when we must confront the insults and injuries that others inflict on us.  There are other times when we must simply walk away from such abuse.  But there are also situations where, in the imitation of Christ, we must bear the wounding of others in the hope that, by God’s grace, they might come to “mourn the one they have pierced.”

It was Jesus’ choice to let others wrong Him as they did.  As the Lord asserts in John 10:18, “no one takes my life from me, for I lay it down of my own accord.”  Like a lamb led to the slaughter, Jesus did not open his mouth.  When struck on one cheek He turned the other.  When people insulted Him, persecuted Him and falsely said all kinds of evil against Him, our Lord did not retaliate, but allowed Himself to become the object of their scorn.

Like a poultice placed on a wound that draws out the pus and infection from our body, so the wounds inflicted on Jesus draw out the sin and violence that would otherwise lie hidden in our souls.  His suffering accentuates our sins so that we recognize more poignantly the injury they bring.  For our sakes He allows Himself to be “pierced”—so that His innocence might cause us to recognize and regret our sinful ways.

In Rom. 12:17 Paul applies this same principle to our own relationships—that we should not repay anyone evil for evil, nor take revenge for a wrongdoing.  He then adds that, in so doing, we will “heap coals” on the heads of our oppressors.  In an ancient Egyptian ritual a guilty person carried a pan of burning coals on his head to indicate his repentance.  Burning coals represent the remorse that a perpetrator might experience in recognizing the violence of their actions. In not repaying evil for evil, the absence of vengeance actually serves to accentuates the wrongdoing.  By not retaliating, the wrong is more exposed than if we responded in kind.

There are certainly times when we must resist or else walk away from the abuses of others.  But there are also times when, in the imitation of Christ, we must let ourselves be hurt, in faith that our own wounds might somehow cause others to repent.  This is the more noble way that our Lord models for us on Good Friday.

 Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Matt. 5:10-11

 

 

QUESTIONS

 

  1. Do you recall a time when you mourned for someone that you wilfully or inadvertently hurt through your words or actions?  How was this hurt brought to your attention?  In what ways did you benefit from this mourning?

 

  1. Can you name a situation in your life where the Lord might be calling you to quietly bear the sins of others in the hope that they will recognize their trespasses by its effects?  What grace do you need from God in order to remain in this disposition?

 

  1. In what ways does Jesus continue to bear your own sins in His body?  If your sins are directly related to the Lord’s suffering how does that affect how you view the gravity of your trespasses?  And how might your love for Jesus inspire you to a repentance that is more for His sake than for your own?

 

 

PRAYER:  Take time to meditate on the sacrificial quality of Jesus’ love as He chooses to silently bear the hurts inflicted on Him by others.  Speak to God about your own capacity to forgo your right to immediate justice in the hope that another might, through your wounds, come to repentance.

 

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79.  “The Re-Integration of Life”

When he ascended on high, Jesus led captives in his train and gave gifts to all people. What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions?

Eph. 4:8-9

 

If we look at the over-arching theologies of our faith we see two things that are taking place simultaneously in life—the Fall and the Resurrection.  The Fall pulls life downward, subjecting it to what Paul calls the laws of death and disintegration.  The Resurrection, on the other hand, counters this action by raising life upwards, in the direction of integration.

Everywhere we look we see evidence of these two actions—the Fall (i.e. the dis-integration of life), as well as the Resurrection (i.e. the integration of life).   In all our relationships, in the structures of our society, in world history, even in our own souls, we witness life coming together, as well as life falling apart.  One causes hope, the other despair.

To be under the dis-integrating influence of the Fall is to feel disjointed, without a centre, divided and alone.  Anyone who lives in community knows the undermining effect this force can have on our relationships.  The very word dia-bolic means to ‘throw apart.’  From Adam’s first sense of separation from God to the many signs of disintegration we see today, the dia-bolic effects of the Fall are all around us.

But through death, Christ entered the very depths of this dis-integration, subjecting Himself to the full effects of the Fall.  Jesus descended to the ‘lower regions of the earth’—to all the places in life that are dying and in decay.  And from deep within this despair, He rose victorious so that all things attached to Him might also be freed from the grip of the Fall.   We regain our “integrity” through Christ, for only in Him do “all things hold together” (Col. 1:17).

But the re-integration of life happens not only to us, but also through us.  We too are called to be active participants in this Resurrection    We too must follow our Lord as He descends into the ‘lower earthly regions’—wherever there is dis-integration in the world.   And we too must bear witness to the resurrection in these places of decay.

Wherever life is sagging, or has already fallen, we are to serve the uplifting power of Christ’s leaven.  We are to position ourselves wherever Jesus might best counter, through us, the natural entropies of life.  For it is there, in the midst of the dis-integrating and destructive effects of the Fall., that we are called to proclaim the “glorious freedom of the children of God.” (Rom 8:19-21)

 

QUESTIONS

 

  1. What are some of the things that you see causing dis-integration within yourself?  In your communities?  In the world?

 

  1. In Matt. 12:30 Jesus says, “Whoever does not gather with me, scatters.”  In what ways do we inadvertently participate with the action of the Fall and its dis-integrating effects in community?  Apathy? Judgment? Unforgiveness?

 

  1. How might we more intentionally participate with the action of the Resurrection in life?  How do spiritual virtues like love, peace, patience, forbearance, kindness and gentleness contribute to integration in life?

 

PRAYER:  Consider places where you see evidence of dis-integration in your life or relationships.  Take time to pray for these “sagging” places and to commit yourself more intentionally to serving Christ’s resurrection in these areas of life.

 

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80.  “The Lord Gives, the Lord Takes Away”

 “I am going away and I am coming back to you.”

                                                    John 14:28

 

It is a common feature of the spiritual life for us to experience what seem like the comings and goings of God.  Evidently it is God’s prerogative to either reveal or conceal Himself as He chooses.  Such was the experience of the prophet Isaiah when he observed that, “Surely you are a God who hides Himself” (Isa. 45:15).  It was also the experience of Bernard de Clairvaux, the 12th century abbot and spiritual director who wrote,

The Word, which is Christ, comes and goes as He pleases.  At least that is how the soul perceives it.  The soul notices the Word is with her.  When she is not aware of His presence, she thinks of Him as absent and begs for his return.  She is not calling out for a first experience but cries instead, “Turn! Come back!”

 Perhaps one of the reasons God appears to leave us is to simply make His presence all the more desirable.  Bernard offers two examples in Scripture that seem to suggest this.  There is the story of Jesus walking on the water who, after the disciples recognize Him, acts as though He is going to pass them by (Mark 6:48-49).  Then there is the story of the Lord arriving at Emmaus with the other two disciples.  He then continues walking “as if He were going farther” (Luke 24:29  ).  Bernard writes,

 The impression that He was about to pass by them was only a holy feigning.  He did it to help them.  The Lord behaves in the same way with the soul that loves Him.  He seems willing to pass by, only to excite a prayer for Him to return.

 There is great mystery in how the Lord elicits our loving response through His seeming absence.  It is a feature of His that we just have to get used to for now.  We cannot anticipate His arrival, nor can our grasping prevent His leaving.  Such was Bernard’s experience of the Holy Spirit’s coming and going in his own life.  He writes,

 He has come to me on numerous occasions.  I never notice the precise moment when He arrives.  I feel His presence and then I remember that He was with me.  Sometimes I have a premonition that He is coming to me.  But I have never been able to put my finger on the exact instant when He arrived or departed. As the Psalmist says, “His footsteps are not known” (Ps. 77:19).

 How then are we to recognize God’s presence in our prayers?  We will know, evidently, by the fruit it bears in us.  The effects of the Spirit are the obvious signs of His having “visited” us.   Bernard writes,

 How then did I know He was in me?  I couldn’t miss it!  It affected me in an undeniable way.  My heart was softened and my soul roused from its slumber.  He went to work in me.  He cleared and cultivated the soil of my soul.  He planted and watered and brought light to dark places.  He opened what was closed and warmed what was cold.

 God’s presence with us is most recognized by its effects on our will, as well as the healing it produces in our souls.  As Bernard notes,

 It was the warmth of my heart that made me know he had completely flooded my being.  Personal flaws became unimportant.  Every desire was controlled.  My slightest intention to do better was met with kindness and mercy.  I have seen a fraction of his glory and it is awesome.

 The opposite, of course, is also true.  When we sense that God has somehow “left us,” we naturally grieve having to return to our more diminished self.  Bernard describes this sense of spiritual loss saying,

 When the Word departs, these things cool.  It’s like taking a boiling pot away from the fire.  There can be no doubt that the experience is gone.  Sorrow is automatic.  But when it returns, I feel the warmth again, and I know once again that He is with me.

 There is a proper season for every experience of God.  The spiritually mature Christian must learn to accept this as the subtle and creative artistry of God’s ways.  For reasons known only to Himself, the Lord graces us at times with seasons of spiritual abundance, and at other times with seasons of spiritual aridity.  And He uses both these experiences to purify the sincerity of our love.

 

“The Lord gives and the Lord takes away.  Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Job 1:21

 

QUESTIONS

 

  1. How do you experience the comings and goings of God in your own life?  Are your interpretations of why this happens constructive or are they unsettling to you?

 

  1. What are some of the signs that provide evidence to you that God has “met” you in prayer?  In what ways might you be inordinately  “grasping” for the experience of God’s presence to remain with you?

 

  1. How do you experience having to return to “your more diminished self” when you sense that you are no longer communing with God as intimately as you were in prayer?  How does this experience serve to purify the sincerity of your love for God?

 

 

PRAYER:  Consider the maturity required to accept God’s freedom to be present or absent with you as He thinks best.  Express your trust in the Lord’s wisdom in this, and welcome the subtle ways He is perfecting your desire for Him through your experience of His “comings and goings.”

 

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81.  “Compounding a Desolation”

 When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it.  Then it says, “I will return to the house I left.” When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first.

                                                                                    Mat. 12:43-45

Like many of us I suffer at times from back problems.  I have what they call a stripped disc in that the cushion between the discs on one side of my lower vertebrae is worn out (I blame it on walking long distances to University each day with a bag full of books over my shoulder).  The result is that a nerve sometimes gets pinched between those discs which causes my muscles to spasm and bend my vertebrae.  I share this not because conversations about body deterioration seem more topical as I get older J, but because there is an important analogy here between what takes place in our muscles at such times, and what happens to our spirits when we are in the crippling grip of anxiety.

A nerve that has been pinched by a disc is bad enough.  It’s a sharp pain, but only lasts a moment.  The more chronic problem however is when the muscles that surround this disc respond to the pain by going into spasm.  The muscles are doing exactly what God has designed them to do. They are contracting around the injured area in order to protect it from further damage.  More than the initial injury, it is this secondary response—the muscle spasms—that prevents a person from standing straight or relaxing their back. And it is a long process of rehabilitation before we can assure our muscles that the danger is past, and that they can now relax.

A similar thing happens when we compound a desolation.  We add extra layers of turmoil to an already difficult spirit when we overly try to manage it, or else to protect ourselves from its undesired effects.  What started off as a relatively simple desolation gets compounded by the secondary stress we bring to it.  It is a familiar pattern that I see often in myself, especially when I go on a silent retreat.

I naturally look forward to such retreats and to returning to that particular quality of relationship I enjoy most with God.  It inevitably happens though that by the second or third day with myself I start floundering.  I lose all sense of focus.  My spirit is not where I want it to be and I spend most of my day trying to correct my course.  But all the methods and approaches that used to work for me seem useless now.  I find myself tailspinning in spiritual desolation.

My first response, of course, is to try to manage my way out of this desolation.  I get anxious about the state I am in and try to counter it with various strategies.  But nothing seems to work.  Depression soon gets added to the desolation.  Next comes a sense of failure and despair over how much time I am wasting in this negative state.  I feel stuck and can’t do anything about it.  All my efforts to save myself are futile as I sink deeper and deeper into this pit.  What began as a much simpler spiritual experience is now compounded by many layers of turmoil I have added through my responses to the initial desolation.

It is at this point that my spiritual director will gently say to me, “Rob you are exhausting yourself trying to manage this desolation.  Why don’t you simply accept the poverty of spirit that God is revealing to you through this experience?”  Everything changes from that point on.

By simply accepting this poverty of spirit rather than resist it, my spiritual life is immediately simplified.  No longer am I trying to control my inner life or to manage my way out of this strait.  The desolation has served its purpose.  It has revealed to me my inability to save myself.  And from the humble place it has led me to, I simply wait for God to do so.  To my great relief, I now have only the one spirit of poverty to relate to within myself rather than the “seven demons worse than the first” that I had taken on through my anxious denials.

The lessons for me here are twofold:  1) I need to be aware of how easily I can compound a spiritual desolation through my own anxious responses to it.  2) I need to be careful to not misinterpret the blessed poverty that I return to whenever God sweeps my house clean.

 

QUESTIONS

 

  1. How do you usually respond to a desolation in your life?  What spirits of your own do you add to this experience that make it even more difficult?

 

  1. How can you more readily accept the poverty of spirit that a desolation reveals you to?  What are some reasons why you resist this?

 

  1. In what ways do you overly try to “save yourself” when in a spiritual desolation?  How does God frustrate your efforts to do so?  Can you see the resulting poverty of spirit as God’s way of freeing you from a false sense of spiritual competence?

 

PRAYER:  Ask the Lord to show you how you might be overly self-managing your spiritual life.  Express something in prayer of your willingness to trust God as He leads you through whatever desolations you experience in life.

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82.  “Prayer of the Heart”

 The Lord searches every heart and understands every desire and every thought. If you seek him, he will be found by you.         1Chron. 28:9

 

The grace I usually seek in prayer is that of a silent and still heart in relationship to God’s presence.  It’s the most intimate hope I presently have for my prayer.  But I know that the disposition of stillness is not always possible in me.  I ask the Lord then to at least lead me to productive thoughts.  Both experiences of prayer—discursive and non-discursive—can offer rich opportunities for spiritual growth.  For the Lord “understands every desire and every thought.”

Through discursive prayer, or meditation, we get to work through the details of our lives with God.  We bring our questions to the Lord which often lead to a more precise understanding of ourselves and our spiritual lives.  In the light of His truth we get to sift through all the relationships that define our life.  We are also more attentive to whatever adjustments God is calling us to make in these.

Many such benefits attest to the good that can come through our mental dialogues with God.  But there is another, more beneficial way of prayer that lies beyond meditation.  And it is the inevitable fruit of any maturing relationship where words become less and less necessary the more familiar we are with the other person.

There comes a point in discursive prayer when words have served their purpose.  In the midst of our active dialogue with God, we start sensing another invitation calling us to a deeper, more instinctive relationship.  Our hearts suspect that a greater intimacy with God is possible beyond the limits of mental prayer.  We begin exploring a more wordless form of prayer—what the ancients called “the prayer of the heart.”

People who are used to praying for longer periods are certainly familiar with this transition that leads from a “prayer of the mind” to a “prayer of the heart.”  Our growing desire to rest in God starts shifting our focus from the dialogue going on in our minds to the more passive form of prayer going on in our hearts.  The very act of thinking becomes wearying as the subtle energies required to keep a mental dialogue going eventually exhaust us.  We respond more readily now to the invitation to pray, as the desert fathers taught, “with the mind descended into the heart.”

Loosening the tight grip we have on ourselves we sink into our hearts as we begin exploring a more direct, spirit-to-Spirit communication with God.  We find ourselves mysteriously led towards the “quiet waters” that lie just below the surface of our active selves.  If only for a few seconds, this cessation of thought produces in us a most welcome relief from the constant churning of data that our hearts are usually subjected to.

No longer distracted by the continuous narrative of thought, the soul now communes with God in a much more direct way.  Concepts or imaginings are no longer required as the material for our prayer, for we simply rest now in the sufficiency of God’s immediate presence. And in this disposition of stillness and silence we sense that we are communing with the most creative act of life—the moment-to-moment experience of God loving us while we are loving Him back.   We have sought Him and we have found Him.  There is nothing more to do now but to simply enjoy each other in the spirit of prayer.

 

QUESTIONS

 

  1. Do you feel frustrated by your thoughts during prayer, or do they represent a productive way for you to engage with God?

 

  1. Have you ever experienced wordless prayer with God?  How do you respond to the invitation to let go of “concepts or imaginings” in prayer in favour of a more direct communication with God?

 

  1. Do you find it easy to shift your focus from the mind to the heart?  What might prevent you from doing so?  What helps?

 

PRAYER:  Try practicing a more detached relationship to your thought life as you explore this wordless expression of prayer.  Consider what it means to “pray with the mind descended into the heart.”

 

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83. “The Poor Man’s Prayer”

I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.      Phil. 4:12

Prayer is one of the more mysterious activities we can do in life.  It is something we participate in more than do ourselves.  We could even say that prayer (and contemplative prayer in particular) is something that is done to us.  In the beautiful balance of humility we find ourselves receiving prayer at the same moment that we offer it.

Abbot John Chapman (1865-1933) a contemporary spiritual director, understands this reciprocal nature of prayer.   In a letter to one of his directees he speaks of his own relationship to praying saying,

 I never feel that my prayer is a thing that I own as my possession; and in fact I would not even like it to be so.  I would rather take it like a beggar from our Lord, every time I pray.

 Prayer is something that we both receive from God as well as offer to God.  But the language we use to describe it often betrays a bias more towards the offering side of this relationship.

It is a false assumption that prayer is something that we do, and therefore something we can get better at.  Perhaps we have learned a new method or approach that seems to “work” for us.  Or we feel we’ve reached a new plateau and that, like the builders of Babel’s tower, we can just keep climbing from one step to the next.  We believe that we now know the path, and that we can somehow return to this sweet spot whenever we want.  But there is much illusion here.  Many other factors, most of them beyond our control, also contribute to our experience of prayer.  As Abbott Chapman writes,

 It is of the very essence of prayer that it does not depend on us.  It depends as much on our circumstances, on our prior preoccupations, on our state of health, even on what we ate for breakfast for the character it takes as it does on our will.  Its efficacy and purity are always the result of God’s special grace.

 This might be quite discouraging to some people.  We all feel that we should somehow be participating more in this relationship than we are.  But Abbot Chapman actually celebrates the powerlessness that prayer leads us to saying,

 The best kind of prayer is when we seem unable to do anything, especially when we feel worried, anxious, tired or listless.  If we can simply throw ourselves on God at these times, and stay contentedly before Him, we will learn to remain humble and abandoned to His will, contented even with our own discontent.

 We are to receive whatever state God gives us in prayer.  Though it might sound like an overly passive posture, it will actually lead to a much greater freedom.  We will find ourselves no longer concerned with our progress in prayer.  We won’t depend as much on our own appraisals of its value.  And we will embrace more fully the truth that “we do not know how to pray as we ought to” (Rom 8:26).

Abbot Chapman speaks of the freedom that is ours to enjoy once we learn “the secret of being content” with whatever state of prayer we find ourselves in.  He writes,

 We no longer worry about our state of prayer.  We have given up expecting more than we have.  We want exactly what God is giving us and nothing else.  And since we have accepted whatever state we are in as God’s will, we know that we are exactly where we need to be.  For here, and nowhere else, is where God is working out His salvation in us.

 To receive, each day, the actual prayer that God gives us, and to not expect or want anything other is what Abbot John Chapman calls the highest spiritual maturity.  We are to simply look to the Father for whatever He gives, and to be grateful to God for whatever we receive.

 

QUESTIONS

 

  1. How accepting are you of the various states of prayer you find yourself in?  What turmoil does “expecting more than you have” create in you?

 

  1. What do you think Abbot John Chapman means by “being content even with your own discontentment?”  How might this honour God more than trying to be other than what you are?

 

  1. In what ways do you relate to the assumption that prayer is something you need to get better at?  How does this produce a false sense of either failure or achievement in you at times?

 

PRAYER:  God knows our capacity for prayer as well as our limitations.  Explore the prayer of contentment that is prepared to accept both truths.  Looks to God for whatever state He gives you, and be grateful for whatever spirit you receive from Him in prayer.

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84.  “The Value of a Good Question”

 Come now, and let us reason together.    Isa. 1:18

My high school English teacher taught us a very important lesson in how to cultivate a fruitful relationship with any subject matter by learning how to ask intelligent questions.  Every Friday, instead of giving the class a test, he would simply hand out blank sheets of paper and have us write three thoughtful questions concerning whatever book we were studying.  His premise was that, unless you have given serious thought to a subject matter, you can’t ask intelligent questions about it.

In his book, Spiritual Direction, Henri Nouwen also affirms the importance of creating space where meaningful questions can evolve.  Writing to spiritual directors Nouwen says,

 To offer spiritual help requires, first of all, not to deny but to affirm the search.  Painful questions must sometimes be raised, faced and then lived.  This means that we must constantly avoid the temptation of offering or accepting simple answers, to be easy defenders of God, the Church, the tradition, or whatever else we feel we must defend.

 Most of us are rescuers by nature.  We would much rather help a person out of their quandary than help them stay in it. But that’s exactly what spiritual direction does.  It encourages a person to trust God in the very tensions that our questions raise, and to not prematurely resolve those tensions with easy answers.  As Nouwen observes,

 The questions that lead us to seek spiritual direction are not questions with easy answers but ones that lead us deeper into the mystery of existence.  What needs affirmation is the validity of these questions.  What needs to be said is: “Yes, these are indeed the right questions.  Don’t be afraid to enter them.  Don’t turn away from living them.  Don’t worry if you don’t have an immediate answer for them”

 Spiritual direction affirms our basic quest for meaning.  It calls for the creation of space where a more profound seeking can take place. By its very nature spiritual direction is “mystagogical”—it helps us see ourselves and all of life as a mystery that we are growing towards.  Because it anticipates discovery it ensures that we are always growing in the spiritual life.

Spiritual direction helps open the door to new perspectives and horizons. It offers genuine hope that behind the difficult questions of life we will find, perhaps not the answers, but a deepening relationship to faith.  As Nouwen puts it,

 We must allow all the daily experiences of life—joy, loneliness, fear, anxiety, insecurity, doubt, ignorance, the need for affection, support, understanding, and the long cry for love—to be recognized as an essential part of the spiritual quest.  When we realize that the pain of the human search is a necessary growing pain, we can accept as good the forces of human spiritual development that our questions raise in us.

 Our questions, of course, will eventually cease.  Not because we have found the answers, but because we have come to more fully trust God in the things we cannot understand.  Nouwen recognizes the purifying of faith that this implies.   He writes,

 To receive spiritual direction is to recognize that God does not necessarily solve our problems or answer all our questions, but leads us closer to the mystery of our existence where all questions cease. It calls for the courage to enter into the common search and to confront the brokenness that begets our questions. It helps us accept that our questions are human questions, that our search is a human search, and that our restlessness is part of the restlessness of the human heart.

 Spiritual direction then is mostly concerned with the formation of faith—our increasing capacity to welcome God as the mysterious Creator of our lives.  It fosters a disposition in us that can only be sustained by prayer and the spiritual disciplines that invites us to slow down and order our time, desires and thoughts in such a way that we are more open to the mystery of God, before whom all questions cease.

 

QUESTIONS

 

  1. How would you assess your own capacity to remain in the tension of unanswered questions?

 

  1. In what areas of your thinking have ready-made answers made you less of a seeker of truth, more content to rest in the answers you have already found?

 

  1. How does one become a seeker again (e.g. Mat. 18:3)?
  2. In what ways might the disposition of a seeker keep you more engaged with God than when you feel more satisfied in your answers?

 

PRAYER:  Prior to his conversion, St. Francis of Assisi spent the night asking God two questions: “Who are You?” and “Who am I in Your sight?”  Consider similar questions you might ask God regarding your life.  Seek peace in relationship to these questions even before you have found answers to them.

 

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85. “The Redeeming of our Wills”

 He must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet….When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.

                                                                        1Cor. 15:25,28                                         

There is a conversion event taking place in every Christian with regards to the sanctification of our wills.  God is strengthening our resolve to choose wisely according to His righteousness.  And in so doing the Lord is returning to us the sovereignty over self that sin had otherwise robbed us of.

Ever since the Fall we have lost dominion over ourselves.  Our lives are not subject to our wills as they should be and the tragic result is that  “we keep doing the things we don’t want to do and we don’t do the things we want to.”  But thanks be to God that one of the benefits of salvation that we can look forward to, even in this lifetime, is the re-establishing of right order within us.  Through the spiritual fruit of wisdom, discernment and self-control, we should increasingly see our lives directed by a more sanctified will.

In some ways, what is taking place in us as individuals is a microcosm of what we read in 1Cor. 15:25 regarding the manner in which Christ will establish His lordship over all creation.  According to Paul, this will be a two-stage process whereby Jesus will first “put everything under His feet,” after which He will subject Himself to His Father.  As Jesus must first establish His own dominion over creation before He can place His kingdom under the sovereignty of God, so must we first subject our inner lives to the self-control of the will before we can fully make an offering of ourselves to God.

Our inner lives are much more scattered than they should be.  When we offer ourselves to God there is no guarantee that we can fully deliver that offering.  As Thomas Merton said, ”Before you can give your life to God you must first gather your life.”  We cannot give to God that which we don’t yet possess.  It would be like trying to sell a house that we don’t actually have the deeds to yet.

Our daily prayer is the place that most reveals to us our lack of self-mastery.  But it is also the place where we most recognize the subtle ways that God is redeeming the authority of our wills.  We are slowly regaining dominion over our minds and emotions as these become more subject to us.  As Henri Nouwen puts it, “Through prayer we are learning the mastery of the gentle hand.  Under this gentle regime, we find ourselves once again becoming masters of our own house.”

Our thoughts and emotions are meant to be part of the counsel we draw on in order to make wise decisions and to then will them into action.  But for many people this order is reversed.  The will is more often subject to the fears of the mind or to the wants of the emotions than it should be.  But the good news is that the Holy Spirit is bringing healing to us in setting the relationship between our will and the rest of our faculties in proper order.  We can look forward to seeing more and more areas of our lives brought under the dominion of our wills, and to being more able to offer these areas to God.  For it is only to the degree that He has “put everything under our feet” that we can then put ourselves fully under His.

QUESTIONS

 

  1. How do you relate to the unruliness of your inner life and especially to the hope that God is gradually healing this?

 

  1. In what  areas of your life do you feel enough “mastery” that you can actually submit these to God?  What areas do you not have possession of yet?

 

  1. How does prayer teach us “the mastery of the gentle hand?”  In what ways is the gentleness of a Spirit-redeemed will different from the self-willed approaches to discipline you have tried in the past?

PRAYER:  Take time in prayer to confess and perhaps even lament the unruliness of your life.  Express hope in God’s desire that the sovereignty of your will be restored in you.  Ask the Lord how you might participate with the gentle hand that is resorting to you the “mastery” of your self.

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 86.  “Claiming our Belovedness”

And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love,  may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people,to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ.                                             Eph. 3:17-18

 Everyone wants to be loved.  And no matter how much our surface selves might suggest otherwise, our deepest spiritual instincts tell us that we are all truly loved by God.  One of the primary goals of our spiritual life then is to become more “rooted and established” in our identity as God’s beloved son or daughter.  In his book, Spiritual Direction, Nouwen speaks of the strong attraction this basic truth holds for us.  He writes,

 Deep in the recesses of our minds and hearts lies the hidden treasure that we once had and now seek.  We know its preciousness, and we know that it holds the gift we most desire: a spiritual love that is stronger than all our doubts.

 No matter how much our self-critical nature, or all the demeaning events that happen in a day might suggest otherwise, the fact that we are loved by God is the deepest foundation of our spiritual life.  But our lives are often more defined by lies that contradict this.  And it is because of the prevalence of such lies that prayer is so essential for our healing.  It alone can counteract these fallacies and establish in us the truth of God’s love.  Nouwen highlights the importance of daily prayer for recovering our status as the Beloved saying,

 If I am the Beloved of God, how do I claim my Belovedness?  I begin by daily repeating the very words that Jesus heard at his baptism, for they are also meant for me and for you: “You are my Beloved.  With you I am well pleased.”  By simply spending a few minutes each day in prayer, meditating on God’s great love you will be able to claim and reclaim the person you truly are in God’s sight.

 Without the daily practice of prayer we are tossed to and fro by every wave of negative imagination.  Living on the surface of our selves, we find ourselves more confused than necessary by doubts, fears and troubling thoughts.  We often lose sight of our belovedness and it is because of our tendency that Nouwen underscores the importance of returning each day to the place where our first identity can be restored.  He writes,

 The discipline of prayer is to constantly go back to the truth of who we are and to keep claiming it for ourselves.  Our lives are rooted in our spiritual identities.  We must constantly go back to our first love, back regularly to the place of core identity where we are securely rooted in Christ’s love.

 Once the practice of prayer is firmly established in us we will find ourselves more consistently living from the depths of our identity as God’s Beloved.  We will find that our desire, as well as our capacity to remain in that truth, will also grow.  As Nouwen observes,

 Every time you listen with great attentiveness to the voice that calls you the Beloved, you will discover within yourself a desire to hear that voice longer and more deeply.  It is like finding a well in the desert.  To dig and search each day for this underground stream is the discipline of prayer.

 Paul’s hope was that we be established (i.e. “made stable”) in Christ’s love.  God wants us to rest securely in the knowledge that His love for us is stronger than any lie that would contradict it.  And the practice of prayer is the most effective way of reclaiming  the truth of who we really are in God’s sight.

 

QUESTIONS

 

1.  How established is your own identity as God’s beloved?  To what do you attribute the fact that this is, or isn’t, so for you?

 

2.  How does prayer help counter the self-deprecating lies that would put your belovedness in doubt?

 

3.  What negative thoughts or attitudes serve to rob you at times of your inheritance as God’s beloved?

 

PRAYER:  Take time, as Henri Nouwen suggests, to claim your belovedness in God’s eyes.  Imagine the Lord saying to you the same words that Jesus heard at His baptism: “You are my beloved.  With you I am well pleased.”  Repeat as necessary.

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87.   “The Cup We Must Drink

“My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”  Mat. 26:39

                                                                 

For the past two weeks I’ve been living more profoundly in fellowship with Jesus’ prayers in Gethsemane, especially in the evolution we see in Matt. 26 between the Lord’s first prayer, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me,” and his later prayer, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done” (Mat.26:42)  The occasion for this was a biopsy I had on my liver for what was thought might be cancer.

I had an ultrasound and a catscan earlier in the month for an unrelated issue when spots on my liver were detected.  The doctor sent me next for an MRI which not only confirmed these spots but revealed that they had grown somewhat since the first ultrasound.  He scheduled me for a biopsy the next week.  This is pretty new territory for me as I’ve always enjoyed good health and I was grateful to see my faith holding up and how trusting I seemed to be in the midst of such unknowns.

Another ultrasound was scheduled for the day of the biopsy so that the doctor could determine how to approach the surgery.  When the attendant left the room to get the doctor I got up from the bed and looked at the photos on the screen.  I was shocked to see how riddled my liver was with dark spots, especially one notably large lesion.  It didn’t help either when the doctor came back and started using words like “concerned” and “quite concerned” to describe what she was seeing in these images.  Needless to say, my disposition quickly shifted from one of trusting the unknown to entertaining the very real possibility that I could be in some serious stage of liver cancer.

It takes 7-10 days for a biopsy report to get back to the doctor.  During this long week I kept most of this information to myself and found myself mostly asking God what relationship I should be forming to this event.  I didn’t want to be in denial.  I knew it was important for me to look the worst-case scenario in the face and to seek God in that dire possibility as much as any other.  But nor did I want to obsess over something that wasn’t conclusive yet.

I realize of course that I am not the first to go through such a trial.  There are many people on this e-mail list who have much more profound and courageous stories to tell.  But I want to share something of what I learned from God here in the hope that it might be of encouragement to others.

As mentioned above, my first instinct was to form a relationship with the worse-case scenario.  Once past this initial fear I was surprised at the profound gratitude I felt for my life.  The Lord doesn’t owe me anything.  If my premature death somehow serves His purposes, I felt I should prepare myself to not only accept this, but to actually try to embrace it as God’s will.

Curiously, it was only after I had formed this initial relationship with the worst-case scenario that I then started noting a very natural love of life arising in me.  Many times in my day I found myself cherishing some aspect of life and asking the Lord, “If it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.”  I wanted to live, and I felt that God was inviting me to express this.  But I also noted each time I said this prayer that it would immediately be followed by its Gethsemane partner, “But if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”  The Lord seemed to be encouraging me to form an equal relationship with either outcome.

Last week, I got a call from the clinic saying that the doctor wanted to see me to go over the biopsy results.  To my relief the receptionist added those welcome words, “it’s not urgent” which implied that the results were positive.  I was surprised, when I got off the phone, as tears of gratitude immediately welled up in me.  I had obviously been holding all this at a much deeper level than I had thought.  But the story wasn’t over

I thought I was going to the doctor to go over the biopsy report but when I got there I found that he hadn’t received the report yet.  Instead we went over the preliminary report the surgeon gave him from the ultrasound.  I was thrown off when his first words were that it didn’t look good and that the report indicated that I probably had liver cancer that had metastasized from some other tumour in my body.  He told me I should cancel my Ontario trip (leaving on Thurs.) as they would have to act fast if the tests were confirming of cancer.  He sent me immediately for a chest x-ray assuming the primary tumour was likely in the lungs.  After the x-ray I went home and waited for the results.

Just before supper time the doctor called to say that the x-ray didn’t reveal a tumour but that he was still waiting for the biopsy to figure what else to do.  We finally heard from the doctor later that evening saying that he had received the biopsy report and that, in his words, it looked “favourable.”  There were no signs of cancer.  He told me I needn’t cancel my trip after all. Needless to say the day was quite a roller coaster ride for us.  In the space of a few hours we went from a pretty devastating diagnosis to a sense that the threat had somehow passed us.  Throughout it all it was noteable how faith kept us on an even keel.

What seems to be the gift of a new lease on life has certainly not been without effect in me.  Facing my mortality more directly than ever has made me appreciate all the things I truly value in life.  My time here is precious and not to be presumed upon.  There is much to do.  I feel more committed than ever to my work of writing and encouraging others in any way I can.

Again, I know that my experience certainly pales in comparison with that of others, especially in what seems to be the positive outcome that I know many others have not received.  I share this though in the hope that it will encourage us all to appreciate the precious days the Lord has given us.  The experience has certainly provided me, among other things, with a much deeper appreciation of how Jesus’ two Gethsemane prayers can serve as a model for faith in such circumstances.

 

QUESTIONS

 

  1. Whether related to your health or to any other life circumstance in what ways might Jesus’ two prayers—to accept the cup God gives you on the one hand, while also feeling free to express your desire that it be removed—provide a model for mature faith in our trials?

 

  1. What happens when we only allow ourselves to entertain one of these possibilities?

 

  1. How might forming a faith relationship to the worst-case scenario make you more free to then speak to God about your own preferences?

 

PRAYER:  Consider some of the fears that you are presently avoiding.  Take time to seek God, even hypothetically, in the possibility of a worse-case scenario.  Having accepted this possibility, now speak to the Lord about your own hopes in these matters.

 

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88.  “Thy kingdom come, and Let it Begin with Me”

Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.   Matt. 6:10

So much of Imago Dei’s ministry is related to this second petition of the Lord’s Prayer.  Our practices, as well as the teachings we share in our fellowship groups, encourage a life that is more receptive to the movements of God in us so that we can be more obedient to these promptings.  Our desire is that God’s will be done in us as it is in heaven.

Through the practice of contemplative prayer—which is the catalyst for our spiritual growth—we make ourselves available to God for spiritual formation.  As we offer ourselves daily in this way, the Holy Spirit has opportunity to speak, to move, to curtail and to form us according to whatever best serves God’s purposes in us.  Trusting His ways, we welcome all the mysterious and unexpected ways that God’s kingdom comes into our lives.

The daily practice of contemplative prayer encourages a more receptive disposition towards all aspects of our lives.  We become more attentive to the various movements within us, noting how the spirits of consolation or desolation, like weather systems of the heart, affect our experiences of life.  We are led at times by a pillar of light that excites the heart and motivates us in the pursuit of God, and at other times by a pillar of cloud that obscures that light, encouraging us to walk more purely by faith.

The rhythms of return that we practice in our day (e.g. recollection, examen, etc.) foster in us a more sustained contemplative life.  We find ourselves living more freely in the assumption that God is acting in every circumstance of our lives.  Each person we meet and all the events of our day we presume to be instruments of God’s will.  All this comes from the simple desire to do or be whatever Christ is within us.

This, in a nutshell, is the ministry, vision and spiritual direction of Imago Dei.  And the overarching prayer that provides our mandate for such hope is none other than this second petition of the Lord’s prayer—“thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  To which we simply add, “and let it begin with me.”

The hope I have for everyone affiliated with Imago Dei is that we can increasingly claim, as Paul did, that “the life I live is not my own.  It is Christ living in me.”  And that, in the spirit of self-offering, we will live lives that are more submitted to God, more prepared to yield to His initiatives, and more given to serve the encouragement of others.

QUESTIONS

 

1.  What signs do you recognize of God’s will being done in you “as it is in heaven?”  Do you have a sense of your own will becoming more aligned with God’s?

 

2.  How related is your self-offering to your growing awareness of God’s will in your life?  How does prayer encourage and enable you to make this offering in a more authentic way?

 

3.  How accepting are you of the thought that God is using all the people and events in your day to form His will in you?

 

 

PRAYER:  Consider the hope that this second petition—“Thy will be done in me as it is in heaven”—produces in you.  Consider what it would mean if the whole world lived with this same vision.  Offer yourself to God that He may use you to encourage this in the lives of those around you.

 

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89.  “Letting Go”

 Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will gain it. 

Luke 17:33

In a meditation written just thirteen days before he died from pancreatic cancer, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin examined his life-long challenge with abandoning himself to God.  The spiritual practice of “letting go” was not a new one for Cardinal Bernardin, but it certainly took on a more profound application as he approached his own end.  He wrote,

 Throughout my spiritual journey I have struggled to become closer to God. As I prepare now for my passage from this world into the next, I cannot help but reflect on my life and recognize the themes that, like old friends, have been so important to me all these years. One theme that rises to the surface more than any other takes on new meaning for me now—the theme of letting go. By letting go, I mean the ability to release from my grasp those things that inhibit me from developing a more intimate relationship with the Lord Jesus.

 We learn how to let go of ourselves best through prayer.  Contemplative prayer, in particular, teaches us how to open ourselves up to God so that the Lord might live more fully in us.  It encourages and sustains us in the life-long conversion that this spiritual direction implies.  But it does so mostly by revealing to us the many ways we hold back from God.  Bernardin writes,

 I have prayed and struggled constantly to be able to let go of things more willingly, to be free of everything that keeps the Lord from finding greater hospitality in my soul, or interferes with my surrender to what God asks of me. It is clear to me, especially now as I face death, that God wants me to let go. My daily prayer is that I can open wide the doors of my heart to Jesus and to His expectations of me.

 Though he often communes with God in prayer, Cardinal Bernardin admits that he is still afraid of giving himself more fully to the Lord.  He recognizes that he only lets God come in part of the way.  Though he believes and understands that God is to be trusted, he still finds himself holding back, unwilling to let go completely.  Bernardin speaks of his struggle in this saying,

 The Lord is clear about what He wants from me, but it is really difficult to let go of all the plans I consider so important and all the needs I think I have in order to trust Him completely.  I know that I must empty myself so that Jesus can come in.

 It is the Holy Spirit who encourages us to perfect the offering of our lives so that we can more fully enjoy the freedom that that offering promises us.  And to the degree that we withhold this offering our freedom is curtailed.  As our Lord taught us, “Whoever keeps his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will find it.”   Cardinal Bernardin understands this when he writes,

 It is always unsettling to pray to be emptied of self; it seems a challenge almost beyond our reach as humans. But to let go of myself is the most perfect expression of my love and trust of the Lord.  And if we try, I have learned that God does most of the work.

 Jesus showed us the Way and promised abundant life to all who will follow His footsteps.  He did not grasp at His own life.  And because He made Himself nothing, His Father gave Him everything.

 

QUESTIONS

 

1.  In what ways do you find yourself responding to or resisting God’s invitation to “offer your life more perfectly to Christ?”

 

2.  How do you relate to Cardinal Bernardin’s desire to  “open wide the doors of my heart to Jesus and his expectations of me?”  How does this reflect  your own hopes for spiritual growth?

 

3.  What fears does the thought of giving yourself more completely to God bring up in you?  How do these fears rob you of the freedom that God otherwise desires for you?

PRAYER:  In the gentleness of prayer, practice letting go and offering your life more fully to Christ.  Make note of and confess any fears that arise in you.  Take opportunity to express your trust of God, even in the midst of your fears.  And above all, express something of your desire to grow more completely in the ways you offer your life to Christ.

 

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90.  “Accepting Our Crosses”

Whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.  Luke 14:27

 My spiritual director at Loyola House has taught me much about the importance of accepting the crosses in our lives. And he speaks very much from first-hand experience.  Forty years ago Fr. John had a brain tumour which left him paralyzed and unable to see, hear, talk or walk with one half of his body.  After years of rehabilitation and many subsequent operations he’s been able to recover some degree of speech and mobility.

Fr. John tells of the early years of negotiating these unexpected cards he was dealt.  He recognizes the temptations he felt at the time when he might have justifiably succumbed to feeling angry, victimized, depressed or even suicidal.  Instead God gave him grace to bear Jesus’ command that we “take up our cross” in order to find Him in our lives.  It is an essential word for us all, and one that Fr. John naturally embodies in his spiritual direction practice.  In a little booklet he wrote on “Living and Growing with Christ” he says,

 As a spiritual director, I have been very privileged in accompanying many people on their individual journeys through the ups and downs, the joys and pains of their lives.  In all their stories, even though they are unique, there is one thing that seems to surface all the time.  Everyone has difficulty in accepting their crosses or the hard realities of their lives.

 This is what Jesus came to teach us—how to more fully accept our humanity, even when that humanity includes the crosses we must bear.  Recognizing the propensity we all have for resisting this side of our creatureliness Fr. John writes,

 The cross is the key for growth.  The very things that we refuse to accept or that we complain about are the things Jesus is wanting us to grow through.  They are gifts for us to receive, but we reject them.  We have not fully said ‘yes’ to Christ in our lives, and so we refuse to say ‘yes’ to our crosses.

 According to Fr. John, the more we accept the gift offered to us in our crosses the richer we become.  If we don’t accept these, we automatically become poorer, as though something were being taken away from us.

By accepting God’s cross for him, Fr. John grew profoundly in his spiritual life.  Unable to speak, read or leave his bed for many years, he had nowhere to go but within.  There, he learned how to seek and find God’s goodness in the deepest places of his being.  He was then able to recognize that same divine goodness in the circumstances of his cross.  He writes,

 Jesus asks us to stay in union with Him even in the hard truths of our lives.  Faith  means accepting the presence of God in whatever reality we find ourselves in.  But if we do not accept our crosses, we will never know Christ’s grace that is hidden within them.

 Faith means accepting God’s will even in the hard things we experience in life.  We can presume the goodness of God to be present in our crosses.  And to the degree that we do so, we will discover that same goodness revealed in all aspects of our lives.

 

QUESTIONS

 

1.  In what ways have your own crosses caused you to feel angry with God, victimized or depressed?  What prevented you from accepting them with more grace?

 

2.  In what ways have you found a deeper fellowship with Christ by accepting your crosses?  What did you have to overcome in yourself in order to do so?

 

3.  How do you understand Fr. John’s suggestion that it is because we have not fully said “yes” to Christ  that we are not able to say “yes” to our crosses?

 

 

PRAYER:  Consider a particular cross you are bearing at present.  Presume God’s goodness to be mysteriously at work here.  Thank Him for the gifts that have also come to you through this unwanted cross.

 

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91.  “Witnesses of Glory”

I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple…..Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I. Send me!’

                                                                        Isa. 6:1,8

 Beauty has a way of transforming us.  It never leaves us indifferent or unaffected but moves us towards action, sending us back into the world as witnesses of what we have seen.  As Hans Urs von Balthasar puts it, “Beauty works its way into our bones, into the sinews of our life, indelibly marking us, and then setting us off.”

Isaiah, having tasted the goodness of the Lord, is sent out as a herald of the beauty he has seen. As the Catholic theologian Robert Barron writes,

 The one who has been grasped by the beautiful is like the woman in the Gospel who breaks open the alabaster jar at the feet of Jesus and allows the aroma of the perfume to fill the entire house; she is willing to break open her life in order to witness to what she has seen and heard.

 Experiences of beauty always imply mission.  We are changed by what God has shown us.  And whatever we receive in such encounters is always for the sake of others.  As Barron notes,

 Visions of the divine are never given merely for the sake of private edification or contemplation. The “seeing” is never an end in itself.  On the contrary, there is always a commission attached to the insight. Vision opens you to mission.  You have been shown so that others might see as well.

 There are countless examples in Scripture of this movement from “seeing” to “being sent.”   Moses is so marked by his encounter with God that his face became radiant.  He doesn’t stay on the mountaintop but comes back down to set his people free.   Saul of Tarsus, dazzled by Christ’s light, is sent to Damascus where he is given a mission to carry the message of Jesus to the gentiles.  And Peter, the first to discern that Jesus is the Messiah, is immediately given the commission to anchor and ground the community through which the glory he has recognized will now be proclaimed to the world.

God, it would seem, does not disclose himself without a “price”. He commissions the one who has seen with a call for service to the whole community, a call that is both compelling and inescapable.  The beauty of the Lord becomes a fire within us, prompting us to a missionary life of proclamation.  As Barron puts it, “To refuse this call would be tantamount to refusing the best of oneself.  To ignore it would be to ignore the person we are meant to be.”  He adds,

 The summons from God is like the coal placed on the lips of Isaiah, or the fire burning uncomfortably in the bones of Jeremiah, or the compulsion that Paul feels  to proclaim the Gospel:  ” I am ruined if I do not preach it!” The beauty of God  so possesses us that our very identity, our very person, becomes the mission to communicate this to the world.

 Whatever we have seen of Christ transforms us into witnesses of the gospel.  And the same mystery that first drew us to His beauty now sends us out to share with the world the glory we have seen.

 

QUESTIONS

 

1.  In what ways has the beauty of God transformed you?  What particular aspect of God’s beauty comes to mind for you today?

 

2.  What do you wish you could share most with others about the beauty of the Lord?

 

3.  How do you relate to Robert Barron’s statement that “To refuse this call would be tantamount to refusing the best of oneself.  To ignore it would be to ignore the person we are meant to be?”

 

PRAYER:  Take time to meditate on the things you already know of God’s beauty.  Express to God something of your desire to know more—that He would open your heart to more fully appreciate the beauty of His ways.  Now pray for those who you would like to share this knowledge with.

 

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92.   “Seek the Lord, While He may be Found”

  Let all the faithful pray to you
while you may be found;  Psalm 32:6

 We are often told in Scripture to seek God “while He may be found.”  But how do we reconcile this with our belief that God is omnipresent?  We are confident of Jesus’ assurance that He is always with us, but how are to understand the fact that we are not always able to find God when we want to?  It does seem that there are times when the Lord may be found, and other times when He cannot.

Bernard de Clairvaux addresses this troubling feature of the spiritual life in his sermons on The Song of Songs. Referring to the lament of the bride who can no longer find her Bridegroom he says,

 “All night long on my bed I looked for the one my heart loves” (SS 3:1).  The Bridegroom remains absent. He still loves her, but he is quiet about it.  Her prayers for him to return have not been answered.  But because of her love, she becomes even more eager to find him.  “I looked for him but did not find him.  I will get up now and go about the city, through its streets and squares.”  She asks those she encounters, “Have you see the one my heart loves?” (SS 3:3).

 How are we to understand such a disappointment Bernard asks?  A brief absence may have benefitted her love, but why must it continue?  He offers three possible explanations for this seeming slight saying, “It could be that we are looking for Him either at the wrong time, in the wrong way, or in the wrong location.”

On seeking God at the wrong time Bernard agrees with our Scripture when he writes,

 All moments are not equal.  This is why the prophet says, “Seek the Lord while he may be found” (Isa. 55:6).  This implies that there is also an inappropriate time when he may not be found.  The prophet goes on to say, “Call on him while he is near” There must as well be occasions when he is not near.

 Or perhaps we are seeking God in the wrong way, which is something the Holy Spirit is always correcting in our prayers.  We seek God unworthily for instance when we do so without faith or humility.  Or when we seek Him more for our own benefits than from the motive of love.  Or perhaps we are being presumptuous about who God must or mustn’t be in this relationship.  God’s silence at these times could simply be His way of saying that He doesn’t agree with the “terms of engagement” that we have laid out.

Or perhaps it is the place where we are seeking God that is not conducive to finding Him.  We might, for instance, be listening for an audible word from the Lord when all the time the Holy Spirit is present in us as a gentle sigh in our hearts.  Or we might be looking for confirmation from God about a particular direction in life when the Lord’s reticence is actually telling us to stay put.

The focus of our prayer very much determines what we miss in our prayer.  It was the Pharisees’ overly defined expectation of who the Messiah should be that blinded them to the Son of God standing in their midst.  For others it is their last experience of God that prevents them from recognizing the new revelation the Lord is bringing them.

Another way that we might seek God in the wrong place is when we strain to find Jesus in our own narrative when the Lord is actually encouraging us to find ourselves in His story.  Regarding the bride’s search for the Bridegroom, Bernard writes,

It could be that she is looking in the wrong place.  “On my bed I looked for the one my heart loves.”  Wake up! Why would you seek him in your bed, when he is now in his own bed?  Don’t keep looking for him in your little bed.  “You are looking for Jesus who was crucified.  He has risen! He is not here” (Mark 16:6).

 Our prayer experience confirms what Scripture teaches us here—that there are opportune times for seeking God in our lives.  There are definite “kairos” moments when the state of our hearts, the circumstances of life, and the Lord’s purposes for this present moment all contribute to an opportunity for true encounter with the divine.  At such times we are wise to drop whatever we are doing and come to our Father saying, as the young Samuel did, “Speak O Lord, for your servant is listening.”

QUESTIONS

 

1.  What is your experience of seeking God, but not being able to find Him?  How do you usually interpret such experiences?

 

2.  Isaiah says of the Lord, “Surely you are a God who hides himself” (Isa. 45:15).  Why, in His love for you, would the Lord choose to hide Himself?

 

3.  In what ways do you think you might be seeking God at the wrong time, in the wrong way, or at the wrong place?  Can you accept the Lord’s loving correction in not letting you find Him at these times?

 

PRAYER:  In your prayer, ask God to help you discern the right times, the right ways, and the right places to seek Him.   Be alert and prepared to respond immediately when the opportune moments present themselves in your day to seek God “when He may be found.”

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93.   “Letting Jesus Sleep”

 Suddenly a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping.  The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!” He replied, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm.

Matt. 8:24-26

 One thing that should be obvious to anyone who reads this passage from Matthew is that the Lord would’ve preferred to be left sleeping rather than awoken by the disciples’ panicked response.  How does Jesus’ preference apply to us as well?  When Jesus seems asleep in the midst of our storms how do our own anxious prayers reveal the “little faith” we have?

It’s certainly understandable that we want Jesus to “wake up” whenever we are afraid.  But perhaps the Lord, secure in the knowledge that there really isn’t a problem here, would prefer to have us rest in His peace rather than project our fears unto Him.  It honours Jesus more when we trust that He is guiding us rather than to presume He is asleep at the wheel.

How we respond to a crisis reveals a lot about our faith.  But the way we pray at such times often communicates more to God about our distrust than about our faith.  Too often we interpret the seeming absence or reticence of the Lord as abandonment.  But, in faith, we could just as easily interpret this as a reassuring sign of Jesus’ confidence that there really isn’t a problem here.

The next time we are in crisis, rather than immediately cry for help, perhaps it would be good to ask ourselves what an alternative prayer of faith might look like in this situation.  Such a prayer would probably sound less like that of the disciples in the boat and more like the prayers of the Psalmists who, in the midst of their own trials, found the confidence to assert that,

 God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present helpin trouble.
 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea (Psalm 46:1-2)

 We honour God most by trusting Him—in other words, by being so assured of His care that we are even willing to let Jesus sleep.  The story of the disciples in the storm highlights the fact that God hears not only our prayers but also the motivation behind them.  Even when we think we are disguising our anxieties in the form of a prayer, our lack of faith is nevertheless apparent to God.

“You of little faith, why are you so afraid?”  Jesus is not unsympathetic to our moments of weakness, our fears, or our many real or imagined crises.  But the spiritual direction implied in this passage is obvious —Jesus is encouraging us to rest more securely in His care.   He wants us to know, as the Psalmist does, that because “God is my rock and my fortress,”  “I will not be shaken” (Ps. 62:6).   It is this assurance that Jesus Himself rests in and that He wants us to join Him in.  For it is the posture that most affirms the trustworthiness of our Father.

 

QUESTIONS

1.  Henri Nouwen once wrote, “What God listens to most in our prayers is whether they are prayers of faith or prayers of fear.”  Can you tell the difference between your own “prayers of faith” or “prayers of fear?”  How might you reframe your fearful prayers into expressions of faith?

2.  What are some situations in your life where Jesus might be inviting you to rest more in His assurance, rather than project your fears unto Him?

3.  What would it require of you to interpret God’s silence more as a sign of reassurance than as a sign of abandonment?

 

PRAYER:  Consider a recent or immanent crisis in your life.  Apply the assertion of either Psalm 46:1-2 or Psalm 62:6 (above) to this situation.  Consider how this confidence is more honouring of God’s faithfulness in your life than your fears would be.

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94.   “You Will Know a Spirit by its Fruit”

Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God.  1John 4:1

Those who have followed these meditations over the years are certainly familiar with the terms “consolation” and “desolation.”  Generally speaking, a consolation is a spirit that comes from, and leads to, God.  It is not a feeling as much as a movement of spirit that sets our hearts on a definite course towards God.  A spiritual desolation on the other hand always leads us back towards the self, and therefore away from God.  Recognizing these two spiritual directions is essential wisdom for anyone who participates in the spiritual life.  But there are also two other distinctions to note within these movements that will ensure we are not misinterpreting the direction these spirits are leading us in.

In discerning the various movement of spirits within us we should be careful to not confuse a consolation or desolation with the immediate feelings they produce in us.  Depending on which direction we are going (i.e. towards God, or towards the self), these feelings will seem either pleasant or unpleasant to us.  In our experience of spiritual movements we need to also distinguish between what might be called “easy and hard” consolations, or “easy and hard” desolations.

Easy consolations naturally feel pleasant and in harmony with everything within us.  They lead to actions based on love and they generally produce in us a response of gratitude and humility.  An example of easy consolation might be the prodigal son enjoying the unexpected embrace of his father.  He has returned home to his true self.

A hard spiritual consolation, on the other hand, feels unpleasant at first.  It might be an experience of repentance, a sorrow for sins, or an awareness of the suffering of others which brings discomfort or sadness.  But even though this experience initially feels unpleasant, it is a consolation because it ultimately leads us to God.  A hard consolation is also present whenever we encounter a cross in our lives but nevertheless have faith that God is with us.  In spite of the turmoil of our circumstances we still experience hope.  An example of a hard consolation might be the prodigal son in the pig sty who nevertheless feels hope at the thought of returning to his father’s house.

We can speak similarly of easy and hard desolations.  An easy spiritual desolation can actually be a pleasant experience.  One feels quite satisfied, with a positive sense of well-being and autonomy.  We might even enjoy the illusion of freedom as the prodigal son likely did when he first left home.  Easy desolations foster an attitude of complacency, leading to pride.  Though we initially experience this spirit as pleasant, it is actually a desolation as it leads us away from God and more towards a greater attachment to self.

A hard spiritual desolation, on the other hand, will create a sense of hopelessness in us.  We feel powerless and trapped.  It leaves us with a deep sense of failure, despair, anguish or pessimism.  Feelings of self-pity, diminishment or loss are also the fruit of this spirit.  When we are in a hard spiritual desolation we also feel uncomfortable in the presence of God.   It would be the experience of the prodigal son, before he “came to his senses,” who could not imagine encountering his father again.

Our feelings, on their own, can be deceptive.  We need to also look at the resulting spiritual direction that these different movements produce in us.  Is this spirit leading you towards God, or more towards a greater attachment to your self?  How you answer this question will tell you all you need to know as to whether you should continue following this spirit or turn away from it.

 His sheep follow him because they know his voice.  But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him

because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.”

John 10:4-5

 

QUESTIONS

1.  How might the presence of a spirit of complacency in ourselves or in our churches actually be understood as an “easy desolation?”   Having recognized it as such, what would it take for us to turn away from this spirit even if it feels pleasant?

2.   Consider times when you have felt uncomfortable in the presence of God.  How might seeing this spirit as the fruit of a “hard desolation” allow you to counter it with its opposite?  In other words, how might you all the more embrace God, and turn this spirit into a “hard consolation?”

3.   Do you remember times when you resisted a “hard consolation” simply because you didn’t like how it made you feel?  How does the realization that this spirit is actually leading you to God help you remain with it for longer?

 

PRAYER:  Take time in prayer to consider times when you have either resisted a “hard consolation” because you didn’t like how it felt, or else that you were complacent in an “easy desolation” because you found it easier to stay there rather move away from this spirit.  Ask God for wisdom in discerning these deceptive responses in us and courage to make the right choices regarding their worth.

 

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95.   “A Humble Foundation”

Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.

                                                                        James 4:10

The 14th century Flemish mystic Jan van Ruusbroec understood the virtue of humility to be the foundation of all other virtues. In his Spiritual Espousals, Ruusbroec develops this premise showing how each fruit of the Spirit is built upon the foundation of the preceding one. In other words, humility is the bedrock for obedience, which then begets meekness, kindness, patience, etc.

Ruusbroec describes humility as, an interior bowing of the heart and mind before the transcendent majesty of God.” He then speaks of the fruit of such humility saying,

This humility gives rise to obedience, for only a humble person can be interiorly obedient. Obedience is a humble, submissive, docile attitude of mind and an openness of the will to God. Obedience makes a person submissive to everything which God commands, forbids or wills. It also makes a person open and docile toward everyone else in matters of advice, activity, or service.

 Obedience is naturally implied in the offering of our lives to Christ. That is why Ruusbroec notes that, “Obedience leads to the renunciation of one’s own will and opinion, for only an obedient person can submit his own will to that of another.” He adds,

 By means of the renunciation of one’s own will regarding things to be done or left undone or endured, all matter and occasion for pride are entirely driven out and humility is perfected to the highest degree. God becomes the master of a person’s entire will, which becomes so united with God’s that the person neither wills nor desires anything else.

 Ruusbroec next identifies patience as the fruit of renunciation which he describes as “the tranquil endurance of everything which might befall a person from God, or from creatures.” Patience then gives rise to meekness, for only a patient person can be meek in times of adversity. As Ruusbroec notes,

 Meekness makes a person peaceful and tranquil in all circumstances. A meek person knows how to suffer harsh words and manners, harsh gestures and deeds, and all kinds of injustice against themselves, and through it all, remain at peace. For meekness means bearing everything in peace.

 From meekness, comes the virtue of kindness, for only a meek person can be kind. Ruusbroec writes, “through kindness, charity remains living and fruitful in a person, for a heart full of kindness is like a lamp full of precious oil.” Kindness then gives rise to compassion, for only a kind person will choose to share the sorrows of others.

And, finally, we see how compassion naturally inspires generosity which, for Ruusbroec is “the bountiful flowing forth of a heart which is moved by charity.” A generous person is one who is not only attentive to the needs of others, but also moved to help them. They serve, give, lend and console according to their abilities and the needs they see present.

With this last virtue Ruusbroec concludes his cycle by encouraging us to live a more and more generous life saying, “When generosity is a fundamental disposition of a person’s being, then all the other virtues are increased and the soul is adorned with the grace of heaven.” From the pen of this Flemish mystic, we see the full progression from humility, which is the bedrock and foundation of all our virtues, to generosity which is the flowering of that humility in this world.

Rob Des Cotes,  Imago Dei Christian Communities

 

QUESTIONS

  1. In what ways might your own struggles with obedience, patience, meekness, compassion or generosity be traceable to a simple lack of humility?
  1. What do you feel God telling you when you consider your capacity to submit to Him, or to the advice or rebuke of others? How is this too an indicator of our humility?
  1. If generosity is the full fruit of humility how might the reverse also be true? In other words, how might we grow in humility by simply practicing a more generous lifestyle?

PRAYER: Take time in prayer to exalt humility in your heart. Treasure it, love it, desire it, and ask God to grow this foundational virtue in you so that it becomes the natural disposition of your heart.

 

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 © 2013 Rob Des Cotes, Clements Publishing, Toronto, ONT

 

96.  The First-Hand Knowledge of God

 

 As we have heard, so we have seen.                                                                                                                                      Psalm 48:8

Most of our understandings of God come from the theologies we have been taught. This, of course, is an essential part of our spiritual formation. But one of the problems with a spirituality that begins in the mind is that it often stays there. We end up knowing much more about God than we have ever actually experienced.

Most of us, for instance, are well schooled in the theology and belief that the Lord is good. We are also taught, from an early age, that God is faithful, merciful and loving. But, for many Christians, these are truths that have been “heard” but not necessarily “seen.”

To truly “know” God means to have first-hand experience of His character—a knowledge that can only come from walking closely with the Lord in all aspects of our life. It would be fair to say that only a person who has had to trust God in the dire straits of life can truly know the assurance of God’s faithfulness. And only those who have approached the Lord in the vulnerability of their own brokenness can know, first-hand, how God loves them just as they are. And only the sinner who has recognized God’s sovereign right to judge us will fully appreciate the saving mercy of Christ that our theology speaks of.

A first-hand knowledge of God is the most important thing we can pursue in this life, and now is the given time to cultivate such knowledge. It will be too late to come to terms with how we feel about the trustworthiness of God when we are in a panic, or in the confusing grip of fear.

Many people, during times of crisis discover, to their dismay, that a belief system, on its own, is not be enough to anchor them in their faith. What they need at such times is not so much a right understanding, but a true knowledge of the character of God who is standing with them in their trials. And now is the time to cultivate this first-hand assurance that alone can anchor us in our crises, for it is much easier to establish this knowledge in seasons of peace than in seasons of turmoil.

The fact that God is good, loving, faithful, and that He provides for His children is something we have all been taught to believe. But how securely do we rest in these truths? In what ways has this knowledge been confirmed in our hearts? And to what degree can we say, as the Psalmist does, “As we have heard, so we have seen?”

Rob Des Cotes

Imago Dei Christian Communities

 

QUESTIONS

  1. In what ways does the concept of having heard but not seen apply to your own faith? How much of your knowledge of God is more theoretical than experiential?
  1. What particular attributes of God do you presently know from personal experience? His goodness? His faithfulness? His rebuke? His justice? Others? What attributes do you only know theoretically at present? Take time to write these out so that you can pray for a more comprehensive knowledge of God.
  1. In the midst of a crisis, in what ways have you felt your belief system challenged or even falter? How can you, in times of peace, cultivate a more direct experience of God’s character so that this will not happen again in the future?

 

PRAYER: In your prayer time practice resting in the assumption of God’s goodness and faithfulness. Enjoy the experience of peace and abandonment that comes from simply trusting God.

 

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 © 2013 Rob Des Cotes, Imago Dei Publishing, Vancouver, BC

 

97.  “Finding the Giver More than the Gift”

Since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.

                                                                                    Heb. 12:1

I love reading conversion stories, especially those of the men and women who have become such guiding lights in prayer for the rest of us. We have many biographies of such transformations (e.g. Augustine, Francis of Assisi, Ignatius of Loyola, John Newton, etc.). Among these, I find the 18th cent. spiritual director Jeanne Guyon’s account of her introduction to contemplative prayer, and of her conversion to a more God-initiated life very pertinent to our work with Imago Dei. It offers helpful insights into some of God’s ways that apply to our own stories of conversion as well.

At age twenty-two, after experiencing years of spiritual dryness, Jeanne Guyon sought advice from a Franciscan monk who listened to her complaints and whose response prompted her spiritual awakening. He simply said to her,

Your efforts have been unsuccessful Madame because you have sought without, what you can only find within. Accustom yourself to seek God in your heart and you will not fail to find Him.

 Guyon writes of her experience on hearing these words saying, “I felt at this instance deeply wounded with the love of God—a wound so delightful that I desired it never might be healed.”

Discovering the presence of God within her own heart also turned Guyon’s sense of spiritual growth upside-down. As Thomas Upham notes in his biography of The Life of Madame Guyon,

 She was led for the first time to see, under the intimations of the Holy Spirit, that all things were just the reverse of what she had supposed—that affliction is mercy in disguise, that we possess by first being deprived, that death precedes life, that destruction in the spiritual experience turns to renovation, and that out of the sorrows and silence of inward crucifixion grows the jubilee of everlasting bliss.

 In her own autobiography Guyon describes another important shift that took place in her relationship with God following this conversion saying,

 What I had possessed some years before, in the period of my spiritual enjoyment, was consolation, peace—the gift of God rather than the Giver. But I was brought into such harmony with the will of God, that I might now be said to possess not merely consolation, but the God of consolation; not merely peace, but now the God of peace.

 Throughout Christian history, many men and women have experienced subsequent conversions in their faith that have led to a deeper, and much more immediate relationship with the Lord. The table somehow gets turned and they find themselves participating in a more intimate way than they ever thought possible with God’s formation of their souls. As one writer puts it, “the first stage of spiritual formation can be described as the journey to God. The second stage is our journey in God.”

God has deposited a “cloud of witnesses” in our Christian history who have much to teach us about what lies ahead for anyone who continues to seek God through prayer. Such reports should give us hope that a profound deepening of faith awaits us through the continual conversion of our lives. Let us expect much from God. And let us be as open as possible to a spiritual transformation that goes way beyond anything we have ever imagined or conceived.

 “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him”

1 Corinthians 2:9

 Rob Des Cotes,  Imago Dei Christian Communities

 

QUESTIONS

  1. Like Jeanne Guyon, in what ways might we as well be “seeking without, what can only be found within?”
  1. Thomas Upham speaks of a “destruction in the spiritual experience” that “turns to renovation.” How does this give you hope for further conversions in your own life? In what ways do you feel resistant to such a path to renovation?
  1. How do you relate to Guyon’s self-assessment that, although she had often enjoyed the peace and consolations of God, she had much less of a relationship with the Giver of these gifts?

 

PRAYER: Consider the possibility of spiritual transformation in yourself such as you have never conceived or imagined. In your prayer, welcome such a conversion as that which best serves God’s purpose in, and through your life.

 

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 © 2013 Rob Des Cotes, Imago Dei Publishing, Vancouver, BC

 

98.  “Turned in on Oneself”

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves.

                                                                                    Phil. 2:3

Incurvatus in se: Latin, 1. turned or curved inward on oneself. 2. a theological phrase describing a life lived “inward” for self rather than “outward” for God and others.

 

It was St. Augustine who first used the phrase incurvatus in se to describe the nature and spiritual direction of sin. He pictured the fundamental ailment of the human person as being curvatus in se (“being turned in upon oneself”). Martin Luther also used this expression in his Lectures on Romans describing our condition as homo incurvatus in se, that is, “humans curved in on ourselves.” He wrote,

Our nature, by the corruption of the first sin, is so deeply curved in on itself that it not only bends the best gifts of God towards itself, but it also fails to realize that it continually seeks all things, even God, for its own sake.

The phrase ‘incurvatus in se’ shows up as well in a number of Luther’s other writings.   In one of his more fullest explanations he uses it to describe what he calls the inordinate “prudence of the flesh,” saying,

The prudence of the flesh chooses what is good for oneself and avoids what is disadvantageous for oneself, and in so doing it often rejects the common good and what is good for community in favour of what best serves its own need. This idolatrous prudence directs our self-will to look out for itself and its own interests above all other matters.

 Like those who believed the earth to be the center of the universe, so sin deceives us into thinking that all things revolve around our own needs, including God. Luther adds,

 This prudence makes man feel that he himself is the final and ultimate object in life. He considers good only those things which are for his own personal good, and those things only as evils which are bad for him.

 So profound is this tendency to ‘curve in on ourselves’ that, without God’s grace, it is not only incurable but also unrecognizable. Which is why the Lord is so intent on bringing this fatal characteristic to our attention, and on providing for its cure. Nor should it surprise us that the obvious remedy to being ‘curved upon ourselves’ is to become more curved upon others. As Luther writes,

 You are completely curved in upon yourself and pointed toward love of yourself, a condition from which you will not be delivered unless you learn to love your neighbour more than yourself. For it is a perversity to overly want to be loved by all and to seek our own interests in all people. But it is uprightness if you do to everyone else what you want done to yourself.

Paul tells us as much in Phil. 2:3—that we should pay more attention to others than to ourselves, valuing them not only for what they represent to our “selfish ambition,” but more for the ways we might bless them with our own lives. This same principle also applies to our relationship with God. Rather than being curvatus in se, the Holy Spirit is encouraging us towards a life that is more curvatus in Deo, in other words, more “curved upon God” than upon ourselves.

Rob Des Cotes, Imago Dei Christian Communities

 

QUESTIONS

  1. What are some of the ways our culture tends to promote a life that is more “turned in on ourselves” than it should be? In what ways do you see yourself participating in this tendency?
  1. Martin Luther speaks of people who “reject the common good and what is good for community in favour of what best serves their own needs.” What examples do you see of this in yourself, in your community, in our society? NIMBY? Excessive wealth? Ignoring injustices? Others?
  1. What practices presently encourage in you a life more curved upon God or others than on yourself? What conditions cause you to want to return to a life more curved upon self?

 

PRAYER: Confess to God the many ways that you find yourself more self-oriented than you would want to be.   Confident of God’s sanctifying work in your life, thank the Lord for the subtle ways His Spirit is loosening the grip you have on yourself, and curving your life more towards Himself, and others.

 

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 © 2013 Rob Des Cotes, Imago Dei Publishing, Vancouver, BC

 

99.  “The Cold Heart”

The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.

Rev. 12:9

If Augustine was right in defining sin as curvatus in se (being turned in upon oneself), then Dante’s depiction of Satan is a perfect symbol of the soul stuck in the cold despair of self-absorption. In the author’s epic poem, Inferno, Hell is divided into nine circles, where the ninth circle is reserved for the worst sinners. In contrast to the popular images of Hell as a fiery place, sinners, in Dante’s allegory, are actually frozen in a lake of ice. Satan himself sits in this last ring, trapped waist-deep in the ice.

For Dante, the epitome of Hell is the complete separation of our souls from the light and warmth of life. Satan himself conveys the ultimate pain of Hell, which is total isolation and self-absorption. As Dante’s guide, Virgil, explains to the author , “the inhabitants of the infernal region are those who have lost their capacity to discern evil, which results in the loss of their humanity, good will, and their capacity to love.”

In Dante’s Inferno, Satan is a much less powerful figure than we see in most depictions. Stuck in the ice, he weeps and beats his wings as if trying to escape. Ironically, it is the very flapping of his wings that generates the wind that keeps the lake frozen. If he stopped beating his wings the ice would melt and he could be free. But in order to escape, Satan would have to fly, which would again freeze the water and trap him in the ice. It is the paradox of God’s judgment that the very wings which Satan thinks are the means of his escape, are actually the cause of his “chains.”

Having plumbed the depths of Hell, Virgil tells Dante that they must now return to earth, which they do in a remarkable way. Carrying Dante on his back, Virgil approaches Satan and starts climbing onto his giant body. Gripping the Devil’s frozen tufts of hair he then lowers himself and his companion down, below Lucifer’s waist, and through the ice itself. Once beneath the frozen lake, they reach Satan’s submerged legs, and here Virgil slowly turns himself around, and starts climbing upward. Dante is startled by the fact that Lucifer’s legs now rise above them until Virgil explains that when Satan fell from Heaven, he plunged headfirst into the planet; his body stuck here in the center. In other words, Hell is an upside-down version of all that life should be.

There is much profound symbolism in Dante’s Inferno regarding the nature and effects of sin. Sin is understood as a process of increasing self-absorption which ultimately leads us away from the warmth of life. And the entrapment of sin is that it keeps us perpetually preoccupied with ourselves as we desperately try to fix, or save our own lives.

Dante’s vision is also quite different from the imagery of Hell we are used to. Perhaps this short summary of a Renaissance classic might give opportunity for us to meditate on our own spiritual direction as we sense God calling us away from the dangerous isolation of self-absorption, and more towards the warmth of His love, and of our love for others.

Rob Des Cotes, Imago Dei Christian Communities

 

QUESTIONS

  1. In what ways do you think Dante’s depiction of Hell as a cold and lifeless place is an appropriate poetic depiction of the fruits of self-absorption?
  1. How do you relate to the plight of being trapped in chains that are themselves created by our own efforts to free or save ourselves?
  1. How does losing our “capacity to discern evil” naturally lead to a loss of our humanity and love?

 

PRAYER: Consider the tendencies or conditions that tempt you in the direction of self-absorption and isolation. Ask the Lord to protect you from such temptations and to help establish your spiritual direction more towards the warmth of life, love and relationship.

 

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 © 2013 Rob Des Cotes, Imago Dei Publishing, Vancouver, BC

 

100.  “Love Goes Both Ways”

The seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering, produce a crop.                                                                                    Luke 8:15

If you have ever watched a sea shell being drawn into the ocean by each recurring wave you will understand something of how the 14th cent. Flemish mystic Jan van Ruusbroec sees the ebb and flow of God’s ways with us. The Lord draws us to Himself through the very hunger and desire that He places in our hearts. And the extent to which we respond to that desire is what then determines the fruit of love we bear—some thirty, some sixty and some a hundred fold what was planted.

The spiritual life is a reciprocal relationship that begins with God, but is furthered through our participation. Ruusbroec describe this initial calling from God saying,

God’s interior stirring and touch make us hunger and strive, for the Spirit of God is pursuing our spirit. The more there is of the touch, the more there is of the hunger and striving. This is a life of love at the highest level of its activity.

 But God’s touch is only the beginning. In other words, it is our own response to God’s love that now completes the cycle. As Ruusbroec notes,

 This flowing of God into the spirit requires that it also flow out in return, back into that very Ground in which the flowing had its source. God bestows and reveals marvelous thing in this influx, but He requires of the soul all His gifts back again, multiplied beyond anything that a creature can accomplish.

 The interplay of these two movements—God reaching out to us, and our reaching out to God—is what represents the dynamic spirituality of love. As Ruusbroec writes,

 In this storm of love, two spirits struggle—the Spirit of God and our spirit. God, by means of the Holy Spirit, inclines Himself toward us, and we are thereby touched in love. And then our spirit, by means of God’s activity and our own responding will, impels and inclines itself toward God, and thereby God is also touched.

 We know that God has always loved us. But until we receive and return that love, it remains incomplete. But to the degree that we return that love to God, our spirituality can be said to be truly dynamic. Ruusbroec comments on this dynamic love saying,

 God’s touch and His giving of Himself, together with our striving in love and our giving of ourselves in return—this is what sets love on a firm foundation. This flux and reflux make the spring of love overflow, so that God’s touch and our striving in love become a single love.

 Christ’s love touches us, and our return of love certainly touches our Lord. And together, we both strive for a single celebration of this love. Such is the beauty of a dynamic spiritual life.

Rob Des Cotes, Imago Dei Christian Communities

 

QUESTIONS

  1. In what ways have you experienced a static love from others (i.e. a love that is not returned)? In what ways have you experienced a dynamic love that is acknowledged and returned in kind? Consider how God experiences these two states of love in the same ways as you have.
  1. If the very desire we have for God is something that comes from God Himself, what disposition in us best serves the receiving of such a gift?
  1. If God “requires of the soul all His gifts back again, multiplied” what is it we are to add to these gifts as we return them to the Giver?

 

PRAYER: Pray for the gift of a growing desire and hunger for God. Practice returning all that God gives you back to “that very Ground in which the flowing had its source.”

Rob Des Cotes, Imago Dei Christian Communities

 

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 © 2013 Rob Des Cotes, Imago Dei Publishing, Vancouver, BC

 

101.  “Learning from Christ’s Obedience”

What does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God and to walk in obedience to him.     Deut. 10:12

“To obey is the one thing required.” So writes Andrew Murray in his book, A Life of Obedience. Murray develops his theology of this “one thing required” by outlining the centrality of obedience to Christ’s saving purpose. As he puts it, “The whole redemption of Christ consists in this one thing—restoring obedience to its place.”

Jesus demonstrates to us a perfect obedience to God’s immediate will. As Murray notes,

The prominence our blessed Lord gives to obedience is evident throughout the gospels. Jesus, who entered life with His declaration, “I come to do your will, O God,” always confessed to those around Him that, “I seek not my own will, but the will of Him who sent me.” Of all He did and of all He suffered, even unto death, He said, “This commandment have I received of the Father.”

 It is evident that Jesus’ joy was in doing His Father’s will. And this same joy is what He also wants to share with us. Through the Holy Spirit, He calls us to follow Him in the particular form of obedience that He too delighted in.   To conform to Christ then is to conform to the same submission that He had with His Father. To observe and learn from Jesus’ posture of seeking and obeying His Father is to learn how to likewise be a son or daughter of God.

Murray lists three attributes of Christ’s relationship to obedience that we are to emulate in our imitation of this disposition, the first being patience. He writes,

 Obedience, for Christ, led to waiting on God’s will. We too are called to wait patiently as we seek God’s will in every matter. As obedience becomes the passion of our life we will wait all the more for His word before we act. We will be content with nothing less than divine guidance in all we do. And in so doing, our ears will be opened to God’s Spirit guiding us in all our circumstances.

 The second attribute Murray lists is that of Christ’s humility which he sees as the first foundation of our obedience. He writes,

 In Christ, this obedience sprang from the deepest humility. The same applies to us. Only when we are willing to be emptied, to become a servant, and to be humbled before God and man will we ever recognize the true beauty and power of Jesus’ obedience.

 And finally, Murray recognizes the faith expressed in the way Jesus always trusted His Father to act in Him (e.g. “I can do nothing of myself. The Father that dwells in me does the work” (Jn. 5:30)). Faith is simply being confident that God is truly acting in our lives and that He both receives the sacrifice of obedience that we offer Him and uses it for His purposes. As Murray concludes,

 Surrender to obedience is an expression of complete faith that God will work in us. Jesus’ unreserved surrender to the Father’s will was met by the Father’s unceasing and unreserved gift of His power. Surrendering to God’s will, counting on our Father’s power to be present therein, will lead us to a greater conformity to Jesus. We will then witness the power that only those who trust God can ever know.

 Obedience is the full fruit of our salvation for which we pray each day—“Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Our constant question as Christians should therefore be, “How can I obey and please God more perfectly today?”

Obedience is also the outward expression of our love for God, and ultimately of our love for others. The only way we can truly be a blessing to the world is to be people of obedience. For it is God’s will, expressed in us, that brings to perfection all that we are in Christ. And that same will also makes manifest on earth the beauty and perfection of God’s designs.

 It is in that which the obedience of His people has produced

That God delights most to dwell.

-Andrew Murray

 Rob Des Cotes, Imago Dei Christian Communities

 

QUESTIONS

  1. What did obedience to God’s will mean to Jesus in His day to day life? What does it mean for you?
  1. To what extent do you relate to either the patience, humility or faith of Christ?       Which of these attributes do you most need to grow in?
  1. In what ways does your own obedience make God more manifest on earth? Why is obedience to God one of the best ways to also love those around you?

 

PRAYER: Take time in prayer to consider the three dispositions of Christ that were the foundation of His obedience—patience, humility and faith. Consider these virtues in your own life and offer them to God each day as the ground of your own obedience.

 

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 © 2013 Rob Des Cotes, Imago Dei Publishing, Vancouver, BC

 

102.  “The Pearl of Great Hope”

 

 I have seen you in the sanctuary
and beheld your power and your glory.
 Because your love is better than life,
my lips will glorify you.
 I will praise you as long as I live,
and in your name I will lift up my hands
 I will be fully satisfied as with the richest of foods;
with singing lips my mouth will praise you.

Psalm 63:2-5

I think it was Richard Rohr who said that there is nothing like a strong experience of God to ruin you for life. Having tasted something of what is possible in a profound encounter with the Divine, everything else pales by comparison. We want nothing more than to return to this place of Truth within us. And we are more aware and sensitive than ever to the falsehood of all else.

Psalm 63 speaks of such a yearning to return to that which is most profound in us. The psalmist has beheld in the sanctuary something of the power and glory of God. And now he wants to return to this place of profound encounter with the Divine. It is important to note the different verb tenses used in this passage. What he has experienced remains in the past; the knowledge that this experience is “better than life” is his present reality; and his future hope of returning to this place of encounter is what inspires his faith.

Like the merchant in Jesus’ parable who found a precious pearl, the psalmist’s hope is a hidden one. It is concealed somewhere in the mystery of God’s grace at work in our memory. Like the merchant, the psalmist has only a fading impression of the beauty he once saw. But that impression is strong enough for him to know what he now desires more than life itself.

The pearl remains hidden. But the recollection of its beauty is what inspires the merchant to sell everything he has in order to secure this treasure. His memory, and the impression it has made on him are what now sustain him in the slow exchange he must make as he reorients his life in the direction of acquiring this pearl.

Buoyed by a similar hope, the psalmist looks to the day when he too will enjoy, more fully, the grace of God’s presence—when he will be “fully satisfied with the richest of foods.”   Though this day remains in the future, his present hope is sustained by the memory of what he has seen. It is a pregnant seed that God has implanted in him—a “word that does not come back empty, but accomplishes what the Lord set it out to do” (Isa. 55:11).

The same dynamics apply to our own spiritual hopes. Our last profound experience of God might well seem like a distant memory. But it’s encouraging to be reminded how much mileage we can get from all that God has deposited in our hearts through that experience.

 Rob Des Cotes, Imago Dei Christian Communities

 

QUESTIONS

  1. Take time to remember a strong experience of God in your life. How has God used this memory to sustain in you the faith that more of the same is possible for your life? How has your desire to return to this place defined your spiritual life?
  1. In what ways do you believe that God’s love is “better than life itself?”   How does your life express this truth to God?
  1. What effect would it have on you if you were to meditate more often on where your life is heading in the increase of this relationship?

 

PRAYER: Take a moment to remember the longing you have known in your heart for intimacy with God. Having had a foretaste of that experience express to Jesus something of your hope and desire for its “full satisfaction.”

 

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 © 2013 Rob Des Cotes, Imago Dei Publishing, Vancouver, BC

 

103.  “The Missing Element”

Seek first the kingdom of God and all these things shall be added to you. Matt. 6:33

Much thought and energy goes into the important task of teaching good theology in our churches. The assumption is that, if people have a right understanding of faith, they will automatically know what to do with it. But we often see just the opposite. Many Christians, though steeped in the good teaching of the church, are nevertheless lukewarm in their faith and cold in their desires for more of God.

It is these hearts who need a particular type of pastoral encouragement. They need to be reminded often of their first love, and given hope that there are tangible ways to draw near to God and to cultivate the spiritual life they wish to have. But sadly, these are the very teachings that often seem to be missing in many of our churches’ curriculum. In this observation, I am in the good company of Jeanne Guyon who lamented a similar lack of spirituality in her own day (18th cent.), and its consequences for the church’s outreach. She writes,

 O how inexpressibly great is the loss sustained by the Church from the neglect of the Interior Life! If all who laboured for the conversion of others were to introduce them immediately into Prayer and the Interior Life and make it their main design to gain and win over the heart, numberless as well as permanent conversions would certainly ensue.

We are dismayed by the church’s declining status in our day. We witness not only disinterest from those outside the church, but also a worrisome sense of apathy from those within. Why is this? Guyon offers a wise diagnosis saying,

The cause of our being so unsuccessful in reforming mankind is our beginning with external matters. Our labours in this field cannot, on their own, produce fruit that endures: but if the key of the interior life be first given, the exterior would be naturally and easily reformed.

 As the axiom goes, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for life.” In her desire to teach others how to seek and find God in their own lives Guyon represents something of the same mission we feel called to with Imago Dei. She writes,

To teach man to seek God in his heart, to return to Him whenever he finds that he has wandered, and to do all things with a single eye to please Him is the natural and ready process that leads the soul to the very source of Grace, wherein is to be found all that is necessary for sanctification.

Guyon concludes with an exhortation to church leaders, and especially to pastors—that they focus their attention on the hearts of their congregants, and encourage them to continually submit their lives to the reign of Christ. She writes,

 O ye dispensers of His grace, ye preachers of His Word, ye ministers of His Sacraments, establish His kingdom! And that it may indeed be established, make Him ruler over the hearts of His subjects! For as it is the heart alone that can oppose His Sovereignty, it is by the subjection of the heart that His Sovereignty is most highly exalted.

 It would be hard to disagree with Guyon’s conclusion that, since such submission is the goal of our faith, it should also be at the forefront of our teaching. May God’s kingdom rule in the hearts of all. And may it increasingly be so with us. Amen.

Rob Des Cotes, Imago Dei Christian Communities

QUESTIONS

  1. Where did you learn how to live and participate with the spiritual life you desire? Name three or four key influences that God has used to guide you in this.
  1. Guyon makes a distinction between a form of teaching which begins with external matters and one that begins with the interior life. How does this distinction apply in your life? In your church? In your family system? How can we encourage a greater emphasis on the interior life in these places?
  1. How might we, as the church, focus more on establishing God’s rule in the hearts of those we serve? How might we fan into flame a greater desire among us to submit to God’s will?

 

PRAYER: In your prayer, offer yourself as an instrument for God’s purpose in establishing His kingdom in the hearts of those around you. Consider how you might pray for them, how you might inspire their desire for God, and how your own life might serve as an encouragement of what could be possible for their lives.

 

 _______________________________________________

 © 2013 Rob Des Cotes, Imago Dei Publishing, Vancouver, BC

 

104.  “Testing the Spirit”

Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone,  and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.  Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear.  But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage. It is I. Don’t be afraid.”  “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”  “Come,” he said.

Mat. 14:22-28

Sometimes it’s hard to tell if the spirit who is calling us in a certain direction is really Jesus or not. Like the disciples in the boat, we can’t always be sure what it is we’re seeing on the horizon. It might be Jesus who is walking towards us on the water, but it could just as easily be a ghost. And we certainly risk foolishness if we get out of the boat too soon and try walking on the water only to find out that it wasn’t Jesus after all. But it can be just as foolish to remain stuck in our doubts—to feel we need to have absolute certainty before we move.

Perhaps Peter’s response is best. While the rest of the disciples are crouched in fear because they aren’t sure what is out there, Peter puts this uncertainty to a simple test: “Lord, if it’s you,” he says, “tell me to come to you on the water.” It is a wonderful method that applies to many of the ambiguities we face in our discernment.

Consider your sense of being “stuck” between two options as similar to the disciples rowing against the wind throughout the night. We are trying to discern God’s will but we’re getting nowhere. Then, suddenly, we see the faint hint of what might be Jesus walking towards us, but we’re not sure. It could also be a ghost.

With such little information to go on we don’t know whether we should move or stay put. And so we simply ask the only Person who can verify God’s presence to us, “Is that really You I am seeing Lord? And, if so, would you call me to walk on the water with You?”

Discernment is never simply a matter of asking whether the winds are favourable, or whether the water can support us. It is concerned mostly with the question of whether or not the voice we are hearing is truly Jesus’ or not. Like Peter, we should always let Jesus confirm the validity of his presence before we set out in a particular direction. If we sense it is truly the Lord inviting us, it is now simply a matter of finding faith to follow Him onto the waters of uncertainty. But if the Lord does not confirm His presence to us, then we have no choice but to stay in the boat—to keep rowing against the prevailing winds we face in our discernment process until we have more certainty of who is truly calling us to this direction or decision.

Rob Des Cotes,  Imago Dei Christian Communities

QUESTIONS

  1. Is there a discernment issue in your life where you feel you have been rowing against the wave of many options, but not getting anywhere? Is there any hint, at this stage, of a direction Jesus might be calling you to, even if it appears as only a ghost?
  1. Have you ever asked the spirit of this direction to identify itself as to whether it is Jesus or not who is calling you? How would such a direct question transfer the burden of validating your discernment from yourself to Jesus?
  1. In what ways does a discernment process that overly focuses on whether the winds are favourable, or if the waters can support you, keep you stuck in your fears?   How would simply asking Jesus if He is calling you to “Come” free you from such fears?

 

PRAYER: Ask the Lord to show you areas in your life where being overly focused on whether the winds are favourable (or if the waters can support you) might be blinding you to His presence which is calling you to come, regardless of the conditions you are observing.

 

 _______________________________________________

 © 2013 Rob Des Cotes, Imago Dei Publishing, Vancouver, BC

 

105.  “The Courage to Act”

 

Do I bring to the moment of birth and not give delivery?” says the Lord

Isa. 66:9

The end of any discernment process will naturally presume some action on our part. That’s why Fr. Thomas Green, in his book, Weeds among the Wheat, refers to discernment as “prayer meeting action.” In other words, the final stage of discernment, will inevitably require of us the courage to act.

But the process of discernment can sometimes lead to a place of paralysis where a person cannot, or perhaps will not, choose a course of action out of fear of being wrong. They have done all the preliminary prayer work of discernment. They have established impartiality in themselves, remaining at an equilibrium regarding all the options before them, they have removed from themselves the influence of inordinate desires or fears that would affect their decision, and they have given their wills over to God’s pleasure as best they can. But in the process of being so open-handed in their disposition, they have perhaps also relinquished their will to act.

We often have a pretty good idea of what God is calling us to do. But, consciously or subconsciously, we also want to delay the inevitable action that this choice will require of us. Feeling stuck like this—unable to bring to birth that which we have conceived—reveals an underlying disposition that is important to acknowledge in the discernment process. It is the fear we have of facing the onerous responsibility of making a choice. Through our inaction, we are in fact saying to God, “I don’t really want to make this decision. I want You to make it for me.” But this is where God turns the tables on us. If we have been saying to the Lord, “I want whatever You want,” the Lord now says to us, “Good, but you are the one who must now choose what you think I want.”

As discerning Christians we are to assume the responsibility of not only seeking God’s will in our lives but of also acting in the world according to that discernment. In the freedom of faith, it is up to us to choose, with God’s counsel, how to best serve Him. And it is a shirking of that responsibility when our discernment process simply ends with the prayer, “You decide for me.”

Fear of the responsibility of making a choice can keep us paralyzed in an unfruitful state of discernment. This is the image the Lord gives in Isaiah—of a baby stuck in the labour process. Discernment, however, is never a substitute for faith. Nor is it an excuse to dump our hard decisions on God. But it does take courage—the final thrust of faith—to bring to birth that which we have conceived in our discernment, and to counter the paralyzing fear that sometimes sabotages the process of “prayer meeting action.”

Rob Des Cotes,  Imago Dei Christian Communities

 

QUESTIONS

  1. Do you remember an occasion when the fear of making a wrong choice paralyzed you? How did the situation resolve itself? Were the fears warranted?
  1. How might the open-handed disposition we are trying to maintain in our discernment process wrongly suggest to us that we are also letting go of our responsibility to choose? How is asking God to decide for us a shirking of the freedom He gives us to discern His will?
  1. What will you need from God in order to find the courage to act, in faith, in the midst of uncertainty with regards to the outcome of your decision?

 

PRAYER: If there is an issue that you are presently discerning, consider the posture of saying yes beforehand to God, regardless of which option He will indicate. In other words, lean forward with your will, and be fully prepared to act according to either direction the Lord might choose.

Rob Des Cotes, Imago Dei Christian Communities

 

 _______________________________________________

 © 2013 Rob Des Cotes, Imago Dei Publishing, Vancouver, BC

 

106.  “The Gift That Comes from our Offering”

If your eye be single your whole body will also be full of light.

Luke 11:34

I was on a retreat once where we were each given a lump of self-hardening clay. We were asked to create an image with the clay that would depict our deepest desire for this time away with Jesus. I had no trouble knowing what I was going to make with this clay as a particular image had long been forming in me as I prepared for this retreat. I was looking forward, above all, to a time of focusing where Jesus might draw my attention away from all the things that were distracting me, and bring me more single-mindedly to Himself. I had often pictured this in the image of a funnel as I looked forward to offering myself in this way to the Lord—that He would gather me in from the width and breadth of the many expressions of my life and bring me into a single point of focus on Him.

I set out to create the funnel by first rolling the clay on a table until I ended up with one long, thin string. I then made a large paper funnel out of construction paper, taped it, and slowly started spiraling the clay string inside the paper funnel. Eventually, the clay hardened and I removed the cardboard. I was pleased to see a pretty good representation of the image I had been praying. As I looked into the wide end of the funnel, I imagined myself entering and being gathered in from all sides towards God who awaited me at the small end of the funnel.

We were then asked to place our clay sculptures on the floor before the altar and to consider how the Lord might wish to respond to these prayers. I was surprised at what God showed me of His related desire for me in this retreat. As I looked at my funnel from the other way around, from the small end to the mouth, I immediately recognized it as a cornucopia—a place from which the bounty of a harvest comes flowing forth. I now saw the clay sculpture from both sides—from my perspective, as the narrowing of my self towards God, and from His, as the bounty of life He then produces in us from this simple offering.

Jesus invites us to “lose ourselves” in Him—to allow Him to become the increasing focus of our lives. And He also promises to all who respond to this invitation that an abundance of life will result. It is a glorious and gracious exchange. In giving up the width and breadth of my complex existence, and bringing my focus to a single point on Jesus, far from losing life, I end up gaining passage, through the narrow gate, to the increasing glory of a life lived more singly with God.

 

QUESTIONS

  1. How do you relate to the desire to be “gathered in from the width and breadth of the many expressions of your life and brought into a single point of focus on Jesus?” In what ways are you presently expressing this desire to God?
  1. How do you imagine the Lord might wish to respond to this desire you have for a more focused life?
  1. What next step is God inviting you to take in your life in order to exchange the “width and breadth of your complex existence” for a life more singly focused on Jesus?

PRAYER: In your prayer, picture yourself entering the funnel that gathers you in from all sides of your life to a more single focus on Jesus. Imagine as well, the Lord meeting you with from the other side of this offering with a cornucopia of abundance. Thank God for the wonderful economy of His ways.

 _______________________________________________

 © 2013 Rob Des Cotes, Imago Dei Publishing, Vancouver, BC

107.  “True Detachment”

I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.  I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.                                                 Phil 4:11-12

Tucked away between the second and third weeks of St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises is a short meditation which he calls “The Three Classes of Men.” It speaks to the various degrees of attachment we can find ourselves in with regards to things that we know God would rather us hold more loosely.

Ignatius invites us to imagine three men, each of whom has been given ten thousand ducats. This gift however is recognized by each of these men as an impediment to a genuinely free relationship with God, and they wish to rid themselves of the burden that this attachment is causing them. Though Ignatius uses money as the object of their attachment, his meditation naturally applies to any attachment that we sense impeding our freedom with God.

The first man knows that the money he has been given represents an unhealthy attachment and he immediately wants to do something about it in order to find peace again with God. He plans to get rid of the money but he keeps putting it off. Unfortunately this first story ends abruptly as the man dies before he has done anything to rid himself of his attachment. Ignatius challenges us to ask ourselves about similar attachments in our own lives that we know God is calling us to deal with, but that we have been procrastinating about.

The second man also recognizes the inordinate attachment he has to this money, and he too wants to do something about it. He wants however to deal with it in such a way that he will not necessarily lose the money in question. He rationalizes to himself that the problem is not really the money, but more the attachment that he has to it. Sound familiar? He has already decided that he wants to keep the money and now sets to work on dealing solely with the problem of his attachment. This man represents those who, in Ignatius’ words, “want to rid themselves only of the discomfort of their attachment, while still retaining the object of their attachment.”

The third man is the only one who truly detaches himself from the money. His objective is not necessarily to get rid of it, but to assume that it is already forfeit. Ignatius identifies such people as those who are able to rid themselves of their attachments in such a way that “they desire neither to retain nor to relinquish the sum acquired. They seek rather whatever is best for the service and praise of their Lord. In the meantime they act as though “every attachment to it has been broken.” As far as they are concerned, the money is no longer theirs. As a result, their attention is not fixed on trying to free themselves from their attachment or from the discomfort they feel regarding their attachment. It is now solely focused on what Ignatius calls the “holy indifference” that best serves God.

Ignatius’ allegory highlights how easy it is to kid ourselves about the things we are attached to, and how difficult it is to truly be “indifferent” with regards to things that really matter to us. As you imagine yourself in the shoes of each of these “classes of men” perhaps you will recognize your own attachment to things that confuse your freedom with God. Is it money? Work? Time? People? Your health? What is your attachment and how have you tried (or not) to be free of it? Have you seen yourself procrastinating until you never get around to what you know God is calling you to deal with? Have you tried to deal solely with the discomfort your attachment is causing you rather than deal with the object of your attachment itself? Or are you truly free of both the problem as well as the desire that your attachment represents to you? These are the questions that Ignatius challenges us with. They represent as well the very invitation that Jesus calls us towards in the freedom of life He wishes us to have.

The Goal of our life is to live with God forever.
God, who loves us, gave us life.
Our own response of love allows God’s life
to flow into us without limit.

All the things in this world are gifts from God,
presented to us so that we can know God more easily
and make a return of love more readily.
As a result, we appreciate and use all these gifts of God
insofar as they help us to develop as loving persons.
But if any of these gifts become the center of our lives,
they displace God
and so hinder our growth toward our goal.

In everyday life, then, we must hold ourselves in balance
before all of these created gifts insofar as we have a choice
and are not bound by some obligation.
We should not fix our desires on health or sickness,
wealth or poverty, success or failure, a long life or a short one.
For everything has the potential of calling forth in us
a deeper response to our life in God.

Our only desire and our one choice should be this:
I want and I choose what better leads
to God’s deepening his life in me.

First Principle and Foundation
(Ignatius of Loyola, as paraphrased by David L. Fleming, S.J.)

QUESTIONS

  1. Are there areas in your life where the example of the first man might apply—where you have been procrastinating about something God is calling you to be less attached to?
  2. What are some areas in your life where you might be trying to deal solely with the discomfort of an inordinate attachment while still wanting to hold onto the object of your attachment?
  3. Consider this statement: “The more your life is given to Christ, the less it will matters what He does with it.” How does this relate to the third man who, because he considers his life forfeit, is therefore the most free of his attachments?PRAYER: Ask the Lord to show you what “holy indifference” might look like in your life. Express to Jesus your desire to be led increasingly towards the freedom and equilibrium of a more detached life.

 _______________________________________________

 © 2013 Rob Des Cotes, Imago Dei Publishing, Vancouver, BC

108.  “It seems so right”

There is a way that seems right unto man…   (Prov. 14:12)

On a recent retreat where my days were totally free to manage as I saw fit I had the rare luxury of practicing obedience with much more immediacy than usual.  Before each choice I made in my day I took time to seek God’s blessing on whatever I was proposing to do.  If I felt like reading a book, I would first hold that desire before the Lord and wait for His agreement.  Once I sensed His approval I would go ahead and read.  After each chapter, I would put the book down and ask again, “Should I continue reading? Or is there something else that You would rather have me do? What is Your pleasure Lord?”  I sensed something of God’s delight in this exercise as I was trying, as Paul encourages us, to “find out what pleases the Lord” (Eph. 5:10).

The challenge now that I am no longer on retreat is, of course, to continue living in that mode.  But it is something I am trying to do each day, as much as my circumstances will permit. I am also trying make changes in my life so that my days can be more flexible and open to God’s directives—to wait on the Lord and to seek His blessing beforehand for everything I am about to do.  But I also recognize how much there is in me that resists such a program.  It requires far more patience than I seem to want to exercise.

To be fully obedient to God’s will in my day (i.e. for every significant decision that I face) will naturally require a lot of waiting on my part before I act.  And that goes against every grain in my body.  The thought of having to wait for God’s counsel throughout my day is something I resent much more than I would like to admit.  I’d much rather seek God’s will in a more general sense than consider obedience in such precise terms.  In other words, I’d rather keep my own counsel than be slowed down by the process of seeking God’s.

The apostle Paul speaks of  “a way that seems right unto man” that ultimately leads us away from God.  And it is this very fact—that it “seems right” in our own eyes—that makes this deception so subtly hard to detect in ourselves.  After all, how can something that seems so right, be so wrong?  You’ve analyzed the situation and you’ve made, with the best of intentions, what seems to be a good, rational decision.  Perhaps you’re even acting on the trusted advice of friends or mentors.  Everything “seems right,” except for the fact that God has not been a part of the process.  You have done exactly what the Lord often rebuked the Israelites for when He said “They did not seek my counsel.” Instead you have simply done what seemed right in your own eyes.

Where does this impatience come from?  Is it just a restlessness to get on with my day that inspires my side-stepping of this relationship?  Is it the expediency of my hurried life that justifies going it alone rather than taking the slower route of seeking the Lord’s assurance in all I do?  Or do I find the autonomy of life so exhilarating that to come to God for counsel seems like an imposition on my independence?  These are questions I will need take more seriously if I wish to live a more obedient life.

 

QUESTIONS

  1. What changes would you have to make in your life in order to allow for more consultation with God throughout  your day?
  2. How much reliance do you place on the fact that a decision “seems right” to you?  In what ways do you see yourself overly “leaning on your own understanding” rather than seeking God’s counsel in your decision-making?
  3. What are some reasons why you go ahead of God in your decision-making process?  Is it impatience?  The “expediency of a hurried life”? Is it your love of autonomy?
  4. Imagine a day where you would seek God’s blessing on everything you set out to do.  What challenges would you face?  What delights might you discover?

PRAYER: Ask the Lord to slow down your decision-making process.  Explore the delight of waiting for and enjoying God’s approval and blessing before you set out to do something.  Practice not overly relying on “what seems right” to you.

 _______________________________________________

 © 2013 Rob Des Cotes, Imago Dei Publishing, Vancouver, BC

110.  “Christ Beneath Me”

 Deep calls to deep…    Psalm 42:7

Implicit in the practice of contemplative prayer is the invitation to trust God enough that we will loosen the inordinate grip we hold ourselves with.  Letting go, in other words, is a key prerogative to a deeper, more “given” life of prayer.  That is why people who are familiar with such prayer often speak of the experience they have of gently falling into God’s arms.

Our attachment to our thoughts during prayer is one of the more evident expressions of this constant grip we hold ourselves in.  It’s what keeps us on the surface of who we are.  Our thoughts also carry emotional attachments which fixate us on the narrative of our own lives much more than necessary.  But something wonderfully freeing happens when we start letting go of that prime narrative.  We find an invitation from below calling us to rest in the fact that our lives are actually being held by God much more than we realize.

Paul speaks of Jesus as the only true foundation on which we are to build our lives (1Cor.3:11).  He pictures this foundation as something that lies beneath each one of us.  As Paul understands it, Jesus undergirds our lives.  And, as we learn to trust Him enough to let go of ourselves, it is He upon whom we fall.

Contemplative prayer teaches us to let go of our self-defining grip and to let ourselves fall onto the bedrock that awaits us in the depths of our being.  For only by trusting God as the genuine Source of our lives, can we ever rest in the full security of this truth.  And only there will we experience our lives as a free gift that we receive directly from the hand of God.

As we enjoy a long-overdue break from ourselves in these few moments of prayer, we discover a rare state of peace that lies far below our understanding.  Nestled in God’s love, there is nothing more to do, no one to be, and no changes needed in life.  Nothing is happening, and that’s ok.  We feel free, perhaps for the first time in our lives, because we are finally at rest.  We are in a state of being that doesn’t depend on our upholding it.  If only for these few seconds, we are experiencing something of our eternity, something of the Divine intimacy that lies just below all the surface activity of our lives.

More than ever, our desire now is to remain in this Love that beckons us from below.  We long to grow in the trust that will allow us to let go of the anxious grip we otherwise hold ourselves with.  In other words we long to rest.  But, in order to do so, we must first lay down the burden we otherwise assume of being the constant creator and managers of our own lives.

 

QUESTIONS

  1. How do you feel in response to the invitation to let go of the grip you have on yourself and to let yourself fall onto God’s care? What are some of the fears that rise up in you at this prospect?       What relief might this posture also represent to you?
  2. In what ways do you feel presently burdened by having to be the perpetual creator and manager of your own life?
  3. In what ways have you already experienced receiving the mystery of who you are as a direct and free gift from God?

PRAYER: Take time in prayer to examine the movements within you that seem to prevent you from truly resting in God. What is it that you fear in letting go of yourself in prayer? Why do you feel you need to be in control, or to be continually creating yourself? What prevents you from simply “being” with God?

 _______________________________________________

 © 2013 Rob Des Cotes, Imago Dei Publishing, Vancouver, BC

111.  “The Simple Life”

 
Seek the Lord while He may be found. Isaiah 55:6

In his book, The Inner Experience, Thomas Merton offers some practical advice for anyone who wishes to respond more effectively to God’s call to a more contemplative life. Though it is inevitably a call to a more passive life, this invitation does require a response on our part if we are to bear its fruit, even if it is simply the response of our willful submission.

There are seasons of growth when we are particularly invited to offer ourselves for this formation. If you are presently in such a season, here are some practical recommendations that Merton offers for how we might best “seek the Lord while He may be found:”

  • Seek solitude as much as you can.
  • Live in as much peace, quiet and retirement as you can.
  • Dwell in the silence of your own soul and rest there in the simple and simplifying light which God is giving you at this time.
  • Avoid everything that will bring unnecessary complications into your life
  • Do not go out of your way to get involved in extra labours or duties, no matter how much glory they might seem to give to God.
  • Do the tasks appointed to you as perfectly as you can, but do them with disinterested love and great peace.
  • Do whatever you are called to do quietly and without fuss.
  • Love and serve God peacefully, and in all your works preserve recollection.

It is obvious from these recommendations that growth in the contemplative life requires solitude, stillness and silence. The more we give ourselves to God, the more He can work in us. According to St. John of the Cross, as we mature in contemplative prayer “God secretly teaches the soul and instructs it in the perfection of love without its doing anything or without any need to understand what is going on.” Merton concurs when he writes,

Do not be too anxious about your advancement in the ways of prayer. You have left the beaten track and are traveling now by paths that cannot be charted or measured. Therefore leave it completely to God to take care of your sanctity and progress.

 Contemplative prayer simplifies our spiritual lives. We come to realize how true Jesus’ words are, that “few things are needed—or indeed only one” (Luke, 10:42). Merton offers the following directives to help guide us towards such simplicity. He writes,

To seek one thing alone means to purify your love of God. It is to abandon yourself more and more perfectly to His will. It is to love Him more exclusively and more completely, but also more simply and more peacefully, and with more total and uncompromising trust.

Only one thing is required in order for us to live a more contemplative life—to simply and trustingly place ourselves in the Potter’s hands. But to do this one thing will demand nothing short of all our heart, all our soul and all our strength (Deut. 6:5).

Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest.

                                                                   Heb. 4:11

 

QUESTIONS

  1. How have you responded in the past to seasons of growth when you were particularly invited to offer yourself to God? Are you in such a season now? If so how might you respond more effectively today according to the advice Thomas Merton gives?
  2. How do you relate to the invitation to submit to God’s formation “without doing anything or without any need to understand what is going on?” What quality of trust does this suggest to you? What challenges might you face in this posture?
  3. Can you think of an immediate application for Thomas Merton’s advice to “avoid anything that will bring unnecessary complications to your life?” What about his recommendation to “not go out of your way to get involved in extra labours or duties, no matter how much glory they might seem to give to God?PRAYER: In your prayer, practice the passive trust that is implied in not doing anything, nor feeling any need to understand what is going on.

 

  _______________________________________________

 © 2013 Rob Des Cotes, Imago Dei Publishing, Vancouver, BC

112.  “A Gift of Prophecy”

Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through prophecy.         1Tim. 4:14

This month marks the 11th anniversary of Imago Dei’s ministry and I thought it would be timely to write something about its birth narrative. Imago Dei was actually born in prophecy, and it has been remarkable over the last decade or so to see how these words of prophecy have come to pass.

Twelve years ago I had a three-month sabbatical from the church I was working with. I had longed for this set-aside time as an opportunity to give myself more fully to prayer, and to seeking God about my life. I was confused at the time about my vocation and I was also keenly aware of how, in the busyness of pastoring, I had lost something of the immediacy I used to enjoy with God.

For three months I spent much time in prayer and study. There was a particular day, towards the end of this sabbatical, when I remember praying one of the most profound prayers I have ever been able to utter. It is a rare occasion in my conversations with God when I am able to access a place of such truth in myself as I experienced on that day I knew that the groaning of my heart had a purity to it that touched God’s heart.

In prayer I gave myself to the Lord as fully as I believe I could. Everything was on the table—my past, my present, my future, my gifts, my weaknesses, my ambitions and my fears.   It didn’t matter to me where the Lord would take my life, or who He needed me to be in His kingdom. I remember feeling afterwards that there was nothing more I could say or offer. The ball was now in God’s court. All I could do was repeat the Psalmist’s verse, “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight O Lord” (Ps. 19:4).

The very next day I received a phone call from a man I knew somewhat—an older brother I had always recognized as a humble man of prayer. He said to me, “Rob, I was praying this morning and started to weep for some reason. And then you came to mind. I had the distinct impression, three times in a row, that I should write something down.” He then offered to come to our house and deliver the word he felt the Lord had for me.

As we sat on our front deck I started reading the letter. Again, this was the day following the prayer I described above. You can imagine the awe I felt as I saw the very first words on the page which read,

My son, yesterday you said you wanted to follow Me. I have heard you say that with your whole heart, mind and spirit. I have heard it and I have received it as your sacrifice to Me. I am honoured by your obedience.

 With tears in my eyes I tried to come to terms with what I was reading—the incredible nearness of God to my life and the gracious condescension that He would want to communicate to me so directly. The letter continued,

 I want to tell you that I have plans for you which you have not seen yet. They are plans for your future and for my church. They include not only you but many people whom I will draw to you. You will be their leader, and they shall follow you. They will follow you in obedience to Me and my Word. You shall see them as My flock. They are My possession, and they shall be My tool in special ways.

 The prophecy continued with personal encouragements, the Lord telling me “I want you to know that My hand is in all this,” and “You will see my leading in your life and in the lives of people I will draw to you.”   It also offered assurances of Gods’ equipping saying,

 I will stretch your boundaries. I will open your eyes so that you can see farther than you have seen before. You will be surprised by what I will show you. You did not think of being gifted in these areas I will lead you into. But I will equip you with new sensibilities to do my work.

 A number of other personal directives followed—directives which I still wrestle to more fully obey today. The letter encouraged me to,

 Spend time in prayer about this. Keep interruptions far from you as you look at Me. You need My inner quiet to concentrate on this work of Mine. I want you to learn. Take time out. Seek My face. Hear My voice. Believe My promises. My presence will go with you.

 As I read these words again today I still experience an awesome joy. My heart wells up, worshipping the Lord not only for this initial encouragement that gave me boldness to walk forward with something I had no precedent for, but also for the many ways I have seen this prophecy fulfilled in the lives of people who have been drawn to this ministry.

I have seen much evidence over the years of how those who feel attracted to what we are doing through Imago Dei are becoming His “tool in special ways.” I also see why the reason people are attracted to what we are doing is simply because they have been obedient in seeking God, which has naturally led them to us.

It is a great encouragement for me to remember how everything that has developed to become Imago Dei was somehow birthed in prophecy. As we begin our twelfth year of ministry together, perhaps Paul’s advice to Timothy applies now more than ever—that we should not neglect this gift that was born of prophecy but cherish all the more the good work that God is doing in and through us for His purposes in this generation.

QUESTIONS

  1. How do you think the attraction you feel to what Imago Dei represents is related to your obedience to God and to His Word? How has the Lord used this attraction to lead and sustain you in your spiritual direction?
  2. What do you think the Lord might mean in describing you as His “tool in special ways” in this generation? In what ways do you see God using what He is teaching you to serve others?
  3. If God has gifted you with a sincere desire for closeness to Him, how might you cherish this gift and not neglect it?

 

PRAYER:   Let yourself be humbled by this gracious glimpse of how near God is to our lives and how attentive He is to every sigh of our hearts. Take time in prayer to believe that this is true for you today.

   _______________________________________________

 © 2013 Rob Des Cotes, Imago Dei Publishing, Vancouver, BC

112.  “Magnificat”

“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!….Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!” Luke 1:42, 45

I received a beautiful e-mail from a friend in response to the meditation I wrote a few weeks ago about the prophecy given to me regarding Imago Dei. The fact that God used an older brother to confirm His call on my life reminded her of the story of Mary visiting her relative Elizabeth, and how it was Elizabeth’s recognition of what, until then, Mary had kept to herself, that prompted the glorious response of praise we call the “Magnificat” (Luke 1:46-55). She wrote,

I have been reflecting on the “Visitation”…Mary’s journey to Elizabeth after “the angel left her”.  It struck me for the first time in reading this familiar story again that Mary’s song did not arise within her at the time of the angel’s heavenly revelation.  It was only after the blessing of Elizabeth when, filled with the Holy Spirit, she affirmed and blessed the Christ-child within her that Mary broke out into praise.

 Luke’s story of the Annunciation ends with the words, “Mary pondered these things in her heart.”   Isn’t this what often happens when we too reflect on a recent experience of God? It gets cloudy in our memory. Did this really happen? Am I making a bigger thing out of this than I should? Would anyone understand me? We’re not sure what to believe. We need some confirmation from the outside, some verification. As my friend writes,

I thought how often this is the way God works in us. We have a strong sense from Him that He is calling us into a “new thing”, but we often need it to be confirmed to us through a human person filled with the Spirit.

 Recognizing a similar dynamic in what I wrote about God giving someone else a prophecy in order to confirm something He had otherwise only revealed to me, she adds,

 Your story illustrates this so beautifully  He still works His new things in us just as He did so long ago for these dear women…the elder affirms and blesses the younger.  Elizabeth is such a beautiful model for us, as we grow older, of how we too should be discerning the life of potential fruitfulness in the younger and affirming them with blessings.

It was only after that which she had been pondering in her heart was recognized by someone else that Mary’s response of praise was birthed in her.  Mary was, in fact, “confirmed” by Elizabeth. Perhaps, as my friend suggests, this is still very much a God-given role that elders are to play in our communities of faith. How many other such confirmations might we bring to those around us who perhaps only have a hint of something God is trying to tell them? And how might we too anticipate that the words of encouragement others bring to us could well be much more an affirmation from God than we realize?

 

QUESTIONS

  1. Do you have an experience of an “Elizabeth” in your life—whether male or female—whom God used to confirm something that you suspected the Lord was hinting to you?
  1. Consider something you are still pondering in your heart about God’s call on your life. What type of faith are you being called to exercise as you wait for confirmation of this “word” in your life?
  1. In what ways has God used you to confirm the gifts or calling of others? How might you anticipate and be more attentive to the presence of God’s voice in the way others are also affirming you?

PRAYER:   Ponder in your heart some of the questions you still have about your life—gifts and callings you are not sure are truly yours or not. Ask God to confirm these through a Spirit-led sister or brother.

  _______________________________________________

 © 2014  Rob Des Cotes, Imago Dei Publishing, Vancouver, BC

113.   

The light shines in darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. 

John 1:5

The coming of Jesus has certainly confused our experience of spirituality.  Our relationship to divinity, ever since, has become much more subtle.  Gone are the well-defined walls that separated what is godly from what is merely human. Gone is the clear-cut distinction between the sacred and the common.  And gone is the obvious logic of heaven and earth as two separate geographies.  Instead, we have divinity mingled with humanity, and sanctity somehow shining through the darkness of our sins.

The OT was painstaking in the ways it delineated the gulf between what is divine and what is human.  The tabernacle itself was an elaborate object lesson demonstrating, in the most graphic terms, the distance that separates purity from sin.  Its main purpose was to communicate the fact that God is holy—and that we are not.  The fact that such clear boundaries exist was a given in the OT.  But Jesus has changed all that.  He who is both human and divine has confused the lines of demarcation that made sense of our lot.

When we knew ourselves uniquely as sinners it was easy to grasp the distance between ourselves and God.  But now we’re not so sure.  Jesus has blurred the boundaries.  He has torn the curtain that not only kept us from God, but also kept God from us.  Separating the weeds from the wheat isn’t as easy as it was before.  Even in our own hearts, it is difficult to discern what is human and what is of the Spirit.  For, in the person of Christ, the two have mysteriously become one.

The light shines in darkness.  God somehow co-exists with even the most profane aspects of our humanity.  He dwells in the midst of our basest instincts.  He skirts on the edges of our sins, dances in and around our iniquities.  Nothing impedes His grace.  Though sin persists in us, divinity is undeterred.  Though our depravity is evident, Jesus continues to shepherd us towards a sanctity that somehow already dwells within.

The darkness has not understood this.  His glorious Truth beckons from deep in our hearts, a righteousness that we feel called to become. Though we live much of our lives out of sync with this Truth, Christ’s love is relentlessly conforming and aligning us to its movements.  Though our inner lives flicker in and out of darkness, His presence continually lights our way.

Such is the mystery of the Incarnation.  We cannot understand how or why this Light persists, but we nevertheless grow in our faith and experience that even our sins cannot  thwart its purpose.  Praise be to God for His steadfast ways!  In spite of our confusing darkness, the Light of His unconditional grace is somehow making perfect sense of our lives.

FOR DISCUSSION:

  1. How do you relate to the experience of darkness and light co-existing within you? What examples do you see of this in your life at present?
  1. What is required of you, and of your understanding of God, in order to live in the paradox that though you are a sinner you are also a saint, and that though you are a saint, you are also a sinner?
  1. Jesus said that His sheep would “go in and out” of pasture (Jn. 10:13). How might this relate to your experience of living in and out of sync with the Spirit’s movement within you?

FOR PRAYER:  Meditate on the fact that Christ’s light shines even in the darkest recesses of your soul.  Thank God that there is nothing in you that will deter or thwart His purpose for that Light.

  _______________________________________________

 © 2014  Rob Des Cotes, Imago Dei Publishing, Vancouver, BC

114.    

Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you   Mat. 6:33

If you need a good New Year’s resolution you don’t have to look much further than Jesus’ exhortation for us to prioritize the kingdom of God and the many expressions of His righteousness in our lives.  According to this Scripture, by simply obeying the promptings of righteousness all the other resolutions we feel our life needs will automatically be looked after.

We generally think of righteousness in terms of our relationship to morality or to people.  But the word means much more than that.  It means to be rightly related to all things in your life—to exercise, to sleep, to your diet, to your finances, to work, to ministry, to your possessions, to entertainment, and yes, even to your computer and smart phone.  These are all areas where righteousness applies.  And they are also areas where we likely feel off-kilter at times.  We keep trying to find a balance, but we keep missing the mark.

God is always indicating to us adjustments we need to make in life, which is why we should approach righteousness more as an act of obedience than one of discipline or management.  If we simply heed the correctives of the Holy Spirit, God is prepared to show us how to live without excess or neglect in our relationship to all things.

Peace and stability are generally the indicators of being rightly related to something.  In the OT, when righteousness prevailed in the land, the people enjoyed shalom, a word that means much more than peace.  It speaks of wholeness, rest, harmony, and of the absence of agitation or discord.  When everything is in right relationship to everything else, the result is shalom.

Turmoil, on the other hand, usually indicates that adjustments are still needed.  It creates tension in us until the changes life is crying out for are made.  Such restlessness is a God-given instinct through which the Holy Spirit teaches us the correctives we need.  Just as our inner ear can tell us when we are standing off balance, so this God-given instinct can help us recognize when we are off-kilter in a relationship.  If we simply follow its leading, the Holy Spirit will free us from all the unnecessary wear and tear that being wrongly related to something produces in our lives.

The correctives of the Holy Spirit have a way of nagging us until we either do something about them or else shut them out.  If we consistently ignore these promptings we will develop what Jesus calls a “calloused heart,” which is not much different from the calluses we develop on our hands from manual labour, or on our feet from walking.  Our bodies warn us when a blister is developing.  It even provides pain to alert us of impending injury.  And if our inattentiveness persists, these repeated blisters eventually become a callus.  Having refused to heed its first warnings, our body shifts to plan B.   It hardens the skin, making itself insensitive to further stimulus.  This is what happens when we also ignore the Holy Spirit’s promptings.  We end up losing our relational sensitivity to that area of our lives.

To seek and find righteousness in all our relationships is certainly a realistic goal for any of us in the coming year.  We were created for righteousness in all areas of our life.  And in order to enjoy such accord with everything we need simply be more attentive to the discords we sense, to recognize them for what they are—the promptings of the Holy Spirit—and to be more willing to obey whatever adjustments they are calling for.

FOR DISCUSSION:

  1. How would you describe the shalom you feel when you are rightly related to some aspect of your life?  How would you describe the experience of not being in right relationship to something?
  2. In what relationships have you allowed a callus to develop over your heart?  Are there areas in your life where, by ignoring the Spirit’s promptings, you have lost your relational sensitivity?
  3. Consider an area of your life where God is presently indicating that correctives are needed.  How does it change your motivation to consider this prompting as a call to obedience rather than a burden of responsibility?

FOR PRAYER:  Choose one of these two prayer options to be the focus of today’s prayer.  Choose the other one for some other day.

1) Imagine living in right relationship to all things in your life. Meditate on the quality of “shalom” that God envisions for you in these relationships.

2) Take stock of an area in your life where there is still turmoil in your relationship to something.  Welcome whatever correctives the Holy Spirit is suggesting to you.  Ask God for His aid in helping you choose to obey these promptings in your life.

  _______________________________________________

 © 2014  Rob Des Cotes, Imago Dei Publishing, Vancouver, BC

115.   

Let the redeemed of the Lord tell their story- those he redeemed from the hand of the foe.       Psalm 107:2

It is not very difficult for me to remember the man I was when Christ first found me—a man who had, in many ways, lost his life to foolishness and dissipation.  I know that I am not the same person today that I was when I first met Jesus.  The very dignity of sonship that I had squandered and that I never imagined could be recovered has somehow been restored to me.  I am a new creation today, a very different person from who I was as a young prodigal.  My life has been given back to me, and it is easily understood as gift.  As I often say to God, “my life belongs more to You than to me, not because I give it to You, but because You gave it to me.”

Such gratitude in recognition of what we have been saved from is the call to worship that we hear repeated again and again in Psalm 107.  It is a reminder to all those Jesus has rescued from afar—from the hand of the foe—to “give thanks to the Lord for His unfailing love and His wonderful deeds for humankind” (v. 15).

The Psalm reminds those who “wandered in desert wastelands, finding no way to a city where they could settle” (v. 4) how the Lord has graciously saved them. It recalls their lostness and how God delivered them from their distress and “led them by a straight way to a city where they could settle” (v. 7).  Does this imagery apply to any period of wandering in your own life?  Have you too been rescued from lostness or aloneness and placed in a community where God is now establishing you in love?  If so you are encouraged to “give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for humankind.”

The Psalmist next describes those who “sat in darkness because they rebelled against God’s commands and despised the plans of the Most High” (v. 10-11).  It reminds them  how they “stumbled, and there was no one to help” (v. 12).  But it also recalls how they cried out to the Lord in their trouble and how “He brought them out of darkness and broke their chains” (v. 14).  Are there periods in your life when you knowingly rebelled against God’s commands and subsequently found yourself stumbling?  If you have been given reprieve from the consequences of such, then you too are encouraged to  “give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for humankind.”

The Psalmist continues, now addressing those who “became fools through their rebellious ways” (v. 17).  They “suffered affliction because of their iniquities” (V. 17).  It reminds them how they too cried to the Lord in their trouble, and how “ He sent out His word and healed them.”  If you have experienced, in any way, the salvation and healing of God’s mercy applied to the foolishness of some of your life choices, then you too are called to “give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for humankind.”

And finally, there are those who, through no fault of their own, experienced calamity in life.  The Psalmist draws on the imagery of a ship caught in a storm, where the waves are lifted high and we fear for our safety.  We are to recall such times of peril when our “courage melted away” (vs. 26) and how, when we cried out to the Lord, He “stilled the storm to a whisper” (v. 27) and “guided us to our desired haven” (v. 30).  We are to especially remember the gratitude we felt after the storm—how glad we were when it grew calm.

For these and countless other experiences of God’s salvation in our lives we are invited to “give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for humankind.”  As we begin a new year together, let us remember and celebrate God’s grace throughout our lives.  Let us approach the year with gratitude, recalling the wonderful mercies we have already seen.  And let us, with genuine hope, anticipate such continuing mercies from the Lord in the days to come.

FOR DISCUSSION:

  1. Which of these four narratives do you have experience of?  The plight of lostness? Rebelliousness?  Foolishness?  Calamities?  What did these experiences teach you about God’s desire and ability to save you?
  2. Take time to focus on a particular event in your life in which one of these narratives applied.  If you are in an Imago Dei group, and if appropriate, share this story with others so that they too can give thanks to God.
  3. Why do you think Scripture often calls us to remember and recount the saving mercies of God in our lives and in our communities? How might you might commemorate these stories of God’s grace through a symbolic act or artifact (e.g. Gen. 25:18)?

FOR PRAYER:  Consider how the Lord’s saving grace has transformed your life.  Meditate on the fact that you are not the same person today as you were when Jesus first found you.  Imagine what your life would look like if you had never met the Lord.  Give thanks to God for the many ways the knowledge of Christ has saved you.

  _______________________________________________

 © 2014  Rob Des Cotes, Imago Dei Publishing, Vancouver, BC

116. 

In the morning my prayer comes before you.

Psalm 88:13

Through the ministry of Imago Dei we encourage the practice of daily prayer.  Our hope is to also testify to its benefits in our own lives.  There is such a direct relationship between the practice of contemplative prayer and its evident fruit that we cannot help, out of love for others, but encourage it in their lives as well.  Here, more than anywhere, does the adage of “one beggar telling another beggar where he has found food” apply.

The life-changing benefits of prayer are, of course, available to all.  As I often and confidently say, if a person commits to praying for at least 20 minutes each day, I guarantee they will become a different person, and live a different life than if they didn’t.

The early 20th century preacher Andrew Murray knew, in his own life, the benefits of daily prayer.  He wrote beautifully about it in his book, A Life of Obedience, where he highlights the delight of such daily encounters with God saying,

To meet with God, to yield ourselves to His will, to know that we please Him, to have Him tell us His desires for the day and lay His hand upon us—this is what we can expect from our time of quiet and devotion. It is what we will come to long for and delight in.

For Murray, the most beneficial offering we can make to God is the time we spend with Him in the morning.  There, we establish the foundation that secures us for the rest of our day.  He writes,

It is worth noting how in the morning hour the bond that unites us with God can be so firmly tied that during the hours when, amid the rush of responsibility, we can scarcely think of God, the soul can be kept safe and pure.

Morning prayer establishes a deep keel in our lives which then secures us as we negotiate the unexpected winds and waves of our day.  We have renewed this relationship at the onset of our day and, in turn, our recent memory of God assures us that, in spite of the inevitable wanderings of life, we will not stray too far from home.  Even sin will have little ground to root in us if we are returning to God each day for direction and redirection.  For the simple practice of daily prayer will save us from the foolishness of overly leaning to our own understanding.

In prayer, we work out not only our salvation, but also the assurance of our victory.  Our commitment to its daily practice also gives us the assurance of a sanctified life.  As Murray notes,

It is in the place of quiet, where we are alone with God, that our spiritual life is both tested and strengthened. There we enter the battle field where it is decided every day whether God will have all of us and whether our life will be one of absolute obedience. If we truly conquer there, committing ourselves into the hands of our Lord and finding a refuge in Him, victory in the rest of our lives will be certain.

With such a daily “rhythm of return” in place, we can be confident that continual spiritual growth will be the natural fruit of our abiding in the vine.  Murray celebrates such confidence saying,

What cause for praise and joy that the morning watch can so renew and strengthen our surrender to Jesus and our faith in Him that the life of obedience can not only be maintained but also go from strength to strength. The desire for a life of total obedience that such prayer fosters in us will give new meaning and value to the time we spend alone with God, just as it will provide the motivation and persistence needed to maintain this discipline.

Prayer sustains the motivation we need in order to continue in this discipline.  In other words, prayer begets more prayer.  It inspires a return to itself.  As we commit to its daily practice, our desire will not only be upheld, but it will increase, as will our longing for intimacy with God.

Let your closet be your classroom; let your morning watch be the study hour in which your entire dependence on and submission to the Holy Spirit.

FOR GROUP DISCUSSION:

  1. How do you feel as you read of Andrew Murray’s relationship to his own prayer practice? Do you envy it?  Or do you have a similar relationship to this practice from which you feel kindred to his sentiments?
  1. What relationship do you experience between your morning prayer (or lack of it) and your subsequent strayings throughout the rest of the day? How does prayer anchor you in your day?  Or could the lack of such a foundation be the cause for too much wandering in your life at this time?
  1. How do you relate to Murray’s statement that prayer is a “battle field where it is decided every day whether God will have all of us, and whether our life will be one of absolute obedience?” How does this battle, which is won or lost during prayer, affect the outcome of other battles in your life?

FOR PRAYER:  Take time to speak with God about your present relationship to the practice of prayer.  Tell him what you most enjoy about it as well as what you wish was different.  If you do not have such a practice in place, talk to the Lord about your hopes for such in the days to come.

_______________________________________________

 © 2014  Rob Des Cotes, Imago Dei Publishing, Vancouver, BC

117.

“Fill it to the brim.”        John 2:7

 The party has begun, but the wine has already run out.  The stores are closed and there is no backup plan.  Humanly speaking there is nothing that can be done to avert the embarrassing situation that is about to unfold.  But Mary reaches out into the impossible.  She talks to Jesus.  Though He replies that His hour has not yet come, Mary has a mother’s hunch that it will not be long in coming.  She instructs the servants to “do whatever He tells you to do.”  And, of course, the rest is history.  They fill the urns with water, and Jesus tops up their minimal efforts with His abundant grace.

How does this same invitation apply in my own life, whenever I feel I have come to the end of my resources?   My deficiencies are exposed and there is nothing I can do about it.  I have no reserves in myself to be the person I want to be.  Humanly speaking, there is nothing I can do to avert the embarrassment of being exposed as the poor Christian I truly am.  But I reach out into the impossible.  I tell Jesus.  Though it might not yet be the hour of my release, faith tells me that it will not be long in coming.

Jesus instructs the servants to, “Take the water urn and fill it to the brim.”  He tells me similarly, “Do whatever, humanly speaking, you can.”  And so I present myself to Him in my impoverished state and do all I can to “fill the urn to the brim.”  This is my offering—to give to the Lord whatever I have of the raw materials of my life to work with.  It’s not quite the choice wine that I had in mind, but it’s the best I can do with what is at hand.

The servants do as they are instructed.  Then Jesus tells them to, “draw from the urn and bring it to the chief steward.”   He says similarly to me, “Now go and act on what you have.”  Both Jesus and I both know that there is nothing more than water in these urns, but I serve it to the guests anyhow.

As the servants obey Jesus, they are understandably amazed at what comes pouring out of their ladles.  Not only has the water changed into wine but the quality of this final offering far exceeds that of the first wine served.  I too, acting in faith, am equally amazed at how Jesus tops up my offering in ways that far exceed the quality of my own feeble efforts.

The Lord’s first miracle at wedding at Cana has many applications for us whenever we too have “run out of wine”—when we encounter the truth of our own poverty of spirit.  At such times, as this story counsels, we must first do as Mary did—to accept the reality of what is.  The wine vat is truly empty.  There is no need to deny it, nor try to conceal this fact from others.  We then come to Jesus and talk with Him about our “impossible” situation—what seems beyond our human capabilities at the moment.

But before we presume to just dump our problem on Jesus, it is only right that we first do whatever we can to fill our own efforts to the brim.  In other words, in spite of what might or might not seem possible, we should never lose hope in what the Lord can do when He adds His grace  to our own meager initiatives.

FOR GROUP DISCUSSION:

  1. Are there situations in your life where you are being invited to “reach out into the impossible” rather than just limit your vision to what is humanly possible?
  1. What faith is required of you to continue filling your “urn to the brim” though you know beforehand that this will not be enough?  How confident are you that Jesus will top off your efforts with His mysterious provisions of grace?
  1. Can you remember a situation where your own meager efforts bore a much richer fruit than you imagined possible? Share this with others if appropriate.

FOR PRAYER:  In prayer, consider a situation in your life where God might be calling you to reach out into the seemingly impossible.  Experience something of the faith that this will require of you.  And then anticipate the joy it will be to exercise such impossible faith.

_______________________________________________

 © 2014  Rob Des Cotes, Imago Dei Publishing, Vancouver, BC   

118.

 

As I looked at the living creatures, I saw a wheel on the ground beside each creature……Each appeared to be made like a wheel intersecting a wheel…..When the living creatures moved, the wheels beside them moved; and when the living creatures rose from the ground, the wheels also rose.  Wherever the spirit would go, they would go and the wheels would rise along with them, because the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels. When the creatures moved, they also moved; when the creatures stood still, they also stood still; and when the creatures rose from the ground, the wheels rose along with them, because the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.

Eze. 1:15-16, 19-21

A question that often comes up in the practice of contemplative prayer is the relationship between the active and passive parts we are to assume in this offering.  How much do we do, and how much does God do?  When are we being negligent in our response?  And when are we in the way of God’s work?

With remarkable insight, the 17th century spiritual director Jeanne Guyon recognizes how this active/passive participation with the Holy Spirit is what Ezekiel is depicting in his vision of the wheel within a wheel.  Referring to Paul’s teaching that we must learn to “walk in the Spirit” (Gal. 5:16) she writes,

When St. Paul speaks of our being led by the Spirit of God, it is not meant that we should cease from action; but that we should rather act more through the internal agency of His Grace. This is finely represented by the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of the wheels, which had a Living Spirit; and wherever the Spirit was to go, they went; they ascended and descended as they were moved; for the Spirit of Life was in them, and they followed wherever it went. Thus should our souls be equally subservient to the will of the Spirit who leads us.  It is an action of the soul that requires the utmost tranquility and attentiveness.

It is not easy to discern whether it is God’s will or our own that is moving us.  But according to Guyon, a growing sensitivity to the particular grace we find in the spirit we are following will indicate whether it is our own, or the Lord’s will acting.  We will recognize the difference between our own spirit and that of the Holy Spirit by the quality of freedom and lack of turmoil present in the latter’s movement. Guyon writes,

Whenever the soul acts of itself, the act is forced and constrained; and therefore, we can more easily perceive and distinguish it.  But when it acts under the influence of the Spirit of Grace, its action is so free, so spontaneous, so easy, and so natural, that it seems effortless.  This movement is so noble, so peaceful, so full of tranquility that it appears to the soul as if it did not act at all.

Guyon expands on this quality of unconscious obedience that helps identify our relationship to the gentle and often imperceptible leading of the Holy Spirit.  She recognizes this as similar to what Ezekiel depicts in his image of the wheel saying,

When a wheel rolls slowly we can easily distinguish its parts.  But when its motion is rapid we can distinguish nothing. So the soul which rests in God has an activity exceedingly noble and elevated, yet altogether peaceful.  And the more peaceful it is, the swifter is its course; because it is proportionately given up to that Spirit, by which it is moved and directed.

To “walk in the Spirit” of course implies a growing attentiveness to the promptings of God.  As the Israelites had to note the action of the pillar of light and cloud that guided them through the desert, so we must recognize when the Spirit is moving in our lives and when it has stopped.  And as we learn to mirror the movements of the Spirit, this sharpening focus will, in turn, lead us to the truth of who we are as the reflected image of God.  As Guyon writes,

We must forsake our multifarious activity in order to re-enter the simplicity and unity of God, in whose image we were originally formed. This meek dependence on the Spirit of God is indispensably necessary to reinstate the soul in its primeval unity and simplicity, that it may thereby attain the end of its creation.

The wheel, in other words, must conform to the Living Spirit that animates it.  Only then will it enjoy the unity that comes from a loving obedience to the will of God.  We will then we live as we are called to be—creatures in right relationship with their Creator.  Or, as Ezekiel depicts it, as wheels within a Wheel.

FOR GROUP DISCUSSION:

  1. How do you find yourself responding to Guyon’s invitation to live more in tandem with the movements of God’s Spirit within you? What resistance do you feel to this?  What satisfaction does it inspire in you?
  1. Guyon says that such a disposition requires “the utmost tranquility and attentiveness.” If this is a prerequisite, how disposed are you at present for this type of obedience?  Are there adjustments that God is calling you to make in your life that would make you better disposed for this?
  1. Consider the distinction Guyon makes between the movements of God within you, and your own movements. How do you experience the Holy Spirit within you as noble, free, tranquil and spontaneous?  How do you experience your own movements as relatively more forced or constrained?

FOR PRAYER:  In your prayer, express to God something of your desire for union with His will in your life.  Ask the Lord to help you let go of anything that hinders your freedom to lovingly obey the movements of His Holy Spirit.

_______________________________________________

 © 2014  Rob Des Cotes, Imago Dei Publishing, Vancouver, BC   

119.

Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing. 

Luke 23:34

Living with cancer  (see update below) offers a very unique perspective on certain Scriptures.  I’ve been asking the Lord for a while now, “What relationship should I have to this new development in my body?”  Someone was praying for me the other day and used the words “illness” and “disease.”  While I know these are apt words to describe my condition I was surprised at how foreign they sounded to me.  They are not words I had ever used with myself.

What relationship should I have with something unwanted or unpleasant in my life that I have no choice but to learn to live with?  What does it mean, in situations like this, to be gracious with our “enemies?”  When I ask myself such questions, it seems that the disposition of hospitality certainly suggests itself.

In the same way that I have learned how to give permission for a desolation to be part of my spiritual experience, or how, as a pastor, to make room in my church for “EGR” people (“extra grace required”:), I need to also give this cancer the “right” to be in my body—to see it not as something foreign that has invaded me, but as a part of my own body and a result of its own natural processes.  It is, I know, an aberrant process, but it is still my body.  And, in the same way that I have to make room for the cantankerous or rebellious congregant in the Church, so must I, in some way, learn to accommodate these errant cells in my body.

In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians we read how Jesus bore our sins in His body.  In a sense, He “hosted” our sins in Himself—the very sins that would eventually take His life.  How might this be an example of how I too should host similar anomalies taking place in myself?  What magnanimity am I being invited to practice here?   And how might Jesus’ forbearance and love—even to the men who were nailing His hands to the cross when He said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing”—be a model of turning the other cheek to something that is likely going to harm you?   Can we too say, as our Lord did, “Father forgive these cancer cells, forgive these people, or forgive these unwanted calamities in life, for they know not what they are doing?”

Each person’s relationship to something like this will, of course, be different, and I am not suggesting that my approach is right for everyone.  This particular type of cancer is not one that can simply be removed from my body, which is why the posture of hospitality, or the comparison with a cantankerous congregant, seems appropriate for me.  But there is something worthwhile to consider here with regards to how any of us relate to circumstances in our lives that cannot be changed.

How are we to respond to the “enemies” of life” that we are forced to live with? Scripture, as well as the noble example of Jesus, seem to suggest a spirit of gentleness and equanimity.  And so it is that I ask the Lord how His command  to “love my enemy” particularly applies in my situation?  And how might the magnanimity of Jesus, when He says, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing,” suggest a more Christ-like disposition for me than the far less gracious stance something like this could just as easily inspire.

FOR GROUP DISCUSSION:

  1. Is there an area in your life where a more gracious stance in relationship to something that cannot be changed might be called for?  If appropriate, share this with others.
  1. We all have EGR people in our lives (or maybe we are one to those around us J). We know that the Lord would have us welcome them “just as they are” while, at the same time, encouraging what is better for them.  How might this same posture apply to an illness or calamity in your life that cannot be averted?
  1. Since cancer cells are anomalies in our body, they are, in a sense, ignorant of their true calling in that they are not acting as they should. What would this suggest in terms of forgiving a disease or a difficult situation in life because “it knows not what it is doing?”

FOR PRAYER:  Consider a particular circumstance in your life that is unwanted or unpleasant and that, for now at least, cannot be changed.  Ask Jesus how His command to “love your enemy” might apply to this situation.

_______________________________________________

 © 2014  Rob Des Cotes, Imago Dei Publishing, Vancouver, BC   

120.
 

Without me you can do nothing.  John 15:5

Spiritual growth is actually a very simple matter. According to John 15, we need only remain attached to the vine of Christ and we will automatically bear the fruit of the Spirit.  But as Jesus’ parable also plainly teaches, this same fruit will wither in us whenever we leave the vine.

One of the obvious truths that John 15 illustrates is that the virtues of God do not originate or reside in us but in Christ, whose righteousness is “imparted” to us (2 Cor 5:21).  Virtue, in other words, is derivative.  The fruit of the Spirit is simply the evidence of the Lord’s presence as it moves in and out of our lives according to our conformity with His character.  To the degree that we are present to Christ, the character of God is present within us.  But if we are not attached to the Source of this character, these same virtues automatically wither in us.

Consider your own experience of “withering” as it applies to each fruit of the Spirit that Paul lists in Gal. 5:22-23 (love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control).  Consider, for instance, how, when you are detached from the Spirit:

  • Your love withers.  You become more self-oriented, more self-seeking.
  • Your joy withers.  Your life becomes flat and uninteresting to you.
  • Your peace withers.  Your heart becomes more restless, anxious and full of turmoil.
  • Your forbearance withers.  You lose patience and have little room in your heart for others.
  • Your kindness withers.  You no longer feel inspired to make that extra effort to help others.
  • Your goodness withers.  You become more aware of your selfishness and lack of charity.
  • Your faith withers.  You feel more fearful about life.  The future seems more worrisome.  The past more regretful.
  • Your gentleness withers.  You have fewer resources to be magnanimous with your circumstances, with others, or with yourself.  You find yourself more angry in your responses to life.
  • Your self-control withers.  Your discipline cannot hold.  You end up feeling tepid, lazy and lukewarm.  You know that you are not who you could be in this life, but you lack motivation to do anything about it.

If you can relate to any of these conditions, you would be wise to not overly psychologize your experiences of deficiency.  Instead, recognize them for what they are—a withering of your spiritual life—and come to God for the restoring of your soul.  Such withering requires not better management, but for you to simply return to the vine of Christ.  For as Jesus plainly taught us, “without Me, you can do nothing.”

FOR GROUP DISCUSSION:

  1. What are some of the tell-tale signs in your behaviour or response to life that would indicate to you that your branch is starting to “wither?” Which virtues are usually the first to erode in you?  Patience? Gentleness?  Self-control?  Faith?  Others?
  2. In what ways have you tried, on your own, to manage or repair the fact that you are withering in a particular virtue? How satisfied were you with the results of your own efforts?
  3. John 15 clearly teaches that the only way we can bear the fruit of Christ in our lives is by being attached to the Vine. What helps you “remain in His love”?  What faith does it require of you to believe that this “one thing needed” is sufficient?

FOR PRAYER:  Consider some virtue that you feel is withering in your life at present.  Come to Jesus with your poverty of Spirit and ask to be re-attached to His vine so that you can recover this fruit.

_______________________________________________

 © 2014  Rob Des Cotes, Imago Dei Publishing

121.    

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.
Isa. 43:2

I recently had major abdominal surgery and I would like to take occasion in this meditation to process what I think is an important lesson I learned from this experience about the nearness of God.  I hope it might be of encouragement to others who have to endure any form of prolonged pain or suffering.

For many years now I have adopted the principles of Ignatian discernment as a way of seeking more precision in my obedience of God.  It has become common practice for me to seek God’s guidance in my day according to the movements of desolation and consolation that define the experiences of my heart.  And I have come to increasingly trust that God is directing me in every decision I make.

At first, this approach to discernment was mostly applied to the larger issues of my life—vocation, relationship, moving, etc.  But it has since become the norm for me for all the decisions I make in a day.  My experience following surgery, however, revealed to me a micro-application of God’s guidance that I hadn’t anticipated.

There is inevitably a fair bit of discomfort following any major surgery.  There were times, I must admit, when I didn’t know what to do next in order to avoid pain or further discomfort.  At first, I felt alone in my relationship to the pain.  I was naturally praying for help but, for the most part, I was facing these discomforts on my own.  But then I remembered a simple concept that I have often encouraged others with—that rather than form a direct relationship with the issue or problem we are facing, it is always better to first establish our relationship with God and then face these problems together with God.

Once I adopted this new paradigm, the whole narrative of my pain shifted.  Instead of calling out to God as though He was watching from a distance, my prayer now became more a matter of “Lord, what do we need to do next to get through this together.”  No longer was I alone with the pain.  And no longer was I solely occupied by each new discomfort I faced.  I found myself instead looking to God for whatever consolations might be available to me in the midst of this pain.

In this I discovered the greatest comfort in the smallest obediences.  Moment by moment, I felt inspired by such simple directives as to turn my head to one side, to lift an arm slightly, or just change the position of a leg.  My attention shifted from focusing primarily on the problem, to now paying more attention to the path through the problem.  Instead of trying to avoid the desolations I was facing, I was now maximizing the opportunities for consolation, minimal as they were, that were present in every moment.

The discomfort was, of course, still present but it was now no longer my sole focus.  It was no longer quenching my hope.  And, most importantly, I was no longer alone with my pain.  I was now walking this path much more intentionally, and effectively, with God.

I know that my faith has been strengthened through this experience.  I understand a bit more now how to walk with God through difficult situations.  And I am much more assured that discernment applies not only to the large decisions of my life, but also to the moment-to-moment path by which the Lord guides us through difficult straits.

 

FOR GROUP DISCUSSION:

  1. How does focusing primarily on our problems or pain make God seem more distant to us than He truly is? How might the aloneness we feel with our plight be an indicator that we are positioned too far from God?
  1. How does the knowledge that God is walking with us through our trials challenge the more common presumption that God is on the outside of our lives, watching from a distance?  Which premise is more true according to Jesus?  How can we catch and correct the false one when we find ourselves tempted to believe that we are more alone than we are?
  1. How might our gratitude for the “small consolations” in the midst of our trials change the relationship we have to the crosses we must bear? 

FOR PRAYER:  Consider a problem or trial in your life that you perhaps feel more alone with than you should.  Rather than forming a direct relationship with this issue, consider first establishing your relationship with God and then, together with God, forming a relationship to this problem.

_______________________________________________

 © 2014  Rob Des Cotes, Imago Dei Publishing, Vancouver, BC

122.  

Everything is permissible, but I will not let anything master me.   1Cor. 65:12

I quit drinking coffee two years ago because of this Scripture.  Not that there’s anything sinful with coffee (and not that I want anyone who enjoys it to feel guilty) but, for me, this little delight in my day had become more of a master to me than something I was simply choosing to enjoy.

I knew I was addicted.  I experienced headaches if I missed one of my regular “hits” and felt an inordinate desperation whenever the need for another coffee arose.  It was while on holidays that the grip this “need” had on me became most evident.  My itinerary was being dictated as much by coffee stops as by tourist sights.  I couldn’t deny it.  This substance was mastering me, more than I was “using” it.

It was a good decision for me, and one that not only freed me from the inordinate yoke I was under but also empowered me to look at other areas of my life where this Scripture might also apply.  The Bible reminds us often of our dignity as sons and daughters of God.  According to Scripture, we are going to somehow rule the world alongside Jesus, and judge this same world with the grace of Christ.  It seems only right, in preparation for this high calling, that we should also become masters of ourselves.

And so I ask myself, what things in life still control me more than they should?  Am I master of my desires or do these desires have an undue influence over the decisions I make as a servant of God?  Am I making choices about the things I am related to in a responsible and empowered way, or are those choices being overly influenced by forces within me that are beyond my control and awareness?

These are some of the questions that Paul’s example should raise in us.  We are invited to examine our lives—to note anything that seems to be mastering us more than it should.  And we are to endeavour, with God’s help, to assert our freedom from such forces—to “subdue the earth” of our lives for the sake of the kingdom.  For only as we become masters of our own house will we finally enjoy the glorious freedom of the children of God where, without the threat of enslaving us, everything will once again become permissible.

 

FOR GROUP DISCUSSION:

  1. What are some of the signs that something is mastering you?  Can you name some areas in your life where this might be the case?
  2. In what ways do your fears or desires overly influence the decisions you make in life?  What would it take for you to subdue their influence over the choices you make?
  3. How is the assurance that “I will not let anything master me” related to the freedom implied in Paul’s statement that “everything is permissible?”  How is God involved in your relationship to both these statements?FOR PRAYER:  In prayer, consider the invitation to freedom and dignity that is implied in not letting anything master you.  Knowing that “it is for such freedom that you have been saved” (Gal. 5:1) share with God some area of your life where you desire more mastery.

_______________________________________________

 © 2014  Rob Des Cotes, Imago Dei Publishing, Vancouver, BC

123.  

Judge me, O Lord, according to my righteousness,
according to my integrity, O Most High.
 O righteous God,
who searches minds and hearts   Psalm 7:8-9

Psalm 7 models for us one of the most courageous prayers we can offer to God.  It invites the Lord to judge us according to the high standards of righteousness and integrity.  As a way of offering our hearts to God during Lent consider adopting the following prayer based on these verses.  Feel free to adapt these words in any way that suits your own relationship with God.

I invite You O Lord to judge me,
Not according to my sins or errors,
Not even according to my works or my piety.
But I invite you to examine me
by the highest standard You desire for me.
Judge me O Lord according to my righteousness and my integrity.

How righteous am I in Your eyes?
Test my integrity.
Tell me where I stand.
I ask You, O Lord,
To search my mind and heart.

Give me courage to remain in Your light
Give me faith to hear what You have to say to me.

 You have graced me with hope.
I have seen glimpses of
my righteous self—reflections of You
in my own words and actions.
I have enjoyed the glory, fleeting as it is,
of Your truth expressed in my life,
hints of Your integrity
alive, at times, in my soul.

 Having tasted these, my heart is now restless.
I am all the more dissatisfied with myself as I am.
I hunger and thirst all the more
for the person who, by Your grace,
I might become.

Show me how to participate
with your healing initiatives in my life.
By the grace of Your Holy Spirit, increase my desire
for righteousness and integrity.

I welcome whatever corrections are needed
And I thank you in advance, O Lord,
for the healing that You are to my soul.

Amen.

QUESTIONS

  1. What are some of the feelings that this prayer evokes in you?  What do these words inspire in you?  Fear?  Hope?  Relief?
  2. What faith is required from you in order to welcome such scrutiny from God?  What, in your perception of God, needs to be healed before you can trust the Lord with such a prayer?
  3. In the revealing light of such scrutiny, how can the very dissatisfaction we feel about ourselves become a cause for hope rather than despair?

 PRAYER:  Commit to reading this prayer (or your own adaptation of it) each day this week.  Note the changes you feel in relationship to what you are asking for.  Especially note how your perception of God changes as you increasingly welcome His loving gaze in all areas of your life.

_______________________________________________

 © 2014  Rob Des Cotes, Imago Dei Publishing, Vancouver, BC 

124.   

Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.    Matt. 3:2

In the Philokalia, a compilation of teachings from the Eastern Church, we often read about the importance of repentance for the spiritual life. The act of repentance is so central to Orthodox theology that St. Isaac the Syrian goes so far as to say, “This life has been given you for repentance.  Do not waste it on other things.”

Repentance is understood in these teachings as a gift of grace that Christ offers us through the Holy Spirit.  We are invited to respond to the opportunity it provides us for transformation. To not respond to this invitation is to refuse the very healing that Christ saved us for.   As St. Mark the Monk writes, “We are not condemned for the multitude of our transgressions, but more for our refusal to repent.”

Repentance is not seen as a single act we make at our conversion, but as a continuing disposition of the heart.  Throughout our lives the work of repenting remains always incomplete; it must always be renewed, which is why the Philokalia quotes St. Theophan the Recluse as teaching,

Repentance is the starting point and foundation of our new life in Christ.  It must be present not only at the beginning but throughout our growth in this life, increasing as we advance.

To humbly accept our need to repent is the surest evidence that we have genuinely encountered God.  For only when the light of Christ has already, in some measure, entered our life can we truly begin to understand our sinfulness.  By giving rise to our sense of sin Christ’s light then helps us recognize our need for His mercy.  St. John Chrysostom, who sees this “conviction” of the Holy Spirit as the beginning of the good news of our salvation, offers this exhortation:

Let us apply to ourselves the saving remedy of repentance; let us accept from God the repentance that heals us.  For it is not we who offer it to Him, but He who bestows it upon us.

By welcoming the spirit of repentance as gift from God we celebrate His great mercy.  The fact that we are accepted in our sinfulness becomes an occasion for gratitude more than sorrow.  This is confirmed by the Greek word that Scripture uses for confession, exomologesis.  The same word is also used to express thanksgiving for a gift received.

The Lenten season of repentance then is a time of gladness, not of despondency.  The sorrow that we express in Lent is a joy-creating sorrow.  For through it we celebrate the assurance that Christ restores what is broken and renews the life that was otherwise lost.

“Repentance is the daughter of hope and the denial of despair. To repent is to look, not downward at my own shortcomings, but upwards at God’s love; not backward with self-reproach, but forward with trustfulness.  It is to see, not what I have failed to be, but what by the grace of Christ, I can become.”

-St. John Climacus

FOR GROUP DISCUSSION:

  1. How do you feel about the concept of continual repentance? In what ways  might the truth implied in such a disposition “set you free?
  2. What are some reasons we might refuse to repent? Why would that be more of an issue with God than even the transgressions that precipitate our need for repentance?
  3. Why is repentance understood as a gift? How does it transform our sorrow into joy? 

FOR PRAYER:  If the gift of repentance is a healing remedy for the soul, consider the celebration that this season of Lent invites you to.  Consider as well your own experience of exomologesis—the word for confession that is also the same word we use for thanksgiving.

_______________________________________________

 © 2014  Rob Des Cotes, Imago Dei Publishing, Vancouver, BC

 

125.

Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.  Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking  in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden.
Gen. 3:7-9

Adam and Eve never actually repented for their disobedience.  They tried instead to manage their sins, covering themselves with fig leaves, and hiding their self-perceived shame from each other.  They also hid from God.  Even when confronted with their transgression, they looked for excuses rather than repent.  They blamed each other, twisting the truth in the hope of deflecting God’s gaze.  Sound familiar?  It should.  For we too, often opt for such alternatives to simply repenting.

Repentance is not usually our first recourse when confronted with sin.  Our more immediate instinct is to want to hide from God, from others, and from ourselves.  And when that doesn’t work we then try to manage our sins.  Rather than simply come to God, we try instead to save and heal ourselves.

There are iniquities in my life that I have been trying to deal with for years.  I have often prayed about these, seeking God’s help and healing.  Many times I have asked God for the strength to change, or for more willpower in these areas of my life.  But have I ever simply asked the Lord for a more genuine spirit of repentance with regards to these sins?  Have I ever truly repented for these sins?  Or have I too quickly bypassed this step by assuming for myself the task of self-repair?

Genuine repentance begins and ends with God.  The Lord Himself had to introduce the concept of repentance to us through the institution of the Tabernacle and the sacrifices He prescribed for sin.  Like children, we had to be taught how to recognize and acknowledge our transgressions.  We had to name our sins, to own them, and to confess them.  God Himself had to show us how to make restitution, and how to trust Him for the forgiveness and restoration we need.  And God continues to teach us today, through the conviction of the Holy Spirit, the path that leads from repentance to forgiveness.

What we require most for our sanctification is a truer spirit of repentance.  Rather than trying to change ourselves, or to manage our sins on our own, we should simply ask God to give us a more genuine spirit of repentance—true sorrow, even tears—regarding the things we regret in our lives.  It is, by far, the most direct way to be reconciled to God.

QUESTIONS

  1. What alternatives to repenting do you most often resort to?  Managing your sins?  Denying them?  Hiding from God?  Blaming others?
  2. What other options might Adam and Eve have had in dealing with their sin  than the ones they chose?
  3.  In the story of the prodigal son we see another example of someone trying to manage their repentance.  How did the father’s embrace make irrelevant all the son’s careful planning?
  4. What is required of you to be able to present yourself more directly to God with your sins?  How can you more fully trust Him to receive you, just as you are?

PRAYER:  Picture yourself as Adam and Eve who have just recognized the error of their ways.  Imagine yourself coming directly to the Father and confessing your transgression in a genuine spirit of repentance.  Let yourself be surprised by God’s abundant grace and praise Him all the more for His unmerited mercy.

_______________________________________________

 © 2014  Rob Des Cotes, Imago Dei Publishing, Vancouver, BC

126.

Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord;
Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive
Psalm 130:1-2

There’s a chapel in the Hadassah hospital in Jerusalem with a series of stained-glass windows created by the artist Marc Chagall. * The windows are set within a domed ceiling so as to direct the worshipper heavenward.  Directly below the windows is a sunken floor and, in the middle of the depressed area, there is an altar which reflects the belief that all prayer should be offered from “out of the depths.”

Prayer offered “out of the depths” reminds us of the key role that grieving and lament play in biblical worship.  A prayer is a lament when, rather than blaming ourselves, our circumstances or someone else for our plight and trying to deal with it at that level, we instead bring our grievance directly to God.

The singer/songwriter Michael Card has written much about lament and its importance to worship in the context of real life.  Each day we are witness to many causes for lament. As Card says in his book, The Hidden Face of God, “We were created to live with God in a garden, and yet we wake every morning in the desert of a fallen world.”

It is in acknowledging this desert as a valid part of our prayer experience that worship becomes a more human experience. Lament, in other words, is an essential ingredient of honest faith. It humbly accepts the fact that something is wrong with ourselves and with the world—that this is a fallen and sinful place.  But more than simply feeling sorry for sin, it also encompasses the experiences of pain, hurt, confusion, anger, betrayal, despair, and injustice that often accompany these wrongs in life.

The Psalms clearly model for us how every aspect of life—even discouraging ones—can be incorporated into Biblical worship.  And yet opportunities for expressing such experiences are rare in our Christian circles today.  We tend to be much more positivist.  Card describes, for example, the funeral of a well-loved doctor that particularly rankled him saying,

It was all triumphalism. The tears were getting wiped away before anyone had a chance to weep. There was no chance to engage with the fundamental reality that this is a fallen world where people get sick and die—and that that hurts.

Genuine lament in worship however leads to a deeper engagement with life and to a truer sense of God’s presence within it. Through it we offer up our brokenness and pain as a sacrifice to God.  And, in so doing, we have opportunity for our suffering to be expressed in the context of faith.

QUESTIONS

  1.   How have you experienced lament as a form of prayer?  Was this in a corporate setting or on your own?  What relationship with God did this form of prayer make possible for you?
  2. What are some alternatives to lament that we might be more familiar with in our responses to sorrow or injustice?
  3. In what ways is lament an expression of faith?  And how does this faith then allow us to form a more genuine relationship to the reality of our suffering?

PRAYER:  Take time to explore, in God’s presence, some of the “pain, hurt, confusion, anger, betrayal, despair or injustice” that you experience in a genuine prayer of lament.  Experience as well how this form of prayer plants seeds of hope in what might otherwise lead to despair.

_______________________________________________

 © 2014  Rob Des Cotes, Imago Dei Publishing, Vancouver, BC

127.     

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.   Matt. 5:4

Many spiritual traditions place a high value on the role of grief and mourning in facilitating both personal and communal transformation.  Ancient Christian monasticism gives particular attention to how tears open up the soul, creating the possibility of a more authentic relationship to God and to others.  Douglas E. Christie, in his book, The Blue Sapphire of the Mind, speaks, for instance, of the Christian monks of the fourth century who believed that the “gift of tears” helped awaken the soul to the reality of life.  He writes.

Tears, in the ancient Christian monastic world, were believed to express and make possible an honest reckoning with one’s life (especially one’s fragility).  They were the catalyst for life-changing transformation; a reorientation to God and to the larger community.

Though we cannot fabricate such tears, we can seek and welcome them as a precious gift from God, given to help us deepen our capacity for seeing, feeling, and responding to the world and to the movements of our own soul.  Christie recognizes the personal edification that such tears provide when he writes

The early Christian monks spoke of being “pierced” to the depth of their souls, and of tears flowing in a moment of sudden recognition of an aspect of their own moral-spiritual life that was in need of healing or renewal. The tears themselves became the means of that healing, the medium through which a clearer, more honest awareness of oneself, the world and God became possible.

To be moved to tears by a heart-piercing recognition of our bondage to sin and of its consequent effects on those around us was a sign of mature faith for these early Christians.  Christie writes of the redemptive effects of such heart-felt responses saying,

The piercing recognition of one’s helplessness in the face of the debilitating habits of sloth or greed or pride or anger sometimes yielded a sense of release expressed in tears, whose healing power no amount of conscious reflection could ever hope to match. Tears, through the sheer force with which they moved through one’s being, became a primary means through which one could be brought to face our bondage to sin and be adequately motivated to seek release from it.

The early Christian monks welcomed tears as a means of breaking open the soul because they recognized how important it was to feel grief in the face of loss and brokenness.  They also recognized the inability to weep as something to be taken very seriously.  As Christie writes,

It is possible to ignore or refuse to acknowledge the truth of our brokenness. But doing so means relinquishing oneself to a kind of moral and spiritual blindness, an existence characterized by little possibility for intimacy or reciprocity with others. Hence the need to ask oneself continuously: am I capable of tears? Am I capable of opening myself to the beauty and pain of my own soul, of the souls of others and of the world itself?

Our hearts do not always respond to life as they should, and to confess such can represent the beginning of genuine hope for the regeneration of this faculty in ourselves.  It is the likely prerequisite to our receiving the “gift of tears.”

QUESTIONS

  1. What is your experience of genuine remorse in relationship to your sins or to the sins of the world?  How deeply do you feel these?  Or how resigned have you become to the disorders you see in yourself and in the world?
  2.  How do you see the “gift of tears” as a healing and freeing initiative of the Holy Spirit?  How can we welcome a deeper experience of our hearts being pierced?
  3. What reasons might we have for resisting such a gift of genuine humanity?  How might that contribute to what Christie calls a life of “spiritual blindness…characterized by little possibility for intimacy or reciprocity with others?”

PRAYER:  Take time to meditate on a particular sin in your life, or an injustice in the world.  Ask God to give you the gift of genuine and appropriate “tears” in relation to these issues of life.

_______________________________________________

 © 2014  Rob Des Cotes, Imago Dei Publishing, Vancouver, BC

128.

By His stripes, we are healed.  Isa. 53:5

On Good Friday we meditate on the Passion of Christ.  The word “passion,” of course, refers to Jesus’ suffering.  But it also speaks of His passivity—the endurance our Lord modeled for us in the events that led to the cross.  Christ endured all that we inflicted on Him.  He, who at any time could have called legions of angels to His aid, chose instead, as the ultimate expression of His love, to let it be done unto Him according to our will.

In the final week of His life, Jesus fulfills His vocation not in action, but in passivity; not by doing the things the Father sent Him to do, but by letting be done to Him whatever the Father allows His detractors to do.   In his essay, A Spirituality of Waiting, Henri Nouwen recognizes this noble aspect of Christ’s passivity saying,

The first part of Jesus’ life is filled with activity. Jesus takes all sorts of initiatives. He speaks; he preaches; he heals; he travels. But immediately after Jesus is handed over, he becomes the one to whom things are being done. He’s being arrested; he’s being led to the High Priest; he’s being taken before Pilate; he’s being crowned with thorns; he’s being nailed on a cross. Things are being done to him over which he has no control. That is the meaning of passion — being the recipient of other people’s initiatives.

In the sacrifice of His condescension, Jesus lets Himself be defined by what other people will do with Him.  As Nouwen puts it,  “In His final days, Jesus looks to us for how He is going to live out the divine presence among us.”  In a profound act of Divine submission, God becomes human so that we can act upon God.  Jesus expresses the purest form of love through His passivity —He lays down His life, making Himself completely vulnerable to whatever we will do with it.  Nouwen exalts this awesome humility of God when he writes,

It is in the passion that the fullness of God’s love shines through. It is supremely a waiting love, a love that does not seek control. God reveals himself in Jesus as the one who waits for our response. And it is precisely in this waiting that the intensity of God’s love is most revealed to us.

Jesus’ passivity in relation to the forces of life acting upon Him also finds expression in the people of the Beatitudes—the poor in spirit, the meek, and the persecuted—those who have the least amount of control over their lives and circumstances.   Nouwen recognizes, in Jesus’ passion, the plight of many in this world.  He writes,

If we look at our world, how much are we really in control? Isn’t our life in large part passion? Of course, we are active, but the margin in which we are active is much smaller than the margin in which we are acted upon by people, events, the culture in which we live, and many other factors beyond our control. This becomes especially clear in people who are handicapped, chronically ill, elderly, or restricted economically.

To not be in control of life is something that Jesus affirms as a natural part of the human condition.  And to all who find their lives more defined by outside forces than their own He offers, through His acceptance of this part of our humanity, not only the fellowship of His dignity, but also the Divine assurance that His victory and authority apply even here.

No one takes my life from me.  I lay it down of my own accord.
John 10:18

QUESTIONS

  1. What are some of the forces that act upon you over which you have little or no control?  What does the fact that Jesus submits to this aspect of life demonstrate to you?
  2. What dignity does Jesus, through His passivity, confer on those who are persecuted, oppressed, or victims of life’s perils?  What type of faith is required of us in order to follow Jesus in this disposition?
  3. How does Jesus express the authority of faith by accepting life according to the will of others?  What empowers Him in this disposition to “lay down His life of His own accord?”

PRAYER:  Consider areas in your own life where you perhaps feel victimized or disempowered.  Ask God for the faith to “lay down your life of your own accord” in these situations.  In your prayer try to experience something of the empowerment over such forces that Jesus expressed through His passivity.

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 © 2014  Rob Des Cotes, Imago Dei Publishing, Vancouver, BC

129.

Our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.
Phil. 3:20-21

Something eternal has been established for us in heaven, made “stable” forever through Jesus’ resurrection.  We (who are “the joy that lay before Him” for which Christ endured the cross) have been rescued and saved from the full effects of death.  Our own resurrection has been permanently secured and nothing temporal, nor any principality or power, can ever loosen the firm grip that God now holds us with.  As Paul so assuredly says,

I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom. 8:38-39).

Life on earth goes on.  But everything that happens here takes place under another story—a story that is now so wonderfully open-ended.  Heaven awaits us.  It is firmly established in Jesus’ resurrection.  It is not to come, for it has already arrived.  It is not in our future—itself, only a temporal concept—but is now a present reality.  And under its awesome canopy we live, move and have our temporal being.

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul speaks of our dual citizenship—our status as people who simultaneously live both a temporal and an eternal life.  He invites us to claim this double existence for ourselves—the fact that our earthly identity is contained within our second citizenship in heaven.  As denizens of heaven, we are able to translate all the events or experiences of our day-to-day lives according to the over-arching reality of the Resurrection.

This is what the first saints modeled for us.  From this perspective, for instance, that Paul reminds us that we do not mourn as those who do not have faith (1Thes. 4:13.)  It is this dual citizenship that he himself wrestles with when he weighs the benefits of being with his Lord in death over remaining here to minister to others (2Cor. 5:8.)  And it is the resource of grace that Stephen, the church’s first martyr, receives when, in the experience of being stoned by an angry crowd, he sees heaven open up above him (Acts 7:56.)  In the midst of his suffering, he has opportunity to lay claim to his eternal identity.

Jesus’ resurrection assures us that every aspect of our day-to-day existence takes place within the expansive womb of eternity.  Though our present lives happen here, we draw our deepest identity from the more comprehensive narrative that the Resurrection has gifted us with.  These two stories co-exist simultaneously—the temporal and the eternal.  But they will not do so forever.  Soon the one will overtake the other.  The Fall will be undone by Christ’s Resurrection.  And eternity will swallow up the temporal.

QUESTIONS

  1. In what way does the reality of your eternal citizenship inform your day to day life?  What are the occasions when you are most grateful to lay claim to this status?
  2. How do you experience life whenever you forget about your heavenly citizenship?  What helps you maintain your awareness of this status?
  3. If our earthly life takes place within the “womb of eternity”  what relationship should we try to maintain with regards to the temporal?

PRAYER:  Praise Jesus for His finished work on the cross and the sure unfolding of His salvation in our lives.  Know yourself increasingly as a citizen of heaven.  Imagine the day when death will be overtaken by Life—when the Resurrection will surpass the Fall.

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 © 2014  Rob Des Cotes, Imago Dei Publishing, Vancouver, BC

130.

Lord, teach us to pray.   Luke 11:1

One of the handouts that we usually give as part of our yearly Ignatian Spiritual Exercises retreat lists seven principles related to our growth in intimate prayer.  As I was sharing this list at a recent retreat I was encouraged enough by its value to want to offer it to the larger Imago Dei community.  In order to continue growing in intimacy with the reality of God in your life these principles encourage you to:

  1. Understand that God welcomes you just as you are.

We will only be free to open our hearts to God to the extent that we believe He welcomes our companionship.  Some will come to God eagerly, as a Friend.  Others might feel reluctant because they are afraid.  Or perhaps they feel resentful or angry at God.  Despite any hesitations, we need to be assured that God welcomes each of us as we are.  God loves us and has taken steps to establish and sustain a loving relationship with us.  He is always moving toward us to help us, forgive us, and embrace us.

  1. Recognize that the Holy Spirit is your Spiritual Director.

In John 14:26, Jesus said that the Holy Spirit will teach us all things.  This is especially so when it comes to prayer.  Paul tells us that “we do not know how to pray as we ought to” (Rom. 8:26).  This should always be the humble starting point for how we approach God in prayer.  As did the disciples, we simply ask Jesus to “teach us to pray.”

  1. Seek to be flexible.

Prayer involves a delicate, personal interaction between your soul and the Holy Spirit.  Rules and precepts cannot orchestrate this sacred dialogue with God.  Seek to be flexible and sensitive to the moment-to-moment movement of the Spirit during your prayers.  The various skills of movement that you learn through prayer will allow you to shift back and forth from one prayer mode to another, adapting and moving with freedom as you seek intimate knowledge of Christ’s ways in you.

  1. Learn to be guided through peace or turbulence.

We learn to be attuned to the movement of the Holy Spirit during our prayers by becoming sensitive to the experience of peace, or lack of it, as we pray.  By monitoring the inward state of our souls we come to recognize the guidance of the Holy Spirit who is always whispering to us: “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts” (Col.3:15).  As we become more familiar with contemplative prayer we also learn to linger over words, thoughts, images or silences that seem to be highlighted by the Spirit in bringing a special sense of peace to our hearts.  At times, we might also experience feelings of unrest or disturbance in the soul.  These too will need to be explored by asking the Spirit to reveal the reasons behind the disturbance.

  1. Seek an intimate understanding of the truth.

As Ignatius taught, it is better to be impressed deeply with one insight, like finding a precious pearl, than to be lightly affected by many.  In encouraging us to savour what we have received Ignatius wrote, “It is not much knowledge that fills and satisfies the soul, but the deep relish of a truth.”  What is important is not to get through a great deal of subject matter in prayer, but to grasp profoundly whatever the Spirit wishes to teach us today.

  1. Discern what works for you.

The end of every prayer should allow for a time of Review, a few minutes to assess our experience in terms of its value for the future.  It is good to ask yourself what you found helpful in achieving the objective of your prayer exercise, and what you found to be a hindrance or distraction.  You can then benefit from this by continuing to practice what worked and eliminating what did not.

  1. Discuss your prayer experiences with your spiritual director.

It is difficult to remain objective about your prayer experiences.  In order to avoid jumping to premature conclusions it is important to present these experiences in such a way that you can look objectively at them.  Sharing them with a spiritual director can help discern God’s presence within your experiences much more easily and accurately than trying to do so yourself.

FOR GROUP DISCUSSION:

  1. Do you believe that the Holy Spirit can teach you how to “pray as you ought to?”  What posture must you maintain in order to remain teachable?  What thoughts or attitudes move you away from this posture?
  2. In what ways do you experience peace or turmoil during prayer?  Do you acknowledge the presence of the Holy Spirit in these experiences, or do you assume these feelings are uniquely your own?
  3. What questions would you like to ask God regarding your experience of prayer?  How might the Lord facilitate your articulation of these questions through a spiritual director?

PRAYER:  Thank God for his guidance.  Ask the Lord to teach you how to pray.  Ask Him to lead you to a more intimate and trusting relationship to His initiatives in your life.

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 © 2014  Rob Des Cotes, Imago Dei Publishing, Vancouver, BC

131.

Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.
Rom. 12:3

When we read about the spiritual experiences of those who live cloistered lives, where prayer is the sole occupation of their day, it is natural to feel envious.  But such envy can often lead to frustration if it creates in us an unrealistic expectation of our own potential as contemplatives—that, in the chaos of our busy lives, we can somehow replicate this inner quiet as a consistent feature of our day.  That is why Thomas Merton recommends that we set a more realistic goal for ourselves.  In his book, The Inner Experience, Merton offers a sober corrective when he writes,

The first sacrifice of the lay contemplative living in the world is to accept the fact that he is not a monk and, consequently, the fact that his prayer life must be correspondingly humble and poor.

The culture we live in, as well as our many addictions to the active life, all work against the silence and solitude that would otherwise be conducive to cultivating spiritual poise in our day.  As Merton says,

Even for those best endowed and prepared, the ordinary conditions of urban life are so inimical to spirituality that we have to keep up a ceaseless struggle to enjoy even the most elementary kind of interior life. Only the exceptional man or woman, left to themselves, will be able to live on a deep enough level to prevent their spirituality from being completely blown away.

Merton’s intent in offering such cautions is not to discourage us, but to help us accept the real challenges we face as urban contemplatives.  In other words, we should not underestimate how much against the grain of life our spiritual calling truly is.

There are things we can do however to counter these forces that work against us.  Merton offers three particular aids to help lay people cultivate an environment conducive for spiritual growth.  He recommends: 1) a gradual and intentional withdrawal from the confusions and attachments we have to life, 2) a consistent practice of prayer, 3) and the importance of belonging to a small group of lay contemplatives who share the same hope  for a deeper spiritual life.  Regarding the first, he writes,

One who wants a contemplative life today, whether he is in a monastery or in the world, must, as far as possible, reduce the conflict and frustration in his life. This means embracing a life of true spiritual detachment and simplicity.  He must also learn how to graciously put up with the inevitable conflicts that remain – the noise, the agitation, the crowding, the lack of time, and above all our constant contact with the secular mentality all around us.

The obvious opportunities for practicing such withdrawal from stimulus are, of course, our times of extended prayer.  It is here that we recover something of the silence and solitude that the active life otherwise confuses.  Merton particularly encourages morning prayer saying,

Wherever you may be, it is always possible to give yourself the benefit of those parts of the day which are quiet because the world does not value them. One of them is the small hours of the morning. If you can get up early in the morning, you will have the best chance to taste something of the peace of solitude. For the dawn, by its very nature, is a peaceful, mysterious, and contemplative time of day.

Even in ideal conditions though, it is difficult to maintain a profound spiritual life without the encouragement of others.  That is why Merton stresses the importance of belonging to a small group of lay contemplatives who can help fan the flame of our desire for God.  He writes,

It would seem that, for this reason, groups of laypeople interested in the spiritual life should be formed in order to protect and foster something of an elementary contemplative spirituality.  Traditionally these have always been small groups, for it is difficult to maintain this focus as a group gets larger.   The small Carmelite communities instituted by St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross for the purpose of forming contemplatives were always to remain small and select. Twenty was already too big. Twenty-two was the outside limit.

Consider Merton’s three recommendations:  1) to simplify your life, 2) to get up early and explore morning prayer, 3) to gather intentionally with others for the mutual encouragement of your desires for God? *  Might God be inviting you at this time to explore or recommit to one or more of these aids?  If so, do take occasion to respond to these recommendations.  They represent simple directives that carry the promise of profound and lasting fruit for our lives.

 

FOR GROUP DISCUSSION:

  1. How do you relate to the particular frustrations that Merton describes as common to the lay contemplative? If you feel frustrated with your spiritual life might God be inviting you to set more realistic goals for yourself?
  1. In what ways do the culture we live in or your own relationship to the active life dissipate your spiritual desires? In what ways do you also experience the “flesh at war with the spirit” in relationship to these desires?
  1. How have a simplification of life, a regular practice of prayer, or the encouragement of kindred spirits helped you maintain your spiritual vitality? How might the lack of these contribute to the frustration you feel with your spiritual life?

FOR PRAYER:  Given the constraints you are presently living with, commit yourself in prayer to the most you can offer to God at this time.  The Lord understands your lot.  He knows the many things you struggle with to even do this much.  Ask God to keep kindled your spiritual vitality through these particular aids that Merton recommends.

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 © 2014  Rob Des Cotes, Imago Dei Publishing, Vancouver, BC

132.

As Jesus and his disciples, together with a large crowd, were leaving the city, a blind man, Bartimaeus, was sitting by the roadside begging.  When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”   Many rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Mark 10:46-48

Perhaps you too have cried out at times with what might be called a “shot in the dark” prayer—those prayers we make to the walls and ceiling in the hope that there is a God out there who just might hear us.  Bartimaeus, the beggar from Jericho, certainly exemplifies such faith and the blind hope (in his case literally) that reaches out for God’s help in spite of our doubts.

Bartimaeus is used to calling out in the dark for what he needs.  He is a beggar after all, and blind to boot.  Sitting by the roadside, with only the sound of footsteps to go on, he spends his day calling out to passersby, trying to draw attention to himself.  So why should today be any different?

The blind man hears a crowd going by.  “What’s happening,” he shouts to anyone within earshot.  “It’s Jesus of Nazareth,” a woman replies as she walks past the beggar.  Bartimaeus spends a lot of time listening to the conversations that surround his dark world.  He’s heard of Jesus before.  And he knows that this man apparently heals people.  What’s there to lose?

“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me,” he yells above the din of the crowd.  He is just one of many voices in the confusion of people that surround Jesus, but Bartimaeus, more than anyone, knows how to make himself heard.  He lets out another plaintive and well-rehearsed cry that cuts through the otherwise civil discourse of others.  “Have mercy on me,” he shouts in the most poignant tone he can muster.  Those closest to him certainly hear him, and their response is a familiar one to Bartimaeus.  They want to quell this overly opportunist beggar.  But, to everyone’s surprise, the first miracle happens.  Jesus hears his cry.

The crowd hushes as the Lord suddenly stops and says, “Call him to me.”  Anticipation rises.  Something is about to happen here.  Bartimaeus is not sure what is going on.  And he is more surprised than anyone when, instead of trying to shut him up, he hears someone from the crowd actually calling him to come to the Master.  “Cheer up,” the voice says, “On your feet!  He’s calling you.”

Bartimaeus doesn’t waste a second.  A beggar man knows just how fickle people’s generosity can be.  He jumps to his feet and lets himself be led a short distance.  Then he hears a voice that asks what seems like a most rhetorical question, “What do you want me to do for you?”  No introduction is needed.  He knows who this is, and he replies in the most simple terms, “Rabbi, I want to see.” Jesus responds with an equally direct pronouncement, “Go, your faith has healed you.”

Bartimaeus has his reward.  He, who only moments ago, from his dark and lonely world, had enough faith to at least try a blind shot in the dark, can now see.  Everything has changed for him because of a little gumption on his part—the type of chutzpah that has sometimes worked for him in the past, but never as successfully as it has on this day.

Bartimaeus will live a very different life than would have been his lot had he too soon disqualified himself from the abundant possibilities that lay just beyond his capacity to see.  His experience of God will also be very different than had he chosen to obey the voices suggesting to him that such a close relationship was somehow inappropriate for him.  Instead, as Scripture tells us, when those doubts were raised in him, Bartimaeus, in blind faith, simply shouted all the louder.  

FOR GROUP DISCUSSION:

  1. Do you remember a circumstance in your life when you offered a ‘shot in the dark’ prayer? How would you describe the quality of faith that countered your doubts at that time in order to help you pray?
  1. Are there times when, in asking God for something, you have felt more like an opportunist beggar than a child of God? How did you respond to the negative voices that tried to discourage your prayer?
  1. Is there a prayer in your life that you have perhaps been offering more tentatively than you should? What would it look like for you to instead “shout all the louder?”

FOR PRAYER:  Explore boldness in your prayer.  Try asking for something that you’ve never dared ask before.  If, at some point, this starts feeling inappropriate, try shouting all the louder.

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 © 2014  Rob Des Cotes, Imago Dei Publishing, Vancouver, BC

133.

For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.   Heb. 4:12

Reading Scripture, for me, can often feel like drinking from a fire hydrant.  There’s just too much coming at me all at once.  If I’ve learned anything over the years of studying the Bible it is how to slow down the process of engaging with Scripture.  One of the ways I do this is by simply working with smaller portions at a time.  *

Theologians refer to these small sections of Scripture as “pericopes” (pronounced “perri-cuppays” with the emphasis on the second syllable).  They represent a block idea or selection from a larger section or chapter.  The NIV, for instance, helpfully divides its chapters under various pericope titles.

My goal these days is to go deeper rather than wide in my study of God’s word.  I miss too much when I try to read larger sections of Scripture.  Instead I choose a smaller portion and read it over and over again as I prayerfully commune with God over these words.  Often I will find myself returning to the same passage (or verse) again the next day if I feel there is more that God wants to speak to me about.

Reading Scripture has become more a matter of getting to know the living and active presence of Christ in His Word than trying to pull meaning or insight from these texts.  I treat each of these sections of Scripture like an icon that I am gazing at, searching for the proverbial “cracks” where the light comes through.  Each pericope is like a room that is waiting to be entered.  And what I am looking for in those rooms is not to study the architecture or furnishing but to better know the Person who lives here.

Sometimes I experience that Presence as no more than a flicker of light or peace that passes over my heart while I am reading.  The Spirit graces me without my having any immediate understanding of why that particular phrase or idea has touched me as it has.  I make a note of it and return to the same word or verse over and over again, asking God why my heart seems to be responding as it is.  I try to be sensitive to the deep, underground resonances taking place in me as I hover over the words on the page.

Most of what I read, of course, goes over my head, but that’s ok.  I’m communing with the living and active Presence of God’s Word.  And faith tells me that, whether I understand it or not, this Word is nevertheless ministering to me.  What I want most is for it to somehow touch my heart—that it will not come back empty but will accomplish whatever the Lord set it out to do in my life.

Because I often feel stumped by Scripture I spend a lot of time asking God questions about the texts I am reading.  It would be foolish for me to too quickly write off something it says as irrelevant just because I don’t readily understand it.  Wisdom gives the text the benefit of the doubt.  And faith allows me to sit longer with a difficult passage rather than prematurely dismiss it.  As Martin Luther once said, “Every verse of Scripture is like the branch of an apple tree.  You have to keep shaking it until the fruit falls off.”

Jesus told His disciples “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear” (Jn. 16:12).  Knowing that to be the case, I try to be happy with the few crumbs that fall my way and not be presumptuous in thinking I should be getting more than I do.  I have also come to accept that the seeming impenetrability of Scripture  often has more to do with the dullness of my own heart, the diffusion of my mind, or the questionable attitude I approach this with than with any obscurity in the text itself.  There is a conversion of the heart implied in how Scripture teaches me to approach it with appropriate humility.

And so I press into the Bible, confident that I am growing not only in my relationship to the knowledge of God but also to the mystery of how the Lord forms us through His living and active Word.  I have long stopped assuming that right understanding is the only goal of Scripture reading.  Instead, I simply present myself to its healing light and welcome whatever conversion the Lord intends for me as I submit to the effects of Scripture.

 *  of course reading a whole book of the Bible in one sitting, or the discipline of reading three chapters each day also have many obvious benefits.

FOR GROUP DISCUSSION:

  1. In what ways have you perhaps “written off” certain portions of Scripture?  What would it mean for you to give the Bible the benefit of the doubt when it comes to passages that you don’t understand?
  2. What other purposes besides growing in our understanding might God have in mind for us in drawing us to His Word?
  3. In what ways does your own “dullness of heart, diffusion of mind, or questionable attitude” contribute to the “seeming impenetrability of Scripture?”

FOR PRAYER:  Try reading a short passage from one of the Gospels as your prayer for today.  Read with your heart.  Look for what resonates there.  Bring your questions to God.  Allow His living and active Presence within this Word to have whatever effect on you the Lord intended for this day.

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 © 2014  Rob Des Cotes, Imago Dei Publishing, Vancouver, BC

134.

I will give them singleness of heart and action, so that they will always fear me and that all will then go well for them and for their children after them.   Jer. 32:39

In the Old Testament we read about Cities of Refuge—towns where someone who had unintentionally caused injury or death could claim the right of asylum (Josh. 20).  Outside these cities, blood vengeance was allowed by law.  But inside the refuge of these walls, vigilante justice was not permitted.  This is what the fear of God represents to those who appreciate its wisdom.  It provides a “City of Refuge” from which we can appeal for clemency from our accusers.

This image often comes to mind as I find myself praying some variation of these words: “Jesus, let me stay near You, for You are the only place in the world where I know, for certain, that I am free from sin.”   It is my growing awareness of the dangers that my own iniquities pose that represents for me what the Bible calls the “fear of God”—not so much the fear of some Divine wrath, but a well-founded fear of myself and the capacity I have to wander dangerously far from God.  It is ultimately the fear of being separated from God.

According to the counsel of Scripture, the fear of the Lord is not something to shun but something to embrace.  Proverbs 23:17 encourages us to “always be zealous for the fear of the LORD.”  The sobering effect of such fear is actually a gift of the Holy Spirit.  And as Jeremiah states in the above passage, it is God Himself who instils it in us for our own good.  He keeps believers close to Him so that “all will go well for them.”

The fear of the LORD leads to life, then one rests content, untouched by trouble.

Proverbs 19:23

FOR GROUP DISCUSSION:

  1. What has your relationship to the phrase “the fear of the Lord” been in the past?  Has this been a positive or a negative exhortation for you?
  2. In what ways has the fear of the Lord been a gift to you?  How has it protected or guided you?  What attitudes has it encouraged or curtailed in you?
  3. What character does it suggest of God that He would instil such fear as a way of protecting us (see Jer. 32:41)?

FOR PRAYER:  Consider the presence of Jesus as your “city of refuge”—the only place in the world where you can know, for certain, that you are free from sin.  Express your desire to all the more cling to Him because this is so.

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 © 2014  Rob Des Cotes, Imago Dei Publishing, Vancouver, BC