When he was the Bishop of the Anglican Catholic Church of Canada before retiring around 2005, Msgr. Robert Mercer gave a wonderful homily about how God is the “great Fisherman” with the ability to catch all kinds of fish. He knows how to catch the wily trout in a rushing river, he said. He uses different means to net in schools of capelin. Bishop Mercer used this metaphor to show how God makes provision to reach all kinds of people—extroverts, introverts, those who would be attracted to a Billy Graham Crusade and those who would be repelled by one. I think the ordinariates may appeal more to those who would be uncomfortable in a praise and worship meeting in a huge stadium. Do we have a higher proportion of introverts among us?
As I ponder these things, and how we in the ordinariates can best evangelize and grow, I have been looking for what might be a common denominator in deeper conversion and a genuine experience of God in Jesus Christ.
One thing I noticed back in the 1990s, when I began to regularly associate with other Christians: the ones who shone with love and peace and exhibited the fruits of the Spirit had one thing in common in addition to a devout, faithful prayer life—they all had experience unbearable suffering at some time in their lives.
One exceptional woman I knew had lost a child; several had survived cancer or some other serious health challenge; others have been abandoned by a spouse; many have suffered the heartbreak of a wayward son or daughter lost to drugs or alcohol or mental illness or themselves had found deliverance from addiction.
So what is it about suffering that could result in personal holiness like an oasis of heaven around them? Speaking personally, there is nothing like unbearable suffering to purify the intent of your prayers, to force you to your knees and to cry for help when you have given up bargaining, given up trying manipulate other people, your circumstances or even God. There’s nothing like unbearable suffering to help you to experience your absolute helplessness and spiritual poverty, and that ache for Life that you discover wracking your heart when all your earthly supports are stripped away. And in that place you wholeheartedly cry to God for help, even if you’re not sure you believe in Him.
Of course, some people never allow themselves to get to the point of helplessness and aching need. They choose bitterness or blame or anger or shaking their fist at the sky instead and they do not become better people for their suffering. But what if you stay on your knees and maybe even observe a part of you shaking that fist and cursing God, but you resist and press in because if only you could touch the hem of His garment? Lo and behold! You surrender all to God, you wait on Him with fear and trembling and just as you think nothing is happening, that you are abandoned, He shows up bigtime. You discover that everything said about Him in Scripture is true. The Bible comes alive. Everything, even a hospital waiting room or an otherwise tedious chore becomes tinged with meaning. Despite the suffering rolling over you in waves, you find joy, inexplicable joy and life and the consolation of God’s love.
When circumstances change and your life improves, you remember what it was like to be so close to God, to know He was with you, so that is likely to be the motivation behind having a disciplined prayer life. And one of the great things about our Anglican tradition now with pride of place in the Catholic Church (and of course this comes from even deeper pre-Reformation roots) is the practice of lay people praying the daily offices of Mattins and Evensong. There is nothing like this to help one maintain one’s faith in God through thick and thin.
When I was younger, I suffered a great deal as a result of some terrible choices I made. Once my personal life became stable and happy, however, I no longer had the drive of unbearable suffering forcing me to keep a diligent prayer life. I remember telling my next door neighbor in 1990 that I was looking for a solution other than suffering wrought by God’s two-by-four across my stubborn brow. I said I was looking for a way to stay close to Christ without having suffering as a motivation to press in. She told me about her Baptist Church, which I began attending and so began my formation as an evangelical Christian. In 2000, after discovering our then traditional Anglican parish, now a Catholic parish of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, I discovered the prayerful anchor of praying the daily offices —whether I felt like it or not—and in more recent years, I have discovered the Rosary.
But even now, when I really should know better, I have my good days and my bad days, where I’m not really entering into the prayers, where I am maybe ticking off a prayer To Do list. I can lose that purity of intent. I can also be a little like St. Augustine when he said, “Give me chastity but not yet” about some of my besetting sins, such as falling to the temptation to check my phone (and email, and Twitter and Facebook and soon it’s noon!) first thing in the morning rather than to begin the day with prayer before anything else.
He wrote about the experience a friend of his had with a form of Christian meditation technique borrowed from Buddhism.
Fr. Main told Amelia to keep repeating the word Maranatha. He explained that by repeating this mantra, she would almost instantly come to experience inner peace and inner recollection. Furthermore he told her, quite erroneously, that what she was experiencing was in fact the mystical contemplation as described by St Teresa of Avila in her masterwork Interior Castle. Exactly the opposite happened to her because she was using the word as a short prayer, not as a technique to generate inner peace. She was in fact using it to ask God to come into her, and to abide in her. Her prayer helped her to keep the deep primordial desire for love, that is in all of us, fixed on God the source of all love. The selfless loving embodied in her constant prayer acted as a spiritual lightning conductor directing God’s love into her heart. However, in authentic Catholic Mystical Theology, as explained best by St John of the Cross, the fire of God’s love first reveals and then draws out of a person all the sins and all the sinfulness that prevents being totally possessed by him. What the receiver must then do is to see the sins and the sinfulness that are preventing God’s love totally possessing them and confess them, receive absolution and continue praying as before to enable God’s love to continue the process of purification in what St John of the Cross calls The Dark Night of the Soul. Far from leading to inner peace it leads to inner turmoil and sometimes to spiritual depression to see oneself laid bare.
I have been mulling over this for some time. What made a difference in the story of David Torkington’s friend? It was her intent in using the mantra. She was seeking to know God, hungering for Him, not using the technique to induce a state of feeling better. “Exactly the opposite happened to her because she was using the word as a short prayer, not as a technique to generate inner peace. She was in fact using it to ask God to come into her, and to abide in her,” Torkington wrote. She was, in other words, manifesting the states of mind of the Beatitudes.
The notion of pure intent goes with the Beatitude Matthew 5:8 Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.
It also goes with Blessed are they that mourn . . . and Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness. Oh, and Blessed are the poor in spirit ….
While I am more comfortable in quiet, contemplative worship settings, I have had a great deal of exposure to charismatic Christian praise and worship and ministry both on the Protestant and the Catholic side. I think intent plays a big role in what happens in some of these settings and on whether there is a real encounter with God or an emotional experience that can become addictive. Sometimes repetitive praise and worship music can help one’s thoughts and emotions coalesce in a heartfelt prayerful cry to God. It can help bring one to a point of meaning what one is singing, just as sitting in silence for me can help bring me much closer to inwardly meaning what I’m praying when I crack open the Psalms and the Scripture readings for Mattins.
But if one is motivated merely to feel better and using the repetitive music to escape, one might come away from a charismatic praise and worship with a tingle down one’s spine and an emotional high from having fallen into a state of hypnotic suggestibility that prompts one to keep “running after the anointing,” as a friend of mine puts it. The Holy Spirit is not a force, a power, a good feeling, though. He is a Person and one of His roles is to convict of us sin.
That’s what my experience of the Holy Spirit has mostly been. He brings first a sense of conviction of sin—not of condemnation but of awareness of the guilt of specific sins my pride almost always resist seeing, but, if I hang in there and “tarry” or do the work of waiting on God in silence, with that conviction of sin will eventually come the sweet tears of repentance, of being repented as something God’s grace brings, and of simultaneously experiencing the mercy and love of God as my sinful nature is revealed to me.
How can we in the ordinariates encourage our lay people to keep up the tradition of praying the daily offices at home? How can we encourage each other to adopt these disciplines as well as those states of mind Jesus spoke of in the Beatitudes? Finding the answers to these questions will be key to our growth and impact on the surrounding world.