Protecting the Babes

But Jesus called the children to him and said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.

— Luke 18:16

Yesterday’s post (We’re looking for a few good contemplatives) inspired some interesting commentary, including further exploration of the question regarding whether beginners in the spiritual life ought to be exposed to contemplative prayer. Here is one opinion that was expressed yesterday:

The danger, I believe, is actually the risk of falling into quietism or illuminism. These errors have already been refuted hundreds of years ago and I see no harm and great benefit in protecting souls from falling into these dangers, especially beginners.

Few things bug me more than people who attack contemplation. In my mind it makes about as much sense as attacking a well-balanced diet. But people keep doing it (and, as evidence of my not-very-advanced spiritual state, I keep getting worked up over it).

On the internet these days, it seems that the most common critic of contemplation is the conservative evangelical, whose attack often confuses denunciations of eastern meditation with a barely concealed anti-Catholicism. But as yesterday’s commentary reminds me, there’s just as much opposition to contemplation from within Catholicism as from the evangelical right. But the Catholic critique of contemplation is much subtler. Here the message isn’t “this is bad,” but rather “this is only for advanced souls.” Discerning whether a person is “advanced” or not is typically a lengthy process involving a spiritual director. The takeaway: unless you are duly submissive to Catholic authority, you have no business being silent before God. And the hidden subtext: it’s not just any kind of Catholic authority, it’s the kind of Catholic authority that thinks Vatican II was a colossal mistake.

Sigh. I love the Catholic tradition, but I fear for its future. Currently there’s a mighty struggle for the soul of the Catholic faith: between those who believe Vatican II was the headwaters of apostasy, and those who believe it was the action of the Holy Spirit in our time. I suppose this struggle will not be resolved even in our lifetime, and I for one have to keep reminding myself that the love of God flows lavishly and abundantly on both “sides.” In many ways it is the Catholic mirror of the similar struggle within Protestantism: between conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists on the one side, and mainstream liberal Protestants and emergent/emerging Christians on the other. For Catholics, it’s Mother Angelica and Mitch Pacwa versus Thomas Keating and Joan Chittister. For Protestants, it’s Wayne Grudem and James Dobson versus Marcus Borg and Brian McLaren. I suppose every generation has its conflicts and its struggle over the soul of spirituality. I’m just sorry that something as good for you as contemplation gets caught in the crossfire.

Meanwhile: If we ought to protect beginners from quietism or illuminism (or any other distortion of the faith), then the solution is to teach them about it. But to just use this as an excuse for restricting access to contemplative practice is like saying to a sixteen-year-old, “I’m not going to let you drive a car because you might get a speeding ticket.” To tell people that they cannot practice centering prayer or contemplation because they are “not ready” merely for fear that they might fall into a heresy makes about as much sense as telling someone he or she cannot attend Mass for fear that they will misunderstand the doctrines of the Holy Trinity or of the Incarnation, or that one may not receive the Blessed Sacrament unless he or she can carefully explain the theology of the Real Presence.

Life is a Pilgrimage — So Embrace the Journey
Do You Need a Spiritual Teacher?
What Has Not Yet Been Revealed
When Contemplation Feels Like Dying


  1. I agree wholeheartedly, but most of Christianity as it is practiced today is based on fear (if not fear of heresy, then fear of hell or fear of being “left behind”), so this problem is never going to go away. You handle it, Carl, much better than me – I would just delete the fearmongers’ comments, rather than reply graciously to them.

  2. Carl,

    Since the comment you quoted from yesterday’s entry was mine, I feel obligated to reply.

    May I respectfully suggest that you have either totally misunderstood our conversation or the points that I was trying to make or that your prejudices are keeping you from seeing my points. I simply do not fit into the box you want to put me in.

    The question is not, “whether or not beginners (of course you will have to define “beginners”) in the spiritual life ought to be exposed to contemplative prayer or not.” Somehow you have reached this conclusion that contemplative prayer was being attacked. If it was, I was not the one attacking it. Do you really think that I am opposed to contemplation?…that my comments promote “elitism?” What is this rant about evangelicals and Vatican II? Where does that come from? (These etc. seem to be your prejudices to me).

    “But to just use this as an excuse for restricting access to contemplative practice is like saying to a sixteen-year-old, “I’m not going to let you drive a car because you might get a speeding ticket.” These are your words. But, while I would not say such words to a sixteen-year-old, neither would I give a five-year-old the keys to my car. He simply is not yet ready to drive.

    Even Paul expresses his disillusionment with some of his converts when he writes that although they should be eating meat (suffering), he must still feed them with milk (sweetness)and reminds them that they have not reached the point where they have shed blood for Christ. This is the reality, not elitism or any other “ism.”


    If there is anyone who thinks that contemplative prayer can be “achieved” by a technique or method or anything that a man can do rather than being a gift from God, that person does not know what he is saying.

    My question to you is, “Is Centering Prayer contemplation?” Reading your entry above, you seem to think so. My answer is that it is not because it is a method, a technique, that a man can do by himself and is not a gift from God. CP proponents must admit this or else they are in error.

    My second question is, “Where is the suffering in CP?” Are we (servants) greater than the master (Jesus)?. If anyone thinks that they can get to God without suffering, then no, they are preaching another Gospel. The reason I write this is that CP is quick to associate itself to writers and true mystics like John of the Cross…but this is not John’s doctrine…where is mortification and penance in CP?

    Third, aren’t people screened before practicing CP? Are some not accepted? They claim that this is the case in their books. Is this “elitism?”

    Contemplation is certainly a gift from God and it is passively received by the soul. It involves purification and the state of being of a soul before God. God will give His gifts when and where and to whom He wishes. Not fair you say! Hey, take it up with Him.

    Finally, do not patronize simply because I do not set an alarm clock to ring 15 minutes after I begin to pray and please get over your hang ups about the authority of the Catholic Church. I suggest speaking with your spiritual director.

  3. Bob, perhaps I do misunderstand you — at least as much as you misunderstand me. But what I do think I understand about you is that you come across as contemptuous of those with whom you disagree (whether it be non-Catholics like Maggie Ross or Peter Rollins, or Catholics like Thomas Keating) and that you appear to have a significantly distorted idea of the role that suffering plays in the ascetical life.

    Read my post carefully: I am saying that the long-standing misunderstanding of the Spanish Carmelite tradition that insists one should not enter into contemplative prayer until one is “ready” is, in fact, a subtle attack on contemplation altogether. And yes, you appear to be doing just that. I am willing to grant that in your mind you are trying to protect the sanctity or value of contemplation. That’s certainly a good and laudable thing to do. But I believe efforts to dissuade those interested in contemplation because they are “not yet ready” are misguided and function to undermine, rather than promote, true sanctity.

    Now, to answer your questions:

    1. Centering prayer is a method of dealing with discursive distraction. As such, it disposes the practitioner to rest silently in the presence of God. Therefore, it is a form of acquired contemplation. You seem to be attacking centering prayer out of a mistaken notion that CP’s practitioners confuse it with infused contemplation. But if this is what you’re doing, I’d encourage you to learn more about the practice. All the teachers of centering prayer I’ve ever met are quite clear about the difference between human effort and divine gift.

    2. Centering prayer neither seeks to avoid nor pursue suffering, it’s rather all about opening oneself to God. It boggles my mind that you think suffering is a requirement for contemplative practice. If you want suffering, try taking care of a handicapped child, or working in impoverished communities, or ministering to those in prison or nursing homes. That’s where we as Christians are called to suffer. But to have some notion that prayer isn’t authentic unless it involves suffering… if that’s where you’re coming from, I believe you’re grossly mistaken. Some Christians appear to make a fetish out of suffering; I certainly hope that’s not what you’re doing! The suffering serves the love, not the other way around.

    3. I’ve studied centering prayer in several contexts, and have never run across screening as a pre-requisite. Rather, what I’ve seen again and again is encouragement to participate in the sacramental life of the church, to seek out the wise counsel of spiritual direction, and to ground one’s contemplative practice in the Eucharist, the Bible, and the Daily Office. Frankly, I wish that those who attack centering prayer would actually come and participate in centering prayer retreats or classes; you might find that we are not as scary (or heretical) as you seem to think.

    As for your parting shot, my spiritual director (a wise elderly Trappist father) has much the same opinion about the institutional authority of the church as I do (and I personally wouldn’t describe either of us as having a “hang up” about authority, but of course, you are entitled to your opinion).

  4. “Accordingly, I would not consider any spirituality worthwhile that wants to walk in sweetness and ease and run from the imitation of Christ.” – St. John of the Cross

    This is the same John of the Cross with which you wish to associate Centering Prayer? Maybe you should reread his writings again? Do you think John, or perhaps God has a “suffering fetish” too? Lord, help us.

    Wait, wait…”the long-standing misunderstanding of the Spanish Carmelite tradition…? You mean the same long-standing Spanish Carmelite tradition that gave us such Doctors of the Church as St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. Therese of the Child Jesus? What boggles the mind is that the very people who gave us the contemplative tradition, who you look to as examples, and cite, and wish to imitate, are considered mere forerunners of your (emphasis) CP tradition! – that somehow these same contemplative Saints and/or Carmelites are mounting a subtle attack on contemplation!? Unbelievable!

    May I again suggest that the misunderstanding is yours? You intend to challenge the Saints and Doctors of the Church? You know something they don’t? Maybe they missed something? Failed to mention something or enlighten us? Forget CP and the rest of your reply…you’ve got a more serious problem. Sorry to sound so contemptuous.

  5. While the quote you provide from John of the Cross is certainly noteworthy, it reveals how poorly you understand what I have written. To repeat what I said earlier, centering prayer neither avoids nor pursues suffering. Which means the quote you’ve provided is irrelevant to weighing its merits.

    I’m hardly “challenging” the Spanish Carmelites at all (incidentally, Thérèse of the Child Jesus, like Brother Lawrence, is French, not Spanish). I’m challenging their twentieth century interpreters like Garrigou-Lagrange, Tanquerey and Dubay, none of whom are either canonized or doctors of the church.

    It appears that you have again retreated into sarcasm.

    Once again, I would suggest that you read the writings of centering prayer’s advocates rather than simply attack them. Centering Prayer and the Healing of the Unconscious is a good place to start. Its author does a much better job than I could at explaining how CP is consistent with the teaching of both Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, among others.

  6. Funny that you mention Garrigou-Lagrange (Dominican), since it was his book, “Christian Perfection and Contemplation” which actually explains the Catholic meaning of “perfection” that I alluded to earlier. You are challenging him? On what, I wonder? Pretty sure you will fail here.

    Tanquerey? Again, I wonder on what? I read his book a while back, “The Spiritual Life” or something like that…I’d have to look for it. Things ain’t looking much better for you.

    Dubay? I read his book, “The Fire Within” and didn’t find anything contrary to St. John of the Cross…in fact, he is good at explaining it and showing how the doctrine of St. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila is (emphasis) the Gospel, as lived and experienced by these Saints. Hmmm…the guy doesn’t like CP.

    These writers, like John and Teresa, do not fail to address the question of why there are so few contemplatives…while at the same time, advocating that all are called to perfection. They are theologians and expound on the difference between the way things ought to be and the way they are.

    “Many all called, few are chosen.”

    You seem to favor the way things ought to be (ie. many are called) – the reality is that few are chosen, the way things are. GL is very good at clarifying who is called to what and when, and if they are called to a more advanced state later, and how this can be known by us. Sorry if this offends you.

    The real problem with CP is that it attempts to apply methods of prayer appropriate to people already established in contemplation or still undergoing the passive purifications of the spirit – to people who are not yet established (called) in contemplation and may or may not be undergoing the active purification of the senses.

  7. Well, I may be a failure, but I’m not offended. :-)

    Certainly I am no theologian and could not hope to be a match to either Garrigou-Legrange or Tanquerey; I am no match for their staggering intellects or prodigious knowledge. My issue with them involves their efforts to systematize the spiritual life. To put it in integral terms, they attempt to collapse inner experience to external correlates, and what they are left with is a program that effectively discourages many, perhaps most, people from believing that the contemplative life could ever be for them. It’s really a program about unquestioning submission to authority more than anything else. I know you think I have a “hang up” with authority. Well, if that is so, all I can say is: so did Jesus. Perhaps when one questions authority, it’s a way of responding to the call to the imitation of Christ. And, lest you think I’m advocating a nihilistic individualism over against the truth of the church, let me hasten to add that I believe all spiritual seekers need to be grounded in tradition (ie, scripture, the Daily Office), the wise counsel of a spiritual director and/or confessor, and a community which supports the life of prayer (for many people, the church fails miserably in this regard, but that’s another issue for another day). Tradition, direction and community are safe-guards against unrestrained self-aggrandizement, but even so, sometimes we are called to say no to unjust authority. Sometimes we are called to walk a path that is off the “approved” path. And this is precisely where the neo-Thomists and others who attempt to reduce inner experience to submission to external authority fail so spectacularly.

    As for Dubay, if I recall correctly, his beef with CP was that it is based on oriental methodology. Not really the issue that you and I are sparring over here, but I think he is at best being overly cautious and at worst could be guilty of quenching the Spirit. The Quakers say “Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” If those who attack centering prayer could put more effort into celebrating their vision of popular Catholic (or general Christian) spirituality, then perhaps I wouldn’t be so annoyed with them. But frankly, it seems that all the anti-CP folks have to offer is unquestioning obedience to a church that, for so many people has fallen lifeless if not actively oppressive. Mind you, I’m speaking as a practicing Catholic who is not only active in my parish but also associated with a lay monastic community and work for a church bookstore to boot! So I don’t think I can be accused of being a disgruntled anti-Catholic. But I am a Catholic troubled by what I see as forces within the church that appear to be hostile to the very gospel that the church is charged with proclaiming. And, yes, one of those forces is the widespread confusion that equates external submission with internal spirituality.

    Yesterday I said that I suspect you and I have considerably different perspectives on mystical theology. I think we probably have radically different understandings of ecclesiology as well. Merely the fact that I consider Maggie Ross a living prophet while you see her as a dangerous anti-Catholic sums it up nicely. We can take pot shots at one another all day long, but it won’t solve much of anything. If you think what I’m doing is deleterious, I’d encourage you to start your own blog and website devoted to the spiritual life. Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness…

  8. Carl,

    I wholeheartedly agree with you. I have always been mystified when people assume there is something occult and of high volatility to contemplative prayer. Does no one actually read the first chapters of Teresa and John? The point of this kind of prayer is that you (the ego, the individual) cannot reach any higher level by their own efforts – only God takes you there when God is pretty well ready for it! And unless you posit some malevolent Gnostic God who deliberately wants to ‘fry your circuits’ by throwing you into deep ecstatic union when you are not ready, I do not see where’s the danger. The worse that can possibly happen is nothing – which is what Teresa says over and over.

    When I press people further on retreats about why they say contemplation is ‘dangerous’ the answer tends to be something that equates contemplation with highly advanced yogic practices – which of course it has nothing to do with! …silly really.

    I have found a way to discuss these things while removing some of the emotional attachments that people feel towards contemplation which you may want to try. Lately there have been a rash of scientific studies on the benefits of meditation, especially the Vipassana kind. Now Vipassana OUTWARDLY tends to be almost indistinguishable from contemplative prayer – of course the inner dynamics and intentions are very different…but my point is, you can approach the process from the lowest common denominator – sitting still and quietly is good for your health – now who doesn’t want that?

    This tends to help people see beyond their own prejudices. It also allows you to spend sometime explaining the core of the teaching and why Prayer is NOT Vipassana – so it becomes a teaching moment as well.

    Keep fighting the good fight.

    Blessings of Peace


  9. Thank you, Leo, and well said.

  10. At first, I felt intimidated even approaching this conversation. I haven’t read but maybe a quarter of the works that you and others have mentioned, and many of those were back in my undergraduate days where I’m not sure I took out of them the same thing I would take if I read them again now. And so I wondered, does that make me “young” in the faith?

    But then, I’ve been a Catholic my entire life. Oh sure, I’ve strayed a little here and there, including a two-year spree where I attempted to see if I could be both Christian and Wiccan. In the end, the Catholic Church is my home and where I am called to be…though I have certainly borrowed aspects from other studies that I now find helpful in my prayer life. In fact, I believe that straying from the path has taken me from a course of youthful zealotry to a much more balanced faith.

    I guess in all of my 29 years I’ve never bothered to ask anyone if I’m praying “correctly.” I reach inward and speak to God. I usually find that he answers, not in words but in presence. I certainly have some issues with the Catholic Church (I haven’t been able to take communion since I got married, for one), but I do submit, externally to the church and internally to God.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that all of this conversation is difficult for me, a cradle-born, Jesuit-educated, fairly intelligent person to follow. I can therefore only imagine that it would definitely cause your average practitioner to back far away and say, “I think I’ll just stay over here and go to Mass and light my candles, thanks.” And I think that’s a shame. I think people should be exposed to the fullness that a more…mystic (?) approach has to offer.

  11. Thanks for your message, Marne. Yes, Bob’s and my conversation is highly technical, but I hope that doesn’t dissuade you from exploring contemplative spirituality. I’m currently learning how to play the bass guitar. I’m sure if I sat in on a jam session featuring Victor Wooten, Chris Squire and Tony Levin, I might think I could never accomplish anything on the bass – but of course, I’m a beginner and need to start at the beginning. Mysticism is different: just because folks like me (or Bob) have a lot of book learning doesn’t necessarily make us spiritual masters, in fact I would argue that sometimes the most advanced mystics may have little or no formal spiritual education whatsoever…

    FInally, are you in the Atlanta area? If so, I’d heartily encourage you to go talk to Fr. Greg Kenny at Corpus Christi Church in Stone Mountain; he helped me and my wife navigate the murky waters of annulment, and is a kind and gentle priest with a keen knowledge of canon law. If you’d like to address whatever issues are keeping you from the Blessed Sacrament, I believe he’s your man!



  12. I am in the Atlanta area. My husband and I attend Our Lady of the Assumption, near Oglethorpe. When we married, it was in an ELCA Lutheran Church and it seemed very likely that I might leave the Catholic Church entirely (I was furious with the Church, at the time). However, as time wore on and we had a child, my husband decided to go through the RCIA process. The only thing holding him back from being baptised and me from returning to communion, is the completion of his two annulments, so that our marriage can be convalidated by the church. He has the paperworked filled out, and will turn it in when he is ready (it’s not something I feel highly comfortable pushing him on, given the complete 180 he has already done on many spiritual matters). I don’t think he even technically needs an annulment, given that the church has already declared he needs to be rebaptised (his first Baptism was as a Jehovah’s Witness, and nontrinitarian), but that will work itself out at some point, I’m sure!

    And I’m not dissuaded from exploration by the conversation, no worries. I’m really pretty grounded in my own faith, having been through a lot, and not at all self-conscious about it! But I do think I’ll do a little more reading, all the same.

  13. I’m glad to hear you’ve found a nice church home (I’ve heard the new church at OLA is gorgeous, I’ll have to come out there for mass some day) and best of luck with the annulments etc.

    If you ever visit the Monastery in Conyers, stop by the Abbey Store and ask for me (I only work one Saturday a month, so if it’s a Saturday I may or may not be there).

    Good luck with your reading. Let me know if you’d like any suggestions, based on your interests… :-)

  14. The new church is absolutely beautiful. They did an amazing job in the construction. I grew up in Minnesota, right on the border with Fargo, ND so it took me a long time to adjust from a sort of Garrison Keillor mentality to what it’s like to be a Southern Catholic, which is a slightly different experience!

    My husband and I have been wanting to visit the Monastery for some time, so I have a feeling we will make the time to do so this year.

    I am always open to suggestions. This week has been both spiritually interesting and difficult for me. I am a DeKalb County Police Officer and attended two funerals this week, one led by an AME minister and another by “Bishop” Eddie Long. So I’ve definitely been contemplating some of the prosperity issues you were talking about recently, and just death in general. I hope I never have to go through another week like this one in my career.

    Thank you!

  15. Oh, bless you and all your colleagues! What a tragedy. I’m sure you don’t hear this enough, but Thank you for all you do to help keep our county safe.

    You’ll love the monastery. The church is gorgeous, very unusual, made entirely of concrete and stained glass. The store is Catholic kitsch heaven, but we do have a nice selection of books (he says modestly). We also have a lake, picnic area, and a greenhouse with bonsai and bonsai supplies for sale. Most of all, it’s just plain peaceful. Hope you can get out here soon and we’ll meet face to face (and I’ll make my book recommendations then).

  16. episcopalifem says:

    Very interesting discussion Carl. You’ve made some very good points – God isn’t in a box. I doubt very highly that he would be displeased with a person who was attempting to get closer to him. And Grace is God’s gift to give as he sees fit – certainly not as you or I would see fit. I believe that for some the path of suffering is the way for them and for others the way of contemplation is the perfect path. Both ways will do as God wills them to. She made us, and she knows what we need.

    Bob has presented an interesting perspective – although it’s not one I particularly agree with (but, you already knew that, right?) The problem with a path of suffering, is that, it becomes highly abhorent to the point of outrageness that one might be able to get to the same place without the suffering.

    Christ sufferred, not because God required, but because man, in his imminent ignorance required it – I believe humanity required the sacrifice. God gave of himself because he loved us so, and would give us what we needed so we could love him.

    I would NOT expect Bob to agree, nor would I ever try to persuade him. That’s God’s job, not mine. I have logs in mine own eye to contend with.

    However, I will admit to a bit of schadenfreud that it seems that even the Church Universal really doesn’t have homogeneity, inspite of what the Vatican keeps trying to insist.

    Again, thank you for this very illuminating discussion.

  17. Carl,

    Permit me to reduce your last reply to me with the following quotes:

    “My issue with them involves their efforts to systematize the spiritual life. To put it in integral terms, they attempt to collapse inner experience to external correlates, and what they are left with is a program that effectively discourages many, perhaps most, people from believing that the contemplative life could ever be for them. It’s really a program about unquestioning submission to authority more than anything else.”

    “And this is precisely where the neo-Thomists and others who attempt to reduce inner experience to submission to external authority fail so spectacularly.”

    First, I simply to not see and effort by Garigou-Lagrange, Tanquerey, and Dubay to “systematize” anything. I read them rather as expounding upon the doctrines and experiences of faith of John and Teresa in order that we may better understand them and be able to integrate them into the whole of our faith. This is the role of theology (“Faith seeking Understanding”). Such a synthesis reveals the beauty and congruity within the whole Church, its ecclesiology, the Sacraments, and the life of faith etc.

    While I grant you that the level of their writings may be beyond some, I do not believe this will discourage anyone from contemplation. Such writing is also necessary to exclude error (not people) from creeping in to the doctrines over time, like quietism, by giving a rational explanation within the synthesis of the whole.

    In summary, let’s remember that spirituality is dynamic. With this in mind, I say that a true inner experience will lead to submission to the authority of the RC Church (since it is the only Church established by Christ). If it does not, the experience is questionable. St. Teresa of Avila writes the same thing. On the other hand, submission to the Church leads one to a true inner experience. A true inner experience can not be opposed to submission (as I am using the term-the submission of faith), as truth cannot contradict truth. So where you say these author fail spectacularly, I have no doubts that they succeed beyond measure in their intended purpose.

  18. Bob, your logic appears to be watertight. As I have suggested twice already, we have reached the place where our radically different understandings of theology and ecclesiology — not to mention the very nature of God — come to light. My apologies, but I’m really not interested in hashing out those differences here or in any other forum. I suspect we both already know what those differences look like.

  19. episcopalifem,

    Guessing here that you are Episcopalian.

    “God isn’t in a box.” Normally, when Protestants use this expression, they are taking a shot at the Real Presence in the Eucharist – an RC dogma. My reply is that Protestants admit that God is indeed everywhere, except in that (emphasis) box (the Tabernacle).

    Secondly, you wish to disassociate the path of suffering and the path of contemplation. I do not separate them and neither do the writers we have been discussing. As such, your statement that, “The problem with a path of suffering, is that, it becomes highly abhorent to the point of outrageness that one might be able to get to the same place without the suffering” is erroneous to all Christian doctrines.

    “She made us, and she knows what we need.” No, on second thought, I won’t even go there.

  20. Carl, ok…

  21. episcopalifem says:

    Bob…barking up the wrong tree. I WAS a Roman Catholic. I left that path. I’m still catholic (high church) but with a a little c instead of a big one. Christians, (see Paul’s epistles) have never been of one mind, regardless of what dogma or doctrine try to enforce as universal truth/reality.

    My opinion on your emphasis on suffering stands. That is one way to view the cruxificion. It isn’t a way that works for me, but if it works for you, Godspeed.

  22. Good to see that Carl and Bob have parted on as friendly terms as possible, recognizing differences on subjects perhaps as deep as the nature of God….

    My peacemaking tendencies won’t rest, however, until I try to say one more thing about the nature of suffering in our Christian / contemplative experience: The Bible exhorts us in Hebrews 12:2, “Let us fix our attention on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who FOR THE JOY SET BEFORE HIM ENDURED THE CROSS, SCORNING ITS SHAME, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (My emphasis; sorry if this is not your favorite or most familiar Bible translation.) My point here is that the SWEETNESS of the JOY SET BEFORE HIM and the FULFILLMENT OF THE FATHER’S GOOD WILL and the THRONE OF GOD were clearly in the motive of the Savior as he ENDURED THE CROSS out of obedience to the Father and love for us. There is no unhealthy, obsessive love for suffering or ascetic excess in Jesus’personal experience of the Cross or in His way of living or His exhortations to us about how to live as His followers.

    Suffering is built into all of life as a result of the fall of Adam (and our complicity in it). There is NO NEED FOR US TO SEEK SUFFERING IN ORDER TO GET CLOSER TO GOD. He is well able to provide (or “allow”) all the suffering we need in order to assure whatever measure of sanctification He has in mind for each of us!

    I do see in our general culture a fierce, ungodly (natural? human?) passion to avoid suffering at all costs, and this looks to me like evidence of the general decline in the moral strength or “guts” of our society. I won’t go into lengthy development of a thesis that this is precisely what is faulty about the popular prosperity gospel of our day, except to state simply that this false gospel distorts our view of “the nature of God” by distancing us from the redemptive power of the Cross, something that Bob’s theology keeps us open to in what I see as a very healthy way. I end this by re-stating my main point, in perhaps slightly different terms: the love for joy and pleasure and celebration is NOT something that has to be purged out of us through suffering in order for us to advance in our spiritual / contemplative life; rather, it is a God-given healthy motivation that Jesus continued to have all the way through death and beyond, the JOY THAT WAS SET BEFORE HIM. Carl’s insistence on inner experience over outer submission is relevant here: Jesus dismissed loyalty to outer religious authorities (“Do what they say, not what they do”) and gave Himself up to fulfill the will of the Father for Him, which was the suffering of the Cross, for the sake of the goal, the fruit, the pleasure of the Father in bringing many sons to glory…

    episcoplifem may be right in saying that (we) Christians have never been of one mind, but as far as any of us experiencing internal communion with Jesus the Savior by the inner work of the Holy Spirit, using the outer means He has given us to facilitate this communion but not confusing our practices (which I take to be “anything we can do as humans without His miraculous intervention”) with the sovereign work of grace–well, my inner peacemaker tells me to believe and trust that we DO have this in common, despite our apparent radical differences of understanding of how it all works…

    Peace and love to all,

  23. I have not read all the posts yet, but this sermon by Archpriest David Moser on the Jesus Prayer is germane to your topic:

    Matt 15:21-28

    Hopefully we pray all the time. We all try to keep a daily prayer rule; we all try to remember the presence of God with us throughout the day; we all try to remember to ask for God’s help in everything that we do. We all try to give thanks to God for His gifts to us. In times of difficulty or danger or personal struggle, we seem to be more willing to reach out to God in prayer, asking Him to get us out of or through particularly rough patch. When the circumstances of our life emphasize for us our own limitations and powerlessness, then it is only natural to reach out to One who is greater and more powerful than we ourselves. Prayer is a natural desire that lives within us all.

    However, even though prayer is a natural inclination, we do not naturally know how to pray effectively. In the same manner, hunger is a natural desire that we have; however, we must learn to eat the things that are nutritious and good for us which can effectively satisfy that desire. So also we must learn to pray in an effective manner which is beneficial for our well being and salvation. The account of this woman who approached our Lord in the Gospel we heard today, gives us a number of wonderful lessons about prayer. From this account we can learn much about prayer.

    First there is the wording of prayer itself. Often it is difficult to find just the right words for prayer. Our holy mother Church teaches us to pray by giving us numerous examples and standard prayers that we learn to adopt as our own. The simplest of these prayers is the one that the woman in the Gospel said: “Have mercy on me” This is the most basic and effective of prayers – to ask for mercy from God. When we ask for mercy, we put ourselves and our lives totally in the hands of God trusting Him to work things out according to His love for us. This is the best prayer that there is. Look closer at the woman’s prayer; she described her situation – her daughter was “grievously vexed by a devil” and she herself was without hope. Then she did not ask Him to deliver or heal her daughter, nor did she ask for any specific outcome for herself – she simply put the whole matter in Jesus hands, simply saying, “Lord have mercy.” This is a wonderful example for us to learn how to pray. We describe to God our situation; we pour out our heart to Him – our pain, our sorrows, our hopes, our joys, our dreams – and then when we have laid everything out, we put it all in his hands and say simply, “Lord have mercy”. Is this not the way we pray in Church, in the litanies where we bring to mind all our requests, praying for peace for the world and for good weather, for health, for those who are sick and imprisoned and traveling and in need – and then we all put these things into Gods hands, saying together, “Lord have mercy”

    When we put our lives in God’s hands and say simply, “Lord have mercy” then He hears and answers our prayers not according to our limited ideas of what “should” be – but rather according to His infinite wisdom and love for us. He sees our desires, our sorrows, our joys, our needs, our trials and our hopes and then gives us what is necessary within that context so that we might most effectively acquire His grace and be transformed into His image and likeness. He gives us every good thing that is beneficial to our salvation.

    Returning now to the woman in the Gospel, as we read on, we note a second lesson in prayer. Her own petition was joined by the entreaty of the disciples. Blessed Theophylact in his commentary on the Gospels, tells us that the comments of the disciples to our Lord “Send her away” were not meant as a rebuke but rather were designed to move Him to pity and answer her prayer. When we pray, we do not pray alone but our prayers are joined by the prayers of the whole Church. We should be praying for one another as a matter of course for in this way we act out our love for our neighbor as for ourselves. And knowing that we pray one for another, we should all be bold to ask our brothers and sisters in Christ to pray for us. Not only that, but we should also turn to our friends and elder brethren, the saints, and ask for their prayers as well. The scripture tells us that “the prayer of a righteous man availed much” and God Himself has revealed the saints to us as “righteous men”. It is natural and expected that we should ask them to join their prayers to ours. Every prayer we say is not a “solo” but rather ascends to God as beautiful chorus of prayers all in harmony designed to move Him to have mercy on us.

    The third thing we see from the Gospel is the persistence of the woman who prayed. She was not daunted by the seeming indifference of Christ, nor was she turned away by the rebuke that He was sent first to the house of Israel – but she persisted in her prayer, humbling herself to become no more than the dog who takes not the finest food, but only the crumbs from the master’s table. To persist in prayer can be a humbling experience, for we approach our Lord over and over again with the same difficulty. This is not evidence of His lack of provision or His
    Indifference to us, rather it is the evidence of our own sinfulness that we cannot see or sense the abundance of His grace that is poured out upon us and so we come back asking for more, until the grace of God is so great that even in our blindness, we too can sense its presence and begin to see the compassionate and loving provision of God for us. God is our patient and ever loving Father. He lovingly hears our prayers over and over again and His hand is never empty of mercy for us. He gladly listens to us as we describe again and again the difficulties of our situation and as we confess our own weakness and inadequacy. He does not turn away from us, nor does He become angry at us, but rather this perseverance in prayer moves Him to ever greater compassion, ever greater love for us and ever greater mercy. He gently guides the eyes of our heart so that eventually, as we persist in prayer we begin to see our situation with His eyes and understand as He does and then we see the abundance of grace that He gives and the answer to our prayer is obvious to us.

    We have before us a lesson in prayer. The simple, most basic prayer, “Lord have mercy” is a model and foundation for all our other prayers. If we only had this one prayer, “Lord have mercy” it would be sufficient – and even more than sufficient it would be abundant for us. It is no coincidence that the archetypal prayer – the Jesus prayer – has as an integral part of it the petition, “Lord … have mercy …” This is the core of all our prayers.

    And it is also good to recall that we do not pray alone. We pray for one another, we intercede for one another; we lift up our brothers and sisters to the throne of God in prayer. Not only this, but the saints also pray for us and join their prayers to ours so that our Lord hears not just a single voice – but a whole chorus of prayers moving Him to have compassion and mercy upon us.

    Finally, be persistent in your prayer. The holy Apostle Paul reminds us that we should “pray without ceasing” and that we should always lift up our hearts in prayer. Cry out to God constantly saying “Lord have mercy on me” so that as you call out to God, He also reaches out to you and you begin to see and understand not with your limited reason and perception, but you see and understand with the eyes of God.

    This is how we are instructed to pray: simply, together and persistently. In this way we learn to fulfill that natural inclination to prayer in such a way that it is effective, helpful and beneficial to our salvation.

    Archpriest David Moser
    St Seraphim of Sarov Orthodox Church (ROCOR)

  24. judith collier says:

    Wow! That suffering thing. Sometimes a person has nothing but themselves to offer God, not much time, not much money, no outstanding talent, a personality that has much to be desired. All they have is their heart and if suffering does come their way, this is one thing that done bravely and with all glory to God, well, this is their gift to Him. They embrace it not because it is neccessary for salvation but it’s because it’s something that is personal and a way to outwardly show their love. Like a soldier, a Christian soldier. And surprisingly, their is much joy in it, not because suffering is better but because we too can testify to the grace of God. judy

Leave a Comment