by Randy Roche, SJ
Below is a title and brief description of each essay. To read an essay, click on its title:
My Tern, Your Tern- God does not send us an annotated set of rules for proper environmental consciousness.
I Have You- God has us from the perspective of infinite eternal love, without limits of any kind.
Security- Security that arises from trust is itself a gift.
Voluntary- Why not take time to notice a little more frequently the love present in and through so much that we do?
Revelations- Revelations are not random occurrences that bring about a passing sensation of well-being.
You Called?- There are many calls in our lives.
Views- We do not need a degree in the science of how the brain works to be quite certain that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
Helpless?- The more we believe that we are loved, the greater the positive influence upon us.
Woof!- Anything that we might think, imagine, say or do that does not somehow seem to put distance between us and God draws us closer.
Do I Have To?- When we base decision-making on our relationship with God, our perceptions of the issues at stake will be modified.
Mother and Child- As we know, every son or daughter, no matter how old they become, always remain their mother’s child.
One day when I was quietly working outside, a lovely white bird, a tern that had the curiosity of a cat and the ability to fly in place like a hummingbird, hovered above me for a few moments looking at me while I looked back: one of those rare, unexpected encounters with a creature that is quite meaningful and heartfelt. Many of us, if we choose to look back through our memories, have had similar experiences. For some, it might have been gazing peacefully at an infant who returned the gaze. Others of God’s creatures also stir something beautiful inside us when we have had one of those unplanned but exceptional eye-to-eye meetings.
We are living in an age when our solidarity with all of creation is now a topic for serious consideration by all people, not just a small number of hikers or outdoor enthusiasts. More of us are becoming aware of how water and air quality, land use and all the other living beings on earth are interconnected with one another, and that we are dependent upon them for our well-being as well as having responsibility for protecting them from disruption and over-use. Although the facts about interdependence and co-responsibility for our world seem evident to thinking persons, experiences similar to “my tern,” provide us with motivation for taking active care of all of the gifts of creation that God has entrusted to us.
We cannot directly cause insights and experiences that bring us to a better level of properly fitting in with the larger world beyond that of our immediate living environment. But we can read and study serious reasoned accounts that address our responsibilities for the health of the natural systems that support life on earth. And we can take into account affective personal experiences that support what we learn.
Reasons of the heart are more operative in leading to changes in behavior than reasons that are purely rational. One person who has had the habit of throwing anything and everything into the trash might not be induced by printed directions on receptacles to separate out glass and cans, but might adjust his or her behavior if, for example, a child were to joyfully describe what it is like to “help the earth” by recycling metal and glass. In like manner, we might have been only minimally aware of the limited supply of fresh water in the world until we have met someone who has had to live with severe restrictions on even water to drink.
God does not send us an annotated set of rules for proper environmental consciousness, but has given us minds to consider the facts that science and faith make available to us and the affective personal experiences that help bring our hearts into line with reason. As I recall “my tern,” I am consoled with the thought that it was as though the Spirit came and hovered over me and looked me in the eye. If you were to take a quiet moment to imagine a similar occurrence, you might have an experience that would be “your tern.”
In some detective stories, the person who discovers the identity of a criminal might say, “I have you.” A more positive expression in common use is, “I have your back,” when one person proclaims responsibility for the welfare of another. The most positive context for the words of the title would have God speaking them to any one of us as a most gracious expression of care.
Only God can say, “I have you,” with the literal sense of absolute ownership that is at the same time an assurance of total understanding and love. For us to have anything material is to temporarily possess it; to have personal characteristics, insights, knowledge, relationships or spiritual qualities is also to exercise a form of ownership that has a beginning and an end. The only thing we have that we might say is not limited by space and time is love. But God has us from the perspective of infinite eternal love, without limits of any kind.
As with any words of God that come to us, whether through the medium of Scripture, the expressions of those who care about us, or inspired directly within our minds, the results are worth noting. The world around us does not change when we recognize God’s love for us, but our ability to relate positively with the persons and events, the thoughts and feelings within us, definitely improves. Perhaps only when we reflect on this experience do we come to appreciate what it means for us that God is personally involved in our lives.
We might find it helpful once in a while to recall one of those times when someone let us know quite clearly that he or she was committed to being with us through a difficulty, or when someone stated clearly a firm purpose of accompanying us in whatever circumstances might arise. The memory of personal solidarity in the past can encourage us even when that person is not present. If we are willing to accept the words “I have you” as being spoken to us by God, the reality of support is always present, even when we are recalling the words from memory.
We do not always have the same feelings about the statement that God has us, just as we do not have identical feelings in response to any particular saying, belief or thought. We can choose what we say and do. But the feelings we have, even in relation to our own activity, are not ours to choose. Still, memory serves us well when we recall any of those moments of conviction that have occurred in the past. Memories of graces we have received affirm and confirm the authentic meaning of more recent or even present situations. The initial words or experiences which had elicited feelings that were wholly appropriate at the time, and were recognizably occasions of God’s grace, now speak to us the same true message, though the only feelings we have might be barely perceptible as an abiding sense of peace.
“I have you,” (signed), God.
When we see the word “security” we might have thoughts of being safe from harm, or we might be reminded of insurance policies and other securities that we take care not to lose. At a deeper level, security represents the confidence we have in our beliefs, or the trust we place in people and in God, whereby our safety and well-being are assured.
Banks, governments and various other institutions offer guarantees regarding home, property and financial security, but we know that nothing in the material world can actually be guaranteed as absolutely secure. Most of us have had experiences such as damaged, lost or stolen property being reimbursed for less than its monetary value. And who can offer complete security for irreplaceable family mementos? Honesty requires of us an acknowledgment that our trust regarding the security of anything and everything in the material world is of necessity limited.
Not all of our concerns for security, or even those that are most significant, are primarily physical or material. In all substantial matters, trust, or faith, enables us to transcend material needs without dismissing their very real value to us. What are the thoughts in our minds when we are feeling insecure? We might be looking to our own strengths and weaknesses, and finding ourselves somewhat inadequate for whatever challenges we are confronting. When we look outward to God Our Lord, or even to friends, family members and others whom we have come to trust, those difficulties which had initiated the feelings of insecurity might still be present, and yet we find the inner capacity to move forward with some confidence. We have likely become more conscious of “we” rather than merely “I,” and it makes a difference, a positive difference.
We do not turn to friends, family members, helping professionals or even God, expecting everything to be made well, or for all challenging circumstances to be overcome. But, through our trust, we receive an interior disposition of security in the midst of the realities we are facing, benefiting from a spiritual movement that is far more reassuring than that which is offered by insurance policies.
Not every word of support that we receive is equally trustworthy. We know the difference between a supposedly positive and cheery statement that does nothing for us and an expression of understanding and compassion which is actually helpful. Security in the midst of difficulties is often founded on our belief that someone, and this includes God, respects us and cares about us as we are, with our thoughts and feelings, our frailties and strengths. Whether we encounter a minor disappointment or a major health crisis, our trust that we are not really alone is of great significance.
Security that arises from trust is itself a gift. We can deliberately and consciously reflect on the experiences of trust that have helped us so far, and we can at any time ask the God of trustworthiness to fill our hearts with the peace that comes from believing how truly we are loved.
Though we make rules or guidelines that support the ways we express our love, it is always voluntary. We cannot be coerced to love, no matter how many obligations and responsibilities we take on as manifestations of our love. Loving is the most valuable and the only aspect of our capabilities that continues on with us even through death. The voluntary aspect does not mean that love is one option among many others that are equal, or that loving is to be equated with volunteering for temporary or part-time service. Love is the most significant and at the same time, the most fulfilling activity of the human spirit.
Many of us are so habitually busy that we can easily become unaware of the deep significance and value of much that we do. Even a small amount of reflection can make the difference between “the same old same old” and the recognition of an energizing yet calming power that is moving within us. If we only take one meal a day, we can probably manage to remain healthy, but most of us choose to give more time to eating, not only for the sake of physical sustenance but for social reasons as well. Likewise, we can get by with one short period of reflection during a typical day, but why not take time to notice a little more frequently the love present in and through so much that we do?
Many businesses conduct annual inventories, a necessary but not usually pleasant task. Daily reflections are not about counting how many times we did or did not do something, as if we were taking some kind of inventory. Rather, the purpose is to appreciate the value of our experiences, an open-to-inspiration exercise that goes deeper than merely checking off a list of happenings. The difference is much like that of a person who stands before a beautiful natural scene, appreciating it for the effects it has within one’s person as compared to someone who runs up with a camera, takes a quick photo, and turns away with only a digital record of something seen but not viewed.
Since we can enjoy a good meal and find satisfaction in music, art and hobbies of all kinds, we can surely take appropriate delight in recognizing some of the ways that we experience love, whether received, or enacted in our own words and deeds. If we take a consistent period of a few minutes for looking over the past day, or pause only for a moment to consider the presence of love in our most recent experience, we perform the equivalent of taking a short glance of appreciation at a work of art or a beautiful scene. There is nothing more important in life than love, so why would we not choose to appreciate at least some of our involvement with the one power that only adds to life and never takes something from it?
Love is voluntary; so is taking time for reflection and celebrating this gift in our lives.
In the last part of the Bible there is a section called “Revelations,” which contains many highly symbolic descriptions of events affecting the lives of believers at the time they were written. If we talk about personal revelations, we usually mean that we have suddenly come to clearly understand something beneficial that we had previously not been able to comprehend, even if we had known all relevant facts. This latter kind of revelation might occur while reading the Scriptures, but, as a spiritual experience, it can and does take place in all kinds of human contexts.
Sometimes we consciously seek a solution to a particular problem, and receive an insight that exactly meets our needs. At other times, we are not pursuing any particular line of reasoning, when suddenly we become sharply aware of how well we ourselves or other persons or events fit in with all of life in ways that we had never suspected. We cannot force these revelations to take place within our minds and hearts, but we can appreciate them and even ask for more of them. We can also reflect on some of the revelations we have received, and so find cause for thankfulness, which is always a positive experience.
We do not have to think of ourselves as mystics if we accept as true that we are capable of receiving revelations that transcend our capacities to think, imagine or create on our own. We are accustomed to working through all kinds of problems and challenges in life; we might purposefully take time to enjoy art, nature, music, drama and other sources of beauty which we appreciate. We also value insights when they occur, especially when we are seeking a solution to a problem or an answer to a question. But those brief moments of clarity when we suddenly know as undoubted truth something that we could not have put together by any efforts of which we are capable: those are “ordinary” revelations that can occur at any time to any one of us.
Whether we choose to acknowledge personal revelations as direct movements of God within us or ascribe them to no particular source, the experience is always positive, affirming, and in some way orients us towards achieving the purpose of our existence. Revelations are not random occurrences that bring about a passing sensation of well-being. Rather, we have had, and might at any time again receive, an experience that is like a light being turned on within us. We not only are able to see what is before us with deeply satisfying clarity, but also perceive without analysis or reasoning that we are at this moment exactly where we belong in terms of life’s meaning.
We do not cause the sun to rise or set, but we can choose to focus our attention on the memory of a beautiful scene involving the sun. We can also recall a moment that was for us a revelation, perhaps even one that occurred when we were watching a sunset. We can ask ourselves about the experience: What resonances do we have with that experience even now?
Revelations are gifts of deep personal insight that help us to live more fully a life of trust and love.
If someone called to give an invitation but did not receive a reply, the intended recipient might not have heard, or have been unable to receive the call, or have chosen not to answer. Calls and invitations are not obligatory as are commands and requirements.
When we receive invitations from those with whom we have a trusting relationship, we will more likely accept them, but in each particular instance, we have to decide. If a friend calls to invite us to dinner, we are likely to agree, unless we have some other responsibility to fulfill. But if someone calls to ask us to take on a long-term commitment, we might very well consider, consult and carefully examine the pros and cons of such an invitation. Even when God calls, it is with an invitation, not a command, and we bear the ultimate responsibility for our dispositions in receiving the call, and in determining whether or how we might answer.
Just as calls from people vary widely in their content, so do those from God. And calls are often given as joint invitations from both humans and God. One of the more serious invitations we receive is to follow a life-time in partnership as are both marriage and religious life to name just two. But calls for taking on the life of an artist or any kind of career are also of great significance. Sometimes a particular individual gives us the call or inspires us to consider a serious commitment. Other times it seems to grow as a special kind of awareness within us. Often, it is later and only upon reflection, that we recognize how God had been at the origin of these calls.
There are many calls in our lives, which are personally directed towards us and are appropriate for the person we are now and for the person we are becoming as we continue to grow in wisdom age and grace. Some of calls might seem insignificant at the time, but every little decision to follow the direction of inspired thought that is accompanied with an inner recognition of being suitable for us, is part of a larger calling, though we probably do not recognize it at the time. Many of us have started out following a particular preference that we only knew was right for us at the moment of choice. Only later did we realize that it was the first of many similar and related small decisions that developed into a habitual way of proceeding, and perhaps even into a deeply satisfying manner of utilizing and developing our unique set of personal attributes.
God, who calls, does not follow an identical manner of inspiration and guidance for all persons or even the same with successive calls for us as individuals. We recognize calls and invitations from God by their effects within us, always offering an enlivening possibility even if it is challenging, and elicits initial fear and hesitation. We might receive other calls, either through human means or through some other movements within us that are not of God, and that do not bring us true invitations. Rather, they are marked by thoughts and feelings associated with command and compulsion that would move us towards addictions and diminishment.
If we have any doubts or concerns about the ultimate meaning and source of any call or invitation, we can always turn to God and ask, “You called?”
Standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon, visitors have an opportunity to take in a spectacular view. But for someone in a sickbed, perhaps all we might hope for is that he or she would have a nice view outside a window. Grand Canyon or constricted space, as persons with eyes in our heads but also eyes of insight, eyes of mind and heart, we have some determination over how we view whatever we view. While almost all would commend a specific natural vista as being beautiful, each of us has an amazing power to see beauty in places where others might not.
For us, the faces of those we love are beautiful, whether or not their appearance would be anything like those of some public figures admired for their physical beauty. Mother Theresa had more wrinkles on her face than could scarcely fit, yet those who met her noticed primarily the beauty of her eyes and her smile. Photos of scenic views that fill coffee-table pictorial editions are beautiful, but so are many of the beauty-bestowing ways that we can view persons. We cannot, by an act of the will, create a glorious sunset, but we have the power to give more of our appreciation, affection and personal attention to one or more persons than we would give to even the most universally acclaimed vistas anywhere in the world.
How we view whatever we view is a graced, spiritual action of great significance. No one can force us to even slightly appreciate a scenic view that is almost universally praised as extraordinary, but neither can anyone prevent us from gazing with great affection at an image of a person, living or dead, whom we hold in highest esteem. The interior process by which we choose to regard anything or anyone as a subject of our full and careful attention is both mysterious and commonplace.
We do not need a degree in the science of how the brain works to be quite certain that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” We all have experience of, as Facebook promotes, “liking” some things, persons, ideas and actions based not on other’s opinions, but on our own judgments. We recognize, if we are at all reflective, the difference between mere whims and considered preferences, between reactions and conscious responses. When we engage our very spirits in viewing anyone or anything, whether interior or exterior, we are able to determine who and what deserves our attention, involvement and appreciation.
Since it is possible to “take a dim view” of someone’s behavior, we are also capable of choosing to accept another person’s differences by taking a positive view of them. Though we are responsible for choosing our manner of viewing, we are not entirely alone in the exercise of our freedom. The Spirit of God is within us, giving us options to recognize beauty and goodness beyond that of either common sense or the societal expectations that are so much a part of our environment.
We can expect inspirations to assist us in our viewing, and we can ask for even more of them, so that we might increasingly enjoy the views.
When we can see no possible remedy for a particular situation of concern we might say that we are helpless to do anything. Often, we are unable to stop or prevent the suffering of family members or friends and we are incapable of correcting many of the terrible injustices that come to our attention. In a much less serious fashion, we might describe someone as “helpless” who does not think or act in accord with whatever we think is reasonable. But whether we use the concept of helplessness in jest or with heartfelt sadness, it is a negative expression. Our preference is to “make things right,” and we would like others to be of the same mind.
Though we surely are not capable of rectifying every wrong, and have only limited capabilities for dealing with particular challenges in life, we are never really helpless in the sense of having no means of aiding others or no access to meaningful assistance for ourselves.
Any of us who has visited someone in a hospital probably has had feelings and thoughts of being helpless because nothing we could say or do would make the person immediately well, or take away all forms of suffering. But our very presence was and is a form of support, even if the person in bed is not conscious of our being there. There is far more to us than what we can do or say. We care, we desire the well-being of others and we are compassionate. We are not ultimately helpless in our concern for others, for love in all its manifold ordinary forms is a transcendent reality with real positive effects, even if we cannot see them.
In our own personal experience of helplessness, we too have support, for we are never alone. We might not always and in every circumstance advert to the quiet presence within us, but Love accompanies us everywhere, often manifested by the solicitude of people and always as an abiding, personal attention to us on the part of God. We would like the suffering to cease, the problems to be alleviated, the challenges to diminish. When we do not perceive those kinds of results to our prayers or through the help of others, we are likely in a situation similar to that of the people we want to help, for whom our presence and our prayers are what we have to offer.
If God does not work immediate miracles on our behalf, and family, friends or professionals do not give us the solutions we would like to have, it does not mean that we are helpless in an absolute way. Even in the midst of suffering, it is quite possible to appreciate the abiding presence of God, and all the human signs of concern that we might receive. But love that is given is more effective for us when we accept it. The more we believe that we are loved, the greater the positive influence upon us of the presence, words, actions and gestures that are directed toward us.
The presence of love does not always evoke pleasant feelings, especially if our bodies and minds are primarily occupied with present difficulties. But if we have any real doubts about the powerful gift of caring presence, both of God and of others, we can compare the experience of accepting this gift with that of denying or rejecting it.
Helpless? Not really.
Perhaps a “dog whisperer” would know what a dog means to convey by making the sound “woof.” We sometimes say “woof” in play, when we want to communicate a meaning to those present that we cannot put into words. So, one of us might say “woof” while shrugging our shoulders and rolling our eyes, as a fitting response when someone makes a completely meaningless statement. Most of us do not have knowledge of a language that dogs might use, but we easily distinguish friendly from unfriendly sounds, gentle from insistent, happy from sad, partly by noting their accompanying facial expressions and bodily movements.
With our fellow humans, we most often communicate with one another through speaking and writing, though in talking, we consciously and unconsciously transmit our feelings as much or more by gestures and body-language than through our words. The use of “emoticons” in email messages or other standardized abbreviations cannot convey the depth and breadth of our non-verbal capacity for expressing ourselves to one another.
In our relationship with God, we might or might not be conscious or aware of our non-verbal communications, both ours with God, and God’s with us. Have we ever metaphorically said “woof” to God, or has God done so with us? The possibility of playfulness and creativity in prayer is not what we would expect in Liturgical or formal public services. But privately, as with family or friends, we are free except for whatever self-imposed limitations we might have, to express ourselves to God in all the ways of which we are capable, and to expect the same from God.
Many of us might use words and gestures with certain persons, but not with others, even those closest to us. Respecting the preferences of others is a sign of true love. Our sensitivity for using the appropriate words and non-verbal vocalizations with family and friends will most likely serve as a model for our communication with God.
If a word or gesture of ours in not appreciated by someone, he or she might give us a visible or audible sign of disapproval. But how would we know whether or not “woof” or any other unusual expression would enhance our relationship with God? If we are receptive, our creator, who knows our intentions even better than we, will enable us to have feelings similar to those of acceptance or of disapproval that we receive when we watch someone’s face for immediate feedback. Anything that we might think, imagine, say or do that does not somehow seem to put distance between us and God draws us closer.
When we carefully attend to the movements of resonance and dissonance within our minds and hearts even as we speak, make sounds, gesture or move about in our various modes of communicating with one another, we are able to sense what is right. God gave us this capacity. And so we can use the same means for recognizing the free, open, creative and honest ways that are appropriate for us to use in our relationship with God. And God, with infinite capacity for humor and creativity, sensitivity and love, might surprise us with some of the thoughts and feelings by which he communicates his presence to us.
Persons of any age, not just children, sometimes say or think to themselves: “Do I have to?” The unarticulated part of the question relates to some action that is, or appears to be, unpleasant, inconvenient or undesirable, and is therefore already a source of anticipated suffering.
Growing in our graced capacity to exchange “choose to” for “have to,” correlates directly with increased peace of heart and mind. Most of the situations that we would like to avoid offer us opportunities for exercising our essential freedom to choose rather than succumbing to some supposed coercive powers beyond our control. We do not “have to” do anything, as long as we work through a particular challenge to the point of making a conscious decision about whether or not to do it.
Only a moment of time is required to reflect, and to acknowledge that we can change our perspective. We might spontaneously react at first to the perceived negative aspects of a request, order, or imposition of circumstances confronting us. But we can consciously take charge of the interior process that would otherwise default to mere reactions governed by no particular values of ours; we can decide either to take on the task if it seems right and good, or refuse it if that is what conscience requires for the sake of our moral and spiritual integrity.
Jesus went through a recognizable human process in the garden at Gethsemane when he had an extraordinarily clear vision, together with consequent deep fear, of the suffering that lay ahead of him. Rather than asking himself, “Do I have to,” he deliberately framed his question in terms of the relationship with his beloved “Abba,” and asked the Father if it might not be needed of him. After raising the question, in trust, and finding that love for us required it of him, he accepted.
We are, or often can be, in a similar situation to that of Jesus. Every time we detect resistance within us to some projected action, we might start with “Do I have to?” But the anticipated suffering might serve as a symptom, informing us that we have the option of asking God, in trust, whether or not the approaching action is an appropriate manifestation of our love. And if so, we can change the question to, “Do I want to?” One of the likely consequences of answering the question within the relational context of love is an experience of interior peace which does not eliminate, but certainly lightens, the burden aspect of whatever we decide to do.
When we base decision-making on our relationship with God, our perceptions of the issues at stake will be modified. Our interior values become more important than those that are external. Our trust in God grows and becomes real through such ordinary negotiations with our thoughts and feelings, and it is the process by which we learn discernment through practical experiences.
God is good, and loves us. But difficult challenges occur in our lives, providing us with opportunities to bring them into a personal and relational context of grace and love rather than asking ourselves, “Do I have to?”
Much religious art and a good number of Christmas cards have as their subjects, mother and child. Mary the Mother of Jesus has been and continues to be the guarantee of Jesus’ humanity. She is his mother and he is her son, just as each of us is a daughter or a son born of our mother. The truly mysterious manner of Jesus being conceived in her womb without a birth-father or by any of the artificial measures that are available today remains a matter of trust: that God knows what we need, and enacts it, through the reality as familiar to us as a mother and child.
Parent-child relationships vary widely among us. We all have a naturally deep desire for positive, nurturing and non-possessive bonds of love with our parents. But each of us has a unique personal family history, and some of our expectations and desires might not have been met. Jesus too, had his own familial interactions, some of which have been told to us just as we might have shared some of our own stories with friends and other generations of family members.
One of the family stories of Jesus reminds us of how misunderstandings can occur through no one’s deliberate fault. When Jesus was 12 years old, and without telling his parents, stayed behind in the temple at Jerusalem after having participated in a major religious feast that had been shared with the many relatives of his extended family. As a youngster, he had apparently no thought for the stress his actions might cause his mother and father. When they found him after three days of anxious searching, they did not concur with his well-intentioned but ill-timed decision, and brought him home. As perhaps with some of our own painful family encounters, we can imagine that, since Jesus’ family successfully resolved their initial disagreement, they likely did so because of their commitment to one another as of more importance than focusing on “who was right.” We might never forget some of the really hurtful things that have happened in our families, but through prayerful and often inspired reflection on specific memories, all can be found as enabling us to become more loving persons.
When Jesus was about 30, and had begun his ministry of preaching, he and some of his companions went to a wedding feast, along with his mother. When his mother noticed that the bride and groom were in the very embarrassing situation of having insufficient wine for the guests, she arranged for her son to do something, though Jesus protested that he was not ready. As we know, every son or daughter, no matter how old they become, always remain their mother’s child. Mary’s firm belief and gentle insistence that Jesus was quite capable of doing what was needed might well resonate with many of us. We have had family members, mentors, teachers or friends who knew us so well that they were able to urge us to go beyond our habitual ways of thinking and acting into perhaps risky, but definitely more mature and ultimately satisfying levels of thinking and acting.
Mother and Child are a reality first, and only secondarily a subject of art that in turn reminds us of a most gracious reality.