On My Way

Ordinary Time 18/Trinity 8 – Wednesday
Commemoration of the Dedication of the Basilica of St. Mary Major (Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore), Rome (A.D. 431)
Eve of the Feast of the Transfiguration of our Lord (August 6)

“On My Way” – Corrinne May
from the album Beautiful Seed

I’m far away from what I’ve known | and there’s static on the radio | Just a girl/boy in a car on a lonely highway | Driving up and down this winding road | It’s getting dark, the stores are closed | The map is wrinkled | my coffee’s turned to grey

But I’m on my way, | I’m on my way | There seems to be no end in sight | But I know I’ll be alright | I’m on my way | I’m on my way | Don’t give up on me | I’m on my way

So many beat-up cars on this dirt road | I see them sputter and start to choke | How many miles must I go | till I rest in your grace | I feel like giving up and letting go | Let the world invade my mind, my soul | Will this road make me, | a sinner or a saint?

But I’m on my way, | I’m on my way | There seems to be no end in sight | But I know I’ll be alright | I’m on my way | I’m on my way | Don’t give up on me | I’m on my way

I can picture your smiling face | Your arms stretched to hold me | Waiting there by the gate | If I ever get lost | I know that you’ll find me | There’s a cross on a hill saying | “Do not be afraid.”

But I’m on my way, | I’m on my way | There seems to be no end in sight | But I know I’ll be alright | I’m on my way | I’m on my way | Don’t give up on me | I’m on my way

I’m on my way, | I’m on my way | There seems to be no end in sight | But I know I’ll be alright | I’m on my way, | I’m on my way | Don’t give up on me | I’m on my way

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It’s a slow path upwards from the depths of the pit that I’ve been in. I’m on my way out. Now to not slip and fall back in.

The above song by Corrinne May has been getting a lot of airplay on my mp3 player. It reminds me a lot of a sermon my grandfather once preached. It was entitled “Do not be afraid”. These were the first words also of the late Pope John Paul II in October 1979 at his installation as the Bishop of Rome.

When I still get down and in the blues, I recall that anguish on Golgotha along with the joy that comes from the resurrection. Knowing both events, I look at the crucifix that hangs around my neck and picture it standing in the Holy Land. Death and resurrection. “Do not be afraid”. Hope begins again.

Ps 118[119]:116 – “Suscipe me Domine secundum eloquium tuum et vivam; et non confundas me ab expectatione meam.”

Ps 118[119]:116 – “Sustain me Lord according to your promise, that I may live : and let me not be disappointed in my hope.”

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I have finished reading a book by Abbot Christopher Jamison (of Worth Abbey in the UK). It’s his second one titled Finding Happiness: Monastic Steps for a Fulfilling Life (2008: London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

He brings readers back to the world of the Early Desert Fathers and Mothers of the Church and uses as his background, St. John Cassian’s “Eight Thoughts” to bring the reader into a closer understanding about the underlying impulses that need reflection on before we can begin moving towards happiness. Needless to say, Cassian’s “Eight Thoughts” are the basis for what is commonly known as the “Seven Deadly Sins”. The chapters on “Acedia”, “Lust” and “Sadness” I paid close attention to. I leave some quotes for your mental and spiritual stimulation.

On “Acedia” (spiritual carelessness/exhaustion):

Even monks and nuns can experience the temptation to forget about the spiritual life. In one ancient collection of stories about the desert fathers and mothers, the very first story begins with a surprising statement about the most famous monk of all. ‘When the holy Abba Antony lived in the desert he was beset by acedia.’ Towards the end of that same collection Amma Syncletica offers the insight that ‘acedia is full of mockery’. Our society is ‘full of mockery’ towards those who insist on the reality of the soul and its essential disciplines, disciplines which have been preserved almost uniquely by the best of the world’s religious traditions but which are scorned by increasingly strident atheist commentators.

It comes as quite a surprise to lay people to discover that monks and nuns really are haunted by the thought that this whole spiritual project is a waste of time. It is easy to see the whole monastic enterprise as ridiculous, especially if you live inside it. This is obviously not a temptation for keen new entrants to the monastery, but it is for those who have spent a good part of their life on the monastic path, the ones of whom you might least expect it. … The thought grows that this way of life isn’t valid for me any longer, that my companions are not right and that I shoudl be doing something else, not wasting my life here. As the discipline fo the monastic life becomes distasteful, so it is slowly worn away: less prayer, less self-awareness and a growing rejection of the life of the community. Alongside this is often found the impulse to replace spiritual exercises with more and more good deeds. … This is a subtle and persuasive demon not only for modern society but also for modern monks.

… According to Cassian, the first quality of this thought is that ‘it makes a person horrified at where he is . . . disdainful and contemptuous of the brothers as being careless and unspiritual’. The monk then inevitably beocomes slothful and ‘complains and sighs, lamenting that he is bereft and void of all spiritual gain in that place’. In essence, the first quality of spiritual apathy is a deep sense of being in the wrong place surrounded by the wrong people doing the wrong things.

The second quality flows inevitably from the first. The monk decides that he will perish if he stays here any longer so he must leave and go to far-off places where everything is better. These two features of disdain for the familiar and a desire to give up are at the heart of acedia and they appear to bear some similarity to what modern psychoanalysis calls a mid-life crisis.

… Cassian concludes this section by describing how the monk substitutes outward movement for inner perseverance. ‘And so the unhappy soul . . . gets in the habit of finding consolation in the face of this onslaught [of acedia] by visiting a brother, although the soul will be all the more painfully vulnerable not long after having used this remedy as a stopgap.’ … Many people immerse themselves in their work and are good at it, only to return home to personal situations that they find too painful to face. The danger is that hard work and even good works become painkillers that fix the symptoms but leave the sickness untreated. Recognising this very modern acedia can be a liberation leading to a better way forward.

… ‘Experience proves that an onslaught of acedia must not be avoided by flight but overcome through resistance.’ If we are going to be happy, we will need to learn to face up to acedia rather than just avoiding it.

On “Lust” (but in particular, it’s opposite virtue, chastity):

While Cassian was writing about chastity for celibates what follows applies to chastity for everybody, where chastity means being faithful to our sexual status.

Cassian states that the curtailment of sexual desire is possible yet no matter what steps a person takes, in the end, perfect chastity is the gift of God. He is particularly exercised by how much a monk is responsible for his own nocturnal sexual fantasies accompanied by sexual arousal and emissions. He even discusses the effects of a full bladder and of past memories on such arousal. He concludes that monks should recognise that such things are not obstacles to prayer but rather encouragements to more fervent prayer. He says that this is why sexual desire is good for us; it makes us realise that we are dependent on God and so encourages us to be more faithful to Christ’s teaching in our lives and in our prayer. So there is a there is a double effect from this realisation that we cannot become chaste other than as a gift of God: we are both more zealous in living virtuously and we are more faithful in our devotion to God. In a comparison that shocks us today, he says that eunuchs are lukewarm in the pursuit of virtue because they believe themselves free from threats to their chastity. He quotes Proverbs: ‘a person in sorrow labours for himself and forcibly prevents his own ruin’. So our sorrow at our lack of chastity is a good spur to greater virtue and faith. So while the desert tradition says that sexual desire needs to be contained or even extinguished, it also says that sexual desire is good for us.

A short episode about a desert mother illustrates the point. It was related about Amma Sarah that for thirteen years she waged war against the demon of fornication. She never prayed that the warfare should cease, but she said: ‘O God, give me strength.’

… Another part of the way to make progress towards chastity is to notice the thought coming and to take evasive action. This is often described as dashing the thought on the rock of Christ. One of the more unsavoury parts of the Psalms comes in Psalm 137 when by the rivers of Babylon the Jews in exile sat and wept, remembering Zion. In their anger at their plight they wished that their captors’ children would be dashed against the rocks. That violent text had to have a Christian meaning for the desert fathers because of their belief that the whole Bible is of value. So they saw in this a metaphor in which the children are the beginnings of bad thoughts and Christ in the rock against which to hurl them to their death. Not an appealing modern image but one that shows a shocking seriousness about our freedom to entertain or to destroy the thoughts that come to us.

On “Sadness”:

Seeing sadness as a response to the loss of something can be the first step to overcoming it. But as with anger so with sadness, Cassian is adamant that events themselves do not cause depression. Sadness is not aroused in us by other people’s faults, says Cassian. ‘Rather, we are to blame.’ …

Hope  is the surest remedy against sadness and so we have to take conscious steps to sustain hope. … Cassian invites us to exercise a discipline of hope. This means not placing our hope where it is subject to change and decay, avoiding reliance for our interior wellbeing on wealth and position. … Hope is bigger than these, on a par with love, so that just as I do not determine my love for somebody just by my mood today so my hope should not be subject to passing events.

Sustaining hope is one of the surest ways of keeping sadness at bay and is an important aspect of both mental and spiritual health. As part of that, Cassian invites us to meditate on the promises of God about death and resurrection. Chritsians have in the last fifty years concentrated on building the kingdom of God on earth, but to follow Christ’s teaching and example involves ‘both now and forever’, as the Christian tradition of prayer so clearly exrpresses it. People find it hard in our culture to express their thoughts and feelings about death as the ultimate challenge to hope. And even Christians these days are confused about the meaning of that hope-filled phrase in the creed: ‘we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.’

Cassian adds two insights about sadness that are suprising to modern readers. He explains why sadness can be a source of joy and why sadness makes us unhappy: the first seems contradictory and the latter a statement of the obvious, but remember, the monastic tradition has a very particular view of happiness.

Cassian recommends one kind of sadness as good for us, namely, sadness at our own faults. So there is a good and a bad sadness, and the good sadness is grief at my own wrongdoing. ‘With a kind of joy, and quickened by the hope of its own progress, the sadness at my sins retains all its gracious courtesy and forbearance.’ Recognising my own faults, while truly a sadness, can be a source of joy since it leads me to change for the better and helps me to be patient with other people.

Contrast this with sadness directed at others which is ‘very harsh, impatient, rough, full of rancour and barren grief and punishing despair . . . since it is irrational.’

+ 2054hrs

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