An Unfamiliar Path

Teresa of Avila: Interior Castle: Seventh Mansions: Chapter Four

Now during those days he went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God. (Luke 6.12)

Some of us may have stumbled across the famous line by Robert Frost: “Two roads diverged in a wood and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” Taking the “Road Less Traveled” has now become sacred. And in a sense it is. We don’t thrive in the status quo or with a closed mind to new ideas. But, if “Road Less Traveled” means nothing more than “trying something new”, “changing for change sake”, or most concerning — rejecting time-tested wisdom simply because it’s “old”, we will miss the wonder of new discoveries.

When we remove essential elements from any enterprise in the name of progress or efficiency, we lose the essence of our endeavor. This is Teresa’s point about prayer and spirituality. For some spiritual leaders and churches, prayer has become peripheral. Teresa calls spirituality, ministry, or life without prayer “The Unfamiliar Path”. It’s a path unfamiliar to Jesus. It’s a path unfamiliar to Abraham, to David, to the Apostles, and to the great saints of history. The “Unfamiliar Path” is life and spirituality with minimal prayer.

But who needs prayer? Many take “The Unfamiliar Path” of peripheral prayer and are highly successful.

  • Without prayer, large churches develop marvelous programs segmented to meet every possible need. (Why spend time in prayer?)
  • Without prayer, Christians do outstanding good works and change lives. (So why pray?)
  • Without prayer, people donate millions to help others? (Why waste time in prayer?)
  • Without prayer, pastors deliver powerful sermons. (If they don’t need to pray, why should we pray?)

Teresa says, “This is what I want us to strive for . . . let us desire and be occupied in prayer not for the sake of our enjoyment but so as to have this strength to serve. Let’s refuse to take an unfamiliar path, for we shall get lost at the most opportune time. It would indeed be novel to think of having these favors from God through a path other than the one he took and the one followed by all his saints. May the thought never enter our minds.”

Prayer gives us:

Strength of Body and Mind to Serve
Teresa says through prayer “strength flows back to the weak body”. Prayer couples bodily strength with strength of mind:  “Thus the soul has its share of misfortune while it lives. However much it does, the interior strength increases and thus, too, the war that is waged; for everything seems like a trifle to it.” Teresa notes, this is the strength of Mary, of Martha, of Elijah, of St Dominic, and of St. Francis.

Protection Against Deception and Evil
Teresa says we can be “lost at the most opportune time”. In this case “the most opportune time” is a negative. It’s the “opportune” time for the devil. The devil strategizes to destroy. He uses minor attacks as a set-up, but his ultimate goal is the most cumulative damage — in some cases, the damage lasts for generations. We only see the ruins retrospectively. The devil gets you to think your spiritual life is strong, your family is safe, and your spiritual community is thriving. And then he strikes! While it appears to be an invisible set-up, it’s actually happening in plain sight. But we don’t see it, because we don’t pray. Mother Teresa of Calcutta said, “If you don’t pray, your presence will have no power, your words will have no power. If you pray, you will be able to overcome all the tricks of the devil. Don’t believe all the thoughts that he puts into your mind.”

I encourage you to “Take the Road Less Traveled”. It’s typically the only worthwhile road to take. But beware of the “Unfamiliar Path” of a life without prayer.

 

For this post I used a translation of The Interior Castle by Kieran Kavanaugh O.C.D. and Otilio Rodriguez O.C.D., ICS Publications, Institute of Carmelite Studies: Washington D.C. Kindle Edition.

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Calm in the Chaos

As we increase our skills in any endeavor, we’re typically handed more challenges. This is true in leadership: You succeed and your manager gives you additional opportunities and challenges. You perform well in sports and you may draw a more difficult opponent. These are the rewards of continued growth and execution: Tangible benefits, increased confidence in our skills, and more difficult assignments. The same is true spiritually.

A Problem-Free Life
I’ve encountered Christians with a simplistic view of life. They “follow God” and believe they should be rewarded with minimal conflict and, for all practical purposes, a difficulty free life. They believe disruptive things shouldn’t happen to “good Christians”. They see the conflict and challenges of ordinary life as a consequence for sin, something lacking spiritually, or some form of “spiritual warfare” disrupting their convenient life.

Christian communities reinforce “the difficulty free life” idea with their stories. “I prayed and God opened parking spot opened up in front of the building.” Obviously God must listen to them! We measure their spirituality – and our spirituality – accordingly. Rarely do people say, “I prayed and had to park eight blocks away, walk through the rain, and was late for the meeting. God must listen to me!” We do this collectively as well: The sound system at church doesn’t work. “It must be spiritual warfare.” Why else would it happen if we’re doing great things for God?

The underlying teaching of this approach is that our external disruptions, trials, and chaos happen because we are less spiritual or spiritual beginners who can grow their way out of trials and external chaos. Teresa says, “It will seem to you that I am speaking to those who are beginning and that after this beginner’s stage souls can rest.” It doesn’t work that way.

The Inverse Relationship Between External Chaos and Interior Calm
Teresa explains there can be an inverse relationship between external chaos and interior calm: The “calm these souls have interiorly is for the sake of their having much less calm exteriorly”. This interior calm propels us into a more complex and chaotic life. In fact, Teresa says, the souls that experience this interior calm have “much less desire to have exterior calm”. I’m oversimplifying, but here are several formulas:

  1. Ordinary life with limited “spiritual” support: External Chaos = Internal Chaos
  2. Spiritually centered with quality support: External Chaos = Interior Calm
  3. Teresa of Avila modifies formula two: The Inevitable Increase in External Chaos = An Exponential Increase in Internal Calm.

The spiritually mature person is immersed in external chaos. They just learn not absorb it internally.* Then “the soul wages more war from the center than it did when it was outside suffering with them”. We learn the external chaos is not where the actual battle is. Through a calm center we launch an “assault” on the powers of evil and chaos through inner peace and joy. And then we find spiritual rest, not through external circumstances, but in the Interior Castle of our souls.

 

*Note: Interior calm doesn’t mean a mature person is exempt from experiencing suffering, struggles, or mental health issues as if they’re non-human. In addition to centering, prayer, and meditation — counselors, spiritual guides, quality reading, yoga, solitude, and friendships can be catalysts to finding a calm interior. We also need to learn to establish boundaries with some people and/or their behaviors.

 

For this post I used a translation of The Interior Castle by Kieran Kavanaugh O.C.D. and Otilio Rodriguez O.C.D., ICS Publications, Institute of Carmelite Studies: Washington D.C. Kindle Edition.

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All You Need is Love

Teresa of Avila: Interior Castle: Seventh Mansions: Chapter Four

Love is all you need. (The Beatles)

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (Jesus)

Anyone who fails to go forward begins to go back, and love, I believe, can never be content to stay for long where it is. (Teresa of Avila)

Teresa of Avila says, “you must not build upon foundations of prayer and contemplation alone”. We must also “strive after the virtues and practice them”. Without these virtues we stunt our spiritual growth. Central to “the virtues” are humility and love. Humility is the central character trait of the Christian. Love is the central behavioral trait.

Love is Enough
If love is the central behavioral trait of the Christian and it fulfills the requirements of “the law”, why are there so many other “commandments” in the Bible? The list of rules seems endless. Sometimes these commandments seem pointless and/or unloving.

Love is enough. Biblical commands, properly understood and practiced, always express love. Two key points:

  • The commandments provide definition to love.
  • The commandments only provide definition to love.

In the first bullet: The commandments provide an expansive view of love to help us understand the scope and possibilities of love. Restrictive commandments exclude behaviors that dehumanize self or others.

In the second bullet: The operative word is “only”. God did not design commandments to create rules of behavior apart from love. Behaviors that do not express love misunderstand the intent or context of the commandment.

Action
Teresa says we must “strive after the virtues and practice them”. Virtues don’t develop automatically. Cultivating virtue is a combination of learning a particular skill of love and practicing it in changing circumstances over a period of time.

Take Paul’s phrase, “Love is patient”. We find this partial definition of love in I Corinthians. We can intellectually understand patience. Then we begin to practice it, but realize it doesn’t work in every situation (at least not in the way we understand it). What if our understanding of “patience” becomes the acceptance of the despicable behavior of others? Does our patience still meet the criteria of love? Is exasperation (instead of patience) ever an appropriate response? Jesus expressed exasperation on occasion. We realize exasperation may be carefully included in the overall theme of patience and love. But if we begin rationalizing chronic impatience and exasperation, now our habit of exasperation may not express love.

This may sound complicated, but it doesn’t need to be. We can process this thinking more quickly and intuitively than it takes to read the previous paragraph. But some of us have been so weighted down with religious dogma and rules that it interferes with common sense. One thing dogmatic religion strives for is absolute rules that can be applied to every situation at the exclusion of good judgment and love. This leads to self-righteousness, shame, and unloving behaviors.

Practice
The Beatles said, “Love is all you need”. In fact, I think they said it 15 times in one song just to make sure we got it. They’re right – “love is all we need”. Of course, it takes some work to better practice love in a way that actually loves the other person. So let me leave you with a few tools to connect biblical commandments and love.

  1. What is the commandment when we properly understand it in context?
  2. If I practice this commandment in the way I understand it, is it loving to others and self. Or am I just following a “rule”?
  3. Are there exceptions to my understanding of the commandment. (Without these exceptions, the commandment becomes unloving.)
  4. Would I find it loving if I were the recipient of how I’m applying this commandment?
  5. How would Jesus practice this commandment in today’s world? (Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.)
  6. Do my actions have credibility in a larger community (not just church) as the “way of Jesus”? (By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.)

You can make significant contributions to your families, workplaces, and neighborhoods. All you need is love. 

 

 

 

 

 

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How Power Works

Teresa of Avila: Interior Castle: Seventh Mansions: Chapter Four

When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it — always. (Gandhi)

Fix your eyes on the Crucified and everything will become small for you. . . . Do you know what it means to be truly spiritual? It means becoming slaves of God. Marked with his brand, which is that of the cross, spiritual persons, because now they have given him their liberty, can be sold by him as slaves of everyone, as he was. He doesn’t thereby do them any harm or grant them a small favor. And if souls aren’t determined about becoming his slaves, let them be convinced that they are not making much progress, for this whole building, as I have said, has humility as its foundation. If humility is not genuinely present, for your own sake the Lord will not construct a high building lest that building fall to the ground. Thus, Sisters, that you might build on good foundations, strive to be the least and the slaves of all, looking at how or where you can please and serve them. What you do in this matter you do more for yourself than for them and lay stones so firmly the castle will not fall. (Teresa of Avila)

Metaphor
The slave metaphor used by Teresa (and the Bible) creates difficulty in light of the atrocities and oppression connected to that term. Replacing it with the term servant may help a little, but not much. This metaphor may be hopelessly and understandably lost to many readers. The point of “slave” metaphor is humility. Humility, in a biblical sense, links us to self-knowledge, inner strength, and freedom. Ultimately, humility has it’s own kind of power superior to the authoritarian, oppressive, and violent power we see in our world.

The Gospel
To understand power let me start with the gospel. I find it humorous many Christian leaders “preaching the gospel” don’t know what the gospel is. In simplest terms the gospel is: Jesus is Lord, not Caesar. Caesar was a reality in the first century, but we can apply the metaphor to anyone in power. Jesus is Lord, not the President, the Prime Minister, the King, or some other political person. Jesus is Lord, not some business leader, manager, or supervisor. Jesus is Lord, not the media or technology. Jesus is Lord, not (and you get to fill in the blank).

The Problem
If Jesus is Lord, why is there so much evil and suffering in the world? My simple answer is God gave and continues to give rational beings significant freedom. This includes freedom to do evil and inflict suffering on self or others. It also gives us the power to do good and heal. To Jesus’ credit, when we ask the question, “If Jesus is Lord, why is there evil and suffering?”, we’re assuming better things of him and his “rule” than what we see from much of the current leadership in the world.

What Do We Want God To Do?
Many people want God to fix everything. This includes eliminating evil, death, and suffering. But most people don’t want to be “robots” programmed to do everything a certain way, even if that programming is done by a loving deity with perfect results. God doesn’t want robots either. He wants partners and friends that love him and others as a product of their own free will. But we can’t have it both ways: Guaranteed freedom and guaranteed good (at least not yet).

So What God is Doing?  
Jesus is Lord and not Caesar shifted the power differential. True power no longer resides in the hands of the powerful, the rich, the famous, or the violent. “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.” Jesus said this and lived this. This culminated with the cross (i.e. humiliation and suffering). Through the cross he gained control of “all power”. He then distributed this power. But he did not distribute power equally. He put it in the hands of the rejected, the outcasts, the “weak”, the persecuted, the poor, the discriminated against, and with those people who aligned themselves with those other groups.

Actualizing This Power
This is where it gets complicated. Because Jesus is Lord and not Caesar, the old ways of power have been destroyed and replaced with the power of love, humility, and virtue. The old ways of power only maintain their power when we respond to them with like kinds of power. If we use violence, oppression, manipulation, or authoritarianism we actually increase their power. If we compete with them using their weapons, we also get devoured. There will always be people and systems bigger and stronger than us. And even if we “win” using violent or manipulative ways, we ultimately lose “for all who take the sword will perish by the sword”. This not only applies to the “big stuff” of violence and oppression, it’s also the stuff of daily life. If we use criticism, judgmental attitudes, defensiveness, and other passive aggressive behaviors, they’re included in the old ways of power. You will also “perish by the sword” of those very activities.

We actualize the new power by embracing the tools of Jesus: Humility, love, gentleness, prayer, virtue, joy, wisdom, and truth. The old system ultimately crumbles or transforms. By the way, I’m not promoting naivety. Jesus said, “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Our conflict is still strategic; it’s just not done according to the traditional rules of power.

Teresa of Avila
When Teresa says, “Fix your eyes on the Crucified and everything will become small for you.” She’s shifting our focus to the new power. Do you know what it means to be truly spiritual? It means a life of humility. Another metaphor: “This whole building, as I have said, has humility as its foundation.” She further says, “If humility is not genuinely present, for your own sake the Lord will not construct a high building lest that building fall to the ground.” You are not going anywhere meaningful without humility. You’re in an old power structure and, at a minimum, it will sap your strength and energy.

 

For this post I used a translation of The Interior Castle by Kieran Kavanaugh O.C.D. and Otilio Rodriguez O.C.D., ICS Publications, Institute of Carmelite Studies: Washington D.C. Kindle Edition.

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Christ the Redeemer

Resa publishes one of my favorite blogs. Her blog features “Street Art” punctuated by her outstanding photography.

Graffiti Lux and Murals

Lucky shot! The rays & light arc are due to the sun coming up from behind the building.

This piece of street art is based on the Mount Corcovado, Brazil, statue of Christ the Redeemer.

   Built in the 1920s by Heitor da Silva Costa, it is an  art-deco statue designed by Paul Landowski.

Considered a symbol of Rio de Janeiro, Christ the Redeemer is the 5th biggest statue of Jesus in the world.

This was truly a challenge to capture. The dead end alley is very narrow, and filled with a host of debris and machinery. I shot from below.

I zoomed in.

I shot from across the street, which is why there are wires in the shot below..

I stood on a 2 foot high pile of collapsed, waxed cardboard boxes.

When I stumbled out of the alley, a car had parked in the entrance. Yay…

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