I have a special fondness for the story of Nicodemus, and not just because we share the same name. In 2010, after a few decades of suffering apparent separation between God and me, something happened. It was a very sudden something and it brought spiritual transformation, healing, and gratitude. At the time, the words which came spontaneously to mind describing the experience, the words that felt most true, where that it felt like being born again.
Not long after I found a church and when I told the rector about the “born again” experience she very gently suggested that I call it something else, perhaps a kind of spiritual awakening. I assumed she offered that advice because of the political reality associated with the phrase “born again.” Still, I’ve never forgotten that first Easter I celebrated, how there was an overwhelming and joyful recognition of the baptismal dying and rising of my self in Christ.
Back in the fourth century the sacrament of baptism was seen as the culmination of a Lenten journey, a journey of instruction, spiritual exercises, and ascetic disciplines. Those on this journey, the catechumens, were baptized on the Easter Vigil, a celebration of their participation in the death and resurrection of Christ. As a symbol of this dying and rising, they would enter a pool of water on one side, as entering into a tomb or womb, before emerging on the other side.
Br. Nicholas Bartoli invites us to “do less” and let go, as we sit in silence, open to the loving presence of God. This teaching begins with a simple introduction and some instructions on Centering Prayer, then Br. Nicholas invites us to share with him in a twenty-minute practice.
For a list of further resources on contemplative prayer, click here >
One of my favorite sayings of Jesus is the one where a person, like a tree, is known by the quality of fruit they produce. This is the version from Luke:
“No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its own fruit. Figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.”
I appreciate the wisdom of this, especially when considering how superficially and unfairly we tend to judge each other, without regard to what kind of “fruit” is being produced.
For Jesus himself, it was commonplace to be misunderstood, and to be judged by standards not fit for God’s Kingdom. In Mark’s version of our Gospel story today, we even have Jesus’ family trying to restrain him, with the crowd saying he was crazy, leading up to the scene where Jesus is accused of being possessed by Satan.
However, as Jesus points out, the fruit he’s producing, namely love, compassion, forgiveness, and healing, could only come from a tree living according to God’s will. And that seems to me a fair way to discern the nature of our own fruit and the fruits of others.
Self-denial or dying to self are common themes among martyrs honored by the Church. In fact, our Gospel reading today has been used for The Martyrs of Japan, Blandina and Her Companions, John Coleridge Patteson and his Companions, and, Saint George, dragon slayer. In what way could these examples of suffering and pain, stories of self-denial, cross bearing, and loss of worldly life teach us more about the way of Jesus? Well, I’m inspired, especially, by the stories of Saint George and Blandina, because they show us two helpful ways of understanding Jesus’ words, and two ways of dealing with the fear we might feel in response to Jesus’ call. First, we’ll look at Saint George.
Saint George was a compassionate and loving Christian, known especially for being a warrior of unmatched courage who gave his life for his faith. He’s typically portrayed as the patron saint of soldiers, and although many Christians today might not be soldiers, we still have a spiritual battle to fight. We can remember the words of Saint Paul when he writes that “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
From a contemplative point of view these rulers or cosmic powers of darkness are the demons lurking within us, hard at work convincing us that we’re separate from God, from others, and our own True Selves. This spiritual battle is deceptively simple, because although it comes down to making a single choice, making the right choice can seem very difficult.
Being a person today naturally means having hopes for tomorrow. We might hope for healing and comfort for ourselves or others. We might hope for an end to injustice, violence, and suffering. We might hope that tomorrow is a little better than today. Especially when today is a time of crisis and anxiety, hoping for a better tomorrow seems perfectly reasonable. As Christians, though, our hope is in something more, or, looking at it in a different way, less.
Our contemplative tradition teaches us that the purest way of knowing God is through “unknowing.” Unknowing means letting go of our attachment to thoughts and feelings, as well as attachment to memories of the past and anticipations of the future. When we “unknow” all things, we rely only on God, coming to rest in the Divine Nothingness of God’s eternal Presence where we find God’s Truth, Beauty, and Goodness.
Saint John of the Cross was referring to this contemplative unknowing when he wrote of living in perfect and pure hope. He suggested that we should learn to turn from our worries, distractions, and preoccupations, and, in the emptiness of everything rememberable, turn toward God’s love. Unlike our other hopes for particular outcomes and for a better tomorrow, this hope is pure because it rests only on the mystery of God present in each moment, right now.
John Sanford in his book The Kingdom Within writes that “This hope is not that this world will one day be a perfect world, but that there is a reality, a Divine Order, beyond what is immediately visible to us in this world.” The ancient desert monastics spoke of a “spiritual intellect” by which we sense this Divine Reality, God’s Presence within and among us. They described a path by which we know God’s Presence with a combination of radical acceptance of God’s will and a confident expectation of God’s love.
This pure hope may sound too good to be true, but that’s only when we measure hope by human standards. This pure hope may sound naïve, but in truth it’s the second naiveté of unknowing. The pure hope of resting in the eternal Nothingness of God’s Presence doesn’t imply that “worldly” hope, like hoping for an end to injustice, ceases to have relative importance. Instead, the pure hope of resting in God’s Presence provides the foundation from which we see ourselves and the world as God sees us, and from which we allow God’s will be done.
Our hope is in this pure hope of abiding in God’s Presence, and so recognizing the Beauty, Truth and Goodness all around us. We might pray, then, that if someone were to ask us “What do you hope for tomorrow?” we can answer from that place of pure hope, “That tomorrow be as beautiful as today.”
Peace and Be Well,
Br. Nicholas Bartoli
Role models are very important, starting with our first role models, our parents. At some point that tiny circle starts widening to the rest of the family, and, much to the dismay and frustration of parents, by the time children become teenagers they begin taking their role models from their peer groups. In some cases, especially when relationships at home are impoverished, a young person’s peer group, with whom they share values, concerns, and a sense of identity, becomes for them like a new family.
Now if, like Jesus, our primary concern is doing the will of God, then it makes sense that our most important role models, those we might consider our larger family in the world, would be those with the same priority. And when we find those who gladly surrender to God’s will, we naturally relate to them as good role models in Christ.
1 Samuel 17:31-50
In the story of David versus the Philistine giant, Goliath, we’re made sure to understand that David did not defeat his enemy with the normal implements of war. We’re told, for example, that David tried on Saul’s armor and sword, but it just wasn’t working for him. As Goliath approaches, David announces that the Lord does not save by sword and spear, and at the end of the battle we’re reminded again that there was no sword in David’s hand. No, unlike Goliath, armed to the teeth with sword, spear, and javelin, David had picked up five stones from a nearby stream to use with his humble sling.
Besides David’s notable lack of appropriate weaponry, what also caught my attention was the number of stones. It seems oddly specific to say David chose five stones. With a little research I found, as you could imagine, all sorts of theories on what the five stones represent. One of my favorites is that the number five symbolizes the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, and in a more general sense the entire set of teachings and law considered the foundation of Jewish identity and culture.
This led me to consider the foundation Jesus gave us, his summation of Jewish law: love God with your whole being, and love your neighbor as yourself. And, in light of today’s story about David and Goliath, we’ll add: love your enemy.
Although very rarely rising to the surface, profound anguish and anger hid within me for a very long time. I was once angry at the ones who tormented me as a child, causing such painful wounds. I was angry at God for allowing it to happen and not intervening. And I was angry at myself. Could I have made different choices? Maybe if I tried harder to be part of the “in” crowd. Maybe if Little Nick had acted more aggressive, or had worked out and took karate. It would be fair to say I was angry at choices made all around, choices the bullies made, choices God made, and choices I made. It didn’t even occur to me until much later that perhaps no one in this story had any choice at all.
Choice, and the freedom to choose, is fundamental to how we see ourselves in the world. We feel powerful when we have choices, and powerless when we have none. There’s an inherent human desire to be powerful, to feel we’re agents of change making choices that impact our lives and the lives of others.
However, whatever we might think of the plethora of choices we make, for good or for ill, we tend to forget an underlying assumption, namely that we really do have the ability to consciously make a decision. We’re assuming we have free will or personal agency, the ability to make decisions on the behalf of what we perceive to be our selves. On closer examination, though, it isn’t at all clear that we do.
Numerous studies in the field of neuroscience, for example, have examined our decision-making process, with some surprising results. In a typical study, researchers measure activity in different areas of the brain while having subjects make various sorts of choices. They found that certain kinds of activity in the brain predicted the subject’s eventual decision, well before the subject was conscious of making a decision.
Perhaps, then, free will, in terms of a person consciously making a decision, is an illusion. Maybe what we call free will is simply the story we tell ourselves after the decision has been made. Some part of my brain begins the process of pushing a button, and then several seconds later my conscious self pushes it. In that scenario my conscious choice is only a story about my own sense of volition in the world, with the real choice happening below consciousness.
These are momentous, stressful times we live in. It may seem that around every corner there’s something to be fearful, angry, or distraught over. Our minds may habitually return to the last article we read, or video we watched, or podcast we listened to. We may feel compelled to stay up-to-date on the latest news, out of a sense of duty, from a powerful curiosity, or a need to be on top of what’s going on so as to feel safe and prepared. And all of this takes a toll on us.
Psychologists have long studied what is called vicarious trauma or vicarious traumatization. This kind of trauma arises not from a first-hand experience of a traumatic event, but from witnessing such an event. Such vicarious trauma has often been seen in professionals who work in fields where witnessing traumatic events or interacting with trauma survivors is common. However, it’s now known that vicarious trauma can also affect those who are regularly exposed to traumatic events in the media. Constant exposure to traumatic events in media has been shown to cause anxiety, difficulties in coping, immense fear, and feelings of hopelessness. This is especially true for those of us who have a history of trauma ourselves or just happen to be particularly sensitive.
Jesus said “blessed are the peacemakers,” and as children of God that is our calling. Being a peacemaker, which is so needed is these tumultuous times, begins with being at peace ourselves. A big fan of the beatitudes himself, Gandhi once said that “there is no way to peace, peace is the way.” And Martin Luther King Jr. told us to “be the peace you wish to see in the world.” In other words, one of the very best gifts we can offer a troubled world is letting ourselves rest in God’s presence, resting in the Peace and Joy of Christ.
If you feel yourself caught up in a cycle of fear, anger, and despair, as you digest all the latest news of a world and people in crisis, you owe it to yourself and the world to be kind to yourself, and take a break. And even Jesus needed to be alone every now and then, so you know you’re in good company. In a world inundated with news 24-hours a day, here are some helpful tips on being a peacemaker, beginning with making inner peace:
- Set limits on the consumption of news media, videos, etc. Consider taking a Sabbath from all kinds of media, for a day or even longer.
- If you have trouble setting limits, put notes on the devices you use reminding yourself to ask “Is what I’m doing now nourishing for my soul?”
- Practice noticing patterns in your thoughts and feelings around consuming traumatic news, and take a break when needed.
- Make a list of things that bring you hope, peace, and joy, and practice them.
- If you feel called to do something, then do something! Consider even the smallest gestures that could turn hopelessness and anxiety into action.
- Make time for silent prayer, and practice letting God take on the cares of the world while you rest in God’s presence.
Remember, your greatest contribution to God’s Kingdom is to cultivate the Kingdom within. Stay informed in moderation, be kind to yourself, and be the Peace and Joy of Christ the world so needs.
Peace and Be Well,
Br. Nicholas Bartoli
During our community’s discussions, the aspect of mission that has most caught my attention is that of being a prophetic voice in the Church and the world. A prophetic voice can be seen as both calling from the wilderness or the margins, and calling us to the margins. The margins may refer to either the contemplative aspect of our faith, one often neglected in our busy world, or it may refer to being of direct service to those who are marginalized by society: the poor, outcast, and neglected. These two aspects of prophetic voice are related in the sense that embarking on a contemplative journey, surrendering oneself to God, will naturally lead to a feeling of unity and compassion with all beings, especially those suffering most.