Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Listen, I will tell you a mystery!

Living a spiritual life makes our little, fearful hearts as wide as the universe, because the Spirit of Jesus dwelling within us embraces the whole of creation. Jesus is the Word, through whom the universe has been created. As Paul says: “In him were created all things in heaven and on earth: everything visible and everything invisible—all things were created through him and for him—in him all things hold together “ (Colossians 1.16-17). Therefore when Jesus lives within us through his Spirit, our hearts embrace not only all people but all of creation. Love casts out all fear and gathers in all that belongs to God.

Prayer, which is breathing with the Spirit of Jesus, leads us to this immense knowledge.

Henri Nouwen

Nouwen uses the word “knowledge” here, where I’d be tempted to use vision, or intuition. The largely unintended opening of the heart to all creation that seems to occur in prayer, contemplative prayer particularly, is not much like the knowledge we associate with academic study, or even with experience in the world. Actually it’s quite hard to find the right word at all to describe it: it is not something we do ourselves at all, nor is it exactly done to us, and so our language, based as it is in either intentionality or passivity, falters and warps…

The traditional language of contemplative prayer speaks of “acquired” and “infused” contemplation, and yet this essentially intercessory dimension of love for “all that is made” (Julian of Norwich) is something that as far as I can see is different from either, at least in the senses described by St. Teresa of Avila or St. Francis de Sales.

The closest description I can find in the literature is one I have quoted before, from St. Isaac of Nineveh (7th Century):

An elder was once asked, “What is a merciful heart?”

He replied: “It is a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for demons, and for all that exists. By the recollection of them the eyes of a merciful person pour forth tears in abundance. By the strong and vehement mercy that grips such a person’s heart, and by such great compassion, the heart is humbled and one cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in any in creation.

For this reason, such a person offers up tearful prayer continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm her or him, that they be protected and receive mercy. And in like manner such a person prays for the family of reptiles because of the great compassion that burns with without measure in a heart that is in the likeness of God.”

St. Isaac doesn’t explain how the heart was set on fire, though; the best I can do is hazard that it is in turning continually to Christ in faith, trusting in his mercy, the frail scraps of mercy and compassion that naturally remain even in the fallen human heart are somehow caught up in Christ’s mercy, in his utterly boundless love for all that was made through him in the beginning. This can only happen in our willing surrender to Christ in prayer, hence it is intentional; yet it can only happen to us (as our Lady said, “let it be with me according to your word…”) by the action of the Spirit.

This is in the truest sense of the word a mystery, and exploring it will take as many days as are left to me, and I hope, many more, if such can be called days!

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