6/24/21

Achieving a Spiritual State of Mind

When seniors in high school, my friend’s parents, who were always kind of strapped for cash, took her out to an artsy, gourmet restaurant one Friday night.  And over dinner, communicated they wanted her going to Macalester College over UC Berkeley.

They didn’t come out and say it.  It was just strongly implied they felt this would be the best choice for me.  It was a very awkward and strange evening,” she told me later.

Yet where did she end up going?  Macalester. 

Why am I relating this somewhat sickening upper-middle class anecdote?  To demonstrate that when communicating a message, context is crucial. 

Is it even a game changer?  What if her parents had the same conversation on a Saturday morning, over a kitchen table strewn with newspapers, coffee cups, and household cutter? 

Of course it’s impossible to know.  But given their financial constraints, her parents clearly chose the context deliberately.  And achieved their desired outcome. 

Plunged into the Unknown

How does this relate to God and to prayer?  In my experience, a whole lot. 

John 4:24 says “God is a spirit”.  And so in order to communicate with Him, you need to move beyond the time/space realm and into the realm of the spirit.  It’s not easy to “get” there.  I’ve found that certain contexts make me WAY more attune to this spiritual realm and allow me to speak and listen to God more effectively. 

As I wrote about in an earlier post, I received my most lucid locutions when my life was in a “nowhere” state: after graduating from college and before I’d found a job.  The noise of people, commitments, involvements, daily activity, stress, and events, was reduced to a dull roar.  I’m inclined to think Jesus took this window of opportunity to talk to me in plain speech with clear, unequivocal interior and exterior locutions. 

I’ve also noticed a heightened spiritual awareness when plunged into the UNKNOWN.  Recently I traveled to Kenya, which was my first time to the African Continent, and first time below the equator!  The situation, honestly, felt so foreign that I may as well have been on Mars. 

While there, my dreams took on a wildly lucid quality.  I could write 500 words on them upon awakening, recalling every single detail.  In my normal life, I often immediately forget my dreams the minute I open my eyes—as my thoughts quickly turn to the activities of the day. 

This isn’t exactly to say that Jesus spoke to me at this time, but more to point out that my psyche was more attune to the spiritual realm in this unknown, foreign context.  (As I explained in a previous post, I think dreams are one window to this spiritual realm.) 

Does My Theory Hold Water? 

Up to this point I’ve simply related my personal experience.  Does it amount to anything more than a lot of modern-day woo-woo?  Is my next line to recommend you pull a tarot card and light a candle the next time you want greater insight into a your life? 

Let’s turn to Scripture.  The Gospels recount where Jesus, our Messiah and master of prayer, spoke to God. 

Rising very early before dawn, he went off to a deserted place, where he prayed.” Mark 1:35 
“And when he had taken leave of them, he went off to the mountain to pray.” Mark 6:46                                           
“He would withdraw to deserted places to pray.” Luke 5:16   
“He departed to the mountain to pray and he spent the night in prayer to God.  When day came, he called his disciples to himself and from them he chose Twelve, whom he also named apostles.” Luke 6:12

Mark and Luke consistently cite deserted places, mountains, and night as times and places places Jesus sought out for prayer.  What about these places might make them suitable for entering into a spiritual state of mind? 

The desert and night have a “nowhere” quality to them.  The desert has an absence of visual stimuli that allows one to enter a contemplative state.  And night epitomizes nothingness and the unknown. 

A mountain offers other spiritual qualities.  It reaches into the heavens, and oftentimes offers spectacular scenery that cause the spirit to soar and reflect on the beauty of God’s creation. 

Something else is clear from these passages: Jesus spends considerable time in prayer before making a big decision.  I wonder at his level of exhaustion the next day when he chose his apostles.  In any event, in praying for the entire night, He certainly whole-heartedly recommended the decision over to God.

And what of other people from the Bible?  Of course it’s hard to narrow it down to one, but I’d also point out Paul, who, after his dramatic vision on the road to Damascus, says that he:

did not immediately consult flesh and blood…rather I went into Arabia then returned to Damascus.”  Galatians 1: 16-17

It was only after three years of withdrawal that Paul says he finally consulted Cephas (Peter).  This is to say that Paul, too, withdrew into some sort of solitude as he sorted through this life-altering vision. 

Perhaps he withdrew to the desert regions of Arabia, though that is speculation.  However, as he was from Tarsus and had spent much of his life in Jerusalem (Acts 26:4), Arabia was probably a relatively unknown area for him. 

When God Does the Talking

I will allure her; I will lead her into the desert, and speak to her heart.”  Hosea 2:6

In this verse from the prophet Hosea, God relates where He plans to communicate with His wayward Chosen people: in the desert. 

In Exodus, God literally draws the Israelites out of Egypt and into the desert, and over forty years, establishes His special covenant relationship with them.

And so it’s a two-way street: according to Scripture, God takes us into the desert when He wants to speak to us, and we too venture into the unknown in order to talk to Him. 

Seeking Out Solitude

Does all this mean when we seek out lonely places, or journey into the unknown, that we’re intrinsically closer to God?  According to St. Thomas Aquinas, no.  He writes in Summa Theologica: 

We draw near to God by no corporeal steps since he is everywhere, but by the affections of our soul.” 1 

This means we can talk to God, and He to us, anywhere, including busy and chaotic places: with noisy children, driving at rush hour, and during crazy and tumultuous times in our lives.  And no, according to Aquinas, we aren’t any closer to the BVM at Fatima than we are in our own homes. 

But certain contexts makes us more ATTUNE.  To listening.  And developing this relationship.  And so in order to have a good relationship with God, it makes sense to habitually seek out these places and spend time with Him. 

Where might we find them, specifically?  Silence and solitude seem scarce in our noisy, busy world, but if we deliberately seek them out suitable spaces emerge.  Many Churches are open and empty during the day: offering a wonderful opportunity for quiet time.  Or a park, or nature trail, that perhaps is empty in the mornings, is another good spot.  Or even a room in our home that doesn’t get a lot of use, can be a perfect place for prayer. 

If nothing else, even a coffee shop with a pair of noise cancelling headphones can put us into a good listening space! 

Additionally, if we find our lives in a desert of sorts; divorced, in a career transition, unemployed or having moved to a new community and so alone much of the time; God may have chosen this context deliberately.  And be hoping to draw us into closer relationship to Him.

It isn't Easy

I went to the place where I usually prayed alone and, being deeply recollected, began to talk to the Lord in a foolish way, which I often to without knowing what I’m saying.  It is love that is then speaking, and the soul is so transported that I don’t notice the difference there is between it and God.” 2 

St. Teresa of Avila, too, sought out quiet places where she communed with God.  

Although, she also reminds us, the path to developing this skill of listening and praying to God isn’t smooth.  It requires much work on our part, especially in the beginning. 

The greatest labor is in the beginning because it is the beginner who works while the Lord gives the increase.” 2 

What About You?

Do you have a story of parents trying to sway your big life decisions? 

Was there any period in your life when you felt especially close to God?  What characterized that time? 

And what are the best times and places for you to pray? 

 

1 Summa Theologica Part I, Thomas Aquinas. 1213. Question 3. Volume 1: The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD & Otilio Rodriguex, OCD, 1976. Pgs 230 & 80.

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6/6/21

KISS: The Skinny on How to Recognize God

Earlier this year, I ‘blind-watched’ Charlie Wilson’s War.  I knew nothing about it, didn’t pick it out: just sat down and watched it.  In one scene, the camera faces two characters head on, as they walk alongside a hedge, engaged in a highly unrealistic and cerebral discussion. 

Ah ha!” I exclaimed. “The Walk and Talk!” 

Sure enough, Aaron Sorkin, famous, er, almost notorious, for his often parodied Walk and Talk scene, directed Charlie Wilson’s War

The tell was so strong; unmistakeable.  I didn’t need to know anything else about the movie to know who had directed it. 

God and Simplicity

How do we relate to an invisible God?  This perplexing question makes believers wring their hands, and causes other to give up on God altogether. 

Part and parcel to having a relationship with God is understanding who He is.  What is He like?  Does He possess a “Walk and Talk” characteristic; i.e. something so distinguishing that when you see it, you remark: “Ah ha! The work of God is here!”

In The Confessions, St. Augustine writes that “God is truly and absolutely simple.” 

St. Thomas Aquinas comes to the same conclusion in Summa Theologica, where he affirmatively answers the question: “Is God altogether simple?” 

Here is Aquinas in his own words:

God is no wise composite, but is altogether simple.  Every composite is posterior to its component parts and is dependent on them.  But God is the first being.  Every composite has a cause for things in themselves different cannot unite unless something causes them to unite.  But God is uncaused.” 

Nothing composite can be predicated of any single one of its parts…..No part of a man is a man, not any of the parts of the foot a foot, but in whole, made up of similar parts.

In every composite there is something which is not “it”, itself...And so, since God is absolute form, or Absolute Being, He can be in no way composite.” 1  

To simplify, (ha ha) I think Aquinas is saying that simplicity is fundamental to God’s being because He isn’t made up of many parts, nor was He caused by anything: He is simply God. 

(Please note: if you want to understand the entire logical sequence that Aquinas uses to draw his conclusions, I'd recommend reading Question 3 of Summa Theologica Part I in its entirety). 

To put it another way: the reason we can say that God is “all good” and “all loving” is because He isn’t made up of many parts: He is just one part.  That is to say, then, that the most fundamental characteristic of God is His simplicity.

Simplicity in God's Movement

As simplicity is so fundamental to who God is, when discerning if something is of God, its simplicity can be a tell.  Just like the Walk and Talk with Aaron Sorkin: it’s an identifying mark. 

Where do we see examples of this simplicity?

Our Salvation

In Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Saint John Paul II describes God’s plan of salvation as “simple”: 

The history of salvation is very simple.  And it is a history that unfolds with the earthly history of humanity, beginning with the first Adam, through the revelation of the second Adam, Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:45), and ending with the ultimate fulfillment of the history of the word in God, when He will be “all in all.” (1 Corinthians 15:28). 2 

The Warning

The Warning, or Illumination of Conscience, which is widely spoken of and speculated about these days, is also an entirely simple conceit or phenomenon. 

During The Warning, in essence, God will reveal Himself, then tell each of us, individually: “Hey, here are all the ways that you’ve messed up.” —And then, by implication, give us the opportunity to seek reconciliation, conversion, and so repair or relationship with Him. 

It’s so simple! 

As I see it, the profound simplicity of The Warning the strongest indication that it comes from God.

Meandering Final Thoughts

What does the Walk and Talk suggest about Aaron Sorkin?  Perhaps that he thinks conversation is key to solving a problem or advancing a storyline. 

And what are the implications of knowing God is fundamentally simple?  Certainly it provides clues in how to listen and speak to Him.  

How does a simple Being communicate?  Generally, I’d think, with alarmingly directness (as exemplified with the Warning).  And how would He hope that we speak to Him?  Probably on similar terms—which gives us an important clue in how to pray! 

And some more speculative questions: if we know God is absolutely simple, does it then follow that everything that is simple is of God?  Or what about the contrapositive of this statement: if something is not simple, then is it not of God? 

And what is simplicity, exactly?  What are some concrete examples of it? 

These are some fun philosophical questions to mull on.  Perhaps I'll flesh them out another day. 

However, Aquinas and Augustine provide us with a really significant key to knowing and understanding our “Simple, Invisible” God. 

What’s your take?  How to you identify and recognize God in your life?  Or what's a tell in a movie that suggests to you who directed it? 


1 Summa Theologica Part I, Thomas Aquinas. 1213. Question 3. 2Crossing the Threshold of Hope, John Paul II, 1994. Pg 58.

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