When the tribes of Israel had gathered at Shechem, Joshua offered them the option of following him and his service to the Lord or turning to the pagan gods of the land in which they were dwelling. The people chose to follow Joshua and the Lord. The reasons that they gave for this choice are very significant. They chose God because they had experienced his presence in their lives and his influence on the history of their tribes. Is this relevant to us today?
We are constantly making options for God or for whatever opposing gods there are our experiences, that is,unloving and harmful commitments, ideologies,and lifestyles. The reason for our choice like the Israelites of old, depends on our experiences. How do we recognize God in our lives? Do we see his guiding hand in our history? How real is our personal relationship with God? Do we recognize his will as beneficial to our times, our nation and ourselves?
The mystics of the Christian church and indeed of all religions have their own answer to this question and to this option. As Thomas Merton writes, “I have become convinced that the very contradictions in my life are in some ways signs of God’s mercy to me.” In this Merton is telling us that God is present in every thing if we could but see him. He is present in suffering, tragedies, and sorrows as well as in health, triumphs and joy. The mystic sees the presence of God, as St. Ignatius puts it, in desolations and consolations or as Julian of Norwich says, in woe as well as in weil.
What is required to recognize this constant presence of God in our lives is what some call the contemplative attitude. It is natural to our human nature to stand in awe and wonder at the magnificent presence and deeds of God in our universe, our planet and our individual lives. What the mystics tell us, however, is that God is also present in the tragedies, the sufferings, and the sorrows. This is indeed the meaning of the crucifixion of Christ. This is also the meaning of Christ’s teaching, “Take up your cross daily and follow me.”
The contemplative attitude is strengthened, enhanced, and made recognizable through the practice of contemplative prayer, one form of which is the practice we know as Centering Prayer. There are, of course, many other forms of contemplation practiced within the context of the Christian church as well as outside of it in Buddhism, Hinduism and other religions. A mystic is simply one who engages in the practice of contemplative meditation and therefore lives, to some degree or other, in the contemplative attitude. He or she sees the reality of God in all things and stands before it in awe and wonder.
Sometimes, however, God does present himself and his message to us in such positive, concrete and graphic ways that even those who are not engaged in the contemplative dimension of reality are able to see it, wonder at it and appreciate it. These ways are sometimes cataclysmic, cosmic tragedies, or human depravities, such as wars and genocides or personal crosses suffered by communities or individuals.
I have spoken of this before but would like to repeat the story again as it exemplifies what I consider the awesome presence of God in the context of a human tragedy. Brother Aaron has on display in our bookstore a framed portrait sent to us by Joseph Daniels, the CEO and president of the 9/11 National Monument and Museum. It is a picture of an item discovered by one of the firemen who worked clearing away the rubble of the Twin Towers in order to discover and properly dispose of the thousands of bodies found therein. I learned of this from him at a seminar we both attended on Forgiveness and Vengeance at the Aspen Institute a few months ago. This item is a Bible found in the wreckage with its pages fused together so that they cannot be turned. The Bible itself is fused by heat to a steel girder so that it cannot be easily disposed of. This Bible is perpetually opened to an easily legible chapter 5 in St. Matthew’s Gospel, the Sermon on the Mount, verse 38 which reads: “You have heard it said an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth but I say to you, turn the other cheek.”
May you be happy,
May you be free,
May you be loving,
May you be loved.
Father William Meninger