THANKS BE TO GOD.
Part 2 – Meditations on Trusting God.
By Rev Daniel Considine, S.J.
AUSTRALIAN CATHOLIC TRUTH SOCIETY No. 891a (1941).
IF I place myself between the source of light and what I want to see, I stand in my own light. In the same way, I unwittingly interpose myself between God’s light (vouchsafed to me in prayer or at other times) and God Himself, and I mistake my own shadow for the Divine Beauty.
I am unfortunately selfish and mean and unforgiving and dreadfully suspicious, and I cannot believe that the qualities which exist in myself are not also to be found in God. I am judging God by myself; I am reading my own petty thoughts into the Divine Mind. A moment’s reflection will show us how terrible a mistake this is, how fatal to all worthy conceptions of God and therefore to any noble enthusiasm in His service. I verily believe that this error has done more than any other of our day to chill fervent spirits and to sicken loyal hearts that would otherwise have beaten high with the love of the Master.
GOD never constrains us, He allures us, but He always leaves us free; indeed, He wishes to enlarge our freedom as far as possible, because the more willing is our obedience the more honourable it is to Him and to us: “God loves a cheerful giver,” Saint Paul says.
There are two persons concerned in our sanctification: God and ourselves; and they must work together. If they do not, or do not work harmoniously, no great result can be achieved. There can never be any fault on God’s side: if things go amiss, we are always to blame. For instance, God has a plan by which I am in course of time to be fitted to play an important part in the walk of life in which His Providence has placed me. But if I refuse to fall in with this design and am bent instead on a little scheme of my own, no real good comes of either, for neither can succeed. God will not overbear my opposition, and, naturally, I cannot overcome His.
Our Father in Heaven loves us most tenderly and desires to do us all manner of good. All that God wants of us, all that He asks of us and that He must ask from the very nature of the case, is that we will not thwart Him, that we will let Him do His own work in His own way.
But what do we really know about the Eternal God? How can we gauge His feelings? How can we make conjectures about His Mind? We are afraid to leave ourselves in the hands of the Heavenly Titan if only because He is so great, infinitely greater than we. Not only does He tower to the clouds, and, if we are to speak of Him in material terms, immeasurably beyond. We handle a butterfly carefully lest we bruise its wings. How can God touch us ever so slightly, ever so delicately, and not grind us to powder? That is why He stoops so low to our feebleness and takes us up so tenderly for fear of crushing us, and speaks to us not with His voice of thunder (refer to Apocalypse chapter 6) lest He deafen us, but as it were of a gentle wind. But, do as we will, our poor restless hearts flutter when we think Him near, and we can understand how the Israelites could have said to Moses: “Speak you to us and we will hear: let not the Lord speak to us lest we die.” We look out with our human eyes, which cannot see very far or very clear, into the counsel of God, and is it strange that our image of it is imperfect and distorted, belittled down to our own littleness, narrowed down to our own narrowness of soul?
We are not blameworthy in this, we cannot raise ourselves above ourselves, nor does God require us to do so. Our help is not in ourselves, but in God. His complaint against us is that we will not accept His proffered aid. He will lift us up from the dunghill and place us with princes, if we do not obstinately plant our feet on the earth and refuse to move; He will strengthen our eyes to see if we do not keep them firmly closed; if we will open our mouths, He will gladly fill them. We shall know by experience that “the Lord our God is gracious and merciful, patient and rich in mercy, and ready to repent of the evil”, if only we give Him a trial. In truth, the decision lies not with Him but with us.
In our spiritual concerns even more than in our worldly ones, “nothing venture” means “nothing have”. God has done so much for us — can we do nothing for Him?
Can we not trust His word, and abandon ourselves to God’s guidance? Shall we not be safe in His Everlasting Arms, and are we not to hope in the shadow of His wings? (Psalms 56:2 in the Vulgate or Psalm 57:1 in the Hebrew.)
The Morning Mass.
BEFORE convincing yourself that you are out of favour with God and that He is punishing you by darkness, why not make some obvious experiments to find out whether it is not you yourself who are standing in your own light?
You complain that your soul is out of sorts. Perhaps your body, your mind, is out of sorts as well, and it is the soul which is suffering from its contact with the body, and not the other way round. You have passed a bad night from whatever cause and have hurried some distance to attend your daily Mass; you arrive hot and tired, and cannot fix your mind on the sacred rite; you go up almost mechanically to the altar rails after the ‘Domine, non sum dignus’, (‘Lord, I am not worthy’,) and do not make a cold Thanksgiving simply because you do not make a Thanksgiving at all. You are in a dream, or only half-awake. When you return to your home and throw your mind back upon the morning, your time in church seems to have been one long distraction. This, you say, surely spells tepidity, if tepidity there be.
Not a bit of it! It spells bodily discomfort, and
bodily weakness, either passing or constitutional. It has nothing to do with
the will, the set purpose of the soul to which God alone attends. If that
purpose holds firm, our thoughts may wander where they list, they cannot
withdraw us from God; the wind may blow about our hair or necktie or coat, but
we shall reach our journey’s end in spite of it if we keep on our way.
And we do keep on our way if from beginning to end we have in view one aim only — to please God, to benefit our soul. Fits of inattention, which indeed are hardly conscious and are not wholly wilful, which amidst the stir and movement of a body of people are almost inevitable, do not seriously interfere with our master-thought. We have come to pay homage to our God at the cost of no little inconvenience to our-selves, and He gladly welcomes us, not as seraphs, but as poor human creatures, men and women with bodies of clay, with no wings of our own to lift us above the earth whence we have sprung and whither we shall return. Is it likely, is it conceivable, that at such moments as these our Father who is in Heaven, but also in every part of the earth, should be prying to discover whether and how far our imaginations may have strayed from Him, although He knows that He possesses our hearts?
God in the centre of your heart knows that you want to serve Him, your distractions do not distract Him, He is nearer to you than they, and He understands that they are no part of your real self. They are the offspring of that mortal body which by His own permission weighs down the soul. He is content with your goodwill, and if He is satisfied why are not you?
WHAT is the pattern set before us in the Lord’s Prayer? We are bidden to ask that His Name should be hallowed, that His Kingdom should come, that His Will should be done on earth as well as in heaven — not, observe, in any particular country or parish, but the wide world over. Every one of us, however miserable, however sinful, has these words put into his mouth.
There follows indeed, as is right and proper, a supplication for our own individual needs.
But we have first been taught in what the essence of prayer resides, what prayer really means, the entrance, that is, into the Presence-Chamber of the Eternal God, to whom all things are subject, whose Eyes survey the whole earth.
With Him, all things are possible. When we speak to Him who holds in His Hands the threads of all creation, who is All-Wise and All-Powerful, whose Will no one can withstand, it is ridiculous to talk of difficulties except those of our own making.
We can ask for too little, we cannot ask for too much. We can pray for a single conversion; He who died for all would like us to beg His mercy upon all whom He has redeemed. A man may be known by his prayers, I do not mean by their length but by their character, as it were by their tone. Our prayers are an expression of ourselves: if they are large and hopeful and buoyant, they reflect an intimacy with God and a trust in His goodness to which nothing can be refused. We cannot think too well of God; we cannot overrate His liberality.
Confidence in Prayer.
WHEN we, who are by nature mere dust and ashes, venture even by His express command to raise our eyes and our voice to our Maker, our first difficulty will naturally be, if we are not merely repeating prayers by rote, to accustom ourselves, as it were, to the novelty of the position and to overcome the feeling of awe which it would naturally produce. It seems hardly credible that the Highest could stoop to interest Himself in our trivial affairs, and the mere thought of His doing so at first fills us with more fear than consolation. We find it hard to take quite literally His gracious words inviting us to beg of Him any favour whatsoever: and in our confusion we experience almost a feeling of relief in putting in reservations and restrictions of our own, to make, as it were, His generosity more suitable to our littleness, shading with our hands the light of His goodness that our weak eyes may be able to bear it.
To pray, to put ourselves in communication with God, is to enter into another world with which we are totally unacquainted, utterly unlike our own, having immense spaces, as it seems, in which we may lose ourselves and wander on aimlessly, fruitlessly, without any end. It is making an excursion, while we still remain in the flesh, into the land of the spirit, of infinity, of eternity, of reality — although we conceive of it as of shadows — dwelt in by God, and penetrated with His Presence a thousand times more intimately than the earth on which we stand. What wonder that as soon as in prayer we cross the frontiers of this universe, when we strive to “raise our minds and hearts to God”, we are apt to take with us the fetters of the prison-house which we have just quitted!
What we need is more simplicity in our relations with God. It is quite true that He is raised above us higher than the heavens above the earth, that He is and must always remain infinitely beyond our understanding, simply because He is Infinite and Eternal, whereas we are dust and creatures of time. Be it so; let us leave it so. We shall one day understand all that is possible to be understood about the Incomprehensible Deity. Meanwhile we shall only bewilder our poor minds by becoming “searchers of majesty and be overwhelmed by glory” (Proverbs 25:2), and shall strain our eyes to no purpose in peering into the light inaccessible wherein God dwells, but which to our sight is as thickest darkness.
We put little heart into our prayers because we have little real hope that they will be granted. It is here that our lack of simplicity comes in. We cannot understand, we cannot even imagine, how what we pray for can be brought about in existing circumstances — how some blow we dread can be turned aside, or how our will can ever be steeled to follow the right; and we forget that circumstances exist only by God’s permission, and can be changed by Him in a moment if He wills.
There is a deep lesson for us all in Our Lord’s frequent practice as we read it in the Gospels, of questioning those who begged His help whether they truly believed He could perform what they required. We are told that He wrought not many miracles in His own country because of the unbelief of its inhabitants. They could not take away His infinite power, but they could and did extinguish His desire to exercise it on their behalf.
The less we speculate upon God’s hidden counsels the more fervently we shall implore His mercy. We pray because He bids us pray, He does not bid us inquire into “the times and moments which the Father has put in His own power”.
IT is good for us to be at Nazareth in spirit for a while, to watch for a little, standing or on our knees, in front of the carpenter’s shed, Joseph drawing his saw, Jesus planning some piece of wood, Mary engaged in sewing or weaving. What are they thinking of? How do they manage to lighten the monotony of their life?
If we could have speech of them, they would surely answer that they needed not our pity and found no monotony in their life. On the contrary, every sun gave them only a fresh occasion of blessing God and a new opportunity of spending themselves in His service.
If the great Saint Joseph could teach us not by example only but by word, would he not counsel us to fill our days with some solemn purpose which should give a meaning and unity to our life and a heavenly tincture to its meanest details under the eyes of God?
The grating of the carpenter’s saw, the clicks of his hammer, did not sound harshly in the realms above for the Lord’s foster-father, and the Lord Himself wrought for God’s glory not with His Hands only but with His Heart. There can be no real monotony in a life lived for God, and its smallest actions are as the dust of gold.
The Way to Holiness.
HELL-FIRE is a terrible reality and never to be forgotten, but it should not form the staple of our thoughts. It is very useful as a check, as a deterrent, but it alone never made a saint. The ‘Dies Irae’ (the beautiful medieval chant, ‘Days of Wrath’,) rolling through the arches of some great cathedral fills, subdues, transpierces the soul; but it is a lament, a plea for mercy, a deprecation of wrath. The true battle-cry, leading forward the hosts of the Lord, is the Hymn of Love, the O Deus, ego amo Te of Saint Francis Xavier (O God, I, yes I, I do love You); to its strain, not loud but deep, heard only by God’s ears and our own, we gird on our armour and for His sake quit ourselves like men as long as our heart-beats last. Aim high always, always widen the horizon of your hopes, let each day find you more keen, more energetic, more confident of success. Look not backward, let the dead bury its dead; forget past failures; set your face steadily to the future, as did your Lord and Master, to the heavenly Jerusalem.
Away with despondency; do not parley with doubts; your own strength is as that of a reed, but you are upheld and carried forward by the power of God. Take yourself by what is glorious in you, not by what is base; by what is eternal, your predilection by God, your destiny, not by what is temporal, your body of clay and its lower passions. Cultivate, reinforce, draw out the diviner elements in you, since you are made after the image and likeness of God; weaken, keep under what only relates you to the brute. The soul is like the human voice, it can be trained throughout all its range; it can be strengthened where it is weak, and softened where it is harsh, and grow indefinitely in fineness, delicacy, and expression.
God can, if He wishes, freeze the soul with terror, shake it with the thunder of His wrath; but He prefers to strike the chords of love, to win us, not to frighten us, into His arms. It is our part to prepare ourselves for His gracious visitations, and to accustom ourselves to recognise and to welcome the faintest breathing of His Spirit.
Our Lord’s Compassion for Us.
WE are all in God’s sight, if we are repentant, only naughty boys or naughty girls. It is precisely because of our childishness, our want of foresight, our want of thought, our waywardness, our lack of self-control, that God is so patient with our faults.
We are weaker and blinder even than we know. We are not always fair judges of the full amount of deliberation, and therefore of malice, in the sins we commit. Our Lord could not tell or insinuate a falsehood and yet He could offer up His prayer to the Eternal Truth: ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do’. It is then certain that God may find excuses for us when we can find none for ourselves. We shall never in this life — or indeed in the next — understand altogether the mystery of God’s mercy, but one clue to it must be God’s infinite knowledge of our all but infinite littleness in comparison with Him.
It is our helplessness, our want of sense, our inability to guide ourselves, which seem most of all to appeal to His supreme wisdom, His magnificent strength, His most tender love — He had compassion on the multitude because they were like sheep without a shepherd. A mother is not irritated but touched by the first clumsy attempts of her child to walk; she raises it more carefully and embraces it more lovingly after every fall. We cannot be mistaken if we imitate towards ourselves the methods of our Heavenly Father, the Author of our nature. He does not threaten us, unless we harden our hearts; He does not storm, He does not knit His brow. He treats with reverence all that He has made; ‘He disposes all things sweetly’, not by terrorism, not by brute force.
When things are not going well with us in the struggles of life, when we have to bear defeat and disappointment, it is the last moment in which to upbraid or even belittle ourselves. We need encouragement; we need restoratives; the soul will respond to motives of confidence and hope. Now is the time to pour in oil and wine, as did the good Samaritan, only we must do it for ourselves: “Soul,” we may say, “take courage, faint not; God will not forsake you; it is no new thing which has happened to you; many times before you have stumbled and fallen, but God has raised you up, and will do so again; you are no angel but fashioned of flesh and blood and prone to evil from your birth; your Lord is merciful and understanding; He knows that your frailty rather than your will consents. His help will be with you in the future even mightier than in the past.”
Brother, sister, do not think that you are helping God’s cause by disheartening yourself; on the contrary, as your spirits rise you mount higher heavenward and you spurn the earth. Hope will give you wings, and you will find easy what you once thought impossible. A victory believed in is a victory assured.
GOD seems to make it a rule that we shall not be in perfect peace with Him if we exclude even one person from our affection. You remember His words about being reconciled to our brother before bringing our gift to the altar; if we won’t do that, He won’t admit us to His close friendship.
Is there anyone in the world towards whom you feel bitterness? Don’t let the sun go down on your anger. You will get nearer to God, and many troubles will disappear. “Love your enemies — do good to those who hate you.” How much it would teach us about Our Blessed Lord to put this into practice!
It is a saying of His, not in the Gospels, but handed down by tradition: “When you have done these things you will understand them.”