"To live a spiritual life, I must find the courage to enter the desert of loneliness and to change it by gentle persistent effort into a garden of solitude.”
- Henri Nouwen
In this poetic expression, Father Nouwen is saying that we can take our loneliness and make it a place we can live with. This is good news. We are people who suffer from loneliness. In life, we quickly learn that people are not the cure for loneliness. We find that the worst loneliness is when we are surrounded with people, people who do not know us really, people who do not understand our inside, people who do not care. Or we are with one person, who does not know, understand or care.
The cure for loneliness is love and understanding. To find some one who will listen, understand and go on loving makes us know that we are part of another and they a part of us. We are not alone. But, I think, people are half measures. They do not have the power to fill up that longing we have inside. Only God can do that. So we must risk being alone to let Him do it.
When we know that God is truly always with us, that God fills us up, then we can take the risk of getting close to others. If they let us down for a while, that is understandable. We still have God filling us up. When we know that God is truly with us, then we have taken our loneliness and changed it into a place called solitude, a place we can enjoy.
Fr. James O’Leary
I think in reaching for God, we are not trying to be saints; we are only trying to be real. We are only trying to be who we are. And anything that helps us be real is a gift from God.
I am in the process of reading the “Inner Experience” by Thomas Merton. Thirty six years after his death, his last book reaches us. It is a magnificent book. Merton speaks of reaching the real self inside ourselves, and peeling away the false self, the egotistical self, the self build on false ambitions. He openly says we cannot share intimacy with God by sharing a false self. He does not want our false self. (No one does!) If we do not reach our true self, the door to real intimacy with God is closed. Anything that helps us be real, is a gift from God.
A problem is that the things that make us real are usually not fun things. Birthday parties do little to make us real. Hard things make us real; challenges get to the real self. There is the problem. It is hard recognizing losing a job as a gift, or getting sick, or a child rebelling, or just plain getting old. All of these experiences are gifts, but only if we see them clearly and make them so.
So, let us see our gifts. I see so many who are saying, “Why is God doing this to me?” when God is giving them a blessing. Becoming real, discovering our real selves in the task of a life time. We must use our opportunities well. God is giving us gifts all the time. Let us see them.
Personal note: Even cancer is a gift if we make it so.
Fr. James O’Leary
Let everyone sweep in front of his own door and the whole world will be clean.
The above statement indicates our tendency to want to reform the world by changing some other person. I think that this is a tendency that runs deep in us. You see it all the time. People threaten war. Violent people condemn violence in the Middle East but not in their own heart. We know people who bemoan hatred in the world who cannot get along with their own children.
I believe that Goethe’s idea was one of Thomas Merton’s prime principles. Merton said that all the evils of the world exist in the human heart, each human heart. Before we campaign to change the world, we must look to what is inside ourselves. “Let everyone sweep in front of his own door.”
Which leads me to some pertinent questions. Like, when was the last time I made a major change inside myself? Am I better at forgiving or carrying a grudge? Do I decry violence and then make a steady diet of TV shows which portray violence as the only solution to any problem? Do I pay lip service to spirituality but find my joy only in material things?
I do hope such questions make you uncomfortable. They do that to me. This sweeping in front of your own door involves getting very real with oneself. What does God want of me? What, right now, does He want me to change? That could be your healthiest imaginable question.
Fr. James O'Leary
When I was a very young priest, in my first year, I was put in charge of a multi parish program for high school students. I was too green to know the intricacies of organization. One of the pastors involved was a good friend. I had particularly wanted to impress him. I apologized to him for my short comings. He just laughed and said, “Never forget, time moves forward. Tomorrow is a whole new day.”
When I heard that statement, I understood very little. At that time, it simply meant that I should get over the bad feelings. Put it behind me, learn, and move on. In the 41 years since that incident, I have thought about those words, and that failure, not my last, by the way. Those words tend to mean more to me all the time. They mean that each day is a fresh start. It means we cannot let ourselves get bogged down with a bad day. The world begins fresh everyday. It means that it is never too late to have a good day, or a good life. A prophetic message!
I think that the celebration of New Year's reminds us all of this wonderful message. The New Year proclaims to us that time moves forward. New Year’s reminds me that I have a new gift from God. That gift is called 2004.
It is indeed never too late to have a good life. It is never too late to have our greatest year. We can accept this gift with that expectation. Time moves forward. It is never too late.
Fr. James O'Leary
We can never properly absorb the message of Christmas. It is simply too big. Certainly, we cannot understand a God who loves that much. We struggle just to appreciate this expression of God’s love. We have only our own experience of love to help us. And our own experience of love is so puny in comparison with the love of God. I think that we must simply admit the fact that we are still in the kindergarten in the school of God’s love.
God loves human beings so much that He stepped down from being God and became one of us. Everything in this sentence is improper, impossible, and beyond belief. How does God “step down” from being Who He is? Why would God do that? We do not do that. It does not make sense to us. I have a friend in prison; I feel for him, but I do not want to join him there. It makes no sense to do so.
Yet that is what God did. He has joined us in our misery. We do not know how it could happen; we do not know why. All we can do is celebrate this mysterious fact of love. This is what we do each Christmas. We look into the crib and see the love, and try to appreciate what we see. This act of God’s love, which we cannot understand or make sense of, we can appreciate.
That love can carry us through some bad times. The love of God is our universal lift, no matter what the problem. If we lose a job, or a friend, if we are sick or depressed, the memory of the love of God can lift us up.
This Christmas, we need to stare into the crib and appreciate what we see. The message of the crib is the ultimate answer to any problem we face, or will ever face.
Fr. James O'Leary
When I am anxious, it is because I am living in the future. When I am depressed, it is because I am living in the past.
We are urged by experts to live properly in the present. There can be definite traps in living too much in past or present, as the above saying suggests. But how much time we must stay in the present, I think is different for everyone. I have seen exact figures on how much time a normal person should be I the present. I think such exactitude is nonsense. First of all, who wants to be normal? Then there can be a great variance in how must time people spend in the present, people who are all functioning very well in the real world.
If we do not spend time in the past, we will not learn from our past. If we do not spend time in the future, we cannot have dreams, and then we are really in trouble. Dreams are worth the anxiety.
Where we mentally live our lifetime wise, is not chiseled in stone. We can adjust. A drive in a blinding snowstorm is not the time to dream, better stay in the present. If we are getting depresses, we might better get out of our past and start dreaming. If I am scared, I might try to stay out of the future and dream some other time.
We all have a clock in our head, a consciousness clock. We can adjust our consciousness in a wise way. We can live properly in our past, our future and our present. Then we may not be normal, but we will be wise.
Fr. James O'Leary
There is a world all around us which I fear is not recognized by many people. Indeed, I suspect so many people do not know that it exists. That world is the world of the Spirit. The book of Wisdom in the Old Testament tells us that all the wonders of this world should lead us to the wonder of God. As far as I can see, we do not reflect enough to let this process happen. Too often, material things only remind us that we dearly love to feel good. We never take the next step into the world of God.
That world is all around us. It is not on the moon. We do not have to travel to reach it. The world of the Spirit is within us and all around us. We simply have to enter into it. And we do that with prayer. It is as simple as that. We just have to sit down for a few minutes and decide to be aware of the reality around us and within us. God is in us and around us as much as He is anywhere. He is here; all we have to do is notice.
We do not have to live in one world. We can live in two. We cannot live only in the world of the Spirit. We would be running into utility poles. But there is so much to be said for spending “gobs” of time in the world of the Spirit. It is where we will find peace. It is where God will tell us who we are.
And there are people who do not know that the world of the Spirit even exists. That is why Scripture says, “Wake up.” The world of God is never further away from us than one step—of consciousness.
Fr. James O'Leary
Experience is a different kind of teacher, giving you first the test, and then the lesson.
Life is a bit different. Usually we think that we will study to learn how to do something, and then do it. We learn to prepare. In life we do it first, and then prepare to learn. Parenthood is a good example. Commonly, no one teaches young couples how to parent. It is pretty much learn as you go. Maybe that is because experienced parents simply cannot communicate that wisdom. It is too complex. Perhaps experienced parents know that every family is so unique that there is not pattern to follow. So, young parents have to learn as they go.
I think all of life is too complicated for an instruction manual. There are general principles of wisdom that can be followed, but to apply these is the trick. No one encounters life without struggle and doubt. Marriage, parenthood, all of life is a come as you are party. One must plow into it and learn as we go. It strikes me that we would never accept a job this way. For a job, we would want a description; we want to know what is expected. Real life does not work that way. We get no blue print.
So, in life we are often unprepared. We must plunge ahead and trust in God that He will give us everything we need to encounter life well. We must depend, because we are only children and He is Father. Life is a different teacher. First comes the examination, then comes the learning part. You can say what you with about it. Life is rarely boring.
Fr. James O’Leary
Forgiveness needs to become a part of us. It needs to be a continuing fact or force in our lives. Forgiveness is not like running a four-minute mile. If you run such a mile, you have it: it is on the record. To maintain the record, you do not have to get up every morning and run another four minute mile. It is a recorded act. You only have to do it once.
The art of forgiving is a bit more difficult. One has to keep on doing it. I recall years ago suffering a wrong and holding a grudge. I was hateful toward the person who wronged me. I knew that I had to forgive, much more for my sake than for his. So, on a retreat, I concentrated on this issue and worked on it. I came to an act of forgiveness of this person. I was so glad. I felt good about myself. I wanted to take a bow. At last, I had risen above injury and let go of a grudge. Wasn’t I wonderful? That night I woke up at 3 am, gnashing my teeth, furiously angry with the same man.
The trouble with deathbed conversions is that sometimes the sucker does not die. If I had died in that act of forgiveness, it would have lasted. But I lived, and the one act of forgiveness had not become a part of my life. I had discovered that forgiveness is not an act; it is a process.
To forgive means that we change our lives. To forgive, we must be something different. We must become forgiving people. And becoming is a process; it does not fall from the sky at any one time. I become a forgiving person by forgiving that man every morning for years, always on a deeper level. Then, one day I wake-up and realize that I am different. The process is completed.
- Fr. James O’Leary
What is troubling and exciting about spirituality is that in it, we are exploring God. And God is the huge unknown and unknowable. We can chicken out and say that we would rather pray to Him, not explore Him. God is a bit scary for us. We rejoice in His love, but we can still want to think of Him as distant. But like it or not, He is not distant; He is close. And He wants to be explored by His people.
When we pray, we tend to think that it is something that we are doing to touch God. That way of thinking keeps God at a safe distance. But there is another way to think of prayer. What if we thought of prayer as something that God does inside us. What if we just give God the space and the time in our head and in our heart, and God does the praying. We say we do it, but it is really God praying inside us. And how can this happen? I do not know. I do not understand God. But I know that the “God praying in us” phenomenon is not rare.
As a priest, I have known many men and women in whom God prays. I suspect this could happen with all of us, if we are consistently giving God the time and the space inside us. It is the easiest way to pray; we give the space, God does the job. And he is right inside us.
If your ambition is to hold this scary God at a distance, you are going to lose eventually. This God wants us close.
Fr. James O'Leary