Abba’s Child: The Cry of the Heart for Intimate Belonging

Today’s guest post is from spiritual director Sam Rahberg

After I finish a good read and before I tuck it away on the shelf, I like to spend some time summarizing what was most important to me. I use the author’s own words, varied only slightly, and follow the themes that speak most strongly to me at this time. The example below remains a summary and serves only as my own interpretation, so I take responsibility for any deviation from the author’s original intent. Even so, may it be a helpful reflection for others and an encouragement to read a fine book in its entirety.


Abba’s Child:
The Cry of the Heart for Intimate Belonging 

(a book by Brennan Manning, an interpretive synopsis by Sam Rahberg)

Book cover--Abba's ChildJesus’ relentless tenderness
invades the citadel
of your self.
Pause to reclaim your core
identity as Abba’s child.
Inner Imposter must be called
out of hiding, accepted, embraced.
God’s choice of you
constitutes your worth.
Dignity as Abba’s child—
your most coherent sense of self.
The denial, displacement, and
repression of feelings
thwarts self-intimacy.
Daily we are being
reshaped into the image of Christ.
Recovery of passion—
recovery of your true
self as beloved.
Become inner-directed
rather than outer-determined.
Let the Great Rabbi hold you
silently against his heart.

Manning, Brennan. Abba’s Child: The Cry of the Heart for Intimate Belonging. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002.

Sam Rahberg is the Director of the Benedictine Center and a spiritual director. Sam has experience in parish education and administration and holds a master’s degree in theology from Saint John’s University, Collegeville, Minnesota. 

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on Easter Prays / Easter Praise! blog and is reprinted here with the author’s permission.

 

Heart Talks with Mother God

Mother’s Day is approaching–and this makes me think about how dedicated mothers mirror something profound about the Creator. Everything good thing about us comes from God above, including anything positive about our sexuality. Because of this, I believe mothers–and all women and men–have the potential to reflect something of the “maternal” side of God.

Heart Talks with Mother God--book coverWe often think of God as Father–hopefully, a loving, strong, yet merciful Father–but for many people it’s still new to think of God as Mother. Truly, God’s inner essence is beyond gender (as the old Baltimore Catechism taught). However, we can use many different comparisons to explain something about the nature of the indescribable Mystery we call God.

Many are afraid to talk about God using “new” images. They forget that when Jesus called God “Abba,“he was actually doing something new, something incredibly innovative and unusual for his own culture. (Abba is a word we translate as “Father” in English, but the word actually means something closer to the word “Daddy.”) Names were even more significant in Jesus’ culture, and to call God Abba, was to imply that Jesus, the Son, would one day be equal to the Father. It must have amazed some people he would dare to do that. Others may have thought him outright blasphemous.  

During his earthly life, Jesus did not view the Scripture (the “Old Testament”) as a limiting force, something that would prevent him from calling God “Abba.” Jesus called God “Abba” because that is how he viewed God. No place does Jesus put limitations on the ways people talk about God. (Does He? Seriously, let me know if you find words of Jesus silencing new ways of describing God!)

If you are curious about images of God that relate to a motherly side of God, you might like the book Heart Talks with Mother God by Bridget Mary Meehan and Regina Madonna Oliver (Liturgical Press). This book is intended for parents and teachers to use with children, but I find it also expands my understanding as an adult. Why not view God, who is beyond all human imagination, as having motherly qualities?

(By the way, at the time of writing this post, Heart Talks with Mother God is on sale on the publisher’s website.) 

[If you would like to know more about Christians who spoke of God using motherly images, check this post I wrote a while back:  God as Mother? Famous Christians Who Compared the Two  . ]

Will you pray with me?

Mother God, you give us life and nurture our souls. You fight for what is right like a mother bear defending her cubs. You work hard, like a woman on fire with spring housecleaning or running for public office. You open your hands to give to the poor and your arms to comfort the suffering. Help us to remember your great love for us–and help us to be instruments of your love to all others we meet. We ask this in the name of Jesus and in the communion of the Holy Spirit.

Until next time, Amen!

The Risen Lord Enters Our Hell

The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.  –Matthew 27:52-53.

When you think of Christ’s resurrection, what do you imagine? Do you think of Jesus bursting out of the tomb, his cape flying behind him like Superman? Do you think of Jesus disguised as the gardener who surprises Mary Magdalene? Jesus magically appearing behind locked doors? Walking with the disciples on the road to Emmaus?  

If you were raised in an Eastern Christian church, you might have another image, an even more prominent image, strongly planted in your mind. You might immediately think of the “Anastasis” (Greek for “resurrection”), an icon or image of Christ breaking down the doors of hell (hades, the place of the dead), in order to free Adam and Eve and others from their spiritual prison.

Below is an ancient fresco of this image, painted in the Church of St. Chora in Constantinople. Christ is pulling Adam and Even out of their tombs. He is standing on the gates of hell, which he has broken open. Other saints and prophets of the Old Testament are also witnessing and participating in this remarkable event.

Anastasis--photo by Neil Harrison--Dreamstime.com

(Click on photo to enlarge. Photo: copyright Neil Harrison — Dreamstime.com) 

It is JESUS who goes the extra mile, to pull up Adam and Eve out of the grave. Never mind that Adam and Eve had deliberately sinned. Never mind that they didn’t “deserve” salvation. Never mind that they weren’t baptised Christian. Never mind that they lived before him in time and place.

Jesus’ love overcomes every obstacle. Even the doors of hell cannot hold Christ back. And that applies to our current lives as well. Christ enters the places we feel are our own personal “hells” in order to bring us new life.

In Praying with Icons, Jim Forest reminds us that the Anastasis Icon serves as a reminder that Christ wants to free us from all that enslaves us, especially perhaps, our fears:

The icon of Christ’s Descent into Hell can be linked with an ongoing prayer not to live a fear-centered life. We live in what is often a terrifying world. Being fearful seems to be a reasonable state to be in — fear of violent crime, fear of job loss, fear of failure, fear of illness, fear for the well-being of people we love, fear of collapse of our pollution-burdened environment, fear of war, and finally fear of death. A great deal of what we see and hear seems to have no other function than to push us deeper into a state of dread. . . .

We can easily get ourselves into a paralyzing state of fear that is truly hellish. The icon reminds us that Christ can enter not just some other hell but the hell we happen to be in, grab us by the hands, and lift us out of our tombs.

There is much that can frighten us in our everyday experiences. Christ does not prevent us from ever suffering–but Christ does promise to be there with us, through the power of the Holy Spirit dwelling within and among us, come what may.

Until next time, Amen!

Visual Meditation: Attending the Mystery of the Incarnation at Christmas

How do you picture the birth of Christ? Do you think of a little Nativity scene like the one sold in stores, Mary kneeling in adoration beside the Baby Jesus, with the protective Joseph standing with staff in hand? Are there angels, shepherds, and wise men? Who or what do they represent? A historical moment or an ongoing spiritual mystery?

For people of Eastern Christian heritage, Christ’s Nativity is recalled using a highly symbolic picture, called a sacred icon. (“Icon” is the Greek word for “image.”) This image is created in such a way to act as a sacramental window into deeper spiritual truths. The icon below is a modern example of a Nativity icon.

Image of The Nativity by Sr. Marie Paul, O.S.B.; © Monastère des Bénédictines du Mont des Oliviers and Editions CHOISIR, Genève. The Printery House, Conception, Missouri, exclusive U.S. agent. www.printeryhouse.org –Shown with permission.
Image of The Nativity by Sr. Marie Paul, O.S.B.; © Monastère des Bénédictines du Mont des Oliviers and Editions CHOISIR, Genève. The Printery House, Conception, Missouri, exclusive U.S. agent. http://www.printeryhouse.org –Shown with permission.

Religious icons are not only beautiful works of art, but more importantly, created as a instrument for pondering the mystery of God’s presence in our lives. One meditates on the works of God by beholding the various truths represented in the icon and “pondering all these things” in one’s heart.

In the icon above, the various bible stories surrounding the birth of the Messiah are portrayed around the central figure of Mary and the Christ Child. Many events are portrayed, but each little picture relates to what is at the center, the birth of Christ. In this manner, we are reminded that, as Christians, Christ is to be the center focus of our lives.

Most of us can readily pick out the three wise men, angels, and shepherds in this icon. But if you go a little deeper, you will see the wise men are of differing ages, proving that God’s wisdom can dwell in people of any age. Two angels have their hands in the ancient open position of prayer, their “job” being to glorify God (something we are also to do). The other angel is descending from the heavens, to bring the good news of Christ’s birth to shepherds on earth (bringing good news of Christ to others is something we are to do, too!).

Nativity icon from Printery House --M08 - Cropped Copy--MidwivesIn the lower righthand corner, midwives wash the newborn Babe, wrapping him in swaddling clothes, the strips of cloth used for ordinary newborns of the time. This story of the midwives, told ancient written sources, reminds us that Christ was not only divine, but also truly human. (The direct line from the star at the top reminds us of Christ’s divine nature, and that he came to dwell in Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit.)

Nativity icon from Printery House --M08 - Cropped Copy--JosephJoseph’s posture, with his back to Mary & the child, startles me.  Orthodox theologian Leonid Ouspensky explains that the figure next to Joseph is the devil disguised as a shepherd, who is tempting Joseph to doubt in the miracle of Virgin Birth. (Remember how Joseph doubted Mary’s word about the angel at first?) Despite this, his halo reminds us that he was a holy man, redeemed by Christ and loved by God.

Returning to the central focus of the icon, Mary gives birth to the Christ Child, placing him in a manger box that also symbolizes the church and tomb.  Christ is born in a dark cave–he enters into the “darkness” of this world in order to overcome sin, evil, and death. (The golden light in icons is a symbol for God, the unapproachable Light, who nevertheless choses to enter into our earthly reality.)

With so much suffering in the world, the Nativity icon reminds us that no matter who we are–wise scholars or simple shepherds, young virgins or doubting Josephs–Christ comes to free us from sin, to re-create us into adopted sons and daughters of God. No matter what we have done or failed to do in the past, God reaches out to us now, in this and every moment, with unfailing divine love.

Nativity icon from Printery House --M08 - Cropped Copy--Mother & Child

This is reason for Christmas joy.

Until next time, Amen!

Note: Many thanks to The Printery House for help with information and the image for this blog post. Read more or purchase this icon at www.printeryhouse.org (click here)

Holy Vulnerability

For he who is acquainted with our inmost hearts and knows the secrets of our minds knows when each one of us is ready to respond fully.  –St. John Chrysostom*

click on image to enlarge

I was surprised the other day when this lovely bird sitting by the grassy path did not fly away as I approached. He (she?) even allowed me to stand only a few feet away, taking photos.

I don’t know if it was the closeness or the filtered sunlight, but the bird appeared to me the most exquisite, beautiful living thing. (I would later find out it was an ordinary fledgling robin!)

From the bird’s behavior, I thought it was either sick or wounded–indeed, it was no longer living when I passed by it on my return trek. I was saddened, but grateful that in its vulnerable state, I had been able to see the details of its gorgeous feathers.

This experience made me think how God wants to be close to us, but often we fly away, just out of reach. God is always with us, of course, but sometimes we just don’t want to get too up-close-and-personal with God.

I am not sure why this is. We may be afraid because of having been exposed to harsh, wrathful images of God when we were young. Perhaps we are afraid God will ask us to change our ways or take on a new calling. Maybe we are just too busy to spend time with God. 

I think for some of us, it is when we are most vulnerable, like the little bird, that we allow God to come close. When we are suffering prolonged illness, failing relationships, job loss, or grieving, we may cry out to God in our anguish. In our vulnerability, God determines we are ready to receive spiritual growth, new callings, or deeper experiences of being loved.

St. John Chrysostom, an early church father known for his preaching, observed that God uses our vulnerability to draw us to himself. Chrysostom writes that Jesus did not call Matthew at the same time he called Peter and John because Christ knew Matthew was not yet prepared to accept the calling. He notes that others, too, like Paul, were called at various times because it was only when they were finally vulnerable they could really respond fully to the good news. (I wonder, did Paul’s vulnerability cause him to fall off the horse, or did the great fall cause his vulnerability? Ha ha ha ha…)

God knows the best timing for spiritual growth in each unique person. As Chrysostom explains:

click on image to enlarge

For he who is acquainted with our inmost hearts and knows the secrets of our minds knows when each one of us is ready to respond fully. Therefore he did not call them [the apostles] all together at the beginning, when Matthew was still in a hardened condition. Rather, only after countless miracles, after his fame was spread abroad, did he call Matthew. He knew Matthew had been softened for full responsiveness. *

When we have an attitude of openness and “holy vulnerability” before the Lord, we can really listen to what the Spirit desires for our lives. This attitude of vulnerability does not mean cowering in our shoes or belittling ourselves, but rather being open to whatever God has in store for us. Holy vulnerability allows God to draw close, like the little bird allowed me to share in his last few moments of life.

Until next time, Amen!

~~~~~~~~~~

*Quotes and concepts based upon St. John Chrysostom’s The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 30.1, quoted in Give Us This Day (Sept 2011, pp. 219-220). Give Us This Day is a new monthly publication from Liturgical Press centered around the Roman Catholic lectionary (daily Mass readings) with morning and evening prayer. I highly recommend this insightful and convenient daily prayer guide. For more info click here.

The Jesus Prayer

“Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

As I mentioned last time, I’m  involved in a small faith group this summer which is exploring various ways to pray. We are using the book Creating a Life with God: The Call of Ancient Prayer Practices by Daniel Wolpert (Upper Room Books).

"Christ the Pantocrator--Jesus Creator of All" --Icon by Marian Zidaru 2002--photo by JAMThis week I finished reading the chapter that focuses on the Jesus Prayer.  This ancient way of praying reminds us of God’s presence through praying the words the blind man shouted out to Jesus as he passed by: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Mark 10:47)

The exact wording of this prayer can vary. Some pray, “Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” or other similar words. I once met a nun who simply prays two words in a slow, meditative fashion, sometimes in rhythm with her breath, “Jesus, mercy.”

This way of praying is not done in order to earn salvation or win God’s favor by repetitive prayer. The short prayer is used to draw one’s attention to God’s love, mercy, and presence in our lives, whether we are eating, sleeping, working, or sitting in church praying. Praying in this way draws our hearts and minds away from trivial, passing things, and into the realm of God’s presence, seeking to follow the instruction of First Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing” (5:17).

While reading Wolpert’s book, I was touched by the way he described praying the Jesus Prayer in the wee hours of the night:

One of the best times for me to pray the Jesus Prayer is at night when I cannot sleep. Rather than tossing and turning and getting upset that I am still awake, I simply begin to pray the Jesus Prayer. Remember that the pilgrim was told to pray the prayer even in his sleep! Often I do fall asleep right away. The times when sleep comes more slowly are wonderful periods of prayer. In the deep silence of the night, I can lift my heart and mind to my Creator—a soft voice ringing out into the infinite.

“Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” 

I, too, on occasion have prayed this prayer in the middle of the night. I like to do the short form, in time with gentle, slow breathing: “Jesus” (while gently inhaling) and “mercy” (while gently exhaling).  It’s like inhaling the presence of God and asking for God’s love and mercy all at once…mercy for my sins, mercy for the one who has hurt me, mercy for the sick and suffering, mercy for the broken and hurting world all around us.

If you think that this prayer practice is nothing but sweetness and light, think again: it is not always so. During an interview I did one time for an article on the Jesus Prayer, an Orthodox priest told me the this prayer form “is no picnic.” He explained that if one is serious about the Jesus Prayer, practicing it in the context of truly following Christ, Christ the Pantocrator -- Jesus Creator of All -- Detail --2002 Icon by Marian Zidaru -- photo by JAMthe prayer gradually leads a person to recognize his or her own impurities of word, thought, and deed that previously went unnoticed. This awareness of our own sins and imperfections leads us into a gradually deepening conversion process.

The Jesus Prayer, this priest observed, “is an effective tool in the very difficult work of gaining control of one’s mind in order to center it on the constant remembrance of divine beauty and awakening it to the eternal realities of the Spirit.” The process makes it possible for us to become “servants of divine Compassion, students of the Lord, studying how to die to ego, so that we might be reborn as children of the Spirit.”

“Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Until next time, Amen!

Pentecost and Saint Cyril of Jerusalem on the Holy Spirit

The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.Jesus  (see John 4:14)

Christians celebrate Pentecost this Sunday, the feast commemorating the coming of the Holy Spirit. In the Liturgy of the Hours, there is a lovely meditation on the Spirit by Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, a famous teacher in the ancient church.

Like other church leaders of his age, Cyril reads the story of the woman at the well with an eye for symbolic imagery. He views the water that Christ offers the woman as a symbol of the Holy Spirit. Cyril writes:

The water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of living water, welling up into eternal life. This is a new kind of water, a living, leaping water, welling up for those who are worthy. But why did Christ call the grace of the Spirit water? Because all things are dependent on water; plants and animals have their origin in water. Water comes down from heaven as rain, and although it is alway the same in itself, it produces many different effects, one in the palm tree, another in the vine, and so on throughout the whole of creation. It does not come down, now as one thing, now as another, but while remaining essentially the same, it adapts itself to the needs of every creature that receives it.

This is a lovely way to describe the eternal, unchanging nature of the Spirit while at the same time explaining the dynamic way the Spirit moves and acts in our lives. Like a “personal trainer” or an intimate friend, the Spirit works one-on-one with each person in the way best suited to his or her personality, giftedness, life situation, etc.

Cyril also explains that the Holy Spirit enters the soul like water enters a dry tree. The tree produces fruit because of the action of the water; so too, the human soul “bears the fruit of holiness when repentance has made it worthy of receiving the Holy Spirit.”

These fruits of the Spirit vary from person to person:

The Spirit makes one man a teacher of divine truth, inspires another to prophesy, gives another the power of casting out devils, enables another to interpret holy Scripture. The Spirit strengthens one man’s self-control, shows another how to help the poor, teaches another to fast and lead a life of asceticism, makes another oblivious to the needs of the body, trains another for martyrdom. His action is different in different people, but the Spirit himself is always the same. In each person, Scripture says, the Spirit reveals his presence in a particular way for the common good.  

St. Cyril’s reflection makes me think of the theological prinicple of “unity in diversity.” It reminds me that my calling maybe different than your calling, my gifts, prayer style or spirituality may be different than yours, but that’s okay. God didn’t create us to be clones of each other.

We are united not through having identical gifts or even precise agreement on every doctrine, but rather, it is the water of the Spirit, the presence of God within and among us,  who unites us with bonds of love. In this life, we will never have perfect agreement among all peoples, but we can be united in the Spirit, the water of eternal life, that nurtures all of us together to grow into the one Mystical Body of Christ.

For me, and I hope for you, that’s good news.

Until next time, Amen!

Notes: Passages quoted from Cyril of Jerusalem are from volume 2 of The Liturgy of Hours (Catholic Book Company), pages 966-967. Photos on this post by Julie McCarty, 2011.