Such was his intention when, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, Son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”Matthew 1:20-21
To truly receive the teaching that comes with the infancy narratives can evoke a bit of a fright in us. It is not in what today we would see as their historical truth that they are most challenging. As Huston Smith has said, the bible is too true to be literal. Rather, it is in their reminder that to live in consonance with our truest and deepest humanity, we must live a life in response to God’s direction. Joseph has the intention, as we read, to divorce Mary quietly, in a way of love and generosity that will not expose her to shame. As the words of Matthew then say, “Such was his intention . . .” Obviously Joseph had struggled with this decision for a long time and had done all he could to make his choice in wisdom and compassion, in accord with all that he knew of the Law and its demands. But despite this intention (and perhaps resolution), he receives an unexpected and unfamiliar visit from “an angel.” a messenger of God.
The angel communicates to Joseph that he need not be afraid, as does every “heavenly” visitor in the Christian scriptures, as does Jesus in the resurrection appearances. This is necessary, of course, because such “visitations” are a breaking into and through our “ordinary” modes of consciousness. Those thoughts, feelings, experiences that frighten us are those that we experience as threatening because they are out of our control. What is frightening about the scriptural stories of these appearances is that they disturb our taken for granted perspective that such things do not and cannot happen to us. It is only Mary, or Joseph, or Zechariah who receive such calls from God. But, of course, this is not true.
Most of our choices are the result of those habits of mind that we have formed over a lifetime out of the directives of our form traditions and cultures. As Tevye says in Fiddler on the Roof, it is tradition that allows us to keep our balance. But while tradition is a context it is not itself a direction. While habit makes day to day life possible, it does not constitute the whole of our potential for life. Every impulse and ambition that we have is a partial aspect of our life. We become distinctively human when our impulses, ambitions, and habits become infused by aspiration and inspiration. In short, we are a capacity to receive Divine direction in our lives, and, often enough, that direction will call us out of our habits and routines, often enough even beyond our interpretations of our traditions, and into what has been for us an unknown and mysterious life.
One of the reasons this may seem so unreal and even frightening to us is that we live so much of our lives in a confined and reduced way. We come to live as if the familiar and the habitual, be they in our bodies, in our surroundings, and in our thoughts are all of life. One way we maintain our controlled and reduced sense of life is by compartmentalizing what we then call the “spiritual” or the spiritual life, as if it were really something separate and distinct from us. In other words, the life of prayer has not yet become to us as “essential” an aspect of our being as breathing. As spirit, we are actually able to live at once both in the world of the everyday, but in a way that is open to the call or direction of God. This call is not delivered in some mysterious way. Rather, it comes through all the aspects of the field of our human experience: through our inner lives of thoughts, feelings, and inspirations; through our relationships; through the situation in which we find ourselves, and through the world at large.
So, for example, as one who has come to realize that to live the life that is truly mine, I must live as a disciple of Jesus and a brother to Theodore James Ryken and my brothers in the community, I attend to my world seeking God’s will for my unique life call as grounded in a given faith and charismatic identity. What is this person, this situation, our world asking of this charism as constitutive of my unique life call at this time? And, as this charism is a call to community, what is it asking of us at this time? Whatever our primary life call, God is always, in the other and in the world, calling us to manifest it as service in every new ways, from our birth to our death.
Yet, those habits of body and mind, the strength of our cultures and form traditions, which allow us to live somewhat comfortably are also obstacles to truly receiving the direction God would give us. As transcendence and mystery, God’s reality within and beyond us, and so the inspirations to new life that we are always receiving, are far beyond our conventional and habitual ways of thinking of God and of ourselves. We must develop daily modes of focal presence to the Mystery that allow us to transcend the conventional and habitual. This is what we often call prayer or meditation. These practices or modes of “non-thought” are what keep us open to the inspiration that is God’s direction of our lives. In time we can learn by practice to live throughout our days with an openness to the new, the mysterious in life, without fear.
The world desperately needs people, free of cultural illusions, who are undertaking a dedicated exploration of true reality, not just to know the material nature of things, but also to know the very Source of everything that exists. An unfolding contemplative practice eventually becomes total receptivity. In that receptivity, one is aware of a silence that is becoming an irresistible attraction. Silence leads to stillness; stillness leads to surrender. While this doesn’t happen every time we sit down to pray, interior silence gradually opens to an inner spaciousness that is alive. In this context, if we speak of emptiness, we are not speaking of just emptiness, but of emptiness that is beginning to be filled with a Presence. Perhaps we could say that contemplation occurs when interior silence morphs into Presence.
This Presence, once established in our inmost being, might be called spaciousness. There is nothing in it except a certain vibrancy and aliveness. You’re awake. But awake to what, you don’t know. You are awake to something that you can’t describe and which is absolutely marvelous, totally generous, and which manifests itself with increasing tenderness, sweetness, and intimacy.Thomas Keating, From the Mind to the Heart, quoted in Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation, 12/18/18