“…this direct first hand grasping of God Himself…”

Frank LaubachContinuing with the letters of Frank Laubach.  See previous post for information on Laubach. 

March 15, 1930

This week a new, and to me marvelous experience, has come out of my loneliness. I have been so desperately lonesome that it was unbearable save by talking with God. And so every waking moment of the week I have been looking toward him, with perhaps the exception of an hour or two. 

Last Thursday night I was listening to a phonograph in Lumbatan and allowing my heart to commune when something broke within me, and I longed to lift my own will up and give it completely to God. 

How infinitely richer this direct first hand grasping of God Himself is, than the old method which I used and recommended for years, the reading of endless devotional books. Almost it seems to me now that the very Bible cannot be read as a substitute for meeting God soul to soul and face to face. And yet, how was this new closeness achieved? Ah, I know now that it was by cutting the very heart of my heart and by suffering. Somebody was telling me this week that nobody can make a violin speak 

alex-blajan-199244-unsplashthe last depths of human longing until that soul has been made tender by some great anguish. I do not say it is the only way to the heart of God, but must witness that it has opened an inner shrine for me which I never entered before. 

Photo by Alex Blăjan on Unsplash

Undiscovered continents of spiritual living

Frank Laubach

Frank Laubach suffered intense loneliness and deprivation as a missionary among the Moslems of the southern Philippines.  He wrote letters home to his father and described his “experiment” of living every moment in the presence of God. “I determine not to get out of bed until that mind set up on the Lord is settled.”  Things began to change. By the end of his long life he was among the best known and loved men of the world. For one thing, he had been instrumental in teaching millions of people to read. 

Frank Laubach, Letters from a Modern Mystic

January 29, 1930

I feel simply carried along each hour, doing my part in a plan which is far beyond myself. This sense of cooperation with God in little things is what so astonishes me, for I never have felt it this way before. I need something, and turn round to find it waIting for me. I must work, to be sure, but there is God working along with me. God takes care of all the rest. My part is to live this hour in continuous inner conversation with God and in perfect responsiveness to his will, to make this hour gloriously rich. This seems to be all I need think about. 

March 1, 1930

…Perhaps a man who has been an ordained minister since 1914 ought to be be ashamed to confess that he never before felt the joy of complete hourly, minute by minute—now what shall I call it?—more than surrender. I had that before. More than listening to God. I tried that before. I cannot find the word that will mean to you or to me what I am now experiencing. It is a will act. I compel my mind to open straight out toward God. I wait and listen with determined sensitiveness….

rainier-ridao-600681-unsplashBut why do I constantly harp upon this inner experience? Because I feel convinced that for me, and for you who read, there lie ahead undiscovered continents of spiritual living compared with which we are infants in arms. 

–Photo by Rainier Ridao on Unsplash

And I must witness that people outside are treating me differently. Obstacles which I once would have regarded as insurmountable are melting away like a mirage. People are becoming friendly who suspected or neglected me. I feel, I feel like one who has had his violin out of tune with the orchestra and at last is in harmony with the universe. ivan-torres-376149-unsplash

Photo by ivan Torres on Unsplash

As for me, I never lived, I was half, dead, I was a rotting tree, until I reached the place where I wholly, with utter honesty, F Laubachresolved and re-resolved that I would find God’s will and I would do that will though every fibre in me said no, and I would win the battle in my thoughts. I do not claim success even for a day yet, not complete success all day, but some days are close to success, and every day is tingling with the joy of a glorious discovery. That thing is eternal. That thing is undefeatable. You and I shall soon blow away from our bodies. Money, praise, poverty, opposition, these make no difference, for they will all alike be forgotten in a thousand years. But this spirit which comes to a mind set upon continuous surrender, this spirit is timeless life.

From Frank Laubach, Letters from a Modern Mystic.

 

“Their mind is changed and passes into lasting melody”

Another entry from Richard Rolle’s 14th century Christian classic, The Fire of Love.  A glimpse of the afterlife. There is no greater image of heavenly joy and flourishing than music. 

The Fire of Love, chapter 5

Therefore all those who are filled with love and joy, the seekers after inextinguishable heat, unite to sing in one glorious choir of rich melody; and now this company of friends has the shade of heaven to protect them against the scorching of lustful flattery and ill will. The very fervour of their sweet love ravishes them with the sight of their Beloved. Flowering through this loving flame into all virtue they rejoice in their Maker. Their mind is changed and passes into lasting melody. From now on their meditations become song. Melancholy has been driven out of the mansion of their spirit, and it now resounds with wondrous melody. The one-time torment of their soul has vanished, and now in glowing health they dwell in the heights of harmony, in the wonderful rhythm of sweet and melodious meditation. 

–Translation and copyright 1972 by Clifton Wolters. Penguin Classics.

Surprised by Fire

f-FB DoveHeart copy

I didn’t know about a connection to the royal wedding until just now. Rev. Michael Curry’s sermon at that historic event has an ancient and deeply spiritual heritage.  Here is a second passage from Richard Rolle’s 14th century spiritual classic, The Fire of Love.  The prologue is one of the few places where Rolle speaks of the personal aspect of his experience plainly, not using generalities about “they” and “those” who experience the fire of love. 

Note the similarities to the brief, intermittent experiences of C. S. Lewis with which I began this blog.  Lewis wrote of his childhood experiences of Joy as “…an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction…. [I]t might almost equally well be called a particular kind of unhappiness or grief. But then it is a kind we want.”  We also cannot ignore the momentous conversion experience of John Wesley, when he felt his “heart strangely warmed.”

I will write more in an afterword below. You want to get right to Rolle.

The Fire of Love: Prologue

I cannot tell you how surprised I was the first time I felt my heart begin to warm. It was real warmth too, not imaginary, and it felt as if it were actually on fire.  I was astonished at the way the heat surged up, and how this new sensation brought great and unexpected comfort. I had to keep feeling my breast to make sure there was no physical reason for it! But once I realized that it came entirely from within, that this fire of love had no cause, material or sinful, but was the gift of my Maker, I was absolutely delighted and wanted my love to be even greater. And this longing was all the more urgent because of the delightful effect and the interior sweetness which this spiritual flame fed into my soul. Before the infusion of this comfort I had never known such warmth, so sweet was the devotion it kindled. It set my soul aglow as if a real fire was burning there.

Yet as some may well remind us, there are people on fire with love for Christ, for we can see how utterly they despise the world, and how wholly they are given over to the service of God. If we put our finger near a fire we feel the heat; in much the same way a soul on fire with love feels, I say, a genuine warmth. Sometimes it is more, sometimes less: it depends on our particular capacity.

What mortal man could survive that heat at its peak–as we can know it, even here–if it persisted? He must inevitably wilt before the vastness and sweetness of love so perfervid, and heat so indescribable. Yet at the same time he is bound to long eagerly for just this to happen: to breathe his soul out, with all its superb endowment of mind, in this honeyed flame, and, quit of this world, be held in thrall with those who sing their Maker’s praise.

But some things are opposed to love [caritas, i.e., divine, unselfish love]: carnal, sordid things which beguile a mind at peace. And sometimes in this bitter exile physical need and strong human affection obtrude into this warmth, to disturb and quench this flame (which metaphorically I call “fire” because it burns and enlightens). They cannot take away what is irremovable, of course, because this is something which has taken hold of my heart. Yet because of these things this cheering warmth is for a while absent. It will reappear in time, though until it does I am going to be spiritually frozen, and because I am missing what I have become accustomed to, will feel myself bereft. It is then that I want to recapture that awareness of inner fire which my whole being, physical as well as spiritual, so much approves; with it it knows itself to be secure.  

–From Prologue in The Fire of Love by Richard Rolle. Translation and copyright 1972 by Clifton Wolters. Penguin Classics.

Afterword

Fire of Love-fig_07-st_apollinare_in_classe

Rolle says here that he uses “fire” metaphorically because it both burns and enlightens. Who would want to experience a “burning” sensation? Yet when we desire something or someone deeply, the sensation is more like a burning than anything else, isn’t it?  —As thousands of poems and pop songs testify.  Not a “heartburn” that you simply want to go away; more like a boiling that says “Something has got to happen; either I am going to explode in song and dance or I am going to quench this fire.”  God is the greatest object of desire, the deepest satisfaction of the soul. It makes sense that desire for Him would be greater than any other desire.  I tend to think of desire-love as eros, following C. S. Lewis’s description in his book The Four Loves, and thus second-rate compared to agapé or divine, self-sacrificing love, which does what is best for the beloved, not seeking satisfaction of one’s desire.  But Rolle and similar mystics bring me up short.  How can this fire of love be a divine form of love if it is desire? 

So this is a paradox.  Perhaps we might say that this “fire of love” is a kind of “eros” transfigured, desire for something that nothing in this world can satisfy but still cousin in its bodily sensations to earthly desires.

And this seems to be what Rolle is indicating.  Augustine or others are often credited with writing “Each person has a God-shaped hole that only God can fill,” and Pascal did say something along these lines.  But actually, the thought originated with Rolle in this book: “Since the human soul is capable of receiving God alone, nothing less than God can fill it; which explains why lovers of earthly things are never satisfied” (chapter 11).

And this is a fire that drives us to agapé, which is action not feeling.  It drives us to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

Have you every experienced the fire of love?

P.S.:  I began this series not having watched any of the Royal Wedding. I just learned that the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church Michael Curry gave a “fiery” (at least for a royal wedding) sermon on The Fire of Love.  Though his focus was not our love for God, many of his thoughts are still relevant.  And since I will probably get 396,481 new visitors to this site, I will link and tag it here, nudge nudge, wink wink. (“OMG, he’s sold out.”)

Joyful Heat

What the 14th-century mystic Richard Rolle has to say is not merely inspiring but challenging.  In it we find the same axis that is throughout the Bible, the unyielding fact that you cannot love both the world and God.  At least not very well.  Like me, you may find yourself busy with both but getting the best of neither relationship. 

Of late there has been a refreshing current in Christian thought, a return to the doctrine of creation and God’s judgment “it is good.” But the hard words remain: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever” (I John 2:15-17). “Don’t you realize that friendship with the world makes you an enemy of God?” (James 4:4).  “You cannot serve both God and Mammon [money]” (Matthew 6:24). In our current, unprecedented material prosperity, it is well to remember these verses and the teachings of Richard Rolle.

For a 14th century man much is known about Richard Rolle. All I will say here is that he was a student at Oxford when a Master’s degree was a seven-year program, but he abandoned his studies. He stole two cloaks from his father and ran away from home to be a monk. Theft! An inauspicious start to a holy life, as many have noted. 

The Fire of Love

Further, perfect souls who have been caught up into this friendship–surpassing, abundant, and eternal!–discover that life is suffused with imperishable sweetness from the glittering chalice of sweet charity.* In holy happy wisdom they inhale joyful heat into their souls, and as a result are much cheered by the indescribable comfort of God’s healing medicine. Here at all events is refreshment for those who love their high and eternal heritage, even though in their earthly exile distress befell them. However, they think it not unfitting to endure a few year’s hardship in order to be raised to heavenly thrones, and never leave the. They have been selected out of all mankind to be the beloved of their Maker and to be crowned with glory, since, like the seraphim in highest heaven, they have been inflamed with the same love. Physically they may have sat in solitary state, but in mind they have companied with angels, and have yearned for their Beloved. Now they sing most sweetly a prayer of love everlasting as they rejoice in Jesus:

Oh honeyed flame, sweeter than all sweet, delightful beyond all creation!

My God, my Love, surge over me, pierce me by your love, wound me with your beauty. 

Surge over me, I say, who am longing for your comfort. 

Reveal your healing medicine to your poor lover. 

See, my one desire is for you; it is you my heart is seeking.

My soul pants for you; my whole being is athirst for you. 

–From chapter 2 in The Fire of Love by Richard Rolle. Translation and copyright 1972 by Clifton Wolters. Penguin Classics.

*Not today’s common usage of “charity” but from caritas (Greek agape), which means the type of love that is unconditional, giving, self-sacrificing, divine.

 

Exodus 19: The Deadly Presence of Holiness

This is the type of mystical experience that leaves us in fear and trembling. This passage is the Grandaddy of that type.

mount-sinai-egypt-moses-1244104-wallpaperIn the middle of the desert a lone mountain rises up.  It is called Sinai. The Israelites camp at the base, and Moses climbs up. Somewhere along the way, God calls from the mountain. God tells Moses to remind the people below how God rescued them from the Egyptians to “be my own little flock….a kingdom of priests to God, a holy nation.”  The context is important. God appears with fire and thunder in the passage below, and then he gives to Moses the commandments for creating that reverent and just society: a holy nation. 

God appears once again without disguise, even the disguise of a burning bush.  This aspect of holiness that we see in Exodus 19 is unpopular or unknown these days, even despised–even among Christians, Jews, and Muslims, sometimes.  To believe someone is so different from us, so set apart (one of the meanings of “holy”), so much better than we are, may defy our democratic principles. It certainly hurts our egos.Exodus-19-21-1024x658

But unless we understand this aspect, we cannot understand how infinitely morally good God is compared to us. But when we do understand it, we also get a glimpse of how much love and humility is poured out in the life and death of Jesus Christ.  We understand why we need Jesus, why he is “the way, the truth, and the life,” the end as well as the means. We understand that only a man who was God, and a God who would become a man, could bridge that awe–full gap between us and God. 

Exodus 19

Moses returned from the mountain and called together the leaders of the people and told them what the Lord had said.

They all responded in unison, “We will certainly do everything he asks of us.” Moses reported the words of the people to the Lord.

Then [God] said to Moses, “I am going to come to you in the form of a dark cloud, so that the people themselves can hear me when I talk with you, and then they will always believe you. Go down now and see that the people are ready for my visit. Sanctify them today and tomorrow, and have them wash their clothes.  Then, the day after tomorrow, I will come down upon Mount Sinai as all the people watch.  Set boundary lines the people may not pass, and tell them, ‘Beware! Do not go up into the mountain or even touch its boundaries; whoever does shall die— no hand shall touch him, but he shall be stoned or shot to death with arrows, whether man or animal.’ Stay away from the mountain entirely until you hear a ram’s horn sounding one long blast; then gather at the foot of the mountain!”

So Moses went down to the people and sanctified them and they washed their clothing.

He told them, “Get ready for God’s appearance two days from now, and do not have sexual intercourse with your wives.”img_5635

On the morning of the third day there was a terrific thunder and lightning storm, and a huge cloud came down upon the mountain, and there was a long, loud blast as from a ram’s horn; and all the people trembled.  Moses led them out from the camp to meet God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain.  All Mount Sinai was covered with smoke because Jehovah descended upon it in the form of fire; the smoke billowed into the sky as from a furnace, and the whole mountain shook with a violent earthquake.  As the trumpet blast grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and God thundered his reply.  So the Lord came down upon the top of Mount Sinai and called Moses up to the top of the mountain, and Moses ascended to God.

But the Lord told Moses, “Go back down and warn the people not to cross the boundaries. They must not come up here to try to see God, for if they do, many of them will die. Even the priests on duty[a] must sanctify themselves, or else I will destroy them.”

God Arrives without Angel Disguise

We continue with mystical experiences of the Bible.  After the Fall in Genesis 3 and the calling of Abraham in Genesis 12 this may be the most important hinge in the Old Testament.  God tells Moses that he is the man to defy Pharaoh and lead hundreds of thousands of Israelites out of their slavery in Egypt.  Moses’ response of course is “Not me! I am not the person for such a job!”

burning-bush-exodus-moses

What we see in the Exodus passages are people meeting the awesome strangeness and other-ness of God—an experience of the Numinous, as Rudolf Otto described it.  In Genesis after the Fall, God shows up only in disguise, so to speak: as a voice, as angels, as a vision while asleep. In Exodus the mission is apparently so critical that he shows up without disguise. There is so much at stake: His people must know who He is; hundreds of thousands of them must walk out of Egypt not only unscathed but rich; Pharaoh’s gods and magicians must be publicly defeated; the people must never forget this God is their rescuer and redeemer who can do absolutely anything; a new nation with unprecedented laws of justice, mercy, and reverence must begin, a way of life that God intends to spread over the earth and end evil forever. 

But God coming without disguise creates a confrontation with absolute holiness.  God is love, but God is also absolute goodness, and in His presence we do not need to be told that we are very much not.  Moses hides his face.  For the same reason, centuries later, Peter will tell Jesus, “Go away from me, for I am sinful man.”  

This is also the momentous time when God reveals his true, personal name, not a title. Often transliterated from the Hebrew as YHWH, it is mysterious and so is its pronunciation.  But it seems to mean “I Am Who I Am,” that is, the self-subsistent one; the only one that cannot be compared to or depend upon anything else. 

Exodus 3: God, The Fire that Never Goes Out, Speaks to Moses

Moses was shepherding the flock of Jethro, his father-in-law, the priest of Midian. He led the flock to the west end of the wilderness and came to the mountain of God, Horeb. The angel of God appeared to him in flames of fire blazing out of the middle of a bush. He looked. The bush was blazing away but it didn’t burn up.

Moses said, “What’s going on here? I can’t believe this! Amazing! Why doesn’t the bush burn up?”

God saw that he had stopped to look. God called to him from out of the bush, “Moses! Moses!”

He said, “Yes? I’m right here!”

God said, “Don’t come any closer. Remove your sandals from your feet. You’re standing on holy ground.”

Then he said, “I am the God of your father: The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.”

Moses hid his face, afraid to look at God.

God said, “I’ve taken a good, long look at the affliction of my people in Egypt. I’ve heard their cries for deliverance from their slave masters; I know all about their pain. And now I have come down to help them, pry them loose from the grip of Egypt, get them out of that country and bring them to a good land with wide-open spaces, a land lush with milk and honey….


Burning bush

Then Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the People of Israel and I tell them, ‘The God of your fathers sent me to you’; and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ What do I tell them?”

God said to Moses, “I-AM-WHO-I-AM. Tell the People of Israel, ‘I-AM sent me to you.’”

God continued with Moses: “This is what you’re to say to the Israelites: ‘God, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob sent me to you.’ This has always been my name, and this is how I always will be known.

–Exodus 3:1 – 8a; 13-15, The Message