This is a follow up to my last post, Meditation and Decisive Times, where I attempted to sketch the basics of what it means to meditate on life, as a way to grow in love and closeness to God, and a way to help foster a deep and integrated inner life. Out of this deep inner life, we often find the strength and clarity to take a stand for what we believe in, especially during anxious times like ours.
I’d like to further develop this meditation with a special look at the role of emotions. What emotions tend to stand out the loudest for you? Most often, due to the way we’re wired to survive, negative emotions may stand out the strongest. What do we do with these difficult or painful emotions when they arise during meditation and prayer? I’ll cover 3 things that I’ve learned from others wiser than myself, which have been really helpful for me.
First I might say – if difficult or negative emotions are arising during you meditation, you’re on the right track. If we’re really striving for this meditation of life with the Lord, to give to Him and hold before Him all that happens to us, there’s going to be some unpleasant parts to that. That’s great! (in a manner of speaking). Just think of the Psalms, and how they capture human struggle: “How long must I carry sorrow in my soul, grief in my heart day after day?” Ps 13:3. Or the story of Job: “My inward parts seethe and will not be stilled; days of affliction have overtaken me. I go about in gloom, without the sun; I rise in the assembly and cry for help.” Job 30:26-28.
I would even say that if we haven’t come across a memory or occurrence that frustrates us, makes us angry or bitter or deeply grieved, we’re likely only engaging in meditation as an intellectual exercise (which while that has it’s merits, that not what we’re going for here).
Often when negative things turn up, we try to ignore them and “get back to” whatever we’re reading or praying about. What if that which causes us disturbance could be a most helpful teacher? What if the Lord wants to use that discomfort or pain to teach us something, to help us grow? Then that might be exactly where it would be helpful to focus our attention! So,
(1) When negative impressions or memories arise, try to sit with it. You might want to return to those 3 questions from the previous post if it’s helpful: what is God wanting telling me through this? Where is He in this uncomfortable/painful/annoying experience? What is my response to Him?
In this way, we can “digest” our emotions with the Lord, allow the Lord to look upon us in all our humanity – no masks, no hiding — just as we are. In this way, through the involvement of the mind, body, will and heart, our experiences are incorporated into our inner life. Eventually, it’s possible that the sharp edges of troubling memories will become softer, and something may shift over time, in His grace, towards peace and acceptance.
Some difficult and painful things might cause us distress for a good while, and may call for much prayer and spiritual guidance before we can see God’s presence in them. As some difficult themes may come up again and again during this process, I think self-knowledge is incredibly important to know the difference between when we are reaching for healing and when we are merely indulging our own emotional reactiveness. What do I mean by that? I think we can each intuit whether we’re bringing that difficult experience, emotions
included, with open hands before the Lord, versus when we are adding fuel to the fire – ie, stewing in our own justifications for the way we feel, dwelling on our own hurt-ness, blaming for others or engaging in exaggerated self-pity. And maybe we need to stew for a while before we’re ready to give it to the Lord! That’s where self-knowledge and freedom come in, I think. The self knowledge to know when we’re putting up pretenses with the Lord and opting for emotional immaturity (prayer tantrums anyone? I know I’ve done them!), and the freedom to choose for our selves when to open that door to the Lord. In a word,
(2) Learn to recognize when you’re giving your emotions to God, or feeding the flame.
In this way, emotions are allowed to function as God designed them, incorporated into who we are: at times drawing our sharp attention as a warning light of painful things, and at times adding color and depth to life and also infusing warmth and strength into our relationships. In this way too, our emotions are not allowed to over take us in a way that narrows our horizons and shrinks our love. It seems that we’re never more focused on ourselves than when we’re in pain – and there’s natural function to this, it’s not a bad thing. That attention is meant to begin the healing process, to alert us that something is wrong. But it can be a good thing gone wrong if we don’t give the pain to God for healing, if we allow that attention to close us off from others and God or if we get stuck looking at our own belly-buttons. This leads to the third thing:
(3) Meditation as a school of love
Rather than being self-centered, this meditation on our life, including on the painful moments, can help us to find healing in God and increases our love for Him and for our self, which in turn increases our love for others. In His love alone, we find boundless compassion and eternal wisdom. In His great and Fatherly guidance, we find the perspective that reminds us that we are small children before a loving a great Father God. This smallness, paradoxically, lets us break out of our narrow limitations and love, with all the supernatural strength of God.
“Love of neighbor, therefore, flows from love of God. Try to visualize this in a greater context. We know from experience how much our individual attitude influences us
in judging circumstances, things and people in everyday life. For instance, the sun is 1,300,000 times as large as the earth. Yet to us it appears no larger than a small coin, while the relatively small part of the earth on which we stand appears immeasurably great. In a similar manner, our own personal interests appear so great to us that they capture all our attention, while the more important interests of other completely escape our notice or seem mere trifles.
A change can come about in this regard only when we take a neutral point of view which enlarges the narrow horizon of our own egoism and allows other things to appear in their true size. Since our point of view must be neutral we will not find it in ourselves nor in our neighbors, but we must transcend both and take our stand in God. Everything receives its measure and value from God, He is the measure of all things, the standard for the appreciation and valuation of our neighbors. He has adopted them as His children, made them members of Christ and temples of the Triune God and, as such, they stand before us a wonderful new creation of divine love. The nearer we come to God with mind, will and heart, the more everything will change before our eyes; His light and life become more and more our own possession and, at the same time, the standard for our appreciation and evaluation of the works of His hands. God loves man in spite of his weakness; therefore, He redeemed man at the price of the Precious Blood of His Only-begotten Son. He always nourishes man with His divine life so that He can receive him into the eternal community of His life and love. God is love.” – Fr Joseph Kentenich
That last quote about says it all for me! May you be deeply blessed on your own journey of meditation and growing in love with the Lord. And may our Blessed Mother, she who pondered all things in the silence of her great heart, be our educator along the way. Amen.