Fr Frank Bird sm, waiting to return to NZ, writes from Ranong, Thailand:
God needs dry wood
As a Marist venturing down the contemplative tradition, I have been deeply struck by an image used by St John of the Cross: God needs dry wood. I think John of the Cross means that the fire of God's love needs to be physically warm and visibly bright, so it can be a real experience for others. This image has captured my imagination ever since the Marist Renewal experience at Le Neyliere in 2017, and the past few years while here in the Marist Mission in Ranong, Thailand. I think the Church, Mary, the Society of Mary - also needs me to be dry wood. I think contemplative prayer and practice is helping me.
The contemplative prayer tradition.
I would be the first to acknowledge I'm not yet a fully dry and glowing log of wood. I'm conscious in a number of ways that I maybe only ready for limited use. However, I consider this growing awareness to be more positive than negative.
The Marist Renewal experience pointed me toward the contemplative tradition. I both enjoyed and struggled with St John of the Cross and the invitation to stillness, silence, and self-emptying. The renewal experience led me into something of a deeper prayer journey, and I think in hindsight, a personal and pastoral gift. I began to let go of my-'self' in prayer. I became aware just how much of prayer was my own words, desires, ego. I was surprised just how much my mind flitted backward into the past trying to correct or re-live experiences, and then jumping into the future, trying to understand or plan or control what has in fact not yet happened.
I became more conscious of stepping out from the 'movie theatre of the mind' as Martin Laird would refer to it. The stillness, the calming of the senses, the entering into the center. I became conscious of a simple joy and ease in just sitting in silence: my original nakedness in God. I now think of it as the 'NOW of love' in prayer. I no longer bother running a marathon of the mind and heart in prayer. No actions. No words. No thoughts. No feelings. Just Me in God. Like a child resting quietly on Mum's lap.
As time has gone on with contemplative prayer, I began to recognize the contemplative experience or process is psychologically doing something quite deep, but it wasn't immediately obvious to me. I think contemplation has been slowly reversing the place of the 'ego' (or as one writer helpfully refers to it as 'Easing God Out'). God is now being put back in the center. I have become sensitive and aware how frequently in daily life I am so captured by my thoughts and feelings. I notice not daily but hourly 'upsets' when my ego is bruised by some incident. How had I not been so aware of this before I'm not sure.
I believe the contemplative prayer experience was now transferring itself also into a personal, psychological, and pastoral experience. I find myself practicing being present to the 'now'. This mindful attention to being in the now helps me find more peace and less worry and concern compared to where my mind and heart used to live. Martin Laird, in writing about a misunderstanding of contemplation, states his concern with the schizophrenic contrast in the church between contemplation and action. He suggests the opposite of the contemplative life is the distracted life. I tend to agree with him. I find myself doing one thing instead of several things. I am more aware of being less distracted personally and pastorally.
To be 'free of all self-concern'
The contemplative tradition has also drawn me closer to Fr Colin. I have been struck by the theme scattered across Colin's writings to 'be completely free of all self-interest'. I see the importance of self-denial for Colin and the place of self-emptying in the act of contemplative prayer and contemplative living.
I began to see the connection with the times the wet log of self-concern would spit and hiss as I would 'react' and be 'upset' because of my pride-full triggers and ego. These could now become rich moments of choosing to be 'free' of 'self-concern'; and 'self-emptying' opportunities of grace. 'I' could be gently held and invited to become 'hidden and unknown'. The many daily - even hourly - 'ouches' of the ego reaction now became interesting moments of freedom. The fire of the Spirit was at work in heating this 'wet log' helping me to become 'dry wood'!
Waiting in Thailand
In Thailand I have been waiting for over seven months to return to New Zealand because of Covid travel and quarantine restrictions. While it has been frustrating, I've noticed some of my family and friends have been more worried about me than I have for myself. Maybe it is the fruit of contemplative practice and the missionary experience of having to so frequently acknowledge not being 'in control'.
We have thousands of active Covid cases in Ranong. Many Burmese Migrant families are without work, without food, without support. The Borders are closed between Myanmar and Thailand and there is so much heart-ache with families back in Myanmar burying loved ones and slowing losing hope with the lack of political progress and peace. In Ranong we are in the 8th month of restrictions.
Sometimes there is just the blunt awareness of not understanding clearly what is going on, but living humbly in faith with God. Not being clear about the future and plans, but trying to live positively with hope in God. Not being sure what to do, but living in the 'now' with compassion and love to the frequent requests for support. Perhaps after all, wherever we are, the same pattern is working itself out in each of us - becoming dry wood.
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Frank, Your waiting time is not waisted time, but Fruitful time! Look what engagement your article has produced!
Thank you, Frank, for this inspiring and insightful contribution. Very deep and perceptive.
thank you, Frank, for such a grounded and humble - and insiring - accunt of yoour journey into God ... most helpful ... resonating in so many ways in my life ... a gentle invitation to ease out of the distracting bits and piees and berooted inthe Centre ... keep at it ... and keep sharing the hard-learned wisdom ... helping to keep the flame alive on this side ofthe world.
Thank you for sharing this Fr. Frank. It was a good reminder for me this morning. Peace be with you & prayers to all in Ranong.
Cheers Frank inspiring piece of faith sharing here ..... if we are "housing heavens fire" as best we can and "the wood is dry" .. then we will have more than a few slow and quick burns on the way?!