A small group of people gathered at St. Scho’s yesterday morning to watch the ninth episode in Fr. Robert Barron’s Catholicism series. The episode was about prayer, and afterwards we talked about our practice of prayer.
One person commented on how her prayer life had changed over the years. She noticed that forms of prayer that had been helpful at one time in her life gave way to new practices that seemed to bear more fruit. Another person commented on how the Mass was the highlight of her prayer life. Yet another spoke of how she was moved to prayer by natural beauty, giving the example of hummingbirds that she loved to watch as they buzzed about her feeders.
As the conversation continued, I raised a question that I struggle with. There is a strong strain in the Christian spiritual tradition that insists that we must free ourselves from attachments to the fleeting things of this world in order to approach union with God. Fr. Barron emphasized this “purgative” tradition during the video, pointing out that when we try to fill the infinite longings within us with finite things, we are on a path to addiction. We try more and more of our preferred fixes in an attempt to fill a gap that only God can fill.
Okay, but what about the hummingbirds? Is there any better example of a “fleeting thing of this world”? In order to get close to God, do we need to turn away from the hummingbirds?
As a group we agreed that things like hummingbirds, far from being obstacles to God, seem to provide us doorways into prayer because of the gratitude that their beauty evokes. This is thoroughly in line with a Catholic sacramental sensibility that sees God as potentially present to us in many persons, things and events.
But the purgative tradition has a point as well. I love to be comfortable. I tend to arrange my life with comfort in mind. I am truly grateful—and I thank God!—for all the comfortable and pleasurable things: a cooled house on a blistering afternoon, a quiet time and place to pray, a pulled pork sandwich for lunch, my family gathered at the table at dinnertime. But no matter how grateful I am, doesn’t the gospel call us away from organizing our lives around our comfort? After all, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.” (Lk 9:58)
So what do you think? When does our attraction to earthly beauty and goodness and pleasure lead us toward God? How do we know when they start holding us back? What is your experience?