on our wintry souls, frozen by loneliness and hurt,
and thaw us.
This invocation opens Following Christ: A Lenten Reader to Stretch Your Soul, and the “wise words” it contains are life-giving writings of Christ’s good friends — Francis of Assisi, Hildegard of Bingen, Thomas à Kempis, Benedict of Nursia, Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, the Desert Fathers and Mothers, and John of the Cross, among others. I wrote that prayer for me and for anyone else who has ever experienced an achingly numb soul.
I was not thinking of Franz Kafka when I wrote that invocation, but my colleague Ben McFry pointed me to a letter by Kafka that illuminates why returning to enduring Christian insight is important. To his old friend Oskar Pollak, Kafka ruminates:
[W]e should only read books that bite and sting us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us with a knock upside the head, what’s the point of reading it? . . . We need books that affect us like a disaster, that hurt our hearts like the death of someone we love more than we love ourselves. . . . A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.
As we reflect on the Scripture-meditation-rich quotations below from Following Christ, their wisdom can be “the axe for the frozen sea within us”:
[T]o grow the faith of your soul, read Scripture with humility and simplicity. . . . Also read the wise words of ancient Christians attentively, and let them work their purpose in you. For the wiser a person is and the simpler the heart, the more Christ’s light can enter into a person’s life, and that which seems naturally impossible to us becomes possible through Christ’s grace. ~Thomas à Kempis (xx)
Look inside yourself. Search your soul. . . [C]reate an internal dialogue in which you imagine your loved ones sitting there as you discuss your flaws with them and analyze how you can improve your relationships. . . . If we examine our souls regularly, we can learn to be kind to each other. ~Athanasius (25-26)
God alone is the only one who needs no teacher. . . . If you love God, you will be hungry to learn more about him. Walk in the spirit of power, love, and self-discipline. Be brave. Mature by exploring the best knowledge of all and the best subject of all—Christ. May God help you in your quest for obedience. ~Palladius (17-18)
A young man visited Abba Moses for a wise word, but the Abba gave him a question instead: “Why are you here? Go home. Sit in your cell. Prayer will teach you everything.” ~Sayings of the Fathers and Mothers (6)
Souls without prayer resemble people whose bodies are paralyzed. They have hands and feet, but they cannot use them. Some souls have made themselves ill by focusing on nothing but earthly matters. . . . We must work at prayerful self-reflection. ~Teresa of Avila (24-25)
Syncletica said: “We need humility the way ships need nails.” ~Sayings of the Fathers and Mothers (56)
Offer the One who loves you your shame. ~Bonaventure (8)
Abba Macarius was asked how to pray, and he said:
Lift your hands to heaven and ask, “Forgive me, Lord.” If you are still anxious, pray, “Help me.” You really don’t need to say much. God knows our needs. His mercy is never tardy. ~Sayings of the Fathers and Mothers (56)
On the darkest night, I risked everything for love. . . . my way lit only by my yearning. [T]he inner light of prayer [shone] brighter than the noonday sun, guiding me until I found myself in the loneliest place, where the One I love waited for me. I know him well. ~John of the Cross (9-10)
As we anticipate Spring, may our hearts also soften in the warmth of “wise words.”
Carmen Acevedo Butcher is a professor of English and scholar-in-residence at Shorter University in Rome, Georgia. She was the Carnegie Foundation professor of the year for Georgia in 2006, and during the 2004-2005 year she and her family lived and learned in Seoul, South Korea, while she taught as a Fulbright Senior Lecturer at Sogang University. She has written books on medieval women mystics and linguistics. More information can be found on these at her website. (Photo credit: Katherine Butcher.)
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