Fiachra’s Cell

This page is dedicated to explore what it means to be hospitable toward oneself.

Throughout his life, Saint Fiachra sought more space to enter his “cell” to spend time alone in contemplation. This was behind his first move from the monastery in Ireland, and then again when he moved to France to establish his hermitage there. But whenever he moved to escape the crowds, he found that people were drawn to him, and soon he again found the needs of others taking much of his time and energy. Some might say this was a good thing, since our calling as followers of Jesus is to reach out to help others, which can hardly be accomplished in isolation. But it might also be argued that Fiachra’s time spent alone was the very reason people sought his help. It was in his cell that he was able to spend time in silence listening to God, sensing His loving presence, learning to pray, and being transformed through the ongoing conversation. Like Moses who encountered God on Sinai, he was different through the divine encounter.

Others mentioned in Scripture were much the same. John the Baptist lived a life of isolation in the wilderness, and people traveled far into a dusty desert to hear what he had to say. Jesus, also, though often surrounded by throngs, began his ministry with 40 days fasting in the wilderness, and then often found time away from the crowds (and even from his disciples) to spend time with the Father. In the days of the early church, the Desert Fathers and Mothers in Egypt followed this model, paving the way for many prayerful hermits, who found even the monastic communities to be a distraction from their work of prayer and contemplation.

How different from our modern approaches to ministry! We so often jump into situations, seeking to bring help without first attending to who we are as children of God. We don’t take the time to learn how to be with God—at all times. We don’t take the time apart to discover and understand our brokenness, whether it be pride or loneliness, which so often derails even our most sincere and well-intentioned deeds. If we haven’t taken the time to understand our brokenness, how can we really understand our motives for action? And if we fail to learn how to be constantly in God’s presence, how can we expect others to sense God’s presence in us?

  • How often have we as lonely people reached out to help others, but were really only seeking to fill our own void, and in the end brought only hurt to those we set out to help?
  • How often have we as people desperate for attention acted to help others just for the affirmation it would bring, only leaving those we were helping feeling used?
  • How often have we set out on a program to rescue some person or group from a bad situation, but without adequate reflection have done little to help their situation and, in the end, only gained praise for ourselves?
  • How often are we like the wealthy people in the Temple who gave loudly from their abundance, rather than like the poor widow who humbly and quietly offered up all she had?

Jesus sat down near the collection box in the Temple and watched as the crowds dropped in their money. Many rich people put in large amounts. Then a poor widow came and dropped in two small coins.

Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has given more than all the others who are making contributions. For they gave a tiny part of their surplus, but she, poor as she is, has given everything she had to live on.” (Mark 12:41-44).

It is important that we first spend time in our cell, learning to listen to God and discovering His loving presence. Then when we reach out to help others, we can do so with a full heart, knowing that we already have the approval and love of our Maker to sustain and keep us. We need to learn to move from a state of loneliness and insecurity to knowing that we are God’s own children and deeply loved. Then we will be a ready and healing presence for the people around us, and without all the destructive strings attached. It is important that before we reach out to be hospitable toward others, that we first attend to our own inner needs and issues.

Let us enter Fiachra’s cell and stay for awhile. Let us take time to discover the character and depth of our brokenness. Let us experience each day the transforming grace and forgiveness of our loving God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Let our loneliness and emptiness be filled by His loving presence. Let our pride be broken by a sense of His holiness and power. Let the center of our focus become God and no longer ourselves, so that when we reach out to help others, it will be truly for them and not for us. Then we may become the very hands and feet of Jesus.

 

HOLY SECRECY
I post this in memory of my father, who died a few months ago. Today was his birthday (October 17). He was a man who understood and practiced holy secrecy.

I have often heard of how destructive secrecy can be to people and their relationships. And certainly, secrecy can be destructive if it allows a cancer or infection—actual or metaphorical—to fester in a person’s body or heart. But I’d like to explore secrecy’s positive side in the discipline of holy secrecy.

The discipline of secrecy never involves hiding sin; the discipline of confession demands otherwise. This positive sort of secrecy only relates to hiding from onlookers the good things we do, not to hiding what is broken or wicked. Sin can only be truly conquered and healed when it is exposed to the light.

But I’ve thought long and hard about the discipline of secrecy, a discipline enacted by individuals in the context of any community. It involves planting seeds of good all around, sometimes at great personal sacrifice, without it ever being known. The fact that these offerings are planted in secret removes credit from the giver, and gives them back to the Giver of all things—and so these acts become the very acts of God. Through the discipline of secrecy, we can become Christ’s hands and feet—his real and living presence in the world.

Let us attempt a definition of this discipline of holy secrecy:


As humans, we struggle with insecurity about what makes us valuable. We tend to do good things in order to be noticed by others; we are often driven by our need for affirmation. The spiritual discipline of secrecy calls us to seek God’s pleasure and praise instead of the praise of people. It requires that we question the motives behind our actions.

Practicing secrecy allows us to love others freely, not just so they love us back. It asks us to look for our security only in God. The value of our actions is that we are giving an offering to God. It allows us to serve with true humility, as messengers of Christ’s love. Ultimately, secrecy grants us the ability to truly reflect God’s living presence to others.

In this age of self-promotion, this is a very counterintuitive idea. From a young age, we are taught to at least get credit for what we’ve done; and some are pretty good at claiming credit for things others have done. Here we are reminded that it’s really not about us. It’s about a grand Kingdom narrative that we can step into and participate in. Our real significance is found in serving and following the King of the universe. If we don’t attach our names to the good we do, God can take the credit. We’re talking about a subversive plot for good. Jesus used yeast in dough or mustard seeds planted in a garden to visualize this subversive plot. If we quietly plant just a little, God can take our offerings and use them to change the world. When we claim the credit, we can easily get in the way of God’s bigger Kingdom work.

It’s end this ramble by reflecting what Jesus said in his Sermon on the Mount:

“Watch out! Don’t do your good deeds publicly, to be admired by others, for you will lose the reward from your Father in heaven. When you give to someone in need, don’t do as the hypocrites do—blowing trumpets in the synagogues and streets to call attention to their acts of charity! I tell you the truth, they have received all the reward they will ever get. But when you give to someone in need, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Give your gifts in private, and your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.

“When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them. I tell you the truth, that is all the reward they will ever get. But when you pray, go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father in private. Then your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.

“When you pray, don’t babble on and on as the Gentiles do. They think their prayers are answered merely by repeating their words again and again. Don’t be like them, for your Father knows exactly what you need even before you ask him! Pray like this:

Our Father in heaven, may your name be kept holy.
May your Kingdom come soon.
May your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.
Give us today the food we need, and forgive us our sins,
as we have forgiven those who sin against us.
And don’t let us yield to temptation,
but rescue us from the evil one.

“If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins.

“And when you fast, don’t make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, for they try to look miserable and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting. I tell you the truth, that is the only reward they will ever get. But when you fast, comb your hair and wash your face. Then no one will notice that you are fasting, except your Father, who knows what you do in private. And your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.”

Garden Tip: Encourage earthworms in your garden by providing lots of organic matter. Enjoy and celebrate their presence. They work hard day and night to enrich the soils we depend upon for life, but most of us are completely unaware of what they are doing right beneath our feet. Learn from them the discipline of secrecy.

 

HUMILIFICATION

On a Good Friday a word came to me that has found its way into my mind and heart. The dictionary doesn’t identify it as a real word; but it’s real to me.

As Jesus approached the cross and hung on it, a small part of his suffering, at least, came from his being falsely labeled and deeply humiliated. Though the best of all people, he was treated like the worst of criminals. I found myself free associating with words other than “humbled” and “humiliated” that might have described his feelings, and words started tumbling out—words like mortified, terrified, petrified, horrified, vilified, stupefied, mummified, crucified, . . . even deep-fried. And by association, I found myself with the word humilified; noun form: humilification.

I’ve felt a significant amount of humilification in recent years. Unlike Jesus, I in no way consider myself among the best of people, so it’s not inappropriate that I’ve experienced it. Humilification is the experience you have when you look up and everyone is looking at you, fingers pointing. (Sounds like a nightmare, and I suppose it is.) It’s a place of hopeless brokenness, a place where no matter what you do, everyone’s perceptions of you only seem to get worse. Self defense is only interpreted as a denial of truth. Good deeds are identified as some sort of cover up. And you begin to wonder if it isn’t all true—that you are as bad or clumsy or foolish as everyone seems to think. Perhaps you even come to believe it without equivocation. Silence and isolation seem the only viable courses of action.

But as Jesus suffered his humilification undeserved, he was accomplishing something for those of us who may deserve it. He was standing in our place, taking our guilt upon himself, carrying it away. He was taking our shame upon himself, so we could be made whole and experience peace and joy and life to the full. He was humilified for us.

And so as I have reflected on my own humilification, another list of words has come to mind, words like modified, edified, justified, purified, even perhaps, sanctified; in the sum of it all, yes—humilified. Humilification by grace is a pathway to hope and peace and wholeness. It doesn’t discount the brokenness; it accepts it, accounts for it, pays for it, and brings healing to it. It creates that sad, repentant space, characterized by humility, where all healing can begin, where hope can once again begin to grow—and it offers wholeness in return.

  • Jesus was crucified, mortified, terrified, petrified, horrified, stupefied, vilified, and mummified for me.
  • That I might be identified, justified, purified, modified, edified, and sanctified in him.

And so humilification can be the pathway to new life, to hope, to peace—to shalom.

He was despised and rejected—a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief. We turned our backs on him and looked the other way. He was despised, and we did not care. Yet is was our weaknesses he carried; it was our sorrows that weighed him down. And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God, a punishment for his own sins! But he was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins. He was beaten so we could be whole. He was whipped so we could be healed. All of us, like sheep, have strayed away. We have left God’s paths to follow our own. Yet the LORD laid on him the sins of us all. (Isaiah 53:4-6, NLT)

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