Matthias Stom, St. Peter at Prayer, ca. 1633-40 (Wikimedia Commons)

One thing about getting a cancer diagnosis — it tends to focus your mind, especially if you’ve been working on your prayer life already. Increasingly since I was diagnosed toward the end of October, I’ve been falling back on what’s sometimes called the Prayer of Good Courage. A favorite at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Holden Village retreat center in the Pacific Northwest, it goes like this:

O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

I’ve made it pretty much into a mantra lately. One of several, in fact.

But overall my style of praying lately has been more like the title character in Judy Blume’s pre-teen novel Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. (I blogged about it HERE earlier this year, and HERE, about how it fits into my prayer life since the diagnosis). Margaret is a Jewish girl of 11 (“going-on-12”), who addresses nightly, chatty prayers to God about the onset of puberty and whether she ought to start going to Temple or a Christian church her friends attend. “Like Margaret, God was my confidante, my everyday friend,” Blume once told an interviewer, even though she acknowledged her “own religious education was minimal.”

Anyway, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me, I identify more with Judy Blume’s chatty, very secular 11- or 12-year-old than more traditional models of religious discourse.

Partly, I think, that’s because I don’t have a clear conception of God. I’ve read enough theology to reject the popular culture image of an angry old white man with a long white beard (looking for all the world like Cecil B. DeMille’s Moses). My image of God is more like St. Paul’s description (in Acts 17:22-28 NRSV) of an unknown deity in whom “we live and move and have our being.” Or the story of the prophet Elijah’s encounter with Yahweh on Mount Horeb:

And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. (1 Kings 19:11-12 NKJV)

The plain fact of the matter is I don’t pray much. And when I do pray, especially since I got the diagnosis, I pray more like Judy Blume’s going-on-12-year-old. Or, as I learned in 12-step recovery, “[…] praying only for knowledge of [God’s] will for us and the power to carry that out.”

But off and on over the past three to four years, I’ve experimented with (mostly) Christian prayer exercises like lectio divina and the kind of Ignatian contemplation (named after St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order) where you imagine yourself at the scene with Jesus of Nazareth. The Jesuit approach especially speaks to me (even to my inner 12-year-old). At the moment I’m focusing more on what James Martin SJ, calls petitionary prayer. Even though I’m not entirely comfortable with the idea of praying for myself, Martin’s Prayer: A Guide for Everyone, has a succinct — and liberating — reaction to that kind of thinking (as quoted in a book review on the CatholicPhilly.com website):

“Why,” Father Martin asks, “do so many of us have a difficult time with petitionary prayer? Perhaps we don’t want to ask God for help because it’s what we did as children. Or perhaps we were told — by a priest, a spiritual director, an author, a friend (who got it from some theologian) — that it’s wrong or selfish to ask for things in prayer. To which I say, ‘Baloney.’”

To which I say, why, yes, thank you Father Martin! But, as Mitch Finley who reviewed the book for Catholic News Service points out, “petitionary prayer has, in certain circles, a bad reputation.” I kind of square the circle by remembering the 11th Step and asking for knowledge of God’s will and the strength to carry it out. Another Jesuit, Fr. Brendan McManus of Belfast, is helpful here. He suggests in a blog at Jesuits in Ireland.com that when you’re in trouble, you “face into the storm” and ask yourself, “what does God want for you?” That, he says, “takes a higher perspective” and gets you out of your narrow self-interest. Done right, it works like this:

  • Try to think about what God wants for you, what would be liberating and life-giving, try to see it with God’s help, what might be possible
  • Turn the issue or problem into a prayer, demand what you need, whether it be courage, calm, resolve, peace of mind, etc.

Sound advice, I think. McManus also suggests you find a “mantra or phrase […] often taken from scripture or a spiritual writer.” Mine is simply “trust,” or “trust in the Lord with all your heart […] and he will make straight your paths” from Proverbs (3:5-6 NRSV). And it seems to help me do exactly that.

This is something like a Trappist mindfulness practice called centering prayer I’ve been exploring. I’m only scratching the surface of it (I blogged about it HERE), but part of it is to choose a “prayer word” (mine, of course, is “trust”), and “[w]henever you become aware of anything (thoughts, feelings, perceptions, images, associations, etc.), simply return to your sacred word, your anchor.” In the silence, as you learn the practice, God comes to you. In my case, repeating the prayer word at least quiets my mind.

I guess you could say my prayer life is part Judy Blume’s Margaret and part Irish Jesuit, with a dash of Trappist mindfulness thrown in. I’m beginning to think all of them can be quite compatible.

McManus’ question — “what does God want for you?” — is related to what the Jesuits (among others) call the discernment of spirits, and I’m finding it very helpful now. I’m no expert, but I boil it down to this: If a thought troubles me or agitates me, let’s just say it’s not coming from a good spirit. If it brings a sense of peace or resolution, it’s probably coming from God. Prayer and meditation, for the Jesuits, are ways of connecting with God. And the discernment of spirits, for me, looks like a way of keeping my paths straight.

In a booklet titled Channeling the Inner Fire, McManus says something important. I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around, but it fits here. It’s the first of 15 points he raises about Jesuit spirituality: “God is found easier within and not without.” He explains:

Often […] people get discouraged and doubt themselves and God. They can’t connect this ‘inner fire’ or passion with their notion of God. More often, it is the agnostic or atheistic voice that gets heard: God has abandoned me, doesn’t care or doesn’t exist at all. Yet in my moments of clarity, I recognise an inner voice, especially at key moments of crisis or change. You don’t need to be afraid of moments of crisis or change, because God is present in these moments.

McManus is arguing here from his own experience — a former information technology executive who joined the Jesuits after what he describes as a moment of personal and career crisis, he acknowledges it seems counterintuitive and “almost ‘New Age'” to us to seek God within ourselves, but it’s an important part of Jesuit spirituality. More to the point, McManus believes it was transformational in his case:

Rather than looking outside to rules, doctrines and teaching, I found something radically different. The miracle was that there ws something going on inside me, within my very life experience. It was like an inner compass, GPS, or extra sense. It was there all the time, even though I hadn’t noticed it, giving me messages and guidance on decisions.

St. Ignatius went through a similar inner transformation, says McManus, before he took holy orders. In Christianity, it is variously known as divinization, defined (by Wikipedia) as the “transforming effect of divine grace, the spirit of God, or the atonement of Christ”); or, in the Eastern Orthodox churches, as theosis (the “transformative process whose aim is likeness to or union with God”). It’s related to deep theological questions including atonement, original sin, forensic justification, sanctification and Christology, as speculation on the nature of Christ is known — you can get in over your head very quickly with this stuff, but it’s important to me now.

And the Jesuits don’t have a corner on the market. Citing best-selling Franciscan author Richard Rohr’s book The Cosmic Christ, Ilia DiLeo OSF cites the medieval Franciscan theologian Duns Scotus, who found Christ — defined more or less as the pre-existing Word of God — in Jesus of Nazareth but in all of God’s creation. Says DiLeo:

So does everyone have to become Christian to know the Christ? Absolutely not; Christ is more than Jesus. Christ is the communion of divine personal love expressed in every created form of reality—every star, leaf, bird, fish, tree, rabbit and every human person. Everything is christified because everything expresses divine love incarnate. 

This is very close, I think, to something Luther liked to say: The faithful are all “little Christs.” (I’ve blogged about it, HERE and HERE.) Luther said a lot of things, of course, more than a few of them contradictory. And Lutherans today tend to be allergic to anything that sounds New Age-y, so anything that smacks of union with God can be controversial. But the late Tuomo Mannermaa of Finland’s University of Helsinki and his students speak of “union with Christ” in Luther and Christ’s presence in the faith of a believer (in ipsa fide Christus adest, as Mannermaa characteristically put it in Latin). In dialog with their Russian Orthodox counterparts in the 1970s, they realized its similarity to the Orthodox doctrine of theosis. Finnish-American theologian Kirsi Stjerna, who studied under Mannermaa, goes so far as to call Luther a mystic on on the basis of the Finnish school’s interpretation:

Ultimately this view is quite mystical, for it recognizes Christ as being personally present in the believer, rather than merely his benefits [i.e. forgiveness of sin or forensic justification]. Faith in this view is also more than an abstract virtue. It is a reality-changing instrument that unites the divine and the human, ontologically.

In other words, theologians of the Finnish school believe Christ, the second person of the Trinity, is really, in his actual being, present in the faith of a believer. Ted Peters, emeritus theology professor at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, has a graceful way of putting it — he calls this the “indwelling of Christ.” Peters, who blogs on the Patheos website, caught my attention at the end of October with a Reformation Sunday sermon:

Faith understood as the indwelling of Christ, I contend, improves the quality of our daily life. To have faith in Jesus Christ makes us less anxious, less nervous, less defensive, more kind, more considerate, more loving. We can then enjoy the fruits of the Spirit, as St. Paul lists them: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22).

To that, I might add coming to terms with a bad diagnosis. When Lutherans write about subjects like the indwelling of Christ, we tend to look at it from 30,000 feet. But I think Brendan McManus has something very much like it in mind when he counsels readers to look inward, “praying with the problem and bringing God’s grace directly to bear on it.” Another book, which he co-authored with Jim Deeds, poet and pastoral worker of Belfast, is titled Deeper into the Mess: Praying Through Tough Times. Full disclosure: I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve seen the sample on Amazon.com. No views from 30,000 feet there.

Similarly, Ilia DiLeo holds earned doctoral degrees in theology and pharmacology, and she can wax philosophical at times. “Because Jesus is the Christ,” she says, “every human is already reconciled with every other human in the mystery of divine so that Christ is more than Jesus alone; Christ is the whole reality bound in a union of love.” But when push comes to shove in the concrete daily reality (the haecceitas, or “thisness,” in philosophical terms), I think she can help guide us deeper into the mess:

We cannot know this mystery of Christ as a doctrine or an idea; it is the root reality of all existence.  Hence we must travel inward, into the interior depth of the soul where the field of divine love is expressed in the “thisness” of our own, particular lives. Each of us is a little word of the Word of God, a mini-incarnation of divine love.  The journey inward requires surrender to this mystery in our lives and this means letting go of our control buttons.

So these are the things I’m thinking about lately. As I try to put them in writing, they may look like half-digested bits and pieces of Lutheran, Jesuit, Franciscan, Trappist, 12-step and Russian Orthodox theology and praxis. But down here in the mess, it feels quite different. As thoughts come to me in the night, mostly unbidden, I make note of them. If they bring more anxiety, I repeat my mantra — trust in the Lord — and let go. If they bring a sense of peace, or help me discern God’s will and the strength to carry it out, I welcome them in the present moment. And then, like Judy Blume’s character Margaret, I have something to chat about with my higher power whom I choose to call God.

Further Reading

Ilia Delio, “A Reply To Richard Rohr On The Cosmic Christ,” New Creation, Center for Christogenesis, Oct. 16, 2017 https://christogenesis.org/reply-to-richard-rohr-cosmic-christ/.

Mitch Finley [Catholic News Service], “Don’t let its size intimidate you; this is a great book on prayer,” CatholicPhilly.com, Feb. 19, 2021 https://catholicphilly.com/2021/02/culture/dont-let-its-size-intimidate-you-this-is-a-great-book-on-prayer/.

Brendan McManus, Channelling the Inner Fire: Ignatian Spirituality in 15 Points (Dublin: Messenger Publications, 2022), 8, 10-11.

__________, “Doing the unthinkable: Facing phobias and anxieties,” In All Things, Jesuits in Ireland, Oct. 11, 2021 https://www.jesuit.ie/blog/brendan-mcmanus/doing-the-unthinkable/.

Ted Peters, “Reformation Sunday 2022: Justification by Faith,” Public Theology, Patheos, Oct. 29, 2022 https://www.patheos.com/blogs/publictheology/2022/10/reformation-sunday-2022/.

Kirsi Stjerna, “Luther, Lutherans and Spirituality,” in Spirituality: Toward a 21st Century Understanding, ed. Kirsi Stjerna and Brooks Schramm (Minneapolis: Lutheran Univrsity Press, 2004), 40-41, 44-47.

Nancy L. Winder, “A Prayer for Guidance,” Living Lutheran, May 23, 2022 https://www.livinglutheran.org/2022/05/a-prayer-for-guidance/.

Wikipedia articles on atonement, Christology, discernment of spirits, divine grace, divinization, Duns Scotus, Ignatian spirituality, justification (theology), lectio divina, Tuomo Mannermaa, original sin, Ted Peters (theologian), sanctification, theosis (Eastern Orthodox theology) and Trinity.

[Uplinked Nov. 20, 2022]

4 thoughts on “Luther and the indwelling ‘Christ present in faith’ — Finnish theologians, Irish Jesuit offer a way of coping with a scary diagnosis

  1. I’m supposing THIS is what God wants for you…

    …that it’s wrong or selfish to ask for things in prayer. To which I say, ‘Baloney.’”

    Speaking for a friend 😉
    No baloney ♥️

    Liked by 1 person

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