The Sense of the Ineffable

We must go back to where we stand in awe before sheer being, facing the marvel of the moment.

― Abraham Joshua Heschel

Scripture: Genesis 28.12

And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!

Reflection: The Sense of the Ineffable
By Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972)

The world presents itself in two ways to me. The world as a thing I own, the world as a mystery I face. What I own is a trifle, what I face is sublime. I am careful not to waste what I own; I must learn not to miss what I face.

We manipulate what is available on the surface of the world; we must also stand in awe before the mystery of the world. All we have is a sense of awe and radical amazement in the face of a mystery that staggers our ability to sense it.

Awe is more than an emotion; it is a way of understanding, insight into a meaning greater than ourselves. The beginning of awe is wonder, and the beginning of wisdom is awe.

Awe is an intuition for the dignity of all things, a realization that things not only are what they are but also stand, however remotely, for something supreme. Awe is a sense for the transcendence, for the reference to everywhere to mystery beyond all things.

Awe enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple; to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the eternal. What we cannot comprehend by analysis, we become aware of in awe.

Faith is not belief, an assent to a proposition; faith is attachment to transcendence, to the meaning beyond the mystery.

Knowledge is fostered by curiosity; wisdom is fostered by awe. Awe precedes faith; it is the root of faith. We must be guided by awe to be worthy of faith.

Forfeit your sense of awe, let your conceit diminish you ability to revere, and the universe becomes a marketplace for you.

*Abridged from Who Is Man? by Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Prayer: The Refrain

“For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” — 2 Corinthians 4:6

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phylis Tickle

Full prayer available online and in print.

Today’s Reading
Genesis 28 (Listen – 3:17)
Matthew 27 (Listen – 8:45)


Blessings in Modern Times

My grandmother blessed me for two reasons: because I was the oldest and because it was her way of saying good-bye forever.

― André Aciman

Scripture: Genesis 27.36

Then he said, “Have you not reserved a blessing for me?”

Reflection: Blessings in Modern Times
By Steven Dilla

On snowy mornings I would often catch a ride to high school with my best friend. As we exited his mother’s minivan in front of the school she would recite the Aaronic blessing over us. I remember feeling awkward that I was riding to school instead of walking and even more awkward that a priestly blessing had been recited over me just before 8am swimming.

These semi-frequent exchanges had faded from my memory, thankfully, along with most adolescent embarrassments, until I came across André Aciman’s account of being blessed by his grandmother inside a terminal at JFK:

My father asks the attendant for a few moments, then turns to his mother: “I want you to bless him,” he says, indicating me. This is a first. I had no idea that my father believes in religious practices, much less that he would ask her to bless me in public. But it is clear to me now that, without saying anything to me, the two of them know that we’ll never meet again.

She asks me to come closer and, in front of all the young people my age… she places her right hand on my head and begins to mutter a prayer in both Hebrew and Ladino. I wished she hadn’t done that.

I want it over and done with, but she is dragging out the prayer as if she means every word of it. I am so embarrassed. Everyone is staring at us. I roll my eyes, hoping they’ll notice. I even smile in an effort to scoff the whole thing away, to show I’m merely putting up with the old lady’s antics.

Embarrassment aside, I was struck by Aciman’s explanation of a blessing’s effect:

What grants blessings their peculiar power is that they are usually given by people who are either very old or on the point of dying—in other words people who are no longer tied to the things of this world and who already have a foot elsewhere.

I didn’t understand the Aaronic blessing until I had children of my own. It has become my heart’s cry for them. In a way, I have come to see blessings in much the same way as Aciman—though he is not religious—they are for those who “have a foot elsewhere” and have decided that nothing else they have to give is of value in comparison.

Prayer: The Request for Presence

For God alone my soul in silence waits; truly, my hope is in him. — Psalm 62:6

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phylis Tickle

Full prayer available online and in print.

Today’s Reading
Genesis 27 (Listen – 6:27)
Matthew 26 (Listen – 10:01)

The Sojourner’s Trust

Do not rush after the planned work; trust that the time to finish it will be given sometime, and keep a quiet heart about it.

― Annie Keary

Scripture: Genesis 26.3

Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you and will bless you, for to you and to your offspring I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham your father.

Reflection: The Sojourner’s Trust
By Elisabeth Elliot

What do we really want in life? Sometimes I have the chance to ask this question of high school or college students. I am surprised at how few have a ready answer. Oh, they could come up with quite a long list of things, but is there one thing above all others that they desire?

One thing have I asked of the Lord,” said David, “this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.” To the rich young man who wanted eternal life Jesus said, “One thing you lack… go sell everything.” In the parable of the sower Jesus tells us that the seed which is choked by thorns has fallen into a heart clogged with the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of riches, and the desire for other things.

The apostle Paul said, “One thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”

A quiet heart is content with what God gives. It is enough. All is grace. Response is what matters. Remember that our forefathers were all guided by the pillar of cloud, all passed through the sea, all ate and drank the same spiritual food and drink, but God was not pleased with most of them.

Their response was all wrong. Bitter about the portions allowed they indulged in idolatry, gluttony, and sexual sin. The same almighty God apportioned their experiences. All events serve his will. Some responded in faith, most did not.

God came down and lived in this same world, as a man. He showed us how to live in this world, subject to its vicissitudes and necessities, that we might be changed—not into an angel or a storybook princess, not wafted into another world, but changed into saints in this world. The secret is Christ in me, not a different set of circumstances.

*Abridged from The Elisabeth Elliot Newsletter, March/April 1995.

Prayer: The Refrain

“How sweet are your words to my taste!* they are sweeter than honey to my mouth.” — Psalm 119:103

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phylis Tickle

Full prayer available online and in print.

Today’s Reading
Genesis 26 (Listen – 4:31)
Matthew 25 (Listen – 6:04)

When Hope Breaks Down

He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose.

― Jim Elliot

Scripture: Genesis 25.31-32

Jacob said, “Sell me your birthright now.” Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?”

Reflection: When Hope Breaks Down
By Steven Dilla

Disappointment for Esau’s impetuousness is nearly reflexive for those of us who grew up learning from this story where the elder brother gives up his future for a pot of meat. Yet the Torah is surprisingly silent—there is no scorn for Esau, but neither is there justification for Jacob.

Esau is obviously hungry–famished—in the moment, but there is a depth to Esau’s language that doesn’t come through well in English translations. Harvard trained Old Testament scholar Richard Friedman expands our understanding beyond the acute pangs of hunger:

Midrash attributes a different meaning to Esau’s statement. He wasn’t talking about facing death from starvation, but rather referring to his dangerous life of facing death every day as a hunter of wild animals. Since Esau could die at any time, he didn’t value the spiritual rewards of the firstborn’s sacrificial duties.

The elder brother had lost life’s most valuable resource: hope. He couldn’t connect the dots between each day and a greater purpose—what good is anything if you’re destined to die? In some ways we see a foreshadowing of what the wealthy and accomplished author of Ecclesiastes would write:

I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.

Though it diagnoses the same problem, Ecclesiastes comes to a vastly different conclusion; “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” Esau never found this clarity—nor experienced the hope that comes from it—his brother did not allow him to.

Genesis records the stories of many brothers at war with one another. Jacob finds his brother in his darkest moment and, instead of loving him, embodies the spirit of Cain and conquers him. Instead of embracing him, he capitalizes on the elder brother’s fear.

Jacob and Esau’s story is about two aborted acts of faith. The first is about the toil of a broken world, the second is what happens when we sentence another person to weather the storms of life alone.

The Request for Presence

“Open my eyes, that I may see the wonders of your law.” — Psalm 119:18

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phylis Tickle

Full prayer available online and in print.

Today’s Reading
Genesis 25 (Listen – 4:18)
Matthew 24 (Listen – 5:59)


Unsettled by Faith

“Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens.”

― J.R.R. Tolkien

Scripture: Genesis 24.40

But [Abraham] said to me, “The Lord, before whom I have walked, will send his angel with you and prosper your way. You shall take a wife for my son from my clan and from my father’s house.”

Reflection: Unsettled by Faith
By Steven Dilla

The closer Abraham drew to God, the more unsettled his life became. All of the fathers of faith were wandering creatures—their minds, souls, and bodies sojourning as the spirit led. And yet, time and again we read of the people of God trying to leverage God’s grace to create stability, comfort, and earthly benefit.

The great people of faith, like Mother Theresa and St. Francis of Assisi, among many others, purposefully held their lives in liminality—for this is where God moves. Richard Rohr explains:

We have to allow ourselves to be drawn out of “business as usual” and remain patiently on the “threshold” (limen, in Latin) where we are betwixt and between the familiar and the completely unknown.

There alone is our old world left behind, while we are not yet sure of the new existence. That’s a good space where genuine newness can begin. Get there often and stay as long as you can by whatever means possible. It’s the realm where God can best get at us because our false certitudes are finally out of the way.

The invitation of faith is unnerving. Anything received without merit demands we leave the moorings we have always relied upon in order to discover a world yet unknown. Rohr concludes:

Because we have avoided liminal space, we have created a very smug and middle class kind of Christianity that has little wisdom or compassion to offer the world today. Much of the work of authentic spirituality and human development is to get people into liminal space and to keep them there long enough that they can learn something essential and new….

Most of us cannot run off to the wilderness or the hermitage forever. But spiritual traditions offer temporary and partial liminality in experiences like pilgrimages, urban plunges into different levels of society, silent retreats, extended periods of fasting, solitude in nature, and sacred times like Lent and Ramadan. There has to be something different and daring, even nonsensical, to break our comfortable sleepwalk and our compulsive cultural trance. Mere piety will never do it.

Prayer: The Request for Presence

Your word is a lantern to my feet and a light upon my path. — Psalm 119.105

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phylis Tickle

Full prayer available online and in print.

Today’s Reading
Genesis 24 (Listen – 9:42)
Matthew 23 (Listen – 4:53)

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