Sunday, January 29, 2012

Make A Little Tabernacle in Your Soul

In the very start of those strange, exotic, "eXtreme" days known as the '90s, a quirky little band called They Might Be Giants released a nigh-nonsenical song entitled "Birdhouse in Your Soul" (paired with an incomprehensible video).


The song is sung from the point of view of a nightlight in the shape of a blue canary belonging to what seems to be a very lonely child.  The aforementioned nightlight asks the child, in the chorus, to "make a little birdhouse in your soul," so that the child will carry the memory of the luminous bird wherever he goes.

While having a birdhouse in our souls would not be conducive to the spiritual life (unless you think of it as a birdhouse for housing the Holy Spirit in the form a dove), what would be conducive is a tabernacle.  The concept of keeping a perpetual space for the Lord within our hearts is one I wrote about before, in my post on the teachings of Ven. Clara Fey.  She wrote,

"Our Lord does not wish to dwell in us in a transient way through Holy Communion. No, His spiritual dwelling in us should be continual. He remains in us."

In another place, she wrote that our hearts should remain "like sanctuary lamps before the tabernacle."  St. Faustina agrees with this idea, commenting how she set up a "little cell" in her heart to keep continual company with Christ.  Yet these two are not the only spiritual writers to discuss this idea: in the Eastern tradition, this is a common theme.

For instance, St. Ephrem the Syrian (a Doctor of the Church who should be read much more than he is) compares to a "heavenly angel" he who "stands at prayer in service to God all times has pure thoughts" and "who always retains in himself remembrance of God" (Ps 1).  He also exhorts,

"Let us stand vigilant at the Bridegroom's door, that we might enter with the Bridegroom into His bridal chamber and inherit eternal life" (Ps 91).

While St. Ephrem's quotes may refer a bit more to just diligent vigilance in prayer rather than the concept of an oratory in our souls, St. John Climacus refers to the concept more specifically:

"The cell of a hesychast is the body that surrounds him, and within him is the dwelling place of knowledge" (Step 27).

St. Symeon the New Theologian, likewise, prays (referring to Jn 15:4), "Abide even in me, as You have said, so that I, too, may become worthy of abiding in You, and may then consciously enter into You and consciously possess You within myself" (Ethical Discourses V).  This concept of the continual abiding of the Lord within us is often linked with monasticism, as when the same saint writes, "The monk is one who is not mixed with the world and always converses with God alone" (Hymns on Divine Eros 3:1-2).

Indeed, monks are called to continual prayer: "The true monk should have prayer and psalmody continually in his heart" (Abba Epiphanius, Bishop of Cyrus, Saying 3).  They are called to stillness and complete focus on God by remaining in their cells: "Remain sitting in your cell and your thoughts will come to rest" (Anonymous Saying 66);"Watching means to sit in the cell and be always mindful of God" (Abba John the Dwarf, Saying 27).  In all, these teachings of watchfulness and silence (the translation of the Greek word ἡσυχια, hesychia, from which "hesychasm" comes) are summed up in the famous exhortation of St. Paul (1 Thess 5:17):

Αδιαλειπτως προσευχεσθε.

Pray unceasingly.

What do all these teachings do for those in the world?  These are teachings for monks, not for laymen: we do not have the luxury of living constantly in a cell.  That is why we use the above quote from St. John Climacus to help us: "The cell of a hesychast is the body that surrounds him."  Though we cannot stay in a cell all the day long, we never leave our bodies (unless you can astrally project, but that's a whole other issue).  Thus inside our hearts we can set up a cell (as St. Faustina said), a sanctuary, a tabernacle, where can constantly be with the Lord.  When the Lord abides in our hearts, then we will be abiding in His.

In conclusion, let us not make a birdhouse in our souls, as They Might Be Giants suggests, but instead let us make a little tabernacle in our souls.  After all, as Ven. Clara Fey said, "The Lord is in the tabernacle only that He may enter our hearts": let us then have a place prepared for Him, so that He may abide in us, and so that we may always be like "heavenly angels," "vigilant at the Bridegroom's door."

St. Ephrem the Syrian, Harp of the Holy Spirit, pray for us!

Nota Bene: Sources for the quotes from Ven. Clara Fey and St. Faustina can be found on my post on Mother Fey.  Quotes from St. Ephrem are from A Spiritual Psalter, or Reflections on God excerpted by Bishop Theophan the Recluse, translated by Antonina Janda, published by St. John of Kronstadt Press.  The quote from St. John Climacus is from Paulist Press' edition of his The Ladder of Divine Ascent, translated by Colm Luibheid and Norman Russell.  The quotes from St. Symeon the New Theologian are from editions of his works published by St. Vladimir's Seminary Press: Ethical Discourses V is in On the Mystical Life, Vol. II, translated by Fr. Alexander Golitzin, and the Hymns on Divine Eros are translated by Daniel Griggs.  The quotes from Abba Epiphanius and Abba John the Dwarf are from Sr. Benedicta Ward's translation of The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, published by Cistercian Publications, Inc.The anonymous saying is from Sr. Benedicta Ward's translation of The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers, published by SLG Press.

No comments:

Post a Comment