Sunday, June 18, 2006

The Priest & the Widow Who Spoke with God

I shared this story in a comment I made to Deb’s blog:

There was once a priest who was assigned to the parish of a small village. From the moment of his arrival, people told him that there lived in their village an elderly widow who spoke daily with God. This widow, they said, would not just pray, but she would ask God questions and God would immediately respond to her queries.

This bothered the priest. He said, “If God does not speak directly to me, a priest, how can God speak to this old widow?”

So the priest sought out the widow and asked her if what people said about her and her conversations with God was true. She affirmed that God conversed with her each day. The priest said to her, “Then the next time you speak with God, ask God to tell you my sins, for only God and my confessor know them.” The women agreed.

The next day the priest went to the woman. “Have you spoken with God since we talked yesterday?”

The woman said that she had.

“What did God tell you were my sins?” asked the priest.

The woman replied,”God said: ’Tell the priest that I have already forgotten his sins.'”

To me the idea that God keeps a list of our sins and checks it twice to see if we have been naughty or nice is pure heresy. God is not Santa Claus. The God that I know in Christ Jesus forgives us—and then forgives us again and again and again…and again. Perhaps we should do the same? (See Matt. 18: 21-22)


  1. Nick, your thoughts provoked an idea and maybe it's in the bible somewhere, but what if you didn't have to forgive? What if you didn't have to forgive, because you never condemned. Just a thought, but what if all these horrible things that are done to us and witnessed by us, are forgiven by God already and thus we don't need to condemn anyone? That may sound crazy, because everyone likes to quote the old testament in an "eye for an eye", but what if there was a bigger picture and kinder one?
    Just a thought.

  2. PEACH: Thank you. Now you are hitting on what is really the biggest picture. What if the Christian God were not a judgmental, condemning and punishing God? What if the God of ALL religions was truly a loving, gracious, up-lifting, just, and smiling God? What if the religious words such as “sin” and “judgment” and “punishment” and “forgiveness” were terms of what has been called the lower “levels of faith” and were unnecessary in the higher levels—the levels of true enlightenment?

    Baseline: what if God does not judge or condemn us; we do not judge or condemn others; we do not judge or condemn ourselves?

    Think of the possibilities of that kind of world!

  3. So Nick, what would the possibilities be? Why do you suppose we have to be so critical and negative at times? Why can't we let go?

  4. PEACH: I believe that there are numerous possibilities. Caroline Myss, in her book “Why People Don’t Heal” suggests that people hold on to their wounds because they have come to be defined by their wounds. Someone “hurt our feelings” and we won’t let go of that wound. I think she may have something there.

    The Bible would suggest that fear is the driver for our criticalness and negativity—fear of people different from ourselves, fear of the unknown, fear of change. Perhaps that’s why the words “Be not afraid” or variations of that phrase appear so often in scripture.

    What do you suggest is behind it?

  5. Nick, I don't study the bible much, but I do believe in God. I think sometimes we believe that somehow we are separate from God or the universe or creation and that causes us suffering. I think we kind of feel like it's "us against them" whoever "them" is. Maybe we are afraid. Afraid to accept that we're all connected someway and that the powerful things that happen to us (good & bad), happened for a reason or an education. Maybe we've believed so long in "sin" that we can't really see anything else. I'd like to open my heart to a different path because frankly, this "sin" thing is getting kind of old.

  6. Loved the story.

    Let me pick your brain for a moment if you don't mind. I was told, and someone else reconfirmed, that you must acknowlege your anger at someone (in this case it was rape) in order to forgive them. I've never understood this. What do you think?

  7. Sonson, not sure there are rules on forgiveness. But it seems that feeling the anger and acknowledging it would make it a faster road to recovery. If the feelings are sat upon, it's been my experience that they only fester and get worse with time.

  8. PEACH: There are elements of Christianity—of all religions—that are not contained in their “holy books.” For example, the spirituality of the Christian “Desert Fathers,” Sufi Islamic spirituality, the Jewish kabbalah, etc. These go way beyond the words in the canonical scriptures of these religions.

    To my understanding, none of spiritual practices place God beyond human reach. Sometimes the reality of God’s presence even slips into the canonical books, as when the Gospel of Luke has Jesus say “…in fact, the kingdom of God is among you." (Luke 17:21b) The Greek word that is translated as “among” can also be translated as “within.” That to me is the better translation of the Greek into English: ‘the kingdom of God is within you.”

    I think that fear is a great motivator. That adrenalin that comes with being threatened or afraid is both good and evil: it can enable people to defend their family or attach their neighbors, save a life or lynch a man.

    The “sin thing” has been overplayed by some elements of all of the desert religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. During my years of ministry I never emphasized the “sin thing” to the point that one of my parishioners, who had be raised in a Christian fundamentalist church, told me that there was something wrong with my worship services because she left worship feeling good and uplifted and she was supposed to leave worship feeling “convicted of her sins.” I accepted her words as a compliment!

    SONSON: I suppose my first thought is: if there is no anger—if one does not feel he or she has been wounded by another—what is there to forgive? Beyond that, I would say that we need to acknowledge the pain we have to ourselves, but not necessarily to the other person.

    For example, I once worked with a woman who had been sexually exploited and abused by her mother (who began prostituting her when she was about 5 years old). When she came to me for therapy, I observed this woman was in a very severe depression and, after a while, suggested that the root of that depression was the anger she held within herself over the sexual exploitation.

    This woman could express her anger at the men who paid her mother for having sex with her, but she couldn’t express anger at her mother. She could never confront her mother about what had been done to her because her mother had been murdered when this woman was about 13 years old. She was now in her late 30s and had been holding in the anger all of those years.

    It took her over two years of therapy by me and a psychiatrist before she was able to express her anger at her mother. It took another three years before she was able to forgive her mother.

    I’ve heard it said that forgiveness is the last element of the healing process and that many wounded people never get to that point. And, I truly believe, that is OK. We each can go only as far as we are able.

    PEACH: I agree there are no rules for forgiving; we each have our own way and can go only as far as far as we are able.

  9. Nick you sure have a lot of knowledge. Thank you for sharing it. I hope your clients appreciate it. :)
    Regarding the kingdom being within us, I agree. I just don't always remember and that I think, is what causes the suffering. To be frank, I am not even certain what it feels like. I have had many feelings covering the spectrum, but not certain of which one is the "kingdom". Maybe it is the one of calm, peace and a glimpse that everything is as it should be. That one doesn't last very long though.

  10. PEACH: Thank you.

    I, too, often forget about the kingdom within—or God or the Universal Spirit or whatever term one wants to use. Actually, when I am under a lot of stress, my remembrance of that is the usually the first casualty of the stress. I think that’s why people practice the so-called “spiritual disciplines” such as meditation, journaling, solitude, etc.—to help us remember who and what we are.

    My experience of the kingdom—of God—within is very simple: it is a feeling of all encompassing love—for the universe, for other people, for all creation, and for my self. When I meditate I center on that thought; for example, when I take a breath in, I say in my mind “peace” and when I breathe out, I say in my mind “love.”

  11. Nick, I appreciate what you say about the 'spiritual disciplines'. I wonder though, how do you (anyone) practice this when you are in a marriage, relationship, have kids or have a busy lifestyle? Does a choice have to be made everyday to observe the spiritual disciplines like brushing your teeth? How do you avoid the stress of feeling separate from God every day? It is so easy to focus on other people, things, attitudes. I wonder if you can know yourself by being in the midst of all the craziness. Buddha said something like there are many paths to the top of the mountain. I wonder.

  12. PEACH: You do well to wonder about where to find the time! I believe that unless one is in a monastery or on a retreat where the spiritual disciplines come first, finding the time is almost impossible.

    Since I have been doing this insurance gig, working 10-14 hour days, I’ve let my own spirituality slip. I realized that yesterday as I responded to your June 21 comments. And I am beginning to feel lousy—tense, on edge, as if there is no peace in my life.

    Wayne Dyre wrote that he get up at 4:00 a.m.—about the time of some monks—to meditate and exercise. I like that idea; however, since I arise at 5:00 to prepare for work, my body doesn’t.

    You are so right! The spiritual disciplines are like our grooming habits—brushing teeth, combing hair, showering—we have to find time for perform them if they are to benefit us.

    Yes, there are many paths to the mountain top of enlightenment. We each must find out own. Even when I let slide formal meditation and exercise, as I have the past few weeks, there are still practices that I habitually perform. One is the “light” prayer, that I blogged about some time ago. It’s a simple blessing for others and I say it many times as day: “May the holy light of God shine upon Peach for the greatest possible good.”

    I also use that little prayer in place of cursing people. For example, this morning a woman in a red sports car pulled our in front of me from a side street and I had to slam on the brakes of my CR-V. Instead of cursing at her, I simple prayed, “May the holy light of God shine upon the driver of that red sports car for the greatest possible good.”

    BTW, I did meditate and exercise this morning. Now if I can just again make it a daily habit I will feel much, much better about whom I am and what I am doing each day.

  13. Thank you for the blessing. It always helps! Well I am glad to know that I am not alone in reorganizing my priorities. I saw Wayne Dyer on PBS and he was very inspiring to me. I think we don't make spiritual disciplines a priority because we don't see the benefits right away. At least that's how I think. Childish I know, but as I get older I really have begun to see immediate and long lasting results. It is almost an incentive (like endorphins) to do it more often now. Funny how that works.

  14. PEACH: You are welcome. It is always my pleasure to do blessings.

    I have been reading Wayne Dyre since he wrote “Your Erroneous Zones” back in the 1970s. There is a line from that book that I once had made into a plaque and placed on my desk: “The essence of greatness is the ability to choose personal fulfillment in circumstances where other choose madness.” When I first read that I had no idea what he was saying. At first I thought that only a fool would choose madness over fulfillment; then I analyzed some of my own life choices and realized that, if my reasoning were valid, I must be a fool. That was the reason for putting the words in front of me on my desk.

    I agree with you that we do not make the spiritual disciplines a priority because we don't see the benefits immediately—sometimes we don’t see them for a very long time. There is a Zen story:

    Student: “I want to achievement enlightenment as quickly as I can. How long will it take me?”

    Master: “Twenty years.”

    Student: “If I sit Zazen (a form of meditation that is the heart of Zen practice) twice as often as every other student, how long will it take me?”

    Master: “Forty years.”

    Student: “If I sit Zazen three times as often as everyone else, how long will it take me?”

    Master: “Sixty years.”

    It is my experience that the process of the spiritual disciplines is a slow one and there are periods of back-sliding and frustration; that’s not how we Americans want things. We want immediate gratification. Maybe it is childish; if so, than most of us are very childish.

  15. Nick, do you think "organized" religion separates us? I mean the big picture; as a planet? Do you think spiritual disciplines somehow allow us to be what we want so we aren't "labeled"? I mean why do we have to belong to a religion in order to find God? If God is within, then (no offense-I mean no disrespect) aren't preachers, priests and bible thumpers just the middlemen?

  16. PEACH: What I am about to write is my own theology, informed of course by theological discourse through the centuries.

    Regarding “organized religion”—it has purposes, very important purposes. In Christianity, there are three hallmarks of the Universal Church.

    Worship (“leitourgia”—literally “the work of the people.”) is primary. Since the Christian God is a community—Trinity—worship of God is best done in a community. That doesn’t exclude personal spirituality; however, individual worship can never replace worship with the confessing community, which is called “the Body of Christ.”

    Service to others (“deaconia”—literally “one who serves” from which the church gets the term “deacon”) is the second priority. Individually I can serve another person; however, to be most effective, I need to work in conjunction with others—many others. The Civil Rights movement would have quickly fizzled out had it be one or even a dozen people standing in opposition to segregation and oppression. However, with the work of tens of thousands—millions—progress was made, even though we still have far to go.

    A Community of faith (“Koininia”—which means “community”) is the third Hallmark of the Church. It is in community that we are taught and nurtured, we mature and we share our joys and sorrows. The lack of a sense of community is what I find problematic about so-called “mega-churches” made up of tens of thousands of members.

    Personal spirituality has its place in each of these hallmarks; however, it cannot replace them. Likewise, personality spirituality really needs to be shred with other people. I may feel better about myself after I meditate or journal; however, I feel even more whole when I teach another or when I am taught by another.

    The baseline is that we do not have to belong to a religion to find God; however, we do need a community of faith in order to fully experience God.

    As for priests, rabbis, preachers, etc., each is a role. I am primarily a teacher in all of my roles, as Jesus and Buddha were teachers. There followers called Buddha “Master” (teacher) and Jesus was addressed as “rabbi,” which in Hebrew means “teacher.” My role as a teacher is to share my faith as well as the historical faith and beliefs with others. That’s what I do when I teach kids or adults. It is also what I do when I create a liturgy for worship or a sermon. I also act as a teacher when I accept into my arms a man who is HIV positive or into the church a woman who has been ostracized by her own religious community because she is divorced or a lesbian. I teach the ones I accept without judging them God’s unconditional love; I teach those who see me do it something about God’s love and pray that what they observe breaks down just a bit of their own fear and prejudice.

    I also have a priestly role. In ancient times the priest stood between God and the people because the people were afraid to face God. I don’t do that; rather, there are times when I “stand in” for God (which I realize is an arrogant absurdity). The idea behind it is that there are times when our lives when we need to be aware of God’s presence—in flesh and blood. A wedding is perhaps one of those times, as is a baptism or the mystery of the Eucharist. However, I have found the most important time that people need me in the priestly role is when they are sick, especially when they are dying. And, likewise, when one whom they have loved has died and there are in the midst of the grieving process.

    OK I really personalized that last part! At the same time I realize that are people who misuse the power pf ordination or priesthood or the pulpit. Those folks literally turn my stomach. I once heard a TV evangelist thank God that a tornado jumped over his multi-million dollar “prayer complex.” The S.O.B. said nothing about the lives lost when that same tornado struck a trailer court a short distance away.

    I hope that my again too long response has met the needs you expressed in your questions. If not, I’ll try again!

  17. Nick, thank you for the insight.

    I understand that we need community, worship and to be of service. We are in fact human and social creatures (herd animals of a sort). The great philosophers have always discussed this fact. I think more I was getting at the fact we seem to defend our beliefs to the bitter end in the name of religions, i.e Muslims, Catholics, Jews, etc. So I wonder how beneficial "organized" religion is. I understand that sheep need a shepherd, and perhaps that's the role of teachers (priests, rabbis, preachers, etc.).
    But I wonder if we will always have a need to defend our beliefs? Maybe it goes back to holding on to our wounds in order to belong or be identified. If enlightenment suggests an all-knowingness, then is there any need to defend a position? Why do we lack tolerance?

    What has to happen in order for us to accept others for who they are and not want to "mold" them to our way of thinking? I mean what makes one way of thinking any better than another? Is it because more people think it, so there is power in numbers?
    Buddha said "It is your mind that creates this world." So what are we creating by our divisions?

    Just some thoughts.

  18. PEACH: We humans seem to have this need to divide ourselves in “us versus them.” I have heard it described as a “tribal” urge and isn’t limited to religious differences. When I was eight years old, I lived on 43rd Street. That made me “different” from the kids who lived on Greenwood or Sunset. I had best not walk down either of those streets alone—which I did once and ended up with two Sunset kids holding me down while a third hit me in the head with a stick.

    Likewise with religions, ethnic and racial groups, nationalities, etc. There is an old joke that goes something like this:

    I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump. I ran over and said: "Stop. Don't do it."

    "Why shouldn't I?" he asked.

    "Well, there's so much to live for!"

    "Like what?"

    "Are you religious?"

    He said, "Yes."

    I said, "Me too. Are you Christian or Buddhist?"


    "Me too. Are you Catholic or Protestant?"


    "Me too. Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?"


    "Wow. Me too. Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?"

    "Baptist Church of God."

    "Me too. Are you original Baptist Church of God, or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?"

    "Reformed Baptist Church of God."

    "Me too. Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915?"

    He said: "Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915."

    I said: "Die, heretic scum," and pushed him off.

    I believe it is a sign of our maturity, both spiritual and emotional, if we are able to accept people who are different from us, no matter what the differences are. We I see the conflict and prejudice that are now raging in the world over sexual orientation, to give on example, I wonder if we will ever learn. It hasn’t been that long since the same debate was a Black-White conflict and a “are women intelligent enough to be allowed to vote conflict.” To me, the conflicts are all absurd, no matter what the “justification” claimed by the prejudiced.

    I think what must happen for humans to accept others as they are without trying to mold them into something they are not is that unconditional love must replace fear and intolerance within humankind. That’s a big order. It’s what makes Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan so powerful.

    I don’t think anything makes one way of thinking better than another, unless one of those ways of thinking causes pain or injury to other people or creation. I seldom use the word evil, but when I do I define it as “the intentional infliction of pain and suffering on another creature.” Of course, there are philosophies that deny that evil exists and there are groups that use the term to vilify other groups. I stick by my own definition and suggest some groups that call other groups “evil” are themselves evil.

    I agree that there is power in numbers. The outsider, the immigrant, the sojourner are all at a disadvantage. Perhaps that’s why the Old Testament laws offered special protection to the sojourners—the strangers—in the community. For example:

    "You shall not abhor an E'domite, for he is your brother; you shall not abhor an Egyptian, because you were a sojourner in his land.”

    "You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or to the fatherless, or take a widow's garment in pledge…”

    "When you reap your harvest in your field, and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow; that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.”

    The Buddha was right. When we create divisions between ourselves and others, we lessen ourselves. In that context, I see the significance and wisdom of the parable of The Last Judgment in the gospel of Matthew:

    "When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left.

    “Then the King will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.'

    “Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?

    “And the King will answer them, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.'

    “Then he will say to those at his left hand, 'Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.'

    “Then they also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?'

    “Then he will answer them, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.'

    “And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."

  19. Good thoughts to reflect upon. Thank you for sharing.