The Light Shed by the Canaanite Woman
The most difficult part of Lectio Divinais to know what action depends on us and then how to implement it. It, in fact, covers the first request we make when we say: « Lord, tell me what you want from me? », and then hearing the answer.
Asking depends on us and seems harsh, difficult even arduous. What, however, is the relationship between asking and receiving an answer? Is there a way of asking? Is there a degree of intensity needed? By implementing certain conditions, can we really trigger Jesus’ answer? Are we putting an unneeded pressure on Him, forcing Him to respond, or are we ourselves supposed to create this pressure? In the main book on Lectio Divina (“Lectio Divina at the School of Mary”) it is said that this pressure is not only necessary but that it has an reason: it does not annoy the Lord, but instead it creates a needed space in us for the reception of his Word.
Two drawings have been used to illustrate what we are supposed to do in order to receive the word, and to show the intensity of the begging. The first one appears in the main book mentioned above and the second in an article on the website.
The needed purity that allows us to receive the Word of God has also been underlined and explained. Purity is the condition of receiving the Word of God, the condition of being heard by the Lord. “Blessed the pure of heart, for they will see God” (Mt. 5). Purity is to put Him and His healing Word in first place in our life. It is to consider Him really in our heart as our real and only God! A sincere heart knows how many other gods live in us! This is why, every day, by putting Him above everything else in our heart, above any other god, we perform a renewed act of purity that attracts the Word of the Lord to us. This act of purity, or humility or of humbling ourselves, or begging (it is all one), attracts the Lord to our heart, whereby we create a real pure space for Him. Nothing is done once and for all time, however, which is why, every day, for a new Word to be received, we must renew this act of purity. This act costs us everything, again, every day. God is God, and He should be treated as God. Lectio is not an intellectual game or a fun toy to use every day. It is serious, and it deals with serious matters: our transformation! Nothing else matters in our day! Progress, spiritual growth, managed by Jesus Himself is fundamental.
General Help and Particular Help of the Grace of God
Like any other virtue humility has two aspects. One depends on us and the other one on God. Here we will be addressing the acts of humility that depend on us. It is worth adding that to say “depend on us” never means not to be counting on the Grace of God. In fact, Faith and Theology teach us that the general help of the Grace of God precedes our action always. And any good we can do starts always from God. What “depends on us” can only be done by leaning on the “General help of the Grace of God” which is always given to us. Becoming aware of the pre-existence of this type of Grace of God given to us, then, is fundamental, because we need to use it. Thus, simply knowing that it is given to us should result in the natural reaction of implementing it. Since it is given to us and is constantly available, if we do not use it we will lose it. As we will see below, more importantly we will lose the opportunity of obtaining the “specific help of the grace of God”.
Here we would like to address a section of the science of the “general help of the grace of God” and its use. How to use the “general help”, and to which extent. What is at stake with the “general help” and what is its relationship with the “particular help of the grace of God”? In fact, there is a vital relationship between them: the first leads to the second and is a condition for triggering the second. Therefore, not having full personal and practical clarity for each of the faithful concerning the general help (and its relationships with the “particular help”), inflicts great loss in the spiritual life as St. Teresa of Avila underlines in her Autobiography, Chapter 14 paragraph 6 (see below).
It is true that for some the use of the “general help” and “particular help” could be seen as restricted to practise of the Prayer of the Heart only. This is not the case, in fact the entire practical implementation of the Grace of God is governed by them. As a consequence, their functioning and mechanism is present in each and every spiritual act that puts the human being in direct contact with God. Lectio Divina being part of these spiritual acts. Whoever practises it needs to understand with incisive clarity this teaching about the relationship between the two types of help of the grace of God. This is what we will try to do.
In her writings, St. Teresa of Avila mentions the “General help” and the “Particular help” of the Grace of God: “For many purposes it is necessary to be learned; and it would be very useful to have some learning here, in order to explain what is meant by general or particular help (for there are many who do not know this) and how it is now the Lord’s will that the soul should see this particular help (as they say) with its own eyes; and learning would also serve to explain many other things about which mistakes may be made.” (Life14,6; see Third Mansions 1,2 as well; Fifth Mansions 2,3)
She will then explain that in order to practise the “prayer of recollection” we need to use the “general help” of the Grace of God that is constantly being given to us. And that in the “Prayer of Quiet”, we receive the “particular help” of the Grace of God that is supernatural (Fourth Mansions 1,1) i.e. infused. Of course, St. Teresa of Avila’s explanations are essentially given for the practice of the Prayer of the Heart. However, we need to see how they apply to Lectio Divina.
These notions of general and particular help of the grace of God belong to the Theology of Grace that one covers while doing the basic four years of Theology. For instance, St. Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologica, I-II Q.109 a. 6, addresses this issue. He mentions two needs: one is the main need, which is to receive the Grace of God. For Lectio Divina it will be listening and understanding the Word that Jesus gives us every day; this can only happen with the direct and personal intervention of the Holy Spirit. Remember that Lectio Divina is like a small Annunciation. And that in order to have the incarnation of the Word in Mary (and a word in us) She needed the direct and personal intervention of the Holy Spirit: “how will this happen?” She asks. The angel explains: “the Holy Spirit…”
St. Thomas continues: “and the second [need] precedes it: to prepare ourselves to receive this first and main Grace”. We need this second grace in order to receive the first and main grace. Since the grace that prepares us leads us to the main Grace, “knowing the existence of this preparative grace, and learning how to use it” are decisive and vital for all our spiritual life, worship and Christian life.
This preparative grace is the “general help of the Grace of God” that we use in the Prayer of Recollection, to get closer to God, offering ourselves to Him, putting ourselves into the Hands of God. For whoever is acquainted with the diagrams of the Prayer of the Heart (see book “Praying with the heart: The little Way to Jesus” by Jean Khoury), the general help of the Grace of God is used by us to move in the water, so to speak, from the bottom of the sea to the surface, offering ourselves to Jesus/Mary. To use a more common teaching from the Gospel, it is the general common grace given to us that helps us “ask”, “knock”, “seek”… the Holy Spirit, a Word from God…as Jesus invites us to do.
In the Prayer of the Heart, the Main grace mentioned by St. Thomas Aquinas, that is, the particular help of the grace of God, is when Jesus comes, takes us and places us within Him: this is the main action of the Holy Spirit that puts us in a direct and personal relationship with the Risen Lord.
St. Thomas Aquinas’ article is meant to answer this question: “Whether a man, by himself and without the external aid of grace, can prepare himself for Grace?” (Summa Theologica., I-II Q.109 a. 6) Let us examine St. Thomas’ answer in detail: he begins, “I answer that, The preparation of the human will for good is twofold” He will then explain the existence of two types of graces. One is the main grace we need, i.e. the intervention of the Holy Spirit in us and the other one prepares us to receive the main grace.
1- The main Grace, the infused one: this one is the one we need and await in order to “enter in God” (merit eternal life). This is the particular help of the Grace of God that places us within Him.
2- and the other grace is the one that prepares us for it, that leads us to it, that helps our free will to choose God, go toward Him in order to receive his grace. This is the “general help of the Grace of God”, that leads us to the “border” or “meeting point”, that “prepares us”, makes us ready to receive the Main grace.
As one can see, the second leads to the first one. In Lectio Divina, one cannot separate the “begging” effort (“Prayer”) from God’s answer (“Contemplation”). One is ordered to the other.
Let us now read St. Thomas’ key passage where he describes in fact “Contemplation” or better said: the personal and direct intervention of the Holy Spirit: “the first [grace], whereby it is prepared to operate rightly and to enjoy God; and this preparation of the will cannot take place without the habitual gift of grace, which is the principle of meritorious works, as stated above.” Without this Grace we cannot be introduced into God, drink God, “enjoy God” and “operate rightly” in Him, listen properly to the Word of God. This is the Main Grace we need from God. Now, how can we receive this grace? This is the central issue of this article. Do we need the help from God to receive the Main infused supernatural Grace?
This article is a key article. Because our spiritual life is about receiving “Grace upon Grace” (John 1), and the question is: how can we receive the Grace? How can we prepare ourselves? Here comes St. Thomas’ reply: “There is a second way in which the human will may be taken to be prepared for the gift of habitual grace itself. Now in order that man prepare himself to receive this gift, it is not necessary to presuppose any further habitual gift in the soul, otherwise we should go on to infinity. But we must presuppose a gratuitous gift of God, Who moves the soul inwardly or inspires the good wish.” This is the key phrase, “a gratuitous gift of God”. This gratuitous gift is constantly given, to everybody, it is the “general help of the grace of God” that St. Teresa of Avila mentions.
We can complete this with his reply to the 4th objection: “4: It is the part of man to prepare his soul, since he does this by his free-will. And yet he does not do this without the [general] help of God moving him, and drawing him to Himself, as was said above.”
As we can see: it is our part to “prepare ourselves” in the sense of: “to go inwardly” as he stated, to get closer to the meeting point where we are supposed to receive the main grace. Begging with all our heart, creating a space in us for the Word of God, performing an act of “humbling ourselves” is done by the “general help of the grace of God”. This is the main arduous effort in the practice of Lectio Divina. It has to be done, otherwise, the direct and personal action of the Holy Spirit does not work.
Lectio’s Act of Humility
“Act of Humility” here means: the act of humbling ourselves, lowering ourselves, bowing. It is a descent into oneself that only we ourselves can bring about, a descent that depends on us. The general help of the grace of God is offered to us constantly. During Lectio Divina it is necessary to use the general help of the grace of God, a grace that is offered to us continuously, in order to allow Lectio to function. This part depends on us as we go about our meeting with the Lord who desires so much to talk to us.
This act of lowering ourselves, therefore, is necessary because it prepares the place that the Word will occupy. This descent, or lowering of ourselves, greatly enhances the intensity of our begging. Once the intensity crosses the red line so to speak, we can consider that we have reached the degree of preparedness of Our Lady, and in this way the Word will come to dwell in us without hesitation. This act of humility or lowering has in itself some of that “aggressiveness” or “violence” to it which the Gospel talks about. “to enter by force” into the Kingdom in fact means to make full use of the General help of the Grace of God, to the limits of the act, where its fruitfulness is capable of seducing God, i.e. triggering the Action of the Holy Spirit. “violent people seize it [the kingdom of God]by force”(Matthew 11,12) Entering the kingdom, thus, means to win the Special help of the grace of God.
A very humble Carmelite Father with great experience in the spiritual life, said one day that humility had in itself some sort of aggressiveness. At first glance it is difficult to understand such a statement, for how can humility and aggressiveness be united?!
Does the Gospel mention this act of lowering oneself? Yes, many times we hear the Scriptures inviting us to lower ourselves, saying that God gives his grace to the humble (James 4:6.10, 1 Peter 5:5; Proverbs 3:34; and Mathew 23:12)! This shows that something is within our capability and should be done. We have a choice to make and it is in Our Lady that we can find the most wholesome example. We can also find it partially realised in different people in the Gospel.
Let us take for example the Canaanite woman and let us closely consider her persistence, this sort of stubbornness, in her request! We have the impression that nothing can stop her as she moves swiftly toward her goal: to save her daughter who is ill. She does what depends on her, and she does it to the maximum and therefore she will reach the red line mentioned above, i.e. the line where we start to seduce Christ, to win Him. In another passage of the Gospel we hear praise given by Jesus to the faith of a Centurion and I think that it applies also and perfectly to this amazing woman: “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.” (Luke 7:9) Here are the two accounts of the Canaanite.
Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”
23Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”
24He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
25The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.
26He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
27“Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
28Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.
“Jesus left that place and went to the vicinity of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret. 25In fact, as soon as she heard about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an impure spirit came and fell at his feet. 26The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter.
27“First let the children eat all they want,” he told her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
28“Lord,” she replied, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
29Then he told her, “For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.”
30She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.”
Let us examine the stages of this arduous dialogue between this woman and the different people who surround her, for this dialogue sheds an important light on our practice of Lectio Divina.
1a-First, we have the spontaneous attitude of the woman: she shouts her request in the midst of the crowd to make herself heard by Jesus: “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”Let us notice that she says: “have mercy on me” (not on my daughter)
1b-Jesus’ answer: nothing.
2a-Secondly, she continues her shouting and begging, harassing the Disciples.
2b-Finally, they end up by talking about her to Christ: Heal her, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”She certainly follows what is happening and hopes that through their intercession Jesus will finally listen. She awaits an answer from Jesus. The answer comes and is extremely harsh, severe, dry, almost insulting: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”She is excluded, she is nothing in His eyes. Her cause seems to be lost. This is the end. Humanly speaking. Nobody knows that the Lord is testing her to show us the extent of her faith, to give us through her an amazing example.
3a-What is her reaction? She drops it? She loses hope? No!
1- this time she herself approaches Him with no fear!
2- she kneels in front of Jesus (lowering herself, recognising who He is) and says
1- “Lord, help me!”
3b-Does anything change here? No, Jesus, in an apparent very stubborn way reiterates his rejection of the woman: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”“dogs”! In this culture a dog in the street, an abandoned dog, is nothing! It is a great insult! Jesus is excluding her, stating that she is not Jewish, and even more, he considers her as a dog! We who are created in the image and likeness of God, are now being compared by Jesus to animals! It is really too much! He is trying her faith! A second rejection! Will she surrender?
4a-No. She will find a way to Jesus’ heart, almost quoting him and returning his words to Him. Accordingly, she lowers herself, she humbles herself, swallows her pride and renews her demand: “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
4b-She wins the Lord over. “Woman, […] Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.
The praise given to her by Jesus should impress itself on our minds: “Woman, you have great faith!”. The act of faith, or more exactly the repeated acts of faith depend on whom? On what? This is the heart of the issue. We have three obstacles opposing her request, harsh obstacles and humanly insurmountable. Strangely, she will surmount them. Let us see what she will do in order to do so.
1- First she has the noise of the crowed, not directly mentioned by the text, but easily deduced from it: she shouts, and repeats her shouts with insistence.
2- She seeks the help of the disciples, insisting, not leaving them in peace until they react. They talk to the Lord.
3- With great courage, she goes directly to the Lord. She lowers herself, and kneels or prostrates herself, recognises his greatness, his power and divinity. She is not a Jew! She humbles (humiliates) herself accepting to be treated as a dog, and her actions showing she is considering the Jews to be her masters!
As an aside here, it is worth noting that if we look closely, there is certainly room for greater psychological analysis of this complex passage.
The first obstacle can be seen as the thoughts of the crowd! What the crowd thinks! The second obstacle is the thoughts of the disciples! And finally, the third obstacle is an apparent thought of Christ (a fake one). These are all like layers of thoughts that Faith has to pierce! Three obstacles to cross! They are a little bit like the three first soils of the parable of the Sower (see Matthew 13).
The most important teaching we gather from this Gospel passage, then, seems to be that in our dialogue with God we need to be aware that something very important depends on us. It applies of course when we deal with the Word of God in the Scriptures – as we do in Lectio Divina. There is a “violence” done to ourselves (a forcing of ourselves) that needs to be implemented in order to fulfil what depends on us. Had we been submitted to such resistance from God while doing Lectio Divina, being at the receiving end of total silence from God, we would have abandoned our request half way! We would never obtain the healing! Lectio would never function! We need to contemplate, mediate with great seriousness on the example of this Woman in order to understand ourselves, and the different layers we often imagine. It is our heart of stone that projects an image of God that has nothing to do with who He is and is a serious hindrance to the process of listening to God during Lectio Divina.
We need to notice how the Canaanite women interacted with Jesus: she had a series of obstacles. At each obstacle, she had a choice to make: either to renounce or to fight back, surmount the obstacle and win! With the general help of the grace of God given to her, she did great violence to herself various times, and each time she needed greater strength than the previous one.
She asks, and each time she uses greater humility! The paradox is that the insistence of this woman, instead of being arrogant and pretentious, becomes humbler each time! She creates in herself a greater space in order to receive the miraculous action of Christ, i.e. the direct and personal action of the Holy Spirit. Thus, we can, without hesitation, say about her: “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.” (Luke 7:9)
Here what is certainly being discussed is faith – the act of faith – but we are addressing the quality of the Act of Faith! A powerful faith, humble, which obliterates “self” and leaves room for Christ’s Action only. She knows that Jesus can do it; she knows that if He wants to do it, He has the power to do so. We know that Jesus came to heal the wounded, came to save the lost and the ones who have gone astray: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” (Matthew 9:12) But in this passage of the Gospel Jesus wants to teach us something fundamental in the Spiritual Life and in order to do so, He puts on trial the faith of this woman to teach us the lesson on how to beg for the Word of God, how to go to the deepest level of our relationship with God, and not to be content with the external layer of the Word of God and of the perceptions we have of it.
At the level of the work of the Grace of God, these repeated acts of faith, this insistence, are of such “violence” and “aggressiveness” that we are stunned! The woman is of such humility, always going deeper and greater. By her insistence in trying to obtain the Grace, she is in fact creating in herself the space in order to receive the Grace. This depends on her because the general help of the grace of God is being given all the time to all of us. This is the reason why we have this passage and this Gospel lesson. Here we have a great lesson in needing to know what depends on us, in needing to know the Lord in truth, to know what He wants to give us! And we need to prepare ourselves, with “violence” in order to receive Him. He has taught us how to ask for our “daily bread” (his Word), but the quality of the demand depends on us. Totally. In a way the outcome of Lectio Divina depends on us in the majority of the cases. In sum, the great secret in our dealings with God is to know and work upon this knowledge that the “general help of the Grace of God” is given to us all the time! It depends on us to learn to use it and not to hesitate to use it to the full in order to bear fruit.
Word Against Word; Thought Against All Thought
Faith is a thought, a word upon which we lean in order to go to its object, that is, the contents meant by the word. In the beginning of the account of the Canaanite woman, we have the thoughts of the Crowd (even if the crowd is only implicit in the text). Then we have the thoughts of the disciples. Finally, we have Christ’s thoughts (divided into two categories: what we think they are, and what they truly are). The repeated acts of faith of the woman cross and pierce these layers of thought and each time go beyond them.
In fact, we can say that in order to make these acts of faith we have thought against thought. A real battle! One word against another. This is how our faith is guided: the thoughts that are leading it, that offer it content.
Isn’t this what we do when we practise Lectio Divina? At each stage of it we fight thoughts that are contrary to true Faith. And in these battles, we are invited to offer a stronger thought, like a counter-offensive. Thus, we read the Sacred Texts of the two readings, and re-read them. At each level of reading we are faced with thoughts, we ripen these thoughts, a form of word from God but not yet the right one. Either we surrender, or we counter-attack, and win! It is a battle of words, of levels of depth of words! And we are searching for the True Word, the precious Pearl, and not just apparent words which are trying to convince us, selling us their thoughts or their merchandise. It is like an arm-wrestling tournament! Who will win!
Indubitably Lectio is a battle camp and we need to go for it, to fight, ready to give our life for it. Dying to ourselves! Letting our ego die. Remember the Canaanite woman? She swallowed her ego!
Yes, faith is a thought that is deep, and it is fighting with thoughts that are less deep! To fight is a choice! We can easily see now how Faith contains some aggressiveness: acrimony – the conviction that one needs to win – pugnacity, combativeness, harshness. We cannot, however, outdo God in generosity.
During Lectio there are different types and levels of “reading” the same texts, and yet we are constantly dealing with the same texts! We re-read them relentlessly, as if we are expecting them to deliver new and mysterious sap to us! There are levels of reading! There is reading and reading! We have a reading which looks to understand objectively what the text says in itself. There is another reading after it where we focus more and are healed, asking the Lord to tell us what He wants from us. There is a reading that insists with stubbornness until it reaches to the spiritual level (beyond the bark or the skin of the text): when the two texts speak and consequently say the same thing, because it is the Spirit who speaks and not the letter (“the letter kills but the Spirit gives life” (2 Co 3:6) “But whenever anyone turns to the Lord [whenever anyone believes], the veil is taken away.” (2 Co 3:16)) And finally, we have the final prostration where we insist on obtaining the clear light about ourselves and what we want to change – from being general the light becomes clear!
Lectio Divina is a series of battles one after the other and this last one makes us win the war! Whoever does not want to undergo these battles of Faith, cannot obtain the Victory. The latter is obtained by the tip of the sword of Truth (see Ephesians 6,17). We start lectio with false or superficial opinions on Faith, we aim and search for the Truth on ourselves and we do not stop until we reach it.
True humility is Truth (see St. Teresa of Avila)!
It is then an effort of preparing to receive the truth. It is an effort of descent into ourselves, digging a new space in ourselves for the Word. At the same time, it is an effort of entering into the text in-depth, going beyond the outer layer or skin of the text until we reach the juicy fruit, the Living Word who speaks through the Spirit.
Humility is to cross the false screens, the obstacles, in order to reach the heart of Truth. This too is the Act of Faith!
If we come back to the classic anthropological diagram describing the descent of the Word in our mind, we will notice the extremes of our mind: the upper more abstract part of it (the upper arrow) and the lower one, more concrete, touching our will almost (the lower arrow).
Between the two there is a journey of descent of Christ’s Word into our mind. The issue is its manifestation from a general light to a particular light that points toward our will, that invites us to make an act. We can consider that this journey of descent does not happen in one fell swoop! It is a journey full of obstacles to overcome, as we have just seen above with the Canaanite woman. The warfare that the Canaanite leads embodies the Lectio Divina warfare where Christ’s Word wants to give itself, descend into us! The Word does not descend automatically just because we opened the two texts of the day! On the contrary, the Word hides inside the texts waiting for us to create a space for it in us, waiting for us to go from one battle to the following until we reach it! One has to sell everything every day in order to buy the Pearl of great price (see Matthew 13:46)! It is by bowing deeply and without restraint that one can hear the Word. God hides! And we need to seek Him out! The Word of God is jealous, like the wisdom of God in the Old Testament books of wisdom, and it does not offer itself to the first comer. Only to the ones who ask for her with purity can find her!
We should now consider that the Canaanite woman is one who teaches us how to go from one stage to the next in our reading of the text! Levels of depths of the same texts! Not searching for quantity in the Sacred text but looking for new depth that the Spirit only can reveal.
As we have said above, while practising Lectio Divina we find the suggestion that we “read” of “reading” repeated four times. Each form of reading is different from the previous one:
To read in order to understand what the text says objectively.
To read in order to search for Christ’s will.
To read in order to find a word unique to both texts.
To reach in order to find the practical point that Christ want us to act upon.
To cross from one level to the other of these efforts of reading, going into greater depth, we do like the Canaanite woman: we set ourselves the goal of going deeper into ourselves, in order for Christ to reveal to us this part of Truth; of healing; this new act that He offers us and suggests we put into practice.
The following video addresses the Canaanite Woman:
8-9 August 2018, St Dominic & St Edith Stein
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