When teaching my personal development course called ‘Ordinary Hero’ I show the students a picture of an ancient tree and explain how our lives have three levels: the branches and leaves represent our everyday concerns — our daily worries, joys, tasks and choices. The trunk of the tree symbolizes our conscious beliefs and values. We can discuss our religious and moral principles, our political convictions and the ideas and philosophy that drive us. Our beliefs, like the tree trunk, support the branching out of our daily lives. However, the part of us which supports it all is the roots. Buried below the ground, the root system is as wide reaching and complex as the branches and leaves. Because the roots are underground we can’t reach them, and yet they are the most important part of the tree because it is from the roots that the rest of the tree is nourished. If the roots are sick, the rest of the tree will languish.
So in our lives, it is the deep unseen part of us which supports our outer life. Some people call this the ‘subconscious’. This suggests a ‘basement level’ of our lives which is somehow inferior or undeveloped. I prefer to call this the ‘root level’ of our lives for instead of being a dull, empty basement the subconscious is a rich, living and mysterious treasure house of memories, connections, emotions and longings. Here is where we connect not only with our own memories, but the echoes of ancestral voices. Here we connect with the deep yearnings and mysterious meanings of the whole human race. Here we connect with the saints and angels. Here we connect with the symbolism of dreams, the terror of the night and the unspoken joys of morning. Here we feel the hope of life, the fear of death, the delight of love and the loneliness of despair.
Like a tree with a good root system, this level of life can be healthy and life giving, or it can be diseased and cause pain and suffering in our everyday life. The root level can be diseased in many different ways. Habitual sin will seep down and poison the roots. Abuse and trauma from the past can leave a kind of festering canker in the roots which exudes poison into our lives. Violence, addiction and hatred from past generations can lurk at the root level producing a kind of ‘background poison’ which interferes with our peace and happiness.
What can be done? How can we get down to the root level of our lives to put things right? Counseling can help, but the best counselor in the world does not have many tools to dig deep down into the root level of our lives. Not only is this level buried below the level of our everyday existence, but the root level is sub-linguistic. In other words, it exists below the level of language. We can’t really talk about what goes on at that level using ordinary words and concepts. The language of the root level is the language of symbols and dreams — feelings and emotions that are too deep and mysterious and irrational for words. This is because many of the memories and feelings in the root level remain from the stage of our lives before language existed — the primitive stages of our development — our infancy and even before we were born.
This is where our Catholic faith proves to be deep and beautiful beyond words. Through the practice of our faith we actually, in a very simple and natural way open our hearts to the healing that Christ wants to bring. One of the ways we penetrate down to the root level of our lives is through ritualistic actions and words. When we repeat the same words and actions that have deep meaning we move past the mental concerns of our everyday lives and go down deep. The liturgy, when it is celebrated ritualistically, takes us into a deeper participation in God’s love.
The repetitious words of the liturgy take us beyond their surface meaning to a deeper level. This is why it is important that the priest recites the words formally and keeps to the words of the liturgy and does not add his own ‘reflections’ or that he does not alter the words to make them ‘more meaningful’. This is why the clergy and altar servers perform their actions in a ritualistic, careful and formal way. When we hear the liturgical words and see the formal, ritualistic actions we are sending our roots rain. This ritual action and these ritual words take the words to the realm beyond words so that our roots can be healed by grace, and this is why weekly Mass is so important — because we need to send our roots rain on a regular basis.
This is also why the holy rosary is such a healing prayer. In my book Praying the Rosary for Inner Healing I explain how the repetitious prayers of the rosary help to take us past the surface meaning of the words to a deeper, more meditative level of our minds and hearts. As we do, we experience the mysteries of the gospel at the root level, and the joys and sorrows, the light and glory of Christ and his blessed mother touch the deepest area of our lives bringing healing, joy and peace in a way that is beyond words.
The final, and most effective way of allowing the light and peace of Christ to penetrate down to that root level which is beyond words is to enter into wordless prayer. This is what we call ‘contemplation’ — in which we sit in silence in God’s presence. It takes time and practice and patience to learn contemplative prayer, but once we do the effects in our lives are powerful. The best form of contemplative prayer is adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. As we behold the face of Christ in his sacramental presence we behold the source of light, healing and peace. Through silent contemplation we enter into the wordless realm. In a way beyond our explanation we experience the powerful presence of Christ at the very deepest level of our existence, and as our roots receive this rain from heaven the rest of our being will flourish, and we will grow into the abundant life that Christ promises.
Fr. Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina. His latest book is “The Romance of Religion“. Visit his blog, browse his books at dwightlongenecker.com.
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