August 16, 2014

Transitions in Life and Prayer

Pope Francis suggests the writings of Anselm Gruen for spiritual readings.  Anselm Gruen is a Benedictine Monk familiar with Jungian psychology.  Although he appreciates the insights of psychology, he does not subordinate these to the truths of the faith.  

He does not propose that the trials of this life, like the mid-life crisis or other difficult moments of transition, are problems to be solved through self-realization and personal development.  Instead, Gruen presents them as moments in which God is to be glorified.  Psychology might help us appreciate new angles of the difficulties we face in our brief existence in this world, but it is not enough to content ourselves with simply mastering new life skills.  In fact, for the Christian, it is never enough to manage life circumstances.  Instead, we must discern the most appropriate way of serving the Lord in the midst of them.  

My verdict as I struggle with my own relocation to another state for another job: He is right!   The Lord stands in the midst of life's chaos, waiting to be discovered anew.   When I make time for prayer and when I renounce myself a little, just around the corner the glory of God begins to shine.   I cannot say that this is consoling.  But to live with this fulness of life even as waves of all kinds of uncertainties crash around us, this is to finally begin to thrive, to fully become what God made us to be.

Faith does not try to surmount life's challenges.  Nor does it seek an escape from the inevitable uncertainties and difficulties in which we find ourselves.  Faith is all about facing reality with humility and courage, and this especially when life's trials are the most challenging.  Every time life is turned upside down, faith propelled by God's love boldly enters into all the disturbing ambiguity and delights in a fuller and unique encounter with the living God manifest only there.   The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it -- this is not a static principle but a moment by moment mystery that is meant to explode into one's whole existence.

Making space in one's own life for this encounter requires prayer, fasting and asceticism, and this exactly at the moment when we want to run away and escape it all.  To this end, Father Anselm provides some good counsel in his work, Crisis and Opportunity in Midlife, Ligouri Press, (2006).
Thank you Pope Francis for recommending this spiritual writer.

July 6, 2014

Pilgrimage in Post-Christian Europe

Why are you on the way? This is a question I tried to ask and was frequently asked on the way.  The Europeans think that Americans are coming because of Martin Sheen.   It surprises them that I have come for traditional reasons-- to do penance for my sins and to pray for those I love.   Some of them then disclose that they are there for the same reasons...but only a very few.  

My favorite answer came from a small woman with a slow and painful limp from a far away and non-Christian country.  As her 500 mile trek of 35 days was coming to an end this morning, I caught up with her and asked her my question.  Annoyed at what should have been obvious to me, she retorted "Because it is there."

Like this woman, many on the way see the Camino as a physical feat like climbing a mountain.  Others enjoy meeting people from all over the world, even Americans like me. They are hungry for real connections.  There are also entertainment tourists, bon vivants, with an appetite for hedonistic pursuits.  Still others cannot or will not articulate what draws them... But something (or Someone) is.

I have wondered how to speak a word of truth, a true word of life into this.  It is more than a matter of knowing what to say and when to say it.   Sometimes, silence itself speaks more than any word conveys.  Early on, one pilgrim was annoyed when after rejecting my offer to help I told him he would be in my prayers.  Today when I saw him in the Cathedral, he spontaneously grabbed my hand and thanked me for my prayers.  Will there be moments like that in heaven?

There are moments of authenticity when a soul discloses itself.   These moments are more frequent on pilgrimage because it is demanding and we touch our poverty in the difficult situations that come up.   What reverence and respect is called for in these fleeting moments!   And yet the slightest gesture or simplest word plants a seed....a hope where it is most needed.

Pilgrimage in post-Christian Europe offers a moment of not only penance, but also evangelization.  Saint John Paul understood the importance of pilgrimage for the New Evangelization.  Pilgrimage to traditional holy places like the Cathedral of Santiago De Compostela reintroduces believers to their rich heritage of faith and opens up the soul to a deeper encounter with God.   At the same time, these traditional roads and places are filled with people drawn for reasons they do not know.  Some of my best conversations happened with these pilgrims.  I merely asked questions or offered to pray, but they disclosed a deep yearning and desire for answers for the questions of the heart.

July 4, 2014

Faith on the Way

What does a pilgrim find in Spain?

A land of paradox.   Extremely modern communist style apartments can rise above very ancient and warmer architectural forms on the same street.  Miles of the old primitive path are interrupted by brand new roads or in other places bordered by electric fences (a deterrent for livestock or pilgrims or both).   Beautiful silence is sometimes swallowed by the droning of "power generating" windmills.  The spirit of Don Quixote and the spirit of materialism, idealism and cynicism, faith and skepticism, ancient Catholicism and new religions of drug culture, simplicity of rural living and the complexity of over technologized souls, joy and sorrow; all of these movements one picks up on while treading the via primitiva.

Asturias was very beautiful but the chapels and sanctuaries were all locked or else in ruins.   This made finding a place for daily mass very difficult and, really, our greatest hardship.  Now in Galacia, chapels and masses are a little more available.

The other hardship which we are still contending with is the walk itself ... About 18 miles a day.  The body adjusts to this.   And there are only two days to go.  Still, more than half way and drawing closer to Santiago, I still find the last three miles always a little more difficult, but because of that, the very best for prayer.  

It is not a deep mental prayer of insight, or or delving introspection, but a prayer of intercession that comes easiest, "I offer this hundred yards  in reparation for the scandal I caused in the hearts of others...please let them know your love and draw them close to you even in the face of my failure to witness- because no matter how great my sin, your love is greater." 

Or else "remember my friend who died.  His life was filled with so much ambiguity and difficulty, but you were with him through it all. Now, as he stands before you, let this little act of love I offer with my feet open up the floodgates of your mercy on him."  

Or again, "I offer this stretch of path in thanksgiving for all the blessings you have lavished on meand my family.  I did nothing to deserve them.  But you blessed us anyway.  Let these steps be for your glory ..." 

The one phrase however that returns time and again is "Into your hands I commend my spirit.  With this step, I give myself to you completely, I abandon myself to you, with all the love of my heart, with total confidence, for you are my Father."

As I wrote this reflection in the Albergue, in the room next to me, graduate student Lucy Ridsdale's voice echoed over the 1970s pop song playing on the local radio. It was paradox: sachrine tunes suddenly overshadowed by something deeper and richer, and more fully human.  Everyone stopped.  The radio was turned off.  One young man broke down in tears.

I will post that recording in the future but here is a rendition of the chant dedicated to St James, sung in Santiago almost 800 years ago, when Saint Francis trod this path during another age of paradox and contradiction, penance and renewal: 

June 20, 2014

Our Journey and the Message of Lourdes

Our pilgrimage took us from Paris, Lisieux, Omaha Beach, Mont Saint Michel, the Shrine of Saint Anne in Aurray, and then south to Lourdes.  Here we pondered another powerful cause for the explosion of religious fervor in the 19th Century: the apparitions of Mary first at La Salette, but then in Lourdes.   We will tell more about LaSalette in a later post.  I want to share first about Lourdes.  

Following on the heels of the solemn definition of the Immaculate Conception (1854), a young girl from an impoverished family saw a beautiful woman who confirmed this teaching (1858).  Mary who disclosed her presence to Saint Catherine at Rue du Bac as conceived without sin was not only praying for those who had recourse to her, she was executing a daring plan.  Just like she implicated Catherine Laboure in bringing hope to the despairing, she also pulled Bernadette into her web of grace to encourage those who need a reason for their hope.

Identifying herself as the Immaculate Conception, Mary told Bernadette that a Shrine should be built over a grotto near a river where she stood.   Mary also told Bernadette to dig and then to drink and to bath in the water that flowed there.  The water was to be a sign of conversion and bathing in it an act of making a new beginning in the spiritual life.  Mary explained that there would be miracles, (and it is beautiful to see the great faith not only of the sick but also their caregivers), but these signs were meant to stir confidence so that many souls would return to God and live holy lives.

Bernadette did as she was told even though it was a trash dump and she also told the local priest to build a Sanctuary even though the priest thought her to be delusional.  Yet it was this radical obedience without regard for herself or what others thought that allowed Mary to bring forth a source of spiritual renewal for the whole world.  The axiom that God is not limited to the most powerful and greatest, but allows himself to be contained in the weakest and least is in the story of Bernadette fully illustrated.

Bernadette eventually entered religious life and embraced a life of silence, anonymity, and intercession.  When asked about mental prayer she explained the importance of welcoming Christ and showing Him hospitality in the heart.  She said that when Christ feels welcome, He is a good guest: He never forgets to pay the rent.

June 19, 2014

In the footsteps of the saints of France

The day after Pentecost, Fifty-two of us chiefly from the Shrine of Saint Anne in Colorado but also from other parts of the USA started in Paris.  In 1834 on Rue de Bac Mary appeared to one of the spiritual daughters of St. Vincent de Paul.   She had grown up as in a peasant farming family just after an era in which the French Catholic World was turned upside down.  Part of our pilgrimage in the footsteps of the saints of France was dedicated to understanding the spiritual explosion that Saint Catherine's obedience to The Lord ignited in the 19th Century.

Leading up to what happened at Rue de Bac had been a time flowing with the blood of martyrs. French secularists viewed religious culture, contemplative thought and Christian virtues as a threat to progress. In genocides that would later be replicated in the 20th century by both Russian Communists and German Fascists,  blood flowed not only in Paris, but military commanders proudly reported, along with the destruction of Catholic villages, also the thorough massacre of all women and children in those communities.  In the New France of liberty and fraternity, faith could not be tolerated and people of faith needed to be carefully terminated.   Against this heartlessness, Catholics bore witness with their lives that the deepest truth about humanity is to be found not in our science, nor in our productivity, nor our politics.  Instead, they stood up for our capacity to worship as spiritual creatures who show mercy to one another because of the Divine Mercy shown us. 

Notwithstanding the heroic witness of many, after the French Revolution and Reign of Terror, the average Catholic was demoralized and confidence in the faith undermined by political and social design.  Later, the Napoleonic Wars exacerbated the plight of the poor who not only could not count on the state but also despaired to rely on God- les miserables.   Yet it is from the poor in an era when the faith was the most challenged and all seemed lost that some of France's most important saints were born.  

In the 19th Century, France would be home to an explosion of religious devotion ending with the two sisters in the Spirit Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity and doctor of the Church Saint Therese of Lisieux, but beginning with the Cure d'Ars, Saint Bernadette and Saint Catherine Laboure.  They were disenfranchised from their society and culture, sometimes misunderstood by the Church itself, and without any economic or political power.  Biblically, we could identify them with the anawim, the lowly for whom The Lord does great things. Both France and the world were impacted by their faith in the Risen Lord.

As we approached the chapel at Rue de Bac where Mary revealed her presence to Saint Catherine, it seemed hard to believe that no one could have predicted the birth of a quiet, competent, down to earth mystic in Catherine's day.  The assumption would have been the opposite.  

In the New France, like present day Pop American culture, salvation was believed to come from faith in science rather than faith in God. It was a tyranny of heartless reason demanding absolute homage to the political and material realities of life.  The deeper and more noble aspirations of humanity were regarded as little more than a threat to progress.   In such an environment, one would expect not the emergence of saintly intelligence of heart but rather a more heartless genius, less maternal, more capable of competing in the new will to power. 

Catherine Laboure was a mature religious when Our Lady appeared to her in 1834.  She was well aware not only of the spiritual material poverty but also the spiritual emptiness that had robbed  people of their hope.  And for love of The Lord, she had dedicated herself to these - les miserables.  The message of our Lady of Grace also spoke into this misery.

Mary asked that a medal be struck with her image.  Her hands were to be outstretched with rays coming from them.  Anticipating the dogmatic definition of the immaculate conception, she also asked thar Around this image the words "o Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee".  

With the permission of her bishop, the medal was struck and distributed.   Despite the rapid growing popularity of the devotion, Catherine stayed in the background and continued to live in the obscurity of religious live, anonymous and unknown to the world. Only in the last years of her life did she reveal herself as the mystic behind the medal.   By then the medal had a nickname, the Miraculous Medal because of the many miracles associated with it.

This humble beginning may seem to many as insignificant.   It was indeed only a spark in the heart of Paris.  But this spark together with the obedience of other humble, poor and confidence souls will lead to an explosion that continues to rock the Church and the world today.  Our pilgrimage began by pondering this spark in Paris, but as we progressed, it would take in the blaze of 19th Century Devotion that Saint Catherine helped to ignite.