September 1, 2014

Treasures of Divine Life

On September 6, 2014, Archbishop Aquila is hosting a special catechetical event to repropose the ancient order of the sacraments of initiation: Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist.   The Catechetical Congress draws its name from a passage in the Catechism, "Treasure of Divine Life."  These are notes from a presentation in which we will consider how the signs used in the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist have a certain order in the Bible, and this order reveals the splendor of what it means to be fully human and fully alive.

"Christ instituted the sacraments of the new law. There are seven: Baptism, Confirmation (or Chrismation), the Eucharist, Penance, the Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders and Matrimony. The seven sacraments touch all the stages and all the important moments of Christian life: they give birth and increase, healing and mission to the Christian’s life of faith. There is thus a certain resemblance between the stages of natural life and the stages of the spiritual life" (CCC 1210).

Analogy between life and the spiritual life serves as a basis for understanding the order of the sacraments, including the order of initiation.   Yet to understand this analogy, it is not enough to appeal to the visible elements and gestures as we know them outside the logic of our faith.  It is true that the elements of water, oil, myrrh, bread and wine belong to the sphere human activity from ancient times.  Thus, when Christ and the Church raised them for use in the mystery of Christian initiation, they did so building on ancient meanings already deeply part of human experience.   Yet, to understand the wisdom of the Church, among the manifold of signification contained in these products of the earth and human industry, there are also those special meanings we find in the Holy Bible.   It is a contemplation of these special meanings that reveals a deep truth about the order of initiation in the life of the Church.

Because the salvific meaning there is not only inspired but inerrant, the Bible contains the deepest and most important meaning of these sacred signs.  The Word of God reveals the heart of the Sacraments.  The heart is a drama, a contest, a testing of love.   Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist are three moments in this divine story - a story that is at once the story of all humanity and that has the possibility of being the story of each soul.  The story of the victory of good over evil, of the triumph of the Lamb over the powers of sin and death.

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.