April 29, 2016

Victory Belongs to the Lord

In my last conversation with Father Gawronski before his death, we reflected on Joseph Pilsudski who fought to re-establish Poland has a country after World War I. Fr. Raymond believed that, in a certain sense, this leader prefigured Saint John Paul II. Both men were confident in the victory of good over evil, not only on a global level, but also on a personal level. Both stood up against the odds and helped people realize their own greatness through sacrifice to something greater than themselves.  For Pilsudski it was a resurrected Poland. For John Paul II, it was a new springtime for the Church. We mused over how years before John Paul commanded us not to be afraid to cross the threshold of hope, Pilsudski had already counseled, "To be conquered but not to surrender is not to be defeated, but in victory to sit on one's laurels is certain disaster." 

At his funeral, friends shared about their visits with Father Gawronski. Rather than having guests come to his room to visit, he would insist on getting up and going out to greet them even when he could do so for only very short periods of time and at great effort. He did not complain as his body gave out, but joked and laughed until his visitors found themselves laughing despite themselves. At the same time, he remained firm in his hope and would make every effort to exchange the most beautiful insights. Most of all, he remained faithful to prayer.

Father Raymond was profoundly aware of his own inadequacies, weaknesses, and failures, but he believed that the saving power of the Cross was not limited by his own sinfulness or the sinfulness of others. Like Pilsudski who refused to surrender to his political and military foes, Raymond Gawronski was not defeated by suffering and death. A faithful son of the Pilgrim Pope, he did not believe our failures and spiritual wounds ultimately define who we are, but rather we are defined by the love of God. 

When we are confronted by the mystery of death, our faith tells us that the Lord is accomplishing something new and wonderful: a new heavens and a new earth, even as everything in this world, including our mortal bodies, seems to be falling apart around us. Our sacrifices and patient endurance of these trials and hardships make a little space in this fallen world for others to glimpse the wonder of God's love. Father Gawronski is a witness that even though our efforts to serve God seem feeble and ineffective, if we have made these efforts with confidence in Him, we have not labored in vain.

This is an important example for us as we strive to live for the love of God by prayer. As we try to serve God and our neighbor faithfully, we may well be mistaken about most everything, not clear on what to pray for, or even how to act.  Even when we find ourselves unable to do anything that is truly good -- we still know by faith that God is not mistaken in His love for us and that He is always at work to bring about good even when we fall short. He knows the truth about who we are and He can not be thwarted in His great purpose -- to save us and raise up all that is good, noble and true about who we are in His sight. Christian faith knows that even as our own weakness and the weakness of others cause us to lose trust in everything else, we have only found an even deeper reason to trust in the Lord. 

Christianity, Father Raymond insisted, has three syllables: life, death and resurrection. Death is a difficult, alienated syllable, one which has plunged our whole culture into a indulgent nihilism. Yet the witness of spiritual fathers like Raymond Gawronski, even as they contend with their own death, point to another way. With Christ, the alienation of sin and death is never the last word. Instead, the prayer of faith makes death the royal pathway to a deeper solidarity with God, ourselves, and with one another.

April 16, 2016

The Witness and Mission of Father Raymond Gawronski, S.J.

In the final hours of April 14, 2016, God called Father Raymond Gawronski, S.J.from this life. Professor of Theology at Saint Patrick's in Menlo Park, he has also served on the faculty of Saint John Vianney Seminary in Denver and Marquette.  In both Menlo Park and Denver, he was involved in helping to initiate spiritual formation programs for new seminarians.

He told some important life stories during a television series on EWTN where he provided reflections on the spiritual exercises of Saint Ignatius.  Many of his reflections are now in a book published by Our Sunday Visitor, A Closer Walk with Christ: a personal Ignatian Retreat. Like many in the late sixties and early seventies, he went through a struggle to understand what his religion meant in the modern world. The son of a Polish concentration camp survivor, this New Yorker rediscovered his childhood faith as a taxi driver in Hawaii when another taxi driver asked him whether he had "met Jesus." He would eventually embrace a life of prayer as both a Jesuit and an aggregate monk of Mount Tabor Monastery in Ukiah, California.  

My friendship with him began in Rome where he defended his dissertation on the dialogue between Christianity and Asian culture in the thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar.  This work is now published by Angelico Press as Word and Silence and I used it for many years as a textbook in spiritual theology because of its stunning polemic for Christian contemplative prayer and the wisdom of the saints.

After his successful defense, he went on to Poland to complete his formation in the Society of Jesus. It was a decisive moment of grace in his life when God gave him a mission to help renew the Church in America.  In the late 90s, this mission took a new turn when he worked with priests in the Archdiocese of Denver to offer the spiritual exercises of Saint Ignatius to the first cohort of the then newly initiated Spirituality Year for young men preparing to enter seminary.

The presbyterate throughout the Rockies, the Heartland, the Southwest and California is stronger today because of his generous "fiat" to the will of God in his life. A brilliant theologian and obedient son of the Church, hundreds of seminarians and many others sought him out as spiritual director and retreat master who helped them encounter the Lord in life changing ways. As a Jesuit, his mission was on the frontiers of the Church's dialogue with Asian Culture and non-Christian religions.  As a man of poetry and art, he decried the tyranny of the culturally powerful and the spiritual vacuum that excessive reliance on technology has created in the modern heart.  As a priest, he advocated the piety of the people: pilgrimages, the rosary, the chaplet of divine mercy and, most of all, the Eucharist. As a monk, he was deeply devoted to Mary and to promoting the Heart of the Church in contemplative prayer. 

While I will offer other reflections on this remarkable priest, today, I offer you a few of his own thoughts on the need to foster a deeper contemplative intellectuality in the Church: 

"We live at the end of the so-called Christian ages. This end did not come overnight, and that which is called “Christian” was by no means definitive or exhaustive. It is hardly the end of Christian faith or life, which ends only with the Final Judgment and the restoration of all things in Christ. But the drama of salvation continues through our own apparently culturally destructive times.

We are called to know and love God above all, and to serve Him in the place and time where it has pleased Him to place us: this is the will of God for us, right where we are. Like the missionaries of all ages, we have to know and live in the Faith, and then know and understand the culture in which we find ourselves so that we can present the Gospel in a way that it can be heard.

Hans Urs von Balthasar held that the greatest tragedy to befall Christendom was the split between head and heart, between dogmatic and spiritual theology. We see the effects of that in the Church today, where a massive educational establishment yet fails to enliven the Church, where half-educated Catholics are unable to integrate their minds with their hearts, and the spiritual life becomes the matter of psychology and trendy spiritualities. At the heart of any renewal must be the experience of prayer: formation in a life of prayer. And at the heart of this is a silence that can hear God." 

Throughout his final illness, he humbly accepted the will of God with peaceful resolve and good humor. He was sixty four. Now we commend Father Ray to the mercy of God as he journeys to the Father's House.

March 6, 2016

Some Notes about Elisabeth of the Trinity

Pope Francis has approved a miracle performed by Blessed Elisabeth of the Trinity. This means that she will be canonized during this Year of Mercy. In order to help us receive the gift of her canonization, it might be good to know a little about her and the spiritual mission that she carries out in the Body of Christ.

As a child, after the loss of her father and grandfather, Elisabeth Catez struggled with a very strong temper. Near her home in Dijon was her parish church of Saint Michael's, a reform school for troubled children, and a Carmelite Monastery. She went to Mass frequently in the first, was often threatened to be placed in the second and felt mysteriously drawn to the last. Through the help of a good confessor and her love for the Mass, she not only learned self-control but also developed a profound love for contemplative prayer. 

She was very popular and influential with her friends. She was a natural leader and the source of a lot of fun for everyone around her.  She also loved to play piano and was familiar with the work of the great composers of her time.  Yet in all of this, it was her love for the Lord that most impressed those who knew her.

Her mother was not pleased when Blessed Elisabeth wanted to become a Carmelite. As a widow who deeply loved her two daughters, the idea of being separated from her was too painful.  Her little "Sabeth" however did not get discouraged but believed that God was using this to prepare her for a deeper life of prayer.  She patiently waited for her mother to change her mind and when she did, Elisabeth Catez entered the Carmelite Monastery to become Sister Elisabeth of the Trinity. 

As a religious, Blessed Elisabeth wrote to her friends and family to encourage them to a deeper devotion to God and openness to His love. She loved the Scriptures and quoted the Bible to help her friends receive the Word of God in a deeper way.  To go deep into God's Word, she spoke of becoming free of ourselves and vulnerable to the immensity of love that the Lord is waiting to impart to us.

The encouragement and prayers she was offering others in this life she believed would continue in the life to come.  She called this the mission that she would have in heaven. She came to this conviction several months into a difficult struggle with Addison's Disease. At the time incurable, she endured a crucible of both physical and spiritual suffering.

Instead of causing her to be self-occupied, she viewed these sufferings as something that she could offer the Lord in love "by a wholly loving movement."  She used this difficult experience to pray for those she loved and to intercede for the Church. In the last letter she was able to write, she told a friend that it would actually increase her joy if she was called on from heaven to help. She died at the age of 26 in 1906 but her writings have become a major influence in the life of the Church today. 

Although her intercession has cured a bishop of cancer and healed a school teacher from Sjogren's Syndrome. this friend in heaven is passionate about more interior miracles of the heart.  She wants us to allow the Holy Trinity to establish us in the sacred stillness of love and she wants to help us focus less on our own inadequacies and more on the radiance of Christ's presence in our lives.  If someone desires a deeper life of prayer, Elisabeth of the Trinity is always ready to intercede. Anyone who takes the time to read her writings will soon discover spiritual food that strengthens the effort to pray. She in fact believes in a contemplation that opens the soul "to unexpected horizons." In the narrow confines of our work-a-day world, we need these horizons, and in the spiritual mission of Blessed Elisabeth of the Trinity, we have a heavenly friend who wants to help us find them.

March 4, 2016

Elisabeth of the Trinity to be Canonized

This is an update to a post a did a few years ago on the canonization process for Blessed Elisabeth of the Trinity.  Today, Pope Francis issued a decree approving the healing of Miss Marie-Paul Stevens as a miracle.  A religion teacher afflicted with Sjogren's Syndrome, Miss Marie-Paul Stevens, while on a pilgrimage to Blessed Elisabeth's convent, in Flavignerot, just outside of Dijon, was completely cured. Over the summer of 2011, the Archdiocese of Dijon opened the process for the canonization of Blessed Elisabeth of the Trinity, the Carmelite Mystic of Dijon, France (1880-1906) and Pope Francis's action today completes this process. A formal announcement of the date of her canonization is coming in the next few weeks.

Saitn John Paul II identified her as a strong influence on his spiritual life at her beatification in 1984.  Cardinal Decourtray (at the time Bishop of Dijon) attributed his own healing to her intercession at the time.  Yet even more wonderful are the many conversions to a deeper life of prayer attributed to her intercession and spiritual mission in the life of the Church.  Centennial celebrations throughout France ten years ago indicated that many have discovered devotion to the Trinity and deeper contemplative prayer through her life, writings and intercession.   For many, her canonization would express and deepen their sense of gratitude to this pianist become nun at the turn of the last century.

Part of the process leading to the declaration of sainthood requires that a second miracle be obtained by her intercession after her beatification.  The miracle approved today is this second miracle for Blessed Elisabeth.  

February 9, 2016

Prayer, Fasting and Almsgiving - in harmony with human nature

Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are works of piety that make space for a right use of reason. Many spiritual people do not connect works of piety with reason or love or freedom.  Without making good use of reason, freedom and love, our works of piety will fall short of our Lenten Observance, and the healing that this season offers us will not be realized.

We must confront some popular misconceptions about our human reality. Reason is presumed as cold and calculating, the dispassionate part of our psychology whose purpose is exhausted in minimizing risks and maximizing opportunities. Freedom is associated with selfish indulgence and escape from responsibility.  Love is often thought to be irrational or opposed to reason or simply a feeling. Although to the extend that they are isolated from one another some of these presumptions about these spiritual realities might be true, God created these wonderful powers to be related in a kind of sacred harmony resonating in the spiritual interior of our lives.

Frequent confession and extra-sacramental penance like making a pilgrimage or observing Friday abstinences are aids to this difficult work.  It is a manner of asceticism, of spiritual practice, out of love for the Lord. It is not a matter of accomplishment or achievement, but a matter of vulnerable surrender and humbling ourselves before an inestimable gift. To fully realize our God-given human vocation, we must do everything we can to tune and discipline our use of reason and piety, love and freedom until they are made to resound in divinizing harmony through our spiritual exercises this Lent.

The harmony of reason, freedom and love with works of piety is gift upon gift - restoring and perfecting the image and likeness of God in us.  The gift of human reason is given by God so that we might use our freedom to love in a manner that gives Him glory. Through the Holy Spirit who prays in us, the gifts of prayer, fasting and almsgiving expand the capacity of reason to find the holy freedom such divinized love demands -- a freedom that gives space to everything that is good and authentic in our humanity and that frees us from everything that is not worthy of the noble calling that we have received.

Because of sin and its limiting power, unaided reason by itself cannot secure this kind of freedom.  So we surrender to the Holy Spirit who convinces us of sin and the deep things of God. He prompts us to be merciful when we are otherwise thoughtless or resentful, and He moves us to venture with love into situations that we would otherwise find inconvenient and repulsive. When the Holy Spirit raises reason up in prayer, when the limited designs of our hearts are pierced by the limitless designs in His, the vast expanse of human frailty is laid bare and capacities unfamiliar to us are revealed.  It is here, in this desert wilderness, that the music of heaven is waiting to fill.  It in this emptiness and poverty of heart that the divine harmony of human reason, freedom, love and piety resounds.