April 3, 2015

Holy Fear and the Shadow of the Cross

Today, the Church takes us under the shadow of Calvary to behold our salvation and to approach this sacred place requires a reverence and awe that are not of this world. The Man of Sorrows gives Himself for our salvation, lays down His life that we might live. We come here today because of the burden of guilt that we have carried for far too long, the reality of death that we cannot avoid, and the desire to be understood and loved, to be connected to Someone who can relieve the sense of alienation that we suffer, to the only One who can fulfill at last the desires of our hearts. We dare to call out to Him "remember me" because of the heart-piercing gifts by which the Holy Spirit moves our hearts.

Saint Hildegard von Bingen describes this supernatural grace that she discovered when she entered into this shadow of God's immensity. Fascinated and astounded, she has discovered awe in the presence of a reality greater and more real than is she. Tested, challenged, and tried, this gift from above makes her dare to approach nonetheless, and to stand humble, attentive, and ready to act. The tedium that can sometimes overcome a soul in prayer has no power over her now. Completely alert, this profound reverence prevents her from losing her focus, gives her the courage to stand firm, to behold, to listen, to adore. She personifies this astonishing super human gift, describing a mysterious figure covered with eyes, a creature who never loses sight of the immensity of Divine Justice, a being of merciful contemplation whom she identifies as “the Fear of the Lord.”

We, frail though we are, are all called to stand before the immensity of God’s justice and truth just like Saint Hildegard. The gift of fear of the Lord remains meaningless if we do not ponder the great mystery of human weakness and divine power, the abyss between actual human achievement and the demands of divine justice, and this for even the most pious and holy among us. What is this mountain, this immensity of Divine Justice, but the very mountain on which the Father glorified His Son, the mountain on which stands that Cross around which the whole world, each one’s life and all of history turns?

Up against the price that He paid for us and the greatness of the salvation He won for us, no one who is unwilling to bend the knee and bow the head should ever dare approach this King of Glory. Christ crucified knows our presumption and pride, our capacity for self-delusion, our hypocrisy, all the ways we overestimate ourselves, and even more, the ways we hate and torment ourselves.  These spiritual diseases are not acceptable to Him but for love of us, each one, He accepted their consequences unto death on the Cross. So He offered His last wordless cry, the prayer that still echoes between heaven and earth, a cry that death could not silence, that hell could not contain, this prayer from a heart that our cowardice and lust for power rent open.  This cry of love is the last word concerning all things human, the fullness of everything the Father has yearned for us to know, the voice that is heard the immensity of Divine glory. We dare not listen without the reverence this supreme act is owed.

If we are to stand before the mystery of the Suffering Servant who, raised on the Cross, revealed the unity of divine justice and mercy at the price of His own blood, then we need the Holy Spirit to protect us from our own cowardice and mediocrity. If we ask with humility, He gives us the same hope-filled fear that He breathed into the good thief and that He sent to stand with Saint Hildegard. If we will persevere in Calvary’s shadow, the Holy Spirit will move us with humble awe and wonder to renounce all the evil and mistaken judgements we have made about God, ourselves and neighbors.

When we tremble before the love, justice and mercy revealed on the Cross, holy fear makes us know that our Crucified God does not intend his admonishments to crush us but to prepare us, to make us humble and vulnerable enough to carry out His work in the world.  Holy fear will prevent us from losing heart. Today, Saint Hildegard’s vision of Divine Justice and Holy Fear gives us the courage to stand before the righteousness of God, to beg "remember me", to confess his sovereignty, to bow our heads and to kiss his feet. 

March 28, 2015

Saint Teresa of Avila's Way - on the Quincentennial of her Birth

"When our actions and our words are one, the Lord will unfailingly fulfil our petitions.  He will give us His kingdom and help us by means of supernatural gifts...which the Lord bestows on our feeble efforts." Teresa of Avila, Way of Perfection, Chapter 37

Today, Saturday, March 28, is a great day of rejoicing for Carmelites everywhere and for the whole Church.   Five hundred years ago the daughter of Alonso Sanchez de Cepeda and Beatriz de Ahumada y Cuevas, in the heart of the Iberian Peninsula, in the province of Avila, in the small town of Gotarrendura, she became a pioneer in the renewal of contemplative prayer that swept through Spain in the 16th Century.  In her work, Way of Perfection, she offers a meditation on the Lord's Prayer.  For her, this prayer aims towards the heights of mystical contemplation, but starts in the simplicity of a humble petition.

Teresa is convinced that the prayer that Christ commanded us to say demands the same humble movement of faith whether from the simple minded or else the most genius, the most disciplined or the least. Only as the disciplined realize the insufficiency of their own efforts do they glimpse the spiritual logic that she contemplates in this Gospel message. Only as a great mind humbly bows down in wonder can it begin to explore the pathway to perfection that she sees in these seven petitions entrusted to us by the Lord.

The pathway to the progress that she sees in this prayer revealed by the Word of the Father is the way of authenticity, the alignment of what we say with what we do.  We are so out of harmony with ourselves, with each other and with God that only God Himself can bring us back into tune.  She herself knew from first hand experience how His saving intervention comes in the nature of a gift that we welcome by humble efforts informed by living faith. Her encounter with the Man of Sorrows in her convent in Avila helped her understand that this saving gift is the heart piercing realization of how much He loves us, a consuming desire to contemplate the suffering love by which He contemplates us.

She suggests in so many ways that the Lord is never indifferent to even the most tepid efforts of devotion if only we will trust Him and not lose heart.  What starts as a spark becomes a consuming fire.  What seems to take so much effort at first soon washes over the soul like a refreshing rain.  The silken cocoon of good works we make by God's grace but with great difficulty becomes a transforming place of new spiritual freedom.  She describes a quietness of soul filled with the fulness of God, a sacred stillness exploding like a fountain of living water.  Although bringing the way we live into harmony with those noble intentions the Holy Spirit has stirred in our hearts may seem impossible, she insists every act of devotion exposes us to these splendors of heaven...provided we keep our hearts fixed on His great love.

What amazes me is her confidence in God.  She is acutely aware of human weakness and our capacity for self-deception. She knows how given we are to self-torment.  She is no stranger to the host of irrational anxieties that can assail a soul. She is even more aware, however, of the astonishing immensity of God's love.

On this great day in the life of the Church, Teresa helps us consider how the Lord permits himself to be bound by our love.  It is love that makes our prayer authentic, God's love at work in us that brings into harmony what we say and what we do.  If however our efforts to repeat what the Lord has told us to say move in our hearts in even the most subtle of ways, it is only because the Holy Spirit used our frail efforts to blow new life in us.  This is the Kingdom of Heaven that the wisdom of Saint Teresa of Avila sees coming, and today, on the threshold of Holy Week, may we all come to see it too!

For more on this Doctor of the Church, I recently published a book with Dan Burke that provides meditations on a selection of Teresa of Avila's letters, 30 Days with Teresa of Avila through Emmaus Publishing. 

March 5, 2015

The Gravity of the Father's Love in Heaven and on Earth

The Lord taught us to call on our heavenly Father not because God is distant or inaccessible, but because the Father is awaiting for us with love. This means that heaven is near and dawning on us even now.   This means that we are the objects of a particular joy, a special and un-repeatable delight that has lived in the Heart of God from the beginning. He respects our freedom but no power from above or below can thwart the hidden purpose of His exceeding love. He is making His will on Earth as it is in Heaven.

The Lord's prayer reveals that the Father Himself is not passive or absent, that heaven itself is not indifferent to our struggles here below. Similarly, the Lord's prayer has nothing to do with spiritualizing away the painful ambiguity of life.  Even when overwhelmed with crushing hardships and painful sorrows, even when our dreams are dashed to pieces and we feel left in total darkness, it is not escapism to remember that our present problems do not have an ultimate claim on us. Instead, we see our hardships in a broader context, a difficult but brief moment in a beautiful story that is raising us on high.

What most defines our existence is the specific gravity of the Father's love.  To turn to this love is to choose to confront what is most essential in reality, what is most painful in our existence. Here we know the mystery of the Cross. All longing and disappointment, all guilt and injury, and death itself fall in prostrate silence before this threshold of Heaven. Following in the footsteps of our Crucified Master into this great mystery, we discover the dynamism of the Father's love as an unvanquished force even when disguised by the obscurity of great suffering.  

His heart is pierced by our plight. He watches for us eagerly even when we are still a long way off.  He is ready to rush to us as soon as He sees us turning home.  He cries out with His Eternal Word and by His Holy Spirit implicates Himself in our lives to welcome us home.  His Love aims for nothing less.

This new presence of the Father working through the Word and Spirit cried with love into our hearts makes our spirits increasingly more heavenly.  This beautiful presence is is in the form of a celebration, filled with the joy of banquet, a feast too wonderful for this world to contain,

If the Father cries out to us in love and truth, how can we do anything other than cry out to Him in faith and confidence? We must never be afraid to allow Him to welcome us home.  Faith and confidence are the most beautiful way of welcoming God and showing hospitality to the one who rushes to us.  The more we makes space and welcome this heavenly reality, the more powerfully this divine indwelling moves us to cry out with trust "on earth as it is in heaven."

February 4, 2015

The Lord's Prayer and its Structure of Hope

Those who pray the Lord's prayer with faith take up the effort to see our struggles with the light that is from above, the understanding that comes from God. That is why when it is prayed carefully with devotion, the unvanquished light of heaven shines through each syllable into the depths of one's life and current situation, if only we allow it to.  This is true in the very structure of the prayer Christ entrusted to the Church.

The structure of the Lord's Prayer proposes the primacy of heaven over all other earthly things in our existence, no matter how urgent and insurmountable they seem. Unmet needs (our daily bread), broken relationships (our need to be forgiven and to forgive), and all threats to our dignity and integrity (temptations and the power of evil); all this concerns our life in this world below. These visible realities are subordinated to what is more important, what is more spiritual, more immense, and more beautiful.  No matter how catastrophic or tragic the trial we endure, we must train our hearts that the holiness, the will, the kingdom of the Father all come first.

The beautiful truth in the sacred order Christ laid out for us is that nothing in this world can make absolute claim over our existence.   Our difficulties, failures and inadequacies do not ultimately define who we are or what we are about as people of faith. Something else, from the world above, where the Father dwells, has hold of us and draws us up. The structure of Christ's prayer turns our hearts to the Father, to heaven, even as we confront the difficulties and challenges of this life.

January 31, 2015

The Lord's Prayer and a New Solidarity for Humanity

Although rancor, contention and strife threaten our communities and households, it is not delusional to believe that enmity, alienation and futility are not the last words concerning all that is good, noble and true about humanity. This is as true for our cultures and societies as it is for each one of us individually.  Indeed, in the face of our broken sinful habits, the quiet murmuring of the Lord's prayer in the most forgotten alley in even the most heartless metropolis is a sign, like a flickering votive candle in a sanctuary, that misery is not limitless. Those words, "Our Father," even when they rattle out from trembling lips at life's final moment, declare an unvanquished hope that God Himself entrusted to the world.

The Lord's prayer is not a prayer we ever master by our own industry and cleverness. It is a gift from heaven we humbly learn from someone who has gone before us in the faith.  Just as the Father relies on Him for everything, the Word of the Father chose to rely on those who believed him to teach those who would come after them how to pray. He did this when He entrusted the first disciples with these holy words.  When he ascended into heaven, this prayer was part of the Good News He commanded them to go out and preach to the whole world.

In point of fact, what is taught in this prayer (our solidarity with the Father) and how it is taught (through solidarity with one another) safeguards the new solidarity Christ offers humanity through faith in Him. The Lord's prayer is passed on to each of us in the Church as a prayer uttered with Christ, in Christ and through Him. It is a prayer that the Risen Lord offers before the throne of the Father in the sanctuary of heaven itself and that animates His work in the world that continues even now.  It is the prayer that resounds from the very heart to the most extreme periphery of the Lord's Mystical Body, in the silence of the most secluded hermitage or forgotten hospice to the piercing cries of those tortured and publicly humiliated for His sake.

No one who utters this prayer with faith ever prays alone.  Whenever a Christian joins himself to Christ by faith and dares to utter these holy words, the Risen Lord animates this prayer with a love that is stronger than death. This love no power on the earth, or under it, can quench. It is a love that does not come from this world, but from the Father who is in heaven.  The divine love born on the words of this humble prayer binds the believer with every other believer, overcoming every form of alienation and enmity, establishing communion, giving birth to mission.