June 30, 2011

Prayer and Fighting for Marriage

One of the ways Mother Teresa of Calcutta fought poverty was she taught families to pray together.  Typically, she would teach the Rosary.   Getting parents to pray with each other and their children gave people hope where there seemed to be none and it helped married couples find love when love seemed most absent.   Ironically, she is said to have stated that the greatest poverty she ever encountered, she discovered here in America.  She was very disturbed to find people dying of loneliness and isolation in our most modern metropolises.  The recent efforts in many States to redefine marriage will only make this particular form of poverty more acute.  It is time for us to learn a lesson from Blessed Teresa and rediscover prayer in our family life.

Mother Teresa was wise to see prayer as something much more than a mere esoteric exercise.  It is vital to the affairs of this world, here and now.  That is why marriage needs prayer.  In fact, it is first of all in marriage that the art of prayer is supposed to be passed on.  If people are losing the fight for marriage in society, it is only because very few marriages are fighting for their love with prayer.  Can anyone adequately defend true love if he does not truly pray? Indeed, only prayer can address the deep seated lack of courage that seems to have taken hold of us in both the public square and our own homes.

So long as people of prayer do not engage the fray and make their voices heard, our families and our society will always be vulnerable to unchallenged and dehumanizing cultural and political forces.  Along these lines and contrary to contemporary prejudice, it is not compassionate to be tolerant of all forms of fornication, contraception, abortion, pornography, prostitution, and divorce.  The truth about the heartache and human carnage left in the wake of such practices must be made known.  Is it really mean-spirited or unenlightened to dare take a stand for what is truly human?  The truth is, even if we do not find sufficient charity in our hearts to do what our faith demands, simple justice requires that we speak up when something as sacred and beautiful as marriage is under attack.  This is true not only in society but also in our own homes.  As Blessed Teresa explains:  "There is a terrible hunger for love. We all experience that in our lives - the pain, the loneliness. We must have the courage to recognize it. The poor you may have right in your own family.  Find them.  Love them."

If there is a failure in courage on our part, it is because, as Christians, we do not pray as we should.  When we do not pray, we do not encounter the Lord and without encountering the Lord, we will never find sufficient confidence to speak the truth in the face of power, or to love in the face of hatred.  Here again, the wisdom of Mother Teresa is helpful:  "Give yourself fully to God. He will use you to accomplish great things on the condition that you believe much more in His love than in your own weakness."  As cited by EWTN.

June 29, 2011

The Paradox of Holiness and Communion

To be holy is to be set apart.  To be in communion is to be in solidarity with one another.  Prayer both sets us apart and establishes us in a deeper communion.  It is a paradox.  Although this mystery is not completely solvable, one hint  is the relational dimension of prayer.  It is ordered to a real friendship with the all holy God.  

In asserting this, the paradox in question can never be simply an intellectual puzzle – it is existential and evokes a response.  This friendship ‘sets us a part’ in the sense that we make God the priority of our heart and allow Him who is not of this world to become the life-principle of our soul.   This means we are in a sense dead to the things of this life or at least not animated by them.  Here, this "out of this world" orientation of Christianity can be disconcerting.  Sometimes we struggle with a fear that if we really begin to pray, we might lose out on some beautiful things in this world.  But living by faith does not mean that Christians care any less about the affairs of this world nor do they enjoy life any less, and this is especially true when it comes to our friends including all those the Lord has solemnly entrusted to us and to whom we are likewise entrusted for this brief time we have together in this life.  

This is where the paradox comes in.  Even though God's love orients us to a life beyond this world and sometimes away from some apparent forms of communion this world recognizes, the net effect of this new orientation is that Christians are free to be even more engaged in the lives of others.  This is because God is love - the deeper our communion with Him, the deeper our solidarity with those we love and the greater our ability to love.  Such love is not limited by our human frailty.  It is a divine gift and charged with the power of the Holy Spirit.  By continually entering into the love of God through prayer, Christians discover new capacities to love those they hold most dear, and they experience a deeper communion with one another. 

This paradox is taken up by Blessed Elisabeth of the Trinity who often wrote to encouraged friends to love prayer.  One letter suggests that prayer should not be limited to any quantity of memorized formulas that one mindlessly races through.  It proposes a more authentic, a more personal, and a more consuming kind of prayer.  Elisabeth in fact envisions a form of prayer which permeates every moment of one's life.  She explains it as a ceaseless occupation of the heart, "the raising of the soul to God through all things."  In this same letter, she asserts that if we engage such ceaseless prayer it "establishes us in a kind of continual communion with the Holy Trinity."  In this communion with the Trinity, we also find a spiritual solidarity with one another, a "meeting of our souls."  By ceaselessly raising our soul to God, we enter "more deeply into ourselves" "where the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit dwell" and, she claims "in Them we will be One." (L 252)

June 25, 2011

Christ's Real Presence and true Christian Life: never static, always dynamic

The Real Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament is a living reality in the Christian life. His presence is dynamic. In perpetual thanksgiving, intercession and adoration of the Father, the Real Presence is permeated with prayers that reach into our hearts. The Blessed Sacrament evokes a response. By this prayerful presence, He truly comes to us and invites us to enter deep into His inexhaustible mystery. This remarkable presence is pure prayer surpassing all mere feeling and thought. It is His Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity.

The Body of Christ is perfect praise overflowing with the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. Under the veils of bread and wine, the power of Christ’s prayer issues forth into the hearts of those who partake of this mystical banquet and even flows into those who behold the Eucharist with faith. His Body offered for us and actually present to us is Bread for the final journey, the Medicine of Immortality, the Antidote for Death, the Pledge of Eternal Life. By this Real Presence, He truly takes into his heart all of our deepest needs, makes them sacred in the very Blood and Water which flowed from his side, and offers them to the Father.

An unseen force greater than any material gravitational pull at work in the visible world, Uncreated love is at work in the depths of the human heart whenever we avail ourselves to this overwhelming presence of Christ by faith. In this way, He is constantly drawing us and we discover Him to be the true center around which the whole Cosmos revolves. The loving gaze He bestows on us through the Blessed Sacrament leads us to gaze upon Him in return, even when his Presence is completely hidden by our own trials and difficulties. If we remain true to our faith believing in His love, it is especially in these moments where we cannot feel Him or understand his purpose that He is particularly close to us, truly at work in us, accomplishing more than we can ask or imagine. It is here that our lives become like his Real Presence, never static, always dynamic. Instead, we find ourselves not unlike the bread and wine of the Mass, by His prayer and the power of the Holy Spirit forged into love where love seems most absent.

June 23, 2011

Praying the Psalms

God has revealed to us how we are to praise Him -- and the right way to praise God is found in the psalms.  The Holy Father, Pope Benedict, explains that the Psalms teach us how to pray to God.  His catechesis has ancient roots.  St. Athanasius passes on this same teaching he learned from St. Antony of the Desert at the end of the 3rd Century.  The psalms teach us how to raise our hearts in prayer just as Jesus raised his heart in prayer.

The praying of the psalms, especially in the Liturgy of the Hours, is a school for the heart, providing words for interior movements so delicate and beautiful, the heart itself is scarcely aware of what they are and without divine help powerless to articulate them.  It is a matter of learning how to "feel" about God and all things in relation to God in a manner that truly renders fitting praise.  This perfection, the heart feeling what it ought to feel before God, lived in the heart of Christ informing every word and thought He offered the Father.  Conforming our hearts to the Heart of Christ is a work of the Holy Spirit to which the psalms dispose the soul.  In fact, the Word himself prayed the psalms -- and based on his own teaching on prayer, he must of prayed the psalms with complete attentiveness to every thought and emotion they disclose, complete confidence in how our heavenly Father would receive such prayer, and complete attention to who He was to be offering such prayer.

Earlier this year, Father Benedict Groeschel offered the annual retreat to our seminarians.  It was an honor to have an opportunity for a short conversation with him after the retreat while taking him to the airport.  Just before we left, one of the seminarians asked me to find out how Father Groeschel prays the psalms.  So I asked him.  He answered with one word, "Slowly."

This would seem to be the best way for us to allow the psalms to teach us the movements of the heart of Christ.  When we pray them slowly and consider what the psalms contain - that "range of human experience" the psalms convey, as Pope Benedict reminds us - it gives ours hearts the time they need to catch up and to appropriate the psalms to our lives. Even better, taking time to thoughtfully consider what we are offering the Lord in these revealed prayers affords the Holy Spirit the opportunity to appropriate our lives to the psalms.  In this kind of prayer, our lives become the praise we offer.

June 20, 2011

The Book of Life and Corpus Christi

16th Century Camaldolese Hermit, Paul Giustiniani, in his reflections on the role of study in the discipline of the Christian life, insists that for those who want to grow in prayer Christ Jesus must remain at the center of any study of the Sacred Page.  He does not say that all other study is without any merit whatsoever, and his words are mainly aimed at keeping hermits engaged in prayer.  He believes, however, in the primacy of contemplation in the life of the Church.  Thus, there is an important reminder here for all those who study theology:

Christ is the only master and the only book, the book that contains all divine wisdom.  My book should be Jesus Christ on the Cross: a book entirely written with His precious Blood that is the price of my soul and the redemption of the world.  The five chapters of this book are the five sacred wounds.  I want to study that one book alone, and other books only insofar as they comment on it... Jesus Christ is a book in which is summed up, for those who know how to read the writing, all doctrine, all discipline, all controversy, all treatises, all exhortations, which have been or will be done in conformity with God from the beginning to the end of the World.  Dom Jean Leclercq, Alone with God, Bloomingdale, OH: Ercam Editions (1961, 1989, rev. 2008) 73-74.

This passage speaks specifically to the contemplative intellectuality characteristic of our Christian faith, an intellectuality growing from an encounter with the Living God.  It is oriented to a kind of knowing that does not stop at the level of concept or even intuition.  It is a kind of knowing that is deeper than all feeling.  It is more like the kind of knowing that is shared between friends that love one another.  It is the wisdom of a heart to heart with the Living God.  This kind of knowing is essential for the Christian life.  Our faith is relational or it is dead. It is for union with God or it is nothing. We could interpret Giustiniani's words to apply to the exercise of our love informed faith in any study of sacred doctrine: this study is life giving to the degree that it deepens and extends our relationship with Christ.

As we approach the celebration of Corpus Christi -- I can think of no better way to study the Book of Life than through our participation at Mass, our communion with his Body and Blood and our adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.  The Word, who was in the beginning, waits to disclose his wisdom to us in the Eucharist.  When we participate in the liturgy with our hearts attentive to our Crucified God, when we receive in communion this Living Bread, when we adore the Risen Lord who promised to be with us until the end of time: we are studying the mystery of Christ not only with our intellects but with our hearts.  

June 18, 2011

The Three in One and One in Three

I arise today by the mighty name of the Trinity -- the Three in One and One in Three.
These words from St. Patrick's Breastplate speak to a dimension of prayer which is regularly neglected.  Most people think that prayer is for pansies.  On the contrary, prayer is not about emoting or appearing pious or simply achieving a state of enlightenment.  Prayer takes supernatural courage. It is about the victory of good over evil in our lives, our role in a primordial conflict the apocalyptic consummation of which will usher in new heavens and a new earth. In this vein, the ancient Lorica attributed to St. Patrick presents prayer as a call to battle and the Name of God as the banner of the Christian cause.

We stand when we recite the creed and profess the Trinity - as if we were preparing for battle, as if bracing against an onslaught, as if preparing to charge.  When we do this, we are declaring that at the center of the world is uncreated Love - and that everything comes from and goes to this Love.  Our profession is to fight for this love, to defend it, to promote it come what come may.

To rise up, to stand, to take a stand, to stand firm - this gesture speaks to what might be considered a violent dimension of Christian faith. Yes, there are things for which to put our lives on the line -- and our living our faith to the full is just such a thing.  Here, standing is a gesture of Christian prayer because the prayer given by Christ in the Holy Spirit is prayer in a time of war.  The whole cosmos, visible and invisible, is in mortal combat over God's love and in many ways we are standing behind enemy lines.

Whatever the peace Christ has left us -- it is not the kind of peace in which all conflict has ceased.  Instead, it seems to be a peace that we possess even in our darkest moment, in the very face of our enemies.  And so we stand.  We choose to be faithful to our baptismal promises - promises to renounce evil, to not waiver in our faith in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and this even to the shedding of our blood. We accept the challenge of our faith in the Three in One and One in Three. We make ready for the contest under the mighty Name of the Trinity.

The battles we must fight do not involve shadow-boxing.  If we are to realize the victory of good over evil in our hearts, we must fight the good fight.  If we are to taste the triumph of the children of God, we must run the race so as to win.  To finally be the free men and women God has destined us to be, we must step into the arena of prayer and daily life to take up battle.  Love itself requires such a battle - through all kinds of difficulties and trials -- because one cannot love except at one's own expense.

Our battle is not merely against human forces.  We do wrestle with ourselves: the self-indulgence, insobriety and anxiety which would threaten our hope if we do not keep our eyes fixed on the Lord.  We also wrestle with the world: its standards, its hostility to the truth, its fear of holiness.  But most of all, we fight against the malice of super-intelligent beings bent on our eternal destruction - these foes, stronger and wiser than we, know just what to suggest to rob us of all courage, and their demoralizing lies cut to the heart.  Indeed, they are impossible to overcome without divine assistance - and yet God makes them the instruments of our growth into spiritual maturity, using their malice to make His love invincible in our hearts.

We fight also with God -- sometimes seemingly against Him, like Israel in his desire to receive a blessing. We fight to surrender our will to His Will, our minds to His Mind, our life to His Life.  How is it that we who are so frail are challenged by God into such a contest?  God has created us in his own image and He knows that the courage He has given in the hearts of men and women reflect the greatness of his own heart.  And so, in his Name and for his sake, we arise and stand fast!  We make our case before the Living God, acknowledging our guilt and pleading for his mercy - but in his mercy daring to ask, daring to trust that he will look on our boldness with loving kindness, because He himself put that boldness in us.

To fight for life, for truth, for love: these are things instilled in us -- especially by our fathers.  If our natural fathers were not able to teach this -- then we need spiritual fathers who will.  Such fatherhood requires dedication, courage and generosity.  And I am so grateful to the men I have known who have made this dedication, this courage, this generosity their own.  It is the greatness I see in the eyes of faithful priests and good dads.

That men should often fall short of so high a calling should not be surprising even if it is always heartbreaking and disappointing.  The big fat ego dies hard and only after a lot of suffering.  Yet those who allow the Lord to chastise them, that is - who choose to be sons who are loved - such pillars are the strength of our families and our Church.  They witness to a love which is stronger than death.  It is the love of the Father that radiates in such fatherhood - because such fatherhood, rooted in Christ and filled with the Spirit, gives God the Father the space He needs to shine forth in this world.  It is this same eternal love by which we each arise in the name of the Trinity.

June 14, 2011

The Living Presence of the Holy Trinity

Bl. Elisabeth of the Trinity witnesses to the living presence of the Holy Trinity.  In her theological vision, the Trinity is not an abstract puzzle which must be solved or the object of intellectual despair.  This is because very early on in own her life she felt the overwhelming love of God.  This love ravished her soul and she welcomed it and surrendered to it.  Rather than an abstract dogma, we find her addressing the Trinity in personal terms of endearment "my Three," "my All," and "my Beatitude."  Rather than a static idea, the Holy Trinity is for her ever actively present in the soul, constantly at work, continually rebuilding by love what we thought we destroyed.  The Trinity is no nihilistic, closed or absorbing reality.  Instead, the Trinity is so open and accessible that her writings suggest we only become most fully the creature we are predestined to be in Christ through completely entering into this mystery and allowing God to enter into us.  The Three in One and One in Three is our true home, the fulfillment of all desire, our inheritance with the saints, the Abyss of Mercy, the Furnace of Love, our heavenly homeland.

Access to this unfathomable mystery she describes in terms of  a wholly simple and loving movement, a gaze of love, a descent, a divine impact, an astonishing encounter with the Triune God.  To lovingly attend to God's living presence is to remain, to surrender, and to dwell with Him.  This kind of deep prayer, which she calls holy recollection or even contemplation, allows God to completely envelop and immovably establish the soul in the peaceful stillness of the Bosom of the Trinity.  It is the method of not using a method to approach God.  Rather, God crucified for our sake is approached in such humble gratitude of heart, it yields a "not knowing" of anything but Him and his great love.  She describes this kind of contemplation as primarily God's work which we make space for by self-denial and silence.  The soul humbly asks and obediently waits.  The Father engenders the Son and causes Love to be born in the heart.  In her vision of prayer, not only do we come to rest in the Holy Trinity - but God is transforming our hearts, renewing the image of the Trinity on earth.

Such prayer is purifying, simplifying, humbling and, at the same time, glorifying.  Blessed Elisabeth understood that our humble trust in Him makes us irresistible to Him.  He lavishes us with incalculable blessings, exceeding every expectation, and raising us above ourselves to participate in his very life.  For her, the weaknesses we discover in prayer do not impede God's work but instead become instruments through which He is revealed.  Human frailty is meant to be enveloped in divine splendor - and this is achieved in the deep silence of loving surrender to his living presence.  Through humbly clinging in love to the living presence of the Holy Trinity we become what we are predestined to be: the praise of glory.

June 10, 2011

Veni, Sancte Spiritus

On the faithful, who adore
And confess you evermore
In your sevenfold gift descend;
Give them virtue's sure reward;
Give them your salvation, Lord;
Give them joys that never end.

For Pentecost this year, that wonderful publication Magnificat provides a beautiful translation of the Sequence, a prayer offered by the Church during the Liturgy of the Word at Mass.  The prayer asks for the Holy Spirit to come - to come into our inmost depths.  This Gift of the Holy Spirit dwelling in our hearts is the secret of the Christian life, the vital principle of true prayer.   He comes to dwell in us as in a temple - that is, his living Presence enlivens us as it permeates the sacred sanctuary of our innermost being.  This life-giving Breath of God, creatively hovering over the chaos of our hearts, shines forth with divine glory, the glory by which God is known and loved in the visible concrete particularities of our lives, even in those most difficult situations where He seems absent.  Especially in these moment when we are tempted by great discouragement, when we call out in faith regardless of what we feel or intuit, this exceeding Gift of the Divine Presence overflows the heart so that it cannot help but be lifted up in praise.

The Holy Spirit comes when we ask for Him out of faith in Christ.  This is because Christ Himself is also asking that this same Gift be poured out on us anew.  This happens in such manifold measure, we sometimes forget how remarkable our life of prayer is.  Consider the moment when the priest calls out to the assembly, "Lift up your heart."  Isn't it true that we assembled together in prayer by faith and baptism are able to obey this command of Christ because the Holy Spirit is already raising up our humanity above itself?  We may not feel anything and it may seem like the most "non-spiritual" moment - but faith transcends what "seems to be" and what "feels."  Faith alone receives the Holy Spirit - love imbued faith is a precious gift produced in us by our Advocate and Guide.  Through inspiring ever deeper and more intense movements of faith within us, the Holy Spirit breathes in us so that filled with divine life we are able to utter prayers and petitions which conform in more perfect ways to Christ himself. 

The painful cries of the heart pierced by the love of God, or else moved by the misery which constantly threatens our existence, are joined in the power of the Holy Spirit with the cries echoing in the heart of the Risen Lord.  This is true whether such prayer is offered in inspired words committed to memory or holy stammering gushing from the heart cloaked in adoring silence.  It is true when spontaneous tears overflow and groans break forth from our depths.  Such prayer extends throughout all those deep sighs and bubbling jubilation hidden in Gregorian tones and it lives in even the most simple of hymns sung with childlike confidence in God.

By our baptism in the Waters of New Creation, by the warmth and light of the Fire of God, by the fragrant anointing from above, these inebriated stirrings of our frail humanity are enveloped in the very movements of the Lord's own heart.  Since Christ risen from the Dead prays in the power of this same Holy Spirit, the possibility of communion is opened in His prayer, a prayer that has already vanquished death and even now overcomes every evil.  The Paraclete communicates the secrets of the Lord's heart into our own depths sometimes with overpowering forcefulness, sometimes with subtle whispers.  This identification with the Heart of Christ takes place in our hearts especially in those moments when we are pushed to the brink, when we struggle to stand firm at life's darkest hour.

Here is the secret of the holy audacity we find in the eyes of martyrs and confessors.  The Holy Spirit given by Christ bursts forth with that incredible courage which fills the countenance of those who tread in the dark valley of the shadow of death.  Those without this Gift are astonished and feel a longing to taste the life giving waters flowing from such souls.  Enlivened by such Spirit-filled prayer, what can hold us down?  What can prevent us from raising our hearts to the highest heaven?  Indeed, by the Gift of the Holy Spirit, we are already filled with heaven even as we live on earth.  Under the holy impetus of indwelling Divine Love, all the world is being raised to God - to joys that will never end.

June 6, 2011

The Prayer of Christ and the Gift of the Holy Spirit

In Christ Jesus, humanity has been received into its heavenly homeland, the spiritual reality wherein it is finally free to thrive to the full.   This paradise is reserved for all those who persevere until the end in loving one another out of obedience to Christ.  In fact, loving God and one another here and now anticipates the life God has in store for those who believe.  Therese of Lisieux calls this living by love.  Such a life alone is commensurate with God's call to humanity.  For to love God with one's whole being and love one's neighbor as oneself - to be able to do this and never grow weary, to be constant with what is most noble in our humanity towards all that is good and holy - this is what it means to thrive as a human being, it is what we were made to be.  This is the divine image revealed in us - and in heaven that image shines in the perfect likeness of the One who has gone before us.

Whoever has endeavored this, that is, whoever has endeavored to really love unto the end, such a person has in one way or another tasted something of heaven.  Such a person knows deep inside the greatness for which we are made.  At the same time, everyone who strives to live by love knows that it is impossible without help from above.

That we might realize our true calling, Jesus ascended into heaven and makes intercession for us - his love which has no end is poured out before the heavenly Father on our behalf.  Jesus constantly pours out his heart to the Father that we might receive this the Gift of the Holy Spirit. The Father never ceases to answer the prayer of His Son by sending the Holy Spirit always anew into the hearts of those who ask in faith.

True prayer, mature Christian prayer, the kind by which we can live by love, is produced in us by the power of the Holy Spirit.  The Gift promised to us by Christ before He ascended into our heavenly homeland, the Holy Spirit is the animating principle of the Christian life, the Soul of the Christian soul.    The Divine Counselor is come upon us and envelops us with all the wisdom we need to love those entrusted to us, to be faithful in our love for the Lord.  In Him, possibilities present themselves in prayer we could have never imagined existed.  We may fail and fall short, accused in a thousand ways of our weakness: this Advocate testifies to the power of God at work in our frail humanity.  The Creator Spirit ushers us into our true homeland and establishes us into communion with the Holy Trinity - in this life we have Life itself, Life to live life to the full, to live by love.

June 3, 2011

The Super-abundant and Transforming Law of Prayer

St. John of the Cross, in his commentary on Living Flame of Love, refers to the perfect way the Trinity arranges and distributes blessings in prayer (see especially 3:28).  This divine order, or law of faith, operates in the spiritual life like the law of gravity in the visible world.  It is a force, only not that which is impersonally exerted among different bodies of physical mass, but rather that which is operative between spiritual beings who love one another.  Personal love has its specific spiritual gravity.  If unimpeded, it draws lovers into ever deeper union.  In the order of grace, we are drawn to the Bridegroom because He is drawn to us even more.

The law of divine friendship regulates beautiful moments of prayer so that by faith they always lead us into deeper union with Him.  In other words, God touches us with the truth in love or inspires us with noble affections which break forth in love for one great purpose: to draw us into a participation by grace in the very life of the Trinity.  Again, the specific dynamic of encountering Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit in prayer is divine union with God - a union where we are not annihilated or absorbed into some greater reality, but a real union of love - like that between lovers.  He achieves this by giving all kind of astonishing gifts, all of which are ordered to help us fall deeper and deeper in love with God.  This is true of all his gifts, especially the one's most difficult to receive, the kind we can only say yes to in prayer.  The reason these special graces of prayer have this one effect is that He has fallen in love with us first.

Such is the nature of divine eros or desire.  This movement in the heart of God produces the same kind of desires in hearts of his creatures.  The gifts He gives are for no less purpose.  He gives out of his desire that we might be one with Him in friendship. What kind of love characterizes this friendship?  It is not platonic or disinterested or altruistic - it is at once sacrificial and a burning passion, a total gift of self and the desire to possess the beloved's companionship forever.  Our tradition calls this agape - which because of the simplicity of God's nature is the same as his eros.  Because of the Almighty's infinite perfection, there is no limit to His love.  When we allow ourselves to be loved with this Divine Love, we can always fall deeper and deeper in love with Him because His love is inexhaustible.  We also discover the more we are in love Him, the more the power of eros and agape in us are brought together so that our love for Him expresses itself in the most wonderful ways in our love for one another.

On this point, St. John of the Cross describes this soul as overflowing with divine grace and virtue and becoming "like a well of living waters that flow impetuously ... the soul is flooded with divine waters, abounding in them like a plentiful fount on all sides!"  Living Flame of Love, 3:7-8 as translated by Kavanaugh and Rodriguez in Collected Works, Washington D.C., ICS (1991) 676.

The soul who generously loves God and does not refuse Hist manifold gifts becomes like the One whom it loves -- the One in whose image it was created!   That the Giver of all good things would so super-abundantly immerse a frail human being in such transforming love is astounding.  Yet, in those periods when my own heart has been parched, the Lord has often sent someone just like this to refresh me and encourage me on my way.   St. John of the Cross does not directly explore this idea, but it is implied in what he teaches.  Namely, the grace of deep friendship with Christ always overflows into the life of the Church.  Such holy people not only quench their own desire for the Living Water, but also help alleviate the thirst of fellow pilgrims so that we will not lose heart on our way into eternal friendship with the Lord.

June 2, 2011

Prayer in Frustration

In our frustration with our most important relationships, is there hidden a gift for the spiritual life? When all my plans go amiss and the trials of family life seem to reach a boiling point, it is difficult to recognize in this experience a blessing from the Father, even though my faith tells me there is.  The truth is frustration with those I love and their disappointment in me, these are always so many invitations to prayer.  

One author who really challenges me in this way is Slawomir Biela.  He captures the unrelenting doctrine of St. John of the Cross regarding the opposition of a self-sufficient attitude to true union with the Lord.  He believes God permits us to suffer deep frustration to purify us of pride and to help us rely on the Him alone. 

A prideful, self-reliant attitude afflicts marriage, family and all forms of consecrated life. This attitude subjects us to all kinds of fantasies and falsehoods unworthy of our existence and incapable of sustaining real love.   Biela explains, more specifically, "If we treat people as a support in themselves then our relationships with them become false and filled with illusions.  If God wants to lead us into a spiritual desert and attempt to make even a part of these illusions evaporate, we will undergo deep frustrations." God Alone Suffices, Denver: In the Arms of Mary Foundation (2003), 68.

There are great implications to Biela's reference to "spiritual desert."  For example, just like the Lord worked mighty signs and wonders in Egypt, He will allure us into the desert through all kinds of trials and tribulations that we too might enjoy a deeper friendship with Him.  The desert is a place of intimacy with the Lord - only in the wilderness of our own hearts is there enough space for God's love for us to unfold.

Falsehoods are always a frustrating source of spiritual bondage – they never lead to what our hearts truly need.  Underneath any clinging to fantasy is a hostility to the Lord, the fear that we cannot trust the Lord with our happiness, that we must rely on ourselves or others whom we think we can control.  To be free of falsehood in our dealings with those we love, we must be led from this distrust into a real heart to heart with the Lord.  When those who pray taste the pangs of deep frustration in their most important relationships, God is leading us into just such a "spiritual desert."

To get us into this desert, Biela explains that the Lord even permits us to feel cheated, hurt, abandoned, rejected and betrayed by those we most trust.   At the same time, we find ourselves letting everyone around us down.  We suffer their disappointment in us.  These kinds of graces, so difficult to see as graces, when offered to the Lord in prayer are especially liberating.  

They do not liberate us from love -- but for a deeper love.  The problem is not that we have let others into our hearts - the problem is that we do not relate to them rightly.  By identifying deep frustration with spiritual purification, Biela indicates one of the ways God helps us relate to those He has entrusted to us and to whom we are entrusted with an abiding spiritual freedom.  Such freedom not only raises up our own dignity but theirs as well.    

This is true even if, when we suffer these trials, it feels at first as if the Lord has rejected us.  What is really going on deep within us is not rejection. Instead, in allowing us trials, the Lord is expressing great confidence in us, his confidence that we are ready for true spiritual freedom, that we are ready to receive his strength to suffer the truth.  For this, we must ask Him ardently and with great trust.  The friendship He desires to share with us demands no less.  Even in our frustrations and failures, we must live accepting our dignity as sons and daughters of God, tested and made strong in his love that by truth we might live like Him.