December 5, 2021

St. Nicholas and the Byzantine Monks of Northern California

One of my favorite churches is the Temple of St. Nicholas at Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Redwood Valley, California. The Byzantine Monastery was founded by Abbot Boniface Luykx, a Norbertine who participated as a periti at Vatican II. He was convinced that the Church needed to recover the riches of the East so he began to found Ukrainian monasteries first in Africa and then here in America. 

I made a retreat at this beautiful place of prayer in Advent of 1988. The chanting and the silence, the icons and the forest, the fasting and the joy all live in my heart this many years later. Most of all, the bells calling us to prayer, ringing out through the valley, reminding the heart of resonances beyond this world. I remember the powerful conversation that I had with the Abbot. I remember also the witness of the monks - their dedication, perseverance, authentic joy. 

Just as has been the case in so many communities, the monastery went through many difficult trials. Even still, Fr. Raymond Gawronski, so instrumental in building up the spirituality year in Denver and laying out the vision for a spiritual formation program at St. Patrick's in Menlo Park, joined the monastery and found in its way of life an island of humanity.  Notwithstanding natural and supernatural hardships, the community is dedicated to drawing close to the Lord and to conversion of life.  The rhythm of silence and intense liturgy is challenging and refreshing at the same time.  The monastery chapel, called the Temple of St. Nicholas, is at the very center of this holy work for God. 

That this space should be dedicated to St. Nicholas is fitting. This saint was a man above all who encountered the Lord in a world that was hostile to the faith.  The monks of Mt. Tabor also live by this encounter in historical and cultural circumstances not unlike those of the saint. Though he lived very simply in self-imposed poverty, St. Nicholas was known to be a very generous man and a giver of secret gifts to those most in need. This spirit lives in the monastery where souls come with all kinds of poverty to find the riches of Christ.  The monks, as did the saint, live dedicated to conversion from sin, rigorous asceticism and kindness to others. This attracts young men who want something other than a meaningless and indulgent life. If St. Nicholas was noted for his loving concern for those entrusted to his pastoral care, so too the monks of Mt. Tabor who provide a refuge for those needing shelter from the fire storm of secularism raging in our time. 

We need places of refuge and prayer, sacred places of healing and holiness to put us in touch with the truths to which St. Nicholas witnessed. If the monastery protects a great truth about living out our faith through dedication to the praise of God, St. Nicholas was a man of deep prayer who safeguarded the truth of the faith with courage. If the monks are dedicated to dying to themselves out of devotion to Christ, the presence of St. Nicholas in their midst reminds them that the love of God is more powerful than death. 

There are many stories of St. Nicholas coming to the aid of the poor in his own lifetime even raising from death those who suffered under great evil. Among the monks, there are men who also have been raised up by Christ to begin the discipline of the Christian life anew.  After his death, the number of miracles attributed to him confirmed that St. Nicholas was a wonder-worker for the whole Church. Mt. Tabor also is a place of miracles where the veil of our Lady protects souls in peril. 

November 28, 2021

Silences Filled with Meaning

Prayer that waits for Christ's coming in glory opens to silences filled with meaning.  The silences that live in the shared gaze of lovers or at the bedside of a dying family member are filled with meanings too deep for words. The depths of these silences approach prayer because they reach down to what is truly sacred in life. Prayer, however, plunges even deeper than these tenderest moments - it knows the tenderness of the King who comes.

Prayer knows an abyss deeper than the depths of eros and death. In that silent depth, prayer discerns the exquisite melodies that the unaided heart cannot hear - but aches to know. This abyss down into which prayer descends is bottomless and the silences there are pregnant with meanings too much for space and time to contain. 

Every human love and every misery are circumscribed in the meaningful silence that prayer explores. In the depths of this contemplative prayer, earthly friendships are purified and vindicated because they are re-established in deeper truths than space and duration can bind.  Betrayal, denial and abandonment do not define the heart that pours itself out in this way. Instead prayer unlocks mysteries more powerful than every human frailty. Death itself ceases to be the last word about one's existence, for this prayer accesses new life. 

Fear of death is an absence of faith but prayer under the shadow of the Cross triumphs over death.  This prayer under the darkness of Christ's last wordless cry conquers disintegration.  Prayer re-establishes and heals bonds between the body and its powers, between body and soul, between one's own soul and souls of one's neighbors, between the soul and God.  Prayer unleashes the courage to love where love seems most absent. Prayer gives birth to hope when all seems most lost. In the face of hardness of heart, prayer draws down the power to forgive and to seek forgiveness. The prayer of faith, the prayer that lives in the Church, the prayer of the Church, this prayer brings back to life.

This kind of prayer is a baptism into the life and death of the Lord Jesus Christ. Prayer knows that His Cross establishes such new silences in the heart that even after so many centuries we have hardly explored their breadth and length, height and depth. Prayer sees His radiance as it illumines all human loves and fears, even in the darkest night.  Prayer find rest even in suffering because His peace conquers rancor in the heart even as the world falls down around us.  

By prayer, His truth dispels lies even when the exigency of the moment attempts to limit our freedom. Prayer is convinced that the bottomlessness of his mercy is deeper than the abyss of any misery. Prayer holds fast His imminent return and instills that conviction that His justice swift even when evil seems to be winning the day.  When the sorrow of death stings in the moment, prayer discovers that His consolation is forever.  When the heart feels most empty, prayer is filled with Him. 

November 14, 2021

Prayer's Power

It is time to return to prayer and to believe in the power of God. The power of God defends and holds up human freedom. Prayer is the safeguard of human dignity.The power of God is able to dispel the fog of anxiety and rage that has gripped our communities.  

Under a cloud of great social anxiety, we tend to make judgments in accord with a certain mass hysteria and surrender things that we would otherwise never surrender. When cave into such things, it is always at the price of human dignity and freedom.  For people of faith, as we experience such societal movements, we must hold fast to the teaching of St. Paul not to conform ourselves "to this age", not to be carried away "by every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness," not occupy oneself with "myths" (see Romans 12:2, Eph. 4:14; and 1 Tim. 1:4).

To hold fast to this teaching, we need God's power. We need prayer. The power of God unleashed in Christian prayer roots the heart in truth. To be rooted in a truth by prayer is radical but when we pray, God does root us in being, goodness and beauty. Before the changing winds of the times, we need this kind of radical. We are not at the mercy of the cunning and crafty when we humble ourselves before God. He protects us from the kinds of social "myths" that gave birth to Gulags and re-education camps. Only God can help his creatures rise above a culture of death. By prayer, He opens the path of life.

Those who are radically with God are not radically ideological, but open to truth.  Driven by anxiety and the need for control, the radically ideological cannot admit when they are wrong. Prayer brings repentance. Radical ideology brings hardness of heart. 

The radically ideological could be commercial or political or even medical, it does not matter, but self-enchanted with social myth, they strive, even without realizing it, to make an absolute claim over our existence. Because ideologically driven myths see the good, beautiful and true only in terms of a means to an end, they are prone to fail to rise to the true greatness that is at stake. The absolute claim they would make of human life easily robs us of the joy of loving one another and being present to each other as true neighbors.  

Whenever we are carried away by ideological claims, we gain a sense of security always at the expense of the truth. When we worship falsehood, truth must be sacrificed on its altar. But with truth, there is peace. With falsehood, anxiety and fear of death. 

A soul at peace feels no compulsion to spy on or report his neighbor, but an anxious soul is duty bound to make sure the non-compliant are shamed.Without the truth, I cannot see my neighbor as a child of God but only the "other" who is alien to me or else a co-conspirator who makes me feel validated in my foolishness. Blinded by ideology and social anxiety, I only see obstacles, cogs and sycophants. An obstacle or a cog in the wheel of social progress does not challenge me to love anymore than a sycophant. Only a neighbor can do that. 

To see our neighbor in truth, the fog of social anxiety and radical ideology need to be lifted. Only the power of God can dispel falsehood and free the heart to see rightly. Christian prayer accesses this power. A child of God, a real neighbor, does not leave me indifferent but summons sacrifice. Prayer calls down power that allows me to welcome this gift.

October 9, 2021

The Eucharist and the Church

The Mystery of the Eucharist, the great thanksgiving sacrifice of Christ that continues in the Church, reconstitutes the whole cosmos and every heart that welcomes it. In this ecclesial action, the saving action of the Word made flesh is renewed and extended in space and time. An interplay of heaven and earth unfolds in this worship so beautiful and breathtaking as to elude the power of human reason to grasp.

When the Word made flesh blesses and gives to those with whom He has greatly desired to share this sacrificial meal, a kiss is exchanged between the Creator and creation, and the Image of the Invisible God unveils to mere mortals what angels fear to look upon.What is above and what is below embrace. In this dance between the Bridegroom and His Bride, the Church, it is difficult to discern where divine action begins and human action ends.

In this gathering of the meek and lowly, an unvanquished greatness lifts their hearts.  Terror and joy, sorrow and hope explode all at once by the Church's humble act of faith. Sins are cleansed. The ego quelled. The heaviness of any burden born away by Love's wings. In this Eucharistic mystery. the Bride is again made holy and immaculate because the Bridegroom did not hesitate to lay down His life.

Deep waters cannot quench such love. A mystery stronger than death unfolds.  In the valley of the shadow of death, the Eucharistic Lord has prepared a banquet. His body, real food and his blood, true drink. In the face of mortal enemies, this Good Shepherd gives to drink with overflowing abundance. Simply to gaze on this mystery, to ponder the Eucharistic face of Christ, is to take hold of the very joy of our desiring. 

Out of the depths, He cries with us and the Father hears His cry. On the battlefield of life, the Captain and Perfecter of our Faith opens the door to our true home.  The One true Mediator transforms our frail offerings and makes them worthy.  His Risen presence gives over his Body ready to suffer as food for us in our sufferings, who make up in our bodies what is lacking in his sufferings for the sake of the Church. The High Priest opens access to heaven, here and now, so that we might know the glory that the Father has given to Him out of pure love.  

And the Father receives all this from His Son and rejoices.  At last we have tasted that love that the Father has desired us to know from before the foundation of the world. We have finally picked ourselves up from the mud of the pigsty and turned back home.  He predestined us for all such blessings in His Son, and so He spoke His Word into our most painful miseries and waited until at last we might hear. Whoever sees the Son sees the Father.  The Messiah's longing to celebrate this Sacred Banquet with His friends reveals the longing of the Father that we might know His delight. In the echoes of Christ's agonized wordless cry, the eloquence of the Father's suffering love, his mercy, is entrusted to us once and for all. 

October 3, 2021

Sacred Space and Prayer

If prayer is aided by a sacred space that we see with our eyes, it is because the deeper substratum of our existence has a theological character.  If inner dispositions are brought into harmony through what we see and touch, it is because of a deep theological connection between our bodies and our prayer. If it is a matter of reverence, desire for the truth, gratitude for inexhaustible gifts, and hope for salvation, our bodies also must find a posture that receive such mysteries.  It is not easy to see the world by faith. The spiritual eyes of our soul remain close until we allow the Lord to wake us from our slumber. Then, we learn to gaze only by stages and in degrees. 

What is more, this spiritual awakening is not simply a matter of our spirits but also our bodies - for the body expresses the reality of the heart.  Christ redeemed us body and soul - and what ever He does deep in the heart also takes up the mystery of our flesh and blood.  He loves our whole humanity - and wants all the dimensions of our existence to stand before the Father.

This is where a well ordered physical sanctuary assists our hearts. What is in the visible, physical world that we touch with our hands and see with our bodily eyes can dispose the vision of our hearts to be open to invisible mysteries.  If with good teaching and reverence for the Lord assists our hearts, a space physically arranged to what is sacred is an aid. For to welcome a teaching into our spirits also takes up our visible existence. Our faith is performative. In the realm of being real, taking a stand in the concrete particulars of life, a space adorned with holy images, can help train us to see the world with the eyes of faith.