September 26, 2021

The Body and the Mystery of Prayer

If Christian prayer plummets dim but real reflections of eternal glory in the passing shadows of the world, it is because God has fashioned the world to contain mysteries beyond what is material and visible. By faith, everything becomes a sacrament that gives us God - even the most painful circumstances. Without faith, the human heart cannot ponder the uncreated love that sings in the silences of created things. Naked reason is deaf to the symphony that lifts up the heavens and the earth. Only faith hears the deeper harmonies of this life and sees visible signs of grace in those mysteries reason fails to grasp. Eyes opened in childlike wonder find icons through which heaven gazes on us. 

Our bodies are themselves part of this sacramental mystery. The meaning of our very physiology is not exhausted by medical science. To be fit and healthy is good but only at the surface of what it means to be a human being. There is something sacred about our bodies themselves beyond their mere appearance. Not only do they express our image and likeness to God, but God Himself dwells in us in such a way that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, the dwelling place of the most High God. By our flesh, we make visible that great mystery that would otherwise be hidden from sight. Even at the point of death, the love we express through our bodies allows the eyes of another to delight in the glory of God.

When it comes to prayer, a sanctuary needs to be commensurate with the reality of our bodies. Such a place must help our bodies express the praise of glory.  To make visible what cannot be seen is why the physical places we gather to pray should be adorned with sacred art and solemn of architecture. God desires to enter the tabernacle of our hearts and so we must order physical things in the pattern of His Tabernacle, not made with human hands. 

To enter deep into prayer, physical space and inner dispositions need to be brought into harmony. It is a matter of reverence, desire for the truth, gratitude for inexhaustible gifts, and hope for salvation.  With good teaching and reverence for the Lord, a space physically arranged to what is sacred and adorned holy images can train us to see the world with the eyes of faith. Such a vision of reality ought to grow until even the most mundane and ordinary events disclose Divine Providence to our hearts. 

Making visible what cannot be seen is why it is important to bless ourselves with holy water when we enter such a sacred space. It is why we genuflect to the real presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. It is why we bow before the Altar of the Lord. It is why we keep silence in such a sacred space. It is why candles are lit and sacred songs sung and the words of the Bible read and rites instituted by Christ offered.  As we learn this reverence in such public sanctuaries in public prayer and bodily gestures, we also discover that every private place in our lives is a threshold for entering the presence of God.

September 19, 2021

Contemplative Prayer and Sacred Space

In order to enter into contemplative prayer, it is important to enter into a sacred space. The holy place Christian contemplation accesses is heaven itself. Every church, oratory and shrine is only a physical image of this spiritual reality. This is because, joined to the Lord of Life by faith, the Christian lives, not his own life, but the life of Christ in him.

Anticipating the greatness God has prepared for humanity, Christian life is the life of the Heavenly Man - for Christ sits at the right hand of the Father above all the heavenly powers. Christian prayer is gathered with hosts of angels and witnesses around the Throne of the Lamb who died and is risen from the dead. This prayer knows that He has ascended to the Father who is in heaven.

Such prayer wonders over the reality that the One Crucified by Love is now seated with the Father. It allows itself to be astonished over the communion, life and love that is the very mystery of God. This prayer glimpses the sovereignty, authority, and dominion that the Savior has over everything that is below. To have the life of the One who sits at the right hand of the Father means, even though a disciple of Christ remains in the world, the believer is not of the world, but of heaven. The prayer that flows from such life welcomes the glory and victory of the Lord.

By faith, Christ's Life in us allows us to participate in his own victory over evil in every daily circumstance. His life empowers us to make in known His glory even in this world below. We do not see this clearly. It is not obvious to anyone outside the logic of faith. It appears the opposite.

Most consider us fools when we continue to forgive and seek forgiveness even to the point it seems not to make sense any more. Or else, when we begin yet again to disavow what is ignoble in our hearts even after many failures, many deem us hapless or hypocrites. Others resent our defense of life or mock our concern for the most vulnerable. Even our feeble generosity is perceived as little more than naïveté. Yet the love of Christ in us, His Life, compels us nonetheless.

When we enter this obedience, our prayer finds dim but real reflections of eternal glory in the passing shadows of the world. By faith, everything becomes a sacrament that gives us God - even the most painful circumstances. The sacred space in which Christians pray lives in this mystery.

This is why entering in a sacred place is always possible no matter where we are or what is going on around us. Calamity may be crashing down and sudden catastrophe strike when least expected. Believing in God's love, however, sets our lives above the exigency of the moment. His love is more surprising than any unexpected trial.  And such divine surprises never leave us in anxiety or rage, but always lead into hope. A simple act of faith brings us into this deepest center, this hidden peak of existence, this secret garden, this wine cellar, this Bosom of the Father - where the Great High Priest is.  

Through the centuries, the way Catholics have expressed this faith is by making the sign of the Cross.  Indeed, it is through the Cross that one has faith and it is through the Cross that one enters into a sacred place.  By the Sign of the Cross, our bodies declare that what is invisible and spiritual is greater than what appears and is merely material. By the Sign of the Cross, the heights and depths and horizons of our own personal existence are brought under the shadow of the Risen Lord - His love becomes the standard, the banner, and the seal of the heart. In that sacred place, His words resound:

"Father, I will that where I am, those whom you have given me might also be with me in order that they might see the glory that you have given me because you have loved me from before the foundation of the world." John 17:24

September 12, 2021

Spiritual Fatherhood and Spiritual Motherhood

Christian formation requires above all formation in truth. We are formed in truth when our judgements conform to the way things actually are and we act in harmony with what we know. No one can arrive at such judgments or action by himself. To judge rightly, one must be formed. 

Only when one is gratuitously loved does such formation take place. Natural fathers and mothers help their children live in such a way concerning the natural good things of the world.  In the spiritual life, only spiritual fathers and spiritual mothers can provide formation for the supernatural life.  

A spiritual mother and a spiritual father know that a well-lived life needs an orientation point, firm footing, a sure center. Formation in the truth guides the heart to such a sacred place.  This journey requires the courage and humility to see things as they are, especially oneself and God. Firm footing for life cannot be found by oneself. The difficult ambiguities to which this world below is subject do not allow the truth to be a private, individual pursuit even if it requires solitude and silence. God sends us living icons of Himself so that we might find signposts to His Heart.

We are blind until Someone opens our eyes to see, and this Someone has chosen to work through His Mystical Body, the Church. Spiritual Fathers and Mothers help us open the eyes of our souls.  This eye-opening is faith and no one receives the gift of faith unless there is someone else who loves them enough to share this gift with them. This is what a spiritual mother and a spiritual father do in the life of another. 

This eye opening gift is called an awakening - the realization that one has not yet begun to live, on the one hand, and, at the same time, the certitude that life is filled with meaning. Through the listening ear of a spiritual mother, a new beginning is born in the heart. Through the attentive presence of a spiritual father, a hope emerges. Through these icons, a new possibility to give oneself in love appears before the threshold precisely because one feels heard and understood. 

Spiritual paternity and maternity is a source of life in the Church. There is a new awareness of the very gift of life and a sense of urgency to do something beautiful with it in thanksgiving.  An awakened soul sees the world through eyes no longer subject to death - through the eyes of Christ.  

Even then, our seeing is only partial, so we need others to accompany us on the way. So the Lord sends them to us. They help us see that Jesus Christ is the orientation point and under the shadow of His Cross, we find firm footing. They reassure us that the prayer of faith knows this sure center around which the world turns. Spiritual fathers and mothers lead souls to this deepest center.

Christ is the Life, the Truth and the Way - and every true spiritual father and mother witnesses to this great mystery.  Truth confronts disharmony in the things of this world and in ourselves. If we have truly found moments of joy, there also also many secret sorrows that we must learn bear - and He is ready to teach us. So He sends us these icons of his wisdom.

Through the words of a good shepherd, He who is Truth unveils confusion casting its shadows over the many good things that we enjoy and discloses a certain gnawing emptiness that we might wish to put off or walk away from. Through the prayers of spiritual mothers, the Truth Himself makes us deal with the fact that there is something more for which the heart aches and healing for this is not grasped, but received only as a gift. An all this is the loving glance of an elder, a soul that has journeyed a little farther down the road, whose look back encourages us forward.

Here, in prayer before the Risen Lord, we discover feelings that cannot bear the weight of our existence. They often betray us. If this life is too short for all that lives in the heart, it can also feel too long for all the evils that must be endured. The faith that comes from the Lamb of God purifies our feelings. Christ crucified stands ready to give this freely to whoever asks in humble perseverance. Since this gift comes from the Cross, faith knows that frustrated desire, sin and death do not exhaust the way things are.  Faith sees that the love of God is also hidden in the shadows of life and and this love is the pathway of the Truth.  

Spiritual fathers and mothers give souls real food when they train them in prayer and fasting. These are as it were labor pains in the spiritual life. When a soul is hungry, learning the prayer of faith in fasting gives real food, true sustenance. 

If prayer and fasting go together, it is because part of dealing with the truth is allowing ourselves to "feel" our hunger for love to the point that it leads us to pray. Such faith is no escape from reality.  The discipline of faith requires us to experience life for what it is: the hunger, the thirst that lead us to seek real food, true drink. 

When we pray and fast, what we eat and drink by the truth of faith frees us to love when love seems impossible. It is to this love that spiritual fathers and mothers feed those whom they train to fast. By praying and fasting for those entrusted to them, and by teaching them to pray and fast, they prepare them for this real food.

Wherever we find any hungry absence of love among His children, faith fed by the food fasting knows sustains us in choosing to love anyway. We have this capacity because God in whose image we are made also loves in this way. HIs Will is the food that fasting feasts on and this Will is Love Eternal.

God who is Love also hungers and thirsts. Christ reveals this thirst to the woman at the well and on the Cross - it is among the very last things He tells us. In His image and likeness man is made to thirst like God. God's mercy aches to relieve our misery and so too should our love ache over the plight of another.  And where there is no love, if we put love, we will find love say St. John of the Cross.



August 22, 2021

Eucharistic Contemplation

The Eucharist, the sacred banquet, is a mystery that evokes a certain kind of contemplation.  Peter caught this gaze of love when Jesus asked him, "And you, will you also depart from me?" If we desire to enter into Eucharistic contemplation, we must allow this question to inconvenience us until we are uncomfortable. 

Contemplative prayer is Christian insofar as it avails the soul to union and transformation in Christ. It is ecclesial insofar as it participates in the Church's gaze on the Bridegroom. It is taken up into the Trinity insofar as it receives the Word of the Father through the power of the Holy Spirit. It is experiential and personal but not simply a subjective experience. Instead, it is a relation with the One who is Other. It suffers with love the space between human and divine freedoms. It is satisfied by Christ's total gift of self when it leads to giving oneself in return. 

The Body and Blood of Jesus are the source and summit of such a communion.  Under the signs of bread and wine, this spiritual food sustains Christian faith in the very face of everything that stands in its way. This nourishment cuts against the grain. This medicine of immortality swims upstream. This antidote for death resists convention. This Life is new.

In this nuptial banquet, one forgets oneself and is captivated by the Light that shines in the darkness. By this mystic wine and mysterious manna, the voice of the Bridegroom leads into the Father's House. By this divine inflow, one welcomes the Word into the most hidden depths of one's own being. Unless we eat of this flesh and drink of this cup, we are left with meaninglessness. "To whom else shall we go?"

August 15, 2021

Praying for our Shepherds with the Mother of God

Mary stands in the midst of the Church and the brokenness of her members as a sign that reminds us to fast and pray for a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit. If, in these trying times, Church leaders fail us now as once did Peter, Judas and the nine who abandoned Christ, we should, as did John, stand with Mary under the shadow of the Cross. Mary did not disdain those who failed their charge. She waited for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. With John, she prayed for their conversion - for the just mercy of God was to be unleashed on them as well. So too for any who would draw close to Mary under the cruciform shadow of God. It is not the failures and shortcomings of her members, even those with authority and power, that defines the Church. It is this Mother's love that has been raised into heaven and draws close to us now. As she did at the Cross and in the Upper Room, so she also teaches us how to pray for the apostles of the the Church.

The assumption of Mary reminds us that the shepherds of the Church are servants, not masters, of the sacred. They do not apportion the Spirit, but the Holy Spirit comes through them with unpredictable force and freedom. Just as at the words of the angel, the Holy Spirit always does the astonishing. It is because he served the Church that Pius XII formally defined Mary's assumption - not as a new teaching, but one that Christians held from earliest times. This has great ramification for prayer.

Mary has taken our hearts with her to where she is so that when we pray, our prayers are heard by her Son and through her Son, offered to the Father. Where is she? If Jesus prayed that we might be where He is so that we might know the glory given Him, then Mary must be there. Hence, we believe that she was assumed body and soul in Heaven that she might be the Father's first answer to His Son's prayer, the Son whom He loved from "before the Foundation of the World." She is also where Jesus sent her when He told us, "Behold, your Mother." Shepherds in the Church are charged with keeping this mystery - as did John. So should we. 

To bring her into our homes and hearts means that we let her teach us to pray -- to pray for the earthly fathers her Son has appointed. Earthly, they are meant to offer spiritual sacrifice, to be spiritual fathers. But they cannot do this until we learn to pray for their wisdom, fortitude, faithfulness, perseverance, patience, gentleness, courage, resolve, bravery and humility. Only the Holy Spirit can communicate such gifts and, somehow, He has chosen to work through a Marian dimension. This Marian dimension is more primary than the Petrine, just as the heart more vital than the head. Thus, even the threefold munera, priest, prophet, and king flow from a contemplative act: the maternal "yes" to the mystery of God. Mary has pondered these mysteries in the heart of her Son and she knows how to unlock them for spiritual fathers today - but she needs us to pray for them. 

Spiritual fathers need the strength to serve. We must pray that the enormity of their task does not discourage them. Faced with vexing ambiguities and complexities, exercising prudent and just judgment requires a wisdom from above. The struggle for the truth is fierce, we must pray for their fortitude and faithfulness. Before the overwhelming needs of those who they serve, it is easy to be made weary and so they need us to pray for their perseverance. All kinds of betrayals and disappointments thwart their best made plans until it is easy to be overcome with sorrow, so we must pray for their patience. They face disrespect of every kind until it is easy to be overcome indignant, so we must pray for their gentleness. So many threats to the Church and its safety evoke fear and anxiety, so we must pray for their courage. They are aware of plots and traps, and we must pray for their bravery. It is easy to be tempted by what is convenient and comfortable, so we must pray for their resolve. It is easy to be enchanted with what others think, so we must pray for their humility.

In short, the Church suffers from a crisis of spiritual fatherhood, and the Bridegroom is not indifferent to her plight. We who serve the Heart of the Church, that is, those who are called to pray, must learn to intercede for our spiritual fathers, that they might become the men they were meant from before the foundation of the world to be. To this end, Jesus sends His Mother to us - he wills to share with us the one who was most dear to Him that we might learn to pray.  She is a powerful teacher because she sees what we cannot. Assumed into heaven, she sees the Church and all its challenges through eyes no longer subject to death. Joined above to the prayer of her Son, the prayer she teaches turns chastisement, purification and doom into redemptive realities, mysteries filled with conversion, healing, and hope.