January 20, 2019

Theology and Priestly Formation

Some have argued that too much attention is payed to theology in priestly formation. They contend that most priests forsake the ministry for lack of human and spiritual rather than intellectual formation. There is something important to this position and efforts to provide better spiritual and human formation must be engaged in earnest. Yet, I am not fully in agreement with the idea that we need to ease up on theological exploration so that proper attention can be given these other areas. This is too compartmentalized in its approach.

All Christian formation, including priestly formation, needs to have the form of an incarnate discipleship - the learning of a whole manner of life that involves all the excellencies of human existence. A theology that does not purify and intensify one's humanity, contemplation and pastoral charity is a very poor theology indeed.  The theological task must be lead souls into a baptism of wonder until their whole existence is on fire with the love of God. Any other kind of theology is simply a waste of time.

Pure of heart, an existence aflame with Divine Love knows the sanctification of all its bodily and psychological urges, drives and instincts. Completely vulnerable in obedience to the Word made flesh, it is become poor in spirit, an icon of the Father's love for the World. A peacemaker, it yearns for the unity of the Church and stands against discord in the Body of Christ. Hungering and thirsting for justice, such an enflamed soul takes the side of the humble and powerless in society, always ready to offer a word of hope. Most of all, such a disciple rejoices in the face of persecution - for it finds in such rejection, a more perfect identification with Christ.

A Pilgrim's Memory of St. Anthony of Egypt

Many years have come and passed
Since before your smile in inner mountain fast
Stepped my bare feet out on bare forest last,
To that living unshod joy in your greeting past!

Was it by flesh or faith that your face shone
In brightness, to lift from skin to bone,
In light against sin's darkness to atone,
In radiance to live that life of love alone? 

Reminiscences of that New Eden contain 
Solitude's vestiges that join the strain 
Of my own existence dissipated but in refrain
From those idols who, by Life's death, are slain.

What tolling silences with thunder peel 
amid the interior cacophony unreal
of my own thoughts to rekindle and to heal 
that longing to long too long neglected still?

Is all the empty service that I halfway render 
Any more pleasing than what saving secrets engender
In prayer, that power to conceive and not to hinder
His surrendered love, so true and tender?

Anthony of Egypt, in the battle of faith, you shine,
Against all spiteful spirits, your own words still bind
The discouraged believer in the Word to find
Hope's new beginning and in love's discipline, a living sign.


January 13, 2019

St. Teresa of the Andes and Love for Life

At the beginning of this New Year, I was blessed to get to know another Carmelite saint.  Juanita, an early 20th Century Chilean, was given the name Teresa of Jesus when she entered the convent at 18 years of age. She would die less than a year later of Typhus in 1920. Yet, she had been a contemplative and mystic since her childhood, having espoused herself to Christ at 15 and pledged herself to the Carmelite vocation. As a contemplative, she loved life, enjoyed parties, horseback riding and tennis. None of this diminished her devotion for the Lord. Influenced by St. Therese of Lisieux and St. Elizabeth of the Trinity, the writings of St. Teresa of the Andes are part of the same spiritual mission. In fact, she began to read St. Elizabeth of the Trinity at 16, and on her 17th birthday develops seven counsels for herself from her older sister in the spirit's spiritual doctrine:

1. Live a Divine Life by loving God with a pure love, giving oneself to Him without reserve.
2. Fulfill God's will in everything, meeting all of one's obligations with joy and not allowing anything to disturb one's peace.
3. Live in silence to allow the Holy Spirit to draw forth harmonies in the soul by which the Holy Spirit and the Father may form an image of the Word in me.
4. Suffer, because Christ suffered His whole life long and was the praise of the Father's glory. I resolve to suffer with joy for my sins and for sinners.
5. Live a life of faith, considering everything from a supernatural perspective, reflecting Christ as a mirror in all our actions.
6. Live in a continual state of thanksgiving so that every thought, word and action may be a perpetual thanksgiving.
7. Live in continual adoration, like the angels, repeating "Holy, holy, holy... " and since prayer cannot be uninterrupted, renewing our intention before each activity, and thus we will be a praise of glory inflamed with zeal for Divine Glory. (See her Diary, #28; July 15, 1917)

Pondering her words in relation to her short and difficult life, I am amazed about the repetition of "live" throughout these counsels. Very early on she had discovered the secret of Christianity, the hidden joy that those who know Jesus live by.  Because she chose to live by love, life had become for her an opportunity to give thanks to God - a thanksgiving evoked in her because of her conviction about how much He had already given her.

A certain love for life that faith in Jesus opens up is a message that this American mystic helps us to ponder. We should not be afraid to let her witness contradict the cultural status quo that we too readily accept. We should allow her to help us question our own societal assumptions.

Whereas she celebrated every moment of life as a gift from God to the end, we have long allowed even places as tender as the womb to become dangerous for life. Whereas she pondered the value of life in suffering for others, we question whether those who suffer should have any part in our society. Whereas her heart was moved to befriend homeless children, our own homeless do not often know our love. Whereas her brother's struggles with substance abuse moved her to seek him out and accompany him, we are quick to disrespect those that we believe have given up on life. Whereas she approached death as her supreme moment of life, we live as if the terminally ill should be shunned at all costs. We spend our lives fearfully pursuing the limited exigencies of the here and now, she shows us the joy that is ours no matter our present circumstance if we would dare to live for heaven.

Our attitude has not increased the tenderness or goodness of our humanity, but hers did -and not only her own, but everyone around her. So it is time to consider the witness of her short but rich life. If we refuse to listen to her warm voice speaking from the heart of the Church, we risk becoming cold. If we will not let the truth she witnesses to touch us, we may soon be tormented by the meaninglessness that we have brought on ourselves.  If someone were looking for a way out of such nihilism, St. Teresa of the Andes is a sign that love of God offers a pathway forward. She is a charming witness that an encounter with the One who is Risen from the dead helps us live by this love. In Him, there is a love for life that not even fear of death can diminish - and St. Teresa of the Andes is an American prophet of this truth for our time.

December 29, 2018

The Holy Family and Contemplative Prayer

The Holy Family is the first school of contemplative prayer.  One way to know the truth of this is to visit the Holy Family in prayer. St. Francis brought the manger scene into the churches that he rebuilt precisely to build up such prayer. St. Ignatius also invites us to use our imagination to ponder this same mystery. Christmas carols also take us to this same contemplation if we let them.

This spiritual exercise best begins by visiting a manger scene, making the sign of the Cross and calling to mind the presence of God. Sometimes we can be too mechanical about this, taking too much for granted, and this is a mistake. His presence is remarkable. He is closer to us than we are to ourselves, holding us in existence, and at the same time, waiting for us to hold Him. Calling to mind His presence then is always in the form of a person encounter, a heart to heart, a mystery that deserves the complete attention of all the powers of our being. The Lord who relied on Joseph and Mary in His infancy also relies on us, entrusts Himself to us.

As we allow this truth to sanctify our minds, if we prayerfully turn to the Gospels, our imagination can begin to probe the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke. The power of our imagination can search for Mary and Joseph on their flight to Egypt. Or else, we can imagine them on their frantic search for Jesus in Jerusalem. The revealed drama that they endured puts Jesus at the center - everything is always in relation to Him, bringing them into a deeper relation to one another. We might take in the surroundings, sounds and smells that live in the silences of the Gospels; and then the search the faces of Mary and Joseph to discern the paradoxes of tension and peace, prayer and practicality, anxious concern and mutual confidence. When we carefully search the devotion of their hearts revealed in the Scriptures, without realizing how, our own heart can suddenly be revealed.

In the Biblical images, each verse invites us more deeply into the vast horizons of empathy born in contemplative prayer. Here, with the Holy Family, we discover and can even feel that this empathy has a poignantly familial tenderness to it and a fierce dedication driving it. Yet the Bible allows us to share this tenderness with them - their own fierce solicitude for Jesus and familial devotion is passed on to us through the Church.

Ripples on the surface of a deep mystery follow from this. If the concern that Joseph and Mary shared for the Christ-child can rouse our hearts to deeper devotion, then the drama of other hearts in relation to Jesus also belong to us in prayer in some way. And, the anxious concerns and peace that we ourselves know in prayer are also not meant to be carried by ourselves alone, but through the ministry of the Church, by the whole Family of God together in communion. This mystery of communion is why we must never forget the heart of the Church - that place were tenderness and dedication spring just as it sprung in the heart of Mary and Joseph as they drew ever closer to Emmanuel. The familial empathy that impacts contemplation of the Holy Family is ultimately ecclesial. What we behold in the Holy Family is what should live in our own domestic churches, our families, our parishes.

Beautiful silences in mental prayer and the mystery of communion in the Church coincide in the Holy Family. Mary and Joseph shared a devotion that was not individualistic but always in relation and bringing all things into relation in them and between them. The silences they knew were filled with this very fullness of encounter and recognition. If we consider their shared devotion to the Christ-child, they teach us how to protect the gentle awareness of God's presence that has begun in each other too. The concern-in-common that we ponder in the stillness of their hearts is meant to become the concern that lives in our hearts as we strive for a deeper communion in the Church. Such love implicates us in each other's life of faith with all the tension and concern that flows from this -- a mystery that defined the very life of the Holy Family.

December 28, 2018

Holy Innocents, the Sanctity of Life and Contemplation

The joy of Christmas unveils the abuse of power, disrespect for life and irrational fear of every age. The Christ-child always comes with blessings of peace, but governmental abuse of power plot against Him and our hatred toward life is continually unmasked. There have always been pharaohs and kings who have shed innocent blood. God is never indifferent. The violence that we neglect is the evil that He wages war against. Prayer cannot be indifferent to this spiritual reality: the innocents massacred by Herod speak to us through the innocents murdered in abortion - prayer helps us hear this voice.

As was the case with Herod, the blood on our hands reveals the extent of our resistance to the Lord of Life. Our own governments are no more righteous than was his.  Our fears and fury not any less than his. Our abuse of power no less grave than his. Our sin is greater because he only violated a village, we have desecrated motherhood itself, making pregnancy the most dangerous time of a baby's life in our society. If Herod made holy Bethlehem a place of wailing and oppression, our judiciaries and legislative bodies have made the life-bearing womb a place of death and political opportunism. How do we rediscover our humanity after we have indulged the inhumane?

In prayer's determination, it knows that we may drive the Lord of Righteousness into exile from our hearts, but He bides His time and waits to do battle on His timetable, not ours. We might cast around violently, but His saving presence returns at His own good pleasure. Prayer that does not give up hope knows how the Christ-child vanquishes our hostility and lays siege until we open the gates.

If our hearts are hardened and we do not know how to trust, prayer can be a school of trust and vulnerability before the Lord. In prayer's confidence, it knows by His purity, He returns to free us from our lust for power, pleasure and possessions. By His gentleness, He enters our hearts to liberate us from our gluttonous attachments to rancor and wrath. By His humility, He undoes our pride.

If bitterness and anxiety have robbed us of peace before God and our neighbors, prayer is the treasury of patient endurance that attains all things. In the patience of prayer, our secret mean-spirited judgments will be unmasked so that we might beg to be freed from them. The murder and adultery that live in our hearts will be unveiled so that we might repent. The greed and envy that we plow will be uncovered so that we might try another yoke and a lighter burden.

If anger, cruelty, and vengefulness imprison us, the patient kindness of the Lord works to liberate us in prayer. What social or psychological power can stop Him? Herod's massacre, the blood of abortion, and other crimes against humanity do not stop the saving mission of the Messiah. For the Anointed One of Israel and the Savior of the Nations is not thwarted by malice of any kind. Nothing can resist His power.

The Risen Lord knows the immensity of the love of the Father is an abyss much deeper and more powerful than the abyss of misery we have made. His saving presence communicates this conviction when we avail ourselves to its silent splendors. In personal and intimate ways, He speaks in silences to the humbled heart, piercing through our indifference and giving us real power and strength to begin again. In such prayer, the desire to do penance is born and pathways of restitution opened that were previously impossible to find. Peace and joy are born even when all seemed lifeless. In all this, prayer is amazed over how much more powerful is His love than the evil we have done. No matter the sin, whether personal or societal, His mercy heals -- if only we are determined, confident and patient with Him.