June 22, 2016

Solidarity with our Persecuted Brothers and Sisters

Skip Rodgers is a remarkable man.  God has blessed him with a wonderful family and home in Colorado.  He has also been blessed with a very beautiful life of faith.  This faith has moved him into action.

I first met Skip over twenty years ago.  He was not Catholic but he had a lot of questions about the Church.  His fiancee Lee Ann had entered an RCIA program.  Seminary trained and ready to start ministry in his own church, he was puzzled why the woman he loved should be drawn toward a form of Christianity he barely recognized as legitimate.  If he had an edge to him, his questions were straight forward and sincere. It was, in fact, a moment of actual grace when he came to my office.  As he carefully considered what the Church proposed as the authentic expression of our Christian faith, he was eventually moved into action.  He entered our RCIA program and we have been friends ever since.

Now, nearly twenty years later, Skip's faith has moved him to action once again. Really, he has never not been moved to action the whole time that I have known him.  Besides raising a family and living out a beautiful marriage with Lee Ann, his career has allowed him to serve the psychologically suffering through the years. He, in fact, is a man of great compassion.  When he sees the suffering of others, just like when he sees the truth, he knows it is not enough just to think about it.  He is moved to do something.

True faith is lived out.  It is not just lip service. It is never a private affair.  It is an expressed reality.  This is because God expresses Himself in our human reality.  He is at work and He has taken our side. And if we are to stand with Him in faith, we must take up the mission that He entrusts to us.  We know that we are entrusted with a mission, that we must act, when His love moves our heart. What kind of people would we be if the love of God moved us and we did not respond? What kind of faith would we have if we resisted taking up the task that Love Himself entrusts to us?  Letting the love of God move us into action, this is what it means to live out our faith, to give expression to what we believe.

This attitude of faith in action is why Skip  is in the middle of a bike ride.  He learned about the plight of Christians in the Middle East -- Displaced by war and suffering the loss of their homes as well as severe poverty, they are the object of severe brutality and hatred. Under the shadow of overwhelming political, military and cultural forces, they stand firm in their faith. In fact, Pope Francis insists that we acknowledge that what is happening to them is not simply genocide -- as evil as that is -- but even more, martyrdom.  The more Skip learned about how whole families have been killed for their love for God and devotion to Christ, he knew that he had to do something.

In the kitchen of a mutual friend when I was visiting Denver, he shared about this unfolding atrocity of our time, and how he could not be indifferent.  The truth was too poignant. The suffering too dehumanizing.  He had to act. So he is riding from coast to coast, attempting to raise awareness and money for our brothers and sisters who for Christ "have suffered the loss of all things."

Learn more at his blog: http://www.rideforhopeandmercy.com. See this wonderful article for more information: Bike across America.  And going by @freedomriderSR, we can follow him on twitter too.  

June 20, 2016

Elisabeth of the Trinity to be Canonized on October 16!

Pope Francis announced at the June 20, 2016 papal consistory that the date for the canonization for Elisabeth of the Trinity will be October 16, 2016.  These developments are being reported at by Dan Burke and Liz Estler at SpiritualDirection.com  and there is a press release from the webpage maintained by the Carmel in Dijon.  For the official notification click here.  Her canonization is a huge grace for the Church because it will help people rediscover her spiritual mission. In a noisy and heartless world that has forgotten God, she is ready to help us find the peace that only devotion to Christ in prayer can provide, and this kind of peace is needed now more than ever.

Before her death she came to believe that she was being given a sort of spiritual maternity over souls who desire a deeper union with God. Aware about how anxiety, scruples and self-torment are dangerous for the life of prayer, she described a kind of priestly role in which she would help those who asked get out of themselves and into a more vulnerable posture before the Lord.  Based on her own experience of the power of Christ's love, she was convinced that souls that recollected themselves in holy silence and were confident in the love of God would be raised up into a transforming union with Him.  

Elisabeth of the Trinity's writings provide a mystagogical catechesis on prayer. That is, she provides instruction for those seeking a deeper encounter with the Lord and who want to grow in their dedication to Him.  Her letters and spiritual reflections are filled with quotes from Saint Paul and Saint John -- all meant to encourage a simple movement of love toward God. Firmly convinced of the Lord's benevolence and mercy toward each soul, she understood that progress in the spiritual life requires a humble surrender and abandonment to His will.  To move us in this direction, she also draws from Saint John of the Cross, John Ruusbroec, Angela di Foligno and Therese of Lisieux at once reinforcing and explaining why silent prayer and adoration before the mystery of God are essential for the Christian life.

Even in the final days of her illness, the young Carmelite nun was convinced that God's love in her was so powerful that not even death could stop her from praying for her friends and helping them enter into a deeper relationship with the Holy Trinity.  She even said that it would increase the joy of her heaven if her friends asked her to help them.  This was compelling to both her friends and her family because they knew her to be sincere, profoundly compassionate and always faithful to her word. With her canonization, God has given Elisabeth of the Trinity to everyone in the Church as a new spiritual friend.  If you ask her to help you to pray, you can count that she will not fail to do everything she can.

June 10, 2016

Adoration and the Birth of Praise

Praise is born of adoration.  We are never alone when we choose to humble ourselves before the hidden presence of God. This prayer of faith is never meaningless, empty or disconnected. We do not understand or even feel the unfamiliar glory that gently envelops our soul as we lower our eyes and fold our hands. Hidden even from ourselves, sometimes in circumstances that seem so contrary, the more we humble ourselves before His ineffable mystery, the more He raises us on high.

He joins us with all our brothers and sisters who have boldly offered the same prayer confident in His love though they could have no confidence in themselves. In an instant, we find ourselves in their company even though we may not see them. Yet, we know this is true. When we adore Him, He eagerly establishes us in a communion so powerful, so far above the limits of this world, that not even death can break the bonds He has established between us. Bathed in silent wonder and awe, we may not yet know that we are among other heads bowed down too. By humble prayer we have been raised to where knees are bent and the tender murmuring of myriad tongues praise the One who conquered death and opened up access to God.

To savor this foretaste of future glory is to be seized by the thought that for too long heaven's pregnant fullness has been waiting to break forth. It is to allow oneself to be rattled to the very core with the realization that now, the hour has come and the floodgates of mercy are opening anew. In such adoration, hope is born for an age that is dying for lack of tenderness.

Only on one's knees do we ever learn that we are visited by unfathomable kindness. Only when our crowns are cast down, do we understand how a confusion crushed culture is being offered new life once again. Only surrendered and abandoned to the Lord in the brokenness of our lives do we find that the cold darkness that has gripped the human heart too long is already being dispelled. For the ear of the pure heart, in the wonderful stillness of such moments resounds the great canticle of a love unvanquished. Enveloped in such heart piercing beauty, the praise of His glorious grace is born.

April 29, 2016

Victory Belongs to the Lord

In my last conversation with Father Gawronski before his death, we reflected on Joseph Pilsudski who fought to re-establish Poland has a country after World War I. Fr. Raymond believed that, in a certain sense, this leader prefigured Saint John Paul II. Both men were confident in the victory of good over evil, not only on a global level, but also on a personal level. Both stood up against the odds and helped people realize their own greatness through sacrifice to something greater than themselves.  For Pilsudski it was a resurrected Poland. For John Paul II, it was a new springtime for the Church. We mused over how years before John Paul commanded us not to be afraid to cross the threshold of hope, Pilsudski had already counseled, "To be conquered but not to surrender is not to be defeated, but in victory to sit on one's laurels is certain disaster." 

At his funeral, friends shared about their visits with Father Gawronski. Rather than having guests come to his room to visit, he would insist on getting up and going out to greet them even when he could do so for only very short periods of time and at great effort. He did not complain as his body gave out, but joked and laughed until his visitors found themselves laughing despite themselves. At the same time, he remained firm in his hope and would make every effort to exchange the most beautiful insights. Most of all, he remained faithful to prayer.

Father Raymond was profoundly aware of his own inadequacies, weaknesses, and failures, but he believed that the saving power of the Cross was not limited by his own sinfulness or the sinfulness of others. Like Pilsudski who refused to surrender to his political and military foes, Raymond Gawronski was not defeated by suffering and death. A faithful son of the Pilgrim Pope, he did not believe our failures and spiritual wounds ultimately define who we are, but rather we are defined by the love of God. 

When we are confronted by the mystery of death, our faith tells us that the Lord is accomplishing something new and wonderful: a new heavens and a new earth, even as everything in this world, including our mortal bodies, seems to be falling apart around us. Our sacrifices and patient endurance of these trials and hardships make a little space in this fallen world for others to glimpse the wonder of God's love. Father Gawronski is a witness that even though our efforts to serve God seem feeble and ineffective, if we have made these efforts with confidence in Him, we have not labored in vain.

This is an important example for us as we strive to live for the love of God by prayer. As we try to serve God and our neighbor faithfully, we may well be mistaken about most everything, not clear on what to pray for, or even how to act.  Even when we find ourselves unable to do anything that is truly good -- we still know by faith that God is not mistaken in His love for us and that He is always at work to bring about good even when we fall short. He knows the truth about who we are and He can not be thwarted in His great purpose -- to save us and raise up all that is good, noble and true about who we are in His sight. Christian faith knows that even as our own weakness and the weakness of others cause us to lose trust in everything else, we have only found an even deeper reason to trust in the Lord. 

Christianity, Father Raymond insisted, has three syllables: life, death and resurrection. Death is a difficult, alienated syllable, one which has plunged our whole culture into a indulgent nihilism. Yet the witness of spiritual fathers like Raymond Gawronski, even as they contend with their own death, point to another way. With Christ, the alienation of sin and death is never the last word. Instead, the prayer of faith makes death the royal pathway to a deeper solidarity with God, ourselves, and with one another.

April 16, 2016

The Witness and Mission of Father Raymond Gawronski, S.J.

In the final hours of April 14, 2016, God called Father Raymond Gawronski, S.J.from this life. Professor of Theology at Saint Patrick's in Menlo Park, he has also served on the faculty of Saint John Vianney Seminary in Denver and Marquette.  In both Menlo Park and Denver, he was involved in helping to initiate spiritual formation programs for new seminarians.

He told some important life stories during a television series on EWTN where he provided reflections on the spiritual exercises of Saint Ignatius.  Many of his reflections are now in a book published by Our Sunday Visitor, A Closer Walk with Christ: a personal Ignatian Retreat. Like many in the late sixties and early seventies, he went through a struggle to understand what his religion meant in the modern world. The son of a Polish concentration camp survivor, this New Yorker rediscovered his childhood faith as a taxi driver in Hawaii when another taxi driver asked him whether he had "met Jesus." He would eventually embrace a life of prayer as both a Jesuit and an aggregate monk of Mount Tabor Monastery in Ukiah, California.  

My friendship with him began in Rome where he defended his dissertation on the dialogue between Christianity and Asian culture in the thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar.  This work is now published by Angelico Press as Word and Silence and I used it for many years as a textbook in spiritual theology because of its stunning polemic for Christian contemplative prayer and the wisdom of the saints.

After his successful defense, he went on to Poland to complete his formation in the Society of Jesus. It was a decisive moment of grace in his life when God gave him a mission to help renew the Church in America.  In the late 90s, this mission took a new turn when he worked with priests in the Archdiocese of Denver to offer the spiritual exercises of Saint Ignatius to the first cohort of the then newly initiated Spirituality Year for young men preparing to enter seminary.

The presbyterate throughout the Rockies, the Heartland, the Southwest and California is stronger today because of his generous "fiat" to the will of God in his life. A brilliant theologian and obedient son of the Church, hundreds of seminarians and many others sought him out as spiritual director and retreat master who helped them encounter the Lord in life changing ways. As a Jesuit, his mission was on the frontiers of the Church's dialogue with Asian Culture and non-Christian religions.  As a man of poetry and art, he decried the tyranny of the culturally powerful and the spiritual vacuum that excessive reliance on technology has created in the modern heart.  As a priest, he advocated the piety of the people: pilgrimages, the rosary, the chaplet of divine mercy and, most of all, the Eucharist. As a monk, he was deeply devoted to Mary and to promoting the Heart of the Church in contemplative prayer. 

While I will offer other reflections on this remarkable priest, today, I offer you a few of his own thoughts on the need to foster a deeper contemplative intellectuality in the Church: 

"We live at the end of the so-called Christian ages. This end did not come overnight, and that which is called “Christian” was by no means definitive or exhaustive. It is hardly the end of Christian faith or life, which ends only with the Final Judgment and the restoration of all things in Christ. But the drama of salvation continues through our own apparently culturally destructive times.

We are called to know and love God above all, and to serve Him in the place and time where it has pleased Him to place us: this is the will of God for us, right where we are. Like the missionaries of all ages, we have to know and live in the Faith, and then know and understand the culture in which we find ourselves so that we can present the Gospel in a way that it can be heard.

Hans Urs von Balthasar held that the greatest tragedy to befall Christendom was the split between head and heart, between dogmatic and spiritual theology. We see the effects of that in the Church today, where a massive educational establishment yet fails to enliven the Church, where half-educated Catholics are unable to integrate their minds with their hearts, and the spiritual life becomes the matter of psychology and trendy spiritualities. At the heart of any renewal must be the experience of prayer: formation in a life of prayer. And at the heart of this is a silence that can hear God." 

Throughout his final illness, he humbly accepted the will of God with peaceful resolve and good humor. He was sixty four. Now we commend Father Ray to the mercy of God as he journeys to the Father's House.