December 17, 2009

Advent and Christian Culture

Really keeping the observance of Advent is a terrific feat in our "un-culture."  A true culture is a life rooted in customs and traditions preserved and lived together in a societal manner which realizes the fullest potential of our humanity.  An "unculture" are any practices handed on or purely invented which dehumanizes a society.  We live in an "unculture" where we are treated, not as persons to whom respect is owed, but rather mere consumers who passions must be stirred up into a buying frenzy.  While our faith invites us to keep vigil and wait for the coming of the Lord, our commerialist society invites us to dissapate all our energies on buying and consuming things.  When Christmas finally gets here, if we are not careful about the gravitational force material things, insobriety, sensuality and the pride of life have over our hearts, we will be a little too exhausted and irritable to actually be present for and enjoy the grace of Christ's birth with our family and friends. 

Worship is the very basis of any culture: it is this above all other activities that most humanizes us.  We realize what it means to be human when we stand before the face of God.  G.K. Chesterton loves to refer to this in his desciptions of the ancient city.  He observes that they were always built around something sacred, and that wars were fought to preserve this sacred space, that through the effort to protect and promote the sacred, human piety was born.  Recovering a sense of worship in the Advent season is the key to countering the "unculture" our commercially minded society foists on us. 

As Americans, we are very generous people and even today despite what is pushed on us by most of the entertainment media, this generousity continues in powerful ways.  But in addition to material generosity, we need to become a people who also generously shared what is spiritual.  This is where contemplation and intercession for others comes in. 

Contemplation is an act of spiritual generosity.  I assert this because while many are aware that it is generous to interceed for others, they tend to think that contemplation is somehow a selfish waste of time.  Such a thought reveals a misunderstanding of what contemplation truly is.  To contemplate means to see or to behold something.   Whenever our eyes fix on something beautiful and we simply take it in, this is a natural form of contemplation.  With all the Christmas lights and creches, we find ourselves caught in just such moments from time to time.  While this is very good, there is a spiritual kind of contemplation of which we are capable.  Spiritual contemplation involves beholding God by faith in such a way as to avail ourselves to Him completely with generous vigilance.

Such contemplation is more than natural and not really something we do with the eyes of our hearts.  If purely natural contemplation involves our physical eyesight in some way (at  least as I have described it here); by faith, it is the eyes of our heart that behold the Lord.  He dwells in us as in a temple and constantly makes himself present to us in ever new ways.  Faith sees this and delights in it.  While this contemplation beholds his beauty, even more importantly, when we pray like this, He beholds what is beautiful in us even more.  Spiritual generousity means taking time to make ourselves present to the Lord, seeking Him with our hearts in contemplation, so that He can find us. 

Some think that this unproductive activity is a waste of time.  This waste of time, however, delights the heart of God.  This waste of time also teaches us the virtue of truly being present to one another in love.  As we spend time with the Lord in prayer, His love changes us to be more like Him so that we can begin to recognize Him in those He sends us.  Often, just to challenge us to love on a deeper level, He comes to us disguised as that family member or neighbor we would rather not deal with, but because of the circumstances we must not ignore. 

This is perhaps where intercession comes in.  This season is not only difficult because of the commercialism.  We are all facing together the darkest time of year, the shortest days, the dimmest light.   At least some of the parties and entertaining that we exhaust ourselves over are geared to distracing us from those sorrows and loneliness that this time of year brings into painful focus.  Some are merely tempted to self-pity.  Others grapple with despair.  Sometimes a simple gift financial or otherwise is all that is needed to free those struggling to have hope.  There are also those with whom life has been so harsh, they not only need our full presence and empathy, they really need our prayers.

Christians can be the source of a new, life-giving culture.  As we spend time searching for the Lord and beholding his coming, we must allow our hearts to be full with thoughts for those God has entrusted to us, especially those who are heavily burdened.  Keeping vigilance during Advent means searching for God in those who suffer during this season, giving to them generously not only material goods, but spiritual ones as well.  We must pray for those who seem to need more than we can give especially when we have given all we can.  This part of the beauty that God creates in our heart and delights to find there.  It is the beauty of a true culture - a place where humanity thrives to the full. 

December 14, 2009

Advent and St. John of the Cross

You will not take from me, my God, what You once gave me in Your only Son, Jesus Christ, in whom You gave me all I desire.  Hence, I rejoice that if I wait for You, You will not delay.
For St. John of the Cross, the spiritual life, the life of prayer, is part of a great romance of Christ and the Church.  That is, in the vision of this great saint Christ yearns for the Church in a faithful, indissoluble, sacrificial and fruitful way.  This kind of love evokes the response of love, not only in the Church as a whole, but in each of us who allow the Lord's love to touch and form our hearts.  For this to happen, we need to  keep vigil for his coming, and the best way to keep this vigilance is to behave like the betrothed, to live by love alone. 

This message cooresponds with these last days before Christmas.  It is such a beautiful time of gathering together with friends and family.  We find ourselves easily excited and filled with great expectations about what the reunions will be like.  If sometimes we are caught up in a frenzy of buying, this is only because we want everything to be perfect for everyone we love.  At the same time, it is so easy to exhaust ourselves on anxieties, stress, insobriety and self-pity that we do not remember to pray.  In the midst of it all, we forget that this is a time to wait for the Lord, to live simply in His love, and to seek Him in those He sends to us. 

It such a busy time of year, do we really have time to pray?  Yes.  We make time for those things we most value - whatever is the priority of our heart, that we make time for.   The real question is never really about time, its always about our priorities.  When we make prayer a priority, instead of being driven by our commercial entertainment culture, we find ourselves rooted in love, moved to love by the One who comes for us.  

The One who comes for us is sent by the Father as his great gift to us.   He will never take this gift back, but always offers His Son to us in ever new ways, even if we should for a time reject this love.  In the Father's eyes, we are members of the Body of Christ, the Bride He has prepared for His Son from all eternity.  He yearns to see His Son delight in this Bride, and to see this Bride overcome by His Son's love for her. 

This at least is the picture that St. John of the Cross paints in his poem Romances, one of his few works that takes up the themes of Advent and Christmas.  This poem opens up a beautiful mystery, a mystery only those who say 'yes' to the Lord fully see.  In this, the poem invites us to see with the eyes of Mary, the one person above all who was vigilant for the coming of the Lord.  He not only came to her in her womb, but just as important, He came into her heart, just like he yearns to come into our hearts.  To help us appreciate this inestimable gift, the poem ends with Mary holding her newborn child and pondering how men accostumed to sorrow, now rejoice and how God accostumed to perfect joy, has found a way to bear man's sorrows.

November 19, 2009

Advent Retreat - Mary in the Wisdom of the Saints

To prepare spiritually for Christmas, the Catholic Church contemplates the coming of the Lord in history, mystery and at the end of time.  That is why the period before Christmas is called "Advent."  During Advent it is good to spend a day in prayer or recollection, especially when the frenetic consumerism of our society is constantly pulling us away from what really matters.  Just such a day has been organized on Saturday, December 12, from 9:30am to 4:00pm to which I would like to invite you:

The Virgin Mary in the Wisdom of the Saints
Dr. Anthony Lilles
Advent Day of Recollection in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe
Saturday, December 12, 2009, Camp St. Malo, Colorado

This day of recollection will consider this spiritual maternity of Mary as a special grace that prepares us for Jesus’ coming anew into our lives.  We will consider together how Mary magnifies Jesus for those who want to find Him and she helps us to rejoice in Him.   In particular, looking to the wisdom of the saints and mystics, we will consider the gift of prayer that Mary helps us receive.   These reflections are especially offered for those looking to deepen their prayer life before Christmas.

The day will begin with mass celebrating Our Lady of Guadalupe, the miraculous image of the Virgin Mary which became a sign of conversion for the world.  The day will also include three presentations:
1. Mary of Nazareth's pilgrimage of faith according to John Paul II,
2. The Virgin's Contemplation of Christ according to St. John of the Cross, and
3. The Mother of God in our Life of Prayer according to St. Bernard

9:30am Mass in the Stone Chapel
10:30am First Conference
12:00pm Lunch
1:00pm Second Conference
2:00pm Break
3:00pm Third Conference and Rosary
4:00pm Departure

To register (before December 7), contact:
Catholic Biblical and Catechetical School
1300 South Steele Street
Denver, Co 80210
303 715-3195 Phone

November 11, 2009

Christian Knowledge and Mysticism

Christian mysticism is rooted in the mystery of Christ, and the only secret knowledge it provides is the knowledge of faith.   Faith's secret is the secret of love. The Bride of Christ lives in the presence of her Beloved from whom she receives the secret of love. All who share this secret discover a whole new way of life, a supernatural kind of living in this world but not of it. This is true mystical knowledge, a kind of knowing that results from the members of Christ body encountering Christ Himself.

This ‘hidden’ knowledge should not be confused with esoteric experiences which some non-Christian spiritualities claim to provide.  Esoteric knowledge or enlightenment is arrived at by meditation technique and is at best an admirable human achievement. Christian mysticism does not culminate in this sort of enlightenment nor is it the result of what is mastered by techniques. The knowledge which Christian faith provides is “mystical” insofar as it involves a union with the mystery of Christ through the holy mysteries unto union with the Holy Trinity. It is a contemplative knowledge that anticipates the ultimate end of the Divine Economy, the perfect unity of creatures with the Holy Trinity in which the fulfillment of all desire is realized – that eternal beatific vision of inexhaustible and exceeding Love.

In itself, such knowledge is beyond the ability of human speech to fully communicate because it exceeds the power of human intelligence to conceptualize. The mystery of Christ cannot be contained in the narrow confines of any created intelligence’s categories of thought.  This kind of knowledge is so different from natural knowledge that some comtemplatives refer to it as "unknowing."   All other thought loses its dynamism, except the thought of Christ.  The only reason this kind of mystical knowing is possible is because in the fullness of time, the Word became flesh.

Because the Word dwelt among us and poured out his substance on the Cross, the truth bearing statements of our faith, the articles of our faith, bear the Truth which is the Lord. It is this Truth that is encountered in Christian prayer and to which our faith holds fast. Because the natural power of the human mind is incapable of attaining it, it is described as a dark night, a cloud of unknowing, a wound and a ray of darkness. Because it surpasses all intellectual operations this knowledge is described as a loving glance, a touch and a divine kiss which goes beyond the intellect into the very substance of the soul. The mind receives this heart to heart by way of gift – the gift of faith. Under the fruitful power of the Holy Spirit, this gift opens up a purified understanding of divine things and the very wisdom of God. This kind of seeing which faith avails is called contemplation, a seeing which is at the same time a hearing of the Word.

Though the simplest of children can enjoy this loving knowledge, theologians and mystics struggle to articulate it. Yet, as St. Augustine observes, woe to us if we do not try because “No one can know the true meaning of the language of the spiritual writers if he is unable to explain it theologically; and, on the other hand, no one can know the sublimity of theology if he is ignorant of its relation to mysticism.” Garrigou-Lagrange, Three Ages of the Spiritual Life, trans. Sr. Timothea Doyle, OP, London: Herder (1948) pp 16 and 20.

Although theologians and mystics struggle to articulate this experience of the Church, anyone who has tasted such loving knowledge can no longer live as he once did.  The merest of children experience this.  Perhaps this is why Christianity is not the religion of aged gurus on top of mountains, but the faith of the children of God.  When one meets the Lord in prayer, one finds oneself pierced to the heart, preoccupied with the magnitude of the friendship love of God revealed in Christ Jesus. Even if such a person were to fall back into his former way of life, he would have to contend with something profoundly unsettling and painfully haunting: namely, the indescribable joy discovered in meeting the Lord, and the unrequited sorrow of having turned away from him.  (Think of the rich young man.)

To know Jesus Christ is not reducible to an intellectual experience – it is an experience that takes up one’s whole person and demands the response of one’s whole life. This kind of knowledge is transformative, making one’s life so completely different that some, like St. Paul, will “count all else as rubbish” save for this knowledge of Christ Jesus. Such knowledge demands a new way of life – a life in and for love alone. It is a performative knowledge. It leads to a life of fruitfulness, a life rooted in Christ’s salvific mission.  But here I must end this already too long post!

The Task of Spiritual Theology

As a student of spiritual theology, I am occasionally asked about it.  The simple answer is that I teach prayer.  But this is the longer answer:

Spiritual theology is that part of theology that, proceeding from the truths of divine revelation and the religious experience of individual persons, defines the nature of the supernatural life, formulates directives for its growth and development, and explains the process by which souls advance from the beginning of the spiritual life to its full perfection. (Jordan Aumann, Spiritual Theology, Westminister: Christian Classics (1987) 22)

Spiritual theology seeks the connection between the articles of the faith, the perfection of the Christian life, and a kind of knowledge called “mystical,” a kind of knowledge arrived at through an ecclesial and personal encounter with the Living God.   In doing so, it is not primarily concerned with individual religious experience although considering such experience is not beyond its scope.   More properly it considers the spiritual life of the Church: how is Christ communicating his divine life to his mystical body, his bride? 

The answer to this question involves mystical knowledge that results from encountering Christ. This kind of knowledge is “mystical” insofar as it involves a union with the mystery of Christ through the holy mysteries unto union with the Holy Trinity. It is a contemplative knowledge that anticipates the ultimate end of the Divine Economy, the perfect unity of creatures with the Holy Trinity in which the fulfillment of all desire is realized – that eternal beatific vision of inexhaustible and exceeding Love. The object of spiritual theology as a science is the encounter of the Holy Trinity in the contemplation of the Church. In this sense, spiritual theology corresponds with what the ancients called theology or mystical theology.  Namely, a participated knowing of the ineffable inner life of the Trinity by grace.

Those who attempt to study this kind of knowledge aim at true theological wisdom, a wisdom that ought to inform all the various branches of theology.  In itself, this knowledge is beyond the ability of human speech to fully communicate. But the truth bearing statements of our faith, the articles of our faith, bear the truth of this knowledge above all. Theologians and mystics struggle to articulate it. Garrigou-Lagrange observes, “The mystics … explain the hyperbole and antithesis to which they have recourse in order to draw us from our somnolence and to try to make us glimpse the elevation of divine things.” He goes on to conclude, “No one can know the true meaning of the language of the spiritual writers if he is unable to explain it theologically; and, on the other hand, no one can know the sublimity of theology if he is ignorant of its relation to mysticism.” Three Ages of the Spiritual Life, trans. Sr. Timothea Doyle, OP, London: Herder (1948) pp 16 and 20.

After the great scholastics who revived interest in a disciplined pursuit of these questions, one of the earliest pioneers of this study was Rev. Jean Gerson, Chancellor of the University of Paris.  He believed that the knowledge which flowed from Christ's presence in the soul or mystical knowledge could not be a direct object of theological research, yet at the same time he acknowledged its importance for the Christian life and attempted to elucidate those parts fo the Christian life he believed could be studied.  From the 16th to the 20th centuries, spiritual theology became divided between what was called “ascetical” theology and “mystical” theology. Ascetical theology had more a moral element and concerned the day to day discipline of the Christian life and the ordinary life of grace. Mystical theology tended toward a theology of prayer and contemplation as well as speculative considerations of the mysteries of the faith in relation to extraordinary mystical phenomenon. Twentieth century theologians began to question the wisdom of separating these areas of study. They also became concerned that this kind of theology was not considered ‘academic’ or ‘scholarly’ or in any other sense a serious field of knowledge.

The 20th century pioneers of this field, mostly Thomists, began an apologetic to establish the field as a legitimate science with its own object and appropriate method of research. At the same time, theologians coming from the Ressourcement schools also became aware that this branch of theology should not be separated from other theological efforts, that these other branches needed reference to spiritual theology if they were to remain with the stream of the tradition of the Church. Spiritual theologians, especially those out of the Thomistic and Ressourcement schools, see that research in spiritual theology is vital to the life and mission of the Church because if it is forgotten, the very raison d’etre of the Church is at risk. As one of the pioneers of the twentieth century renewal of this field, Fr. Juan Arintero, explains: “We must examine and consider attentively the hidden and mysterious development of the inner life of the Church. This consideration is fundamental and the most important of all, because this inner life and the exigencies of this vital process are the course of the Church’s development in doctrine and organization.” Mystical Evolution, vol. 1., trans. Jordan Aumann, Tan: Rockford (1978) 1.

November 5, 2009

Elisabeth of the Trinity - on Spirit and Truth

Elisabeth of the Trinity was a Carmelite nun who died in 1906 of Addison's Disease.  Prior to beatifying her in 1984, John Paul II identified her as one of the most influential French mystics in his own life of prayer.  He appreciated the intimacy with the Holy Trinity she promotes in her writings.  This intimacy is not only one of prayer but also action, prayer and action centered on Jesus.  In the following passage, she reflects on the encounter of Jesus with the Woman at the Well.   At one point in this encounter, Jesus explains that God the Father seeks worshippers "in spirit and in truth:"
"To give joy to His Heart, let us be these true adorers.  Let us adore Him in "spirit," that is, with our hearts and our thoughts fixed on Him, and our mind filled with His knowledge imparted by the light of faith.  Let us adore Him in "truth," that is by our works for it is above all by our actions that we show we are true: this is to do always what is pleasing to the Father whose children we are.  And finally, let us "adore in spirit and in truth," that is, through Jesus Christ and with Jesus Christ, for He alone is the true Adorer in spirit and truth."  , Complete Works, vol. I, I Have Found God, trans. Sr. Aletheia Kane, O.C.D., Washington D.C.: ICS (1984). p 108.

Her feast day is Nov. 8.

October 31, 2009

Witness requires Solitude, Prayer and Study

If you study the Life of Antony by St. Athanasius, one striking aspect of the story is the "anachoresis" of Antony - his withdrawal into solitude and into the desert.  It is often tempting to write this off as anacharistic, the spirituality of another time period.  But if those beginning to pray would have something new to offer the world, finding solitude and making desert retreats are key. 

Henri de Lubac, in his work Paradoxes of the Faith, put it this way:
"There is no serious study without withdrawal, a temporary refusal which may look like desertion, an evasion.  It is however not by keeping au courant with daily facts or by discussing the slogans of the man of the street and the latest formulations of current objections that you live in your time and perpare for action." San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987, p 55.

To understand part of what de Lubac is getting at, it is important to associate two activities that today are seldom associated at all: prayer and study.  Nearly everyone agrees that study entails a quest for the truth.  But in the West, since the time of Francis Bacon and St. Thomas Aquinas, we have been divided on what Truth is.  For Baconians and most scholars today in whatever field, truth is whatever is verifiable or demonstrable by supporting data.  Here, study does not require solitude and has no relation to prayer whatsoever.  It requires hypothesis, collaboration with peers, finding and assessing data in light of the hypothesis, to prove or disprove its validity.  For St. Thomas, Truth is above all a Person, a Someone whom you encounter.  We can find Truth first of all because He has revealed Himself in what He has made.  He has also revealed Himself in the history of human events.   Finally, he continues to reveal Himself to us personally, above all in prayer.   Because of the way He has revealed Himself, we constantly find Him anew through both study and prayer, faith and reason.

Why can we discover Him through a disciplined and prayerful use of reason?  St. Thomas understood that Truth is Reason or Logos Himself - the very Creator of human reason.  In creating human reason, He made it so that it could help us find Him, because far from being indifferent, the Word yearns for each one of us, particularly, and longs for us to be in communion with Him and one another.  Yet, human reason by itself is not enough to find Him.   The light of reason needs the light of faith to find what it searches for.   Whereas reason is given by virtue of our nature, faith is a sheer gift.  To recieve it, we must ask the One who made us, and this petition requires a humble prayer, a cry in the dark.  And His answer is more clearly heard in solitude, in the wilderness, by waiting in vigil even through the night.  If the Gospels are read carefully, we discover that this is precisely the way Jesus prayed, the way He studied the Will of the Father, so that through the obedience of Christ to his Father we too might become the sons and daughters of God.

The discoveries of science have greatly benefited the world in most cases, but the discoveries of faith have saved it from destruction.   The world without God exhausts itself because it cannot generate anything beyond itself.   It is growing old and sick.  All the great efforts even in science begin to seem more and more futile because science cannot address the deepest things of the human heart.  To really thrive, the world must live in the light of heaven, of something more beautiful than itself.  This is as true on the world stage as it is in our families and local communities.  No real Christian can be indifferent to this.  Christ commanded us to love and when we see others who fail to thrive our own hearts must be pierced - or we are not worthy to be called Christian.  We know world needs the Lord, and that the Lord in his mysterious plan has chosen us to witness in the world.  But how can we witness to someone whose heart we have not studied?  This is why we must imitate Christ in attending to the heart of the Father through constantly making time for solitude, study and prayer. 

October 28, 2009

Prayer and Theology

"Prayer and theology are inseparable.  True theology is the adoration offered by the intellect.  The intellect clarifies the movement of prayer, but only prayer can give it the fervour of the Spirit.  Theology is light, prayer is fire.  Their union expresses the union of the intellect and the heart.  But it is the intellect that must 'repose' in the heart, and theology must transcend it in love."  Olivier Clement, Roots of Christian Mysticism, p. 183.

October 19, 2009

The Promise of Christianity in the Face of Death

In the face of death, it can seem impossible to pray.  How is Christ present when we lose a loved one?  The answer is not always clear and sometimes never is.  All the same, our faith compels us to seek the presence of Christ even when we lose someone dear to us.

I have recently returned from the funeral of a wonderful friend, Carol Sander.  After a struggle with cancer for over ten years, the Lord has taken her home.  She did not seem to willingly accept death until the very end.  Perhaps this was because her love for family and friends was so great, she wanted to hang on as long as she could to be with them. There was a beautiful funeral mass in Glenville, NY for all her friends and immediate family - and then there was a second funeral mass at the Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochova, Doylestown, PA to which more friends and extended family came.  

A devout Catholic and Third Order Carmelite, she was remembered as a great wife, a mother of two wonderful adult children, and a teacher who worked with mentally challenged children.  She was especially remembered as someone who really loved everyone the Lord put in her path.  She maintained this discipline even as her struggle with cancer required that she draw back from her career and other activities.  Yet cancer could not stop her generous witness to love.  Even the local grocery store sent her flowers.  At the same time, she was an artist not quite at home with suburban American culture.  I imagine the pain and tension of such a life must have been great, and this all the more so as her physical struggle became more intense.  In her case, this suffering compelled constantly renewed efforts to draw her strength from the Lord, to find in Him what she needed to continue to love, even when continuing to do so felt impossible.

In Doylestown, there was a wonderful experience of the richness of Polish piety and culture.  One had the sense of being with "the children of the forests and the plains."  The enchanting simplicity of the Lord Jesus was central.  At the same time, this rich encounter with Jesus was also with the maternal presence of his Mother, Mary.  I could not help call to mind the great faith of John Paul II and his call to build a culture of life and civilization of love.  All of this was part of Carol's own witness to the Gospel of Christ.

Towards the end of Mass, as her brother, Fr. Raymond Gawronski, S.J., sang a traditional Polish song to Mary for those who have died, the local grounds keeper joined him.  In fact, the grounds keeper was like a living icon of the Risen Lord, the mysterious gardener near the empty tomb.  Always in the background, he was solemn and at the same time generously present whenever he was needed.  Completing this contemplation, two priests of the Society of Jesus stood with Fr. Gawronski and his family.  The gardener, the brother priests, the faithful family members drank together the sorrow, joy and hope of those last prayers as Carol's body was laid to rest. 

All of this has helped me call to mind the great promise of Christianity.  Our faith does not promise us glory, or happiness, or relief from suffering in this life.  Instead, Jesus commands us to love without counting the cost.  This means to love even when there seems to be no reason to do so.  It means trusting that God is at work in love even when what He is doing seems completely hidden and our efforts entirely wasted.  This means we must not avoid suffering when that suffering is for the sake of love.  Suffering in love is never wasted - there is great value in it.  Living in love, suffering in love and dying in love is what the Christian faith calls us to.  Suffering in love for the sake of love touches the very heart of what it means to follow our Crucified God.  This is the power of the Cross.  This is what transforms not only our own lives, but the whole world.  To this end, Carol's brother, as he called to mind her life, remembered the great words of John of the Cross, "Where there is no love, put in love, and you will draw out love."

May Carol Sander and the souls of all the faithful departed rest in peace.  Amen.

September 30, 2009

Spiritual Trials

Today is the feast of St. Jerome - a saint noted for his hot temper.  For those of us who struggle with a more or less sanguine emotional life, it is always consoling to discover that we are not alone, that even great saints had to deal with irrascibility.  Self-control and gentleness are fruits of the Holy Spirit in our lives.  I think it provides extra glory to God when He is able to produce this fruit even though our personalities seem to fight against it.  The witness of the saints is that only through prayer do we learn to surrender ourselves so that the power of the Holy Spirit is manifest in our weakness.

Anthony Bloom wrote a book called Beginning to Pray and this book has some great advice about how to start a life of prayer.  At one point, he relates a story about one of my favorite saints, Philip Neri.  This youth minister who renewed the Church of Rome by starting a prayer group in the 16th Century was given a great grace as a young man.    He noticed that he had a very hot temper, especially when provoked by some of his brothers.  So he prayed for an intense length of time, asking the Lord to help him overcome his anger.  Immediately after his prayer, he ran into the one brother with whom he never fought and this brother insulted him out of no where.  They got into a horrible fight.  Then, after this exchange, a similar thing happened with another brother.  Philip was dismayed and returned to prayer to complain, "Lord, didn't I ask you to free me from anger?"  The Lord patiently responded, "Yes, that is why I am multiplying the opportunities for you to learn."

Anthony Bloom explains why this is not an uncommon experience in prayer.  We do not have the space to explore his explanation further.  For today, we will simply note the Lord answers us when we ask for good things the right way.   His answers, however, are always different from what we anticipate.  We do not always recognize the gifts He floods us with because our vision is limited by our own expectations.  For those of us a little hot blooded, coming to appreciate how wonderful it is that God does not allow himself to be confined to our expectations is a first step to true spiritual freedom.

September 11, 2009

The Sign of the Cross

In an earlier post, I shared a little about the Sign of the Cross. (See

Because it is so important and so overlooked, I would like to return to this theme again. From ancient times, Christians have blessed themselves with the Sign of the Cross. In the West, this is done by touching with the fingers of one's open right hand the forehead, then just below the chest, then the left shoulder and finally the right shoulder before folding one's hands in prayer. This action is accompanied with the words, "In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."

Why does prayer start with this action in Roman Catholic spirituality? It is an action that can renew the grace given to us at baptism, if we make this action in faith. Let me explain.

When we are baptized, we are always baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. This is what Jesus commanded the disciples to do -- and he never commanded them to do anything other than act in the authority and power of God. Whenever something is done in the Name of God one is claiming to something from God, by his authority and in his power. This is precisely what a minister of baptism claims to be doing when he baptizes in the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. He is not acting on his own human authority or giving something which is within the mere human ability. He is doing something in the power of the Holy Spirit, by the authority of Christ Jesus, for the glory and honor of the Father.

And what does Baptism do? Through this action we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit: He dwells in us as in a temple so that all the riches of Christ can be ours. This Gift is like a living waters constantly cleansing us and healing of our sins - not only those sins for which we ourselves are responsible, but also the original sin that we inherited from our forefathers. This Gift is like a pillar of cloud hiding us from those spiritual powers and principalities which had once captured us and robbed us of our true freedom. This Gift is a consuming fire which burns up the selfish, arrogant and prideful impulses which characterized our former way of life.

By faith and baptism, the Lord and Giver of Life always comes in unrepeatable ways giving more and more new divine life, moving us in ever new and unimaginable ways to offer ourselves as a living sacrifice to God. His living presence radically identifies us with Christ Jesus whenever we permit him to. At each moment, He is ever ready to join us to Christ's death that we might rise with Him through his resurrection.

The Holy Spirit is not an impersonal or indifferent guest within our hearts. He never runs out of room because He constantly enlarges our hearts: purifying them, ordering them, and expanding them. His fire and light makes us burn to love God and our brothers and sisters with a love greater than any limited natural love. He deifies us, makes us partakers of the divine nature, so that we love with the love of God. He also respects us - and will only do what we permit Him to.

But He is never passive. He is ever alive, ever ready to increase whenever we say yes to Him in faith. The more we say yes, the more He is there to help us - even when all seems dark and lost this Divine Presence is with us in our hearts. If we are not to drown in our own weakness, the constant attacks of the Evil One, and in the anxieties and fears of the world, we must cling to the Spirit's presence like the shipwrecked cling to life-preservers. We must cleave to His Presence, hold firm to it, believe in it, stand fast in it. Yet, our own frail humanity is always forgetting, always letting go to cling to things we think more firm. But they are an illusion. We can only cleave to the Presence of God in our hearts through the strength and the certitude that He alone provides.

This is where the Sign of the Cross comes in. When we make the Sign of the Cross, it is a sign that we are choosing to cling to the Living God who dwells in us through the Gift of the Holy Spirit. Making this sign can actually be a moment of actual grace in which the promises of faith made at our baptism are renewed and the Gift of God remembered. And with the renewal of our faith, the Lord grants us a new strength to hold fast, a certitude and confidence that ever comes from Him.

September 2, 2009

Evening Call

The discipline of prayer includes sanctifying time, offering one's own time to God at various moments of the day, including the end of the day, the evening. Time is first of all a precious gift from God. Not a single moment is to be wasted. Time spent in prayer is never wasted. The sanctification of time is one of the effects and purposes of prayer.

Most people look at prayer as principally a psychological and therapeutic exercise. They do not normally see prayer as something that actually changes time. But prayer is not simply psychological or therapeutic. It is interpersonal, in the Body of Christ for the glory of the Father and the salvation of the world.

Because the prayer of Christ is always effective, Christian prayer is effective to the degree it is in union with Him and the desires of his heart. It is his desire that all things, including time itself, should be offered in thanksgiving to the Father for the salvation of the world. The reality is, Christians, as members of the Body of Christ, make time pregnant with grace whenever they pray. When we pray, this grace-filled time becomes part of our offering to the Father in Christ.

One public way this offering is made is through the Liturgy of the Hours. Based on the ancient Jewish observance of praying seven times a day, the very first Christians offered psalms together at certain hours keeping vigil night and day. Some ancient authorities suggested that this was how to obey Jesus' command to pray always (Luke 18:1 and 1 Thes. 5:17). Today, priest and religious around the world continue this ancient practice. Morning and Evening prayer are strongly encouraged for the lay faithful.

In November of 2006, I was invited to make a retreat with the monks at the Grande Chartruese. I had come to France to give a conference on Blessed Elisabeth of the Trinity and the Carthusians supported this effort by their generous and extraordinary hospitality. For those wanting to take up a life of prayer, making a personal retreat at a monastery can be a great help. There is something about the witness of men and women who have dedicated their lives to prayer that helps us make prayer more of a priority in our own lives. While many monasteries welcome pilgrims for this purpose, the Carthusians normally can not do so because of the discipline of solitude and anonymity that is part of their way of life. So to be able to be with them was an extraordinary grace, one that changed my life. The following poem is by one of my students, Tanya Swegler, after hearing my description of praying with the monks on that occasion.

Evening Call

Sunset glow, evening call
Silent footsteps gently fall
The Tabernacle waits in peace
To give each heart divine release

Moon rise high, evening praise
Starlight shines with angel's gaze
Sleep descends and earth at rest
The setting of the spirit's quest

Candle lit, evening light
Love that burns without respite
Exultation, deep desire
To teouch the Everlasting Fire

Darkness still, evening prayer
Souls lay down the body's care
Voices rise in unison
Echoes of a night begun

Ancient chant, evening song
Resonates with voices strong
Angel choirs respond in kind
As heav'n and earth are intertwined

Vigilance, evening gift
Mount on wings of eagles swift
To the feet of God's own throne
Communing with Him there alone

Sacrifice, evening joy
Lives laaid down for God's employ
A step beyond the grave's domain
To live is Christ; to die is gain

Tanya Swegler, August 2009

August 20, 2009

St. Bernard and Coming to the Fullness of Love

St. Bernard built a way of life that flowed from Chapter 73 of the Rule of St. Benedict. In this final chapter, St. Benedict urges monks to learn the discipline of the Christian life he has presented because it is a good beginning, the minimum needed to make progress in a life devoted to Christ. Once one makes a good beginning, Benedict explains, "You can set out for the loftier summits."

St. Bernard devoted himself to encouraging contemplatives to go beyond the minimum and progress to the summit of spiritual maturity. This summit is characterized by love. In our last post we considered the first kind of love, the foundational love for the spiritual life. This is what he calls love of self for one's own sake. We saw how this kind of love leads to a love of God. Namely, in order to really love one's self, we find ourselves turning to God and asking for his help. When we begin to percieve how good He is to us, we come to love Him because of what He has done for our sakes. To live a life out of this kind of love of God is very good. Bernard however sees that the Lord has called us to something even more beautiful. Through the grace of Christ given us, we have the possibility to learn to love not only for our own sakes, but for God's own sake. In this kind of love, we glimpse the hidden source of Christian contemplation and mission.

What does it mean to love God for God's own sake? This is to begin to see Him quite apart from anything that He has done for us. Love is beautiful and God is Love. To behold Him, to cherish his love in itself is not within our natural power, but we were created to be open to this vision. When we sit in silence before the Lord, wasting time in his presence, we open ourselves to God's power to raise us above ourselves. Contemplative prayer is this openness to God. Such prayer is receptive to a subtle movement of the Holy Spirit by which He prays in our hearts. When we permit the Holy Spirit to do this, He communicates a new kind of love, a divine love. It is with this divine love, the love God has for himself, that we begin to see, to contemplate the beauty of the Lord from His own perspective.

St. Bernard describes this kind of prayer as "tasting" the goodness of the Lord. One might think that this was the highest form of love - loving God for his own sake. But Bernard believes that tasting the goodness of the Lord leads to an even more profound kind of love. In this experience, we find ourselves moved no longer by what we think we need for ourselves or those needs we believe those we love suffer. Instead, we are touched by the loving desires in the very heart of God. We find ourselves pierced to the heart by those things for which the Lord himself yearns because His hopes and dreams are beautiful and wonderful to behold. A new passion envelops us and our lives are ignited with the fire of God's love. As we learn to live fired up by the very passion of the heart of God, St. Bernard says we begin to love ourselves for God's own sake.

The self for St. Bernard is not the same as the "ego" or "me." The self he describes is always an "us." He always understands the human person saved by Christ as being in communion with others. Those who believe in Christ are brought into communion with his whole mystical body. As a result, loving one's self always includes loving all those Christ has entrusted to us.

In the heights of love, we learn to love one another with the divine love the Lord has had for us from before the foundation of the world. Just as God yearns for us to thrive in his love, we learn to live with this same passion for ourselves and for one another. We see in each other the beauty of God's holiness and we yearn with the same desire that burns in the heart of God for that beauty to be fully manifest. Christian charity, its orientation to serve, is not merely a wishful and naive human philanthropy. It burns with something this world cannot contain. In St. Bernards mystical theology, the truth of our humanity is realized in this burning divine love within us.

August 19, 2009

The First Stage of Love According to St. Bernard

Tomorrow will be the feast of St. Bernard. A brilliant monastic thinker of his time, he helped contemplatives understand their growth toward spiritual maturity. He presented his ideas in terms of love - the growth and development of love in our life of faith.

The first kind of love on which growth in the spiritual life depends is a healthy love of self. He calls this, "love of oneself for one's own sake." In general, people who look out for themselves tend to avoid harmful behavior and embrace a good style of life. This is also true of people of faith. If we believe in God but fail to care for ourselves, our faith really does not do us much good. But if we want a better life for ourselves, we find ourselves oriented to a godly life. We want salvation - freedom from all those things that prevent us from becoming who we really are.

When I first began to understand this insight, I had this knee jerk reaction about loving myself for my own sake. True, Jesus said that we should love our neighbor as ourself and St. Paul asserts that no one hates his own body but rather cares for it. Yet loving concern for "self" has a paradoxical relationship to the Gospel mandate "deny yourself and pick up your cross."

Here, we will not resolve this paradox except to say that if we did not have a healthy love of self we would be less Christ like. Even he, the night before he died, prayed that if it was the Father's will, he might be spared his suffering and death. This indicates that the movement in the Lord's heart to love to the full, to lay down his life for oursakes, presumes he valued the gift of human life He shared with us and that all things being equal He wanted to keep it. Life was something precious to Him otherwise it would not have been a sacrifice to lay it down for our sakes.

Christ's attitude toward life is the attitude that every Christian must have. Christians who want to mature in their faith must learn to treasure the life entrusted to them and to reject squandering it on bitterness or brooding. Life is approached with a wonderful sort of vigor and freshness when we see that each heartbeat, each breath, is an irreplaceable gift.

Those who have suddenly been healed of what should have been a mortal illness know this feeling. Even those who have been told they will soon die can make the interior decision to make the most of life right now. When this sort of decision is made - the decision to live life to the full, one has begun to embrace what St. Bernard means. This kind of decision to live life to the full is, in the thought of St. Bernard, a decision to love oneself for one's own sake.

One important aspect of this decision: it is not selfish but profoundly connected to those whom God has put in our lives. Every moment spent with a loved one or any little sacrifice made to take care of them is a joy - because somehow these other people we love are connected to us. The "self" co-inheres, or at least it is meant to co-inhere in those we love. This means taking care of them is a wonderful way to take care of oneself.

When we choose to live like this, the discipline of the Christian life makes a lot of sense. Daily prayer, giving up unnecesary things, small acts of love that no one notices, being fully present to and cherishing those God has entrusted to us, being passionate and pursuing excellence in work given to us, praying before meals and sharing them with others, avoiding insobriety and guttony, generosity to all - these practices simply flow out of a life lived to the full.

Another thing also happens when we try to live this way. We discover that we can not do it by ourselves. We need God's help. So, we begin to ask Him and we begin to discover the loving Providence of God. He is so unimagineably good to us in so many tender ways - but often we do not see it because we have never humbled ourselves to ask for His assistance. When we do humble ourselves and go to Him - we soon find ourselves filled with all kinds of gratitude. We even discover, sometimes to our own surprise, we really love God. And we will look at this next step of love in our next post.

August 18, 2009

Living the Truth according to St. Bernard

St. Bernard of Clairvaux has a dynamic understanding of the Truth that is vital for anyone who wants to grow in prayer. It is the first step on his ladder of humility. For him, Truth is not merely something we seek with our mind but a reality we embrace with our lives. Truth is not merely an idea but a lived experience. He sees no difference between right thinking and right living.

"I am the Life, the Truth and the Way." Bernard roots his insights into Truth by identifying it with Jesus Christ. He explains that Truth is the One who comes to us "naked and weak and in need."

This means the Truth does not force himself. He waits for us with a longing love to accept him. What stands between us and the One who comes is our ignorance, weakness and jealousy. But these things do not discourage the Lord and they should not discourage us. Truth for Bernard not only overcomes our ignorance but gives us strength and raises us above our own pettiness to behold the Lord's merciful love. Humble self-knowledge, the strength to be merciful and contemplation of God in purity of heart mark the progress Truth alone produces in our hearts.

The naked Truth is more powerful than our ignorance. That is, Jesus stripped and scourged for our sins has power over our wounds. Those who want to begin to understand themselves need to turn their thoughts to the Lord and what He has done for them.

Thinking about how much he suffered for us leads us to ask, why? The answer is that he wanted to share fully our misery so that we might share fully in his mercy. When we look to him and what he has done for our sakes, we begin to realize the utter disaster from which his death delivered us.

The truth is, we are ignorant of what is really going on in our hearts, of the terrible suffering and abysses of misery that drive us to all kinds of ugly behavior. For Bernard, the Lord only allows us to suffer this truth so that we might desire something better. In his understanding of holiness, the foundational love that helps us begin the spiritual life is a healthy love of self. This might sound a little selfish if we do not understand it from Bernard's perspective. For him, the idea of self is always the self in relation to others. It is never the isolated self.

If we have the sort of self love he has in mind, we yearn for righteousness the more we see who we really are and what Christ has done for us. Christ died for us that we might know real joy, true happiness. By his death and ressurection he establishes us in his own righteousness. But we need to desire this with all our might. This kind of desire for righteousness is informed by an acute awareness of how much we need the Lord. All of this co-inheres in the way we regard others. If we desire righteousness for ourselves and we are truly in relation to each other, we discover a new way to love our neighbor.

Truth and the healthy self love it engenders helps us to cease judging our neighbor and to have compassion instead. Without a godly love of self, when we see wickedness in others we tend to righteous indignation because in our weakness this is easier than compassion. To really be compassionate means to look at the needs of others as one's own and know how to suffer with others in their troubles.

When we humbly accept the trainwreck of our lives that the Truth reveals, we realize that we are not that different from our neighbor. We all carry a common burden of sin and we all face a common death. This is the beam in our eye. Christ helps us see this and to take it out. Once we see, then all indignation over my brother's failures dissipates. We feel the desire to be merciful instead -- that is, to suffer with our brothers and sisters so as to affirm their dignity.

Mercy begins when there is a kind of compunction, a piercing of the heart that takes place. When the plight of my neighbor strikes the very core of my being - I can no longer sit in judgment. I can no longer be cold. My neighbor is in the same boat as me and we need one another if we are to endure in Christ's love. Bernard even speaks of an ecstacy - a mystical experience whereby we are drawn out of ourselves and into the merciful love of God for our neighbors.

The final stage of truth is purity of heart. There is a contemplation of God's mercy that raises us above ourselves. In this prayer, we see the truth about God. Petty jealousy and pride is destroyed - because we see the Lord and the world in a whole new way. Those who, relying on Christ Jesus, persevere in humility or accepting the truth about themselves and persevere in mercy or suffering with others, enter into a deep and profound union with Jesus, the Holy Spirit and the Father of Mercy. This is a contemplation of the Lord in purity of heart, a contemplation to all who are willing to welcome the Truth who comes to us naked, weak and in need.

August 11, 2009

Christian Enlightenment

Nescivi – I no longer knew anything. This is the first word of the last retreat reflections Elisabeth of the Trinity would author. These words denote an experience of Christian enlightenment different from any other kind of enlightenment ever known. Faith gives us a certain but general kind of knowledge different from any natural light by which we might see things. In this kind of knowledge, love leads and understanding follows. It is the knowledge of of one moved by eros - but not simply a natural love, divine eros drives the heart.

It is August 16, 1906. She is suffering from Addison’s disease and will die within three months. She is racked in pain and weakening, unable to nourish herself or sleep. She has been struggling with this illness for a year. Severe pain for long periods of time has a way of purifying what we see in life. But this kind of knowledge, the knowledge one recieves by suffering chronically and acutely at a young age, is not that to which Elisabeth is trying to draw attention. Merely enduring suffering was not really the driving force of her life. What drove her more than ought else was her desire for Jesus. She was so focused on this pursuit that she even saw her illness as just one more way that she might find him. And she found him all the time, in ever new and deeper ways. Each time she found him, a new supernatural light beckoned her to seek Him even more.

Nescivi, as is the case in most all her reflections, has layers of meaning. Some of these are obvious and others subtle, requiring prayerful attention to ascertain. In this case, she asserts that Nescivi is the Bride’s song in the Canticle of Canticles 6:11 and 12. If we look at the Scripture passage itself, it does not quite suggest Elisabeth's explanation. She did not have access to the actual full text of the Canticle of Canticles. Her understanding of the actual scriptural passage draws from a secondary resource: John of the Cross's poetic reinterpretation Spiritual Canticle.

In the Spanish poem, more than the Scripture verse itself, nescivi expresses the effect of having encountered the Beloved. Truly meeting Jesus has the tendency of changing everything we thought we knew about life. It is not that what we knew was completely wrong. It is just that the way we knew it missed the point. We discover in a single lingering instant, He is the point. John of the Cross tries to convey the weight of this kind of encounter of Christ by poetically describing it in terms of the nuptial romantic love celebrated in the Canticle of Canticles. In this endeavor, his poem focuses on the interior movements of the Bride and the Bridegroom, the particular quality of their shared eros. After entering into a secret wine cellar to tryst with her beloved, the Bride recalls how overcome with love she was and begins to sing, “I no longer knew anything.”

Elisabeth identifies with this experience. It is the music of a certain kind of knowledge, which St. John of the Cross explains, is unlike any other kind of knowledge we could ever possibly have. It is personal knowledge of Christ in which the heart leads the intellect. This loving knowledge moves our entire being, dragging the intellect with it. This knowledge is not irrational, but superrational - something which merely human insight cannot arrive at. St. Augustine explains that it is not merely a light above our minds like oil on water -- it is a participation in the light from which our intellects come. It is a kind of divine knowing in us.

When we know the Lord in this way, we no longer desire to know anything else. This encounter with Jesus is so magnificent, so absorbing that it envelops our whole existence, captivates the full capacity of our awareness. At the same time, this absorbtion, envelopment, and captivation deepens our uniqueness, makes us even more ourselves. If we lose ourselves, it is only so that we more profoundly find out who we really are. Elisabeth contemplated in this experience her true identity - at once particularly hers and eternally the destiny of those who love the Lord, "to be the praise of his Glory."

When we are overwhelmed by the love of the Lord and in this love see who He has called us to be, we have a new supernatural kind of knowing. St. Paul calls it the renewed mind, the mind of Christ. In relation to everything we once thought was important, this kind of knowing instills a sense of not knowing anything at all. Elisabeth herself explains this experience in the words of St. Paul, "I no longer want know anything" but “to know Him.”

This is different than any natural sort of enlightenment because of its particular and, at the same time, supernatural character. When the Bride encounters the Bridegroom, her particular identity is realized in their loving encounter as is the truth about the Bridegroom. By analogy, the encounter with Jesus reveals at once the truth about who he is and at the same time, the truth about the soul who encounters Him. But unlike the encounters of nuptial love, this truth does not end in death. Something about this encounter is deeper and more ancient than death itself, and reveals something that the mortal light of nature cannot see. Supernatural enlightenment, the gift of knowledge, allows us to see the world as the Risen Lord sees it - no longer subject to death but a glorious pathway to the Father's House.

For Elisabeth, the source and ground of this kind of knowledge is rooted in the knowledge of Christ himself, the song that echoes in the heart of the eternal Son of the Father. No one knows the Father but the Son and those to whom the Son reveals Him.

In supernatural enlightenment, each particular human heart is known in relation to God from the perspective of Christ crucified. In turn, Jesus sees each one of us and all of us together with the eyes of his Father. Jesus knows the deep recesses of the Father's heart and suffers the Father's love for us. Christ's heart actually aches to share this love particularly and universally. Similarly, in the Father's wisdom and love, He foreknew each of us and all of us together in his Son. The Father knows how much Jesus aches for love of us. And so, the Father searches for us and waits for us in his Son. His Son is our way to Him.

How do we set on this way? Accordingly to Blessed Elisabeth, we must join the music of Christ's soul - the movement of love in his heart, his divine eros must move our hearts as well. His love and confidence in the Father must become our own love and confidence. His love for the world and desire that all might have eternal life, must become the burning passion of our own hearts. When, in our own uniqueness, we imitate Christ, not only exteriorly by our efforts to love but interiorly by faith on which all real love depends, the Father is delighted because now He knows his Son in us. This delight of the Father in us is what Jesus allows us to taste when we encounter Him. As we follow Jesus in this loving kind of knowledge, paradoxically, we become more fully human, more authentically ourselves.

How different this is from every other form of enlightenment where we are either absorbed into a greater reality or unmaksed as a mere illusion to hide nothingness. The Father created each unrepeatable and unique human heart outside himself not so that it might be absorbed in Him, but rather that it might be loved and learn to love. Such is divine eros - the love revealed in the household of God. This is the inheritance of the saints.

Elisabeth is pointing to this as she begins her reflections for the sisters of her community. This kind of enlightenment, this kind of knowledge, is the most important of all human pursuits. Without it, the true destiny of our humanity remains obscure. It lacks the certainty that only God's love can bring. How do we find this enlightenment? The passion to love God in real friendship, divine eros, is a gift. It is something to be asked for in earnest. Like a Bride, we must utilize our full human capacity, all our effort, all our might, to seek the Bridegroom - for in Christian enlightenment, the one who asks, recieves; the one who seeks, finds; and the one who knocks discovers the welcoming eyes of the Lord.

August 4, 2009

St. John Vianney Continued

I would like to continue some thoughts on this feast of the Priest of Ars. There was a particular kind of prayer he tried to promote among his people, a kind of prayer which must have been very important to him in his own struggles. He advocated contemplation, a loving awareness of God's presence, especially in the Eucharist. There is this great story about an old man that John Vianney found in the Church just staring at the tabernacle. The priest asked him what he was doing and the man explained, "I look at him and he looks at me."

Contemplation is gazing on God with the eyes of the heart. Part of this gazing is to believe He is present even when the heart seems overwhelmed with other things. This gaze of love searches for Him and this search takes time. For those who take up silent prayer, who obey the voice which calls out, "Be still, and know that I am God", such contemplative souls understand why the Priest of Ars was moved by the witness of that old farmer.

The question is if St. John Vianney so valued this kind of prayer, why did he also insist on conversion of life and the ongoing struggle against sin? This kind of prayer is so peaceful - why should we disturb it with the hard discipline of the Christian life, the ongoing struggle that seems to never cease? The answer is that this prayer and the peace it brings is not really an end in itself. Contemplative prayer and the peace God gives through it are only part of a way of life in which God teaches us how to be free and true in our friendship with Him.

Contemplative prayer does provide a beautiful wisdom that disposes the heart intensely to God so that one is actually freed from those troubled anxieties that too much attachment to the things of this world can cause. In this, there is a very satisfying peace that one discovers. Anxieties and worries do not have the same disturbing effect because worldly affairs no longer seem as important. If persevered with, this contemplative prayer also frees us from false notions - like the idea that religious practices somehow appease the wrath of God, or that the Christian life is all about storing up merits for oneself.

But while a certain kind of indifference and equanimity can be characteristics of spiritual maturity, these virtues are only so to the degree that they are informed by charity -- which is friendship love of God. Without charity, these qualities become what Augustine considers splendid vices. It is simply cold indifference to remain detached in the face of a neighbor's plight. It is a slothful equanimity that does not resist such sin. Rather than strengthening our relationship with the Lord, this kind of peace becomes a barrier to the friendship the Lord has invited us into.

The temptation to seek the peacefulness contemplation produces rather than God who is the source of all true peace found its theological expression in Quietism two hundred years before the Cure d'Ars. Thinkers like Fr. Maravel, Fr. Molinos, and Mme. Guyon, similar to St. John Vianney, promoted the practice of the awareness of God. They, like the Cure d'Ars, rejected the notion that the spiritual life was about appeasing an angry God. They also upheld, however, the conviction that spiritual maturity requires attaining indifference to sin and one's own salvation. Enchanted by a certain passivity that they mistook for supernatural virtue, they and their followers were often proported to be the source of scandal. Especially dangerous was their notion that one ought not to resist sin - because resistance and struggle disturbs one's inner peace. Check out

Unlike the promoters of Quietism, the Cure d'Ars understood that peace is the fruit of our friendship with the Lord. This friendship requires vigilance and struggle against anything that might harm it. When we struggle against sin, we are really struggling against the tendency in us to act against love, to act without love. Only when we act in love does God create the space in our hearts that peace requires. His secret was to allow himself to be pierced by the plight of the people Christ entrusted to his care. Once pierced by their need for God and at the same time drawn to enter into God more deeply, he found the ability to surrender what he thought was best for what the Lord thought was best.

This trap of Quietism is at least partially rooted in a need for control and a lack of trust in the Lord. Becoming passively indifferent about one's own life is so much easier than actively pursuing friendship with God with all our strength and determination. This is because indifference towards one's self does not require trusting God or surrendering to Him who yearns for us. Indifference does not require vulnerability. Like Adam and Eve, such indifference offers a fig leaf, a place to hide from the One who searches for us, something that appeals to our imagination more than the unimaginable thing God has called us to.

In his own journey, John Vianney realized Christ's saving hand over this spiritual trap. God's friendship was necessary for real peace. He instinctively understood that this friendship with God, like all friendship, demands daily discipline of opening one's heart and the willingness to go into His heart. Such discipline would be impossible without grace - but by the grace of Christ, this struggle yields peace. In this way, Contemplative prayer and asceticism went hand in hand for him.

St. John Vianney and True Peace

St. John Vianney is a great example of a man of prayer. There are some who want to paint him in tones that are too sentimental and sweet. The strength of his character and intensity of presence is lost in such depictions. He may have been peaceful but he was not passive. For a great snapshot of his character, see

The way he lived his life showed that true peace is always bought at the price of a great struggle. Part of the struggle for him was to be faithful to the mystery of the priesthood in the midst of personal doubts. Even if he was haunted by a lack of confidence in his ability to be a good priest even to the point of running away from his parish, the Lord made him faithful and protected him in his weakness. With John Vianney, the Cure d'Ars, because of the inexhaustible grace of God, we have a man of true grit who was not afraid to fight the battle of prayer.

A small hard working man with a piercing gaze, he defied secular tyranny to become a priest. His dedication to long hours of study remains firm even as his classmates and professors consider him stupid. He is ordained to the dismay of some of his professors and classmates. He is considered incompetent by most the rest of his presbyterate. Assigned a sleepy little country town more interested in bars and dancing than in the Church and praying, the determination and courage that got him into and out of seminary, he takes with him into this ministry. Come what come may he sets himself to do everything he can to help the people entrusted to him realize how much Jesus loves them.

They are not a happy lot. Alcoholism, atheism and adulterous affairs have robbed them of the ability to live life to the full. They are for the most part completely ignorant of the joy and peace that Christ has to offer them. Religion, prayer, going to mass, going to confession - these practices are even mocked as old fashioned silliness. In fact, the priest himself is considered old and silly - out of touch with the real world. And in the face of this rejection, this priest must overcome his own impatience and constantly renew his dedication to them for the Lord. He knows a great secret, a secret shared by everyone who tries to enter deeply into prayer to embrace the will of God. Real prayer involves taking up a fierce struggle against the power of sin and death still lingering in our hearts, and only by engaging this struggle can the Lord make us instruments of his peace.

Because of Christ has conquered death, as long as we turn to him for help, victory is assured. But this victory comes at the price of many trials and tribulations. True peace is rooted in the struggle to love God and one another. This is why the great witnesses of the 20th Century point to the paradoxical relationship of peace and struggle. As F. X. Nguyen van Thuan explains: if you want peace, you must fight continuously.

Behind the doubts that constantly afflicted him lurked a discouraging kind of scrupulosity. Ironically, this affliction became more fierce as his ministry became more successful. As people flocked from all over France to hear him preach and have him hear their confessions, he became more and more suspicious that he was not really being faithful to the Lord. He struggled against the thought that he was self-deceived. He actually doubted that God called him to the priesthood. He suspected that his desire to become a priest was really just his own pride. He was afraid that this same pride was a source of scandal for others. With these doubts about his character and intentions, he was also haunted by the desire to dedicate himself to a hidden solitary life of penance. Sometimes he would even try to run away from his parish. What is remarkable is not that he struggled to be faithful to his vocation, but rather than in the end, he was faithful at all. This was a thorn in his side, the monster that the Lord allowed him to contend with so that he might be purified.

The weaknesses of pride and a fearful scrupulosity can involve the temptation to reject of God's plan for us because we think we know a safer way. It is a combination of fear and pride which causes us to limit our spiritual journey to that which appeals to our imagination. But following the Lord is not a matter of the imagination. Acting out of the fantasy that fear, scrupulosity or pride produces does not bring us closer to God. Friendship with God is a matter of faith - of believing in his love in the circumstances we have before us in the here and now.

(That he should struggle with pride is interesting only because everyone extolled his humility. This points to a great truth about our struggles in the spiritual life - whatever weakness he permits us to endure, he does so to show forth his glory. His strength is made perfect in our weakness.)

The feelings of inadequacy, powerlessness, that one's life has been a mistake, doubting the goodness of God - no one is really spared these in life. Prayer does not make these things go away magically, even the prayer of a great saint like John Vianney. Following our Crucified God, we must face them on our own path to Calvary - it is only by learning to love in the face of such things that our faith and our prayer becomes real. A real peace and true joy lives in our hearts not because we are without problems, but because in our struggles we find God.

July 22, 2009

Entering into Prayer

For those struggling to pray, one challenge in prayer is entering into silence. It seems the moment one goes into a chapel or room or some other private place, a thousand thoughts and feelings suddenly flow. Sometimes, in fact, it is to find some relief from particularly painful feelings or haunting thoughts that we find ourselves driven to prayer. Whatever the case, it can happen that the psychological activity in terms of thoughts, feelings and memories are so intense that they completely prevent someone from praying. Brooding over injury, feeling sorry for oneself, stirring up anxious thoughts, entertaining one's self with various visual or emotional fantacies - none of this is prayer. Prayer is interpersonal and it requires leaving all of these efforts behind and searching for Jesus in one's heart.

If we keep the eyes of the heart fixed on the Lord, all these distractions are quickly left behind. So, Teresa of Avila suggests thinking about a scripture passage or reading the Bible as ways of turning our attention away from distracting thoughts. She also advises thinking about our lives and how Jesus has been present to us. Therese of Lisieux, in her spiritual struggles, identifies with the bride from the Canticle of Canticles and calls out to Jesus, "draw me." Elisabeth of the Trinity asks Jesus to fixate her on him. Occasionally, even naming the distraction and offering to Jesus is helpful. For example, one might pray, "Lord, this anxiety or injury is distracting me from seeking you. I entrust this to you with all the love of my heart. Have mercy on me and free me from myself so that I can find you. I know you are waiting for me."

Whatever the method, God's love is stronger than our self-occupations. If we are confident and determined in prayer, He comes and frees us from distractions. In fact He is coming now, in an eternal act. He is the God who comes. We have every confidence because the abyss of his mercy is much deeper than the abyss of our ego. We can be determined because He is even more determined. Once we have found Him, whatever we had to suffer along the way seems like nothing at all. Most of all, He has confidence in us.

July 19, 2009

Psalm 23

The Lord is my Shepherd! Now St. Athanasius explains that unlike the rest of the scriptures that explain what to believe or how to live, the psalms reveal the holy affections that God stirs in our hearts. This psalm is called to mind especially in the death of those we love. There is something about this psalm that reveals the holy desires God grants us in the face of death.

My heart turns to this psalm today because of the readings at mass, and because of a conversation with good friend who lost his son a few months ago. He said that there were not very many people who were willing to drink from the Cup of the Lord. What he meant was that there is something austere and sobering in the taste of the Cup of Salvation. I knew what he meant. I can still see him praying psalms over the body of his son through the night at his Eastern Rite Parish and I remember communion at the funeral liturgy. It was like passing through the shadow of the valley of death.

What is awesome about our Christian faith is that it is in this shadow that the Lord prepares a banquet for us. It is in the very face of death, whether we are actually dying or not, that the Lord offers us the same cup he drank the night before he died. The cup of the new covenant, the blood of the Lord, at this most difficult of times, is offered us.

Some people tell me that they are not really afraid of death, just the suffering beforehand. Can't that suffering be escaped? Yet, attempts to escape it are dehumanizing, and betray us. The truth is suffering and death go together. They do cause us great fear. Something deep inside us rejects them. We want to fight against them. They are our enemies. But we do not have to face them alone. Holy Communion is called the medicine of immortality and a sacred banquet precisely because it gives us the life of Christ even in the face of our own suffering and death.

There are curious things about the banquet that is offered in the shadow of death, in the presence of our enemies. First, the nature of a banquet including especially the drink shared is that banquets are never enjoyed alone. There are always others present at a banquet - toasting is an experience shared with others. The banquet and cup of psalm 23 suggest that following Christ, though we go through the dark valley, is a pilgrimage that is taken together with his whole body. We are never alone. The second thing about a banquet is that even if sorrowful circumstances occassion it, there is always an element of joy in it -- as if to say, as bad as things are right now, this sorrow is not the deepest reality about life -- we have something wonderful to live for.

In psalm 23, it is in the presence of our enemies, these enemies of suffering and death and any other monster that comes with them, that the Lord spreads a banquet before us and gives us am overflowing cup. This cup can be thought of as the cup that Jesus asked be taken away from him, "But not my will, your will be done." It can be thought of as the cup Jesus offered the night before he died. For those with faith, the cup that the Lord invites us to share is a cup of mysterious joy. It is always a joy, even in sorrow, to possess the Lord. And in sorrow, the Lord gives us himself in a special way. To this end, St. Catherine of Sienna will even speak of being inebriated with the blood of Christ.

This mysterious joy is renewed at every Mass but especially on Sundays, the day we remember the resurrection of the Lord. Today, going through twitter, I found a tweet from a young woman asking for prayers for her recently deceased father. He died in Saigon. I did not know who she was, but I understood where she was. I thought of Joel Barstad's words about the cup of the Lord and how few want to drink it. But he chose to drink it, and we his friends drank it with him, because he and his family stood with his son in the shadow of death. May Greg Barstad and the father of this young lady whom we do not know, and the souls of all the faithful departed dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

July 16, 2009

Prayer and the Absence of God

In his work, Beginning to Pray, Anthony Bloom reflects on the experience of the Absence of God. Not only do ordinary Christians struggle with this, but even ministers of the Gospel, even priests are not exempt from this haunting experience of faith. This experience as suffered in the priesthood is explored in fiction in, among many other works, Endo Shusako’s Silence, Miguel de Unamuno’s St. Emmanuel the Good, Martyr, and Georges Bernanos’s Diary of a Country Priest. In the world of non-fiction, this same experience is a striking feature of Jean Bernard’s autobiographical reflections in Priestblock 25487: A memoir of Dachua and Cardinal Nguyen van Thuan thoughts about his own imprisonment in Testimony of Hope. Anthony Bloom’s insights into prayer and the absence of God provide a reference point for interpreting and dealing with what these authors describe as part of the experience of priests - and this is very consistent with the Carmelite Spiritual tradition.

Only when we really begin to pray, begin to deal with the seeming absence of God in our lives, are we ready for the gift of prayer. Along these lines, Anthony Bloom explains that prayer is a free, personal relationship, and at the same time, a moment of judgment – a crisis in which the truth about ourselves is revealed to us. This means prayer involves both freedom and suffering.

In terms of freedom, this means prayer begins as something I must freely choose as a priority of my heart. If it is not a true priority, there is simply not the freedom of heart that prayer requires. Real freedom is the ability to choose something with passionate determination rather than merely a resigned sense of duty. We can only make something a priority by love. Real freedom is rooted in love, purposeful surrender to the promptings of love within us.

Compared to the loving desires of God, we must be careful to bear in mind that human freedom is only a small part of the equation. It is a drop of water thrown upon the rushing wave of Divine Freedom. This means true prayer precludes all conscious and unconscious attempts to manipulate God. He is free and sovereign to relate to us as He wills, when He wills, for his own purposes. We must learn to go to Him in humble trust, with empty hands, wholly vigilant for his Coming.

This does not mean to refrain from presenting the Lord heartfelt anxieties and concerns. In each of the works above, profound anxieties drive priests in their search for God, even in the case of Unamuno's anti-hero who has an aversion to prayer. Some assert that God allows us to suffer some trials because He knows that we will not remember Him when we are too comfortable. Crisis, anxiety, stress - these are things that drive us to God. But giving primacy to God's freedom sometimes means patiently dealing with what feels like his absence.

Respecting the primacy of God's freedom in prayer means trust in his love even when He does not seem to respond to our concerns. Sometimes, we want the comfort of his presence, but it seems absent. Those who have experienced this know what the absence of God means. John of the Cross calls it a dark night. This night is so important to true Christian prayer he also calls it “sheer grace.” It is a very vulnerable place to be when we come before the Lord with our anxieties and concerns while attempting to trust Him and his plan for us.

Anthony Bloom gets to this same aspect of prayer when he calls it a moment of judgment, of crisis. The mask needs to come off. The prosaic myths we have surrounded ourselves with must fall to the wayside. We need to suffer the truth about who we really are before the face of God.

The characters in the works by Shusako and Unamuno do not deal with this dramatic moment of prayer. In different ways, the anti-heroes of these works judge God and the faith of the Church, but they do not have a personal encounter with the Lord that goes beyond the prosaic. Instead, they avoid or desert what could be a profound encounter as what is merely prosaic in their lives is stripped away from them.

Bernanos on the other hand allows his character to drink in such an experience, even to what seems to be its absurd last drop. This is also what happens in the real life experiences of Bernard and van Thuan. Unlike Shusako and Unamuno, these authors are able to get to something of the truth of human greatness, of the heroic precisely because they enter more deeply into what seems to be the absurdity of faith in the face of the absence of God.
John of the Cross has much better images for what we have explored here as the absence of God and the absurdity of faith. We have already glimpsed at “the dark night.” In Spiritual Canticle, he speaks of God and faith as “hidden.”

This poem begins with an anxious search for the bridegroom who has awaken his beloved from slumber but then ran off into hiding. She must find him who waits for her in their secret trysting place. But to find someone who is in hiding requires that one enter into hidden places. What St. John of the Cross is describing is the search for the Lord who can only be discovered in faith. Faith goes beyond prosaic myths we have produced in our own imaginations about the Lord. We all have these, and for most of our lives, they go unquestioned. But then there is an awakening and we find ourselves searching for something which no myth can satisfy. We soon discover that this something is really a Someone who is waiting for us, yearning for us to find Him. St. John of the Cross explains that when our hearts are awakened in this way, we find ourselves calling out, “Where have you hidden?”

Now on this point, we reach a beautiful convergence in the teaching of Anthony Bloom and St. John of the Cross. Both of them deny that the experience of the absence of God is really an experience of God not being present. He is always present, but in a hidden way, a way that requires us to seek him in faith. Where is he present? St. John of the Cross says that he is present in our own heart.

“Come, then, O beautiful soul! Since you know now that your desired Beloved lives hidden within your heart, strive to be really hidden with him, and you will embrace him within you and experience him with loving affection.” Spiritual Canticle, 1.10

July 14, 2009

The Mystery of the Priesthood

Because I work at a seminary, I have gotten to know quite a few priests over the years. Many of them have become good friends. Some have left the ministry for one reason or another. All of them have grappled with the meaning of their unique vocation.

Simone Weil explained that we do not know anything without suffering. Suffering is the price of true knowledge. I think this is true to the extent that one suffers in love, for love. Good priests understand this. They have come to realize who they are because they have discovered the secret of giving themselves away. But what they have discovered is true for all of us. We only truly discover who we really are by giving the gift of ourselves in love. Giving the gift of self - this involves suffering - because one cannot love another except at one's own expense. Because the priest must live out this gift of self in a very public way -- the priest is a great sign, a witness, for the rest of us about what our humanity is all about. He reveal this to us through a suffering love for Christ, for the Church and for those entrusted to his care.

There is another important thing about priests who are willing to suffer this kind of knowledge - they are always men of great prayer. By this, I do not mean that they are always great contemplatives - at least in the popular sense. Some of the priest's I know complain that their prayer seems shallow. But whether one feels one's prayer is deep or shallow is not important. What is important is that one is faithful to the gift of prayer entrusted to him. When we are faithful to the gift of prayer - even if it seems shallow -- it makes our prayer great. That is in part why I can say that these are men of great prayer. Their life of prayer is an expression of a constant mature love, a humble cry of the heart. Sometimes this may be joyful and consoling. Often it is dry and offered in the midst of the severest struggles. It is like a lamp of hope - and what such priests very seldom realize is that this small still light not only helps them find their own way - but for some of the rest of us, that humble light is just what we need to go on.

A lamp in the darkness. It was a great privilege to go on pilgrimage to the Grande Chartruese (forgive the spelling) and pray with them. In the main chapel at midnight I sat in darkness, shivering in the cold, covered with a blanket. It was pitch black -- except for the far wall of the sanctaury. There a vigil candle flickered - The only source of light in the silent darkness. Then, out of this silent darkness, a voice called out and a whole choir of monks, there hidden in the dark, broke out. They chanted psalm after psalm, in the silent darkness, by heart, with nothing but that candle lit to give light (expect for an occasional flash of an electric lamp when a younger monk needed to see the text).

It struck me that that lamp in the darkness is not only a sign of Christ's presence but a symbol of the prayer of the Church -- the prayer taken up by priests and the prayer to which we are all invited. It is a prayer of vigilant love, waiting on the Lord in hope. The silent cold darkness was a symbol of this world where God seems so absent at times - but that He has never abandonned. Only by suffering the cold and the darkness with vigilant love would one ever come to know how the Lord is present in such a place. But for those who are willing, like the priests I know, such prayer warms the heart. It is a true encounter with Christ which teaches us to love like him - to suffer in love, to give ourselves in love, to become our true self.

July 5, 2009

Year for the Priest - contemplating the priesthood

This Year for the Priest offers a unique opportunity to reflect on the gift of the priesthood for the Church. In recent years, the Roman Catholic priest has been an object of derision, especially in the mainstream media. Yes, there were and always have been some priests who were criminals - but the vast majority of priests are dedicated men who want to serve God and humanity. They feel called to something humanly impossible. Yet with great trust in God, they have ventured to say "yes" to the Lord's divine proposal. Risking everything and sacrificing the dearest things in life, they have ventured a life of the Gospel in which they help people encounter the Risen Lord.

In return for their dedication, they suffer trials and persecutions and rejection of every kind. Good men who have devoted themselves to the Lord have been robbed of their reputations. Others who have struggled with faithfulness have been scandalized. All of them must deal with rejection and at least an undercurrent of constant abuse. There are even some who do not know what they believe anymore.

Our culture has rejected the priesthood - that is why there are very few news stories, movies or shows made today that depict the priest as morally upright, good and strong. In fact, it is hard to find movies, books or shows that depict any man that way, but this is true of priests in particular. It is as if truly and fairly dealing with the priest is loathing to our cultural elite. In a future post, I would like to show that this is a pattern played out over and over again in history. Today, I would only like to spend a moment reflecting on the special witness to Christ that these men offer the world.

It is precisely because of this rejection that the role of the priest comes into relief for us today. Only someone rejected and persecuted and hated can witness to Christ the Suffering Servant. For those of you who are deacons, you too share in this mystery. But today, considering the priesthood as such, we must take a moment and reflect on what this means.

There is only one priesthood - the priesthood of Christ - but there are different ways of participating in it. Most of us participate in this by faith and baptism. This is what allows us to worship and interceded for one another in a singular way. There is also a special way of participating in the priesthood through what St. Paul described to Timothy as the laying on of hands. We do not have time to develop the theology of Holy Orders. For now, I will just say that this way of participating in Christ priesthood is ordered to building up the Church in a particular way. In particular, those who recieve this sacrament lead the Church in offering the Eucharist - the prayer Christ commanded us to offer the night before he died. To lead this prayer requires that someone be touched by Christ in a special way, transformed so as to be able to act as Christ in a special way. This is what Christ confers through priestly ordination.

The priest then is a special sign of Christ. In good times this sign is difficult to understand. Without persecution, it is easy to think of the priest as a "dispenser of the sacraments", to reduce his role to mere functionality. But the special configuration of the priest to Christ does not admit of such reductionism. In times of persecution, when the priest is rejected like Christ was, his person more fully reveals the mystery of the Lord. Even when he is in the midst of the busiest of cultures -- he is in solitude set apart by God for the things of God. Because the world has rejected the One true God - it must reject the priest.

Here we see one small aspect of the special trial a priest must suffer. His special configuration to Christ does not take away human weakness, or fear, or the desire to be thought of highly by others - to be accepted. Priests struggle in particular with loneliness. At his best, he offers everything he has to those whom he serves, whom he believes God has entrusted to him. Sometimes, when there is nothing else left to give - he still comes to serve with empty hands. It is precisely in this struggle to love when there seems nothing left to give, a struggle revealed forcifully in persecution, that the priest realizes his special identity before the Lord and the world. The priest in this struggle becomes an icon of the Suffering Servant, an icon that reveals the love of God the Father, who gave everything, even his own Son for our sakes. When the priest has given all until there is only Jesus to give, and then he gives us the Lord, he remains empty handed like God the Father. In times of persecution, the priest love like this to be faithful to his identity - or he loses it.

There are many priests who are struggling to love in this way. There are so many other aspects to this struggle - we will consider these in future posts. But this great struggle is why we need this year to encourage them, to build them up, to be with them in their suffering. In the midst of persecution, God sends messengers of love who provide a little consolation, a little hope in the darkness. We begin to do this today by praying for our priests and ministers - all those dedicated to serving the Lord.

July 2, 2009

Reflections on the year of St. Paul

I am so grateful for the Year of St. Paul we just celebrated. It renewed my love of the Scriptures and it opened me to the great task of evangelization that still needs to be done. It also helped me rediscover St. Paul as a man of prayer.

In a future post, I would like to explore this them more deeply. But for now, I will simply draw attention to what he held as the priority of prayer. It is an example for all of us. There are lists of hardships that he endured throughout his letters. There is only a couple references to "advanced experiences" of prayer. But he only mentions these in passing. What he like to dwell on in his prayer is how the Lord teaches him to renounce self-reliance. The Lord showed Paul that the only way to persevere in hardship and weakness was to turn to the Lord in faith. God's strength alone is sufficient for us in our weakness.

Quite a few of us forget this basic truth about Christian prayer. No matter how advanced we think we are, prayer has little to do with our own achievements but rather God's power. Prayer is ultimately in this life, as St. Therese describes it, a cry of the heart. It is essentially a cry of trust, reliance, and surrender. Through our prayer, the Lord is able to show in glory in our weakness - even when all seems ill.

This reveals to us something important about the discipline of the Christian life. We live moral lives disciplined for the sake of the Lord out of love for Him, as a loving response to the love He has lavished on us. This discipline of daily prayer, reading the scriptures, loving those entrusted to us, taking care of the poor in our midst, associating with the lonely and abandonned - this discipline is sometimes quite difficult. We often fail or come to our limits. But this seems to be where the Lord likes us to be -- at these moments, He shows us his glory - it is in our weakness that His strength is revealed.