April 29, 2009

Adoration, Silence and the Lamp of Fire

Hunger for silence is the sign of spiritual maturity. This saying is attributed to John Paul the Great and reminds me of the program he proposed to the Church after the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000. He called the Church to gaze on the face of Christ. Learning to gaze on the face of Christ takes us into a mystery of great silence - not just the absence of noise, but a peaceful silence of heart that only the Lord himself can produce. The Carmelite mystics explain that it is in Christ's adoring silence that a Lamp of Fire begins to burn within.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church #2628 identifies adoration as one of the forms of prayer encompassing an attitude primary to all authentic prayer, an attitude that blends humility and hope in our approach to God. Externally, adoration expresses itself when we kneel down, fold our hands, and close our eyes. But more important than these external gestures that dispose us to adore the Lord is the interior movement of heart, a movement that should inform everything we express in prayer.

When we glimpse the incomprehensible transcendance of the Lord, His holiness, over anything and everything else that is, especially over "self", a certain awe grips our hearts and we fall humbly silent before Him. Those who surrender to this awe more and more through their faithfulness to prayer discover a deep yearning for this adoring silence. That is because this silence is not a mere therapeutic experience of non-activity. For the overworked and exhausted, such silence can be very important but it is not the adoring silence of Christian prayer. Rather the silence of adoration is a humble openess to the Lord's super activity, an active receptivity to the overwhelming and unimaginable power of God. Those who embrace the mystery of the vigilant silence have a sense of exaltation in their hearts. They understand the words of Mary, "My spirit exalts in God my savior."

When we are moved like this, it is such a personal experience that we are tempted to think we are the only ones who have ever had it. But then we notice others folding their hands and closing their eyes after a powerful homily or during a beautiful hymn. I have seen some people not move for hours, they are so enveloped in this prayer. Others, like the Carthusians, have accepted vocations in which their whole way of life is centered in this prayer. Very few are willing to share the movement of their hearts at these moments.

Those who begin to pray soon discover that adoring silence characterizes their conversations with the Lord. Elisabeth of the Trinity, a twenty six year old Carmelite nun, just weeks before her death in 1906, identifies this movement of prayer as an "ecstacy of love" and the "beautiful praise" that is "sung eternally in the bosom of the tranquil Trinity."

Ecstacy is not merely an emotional trip but a spiritual journey. The word actually means "to go out from oneself." Elisabeth well understood how adoration rescues us from self-preoccupation. It makes God the center of our hearts. At the same time, it involves us in a search for the face of Christ within us, within those painful places - memories, feelings - we would rather avoid. When we discover the face of Christ gazing on us in love in the midst of our own brokeness - the brokeness has no more power over us. Before Christ, human misery can no longer imprison us within ourselves. We discover real freedom when the Lord leads us out through this misery into the abyss of his mercy. For the Christian, true ecstacy in prayer is like the journey revealed in Psalm 23, "though I walk through the valley of death, I fear not for you are with me."

If we consider adoration as a going out of self, we better understand what Elisabeth intends to convey when she attributes adoration to the inner life of the Trinity. In the bosom of the Trinity, that is in the very communion of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Elisabeth 'hears' adoration as a song of praise.

Notice that her vision of heaven is not something static or boring. I think anyone who actually believes God is like that will never learn to pray. Why should anyone pray if in the end we wind up with something lifeless? In us, there is a passion to thrive the rebels against the temptation of nihilism. Even under the shadow of the certainty of death, we do not want to perish, but to live. This passion was put there by God himself. God is himself the thriving happiness which is the source of all beatitude. He is so filled with life and love that only those with great passion can find Him. And yet He yearns for us to find Him and in Him to realize the perfection of all our noble human potential. We are talking about the total freedom to love - to give oneself to God and others in a communion of unending love. To live like this is completely opposed to anything boring or static.

Heaven is a place where nothing inhibits love. And we all know our finest moments in life are precisely those moments when we love without counting the cost, when we give everything for the sake of the beloved - whether a spouse, a child, a stranger or God. These moments of strength, courage and freedom are such gifts. They allow us to glimpse who we really are. Imagine yourself in your finest moment -- only this time the moment never ends. It is with this kind of love the Jesus adores the Father from all eternity -- it has all the force and power of great music, or rather, this is the source of all music. Flowing from the heart of the Trinity, Elisabeth 'hears' a symphony of love in which our own silent adoration somehow participates. Elisabeth understands this graced participation as Christ adoring the Father within us through our faith in Him.

Perhaps the most beautiful attempts to express this idea is contained in the writings of St. John of the Cross. Especially in Living Flame, the Spanish mystic describes an intimate experience of God in terms of "Lamps of Fire" (LF 3). Those who fully enter into the prayer of adoration discover that their journey into God has allowed God to journey into them - that is, has allowed God to be present in new ways. The warmth and light of God permeates their every action - this to such an extent their very presence strengthens and enlightens those around them. Elisabeth would say that even in their most weakest and human moments, the Lord's eternal resounds through them.

How does silent adoration lead to a life filled with such love? Elisabeth and John of the Cross speak about a humble loving acceptance of persecutions, tribulations, nights, dryness, and other tests. By having the courage to continue to adore in the midst these great trials, joining his song of praise in those crucifying moments of our lives, we learn the secret of gazing on the face of Christ crucified by love. This allows us to be completely surrendered to God, because keeping our eyes fixed on Him, nothing can overwhelm us but His infinite love. And so the reason we come to yearn for adoring silence. When we catch, even for an instant, the look of love in his eyes, that powerful yearning for our happiness, nothing can separate us from Him and his warmth and light in us becomes, even in the most bitter cold darkness, a Lamp of Fire.