May 27, 2009

The Mercies of God

I am in Bishop, CA giving a set of lectures on St. Paul, St. Therese and the Mercy of God. Tonight we will discuss the St. Therese. One important grace she recieved is called the Christmas grace. One Christmas after mass, she was very excited when the family returned home. She could not wait because of a family tradition - something like getting her stockings stuffed, only I think they used shoes. As she was headed upstairs, she heard her exhausted father sigh and say something along the lines of "I am glad this is the last year for this!"
Up until this moment of her life, Therese was very sensitive. Normally, a comment like this would have caused her to break down in tears. Didn't her father care about her feelings? Didn't he want to make her Christmas special? What he just said seemed so cold. But it was just at this moment she recieved a special grace. She felt the emotion to cry but she also felt the grace to make a decision. By Christ's help she chose not to worry about her own Christmas, but to think of everyone else and make Christmas special for them. She chose to offer her feelings to Christ as a present, a gift, a little sacrifice. Rather than be ruled by her own sensitivity, she chose to be ruled by what Christ desired in that moment. So she re-entered the room with a great smile, hugged and kissed her father, and was a source of joy for the whole family. Later in her life, she would reflect how the spiritual life is all about responding to grace in these little moments. Rather than allowing any moment to be wasted on her own feelings, she saw every moment as an opportunity to offer her heart to Christ. She would call this strategy of living by love in each moment "the little way" or "the way of divine childhood." It is a way of life whereby we live relying on the grace of Christ to provide us what we need in the little things that come up - so that we no longer live out of our own emotional neediness - but we live by love of God.

May 22, 2009

Holy Spirit and the Gift of Prayer

Prayer is meant to be a heart to heart - my heart with the heart of Christ in the heart of the Church. It involves intense thinking and even more intense affectivity, at once very personal and extremely interpersonal. To enter the heart of God is a journey that takes us into our own hearts and the hearts of all those whom the Lord loves. In the beginning, imagination, thought, feeling and intuition are helpful aids. But as we go deeper, anything we can naturally do falls silent. In the stillness of our weakness, limits and imperfections, we discover a divine power at work. It is not the kind of thing we can generate by willing it. Rather, our job is to accept it as a gift. It is the unfolding of the greatest gift of all - the Gift of the Holy Spirit Jesus promises to lavish on those He loves.

Sometimes prayer is approached as an intellectual exercise - I try to force myself to think pious thoughts or at least those kinds of thoughts that people say I ought to think when I pray. I tried to do this and it is a very dry, disatisfying experience. It seems to me that many people give up on prayer because they think that this is all there is. While it is true that thinking can be important for prayer -- thinking without heart is just cold.

On the other hand, emotive prayer not rooted in the truth is a betrayal of the heart. If prayer is just emotion stirred by prosaic associations, we have not really gone beyond ourselves and into the heart of God. Instead, however good we might feel, we are locked in the merely therapeutic. Yes, St. Bernard might concede that in such prayer we love ourselves for our own sakes and we might even be able to love God for our own sakes. But this prayer does not lead us to love God or ourselves for God's own sake. It is not really a heart to heart.

The fact is that prayer is not a matter of simply thinking or feeling - it reaches out for something greater than these limited activities can achieve on their own. This is because the truth is more than mere thought and affection. But prayer can produce beautiful thoughts profoundly beyond the power of any natural intellect to comprehend and stir affections so deep that there are no words that can express them. This is what happens when prayer is a heart to heart with the Living God. He not only wants us to share our thoughts with Him, but He wants to share His divine thoughts with us. He not only suffers with us our own misery, but when we are ready He yearns to share that for which His Heart aches.

The psalms witness to this kind of prayer. Whenever they are prayed, they are a living testimony to the heart of God. St. Anthanasius insists that the psalms teach us how to feel in the same way the rest of the Scriptures teach us how to think. This is because God has chosen to reveal Himself: what He thinks, feels and lives. But he not only wants to share his affection and thoughts, He yearns that we let His divine thoughts and the movements of his heart to transform the way we see Him, ourselves and the whole world around us.

This is why prayer is so vital for the Christian life. As long as we are limited by merely human concerns and natural ways of seeing things, we lack the vision and strength to live out the will of God. But when we grow in prayer and familiarize ourselves with the priorities of God's heart, a supernatural power is communicated to us and we participate in his very life through faith. This experience is described in so many beautiful ways by those who have plummeted the depths of prayer. John van Ruusbroeck describes this as "the divine impact", John of the Cross describes a joyful discovery of the reflection of the Bridegroom, and Elisabeth of the Trinity speaks of a simple and loving movement. The source of such prayer is not our own creaturely activity - it is actually produced in us by the gift promised to us by Christ before He ascended into our heavenly homeland. Jesus constantly pours out his heart to the Father that we might recieve this the Gift of the Holy Spirit. The Father never ceases to answer the prayer of His Son by sending the Holy Spirit always anew into the hearts of those who believe in Jesus. The divine counselor is come upon us who constantly teaches us all things, who St. Paul says actually prays inside our hearts with "sighs too deep for words" This Advocate ushers us into our true homeland: communion with the Holy Trinity available to us right now in this present moment which is eternity "begun and still in progress."

The gift of this kind of prayer is what was lavished on the Church at Pentecost. The Holy Spirit is constantly coming to us in new and unexpected ways - inebriating us in the love of God. He never ceases to reveal the depths of Christ heart to those who are open to his interior promptings. All that is required of us is what has always been required of those who want to know the living God - an open and obedient heart, ever ready to respond, "Let it be done to me according to your word."

May 9, 2009

The Great Secret of Christian Prayer? Make a Good Beginning!

When I was a teenager, I remember finding a book called Beginning to Pray by the late Metropolitan Anthony Bloom. There were two things about this book that helped me begin to pray. First, he used the Scriptures to explore our encounter with Christ.  Second, he did not present himself as a prayer “guru.” His approach was much more humble. He admitted that he could only write a book about beginning to pray because he himself was only a beginner. Indeed, he explained, he began to pray everyday.

The Word of God is so beautiful, the very food of prayer.  Sometime, I would like to post only on this.  But for now I will just mention in passing the great teaching of Athanasius and Antony of the Desert.  Namely, we find in the Sacred Scriptures not only what the Lord thinks but also what He feels.  The Holy Bible is a window, a threshold, a passage into the very heart of God and at the same time, a pathway into the deepest truth about what it means to be man.  Christ Jesus lived and breathed the Scriptures: He used them in his prayer to the Father and in all his discourses to those whom the Father sent to Him.  The Word of God makes conversation with the Lord possible.  This is why St. Patrick in his own prayer binds himself to "the Word of God who gives me speech."

I knew this before I ever read Bloom.  But the way he explained the Holy Gospels in relation to prayer helped me see this even more.  As I began to pray, I began to love God's word in a deeper way.  They fed my desire to know God and helped me to seek him.  But this desire could only grow if I stayed faithful to another important lesson I learned from the Metropolitan.  He also taught me the lesson of beginning.  And in this post, this is the point I would like to develop.

This lesson of making a good beginning is also part of the teaching of Athanasius and Antony of the Desert.  One of the earliest works on Christian prayer is written by St. Athanasius about his childhood hero, Antony of Egypt, a 3rd Century Egyptian hermit.  It is called The Life of Antony.  Using Antony's life and sayings, Athanasius explained how it is good for Christians to encourage one another not only with the Scriptures, but also with their own words.  Every Christian, no matter how advanced, must begin anew each day. This discipline of beginning, of making prayer a life priority, is what deeply impressed me.  In fact, encouraging one another to make this beginning is the purpose of this blog.  Among Antony's first encouagements recorded by Athasusius is, “Let us renew our devotion each day, as if beginning for just the first time.”

While this is true for everyone who wants to follow the Lord, not everyone relates to this 3rd Century Egyptian. In fact, very few of us are called to enter into the wilderness as a way of life.  But we are called to pray nonetheless.  We are made to pray and not to pray is inhuman.  That is, there is levels of human potential that are never realized when we fail to pursue the Lord in prayer.  St. Augustine's Confessions begin with this insight.  Though we are but the humblest part of God's great creation, God made us to know and love Him - not because He gets some advantage from this, but because He wanted us to share in his truth, goodness and beauty.  To praise someone or something is to participate in its goodness somehow.  The goodness of God is the unimpeded pouring forth of pure love.  The uncontainable joy of love is at the heart of all that is.  God made us to praise Him because He wanted us to share in his joyful happiness.  This divine desire is what drove Antony to seek the Lord in the Desert.  It is what moved Athanasius to spend his life teaching about Christ.  And God's yearning desire for friendship with us is what moves us to begin to pray.

Most of us must find a way to pray in the midst of what John Paul II liked to call, “the modern metropolis.” Praying in the midst of the modern metropolis means among other things we must make a new beginning, today and everyday within the real life situations we find ourselves. In the midst of commuting and traffic, work and family life, malls and computers, we need those few minutes thourghout the day where we turn to the Lord so that He can remind us of his great love and who we really are in his eyes.  We also need longer periods of prayer.  In this love we discover the great purpose and mission He has entrusted to our care. Without the discipline of prayer, we are lost in a sea of anxieties and distractions that rob us of the fullness of life God desires us to have.  In the wild tides of the modern metropolis, prayer is how we keep our eyes fixed on the One who teaches us how to walk on water.

Every Christian is a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth, whom the Scriptures reveal as a man of prayer. To be a disciple means to follow the discipline of one’s teacher. Christ’s discipline begins and ends with prayer. His prayer revealed the deepest desires of his heart and only those who enter into his prayer really come to understand these desires. The most intimate of these was offered the night before he died, “Father, I will that where I am, those whom you have given me may be there with me so that they might contemplate the glory you have given me from before the creation of the world.”

This prayer of Jesus, uttered with full knowledge of his impending passion and death, assumes we understand what glory the Father gave and continues to give to Jesus. Glory is the radiance of personal greatness, and true glory is almost always hidden in this world. The one who sees someone in his glory really knows the truth about that person. To see the glory of the Lord is to know who he is. The glory of Christ is men and women living life to the full. It is for this very reason he came into the world.

Now this opens up one of the greatest truths about Christian prayer, and today I can only touch on it briefly as part of the conclusion of this rambling reflection.  Christian prayer is not primarily about techniques, even if techniques are used in it.  Even those who master a technique are not anymore holy because they have mastered it.  This is because Christian prayer is about a personal and ecclesial relationship with the Lord.  He alone reveals the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Holiness or friendship with God is primarily a gift that God gives when and how He wants.  A technique, at best, disposes our hearts for this gift.  But God may give the gift to a child just as much as to an old monk.  No great technique but the humble cry of a suffering heart moves God to grant the friendship He wants for us.

This is why there are no "gurus" in Christian spirituality but only childlike saints.   Other religions have their old men who live on mountains, carefully relating secret techniques to provide access to hidden powers which they have spent their whole lives trying to master.  The only Master of Christian prayer is a capenter's son from a poor village in Galilee who was rejected, mocked, scourged and crucified at the age of 33.  All of our saints are those who, even in old age, humbly accepted nothing more than being a child of God.  Their prayer was more about learning to trust God in their weakness than the mastery of a technique by which they might access hidden power or some special knowledge.  Their only secret: to begin anew everyday with the determination to listen to God's Word and obey it with all their heart.

May 6, 2009

When I Can no Longer Pray

“When I can no longer pray, I play!” Bl. Elisabeth of the Trinity

Blessed Elisabeth was a Carmelite nun who died in 1906 at the age of 26. Although one of the first to read the Story of a Soul by her contemporary Therese of Lisieux, Elisabeth differed from her older sister in several ways – one of which was her career as a pianist and witness as a lay person in the world before her entrance into Carmel.

In a certain sense, this childhood exclamation about playing piano when she could not pray indicates that prayer is never really impossible, it just takes different forms. Sometimes we just are not able to gather ourselves together to put our hearts into formal times of prayer. Then we offer what we can. If all we can offer is playing the piano – or whatever else is good, beautiful and true – this is exactly what pleases the Lord.

Prayer, music and spiritual growth were all closely related for Elisabeth. As a teenager, she was a recognized pianist who loved Tchaikovsky, Chopin and many other great composers. Someone asked her how she was able to be so composed in front of audiences at such an early age. She explained that all she did was turn her mind to God and the music flowed through her. This contemplative approach would characterize her whole life. Indeed, her writings have a musical quality about them – it was as if she continued to let this music flow even when she was not at the piano. It just took a new form.

When she could no longer play piano after entering the Carmelite monastery in Dijon, she focused on interior music, the music of the heart. She imagined her emotions and thoughts are like the strings of a harp. It takes effort to keep one strings in tune, but when one does, the Holy Spirit plays the most beautiful melodies, melodies she considered a real song of praise. For her, the purpose of the spiritual life is to become the praise of God’s glory, praise that takes up what she calls the great song, “canticum magnum.”

She asserts that this song is what Christ sung in his heart as he suffered on the Cross. Elisabeth learning to sing this song means completely drinking in the Father’s will. This goes beyond merely doing something external. It refers to a complete surrender of heart. Precisely because it involves the fullness of the his humanity, the music of Christ’s heart is a sacrifice of praise pleasing to the Father and at the same time, these interior movements are redemptive, bringing men and women back to God. Now, without God, such a song of the heart is impossible. But because we are joined to Christ by faith, the Lord’s song is our song. He himself gives us the music. Elisabeth’s contemplation of this interior movement of Christ stands behind her own petition inviting Jesus to come into her heart as “Adorer, Restorer, and as Savior.”

This sort of identification with Christ has roots in the writings of St. Paul who believed that he no longer lived his own life, but that even now Christ lives within him. The life of Christ is a life filled with the Holy Spirit, a life driven by grace-filled motives, by that divinely inspired desire to fulfill with every once of humanity one has the will of the Father. In the theological current of Elisabeth’s time, theologians insisted that through faith and the Holy Spirit, deep affections in the heart of Christ can be communicated into the heart of the believer in such a way that the believer and Jesus become of one mind and one heart. The music which flowed from the very heart of Christ was the same music that Elisabeth wanted to flow through her heart as well.

This stands in the face of the tendency of some to reduce the Christian life to the mere observance of a moral code. Catholic saints and mystics have consistently taught that living faith is the true font of Christian Charity. For them, interior likeness to Christ by grace precedes any true imitation of His life through our actions. In fact, without the grace of Christ, imitating Him is impossible.

It can be so very difficult to remain faithful to our dedication to the Lord and in our love for one another. Any effort will fail if we are only concerned about the externals and think we can be self-reliant. Imitation of Christ and faithfulness to the love He has called us to demands that we rely on Him alone. The interior life He alone can give informs not only how we relate to God and ourselves, but also how we are to live with others. Elisabeth herself would beg the Lord to come into her especially at those moments she felt weak and vulnerable, incapable of going on.

St. Paul was a great teacher for her on this point. His conviction that the strength of the Lord was sufficient, that this strength reaches perfection in our weakness gave her great hope. In his teachings, we are conformed to the Crucified God, the One who loves unto the end. Since the Lord loves in the face of abandonment, betrayal, anguish, and great thirst, so too can we also love and believe in love.

Sometimes it does indeed feel like prayer is impossible – but it is always possible. We just need to offer it in a different way. In those more distressing moments when God seems most absent, when it is most difficult to lift our hearts to him, we can still act and live believing that the power of his love is mysteriously at work, making all things new – even when we cannot understand how. So when one kind of prayer seems impossible, when we just do not know what to say or what to ask for – we can always offer ourselves in silence and in faith to Holy Spirit and let him play on our heart strings. This is the music of Christ’s song echoing through us for the glory of God and for those whom he has entrusted to our hearts.

May 5, 2009

The Spiritual Classics

This week I provided the final lecture for a class entitled the spiritual classics. This concludes a course that I have had the privilege of offering for the last ten years to men in their very first year at our seminary. We call this year "The Spirituality Year." It is a year of prayer and community which prepares men for the six years of study required for the priesthood. The courses we offer in this context, including Spiritual Classics, are all non-academic in nature. This means these courses mainly introduce seminarians to the whole idea of making personal appropriations through a prayerful reading of the texts. During the year they also study the Scriptures and the Catechism of the Catholic Church in the same way.

The purpose of Spiritual Classics is to expose seminarians to the wisdom of the saints, especially those who wrote about prayer and growth in the spiritual life. Using the Scriptures and the Catechism of the Catholic Church as reference points, this year we surveyed selected writings from St. Athanasius, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Augustine, St. Bernard, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Catherine of Siena, Bl. Charles de Foucauld, St. John of the Cross, St. Therese of Lisieux, and Bl. Elisabeth of the Trinity. We concluded the course with brief reflections on Pope Benedict's Spes Salvi and Deus Caritas Est.

A theme throughout the course is the unique importance of personal prayer and the greatness of vocations dedicated to helping people grow in prayer. In particular, I always want the men to understand that pursuing the priesthood is a great and noble enterprise because there is nothing more beautiful than to lead souls into union with God and into the communion of the Body of Christ. The writings of some of the saints and mystics, particularly of the 20th Century, draw our attention to this great task. Although all of us bear responsibility to one another to this end, priests have a special mission, an irreplaceable role. During the Year of the Priest which will start in June, I will post on this idea. For now, at the end of a semester, I am very proud of these students and what they endeavor. They are great and generous men. For them, this is not an end but a beginning. Indeed, they are all about to make a month long Ignatian retreat - so keep them in your prayers.

May 2, 2009

Viva Cristo Rey!

The seminarians of St. John Vianney in Denver, Colorado provided a compelling performance of a very poignant story. It is the story of a thirty six year old Jesuit priest who loved his people more than his own life and the story of political authorities who hated God and godfearing people. It is the story of the family that loyally supported their courageous son and brother come what come may, and the story of a government which tried to destroy him. It is the story of the power of prayer over the power of violence. It is the story of the inhumanity of men when they turn away from God and how one man's zeal for the Lord was able to help some of them find salvation and rediscover what it means to be human.

"Long live Christ the King" are the last words of a modern martyr. Padre Miguel Pro SJ's witness shows the greatness of our religion and the irrational pettiness of a society that sets itself against God and religion. At the time, the Mexican leader Plutarco Calles enforced laws against the Catholic Church. Mass, confession and even praying the rosary were all punishable offenses. To protect the clergy as far as possible, bishops and religious communities developed plans to remove clergy, but some priests chose to stay and minister to the people. From 1926 - 1929, 160 priests were executed along with hundreds more lay men, women and children.

On the heels of the Russian revolution, there was a wide spread belief that religion was holding up progess. If only people could be liberated from God, the would be more devoted to improving their lot in this life. Even today, there is a popular belief that the real cause of war and misery is religion. Belief in God and practice of one's own faith is presumed to be irrational by many. But such prejudice proved prosaic when throughout the 20th century godless regimes showed impious men were the most inhumane men of all. The persecution of the Church in Mexico and the martyrdom of Padre Pro is part of this larger political story.

Part of the reason things got so out of hand was the story of persecution was not really known. Only journalists sympathetic to the cause of Mexican socialism were permitted to report on positive achievements, and even these journalists highly monitored by the government. Irrationality often leads to rashness - and the rash decision of the Mexican authorities to publically execute a popular 36 year old priest to bring the populace in line would draw the attention of the world and encourage believers to stand up. The anti-clerical laws of Calles would come to an end.

There was a wonderful contrast of the playfulness and joy of Christian family life against the sober malicious emnity of godless officials. Padre Pro himself is shown to be an adventurous man who loves life - against fearful men who seem rather lifeless. Although he is the one who is martyred - he and his brothers are the ones who really live.

This is the historical backdrop for the play performed at St. John Vianny Theological Seminary last night and to be performed again this evening. Deacon Mauricio Bermudez (soon to be ordained priest) played Pro - shoot, he looked almost just like the saint! But there was something fitting, something proportionate, something beautiful in seeing seminarians play out this story. It was as if they were revealing to us why they have the courage to enter the priesthood today. True, priests and seminarians are not being shot - but their reputations often get murdered - especially by the very people they have given their lives to serve. So, they identify with Pro - a man despised by his own nation, but who was completely devoted to serving those who most needed the Lord.

For more on his life, I found a couple good websites :

The play spoke to me about prayer - and its importance not only for the person who prays, but for the whole society in which he lives. Today, for many, prayer is a sort of therapeutic escapism. It is not really connected with apostolic fruitfulness. Programs, even religious programs, are more fruitful than wasting time with God - or so it is thought. But this play which our men performed so well tells a different story. If we really want to change the world and make it a more human place -- prayer is the most important and most human means of all. Men who pray find courage to go where others would run. They see the human and find ways to speak directly to it, even when it is disguised in the inhumane. Such men are never oppressed - they are the one's who are able to cry out, "Viva Christo Rey!