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.