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