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.