December 31, 2010

Time, Eternity and a Blessed New Year

Time is not simply duration of a cycle that repeats itself over and over.  It is linear.  It marches in a direction, pregnant with hidden purpose and deep meaning.  We hunger for this spiritual meaning because we are not at home when limited by the mere succession of visible and predictable life events.

Faith offers another experience of time.  Elisabeth of the Trinity says that time is eternity begun and still in progress.  This means that eternity is exploding through each moment of our life, permeating every instant and transforming this physical duration.    This way sees each moment as an unrepeatable gift from God, breaking forth with the specific gravity of his unfolding love, pulling us toward Him, on pilgrimage.   But this force of love requires our decision, our readiness to offer ourselves to love, for love, by love - believing in love to the end.

This is because the form of love, the threshold of eternity in time is the Cross.  This is the pathway to the Lord.   Faith helps us see this, and prayer is the most beautiful response to it.  May this new year take us closer into the heart of the Living God!

December 29, 2010

The Mother of God and the Mystery of Prayer

Christians have called Mary the Mother of God since ancient times.  'Mother of God' is how the Church in the West understood the title Theotokos (God-bearer) attributed to Mary by the Eastern Churches.  This title protects the great mystery of our faith.  The Word became flesh: this means a total recapitulation of true, historical, concrete, human reality - raising our life, our dignity, our family and our motherhood far above merely natural purposes, to a greater unimaginable end.  Mary is the first sign of this.  This truth, at the heart of the Gospel, was safeguarded at the Council of Ephesus in 431 which affirmed the title Mother of God used in the prayer of the Church as definitive for the Christian faith.

When we affirm Mary is the Mother of God, we are proclaiming all at once that Jesus, begotten of the Father from all eternity, is the Son who "emptied Himself" to be become man "born of a woman" in "the fullness of time" (Phil. 2:6, Gal. 4:4).  By this affirmation we bind ourselves to the truth that the incarnation was no mere appearance or myth, but rather a living reality transforming all of human history and each one's personal life story.  This is the form and pattern of our prayer.  It too must become a real, living reality in our lives.  This mystery of God entrusting himself to a mother contains the truth about all that is good, true and beautiful in humanity and the truth about the Father's wisdom, love and goodness.

Affirming this helps us ponder the radical confidence God has in us when He entrusts his Mystery to us, and when we see this we can begin to learn to have the same kind of confidence in Him.   We have hope because the Eternal Son of God entered so fully into our humanity that He delighted to be conceived in the womb of a woman and dwelling in her to be born as her vulnerable baby, yearning to be totally reliant on her maternal love for his life so that He could be like us in all things but sin.  He humbly let her form his human heart with her maternal love.  What drew God to subject himself to such love was not our mighty achievements or self-sufficiency or worldly cleverness.  It was the humility and trust of a woman pure of heart who generously responded with intense faith and confidence in Him who had even more confidence in her.  What unlocks this capacity in the human but prayerful contemplation of the ever surpassing love of God?

According to Augustine, Mary bore Christ in her heart before she bore him in her womb.  This means her physical motherhood is first and foremost a spiritual reality, the fruit of loving obedience, the masterpiece of profound contemplation.  Conformed to Him whose body was formed in his mother's womb, Christian prayer continues to reach for fruition in flesh and blood, the here and now: that determined, obedient and humble effort to love God and all those God entrusts to us, come what come may, because what He did for us was so much more.  It means that our faith, our prayer, goes way beyond nice ideas, happy wishes and comfortable feelings.  As Pope Benedict teaches, our faith is above all performative, it makes real love possible.  Here is the greatness of the mystery of our piety, the devotion that flows from Christ!  Our faith can offer itself in true sacrifice because it bleeds with the love of a real man, the True Man, who was bloodied for our sakes, and we know He is the True Man because his mother's faith permitted Him to become flesh and blood.

To affirm Mary as Mother of God is an affirmation of a great truth concerning human life, dignity, family, and motherhood - there is something divine in these most holy human things which must be honored, cherished and protected.    Today these most sacred things are trampled on to such an extent our world is fast forgetting its humanity, and we are at the very brink of disaster, not for the first time.  What a great gift that our calendar year begins in the middle of the Christmas Season with the Solemnity of  the Mother of God.  Against forces that hate what is truly human, we remember the woman who bore the Son of the Most High, who prays for us even now, even when we stand in the face of great evil and personal weakness.  And, we join our prayers together with hers that all the most holy human things of this present life might not perish, but instead, by the blood of her Son, be saved for the glory of God the Father.

December 24, 2010

The Christmas Mystery and Masses

The Christmas mystery is about the incarnation of the Word made flesh, the Light sent into the darkness, the God who empties himself and becomes a man - so that, as the ancient Fathers taught, men might become as gods.  All the dimensions of the cosmos and the human heart are caught up in this mystery.  What is temporal is infused with eternal, and the fecundity of the supernatural order obedient to love and truth manifests the glory of God in the futility of the natural world subject to sin and death.  A celebration of such proportions has required the Church to develop different liturgies on Christmas Day so that the faithful can begin to trace the outlines of this inexhaustible mystery.  

Although mass times very from parish to parish, there are three different masses for Christmas plus a vigil mass.  At Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, the Church celebrates how the angels announced the birth of Christ in Luke 2:1-14.  The first mass at dawn celebrates the joy of the shepherds who found the Messiah in a manger from Luke 2:15-20.   The other masses on Christmas Day proclaim John 1:1-18 "In the beginning was the Word" to celebrate the Incarnation of the Lord manifest for the salvation of the world.  There is also a vigil mass on Christmas Eve before midnight in which the genealogy of Christ is read and the Sign of the Virgin for the Davidic Dynasty is recalled (Matthew 1: 1-25).   

The celebration of Christmas, through these different masses, takes up the heights of heaven and the depths of the earth, visible concrete historical particulars and invisible eternal realities, the mystery of Israel and the salvation of all the Nations.  Our spirituality echoes in these dimensions.  Christians do not escape from the world - they are its leaven, its salt, its light.   Yet they are not limited by this world.  They are pilgrims, following the Day-star, making a pathway for others to their true homeland in the footsteps of their Crucified God- the Kingdom that will have no end.

December 23, 2010

The Lord Hears the Cry of the Poor, Blessed be the Lord!

Contemplation of the mystery of Christmas, almost upon us, sees the Lord's attentiveness to the plight of the poor. He who came into our poverty, in silence and obscurity, also comes into the hidden plights of every man and woman.  Though He seems powerless or even absent, his love is the gravity that holds together not only the world but every heart that avails itself to its presence, a force so strong that it constantly pulls us back from the brink, and even today in a world irrationally against God reminds us anew of what it is to be human.  While this is true for everyone, it is especially true for those who feel they are on the brink, who do not know where to turn, who struggle to hope against all hope.   Such people are the truly poor and live an existence not unlike that of the prophets and John the Baptist, Joseph and Mary, the Shepherds, and the Magi - a life pregnant with deep faith.

Those whose poverty makes it a struggle to live, these come to rely on the Lord in everything because they have no one else to rely on, not even themselves. The person facing death or the uncertainty of severe illness or aggressive cancer or permanent disability knows something of this kind of poverty.  Then there is the grieving widow struggling to be a good mom in the face of uncertainty, so totally alone even in the midst of friends. The orphaned baby, the abused child, the distraught teenager, the addict who lost his family, the lonely neighbor, the weary laborer, the farmer who lost everything, even the despairing young professional whose lifetime ambitions were shattered in an instant through both familial and financial disaster: these are the poor for whom the Lord comes. It is these the Lord is especially concerned for and to whom belongs in the most unique way the whole Christmas mystery. He feels a deep solidarity with them. Even when they, not knowing, reject Him, He will not reject them and suffers their suffering with them to the end - because He knows the truth about them and believes that they are worth whatever it takes.

If we really want to find Him, if we want real Christmas joy, then we must enter into solidarity with with those who struggle to live, make their plights our plight, and humbly search for Him in their midst. This journey requires deep prayer, seeking forgiveness and forgiving, sacrificial kindness even towards one's enemies, and that generosity which is inclined to see everyone as one's own neighbor, someone for whom I am responsible in some way. Left to our own devices, this journey is impossible. But that is why the Lord is coming and the reason we will find Him - for He is drawn to those who put themselves in places where they must rely on Him alone.

December 21, 2010

The Gospel in Holiday Music and Christmas Carols

In these days before Christmas, at once beautifully enchanting but also haunted by a note of sorrow, commercial holiday music celebrates a nostalgic yearning for intimate fellowship lost.  I distinguish commercial holiday music from Christmas carols.  Commercial holiday music is meant to enchant and warm the heart whether or not someone has faith.   It is commercial because it is on commercial TV and radio - produced for the sake of selling and buying things, especially gifts.  Christmas carols tell of serious things about life, death and the coming of the Living God in darkened world.  Christmas carols are about the Gospel of Christ.  Such songs are not as good at stimulating commercial activity.  Holiday music does stimulate this activity.  It does so by exploring the vestiges of Christian feelings in a post Christian time.   

In making this distinction, I am not attacking holiday music.  It has its place and something for us to think about.  Commercial holiday music helps us call to mind the deep yearning God has sewn into the human heart.  It also suggests many broken ways we attempt to deal with this deep yearning: sentimentality, self-pity, nostalgic preoccupations, insobriety, sensuality, gluttony, judgmentalism, resentment, competiveness, and unforgiveness.  That is why the holidays around Christmas, as beautiful as it may be for many people, is also a time when families struggle to be together.   Despite all our best efforts, at some point, if only for a moment we quickly forget, we discover our real poverty even in the midst of so many things.  We cannot love - at least not the way we know we were meant to.  

The cold and darkness of this season highlight this sense of vulnerability.  We are faced with just how frail and subject to futility our lives actually are.  Primal human experiences, that awareness of things not being the way they ought, that feeling of paradise lost, are overwhelming. All that is good, noble and true feels even more as if it were on the brink.  We feel the need to draw close to one another, to take shelter together, to encourage one another not to lose hope in the face of darkness.

The producers of commercial holiday music know that such dark holes are dangerous.  So these new high priests of our culture also try to bandage these dark feelings with stories geared to entertain, warm the heart,  give a little light or at lest serve as a diversion. The intentions behind this effort are benevolent, for the most part.   But there is a danger: we can easily be enchanted by all kinds of myths holding out the promise of consoling of our unsatisfied and insecure hearts.   But myths are always dehumanizing.  Those who believe them become delusional, out of touch with our real plight, imprisoned in a fantasy.  Only the truth sets us free - only the truth helps us deal with the desire for something more that burns within us.

Besides holiday music, the most beautiful musical achievements in the West for the Christmas Season also consider the restless state of human existence in this dark and cold time of year.  They celebrate the fact that, in the face of all the suffering and evil we see - and all the sorrow that our restless hearts must bear, God created us for joy and has found a way that our joy might be full.  Joy is love possessing what it desires - and in Christian joy, the human person possesses the greatest object of all desires, God himself.  This possession of God is superabundant because in Him, we also possess all our other loves.  This is because He holds even dearer than we do those He has entrusted to our hearts.   How did He achieve this for us?  How did He open this possibility?  The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  He entered into our poverty, embraced it and made it his own.  

All this points to something beautiful about the mystery of the human person and the possibility of keeping hope for what is good, noble and true alive in him.  The pagans understood this experience, and so celebrated fire and light to encourage themselves in these dark days.  In some ways, our commercial holiday music tries to do the same.  Christians, however, learned to look beyond the world, struggling against the desire to escape,  the desire for the merely comfortable, to search with the eyes of faith for the light of Christ who shines in the darkness, and warms the world with the Fire of his Love.  In fact, what the pagans sought was a mere shadow of  what the Christian finds in Christ Jesus.  

Christ Jesus reveals the truth about the desires of our hearts, not only showing us to ourselves, but also showing how much we are loved by God.  And, He reveals how much God yearns for our friendship - and He came in poverty, in the dark winter of our world, not grasping, emptying himself, humbling himself in love to become a sign of hope, and not just a sign, but also a threshold.  And to prepare to cross this threshold again, we have these final days before Christmas, days of prayer, sacrifice and love.

December 16, 2010

Our Lady of the New Advent and Contemplation

As an advocate for contemplative prayer, Elisabeth of the Trinity invites us to identify with Mary, the Virgin Mother.  Mary, in fact, becomes a dominate figure in the liturgies of the Church in this part of Advent as we draw near to Christmas.  In Denver, there is even devotion to Our Lady of the New Advent - because we believe she continues to prepare the Church and the world for the coming of the Lord.

In the Gospels, Mary is identified as the one who fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah to King Ahaz (Matthew 1:23 and Isaiah 7:14).  In a desperate attempt to gain mastery over nature and history, Ahaz had sacrificed his son to Baal only to discover that what he believed about the world was a dehumanizing myth (2 Kings 16:2-4).  (Some of the stories out there make it difficult not to see abortion in this same light.)  He despaired of having more children until Isaiah reassured him that despite his rash unfaithfulness and distrust of the one true God, the living God would be faithful to him and his dynasty.  

As a sign of God's faithfulness to the Sons of David, Isaiah foretold a virgin maiden would be with child, and he child's name would be "Emmanuel - God is with us".  At the time, many might have thought that this prophecy was fulfilled with the birth of Hezekiah, who was a good king (2 Kings 18:1-6).  In fact, his birth and reign foreshadowed the coming of a messiah who would surpass all expectation, who is "God is with us" in a manner that no one could have anticipated.   

Yet this is exactly the way the Lord works with us in faith - always surpassing our limited understanding and imagination, always opening us to something greater beyond our feeble expectations.  To do this, the Lord needs our obedience and trust.  But so often we are like Ahaz, trying to grasp for control by any means, even if it destroys those we most love.  This is why the prophecy to Ahaz is also a prophecy for us, especially in this time of Advent, a time of making straight our pathways and preparing the way of the Lord. 

On this point, the message of Elisabeth of the Trinity is helpful.  She advocates that there is another way, a pathway to hope.  To travel down this pathway, the pathway of our Advent journey, we must identify with Mary.  Mary, by her example, teaches how to pray and this prayerfulness is the source of her generous obedience to God.  Her prayer is so simple, so straightforward, so trusting.  When we pray like her, we find ourselves freed from our limited expectations and  imagination. Enchanting myths have no power over us for we are freed from our own big fat ego, free for Someone greater:

When I read the Gospel "that Mary went in haste to the hill country of Judea" to perform her loving service for her cousin Elisabeth, I imagine her passing by so beautiful, so calm and so majestic, so absorbed in recollection of the Word of God within her.  Like Him, her prayer was always this: "Ecce, here I am!"  Who? "The servant of the Lord," the lowliest of His creatures: she, His Mother!  Her humility was so real for she was always forgetful, unaware, freed from self.  And she could sing: "The Almighty has done great things for me, henceforth all peoples will call me blessed."  Elisabeth of the Trinity, Last Retreat #40 as translated by Aletheia Kane, O.C.D. in Complete Works, vol. I, Washington D.C.: ICS (1984) p. 160.

December 14, 2010

John of the Cross: Seek Christ in Whom Are the Treasures of God

This remarkable priest prayed for hours every day while carrying on an active ministry, directing hundreds of souls, leading academic institutions, going in and out of imprisonment and helping to reform of the Carmelite Order in the 16th Century.  His writings are filled with beautiful poetry and solid teaching for the spiritual life.  His doctrine constantly focuses on Christ Jesus, and he invites his readers to ponder Christ in everything that happens to them, in all the different experiences of prayer, even the most arid.

It is in living in solidarity with what Christ suffered for oursakes that his doctrine takes on its riches proportions.  In the mystery of Christ, John of the Cross teaches that there are the most precious treasures of wisdom and knowledge of God waiting to be discovered.  To see the world, those we love, and even oneself with the eyes of God: nothing in life is as precious as this kind of knowing, this vision of the whole.  

This is why contemplation, beholding the mystery of Christ in our hearts, is for him the most important human activity - so essential that all other human activity finds its fullest meaning in being directed to this end.  This means life should be ordered around prayer.  (But how often do we approach prayer as something to fit into our busy lives instead?) No matter how much we know about Christ, there is always more beautiful and wonderful to know in Him - truths He knows we need and that he yearns to share.  His mystery is inexhaustible and holds everything we need to thrive, to live life to the full.

John of the Cross is a realist about this achievement and what it costs - although it is primarily God's work, the soul must cooperate in faith even in the most difficult trials.  No matter the cost, he insists, what is to be gained is worth it - for we gain the Lord himself.  In the Office of Readings, the whole Church ponders his words on this point:

The soul cannot enter into these treasures, nor attain them, unless it first crosses into and enters the thicket of suffering, enduring interior and exterior labors, and unless it first recieves from God very many blessings in the intellect and in the senses, and has undergone long spiritual training ... it is quite impossible to reach the thicket of riches and wisdom of God except by first entering the thicket of much suffering, in such a way that the soul finds there consolation and desire.  The soul that longs for divine wisdom chooses first, and in truth, the thicket  of the cross.  
Spiritual Canticle, 36-37.

December 13, 2010

John of the Cross - the Advent Saint

We celebrate the feast of John of the Cross in Advent.   One finds in his spiritual doctrine certain themes that encourage contemplative prayer in Advent.  One of these themes is that of the The Dark Night.  In Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book II, he describes the journey of faith as a pilgrimage through a kind of spiritual night from sunset to sunrise - it is a pilgrimage to the coming of the Lord, an advent journey.

The sunset is our old way of life which we must leave behind.  When we were limited by sin and death, we viewed the things of this world in a manner not commensurate with their true purpose - and in doing so, we prevented ourselves from realizing our true destiny, and with that lost the happiness, the beatitude God designed us to have.   Now, by faith in the Lord and his great love for us we can let the sun set on the personal emptiness we felt when we limited ourselves to the visible, tangible comforts and pleasures we once let drive us.

As the evening progresses, St. John of the Cross tells us that we discover dark contemplation, complete vulnerability to the Lord in prayer.  He calls this prayer spiritual nakedness and it normally comes with all kinds of trials and afflictions.  Such prayer leads us to trust the Lord completely with everything in our lives.  The effects of such prayer bring a deeper peace to our soul and an invincible confidence in his love so that we can stand strong in the darkest hour of our life, our personal midnight.

The final stage of the night of faith is just like the early morning before sunrise.  He says there is a certain joy the permeates everything because the soul sees signs that already anticipate Christ's coming.   The joyful excitement we see in children this time of year as school ends and Christmas break begins suggests something of what St. John of the Cross means.  If we stay in prayer, it is a time of patience, joyful expectation and great hope.

Advent and the Road to Zion

Isaiah 2:2-5 prepares us for the coming of the Messiah by directing our attention to spiritual realities on the mountain of the Lord. Today, as been the case for millennia, pilgrimage to Jerusalem is not only a physical journey, but above all a spiritual one. At least this was the experience of my family and the pilgrims we journeyed with this last summer. The cultures and history of Israel we were exposed to were so rich and beautiful. Even more important was the faith we saw. Even in poverty, in contention, and in all kinds of trials and persecution there blossomed genuine love of God, true devotion to Him and the very best of humanity. The earthly Jerusalem and our physical pilgrimage could not account for the spiritual realities that were shining through. Something spiritual was going on, and continues to go on for everyone who searches for the Lord to worship Him and to understand His ways.  

This spiritual journey is renewed every Advent in the liturgies of the Church.  According to Isaiah, Mt. Zion is where true worship is offered to God and in the midst of this true worship, true teaching.  Such worship is of the heart.  Such teaching is for the heart.  The heart was made for such things, and advent is a time to take care of these needs of the heart.  Without the truth, the heart suffers - this is why basing one's spiritual life in prosaic myths, especially secular ones, always dehumanizes and limits true human potential.  With the truth - our whole being flourishes.  That is why those who find the road to Zion in their hearts are called blessed in Psalm 84.  Isaiah's prophecy encourages hope: those who seek to worship the Lord in spirit and truth are never disappointed - for the light of the Lord guides them.   

For Christians, the earthly Jerusalem is a sign and shadow of the heavenly Jerusalem, a living reality in their relationship with the Lord. This is true for everyone with faith and baptism in Christ.  How do we find the spiritual Mt. Zion?  Where do we worship the Lord and listen to his teaching?  
St. John describes the descent of the heavenly Jerusalem into our space and time like a Bride in procession to her Bridegroom (Rev. 21:2).  This description of true Christian worship is realized and experienced whenever we repent of sin and lift up our hearts to the Lord - such movements of the heart are always with and in the Bride of Christ, the Church.   In a powerful and unrepeatable way, this same reality is realized in the Mass, the thanksgiving sacrifice of Christ renewed in our lives today.   The Road to Zion we tread in our hearts leads to His Heart - this is the journey of Advent.

Isaiah 2:2-5 prepares us for the coming of the Messiah by directing our attention to spiritual realities on the mountain of the Lord. Today, as been the case for millennia, pilgrimage to Jerusalem is not only a physical journey, but above all a spiritual one. At least this was the experience of my family and the pilgrims we journeyed with this last summer. The culture and history of Israel we were exposed to were so rich and beautiful. Even more important was the faith we saw. Even in poverty, in contention, and in all kinds of trials and persecution there blossomed genuine love of God, true devotion to Him and the very best of humanity. The earthly Jerusalem and our physical pilgrimage could not account for the spiritual realities that were shining through. Something spiritual was going on, and continues to go on for everyone who searches for the Lord to worship Him and to understand His ways.  

This spiritual journey is renewed every Advent in the liturgies of the Church.  According to Isaiah, Mt. Zion is where true worship is offered to God and in the midst of this true worship, true teaching.  Such worship is of the heart.  Such teaching is for the heart.  That is why those who find the road to Zion in their hearts are called blessed in Psalm 84.  Isaiah's prophecy encourages hope: those who seek to worship the Lord in spirit and truth are never disappointed - for the light of the Lord guides them.   

For Christians, the earthly Jerusalem is a sign and shadow of the heavenly Jerusalem, a living reality in their relationship with the Lord. This is true for everyone with faith and baptism in Christ.  How do we find the spiritual Mt. Zion?  Where do we worship the Lord and listen to his teaching?  
St. John describes the descent of the heavenly Jerusalem into our space and time like a Bride in procession to her Bridegroom (Rev. 21:2).  This description of true Christian worship is realized and experienced whenever we repent of sin and lift up our hearts to the Lord - such movements of the heart are always with and in the Bride of Christ, the Church.   In a powerful and unrepeatable way, this same reality is realized in the Mass, the thanksgiving sacrifice of Christ renewed in our lives today.   And Christ comes to us in poverty, in persecution, in rejection, in all kinds of trials - all of this is part of the mystery of the Heavenly Jerusalem to which we pilgrimage in faith. What a wonderous encounter: the Road to Zion we tread in our hearts leads to His Heart - this, the journey of Advent.

Madonna and Child, Southern France

December 11, 2010

Our Lady of Guadalupe and the Mystical Rose

The famous image and story of  Our Lady of Guadalupe is an important part of the history of the Evangelization of the America - a continent evangelized more quickly than any other in all of Church history.  Mary appeared to a poor Indian with a message for the local bishop - that a church should be built.  As a sign, he collected beautiful rare roses which she pointed out to him.  When he brought these gifts to the bishop, a miraculous image of Our Lady appeared on his tilma (a kind of poncho) in which the roses were carried.  She became a sign of hope for a demoralized people in the midst of the trials and tribulations of being colonized by Europe.  Interestingly enough, her image is honored in many Churches around the world today, even throughout Europe, during a time when many believers feel demoralized and under attack.

Guadalupe may be the transliteration of a Nahuatl word which means "who crushes the serpent."   This makes a wonderful connection with Genesis 3:15.  Ancient liturgical texts have celebrated the Mother of  the Lord with the one who crushes the serpent's head.  Along these same lines, asking Mary to pray for us during times of spiritual battle, especially at the hour of death, may have always been part of the Christian tradition of prayer - just as the Scriptures say that all generations will call her blessed.   Whatever the meaning of the name Guadalupe, it would be difficult to dispute that under this title, Mary has helped many come to believe in her Son, giving hope in sometimes the most hopeless situations.

Our Lady of Guadalupe has also been associated with the title Mystical Rose - a title associated with the words of the beloved in Canticle of Canticles 2:1, "I am the Rose of Sharon.  I am the Lily of the valleys."  Tradition has understood the beloved of this biblical love poem to be not only an image of Israel, but also of the Church, the new Israel.  Mary, because she signifies the Church by her very person, has also been associated with these words as has every soul that is generous in responding to the love of God.  For Saint Bernard, the delicate beauty of a rose is in contrast to its thorns and signifies the spiritual passion and purity of charity friendship love of God.  He teaches that in contrast with Eve's disobedience by which we lost access to God, Mary's obedience gave us Christ Jesus - the image of the invisible God, the One who is our total access to all true worship of the Lord.

The mystical life - beautiful, passionate and pure - is a participation in the life of Christ by faith.  This life progresses by way of the Cross - by following our crucified God.  The inexhaustible mystery of his risen life not only purifies us of sin but fills us with certain truth, deep holy desires and great confidence.   Mary is part of this mystical life, the rose of this mystical life, because the Virgin Mother Mary is an inseparable part of the life of her Son.

"Let it be done to me according to your word."  These words of Mary to Gabriel betray a holy audacity which informs the Christian faith.  The mission of the Mystical Rose - to be part of our life of faith in Christ Jesus, and the mission of Guadalupe - to crush the head of the serpent, coincide in the life of prayer.  Mary not only exemplifies the kind of faith we must have in the Lord, she also prays for our life of faith - and through her mysterious maternity, helps us realize the victory of good over evil so that we might not lose hope in the face of trials and tribulation.

December 8, 2010

Mary, True Freedom and Prayer

Today we celebrate the Immaculate Conception - Mary through the redemption of Christ and a special outpouring of the Spirit at the moment she was concieved is the first human person to have perfect freedom.  We thank God for the most beautiful realization of our humanity.  She, like all the wonderful gifts given to us by Him, is completely unmerited, a wonderful sign to us of his unfathomable love.  By sheer grace, she was completely free to thrive in the face of God, to be fully alive.  And because she lived life to the full, she shows us what it means to be fully ourselves, to really live, to be truly free.    

The Virgin shows us that the freedom we have in the grace of God allows us to tread a pathway beyond anything our limited imagination could possibly anticipate or our feeble intellects calculate or even of which our intuition might provide some remote suggestion.  Such freedom goes beyond feeling and instinct.  For it is the essence of humanity to go beyond its self and all its natural capicities in giving itself in love - in love to God and in love for one another. 

Mary, the Mother of God, needed this freedom in order to fully respond to God and we can even say this beautiful freedom drew the Lord to her.   There is a hidden greatness in the authenticity of the truly human - the Lord actually delights in the innocent vulnerability, endless trust and undaunted determination manifest in this particular work of his Hand.  This is why through the words of Gabriel He declared her "full of grace."  And, what He sees in her, He sees also in us when we turn to Him in living faith, faith guided by love -- he makes us free and in this freedom, authentically our true self. 

The freedom given her at her conception was just the beginning.  It is like the freedom we have when we first believe.  Such freedom still needs to mature - it is only the beginning.  How did she grow in this freedom?  How did it come into maturity in her?  If we consider this question carefully, we will understand what St. Augustine meant when he said she concieved Christ first in her heart before she concieved Him in her womb.  We must use our freedom like she did - opening our hearts to the power of the Holy Spirit - ready to obey Him in everything and in this loving obedience and trust, ponder all these things in our heart.  Prayer - silence before the mystery of God who makes us free - this is where Mary, concieved without sin, always leads.

December 6, 2010

Saint Peter Chrysologus and Advent

Advent is a time to seek Christ who comes into our poverty with the Fire of Love.  John the Baptist, Mary, Joseph, Gabriel and many others are special messengers who help us learn to listen for angel choirs and to follow the signs of heaven.  The Church also invites the faithful to ponder the writings of many others saints during the Advent season.  One beautiful reading from the Office of Readings comes from a homily by a 5th Century bishop of Ravenna, St. Peter Chrysologus or Peter the Golden-Worded.

In one sermon, he reflects how the Lord would not abandon us after we sinned against Him, but rather acted in power to stir up in our hearts the desire to see God.  The love God has for Fallen Humanity stirs us, even in our sinfulness, to seek Him, to want to see Him.  This Father of the Church unfolds this insight by showing how the Lord gently guided us since time primordial from the beginnings of a kind of servile fear - unto the full filial love of sons and daughters of God.  Chrysologus suggests that even the pagans were touched by this movement of God to us.  God's love ignites in the human heart an intoxicating divine eros which moves people to what seems to be irrational - that is to want to see God with our own eyes:

But the Law of Eros is not concerned with what will be, what ought to be, what can be.  Eros-Love does not reflect; it is unreasonable and knows no moderation.  Such love refuses to be consoled when its goal proves impossible, despises all hindrances to the attainment of its object.    Eros destroys the lover if he cannot obtain what he loves; such passion follows its own promptings, and does not think of right and wrong.  The yearning of love inflames desire which impels it toward things that are forbidden.  But why continue? It is intolerable for love not to see the object of its longing. That is why whatever reward they merited was nothing to the saints if they could not see the Lord.

I have modified the translation provided in the Office of Readings to emphasize the Fire of God's love permeating this text.  Anyone who has fallen in love understands the passion pushing beyond all reason that St. Peter is attributing to the saints - because to fall in love is to be seized by movements of the heart that our frail reason scarcely glimpses. This anticipates the wonderful modern proverb, the heart has its reasons that reason cannot know.  And, we can also say, this reflection of Chrysologus suggests something much more.  For if we look closely at his words, they suggest that, whatever divine passion has been stirred in the hearts of men, this powerful yearning was caused by an even more passionate God whose life is an unceasing circumcession of love.

There is something of the mystery of the cross in St. Peter's insight into love destroying the lover.  But God's love is more powerful than death - and Christ who so passionately loved us to the end has saved human love and made it glorious in the eyes of the Father.  And just as He is beheld, his human eyes behold the Father - the fulfillment of all desire.  The Father in turn yearns that we should see the Son.   It is this great movement of love in the heart of God - eternal, undying, unchanging, never ceasing, ever new - this eros pulses in the heart of advent, the heart of this season in which we await his coming.   Such love is waiting to explode in those who silence themselves in prayerful receptivity before the Word made flesh, who seek Him in the poverty of Bethlehem, who listen for angel choirs in the night.

December 5, 2010

St. Nicholas and Advent

St. Nicholas had a deep devotion to Jesus.  This devotion made him a compassionate leader in the Church who fearlessly procliamed the Gospel of Christ.  In the mystery of Advent, he continues to point to Christ.  His feast day on December 6 has long been a beautiful occasion for generosity to the unfortunate and the vulnerable, and to prepare children for the real meaning of Christmas.  For more on this wonderful bishop and miracle worker, check out:  The St. Nicholas Center.

November 29, 2010

St. Dominic and Standing in Prayer

One reader who has been following these posts on St. Dominic's Nine Ways of Prayer raised an important concern about the habitual nature of bodily posture in prayer.  It is true that this kind of prayer inclines toward the habitual - as it should.  We have all kinds of bad bodily habits - the habit of prayer for the body has something to commend itself in this regard.  The problem is when our bodily gestures become mindless and empty.  A mindless sign of the cross or genuflection when we walk into Church does not help our faith or build up the body of Christ or give glory to God.  But this also happens with our words as well.  The problem is not with the gestures or the words, but with the lack of heart, the lack of attention to the Lord.  The only safeguard is a deeper devotion to Jesus Christ, a devotion that grows as our loving knowledge of Him increases.  This is why contemplation is a key to the Nine Ways - beholding the Lord in faith keeps that devotion alive that makes our bodily movements in prayer a true act of worship.

Standing in deep contemplation is one of the ways St. Dominic battled the human tendency to be mindless in prayer.   It was a posture of deep engagement with the Word of God.  It is not that he would actually have a Bible in hand.  Instead, he held his hands as if a Bible were there and would recite to himself from memory passages of the Holy Scriptures.  He was fully engaging the texts that he knew by heart.  It was an intense conversation with God.  It is this kind of conversation that saves our gestures, our posture, from being meaningless.  Such conversation is profoundly open to contemplation - a listening with our spiritual ears, a seeing with the eyes of the heart.  It is also the posture of someone ready to act on what he has heard.

Today in our liturgy, at Mass, when the Gospel is read, we stand.  Standing carries the idea of "taking a stand."  We stand at the proclamation of the Gospel because when the Gospel is read in the Liturgy, Christ is present to us in a powerful way, teaching us here and now in mystery just as He taught his disciples in history.  Standing is our total response to his teaching, and to his person.  We stand in solidarity with Him.  We stand to honor Him.   On his words, we stake our lives, our honor, all that is of any value to us in this life.  We also stand to listen to Him. We stand taking up our Cross to follow him.  This too his how Dominic stood - in his holy conversation with the One whom he loved and who loved Him even more.

November 28, 2010

A Carthusian View of Advent: Back to the Future

In our liturgical books, the liturgical year begins with Advent: but Advent itself begins with a week which evokes the glorious return of the Lord, the culmination of the whole history of salvaton.  We begin therefore with the end! ...we must know where we are going in order to know how to set about getting there.  And it is clear that the whole history of the universe is moving towards the second coming of the Lord, where the final judgement of all people will come to pass, where our present world will come to an end, and the new earth and the new heavens to replace it will unfold; in short, the full actualisation of the Kingdom of God, where God will be all in all.  (A Carthusian, From Advent to Pentecost: Carthusian Novice Conferences, trans. Carmel Brett, London: Darton, Longman and Todd (1999), p. 13.)

Advent and the Peace Established by God

The liturgy of the First Sunday of Advent makes us unsettled.  Something about God's coming is terrifying.  Next week and the week after, the great prophet of God's coming - John the Baptist -will only intensify this feeling, urgently calling us to repentance, to make straight the pathway of the Lord.  But this Sunday, it is not his prophet, but the Lord himself who unsettles us, comparing his coming to the waters of destruction at the time of Noah.  He commands us to be prepared - implying that we are not, and this is unsettling.  See Mt. 24:37-44.

Make no mistake.  To feel unsettled is a great grace.  We are already becoming free of dehumanizing ignorance when we catch the hint that our lives are not as they ought to be.  Because of this grace, now is a time of preparation.

This mystery of God's coming into the world evokes a life of conversion, repentance, true piety, forgiveness, and loving sacrifice - not only for the total stranger, but also for those entrusted to us in our own households, even the ones we want to avoid. If you want justice, explains Cardinal van Thuan in his paradoxical fashion, you must work for peace. What can we do to prepare of the Lord's coming, to prepare for the peace He alone provides?  Such hard work!  And the Church asks us to embrace this cheerfully.

Advent begins with the call to wake from sleep, to live in the daylight, to put on the Armour of God, to put on Jesus Christ.  These calls are urgent.  We must not stay asleep in a world of buying and selling, of being entertained, of selfish consumption - we are created for better things.  The calls of the Word of God wake us to this reality, move us to seek the Lord in places other than our own comfort.  They contain the specific gravity of God's grace.  He comes to purify and reorder and re-establish.  He makes all things new.  Never repeating himself, a unique opportunity is before us, one that will never be extended quite this way again.   He comes to establish peace, to separate and order things to his rest like in the first days of creation.  What is his rest?  What is his peace?  He, himself, is the peace He gives and leaves with us.

Since such a great prize is offered us, we must not remain indifferent to the coming of the living God into our lives.  This season helps us see that each coming of the Lord into our hearts is another renewal and deepening of Christmas and at the same time an anticipation of our final judgment. If there is joyful expectancy in all the prayers between now and Christmas, there is also the holy fear of the Lord, which is the beginning of wisdom.

Advent 2010, First Sunday: The Power of God's Coming


Advent is a powerful liturgical season ordered to the mystery of Christ's coming.  He comes as the Prince of Peace to establish the ways of God as the standard of all that is genuinely human - and He does this personally for each one of us.  This is what Isaiah 2:1-5 indicates - the mountain of the Lord is not merely raised up physically, but spiritually, above all other human affairs and powers.  What is his mountain but the place where we meet Him?  It is a place of theophany.  It is at once the Temple Mount, and the mountain of our own hearts.  The place of encountering the living God is meant to be the center of human activity, the apex of each life.  Christ comes into our lives to bring us to this place of deep contemplation where the creative power of God's word is manifest and peace is established.  

In this season, He is always coming  in mysterious ways, and those who are humble, hidden in the life of faith are made ready for a great joy.  He never stops coming in invisible spiritual ways while we await his final coming in Glory.  Each of these new comings of the Lord anticipates that definitive moment of judgment at the end of history, but also prepares of for the moment of our own death -the personal judgment we recieve when we come before his Face.  If we are not to be overcome by fear, we must spiritually join with, identify with, the lowly remnant who faithfully awaited his historical coming - which they could not know would be in poverty and humility.  These are the ones who walked in the light of the Lord, who longed for peace, who lived in the world spiritually awake.  When He came in the surprising way He chose, they could not have anticipated his marvelous ways - and they could not help but rejoice.

November 26, 2010

Advent and Pope Benedict

"This powerful liturgical season invites us to pause in silence to understand a presence... the individual events of the day are hints that God is giving us signs of the attention he has for each one of us. How often does God give us a glimpse of love!" Pope Benedict XVI.

The loving Presence of the Lord, a Presence that is always coming to us in new ways.  It is time to make room for Him in our schedules and in our hearts.   When we do, we are never disappointed.  The glimpses the Pope refers to make all the difference in life.  Thanks to a special publication by the USCCB, we can journey through Advent with the Holy Father.  For daily reflections throughout this season and next, check out  Advent and Christmas with Pope Benedict XVI.

November 25, 2010

Theological Contemplation

Spiritual theology or mystical theology is the knowledge we gain by living faith in the Lord God.  St. John of the Cross describes it as general and obscure - but also as beautiful and as enchanting as exotic unexplored islands of some new world waiting to be discovered.   English mystics call it a cloud of unknowning.  St. Gregory of Nyssa describes it as the cloud and darkness that covered Mt. Sinai at the great theophany of Moses. For St. Augustine this is an encounter with the Light from which all light comes, that Light that made us - not a knowledge of what but of Who.  St. Thomas explains that this knowledge is the most certain even if it is not the clearest kind of knowing.  St. Teresa describes it as a gaze into the eyes of the One who was wounded for oursakes.  For her, this knowledge is the principal cause of compunction, the water which alone quenches the gardens of our hearts.  For Catherine of Siena this knowledge is gained by plunging deep into the wounds of Christ and venerating him with kisses from his feet to his lips - the bridge from our misery to the Father's mercy.  All these saints are agreed that such knowledge is a sheer gift which we can only fully recieve by spending time in prayer and a life disciplined by taken up our own crosses.  Though it costs dearly, the whole theological enterprise limps along without it -- such contemplation is the life blood of any meaningful study of God and of anything in relation to Him.  Even after 2000 years of great saints, theologians and mystics, theological contemplation remains a vast barely known frontier of human existence -- for most of the inexhaustible riches of Christ are still waiting to be discovered.

November 22, 2010

St. Dominic's Fourth Way of Prayer - genuflecting

When we walk into our local parish, we see the tabernacle and a candle lit next to it, and without thinking, we go down on one knee, pop back up and go to our pew.  We know, somewhere in the back of our minds, we are suppose to be acknowledging the loving presence of the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.  In all likelihood, we completely forget that this bodily action is meant to be a prayer.

Yet for St. Dominic, this was a form of prayer he would repeat over and over for hours before the crucifix.  This act of humility and reverence gave him confidence in God's mercy.  He would even genuflect to intercede for others.  His witness reminds us that what we do with our bodies in prayer is suppose to accompany a movement of heart.  In the case of a genuflection, we are expressing a movement of reverent humility that gives us confidence before God.

When the fiery Spaniard genuflected up and down into the night - probably on both knees - he would recite the psalms. This probably helped him maintain the right disposition before the Lord.  This way his actions were never empty external rituals, but profound expressions of the spiritual movement of his heart.

The psalms train our heart to be honest - so that our humility before God goes beyond a mere show.  They help us see how passionate our prayer before the Lord is supposed to be.   Urgent, expectant, even demanding - psalms are filled with an array of emotions.  There is nothing in the heart which cannot be the stuff of prayer.

The founder of a new community, entrusted with so many responsibilities, would even give the Lord his anxieties over those entrusted to his care.  He expected the Lord to answer him - so his repeated genuflections expressed a certain kind of holy insistence, like his own life depended on God hearing him.  To this end, the early brothers sometimes over heard him during his genuflections call out the opening verse of Psalm 28, "If you stay silent, I shall be like those who go down into the grave."

Known as the "Preacher of Grace," he would get so caught up in praying like this, its seemed like he was no longer aware of his surroundings.  Probably more to the point, he became aware of surroundings that our eyes normally do not see.  Holy desires were inflamed in him.  

What a repudiation of the clinically dry and socially acceptable kind of praying we do today!  The prayer of the saints is always passionate, always a movement out of self and into God.  Such prayer overflows into the lives of others and covers the whole world.  It is this kind of intensity of heart we were meant to have when we come into the the Lord's presence --  the very reason too we genuflect.

Living for the Glory of God

In our last several posts we have been examining the spiritual doctrine of St. John of the Cross for entering into what he calls "The Night of the Senses."  This night is a hidden encounter with Jesus beyond our comfort levels.  Living a life devoted to God beyond what is merely comfortable prepares us for this life changing experience of God.  In fact, this kind of encounter with the Lord is vital if we are to spiritually mature and fully enjoy the friendship He has invited us to share with Him and one another.  

To get to this spiritual place of prayer, the 16th Century Carmelite emphasizes, first of all, that it is mainly God's work.  Our part is to cooperate in faith.  We also saw that our activity, although secondary to what God is doing, is none-the-less very necessary.   The Lord is counting on us to rise to the occasion.  What is our part?  To imitate Christ by a prayerful study of His life.  When we take up this kind of study, St. John of the Cross proposes we begin discover in Christ a life completely given for the glory of God.  In his theology of prayer, God blesses our feeble efforts to make the life revealed in Christ Jesus our own.

Now we get to a very difficult teaching - renunciation.  Jesus admonishes his followers that unless we renounce ourselves and take up our Cross and follow Him, we cannot be his disciples. This means we must be willing to suffer the loss of all things for Christ Jesus.  Why is renunciation so important in following the Lord?  Love is not a wish - it is an action.  We can only love at our own expense.  Our hearts are filled with inordinate desires that weaken us, dissipating our strength on things that fail to satisfy.  Our strength must be reserved for the love of God.  This means some things that are otherwise good, but not for the glory of God, must be forsaken. 

At this point, many throw up their hands in discouragement.  It sounds as if God never wants us really to enjoy ourselves, to recreate, or to have any fun at all.    How could anyone live such a humdrum life?   Those who are discouraged by this, however,  might be buying into a reductionistic view of what gives God glory.  A life lived for the glory of God is anything but humdrum.

The glory of God is man fully alive, says St. Irenaeus.  Those who take up the path of renunciation discover a great paradox.  The more one renounces the drive to satiate oneself all the time, the more satisfying life becomes.  If we act against our tendency towards the easiest, the most comfortable, the most gratifying, by doing the opposite out of love for Jesus - we soon discover beautiful dimensions to life we never knew existed.  Things and the gratification they give, things like one's own reputation, take their proper place.  It is not that they are never enjoyed.  In fact, they can be more fully enjoyed when they are not what is driving us anymore.  In this way, renunciation is a pathway to true human freedom.    

The humdrum, banal life can not reach beyond the merely gratifying, the comfortable, the pleasurable.  While many think freedom is about being unrestained in the pursuit of these things - this view of freedom is insipid.  Such a life is not any freer the more freely it gives itself to things.  Instead, it is imprisoned by what it desires - not because what it desires is bad, but because human desire needs to be healed.  Stuck in what seems to satisfy, such a life is very unsatisfying.  The human heart is made for more.  It needs a greater freedom to thrive.  

In a life lived for the glory of God - whether something is gratifying, comfortable or pleasurable is totally secondary.  Such is the freedom of the children of God.  The things of life, the things God meant to be gifts from Him to show us his love, no longer master us.  We can enjoy them for what they really are.  Such a life discovers that deeper satisfaction which God alone provides.   Such a life is free to go to even greater kinds of freedom, free to really love, free to completely thrive.   

What a paradox St. John of the Cross proposes!  This childlike freedom opens our heart for the hidden encounter with God which makes us spiritually mature.  Christian prayer is ordered to this new freedom -- and the freer we become the more profoundly we encounter the Lord.

Imitation of Christ - the threshold to deeper prayer

In our last post, we introduced a teaching of St. John of the Cross concerning prayer.  Namely, we considered how prayer and the spiritual life is principally God's work.  All our efforts are secondary, subordinate to the power of the Holy Spirit at work in us through faith.  This being said, it would be a mistake to assume that because something is secondary it is not important.  Our cooperation with what God is doing is vital.  He is counting on it. In fact, He hopes in us, placing important parts of his divine plan into our hands.  This is why we can always rely on the Lord when being faithful to Him is difficult - He hopes in us even more. 

So the question is, just how do we cooperate with what God wants to do in our heart?  On this point, St. John of the Cross urges us cultivate the desire to imitate Jesus in everything. Such holy desires are cultivated by studying the life of Christ.  This does not mean to pick up a textbook on Christology, although there is nothing wrong with this.  The Carmelite Doctor means to attend to Christ's life by prayerfully reading the Holy Bible, especially the Gospels.  The more we ponder his life, the more ways we discover to imitate Him in our own.  Obviously, such study goes beyond any mere cerebral exercise.  This kind of meditation is an asceticism of the heart.  St. John of the Cross's teaching resonates with the words of St. Paul to the Philippians 2:5-11: we are to conform our lives completely to the One who humbled Himself for our sake on the Cross.  Christian prayer reaches maturity through becoming Christ-like: He is our model, our exemplar for real prayer.  The moment we try to go beyond or around Him, this is the moment our prayer loses its specifically Christian character.

One of the great mysteries of Christ's life that St. John of the Cross singles out as important to imitate is the mystery of renunciation.  We will consider Christian renunciation in our next post.

November 21, 2010

How to Prepare for the Lord's Sheer Grace

In our last post, John of the Cross described an experience of seeking the Lord, fired by the urgent promptings of love in one's heart, free of the normal concerns that normally trap us within ourselves.  Such freedom for seeking the the Lord is "sheer grace." Is there anything we can do to prepare our hearts for such a gift?

In Ascent of Mt. Carmel, Book 1, Chapter 13, Fray Juan de Yepes y Alvarez proposes practices, which in his own experience, have helped people find this freedom.   While many have heard of his doctrine of nada, very few really understand it in a beneficial manner.   Here, we will consider a good foundation for a proper understanding and personal appropriation of this teaching.

The first thing to remember is the "sheer grace" by which we find the freedom to seek the Lord with our whole hearts - this grace is exactly that, a grace, a gift, something entirely undeserved.  This is why John of the Cross emphasizes that they way to come to know the Lord is more "passive" than "active."  The passivity he has in mind is not the absence of activity, but an active receptivity, a generosity of heart that is ready to make a total response to the Lord.  Gratitude, humility and love of God form the dimensions of such generosity.  Such is the only proper response to the Lord for the price He paid for the freedom He yearns us to know.   In Salvation History, the best example of this response comes from Mary in her encounter with Gabriel, "Let it be done to me according to your will."

Once we see that all the counsels of this doctor of the Church concern principally the river of grace flowing from the side of Christ, then any practices or disciplines we take up on our part are simply subordinate to the Lord's work, a humble response to a generous gift.   How can we repay the Lord for his goodness to us?  How can we say no to his invitation to friendship?  Everything we do for the sake of this friendship is a simple cooperation with what He has already done for us: it is love in the face of Love.

November 20, 2010

Dark Night

One dark night,
Fired with love's urgent longings,
 -Ah, the sheer grace!-
I went out unseen,
My house being now all stilled;

(Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh, OC.D. and Otilio Rodriguez, O.C.D., Washington, D.C.: ICS (1979) p 711.)

St. John of the Cross orients us to the beauty of silent prayer in these first lines of his poem, Noche Oscura. Such prayer is a hidden experience of ecstasy, a going out of self to meet God.  In this experience, God is like a secret lover who is waiting outside our normal preoccupations with self.  The soul yearns to be with God, yearns to be loved.  This soul that yearns for love also suffers imprisonment, trapped in its own house, in its own self: what it imagines, what it feels, what it thinks it wants.  But what happens when all this limiting activity is silenced?  What happens when my passions for my own comfort, reputation, and self-satisfaction are asleep?   This is a sheer grace, a delightful surprise, a longed for opportunity.  Now the soul can sneak out of itself and search for the One for whom it longs.

This silent prayer is a loving movement by which we leave behind, if only for a few minutes, all the anxieties and concerns that eat up so much of our day to day living.  Forgetting everything, pressing forward to what lies ahead, those who take up this kind of prayer encounter the Bridegroom who eagerly waits for them.  Such prayer normally requires preparation - although God can also grant it as a pure surprise to someone when they least expect it.  In our next post we will consider the preparation John of the Cross proposes.

November 18, 2010

They Speak by Silences

Written by a Carthusian and preserved by Benedictines at a Roman Catacomb, They Speak by Silences is a treasure for those looking for spiritual reading.  In fact, it might be deemed a 20th Century spiritual classic:

The Word proceeds from Silence, and we strive to find Him in his Source.  This is because the Silence here in question is not a void or a negation but, on the contrary, Being at Its fullest and most fruitful plenitude.  That is why It generates; and that is why we keep silent...  Books are of more value for what they do not say than for what they do.  The reader is like a man gazing on a horizon.  Beyond the outlines that he sees, he seeks perpectives he barely discerns, but which draw him precisely because of the mystery he senses in them.  So the books one loves are those which make one think.  One seeks in them that silence whence the words were born, which is those depths of soul which no language can express, for they are beyond expression.  It is here we touch what is measureless, eternal and divine in us.  (They Speak by Silences, Herefordshire: Gracewing: 1955, 2006, pp 5-6)

November 16, 2010

Recollection in Prayer: Hurry and come down!

Christian recollection is a movement of heart to an urgent appeal of Jesus not unlike the appeal he makes to Zacchaeus in the story related in Luke 19:1-10.   Recollection involves a humble acceptance of one's own need for God, a gentle awareness that something is missing in one's life.  It is a movement toward humility, a coming down to earth.   It is a realization of one's own misery.  One focus's the powers of one's soul on what is truly essential. It is not, however, self-pity, which is only an emotional counterfeit.  Self-pity is stuck in the self.  Recollection goes down into the difficult places of one's own heart in search of Christ, at his urgent invitation, with the same hope of meeting Him that we see in Zacchaeus.

Elisabeth of the Trinity, a Carmelite nun who died at the age of 26 of Addison's Disease, wanted her family and friends as well as the other nuns with whom she lived to grow in prayer.  She knew, from her own experience, that recollection helped her meet Jesus.  At the same time she also knew that the encounter with Christ was not something she produced by her efforts.  Entering into deeper friendship with the Lord was in the nature of a surprising, an unexpected gift.  She found in Jesus' words to Zacchaeus an illustration of this experience.

We know from the Scriptures that Zacchaeus was a man who wanted to see Jesus, and even climbed a tree so he could catch a glimpse as the Lord walked through Jericho.   He wanted to see Jesus, but Jesus saw him.  Biblically, to be seen is to be known.  It is obvious from the passage that Jesus knew Zaccheaus.  His appeal to Zaccheaus was urgent: "Hurry and come down, I must dwell in your house." Luke 19:5

Elisabeth used this Scripture passage to illustrate the purpose of recollection.  She is writing to loved ones who already are seeking the Lord, who want to find them in their own lives, like she did in hers.  Through this beautiful Scripture passage, she gives a sense for how recollection, as a movement of humility, allows us to meet Jesus and to make room for Him.  As we search for what is truly essential in the broken places of our hearts, He is there to meet us - we find Him already bearing our misery for us.

November 14, 2010

The Life of Prayer: the sure path to freedom

Christian prayer is a simple movement of the soul towards God. It is a movement of love, by which we cling to Him with the boldness of faith, trusting in his loving kindness. This movement of love is also a conversation, a heart to heart, in which He listens to all our concerns with the greatest of interest and in which He also shares the concerns of his heart with us. He actually hopes in us and puts his trust in us in a profound way.

Such prayer is possible because of what Christ has done for us. By his death on the Cross, He has authority over sin - the great barrier between us. He has suffered all its consequences so that all that is a betrayal of the truly human, all our ignobilitiy towards one another and towards ourselves, already has been destroyed in his death. These are dying realities in mortal humanity - but new humanity, the humanity restored by Christ, is no longer subject to them. By rising from the dead - the Lord rescued all that is good, holy and true about what it means to be free, to thrive, to fully be who we really are.

For each of us personally, this means, if we humbly ask Him, He not only removes the barriers of sin that imprison us in all kinds of falsehoods. He also reveals the truth about who He created us to be, and in revealing this truth, He establishes us in it. To finally be free, to finally be who we truly are - this is what the Lord wants for us. Freedom from sin is a great freedom - because we are free of those things that betray and undermine the goodness which God sees in us. Christian prayer is always gratefully aware of the price that was paid for this freedom.

This freedom bought at the price of Christ's own blood comes from knowing the truth about sin in our lives. When we know what our sin really is, we have the freedom to reject it. This is why we examine our conscience. We look at our life through the magnifying glass of the Cross. Our hearts are pierced. In tears we realize how much we need the Lord and how much He loves us. Such tears help us correct our course, to renew our efforts to follow in his steps again. The Cross, that sign of God's unfathomable love, brings into the proper perspective how we are living our life.

By his death, Jesus revealed how much we are loved. God would not love us if He did not see the good in which He created us. He is drawn to us, captivated by us. And it is an awesome good which He contemplates in us- for we are his image and likeness. So important is this for his work of Creation that he suffered death itself to rescue this image, that it might not perish, that it might achieve is destiny to show the glory of God in the World. Whoever thinks about his life in light of Christ's great love for him - he comes to a certain knowledge about what obstacles in his life must be surrendered to the Lord. As this is done- this truth brings ever greater freedom, and new kinds of freedom that were previously unimaginable.

The greatest freedom we grow in is the freedom to love - when Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, He realized the perfection of humanity in his very person. This new life is not passive. It is filled with love. It is humanity set on fire with love. That humanity should be capable of living in ceaseless, unimpeded love - this is the great truth which we must not only know but live. And Jesus intercedes at the Father's right hand that this fire might be ignited in our hearts too - that we too might love with the full freedom of the children of God. This Fire - it is the Holy Spirit.

As we examine our conscience and repent of sin, as we strive to live a new life, there are always new outpourings of the Holy Spirit, new ways the Fire of Love, the Fire of Freedom is ignited in our hearts. It grows and matures - as long as we are open to this outpouring and obedient to its promptings, we are on the sure path to freedom.

Part of a presentation to CLAY - a group of young people at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Denver.

November 11, 2010

St. Dominic's Nine Ways of Prayer - mortification

Of Dominic's ways of prayer, the section on physical asceticism is described with succinct discretion. In our aggressive and violent culture, great discretion is called for in discussing this for us too. People sometimes read about this kind of prayer and get turned off altogether or else they engage in very self-destructive behavior. So, I hope the reader will forgive the length of this post this time.

It is true that many of the saints sometimes engaged in self-destructive behavior when they were beginning the spiritual life. Part of what they were dealing with was their own broken instinct of self-preservation, an affliction common to all humanity. Self-preservation is sewn into human nature so that we can protect ourselves from legitimate danger. But the saints well understood that this instinct sometimes inclines us away from things that put this life at risk even when our eternal life is on the line. So, they acted against this propensity - sometimes in excess. In most cases, we can find witnesses or their personal writings where they repented and expressed regret for their actions. They came to see that physical asceticism must always be ordered to human maturity.

Indeed, the Fathers of the Church understood that the glory of God is man fully alive. Human maturity, the fullness of life, is realized when we are free to enter into communion with one another and God. It is to this end that the instinct of self-preservation must be ordered or it will continually cause problems for the spiritual life.

It is from the context the this particular practice of St. Dominic should be considered. Witnesses recalled that St. Dominic would beat himself with a chain while praying Psalm 17 (18) -- a psalm of deliverance from death and war against the enemies of God. This austere practice was meant to be an expression of compunction.

In other words, while praying for deliverance with his lips, St. Dominic was also acknowledging that he was responsible for the terrible plight he was in and, further, he was somehow responsible for the terrible plight others were suffering. The context of this prayer was war. His body was involved in spiritual violence. The discipline he took on expressed an interior conflict. This extreme form of petition addressed the inclination to forget things that the "self," the big fat ego, would rather avoid. He wanted to keep in mind his responsibility for his own sin and for the evil suffered by others - because it is by accepting the truth that God can begin to act.

When we are not mindful of the consequences of our own actions or lack of action, we lack the humility, the truthfulness of heart that God searches for in us as He hears our prayers. Without this truthfulness, even our natural instinct for self-preservation can become self-destructive - like when we are callous towards someone who has hurt us, or we have hurt, because on some level we reckon it too painful to deal with them in any other way. Insofar as these hidden motives are driving us, we are not free to love, to follow the prompting of God to move beyond "self." The tradition sees the need to reorder our instinct for self-preservation in Christ's teaching: "Whosoever wants to preserve his life will lose it. (Matt. 16:25)"

Is there another way to such truthfulness - the only kind of truthfulness that can heal our instinct for self-preservation, ordering it to eternal life? Therese of Lisieux, our newest doctor of the Church, did not think she could take up the discipline with the same heroic resolve of the great saints. But she wanted to be a saint. She remembered during a pilgrimage to Rome how instead of climbing stairs she took an elevator - and how much easier the elevator was. She believed that the Church needed to develop a spiritual elevator so that people like herselve could more easily become saints. This is what she proposes in her Little Way.

Rather than the physical mortification saints embraced in the past, she advocated interior asceticism. This practice involved among other things acting against our instinct for self-preservation in social situations. Accordingly, when she was misunderstood or falsely accused, instead of mounting her defense or lashing out in righteous indignation, she would offer the situation to God and thank Him that she was deemed worthy to be treated like Christ - then smile or at least silently walk away. In other words, instead of a physical discipline, she used the effort to love her persecutors to be her mortification.

In doing so, she recaptured an important biblical principle often lost on those who are overly concerned with exterior practices: following Christ involves a radical renunciation of the evil in my own heart, a mortification of every impulse which is not for the glory of God. As St. Paul says - the old man needs to be put to death. There is a constant pull to our former way of life, to follow the sinful patterns of life of our ancestors, a way of life that frantically grasps at preservation of one's self. Instead of going back to the past- Christ challenges us to imitate Him.

Renouncing the tendency to always preserve and promote oneself is what it means to pick up our Cross and follow the Lord. The suffering that must be endured until this renunciation is complete is part of the price of discipleship. This is essential to the interiorization of morality we see in Matthew 5. It speaks to a transformation of the inner man - making us capable of real communion with God and one another.

In conclusion, prayerful asceticism is an important part of the spiritual life because our instinct of self-preservation is broken and needs to be healed by the Lord - re-ordered for this glory. However we pray through this kind of instinctual brokenness, we must keep our eyes on the communion the Lord establishes us in and realize that interior transformation is God's work. Our efforts then aim at making space for the Lord to act - this is why Therese's Little Way can be even more mortifying than a physical discipline.

November 9, 2010

That Loving Knowledge

Although the Almighty is beyond the power of human understanding to grasp, Christians believe that knowing God's Will is possible because Jesus, in his humanity offered for our sakes, has given us real access to God.

The kind of knowledge the Risen Lord gives us is different than the merely factual kind of knowing. Such factual knowledge is all about simply knowing what to do - how to make or fix something. There is nothing to be gained in approaching the Mystery of the Living God like a service manual.

Knowing God and his Holy Will is, instead, deeply personal. In this loving knowledge, St. John of the Cross explains, love (not naked reasoning) leads us forward into the Divine Mystery. What the intellect understands follows behind our love for the One who discloses Himself. The loving will knows the Loving Will of God and a union of wills, each given to the other, becomes possible. This love is a friendship love - it sees the goodness and beauty of God because it has loved Him and been loved by Him first. St. Paul calls this the Wisdom of God (see 1 Cor. 6-13). Some theologians call this experimental or experiential knowledge of God. There really is not words to describe this kind of knowledge - yet those who know the Lord in this way really have something to say, something the world needs to hear, something we need in our lives.

With this kind of loving knowledge, a joy, peace and a dynamic self-possession grows in the heart. Every time someone acts in accord with this loving knowledge of God, these fruits increase -sometimes exponentially. This fruit, which St. Paul enumerates in his letter to the Galatians, is produced by the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22). When we choose to act in accord with the loving knowledge the Lord shares with us, it frees the Holy Spirit to be fruitful in our hearts.

It is possible to act against this knowledge, to act as if we were ignorant of God. St. Paul warns against living with our minds conformed to this age or like those whose minds are darkened (Rom 12:2, Eph. 4:18). It is possible for those who believe in Christ to choose to live in the flesh - to allow the unconscious hidden drives of our nature to make our decisions for us, not only in big things, but especially in the little things we think no one knows and no one will be hurt by. This living in intentional ignorance is what keeps us immature spiritually - acting against what we know in our hearts.

There is no reason for discouragement if we suddenly realize that most of our lives we have chosen to live in ignorance. Teresa of Avila lived like this until she was almost forty years old. The Lord however would not let her continue - and when she was off her guard, He pierced her to the heart with His Love. Just as He touched her to the core, He can touch any one of us - it is something worth asking for, something worth enduring every kind of trial to obtain.

So the spiritual life really begins when we take up the struggle to make room in our lives for the loving knowledge of God that only Jesus gives. This is why Christians must make silent prayer a priority in their lives. It is a knowledge that comes from the Cross and doing all we can to gain this knowledge is worth it.

November 7, 2010

The Memorial of Elisabeth of the Trinity 2010

Elisabeth of the Trinity - whose memorial is this Monday - is frequently referenced on this blog.  This is because she understood her mission to be to help people enter into deep prayer.  A carmelite nun, she saw self-occupation as a huge block to prayer and actually said that she would help lead souls out of themselves and into God.  She was convinced that once we are free of our big fat ego - God is able to transform us in love.  She called this transforming encounter with the Lord "the divine impact."

With her love for the Scriptures, her devotion to the Trinity, her captivation with Christ's salvific work - her writings are filled with helpful insights.   Not everyone finds her easy to read - her flow of thought follows a musical composition rather than the rules of logic - and she is dense with quotations from the mystical tradition of the Catholic Church.   Although she only lived to the age of 26, from the beginning of the Twentieth Century to today, many contemplatives have found  her solid teaching helpful.

For a brief bio and bibliography, see
Some of her works in English and a very good bibliography by Jennifer Moorcroft are available here: and of course here:

There are a lot of great resources on her - for example, check out:

I have also referenced her writings in the following posts:

Happy Blessed Elisabeth Day!