May 31, 2010

The Trinity - the enchanting harmony of divine love

How can we describe the kind of contemplation devotion to the Trinity opens to us? One of the Fathers - if someone knows who it is, I cannot find my research on this observation but I think psuedo-Dionysius - contemplates an analogy of the Trinity with a musical chord – a perfect triad of notes from whose creative resonance all things flow. Like a musical chord which penetrates the depths of the heart, each Person freely acts with in the one freedom in the perfect harmony of one triune love - one note does not absorb the others nor do the parts of the chord cancel each other out. Contemplating the Trinity is like listing to music – in his Life of Moses, Gregory of Nyssa calls this the mysterious siren sound that echoed in the contemplation of the People of Israel encamped at Mt. Sinai. (See Exodus: 19:19.)

At this point, we might take our cue from Gregory of Nyssa who describes a resonance of heart in this mystery of the One and Three. Speaking to those about to be baptized, he explains his experience of God as his Divine Companion, “I have not even begun to think of unity when Trinity bathes me in its splendor. I have not even begun to think of the Trinity when unity grasps me. (Oratio 40.41 – as cited in Catechism of the Catholic Church #256)

In musical terms, we might describe his observation as follows: one cannot attend to any one of the triad notes without being taken up into their unity, and at the same time, one cannot attend to the captivating resonance of the triad without being overwhelm by the distinct quality of each note. The Father’s love for each of us revealed in Christ Jesus and communicated to us in the Holy Spirit is symphonic. It implies a range of harmonies that are beyond our power to hear – the very inner life of God, and yet it is our dignity to participate in by grace.

To participate in the music of God – this is to make of our life the praise of his glory. In the enjoyment of this perfect song of love, the heart contemplating it at once feels lost in a mystery that seems to completely absorb it -- and curiously at the same time, feels at home, more distinctly itself than it has ever been before. Something like the Unity of nature and distinction of Persons in the mystery of the Trinity becomes the rhythm of its own heart in relation to God, and then curiously in relation to all those entrusted to it. Elisabeth of the Trinity explains throughout her writings that this is the great canticle we will sing without cease at the end of time, and that we begin to sing it even now in faith- its harmonies taking up the whole of our life and establishing the lyre of our hearts in the divine melody flowing from the very Heart of God.

The Trinity our Home

When Elisabeth of the Trinity wrote a retreat for her sister, the first thing she did to encourage the young mother was to describe the Trinity as our home, the place where we out to dwell. Elisabeth knew that her sister would resonate with this image because she herself was making a home for her husband and infant children. When one is at home, one finds the space to be oneself and at the same time the freedom to give oneself in love. It is the eternal plan of the Father that each of us should discover in the unity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit this same freedom and space so that we might become whom He has predestined us to be from all eternity. For Elisabeth, this means finding our home in the Trinity allows us to become the praise of God's glory. The Church affirms the mystery of the Three in One and One in Three because when we carefully ponder it, we are drawn by it into the very heart of our faith. In this reflection, we will ponder what it means to be “person,” in what way God is Three Persons and finally our need for communion with the Trinity.

To be person is to have the potential to be at once a gift for another and the possessor of the gift of another. We first experience the gift of another person’s love as an infant, and this experience forms us to give ourselves in love. A mother's love surrounds us in the womb and when we come forth into the world, her breasts sustain us and her loving hands console us. St. Augustine explains that we do not have distinct memories of this experience. But these experiences nevertheless began to form us. As we encounter others beyond our mother, first and foremost, our father, we become aware of relationships - we distinguish ourselves from others and discover that they like us are free, and that this freedom can be used to love.

Yet from time primordial we have used this freedom very imperfectly to our own peril. But for the absence of love in our hearts where love ought to be, each of us would have been completely nurtured in love into adulthood. We know all to well that our noble desire for true friendship is subject to futility; and we are much too at home with our capacity to betray and deny our friendships -- just as was done to us by those we most trusted to have loved us. We yearn for love we do not have, burdened with guilt for something beyond and behind our own guilty actions, and haunted by the thought of our own mortality.

The Divine Persons are not like any created person for they do not exist in the merely potential but live completely and always in the actual – They are an eternal now allowing each moment that we experience to exist for us. Mystics like Elisabeth of the Trinity emphasize that to love the Trinity is to begin to realize that eternal now already in time – their exceeding love for us creates the present moment and makes it a kind of sacrament in which we can find God. Yet this is only a beginning. Even if there are angelic powers that have always used their freedom to love perfectly - the perfection of that love is contingent on and circumscribed by the creative action of an eternal and unending act of love in which dwell the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The mutual freedom in love shared by each Divine Person in his distinct relations reveals a co-eternal ‘spiritual space’ at the heart of all true love.

May 26, 2010

Learning how to pray without really knowing how and St. Philip Neri

Blessed Elisabeth of the Trinity begins one of her retreat reflections for her community with a meditation on the word, Nescivi - I no longer know anything.   This she says is the prayer of the soul that has encountered the Lord.  Her reflection reveals a curious aspect of Christian prayer: no Christian has really ever mastered prayer in the sense that no one in this life really ever fully knows how to pray.  In fact, any deep authentic prayer requires that we acknowledge this ignorance.  This teaching is expounded by St. Paul in Romans 8.  He explains that as followers of Christ, we do not know how to pray as we ought.   When we consider how simple prayer is, it is so peculiar that in all its simplicity, maybe because of its simplicity, we do not really know how to do it, let alone ever master it!   

You have experienced this if you have ever struggled with those moments when God does not seem to have heard you.  Was He really not paying attention or was it that we did not know how to attend to his answer?  When it really comes down to it, our limited human intellects cannot know what to pray for or how to pray for it.   For those who want to begin to pray, it is helpful to take stock of this truth and allow the ramifications of what it means to inform our hearts.

St. Philip Neri discovered this truth in his own attempt to learn how to pray.  As a young man, he was a little hot-blooded and sometimes exploded in anger in fights with his brothers.  In prayer from the depths of his heart he asked the Lord to give him better self-control.  Immediately after he finished his prayer he got into a fight with a brother with whom he had never fought before, a brother with whom he was especially close.  This was immediately followed by more strife with yet another brother.  He fled as soon as he realized what he was doing and retreated back to prayer complaining to the Lord about his failures, "Lord, I asked you to help me gain self-control -- why didn't you answer my prayer?"

The Lord responded to him in his heart with words something like, "But I did hear your prayer and as soon as you finished, I sent your brothers to you to give you new opportunities to learn the self-control you desired."

When he started to pray for self-cotnrol, St. Philip must have thought the Lord would magically modified his temper, and basically this is what he had hoped for in his prayer.   But true gentleness is not the absence of emotion but control of it.   Such control is learned and given by the Lord only in the midst of real life trials.  If St. Philip continued to insist on the kind of self-control he wanted, the Lord would never be able to give him something better.  Somewhere along the line, St. Philip seems to have learned to let go of his way of seeing life and he began to accept the Lord's mind on things.    It seems he discovered slowly the great effort to submit every thought to Christ to be held captive by Him.  Those who know the life of St. Philip appreciate his beautiful self-effacing humor.  Humility informed his wit allowing him to let go of what he thought he knew and to put on the mind of Christ- not a bad example for us.

St. Paul also explains in Romans 8 that the Holy Spirit who interceeds in our hearts knows what we really need and how to ask for it.  He wants us to understand this too so that we will be grateful to God as we experience his overwhelming generosity.   But because the way we see reality is so twisted, the Spirit must work in ever new and unexpected ways to renew how we see life, how we understand God's plan.   And what we understand through this work of the Paraclete is never reducible to something that can be grasped by reason - rather we begin to grasp more and more the incomprehensibiity of the Lord's merciful and particular love as the Spirit teaches us to pray.  That is why sometimes we find holy desires burning in our hearts for which there are no words.  Overcome with gratitude, joy and sorrow, we sometime weep before Lord and grandeur of his loving plan.  

To learn this kind of prayer, how to really pray, can only come at a great personal cost.  Indeed, to love in prayer as in the rest of life can only be realized at our own expense.  Through accepting trials of every kind we learn to allow the Holy Spirit to teach us how to pray in this love - which really means constantly following his promptings and finding in everything that happens to us the loving Providence of God.  Such prayer has been described as a dark night or even a cloud of unknowing.  It always involves trust because it always goes beyond what we think we understand.  But it is really the prayer of someone deeply in love with God, a soul so smitten that it does not desire to know anything but Him.

May 25, 2010

Time Spent in Prayer

Those struggling to begin a life of prayer often ask how much time they should spend praying.  St. Thomas observes that prayer should only last as long as one's devotion.  At the heart of his observation is a great concern in Christian prayer.  Namely, Christ commanded that we not allow our prayer to become the repetition of empty words, "for your Father knows what you need before you ask him" (Matthew 6:7).
The wisdom of St. Thomas on this point unfolds as we considered what he means by devotion.  To be devoted means to be committed to something or someone out of love.  It is not really love if we never make someone of whom we are fond a priority of the heart.   But whenever we make someone a priority we discover we must understand their concerns and desires, and as we understand these we must win their confidence.  They need to know that we really will be responsible with those things which are of concern for them.  They need to know that they are really our priority.  They permit us to win their confidence in small ways at first, but as we prove ourselves trustworthy, those we love give us greater responsibilities in regard the concerns of their hearts.  The more we love, the more devoted we become, and conversely the more devoted we are, the deeper we learn to love until we burn with a true heart to heart friendship.

This in not only true in human relationships - it is true of the Lord himself.  He was on fire with love for us before our creation and anxiouly awaited our coming.  So that we might learn to trust in his love, He did not force himself on us in his earthly life, but lived mostly in obscurity and poverty, revealing himself and his great love for us only slowly and in small ways until he offered himself for oursakes on the cross.  Similarly, he continues to love us in the same way as He knocks on the door of our heart.  If He showed us his burning devotion right away, we would not know how to take it, and we might not trust it.  So he waits to be invited and is patient in gaining our trust.   And he has such great confidence in us, he is never afraid of rejection.

As we see his devotion for us, we discover the desire to be devoted to him grow in our hearts.  This is not the fruit of our own spiritual gymnastics.  Such a desire is a grace that comes from God alone.  Only he can produce this in our hearts.  And he gratefully accepts this desire little by little until it grows to full maturity.  Just as any desire matures into action, this holy desire expresses itself in fruits of love: mercy to others, longsuffering in the face of great trials, and a deep kind of prayer which becomes a heart to heart with God.   In this way, real devotion to the Lord consists a new mutual trust and loving responsibility between God and man.   Such devotion characterizes the transformed life pointed to Paul's letter to the Romans.  St. John of the Cross describes this life transforming dynamic like a log blazing with fire:  it is difficult to see where God ends and the soul begins.

What is the answer to the question about how much time we should spend in prayer?  The time we spend reveals the priority of our hearts.  If we discover that our priorities are not what they should be, a starting place for prayer is to humbly admit this to the Lord and beg him to show us his loving devotion.   Indeed, if in prayer we allow the Lord to reveal his devotion in us, He will become the source of our devotion for Him -- and a holy fire will catch hold of our lives leading us into a fullness of life the Jesus yearns for us to know.

May 11, 2010

Why do we pray?

Why do we pray? Baptized into Christ, I pray for the transformation of the world, the realization of the victory of Good over Evil already realized in our midst and at the same time still unfolding. I pray for union with God and all those the Lord has entrusted to my prayers that they might know true and everlasting friendship with God and one another.

Sadly, my prayer did not start out this way and still falls short of everything it could be. This is because of my weak faith which wants to either manipulate God or else figure out a way to get along without Him. But these struggles I have become familiar with in prayer are struggles that a lot of people have. Sometimes rethinking (or perhaps, repenting) the reason I pray helps me get back on track.

Many people approach prayer as a form of divine manipulation. To give such people credit, they actually think that prayer has the power to change the world. Yet their presumption seems inappropriate when we consider who God actually is, or at least who He is not. For starters, He is not to be manipulated. The Almighty Creator of the entire cosmos and all living things that in it should not be treated with such disrespect.  He knows what we are going to think even before it occurs to us, and that we should be calculating with his generous love breaks his heart.  In the face of such love, how completely inappropriate to presume that if I haggle with Almighty enough, He will give me what I want. This was the approach of the prophets of Ba’al before Mt. Carmel in their contest against Elijah and the Living God. Anyone who really wants to begin to pray knows in his heart that all forms of Ba’al worship or divine exploitation must be rejected. So if prayer is not manipulation, what is it?

Once, an atheist physicist was dying and the nurse asked if she could pray for him. And he agreed, saying “You can talk to yourself all day long if you think it will make you feel better." There are quite a few people like this physicist. They approach prayer as a psychologically therapeutic exercise. By this I mean, they do not really believe prayer does anything to change reality. Rather, many people pray simply to feel better about themselves or a situation. For these, prayer relieves anxiety or sorrow or anger or stress – sometimes it can even make you feel ‘spiritual.’ But beyond its psychological effects, they presume that their prayers do not really have anything to do with God’s work, his divine plan.

For a majority of people today in consumerist America, prayer is either useless or a danger. It is associated with delusional behavior, with the irrational. Some philosophers considered religion in general and prayer specifically as a type of opiate. Prayer needs to be limited if not completely removed from society because it is a drug that prevents people from dealing with reality.

St. Therese of Lisieux described prayer as a cry of the heart and St. Thomas explains that the most fundamentally meaning of prayer is that it is a petition, a request of something from God. Like all petitions, prayer involves the intellect, it must be rational. This not only means that a petition requires ideas to be properly ordered according to the law of rhetoric. Rational has ancient senses which we have lost. According to the wisdom of the West, to be rational, prayer must be “in harmony with,” “a mediation,” “a relation to the truth.” All of this is implied in “Word” or “Logos” revealed in the sacred manhood of Jesus Christ. Christian prayer is characterized by petitions which are in harmony with, mediating and in relation to the Word become Flesh. Intimacy with Christ makes prayer rational, and because Christian prayer is rational, it really does change the world, starting with our own hearts.

This definition addresses the problem of Ba’alism. It is irrational to demand or presume when there is no basis for demanding or presuming anything. As human beings, our only standing before God is one of humble petition, relying on Him and waiting for His answer in faith, an answer which is always better than what we have asked for.

This definition also addresses the problem of those who reduce prayer to the merely psychologically therapeutic or even dehumanizing. Actually, humbly asking God is in accord with the dignity of being human because God has chosen humankind to be a kind of mediator of his presence in the world. From the beginning, God has humbly submitted his plans for the whole of creation to the prayers of men and women. He actually hopes in us, trusts that we will collaborate with Him by fulfilling that part of His work entrusted to us. This is what is implied when we say that man and woman are in the image and likeness of God. We can hope in Him because He hopes in us even more.

It is this dignity that Jesus Christ re-established through his passion, death and resurrection – He is the mediator into which we are incorporated as members of his mystical body. Even now at the right hand of the Father He continues to intercede for us without cease and we can join Him by learning to pray without ceasing. Our true identity is realized through union with Him, and in Him we learn to pray so as to transform the world.

May 4, 2010

Your Life Hidden In Christ

"You have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God." (Col 3:3) This teaching from the Apostle Paul indicates the very purpose of baptism. This single sentence indicates the vast horizon of the Christian spiritual life, a life entirely characterized by the grace of Christ signified in baptism. By faith and baptism we are united to the Cross so that like Jesus we might reveal the glory of the Father. Those who plunge into these waters enter into the mystery of Christ's death so that they might also live a life that anticipates their future resurrection. This mystical death hides our live with Christ in God. What does it mean to be hidden in God?

We live for what we love. If we love only what is visible, our life is limited to an existence in the merely day-to-day. Although such a life is easy to imagine and to control, precisely because it lies within the grasp of our self-sufficiency, it does not afford us the opportunity to break beyond "self." A life of "self" is subject to our personal limitations and aspirations no matter how noble. And, this means, unfortunately, such a life is completely subject to death. As a result, whatever joy we achieve in such a life has the fragile brilliance of crystal - a joy far outweighed by the fear it will shattered in an instant."

But if we live for something beyond what this world reveals of itself, our life can expand to the ineffable Household of the Father. To live in this way, means to live beyond the physical and visible of this life, beyond what looks like it can satisfy. To live in this way, we must live by faith alone - faith that God is love and if we love like Him, He will abide with us.

St. John of the Cross teaches God is hidden to us because He is beyond our natural capacity to know. His poems "Spiritual Canticle" and "Dark Night" both celebrate the search of a lover who finds the beloved in secret or darkness. The natural light of reason, our ability to imagine, the noble aspirations of our heart - none of these natural lights are sufficient for finding God. The only way to know Him is by a supernatural means -- living faith or faith animated by charity friendship love of God. To love like God we must abide in Him through by a loving knowledge that reason can only point to. It is in relation to this kind of knowledge that Pascal's words have particular meaning: the Heart has its reasons that Reason cannot know.

Elisabeth of the Trinity says that the journey to contemplative prayer (which she refers to as the pathway of the abyss), requires that we die to trying to live merely by natural lights. Instead we must seek to live hidden with Christ in God. She taught this because she understood the peace and strength such a life provides - she herself thrived in it. Christ is the supernatural Light, the inexhaustible source of loving knowledge of God in our hearts. If we live by the loving knowledge that Christ alone provides we discover that we are invincible to things which "pass away", for our hearts transcend them, "seeking God alone." (Heaven in Faith, #11).

This is what St. Paul wanted for the first Christians. Their lives were at risk for being dissipated by the many concerns of this life. They experienced a proliclivity to live not out of loving knowledge in God which Christ could give them - but rather out of their own self-sufficiency. As a result, they were often robbed of the peace the Lord willed for them to have. Similarly, we must renounce our tendency to self-reliance and learn to live in the hiddeness of our baptismal identity in Christ.

May 3, 2010

Abiding in the Lord

Jesus' command to his disciples: Remain in Me.   What does it mean to "remain" in the Risen Lord?  At the same time He sits at the righthand of the Father and through the power of the Holy Spirit dwells in our hearts.  He remains with us in this way until the end of time.  But what does it mean for us to remain in Him?

To abide in the Lord means to be lovingly attentive to his presence - all the different presences with which he blesses us.  He is present in our hearts and in the hearts of those entrusted to us.  He is present in the poor, the suffering and the lonely.  He is present in those who suffer for righteousness sake.  He is present in the prisoner and the condemned.  He is present in the priest. He is present in the Church and in all the members of the Church.  He is present in all the sacraments, especially the Blessed Sacrament which we refer to as "real" presence.  To remain in Jesus means to attend to all these presences of Christ in all the different ways his presence demands - to adore, to love, to comfort, to feed, to cloth, to console.  

To remain in the Lord also means we must renounce remaining in anything that is not the Lord.  Here, Blessed Elisabeth of the Trinity sheds some light.  She puts these words in the mouth of Jesus:

"Remain in Me, not for a few moments, a few hours which must pass away, but "remain ...." permenantly, habitually, Remain in Me, pray in Me, adore in Me, love in Me, suffer in Me, work and act in Me.  Remain in Me so that you may be able to encounter anyone and anything; penetrate further still into these depths."

How many encounters with people in our lives do we allow to be distractions from the Living God - when such encounters should be thresholds, instead?   We remain in our righteous indignation or arrogance or harsh judgment or avoidance or vengeance.  We abide in emotional distance to protect ourselves so that the plight of the person the Lord has given us for this moment might not pierce our hearts.   We abide in our selfish preoccupations so that we see everyone else, especially the Lord, as someone or something to satisfy our own emotional, physical and spiritual needs.   We abide in our work because at least there we produce something against which to measure ourselves and everyone else.  We abide in the esteem of others.  We abide in self-pity. 

By faith, we can choose where to abide, where we will let our hearts rest.  But our hearts are made for love and if we try to rest in anything that is not love, we cannot really live.  We do not have to abide in anything that leads to death.  If we want to live, we can choose abide in Christ Jesus, who is love incarnate.  He holds the secret of liviing life to the full and has won the right to give this life by his death on the cross.  He yearns to give this life to everyone - not only after we reach the end of our days, but even right now, today, this present moment.