September 29, 2010

Elisabeth of the Trinity and The Church of Saint-Michel in Dijon, France

St. Michael the Archangel is the patron of the home parish of Elisabeth of the Trinity, the 19th Century Carmelite of Dijon. It is in this parish of Saint-Michel where she went to daily mass. In fact, she lived just blocks away and at the time, the Carmelite Monastery was also in the same neighborhood.

Elisabeth of the TrinityThe Church of Saint-Michel in Dijon, France

It is at this parish that Elisabeth had her first experiences of contemplative prayer.  By this, I mean, she in some sense felt the Lord dwelling inside her heart.  Elisabeth was an award winning pianist, and when asked about how she could perform with so much composure, she explained that as she played, she would think of "Him."  She was astounded at how much God loved her - the love was so excessive and dynamic she was constantly drawn to it.  
Elisabeth's view after receiving Communion at St. Michele

She enjoyed attending to and searching for the loving presence of the Holy Trinity in her heart. This grace seems to have begun with her First Communion, but continued to grow as her prayer deepened. She wanted to consecrate her whole life to the loving service of God. After reading Therese of Lisieux's Story of a Soul, she decided to do this as a Carmelite nun.

In the months before her death in 1906, Blessed Elisabeth wrote her sister, a young wife and mother, a series of daily reflections so that she, too, could enter into the same kind of prayer.  In the very first paragraph, she explains to her sister that the Holy Trinity, the Bosom of the Father, is our true home, the place where our heart is most at rest.  She exhorted her sister to turn her attention to this reality dwelling in her heart, that by seeking the Lord's presence, especially in the painful and broken parts of ourselves, the transforming power of God's love, the power of the Cross, is unleashed in our lives - and we learn to become the praise of God's glory.   This series of reflections is known as one of her major works "Heaven in Faith."

Click here  for my podcasts at based on Elisabeth's "Heaven in Faith" reflections.

September 27, 2010

St Marie-Madeleine à la Sainte Baume - France

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher
When one goes on pilgrimage, a certain web of grace connects people and places in surprising and unexpected ways.  One of the great surprises of our pilgrimage was in St. Baume, France, at the purported cave of Mary Magdalene.   She is known in the Scriptures as the woman whom Jesus delivered from seven demons, and is also identified as a witness to the death, burial and resurrection of the Lord.  Although she disappears from scriptural tradition after she proclaims the resurrection to the apostles (she is called the Apostle to the Apostles), it is a pious belief that she continued to proclaim the resurrection of Jesus for the rest of her life, even in the face of persecution.  It was even believed that she and her friends were put adrift at sea as a form of execution, and that God saved them and guided them to southern France.   This is how a cave in a remote region of France came to be connected with the initial proclamation of the Gospel. 

Those who climb the mountain at St. Baume find a cave where the Magdalene is said to have lived out a life of quiet penance and contemplation.  A small crypt contains what is believed to be her remains.  Historically, royalty and other government officials came here as an act of penance.  A small plaque indicates Blessed Charles de Foucauld was also drawn to this place as part of his conversion and that intellectuals like the 19th Century Dominican Lacordaire identified this cave as a place of spiritual renewal.  Today, the cave is filled with pilgrims, generally young people, at prayer or at least wanting to pray.  

As for my family and me this summer, we experienced a certain kind of grace that drew us into prayer.  We hiked from the quiet retreat center just below tree-line to the cool dark cave which is just above it.  A certain peaceful silence overtook us as we entered the holy grotto.  Each of us went off by ourselves to be alone in different parts of the cave.  Something in this cave drew us  to prayerful solitude and reflection.

When I came to the reliquary honoring and perhaps containing her remains, I could not help but think of Golgotha and the empty tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher where we had been less than a couple weeks before.  Something about this cave and that empty tomb drew me to contemplate the reality of the resurrection, and the kind of life we want to live when we encounter the Risen Lord.  What if it were true that she who had recognized the Risen Lord had been here?  Would not such a person spend the rest of her life proclaiming the Gospel to the very ends of the earth and praying for the salvation of the world?   After seeing his resurrected eyes gazing on her in love, would she not devote her life to intimacy with him and to making up in her own body what was lacking in his sufferings for the sake of the Church?  If it was not her who had lived in this cave, then it must have been someone like her, for the grace of deep prayer flowed in that cave like the water that dripped from its cracks.  It was the kind of grace which left me wondering whether there might really be something to the highly unlikely but pious scenario connecting St. Baume to Jerusalem.  

September 26, 2010

Blessed are the Poor of Heart

What is the poverty of heart that Jesus deemed true happiness, the blessed way to be, a beatitude?  Our tradition teaches that poverty of heart is a healthy detatchment from things that do not lead us to God.  In other words, when we do not try to satisfy ourselves with frivolous pursuits, comfort, and pleasure, the Lord is saying we are very blessed.   There is space in our hearts for Him to come whenever we renounce anything that does not give him glory.  In my last post, we mentioned how Bernard believed that the soul that realized it was not at peace with itself, that something in its life needed to change, that it needed Jesus, such a soul experienced the blessedness Christ proclaimed for the poor of heart.  It is a painful kind of blessedness: only  in the middle of facing the real suffering eating at one's soul can one find Jesus, Jesus comes in spiritual poverty.

Examples of those who have experienced this kind of blessedness include figures like St. Augustine.  In book 8 of the Confessions, we read how St. Augustine was attracted to living a life dedicated to the pursuit of the truth, which he realize was the pursuit of God himself.  His heart was drawn to this purer way of life.  Now in his thirties, he had recently given up his sex-partner, a woman who had lived with him since they were both teenagers.  Disgusted with his own selfish existence, he wanted to live for something beyond himself and his own pleasure.  At the same time, he was tempted to find another concubine, someone else he could use to satisfy his lust. He was so addicted to sexual pleasure he did not see how he himself could ever give this up.  In the face of this, God offered him chastity.  Chastity was like a beautiful woman calling to him while his lust cleaved to him and  tried to pull him back.   He describes how he wanted what God offered but was not confident that he would really be happy if he had real chastity, and if he could be happily chaste, he was not confident that the Lord would ever really give such chastity to him.  At the same time, he also knew the stories of men less educated and gifted than himself who found the strength to renounce sin and follow the Lord.  He was vexed, torn up inside, yearning for what was good and unable to let go of what was evil.  So in this poverty of heart, he called out to the Lord with tears and loud cries, and the Lord heard him, spoke to him through the Scriptures, and the light of God's confidence flooded his soul.

Poverty of spirit, painful as it is, is a great gift from God because only with this poverty can he come to fill us.

September 10, 2010

Bernard and Facing the Truth about Ourselves

If anyone thinks that what he is asked to do by God is easy, he knows nothing about spiritual warfare.  This is what St. Bernard explained to university students and professors over eight hundred years ago.  It is a good reminder for today.

In his teaching to this lay audience, Bernard appeals to the inner angst which troubles the human heart, a shared human experience.  Indeed, we all have this feeling, at least for a few moments.  In the spiritual traditions of the West, this feeling is attributed to guilt.  How is guilt to be dealt with?   Bernard knows that only the forgiveness of sin can remove guilt and without the removal of sin from our hearts, we are already suffering a living death.  He knows that the Lord died that we might know his loving mercy and forgiveness.  He also knows that unless we face the truth about the sin in our hearts, we cannot know this forgiveness and our life is not really any life at all, but a living death.   Bernard's solution to this dilemma is to turn inward and face the truth about ourselves.

On this point, he invites us to search our memory and to reflect on things that trouble our conscience.  He calls this seeing ourselves as we really are.  As we become aware of what is disturbing us interiorly, he says we discover three things: our reason is blind and weak, our memory is filled with filth, and our will is infested with soars.  We discover to our own disgust that we actually prefer wickedness to what is good to such an extent that we no longer see how much we hurt others or our very selves.

To drive home this experience of ourselves, he describes an interior vexation within our hearts in terms of a marital strife between our reason and our will.   This will, he says, is an ugly old woman covered with festering ulcers who, in a fit of righteous indignation, accuses reason of adultery.  Who has not suffered at least for a few moments resentment when someone who loves us points out a sinful area in our lives?   It is even worse when spouses must admonish one another.   But the worst of all is when we find ourselves vexed at our own mind which has seen a truth that we do not want to accept, that we are not able to accept.  How do we deal with this interior conflict, this spiritual poverty?  Bernard pleads with us to listen to the voice of Christ, "Blessed are the poor of spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven."

St. Bernard and Conversion

Speaking to a group of scholars and students of the University of Paris in the year 1140, St. Bernard described how the Lord calls us to conversion by revealing the truth about ourselves to ourselves.  He claimed that such conversion was not something that could come about merely by his own words, but rather by the Word of the Lord alone.  He saw himself as a prophet, one proclaiming the voice of God which was already resounding in the hearts of those who were listening.   About twenty of his listeners abandoned their careers on the spot and followed him, becoming monks of Clairvaux.   What did he say which so moved the members of this academic community?

He touched on three key themes in the Catholic Tradition of Christian spirituality which remain as relevant for us today as they were for those who heard them proposed in Paris: the agony of guilt, the certainty of death, and the yearning of the heart for God.  It is true that most spiritualities deal with these realities in one way or another, but the Christian faith proposes a connection between these realities.  Through faith in the Risen Lord, Christians have experienced not only relief from guilt but a healing of the very cause of guilt in us.  In the face of death, they have found a way to cling to an invincible hope which nothing, no amount of suffering or privation in this life, can take away.  Finally, through Christ crucified, they claim to have realized a union with God in love already in this life and feel sustained by the living presence and power of the One they profess to be at the right hand of the Father.

In our next post, we will consider how Christ is the answer to guilt, death and our desire for God in the thought of St. Bernard.

September 9, 2010

The Ways of Prayer - Prostration

Among the Nine Ways of Prayer of St. Dominic, he seems to have associated prostration with the gift of tears.  To really weep, to have one's heart punctured by the reality of a situation, this is the first step to real conversion.  And to prostrate oneself - to throw oneself flat on the ground - is a gesture not only of humility but also of begging.  It is in fact a pleading for mercy.  Because wanting to change and being able to change are two different things.  For a person to truly be able to change, he needs more than good intentions, he needs God's mercy.  Mercy is love that suffers the affliction of another so that person's dignity might be rescued.   Such love is a total free gift, a gift no one has a right to.  Yet the restoration of our dignity, the dignity of the sons and daughters of God, is something we all vitally need.  That is why, in asking for mercy, prostration is a fitting gesture to make with our body.  It is a gesture that says to God - "I am not worthy to have you come under my roof" and "Even the dogs receive their master's table scraps."  And if we feel like we no longer need to beg God for mercy for ourselves, then St. Dominic instructed his friars to shed tears of compunction for the world.

September 8, 2010

Part II - Christ heals our indifference through our neighbor

Indifference sneaks up on us when we are not careful and we like to pretend we have not become as indifferent as we sometimes really are.   But the Lord constantly tries to show us the peril we are in.   For me, he sends beggars and the physically suffering.  These are angels sent to admonish me, to call me back to my humanity.   Catherine Doherty, the foundress of Madonna House would admonish her staff workers to get in touch with their inner street person.  Indeed, if we look closely, reflected in the eyes of those who are reduced to begging is an image of ourselves, and at the same time, the Lord himself.  

I sometimes wonder whether God does not allow some people to suffer poverty so that the rest of us might begin to understand just how poor we really are.  When I am captured by the eyes of my neighbor, it is not that I want to look at physical suffering, material privation, rejection, loneliness, and despair.  I catch myself looking the other way, and yet, in this very act, I become aware of my own inhumanity.    Memories of the Good Samaritan convict me: the worst poverty with which anyone could ever be inflicted is to see someone broken by the circumstances of life and not to be moved by that person's plight.   

This realization is itself a grace - something to take courage in, a starting point for conversion.  The truth is, no matter how broken the person is before me, I am more broken - and it is from this sense of where I am really at that I can finally reach out to my brother or sister and find Jesus.  Jesus is come to me in the gift of this person -not despite his dire circumstances, but somehow through them.  The dynamism of humanity is that in its authentic manifestations it ought only invoke the response of love.  In the face of the dehumanizing circumstances before me, how am I to love this man, this woman, with the right reverence owed her and the true honor he deserves?    Now, by a pure unexpected grace, I have the freedom that indifference once robbed me of, the freedom to love.  Yes, this person before me, who at first I saw as a distraction or even a problem to solve, is truly a gift from God - not just in a general sense, but particularly, in a personal way, for me.  This person, this gift from God is unique in all the world.  There will never be another moment like this present moment we have in this situation right now.  How can I let it pass by?  Prayer flows at once, like a river, and sometimes I feel like the good thief, and any kindness or generosity I muster whispers the prayer, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom."

Only the Lord's presence in such a person and through such a person can free me, can pierce me to the heart, so that I might remember what it means to be human again.  It is only when we are pierced to the heart that we really begin to pray.

Prayer and Indifference - part I

To grow in prayer requires some small measure of humanity on our part because it is only with grace-filled humanity that the Lord can enjoy our friendship.  But our humanity is constantly undermined by dark tendencies we must learn to offer to the Lord.  One of these dark tendencies is indifference.

Indifference is a dreadful obstacle to listening to God.  It is like mildew festering in the dark places of the heart - constantly causing damage to the joy and peace the Lord wants us to know.  Like most household monsters, no one likes to deal with it. We would rather pretend it was not there.  But like mildew, indifference is extremely unhealthy for the soul.  This disease, if not quickly treated, will fester into something mortal.

Sometimes when we go to pray we even discover our hearts have become too callous to truly attend to the Lord's loving presence.  Instead we experience an aversion to God and the things of God.  The temptation is to procrastinate, to put off the prayer time until later, for some future moment when we feel like praying.  The problem is, if we do not address our indifference, we are at grave risk for abandoning prayer altogether.  The moment we notice our indifference, that is the moment to raise our hearts in prayer and to ask Jesus to have mercy on us.

In her Autobiography, Teresa of Avila describes how she became so indifferent to Christ she put off really praying for years.   But the Lord never gave up on her.   She goes on to relate how the Lord broke through her hard heart and gave her the gift of tears.

In my next post, I will explain one of the ways Christ crucified shows us how to face our aversion to him.  He is the divine physician who can heal our indifference.

Dominic's Nine Ways of Prayer

Many who want a deeper prayer life find themselves unable to devote longer periods of time to pray because of distractions and the absence of devotion.  And it is true: one should not pray longer than one has devotion.  Christ himself warned us against using empty words in prayer or praying mindlessly.   But how then do we develop the kind of devotion where we are able to give our full attention to God for longer periods of time?

St. Dominic was able to pray for more extended periods of time with greater intensity because he used his body in prayer.  He and his first brethren experienced how praying with one's body stirs up devotion in nine ways.  In this post, we will explore the first of these: bowing in prayer.   Dominic would bow whenever he came before an altar or crucifix or whenever anyone prayed, "Glory to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit."

This practice was not simply mechanistic: Humbly bowing his head was a heartfelt response for humility Christ embraced for his own sake and the sake of the whole world.  By practicing this bodily gesture he gave his heart a chance to be devoutly mindful of the Lord's unimaginable and inexhaustible love.    

The heart does not always respond the way it should and has a tendency to forget what is most important.   Our freedom in Christ was bought at a great price.  He did not simply wish us to be free of the power of death, he offered his body and died that we might live.   The only proper response to such love is to freely love in return with our whole being - to offer the Lord a grateful heart.   But we are so fickle.  We fail to remember the gift we have recieved and our hearts grow often grow cold without our even being aware that this has happened.

But when we bow our heads in prayer it serves as a reminder to our heart and things that ought never be forgotten are called to mind once again.   What we do in with our bodies informs the heart.  At the same time, as our hearts are moved with devotion, our bodies become capable of offering true spiritual worship.  The bow that stirs loving gratitude suddenly becomes the expression of a true devotion, a real commitment to Christ.

This first way of prayer addresses a truth about the way God made us and the way He chose to save us.   When He created us in his image and likeness, our bodies were not inconvenient after thoughts.  The image of God in us is somehow manifest in our bodies - from infancy to old age.  This means that what we do with our bodies always has a spiritual dimension, something beyond this world that looks out to the Lord either accepting or rejecting that world.  Similarly, just as our salvation was worked out through the crucified body of Christ, our prayerful response also involves our bodies - the Christian body is meant to become a spiritual offering to God, and a humble bow which gratefully acknowledges God's unsurpassable love is one way to make this offering.