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!

November 4, 2010

Elisabeth of the Trinity - Devotion in Prayer

The last couple posts have been short reflections on the spiritual vision of Elisabeth of the Trinity, a French Carmelite nun who lived from 1880 to 1906.  Her memorial is November 8.  This posting continues these reflections.

Almost twenty years ago, I was privileged to speak to the prior of the Carthusians in Vermont about Elisabeth of the Trinity.  Her educational background was modest, and yet her grasp of theology strikes many as profound.  Many contemplatives, especially Carthusians, are drawn to her writings.  I asked Father Prior why this should be the case.  He explained that many contemplatives, in the last five hundred years, struggled with devotion to the Divine Persons of the Trinity.  In fact, many who dedicated their life to prayer had been so taken with the One Divine Nature that the doctrine of the Trinity was sometimes not well maintained.  The result was that many contemplatives were not able to understand their prayer in specifically Christian terms.  Oftentimes, their understanding was more Platonic or Aristotelian than it was Catholic.  This means they were trying to understand their experience of prayer without a firm grounding in Revelation.  And what God has revealed to us in Christ Jesus is not simply intellectual insight.  Contemplative prayer was at risk for becoming a rationally abstract and philosophical enterprise.  This kind of contemplation would not suffice for maintaining the contemplative vocation in the long term.

Father Prior, a former student of Dietrich von Hildebrand, (For info on von Hildebrand, see went on to observe that after Pope Leo XIII's Divinum Illud Munus, in 1897,( attention was given to the Divine Persons as an object of theological reflection among academic theologians.  Many works were dedicated to trying to recover what this doctrine means for the Christian life, in particular as it is experienced through the Divine Indwelling.  Unfortunately, few of these works were found to be beneficial for contemplatives.  Most of this theology was done without reference to the experiential or experimental knowledge (mystical theology in the ancient sense).  So this research failed to resonate with contemplative experience.

Blessed Elisabeth, a carmelite from Dijon, attended to the Divine Persons in her own contemplation.  In particular, she composed a prayer call, O My God, Trinity whom I Adore (see  Because her writings are the fruit of deep contemplation, filled with love of God, packed with wonderful quotes from other proven spiritual writers, theologically balanced, and Scriptural - they found something in what she had to say that did more than any other works of formal theological reflection.  Father Prior maintained that for many contemplatives, she helped them recover a devotion to the Trinity that kept their contemplation profoundly Christian.

For a wonderful website about Blessed Elisabeth go to:

November 3, 2010

Elisabeth of the Trinity and the Song of Praise

For Elisabeth, the soul's greatest activity is a song of praise.  Contemplation and even the Beatific vision are described in terms of this spiritual, interior song.  The soul is, for her, lyrical: its thoughts, emotions, imaginings are the strings of a lyre which require tuning.  She believes silent prayer and self-control keep this interior lyre in tune.  As it is more in tune, it becomes capable of producing the interior harmonies that Jesus offers the Father.  She believes this music is possible for us because the Holy Spirit produces the movements of Jesus' heart in the soul.  The music culminates at the Cross.  It is from the Cross that Jesus offers the great canticle of his heart.  This canticle gives fitting praise to the Father and redeems mankind.  The soul's song is meant to be a participationg in the suffering humanity of Jesus.  Only through the experiences of his humanity is serving God possible. His humanity poured out for us, in her thought, is access to heaven.  By describing this access in terms of the interior music of the soul, she makes clear that prayer does not involve merely intellectualizing Jesus' humanity.  Prayer involves a real participation in his suffering love.  It is a taking up of the Cross.   While she herself was suffering in the final months of her life, she wrote her community the lyrics of the song the soul sings in this song of praise: "I glory in the Cross of Jesus Christ" (see Gal. 6:14);  "With Christ I am nailed to the Cross" (see Gal. 2:19); and "I suffer in my body what is lacking in the passion of Christ for the sake of His Body, the Church" (see Col. 1:24).
Last Retreat, #13.

November 2, 2010

Elisabeth of the Trinity and the Apocalypse

Blessed Elisabeth of the Trinity understood the importance of making contemplation a priority in one's life.  Spending time in silence before the Lord leads to a discovery of one's true identity, an interior rectitude, and a sense of one's ultimate purpose in life.   The Book of Revelation (4:8, 10-11) relates St. John's vision of great heavenly creatures falling down in praise and adoration before the throne of God.  Blessed Elisabeth asks, "How can I imitate in the heaven of my soul this unceasing occupation of the blessed in the Heaven of Glory?" (Last Retreat, #20)  

Before providing her answer, it is worth considering the relationship between what she calls the heaven of her soul and the Heaven of Glory.   In her own theological contemplation, our souls are meant to be a kind of  heaven in the sense that it is where God dwells and is praised by faith.  She believed that by letting go of everything in life which was not for love of the Lord and for His glory, a person disposed himself to a very special encounter with the Lord.  She describes how those who dedicate themselves to the Lord in this way experience Jesus rushing into the interior chamber of their inmost being like a Bridegroom coming for his Bride. It is in this kind of relationship with Jesus, a union of real friendship, that we are able to praise God - in fact, we become the praise of his Glory (Last Retreat, #19).  She knows that this experience of the Lord is only analogous to what awaits us in glofy - in this life, we do not see face to face and the glimpses the Lord allows us are transitory.  But the fruit of heaven, the joy of praising God, of knowing and loving Him, of being known and being loved - this we can have by faith even now.   How?

Blessed Elisabeth claimed that St. Paul sheds light on her inquiry.  When he speaks of being rooted and grounded in love - he is inviting us to a deeper experience of the Lord in prayer (Eph. 3:17).  Love is the depths of God in which the soul must root itself she explains.  To be rooted in love requires that we take time to turn our attention to the Lord - she says, gaze on the Lord.  She is speaking about a simple effort to attend to the Lord, and allow ourselves the time we need to become aware of his presence.  It is a growing awareness that is worth making time for in one's life.  This awareness can pierce our hearts, give real power to change our lives, and help us discover in ever new ways the joy of really knowing the Lord.  Elisabeth herself witnessed to her own experience and she was convinced as we silently attend to the Lord in our prayer, as we take time to adore Him, all our interior movements, acts, and aspirations, even the most ordinary ones, are rooted more deeply in the One who is Love, who gave himself up for us.

November 1, 2010

All Saints Day

What does it take to be a saint?   It means to be set apart for God, dedicated to Him.  What characterizes this dedication is a unrepeatable friendship with Him.  Friends share everything they have with each other.  They are always trying to pay each other back - and each side is always trying to "out-do" the other.  Saints play this game with God eventhough God can never be out done.    It is in this spirit that the saints think "because Jesus gave his life for me, I can do no less than give my life back to Him", and they find a way to dedicate every moment to loving Him and all those He entrusts to them.  And no matter what they do, they do not think that they have done very much at all, because they constantly see in new ways how much God has done and never stops doing.  The way they see it, they really have it better than they deserve - and they are driven by love to repay love for love.

This kind of friendship is impossible by human effort alone - but the Gift of the Holy Spirit which Jesus won for us on the Cross and for which He never stops interceeding on our behalf, this Person-Gift, the Lord and Giver of Life, makes such a friendship possible.  He animates us with God's love so that we can love like God.  

The saints are all very clear on what it takes to fully recieve this Gift of God: integrity of life.  This is worth fighting for with all one's heart and strength. Grace is not magic and the Cross is not cheap.  The Lord has made this struggle possible to win by his grace but it involves constant vigilance, perseverance in all kinds of trials, and above all prayer - begging God for his strength which in the end is the only thing that gets us through.   Yes, we fall a thousand times, but always the Lord is there to pick us up and help us start again.  Real love is precious because it costs - what value is anything that does not have a price?   After what Christ has done for us, is this price, the little effort I must put into resisting sin and loving tenderly, too much for us to pay?  Our help is in the name of the Lord, and to Him belongs all the glory.  For those dedicated to this ongoing struggle, as difficult as it is, we have every reason to hope - Jesus himself taught us: blessed are the poor in spirit, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the pure of heart (that is, those with integrity of life), they shall see God. 

Thank God for all our brothers and sisters who have gone before us, who have fought the good fight, who have won the race, who persevered to the end.  Through great trials, the Lord purified them and made them strong.  Now they see His Face.  Many of them were killed for their witness, and many of these witnesses offered themselves in our own lifetimes - and most of these we will never know in this life.  But someday I hope to meet them, to become like them - free, free to see things as they really are, free to love with all my heart.