December 28, 2011

The Mystery of a Merry Christmas

The Christmas Season holds out for us the deepest personal joy.  It is a season that begins on Christmas Eve, includes the Solemnity of the Mother of God (New Years Day), Epiphany (Little Christmas) and runs through the Baptism of the Lord (although the ancient observance of this Season once lasted until Candle-mass at the beginning of February).   Throughout this time, the beautiful greeting “Merry Christmas” is as much of a challenge as it is a wish.  The challenge and the wish have to do with beholding God who has manifested his glory in our flesh.  It has to do with attending to the Word which resounds in the silent stillness of our weakness anew.  Christmas is a merry exchange in which God embraces human sorrow so that men might know divine joy.  It is a prayerful encounter which takes up not only a recalling of ancient events in earthly history but at the same time a loving gaze into one's own depths in the present moment, a moment which is forever carried by this newly unfolding heavenly mystery.

Christmas is about a deeper conversion of life from darkness to light, from the poverty of our pettiness into the inexhaustible riches of God's love.  This life changing presence of the Lord is our joy.  This hidden strength in the midst of our weakness is our hope.

The Savior is wondrously present to us and reveals his power even in the midst of this life's most difficult trials.  He lives in our poverty even when we do not feel him, an ever flowing fount of divine strength in the face of all kinds of hardships which tempt us to disappointment. Yet we have great reason to persevere in prayer even in the face of death, even when we do not believe we can pray, for our hope does not disappoint.   

If we renew our dedication to prayer, how can we not be merry to the point of jubilation when our faith makes the Birth of Christ and the whole mystery of the Incarnation manifestly present to us again?  And yet, when we are honest with ourselves, our joy is not nearly as complete as it ought to be.   The Word become flesh speaks as the Gospel is proclaimed but we do not take the time to hear.  The Bread of Life laid in a manger feeds us with true spiritual food but we do not make it our life's priority to eat.  Instead, we are constantly pulled into all kinds of indulgent self-occupations, prideful self-righteousness, and at the same time despairing self-condemnation.  We must be vigilant lest the glitter and noise of our brokenness rob us of the joy we ought to have in Emmanuel, God-with-us.  

The merriment of Christmas is his sacred presence, an astonishing presence which He has pledged to us forever.  Hidden in the poverty of our work-a-day existence is a superabundant fullness of life, love and communion which is ready to be a manifest source of infallible personal joy -- if we seek Him in faith.  To accept the true meaning of “Merry Christmas” requires a humble and determined effort to attend, to listen, to search, to ponder, to meditate, to wonder, to adore, and to fight for his wondrous presence in our lives, in our families and in our communities.

Merry Christmas!  The God-child is born unto us: a new morning dawning on our lives, higher than our thoughts and deeper than our desires.  Shining in our darkness and resounding in our silence the Word has become flesh - and death cannot overcome Him.  There is a Holy Fire in the night, a radiant Star whose hope filled rays illumine an inestimable mystery entrusted to us, a mystery beyond all telling, a wonder far beyond our ability to imagine or understand.  A fulfillment of all desires surpassing every promise, an overwhelming rush of divine tenderness, an enveloping comfort which surpasses the sorrow of our our afflictions, and a more than hoped for answer to life’s most painful questions: all of this is as present and as accessible in this present moment as a newborn wrapped in swaddling clothes.  Christ dwells with us now as then proclaimed by angels, despised by the powerful, sought by the wise, and adored by the poor.

December 21, 2011

Hearing the Call of the Bridegroom

"Let me see you, let me hear your voice."  These final days of Advent lift our hearts to the coming of Christ and are meant to move us to pray  How can we not make prayer part of our lives when we consider what it means that Word of the Father came in history and what it means that Jesus continues to come to us in mystery?  To help us feel this in our souls, to help us raise our hearts before this great truth, to nourish us with the sweetness of what God has revealed, our liturgy includes readings from the great love poem - the Canticle of Canticles.  In this poem, the Bride calls us to listen to the Bridegroom and to feel the joy of seeing Him gazing at us.  And for his part, the Bridegroom of Advent longs to find us, to see us and to hear our voices.  God longs for us to pray.

"Arise my beloved!" This is what God asks of us to prepare for Christmas.  Who is it who calls us his beloved and who commands us in love to rise up?   We cannot know until we enter the silence of prayer for our own self.  Have you allowed silence to be part of your Advent Season?   Do you hear Him calling to you?  Do you see Him gazing at you?  Why not seek him now? Why not take this moment to listen for his voice? 

He the one who comes to us in our poverty, in dark stillness, in sacred silence.   As vulnerable as a baby, descends into our hostile world so that we might ascend with him  into heaven's eternal love.  He who cannot find a place to lay his head, He for whom there is no room in this world, this Pilgrim God longs to lead us to the place prepared for us from all eternity, our true heavenly homeland, the bosom of the Holy Trinity.  

This Child who comes to us does not come as a avatar who merely appears in our likeness - the Image of the Invisible God embraces our life, drinks in our existence and makes it his very own.  His first cries in the manager reached their climax on the Cross: cries of prayer, cries in the face of our distress and misery, cries for love.  Have you allowed this holy cry to reverberate in the hollows of your heart?  By his cry into our world, this Son of Man and the only begotten Son of God, this Son of Mary and Son of the Father, He empties himself into our existence, empties Himself of his Divine Life.  Why does He empty Himself and humble Himself?  He pours Himself out in love into our lives holding nothing back to show us our dignity, what it means to be fully human and fully alive, what it means to live by love, to live like God, and at the same time gives Himself in love to fill us with the fullness of life so that we might embrace his very being, drink his very existence and make his life our very own.
His love for us is passionate, stronger than death: a love nothing but love alone can quench. More than any bridegroom this world has ever known, He yearns for our love and longs to enter our world anew - but He through whom the heavens and earth were brought forth waits for us.  He holds his divine breath like He held his breath waiting the fiat of the Virgin.  He longs to fill the world with his Holy Spirit and to renew his whole mystery anew in our lives, in our time, in our families, in our culture, in our society, today.  Yet He has made his plan dependent on our saying "yes", on our feeble "fiat."  He counts on our prayers more than we allow our prayers count on Him.  The Word listens attentively for our quiet voice even has the heavens and the earth resound with the cries of the Divine Infant

What does our true Bridegroom cry out and what does He yearn for this Christmas?  He cries for heartfelt  prayer washed in tears of contrition and gratitude, bowed in humble adoration, ready to boldly say yes to his presence, generous and eager to welcome his love. The words of the Word of God reveal this cry,  "Let me see you, let me hear your voice." (Song of Songs 2:14).  .

December 13, 2011

The Foolishness of God in St. John of the Cross

"The soul that walks in love neither tires others nor grows tired." St. John of the Cross is a saint passionate about love to the point of foolishness in the eyes of the world.  But this foolishness is a family trait.  Gonzalo, his father, left everything out of love for Catalina, his mother and Gonzalo's brothers despised him as a fool for love.  The friendship of Gonzalo and Catalina, their holy marriage, was filled with the radiant beauty of what it means to really live. True love is never half-way.  It never grows tired in its devotion.   For someone living by love, besides the beloved everything else is rubbish.  Real love fears no sacrifice and is ready for every hardship.  His father would die in destitution and yet his widowed mother never lost hope.  They were rich in love, and in the evening of our lives, nothing else really matters.  Their home was held together through every hardship and disappointment by living faith, a faith alive with love.  This love, this hope and this faith formed the soul of a future saint.  

John of the Cross was a fool for love like his parents, and in his foolishness lived life to the full just as they did.  Like his father he too was impassioned by love's yearnings and in that passion found courage to make every sacrifice for the one he loved.  The only difference between father and son was that for John of the Cross his beloved was God alone.  God's love radiates from his poetry and evokes urgent desire, profound peace and uncontainable jubilation.  Fired up with love, driven by love, given over to love, friendship with God was his life's priority and a zeal to lead others into this same divine friendhsip burns throughout his writings.  He chose poverty and a disciplined life so that he would have the freedom to love.  This is why he embraced the the hungry, the sick and the dying.  It is why he made himself radically available to the spiritually poor as well.  Something of the foolishness of God lives in St. John of the Cross's foolishness for love.

If someone were to ask what made his love for God so intense, at least part of the answer must include his devotion to prayer and the Word of God.  He memorized the Scriptures and loved to comment on them, especially the Song of Songs.  He loved silence and he loved to search for the Lord in the silence of his own heart.  It was in the silence of his heart that he heard the Lord speak to him, "The Father spoke one Word, which was his Son, and this Word he speaks always in eternal silence, and in silence must it be heard by the soul."

Understanding the yearnings of love which moved in his soul provides insight into his friendship with Teresa of Avila, his zeal for the reform of Carmel and his fierce fortitude when imprisoned in Toledo.  It explains why hundreds of the faithful sought him out for spiritual direction and why he would walk for miles to hear confessions.  It sheds light on why he enjoyed camping in the wilderness and solitude in the countryside.    If he demanded rigor in religion, the friars he formed were gratefully loyal to him because his devotion was contagious.  At the same time, he was so rooted in love that he really did not care what others thought of him or whether those who were closest to him treated him poorly -- although he always cared about them and would sacrifice anything to make sure they knew they were loved.  After his miraculous escape from the harsh torments he suffered in prison, he was asked about his experience.  His words were washed with wisdom, "Where there is no love, put love, and you will find love."

December 10, 2011

A Voice Calling Out for Conversion Driven Theology

The Precursor demanded conversion of life because he wanted the Truth to be welcomed in the hearts of men.   Those who set themselves on the pathway toward spiritual maturity with contrite spirits and vigilant hope in the Lord know this conversion.  This is a turning away from darkness and shame.  It is a turning towards the light, towards complete authenticity, to real simplicity of heart.  The voice of the Lord converses which such a soul in his conscience, setting afire his inner sanctuary, guiding him deeper and deeper into his own illuminated humanity.

Duplicity is too painful to maintain before this truth.  One is driven by the need to rectify his life, to straighten out the crooked pathways of his heart, and to make restitution to those he has harmed no matter the price or humiliation.  This conversion turns us away from selfishness and sobers us about the games we play.  Lust for things is renounced and the drive to satisfy bloated appetites is checked.  Tears of regret flow over time wasted on silly diversions and squandered opportunities.  Gratitude for the time that remains springs from the heart.  One renews his commitment to the sacred bonds in which the mystery of one's life unfolds.   How short and fragile the gift of life is - there is not a moment to waste if we are to really love those God has entrusted to us!

Conversion flows from and leads to prayer.  One struck to the heart by his own sinfulness and need for mercy prostrates before the mystery of God's overwhelming holiness to humbly accept his place.  Contrition filled adoration blankets the heart.  Such a soul discovers the heartbreaking beauty of silence where God holds his Divine Breath waiting to be recognized by a cry of the heart.   Such silence is the wilderness where the Precursor's cry still echoes: this is the silence of Advent.  The Christian who has entered deep into this silence is ready to profoundly welcome the Word made flesh, to encounter Christ on a deeper level.

William of St. Thierry, disciple of St. Bernard, describes a deep theology which is not at the disposal of the thinker, but rather a gift for which one prepares with this whole life.  It is a gift enjoyed by the spiritually mature who have freed themselves of childish attachments, anxieties, and idleness.  Such a person has learned to distinguish God from the works of God, and realizes that as noble and necessary as the works of God are, they do not deserve the devotion of one's heart.  The heart is made for God, to be given to Him directly or through those He entrusts to us.  The spiritually mature live by such love and because they live in this way, they are prepared for a deep kind of prayer, a profound kind of theology, a contemplation that takes up the heights and depths of our humanity, continually transforming all of our activity from one horizon to the other, unifying thoughts and affections into an ever deeper existence of love -- an existence rooted in an ever deeper encounter with the Lord:

The Spirit of Life at once infuses himself by way of love and gives life to everything.  He lends his assistance to human weakness in prayer, in meditation, and in study.  Suddenly the memory becomes wisdom and tastes the good things of the Lord.  At the same moment, the thoughts to which the good things of God give rise are brought to the intellect to be formed into affections.  And then worthy thoughts are entertained of God, if indeed the word "thought" is correct.  There is only awareness of God's abundant sweetness.  This awareness leads to exultation, jubilation and a true encounter with the Lord in goodness on the part of the man who has sought him in simplicity of heart.  
The Golden Epistle, #249-250

December 8, 2011

The Immaculate Conception

We Catholic Christians believe that the Mother of God was conceived without sin because it deepens our confidence that all things are possible for God. This is a luminous feast in the midst of the dark days of winter.  In what should be a season of hope, so many are weighed down by discouragement.  The heart needs reason to hope.  Here, what we believe about the Immaculate Conception contains the substance of our hope and helps us find encouragement to persevere in our conversion to Christ.

At the moment of Mary’s conception, in the primordial sacrament of married love, the grace of Christ reached into history to preserve his Mother from the law of sin.  In that instant of love and life, an ancient curse was lifted, the futility under which all of creation struggled was relieved, and the original splendor of humanity peaked out.

Marriage is part of this mystery.  The sacred character of this primordial institution is revealed in this proposition of our faith.  No mere legal arrangement, marriage  - so maligned and so betrayed in our culture - is holy and so is the conjugal love it safeguards.  The vowed indissoluble friendship of married love lived faithfully out of devotion to God and to one another is a wellspring from which God flows into humanity.  In the case of Mary's parents, in their exchange of hearts, in the kiss and embrace their friendship knew, carried by grace and sustained by the Almighty Hand of God, new life was permitted to enter into our dying world.  In that moment, the tender affections of marriage attained their greatest accomplishment.  The inestimable gift of self which marriage originally enjoyed but rejected was given another chance, and in that gift a new life was conceived with the fullness of life.   A beatitude that had been lost to human experience was restored - and exceeded.  In Mary, the Immaculate Conception,  we have a sign of the victory of Christ over the power of sin, a sign raised up on high from the fruit of married love's conjugal embrace, a sign of the culture of life and civilization of love which lies open if we will return again to God.

This mystery of new life at work in the conception of Mary is a singular instance of God accomplishing his hidden purpose with unanticipated power.  In her, the weary world received the first inkling of the splendor of the Lords' faithfulness to his promises.  Where no eye could see, a hidden foretaste of a deliverance about to dawn in the world began to unfold.   For the first time, we experienced - unknowingly - the first glimmer of the  fullness of grace Christ's death on the Cross won for us.   The result? Humanity on fire with the obedient love of the Holy Spirit in a mother's womb.  In the conception of Mary there is a disclosure of God's unfathomable love for humanity, the greatness of married love, and the renewal of the gift of life.  The mystery of the Immaculate Conception is meant to capture the heart in this radiant beauty, a hidden glory accessible only to the eyes of faith.

Since it is good for us to be bathed in the splendors of this radiance, the Church proposes the mystery of the Immaculate Conception, inviting us to go deep into the hiddeness of our faith, deep in to the divine secret entrusted to us at baptism, deep into the abyss of God’s mercy. To say yes to this sacred truth, to choose to live by it, we open ourselves to the gift of Mary -- her prayers, her purity, her love wait to fill our faith in Jesus. Accordingly, when we dare to believe that the salvific power of Christ saved his own Mother from sin at the moment of her conception, she shines for us like a star in this sea of life, giving us even deeper reasons to be confident as we sail for the safe-harbor of the Lord's infinite love.

December 6, 2011


To recollect oneself, to collect together the powers of one's soul, this is a beautiful kind of prayer which can be refreshing for the heart.  In our hectic world, frequent recourse to such prayer, if only for a few moments, is essential if we are not to forget our true purpose. Normally prayerful reflection on the life of Christ or a Scripture verse or even one's own life in the light of God's love helps the soul enter into this kind of resting attentiveness. Although it entails renouncing self-preoccupation, withdrawing from all kinds of dissipating distractions and silencing the constant monologue of one's own bloated ego, the quiet of Christian recollection is not really an esoteric emptiness.  It is not about the attainment of some self-satisfied state of consciousness.  Instead, this faith imbued silence is filled with a transforming fullness of the Word.  Like the brilliance of heaven illumines the darkness of night, in this kind of prayer eternal Light shines in the dark voids of our existence casting its loving wisdom over the captive mind, a radiance in which we find the truth about God and about ourselves.

In this prayerful silence, the One who embraced the silence of death discloses the heart-piercing depths of his divine love.  This is a chastening silence, a humbling silence: this contrite stillness, this grateful quiet, this deep surrender to both holy sorrow and at the same time unimaginable joy.  Like the womb of the Virgin Mary, this sacred silence of soul, visited by angels, is pregnant with deep spiritual currents of all that is good, holy and true about our humanity, currents ready to born into irrepressible jubilation.

This silence seeks in the distant frontiers of our innermost being an encounter with the One who has entered an even deeper silence to search for us.  He has made his home in the vast wilderness of our hearts.  A moment of mutual recognition between the Bridegroom and the soul waits to be realized in this sacred stillness.  A sacred banquet is prepared.  Christian recollection is not an end in itself, but a threshold - a pathway to a deeper encounter with the Lord, to a mysterious meeting of unimaginable intimacy.  This prayerful peace aches with anticipation, a longing for Someone, the hidden fulfillment of all desire.  For in this silence of thoughts drenched with God into stillness, the Trinity waits to embrace us, to envelop us in love, to establish us in peace, to catch us up into a foretaste of a life this world cannot hold.  

December 2, 2011

Guarding Interior Silence in our Vigilance

The spiritually mature long for silence - but such silence does not happen by chance.  Out of devotion to Christ, one must carefully order not only the space and time in which he lives, but also take steps to protect his conscience and struggle for purity of heart.  It is difficult work and often it feels like nothing is happening, that it is a waste of time.  Yet perservere in your devotion and attention to the Lord in this holy silence.  Silence filled with prayerful expectation is a spiritual place of encountering the Word who seeks us out. 

To enter into prayerful silence we must withdraw from exterior and interor noise.  This is not an escape -- it is the first step to dealing with reality straight up.  This is why monks go to their cells, and it is why we need to make a space in our homes that is dedicated to prayer, a place in our lives where we make prayer our priority daily.  This place must be sheltered from exterior noise, from noise like the radio, TV, and computer.  If we are not sheltered from it, such noise drowns us in distractions, and makes us forgetful of the deeper spiritual purpose that the Lord has entrusted to us.  But in addition to the noisy world around us, there is an interior racket that comes from the enchanting fantasies we entertain about things or people, fantasies promising satisfication whether physical, emotional or even spiritual.  If this cacophony goes unchecked, we find ourselves powerless against all kinds of irrational tendencies.  Unchecked, we suddenly find ourselves sitting in judgment over one another, ourselves and God -- we are such poor judges: blinded by envy, arrogance, and self-pity. 

But what happens if for part of the day I renounce a little entertainment?   What happens when I renounce impulses to try to satisfy myself with things, people or food?  What if, instead of wasting time judging my neighbor, I spent a little time in silence listening to the Lord?

The ancient monks understood the importance of keeping silence in daily life.  They understood that the physical cell in which they dwelt was only meant to be a sign of the interior silence they were meant to keep.  Such silence is vigilant, constantly on the watch for the presence of the Lord who visits our hearts.  St. Athanasius in his reflections on the Life of St. Anthony described this spiritual place as an inner mountain of hidden intimacy with God.  St. Teresa of Avila described this place of interior encounter with the Lord as a garden filled with flowers of virtue and a castle filled with innumerable rooms of personal encounter.   St. John of the Cross described it as a whole new world with exotic islands just waiting to be explored.  William of St. Thierry considered it the inner cell:

The outward cell is the house in which your soul dwells together with your body; the inner cell is your conscience and in that it is God who should dwell with your spirit, He who is more interior to you than all esle within you.  The door of the outward enclosure is a sign of the guarded door within you, so that as the bodily seneses are prevented from wandering abroad by the outward enclosure so the inner senses are kept always within their own domain.  Love your inner cell then, love your outward cell too, and give to each of them the care which belongs to it.  William of St. Thierry, The Golden Epistle, trans. Theodore Berkeley, Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications (1971), ##105-106.

November 30, 2011

Dealing with Sin - A pathway for prayer in Advent

God wants to help us deal with sin but He waits for us to come to Him, to invite Him, to welcome Him.  Advent is a time for doing just that.   Opening our hearts to the Lord with contrition filled prayer is the most important thing we can do to  prepare for the joy of Christmas.  Not to do so is to prefer to live in self-contradiction, a cold dark misery not worthy of human dignity.

To live in sin is a self-contradiction: it is to cleave to a word of doubt in our lives that stands against all that is truly human so that we permeate our culture with death and sew malice in our civilization.  We are made to live in the truth with integrity, that spiritual harmony with God, the world and ourselves.  Sin contradicts all of this. This absence of love, this misery diminishes our capacity to live with ourselves, the world and God..     To believe this fantasy is to turn in on oneself, fight against oneself, to  be consumed in self-occupation.  The fantasy proposes that the obedience of love by which we live by love is oppressive; therefore, we should protect ourselves and secure our destiny by our own cleverness and industry. 

In the logic of sin, love is not a gift but a tool -- it must be calculated.  This project is the opposite of being human, a destiny attained by trust in God alone.  Yet this lie is so spell-binding, I cannot free myself from its enchantment by my own power and resources.   Stifling, crushing, perverting, defacing, subjecting to futility all that is good, true and beautiful about being human, this lack of interior harmony can become a un-spiritual cacophony.  Without the ability to relate in truth, we cannot give the gift of ourselves in love to God,  and without God we are unable to give ourselves in love to all those with whom God has blessed us in this brief moment we share together in this world.  Made in the image and likeness of God who has entrusted Himself to us, we contradict our existence when limit ourselves to mediocre, insipid substitutes for the love we were made to share together.
This self-contradiction causes guilt.  Engaging in various forms of mental hygiene to alleviate guilt does not make the disease go way.  No method for meditation or psychological technique can free us from the self-contradiction in which we are trapped.  Since all that is natural is subject to the futility of the self-contradiction in which we live, we need a power beyond and above our nature to free us from the misery that enslaves us.

Sin, the cause of guilt, has a horrific social dimension.  This this self-contradiction is contagious -- if I do not seek the antidote and I refuse the only medicine that can heal me, it kills not only me personally, but also those I most love, wounding them in ways "I am sorry" can never heal. Brutal, cruel, dehumanizing - this hostility threatens to break hearts, ruin lives, and shatter families.  This cancer, this living death, robs us of the capacity to love -- and without this capacity, what are we?

Advent is a time when we deal with the reality of sin in our lives by repentance and faith in Jesus, our Lord.  In the face of our self-contradiction, God sent his Son to save us.  The Word became flesh and revealed the meaning of our hostility on the Cross.  He is the antidote for death and the medicine of immortality.  In prayer, we submit our self-contradiction to the Cross, the Sign of Contradiction.  In this mystery of divine contradiction – the Word of God who is Love speaks to our lack of love, his mercy overcomes our misery.
Here, the wisdom of Blessed John Paul II is powerful: If we open wide the doors of our hearts to the Redeemer, He pierces our hearts and moves us with saving sorrow.  Contrition filled prayer deals with the contradiction of sin and the guilt it causes – this holy sorrow moves us to repent of what we have done and failed to do, to confess our sins, to beg for mercy and to do penance -- which is to live in the truth of what the Lord has done for us, to make straight a pathway in our hearts and to prepare the way for his coming.

November 29, 2011

Mercy and Advent

These days of Advent are about preparing a welcome for the Light of Christ who comes to us anew in ever more wonderful ways because of God's great love for us.   When He first came it was the poor, the lowly, the foreigner, and the outcasts of society who welcomed Him.  He in fact became all these things.  But what of the mighty, the proud and the rich?   To welcome Him is to say yes to love, especially love in difficult circumstances, when it really counts.  Mercy is love in the face of suffering and during Advent we prepare for Christmas through the mercy we show to one another.  This means we need to find ways to effectively love one another in the midst of suffering.  This can be inconvenient and even painful in all kinds of ways.  But Christ crucified is not convenient and his coming in our midst demands that we let go of our other priorities and allow Him to become our priority, especially when He is present in those most in need - the abandoned, the neglected, the despairing, the mourning, the depressed, those suffering all kinds of illnesses and disease, the hungry, the cold.  He is there with such as these and comes to us through them-- and being watchful of his coming, staying vigilant, and "making straight a highway for God" means that we must go into the highways and byways, seek out and love these whom God loves, so that his mercy might be revealed, so that He might be welcome among us again.

As a result of Christ's salvific work, man exists on earth with hope of eternal life and holiness.  And even though the victory over sin and death achieved by Christ in His cross and resurrection does not abolish temporal suffering from human life, nor free from suffering the whole historical dimension of human existence, it nevertheless throws a new light upon this dimension and upon every suffering: the light of salvation.  This is the Light of the Gospel, that is, of the Good News.  At the heart of this light is the truth expounded in conversation with Nicodemus: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son." 
Blessed John Paul II, Salvifici Doloris #15.

November 27, 2011

Prayerful Vigilance and Advent

The coming of the Lord is often imagined as an impending catastrophe in the distant future against which one must gamble, but this is a dangerous fantasy. For those who long for the mercy of the Lord, for those oppressed, for those persecuted, for those rejected, for those despised, for those abandoned, for those who hunger, for those who thirst, for the poor, for the meek and lowly; for all such as these the Day of the Lord will not be a catastrophe but if they cleave to Him in faith, this day will be a eucatastrophe -- a sudden happy ending; unimaginable, unexpected, uncalculable; a victory, a triumph in which every tear is wiped dry and every sorrow consoled, in which at last the personal story entrusted to each of them will be enveloped in joy.

The brief span of this present life is hurtling towards eternity, accelerating at an exponential rate with every instant of our lives. In the twinkling of an eye, when all seems most bleak, when the banality of evil seems to be snuffing out the last light of goodness, in the face of the total antithesis of all that God has promised, in the midst of a world gone crazy with insobriety and anxiety, when it would seem that for which we have most hoped was hoped for in vain -- it is in this instant of love when the Lord will come. It is humanity's great test and it is meant to be the finest hour for each one of us, the moment when the secret meaning of our lives is revealed.
Whether it is the end of time, or the end of our lives, or the countless opportunities we have to die to ourselves and live for Christ each day: this is the trial in which we repay love for love, when we cleave to love because of Him who was crucified by love, when we believe in mercy and practice it because of the mercy we have received. In this trial, the truth about who we really are is waiting to be revealed – for we are so fashioned that unless we are able to give the gift of ourselves in love the way God has entrusted the gift of Himself to us, we never fully become what we are predestined in Christ to be: the praise of God’s glory. And so, we must be vigilantly prayerful that we might recognize the hour of the Lord’s coming and persevere in the truth when the truth is most needed. Anyone who embraces this vigilance constantly discovers foretastes of the eucatastrophe that awaits those whom Christ calls “good and faithful servants.”

November 22, 2011

The Lord is Coming - Take Him to your Heart

"Take Him to your heart... keep Him in you as in a sanctuary... live with Him in intimacy"  This was advice offered to a new religious sister just beginning her life as a nun.  The beauty of this message only fully discloses itself when we consider the author.   Dictated while racked in pain, coming in and out of delirium, enduring all kinds of physical, psychological and spiritual hardships, wrestling with even despair itself, these words are her great testament to her hope in Christ, a hope to which she cleaved in the face of everything.  In the final weeks of her life, she had become a fiery icon of holiness which gave warmth and enlightenment not just to her community but to everyone who desired to grow in prayer.   This nun was Blessed Elisabeth of the Trinity, the Mystic of Dijon.

Taking Christ to heart is necessary if one is to be faithful in one's service to God.  Blessed Elisabeth also exhorted the new sister "to raise" herself up in strength and "to surrender" her whole being to the Lord.  The total trust in the Lord haunts these words.  We must use our strength to raise ourselves up and not allow ourselves to be bogged down by the anxieties and concerns of this life.  Once raised up, we must surrender not just for a moment and not just what is comfortable, but everything to God.   Such raising up and surrender is impossible without God - but the Lord himself is our hope.  Something in these words apply to every life, no matter how busy or active or frantic.  Because to live the Christian life well in whatever our calling we must welcome Jesus into our hearts all the time and never lose sight of Him.  This is a matter of interior discipline where we continually turn our thoughts back to the Lord, keeping them all under the "exceedingly great" love of God, "until He consumes you both night and day"  (P123, 22 Oct 1906).

To take the Lord to our hearts is to raise up, to surrender and to welcome with all our might the One who comes in love, the One who is Love.  If we allow our vision to be raised up by faith, if we allow Him to hold our every thought captive in faith, we begin to see that He constantly comes to us in ever new ways and we glimpse how much He yearns to be greeted in love.  Recollection in the silent adoration of our faith holds us in prayerful attentiveness to this divine visitation, this divine invasion of inexhaustible love flooding into our space and time.  Such loving vigilance, with its attention raised above the work-a-day world and the claims of bliss echoing in the merely subjectively satisfying, allows Him to begin a new work in our lives.  If we are faithful to this, the love of the Lord can consume our whole being, making us into fiery icons of his love.

Holiness is a gift which must be welcomed and fully lived out.  It is not the fruit of passivity to the demands of love or of escape from the responsibilities entrusted to us in the brief span of life we have been granted in this world.  Sanctity is not attainable by method or technique or any other attempt manipulate God or else raise oneself to His level.  It is not the achievement of a lifetime - but rather an obedience unto death.  Because the gift of holiness consists in a participation in God's life, it is greater than our natural life and makes a claim on our whole being.  But God would never ask so much if He were not going to supply all that we need for such a great undertaking.  This is why He entrusts to us his very self - And He comes in the power of the Holy Spirit pulsating, communicating, enveloping, inundating us the "exceedingly great" love revealed on the Cross.  We find new courage to take Him to our hearts because He takes us to His heart even more.  

November 18, 2011

The Ladder of Life

In his treatise on Humility and Pride, St. Bernard provides insight into what it means to persevere in living life to the full. He is commenting on St. Benedict’s Ladder of Humility. In both cases, “the ladder,” an image which Jacob dreamed about and through which the Lord visited him (Gen. 28:12ff), is a metaphor for life.   Humility with its constant struggle against pride makes one capable of living in real communion with God and neighbor, the very communion which characterizes our life in heaven: a communion of love.  We are otherwise so locked up in gratifying our big fat egos, we are not free to live, free to share the gift of our self with those whom we are meant to love. What else is hell than being imprisoned in one’s own preoccupations while at the same time perpetually agitated and never at peace with one’s self?  Both saints help us see that on the ladder of life one can ascend to hear the voice of God or descend into the lifelessness of sin. 

St. Benedict teaches that ascending the Ladder of Humility begins with fear of the Lord and ends with the discovery of a respectful finesse in all of one's relationships.   For him, the heights of living humility involve becoming so at peace with one’s own self that the monk is able to carry himself in all situations with that meekness we find in Christ.  Obedience, confession of sin, and perseverance in love through all kinds of trials and humiliations are all the means by which this fullness of life is discovered.

For St. Bernard, pride begins with the way that we look at our brothers and sisters, and it ends in a total rejection of God.  Paradoxically, to climb this ladder is to fall out of the heights of humility and to choose a living death.  His teaching highlights the important struggle that a true interior life and authentic contemplation entail.

St. Bernard writes to monks who have begun to enjoy what it means to live with themselves. Such dwelling within, habitare secum, is possible because of the Divine Indwelling.  The gift of the Holy Spirit in our hearts means that the deepest reality about ourselves is not the gravity of our own big fat ego but rather dynamic and loving presence of God himself who keeps us in the orbit of his love.  One glimpses the enormity of this gift the more one is able to face his own sinfulness and offer it to God.   It is in our relationship with God, the gift of ourselves to God in response to the gift of himself He has given through Jesus Christ on the Cross, that we discover our true dignity and find ourselves able to live with ourselves.

St. Bernard is keenly aware that the prayerful person tastes a little of this self-knowledge and has begun to rest in the love of the Lord.  He is also aware that it is at this moment the contemplative is most vulnerable to spiritual attack.  His teaching is a warning: the descent into pride begins when we allow ourselves to be preoccupied with interests that go beyond loving God and being merciful to those entrusted to us. It is possible, even as one begins to really live the Christian life to the full, to become what St. Paul condemns as “a busy body” (1 Timothy 5:13). St. Bernard suggests that this kind of curiosity in the affairs of others is what caused the Fall of the Seraphim and what attaches the Fall of Man to the envy of the devil.  Devotion to prayer and being merciful to those God entrusts to us are sure protections from this folly because only through dedicated service to the Lord will we persevere in the life Christ won for us.

November 14, 2011

The Hope for Every Soul is Love Himself

Any soul, even laden with sins, captive of its vices, held by its pleasures, imprisoned in its exile, locked up in its body, nailed to its worries, distracted by its concerns, frozen by its fears, struck by manifold sufferings, going from error to error, eaten up by anxiety, ravaged by suspicion and, lastly, according to the prophet, a stranger in a foreign land... every soul, I say, in spite of its damnation and despair, can still find in itself reasons not only to hope for forgiveness and mercy but even to aspire to the wedding feast of the Word: as long as it does not fear to sign a covenant with God, and to place itself with Him under the yoke of love...  For the Bridegroom is not only a lover: He is Love.  You will say: yes, but is He not also honor?  Some affirm this; as to myself, I never read anything of that kind.  I have read that God is Love.  St. Bernard of Clairvaux
Sermon 83, Song of Songs, as cited by Blaise Arminjon, S.J. in The Cantata of Love: a verse by verse reading of the Song of Songs, translator Nelly Marans, San Francisco: Ignatius Press (1988, reprinted 2005), 346-347.

November 11, 2011

Classical Education, Contemplation and Wonder

Classical education is oriented towards the wisdom of contemplation, and because of this, such education opens students up to the possibility of living a wonderful life. It is precisely that we might live life to the full that the Lord came. The life giving quality of classical education is born in the culture of life and civilization of love the blood of Christ once made possible and still makes possible today.  It is a kind of education in which human dignity, truth and virtue are integrated to prepare someone for the search for God and in finding Him, to cleave to Him. Through this kind of education we learn like St. Bernard that no matter how much we find Him, there is always more to be sought and in cleaving to Him there is always more to find. Because it so well equipped students for this journey of life, a classical approach to education at one time well served not only Catholic colleges and universities but even elementary schools and high schools as culture enriching institutions. More often than not, whenever classical education was wholesale abandonned, not only the Catholic identity of the institution but also the cultural enrichment it once provided to the broader society was also diminished. What would happen if this kind of education were ever rediscovered?

I am not sure why this approach to education was abandoned to the extent it has been, but any genuine renewal of the Church in America will require an examination of conscience in this regard.  Archbishop Chaput suggests that the Catholic witness to the wider culture has been "bleached out" in part because of a growing sense of insecurity in the face of scientific skepticism. Perhaps Catholic educators still find themselves compelled by thinkers like Robert Merton who looked on contemplation as anachronistic and even dangerous for society. Ironically, the spirit of scientific investigation itself should have caused us to question whether contemplation really is as opposed to science and progress as he and many others suggested, and still suggest. Why did we not apply a little skepticism to such skepticism?  Why did we not inquire into the biases and assumptions standing under such doubt?

As people of faith, we are too passive in the conversations taking place in the public square.  In failing to question the questioners, we allow doubt and ignorance to rob not only us but our children of the rich patrimony our civilization has cultivated. The wisdom of contemplation, to which all good education opens, is worth promoting and in fact vitally needed in the face of the dehumanizing forces unrestrained in our society.  The human mind is so great and vast that, besides scientific thought, it stands to reason our intelligence is also ordered to the enjoyment of other kinds of knowledge. There are certain things that science limited to the observation of merely measurable data cannot know and unfathomable mysteries that no verifiable hypothesis can explain away.  Indeed, a man has not yet lived if he has never tasted those deeper levels of knowledge which touch what is most noble, true and beautiful about our humanity.

Given the current state of our culture, do we not as educators and people of prayer have a responsibility to reconsider the rich synthesis of knowledge sketched out by great intellectuals like Jacques Maritain or Dietrich von Hildebrand?   Rather than narrow-minded doubt, such thinkers not only beautifully magnified the scope of human knowledge, the scope of the truth in which human dignity is rooted, but in contemplating the light of truth they also discovered the living secret to which human wonder is open, a secret so relevant in the face of the dying culture of these dark days. Even now, especially now, when so many are looking for a word of hope, through classical education and contemplation, universities and other educational communities can still help lead students into the discovery that the wonder of life is what makes life wonderful.

November 10, 2011

The Canonization Process for Elisabeth of the Trinity

Over the summer, the Archdiocese of Dijon has opened the process for the canonization of Blessed Elisabeth of the Trinity, the Carmelite Mystic of Dijon, France (1880-1906).  Blessed John Paul II identified her as a strong influence on his spiritual life at her beatification in 1984.  Cardinal Decourtray (at the time Bishop of Dijon) attributed his own healing to her intercession at the time.  Centennial celebrations throughout France indicate that many have discovered devotion to the Trinity and deeper contemplative prayer through her life, writings and intercession.   For many, her canonization would express and deepen their sense of gratitude to this pianist become nun at the turn of the last century. 

Part of the process leading to the declaration of sainthood requires that a second miracle be obtained by her intercession after her beatification.  This seems to have happened for a religion teacher dying of Sjogren's Syndrome.  Miss Marie-Paul Stevens, while on a pilgrimage to Blessed Elizabeth's convent, in Flavignerot, just outside of Dijon, appears to have been completely cured.  Investigation of the miracle is part of the process.  Go here for the original report in Italian.  For more on the ceremony opening up the cause, see Laudem Gloriae.  This same blog also contains great posts on her Feast Day and the Day of her Death.

November 9, 2011

Elisabeth of the Trinity and the Gift of Prayer

Elisabeth of the Trinity helps the Church understand that prayer is a gift given by God for the sake of our humanity.   It is an encounter with the Trinity - at once profoundly personal and ecclesial.  This contemplation changes the way one thinks and lives, but Elisabeth's writings show that we never go beyond the truths safeguarded in sacred doctrine.  Instead, her writings suggest that in prayer the truths of our faith are experienced like a symphony and that in this music wonderful hymns of heaven ring.   To join this music even for a moment is to realize what Elisabeth of the Trinity discovered.  It is to become like her the Praise of Glory, what she believed was her personal vocation before the Lord and is everyone's vocation in different ways. To join such a chorus if even just for a moment in one's busy day - this is to taste what it means to be free, to be fully alive, to live in the truth about one's own self, to catch sight of our heavenly homeland and to find a little rest in the midst of this weary world.  Last year, for the memorial of Blessed Elisabeth of the Trinity, I linked some resources about her life.  That material can be found here: More about Elisabeth of Dijon.  

November 8, 2011

The Feast of Blessed Elisabeth of the Trinity

"I have found my Heaven on earth: since Heaven is God and God is in my soul!"  In speaking these words, Blessed Elisabeth, who understood the Christian life in terms of becoming the praise of God's glory, opens up her wonderful vision of the present moment as the nexus in which the purpose of faith, the heart, and the presence of God coincide.  In this grace filled moment with which God has entrusted us, eternity is already beginning and progressing in time while Heaven and earth are embracing.  In this moment, the heart can find its home in God because God is always ready to make the heart his home in ever new ways.  To fully enter into this moment and all the truth it contains, all we need to do is raise our minds and hearts to the Bridegroom who stands at the door and knocks.  In her prayers, she begs Him to facinate her - because once our hearts are fixed on the One who has died for us, the Fire of the Holy Spirit transforms us into fiery icons of divine love and the mystery of the Word Incarnate is renewed in our own lives.  For those who feel their weakness and are tempted to be discouraged by their failures, the Radiant One waits to be let into our thoughts, into our memories, into our imagination, into our affections so that the glory of God might be revealed, so that like Elisabeth, we too might become the praise of God's glory.   

November 1, 2011

Prayer and Purgatory: Thresholds to Glory

Purgatory and prayer are both the thresholds to Glory.   In both cases, the disciple of the Lord receives purification to live life to the full, to be free, to stand before God and, finally, to see his face.   If we are not purified, healed, strengthened and taught how to love, we are not ready for such glory.   Prayer is better than purgatory when it comes to this work of grace.  It delights the heart of God and more fully reveals his glory when souls allow Him to accomplish this great work in this life.   Yet, in our weakness, we, even if we believe, do not always give God the permission He needs to do this work - and God never acts in us without our consent.  Because love is constricted by any lack of trust, it is possible and even often the case for those who love God to die without the Lord having been able to bring to completion the work He had begun in them.   That is why, although it does not delight Him in the same way, He will also accomplish this work of love after death.  By grace, death helps us surrender what we would not surrender in this life.  This is what purgatory is - like prayer is in this life, it is a threshold to heaven - just a more difficult one.  This doctrine of prayer helps us realize the unimaginable work God is about in those who love him.  The doctrine of purgatory helps us understand how, if we are the least bit faithful in opening our lives to Him, He is so much more faithful in completing what He has begun in us.  

Much of what happens in purgatory is analogous to what happens in deep prayer -- that is deep prayer and purgatory involve a purifying pathway through death and into glory - both are like a fire, like a surgery, like a contest, and like the preparations for a wedding night.

Remember the man in Mark 9:24 who approaches Jesus about his demon possessed son only to be rebuked for his lack of faith?   What Christ reveals to him about his faith increases his faith and he cries out, "I do believe, help my lack of faith!"  This prayer is one we must all offer in this life or the next - for this is the state of everyone who approaches the Lord.  Our lack of faith must be purified.  Any lack of faith, lack of mercy, lack of forgiveness, and selfishness needs to be destroyed -- these are not worthy of heaven and the purification of these things, their destruction by the love of God, is as painful as fire.   But in both prayer and purgatory this Fire of Love does not destroy us and the pain it causes is only temporary - because it envelops us with light, love and life.  As the flame increases and all that is not worthy of our true nature is destroyed, we are ignited with a greater freedom, a greater desire, and keener insight than we have ever known before.  Blessed are those with the courage to face this fire in this life - they already know the freedom that awaits us!  At the same time, how can our hearts not be moved to pray by the plight of those who must face this fire after death?  

Prayer and purgatory are like going into surgery.  There are certain cancerous growths in our hearts that need to be cut out and the wound completely healed if we are to have the spiritual health the joys of heaven demand.   If our hearts are not healed before we die, God will not let death stop Him from completely restoring and making whole those who persevered in their faithfulness to Him.  To this end, in both prayer and purgatory, the Holy Spirit envelops us with the Father's love just as Christ was enveloped on the Cross - an painful envelopment which is experienced as abandonment.  In both cases, this delicate surgery can be very intense and difficult - but Christ, the divine physician, is always Himself the antidote for death and the medicine for immortality.   Blessed are those who are docile to treatment the Divine Physician already offers them - the full life of heaven has already begun for them!  At the same time, how can we remain indifferent whose healing must be completed after death when our prayers provide them true consolation and in some way quicken this work?

Prayer and purgatory are both like a contest where athletes overcome their weaknesses and awaken their confidence for victory.  Only the courageous are admitted into heaven because only the strong of heart are capable of the kind of love heaven demands.   Blessed are those who by dedication to prayer and devotion of heart strain with all their might for what lies ahead - they realize in this world the triumph of good in the very face of evil and injustice! At the same time, how can we not pray for those who are too weak after death to stand and worship the Living God when our prayers are a true encouragement?

Heaven is for lovers - not lovers of merely earthly things but lovers of Him whom this earth cannot contain.  In heaven, humanity enjoys a communion of everlasting and unceasing friendship with the Bridegroom who has awaited us from all eternity.  To live like this we must learn to love like Him.  Here, prayer and purgatory are like the preparations for a wedding night where the soul learns to wait for the Beloved at the threshold of an enchanting trysting place - fired by love's yearnings such souls are captivated by love.   Those passing through this threshold need our prayers most of all - whether they are still with us in this life or have already embarked on their journey to the Father's house.  Blessed are those who seek this night and make it the priority of their heart to wait for the Lord - their whole existence will be permeated with a joy this world cannot contain!

October 31, 2011

Saints see Christ - Glory Truly Hidden

Someone once told me that the greatest tragedy in this life is not to become a saint.  But what does it mean to be holy?  The holy ones of God see his glory - not passively, but ardently and with initiative.  To this end, C.S. Lewis offers a beautiful reflection on the glory of the Lord which is a glory vere latitat, a glory truly hidden, accessible only to the life of faith, a heavenly glory that no earthly creature can see unaided or bear alone.  This glory is carried by our neighbor - a creature made in the image and likeness of God.  The implication of his reflection when we apply it to our question is that being a saint means to be devoted enough, humble enough, vulnerable enough and loving enough to help one's neighbor bear this burden, a burden never meant to be carried alone.  To be holy means trusting Christ and allowing the weight of my brother's glory to crush my own pride so that I too might finally learn what it means to be fully human, fully alive:

The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour's glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken.  It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.  All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of theses destinations.   It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.  There are no ordinary people.  You have never talked to a mere mortal... Our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner -- no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment.  Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses.  If he is your Christian neighbour he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ is vere latitat -- the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden. Weight of Glory, 15.

That Mysterious Presence of the Lord in Prayer

St. Bernard's sermons on the Song of Songs provide beautiful descriptions of the mysterious presence of the Lord in prayer.  Wishing to encourage Christians who find their hearts yearning for God, St. Bernard personally appropriates the words of the Bride from Chapter 2:17, "Return, my Beloved."

St. Bernard was aware that while the Lord is always present to the soul in some way there are also times when He chooses to visit souls that wait for Him with a special intimacy.  Those who taste this beautiful presence of God, like St. Bernard, long for it and wish it never to end.  At the same time, they also accept that God is sovereign in his love and learn to respect this sovereignty -- even though the absence of the Lord is a very painful reality to endure.  In other words, they know that prayer does not produce God's presence but that his mysterious visits produce all kinds of wonderful things in the soul, and so they find the confidence they need to wait for Him.

Does not such a view free us from that excessive and distracting preoccupation with our own psychological operations in prayer?  Precisely because God's presence is not the product of one's own fantasy, one does not need to try to produce it.  It is a matter of remaining vigilant, sober, alert, and patient: our hearts fixed on the One for whom we long, searching for Him. studying Him, imitating Him, and ready for Him.

This kind of presence of God is never to be mistaken for a psychic state, a feeling or a sensation or even the mere absence of such experiences - all of this is merely what can be produced by our own clever egos. The coming of the Living God into one's soul is not a product at all.   Instead, this inestimable gift is wholly other, an Other who is totally beyond and completely deeper than such things.  As such his mysterious visit does not admit of being manipulated by techniques and methods.  In Christian prayer, the best methods merely dispose and prepare for the coming of the One whose heart piercing love remains forever wild and free, and therefore, boundless.

This boundless moment of divine intimacy floods our hearts in the most wonderful ways without our even being aware of what has happened to us, and this even during the time we spend in prayer.   His heart moving company is so subtle neither our senses nor even our powers of intuition are capable of noticing that He is truly there.  Yet in spite of our inability to notice Him, this interior epiphany of divine love is so powerful it not only makes us aware of all kinds of different sins which darken our hearts, it gives us new light by which we can repent, that is rethink our way of life; and at the same time it also frees us from even the slightest attachment to anything which in any way threatens what is good, noble and true about who we really are before the Lord.

Overwhelming us with so many strong desires to take up all kinds great works, when He visits us with his presence our hearts are also moved with courage to endure every hardship for the sake of love.  We hope in Him because we sense that He hopes even more in us. Years after St. Bernard, St. Thomas Aquinas would explore the cause and the purpose of this gift in terms as the spiritual missions of the Son and the Spirit through the Divine Indwelling of the Trinity by grace (Summa Theologica I, 43).  For his part, St. Bernard saw this gift of love in prayer as a transitory foretaste of the eternal life that awaits us in heaven, a glimpse of God which we hardly notice when it happens -- but a mysterious visit haunting us and leaving us yearning  afterward, even to the point of calling out like a Bride heartsick for her Bridegroom, "Return, my Beloved!"

"Only by the movement of my heart did I perceive his presence and I knew the power of his might because my faults have been revealed and made visible; at the very slightest amendment of my way of life I have experienced his goodness and mercy; in the renewal and remaking of the spirit of my mind, that is of my inmost being, I have perceived the excellence of his glorious beauty, and when I contemplate all these things I am filled with awe and wonder at his manifold greatness.  But when the Word has left me, all these spiritual powers become weak and faint and begin to grow cold, as though you had removed the fire from under a boiling pot, and this is the sign of his going.  Then my soul must needs be sorrowful until he returns, and my heart again kindles within me -- the sign of his returning.  When I have had such experience of the Word, is it any wonder that I take to myself the words of the Bride, calling him back when he has withdrawn?" Sermon 74, 6-7 translated by Irene Edmonds in Bernard of Clairvaux on the Song of Songs, vol. IV, Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications (1980) 91-92.

October 23, 2011

Blessed John Paul II, Prayer and Evangelization

On Saturday we commemorated Blessed John Paul, an apostle of divine mercy for our time, a time filled with so much poignant suffering, a time when even a mother's womb has become a place of violence.  He well understood that only the loving goodness of God revealed in Jesus Christ could address such misery.  He generously engaged the fray in the battle for human dignity to which we are joined by our Catholic faith.  To win this battle, he well understood the primacy of prayer.  

Although prayerful throughout his life, in his final years he made prayer the special focus of his teaching.  In particular, he invited all the members of the Church to contemplate the face of Christ.  By this he meant that we should seek the face of Christ in our prayer, in our study, in our relationships with one another, in every situation.  

The face of Christ is revealed in so many beautiful ways in the Scriptures, in our tradition and in our daily life.  On this point, John Paul II was especially aware of the writings of John of the Cross who describes the loving eyes of Christ reflected on the propositions of our faith, eyes that are attentively fixed on us, eyes that wait to be discovered in the deep silence of prayer.  He was also very heedful of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta who helped the whole Church discover the face of Christ in the distressing disguise of the poor, a face to which we must never allow ourselves to be indifferent.  The heart piercing gaze of Christ in prayer and in prayerful action melts the hardness of our hearts and helps us rediscover the warmth of God's love.  Indeed, Christ who understands the tender strength of humanity waits for us to discover his loving glance in every moment, in thousands of ways.   He hopes in us even more than we hope in Him.

Christ fully reveals man to himself by revealing the love of God the Father.  To contemplate the face of Christ is to see the mysterious truth about who we are and the even more mysterious truth about who the Father is.  Do not the atheist ideologies of the 20th Century witness that, without Christ, humanity is always at risk of forgetting itself in the most violent and dehumanizing of ways?   

Searching for the face of Christ and discovering in his loving gaze the truth of the mystery of man and the truth of the Father's merciful love is an urgent task that every Christian must take up.  When we see the extent to which God has gone for our sake, we find motivation to live by love for those entrusted to us.  Only those who seek an ongoing encounter with Christ are able to address the evil threats against human dignity so alive in our societies today, threats with which even those closest to us must deal.  Those who open wide the doors of their hearts to the Redeemer have a real word of life which counters the culture of death engulfing our civilization, engulfing those most relying on us.  That is why when he came to Denver in 1993 he directed the youth who were so alive with the love the Lord to bring the Good News of our faith to the modern metropolis, to shout the Gospel form the rooftops - to be proud of the Gospel of Christ.     

October 18, 2011

What is Contemplation?

Christian Contemplation or "mental prayer" is a loving gaze through the eyes of faith at the mystery of God revealed in Christ Jesus.  To say that this happens through faith means that this exchange of glances between men and God is transitory and imperfect, and yet a true anticipation of what is to be revealed to us in glory.  As if looking through a dark class or catching a reflection in a mirror, this kind of prayer provides a foretaste of the wisdom God yearns to share with us in heaven.

Such prayer is necessary because the heart is made to be captivated by the loving gaze of God who is captivated by humanity. This holy exchange of glances - between the eyes of the heart and the eyes of God - is at once the most human, tender, intimate, reciprocal, vulnerable and divine of self-disclosures.  So vast the unexplored horizons of this prayer, the greatest discoveries in this frontier of human existence still wait to be made.  Those who devote their whole lives to pursuing contemplation marvel at how much more immense the mystery they behold actually is than what they first imagined.

Progress in such prayer is through the mystery of the Cross.  Cross centered contemplation in fact transforms the inner man because it opens up the deepest recesses of the heart, the suffering abyss of human misery, to the loving goodness of God.  It is a prayer which allows God to continually question everything about one's manner of life.  It is an unfolding conversation with the Risen Lord which constantly gives one real confidence to persevere in faithfulness to Him and to more strongly cling to Him in one's own weakness.

Contemplative prayer yields a kind of knowing which changes the whole of one's life.  This movement of heart ignites a love stronger than death and illuminates the mind with the very splendors of God. Seeking the loving eyes of God reflected in - or carried on - the propositions of our faith, this prayer baptizes itself in sacred reading, and baths the imagination in the Scriptures through meditation.  

Study of the Sacred Page is called the soul of theology because prayerful reading and careful reflection on the Holy Bible is devoted to seeking this gaze of God.  For those who patiently seek it, His divine glance is marvelously revealed in the inspired and inerrant canon of Sacred Scripture. Such study never reaches prayer if it is only concerned with accumulating information and discerning difficult to interpret texts. For such sacred study to become contemplative, the mind must be knelt in prayer. In this posture of adoration and humility, all thought, imagination, memory, and affectivity can converge together in a humble glimpse into the Ineffable. Here one finds faith's perfection in a humble participation in God's own knowledge of Himself. Far beyond our natural means of knowing, when the mind is humble before the truth, the Holy Spirit raises the created capacities of the human intellect above themselves, and fills them with overflowing meaning and fullness.

Transcending all psychic states, our psychological faculties come to rest in this deep silence - because it is a kind of knowing which does not primarily involve our natural operations.  If this explanation is inadequate, the loving knowledge at stake confounds all psychological descriptions or attempts at explanation.  In the most subtle of moments, like lighting, eternal Truth flashes through all levels of consciousness and into depths of which we are not conscious. This delicate communication illuminates everything from within with such blinding brightness. Even the greatest saints remember little else than the most overwhelming love. What these saints do remember mere words cannot convey.

Essentially supernatural, a sheer grace, this wisdom is far above every other kind of knowledge.  The greatest mystics describe it as a knowing which is "not knowing."  Doctors of the faith identify this kind of love imbued knowledge with that of the Bride of the Canticle of Canticles who knows nothing but her Beloved.  St. Paul speaks of knowing nothing but Christ and Him Crucified.  This knowing is not darkened but puts on the mind of Christ which knows nothing but the loving goodness of the Father.  It is a renewal of the mind to such heavenly glory that it thinks thoughts no longer subject to sin or death.

Contemplation is the most humanizing of all the kinds of knowledge there is -- because men and women are made in the image and likeness of God, and the more they participate in God's knowledge, understanding and wisdom, the more they realize their true dignity and identity.  Most devout Christians do not know that they have been entrusted with this inestimable treasure. Even the devout remain only vaguely conscious of the gifts lavished on them in their prayer.

Yet it is not necessary to be aware that one is contemplating to enter deep into this wisdom from on high and at the same time many rob themselves of true understanding because they are too self aware.   Indeed, one finally begins to live by surrendering to this loving exchange called contemplation. As St. Irenaeus explained, "God's glory is man alive - and the life of man is the vision of God."

October 17, 2011

Prayer and Theology

There are some who believe prayer and theology are opposed undertakings or at least activities that have nothing in common.   Those who espouse such a view often reduce prayer to simply an impulse of the will towards God or else a psychic state or a strong feeling  produced by spiritual exercises.  They also look at theology as a kind of product derived from scholarly inquiry into arcane questions or even a chess game of sophisticated skepticism in which careful and clever observations are proposed without ever committing the pieces.  For those who espouse such an approach theology rarely gets to breath in the fresh air of heaven and prayer remains prisoner of the preoccupations of one's own psyche.

There is a different kind of theology which frees prayer so that it might walk with the Living God and there is a different kind of prayer that breaths life into theology so that it rises up into the very life God.  Such prayer and study are filled with the Holy Spirit.  They involve putting on the mind of Christ.  For both real prayer and true theology are meant to participate by grace won for us on the Cross in the reciprocal gaze of love shared by the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit - that eternal act of knowing love and loving knowledge that knows no end.  The briefest moment of such contemplation in the midst of prayer imbued study or theologically purified prayer flashes with a loving Light, a burning Wisdom in which one can never live the same way again.  It is so intimate and personal, immense and cosmic all at the same time - because such is God.  When you meet Him in your prayer and study, a deeper conversion, a deeper love, a deeper kind of life opens up - and one simply cannot go back to the way things were before.

Prayer born of study is open to a foretaste of the wedding feast that awaits those who are faithful.  Study pregnant with prayer discovers that the deepest yearnings of the heart are raised up and ignited as the highest powers of the mind are captivated and renewed.  Such prayer and such study converge in a humble kind of knowing which exceeds all natural modes of knowledge, which is like not knowing - or rather a knowing nothing but Christ and Him crucified.

October 16, 2011

The Image of the Invisible God

The true Son of God, the Word made flesh, the manifestation of the Father's glory once stood before a crowd of powerful people who in their cleverness wanted to trap him.   Politically astute, theologically sophisticated and financially secure, their wisdom proved folly before the foolishness of God. When the Lord was asked about whether to pay tax, He asked to be shown the coin by which the tax was to be paid.   "Whose is the image?"  "Caesar's" was the reply.  The Living Image of the invisible God rendered his verdict, "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's."  (See Matthew 22:21-22)

If we know what we owe Caesar because we recognize his image, how can we possibly begin to understand what we owe God if we will not ponder his only begotten Son?  Here the Son of God shows us the connection between the image of something and the reality it signifies.  One belongs to the other.  When we look at images of earthly powers and authorities we understand what we owe to those powers and authorities.   But how are we to know what we owe God?   And should we ever begin to fathom that debt, how should we ever pay it?

Those who first heard the Word made flesh were too trapped in malice to ponder these ramifications.  They did not understand the connection between the Living Image and the Truth of the Father He revealed.  They did not perceive in the poverty of God before their eyes the debt they owed to the One who made them.  Their hearts were closed to the wisdom by which they might render to God what is God's.  They could not recognize any of this in the Image of the invisible God because their anxiety driven self-reliant political, religious and financial world was a blinding trap.  So pulled down by petty struggles for power, they were unable to raise their eyes to the spiritual reality dawning in their very midst: they had no idea of the glory shining on them and were deaf to the wisdom thundering around them. If we allow ourselves to be self-satisfied and do not keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, we could easily fall into the same trap.

When we behold God's only begotten Son, when we ponder how He emptied and humbled himself unto death on a cross, we catch the faintest outline of what we owe and our hearts are stirred with the conviction of how to pay it.  He wants us humbly to entrust to Him our misery -- it is the only thing we have that is really ours, everything else is really only a gift on loan from God.  And, in exchange for our confidence in Him to deal with the lack of love in our lives, He who reveals the inexhaustible love of the Father promises unimaginable glory.

October 13, 2011

The Present Moment - Eternity Begun and Still in Progress

We are often deceived into thinking that doing great things for God is something for tomorrow and the life of prayer is something only to be taken up when one's life's circumstances allow it to be more of a priority. This is not the way the saints understand time.

For the saints, heaven haunts this present life, its music beckoning us beyond the narrow prison of our own ego to look up and behold the One we have pierced. He stands before the eyes of our hearts risen from the dead, triumphant over every form of mediocrity which besets us, with his eyes fixed on us, waiting for us to fix our gaze on Him.  How much longer will we deny Him?

Blessed Elisabeth of the Trinity believed that time is "eternity begun and still in progress." The truth is each moment of our lives carries us into the eternal love of God ... if we let it. Each moment is a sacrament that gives us God ...if we see it with the eyes of faith. Each moment is pregnant with unfathomable grace, power that has flowed from the heart of Christ, so that God's will -- all that is good, pleasing and perfect -- is only a decision away.  Will we choose Him who waits for us even now?

Vietnamese Archbishop Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan discovered something like this contemplation when he was imprisoned for the faith. Struggling to rise out of an ocean of anxieties and nightmares, he came to see the present moment for what it really is:
If I wait for an opportune moment to do something truly great,
how many times will such occasions actually present themselves?
No, I will seize the occasions that present themselves every day.
I must accomplish ordinary actions in an extraordinary way.
Jesus, I will not wait,
I will live the present moment,
filling it to the brim with love.
Five Loaves and Two Fish, trans. Tinvui Media, Boston: Pauline Books and Media (1997) 13.

October 11, 2011

Pope Benedict and Sacred Silence

Regarding the importance of sacred silence, Deacon James Keating of the Institute of Priestly Formation shared with me a great piece on the Holy Father's visit to a Carthusian monastery in southern Italy.  This short article is a reminder of how important it is to schedule periods of the day when we withdraw from the barrage of noisy diversions all too available to us.  A little time each day in prayerful silence protects against the illusions our noisy culture promotes and it helps us keep in touch with what is really real.  Practicing silence and protecting our limited powers of attention from all forms of dissipation helps us focus our strength to confront the really important questions that we all must face at some point  - questions which expose the truth about ourselves.  If we are patient, silence strips us of the silliness that so often pulls us away from the truly essential.  In silence surrendered to God we discover just how vulnerable we actually are and how little we understand our need for God.  In such silence, we touch what is truly human and we taste what it is to be fully alive.  It is in this sacred silence that we discover we are awaited by Love.

As reported by CNA last Sunday:

The Pope contrasted the silence of the order with the noise of modern life.
“Without realizing it, people are immersed in a virtual dimension, because of the audio-visual messages that accompany their life from morning to evening,”  he said.
He called the Carthusian charism of silence “a precious gift for the Church and the world,” and one that contained “a profound message for our life and for humanity.”

“Retiring into silence and solitude, man, so to speak, is ‘exposed’ to reality in his nakedness,” said the Pope. This allows man to experience “the fullness, the presence of God, of the most real Reality that there is, and that is beyond the dimension of the senses.”
The Pope joined the monks for Vespers, the evening prayer of the Church. Before entering the monastery, he remarked that the ancient monastic life is a rebuke to a certain modern mindset “that is not Christian, or even human, because it is dominated by economic interests,” or is only concerned with earthly and not spiritual things.
A society based on such a mindset, he said, “not only marginalizes God, but also our neighbor, and we do not strive for the common good.” The monastery, though, is instead “a model of a society that focuses on God and fraternal relationship.” This is something for which we have “so much need in our time,” said the Pope.

October 10, 2011

A Summary of St. Dominic's Prayer

The Nine Ways of Prayer of St. Dominic presume a connection between the body and the soul, devotion and prayer. Each of the ways speaks to the importance of what is called "vocal" prayer. Such prayer goes beyond words that are said out loud. Bodily though it is, such prayer reaches for that true and total spiritual worship advocated by St. Paul in Romans 12:1-2.  It takes up gestures of the body which move the soul with devotion so that the grace filled and Holy Spirit imbued soul might move the body in true worship to make Christ-like sacrifices of love:

- The bowing of one's head and heart with humility at the beginning of prayer before the crucifix, at the altar, in the Name of the Trinity;
- The throwing down and prostrating of one's whole body with tears of compunction for the sins of others when one can find no more tears for his own;
- The welcoming of all the physical difficulties and the patience endurance of all kinds of bodily discomforts during prayer as part of prayer itself, as a way of offering one's body to God in praise;
- The fixating of one's gaze on Christ crucified while kneeling and standing with bold petitions filled with confidence in the indescribable goodness of God and sober acceptance of one's own weakness;
- The raising of one's hands to heaven with eyes wide open in the ancient orans of the first Christians;
- The stretching out of one's arms cruciform with a cry for help in heartbreaking situations;
- The standing strong with hands folded in prayer like an arrow shot into the heart of God;
- The sitting in holy reading and contemplation - that ancient practice of lectio divina; and
- The frequent quest for solitude in which one resists fantasies and evil thoughts like flies and prepares for spiritual battle against diabolical malice by the sign of the Cross.

October 7, 2011

The Rosary: Pathway of Mercy

Mercy or misericors, St. Thomas explains, is miserum cor, to have heartache over the plight of another as if it were one's own (ST I.21.3).  When we allow our hearts to be pierced by the plight of another in this way, we are moved to act, to do something to address the sorrow.  When it comes to the inner life of God, St. Thomas observes that God perfectly effects mercy - that is, although He does not suffer in Himself, He communicates his perfect loving goodness to address the deep sorrows suffered by in the creatures He has made.  Because He is infinite and we are finite, our misery, the intense absence of love in our hearts which is both the cause and fruit of evil in our lives, is circumscribed by inexhaustible frontiers infinite Love.

You complain that you do not see this love, that the pain is to great?  This is why the Word became flesh - by being born as one of us God Himself blazed a trail from the glorious heights of his eternal unbounded love down into the dark labyrinthine passages of our broken hearts.   He made his Cross the point where the immensity sorrow inflicting the human heart is kissed by the greater immensity of God's love. All we must do is look for this threshold in faith and ask God to help us cross it.  Here we will see the infinite love of God.

Those who glimpse this love start on a pilgrimage.  Repenting of the ways they have hurt others and themselves, they discover a life of ever deeper personal conversion.  It is a journey of forgiveness in which they submit to the Holy Spirit the wounds that others have done to them so that they might learn compassion and intercession.  It is a journey where they allow their hearts to be pierced by the plight of others just as God allowed himself to be pierced by our plight on the Cross.  In this miserum cor we discover the wisdom of God to know what to do in the moment and the power of God to act even when we feel we are at a loss and powerless ourselves.

This pathway of mercy is the journey out of the prison of our own big fat ego and all forms of self-occupation.  It is also a journey into the vast horizons of the heart of Christ Jesus from which flows the very wisdom, love and goodness of God.  The Risen Lord is Christ Crucified in whom we behold the foolishness of God bringing to shame our wisdom and the powerlessness of God overcoming the power of sin.

To help us make this journey, our great patrimony proposes that we fill our imagination by pondering the life of Christ and seeing the connections between his life and ours.  One of the tools which helps us do this is the Rosary - that ancient prayer where we ponder all the mysteries of Christ's mercy in prayerful awareness of his Mother, Mary whose soul always magnifies the Lord.  As St. Bernard says in the Office of Readings today:

He lay in a manger and rested on a virgin's breast, preached on a mountain, and spent the night in prayer.  He hung on a cross, grew pale in death, and roamed free among the dead and ruled over those in hell.  He rose again on the third day, and showed the apostles the wounds of the nails, the signs of victory; and finally in their presence he ascended to the sanctuary of heaven.  How can we not contemplate this story in truth, piety and holiness?  Whatever of all this I consider, it is God I am considering; in all this he is my God.  I have said it is wise to meditate on these truth, and I have thought it right to recall the abundant sweetness, given by the fruits of this priestly root; and Mary, drawing abundantly from heaven has caused this sweetness to overflow for us.

October 6, 2011

The Mission of Contemplatives in the Church

Though having embraced anonymity and engaged in an apostolate which avails no measurable results to this world, the sons of St. Bruno take up the work of contemplation and enter deep into the heart of the Church.  They have discovered in the presence of God the salvation of the world:

By devoting ourselves exclussively to God we exercise a special function in the Church, where things seen are ordered to things unseen, exterior activity to contmplation.  If we are truly liivng in union with God, our minds and hearts, far from becoming shut in on themselves, open up to embrace the whole universe and the mystery of Christ that saves it... We testify to the world, excessively absorbed in earthly things, that there is no God but Him.  Our life clearly shows something of the joy of heaven is present already here below; it prefigures our risen state and anticipates in a manner the final renewal of the world... By penance, moreover, we have our part in the saving work of Christ, who redeemed the human race from the oppressive bondage of sin, above all by pouring forth prayer to the Father, and by offering himself to Him in sacrifice.  Thus it comes about that we, too, even though we abstain from exterior activity, exercise nevertheless an apostolate of a very high order, since we strive to follow Christ in this, the inmost heart of his saving task.  The Wound of Love: A Carthusian Miscellany, Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications (1994) 239-240.