January 29, 2011

Teresa of Avila and the Mystery of Deep Prayer

Teresa's discovery of deep prayer at about forty years of age not only renewed the society of 16th Century Spain, but it brought new life to the whole Church at a time when such life was most needed.   What was true then, is also true today:  Christianity will only remain a vital force in our culture to the extent that Christians enter into the depths of prayer.  

The world needs what is most authentically human - the tenderness, courage and greatness that comes to the fore in our hearts when we live life to the full.  The secret to the fullness of life is to know God. Only God can reveal the truth about who we really are.  Only He can restore the divine likeness which we are meant to have.

Teresa, although a pious religious, had come to dread deep prayer.  She was experiencing something that everyone experiences in varying degrees in their relationship with the Lord.  At a certain stage along the way, something in us resists the grace of prayer.  But to resist such a grace is to resist love, and to resist love, this is to resist our own humanity.  Always degrading, unchecked dark tendencies of which we are scarcely aware take hold.  In Teresa's case, these included pride, her desire to be in control, and the joy she placed in being highly regarded by others.   If the Lord did not intervene, her hard heart would limit his ability to show her the truth and restore the image of his glory He created her to be.

Thus, her experience on the way to chapel when she saw a statue of Jesus was a very important moment.  She had begun to glimpse her mediocrity and all the ways she had failed to fully follow the Lord, but how to move beyond the comfortable life she made for herself?  She had no idea.  She wanted a deeper devotion, a more authentic relationship with the Lord.  Yet such a friendship seemed impossible because she felt she had been unfaithful to his many generous and undeserved invitations.

The statue showed the Lord after the scourging that the pillar.  She had probably passed by it before and not even noticed it.  But this time, as she walked by - it was as if the statue was looking right at her, or better, as if Jesus was looking at her through the statue.  The look was not one of condemnation.  Rather, it was a gaze of love.  She suddenly realized that He who was scourged for her sake was gazing on her with love, and love alone.  He was awaiting her, searching for her heart, longing for her friendship.  This look pierced her to the core - it shattered her pride, made her surrender her desire to be in control, and made the esteem of others completely irrelevant.  She fill on her knees, tears flowed, and her heart surrendered.

This was the beginning of many profound encounters with Jesus.  She loved to return to his look of love again and again in her heart.  She would meditate on the Scriptures to try to find that look and to consider the inexhaustible depths of meaning it contained - those rich treasures of knowing Him and herself in relation to Him.  And for her humble efforts to find Him, He would entrust Himself to her in deeper and deeper ways.  It was out of this relationship that she had courage to lead a whole movement to deep prayer throughout Spain, and around the world.  Not everyone appreciated the new vitality she promoted through the contemplative life.  In prayer, however, she found so much courage and determination that even her worst critics eventually changed their minds and decided to live a life of prayer themselves.

Those who want to pray in a way that will change the world must allow Him to lead them into the deepest depths of prayer.  This means, they must allow Him to make them uncomfortable with where they are at in their lives.  It is a tremendous grace to be unsettled with the state of one's relationship with God.  It is pure gift to yearn for something deeper and more authentic in one's life.  This kind of discomfort is a special preparation for the most wonderful and beautiful encounters this life has to offer.  It is the threshold to the humanizing power of deep prayer.

The Life of Teresa of Avila, the sort of spiritual autobiography she penned under obedience, shows the kind of life and the wonderful fruits deep prayer produces.   In deep prayer, yet undiscovered potentialities of the human heart are constantly unlocked, and the world is given back a little hope it once lost.  This pilgrimage is one of love - where new and mysterious encounters of the Risen Lord are waiting to take place.

January 25, 2011

The Way, the Truth and the Life

Christ Jesus is the threshold to the Father - this means we can only really know God through Him, through the humanity He took on for our sakes.  At the same time, He is the vital principle of all that is truly human precisely because He is also truly God.  His humanity, risen from the dead, informs our humanity with Divine Life, Eternal Love: healing us, raising us up, and restoring us to the way we were meant to be.

Humanity is meant to be glorious, it is meant to thrive - and when it thrives it reveals the reality of God himself.  But without love, the gravity of emptiness does not allow us to escape the black hole of our ego, we cannot get beyond ourselves, we cannot give ourselves.  Trapped like this, we will perish in the hell fires of our own selfishness and indifference.

Yet the Father who yearns for us to become what He created us to be cannot sit by and passively allow such disaster to unfold.   So He sent his Son in history to show us the way, to speak the truth about who we are and who the Father is, to give us new life.  Jesus, the Way, the Truth and the Life, risen from the dead, comes to us now in mystery, in a beautiful presence which never tires of waiting for us.  This loving presence of the Lord is the source of true love when we turn to Him in faith - a faith that takes us to the flesh and blood reality of the Cross, the place where God's love and humanity's darkness kiss.

This is why Christian prayer never goes beyond Jesus.  No abstract absolute can fill us with new life - because abstract absolutes cannot die - and since they cannot die, they cannot be raised up.   We, frail human beings, who stand before the fire of hell - we need more than a cold truth to bring us home.  Only a man of flesh and blood can show us the way back - because there is no other way to go but with and in our own flesh and blood.   And, here in the broken poverty of our humanity, only God can hold back the powers of Hell, because only He has that love and life which Hell cannot overcome.  So Christian prayer goes to Jesus through the Cross - and finds the secret of new life in Him.

January 16, 2011

The Truth to which Christ Bears Witness

"For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth." John 18:37

A Carthusian reflects on these words of the Lord addressed to Pontius Pilate.  He believes that these words reveal the most essential secret of Christ's life.  He explains:

"It is awesome to discover that he came to bear witness: that is, to confront each of us with a responsibility that he has to assume personally, in the depths of his own conscience What is my attitude going to be?  Jesus does not come to exercise any sort of exterior or interior compulsion.  No, the witness he bears calls for a response that comes from the heart, and a commitment, not to a system of ideas, but to a person: to Someone who, in his very being, is a witness to the Truth, the truth which every human heart should be ardently seeking.  In the presence of the Son of God, let us ask ourselves what our attitude really is towards this truth to which he is bearing witness before us."

What is striking about this passage is the awareness of what a personal encounter with the Lord is really all about.  For some people, spirituality is about what feels good.  For others, it is a system of ideas, an intellectual trip.  But genuine faith in Christ always involves a radical desire to encounter Him, a readiness to accept what He reveals, and an openness to generously respond, no matter the personal cost.  The monk goes on to describe the dynamism of the Lord:

"Jesus does not execise his kingship by force, nor by authority, nor by seduction; his sheep follow him freely, because he knows them personally and they know him.  It is the same type of knowledge as the mutual knowledge that the Father and the Son have of each other: a knowledge of love."  The Wound of Love: A Carthusian Miscellany, Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications (1994), pp. 127-128.

This kind of knowledge is so rare in the world today, and so very needed.  It is a knowledge that only prayer and great personal suffering can yield.  Yet those who open themselves in faith to Jesus, to his kingship, they discover this knowledge to be more precious than life itself.  To know that Love is a person, that one is personally awaited by Him, that this Person has held nothing back but given all for your sake - this kind of knowledge changes everything, fills life with purpose and meaning, it is a knowledge that must be acted on and when we live in it, this knowledge transforms the soul into a living icon of hope.

January 13, 2011

St. Dominic and Praying Cruciform

The ancient Dominicans describe seeing their founder standing upright, with his hands and arms completely stretched out, extended like a cross.  This cruciform posture of prayer was not uncommon among the saints.  There are similar descriptions of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Francis Xavier at prayer.  It seems to be a posture of intercession which imitates the prayer of Christ on the Cross.  The psalms describe holding one's hands outstretched in intercession and connect this gesture with the soul's thirst for God (Psalm 143:6).  Elijah also prayed in this way and worked great miracles (1 Kings 17:21).  In Dominic's case, this form of prayer was reserved for special occasions, those moments when he was particularly prompted by the Holy Spirit to reverently ask for a great miracle, like restoring someone back to life.

There are times in our lives when we feel moved to pray for a miracle.  Sometimes, miracles happen.  When such prayers are granted, a profound joy and awe comes over everyone involved.  It is as if our thirst for God, to be reassured that He is at work among us, matches his thirst for us, his desire that we have confidence in Him.

We tend to think of miracles as events that go against the natural flow of things.  But these Divine works are actually special manifestations of God's loving power, the One by whose hand the whole world is held together.  Because this power is hidden, we have a tendency to doubt it, especially in the face of great evil.  That is why one of the hardest things to profess in the Creed is the very first article, that God is almighty.   It is because the Lord knows how we struggle to hope in the face of calamity that He will sometimes allow a little glimpse that He is still there - as is the case when someone defies the odds and recovers after mortal injury or else is discovered to be cancer free even if previous tests showed this impossible.

The reason why the early Dominicans described this kind of prayer was because they saw St. Dominic as a model for reverent people who sometimes are also moved to pray for miracles.  They believed that this was how the great prophets prayed, how the psalms teach us to pray, and how Christ prayed from the Cross.  So when those we most love are struggling for hope in the face of horrific tribulation, the example of this great preacher suggests humbling ourselves and reverently asking the Lord for what seems to be impossible, and then to hope in God who alone can satisfy the deepest yearnings of the human heart.