March 29, 2011

How Do We Know God's Will?

Many people after discovering the faith soon realize that it is sometimes difficult to discern God's will in a given situation.  Most people think that knowing God's will is impossible.  After all, He gave us our natural capacity to reason and He has revealed Himself to us - so the rest is up to us.  There is some truth to this, especially at the beginning of the spiritual life.  But anyone who tries to make progress in our pilgrimage of faith this way is soon discouraged.  Following Christ often requires us to act in ways far beyond what common sense would dictate.  This is why St. Paul urges, "calling to mind the mercy of God, offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, your spiritual worship.  Do not conform yourselves to this age, but live a transformed life by the renewal of your minds - so that you may discern what is God's will -- what is good, pleasing and perfect" (Romans 12:1-2).

As long as we try to live like everybody else, as long as we think like everyone else, our ability to know God's will is severely impeded.   The mercy of God reveal by Christ crucified gives us a different standard.  The pathway to knowing the will of God is found in loving imitation of the Lord who laid down his life for his friends.  God's will is found in the Cross.  

We can find the Cross first of all through loving sacrifice no matter how small or insignificant or hidden from the world.  In fact, the more hidden the better.  In the old days, this was called "offering it up."  Whatever is the least desired, least comfortable, least understood - God's will is hidden there waiting to be discovered.    Whenever we renounce anything out of love and devotion to the Lord, whenever we bear a trial for his glory, whenever we offer up our internal pain and continue out of faithfulness to Him - this action opens up space in our hearts and minds, space for God's will to flow into our will.  Paradoxically, this never overthrows our freedom but expands it, liberating us from selfishness and anything else that prevents us from loving to the full.

The Cross of Christ is also found whenever we are moved to do something beautiful for God.  It was in her effort to do something beautiful for God that Teresa of Calcutta heard the Lord call her to be his light.  She discovered in her efforts to do something beautiful for God new facets of His Holy Will that would have otherwise remained hidden.   John of the Cross lived by this same wisdom and marveled at the immense horizon of love and freedom God's will contains.  He came to counsel those who were seeking the Will of God, "Where there is no love, put love, and you will find love." 

March 26, 2011

What Draws God to the Human Heart?

Despite all the brokenness and misery that mark human existence, God is drawn to the human heart.  There is something about humanity that He patiently loves and profoundly respects.  He gently attempts to persuade us constantly but never imposes his omnipotence.  In the depths of our being, He knocks.  Ever confident that our indifference and rejection are not our last word, He awaits us.  If He humbly requests our hope, it is only because He hopes in us even more.  But why?  What draws Him?

It seems He knows, better than even we ourselves, the greatness of the human vocation.  To help us fulfill our great high calling, He pours out every spiritual blessing so that even our malice and hatred are taken up into his great plan for us.  And, this is true not only historically in the visible events through the course of time, but also mysteriously in the invisible recesses that run through the human heart.

To accomplish this, the almighty power of God clothed itself in weakness.  Vulnerable placing himself into our hands, He found a sure pathway into the depths of human poverty.  The closer He came, the greater we felt that primordial enmity.  The seed of distrust once sewn before the dawn of history had become a forest of ignorance in which we hid ourselves.  He continued with undaunted hope, ready to pay any price to restore our dignity so that we might be free to achieve the great purpose for which we were created.

Our supreme act of aggression against Him, when we tortured and crucified Him, He transforms into the means of all grace.  All we need is to repent, humble ourselves and accept his forgiveness - He gives us the power to live a transformed life, to do something beautiful for God, to make an offering of ourselves which is truly pleasing to Him.  Such is His divine plan, that we should, through following Christ in love, become the praise of his glory.

Elisabeth of the Trinity believes there is one person who did this in a singular way - someone who not only leaves us an example to follow but prays for us - that we might live so as to draw the Lord to us in new, unimaginable and beautiful ways.   Mary, the Mother of the Lord, is called in tradition "Faithful Virgin" and it is the faithfulness of the Virgin Mary which Elisabeth sees as dynamic.  She connects faithfulness to God in love with humility - the virtue by which we esteem ourselves rightly.  In our selfish and power obsessed culture, this connection for the spiritual life is even more relevant today.  Faithful and humble, Mary "drew down upon herself the delight of the Holy Trinity ...The Father bending down to this beautiful creature, who was so unaware of her own beauty, willed that she be the Mother in time of Him whose Father He is in eternity" (Heaven in Faith, 39).

These words about Mary contain a great truth for anyone who wants to serve the Lord.  Something about being faithful in our weakness is beautiful to God.  This is  the pathway to the cross, the threshold to union with Him.  It means to believe in love and to love, to not lose hope even in failure, but to strive, by God's grace, to rise again.  When we go on this pilgrimage of faith, we not only discover the the victory of good over evil in our own lives, but through our surrendered weakness and his indomitable hope in us, this triumph of love extends to the whole world.  

March 20, 2011

The Mystery of Mercy and Penance

Pope John Paul II, soon to be recognized as among the Blessed, understood the importance of mercy and penance in the Christian life.  He understood mercy to be love which suffers the misery of the beloved in order to affirm the beloved's dignity.  Penance he explained in terms of a loving response for mercy received.  In his thought, mercy and penance as moments of intimacy between God and humanity coincide on the cross.

The Pilgrim Pope explores these ideas in his teachings by reflecting on Jesus' parable of the prodigal son.  In this parable, the sons (who are more concerned about things than persons) are contrasted with the father (who is more concerned for his sons than things).  The truth about justice is revealed in the implications this parable has regarding our response to mercy.  Justice is not enough for the human spirit.  Instead, in the order of mercy, justice serves our love for one another.  The handmade of mercy, it protects the conditions that true friendship, true family demands.  

The Beginning of Contrition
The son came to his senses.  A key moment in this parable is when the prodigal son realizes not only his impoverished plight but also sees that he has broken his relationship with his father.  His life project had become a failure and he had squandered his possessions and his dignity.  Mysteriously, because he has not completely forgotten his father's love, he has confidence, enough confidence to begin his journey home.  It is not that he presumes he is owed anything at all.  Instead, his heart has an insight into the heart of his father - he sees that truth a child always sees in a good father, a goodness that inspires confidence.  Knowing this, he does not doubt that there would still be a place for him in his father's home, if only as a servant.  In a certain way, this kind of confidence is like the beginning of contrition or true sorrow for our sin.  This kind of sorrow springs out of our humble confidence in the goodness of God.

The father sees his son coming from a long way off and his heart is pierced by the plight of his son - and he runs to embrace him.  The story is told as if the father had been anxiously awaiting his son's return, as if he was even impatient that it had taken so long.  But this is exactly the character of merciful love -  it yearns, aches, sorrows over the beloved - especially because it cannot bear the thought that even for a moment the beloved would be deprived of dignity.  It is impatient to suffer anything that the dignity of the beloved might be restored.  In the case of the father, he would suffer being misunderstood, rejected and humiliated - but for love of both sons, he could not have it any other way.  Through Christ crucified, God the Father communicates this kind of suffering love to humanity - so that only by passing through the wounds of Christ may one cross the threshold of union with God.

The parable of Christ reveals a reality to which we must respond.  When we see the heart of God pierced by our plight, our hearts must not remain unmoved.  His sorrow must pierce us, too.  The only adequate value response to the suffering love of God is to embrace it in loving gratitude.  And we can only love at our own expense.  Sacrifice, intercession, renunciation, restitution, trials, perseverance, bearing with one another, suffering abandonment, betrayal, denial, persecution, rejection - all these are but a small return for the love the Father has given us through his Son - love crucified for our sakes.  

March 13, 2011

The Hidden Life of Christ and our Life

Yesterday, I was invited to lecture on the hidden life to the spiritual family of the Oblates of St. Joseph in Santa Cruz, California.  Many of those present for the lecture actually taught me the faith during my childhood and teenage years - not only by their words but even more by their wonderful examples: generous service to the poor, a disciplined humble life, and patient daily prayer.  It was a room filled with champions, some in wheel chairs!  We joined together as part of nine days of prayer leading up to the Solemnity of St. Joseph.

What is the hidden life? Part of the life of Christ was public - like when he preached and healed and was put to death.  But the larger part of his life was hidden - for almost thirty years he lived day to day in the silent mystery of family and work in an obscure village.  He lived in obedience to Mary and Joseph and grew in wisdom.  What characterized life at Nazareth?  Trust in God, renunciation of everything that did not serve love of God or love of one another, offering everything that happened in the household as worship of God, treating one another and all their guests with great kindness and loving mercy, and most of all - deep prayer.

Christians are bound to these hidden mysteries of his life - by faith, their wisdom is impressed in our hearts and meant to envelope our whole existence in day to day concrete ways.  Understanding this might help explain why after we initially encounter the Lord and his great love, He seems to disappear or become absent for awhile.  He is drawing us beyond sensible consolation - things that make us feel good - and into spiritual consolation - things that in fact make us good.  He is drawing us beyond good feelings and into the depths of his love itself.  If we want to thrive in our faith, we must follow Him into these depths.

The Lord lives in the secret of our faith - and He wants us to go by faith to find him:  this means we must, like He did, make hidden renunciations, dedicate ourselves to holiness in our humble daily tasks, be merciful and kind especially when no one notices, and make prayer the priority of our hearts.  St. Paul explains this in Colossians 3:1-3 - where he explains that Christ is in the heavens and that we are to think of him and not the things of earth.  Indeed, he explains, we are spiritually dead to the world - and our lives are hidden with Christ in God.  

March 9, 2011

Sacrifice and Mercy - the Spiritual Mission of St. Faustina

Sr. Maria Faustina Kowalska died at the age of 33 in 1938 misunderstood by most of the religious sisters with whom she had lived her life.  They appreciated her kindness, hard work, and faithfulness to their rule of life, but many of her fellow religious also thought that she was delusional and tormented.  Indeed, she claimed to have received several revelations from the Lord, sometimes involving direct commands, all of which concerned his divine mercy.  She believed that she was entrusted with the mission of making the Lord's mercy known.   Through living a life of sacrificial love for the Lord, the absurdity of Sr. Faustina's claim has become an occasion of hope for the world.

To accomplish this mission, she was humbly faithful to the promptings of the Lord even in the midst of great suffering.  With great humility, developing confidence in the Lord and growing determination, she would act on what she believed the Lord asked of her only after she submitted to her confessor first, even if he misunderstood her - which was often at first.  She also worked under the authority of her religious superior.  She seemed to trust that the Lord would speak through those in rightful authority even more clearly than when He addressed her directly.  Not only was her message rejected initially, she would also suffer incredible spiritual trials where she felt like the Lord was angry with her, and in total darkness and tears doubted her own experience.  This would make her question whether she was in fact as crazy as everyone else thought her to be.

Jesus slowly helped her see these kinds of experiences, as intensely discouraging as they could be, as opportunities to love and trust Him even more.  She would offer to the Lord by a simple act of loving faith all - her doubts, the pain of not feeling the Lord's presence or love, even the fear that God had rejected her and was angry with her.  Even though she felt this way - she chose not to believe it, not to live out of these feelings, but to live by faith in the Lord alone.  She believed the Lord knew what she needed, that He would not allow her to deal with more than she could handle.  Her job was to trust in Him.  To experience these things but to continue to trust, love and be faithful in her daily duties, to patiently love even those who thought she was crazy - this was her sacrifice, a sacrifice of love that she could offer Jesus for all He had suffered for her.  It was a way for her to be in solidarity with all those who had lost or were losing their hope.  She understood them, felt one with them and was able to really pray for them.

This is what it means to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1-2).  This kind of faithful love is what we mean when we say "offer it up."    This humble attitude gave Jesus the space He needed to accomplish great things.  It is through our union with the Cross of Christ that mercy comes not only into our lives - but into the whole world. The Lord uses our trials to extend his his mercy.  Because of her faithfulness, the whole Church is blessed with a greater awareness of the inexhaustible mercy of God.

Mercy - love that suffers the misery of another to affirm his or her dignity - is one of the most beautiful ways a person can be like God.  This is the way of the Cross.  Divine Mercy is God suffering the plight of humanity, enduring with each person the incredible pain and sorrow that marks human existence.  Christian spirituality is an invitation to enter into this mystery of love by our small sacrifices.  We fast, we give alms, we pray that mercy might enter into our lives.  It is especially in small and hidden sacrifices like renouncing contention and hostility in our marriages and family life, or even lovingly bearing with each other and not taking offense in a confrontation.  Such sacrifices have real spiritual value.  They have the power to crack open the world, to lay vulnerable the heart, so that men and women, friends and family, even strangers and enemies might remember their dignity - that they are loved by God.

Because of the generous and humble sacrifices of St. Faustina in those chaotic years before World War II, one week after the great Easter Triduum, Catholics around the world now celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday.  In fact, this Divine Mercy Sunday, the Pope who canonized her will himself be declared blessed.  Their missions converge on this feast of mercy.  But what is Divine Mercy Sunday?  It is a day of prayer where we ask the Lord to renew our trust in his merciful love so that we might live it more fully in our lives.  It is a day we pray for those most in need of Divine Mercy - the despairing, the dying, the lonely, the suffering.  Our generosity with Christ, our readiness to make sacrifices out of love for Him this Lent, this humble effort to love Him in return for all He has suffered for us - this will make space in the world for His Mercy to be unleashed.

March 5, 2011

Boldly Entering the Heart of Another

Catherine de Hueck Doherty believed the Lord told her to boldly go into the hearts of others.  She could only do so if she committed herself to a life of mercy - which she did.   But she also needed most of all a gift from God which our tradition calls the Gift of Counsel, a gift given at baptism and confirmation, a gift renewed and deepened by prayer.  

We are normally told that the gift of counsel is when the Holy Spirit prompts us to do the right thing in a tricky situation.  True enough.  But St. Thomas understood this virtue as deeply related to mercy.  It is a gift that lets us see the plight of another, the misery that they suffer in their heart.  We need to be able to see this, to understand it a little, if we are to be merciful at all.  

In the mystical tradition, there are those who can even "read" the hearts of others.  Padre Pio had this gift - and I have heard accounts of Catherine de Hueck which suggest she was blest with this special charism as well.  They know secret sorrows that someone is trying to hide - and they speak the truth about them to help people face their situation with new courage.  But the gift of reading hearts, as extraordinary as it is, has its basis in this more common experience - the heart piercing prompting of the Holy Spirit which will not allow us to remain indifferent about the plight of another.  While this gift does not allow us usually to "read" what someone is trying to hide - it does help us to see things that people may not know they are communicating.  It operates in the order of mercy - for mercy's sake.  Bot h Padre Pio and the Baroness of Madonna House lived for mercy, followed the promptings of the Holy Spirit - because they lived lives of deep prayer.

Mercy is love that suffers the misery of another to affirm their dignity.  This is what the Father of the prodigal son did.  He saw his son's plight from a long way off, and his son's loss of dignity pierced him to the heart.  So he ran to his son to restore him to his household - to give him back a little of the dignity he lost.  From the outside, it looks like the father is allowing himself to be taken advantage of - but from the inside we have a son who trusts his father enough to try to return and a father who loves his son so much that no other return than his son's full return into the household is acceptable.  He repeats the action of going out to restore the dignity of his sons - twice.  Similarly, the samaritan who sees his beaten and nearly dead enemy as his neighbor.  His heart is pierced so deeply by his neighbor's plight, it is not enough for him to bring him into safe harbor.  He pays all his neighbor's debts, concerned for his complete restoration.  In both cases, the merciful lose themselves in the plight of the one they love - and their love looks squandered from the outside.  But with the gift of counsel - God helps us to see what is really going on, and when we see things from the Lord's perspective, when we accept his counsel, we cannot have it any other way.  His gift of counsel not only helps us choose what is right in a tricky situation - it helps us choose what is merciful, what helps restore our neighbor's dignity.

March 1, 2011

Theological Contemplation and the Lord's Gaze of Love

There are many ways to enter into silence.  Teresa of Avila was told to think about scenes of the Lord's passion.  St. Augustine in the first nine books of his Confessions reflects on the patient presence of the Lord in his life, even throughout the time he rejected his faith.  St. John of the Cross also mentions a contemplation on the doctrines of our faith - a kind of mental prayer he describes in Spiritual Canticle, stanza twelve.  Because it is a way of prayer which involves reflecting on sacred doctrine, I like to call this theological contemplation.

St. John of the Cross uses a beautiful image to illustrate what happens when we prayerful ponder sacred doctrine in deep silence. He describes this prayerful reflection on the content of our faith as peering into the reflective surface of a spring of water.  When our faith is pure, when we faithfully receive the teachings passed on to us through the Church, he suggests this opens up a deep loving knowledge of the Lord which matures us and raises our friendship with Him onto a whole new level.

The basis for this description is the fact that the propositions of our faith, the articles we believe, are "truth-bearing."  These doctrines (like the Incarnation, or the Trinity, or Christ's work of redemption) bear First Truth, the ineffable mystery of God Himself.  Another way to consider this is that the articles of the faith are like veils which disclose the substance of our faith.  They are like silver plated gold jewelry explains St. John of the Cross.  The golden substance under the shining silver of the propositions we believe is the Living God.  Like all veils, the content of what we believe serves to both protect and disclose something unspeakably beautiful.   The veil of our faith protects God from being misunderstood.  It also discloses Him to us, as we learn to see Him in it.

In this life, limited and frail human intelligence lacks the capacity to behold the incomprehensible love radiating from the face of God.  So the Lord has adapted Himself to our capacity, permitting himself to be reflected in truths we can understand.  In other words, we believe what we believe because this faith helps us find the Lord.  He has chosen to reveal himself, to allow Himself to be reflected, through sacred doctrine.

Now St. John of the Cross's description of a reflection on a watery surface comes in.  A prayerful reflection on sacred doctrine is like looking into a pool of water that your friend is looking into.  If you are patient for the water to smooth out, if you allow your grasp of the faith to be pacified by prayer, you will see the eyes you search for.  What a wonderful description of the truths of our faith!  As we assent to them, they make a enchanting spring in the soul where a beautiful encounter is meant to take place, where friends find a mirror into each others heart.

St. John of the Cross describes this reflection in terms of a remarkable presence of God.  While God is reflected in all creation, this special reflection of the Lord in sacred doctrine pierces the heart.  It is a look of love that binds us to the Lord in a new way.  John of the Cross describes seeing the eyes of the Lord gazing on us in love.   Our gaze meets His gaze.  Something of God is impressed deep into the soul.  We realize He has been searching for us, waiting for our friendship.  This loving gaze of God captures the heart.  For those who glimpse this presence, catch a glimpse of the Lord in the truths we believe, this experience of the substance of our faith is sketched into their hearts.

Anyone who has experienced this theological contemplation can never live the same way again.  It not only changes the way one thinks, but it goes deeper, transforming even the affections of one's own heart.  Everything that once seemed so important in life takes second place to a new priority of the heart, a new hunger and thirst for God.  The heart turns to the Lord with love enflamed.