May 31, 2011

Making Time to be Alone with the Great Alone

Each day, it is important to set aside time for solitude with God, to be alone with the great Alone.  The ancient desert fathers spoke of the importance of making a new beginning each day, of withdrawing into silence to renew our encounter with the Lord.  Although many think of a retreat as a weekend to do ever so often, it is good to build into our daily schedules small retreats from the busy-ness around us, and to allow ourselves to be enveloped by the love of the Most High if only for a few moments.  This means we must regularly disavow all sorts of distractions, pre-occupations, anxieties and silly amusements to make room for God in our lives.  

Although not always comfortable, gratifying or even therapeutic, by making a place in our daily schedules for entering into silence and attending to the whisper of the Lord in our hearts, our relationship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit acquires the space it needs to unfold.  Finding regular periods during the day to bow our heads and fold our hands is about renouncing a kind of self-reliance which robs the Bridegroom of our attention. Those who do this discover a powerful paradox: the more we attend to the Lord, the more we find ourselves able to attend to those He has entrusted to our care. When we add the salt of prayer to our daily routines, we discover constant engagement with Him in an ongoing conversation about all of life in light of the Gospel - so that our life is never simply flat, never an empty routine. Through prayer, time becomes pregnant with moments in which we are invited to give ourselves in love, moments in which eternity is born, moments of the Cross - moments where the glory of God is manifest.  

Here, daily prayer is about a devoted love, a faithfulness of heart.  By making  space for prayer, by ordering our lives for this devotion, prudently subordinating other responsibilities around this heart to heart with the One who has loved us to the end, we are constantly astonished over how He is so much more faithful to us than we to Him.  By setting aside our anxious concerns and lifting our hearts above the merely material, if even for just brief periods each day, we glimpse how the Almighty generously gives us all we really need and much, much more.  The fact is, the Lord enjoys the company of those who humbly seek Him, who especially in their darkest hour trust in Him. He enjoys being astonished by our faith. Those who make Him the priority of their hearts are always blessed in ways beyond their understanding - discovering in being alone with the great Alone, the threshold into an unfathomable communion of love.  

May 28, 2011

St. Thomas says prayer is a mouthful of reason: oris ratio

In his treatment on Christian prayer in the Summa Theologica II-II, q 83, St. Thomas wants his students to see that prayer is not only something that involves deep emotions and desires, but that it also takes up all the powers of reason.  For him, prayer is not simply a naked impulse of the will toward the Divinity - but it also involves human intelligence raised on high by grace, by a participation in the very mind of the Living God.

Oris - what comes out of the mouth, what is expressed for someone to hear - in the case of prayer, this Someone is God.  Christians dare raise up their petitions with confidence because by faith in Christ and by baptism they have become the sons and daughters of the Most High.  By the power of the Holy Spirit, they voice (whether out loud or in the silent words of their hearts) desires, which no human speech can adequately express, with loving trust in Christ to their merciful Father.

Ratio indicates not only reason but also dimensions of "Logos" beyond what "word-verbum" immediately suggest to contemporary English speakers.  "Ratio-logos" also calls to mind truth, harmony, mediation.  Yet even in relation to the Latin Vulgate "Verbum," "Ratio" extends to the biblical concept of "dabar," God's word of power by which Divine Will is accomplished, the Word through whom all things were made.

On Earth as it is in Heaven: Prayer revealed and given by the Word made Flesh lifts up the soul into the canticle of praise sung in the heavens and through such a soul allows those harmonies to echo on earth.  Prayer mediates the true goodness and glory of God, even when the Lord appears all too absent.  Indeed the unfolding of the world and our lives in time and space is never accidental, but everything has been carefully planned for by the Author of Life from the beginning so that no matter what happens - we are always awaited by love.  In prayer all of creation resounds with the splendors of divine life, light and love which the Lord has longed to share from the beginning.

Wisdom, goodness and love characterize this plan: this is why the world explodes around us with such beauty even when everything seems to be going wrong.  Prayer enters into the Almighty's reasons for the most difficult things and finds Christ.  By the power of the Holy Spirit, grace infused reason sees beyond misery's deep abyss to contemplate the deeper abyss of Mercy: the Truth who is limit of every evil and falsehood, in whom is realized the victory of good over evil.

Christian's pray with a mouthful of reason - divine reason given as a gift from the Father for the salvation, not only of themselves, but of the whole world.  If it is a cry of the heart - a cry of recognition and love embracing both trials and joys - it is also a spoken truth which shakes the foundations of the heavens and the earth, standing firm on the Word Himself.  And for those who most need it, at death's hour or some other insurmountable trial, the spoken truth of such prayer is a light that shines in the darkness, a flickering hope which anchors the cosmos in the hand of God.

May 25, 2011

The Fruit of the Vine and Work of Human Hands

He is the vine and we are the branches.   We are meant to bear "fruit of the vine and the work of human hands" which he raises up and transforms - making it something worthy of his wedding feast.  He changes this fruit and work into his precious Blood offering it as the Cup of the New Covenant without which we have no life in us.   The 3rd Edition to the Roman Missal, with the new translation of text, helps us also see that as the Vine, He is also the source of our fruitfulness and our work which He accepts from us - meaning everything that is most important about our life must be ordered around prayer:

Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, 
for through your goodness 
we have received the wine we offer you: 
fruit of the vine and work of human hands 
it will become our spiritual drink.

This new translation of this prayer of the priest, which will go into usage this November, indicates in the Christian life, everything is grace, everything is a gift from God through Christ. Our work and our fruitfulness are not ultimately the products of our self-reliance and competency.  These too are gifts, graces for which to give thanks.   

By the Father's generosity to us in his Son, He raises our whole being to participate in the very life of the Holy Trinity, makes us capable being fruitful, of doing something beautiful for God. We call such participation divine life "grace" because it is a pure gift merited for us by Jesus' death on the Cross.  Christ died that we might have this new life.  Through his wounds, God's life flows into our hearts when we say "yes" by faith.  Because it comes through the Risen Lord, the sanctifying life of grace sets us apart as Christ-like, uniting us to Him, and allowing us to draw from Him everything we need for holiness:  

"The life of grace is, then, a conformity to Christ.  But it is not only a question here of an external imitation, but of a sharing in the very life of Christ.  Thus Christ is not only the pattern, the archetype according to which we ought to reform our soul; he is also the source from which alone the life of grace can be unfolded in us." Jean Danielou, God and the Ways of Knowing, trans. Walter Roberts, San Francisco: Ignatius Press (1957, reprint 2003), 200.

Jean Danielou helps us see the connection between imitation of Christ, sharing his life and the life of prayer.  Christian life is not simply about external conformity to socially accepted behaviors - in other words, it is not primarily about a observing a moral code and cultural conventions.  These things are part of the Christian life, but secondary to a deeper interior reality, a reality which transcends conventions and constantly rises above moral norms.  Our external behaviors are meant to be the fruit of something unfolding deep within - signs of a new vital principle being born within.  

True imitation of Christ is first an interior reality where the movements of one's own heart participate in the movements of Christ's heart.  It is the movement of Christ's own life in the Christian which makes the believer fruitful.  It is by the life of Christ in us by faith that we have fruit of the earth and work of our hands worthy of being offered in a manner that is acceptable to God. 

How does our faith make the life of Christ fruitful in such a wonderful way?  Grace is given in prayer.  Prayer is the branch cleaving to the Vine to draw its life, to draw forth grace.   Prayer humbly seeks from the Lord what is needed to be fruitful, and in Him even our prayer itself becomes good fruit.  He then draws everything that is good, noble and true in this to Himself transforming the fruit of the vine and work of our hands into his own blood. 

Christ renews this union of life and love at every Mass.  Through his priestly and creative action, he makes our lives, our work, our fruitfulness part of his blood offering, glorifying the Father and extending his salvation to the world.  In his wisdom and goodness, He does this through our frail humanity He already infused with his life.  He pours our life into His Blood.  He pours his Blood into our lives.  It is the sacred banquet, mystical wedding feast, to which all true prayer is ordered and from which all real prayer comes.

May 24, 2011

A Biblical Walk through the Mass

The coming changes to the liturgy this November are going to be very important for our life of prayer.   There are profound connections between liturgical worship and contemplation - in fact liturgical worship is both the source and summit of our personal prayer.  The following review is of a book by a longtime friend of mine here in the Archdiocese of Denver who teaches at the Augustine Institute:

Edward Sri, A Biblical Walk Through the Mass: Understanding what we Say and Do in the Liturgy, West Chester, PA: Ascension Press (2011)

Have you ever sat in an airplane and found yourself engaged in a conversation about the Mass?  For many non-Catholics and Catholics alike, the Liturgy can seem like a lot of standing up and sitting down with no rhyme or reason.  Yet the rituals are ancient and biblical with deep and profound meaning.   How can something so profound be explained in a simple to understand way?   Although I have never had this experience, while waiting for take-off, Dr. Sri met someone who, seeing his enthusiasm for the liturgy, acknowledged that “there are was something deeper going on there, in that there Mass.” 

In many ways, his book is an exploration about what that “something deeper” is.  Starting with the introductory rites and marching straight through each part all the way to the dismissal, he takes time for short but informing catechetical explanations of the reasons behind the individual rites so that the reader gains a sense of the overall beauty of the liturgy as a whole.  His method is to tie the parts of the Mass to thoughtful Biblical reflection.  Often, he puts the reader in touch with very Scriptural foundations of the Eucharistic Liturgy.  He focuses especially on the changes in language coming in the responses for the assembly.  He offers good explanation as to why these better translations were needed.  The reader gains an appreciation for how these new responses will help us all better connect our Eucharistic worship with the Scriptural traditions out of which it comes.   

Dr. Sri successfully provides a nice biblical overview of the Mass and its parts while informing us about the coming changes to the liturgy.  I recommend this book to anyone wanting to prepare for these changes and understand the liturgy from a biblical perspective - because in all our standing and kneeling, silent attentiveness and responses: there really is "something deeper going on there." 

For this and related materials by Dr. Sri go to:

May 22, 2011

The Key of Wisdom

In speaking about the Silence of God and its importance for the Christian life, Catherine de Hueck Doherty recounts her own journey into this silence and then makes this beautiful observation:

"There is a moment when God gives us a key to the mystery of life.  We always had a key to his heart, and he always had a key to our hearts.  But this is a special key.  It is the key of wisdom, which allows us to live a good life.  It is given to those who have walked the silver sands and, out of love for him, decided to plunge into the endless infinity of his sea of silence.  They needed the key to guide themselves amid the noises of the world.  They needed a key to choose what is wise. One of the things Satan does is confuse.  And his favorite confusion is to substitute earthly wisdom for divine wisdom.  Many are caught on this bait.  But with the key of wisdom one can avoid such pitfalls.  And this key can unlock many doors, even doors men have invented that block their own true progress." Molchanie: The Silence of God, New York: Crossroads (1982), 88-89.

The key of wisdom is vital for those who yearn for true prayer.   Psychological techniques for meditation are often substituted for the silence of God.  This is because such methods yield spiritual experiences - but such experiences lack the wisdom that is only given in God's silence.  Indeed, no psychological achievement or state of consciousness can replace the silence of divine love, the silence of a heart to heart with the Living God.  This silence lives in our holy patrimony of prayer.  It is entered into through the obedience of faith.  Because this heritage is not passed on as it should be, because it is often rejected as anachronistic out of nothing but chronological snobbery and a lack of confidence in God, we can sometimes find ourselves cut off from the silence in which this key of wisdom is found.   Catholics need to work to recover the tradition of true Christian prayer.

True prayer - where, pierced to the heart, we gaze on the Son of Mary gazing on us in love, where the Father delights in us and the Holy Spirits burns within - such prayer is possible by faith alone.  This standard is strongly articulated in terms of a warning for our time by a Camaldolese Hermit whose words were edited by Father Louis-Albert Lassus, O.P.:

"The dominate spiritual climate manifests ... an extreme individualism.  It is not so much God who is of interest to us, to speak with Him and to belong to Him, but rather we look for personal experience, we shut ourselves up in our own spiritual search ...Let us admit that, at present, a spiritual self-centeredness reigns, which arises from the current opinion that the world is only an appearance and that, basically, the self and God coincide.  If the supreme criterion of life in Christ is no longer adherence in faith to the Triune God, but personal experience, the change to a religious syncretism will be quickly made."   In Praise of Hiddeness: The Spirituality of the Camaldolese Hermits of Monte Corona, Bloomingdale, OH: Ercam Editions (2007), 53

True faith opposes syncretism and the lack of confidence in God's love which feeds it.   True faith creates space for a kind of prayer which deals with reality and one's own hostility towards God.  True faith frees from individualism and self-centeredness because the prayer it makes possible leads to a heart to heart with the Lord.  By true faith prayer begins when we hear Christ beg us to give Him our misery that He might give us His glory.

In true contemplation, the world is not an appearance but the place God manifests his glory.  We pray precisely because "the self" is not God but someone in whom God has placed his hope.  Prostrating ourselves before the One who is so beautifully other than we are - this is our freedom from individualism and self-centeredness.  Such a raising of our hearts and minds to Him is pregnant with gratitude even when some gifts He offers are especially hard to accept.  What does the key of wisdom unlock for the soul that hungers for a true conversation with God, a conversation that is open to sacred silence?  Even in the deepest sorrows, most tragic disappointments and overwhelming trials, souls like Catherine de Hueck Doherty witness the discovery of astonishing tokens of friendship from the One who constantly lavishes us with his immense love in ever new, ever unimaginable ways.

May 18, 2011

My First Retreat

The first retreat I ever made was in a Camaldolese Hermitage in Big Sur, California.  This part of the Central Coast is bathed in a rugged wild beauty.  Though the hermitage is high above the ocean, I remember, if you listened carefully at night, you could hear the surf beating against the rocks far below.  It was like the heartbeat of God.  In fact, the whole experience was very soothing even if as a teenager I found the silence difficult to maintain.

A high school freshman invited to join a group of college students - all of whom were interested in prayer - I had no idea what graces were in store for me.  Having grown up in a household of seven brothers with lots of guests and relatives coming in and out, long hours of silence seemed so exotic I could not imagine what it would be like.  Something was drawing me.  A silent retreat with an invitation to punctuate our solitude by joining the hermits for Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours, the enchanting memories of those couple days all those years ago stirs something deep within me even now.   

I spent most of my time reading and trying to listen to the Lord.  In a blanket of beautiful silence, I discovered that prayer was not easy and that the God to whom I pledged my life was much more mysterious and awesome than I could ever understand.  I wanted a spiritual experience, but the Lord gave me something much more important.

I did not fully realize it at the time, but He gently set before me an invitation to begin to pray.  The pathway of prayer which began to unfold on that retreat is not one trod by following feelings or our own thoughts or what we produce by our imagination - even if along the way we do feel, and think and imagine many beautiful things.  An impression was made in my heart that prayer was not about a state of consciousness or any other psychological achievement - even if along the way all kinds of transforming and purifying moments can overtake our psychological faculties.  

What I began to understand is that the pathway of prayer is followed by cleaving to the Word made flesh in faith.  It is fired, not by experiences that please us, but rather by the holy desire to please the Lord.  Such a desire inevitably ignites in the heart that realizes how much it is loved first by Him.  Pondering the love of God is dangerous - you never know when the truth about this love might pierce into deep places you did not even know were there.  

There are those who spend a lifetime availing themselves to just such moments.  Those souls yearn to do something beautiful for God - and feel the need to make all kinds of heroic resolutions, taking up the most difficult work without ever counting the cost.  Overwhelmed by the unsurpassed love that flows from an ongoing conversation with the Lord, they would not have it any other way.   

May 14, 2011

The Sign of a Faithful Soul

One of my favorite books is by a Carthusian who died during the Second World War, They Speak by Silences.  His notes were never intended for publication.  Somehow the Benedictine Nuns of St. Priscilla's in Rome preserved and translated these texts which became available in English in the early 1950s.  One of the nuns attached this as a forward to the original volume:

"The thoughts contained in this little book were from the pen of one who, in the silence of the Charterhouse, had already arrived at the summit of spiritual heights, and dwelt there unceasingly.  Souls who have reached such perfection are rare; not so rare are souls who ardently aspire thereto.  It is chiefly for such as these -- to encourage and help them to arrive at those same heights -- that these thoughts have been preserved and collected."

The thought I would like to share in this post is intended in particular for those who have dedicated themselves to the service of the Lord but feel like they are not yet doing enough:

"Fear of not responding sufficiently to God's love is the sign of a faithful soul." 
They Speak in Silences, Herefordshire: Gracewing (1955, 2006) 53.

May 10, 2011

Study of the Sacred Page

An important part of Christian prayer is identified in our tradition as "the study of the Sacred Page."  It refers to the study of Sacred Scripture but extends also to the writings of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church as well as the great saints and mystics and even other Christian authorities.  Prayer and theology converge on this point.  Indeed, the original meaning of theology took up the mystical gaze (that is, contemplation) to which study of the sacred page inclines the soul.

Such a study is the soul of theology - it gives theology life.  Without this life, theology is dead.  This is because, carried on the propositions of the faith and handed on in the words of "the Sacred Page" is the gaze of Christ, the Word made flesh, who is risen from the dead and ever present to those who seek Him in faith.  So beautiful is this gaze that there are no words to describe it.  Whenever anyone glimpses the eyes of the Redeemer while pondering sacred texts of our faith, that person's heart is pierced and so to the hearts of those he or she teaches - they share together a loving knowledge, a heart to heart with the Lord.  He regards each person with such intense love - and those who discover this piercing glance have found something worth dedicating themselves to completely. 

Not just any kind of study can find Him - indeed our sacred patrimony proposes such study must be grace filled contemplation, guided by true devotion for the Lord, humbly open to conversion of heart.  Such a study must readily suffer the loss of all things in following Christ - counting all else as rubbish save knowing Him.  This study must be open to suffering the truth - the truth about one's own self before God and the truth about God who laid bare his heart for our sakes.

May 9, 2011

Liturgical and Contemplative Prayer

Liturgical prayer and contemplative prayer, when authentic, immerse the soul in the same mystery, and raise our hearts above this life and our present sorrows, into the awesome majesty of God.  When we actually and fully participate in the public worship of the Church, faith joins us to our Great High Priest who is the threshold to Heaven, the Bridge to the Father's House, the Bridegroom coming for his Bride.

Liturgical prayer provides a sure reference point for our contemplative prayer - the reference point is Christ and the true participation in Christ's prayer the liturgy of the Church opens for us.  Contemplative prayer quenches itself on the rivers that flow from the wounds of Christ made present in the liturgy.  This is why the new translation of the liturgy coming out in November is so important for our life of prayer.  More attentive to the Scriptural references of the Latin texts, the new translation connects with the deep streams of tradition that have sustained contemplative prayer for the last 2000 years.

Contemplative prayer opens up the deep recesses of the heart any meaningful participation in the liturgy demands.  Without contemplative prayer, liturgical participation remains only on the surface of the heart, unable to pierce into the depths of our humanity.  With deep prayer, the grace of the liturgy flows through the arid and difficult parts of our lives, transforming them into something beautiful for God.  Drinking in the rivers of grace flowing from the Fount of Life, contemplative prayer also extends the fruit of our liturgical life - turning the prayerful soul into a fount of life for others.

Here, the Bride becomes like her Bridegroom - and the most beautiful of all friendships is truly anticipated.  As Dr. Edward Sri explains, the Mass is really "the wedding feast in which the Lamb unites Himself to his Bride, symbolizing the final consummation of the union between Christ and the Church ... It is in this heavenly marriage between Christ and the Church we participate  through the Eucharistic liturgy here on earth as a foretaste of the communion we hope to have with our divine bridegroom for all eternity."

Dr. Edward Sri has recently published two wonderful works on the new translation of the Mass.  A brief and succinct review of the changes and the rationale behind them are in:

A Guide to the New Translation of the Mass, West Chester, PA: Ascension Press (2011),

and a longer reflection on the parts Mass as the new translation relates to the Bible is in:

A Biblical Walk Through the Mass, West Chester, PA: Ascension Press (2011).

May 8, 2011

The Mystery of Motherhood and Mary the Mother of the Lord

Motherhood is a great gift to the world, and God raised this gift to a whole new level when Mary said “yes” to his invitation to be his mother.  Mothers help us find our humanity even as babies – they are our human connection even from the moment of conception.  Because of a mother’s love, a baby gradually becomes aware of a whole network of loving relationships into which he or she is born.  Enveloped in a mother’s love, a baby learns to love, learns what it means to thrive as a human being – mothers are the first ones who show us that we are most truly ourselves when we give ourselves in love.   

When the Word became flesh, He made it possible for God to rely on a mother’s love.  He allowed her to comfort Him in his tears, to nurse Him in his hunger, to soothe Him in his loneliness, and to clothe his nakedness.  From her, as is written in the love of all good mothers, He glimpsed the secret of what it means to love until the end.  In all these ways and many more, He allowed Mary’s maternal love to “teach” Him the secret of being fully human so that He would be like us in all things but sin.     

There are two corollaries that come out of this reflection.  The first is that by faith, the experience of motherhood is transformed.  Christ hides himself in our children, all our children, especially the poor, the sick and the abandoned.  Mothers who search for Jesus in the children entrusted to them discover that like Mary they are also comforting, nursing, soothing, and clothing God himself.  On the other hand, by faith, Jesus gives every Christian the gift of his Mother.  Those who welcome her into their homes discover she continues to teach her Son’s love that we might ponder with her “all these things” in our hearts.

May 3, 2011

Divine Mercy and habitare secum

The Christian life of prayer is rooted in the mercy of God.  There are such dark places in our lives, only with the mercy of the Lord can we face ourselves and deal with the reality of who we really are.   Living with yourself, this ideal began to be articulated around the time of St. Benedict, although it was a lived part of Christian spirituality from the very beginning.  It means not only confessing sin and doing penance for the evil that one has done or entertained, not only accepting one's weaknesses and limitations before God, but most especially habitare secum means being able to enter into the depths of one's own heart to humbly listen to the Lord who waits for us there.   

Christian prayer deals with the reality of the human heart.  The heart is the spring from which flows all that is good and evil about ourselves.   It is broken and wounded, laden with many sorrows, and yet still capable of finding joy in what is good.  It is an inner sanctuary where God speaks to us.  People who do not want to deal with themselves or deal with God do not like to go there.  They remain unfamiliar to themselves and unaware of what is driving them in life.   Yet, when God calls us to Himself and we begin to yearn to be with Him, entering into our hearts, accepting what is there and offering to the Lord is the best way to find Him.  

The reason why has to do with the theme of mercy Pope Benedict singled out in his homily at Sunday's beatification of John Paul II - mercy is the limit of evil.  John Paul II loved the theme of Divine Mercy - it was the mercy of God that helped him deal with the cruel brutality of World War II which was followed by decades of Soviet oppression.  John Paul was convinced that Divine Mercy is the limit of evil because the more he trusted in Jesus, the more mercy triumphed over evil.  Contemplating the face of Christ and clinging to the mercy of God was the secret not only of dealling with himself but also being merciful to others, even those who tried to kill him.  His confidence in Divine Mercy made John Paul II a compelling advocate for the dignity of the human person - it is why people were drawn to him all over the world.  They wanted to know the Mercy of God his life in Christ radiated.

Evil, the mystery of sin, dehumanizes - but Divine Mercy raises on high! Mercy is love that suffers the misery of another, the evil that afflicts someone's heart, so that the dignity of that person might be restored.   Christ embraced our misery on the Cross that we might know God's mercy.

How this applies to the heart is that the good and evil we find there are not co-equal dualistic principles.  Good has definitively triumphed over evil in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  When we turn to Him in faith, He gives us the power of his mercy and teaches us to realize the victory of good over evil in our lives.  He has already suffered our misery with us and is ever ready to meet us there - so that in Him all that is good, noble and true about us is rescued from the mystery of sin and raised up to new life.  

To learn to live with ourselves - this is to look at those places in our lives in which evil has a foothold and to offer these to God so that we can realize in ourselves how Divine Mercy is the limit of evil.  However deep the abyss of our misery - the abyss of mercy issuing forth form the wounds of Christ is inexhaustibly deeper.  The more we discover this limit to the evil in our own hearts, the more we can rejoice in the remarkable and astonishing presence of the Lord in our lives.  Rather than being driven by all kinds of brokenness we do not understand, we find ourselves able to live like St. Benedict, Bl. John Paul II and the other great saints - who through such interior deliberation discovered the secret of living with themselves before the face of God - habitare secum - is seeking the Mercy of the Lord.