July 31, 2011

God's Action and Human Freedom

The Lord sometimes invites us to see his glory in a powerful way, but we hesitate and balk before this invitation.  We see all the problems, all the hunger, and we ask Him to make them go away.  He sees those He loves and his heart aches for them.  He commands, what seems to be from our limited human perspective, the impossible,  "Feed them yourselves."

By the natural light of reason we know we do not have the resources to fulfill His command.  Furthermore, our freedom only works self-sufficiently within the visible, the possible - but God is about what is impossible for the human person left to only his natural resources.  The Lord invites his followers into his loving action, unceasing eternal activity which transcends all natural capacities and at the same time that toward which all of nature is oriented.

Why do we try to dismiss God's invitations and commands?  Instincts of self-preservation kick in.  Such movements of the heart, because they are wounded by sin, do not incline us to trust God when He directs us beyond our natural limits.  At such moments of crisis, whether or not we realize it, our faith is being tested, we stand in judgment, and our heart is being revealed.  Our instinct is to preserve us from such vulnerability.  Yet when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable at this moment, when we do so out of devotion to Christ, we begin to see the truth about who we really are.

Humbly accepting such moments, we discover deep questions and fears that haunt us: If we say "yes" to God, will we lose our liberty?  Or similarly, if we say "yes" to God but fail to be successful in what we think He wants, then what?  These doubts, if not submitted to Christ, are impediments to fully thriving in our life of faith.  Growth in faith depends on our willingness to overcome such obstacles.  The answer to such questions is a question provided by St. Paul, a question which should lead us into deep prayer - what can separate us from the love of God?

The path for resolving conflict between God's action and our freedom is to enter into silence and beg the Lord for a deeper trust.  Our humility and perseverance in making such a petition attract his countless blessings.  Through these we begin to experience our natural liberty and God's supernatural action not as opposing forces but rather as mysteries ordained for each other.

Rather than a battle, the relationship between our freedom and God's action is more like a dance.  The whole visible cosmos of this present life is like a ballroom filled with the music of the Holy Spirit.  The Bridegroom invites us to enter into movement with Him and waits for our response.  In this dance, even should we say no or put Him off, He accomplishes his purpose while continually offering new invitations.  His great hope in us is not vanquished by our doubt.  In this way, the Author of our freedom is constantly at work in our decisions, bringing to completion His designs.  If we confidently step out in trust and keep our eyes fixed on Him, his radiance draws us so that what seemed to be a barrier becomes a stepping stone into his embrace.

God is always thrilled when we say "yes," even if all we have is a few loaves and couple of fish.  This is because our "yes" makes space for God's power to be manifest.  Such space affords the world a glimpse, a foretaste of the final consummation of all things in Him.  This eschatological vision is enveloped in His exceedingly generous love. Even if it is unrecognized, what is manifest is the great wedding feast which has been prepared from all eternity.  We are indeed awaited by love - will we seek Him how seeks for us?  Blessed John Paul II points to this mystery in is own reflections on what it means to thrive, to realize the perfection of our human liberty in the action of God:

"God's action in no way restricts man's freedom; it leaves man free to try out his own plans and his own solutions; it even allows evil to exist, in order to bring out of the good that is latent in all human initiatives.  At the same time this action of God in the world, this divine economy in human affairs, does lead -- through all the complexities and deviations as well as all the authentic achievements of humanity -- to the shape of things which man and the world are, in the end, to come to accept.  It will be accepted because of the indubitable fact that the affairs of man and the world reach consummation in the hands of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who embraces and penetrates the entire world.  The great German poet said, in Faust, that Satan is a force that always desires what is evil, whereas the good always goes into action."  Blessed John Paul II, Sign of Contradiction, New York: Seabury (1979) 175-176.

July 24, 2011

Rejoice in the Lord Always

Christians have the duty to rejoice, to express their joy to the world.  Great thinkers like St. Augustine explain to us that joy is love which possesses its object.  When we have what we most desire, we are able to enjoy and rest in what we love.  We also know that many things we desire, even when we attain them, do not provide a joy that lasts.  Most things we desire are too small to occupy our hearts for long, at least in a way that fulfills us.   St. Augustine teaches that what we desire determines the weight of our soul.  If we desire earthly things, such things will weigh us down.  But if we desire heavenly things, our hearts will rise up to what is above.  Obviously, we cannot rejoice very long if our hearts are weighed down by lesser desires all the time.  The command to rejoice in the Lord implies that we renounce desires that clutter our lives with things that weigh us down, that prevent us from raising our hearts.

The Christian sense of rejoicing, however, goes beyond the renunciation of earthly things.  This is because of what Christ offers us by faith.  When we believe in Him, when we reach out to him in prayer, when we lift up our hearts and offer them to the Lord, He shares with us something splendid and glorious, something so beautiful that our hearts will never tire of it as long as we cleave to Him by faith.

What does it mean to rejoice in the Lord?  It means to attend to Him who is coming to us, to offer Him our hearts.  This allows Him to pick them up with his own hands and to join them to His own.  In this moment, our hearts are transformed, a new creation begins to unfold.  A new holy communion, forged by the Cross, is laid open to us.  In this moment of grace which no natural light can see, the Father looks on us with His beatifying love just as He gazes on his own Son.  For a moment open to eternity, Christ's joy becomes our joy.  Filled with this life, light and love, can we remain silent or indulgent or anxious?  No.  Such love is too big to be kept inside and left unexpressed.  It is a driving passion that consumes every fiber of our being.  Such love, such joy needs to be expressed to those whom we most love, to those who most need it, to those we do not know and even to those whom we do not yet know how to love.  

July 21, 2011

Quaerere Deum - to seek God

The wisdom of St. Benedict directs us away from putting one's identity into productivity alone.  Although he values work, he knows it is not enough to be a good worker.  In his view, being accomplished, effective, and competent - these are all admirable qualities, but none of them by themselves get to what is most important. In fact, in his vision, such qualities, if not ordered to a greater purpose, can even lead to an unhappy life.  He proposes instead that the principle purpose, the noble pursuit by which we come to taste eternal beatitude even in this life, is quaerere Deum, to seek God.

This proposal rests on the truth about human dignity.  The dignity of men and women, the dignity of all human life, transcends this world.  This is why it must be carefully protected and nurtured.  The dignity of the human being does not rest in functionality - for being human is greater than the sum total of human functions.  It does not rest in our achievements because the true goodness of humanity surpasses the totality of all its achievements which have been, are or will ever be.   The mystery of human dignity is hidden from us, greater than we will ever understand.  Our spirits stretch out to Someone all of creation reflects in a seeming unlimited and excessive manner.  At the same time, by holy paradox, the magnitude of all created beings spanning from one end of the cosmos to the other barely hints at only the faintest shadow of the Uncreated Power in which alone our hearts can rest. God's loving and tender desire for friendship with each of us is the source and summit of all human dignity.  It is with this great love that we who are but mud are fashioned in His image and likeness.  And, it is our dignity which compels us to yearn for Him who yearns for us.

How do we seek God?  The only way to find God is by the love of Christ.  His love is accessed by humbly going to the Cross in faith constantly.  Since the Cross reveals pure love, we must continually renounce everything in our lives which opposes pure love.  Since it is through the Cross that the love of Christ flows into us, we must strive to lovingly offer anything that God permits to test and purify our love.  Since it is on the Cross that humanity is able to offer acceptable praise to God, we must pick up our own and follow our crucified God.  It is along these lines that St. Benedict counsels nihil amori Christi praeponere - prefer nothing to the love of Christ.

Commenting on this Benedictine wisdom, Pope Benedict explains, "Holiness consists of this, a sound proposal for every Christian that has become a real and urgent pastoral need or our time, when we feel the need to anchor life and history to sound spiritual references."  Cited in Benedictus: Day by Day with Pope Benedict XVI, ed. Rev. Peter John Cameron, O.P., San Francisco: Magnificat/Ignatius Press (2006) 222.

July 17, 2011

Prayer and the Great Divorce

"Hell is a state of mind -- ye never said a truer word.  And every state of mind, left to itself, every shutting up of creature within the dungeon of its own mind -- is, in the end, Hell.  But Heaven is not a state of mind.  Heaven is reality itself.  All that is fully real is Heavenly.  For all that can be shaken will be shaken and only the unshakable remains." This is the insight attributed by C.S. Lewis to George MacDonald in The Great Divorce.

This notion that Heaven is real and Hell anything divorced from reality applies to prayer.  Prayer can be Heaven or Hell depending on whether we choose to pray by love filled faith in the Lord or else allow some enchanting form of self-occupation to swallow our attention.  Christian prayer is meant to be a heavenly dialogue even if it involves suffering some painful truths we would rather not face.  Prayer can also be a hellish monologue, a conversation turned on itself in which one never breaks free of his big fat ego.

Prayer in which one humbly converses with the Living God unlocks divine beauty and raises the eyes of our soul to inexhaustible splendors -- wonders we could not have ever imagined existed.  Such prayer extends our vision so that we even come to see these wonders in everyone the Lord entrusts to us.  The second kind of prayer imprisons us in the merely subjective, and weighs us down in nostalgia, bitterness and regret.  With the eyes of our heart rolled back on themselves, we are unable to open them to the mystery of God uniquely revealed in the gaze of another.  There are many different techniques and methods for perfecting this second kind of prayer.  But in the prayer of faith, how ever helpful they might be in the beginning, every technique must bow and every method must bend before the power and sovereignty of Christ.

Even in the midst (especially in the midst?) of what the saints call the dark night, the prayer of faith is a foretaste of the fulfillment of all desire won for us by the Blood of the Lamb.  The second kind of prayer, even  in its most blissful ecstasies, is a pathway into a state of mind common to those swallowed in the self-occupation from which Christ yearns to deliver us.  However therapeutic and pleasant, exercises in mental hygiene can not lift one above himself.  For those whose prayer is but a monologue, unless they allow the silence of God to shatter their interior chatter, they will come to lose all memory of the true longing stirred in their hearts by simple joys and noble sorrows.  On the other hand, whatever the trials with which they must deal, those who persevere in the divine dialogue initiated by the Word made flesh journey across a threshold into their heavenly homeland: the household of the Father in which they are awaited by love.

July 15, 2011

Our Lady of Mount Carmel and Blessed John Paul II

Mount Carmel is a place of prayer and spiritual contest.   It is a geographical location - a place where Elijah prayed, a place where Crusaders worn out from war went to find God, a place where to this day great ascetics still live.  Mount Carmel is more than geographical, however.  It is also a spiritual place where the Lord teaches his disciples to perfect their faith.   Many of those who go to this spiritual place join the Carmelite family and enter deep into its rich patrimony.  This patrimony is so abundant that not only Carmelites, but also others spiritually share in the astonishing gifts entrusted to this religious family.  They discover in these gifts deeper union with Christ. One of these gifts is the special patronage of the Mother of God under the title of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel.

Mary's spiritual maternity helps Carmelites learn from her how to ponder, to meditate, to think on Christ in their hearts.  The Brown Scapular, part of their habit, is a symbol of her intercession - a sign that she covers them in her prayers.  They wear this sacramental as a sign that they have said "yes" to the prayerful presence of Christ's mother in their lives.  The color "brown" speaks to the ascetical efforts and countless trials that learning how to pray demands.  In fact, Mary makes pilgrimage with those who dedicate themselves to deep prayer in all their struggles and difficulties.  She is a faithful mother who works tirelessly that a Carmelite's faith in Christ might come to full maturity.

Blessed John Paul II wore the Brown Scapular.  Even though he was not a Carmelite, he chose to live in that place of spiritual contest and intimacy with God that Carmel represents.  He chose to do this like Christ, enveloped in the maternal love of Mary.  Very early in his spiritual life, he understood that Mary brought us to Christ.  This seemed obvious to him - how else could it be?  Instead, what amazed him was that Jesus should entrust his Mother to us.   Even before he became a priest, Karol Wojtyla found this gift to be an intimate and remarkable testimony to the inexhaustible mystery of Christ's great love for his disciples.  He experienced for himself that anyone who says "yes" to this gift from Christ and who welcomes her as a companion in his life's journey learns to recognize and enjoy all kinds of blessings in all kinds of circumstances.

July 13, 2011

The Flower of Love

One of my favorite poets is Sister Miriam of the Holy Spirit also known as Jessica Powers.  She lived from 1905 to 1988.  She became a Carmelite in her thirties.  In her poem Flower of Love she reflects on St. John of the Cross's saying, "Where there is no love, put love and you will find love."

The difficult labor of putting love where there is no love is described in terms of a planting a flower.  This flower has the potential of recreating Paradise in our hearts.   These last strophes seem to offer particular encouragement to those who struggle to plant such a flower in their own lives:

Blessed are they who stand upon their vow
and are insistent
that love in this bleak here, this barren now
become existent.

Blessed are they who battle jest and scorn
to keep love growing
from embryo immaculately born 
to blossom showing.

Primarily for them will petals part
to draw and win them,
It, when the pollen finds their opened hearts,
will bloom within them.

Selected Poetry of Jessica Powers, Ed. Regina Siegfried, ASC and Robert F. Morneau, Washington D.C.: ICS Publications (1999), 41.

July 11, 2011

St. Benedict

"Listen, O my son to the precepts of the master, and incline the ear of your heart: willingly receive and faithfully fulfill the admonition of your loving father; (cf. Prov. 1:8, 4:20, 6:20) that you may return by the labor of obedience to him from whom you had departed through the laziness of disobedience."  Rule of St. Benedict, tr. Luke Dysinger, O.S.B.; Source Books (March 1997)

There is a certain urgency in this appeal with which St. Benedict introduces his rule.  He is deeply concerned for the reader, as if the very life of the reader depended upon understanding what he was trying to convey.   What he in fact conveys is a way of life, a day to day discipline for the Christian life.  Many followers of Christ are scarcely aware that our faith demands a disciplined life.  Without discipline, we cannot hear the Lord speak to our hearts.   

The saint's appeal invites a relationship.  If his appeal works, it is because the reader has somehow intuited the holiness of St. Benedict and at the same time also glimpsed in these words the concern of a spiritual father for his son or daughter. What St. Benedict learned through those who formed him in the faith, he wants to pass on through this rule that he is entrusting to us.  Someone cared enough to pass on the faith to him, to be a spiritual father to him.  Now in this rule, he shares from his heart practical advice that he learned at the price of great personal suffering.  

In his efforts to be a spiritual father, he was often rejected and at one point his reputation ruined by false accusations manufactured by those who envied him.  But no matter the trial, he never wrapped himself in righteous indignation and lashed out against those who injured him.  Instead, he quietly followed his crucified God in the humble manner he learned from his own spiritual fathers.  By suffering such obedience to the Lord, he learned how to willingly and faithfully incline the ear of his heart so that he might labor for obedience.   It is precisely this kind of wisdom we need for the Christian life today, a wisdom forged in trials and tribulations, a wisdom which cannot be shaken.

St. Benedict teaches a discipline for the Christian life in which the disciple constantly chooses to be reliant on God and the way God wants to work.  The way God has chosen to work is through our fellow sinners.  It is a kind of scandal that God chooses to work through frail human beings, even to the point where sometimes in our devotion to the Lord we must obey them, even if they appear or are mistaken.  This never means we act against our conscience -- God expects us to use our heads.  That is why He gave them to us.  But we often need to act against the temptation to think we know better than everyone else.  We also need to act against our tendency to put our own big fat ego at the center of the cosmos.  This is why we humbly make ourselves accountable to one another.  This totally goes against our cultural values which exalt self-sufficiency and individualism - even to the point of absolute selfism.  Yet, St. Benedict understands the apostolic command: we obey one another out of reverence for Christ. 

Christians are not self-sufficient. They are completely reliant on the Lord and on those to whom the Lord entrusts them. Consider how the Lord has chosen to reveal himself through the words of a preacher.  He makes known his ways through faithful teachers.  He is also teaching us through generous spiritual fathers and mothers.  Whatever our particular circumstance, our faith was given to us by someone who loved us enough to tell us the truth, even when that truth was painful to hear.  Our job is to listen to the Lord speak through such people - through them, He is speaking to our hearts, helping us overcome our laziness, teaching us how to make something beautiful of our lives for his glory, and leading us back to Himself.

July 7, 2011

The Wisdom of God

I once asked a Carthusian why he embraced a life of silence and anonymity.  It seemed to me that he could have done more for the Church if he were actively ministering in the world.  I was thinking with the wisdom of men.  He answered me with the wisdom of God.

The Carthusian explained that by entering into silent anonymity God could make his prayer more fruitful for the salvation of the world than anything else he could possible accomplish on his own.   He understood the primacy of contemplation in the life of the Church, a truth which today is often neglected.  This primacy derives from the fact that the life of the Church is essentially the life of grace, a life freely given by Christ.  No method or technique or program or anything else born of human industry compels the Blood of the Lord -- but the humble petition of a repentant sinner always moves Him to act.  Such is the wisdom of God.

The wisdom of God is foolishness to the world, but divine foolishness is wiser than the wisest man.  In the world, to make a name for yourself is important especially if you want to be successful.  In the mystery of God, to magnify the Lord is important if you want to be faithful.  In the world, your self-reliance makes a positive impression on most people for a short time, but whatever you accomplish by your cleverness eventually will be forgotten.  In God, your reliance on Him will be viewed negatively by most people for most of your life, but what God accomplishes by your trust will last forever.  What about when we are unfairly accused and mocked and rejected?  Christ never promised we would be treated fair when He commanded us to pick up our own cross and follow Him.  Yet this is exactly where the foolishness of God comes in.  In the wisdom of the world, such humiliation is a doom worse than death -- but in the wisdom of God, this is a hidden blessing through which new life can flow into the Church by our loving obedience.

July 6, 2011

The Mystery of Faithful Love - living signs needed today now more than ever

John Paul II once told priests not to let their "yes" to God become a "no."   This is true not only for priests but for anyone who is consecrated for love and by love.  Besides the priesthood, marriage is a kind of consecration one makes with another person to reveal the indissoluble and faithful love of Christ.  Because Christ's love for the Church cannot be broken, this bond in the sacrament of matrimony is also indissoluble.   Holy Orders and consecrated life also involve irrevocable commitments.  Yet this is exactly what love wants to do - commit itself irrevocably.   This is because love tends to the likeness of the Lord - and God is love.  Whatever our state in life, our solemn pledges establish us in the unfathomable mystery of this faithful love.  Since He has loved us unto death, such pledges are also unto death. It is on the basis of the irrevocable nature of God's love for us that John Paul II appealed to priests to be faithful and whatever our state in life, we need to apply this appeal to our own situation as well.

There is a very grave spiritual dimension to such a life commitment: if anyone tries to break a marriage or any other consecrated way of life, they do great violence to themselves and everyone around them.    Forsaking marriage or religious life or the priesthood is always gravely harmful on both a personal and societal level.  It robs everyone of a sign of God's faithfulness which is owed them by the pledge that one has made.

Pledging the gift of self in love is completely so like the Lord, so God-like, that it requires Divine help to fulfill such a commitment.  It is our dignity to make such an irrevocable gift of self and God always provides the grace for this if we ask.  We must believe in his love more than we believe in human weakness.  If you get married or are ordained or make any other kind of vows with the thought in the back of your mind that "should things get too rough there is an escape hatch" - well, it does not seem to be a very mature pledge of oneself and it certainly does not seem to be anything "like" the way God has chosen to love us.  One does not need God to be faithful in such circumstances.  But when you freely choose to embrace something with the resolve that "no matter what, by the help of God, I have got to make  this work" -- well this is a whole new game.  God can do something with you because you have placed yourself in a situation in which you must rely on Him.

What about those times when we are betrayed and abandoned, when all our deepest aspirations are crushed, when we are misunderstood and taken advantage of, when we stand before the antithesis of all we hoped to achieve by our pledge of love, when disappointment, bitterness and resentment knock at the door of our hearts and when there seems to  be no love left at all?  And, what about those times when we cause such things or do them to those who are entrusted to us?     What about our weaknesses and our dignity?  There is no nice cliche to offer those who find themselves at the foot of the Cross, except to point to the One whom we have pierced and to bring such questions to Him in prayer.  When we trust in Him especially in these circumstances, He is able to reveal his glory.  He will whisper the secret of faithful love when such love seems most impossible to find.

God needs living signs of His faithful love in the world.  Whether we are married or religious, priests or deacons; we who have consecrated ourselves or been consecrated by love and for love must not allow our "yes" to God to become a "no."  Although there are tragic and impossible situations, whenever by ardent prayer we choose to be faithful to one another and to God, it allows God to signify, to show forth his unfailing faithfulness to the world.

July 2, 2011

The Spirituality of Faithful Love

Marriage contains a spirituality primordially established by God and redeemed by the blood of Christ.  In marriage, God joins what no man can separate and when this is done with Christian faith, the Risen Lord raises up this love as a sign to reveal the nuptial meaning of all of creation.  Grace-imbued married love affords a true opportunity to step up into the mystery of being fully human and fully alive.  When marriage becomes a school of love it attains an eternal quality: it glorifies the living God.  This is why the capacity of a man and woman to solemnly pledge themselves to one another in an indissoluble friendship of faithful love open to the gift of life is so sacred, so beautiful, so worthy of being protected.

This sacred capacity cannot be aped even if those who think we are but apes try to do so.  No pretense of marriage lays claim to the sacredness manifest in the love of husband and wife.  Such artificial attempts are merely different forms of fornication. Fornication always dehumanizes.  It is a counterfeit of the real thing.  In these relationships, what St. Augustine says of Pagan Rome applies: whatever joy is attained has the fragile brilliance of crystal, a joy for outweighed by the fear it will be shattered in an instant.

When a man and a woman fall in love with each other, they see at once how very different the other is and at the same time they cannot imagine ever being whole without this difference in their life.   It is impressed on anyone who has tasted this realization, even if only briefly, in God's love for us, He did not create us simply to function and exist.  He created us to thrive to the full, and to help one another thrive.  Just as a man and woman discover in their differences a desire for communion, God likewise looks on us and yearns for us, and this divine regard stirs something in us for Him.

This is why Marriage is a communion of love which reveals God's presence to the world.  Accordingly, God is very concerned about this particular institution. protecting it and promoting it throughout the history of salvation.  Christ's first miracle was performed at a wedding banquet out of concern for protecting the reputation of the Bridegroom and the Bride.  God designed marriage with so many graces, joys and consolations to support it because He knew this communion would push humanity beyond itself, into places it could not bear alone.  This is why the redemptive work of Christ extends to it and transforms it.

Those generous enough to God and to each other to say "yes" to everything marriage is meant to be are driven by a divine passion.  The consolations and joys themselves are not enough for them.  Nor are they aware of sufferings or sacrifices that must be made. They stand firm no matter the cost.

The friendship love of marriage, even the most difficult marriage, speaks to the primordial, faithful and suffering love with which God fashioned our humanity.  God's love is firm and unshaken even if human love sometimes fails to be so.  Marriage can withstand any trial when the spouses together discover their marriage is worth the struggle and that their suffering in love is for a purpose greater than themselves.  More aware of their own shortcomings than those of their beloved, but also more confident in God's love than their own weakness, they turn to God in prayer to provide what they most need that their love might thrive.  When offered with faith and perseverance, such prayers are heard by God and the Lord helps us realize what we cannot realize on our own.

What wisdom do those in married friendship learn in such prayer?  Their eyes twinkle with a holy courage come what come may.  They are so grateful for their friendship, grateful to each other, and grateful to God, that no matter the cost, they would not have it any other way.  True spousal love which the Lord entrusts to us has something in it even stronger than death.  Such love stretches out and yearns to realize the unity of heart and mind which even death cannot vanquish.  To this end, St. John Chrysostom puts these words into the mouth of a husband:

"I have taken you in my arms, and I love you, and I prefer you to my life itself.  For the present life is nothing, and my most ardent dream is to spend it with you in such a way that we may be assured of not being separated in the life reserved for us ... I place your love above all things, and nothing would be more bitter or painful to me than to be of a different mind than you."  As cited in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2365.