September 29, 2011

Angels Ascending and Descending on the Son of Man

By the ministry of the angels and through the sacred humanity of our Lord, Christ brings about on earth what God wills in heaven.  This is what happened to the Virgin in Nazareth.  This is what happened in the agony of Gethsemane.

In the spiritual life, God sends super intelligent messengers from beyond the narrow confines of this visible world to help us take on the mind of Christ and to act in his power.  Angels ascend and descend on Christians just as on the humanity of Christ. Their words communicate deep things into our hearts unimaginably more expansive than are the limited horizon of thought open to merely human speech. St. John of the Cross says that their messages from heaven actually wound us with a deep ardent love of God that does not easily go away to change us, to help us find the only One who can satisfy our heart’s desire. There is nothing like love to free us from ourselves, from the prison of our own preoccupations.  Their ministry is to guide us out of our big fat egos so that we might find Christ and cleave to Him in faith.

One of the biggest obstacles to prayer is our bloated sense of self. It really is a problem of being full of oneself. A primordial hostility towards the true God lives in our hearts and compels us to seek and to fashion idols that appeal to our imaginations, that we seem to understand, that we think we can control. In our arrogance and ignorance, we easily convince ourselves that what we imagine God to be God is. When we do this we have made an idol out of the self because we have limited God to the product of our own fantasy. Whereas prayer should be a humble conversation with the Living God, when the ego is worshipped as an idol, prayer is reduced to an interior monologue in which we exhaust ourselves going round and round in circles - not unlike what is envisioned in various systems of reincarnation. Such prayer is nothing more than talking to oneself. It is fruitless self-occupation.
Here, self-preoccupation is a very consuming kind of worship. Preoccupied with our own concerns, experiences, thoughts, memories, fantasies, feelings, plans, ambitions, grudges, and desires; there is no interior silence for us to listen to God, to allow his silence to humble us in ours, to hear his creative voice so that it might produce a new work in us. The shell of our ego is so thick that it would have imprisoned us forever had not Christ pierced it by allowing himself to be pierced through by our sins.
Why does God send us angels?  God has desire to bless us with every spiritual blessing through Christ so that we might become the praise of his glory.  Angels help us realize this most high calling because their messages help us see the truth about God and about ourselves.  Through their ministry of which we are rarely directly aware, we see ever more deeply that the life of the Trinity, the inner life of God, is a constantly going out from "self" in an eternal ecstasy of unimaginably rapturous love: the immortal life of God is pure vulnerability, pure desire for union, pure benevolence for the other, pure self-surrender, pure reciprocity -- but in all of this a holiness, a wisdom, an inexhaustible incomprehensibility before which every created intellect must bow and the powers of all imagination must kneel.   By the hidden ministry of the angels, God desires that we, mere frail creatures though we are, share in this eternal life, his own life.  In the image and likeness of this unfathomable God, marred by sin but restored by Christ through his suffering and death, He constantly sends angels in secret ways to free us from ourselves and to lead us into a place where we can find Him to share his life with Him.  God's holy messengers - both angels and men - in speaking the truth to us, wound us with a love by which we see that we are only most fully ourselves when like the Living God we give the gift of ourselves in love.

September 28, 2011

Being Merciful and the Holy Spirit

The Gifts of the Holy Spirit are understood in many beautiful and wonderful ways. For example, the gift of counsel has been understood to identify a movement of heart that gives a knowing certitude about what to do in a difficult situation. St. Thomas Aquinas sees a relationship between this gift of counsel and the beatitude declared by Christ "Blessed are the merciful, they shall receive mercy" (see ST II-II, q.52, a.4) One of the petitions of the Lord's Prayer also comes to mind on this point, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." What is the relationship between the prompting of the Holy Spirit  and the blessedness realized in being merciful?

To say that someone is merciful (misericordia) indicates one's heart has been pierced by the plight of another. It is an intimate and personal moment which reaches for the restoration of dignity in the one who suffers.  It is a sharing in one's own heart the misery suffered by someone in some way entrusted to us.  To affirm the dignity of another, I need to be able to enter into that person's heart with something that will address the misery, that thirst for love.   Otherwise, my act of mercy can only be an external kindness which never really addresses the actual plight of the person God has brought to me at this moment.

Only the Lord has the power and authority to enter the heart of another.  He created the heart - each heart - and so He is the only one who knows the way.   He is the Living Water which alone quenches the soul that thirsts for love.   If He stands at the door and knocks, entering the heart is what He won the right to do by his death on the Cross.   He who is Pure Love vanquished the powers of death and hell, piercing the heart of humanity because He allowed us, our misery, to pierce Him.  In this way, He suffered the misery and meaninglessness of each of us on the Cross. Because He yearns that we be restored to our dignity and that we be free of such burdens, with this power He is always knocking, He is always seeking the lost sheep, always running off to meet his lost son no matter how far away, always trying to bandage the neighbor He finds beat up on the side of the road. And we who are joined to Him by faith and members of his mystical body are the instruments through whom He works for this great purpose.

The gift of counsel and being merciful intersect before the plight of the neighbor God entrusts to me. When the Lord brings us a neighbor who is suffering, He also sends us the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit prompts us with divine power and authority so that we might be an icon of Christ, so that the mystery of Christ might be extended to this suffering heart in this present moment, so that the Lord might deliver this particular loved one, neighbor, stranger or even enemy from the hell in which they are engulfed.

Indeed, the most dangerous of all moments is to stand before the suffering of another and to be paralyzed by our own indifference. It is a danger to our own humanity, a temptation to become inhumane. St. Thomas and other authoritative voices from our tradition seem to have understood that the Holy Spirit will not allow this to happen if we are open to his subtle movements in our hearts. Even when circumstances are so surprising and overwhelming that it is difficult to develop a good plan, the Holy Spirit gives us enough understanding and certitude about how to be merciful in such moments that we can act. With whatever effort we make, even if only feeble and reluctant, the power of Christ's salvific work not only opens up the possibility of being holy ourselves in ever new ways, but also gushes forth through us to refresh all those thirsting for living waters. How much more Christ can do when we act with the boldness of the sons and daughters of God!

September 25, 2011

The Gift of Intercession

In striving to love someone the way that person really deserves to be loved we often discover how important it is to turn to the Lord in prayer.  When our hearts are pierced by the plight of those we most love we find ourselves needing to pray. Spouses, sons and daughters, and parents all have needs which only the Lord himself can meet.  In fact, the more we strive to be faithful in loving those God has put in our lives, the more we see the limits and weaknesses of our own humanity.  It is an existential and personal experience of the human frailty.

This is why, when it comes to truly loving those God has put in our lives, we must constantly humble ourselves and ask the Lord to help us.  It is by beautiful paradox that the more we love someone we also see how much they suffer, and the more we see this, the more their plight moves us to humbly seek God on their behalf.  Sometimes their sufferings can even be difficult occasions of intense anxiety for us.  Yet in the face of such anxiety and heartache, prayer can easily become humble movement in the depths of the heart in love, for love and by love. This is the secret of the Cross.  When it comes to the demands of love and the poverty of our hearts, God is ready to provide if we are willing to ask and He always gives in excess of our openness and trust in his love.

To pray with hope out of one's own poverty before the painful misery of the beloved, this is the beginning of the priceless gift of intercession.  It is so rare, so beautiful, so human and so divine - all at once.  Such prayer only happens when the heartache of the one we love becomes our heartache too.   It is in this poverty of heart from which springs a prayer deeper than words, or thoughts, or feelings.  It is prayer in the core of our humanity, prayer from the center of our hearts.  The Holy Spirit produces this prayer.  This prayer cannot cease even in the face of the most intense anxiety and fear.  In this prayer, He is the bond which joins hearts together - a bond stronger than death.  In the power of the Holy Spirit, our frail cries to God are joined with the cries of the one we love and at the same time the Holy Spirit joins them to the cry of Christ Crucified - His last wordless cry which echoes forever as the triumphant hymn of heaven where He reigns risen forever.  Because of his great mercy and love, our heavenly Father never fails to answer such prayers.

This union of hearts in prayer is an entry way deep into the communion of saints -- these kinds of petitions and intercessions are what help bring God's mercy to bear on our misery.  On this point St. Dominic would encourage his friars that when they ran out of tears for their own sins they should begin to weep for the sins of others.  This heart to heart compassion when joined with prayer becomes a source of grace in the Body of Christ. When we let such deep compassion carry us into prayer we discover two things:

First, our trust in God is limited by the boundaries we impose on Him.  He is capable of infinitely more than anything for which we can ask or even imagine.   But something in us pulls back from this God who is not only capable of infinite love, but is eternal love Himself.  Indeed the One from whom we can ask anything might also ask anything in return.  And so we are afraid.  But voices from heaven constantly call to us, "Be not afraid!"

Second, the only way to make space in our lives for God to act, the only way to overcome our lack of trust, is by prayer.  God has permitted this moment in the life of this person He has given you to love because He is about a great purpose -- not only for the two of you, but for all those He loves.  He wants us to enter into a deeper friendship with each other and with Him - this is the whole purpose of his plan, of those things He has willed and those things He has permitted that His Will might be done.  Here, prayer is both the means and the end - because true prayer always ends in friendship with God.

September 23, 2011

Pope Benedict and the Question of 16th Century Christianity

Over at is Pope Benedict's address to the representatives from the Council of the Lutheran Church of Germany at the ancient Augustinian Monastery at Erfurt where Martin Luther studied theology.   The Holy Father's words include a great examination of conscience for anyone engaged in the task of theology, especially for those who know that prayer and theology must not be separate enterprises, who strive for a theology to help build up the Church.  He observes:

"Most people today, even Christians, set out from the presupposition that God is not fundamentally interested in our sins and virtues. He knows that we are all mere flesh. Insofar as people today believe in an afterlife and a divine judgement at all, nearly everyone presumes for all practical purposes that God is bound to be magnanimous and that ultimately he mercifully overlooks our small failings. But are they really so small, our failings? Is not the world laid waste through the corruption of the great, but also of the small, who think only of their own advantage? Is it not laid waste through the power of drugs, which thrives on the one hand on greed and avarice, and on the other hand on the craving for pleasure of those who become addicted? Is the world not threatened by the growing readiness to use violence, frequently masking itself with claims to religious motivation? Could hunger and poverty so devastate parts of the world if love for God and godly love of neighbour – of his creatures, of men and women – were more alive in us?  I could go on. No, evil is no small matter. Were we truly to place God at the centre of our lives, it could not be so powerful. The question: what is God’s position towards me, where do I stand before God?"

Pope Benedict's question which he attributes to Martin Luther, is a question of prayer, and this question was the driving question of the 16th Century -- not only among protestants, but also for Catholic saints and mystics like Ignatius of Loyola, Teresa of Avila, Philip Neri, and Catherine of Genoa - to name only a few.   We constantly find in the witness of 16th Century Christians how much they loved prayer.  They gave the highest priority to seeking and attending to the Lord for extended periods of time every day.  Prayer seems to have opened them to a deeper encounter with the Savior because through it they learned how much they needed salvation.  The Holy Father's reflections suggest it was in prayer that they opened their heart to the truth about sin in all it's horrific dimensions - great and small, malicious and petty.  These holy men and women also realized the price the Lord suffered to free them from this reality and in the Cross they also glimpsed the vast horizons of His unsurpassable love.  They clung by faith to the  Risen Lord, radically trusting that He is personally concerned about each of us in the most tender of ways.  They loved virtue and though they stove for it with all their strength, they always attributed any growth or development in it to the gracious goodness of God.  They loved the Word of God and those that could read were convinced that prayerful study of the Holy Bible provided an irreplaceable means of attending to the Lord.  Prayer, conversion and theology went together for them.  It is in things such as these that good Christians still hold so much in common.  Just as such friendship with God was a source for the renewal of the Church in the 16th Century there is little doubt that the restoration of the Church in our own time will be accomplished by a return to such radical and honest prayer: a prayer that imbues the way we live and the way we understand our faith.

September 20, 2011

Prayer out of the Depths

"Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.  Lord, hear my voice."  There are moments in the Christian life, moments when you least expect them, when you are severely tried.  There are times where we must perservere in love when everything most hoped for seems to evaporate while everything most feared explodes around us.  

When thrown into such a crisis, such a moment of judgment where the truth of the heart is exposed, there is no magic formula which can lessen the sting and no switch to reset everything back to "normal."  Such trials launch one out into new unexplored territory.   In such uncharted waters, many mistakes are made while many more undealt with transgressions are suddenly exposed.  Fear and anxiety must be constantly renounced.  It is time to trust - but in these moments trust costs so much.  Here, one is made lowly and discovers the depths of one's own poverty.  One sorrows.  One thirsts.  One hungers.  Prayer becomes a wordless cry, a naked clinging to the One who seems absent, a patiently kept vigil for the One whose coming is our only hope.  

In such dark nights, do not despair: the Holy Spirit in his great love for you has brought you to the threshold of the Father's glory.  You, soul that suffers all these things, you have been called blessed by our Crucified Master, and the meager confidence that you manage to place in Him will bear fruit that this present life cannot contain! You have entered an abyss of misery and the deeper abyss of God's mercy waits for you there.  It is in these depths, and only in these depths, that intimacy with God grows and the secret of love is entrusted to the soul.  For we cannot love except at our own expense.  We cannot progress to our goal but by means of the Cross. 

September 17, 2011

Christian Perfection, Grace and Contemplation

If we are called to be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect, then we must seek, far outside the narrow frontiers of our own fantasies, a perfection beyond all natural capacity, exceeding anything which our limited reason can calculate.  This is why those who want to obey Christ, those who want to be perfect as is our heavenly Father, must first of all approach God like beggars.   Before the mystery of God’s love we are indeed beggars who do not know what we need or how to ask for it.  Charity cannot be grasped by our own cleverness nor can it be mimicked by our own industry.  A soul weighed down by the spirit of self-sufficiency lacks the freedom this gift requires.  Here we come against a great mystery.  The primacy of grace in the Christian life is essential to Christian perfection. 

If we are in some sense beggars asking for what we do not have and cannot even understand, the words of Christ push us beyond being just beggars in pursuit of this gift – for his mysterious command reveals more than a moral imperative, it reveals a relationship.  We are not asked to be perfect as some inaccessible godhead is perfect.  Were we asked to do this, Christ’s command would be completely impossible.  Rather, we are asked to be perfect as is our Father in heaven, the Father who in his great love for us gave us his Son.   It is through the gift of Jesus that we know our Father and his perfection.   It is through Jesus’ gift of himself on the Cross that the perfection of the Father pierces our hearts and transforms who we are.   Faith in Christ makes us into the sons and daughters of God.  Not as slaves but as sons and daughters, being perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect is possible. 

The difference between a Father and Master, a son and a slave, is a matter of how each regards the other.  This speaks to the primacy of contemplation in the Christian life.  Although our faith compels us to take up every good work for the honor and glory of God, Christian perfection does not consist principally in good works.  Instead, we are made perfect by the obedience of faith, a faith that attends to God in love.  For in silent prayer, prayer where the heart attends to God, we allow the Father to behold us in love, to enjoy our attentive presence as his sons and daughters.  As we allow Him to behold us in love, the most beautiful desires are given birth to in our hearts.  Possibilities we never knew existed suddenly present themselves in the concrete opportunities of our real life circumstances.  The heart delights to discover that the ability to add to the Father’s delight in ever new ways is always just a decision away.  This is because the gaze of the Father is not passive – it is unfathomably fecund, constantly bringing forth into existence out of nothing.  When the Father sees us in love the overwhelming generosity of his Heart spills into ours: He lavishes us with every gift and blessing so that his perfection might be revealed by how we live at all times in every circumstance, that we might become living icons of Christ the visible image of the invisible God.  In such prayer, our gaze, participating by grace in his eternal creative love which constantly explodes into to action, becomes like His: we are in this exchange of glances with God perfect like our heavenly Father.

September 14, 2011

The Cross of Christ, Christian Prayer and Mary

Those who open their heart to the Our Lady of Sorrow learn the abandonment of the cross, the glory of redemption, the deepest sorrows, and the most unspeakable jubilation as they converge in Christian contemplation.  In such contemplation the heart raises a hymn of glory - or rather, Christ raises this hymn in the soul as it learns to surrender to the Holy Spirit as did his mother, Mary.  Elisabeth of the Trinity explains that if anyone wants to raise the hymn of glory like Christ offered with his last breath, they must put themselves in the hands of Mary, the mother who knows this music more deeply and more fully than any other soul.   

The Virgin Mother stood at the foot of the cross as that unrepeatable Spirit-filled canticle exploded from the death rattle of her Son’s spent body.  She could hear this because she stood in faith before the antithesis of everything that was promised her about her Son and she attended to his heart. In that moment, fulfilling words that were foretold, Her heart was pierced with His.  

Can one's own heart be pierced by the plight of another?  This is a work of the Holy Spirit - the Spirit of God which moved Jesus to surrender himself in obedience to the Father on the Cross: this Holy Spirit makes it possible to share in Christ's same surrender, His same heart piercing hymn of praise.  Pierced like her Son on the Cross, her heart shared in the music of His and she knew the most powerful prayer ever uttered, the most penetrating contemplation a heart in this life has ever glimpsed.  Allowing His last cry to pierce her until He gave up his last breath, she was the first to be caught up in the resounding note of new life, the first to let this new life raise her up even as crushing sorrow gripped her heart. Yes, this Mother of Sorrow grieved not only for her Son but for all those her Son has ever loved.  In grieving for her Son, she has shared in the sorrows of us all.

This is why Mary helps us enter into deep prayer.  She knows Christ's canticle on the Cross is more powerful than the grip of weariness in the world, and she yearns for the children entrusted to her to raise the song that her Son offered - for this song glorifies the Father, this song saves the world, this song raises the dead.  She wants what her Son wants and she rejoices in the very same things that cause her Son to rejoice. So Jesus gives his Mother to us so that her joy and ours might be excessive, and in this excess of love, she envelops in prayer those who allow themselves to learn from her to listen and to raise her Son's great canticle.  She teaches heart piercing contemplation - a kind of prayer in which one makes up in one's own body what is lacking in the suffering of Christ.  Only contemplation which has this Marian character, which receives from Jesus the heart piercing gift of his Mother, goes deep into the mystery of the Cross.  Only that contemplation that goes deep into the mystery of the Cross really discovers unspeakable and inexhaustible joy - the Font of Eternal Life.

September 11, 2011

Heaven's Music - the call of divine silence

Heaven’s music penetrates our earthly existence and invites us to deep prayer, to the radiant solemnity of God’s inexhaustible love. Enveloping each moment of time is a symphony of divine silence. An eternal melody resounds in every earthly sorrow if we have the heart to listen. It is a sobering tone that tolls behind the intoxication of pleasure and a hopeful note which lifts the soul weighed down in the frustration of suffering. It resonates in our hearts even as we pretend not to hear and we struggle to catch its subtlety even after years of learning to listen. In all these things we can hear Christ eternally lifting his heart in praise of the Father because on the Cross his fullness has pierced our emptiness, and our emptiness, his fullness. Yet how few listen for this silent harmony echoing through the vast cacophony of our world? To hear the symphony of divine silence, we must enter into deep silence. We must hunger for it. We must thirst for it. We must order our lives around seeking it. It must become a priority of the heart. Seeking this silence by love, in love, for love bestows familiarity with the mysterious Great Canticle bearing up this present moment we have right now to render it fertile with eternal meaning.

September 8, 2011

St. John of Avila's Life of Prayer

      St. John of Avila (1500-1569AD) knew many of the 16th Century mystics and in fact had a hand in the conversion of some of them including St. Francis Borgia, S.J. and St. John of God. Yet spiritual writers like E. Allison Peers note that this parish priest does not present a doctrine of contemplation as such. Rather, one finds in his writings concern mainly with ascetical practices, penance and meditation. This raises a question about whether John of Avila was a contemplative and whether he himself had mystical experiences.

      Whereas some might be inclined to the position that he was not a great contemplative himself because he did not write about this kind of prayer, it must be observed that his pastoral responsibilities rather than his experiences in prayer inspired most of the direct content of his writings. In other words, simply because he wrote about beginning to pray for the sake of those entrusted to him does not mean he did not have an intense life of mental prayer or contemplation. In fact, his friendships with other great contemplatives suggests otherwise, and sprinkled in his writings are insights which suggest a very intense prayer life supported his apostolic work.

      In fact, the more intense one's own prayer, the more difficult it is to write about. St. John of Avila was an important voice for the renewal of the Church in Spain precisely because he was a man of prayer. One indication of this is that after Law School but before beginning his studies for the priesthood, he spent two years in solitude. Some of his contemporaries believed his doctrine of the spiritual life too mystical, and he was subjected to the Inquisition as were many others who advocated the importance of mental prayer in the Christian life. Indeed, in reading his writings, if he is discreet about contemplative prayer, we must remember the irrational fear gripping many leaders of the Church of his day. At the same time, when addressing the renewal of the Church, he does not fail to advocate a return to deep personal prayer among the clergy. Why would he advocate something if he did not experience it himself?

     In the Catholic tradition of spirituality, although it acknowledges many kinds and degrees of supernatural encounters with God, an effort is made not to identify experiences in prayer with the quality of one's friendship with God. Although the stirring of warm affections in prayer are considered a good thing, emphasis is put on the loving resolve to pray come what come may. This is because the perfection of holiness in the Christian life consists operationally in supernatural love - a love produced by the Holy Spirit through whom the human person participates in the eternal love of God. Thus, periods of dryness can actually be experiences of the most intense kind of mystical prayer - precisely because without the soul realizing it, God is producing a greater love in its depths.

     We find a tension in the writings of Teresa of Avila, especially in her autobiography, where she acknowledges, humbly, that was she was being favored with in prayer was not commensurate with her actual devotion to the Lord. This fact not only disturbed her but also disturbed those closest to her. In the case of John of Avila, rather than describing mystical experiences (he is aware of what these are and can even affirm that Teresa of Avila's experience of the prayer of rapture is authentic), he describes to a student the quality of love one must persevere with in taking up a life of prayer:
   (as cited by E. Allison Peers, Studies of the Spanish Mystics, vol. 2, London: SPCK (1960) 105-106.)
The profit of the soul consists rather in a man's denying his own will, and courageously doing that which he feels to be pleasing to the Lord than in tenderness of heart and sweetness of devotion. For in the former is revealed the true love which a man has toward God, wherein consists the perfection of Christianity, whereas in the latter may be concealed love of self, which befouls all things. Wherefore do not be dismayed by the dryness which you say is in your heart, but press on through the desert, though there be no green trees, nor shade to give refreshment, nor water to gladden you.

September 5, 2011

St. John of Avila - Master of Contemplation and Renewal of the Church

During World Youth Day, Pope Benedict announced his intention to declare St. John of Avila a Doctor of the Church.  This means that the Pope believes his teaching contributes to our universal patrimony in an important way.  I must admit, up to now, I mainly know him as a theological consultant for St. Teresa of Avila, also a Doctor of the Church.
A statue of St. Teresa of Avila - just outside the walls of Avila

When she wrote her autobiography, she submitted the work to him to find out whether her experiences were authentic and whether her doctrine was true.  Although he found her experiences to be authentic, he was concerned that not everything she described applies to all Christians.  He also affirmed that her teaching on prayer was true, especially what she had to say about the prayer of rapture.  Like St. John of the Cross, he was wary of extraordinary mystical phenomena - like visions and locutions.  As great a mystic as he was, he insisted that the ordinary and surest way to intimacy with the Lord is by love imbued faith.
The Walls of Avila

St. Teresa of Avila had picked a reliable source to review her life experience and understanding of prayer.  He had already guided many of the early Spanish Jesuits as they attempted to bring the practice of mental prayer to bear on the mission of the Church. St. Ignatius invited him to join the society, but his health was frail.   Instead, he supported the mission in Spain confident that the Jesuits would lead souls to Christ.  His own preaching had moved more than one saint to embrace of life of conversion and deep prayer - including St. John of God whose conversion was so dramatic, everyone thought he was crazy.   Like St. Teresa, St. John of Avila too had faced an Inquisition which was not favorable to the practice of contemplation, which would have preferred the practice of the faith to be limited to liturgy and good morals.  He was able to affirm for her and for those Church authorities questioning her the primacy of contemplation and grace in the discipline of life Christ calls us to embrace.

What is wonderful about these Spanish mystics of the 16th Century - whether St. Ignatius and his St. Francis Borgia or St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila or St. John of Avila and so many others - we find the integration of deep prayer, ascetical vigor, solid doctrine and a love for the whole Church.  Devotion to liturgical prayer, an inspiring moral life, a hunger for deep silence, great spiritual friendships, concern for the poor and love of the poverty of Christ -- one finds in teach of these saints an integration of these elements.  They realized the importance and primacy of contemplation but did not neglect the mission of the Church.  Nor did they ever fail to love those the Lord entrusted to them.  They realized the primacy of grace in the spiritual life but did not fail to make every effort to cooperate with the Holy Spirit by their strict discipline of life.
Avila - fortifications over one of the gates

In the case of St. John of Avila- we have a parish priest dedicated to the art of spiritual direction deeply concerned about the failures of his brother priests and bishops at a critical moment in Spanish and European history.   He met this concern by following Christ into all kinds of apostolates with every fiber of his existence deeply convinced that the only path to renew the Church was through promoting the practice of mental prayer and the discipline of the Christian life as widely as possible, starting with his brothers in the clergy and going out to every level of society.   His efforts bore great fruit not only in Spain but throughout Europe.  He had an important hand to play in the institution of the modern seminary as a place of strong community life, mental prayer and intense study of the faith.  In other words, he helped the fathers of the Council of Trent realize that building seminaries that were genuine centers of Christian spiritual formation was the key to the reforms most needed in the life of the Church.  It is fitting that in the midst of the challenges the Church faces today, Pope Benedict should direct our attention to this particular reformer, a reformer who calls us to depths of prayer.

September 3, 2011

All Things Visible and Invisible

Jeffrey Allan over at Secret Harbor has posted a wonderful text by St. Gregory the Great which sheds light on the realism of Christian prayer.  In other worldviews, there is a tendency to collapse good and evil as simple moments of a greater dialectic.  There is also a tendency to see the world of visible things as merely in the process of being absorbed by some greater reality or else even simply an illusion from which we need to free ourselves.  There is something attractive about rising above all the conflicts which come with living a good life and allowing them to resolve themselves as we occupy our minds with the some sort of absolute.  But St. Gregory rightly observes that because of sin our contemplation of the absolute is distorted -- and without grace it is the case that our own big fat ego easily becomes the only absolute we see.  For the Christian, adopting a worldview in which only the absolute is thought to be real would amount to a rejection of the gift of creation which God carefully brought forth into existence and ordered as a gift of love to each of us, a gift that includes our brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, spouses and children, neighbors and even strangers, a gift that when gratefully received and cared for calls us beyond ourselves and beyond our limited experiences into his wondrous Light.

We could say that the Christian worldview accepts that visible things are real and that invisible things are even more real.  In other words, we do not believe that everything we see is an illusion.  Neither do we believe that the world is limited to only that which we can perceive with our senses or measure by our technology.   The visible and the invisible interpenetrate our existence.  Beyond what we can see and hear, enveloping every moment and holding it all together, there is the constant dawning of a spiritual reality.  This reality is deeply personal: penetrating the deepest places of the heart even as it shines out on the remotest horizons of the cosmos.  This personal Light is brighter than every physical light because every other form of light is merely an image of this dynamic and creative reality.   This Light is the very source from which even the light of human reason sprung into being and continues to exist.  In this Light, our frail minds glimpse the victory of all that is good, noble and true in the unfolding battle against evil, banality, and falsehood - a victory already realized in the heavens and a battle still being fought out in the heart.  St. Augustine claims to have seen this Light even before his conversion - so by pure gift it is accessible to all those who seek it with a pure heart.  When this Light shone on him, he explained that he knew at once that it was the Light that made him, a Light that was concerned about his own existence, a Light that invited him to a whole new kind of existence - a light of life, love and eternity. 

September 1, 2011

Creation - the first book of prayer

Creation is the first book of Christian prayer, a book in which the outlines of the face of Christ can begin to impress themselves on the heart.  In this book, we read God's love in things visible and invisible - a love that is once revealed and hidden, a love which in the fullness of time became flesh.  Christ reveals the glory of God in nature because by Him all things were made.

Creatures are formed by the Word in a kind of sacred harmony.  The harmony of creation mediates truth -- the truth about God.  Ancient Christian thinkers marveled at how in the very multiplicity of created things there is constantly revealed in ever new ways the divine simplicity from which they issue.   At each moment, the fragile passing beauty of created things echoes, in no matter how faint a manner, divine glory.  Even the first primal light by gentle whisper into chaotic dark emptiness is beget in glory, the glory of eternal love.  With that first light and all the other works which continue to issue from the Word resounding in the silences of creation, at any given moment, flashes of overwhelming love imbued glory can peek through to wound our heart, to beckon us to something more than this world knows.

This is why St. John of the Cross calls creation a messenger of God, a messenger that speaks of the One who yearns for us and awaits us in love.  Though the message of creation is easily forgotten - it wounds only lightly - it pierces us all the same, pricking our hearts in gentle and healing ways.  How captivating to ponder how creation can be God's messenger precisely because it is not God: what was fashioned merely fragile and passing can point to something wholly other than itself precisely because the One who is love created it by love to manifest inexhaustible and manifold divine splendors of love whose specific dynamism would otherwise remain wholly hidden.  Such manifestations of love beget love if only for a moment.  Sometimes when it is hard to pray a moment is all we need.