November 30, 2011

Dealing with Sin - A pathway for prayer in Advent

God wants to help us deal with sin but He waits for us to come to Him, to invite Him, to welcome Him.  Advent is a time for doing just that.   Opening our hearts to the Lord with contrition filled prayer is the most important thing we can do to  prepare for the joy of Christmas.  Not to do so is to prefer to live in self-contradiction, a cold dark misery not worthy of human dignity.

To live in sin is a self-contradiction: it is to cleave to a word of doubt in our lives that stands against all that is truly human so that we permeate our culture with death and sew malice in our civilization.  We are made to live in the truth with integrity, that spiritual harmony with God, the world and ourselves.  Sin contradicts all of this. This absence of love, this misery diminishes our capacity to live with ourselves, the world and God..     To believe this fantasy is to turn in on oneself, fight against oneself, to  be consumed in self-occupation.  The fantasy proposes that the obedience of love by which we live by love is oppressive; therefore, we should protect ourselves and secure our destiny by our own cleverness and industry. 

In the logic of sin, love is not a gift but a tool -- it must be calculated.  This project is the opposite of being human, a destiny attained by trust in God alone.  Yet this lie is so spell-binding, I cannot free myself from its enchantment by my own power and resources.   Stifling, crushing, perverting, defacing, subjecting to futility all that is good, true and beautiful about being human, this lack of interior harmony can become a un-spiritual cacophony.  Without the ability to relate in truth, we cannot give the gift of ourselves in love to God,  and without God we are unable to give ourselves in love to all those with whom God has blessed us in this brief moment we share together in this world.  Made in the image and likeness of God who has entrusted Himself to us, we contradict our existence when limit ourselves to mediocre, insipid substitutes for the love we were made to share together.
This self-contradiction causes guilt.  Engaging in various forms of mental hygiene to alleviate guilt does not make the disease go way.  No method for meditation or psychological technique can free us from the self-contradiction in which we are trapped.  Since all that is natural is subject to the futility of the self-contradiction in which we live, we need a power beyond and above our nature to free us from the misery that enslaves us.

Sin, the cause of guilt, has a horrific social dimension.  This this self-contradiction is contagious -- if I do not seek the antidote and I refuse the only medicine that can heal me, it kills not only me personally, but also those I most love, wounding them in ways "I am sorry" can never heal. Brutal, cruel, dehumanizing - this hostility threatens to break hearts, ruin lives, and shatter families.  This cancer, this living death, robs us of the capacity to love -- and without this capacity, what are we?

Advent is a time when we deal with the reality of sin in our lives by repentance and faith in Jesus, our Lord.  In the face of our self-contradiction, God sent his Son to save us.  The Word became flesh and revealed the meaning of our hostility on the Cross.  He is the antidote for death and the medicine of immortality.  In prayer, we submit our self-contradiction to the Cross, the Sign of Contradiction.  In this mystery of divine contradiction – the Word of God who is Love speaks to our lack of love, his mercy overcomes our misery.
Here, the wisdom of Blessed John Paul II is powerful: If we open wide the doors of our hearts to the Redeemer, He pierces our hearts and moves us with saving sorrow.  Contrition filled prayer deals with the contradiction of sin and the guilt it causes – this holy sorrow moves us to repent of what we have done and failed to do, to confess our sins, to beg for mercy and to do penance -- which is to live in the truth of what the Lord has done for us, to make straight a pathway in our hearts and to prepare the way for his coming.

November 29, 2011

Mercy and Advent

These days of Advent are about preparing a welcome for the Light of Christ who comes to us anew in ever more wonderful ways because of God's great love for us.   When He first came it was the poor, the lowly, the foreigner, and the outcasts of society who welcomed Him.  He in fact became all these things.  But what of the mighty, the proud and the rich?   To welcome Him is to say yes to love, especially love in difficult circumstances, when it really counts.  Mercy is love in the face of suffering and during Advent we prepare for Christmas through the mercy we show to one another.  This means we need to find ways to effectively love one another in the midst of suffering.  This can be inconvenient and even painful in all kinds of ways.  But Christ crucified is not convenient and his coming in our midst demands that we let go of our other priorities and allow Him to become our priority, especially when He is present in those most in need - the abandoned, the neglected, the despairing, the mourning, the depressed, those suffering all kinds of illnesses and disease, the hungry, the cold.  He is there with such as these and comes to us through them-- and being watchful of his coming, staying vigilant, and "making straight a highway for God" means that we must go into the highways and byways, seek out and love these whom God loves, so that his mercy might be revealed, so that He might be welcome among us again.

As a result of Christ's salvific work, man exists on earth with hope of eternal life and holiness.  And even though the victory over sin and death achieved by Christ in His cross and resurrection does not abolish temporal suffering from human life, nor free from suffering the whole historical dimension of human existence, it nevertheless throws a new light upon this dimension and upon every suffering: the light of salvation.  This is the Light of the Gospel, that is, of the Good News.  At the heart of this light is the truth expounded in conversation with Nicodemus: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son." 
Blessed John Paul II, Salvifici Doloris #15.

November 27, 2011

Prayerful Vigilance and Advent

The coming of the Lord is often imagined as an impending catastrophe in the distant future against which one must gamble, but this is a dangerous fantasy. For those who long for the mercy of the Lord, for those oppressed, for those persecuted, for those rejected, for those despised, for those abandoned, for those who hunger, for those who thirst, for the poor, for the meek and lowly; for all such as these the Day of the Lord will not be a catastrophe but if they cleave to Him in faith, this day will be a eucatastrophe -- a sudden happy ending; unimaginable, unexpected, uncalculable; a victory, a triumph in which every tear is wiped dry and every sorrow consoled, in which at last the personal story entrusted to each of them will be enveloped in joy.

The brief span of this present life is hurtling towards eternity, accelerating at an exponential rate with every instant of our lives. In the twinkling of an eye, when all seems most bleak, when the banality of evil seems to be snuffing out the last light of goodness, in the face of the total antithesis of all that God has promised, in the midst of a world gone crazy with insobriety and anxiety, when it would seem that for which we have most hoped was hoped for in vain -- it is in this instant of love when the Lord will come. It is humanity's great test and it is meant to be the finest hour for each one of us, the moment when the secret meaning of our lives is revealed.
Whether it is the end of time, or the end of our lives, or the countless opportunities we have to die to ourselves and live for Christ each day: this is the trial in which we repay love for love, when we cleave to love because of Him who was crucified by love, when we believe in mercy and practice it because of the mercy we have received. In this trial, the truth about who we really are is waiting to be revealed – for we are so fashioned that unless we are able to give the gift of ourselves in love the way God has entrusted the gift of Himself to us, we never fully become what we are predestined in Christ to be: the praise of God’s glory. And so, we must be vigilantly prayerful that we might recognize the hour of the Lord’s coming and persevere in the truth when the truth is most needed. Anyone who embraces this vigilance constantly discovers foretastes of the eucatastrophe that awaits those whom Christ calls “good and faithful servants.”

November 22, 2011

The Lord is Coming - Take Him to your Heart

"Take Him to your heart... keep Him in you as in a sanctuary... live with Him in intimacy"  This was advice offered to a new religious sister just beginning her life as a nun.  The beauty of this message only fully discloses itself when we consider the author.   Dictated while racked in pain, coming in and out of delirium, enduring all kinds of physical, psychological and spiritual hardships, wrestling with even despair itself, these words are her great testament to her hope in Christ, a hope to which she cleaved in the face of everything.  In the final weeks of her life, she had become a fiery icon of holiness which gave warmth and enlightenment not just to her community but to everyone who desired to grow in prayer.   This nun was Blessed Elisabeth of the Trinity, the Mystic of Dijon.

Taking Christ to heart is necessary if one is to be faithful in one's service to God.  Blessed Elisabeth also exhorted the new sister "to raise" herself up in strength and "to surrender" her whole being to the Lord.  The total trust in the Lord haunts these words.  We must use our strength to raise ourselves up and not allow ourselves to be bogged down by the anxieties and concerns of this life.  Once raised up, we must surrender not just for a moment and not just what is comfortable, but everything to God.   Such raising up and surrender is impossible without God - but the Lord himself is our hope.  Something in these words apply to every life, no matter how busy or active or frantic.  Because to live the Christian life well in whatever our calling we must welcome Jesus into our hearts all the time and never lose sight of Him.  This is a matter of interior discipline where we continually turn our thoughts back to the Lord, keeping them all under the "exceedingly great" love of God, "until He consumes you both night and day"  (P123, 22 Oct 1906).

To take the Lord to our hearts is to raise up, to surrender and to welcome with all our might the One who comes in love, the One who is Love.  If we allow our vision to be raised up by faith, if we allow Him to hold our every thought captive in faith, we begin to see that He constantly comes to us in ever new ways and we glimpse how much He yearns to be greeted in love.  Recollection in the silent adoration of our faith holds us in prayerful attentiveness to this divine visitation, this divine invasion of inexhaustible love flooding into our space and time.  Such loving vigilance, with its attention raised above the work-a-day world and the claims of bliss echoing in the merely subjectively satisfying, allows Him to begin a new work in our lives.  If we are faithful to this, the love of the Lord can consume our whole being, making us into fiery icons of his love.

Holiness is a gift which must be welcomed and fully lived out.  It is not the fruit of passivity to the demands of love or of escape from the responsibilities entrusted to us in the brief span of life we have been granted in this world.  Sanctity is not attainable by method or technique or any other attempt manipulate God or else raise oneself to His level.  It is not the achievement of a lifetime - but rather an obedience unto death.  Because the gift of holiness consists in a participation in God's life, it is greater than our natural life and makes a claim on our whole being.  But God would never ask so much if He were not going to supply all that we need for such a great undertaking.  This is why He entrusts to us his very self - And He comes in the power of the Holy Spirit pulsating, communicating, enveloping, inundating us the "exceedingly great" love revealed on the Cross.  We find new courage to take Him to our hearts because He takes us to His heart even more.  

November 18, 2011

The Ladder of Life

In his treatise on Humility and Pride, St. Bernard provides insight into what it means to persevere in living life to the full. He is commenting on St. Benedict’s Ladder of Humility. In both cases, “the ladder,” an image which Jacob dreamed about and through which the Lord visited him (Gen. 28:12ff), is a metaphor for life.   Humility with its constant struggle against pride makes one capable of living in real communion with God and neighbor, the very communion which characterizes our life in heaven: a communion of love.  We are otherwise so locked up in gratifying our big fat egos, we are not free to live, free to share the gift of our self with those whom we are meant to love. What else is hell than being imprisoned in one’s own preoccupations while at the same time perpetually agitated and never at peace with one’s self?  Both saints help us see that on the ladder of life one can ascend to hear the voice of God or descend into the lifelessness of sin. 

St. Benedict teaches that ascending the Ladder of Humility begins with fear of the Lord and ends with the discovery of a respectful finesse in all of one's relationships.   For him, the heights of living humility involve becoming so at peace with one’s own self that the monk is able to carry himself in all situations with that meekness we find in Christ.  Obedience, confession of sin, and perseverance in love through all kinds of trials and humiliations are all the means by which this fullness of life is discovered.

For St. Bernard, pride begins with the way that we look at our brothers and sisters, and it ends in a total rejection of God.  Paradoxically, to climb this ladder is to fall out of the heights of humility and to choose a living death.  His teaching highlights the important struggle that a true interior life and authentic contemplation entail.

St. Bernard writes to monks who have begun to enjoy what it means to live with themselves. Such dwelling within, habitare secum, is possible because of the Divine Indwelling.  The gift of the Holy Spirit in our hearts means that the deepest reality about ourselves is not the gravity of our own big fat ego but rather dynamic and loving presence of God himself who keeps us in the orbit of his love.  One glimpses the enormity of this gift the more one is able to face his own sinfulness and offer it to God.   It is in our relationship with God, the gift of ourselves to God in response to the gift of himself He has given through Jesus Christ on the Cross, that we discover our true dignity and find ourselves able to live with ourselves.

St. Bernard is keenly aware that the prayerful person tastes a little of this self-knowledge and has begun to rest in the love of the Lord.  He is also aware that it is at this moment the contemplative is most vulnerable to spiritual attack.  His teaching is a warning: the descent into pride begins when we allow ourselves to be preoccupied with interests that go beyond loving God and being merciful to those entrusted to us. It is possible, even as one begins to really live the Christian life to the full, to become what St. Paul condemns as “a busy body” (1 Timothy 5:13). St. Bernard suggests that this kind of curiosity in the affairs of others is what caused the Fall of the Seraphim and what attaches the Fall of Man to the envy of the devil.  Devotion to prayer and being merciful to those God entrusts to us are sure protections from this folly because only through dedicated service to the Lord will we persevere in the life Christ won for us.

November 14, 2011

The Hope for Every Soul is Love Himself

Any soul, even laden with sins, captive of its vices, held by its pleasures, imprisoned in its exile, locked up in its body, nailed to its worries, distracted by its concerns, frozen by its fears, struck by manifold sufferings, going from error to error, eaten up by anxiety, ravaged by suspicion and, lastly, according to the prophet, a stranger in a foreign land... every soul, I say, in spite of its damnation and despair, can still find in itself reasons not only to hope for forgiveness and mercy but even to aspire to the wedding feast of the Word: as long as it does not fear to sign a covenant with God, and to place itself with Him under the yoke of love...  For the Bridegroom is not only a lover: He is Love.  You will say: yes, but is He not also honor?  Some affirm this; as to myself, I never read anything of that kind.  I have read that God is Love.  St. Bernard of Clairvaux
Sermon 83, Song of Songs, as cited by Blaise Arminjon, S.J. in The Cantata of Love: a verse by verse reading of the Song of Songs, translator Nelly Marans, San Francisco: Ignatius Press (1988, reprinted 2005), 346-347.

November 11, 2011

Classical Education, Contemplation and Wonder

Classical education is oriented towards the wisdom of contemplation, and because of this, such education opens students up to the possibility of living a wonderful life. It is precisely that we might live life to the full that the Lord came. The life giving quality of classical education is born in the culture of life and civilization of love the blood of Christ once made possible and still makes possible today.  It is a kind of education in which human dignity, truth and virtue are integrated to prepare someone for the search for God and in finding Him, to cleave to Him. Through this kind of education we learn like St. Bernard that no matter how much we find Him, there is always more to be sought and in cleaving to Him there is always more to find. Because it so well equipped students for this journey of life, a classical approach to education at one time well served not only Catholic colleges and universities but even elementary schools and high schools as culture enriching institutions. More often than not, whenever classical education was wholesale abandonned, not only the Catholic identity of the institution but also the cultural enrichment it once provided to the broader society was also diminished. What would happen if this kind of education were ever rediscovered?

I am not sure why this approach to education was abandoned to the extent it has been, but any genuine renewal of the Church in America will require an examination of conscience in this regard.  Archbishop Chaput suggests that the Catholic witness to the wider culture has been "bleached out" in part because of a growing sense of insecurity in the face of scientific skepticism. Perhaps Catholic educators still find themselves compelled by thinkers like Robert Merton who looked on contemplation as anachronistic and even dangerous for society. Ironically, the spirit of scientific investigation itself should have caused us to question whether contemplation really is as opposed to science and progress as he and many others suggested, and still suggest. Why did we not apply a little skepticism to such skepticism?  Why did we not inquire into the biases and assumptions standing under such doubt?

As people of faith, we are too passive in the conversations taking place in the public square.  In failing to question the questioners, we allow doubt and ignorance to rob not only us but our children of the rich patrimony our civilization has cultivated. The wisdom of contemplation, to which all good education opens, is worth promoting and in fact vitally needed in the face of the dehumanizing forces unrestrained in our society.  The human mind is so great and vast that, besides scientific thought, it stands to reason our intelligence is also ordered to the enjoyment of other kinds of knowledge. There are certain things that science limited to the observation of merely measurable data cannot know and unfathomable mysteries that no verifiable hypothesis can explain away.  Indeed, a man has not yet lived if he has never tasted those deeper levels of knowledge which touch what is most noble, true and beautiful about our humanity.

Given the current state of our culture, do we not as educators and people of prayer have a responsibility to reconsider the rich synthesis of knowledge sketched out by great intellectuals like Jacques Maritain or Dietrich von Hildebrand?   Rather than narrow-minded doubt, such thinkers not only beautifully magnified the scope of human knowledge, the scope of the truth in which human dignity is rooted, but in contemplating the light of truth they also discovered the living secret to which human wonder is open, a secret so relevant in the face of the dying culture of these dark days. Even now, especially now, when so many are looking for a word of hope, through classical education and contemplation, universities and other educational communities can still help lead students into the discovery that the wonder of life is what makes life wonderful.

November 10, 2011

The Canonization Process for Elisabeth of the Trinity

Over the summer, the Archdiocese of Dijon has opened the process for the canonization of Blessed Elisabeth of the Trinity, the Carmelite Mystic of Dijon, France (1880-1906).  Blessed John Paul II identified her as a strong influence on his spiritual life at her beatification in 1984.  Cardinal Decourtray (at the time Bishop of Dijon) attributed his own healing to her intercession at the time.  Centennial celebrations throughout France indicate that many have discovered devotion to the Trinity and deeper contemplative prayer through her life, writings and intercession.   For many, her canonization would express and deepen their sense of gratitude to this pianist become nun at the turn of the last century. 

Part of the process leading to the declaration of sainthood requires that a second miracle be obtained by her intercession after her beatification.  This seems to have happened for a religion teacher dying of Sjogren's Syndrome.  Miss Marie-Paul Stevens, while on a pilgrimage to Blessed Elizabeth's convent, in Flavignerot, just outside of Dijon, appears to have been completely cured.  Investigation of the miracle is part of the process.  Go here for the original report in Italian.  For more on the ceremony opening up the cause, see Laudem Gloriae.  This same blog also contains great posts on her Feast Day and the Day of her Death.

November 9, 2011

Elisabeth of the Trinity and the Gift of Prayer

Elisabeth of the Trinity helps the Church understand that prayer is a gift given by God for the sake of our humanity.   It is an encounter with the Trinity - at once profoundly personal and ecclesial.  This contemplation changes the way one thinks and lives, but Elisabeth's writings show that we never go beyond the truths safeguarded in sacred doctrine.  Instead, her writings suggest that in prayer the truths of our faith are experienced like a symphony and that in this music wonderful hymns of heaven ring.   To join this music even for a moment is to realize what Elisabeth of the Trinity discovered.  It is to become like her the Praise of Glory, what she believed was her personal vocation before the Lord and is everyone's vocation in different ways. To join such a chorus if even just for a moment in one's busy day - this is to taste what it means to be free, to be fully alive, to live in the truth about one's own self, to catch sight of our heavenly homeland and to find a little rest in the midst of this weary world.  Last year, for the memorial of Blessed Elisabeth of the Trinity, I linked some resources about her life.  That material can be found here: More about Elisabeth of Dijon.  

November 8, 2011

The Feast of Blessed Elisabeth of the Trinity

"I have found my Heaven on earth: since Heaven is God and God is in my soul!"  In speaking these words, Blessed Elisabeth, who understood the Christian life in terms of becoming the praise of God's glory, opens up her wonderful vision of the present moment as the nexus in which the purpose of faith, the heart, and the presence of God coincide.  In this grace filled moment with which God has entrusted us, eternity is already beginning and progressing in time while Heaven and earth are embracing.  In this moment, the heart can find its home in God because God is always ready to make the heart his home in ever new ways.  To fully enter into this moment and all the truth it contains, all we need to do is raise our minds and hearts to the Bridegroom who stands at the door and knocks.  In her prayers, she begs Him to facinate her - because once our hearts are fixed on the One who has died for us, the Fire of the Holy Spirit transforms us into fiery icons of divine love and the mystery of the Word Incarnate is renewed in our own lives.  For those who feel their weakness and are tempted to be discouraged by their failures, the Radiant One waits to be let into our thoughts, into our memories, into our imagination, into our affections so that the glory of God might be revealed, so that like Elisabeth, we too might become the praise of God's glory.   

November 1, 2011

Prayer and Purgatory: Thresholds to Glory

Purgatory and prayer are both the thresholds to Glory.   In both cases, the disciple of the Lord receives purification to live life to the full, to be free, to stand before God and, finally, to see his face.   If we are not purified, healed, strengthened and taught how to love, we are not ready for such glory.   Prayer is better than purgatory when it comes to this work of grace.  It delights the heart of God and more fully reveals his glory when souls allow Him to accomplish this great work in this life.   Yet, in our weakness, we, even if we believe, do not always give God the permission He needs to do this work - and God never acts in us without our consent.  Because love is constricted by any lack of trust, it is possible and even often the case for those who love God to die without the Lord having been able to bring to completion the work He had begun in them.   That is why, although it does not delight Him in the same way, He will also accomplish this work of love after death.  By grace, death helps us surrender what we would not surrender in this life.  This is what purgatory is - like prayer is in this life, it is a threshold to heaven - just a more difficult one.  This doctrine of prayer helps us realize the unimaginable work God is about in those who love him.  The doctrine of purgatory helps us understand how, if we are the least bit faithful in opening our lives to Him, He is so much more faithful in completing what He has begun in us.  

Much of what happens in purgatory is analogous to what happens in deep prayer -- that is deep prayer and purgatory involve a purifying pathway through death and into glory - both are like a fire, like a surgery, like a contest, and like the preparations for a wedding night.

Remember the man in Mark 9:24 who approaches Jesus about his demon possessed son only to be rebuked for his lack of faith?   What Christ reveals to him about his faith increases his faith and he cries out, "I do believe, help my lack of faith!"  This prayer is one we must all offer in this life or the next - for this is the state of everyone who approaches the Lord.  Our lack of faith must be purified.  Any lack of faith, lack of mercy, lack of forgiveness, and selfishness needs to be destroyed -- these are not worthy of heaven and the purification of these things, their destruction by the love of God, is as painful as fire.   But in both prayer and purgatory this Fire of Love does not destroy us and the pain it causes is only temporary - because it envelops us with light, love and life.  As the flame increases and all that is not worthy of our true nature is destroyed, we are ignited with a greater freedom, a greater desire, and keener insight than we have ever known before.  Blessed are those with the courage to face this fire in this life - they already know the freedom that awaits us!  At the same time, how can our hearts not be moved to pray by the plight of those who must face this fire after death?  

Prayer and purgatory are like going into surgery.  There are certain cancerous growths in our hearts that need to be cut out and the wound completely healed if we are to have the spiritual health the joys of heaven demand.   If our hearts are not healed before we die, God will not let death stop Him from completely restoring and making whole those who persevered in their faithfulness to Him.  To this end, in both prayer and purgatory, the Holy Spirit envelops us with the Father's love just as Christ was enveloped on the Cross - an painful envelopment which is experienced as abandonment.  In both cases, this delicate surgery can be very intense and difficult - but Christ, the divine physician, is always Himself the antidote for death and the medicine for immortality.   Blessed are those who are docile to treatment the Divine Physician already offers them - the full life of heaven has already begun for them!  At the same time, how can we remain indifferent whose healing must be completed after death when our prayers provide them true consolation and in some way quicken this work?

Prayer and purgatory are both like a contest where athletes overcome their weaknesses and awaken their confidence for victory.  Only the courageous are admitted into heaven because only the strong of heart are capable of the kind of love heaven demands.   Blessed are those who by dedication to prayer and devotion of heart strain with all their might for what lies ahead - they realize in this world the triumph of good in the very face of evil and injustice! At the same time, how can we not pray for those who are too weak after death to stand and worship the Living God when our prayers are a true encouragement?

Heaven is for lovers - not lovers of merely earthly things but lovers of Him whom this earth cannot contain.  In heaven, humanity enjoys a communion of everlasting and unceasing friendship with the Bridegroom who has awaited us from all eternity.  To live like this we must learn to love like Him.  Here, prayer and purgatory are like the preparations for a wedding night where the soul learns to wait for the Beloved at the threshold of an enchanting trysting place - fired by love's yearnings such souls are captivated by love.   Those passing through this threshold need our prayers most of all - whether they are still with us in this life or have already embarked on their journey to the Father's house.  Blessed are those who seek this night and make it the priority of their heart to wait for the Lord - their whole existence will be permeated with a joy this world cannot contain!