October 31, 2011

Saints see Christ - Glory Truly Hidden

Someone once told me that the greatest tragedy in this life is not to become a saint.  But what does it mean to be holy?  The holy ones of God see his glory - not passively, but ardently and with initiative.  To this end, C.S. Lewis offers a beautiful reflection on the glory of the Lord which is a glory vere latitat, a glory truly hidden, accessible only to the life of faith, a heavenly glory that no earthly creature can see unaided or bear alone.  This glory is carried by our neighbor - a creature made in the image and likeness of God.  The implication of his reflection when we apply it to our question is that being a saint means to be devoted enough, humble enough, vulnerable enough and loving enough to help one's neighbor bear this burden, a burden never meant to be carried alone.  To be holy means trusting Christ and allowing the weight of my brother's glory to crush my own pride so that I too might finally learn what it means to be fully human, fully alive:

The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour's glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken.  It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.  All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of theses destinations.   It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.  There are no ordinary people.  You have never talked to a mere mortal... Our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner -- no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment.  Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses.  If he is your Christian neighbour he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ is vere latitat -- the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden. Weight of Glory, 15.

That Mysterious Presence of the Lord in Prayer

St. Bernard's sermons on the Song of Songs provide beautiful descriptions of the mysterious presence of the Lord in prayer.  Wishing to encourage Christians who find their hearts yearning for God, St. Bernard personally appropriates the words of the Bride from Chapter 2:17, "Return, my Beloved."

St. Bernard was aware that while the Lord is always present to the soul in some way there are also times when He chooses to visit souls that wait for Him with a special intimacy.  Those who taste this beautiful presence of God, like St. Bernard, long for it and wish it never to end.  At the same time, they also accept that God is sovereign in his love and learn to respect this sovereignty -- even though the absence of the Lord is a very painful reality to endure.  In other words, they know that prayer does not produce God's presence but that his mysterious visits produce all kinds of wonderful things in the soul, and so they find the confidence they need to wait for Him.

Does not such a view free us from that excessive and distracting preoccupation with our own psychological operations in prayer?  Precisely because God's presence is not the product of one's own fantasy, one does not need to try to produce it.  It is a matter of remaining vigilant, sober, alert, and patient: our hearts fixed on the One for whom we long, searching for Him. studying Him, imitating Him, and ready for Him.

This kind of presence of God is never to be mistaken for a psychic state, a feeling or a sensation or even the mere absence of such experiences - all of this is merely what can be produced by our own clever egos. The coming of the Living God into one's soul is not a product at all.   Instead, this inestimable gift is wholly other, an Other who is totally beyond and completely deeper than such things.  As such his mysterious visit does not admit of being manipulated by techniques and methods.  In Christian prayer, the best methods merely dispose and prepare for the coming of the One whose heart piercing love remains forever wild and free, and therefore, boundless.

This boundless moment of divine intimacy floods our hearts in the most wonderful ways without our even being aware of what has happened to us, and this even during the time we spend in prayer.   His heart moving company is so subtle neither our senses nor even our powers of intuition are capable of noticing that He is truly there.  Yet in spite of our inability to notice Him, this interior epiphany of divine love is so powerful it not only makes us aware of all kinds of different sins which darken our hearts, it gives us new light by which we can repent, that is rethink our way of life; and at the same time it also frees us from even the slightest attachment to anything which in any way threatens what is good, noble and true about who we really are before the Lord.

Overwhelming us with so many strong desires to take up all kinds great works, when He visits us with his presence our hearts are also moved with courage to endure every hardship for the sake of love.  We hope in Him because we sense that He hopes even more in us. Years after St. Bernard, St. Thomas Aquinas would explore the cause and the purpose of this gift in terms as the spiritual missions of the Son and the Spirit through the Divine Indwelling of the Trinity by grace (Summa Theologica I, 43).  For his part, St. Bernard saw this gift of love in prayer as a transitory foretaste of the eternal life that awaits us in heaven, a glimpse of God which we hardly notice when it happens -- but a mysterious visit haunting us and leaving us yearning  afterward, even to the point of calling out like a Bride heartsick for her Bridegroom, "Return, my Beloved!"

"Only by the movement of my heart did I perceive his presence and I knew the power of his might because my faults have been revealed and made visible; at the very slightest amendment of my way of life I have experienced his goodness and mercy; in the renewal and remaking of the spirit of my mind, that is of my inmost being, I have perceived the excellence of his glorious beauty, and when I contemplate all these things I am filled with awe and wonder at his manifold greatness.  But when the Word has left me, all these spiritual powers become weak and faint and begin to grow cold, as though you had removed the fire from under a boiling pot, and this is the sign of his going.  Then my soul must needs be sorrowful until he returns, and my heart again kindles within me -- the sign of his returning.  When I have had such experience of the Word, is it any wonder that I take to myself the words of the Bride, calling him back when he has withdrawn?" Sermon 74, 6-7 translated by Irene Edmonds in Bernard of Clairvaux on the Song of Songs, vol. IV, Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications (1980) 91-92.

October 23, 2011

Blessed John Paul II, Prayer and Evangelization

On Saturday we commemorated Blessed John Paul, an apostle of divine mercy for our time, a time filled with so much poignant suffering, a time when even a mother's womb has become a place of violence.  He well understood that only the loving goodness of God revealed in Jesus Christ could address such misery.  He generously engaged the fray in the battle for human dignity to which we are joined by our Catholic faith.  To win this battle, he well understood the primacy of prayer.  

Although prayerful throughout his life, in his final years he made prayer the special focus of his teaching.  In particular, he invited all the members of the Church to contemplate the face of Christ.  By this he meant that we should seek the face of Christ in our prayer, in our study, in our relationships with one another, in every situation.  

The face of Christ is revealed in so many beautiful ways in the Scriptures, in our tradition and in our daily life.  On this point, John Paul II was especially aware of the writings of John of the Cross who describes the loving eyes of Christ reflected on the propositions of our faith, eyes that are attentively fixed on us, eyes that wait to be discovered in the deep silence of prayer.  He was also very heedful of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta who helped the whole Church discover the face of Christ in the distressing disguise of the poor, a face to which we must never allow ourselves to be indifferent.  The heart piercing gaze of Christ in prayer and in prayerful action melts the hardness of our hearts and helps us rediscover the warmth of God's love.  Indeed, Christ who understands the tender strength of humanity waits for us to discover his loving glance in every moment, in thousands of ways.   He hopes in us even more than we hope in Him.

Christ fully reveals man to himself by revealing the love of God the Father.  To contemplate the face of Christ is to see the mysterious truth about who we are and the even more mysterious truth about who the Father is.  Do not the atheist ideologies of the 20th Century witness that, without Christ, humanity is always at risk of forgetting itself in the most violent and dehumanizing of ways?   

Searching for the face of Christ and discovering in his loving gaze the truth of the mystery of man and the truth of the Father's merciful love is an urgent task that every Christian must take up.  When we see the extent to which God has gone for our sake, we find motivation to live by love for those entrusted to us.  Only those who seek an ongoing encounter with Christ are able to address the evil threats against human dignity so alive in our societies today, threats with which even those closest to us must deal.  Those who open wide the doors of their hearts to the Redeemer have a real word of life which counters the culture of death engulfing our civilization, engulfing those most relying on us.  That is why when he came to Denver in 1993 he directed the youth who were so alive with the love the Lord to bring the Good News of our faith to the modern metropolis, to shout the Gospel form the rooftops - to be proud of the Gospel of Christ.     

October 18, 2011

What is Contemplation?

Contemplation, also called "mental prayer" by the great mystics of the Catholic Church, is a loving gaze through the eyes of faith at the mystery of God revealed in Christ Jesus.  Contemplation is captivated by the loving gaze of God who is captivated by humanity.  In a transitory and imperfect manner, like looking through a dark class or catching a reflection in a mirror, this kind of prayer provides a foretaste of the wisdom God yearns to share with us in heaven.  This holy exchange of glances - between the eyes of the heart and the eyes of God - is at once the most human, tender, intimate, reciprocal, vulnerable and divine of self-disclosures.  So vast the unexplored horizons of this prayer, the greatest discoveries in this frontier of human existence still wait to be made.  Those who devote their whole lives to pursuing contemplation marvel at how much more immense the mystery they behold actually is than what they first imagined.

Contemplative prayer yields a kind of knowing which changes the whole of one's life, igniting the heart with love stronger than death and illuminating the mind with the very splendors of God.  Progress in such prayer is through the mystery of the Cross.  Cross centered contemplation in fact transforms the inner man because it opens up the deepest recesses of the heart, the suffering abyss of human misery, to the loving goodness of God.  It is a prayer which allows God to continually question everything about one's manner of life.  It is an unfolding conversation with the Risen Lord which constantly gives one real confidence to persevere in faithfulness to Him and to more strongly cling to Him in one's own weakness.

Mental prayer seeks the loving eyes of God reflected in - or carried on - the propositions of our faith. There was a time when sacred reading, meditation, and prayer were understood as converging together in this humble glimpse into the Ineffable.  Study of the Sacred Page is called the soul of theology because prayerful reading and careful reflection on the Holy Bible is devoted to seeking this gaze of God.  For those who patiently seek it, His divine glance is marvelously revealed in the inspired and inerrant words the canon of the Sacred Scriptures contains.  Such a study, such contemplation, participates by faith in God's knowledge of Himself.

Contemplation is the most mysterious of all the modes of knowledge the created capacities of the human intellect can be raised to in this life.  Transcending all psychic states, our psychological faculties come to rest in this deep silence - because it is a kind of knowing which does not primarily involve our natural operations.  If this explanation is inadequate it is because in part the loving knowledge we are trying to consider confounds all psychological descriptions or attempts at explanation.  In the most subtle of moments, like lighting, eternal Truth flashes through all levels of consciousness and into depths of which we are not conscious, illuminating everything from within with such blinding brightness that little but the most overwhelming love is remembered and what is remembered cannot be articulated.  Essentially supernatural, a sheer grace, it is far above every other kind of knowledge.  The greatest mystics describe it as a knowing which is "not knowing."  Doctors of the faith identify this kind of love imbued knowledge with that of the Bride of the Canticle of Canticles who knows nothing but her Beloved.  St. Paul speaks of knowing nothing but Christ and Him Crucified.  This knowing is not darkened but puts on the mind of Christ which knows nothing but the loving goodness of the Father.  It is a renewal of the mind to such heavenly glory that it thinks thoughts no longer subject to sin or death.

Contemplation is the most humanizing of all the kinds of knowledge there is -- because men and women are made in the image and likeness of God, and the more they participate in God's knowledge, understanding and wisdom, the more they realize their true dignity and identity.  Most devout Christians do not know that they have been entrusted with this inestimable treasure and remain only vaguely conscious of the gifts lavished on them in their prayer.  Yet it is not necessary to be aware that one is contemplating to enter deep into this wisdom from on high and at the same time many rob themselves of true understanding because they are too self aware.   Indeed, one has not begun to live if he is ignorant of the divine human knowledge discovered in the loving exchange called contemplation. As St. Irenaeus explained, "The Glory of God is man fully alive - and the life of man is the vision of God."

October 17, 2011

Prayer and Theology

There are some who believe prayer and theology are opposed undertakings or at least activities that have nothing in common.   Those who espouse such a view often reduce prayer to simply an impulse of the will towards God or else a psychic state or a strong feeling  produced by spiritual exercises.  They also look at theology as a kind of product derived from scholarly inquiry into arcane questions or even a chess game of sophisticated skepticism in which careful and clever observations are proposed without ever committing the pieces.  For those who espouse such an approach theology rarely gets to breath in the fresh air of heaven and prayer remains prisoner of the preoccupations of one's own psyche.

There is a different kind of theology which frees prayer so that it might walk with the Living God and there is a different kind of prayer that breaths life into theology so that it rises up into the very life God.  Such prayer and study are filled with the Holy Spirit.  They involve putting on the mind of Christ.  For both real prayer and true theology are meant to participate by grace won for us on the Cross in the reciprocal gaze of love shared by the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit - that eternal act of knowing love and loving knowledge that knows no end.  The briefest moment of such contemplation in the midst of prayer imbued study or theologically purified prayer flashes with a loving Light, a burning Wisdom in which one can never live the same way again.  It is so intimate and personal, immense and cosmic all at the same time - because such is God.  When you meet Him in your prayer and study, a deeper conversion, a deeper love, a deeper kind of life opens up - and one simply cannot go back to the way things were before.

Prayer born of study is open to a foretaste of the wedding feast that awaits those who are faithful.  Study pregnant with prayer discovers that the deepest yearnings of the heart are raised up and ignited as the highest powers of the mind are captivated and renewed.  Such prayer and such study converge in a humble kind of knowing which exceeds all natural modes of knowledge, which is like not knowing - or rather a knowing nothing but Christ and Him crucified.

October 16, 2011

The Image of the Invisible God

The true Son of God, the Word made flesh, the manifestation of the Father's glory once stood before a crowd of powerful people who in their cleverness wanted to trap him.   Politically astute, theologically sophisticated and financially secure, their wisdom proved folly before the foolishness of God. When the Lord was asked about whether to pay tax, He asked to be shown the coin by which the tax was to be paid.   "Whose is the image?"  "Caesar's" was the reply.  The Living Image of the invisible God rendered his verdict, "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's."  (See Matthew 22:21-22)

If we know what we owe Caesar because we recognize his image, how can we possibly begin to understand what we owe God if we will not ponder his only begotten Son?  Here the Son of God shows us the connection between the image of something and the reality it signifies.  One belongs to the other.  When we look at images of earthly powers and authorities we understand what we owe to those powers and authorities.   But how are we to know what we owe God?   And should we ever begin to fathom that debt, how should we ever pay it?

Those who first heard the Word made flesh were too trapped in malice to ponder these ramifications.  They did not understand the connection between the Living Image and the Truth of the Father He revealed.  They did not perceive in the poverty of God before their eyes the debt they owed to the One who made them.  Their hearts were closed to the wisdom by which they might render to God what is God's.  They could not recognize any of this in the Image of the invisible God because their anxiety driven self-reliant political, religious and financial world was a blinding trap.  So pulled down by petty struggles for power, they were unable to raise their eyes to the spiritual reality dawning in their very midst: they had no idea of the glory shining on them and were deaf to the wisdom thundering around them. If we allow ourselves to be self-satisfied and do not keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, we could easily fall into the same trap.

When we behold God's only begotten Son, when we ponder how He emptied and humbled himself unto death on a cross, we catch the faintest outline of what we owe and our hearts are stirred with the conviction of how to pay it.  He wants us humbly to entrust to Him our misery -- it is the only thing we have that is really ours, everything else is really only a gift on loan from God.  And, in exchange for our confidence in Him to deal with the lack of love in our lives, He who reveals the inexhaustible love of the Father promises unimaginable glory.

October 13, 2011

The Present Moment - Eternity Begun and Still in Progress

We are often deceived into thinking that doing great things for God is something for tomorrow and the life of prayer is something only to be taken up when one's life's circumstances allow it to be more of a priority. This is not the way the saints understand time.

For the saints, heaven haunts this present life, its music beckoning us beyond the narrow prison of our own ego to look up and behold the One we have pierced. He stands before the eyes of our hearts risen from the dead, triumphant over every form of mediocrity which besets us, with his eyes fixed on us, waiting for us to fix our gaze on Him.  How much longer will we deny Him?

Blessed Elisabeth of the Trinity believed that time is "eternity begun and still in progress." The truth is each moment of our lives carries us into the eternal love of God ... if we let it. Each moment is a sacrament that gives us God ...if we see it with the eyes of faith. Each moment is pregnant with unfathomable grace, power that has flowed from the heart of Christ, so that God's will -- all that is good, pleasing and perfect -- is only a decision away.  Will we choose Him who waits for us even now?

Vietnamese Archbishop Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan discovered something like this contemplation when he was imprisoned for the faith. Struggling to rise out of an ocean of anxieties and nightmares, he came to see the present moment for what it really is:
If I wait for an opportune moment to do something truly great,
how many times will such occasions actually present themselves?
No, I will seize the occasions that present themselves every day.
I must accomplish ordinary actions in an extraordinary way.
Jesus, I will not wait,
I will live the present moment,
filling it to the brim with love.
Five Loaves and Two Fish, trans. Tinvui Media, Boston: Pauline Books and Media (1997) 13.

October 11, 2011

Pope Benedict and Sacred Silence

Regarding the importance of sacred silence, Deacon James Keating of the Institute of Priestly Formation shared with me a great piece on the Holy Father's visit to a Carthusian monastery in southern Italy.  This short article is a reminder of how important it is to schedule periods of the day when we withdraw from the barrage of noisy diversions all too available to us.  A little time each day in prayerful silence protects against the illusions our noisy culture promotes and it helps us keep in touch with what is really real.  Practicing silence and protecting our limited powers of attention from all forms of dissipation helps us focus our strength to confront the really important questions that we all must face at some point  - questions which expose the truth about ourselves.  If we are patient, silence strips us of the silliness that so often pulls us away from the truly essential.  In silence surrendered to God we discover just how vulnerable we actually are and how little we understand our need for God.  In such silence, we touch what is truly human and we taste what it is to be fully alive.  It is in this sacred silence that we discover we are awaited by Love.


As reported by CNA last Sunday:


The Pope contrasted the silence of the order with the noise of modern life.
“Without realizing it, people are immersed in a virtual dimension, because of the audio-visual messages that accompany their life from morning to evening,”  he said.
He called the Carthusian charism of silence “a precious gift for the Church and the world,” and one that contained “a profound message for our life and for humanity.”

“Retiring into silence and solitude, man, so to speak, is ‘exposed’ to reality in his nakedness,” said the Pope. This allows man to experience “the fullness, the presence of God, of the most real Reality that there is, and that is beyond the dimension of the senses.”
The Pope joined the monks for Vespers, the evening prayer of the Church. Before entering the monastery, he remarked that the ancient monastic life is a rebuke to a certain modern mindset “that is not Christian, or even human, because it is dominated by economic interests,” or is only concerned with earthly and not spiritual things.
A society based on such a mindset, he said, “not only marginalizes God, but also our neighbor, and we do not strive for the common good.” The monastery, though, is instead “a model of a society that focuses on God and fraternal relationship.” This is something for which we have “so much need in our time,” said the Pope.

October 10, 2011

A Summary of St. Dominic's Prayer

The Nine Ways of Prayer of St. Dominic presume a connection between the body and the soul, devotion and prayer. Each of the ways speaks to the importance of what is called "vocal" prayer. Such prayer goes beyond words that are said out loud. Bodily though it is, such prayer reaches for that true and total spiritual worship advocated by St. Paul in Romans 12:1-2.  It takes up gestures of the body which move the soul with devotion so that the grace filled and Holy Spirit imbued soul might move the body in true worship to make Christ-like sacrifices of love:


- The bowing of one's head and heart with humility at the beginning of prayer before the crucifix, at the altar, in the Name of the Trinity;
- The throwing down and prostrating of one's whole body with tears of compunction for the sins of others when one can find no more tears for his own;
- The welcoming of all the physical difficulties and the patience endurance of all kinds of bodily discomforts during prayer as part of prayer itself, as a way of offering one's body to God in praise;
- The fixating of one's gaze on Christ crucified while kneeling and standing with bold petitions filled with confidence in the indescribable goodness of God and sober acceptance of one's own weakness;
- The raising of one's hands to heaven with eyes wide open in the ancient orans of the first Christians;
- The stretching out of one's arms cruciform with a cry for help in heartbreaking situations;
- The standing strong with hands folded in prayer like an arrow shot into the heart of God;
- The sitting in holy reading and contemplation - that ancient practice of lectio divina; and
- The frequent quest for solitude in which one resists fantasies and evil thoughts like flies and prepares for spiritual battle against diabolical malice by the sign of the Cross.

October 7, 2011

The Rosary: Pathway of Mercy

Mercy or misericors, St. Thomas explains, is miserum cor, to have heartache over the plight of another as if it were one's own (ST I.21.3).  When we allow our hearts to be pierced by the plight of another in this way, we are moved to act, to do something to address the sorrow.  When it comes to the inner life of God, St. Thomas observes that God perfectly effects mercy - that is, although He does not suffer in Himself, He communicates his perfect loving goodness to address the deep sorrows suffered by in the creatures He has made.  Because He is infinite and we are finite, our misery, the intense absence of love in our hearts which is both the cause and fruit of evil in our lives, is circumscribed by inexhaustible frontiers infinite Love.

You complain that you do not see this love, that the pain is to great?  This is why the Word became flesh - by being born as one of us God Himself blazed a trail from the glorious heights of his eternal unbounded love down into the dark labyrinthine passages of our broken hearts.   He made his Cross the point where the immensity sorrow inflicting the human heart is kissed by the greater immensity of God's love. All we must do is look for this threshold in faith and ask God to help us cross it.  Here we will see the infinite love of God.

Those who glimpse this love start on a pilgrimage.  Repenting of the ways they have hurt others and themselves, they discover a life of ever deeper personal conversion.  It is a journey of forgiveness in which they submit to the Holy Spirit the wounds that others have done to them so that they might learn compassion and intercession.  It is a journey where they allow their hearts to be pierced by the plight of others just as God allowed himself to be pierced by our plight on the Cross.  In this miserum cor we discover the wisdom of God to know what to do in the moment and the power of God to act even when we feel we are at a loss and powerless ourselves.

This pathway of mercy is the journey out of the prison of our own big fat ego and all forms of self-occupation.  It is also a journey into the vast horizons of the heart of Christ Jesus from which flows the very wisdom, love and goodness of God.  The Risen Lord is Christ Crucified in whom we behold the foolishness of God bringing to shame our wisdom and the powerlessness of God overcoming the power of sin.

To help us make this journey, our great patrimony proposes that we fill our imagination by pondering the life of Christ and seeing the connections between his life and ours.  One of the tools which helps us do this is the Rosary - that ancient prayer where we ponder all the mysteries of Christ's mercy in prayerful awareness of his Mother, Mary whose soul always magnifies the Lord.  As St. Bernard says in the Office of Readings today:

He lay in a manger and rested on a virgin's breast, preached on a mountain, and spent the night in prayer.  He hung on a cross, grew pale in death, and roamed free among the dead and ruled over those in hell.  He rose again on the third day, and showed the apostles the wounds of the nails, the signs of victory; and finally in their presence he ascended to the sanctuary of heaven.  How can we not contemplate this story in truth, piety and holiness?  Whatever of all this I consider, it is God I am considering; in all this he is my God.  I have said it is wise to meditate on these truth, and I have thought it right to recall the abundant sweetness, given by the fruits of this priestly root; and Mary, drawing abundantly from heaven has caused this sweetness to overflow for us.

October 6, 2011

The Mission of Contemplatives in the Church

Though having embraced anonymity and engaged in an apostolate which avails no measurable results to this world, the sons of St. Bruno take up the work of contemplation and enter deep into the heart of the Church.  They have discovered in the presence of God the salvation of the world:

By devoting ourselves exclussively to God we exercise a special function in the Church, where things seen are ordered to things unseen, exterior activity to contmplation.  If we are truly liivng in union with God, our minds and hearts, far from becoming shut in on themselves, open up to embrace the whole universe and the mystery of Christ that saves it... We testify to the world, excessively absorbed in earthly things, that there is no God but Him.  Our life clearly shows something of the joy of heaven is present already here below; it prefigures our risen state and anticipates in a manner the final renewal of the world... By penance, moreover, we have our part in the saving work of Christ, who redeemed the human race from the oppressive bondage of sin, above all by pouring forth prayer to the Father, and by offering himself to Him in sacrifice.  Thus it comes about that we, too, even though we abstain from exterior activity, exercise nevertheless an apostolate of a very high order, since we strive to follow Christ in this, the inmost heart of his saving task.  The Wound of Love: A Carthusian Miscellany, Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications (1994) 239-240.

October 3, 2011

The Road of Prayer - the Path to Integrity

Those who wish to embark on the road of prayer in earnest must travel down the pathway of integrity of heart.  This means we must seek to be completely truthful about ourselves with God and we must submit what is in our hearts to the judgment of God.  Many people mistakenly believe they can do this by themselves.  But this is pure folly.  No one has come to full maturity in Christ without the help of many brothers and sisters in the Church throughout his life.  The Lord has chosen to allow us to submit ourselves to his judgment through those He sends us, through those to whom He has chosen to make us accountable.  Such truthfulness with God and with those He sends in our lives requires a struggle for humility, a battle against pride and a fight against any kind of self-reliance that prevents us from turning to the Lord.

In his rule, St. Benedict observes that progress is gained by learning to be transparent with someone to whom you are accountable.  He had in mind a spiritual father but this could also be a spiritual mother, a confessor, a spiritual director, or even a good spiritual friend.  It is important to submit our struggles to someone with a little wisdom and who is concerned that we come to full spiritual maturity. The fact is that we cannot face what is in our hearts by ourselves and we need one another.  In a special way, those who have devoted themselves to seeking wisdom of heart through prayer and study are in a position to help us with this task.

Why do we hold back from God and why are we afraid to share with those who can help us with the dark struggles in our lives?  Instead of thanking God for his generous love in sending us his friends, we are afraid of what they might say or think.   Their very presence brings us to the brink of a conversation with God in which the way we live will be questioned.  We are afraid of this judgment only because we do not realize how much we are loved.  When we recognize we have lost our courage to approach God, when we find ourselves afraid to open ourselves to someone He has sent to us to help us find our way home, there is little else to do than to admit our lack of trust and to call out to the Lord, "Lord, have mercy!"  His merciful love is so great, He will not fail to give us the courage we need to bring our fears and shame into the light of day.  He is in fact giving us this courage even if the truth comes out only a little bit at a time.

In humbly disclosing the struggles of our heart, the first words are the hardest and give the most glory to God.  This act of humility we make at such moments is something that only his own humility makes us capable of offering.  Such holy conversation is a start, a step along the way to the integrity Christ calls us to -- a little progress along the road of true prayer made possible by his grace.    

October 1, 2011

St. Paul and St. Therese - the true nature of holiness

In Colossians 1:24, St. Paul speaks of rejoicing because through his own trials he participates in Christ's salvific work for the Church, making up what is lacking in Christ's suffering.  While the sufferings of Christ are sufficient for our salvation, the way He suffered allows the Church to share in his work and participate in it through the trials of each of her members.  The Church is in fact a mystical reality, the Body of Christ in which the Lord's whole mystery is present.  Although all Christians are invited to take up this work, the great saints like St. Paul or else closer to our time St. Therese, share in this mysterious work of love in an intense, pure and extremely fruitful manner.

St. Therese of Lisieux faced a terrific struggle with her faith while dying of tuberculosis.  She describes in her autobiography how her life, which up to that moment had been like a fairy-tail (a remarkable statement when we  consider many of the difficult things she had already endured in her life of faith),  had become a prayer. The thought of heaven which had been a consolation to her all her life suddenly left her dry.  It was not the article of faith -- that is, that there is a heaven -- that she doubted.  Rather it was the fear and uncertainty over whether heaven was actually a possibility for her personally.  This experience so close to her death after years of joyful devotion to the Lord puzzled theologians: was she simply weak in faith when push came to shove or was there something deeper going on?  The more theologians discerned her life, the more certain they became that there was something deeper, something like the experience which St. Paul bears witness to in his letter to the Colossians.

Leading up to this moment, St. Therese had asked for all the graces that everyone else rejects, the ones God offers so generously and that we often turn our backs on.  She had asked for these rejected gifts because she understood a mysterious sorrow that the Lord had over the rejection of his gifts.  She asked for these gifts out of a sincere desire to console the heart of God.  (One can only wonder what God thought of such audacity with the smiling desire to imitate it!)

One of the gifts she received from praying in this way was a special love for souls who were far from God, a compassion for those people who did not believe God loved them if they believed He existed at all.  This love even included those who were hostile to God and religion.  (If you know anyone like this, ask St. Therese to pray for them.)

For their sake, she offered her life to the merciful love of God and asked God to allow her to share their plight so that they might know his mercy.  When she asked this, she was asking to share in the passion of Christ, to make up in her body what was lacking in the suffering of Christ - just like St. Paul.  Though she was fatally ill, it was not physical suffering that bothered her but the deep mental anguish of wondering about God's plan.  When she says the thought of heaven was no longer a consolation to her, this indicates that she was tormented by whether God's plan was really a loving plan for her personally.  Paradoxically, it was in the experience of this anguish of heart that she became most Christ like - that is most like Christ when He prayed, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me."

It is possible to face intense questions about our faith but remain faithful.  This is what she chose to do.  In this kind of trial, the intellect is thrown into a terrific darkness.  One simply does not want to think about the things of God because the thought of them is mysteriously painful and the temptation not to trust God becomes overwhelmingly acute.  What she did and what we must do in these moments is to cleave to God by a loving act of trust even though trusting in these circumstances is so difficult. This means living by love even when love feels absent.  This also means trusting in God's virtue when we do not feel we have any of our own.  

It is a curious thing that the greater our devotion to God, the more normal we become.  Saints are extraordinary precisely because their struggles are so ordinary.  It is their faithfulness that sets them apart - a faithfulness beyond which frail humanity can account for, a faithfulness that witnesses to the power of God.   Thus, even in the midst of these spiritual trials, Therese continued to struggle with all the other ordinary weaknesses we all suffer - like pride.  She even complains to God that despite all her resolutions to be humble in the morning by evening she has a long list of failures to confess and with this is continually realizing in new ways how she needs to trust in the Lord even more (See Pri 20).   In this, she has left us a sign about what the perfection of Christian holiness is all about - the freedom to rely on the Lord in our weakness.  We can do this because God never tests us beyond our strength and always gives us exactly what we need, when we need it, when we rely on Him.  No matter the the intensity of our trials or confusion, He gives us the grace to choose Him, and in choosing Him to believe in his love, and in believing to live by his love even when - perhaps especially when - we feel we have run out of love.  All that is left is trust - and trust in the midst of trials allows Christ to renew his whole mystery.