December 28, 2011

The Mystery of a Merry Christmas

The Christmas Season holds out for us the deepest personal joy.  It is a season that begins on Christmas Eve, includes the Solemnity of the Mother of God (New Years Day), Epiphany (Little Christmas) and runs through the Baptism of the Lord (although the ancient observance of this Season once lasted until Candle-mass at the beginning of February).   Throughout this time, the beautiful greeting “Merry Christmas” is as much of a challenge as it is a wish.  The challenge and the wish have to do with beholding God who has manifested his glory in our flesh.  It has to do with attending to the Word which resounds in the silent stillness of our weakness anew.  Christmas is a merry exchange in which God embraces human sorrow so that men might know divine joy.  It is a prayerful encounter which takes up not only a recalling of ancient events in earthly history but at the same time a loving gaze into one's own depths in the present moment, a moment which is forever carried by this newly unfolding heavenly mystery.

Christmas is about a deeper conversion of life from darkness to light, from the poverty of our pettiness into the inexhaustible riches of God's love.  This life changing presence of the Lord is our joy.  This hidden strength in the midst of our weakness is our hope.

The Savior is wondrously present to us and reveals his power even in the midst of this life's most difficult trials.  He lives in our poverty even when we do not feel him, an ever flowing fount of divine strength in the face of all kinds of hardships which tempt us to disappointment. Yet we have great reason to persevere in prayer even in the face of death, even when we do not believe we can pray, for our hope does not disappoint.   

If we renew our dedication to prayer, how can we not be merry to the point of jubilation when our faith makes the Birth of Christ and the whole mystery of the Incarnation manifestly present to us again?  And yet, when we are honest with ourselves, our joy is not nearly as complete as it ought to be.   The Word become flesh speaks as the Gospel is proclaimed but we do not take the time to hear.  The Bread of Life laid in a manger feeds us with true spiritual food but we do not make it our life's priority to eat.  Instead, we are constantly pulled into all kinds of indulgent self-occupations, prideful self-righteousness, and at the same time despairing self-condemnation.  We must be vigilant lest the glitter and noise of our brokenness rob us of the joy we ought to have in Emmanuel, God-with-us.  

The merriment of Christmas is his sacred presence, an astonishing presence which He has pledged to us forever.  Hidden in the poverty of our work-a-day existence is a superabundant fullness of life, love and communion which is ready to be a manifest source of infallible personal joy -- if we seek Him in faith.  To accept the true meaning of “Merry Christmas” requires a humble and determined effort to attend, to listen, to search, to ponder, to meditate, to wonder, to adore, and to fight for his wondrous presence in our lives, in our families and in our communities.

Merry Christmas!  The God-child is born unto us: a new morning dawning on our lives, higher than our thoughts and deeper than our desires.  Shining in our darkness and resounding in our silence the Word has become flesh - and death cannot overcome Him.  There is a Holy Fire in the night, a radiant Star whose hope filled rays illumine an inestimable mystery entrusted to us, a mystery beyond all telling, a wonder far beyond our ability to imagine or understand.  A fulfillment of all desires surpassing every promise, an overwhelming rush of divine tenderness, an enveloping comfort which surpasses the sorrow of our our afflictions, and a more than hoped for answer to life’s most painful questions: all of this is as present and as accessible in this present moment as a newborn wrapped in swaddling clothes.  Christ dwells with us now as then proclaimed by angels, despised by the powerful, sought by the wise, and adored by the poor.

December 21, 2011

Hearing the Call of the Bridegroom

"Let me see you, let me hear your voice."  These final days of Advent lift our hearts to the coming of Christ and are meant to move us to pray  How can we not make prayer part of our lives when we consider what it means that Word of the Father came in history and what it means that Jesus continues to come to us in mystery?  To help us feel this in our souls, to help us raise our hearts before this great truth, to nourish us with the sweetness of what God has revealed, our liturgy includes readings from the great love poem - the Canticle of Canticles.  In this poem, the Bride calls us to listen to the Bridegroom and to feel the joy of seeing Him gazing at us.  And for his part, the Bridegroom of Advent longs to find us, to see us and to hear our voices.  God longs for us to pray.

"Arise my beloved!" This is what God asks of us to prepare for Christmas.  Who is it who calls us his beloved and who commands us in love to rise up?   We cannot know until we enter the silence of prayer for our own self.  Have you allowed silence to be part of your Advent Season?   Do you hear Him calling to you?  Do you see Him gazing at you?  Why not seek him now? Why not take this moment to listen for his voice? 

He the one who comes to us in our poverty, in dark stillness, in sacred silence.   As vulnerable as a baby, descends into our hostile world so that we might ascend with him  into heaven's eternal love.  He who cannot find a place to lay his head, He for whom there is no room in this world, this Pilgrim God longs to lead us to the place prepared for us from all eternity, our true heavenly homeland, the bosom of the Holy Trinity.  

This Child who comes to us does not come as a avatar who merely appears in our likeness - the Image of the Invisible God embraces our life, drinks in our existence and makes it his very own.  His first cries in the manager reached their climax on the Cross: cries of prayer, cries in the face of our distress and misery, cries for love.  Have you allowed this holy cry to reverberate in the hollows of your heart?  By his cry into our world, this Son of Man and the only begotten Son of God, this Son of Mary and Son of the Father, He empties himself into our existence, empties Himself of his Divine Life.  Why does He empty Himself and humble Himself?  He pours Himself out in love into our lives holding nothing back to show us our dignity, what it means to be fully human and fully alive, what it means to live by love, to live like God, and at the same time gives Himself in love to fill us with the fullness of life so that we might embrace his very being, drink his very existence and make his life our very own.
  
His love for us is passionate, stronger than death: a love nothing but love alone can quench. More than any bridegroom this world has ever known, He yearns for our love and longs to enter our world anew - but He through whom the heavens and earth were brought forth waits for us.  He holds his divine breath like He held his breath waiting the fiat of the Virgin.  He longs to fill the world with his Holy Spirit and to renew his whole mystery anew in our lives, in our time, in our families, in our culture, in our society, today.  Yet He has made his plan dependent on our saying "yes", on our feeble "fiat."  He counts on our prayers more than we allow our prayers count on Him.  The Word listens attentively for our quiet voice even has the heavens and the earth resound with the cries of the Divine Infant

What does our true Bridegroom cry out and what does He yearn for this Christmas?  He cries for heartfelt  prayer washed in tears of contrition and gratitude, bowed in humble adoration, ready to boldly say yes to his presence, generous and eager to welcome his love. The words of the Word of God reveal this cry,  "Let me see you, let me hear your voice." (Song of Songs 2:14).  .

December 13, 2011

The Foolishness of God in St. John of the Cross

"The soul that walks in love neither tires others nor grows tired." St. John of the Cross is a saint passionate about love to the point of foolishness in the eyes of the world.  But this foolishness is a family trait.  Gonzalo, his father, left everything out of love for Catalina, his mother and Gonzalo's brothers despised him as a fool for love.  The friendship of Gonzalo and Catalina, their holy marriage, was filled with the radiant beauty of what it means to really live. True love is never half-way.  It never grows tired in its devotion.   For someone living by love, besides the beloved everything else is rubbish.  Real love fears no sacrifice and is ready for every hardship.  His father would die in destitution and yet his widowed mother never lost hope.  They were rich in love, and in the evening of our lives, nothing else really matters.  Their home was held together through every hardship and disappointment by living faith, a faith alive with love.  This love, this hope and this faith formed the soul of a future saint.  

John of the Cross was a fool for love like his parents, and in his foolishness lived life to the full just as they did.  Like his father he too was impassioned by love's yearnings and in that passion found courage to make every sacrifice for the one he loved.  The only difference between father and son was that for John of the Cross his beloved was God alone.  God's love radiates from his poetry and evokes urgent desire, profound peace and uncontainable jubilation.  Fired up with love, driven by love, given over to love, friendship with God was his life's priority and a zeal to lead others into this same divine friendhsip burns throughout his writings.  He chose poverty and a disciplined life so that he would have the freedom to love.  This is why he embraced the the hungry, the sick and the dying.  It is why he made himself radically available to the spiritually poor as well.  Something of the foolishness of God lives in St. John of the Cross's foolishness for love.

If someone were to ask what made his love for God so intense, at least part of the answer must include his devotion to prayer and the Word of God.  He memorized the Scriptures and loved to comment on them, especially the Song of Songs.  He loved silence and he loved to search for the Lord in the silence of his own heart.  It was in the silence of his heart that he heard the Lord speak to him, "The Father spoke one Word, which was his Son, and this Word he speaks always in eternal silence, and in silence must it be heard by the soul."

Understanding the yearnings of love which moved in his soul provides insight into his friendship with Teresa of Avila, his zeal for the reform of Carmel and his fierce fortitude when imprisoned in Toledo.  It explains why hundreds of the faithful sought him out for spiritual direction and why he would walk for miles to hear confessions.  It sheds light on why he enjoyed camping in the wilderness and solitude in the countryside.    If he demanded rigor in religion, the friars he formed were gratefully loyal to him because his devotion was contagious.  At the same time, he was so rooted in love that he really did not care what others thought of him or whether those who were closest to him treated him poorly -- although he always cared about them and would sacrifice anything to make sure they knew they were loved.  After his miraculous escape from the harsh torments he suffered in prison, he was asked about his experience.  His words were washed with wisdom, "Where there is no love, put love, and you will find love."

December 10, 2011

A Voice Calling Out for Conversion Driven Theology

The Precursor demanded conversion of life because he wanted the Truth to be welcomed in the hearts of men.   Those who set themselves on the pathway toward spiritual maturity with contrite spirits and vigilant hope in the Lord know this conversion.  This is a turning away from darkness and shame.  It is a turning towards the light, towards complete authenticity, to real simplicity of heart.  The voice of the Lord converses which such a soul in his conscience, setting afire his inner sanctuary, guiding him deeper and deeper into his own illuminated humanity.  Duplicity is too painful to maintain before this truth.  One is driven by the need to rectify his life, to straighten out the crooked pathways of his heart, and to make restitution to those he has harmed no matter the price or humiliation.  This conversion turns us away from selfishness and sobers us about the games we play.  Lust for things is renounced and the drive to satisfy bloated appetites is checked.  Tears of regret flow over time wasted on silly diversions and squandered opportunities.  Gratitude for the time that remains springs from the heart.  One renews his commitment to the sacred bonds in which the mystery of one's life unfolds.   How short and fragile the gift of life is - there is not a moment to waste if we are to really love those God has entrusted to us!

Conversion flows from and leads to prayer.  One struck to the heart by his own sinfulness and need for mercy prostrates before the mystery of God's overwhelming holiness to humbly accept his place.  Contrition filled adoration blankets the heart.  Such a soul discovers the heartbreaking beauty of silence where God holds his Divine Breath waiting to be recognized by a cry of the heart.   Such silence is the wilderness where the Precursor's cry still echoes: this is the silence of Advent.  The Christian who has entered deep into this silence is ready to profoundly welcome the Word made flesh, to encounter Christ on a deeper level.

William of St. Thierry, disciple of St. Bernard, describes a deep theology which is not at the disposal of the thinker, but rather a gift for which one prepares with this whole life.  It is a gift enjoyed by the spiritually mature who have freed themselves of childish attachments, anxieties, and idleness.  Such a person has learned to distinguish God from the works of God, and realizes that as noble and necessary as the works of God are, they do not deserve the devotion of one's heart.  The heart is made for God, to be given to Him directly or through those He entrusts to us.  The spiritually mature live by such love and because they live in this way, they are prepared for a deep kind of prayer, a profound kind of theology, a contemplation that takes up the heights and depths of our humanity, continually transforming all of our activity from one horizon to the other, unifying thoughts and affections into an ever deeper existence of love -- an existence rooted in an ever deeper encounter with the Lord:

The Spirit of Life at once infuses himself by way of love and gives life to everything.  He lends his assistance to human weakness in prayer, in meditation, and in study.  Suddenly the memory becomes wisdom and tastes the good things of the Lord.  At the same moment, the thoughts to which the good things of God give rise are brought to the intellect to be formed into affections.  And then worthy thoughts are entertained of God, if indeed the word "thought" is correct.  There is only awareness of God's abundant sweetness.  This awareness leads to exultation, jubilation and a true encounter with the Lord in goodness on the part of the man who has sought him in simplicity of heart.  
The Golden Epistle, #249-250


December 8, 2011

The Immaculate Conception

We Catholic Christians believe that the Mother of God was conceived without sin because it deepens our confidence that all things are possible for God. This is a luminous feast in the midst of the dark days of winter.  In what should be a season of hope, so many are weighed down by discouragement.  The heart needs reason to hope.  Here, what we believe about the Immaculate Conception contains the substance of our hope and helps us find encouragement to persevere in our conversion to Christ.

At the moment of Mary’s conception, in the primordial sacrament of married love, the grace of Christ reached into history to preserve his Mother from the law of sin.  In that instant of love and life, an ancient curse was lifted, the futility under which all of creation struggled was relieved, and the original splendor of humanity peaked out.

Marriage is part of this mystery.  The sacred character of this primordial institution is revealed in this proposition of our faith.  No mere legal arrangement, marriage  - so maligned and so betrayed in our culture - is holy and so is the conjugal love it safeguards.  The vowed indissoluble friendship of married love lived faithfully out of devotion to God and to one another is a wellspring from which God flows into humanity.  In the case of Mary's parents, in their exchange of hearts, in the kiss and embrace their friendship knew, carried by grace and sustained by the Almighty Hand of God, new life was permitted to enter into our dying world.  In that moment, the tender affections of marriage attained their greatest accomplishment.  The inestimable gift of self which marriage originally enjoyed but rejected was given another chance, and in that gift a new life was conceived with the fullness of life.   A beatitude that had been lost to human experience was restored - and exceeded.  In Mary, the Immaculate Conception,  we have a sign of the victory of Christ over the power of sin, a sign raised up on high from the fruit of married love's conjugal embrace, a sign of the culture of life and civilization of love which lies open if we will return again to God.

This mystery of new life at work in the conception of Mary is a singular instance of God accomplishing his hidden purpose with unanticipated power.  In her, the weary world received the first inkling of the splendor of the Lords' faithfulness to his promises.  Where no eye could see, a hidden foretaste of a deliverance about to dawn in the world began to unfold.   For the first time, we experienced - unknowingly - the first glimmer of the  fullness of grace Christ's death on the Cross won for us.   The result? Humanity on fire with the obedient love of the Holy Spirit in a mother's womb.  In the conception of Mary there is a disclosure of God's unfathomable love for humanity, the greatness of married love, and the renewal of the gift of life.  The mystery of the Immaculate Conception is meant to capture the heart in this radiant beauty, a hidden glory accessible only to the eyes of faith.

Since it is good for us to be bathed in the splendors of this radiance, the Church proposes the mystery of the Immaculate Conception, inviting us to go deep into the hiddeness of our faith, deep in to the divine secret entrusted to us at baptism, deep into the abyss of God’s mercy. To say yes to this sacred truth, to choose to live by it, we open ourselves to the gift of Mary -- her prayers, her purity, her love wait to fill our faith in Jesus. Accordingly, when we dare to believe that the salvific power of Christ saved his own Mother from sin at the moment of her conception, she shines for us like a star in this sea of life, giving us even deeper reasons to be confident as we sail for the safe-harbor of the Lord's infinite love.

December 6, 2011

Recollection

To recollect oneself, to collect together the powers of one's soul, this is a beautiful kind of prayer which can be refreshing for the heart.  In our hectic world, frequent recourse to such prayer, if only for a few moments, is essential if we are not to forget our true purpose. Normally prayerful reflection on the life of Christ or a Scripture verse or even one's own life in the light of God's love helps the soul enter into this kind of resting attentiveness. Although it entails renouncing self-preoccupation, withdrawing from all kinds of dissipating distractions and silencing the constant monologue of one's own bloated ego, the quiet of Christian recollection is not really an esoteric emptiness.  It is not about the attainment of some self-satisfied state of consciousness.  Instead, this faith imbued silence is filled with a transforming fullness of the Word.  Like the brilliance of heaven illumines the darkness of night, in this kind of prayer eternal Light shines in the dark voids of our existence casting its loving wisdom over the captive mind, a radiance in which we find the truth about God and about ourselves.

In this prayerful silence, the One who embraced the silence of death discloses the heart-piercing depths of his divine love.  This is a chastening silence, a humbling silence: this contrite stillness, this grateful quiet, this deep surrender to both holy sorrow and at the same time unimaginable joy.  Like the womb of the Virgin Mary, this sacred silence of soul, visited by angels, is pregnant with deep spiritual currents of all that is good, holy and true about our humanity, currents ready to born into irrepressible jubilation.

This silence seeks in the distant frontiers of our innermost being an encounter with the One who has entered an even deeper silence to search for us.  He has made his home in the vast wilderness of our hearts.  A moment of mutual recognition between the Bridegroom and the soul waits to be realized in this sacred stillness.  A sacred banquet is prepared.  Christian recollection is not an end in itself, but a threshold - a pathway to a deeper encounter with the Lord, to a mysterious meeting of unimaginable intimacy.  This prayerful peace aches with anticipation, a longing for Someone, the hidden fulfillment of all desire.  For in this silence of thoughts drenched with God into stillness, the Trinity waits to embrace us, to envelop us in love, to establish us in peace, to catch us up into a foretaste of a life this world cannot hold.  

December 2, 2011

Guarding Interior Silence in our Vigilance

The spiritually mature long for silence - but such silence does not happen by chance.  Out of devotion to Christ, one must carefully order not only the space and time in which he lives, but also take steps to protect his conscience and struggle for purity of heart.  It is difficult work and often it feels like nothing is happening, that it is a waste of time.  Yet perservere in your devotion and attention to the Lord in this holy silence.  Silence filled with prayerful expectation is a spiritual place of encountering the Word who seeks us out. 

To enter into prayerful silence we must withdraw from exterior and interor noise.  This is not an escape -- it is the first step to dealing with reality straight up.  This is why monks go to their cells, and it is why we need to make a space in our homes that is dedicated to prayer, a place in our lives where we make prayer our priority daily.  This place must be sheltered from exterior noise, from noise like the radio, TV, and computer.  If we are not sheltered from it, such noise drowns us in distractions, and makes us forgetful of the deeper spiritual purpose that the Lord has entrusted to us.  But in addition to the noisy world around us, there is an interior racket that comes from the enchanting fantasies we entertain about things or people, fantasies promising satisfication whether physical, emotional or even spiritual.  If this cacophony goes unchecked, we find ourselves powerless against all kinds of irrational tendencies.  Unchecked, we suddenly find ourselves sitting in judgment over one another, ourselves and God -- we are such poor judges: blinded by envy, arrogance, and self-pity. 

But what happens if for part of the day I renounce a little entertainment?   What happens when I renounce impulses to try to satisfy myself with things, people or food?  What if, instead of wasting time judging my neighbor, I spent a little time in silence listening to the Lord?

The ancient monks understood the importance of keeping silence in daily life.  They understood that the physical cell in which they dwelt was only meant to be a sign of the interior silence they were meant to keep.  Such silence is vigilant, constantly on the watch for the presence of the Lord who visits our hearts.  St. Athanasius in his reflections on the Life of St. Anthony described this spiritual place as an inner mountain of hidden intimacy with God.  St. Teresa of Avila described this place of interior encounter with the Lord as a garden filled with flowers of virtue and a castle filled with innumerable rooms of personal encounter.   St. John of the Cross described it as a whole new world with exotic islands just waiting to be explored.  William of St. Thierry considered it the inner cell:

The outward cell is the house in which your soul dwells together with your body; the inner cell is your conscience and in that it is God who should dwell with your spirit, He who is more interior to you than all esle within you.  The door of the outward enclosure is a sign of the guarded door within you, so that as the bodily seneses are prevented from wandering abroad by the outward enclosure so the inner senses are kept always within their own domain.  Love your inner cell then, love your outward cell too, and give to each of them the care which belongs to it.  William of St. Thierry, The Golden Epistle, trans. Theodore Berkeley, Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications (1971), ##105-106.