December 31, 2012

Welcoming the New Year with Praise

As the New Year dawns, many see this as an opportunity for all kinds of excitement and insobriety.   For others, the New Year is something to dread with great anxiety.   But for souls whom God has graced with the gift of prayer, this passage of time is a new moment in which to keep the eyes of the heart fixed on the Son of Man.  

Time resonates with God's heartbeat of love.   In every moment of time there is a new kind of Presence of God disclosed to the world drawing it in the power of the Holy Spirit to the Word made flesh and at the same time moving the world beyond itself, to something new and wonderful, something that evokes adoration.  If time endures all kinds of misery and disappointments, evil does not ultimately define time -- rather the duration of every difficulty, just as is the case in the duration of every joy, is pregnant with something greater than time is able to contain.  There is an eternal hope that lives in even the worst situations, a hope that lifts time to a greater fullness than the poverty of the present moment allows us to see, but in which we can believe none-the-less.

What is the reason for this hope?   The loving presence of Christ who stands with us and whose word never passes away - with Him we have reason to stand firm, to love without counting the cost.  He, the Fullness of Life Himself, is the very center, the heart of human history and of each one's personal history.  At every occasion, no matter how humble or hidden, an encounter with Christ is awaiting us on both the most personal and the most public dimensions of our existence.  Faith seeks this encounter and in a single moment learns to surrender to everything the Lord lavishes upon it, and this over and over again in the most unexpected ways.  

His unrepeatable presence is what makes this Year a new gift from God, and those who embrace Him and faithfully cleave to Him in the new and unique ways our personal and social histories make possible, such believers will know again an ancient joy that can never grow old.  For them, the New Year is neither an occasion for insobriety or anxiety or to lose heart for any reason.  For these faithful souls, the New Year is a gift, an occasion of thanksgiving, a new opportunity to lift up our hearts, to cry out in recognition in the midst of both sorrow and joy: such is the praise offered by a soul that seeks the progress of eternity in each moment of time.

December 29, 2012

Reverent Love and Family Life


The Christmas Mystery raises prayer to the warmth and light of motherhood and family.   These primordial elements of our common humanity God Himself has made sacred by associating them with Himself.   He did so in a singular way when the Word became flesh, when the source of all Meaning entered into the hardships, doubts, fears, and insecurities of our alienated humanity, a painful existence which so needs to be loved.   When Divinity infused our poverty with its treasures, the very relationship of mother to child was endowed in a particular way with new and eternal meaning, a truth that surpasses all understanding.   Here, the unfathomable reality of what it means to be family is disclosed to the eyes of faith and after all these centuries, we have not even begun to penetrate these riches. 

In our efforts to love one another, to renounce what we think we want so that there is room in our lives for family and new life, to be patient with the sorrows we inevitably cause each other, to persevere with one another’s weakness, to defer to one another, to resist contention and false judgment, to speak the truth with love even at the risk of being misunderstood, to share a reason for our hope, to be merciful even to the point of appearing to be taken advantage of; in all of this, when lived out with the same tender reverence that Mary and Joseph showed one another in their own struggles to make a home for the Christ-child; in this very effort, though fraught with all kinds of weakness and inadequacy, failures and shortcomings, trials and hardships, a joyful echo of the Father’s saving whisper into the heart of humanity resounds; a whisper to which faith listens and hears anew, amid angel’s choirs, those divine but distressed cries in the darkness of a cold night wrapped in our swaddling clothes.

December 21, 2012

The Coming of Christmas and the Mystery of the Visitation

The Visitation, like the Annunciation, is one of the great mysteries we think about as we prepare for Christmas.  These sacred events form us and prepare us for the special way the Lord wants to visit us this Christmas.   The Annunciation refers to the conversation of the Archangel Gabriel with Mary and the Visitation refers to the seventy five mile journey Mary made from Galilee to a little village on the outskirts of Jerusalem (traditionally, Ain Karem or the Spring of the Vineyard) to serve her elderly cousin Elizabeth who was pregnant with John the Baptist.

The loving service Mary made haste to show Elizabeth was the result of the prayerful encounter she had through the ministry of the Angel: Gabriel explained that her cousin's remarkable pregnancy would be a sign confirming his even more remarkable announcement to the Mother of the Messiah.  Mary made haste to her cousin not merely to have confirmation for herself -- even more, she realized her cousin needed her.

The whole mystery of Christmas and all the events that lead up to it is a mystery of love - divine love entering into human love and human love allowing itself to be directed by divine love.  It is a mystery of apostolic contemplation.

All Christian contemplation -- when it is truly Christian -- follows the pattern of the Annunciation and the Visitation -- prayer not only enjoys the presence of God, but it is a threshold into apostolic action.  To be an apostle is to be sent and Gabriel's words to Mary contained this apostolic dimension -- if historically apostolate was part of preparing for the Messiah, then today apostolate must be part of our mystical preparation to celebrate God's presence among us in Christ Jesus.

What is true of Mary is true for all believers:  heavenly encounters compel us to love one another more fiercely and more tenderly.  While every day of the Christian life should be an experience of this mystery, Advent is a special time when -- in the midst of these darker and colder days when people tend to need each other just a little more than at other times - we allow the Lord to touch us with His generous love so that we might love one another a little more generously in return.

December 20, 2012

Mary and the Mystery of the Coming of Christmas

In these special days just before Christmas, the Church calls to mind, among other things, the grace of the Annunciation, that extraordinary visit of the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary.   St. Bernard addresses the Virgin of Nazareth telling her that all of Heaven holds its breath waiting for her to give her answer.  He begs her to open herself to the Word of the Father by the praise and thanksgiving she offers through her human word.  This address to Mary is also an address to the whole Church, to all baptized Christians who animated by Christ constitute His Mystical Body.   

All of heaven holds its breath waiting for the Church today to welcome the Word made flesh anew, in our own time, in our own culture, in our own hearts.  This means that each of us as a responsibility to live lives of thanksgiving and praise.   Such a life constantly avails itself to the wonders God reveals in this present moment of our lives.   This kind of life is carried by gratitude for the man undeserved gifts of love lavished upon us without our even having to have asked.   This kind of life is lifted up in praise even in the face of sorrow, pain and hardship - because this kind of life knows that what most defines reality, our personal reality, is not evil or failure - but rather God's love.  And this kind of life lives for love, lives by love, lives in love -- it also knows the honor of dying by love as well.

Advent, these days where the whole Church strains for the coming of the Lord, these hectic days of social gatherings and hospitality and shopping and decorating and writing greetings and working and entertaining excited children and comforting impatient adults, these stressful days of preparing for family reunions or travel or else being burdened with the thought of loneliness or abandonment or the lack of basic necessities -- these are the days where we must also find time for silence: that sacred silence in which we open wide the doors of our hearts to the Word of the Father,  that peaceful silence that allows Him to repose in our hearts just as He reposed in womb of Mary.  In this wondrous silence of praise and thanksgiving, no matter the hardships and the blessings we might know, the Word of the Angel to the Mother of the Lord is also a Word to us in these beautiful days of joy and sorrow, anxiety and hope.

December 19, 2012

A New Liberty for Humanity

God loves to work through human freedom -- the freer humanity is, the more freely God manifests His Glory.  To help us find this spiritual liberty, John the Baptist was sent to prepare the way of the Lord.   His message was a very simple call to act justly and honestly.  The effort to live our lives morally upright levels the pathway for the Messiah.  What was true in that historical coming of Christ is true in the spiritual ways He continues to come into our hearts: the Lord is able to more freely come into the world when we devote ourselves to doing what is right and to overcoming evil with what is good.

We have a great advantage over those who heard the preaching of the Baptist.   They did not know that the promise was already fulfilled in a manner that surpassed all expectation:  the Son of God had come into the world.  They repented of sin and lived justly based solely on the promise that He would come -- without fully understanding just who "He" would be.

Yet their faith in the shadow of so great a reality was enough for them to begin to get ready, enough for them to repent, enough to realize they needed salvation, to begin to love and respect one another again.  We have an even greater reason for this kind of living faith - for we do not live in the shadow of a promise, but we live in communion with the fulfillment of that promise: the Living Image of the Invisible God continually comes by mystery into the broken and impoverished places of our lives because He has already come into history and loved us in poverty - the poverty of a babe in swaddling clothes.

Faith in Christ brings a new liberty to humanity.   By infusing our poverty, our weakness, our voids, our failures, our inadequacies with His Presence, all these things that would otherwise impede our efforts to love are now infused with an even greater love - God's love.   Renunciation of a hidden sin that no one might notice, renunciation of amusements that do not give glory to God, renunciation of a little comfort at the end of a long day, renunciation of the need to win an argument, renunciation of the need to be noticed - whenever we make these little renunciations out of love for Jesus, we discover our poverty and in discovering our poverty we open ourselves to the coming of Life, the coming of Truth, and this in a greater Way than we have ever known before.  This is the new freedom, the spiritual liberty, that the Christ child comes to bring humanity.

December 17, 2012

Prayer Deeply Rooted in Wisdom from on High

Christian contemplation is rooted in the Gospel of Christ.   This means that this prayer draws its life from the living truth disclosed by Jesus - a truth disclosed not only by His teaching and His deeds, but most of all by His presence among us.  Rooted in truth, the prayer constantly discovers new and surprising ways God is with us, and this even in the deepest sorrow, even when horrendous evil seems to crush all hope.

Such prayer participates in the prayer of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ Child, who came from the Father to lead us home.  Prayer of Christ is given as a gift as was everything He had down to the last drop of blood.  He Himself is God's great gift to humanity, He whose teaching and works were not His own but that which the Father gave Him to give to us.

The Fountain of Grace came into the world to infuse our hearts with the Father's unfathomable love: this revelation of tender friendship is no mere abstract concept but instead an explosion of astonishing kindness into our alienated existence.  This excessive overflow of life makes it possible for us to love the Father in return with an ever abounding love that extends in unimaginable ways to all the wonders He has made.

And this vision of love is Wisdom, the ancient vision which carefully imbued unrepeatable significance to each and everything that is, and this is especially true of people, the neighbors Divine Love has carefully arranged in our lives in unrepeatable constellations with great purpose.   Such is the Wisdom from on High, a foolish excess of that true love from which all things came into existence and to which all existence leads.

How can we learn this wisdom?  How do we receive it into our hearts?  With freedom - the same freedom by which Christ suffered our poverty.  We must freely choose suffer our own poverty if we are to freely make space for the poverty of God.   Christ reveals God's chosen poverty, the fully intentional vulnerability with which He dares to approach humanity, and no mistake can be made on this point, to approach man in all His insecurities and hostility is dangerous.  To learn such foolish wisdom, we must surrender to Him, we must trust Him who trusts in us so much more.

Christ is the Father's Word entrusted into the arms of Mary, into the protection of Joseph, into the precarious poverty of a manipulated and oppressed people, into a culture so weighed down by fate it could find no reason to hope.  His first Word, His final Word, His only Word, the Father spoke Him into the brokenness of this world and into hostile voids of our hearts.  His mission is to fill our nihilistic emptiness with eternal meaning, with new life, with love that is stronger than death.  This is what Christian prayer seeks when it soberly attends to the silence and the darkness of this present life.

Contemplation baptized in Christ bows one's whole being in adoration before the splendor of the Father, and this same contemplation lifts up in jubilation the deepest truth about who we really are before this mystery of Love.  Such simple contemplation enjoys complete freedom from the need to attain any expected outcome, or arrive at explanation, or achieve some conscious state or acquire any other psychological satisfaction.  Christian prayer, in fact, delights in what cannot be understood or anticipated or felt or achieved because by faith it knows the Holy Trinity is always more than what we imagine or intuit or produce or conceive.  This kind of prayer looks into heartrending sorrow, suffering, loneliness with eyes that have the freedom to see unfathomable love.  

The world needs this Wisdom now more than ever, the wisdom of a heart that makes space for the vision of God is a source of hope.

December 14, 2012

Prayer In the Face of Evil

Evil threatens humanity on both social and personal levels, and, against this threat, prayer in the face of grave evil takes on a particular importance.  It is in the face of grave evil that our faith in the Lord is most tested, especially when that grave evil involves innocent children.   It is nearly impossible to pray when heartless brutality robs of us of those we love and steals all sense of security from our communities.  How do we pray when the actions of the violent seem to eclipse all that is good, noble and true about humanity and our life together?

It is normal to be dismayed before irrational malice and it is also normal to want to find some kind of explanation when we are dismayed.  We want to understand and we want to do something, anything to prevent the pain violence causes in the future.   Some of the resolutions we make at such moments might even be very good.  Yet, the deeper cause of evil, whether physical or moral, does not admit of an explanation, at least not of one that is fully satisfactory, and the suffering evil causes cannot be addressed, at least not adequately, by anything that is under the command of our own cleverness or natural capacities for problem solving.

As we approach the mystery of Christmas, I have no words that could possibly comfort those who have suffered the unimaginable distress that has befallen so many families in so many different ways.   The only comfort that is real comfort cannot be contained in human words, but true comfort is entrusted to us by the God the Father.  He whose heart is broken over the evils of this world speaks His Word into our suffering and his Word cries out in our flesh, wrapped in swaddling clothes: this is God's living prayer to humanity.  Prayer in the face of evil is a living mystery where the tears of man mingle with the tears of God.     

December 12, 2012

Blessed Elisabeth of the Trinity and Advent

Blessed Elisabeth of the Trinity invites us to take on an attitude that goes with these days of Advent.  So much happens during these days that can rob us of our peace.  We can quickly become irritated or anxious about the smallest things or about other things we cannot do anything about.   When this happens, prayer can sometimes become very difficult or very easy to forget.  It is with regard to the busy pace of daily life that Blessed Elisabeth encouraged her sister Marguerite, a married woman with two young children, to try to remain prayerful and recollected.  Elisabeth proposes the attitude of the Virgin Mary "during the months that elapsed between the Annunciation and the Nativity" as "the model for interior souls":

In what peace, in what recollection Mary lent herself to everythign she did!  How even the most trivial things were divinized by her!  For thorugh it all the Virgin remained the adorer of the gift of God!  This did not prevent her from spending herself outwardly when it was a matter of charity; the Gospel tells us that Mary went in haste to the mountains of Judea to visit her cousin Elizabeth.  Never did the ineffable vision that she contemplated within herself in any way diminish her outward charity  Heaven in Faith #40, translator Sr. Aletheia Kane, O.C.D., Washington, D.C.: ICS (1984), 110-111.  

To adore the gift of God and to serve those He entrusts to us with our whole strength and effort, these are not contradictory endeavors -- one feeds the other.  Prayer is not an escape from responsibility - it is a pathway to deeper faithfulness.  Mary's hidden witness hurrying through dangerous hill country to help her cousin with an unexpected pregnancy shows us that those who keep an awareness of the Lord alive in their hearts discover much deeper graces when tough circumsances challenge prayer.  If we think about the greetings exchanged between Elizabeth and Mary, these secret graces that transform the most trivial everyday moments into moments that give the world God.  This is what Advent is supposed to be for all of us.

Mary, the humble virgin of Nazareth is a model and a sign of this Advent attitude:  God has chosen ordinary people to live lives pregnant with a deep awareness of the depths of His Mercy to divinize the mundane, the earthy, the annoying, the irritating, the smallest things - all of this, so that the world might know, in this present moment, that ineffable love by which alone it might be saved.

For those who have been following the podcasts on Blessed Elisabeth's Heaven in Faith produced by Kris McGregor of Discerning Hearts, the final reflections on the last day of this retreat can be found here:

Day 10 First Prayer
Day 10 Final Prayer 

December 11, 2012

Father Ralph Drendel, SJ - R.I.P.

On December 2, God called home a good and faithful servant, and today, at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary, we had a special mass for Father Ralph J. Drendel, S.J.   The celebrant and homilist for the liturgy was, Father Jim Thermos, one of the priests whom he formed in the spiritual life when Father Drendel worked as our spiritual director from 2000 to 2008.  It was a beautiful moment of thanksgiving for the life of a man who dedicated himself to the service of the Lord.

A lion in the pulpit but a lamb in the confessional, Father Drendel introduced many to the boundless mercy of God throughout his nearly sixty years of priesthood.  He lived to see the Catholic faith become more part of the cultural mainstream through the fifties and he lived to see our culture completely lose itself in the 60s.   By the time I met him, he has cultivated a profound confidence in the power of the Cross to confront not on the evils that one must deal with in own heart, but also the social dangers that threaten the Church and humanity.  He was of the opinion that ongoing and deep conversion to Christ was the medicine both the Church and the soul most needs -- and it is to give this medicine that he dedicated himself in his priestly ministry.
He was a man of peace and helped many seminarians overcome some of the insecurities that often haunt men preparing for the priesthood.  He could be challenging in the pulpit, especially when it came to half-heartedness, complaining, and any failure to teach the truth to the faithful.  If he demanded a lot, it was because he believed in what God was doing in the new generation of young men who felt called to the priesthood - the John Paul II generation, perhaps because like John Paul II he saw them as living signs of hope.   In fact, he saw our seminary as a place for the renewal of the priesthood, a renewal that could only happen through a disciplined life rooted in love for the truth and devotion to the Lord.
On the other hand, in the confessional, he always had great compassion and conveyed great confidence in God's mercy. He even saw the penances that he assigned as acts of love he would share with the penitent, and I suspect he carried the greater part of that effort, more than his penitents might suspect. He was constantly praying for souls who had poured out their hearts to him, and constantly taking up the most menial chores, especially the one's everyone else wanted to avoid.
The old Jesuit also gave lots of retreats and offered spiritual direction to many religious and lay faithful. He was especially popular with various lay Carmelite groups. To this end, I helped give a retreat with him. I provided the conferences and he, Mass and Confession. He was so encouraging to work with and so humble about how the Lord was working through him.  Whatever he did, whether in a homily or in private conversation, what he offered was heart-piercing. You could tell by the tears his penitents shed and the silence after his preaching. I think this is because everything he did in his priestly ministry only magnified the love of God - and he had a way of making people confident in that love no matter what they were struggling with.

In 2008, the rapid progress of Parkinson's compelled him to return to a Jesuit retirement community in Los Gatos. Years before, he had been Novice Master at the same location when it served as the Jesuit Novitiate. I looked in on him on occasion in the last few years. It was difficult to see the lion weighed down by an earthly tent that was falling apart.  His gentle eyes could betray a fierceness even as they hid behind a gentle smile.  I had the sense that something in him was straining for what lies ahead even as he humbly accepted the debilitating effects of his disease and age.

The hope that lived in his heart was no longer commensurate with what this earthly existence could sustain. And so, the Lord brought him through the veil where an even greater love awaits us.  Father Thermos pointed out that Father Drendel would end every homily with the same three words, and so I end this reflection about this holy priest, good religious, and prayerful man with the same prayer for him with which he would bless all of us, "God love you."

December 9, 2012

Contemplation and Joyful Expectation

Advent is a beautiful season for mental or contemplative prayer.  The season is about keeping vigil with joyful expectation for the coming of the Lord.  This is the same movement of heart that one takes into contemplative prayer.

Even in purely natural contemplation, the contemplative gaze which is not yet prayer, we gaze on what we see with our senses or else the light of reason in expectant wonder.   Something has drawn us -- even if we are not sure what it is that discloses its beauty.   All that is, including being itself, evokes wonder and mystery: a dazzling sunrise kissing snow covered peaks, a night sky showered in the brilliance of starlight, the wild crash of surf against a rugged shore, the parched silence of hot sand in a isolated desert, the lonely eyes of a hungry beggar on a cold busy street.  Our hearts are drawn into the splendor of the truth, even in its most earthy manifestations, because the truth enriches the spirit that has the courage and patience to embrace it -- even if the truth also challenges the heart to something more.

While this purely natural gaze helps many cope with life, in that grace-filled contemplation that becomes prayer, natural wonders - like angelic messengers - can also open hearts to divine splendor.  For the Word of the Father spoken into Creation echos in and through all that is.  God's justice, mercy, goodness and grandeur resound all the time, and contemplative prayer is that tender openness of heart that catches these hidden harmonies.   He, the Word, calls to our hearts through both the most sublime and most gritty things, and this even in what might seem to be the most banal or even the most painful of moments.   His call has the form of an invitation and moves us to search for Him -- and this especially when fierce trials threaten those we love.

Sweet Truth is manifest in every joy that delights our being -- for every real joy promises something more: in the same moment elation grabs us, we also know a kind of holy sorrow.  And just when such sorrow seems most crushing, the most beautiful cause for joy discloses its secret to us in some new way.  And so a cycle of deeper sorrows and deeper joys draws us beyond ourselves and into an ineffable mystery of divine mercy.  The contemplative lives exposed to this blessed paradox of joy and sorrow.

The attentive soul realizes we live still deprived of that for which we were summoned into existence.  No matter how free we believe we are of hardship or trial, the absence of what ought to be haunts us.  Without the truth about who we are and the great purpose entrusted to our care, we live but a dying life, a shadow of what we were meant to be.  This is a truth that we must suffer if we are to be free and live life to the full.  The contemplative suffers this truth in the deepest center of the soul.

What is it we were created to live, to know and to love?  The fullness of beatitude God has fashioned us to know contains yet to be discovered joys.  These discoveries can be anticipated in this life by prayer, if only momentarily, even to the point of jubilation.   But no matter the extent or intensity of such passing graces, they are given only as a pledge of future glory, of something more that this life is not big enough to hold.  We can trust what is pledged nonetheless because the One who makes this promise knows the joy of the Father and knows what He yearns for us to know: a contemplative looks into the most difficult misery with these same resurrected eyes of hope.

The Bread of Life has chosen to manifest Himself not as much in the mansions of our achievements and the strongholds of our riches but instead in the manger of our poverty, our inadequacies, our voids, our failures.  This is the ground wheat and crushed grapes the Lamb of God has come to transform and offer to the Father.   In our weakness His power is made perfect -- so the Visible Image of the Invisible God comes as a helpless baby full of trust and abandonment to rest deep in our lowliness.   So we contemplate Him more not in what satisfies but in what does not satisfy, not in what comforts but in what does not comfort, not in what we understand but in what we do not understand.   And in this darkness, the magi followed their star -- and so do we when in this we joyfully watch for Christ.

December 5, 2012

St. Nicholas

I wanted to write something edifying about this wonderful beard pulling saint who fought for the poor and for the truth of our faith - but Christopher Warner, a former student and a long time family friend beat me to it -- Read about the real St. Nicholas and the traditions honoring him by clicking here!  And Happy Feast Day to the wonderful readers of this blog - I hope your Advent is filled with hope and joy, and that peace that only God can give.

December 1, 2012

Sober Vigilance and Unconquered Hope

Times of tribulation require sober vigilance.  Hardships drive many to various forms of insobriety.  For others, these trials excite all kinds of anxiety.  If we are not watchful, we can easily find ourselves insnared in all kinds of evil.

Our faith in Christ demands that we not allow ourselves to be overcome by evil but rather we must find ways to overcome evil with good.  If we allow ourselves to be dissipated by either anxiety or insobriety, we will not have the interior fortitude we need to escape the spiritual traps that are set for us.   How are we to preserve our strength and not lose heart in the face of great evil?  Jesus exhorts us to pray if we are to find the strength to stand firm with Him.

Unceasing prayer is the secret of a vigilant heart.   In the beginning, this kind of prayer does not exempt us from moments of anger or distress.   What it does do is permeate these movements of heart with hidden riches of hope.   Likewise, unceasing prayer does not decrease exterior trials - if anything, souls that attempt to pray without ceasing must face more trials than do others.   I think this is because God is mercifully at work in all the hardships in the world and when a soul is joined to God by prayer, the Lord constantly draws that soul into His work, allowing the prayerful heart to participate in his plan of love - which is to overcome evil with good.

The soul that keeps its eyes fixed on Christ crucified through all of this acquires the secret of not being overcome and learns how to not lose heart.   No matter the evil - the sudden discovery of cancer, the unexpected death of a loved one, the loss of a job, a horrible accident, a failed marriage, a betrayal of a friend, a public humiliation, a false accusation, the mockery of the oppressive - a soul that constantly hopes in the love of God might suffer a moment of dismay but never remains trapped in disappointment.  Instead, the vigilant are continually caught up in surprised wonder over the astounding ways the Lord shows forth His faithfulness.

November 29, 2012

With God's Love Wounds of Sin become Wounds of Love

Transforming "wounds of sin into wounds of love" is something that St. John of the Cross describes the Holy Spirit as accomplishing in the soul. To help us understand this effect of God in the soul, St. John of the Cross describes God's action as a cautery - the application of something physically hot to a wound, "If applied to a wound not made by fire, it converts it into a wound caused by fire." (See Living Flame of Love, 2.7)

In prayer, God can touch the soul in such a beautiful way that all past grievances are forgotten and all past guilt surrendered to His Mercy. Such prayer anticipates what awaits those who hope in God and choose to live by love -- at the final judgment; every tear shall be wiped dry, every sorrow consoled. Divine Love is that good.
This means, when I am vulnerable to the love of God in prayer, He is able to help me forgive and even to forget grievances that burden my heart. Rather than disposing me to render a harsh judgment toward the person who has hurt me - the Holy Spirit teaches me how to pray for that person and how to have compassion for them in their misery. This also means that when I struggle to forgive someone it is not merely because of the wicked thing they have done, but this struggle also speaks to the ignorance of God's love I am suffering.

To be merciful, I need mercy -- and here I am a sick beggar who must rely completely on the Lord. Yet God would not give us the desire to be merciful if He did not intend to give us the love we need. This love, which He gives in prayer to those who confidently ask with perseverance, this mysterious love makes wounds of sin into wounds of love because each wound of sin becomes a beautiful new way for us to discover the inexhaustible riches of Christ.

Not to know the love of God is the deepest misery of all -- but to be pierced by His Mercy, if only for a one wondrous moment - no wound is more healing for the soul, and the only thing that can heal such a wound of love is to become more vulnerable to love, to allow oneself to be pierced by love over and over again, "to such an extent that the entire soul is dissolved into a wound of love. And now all cauterized and made one wound of love, it is completely healthy in love, for it is transformed in love."

November 24, 2012

Living With Holy Desires

Today, as secular as we have become, we need prayer more than ever.  In the midst of a superabundance of material conveniences or else in their felt absence, we forget that we are spiritual beings at our own peril.  We must not define ourselves by the things we possess or do not possess.  We must not allow the pace and noise of the marketplace to suffocate us.  There are deeper and holier desires that haunt the human heart - desires that drive us beyond our limited accomplishments and compel us to look out onto those new frontiers where the mystery of humanity touches the creative force of God's love.  We must order our lives so that these desires are not only protected and nourished, but also unleashed.  Such desires unleashed by prayer avail us to the fullness of life that the Lord longs for us to know.

From Pope Benedict XVI's General Audience of November 7, 2012

We are pilgrims, heading for the heavenly homeland, toward that full and eternal good that nothing will be able to take away from us. This is not, then, about suffocating the longing that dwells in the heart of man, but about freeing it, so that it can reach its true height. When in desire one opens the window to God, this is already a sign of the presence of faith in the soul, faith that is a grace of God. St Augustine always says: “so God, by deferring our hope, stretched our desire; by the desiring, stretches the mind; by stretching, makes it more capacious” (Commentary on the First Letter of John, 4,6: PL 35, 2009).

November 23, 2012

Hidden Mountain Secret Garden

Hidden Mountain, Secret Garden: a theological contemplation of prayer is my first book.  The work derives from lectures on the spiritual classics of the Catholic Tradition delivered over a twelve year period.  Gaged to help new seminarians of St. John Vianney Theological Seminary and other graduate students discover the riches of prayer, these lectures introduced the practice of contemplative or mental prayer in the discipline of the Christian life.  In fact, the images of the "Hidden Mountain" and the "Secret Garden" are ancient metaphors for contemplative prayer, a kind of prayer that begins and ends in faith.

Drawing from the Holy Bible as well as a selection from the great saints and mystics, the book explores how the presence of Christ is the living fountain of Christian prayer.  Christians offer their hearts to the Lord in response to the very objective but very personal way the Lord has disclosed His love for us.   The Lord's mysterious presence  invites us into an ongoing conversation about the whole of our lives and at the same time His dynamic presence provides the power to live in ways we could not have imagined were possible without Him.

To follow the way shown to us by the Risen Lord, no method or technique can  replace faith guided by love, a living faith which is ours for the asking, a bold faith that steps out in confidence even in the shadow of death.  Such faith sees what is hidden and secret: Jesus Christ is never absent in our struggles, no matter how dark the doubt, or the fear, or the trial, or the temptation engulfing us.  He is with us in all our efforts to love, and especially in our efforts to find Him, to cleave to Him, to share Him with others.

This book is especially for those whose prayer is a search for the loving eyes of One who has conquered death.  This kind of prayer beholds the wonder of Christ's living but hidden presence lifted up in one's highest thoughts as well as in one's deepest longings.   The ecstasy of this kind of prayer extends beyond even the vast unexplored frontiers of the human heart and opens to an immensity of such excessive mercy that all else is forgotten -- and only love remains.

The whole world needs this love: it is the secret garden, the hidden mountain, the inexhaustible riches only prayer knows and only prayer can make known.  For those great souls who are faithful in opening their hearts to the Lord, every Christian owes you a debt of gratitude.   For those who want to join them, I hope this work encourages you along the way.

Available at Amazon.com as an ebook (click here), a paperback edition will be available here soon.  You may also order a paperback edition at createspace.com.   This work has been published by Discerning Hearts in Omaha, Nebraska.

November 15, 2012

Hidden Movements of the Heart

In prayer, in deep prayer, there are hidden movements of the heart.  Like gravity, there is a pull to silence, a gentle impulse, hardly perceptible, yet exerting its influence all the time.   Love is the specific gravity of the soul and that to which we give our heart is a force in our lives.  If we give our hearts to good things, our lives feel the tug of what is good.  If to evil, evil things.  But if to God, not only do evil things lose their influence over us, but we come to possess all the good things we have ever hoped for in a more marvelous way.  This is because all that is good, holy, noble, beautiful and true is enveloped and established in the gentle mystery of His presence.  For God's part, the Holy Trinity burns with all the warmth and light of perfect, uncreated and eternal friendship, a love never ceasing with the full force of divine passion to share all of this with us - and to give so much more - and this in a secret and tender exchange of hearts.  Who would know there was such power unfolding in spiritual movements so subtle we are scarcely aware of them?

November 10, 2012

St. John of Avila: The Obedience of Faith

It is the Year of Faith and the great mystics help us see dimensions of faith that raise our hearts above ordinary existence while also rooting us more deeply in the truth.  To this end, one of the newest doctors of the Church wrote about the virtue faith extensively.   One aspect that he describes is the need to believe what we do not understand.

In "Listen, O Daughter" chapter 38 he mentions an analogy: just as God's love demands we renounce our self-love, and just as trust in God demands we renounce our trust in ourselves, so too the obedience we owe the truth of God demands we renounce our own opinion.  This does not mean that our faith is not intelligible or that we should not try with all our might to understand the truth given to us by God, but it does mean that as Christians we do not live within the narrow confines of what we understand.  Instead, we believe, we live, we stive to be faithful on the vast horizons of all that really is and this truth is always more than we understand.

St. John of Avila is inviting us to live with our minds bent in adoration, our intellects bowed down in humility before a mystery so immense and beautiful and moving that only a light beyond all natural lights, the light that comes from God - the Light that shines in the darkness - can allow us to glimpse its inexhaustible glory - a glory which is known by love informed faith alone.

November 7, 2012

How the Saints Dealt with Unanswered Prayer

Blessed Elisabeth of the Trinity, whose feast day is on November 8, had a landlord for whom she prayed and fasted, begging God for his conversion for years.  In many ways, those who prayed and fasted for the elections earlier this week would probably appreciate her experience.  For just as many had hoped that America would choose to be a little more open to God and to life, she too had cause for disappointment when M. Chapuit died without ever having shown any sign of returning to the faith.

When our intercession for those we love and for difficult situations seems unheeded, this is never because God does not hear our prayer.  In His abundant love, He stands ready to give always what is most needed in each situation.   However, what He knows is really needed and what we think we are asking for do not always coincide.  This means that sometimes we must come to terms with disappointed expectations in our prayer.

For some, this disappointment is so great, they determine to give up prayer altogether.  They walk away from their faith and assume that somehow it just does not work, at least not for them.   When this happens, they have allowed their disappointment to become despair.

There is another way.  Instead of succumbing to disappointment, Blessed Elisabeth learned from St. Paul that God's power is sufficient. St. Paul asked the Lord three times to remove a thorn from his flesh, an allusion to some sort of spiritual trial (2 Cor. 12:7).   Despite the Apostles devotion and long perseverance in prayer, God would not remove the thorn.  Instead, the Lord answered Paul by explaining that His power was brought to perfection in our weakness.

St, Paul wanted God to deliver him from difficulty by making it magically go away.  He wanted a fairytale - but instead the Lord was leading him on an epic journey.  What he did not fully grasp was the deeper things God desires to address when we present Him our concerns.  He learned that the most powerful way God works is not despite but through our weaknesses.  It seems that to accomplish the great wonders He yearns for us to know, the Lord does not need our clever solutions, only our faithfulness in prayer.

St. Paul's mentality toward prayer displays the transforming encounter that took place in his conversation with God.  And because he did not succumb to disappointment, he is a powerful witness to the remarkable ways God works in the world.  Rather than boast of his apostolic and spiritual achievements, St. Paul loved to boast about his weakness and helplessness so as to affirm that all things are possible with God who strengthens us.

What St. Paul is teaching us is that the providence of God is more manifest when we have been brought past the brink of our own limited resourcefulness.  The marvels of God begin at the breaking point where the natural capacity to cope has been completely exhausted.  This always takes us beyond our expectations.   In fact, as long as when try to limit God to the narrow scope of our expectations, we have little occasion to be filled with wonder over His surpassing greatness.   God loves to surpass all expectation because His love is unsurpassable.

For our part, radical openness to God and humility before the astonishing ways He chooses to answer our prayers allows us to give Him all the glory.  When all the glory goes to the Lord, we find even deeper and better reasons for gratitude than we would have had had our prayers been answered the way we thought they should. Those who seek God in intercessory prayer open themselves to this very same mystery - it is a mystery that provides us the opportunity to more radically avail ourselves to the hidden power by which God makes all things work for the good of those who love Him.

October 30, 2012

Denver Bishops Call for Prayer


Denver Bishops Invite Catholics to Pray for Nation

 

Archbishop Samuel Aquila and Auxiliary Bishop James Conley are inviting the faithful of the Archdiocese of Denver, and all people of faith, to pray for our nation ahead of the November 6 presidential election.

The bishops are also encouraging parishes throughout northern Colorado to organize rosaries and holy hours, beginning this weekend.

 “As Americans,” stated Archbishop Aquila, “we have a civic responsibility to vote and to participate in the political process. As Catholics, we have a moral duty to vote with an informed conscience, and to pray for wisdom and guidance as we head to the voting booth.”

 “Join me in praying for our great nation, beginning this weekend and through November 6,” he added. “Let us ask God to bless us with the courage to live in the truth, and for leaders who are dedicated to protecting the rights of the unborn and religious liberty.”

The Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception will expose the Blessed Sacrament from 7:30 a.m. to 11:45 a.m., and from 4:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, November 6.

All people of faith are encouraged to pray the following prayer ahead of the election.

 Prayer for America, by Cardinal Francis Spellman

God of our Fathers, Shepherd of Thy people, Lord of free men's souls, bless Thou our nation with a valiant, Godly spirit, with a vision to see, with the courage to try, with the power to achieve, that, marching behind Thee, Thy people shall not perish.

God, bless our America! Hear our prayer for our united peoples, grant guidance to our leaders, protection to our sons, and teach each of us Thy way of life in good will and peace. Amen.

October 29, 2012

Consciences Inflamed with Love

We must follow our consciences, but the heart frozen to a cause instead of warmed by the truth is not free to love.  Catholics who act against human dignity in the voting booth often justify themselves by claiming that they are following their consciences and that they did everything they could to form their consciences in accord with the Church.  They reason, but their reasoning is callous and this cold indifference is revealed by the degree to which their actions rob others of the dignity that is owed them.  Only the chill of darkness can form the heart so cold.

Although humbly presenting the truth is always a moment of actual grace that may solicit conversion, it is a mistake to presume that this kind of moral failure results from a simple lack of information.  Often such souls have stuffed themselves with all kinds of data and statistics.  In one hand, they hold vast array of "facts" at their command like weapons in an arsenal.  In the other, they are so weighed down with so many individual data points (all of which are proved by science we are told) that they cannot see the forest for the trees - and so they are lost in it.  Our efforts to find a way of this jungle of muddled thought are only fruitful to the extent they are drenched in prayer. 

The cause of bad judgment is most often not merely informational.  Better information technology cannot even remotely address the primordial ignorance against which humanity struggles.  This ignorance numbs the depths of one's conscience.  It consists in the diminished capacity to grasp the truth, to see through the facts to reality itself, to behold situations for what they really are. Until the blindness of ignorance is addressed with something more than the merely factual, individual judgment is subject to what is socially convenient and acceptable - standards easily manipulated by corrupt cultural and political powers.

This blindness is the effect of sin.  The guilty ego is like a star that has collapsed into itself.   The absence of light that ought to be there creates a distortion field between the soul and reality - especially the reality of the neighbor who has been entrusted to my care.   

No matter how much information we gather and data we organize, as long as we are plagued with this cold darkness, we never adequately understand those to whom we bear the responsibility to love nor can we clearly see what they are owed.  This is no private, individual or esoteric experience.  Because so many consciences are frozen in this darkness, pre-born babies, the elderly, the sick, the handicapped and all the other most vulnerable are no longer safe in our society while we entertain ourselves with violence, brutality and all kinds of sexual aggression.

Truth is not a data point or the product of my cleverness, the truth is what is: verum est ens.  Ultimate truth is knowing ultimate reality - and such knowing is transformative because ultimate reality has a claim on the human heart.   This is because ultimate truth is filled with the eternal love.  With this true love, the human heart was made to be animated.  By this loving light, the heart was fashioned to behold the wonders of what God has done.

God has called us into communion with Him and being vulnerable to this call through faith in Jesus Christ as the Lord of Life changes everything about our lives.  The cold world needs the warmth of this saving light.  It is this saving knowledge which ought to form the conscience -- aflame with truth, the heart can judge rightly about the circumstances and intentions that surround every moral act: it has the warmth and light it needs to love.

October 25, 2012

Prayer as a Theological Act

Some look at prayer as merely the indulgence of devout feelings or a pious exercise of the imagination or else a plunge into an empty abyss of meaninglessness.   Still others approach prayer as something to be mastered by technique, program or method.   Probably, there are religious traditions that advocate such approaches to prayer.   But the Catholic tradition, and traditional Christianity as a whole, discerns prayer as essentially theological: a sacred conversation with the Hidden God revealed by the Word made flesh.

An exchange of hearts between the Living God and dying humanity, true prayer involves the ordering of one's whole being to the saving truth communicated through sacred doctrine.  This is perhaps why we argue about our teachings so fiercely and why theology which is merely intellectual prattle falls so far short of its task: the truth is a matter, not only of the mind, but also of the heart.

This saving truth is at once ecclesial, scriptural, sacramental, objective and personal.   To pray as a Christian, our hearts must be vulnerable to this truth.  This is what faith is - faith assents to the truth so that we might suffer it in our hearts.  At the same time, faith connects our suffering, our misery, our inadequacies, our voids to the truth - and the truth fills all of this with eternal meaning.  One never prays as an isolated individual suffering outside of space and time - but with the communion we share in Christ one's prayer can order the full extent and duration of every suffering to eternity.  

Christian prayer is a theological act because it unites one's whole being, from one's highest thoughts to one's deepest needs, to the paschal mystery, the saving work Christ accomplished on the Cross.   Christian prayer is cruciform - it stretches from one horizon of human activity to the other, protecting us from every evil and allowing us to manifest God's glory in every situation.  This is because in this doctrinally informed prayer we learn to die to ourselves so that we might live by the life of Christ in us.

In this transformed existence we resist conforming to what is merely politically correct, socially acceptable or culturally safe - whoever beholds the loving eyes of the Crucified reflected in sacred doctrine can never be indifferent to the plight of the helpless.  Love's bold courage drives us to offer even our bodies as a living sacrifice and this becomes our true spiritual worship.  Prayer rooted in true doctrine is embodied and engaged.  As a theological reality, Christian prayer pushes to new horizons of human freedom because it infuses our frailty and brokenness with divine power.

October 24, 2012

Holy Spirit - Life of the Soul

The Fire of God never ceases to reveal the truth in love.  It burns in human nature without consuming it, but allowing God's holiness to be safely approached by the humble of heart.  This Holy Fire burns away impurities, it warms, it illumines.

The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth.  One of the most beautiful qualities of the truth is that its discovery always contains a note of surprise.  The truth is never exactly what we expect.  It reaches beyond what is calculable and dances outside the narrow confines of cleverness.  Precisely because it holds us accountable to things we would rather not face, we sometimes experience the impulse to deny the truth. Yet to do this would be to choose to live in myth, constantly blown around by the callous whims of our own egos.  On the other hand, if we are docile to the Fire of God's love, we are able to surrender our existence to the mystery of the truth so that something beyond ourselves shapes our being.

The Wind of God whispers primordial harmonies our hearts need to hear.  Out of tune with reality, we are unable to appreciate the symphonic wonders of what God is accomplishing the way we were originally meant to.  Uncreated Love speaks in our innermost being to remind us of the love we are created to know and manifest- convicting and confirming, admonishing and encouraging - that we might accept the truth about who we are and who God is and what we must do.  When we do - we find ourselves rectified, standing on solid ground and in a better place to safe-guard and protect our dignity - no matter the external circumstances that must be faced or endured.

The Holy Spirit is the life of the soul - the human spirit's only source of lasting refreshment.  The Spirit animates us with the life of the One who sent Him-- the One who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.  To be open to the narrow way of truth the Holy Spirit teaches is to be vulnerable to the immense excess of divine love, and being immersed in this ocean of love is the secret to the fullness of life.  Conversely, to resist this Divine Inflow is a convenient but perilous path.  For humanity's spiritual thirst is unquenchable save by those living waters by which we die to ourselves and live by the life of Christ in us.

October 20, 2012

The Hope of God

Periodically, I like to refer to a beautiful mystery that plays out in the life of prayer.  Namely, in the midst of all kinds of difficulties and trials, we are able to hope in God because He hopes in us even more.   There are some who wonder whether this is true.  In the light of all our frailties and failures, does God really hope in us?

I cannot take credit for this idea.  It seems to be a theme in the writings of Charles Peguy.  I remember a gathering of youth where John Paul II used this same idea.  It is just not an idea we hear very often.

Is it Scriptural?  In fact, God the Father has such great hope in humanity that He sent His only begotten Son into the world.  He expressed the immensity of His hope in the most tender way by placing His Beloved Son into the hands of Mary and Joseph.  His hope in us never wavered even unto the Cross where the full extent of human wickedenss was revealed.  He still saw something good in humanity at that moment, He still had a reason to believe in us even as we utterly rejected Him.

Jesus, the Son of God for His part, allowed Himself to be totally dependent on us.  He revealed the extent of His trust He placed His life in the hands of the holy family and in the hands of the communities in which He lived in Bethlehem and Nazareth.  It is interesting to think that in both places, attempts on His life were made.   Nevertheless, He chose, like the Father, to trust us.  In fact, in making this decision not to lose hope in humanity, He was revealing to us just how much the Father hopes in us.  His trust in us never wavered.  He trusted us as a falsely condemned and completely humiliated man, even to His last breath.  

This divine trust, this sacred hope continues to live in the Church through the gift of the Holy Spirit.  The Trinity trusts us so much that through the Holy Spirit we are constituted into the very Body of Christ by faith and baptism.  This means that the Risen Lord entrusts the work He is continuing to do into our hands.   Through Holy Spirit working in the ministry of a priest, the hope of the Risen Lord is dynamically present in all of the Sacraments and the proclamation of the Gospel in the liturgy.  God's hope is especially communicated to us in the Blessed Sacrament where He continues to entrust Himself to us: Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity.

What is the basis of this hope on the part of God?  What does the Father see in us?  What does the Son see?  Jesus is always driven by the glory of the Father -- for He loves the Father.  He sees everything that gives the Father glory.  Christ only sees and contemplates what is the most good and beautiful reality of our lives - He discerns the divine image and likeness with which we were fashioned and in this He knows our true identity and purpose.  He believes in us because He believes in the glory of His Father for which He was sent that we might manifest this glory too.

And the Father?  He contemplates his beloved Son -- because when His Son entered into our humanity and embraced it to Himself, He fundamentally transformed the meaning of humanity and restored the ancient dignity we lost by sin.  He sees each of us animated with the life of His beloved Son so that we might fulfill the great purpose He has entrusted to each of us uniquely and individually from the eternal moment He first thought of us.  He is confident in His Son and the power of His life in us - so He never loses His confidence in us.

But does this divine hope in frail humanity not shake the way we look at the Christian life?  So often I thought that God was counting on someone else -- but going deeper, one realizes that it is not someone else at all.  God places Himself into our hands every day not only in the Eucharist, in the Holy Scripture, and in prayer but also even more poignantly in the poor, the vulnerable, and all those He has entrusted to our care - because it is through them that the grace of the Risen Lord is at work and the glory of God made manifest to the world.  It seems impossible - but all things are possible through God who strengthens us.

October 17, 2012

Is Prayer an Escape from the Real World?

Some think that prayer is an escape from the real world.  To these, I say that there are prisons from which it is good to escape.   Lots of people banally exist imprisoned in what we call "the real world." Locked up in the fantasy land of adults and the culturally and politically powerful, they are not free to live life to the full.

All the same, I cannot agree that prayer is an escape from reality.  It is rather the opposite.  Those who do not pray are sometimes trying to escape basic truths about our existence - after all, life is short and eternity long, the way to salvation is as narrow as the path to perdition is wide, and divine justice will hold us accountable if we will not hold ourselves responsible before divine mercy.   Prayer is about facing this reality, this truth about our lives and about the world.

Those who ignore the impulse deep in our nature to cry out to God, those close their ears to all the ways God cries out to us every moment of every day, those who shut their eyes to the glory that is breaking in around us -- what they call "the real world" is an enchanting escape and hiding place from reality.  The problem is there are lots of dehumanizing traps in "the real world."  Anxious occupation over whether we are as comfortable, safe, successful and influential in our careers as we want is not a motivator toward excellence or the fullness of life -- it is to live imprisoned by fear.

There are self-appointed jailers who would rather that we never had this freedom.   They encourage us to grasp for and cleave to material bliss -- even as they know that this does not answer the pain in our hearts. They know this because they suffer from it too, even if they are very good at pretending they do not.   These are the culturally and politically powerful whose only joy is outweighed by the fear that it will be lost in an instant.  In their despair, they are inclined to keep our hopes locked up in some bright future that never comes or else shackled down with nostalgia for a past that was never as good as they suggest.

Christian prayer offers an escape from such oppression for the humble.  This prayer lifts up the heart and places it in the hands of the One who conquered death.  An ongoing conversation with Christ, this prayer teaches us to submit every thought to Him so that He can lead us into freedom - not in the future, but right now, in this present moment.  There is no earthly or celestial or under-worldly power that can come between us and the love of God.

Breaking with all manner of imprisonment prayer stands, prayer battles, prayer rises and this prayer professes the creed by which weak humanity is endowed with divine freedom.  Prayer stands on reality itself, the deepest truth of all that is, the Reality from which all other reality comes and to which it goes.  Prayer battles for all that is noble, good, holy, true and most vulnerable about humanity -- because our Savior would have us do no less.  Indeed, we are only following His example.  Prayer rises up like incense bringing to the suffering of earth into the glory of heaven - hoping with every reason to hope that it will be on earth as it is in heaven.

Our jailers are afraid to allow us to stand on our own in real prayer - prayer that expresses itself in all kinds of real works of mercy - because they do not understand the ground under our feet. They hate what our creed demands - so they mock while we must stand fast by the truth.  They cannot bear the bold stands we take in the public square - so they deride while we must appeal to their humanity. They do not want to deal with the truth - so they interrupt while we must try to make our case.  They fear our freedom to love the most vulnerable, so they concoct laws to take it away and then deny with aggrieved indignation that they have harmed us in any way.

But despite their efforts, the freedom that we know by prayer cannot be denied.  In the last century, ideologues tried to destroy the Christian faith - those cultural and political powers are no more.  But Christian prayer remains a reality in the real world, a sign of hope for those who most need one.  If anyone should want to break out of banal existence to live life to the full, including the jailers themselves, the Deliverer is just a prayer away.

October 13, 2012

Of Prayer and Politics

There are many who pray for a political end.   There is nothing wrong with this at all.  That is why it is good for people of faith to speak out on political matters.   Their views are often informed by the wisdom gained by engaging God in prayer.   They have something to contribute to the conversation and they have a stake in its outcome -- to which the Lord is not indifferent.  God, however, cannot be used as a tool for someone's political agenda.

Some who pray for a political end as if it were their ultimate end.  Having cloaked themselves in moral rectitude, their agendas and schemes become the standard of righteousness.  In a world where the end justifies the means, they shamelessly approach God demanding that He take their side.  Insofar as they are doing this, whatever they say they believe, they do not worship God - they worship politics.  And we cannot serve both God and mammon.  Such souls need our prayers.  Politics is a heartless god who is not kind to the integrity of his adherents.

 In prayer, God demands openness to the truth.  If we ask Him for something, He expects us to listen to Him, to let Him enter our hearts and speak to our consciences.  This means, among many other beautiful but difficult things, we need to take stock of His concerns when we ask Him about ours.   He does not care much for our agendas or power struggles.  He is concerned that societies thrive.  He is concerned that cultures develop in a way that builds up and protects all that is good, noble and true.  He is especially concerned about the most vulnerable -- the dying, the unborn, the foreigner, the hungry, the jobless, the homeless, the addict -- He implicates Himself in all these situations and He expects human society to do the same.

To help us understand God's expectations for our political prayers and action, the USCCB has put out Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.  The USCCB also responds to Catholics in public life who have abused their position and not spoken truth.  At a debate last week, the vice-president, a long time public servant and Catholic, grossly misrepresented the impact of the HHS mandate on the Catholic Church, its organizations and the faithful who try to live their their life in accord with its moral teachings.  In so doing, he has put at risk the religious freedom of all Americans and provided grave scandal.  The USCCB has spoken out about this as well. 

Politics a very difficult and those who have dedicated their lives to public service are owed our respect and deserve our prayers - even when we disagree with them.  We also need to pray for one another and our discernment during these days - because in America we all bear responsibility for public life.  Lets pray for those who vote and for those who are unable to.   By prayer and our faithfulness to God in the political arena, we will make space for God to help us build a culture of life and civilization of love.  

September 30, 2012

St. Therese and the side splitting laughter of the saints

St. Therese of Lisieux is one of the great witnesses to the joy God takes in his creatures.  She was consecrated and completely abandoned to his mercy.  Her faith was nourished on Christ's humility.  Her heart explored beautiful depths of Christ's sorrowful passion that few plummet this life.   But no one can deny that she also brimmed with jubilation, a joy which was always ready to break out into play.   At least, this can be deduced from the words of those who knew her as a nun:
She is a little innocent thing to whom one would give Holy Communion without previous confession, but whose head is filled with tricks to be played on anyone she pleases.   A mystic, a comediene, she is everything.  She can make you shed tears of devotion, and she can just as easily make you split your sides with laugher during recreation." (Mother Marie de Gonzague, 1893, as cited by Bishop Guy Gaucher in The Passion of Therese of Lisieux, trans. Sr. Anne Marie Brennan, OCD, New York: Crossroads (1989, 1990), 239.)
We need more saints to both help us find those healing tears and, just as important, to make our sides split with laughter!   G.K. Chesterton once pondered whether, when Christ went into solitude, He was not keeping a secret that He dared not disclose to the world or even his closest followers.  I think this secret echoes in the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Belloc, as well as today's Peter Kreeft and Eric Metaxas.   St. Therese helps us see that this is also whispered in the lives of the saints, even if many of them were more successful than her in being discrete about it.  All evidence suggests that she would plead guilty on this count.  She could only complain that her joy did not allow her to hide the mystery of mirth revealed in that knowing smile that even now breaks across the Holy Face.

September 27, 2012

Seven Myths about the Catholic Church

In my last post we explored how we know God through the teaching of the Church.   Some balked at this.  One person complained bitterly about the failures of priests and bishops to preach and govern.  But the point is -- these are failures.  When we are faithful to the tasks God has given us - whether clergy or lay faithful - the glory of God is revealed in the world.  Dr. Christopher Kaczor has recently pointed to Father Richard John Neuhaus in this regard.  Father John Neuhaus, before his death in 2009, was outspoken in his commentary on the scandals that have rocked the Church in recent years.  He quotes Neuhaus as emphatically stating that the failures of the Church boil down to "fidelity, fidelity, fidelity."

I suppose some do not like to hear this because it strikes too close to home.  Am I really as faithful as I should be to the Gospel of Christ and do my failures really harm the Church and the world?  We would like to think this was not the case, but sadly it is.   On the other hand, fidelity to the truth is a shield against evil, even grave social evil, and at the same time overcomes all kinds of myth and false narratives.   Myths, false narratives and infidelity prevent people from knowing the true God because these things are in themselves contrary to the truth.  If we want others to see the Church in a truer light, we must take up the work of being faithful in our own lives.

Over at http://www.catholicnewsagency.com, my good friend Carl Bunderson offers a review of Dr. Christopher Kaczor's new book, Seven Myths about the Catholic Church.  I also had a chance to chat with the author about his work and found Dr. Kaczor's whole approach refreshing and informative.  This Philosopher from Loyola Marymount invites his readers to take a fresh look at many of the popular misconceptions about the Church - like the Church is opposed to science or that the Church does not want people to pursue happiness.  He also offers a scholarly examination of contentious issues like whether having a married clergy would have prevented the sexual abuse of children or whether the Church is expressing disdain for those with same sex attraction when upholding the traditional defintion of marriage.   By carefully considering the issues at stake, he invites us to question what is popularly believed against what the evidence actually suggests. A real encouragement for those who are looking for a good answer to charges leveled against the Church, but also a challenge to be more faithful to the truth and a little bit more courageous in speaking out.

It is a discussion Dr. Kaczor carries out with a lot of class and clarity.  When asked about this, he explained that he wrote the book for his friends who either were never Catholic, or have left the Church, or struggle with its teaching.  He wanted to engage his friends in a discussion about the truth.  This means working to expose misconceptions and accepted narratives that do not have a basis in reality.  In his explanation about why writing this work was important to him, I realized that bringing our faith to bear in the marketplace of ideas is not merely a duty, attending to the true concerns of other and learning to speak the truth with clarity is even more an act of friendship to those whom God has given us to love.  Another place for more information about the book is by SOP Newswire2 and the Maximus Group.  

September 22, 2012

How Do We Know To Whom We Are Praying?

Today, more than ever, we must ground our prayer in the truth.   Many techniques and methods made available in contemporary spirituality direct us towards either psychological comfort and the pursuits of psychic states.  In and of themselves, comfort and enlightenment are not bad.  But if we pursue these more than God, if we rest in experiences rather than in faith, we are vulnerable to dehumanizing deception.  God does not want us to compromise our integrity in our pursuit of Him and that is why He has revealed the truth to us - so that through prayer rooted in truth we might find a deeper integrity, a deeper foundation for our lives.

St. Augustine understood the importance of this in his Confessions.   After observing that the human person is fashioned with the instinct to praise God, he asks how it is we are to know God so that this human need might be met.  He realizes that we can be deluded, that we can transfer our desire for God onto other things.  If we pray to God, how do we know that we are not talking to ourselves or devoting ourselves to something else other than Him?  For St. Augustine, this is the ultimate question because it concerns our happiness.   For him, having the right answer to his question is essential because the whole purpose of our existence weighs in the balance.  Since our nature can only rest in God, if we are mistaken about who it is we are worshipping, we will not find the peace which we were meant to have.   The deepest core of our being would be frustrated and out of harmony with itself- this is for him a disintegrating way to live.

Could it be that some of the frustration we feel personally and that we see unfolding in society finds its roots in the fact that we are not devoting ourselves to the One True God?  We worship at other altars instead.   We have not rooted our prayer in truth but in a mirage, a shadow.

There is a lot of frustration in our society and in our families today -- frustration that results from believing that attaining possessions, security, comfort, pleasure and reputation will finally allow us to be happy.  We go to Church and we do what we are suppose to, but we do not make the search for the true God the priority, the guiding passion in our lives.  We are dissipated on other pursuits - other altars demand our sacrifices.  We develop clever plans and systems to secure these good things -- and yet no matter how much we attain of them, happiness seems to elude us, like a mirage in the desert.   We are like the pilgrim Dante at the beginning of the Divine Comedy -- we think we see the way out, but the more we try, the more lost we get and the more vulnerable.

The answer St. Augustine proposes, the answer to the question about how we know whether it is really the true God we are praying to when we pray is found in learning how to believe.  Prayer and faith are joined together - for prayer to help us realize what we most need, we need to learn what to believe about God and how to believe in Him.  He explains that we learn how to believe through preachers who teach us the Word of God through the teaching of the Church.  This Sacred Doctrine is transformative and the pathway to true peace - not only for ourselves, but for our whole society.

September 19, 2012

The Fire of St. Hildegard

The Abbess of Bingen describes "a blazing fire, incomprehensible, inextinguishable, wholly living and wholly Life, with a flame in it the color of the sky, which burned ardently with a gentle breath, and which was inseparably within the blazing fire."

Although the vision itself was given to her in her forties, how she sees this vision is the fruit of a lifetime devoted to searching for God, quaerere Deum. She knows her glimpse into the Fire of Love is an undeserved gift. At the same time, she also knows she was able to receive because she had dedicated herself to studying our faith in the Lord with her whole mind, whole heart, whole soul and whole strength.

Anyone who commits themselves to search so great a mystery becomes acutely aware of being inadequate and unworthy. Such souls learn a humility that knows any wisdom they acquire will not be the result of their own resourcefulness. Instead, they live to behold the Living God with the eyes of faith knowing this vision as an inestimable gift which inspires heart-piercing gratitude and reverent movements of adoration. The teachings of St. Hildegard ring with this mystical wisdom.

We need her vision of God, her way of seeing the Mystery of our faith. Contemplating God as "Blazing Fire" corrects a certain static vision of God, one which sees Him as conveniently tamed and predictably dull. One of the gravest errors of our time is the intellectual and lived hubris that presumes to fit God into some system or agenda contrived by human cleverness. In St. Hildegard's vision, all earthly powers of estimation and prediction are surmounted by the ardent burning in the heart of the Trinity.

She sees, she beholds, and she savors the radiant light and warming love of God. Because she is humble, He is able to constantly astonish her with new wonders and bath her in his dazzling splendor. Encountering One so totally other in holiness and truth, she is left stammering using a tapestry of rich images one following another in an effort to point to the One who has so captivates her thoughts and even more, has so captured her heart. In all of this, she is vulnerable to the hidden purpose He wants manifest.

When we seek the Lord with love driven faith, like St. Hildegard, we encounter a purposeful mystery who wants to disclose Himself, a hidden presence which no system can extinguish and no cleverness comprehend. Hidden and secret, the Life who reveals Himself in faith nonetheless enlightens and warms our whole existence in such manner that we must, like her, make Him known.

For her, at the center of this blazing vision of God is none other than the Eternal Word, the Word of Creation and Redemption, the divine utterance of the Father that resounds in the wonders He has made. Christ is the secret that opens access to the hidden depths of God. If we approach the Word of God in our living tradition ardently searching for God in word and sacrament, why should we not be able to share in her contemplation and find ourselves taken like her in silent adoration, our hearts full, bursting to cry out?

September 13, 2012

St. Hildegard of Bingen's Cry

"Arise therefore, and cry out"


September 17 is the feast of St. Hiildegard of Bingen. She lived from 1098-1179. A Benedictine Nun, at the age of 42, she was given visions and commanded rise up and cry out what she saw. She obeyed and produced a set of writings known today as Scivias.

Her first vision is of a hidden mountain, the mountain of God's throne, an iron mountain of immutable justice hidden in divine glory. A purifying Fear of the Lord contemplates this splendor. Not the kind of fear that pulls away to protect itself. Rather the kind of fear that is vigilant and sees the truth. Eyes which gaze with this holy fear can never be satisfied with the merely mediocre. They guard against every form of compromise. The glory they behold demands absolute allegiance, complete surrender, and total humility.

In this description, is St. Hildegard suggesting a way by which we might enjoy the same vision she has shared in? This is no exercise in esoteric navel gazing. Her vision demands a journey beyond our own self-pre-occupation and into real friendship with God, a friendship protected by the strength of divine justice. She sees the truth in a way that demands an ongoing conversion of life.

She is well-formed in St. Benedict's conversatio morum. The mountain she sees is not a truth we scrutinize so much as the truth that scrutinizes us: a scrutinizing of all our thoughts and actions in light of the Gospel. The truth she beholds demands repentance from the lack of justice we allow ourselves to slip into. The iron mountain she contemplates renders futile every effort to conform the Gospel to our own ways and invites us to be transformed by its just demands.

Today, where all kinds of cruelty are so easily excused and any form of self-indulgence so readily lifted up to the level of a fundamental human right, we need to rediscover the shadow of the iron mountain from which St. Hildegard cries out to us. Only under the glory of this mountain can we find the peace that the Lord has come to give. Only in the blinding light into which Holy Fear gazes can we find the humility to love one another the way Christ has loved us.

September 9, 2012

Primacy of Contemplation

Before action, there is being.  Before apostolate, there is prayer.  Before mission, there is contemplation.

The primacy of contemplation is rooted in the primacy of grace in the spiritual life.  Action is imperative, but God's action comes before our action.  Mission is born in contemplation.  Contemplative prayer is an encounter with Someone who knows the truth about us.  In this prayer, we discover how the Living God contemplates with eager expectation the noble purpose He has planned for us to share in from before the foundation of the world.

Prayer liberates us from everything that prevents us from being fruitful.  When we spend time in prayer, we make ourselves vulnerable to a plan that is not our own.  When we spend time in silence, we learn to listen to a voice beyond our own big fat ego.   When we spend time listening to the Word made flesh, we open our whole being to new life.

This is not to say there are many moments of grace that sprout from our efforts to be merciful to one another.  Sometimes these are the dominant graces of our life.  God loves to dwell in hearts that spend themselves for others and He is ready to sustain their efforts when nature reaches its limits.   Nonetheless, those who want to do something beautiful for God frequently discover that however noble the endeavors for which they spend themselves, their work amounts to nothing if He is not working in them.  

This is why those who are truly fruitful for the God humbly root themselves with fear and trembling deep in the Word: such tearful attention to the presence of God who speaks to them in sacred doctrine leads to a jubilation that informs everything they do. 

September 8, 2012

Mary - Mother of a New Humanity

Mary is mother of a new humanity, a humanity whose state is in communion with God.  Her birth indicates an important characteristic of this divine work.  Just as her birth is historically hidden, secret, humble, so too the great work the Lord will accomplish through her faith.  So too in each of our lives individually and together in the Church.  In all its apparent powerlessness, the power of God is made perfect in this new humanity.

The old humanity was a humanity that had lost God and subject to a forgetfulness of that love from when it came.  Without God, we live with a longing for something which the limitations of our nature seem to prevent us from attaining.  Without the Word of the Father, we are constantly haunted by a peculiar dis-ease with ourselves and the world, a sense that things are not the way they ought to be.  And without the Risen Lord, even our most noble efforts to try to relieve this longing and guilt are subject to the futility of death.  

Yet even old humanity doom though it was had remnants that promised its current plight would not be the last word to its ancient story.  Something in our spirit resists accepting the purposelessness which weighs upon our existence.   Even when we are very far from God, even when we find ourselves engulfed to dehumanizing misery, something still deeper in our hearts wants to call for help, wants to ask for mercy.  This primordial prayer emanating from the heart's core echoes even when we try to neglect, reject or renounce its goading. There is sewn deep within us, we who are fashioned in the image and likeness of Someone not of this world, an inclination to hope and to seek help.

This propensity to make an appeal to Someone beyond ourselves is evidence of the primordial origins of humanity's nobility.   What is good, tender and beautiful about humanity is more fundamental, more true than all those liberty depriving decisions whose compound effects compromise, diminish and betray our dignity.  For the very fact that we try to cry out for help suggests that what is most true about the human condition is not our failures or voids or inadequacies -- what is most true is that we are loved and awaited by Love.   In the limitlessness of this Love we find the limits of evil.

The great sign of this human hope was born when God brought the sinless virgin Mary into this world.   This flower of humanity was never without God and would become humanity's great "yes" to his Word.  She was born humanity's prayer, the heart of humanity that lifts up its voice to the Lord.

She anticipates the new state of life offered to us in Christ.  Her longing found rest in the longing of Lord.  In Him, she knew the harmony that humanity was meant to know with itself and the world.   By clinging to Him, even the death would be overtaken by the substance of her hope - for by obedience to the Word she forever ponders the doom of humanity through the eyes of Love stronger than death.     

September 5, 2012

The Soul of Theology

If the study of the Sacred Page is the soul of theology, then prayer and study are meant to converge in the task of theology.   For not just any study of the Word of God can animate theological investigation.  Rather, this investigation must be mindful that it approaches divine revelation's living fountain, dynamic instrument, inerrant witness, and most inspired expression.  As we read with true devotion, we do not scutinize or measure or critically examine as much as we find ourselves examined, measured and scrutinized.   We do not understand so much as we are understood before the mystery of divine speech.  Here, the rocky coast of earthly judgment is confounded by an ocean of divine clemency.  The words of the Word of God are become rising waves of truth which beat against our hearts to bring new life.   If the Sacred Page conveys God's self-disclosure, this means theological study can only approach this manifestation of the Word of the Father in astonished wonder baptized in reverence and awe.   For to approach the Holy Bible in our living tradition in any other way is already a failure to contemplate not only the gift but even more the Giver.

September 3, 2012

Entrusted with a Pearl Beyond Price

Once there was an evangelist who preached the Gospel of Christ to a group of teenagers.  After hearing how Jesus died to set us free from sin so that we might inherit eternal life, I was so slothful and spiritually asleep, I questioned him, "Is that all there is?  Is the mystery of our faith really summarized in his death, his resurrection and his coming again in glory?  I have heard this all before, but is there anything more?"

Why was my heart so cold to the Gospel of Christ?  Although I wanted to live my life for Jesus, my soul was divided.  Desires for reputation and friendship and entertainment and many other things were not fully submitted to Christ.  I had not yet learned the importance of mortification and I practiced self-denial insipidly.  So even though I believed in the gospel and even though a small part of my heart belonged to God, there were areas of my life I was holding back and I lived too dissipated a life to really question the enchanting falsehoods I entertained.  My devotion was not whole hearted.  I was afraid of what I might lose.   Unwilling to let go of things I thought were so important, my heart was not open to the riches Christ yearned to lavish on me.  

Thank God for those whose hearts are generous in sharing the Word of God.  Over the years, many beautiful souls helped me see how our indifference is melted when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable to the Lord.  At the time, the youth leader, instead of putting me in my place as I probably deserved, just looked at me and smiled.  There was a spark in his eyes which disclosed something that words cannot express, a kind of compassionate reassurance that only someone who really understands you can convey.  I wonder if this was the look Jesus gave to the rich young man?

Then Mr. Shopbell said something the gist of which moves me deeply to this day.   His exact words are lost to my memory, but what he entrusted to me is a pearl beyond price, "If you only really understood the Cross of Christ and the great gift He has given by moving you to believe in Him, you could spend a whole lifetime pondering those riches and never begin to exhaust the mystery that is there."

Thank you teachers, preachers, catechists, evangelists and parents who are faithful in telling the truth about God and spreading the message of our faith.  It is a labor of love and compassion, a real work of mercy.   Yet our hearts are starved for the truth and even the smallest drop of living water is enough to get us through the desert of falsehood we face.  The seeds you sew in secret will lead to an abundant harvest.  The Lord of the harvest will not allow your efforts to go without their reward.