January 31, 2012

Heaven in Faith Series - Going Deeper into our Hearts

Towards the beginning of the Confessions of St. Augustine, he asks the Lord to enter his heart.  This house he explains is too small and too cluttered to be a dwelling place for God, but when the Lord enters in, He has the power to expand this sacred chamber of our being and to purify it.  He makes it into heaven -- that spiritual place where He reigns over all.

The soul is meant to be a kind of heaven, a place where the reign of God is on earth as He is in Heaven, where his will is done, and where his Kingdom comes.  St. John of the Cross interprets Jesus's word in Luke 17:21 "the Kingdom of God is within you"  as referring to "the substance of the soul."  The substance of the soul, this is the depths of what and who we really are.  This truth is deeper than anything we are able to do - what we do merely expresses this deeper truth.  So God not only wants to permeate all our actions - He wants to permeate our being with his transforming presence, infusing the very heart of who we are with the excessive love He has waited to reveal from all eternity.   This means the place God dwells in us is deeper than all psychological operations conscious or unconscious.  This means the Kingdom of God - the gift of his mysterious presence which makes all things new - this is something deeper than spiritual "thoughts" or "experiences" or "feelings."  It is something much deeper than any mental state or euphoria.   It is true that to feel his presence or to be able to think beautiful thoughts about Him, such moments in prayer are no small grace.  These moments bathed in (sometimes ecstatic) wonder are always a great gift.  Yet when we do not feel Him, when it feels like He is most absent, if we have been faithfully searching for Him, He is in these moments even closer to us.  Indeed it is in those painful moments when our hearts ache to see Him in the face of our weakness that we do not mistake the gift for the Giver.

In the very misery which haunts our hearts He longingly waits for us - thirsty for our trust, hungry for our company. His appetite is insatiable. How long will we put off this Love which is more present to us than we are to ourselves?  And what is the misery which engulfs us but the abysses in our hearts which were meant to be filled with love but in which love is absent?  Growing in deep prayer means seeking Him in these places in our hearts and believing that we will find Him.  Deep prayer is about trust in divine mercy.  It is a seeking informed by the conviction that God has implicated himself in our misery and aches for us to entrust to Him the painful burdens which we cannot bear on our own.   He does so for no other reason than He loves us and longs for us to be free -- because once we are free, He can finally share the gift of friendship He has longed for us to have from before the foundation of the World.  Yet He knows our hearts and that of which we are afraid.  So He has descended into our misery that we might find the courage to face it and with Him triumph over the absence of love threatening our existence.   The Risen One has won the right to dwell in these places by his death.  So it is before the Cross that our misery meets its limit in the limitlessness of God's mercy.     Elisabeth of the Trinity reflects on this teaching in her retreat to her sister.   Please click here for the third day of her reflections episode 3 and here for episode four.  

January 22, 2012

Christ's Invitation: Heaven in Faith Series

"Remain in Me" this is Christ's invitation to us come what come may in our lives.  We can remain in Him because He remains with us.  No matter what happens, He never abandons us.  He quietly waits for us even in those places in our hearts which are hostile to Him.  He has won the right to do this by his death of the Cross - and his love is stronger than death, stronger than our misery, greater than our hostility to God.   It is by his love than even in our failures - especially in our failures - we find Him in the most wonderful ways. In this reflection on Blessed Elisabeth of the Trinity we consider these words of Jesus and how if we are faithful to cleaving to Him in faith, to being mindful of Him throughout the day, pondering his beautiful presence, He is able lead us deep into the abyss of his Mercy, deep into the love of the Father.  Please click here to listen to the podcast.

January 21, 2012

Liturgy and the Discipline of the Christian Life

The Society of Catholic Liturgy meets this week in St. Louis and for information click here.  There will be a lot of wonderful presentations and we are especially glad to have his Eminence Raymond Cardinal Burke give our keynote address.  The theme is the Liturgy and Asceticism.   If you cannot come, please join us in prayer.  This is part of my presentation. 

High atop the Carthusian Mountians overlooking Grenoble, France, out of the silent darkness hidden voices rise, chanting psalms from memory, feebly making present for a few moments a sign of the resounding praise eternally offered at the Throne of the Lamb. In the movie, Into Great Silence, the camera focuses in on a vigil lamp burning in the sanctuary of the chapel of the Grande Chartreuse. The frail flickering light suggests what the discipline of prayer is in the Church and at the same time what the presence of Christ in the Church appears to be to the world. At this hour and in the icy harsh environment in which they live, we cannot really say how consciously aware the monks are of all that is going on in this liturgy. They are vulnerable – vulnerable to the cold, to the dark, to the silence, to the loneliness and to God. They hope in the Bridegroom. They await His coming. And, they know their hope will not be disappointed. As they chant, the Carthusians surrender to something beyond their awareness, to a mystery greater than what they are able to really know. Their liturgy is enveloped in great silence, a silence pregnant with God’s hidden presence, a silence that waits for their voices and a silence that continues their prayers long after their own words have ended.

Whatever their understanding, whatever their consciousness about what they are doing, they eloquently witness to the mystical prayer of the Church at the heart of the liturgy. If we were to ask how these contemplatives are able to pray this way, nothing of the art, architecture, preaching, chanting or liturgical practices suffices for an explanation. In fact, all these things are merely the fruit of something much deeper. What permeates their liturgies with such prayerfulness is their austere discipline of life, an asceticism they take with them into the liturgy. We are confronted with their continual faith filled effort at prayerfulness as that which allows their silence to be filled with the power of God’s Word.

Many pastoral initiatives have been taken up to render the liturgy more intelligible with the hopes of instilling a more deliberately conscious participation. But is this kind of participation what liturgical renewal is really all about? St. John of the Cross’s doctrine on ascetical practices when applied to liturgical participation indicates an even fuller and more active form of participation than we might imagine if we limit our concept of participation to only those activities of which we are conscious. His doctrine helps explain the Carthusian liturgy, why it is so intense and real. There is a deeper participation in Christ’s priestly prayer, in his work of redemption, an intense participation that extends beyond the vague light of our conscious awareness. It is the realm of supernatural faith where yearnings of love lead our understanding to places with which it is totally unfamiliar. It is a theological habit of mind which unceasingly seeks God in complete trust and surrender to the saving presence of the Risen Lord.

In St. John of the Cross, the ascetical discipline of the Christian life is ordered what he calls the Dark Night. Just like the Carthusian’s vigil suggests, he sees in this dark night all kinds of encounters with Christ which exceed one’s own conscious awareness. It is not about anything we can experience. It is about being completely vulnerable to the Lord. If you have ever held the hand of a loved one struggling to pray in the grip of death, you know exactly what he is suggesting. That faith filled but agonizing silence is raised up by an aching desire to see the face of God. It is so deep, so heartrending, so solemn. Yet the one offering this prayer is barely aware of what he does. If he questions why the Bridegroom is delayed, he also knows that his hope will not disappoint. Similarly, the Carmelite Master describes a secret search of lovers one for the other in which heart-piercing glances and wounding touches are fruitfully exchanged for the salvation of the world. So important are such encounters for spiritual maturity, this Doctor of the Church orders his whole ascetical doctrine to them. Liturgical asceticism, the mental prayer we offer during the liturgy, is ordered to these encounters with Christ in the night of faith -- it is this kind of faith above all that will renew the liturgy.

January 14, 2012

Elisabeth of the Trinity - Heaven in Faith Series

In the effort to begin to pray, I have found the writings of Blessed Elisabeth of the Trinity to be an invaluable resource.  She loved the contemplative life, a way of life lived by love, for love and in love with God.  This is the life of heaven, the life we are meant to live for all eternity and which we have access to even now by faith.   Her mission is to help souls get out of their self-occupation and enter into a loving silence to meet the Lord. Her writings are filled with the fruits of her own intense search for God especially carried out in the painful places of her heart and her overwhelming gratitude for what Christ crucified was accomplishing in her life. Her short life ended at the threshold of the 20th Century but the spiritual message of the Mystic of Dijon continues to shine like a beacon in these dark times.   

In the final months of her life, she wrote her sister Marguerite, a mother of two young children encouraging her to live a contemplative life right in the midst of her busy household.  These writings include a ten-day retreat for her sister now entitled Heaven in Faith.  Each day of the retreat offers two prayerful reflections - one to be read in the morning and the other in the evening.   Each meditation is filled with beautiful theological truths arranged to encourage  mental prayer, that contemplative silence in which we lift up our hearts to the Lord so that He can envelope us in his love and establish us in his peace.

Kris McGregor of Discerning Hearts Radio contacted me to see whether we might be able help others experience Heaven in Faith through offering theological reflections on each of the prayers of the retreat. She skillfully guides the conversation with thoughtful questions while actress Miriam Gutierrez recites the texts providing the voice of Blessed Elisabeth.  The first of these shows is now available here on Discerning Hearts.

Image of Discerning Hearts website with mountains

January 4, 2012

Following the Star

Epiphany is a celebration of the manifestation of the Lord to the whole world.  Pope St. Leo says it is the day that Abraham saw and longed to see.  This celebration includes the mystery of a radiant star whose mysterious light draws pilgrims from afar.  It is a light that shows, discloses and reveals where those who seek the Lord might find him.  The radiant splendor of this light is the source of jubilation for those who find it:  "Behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was.  They were overjoyed at seeing the star" Mt 2:9 -10.

What did the Magi from the East mean when they explained, "We saw his star rising and have come to do him homage" Mt 2:2?  Were these Gentiles wise because they knew the Scriptures and prayed over its meaning?  These astrologers seem familiar with the the ancient oracle of  Balaam, "A star shall come forth from Jacob" Nm 24:17.

These Persians of the priestly caste were part of prophecy, witnesses that what was once promised was now being fulfilled, "Your light has come, the glory of the Lord shines upon you."  As they followed the star, they came to the conviction that the hope of the Gentiles rested with the newborn King of Israel, "Nations shall walk to your light and kings will come to your dawning radiance." "Bearing gold and frankincense, and proclaiming the praises of the Lord" they experienced for themselves how "The Lord will be your light forever" Isaiah 60:1, 3, 6, and 19.

The light these travelers saw was like the light St. John describes in the Apocalypse, "The city had no need for sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gave it light, and its lamp was the Lamb.  The nations will walk by its light, and to it the kings of the earth will bring their treasure" Rev. 21:23 and 24.  So important is this manifestation of glory that the Evangelist indicates this mystery at the very beginning of his Gospel, "In Him was life, and this life was the light of men, and the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it" John 1:4-5.  This saving glory and this guiding light is found by following the Lord in faith, "I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life" John 8:12.

The Star is connected to the Word disclosed in the words of Sacred Scripture.  Those who want to find this Star for themselves must search the Scriptures like the Magi searched the heavens.  As St. Maximus the Confessor explains, "A star glitters by day in the East and leads the wise men to the place where the incarnate Word lies, to who that the Word, contained in the Law and Prophets, surpasses in a mystical way knowledge derived from the senses and to lead the Gentiles to the full light of knowledge.  For surely the word of the Law and Prophets when it is understood with faith is like a star which leads those who are called by the power of grace in accordance with his decree to recognize the Word incarnate."

This search, this prayer imbued gaze on the Scriptures, this lectio divina is worth the effort.  The Light of this Word brings peace and is transforming glory for those who gaze on it.  St. Augustine encourages, "The Lord of hosts is himself the King of Glory.  He will transform us and show us his face, and we shall be saved; all our longing will be fulfilled, all our desires satisfied."

In the encounter with Christ this start establishes us in, the soul falls in love with the Lord in deeper ways and is moved to a loved filled adoration of the immensity of God and the greatness of his mercy.  The stillness and peace which brilliant radiance of the Word envelops the soul is so great, mystics like Blessed Elisabeth of the Trinity are moved by this splendor to cry out in prayer, "I want to gaze on You always and remain in Your great light.  O my beloved Star, so fascinate me that I may not withdraw from Your radiance."

January 2, 2012

Christ and the Confidence that Comes from the Holy Spirit

Christ baptizes in the power of the Holy Spirit and his fire animates the Christian life with hope.  The Holy Spirit who moved over the waters of creation, who overshadowed the Virgin Mary, who descended on Christ at his Baptism, who carried the Crucified's last wordless cry for our sake from the depths of his heart and into the Heart of the Father, who animates the Risen Body of Christ and who burns in the hearts of the apostles and the martyrs; He is the source of a hope so great no power in the heavens above or on the earth below can overcome it.

This hope conceived by the Holy Spirit makes sense of all the questions that riddle the effort to really live.  It spouts in the face that restless longing which can find no lasting peace in this world.  It rises against the burden of guilt that weighs down in shackles of all kinds of self preoccupation and escapism.  It stands firm before the doom of death which hangs over all that is good, noble and true in frail humanity.  This hope is rooted in the truth about the mystery of man because it is rooted in the mystery of the Son of God become the son of Mary.  He who freely gave Himself for our sake reveals the truth about human dignity and the greatness of the calling with which it is entrusted.

The primordial riddles running through this present moment are all of them answered anew by the risen presence of Word made Flesh who is the source of the Holy Spirit.  The Fire of God, who the Light that shines in our darkness communicates, produces a superhuman confidence which does not fear conversion.  The soil of our humanity is cultivated with supernatural power and our mortal existence made to flower with the fruit of divine life.

Christ was born in the flesh so that we might born in the Holy Spirit to live life to the full.   The Fountain of Life from whom the Lord and Giver of Life flows, He longs for the Father's work of love begun in us to be brought to completion.  His Spirit-baptizing presence--born into our lowliness, crucified by our misery, and raising our humanity on high by the power of God--mysteriously opens up the freedom needed to fully give one's life as a gift to God, to fill every moment of it with as much love as possible.

Trials, hardship, persecutions, renunciations, temptations, and sacrifices only extend and deepen the unfolding frontiers of this holy freedom, this fullness of life, this life lived by love.  Such is the invincible God-given confidence of the baptized.  They who have received the Gift of the Holy Spirit are continually invited to manifest this supernatural trust in God in ever more profound ways even in the face of death itself.  When they welcome the Holy Spirit and obediently avail themselves to the work He accomplishes in them, they become living signs of what total trust in the Lord's presence can do and they bear witness that not even death can steal the life that that is given for the sake of God.