February 29, 2012

Of Prayer and Preachers

In response to the last post about what it is like to encounter the Lord in prayer, one of our readers asked how we know that this encounter is real and not the product of our imagination. This is an important question. If we cannot be confident on this point, we cannot have confidence in prayer at all. The whole deal could be an elaborate self-deception.  St. Augustine has this very concern at the beginning of his Confessions. He answers his own question by asserting that this is the very reason we need preachers.

Thank you preachers of the Body of Christ, the Church, who love us enough to tell us about the Lord! Whether our parents, our elders, our children, our brothers and sisters, our ministers, our bishops, our priests, our deacons: if we believe what the Church proposes to us through them, then our prayer is not subject to the narrow confines of our own big fat egos or the fickle fantasies of the moment.  How great and precious the mystery of faith!   It gives us real access to God quite apart from what we feel or think.  It is the source of new life even in our weaknesses and inadequacies.  By faith, Christ animates us even when we are overwhelmed by trials, even when we cross the Valley of Death.   It is no small treasure that is offered us when someone discloses to us the hope we have in Christ - the reason for our hope.

It is that world might know these riches of Christ that the Church exists.  And woe unto us who are silent about this Gift for God has suffered that it might be shared and the world desperately suffers without it.  Though the eloquent of speech cannot find words to adequately express what God has done, if we take seriously what has been given us we Christians have no excuse to remain silent.  Before the mystery of what Christ has done for us, we must speak up and make our voices heard even when enemies of spiritual liberty attempt to silence us.

February 23, 2012

When the Lord Discloses His Presence

What is it like for Christ to disclose his mysterious presence in prayer?  When I am asked this question, my heart goes to the beautiful descriptions we find in the Life of St. Teresa of Avila, the Confessions of St. Augustine, the Life of Antony, the poetry of St. John of the Cross, St. Therese of Lisieux's Story of a Soul, and Bl. Elisabeth of the Trinity's Prayer to the Trinity. In these works we find such a variety of experiences, it is reasonable to observe that each time Christ manifests his heart, He does so in an intimate, beautiful, and unrepeatable way.

inside of beautiful church with vaulted ceilings
From what they have written, it is reasonable to conclude that He has a plan for each one of us and this plan includes a special disclosure of his heart, a beautiful secret He yearns to share.   By virtue of the dignity in which we are created He respects us too much to force a friendship.  So the Almighty God patiently waits for just the right time, testing our readiness, all the while carefully preparing the perfect circumstances for this encounter.

What is it like?    He sometimes visits us when we are not looking for Him.  But these visits are momentary and usually for the purpose of waking us from our spiritual slumber.  Real prayer is not about a momentary experience, rather it is about dwelling in communion with our divine Friend.  While we are praying, should we be aware that we are praying -- we have not yet begun to pray.  At least, we have not yet begun to pray in friendship love for real friends are more attentive to one another than they are to themselves.  Real prayer is completely absorbed in Him.

He loves to dwell with hearts that are vigilant and persevering in their search for Him.  As the heart questions and seeks, it confronts all kinds of voids and inadequacies.  At the same time, it must ward off distractions.  Sometimes it labors ardently to attend to the One whom it knows is there by faith - but it cannot feel, or think, or intuit, or imagine.  It searches for Him in the Sacred Page - the Holy Bible as entrusted to us in the liturgy and through the wisdom of the saints who have gone before us.  This prayerful heart also carefully examines its whole life in light of the Gospel scrutinizing memories, especially the painful ones, for signs of his presence.  Often everything is just dark because Christ challenges us beyond ourselves into places we are unfamiliar.   All that can be done is to cleave to Him by faith.

This is already a deep contemplation, a real encounter, a profound union with Him, a deep adoration of one's whole being.  We find ourselves constantly dying to our old way of life in this kind of prayer and what once animated us no longer can claim our deepest spiritual center.  A new freedom is being born.  Such mystical union is so much the more fruitful because it is imbued with love, trust, surrender and hope in Him. His very life animates the soul that dies to itself and helps it persevere in its arduous quest through all kinds of trials and difficulties.

The saints also tell us that this darkness is not the final word.  Sometimes there are pledges of love, foretastes of a glory waiting to be revealed.   Indeed, there is fire in the night, flashes which illumine the soul with dazzling splendor.  All at once, the Bridegroom is there, astonishingly present in a manner that could never have been anticipated.  Such is the mysterious presence of the One we recognize in the Breaking of the Bread.  For those who yearn for real friendship with the Lord, a glance of heart piercing love is exchanged and the soul is all at once washed in a breaking wave of exploding jubilation, carried on a deep current of sweet sorrow,  and established in a peaceful stillness from which nothing can disturb it.

To know Him and to be conformed to his death: such knowledge is excelling.  In such knowledge one drinks love to the dregs.  Inebriated with the Holy Spirit, one sees the cosmos through resurrected eyes.  To behold this mystery even in the darkness of faith leaves the heart baptized in tears, the thoughts bowed in adoration, the intuition humbled in holy dismay, the imagination helpless in wonder, the memory forgetting everything but hope.

February 22, 2012

The Freedom to Pray and Faith in the Public Square

Contrary to the opinion of those who view prayer as something restricted to individual private life, Christian prayer requires a society in which there is enough freedom to live out the mystery it discloses.  Prayer starts in the depths of the heart but it extends to all parts of life.   It brings the life of Christ to all kinds of difficult and perplexing situations so that in the face of despair men and women might find hope. 

A study of Church History in America shows in fact that Catholic Hospitals, Soup Kitchens, Shelters, Colleges and Universities are the fruit of prayer.  Prayerful people, especially thousands of anonymous religious sisters and hard working priests, felt called to express their faith by establishing these institutions of service and education -- so that all these forms of service and education might also be filled with the hope of the Gospel.  Here, in these fruits, we see concrete practical ways prayer provides an irreplaceably vital cultural influence.   Against the manipulative efforts of political and economic forces and ideologues, not only the marginalized and most vulnerable, but the whole of society needs the warrmth of heart, the tender presence and the moral values these fruits of prayer provide.   This is why everyone who is beginning to pray must be concerned when governments attempt to dictate the practice of faith, to manipulate it as a means to some political end.  It is a grave violence to the human person to be compelled to violate one's conscience.  Any attempt to force disobedience to the divine command to which prayers attends in the depths of the heart is a gross abuse of authority.  Cardinal Dolan is aksing for support for the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act to this end:
Catholics and other people of faith and good will are not second class citizens. And it is not for the government to decide which of our ministries is “religious enough” to warrant religious freedom protection.
This is not just about contraception, abortion-causing drugs, and sterilization—although all should recognize the injustices involved in making them part of a universal mandated health care program. It is not about Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals. It is about people of faith. This is first and foremost a matter of religious liberty for all. If the government can, for example, tell Catholics that they cannot be in the insurance business today without violating their religious convictions, where does it end? This violates the constitutional limits on our government, and the basic rights upon which our country was founded. 
Much remains to be done. We cannot rest when faced with so grave a threat to the religious liberty for which our parents and grandparents fought. In this moment in history we must work diligently to preserve religious liberty and to remove all threats to the practice of our faith in the public square. This is our heritage as Americans. President Obama should rescind the mandate, or at the very least, provide full and effective measures to protect religious liberty and conscience.

Above all, dear brothers, we rely on the help of the Lord in this important struggle. We all need to act now by contacting our legislators in support of the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act, which can be done through our action alert on www.usccb.org/conscience.

February 20, 2012

On Ashes, Penance and Politics

Penance is an expression of love and gratitude to God for the gift of forgiveness.   This is why we put on ashes on Ash Wednesday.  It is a sign of the love that is supposed to be alive in our hearts, a reality which we must live out in our lives, an effort that must really cost us -- or our gratitude will not mean all that much.  

Why do we need to give costly public expression to our effort to live a converted life?  Because we were redeemed at an even greater price by One who willingly bore every humiliation that was necessary that we might not perish.   Those who have contemplated how far God has gone to forgive our trespasses carry deep within themselves a sense of how sin dehumanizes and the conviction that no human power can repair the wounds sin causes.  They know this because the love of God discloses a partial glimpse of the wounds they have caused to the dignity of others by their sins -- and the even deeper wounds they have caused themselves.  This is the political dimension of sin -- it has consequences we do not intend.  It is humble to see this and courageous to dare by divine assistance to address it. 

On this score, we feel the burden of guilt, a burden so great we know no power of our own can relieve it.  Even if in our cleverness we have found ways so that those we have hurt cannot hold us accountable, even if in our own self-defeating genius we will not hold ourselves accountable for our own actions, there is Someone else who will not be deceived and who does demand an account.   The voice of the One who fashioned our inmost being, who knows the truth about who we are and whom we are meant to be - this Voice not only admonishes us, even more He grieves for us.  His cry echoes in the labyrinthine passages of our own heart in crucified anguish.  The real horror of our own lack of humanity, our indifference, our selfishness - this is always before us if we dare to look in the direction of the cry, into the eyes of the One who gazes on us even now in unspeakable love.  And it is only when we dare to look, only when we stand firm and listen, that our healing can begin, that the burden can be lifted.

Because sin has a political consequence, so does forgiveness.  God's healing love reaches past our own failures and the One crucified by love does not fail to embrace those our hostility to Him has most wounded.  Such is the greatness of Divine Mercy, the Ocean of Mercy which torrents forth from the Cross, the inexhaustible wellspring when our trust in Him unleashes.  Broken relationships can be restored by the Blood of the Lamb.   Reconciliation can be achieved because the power of the Cross is greater than the enmity that separates us.  All strife can be overcome by such love and all manner of contention baptized in peace.  
Penance is the attempt to respond to this incalculable love unleashed in the world by our faith.   It is the effort to say "thank you" to the One who has released us from our debt in such a wonderful way.   His love rebuilds what we have destroyed.  We feel the need do make a gesture of gratitude, to assist if even in the smallest of ways in the restitution that God has made possible.  

If we feel the need to pour ourselves out in this effort of gratitude, it is because we realize the great debt God has forgiven and we are pierced to the heart by the extent He has gone to redeem us.   Besides the deeply personal things that are privately known, He has also forgiven us of so many social things -- all kinds of failure to take care of or speak out for the most vulnerable: the unborn, the aged, the dying, the poor, the sick and the hungry.   Surely, our gratitude for the incalculable gift God has lavished on us in his Son extends to the plight of those most in need?  As we pray about how we are to express our thanksgiving for the wondrous gift of forgiveness, He provides new wisdom on how to approach failures in these areas with an invincible hope so that the dignity of those who rely on us might be restored. 

Because forgiveness has political dimensions, so does penance.  This gratitude to the Lord must live in the Church as a visible, concrete, tangible reality.  Penitential love knows it is not enough to love those God gives to us -- they need to feel the warmth of His love through us.   Such penance is cultivated best in the intimate relationships of our family.  Yet no genuine community of faith lasts long without this concrete disclosure of conversion of heart.  It expresses itself in words like "Please forgive me" and in tears and in tenderness and in real changes of behavior.  This loving response to the gift of forgiveness must extend out from our closest relationships and into the broader society in which we live.  When it does, penance makes possible a culture of life and civilization of love.  

If we are hated for our faith, our faith forbids us to continue to hate in return.  More than that, in the face of the exceeding Mercy of the Father, it is not enough for us to wish our enemies well in our imagination or to think good thoughts about our persecutors in our heads.   We must constantly reach out to those who hate us in love even more.  If we must speak the truth those who hate us do not want to hear, we must not be discouraged by their rejection and we must never give up hope in them.  We must extend the hand of friendship to them whenever they permit us to, and above all we must lavish them with kindness at every opportunity -- because this is how we have been loved.  

The man who knows he has been loved uncommonly never runs out of uncommon ways to love those the Lord brings his way, even when those the Lord brings appear in the difficult disguise of a brutal enemy or a hostile political foe.  This is because penance is oriented not to a naive hope.  Instead our gratitude to God directs us to a real solidarity which the Lord himself makes possible even when it seems impossible to achieve, even in the face of the anti-thesis of the hope we have inside.  Such the penance and politics that flow from the Cross: those who stand firm in their faith at this threshold, even if they falter, will not be overcome.    

February 16, 2012

Heaven in Faith Series Continues - Prayer and the Mystery of Our Faith

Christian prayer has a divine quality to it. It is not just an activity rooted in the exercise of my own psychological powers. This prayer is directed to something beyond all the natural capacities of my soul. It is animated by a deeper more vital principle. Indeed, my faculties are naturally limited by time and space. Christian prayer explodes out of heaven into our lives, imbues our weakened nature with the supernatural, and constantly pierces through this dying cosmos to a new birth, an eternal reality beginning to unfold.

Such prayer is something new. Whole societies can be transformed by it but no politics can contain or manipulate it. The foolishness of this prayer outwits human cleverness. Such prayer is caused by something that stands outside and above the broken cycles, power struggles, agendas and programs of this aging tired old world.

Someone above our nature evokes a new cry of the heart and infuses us with a new recognition in the midst of joy and sorrow. In this Someone we see all that is good, beautiful, noble and true about what it means to be human - only in Him, these things are not subject to death. In Him, these things cannot be compromised. In Him, prayer finds the substance of hope.

Christian prayer is the prayer of the Risen Lord moving in the hearts of those who cling to Him by faith. To pray in Christ is to have Christ pray in us. He does this through the Gift of the Holy Spirit. To live in Christ is to allow the Holy Spirit to animate the whole of our lives so that we live in Christ, the very life of Christ, a life no longer subject to sin and death even in the face of our own failures and weaknesses. It was so that we might receive this gift that He suffered death and raised our humanity with Him into heaven. He yearns for us to live in this new humanity, to believe in it, to cling to it -- not in some future afterlife -- but right now, in the present moment. Prayer accesses this new life, connects us to the Heavenly Man, and opens into the Heart of Christ. What does this love imbued prayer mean practically?

In the face of our new humanity, we must let go of all kinds of dehumanizing fantasies and dreams. Confronted with the Heart of God, we must renounce all kinds of pleasures, comforts, satisfactions and preferences not worthy of the sons and daughters of God. Furthermore, with great trust, we must choose what we do not understand and trust in divine action accomplishing what we cannot imagine. For God is more than what we can grasp and his work surpasses anything we can envision. When it seems most senseless to do so, we must persevere in love for love -- always believing in his love to the point of being consumed by it. Here when it is most painful, we must render ourselves vulnerable before God, as vulnerable as a crucified man.

Guided by loving devotion and soaked with tears, Christian prayer learns the last cry of Jesus from the Cross. If in such prayer one breaths his last -- then by this same prayer, one will be raised up. Behold the humble prayer which gives God space to make all things new: his glory has already begun to shine here and now, in the midst of trials and persecution, hardships and sacrifices -- for we cannot begin to pray except when we realize our weakness, we cannot begin to love except at our own expense.

Elisabeth of the Trinity helps us see this mystery of prayer.  Here are Part 5 and Part 6 of our series. 

February 9, 2012

Contemplation of the Truth and the Study of Theology

One cannot do theology without rediscovering that which the ancient Christians called contemplation.  What is contemplation?  It means to behold.  For the ancient Christians, there was not a huge distinction between reading Scriptures, meditation, study, prayerful reflection, and contemplation.  The Latin terms could be used almost synonymously because reading without meditation or study or prayerful reflection or contemplation was for them inconceivable.   They sought a certain kind of knowledge, studied for a particular science, a wisdom not of this world informed their search.  Good theology remains rooted in this search today.

Pope Benedict's Introduction to Christianity discusses how the ancient view of theology and contemplation was rooted in a particular understanding of the truth which rarely informs contemporary conversations.  They envisioned the truth to be that which frees us to be more fully human, for fully alive.  A kind of light which helps us find what it means to be truly human in the darkness of our inhumanity. They sought that which would make them thrive, that would free their potential to more fully live and more deeply love.  They sought a freedom causing truth.   Organizing, memorizing, regurgitating, applying pieces of information – our contemporary prejudice verum quia factum-- they would have thought more of an art than actual knowledge.  Knowledge, wisdom did not consist, for them, principally in knowing how to do something.   Yet such art was not unrelated to the truth they sought to know.  Possession of the truth they believed liberated the human spirit in fact could be obtained through the facts contained in the Bible or even to a lesser degree in the teachings of a great saint was the whole reason they read, studied and commented on the Sacred Page.  But study was never about limiting oneself to mastering these facts alone.  Rather, the propositions of our faith and the events of salvation history they saw as part of a greater whole through which the glory of God was peaking out of them.   

The great Christian thinkers, the contemplatives approached the sacred text as if gazing at pieces of stained glass arranged by a master hand, exquisite shards of color which disclosed their wonder only when illuminated by an outside light shining through them – a great rose window.  In this view of knowledge, we seek this illuminating truth by which things are understood not in terms of their usefulness, but more in terms of themselves.  What shines through the truths of our faith, what these truths bear is the Light that shines in the darkness.  Such truth is not something one produces but searches for and something finds only when it discloses itself to you.  To know, for them, would be to see, behold, gaze at what is with wonder.  Verum est ens – Truth is what is – truth is what exists.   

This is how they approached Christ in prayer.  They sought Him as the Way, the Truth and the Life.  Study of the Sacred Page was the soul of their theology because they would look for the Word which the words of the Bible bear and communicate to us.  All of Scriptures resound with this Word who only fully expressed Himself with his last wordless cry of abandonment and trust on the Cross.  This Word, this truth, this reason, this harmony, this glory, this mediation of God the Father; this is the source of all life and our only salvation in the face of death.  This Truth exposes the lie of sin and establishes us in integrity when we surrender to it.  To search for this saving Truth one must read, ponder, meditate, prayerfully consider, open the heart, beg in compunction, repent, convert, contemplate, gaze at, appreciate the connections and take in the whole of who Christ is and what He has done for us.  In the midst of this effort, He discloses his living presence in an undeniable way.   This encounter, this event in one’s life, this eternal event which has invaded our history is transformative.  It is to be made vulnerable by the One who was vulnerable unto death.  It is to be pierced to the heart by the One who was pierced for us.  When one knows how much he is loved by the Truth a love of the truth explodes in the heart.   Life is never the same again.  Then and only then does one know anything the ancient Christians believed was theology.   Then and only then has one contemplated like the Christians who came before us. 

February 8, 2012

On Prayer and Politics

Christian Prayer has a political dimension which is often overlooked.  This is because prayer imbues all of human activity with the light of the Gospel of Christ.  Politics, even when it gropes in the darkness of irrational forces and cruel prejudice, is among the frontiers of human activity in which this Light shines.  The darkness, no matter how formidable, will not overcome it.

Christian prayer helps us see the pilgrim character of politics.   We are born into a world which is not the way it ought to be.  Locked into dehumanizing dialectics for which we are only partially responsible and with which we must deal nonetheless, we are not at peace with our imprisonment.  Our hearts burn with the desire to be set free from perspectives which do not see beyond the latest contrived cause.  We search for a window or a door which leads out, but without help from something above our frail humanity, without a light brighter than that which we naturally know, an opaque world of facts keeps us in the dark.

Prayer starts when we see how the walls of what is visible, measurable, tangible, explainable, and manipulable lock us in and we find ourselves no longer content to burn on the ash heap of frustration, disappointment, despair and shame.  Prayer helps us see Egypt and Babylon for what they really are.  Prayer helps us remember that we were made for a greater purpose--not as isolated individuals, but together as a people, as God's People, a people who are the special object of his sacred affection, his divine eros.  In prayer we discover that we have a noble calling, a sacred destiny, an irreplaceable role to play in an unfolding drama into which we find ourselves invited.

To pray is to raise our voices against those who do not want us to be free.  When we raise our eyes to the mountains from whence comes our help, the light of confidence floods our souls and we know at once our lives are too sacred to be wasted on power games and ego trips, even our own.  When the Living God discloses his loving presence to us we find ourselves ready to reject any attempt to reduce human life to a diversion, a social experiment for the powerful and influential.

By prayer we easily discern how our jailers constantly concoct strategies to discourage us and to prevent us from realizing how miserable we are.   In fact, if we cry out for freedom, these same thugs accuse us of being delusional, rebels against reality (their reality), out of touch and unwilling to accept the current state of affairs.  When these tyrants--who include even our own big fat egos--force or manipulate us to act against what we know is true, it is time to raise to God Almighty the cry which He himself has caused to echo in our hearts.    

On our journey to freedom, to the household of the Father, to the heavenly homeland for which He created us, we may well grow weary and find ourselves discouraged by those who would hold us back, yet the indomitable yearning for freedom which yet burns in the human heart goads us on.  God created us with this yearning and He died for us that this noble aspiration might be realized.  It is a divine spark which the chilling winds of this dying world cannot fully extinguish.  This fire will not quelched no matter the storms of this life because the Risen One has raised it with Him.  This fire is a precious part of his own sacred and triumphant humanity.  With an ardent love for each of us and concern for the noble desires of our hearts, He ceaselessly presents the glory of human freedom to the Father who gazes on it with love.  For those who have the courage to journey by this spark, the path they tread is that of sacred humanity, humanity raised by God and illuminated with a love stronger than death.  

Here, politics rooted in prayer even stretches out to one's own enemies, the very adversaries who would deny us this freedom.  This is because prayer has the dimensions of Christ's love.  When the Word became flesh He chose to enter even into our politics -- not with the desire to manipulate, overpower or control, but with the desire to save.   The misery and hostility to God that lives in politics is not limitless.  An ocean of mercy engulfs it.  Whenever hearts raise in intercession in the face of oppression, the powerlessness of the Cross overpowers our hatred and we glimpse again the pathway for humanity.  A single humble petition offered in faith gives God the space He needs to act.  Prayer makes the Lord's saving work present again in the here and now, in the real concrete politics of every day life so that what is good, noble and true about our life together might not perish but be raised with Him forever.

February 5, 2012

Join Me in Prayer for America

Dear friends from across the country and from around the world:

I am so humbled and grateful to you for praying with me through the reflections offered on this blog, a blog whose only purpose is to encourage and protect the truth about prayer.   I have a special and urgent request.  Please join me in praying for the United States, especially the Obama Administration and the Department of Health and Human Services.  We need the mercy of God now more than ever -- his mercy is a deluge waiting to cover the world and your prayers are floodgates through which his Living Waters flow onto a parched and dying land.  America needs this Living Water.

On January 20, the Department of Health and Human Services has made a ruling which forces the Catholic Church to act against its teaching concerning abortion, contraception and other bio-ethical matters.  The irrationality of this ruling is very chilling.  Several Bishops including Archbishop Chaput and Cardinal Designate Dolan have declared that by so doing the Obama Administration is attacking religious freedom. The bishops have never been so outspoken or united in their concern as they are now.  Thoughtful voices in both the media and politics are speaking out as well like Hugh Hewitt. Indeed, this is a grave attack on a very basic human right -- the right to live according to one's faith.  I stand with these bishops and other religious leaders like them.   I beg you to stand with them too by prayer -- for nothing in this world is more powerful than bowing our heads and humbly requesting what God yearns to give.   

For those with courage enough to seek the Lord in prayer, He will ignite them as fiery icons of hope for all those who hunger and thirst for what is right and just.  It is the power of prayer which helps people think in new ways and venture to stand up when to do so seems like it will serve no real purpose.  On Candlemas, Eric Metaxas,speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast, proposed that faith in the living presence of Christ can open up possibilities for our society today just as it did for Dietrich Bonhoeffer and William Wilberforce.  I agree. Just as the light of Christ shone forth in the darkness of the slave trade through Wilberforce and in the shadow of Hitler's final solution through Bonhoeffer, so now the grace is offered us in this present moment when so many vulnerable human lives are on the line in the face of such heartless policies.  It is time to turn to the mysterious presence of the Risen Savior again -- He who is the glory of Israel and a light to the nations.   We must trust in Him.

Jesus Christ is our only hope -- because the power of his love is the only thing that can change the heart.  Ultimately, when governments make irrational and immoral policies this is only a sign of a much deeper disease that has afflicted a people and robbed them of the dignity which is their due.  This means that more than policies need to change if we are to realize the blessings that God yearns to give.   The change America needs is the same change both you and I need:  a change of heart.  

If you are discouraged by any of this, it is time to trust Him even more.  I have no idea what God will do by your prayers, but I do know that because of your faith, He will do something wonderful.  At a time when hearts are growing cold and forgetting love, we who struggle to begin to pray must not lose heart--for the fire of God's love cannot be extinguished in those who hold fast to their hope in Him. 

For more information on this see Bishop Conley’s column, “The Bell is Tolling:”   You can also join the Facebook Rosary Campaign and sign the Online Petition to help block this ruling.