July 30, 2012

Reduced to Nothing - A Sign of Hope

Against the tendency to think that we possess knowledge of Christ in our successes and achievements, St. John of the Cross encourages those who are overwhelmed with suffering and sorrow to see their trials as the pathway to deeper union with the Lord:

When they are reduced to nothing, the highest degree of humility, the spiritual union between their souls and God will be an accomplished fact.   This union is the most noble and sublime state attainable in this life.  The journey, then, does not consist in consolations, delights, and spiritual feelings, but in the living death of the cross---sensory and spiritual, exterior and interior.  (Ascent of Mt. Carmel, book 2, chapter 7, 11)

What a beautiful application this has for those who at this moment are struggling to understand their lives in the face of insurmountable difficulty!  All kinds of physical, psychological, and spiritual afflictions can become part of the journey, the threshold to union with God in love.   How?  By clinging to the Lord in faith and believing in the mystery of his love reveals on the Cross, the Lord mysteriously communicates His Presence, transforms them and unites them to Himself.  They become, by God's grace, signs of His power to the world, signs of hope.

St. John of the Cross also admonishes those of us who call ourselves friends of Christ but do not know this suffering.  Those who are pierced by the love of Christ are never daunted by bitter trials and never worry about sacrifices that might need to be made.  They see, instead, in each trial another opportunity to show their love and gratitude for the great gift they have been given by God's love.  We who have avoided suffering a little to carefully could learn from their valor.

July 25, 2012

Two New Doctors of the Church to be celebrated October 7

St. John of Avila and St. Hildegard of Bingen will be formally declared Doctors of the Church on October 7 of this year.   Even though they were separated culturally and historically, both of these great saints were part of efforts to renew the practice of mental prayer and the reform of the life of the Church.  St. Hildegard from the Benedictine tradition founded monasteries in Germany while St. John worked with the early Jesuits to reform the priesthood in Spain.

Mental prayer or contemplative prayer is a deep engagement of the heart and mind with the mystery of Christ.   This devotion to Christ is always fruitful in wonderful and mysterious ways.   Those who spend themselves in silence pondering the Word of God through passages of the Bible and before the Blessed Sacrament open themselves to a general loving knowledge about God and the things of God.   This mystical wisdom not only changes their lives and motivates them to do something beautiful for God, but it also infuses the whole Church with new life.

St. Hildegard and St. John discovered this in their own day when the Church most needed it and today we are still blessed.   Hopefully, their teachings and examples will inspire many more to a deeper devotion to Christ, a time when the Church needs the wisdom of God more than ever.

July 12, 2012

Holy Friendship, Mary and the Web of Grace

While on vacation with my wife and children, we have been blessed to find old friends and extended family. It is a great joy to see loved ones again, especially those with whom I am bound not only by blood but also by faith. Good friends and deep family ties can be important for the spiritual life - we are meant to encourage and persevere with one another in our devotion to Christ. Visiting one another and renewing pledges of love, celebrating together important events and memories, greeting and saying goodbye, brief and sometimes painful though it is, such heartfelt friendship is a real part of the jubilation we know in Christ, the joy we share in when we drink from the cup of salvation.

Whenever we taste the joy of seeing an old friend, the warmth in our hearts is evidence that we are made to join with one another in a celebration that has no end. Father Giles Dimock, O.P., one of my great teachers, calls the friendships we find in Christ a web of grace - we are caught together in a friendship that lasts forever when we let God catch us in his exceeding love. Father Dimock believes that Mary has a special role in the lives of Jesus' friends and that those who honor the Mother of the Lord get caught in this web in all kinds of wonderful ways.

The role of Mary in the mission of Christ implicates humanity in God's love - especially those most beautiful depths of humanity found in friendship. If we think about it, Jesus treasured his friendships: Lazarus, Mary, Martha, John, Peter and the others; each was important to Him in a unique and unrepeatable way. It was because He loved His friends and valued friendship that He understood what His mother wanted in Cana when her friends ran out of wine. Mary always implicates us in friendship with Jesus when she tells Him about our plight and we are implicated with one another in His work when we hear her say - go do whatever He tells you. To those who help the Bridegroom increase the joy of the wedding feast, He says that He no longer calls them servants but friends.

When we submit ourselves to the discipline of our faith, the Savior, in fact, protects and perfects friendship in our lives by ordering it to something that lasts forever. This is because God created us for communion with Him -- and with one another. This communion is not a cold or dry intellectual exercise. It is not superficial smiles and slaps on the back. Nor is it sentimental. It is heart bound to heart by a love that is stronger than death, a love greater than any power in the heavens or the earth.

Each friendship in the Lord and every family tie submitted to Christ is like a foretaste of the fullness of love God is waiting to share with us and longs for us to share with one another. In this life, our hellos contain goodbyes - but the sorrow of our goodbyes is bearable because of a hope that God gives, the hope that we will enjoy one another again. Whenever God grants these graces, it gives me courage to embrace the discipline of our faith anew. These graces touch heaven itself in faith - where the homecoming will have no end and there will be no more good byes.

July 10, 2012

St. Benedict and Lectio Divina

For St. Benedict, Lectio divina is an important part of Quaerere Deum, the search for God. (See his Rule, #48) We seek the Lord and find Him by obediently serving Him in love and humility. Yet, we cannot serve the Truth who is God if we cannot discern His voice. Because it radically roots us in the same Word the Father has spoken to us once and for all, Lectio divina opens our hearts to the voice of the Lord which whispers deep within our being. The beautiful, surprising and in-flowing presence of the Lord is free when devotion filled study purifies the heart with sacred doctrine. Lectio divina, prayerful Study of the Sacred Scriptures, makes the heart vulnerable to this purification.

Obedience – generous attentiveness to the Word of God chanted in the psalms, read in the Scriptures, present through the members of the community, spoken by those in authority, proclaimed in the liturgy and at even at meals – requires continual personal study of the Word with prayerful devotion of heart. This kind of attentive obedience is not exhausted by external works and the conformity of outward behavior. It requires a total conversion of the inner man – an ongoing conversation with the Word of the Father about one’s way of life in light of the Gospel. Lectio divina is about cultivating this deeper interiority, this more intense vigilance for the Life, Truth and Way in the inner most sanctuary of one's own soul.

Lectio divina directed to obedience to Christ is part of our spiritual battle. We must never lose courage when confronting the evil one, or the world, or, most especially, ourselves. This requires a constant struggle against pride and an ongoing commitment to humility, to remembering that we are but the Lord’s fertile soil – it is up to Him to sow the seeds that will produce much fruit. Our job is to stand firm, to persevere, to believe in God’s mercy and to be generously open to His holy will – wherever we find it. When we read the Scriptures in prayerful reflection, searching its meaning with all the strength of our soul, He gives us the weapons to realize His victory once again – the victory the Savior won on Calvary is renewed whenever we persevere in surrendering our hearts to the Eternal Word in the present moment of our lives.

July 8, 2012

Lectio Divina and Contemplation

One of my readers asked about the difference between the practice of Lectio Divina and contemplation. Lectio Divina refers to prayerful reading of the Bible and contemplation is described as a beholding with the eyes of the heart the splendor of the Lord. The two activities are related. That is why, over the course of the last millennium, Lectio Divina is often written about as a method of prayer which culminates in contemplation. Guigo the Carthusian describes how a prayerful engagement with the Scriptures can take us:
  • from reading and listening to a passage from the Bible (lectio
  • to prayerful reflection on the heart piercing truth the Lord discloses to us (meditatio
  • to the ardent offering of deep holy desires in prayer (oratio
  • to astonished wonder over the Lord who gazes on us in love (contemplatio). 
For him and many contemplatives, these activities flow together like rungs on a ladder leading from our earthly life to heaven, from our hearts to the heart of God. From this perspective we could say that prayerfully reading the Bible seeking the saving truth is already the beginning of contemplation. Mulling over the Eternal Word and keeping the Truth in the heart deepens one’s devotion to Christ and the greater our devotion to Him, the more faith opens us to the fullness of His ineffable mystery. In fact, this devoted reading makes the soul vulnerable to the mysterious wisdom and love of God from which we came, for which we are made and in which we are loved. Fashioned as we are for so great a purpose when we seek Him with love, we find Him in love – for He is drawn by love.

July 2, 2012

Casting out into the Deep

When John Paul II invited the Church to cast out into the deep, he was inviting all of us to enter into the depths of prayer.  Entering into the depths to discover the face of Christ, this is the great solution to the spiritual immaturity that undermines so many important efforts in the world today.  In order to enter these depths requires first of all that we humbly acknowledge that we have not gone there often enough in our prayer, that we have avoided gazing on the Lord who gazes on us in love.  Deep prayer is about searching for the presence of the Lord even in the face of our hostility to Him and in finding Him, surrendering everything to Him, trusting that His mercy is greater than our misery.  He waits for us to do this.

A word of warning is in order: it is possible to do and say all that is religiously acceptable but fail to deal with God and the truth of our lives in relation to Him. There is a propensity to settle for what is culturally acceptable in our piety and to presume in having attained this that we have covered ourselves just enough.  The salvation won for us by Christ on the Cross does not work this way and to follow this course is to live a life that is not true.

That we must struggle against this propensity is not because anything is wrong with the Church or the liturgy.  Christ has died to make the Church holy and our bold confidence in prayer and life comes from the greatness of His love.  If our efforts to be pious have become exercises in hypocrisy, it is because our inner hostility to God is so great, we have a propensity to abuse even very good things in our efforts to avoid the truth about ourselves and the Lord.

Today's psalm at Mass was a sober reminder of this propensity.  In Psalm 50, the Lord admonishes someone who recites Bible passages from memory and professes to be a believer.  This is religiously informed believer who knows theology and how people of faith are suppose to live.  At the same time, this is someone who hates the discipline of the Lord and does not listen to His words.  In other words, this person's life is not in harmony with what he says he believes. In fact, we learn that this person has been sinful in his speech, tearing down other people, spreading rumors and being deceitful. Whoever this pious person is, the Lord calls him a thief, an adulterer.

It is a great grace to recognize that God's words in this psalm are not directed to someone else - these are words that ought to deeply pierce our own hearts and remind us how much we need God.  No matter how far we have fallen short, we do not scrutinize our lives in despair.  The hope of our salvation comes from the fact that God's love is greater, even than this propensity.  There is a path of salvation the Lord is waiting to show us - even in our false religiosity.  In fact, if we direct our lives to discover what He wants to show us - He can make our piety truly great.

God shows the path of salvation, that is his Son who is the Life, the Truth and the Way, to those who are dedicated to doing what is right and to using their speech to offer a sacrifice of praise.  It is not enough to know theology and to be good at religion if we want to know Jesus.  The greatness of our Christian faith is that it opens us to a whole way of life that is pleasing to the Lord - but we must, by God's grace, strive to live that life He has offered us.  We must imitate Him who died for us.  This is how we find Jesus in ever new and more beautiful ways.   He is disclosed to us not just when these efforts are successful but also when they are not - in every circumstance He is constantly ready to reveal His strength in our weakness, if we trust in Him.  We show our trust by the mercy we show one another.

This is why religious freedom is so important for Christianity - we need the freedom to put our faith into action, to make an offering of ourselves in love to God and to those He entrusts to us.  If any governmental power were to attempt to prevent us from loving the poor and the vulnerable with the love that comes from God, we would have to resist that attempt and love them anyway.  And governments constantly attempt this. The need to be true to the love of God is so strong, every age has seen Christians who would rather lose their lives than sacrifice the integrity of their faith.  Their blood helps us remember: if we do not resist powers that resist God's love, we really are but thieves, adulterers and liars.

Against false piety and socially acceptable religious observance, truly following Jesus demands living the truth - this is how we find Him and in our loving devotion to Him, He constantly rescues us from the evil of which we are capable.  Each of us can look into our hearts and discover places where our lives are not in harmony with what we believe.  To live by faith is to permit the Lord to carry us deeper into his mystery, deeper than our unfaithfulness - into the depths where our misery is overcome by His mercy.

How do we go into these depths?  We resist discouragement, confess our sins, do penance, entrust our inadequacies to the Lord, pick up our Cross and take up the way of the Lord again - thankful for his steadfast love.   It is His faithful love, not our inadequacy, that defines our lives and our faith filled efforts.

Going into the deep means going to the depths of God's love, inexhaustible depths He is ready to reveal in the absence of love that weighs down our spirits, even in our efforts to be pious.  It means making ourselves vulnerable to His love even in the humiliation of our failures. By love alone we go into these wondrous and remarkable depths because His love draws us there and once there deep in the secret abyss of His fire of love, He illumine, purifies and transforms us in beautiful hidden ways we do not understand, but which cause us in our weakness to show forth the greatness of His power.