August 29, 2012

Does God Really Speak to Us?

There are many who believe that God does not speak to us and that prayer is nothing more than an imaginary conversation with ourselves that makes us feel better about things.  Such a belief may well be supported by the fact that many people who say they are praying are actually engaged in just such a delusion.  Yet such explanations of prayer, as sophisticated as they appear, do not adequately account for what both great saints and repentant sinners discover in the silence of their hearts.

To be so pierced by the plight of another as to endure difficult sacrifices, to be moved to conversion of life despite pride and lack of confidence in God, to desire holiness even when mortally wounded by personal depravity, to acquire the capacity to forgive, to have compassion on those who have hurt us, to stand firm for the truth no matter the personal cost and to do good to one's enemies--these are not feats of self-sufficient human cleverness nor unaided psychological gymnastics.  No matter how carefully concocted, no methods or techniques or programs of human invention transcend the limits set by our own broken instinct for self-preservation.   Only the gravity of something beyond the frontiers of our own misery can help us go beyond the abysmal darkness that threatens us.   

Prayer looks out into an even deeper abyss than that in which the light of created intelligence exhausts itself.  Deeper than the abyss of our misery, prayer seeks an abyss of mercy.  Against the tendency to grasp or to despair, prayer renders the heart vulnerable to the One who fashioned it.  

Silent reflection pregnant with desire for God searches out that divine love that suffers misery to affirm each one's dignity.  This contemplation attends to the only voice that can disclose the dignity of the children of God.   Determined, bowed in contrition filled wonder, the tear drenched cries of such a heart reaches out to the Heart of Another.

Humble adoration falls prostrate before the Word who from the Cross called out into our silence.  Such prayer catches the reverberation of this wordless cry as it echoes through the cosmos and through history.  Such prayer alone can heed the new life spoken into the mystery that was to be our doom.  

It is this same Word, the Word who is God, who speaks to us in prayer.   The Word speaks love stronger than death and it never abandons us but is always at work, always present in new and astonishing ways.  Constantly, He brings light into the darkness of our hearts and patiently invites us to make a new beginning even as all things seem to be coming to an end.  

Always what is most beautiful about what He tells us is to be pondered more in what we do not understand than in what we think we have grasped.  More ancient than human speech, earthly words do not circumscribe the ineffable hope this Eternal Word gives.   Indeed, to obediently accept this Whisper from the lips of the Father is to possess the substance of hope itself.

August 28, 2012

Clinging to Unfathomable Mystery

Sometimes silent prayer is very purifying.  Whether in the intimacy of our bedroom or in the vulnerable solitude of the wilderness or in a candlelit oratory before the Eucharistic Presence of the Risen Lord, we struggle to attend, to cling to Him for whom we long.   Sometimes it is only by persevering in firm discipline for many years that the humble wisdom of contemplative prayer begins to be born in our hearts.

There is hope.  His mercy exceeds our misery in all its distraction.  Long after the efforts of our own cleverness are spent and our gluttony for satisfying experiences is dissipated, there is still a hungry silence under which the whole might of our soul bends in adoration, even if this is at our last life's breath.   Our own words and ideas and plans and laundry lists and agendas are not inexhaustible.  If we spend enough time in silent reflection and resist the temptation to torment ourselves with what could have been or should have been, we become aware of our own silent thirst for God.

This is not to say that silent prayer is learned by wasting time without devotion.  When there is no devotion in our heart, we should stop praying and engage in the good works the Lord has entrusted to us.  Then, as devotion returns, we can return to prayer.  In the beginning or in the midst of a hectic time of life, regularly observed but shorter periods are advised.  Eventually, the Lord invites us to spend longer periods of silence with Him -- but even though there is devotion in our hearts during prayer, prayer can still be difficult and sometimes must endure great trials.

Our devotion to the Lord in prayer might need to persevere through some discouragement but if we are determined to rely on Him, we give Him the space He needs to bless our efforts.  Our propensity to entertain ourselves is finite.  He formed us in such a way that no mere fantasy, no elaborate myth, not even carefully calculated narratives can meet the profound demands of our humanity.  Deep inside our spirits know that trying to cling to any of this is never sufficient, never enough, never worthwhile.  We are fashioned to grow in our awareness that we need something beyond what merely created psychological powers can produce.

The heart is made to rest in God.   To pray is a movement away from self-occupation and self-reliance, and into relationship with the only One who can reveal to us the truth about ourselves. When we come to delight in Him who is so other than us, when we come to see that our own existence is meant to reveal His love, this is the beginning of praise.

St. Augustine said that man is made to praise the Living God and that we cannot rest until we rest in Him. What a paradox we are to ourselves--made in the image and likeness of One who is so different from us and yet became one of us!   To desire Him, to seek Him, to encounter Him, to acknowledge Him, to cling to Him; this is the quest, the challenge, the battle, the defining moment of our humanity.  But how can we cling to Him who is unfathomable mystery?  The Word of God illumines this mystery for those who allow their hearts to thirst for Him, "His right hand holds me fast."  (Psalm 63:8)

August 26, 2012

The Words of Everlasting Life: John 6:60-69

Jesus Christ is the Word of the Father, the Word made flesh spoken to us that we might live.  If we believe the Word, if we cling to Christ with all our heart, even though we die, we live forever.  The Word Himself declares, "My words are Spirit and Life."

Yet when we hear the Word whisper in our hearts, something hostile to Him reacts in us.  The words of the Word, echoing in the Holy Bible and in the Tradition of the Church, make their demands on our nature.  He always orients us beyond what makes us feel comfortable, satisfied and secure.  The Word confounds us when we encounter Him.  Whatever we think we understand in this Word of the Father, there is always something greater we do not understand.  Against a mystery we cannot control or manipulate, we want to go back to our old way of life, the way we lived before we heard the heart piercing voice that first brought us into existence.

The One who humbled Himself unto death on the Cross evokes a humility and adoration at which our capacity to be clever balks.  The Word imposes Himself on us so that we know if we follow Him we can no longer live a self-satisfied existence.  Instead, we must pick up our Cross and follow our Crucified Master.  This is the pathway to life to the full.

The Word Himself tells us that we can only "come" to Him if the Father grants it and the Rock of the Church responds "We have come to believe."  For those who accept the mystery of the Church in their lives, they cannot go back to their former way of life.  Though they have the freedom to do so and may even lapse for a time, divine love compels them otherwise.  Such is the gravity of the Church's living faith revealed by Peter.

A beatitude this world cannot contain is given those who have resisted the temptation to return to their former way of life.  The martyrs who have lost earthly home, family, treasure, reputation and even their lives to witness to the Word, to become "words" of the Word for our time, how much we owe them, and how much more does God delight in them. They make us ponder the love of God so peculiar to a culture of death: He allows those He most loves to suffer rejection, persecution and ever kind of hardship so that those who are hostile to Him might not perish but might know the fullness of life.

And Father - How much He trusts us!   He gives us His only Begotten Son, the One whom He has loved from before the foundation of the world.  He entrusts to us the One He most treasures knowing full well the hostility we have towards Him.  Yet the generous love of the Father is undaunted by our rejection, and the mystery of a love stronger than death is revealed in all those who come to believe in Christ to the amazed astonishment of the world.

August 23, 2012

Those Deep Places to which We are Called

There are deep places in the heart.  A vast and unexplored wilderness awaits us there, deep within our innermost being where neither thought nor feeling can penetrate.   The greater portion of the limitless frontiers the Creator has fashioned in the depths of the soul have yet to be glimpsed by humanity.

Those who desire God and dedicate themselves to seeking Him discover the deepest truth about their own existence.   They have the key that unlocks these hidden depths.   Desire alone takes us to this deepest center of our humanity, desire stepping out in faith, urged on by love.  This is because the Trinity dwells in this deepest center.

The Bridegroom dwells waiting for us in our innermost being, longing for us to seek Him, yearning to disclose Himself in irrevocable friendship.  This marks the greatness of our humanity, the fact that our Deliverer waits on us, believes in the goodness with which He fashioned us, and hopes in us unto death.  He who is love would not have it any other way.  The immensity of His tender presence is why it is His love and not our failures that define our lives.

Those who long for silence have been smitten by the Lord.  They hear divine whispers calling them to the profound depths of human existence and they simply cannot deny the One who longs for them any longer.  These beautiful souls gladly fulfill their obligations and duties given them by the bonds of friendship and justice, but they do so longing for a few minutes to devote themselves to seeking their Divine Friend with the whole effort of their soul.

They delight in spending time searching for Him within, in the deep places where He dwells.  Difficult though it might become, their devotion is never tiresome to them.  This is because when exercised even for just a few quickly passing moments, their devotion unleashed is intensely vulnerable to  pure and delicate living flames that do not destroy but catch everything up into beauty.

August 22, 2012

Mary, Our Queen

Blessed John Paul II's Marian Devotion was a profound part of his life.  Part of this has to do with the Marian dimension of Polish Culture, a profoundly contemplative and family oriented culture.  Centuries ago, the people of Poland in fact entrusted their nation to Mary's Queenship and one finds throughout Poland all kinds of wonderful shrines and miraculous images dedicated to her. 

True devotion to Mary leads us into a deeper following of Christ.  As his spiritual life and theological understanding matured, a certain mystery puzzled Karol Wojtyla in his young adulthood.  He did not question the fact that the Virgin Mother is present in the Christian life to lead us into a deeper relationship with her Son.  The Holy Scriptures witness to her own words that she magnifies the Lord and that she exhorts us "to do whatever He tells you."  Her words echoed in his own prayerlife.  What astounded him, instead, was the fact Jesus entrusted his Mother to his disciples.  Why should Jesus give us his own Mother?

This Sunday, we will listen to the last reading from John 6, the Bread of Life discourse.  In this last part of the discourse Christ's followers complain that His claim that He is the Bread of Life, a new kind of Bread that nourishes unto eternally life.  They balk at His command to eat His flesh and drink His blood.  Jesus responds that they could not come to Him unless the Father allowed them to do so. The passage explains that many of his followers went away and returned to their former way of lfie.  

The Gospel presents us with a defining decision about what to believe and how to live. To return to our former way of life, the way we lived before we encountered Christ, this is to step out of the story of the Gospel - so those who do so are mentioned no more, they are no more part of the Gospel, they do not live in the mystery of welcoming the mystery.   Yet even these followers who reject Christ without realizing it reveal something about the greatness of the Father's gift to us.

The Father knew they would not accept His Son, yet He offered them a gift anyway.   In spurning His gift to them, they have rejected Him but at the same time revealed the love of the Father is not daunted by our hostility to Him.  The Father is ready, with His Son, to suffer our rejection and hostility.  Thus, even when those who do not reject Jesus at first later abandon and betray Him, the Father does not abandon them. 

In the face of our hostility to Him, why should the Father give us his Son?  The answer to the Pope's question and the answer to the question the Gospel of John proposes coincide in the words of St. Peter,  "Lord, to whom else can we go? .. we have come to believe..." 

To believe, to have faith, this is to say "yes" to everything the Father wills to give us.  This means we must welcome Jesus as our spiritual nourishment, as the only One who can sustain us on our journey to the Father's house.  We also must welcome everything Jesus wants to give us -- His whole humanity: His Body, His Blood, even His Mother.  We must welcome the maternal role of this Queen Mother in our lives because her spiritual maternity opens us even more to the mystery of the Father's love. 

What a remarkable love is revealed in Christ!  The divine love of the Trinity gives what is most beloved in the Father's heart - His Son.   He gives this gift to those He knows will reject it, betray it, deny it, abandon it.  He still believes in us so much He gives His Son to us anyway.   Jesus gives his Mother with the same kind of trust He reveals the Father has in us, a trust that knows full well what we are capable of doing with his Handmaid in our weakness.  She in fact is a sign of the Church, a sign Christ has entrusted to us undaunted by our inadequacies and weaknesses.  Jesus gives us his Mother just like He has given us his Church of whom she is the living icon.

What is it to celebrate the Queenship of Mary, to say yes to the gift she is to us from Jesus?  We who believe in the Risen Savior, who accept his Lordship in our lives, not only need to accept the nourishment only He can give and the gift of his Mother whom He entrusts to us, we must also love as He has loved us --- so that when the love we offer others is rejected, spurned, hated, denied, and betrayed, we do not stop loving, but we must continue to love and trust like God - yes, this is why He has given to us so generously.  Because the Mother Christ gave to us on the Cross opens our hearts to this astounding mystery, together with all of heaven how can we not call her Queen?

August 19, 2012


Living faith produces joy--not only the interior variety, but also the external kind.  When joy is spills out externally, it is called jubilation.  Normally, jubilation is expressed in psalms and hymns.  This is why we begin Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours with song.  But it can also be a spontaneous outburst, the sudden need to rise up with the whole of one's being before God to declare His astonishing goodness.   Such jubilation is sometimes the only appropriate response to the wonderful and undeserved gift of God's presence.

King David was being jubilant when he danced before the Ark of the Covenant.   Mary was jubilant when she declared that her soul magnifies the Lord.  Many of those who were healed by Christ were jubilant.  Jesus was jubilant when He blessed the Father for revealing to the simple what is hidden from the learned and the wise.  Mary Magdalene was jubilant when she recognized the Risen Lord.  The apostles were jubilant when they shared their witness that the Lord is risen from the dead.

The source of this jubilation is the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit compels us to share the wonders the Risen Lord is working in this world.  Because it is God Himself who produces it in us, there is a duty to be joyful.  Yet it is a mistake to think we are fulfilling this obligation by forcing a smile or not allowing the misery of another to pierce our hearts.  The jubilation of God bears great sorrow and cannot be overcome by it. We who are in His image and likeness must learn to be joyful in the same way.

How then do we dispose ourselves to so great a gift?   Renunciation and perseverance are two important ways we avail ourselves to this freedom to be joyful.   But this is a paradox--we discover the secret of the joy of God by death to ourselves and suffering the loss of all things for Christ, and those who stay sober and alert in the midst of all kinds of sorrows find unexpected comfort in the explosive jubilation that only the Spirit of the Lord can lavish.

August 5, 2012

Going on Poustinia

Dear Readers,

I am about to go on Poustinia, a silent retreat in the wilderness for several days.  God calls us to spend prolonged periods of time with Him on occasion and when He does, we must do everything we can so that we can answer His call as generously as possible.   I hope, if God grants you the gift of setting a few days aside for prayer or longer, that your will take advantage of these opportunities as well.

Prayer reveals the truth about humanity and our hearts are starving for this truth.  There is a tendency to see prayer as an escape or a waste of time -- but real prayer is real engagement with the reality of our lives and relationships.  This is exactly what is lacking in our society -- driven by so many conflicting myths and narratives, our culture is extremely vulnerable to all kinds of irrationality.   Our lives together in community, our society, cannot be maintained without the truth and we cannot find the truth without prayer.

One of the greatest problems with secular culture is that, we have so many other priorities, there is no space in our hearts to make God our priority.   If we are to be salt, light and yeast for the world as Christ asked us to be, we must finds ways of ordering our priorities and time so that there is space for God.  Christ left us an example when during his public ministry He went into the wilderness, and mountains, and lonely places to pray through the night. Of what value is any of our accomplishments if we do not enjoy the presence of God and give Him back a little of the time He has so generously lavished on us?  Without this freedom to pray, we are just the slaves of our own productivity and cleverness -- or that of someone else.

We must encourage the freedom to pray.  It would be good if we found a way to support one another in taking time for extended periods of prayer.  Sometimes the circumstances of life do not allow this -- but what if there was a way to help each other find the freedom to make more time for God?  

Prayer is the highest form of freedom and like all other personal liberties, it is not a freedom we acquire or keep without ongoing struggle.   The way to win the freedom to pray is by praying more: prayer becomes the priority of one's heart by prayer.   This is because prayer opens us to the providence of the Lord, Divine Providence.  There are graces the Lord yearns to give us but which He has decided in the wisdom of his love He can only give us if we spend some time seeking Him in our hearts.  These gifts make life full -- not only for ourselves but those the Lord entrusts to us in prayer as well.

Somehow, mysteriously, the struggle to pray is fruitful not only in one's own life, but for the whole world.  Somehow, God uses our frail efforts in prayers to bring about beautiful works of His mercy.  Thus, no matter how deep we go into solitude, we are never alone when we seek the Lord -- we are instead brought into even deeper communion with his Mystical Body, the Church.

United in His Body, He can accomplish great things by our prayers for each other.  Please continue to pray for me and for our seminarians at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.   I will be praying for you!

In Christ,

August 2, 2012

Self-Denial - Surest Pathway

Contrary to those who insist that spiritual maturity is about mastering a technique or the successful completion of some elaborate program, St. John of the Cross sees the road to union with God as an easy and simple journey if we embrace radical self-denial:

The road leading to God does not entail a multiplicity of considerations, methods, manners, and experiences -- though this may be a requirement for beginners -- but demands only the one thing necessary: true self-denial, exterior and interior, through the surrender of both to the passion of Christ and by annihilation in all things. Ascent to Mount Carmel, book 2, chapter 7, Complete Works, translators Otilio Rodriguez and Kieran Kavanaugh, (Washington, D.C.: ICS, 1991)171. 

Self-denial is the practice of acting against the drive for comfort, security and satisfaction we seek in our relationships with people and in our relation to things.   As long as we worry about having influence over others or whether they esteem us, and as long as we only see anything else as a crutch with which to get through life, we are not vulnerable to the Lord and open to the wonders of His love at work in us and in the world.  This extends even to efforts to practice prayer merely as a program of mental hygiene.  The Lord did not die on the Cross so that we might find a little psychological relief from the stress of daily life. Thus, we turn our backs on these things, annihilate our disordered appetites, pick up our cross and follow in the steps of our Crucified Master.

Christ is our pattern.  We imitate Him out of devotion to Him.  He suffered the annihilation of all his earthly powers unto death out of love for the Father and for the sake of our salvation - because He loved us in the Father from all eternity.   Our love becomes eternal when we follow His example and allow His love for the Father to animate our lives and extend its hidden beauty into the world through us.

Some think these counsels regarding self-denial and annihilation mean that the spiritual life is suppose to be a joyless affair.   But really the more we renounce joys that are beneath our dignity, the more room we have for a deeper and more abiding joy.   There are some great joys that in fact give God glory when we share them.

If you have ever been captivated by the mountains in the early morning when they are suddenly crown in light or felt the reverberation of the surf crashing against the coastline --  you have probably felt drawn to silent adoration.   There is also a sweetness found in secretly bringing joy to others -- those who have gone before us in the faith probably smile when we share this foretaste of our heavenly homeland.   We enjoy these wonderful works of God because, comfortable and pleasurable though they are in themselves, they raise us up out of self-pre-occupation to our true purpose, and in doing so they help us behold the splendor of the One in whose image we are made.

Such joys are not opposed to self-denial.  Instead, they foster it.  Somehow these joys give us the courage we need to embrace the beatitude of holy sorrow and open us  to the surest pathway.