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.