April 26, 2013

St. Catherine of Siena and the Audacity of Anguished Love

Is it possible for suffering to be delightful and for pleasure to be wearisome?   Although the dominating cultural voices of our time believe this to be psychologically unhealthy, St. Catherine of Siena asserts that this is a normal experience for God’s most beloved children.   Her reasoning is simple, they love the Cross because, like God the Father, they love the only begotten Son of God.

Saint Catherine is not promoting the morbid idea that we should love just any kind of suffering for its own sake.  There is lots of unhealthy suffering in the world - all kinds of misery where love is absent.  The suffering of the Cross in which those who love God delight is really an "anguished love", and not the suffering brought on by self-indulgence, self-pity or self-loathing.  

These forms of ignoble sufferings always debase one's dignity.  They always involve subordinating the truth about who we are to pleasure, possessions, or power or some combination of these.   These kinds of self-hatred are really a hatred of God.  St. Catherine clumps such unhealthy suffering together under what she calls "selfish self-centeredness" and she believes that the Father vehemently detests these kinds of destructive self-preoccupations.  She hears God say about those who wantonly choose this kind of misery, "Their filth harms only themselves, not Me."  (See The Dialogue, 121)

How does she look at this self-centeredness?   It is a tragedy over which we should weep for one another.   This is because she sees selfishness over and against the great purpose for which we were made.   We are meant to minister the bright warmth of the sun, but selfish love makes us dark instead.  This description almost anticipates what astronomers today call "black holes."  Saint Catherine describes this lack of self-knowledge as a matter of eternal peril.

Without the liberating self-knowledge that comes from God, self-love is such a trap of rash judgment that it renders us incapable of loving those entrusted to us.  We are callous to the poor and to all those God loves unless we humble ourselves and turn to the Son of the Father.  In response to our selfishness to God and the those He loves, the Father gives us His Son on the Cross.  The Father yearns for us to reach out to the Cross of Christ where alone we find the freedom of the His love for us and freedom from ourselves.

For her, the Holy Cross is always the bridge from the alienated misery of sin to the merciful love of the Father.   It is on this bridge that we become familiar with Christ, that we confess our sins and come to feast on His Eucharistic banquet.   In the Eucharist, this bridge becomes a table.   It is a feast of faith which establishes real communion with the Lord in our lives.   The more we partake of Him by faith, the more we are taken by Him in love.  A desire to share completely in Christ is born in the soul.   Nourished by the mystery of the Cross, she puts into the mouths of such souls the words of St. Paul, “I glory in the hardships and shame of Christ crucified” (see 2 Cor. 12:9-10).

The beauty and force of Saint Catherine’s thought, however, is that she does not attribute her teaching to herself, but rather to God the Father.  She is Christ-like: her teaching is not her own (see John 7:16).   For her, the Father is the one who delights in the beauty and splendor of His Son.  If the Father is disappointed by sin, it is secondary to the Father’s vision of what is good and holy in the world.  He sees through the disguise of suffering into the beauty of His Son's love at work.   He sees souls so motivated by love for Christ that they dare to traverse the Mystery of the Cross.  The Father is delighted that they are attracted to His Son's anguished love because He delights in this love too.   He always sees the Son in whom He is well pleased reflected in the suffering of those who share in His Son's anguish for the salvation of the world.   Reporting what the Father spoke to her in prayer, she explains:

Such souls glory in the shame of my only-begotten Son….[they] run to the table of the holy cross, in love with my love and hungry for the food of souls.   They want to be of service to their neighbors in pain and suffering, and to learn and persevere in virtue while bearing the marks of Christ in their bodies.  Their anguished love shines forth in their bodies, evidenced in their contempt for themselves and in their delight in shame as they endure difficulties… To such very dear children as these, suffering is a delight and pleasure is wearisome, as is every consolation and delight the world may offer them. (The Dialogue, 78)

The references to "children" in this passage are not merely sentimental terms of endearment, but they have theological weight in the broader theological tradition.   The attitude of trust in the face of suffering implied in this passage really is the attitude of a child, the kind of child the Lord declared would inherit the Kingdom (see Luke 18:17).   Saint Catherine's spirituality is marked not by great achievements of psychological gymnastics.  Rather than elaborate systems of meditation, the prayer she advocates is humble, a simple movement of the heart to the Father.  Such prayer is commensurate with the faithful remnant of God's people, the persecuted who hope in the Lord.  The Father judges these suffering children, these anawim, these lowly and despised as “very dear.”   There is something in this that anticipates the “Little Way” of Saint Therese of Lisieux.    

If the humble suffering of His little ones is exalted above pleasure by the Father, it is because He judges these things in relation to His crucified Son, the One who offers fallen humanity the bridge to His mercy.   One notes throughout the Dialogue that the Father's condemnation of sin contain almost a reluctant note: His desire that sin should be punished is always secondary to His hope that the sinner will come home.  The Father sees the whole drama of sin through the obedience of His Son, His Word, His Eternal Utterance from which all things come and in which they find their ultimate end.

Furthermore, the Father's hope for His children does not stop with their liberation from sin: He also wants them to have the joy of sharing in His Son's work of redemption.   If the Father finds His rest in His Son, it is because the Son knows the peace of perfect obedience, the suffering obedience of love.  The Father longs to see the obedient love of His Son at work in his beloved children.  This is how they will participate in His Son's redemptive work.

Obedience - to welcome another into one's heart so that they might find their rest there.  This means tenderly accepting the will of another into one's own heart.  It is treasuring ones neighbor's desire as one's own, to allow the pain, the joy and the plans of another to define one's life out of tender love.  This vulnerability of heart is rarely possible between sinful people and that is why, instead of obedience, we relate to one another in different forms of submission or rebellion.  In contrast, the divine suffering of obedient love in our humanity reveals the very life of God.   Saint Catherine personalizes this truth: since the Father rests in His Son's love, the Father also rests in those who are animated by the anguished love of Christ, “I am always at rest in their souls both by grace and by feeling.” (The Dialogue, 78).

The hope of conversion lives in these lines.  It is a call to come to our senses.   The soul in which the Father rests no longer allows itself to suffer self-indulgence, self-pity or self-loathing.  The Eternal Father is not content with sin.  That is why He sent His Son, to free us from these dehumanizing burdens that we might be raised up, that we might realize the greatness of our humanity.    For Saint Catherine, Christ frees humanity from sin by setting hearts on fire with charity, “The fiery chariot of my only-begotten Son came bringing the fire of my charity to your humanity with such overflowing mercy that the penalty for sins people commit was taken away… There is no more need for slavish fear”   (The Dialogue, 58).

Those who welcome the flaming chariot of God’s Son – humanity on fire with divine love – soon discover that their own humanity is on fire too.   Burning with the suffering love of Christ, pleasure, security and power no longer drive them.  They are content with suffering all kinds of inconveniences and hardships for the sake of Christ (and for those entrusted to them) because they are driven by the fire of the Father’s very charity Christ’s burning humanity has brought into our own humanity.

When there is no fear of death, suffering takes on a different meaning, and men and women find the freedom that sees hardship through the eyes of God.   If the Father contemplates hardship through the lens of the Cross, then, when we cross this threshold with Christ, we gain an invincible perspective.  Bound to Christ, we find ourselves bound to one another in suffering love, a love that suffers anything that the dignity of one's neighbor might be protected.  United to our Crucified and Risen Master, fear of sacrifice melts away before the burning fire of divine mercy and tender friendship.

This is the perspective Saint Catherine invites us to share when she describes souls that find pleasure wearisome and rest in suffering.   To be nourished with divine love is to find a courage that lifts us above our own nature and the self-centeredness to which it is subject.   In the face of the fear that inhibits our nature, this fear of not being able to save ourselves, this fear of losing ourselves, Saint Catherine shows us, through the eyes of the Father, how communion with Christ crucified infuses our hearts with the audacity of anguished love.    

The passages from The Dialogue come from Catherine of Siena: The Dialogue, translation and introduction by Suzanne Noffke, O.P. with a preface by Giulliana Cavallini, Classics of Western Spirituality, New York: Paulist Press (1980) 112, 144-145.

April 21, 2013

My Portion is the Lord

Since I have been invited to post for Roman Catholic Spiritual Direction, I have been in conversation with friends and students about continuing the mission of this blog -- which is meant to encourage a new beginning of prayer in our lives. Prayer does not offer an escape from trials or the difficulties of our time - it offers a way to face them with hope, the hope we have from God.   To help keep this important discussion going, we will be blessed by several different guest bloggers from a variety of different walks of life who offer their reflections to this end.  
The following post is a reflection on the reason for our hope by +Amanda Rose  - a single mom and faithful Catholic who lives in Florida. Amanda writes spiritual reflections at www.LittleStepsAlongTheWay.com : 

My portion is the Lord, says my soul; therefore will I hope in Him
Lamentations 3:24

My portion is not a small part of something larger. My Portion is All. My portion is my Creator and my Savior. He cannot give only part of Himself to me. He cannot divide Himself. He gives generously. He gives all.

Yes, my portion - set aside specially and specifically for me - it is the Lord. He has given all for me on the Cross and He continues to give all to me in the Eucharist. He does not share only part of Himself, He does not hold back a portion of Himself from loving, from expressing His love for us. The Eternal Spirit was even willing to limit Himself within skin and bones to show me His love, to touch me in love. And He continues to humble Himself, to give Himself to us so vulnerably in the Eucharist. Therefore, I hope.

I hope when my mind says I shouldn’t. I hope while the tears run down my cheeks. I hope when I cannot hold back the sobs of disappointment, grief and exhaustion.  Even when I doubt, my souls sings “my portion is the Lord."

I cling to this truth.

The song is written in our hearts, whether we hear it or not, whether or not we can see the notes to sing along. The thoughts can crash so loudly that they drown out the song of the soul, and so I must work to remember. I struggle within myself to remember the beauty of the song when my intellect does not understand, when my emotions overflow with anguish.

The cup I drink from at the moment may taste bitter, it may burn as I swallow down the contents of the day, of the moment, but my portion is still my God and He is good.

No matter what I feel, what I see - I know that He is good. He is my portion, and so I am able to hope, so I choose to hope even when I feel hopeless. I decide to hope when my thoughts assail me with doubts, with grief.

 My soul has known the Truth, the Truth that has and will continue to set me free. My soul hopes and savors the memory of the Portion who is All. My Portion, my All, the Three-in-One and One-in-Three.

Thank you, Lord, for being my All, my Generous Portion, my Hope.

April 15, 2013

Making Space for God in the Face of Grave Evil

How do we pray in the face of grave evil and personal disaster?  Often grave evil has a stifling affect on prayer.  One feels overwhelmed and helpless. In this despondency, the mind struggles to search for God's presence, if it struggles at all.  In the face of unexpected disaster, the crushing burden of difficult questions torments the soul.  Yet, the world in which we live and in which we pray has always been riddled with the mystery of grave and overwhelming evil.  How do we begin to pray when God's love seems so absent and the reason for our hope so difficult to affirm?

Sometimes it feels impossible to pray and prayer is reduced to its most essential and simple movement - the cry of the heart for mercy.  On this point, Pope Emeritus Benedict's Spe Salvi refers to Cardinal Nguyen van Thuan's experiences during his long internment in Vietnam (see #34).  Sometimes, there was nothing the Cardinal could offer from his heart and all he could do was repeats passages from Scripture or prayers he memorized.

I have also spoken to those close to death who complain about the same kind of difficulty in prayer.  They want to want to be able to pray - but there are no words, no thoughts, no feelings, nothing to intuit, nothing to imagine, nothing.  In such moments, God seems so absent and in effort to pray, if effort can be made at all, seems so wasted.  So they repeat simple short phrases they have memorized, "now and at the hour of our death" or else "our hope does not disappoint" or even "Jesus, Jesus, Jesus…"  

In such cases, all that is left to the soul seems to be a sort of last vestige of prayer, a feeble desire to raise one's heart to God, a desire hidden in the overwhelming pain that, in this moment and under these circumstances, cannot realize fulfillment and yet chooses to hope anyway.  It is an effort to pray or to desire to pray baptized in heartbreak and dismay -- and in this annihilation, we have already entered deep into the infallible prayer of Christ Crucified.

Who is not reduced to this kind of prayer when the mystery evil crushes the innocent and vulnerable?  When we learn about a friend's daughter paralyzed after a fatal accident, when we learn about explosives killing people at a foot race, or when we learn about the horrific slaughter of babies who having survived callous attempts to abort them were subjected in the most inhumane brutality, it is difficult to pray - the heart is numb, but not our hope.  When the simple words of the Our Father, a Hail Mary, or even the whispered name of Jesus is all that can be offered -- this is what the Lord needs us to offer and this with what love we can muster: for even in the poverty of our prayer, the most frail effort to pray makes space in the world for God to act.  So we find the courage to pray.  The power of God is at work in so many hidden ways that, even when our conversation with the Him is reduced to nothing else than the most humble cry of the heart, the Lord unleashes anew that flood of hope that helps the world begin to see the triumph of good over evil even in face of heart-breaking circumstances.

April 6, 2013

Happy Divine Mercy Sunday 2013!

Divine Mercy Sunday reminds us of the truth on which the whole Christian life stands.   Although internal and external politics in the life of families and nations seem overbearing, actual conflicts or any potential strife do not ever have to consume the meaning of our lives.  There are deeper and more powerful forces at work in the course of human events, even in the course of our personal lives.

In the radiance of the face of the Risen Lord, the merciful love of the Father waits to be discovered by faith.   After two millennia of searching these vast frontiers, the Church has yet to fully plummet the inexhaustible riches are Christ.  Indeed, for all our efforts in this noble task, we have only scratched the surface of all that God has in store for those who believe.  In the unbridled inflow of God's presence in the world which the Lord continually makes known, we have reason for great hope.  May this great celebration of merciful love be a blessing for you and your family -- and through you for the whole world.  

Here are some previous reflections on divine mercy:

For a little background on this great feast and the Holy Spirit - click here.

For some thoughts on this celebration and wisdom of heart -- click here.

For a reflection of St. Faustina Kowalska and this wonderful day -- click here

April 1, 2013

Contemplating the Triumph of Mercy

The resurrection is a mystery of the triumph of divine mercy over human misery.  When the Father raised Christ Jesus from the dead, humble humanity was not overcome, surmounted or diminished.  Instead all that is good, holy and true about this life was rescued from futility and death.   Christian contemplation beholds this victory and by faith allows the splendor of Easter morning to baptize the soul anew.   

Th prayer of faith sees the resurrection of Christ from the dead has the first fruits of an astonishing work of God.    The Risen Lord animates this work of new creation as a fountain of grace, a boundless source of divine love flowing into our parched hearts.   Those who drink from these living waters are no longer prisoners to the dying life we now live. Humble prayer drinks this in and discovers the hidden fruitfulness of God.

Just as Jesus rose from the dead, Christian prayer rises up in faith.  To believe that Jesus is risen from the dead, this is to lift up our hearts to the Lord and take our stand on the firm ground that knows evil is not the last word about our lives.  This faith may well be tested by our mediocrity and repeated failures, but if we do not deny Christ, He will not deny us - instead His faithfulness to us is being revealed in our struggles to be faithful.  

The Risen humanity of Christ is the very yeast of prayer so that even in the depths of our most bitter struggles, prayer rises to God.   By His passion and death, Christ sewed into the mystery of sin, the mystery of grace.  The mystery of grace makes all things new so that even when we fall short, turning to the mystery of Mercy we can always make a new beginning.  In this work of grace, it is God's inexhaustible love and not our failures that defines who we are.  He continually lifts us up.

Prayer is all about grace, the grace that flows from the wounds of Christ.  This sheer gift entrusted to humanity can only be welcomed in humble faith.   It is the gift of the merciful love of God at work in us.  

Prayer ponders the dimensions of merciful love, a suffering love pierced to the heart over the plight of another.  God is pierced over the plight of each one of us.  This is why He could not bear that we should suffer alone.   To show us how much He has implicates Himself in our misery, He suffered death on the Cross for us.  So that we might know our dignity, our freedom, the saving truth about who He is and where we stand before Him, Christ drained to the dregs the cup of our misery, treasuring each drop because He treasures each of us even more.  Prayer is the response of a heart that is moved with gratitude for this inestimable gift and, in this gratitude, opens the heart to be like God's - pierced by love.  

Christian contemplation takes all of this in by faith.  In the dawning of the Third Day, we come to know how no sin, no addiction, no shortcoming, no weakness, and no other burden of guilt can overpower or exhaust the love of God at work in those who believe.  This suffering love is the truth and this truth is what sets us free.   Even when believers allow themselves to fall back into the slavery of sin, the very thought of this new freedom stirs a longing to return to the life of faith.  This is a holy freedom filled with God's ineffable freedom, a freedom to turn back, to reverse course, to rediscover the embrace of the Father.  It is a freedom that is expressed in conversion from sin and renunciation of anything that threatens our dignity as sons and daughters of God.  It is a freedom to seek the goodness and mercy of God yet again.  

To pray in this freedom is to keep vigilance with the eyes of the heart so that with every breath, in every moment, we might gaze on a love so much stronger than any form of slavery or even death.  A new life blood animates the spirits of those who live by such contemplative faith so that even when they suffer death, the life by which they live only becomes stronger.   Here, precisely because they are more fully alive, their praise becomes all the more beautiful.    Unfolding in all kinds of astonishing ways throughout space and time in the lives of those who put their trust in the Risen Lord, this illuminating work of love brings the only thing really new our old, tired existence has ever known.  Here, prayer that lets itself be captivated by the freshness of merciful love ponders a true word of hope for a discouraged world.  

Christian prayer extends through the vast horizons of love pioneered by Christ into human poverty.   The mysterious prayer of the Lord, a prayer that implicates the whole of his sacred humanity in merciful love, effects radical vulnerability and complete trust in the goodness and wisdom of the Father's plan in every situation, no matter how difficult.  Here, the prayer of the Word made flesh is not merely an example for us to follow.  His prayer is a new principle that animates the cry of recognition and love that lives in the Church and resounds throughout the cosmos in every trial, suffering and joy.