May 20, 2013

The Holy Spirit - The Church's Towering Lighthouse

In the remarkable visions of Saint Hildegard of Bingen ecclesial and sacramental truths are proposed through a vast array of rich images to draw us into new horizons of mystical wisdom.   In her vision of the Sacrament of Confirmation, she describes the Holy Spirit as a kind of brilliant lighthouse towering behind the Church.  This vision does not shy away from the mission of the Redeemer or the Church through which His saving work is extended.  If we will be saved, we must be reborn in Christ Jesus and in this new birth we must live by the light and strength of the Holy Spirit.  Saint Hildegard sees the delicate work of the Motherhood of the Church in this context.

In a dangerous world in which many Christians live languid lives, the Holy Spirit is the strength of the Church.  If there is darkness that constantly threatens the children of God who the Church endeavors to nurture, this darkness is not a defining feature of what the great Saint sees.    Instead, standing firm against irrational darkness, this daughter of Saint Benedict beholds a dazzling white tower decorated with emerald trimmed windows in its cone shaped roof.   Her imagery is symbolic in both color and form: the tower and the light speak to the transforming strength and enlightenment that constantly perfect the Church's maternal efforts while the white and emerald green suggest the purity and hope that only the Holy Spirit can give.

This Doctor of the Church sees the sweet power of the Holy Spirit drawing men and women into a spiritual drama, the battle of all kinds of forces of insane darkness against the glory of God unfolding in the world.  The clear golden splendor of the truth pouring through frames of hope is no static image.  Nor is the immense lighthouse meant to convey a non-personal force.  Instead, the peaceful strength of heaven that the Benedictine Abbess sees towering over Mother Church is a torrent of tenderness from the Trinity.

This flowing presence of God in the world constitutes the basis of Saint Hildegard's appeal that those who are baptized should be confirmed and sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit.   The truth and power flaming forth from this Gift are dynamic and warm in their invitation to sanctity, evoking a very individual response from each one who will welcome it.  Here, the Holy Spirit is "a burning and shining serenity, which cannot be nullified, and which enkindles ardent virtue so as to put all darkness to flight."  (Scivias, Book 2, 4th Vision, 2, as translated by Mother Columba Hart and Jane Bishop in Hildegard of Bingen: Scivias, Classics of Western Spirituality, (New York: Paulist Press, 1990) 190.) 

May 12, 2013

The Ascension and the Confidence of Christian Prayer

In the Gospel of Luke, as He prepares to ascend into Heaven, the Risen Christ leads his disciples out from Jerusalem as far as Bethany.   There He raises his hands and blesses them as His witnesses telling them to go back to Jerusalem to wait for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.   It is in this act of blessing that He departs from them and is taken up into heaven.  This passage invites us to reflect on the relationship of Bethany and Heaven.

Bethany is not far outside of Jerusalem.  It is the town where the close friends of Jesus lived: Lazarus, Mary and Martha.   About halfway between Bethany and the old walls of Jerusalem there stands the Church of the Pater Noster.  This is where it is believed that Jesus gave his teachings on prayer and it is where the ancient Christians commemorated Jesus's ascension into heaven.  This suggests that the ancient Christians made associations between Bethany and Heaven, friendship with Jesus and prayer, the ascension of the Lord and the witness of the faith.  What does it mean?

One thing that it means is that Christian prayer is a profoundly theological reality.  That is, prayer is born of events of great theological meaning in the life of the Church.  Christian prayer finds in the ascension of the Lord the reason for its bold access into heaven.  If Christ taught we should pray with the bold confidence of sons and daughters, Christian prayer believes it can reach into the heart of the Father because it flows from faith in the Risen Lord whom the Father has raised up to Himself.  When Christ was raised up, frail humanity was lifted into the embrace of divinity so that all of the Lord's prayers for us are answered.   Through the faith in Him who prays for us to the Father, the world becomes vulnerable to the power of Heaven.

But where do we find this faith and how do we know whether the faith we have in Christ is true?  How can we know whether our own prayer participates in this theological reality baptized in so much eternal meaning?   Such prayer can only be found by those who will freely bind themselves in faith to the Lord through the preaching and teaching of those whom the Lord has sent as His witnesses.  The Church, as a communion of witnesses to the Lord who is both departed from our sight but still at work in the world, is the conduit by which heaven's spiritual gifts are brought to bear in the nitty gritty details of our personal lives.  It is in the Church that theology, prayer, real life and the friendship we know in the Lord converge with salvific meaning.

Although Christ has been raised from our sight, the Church helps us see how He is still at work in the world, coming to us in all kinds of hidden ways to draw us with Him into the bosom of the Trinity. Because Jesus ascended into heaven to send the Holy Spirit onto the communion of the believers, the communication of life and love in the unity of the Trinity lives by grace in the unity of the Body of Christ  On the basis of His faithfulness to us before the Father, the prayer of the Church claims bold access to the transforming power of heaven so that every Christian can pray with confidence in Him even though He has been taken from our sight.

The witnesses to Christ death, resurrection and ascension into heaven safeguarded their message through the teaching of the Church.  This sacred doctrine preserves for us today the saving truth by which our faith accesses the inexhaustible riches of God, treasures from the Father Christ yearns to share with us.   What a great obligation teachers and preachers of the Gospel have!   Entrusted to them is the witness by which the confidence of Christian prayer is discovered.  Yet to provide a reason for this hope, not only their teaching but also their lives must be true.  Such a task is impossible for alienated humanity.  They too must enter into the confidence of prayer if they are to pass on the witness to Christ the Church has entrusted to them.  

In these ways, the Ascension of Christ helps us see that prayer and sacred doctrine, the saving events and the communion of the Church are all bound together in our faith.  While many Catholics might approach prayer as a private and emotional exercise for rare moments instead of ecclesial and theological act we should make unceasingly, such spirituality risks being cut off from the source of confidence that lives in our tradition.  The greatness of Christian piety alive in the Church is glimpsed only as we accept the sacred doctrine the Church proposes in her witness to the Risen Lord.

Prayer, faith and friendship are joined in the Risen Christ who chose His Bride as His witness.   She knows He is departed for awhile but ever present in the Holy Spirit.  She reminds us that He is raised into heaven out of our sight yet His loving gaze never loses sight of us.   She helps us remember that even though He has gone to the Father, His blessing never leaves us.  It is when we make every effort to welcome and safeguard this treasury of truth that the prayer shared by those whom the Son of the Father bound together as his friends and witnesses becomes our prayer too.  

May 8, 2013

The Avila Institute

Thanks to the tireless efforts of Daniel Burke at Roman Catholic Spiritual Direction, I will provide instruction in an online program in spiritual theology hosted by the newly founded Avila Institute.   Courses include online, live and interactive graduate level lectures with the option of participating strictly to enrich one's own spiritual formation.  I am particularly pleased that this course of studies includes an international outreach, especially for those who might not otherwise have an opportunity to engage this vital conversation in the life of the Church.   

Application for admissions can be found here.  

Your prayers for this project and all those who participate in it will be greatly appreciated.