November 28, 2013

Spiritual Direction and Evangelization

In the Holy Father's latest apostolic exhortation Joy of the Gospel, he takes time to remind us of spiritual accompaniment as a key part of evangelization (see ##169 to 172).   Pope Francis begins by noting the paradox of modern culture: on the one hand, people suffer from anonymity, and on the other, a morbid curiosity about the details of other peoples lives.   Against these tendencies, the Holy Father is calling the Church, each of us who are members of this Mystical Body, to authentic sympathy.

This means, those who have dedicated themselves to prayer must take a personal interest in the spiritual journey of each and every soul entrusted to them.  More often than not this sympathy is shared in all kinds of beautiful and informal ways.  Sometimes, it is also shared more formally, in an ongoing form of spiritual accompaniment: spiritual direction.

It is vital for those who preach the Gospel of Christ, no matter their vocation, to seek out and find a good spiritual director.  When none can be found, Divine Providence supplies in other ways - perhaps through a friend or a family member.  We are called each one to follow our crucified master, sometimes in solitude and silence, but never alone.  We go forth in a communion of saints, of holy things exchanged between the holy ones of God.   This is why the Lord also expects us to make a good prayerful effort to seek out the guidance of someone who will hold us accountable, encourage us to spiritual maturity and help us discern the most appropriate ways to serve God in our lives.

God expects us to make this effort is because He prefers to work through those He sends to us, so that we are all bound to one another in charity and mutual support.  This bond of love involves a humble disclosure of the heart, an openness to the counsel of another, and a mutual availability to the Lord.  It may encompass many other things as well, but this sacred conversation, when guided by the Holy Spirit, is always a profound expression of the mystery of the Church that gives glory to God.

The Lord may also ask us to provide this service to our brothers and sisters, if not as a formal spiritual director, perhaps as a good spiritual friend.  It is true that priests have special graces in this area, but by baptism, every Christian has been given the gift of counsel, a remarkable disposition by which the Holy Spirit can move us to compassion for the plight of our neighbor, even when this is a deep spiritual suffering.  With such gifts, we can rescue another from a sense of alienation and help them raise their eyes to see the wonders of God's love in new ways.

We can do this for one another even if we do not know what to say and feel like all we can do is listen.  In fact, the more we rely on God in such things the better.  Our responsibility is simply to be present, to listen with love, to have, as Pope Francis encourages, heartfelt sympathy for one another.  Because it makes space for the Holy Spirit to work in new ways in our relationships, when we reach out with the love of Christ knowing how much Christ loves the person entrusted to us, simply listening with love and gratitude to what God is doing in his or her heart is a powerful and beautiful way to witness to the joy of the Gospel.

November 18, 2013

Into Your Hands I Commend My Spirit: the Prayer of Blessed Charles de Foucauld

My Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.

This is the last prayer of our master, of our Beloved.  May it be also ours: at our last moment and in every moment:

My Father, I place myself in your hands.
My Father, I entrust myself to you.
My Father, I abandon myself to you.
My Father, do with me what you please.

Whatever you make of me, I thank you.
Thank you for everything.
I am ready for all.
I accept all.
I am grateful for all.

Your will be done in me, my God.
Your will be done in
    all your creatures,
    all your children,
    all those whom your Heart loves.
I do not desire anything else, my God.

I place my soul in your hands.
I give it to you, my God, with all the love of my heart, because
I love You and need to give myself to you out of love.
I place myself in your hands without limits.
I place my self in your hands with infinite confidence, because
You are my Father.

Blessed Charles de Foucauld

November 8, 2013

As if Already in Eternity: The Wisdom of Blessed Elisabeth of the Trinity

Saint Elisabeth of the Trinity is a witness to the primacy of contemplation in the life of the Church and the mystical wisdom contemplation releases into human history.  This is the wisdom that understands how God is present in both the public square as well as in the intimacy of our hearts.   Today, when the whole world needs this wisdom renewed, the Church celebrates her feast day and invites us to consider her powerful spiritual doctrine.

She wrote a famous prayer to the Holy Trinity that has helped many contemplatives recover devotion to the Divine Persons in their life of prayer.  This work is cited to support the  Catechism of the Catholic Church's teaching on the Divine Works and the Trinitarian Missions.  The teaching itself is that God calls every individual to a great and beautiful purpose, to become a dwelling place for His presence in the world:

The ultimate end of the divine economy is the entry of God's creatures into the perfect unity of the Blessed Trinity.  But even now we are called to be a dwelling for the Most Holy Trinity, 'If a man loves me,' says the Lord, 'he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him, and make our home with him' (CCC 260).

This is a rich teaching because it says that our ultimate fulfillment is not simply something waiting for us in a remote future, in a distant afterlife.  Instead, the Catechism proposes that heaven can begin now in faith.   This means that our faith offers us a fullness of life.  We do not have to be content with managing through life's ambiguities and uncertainties with the hope that someday it might get better.  Instead, our faith gives us a real foretaste of the fullness that awaits us -- so that the excessiveness of God's love can pour into our lives here and now, if we will believe in Him.

To encourage this decision to believe in the love that God has for us in the here and now of our lives, the Catechism cites the beginning of Blessed Elisabeth's prayer to the Trinity, "O my God, Trinity whom I adore, help me to forget myself entirely so to establish myself in you, unmovable and peaceful as if my soul were already in eternity."

Blessed Elisabeth's prayer helps us consider what it means to have faith, to believe in God and what He calls us to become.  This kind of faith is a matter of a love that takes us out of ourselves. It is, in this sense, an ecstatic movement of heart, a decision to lay aside everything so that there is space for God to dwell in us.  Faith helps us see that our own bloated egos need to make way for God.  To love Christ to the point of welcoming His word in our hearts means He can begin to help us forget our very self.  He is the One who frees us so that the fullness of life that awaits us in heaven begins here on earth.

Her words suggest that the biggest obstacle to prayer is not anything outside ourselves, but proclivities within.   The ego has its own specific gravity.  Its force, if left unchecked, its deadly.  Anxieties over our own plans and for security, our lust for control and to put others in their place, our need to be right and esteemed, our obsession with being liked or affirmed, our gluttony for comfort and entertainment; all of this fails to provide any firm ground for rectifying our existence.  Unchecked, these tendencies suffocate the heart, and as long as one's heart is pulled by these forces, it can find no peace.

Only when we can get out of ourselves are we able to breath the fresh air of friendship with God and true solidarity with one another.   At the same time, even after we see how imprisoned we are, left to our own resources, we cannot entirely free ourselves.  The answer is not to be found in our own cleverness or in some Titanic effort to surmount oneself through techniques.  Only Christ can help us leave our old way of life behind.  This is why Blessed Elisabeth's prayer begins with a cry for help.

Clinging to what Christ has revealed about the Father and about humanity, this is the essential movement of faith.  This is His word to us - for He is the saving Word that reveals this inexhaustible mystery.  Those whose hearts are vulnerable to this radiant beauty find true inner freedom.

Souls whom Christ helps to be free of themselves stand firm in love even as everything in life falls apart around them.  This is only because through Christ they have found the ground of their very being in the excessive love flowing from the Holy Trinity into their nights, their voids, their inadequacies and even their failures.  In short, come what come may they know they are loved and that love awaits them.

It by standing on this ground that a soul opens itself to God's presence in ever new and surprising ways.  On this ground, He dwells in them.  With the inflow of His truth and love, it is easy to let go and to trust, and anyone who has discovered this freedom wants to be established there in an unmovable way.

Today is the feast of Blessed Elisabeth of the Trinity.  She lived out this truth to her last anguished heartbeat, bedridden with an incurable disease even as the political powers of her day threatened those she loved the most and the Church was rocked by all kinds of scandal.  This Carmelite Mystic, the Mystic of Dijon, believed her mission was to help souls enter to a transforming encounter with Christ, one that requires a journey out of ourselves where we are vulnerable enough to be touched by Him. Her words encourage us to call out to the Word, and to let His great Canticle of love resound in our hearts with all its fulness -- for to know this saving truth is to live as if already in eternity.