March 16, 2014

Faith Simplifies Prayer

Faith simplifies us, in the way we live, and even in our prayer.   During Lent, elaborate meditations involving our imagination, composition of place and attending to the movements of our hearts can all be helpful.  One should use these as long as one draws good fruit.  It can also be helpful to remember the beautiful ways that the Lord has visited us in the past whether in something that happened in prayer or in something that happened as a result of it - as long as we do so to thank Him and not out of some nostalgic impulse to live in the past.

We should, however, be aware of doctrine of teachers like Saint John of the Cross: the more we exercise our love and faith in prayer, the simpler our exercises become.  If we try to hold onto methods because we want to reproduce an experience, we have introduced a complexity into our prayer that can be an obstacle to the new things the Lord yearns to do in our lives.  So we surrender our prayer to what the Lord wants and we allow Him to draw us, even when sometimes He leads us into an unfamiliar darkness, the kind of prayer we do not understand and that does not seem to offer the same consolation we were once accustomed to.

This truth about prayer is echoed in the way we should live our Christian life - out of devotion to Christ and out of an effort to imitate Him in everything.  Since Christ lived to do the will of the Father, we should examine what we own and how we live.  If there is in our lives something (like a possession, a relationship or a habit) not purely for the glory of God, then we should renounce it.  Otherwise, clutching after things that have little to do with the Lord, our hands are not free to welcome Him and receive his gifts.  Here too possessions that were fine to acquire and own at one point in our journey of faith may now be an obstacle to the glory of God unfolding in our hearts - so we must give it to someone who needs it, or else sell it and give the money to those in need.

God who is Love is simple and when His presence is welcomed, He simplifies the soul, and the simpler our souls the more room there is for His love.  What we own visibly and how we conduct ourselves in this world below should mirror this invisible, spiritual reality from above.  Divine simplicity should inform human life, here and now.  This way, as we receive the love of God, we receive it not only in our good intentions and vague hopes, but also in the nitty gritty of the present moment, the complex challenges of the concrete circumstances of our life.

This kind of true devotion is a spiritual gift from above that can only be welcomed in grateful simplicity in the ambiguities and difficulties of this life.  It is sought and accepted only after arduous efforts at renunciation and perseverance.  At the same time, such devotion is not a personal accomplishment or the outcome of our own discipline in spiritual exercises.  Prayer is not reducible to hoped for outcomes.  Prayer is in the logic of a gift, a friendship, a love, and before the mystery of love, the more simply we open our hands in trust, the more the Lord can give.

March 10, 2014

The Lenten Observance

My theory about Lent is that this observance is not so much a time for taking up impressive spiritual exercises in order to abandon them as soon as the Lenten Observance is over.  It is even less about getting proper exercise, giving up chocolate, and losing weight - even pagans do more than this.  Instead, Lent is about restoring the devotion to the Lord we ought to have all year round. 

The Lord has given Himself to us completely, and Lent is remembering this exquisite gift and pondering the return we ought to make with the whole of our lives.   How can we, in the face of His excessive love for us, do anything other than renounce ourselves, take up our Cross and follow in the footsteps of our Crucified God?  Yet there is a resistance in our hearts, a lack of gratitude, something deep inside that is repulsed by the goodness of the Lord.  

Why do we fall out of the beatitude that Christ proclaims the sorrowing know?  The world is filled with all kinds of challenges and trials.  Things happen in life that test us and even discourage us.   We also do things that cast a shadow over the discipline of the Christian life we ought to observe.   

In the midst of this discouragement, Christ is walking along side of us -- He never abandons those He loves.  As He walks with us, He asks us questions.  He is concerned about our direction and about the heaviness in our hearts. Lent is a time to listen to His questions.  

This can mean to read and to re-read the Gospels.  Such a lectio divina involves concentrating on passages with all the force of our mind while attending to the presence of the Lord with all the love of our hearts.    

Really listening to the Lord involves real fasting - from food to the point that we really feel hungry, to the point that we are in touch with our own hunger and thirst for justice.  

Listening to the Lord's questions can also mean going to daily Mass, taking time to ponder the readings, devoutly lifting up our hearts and entering with our lives into His great prayer before the Father.  

Listening means going out and finding my neighbors in their need and loneliness and making sure that they feel loved (it is never enough to just tell them so - love needs to be felt).  When we let ourselves be inconvenienced by those who most need us (true love is never convenient or easy), Christ speaks through them into our own poverty with a beautiful eloquence.  

Such listening can also mean entering into a deeper silence, one which is vulnerable to wonder and awe, and inclines one's whole being to adoration - it culminates in compunction and awareness of one's own need for mercy. 

The works of mercy, the fasting and the prayers that we take up for these Forty Days are meant to help us face a spiritual sluggishness that constantly creeps up in our lives to weigh us down.   These spiritual exercises of love help us recognize the Face of Christ who gazes on us in love. When we welcome His words, our hearts burn with the holy sorrow and secret joy of repentance.   In his eyes, we find the gift of tears which is a beatitude, the hope that lives unvanquished.