April 29, 2016

Victory Belongs to the Lord

In my last conversation with Father Gawronski before his death, we reflected on Joseph Pilsudski who fought to re-establish Poland has a country after World War I. Fr. Raymond believed that, in a certain sense, this leader prefigured Saint John Paul II. Both men were confident in the victory of good over evil, not only on a global level, but also on a personal level. Both stood up against the odds and helped people realize their own greatness through sacrifice to something greater than themselves.  For Pilsudski it was a resurrected Poland. For John Paul II, it was a new springtime for the Church. We mused over how years before John Paul commanded us not to be afraid to cross the threshold of hope, Pilsudski had already counseled, "To be conquered but not to surrender is not to be defeated, but in victory to sit on one's laurels is certain disaster." 

At his funeral, friends shared about their visits with Father Gawronski. Rather than having guests come to his room to visit, he would insist on getting up and going out to greet them even when he could do so for only very short periods of time and at great effort. He did not complain as his body gave out, but joked and laughed until his visitors found themselves laughing despite themselves. At the same time, he remained firm in his hope and would make every effort to exchange the most beautiful insights. Most of all, he remained faithful to prayer.

Father Raymond was profoundly aware of his own inadequacies, weaknesses, and failures, but he believed that the saving power of the Cross was not limited by his own sinfulness or the sinfulness of others. Like Pilsudski who refused to surrender to his political and military foes, Raymond Gawronski was not defeated by suffering and death. A faithful son of the Pilgrim Pope, he did not believe our failures and spiritual wounds ultimately define who we are, but rather we are defined by the love of God. 

When we are confronted by the mystery of death, our faith tells us that the Lord is accomplishing something new and wonderful: a new heavens and a new earth, even as everything in this world, including our mortal bodies, seems to be falling apart around us. Our sacrifices and patient endurance of these trials and hardships make a little space in this fallen world for others to glimpse the wonder of God's love. Father Gawronski is a witness that even though our efforts to serve God seem feeble and ineffective, if we have made these efforts with confidence in Him, we have not labored in vain.

This is an important example for us as we strive to live for the love of God by prayer. As we try to serve God and our neighbor faithfully, we may well be mistaken about most everything, not clear on what to pray for, or even how to act.  Even when we find ourselves unable to do anything that is truly good -- we still know by faith that God is not mistaken in His love for us and that He is always at work to bring about good even when we fall short. He knows the truth about who we are and He can not be thwarted in His great purpose -- to save us and raise up all that is good, noble and true about who we are in His sight. Christian faith knows that even as our own weakness and the weakness of others cause us to lose trust in everything else, we have only found an even deeper reason to trust in the Lord. 

Christianity, Father Raymond insisted, has three syllables: life, death and resurrection. Death is a difficult, alienated syllable, one which has plunged our whole culture into a indulgent nihilism. Yet the witness of spiritual fathers like Raymond Gawronski, even as they contend with their own death, point to another way. With Christ, the alienation of sin and death is never the last word. Instead, the prayer of faith makes death the royal pathway to a deeper solidarity with God, ourselves, and with one another.

April 16, 2016

The Witness and Mission of Father Raymond Gawronski, S.J.

In the final hours of April 14, 2016, God called Father Raymond Gawronski, S.J.from this life. Professor of Theology at Saint Patrick's in Menlo Park, he has also served on the faculty of Saint John Vianney Seminary in Denver and Marquette.  In both Menlo Park and Denver, he was involved in helping to initiate spiritual formation programs for new seminarians.

He told some important life stories during a television series on EWTN where he provided reflections on the spiritual exercises of Saint Ignatius.  Many of his reflections are now in a book published by Our Sunday Visitor, A Closer Walk with Christ: a personal Ignatian Retreat. Like many in the late sixties and early seventies, he went through a struggle to understand what his religion meant in the modern world. The son of a Polish concentration camp survivor, this New Yorker rediscovered his childhood faith as a taxi driver in Hawaii when another taxi driver asked him whether he had "met Jesus." He would eventually embrace a life of prayer as both a Jesuit and an aggregate monk of Mount Tabor Monastery in Ukiah, California.  

My friendship with him began in Rome where he defended his dissertation on the dialogue between Christianity and Asian culture in the thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar.  This work is now published by Angelico Press as Word and Silence and I used it for many years as a textbook in spiritual theology because of its stunning polemic for Christian contemplative prayer and the wisdom of the saints.

After his successful defense, he went on to Poland to complete his formation in the Society of Jesus. It was a decisive moment of grace in his life when God gave him a mission to help renew the Church in America.  In the late 90s, this mission took a new turn when he worked with priests in the Archdiocese of Denver to offer the spiritual exercises of Saint Ignatius to the first cohort of the then newly initiated Spirituality Year for young men preparing to enter seminary.

The presbyterate throughout the Rockies, the Heartland, the Southwest and California is stronger today because of his generous "fiat" to the will of God in his life. A brilliant theologian and obedient son of the Church, hundreds of seminarians and many others sought him out as spiritual director and retreat master who helped them encounter the Lord in life changing ways. As a Jesuit, his mission was on the frontiers of the Church's dialogue with Asian Culture and non-Christian religions.  As a man of poetry and art, he decried the tyranny of the culturally powerful and the spiritual vacuum that excessive reliance on technology has created in the modern heart.  As a priest, he advocated the piety of the people: pilgrimages, the rosary, the chaplet of divine mercy and, most of all, the Eucharist. As a monk, he was deeply devoted to Mary and to promoting the Heart of the Church in contemplative prayer. 

While I will offer other reflections on this remarkable priest, today, I offer you a few of his own thoughts on the need to foster a deeper contemplative intellectuality in the Church: 

"We live at the end of the so-called Christian ages. This end did not come overnight, and that which is called “Christian” was by no means definitive or exhaustive. It is hardly the end of Christian faith or life, which ends only with the Final Judgment and the restoration of all things in Christ. But the drama of salvation continues through our own apparently culturally destructive times.

We are called to know and love God above all, and to serve Him in the place and time where it has pleased Him to place us: this is the will of God for us, right where we are. Like the missionaries of all ages, we have to know and live in the Faith, and then know and understand the culture in which we find ourselves so that we can present the Gospel in a way that it can be heard.

Hans Urs von Balthasar held that the greatest tragedy to befall Christendom was the split between head and heart, between dogmatic and spiritual theology. We see the effects of that in the Church today, where a massive educational establishment yet fails to enliven the Church, where half-educated Catholics are unable to integrate their minds with their hearts, and the spiritual life becomes the matter of psychology and trendy spiritualities. At the heart of any renewal must be the experience of prayer: formation in a life of prayer. And at the heart of this is a silence that can hear God." 

Throughout his final illness, he humbly accepted the will of God with peaceful resolve and good humor. He was sixty four. Now we commend Father Ray to the mercy of God as he journeys to the Father's House.