February 18, 2019

The Mystery of Death and the Need for Prayer

When friends draw close to death, a certain intensity of life presents itself. This is true in Christian death. It is meant to be a sacrificial offering of oneself to God if we give it to Jesus with the help of his mystical Body, the Church. Faith in Christ Jesus opens up this possibility.  A recent visit to see a friend helped me remember that Christ's sacrifice on the Cross allows dying Christians to share in his work of redemption even to the point that their very death releases anew the power of God's love in the world.

For the Christian, as one's own sacrifice is united to the sacrifice of Christ, death becomes the supreme moment of life, one's finest hour, in which a man most fully becomes who he is. Indeed, it is only by giving ourselves in love that the truth of who we are is realized. When death becomes an offering of oneself to God in love, the majestic self-donation that makes man in the image and likeness of God attains its most magnificent moment.

This is a hidden mystery, a great secret disguised in suffering. When the body is exhausted under a burden of pain, the lips unable to form words, and the mind so engulfed in suffering that all awareness of everything and everyone one is lost, faith's greatest prayer is unknown to all but God. It's power is nonetheless unleashed for the life of the world even as every other earthly sign of life falls under mortality's shadow. Such a prayerful death opens itself to the most profound union with God until, in final agony, the last breath becomes one's greatest act of adoration.

The man I visited is a priest and long time friend in Colorado. Msgr. Michael Glenn and I studied together in Rome and Steubenville. He invited me and my wife to join his prayer group when we first arrived in Denver. When he was made rector of Saint John Vianney Seminary, I served him as academic dean. He has tried to live a holy priesthood and to work for the renewal of the priesthood even in this turbulent time of grave scandal. He has always believed in the power of prayer, penance and the practice of lectio divina.  He has been battling brain cancer and for a while seemed to be winning. Despite the efforts of his medical team and the love and support of his friends and family, his final agony is begun.  When I stepped into his hospital room, I was struck by the love, faith and prayer that surrounded him.

Dying is difficult, but offering a noble death in faith requires the support of the whole Church. A hosts of bishops and priests have ministered to him. Many friends have come to pray with him and support him. He sometimes opens his eyes to acknowledge someone. On rare occasion, he lifts his head. We do not really know how much he is able to join us when we pray the rosary for him - but what he is conscious of, or not conscious of, is not really the point. We are joined together with him, implicated in his plight and he in ours too. This solidarity of life in the face of death is what it means to be in the Body of Christ - for there is no more important moment than the moment of death to bear one another's burdens out of devotion to the Lord.

He endeavors to offer himself as a living sacrifice in a manner deeper than what the body or mind suffers, deeper than what the intellect can search or the intuition guess. It is deeper not only than what falls in the scope of consciousness but also in what remains underneath unconscious impulses too -- at the very core of one's personal existence. From this sacred place of the soul's substance, this deepest center where the whole Trinity abides, a drama of love unfolds, even for a priest. Every Eucharist springs from this very place - for here the mystery of the Risen One communicates new life all the more when we die. A dying priest realizes this in a particular way. He, just as is true of every disciple, must confront his own hostility to God and to the great purpose for which the Word summoned him into existence. At the same time, the sacred office entrusted to him is also implicated - so that even in death, he continues his ministry in the Church.

Aside from this, there is little that he can disclose about the race he is running or the fight that he fights or the prize that he seeks to win. His faith is taking him across the unseen frontiers of fear, inadequacy and misery. If storms of pride and humiliation, doubt and regret threaten his heart, all of this is part of death when we seek to make it into an offering pleasing to the Lord.

Those who pray for him enter into this arena with him. They do so without regard for what they understand or do not understand about the pathway Christ has called him to follow. They have come to help him make this final offering to the Lord, to accompany him as he follows the footsteps of His Crucified God. By adoring Christ with and for him, we keep him company on his journey to the Father's house.

All this however is passing to the disciple resolved to persevere until he can persevere no more - and I believe Fr. Michael is this kind of soul. Such a faithful heart finds itself carried to the finish line by a love that surpasses its every expectation - and this is also true for priests. For the whole Body of Christ walks through the Valley of Death together under the Lord's rod and staff, and our prayers for one another flow from the springs and meadows through which He leads us. Our enemies assail us when we are at our weakest, but, by prayer for one another and perseverance in this great fight, victory is assured. We have this assurance because of the One who has gone before us.  Indeed, when the struggle becomes too much, He lifts us on his shoulder and carries us to the sacred banquet prepared for us.

Praying with Fr. Michael reminded me that with every act of love offered to God by a dying soul, peace envelops, establishes and shines through one's whole existence. By the prayer of faith, even in death, the whole world is made vulnerable to a love that it cannot contain. The passion of Christ is renewed.  A pledge of future glory is given. This means that there is something Eucharistic in my friend's final agony - a sacred action is being accomplished by God as this dying priest struggles to surrender everything to Him.

By the most humble assent, a baptism of divine fire surges through and infuses all one's powers of consciousness.  The Holy Spirit produces an abundance of undaunted noble passions and the holy freedom to love, no matter how feeble they have been rendered by the disintegrating power of death.  By even the most imperfect act of faith, spiritual space is made for the Father to raise up his Beloved again. This dying body and soul is transformed into an altar and an offering is made perfect even in the face of this most brutal trial.

In the hidden offering of Christian death, spiritual worship is accepted by the Most High. Such a living sacrifice truly extends the saving power of Christ in space and time as the history of humanity unfolds. Each sacrifice of praise offered in the dying body of even the least of the children of God, Jesus humbly accepts in the Fire of Divine Love. With solemn gratitude, He joins this final holocaust into the mystery His own sacrifice on the Cross so that it might bear fruit for the glory of the Father. By the ministry of Christ's Body, one's death actually consoles God's Heart like no other gift man has to offer. For in death, those who believe become most like His Beloved Son.

This sacred and unrepeatable sacrificial offering can only be made with the help and new solidarity of the Body of Christ. Indeed, the mystery of death, even as it would alienate the dying disciple from everything and everyone he cherishes, only increases the very loving solidarity and communion of holy things for which the Church exists.  This is why at death such mysterious conversions take place.  A new torrent of Divine Mercy is unleashed through all the imperfections of a soul's last offering to God. Sobered before such love, we find ourselves eager to repent and forgive and to seek forgiveness - and unexpectedly desiring to reconciled, wanting to be more patient, striving to persevere with one another just a little longer. Such great spiritual works remain hidden in the limits of human weakness, disguised in powerlessness even as time rushes on too quickly or not quickly enough. Is it not precisely because it is so hidden that the beauty of these graces are so heart-piercing? Sorrow and hope collide on this mysterious meeting place with God.

As an update to this post, Monsignor Michael Glenn died on Friday, March 1, 2019. I am grateful for the blessing he has been in my life, in the life of my family, and in the lives of so many others. May he rest in peace. 

February 9, 2019

The Urgency of Contemplative Prayer

The urgency of contemplative prayer comes into focus when we begin to ponder the transitory nature of our lives and the precariousness of the society in which we live.  We lull ourselves into thinking that things have always been a certain way and therefore will always stay the way we imagine them to be.  But this is not the way life is, and time is harshly more linear than it is cyclical. As long as we cling to the delusion that the work-a-day world is unchanging, we are susceptible to catastrophe up ending the very purpose of our lives.

Here, our judgment betrays us if we do not allow it to be purified by a new awareness of God in prayer. The faith that animates Christian contemplation knows that the Trinity's presence is always new - always bringing newness into the world as a foretaste of what is to come. It knows that Christ is sent by the Father in the Holy Spirit that we might have life to the full ... but this faith also tells us that we must be ready for this gift. He reveals His glory that we might thrive in praise of it, but if we are distracted by the same cares and anxieties that weigh down everyone else, we miss this extraordinary opportunity to our eternal detriment and the detriment of all those we love.

Matthew 24:37-40 reveals that just before catastrophe, most are mindless about their own impending doom. Even more so is the coming of the Lord in glory catastrophic for those who are cavalier about holy things and how they live. If we live our lives as if our selfish occupations were the only concerns to be concerned about; if we do not allow ourselves to be convicted of sin by the Holy Spirit; if we are not moved by the immensity of the love that burns in the Heart of God for our sake and for the whole world; we too will be overtaken by catastrophe at the coming of the Lord. A fate more terrifying than any flood, doom more dark than earthly death, a judgment more severe than time can contain - all of this is what falls on a soul that is not vigilant, but careless in the presence of the Lord.

The Lord is a just judge and His presence demands the complete and total vigilance realized in mental prayer. Such attentive silence helps us be ready to render what is His due, to give an account of ourselves before Him.  Indeed, to give such an accounting is the most important, the most sacred of all moments in one's own personal existence.

Mindful of Divine Judgment, mental prayer makes us vulnerable to the ways that Christ speaks to us in our own conscience. Such a heart to heart with the Lord draws us away from those activities that dissipate our capacity to love and plunges us in the drama of salvation. This inner stillness makes possible the renunciation of all that is not worthy of God's love and gives courage to love when love seems impossible. Nothing can better prepare us for His judgment at the evening time of life. At death, when we are infused with the light of His truth, frequent contemplative prayer has already anticipated this finest moment of life.

Contemplation searches for the Holy Mighty One, and it knows that failure to revere Him never allows a man to rise above irreverence. Such mental prayer ponders Him as ultimate Truth supported all the while by the humble realization that failure to obey Him condemns one to a meaningless existence. This prostration of the mind knows that He alone is the Righteous One with the firm conviction that failure to seek His forgiveness is to continue to wallow in guilt and shame. This captivity of thought approaches the Prince of Peace with the sobered awareness that not to welcome Him is to burn with of all kinds of irrational impulses and of unquenchable desires.  Such solemn interiority is at once wrenched in astonishment that He has suffered the consequences of our sin while also amazed over the indifference to Divine Mercy that alienates man in misery. This cry of recognition and love knows that He is come to bring Eternal Life and feels with painful sorrow how failure to believe in Him results in eternal death.

The dynamism of Christ's immanent coming into the world of my own personal existence evokes the urgency of such contemplative prayer. The end of the world is not remote, but ever present, an unfolding reality into which we are all already caught up. As stars fall out of the sky and the earth is shaken, the visible image of the ultimate and absolute love of the Father, the Judge of the Living and the Dead moves the very depths of our being with reverence, obedience, desire for forgiveness and to forgive, sobriety, humility and living faith. Yet, none of this can ever be if we do not sanction and permit this movement of grace in contemplation. Indeed, in times of supreme trial and tribulation how can we if we do not keep our eyes on Him? The faith that such prayer requires makes obvious how inadequate it is merely to think or wish for such things before His face. Instead, true vigilance in prayer makes a believer choose and beg for the grace to be reverent, obedient, forgiving, sober, and humble before the Risen One before whose personal presence one suddenly finds oneself.

Here, the urgency of contemplative prayer impresses an enfleshed spirituality - one that is full engaged in this world, but not of it. This means a movement indifferent to anything that is not God's will, but whatever God's will is to be ever ready and eager to implicate oneself in it unreservedly. As his presence dawns on us in our effort to enter silent stillness, it is not enough to vaguely intend - but we must actually offer, in the concrete moment, spiritual worship with our bodies. The presence of Word made flesh requires that our faith and love be unveiled through our bodily actions, even the words we say. This means in the earthly, nitty gritty and real day to day relationships and service that make up our daily lives. Prayer that leads away from this enfleshed devotion is not Christian - is not in the pattern of the Savior who humbled Himself, in our likeness, to become the loving servant of all unto death. By the true sacrifices that such an enfleshed spirituality demands, contemplation finds and follows in his footsteps until how we live is animated and radiant with His very life. 

February 7, 2019

The Mother of Mercy and the Abyss of Love

The Mother of Mercy spoke through Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity. As death approached the young Carmelite, she addressed Mary's words to her Prioress as well as to every soul who longs for the coming of the Lord.  The Mother of Mercy because the mercy of the Father is revealed in her Son, Jesus, Saint Elizabeth presents Mary's mission of mercy. The Carmelite reveals, through Mary's words, the generosity of the Lord who does not even withhold his own mother to help us and to affirm our faith. Just as Mary helped Jesus make his very first offering to the Father as his mother, the Virgin has come to help us make an offering of our lives too.

Out from between my arms, entering into the world, Jesus made his first oblation to the Father, and He sent me to receive yours! I brought you a scapular as a pledge of my protection and of my love, and also as a "sign" of the mystery that will be worked in you.  My daughter, I come "to cloth you in Jesus-Christ" until you "walk in Him," with the Father and the Spirit of love, into the very depths of the Abyss. I come until you are built up in Him who is your Rock, your Fortress. I come until you are "affirmed in your faith." I come until your faith is affirmed in the immense Love who plunges the very ground of your soul into the great Furnace. My daughter, this all powerful Love will accomplish great things in you. Believe in my word, the word of a Mother. This Mother thrills in seeing with what particular tenderness you are loved.  Oh, remain in the deepest core of your being and behold Him who comes fully armed with gifts. The abyss of his love surrounds Him like a cloak: the Bridegroom!

Letter 316, 24 Sept. 1906

The truth of our humanity is revealed only when we encounter the Bridegroom who gives Himself to us. In meeting Him, we discover how to offer ourselves as a gift of love for others and for God. He helps us realize that to make such a gift of self can only be learned from Him - for He not only exemplifies this gift, but enables it, the deeper our faith in Him becomes.

Indeed, we must suffer the immensity of His love and overcome our tendency to promote ourselves rather than give ourselves. As long as self-promotion and self-occupation reign within, we lack the freedom to give, to offer our lives for the glory of God and the good of our neighbor. To arrive at the freedom required to offer our lives as something beautiful for God, as a living sacrifice, as a pleasing offering, the Lord must accomplish a great mystery in us. It is a mystery of holiness, a mystery of love. This mystery that God brings about in us also encompasses our own effort too.

This is why Mary is sent, to teach us how to love in the way the Jesus loved. She can do this because she knows in a singular way the particular tenderness of Jesus' love. Indeed, love never rises to anything if it fails to demand all our effort, all our strength, the endurance of hardships, many difficult renunciations, the humble acceptance of our own inadequacies and perseverance through many painful failures. Saint Elizabeth knew that this would be impossible but for the fact that the Lord Himself accomplishes all this and so much more in us - the more we believe in Him. So, she received the gift of the Mother of Mercy - and she wants us to experience how Mary can affirm our faith in the immensity of Mercy too.

February 3, 2019

The Way of Love

There are many spiritual paths offered us in life. Some promise therapeutic relief from
burdens of sorrow and anxiety. Others achievements of consciousness and the wonders of psychic states.  There are forms of spirituality that promise power and gifts, prophecy and knowledge. The Holy Spirit, however, offers another way.

This new way on which the Holy Spirit leads passes across these other paths. It knows relief from anxiety and many other rich spiritual experiences. It is strewn with many gifts, prophecies and kinds of knowledge. A certain stature is realized. An inner strength acquired. A beautiful wisdom grows. Yet none of this is the destination that the Breath of God gently blows us toward or the ultimate purpose for which this Furnace of Love burns within.

The vanishing points to which the Soul of our Soul raises us, calls us, and directs us reach out to an unfathomable unity of love. The Creator Spirit etches us into a window through which heaven comes. He forms the clay of our humanity to become a resting place for the Living God. He breathes on us until we are covered with divine life and intimately bound to it. Our Advocate, He floats the light of truth into the deep crevices of our hearts as we ponder the Scriptures so that we might renounce what is not worthy of our dignity and glow with warmth in this cold world. He washes over us through our fasting and prayer until we are purified of anything that might betray the friendship that we are meant to know.

Finally, after we are made mature through the difficult trials and challenges of loving those entrusted to us, this Anointing from Above makes us shine with the Light of Christ as if we were icons surrounding the sanctuary of God's presence. Then, when fully having realized in our own personal freedom the unique and unrepeatable creature God has delighted in from before the foundation of the world, we will have become a communion of living signs whose joy - the limits of time and space are too small, whose peace - nothing in the heavens or on the earth or under the earth can diminish, whose love - death has no power to end.

February 2, 2019

The Battle for Integrity - a Men's Conference

Saturday, March 2
9:00 AM ~ 5:00 PM 
Sacred Heart Retreat House
St. Joseph Campus 
Anthony Lilles, S.T.D.

The battle for integrity is a task that each man must take up, not only for himself, but for all those entrusted to him. Social media and the entertainment industry present challenges that must be faced in the battlefield of life.  But the fight is not merely against cultural forces outside of oneself. Instead, it is a spiritual battle waged in the mind and for the heart. The freedom to live a meaningful life and the hope of humanity are at stake. This conference intends to inspire men to join the fray. Come and learn to take up the weapons of the Word of God, daily mass, confession, the rosary, personal prayer and fasting. Meet our allies, the angels and saints. Listen to Christ, our Captain. Renew your conviction that if we follow our Captain, if we do not betray our allies, and if we do not drop our weapons - victory is assured. 

Dr. Lilles is a Catholic theologian, married father of three, serving as academic dean of Saint John's Seminary in Camarillo, CA, Juan Diego House for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, he also teaches in the Avila Institute of Spiritual Formation. Having completed doctoral studies in '98, his research is dedicated to the wisdom of the saints and mystics of the Church.

Three ways to register:
Go to: www.sacredheartretreathouse.com  
Email: sjcprogcoordinator@carmelitesistersocd.com 
Call (626) 289-1353 x203

Sponsored by the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles

St. Joseph Campus
507 North Granada Avenue 

Alhambra, California 91801 
(626) 289-1353 x203 

Cost: $65.00 Includes:
- Dynamic and Inspiring talks 
- Sacrament of Reconciliation
- Holy Mass
- Time for personal prayer
- continental breakfast and lunch