October 19, 2019

Fighting Against Lethargy

There are periods of prayer that must endure "storms of destruction" (Psalm 57:1). These storms can be exterior events - whether meteorological or else political, sometimes familial.  Currently, it seems we are in the midst of an ecclesial storm. There are also internal storms. There are tempests of temptation that, if you ever timed them, you would find last about 30 minutes - less than fifteen minutes of which are really intense (if resolutely resisted). Sometimes, an external storm and internal storm converge with demonic force. What does a person of prayer do against such fierce threats to interior peace?

Failure to take the right steps can end in disaster.  What can happen if we are not careful is that we can lose ourselves in thundering torrents of anger or sudden chills of self-pity or in flooding escapism. A dark lethargy soon follows. We lose our heart to continue on and, thus, discouraged, lose our way.

If presumption is to be avoided in the face of a storm, how should we instead proceed?  Anxiety does not help either. Too often we permit anxiety to add to the storms that we have been given to endure. Similar to presumption's anger, self-pity and escapism, unholy forms of unchecked anxiety rob a disciple of the heart needed to follow our Crucified Master.

Devotion stands against the distaste for spiritual things that sometimes seizes us. In fact, the movements of presumption and anxiety are not far apart at all if discerned against devotion. They are both movements away from it. Without the holy oil of devotion how can we rouse up desire for holy things, rejoice in a way that gives strength to others, or stand firm though the whole world falls down around us? Such oil is wasted in the lethargy of anxiety and presumption.

There is a holy anxiety that love knows, and it gives birth to that mysterious prayer that under night and olive sweats blood. There is nothing more powerful in the world than a prayer offered in such close solidarity to the Man of Sorrows. For, He is the One who is praying in such a soul.

Holy agony in prayer rises on wings of love and obedience. This prayer is animated with the unvanquished hope of the Lamb who was slain. The triumph of this prayer goes high above the bog of fear and insecurity into which the worrisome mind often slips.

Holy anxiety, however, is not the starting point, even for the repentant sinner. Rather, Christ's saving agony is born when all other anxiety is surrendered through humble repentance and grateful tears. How do we rouse ourselves from lethargy, avoid presumption and sanctify the agony that we face? Trust and confidence in the One who has gone before us.

Rather than presumption and anxiety, only trust in the Lord can endure a storm of destruction.  Trust is the pathway to devotion - its safeguard, its source. Trust in the Lord, keeping our confidence in His power and mercy, this is what it means to hide "under the shadow" of the Lords "wing" (Psalm 57:1). As we "cling" to the Lord, He "holds fast" to us (Psalm 63:8).  This is true even when the storm is our own emotional baggage and rash judgments. Devotion grows and matures the more our trust in God takes us through these trials. Trust in Him and all else passes away. For the soul that will wait with vigilant trust, the truth, in solemn stillness, remains, and with silent majesty, the Word resounds.


October 13, 2019

Newman: Disciplined pursuit of the Truth, Doorway to Friendship

The newly canonized St. John Henry Newman invites us to a discipline pursuit of the truth that builds up the world. His Idea of a University rings with this invitation. It is an invitation that we need to hear again today just as much as when it was first written.

Too often, we direct students to what is functional and useful, but we fail to set them free to engage a meaningful social life, one that blesses the whole community in which they live. We want them to get a degree, so that they can get a job, so that they can support themselves, so that ...  But we do not always help them ask the deeper questions about existence or help them cultivate hunger for the truth.  For Newman, the Catholic University has a much higher utility than simply career placement -- he wants lay faithful who are ready to engage the world, build society, live meaningful lives and witness their faith in Christ in a compelling way.

I was exposed to a genuine liberal education, the kind of Saint John Henry Newman writes about, during my years as an undergraduate at Franciscan University of Steubenville. In the mid-80's, I felt the frustration of many in that generation. We were born into economic good times. If we were a little suspicious regarding the free-love idealism of the 1970's, we were nostalgic and naive for its hedonism. Others saw us as cynical, reluctant to sacrifice for the common good. Enchanted with Star Wars, we had not learned to wonder over the real world before us and would rather escape than apply ourselves to engaging it. Laced with nihilism, this was the conventional attitude of the day, and I was locked in its drab narrow-mindedness even while I hoped for something more.

I believed in the Lord and loved Him. There were retreats and prayer meetings and courses on the Bible before I went to college. But the conviction that His plan would lead to real happiness or that the real sacrifice it required was worth it, I was not ready for this. Behind my lethargy, I was haunted by a desire to make a real, concrete, flesh and blood decision to step out in faith. I intellectually assented to this, but I was too lukewarm to put it into practice. It is in this social context that I had heard about this small Catholic school in Ohio and half-heartedly applied late in July. A month later, a group of upper class-men greeting me at the Pittsburg Airport and we shuffled off into a van speeding through West Virginian country roads, singing not John Denver tunes, but charismatic praise songs instead.

Something clicked in my first year.  One of my professors asked me what I wanted to do. Now, I profoundly admired this priest, Fr. Francis Martin. When he taught, I felt a deep desire for the truth burn in me and sometimes, this desire caused me to actually apply myself to my studies. To flatter him, I said I wanted to teach theology, like him. He asked about my grades and when I told him, he smiled. If I wanted to teach, he explained, I would need to apply myself much more and that this would require setting some new priorities in life. This was a lighting strike. His challenging words revealed to me a desire in my heart. Up to that moment, education had been a game, and not a real engagement with life. To actually teach, I needed to actually learn.

There was a gradual shift. Instead of studying because of a function that I wanted to perform in the future, I began to study because of the truth that I was confronting in the here and now. The motivation of becoming a teacher was eclipsed by something beautiful that I was discovering through study. Although I was blessed with many very good professors, in a particular way, Alan Schreck, James Harold, Mark Miravalle, and, most of all, Fr. Giles Dimock baptized my mind in wonder. Suddenly, I was no longer simply going through the motions, fulfilling minimal obligations. Instead, a fire was set and shadows of truth's splendor began to challenge how I lived and judgments that I had made about God, about others, about myself and about life.

What I discovered in St. John Henry's writings helped me understand all that happened at Franciscan University and to better appreciate the privileged opportunity that God provided in my life. In my senior year at Steubenville, I had the honor of sitting next to David Warner. He would be the future president of Our Lady Seat of Wisdom in Barry's Bay, Canada. At the time, he was not yet Catholic but, unknown to me, thinking about it.  David also was on fire for the truth, and because of our Central California roots, a friendship was born. Years later, after he and his family entered the Church, we collaborated together in Denver.  He was writing his dissertation of Cardinal Newman's understanding of Catholic Education. While on my own, I was never quite drawn to these writings, Dr. Warner challenged me to begin reading, and after David's difficult struggle with cancer and death, engaging Newman's ideas often reminds me of our friendship and some of our discussions.

Genuine Catholic Education is a privileged opportunity that can open to great friendships and the discovery of one's own mission from God. As the Academic Dean of St. Patrick's Seminary, I have come to see that Newman is right: desire for the truth demands excellent teachers, intense reading beautiful literature, clear focused thinking about difficult to grasp connections, and decent writing about the whole human experience, from its ancient roots to its most contemporary applications. This is a journey from a little knowledge about many things to a profound understanding of the most important things. Left to ourselves, we will never see those deep and meaningful connections that purify and advance society or even one's own private life. Yet, in a community bound together in pursuit of what is genuinely good, noble and true, men and women learn those arts of companionship and right judgment that help those with whom they interact flourish. This is as true for future priests as it is for the lay faithful.

Though I do not have extensive experience with the broader education of the laity, please allow me to end with a note about why St. John Henry's vision of Catholic Education is so important for the faithful today, so necessary for Catholic institutions to strive for.  We live at a time when the lay faithful are at the frontlines of the mission of the Church. The secular character of their vocation puts them in direct contact with those who would never hear the Gospel of Christ without their particular witness.  This witness belongs to the marketplace of ideas and the public square, the water cooler and the Board Room, on the field and in the stands, on the job sight and around the dinner table.

Some might object that the kind of education that Cardinal Newman advocates is not practical for an actual job and, therefore, a waste of time and resources.  Others question whether such an education really prepares men and woman for the real world. I can recall some who were dissatisfied with the Catholic education that they received at Franciscan. My heart is saddened also by some whose lives fell apart and did not meet with success. Yet success or failure in life is not the ultimate criteria. Many who fail are all the happier for having tried. As I consider my Steubenville friends, the ones who even in the face of difficult illness and reversal of fortune persevered in their faith, there is a deep gratitude for their beautiful families, their contributions to society, their lives of faith ... I am not sure that any other kind of education could have prepared them as well or better for the life that the Lord gave them to live.

October 11, 2019

Peace and Prayer

While contention in the media and among bishops marks the life of the Church today, it is easy to get caught up in all the battles and to forget to turn to prayer. Shrill accusation, vitriol and provocation beat at the doors of our hearts like barbarians before the gates, and we forget the Guest who has made His home within us.  Perhaps this mirrors state of our households and parishes. Perhaps, our struggle to pray signifies even deeper discord that we suffer in our own souls.

Prayer is more powerful than ecclesial politics, theological rancor or personal failure. Big personalities cannot stop the mind attentive to God and the political gymnastics of the powerful are lost in a humble petition's shadow. The wings of a heart that relies on God rise above familial conflict and tense marital arguments. Pleading before the Lord baptizes humiliation in hope. 

No abyss of pain can yawn between two hearts any further than the prayer of faith still can cross. With fasting and sacrifice, not even the powers of Hell can hold back that surge of heart that Christ joins to His own. A cry to the Lord can still even the restlessness and lack of interior peace that we suffer because of sin - our own and of those who Christ has given us to bear for His Body, the Church. 

In fact, reverently repeating the name of Jesus is enough to bring us back to our senses. His Name helps our knees find the holy ground on which they were created kneel and our head the only glory before which it should bow. This is the only Name that ever brings unity to the Church or restoration to families. If divisions seem insurmountable, invincible floodgates of mercy are unleashed by the power of the Name of the Lord. No other name can heal one's own integrity or restore one's own dignity as can the invocation of Jesus. 

October 8, 2019

The Rosary and the Silence of the Word

The Rosary is a pathway of prayer that follows the mysteries of the life of Christ. It challenges us to ponder in our own hearts what Mary pondered in her heart. Sometimes our personal reflections on these can be a little sentimental. Sometimes they can be a little too cerebral. This happens in human conversation too.  Yet if a conversation with a friend never goes deeper than platonic ideas or emotive outbursts, a genuine communion of hearts alludes us. Thus, in praying the Rosary, it is not enough to attempt to move our affections or entertain ourselves with new insights. We ponder the mysteries that live in the heart of Mary so that we can love Jesus the way that she knows and loves Him.

To go deeper than thoughts and movements of emotion, we must allow the Word of the Father to draw us into the silence that He knew in the womb of Mary. Long before He knew this fruitful silence in her body, He had already delighted in it -- for it sprung first from the depths of her heart. Pure, there was nothing in this fruitfulness that would impede His self-disclosure. So, without her understanding or feeling or even intuiting, He gave Himself in the power of the Holy Spirit. The words of the Angel Gabriel reveal not only a definitive moment in the communication of the Word, but also a reality that had already in some sense begun without her knowing. His self-gift began as a hidden reality of the heart before it was embodied and revealed to the visible world.

Similarly, when we pray the Rosary, the most fruitful moments are the silences between our insights and the stillness between the movements of our heart. In that silence and stillness, He is at work accomplishing far more than our own human industry could ever achieve. Our posture becomes one of wonder, surrender, and joy filled thanksgiving -- those attitudes of Mary and the only attitudes that adequately respond to the destination that the Rosary directs us to. 

October 1, 2019

Wisdom and Spiritual Childhood

St. Therese of Lisieux is the champion of spiritual childhood in the Church. This kind of childhood has a heroic note -- the note of confidence in the Lord's Merciful Love.  This kind of confidence trusts that through persevering in love of God and one another, no matter what happens, the Lord will be victorious - the more we trust in Him, the more His victory is realized, even in our failures and weaknesses. Before her illness and the spiritual trials that she endured at the end of her life, she entrusted herself to the merciful love of God, consecrating herself as a "victim of merciful love."  Her self-offering contains this same radical confidence in the love of God -- if I will allow Him to do with me what He will, it will cost me everything, but such a price is worth it because of the immensity of His love. Those who make this same surrender enter into God's perspective of this life -- the purpose of which is to learn to love the way that He loves.  This surrender challenges us to see our brothers and sisters with the resurrected eyes of Christ, eyes that always contemplate a reason for the hope that we have inside.

This kind of hope, the hope that comes when we surrender everything to Christ, even our own dreams about the kind of happiness that we think we want, gives God space in the world to accomplish beautiful things in the lives of others. By choosing this surrender, we allow ourselves to be pierced by the plight suffered in the hearts of those Christ entrusts to us.  We feel in ourselves the desire not to allow our brothers and sisters to suffer alone just as God desired when He sent His Son for our sake.  We are convinced about the dignity of our neighbor and willing to do whatever we can to protect his integrity no matter the cost just as Christ desired when He spread Himself on the Cross as a victim for our sake.  Most of all, we feel gratitude for what the Lord has done for us and we know that whatever we do in return is nothing in comparison, yet we do it anyway because we love Him who loved us.  When all our efforts end up in disaster and it seems that nothing we have taken up has made any difference at all, we have finally embraced the Cross on which Christ sanctifies everything and makes all things new.  This is no wisdom of this world, but wisdom from above.