March 25, 2020

The Annunciation - The Beauty of God and the Faith that Receives

The Annunciation of the Angel Gabriel to Mary reveals the mystery of the Gospel to the world, a mystery of such profound beauty that it can change our lives forever if we turn our hearts to it.  The Annunciation is the manifestation of beauty from above into this lowly world below and its light illumines and warms the hearts of all who will seek it with the eye of faith.  Moreover, this splendor is not a passive reality -- God has sent it into the world to evoke the deepest response, a response so powerful that it restores our humanity and raises it above itself.  Jessica Powers, Sr. Miriam of the Holy Spirit, was a Carmelite poet who died in 1988.  One of her poems, Beauty, Too, Seeks Surrender, includes these lines:

God takes by love what yields to love,
then pours a glowing allness
past the demolished walls and towers
into the spirit's smallness.

God's beauty, too, surrender seeks
and takes in the will's lull
whatever lets itself be changed
into the beautiful.

An encounter with the truly beautiful evokes the most humanizing surrender, drawing the heart to love, unlocking powers to love which until that moment were latent and hidden to the soul.  Beauty's truth and goodness pull forth from the deepest depths an intense longing, tender joy and holy sorrow all at once. Suddenly the heart bursts with such aching fullness and one's very being can no longer contain itself. One's whole existence must be given over, yielding to the love that beauty manifests. So it is beauty that unlocks the heart's capacity to be taken by love and to yield to love.

Anyone who has heard or seen what is truly beautiful knows this experience. One does not seize beauty but surrenders and yields to its sweet call.  Beauty evokes a kind of reverence because there is something holy about it.  Real beauty can sometimes cause a soul to freeze with fear or to turn away in timidity. Yet, if a soul is patient with the moment, it knows that its cowardice could cost it the chance of happiness not only for oneself but for all those one most loves.

When a man sees his future bride and hears her offer her heart, come what come may, because of what he has seen and heard, his life will never be the same again. This is true beauty. He must give himself to what has been given to him. Something worth laying down one's life has impressed itself irrevocably and he knows all at once not to respond to this call is to be diminished. What is beautiful has laid claim over the soul - and the soul is forever more beautiful because of this.  This logic grounds marriage's indissolubility and reflects the sacred order that exists in every genuine encounter with the Lord.

When we encounter the Lord, his beauty is not the less than it was at the moment of the Annunciation. Instead, what holds Him back from giving Himself the more to us is our lack of faith.  We believe, we complain, we beg Him to help our lack of faith. This is a good start -- an opening in humility that allows Him to unveil his beauty to us in new and more powerful ways.  He will give us the faith to behold his hidden beauty shine, to hear his silent canticle resound, and as we learn to see and hear, we like His Mother, will offer the surrender He seeks.

Christ is the Bridegroom sent by the Father and His beauty seeks surrender - because He has already surrendered Himself for our sake. Surrender is the form revealed in his radiant clarity, his due proportion, and the wholeness by which He has come to us.  Because the Angel's greeting disclosed such warmth and light, not even the broken walls and towers of that same hubris we know today could distort its meaning.

This message from above was the most beautiful truth that earthly ear has ever heard.  Gabriel revealed the shadow of the Most High, and in that sacred darkness what splendor shone in Mary's eyes! In that hidden and still silent eternal goodness, she knew love and loving offered her consent. In that most sacred moment in human history, God took by love all that Mary yielded to love - and she yielded everything - her entire soul, life's blood and body. In her yielded "yes" her heart saw and heard by faith the unsurpassed wonder of the Word even before her womb conceived.

What kind of faith allowed her to yield so radically to love?  Her attitude was one of a handmaid, a humble servant. She identified with the lowly, the hungry, the powerless, those who fear the Lord and those who trust in Him. This means, among other things, that she was grounded in her humanity and at peace with the limits of being a creature before the Lord. Such humility allowed God to pour "glowing allness" into her smallness. Such faith does not grasp but receives what it asks for. What it confidently seeks, it gratefully finds because it knocks and humbly waits until the door is opened.

March 19, 2020

2nd Part of Teresa of Avila

A Father's Prayer - clip #5

Saint Joseph and Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity

Elizabeth of the Trinity confided her purity to Saint Joseph in a very special way. She had earlier in life dedicated her virginity to the Lord, but as she entered young adulthood, her mother wanted her to marry a young army officer. He was a very good man and it would have been a good match. At the same time, Saint Elizabeth's heart already belonged to Jesus. They went to a dance together and the two for them truly enjoyed the evening.  Saints, more than others, have the freedom to have fun. Ultimately, however, she walked away from this relationship and all the wonderful possibilities it held out. She did not do so out of rigidity or fear - pious people are always accused of such things. She did so because she understood the love of Jesus that lived in her heart and she wanted to respond to that no matter the cost. She confidently prayed to the "great Saint Joseph" to "come to her aid."

Why were Saint Joseph's prayer a source of confidence for Saint Elizabeth? He is especially concerned that those who follow His Son not only grow in chastity and prayerfulness, but that they also know His Son's mirth and playfulness in life.  Mirth and playfulness reveal the characteristics of freedom we too often overlook. Yet it is these very characteristics that chastity and prayerfulness open up in the heart.  Saint Joseph helps the heart cultivate both of these inner dispositions in a way that unleashes human freedom. He prays remembering the mirth and playfulness of his Son and his Bride, and he wants us to know something of this too so that we might make the very best decisions.

Chastity is a propensity to keep up good boundaries in our relations with others and as it is mastered, it makes the most wonderful friendships possible.  It is a matter of finesse, not prudishness, in one's relationships. Such finesse requires a certain self-possession and self-awareness, a knowledge of what one can handle and of what cannot handle, and a readiness to say no to anything that might threaten one's integrity.  Such a virtue is not automatically given. It requires conscious effort, courage and determination. In difficult situations, it also requires prayer. And this is where St. Joseph, who protected Jesus and Mary, also prays for those who are trying to be chaste. He was a pure and chaste man and his prayers for those who want to be chaste are powerful before the throne of His Son.

St. Elizabeth was especially gifted at helping her friends stay oriented to God. She did it with a light touch - a simple comment or a quick glance could change the whole direction of a conversation. Friendship, so important in this life, can also become an obstacle to spiritual growth when we do not keep it directed to God's love. To keep oneself chaste is a lifetime struggle, and this struggle is only compounded when the culture in general and one's own friends particularly, look down on it. One of the many things that I will always be grateful for at Franciscan University of Steubenville was that I found a group of peers who were striving to maintain good chaste relationships in their lives. This positive peer pressure helped me make good decisions. Sometimes, when I think about the example that Saint Elizabeth provides, conversations I had with many of my friends from those days come to mind.

How was she able to help her friends stay pure? This brings us to the second virtue that she cultivated: prayerfulness. Interior purity of thought and imagination are born in the effort to enter into silent prayer.  Conversely, this interior purity of heart deepens as one cultivates the practice of contemplative prayer. To have a good spiritual life, one needs to discern good spiritual reading, a solid sacramental life, and healthy forms of entertainment. It is sometimes suggested that living such a life is too somber. In the case of Saint Elizabeth, this did not lead to a miserable life without friends -- she was in fact "the life of the party" according to her friends.  It seems the piety and purity do not diminish fun ... quite the opposite, they can make real fun possible.

Saint Joseph was a hardworking man who had a awesome responsibility. At the same time, because of his purity of heart and prayerfulness, his heart was open to a deeper kind of play ... one that man was meant to know before God.  He is concerned that our lives be filled with healthy fun and play.  The freedom of this is good for our spirits. It also allows us to navigate difficult situations and to take on tough moments of discernment - without losing the mirth that is the Christian life.  He helped Saint Elizabeth do just that ... and today, on his feast day, I am sure, even during a pandemic, he wants to help us realize the same mirth in our homes too: a playfulness born on the freedom that chastity and prayerfulness make possible.

March 14, 2020

The Deer’s Song: Lorica of St. Patrick

A few years ago, I attempted a translation on the Breastplate of St. Patrick. In this latest attempt, I want to stir a sense of both the spiritual battle as well the power of the Creed that is part of the very structure of this great prayer.  Indeed, there are even hints of the Eastern liturgies of Egypt that live in this prayer if a soul is attentive enough to pick them up.  Scholars and translators of this text probably have greater insight into such things and I must admit having to indulge in a little dynamic equivalence that a true translator might find extremely imprecise. But I think there is a certain accuracy captured below.  Indeed, I do not know how to better bring out the full sense of this ancient text in a way that would evoke the confidence and courage it did for those who first prayed it. But we certainly need the faith they had all those centuries ago renewed today in us.   Indeed,  to arise, to stand and to bind is language that speaks of a pledge to fight unto death. And so our faith is a spiritual battle and we must stand with courage against fear and anxiety and anything else that would threaten our love for one another or for God. At the same time, these words also convey that one girds, one clads, one arrays oneself with strength and power for the fight. God Himself has given us the power of the Holy Spirit, the fortitude that comes from Him, and through Him, all the wonders of creation stand with those who stand with God. It is said that St. Patrick offered this prayer with his brethren as they walked into an ambush.  His enemies were prepared to kill him and his comrades. Yet he was somehow invisible to his would be assailants.  Indeed, all they saw was a few deer walking across a meadow and their evil designs were not realized.  If true, the story is not surprising - I have heard many stories of missionaries being delivered in miraculous ways.  The Gospel of Christ is always a threat to the status quo and to those who fear losing their power. So, they try to silence it. But a new power that evil cannot overcome is unleashed - the same Power that holds together Creation is poured out for the salvation of those who will cry out to Christ.

Over thirty years ago,  my spiritual director gave me a small part of this prayer. Later, I discovered songs written based on a much longer text. This Lorica is a frequent part of my daily prayer. In a special way, I ask you to pray this Deer's Song in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Ireland, England and France - all places that were part of St. Patrick's pilgrimage of faith -- for their safety and protection during these days of great trial.

I arise clad for battle today in
That Mighty Power
of the Name of the Trinity:
Believing in the Three-ness,
Holding fast the One-ness
Creator of Heaven and Earth.

This day I array myself with
The power of Christ’s Birth and Baptism;
The power of his Crucifixion and Burial;
The power of His Resurrection and Ascension;
The Power of His coming to Judge on judgment day.

I stand this day
By virtue of the Seraphim’s devotion,
By angels’ obedience,
By resurrection’s hope unto reward,
By Patriarchs’ prayers
By Prophets’ word of power,
By Apostles’ preaching
By Confessors’ faith,
By Holy Virgins’ purity,
By righteous men’s deeds.

I gird myself this day
With heaven’s might,
With sun’s light,
With moon’s shine,
With fire’s glow,
With lightning flash,
With wind swift,
With sea deep,
With land stable,
With rock solid.

Today, I rise for battle with
God's Power guiding me,
God's Might upholding me,
God's Wisdom teaching me,
God's Eye watching over me,
God's Ear hearing me,
God's Word giving me speech,
God's Hand guiding me,
God's Way stretching before me,
God's Shield sheltering me,
God's terrible Army protecting me,
Against demon’s snares
Against vicious seductions
Against nature’s lusts
Against everyone who meditates injury to me,
Whether far or near,
Whether few or many.

I invoke today all these powers
Against every hostile merciless force
Which may assail my body and my soul,
Against the false seer’s enchantments,
Against paganism’s dark laws,
Against heresy’s false standards,
Against idolatry’s deceits,
Against spells of witches, and smiths, and druids,
Against every knowledge that binds the soul of man.

Christ, protect me today

Against every poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against death-wound,
That I may receive abundant reward.

Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ within me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ at my right,
Christ at my left,
Christ keeping the defense,
Christ setting the course,
Christ giving the orders,
Christ in every heart that thinks of me,
Christ in every mouth that speaks to me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

Today I bind unto myself
Mighty Power: The Name of the Trinity:
Believing in the Threeness,
Holding Fast the Oneness
Of all Creation’s Creator.

Dominus est salus, Domini est salus, Christi est salus;
Salus tua, Domine, sit semper nobiscum.

March 13, 2020

That Great Silence in Storm's Midst

The beauty of these forty days of Lent is that every hardship and trial can be made into an offering of love if we keep our course. Whether anxiety or frustration, disappointment or heartbreak, hidden in the exigencies of the moment is a sacrament - a visible sign of grace - inviting the response of faith, opening to a deeper encounter with the one who longs for our freedom. The challenge is to focus on the Lord's presence in the midst of the wind and waves.

Turn off every screen and speaker. Silence the cellphone and all talking heads. Enough of canned music and arguments. Eyes open, attentive ears, ready heart. Abstain, fast, and be silent - this is the life-vest to put on. Seek an icons glow until heaven finds you. For it is not we who make our way to Him so much as He who has set out to rescue his pilgrims in the threatening storm.

Days of darkness, when nothing makes sense, when evil would seem to have the upper hand, these are taken into account in God's plan too. If this is chastisement, then it is long deserved - by me more than anyone else. Save the innocent Lord who my own silence
has left so vulnerable.

It is challenging to walk under the shadow of glory - for we must forsake those earthly lights on which we too long relied. Under that shadow, our lust for power and gluttonous appetite are unveiled and we feel the sorrow of not being in control or having the instant gratification to which we feel entitled.  And then, finally, we face that lonely alienation that has been driving us and a certain painful emptiness that we have too long sought to evade. It is good to be sobered and to face the truth.

Here, even social distancing can occasion compunction, and that piercing of the heart, unleashes a sudden torrent, and healing's faintest hint whispers truth. All that once appeared good no longer does so, and what really is good, we have not yet learned to see - so dark, alone, vulnerable and in need, we finally begin to pray.

A lighted candle on the kitchen table as night descends: such simple joys are filled with meaning.  As the beads of a rosary slip through the fingers and Bible passages echo out loud, what memories of grace and of friendship fill the silence.  All of this only directs the heart into even deeper places, towards depths that the memory cannot go or the intellect glimpse - but every word of the Word is drawn there. Meaningful silences resound when Heart speaks to heart. And an astonishing secret is shared between Creator and creature. For in that ardent furnace of love, what bright warmth welcomes the pilgrim soul and the pilgrim God.  

March 5, 2020

St. Patrick's Seminary and University Lenten Lectures

Anthony Lilles, Academic Dean of St. Patrick's Seminary and University, is lecturing on the Catholic Mystical Tradition at Nativity Parish in Menlo Park. The spiritual teachings of the Doctors of the Church provide insight into prayer and encouragement for our Lenten Observances. On Monday, March 2nd, Dr. Lilles presented the Mystical Life of the Church in St. Hildegard of Bingen. Other presentations include:

St. Catherine of Siena - Christ: Bridge to the Father 

Monday, March 9

St. Teresa of Avila - The Radiance of the Trinity 

Monday, March 16

St. Therese of Lisieux - Oblation to Merciful Love 

Monday March 23