April 30, 2020

Silence and the Strength of God

For Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity, silence is two activities at once. One the one hand, silence is the work of the soul dying to itself, forgetting itself, renouncing all that is not God through the recollection of all of one's thoughts and passions until one's whole being is ordered to God.  Keeping silence in these ways is a difficult task but those who take up this discipline discover it as a source of strength.

On the other hand silence is the work of God drawing the soul.  He is the source of all true silence and He has buried Himself in us.  In Him alone does one bury oneself when one has died to oneself.  He leads the soul into a hidden solitude, covering it under the shadow of His power and glory.

The progress of the soul into this silence is not grasping and forceful, but instead one of a wholly simple and loving movement.  Only a simple loving movement can enter into the loving simplicity of the Holy Trinity.  Such is contemplative prayer - love led faith into a communion of love, light and life.

Here, in this great silence, when the soul is finally vulnerable in its faith and ready to surrender, there are deep undercurrents in the love of God that can suddenly take it. From the outside, this Divine Impact appears to be certain disaster. From within, the soul has been transforms and adheres to God with a strength that nothing, not even death, can overcome. In the very brokenness of our lives and our hearts, a new creation springs and a peace is given that this world cannot give.

April 29, 2020

Science and Theology in the Public Square

Is there undue regulation of free speech on Youtube? I learned that an interview conducted by two doctors out of Bakersfield, CA may have been taken down. Apparently, some can still post it so that it is still available. The justification however was provided that this interview constituted a violation of community standards. In fact, they simply presented scientific evidence that brings into question some of our public policies - including policies that are regulating gatherings for public worship. Their findings were startling because they called into question many of the practices now in place and by so doing, these findings were helping to advance a better conversation that might help us make prudent adjustments. Yet they may have been taken down as misinformation.

This was the same justification given to me by Facebook over my posts on prayer in that forum. I was told that my posts about the spiritual life did not conform to community standards. I am surprised that there should be a connection between theology and science on Facebook and Google- that the administrators of these commercial products feel that they must suppress both. This would seem, however, to be a betrayal of the very values that they have allied themselves with in public.

To be clear, I believe an abundance of caution is called for in our public policies because this is a dangerous virus. We should protect one another - for the common good of our society is at stake. But that common good cannot be served in so far as efforts to discern the truth are suppressed. Some disagree with this position. At a time of crisis, they believe that any dissent is irresponsible speech. They believe the expression of ideas should be regulated on the internet as it is in China: https://www.theatlantic.com/…/what-covid-revealed-a…/610549/.

As the culturally powerful crush dissenting opinion, our ability to discern the truth as a society is compromised.  That is why it is very important for Catholics to bring their voice and perspectives into the public square - for religious freedom is not a private right, but a public good. Alerting the public to new evidence and discussing it, even if it calls into question current policy, is a responsible use of social media and should be affirmed in the community standards of Facebook and Youtube.

The whole history of the 20th Century tells us that freedom to religion and the access to truth are public goods that are easily lost - and when lost, it is always to the detriment of humanity. In California, the governor has dictated a plan by which Churches will remain closed for months on end. Apparently, it is the feeling - not of the people - but of policy makers that religion is too dangerous for society - a belief held by totalitarian regimes. What kind of society do we live in?  Whether or not the governor has dictated a good plan we will never know because, thanks to the totalitarian tactics of Facebook and Youtube, voices of science and religion are being suppressed.

April 26, 2020

Building a New World in Light of the Resurrection

Recently, Pope Francis called on the members of the Church to build a new world where there is equity among the poor and the rich. He did this in the face of the terrible devastation that has fallen on Italy during this time of pandemic. He also did so in light of the hope that we have in Christ. The Lord has risen from the dead and this opens up new possibilities for humanity- even in the face of anguish and anxiety. It is the role of the whole Church to proclaim this hope - the hope that we have in the Risen Lord.

Whatever else a new world might be, it would be reductionistic to see it only in terms of improved economic and distribution systems.  Indeed, the greatest problem that the poor face today is not material. The worse of all inequalities is that the most vulnerable are frequently spiritually neglected and under served. God's indwelling presence that is given to us by the Risen Christ compels us to address the needs of those in the greatest need, especially their spiritual needs.

During this pandemic, while ecclesial officials navigate local policies and public safety, the poor are the ones who inevitably suffer the most. In the midst of this crisis, the Church faces severe obstacles in providing housing, shelter, food, medical care and clothing for the poor at a time when there is a growing need. Extra generosity is needed by all believers. When, however, public worship is limited, the poor are cut off of the one place where their dignity is upheld as they share equally with the rest of society in offering to God what belongs to Him. In other words, the poor are carrying an undo burden for the rest of society when they are prohibited from gathering in worship even if this must be done for public safety. How do we deal with this?

At a time when an abundance of caution is duly called for, we also must be vigilant about the freedom to pray, not only in private, but together in public worship. This is not a selfish individual right - this is a public good, a great good especially for the poorest among us. To forego such a noble purpose anywhere for any length of time can only be justified under the most extreme circumstances. Yes, there have been other moments in history when such action were required. No doubt we are facing extreme circumstances in many communities - but do these circumstances exist in all communities in the same way?

On this point, I have found little scientific consensus. To prolong the suspension of public worship indefinitely based on the conflicting opinions among various experts should be concerning. To permit such a state of affairs merely out of concern for the optics or because voices in the media might ridicule public worship - this is a grave sin. We must not neglect to plan for the restoration of public worship in a responsible way, a way that protects the health and dignity of all the faithful.

What does it mean that policies are in place whereby, no matter the local circumstances, public worship in all localities is discouraged if not outright forbidden? Perhaps the circumstances exist that justify such policies. The experts have the obligation to resolve differences in opinion and come to a clearer consensus for the sake of society. Media have the responsibility not to sensationalize the truth or to shame into silence those who have a legitimate difference in opinion. Public officials also have the responsibility to safeguard our right to worship and assure its restoration as soon as is prudent to do so - any other behavior is simply oppressive. If there is justification for suspending public worship in a way that precludes the poor, as people of faith, we have an obligation to ask questions and to understand clearly what these circumstances are and how to deal with them to protect the vulnerable among us. 

April 24, 2020

Witnessing to the Risen Lord

Christ is risen from the dead and in the shadow of His healing presence, Christians no longer are driven by a fear of death. Instead, imbued with the life of the Savior in them, they are healed and driven by obedience to the love of the Father. Thus, they boldly proclaim the victory of Christ in the face of death, and offer those who most need it, a reason for the hope they have inside. They do this because the Risen Lord has chosen to work through the mystery of frail human freedom. When we believe, He gives us the strength to love with an audacity that reveals God.  It is in the sanctuary of each one's personal freedom that the Lord of Life gives this true power.  To anyone who freely chooses to believe that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead and accepts Him as Lord, He boldly forgives and abundantly communicates to them His very life.

The greatest proclamation of this truth - its source and climax - is the Mass. Here the Scriptures are read and reflected on, prayers are offered, the words He spoke the night before He died are boldly uttered again, the peace He gave when He rose again, is given again. At the Mass, the medicine of immortality is offered to the whole Church whether or not we can be present.  This healing love comes from Christ and He freely gives it to all who ask with faith and perseverance.  Anyone who receives this healing love, even if he dies, lives forever. Of this healing remedy, nothing is rationed. All is generously given.

Faith in Christ is about dealing with truth about the world and ourselves, and learning to love with His love, even in the face of death.  Never a magical escape from suffering or sickness or life, this faith provides determination and confidence even as the world falls apart. It always sees the good and works for it, when what is good seems most impossible. In the current crisis, for many of us, the most loving thing we can offer to God is to stay home and take care of those entrusted to us. For others, the most loving thing may will require even greater audacity. No Christian is ever excused from pondering what is good and noble, and every Christian is compelled to act on it with deep gratitude for what Christ is bringing about in our midst.

If from time to time through the centuries Christians have had to refrain from gathering together during times of plague, fear of death would never be an adequate explanation for what motivated their actions. Indeed, among some, maybe most, there would be moments of human weakness, but on the whole they acted for love for neighbor more than fear for themselves. Whatever the case, in their obedience to civil authority and common sense, they strove for noble rather than timid decisions. For those who live by faith in the Risen Lord, it cannot be any other way.

There have always been some non-Christians who believe that the boldness of the faithful before death is irrational and possibly dangerous. This is equally the case today. During this deadly pandemic, some experts suspect that Christian worship is dangerous. When priests or religious expose themselves to death to minister to others, it only confirms their deep suspicions.

No doubt that an abundance of caution under current circumstances is justified. Yet, there are some ironies that need consideration. For example, just how commercial interactions involved with cannabis or alcohol are less dangerous than limited gatherings for public prayer is not clear. Whatever the case, to really help patients and their loved one's deal with sickness and death, the worship of the Risen Christ would seem more rational and dignified than the escapism of substance abuse. Deeper prayer rather than more intoxication seems the better route to deal with the loneliness and anxieties of quarantine.

There are healthy young priests and religious who feel compelled to minister to the sick and dying, and those who care for them. They suffer a certain ache to bring a word of hope into hopeless situations - it is why they were consecrated to God. They are not indifferent to the anxieties of those entrusted to their care and they are very mindful of the limits that social media imposes on the ministry.  They need to be where Christ is at work and He is always at work among the most distressed and vulnerable. Obedient to due authority and observant of all the necessary precautions, at the end of the day, the love of Christ compels these ministers. The Risen Lord, at work in the world, is unleashing His eternal love in them -- and, moved by this love unleashed, these witnesses to Christ cannot but unleash inestimable treasure where this healing power is most needed.

April 19, 2020

The Still Small Voice

In our households, there are moments where it is good to turn off all the entertainment and diversions, light a candle, fold our hands, close our eyes and pray.  God speaks in silences, and the mature soul longs for those silences.  It does not have to be for long. All He needs is our readiness to surrender. Indeed, He can accomplish more in the twinkling of an eye than we can by years of conscious self-improvement. Indeed, some of our spiritual gymnastics do little more than prevent us from hearing His still small voice. The humble and persistent knock opens what arrogant self-reliance shuts out.

A subtle whisper moves with great delicacy through the heart echoing up from its deepest chambers, beckoning our pursuit into the unfamiliar and uncomfortable wilderness of a truer love. This familiar whisper is not our own, but resounds from the One from whom our being comes and for whom we were made. He is the Life Himself who made us, the very Truth who holds us into existence, the Way by which alone we find our heavenly homeland.  Now through the power of the Holy Spirit who He sends to us, we can hear this Word of the Father with the ear of our heart. Risen from the dead, He makes us understand that love surpassing all understanding - if only we might savor this spiritual food! If for one moment one glimpsed those eyes gazing on us with such kindness. What beautiful meaning His gaze traces in the soul! If we let Him, He will etch this hidden splendor into the fabric of our being until it breaks forth in action.  

April 18, 2020

Divine Mercy Sunday in the Pandemic

The mercy of God is at work in the world because Jesus is at work in the world. He is bringing to completion the eternal plan of the Father in manifold ways - and the greater the work being done, the more hidden from our eyes the accomplishment. This is not magical thinking. It is simply faith.

We do have a problem with magical thinking in the world. Yes it is magical to presume that positive thinking and religious presumption will fix our problems.  It is magical to think there will be no consequences if we do not use common sense or listen to the good counsel of experts and government leaders.  It is also magical to think that we can confront our present crisis without prayer and conversion of heart. It is madness to presume we can confront this crisis without God. It is crazy not to humbly ask for His help.  It is naive to put all our trust in human institutions. It is definitely magical to believe that the present crisis is simply about the spread a physical disease.

There were decisions made on the basis of profiteering and cavalier consumerism that made the world vulnerable to deadly dishonesty. We live in pure fantasy not to believe that the most vulnerable are the greatest victims of all. World powers play their heartless games, and we, each one, shield our hearts from being pierced by their plight. We are deluded to imagine that God does not see this.  The Lord is not responsible for the pandemic. Satan is because he is a murderer from the beginning. He is the father of lies, and there have been some very evil lies. God nevertheless is watching in judgment over us - and who is just in his sight? It is time to appeal to His mercy.

Shameless, we are driven by shame. It is magical to try to drink away the pain or distract ourselves from it through escapes into digital diversions. Indeed, behind pandemic there is sin, structures of sin, social sin and personal sin. Medicine cannot heal sin and quarantine cannot contain it. Only divine mercy can do that.

The Mercy of the Father is forever more powerful than sin. Give your sin to Him. Death cannot overcome this immense love. Give your dread of it to Him. No amount of suffering can diminish the inexhaustible vitality of His goodness to us - for His Son has already suffered to the end for our sake, and He raised Him up. Nothing prevents the Father from doing the same for us - if we will trust His Son whom He has sent for our sakes.

No plight is too much for His boundless love to bear. His mercy restores dignity. It alleviates hardship.  Divine Mercy lifts up the lowly. It shelters, feeds, clothes the poor. It moves hearts long frozen and convicts even the most poorly formed conscience. It accompanies the lonely and walks alongside those who believe they are having to carry on alone.

Such is Divine Mercy at work in the world - it shines like the stars through the saints in the streets working with the homeless, healthcare workers in hospitals with the sick and dying, among civil servants trying to preserve order and quell fear, among those carrying on essential tasks behind the scene, among parents caring for their children and children caring for their parents, among neighbors who look in on each other, and among ministers and priests who offer the Eucharist for us though we cannot be there with them.

So there is great reason for confidence - and it is time to rouse great confidence. If the sky is dark, God smiles down on us through myriads and myriads of stars. If wave after wave of misery seems to flood over the world and one's own soul, greater waves of mercy are also flowing. These mighty waves have an unconquered source, unseen by the eye of natural reason, but only a prayer away. The Risen Lord with open wounds and pierced heart comes to us stepping into this difficult darkness in search of us so that we do not walk alone, and if we follow Him who is Mercy itself, He will lead us home.

April 16, 2020

The Freedom to Worship God

To deal with a very serious medical emergencies, bishops and pastors collaborating with governmental official made some tough decisions about Easter celebrations this year. As a Catholic, not being able to participate in the flesh in the liturgies of Holy Week and Easter was a great sacrifice. I also believe, however, that God used this sacrifice and that He is at work in the world in a powerful way. That is why I look forward to the restoration of our right to worship God -- as we develop ways to safely be with each other again in public, the first thing we need to do is praise God for his goodness to us. This act of worship would show the ascendancy of human dignity over the threat of disease and our courage as God's people in the face of catastrophic circumstances.

In the coming weeks and months our society needs to rediscover the freedom to worship God. Though profound respect for experts is owed them for helping save many lives in this current crisis, there are other goods at stake that go beyond quelling fears and saving lives.  Disease experts and political leaders do not get to make an absolute claim over how we should live -- they have an important voice, but there are other voices that must be brought into the conversation. And it is evil to assume that when there is a grave threat, religious workers and ministers do not perform essential activities. There have been far too many chaplains who shed blood on battlefields for that hypothesis to be defended.  As a bishop in the Southwest put it, if pot shops and liquor stores are essential, it is likely that some religious services are as well.

Though prudence is required and mutual concern bids an abundance of caution, fear of death cannot be used as a tool to coerce compliance for the sake of a socio-medico experiments -- and too much of the media has been given over to hysteric contradictions one day to the next. Listening to the experts is key, yet we need to have an honest assessment of their disagreements - and not quickly write-off those whose opinion does not match a politically expedient point of view. In particular, to discern how best to restore the freedom to worship, religious leaders and government officials need the sober and simple truth, not meaningless conjecture.  We are at a point where we need to admit that in some cases some decisions were made on the basis of conjecture that ought now be reassessed. This act of humility opens a horizon of better decisions.

There is a great need, not only social and psychological, but also spiritual, for political leaders and government officials to restore religion to its rightful place in our society as soon as it may be done as safely as possible. Among the decisions that were made, some of the limits placed on the pastoral care of the sick need to be looked at.  So too we should consider whether there are not responsible ways for the faithful to gather for worship - at least in limited ways.

Religious freedom and human dignity are threatened when some experts and leaders presume that nothing is lost to a society when it must sacrifice public worship. When police are sent to ticket Churchgoers who are otherwise practicing social distancing and taking other precautions, something is amiss. When the most looming concern is not how to provide the spiritual care that people need in the midst of this crisis but instead how to ration resources or restore the economy, something is out of wack. Men do not live by bread alone ... and any society that believes otherwise will never hold together. Society opens itself to the gravest forms of abuse when those with power believe that not only during this crisis but afterward public prayer is too much of a health threat to allow.

If someone charges that religious fanatics do great harm, I would charge that fanatics without religion do worse. Contrary to the prejudice of many, religion is not a private affair. It is something for the public good. When we relegate the worship of God to the privacy of our homes, the very heart of our culture is vulnerable to being lost. Put differently, our society risks diseases far worse than death when its people are deprived of the healing Word of God. Indeed, God does not need our worship - but we need to worship God. His love is better than life and not to render Him His due is not really to live at all - for without worship we only exist ... and man cannot long bear a meaningless existence.

Piety is no more a dispensable character trait for a man than it is for a nation. If during times of war or extreme emergency public worship must be suspended, its absence over a longer period of time always has lasting consequences for society that are not easily dealt with. That is why, as plans are advanced to restart the economy, governmental leaders should be also working with religious leaders on how to restore public worship and open up the right of access to it. More than that, a good leader should not only ask God in his private prayer on behalf of the people for His help, that leader should be first in line in those places of public worship to show the citizens how important it is that we thank the Lord for the great mercy already shown us as a people.

We are religious beings who need to worship God, not only as individuals, but as communities in social solidarity. We do not come to praise God as alienated individuals seeking some therapeutic mental hygiene. We come out of mutual concern, to build each other up, to share a word of hope, to help provide a little guidance for the next step each one will have to take, and that we will all need to take together. Yet, we come together for something more than ourselves, to participate in something beyond the preservation of our own lives, to share in something that helps us get out of ourselves for a little while and enter into a place where we might thank Him who has been so good to us.

Worship is a social reality because God is interpersonal - He not only works in the interior of the heart but in the exigencies of the public square. He is the Lord of encounter - not only in private prayer, but in a community that humbly seeks His aid.  Thus, worship is most fully expressed when we are bound together, one with the other, in a solidarity of faith and fellowship.  This need is not the less in pandemics. Yes ... the technology has helped us pray and this is a grace. All the same, worship is a physical thing that we do with our bodies and voices in an actual place together with our neighbor. The place and time are set apart, sanctified for a great purpose - love of God and neighbor for the sake of God's glorious grace. And in that moment of worship, all that is most good, holy and true about being human is manifest - and something new begins.

Mystical Grace, Contemplative Prayer and the Perfection of the Christian Life

While few of us will reach the highest degrees of mystical prayer, many more of us are being invited to some degree of it in our life.  This is prayer where God is the primary actor and we respond to his initiative.  In initial efforts at prayer, actual graces are at work without our having done anything to deserve them.  Yet, those graces are ordered to helping us make the effort that, up until now, we have not had the desire or courage to make.

Think of prodigal son in Christ’s parable. By some grace he did not deserve he came to himself and began to reason with himself about his plight. This actual grace of conversion prompts him to examine and accept his situation, to change his mind about his actions and about his father, and then to do something about it.  We could say that the grace of conversion is "operative" because behind all of the son's actions, there is something that God is doing without the son ever knowing it or doing anything to deserve it. He simply responds to this divine action. The love of God works in this way in our lives - mysteriously moving us to repent.

When we accept the grace of conversion, all at once a whole new range of actual graces overflow our lives.  Among these graces, there are those in which we take the initiative but God cooperates with our effort.  We could never receive these cooperative graces had God not moved us to conversion first. Without His action, we would never take the initiative. He acted, and now we are free to act. And He loves to work in our freedom. When we sanctioned His judgment in our hearts, we gave Him the permission to help us in new ways that He could not help us before.

For the prodigal son, he needed to make the decision to get up, turn to His Father’s house, go and humbly plead his case, accepting his responsibility.  Grace is at work in his actions even though he is taking the initiative.  For God to help him, the young man needed to choose to stand up and go to his father’s house. We could say that God cooperated with his efforts, supporting him all through his journey home. So we call this cooperation on God’s part, cooperative grace, a divine action that cooperates with the actions of human freedom. The way God has made the human heart and the work of salvation, there are initiatives and efforts that must be made in the spiritual life. If we have accepted truth in our hearts, we must profess with our lips and live with our lives. But we never do these alone. In these cooperative graces, the Lord supports our freedom in beautiful but hidden ways - unaware of all He is doing behind the scenes, we have no idea how much we have to be grateful for.

Mystical grace, even in the most initial degree, is a new divine gift other than the grace of conversion and it is not the same as the cooperative graces. Like all grace, it is ordered to our holiness. Like all grace, it was won for us by what Christ suffered on the Cross.  This mystical grace, however, is actual and operativen in an entirely new way. This means that God acts and we respond - but our response is a much deeper surrender than anything we have ever been able to render before.  We belong to Him more radically, more completely than we could have ever given ourselves, even in our grace supported effort: there are divine workings makings that completely surpass anything we have done.

In the parable, Jesus teaches that the father saw his son coming from a long way off and ran to him.  The Father sees us, contemplates us, long before we see and contemplate Him. His ever greater desire for us evokes even our most tepid our desire to come into His presence. His loving gaze evokes love when we seek Him in prayer. We walk. He runs. We say we are not worthy. He greets us with a kiss and embrace and endows us with rings, and shoes, and a robe - and then throws a party - for we who were dead have come back to life. In the grace of mystical prayer, the soul comes to realize that no matter what it has done, it is as nothing compared to the immensity of what the Lord is doing.

The least degree of mystical prayer is the grace of the Father running to us, embracing us, kissing us, clothing us, honoring us, and celebrating our home coming.  Anyone who knows the joy of this homecoming remembers that it is so overwhelming that in a single moment, every the sorrow, hardship and difficulty is forgotten. We suddenly realize where we belong, and we want to stay there. Something so much more beautiful has made a claim over us that causes the banality of our own sin to relinquish its claim. We are contemplated, seen, recognized, known by the Father - and so we contemplate Him with the deepest conviction that we have not even touched the surface of the inexhaustible riches of Christ.

April 14, 2020

United under the Radiance of the Face of God

This Easter, we celebrate life, even in the face of death. There are loved one's who have faced death and not all of them have made it through. This passing out of this life is a difficult sorrow for those of us who are left behind. There are no words to express or relieve the heartache. When death is not expected, we are left with a troubled sorrow and unanswered questions.  

Christ knew this sorrow too. His heart was troubled before the tomb of his friend Lazarus. And so He stands with us, allowing our tears to mix with ours. He did not create us for death, and He came to overcome its claim on our existence. 

Through our faith, the Risen Lord leads us beyond the limits otherwise imposed on us by death. His love is unconquered and no threat to human existence can impede His way. So our Captain leads those who have died in faith into everlasting light, and those of us who still live by faith follow this Victor even under the shadow of that same glory. This symphony of glory and faith is the communion of saints - an exchange of holy gifts between the whole people of God both in this mortal life and in eternal life. 

What union between heaven and earth is realized in the Savior! So in that most sorrowful hour, when unanswered questions buffet our very existence and everything we believed about our lives seems to be shattered, we still have hope. Our hope does not disappoint -- for no matter what we suffer the love of God is poured out in us through Him (Romans 5:5). And if He is Lord of all and all things belong to Him, even death is subjected to His power to restore and make new.  

Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity reflected on these same truths with a young seminarian who had lost his father.  Her words reach out to everyone who has lost someone in this present crisis too.  They are a call to live with our hearts in what is above and to make our priority those things of heaven that seem so far away. This is how she dealt with the death of those she love - it is the Christian faith. And so she prays with us so that all might enjoy the eternal face to face that we were meant to know from before the foundation of the world: Let us live in what is above, in what is very far away, in Him... in us...  Under the radiance of God's Face, I remain united with you. (Letter 200, April 27, 1904)

Mass and Poustinia this Easter

Poustinia is one way to deal with these High Holy Days without the Mass. The word poustinia means desert or wilderness. In the Eastern Churches, members of the faithful sometimes retire into the wilderness to fast on bread and water and read the Holy Bible. To be drawn into such solitude is a great gift even if it happens only once in a lifetime is a great gift. We are dealing with a once in a lifetime moment now, and the grace of poustinia may be part of it.

One of the hardships of being in poustinia, especially in remote locations, is that Mass is difficult if not impossible to attend. So for those who participate in the Eucharist everyday, going into poustinia means not being able to be physically present for the liturgy. Yet, when you go deep enough into prayer, no matter where you are, the Liturgy of the Body of Christ is present. In fact, you have entered into the heart of the Mystical Body, the deepest spiritual center in which the Eucharist is the source and summit.  In all the trials and hardships that make up the silence and solitude of the wilderness, the true poustinik goes ever deeper into the Eucharistic mystery - never away from it.

Just as those who periodically forego the Eucharistic Liturgy to enter Poustinia, we find ourselves in our homes unable to go to Mass. Yet if we enter deep into prayer, just as is the case in poustinia, one discovers that faith brings what is most essential close to the heart. The Church is not less important if we are in solitude. Her worship not less vital for our relationship to the Lord though we are cut-off from our communities. This is because, in the liturgy, the Bride of Christ provides such multivalent access to the inexhaustible treasures she possesses in the Bridegroom - in both visible and invisible ways.

This bold access is opened through a beautiful dance of words and signs, symbols and cultic acts - each of which is drawn from the Holy Bible with sober intoxication whether or not we realize or understand it. The Savior established them - for He preached, and when Christians worship there is still preaching even when we cannot hear it. He took bread, blessed it, and gave it to his disciples. So too the mystical Body of Christ continues His saving actions even when we do not see or hear them.

It is not the case that the public worship of the Church is superfluous even in life and death situations - for martyrs have suffered death for the sake of going to Mass. While prudence and charity bid that we keep distance from each other for a short time, there are evils worse than a virus that only the visible worship of the Church can address. The State and experts are simply not qualified enough to protect us from such things - for humanity is made to praise God and when we do not, our dignity is diminished and integrity put at great risk, and this never ends well.  Yet, current circumstances call for prudence, and rendering Caesar what he asks for may well keep the most vulnerable among us safe. There are those, however, whose role it is to render unto God what belongs to God, and so by their actions on our sake the interest of the state is subordinate to the interests of God.

In the Eucharistic liturgy, everything the Church knows by heart is at stake: man pouring out his heart to God and God crying out to man, a mutual exchange sealed by the Blood of the New Covenant Christ.  It is a tangible and concrete reality and prayer enters into this same concreteness if we let it.  It goes deep into those cultic acts of Christ to find our hearts: taking the Bread and the Cup, blessing them, giving them, and allowing them to be consumed by us. These are all supreme acts of prayer and contemplation just as much in this moment as they were that night when these acts were first offered.

Anyone who assists in these acts with humble faith is suddenly made vulnerable to the saving power that the Lord communicates through them. Yes, it is best to be able to see with the eyes of one's own body and hear with one's bodily ears the Church's physical celebration - for our faith is not a cerebral trip, it is about the redemption of the body. At the same time, though we are miles away, separated by walls that make it impossible to see or hear that awesome prayer - the eyes and ears of our hearts, if we will hold them in that stillness that love still knows, listen and gaze on the invisible mysteries that the rites signify.  We feast on the same Eucharistic Lord whose desire to be our food never ceases. Whether we are deep in the wilderness and quarantined at home, nothing can separate us from the love of God even as the Church communicates it in the most tangible and concrete ways.

Christ works through others, whether or not we see their work. Mediating the rites so that this very exchange between God and man might realized by those newly present is the priest. He can act in the person of Christ because Christ instituted this priesthood when He commanded "Do this in memory of Me." When the priest obeys this command, the same power that went out from the Cross goes out anew, whether or not his obedience is visible to us. In all these ways and so many more, the power of the Lord is always at work making all things new whether we see it or not, whether we hear it or not, whether distance facilitates it or not, whether faith allows us to be present to it or not.

The priest can and must offer the Mass and Liturgy of the Hours for our sake - and this is a spiritual reality that goes beyond live-streaming a video. Beyond his homily, even a very good one, he not only represents the actions of Christ but as well our actions before God. He not only speaks for the Lord, but he also speaks for the Church before the Lord. The priest is the instrument of the memory of the Church - recalling what Christ commanded so that the conversation that He opened up might be renewed again in time and space.  Yet the great mystery that the priest unveils is the same mystery already given to us by faith.  When no priest can minister to us physically present, the priesthood of Christ is not physically absent: Christ the High Priest is ministering all the more and relies on the ministry of the priest even if hidden from the eyes of the believer. Mysteriously, even when hidden from our sight, because he is Christ's instrument, somehow his prayer and sacred action unleash Christ's ministry to us.

The mysteries the Church discloses in her worship are not unknown or remote to the believer even when the believer finds himself physically separated from the Church.  Distance, walls and any other obstacle is never more powerful that faith alive with love. The disciple knows what is being celebrated because the same reality lives in his heart.  The indwelling of the Trinity implies that the pathways to Mount Zion are in the heart, that there we enter the great gathering of all the angels and saints in great canticles of endless praise around the Throne of Grace, that within we know the descending of the whole heavenly Jerusalem, that united to Christ as his Body we offer undaunted intercession that pierces into the tabernacle not made by human hands, that in the very depths where we cry out to the Father, He Himself welcomes us into His bosom. To unveil to us this dramatic but invisible reality, the Risen Lord works through the rites of the Church though we are in the wilderness and separated from them.

What does this mean practically? It is not a matter of technique or method - though the Christian tradition is rich with those from Lectio Divine, to the Rosary to the Jesus Prayer - just to name the most popular. Instead of a technique, however, prayer is primarily about a very simple movement of love in the heart. It is faith humbly stretching out to the Risen Lord and begging with tears. It is a great stillness and silence that yearns to see His Face. When our hearts ache for Him the most, it is hear the He is in our midst, eating and drinking with us - for His body and blood communicate to us the same aching love that He has known from before the foundation of the world.

To make our homes into a poustinia is to open our hearts to the grace of a deeper Eucharistic encounter. It is not enough to read the Bible with our eyes - we must read it into our actions. Turn off the diversions. Leave your fear behind. Do not let petty bickering rob you of this grace. Reconcile with your brother and sister. Persevere in bearing with them and find ways to relieve the frustration that they suffer. Say what edifying things can be said to build up their faith. Do not be drunk on wine or frivolous diversions - but filled with the Holy Spirit.

As for the experts and the politicians, let the talking heads talk to themselves for a little while. If it is something important, you will learn it in plenty of time. But for some few minutes or even a couple of hours each day not even the experts get to make an absolute claim on your existence. Because the Church is at prayer, you can enter into the wilderness to seek the Lord and this is something no one can prevent. You do not have to go beyond the privacy of your bedroom to find this spiritual desert. Humbly ask Him who even more humbly offers Himself to you. Seek the Living One who seeks you even more. Knock and the door will be open by the One who has patiently awaited you in love.

April 13, 2020

Cardinal Burke's Observation - a word of wisdom in a time of crisis

A story is told about the saintly Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, Archbishop of Gniezno and Warsaw in Poland and Primate of Poland, who was first imprisoned and then placed under house arrest by the Communist government, beginning in September of 1953. He and those who assisted him witnessed the inhuman treatment, indeed torture and execution, of so many prisoners. One of those who was assisting him during the time of his house arrest expressed, one day, fear about who might arrive at the door. The fear was not unfounded. The Cardinal is said to have responded that, when fear knocks at the door, courage opens the door, and there is no one there. In other words, in times of suffering and even death, we must have the courage of those who are alive in Christ. We cannot give way to fear, which is a natural sentiment in time of danger but which Satan uses to take away our Christlike courage. Rather, we must have ever greater confidence in Our Lord Who will never abandon us. If we go forward with courage, yes, there will be suffering, but there will not be defeat. When courage opens the door, what we feared so much will not be there because Christ is with us. Rather, there will be the victory of Christ in our human flesh. In the present and most grave situation in which we are living in the world and in the Church, let us remember the example of the Venerable Cardinal Wyszyński. When fear would overcome us, let us be courageous in Christ Who indeed is risen and lives in us.

April 9, 2020

A Retreat For Holy Week and Easter With Kris McGregor and Discerning Hearts

Grateful to Kris McGregor for hosting these conferences which were to be offered at St. Clare's Retreat Center in Soquel, California.  In this first conference, I offer some practical pointers on how to enter into this retreat and some counsels on meditation and mental prayer. The retreat is a meditation on the the Gospel of John, Chapters 13-17 drawn from Hans Urs von Balthasar's great work Heart of the World.  I hope you have a Holy Triduum and and Blessed Easter!

Heart of the World – Conference 1 – Meditations on the Paschal Mystery /w Dr. Anthony Lilles

Fr. Robert Torczynski of Mendocino on Holy Thursday

April 6, 2020

Spiritual Communion and the Prayer of Faith

The act of faith is a powerful movement of soul, more powerful than pandemic, loneliness, suffering, fear or even death. This wholly simple movement avails not only one's intellect but also one's whole being to mysteries so great that this present life is not able to contain them. The act of faith culminates in a foretaste of splendor dawning upon us.

This act remains un-circumscribed by anything that is not God. Pressing exigencies, terrifying circumstances, catastrophe, disaster, none of this limits this most primal act of the human heart.  The spirit reaches out for its object - realities above and beyond itself - not in titanic struggle, not in nihilistic dreaminess, but with the simple, humble determination that only love knows. Eternity comes rushing in, in the very frailty of the present moment, whenever the heart lifts itself up to God and humbly requests His saving help.

Such is the mystery that faith in Christ Jesus has opened up for the world. He bought this movement of grace at the price of his own blood.  By His Passion and Death, He has opened access to the heart of the Father so that every prayer of faith offered in his Name is always heard and answered. His Cross is the threshold to the boundless love of the Holy Trinity, the meeting point of human misery and Divine Mercy, the doorway to a love stronger than death. When we ask for our own salvation (and before God, no one else can ask for us), the Father recognizes our voice because the Blood of His Son cries out to Him. The blood of Christ is so eloquent that it bears away even our sins and rushes in with such tender mercy.

Because our faith is not yet perfect, we might see inadequacy, shame and unworthiness, but the Father sees in that Blood a love that is stronger than death. Struggling with doubt, we might see a game in which we secure psychological relief but not true change of heart, in that Blood the Father sees His Word by which He made Heaven and Earth.  By that Blood, doubt no more and do not be distracted by what you suppose is beyond God's power to heal, for your trust in Him gives Him the space He needs to make you whole. In His Son and what He suffered for us, the Father chose to suffer our misery with us, including our own sin, so that we would not suffer alone, and out of this suffering, the power of His love in the blood of His Son rescues our dignity and gives us life, even as we struggle for life's breath.

The fact is, before we offer our act of faith, Jesus, the Word of the Father, has already taken our side and the Risen One has poured out the blood that enables us to call to Him.  He whose life now belongs to us is not indifferent to our plight, but ready in the twinkling of an eye to come to our aid. So it has been from the first moment of our lives and is now in this pandemic. Though we treated him as an enemy, He has chosen to be our neighbor. Where others pass us by, he stoops down, baths our wounds and carries us to shelter.  Though we have treasured Him so little, He sees in us a treasure buried in a field, a pearl, a lost coin, a lost sheep - and He has turned the world upside down to find us.  We are His beloved Bride, and to render us pure and immaculate, He has held nothing back but handed Himself over to humiliation and scorn. We are His Father's vineyard, and what abuse He suffered so that the Father might lay claim to us.

In the Name of the Father who loves us, He watches for our coming from a long way off and the moment we come to our senses, turn around and start on the way home, He who longs for our return runs to us. He clothes us in robes, rings and shoes, and leads us where we belong. In our plight, we see that we are not worthy to be his servant, but He calls us sons and daughters. If we will only seek those tear filled eyes that so tenderly gaze on us, we would know in a single glance that what most defines our existence is not our betrayal of love, but the deeper reality that God's love for us is irrevocable - and whether we accept it or reject it forever, nothing has the power to change that - for He is unchangeable.

The access that Christ has opened to the heart of the Father through our faith in Him makes possible what Christian tradition calls spiritual communion - a heart to heart with God, an unfolding of that the very same grace he offered the night before His death,  an encounter with what Christ did on the Cross that even in this moment can begin to fill our hearts. To receive this grace, all one needs to do is ask with faith and perseverance. Think of it!  The greatest work that God can accomplish in humanity is only a prayer away, a treasure is ours for the asking.

Suddenly, we are not alone no matter how cut-off we are from our friends and family.  Heaven surrounds us and we breathe the air of our true homeland. This immense and majestic silence echoes with the hymns and canticles of myriads and myriads of angels and saints gathered around the throne of the Lamb. The glory, the splendor, the beauty can cause us to ache with such joy and sorrow all at once, and something is given that fills every moment of our life, from birth to the present, with new meaning.  God's City of Peace descends and the misery of the moment is pregnant with love's intensity.

All at once, no matter what our poverty or dire circumstance, we have everything that matters. By this most humble prayer of faith, we open the door to a banquet hall and discover that we are the guests of honor.  In the valley of death, as fear rises up on every side, He guides us and helps us refresh our weary hearts if we will but bow our heads and fold our hands. We feast on the Bread of Life in the face of our enemies if we will only ask the Source of Living Waters to give us a drink.  And he pours a cup of joy so wonderful that no matter what might befall us, we will live in the house of the Lord for ever and ever. Amen.

April 2, 2020

The Spiritual Battle and the Call to Prayer

First, I am so very grateful to all the first responders and the medical professionals who are on the frontline during these difficult days of pandemic. Their courage and dedication exemplifies what is good and noble about our humanity, and there is no way to repay them for the way they have put their lives on the line, not only here in America, but around the world.  Our civil servants and political leaders also have been dedicated and I am thankful to them for engaging tough discussions and tough decisions, and for keeping us informed. There is and will be adamant disagreement - that is part of our national character. Yet, deeper than our divisions, God is at work and our graciousness to one another during this time is a testimony to His providential guidance.  Finally, the men and women of our armed forces have also rallied for us, and I am very grateful for their sacrifices and leadership.

It is in this context that a deeper discernment of what is really going on in this pandemic needs consideration. Whenever things go wrong, there is a destructive tendency to want to point fingers, blame, find fault, and scapegoat one another. Yes, we have sinned, and the plight that we deserve for our actions is always before us.  However, instead of taking stalk and repenting for my own callousness (indeed, our own actions and judgments are the only things we can really change about the world), we point the finger at others: political leaders, foreign enemies, or anyone else I can distance myself from. We do this with God as well. He is the easiest to scapegoat, for He never defends Himself, but humbly accepts our accusations even when it costs Him everything. Yet the God of life has no desire that his children should suffer and die, and He will never abandon us, though it means going to the edge of doom to reach out and bring us home.  Such is the immensity of His love that even in the face of all this evil and fear, He remains.

Who is God? God is love. Christ, the image of the invisible God, revealed this to us when, in obedience to His Father, He stretch out His arms on the Cross to suffer our doom with us so that even should we die, we will have life. We who are in His Image and Likeness are made to make Him who is love known so that the truth about Him might enlighten the hearts of those who have lost their way. When we believe in Him, warmth returns to hearts that have grown cold. He has the power to forgive sin, to close the door to any evil we have let into our hearts. He is revealed every time we make the determined decision to love one another, no matter the cost, even in the smallest things. By faith, each moment of our lives flows from and leads back to the offering of love that Christ has poured out through His blood. Call on Him with faith and perseverance, and no matter the trial or oppressing circumstances, the love of God will triumph.

The battle we fight is not against mere flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12). This is why playing the blame game with each other never really solves the problems that we must face. It would seem that the enemies of all that is good, noble and true about humanity have been unleashed with this virus. The evil we face is an ancient foe, a murderer from the beginning. He is the Accuser and he delights when we accuse, especially when we accuse God. Unable to bear his own fault, he faults God and all the goodness that comes from God. Bent on our destruction, he will work to bring out the worst in us. He plants rash judgment, sews distrust, stirs confusion, excites contention and robs of courage. His, however, is not the final word about humanity, and the misery in which he would engulf us has its limits. For God Himself has taken our side against this adversary, and no power in heaven, on earth or under the earth can come between us and the love of God.  On the basis of this love and for the sake of this love, we must resist the enemies of humanity and fight the spiritual battle that these times demand.

That is why such faith is called for today. Indeed, in the face of evil, affirming that God is a loving Father and that He is all powerful is one of the most difficult and one of the most powerful movements of heart the human person must learn to offer.  When loved ones suffer distress and we feel powerless to relieve it, or when a friend is isolated and afraid, and there seems to be no word of hope that can soothe his anxiety, it is precisely in these moments where we must cleave to our faith in the God who is Love and ask for His help. He who descended into Hell to liberate our first parents is no less dedicated to our liberation from anything that might compromise our integrity or threaten our dignity.  the Lord is our Savior and His saving help is only a prayer away: Oh Savior, save us!