Thursday, October 30, 2008

Papa's Prayers

He was one of the most impressive figures of this past century, if not the most impressive one. By God’s grace he lived through tragedies and crises that were daunting, always encouraging, always pointing people toward hope, always tangibly representing Christ in a way that touched hearts and changed the world.

It is a shame for me to admit it, but I didn’t pay much attention to him until after entering the third millennium. I had been, after all, living as one of the “separated brethren” and it wasn’t popular for an evangelical Protestant, let alone one active in preaching and teaching, to go around quoting Papa as an authoritative source. I suppose it all does filter down to a simple issue, one that centers itself in the realm of legitimate spiritual authority. I’m glad that I finally reconciled this issue and put aside my protesting.

His time among us was almost spent when he penned his Apostolic Letter considering the importance of the Rosary. Rosarium Virginis Mariae was signed, “From the Vatican, on the 16th day of October in the year 2002, the beginning of the twenty-fifth year of my Pontificate. John Paul II.” It’s always wise to listen to sage wisdom that comes through those whose final rite of passage is imminently on life’s horizon. They have a way of communicating essentials that cut through all the fluff and glitter that draw us away from what we honestly need to see, hear, and do.

Concerning this prayer, the aged Pontiff says, “The Rosary has accompanied me in moments of joy and in moments of difficulty. To it I have entrusted any number of concerns; in it I have always found comfort. Twenty-four years ago, on October 29, 1978, scarcely two weeks after my election to the See of Peter, I frankly admitted: ‘The Rosary is my favorite prayer. A marvelous prayer! Marvelous in its simplicity and its depth. … With these words, dear brothers and sisters, I set the first year of my Pontificate within the daily rhythm of the Rosary.’ Today, as I begin the twenty-fifth year of my service as the Successor of Peter, I wish to do the same.”[1]

From the beginning of his long Pontificate through to the end. Not only while he sat in the Chair of Peter, but throughout the many difficult years of his life and ministry in Poland, the Rosary became and remained his favorite, most important, personal devotional prayer. The daily rhythm of the Rosary became the daily rhythm of his life, a life well lived, a witness and testimony proclaiming to the world the grace of God in Christ.

[1] John Paul II, Rosarium Virginis Mariae, p. 8-9

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Redeeming Time

“Every moment and every event of every man’s life on earth plants something in his soul. For just as the wind carries thousands of winged seeds, so each moment brings with it germs of spiritual vitality that come to rest imperceptibly in the minds and wills of men. Most of these unnumbered seeds perish and are lost, because men are not prepared to receive them: for such seeds as these cannot spring up anywhere except in the good soil of freedom, spontaneity and love.”[1]

It was through these words, shown me in a Methodist parsonage on the Kansas prairie nearly a decade ago by a dear friend and fellow Protestant pastor, that I was first introduced to Thomas Merton. I will ever be thankful for that introduction. The words that I read, sitting there on the floor in the middle of the manse living room, although unknown to me at that moment in time, would, not too long after, become part of a long, painful and needed transformation process in my life. It is a process that is still, and ever will be, ongoing although, at this point in time, it doesn’t appear to be quite as dramatic on the surface of life as it was initially.

Time. We only have so much time and none of us know how much of it we have before our own personal measure of it is spent. It is a truth that none can honestly deny. Time, as we know it, as it is measured to us as individuals, always runs out. The sad reality about this truth is that it is too easy to waste the time we have by spending it on things that simply do not matter, simply do not have any eternal value, or provide anything that prepares us for the eventual day when our physical clock will stop and our measure of time will cease.

It is the most precious commodity that we have and in it we discover the imperative to live carefully, walk circumspectly, redeeming what time we do have.[2] Our own personal interior environment depends upon the efforts we invest in harnessing and structuring the time that we have. These efforts will have a determining effect, both interiorly and exteriorly, in the world that is our own life and in the world that surrounds us.[3]

The use of time as a means to acknowledge God’s creative and redemptive activity does not, at least for most people in our modern age, have much appeal. This hasn’t always been the case, and is still not the cast in some instances, if not in actual practice at least in practical theory. Redeeming time through the vehicle of prayer is a legacy given to us by the Church, something handed down to us by our spiritual ancestors from the past.

*One day … Seven Canonical Hours of Prayer.
*Days of the week … Fruitful prayers, particularly those of the Rosary, to pray with their appointed mysteries to contemplate.
*Months of the year … Prayers themed to focus on major mysteries of Church teaching.
*Liturgical Seasons … The fertile seed bed that supports a holistic approach spiritual life.

We are not left without witnesses and examples that direct and lead us so that in each moment of each day we are prepared to receive some seed, some germ of spiritual vitality, falling upon the soil of the soul. Will we ever pray as faithfully and fruitfully as possible? No. Will we ever become masters of time? Probably not. We will always be subservient to it in some degree since we are creatures in time. We can, however, endeavor to live more mindfully, more consciously of the time that we are measured and use time, even minute moments of it, in a way that allows freedom, spontaneity, and love opportunity and a place to grow and flourish.

[1] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 14
[2] Ephesians 5:15
[3] Colossians 4:5

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Rosarium Virginis Mariae

To live prayerfully in a world so opposed to such a thing is, I think, one of the biggest challenges that any of us face. That is, provided, that we indeed live with a desire to live prayerfully, that we first of all realize the necessity of prayer and endeavor to pray as a habit, as a lifestyle. Face it, the world, for the most part, isn’t at all interested in prayer. It doesn’t revolve around a daily schedule for prayer nor does it wish to despite the fact that all of creation has a cyclical nature, a natural rhythm about it indicative of more than the natural eye can see.[1]

The Church world, on the other hand, believes that personal prayer is an important and integral necessity in the lives of those that believe in and accept Christ as Savior and Lord. The sad reality though, and I say this objectively rather than critically, is that most believer’s lives do not revolve around prayer. I say this as one fellow pilgrim that is endeavoring to live a life of prayer and realizing how difficult it is to follow the Apostle’s injunction to “pray without ceasing.”[2]

Unceasing prayer is a daunting responsibility. It is, at the same time, a wonderful opportunity, an open door that allows the winds of grace to fill the rooms and corridors of one’s life. We desire to pray because grace has first found its way into our interior closets. We pray because grace bids us to pray. We grow stale and cease to pray because we are often trying to pray in our own strength rather than relying upon grace. Or we grow stale and cease to pray because we set aside or fail to discover forms of prayer that are always faithfully sustainable even when we are unable to rouse in our hearts personal words of prayer.

It’s a truth that I cannot escape. The life that I live in the world will always be a reflection of the life that I live in prayer. “Prayer presupposes an effort, a fight against ourselves and the wiles of the Tempter. The battle of prayer is inseparable from the necessary ‘spiritual battle’ to act habitually according to the Spirit of Christ: we pray as we live, because we live as we pray.”[3]

As a convert from Protestantism to Catholicism, I’ve discovered that the Rosary is a life changing school of prayer. Its mysteries are what Pope John Paul II referred to as a compendium of the Gospel. “The Rosary, though clearly Marian in character, is at heart a Christocentric prayer. In the sobriety of its elements, it has all the depth of the Gospel message in its entirety, of which it can be said to be a compendium.”[4] This prayerful compendium keeps me focused intently upon the face of Christ, keeps me meditating upon his life, upon his being, and upon the being of his Mother, our Mother. “To recite the Rosary is nothing other than to contemplate with Mary the face of Christ.”[5] It is to enter into the life changing school of prayer with Mary as our teacher. After all, who knew, and who knows, Christ more perfectly than Mary? Who, among all human creatures, received such a generous outpouring of grace as Mary? Who, then, is more qualified to teach us than our Mother?

“By immersing us in the mysteries of the Redeemer’s life, it ensures that what he has done and what the liturgy makes present is profoundly assimilated and shapes our existence. ... This school of Mary is all the more effective if we consider that she teaches by obtaining for us in abundance the gifts of the Holy Spirit, even as she offers us the incomparable example of her own pilgrimage of faith.”[6]

This school of prayer possesses all that is necessary to create an interior atmosphere that makes change possible, making continual conversion a reality rather than just another well-discoursed concept in our library of concepts. It draws us deeper into the mysteries it presents, calls us to levels of commitment far beyond our natural abilities. It leads us to surrender ourselves to grace in measures never before known to us. In this school we hear and listen to the voice of Christ as he bids us “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.”[7]

[1] Psalm 19:1-4
[2] 1 Thessalonians 5:17
[3] CCC #2752
[4] John Paul II, Rosarium Virginis Mariae, Intro. Sec. 1, para. 2
[5] ibid, p. 10
[6] ibid, p. 19
[7] Mark 6:31

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Conversatio Morum

One day, none of us have the option of choosing when that day will appear, the most significant of all rites of passage will occur. We will, by one means or another, cease to live in this present natural form. All physical realities will cease to deceive and betray, cease to have an effect on our affections. Money and homes, everything we’ve accumulated, even family and friends, will no longer hold our interest. Only one thing will matter.

Eternity will no longer be some ethereal idea, myth, or vague concept. Eternity will become pure reality with no “time” to prepare, make reparation, or amend our life. Death, judgment, heaven or hell. The time that we have now is the time for preparation, reparation, and amendment. Here, in our modern world so filled with conveniences and pleasures, we don’t like to think in such terms. It’s much easier to delude ourselves and pretend that time is on our side, that there is no such thing as eternal consequences.

Ultima Forsan Hora.[1] It will be for someone, perhaps even me.

My first encounter with monastic spirituality began a number of years ago in reading about the Celtic hermits. I was searching for a Christian experience that was much more genuine than what I had known and these folks really caught my interest. They left everything behind. Some crawled into coracles and allowed the wind to carry them to an unknown destination. When it came to rest on some remote, rocky shore they called that place their home, built a crude hermitage, and lived the rest of their lives in prayer. Some wandered on foot until they came to an unknown, remote destination where they built a hermitage and invested their lives in prayer. That initial encounter led me to the Desert hermits and to the development of monasticism in the East. St. Benedict knocked on my heart’s door a few years ago, invited me into the Order of St. Benedict as an Oblate, and I accepted the invitation.

There is a common thread of fidelity that I find foundationally in these expressions of monastic spirituality. It is a wholehearted focus on getting ready to meet God face to face, an encounter where thoughts and motives, actions and deeds, desires and wills will all be laid open, weighed, and judged. There will be no wiggle room, no opportunity for limp excuses or human rationalizations.[2] The whole of Christendom assents to this. I find, however, for all the talk about it, that assentation doesn’t always become life’s aim and goal in the whole of Christendom. The kingdom of the world remains too much within us, often presiding over the Kingdom of God which also resides within us.

“Fidelity to monastic life is an attempt to translate the Latin words conversatio morum. The meaning of this term has foxed scholars and commentators for years. One way of approaching it is to see it as the core element in the monastic commitment, and to examine what that commitment is. Cassian tells us that the monk’s ultimate aim is to come to the Kingdom of God, and that his immediate goal is purity of heart, without which we shall never attain our ultimate aim. A good way of describing conversatio morum is that it is the monk’s commitment to pursuing this goal, through adopting the monastic program of asceticism and prayer, as well as the monastic structure of life which is designed to support that program.”[3]

A program of asceticism, prayer, and a structure of life that supports that program, although it is not easily accomplished outside the monastic enclosure, is nonetheless something that is very attainable. It may require some flexibility but it is certainly not impossible. It is the life of the monk. It is the life of those examples that we are wise to emulate. After all, monks aren’t the only ones scheduled for an appointment to meet God.

[1] Perhaps Last Hour
[2] Hebrews 9:27
[3] The Benedictine Handbook, p. 123

Monday, October 20, 2008

Multiplied Sorrows

I don’t like pain. I don’t care for any of it – emotional or physical - and have endured quite a portion of it over the years of my life. A good share of it I brought upon myself because of my own stupid ignorance and foolishness. The worst of it though has come from others, well intentioned others. I now do the best that I can to avoid pain caused by the good intentions of others. I have to. My own emotional and physical health depends upon it. Sometimes I’m successful. Other times I’m not. There are times when life is simply a collision course and there isn’t a thing we can do to avoid the crash.

The Sorrowful Mysteries remind me that our Lord is intimately familiar with pain and suffering. When I compare my own with his I have nothing to complain about, even those times when well-intentioned others thought they were doing what was right despite the real, painful hardships created by their thoughts and actions. I could name names, times and places but that wouldn’t be very prudent of me.

Suffice it to say that life is not always a bed of roses for a Protestant pastor serving small churches in small communities. People have expectations, a lot of them unrealistic, and when they aren’t met or lived up to the fires can easily and quickly ignite. I think the most painful words I’ve ever listened to were, “Pastor, we think you need to resign so we can call a new pastor.” It’s a pain sharper than pain. Especially when you are sacrificing every way you know how, pouring out your proverbial life’s blood and trying to live and support a family on less than a livable salary.

Jesus encountered rejection and pain in an even more fierce way. Had he met their expectations of the Promised Messiah, they would not have rejected him and subjected him to the brutal physical treatment involved in crucifying him. The Sorrowful Mysteries keep these scenes of Christ’s last hours among us alive in our thoughts. I need to be continually reminded by these scenes, regularly reminded of the terrible pain Christ endured and the ultimate price that he paid for my salvation, our salvation, the salvation of the whole world if it will accept it.

The Agony In The Garden
The Scourging At The Pillar
The Crowning With Thorns
Carrying The Cross
The Crucifixion

Pain multiplied upon pain.

What could he possibly have done to deserve any of this?

He simply said yes to the Divine Will.

“For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.”[1]

[1] 2 Corinthians 5:21

Friday, October 17, 2008

Liturgy of Life

“The first thing that you have to do, before you ever start thinking about such a thing as contemplation, is to try to recover your basic natural unity, to reintegrate your compartmentalized being into a coordinated and simple whole and learn to live as a unified human person. This means that you have to bring back together the fragments of your distracted existence so that when you say ‘I,’ there is really someone present to support the pronoun you have uttered.”[1]

The liturgy of life, the way we live in the world and influence its environment, will always be a reflection of our depth, or shallowness for that matter, in prayer. Our inner experience, whatever that experience may be, will always overflow into and give dimension to the exterior form that we live, our style of life that is seen and read by others.[2]

Our interior experience, the discovery and development of our unified human person, the realization of the genuine “I,” has nothing to do with modern trends or schools of thought regarding self-awareness and self-justification. It has everything to do with realizing this “I” in the context formed by the revealed truths contained within the mysteries of God. I have to remember that Merton, although he found many parallels between contemplative prayer in the Catholic faith and the devotion of other mystical traditions, lived and wrote out of the rich well of his own Catholic contemplative experience. His own liturgy of life was an essentially Catholic one, a liturgy that, without being offensive, gently and quietly speaks through and between the lines that he penned.

“The word ‘liturgy’ originally meant a ‘public work’ or a ‘service in the name of/on behalf of the people.’ In the Christian tradition it means the participation of the People of God in ‘the work of God.’ Through the liturgy Christ, our redeemer and high priest, continues the work of our redemption in, with, and through his Church.”[3] Viewing life as a liturgy is to view it as a privileged participation in Christ’s redemptive purpose in an intimately personal way.

I cannot speak or answer in reply for anyone else. I can only do the best that I can in becoming the best version of the pronoun “I” as I possibly can. I do though find it interesting how this “I” has changed over what is now nearly a decade from the time when I literally ran out of myself as I had become, as I had made of myself, and had allowed others, even well-intentioned others, to make of me.

The changes are so significant that I hardly recognize myself. I know the integral role that prayer, particularly the prayers of the Rosary, has taken and continues to take in these changes. It assists me in praying in a way that helps me avoid getting lost in the vast desert of my own deceptive will and emotions. The same is true concerning the scriptural and scripture based prayers in the Liturgy of the Hours. Through it all, my only hope and prayer is that this liturgy of my own life, replete with fruit that is bittersweet, is an unfolding life-prayer more pleasing to the Lord than any course of life I’ve previously known.[4]

[1] Thomas Merton, The Inner Experience, p. 3-4
[2] 2 Corinthians 3:2
[3] CCC, #1069
[4] Matthew 10:38

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Ave Maria

No one Catholic topic sets Protestant Christians on edge quite like this one does. That’s really a shame too. I know because I spent most of my Christian life in a corner of the Protestant arena that was intensely anti-Catholic. It is nothing short of amazing, nothing short of miraculous, how one so opposed to Marian Devotion now sings her praises and seeks her intercession. This, however, is what happens when one honestly tries to understand her being, her role, in the life of the Church, in the lives of all those who profess to know her Son.

“The genuine significance of Catholic devotion to Mary is to be seen in the light of the Incarnation itself. The Church cannot separate the Son and the Mother. Because the Church conceives of the Incarnation as God’s descent into flesh and into time, and His great gift of Himself to His creatures, she also believes that the one who was closest to Him in this great mystery was the one who participated most perfectly in the gift. When a room is heated by an open fire, surely there is nothing strange in the fact that those who stand closest to the fireplace are the ones who are warmest. And when God comes into the world through the instrumentality of his servants, then there is nothing surprising about the fact that His chosen instrument should have the greatest and most intimate share in the divine gift.”[1]

I can’t describe how foolish I felt at first and I am so thankful that Shirli was a good sport about my budding interest, though my interest was of no interest at the time to her. There was a monastery of Korean Benedictine monks close to us in Northern New Jersey and from their gift shop I purchased a simple, wooden beaded Rosary. I had no idea how to pray the Rosary. I simply knew that I wanted to, that I was somehow mysteriously being led in this direction.

Protestants aren’t taught this sort of thing. Fundamental Protestants are, as a matter of fact, taught against it. Since I had no one to teach me how to pray the Rosary, I found the directions on the internet and instantly discovered that I had some memorization to do. With the exception of the Our Father the Rosary prayers are not part of the Protestant frame of reference. As I mentioned earlier, I even had to re-commit to memory the words of the Our Father.

Foolishness isn’t the only thing I initially felt. I also felt the breath of my Protestant Bible College professors breathing down the back of my neck. In my mind I could hear their voices scolding me, telling me that I was falling in over my head into gross, dark heresy. I knew though that this was something that I needed to do. I was drawn to it like a man dying from thirst is drawn to water.

I used the drive to my job on the golf course as a time to work at embedding these prayers in my mind. With one hand on the wheel and my simple Rosary in the other I’d make my way to work, stammering and stumbling through the prayers. The more I ignored the voices from the past screaming in my mind, the more I prayed and meditated on these prayers, the more of a deep stirring and comfort I felt deep within my being – something that is experienced better than it is easily explained.

Some deep, painful spiritual and emotional wounds began finding their healing as I prayed these simple prayers over and over. I’d carry my Rosary in my pocket while working. I didn’t know anything about sacramentals or the origin of the Rosary. I only knew that I was experiencing some needed grace in a wonderful way. I got a little bolder and started praying the prayers while operating the various mowing machines that I worked with. It was, I believe, through praying the Rosary, long before Shirli and I formally entered the Catholic Church, that I first discovered and experienced the love of my Mother, the love that Mary has for me and for all her children.

Ave Maria,
Gratia plena;
Dominus tecum;
Benedicta tu in mulieribus,
Et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Jesus.
Sancta Maria,
Mater Dei,
Ora pro nobis peccatoribus,
Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen

Hail Mary,
Full of grace;
The Lord is with thee;
Blessed art thou among women,
And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary,
Mother of God,
Pray for us sinners,
Now and at the hour of our death. Amen
[1] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 171-172

Monday, October 13, 2008

A Whole Truth

“Yesterday (Monday) afternoon I had a long and good talk with Dom Damasus. Mostly about changes in the Church, the unsettled state of “the young ones,” the “loss of center” and of depth, etc. … Main point: the lack of any real depth in the monks – they are either immature or unsettled (and will leave) or they have “adjusted” by narrowing themselves down to some petty limits and restrictions they think they can “handle” so that in effect they live peacefully in little worlds of their own. I agree with this. It is sad.”[1]

These words, penned April 23, 1968, are thought provoking. Merton, of course, has a way of provoking thought. I especially enjoy and benefit from reading his journals. They offer an inside look at the humanity of the man. Seeing the humanity of Merton, and other significant others, helps me understand and accept my own humanity, helps me work on improving it into something more genuine rather than rationalizing it. It helps me to see myself as just another simple, sinning soul on an intentional journey toward some place, some destination, that is both beyond me and all the while within me. I believe this place, this destination, is simply the truth,[2] the truth that will not, can not change.

Glory be
To the Father,
And to the Son,
And to the Holy Spirit.
As it was in the beginning,
Is now,
And ever shall be,
World without end. Amen.

It’s interesting, at least to me, how easily we can adjust ourselves to truth, how easy it is to devise ways to give truth some assent, while also, at the same time, holding it at bay. We are somehow able to etherealize truth without inhaling it into the microcosm that is our self and our immediate environment. Or we pick through its elements and choose portions as though truth were some sort of buffet table. We serve ourselves only that which we are familiar with, that which is palatable to our conditioned tastes, that which allows us to go about our self-justified busyness, even when this busyness contains elements of some spiritual nature.

“Though God is so close to all his creatures, and particularly close in the minds and hearts of men, He is yet above and beyond everyone and everything else. The chasm that yawns between the Creator and the creature, the infinite and the finite, is bridged by the mercy of God, not by a watering down of His divine nature. It is not by a weakening or debasing of His nature that He comes close to us, but rather by its utterly simple perfection that He is at once so immanently close and so transcendentally the Absolute One.”[3]

Truth is a whole and is most fruitful in our lives when it is embraced as a whole. Truth is what it is and not necessarily what I may choose for it to be. It is not concerned with my own prejudiced likes and preferences. It is not concerned with how uncomfortable it makes me feel. Truth is not affected, it is not changed, by my own futile attempts to rationalize it and pull it down to a level that makes it easy to live with in a little, impoverished 21st Century world of my own making. Truth will always issue challenges that affect my thought processes, my lifestyle choices, and the social circles that I hang out in.[4]

[1] Thomas Merton, The Other Side of the Mountain, p. 84-85
[2] John 14:6
[3] My Way of Life, The Summa Simplified, p. 15
[4] John 8:32

Friday, October 10, 2008

Increase Our Charity

“And now there remain faith, hope, and charity, these three: but the greatest of these is charity.”[1]

Love is such a worn out word in our day. It is used so casually. I love ice cream. I love my car. I love watching soap operas. I love my … . It is still, nonetheless, a good word despite what the English language has done to strip it naked and send it running through the streets and alleys. Because of what’s happened to it I feel more inclined to use the older word in its place. It’s an appropriate word. Even the early Protestant translators had a preference for the word charity when working from the old manuscripts.

Charity signifies the deepest, dearest affection and benevolence, perfect love, the kind of love that God loves with, the kind of love that only God can place within our hearts. Its depth involves emotion yet begins before and goes beyond finite human emotion. Charity, after all, is an attribute and quality of God who has no beginning or ending. God is love in its purest form and he calls us to a participation in his divine quality of love.[2] It’s a humbling thought that God desires to share this quality of his being with me.

Regarding charity as one of the three theological virtues, the Thomist theologian tells us, “The greater the object of a virtue the greater the virtue. The theological virtues whose immediate object is God surpass all the other virtues in excellence. Charity surpasses faith and hope because it is more closely related to God. For in faith we cling to God without seeing him and in hope we trust we will obtain a vision of God which we do not yet have. But in charity we are already united in love with God.”[3]

In our prayer we pray for an increase of charity. Why? So we can simply love God for his own sake, to love him more deeply for who he is and for the great pains that he has suffered to woo our affections, and so we can live charitably toward our neighbor for the love of God. Without participating in the divine quality of charity we can’t possible fulfill Christ’s new commandment.[4]

The Thomist isn’t telling us that faith and hope are non-essentials. It is by faith in Christ that we are saved through grace.[5] We are encouraged to hope in Christ[6] and that hope is an essential element in being saved.[7] Faith and hope, however, are not complete without charity. Charity, working in and through our lives, invites us to cling to God and trust in him. Charity never fails.[8]

When I look at the list of things that charity is and is not, I’m brought up short. Like Isaiah all I can say is “woe is me, I’m a man undone.” I see how lacking I am in divine love, how pitiful my participation in divine love really is. I see how great my need is to pray continually for infusions of this theological virtue.

[1] 1 Corinthians 13:13, Douay-Rheims Translation
[2] 1 John 4:7-8
[3] My Way of Life, The Summa Simplifed, p. 250
[4] John 13:34
[5] Ephesians 2:8
[6] Romans 5:5
[7] Romans 8:24
[8] 1 Corinthians 13:8

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Increase Our Hope

Collapsing banks, the real estate dilemma and stock markets falling, political agendas and heated presidential campaigns, rising costs of living that surpass cost of living increases, wars and human suffering. The list of discouraging news goes on and on. I rarely turn on the evening news these days. It’s always the same old bad news simply being played out on a different street.

When I think about it there really isn’t a lot going on in the world that makes me feel hopeful about the modern economic and political situation. Perhaps that is a fault that I have though I really don’t think it is. I choose to think that all these situations are modern day pointers directing my attention toward hope that is real hope rather than all the illusions that are masquerading as hope, illusions that are nothing more than dry, waterless wells offering nothing but buckets of sand to dehydrated souls.

What we hope for will always become a driving motivational force in our lives. Hope may indeed signify desire but not all desires represent virtue. Selfish desires do, in fact, more often represent the operation of a lack of virtue. I have to rescue the word hope from most of its present common usage if I am going to understand its intended meaning. I have to look to a more historical meaning of the word. I have to think of hope as a theological virtue.

“Theological virtues are the foundation of Christian moral activity; they animate it and give it its special character. They inform and give life to all the moral virtues. They are infused by God into the souls of the faithful to make them capable of acting as his children and of meriting eternal life. They are the pledge of the presence and action of the Holy Spirit in the faculties of the human being.”[1]

To understand hope in this light brings me to only one conclusion. I need regular and generous infusions of the virtue. There are too many times when I honestly don’t feel like or act like a child of God and when I compare my own spiritual life to the lives of so many of the living and departed saints it makes me wonder how one such as me could possibly merit the promise of heaven.

Here, in the clamor and fog of life, in an all too real world that peddles only illusions and false dreams, hope’s bell rings out with clarity calling and leading beyond all that is seen by the natural eye, beyond all that is experienced by the natural senses, beyond all the desires and cravings of the natural, carnal self.

I have to remind myself, where the theological virtue of hope is concerned, that “Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the one that is to come.”[2] It is this Eternal City that we hope for. But, even more than this, our hope is the King who is enthroned in the Eternal City.

It is the King that our souls long for. He is our hope. “Now this is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ.”[3] To know him is to desire him. He desires to be our greatest desire, our greatest anticipation, our greatest expectation. Could it be, through repeated infusions of hope, that he could possibly become our only desire?

[1] CCC, #1812
[2] Hebrews 13:14
[3] John 17:3

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Increase Our Faith

“Lord, increase our faith” was the request of the Apostles.[1] We, likewise, when we consider the essential truths outlined in the Creed, when we pray the words taught us by the Lord, realize our own need and pray for our faith to be increased in a measure that allows us to believe and commit ourselves more deeply, more assuredly, to realities that otherwise escape us.

Naturally speaking, faith doesn’t make a lot of sense. Faith, the light of grace, defies natural reasoning. Faith, though it is an assent of the intellect, moves beyond the realm of natural knowledge. Faith, although it is something that cannot be measured in inches, quarts, or pounds, is nonetheless an important player in the world of weights and measurements. Faith, this moving beyond natural reasoning, lies at the heart of contemplative prayer, any sort of prayer, any sort of religious belief.

“Faith is the theological virtue by which we believe in God and all that he has said and revealed to us, and that the Holy Church proposes for our belief, because he is truth itself. By faith man freely commits his entire self to God. For this reason the believer seeks to know and do God’s will.”[2]

He’s been dead and gone for quite a while now but I’ll never forget the title of a sermon that he preached as an old, old man. His sermon was entitled “Faith, Life’s Great Essential.” He talked about how faith outlines and gives dimension to the lives we live. The aged pastor, in his sermon, pondered how anyone could possible approach life in the world as we know it without a vital, personal faith in God.

It was over twenty years ago when I heard that simple sermon from the heart of an old man. He’d seen the world change a lot during his life. It’s changed a lot more over these past twenty plus years. The changes are now happening exponentially and it’s more than a little frightening when we take time to think about it. We have so much more reason to ponder the importance of living with a vital, personal faith in God in such a degenerating world.

Faith is, after all, the vehicle that carries us to understanding that which is otherwise un-understandable, not that we will ever understand it fully. “The mystery of life’s end, and the even greater mystery of life’s beginning, the ebb and flow of things beginning and things ending, the steady succession of the sadness of Fall and the glad promise of Spring, prevent the unfettered and uncluttered mind from missing what these were meant to make clear: a life without beginning to explain all beginnings, a life without end to explain death; an infinite Creditor of life to explain all the reckless loan of life to the living.”[3]

Merton tells us that “faith is the opening of an inward eye, the eye of the heart, to be filled with the presence of Divine light. Ultimately faith is the only key to the universe. The final meaning of human existence, and the answers to questions on which all our happiness depends cannot be reached in any other way.”[4] Fetters must be broken and clutter must be removed to allow faith’s measure opportunity in our lives.[5]

[1] Luke 17:5
[2] CCC, #1814
[3] My Way of Life, The Summa Simplified, p. 5
[4] New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 130
[5] Matthew 13:31

Tuesday, October 7, 2008


We profess our faith by means of the ancient Apostle’s Creed then pray as our Lord taught his disciples to pray. In the first we recollect and affirm what we believe in the way of the basic tenets of the Christian faith. In the second we continue exercising our faith in what we believe by simply praying as the Lord taught in his prayer primer.

The Creed and the Our Father are the foundation blocks of prayer. By prefacing and preparing ourselves in this way we have, in a sense, created an atmosphere for prayer, set a course that carries us toward not only a destination but a most legitimate and safe one.

This formula, or profession, of faith was not composed by the Apostles themselves. It is referred to as such because it expresses what they taught. The original form of the creed came into use around A.D. 125 as a catechetical tool. The Apostles’ Creed is the embodiment of the basic Christian truths necessary for living a genuinely Christian life. “This Creed is the spiritual seal, our heart’s meditation and an ever-present guardian; it is, unquestionably, the treasure of our soul.”[1]

Having lived between 315 and 386, his catechetical lectures are considered to be some of the most precious remains of Christian antiquity. Regarding the Creed, St. Cyril, Bishop and Doctor of the Church, tells us,

“This synthesis of faith was not made to accord with human opinions, but rather what was of the greatest importance was gathered from all the Scriptures, to present the one teaching of the faith in its entirety. And just as the mustard seed contains a great number of branches in a tiny grain, so too this summary of faith encompassed in a few words the whole knowledge of the true religion contained in the Old and New Testaments.”[2]

The Apostles’ Creed

I believe in God
The Father almighty,
Creator of heaven and earth;
And in Jesus Christ,
His only Son,
Our Lord;
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
Born of the Virgin Mary,
Suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Was crucified,
And was buried.
He descended into hell;
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven,
And is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty;
From thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
The Holy Catholic Church,
The Communion of Saints,
The forgiveness of sins,
The resurrection of the body,
And life everlasting. Amen.

It is important for me to read, understand, and meditate upon these foundations in the context and environment where they were laid. This means accepting the teaching authority of those men given the terrific task of preserving and promulgating the truth, the deposit of faith, given to them.

It’s not difficult to accept their authority once one begins to understand the essential nature of the Sacrament of Holy Orders and Apostolic Succession. This is something that I balked at and ridiculed for many years as a Protestant but, when one comes right down to it, it’s difficult to maintain an adversarial position when one begins honestly trying to know and understand the truth. Personal opinions, personal preferences, and pre-conceived notions all, in this warm, illuminating light, begin falling to the wayside. They have a way of evaporating and dissipating until we honestly find ourselves praying in union and harmony with the Apostles and saints of the ages saying ...

Our Father,
Who art in heaven,
Hallowed be Thy name.
Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
On earth
As it is
In heaven.
Give us this day
Our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses
As we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.[3]

[1] St. Ambrose, Expl. Symb. 1: PL 17, 1193
[2] St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Cathech, illum 5, 12; pg. 33, 521-524
[3] Matthew 6:9-13

Monday, October 6, 2008

A Life of Prayer

Prayer, the lifting of the mind and heart to God, plays an essential role in the life of a devout Catholic. Through prayer we enter into the presence of the Godhead dwelling in us. It is prayer that allows us to adore God by acknowledging his almighty power and presence; it is prayer that allows us to bring our thanks, petitions, and sorrow for sin before our Lord and our God.

Although prayer is not a practice unique to Catholics, those prayers that are called “Catholic” are generally formulaic in nature. This is not to say that the Catholic Church discourages extemporaneous prayer. No. It is encouraged. It is to say though that the Church does set before us how we ought to pray and we are wise to listen to the instruction given us.

"Drawing from the words of Christ, the writings of Scripture and the saints, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, it (the Church) supplies us with prayers that are grounded in Christian tradition. Further, our informal, spontaneous prayers, both vocal and meditative, are informed and shaped by those prayers taught by the Church, prayers that are the wellspring for the prayer life of all Catholics. Without the Holy Spirit speaking through the Church and the saints, we would not know how to pray as we ought.”[1]

“Prayer cannot be reduced to the spontaneous outpouring of interior impulse; in order to pray, one must have the will to pray. Nor is it enough to know what the Scriptures reveal about prayer: one must also learn how to pray. Through a living transmission (Sacred Tradition) within ‘the believing and praying Church,’ the Holy Spirit teaches the children of God how to pray.[2]

One of the key elements of the Sunday worship service in the little Calvinistic Bible church that I grew up in was the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. We did it every Sunday as congregational participation at the conclusion of the pastoral prayer offered by the pastor. Other than the little bedtime prayer my mother taught me, it was the only formal prayer that I was taught as a child and I must admit that eight years ago, after decades of years removed from that childhood church setting, I’m ashamed to say that I had to re-commit it to memory. None of my adult non-liturgical Christian experience incorporated formulaic prayers, not even the Lord’s Prayer.

Finally, after all these years, discovering directed, formulaic prayer is like finally discovering the way it feels to have my lungs filled with fresh, country air after a lifetime of breathing stagnant, city smog. I no longer have to feel some sort of inspiration to pray. I no longer have to gasp around trying to find the right words to pray. Prayer, with the tools given by the Church, is now as natural and easy as breathing fresh air, air that is filled with the fragrance and blessing of God.

I say this after a lifetime of relying solely upon extemporaneous prayer, prayer that was more often than not emotionally generated, prayer that was all to often selfishly motivated, prayer that was at times intended to change God’s mind or move him to alter circumstances that he had no role in creating. Much of my former prayer life was the “spare tire” kind of praying. Too often God only heard my voice when life became a blow out and I was sitting on the side of the road of life in the proverbial ditch. I also say this as a man that spent a significant part of my life as a Protestant pastor and was engaged in various types of ministry.

A life of prayer is a calling that every believer in Christ shares in common. It is a universal vocation whether we personally say yes to it or not. How else can we describe the Apostle Paul’s counsel to “pray without ceasing?”[3] These words are not written particularly to men and women called to a separated religious life in monasteries, convents, or as parish priests. They are written to the Church, to every believer.

[1] The Essential Catholic Survival Guide, p. 518
[2] CCC, #2650
[3] 1 Thessalonians 5:17

Saturday, October 4, 2008

A Living Experience

“My chief care should not be to find pleasure or success, health or life or money or rest or even things like virtue and wisdom – still less their opposites, pain, failure, sickness, death. But in all that happens, my one desire and my one joy should be to know: Here is the thing that God has willed for me. In this His love is found, and in accepting this I can give myself with it to Him. For in giving myself I shall find Him and He is life everlasting.”[1]

Who he was is not really that important. In fact, the writings he left behind don’t even have his name on them. Anonymous. He’s simply known as an unknown English writer from the fourteenth century. I’m glad though for the life he lived and the contributions that he made. Any of us would be most fortunate to have a spiritual advisor like him.

In the forward to The Book of Privy Counseling, the unknown author writes, “My dear friend in God, this book is for you, personally, and not for the general public, for I intend to discuss your interior work of contemplation as I have come to understand it and you. If I were writing for everyone, I should have to speak in general terms, but as I am writing for you alone, I will concentrate on only those things which I believe to be most personally helpful to you at this time. Should anyone else share your interior dispositions and be likely to profit from this book also, all the better. I will be delighted. But it is you alone I have in mind right now, and your interior life, as I have come to understand it. And so, to you (and others like you) I address the following pages.”[2]

It’s interesting, at least to me, how people look at you when you mention the importance of contemplative prayer in your life. Some people look at you with that look that tells you they don’t have a clue what you are talking about. Some look at you with that look that tells you they think you are altogether off your rocker. Some look at you with that look that tells you they think you are one of those super-spiritual people, the kind they prefer to avoid conversing with. Whatever their thought may be, I’ve come to understand that I fit in the group, one of those “others like you,” referred to by the unknown mystic, theologian, and director of souls - a small beginning one, an infant, but one of the group nonetheless.

It’s also interesting how so much of the world that we live in today works overtime to run interference where contemplative prayer, any prayer for that matter, is concerned. We should expect this. After all, the world is on its own collision course with eternal demise and it will take with it all that it can. One of the disconcerting things about this element of reality is that our lives are so tightly woven into the fabric of the modern socio-economic climate that divorcing ourselves from it are practically impossible. Like it or not, the tares and wheat grow together.[3]

In my own contemplative infancy I’m beginning to understand how the Christian mystics, the contemplatives of past ages, lost all interest in the activities of the world. This world and the things of this world, once these men and women began entering into contemplative union with God, completely lost their charm and glitter. They lived with the simple awareness that God is as He is and they learned to live in the naked, stark, elemental awareness that they were as they were.[4]

This in no way suggests a semblance of modern day self-justification or rationalization. It is Ultimate Truth meeting in person with total honesty. It is being completely overwhelmed by Grace. It is contemplative union with the Infinite One uninterrupted by finite preconceived notions. This is a living experience of God that transcends human intellect and reason, something that is at once mind blowing and mind renewing.[5]

[1] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 17
[2] The Book of Privy Counseling, translation by William Johnston
[3] Matthew 13:24-30
[4] The Book of Privy Counseling, Ch. 1
[5] Ephesians 4:23

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Saying Yes

“I urge you, then, pursue your course relentlessly. Attend to tomorrow and let yesterday be. Never mind what you have gained so far. Instead reach out to what lies ahead. If you do this you will remain in the truth. For now, if you wish to keep growing, you must nourish in your heart the lively longing for God.”[1]

It’s interesting how our will is changed as we yield it to the Greater Will, how our human will, once so focused on the distractions of inordinate affections and false realities, begins settling into the rich, fertile depth of God’s love for us. We begin to see. We begin to understand. We begin to sense invitations that beckon to us, calling us to yield more of ourselves in selfless surrender. Yet, in our seeing and in our understanding, what we see and what we understand will only and always be little more than an aroma of something, Someone, that defies our finite abilities. The best we can do is yield ourselves.

Selfless surrender can be more than a little scary. Fear, if we allow it, can grip us like hardened blocks of concrete around our feet. Selfless surrender, after all, is replete with that variable that we call the “unknown.” Yet, the gentle, quiet voice of God calls with undeniable invitations. “Come unto me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.”[2]

The unknown fourteenth century writer encourages me. “My dear friend in God, go beyond your intellect’s endless and involved investigations and worship the Lord your God with your whole being. Offer him your very self in simple wholeness, all that you are and just as you are, without concentrating on any particular aspect of your being. In this way your attention will not be scattered nor your affection entangled, for this would spoil your singleness of heart and consequently your union with God.”[3]

I desire to follow Christ more perfectly, to know him more intimately, and to say yes to him in all that he so carefully and graciously reveals of himself. It’s not enough to say that I am following him or to say that I know him. The world is filled with well-meaning words of assentation, filled with beautiful songs and faith-declarations. But I simply cannot live my life as just another well rehearsed song being sung.

[1] The Cloud of Unknowing, Ch. 2, para. 2
[2] Matthew 11:28
[3] The Book of Privy Counseling, Ch. 3, para. 4