On the Road!

A few weeks ago, Brother John received a request from a pastor in the Canandaigua area. Like so many of our parishes, two in this part of the Rochester Diocese had recently merged into a new one named St. Benedict’s. Pastor Michael Costik’s request was: Would we be willing to help St. Benedict’s familiarize parishioners with their new patron and with the Monastery “down the road”?

Brother Gabriel asked me if I’d like to respond to Father Michael on behalf of the Monastery. “Of course!” was my immediate reaction. Who wouldn’t want to “sell” the Monastery?

And so I introduced myself via email and phone to Deacon Claude Lester. Claude had come to Mt. Saviour for his discernment retreat prior to ordination, so he was especially enthusiastic about introducing parishioners to our place of prayer.

The target event was a celebration of Benedict’s feast day, nicknamed “Seven-Elevenish” since it was scheduled for the Sunday closest to the feast — this year, on July 8. They planned a BBQ lunch at the community center where there would also be displays of the parish’s ministries.Monastery items

Deacon Claude wanted a special table for Mt. Saviour to feature information on the monastery. The Brothers and I agreed on what to take up: pictures of the monastery chapel and grounds, pamphlets describing accommodations and directions, information on becoming an Oblate, and objects available at the gift shop. I also selected a number of books on Benedict and monasticism available in the shop.

Sunday July 8 was a splendid day for the ride up through the hills to Bloomfield Monastery Tablewhere their community center is located (formerly St. Bridget’s). Straight ahead as I entered the door, the Monastery table was the major focus. Behind the Monastery table was a huge quilt, each square made by a family telling something about that family.

Deacon Claude had already done a good deal of work to publicize St. Benedict. Here he is at one of the displays.
Deacon Claude Lester

I was introduced to the parishioners who headed up various ministries. One was involved in providing shelter for homeless families. Another was a food pantry, open three day a week, stocked with food donated by a number of local people and businesses. I liked the outreach aspect of this ministry. Another nine-year project continually raised funds to help missions in Kenya. I was impressed that these were hands-on ministries that focused on helping the truly needy. I had to interrupt my ministry pilgrimage when I woke up to the fact that I had my own project to publicize!

It didn’t take long to realize that just standing by our table, waiting for the world to come to me, wasn’t going to accomplish much, so I grabbed a handful of pamphlets and prayer cards. Going from table to table, distributing my goodies proved to be much more effective – and fun. I was able to answer questions including, “What’s an Oblate?”  Occasionally I’d meet someone who (a bit embarrassed to admit it) was not a Catholic. This provided an opportunity to share thoughts on ecumenism and our need to rely on one another.

The warmth and enthusiasm of these parishioners was very exciting to me. They certainly expressed the hospitality of our patron saint. What is more, as I was on my way out, Father Michael assured me that they’d be planning a group trip to visit Mt. Saviour. We know they’ll love it.Mt. Saviour

 

The Joy of Evangelization

When I was miraculously (yes, miraculously) brought back to the Church, I experienced a sense of what can only be described as true joy.

I know there are many who would be puzzled by this. We’re aware of so many flaws existing in the institutional church. How can one be happy (much less joyful) to be brought back to this historically flawed institution?

Amazing, right? This seems impossible, because we expect perfection in any organization that’s dedicated to the precious person of Christ. These perceptions reflect, I’ve discovered, a serious absence of understanding.

Take this Sunday’s Gospel of Mark (6:1-6a).

Jesus has come back to Nazareth, his native place, intending to teach in the Synagogue. The reaction to him is, in the vernacular, “Who does he think he is? He’s no better than us. He hasn’t had any special instruction, so how can he talk about wisdom? He comes from a common family whom we see every day, and his relatives aren’t that great either.”

Like so many of us, the Nazarenes looked at the messenger and ignored the message. Jesus had something remarkable to teach them, if they had only been open and non-judgmental. He had been given the assignment when he was baptized by John in the Jordan, participating with (let’s not forget) a bunch of sinners. What he heard as he emerged from the waters was the divine call to teach, which is what prophets do. This is my beloved Son; listen to him. Jesus cemented his resolve by spending 40 days in the desert, alone except for beasts and angels: one side against the other, leaving him to discern the message he was to teach: The kingdom of God is near. Indeed it was. It was especially present in this new Prophet from Nazareth.

Unfortunately, many of us have become jaded, unimpressed, empty of wonder at the message of God, delivered through this divine Prophet. Yes, the Church has a history of imperfect behaviors. But what is its message?

Through all its human failings, the Church has continued to deliver the message: God IS; Christ IS; the Gospel IS. There are no teachings that can surpass the one commandment that Jesus constantly repeated as the most important: Love one another. Love covers a multitude of sins.

And there’s St. Paul in this Sunday’s letter, begging God to take all sense of pride and elation from him. Of course Paul was elated to have been allowed to teach the gospel, to Evangelize.

But God knows how to keep us humble as he allows us to struggle against egotism so that we might rely totally on God’s strength and perfection. And so the Church has likewise struggled, and has still been enabled to bring the world that most important message.

The Prophet Ezekiel (first reading) has been sent to speak to a “rebellious house.” And “whether they heed or resist, they shall know that a prophet has been among them.” Again, not because of the prophet/messenger, but because of the message.

True discipleship is to cling to the message of the Gospel, not because the Church is made up of saints, but despite the fact that the Church is made up of imperfect sinners, which includes us along with all the rest.

Most astounding of all is that we imperfect ones are given the same assignment as Christ’s: Teach the Gospel in our native place and elsewhere. Teach it by living Christ’s message, by loving and accepting all the sinful others who share our need for God.

Prayer and Presence

As a child in parochial school, I remember being taught the answer to the question, “Where is God?” The Baltimore catechism told us that “God is everywhere.” Of course, the class smart alecks (usually the boys) pursued the issue with questions like, Is he inside my desk? In my pocket? On the bookshelf? Et cetera, et cetera.

Well, as St. Paul said, when I was a child I thought as a child, but now as an adult, I ponder the everywhere-ness of God.

A short while ago when we celebrated Trinity Sunday, our homilist quoted the phrase, In him (God) we live and move and have our being. So, is God in us, or are we in God?

Somewhere I read that we are like a fish who, swimming in the ocean, asks himself, “Where’s the ocean?” This is like us asking, “Where’s God?” and all the time we’re in Him. Psalm 139 expresses the wonder of this discovery:

Behind and before you encircle me
and rest your hand upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
far too lofty for me to reach.

Where can I go from your spirit?
From your presence, where can I flee?

I’m so often concerned when someone in spiritual direction tells me how difficult it is to find time for prayer. My first thought is, isn’t it wonderful that these folks want to pray, feel the need to pray, know the importance of connection with this Person we know as God? I can empathize with them as this too used to be my concern and still often remains a subject for discernment. I used to envy monastics who were routinely called to prayer several times during the day for community recitation of the Divine Office. My laywoman’s “schedule,” on the other hand, is so often interrupted by some household need, or the call for personal intervention somewhere. (Truth be told, many distractions are often due to my jumping-bean mentality. More on that another time.) It therefore seemed to me that if a person really wanted to be holy and to pray always, as Scripture teaches, it was necessary to belong to a religious community. That I felt called to holiness but not to religious life became the source of much spiritual anxiety.

Then a wise spiritual director guided me to three books. One is a short collection of letters called The Practice of the Presence of God by a little-known seventeenth century Carmelite named Brother Lawrence.

Lawrence was a lay member of the order, living alongside the monks to provide various services, usually of a very humble nature. One of his regular assignments was washing dishes. A friend wrote to another about Lawrence:

In his business in the kitchen (to which he had naturally a great aversion), having accustomed himself to doing everything there for the love of God, and with prayer . . . for His grace to do his work well, he found everything easy during the fifteen years that he had been employed there.

Because Lawrence focused on God being present in him while he performed the assigned chore, this menial task of washing dishes was transformed into prayer, connecting him to God. I imagine that while the monks were dutifully involved in more “important” activities, Lawrence must have been every bit as much – and perhaps more – united with the Lord while humbly washing dishes.

This same practice is taught by a Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. One of his books, Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life, describes how to transform potentially irritating situations into peaceful acceptance. For us Christians, our awareness is turned to the unceasing presence of God.

Once again on the topic of washing dishes, Thich Nhat Hanh writes:

To my mind, the idea that doing dishes is unpleasant can occur only when you aren’t doing them. Once you are standing in front of the sink with your sleeves rolled up and your hands in the warm water, it is really quite pleasant. I enjoy taking my time with each dish, being fully aware of the dish, the water, and each movement of my hands. . . Each thought, each action in the sunlight of awareness becomes sacred. In this light, no boundary exists between the sacred and the profane.

The third book is by a 17th century French Jesuit, Jean-Pierre De Caussade. Depending on the translator, its title is either The Sacrament of the Present Moment or Abandonment to Divine Providence. This small but powerful book has long been a favorite of spiritual directors. Its message is profoundly simple: “Embrace the present moment as an ever-flowing source of holiness.” De Caussade teaches that we don’t have to look for or manufacture elaborate prayer practices or penances. All that is needed is to set the eyes of our heart to recognizing all the events in our life — its challenges and delights — as gifts from God, as ways of seeing him, accepting and thanking him for all.

Practicing this “seamless” method of prayer helps us stay focused, counteracting our tendency to jump from one activity or thought to another. This is a prayer that cannot be interrupted, because the interruption itself is a call to be with Christ in a special way. This practice fulfills the Scriptural command to pray always, while maintaining a peaceful, simple and intentional acceptance of the duties of our vocation.

Fascinated as I am with the concept of our existence not only in space but also in time, I leave you with this thought: Just as God is everywhere, he IS all the time. We are limited by space and time, but God continues everywhere from within eternity. This is the wonderful and inexplicable reality of God being Present. His name is, after all, I am Who am (Present tense). He is present in the present moment, and that is where we will invariably find Him.

 

The Right Way

A small group of us were taking part in a discussion that soon turned to the subject of prayer. One friend remarked, sadly, that she was not praying as she ought. “Why do you think that?” I asked.

“Well,” she explained, “I’m lying on my bed. I ought to be sitting up.”

I was amazed! I found my friend’s attitude particularly sad since she was going through treatments for cancer which left her almost constantly fatigued. This was a woman who had spent decades as a member of a religious order! Somewhere, some time, someone had persuaded her that in order to pray “correctly” she needed to follow the example of Teresa of Avila who had allegedly sat up straight as a ramrod when she prayed. (Obviously, Teresa didn’t levitate then, but I kept that observation to myself.)

As it happened, I too had been struggling with a prayer issue: how to “do it right.” I felt unable to master the rather new “centering” prayer. This became a gnawing concern until I was given a spiritual director who was able to calm me with a different piece of advice from Teresa: Pray as you can, not as you can’t. Even so, it took years before I could be fully convinced that I was not praying the “wrong” way!

As time passed, I began to question the prayer practices of my favorite saints. Take Saint Francis of Assisi: I could find nothing about how he prayed. What was clear was that he kept his thoughts continually on Jesus, reading about him and his teachings. Admiring him, loving him, imitating him.

I read Thérèse of Lisieux’s autobiography several times. Thérèse too simply gazed constantly on Jesus. This was the Person she loved above all others. She confided to her sister that she “loved him madly!” and addressed him in the familiar form of tu, not the formal vous. Fully aware of her littleness, she thought nothing of falling asleep during the required prayer time.

Teresa of Avila is the first woman to have been named a Doctor of the Church, an honor given chiefly in recognition of her teachings on prayer and growth in the spiritual life. In her autobiography, Teresa writes this about prayer:

As I see it, contemplative prayer is simply an intimate sharing between friends. It’s about frequently taking time to be alone with the One we know loves us. If the friendship is to endure, the love must be honored and tended.

How very simple! The purpose of our life – our spiritual life – is to be fully engaged with Christ: looking at Him, listening to Him, being with Him in our daily activities; sharing with Him our hopes, our regrets – all that will let Him know we’re fully connected to Him as we would be with our dearest friend. We don’t need to rely on what others say about their prayer, which is an entirely individual matter. A growing friendship comes from a two-way conversation where we listen with the ears of our heart to what God tells us.

If we notice that we are gradually changing for the better, that we’re becoming more loving, patient, non-judgmental, and generous, then we know that God is hearing us and is acknowledging our desire for him. Then we’ll know that, in spite of our concerns, we’ve actually been praying the right way after all.

St.-Therese

The Forgotten Person

Some theologians have referred to the Holy Spirit as the Forgotten Person of the Trinity.

Christians are hardly likely to forget the Holy Spirit, since they make the sign of the cross thousands of times a year. But the question is: what do we know about *him*?

The Holy Spirit is not so much forgotten as hidden. By *his* very name, the Holy Spirit is the most esoteric, the most abstract, and consequently the most difficult to understand of the Trinitarian persons. For us, the other Two Persons are more approachable: Jesus, first of all, because He became one of us, sharing totally in our humanity. The Father is described intimately as our Abba (Daddy), the One to whom Jesus constantly refers. But the Spirit? Words will consistently fail us when speaking of the Holy Spirit.

In the Gospel, the Holy Spirit slowly but powerfully emerges, but only in symbols or metaphors because He is not material and therefore not visible. The New Testament’s first referral to the Spirit is when Mary is found “with child through the holy spirit” (Matthew 1:18), or in Luke when Gabriel tells Mary how she can become a mother, the mother of the Messiah.

The Spirit as a dove hovers over Jesus at his baptism, a symbol of his calling to bring the good news of salvation to all.

When Nicodemus comes secretly at night to question the new Rabbi, Jesus attempts to describe how a person can be “born again” in the spiritual sense. He refers to the Spirit as “wind”, an unseen but powerful force, only perceivable by its effects.

The Samaritan woman at the well is bold enough to question Jesus as to where God must be worshiped. We too think certain conditions must be met before we worship: there’s a right place to worship, a right person to preach to us, a right congregation to worship with, a right style of liturgy to be observed. If we can find all of these in one place, that’s where we’ll worship. Jesus simply corrects both us and the Samaritan woman with a few words:

God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and truth.”
(John 4:24)

Unfortunately, that leaves us with no more excuses!

Perhaps the most troubling references to the Spirit are made after the Last Supper. Seeking to comfort his disciples, Jesus tells them:

“. . . grief has filled your hearts. But I tell you the truth, it is better for you that I go. For if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.” (John 16:6b-7)

How could Jesus’ absence be better? How could the invisible Spirit comfort the disciples who were losing the visible Christ?

Recall the first stirrings of creation:

The earth was without form or shape, with darkness over the abyss and a mighty wind sweeping over the waters. (Genesis 1:2)

In the beginning of our spiritual life (and for much of it throughout), we too are formless and void. In order to become spiritual beings we need to be emptied of all that prevents God from shaping us into his image. The emptying process can be almost unbearable. We don’t even know how to pray! But St. Paul encourages us with words from his letter to the Romans:

The Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes [for us] with inexpressible groanings.

We are constantly being emptied, separated from things or persons we love and consider absolutely necessary to our existence: parents, spouses, children, siblings, dearest friends, homes, our life work, and finally from our health and life itself. Such separations leave us destitute, desolate, abandoned. At moments like this we might question God’s love for us.

This reaction is so totally human, and therefore Christ totally understands. He knows that we are incomplete until, ironically, we are emptied – even of his own physical presence. Space must be created in us, making room for the Spirit of God who will accomplish the final act of our divinisation. The coming of the Holy Spirit in our lives is Christ’s crowning achievement for us, since it enables us to transform even an evil world into a place of love and truth.

I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, which the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows it. But you know it, because it remains with you, and will be in you. (John 14: 16-18)

I love the words of the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins in “God’s Grandeur.” He traces the beauty of the world as God created it, followed by its near destruction by man’s greed and materialism, but ending in sure hope through the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, the One who renews the face of the earth.

And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast
and with ah! bright wings.

Trinity 1