A Saint for Our Time

The fact that my patron saint was a hermit might explain why I feel drawn to explore that way  of life. I now have another reason for praying to her — now from the voluntary quarantine, or “Shelter in Place,” necessitated by the outbreak of the infamous corona virus.

Santa Rosalia (b. 1160) came from a noble family — perhaps even descended from Charlemagne. Instead of making an equally noble marriage, she sought a cloistered life of prayer in a monastery. She later chose even greater seclusion, living in a cave on Mount Pellegrino just outside of Palermo.

It’s difficult to know exact details about her life and how she appealed to the people around Palermo, Sicily. Catholic Family News tells us this:

As happens to various saints, Rosalia – for reasons unknown – grew to be largely forgotten. Various apparitions and cures were attributed to her aid. At the end of the 1300s, having been promised that their town would be delivered from a great pestilence, the townspeople of the area built a church in Saint Rosalia’s honor and were subsequently saved. When Palermo was affected by a plague in 1474, the city senate resolved to restore the church of Monte Pellegrino, by now in ruins. Upon the church’s restoration, the plague ceased.

Since then, Saint Rosalia, nick-named La Santuzza – “dear little Saint” – by her affectionate and devoted followers, has continued to endear herself to the people of Palermo, Sicily. Many a daughter of Italian-American immigrants has been named after her.

Santuzza’s feast day is September 4.

St Rosalie Interceding for the Plague-stricken of Palermo
Artist: Anthony van Dyck, 1624

House of Prayer

Three Lenten practices: Prayer, Almsgiving, and Fasting

     

While waiting for Mass to begin, I saw myself in a cathedral of the middle ages: Notre Dame de Paris, now sadly defaced by fire; Rheims, where Joan of Arc witnessed the crowning of the Dauphin and the restoration of French supremacy; Chartres, where virtually no surface remains bare but is covered with intricate sculptures of saints and holy events. I remember being taught that statues and stained glass windows were meant to teach scriptural truths to the unlettered of that era. I wondered whether today’s faithful would find these adornments either distracting or inspiring. 

King Solomon supervised the construction of a temple that would give due honor to the Lord their protector. The first Book of Kings provides details, but as early as the book of Exodus, the Israelites had completed phase one: the construction of the Ark which contained the two tablets of the Mosaic law. It was written in stone to be a permanent reminder of the agreement between God and his people: God would guide and protect his people always and his people would always obey God’s Law. The Ark was designed to be portable so that wherever the Israelites went, the precious Law would always be with them, scrupulously obeyed.Isaiah foresaw a time when the Temple would be open to all:

Many peoples shall come and say:
“Come, let us go up to the Lord’s mountain . . . to the house of the God of Jacob,
That he may instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in his paths.
For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.  (Isaiah 56.7)

Solomon was well aware of the huge distance between God and his creatures. He stretches his hands to heaven and says:

“Can it indeed be that God dwells on earth? If the heavens and the highest heavens cannot contain you, how much less the temple which I have built?”

Despite the physical splendor of the building, the God it praises remains elusive and inscrutable: 

When the priests left the holy place, a cloud filled the house of the Lord so that the priests could no longer minister because of the cloud, since the glory of the Lord had filled the house of the Lord. . ..The Lord intends to dwell in the dark cloud.

Indeed, a  persistent cloud blocks our understanding of God. St. Paul repeats this metaphor: We see now as through a glass, darkly; but then face to face. (1 Corinthians 13:12)

Christ’s Teachings on Prayer
In the sermon on the mount Jesus teaches us how to pray. The prayer Jesus describes is contemplation. He invites us to seek intimacy with God by entering our private room, our temple, our heart, this private and sacred space. It is about opening our heart to God, joining God in a spirit of companionship. 

Once we have welcomed the Lord into our quiet space, what do we say, how do we pray? 

With few or even no words: “Do not babble as the pagans do.” How very different from the formal, showy, and formulaic prayer of the Pharisees!  The mindless repetition of many words, whether ours or another’s, cannot substitute for one personal word of love that comes from the heart and is directed to the Lord.

To contemplate is to enter into the quiet and intimate temple of our very being. In the Interior Castle, St. Teresa of Avila writes: “The important thing is not to talk much but to love much and to do that which stirs you to love.”

 Contemplative prayer is a quiet, wordless connection with God within the temple of our heart, the God of our life. 

Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? . . for the temple of God, which you are, is holy. (1 Corinthians 3:16, 17b)

It puzzles me to hear someone say they don’t feel at home in a particular church building. And yet, maybe that’s the way God wants us to know that he is not to be found in bricks and mortar, nor even in representational art, but in the human hearts of those within the building. For the human heart is the preferred temple of God, the House of Prayer where we do not know how to pray as we ought, but where the Holy Spirit comes to our assistance, praying within us with unutterable groanings. (Romans 8)

Soul Friend

 

I write this on Valentine’s Day, a holiday where friends and family outdo one another in demonstrations of affection. How wonderful! We can never have too much of that!

In my various posts I’ve often referred to my “epiphany” when I was brought back to the church after a 21-year absence. This call was so strong that it drew me to an almost constant sense of wonder and confusion. This strong pull was nothing less than bewildering and I knew from many years of Christian education that I needed a spiritual director. When I heard the homily of a priest new to our parish, I knew that my search was over.

I vividly remember my first visit to this, my first real spiritual “director.” “Now you know,” he said, “I’m not going to tell you what to do.” This was a total shock, as I said to myself: Well, why on earth do you think I’ve come to you?! 

He also asked me to call him by his first name, dropping the Father. This was to remove any artificial and possibly unhelpful distancing between us, as Father denotes a relationship with a superior. 

Since my experience over a dozen years ago, “spiritual direction” has gradually and universally evolved into a more personal relationship as spiritual companion or friend. Even the organization called “Spiritual Directors International” has recently shown a preference for spiritual companion/friend.

So what is this non-directive direction like?

It didn’t take me long to discover and cherish this unique form of friendship. This was a person to whom I could speak freely about my experience of God; one who would not put me down but knew how to gently correct what needed correction; one who encouraged me, who was my spiritual cheer-leader. 

The spiritual friend is an attentive listener, familiar with the spiritual journey through his own experience and through study of the classic writings on the subject. Saints such as Ignatius, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Francis de Sales and his soul-friend Jane Frances de Chantal, and many more have written extensively on the art of holy listening. Probing questions are designed to clarify and discover how the Holy Spirit – the true Director – is working in the soul. 

Even though each seeker is unique, the path usually has the same sign-posts. How do we know we are “making progress”? To put it simply, we know this if we can point to positive changes in our behavior toward others. If, for example, we can see that the anger and grudges we’ve carried around for years have quietly slipped off our back; if we are present to God so that our prayer has seamlessly become more connected with Him in even the most ordinary tasks of our life; if so, then we can probably say we’re more authentically responding to our call to holiness. The love we have for a soul friend can become a model for the love we share with others in our life.

The Angels Are Silent

Gaudete! Rejoice!
     This is the mood and message of the third Sunday of Advent. This moment of joy within the dreary weeks of waiting is like the first kick of the infant in the womb. Hah! There is life there after all!
     The Scripture readings take us closer to the brilliant reality of Christ’s presence among us. Angels galore!
      Gabriel comes to Mary with an invitation which Mary accepts as a gentle command.
     Gabriel comes to Joseph to let him in on the secret and to detail his role as protector of the Holy One and His Mother.
     A whole legion of angels cover the freezing shepherds with triumphant sounds to guide them to the unlikely birthplace of the King and Messiah.
     Both Old and New Testaments tell of Angels who act in a way similar to the prophets’: they deliver messages from God as to miraculous events or appearances.
     Why don’t we hear from Angels anymore? Why are they silent?
     Psalm 8 tells us that we’ve been made “a little less than the Angels.” The Letter to the Hebrews repeats this, saying that now, after years of silence, Someone infinitely higher than the Angels has been given to us. This is God’s own Son, Jesus Christ.
     Yet this great Person made such a silent entrance into our world as the child of ordinary parents, residing in a small town famous for absolutely nothing. It’s as if the Christmas story needed to be announced once and for all amid spectacular angelic fireworks, for the Savior’s  life in the world would be hidden and without any of the trappings of royalty or power.
      Once out in the world as an adult with a mission, Jesus continued to insist on silence: Tell no one of this miracle, or Tell the vision to no one, etc. Why the secrecy?
      I have a theory. Jesus planned his mission as a continuation through his followers, ordinary men and women, and not through Angels. Those who believed in the validity of Christ’s teachings would be the ones to teach the treasures of the Gospel — not necessarily with words but by their deeds. Jesus’ message had to be accessible to both teachers and the taught. Christ’s  presence and example needed to be lowly, thus maintaining a truer imitation of his actions and his gentle (but firm) commands.
     St. Angela of Foligno, fourteenth century mystic, writes:
See how Christ gave Himself as an example. He said: “Learn from me. I am gentle. My soul is humble. You’ll find rest for your hearts here.” Pay attention to what Christ didn’t say. He didn’t say, “Learn to fast from Me” or “Learn from me how to perform great miracles,” although He did these things well. . .
The point is that Christ made humility and gentleness the foundation for every other virtue. Nothing else matters. Not integrity, not fasting, not poverty, not shabby clothing, not years of good works, not the accomplishment of miracles — none of these is important without a humble heart.
     The splendidly orchestrated Christmas messages of the Angels were possibly their last hurrah. Without Christ, we might have thought that holiness required great deeds, the mastery of complicated theological dogmas, perhaps even martyrdom. Surely miracles.
Jesus’ miracles were born of his compassion, not to have people marvel at quasi-magical powers. He had already learned that from his desert temptation.
     No, now is the time for quiet. No more brilliance. No more forcing. No more threats of separation. No more need for virtually impossible deeds that only superhuman angels could perform.
Now is humanity’s time, the time for gently whispered invitations, and for our
quiet, humble  and joy-filled responses.

Light in Darkness

John of the Cross at Christmas

Advent is the time of year we see many references to darkness v. light, symbolic of the battle between evil and good, with light (Christ) overcoming darkness (despair).

We’re instinctively uncomfortable with darkness as a time of peril. We need light to know where we are and where we need to go, symbolic of our fateful search for understanding and knowledge, as in Eden’s tree of knowledge. This is why I love to turn to the well-known poem of St. John of the Cross (feast: Dec. 14), known as “The Dark Night.”

This phrase, “dark night,” is commonly used to describe a period of interior darkness representing fear, confusion, a sense of abandonment, and near despair. Not so for John of the Cross, as becomes clear by a careful reading and translation of even the first stanza alone.

En una noche oscura . . . Oscura, Obscure, denotes something hidden but not necessarily absent. He is not going to roam listlessly. He has a goal in mind.

Con ansias en amor inflamada . . . on fire with cravings for love. The Soul’s only motive is love. It is eagerly embracing this adventure, since it is fueled by love, not by fear and certainly not by despair. His mood is certain, his step is strong.

!Oh, dichosa ventura! O happy destiny! The Soul’s expectation is certainly not dreaded but deeply desired, since it is Love that calls him. 

Salì sin ser notada . . . I went out, unnoticed. He has not been ousted. No: the loving Soul willingly and eagerly leaves the familiar which has not succeeded in satisfying its cravings. Here is an opportunity to do something different: to leave the old life behind in such a quiet way that no one can see any difference or notice anything extraordinary in the lover’s behavior. The lover seems the same on the outside. Who could guess what is experienced within?

Estando ya mi casa sosegada . . . While my household is asleep. All around me are unaware. What the Soul is leaving is only bland, colorless, unfulfilling, in comparison to what he is seeking.

In darkness, there is no distinction between one thing and another. A landscape that seemed to be known and understood in the daytime is now clouded in mystery and unknowing. But because love is the final goal and reward, the Soul presses on, welcoming the darkness which brings peace and understanding of a different nature – perhaps even a strangely new sense of freedom.

The poem ends on a note of ecstatic bliss:

I abandoned and forgot myself,
Laying my face on my Beloved;
All things ceased; I went out from myself,
Leaving my cares
Forgotten among the lilies.