Jesus Prayed


A Meditation

Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed.
(Mark 1:35)

At a recent session with my spiritual director, I shared one more troubling issue. “Have you taken it to prayer?” she asked, certainly not for the first (or last!) time.

This question caused me to wonder once again about the different ways of praying and my reasons for praying. It also served as an invitation to learn what the Gospel could teach me about Jesus praying, especially as illustrated by the quotation from Mark at the head of this post. As usual, one question led to another.

When Jesus awoke “long before dawn” and went out to pray by himself, what was that like? What did he say? What did he feel, see, hear? Did he give himself over to the Holy Spirit? How? In his humanity, when did he realize that others who saw him saw the Father?

The fact that the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus when he joined the crowd at the Jordan makes me wonder if he knew (humanly speaking) that his baptism would be the start of his mission.

He certainly had been living the life of a deeply devout Jew. Remember, he had been a spiritually precocious 12-year-old! Growing up in the religious atmosphere of his parents’ home, he must have pondered and prayed constantly.

Then, like countless others, Jesus heard of John attracting crowds of people who flocked to him to be baptized.  Jesus must have sensed that the time was ripe for him and his teachings; that something special, something different – even revolutionary – was stirring in the land. His soul had been to such deep places through his prayer that he had a growing awareness of the world’s readiness for the Messiah. He obviously also knew that he needed to model holiness for the crowd at the Jordan, and everywhere thereafter.

He knew he needed to give an example of humility, of true humanity (for as God he knew, better than the rest of us, how to be more human than we did!). John, for his part, living an ascetic and spiritual life in the wild, was given the grace to recognize and proclaim this man as none other than the Messiah.

Jesus had traveled all the way from Nazareth to follow his unique destiny at this moment in the world’s history. John could recognize the ardor of this Man, because he recognized and felt it in himself. These two men were indeed soul mates, brothers under the skin. This was their most important relationship, their spiritual kinship, deeper than blood cousins. 

So in spite of the protests from John, Jesus allowed himself to be counted among the sinful to be washed, though he was always without sin. It was Jesus’ mission to cleanse the masses, the rubble, from their sins — real or as imagined by fearful minds, or as thrust upon them by legalistic leaders.

What happiness for him to invite these timorous souls to the banquet of forgiveness! This was indeed the fruit of his prayer, that our sins were to weigh us down no longer.

Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened
and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,
for I am meek and humble of heart;
and you will find rest for your souls.
For my yoke is easy,
and my burden light.

(Matthew 11:28-30)

The Heart of Christianity

About six years ago, I spent a week at the Chautauqua Institute in Western New York, soaking in music, books, and religious thought — a spiritually inebriating experience indeed. I laugh to myself at that choice of adjective, “inebriating,” since Chautauqua, at its founding, was a very dry community, established to offer spiritual and intellectual riches to Sunday-School teachers during their summer vacation.

This was not my first stay at this mind-enriching, auto-free community on Lake Chautauqua. In the decades between this and my first stay, the place had grown in popularity and had even been cloned elsewhere in the country. It still remains an educational gem, but happily has become more ecumenical in its offerings of spiritual thought and practices from all religions, branching out from the standard Protestant fare at its inception. For example, celebration of the weekend Catholic Mass is no longer relegated to the movie theater, but has been promoted to the Hall of Philosophy.

Checking over the schedule after my arrival there, I was interested to find a lecture/discussion on the three Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I picked it up on a Wednesday afternoon when Christianity was the subject.

Handouts from the presenter summarized the major tenets of these three religions. The page on Christianity featured the Nicene Creed, first composed in the 4th century to settle a variety of heresies.*

Being a Catholic for most of my life, I thought I knew what Christianity was. Perhaps naively, I didn’t realize that people of other religions considered that the Creed was what made us what we are. So I raised my hand and stood up, a pale version of St. Paul at the Areopagus in Athens.

“The Creed,” I said, “is not what Christianity is about. It’s about the teachings of Christ, which is why it’s called Christianity! At the heart of this religion is Christ’s Gospel of the Kingdom and his command to love God with all our being and our neighbor as ourselves — finally, in fact, to love one another as he loved us. The Gospels detail how we are to do this. Important as the Creed may have been at the time it was written, it makes no mention of the Gospel. Therefore, I would suggest that the Creed is not what makes us truly Christians.”

My experience in that Chautauqua classroom was my first realization of the great disconnect between faith as a triumph over reason and the intellect, and Faith as a reliance on the teachings of Christ. Prior to that day of epiphany, much time had passed since my childhood Catechism classes, my empty status as a lapsed Catholic, and my return to Christ and the Gospel as the central truth of my religion. In short, my faith had simply matured.

I confess that before this epiphany, I had been troubled by certain articles of faith found in the Creed, certainly because they are difficult to understand. Because of the way most of us have been raised, failure to accept an article of faith is to risk our very salvation. But just as we can’t wrap our head around these doctrines, we can’t wrap our heart around them either.

This was a troubling state of affairs, to say the least. Now that I’m back (I thought), what was happening to my faith?

Eventually, I found the filter through which I passed any questions or doubts. I looked for Christ not in the icy Creed but in the heart-warming attraction of the Gospel. There I found all I truly needed.

It is the person of Jesus Christ that continues to draw me to the practice of my faith. It is the beauty of his teachings, the appeal of his goodness, the intoxicating addiction to a holiness that I can no longer live without. In the Gospel . . .

I see Jesus pardoning the woman caught in adultery.
I hear Jesus teaching the Beatitudes to the throngs on the hillside.
I shudder to see Jesus touching lepers to heal them.
I am among the sinners dining with Jesus.
I listen to Jesus’ parables about the kingdom: the forgiving father, the compassionate Samaritan.

Little by little, I find that my efforts to follow Christ bring about a different kind of understanding. In those difficult acts of forgiving, of making peace, of encouraging the sad, of uplifting the sorrowful, — these grace-filled efforts to live by the Gospel shed a kind of illumination upon the Creed which now falls way behind the Gospel in importance. Rational understanding and acceptance don’t seem so important. The brilliance of the Gospel and the attraction of Jesus Christ have somehow introduced a different kind of light into my life that has totally overcome the coldness of the Creed and my difficulty in understanding it.

The more I’ve tried to live the Gospel, the less important has been my need to understand the tenets of the Creed. It seems that a different kind of understanding is being given to me, a more perfect understanding from the heart, in a heart-to-heart relationship with Christ.

Of course I still stumble through difficulties common to us all: people who rub us the wrong way, disagreements within a family, financial problems, etc, etc. ad nauseam. It’s not the Creed that helps me through these situations. It’s Christ in the Gospel who is with me, steering me onto the right path by his side, and showing me how to endure and grow.

+  + +

For more on this topic, check Fr. Richard Rohr’s meditation at https://cac.org/the-creeds-2019-01-23/

*For the complete Creed, see the USCCB website, http://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/what-we-believe/ Catholic belief is succinctly expressed in the profession of faith or credo called the Nicene Creed.”

The Wedding Feast at Cana

Jesus has been baptized and has recruited the first of his Apostles. They are with Mary at a wedding feast.

Isn’t it puzzling that none of the other Evangelists even mention this miracle at Cana? Yet John’s Gospel places it right at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.

Compared with later miracles — healing a leper or a man born blind, or even resurrecting a dead person — this seems a rather trifling matter. Jesus himself felt that the time was not right. It was only a private party, after all, and the many signs that came later not only demonstrated his compassion, but also boosted his credibility. Even turning stones into loaves of bread after forty days of hunger in the desert seems much more relevant.

Is it possible that John, the most mystical of the Evangelists, has presented this narrative as a brilliant overture introducing (allegorically?) Jesus’ mission to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom? Let us explore the riches of the Cana event.

The Wedding Feast
Jesus repeatedly used the image of feast to represent the Kingdom of God, now readily at hand for all who wanted it. The wedding feast especially was the most joyful kind and lasted several days. It celebrated the union of disparate parts: union of a loving couple, union of their family and friends — perhaps much more important back then than now.

The Guests
Among others not named are Jesus himself, his mother, and his new disciples.

Wine
A metaphor for holiness and joy, it’s at low ebb in a world of strife and materialism. It also represents the Redeemer’s sacred blood, shed that all may find fulfillment in God, freed from the old law with its scrupulosity and fear of punishment.

“They have no wine.”
The old law is insufficient to feed the deep and thirst of God’s people. Jesus has come to renew the “wine of gladness.” He has come to fulfill, not destroy the law with its over-emphasis on externals. Jesus taught that the heart of the law was God’s love for us and ours for God and one another.
I desire mercy, not sacrifice. (Hosea 6:6, Matthew 9:13)
This is the wine of spiritual inebriation.

The Request
How delicately made! This scene is not without humor. Leave it to a woman to notice a potential social disaster: running out of wine, a staple for a successful party! Mary merely brings it to her son’s attention, since he and “the guys” are clueless. Jesus doesn’t even want to get involved. This is not in his Plan, the time isn’t right, it’s a private party, etc., etc.
What a message for us when we think our wants — or even our needs — are not worthwhile for presenting to the Lord.  But God is always ready to hear our prayers. Every contact with God is important.

Role of the Servants
Many of Jesus’ miracles took place with the help of friends or even strangers, such as the group who opened a space in the roof to lower their paralyzed friend into Jesus’ presence. Or the anonymous members of the crowd who encouraged the blind man to approach Jesus. At this wedding party, the servants play an important role, just as we do as disciples/servants of the Kingdom. This is an essential part of Christ’s teaching:  giving help freely to others, even strangers.
Mary gives them a gentle order: Do whatever he tells you. In other words, You may not see the sense of accepting his will, but you’ll see how it will all work together  unto good.

The Jars of Water
These serve a mundane but necessary purpose for “Jewish ceremonial washing.” We are reminded of St. Paul’s words: We hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us.  (2 Corinthians 4:7) Whatever good we do comes from collaboration with God himself. Neither we nor our deeds need be extraordinary. The lowly — and even sinners (which we all are) — can become precious channels of grace for others.

New Wine, Transformed
Finally, we arrive at the fruitful completion of the miracle. The water destined for ceremonial washing is our Baptismal water, cleansing us to make us ready for an outpouring of spiritual wealth given us through Christ. John the Baptist humbly downgrades his ministry and tells his questioners (John 1:26) that what he has done is nothing compared to what “another” will do. John’s baptism is merely with water,  nothing compared to Jesus’ baptism of the spirit. Through this, we are born again, transformed into true children of our Heavenly Father. Moreover, John the Evangelist writes:

Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed.
We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.

(1 John 3:2)

 

Goodbye, November!

Reader, be patient; this has a happy ending.

How very appropriate that the end of the liturgical year takes place in November, the end of the calendar year. Our usual weather for most of November is cloudy days. Frankly, the weather and the liturgical year seem well-matched – that is, gloomy.

We start out the month quite happily with All Saints day on the first. But the very next day we’re plunged into All Souls Day. This is not meant to be a day of sadness, but our Spanish-speaking brethren call it the Day of the Dead (Día de los muertos) and that seems to be the major emphasis. When we finally get to the last two Sundays, we are treated to readings from Revelation about the “End Times” with descriptions of unimaginable disasters coming soon to a city near you.

Add to all this the fact that several people I know have passed away this month. (Note the euphemism, in consideration for all those who have a problem with the “d” word).

In our calendar, November has only 30 days, yet it seems to drag on interminably longer. Sometimes I prefer to describe the skies as “pewter” rather than “gray,” as I attempt to inject a positive note of beauty to what might otherwise be merely depressing.

So here we have several ingredients that might drag us down this month: 1) the reminder of dear ones departed — for me, including four people I know who died this month alone; 2) liturgical readings emphasizing disaster, death and judgment; and 3) at least 25 days without sunshine.

But wait! What about the big November holiday, Thanksgiving?

This definitely helps change our perspective – especially if you’re a shopper and jump to take advantage of the many available sales on Black Friday. Alas, even that isn’t enough for someone like me who lacks the shopping gene.

Never mind. For me, the gift of gratitude turns my gloom upside-down, helping me to slowly climb out of that black pit.

But the most effective cure appeared in our Gospel reading the other day. The Sadducees, who deny that there is a resurrection, question Jesus with a hypothetical situation. A woman is married to, and successively widowed by seven brothers. The quiz: “At the resurrection (if there is one, they probably snicker), whose wife will she be?”

Jesus explains that whereas people these days marry, things will be different in the after-life. He says to them,

“The children of this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are deemed worthy to attain to the coming age and to the resurrection of the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. They can no longer die, for they are like angels. That the dead will rise even Moses made known in the passage about the bush, when he called ‘Lord’ the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. [He] is not God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive. (Luke 20: 34-38)

In that stunning revelation, Jesus joins us all together, the living as well as those whom we refer to as dead. Thus in our funeral Masses we celebrate that life is changed, not taken away.

This is the Good News that Christ brings us, that we need not dread a separation from loved ones, much less a separation from a life that has been slowly declining.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled.  If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be. Where I am going you know the way.” Thomas said to him, “Master, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” Jesus said to him,

“I am the way and the truth and the life.”   (John 14:1-6)

Let the Children Come

(Written on the feast of Thérèse of Lisieux)

“Let the children come to me, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matthew 19:14)

How can children – or the child-like – have such a ready entrance into the Kingdom? To merit the Kingdom, don’t we have to learn countless behaviors, obey countless rules, accept countless beliefs and doctrines? And we understand hardly any of it. This is surely not child’s play!

I’ve been re-reading Michael Casey’s commentary on St. Benedict’s prologue to the Rule, The Road to Eternal Life. [Casey is a Trappist monk who has written several books on Benedictine spirituality.] I read it with a fellow Oblate about a year ago, but many passages strike me as brand new, now that I’m in a different place. Casey writes:

The Gospel is fundamentally a proclamation of the Good News; it is something that excites, motivates, and encourages us. It is more than the dreary listing of a series of moral precepts. It is the promise of power that comes down from on high to give us the wisdom, understanding, and fortitude to put those impossible precepts into practice. . . .

To be guided by the Gospel is to be liberated from the tyranny of law and superego and to allow our lives to be more and more marked by the simplicity of love. It does not mean extracting moral precepts from the words of Jesus and erecting them into a code or canon of behavior. It means living as Jesus lived by moving toward the fullness of self-giving love that he manifested during his time on earth.

The French mystic and poet, Charles Péguy, tells the adult who is satiated with many possessions and opinions: “Go to school, children, and learn to unlearn.”

It is their humble status and attitude of simplicity that Jesus recognizes and loves in children. It is what Thérèse of Lisieux discovered in her “little way:” the child-like acceptance of God’s love as Jesus taught in his Good News. 13-Therese as Joan.jpg

You see, we’ve been taught about all the things we must do to “get into Heaven,” all the prayers we must say, all the rules we must strictly follow, the spiritual and intellectual hoops we must jump through.  Thérèse, doctor of simplicity, was shown a way where one simply goes along with the parent in total trust. It has to be the way to a good place, for where else would a loving parent take him?  The child is happily amazed at everything it sees: it’s all new and splendid! For the child, everything is a kind of mystery, yet not imponderable, for the parent will explain all as they take the same path together, hand-in-hand. Being with the parent “excites, motivates, and encourages” the child. Simply having that loving attention is an incomparable delight.

The spiritual child does not need to understand complex theology that calculates how many angels can dance on the head of a pin; does not need to impose difficult penances on herself; doesn’t fret unendingly on mistakes made; doesn’t need big, impressive words in speaking to the parent.

The child-like simply accepts that there are others on this same path and is happy to take the last place, since it’s by the parent’s side. Let the others run off to chase useless things! The blessed are content to grasp only one thing in their hand: the hand of God.

Yes, we know that this “spiritual” child may be a tad idealized, relative to the children we actually parent. The main point is that the child really has nothing of “value,” by worldly standards, to give the parent. It’s the other way around: the parent (or grandparent) takes delight in spoiling the child with a variety of gifts presented at every opportunity, reasonable or not. When we keep our eyes open and look up at our divine parent with expectation, hope and love, are we ever disappointed?

As years are added to my life-span, I’m taught new things. One gift is to see the importance of receiving. Yes, there are always things we do and give. But then, you see, it’s so easy to feel proud of ourselves. When we allow God to give, every day can be very much like a child’s Christmas. Gifts often come even frequently throughout the day. If now and then we’re given gifts that puzzle us, we’ll certainly be shown how they work and in time will come to appreciate them.

Being at the receiving end is especially important for those of us at the ageing part of life, because doing is getting more and more tricky. We have to learn how to accept help and care from others. We have to learn to ignore their look of exasperation as we ask them the same question for the umpteenth time. And when we tell them the same story for the third time in 10 minutes, maybe they have to learn how to pretend that they’re hearing it for the first time. Compassion is needed now, as those in their second childhood require the same patience we needed with our young ones.

Let all children come to Me.