On the first steps of my spiritual journey, I thought how very nice it would be to live in a monastery. There, I would be officially called to prayer by the ringing of bells for the chanting of the canonical hours. Here at home, on the other hand, I’m constantly interrupted and distracted. The only bells I hear are from the telephone or my oven timer — not to mention the ongoing clanging of tinnitus in my ears!
In response to this situation, my spiritual director reminded me of Thérèse of Lisieux and introduced me to Brother Lawrence and Jean-Pierre de Caussade. These three holy persons taught that, because God is everywhere, prayer can be offered everywhere and any time. With the intention and desire to meet God more frequently, God can be loved in everything we do. With practice, I was given to understand this principle.
Remember the old Latin prayer recited by the priest as he began Mass? I will go to the altar of God, to God who gives joy to my youth! I adapted this prayer to fit the ordinary practices of my day.
I will go to the altar of my laptop As I compose this prayer.
I will go to the altar of my piano, Where I touch the soul of Beethoven.
I will go to the altar of the sidewalk That leads me to my neighbor.
I will go to the altar of my phone As I call or respond to a friend.
I will go to the altar in my kitchen, As I prepare what God provides.
I will go to the altar of my appliances That make light work of my chores.
I will go to the altar of my books That bring food to my spirit.
I will go to the altar in my prayer corner Where I find the grace to surrender … To love.
As a child in parochial school, I remember being taught basic truths in the Baltimore catechism. Question: “Where is God?” Answer: “God is everywhere.”
Of course, the class smart alecs (mostly the boys) pursued the subject with questions like, Is he inside my desk? In my pocket? On the bookshelf? Et cetera, et cetera.
As with St. Paul, when I was a child I thought as a child, but now as an adult, I ponder the everywhere-ness of God.
When we celebrated Trinity Sunday this year, our homilist offered up the phrase, “In him (God) we live and move and have our being.” So is God in us, or are we in God? And how is this possible?
The difficulty is that our words are so inadequate, so earth-bound: in, everywhere — words that have to do with location, our physical place in the universe. We exist, we are here. Presence has to do with both time and space: now and here. Since we humans are limited by both time and space, we can’t grasp how we can be in the infinite, eternal and ubiquitous God. What is more, we are taught to pray always.
It’s concerning when someone in spiritual direction tells me how difficult it is to find time for prayer. My first thought is, how wonderful that these folks want to pray, that they feel the need to pray, that they recognize the importance of connecting with this Person we know as God!
I certainly empathize with them. I used to envy monastics who were assured of a regular prayer life, being called to prayer several times during the day for recitation of the Divine Office. My schedule, on the other hand, was always so helter-skelter, so often interrupted by some household emergency or by the need for personal intervention somewhere. It therefore seemed to me that if a person really wanted to be holy, as the Gospel and Vatican II teach, one would have to live in a religious community.
Yes, I truly sympathize with those who experience this spiritual conflict and anxiety. Yet we know that it is prayer that connects us to God, prayer that joins us to the Infinite who is everywhere.
Fortunately, a wise spiritual director guided me to the solution. Not that I was able to arrive there in a single leap, but some books he recommended helped, and I share them with you who read this post.
One was Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk. He describes how irritating situations can be transformed into peaceful acceptance. He speaks of mindfulness which for us translates to awareness of being with Christ, in the Spirit. 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 become sacred. In this light, no boundary exists between the sacred and the profane.
For us Christians, sacred awareness is being mindful of God’s presence in and with us.
Brother Lawrence lived in a Carmelite monastery as a lay brother who lived alongside the monks to provide various services, some of a very humble nature. Wouldn’t you know, he was assigned to a chore that he particularly disliked: washing dishes! A friend recorded Lawrence’s way of prayer in these words:
In his business in the kitchen (to which he had naturally a great aversion), he accustomed himself to do everything there for the love of God… With prayer for His grace to do his work well upon all occasions, he found everything easy during the fifteen years that he had been employed there.
Because Lawrence focused on God present in him while he performed this task, the mundane activity of washing dishes was transformed into an affectionate and personal prayer that connected him to God, more than what might have been accomplished in a mechanical recitation of the Psalms. This simple practice guaranteed that Lawrence would remain in a loving union with the Lord. [Click on this link for some quotes from Brother Lawrence]
The third book on finding God in the present moment is by a 17th century French Jesuit, Jean-Pierre De Caussade. [Click on the link for more information.] Depending on the translator, it’s titled 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,” he writes. De Caussade teaches that we don’t have to manufacture penances or even difficult prayer practices. Merely set the eyes of your heart to recognizing every event in your life, both challenges and delights, as gifts from God, as ways of seeing him, accepting and thanking him for all.
These simple prayer practices help us to recognize the constant presence of God in our life and world. God is here; God is in us; God is in others; we are all in God and in one another.
“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 humblestatus 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.
You see, we’ve been taught about all the things we must doto “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.
The term “New Evangelization” is heard in many Catholics circles today, but what exactly does it mean?
An easy search on the internet will turn up many insights in answer to this question. Focus, a site sponsored by Catholic University (see footnote for link *) gives a very clear answer which I’ve modified slightly in the following paragraphs.
“It is believed that Saint John Paul II first used the term in 1983 in an address to Latin American Bishops. He would later bring this term to the attention of the entire Church.
Perhaps the most clear definition of the New Evangelization is in his encyclical, Redemptoris Missio, where John Paul II describes three different situations for teaching the Gospel (evangelization), as described below:
“Mission ad gentes: Latin for “to the nations.” This is a situation where Christ and his Gospel are not known. It is what we commonly think of as the work of our foreign missions where Christianity may be first introduced.
“Christian communities: these are the communities where the Church carries out her activity and pastoral care – i.e., the parish church you and I attend every Sunday. This involves teaching the Gospel to people who are currently and faithfully connected with a Christian church (even if often superficially).
“Candidates for the New Evangelization: St. John Paul II refers to situations where entire groups of the baptized have lost a living sense of the faith, or even those who no longer consider themselves members of the Church, living far removed from Christ and his Gospel. These are people we commonly refer to as having ‘fallen away’ or ‘lapsed.’
“The New Evangelization addresses the spiritual needs of this last group in particular.”
The Focus website further quotes Pope St. John Paul II:
“I sense that the moment has come to commit all of the Church’s energies to a new evangelization [to lapsed Catholics] and to the mission ad gentes [to foreign missions]. No believer in Christ, no institution of the Church can avoid this supreme duty: to proclaim Christ to all peoples” (John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio).
“To this end, it is more necessary than ever for all the faithful to move from a faith of habit, sustained perhaps by social context alone, to a faith which is aware and personally lived.The renewal of [one’s own] faith will always be the best way to lead others to the Truth that is Christ.” [My emphasis.] (John Paul II, Ecclesia in America).
A faith of habit; a faith that has not grown much beyond one’s last formal instruction, probably since grade school. These are the faithful indeed, insofar as going to church every Sunday; never missing major feasts such as Ash Wednesday, Easter, or Christmas, but who possibly have not yet heard their personal call to discipleship and dedication to the revolutionary teachings of the Gospel.
Nevertheless, according to John Paul, it falls to this group (you and me) to pay the needed attention to the third group. Since everyone knows someone who was once baptized but who no longer practices the faith, Saint John Paul II wanted these, the “faithful,” to clearly recognize this problem and then try to solve it.
John Paul realized that in order to carry out such a special mission, the “faithful” need to be sufficiently knowledgeable and inspired to do so. They need to grow in their faith, in the Gospel teachings, in order to channel the Holy Spirit in drawing back to the Church those who have fallen away.
Put another way, it means that Catholics today need to go beyond what they’ve been comfortable with for many generations. We need to respond to the call to holiness as taught by Vatican II. We need to listen to the counsel of theologian Karl Rahner who boldly stated that the Christian of today must be a “mystic.” That is, our main and ever-present aim in life is to live out the Gospel of love as taught and exemplified by Jesus Christ. The faithful Christian needs to live a life of constant and ever deepening prayer. We Christians today must wake up from spiritual complacency, and become ever more aware of how, through the Holy Spirit, we can affect the world around us.
One problem remains. How many baptized Catholics have left the Church because of its perceived attitude toward women, minorities, gays and often, frankly, the laity in general? How do we explain refusing Communion to people who attend another church, when our Lord prayed and gave his life for unity? We, the faithful, are neither equipped nor authorized to explain these difficult questions.
But we’re not expected, not told, to explain or defend these issues. No. Our task is even more important as well as more difficult.
Our task is to recognize that we are channels for the Holy Spirit, called to help the Spirit accomplish this heroic task. Our channels – our hearts and souls – must be totally clear, unclogged, and open to others. In the words of our Savior:
So let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:16)
Christ is visible to others only insofar as we allow him to be seen in us.
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.