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

Mysteries

I confess: I’m not much of a Rosary person, but today I thought I’d try it. A few of us neighbors gather every other week for an hour of prayer. We each volunteer an intention – might be personal or global – and then follow with a decade of the Rosary. Since from last night I still had the beads in my pocket, it seemed that this would be a good place to fasten my thoughts while I took a walk.

It’s Thursday, which I remember to be the day for Joyful Mysteries. The more recent topic of meditation – the “Luminous Mysteries” as introduced by Pope Saint John Paul – is still too new for me to recall, so I kept to the ones I learned as a youngster.

Right off the bat, I had questions. Who were these people and events we’re called to meditate on?

We had two women at the opposite ends of their life. Elizabeth: too old to bear a child and who is already six months pregnant.

Mary, in particular, a mere child by our standards, was faced with a totally unexpected – indeed impossible – pregnancy. Elizabeth’s was the spectacular event; Mary’s was the scandalous one. What would we think if the girl next door, maybe a sophomore or junior in high school, became pregnant? What a disgrace for her family! Would they have it (the child) aborted? Would they have Mary go away for a while (which is actually what Mary did when she went to visit Elizabeth), and then return as though finishing up a vacation or a course of study out of town? I remember a classmate who was absent for quite a while due to an “appendectomy.” Uh-huh.

And what kind of man would stoop to marrying this scandal-laden girl?

No one knew the truth of the situation which had been carefully kept under wraps, but that didn’t stop people from improvising and judging, I’m sure.

Apart from this scandalous history, there was nothing spectacular about this family. If anything, the wonder only grew as this supposed “illegitimate” son grew.  Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? What good can come out of Galilee? By what authority do you do these things? We know who our father is.

Surely, if God were actually to send his Son, wouldn’t he have given him a “good” family to come from? A place renowned for its scholars? Surely God would have, should have, seen to it that his Son would have been given a proper education – the equivalent, say, of Harvard or Yale where he’d have studied Scripture with the esteemed Rabbis, the venerated theologians of that day, people equipped to know what God meant when he spoke through the Scriptures. Why pick someone with no pedigree and no credentials? How apt to call these events “mysteries”!

Even before Vatican II, it did occasionally occur to us that ALL are called to holiness, even the unschooled, the unapproved, and even (please, God, forgive us!) the sinful.

There are still some cobwebs in the corners, situations where we feel it’s our bounden duty to get rid of those people so that we can have a religion that’s the rightful owner of all truth and goodness.

Do let’s sweep away the cobwebs, not the people!

It is not the healthy who need a physician, but the unwell.

Overcome With Paschal Joy

It’s remarkable that during this triumphant Easter season I’ve been led to meditations on death. Could there be a better time for that topic?

First, regarding how we refer to that dread event: “death.”

We usually prefer to use a euphemism for that experience: passing away; meeting our Maker; or even the more flippant buying the farm. We save blessed event for the happy birth of a child, but we could just as easily and accurately apply that phrase to death, especially during this holy season when we are “overcome with Paschal joy.”

At Easter, we refer to Christ’s victory over death. It’s easy to grow over-accustomed to phrases like this and lose the depth of their meaning. Only recently have I come to a discovery of what this phrase means. Jesus obviously did not “conquer” death by eliminating it. Instead, he ran to meet it, even though his was the very worst kind of death, having been unjustly convicted of the most heinous crime, so far removed from the very purpose of his existence: total dedication and fidelity to God’s message and his mission. His was a cruel death to both body and dignity.

The victory was in his resurrection, attested to by so many so that we latecomers might be convinced of an unending future with him. At his farewell, Christ told his Apostles:

You have faith in God; have faith in me also!
I am going first to prepare a place for you,
so that you may be with me and the Father for all time.

What a blessed season for dying! A few days after Easter, our loving Benedictine Brother Justin died unexpectedly. Two of my own siblings also died during Easter week some years ago. I’ve always considered this a great grace: to enter heaven accompanied by our resurrected Savior.

I’ve also found myself inspired with a new appreciation for the famous poem of John of the Cross. The translation as the “Dark Night” is really inexact. The poet writes of a blessed night that may be obscure for sure, but not totally dark. He speaks of a graced obscurity where a divine light serves as his guide. Like St. Paul, he sees only “darkly” now. He knows there is something behind or within this obscurity; it is neither totally black nor totally empty. He has the certain expectation of finding a splendor beyond imagining. The light of faith assures him that there is a brilliance to this particular night, a brilliance hidden from his understanding, but no less true and blindingly beautiful. He knows that human understanding is too weak and limited to grasp, except through grace, what is really happening and why. While John of the Cross refers to the spiritual journey in life, his description can be equally applied to the process of a Christian death.

These contemporary Spanish mystics, John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, both wrote poems on the theme of longing for the only way to see God: in death. I die because I do not die!

John of the Cross:

I live, but not in myself,
And I have such hope
That I die because I do not die.

Teresa of Avila:

I live only with the confidence
that I have to die . . .
Death, do not delay,
for I await you,
for I die because I do not die.

These poet-saints echo St. Paul’s utterly consoling statement: For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. (Philippians 1:21)

To die is gain. No longer will we need to content ourselves with fleeting glimpses of God’s love. Paul realized that the most beautiful aspect of being alive on this earth is knowing Christ, being certain of his love and brotherhood here, and our relationship coming to complete fruition after death. We know that a faith-filled death assures us of an enduring and ever-increasing joy in God’s presence, along with the presence of our loved ones previously considered lost to us.

I certainly won’t deny the pain that we, the survivors, must endure when a loved one dies. When a beloved friend leaves us, that death creates a large hole of emptiness and grief. But even that space is a blessing. For into that crater of grief, God pours the ever-increasing and certain comfort of His presence, love, and compassion.

This is the true joy of the Paschal season, in that we have been gifted with knowledge of Christ’s own death and resurrection. We can never again view death as a terminus, but as our third birth: birth as a human in a universe of time, space and matter; rebirth as Christians in a baptism of faith and love; and the final, culminating birth-in-death when through Christ we are transformed and welcomed into an unending union with the All-Loving Trinity.

Easter Joy
Life is changed, not taken away.

 

 

 

 

Redemption

(This reflection was written seven years ago.)

Three weeks ago tonight I arrived home from my pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The experience has settled in my mind; I have been able to process its effects. The most important one: Redemption.

We hear this word so many times. It is so central, so often repeated a belief in our Christian faith that it can lose its impact. I think I never really understood it – in my bones, in the core of my being.

To be present at the Calvary site, to bend down to kiss that spot, to feel myself able to say only two words: Unworthy woman. To be allowed to come close not just geographically, but spiritually close to the reality of Christ’s redemptive love. I now feel I know what it means to be redeemed. I understand fully that my and everyone’s sin has been totally removed: Christ has atoned. We are no longer separated from God, “cast out” of his presence. Christ has truly set us free.

This truth, this conviction is stunning to realize. How we, with all our misdeeds both great and petty, can be lifted up, can be lifted out of the mud that so often seems our natural element – what a great mystery this is!

I am floating so effortlessly in this pure air where it seems that nothing ever again can pull me down. (Would that it were so! I understand St. Peter on Mount Tabor: “Lord, it is good for us to be here!”) But even when this euphoria evaporates, I think I must remember the solid ground of this truth: Christ loves me, loves us, has done everything to ensure that we will be with him always.

Redemption. Nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:39) How simple it all is.

Dali Cross