Faith & Reason

Benedictine Vows Part 3: Obedience

In 2008, when I seriously began to discern my vocation with the Benedictines in Washington, DC, I asked some of the monks what they thought was the most difficult aspect of monastic life.  I had been reading the Rule of Benedict where, in chapter 58, I first learned about the vows of conversatio morum and stability, which are different from the better-known vows of poverty and chastity.  What was the most difficult aspect of monastic life?  In a diverse community of men, I received a diverse array of answers, but one in particular stands out most.  One of the men who has been a monk longer than I have been alive answered, “Obedience is hardest.”  I think he’s right.  But what makes obedience so difficult?  

St. Benedict first mentions obedience in the opening line of the Prologue to the Rule: Listen, O my son, to the precepts of thy master, and incline the ear of thy heart, and cheerfully receive and faithfully execute the admonitions of thy loving Father, that by the toil of obedience, thou mayest return to Him from whom by the sloth of disobedience thou hast gone away.  Here we see at the very beginning of the Rule, that obedience is not easy; obedience is toil, it  requires work.  St. Benedict goes further in the next sentence of his Prologue, comparing obedience to wielding a sword or any other type of weapon: “To thee, therefore, my speech is now directed, who, giving up thine own will, takest up the strong and most excellent arms of obedience, to do battle for Christ the Lord, the true King.”  This reference to spiritual battle is redolent of St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, chapter 6, where he writes that we must “put on the full armor of God.”  Although St. Paul does not refer to obedience, he does say that we should use the “sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” (Ephesians 6:17)  Is not the sword of the Spirit that is the word of God none other than the very person of Jesus Christ, whom, St. Paul reminds the Philippians, was “obedient unto death - even death on a cross”?  (Philippians 2:18)

So, obedience has an arduous connotation and is synonymous with struggle, effort, hard work, dying to self. It is a weapon in the spiritual battle, and is personified by Jesus Christ who was obedient unto death on a cross.  At first glance, none of these ideas is pleasant, uplifting or edifying.  But let us recall that in the Book of Genesis, Jacob wrestled (struggled) with the angel and here had his name changed to “Israel” that literally means, “he who struggles with God”! (Genesis 32:28)  Struggles in the spiritual life are nothing new and go back at least to the time of ancient Israel.  This side of heaven, men and women will always struggle in matters of faith.  Even if I were to believe everything taught by the Church to be true, I might still wrestle with the fact that others do not believe as I do.  In this case, more likely than not, I will pass judgment on those who do not yet believe, thus falling into the trap of the pharisee who prays “God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” (Luke 18:11)  In this parable of the pharisee and the tax collector, our prayer must be like that of the latter who “would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ ”

There is nothing easy about the spiritual life if one takes it seriously, and humility is required.  Jesus chose a cross for a reason, and his instruction to his disciples that they must “deny [themselves] take up their crosses and follow [him]” (Matthew 16:24) did not have much of a reference point when they heard him.  Two thousand years later, however, we can see the full context of Jesus’ instruction.  God does not ask anything of us that He, Himself has not already experienced.

Fighting against “the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12) is not for the weak or faint of heart.  This is true for all who take their faith seriously.  The spiritual life is not easy, nor is it intended to be.  But, nothing in this world that has any value is free - other than the unmerited gift of faith.  This gift is freely available to everyone, a gift waiting to be received.  For this reason we are obedient when we pray, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. (Matthew 6:10)

There's Something to be Said About Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

We all have our worst fears. And if you’re anything like me, it’s easy to obsess about them and let them dominate my life. It’s all too easy to instantly become negative and allow fears, worries and anxieties overpower our faith in the Lord’s plans for our lives. Or, even worse, we begin to suspect or blame God in the supposed unfolding of these problems that might not have even happened yet.

Fear is a human aspect and is something characters throughout salvation history have struggled with. Even when the Lord reaches out His hand and does amazing deeds, humanity is all too quick to forget God’s goodness, or become disillusioned and bitter. This plays out multiple times in the books of Exodus and Numbers, where the Israelites complain about the food the Lord has given them, about what they left behind in Egypt (besides slavery) and where the Lord is taking them.

When Moses leads the Israelites to the land “flowing with milk and honey,” they become consumed with fear because they’re afraid of the current inhabitants of the land, completely forgetting the extraordinary miracles that brought them out of slavery and sustained them on their journey:

“All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, the whole community saying to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt, or that here in the desert we were dead! Why is the Lord bringing us into this land only to have us fall by the sword? Our wives and little ones will be taken as booty. Would it not be better for us to return to Egypt?…Let us appoint a leader and go back to Egypt.” (Numbers 14: 2-4)

In response, the Lord allows exactly what they feared to happen, because they wouldn’t make space in their lives for God and because they refused to trust in Him. He withdraws and without God, their worst fears indeed take place:

“The Lord also said to Moses and Aaron: ‘How long will this wicked community grumble against me?… By my life, says the Lord, I will do to you just what I have heard you say. Here in the desert shall your dead bodies fall….Your little ones, however, who you said would be taken as booty, I will bring in, and they shall appreciate the land you spurned. But as for you, your bodies shall fall here in the desert, here where your children must wander for forty years, suffering your faithlessness, till the last of you lies dead in the desert.” (Numbers 14: 26-29, 31-33)

The Israelites became victims to a self-fulfilling prophecy and their own fears indeed came into being because they refused to believe in the Lord, and the Lord allowed those fears to become actualized. It’s easy to look at this ancient example and scoff at their faithlessness, but the reality is that we make the same mistakes in our own lives time and time again. We also refuse to trust in the Lord because our fears seem more substantial than trusting that the Lord has our best interests in mind. When we encounter the unknown, we shy away and want to turn back to the familiar past, even when we bemoaned the tribulations of what we endured in the past. By making our fears tantamount, we push the Lord aside and sometimes invite what we feared to come into being.  At the same time, it can be incredibly difficult to trust in the Lord, especially when He’s calling us into the unknown, but a life without trust in the Lord as Christians is not a Christian life at all.

But, as the Lord has also done throughout salvation history, He’s always ready to reward faith and renew His promises, as we make our way through this desert of life to the Promised Land waiting for our souls at the end of our earthly days. As long as we hope, we can prevent these dark omens of the unknown from become dismal self-fulfilled prophecies.

Gaze: The Importance of Orienting Ourselves Toward Jesus

            I’ve heard it said, “Eyes are a window to the soul.” Nobody really knows who said it.  Some believe Shakespeare said it, but others claim biblical origins.  Regardless of the quote’s origin, most of us can attest to its meaning.  When we look at someone, especially for prolonged periods of time, we allow ourselves to be vulnerable.  In fact, a 1989 study was published in The Journal of Research in Personality called, “Looking and Loving:  The Effects of Mutual Gaze on Feelings of Romantic Love” found that “subjects induced to exchange mutual unbroken gaze for 2 minutes with a stranger of the opposite sex reported increased feelings of passionate love for each other.”  What does this mean for us?  It means that who we look at sparks passions, and love.  This might mean, that though sometimes the developments of feelings may have something to do with “love at first sight” more often than not it has to do with time spent in the presence of another person. 

            The gazes lovers share are not always passionate.  And those passionate moments are not the only times that love grows.  Sometimes, love grows in just an absent-minded stare over a bowl of cereal on Saturday morning or a glance upward while brushing your teeth.  Sometimes it’s just a subconscious awareness that another person is in the room with you while you check your e-mail, watch the news, or cook dinner.  In times like these, you may not even need words.  You just might glance over at that person, know that he or she is there, and relax into that presence.  If that person falls asleep, you might walk more quietly so as not to wake him/her.  The bottom line is that over time, we subconsciously change the direction of our lives, when we are in the presence of others, especially if that person is someone we love.  Try as we might, the more we look at someone, the harder it is to walk in a different direction than he/she does.

            The truth is that if we really love someone, and allow ourselves to be truly present to him/her regularly, it is difficult to really stray from that loving relationship.  It is one of the reasons why long distance relationships can be so difficult.  We crave that contact.  We crave just knowing that another person is in the room with us.

            What does this mean for my relationship with the Lord?  It means that looking at the Lord is vital to having any kind of a relationship with Him.  As Catholics, we can gaze upon the face of the Lord anytime we want in the Holy Eucharist.  If we just show up, for even a brief moment, we can gaze at the Lord, while He looks back at us (the way lovers do), to invoke passion. There may be times during this stare when we leave totally on fire with love for God.  Those days are like the clarity of a first kiss that causes your stomach to fill with butterflies.  It’s really easy to want to be in the presence of God when this happens.  It may happen for you.  It may not.  More often than not though, gazing at the Lord may feel more like doing required laundry with someone you love than dancing with your husband for the first time on your wedding day.  Luckily, the Lord does not need butterflies and lightening bolts to change your life and your heart, even though he may use them sometimes. Choosing to be in the Lord’s presence regularly makes it difficult to stray too far from His loving embrace even if you don’t feel or can’t understand it.  Just like it’s impossible to walk in a straight line for very long with your head turned to the right, it’s hard to walk away from the Lord if you regularly look at Him.  You might take some detours, but you can’t get too far off track if you just look at Him.  The gaze is powerful.  His gaze can change every sinner to a saint, sometimes actively, sometimes passively.  Somebody, somewhere once said that the “eyes are the windows to the soul.” What would happen, if you just looked at the Lord?

Benedictine Vows Part 1: Conversatio Morum

I recently read a blog post that stated (in part), “change is the only constant in the universe.”  That got me thinking about my vows as a Benedictine monk and about how my vows are different from those of the Franciscans, Dominicans and countless other religious communities who take vows of “poverty, chastity and obedience,” or as a Franciscan long ago put it to me: “no money, no honey, no job.”  This article will be the first of three that will unpack what the Benedictine vows are and what differentiates us from our brothers and sisters in consecrated life whose vows are a later development of what St. Benedict prescribed for his monks and nuns in the 6th century.  The Benedictine vows are obedience, stability and conversatio morum, and the topic for this article is the vow of conversatio the because it lines up well with the idea that “change is the only constant in the universe.”  

Change is everywhere but remains a perennial riddle of human existence.  The ancient Greeks wrestled with this and in the 3rd century BC, Heraclitus, “the philosopher of change,” opined that permanence is an illusion:  “Everything changes and nothing remains still . . . and . . . you cannot step into the same river twice.”   You go into a river, come out, and go into it again, but what you are now immersed in is different than what you experienced by your previous foray into the water because what you first walked into is by now already down-stream.  I am presently in a different reality than I was in not long before. So, for Heraclitus and to many in our present age, permanence is an illusion.  All is change.  

One hundred fifty years after Heraclitus was Aristotle took up this topic in his Metaphysics where he addressed the question, “how much of the acorn is left in the oak tree?”  His  answers to such philosophical questions were further developed by Socrates and Plato, who enlarged on their predecessors’ understandings of man’s place in the cosmos.  Aristotle’s answer to the “acorn in the oak tree” question employs terms such as “actuality, potentiality, telos, material cause and formal cause,”  and is far too technical for this article.   For our purposes, let us accept  that in our own age, we still have to wrestle with the ancient question about man’s place in a world constantly in motion.

If all is change, then on a personal level, one can ask, “am I the same person I was last year? Five years ago? Ten years ago? At my baptism?  Especially for one who professes belief in Jesus Christ: am I growing in my true identity as a son or daughter of God?  Or, am I living a lie, allowing myself to be conformed to every whim and temptation of my fallen nature?  To borrow the marketing slogan for a popular sports shoe and clothing company, do I “Just do it” and then rationalize my actions as not all that bad because everyone’s doing it?  Who am I hurting anyway?  Don’t be a prude!  This isn’t as bad as this that or the other that is much worse! But then the Holy Spirit brings to mind the words of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. . . . Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:19, 25) These words bring us to pray Psalm 51:4 “against You alone have I sinned; what is evil in your sight I have done,” and as Catholics we make our way to confession!

What does this tell us about change and St. Benedict’s vows?  If change is constant, then I, too, can change my ways and strive for holiness.  St. Benedict knew this and for this reason, he gave us conversatio morum, a vow that is less a promise and more of a “rubric.”  It is an act of the will that says, “I want my life to change” by conforming to the disciplines and customs that have developed over the centuries of Christian monastic practice.  But conversatio morum is not limited to consecrated religious.  Anyone who takes the spiritual life seriously can benefit from traditional monastic practices such as praying the Liturgy of the Hours, practicing lectio divina (divine reading),  praying the Rosary or by setting aside time each day for silent contemplation.  Each day I can make a change to go deeper in my prayer life so that I might grow more open to my true self.

Our monastic observances and pious devotions set us apart from “the rest of the world,” and we live a life as is summed up in Acts 2:42 when the early Church were those who “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”  That aptly describes the life in the monastery.  Our way of life is distinctive and radically different from what one finds “in the world.”  This is why, Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option is so popular.  If you have not heard of this book, David Brooks writing in the New York Times describes it as “the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade.”

Dreher writes about the societal change that has been taking place since the sexual revolution of the 1960s and argues that we are not all that different from people in 6th century Italy when Benedict first fled Rome to live in a cave.  In this flight from the world (“fuga mundi” in Latin), Benedict was following the ancient monks of the Eastern desert tradition, who were themselves following Jesus in John 17:14 when he said, “I have given them thy word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.   St. Paul takes up this idea in Romans 12:2 when he says that we must “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of [our] mind[s], that [we] may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”  To be transformed, then is to change.  But is change indeed the “only constant in the universe?” Before answering that question we will have to reflect on  the Benedictine vow of stability that will help us answer that question.

 

Christ, My Other

How do you know who you are? From the moment we are born, we take in clues around us that help shape who we are. We learn that our mother will feed and nurture us and that our father will protect us. Our perspectives continue to be shaped by the language and culture in which we grow up. And, as we mature, we take on a belief system, moral, religious, political, etc., that continues to shape the way in which we interact with the world. All of these aspects shape our identity. Still, it continues to morph through the different stages of life, as we encounter new people and ideas, and as we have new experiences. If our identity as an individual continues to change, one might ask, “Then, who am I?” Thankfully, we as Christians have a sure answer to that question, which can be found in Christ Jesus.

The philosophical school of phenomenology provides a background through which we can understand where our identity comes from. Jean-Paul Sartre, a 20th century French philosopher, describes a relationship between the self and, what he calls, “the Other” in his book Being and Nothingness. The self has a being for-itself, or his own self-defined identity, and a being-for-Others, how others in the world “gaze” on him. The Other’s gaze objectifies the self and defines the self by how the Other perceives him from the outside. To an extent, the self’s subjectivity is denied as he becomes an object of the Other. And, the self can start to believe and take on the identity defined by the Other.

When based on the whims of the gaze of the Other, our character can be very fluid. In his article “Sartre, Kafka & Buber On Identity,” Stephen Small describes how:

It is arguably the case that we know ourselves largely by what others say and think about us. We are not funny if silence follows our telling jokes. We are not handsome if most people do not find us attractive. We are not tall if others tower over us. Others become the metric by which we are measured.

Contrarily, the view of the Other can boost our self-esteem. We think we are the best among our peers when we get a singular, positive comment from our boss. Or, we may think that we are a great athlete, just because we win a single game.

No matter whether these perceptions are completely true or not, our being-for-Others can strongly influence what we believe about our being for-itself. We can easily fall into trying to fit the desires of others, whether that be physically, emotionally, ideologically, or morally. This trend is very evident in modern society, which portrays exaggerated, idealized images of the physically fit, the hipster, or the social activist, and pressures everyone to fit into this mold. But, if we all modify our being for-itself to follow this one image, we become subjected to the rule of societal trends, and we lose who we are really meant to be as individuals. St. Paul urges us: “[d]o not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12:2). We cannot find our genuine self in the ever-changing society.

So, where can we find our being for-itself, as it truly is? That comes from our Creator. St. Augustine of Hippo, in his Confessions, book X, profoundly proclaims

Late have I loved you, Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you!

Lo, you were within,

but I outside, seeking there for you,

and upon the shapely things you have made

I rushed headlong – I, misshapen.

You were with me, but I was not with you.

They held me back far from you,

those things which would have no being,

were they not in you.

You called, shouted, broke through my deafness;

you flared, blazed, banished my blindness;

you lavished your fragrance, I gasped; and now I pant for you;

I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst;

you touched me, and I burned for your peace.

He emphasizes how the outside world lead him astray, and how Christ is the Other who truly knows and fulfills him. Once St. Augustine moved interiorly, he encountered the One who knows him infinitely more than any Other in the world. Likewise, by introspecting, we are not forced to be objectified by Others in the world; instead, we can enter into dialogue with and learn from our omnipotent Creator. 

It is He who can fulfill our identity. There are numerous biblical examples of Him doing so before, including: Abram becoming Abraham, or Simon becoming Peter. Not only did Christ give them a new name, but he gave them a new purpose, and a great one at that! St. Catherine of Sienna tells us that “if you be who you are meant to be, you will set the world ablaze.” By letting Christ be our Other, and basing our being for-itself on our identity as children of God, we will become the best version of ourselves. Additionally, the attractive nature of our Christian comportment will inspire our neighbors to make Christ their Other.

What Kind of a Catholic are You?

            As a CBC City Coordinator, I notice that many attendees and Catholics become preoccupied with this question, “What kind of Catholic are you?  Where do you go to mass?”  Sometimes, we ask these question to understand what kind of spirituality another person might have.  Other times we might wonder what kind of liturgy he/she prefers traditional/charismatic/somewhere in between.  However, more often than not, I have noticed that this question takes on different meaning depending upon who is asking the question.  On the “right” side of the aisle, believers usually ask each other if we believe in Catholic teaching regarding contraception/marriage/homosexuality.  On the “left” side of the aisle, believers might ask each other about their beliefs regarding illegal immigration/care for the poor/racism.  Sometimes, I feel like we use this question to gauge our ability to befriend or to date others (disclaimer…CBC is not a dating service!!!). 

            As a CBC City Coordinator, I cannot help but struggle with these questions.  Why do we ask them?  Why are we so preoccupied with sorting each other into these two groups?  How can we better accept each other, create genuine friendships, will the best for each other, and accomplish all of this without judging each other for what we struggle with personally?  Sometimes, I feel like I cannot do all of this.  I feel like I cannot appease both crowds, and at different times in my life I struggle with both sides of the aisle. 

            What type of Catholic am I?  When I am asked this question, I balk, squirm, and try to avoid it.  My Jesuit education taught me to prioritize caring for the poor and vulnerable.  However, there are times when I am not as compassionate to the poor as I should be.  These days might include driving past that homeless person holding a sign on the free way, spending money on frivolous things, or choosing to sleep in on the weekend instead of volunteering in my community.  On those days, I feel like a “lazy Catholic,” “in a hurry Catholic,” or sometimes even a “selfish Catholic.”  Sometimes, my prayer life goes well, but often times I forget to pray.  I become a “forgetful Catholic” or an “ungrateful Catholic.”  Sometimes, I believe I am doing really well, and I am a “prideful” Catholic, at which point I bring more harm than good to the world.  However, lately I have learned much about the right relationships with others/theology of the body, but there are times when I struggle to perfect these ideals and nights when fighting for them leaves me full of anxiety more than anything else.  I am a “sinful Catholic” who has made mistakes.  Some days I am a “faithful Catholic” ready to fight the good fight.  Other days, I am a “doubting Catholic,” who struggles to see God’s love in a world full of sadness and cannot see the wisdom behind the Church’s teachings.  In these days of doubt, I am a “trying to understand Catholic.”  I am a “dependent upon the Mercy of God Catholic,” who knows that all these struggles are watched and tended to by a God who loves her profoundly.

            I have to believe, though we may feel differently and struggle with issues throughout our lives, that we can all relate to the adjectives above.  Sometimes we are all, “lazy, in a hurry, selfish, sinful, faithful, forgetful, ungrateful, prideful, and doubting.”  All the while, we are all “trying to understand and dependent upon the Mercy of a loving God.”  We all have our battles.  I think if we are honest with ourselves, we have all doubted, struggled, and fallen into the arms of a God who will always welcome us home.  So, I think it is important that as CBC, we welcome each other.  Though our beliefs are important and sharing them is worthwhile, it is most important that we open our arms and hold each other in our lives, in whatever state we may be at that moment.  When all is said and done, we are all profoundly loved.  We are loved by the Lord, who gives us His Body and Blood in the Eucharist.  This profound love, more than anything else, is what makes us Catholic.  So, the next time you are asked, “What kind of Catholic are you?”…I hope that you respond, “I am the kind who is LOVED.”

The Hidden Virtue of a Simple Interior Life

Something's Missing

Serving as a missionary for the last five years, I’ve often heard and taught about our need for a regular daily prayer life.  Many times that’s translated into a “holy hour” or time of prayer, usually in the morning.  And it’s mostly comprised of meditative prayer and/or spiritual reading.  But I often find that I don’t do much with this little period of prayer, and I end up feeling like something is missing with my interior life.

Having checked the holy hour box, I usually just continue on with my day.  It’s a crapshoot if I’ll live in the light of the grace I’ve received in that prayer or continue to meditate our ponder the Lord.  I read about lovely concepts like practicing the presence of God, and I don’t know for the life of me why I’ve completely forgotten about these ideas approximately ten minutes after I’ve signed out of prayer (literally a phrase I learned in Catholic high school- you sign in when you do the sign of the cross at the beginning and you sign off when you do it at the end- woof).

But that approach ignores St. Paul’s exhortations to “Rejoice constantly, pray ceaselessly, give thanks in all circumstances… Do not quench the Spirit” (1 Thess 5:16ff).  We forget that the God wants to sanctify you wholly (1 Thess 5:23), not just in the times we set aside for prayer, but in every thought, action, and word we speak or hear.

Russian spiritual master and theologian Theophan the Recluse warns that a prayer life that exists going from holy hour to holy hour is a faulty one.  Every hour of prayer you build up your heart, only to spend the day tearing that foundation down when you don’t remain in the presence of God.  Then you spend your next holy hour building back up on the fallen foundations, limping along in your progress without sustaining the grace that you’ve been built up in.

In our bento box life, compartmentalized in its aesthetically pleasing way, our interior life, at least in practice, becomes just one more storage space like the rest.  And meditative prayer seems to be the most aesthetically pleasing form of prayer to fit into that box.

But the Spirit exists to break the boxes that we place ourselves into.  And I think help in sustaining ourselves in the Lord lends itself towards a bit of an out-of-the-box solution.  Out-of-the-box because it seems to call us, in a sense, to regress in our interior lives.

Maybe the key is getting back to our basic prayers, a little less aesthetically pleasing in one sense, a little more bland maybe, but still potentially revolutionary.  Remember that when the apostles asked Jesus how to pray he taught them the most basic of rote prayers:  the Our Father.

The Virtue of Simple Prayers

We have loads of these prayers memorized. Why not put them to good use.  Our friend Theophan claims that when you fill your mind with this type of simple constant prayer, keeping in mind that the Lord is present in your heart as you say the words, your mind can be at prayer even when your hands are at work.  Even more when you attempt to fill your mind with the things of God, you tend to start thinking more like God.  Your conversation and the inner workings of your psyche start to transform- all through a persistent stream of Hail Mary's, Our Father’s, Glory Be’s and (if you’re feeling adventurous) the frequent repetition of the Jesus Prayer.

But basic, simple prayers in and of themselves tend to bore us. I’ve heard a million times, “I don’t like praying formal prayers like the rosary.  I like to pray more organically in my own words.”  

The Russian Byzantine Saint, Dimitri of Rostov, in The Art of Prayer, writes this about praying simple, “formulaic” words:

“During lengthy prayer, the mind of the inexperienced cannot stand long before God, but is generally overcome by its own weakness… and drawn away by external things… Short, yet frequent prayer, on the other hand, has more stability, because the mind, immersed for a short time in God, can perform it with greater warmth… St. John of the Ladder also teaches: ‘Do not try to use too many words, lest your mind become distracted by the search for words… An excessive multitude of words in prayer disperses the mind in dreams, while one word or short sentence helps to collect the mind.”

The short prayers we say are filled with depth, though we often barely consider them.  

The “Our Father” is probably the first prayer you learned, and it’s said everyday by most Christians across the world, which probably accounts for the fact that we’ve lost a sense for its profundity.  Luis Martinez, in The Sanctifier, thinks differently:  “In the prayer to his Father in which he made a sort of summary of his desires to teach us what ours should be, we find these words that seem to come forth as a triumphant cry from the depths of his soul: ‘Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ (Mt. 6:10).”  

If our heart was rightly ordered we would pray this prayer with all the gusto we can muster because it is a list of the desires of Jesus’ heart- given to us as a model for the desires our hearts should yearn for.

The “Hail Mary” is another great example of a profound prayer that goes unnoticed as it passes our lips, but it has contained in it all we really need for a good heartfelt prayer.  1) The first couple lines are scripture.  We acknowledge the truth of Jesus’ Incarnation and our faith in the Word of God.  It’s basically a little summary of the creed.  2) The hinge word is the name of Jesus.  Jesus is the center of the prayer.  When we pray His name we say the most powerful word in the world.  Just saying his name, according to Fr. Mike Schmitz, calls upon His power, His healing, and His presence.  When meditating upon the mysteries we call upon all of those things in the midst of each moment in His life.  We step into His life with Mary.  3) We ask for mercy and intercession.  The Eastern Catholics base their entire spiritual lives upon the name of Jesus and the plea for mercy.

Lastly in our list of basic prayers is the “Glory Be”, which is basically you giving God glory for whatever is happening at that moment- good or bad in your heart.  It’s a practical application of Paul’s advice to “rejoice always” mentioned above.

Think of these simple little prayers (or others like it) as  “leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened” (Matt 13:33).

Now, I’m not meaning to say that these prayers will make you holy in and of themselves.  We have to pray them with our hearts and not just our lips.  Theophan (and really any good Byzantine monk trying to live out the exhortation to pray ceaselessly) cautions us that without remembrance of God’s presence in our heart these prayers are clanging cymbals and clashing gongs (see 1 Cor 13 for another “overused” piece of Catholic wisdom on that).  

A Cistercian abbot, Dom Jean-Baptiste Chautard, in the appendix to his famous book “The Soul of the Apostolate” teaches us how to tie in remembrance of God to these basic prayers:

“Take some text of Holy Scripture, or some vocal prayer, like the Pater, Ave, or Credo, and say it over, stopping at each word, drawing out various holy sentiments, upon which you may dwell as long as you like […] 

“[...] There is no necessity to be always making new acts; it is often quite enough to remain in the presence of God silently turning over in your mind the words you have already meditated upon, or savoring the affections they have aroused in your heart.”

So there it is, the most boring advice that has the potential to radically transform your interior life (and every other aspect of your life for that matter).  Thank your second grade CCD teacher, because when they gave you that cheap plastic rosary and prayer memorization sheet (perhaps unknowingly) just may have also given you the key to ceaseless prayer and recollection.

Speaking the Same Language?

One area of our married life where my husband practices tremendous patience (or perseverance?) with me is in his sports-fan-dom and enthusiasm for sharing the good, the bad and the ugly with me. Most of the time I can track which teams play which sports, but which teams play for which cities or which players play for which teams—that’s a hopeless cause.  All I can say is that it is a good thing other people track these games.

I have had a similar experience in the theological realm:

A Franciscan, a Dominican and a Benedictine walk into a bar…

If you’re anything like me, it took a while to get the punch line of these types of jokes--there are a million of them. Perhaps you have found (or find) yourself in a place of uncertainty when faced with the vast array of religious orders, their charism, and what they do. Saints dot our calendars, initials appear behind the names of sisters, brothers and priests and signify really important and distinct identities in ministry, yet unless you have encountered these different folks on a regular basis, just like my struggle to track athletes and professional sports--the lines can blur about who does what, and where.

Seeing as it is the feast of St. Ignatius Loyola, it seems right to spend some time with the vision and charism of the Society of Jesus’s (A.K.A. the Jesuits) founder. It is my hope to share a collection of gifts I have come to appreciate in getting to know this particular order and the ripple effect that has had on my experience of the Church. This may offer you a refresher or a new perspective on a familiar congregation.

Like many saints and mystics, Ignatius has a profound conversion story which caused his life to change so dramatically that he becomes nearly unrecognizable to those he had known previously. His recovery from a near fatal wound in battle left him with a great deal of time to read, wrestle, pray and ultimately decide that God was calling him to conversion.  I appreciate any accounting of a person who loved God well, and took an indirect route to get there. I recognize myself in these kinds of stories. The message seems clear that God does meet us where we are, and our unique paths are part of what God has in mind for our particular vocation.

4 Ways St. Ignatius’ influence continues to ‘Set the world on fire’:

  1. Education is synonymous with the Society of Jesus. Catholic middle schools, high schools and colleges abound in this country and beyond. As a person who has interviewed a great deal of young adults for post-grad service positions, my experience of those who have been Jesuit-educated is that they grasp tightly to the mission: To be men and women for others. In no uncertain terms, they say this string of words with conviction. I have been impressed with the notable call of service this group holds in common.

  2. St. Ignatius wrote the Spiritual Exercises where he described a type of daily prayer called the Examen, which he required of his congregation  to pray, daily. The Examen is a short list of questions which lead the individual to reflect upon their day, prayerfully, with gratitude and honesty. Spiritual Direction is an obvious next step for those who pray with the Examen (and a ministry widely available to vowed and lay people alike). As Ignatius sought to ‘Find God in All Things,’ an adept spiritual director can help to shed light on experiences of encounter with God that a person may have missed at first pass. My own spiritual director of several years continues to invite me to enter the stories of Scripture with prayerful imagination—another gift of Ignatian spirituality in which participants are encouraged to allow God to speak in the depths of our collective story (Scripture).

  3. If there is one thing that folks know about the Jesuits it is that they were (and continue to be) missionaries…St. Francis Xavier, St. Peter Claver, St. Aloysius Gonzaga, St. Paul Miki and companions, to name a few. Folks like Fr. Greg Boyle, Fr. James Martin and Fr. Gary Johnson continue to serve those on the margins—geographically and socially – and are doing a great deal to shed light on what it is to be involved in the messy work of the Gospel. If you haven’t read Tattoos on the Heart by Fr. Greg Boyle, that would be a great place to start.

  4. It is common knowledge that Pope Francis is the first Jesuit to serve as the Bishop of Rome. I love the way that he has incorporated not just Jesuit values, but Catholic Christian values, into the leadership, writing and actions he has taken as Pope. It seems fair to say that never in the history of the world has the Church had the attention of the public in the way that it does now, and the person they are observing is a man—for others, who is encouraging men and women to  ‘set the world on fire’ with the love of Christ. St. Ignatius, pray for us.

 

‘Go and set the world on fire with the fire of Divine love.’-St. Ignatius of Loyola

This Saying is Hard

Then many of his disciples who were listening said, ‘This saying is hard; who can accept it?’

                                                            -John 6:60

At moments in my life, I’ve struggled to reconcile myself with the teachings of my beloved Catholic faith. These moments usually come right before periods of new growth in my life and sometimes that growth is painful. Sometimes it’s almost excruciating to subjugate my will to the demands of my faith, particularly in regard to suffering and family planning.  Sometimes, like my battle with the Catholic teaching on family planning, I have to grapple with skepticism and ongoing fear and place my life in the hands of the Lord. For example, although I understand the beautiful teachings behind the Theology of the Body and I want to incorporate them into my life, Natural Family Planning pushes the boundaries of my comfort zone because I love to be in control of my own life and I often lay out meticulous plans on how my life should be, or ought to be. Instead of entrusting my future to the God who knows and loves me best, it’s very easy for me to be overwhelmed with fear that God is going to ruin my life If He doesn’t exactly follow the plans I’ve made for myself. It’s far too easy for me to try to edge God out of my life and close myself to any of his possibilities. In addition, I am easily cowed by secular world’s judgmental stance on not using contraception, the view that children are burdensome, and am often blinded by the world’s empty promises of fulfillment through self-reliance and pleasure seeking. Sometimes I feel a little jealous because maintaining the Lord’s laws puts a damper on being “carefree” and “fun.” During my weak moments, I feel like retreating from what God demands of me because the Church’s teachings are so radically different than the world’s and I don’t want to accept those teachings.

It’s not always easy to be a Christian and Catholicism is often called out for the boundaries that it places on human selfishness. But Christians struggling with Christ’s word dates back to the time of Christ Himself. In John 6:60, after Christ reveals the radical and very physical truth of the Eucharist, many disciples say, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” When the teachings are hard to accept, the results are the same: people either walk away, back to the world, or people hunker down and experience the creative burn of new growth and truth. Christ invites us to intimately join Him and trust Him, to devote our futures and trust in Him even when it seems risky. He invites us to make room in our futures, to make space in our hearts, to exercise the muscles of our faith. Christ’s teachings are rooted in wisdom and self-sacrifice with a foundation that has lasted thousands of years. Christianity’s teachings are considered conservative, they’re truly radical in how different they are from the wisdom of the world, both in the modern world and 2,000 years ago.

However, as Christians, we know we are not alone and walk hand in hand with the apostles and saints that came before us, who also struggled to reconcile their lives and their minds with teachings that are hard to accept. No matter what you struggle with, be it the real presence in the Eucharist, the Church’s stance on homosexuality or contraceptives, we need to take the time to research what challenges us, take the time to digest it, and accept that it may take time to fully accept the teachings and that it may be difficult to live radically by their wisdom. God is not afraid of us and invites us to struggle with Him, to argue with Him, so we truly know what we believe in. Through difficult teachings, God calls us to a deeper understanding and deeper relationship to Him. Don’t be one of the ones who walks away when the going gets rough and join the community that has struggled and yet grown closer to God.

 

 

Hellbender

“He descended into hell.”

What a cryptic phrase from the Apostles Creed!  What do we mean when we say these words at Mass every Sunday, or when we begin the Rosary? Did Jesus really go to hell?  Or, was it Sheol?  Or Hades?  Or the place of the just who could not enter heaven until Our Lord’s sacrifice on the Cross in atonement for our sins? Is there still the possibility of eternal damnation, or is “hell” merely an antiquated concept that the Church has outgrown because of Vatican II?  For answers let us consider The Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 631 to 635.

The phrase, “He descended into hell,” must be considered in tandem with what immediately follows: “On the third day He rose again.”  As the Catechism states, “The Apostle’s Creed confesses in the same article Christ’s descent into hell and his Resurrection from the dead on the third day, because in his Passover it was precisely out of the depths of death that he made life spring forth.” [CCC631] Here we see the “both/and” dichotomy of the Catholic faith: Good Friday and Easter Sunday.  An easy trap to fall into is to focus only on one over the other.  One only has to see latest news stories coming out of Egypt or Syria to see that man is capable of great evil, but is his nature totally depraved?  Good Friday without Easter Sunday? Or the opposite end of the spectrum which some have termed “Christianity Lite” for those whose comfortable lives give them the promise of heaven without the reality of hell, or forgiveness without repentance? The truth lies between the two extremes.  All of humanity was forever changed because “on the third day He rose again,” but there is no Resurrection without a Crucifixion, and our willful embrace or rejection of this metaphysical reality effects how we live (or should be living).

A Catholic’s affirmation that Jesus was “raised from the dead presupposes that the crucified one sojourned in the realm of the dead prior to his Resurrection.” [CCC632] That is, “Jesus, like all men, experienced death and in his soul joined the others in the realm of the dead.”  But, by descending to the dead, did Jesus destroy the hell of eternal damnation? Oh, that the demands of faith could be that easy!  No, Jesus descended to the dead “to free the just who had gone before him.” [CCC633].  “He descended there as Savior, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there.” [CCC632].  So where is the “there?”

We shouldn’t think of hell as a place, but as a state of the soul in relation to God.  Biblical terms of “Sheol” and “Hades” are synonymous – the former is in Hebrew, and the latter in Greek.  Both are the “abode of the dead,” but this description still evokes the idea of a place.  Matters of the soul are difficult to envision, so we use imagery to help grasp metaphysical realities.  The souls in the “abode of the dead” are “deprived of the vision of God,” and this is true for the evil or righteous alike.  Jesus went for the holy souls who awaited their Savior “in Abraham’s bosom,” from the parable of the poor man Lazarus [Luke 16:19-31].  Remember, in this parable, reference is made to the resurrection of the dead.  As the parable teaches: belief must begin with Moses and the Prophets, because “if they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” [Luke 16:31]. 

Believers and unbelievers alike can agree that Jesus was killed.  But those who believe that Jesus is God must then logically conclude that God died on a Friday afternoon two thousand years ago. But, no! God cannot die!  One might then conclude incorrectly that “Jesus cannot be God because God cannot die.” Or another false belief will arise: that Jesus never really died, but was taken down from the cross before it was too late.  

How do we solve this riddle that Jesus Christ is God, and that “Jesus was crucified, died and was buried?” Again, from the Catechism: “In his human soul united to his divine person, the dead Christ went down to the realm of the dead” to “open heaven’s gates for the just who had gone before him.” [CCC635]  

Our discussion has now brought us into the metaphysical realm where images to not work.  What is the soul? What makes a person divine?  These questions are beyond the scope of this article.  Sufficient for now must be the simple faith and belief that Jesus Christ is both God and man.  He is a divine person who has a human soul.  The two are united and inseparable, and because God does not die, for He is Life Itself, after the Crucifixion, God descended into hell to release all who were waiting for the messianic promises of the Old Testament to be fulfilled.  Not even death could contain Him, so we can say with St. Paul, “O death, where is thy victory?  O death, where is thy sting?” [1 Corinthians 15:55].

The Resurrection itself is too important an event in history to celebrate for one day only, which is why the Church celebrates the Octave of Easter, culminating with Divine Mercy Sunday.    And, although Lent is forty days, Easter is fifty, culminating with Pentecost!

As we celebrate the most central mysteries of our faith during this holiest of liturgical seasons, let us all raise a glass to and be grateful for the unfathomable mercy of Jesus.  And, for those in the Washington, DC area, please join us Sundays during the Easter Season to celebrate at the most aptly named place for such an occasion: The Hellbender Brewing Company.