interior life

Hygge. Of the Heart

I think that we sometimes as Catholics don’t give our trendy culture enough of a fair shake.  I know I have my antennae up when I’m reading a trending article laying out a philosophy for life, and for good reason.  A lot of that stuff is junk, but every once in awhile there is a little pearl that sparkles in the rubbishy pile.  Recently there have been a couple of particularly interesting forces pulling the younger generation- simplicity/minimalism and Hygge.  They both seem to go hand in hand and I think that they (with prudence and moderation in mind) offer 1) a new way to live out the gospel imperative in the modern world, and 2) a new openness to certain elements of the gospel.

Let's start with the concept of Hygge.  Hygge is difficult to translate, but it is a Danish concept that includes comfort, intimacy, and “cozy togetherness.”  The Danish are statistically the happiest people on earth.  They point to this philosophy of life as one of the primary principles in their secret recipe for rampant happiness.  Hygge conjures up images of roaring fireplaces, warm socks, fluffy throw blankets, deep conversations with friends, games of charades, soul food, hot cider, etc. to the Danes.  It dictates what they do on nights and weekends and how they relate to their friends.

While there is a lot to be said about the exterior practice of Hygge, I want to talk about Hygge of the heart- prayer and divine intimacy with the Lord.

I had a vague experiential knowledge of Hygge when I first heard about it, and while Christmas lights, warm cocoa, etc. did come to mind it was my first experience of the interior life that really defined the feeling of contentment Hygge is supposed to be all about.  

In college I had a massive conversion while praying the rosary during commercial breaks on Christmas break.  My guilt caught up to me and I wagered that a few decades might help eke me into purgatory.  When I got back to college and eventually found myself sitting in the Newman center chapel after weeks of contented rosary-praying and guilt-ridden everything else, I felt all at once like I was in over my head and cozily at home.  When I started to pray I felt like I was finally doing what I was meant to do my whole life.  But I had no idea what I was doing, so I started glancing around and seeing what other, holier people do in prayer.  I watched how they postured themselves, I noticed when they closed their eyes and where they looked when they didn't.  I took notes on how to genuflect more holily.  But most of all I tried to take note of what they were reading.  At that time St. Faustina’s diary was making its way through the ranks of devoted Newman-ites, and after a couple of nights of inquiry about her story and who she was, I rush ordered my copy of the diary.  

When I began to pray with St. Faustina I began to experience an interior kind of Hygge.  I imagined myself in her convent, so small yet so immense because of the implications of what she was receiving and how she was praying.  The whole world fit in the walls of her cell, and she had access to the heart of Jesus and a duty to pray for every soul.  The intimate way that she talked with Jesus jumped off the page.  I didn’t know what I was doing, but guessed that a saint was a pretty good model for prayer so I started talking to God informally like she did.  I borrowed a word here and there and wove in my own sentiments.  I felt like I was in a cozy cabin in the woods, hidden away from the world I was trying to reject outside the chapel walls.  It was cozy for lack of a better word.  I felt communion with the person of Christ and weirdly with the other people independently praying in the chapel while I was.  

The transformation was barely noticeable.  I found that when I read the diary that I was reading some of the sentiments resounding in my own soul.  I was wandering the corridors of my own “inner monastery.”  I was actually praying with the Saint and even borrowing some of her zeal as I prayed.  But when I left the chapel the “cozy” feeling started to remain with me.  I found that my room, my workplace, my classrooms, etc. all had that cozy feeling.  I retreated into my heart where God and I were building a meeting place together.  God’s presence was the ultimate Hygge.  Even in the struggles and the dryness and the strife and pain of my rapidly changing life, I kept finding myself drawn to that place and experiencing a mysterious happiness.

I found Hygge of the heart in prayer.  The Danes may have found a great way to achieve a certain level of happiness but the saints have found the real Hygge in prayer.

In the next article I’ll talk more about the external ramifications of this philosophy for Catholics.

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.

What Lies Beyond the Silent Veil?

The air was thick with humidity and the cawing of a murder of crows that lived just outside the building. Every ten seconds a honking horn accented the bustle of Kolkata (Calcutta). Turning my focus away from the barred glassless window, I looked to the monstrance. There was Christ, present to me. I was sitting in the chapel of the Missionaries of Charity Fathers main house. Having travelled halfway around the world into ceaseless sounds, smells, and crowds; I found in the midst of all that distant chaos I was able to travel into myself. I encountered the Lord in a new way through experiencing profound interior silence. It was in the silence of my heart I began to perceive God, and as the Lord revealed himself to me I came to see myself more clearly also.

I wish that the interior silence I found there had remained undisturbed as I described for the last 4 years, but it has not. The constant buzz of life has grown deafening, and I yearn for silence. I do not think I am alone in this, as many conversations I have with friends relay the same stories.

My life is in my pocket, on my phone a schedule of reminders sing their announcement of an upcoming appointment. I am on call to the world and am expected to return messages and inquiries promptly. Constant videos, articles and blog posts (not unlike this one) are vying for my eyes and my time. There is so much chatter, but so little communication, for communication requires listening. We talk, and express, and share, and read, and like, and follow, and yet we hardly listen. I've bought the lies. "I am so important that if I am not on call and do not respond, the world will come to a screeching halt," and "If I do not read all the posts that come across my feed I will be behind the curve and lose a competitive advantage." These are all lies, and we perpetuate their importance when we drop everything to respond to an unimportant text, or as we read a less than satisfying article baited with importance but lacking sustenance.

It seems that with every unintentional word we read and speak, we place another brick upon the tower of babel. Yet, oh the gentle breeze of influence that comes from a word spoken out of contemplation in humility. Are these not the words that can break us free, if only for a moment, from our "like, share, and repeat" world? I am so restless in the noise, I long to rest in the silence of Eternity! Beyond the veil of silence we encounter the eternal presence of God.

So I challenge myself, and I challenge you, to question when and how we consume the noise around us. I challenge us to not be mindless consumers of the passing drivel of a world clamoring for attention. I challenge us to proactively seek and enter silence. I challenge us to sit in prayer, and let our silence speak to the Lord, and listen for His answer.

This lack of silence in our lives is dangerous for ourselves and damaging to others, but do not simply take my words for the importance of silence, let us look to wise Christians who came before us!

St. Faustina speaks to us about the dangers of breaking silence: 

"But, in order to hear the voice of God, one has to have silence in one’s soul and to keep silence; not a gloomy silence, but an interior silence; that is to say, recollection in God. One can speak a great deal without breaking silence and, on the contrary, one can speak little and be constantly breaking silence. Oh, what irreparable damage is done by the breach of silence! We cause a lot of harm to our neighbor, but even more to our own selves" (Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska: Divine Mercy in My Soul, Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska).

G.K. Chesterton explores the mystery of God that is hidden in silence: 

"The tremendous figure which fills the Gospels [Jesus] towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers who ever thought themselves tall. His pathos was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city. Yet He concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth" (Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton).

St. Augustine looks toward the beholding of God that can only happen in the silence of Eternity: 

"For we now believe what we do not see, that so by the merits of that same faith we then may merit to see what we believe, and may so hold fast to it that the Equality of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and the Unity of the Trinity, may no longer come to us under the garb of faith, nor be the subject of contentious talk, but may rather be what we may drink in purest and deepest contemplation amid the silence of Eternity" (De Catechizandis Rudibus, xxv. 47, Augustine of Hippo).

St. Gregory expresses the value of words shared after contemplation and silence:

 "It is said of perfect men that on their return from contemplation: They shall pour forth the memory of Thy sweetness" (Hom. V. on Ezechial, St. Gregory).

As we journey into the silence of Eternity, I hope we may encounter the mirth of God. May the joy and levity of Heaven bring us from restless broken silence into rest, and when we return, may we truly have something worth speaking.