Saturday, December 31, 2011

Solidarity, Part I

Solidarity was quite the word in 1980s and '90s. It's a great word in the Christmas season too. 
      When it comes to the amazing mystery of the Incarnation— God becoming man—I think people of all time can share in the wonder of it, but that certain aspects might strike people of a certain time or culture more deeply than other aspects for other peoples. 
      Of course, our main problem today is not being struck by it at all. Our ability to be appreciate what it is we celebrate at Christmas and experience awe is coated over with candy canes and commercialism.
      But when we do stop and think about it, we can of course be surprised by God's humility in being born into poverty. But being a less class-conscious society than others, this detail may not be as amazing as it was to other times and places.
      His weakness may be more thought-provoking to us, but not in the same way as to the cultures surrounding the Holy Land at the time, or even the dictatorships of the twentieth century. To them, strength was everything; might was right. To us who at least in theory have more compassion on the weak and vulnerable, it's rather the giving up of control that is more astonishing. 
      In our culture, we live and move and breathe in the illusion of control. We do have an extraordinary amount of control over our own lives, especially compared to times past—with all our technology, wealth, medical advances, etc. But it is an illusion. Occasionally, something enormous will break through the illusion and wake us up: earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, 9/11, etc. But we quickly fall back into a doze, especially if the incident did not touch us personally. The economic downfall has had some impact in showing us that even hard work and following worldly financial advice to a T is still not fail-proof protection from financial ruin. And all of us will eventually encounter illness or accident in our families or ourselves;  truly, any of us could die at any moment.
      When this truth does break through to us, it usually terrifies us. Or makes us angry, usually at God. So when we stop and think about the fact that Almighty God, who created the universe and can do anything, became a helpless baby, totally dependent upon His own creatures, it is astounding. Which of us would do that? We may admit, however grudgingly, when we have to, that we don't have complete control over our own lives, but how many of us would willingly give it up?
      The other element of the Incarnation that is particularly meaningful to our day is the depth of His coming to us—the absolute solidarity of the way He did it.
      Think about it. He could have just appeared in all His glory and delivered His message, voila! handing over a Bible already printed by Heavenly Press, infusing the disciples with all the knowledge they needed, and accomplishing our salvation in some much easier fashion. Or, even if He wanted to save us by becoming human—He didn't need to become a baby or suffer on the cross. He could have taken on flesh as an adult, appeared for a day, and suffered a mere paper cut. His blood is so precious, that a single drop is enough to save the universe.
      Why then did he come as a baby? In poverty, in weakness, in obscurity? Why did He live among His people for thirty years, an ordinary life as a craftsman in a poor village? Why did He spend three years teaching, preaching, and healing? Why didn't He just give the disciples a weekend workshop?
      In our fast-paced, sound-bite, bottom-line society, all this seems such a waste of valuable time. He could have done all that with much more time-efficiency.
      Why did He do it the way He did? Because He loves us. He wanted to spend time with us. And because He came not merely to tell us how to live but to show us.
      Our children often want to grow up quickly, to gain skills and knowledge in a day. We know they can't grow a foot overnight like the kid in the movie Big; nor can they become a virtuoso on their chosen instrument in a week or a month. We laugh at their impatience. But aren't we the same? We want to lose weight or grow in virtue right away, without any work.
      But that's not the way God has set things up. Anything worthwhile takes time and effort. And instead of merely telling us, “Suck it up; this is the way it is,” He came down here with usas one  of usand lived it too. They say that parents teach by example, and God is the best Father there is.
      No one in all the universe since its creation has expressed such solidarity as God did when He became a little human baby two thousand years ago. Solidarity defined.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Bethlehem—Closer Than You Think

Celia found herself gazing at the night sky, amazed at the countless stars that seemed brighter than she’d ever seen them before, then wondered where she was. She looked around and saw a glow in a hillside nearby. The light was streaming from what appeared to be a sizeable cave, and in the radiance spilling out she could see a line of people winding up to it.
      As she drew nearer, she noticed the people beside the cave were dressed in the ancient garb of the Holy Land. Just as she drew up to one side of the cave, she saw some men leaving, who looked rather grubby and shabby, with long sticks in their hands. No, not sticks, she realized…crooks—they were shepherds! She quickly tried to see past them into the cave. She gasped. There was the manger, and the baby, and a beautiful young woman, with a bearded man nearby. Somehow, some way, she was at the stable in Bethlehem.
      The last shepherd was rising from lying prostrate, to kneel by Mary, who was holding Jesus. The old man took the tiny baby’s hand in his, and immediately the little fingers curled around the hardened, aged thumb, while the man kissed them reverently. Then he clumsily got to his feet and shuffled off.
      Next came the wise men, much more splendidly dressed, but who also knelt and with great humility, obsequiously laid their gifts at Mary’s feet.
      Following them came what Celia supposed must be townsfolk from Bethlehem. Many followed the example of the shepherd, kneeling and touching the babe with awe-filled countenances. Others seemed more awkward, and went through the same motions but with faces marked by doubt and discomfort. Celia was indignant: why were these people here if they didn’t believe? Didn’t they know this was the Messiah? Hadn’t they heard the witness of the shepherds and the words of the wise men?
      More and more figures were still lining up in the twilight outside the cave. What a lot of people lived in Bethlehem! thought Celia. But as they came into the light, she saw that they were dressed differently. First came some in togas, then others in long gowns and tall caps or in armor. But after a while, she forgot about their clothes in watching their faces. Among these too were mixed those who clearly recognized the Christ in the little infant, and those whose reverence and kiss were belied by the speed and uneasiness of their movements.
      Gradually, there was a change in the expression of these “barely believing ones”, as Celia came to think of them. Furtiveness or hypocrisy came to be replaced by boredom and nonchalance. These people were in modern clothes and slouched in line, looking around at their neighbors or off into space. They sauntered over to the infant and tapped His little hand like workers clocking in a time-card, and then strolled away as if they were sleepwalking.
      Then Celia recognized one of these dreamy ones coming out of the cave: it was herself!—in the very outfit she had worn that morning to Mass. She watched herself amble down an aisle and plop down in a pew, while the choir concluded the Communion song.
      A chill trickled down her back, then she woke up.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Life of Adventure

Even when we're convinced that maybe we could use a little more  self-denial in our lives, we're not always sure how to go about it. We might read about the self-floggings of medieval monks or the sometimes extreme penances of saints in past ages. The Church doesn’t encourage these practices today, but rather emphasizes three forms: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. That doesn’t mean, however, that she forbids any other form of mortification--far from it. Nor do we need to fall back on extreme practices of the past. It’s not hard to find simple but effective penitential opportunities; they’re all around us, every day.
      G. K. Chesterton once wrote that “an inconvenience is an adventure wrongly considered.” How life-changing a motto this could be! What is it about an adventure that is so much more appealing than a duty or an inconvenience? It must be the idea of being heroic, courageous, meeting a challenge bravely, for noble reasons, in defense of others, etc. Yet all of that resides potentially in every difficulty we meet each day. 
     It doesn’t feel like it. No dragons are in sight. But responding to a difficulty with Christlike charity and patience requires heroism, and the courage to die to oneself. It can also be done for noble reasons—such as the love of God (nothing nobler!)—and in the “defense” of others, if we turn it into a sacrifice that we offer up on another’s behalf. And if no dragons are visible, that doesn’t mean they aren’t there. Don’t doubt that you’ll have to fight the world, the flesh, and the devil, at the very least in your thoughts and inclinations, in order to rise to this challenge.
       This, in essence, is not all that different from the “Little Way” of St. Thérèse of Lisieux.  As a child, she had been trained to look for chances each day to do something for Jesus—ten chances, specifically, even being given a little string of ten beads with which to count her sacrifices. As a young woman, reading about and being daunted by the impressive acts of mortification of the saints who lived before her, she decided to continue her practice, but instead of striving merely for ten, she would make it her way of life. She would use every opportunity—whether it be a crack in her pitcher or a fellow nun who consistently splashed her during the washing each day—to turn something unwanted, unpleasant into a gift to God.
      Though many modern Catholics are familiar with St. Thérèse’s Little Way, she wasn’t the first to discover it. Brother Lawrence, a seventeenth-century French monk, and Jean-Pierre de Caussade, an eighteenth-century Jesuit and spiritual director to nuns, both wrote about the powerful efficacy of doing one’s duty and accepting whatever crosses might come along, out of love for God. In Practicing the Presence of God, Brother Lawrence advocates this method as a means to encounter the Lord throughout the day. Fr. Caussade describes essentially the same method as a means of spiritual growth that leads to what his work is sometimes titled, The Joy of Full Surrender (also known as Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence).

     So let us pray that the Lord will change our mind-set, and give us a heart that appreciates the gift of penance—whether it’s one we choose or one that chooses us. May He help us to recognize in each opportunity the chance to make reparation for our sins, the chance to show Him how sorry we are that we have hurt or disappointed or offended Him, the chance to show Him that we love Him, and the chance to help build His kingdom by participating in His redemptive sacrifice on the Cross. Penance is not something to avoid, but a gift to be embraced!

Adapted from excerpts of my recent article, "Mortification for Moderns" in Voices, available at

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Why Is Advent Penitential?

Last week we left this question hanging.  I’m guessing one very good reason Mother Church arranged it so, is that this idea of preparing for the Lord’s coming by repentance and penance is in the Bible.
      Last week’s gospel was about how God sent John the Baptist to preach repentance in preparation for Christ’s public ministry. In Luke the quote from Isaiah is longer: ”Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God."
In our day of cars and paved roads, this passage might be a little lost on us. If we think about it, we can understand somewhat why a straight road without hills is preferable, especially if we’re prone to carsickness. But imagine traveling by horseback or chariot or perhaps a primitive kind of carriage. It would take a long time, and the more hills and curves, the longer and more tiring the trip. And even though the roads built by the Romans were far better than any dirt road, without maintenance even they could get pretty bumpy.
The call of John the Baptist is a call to each of us. The Lord, our King, wishes to come to us. We want His road to be pleasant and easy. Working to make this road straight and smooth honors him, and also makes his coming swifter, for he has a direct path to our hearts.
St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross say we are all called to contemplation—that the experience of enjoying the presence of God is possible for each of us—but what may keep it from happening is the clutter of other things in our hearts: sins and worries and attachments to anything but Him. Recall Jesus’ parable of the seed that fell among thorns: “They are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature.” Teresa and John advise that we have to let go of all that to have God. The point of penance is to detach us from these things. That’s where straightening our crooked paths and smoothing out our rough ways comes in—that is, cutting out the sins and the faults.
Lowering the mountains and filling the valleys is also crucial. We need to look at ourselves to see where there’s too much of us: Is there too much of me in my conversations? Is there too much of my preferences in family or group decisions? Is my pride too great to allow me to apologize? Is there too much self-indulgence in my enjoyment of food, drink, TV, the Internet, reading or any otherwise licit good?
And where I am absent, where do I fail to extend myself? Is there too little of my attention to my children’s or spouse’s or co-worker’s conversation? Or to their needs or wishes? Is too little of my mind given to thinking of others, or too little of my time spent in helping them? Is there too little of my life given to God? When I do pray, do I give Him too little opportunity to talk to me, or do I do all the talking?
     Years ago, in choir, my friend Suzanne and I both had trouble adjusting to the gender-corrected version of the "Prayer of St. Francis". We'd start to sing the old line "it is in giving to all men..." but hearing others sing begin the new words "of ourselves" we'd correct ourselves after the word "to", so we'd end up singing, "it is in giving to ourselves that we receive." Now while an advertising agency might jump on this, it's hardly what St. Francis had in mind. But it ties back into the mountain-valley image. Where am I giving to myself instead of giving of myself?
We need to cut down our hills and mountains—our pride and other areas where self looms large—and instead fill up our valleys—our personal deficiencies, the areas where our love is shallow. We need to dig into the mountain of self and turn to fill in our valley of shallow love. For example, we can cut off a negative comment or thought and instead say something positive or pray for the person we find annoying. Or we can cut down on some self-indulgence and instead spend our time and energy doing something for someone else.
      But why Advent? Why not all year round? It’s not that we should only work on this during the Church’s official seasons of penance. Rather, there are so many incredible mysteries of God to ponder and so many ramifications on our own lives that it’s hard to keep them all in mind all the time, so Mother Church sets aside certain times of the year to highlight the most important ones. The fact that Almighty God became a human—and a poor, helpless infant one at that—deserves its own season of celebration and contemplation. And that time of feasting deserves a time of fasting to prepare for it. And don’t we clean the house when we’re expecting guests, especially an important one? Penitence is cleaning up our souls.
We don’t live in Palestine two millennia ago, so we can’t participate as directly in the tangible, visible coming of Christ. But He’s coming again. We don’t know when the Second Coming will occur—it could happen during our lifetime; it could happen another two millennia later. But He will come for each one of us at the end of our own lives—and that could happen any day, any moment. So yes, we should be preparing for that coming all year round, all our lives long.
      But it’s hard to remember that all the time. So the Church reminds us periodically, and that’s what Advent is all about.

For more on penitence, see my article "Mortification for Moderns," recently published in Voices

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Purple = Penitential

This title is not a statement of a personal dislike for the hue— actually most shades of purple are among my favorite colors. Nor am I making a clever remark about the disadvantages of being royal or ruling (purple traditionally being considered “regal”), such as, that it can be a royal pain. There's certainly plenty of truth to that, and given that the high-school play I'm directing, Schiller's Mary Stuart, very pointedly makes this point, it wouldn't be surprising that it would be on my mind, since the performance is in less than a week. (Eeek!)

      No, I'm actually trying, in the midst of Christmas music and escalating visions of red, green, and gold, to remember that it's Advent. And the liturgical color of Advent is purple (the same as Lent). A visual reminder of an almost forgotten fact: Advent is meant to be a penitential season.
      Before grappling with the question Why would Advent be penitential? it seems more pertinent (picking up on my Purgatory post of last week) to ponder Why do penance at all?
      Didn't Jesus on the cross take away for us all the punishment due to sin? In a sense, yes, and yet, Paul says, “In my flesh, I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church” (Col 1:24).
      How could anything be lacking in Christ’s sufferings for His Church? He’s God! He’s perfect, so His sacrifice had to have been perfect, and if perfect then complete. Right? Yes and no. If His sacrifice is “lacking” or “incomplete,” it’s not due to a failure on His part. Rather, it’s because He left room for us to be a part of it. After all, we are His Body. How can the Head suffer and not the Body?
      If after dinner, I only do the dishes, and wait (somewhat impatiently) for my children to bring them to me, as well as to put away the leftovers, clear and wash the table and counters, and sweep, it is not because I am incapable of doing those tasks. In fact, I could do them a lot better and faster by myself! But I purposely leave them undone, so my children can participate in the job. This is primarily for their sake. I want them to learn what it means to be a family, to be responsible, to be disciplined, and the different tasks involved in keeping a home clean. Similarly, God is perfectly capable of cleaning up the universe all by Himself, but He leaves some of the work to us.
      Because we need it and justice requires it.
      Wait a second, why does justice require it? Didn’t Jesus pay the price for us on the cross? He most certainly did. He paid the eternal penalty for our sins—something we could never have done, no matter how hard we tried. However, there is also a temporal penalty due, which we are obligated to pay.
      Look at it this way. If the ten-year-old son of a billionaire managed to get hold of some powerful explosives and blow up a mall one night, no one would expect the boy to pay for it, because, obviously, being ten, he couldn’t. If his father stepped in and paid the damages, the boy wouldn’t owe the debt anymore, right? His father wouldn’t expect him to pay him back. But wouldn’t it be wrong for the son to do nothing? Mowing the lawn and taking out the trash cheerfully every week for years and years wouldn’t make much of a dent in a debt like that, but it might make an impression on his father. Wouldn’t it be only right for the son to do whatever he could to show his gratitude to his dad? Wouldn’t it be the just and loving thing to do, and a sign of his true repentance? And the state would still require something from the boy himself—community service of some kind, as a way to make reparation for the damage he had caused.
      Similarly, our sins have not only eternal effects but temporal as well. Sin is not committed in a vacuum, but affects other people, even the most private and hidden sins (for instance, they weaken our character, which affects how we treat others). We likewise need to make reparation to our fellow man and to show God our true repentance and gratitude. There is a temporal debt that we owe, and if we do not “pay” it in this life, then we’ll need to do so after death, in Purgatory. This is where penance comes in, “community service” not for the state, but for the Kingdom.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Personal Postscript

I got the call when I was at work. I'd never realized before the wisdom behind making sure that someone's sitting down first. She didn't make sure. She just told me: he's dead. My knees went weak, but fortunately I managed to wobble to a stool behind me.
      On my way home, in shock and sadness, I asked the Lord why He hadn't given us any sign. We had been praying for this dear relative—an agnostic but very ethical man—for years...for decades. My childhood was spent in the charismatic movement, followed by reading lots of saints' biographies. Signs were par for the course. I was hoping for a clear-cut conversion, but fully expecting at least some sort of sign that he'd had some encounter with the Lord.
      I often ask the Lord “why?” and other questions, but don't usually get an answer. Sometimes, upon reflection, I have an insight, the truth of which makes me think it's the Holy Spirit who gave it to me. Sometimes the insight doesn't come for a very long time. But this was one of those rare times when I felt that He answered me: words came into my mind as if from outside me. “Because if I had, then you wouldn't keep praying for him. Not enough.”
      A wonderful realization struck me then (that I later confirmed with a knowledgeable priest). It wasn't too late to pray for his dying hour. God is outside of time. At the hour of my loved one's death, the Lord could look into the future and see me praying and praying for my dear one's dying hour, and answer those prayers. Obviously, one can't pray about past events that have clearly happened: I can't pray now that World War II didn't happen. But the mysterious state of someone's soul, wrapped in the secrecy that only God can penetrate—even if it's in the past—is not beyond the reach of our prayers in the present.
      So I prayed. And had Masses said. And offered up little sacrifices for his dying hour and for his soul, possibly in Purgatory. And I remembered that no prayers are ever wasted.
       Then, a few years later I had a dream.
       I was looking out my front window and I saw him. He was standing in the street, just setting down two suitcases. He was younger than I had ever known him, and full of joy, with the biggest smile I'd ever seen.
      Now since my father-in-law and my best friend died nearly twenty years ago, my husband and I have both noticed that when we dream of either of them, they are alive in the dream—they might be very ill or the report of their death was a mistake, but they'd be alive. This dream was different. I kept saying to the others in the room, “That's So-and-so, and he's dead!”
       Two blocks up from that house, on the real street, was a cemetery at the top of a hill. By the time the street reached my house, the hill had subsided into a slight decline. It left the small neighborhood behind and led to the wider world, especially to an enormous park. But in the dream the street was sloping up instead of slightly down. He was on his way somewhere, going upward, and he'd stopped to see me first. I felt that he wanted me to know that he was on his way and how happy he was and to thank me.
       He stood there in the middle of the street, with that huge grin, and waved and waved at me. He who in life had been such a dignified stoic.
      Anyone else can say, of course, that that was just a dream. But I believe it was more. It was so different from my usual dreams, and it came with such a sense of peace and joy. And even now, years later, whenever I think of him, that peace returns. I believe it was my sign at last.
       And you know what? The Lord was right. (No big surprise there.) Though I do still pray for my beloved relative, just in case he still needs my prayers or it was just a dream, I must admit, I don't pray as fervently or frequently as I did before. 
     Praise you, Lord, for your wisdom and mercy.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Revamping Purgatory's Reputation

Does anyone remember that creepy chant: "Pray for the dead, and the dead will pray for you"?  The eerie and mock-solemnic tone we kids used to adopt when singing that (while leaning into another child's face) reflects the misconceptions and repugnance surrounding the idea of Purgatory.
     In November, the Catholic Church not only celebrates All Souls' Day on the 2nd, but dedicates the whole month to the souls in Purgatory. Now I’m not going to tackle the whole question of the existence of Purgatory, which most Protestants dispute and even a good number of Catholics either question or misunderstand. To do the topic justice would require a long chapter if not a book. But I will touch on some points that help me to understand it.
C.S. Lewis, who was not a Catholic, believed in Purgatory. He remarked:

Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, ”It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy”? Should we not reply, “With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first.” “It may hurt, you know”—“Even so, sir.”1

Another way to understand Purgatory is to remember that here as in so many other areas of the spiritual life, there is needed something both from God and from us. Two perennial temptations are to rely too heavily on one or the other. We can no more expect God to do it all for us in the area of our sins than in the area of providing for us—in the latter, we can trust in Him and know that He is the One who gives us everything, but we still have to go out and try to find a job. On the other hand, it is as fruitless and foolish to rely solely on ourselves and our own efforts in the former as in any other area. He did his part already: paying the eternal debt for our sins on the cross. But we need to do something too. Our sins have not only offended God, but hurt our brothers and sisters. A common explanation likens sin to hammering a nail into a fine piece of furniture: Christ’s sacrifice for us removes the nail. But a hole is still left behind, and it is up to us to repair it.
      If we don’t make reparation for our sins now, then we will still owe the relatively puny part of the debt that the Lord left for us to pay ourselves. Jesus warns us to prepare for the day of our judgment when he says: “Make friends quickly with your accuser, while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison; truly, I say to you, you will never get out till you have paid the last penny.” We might think this prison must be hell, where the debtor will be held forever, for how can you pay a debt if you’re in prison? But the debtor’s prison of Jesus’ day resembled that of Dickens’, in which a debtor did stay until his family or friends could pay the debt for him. This is precisely what the Catholic Church teaches: that the souls in Purgatory owe a debt and can do nothing for themselves; they rely on our prayers and sacrifices for them.
      We Catholics, if we think of Purgatory at all, too often think it will be over soon and won’t be too bad. St. Francis of Assisi, however, reportedly chose three days of suffering on earth over one day in Purgatory when a heavenly vision offered him this choice on his deathbed. Not only does this testify at least to St. Francis’ view of the pangs of Purgatory, it should also give us pause. If someone as holy and ascetic as St. Francis still required even a day in Purgatory, what will the rest of us need? All too often these days,

we tend to ‘”canonize” our … loved ones immediately after their death. Father Frederick Faber tells us, “We are apt to leave off too soon praying for [them], imagining with a foolish and unenlightened esteem ... that they are freed from purgatory much sooner than they really are.”2

We needn’t fear that our departed loved ones will be insulted if we pray for them in case they might be in Purgatory. Believe me, they will be grateful, not insulted! And even if they are in heaven, no prayer is ever wasted. God can and will apply our prayers to another soul in need.
      The following prayer of St. Gertrude has traditionally been held to be very powerful:

Eternal Father, I offer Thee the most precious Blood of Thy divine Son, Jesus, in union with the Masses said throughout the world today, for all the holy souls in Purgatory, sinners everywhere, sinners in the universal Church, those in my own home and within my family. Amen.

      And of course, the most powerful prayer of all is the Mass.

1 C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (San Diego, New York, London: Harvest/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1964), pp. 108-9.
2 Susan Tassone, Thirty-Day Devotions for the Holy Souls (Huntington, Ind.: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing, 2004), p. 76.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Meditation Commendation

I’ve been writing about prayer here a good bit, which leads to practical questions such as, What prayers should I be praying? How do I pray?
      While the Church offers us a whole banquet of prayers and types of prayer, I'd like to put in a plug for meditation.
      Many saints strongly emphasize how crucial meditation is to the spiritual life. St. Teresa of Avila saw it as so vital as to be effectively the difference between heaven and hell: “He who neglects mental prayer needs no devil to carry him to hell, but he brings himself there...” But on the other hand, “The devil knows that he has lost the soul that perseveringly practices mental prayer.” St. Alphonsus of Liguori explains: “It is impossible for him who perseveres in mental prayer to continue in sin: he will either give up meditation or renounce sin.”
I suspect another strength of mental prayer (or what today is more commonly called “meditation”) is that it is much less prone to Pharisaism than are other types of prayer. One can say a dozen devotions, three Rosaries, and attend Mass each day, but not have one's mind engaged or heart involved. One can become so complacent or proud that one no longer tries to be present interiorly as well as exteriorly; then the graces roll off like water off a duck’s back. In such cases, one can not only fool one's neighbors with one's apparent piety, but can even fool oneself. I suppose it is theoretically possible to do the same with meditation, but it’s much harder. This is because meditation is a one-on-one conversation with God. It requires me to speak my own words, and—far more difficult—it requires me to listen. That's pretty hard to fake.
If a teenage son meets all his father's minimum rules, like coming to Sunday dinner and basically staying out of trouble, but never talks to his father other than to ask for a raise in his allowance or the latest new gizmo, what kind of relationship is that? How well will they know each other? And how long the son will continue in his minimal obedience? Our heavenly Father wants a real, personal relationship with each of us. We can't build that only through rote or group prayer.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not at all disparaging vocal prayer or the Mass, both of which are very important and effective. Vocal prayers (those written by someone else) are fundamental—many are the first we learn and the last we forget. They are so helpful too when we don't know what to say or our own words seem so inadequate. And there can be no doubt that the Mass is the most powerful prayer. It is the prayer of Jesus; it is the re-presentation to the Father of Christ's sacrifice. It is the prayer par excellence.
Nor am I saying that if our minds wander during any of these forms of prayer that our prayers are therefore worthless. If that were so, then I, Maj. Space Cadet, would be in big trouble. The crux of the matter is our intention and our efforts. If we want to pray from the heart, and keep trying to, the Lord will care more for that than for our success, which ultimately is a gift from Him anyway.
Rather, I am merely striving to echo St. Teresa of Avila, who wrote: “It is then of the utmost importance to bear this truth in mind, that our Lord is within us, and that we ought to strive to be there with him.”
...And St. Alphonsus of Liguori: “Mental prayer is the blessed furnace in which souls are inflamed with the love of God. All the saints have become saints by mental prayer.”
...And Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, who said of mental prayer: “Holiness is impossible without it.”

How to Meditate

What if you want to meditate, but you don't know how? Here's one method. (A good time goal, by the way, is fifteen minutes.)

  1. Put yourself in the presence of God. Of course, He is always with us, but we need to become aware of His presence. 

    A.The ideal place is to be in His physical presence, in a church or chapel with the Blessed Sacrament. This is not practical for most of us much of the time, however; so if possible, find a quiet corner or try to create a sacred space at home. This helps cut down on distractions.

    B. Acknowledge His presence by confirming your faith, hope, and love for Him; by worshipping Him and by thanking Him for all He has done for you. It's tempting to gloss over this step and do it quickly, but if done well, it can lead to real closeness to Him. It's a potent reminder of God's greatness and our littleness, our need of Him and all we owe Him. 
  2. Invoke the Holy Spirit either through the traditional Come Holy Spirit prayer or in your own words. Open your heart and mind to Him. You don't want to sit and have a conversation with yourself, or mistake the voice of the world, the flesh, or the devil for His.

  3. Read a text you've chosen in advance, preferably a passage from Scripture or the writing of a saint or trustworthy spiritual writer on a fruitful topic, such as a virtue you need to grow in or something on the current liturgical season. Occasionally, the best “text” will be an occurrence in your own life, which you feel the Lord is calling you to reflect on.

  4. Reflect on the text and what it means to you. Talk to God about it. Ask Him what He is trying to tell you through this. Ask Him to help you to be silent and open to Him and truly listen. (This is hard, but don't give up. Keep trying.)

  5. Optional: If practical/possible, write down any insights you gained during this prayer time.

  6. Make a resolution. Our prayer life, to be effective, must spill over and change the rest of our life. Try to think of something concrete that you can do that day to put into practice what the Lord is saying to you. (Examples: pay a visit to the Blessed Sacrament; compliment a coworker you find difficult; refrain from complaining and offer it up instead; find something to praise your child for rather than noticing only the things that need correcting.)

  7. Thank the Lord for this time together (we so often think we're doing Him a favor by praying) and ask Him to help you serve Him and love Him better each day.

    P.S. If any ads show up in a sidebar on "how to meditate" they don't have any endorsement from me. Some might be okay; I don't know.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Rendezvous with a god?

One day in fourth grade, I lifted my desk lid to gather my books, only to discover—of all things!—a love-note. It was the most thrilling moment of my young life.

A few seconds later, however, I was filled with doubt. Could this be some sort of cruel prank? I had been picked on since second grade by my former best friend and her followers.

But then I heard that my friend and neighbor, a new girl, had also received a love note, in a different hand. What was going on?

After we each had received several notes, we came to the conclusion that they were for real. I began to keep mine in a box marked “Precious”.

Then one day our secret admirers invited us to a rendezvous. (The plot thickens!) We were to meet them at an overgrown spot on our block. The boys would be on the other side of the fence, behind the bushes. We were not to try to find out who they were; it was just a chance to talk.

My friend and I duly came, and after a little while, we began to wonder again if this was a prank, because nothing seemed to happen. We felt like fools, standing there talking to some bushes. We began to suspect that no one was really there. At last, when we threatened to leave, we heard some rustling, assuring us that indeed there was someone (or two) unseen listening to us. I can't remember now if they ever did say anything, but if so, I'm sure it was in a whisper.

This memory came back to me a year ago when I was asked to give a talk on prayer. If prayer is conversation with God, many times it is like my fourth-grade experience. He claims to loves us and invites us to meet Him, but then He hides Himself from us and often doesn’t say anything. We can feel as silly talking to Him, who makes no sign of His presence, as I felt that day on the sidewalk.

If we’re not careful, we can fall into the fallacy that led to poor Pscyhe's troubles in the ancient Greek myth. She was married to one who said he was a god, but who would never let her see his face. She lived in his palace, surrounded by luxury, but he would come to her only in the dead of night, and forbade her ever to light a lamp. Her jealous sisters said this must be because he was not really a god but a hideous monster. She didn’t want to believe them, but when taunted that she was afraid they were right, she caved in and agreed to find out. The next night, after her husband was asleep, she lit a candle. What she saw entranced her: the gloriously handsome god of love.

Perhaps some light on this mystery can be found in the many fairy tales in which a king hides his identity to see who his real friends are. I tell my children that Jesus is a King who hides Himself in the Eucharist and waits in the tabernacle to see who loves Him enough and believes His word enough to come and visit Him.

The one who invites us to meet Him is indeed the God of Love. Fortunately, He doesn’t always leave us in the dark. After we’ve proved our faithfulness by standing on the sidewalk apparently talking to some bushes, if we persevere, He will rustle a branch or whisper the sweet somethings we need to hear.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

St. Steve?

I was herding my flock of little children to the door after Mass at our new parish one Sunday when a man in his fifties approached, hand out, saying, "Hi, I'm Steve. I'm a victim soul."

Being familiar with this term—"victim soul"—I didn't find this quite as bizarre as it might have been otherwise, but it still struck me as an odd way to introduce oneself. But then I'm a little odd myself. So we got to know each other a bit and chatted much longer than my restless children would have preferred. Thus began my friendship with my first official victim soul.

All Saints' Day was this past week, which is held in honor of the hosts of people who made it to heaven without their names appearing on the Church calendar. They are the ones who loved and followed the Lord and who made an impact on their little corner of the world, without having an order or followers with the knowledge, time, documentation, etc. to see them through the long canonization process.

Upon reflection, I bet many of us can think of people in our lives who fit this description. Steve is one in mine.

Steve had had rickets in childhood, which stunted his growth, leaving him with a slight limp and a torso somewhat disproportionately long in relation to his legs. Some might describe him as a plain man, not appealing from a worldly point of view, certainly not fashionable, but the joy and love and peace that shone through his eyes and smile made him captivating.

He continued to suffer chronic health problems as an adult, which prevented him from having a regular job. So whenever his health permitted, he threw himself into volunteer work for the Church instead. Both of us being church-hoppers—that is, going to daily Mass at whatever parish happened to be most convenient that day—I used to see Steve quite often at various places in the city. I'd also see him at talks and pro-life events, and of course at our parish, where he volunteered quite a bit.

After some time, however, I realized that I hadn't seen him for a while, and heard that he'd been having health problems. Then we heard that he had had major back surgery, which hadn't gone well. I don't recall now if it was that the surgery was an attempt to correct a condition and failed or that it was a botched surgery that caused the ensuing condition. At any rate, he was left paralyzed from the neck down in terms of movement, but not in terms of sensation. Instead, he was in constant pain. He had the worst of both worlds.

Before I tell you the remarkable way he lived up to his self-identification as a victim soul, I must say that he was human. His condition was not easy for him to accept. Once in a while he would cry out, "Lord, why are you letting this happen?" Like Job or the Psalmist who asked "Why?" and "How long, O Lord?" these cries of anguish did not represent any bitterness on his part, but the honest bewilderment of a son, still faithful and devoted to his Father. He also shared with my husband not only his desire to live but a normal fear of death.

The hardest cross for Steve was not the pain, nor the feeling that his nurses lacked compassion and were slow to bring him his pain medication, nor the paralysisthough all of these were difficultit was the loneliness. He was a friendly, gregarious people-person. And now he was spending day after day, week after week, month after month, and eventually year after year, mostly alone in a hospital room.

He did have a few consolations. After a little while, he regained partial use of his left hand. His family outfitted him with a phone on a cord around his neck, which he could operate with that clumsy hand. This relieved a small part of the loneliness. He also had visitors—not so many that he still didn't have many empty hoursbut family and friends who would come when they could. (It wasn't always easy to manage: for instance, I had to choose between bringing along the kids, as we did one Christmas, or go by myself in the evening to a hospital in a bad part of town.) Fortunately, Steve also had a handful of regulars, who faithfully visited him frequently. My husband was one of these.

But Steve did not waste those lonely hours, nor his pain nor his frustration. He had long seen himself as a victim soul—someone to whom God sent more suffering than to most people, knowing that they would turn that suffering into a sacrifice and offer it back to Him as a prayer for someone else. Now that perspective of viewing his suffering as a vocation was put to the greatest test. And he passed. He offered it all up. And he did it systematically and lovingly. 

He would ask us if we had any intentions for which we'd like him to pray. And unlike most people, who use "How are you?" as a greeting not a genuine question, he wanted to know the details. I remember his even telling me what time he was going to devote to our family's petitions. He had it all mapped out: he would pray for us at such-and such a time; next he'd pray for the Missionaries of Charity; then at the next time slot for some specific requests from his volunteer friends at EWTN, etc.

And he really cared. It still brings tears to my eyes to remember how this man, who was suffering so much at every hour, could have compassion on us, whose sufferings were nothing compared with his. He'd remember what our intentions had been and ask if they had been answered. At one point, my husband was unemployed, a situation that dragged on much longer than we had anticipated. And Steve would cry out on our behalf, "Lord! Why are you letting this happen? You've got to help them!"

During the four or so years that Steve was bed-ridden, there were a few occasions when he'd get sick and be at death's door. His loved ones, though we knew we'd miss him, almost hoped he would pass on to his reward—he'd suffered so much already! But he wasn't ready. He was a fighter, and again and again he'd escape death's embrace. But as time went on, he eventually came to lose his fear of death, and he peacefully accepted it when it came to him at last.

I consider it an honor to have known this holy man, and we still rely on his prayers for us from heaven.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Time for God?

Expecting to get by spiritually without prayer is like planting a tree in your cellar and expecting it to survive without light or water. Prayer provides the sun and rain that our souls absolutely need to live and grow. While artificial light and watering by hand might work with a plant, there are no real substitutes for prayer with the soul. Of course, we try all kinds of substitutes—entertainment, food, romance, vacations, etc.—all good things, but merely gifts and no replacement for the Giver. The soul can't  thrive being stored away in the basement of our being: it needs to be exposed to the Son.
    What keeps many of us from praying is how hard it is. Sometimes, especially when people first discover God, He blesses their prayer time abundantly, and they are filled with joy and even excitement. But we don’t always experience that, and it can be discouraging. It’s imperative to know what’s going on there. It’s not that we’ve failed, that we don’t have enough faith, that God isn’t real, or that He doesn’t hear us or care about us. Granted, sometimes someone’s prayer can falter because that person has put something ahead of God and is denying it or pretending that it doesn’t matter. But prayer can be and often is a difficult thing to do even when that is not the case.
    This is where the images of sun and rain can help again. We have sunny prayer times and rainy prayer times. Traditionally, in spiritual writings, the former have been called “consolations” and the latter “desolations.” (Desolation has since taken on a more dire connotation, calling to mind a condition near despair. That is not what is meant here, but something closer to “deprivation.”) Their Latin origins are helpful: consolation is the act of comforting, of being with someone; desolation is the condition of being deserted, abandoned. (Note, however, that with spiritual desolation, the Lord has not actually abandoned the soul; it only feels that way.)
    Of course, just as many times we prefer a sunny day to a rainy one, so also we much prefer consolations in prayer to desolations. However, just as the plant needs both, so do our souls. A plant that received only the sun and no rain would wither up and die. A soul that received only consolations would also get “burnt”: would likely become complacent, would fail to grow, and might even die through falling into spiritual pride, the worst sin. Too much rain, on the other hand, would drown both the plant and the soul, while total deprivation from the sun would prevent any growth. So the Lord wisely sends us both sun and rain.
    We can see why He sends us the sunny times. During them, we feel encouraged and eager to do His will and help our neighbor. We have new insights into the spiritual life and are on fire with love for Him. But why do we need those rainy desolations? Because they too are critical to our growth. 
     It is during times of desolation that we discover or re-discover how much we need God and how little really we can do on our own. Thus we have the chance to deepen our humility and our dependence on God. And it is while we are enduring desolation that we can really grow in virtue—especially the three biggies: faith, hope, and charity. Do we build muscle when we’re being carted around? No. We build muscle when our muscles work, when they are challenged, even resisted (hence, resistance exercises' popularity nowadays). Similarly, our faith grows when it has to work, when it’s challenged, even resisted; so too with hope and love. 
     We don’t know all the ways that God is working in us when we are faithful to prayer in times of desolation. Just as the rain is sinking into the earth to reach the plant’s roots, desolations are feeding our souls in unseen ways.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

When the Praying Gets Tough, Who Keeps Praying?

Everything is a gift from God: our intellect, personality, body, faculties, strengths, even weaknesses, our faith, our situation in life, the grace we need to do any good thing—all were given to us by our Creator. Anything we try to give to Him we find, really, we are only giving back to Him what was His to begin with. The only thing that is truly ours, in a sense, is our free will, even though He gave us that too; the only thing we can give back to Him is the use of that will.
     Love is not merely a feeling, but an act of the will. So, what we can give back to Him with our free will is our love, ourselves.  This is why He gave us free will, so we could love Him freely, by our own choice. 
     And love is a lot more than lip service; Teresa of Avila said: “Love is proved by deeds.” It’s in the day-in, day-out choices that we make and what we do when no one is looking that we prove that our love for God is real.
     Love is also proved by what we do when things get tough. It’s easy to love someone when things go well for you when you’re with that person; it’s easy to be a sponge, a fair-weather friend. Satan wasn’t impressed with Job. He told God, Take away all the gifts you’ve given him, and his “love” for you will evaporate. He only loves you because of your gifts to him. All the trials and crosses that come to us in life are chances to show that our love for the Lord is real. True love is shown by fidelity through the difficult times.
     Thus, the best way to express our love for God is by spending time with Him—in other words, by praying, conversing with Him. And our love is especially expressed in those prayer times that are difficult. Sometimes the best we can do is show up for prayer and try and try to pray. We won’t know ‘til heaven, just how pleased He was with our efforts. 
     Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta experienced over 40 years of dry prayer, yet she persevered, rising early each morning to begin her day with an hour of adoration. And how richly God blessed her for it! She may not have felt anything during those prayer times, but He was surely working in her, for her life is a witness to His filling her with the abundant graces she needed to do what she did and the heavenly insights to lead her order. 
     A saint (I forget who) once said that those prayer times in which we feel warm and close to God are His gifts to us. But those prayer times that are dry and in which we’re distracted and discouraged but persistent are our gift to Him.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Crazy Love

When the hour came, Jesus sat at table, and the apostles with him. And he said to them, "I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer... And he took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, "This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me." And likewise the cup after supper, saying, "This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood" (Luke 22:14-15, 19-20).

Crazy Love 
Jesus says he has "earnestly desired"—or in another translation, "longed"—for this Last Supper with his disciples. Why? He gives himself as food and drink to them; what does he "get out of it"? All the benefits are theirs.
      It can only be love.
      At this Passover meal, he will establish a “new covenant”—a covenant in the Old Testament usually required a blood sacrifice. In this new covenant, Christ offers himself as a living sacrifice—a total gift of self: Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. This gift at the Last Supper, moreover, is a pledge to enact this sacrifice in his Passion and death on the Cross. When you think about it, it’s really astounding that he should “long” for this Supper!
      He has longed for it only because he loves them. He has been with them these three years and longed to give them the abundant graces available in himself in the Eucharist. He longs to see them become the saints the Father has created them to be. He loves them and wants to be united with them in this sacrament.
The Bigger Picture
This longing began with the Fall and extends to all people of all time. The communion between God and man had been broken since Adam and Eve. He loved mankind so much and so deeply, that he longed for this Passover because he longed to restore communion with us and to restore grace in us. He longed to make this sacrifice for us, not because he longed for suffering in itself—in fact, we know from his agony in the garden that he dreaded it. Rather he longed for the effects of his sacrifice, namely, our salvation and sanctification. He established the disciples as priests and bishops so as to extend this gift throughout the ages. Even to today . . . even to me and you.
Little Ol' Me? 
We know, at least in theory, how infinite the Lord’s love is for us. And yet how often we forget and seek something or someone else to fill the aching void in our hearts. This Scripture passage can help us better to grasp the reality of this truth. How incredible must his love be that he would long to give himself to each person, no matter how unworthy. That he would actually long to sacrifice himself for us! And how wonderful that he longs to be united with each one of us.
It's all about love
That’s what the Last Supper was all about—love and teaching his followers how to love: the washing of feet; the long, beautiful discourse on love; and most of all, the gift of himself in the Eucharist. What an example of pure love: completely selfless and total, nothing held back.