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.