Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Advent vocation prayer


Mary, Mother of the Church,

Pray that your son Jesus,
my Lord and Savior,
may accomplish in me
the will of the Father
by the light of the
Holy Spirit.

Beg him on my behalf,
Blessed Mother,
to equip me
for my ministry
in his Church
as I advance
in my vocation.

Ask him,
Humble Virgin,
to grant me
a specific mission
and reveal it to me,
and then provide me
with the necessary
vision,
wisdom,
strength,
and all grace
to accomplish it,
for the good
of the Church
and the glory of God.

Mary, Handmaid of the Lord,
intercede for me
that always and everywhere,
and in everything,
I may remain open
and responsive
to his Word,
repeating with you
for all eternity:

"Let it be done to me
according to your word."

May all this be accomplished
through the abundant love
the Father showers on me
and asks me to share
with all his children.

I ask this through
the Sacred Heart of Jesus,
your Immaculate Heart, Mary,
the Paternal Heart of St. Joseph,
and with the intercession
of all the saints, particularly:

All the Apostles,
Saint Michael the Archangel,
St. Benedict,
St. Meinrad, and
St. Francis de Sales.

Amen.

Br. Francis de Sales Wagner, O.S.B.

Curing fear through trust in God


NOTE: Another excerpt from Caryll Houselander's The Reed of God, read to us at dinner last evening in the monastery refectory. Good stuff! -- Br. Francis

***
No one can be so recollected, so tranquil, that he can be a contemplative in the world, a contemplative of Christ in his own heart, unless at the very outset he finds a cure for fear.

There is only one cure for fear--trust in God. That is why the beginning of Christ's being formed in us consists in echoing Our Lady's fiat: it is a surrender, a handing over of everything to God.

Many people feel that they could achieve heroic sanctity if they could do it in the way that appeals to them, for example, by being martyred. They can picture themselves going cheerfully to the stake; they can positively revel in being hanged, drawn, and quartered; but if God makes no revelation but just lets them go on carrying out an insignificant job in the office day after day, or asks them to go on being gentle to a crotchety husband or to continue to be a conscientious housewife, they are not willing. They do not trust God to know his own will for them.

Most people trust finite, helpless creatures more than they trust God, and this for the oddest of reasons--namely, that the finite, helpless creature is as frightened as they are; both are clinging to the same insecurities.

We are afraid of birth, of life, of pain, of loss, of death.

All through life we are dogged with fear. Some fears knit us together in sympathy, make us aware of our dependence upon one another. We sense vaguely that we belong to one family, but not always that we have one Father, God.

We have had it instilled into us since we were in the cradle that the one security is money, money alone can save us. We are dependent on bought things: drugs, anesthetics, alcohol, distractions, escapes from ourselves, escapes from our humiliations. We are afraid for ourselves, but a thousand times more afraid for those we love. Gradually, without knowing it, we have come to trust more in money than in God.

The remedy for fear is trust in God. If we fear for ourselves or if we fear for others, it is all the same: trust in God is the only remedy.

Powerful to alleviate, to delay, to camouflage, though money is, in the end it lets us down. Even when we have it we are continually anxious about losing it.

God is everlasting, certain, unchanging.

What is certain about God is that he is Love, that he loves both you and the person that you love, more than you do.

"Be it done unto me according to they word" surrenders yourself and all that is dear to you to God, and the trust which it implies does not mean just trusting God to look after you and yours, to keep you and them in health and prosperity and honor.

It means much more, it means trusting that whatever God does with you and with yours is the act of an infinitely loving Father.
-- Caryll Houselander, The Reed of God




Sunday, November 27, 2011

Little reeds, infinite music


NOTE: As I mentioned yesterday, we are currently listening to Caryll Houselander's The Reed of God in the monastery refectory for table reading at dinner each day. I cannot recommend this book enough, especially as an Advent meditation. In the following excerpt, the author reflects on who and what we are called by God to be, which is achieved in a profound way through our human emptiness.

***
Emptiness is the beginning of contemplation. It is emptiness like the hollow in the reed, the narrow riftless emptiness, which can have only one destiny: to receive the piper’s breath and to utter the song that is in his heart.

Our Lady’s was a reed through which the Eternal Love was to be piped as a shepherd’s song.

It is the purpose for which something is made that decides the material which is used. The purpose for which human beings are made is told to us briefly in the catechism. It is to know, love, and serve God is this world and to be happy with him forever in the next. The material which God has found apt for it is human nature: blood, flesh, bone, salt, water, will, intellect.

It is impossible to say too often or too strongly that human nature, body and soul together, is the material for God’s will in us. It is through ordinary human life and the things of every hour of every day that union with God comes about.

Although human nature is the material which God has made for the fulfilling of his will in us, and although human nature is something we all share, and although we each have the same purpose of knowing and loving God, we do not all achieve that purpose in the same way or through the same experiences. In fact, no two people have exactly the same personal experience of God; there seem to be rules of love like the rules of music, but within them each soul has her secret—with God.

Each one of us—as we are at the moment when we first ask ourselves: “For what purpose do I exist?”—is the material which Christ himself, through all the generations that have gone to our making, has fashioned for his purpose. Our own experience, the experience of our ancestors and of all our race, has made us the material that we are. This material gives us the form of our life, the shape of our destiny.

Think again of the symbol I have used for the virginal emptiness of Mary. These are made from material which must undergo some experience to be made ready for its purpose. The reed grows by the streams. It is the simplest of things, but it must be cut by the sharp knife, hollowed out, and the stops must be cut in it; it must be shaped and pierced before it can utter the shepherd’s song. It is the narrowest emptiness in the world, but the little reed utters infinite music.

Thus it is with us—we may be formed by the knife, pared down, cut to the least, to the minimum of our own being. The most moving fact in the whole history of mankind is that wherever the Holy Spirit has desired to renew the face of the earth, he has chosen to do so through communion with some humble human creature.

In the instances we know of, it is not been to great or powerful people that the Spirit has come but to the little or the frightened, and we have seen them made new, and known that the subsequent flowering of their lives was nothing else but Christ given to them by that sweet impact.
-- Caryll Houselander, The Reed of God


Amid passing things


Today—as far as I know—church roofs did not collapse throughout the English-speaking Catholic world as the long-debated third edition of the Roman Missal was officially implemented for celebration of the Eucharist. The earth did not part and swallow up the People of God. There were no riots. No one died as a result. What a relief!

Whenever I have been asked these last few months what I thought of the “new Mass,” my typical response has been: “It’s not new. Christ will not be any more or less present than he has always been at any celebration of the Eucharist.”

Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever (cf. Hebrews 13:8). Our particular liturgical expression and experience of that fact may change (and will change again), but the One Thing Necessary holds it all together and presents himself as a gift to us through the Church. It’s not our doing.

In other words, I didn’t get all that worked up over it. I have not broached the topic here until now because I didn’t feel the Catholic blogosphere was in need of one more opinion on the matter. I still don’t. My purpose with this blog (I hope) is to help inspire prayer, not polemic.

How we pray together as the People of God is terribly important, to be sure. As the ancient Latin saying goes, lex orandi, lex credendi, lex Vivendi, or (loosely): “As we worship, so do we believe, and so do we live.” I believe that wholeheartedly, so I do not dismiss the various views of those whose responsibility it is to work on our liturgical expression in the Catholic Church. It matters.

However, we ultimately have to trust that the Holy Spirit is at work throughout the Church because “all things work together for good for those who love God” (Romans 8:28). This was true in 1965, and it is true in 2011.

The reason for bringing this up today, after the new missal's official implementation, is because I was struck in a prayerful way by two things at our celebration of the Eucharist here at Saint Meinrad Archabbey. First, I was edified by how sincerely so many people present concentrated on what they were saying and singing. Second, the words of the closing prayer seemed to echo in my heart:
May these mysteries, O Lord,
in which we have participated,
profit us, we pray,
for even now, as we walk amid passing things,
you teach us by them to love the things of heaven
and hold fast to what endures.
Truly, we walk amid passing things on this earth, and the liturgy is no exception. No one likes change, and few seem to handle it without at least some trouble. But the words of this prayer demonstrate that it is only through such change, such difficulties, that we are progressively given the opportunity by God to turn our attention toward and love the things of heaven. Everything and everyone around us changes during our lifetime. We change. But God remains the same, and we must hold fast to what endures—God alone.

As I listened the last year or so to the arguments for and against the new translation, I was never convinced by any case based on how true the language was to the original Latin. I am not knowledgeable enough in that field to make such a determination anyway. However, the rationale that adjustments were aimed at sharpening the focus on Who we worship, rather than on we who worship, made sense. That is always a good thing.

The experience of change is often disagreeable, but sometimes it is spiritually profitable to occasionally refocus our understanding of not only how we do something, but why and for whom. We can’t always just go through the motions. If nothing else, the process of implementing the new translation provides us with yet another opportunity to realize that we walk amid passing things and must hold fast to what endures. And, of course, this too, shall pass.

After Mass today, several monks gathered in the calefactory as usual for coffee and conversation. Inevitably, the discussion turned to the new translation and how everything went. Br. Zachary acknowledged that although he was trying very hard, he “goofed up” a couple times (most of us did).

Without missing a beat, Fr. Harry responded with the most simple yet profound statement of the day (which he is wont to do). He smiled and said, “You’ll get another chance.”

Thanks be to God.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Advent: Season of the Seed



November 27, 2011
First Sunday of Advent--B
Isaiah 63: 16b-17, 19b; 64: 2-7
1Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:33-37
The Mass readings the last several weeks leading up to this first Sunday of Advent have reminded us of the Christian’s need for vigilance. As I mentioned in a posting a couple weeks ago:
We must properly dispose and prepare ourselves for the second coming of Christ. We both wait and work for the Kingdom of God. Through his Holy Spirit, and with the aid of Scripture, the sacraments, the tradition of the Church and all those within it, God is among us. “The Kingdom of God is among you,” Jesus tells us (Luke 17:21).
But the Kingdom of God grows silently, in hidden fashion, like a tiny seed planted in the dark but fertile earth. Taking nourishment from that soil and water from above, the seed will send forth a shoot reaching toward the sun to grow and bear fruit. Farmers--or gardeners--know that growing crops requires patience and perseverance, not to mention hard work. But the farmer or gardener can only plant and cultivate. The crop grows on its own—he knows not how—by God’s grace and in the silence of the night.
So, once again, today’s readings urge us to wait in hope, to be alert. Something great is about to happen, and we don’t want to miss it! In fact, it is already unfolding within our daily lives, and Advent is a special invitation to pause and ponder that mystery more fully.
In the monastery refectory (dining room) each Advent and Lent, we listen in silence during dinner to some type of spiritual reading appropriate to the season. This Advent, we are listening to one of my all-time favorites: The Reed of God, by Caryll Houselander. The beautiful imagery she employs evokes the mystery of the Kingdom of God as being both "now" and "not yet" -- as a sprouting seed to contemplate with the silent vigilance of Advent.
God has come among us and leads us to the fullness of life. This is the big news of the day. It’s not the new Roman Missal translation. It’s silently growing, through faith, into Christ, who gives himself to the Church so she may feed the world with the Bread of Life. As Houselander says:
Advent is the season of the seed: Christ loved this symbol of the seed.
The seed, he said, is the Word of God sown in the human heart.
“The Kingdom of Heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed.”
“So is the Kingdom of God as if a man should cast seed into the earth.”
Even his own life-blood: “Unless the grain of wheat falling into the ground die, itself remaineth alone.”
The Advent, the seed of the world's life, was hidden in Our Lady.

Like the wheat seed in the earth, the seed of the Bread of Life was in her.

Like the golden harvest in the darkness of the earth, the Glory of God was enshrined in her darkness.

Advent is the season of the secret, the secret of the growth of Christ, of Divine Love growing in silence.

For nine months, Christ grew in his Mother’s body. By his own will she formed him from herself, from the simplicity of her daily life. She had nothing to give him but herself.

Working, eating, sleeping, she was forming his body from hers. His flesh and blood. From her humanity she gave him his humanity. All her experience of the world about her was gathered to Christ growing in her. She gave him his flesh and blood. She prepared the Host for the Mass.

This time of Advent is absolutely essential to our contemplation, too. If we have truly given our humanity to be changed into Christ, it is essential to us that we do not disturb this time of growth. It is a time of darkness, of faith. We shall not see Christ's radiance in our lives yet; it is still hidden in our darkness.

Nevertheless, we must believe that he is growing in our lives; we must believe it so firmly that we cannot help relating everything, literally everything, to this incredible reality. This attitude is is which makes every moment of every day and night a prayer.

When a woman is carrying a child she develops a certain instinct of self-defense. It is not selfishness; it is not egoism. It is an absorption into the life within, a folding of self like a little tent around the child's frailty, a God-like instinct to cherish, and some day to bring forth, the life. A closing upon it like petals of a flower closing upon the dew that shines in its heart.

This is precisely the attitude we must have toward Christ, the Life within us, in the Advent of our contemplation.
-- Caryll Houselander, The Reed of God

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving in the monastery


Sometimes people ask what we as monks do in the monastery to celebrate Thanksgiving. The short answer is that we give thanks to God each and every day in our prayer, work, and common life together as monks—particularly on Sundays and solemnities throughout the year and in our daily celebration of the Eucharist. Thanksgiving Day, on the other hand, is largely a secular holiday of national gratitude specifically set aside to give thanks for our bountiful gifts as Americans.

As Fr. Abbot reminded us recently, Christians are called to “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus” (1Thessalonians 5:17-18).

Having said all that, we do celebrate Thanksgiving in the monastery in a particular way. Yesterday—continuing a tradition of expressing gratitude the Wednesday evening before Thanksgiving—the monastic community gathered in the calefactory. Simple but delicious fare was enjoyed—homemade bread, various cheeses, nuts, wine, and desserts (including pear tarts). We socialized and listened to a short reflection by Fr. Abbot reflecting on the many things we have to be thankful for as monks of Saint Meinrad Archabbey. Later, a spirited game of charades was held.

Today, we are following a Sunday schedule (Vigils and Lauds begins at 7:15 a.m. rather than 5:30 a.m., which means we get to sleep in a bit—always something to be thankful for!), and spending the day like many families—eating some turkey, relaxing, and enjoying one another’s company. Some may even catch part of a football game on TV—or a nap. Some monks with relatives living nearby may go to spend part of the day with their families, and a few monks have family members that come here to visit. I will probably call my sister and her family in West Virginia, and speak to my mother on the phone. (I spent some time with my brother last weekend in Cincinnati during my oblate conference trip).

After midday prayer today, all the monks, guests, a handful of students and employees (most are home with their own families), and other visitors enjoyed a traditional Thanksgiving meal together. We had turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, green beans, corn bread muffins, cranberry sauce, and either pumpkin or apple/cranberry pie for dessert.

In keeping with the season, this past Sunday (though I was away), the monks and co-workers’ families celebrated together with a special Mass and dinner in honor of Saint Meinrad’s employees to show our appreciation for all the work that they do. In addition, one evening last week several members of the monastic community treated the lay co-workers who care for our elderly and infirm monks to pizza while several monks took care of things in the monastery infirmary.

So, while things are a bit different in the monastery for Thanksgiving then they would be if we were celebrating the holiday in a more “traditional” way with family members and friends, we do mark the occasion in our own way. Of course, that includes celebrating with food, but it also means celebrating the many spiritual gifts provided us, and praising God together in prayer--especially at the Eucharist (a word that is derived from the ancient Greek term for “thanksgiving”).

To be honest, the first couple of Thanksgivings in the monastery were very difficult for me, simply because the experience was so different than what I was accustomed to. But I have come to appreciate and enjoy the particular expression we give to the holiday, while also recognizing it more clearly in our daily lives as monks. True gratitude for undeserved gifts and grace (of which Christ’s loving sacrifice stands supreme) is expressed through joy—one of the 12 fruits of the inner work of the Holy Spirit. And that is what I have experienced here more than anything else—whether on Thanksgiving or any other day.

One example of our common expression of joy in gratitude are the stories and jokes that many monks love to tell. Some of the best can be heard during a few minutes of leisure over coffee after Mass on a day when we follow a Sunday schedule. This morning, quite a few hearty laughs were shared. Here is my favorite:

In the rush to get copies of the new Roman Missal out to churches before its implementation at the beginning of Advent this coming weekend, one publisher accidentally sent a large shipment of the missals to Cuba. Now, we have an international incident on our hands--the Cuban Roman Missal Crisis.
On the way to midday prayer, Fr. Benedict caught me in the hallway to offer this groaner (of which he has many):

Do you know how to eat leftover turkey? Gobble, gobble, gobble.
J
HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The paradox of grace

All things work for good
for those who love God.
Romans 8:28


On Thanksgiving Day (and hopefully, every day) we stop and give thanks to God for the many blessings we have received in our lives. But how often do we thank God for the trials, difficulties, and crosses that challenge us to grow spiritually as human beings and children of God? Even our faults and shortcomings are blessings in this respect. Through faith, we are strengthened in virtue by struggling against vice. Unforeseen limitations and unwanted diminishments offer us new ways of seeing, hoping, and loving.

This is the paradox of grace which waters the roots of our Christian faith. "Blessed are the poor in spirit," Jesus tells us, "for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:3). "Rejoice in the Lord always," St. Paul wrote from prison. "Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 4:7).

This peace is what is what every human heart desires and seeks. We look for it everywhere, but it is only truly found in the cross, because it is there that we meet God and echo the "good thief" crucified with Christ: "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom" (Luke 23:42). In other words, our trials, difficulties, and crosses teach us that we are completely dependent on God's loving mercy and grace.

Beginning 10 years ago, I experienced what seemed like an avalanche of misfortune, and it struck on physical, emotional, and spiritual levels with such force that it left me dazed and confused. But it was within that "low ebb" that I reached out to God in a way that was completely uncharacteristic for me. There was nowhere else to turn my gaze but up.

While I never want to go through something like that again and wouldn't wish such things on my worst enemy, there is no discounting the grace wrought from them. Conversion, sobriety, and discernment of a religious vocation are just a few of the many blessings that resulted. Another monk asked me a few years ago whether I regretted being an alcoholic (now almost nine years sober). "No," I said, "It's part of my story. Even that taught me things I probably wouldn't have learned otherwise." Blessings are not disguised. They simply come in an array of packages. All is grace.

Last weekend, while I was in Dayton, Ohio, for an oblate conference, oblate Pat O'Malley said during a group session of lectio divina that she was filled with indescribable peace prior to a serious medical procedure last year. Before the procedure, doctors told her it was quite likely she would not survive it. She did survive, but for those moments before the anesthetic was administered, grace overflowed. "I was ready, either way," she said. And the smile on her face as she recalled it demonstrated that she still is.

Below is the poem that our lectio group read and discussed. As you will see, it is bound tightly by the tension of paradox, but it is a wonderful tension that is ultimately freeing. Many thanks to Pat for sharing it, and all thanks and praise to God, through whom all things work for good. A Blessed Thanksgiving to all. May you each experience that "strange, settled peace which nothing can destroy."

O Thou whose bounty fills my cup,
with every blessing meet!
I give Thee thanks for every drop--
the bitter and the sweet.

I praise Thee for the desert road,
and for the riverside;
For all Thy goodness hath bestowed,
and all Thy grace denied.

I thank Thee for both smile and frown,
and for the gain and loss;
I praise Thee for the future crown
and for the present cross.

I thank Thee for both wings of love
which stirred my worldly nest;
And for the stormy clouds which drove
me, trembling, to Thy breast.

I bless Thee for the glad increase,
and for the waning joy;
And for this strange, this settled peace
which nothing can destroy.

Jane Crewdson

Do you see an old woman or a young one?
They're both there.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Hound of Cincinnati


Oblate conferences in Tell City, Indiana, and Dayton and Cincinnati in Ohio, have taken me on the road the last several days. I returned to the monastery late Sunday evening from Cincinnati tired but very grateful for the experience (the title of my conference, incidentally, was "Living in Gratitude: Reflecting on St. Benedict's Caution Against Grumbling").

The time away was pleasant, but it's always good to be home. As much as I enjoy visiting with our oblates, since I am an extreme introvert it's always nice to return to my routine and recharge. I have one more such outing soon -- the oblate chapter in Memphis, Tennessee -- but after that I will be attempting to direct the majority of my time and energy the next few months toward completing my thesis for my Master's in Theological Studies degree. Beyond that, I will continue my writing and editing work for Path of Life Publications at the Abbey Press, and will be taking up some additional coursework toward a graduate certificate in spiritual direction. Anyway, the occasional oblate conferences provide a break of sorts in the routine.

Saint Meinrad Archabbey is blessed with so many good and giving oblates throughout the country who have joined themselves to our prayer and work here as they strive to live according to the Rule of St. Benedict within their own communities and families. The conferences I delivered generated some very insightful and fruitful discussions, and the oblates are most hospitable (in tune with the Benedictine tradition). I certainly have not gone hungry the last several days!

The trip to Dayton and Cincinnati is one I also look forward to each year because it also means being able to spend some time with my brother Kevin in the Queen City. Joining the two of us for dinner Saturday evening was his girlfriend Wendy and her son Devin and daughter McKinsey (who introduced me to "Webkins" and wants some day to cook for me some green eggs and ham). Afterward, we visited Aglamesis Bros., another well-known ice cream place (besides Graeter's) in Cincinnati's Oakley Square. Established by Greek immigrants in 1908, Aglamesis Bros. is an old-fashioned ice cream parlor through-and-through--right down to the marble fountaintop. All homemade ice cream and candy -- an operation very similar to Dietsch Bros. in my hometown of Findlay, Ohio. The ice cream at Aglamesis (I had peppermint stick and chocolate) is very rich in flavor due to the high egg yolk content (placing it in the category of "French" ice cream).

If you have read this far, you may by now be asking yourself what all this has to do with the photo at the top of this post. This ferocious-looking beast (do you notice any resemblance to Chewbacca of Star Wars fame?) is Ebony, who belongs to Wendy, Devin, and McKinsey. She is really a sweet little dog--and I do mean little. She weighs all of three and a half pounds, and insists on being carried around like a football so she can see everything that's going on or simply soak in your body warmth while catching up on some napping. Her carrier is expected to go about his or her duties with only one arm available for anything else.

The picture below of Ebony and Kevin will offer some sense of proportion. Keep in mind, however, that Ebony has a LOT of hair, which makes her look bigger than she actually is. She could literally fit into my coat pocket (don't worry--we didn't leave her there for long!). A little hound with a big heart.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Christ the King, Good Shepherd

"I myself will look after and tend my sheep."
Ezekiel 34:11
 

 The Lord is my shepherd;
there is nothing I shall want.
Fresh and green are the pastures
where he gives me repose.
Near restful waters he leads me,
to revive my drooping spirit.

He guides me along the right path;
he is true to his name.
If I should walk in the valley of darkness
no evil would I fear.
You are there with your crook and your staff;
with these you give me comfort.

You have prepared a banquet for me
in the sight of my foes.
My head you have anointed with oil;
my cup is overflowing.

Surely goodness and kindness shall follow me
all the days of my life.
In the Lord's own house shall I dwell
for ever and ever.

Psalm 23

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Satisfaction


In this life no one can fulfill his longing, nor can any creature satisfy man's desire. Only God satisfies; he infinitely exceeds all other pleasures. That is why man can rest in nothing but God. As Augustine says, "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart can find no rest until it rests in you."

Eternal life consists of the joyous community of all the blessed, a community of supreme delight, since everyone will share all that is good with all the blessed. Everyone will love everyone else as himself, and therefore will rejoice in another's good as in his own. The happiness and joy of each grows in proportion to the joy of all.
-- St. Thomas Aquinas

Friday, November 18, 2011

God's love


God does not say, "I love you, if ..."

There are no "ifs" in God's heart. God's love for us does not depend on what we do or say, on our looks or intelligence, on our success or popularity. God's love for us existed before we were born and will exist after we have died. God's love is from eternity to eternity and is not bound to any time-related events or circumstances.

Does that mean that God does not care what we do or say? No, because God's love wouldn't be real if God didn't care. To love without condition does not mean to love without concern. God desires to enter into relationship with us and wants us to love God in return.

As you see more clearly that your vocation is to be a witness to God's love in the world, and as you become more determined to live out that vocation, the attacks of the enemy will increase. You will hear voices saying, "You are worthless, you have nothing to offer, you are unattractive, undesirable, unlovable." The more you sense God's call, the more you will discover in your own soul the cosmic battle between God and Satan.

Do not be afraid. Keep deepening your conviction that God's love for you is enough, that you are in safe hands, and that you are being guided every step of the way. Don't be surprised by the demonic attacks. They will increase, but as you face them without fear, you will discover that they are powerless.

When we keep listening attentively to the voice calling us the Beloved, it becomes possible to live our brokenness, not as a confirmation of our fear that we are worthless, but as an opportunity to purify and deepen the blessing that rests upon us. Great and heavy burdens become light and easy when they are lived in the light of the blessing.

"Do not be afraid," the Lord says to his disciples. "It is I. Fear is not of God. I am the God of love, a God who invites you to receive--to receive the gifts of joy and peace and gratitude of the poor, and to let go of your fears so that you can start sharing what you are so afraid to let go of."

The invitation of Christ is the invitation to move out of the house of fear and into the house of love. God says, "I love you with an everlasting love," and Jesus came to tell us that. The God who loves us is a God who becomes vulnerable, dependent in the manger and dependent on the cross, a God who basically is saying, "Are you there for me?"

God, you could say, is waiting for our answer.

-- Henri J.M. Nouwen

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Lost and found


Sunday, Nov. 20, 2011
Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ the King—A
Ezekiel 34:11-12, 15-17
1Corinthians 15:20-26, 28
Matthew 25:31-46
One thing that is striking about today’s readings is the emphasis on God’s initiative in seeking us. Those who are serious about the spiritual life are often in danger of straining to direct it, thereby missing the obvious. If you’ve ever conducted a frantic 15-minute search for your car keys, only to realize they’ve been in your pocket (or your hand!) all along, you know what I mean.

We must seek God, as today’s Gospel points out, but true seeking is not straining beyond our means. To seek means standing still long enough to recognize what is right in front of us. In the spiritual life, this means recognizing the presence of Christ in THIS moment, THIS person, THIS circumstance immediately before us. It means accepting God’s message as it is presented to us so that we may do all for the sake of Christ, and “God may be all in all,” as St. Paul says.

The point is that we really don’t need to seek God so much as allow ourselves to be found by him. It is God who takes the initiative, as today’s first reading points out: “I myself will look after and tend my sheep … The lost I will seek out,” says the Lord. No matter where we are or who we are, God comes among us to gather us to himself.

It is interesting to note the adjectives used to describe the sheep in the reading from Ezekiel. They are:

Scattered

Lost

Strayed

Injured

Sick

In one way or another, these words describe us all. But Christ the King and Good Shepherd comes to meet us (sometimes even as a sheep in wolf’s clothing!) in our scattered, lost, strayed, injured, and sick existence. He becomes one with us in our humanity to lead us into the Eternal Kingdom and adorn us with the sparkling divinity befitting children of God. We don’t attain heaven. It attains us—if we let it.

As we prepare to embark on the season of Advent and recall the glorious mystery of the Incarnation—God’s supreme initiative in seeking out his lost sheep—we look to the King who comes not to rule and govern, but to love and guide us along the right way. As Pope Benedict XVI remarks:
“By calling ourselves Christians, we label ourselves as followers of the King. God did not intend Israel to have a kingdom. The kingdom was a result of Israel’s rebellion against God. The law was to be Israel’s king, and through the law, God himself. God yielded to Israel’s obstinacy and so devised a new kind of kingship for them. The King is Jesus; in him God entered humanity and espoused it to himself. God does not have a fixed plan that he must carry out; on the contrary, he has many different ways of finding man and even of turning his wrong ways into right ways. The feast of Christ the King is therefore not a feast of those who are subjugated, but a feast of those who know that they are in the hands of the one who writes straight on crooked lines.”

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Wheat and weeds

X
"Dismiss all anger and look into yourself a little. Remember that the ones of whom you speak are your brothers and sisters, and are on the way of salvation; God can make them a saint, in spite of their present weakness."

-- St. Thomas of Villanova

Sunday, November 13, 2011

A wise investment


Sunday, Nov. 13, 2011
33rd  Sunday in Ordinary Time—A
Proverbs 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31
1Thessalonians 5:1-6
Matthew 25:14-30
The Mass readings, particularly the Gospels, these last few weeks have been reminding us of the Christian’s need for vigilance. We must properly dispose and prepare ourselves for the second coming of Christ. We both wait and work for the Kingdom of God. Through his Holy Spirit, and with the aid of Scripture, the sacraments, the tradition of the Church and all those within it, God is among us. “The Kingdom of God is among you,” Jesus tells us (Luke 17:21).
This is a particularly important point to consider as we approach the beginning of Advent and then the Christmas season, when we celebrate the first coming of Christ. In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples a parable about a man going on a journey (clearly referring to himself after his Death, Resurrection, and Ascension) who entrusts his wealth to his servants (referring to his disciples, then and now). This is remarkable. Through no merit of their own, these servants are entrusted with their master’s possessions. He gives it to them freely to do as they please until he returns.
Each of them receives a different amount—according to his ability, as the text says—but in every case it is no small portion, even for the third servant receiving the least. Just one talent in the time of Jesus was a HUGE amount of money. An absurd amount, actually. Today, it would be like an extremely wealthy individual giving one person $5 billion, another $2 billion, and the third $1 billion. So, the last, while receiving less, still receives an incredible amount of money.
However, the parable is not about money, nor is it referring merely to the special individual talents and material possessions we have. Also at stake, and even more important, are the many spiritual gifts bestowed upon us—each according to his or her ability. Some are given great humility; others are granted great spiritual wisdom or knowledge, while still others may display remarkable fortitude or charity in serving others.
The list is endless. By the grace of God, even the “poorest” among us is incredibly rich in some way. As the beginning of the Gospel of John says, from the fullness of Christ we all receive “grace upon grace” (1:16).
Why all these different gifts? Why do some seem to receive more of one and less of another? Why do we not each receive everything we could possibly need—the five talents, or $5 billion, as it were?
The answer is a wonderful mystery to contemplate: the distribution is unequal so that we each receive what we need from others. God wills us to need one another! No one sins or is saved by his or her self. We must each share in some way the grace we have been given. We must invest it in one another to bear fruit for the building of the Kingdom of God, just as the servant with five talents did, and the one with two. Each took what he had been freely given and traded with others to grow even richer—making others richer in the process (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, Nos. 1936-1937). As the Lord told St. Catherine of Siena in a vision, “I have willed that one should need another and that all should be my ministers in distributing the graces and gifts they have received from me.”
Those who do so “share their master’s joy,” both now and most fully in the Eternal Kingdom. Grace must be invested, not conserved. We not only wait for the Kingdom of God, but as the Body of Christ participate now in its building. The Christian life is one of participation in the gifts of the Holy Spirit that Christ has breathed into us through Scripture, the sacraments, the tradition of the Church and all those within it. We are called to share our master’s joy to make one another rich in the things of God. As Jesus says in the Gospel of John, “The one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12).
Stop and re-read that last sentence again. We are called to do GREATER works than Jesus accomplished during his time on earth!!! That is amazing!
But we don’t do them alone. We do them through the grace entrusted to us by Christ and shared with one another. “I am the vine, you are the branches,” Jesus says. “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
God is absurdly lavish with us. He entrusts the wealth of his Kingdom to us. He allows us to work with him in building it up. The first two servants in today’s parable, though receiving different amounts, participate equally in the building of the Kingdom because they invested what had been gratuitously given to them.
The third servant, however, did not merely neglect to do this. He refused to help, to invest the enormous talent entrusted to him. Even worse, when it came time to settle accounts upon the master’s return, he blames it all on the master, contemptuously claiming that he had been paralyzed by fear, and offering back only what he had been given. The punishment was not unjust. He had chosen it; he had refused to share in his master’s joy, deciding to selfishly hold on to what had been given him rather than allowing others to benefit as the others had done with their investment in the Kingdom.
The third servant hoped for the future Kingdom without participating in its present manifestation. How could he then share in what he had not helped to build?
We must ask ourselves the same question. The most successful corporations, sports teams, and other organizations in our secular world know that building a rich future means investing in the present. It’s the only wise investment to make in sacred matters as well. The third servant bet on the future by forfeiting the present, and lost it all as a result.
In his generosity, God has entrusted the Kingdom to us. The grace we have been given is not ours to keep, but to share so that it may bear fruit for others. So, we must ask ourselves each day: How am I investing the spiritual wealth entrusted to me for the future of the Body of Christ? How am I being faithful in small matters so that I may share in God’s tremendous joy? Who today needs the grace which has been granted to me, and whose grace may I likewise benefit from?


Saturday, November 12, 2011

Stillness in prayer

Pray always without becoming weary.
Luke 18:1

From the film "Into Great Silence."

In today's Gospel (Luke 18:1-8), Jesus speaks of the necessity to persevere in prayer. We are called, to borrow a phrase from today's first reading at Mass (Wisdom 18:14-16; 19:6-9), to enter into the peaceful stillness that compasses everything.

Easy enough, right?

The truth of the matter is that prayer can be difficult and tiresome--for the first disciples of Christ and for monks as well as any Christian today. But stillness IS possible. God doesn't call to us to the impossible. And if anything, the monastic charism (from the early Desert Fathers to our modern age with the influence of such monks as Thomas Merton) is designed to be a reminder of this for all Christians--which includes all those consecrated to the monastic way of life. Monks have difficulty with inner stillness as well.

There is a striking scene of serenity in Philip Gröning’s 2005 documentary Into Great Silence in which a Carthusian monk of Grande Chartreuse repairs a shoe in his cell. Silently, slowly, attentively, and deliberately, the monk repeatedly applies adhesive to the shoe, waits for it to set, gives it several firm taps, and examines his progress. Occasionally, he pauses and peers out the window of his cell. He doesn’t appear rushed or distracted. He seems to be completely absorbed in his work and fully present to the moment at hand. Yet, by fully entering that moment, he seems somehow to have transcended time. He is not simply completing a task. He is at prayer. He is at peace with God Eternal.

I was captivated by this scene, and have often recalled it. Why has this monk’s simple, mundane task of repairing a shoe made such an impression on me—so much so that it still comes to mind years after having seen the film? Perhaps the reason is that it exemplifies inner stillness—an essential aspect of the monastic charism to which I strive in my own vocation. Indeed, this is also a call for all Christians.

As a monk, I long to continually seek God, to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17), to work with holy recollection, to live a cenobitic life without distraction or divided heart. I desire to grow in virtue and love, fully confident in our Incarnate God’s presence, providence, and protection, and to remain fixed on the One Thing Necessary (cf. Lk 10:42). I want to “fix a shoe” like the monk in the film, and be at peace with God Eternal.

However, more often than not, I fail. There is little or no inner stillness. While working on one task, my mind may be on five others yet to be started, or five more still to be finished. While praying, my heart finds a way to head off in several different directions rather than remaining united with my voice and in harmony with that of my brothers. A thousand cares, anxieties, and concerns assault me. Real or imagined conversations or circumstances stir up emotions. Yesterday or tomorrow are always present, so today never happens. The rest that Christ promises (cf. Mt 11:28-30) seems beyond reach.

More tortuous than all else is the human heart.’
Jeremiah  17:9

Is inner stillness obtainable? Is it an illusion? If so, why does God so adamantly and consistently promise it (cf. Ex 14:14; Isaiah 30:15; Mk 4:39-40)? If I believe in God, which I do, then the only conclusion to be reached is that my perception of inner stillness is lacking. After all, I could not read the mind of the monk repairing the shoe. He exuded calm, focus, and peace, but his mind could have been at war.

This is precisely the point, it seems, as attested by a review of how key monastic figures at both ends of the chronological spectrum have described the value of inner stillness, its objectives, and its obstacles. Both the Desert Fathers of antiquity, on one end, and Thomas Merton, on the other, make it clear that inner stillness does not mean avoiding assaults on this essential aspect of the monastic charism, but rather overcoming them. Inner stillness is the weapon, not merely the victory.

Stillness, says Stelios Ramfos in his book Like a Pelican, “is both an exterior condition and an interior state.” It goes beyond physical withdrawal and silence, which are merely initial steps in focusing the mind and drawing it away from sensible objects and distractions. “As an interior state, stillness is the confining of the mind within the cell of the body—the cell of the self,” he says.

The cell of the self—the human heart—is where the battle for true stillness is waged. And it is a battle, one that can only be won, paradoxically, by surrendering—not to the assailants, but to the saving grace of God who sustains all things. The Desert Fathers were insistent on this:

Antony said, ‘He who sits alone and is quiet has escaped from three wars: hearing, speaking, seeing. But there is one thing against which he must continually fight: that is, his own heart.’
***
Abba Agathon said, ‘There is no greater labor greater than that of prayer to God. For every time a man wants to pray, his enemies, the demons, want to prevent him, for they know that it is only by turning him from prayer that they can hinder the journey … Prayer is warfare to the last breath.’

Fifteen centuries later, Merton speaks in more ethereal terms, but the point is the same. The monk’s vocation, he says, is a battle to be still and in the dark, to experience within himself humanity’s “existential dread” so that God’s mercy becomes known to all:

The monk confronts his own humanity and that of his world at the deepest and most central point where the void seems to open out into black despair. … The monk faces the worst, and discovers in it the hope of the best. From the darkness comes light. From death, life. From the abyss there comes, unaccountably, the mysterious gift of the Spirit sent by God to make all things new, to transform the created and redeemed world, and to re-establish all things in Christ. This is the creative and healing work of the monk, accomplished in silence, in nakedness of spirit, in emptiness, in humility. It is a participation in the saving death and resurrection of Christ (Contemplative Prayer).
***
We should let ourselves be brought naked and defenseless into the center of that dread where we stand alone before God in our nothingness, without explanation, without theories, completely dependent upon his providential care, in dire need of the gift of this grace, his mercy, and the light of faith.

Go to your inner room, close the door,
 and pray to your Father in secret.
Matthew 6:6

In light of the above passages, it becomes clear that the inner stillness championed by both the Desert Fathers and Thomas Merton is a special vocation, a particular Christian witness in which the monk (or any Christian) alone with God embraces all of God’s creation. “The monastic life above all is a life of prayer,” Merton says (Contemplative Prayer). “We cannot live for others until we have entered this solitude. If we try to live for them without first living entirely for God, we risk plunging with them all into the abyss” (No Man Is an Island).

The ‘inner room’ of solitude to which Christ beckons us is not one that ignores or shuts out the distractions and contradictions of life. Rather, it is a room full of grace that prevents our desires and attachments to those very things from entering and diverting our attention from the splendor of the Holy Trinity. The monk (or Christian) is called to become the “eye of the storm” so that the world may see the light and hope emerging from within to rebuke the winds of destruction with, “Quiet! Be still!” (Mk 4:39)

Sayings attributed to Evagrius Ponticus confirm this objective. Distractions are not the issue; desires are. The one who is tempted by distraction can remain still and fix his gaze on the God of Love. The one who desires to follow the distraction gives up stillness to becomes restless, agitated, unfocused, disordered, and disconnected from the Love of God:

The state of prayer can be aptly described as a habitual state of imperturbable calm. It snatches to the heights of intelligible reality the spirit which loves wisdom and which is truly spiritualized by the most intense love. (Chapters on Prayer, emphasis added)
***
Evagrius said, ‘Cut the desire for many things out of your heart and so prevent your mind from being dispersed and your stillness lost’ (The Desert Fathers, emphasis added).

Similarly, Merton writes that “recollection does not deny sensible things; it sets them in order.” It is a state of sacred and interior mindfulness fixed on God first, and then everything else in its place. The monk from Into Great Silence had a shoe that needed to be repaired. Certainly, such a thing can be one distraction among many. However, instead of leading him away from interior stillness, the shoe became one instrument among many, keeping him at peace within his inner room. As Merton says:

Recollection should not be seen as an absence, but as a presence. It makes us, first of all, present to ourselves. It makes us present to whatever reality is most significant in the moment of time in which we are living. And it makes us present to God, present to ourselves in him, present to everything else in him. Above all, it brings his presence to us. … The cares and preoccupations of life draw us away from ourselves. As long as we give ourselves to these things, our minds are not at home. They are drawn out of their own reality into the illusion to which they tend. … The present is our right place, and we can lay hands on whatever it offers us. Recollection is the only thing that can give us the power to do so (No Man Is an Island).

Cast all your worries upon him because he cares for you.’
1 Peter 5:7

Of course, recollection can often dissipate, and desire creeps under the door of the monk’s inner room to lead him out, and it can all begin quite subtly. One instant I may be concentrating on psalmody in choir. The next, I’m connecting a phrase in a Psalm to a project I’m working on, thinking perhaps I can apply it somehow. Then, other projects and their various difficulties and deadlines come to mind. … Oh, there’s someone I need to remember to email tomorrow. … The monk next to me is fidgeting. … He can be rude sometimes. … I remember when he said this or that. … He had absolutely no right …  Suddenly I am a long way from my inner room. I’m not even in the same neighborhood.

A passage from John Cassian’s Ninth Conference on Prayer aptly illustrates how even seemingly good desires can dissipate the monk’s inward stillness. Quoting Abba Isaac, he tells the story of a desert elder who notices a brother “restlessly constructing and repairing unnecessary things and exerting himself in mundane distractions” The elder sees a demon standing by him and, their hands joined together, striking a rock with a sledgehammer. Disturbed by the demon’s cruel mockery, he addresses the brother, saying:

‘ … you were not alone when you were striking the rock, but there was another with you whom you did not see. He stood by you during this work, not so much to help you as to press you on with all his force.’ Therefore, we must reject with unwavering strictness of mind those things which cater to our power and which have the appearance of a kind of goodness … [and] long for God, upon whom are attention should ever be fixed. When the mind has been established in tranquility and has been freed from these bonds, and the heart’s attention is unwaveringly fastened upon the one and highest good, it will fulfill the apostolic words: ‘Pray without ceasing.’ … When the thoughts of the mind have been seized by this purity and have been refashioned from earthly dullness to the likeness of the spiritual and the angelic, whatever they take in, whatever they reflect upon, and whatever they do, will be most pure and sincere prayer.

Such a danger still exists for the monk today. As Merton notes (incidentally, the last address he gave to novices at the Abbey of Gethsemani as master of novices in 1965):

We are devoured by care—care about our job, care about our life of prayer, care about how we are getting on, care about what other people are doing, care about this, care about that—we’re devoured with it. And then the thoughts, fears, reflections, regrets, and anxieties, this constant business. These are things we are caring about, and what we are here for is to get rid of that. And of course you get rid of it by going through it… This is what the solitary life means. It is a life in which you no longer care about anything, because God is taking care of everything … This is what love is. Let us face the fact for once that what we are here for is love. And what is love? When you love another person, you forget yourself and think about the other person. You are not concerned with yourself (A Life Free from Care).

These cares not only dissipate stillness but also erode the purity of heart for which a monk strives. The impure heart, Merton notes, is filled with “fears, anxieties, conflicts, doubts, ambivalences, hesitations, self-contradictions, hatreds, jealousies, compulsive needs and passionate attachments.” However, the primary defilement is man’s illusion that “he is a god and the universe is centered on him” (The Silent Life).

Be still and confess that I am God.
Psalm 46:11

While there will be defeats in the battle for inner stillness, the victory is Christ’s, who conquers all to unite all (cf. Romans 8:35-39). The best and most simple way to share in this victory is to pray for the inner stillness that leads to purity of heart, inner unity, and universal harmony. God the Father of all will not refuse to give us what we need.

Let the battle rage on. Surrender only to Christ, and pay no attention to the rest. Remain focused on the One Thing Necessary. The battle plan is deceptively simple and absolutely fool-proof. It was true for the ancient Israelites, the disciples of Christ, the early Church, the monks in the desert, and remains true for the modern contemplative:

“Be still and confess that I AM God!” (Psalm 46:11)