Christian Life/Personal Holiness: September 2006 Archives

On the Virtues of Monotasking

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It has become a commonplace in busy lives and in the business place that multitasking is a positive good. The ability to juggle the phone, the computer, a conversation at your desk and preparing for the next meeting is no longer something merely admirable. It is often required to get a job.

But there are daily reminders of the danger of multitasking. There are repeated warnings that conversing on cell phones while driving is becoming a cause of accidents that exceeds intoxication as a cause. Burnt dinners, iron-seared clothing, even missing children can all be attributed to the plague of multitasking that afflicts American society.

There is another ill, far more serious than most of those listed above, that stems from multitasking--wan and sere prayer lives, etiolated communication with the source of love and light.

Prayer demands presence, complete presence. It is very easy, too often, to pray while eating breakfast or while send the children off to school. Now, these events do require prayer, as do all things; however, if this is the only prayer time one has, one's communications with God will be necessarily foreshortened, straightened, and indistinct.

How many of us take the time to, in the words of this mornings petitions, "With single-minded devotion we dedicate the beginnings of this day to honor of your resurrection?" Single-minded devotion? Is it even possible in this day and age to be single minded? I don't refer here to the distraction that come when one sets oneself aside for prayer--they will come and there is, in the course of prayer, much to help the pray-er move on. I refer more to those who "don't have time for prayer." Or for whom prayer is a secondary , hasty background consideration. It is easy enough to console oneself with the thought that "work is prayer," and properly done, that is true. However, prayer is also prayer, and the old adage is often an excuse for not making the time to pursue intimate prayer.

Perhaps you have had the experience of being invited out by a friend or a cherished family member only to have the cell-phone ring (sometimes many times) and call away your friend. The experience is frustrating and painful. Your conversation is fragmentary and goes in leaps and bounds from one subject to another as truncated by the cell-phone calls. And even though the friend apologizes each time he or she answers, there's something a little insincere in it--no one really needs to be so connected that they are in reality disconnected from all. This is the model for many lives of prayer. We sit down to the luncheon table and start to talk. The cell-phone rings rather than glancing at the number and noting it for a return call, we pick up the phone and start talking. Sometimes we never return to the One whom we've invited to dine with us. Sometimes we come back after a while, forgetting where we were and what we were doing.

Prayer throughout the work of the day is a good thing--that isn't what I refer to. What I refer to is the fact that we "have no time for prayer." When we sit down to pray, we immediately rise to some other task that could easily wait twenty minutes. Prayer has no priority in our busy-busy lives.

And intimate prayer requires monotasking. Anything else is like making love while watching Jay Leno--hardly flattering to either one's partner or to Jay. Prayer is the intimate intrusion that we must allow to grow in God's love and to become like Christ. It requires everything we are to be focused for a while on God. And there should be sufficient time to really talk to God and hear what He has to say to us. To begin with 20-30 minutes. As time goes on, greater amounts of time.

I haven't done it yet, but I've considered asking any person who tells me that there isn't time for this kind of prayer in their lives, "How much television do you watch? How much time do you spend knitting, crocheting, reading books, playing sports, playing cards, drinking beer (outside of dinner), gardening, . . ?" You get the point. There is always time for prayer if it is a priority. There never will be time so long as it is a secondary consideration.

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A Taste of Heaven


from Hammer and Fire
Fr. Raphael Simon, OCSO

As human beings we are a composite of body and soul. Our heats will be captivated by the sweetness of the society of Jesus and Mary, our eyes by the loveliness of their countenances, our ears by their voices. In their company we will be at home at last.

There will be the joy of the companionship of the saints, including relatives, friends, and intercessors.

No one will be lost in this multitude, no one unknown, no one neglected. Each will be, as it were, the center of attraction of all, of all-embracing love and amiable companionship, without trace of discord.

In heaven's ballroom there are no wallflowers,
no last-chosen left standing
for long hours
as the teams are formed.

In heaven's throne room, every child is
an only child with the full
attention of every person in the room.

God loves each as though
each one were His only child.

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Spiritual Reading--The Hammer


I picked up Fr. Raphael Simon's Hammer and Fire again last night and it hit me right between the eyes--this is one of those books that it would be easier to blank out what you would prefer not to read again rather than to highlight and comment on all the good points that are being made.

from Hammer and Fire
Fr. Raphael Simon O.C.S.O.

All are invited to union with God. This invitation is applied to the individual whenever he or she reads of hears it, or feels within the attraction of Holy Spirit. Day laborer, machinist, unlettered and learned, children, the aged, single and married persons are all called to holiness. The Father created the universe and keeps it in existence for this purpose, that all may have the opportunity to be united to Himself.

The entire Universe as personal invitation to enjoy the companionship of God. The stars in their courses, the waters in the ocean, and all the created myriad of living things praise Him in their being and call to Him from where they are. More, they call us to Him, constant reminders of His benevolence and kindness, His mercy and grace.

A little later:

from "Hammer: Reading the Scripture"

Half the battle of life--the spiritual life--consists in persevering in spiritual reading. We are constantly subjected to impressions from the world through what we see, hear and read. We are continuously influenced too by our temperament and imagination, which tend to make our thoughts subjective and misleading. We need daily contact with a source of divine truth, and this we have through spiritual reading. Through it we enter into an atmosphere of truth and reality in which the proper perspective on values is maintained and this affects our judgments, desires, decisions, and conduct.

Without spiritual reading, prayer becomes empty and unfruitful, for spiritual reading supplies matter for our prayer. It reawakens memories and recollections, deepens true impressions, corrects errors, and extends our vision. While we continue to do daily spiritual reading, the relish for it increase; but when we let it drop out of our daily life it becomes distasteful, and only be repeated efforts do we recover its enjoyment.

The hammer, then, is spiritual reading. And the reading of spiritual books is a matter not too many are versed in. Most, it seems, attempt spiritual reading in the same way they read a novel or a biography--to get to the point. What does this author have to say to me that I can take away and make a better life? Come on, get to the point.

But often the point of spiritual reading is not to get to the point. That is, spiritual reading, properly conducted teaches patience and rewards consistency in small amounts. While it is laudable to "read the Bible in a year" every year, it is not necessarily salutary. It isn't as though this exercise is a kind of spiritual aerobics that makes us fitter for battle on the spiritual plane. Reading the Bible in a year helps us only inasmuch as we internalize what the Bible has to say. Therefore the wisdom of the church that sets up a three-year Sunday lectionary just to get us through the Gospels.

In spiritual reading, it is not quantity so much as it is quality. I am not a daily devotional person--I've discovered that because even the very best of daily devotionals leaves me rather cold and disconnected. However, a book, read daily, that has a different kind of continuity, helps immeasurably. Taking up The Ascent of Mount Carmel or The Dark Night of the Soul and reading it one paragraph at a time gives me much to reflect on and, God willing, eventually to pray about.

I can read the entire Gospel of Mark in about an hour. However, how much better to spend that hour with a single verse if it should speak to me.

Spiritual reading takes time--usually a lot of time. Consider reading St. Thomas Aquinas as spiritual reading. Say one took the Summa as one's text. It would seem to me that one would not finish even one article in a session. Properly conducted and properly focused and considering the Summa as a prayer text, you might actually read through the question itself and think through the implications of it and reflect on what scripture has to say about it. In an hour you would only begin to pierce the shell of the question.

Now, the Summa may not be everyone's cup of tea, nor might it be the best text for many for reflection and spiritual reading--but it is a text for some, and that is the second aspect of spiritual reading--each person must choose to listen to God as God has seen fit to speak to that person. So for some the Summa would not make good fodder for prayer. Personally, I find many non-Catholic sources rich material for reflection. I feel particularly drawn to certain Quaker and Shaker writers. George Fox, William Penn, and John Woolman have stocked my spiritual reading for years, as have countless Catholic writers--the Carmeliets, Merton, Day, de Mello, St. Catherine of Siena, Julian of Norwich, Richard Rolle, Walter HIlton, The Cloud of Unknowing, The Imitation of Christ, and so on. But in the past I have made the mistake I charge many with. I've read these books as though I needed to get to some point in them, that with swift reading I would find the point and move on. Such reading is a grave mistake in the conduct of spiritual reading.

And this is one reason why it is a discipline any literate person can conduct, no matter how unappealing he or she may find reading. You don't have to read much and reading isn't really the point. The faculties used in reading are employed, but the point is one must also engage the faculties more commonly used in listening. The reading should be conducted in much the same way as the reading from Mass--one should hear, deep down inside, all that is said in the course of the reading. The reading then is a conversation with an author and ultimately and conversation past the author to the Author of all. That is, the good spiritual writer, following the example of the Blessed Mother, directs our attention to God, Father, Son, and Spirit. He does not occupy us with himself, but rather conducts us and introduces us to the Lord of All in such a way as we can begin to speak without uncomfortable pauses and uncertainties. This takes time and a willingness to read as though listening. We must hear what is being said and talk to God about what we hear.

(Note: The book is available through Zaccheus Press, and if it follows true to form, it may be distributed by Ignatius Press as well. Beautiful, well made, and nicely put together--the book will reward careful reading. It would seem to be the kind of book that would make, for a certain kind of person, a very rewarding spiritual reading experience.

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Saying the Same Thing

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Now that this morning's concerns have been expressed in a way that allows me some reprieve, let me restate them in a way that is more universal, more, if you will, Catholic.

Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. (KJV-Phil 4:8)

If what we are thinking about does not reflect things, then it is time spent in purgatory. It is so terribly easy to find fault with anything or anyone and so very difficult to articulate praise. But the better part is to look upon those things worthy of praise while working hard to correct those things that we would otherwise complain about. This is the Martha-and-Mary principle. Mary's better part always informs Martha's better work. As people living in the real world, in the secular world, in the world outside the cloister, our meditations upon worthy things prepare us for action bringing those real things to the people around us. Contemplation isn't an end in itself, or at least not entirely, for contemplation in the world must lead to works that change the world. As James would note, "Faith without works is dead." Prayer without works is equally dead. But works without faith are useless and futile--building a house upon sand. The two walk hand-in-hand supporting and informing one another.

So, rather than posting my complaints, as I did this morning, I should rather choose to post those things that will build up the body of Christ and allow all to see what a beautiful, loving, kind, and merciful God and Father we have who gave us so great a Savior as our guide and friend.

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Stealing Joy

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There are some, probably all unaware of it, who spend their time being Satan's Willing Executioners. They steal joy.

Some of the joy stealers are undoubtedly aware of it, but because their own lives are too small and too unhappy, they only feel camaraderie only in the misery they can spread. These are very, very few in number.

More often than not, those who would steal joy do so out of very good motives. They want to improve things for everyone, they want to return reverence to the Mass, they want things to be like they were when everyone was pious, reverent, silent (and every bit as involved or uninvolved as they are today).

The people I refer to are those who tell us everything that is wrong with the present Mass. Those who write treatises about why this, that, or the other hymn is inappropriate. Why the only good ways are the old ways.

After reading enough of this I go to Mass with a mass of interior griping. I open my hymnal and see the name of Michael Joncas and nearly slam it shut--now there's charity for you. I have echoing in my head all the critiques of "I Am the Bread of Life." In short, I am paying attention to everything except the most important thing. I have Martha'ed away the Mass in a toil of concerns that really do not affect the central action of the Mass. If I sing "I Am the Bread of Life," I am not undoing what the Priest has done. Nor, contrary to some, am I claiming to be Jesus himself. I read one critique that made the nonsensical claim that never before the twentieth century did we sing or pray in the person of God, all song were written "from the outside" as it were. And then I turn to Psalm 95, which I recite every morning:

"Do not grow stubborn in the wilderness
as your Fathers did at Meribah and Massah
although they had seen all of my works.

Forty years I endured that generation,
I said, "They are a people whose hearts go astray
and they do not know my ways,"
So I swore in my anger, they shall not enter my rest."

Seems like we pray in the person of God as we recite this, and yet I haven't seen generations of confused monks convinced that they are God.

This is not to say that everything is perfect, nor to say that every selection chosen for Mass is always the most appropriate. It is to say that if one finds it necessary to make a complaint, it should be to the Priest or the liturgy committee and one's discontentment should be kept for oneself--a vintage not to be shared with all. We all have enough gripes about the way things go in our parishes. Last weekend, I thought I'd become apoplectic at a "liturgical motion" that consisted for a pair of barefoot young ladies in red carrying pots of incense through the congregation. (Our parish is Holy Cross, so we deferred the celebration to the weekend at which time we had a big blowout.). And then, I realized that I wasn't there to critique what was going on. That this motion did not detract from the Mass, and for some it might even have acted as a moment of beauty to bring them in to the main course. Apoplexy was conditioned by what I had read and participated in with various Catholic Blogs. It was time to divorce myself from the griping, complaining, and communal unhappiness that typified some sectors of the community. And so, I could happily sing along with "Our God is an Awesome God," well aware that a great many would frown upon it and wonder what place it had in the Holy Sacrifice of Mass. But if they choose to steal their own joy with such ruminations, it is none of my business. It only becomes my business when they make it their business to steal the joy of others.

Less griping, more working with the liturgy committee, with the Priest to effect the changes you would like to see in the Parish. And then sit for a while in the seat of those who receive the complaints, because every change made provokes complaints from one group or another.

Frankly, I don't understand how our good and great Priests endure the panoply of nonsense and complaint that they must be subject to from all of their parishioners-- different ones at different times. Indeed, they have a special grace and a leg up on the way to heaven simply sitting in the seat of authority and hearing all that they must hear.

If you are one--stop stealing joy. Register your complaint, let the liturgy committee know how you'd like to see things change. My guess about the likelihood of change involves an accumulation of solid state atmospheric precipitation and a very warm environment; nevertheless, that is the appropriate venue for discussion of the matters. In a sense, it is their job to receive and assimilate feedback. But it is not the job of the congregation at large, nor any particular member of it outside of those concerned with the planning of liturgy--and it is a form of detraction that can lead many astray--it cultivates unseemly anger and derails concentration on what is truly important.

Or, more likely, I'm simply exposing my own weakness. In which case, so be it.

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Silence and Presence


In silence is encompassed presence.

Jennifer Egan has this to say:

from The Keep
Jennifer Egan

Howard: You hear those sounds? Insects, birds, but not even that. Something behind them, you hear it? It's--what? A hum, almost. But not quite. . . .

Danny listened and hear nothing, but it was a different kind of nothing than he was used to. Most quiet was like a pause, a blank spot in the usual noise, but this was thick, like you only hear in New York right after a snowstorm. Even quieter than that.

Howard: I don't want to lose that. I want this place to be about that. Not just some resort. . . .

Danny: You want the hotel to be about silence? . . .

So it'll be like a . . . retreat? Where people come and do yoga or whatever? . . .

Howard: Think about medieval times, Danny, like when this castle was built. People were constantly seeing ghosts, having visions--they thought Christ was sitting with them at the dinner table, they though angels and devils were flying around. We don't see those things anymore. Why? Was all that stuff happening before and then it stopped? Unlikely. Was everyone nuts in medieval times? Doubtful. But their imaginations were more active. Their inner lives were rich and weird.

This sparked a thought. Perhaps Angels do not visit because most people do not make a place for them to visit. Most people move from one event to the next--lives filled with endless clamor--present noise and noise of the future, interior voices shouting the schedules of where one has to be and when. Noise that isn't even perceptible until it dims. And then, in that dome of quiet there is an uneasiness--things to do, people to see, events to plan, future shadows to contend with--there is no time for the present--it is crowded out on both sides by the past and the future. The present is so slender, so tenuous, so subdued itself that it becomes a nothing in the face of the overwhelming tide of what has been and what might never be. These tsunamis crowd out all present thought--they swarm through lives and wash away whatever might be of substance.

And this is the reason that silence is so filled with fear for many. In silence one must face the present, the second hand that ticks along, one tick at a time, one slow stroke that vanishes and becomes the past. Silence encourages presence--both being and being in the present and it is only in the present, the eternal present that salvation is wrought and that Jesus is accessible to us. The Historic Jesus is manufactured for the comfort of speculators and ersatz historians; the Apocalyptic Jesus will be seen when He is present in the linear flow of time. But for us, now, here, at this moment, Jesus is present. He is present when the torrent of sound and event that is used to block him out is dimmed for a moment, when minds are released from the flood of cares to look clearly for a single moment--the eternal benediction of the Present in His Presence.

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A Certain Sadness

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Today we took Samuel to Tampa to the Florida Aquarium because they were having a home-school family day. It was, overall, a wonderful trip. But in the course of it I was overcome with a certain sadness that has affected me from time to time. I looked around me and saw families of two, three, four, five, six, seven, or more children and I wondered why it was that Linda and I could not have been so graced.

Don't get me wrong, I am deeply grateful for the one child we were able to grab onto and keep. God certainly blessed us beyond blessing with Samuel. And had we had our own children, I don't know if we would have been as open to adopting as we had been--and so in a sense, this was a fulfillment of our particular vocation.

But, like Tevye, I find myself asking, "Would it have foiled some grand eternal plan, if I'd been a larger family man?"

God bless all of you who have been given so many to cherish. Cherish them a little for me and count your blessings, even as I count mine. God is good in all that He does, and perhaps my own desire is thwarted to good purpose. Whatever it may be it is want, not need, and following my own advice, I need to know the difference.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Christian Life/Personal Holiness category from September 2006.

Christian Life/Personal Holiness: August 2006 is the previous archive.

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