Christian Life/Personal Holiness: October 2006 Archives

Prayer: The Beginner's Trials


Those interested in deepening their prayer life might benefit from picking up Hammer and Fire by Fr. Raphael Simon. In addition to the normal tips and hints one might receive in the course of reading about prayer, there is a depth of understanding about the various trials and tribulations of the person beginning to walk in the way of deeper prayer:

from Hammer and Fire
Father Raphael Simon, O.C.S.O., M.D.

Trials are to be expected by anyone who undertakes seriously to make a half-hour of mental prayer, or two periods of prayer, daily, particularly the trials of distraction and discouragement. The human mind has a capacity to wander without realizing that it is off the point. Thus during mental prayer it may happen that we have spent several minutes thinking about some happening of the previous day or even counting the panes of glass in the church where we are making our meditation, before we realize that we are off on a distraction. As in the cases of temptations to impurity and for the same reason, responsibility only begins when we realize with what our mind is occupied, and that, in this case, it is a distraction. Consequently our prayer has not been interrupted at all, since our intention to pray has remained. Without irritation, gently and peacefully, we should bring the mind back to the subject of our meditation, and as often as necessary. . . .Sometimes we may spend the entire time of prayer in returning to the subject. But we need have no misgivings or feel discouragement; our time has been well spent in the sight of the Father, we have been exercising our will to pray all the time and hence have, indeed, obtained the merit of prayer, if not its refreshment. . . .

[I]ndeliberate distractions are of no consequence, and should not be a source of concern or disquiet. . . . They not impair the value of our prayer. . . .

We do not have to have beautiful thoughts and sentiments in order to pray well, nor do we need to keep up the pace set by an infrequent excellent and "fruitful" half-hour.

From time to time I need these sane reminders that what may seem to be distraction may in fact be the purpose of that evening's conversation. In any conversation, we start a one point and end up winding endlessly (if we are engaged with a good conversationalist) to come to a completely unexpected endpoint. As we start to talk to God, the overfullness of the conversation and the desire to say everything and include everything tumbles out of us and jumbles up the deliberate "purpose" we have established for our conversation. The car needs repair, the house needs repair, one of the children is having trouble at school, there are groceries to buy and errands to run. . . and while these are not necessarily the matter for meditation, they are the facts of a straightforward conversation with God. These are concerns that we can bring to Him, and so this early stage of our conversation will be akin to an adult conversing with a five-year-old--there will be unexpected pause, odd turns in the exchange and sometimes complete flustration. On the other hand, it is all in the desire to talk with God and God will give us the strength to return to the conversation if we do not discourage ourselves.

So, distraction can be a problem, or it can be merely another route to where God would have us go--because He is Lord even of distractions--He knows who we are and what deeply concerns us--and He knows what He wants to touch and give us peace about. So accept the distraction, offer it to the Lord and attempt to return to the point. And if not, then engage God about what is driving you to distraction. Whatever you do, remain faithful to the time of prayer and the rewards will be very great indeed.

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Writing to a friend regarding the adage that "His grace is sufficient":

We have an insufficient understanding of the term "sufficient." Because the common usage has come to mean "just barely enough to cover it," we tend to look at "His grace is sufficient" as a kind of wary half-promise.

But the real meaning of "His grace is sufficient," says nothing about the amount of it nor its efficacy. What it says is that it is His grace alone--entirely and only. His grace is sufficient in that nothing need be added to it and we only need a kind of meta-desire for it to be effective. We need to want to want to want to want to cooperate, and His grace makes it possible step by step.

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The Eucharistic prayer and symbols are enormously powerful. When the priest mixes water into the wine and says the prayer over the mixed elements, we are to begin to understand a great mystery.

I thought about this while at Mass the other day. When we are in Christ, we are like the chalice of wine and water--a great majority of divinity with our small humanity enfolded within. However, we are a living water. Most of us prefer to stay in the vessel from which the water is poured. If a drop or two of wine should enter that water, so much the better, we wouldn't mind at all. But to become utterly transformed, utterly surrendered, utterly other--for most of us that is a terrifying prospect. We would pray that He would mingle a little divinity with our humanity, while devotion to Christ constantly reminds us that "I must decrease that He might increase." We abandon our preferences for the faults of humanity in assuming the divinity we are meant to be. In some mysterious way we participate in divinity--I can't explain it, but Tom at Disputations might be helpful in understanding this. I only know that it has been taught faithfully by the Church through the ages. In some way we are divinized in our surrender. IF we surrender.

(Note: Post has been changed to accommodate comments received that pointed out a serious error. Hopefully the change does not significantly interfere with lucidity; however, even if it does, it is better than promulgating error.)

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Diwali and Me


Or, what I can learn about Christianity from my Hindu neighbors.

Saturday was the celebration of Diwali, which is the Hindu "New Year" after a fashion. And our local newspaper had a featured book by a local Hindu author about the HIndu pantheon. It had reviews by three Hindu teens, and what one of them said was provocative and interesting. I paraphrase, but the essence is interesting: "I wish the author had taken greater pains to point out that Hindu is not a polytheistic religion. All these faces of gods are the face of the One God."

I found that fascinating. So too a critique of Christianity from a Hindu perspective I read sometime back: The trinity was never a problem for Hindus to comprehend, merely the stinginess of a God who gave only one avatar.

God prepared us for the revelation of Himself in the truths that the Hindus grasped long ago. They great each other with "Namaste." a salute to the God within each person. Indeed, the Holy Spirit dwells within each person and Jesus makes His home with anyone who will invite Him in. The divine in the other is something that the HIndu know well and respect, respect for the most part better than most Christians.

So, a belated Happy Diwali to my Hindu neighbors. May the year be bright and prosperous and lead you all to a closer walk with the One God.

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In the category of preaching to the converted:

Each book of the Harry Potter series is imbued with great Christian lessons. We might argue over Rowling as stylist or Rowling as successor to Tolkien and Lewis or Rowling as literature; however, to the reader who has spent any time with the books, Rowling as devout and informed Christian is nowhere in doubt. Each book teaches something about the believer in Christ and how that believer behaves in certain circumstances.

The particular event of interest occurs at the end of the fourth book of the series, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. It is spectacularly portrayed in the movie, and caps the book off with a scene horrifying, dramatic, and stirring. Harry Potter and Cedric Diggory have both touched a device that transports them to a place where the bane of the series Lord Voldemort await the arrival of Potter. Upon arrival, Cedric is summarily dispatched and Harry's blood is used to revivify the skeletal, embryonic Voldemort.

Then ensues the duel in which Voldemort attempts to finish off what he began so many years ago--the death of Harry Potter. The two engage.

Now the remarkable instance--in the course of the engagement Harry sees Cedric, Harry's mother and father, and (in the book, if I remember correctly) a whole host of those whom Voldemort has killed over time. Harry's mother tells him, "We can only give you a little time." The host descends upon Voldemort giving time for Harry to run to Cedric's body and transport the two of them back to Harry's world.

If, in this instance, we allow Voldemort to stand-in for sin, which, as we know from St. Paul leads to death (hence the derivation Vol-de-mort or "flight of death"--which will have several meanings in the series) we can see the communion of the Saints as it works. We engage in a battle with sin, temptation. We are the combatants. The fierceness of the battle and our faith summons help from Heaven's throneroom, the Saints, who engage through prayer the powers, principalities, thrones and dominations, that trouble Heaven and our own world. As Harry's mother advises, they can only give respite, it is up to us to flee from sin--but they can and do intercede for us providing the out--we can escape if we move away (of course aided by the Saints and God's will).

This image is reinforced later when Dumbledore, unpacking the experience for Harry, reminds him, "You know, we can never bring back the dead." Harry doesn't seem to understand this for what it means, but it is very clear to the reader that we cannot bring back the dead because, in fact, they never leave us. They are a cloud of witnesses gathered about us thickly and participating in every event of our lives--those tied to us by blood, most fiercely, but aided by all the warriors of Heaven (It is my hope that, undeserving as I am, the chiefest of those warriors is the Holy Mother of God and the Great Redwood of God, St. Therese.)

Thus, embedded, entangled, and completely blended throughout her series of novels, Rowling gives us lessons and views of how Christianity really operates. "But no one ever goes to Church or prays, or anything Christian." And of course, as anyone knows, that is less than nothing as an objection because the same holds true for both Tolkien and Lewis, her forbears in the art of bringing the truth of Christianity to the unsuspecting reader.

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A New Hymn for Bibliomaniacs

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I suppose I'll have to compose it. After all there are so few of us but we are so much in need of something that brings our distinctive voices to the Church setting.

"One day within your scriptorium
heals every day alone,
O Lord, bring me to you library."

Yep, those of us who take great comfort in the word may be few in number, but we have several venerable lines of work to indulge in.

Someday I may reflect upon the great comfort books can bestow. Coming to this realization brings home one point of Poe's "The Raven"

"Eagerly I sought the morrow,
vainly I wished to borrow,
from my book surcease of sorrow,
Sorrow for the lost Lenore."

Books as class IV addictive substances. Yep. For some of us they should come with warning labels and then, perhaps, only by prescription.

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The Amish Schoolhouse


This struck just the right tone for me.

The Amish planned to leave a quiet pasture where the schoolhouse stood.

This strikes me as the almost perfect Christian attitude toward the whole thing. It is not dimissed, it has wounded the community, but the memory of it is abolished entirely from the Earth. For a pacifist people, the Amish have an aggressive way of correcting the wrong and setting things right. The Earth shall claim the memory of this horrendous deed and no shadow of it shall remain.

Now, were this Hollywood, we'd set it up as a stop on the tour, complete with chalk outlines and occasionally touched up blood stains. Remarkable how the sensibilities of the two societies differ. Remarkable, and encouraging. The Amish have made a strong positive statement and witness in their actions. God bless them and visit them with comfort in this time of loss. May the families be healed and the communities be restored.

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Office of the Dead

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I changed my morning routine this morning and offered the Office of the Dead. A little autistic boy, 5 years old, got away from his family while they were bring groceries in from the car. He liked to run, and he liked water. Unfortunately, where I live, there is no shortage of drainage ponds and other holes filled with water. He found one of them and it took searchers two days to find him. All of this happened within two blocks of where I live.

I am certain of God's mercy, and I hope with perfect assurance, that this small child now sees clearly for the first time ever. But I offer the office for him and for his family. Please join your prayers to my own for the comfort of the distressed family, so sore-wounded by the loss of a child. It never fails to send a shock right through me.

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Humor in Middlemarch

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One doesn't often see comment on the vein of rich and ironic humor that pervades much of the early part of Middlemarch, just as, again, humor is not much of a discussion in the work of Hawthorne. And that is a shame, because while this humor, in both cases, is not of the laugh-out-loud variety, it provides a certain warmth and atmosphere that makes reading the books pleasurable.

from Middlemarch
George Eliot

And how should Dorothea not marry?--a girl so handsome and with such
prospects? Nothing could hinder it but her love of extremes, and her
insistence on regulating life according to notions which might cause a
wary man to hesitate before he made her an offer, or even might lead her
at last to refuse all offers. A young lady of some birth and fortune,
who knelt suddenly down on a brick floor by the side of a sick laborer
and prayed fervidly as if she thought herself living in the time of the
Apostles--who had strange whims of fasting like a Papist, and of
sitting up at night to read old theological books! Such a wife might awaken
you some fine morning with a new scheme for the application of her
income which would interfere with political economy and the keeping of
saddle-horses: a man would naturally think twice before he risked himself
in such fellowship.

Women were expected to have weak opinions; but the great safeguard of
society and of domestic life was, that opinions were not acted on. Sane
people did what their neighbors did, so that if any lunatics were at
large, one might know and avoid them.

The last sentences of each of these two paragraphs have a certain humor, admittedly somewhat bitter, but not actually biting, that can engage the reader fortunate enough to find the strain and continue.

Humor, and a sense that an author has some knowledge of the matter, are prerequisites in fiction. No work of fiction can be entirely successful without some sense of humor. Even Dante showed it, although maliciously, in some of the people and punishments in Hell and Purgatory. In fact, it is the absence of this strain that tends to make Heaven such a ghastly bore in comparison to the other two works. The author is so overwhelmed by his experiences that, while he continues to compose amazing poetry, he simply isn't engaging at the same level as he is in the other parts of his masterpiece.

Humor stems from a sense of displacement, it is, in a sense, an ultimately Christian virtue. Humor often results from the juxtaposition of impossible events, from the use of a word in two or more ways, from the sudden and unexpected. These are the deep seams of humor, the understanding that things are not as they seem, that we are not what we seem, and that ultimately we are not really where we belong. The recognition that where we belong is infinitely better gives rise to deep strains of humor.

It may also give rise to deep strains of sadness or despair of the human condition. By far a less "likeable" result of the realization. And sometimes, to the untrained eye, they are nearly indistinguishable. I think particularly here of the works of Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy--both fundamentally humorous and joyous, but if one were to read only "The River" for instance, one might be left wondering whether or not Flannery O'Connor had any faith whatsoever. And I am witness to the fact that the hilarity of Love in the Ruins bypasses the majority of readers, who see instead the darkness that the humor masks. The inability to apprehend an author's humor can make of reading an unbearable toil. Probably the reason I find most nonfiction reading neither illuminating nor particularly informative. Most political books inspire me the way Chilton's manuals do. Most works of science are long, dry treatises with nothing of appeal to anyone seeking the imagination behind them. This is the particular skill of the popularizers, and the particular pitfall. They bring into sharp life and relief the humanity and the reality behind the discoveries. For a prime example of their effectiveness compare Gleick's Chaos: Making a New Science with the prose of Peitgen and Richter's The Beauty of Fractals . (I just looked that one up on Amazon and was astounded at its price-tag--$84.00--I'm certain I paid nothing like that for it--I bought it as a grad student and wouldn't think of spending that kind of money on a book at the time.)

Humor then, a Christian virtue stemming from the recognition of the anomalies resulting from our pilgrim status, is one essential for readable fiction. In the case of Eliot, it is subdued and distinctly bitter. In Hawthorne's case, similarly, subdued, but more ironic than bitter, and sometime laugh-out-loud funny if you are paying attention. Like the "clown scenes" in Shakespeare's tragedies, the humor need not be pervasive, merely present. It is ultimately inviting and welcoming to the reader.

Humor, in literature, as in life, is an essential ingredient for success.

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About this Archive

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

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

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