Christian Life/Personal Holiness: February 2007 Archives

Prayer and the Word


from Essence of Prayer
Sr. Ruth Burrows, OCD

But a rich source of theology and prayer at hand for each of us is the Missal. Here we find theology at its purest, theology that is prayed, that is prayer. If we were to absorb the contents of the Missal we would need little else. Study the four Eucharistic Prayers, the prefaces throughout the yearly seasons and the great doxology "Glory to God in the Highest." . . . a wealth of prayed theology, the Church's understanding at its purest consisting of treasures old and new.


It is our precious Catholic inheritance to realize that the essence of worship and prayer must always lie with God's Self-communication to us and that our part is merely response. We who know Jesus do not depend on our own prayers, our own ways of getting in touch with God, pleasing him, atoning for our sins and so forth. We know that all this has been given for us in Jesus. We have to go and claim it. The fountain is there for us, overflowing, and all that we have to do is drink. We notice in the Mass prayers how we are, so to speak, continually "mingling" with Jesus, immersing ourselves in what He is doing. Our offering of ourselves is to become one with the perfect offering of Jesus. We too are to become the perfect offering that the FAther lovingly accepts, an offering that is first and foremost God's own gift to us. O marvellous exchange.

All of the theology in the world starts with God's revelation to us, perfect and complete. The finest teaching of this revelation is the teaching which is prayer--the Mass, the Mass in which we become in a special way "the body of Christ" (Although we are always and at all times part of the Body of Christ. But this is also true because there is not one moment of the day when the prayers of Mass are not rising to God and incorporating us fully, His sons and daughters into His Son.)

Have you ever looked closely at exactly what it is we pray when we pray the full Mass? Perhaps that might be a start for the scripture shy--see how it is structured and why it is the central prayer of faith. In it we are, for a moment, perfected, brought into Union with Him through His Son. As Sr. Ruth says, "O marvelous exchange."

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The season has come 'round at last. It seemed as though it would never get here and it is a season that I have come to anticipate with all the eagerness and joy that a small child invests in waiting for Christmas. Why? Because it is the time of year when we are all bound by the same discipline and tend to walk in similar ways; as a result it makes that walk so much easier than it otherwise is. It is remarkably difficult to be a lenten person of purpose outside of the season. As it arrives and as I progress through it, I think, if only this could continue, if only this progress, if progress it be, and purpose could be sustained. But no more than a week afterwards it is as though all purpose has vanished.

So, this year, as in many years, the focus is repentance, but more than repentance in the sense of sorrow--repentance in the sense of rethinking the whole journey of life up until now, seeing where one approached and where one was distant. Life is walked in the path of the labyrinth. You can see the center, the place you want to be, but as you walk this single long path, you at first progress steadily toward the center and then you find yourself compelled right back out to the very edge. With time you find the center, but only after much seemingly aimless wandering. But there must be a straighter quicker path. What's to stop me from stepping over the row of stones that mark the barrier between paths and going straight to the center? Only my own reluctance to transgress self-imposed laws and boundaries.

So this season I shall look at what I can do and what we all can do to step past those self-imposed boundaries and move on the straight path of the arrow to the heart of the labyrinth, the center, the place of intimacy and union with God.

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Compassion and Mercy


Father Jim points us to an on-line Thomistic Manual which attempts to make sense of some of the complicated concepts of Christian Theology.

These are compassion for the evil which another is suffering, especially when he suffers without his own fault. But compassion may embrace even sinners, not as regards the voluntary sin, for pity concerns the involuntary evil, but as fault has attached to it that which is involuntary. So the Lord had compassion for the multitude (S. Matt. ix. 36).

He that loves, regards his friend as a part of himself, and his friend's evil as if it were his own.

He "rejoices with them that rejoice;" and he "weeps with them that weep" (Rom. xii. 15). Anger and pride oppose this virtue, because the first lifts above the apprehension of evil; the other, because it leads to contempt of others, and to the notion that they suffer worthily.

(Emphasis added)

Now, the line above is simple enough with regards to those to whom we are naturally inclined, although even then we do not so readily take it on as we might. However, think about it in terms of yesterday's gospel reading. How easy is it for us to love, in these terms, our enemy?

And yet, as Christians to love one's enemy is not an option, it is a requirement. And the gate to that love might be through the natural springs of compassion and mercy. While we may detest the person, what the person does, or the company a person keeps, we can, nevertheless, put ourselves in the place of that person--a beloved child of God and a fellow-traveller and sufferer in this vale of tears. If we can for one moment be selfless, we can see in those who afflict us the children that they are.

Flannery O'Connor demonstrates the operation of compassion in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find." At the end of the story the whining and commanding Grandmother who has brought about the extinction of her family looks at the Misfit.

from "A Good Man is Hard to Find"
Flannery O'Connor

She saw the man's face twisted close to her own as if he were going to cry and she murmured, "Why you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children !" She reached out and touched him on the shoulder.

This action precipitates the finale of the story. It is, in fact, an act of compassion, the first truly selfless act that the old woman takes in the course of the story and, perhaps, in the course of much of her life. In it she becomes aware of an identity, a connection that does not really exist, but which reaches out to the Misfit in an attempt at redemption. While she does not affect the Misfit, the action itself may be seen as her own redemption. She has transcended herself and in a moment of transcendence attempts to bestow some small part of what God has imparted to her.

Compassion is the desire to share the sufferings of another not merely to suffer ourselves but to lift the other out of suffering and into knowledge of the greater good that alleviates suffering.

Compassion is one of the virtues that arises when we learn to love well and properly. And learning to love is a life time occupation.

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The optic through which Fr. John Dear chooses to view the life of Jesus seems to have a curious flaw, or perhaps merely blinders:

from Transfiguration
Fr. John Dear

He was on his way to Jerusalem, where he would engage in nonviolent civil disobedience in the Temple, an act that would lead the authorities to arrest and execute him. On the mountain, in that place of solitude and beauty, God transformed him and gave him a taste of the resurrected life to come. He became the Christ he would become.

I found the first sentence provocative and the second mildly disturbing. Did Jesus "become the Christ" or was He born as the Christ? I didn't know that Jesus was not the Savior from the time of His birth, that this title was only conferred upon Him as He "earned" it or merited it. Perhaps what Fr. John meant to say here is that He was revealed to some of his disciples as the Christ. But that is not my sense of this passage. I won't go on because my Christology is not exemplary, but it just struck me as a very wrong-headed way to go about looking at Jesus.

More than that, was it "nonviolent civil disobedience" that led the authorities to arrest and execute Him? Or was it something more? Certainly one could argue that Jesus did often commit "nonviolent civil disobedience" and it caused enormous discomfort among those in charge of things. But to reduce the cause of Jesus' death to this strikes me as reducing the cause of World War I to the single event of the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand.

Tom at Disputations pointed out currents in the book that worked to reduce the Gospel message to one of nonviolent civil disobedience, and this seems an overt instance of it. However, I'm still in the act of synthesizing and thinking about the argument, rereading and trying to understand the focus and the fullness of what is here.

One thing I can say is that the book is worth reading for the points it brings up and for the argument that surfaces. Agree or disagree, it will get you thinking about Jesus and His life and teachings, and that in itself, regardless of whether you end up agreeing or disagreeing with Fr. Dear's arguments, is a worthwhile pursuit.

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Because I love this topic and really want to understand how, if at all, it can fit in with the clear line of Church teaching, and because it appears that I have not explained my point clearly, I will respond to comments on Pacifism and Nonviolence in this post.

First, very politely to Chris who stands a little further inside the boundary than I do. I frankly can't conceive of how overthrowing tables and whipping people can be viewed as anything but violent. "Zeal for thy house consumes me." Righteous anger can be acted upon and may result in fireworks. One further point, Jesus Himself pointed out that "And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force." (Matthew 11:12). I won't argue exegesis, but let's just agree that we won't see eye-to-eye on this particular point.

But to this, I have a much more extensive reply:

Comment from Nate Wildermuth

You make a case for violence as a necessary evil in our fallen world.

But if Christ's love hasn't made all evil unnecessary, then in what way has it freed us? If Christ's love has empowered us to love in the face of death - and in doing so, to conquer it. This isn't about nonviolence. This is about Christ's nonviolent love.

"You make a case for violence as a necessary evil in our fallen world." If so, I have failed in what I would like to say. I don't believe that it is a "necessary evil," but that it is an actual evil in the fallen world. I do not know if it is necessary, though I strongly suspect not. I do know that it exists at present and at times in the past and in times to come it has been necessary to preserve the way of life of Christians and others throughout the world. Whether or not this justifies the use of violence is an exercise for stronger theologians than myself.

"But if Christ's love hasn't made all evil unnecessary, then in what way has it freed us?" As I said above, evil isn't necessary--that is, of course, the point of Christ's coming to us. Evil is not only unnecessary it is counter to the action and desire of God. Christ came to free us from our sin and our own self-imposed slavery to the princes of this world. In doing so, He showed us a better way.

I think there are too many passages to go into here in which Jesus clearly shows us that the best way is the way of nonviolent interaction with our brothers and sisters. "Who lives by the sword, dies by the sword." "If thine enemy smite thy cheek turn him the other." And how many times, seven? No, indeed, 7 x 70 times.

At the same time I must acknowledge that there are clear indications in the Gospel of the right and the responsibility to defend the common good. "There will ever be wars and rumor of wars. . ." I am not arguing that Jesus thought this the best way, merely that it was the way things were to be.

Your point is valid. Once all of humanity embraces the love of Jesus Christ we can enter into the time when the lion will lie down with the lamb. It is up to voices like ours to speak of this time and to present the possibility of nonviolence--to show that while it may be possible to legitimately and without sin end things in a violent way (if Just War Doctrine is true), that it is not the best way nor even a better way. My point is that aggressive pursuit of this end, to the point of threats and violent argumentation is counterproductive to the end of nonviolence. Nonviolence must be modeled in our demeanors, in our means of argumentation, in our lives. And nonviolence is a gift given to a few--a gift to be shared and to be encouraged among others as much as we can, but a gift nevertheless. And most of us use and practice that gift very poorly. While I might be an okay pacifist, I would not serve as the poster boy for nonviolence. Any who have witnessed my interactions around blogdom recognize that I have a fiery temperament that can express itself more forcefully than circumstances would necessitate when provoked. That is the root of violence itself. So, while I'm growing toward that end and trying to understand how it fits in with traditional Catholic teaching, I am not there yet.

The truth of the matter is that I am uncertain about nonviolence and pacifism and their interface with Catholic teaching. I would certainly say that the Church has made it clear that there are times when violent actions can be justified. Traditional teaching or war and the death penalty show this; however, I might go further and say that it is my sense that the Church does not see these things as the "better way." While they might be justifiable given the weaknesses of human nature, they are not the best or swiftest way to effect God's will, which, as you noted, is peace, love, and union with all of His children.

Hope that serves to clarify the point and thank you for the comment and the opportunity to try to express better what I intend.

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from Teaching a Stone to Talk
Annie Dillard, cited in The Language of God
Francis S. Collins.

We as a people have moved from pantheism to pan-atheism. . . is is difficult to undo our own damage and to recall t our presence that which we have asked to leave. It is hard to desecrate a grove and change your mind. We doused the burning bush and cannot rekindle it. We are lighting matches in vain under every green tree. Did the wind used to cry and the hills shout forth praise? Now speech has perished from the lifeless things of the earth, and living things say very little to very few. . . . And yet, it could be that wherever there is motion there is noise, as when a whale breaches and smacks the water, and wherever there is stillness there is the small, still voice, God's speaking from the whirlwind, nature's old song and dance, the show we drove from town. . . . What have we been doing all these centuries but trying to call God back to the mountain, or, failing that, raise a peep out of anything that isn't us? What is the difference between a cathedral and a physics lab? Aren't they both saying: Hello?

We explore the unknown to find something that is not us while we ignore what has been made known that plainly, unequivocally shows it. We are an amazingly perverse people.

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How to Identify Envy


The truly envious person will delight as much or more in your inability to have and enjoy something as in his or her ability to have and enjoy it.

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The Wrathful and the Lustful

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In his classic poem about the supernatural abodes, Dante divided the sins into two categories of defects (although he might not have stated it this way): the defect of absence and the defect of excess. Those suffering from the defect of excess were punished much more lightly than those suffering from the defect of absence. In a surprising turn, the Lustful received the lightest of punishments, being whirled around perpetually to simulate in the afterlife the wavering that dominated their lives of lust.

It occurs to me that meditation upon Hell is not necessarily incumbent upon everyone, and is likely to be detrimental to some people. The threat of Hell is for me a far less enticing inducement than the joy of being in the presence of the Lord. I am among the many whose sins tend to be those of excess--lust, gluttony, avarice. To me the threat of Hell is one of those things that makes me think of God as a petty accountant, dishing out eternal damnation because I ogled Mildred Smythe-Hyde at the beach. I'm not saying it won't happen, merely that it has no internal resonance. I am not interested in Hell, and I would expect that those of us who are prone to excess might feel similarly.

Contrariwise, those who are prone to the defects of absence might find the thought of Hell quite salutary. Love cannot induce them to His end, so perhaps threat of powerlessness and emptiness in the afterlife will bring them around.

So, I find in my meditations and thoughts about God, Hell simply never enters the equation. The arrow of desire quickens and points to the delights of love as humans know them and identifies this with the source of love. And then we see Bernini's famous representation of the Transverberation of St. Teresa of Avila, and we begin to understand that what we know of love and transcendence here on Earth pales in the light of what lies beyond.

The wrathful tend not to have this access, love and its delights are of secondary interest. Setting things to rights and making things move the way they ought is much more at the core.

There is much to be gained from the meditation on the four last things, however, there is even more to be gained from sitting in the presence of Jesus and not worrying about things we cannot possibly understand anyway. For some one path will be better, for others, the opposite path. And for one person at different times, the two paths may serve to enrich the walk with God. The important point is to not let what we ought to think get in the way of spending time with God. If your reflection is on the majesty of the Sand Hill Crane and that brings you into His presence, then by all mans, reflect upon the crane. On the other hand if your joy comes from knowing that there is justice, rightness, and right order in the world beyond, reflect upon the four last things.

Most importantly, do what brings you to God regularly, predictably, inevitably. Shy away from what distracts you from His love.

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A Personal Insight that Resonates


from The Faith of a Write
Joyce Carol Oates

I'm a writer absolutely mesmerized by places; much of my writing is a way of assuaging homesickness, and the settings my characters inhabit are as crucial to me as the characters themselves.

Homesickness. Almost all of what we do is a way of assuaging homesickness, of trying to forget for a moment that we are not aware of the presence of the One who loves us. We anaesthetize ourselves against the pain of being far from home, lonely, and cold in a world that, while beautiful, offers cold comfort in comparison to being with the One who loves us deeply and completely.

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Vicki Carr Spirituality


Don't blame me, I can't help where inspiration comes from.

It Must Be Him

I tell myself what's done is done
I tell myself don't be a fool
Play the field have a lot of fun
It's easy when you play it cool
I tell myself don't be a chump
Who cares let him stay away
That's when the phone rings
And I jump
And as I grab the phone I pray
Let it please be him
Oh dear God
It must be him
It must be him
Or I shall die
Or I shall die
Oh hello, hello,
My dear God, it must be him
But it's not him and then I die
That's when I die
After a while
I'm myself again
I pick the pieces off the floor
Put my heart on the shelf again
He'll never hurt me anymore
I'm not a puppet on a string
I'll find somebody else someday
Thats when the phone rings
And once again I start to pray
Let it please be him
Oh, dear God,
It must be him
It must be him
Or I shall die
Or I shall die
Oh, hello, hello, my dear God
It must be him
But it's not him
And then I die
That's when I die
Let it please be him
My dear God, it must be him
Or I shall die
Or I shall die

In a short, melodramatic song we have the summary of the spiritual life of most lukewarm Christians. Or at least how it might look from outside and how it sometimes must seem to God that we react.

I sit and wait for God, praying for intervention, enlightenment, help. I spend my time doing for myself, think my own thoughts and going my own way and telling myself that I can do it alone, completely alone.

Then something happens. Great or little, good or bad, the telephone rings and I rush to it completely devoted now to the thought that this is God's communication to me. He's there, he's calling, finally I'll hear what I've wanted to hear all this time.

And no, it isn't Him, and I'm let down. I die.

If so, I die in ignorance. It's always Him. Always. In every caress of the breeze, in the noise of children playing, in the traffic in the streets, in the snow in the driveway. Not one thing happens that He did not cause to happen. And every day we meet Him in the persons of those around us. Every day.

Nothing happens without His consent, without His will. What we see as catastrophic is His will for the moment and we must recall that "all things work for the good of those who are called to His purpose."

When the telephone rings, no matter who is on the other end, it is Him. There is a task, there is a job, there is a need to fulfill. I just need to learn to hear Him on the other end.

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I was reminded yesterday by Tom at Disputations that it is never too early to begin thinking about Lent. Since I've been thinking about Lent since the day after Easter last year, I would heartily concur with that opinion. I love Lent. I love the spirit of penitence that never seems like penitence because it is such a calm and peaceful sea in which to swim. So many things to give up and then never notice their absence because the faculties are ordered to paying attention to God. For me, the season is a small miracle each year.

I have not yet decided how I will be celebrating the season this year, however, I picked up a book of essays by Ruth Burrows, who must be one of my favorite spiritual writers of recent time.

from Essence of Prayer
Sr. Ruth Burrows, OCD

Prayer. We take the word for granted but ought we to do so? What does the word mean in the Christian context? Almost always when we talk about prayer we are think of something we do and, from that standpoint, questions, problems, confusion, discouragement, illusions multiply. For me, it is of fundamental importance to correct this view. Our Christian knowledge assures us that prayers is essentially what God does, how God addresses us, looks at us. It is not primarily something we are doing to God, something we are giving to God, but what God is doing for us. And what God is doing for us is giving the divine self in love.

When I think of prayer in the common way, prayer itself becomes a form of work. As a form of work, its interest palls as we see no forward motion, feel no sense of accomplishment. But prayer is not a work, it is a relationship. People of our time tend to regard relationships in this same sense of accomplishment and moving forward--a strange malady of the times. "This relationship is going nowhere." Well, of course it isn't, that isn't the nature of relationships. So too with prayer--it is putting aside time so that God may bestow Himself upon us. It isn't a work, it is a way of being with All Being.

Why do we find this concept so difficult to grasp? I think there is something in the modern mindset that is always seeking to get "something out of" whatever is done. But this is a fundamentally flawed way of approaching God and prayer. We aren't looking to "get something out of God" (or at least, we shouldn't be), but rather to be transformed by His Love for us. Our effort is not entirely our own because it is not possible without grace. Moreover, if we look upon it as an effort, we expect a return. Prayer is a time and a place to be--it is no more effort than sitting on our back porch and looking at the sunset.

And yet, we make it a mountain of method and of style, a pound of words and a recipes of all kinds of things that must be done just so. Because Catholicism is so imbued with structured rite and ritual, we have come to ritualize, rubricize and methodize prayer. For example, we confuse the rhythms of the Rosary, the rhythms of a mother singing to a child, with our own feeble efforts at prayer. The Rosary is spoken by us, but it is prayer precisely because it brings us into His presence to receive the love endlessly revealed in each mystery.

Each prayer we say, each action we take, each motion, each method, all of this is about preparing ourselves for Love. We are such awkward creatures. Surely we do similar things for each other, going out of our way to deceive ourselves and the one we love, to make them think we are lovable. But that is something we do not need with God. We are lovable because He loves us. That is a fundamental truth we need to accept at the start and we have to put behind us all the awkwardness and difficulty of pretending to be something we are not. God knows. He knows already. Every fiber of our being is sustained by His Will at every moment. Do we really think we can hide from Him?

So all this effort at prayer is simply a play at telling ourselves that we are really more determined and better than we are. But we are little more than children dressing up in adult clothing and after a while the entertainment palls.

So what must I do? Attend to payer, be there, ready and waiting to receive love in whatever form it may appear. Spend time with His Word, spend time with Him. Don't allow method to intrude upon Being. Be aware of who He is who who I am not. As Saint Catherine of Siena so wisely tells us, "He is He who is, I am she who is not." We do well to remember that. Our reality is grounded in He who is and without Whom all is not.

There is no method to being. We are. We are because He is and in looking at Him we are looking at being. There may be things we can do that will dispose our minds, hearts, and souls to better receive this reality. However, the end is being. And that is also the beginning.

(interesting side note. I composed much of this in my palm and tried to synch it this morning to my computer. For some reason I couldn't get the blue-tooth connection to work. As a result, I had to retype it from the palm screen. Normally my palm is set to go off after a minute or so of inactivity. But in this case it did not go off during the entire typing episode. It suggests to me that the Holy Spirit, perhaps, really wanted this message to get out there. Or, I'm sure, there are other more mechanical explanations. But I'll go with the first.)

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Christian Life/Personal Holiness category from February 2007.

Christian Life/Personal Holiness: January 2007 is the previous archive.

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