Prayer and Praying: September 2002 Archives

More Wisdom from St. John

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More Wisdom from St. John of the Cross

This short excerpt from his letters provides us with a glimpse into heaven.

Letter 3
St. John of the Cross


[To Madre Ana de San Alberto, prioress of Caravaca7

Granada, 1582]

...since you say nothing to me, I tell you not to be foolish and not to walk with fears that intimidate your soul. Return to God what he has given you and gives you each day. It seems you want to measure God by the measure of your own capacity, but it will not be so. Prepare yourself, for God desires to grant you a great favor.

There are two things I love about this letter--it's straightforward simplicity and its firm direction. "Return to God what he has given you and gives you each day." That is, don't store it up and plan to return it at some other time. Don't hoard the treasures God showers on you. Every day as you receive, give out. As you are blessed, bless those around you. As God graces you, let the graces flow through you and out to grace the entire world. In a small sense, I suppose, we are all distributors of God's grace, we all act in miniature as the Blessed Mother. People who are ignorant of Christ can be blessed and "graced" by us. The starving, the thirsty, the poor, the downtrodden, even the merely sad or grieving can be lifted up by the spirit of Christ within us and graced by the same Holy Spirit--if we choose to allow it. Mother Teresa was a prime example of someone whose very presence lifted up God's people, because she gave back to Him, in the persons of all those around her, all that she received in a day.

The second wonderful moment in this brief letter is, "It seems you want to measure God by the measure of your own capacity," this is powerful beyond words, and true for every one of us. We, most unconsciously, put limits on what God can accomplish. We are not big enough, so God cannot do what is needed. We are so inelastic, so inflexible, so rigidly set, that we restrict the channels of grace through which God may work. If you recall Jesus could do no miracles in His own home town, "A prophet is without honor in his own country." This is not because He could not work miracles, but the stubborn unbelief and inflexibility of the inhabitants restricted God's action. He will not force us to accept any of His gifts. He may plead, cajole, and offer, but He will not force. So, if we measure God by the narrow margins of our own human hearts, we are casting out the wonderful possibilities inherent in His grace, because God came not to fit into the narrow boundaries of the heart, but to expand our hearts into His own. For that we need to accept the radical necessity for a fundamental change in our outlooks.

And we are told, "Prepare yourself for God desires to grant you a great favor." What greater favor could there be than to replace our stony hearts with hearts of flesh (to quote Ezekiel, I think)? What greater favor than to take away our human limitations to love and replace them with His own love? In so doing, He removes our self-involvement, our self-centeredness, our fear. We must cooperate in this work, we must prepare ourselves. We do so through the sacraments, through prayer, and through actions in the world that let God speak to others. We do so in putting ourselves aside and "putting on Christ." We do so whenever we break out of ourselves enough to breathe the air of heaven and when we use that to change the world in which we live, be it ever so slightly. When we smile at someone who has grown accustomed to our scowl, when we wave at someone to thank them as we drive our cars, when we share a cup of coffee, or listen to someone who desperately needs an ear. All of these things, small though they seem, prepare the way of the Lord.

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Hallmarks of a Beginner in Prayer

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This is from a study of the works of St. John of the Cross available at ICS (see left column).

from The Contemporary Challenge of St. John of the Cross--Chapter 4 Leonard Doohan

The pride of beginners leads to spiritual avarice. Their attachment and possessiveness of heart centers on "hearing counsels," "learning spiritual maxims," and accumulating religious objects. Nowadays, for example, this spiritual avarice can lead beginners to an attendance at innumerable prayer workshops, the needless accumulation of books on prayer, and the constant comfort and consolation of ever longer retreats and workshops.
*****
Spiritual gluttony is also a common failing of beginners. Some manifest spiritual gluttony in seeking only the comfort, consolation, and satisfaction that involvement in the spiritual life can bring. "All their time is spent looking for satisfaction and spiritual consolation" (N, 1, 6, 6).

Two other weaknesses follow from those already mentioned, namely spiritual envy and sloth. Beginners often become dissatisfied with the comfort they experience and are envious at anyone else's spiritual growth. Moreover, emphasis on the consolations that sometimes accompany the early stages of spiritual growth leads beginners to a distaste for the unpleasant sacrifices needed to advance. "Because of their sloth, they subordinate the way of perfection...to the pleasure and delight of their own will" (N, 1, 7, 3).

The cryptic numberings simply refer you to the correlated sections of Dark Night of the Soul. What I find most interesting here is the pattern I have observed in myself. I used to spend a tremendous amount of time poring over all the new spiritual books and guides and looking for the latest in self-help prayer books. I still spend far more time than may be helpful doing the same. I have longed to attend workshops and retreats on prayer and have attended an extended (32 week) Ignatian Retreat. All of these things convict me. And yet, when I settle down with the Bible or with St. John of the Cross, this impulse seems to fade away. I haven't scoured shelves in months. Now I look at all those things I've accumulated and wonder why I ever thought the book was useful.

One of the more important things indicated in the passage is the "wrong reason" for mysticism. Many people undertake the prayer of St. John and St. Teresa for the consolation involved--the feeling that they are becoming connected to God. While consolations are wonderful gifts that should be accepted and appreciated, both St. John and St. Teresa note that the consolation should be forgotten as soon as it passes--that consolations, be they visions, locutions, levitations, simply good feelings of accomplishment, should be let go as soon as they are apprehended. One should not dwell on these minor things that are to feed the faltering soul. The reason for prayer is far beyond mere consolation, and pausing there causes you to lose the momentum toward your ultimate destination--Love.

Now, I've not had a whole lot of consolations in prayer, but as I've indicated, I am probably not even truly a beginner--I'm standing in the vestibule and timorously approaching the somewhat daunting oak doors that seal me off from true prayer and reflection. But I have had a few, and unfortunately, part of what happens--without willing it, is a feeling of accomplishment as though one had achieved some sort of status in the prayer world. As soon as that creeps in a sort of spiritual pride begins to take form and take over. The only cure--acknowledge the phenomenon and confess it.

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Being a People of Prayer

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Oh woe, I just wrote a very long blog regarding this and I destroyed it because I used my PC commands on my Macintosh. I hope I can recreate some sense of it below.

We are a people of perpetual dissatisfaction. We move from place to place and from scandal to scandal, wildfire leaping from the tops of trees over the firebreaks. We move from outrage at priestly pederasty, to outrage at the cover-up, to outrage at Vatican inaction, to outrage over Bishops' overreaction, to outrage at Vatican action, to outrage regarding someone suggesting that the Pope might not be the best administrator, to outrage over those pederasty-supporters who think that the Pope is still a pretty good guy. And when it seems that we've used up the fuel of that scandal, we move along to be outraged by the architecture of a cathedral, and we cast about anxiously for the next outrage.

We live in a world of flux. Nothing is the same from one moment to the next and we are constantly having to shape our lives to this change. We are uncomfortable with it and we look for permanence. Many of us find it in orthodoxy and orthopraxis. We grab onto these externals and clutch them like the last piece of a wreckage, the last refuge from the storm. In so doing, we denounce anything that does not conform to the standard we exalt. We must feel good about ourselves and that entails anger toward those who do not toe the line.

But is that what the Church is about? More importantly, did Jesus Christ come to establish Orthodoxy and Orthopraxis? Are we to hold these up as the standards that represent the very best of Jesus Christ? When we get to heaven, is Jesus going to ask us if we crossed ourselves with our right hand or our left hand, if we genuflected on right knee or left? Is he going to ask the architects whether they built a Cathedral in proper alignment with the compass? I don't think so. Seems that he set a standard that was very clear, the sheep shall be separated from the goats on the basis of the question: "When I was thirsty did you give me to drink? Naked, clothe me? In prison, comfort me... you all know the drill.

Jesus gave us the Church as a guide. He gave us the blessing of the teaching magisterium of the Church to help it sail the waters of all times, to help it to cope with things that would come up. He did not give us the Church as a new cross of orthodoxy and orthopraxis on which to crucify ourselves. These things are important because they give us structure. But sometimes it is important to lay waste to the structure and to do as Christ Himself commands. One might question just how "Orthodox" Mother Teresa of Calcutta was. After all, there was no religious admission test to her hospital. Children, be they Hindi, Sikh, or Muslim were cared for in the hospitals she put together without a question as to what the faith of their parents was. She did not harangue the dying with endless speeches about accepting Jesus Christ as savior. Instead, contrary to what orthodoxy seems to propose, she simply accepted the people as people and showed them the deep love of Jesus Christ, their savior. Whether they knew His name or not, they met Him in the person of Mother Teresa and her workers. That is what knowing Jesus is about.

Most of us do not really know Jesus. We know what we would like Jesus to be. We define God in our own image and then sic him on all foes. But this is not Jesus. Most of us are very comfortable with the Jesus we know, and thus, following the dictum of Soren Kierkegaard, "If you are comfortable with Christ, you do not know Him."

Jesus is a constant challenge to us. In the storms of scandal he stands upon the raging waters in the midst of the storm and says, "Come to me." How many of us venture out of the boat. How many of us spend a moment more than we have to contemplating Jesus Christ in word, in creation, in reality? How many of us lead a true life of prayer?

Prayer is the heart of the Church. Knowing Jesus Christ as He is, deeply, intimately, lovingly--this is the only way to true orthodoxy. If you truly love Jesus Christ, you will love His church and you cannot fail to be orthodox in your belief, but the orthodoxy is natural, pliant, an interior support, like a spine, not a stiff exterior carapace designed to keep all that is uncomfortable outside. Knowing Jesus Christ will make you uncomfortable and provide you with the greatest of all comforts. You will be uncomfortable because you know that you cannot do enough, and comfortable because you know the love of Love Incarnate.

Prayer is the way through scandal. Prayer combined with forceful, merciful, appropriate action is the way through any scandal. Rather than recrimination, vituperation, and endless roiling, seething, anguished anger and finger-pointing, we start and end in prayer. We pray for the victims of the scandal and for their healing. Even as we remand to justice those who have perpetrated the acts, we pray for their souls, knowing that "It would be better for them that a millstone were hung about their necks and they were cast into the sea" than what they have already done. We pray for the leaders that they will do what is right--not what we THINK is right, not what we might suggest, not what pops into their heads first thing upon considering the matter, but what Jesus Christ, our Lord, Master, and Brother, shows them is right. We pray that our bishops are less administrators than they are men of God, following clearly the lead He has marked out for them. A true follower of Christ cannot help but be a good administrator. We stop centering all of our energies on ourselves and on our expectations and we center on Jesus Christ.

The nature of blogs is to constantly stir the pot. News will arise, new things will crop up that suggest that the world is going to hell in a handbasket (and when was it not?). People will become outraged over the most outrageous things. Rather than expend that huge sum of energy in outrage, anger, and vitriol, expend it in a way that will help--intimate, devout prayer. St. Therese of Lisieux never left her small convent in France, but through her prayers she assisted in the missions and has become the Patroness of the Missions. As an individual, I cannot affect the course of the Bishops' decisions, or the Curia of the Vatican. But by my prayers joined to those of countless others, I can affect these groups to their very foundations.

We are prayer warriors. We are called to know Christ and to bring Him into the world. We are to incarnate Christ in each one of us, bringing hope, joy, and release wherever we happen to be. How can we presume to do this if we do not know hope and joy ourselves? How can we bring Christ to the world if we are hopelessly mired in the world?

Prayer, prayer, prayer, prayer, prayer, prayer, prayer, and again prayer. Everything should begin in, proceed in, and end in prayer. And we should be praying not to the image of God we have made, but to the real Jesus Christ. How do we begin to know Him? We start by stripping away ourselves and our protections. We lay ourselves open to the action of God. We let Him touch us, move us, hold us, guide us. He is our Lord and Salvation. He is our rock and our comfort. We abandon those things that keep us from Him. We abandon, not orthodoxy and orthopraxis, but the idols we have made of them. And we allow God to remake us in His image. It is impossible to truly love the real Jesus Christ and not to be orthodox. We might love an image we have made of Him and be led astray, but not the real Jesus.

How do we get to know Him? Read the scriptures. Not just the Mass readings every day, but read the gospels every day and every night. Did you know that one of the three general grants of indulgences is for the reading of scripture--and if that reading is for more than a half-hour each day the indulgence is plenary? Such is the power the Church recognizes in the transformative capabilities of the Word. St. Augustine said, "You cannot love what you do not know." How many of us have actually been to Calvary with Jesus? How many of us have borne His Cross like Simon the Cyrenian?

Prayer is the beginning and the end of becoming and being Christian. We must immolate the old man in prayer so that the new man may be born in Jesus Christ. We must stop evaluating the scandals and evaluating the evaluators and dredging up new scandal to paradoxically feel better about ourselves. We cannot feel better about ourselves if we are mired in the world. Prayer is the starting point of changing everything, right down to the roots of the world. If we spent one-tenth of the time in prayer that we spend in being scandalized, we would already be well along to making the Kingdom of God present on Earth. Prayer, loving presence to Jesus Christ, first, last and always.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Prayer and Praying category from September 2002.

Prayer and Praying: August 2002 is the previous archive.

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