Monday, July 28, 2014

Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep

When I call, answer me O God of justice!
From anguish you released me; have mercy and hear me.
O men, how long will your hearts be closed,
Will you love what is futile and seek what is false?

It is the Lord who grants favors to those whom he loves;
The Lord hears me whenever I call him.
Fear him; do not sin: ponder on your bed and be still.
Makes justice your sacrifice and trust in the Lord.

‘What can bring us happiness?’, many say.
Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord.
You have put into my heart a greater joy
Than they have from abundance of corn and new wine.
I will lie down in peace and sleep comes at once
For you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety.
Psalm 4

Reflection – Monday Psalter time again. This one is offered, logically, as one of the psalms of Compline, the night office that is prayed before bedtime in the Liturgy of the Hours. All of the language of pondering God on your bed and lying down in peace and sleeping in safety is, of course, fitting sentiment for that hour of the day.

I believe the psalms are arranged biblically at least some of the time to have some relation to each other, and we certainly see here allusions to Psalms 1-3, a development of thought from the first three psalms we have read.

Psalm 1 with its classic ‘two ways’ dichotomy, the way of the righteous and wise and the way of the wicked and foolish, is here again. Here, again, we see that contrast—those who love what is false and futile versus those who seek the light of the face of God.

Psalm 2 introduced the note of conflict, of a war raging in the world against God, and the sovereignty of God and his anointed one. Psalm 3 placed us in the heart of that battle, besieged and beleaguered by enemies far more powerful than us, but with a deep assurance of God’s deliverance.

That deliverance was expressed by the image of lying down to sleep and waking to find God has won the victory. So Psalm 4 now is a sort of peaceful meditation on everything that has gone before—we see the two camps in the world, we see the utter futility and folly of the one opposed to God, we see that a fierce battle is raging, but we rest secure in God’s power to save, to deliver his people.

It seems to me that this is always the repeating pattern of life in this world, until we see God face to face in the next. We move from a decision of faith to walk in the path of the righteous and reject the way of sin; we encounter opposition, within and without, to that decision and find ourselves in a battle indeed. The Lord and his Anointed, his Christ, are in the battle with us, but we still find experience ourselves as deeply imperiled, outnumbered and outgunned.

And then… the moment of deliverance, so mysterious, so strangely hard to define or describe. It happens when we sleep. Let us never forget that sleep, while an image of trust and confidence in God, is also a biblical image of the mystical life, of the moment when God directly acts upon us without our knowledge or cooperation.

God acts to save us in a way that is ultimately a mystical grace, something entirely His and so entirely hidden from us. But from this salvation, this mysterious encounter and the movement from battle and peril to peace and quiet, we utter this psalm, Psalm 4, reflecting again on the wisdom of the choice we have made, the choice for God, but now knowing a little more of the cost of that choice and the joy and happiness that arises from it.

It is a very deep little psalm, very mystical, very much a reflection of profound spiritual experience and meditation. And so it helps us to get there, too, and this is a good example indeed of why praying the psalms is such a core element of our Christian prayer, both liturgical and personal.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Corn Soup and Prayers

The brethren came to Abba Anthony and said to him, "Speak a word: how are we to be saved?" The old man said to them, "You have read the Scriptures. That should teach you how." But they said, "We want to hear from you too, Father." Then the old man said to them, "The Gospel says, 'if anyone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also.'" (Mt 5:30) 

They said, "We cannot do that." The old man said, "If you cannot offer the other cheek, at least allow one cheek to be struck." "We cannot do that, either," they said. So he said, "If you are not able to do that, do not return evil for evil," and they said, "We cannot do that, either." Then the old man said to his disciple, "prepare a little brew of corn for these invalids. If you cannot do this, or that, what can I do for you? What you need is prayers."
Desert Father Stories

Reflection – There are so many of these desert father stories and sayings that shine a bright light on the spiritual life and its ways, that I am sore tempted to just keep on with them for a little way yet. I have done quite a bit of ‘controversy blogging’ in past weeks, which is fine too, but sometimes I think we can’t really resolve any of the tough issues of our times and the matters that divide and confuse us because we are not building our lives on solid spiritual principles. This is the great genius and contribution of the desert fathers—to elaborate for us what those principles are.

This story, again showing the touches of humor that are frequent in the desert corpus, highlights the attitude of soul that brings the spiritual life to a grinding halt faster than anything else. Namely, ‘I cannot do that.’

Forgive your enemies… I cannot do that. Take a little time each day to pray… I cannot do that. Give alms to the poor... I cannot do that. Control your temper… I cannot do that. Uhhh... fast a little? I cannot do that. And so on and so forth. There can be an affliction of soul that truly makes us spiritual invalids, and makes it impossible for anyone to give us any help or spiritual counsel.

No, just a bit of corn soup and prayers is all that can help the invalid soul, the person who refuses to exert any spiritual effort whatsoever. The truth is, we have to be fighters if we are going to be Christian, have to have a bit of spirit, some fire in the belly, some degree of enthusiasm. The person who meets every challenge of the spiritual life with a plaintive ‘But it’s hard! Why does it have to be so hard?’ is in a truly lamentable condition, one which only God can deliver them from.

Now it is true that we in this matter there are heresies on all sides, and we have to pick our way carefully to stay on the path of orthodoxy. Pelagianism is the heresy that says that if we just try really, really hard, we will be able to live a life pleasing to God. Semi-pelagianism says that God’s grace is necessary, but he withholds that grace until he sees us making the first efforts unaided. Quietism is over on the other side, saying that everything is God’s grace to the extent that all we have to do is be passive and let God do it all in us. Jansenism is a truly demonic heresy in which (in its popular expression) God withholds his grace and love from us unless we are already in a state of purity and goodness.

The fact is, grace is needed for the slightest effort in the spiritual life, and we cannot even begin the journey to God, cannot even make the first steps of living the Gospel unless he graces us, helps us. But grace is given, this grace to make those first steps is always available to us, because God loves us and wants us to be holy. And because that grace is given to us preveniently (that is, before our efforts kick in) we can cooperating with it and confidently take on the challenge of the Gospel.

In a sense it is true that ‘we cannot do that.’ We cannot. God can. And God does, in us. The power is in us, not because we’re such fabulous creatures (although we are, actually!), but because we have a Father in heaven who loves us and who gives us the power to do all these things, all these beautiful Gospel acts.

The one who says, not just in an occasional bad mood (who doesn’t have those?) but habitually, ‘I cannot do that’ is really sinning against faith. God is real, God is here, God is with you, with me. We can do it, the Gospel that is. It is difficult, it requires prayer and constant recourse to God to do it, but with that constant help from Him, we can do it.

But we do need to have that fighting spirit, that determination and passion, and if that is truly and wholly lacking, then corn soup and prayers it is for us until we’re ready to put some effort into life. And if the corn soup doesn’t work… well, may God have mercy on us. Happy Sunday!

Saturday, July 26, 2014

This Week in Madonna House - July 19-26

I was genuinely sorry to not be able to write this end-of-week wrap up last week, due to the fact that I wasn't here and couldn't tell you what all went on in MH. I felt bad about it, because we are really having an extraordinary summer here this year, and I really wish I could tell you everything that's going on here without missing any of it.

The house continues to be packed full of guests, a constant stream of people coming in and out. This in itself is not unusual for the summer here especially, but we have all been struck this year not just with the quantity of guests, but with their quality. At the risk of embarrassing any of our recent guests who may read this, the 40 or so guests who have been with us these past weeks are uniformly lively, engaged, interested, keen, energetic.

A good example was the last Saturday night seminar, a question and answer session with the three directors-general of MH, Susanne Stubbs, Mark Schlingerman, and Fr. David May. This is a summer institution in our community, established by Catherine Doherty from the tumultuous 1960s on, to allow guests to ask just about anything they want of the directors of the apostolate. It is usually not boring, and it's always good to see the real questions people have. Last week's though, could have gone on well into the night, as hands were shooting up in the air continually. From the humorous and somewhat plaintive 'why did God create mosquitoes?' to the heartfelt 'why does God allow abortion to continue?' and 'so why can't women be priests, anyhow?', to serious questions about discernment and hearing God's voice, the questions just kept on coming and coming.

Last week's theme had been on discernment and hearing God's voice, and from all accounts all the talks had been stellar on the question. This week the theme was on the mystery of suffering and joy. I was the presenter for the Wednesday evening class and basically presented Pope St. John Paul II's apostolic letter Salvifici Doloris, which in my view is just about the best thing ever written on the subject.

My own schedule unfortunately prevented me from hearing the other talks this week, but I heard they were quite good. The week concluded last night at our Friday fast night supper with 'Rewind', a chance for the guests to share their thoughts on the talks they heard, followed by an optional holy hour in the chapel.

Another noteworthy events of the week was our annual summer day of recollection, held this past Monday. We have three of these days throughout the year, generally on Catherine Doherty's annivesary of death in December and on February 2, the feast of the Presentation, and then this one. The summer one is essentially due to our sense that this season in MH is one of intense activity and work--besides all the summer program stuff, there is a ton of work to be done on the farm, in the shops, in the gardens, at Cana, and so forth. So, just to communicate to our guests that we are not all about work here, and to communicate that to ourselves as well, we have this day of silence and prayer together in the heart of our busiest season.

The theme this year was on the importance of silence in the spiritual life. Fr. Blair Bernard gave an excellent homily about that at the Mass, and Fr. David May gave an equally excellent conference on it in the afternoon. Otherwise, we were simply silent, with adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and lots of time to pray, read, and rest in the Lord together. For me, these days always pass all too quickly, and by the time Vespers and Benediction rolls around I'm nowhere near done revelling in the beautiful silence of the community together.

So aside from all that, life has been marching along at a pretty good pace here. The early harvests are coming in--snow peas, zucchini, green beans. The first cut of hay is in, and looks pretty good. We really have had exceptional weather this summer--lots of moisture and warmth, but also the spells of dry weather needed for the haying.

There are lots of little things going on in just about every corner of the place, perhaps too many to mention, and many of which I don't know about until I see it happening. The carpenters also have their busy season now, as they do their outside projects, and we have a new women's outhouse in consequence, and a new shed for a wood-fired kiln (we have some superb potters in the community).

Anyhow, it's been a truly grand summer so far, and it's nowhere near over, so I'll be keeping you posted as it goes, and meanwhile be assured of my prayers for all of you and whatever your summer holds.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Peace in the World, Brick by Brick

There were two old men who dwelt together for many years and who never quarreled. Then one said to the other: "Let us pick a quarrel with each other like other men do. "I do not know how quarrels arise," answered his companion. So the other said to him: "Look, I will put a brick down here between us and I will say "This is mine." Then you can say "No it is not, it is mine." Then we will be able to have a quarrel." So they placed the brick between them and the first one said: "This is mine." His companion answered him: "This is not so, for it is mine." To this, the first one said: "If it is so and the brick is yours, then take it and go your way." And so they were not able to have a quarrel.
Desert Father Stories

Reflection – This is another favorite of mine, the story of the two monks unable to have a quarrel. It brings out with light humor the humanity of these men who at times seem so remote from us, so strange and odd in their utterances, so extreme in their way of life.

But these two guys decided that they really should have a quarrel, and so gave it their best shot. And in their utter failure to do it, they show us what all quarrelling is about, all the acrimony and strife and general nastiness of life. “I want it!” “No, I want it!” And so it goes… out come the boxing gloves and we go at it.

Acquisitiveness, possessiveness, self-will, self-seeking—this is the root of so much of the war of the world, the conflicts that tear and twist and ravage the human race. On the individual level, on the family level, on the national and international level, it is covetousness, selfishness, greed that cause us to hate, attack, and kill one another.

I want what I want when I want it how I want it. This is the attitude that sets us on a collision course with our neighbor, especially if he wants what he wants when he wants it how he wants it. Two people set on having their own way and unwilling to give in—‘if it is so and the brick is yours, then take it and go your way’—are going to be locked in a fight to the death.

Now it may seem like I am writing in a veiled and indirect way about the recent conflicts dominating the news—Israel and the Gaza, Ukraine and Russia—and I could rightly be accused of over-simplifying these large and complex struggles. But I am not actually writing about them.

As far as I am concerned, it all comes down to the individual, living next door or in the same house as another individual, and the deep choices we make about our own relationship to the world, to the other, to what we have and what we want to have and what is actually important enough to fight for. Peace in the world begins when I decide that what I want is to love God and my brothers and sisters in Madonna House, and that nothing else in my life even ranks a distant second to that desire.

But it is so easy to fall into all sorts of other desires, if not for physical possessions than for my agenda, my plans, my will to be done on earth and in heaven, too. It is a stubborn stain in our humanity that asserts itself repeatedly to insistently seek our own will in things, to grab that brick and bash the other guy over the head with it if need be.

To live without desires, or rather the only desire being to love, is the key to peace in the world, and this can only happen on an individual level. It is a person who chooses to love, not a group.

But this personal choice to love and surrender all other desires to love is only possible if we have entered the whole path of spiritual purification, asceticism, contemplation. Selfishness is far too deeply engrained in us otherwise. So the desert fathers are not just some nice esoteric study, some odd historical group who lived a very strange life a very long time ago, and maybe there are some monks today who live similarly and are equally odd and esoteric to us.

Rather, the monastic ideal, and the practices of monastic life, while they must be adapted to lay circumstances and exigencies, are utterly vital for the peace of the world, for the reconciliation of enemies, for the healing of ruptures in families, in communities, and yes, ultimately between nations and peoples.

While this is daunting for us, naturally, at the same time it means that we are not powerless in the face of the world and its apparent descent in our days into violence and hatred. Yes, the headlines are really quite grim these days coming out of Eastern Europe, Israel, and Iraq, and it is hard to see how things are going to turn around in a peaceful direction. We can and must pray for peace in the world. But I can also choose today to emulate these two holy monks in the story-take the brick and go in peace, my brother-and strive for detachment, dispossession, indifference towards my own will. And in doing so, I become an agent of peace in the world, part of the solution and not the problem.

Good idea? I think so. How about you?

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Blood to the End

The brethren also asked Abba Agathon "Amongst all good works, which is the virtue which requires the greatest effort?" He answered "Forgive me, but I think there is no labour 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 his journey. Whatever good work a man undertakes, if he perseveres in it, he will attain rest. But prayer is warfare to the last breath.
Desert Father Stories

Reflection – I have always loved this particular story, and often quote it to people in spiritual direction. The desert father stories tend to exist in various forms, due to the oral nature of the original tradition. The version I like of this story ends with ‘prayer is blood to the end’!

I like this because it helps clarify that there is not something terribly wrong with us if we happen to find prayer difficult, if we are reluctant to go to our time of prayer, find ourselves restless and distracted during that time of prayer, and even find a sensation of relief or easing of tension when we are leaving our time of prayer.

All of that may or may not be the case for you on any day, but all of those are common spiritual experiences, which can cause distress or feelings of guilt or discouragement to a person. The great thing about reading the desert fathers is that we find written in their experience our own experience, but reflected on from a deeply spiritual vantage point.

Prayer is blood to the end. While I have no doubt whatsoever that the devil and his legions have quite a bit to do with our struggle to pray and the kind of temptations and distractions we encounter in that, the evil spirits can gain no traction in us unless there is something in us for them to work with. And in the matter of prayer, unlike some of the other spiritual struggles that are more specific to this or that individual, we all have this weakness for them to exploit.

Namely, prayer is an action that directly counters and remedies that fundamental wound of our humanity, the basic problem out of which all our other problems arise. That is, we are alienated from God. We do not, somehow, even in light of the revelation and saving work of Christ, experience God as one who is near to us, one we can easily and readily be with, talk to, listen to, be in communion with.

Because of Jesus all of these are true and are ours, but the effects of the wound of sin in us remain, and so we do not know them to be true as we should. And so, when we come to pray, we are touching upon and experiencing the precise heart of the wound of humanity, the very place where it hurts, the ground zero of our fractured and fragmented being.

And so of course it is hard. Of course we don’t ‘want’ to pray. Of course we have to struggle to get there, find it hard to stay there, and flee from the battlefield of prayer after a time. A directee of mine likes to use the phrase ‘skittering away from God’, and that’s a pretty fair description of what many of us do. Kind of sidle up close to Him, and then skitter away, then creep a bit closer again, and then skitter away, then approach again… like a nervous horse or dodgy dog.

And yet this story also tells us that there is no more important spiritual work, nothing that is more vital to our growth in God and in virtue than prayer. And of course this all goes together. Since prayer touches the very heart of the wound of our being, of course it is only prayer that heals that wound of our being. 

Only prayer, constant recourse to God, constant turning of our face to Him, constant lifting up our mind and heart to Him, finding time in our day to do this exclusively, but striving from that to do it throughout the day and whatever activity it holds—only this (and we have to be clear about it—ONLY this) provides us with the grace, the help from God, the strength that is needed for the rest of the spiritual life: mastery of the passions and the mind, and from that the keeping of the commandments, and crowning that the practice of charity and works of mercy.

Without prayer, constant prayer, none of that happens, and our condition is a woeful one. But with prayer, with that daily choice to ‘bleed’ a little bit… well, we are not the only one bleeding here, are we? Our blood shedding, our choice daily to turn to God and do this difficult work, mingles with the blood of God who chose to turn to us in this radical way and shed his blood to overcome that division, that alienation.

But you’re never going to ‘feel’ like praying, just like Jesus probably didn’t ‘feel’ like being crucified. And so in all this there is a deep and serious matter of identification with Christ and following of Him, without which it doesn’t make very much sense and our Christian religion is not terribly attractive or persuasive. But in Christ, prayer is Blood to the end, a sharing in the redemptive and saving work of love of God in the world, and that’s something worth shedding a few drops for, don’t you think?