Monday, March 31, 2014

Let Me Re-Word That

Prayer is the offering in spirit that has done away with the sacrifices of old. ‘What good do I receive from the multiplicity of your sacrifices?’, asks God. ‘I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams, and I do not want the fat of lambs and the blood of bulls and goats. Who has asked for these from your hands?’

What God has asked for we learn from the Gospel. The hour will come, he says, when true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. God is a spirit, and so he looks for worshippers who are like himself.

We are true worshippers and true priests. We pray in spirit, and so offer in spirit the sacrifice of prayer. Prayer is an offering that belongs to God and is acceptable to him: it is the offering he has asked for, the offering he planned as his own.

We must dedicate this offering with our whole heart, we must fatten it on faith, tend it by truth, keep it unblemished through innocence and clean through chastity, and crown it with love. We must escort it to the altar of God in a procession of good works to the sound of psalms and hymns. Then it will gain for us all that we ask of God.
Since God asks for prayer offered in spirit and in truth, how can he deny anything to this kind of prayer? How great is the evidence of its power, as we read and hear and believe.

Of old, prayer was able to rescue from fire and beasts and hunger, even before it received its perfection from Christ. How much greater then is the power of Christian prayer. No longer does prayer bring an angel of comfort to the heart of a fiery furnace, or close up the mouths of lions, or transport to the hungry food from the fields. No longer does it remove all sense of pain by the grace it wins for others. But it gives the armour of patience to those who suffer, who feel pain, who are distressed. It strengthens the power of grace, so that faith may know what it is 
gaining from the Lord, and understand what it is suffering for the name of God.

Tertullian, Treatise on Prayer

Reflection – There are some real gems in the Office of Readings this time of year, and I thought I would spend the week sharing some of them that have struck me. This 2nd century treatise on prayer came up last week, and is especially beautiful.

Prayer as replacing the sacrificial animals is a rich image, and Tertullian has a good time (it seems to me) playing with it. The animals were fattened on grain; prayer is fattened on faith. The animals were housed and tended and kept safe by the shepherds; prayer is shepherded by truth. The animals were kept unblemished and clean; with prayer this happens through the fight against sin and impurity of heart; the animals were borne to the altar by their handlers; the ‘handlers’ of prayer are the psalms and hymns and inspired texts of the Word of God.

This is not just playful literary imagery, though. This is really exactly how it works. Especially, it seems to me, the whole connection of psalmody and scripture with the bearing of our prayers to the altar of God. Often we do feel a bit lost, a bit aimless in our praying. Many people struggle to know how to pray or flounder in prayer. The place of Scripture in the prayer life of the Christian cannot be overstated.

We are a people of the Word. Christ is the Word of God, and the whole of our prayer, if it is Christian prayer, is a gathering of all our human words into a union the One Divine Word, a gathering that itself is a work of the Spirit in us.

We are re-worded in prayer, all of our human knowledge and affections, longings and understandings, brought into, purified, corrected, strengthened, healed, restored, into the knowledge and love of the Trinity, made accessible to us in Jesus Christ.

But it is the specific use of Scripture, the Gospels and psalms in a particular way, to incarnate that ‘re-wording’ in concrete specific terms. The Gospels, since they are Christ’s own words and deeds. The psalms, because they were Christ’s own prayers in his life on earth. And so, while prayer has manifold forms and expressions, we can never get away from the ancient practice of lectio divina, of the reading of the Word of God in the context of deep personal prayer and meditation.

We are re-worded by this, and this re-wording is vital in all of our lives. All our words, so many words, so much verbiage (ahem, speaking for myself…), and all of it needs to be brought into The Word, submitted, corrected, purified. Without this, it’s all ‘vanity of vanities and a chasing after wind,’ as Ecclesiastes put it just the other day. But with this re-wording, this Christifying of our words and innermost being, that ‘wind’ becomes the Breath of God and the Spirit of love and truth bearing us into the heart of the Trinity. And that’s what prayer is really about, isn’t it?

Sunday, March 30, 2014

This Week in St Therese Institute

Well, no 'This Week in Madonna House' this time around for the simple reason that I wasn't there and have no idea what went on. I did want to share a little bit about my week in Bruno SK, since it was a most interesting and delightful experience.

The website is here. I have to say that I was thoroughly impressed with the place, the St. Therese Institute of Faith and Mission. There are a little over 30 students there, mostly in the first-year program, all in their late teens to mid-twenties.

I had eight second year students along with three other people, for a week long intensive course on liturgy and sacraments. This entailed my giving 19 hours worth of lectures, along with supervising an in-class presentation by the students. In between my lecture sessions, I was well taken up with pastoral ministry--reconciliation, Mass, exposition--and participated fully in the schedule and way of life of the Institute each day.

It is quite a place, offering an intensive nine-month experience of study, prayer, community life. The students receive in-depth courses on Christian doctrine, spirituality, scripture, Church history, Ignatian discernment... and quite a bit more. The 'head stuff' is accompanied by a pretty rigorous schedule of common prayer (Lauds, Mass, Adoration and rosary every day), and considerable pastoral mentoring from the team who run the institute.

The spirituality taught is a beautiful synthesis of St. Therese of Lisieux's little way, Madonna House, and Ignatian principles. Catherine Doherty's books are a significant part of the syllabus, and I found MH literature and references virtually everywhere I turned in the place.

Anyhow, a program can look good on paper (and their program looks very good on paper), but the proof of it is in the students. And by that standard, STI is doing a great work indeed. The young adults I just spent the week with were thoughtful, prayerful, happy, fun, and clearly had already received a tremendous education and formation.

As I said, I was with the second years, which is a new addition this year--it had been a one-year program until now. I had asked them to submit questions on liturgy to me beforehand, so I would know where they were at. The questions blew me away, honestly. "How can we make the liturgy more kerygmatic?" "How do you personally see yourself evangelizing in how you celebrate the Mass?" "What is a way forward to reconcile the traditionalist and charismatic approaches to liturgy?" Those are few of the ones that I remember.

So we had a great time together, as I took them through the theology, history, structure, symbolism of the liturgy, both in the Mass and in the other sacraments and liturgical expressions. From the course evaluations I received, it would appear that I worked them pretty hard, and basically drowned them in information, but they were eager for everything I gave them.

All of which is to say that there are great things happening in little Bruno Saskatchewan, an hour east of Saskatoon on the Canadian prairies. And if you are yourself a young adult, or know young adults looking for a solid formational experience to ground your faith more deeply both in your minds and in your hearts, STI is a good place to consider or suggest. Besides the formation program, there was also a fantastic community spirit, and it is clear that friendships are being forged for life among these young men and women.

And that's what I did this week!

Saturday, March 29, 2014

How To Lose Blog Readers in One Easy Step!

In the early Church, the main purpose of Lent was to prepare the ‘catechumen’, i.e., the newly converted Christian, for baptism which at that time was performed during the Paschal liturgy. But even when the Church rarely baptized adults and the institution of the catechumenate disappeared, the basic meaning of Lent remained the same.

For even though we are baptized, what we constantly lose and betray is precisely that which we received at Baptism. Therefore Easter is our return every year to our own baptism, whereas Lent is our preparation for that return—the slow and sustained effort to perform, at the end, our own ‘passage’ or ‘pascha’ into the new life in Christ.

If Lenten worship preserves even today its catechetical and baptismal character, it is not as ‘archeological’ remains of the past, but as something valid and essential for us. For each year Lent and Easter are, once again, the rediscovery and the recovery by us of what we were made through our own baptismal death and resurrection.

A journey, a pilgrimage! Yes, as we begin it, as we make the first step into the ‘bright sadness’ of Lent, we see—far, far away—the destination. It is the joy of Easter, it is the entrance into the glory of the Kingdom. And it is this vision, the foretaste of Easter, that makes Lent’s sadness bright and our Lenten effort a ‘spiritual spring’. The night may be dark and long, but all along the way a mysterious and radiant dawn seems to shine on the horizon. “Do not deprive us of our expectation, O Lover of man.’
Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent

Reflection – Well, I have discovered the sure-fire way to drive readers away from the blog: have a series of blog posts that are explicitly about Lent, in the 3rd week of Lent! It’s a good thing I really don’t care too much about traffic and stats on the blog, since it’s been downright amusing to see how the numbers fell this week.

Ah yes… Lent... still Lent, is it? How much longer…? Oh. And you’re going to talk about it all week?.. Oh. Well, see you later.

Many people around this time (myself most assuredly included) hit the wall pretty hard right about now, particularly if one is truly trying to do some form of serious fast or mortification. And perhaps it is a point in Lent where we just don’t want to hear about it anymore!

But for those few of youse who are sticking around, it is good to renew and refresh the vision, isn’t it? Even if we find perseverance in Lent a strain, the vision of Lent should never leave us. It is mercy that carries us through the desert to the joy of the Paschal feast, not our own non-existent moral and spiritual perfection.

We carry within us the reality of Easter, of course. It is not that somehow we go into a period where Christ is no longer risen, where the kingdom has no longer dawned in us, where we are returned to some kind of pre-baptismal state. Of course not – Christ is risen, eternally glorious, and we carry his risen life in our redeemed flesh continually.

It is only this that empowers us to visit the dry and barren lands of our hearts, the places of temptation and failure, refusal and rebellion. The devastating reality that we have fled from the risen Christ and his joy into paths of our own making, and that the realities of Easter victory and shameful defeat, eternal light and life and crushing darkness and death, mercy and sin all co-exist within our mortal frames.

In Lent we do journey through this bleak landscape for a season, but it is not so as to collapse into shame and guilt and despondency. It is, rather, to meet Christ there. The victory of Jesus is absolute in the world, and there is nothing—no sin, no failure, no darkness, no horrific tragedy—that the risen Christ has not gone out to meet, in the world and in our hearts.

And so Lent is sad, but it is bright. Lent is dark, but light in dawning. Lent is dry, but there are subterranean springs flowing throughout its desert landscapes. Lent is hard, but the hardness is already being met by the tender love of God in Christ. He is risen, and Lent is bearing us into His resurrection. Let it do so, and let us not lose heart in the doing of it.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Lent Is Not a Season

The old life, the life of sin and pettiness, is not easily overcome and changed. The Gospel expects and requires from man an effort of which, in his present state, he is virtually incapable. We are challenged with a vision, a goal, a way of life that is so much above our possibilities!

For even the Apostles, when they heard their Master’s teaching, asked Him in despair: ‘but how is this possible?’ it is not easy, indeed to reject a petty ideal of life made up of daily cares, of search for material goods, security, and pleasure, for an ideal of life in which nothing short of perfection is the goal: ‘be ye perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.’

This world through all its ‘media’ says: be happy, take it easy, follow the broad way. Christ in the Gospel says: choose the narrow way, fight and suffer, for this is the road to the only genuine happiness. And unless the Church helps, how can we make that awful choice, how can we repent and return to the glorious promise given us each year at Easter?

This is where the Great Lent comes in. This is the help extended to us by the Church, the school of repentance which alone will make it possible to receive Easter not as mere permission to eat, to drink, to relax, but indeed as the end of the ‘old’ in us, as our entrance into the ‘new’.

Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent

Reflection – It has been a very good week here in Bruno SK, at the St. Therese Institute of Faith and Mission… but it has been also a very full one, which leaves me somewhat short on brilliant inspiration this morning.

At the same time, I hate to let the blog lag too much. Schmemann here certainly does remind us of just what a very high standard of life the Gospel calls us to. We are made for heroism and totality; we would prefer to lapse into something much less. We are made to be saints of God; we would prefer comfort and compromise. We are made to die and rise with Christ; we would prefer some other path, thank you very much.

Well, that’s just our humanity and its broken voice in us. When we talk about Great Lent (or simply Lent, in our Catholic tradition), we are not talking so much about a season, a mere space of time marked by certain disciplines and prayers. We are not talking about a set of practices, vital as they are: fasting, almsgiving, praying.

It is not a season or a fast or anything we can do that is going to make the great difference for us, carrying us from the broad (and yet paradoxically narrow) path of human limitation and mediocrity to the narrow (and yet paradoxically liberating) way of the Gospel.

It is the Holy Spirit who does this in us, and Lent is nothing if it is not a means to open ourselves, dispose ourselves, for the action of the Spirit. This is the whole point of the matter. We eat less, go without, so as to feel the emptiness within that makes us cry out to be filled. We pray more, or better, so that this crying out is strong in us. We love, and in striving to love experience our frailty and weakness, so that our radical need for God may be made manifest.

It is all about the grace of God and coming into that grace. That is Easter in us – the coming into it is Lent. We are trying (or at least God asks us to try) to live a life that we cannot live. The tension and strain of that is normal, expected, unavoidable. Lent helps us to clarify this tension and direct it rightly. Easter is, as he says, not just lots of food and drink and a big party, but the resolution of that tension not by some brilliant insight or heroic action on our part, but in the coming of God to us. Christ is risen, and only in that resurrection do we come into the fullness of life for which he made us.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

How Can We Love What We Do Not Know?

Indeed, we live as if He never came. This is the only real sin, the bottomless sadness and tragedy of our nominal Christianity. If we realize this, then we may understand what Easter is and why it needs and presupposes Lent. For we may then understand that the liturgical traditions of the Church, all its cycles and services, exist, first of all, in order to help us recover the vision and the taste of that new life which we so easily lose and betray, so that we may repent and return to it.

How can we love and desire something that we do not know? How can we put above everything else in our life something which we have not seen and enjoyed? In short: how can we seek a Kingdom of which we have no idea? It is the worship of the Church that was from the very beginning and still is our entrance into, our communion with, the new life of the Kingdom.

It is through her liturgical life that the Church reveals to us something of that which ‘the ear has not heard, the eye has not seen, and what has not yet entered the heart of man, but which God has prepared for those who love Him.’ And in the center of that liturgical life, as its heart and climax, as the sun whose rays penetrate everywhere, stands Pascha.

It is the door opened every year into the splendor of Christ’s Kingdom, the foretaste of the eternal joy that awaits us, the glory of the victory which already, although invisibly, fills the whole creation: ‘death is no more.’

Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent

Reflection – OK, back to Lent after yesterday’s beautiful feast day! Although really, it is all connected. ‘We live as if He never came’ – this is the deep reason for Lent and Easter, that somehow God can become incarnate in the womb of Mary, can live and move among us, suffer and die for us, rise and ascend in glory to save us, send His Spirit upon us to live within us… and it doesn’t necessarily seem to matter much to us.

There can be that terrible ‘response’, if it’s even worthy of being called that, to the whole panoply of the mysteries of the Christian faith, of the life of Jesus and all it means and is in the world. The response of… ‘well, that’s nice… I guess… (shrug…)’ Even if a nominal faith is maintained in some fashion, we can seem to be so fundamentally indifferent, sluggish, half-hearted about the whole affair, that it’s hard to see how ‘faith’ enters into the picture.

Of course not everyone is like that, and the worst thing in the world we can do is look at anyone else’s response besides our own. How much does the mystery of Christ set my heart on fire, transform my life so that it’s a sharing in His life in every regard? To what degree are my thoughts, my affections, my energies directed by and taken up into the life and love of Christ living in me by His Spirit? Those are the questions we are always invited to ask ourselves, and not just in Lent either. It is never about the virtues or failures of the other person, but always a call to examine our own consciences.

Because spiritual torpor, spiritual sluggishness is always a peril for us, the Church does send us these liturgical seasons to stir up something in us. It remains for the local church community to make the liturgies as outwardly beautiful as they are in their interior essence, but the reality is that to simply walk through the Lenten season as the Church lays it out for us, to take the readings and prayers and make them our own, and then do the same with Easter, to allow the Church in its liturgical life to shape and guide our own life—this is one powerful way to stir up love of God and a grateful, prayerful, adoring heart in ourselves. How can we love what we do not know? The liturgical life of the Church is not the only means by which we come to know the mystery of Christ and His kingdom, but it is one powerful way to do so.

In Lent the focus is shaking off this laziness, this torpor, this terrible spiritual heaviness that drags us down into indifference and coldness of heart towards God and neighbour. In Easter it is to behold the beauty of God, radiant in the risen Christ, and to confess our faith in his victory and life over death and defeat. But in both, the movement is the same, and so as we head into this second half of Lent, let us not lose heart but continue our discipline, so that the Lord can truly be incarnate in us more deeply, and our lives can more and more manifest His life in every regard.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Feast of Human Dignity

The gift of God is God – He who as the Holy Spirit is communion with us. ‘Full of grace’ therefore means, once again, that Mary is a wholly open human being, one who has placed herself in God’s hands boldly, limitlessly, and without fear for her own fate.

It means she lives wholly by and in relation to God. She is a listener and a prayer, whose mind and soul are alive to the manifold ways in which the living God quietly calls to her. She is one who prays and stretches forth wholly to meet God; she is therefore a lover…

When man’s relationship to God, the soul’s open availability to him, is characterized as ‘faith’, this word expresses the fact that the infinite distance between Creator and creature is not blurred in the relation of the human I to the divine Thou. 

It means that the model of ‘partnership’, which has become so dear to us, breaks down when it comes to God, because it cannot sufficiently express the majesty of God and the hiddenness of his working. It is precisely the man who has been opened up entirely into God who comes to accept God’s otherness and the hiddenness of his will, which can pierce our will like a sword. 

Joseph Ratzinger, Mary, the Church at the Source

Reflection – Happy Feast Day! It is the great and glorious day of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the great feast of the Incarnation, when the will of God and the fiat of Our Lady brought forth into the world this most miraculous event since the creation of the world: God becoming man for love of us and for our salvation.

Then-Cardinal Ratzinger reflects so very deeply on this here in this luminous passage from a luminous book. It is such a beautiful passage, written with his trademark lucid clarity that I have little to add to it, really. It is the openness of Mary that, perhaps, is the fit object of our meditation this day. Mary as the wide open space for God, a human heart, finite, frail, poor, and yet she holds nothing back, refuses God nothing.

We see in Mary, then, just what humanity is made of, what our true capacity is, undiminished by sin and stagnation, refusal and artificial self-limitation. The human person unfettered and free, totally given and totally open to God, is capable of being a vessel of God’s life in the world.

God is God, and He is the efficient cause, the prime mover of the Incarnation, but Mary shows us that this is what God wants to do, chooses to do, what He has made humanity for in a very essential and real sense. He has made us to bear Himself into the world. Creatures of flesh, mortal, passible, inconstant—and yet this is the real story of humanity, the real truth of our being.

There is a whole anthropology in this short passage, a whole vision of what human life is, that is well worth meditating on and in the deepest sense of the phrase, taking to heart. Open, praying, alive, responsive, listening, loving, stretching forth, believing—this is what a human person in truth is to be. When we live elsewise, when we move in some other mode of being and acting we are not ‘merely being human’, but truly lapsing into being sub-human.

So if this is the feast of the Incarnation of God as man, in a sense it is also the great feast of our humanity, our human dignity, our human vocation, our human nature in its truest expression. So, rejoice today in being human, rejoice that God has made us thus, and that His love and His generosity (and His mercy, because how many times have we refused Him!) desire to do in us what He did in Mary, in a different way for sure, but the same thing in essence.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. May we all say yes today to God, so His word can live in our lives today.

Monday, March 24, 2014

We Forget, We Forget, We Forget

‘Christ is risen and life reigneth! Christ is risen and not one dead remains in the grave!’ Such is the faith of the Church, affirmed and made evident by her countless saints. Is it not our daily experience, however, that this faith is very seldom ours, that all the time we lose and betray the ‘new life’ which we received as a gift, and that in fact we live as if Christ did not rise from the dead, as if that unique event had no meaning whatsoever for us?

All this because of our weakness, because of the impossibility for us to live constantly by ‘faith, hope, and love’ on that level to which Christ raised us when He said: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.” We simply forget all this—so busy are we, so immersed in our daily preoccupations—and because we forget, we fail.

And though this forgetfulness, failure, and sin, our life becomes ‘old’ again—petty, dark, and ultimately meaningless—a meaningless journey toward a meaningless end. We manage to forget even death and then, all of a sudden, in the midst of our ‘enjoying life’ it comes to us: horrible, inescapable, senseless. We may from time to time acknowledge and confess our various ‘sins’, yet we cease to refer our life to that new life which Christ revealed and gave to us. Indeed, we live as if He never came. This is the only real sin, the bottomless sadness and tragedy of our nominal Christianity.
Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent

Reflection – Greetings from sunny (and rather cold) Bruno SK, on the wide open Canadian prairies. I arrived late Saturday evening, and began the course yesterday evening. St. Therese Institute of Faith and Mission is a wonderful place, filled with young people of faith and keenness—I am very impressed with the work of formation they are doing here.

Meanwhile, I thought I would continue our Lenten reflection on this blog with a few excerpts from the book Great Lent by Alexander Schmemann. This book is one of the Madonna House classics—for years we have read excerpts of it at our post-lunch spiritual reading.

This excerpt is from his introduction, where he outlines that the point of Lent—the whole and sole point of this season—is Easter. We do not engage in Lenten disciplines of fasting and penance, austerity and sobriety of life, just to make ourselves unhappy for a space of time, so that we can enjoy life again come Easter Sunday.

Nor is Easter simply ‘permission to eat chocolate time again!’ The whole annual cycle of Easter and the Lenten fast that precedes it is meant to plunge us into the reality, the real, hard core of reality of life, which is the Paschal Mystery, God penetrating our human condition to its darkest and most tragic depths, and in that radiating life and hope and joy that is stronger than those deathly depths.

We need to be plunged into it periodically, in the time and space we call the liturgical year, for the simple reason Schmemann points out here, a reason that I think any reasonably reflective Christian is well aware of.

We forget. Some of the monastic fathers of the Eastern Church count forgetfulness among the deadly sins that afflict humanity. We forget, we forget, we forget. We receive a grace of faith, an experience of God, a time of conversion, a season of joy and light in our lives… and then it slips away from us.

Life happens. Hard seasons succeed the more pleasant ones. Times of labor and strain, heartache and hard work, ‘busyness’ (that modern bugaboo)… and we forget. We forget that Christ is risen and that his resurrection is our life. His death is our hope. His glory is our glorification.

Instead, ‘we live as if He never came.’ And in that living, we attach ourselves to all sorts of created consolations: food, drink, sex, money, diversions and distractions, and all sorts of other things. And so, Lent, leading to Easter. To detach ourselves from whatever we have deemed we need to be detached from, not for the sake of detachment, but to attach ourselves more profoundly, more joyously, more faithfully—to Christ.

I am well aware from my 47 years of Lents that it is around week 3 that the Lenten discipline starts to really wear on us. Easter still seems a long way off; it seems to have been Lent for a long time already. So it is good to refocus on what it is we are doing here, what the point of it all is, why we are bothering to struggle with our appetites and lack of self-control. And that is what I will be writing about this week, for the most part.