Pray for Egypt’s Christians…

It was nighttime and 10,000 Islamists were marching down the most heavily Christian street in this ancient Egyptian city, chanting “Islamic, Islamic, despite the Christians.” A half-dozen kids were spray-painting “Boycott the Christians” on walls, supervised by an adult.

While Islamists are on the defensive in Cairo following the military coup that ousted President Mohammed Morsi, in Assiut and elsewhere in Egypt’s deep south they are waging a stepped-up hate campaign, claiming the country’s Christian minority somehow engineered Morsi’s downfall.

“Tawadros is a dog,” says a spray-painted insult, referring to Pope Tawadros II, patriarch of the Copts, as Egypt’s Christians are called. Christian homes, stores and places of worship have been marked with large painted crosses. Read more…

The Vocation to Furious Love

“Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites by keeping them both and keeping them both furious.” – GK Chesterton

I remember back in the 1980s when I was struggling to discern my vocational path. It was only months after coming to faith and I was consumed with a desire to serve God, but had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I was immensely fortunate to have been offered an opportunity to present my conundrums to a wise and exceedingly kind Trappist monk. I can only imagine how this 20 year old college student, brimming with idealistic zeal, must have appeared to him! I remember distinctly saying to him at the end of my personal history, “Okay, so my real question is, should I become a priest, a deacon, a monk or should I marry?”

K.I.S.S.

I wanted a simple, direct and unambiguous answer from this holy guru that would not implicate me in any sort of misty ambiguity, nuanced thinking or protracted discerning struggle. I guess I was really hoping for him to have a mystical locution.

And I’ll never ever forget his bizarre and deadly serious answer to my very clear question: “Yes.”

After a long, monastic-style pause that my kids would call “awkward,” he said this (cobbled together from my journal notes):

Tom, you should be any one of those if you find in it the best way for you to love God above all things and your neighbor as yourself. That’s the whole point of you’re decision. You’re discernment of God’s calling isn’t like an Easter egg hunt, where you’re searching for some secretly hidden answer located outside you, but rather it’s the discovery of what God has already planted within you; into your unique history of pain and joy, into your personality and all your gifts that He has given you as a capacity to love as He created Tom to love as no one else could. And don’t look for the ‘easy way’ since that love God demands will be sacrifice, will always be more about others than about you, since vocation isn’t first of all about your personal fulfillment but about serving God and serving neighbor.

First, you have to live your faith out now and get some history to your faith — it’s so new for you! And as you continue on, look around you at the needs out there that present themselves, look within your soul and come to know what gifts you have to offer; listen to your heart’s movements as you pray and share these all with a trusted guide; and, once you do come clear as to where you are being led, as best you can, freely say yes. Then you will start pushing the plow without looking back. But remember, you have a long way to go; you must work hard on getting your life in order now, a life put together in the light of faith; and you need to practice this in the real world for a few years before you can think of discerning a life’s vocation. Build the foundations first before you try to build the castle.

Of course, at the time I found this all very opaque and unhelpful toward fulfilling my aspiration to be like St. Matthew: “Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him.” I thought, “I have all this fire in me, I am good to go and you don’t think I’m ready to choose now?” 26 years after this conversation, I am absolutely certain I was not; and life after that day proved beyond a shadow of doubt that his words absolutely true.

In fact, as I prayerfully reflected on this story, I found myself recalling all of the mini bonfires I used to build in our yard when I was young. I always enjoyed burning the small twigs and the straw for quick effect, a big fire, fast and furious, but soon to expire. I knew that the the fire would really only last if I inserted into the roaring blaze some larger logs that would take some time to catch. But if I was patient, attentive and careful, eventually those thick logs would themselves be consumed by the fire and even come to glow red-hot in their deepest core.

During those years of discernment and personal growth, I hated, using Chesterton’s phrase, living between furious opposites; especially between “already, not-yet.” I preferred, and still prefer more often than not, to have all of life’s inner and outer tensions eased, and my life’s path made clear, tension-less and simple. But God always leads otherwise, the God whose covenant sign is to be found in those “arms outstretched between heaven and earth,” as our Eucharistic Prayer so beautifully says it.

At the time I wanted from this holy monk a divine “medium” to manifest my destiny and command obedience, not a counsel to practice and perfect the art of sacrificial love through careful, patient, arduous and freely chosen discernment of God’s gentle lead per crucem ad lucem, “through the cross to the light.”

Love: the Way of all Vocations

After we had this discussion, he asked me to read a selection from St. Therese’s Story of a Soul. Though I found it very moving, I still didn’t totally grasp the implications for me. Now, its light is blinding. To this very day I annually thank this monk with a Christmas card for his wisdom and love.

I’ll share a portion of that selection from Therese here, even at the risk of testing your time-constraints for reading my rambles.

To be your Spouse, O Jesus, to be a Carmelite, by my union with you to be the mother of souls, should content me… yet it does not… Without doubt, these three priviliges are indeed my vocation: Carmelite, spouse, and mother. And yet I feel in myself other vocations—I feel myself called to be a soldier, priest, apostle, doctor of the church, martyr. Finally, I feel the need, the desire to perform all the most heroic deeds for you, Jesus… I feel in my soul the courage of a crusader, of a soldier for the Church, and I wish to die on the field of battle in defense of the Church…

I feel in me the vocation of a priest! With what love, O Jesus, would I bear you in my hands, when at the sound of my words you came down from heaven! With what love would I give you to souls! But alas, just as much as I desire to be a priest, I admire and envy the humility of St. Francis of Assisi, and feel the call to imitate him in refusing the sublime dignity of the Priesthood.

Dreaming of the tortures in which Christians are to share at the time of the Antichrist, I feel my heart thrill, and I would like these tortures to be kept for me… Jesus, Jesus, if I wanted to write all my desires, I would have to take your Book of Life, where the deeds of your saints are recorded: all these deeds I would like to accomplish for you.

At prayer these desires made me suffer a true martydom. I opened the Epistles of St. Paul to seek some relief. The 12th and 13th chapters of the First Epistle to the Corinthians fell before my eyes. I read, in the first, that not all can be apostles, prophets, and doctors, etc., that the Church is composed of different members, and that the eye cannot also be at the same time the hand.

The answer was clear, but it did not satisfy my desires, it did not give me peace…. Without being discouraged I continued my reading, and this phrase comforted me: “Earnestly desire the more perfect gifts. And I show you a still more excellent way” (1 Cor 12:31). And the Apostle explains how all gifts, even the most perfect, are nothing without Love… that charity is the excellent waythat leads surely to God. At last I had found rest…. Considering the mystical Body of the Church, I had not recognized myself in any of the members described by St. Paul, or rather, I wanted to recognize myself in all… Charity gave me the key to my vocation. I understood that if the Church has a body composed of different members, the noblest and most necessary of all the members would not be lacking to her. I understood that the Church has a heart, and that this heart burns with Love. I understood that Love alone makes its members act, that if this Love were to be extinguished, the Apostles would no longer preach the Gospel, the Martyrs would refuse to shed their blood… I understood that Love embraces all vocations, that Love is all things, that it embraces all times and all places… in a word, that it is eternal!

Then in the excess of my delirious joy, I cried out: “O Jesus, my Love, at last I have found my vocation, my vocation is Love!… Yes, I have found my place in the Church, and it is you, O my God, who have given me this place… in the heart of the Church, my Mother, I will be Love!…. Thus I shall be all things: thus my dream shall be realized!!!”

I am a child… It is not riches or glory (not even the glory of Heaven) that this child asks for… No, she asks for Love. She knows but one desire: to love you, Jesus. Glorious deeds are forbidden her; she cannot preach the Gospel or shed her blood… But what does that matter, her brothers work in her place, and she, a little child, stays close to the throne of the King and Queen, and loves for her brothers who are in the combat… But how shall she show her love, since love proves itself by deeds? Well! the little child will strew flowers, she will embalm the royal throne with their fragrance, she will sing with a silver voice the canticle of Love.

Yes, my Beloved, I wish to spend my life thus… I have no other means of proving my love except by strewing flowers, that is to say, letting no little sacrifice pass, no look, no word–profiting by the littlest actions, and doing them out of love. I wish to suffer out of love and to rejoice out of love; thus I shall strew flowers before your throne. I shall not find one without scattering its petals before you… and in strewing my flowers I will sing (can one weep in doing so joyous an action?) I will sing, even if my roses must be gathered from among thorns; and the longer and sharper the thorns, the sweeter shall be my song.

B16′s Final Words

Here are excerpts from his last address as pope yesterday to more than 150,000 people in St Peter’s Square, translated by Reuters from Italian:

“I feel I am carrying all of you with me in prayer … gathering together every meeting, every trip, every pastoral visit. I gather everything and everyone in prayer to entrust them to the Lord, because we have full knowledge of his will in every wisdom and spiritual knowledge, and so that we can behave in a manner worthy of him and his love, so that every good work bears fruit.”

“There were moments of joy and light, but also moments that were not easy … there were moments, as there were throughout the history of the Church, when the seas were rough and the wind blew against us and it seemed that the Lord was sleeping.”

“I took this step in the full knowledge of its gravity and rarity but with a profound serenity of spirit”.

“In these last few months I felt that my strength had diminished, and I asked God earnestly, in prayer, to enlighten me to make the best decision, not for my sake, but for the good of the Church. I took this step in the full knowledge of its gravity and its newness, but with a deep serenity of the spirit. To love the Church also means having the courage to make difficult choices, painful choices, always putting the good of the Church before our good.”

“I am not returning to private life, a life of travel, meetings, receptions, conferences and so on. I am not coming down from the cross, but remaining in a new way before the crucified Lord. I don’t have the power to govern the Church anymore, but in prayerful service, I remain, so to speak, in the yard of St. Peter”

“I will continue to follow the path of the Church with prayer and reflection … I ask you to remember me to God, and above all to pray for the cardinals, called to such a weighty task, and for the new successor of the apostle Peter. May the Lord accompany him with light and the force of his spirit”.

“The decision I have made, after much prayer, is the fruit of a serene trust in God’s will and a deep love of Christ’s Church. I will continue to accompany the Church with my prayers, and I ask each of you to pray for me and for the new Pope. In union with Mary and all the saints, let us entrust ourselves in faith and hope to God, who continues to watch over our lives and to guide the journey of the Church and our world along the paths of history.”

Lead us not into temptation, but just in case….

On this Sunday of Jesus’ Temptation, I always like to prayerfully reflect on St. Ignatius’ first two Rules for discernment, and look to see where they are at play in my life. The “enemy” he speaks of refers to demonic evil, while the “good spirit” refers either to angels or to the Holy Spirit.

Iggy Rules

The first Rule: In the persons who go from mortal sin to mortal sin, the enemy is commonly used to propose to them apparent pleasures, making them imagine sensual delights and pleasures in order to hold them more and make them grow in their vices and sins. In these persons the good spirit uses the opposite method, pricking them and biting their consciences through the process of reason.

The second: In the persons who are going on intensely cleansing their sins and rising from good to better in the service of God our Lord, it is the method contrary to that in the first Rule, for then it is the way of the evil spirit to bite, sadden and put obstacles, disquieting with false reasons, that one may not go on; and it is proper to the good to give courage and strength, consolations, tears, inspirations and quiet, easing, and putting away all obstacles, that one may go on in well doing.

In the first rule, the evil spirit encourages the rationalization of one’s choice to remain in habitual sin, e.g. “it’s not so bad,” “they don’t understand,” “there’s plenty of time to change,” “they’re all hypocrites anyway,” “you deserve it,” “being good is no fun.”

In the second rule, the evil spirit encourages despair over one’s frailty in the pursuit of virtue, e.g. “you’ll never change,” “you’re a fraud,” “God has rejected you,” “holiness is a pipe dream,” “it’s too demanding.”

Practicals

The proper response to being thus tempted? In very simple terms: Reveal your temptations to a trusted confessor, spiritual mentor or spiritual friend and keep nothing of your temptation secret. Repent often, making St. Isaac of Syria’s dictum real in your life: “The purpose of life in our fallen world is repentance.” Trust wholly in God’s mercy, not in your own power. Pray ceaselessly for God’s consoling compassion to lift you from those dark places, and press on after falling by boldly applying your will to the virtue that opposes your tempting vice (e.g. respond to greed with generosity).

All of these strategies come down to humility, the ground of all virtue that plants our roots in the dirt of reality; the soil of truth. St. Antony of Egypt got this: “I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said, groaning, “What can get one through such snares?” Then I heard a voice saying to me, “Humility.”

A last thought — I always highly commend reading Fr Gallagher’s excellent intro to Ignatius’ rules for discernment to get the meat and potatoes. You will not regret reading this book and I guarantee it will open your eyes and offer you tools to see God’s leading through the thickets of temptation that befall everyone who sets their hands to the plow.

Where do we go from here?

In response to that question, I heard someone at the seminary say, ‘Nowhere, we just keep doing what we’re doing.’

I can imagine few better texts, other than Holy Scripture, to prayerfully munch on these days than this Letter of Mathetes to Diognetus, written by a late 2nd century Christian theologian in defense of Christians living in the Roman empire.

What he speaks of is the singular witness of the faithful Elect, those who live in Christ. It’s really a Magna Carta for the new evangelization, as it contains the mode of Christian life that converted the empire.

Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.

And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives.

They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law. Christians love all men, but all men persecute them. Condemned because they are not understood, they are put to death, but raised to life again. They live in poverty, but enrich many; they are totally destitute, but possess an abundance of everything. They suffer dishonor, but that is their glory. They are defamed, but vindicated. A blessing is their answer to abuse, deference their response to insult. For the good they do they receive the punishment of malefactors, but even then they, rejoice, as though receiving the gift of life. They are attacked by the Jews as aliens, they are persecuted by the Greeks, yet no one can explain the reason for this hatred.

To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body. As the soul is present in every part of the body, while remaining distinct from it, so Christians are found in all the cities of the world, but cannot be identified with the world. As the visible body contains the invisible soul, so Christians are seen living in the world, but their religious life remains unseen. The body hates the soul and wars against it, not because of any injury the soul has done it, but because of the restriction the soul places on its pleasures. Similarly, the world hates the Christians, not because they have done it any wrong, but because they are opposed to its enjoyments.

Christians love those who hate them just as the soul loves the body and all its members despite the body’s hatred. It is by the soul, enclosed within the body, that the body is held together, and similarly, it is by the Christians, detained in the world as in a prison, that the world is held together. The soul, though immortal, has a mortal dwelling place; and Christians also live for a time amidst perishable things, while awaiting the freedom from change and decay that will be theirs in heaven. As the soul benefits from the deprivation of food and drink, so Christians flourish under persecution. Such is the Christian’s lofty and divinely appointed function, from which he is not permitted to excuse himself.

What’s Up Doc? St. Hildegard!

By Guest Blogger Pope Benedict XVI

[Pope Benedict opened the Synod on the New Evangelization on October 7 and declared two new doctors of the Church, St. John of Avila (1500-1569) and St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179)]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

In 1988, on the occasion of the Marian Year, Venerable John Paul II wrote an Apostolic Letter entitled Mulieris Dignitatem on the precious role that women have played and play in the life of the Church. “The Church”, one reads in it, “gives thanks for all the manifestations of the feminine ‘genius’ which have appeared in the course of history, in the midst of all peoples and nations; she gives thanks for all the charisms that the Holy Spirit distributes to women in the history of the People of God, for all the victories which she owes to their faith, hope and charity: she gives thanks for all the fruits of feminine holiness” (n. 31).

A Saint’s Life

Various female figures stand out for the holiness of their lives and the wealth of their teaching even in those centuries of history that we usually call the Middle Ages. Today I would like to begin to present one of them to you: St Hildegard of Bingen, who lived in Germany in the 12th century. She was born in 1098, probably at Bermersheim, Rhineland, not far from Alzey, and died in 1179 at the age of 81, in spite of having always been in poor health. Hildegard belonged to a large noble family and her parents dedicated her to God from birth for his service. At the age of eight she was offered for the religious state (in accordance with the Rule of St Benedict, chapter 59), and, to ensure that she received an appropriate human and Christian formation, she was entrusted to the care of the consecrated widow Uda of Gölklheim and then to Jutta of Spanheim who had taken the veil at the Benedictine Monastery of St Disibodenberg. A small cloistered women’s monastery was developing there that followed the Rule of St Benedict. Hildegard was clothed by Bishop Otto of Bamberg and in 1136, upon the death of Mother Jutta who had become the community magistra (Prioress), the sisters chose Hildegard to succeed her. She fulfilled this office making the most of her gifts as a woman of culture and of lofty spirituality, capable of dealing competently with the organizational aspects of cloistered life.

A few years later, partly because of the increasing number of young women who were knocking at the monastery door, Hildegard broke away from the dominating male monastery of St Disibodenburg with her community, taking it to Bingen, calling it after St Rupert and here she spent the rest of her days. Her manner of exercising the ministry of authority is an example for every religious community: she inspired holy emulation in the practice of good to such an extent that, as time was to tell, both the mother and her daughters competed in mutual esteem and in serving each other.

During the years when she was superior of the Monastery of St Disibodenberg, Hildegard began to dictate the mystical visions that she had been receiving for some time to the monk Volmar, her spiritual director, and to Richardis di Strade, her secretary, a sister of whom she was very fond. As always happens in the life of true mystics, Hildegard too wanted to put herself under the authority of wise people to discern the origin of her visions, fearing that they were the product of illusions and did not come from God. She thus turned to a person who was most highly esteemed in the Church in those times: St Bernard of Clairvaux, of whom I have already spoken in several Catecheses. He calmed and encouraged Hildegard.

However, in 1147 she received a further, very important approval. Pope Eugene III, who was presiding at a Synod in Trier, read a text dictated by Hildegard presented to him by Archbishop Henry of Mainz. The Pope authorized the mystic to write down her visions and to speak in public. From that moment Hildegard’s spiritual prestige continued to grow so that her contemporaries called her the “Teutonic prophetess”. This, dear friends, is the seal of an authentic experience of the Holy Spirit, the source of every charism: the person endowed with supernatural gifts never boasts of them, never flaunts them and, above all, shows complete obedience to the ecclesial authority. Every gift bestowed by the Holy Spirit, is in fact intended for the edification of the Church and the Church, through her Pastors, recognizes its authenticity.

Visio Divina

Hildegard was highly distinguished for her spiritual wisdom and the holiness of her life. Her mystical visions resemble those of the Old Testament prophets: expressing herself in the cultural and religious categories of her time, she interpreted the Sacred Scriptures in the light of God, applying them to the various circumstances of life. Thus all those who heard her felt the need to live a consistent and committed Christian lifestyle. In a letter to St Bernard the mystic from the Rhineland confesses: “The vision fascinates my whole being: I do not see with the eyes of the body but it appears to me in the spirit of the mysteries…. I recognize the deep meaning of what is expounded on in the Psalter, in the Gospels and in other books, which have been shown to me in the vision. This vision burns like a flame in my breast and in my soul and teaches me to understand the text profoundly” (Epistolarium pars prima I-XC: CCCM 91).

Hildegard’s mystical visions have a rich theological content. They refer to the principal events of salvation history, and use a language for the most part poetic and symbolic. For example, in her best known work entitled Scivias, that is, “You know the ways” she sums up in 35 visions the events of the history of salvation from the creation of the world to the end of time. With the characteristic traits of feminine sensitivity, Hildegard develops at the very heart of her work the theme of the mysterious marriage between God and humanity that is brought about in the Incarnation. On the tree of the Cross take place the nuptials of the Son of God with the Church, his Bride, filled with grace and the ability to give new children to God, in the love of the Holy Spirit (cf. Visio tertia: PL 197, 453c).

From these brief references we already see that theology too can receive a special contribution from women because they are able to talk about God and the mysteries of faith using their own particular intelligence and sensitivity. I therefore encourage all those who carry out this service to do it with a profound ecclesial spirit, nourishing their own reflection with prayer and looking to the great riches, not yet fully explored, of the medieval mystic tradition, especially that represented by luminous models such as Hildegard of Bingen.

The Rhenish mystic is also the author of other writings, two of which are particularly important since, like Scivias, they record her mystical visions: they are the Liber vitae meritorum (Book of the merits of life) and the Liber divinorum operum (Book of the divine works), also called De operatione Dei. In the former she describes a unique and powerful vision of God who gives life to the cosmos with his power and his light. Hildegard stresses the deep relationship that exists between man and God and reminds us that the whole creation, of which man is the summit, receives life from the Trinity. The work is centered on the relationship between virtue and vice, which is why human beings must face the daily challenge of vice that distances them on their way towards God and of virtue that benefits them. The invitation is to distance themselves from evil in order to glorify God and, after a virtuous existence, enter the life that consists “wholly of joy”. In her second work that many consider her masterpiece she once again describes creation in its relationship with God and the centrality of the human being, expressing a strong Christo-centrism with a biblical-Patristic flavour. The Saint, who presents five visions inspired by the Prologue of the Gospel according to St John, cites the words of the Son to the Father: “The whole task that you wanted and entrusted to me I have carried out successfully, and so here I am in you and you in me and we are one” (Pars III, Visio X: PL 197, 1025a).

Eco-theology

Finally, in other writings Hildegard manifests the versatility of interests and cultural vivacity of the female monasteries of the Middle Ages, in a manner contrary to the prejudices which still weighed on that period. Hildegard took an interest in medicine and in the natural sciences as well as in music, since she was endowed with artistic talent. Thus she composed hymns, antiphons and songs, gathered under the title: Symphonia Harmoniae Caelestium Revelationum (Symphony of the Harmony of Heavenly Revelations), that were performed joyously in her monasteries, spreading an atmosphere of tranquility and that have also come down to us. For her, the entire creation is a symphony of the Holy Spirit who is in himself joy and jubilation.

The popularity that surrounded Hildegard impelled many people to seek her advice. It is for this reason that we have so many of her letters at our disposal. Many male and female monastic communities turned to her, as well as Bishops and Abbots. And many of her answers still apply for us. For instance, Hildegard wrote these words to a community of women religious: “The spiritual life must be tended with great dedication. At first the effort is burdensome because it demands the renunciation of caprices of the pleasures of the flesh and of other such things. But if she lets herself be enthralled by holiness a holy soul will find even contempt for the world sweet and lovable. All that is needed is to take care that the soul does not shrivel” (E. Gronau, Hildegard. Vita di una donna profetica alle origini dell’età moderna, Milan 1996, p. 402). And when the Emperor Frederic Barbarossa caused a schism in the Church by supporting at least three anti-popes against Alexander iii, the legitimate Pope, Hildegard did not hesitate, inspired by her visions, to remind him that even he, the Emperor, was subject to God’s judgement. With fearlessness, a feature of every prophet, she wrote to the Emperor these words as spoken by God: “You will be sorry for this wicked conduct of the godless who despise me! Listen, O King, if you wish to live! Otherwise my sword will pierce you!” (ibid., p. 412).

With the spiritual authority with which she was endowed, in the last years of her life Hildegard set out on journeys, despite her advanced age and the uncomfortable conditions of travel, in order to speak to the people of God. They all listened willingly, even when she spoke severely: they considered her a messenger sent by God. She called above all the monastic communities and the clergy to a life in conformity with their vocation. In a special way Hildegard countered the movement of German cátari (Cathars). They cátari means literally “pure” advocated a radical reform of the Church, especially to combat the abuses of the clergy. She harshly reprimanded them for seeking to subvert the very nature of the Church, reminding them that a true renewal of the ecclesial community is obtained with a sincere spirit of repentance and a demanding process of conversion, rather than with a change of structures. This is a message that we should never forget. Let us always invoke the Holy Spirit, so that he may inspire in the Church holy and courageous women, like St Hildegard of Bingen, who, developing the gifts they have received from God, make their own special and valuable contribution to the spiritual development of our communities and of the Church in our time.

Love never fails

Rejoice! Today the Year of Faith begins; the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council is here.

Let’s begin by reflecting on the end — on Gaudium et Spes, the final Council document promulgated on the last day of the Council, December 7, 19650.

Listen and Proclaim

Gaudium et Spes is the Vatican II document that most forcefully proposes the sacred duty of the Church to walk the path of dialogue with the non-Catholic world, even as the same Church proclaims with catholic audacity the Gospel of Jesus Christ as the Way, Truth and Life. The call to preserve the delicate and difficult balance between dialogue, which seeks to listen to and reason with the other, and proclamation, which boldly presents one’s own position as true, is a balance the Council hoped to foster in the Church as a whole.

Genuinely Interested

This ‘dialogical’ style of seeking truth in a posture of listening-speaking reminds me of a Catholic professor I knew years ago (whom I’ve blogged about before) who had an astounding ability to hold together in himself a serene confidence in the truth of his own faith and an eager fascination with coming to understand other’s thoughts and worldviews.

There was one woman who was so deeply affected by his personal witness of faith that she eventually became Catholic. She once said that he was the first and only person of fervent Christian faith she had encountered who was genuinely interested in what she, as a non-believer, thought about the Great Questions of life. She admired most the fact that he listened carefully to her “not in order to better me in debate, but that he might better understand my perspective and learn from me.” “That opened the door,” she said, “for real and deep conversations that eventually disposed me to receive the truth of his faith.  But it was only because he modeled for me genuine listening that I felt I could do the same back at him.”

Not All Are Interested

Gaudium et Spes is equally aware, however, that an offer by the Church for genuine dialogue is not always, or even often, a welcomed offer. But even in such hostile circumstances, the Council sees yet another graced opportunity — in the face of rejection is the opportunity to witness (at great cost) to the Church’s unrelenting commitment to offer humanity a chance to join her in the loving quest for Truth. The wording is remarkable:

Indeed, the Church admits that she has greatly profited and still profits from the antagonism of those who oppose or who persecute her. (Gaudium et Spes, 44)

Let me offer a final story to illustrate what I think the Council meant here.

An Orthodox priest at St. Vladimir Seminary in New York once shared the story of his visits to a man who was condemned to many years of solitary confinement in a federal penitentiary. “He was a hard man who always violently refused the offer of any chaplain to offer spiritual counsel or support. So I took it on as my ‘project’ to visit him every day, peering through the small opening in his door, offering him only the sight of my eyes. The first day, I told him I was a priest and had come to bring him Christ. Every day he would command me to leave him alone to rot in hell. Every day I returned. After doing this for a little over a year, one day he surprised me when, instead of his usual abusive rejection, he said, ‘Come back tomorrow and I will see you.’”

“The next day I returned, and he permitted me to sit with him.  He looked at me in silence for a minute or so, and then said in a low voice, ‘I just wanted to make sure you meant it.’”

Bloom where you’re planted

Eat, Eat

I was listening to a theologian last summer, and he shared a marvelous  Latin quote from St. Benedict of Nursia, age quod agis, ‘do what you are doing.’ He also shared another pithy saying drawn from Zen Buddhism, ‘When you eat, eat; when you walk, walk.’

Then he added this striking commentary (paraphrased from memory here), ‘It is the universal consensus of the spiritual authors in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions that those who refuse to embrace life’s present joys and trials as coming from the Hand of God, who constantly whine, “if only!” – these folks will never grow in sanctity, but rather will forever remain mired in the guano of mediocrity, grumbling and murmuring that their present situation is simply not conducive to greatness.

Jesus overcame the mentality of “if only” once for all in the Garden of Agony when he said, “…but not what I will but what you will.” The devil’s mantra always inverts Christ’s — not now, later; what if; if only.’

Away

He then told this humorous personal story about a comment his wife once made to a friend who said to her, ‘Boy your husband is away from home a lot giving lectures!’ She affirmed the friend’s thought, adding, ‘Yes! And even when he’s home he’s away.’

Then he spontaneously added an addendum to this story, ‘I love my work, but she was right; it stung me to the heart. When I’m home now, family dinner is my divine liturgy; and when I’m home, my daughter’s dolly is my Summa.’

Great Books

This all made me think of what I consider two of the finest works of spirituality ever written, both of which propose methods and means for renouncing our “if onlys” and learning to practice being present to the demands of the present moment. The first is The Practice of the Presence of God, a collection of letters and transcribed sayings authored by the 17th century Carmelite monk, Brother Lawrence. The second is The Sacrament of the Present Moment, written by 18th century French Jesuit, Jean-Pierre de Caussade.

I could read these two works hundreds of times, and still feel edified and challenged anew on each read. Though written long ago by men who lived as consecrated Religious, they embody a universal vision that speaks, in a singular way, to one’s particular state in life in any time or place.

My advice: Tolle, lege, ‘pick up and read!’

One addendum: Contra-Love

In yesterday’s post reflecting on a recent study of Catholic women regarding contraception, I made the point that, among other things, ‘chastity preaching’ should be Christ-centered.

The same day a dear friend sent me a blog link that made this point far better than I could, again from a woman’s perspective (though I note here that a reader yesterday argued that men must be challenged to assume full and equal responsibility in this quest for chastity). The blogger made the point that the uniquely Christian pursuit of chastity, like the Christian pursuit of all virtue, is best founded on a deep and abiding love of Christ. 

Let me let her speak…

When I was 16, I got a purity ring.

And when I was 25, I took it off. Read more…