Retreating again from blogging

I am again leaving to give a retreat this week, so I will enter into blog silence until the following Monday, March 9th. Kindly pray for those attending, and for me, that the Spirit will us me, as Bl. Teresa says so well, and not consult me.

I will leave you with three thoughts.

One is a fabulous paraphrase of Matthew 6:34 passed on to me by a personal mentor of mine. She knows I can stress over stuff.

Worrying about what you know is already a vice, but worrying about what you don’t know makes it twice!

She’s a character and a fountain of moral proverbs. Proverbial wisdom is something, she says, younger people have lost which “is a real shame” and which makes them “dummies,” i.e. all the poorer for not knowing them by heart.

Two, here’s some creative evangelizing:

Three, a thought on Judgment Day:

Imagined grace

I went to a symposium last weekend in Denver, Colorado. It was held at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary and was sponsored by the Institute for Priestly Formation. The topic was, of course, priestly formation and focused on the relationship between the human and spiritual dimensions of priestly identity and ministry. In my work serving the formation of future priests I sometimes think, “How did they let me in here?” It’s such a privilege, even as it’s also challenging work.

The seminary chapel was lovely, and having a Mass celebrated by 50+ priests is always an extraordinary experience. After Mass on the second day of the symposium, I walked around toward the narthex of the chapel and was overtaken by this beautiful bronze statue of Christ in the throes of his Passion. I stood in prayer before him and couldn’t help but think of St. Teresa of Avila’s experience,

By this time my soul was growing weary, and, though it desired to rest the miserable habits which now enslaved it would not allow it to do so. It happened that, entering the oratory one day, I saw an image which had been procured for a certain festival that was observed in the house and had been taken there to be kept for that purpose. It represented Christ sorely wounded; and so conducive was it to devotion that when I looked at it I was deeply moved to see Him thus, so well did it picture what He suffered for us. So great was my distress when I thought how ill I had repaid Him for those wounds that I felt as if my heart were breaking, and I threw myself down beside Him, shedding floods of tears and begging Him to give me strength once for all so that I might not offend Him.

I had a great devotion to the glorious Magdalen and often thought of her conversion, especially when I received Communion for, knowing that the Lord was certainly within me then, I would place myself at His feet, thinking that my tears would not be rejected. I did not know what I was saying; but in allowing me to shed those tears He was very gracious to me, since I so soon forgot my grief; and I used to commend myself to that glorious Saint so that she might obtain pardon for me.

But on this last occasion when I saw that image of which I am speaking, I think I must have made greater progress, because I had quite lost trust in myself and was placing all my confidence in God. I believe I told Him then that I would not rise from that spot until He had granted me what I was beseeching of Him. And I feel sure that this did me good, for from that time onward I began to improve.

That made me think of how very important sacred images are in the spiritual life, and how God can use them to sanctify our senses and stir both contrition and virtues to life within. Especially in a culture so supersaturated with sensual images, we desperately need to allow God to pour his grace into our senses by praying with beautiful and sacred artwork. As Cardinal Ratzinger said it in a 2002 lecture,

Being struck and overcome by the beauty of Christ is a more real, more profound knowledge than mere rational deduction. Of course we must not underrate the importance of theological reflection, of exact and precise theological thought; it remains absolutely necessary. But to move from here to disdain or to reject the impact produced by the response of the heart in the encounter with beauty as a true form of knowledge would impoverish us and dry up our faith and our theology. We must rediscover this form of knowledge; it is a pressing need of our time.

The Passion of Jesus is the most beautiful form in the whole of creation, as it reveals the self-wasting love of God, “the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now made manifest to his saints” (Colossians 1:26). As I looked at him, I prayed that I might place all my confidence in God.

ChristStatue

Merciful Ladder

John Climacus is shown at the top of The Ladder of Divine Ascent, with other monks following him, 12th century icon (Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai, Egypt). Taken from wikimedia.org

Today’s Gospel begins with Jesus’ one-line summary of his entire ethical teaching, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” This saying concludes and sums up his extended commentary on the meaning of the stark command, “love your enemies” (Luke 6:27-35), and is the equivalent of Matthew’s, “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). It’s indisputable in St. Luke’s Gospel that perfection for Jesus means one thing: being merciful. And that mercy, in its most perfect form, means loving one’s enemy.

And who is the enemy? Anyone who intends my harm, delights in my misfortune, schemes for my failure or does what is hateful toward me (or toward those I love). The Greek word exthrós used in “love your enemies” refers specifically to an enemy who is openly hostile, animated by deep-seated hatred, and implies an irreconcilable hostility rooted in a personal hatred bent on inflicting grave harm. For Jesus, love reveals my enemy as the neighbor most in need of my mercy.

Climbing to God

Below I will share a quote on mercy that knocked my socks off when I first happened on it years ago. I’ve quoted it here before, but it bears re-quoting. It’s from 7th century Egyptian monk, St. John Climacus, whose Ladder of Divine Ascent is revered as the epitome of spiritual wisdom in the Eastern Church. On the 9th rung of the 30-rung ladder to Paradise, St. John describes the demand to forgive wrongs by ceasing to harbor any “remembrance of those wrongs.” Remembrance of wrongs, for St. John, does not mean the obliteration of memories, a kind of spiritual amnesia. Rather, it refers to nursing one’s anger, harboring a grudge, clinging to the pain or hate conjured by the injury inflicted. It also implies the full meaning of “love your enemies,” i.e. to will, and eventually desire from the depths of the heart, the temporal and eternal well-being of the one who has harmed you or those you love.

St. John counsels elsewhere that the best remedy for the remembrance of wrongs is to pierce it with “arrow prayers.” In the desert spiritual tradition, this refers to short Scriptural passages (often a line from the psalms) offered to God in ceaseless repetition. One of these arrow prayers that originated in the deserts of Egypt eventually made its way into the Church’s liturgy of the hours:

O God, come to my assistance; O Lord, make haste to help me. — Psalm 69:2

In the selection below, St. John refers to the Jesus prayer — “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner” — which, in the Eastern Church, came to be the “prayer of prayers” among all the arrow prayers. I can personally attest to its astounding power to open the heart to grace. If you are interested, read this spiritual classic.

Quotes

As a reflection on today’s Gospel injunction to exercise mercy by forgiving, let me share two quotes.

First, I will allow St. John to shine Gospel light into our shadows:

Remembrance of wrongs comes as the final point of anger. It is a keeper of sins. It hates a just way of life. It is the ruin of virtues, the poison of the soul, a worm in the mind. It is the shame of prayer, a cutting off of supplication, a turning away from love, a nail piercing the soul. It is a pleasureless feeling cherished in the sweetness of bitterness. It is a never-ending sin, an un-sleeping wrong, rancor by the hour.

Let the Jesus prayer put it to shame, that prayer which cannot be uttered in the company of malice.

If after great effort you still fail to root out this thorn, go to your enemy and apologize, if only with empty words whose insincerity may shame you. Then as conscience, like a fire, comes to give you pain, you may find that a sincere love of your enemy may come to life.

A true sign of having completely mastered this putrefaction will come not when you pray for the man who offended you, not when you give him presents, not when you invite him to share a meal with you, but only when, on hearing of some catastrophe that has afflicted him in body or soul, you suffer and you lament for him as if for yourself.

Some labor and struggle hard to earn forgiveness, but better than these is the one who forgets the wrongs done to him. Forgive quickly and you will be abundantly forgiven. To forget wrongs is to prove oneself truly repentant, but to brood on them and at the same time to imagine one is practicing repentance is to act like the man who is convinced he is running when in fact he is fast asleep.

Second, let me share with you with a powerful sign that the teaching of this Egyptian monk lives on. The following is an excerpt from an interview with Bishop Angaelos, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom, about ISIS’ beheading of the 21 Coptic Orthodox men:

Q: Not long after the video released, you tweeted about the killings, using the hashtag #FatherForgive. Did you mean that you forgive ISIS?

A: Yes. It may seem unbelievable to some of your readers, but as a Christian and a Christian minister I have a responsibility to myself and to others to guide them down this path of forgiveness. We don’t forgive the act because the act is heinous. But we do forgive the killers from the depths of our hearts. Otherwise, we would become consumed by anger and hatred. It becomes a spiral of violence that has no place in this world.

Let the Word speak for Himself

Kari Jobe. Taken from charismanews.com

Before I share my thought for today, I just want to express my apologies for so many typos and grammar missteps in my posts. When I see them post-factum, it’s a wonderful ego-mortification. I usually write my posts betwixt and between things in my life — on a break between meetings, in a quiet moment before I leave from work to go home — and don’t always get a second chance to edit them. Some day, maybe, circumstances will afford me the chance to spend more time in my life writing. It seems God prefers that this goal be always just out of reach, probably because He knows I like writing a bit too much. But for now, I am grateful you read my tattered micro-burst insights. Okay, now to the thought…

Yesterday I was listening to one of the few Christian pop singers I like, Kari Jobe (my fav song of hers here), and in the middle of her song “Forever” a man got up and prayerfully proclaimed a hip hop-like poem that mesmerized me. It reminded me of yesterday’s “Mystery” post, full of the wonderful tensions of poetic paradox that, in the face of Mystery, supersede the usual precedence of logical prose. Click here.

Mystery

“So if I, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14). Taken from tate.org.uk

My wife introduced me to the song “Mystery” by Rory Cooney back in 1988, and I have always found its poetic play on unresolved paradoxes to be very profound.

Whether it be pseudo-Dionysius’ “dark ray of light,” Gregory of Nyssa’s “sober intoxication,” Nicholas of Cusa’s “learnèd ignorance” or Marguerite Porete’s description of God as the “Far-Near,” I find that the tense space between unresolved contraries in theology opens space not for illogical contradiction, but for the supra-logical diction of divine mystery. A professor with whom I studied the works of theologian Hans Urs von Balthsar defined mystery this way:

Divine mystery is not essentially defined by a defect of ignorance in the finite human being. Rather, divine mystery is defined by the infinitely excessive character of divine being … We require horizons, limits, to locate ourselves, to define our landscape and comprehend; but God has no horizons. That makes mystics dizzy.

Or again, Fr. Tom Hopko explained it in a more uniquely Christian way,

Christian orthodoxy is paradoxy because orthodoxy means the Cross, God’s foolish wisdom, which has opened up a new logic, the logic of the crucified and risen Logos and his totally new creation. There the rule is, in the words of Augustine — cui servire, regnare est — “the one who serves is the one who reigns.” And in the New Creation service looks like the crucified, bloodied, dying Christ who from the Cross forgives all and love all.

Or, yet again, GK Chesterton famously said,

Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious.

I include here the embedded mp3 of “Mystery” if you have a quiet 5 minutes:

 

68, 103, Part II

Mt. Outram meadows. Taken from caminomyway.com

103

Psalm 103 also has a special place in my heart as it is chock full of vivid descriptions of God’s merciful love for creation that constantly find their way into my mind and heart when I am in most need of some light in the dark. For whatever reason, I am especially moved by verses 15-16,

As for man, his days are like grass;
he flowers like the flower of the field;
the wind blows and he is gone
and his place never sees him again.

“…the world in its present form is passing away.” 1 Corinthians 7:31

Nearly every time I pray that stanza, I think of an elderly man I knew back in the 90’s, a real “old salt” as they say, who used to frequently throw at me the Latin dictum whenever he wanted to help me put things in perspective: Sic transit gloria mundi. He loosely translated it, “The world’s glories go faster than they come,” and then would usually add, “What’ll it all matter in a hundred years?”

Because of his age, he would often refer to his impending death. Once, on that note, he told me that he winces when he hears the afterlife referred to as “eternal reward.” He said, “My God, I really need a few more lifetimes to even begin to consider what I’ve done that merits an eternal reward. Based on my unimpressive achievements, I’ve little to offer? I know the Bible says we’re judged by our deeds [cf Revelation 20:13], but I think, ‘What deeds?’ When I think of hearing God say, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; enter the joy of your Lord.’ Done what? Please! It hardly seems like I’ve even begun. I think I’ll be very embarrassed.” Later in the conversation he added, “I flirt with depair over this, but it seems to me too many people nowadays err on the side of presumption, thinking of eternal life is somehow due them; like an after dinner drink that comes as part of a meal-deal package. ‘Oh, yes, and then I will live forever no matter what.’ Really? Other than the great saints, who can face death with anything other than fear and trembling? But even the great saints trembled, probably more than me, because they knew even better that I do that they were unworthy. Me? I’ll have my hat in my hands and stand in the beggars’ line with all the other sinners.”

His words, in turn, remind me of Semyon Marmeladov’s words in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment,

…but He will pity us Who has had pity on all men, Who has understood all men and all things, He is the One, He too is the judge. He will come in that day and He will ask: ‘Where is the daughter who gave herself for her cross, consumptive step-mother and for the little children of another? Where is the daughter who had pity upon the filthy drunkard, her earthly father, undismayed by his beastliness?’ And He will say, ‘Come to me! I have already forgiven thee once … I have forgiven thee once … Thy sins which are many are forgiven thee for thou hast loved much.’ And he will forgive my Sonia, He will forgive, I know it … I felt it in my heart when I was with her just now! And He will judge and will forgive all, the good and the evil, the wise and the meek … And when He has done with all of them, then He will summon us. ‘You too come forth,’ He will say, ‘Come forth, ye drunkards, come forth, ye weak ones, come forth, ye children of shame!’ And we shall all come forth, without shame and shall stand before him. And He will say unto us, ‘Ye are swine, made in the Image of the Beast and with his mark; but come ye also!’ And the wise ones and those of understanding will say, ‘Oh Lord, why dost Thou receive these men?’ And He will say, ‘This is why I receive them, oh ye wise, this is why I receive them, oh ye of understanding, that not one of them believed himself to be worthy of this.’ And He will hold out His hands to us and we shall fall down before Him.… and we shall weep … and we shall understand all things! Then we shall understand all! … and all will understand, Katerina Ivanovna even … she will understand … Lord, Thy kingdom come!”

Chant it, ladies!

In the Eastern Church, Psalm 103 is known as the “First Antiphon” and is sung at the beginning of the Divine Liturgy after the first litany. After years of hearing this chanted in the Eastern liturgy, in 1990 I finally found a tape recording of Greek Orthodox nuns chanting Psalm 103 in English. I must have listened to it a hundred times, cementing it in my memory so that to this day I can chant the whole thing when I pray. I actually found on youtube those same nuns chanting it, which thrilled me as I had lost the cassette tape years ago. If you have a quiet 4 minutes, take a listen:

68, 103, Part I

The chanting nuns of Holy Nativity Convent, taken from signatureneedlearts.com

Referring to the psalms in a sermon, St. Augustine said, cantare amantis est, “Only the lover sings.” He was making an argument for the sung character of prayer in general, and of psalmody in particular. There are some parts of Scripture, like psalms and canticles, that are written to be sung/chanted and, it might be argued, can only be understood, received and interpreted rightly by those who first sing them aloud in the context of the liturgy. In fact, the word psalm comes from the Greek psalmos, which means “song sung to a harp.” The Catechism augments this musical point in paragraph 1152:

The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art. The main reason for this pre-eminence is that, as a combination of sacred music and words, it forms a necessary or integral part of solemn liturgy. The composition and singing of inspired psalms, often accompanied by musical instruments, were already closely linked to the liturgical celebrations of the Old Covenant. The Church continues and develops this tradition: “Address one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart” (Ephe 5:19). “He who sings prays twice” (St. Augustine, En. in Ps. 72,1)

Loving the Psalms

I love the psalms. They are the prayer of Israel and of the Church, prayers inspired by the Holy Spirit who is the pedagogue of prayer (cf Romans 8:26). They suffuse the Liturgy and are meant to be memorized and internalized, so the Spirit is free to raise them up within us whenever He wishes. In fact, memorizing psalms was always considered among the Church Fathers and medievals to be the 101 of basic spiritual practice. A biblical scholar I know once said,

The Fathers would be horrified that Christians think they can pray without memorizing biblical texts. Especially Psalms and Proverbs. That was one of the original meanings of the phrase “living Word” — the Word was meant to be alive both in the believer’s memory and in their life. But how can one imagine the Word alive in life if it’s not in the memory?

And the Psalms are rich! Pope Benedict, at the beginning of his string of Wednesday audiences on the Psalms, said:

In the Psalms are expressed and interwoven with joy and suffering, the longing for God and the perception of our own unworthiness, happiness and the feeling of abandonment, trust in God and sorrowful loneliness, fullness of life and fear of death. The whole reality of the believer converges in these prayers. The People of Israel first and then the Church adopted them as a privileged mediation in relations with the one God and an appropriate response to God’s self revelation in history.

They are also, for Christians, Christ’s psalms. For the Christian, all of the Psalms speak of Christ’s Passover from death to life (cf Luke 24:44), of Christ’s redeeming love for humanity revealed in the Church, and the Church’s penitent and joyful love for Him.  They are also Christ’s psalms because He prayed them, they constituted the soul of His prayer life. On the Cross, Jesus quotes two psalms explicitly — 31:5 and 22:1 — and if you take His queue and continue with the rest of each of these psalms you will find a magnificent explication of the inner sentiments that welled up from His heart as He was dying. Just think, if you find yourself in distress and pain, you also can allow this psalm to well up in you. But it must be sung to become prayer. Listen, for example, to this haunting rendering of Psalm 22’s lamenting tone:

68

I love all the psalms, but two psalms have a special place in my heart.

My first love is Psalm 68. By weaving the Paschal troparion (Easter antiphon) into this ancient Hebrew “war-victory psalm,” the liturgy transmutes the joyful celebration of Israel’s violent and victorious terrestrial battle against its enemies into a joyful celebration Christ’s non-violent and victorious celestial battle against the dark powers of sin, Satan and death. These paschal words — “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!” — intermingle with the first lines of the psalm:

Let God arise, let his enemies be scattered; let those who hate him flee from before his face!
As smoke vanishes, so let them vanish; as wax melts before the fire,
So the sinners will perish before the face of God; but let the righteous be glad.
This is the day which the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it! (vs.1-4)

Here are a few of my favorite Psalm 68 stanzas:

O sing to the Lord, make music to his name;
make a highway for him who rides on the clouds.
Rejoice in the Lord, exult at his presence (v.5)

Father of the orphan, defender of the widow,
such is God in his holy place.
God gives the lonely a home to live in;
he leads the prisoners forth into freedom (vs.6-7)

The Lord gives the word to the bearers of good tidings:
“The Almighty has defeated a numberless army
and kings and armies are in flight, in flight
while you were at rest among the sheepfolds.” (vs.12-13)

May the Lord be blessed day after day.
He bears our burdens, God our savior;
this God of ours is a God who saves.
The Lord our God holds the keys of death. (vs.20-21)

Kingdoms of the earth, sing to God, praise the Lord
who rides on the heavens, the ancient heavens.
He thunders his voice, his mighty voice.
Come, acknowledge the power of God. (vs.33-35)