Silent Advent

 

Image result for the fruit of silence is prayer

Lack of silence in contemporary society is making many people’s lives more agitated and at times convulsed. Some people are no longer able to stay long in silence. Most young people, who are already born in this state, seem to fill every empty moment with music and images, almost afraid to feel, in fact, this void. Without realizing it, people are immersed in a virtual dimension, because of the audio-visual messages that accompany their life from morning to evening.” — Pope Benedict XVI

Advent is a season that should be marked by greater silence. While it seems obvious that time spent in silence should be used for prayer, I also strongly recommend spending time in silence with a spouse, a friend, a child. Try it, it’s extremely powerful.

Here by silence, I mean freedom from noise for the sake of an increased capacity to receive and perceive. Or, as Deacon Jim Keating describes it, “silence is the diminishment of interference between ourselves and…”

So many “…” in our lives.

Silence heightens our awareness.

Silence prepares us to become better listeners.

Silence opens up in us an inner space for greater clarity of thought and creativity.

Silence permits the deep inner world of the mind, that often hides in dark shadows, to surface and come into the light.

Silence allows us to fashion and discover our true center within.

Silence exposes our attachments so we can act in freedom.

Silence grants our weary souls rest.

Silence heals.

But make no mistake, the one who pursues silence will find himself at war with a world of noise, within and without.

To achieve inner silence requires great effort and resolve, planning and patience, accountability and long-suffering perseverance.

But the fruits.

The Meaning of Icons

I wanted to share the video recording of a lecture we had last Wednesday at Notre Dame Seminary, where I teach. It is of Fr. Maximos Constas speaking on The Meaning of Icons. It is brilliant, as Fr. Maximos always is. He gave our last annual Catholic-Orthodox lecture on St. Maximus the Confessor, and we loved him so much we asked him to return!

He’s the only rockin’ Athonite monk I know. A genius, a linguist, a theologian, a historian, a warm human being and a connoisseur of great art. The kind of man you could speak with for hours, and forget time passed. The kind of man who, when displaying his vast knowledge of nearly any subject, doesn’t make you feel stupid, but wiser. In other words, he’s a teacher.

My son Michael recorded and edited the video (note the cool way he inserted Father’s slides!). He said to say that the video is a bit grainy because Fr. Maximos wanted the light dimmed for the Power Point slides.

Churn out enormity

And we need reminding of what time can do, must only do; churn out enormity at random and beat it, with God’s blessing, into our heads: that we are created, created, sojourners in a land we did not make, a land with no meaning of itself and no meaning we can make for it alone. — Annie Dillard

I had an exchange with a friend, who’s also a dad, about the impossibility of fully appreciating your children’s childhood. Here is a part of what I wrote to him:

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You know, you are so right to say it that way. I try so hard to appreciate things in the moment, but always feel later a failure. When my mom was dying, as I sat beside her bed I tried desperately to appreciate her still being with me…but in some ways it was too hard to think that way, as the grief of impending loss, of the water’s imminent escape from my hand, clouded my ability to receive the moment. Such a paradox!

But an insight I had with my mom, and have had with the kids, was in the whole liturgical sense of ‘anamnesis’ [Greek word for ‘remember’]. Remembering “in God” what has sunk into the past has become the primary way I access the unsearchable depths of the beauty present in each moment. So much of my prayer has become remembering the past in God’s presence … is this not what praying with Scripture is? Only in prayer can I see clearly that, to the eternal God, all is present. And to the incarnate God, Jesus Christ, our memory and God’s memory have become one remembering. Such is the Eucharist.

Prayer also allows me to realize my nostalgia, the painful desire to not allow what I love to vanish into the past, is an imago, an echo of God’s eternal — agonized — love for all things:

For you love all things that exist,
and detest none of the things that you have made,
for you would not have made anything if you had hated it.
How would anything have endured if you had not willed it?
Or how would anything not called forth by you have been preserved?
You spare all things, for they are yours, O Lord, you who love the living. – Wisdom 11:24-26

This morning I had breakfast at City Diner with Maria (our little monthly tradition), and we remembered the past — the special moments, random happenings, and funny things we treasure together…and it was incredible, always is, left me filled with a blend of joy, sadness and hope as I drove away. And when I go to my Mom’s grave, I sit there and remember. So much, everything really. And somehow I go deeper into what was, with a mix of sadness, gratitude and hope.

At once, I must treasure and let go. ☨

To me, as you know, this is what I believe the new creation is about in its deepest structure: forever unpacking in the eternity of God what was the infinite depth of time, of the now, of the sacrament of the present moment that none of us has, or can receive wholly in this life.

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Astonishing thought, in every moment of our lives in this world we are called to “churn out enormity” — to impregnate each minute of each hour of every day with love, readying its labored procession for eternal remembrance in everlasting Resurrection.

Kyrie eleison

Image result for sunflower turning toward sun

My wife, Patti, has been a music director in parish contexts for over 30 years. She is an accomplished vocal performer, an exacting choral conductor and a gifted composer. She treats her work as a sacred task in service to the majesty and dignity of the divine liturgy, and experiences her work as an act of prayer and as a call to prayer. Anyone who has ever watched her conduct knows it is pure choreography. David twirling about the Ark of the Covenant with unhampered joy — with abandon! — is the best analogy I can think of. Her ebullience and intensity electrify every space she enters.

And as any artist knows, the grace of bringing beauty into the world plants the Cross of Christ, the origin and standard of all beauty, deep into the core of her being. How grateful we we should always be to artists.

Patti has brought into our family over the years a steady diet of the arts, and has taught our children — and especially me — the intimate relationship between God and beauty. There have been many times over the years when some of my most profound experiences of God in prayer, in the context of liturgical worship, have come through her work.

One example I felt moved to share today was when she had the choir perform Mary E. Smisek’s Kyrie, which is an arrangement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A Major, opus 92, movement 2. The Kyrie eleison, which is Greek for “Lord have mercy,” stands at the heart of the Penitential Act in the Mass. In those ancient words drawn from Sacred Scripture, we sinners — like Isaiah — seek God’s forgiveness and healing grace as we enter into the holy-holy-holy presence of God:

Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts! — Isaiah 6:5

It was Lent, and my chosen penance that year was exposing in me just what a weak and pathetic man I was. That year, the combination of graduate studies, my job and our four small children was an “exhaustion-cocktail,” and so my threshold of tolerance was low. I began to back off on my early morning prayer discipline, as my struggles with guilt made prayer uncomfortable, and I found excellent excuses to busy myself with other things. I am excellent at that.

It was the third Sunday of Lent, and as Mass unfolded the Kyrie began. I had never heard this arrangement before. Immediately, its magnificent tones washed over me and I experienced the most profound awareness of being loved by God very specifically in what I considered my most loathsome self. I saw myself as a frightened child and immediately thought of God calling out to Adam, who was hiding in shame amid Eden’s trees: “Where are you?” But whereas previously I had always thought of those words as a divinely irritated reproach, I knew in that moment, with absolute clarity, these were words of tender compassion.

That grace not only remained with me throughout Lent, and emboldened me to return to daily prayer, but to this day if I hear this piece of music I am transported at once into the Garden, where mercy again calls out: “Where are you?” I am also reminded of Fr. Tom Hopko’s searching insight,

Whenever we pray Kyrie eleison, don’t imagine we’re trying to convince God to be something He isn’t. Like, “O God, you are usually a tyrant, be nice today if you please!”

No!

We are simply making a declaration in the imperative form: “O God, you who ARE mercy, be who you are toward me!” Like a sunflower that turns toward the sun to receive its warmth and light, only when we confess with faith who God truly is can we receive what He longs to give us…

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” — 1 John 4:18

Again, I am sorry I post so infrequently. This is the season of my life right now.

I wanted to share briefly an insight I gained recently was particularly powerful personally. I went to a Penance service last week in Omaha, Nebraska and the priest who presided preached on a portion of this familiar parable of Jesus:

A man fell victim to robbers
as he went down from Jerusalem to Jericho.
They stripped and beat him and went off leaving him half-dead.
A priest happened to be going down that road,
but when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side.
Likewise a Levite came to the place,
and when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side.

Fr. John argued that while there are many plausible interpretations as to why the priest and Levite chose to pass by the victim on the opposite side of the road, there is one common theme underlying all of them: fear. Maybe, he said, it was fear of being ritually contaminated by contact with an ‘unclean’ bloodied body, or maybe they were simply afraid of assuming the responsibility of being drawn into another’s complicated tragedy. Regardless, he said, it was fear that prevented them from choosing love for their neighbor.

Then he said (as I later recorded in my journal),

And isn’t it the case that so often lurking behind our sins is some hidden fear. Fear of failure, of being a failure, of being rejected. Fear of commitment. Fear of others’ disapproval, or of not getting others’ approval. Fear that who you are, who others are, or even who God is just isn’t good enough.

Fear of not measuring up to others’ expectations. Fear of missing out on happiness, of being hurt, being alone, being ignored. Fear that if we don’t do this thing we know to be wrong, we won’t get what we think we really need. Fear of criticism, change. I could go on all night.

So many things we are afraid of, which is undoubtedly why God says again and again in Scripture, “Do not be afraid.”

He was silent for a few moments. A powerful silence. And then he said, “Now in the silence of your conscience, as you prepare to confess your sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, ask the Holy Spirit to show you what fear hides behind your sins. Especially your habitual sins. Ask Him to help you name that fear. Then give it to Jesus, and trust His perfect love to cast it out.”

That Confession was, for me, one of the most powerful and decisive of my life. The priest gave me 131 to pray often.

Lord, my heart is not proud
Nor are my eyes fixed on things beyond me
In the quiet, I have stilled my soul
Like a child at rest on its Mama’s knee
I have stilled my soul within me

Israel, come and hope in your Lord
Do not set your eyes on things far beyond you
Just come to the quiet
Come and still your soul
Like a child at rest on its Daddy’s knee
Come and still your soul completely

Open me, revisited

I don’t usually reflect back on a previous post, but I had to this time.

The prayer I composed and then posted Sunday morning has had so much impact on me since then. Praying it, I mean, has had a strange power. And some of the comments I received via text, email and here indicated the same for a few others. It’s a very simple prayer. And maybe that’s the secret.

But today in class I had another insight. I taught the seminarians about the epiclesis at Mass, the “calling out” to the Father asking that He send His Holy Spirit to come down on the gifts of bread and wine and transform them into the Body and Blood of the risen Christ. In other words, we ask the Father to give us everything we seek, i.e. the Christ-bearing Spirit.

Epiclesis, I told my students, is what a baby does when she’s hungry, what a man in pain does when he needs help, what a grieving woman does when she wants to wail aloud her pain in the arms of a compassionate loved one. It is an open-ended cry of the poor and needy, a cry of yearning and hope, a cry of trust, expectation and faith that there is an other who hears, loves, cares, and will respond.

God cannot resist faith (Luke 8:46).

I am the Lord your God,
who brought you up from the land of Egypt.
Open wide your mouth, and I will fill it. — Psalm 81:11

Friends of mine adopted a child from Romania many years ago, and the state representative they worked with said, “When this child was taken from the orphanage, they said there was an eerie silence. He and the other infants with him had all stopped crying. They’d given up hope of a response.”

In the brightest days or darkest moments, never cease to cry out, to open every crevice of your life to the tender Father who always, always hears our cry. And responds.

I was wrecked

[From this morning’s journal]

Yesterday, Pentecost.

I was wrecked by an Apocalypse, now
the End was falling backwards, raising the fallen
as New Creation rushed in to save us Olden ones.

How can I keep from singing?

Are you not still shaking in this Aftermath?
Did you not see the skies Ablaze?
Can you not still hear the echoed roar of Yahweh Sabaoth?
Were you not left breathless by His mighty Zephyr?
Soaked in the crackling Fire falling?

At Mass the wings of the Dove were immensely laden. They shimmered, I shook.

He came, rushed upon our Gifts overthrown without destruction
giving God-from-God as Food for the hungry, Drink for the thirsty.

I heard a still whisper, a loud cry: Come, regather my scattered children!
as freely fell limitless riches won by Christ Ascending
lavishly rising Downward, wholly extended, fully expended, God given-away
left forever open-wounded, God-emptied, King-impoverished, Infinity-dispossessed.

Yes, forever.

And I could hear uncountable prison doors unlocking around me
feel violent earth-tremors quake from unshackling chains falling
once worn by the flogged Redeemer, our incarcerated executed High God.

For us men and for our salvation, you came down to this?

Madness seems always Thy eternal preference.

Be still and listen. Ask. Wait. Watch. Beg. Expect. Receive. Give.

The Mystery is above you, beside you, beneath you.

Within you.

Look Up! He comes…