To be freed

While diligence and industriousness are important virtues for any kind of work, they become vices when these habits serve as means to escape oneself
through excessive work, leading him or her to crowd out all other dimensions of life. Acedia [sloth] produces boredom not in work, but in everything else but work. — Michael Naughton

Not long ago, I gave a talk at a retreat on the importance of leisure. I focused on the importance of ensuring life is always marked by an ebb and flow between work and leisure, especially in a culture that equates productivity and worth, busyness and value, and reduces leisure to recovery from and for work.

Among the many definitions of leisure I proposed, I said leisure is a disposition of inner freedom (licere = “to be freed”) that makes one capable of receiving existence as a sheer gift and not as an earned reward. Engaging in leisure of this sort is a sign you have affirmed that being (“who I am”) precedes doing (“what I do”), and have ceased trying — at least for a time — to manipulate existence into being what you wish it to be, and not receiving it for what it is.

Leisurely activities, always carried out “without a why,” as ends-in-themselves, affirm what is most essential in life — beauty, truth, goodness, love, mystery. And they affirm relationships as primary, as the true ends never to be turned into mere means. As such, leisure requires time, patient waiting, silence, wonder and abundant love.

Leisure re-grounds our sense of worth and identity in the act of creation, in having been created by God from nothing as a gift freely given — our existence being a gift unsought, undeserved, unmerited, unearned.

We were not created to achieve some other end or goal, but simply for our own fulfillment (the achievement of which entails the fulfillment of all humanity and the whole of creation). “The glory of God is the living man.” God does not need us, but at every moment we exist because God wills us to exist. Wants us to exist. Period. Nothing else justifies our reason for being other than an infinite and eternally sustained act of gratuitous love emanating from the God whose existence is “without a why.”

Love is our origin, our end, our raison d’être.

Prayer in its deepest meaning is the act of freely submitting to God’s gaze of merciful love on the seventh day of creation. In prayer, we are willingly bathed in God’s willing Word: “Very good. Very beautiful” (Gen 1:31). And only those who consent in prayer to receive this gaze, even into their darkness, can choose to look out with this same gaze on all…

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them.” — Luke 23:33-34

Worship is a confession of our gifted inalienable worth as we praise, bless, adore, glorify, and give thanks to the One “who didst bring us from non-existence into being, and when we had fallen away didst raise us up again and didst not cease to do all things until thou hadst brought us back to heaven, and hadst endowed us with thy kingdom which is to come.” Not because God needs such worship from groveling sycophants, but because worship rightly disposes us to receive all He has already given, from all eternity.

The most fruitful activity of man is to receive God.

In vain is your earlier rising,
your going later to rest,
you who toil for the bread you eat,
when he pours gifts on his beloved while they slumber. – Psalm 127:2

In my talk, I said,

Amazing that God had to command the Sabbath, to command us to stop working. Command leisure. Sin makes us slaves to work, to busyness, to distraction, keeps us in the bondage of Egypt where we are not free to worship.

I’ve always thought how apropos it was that, on the gates of Auschwitz, the Nazis placed these words: Arbeit macht frei, “Work sets you free.”

If you feel worthless when you are not productive, busy or working;
or if, when you rest, you feel guilty,
as if you have not sufficiently justified your reason for existing as you rest;
or if you cannot endure praise for any sign of goodness or beauty in you,
but ever demur that you are unworthy of any praise;
or if, when you are not suffering in some way,
you feel you don’t deserve good or pleasure or joy for its own sake –
you need to sit at the feet of Queen Sabbath, who, as gift of God,
was sent to remind you of the words spoken at your conception:
“I love you: I want you to be.”


Pray as you can

Pray as you can, not as you think you must. Have a keepable rule of prayer done by discipline. — Fr. Tom Hopko

In the first two months after my faith conversion, I was ‘adopted’ by some of the members of a charismatic prayer group at the Catholic Church near my college campus. They met every week to pray, sing and read Scripture together. Never in all my years growing up had I ever experienced Catholics who, as regular people with normal lives, formed a warm and loving faith community centered around explicit faith in Jesus. In many ways, they prevented me at the time from leaving the Catholic Church and joining the Evangelical group that met at my dorm every week to read Scripture and pray.

In particular, I remember a Catholic man named Lance sitting with me one afternoon and telling me about his own faith journey. He was in his early 60’s, divorced with three adult children, and worked as a janitor, though he had previously been a small business owner who ‘lost it all’ because of poor life choices. He said he had come to the Charismatic Renewal at a very low point in his life, through the witness of one of his employees, and his return to the faith changed him for the better. Though he’d lost his business and his family, he said he found hope. He was such a humble man.

I also remember he made me memorize Romans 8:28, which he said saved his life: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

But what I remember most was his story of learning to pray, which I summarized in my very first journal. Among other things, he said,

I always thought, growing up, real prayer — beyond just saying prayers — was for priests and nuns. I remember picking up a book on prayer once in high school and thinking, This is way too complicated! So I never thought again to pray.

But now I know prayer is simple. It starts my day, ends my day, seasons the rest of my day. Once you learn to listen to God’s Word, and know it’s Him speaking with you, and then let it work in you, you’ll see He’ll lead your heart the rest of the way. The Bible gives you the words, your heart shows you the way and then the Spirit plucks on the strings of your heart — a tune to the Father.

[He then sang in tongues, which of course startled me! But he continued…]

The heart’s not just feelings, it’s like a homing device God’s put in you. The Bible is God’s way home. The heart is your unique way, nobody else’s. But praying is the Holy Spirit’s way. Getting your heart in harmony with Him is the key. But ask God every day to show you your heart, because only He knows it. He made it, one of a kind. You. He searches it, tests it.

But just know He can’t show you all at once. It’d be too much for you to see. Just a little at a time. The rest of your life. Keeping learning. Don’t every quit.

A few years later when I came across this Rabbinic story, I immediately thought of Lance.

In the life of Moses, in Hebrew folklore, there is a remarkable passage. Moses finds a shepherd in the desert. He spends the day with the shepherd and helps him milk his ewes, and at the end of the day he sees that the shepherd puts the best milk he has into a bowl, which he places on a flat stone some distance away. So Moses asks him what it is for, and the shepherd replies, “This is God’s milk.” Moses is puzzled and asks him what he means. The shepherd says, “I always take the best milk I posses, and I bring it as an offering to God.”

Moses, who is far more sophisticated than the shepherd with his naive faith, asks, “And does God drink it?”

“Yes,” replies the shepherd, “he does.”

Then Moses feels compelled to enlighten the poor shepherd and he explains that God, being pure spirit, does not drink milk. Yet the shepherd is sure that he does, and so they have a short argument, which ends with Moses telling the shepherd to hide behind the bushes to find out whether in fact God does come to drink the milk.

Moses then goes out to pray in the desert. The shepherd hides, the night comes and in the moonlight the shepherd sees a little fox that comes trotting from the desert, looks right, looks left and heads straight toward the milk, which he laps up, and disappears into the desert again.

The next morning Moses finds the shepherd quite depressed and downcast. “What’s the matter?” he asks.

The shepherd says “You were right. God is pure spirit, and he doesn’t want my milk.” Moses is surprised. He says, “You should be happy. You know more about God than you did before.”

“Yes, I do,” says the shepherd, “but the only thing I could do to express my love for him has been taken away from me.”

Moses sees the point. He retires into the desert and prays hard. In the night, in a vision, God speaks to him and says, “Moses, you were wrong. It is true that I am pure spirit. Nevertheless, I always accepted with gratitude the milk which the shepherd offered me as the expression of his love, but since, being pure spirit, I do not need the milk, I shared it with this little fox, who is very fond of milk.”

It’s insidious

It’s insidious. You don’t even know it’s happening. The initial reasons all seem worthy and innocuous, and you imagine, “There’s always tomorrow. Just this once.” So you chip away at it, you excuse yourself, you rationalize, and then, finally, you stop. Game over.

“Today, I have a very busy day ahead of me, I need to get a head start on things. So I’ll cut the time down just a bit.” The next day as you settle into your focus, your busied mind is taken away by some pressing worries, and you succumb by heading over to your laptop to send out just a few emails. You were just certain that would do the trick and let you focus, even though it didn’t. The following day, before you even begin, you decide you will just quick-check the news first, get that out of the way, and then go right to it. But “it” never happens…

And so it goes. You’ve stopped praying.

The Catechism says, “Prayer is a battle. Against whom? Against ourselves and against the wiles of the Tempter who does all he can to turn man away from prayer.” Satan fears prayer, because he fears the Redeemer who enters the world through prayer. Fr. Tom Hopko says, “All things in life can be done, with grace, with relative ease. But to remain steadfast in prayer? Blood to the end! Make no mistake, prayer is hard work. And when we do pray, every demon in hell comes to try to mess it up and destroy it.”

Your commitment of time to prayer every day is the most important feature of your spiritual life. There is no close ‘second most important.’ It can admit of no compromise. When you stop praying, you begin to lose your inner compass, your grounding center, your source of peace and discernment, and you cut yourself off from the Wellspring of strength you need to virtuously resist the incessant onslaught of temptations life throws your way. Alone, you’re powerless against your enemies.

Without daily prayer, your faith atrophies, the horizons of your vision become dark and unclear, doubts begin to populate your mind, and as you try to battle them alone, you lose. It’s futile. The fire within has cooled.

Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with all your heart — Joel 2:12

The baby shall play…

Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid;
the calf and the young lion shall browse together,
with a little child to guide them.
The cow and the bear shall be neighbors,
together their young shall rest;
the lion shall eat hay like the ox.
The baby shall play by the cobra’s den,
and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair.
There shall be no harm or ruin on all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the LORD,
as water covers the sea. — Isaiah 11:6-10

The very first form of prayer I can recall in my childhood, though I likely would not have called it “prayer,” was being outdoors in solitude and silence. I have a flash-memory of a close friend of my parents coming to visit our house when I was four or five, and remember vividly saying, when she asked me if she could come out into the yard to watch me catch bees on the azalea that was in full bloom: “Only if you’re quiet. They don’t like talking.”

I specifically recall learning “contemplation” — the mind’s simple, patient gaze in search of beauty — by long awaiting in the subtlest unfurling of a marigold flower the peeking in of Infinity. And then learning the spiritual sense of smell when I would later deadhead it and inhale its sacrificial aroma. I also recall being filled with intense gratitude over a world around me teeming with life and mystery, wonder and danger, that evoked from my soul spontaneous reverence and awe.

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour. — William Blake

My dad used to love to remind me often that, when I was only two or three year old, I would sit in front of an ant mound for hours, immobile, lost in rapt attention. I remember doing it.

When I was a bit older, I learned to garden, digging and weeding, deadheading and pruning, fertilizing and watering, panting and sweating. It was the only form of labor I knew at the time that contained its own reward. No human praise or payment was demanded, as my labors unlocked beauty and praise from the animate and inanimate world I tended. What else could I require?

The sky and stream, the grass and trees, the snow and fog, the birds and rocks, the fish and tadpoles, the bee sting and snake bite, the decaying corpse and freshly laid egg all seemed poised to unfold for me a fresh parable that would somehow explain the meaning of existence.

Yet not until I came to Psalm 19 did that parable come fully alive:

The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the firmament proclaims the work of his hands.
Day unto day conveys the message,
and night unto night imparts the knowledge.
No speech, no word, whose voice goes unheeded;
their sound goes forth through all the earth,
their message to the utmost bounds of the world.

My yet-to-be articulated childhood priesthood of grace and nature flowed freest with its chrism’d oils only when I found myself in solitude and silence, in cultivating and attentiveness, in a posture of humble learning before the dissonant harmonies of an ecosystem that towered over and enveloped me like a vast temple.

Were I to search for words that adequately enshrine this childhood vocation, and the sense of mission and hope it contained, it would include these remarkable words of Pope Benedict XVI:

The role of the priesthood is to consecrate the world so that it may become a living host, a liturgy: so that the liturgy may not be something alongside the reality of the world, but that the world itself shall become a living host, a liturgy. This is also the great vision of Teilhard de Chardin: in the end we shall achieve a true cosmic liturgy, where the cosmos becomes a living host. And let us pray the Lord to help us become priests in this sense, to aid in the transformation of the world, in adoration of God, beginning with ourselves. That our lives may speak of God, that our lives may be a true liturgy, an announcement of God, a door through which the distant God may become the present God, and a true giving of ourselves to God.

May God grant that I become a child again and re-learn my priesthood.

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.