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.

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…

Dr. Mario, what is prayer?

On this memorial feast day of St. Teresa of Avila, doctor of prayer, it seemed appropriate to share a podcast my friend, Dr. Mario Sacasa, and I did on prayer. Dr. Mario’s podcasts are a treasury of wisdom, and I highly recommend them to all interested in the ways faith and reality intersect in hope: https://faithandmarriage.org/alwayshope/

He is a long time friend, colleague and inspiration to me and my family!

Acedia

Along these same lines, I would mention another subtle and dangerous attitude, which, as Bernanos liked to say, is “the most precious of the devil’s potions”. It is also the most harmful for those of us who would serve the Lord, for it breeds discouragement, desolation and despair.

Disappointment with life, with the Church or with ourselves can tempt us to latch onto a sweet sorrow or sadness that the Eastern Fathers called acedia.

Cardinal Tomáš Špidlík described it in these terms: “If we are assailed by sadness at life, at the company of others or at our own isolation, it is because we lack faith in God’s providence and his works. Sadness paralyzes our desire to persevere in our work and prayer; it makes us hard to live with… The monastic authors who treated this vice at length call it the worst enemy of the spiritual life.” — Pope Francis in his Letter to Priests

I will offer a few of my journal thoughts on acedia, which were prompted by a discussion I had the other day about this remarkable Letter with a faculty colleague. We reflected together on acedia’s spiritual poison. This is just a simple meditation, not a grand exposition on a complex topic.

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Acedia’s symptoms include a persistent sadness and constant restlessness, the loss of a desire to pray or of the will to remain faithful to daily prayer, a flagging of interest in (or even emerging hatred of) the things of God, resentment toward those who make demands on me, a desire to flee struggle and hide away, all of which leads to the waning of hope, love and trust in God.

The desert Fathers locate acedia’s origin in our suffering of some evil, personal failure or sin; or in our unmet expectations or disappointment in others/God — all of which eventually opens out into a persistent sadness, sorrow, anger, resentment unto despair that grows, is held onto and nursed, remaining unresolved or unhealed like a festering wound.

The spiritual Tradition also identifies other causes for acedia, like the setting of unrealistic goals/expectations, over-committing beyond one’s strength, illusory belief that God will make all work out as we think best, a lack of patience in the face of evil, vain dreams of success, or seeking to dominate and control everything and everyone.

As Pope Francis argues in his Letter, this deadly sadness of acedia acquires a certain sweetness, presenting a seductive sense of ‘consolation’ that only leads us further into self-absorbed isolation, resentment, self-pity as we slide with increasing speed into the pit of despondency. Indeed, this “inward turning” cuts us off from the remedies awaiting us in God and others, and so is the heartbeat of acedia’s power. Isolate, destroy.

Britta Phillips’ song, Luck or Magic, captures perfectly the resistant inner state of mind that develops toward God and others:

I don’t want your mercy
you can’t help but hurt me
I don’t want my heart to get dirty.

Kathleen Norris also says this about acedia,

When life becomes too challenging and engagement with others too demanding, acedia offers a kind of spiritual morphine: you know the pain is there, yet you can’t rouse yourself to give a damn.

So what to do? While there are no single silver bullets or magic cures for any malady in life, the spiritual tradition does offer a medley of prescriptions. These are some of the ones (not all!) that have helped me most in life, in the many times I have fallen into the grip of this demon:

Pray. Never surrender prayer. Just show up to the times of prayer. Keep it simple, unrelenting. Ask God with simplicity for the desire to pray, to work, to hope, to believe, to love, to taste again joy. Pour out to Him your cares, look at a Crucifix, sit before the Eucharist. Sit in silence when you can, and just open yourself Upward. Pray for the gift of tears, to grieve, surrender and bury whatever evil it is that is holding you fast in its grip. In all of these, open yourself wide to God and wait. Here in the night, greatness is born.

Work. Be faithful to your duties. Be present to the present moment, to the real, and not to ruminating fantasy. Simplify your commitments if your life has become unnecessarily complicated. Do manual labor, work your body, sweat hard.

Think. When dark thoughts come, redirect your thoughts to “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil 4:8).  Ignore negative ideation. Don’t dialogue with the devil, you won’t ever win. St. Benedict said, “When evil thoughts come into one’s heart, to dash them against Christ immediately.” The Jesus prayer. Repent, forgive.

Reveal your thoughts to a trusted other who will listen without judgment, but who will not reinforce the self-absorbed, wound-licking self-pity. Opening oneself to another defeats self-reliant pride, which is the workhorse of acedia. Bringing dark thinking out into the light, and to persons who live in the Light, sets captives free.

Meditate on death. This may seem morbid or counterproductive for one in the grips of acedia. But the spiritual Tradition’s wisdom is that there is lasting freedom in becoming aware of the passing nature of life, in gaining perspective and attending to the truth that, in the end, all will be surrendered back to God without remainder. Life is an unfolding vocation to make of all a sacrificial offering. Every day presents new opportunities to let go, to hand over, to give away, to leave behind and to return whatever we were, even if but for a moment, given “to have and to hold.” The trick is to learn to do this freely, willingly, trustingly as to an Abba.

Serve. As my great grandmother used to say, so I am told, “Do others a good turn and you’ll do yourself one.” Or as Dennis Prager said,

In decades of lecturing, writing and broadcasting on the subject of happiness, my two central premises have come from this Jewish teaching that behavior is what matters most. The first premise is that if we act happy, we are far more likely to feel happy. The second is that we all owe everyone in our lives not to inflict our unhappy feelings on them. With few exceptions, no matter how we feel, we have a moral obligation to act with a happy disposition.