Your Father who sees in secret

Wastefulness is the original Christian attitude. The entire Passion occurs under the sign of this complete self-wasting of God’s love for the world. — Hans Urs von Balthasar

Yesterday, we read from Chapter 6 of Matthew’s Gospel, which contains Jesus’ take on how Jews should carry out their religion’s Big Three: prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

The key insight He adds to this very traditional Jewish triad is to do them primarily for love of God-neighbor and not for love of self. To accomplish this re-orienting of the ego, Jesus offers a very simple strategy: do all three in secret. Why? Well, when you do good in secret, very quietly and anonymously, it purifies your intention by taking the focus off of yourself and focusing on the God you glorify and the one your benefit (which is saying the same thing). And if there’s anything that’s core about the New Testament, it’s “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24).

Secret deeds also take away the control you exercise over the immediate “cash value” of good deeds, your ability to milk attention, praise, gratitude out of others. In secret, you give “what’s in it for me?” over into the Hands of God’s re-distributing providence, so He can reward your deeds as He sees fit. In other words, they cultivate the spirit of detachment. This, I would venture, is the meaning of Jesus’ refrain, “and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

What reward? Well, note that later in Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus speaks to the rich young man of the reward which is stored up for him as “treasure in heaven” (Matt. 19:21), the “treasury deposit” reward is the direct result of the man’s willingness to surrender his (earned) earthly treasures to the poor. In giving, receiving. In Christianity, reward is inscribed with the logic of love, which makes my reward anything that benefits my neighbors — their good is my good.

And my guess — the way God acts in salvation history — is that He will use our choicest rewards to benefit those we dislike the most, or who dislike us the most (Matt. 5:43-48). Certainly this is how the Father rewarded His Son’s obedient love — by redeeming His enemies (Rom. 5:10). But the real trick is to live like that divine economy is true now. Because it is.

Heaven should be very interesting.

While this strategy of secrecy in good deeds is not always possible, or even desirable (see Matt. 5:16!), it is a solid ascetical (spiritual discipline) practice that should consistently thread through all of our do-gooding. During Lent, it might be good to choose an area where you are especially (overly) sensitive to needing/seeking others’ affirmation, and strategically choose to avoid and avert any of the subtly (or not so subtly) manipulative ways you tend to use to gain attention, applause or approval.

The Son of God’s greatest act of prayer, fasting and mercy-giving was done on the Cross, in supremely hidden love offered lavishly to His hidden Father for ungrateful humanity. It is the perfect symbol of such Lenten giving.

May my Lent and yours be a living Stations as we strive do likewise.

Hectic, havoc and the Jesus prayer

“Sinai Event.” #godhavoc

Savoring the encounter with Jesus is the remedy for the paralysis of routine, for it opens us up to the daily “havoc” of grace. — Pope Francis

This will be a hectic week of deadlines, on through the weekend upcoming, so I have no idea what time I will have to write here. I have given up on saying I won’t post for a specific amount of time, but just know it’s gonna be hit or miss.

Pope Francis’ words above, from last week’s homily on the Presentation, really ring true to me. Prayer that gives God permission to be God in us (which is the whole point of the first 3 petitions of the Our Father) unleashes havoc on evil, on fear, on anger and addiction; havoc on my tightly controlled securities; havoc on my plans for God. I mean, the Virgin Mary prayed like that just once — “let it be done to me according to your word” — and it set in motion all KINDS of personal, familial, national, imperial, preternatural and cosmic havoc.

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore. — Isaiah 9:2-7

God, play havoc on all that mitigates against your peace reigning in our lives.

An AME pastor I knew in Florida, whom I have quoted here before, totally got this. He used to open his Wednesday night worship services with a marvelous prayer:

O Lord, invade our staid and steady space
With your raucous and unsteady grace

The Jesus Prayer I have found to be especially poignant in this regard. Saying, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me,” repeated rosary-like in the heart on and off throughout the day, unseals the only Name which effects what it signifies, i.e.God saves. Ask the Egyptians what THAT looks like.

I post below a rhythmic chanting of it by the Russian monks of Valaam.

I have used this Fr. Wilfrid Stinissen quote probably a dozen times here, but it is just so well stated and seems a most fitting parting. God bless you, dear readers.

There can be so much escapism in our striving for a “spiritual life.” We often flee from the concrete, apparently banal reality that is filled with God’s presence to an artificial existence that corresponds with our own ideas of piety and holiness, but where God is not present. As long as we want to decide for ourselves where we will find God, we need not fear that we shall meet him! We will meet only ourselves, a touched-up version of ourselves. Genuine spirituality begins when we are prepared to die. Could there be a quicker way to die than to let God form our lives from moment to moment and continually to consent to his action?

Saint of Gentleness

[re-post from 2012]

Nothing is so strong as gentleness, nothing so gentle as real strength. — St Francis de Sales

St. Francis de Sales is known as the “saint of gentleness.” He himself had an angry, even explosively angry temperament, and had to work hard at exercising gentle patience both with himself and with others. He came to a profound insight, through his own inner struggle, into the importance of not doing violence to the many “bruised reeds” and “smoldering wicks” (Is. 42:3) both within and without. He counseled countless spiritual directors and Confessors to correct and reprove others, when necessary, with a firm and patient love, and never with impatient anger. He famously said, “A spoonful of honey attracts more flies than a barrel full of vinegar.”

But he was most celebrated for his counsel to gentleness in dealing with distractions in prayer, or in facing the dark realization of one’s own sins, weaknesses and failings. After counseling many hundreds of men and women, he could see how crippling were the effects of a self-recriminating response to one’s own many imperfections. Such a strategy, he said, only serves to cripple hope and weaken one’s loving devotion to God. Beating oneself up transforms genuine spirituality into a nursery for compulsive wound-licking and chronic nit-picking judgment of others’ faults. Such an incurved ego makes one unable to assume Christ’s “other-centered” posture of love.

Once he wrote to a woman who was terribly discouraged by her constant distractions during prayer,

If the heart wanders or is distracted, bring it back to the point quite gently and replace it tenderly in its Master’s presence. And even if you did nothing during the whole of your hour but bring your heart back and place it again and again in our Lord’s presence, though it went away every time you brought it back, your hour would be very well employed.

When I came across de Sales in the early 90’s, his approach really changed my mindset in a significant way. My poor habits, repeated sins, easily distracted mind and fickle emotions often brought me to a grinding halt of discouragement. But with his gentle approach — to use a C.S. Lewis image — what were once only dark alleys leading to even darker cul-de-sacs became a Wardrobe that opened out from the narrow press of musty and stifling shadows into the bright and spacious world of Narnia. And though Narnia is still frozen in the grip of winter, hope burns fiercely bright there; for in Narnia, the Lion of Judah, once slaughtered by our sins on the Altar of Sacrifice, refuses to repudiate us in irrevocable justice, but instead embraces us in the gentleness of forever mercy.

I shared this “de Sales” insight with a Camelite nun I met on a retreat, and she said something like this:

Oh yes, I also love his advice. It’s only when I realized that God’s primary relationship with us is gentle mercy that I was really able to combine the quest for perfection Jesus commands (Matt. 5:48) with the reality of my fragility. The harder you try for purity, the more dirt shows up. I always thought that’s why Luke’s parallel version (Luke 6:36) of Matthew’s “be perfect as your Father is perfect” was “be merciful as your Father is merciful” — because they go together. Mercy, perfection.

I once thought perfection and my frailty were opposed, with perfection seeking to remove all of my frailty, my faults. But then I came to believe that they are a two-sided coin. Our limits can become a frame for the artwork that is our life. Just like any great piece of artwork needs to have defined limits to contain and focus the Artist’s intent to create a new expression of His genius. Mercy does not do violence to our frailty, but gilds it in honor with His own beauty. That’s what St. Augustine’s “happy fault of Adam” means to me, that mercy turns my junk into beauty. The logic of the Cross.

Perfection is when you’re finally able to offer God, with equal confidence and gratitude, your weakness and your strength as a full palette in service to His artwork. What a relief.

Never say you are too busy for Him

[re-post 2014]

My secret is very simple: I pray. Through prayer I become one in love with Christ. I realize that praying to him is loving him. — St. Teresa of Calcutta

When I worked with the Missionaries of Charity, they taught me four things.

First, without prayer you lose the capacity to bring lasting hope to others because you have pulled your anchor out of the immovable Rock.

Second, without prayer you lose the capacity to bring enduring love to others because you have ceased to receive that love from its inexhaustible Wellspring.

Third, without prayer you lose the capacity to bring Jesus to others because you have ceased to know Him, and have settled with only knowing of Him.

Fourth, without prayer you lose the capacity to lead others to trust in God because you no longer trust Him. You only spread cynicism, discouragement, doubt and despair.

Yes, you can’t give what you don’t have. No prayer, no God. Know prayer, know God. No wonder St. Teresa of Avila reminded her Sisters so often that the devil has no better strategy for bringing us down than to lead us away from prayer, as he knows well that when we are prayer-less, we are powerless and alone. But when we pray, the evil spirits tremble in terror as we — made royal priests in baptism — permit God’s redemptive power free entry into creation and unleash the triumph of the Cross.

Once when she was in the outhouse, St. Teresa tells us, she was praying and the devil appeared to her, furious that she would not cease praying even there. With her sharp wit, she replied to him, “Don’t worry about that, what goes up is for God, what goes down is for you.”

Or there’s the 4th century story of a desert monk in Syria who, in a vision, saw a demon urging another demon to go and awaken a sleeping monk to torture him with dark thoughts. And he heard the other demon say, “I cannot do this, for one time when I awakened him he got up and burned me by singing psalms and praying.”

To reinforce the primacy of prayer in the work we did, the Sisters had this quote from John 15:5 framed in my room, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”

The Sister who was my supervisor left a handwritten note in my box my last day there, “Be faithful to daily prayer, Brother Tom. Cling to God. Fill yourself with Him so you can give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, love to the loveless, hope to the hopeless, faith to the faithless. Never say you are too busy for Him. Carry within you the Kingdom everywhere you go and speak often to the indwelling King. God bless you.”

Thank you for offering

[I had written this post a while ago, but did not feel it was complete. A friend of mine sent me this quote today. Now it’s complete, on this Feast of the Presentation]

The substantial conversion of bread and wine into his body and blood introduces within creation the principle of a radical change, a sort of “nuclear fission,” to use an image familiar to us today, which penetrates to the heart of all being, a change meant to set off a process which transforms reality, a process leading ultimately to the transfiguration of the entire world, to the point where God will be all in all.  — Pope Benedict XVI

A week after my wife experienced her first miscarriage, the pastor of our parish asked me and my wife Patti if we would be willing to bring up the gifts of bread and wine during Mass at the Offertory. As we brought the gifts up and approached him, he said very quietly to us, “Thank you for giving your child back to God,” and blessed us.

When he placed those gifts on the Altar, returning them to God, I knew they were no longer ours. They never were. Living Fire, salty tears mingled.

It was an extraordinary moment to feel so viscerally the seamless unity of human life and Divine Liturgy, of tragedy and redemption; to hear God gently inviting us to let go; to discover in the darkness of the death of your child the kindly light of hope found in a simple gesture of offering the castles and ruins of life to God for safe keeping.

It was also extraordinary to experience such tenderness in that priest, such sensitivity to suffering. While I don’t remember much about the many (excellent) homilies he gave over the years we knew him, I will always remember those words.

As he prayed the preface to the Eucharistic prayer and came to the words, “Lift up your hearts!” — I thought, yes, I have lifted my heart up to the Lord. Our child. “I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you” (Philemon 12).

May you, our child, rest with the Son in the love of your Father unto the endless ages of eternity. Pray we one day see your face, His Face, in love’s triumph. Amen.

Intercessory Prayer, Audio Version

I was inspired to record this 11 minute reflection on prayer this morning. Easier to spend 11 minutes on a post! Hopefully it contains something of benefit.

Hilarious that I forgot to full screen my slide. Such a perfect demonstration of my inattention to detail.

Asking Prayer

Christian art from 3rd century, in the Roman catacomb of Priscilla, depicting “Orans,” which is the symbol of the church interceding with hands outstretched.

[re-post from 2015. One of my favs. It’s a bit lengthy, but won’t be posting until the weekend so you’ve got time!]

I heard a fantastic homily, while on retreat last June, on Jesus’ words: “Ask and you will receive. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened to you.” Most homiletic explanations of why we ask God for things I find to be confusing. But this preacher nailed it. He made some stunning points that I tried to capture later in my journal. As is my custom, I took the summary notes from the homily and blended them with my own prayerful reflection. I paste my notes here:

+ + +

It is true that contemplative prayer, which is a prayer of surrender to God’s action in the soul and a simple gaze on His Truth, is considered in our Catholic Tradition to be the highest mode of God-loving prayer. But it is also true that intercessory prayer is the highest form of neighbor-loving prayer. The Catechism says it succinctly, “Asking on behalf of another [is] characteristic of a heart attuned to God’s mercy … in intercession, he who prays looks not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others, even to the point of praying for those who do him harm” (#2635). One who daily speaks to God on behalf of others is loving them well.

In fact, I am convinced intercessory prayer is an essential counter-balance to other forms of prayer that can so easily devolve into an ego-focus on what I get out of prayer.

Some of the holiest people I’ve met in life are not those who are lost in contemplation for countless hours, but (mostly older) women who pray countless novenas for others’ intentions. The Scriptures tell us that even Jesus Himself in Paradise is not spending eternity lost in contemplation of the Father, but in ceaseless intercession before the Father on our behalf (Heb. 7:25; Rom. 8:34). Again, in John chapter 17, we catch a glimpse of Jesus’ eternal dialogue with the Father, and it’s all about our well-being and Their desire for us to share in Their joy. No such thing in Christianity as absorption in God-alone. Always God-and. Love would have it no other way.

Even St. Paul tells us that the most profound prayer taught us by the Spirit is intercessory prayer (Rom. 8:26)! The quality of one’s theological virtue of charity is to be judged proportionate to the quality of one’s neighbor-oriented intercessory prayer.

But don’t think of intercessory prayer as trying to change God’s mind, or manipulate Him into doing our will. Behind our practice of asking, seeking and knocking there is a theology of what might be called “shared governance.” God has designed creation in such a way that He wishes to have us participate in His governance of history’s unfolding. Man is a “priest of nature and of grace” whom God has fixed, like a hinge, between heaven and earth. God is a God of synergy, of collaboration, not a unilateralist, and He anoints us priests to that end.

That’s what the Incarnation proves. Jesus, the Great High Priest, has two wills — human and divine — that operate only in conjunction. This is an astounding thing! Here: Once God became man, God does absolutely nothing apart from human cooperation. Jesus is God’s way of dealing with creation, and in Him the re-creation of creation happens only in cooperation with man. The New Creation only comes about with human participation, united in Christ as His Body.

Prayer is the most direct and intimate way we participate in God’s re-creative, redeeming work. St. Thomas Aquinas says that we ask, seek and knock not to change the divine disposition but to bring about what God has disposed to be achieved only by means of prayer. Because God is love, and love is freedom, there is infinite space in Him for our freedom to join in the unfolding of His eternal dance!

So when you pray, pray like the prayer of the Liturgy: big, broad, bold and relentless. Especially relentless (Luke 18:1-8). The Liturgy, which emerges from the depths of God, is overloaded with petitions. Pray them over!

Yes, of course we always ask for things according to God’s holy will. This means never asking for anything against His nature, i.e. we never ask for injustice to be done, lies to prevail, greed to be indulged, evil to triumph or any other ungodly wish (James 4:3!). That said, asking according to God’s will does not mean God has already preordained every specific thing, so we then must magically discern what He wants in advance and ask for it. No! He genuinely wants us to contribute novelty, creativity and uniqueness to the unfolding of His will. “Surprise me,” He says. That’s a gigantic point.

But how God responds to our petition, incorporates into His grand design our ideas and intentions, is ultimately His business. “Man proposes, but God disposes.” He’s the Master craftsman, the artist, the potter. In the end, we must submit our novel ideas and good intentions to His providential will. “Thy will be done,” “let it be done to me.” Yes, Deus providebit, “God will provide,” but always according to His good pleasure, and mostly in the most unexpected and stunningly surprising ways.

But He always hears, and always responds.

Jesus prayed this way in the Garden of Gethsemane as He sweat blood. He said, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me,” but then submitted His request to the Father, “yet not my will, but yours be done” (Matt. 26:39). The answer of the Father was wildly beyond any imagining, grasped only by faith. Jesus drank the cup on the Cross and in the Resurrection the cup was “taken” from Him as He passed over from death to life. The whole of Jesus’ prayer was heard and answered by the Father, in the most unexpected way imaginable. Jesus also prayed from the Cross that His enemies would be pardoned, and He was heard. How? The Father laid the weight of the guilt of His enemies on Him as the price of pardon.

All prayer is answered, which is why you should always ask with trusting faith and a great sense of gravity that God hears and takes deadly seriously every word.

The pattern of all divine response to prayer is the Paschal Mystery, the dying and rising of Jesus.

Then there’s the Our Father, Jesus’ terse response to the disciples’ request for a “prayer catechism.” It’s really one extended intercession. Seven petitions, to be exact. Man, He is really serious about this kind of prayer! Oh, and note His use of pronouns — not “my Father” but “our Father,” and then onward with “us” and “we.” Jesus makes it eminently clear that interceding is an act of solidarity, that all prayer irrevocably binds us to God and others’ needs. Yes, to Jesus.

And that solidarity includes in it some seriously unpleasant characters, obviously, as Jesus makes this deceptively simple little “aside” in the middle of the prayer. You see, each of the seven petitions is about what God will do for us, but then Jesus coyly slips this in, “…as we forgive those who trespass against us.” A bloody conditional clause! Meaning our petition for forgiveness sounds more like this, “God, please forgive me only in the measure I forgive anyone who sins against me” (Matt. 6:14-15). Good Lord! Can’t you just cut us a break? Let us just be alone with you for even a little while without having to think about those bastards out there?

But alas! Real prayer always thrusts us back into messy life, yucky relationships, into the very bowels of hell. Or it isn’t prayer in any Christian sense. To not pray for others, especially really difficult others (Matt. 5:44), is only to seek escape from praying on God’s preferred prie-dieu, the Cross. The Cross is where all Christian prayer eventually lands us.

A last point. All prayer is a gift of grace, so beg God, before all else, to make you fall in love with intercessory prayer. Which is to say, beg God to help you fall in love with your brothers and sisters around you, whose keeper you are (Gen. 4:9-10). He clearly already has.

The preaching priest ended with a passage from St. Isaac the Syrian that is dearly loved in the Eastern spiritual tradition. Seems a fitting way to end, followed by the Prayer itself.

What is a merciful heart? It is a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for demons, and for all that exists. By the recollection of them the eyes of a merciful person pour forth tears in abundance. By the strong and vehement mercy that grips such a person’s heart, and by such great compassion, the heart is humbled and one cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in any in creation. For this reason, such a person offers up tearful prayer continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm her or him, that they be protected and receive mercy. And in like manner such a person prays for the family of reptiles because of the great compassion that burns without measure in a heart that is in the likeness of God.