“She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs, in the agony of giving birth.” – Rev. 12:2

“I’m working a lot more,” says Don LeBlanc, who cleans everything from operating theaters to patient wards during his usual 6 p.m.-to-2 a.m. shift. “Now, it’s sometimes 10 hours or 12 hours [per day].” https://www.marketwatch.com/

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. — Charles Dickens in a Tale of Two Cities

One cannot extol enough the many people in diverse professions, circumstances and states of life who are presently living lives of great sacrifice and hardship now. People who, faced with fear and enormous obstacles, maintain a firm will to sustain hope, to defend life and to maintain good order in the face of the great forces of chaos that threaten us.

Though I never wish to idealize or romanticize people, these days of crisis have called us all to a new greatness — a greatness that for some involves risky work and exhausting hours, for others means dealing with job loss, illness or death, while others are challenged with suffering feelings of helplessness, isolation, loneliness or anxiety, even as they muster acts of courage and trust in God’s mysterious providence.

So many people’s lives of prayer — certainly my own — have turned away from more self-absorbed musings on their own spiritual lives, needs or personal fulfillment, and outward toward the needs and welfare of others. This reminds me of what a priest said several years ago in a retreat I was on:

The saints are quite unanimous: a premier sign of holiness is when your thoughts are populated more by considerations of the welfare of others than of your own, and in that you find your greatest freedom and joy. Certainly if we examine the prayer life of Jesus, as in John 17 or on the cross, this was His whole prayer’s concern: us and our salvation. And what preoccupies His mind now that He’s in heaven? Hebrews 7:25 gives a stunning answer, “He lives forever to make intercession for us.”

In the ancient pattern of God’s redeeming providence, these days of dark travail are ripe for transforming our wailing world into a labor and delivery room, from which a new era of saints can now be born. So it might be good for leaders within the churches, amid the scurrying, to heed the words of St. John Paul II, watch carefully and take note(s)…

…The eyes of faith behold a wonderful scene: that of a countless number of lay people, both women and men, busy at work in their daily life and activity, oftentimes far from view and quite unacclaimed by the world, unknown to the world’s great personages but nonetheless looked upon in love by the Father, untiring laborers who work in the Lord’s vineyard. Confident and steadfast through the power of God’s grace, these are the humble yet great builders of the Kingdom of God in history.

Particular Churches especially should be attentive to recognizing among their members men and women of those Churches who have given witness to holiness, in everyday secular conditions and the conjugal state, and who can be an example for others, so that, if the case calls for it, the Churches might propose them to be beatified and canonized.

Peace? Prayer.

Never be in a hurry; do everything quietly and in a calm spirit. Do not lose your inner peace for anything whatsoever, even if your whole world seems upset. –St. Francis de Sales

If you have peace within, all things follow. St. Augustine defines peace as the “tranquility of order,” which for him is a life with priorities ordered around the Kingdom of God and its justice (cf Matt. 6:33). Around love of God, love of neighbor, and repenting of the dis-order in our lives contrary to those.

For a person of faith, the secret of peace is keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:2). And this by living firmly rooted in the present moment while accepting what is, trusting fully in the provident mercy of the One Who Is. Thus rooted in eternity, we can proceed confidently to do what is called for in each new moment, in peace with confidence. We can open all locked doors and be sent out by the Prince of Peace as a peacemaker. In the well-known words of the Russian saint, St. Seraphim of Sarov, “Acquire the Spirit of Peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved.”

I will never tire of saying to myself and all, prayer is the primary path to this peace. Know prayer, know peace. No prayer, no peace. Because prayer sinks our soul’s tap root into God and allows us to thrive whatever may come.

Blessed are those who trust in the Lord,
whose trust is the Lord.
They shall be like a tree planted by water,
sending out its roots by the stream.
It shall not fear when heat comes,
and its leaves shall stay green;
in the year of drought it is not anxious,
and it does not cease to bear fruit. — Jer. 17:7-8

While our family go-to for devotional prayer is usually the Holy Rosary, my primary personal prayer devotion that helps keep me centered is the Jesus Prayer, repeated over and over in slow meditative sequence synced with my breathing: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” I bought a chotki, a Russian prayer rope, back in the late 1980’s that I still use. For the many times throughout the day I lose my center, a brief return to this rhythmic soaking in divine mercy brings me back.

Especially in these days when so many cannot encounter God through the Holy Eucharist, those of us who have been baptized should remember that right now, deep within us, as in a Sanctuary, dwells the thrice-holy God in all His glory. I like to say when I speak of the theology of the Eucharist, “Remember, Jesus gave us the Eucharist not primarily to be seen, but to be ingested. Take, eat. Take, drink. Because the real locus, the real end game of God-with-us is to abide in the abode of the human heart. In your human heart.”

Try to remain there with Him, and breathe free in prayer.

It was St. John of the Cross, who spent 9 months in prison without any access to the Eucharist or Confession, who really taught this to me in a forceful way. His magnificent mystical poem One Dark Night, composed in his mind and committed to memory while he was imprisoned in that dark cell, witnessed to an overwhelmingly vivid sense of God’s nearness deep within him, in the solitude of isolation, burning in the dark night of faith.

In fact, St. John’s poem makes vividly clear it was there, in the isolation of that solitary (and filthy) cell — deprived of human interaction, books, a change of clothes, with very little food — that his longing for God grew to such an intensity, he finally found himself able to surrender all and entered into union with Christ.

Abide with the God of peace there, deep within, and thousands around you will be saved…

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Bless with abandon

Sacramentals derive from the baptismal priesthood: every baptized person is called to be a blessing, and to bless. — Catechism #1669

God has entrusted to each baptized Christian the authority to bless, which means imploring “the grace of the Holy Spirit that descends through Christ from the Father” (CCC #2627).

For Catholics, this is to be distinguished from the “constitutive” form of blessing offered by an ordained minister, which permanently brings about the dedication of a person or object in the service of the Church — like the blessing of an altar. For the laity, blessings are principally expressed in the form of an invocation, asking God to shower some particular gift on something or someone. This difference does not make the non-ordained blessing “lower-grade,” but simply distinguishes its mode and purpose.

All this to say, baptized Christians should see blessing as a normal daily activity, or, even better, as a grave duty. St. Paul tells us that God “has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens” (Eph. 1:3). Every. And so everywhere you go, at any time, whether quietly in your heart, or aloud, or by outwardly tracing the sign of the cross on another’s forehead, the baptized should bless with abandon. In every new situation, we should invoke the divine grace of mercy, peace, deliverance from evil, forgiveness, healing, faith, hope, love, joy, i.e. “every spiritual blessing in the heavens.”

When I invoke a blessing with spontaneous prayer, I use formulas like:

“God bless you.”
“Come, Lord Jesus!”
“Come, Holy Spirit!”
“Father, kindly send your blessing…”
“May the Lord bless you…”
“Lord, hear my prayer for…”
“I beg you, Lord Jesus…”
“O Lord, open…”
“Dear God, grant…”
“Keep safe, O God…”
“Merciful Father, bring healing to…”
“O God, through the intercession of St. X…”

Catholics have a rich treasury of blessings, especially the traditional Catholic blessing at meals, “Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts…” And the magnificent Aaronic blessing, taken from Numbers 6:22-27:

The Lord bless you and keep you!
The Lord let His face shine upon you,
and be gracious to you!
The Lord look upon you with kindness
and give you peace!

One of the more poignant blessings is the one Jesus commands. Right after telling his disciples to “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,” He says “bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Lk 6:28). St. Paul echoes this when he says, “bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse them” (Rom 12:14), while St. Peter counsels the Christlike response to evil is to return “a blessing, because to this you were called, that you might inherit a blessing” (1 Pt 3:9). Such blessings given by baptismal priests gush from the open side of the Wounded Healer.

Let me especially say spouses should bless each other and (grand)parents should bless their (grand)children every day, all their lives. Spouses and parents have been given special authority by God to do this. Whether near or far, audible or silent, wanted or unwanted, expend your treasury of blessings. Bless them at bedtime, bless them before they leave home, bless them in times of illness or fear or temptation. And add secret sacrifices to augment your blessing. I know a mom who has quietly skipped lunch whenever possible for decades as so many sacrificial pleas to God for Him to bless her children.

We fast so we can feed.

I knew an ordained priest, now deceased, who would bless everyone everywhere he went. Not long before he died, I asked him what he would like most to be remembered for as a priest, and he offered an answer that gave new meaning to his rampant blessing

I hope it could be said of me, ‘Here lies a priest of God who died poor because he gave everything away.’

Solitude

But when you pray, go to your inner room,
close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. — Matt. 6:6

Prayer has the power to turn loneliness into a space of deep intimacy — “I am with you always” (Matt. 28:20). Jesus’ command in today’s Gospel is a striking reminder that God longs to relate to each of us in a radically personal way, signaling His passionate love of our private “secret” company. That’s breathtaking! Imagine Him speaking as I did the other day to my wife when all four of our children had left the house that day: “At last, we’re alone.” And we danced!

I have found over the years of trying to be a man of prayer that solitude is the true birthplace of inner depth, is a privileged gateway to the heart, as well as a “theater of war” where good and evil vie for dominance within my soul. On my last private retreat, I wrote this after having spent four days in silent solitude: “No one can forge my character, save me. When I am judged after death, I will first stand alone before God. Only after that will I face judgment with the whole of creation. In these days of solitude, devoid of my usual props and excuses, I can better see myself as I am before God, the terrifying refuse and dazzling riches.”

My grandfather once wrote me, “I know you said you feel so lonely. Don’t ever be afraid of being lonely, Tommy. Instead, begin to learn how to be alone with yourself. The man who cannot be alone is not much to be with. He’s shallow and grasping, showing ‘the unexamined life is not worth living.’ Take time far from the madding crowd to find the pearls hidden in your soul and gain the faith that moves mountains. If your soul’s tentacles are always grasping out into the world around you to find their anchor, you’ll become a puppet manipulated by the world’s whims. Your soul is your center. Find it and never fear loneliness again…”

For a person of faith, the solitary center of faith is in God, whose Presence is never intrusive, always inviting, illuminating, liberating, grounding. In solitary prayer, you can discover in God your deepest tap root, uncovering within an abiding source of unconditional love, affirmation, mercy, peace. From out of this inner solitude, you can discover your truest identity, your absolute uniqueness. Only within is to be found an enduring stability, a fountain of inexhaustible love out of which a whole life can spring, amply steeled against life’s raging desert storms.

Henri Nouwen says it this way:

The question is whether we let our aloneness become loneliness or whether we allow it to lead us into solitude. Loneliness is painful; solitude is peaceful. Loneliness makes us cling to others in desperation; solitude allows us to respect others in their uniqueness and create community.

Yield to Jesus’ call this Lent, and join Him in meeting your Father in secret. There you will discover who you are.

And that is the richest reward of all.

There He is, awaiting

Do you wish to know the will of God? Look around you right now, and there He is, awaiting. — St. Teresa of Calcutta

Caryll Houselander was a British author in the early-mid 20th century, who had become Catholic at the age of 9. This chain smoking woman had several mystical experiences, the most impactful of which was one she said she had on an underground train in London.

All sorts of people jostled together, sitting and strap-hanging—workers of every description going home at the end of the day. Quite suddenly I saw with my mind, but as vividly as a wonderful picture, Christ in them all. But I saw more than that; not only was Christ in every one of them, living in them, dying in them, rejoicing in them, sorrowing in them—but because He was in them, and because they were here, the whole world was here too . . . all those people who had lived in the past, and all those yet to come.

I came out into the street and walked for a long time in the crowds. It was the same here, on every side, in every passer-by, everywhere—Christ.

She captures a profound Christian truth — by becoming human, entering death and bodily resurrecting to eternity, God wholly identifies Himself with every human person who has or ever will live, and has united the human race in Himself as one. Because of the Incarnation, in each individual man or woman is present the whole of God and the whole of humanity. What you do to any one, or to yourself, is done at once to God and to the whole human race.

A person who has become capable of seeing this truth of faith can pray anywhere, can discover Christ everywhere, whether in distressing or glorious guise. Everything becomes transparent with God, who is above all Present in those whom love, duty, proximity have bound us to most closely in life, i.e. family. Hence, Pope Francis says:

Those who have deep spiritual aspirations should not feel that the family detracts from their growth in the life of the Spirit, but rather see it as a path which the Lord is using to lead them to the heights of mystical union.

To discover this Christ mystically present in the holy Eucharist is at once to be able to uncover Him truly present in all the faces around us. The Eucharist is not a solitary, but a social Sacrament. As a Christian, I can never seek union with “God alone,” but only with God-and, precisely because in Christ, God forever became God-and.

Every day, everywhere I go, the -and is there waiting. All is now His -and. God-with-us is never absent, hidden by my blindness though He may be.

To end, I will share again a story given to me by a woman I met on a retreat.

When my children were young I used to long for the days before I had children, when I was heavily involved in charismatic renewal, with lots of time for me-prayer, supportive community and feel-like-a-hero service outreach activities. These gave me energy, life and a sense of purpose. After my second child was born, I felt deep down — though I would never have admitted it — that having children was somehow leading me away from God, as they seemed to present a distraction from what I spiritually enjoyed and thrived on. I also knew intellectually that this couldn’t be. But there I was!

I fought it constantly by trying to edge in as many church-related activities as I could, sometimes overburdening my husband with my absences or overspending money on babysitters.

Then one night when I was awakened by a hungry baby, I sat in my rocking chair nursing and I cried. I prayed, “How do I find you like I used to, God? I need more than this.” Then I suddenly heard God whisper deep into the depths of my broken heart, “Thank you for feeding me.”

It was like a spiritual explosion in my heart, a revolution, a whole upturning of my distorted worldview. God was there, appearing in the dark of night, in my house, in my nursing child, in my domestic vocation, in the present moment. And my longing for intimacy with Jesus suddenly seemed wrapped in dirty diapers and dishes and rare dates out with my husband.

After that night, I saw that church life and my me-prayer — still very important to me! — were to be servants of my life outside of church. That my home was my first church. Now I always say, and my charismatic friends laugh, that saying prayers before meals or bedtime with my children has become my new mysticism, and shopping for groceries at Walmart, my new mission trip.

Anyone

Anyone, please send me anyone
Lord, is there anyone?
I need someone, oh
Anyone, please send me anyone
Lord, is there anyone?
I need someone. — Demi Lovato

Demi performed this song at the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards, which was her first performance since suffering a near-fatal drug overdose in July 2018. She said in an recent interview, “I almost listen back and hear these lyrics as a cry for help … how did nobody listen to this song and think, ‘Let’s help this girl’?” Four days after the track had been recorded, she overdosed.

I watched her Grammy performance live, and was captivated by its raw power; as a form of prayer born of desperation. It was like Psalm 130 burning through her:

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord;
Lord, hear my voice!
O let your ears be attentive
to the sound of my pleadings.

It also reminded me of a comment the inimitable Fr. Philip Scott once made to me as he and I walked through Ybor City talking: “When the poor cry out for justice and the addicts cry out for deliverance, God’s first response is to awaken us, the Church, to run to their aid.” Pope Benedict said something very similar when he spoke at Auschwitz:

When all is said and done, we must continue to cry out humbly yet insistently to God: Rouse yourself! Do not forget mankind, your creature! And our cry to God must also be a cry that pierces our very heart, a cry that awakens within us God’s hidden presence — so that his power, the power he has planted in our hearts, will not be buried or choked within us by the mire of small-souled selfishness, indifference or opportunism.

In your compassion, answer, O Lord, by making me your answer. Amen.

I tried to talk to my piano
I tried to talk to my guitar
Talk to my imagination
Confided into alcohol
I tried and tried and tried some more
Told secrets ’til my voice was sore
Tired of empty conversation
‘Cause no one hears me anymore
A hundred million stories
And a hundred million songs
I feel stupid when I sing
Nobody’s listening to me
Nobody’s listening
I talk to shooting stars
But they always get it wrong
I feel stupid when I pray
So, why am I praying anyway?
If nobody’s listening
Anyone, please send me anyone
Lord, is there anyone?
I need someone, oh
Anyone, please send me anyone
Lord, is there anyone?
I need someone
I used to crave the world’s attention
I think I cried too many times
I just need some more affection
Anything to get me by
A hundred million stories
And a hundred million songs
I feel stupid when I sing
Nobody’s listening to me
Nobody’s listening
I talk to shooting stars
But they always get it wrong
I feel stupid when I pray
Why the hell am I praying anyway?
If nobody’s listening
Anyone, please send me anyone
Lord, is there anyone?
I need someone, oh
Anyone, please send me anyone
Oh, Lord, is there anyone?
I need someone
Oh, anyone, I need anyone
Oh, anyone, I need someone
A hundred million stories
And a hundred million songs
I feel stupid when I sing
Nobody’s listening to me
Nobody’s listening