Listening in Silence

I think there is a tendency for people to approach prayer with an agenda – to go to God looking for answers to a particular problem with the expectation that God will provide an immediate answer (preferably a particular answer). In his book Contemplative Prayer, Thomas Merton explains a very different approach, an approach that gives God the freedom to approach us as God desires:

Contemplation is essentially a listening in silence, an expectancy… In other words, the true contemplative is not the one who prepares his mind for a particular message that he wants or expects to hear, but who remains empty because he knows that he can never expect or anticipate the world that will transform his darkness into light. He does not even anticipate a special kind of transformation. He does not demand light instead of darkness. He waits on the Word of God in silence, and when he is “answered,” it is not so much by a world that bursts into his silence. It is by his silence itself suddenly, inexplicably revealing itself to him as a word of great power, full of the voice of God.

As I re-read those words, what came to mind is a poem of Mary Oliver’s that I love called Praying. In it, she speaks of prayer as “the doorway into thanks, and a silence in which another voice may speak.” All we need do is wait in expecency in the silence…wait for what God wishes to reveal.

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The Catholic Family

I refer in the post title to the family of Catholics, not a nuclear family who is Catholic.

I’ve been in a number of discussions of late about two subjects that have caused me to engage in a lot of reflection. The first is the upcoming election, which seems to prompt a lot of people to engage in judgements about who is or is not a good Catholic. The second is the Catholic Church’s position on various matters, about which there is disagreement on the question of whether one may legitimately dissent from the Church’s position.

What saddens me is hearing two facets of a similar sentiment. One is the “I don’t like x so I’m leaving.” Take your pick on x – it could be “I can’t accept the Church’s position on ordination of women, so I’m leaving and going elsewhere,” or “I can’t stay in a Church that is opposed to homosexuality.” The other facet is “If you don’t like x (fill in the same or different x’s as you choose) leave…and good riddance, we’re just as happy without you.”

It doesn’t seem to me that either version is very Catholic. Perhaps I take the idea of our being one family who are all members of one Body of Christ too seriously. But it seems to me that families don’t act that way. They don’t just get up and leave or push each other out the door when conflcts arise. They try to work out their differences. If they disagree with something, they (to use Brother David Steindl-Rast’s phrase) stand in and speak out, rather than walk out. I’m not talking about ignoring differences, pretending they don’t exist. But I am talking about listening to each other with love.

If, in the words of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, the “Church’s social doctrine is characterized by a constant call to dialogue among all members of the world’s religions,” then isn’t it incumbent on us as Catholics to make greater efforts to peacefully engage in loving dialogue with each other?

What You Do For the Least of These

Here in the Twin Cities, the weather is already starting to turn colder.   With heating bills expected to be at an all time high this year, winter will bring increased challenges to those living on the economic edge.  Some won’t be able to pay their heating bills, others don’t have a home to heat.  The St.  Vincent de Paul Society is already reporting an increased need for blankets and warm clothing.

In addition, every day we read reports from food charities and food banks that donations are down, even as increasing numbers of people are seeking aid.   The number of Americans living in households at risk of hunger was increasing even before the current economic fiasco, and the situation for many is getting worse day by day.  The needy keep coming and the food pantry shelves simply do not have enough food to provide to all who need it.

I’m probably not saying anything here that anyone reading this doesn’t already know, but I write it anyway to urge us all to dig a little deeper to see how we might help in whatever way we are able.  If you haven’t already gone through the closet to see if there are extra jackets and blankets to donate, this would be a good time to do so.  If you are able to make an extra donation this week (and next week) to your food pantry, do it.   If your own situation is such that you can’t do either of those, then add the poor and the hungry and the homeless to your daily prayers.  And as you do whatever you can, hear Jesus reminding you that “whatever you do for these least brothers and sisters of mine, you do for me.”

Saints Simon and Jude

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the feast day of Saints Simon and Jude, two of the apostles about whom we hear very little. Nonetheless, I feel some special connection to them because my childhood parish and grade school in Brooklyn, New York, was Sts. Simon and Jude. I can’t remember receiving any special teaching about these saints in school. All I could ever glean about them was what I learned from the words of our school song. What I remember of the song goes like this:

Saints Simon and Jude,
chosen friends of the Lord,
Whose spirit and zeal
[did something].
Christ’s valiant apostles,
we greet you with love,
Oh bring us to Jesus,
[some other line I don’t remember].

So all I know about Simon and Jude is (1) they were chosen by Jesus; (2) they had zeal for the task to which they were appointed; (3) they were valiant, a word we don’t tend to use, so I replace it with courage and determination. The first is true of all of us: we are all called by Christ. The second and third seem to me to be admirable characteristics in any disciple.  And so my prayer this day to Saints Simon and Jude is that I be filled with their zeal and their courage and determination.

[Update: I graduated from Sts. Simon and Jude grade school in 1971.  One of my sources of joy is that there is a group of those in my graduating class who still keep in touch, albeit more frequently via e-mail than in person.  I am corrected by one of my SSJ buddies that the song was not an official school song, but rather one that Sister Joseph Edward taught us so we could sing on the feast day of Saints Simon and Jude.  More importantly, someone else remembered the words more accurately and fully than I did:

Saints Simon and Jude,
chosen friends of the Lord,
Whose spirit and zeal
Sought his undying Word.
Christ’s valiant apostles,
we greet you with love,
O teach us the way,
To the kingdom above.]

We’re still working on remembering the second verse, but so far only have the first half of it:

You offered your lives
that we might be free
From Satan’s dark wiles
and from his tyranny….

Mary, Mother of God Podcast

This podcast, titled Mary, Mother of God , is the third in a planned series of six podcasts drawn from an 8-day guided retreat I gave in June 2007, on the theme of Embracing Mary. The podcast begins with a consideration of Luke’s story of the Visitation and then talks about what calling Mary the mother of God says both about Jesus and about Mary.

The podcast runs for 17:58. You can stream it from the icon below or can download it from here. (Remember that you can now also subscribe to Creo en Dios! podcasts on iTunes.)

How Ruth and Naomi Speak to Women of Today

I gave a women’s retreat day at my parish yesterday, a very powerful experience for me and the 60 women who participated in the retreat.  I used Joan Chittister’s book, The Story of Ruth: Twelve Moments in Every Women’s Life, as the basis for our time together.  Chittister sees the biblical women Ruth and Naomi as metaphors, as models of all of the women of the world, and she uses their story as a way to identify the defining moments “that mark every women’s passage through time in a way separate from the men around her and that shape her as she goes.”

For me, there is tremendous power in that statement.  If life is a series of defining moments that each of us as women passes through, then nothing I face is faced by me alone.  My own transforming moments – my moments of loss, of change, of insight, of invisibility, of transformation – may be different from those of other women, but these moments of loss, change, insight, etc., are moments that we all face.  And by “we all” I mean to include not just the 60 women I sat in a room with yesterday, or even all of the women living today, but rather every women through time. 

That realization creates a kind of strength.  Women of today stand in a long line of women who have all experienced the same kinds of transforming moments that each of us faces.  The blood of all the Ruths and Naomies that have come before us, the blood of all of our soul sisters who have come before us, flows through our veins.  When I say that, among the women I immediately think of are the ones I included in litany that was part of our opening prayer – Mary of Nazareth, Claire of Assisi, Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Siena, Therese of Liseaux, Edith Stein, Dorothy Day, Ita Ford and Maura Clarke.  But add whoever you want to your own list.  And draw strength from their stories, from how they dealt with their defining moments, as you give attention to the moments that determine who and what you really are, who and what you are intended to be, who and what you can become.

I should also add that we don’t just draw strength from the women who have come before us.  One of the things that was so palpable yesterday was how women draw strength from each other.  We need to find more opportunities for women to tell each other their stories, for women to take time from the care they give to those around them to nurture their own souls, their own growth.

Touch: A Sacrament of God’s Presence

On any number of occasions, people have asked me if I’ve read Macrina Wiederkehr and, although I have heard people share selections from one or another of her works on occasion, I had never picked up one of her books. Recently, I noticed a copy of Wiederkehr’s Behold Your Life on my friend Angela’s bookshelf and asked to borrow it. After it sat on the floor in my study for several weeks (I have an elastic definition of “recently”), I finally picked it up and started skimming through it. The book is a 40-day “pilgrimage through your memories.”

One of the entries that struck me as I was flipping through the book is one based on the passage in Luke Chapter 7, when the woman identified as a “sinful woman” bathed Jesus’ feet, wiped them with her hair, kissed them and then anointed them with ointment. The suggested prayer experience accompanying the passage is to:

Try to envision the people who might have held you when you were a baby. Touch is essential for wholesome living and growth. When touch is healthy it is a sacrament of God’s presence. Let this be a day to focus on the gift of human touch. Be conscious of all that you touch today whether it be people or things. Practice awareness. Hold all things as though they were sacred vessels.

This seems to me a marvelous suggestion, although I wouldn’t limit the exercise to people who touched me when I was a baby. Perhaps I react so strongly to this invitation to contemplation because the sense of touch is one that is so important to me. I joke that it is part of my Italian heritage: always hugging people, holding hands, touching people on the arm or shoulder when talking to them. Sometimes the touch says I love you or it makes me happy to be with you. Sometimes it says I don’t have words but I need to convey that I’m here. Sometimes it just says I’m delighted and want to share my joy with you.

But even more importantly, some of my most powerful experiences of God’s love involve other people touching me when I was in pain. My cousin putting his arm around me at the end of my father’s funeral mass saying, “I’m here…You’re not alone,” just at the moment with I thought I might collapse with grief. It was my cousin, but I was fully aware that it was God. A Jesuit at the retreat house I used to be on the adjunct staff of holding out his arms and enfolding me in a hug whenever he saw me during the final month of my father’s illness. Every time he did, I felt wrapped in the arms of God. One of my close friends taking my hand and putting it through his arm as we walked along the path after I returned from a very difficult session with a spiritual director in which I talked for the first time about a very painful experience from my past. He hadn’t known what I had just gone through, and when I asked him about it later, he said it just seemed like the right thing to do.  It was God saying, you’re with me and I’m not going anywhere.

To be sure, there are experiences of touch that are anything but sacramental and we need to deal with the wounds those touches create. But the suggestion to spend time now and again contemplating those loving, healing touches that have been sacraments of God’s presence is a good one.

St. Vincent and the Vincentian Mission

I have shared before that I have a deep commitment to the Vincentian charism, nurtured by many years of friendship and association with some extraordinary people who are part of the Vincentian family.

St. Vincent encouraged his followers to be contemplatives in action and left us with a spirituality based on seeing and serving Christ in the poor. Lamentably, there are many Catholics who have very little knowledge of St. Vincent or the work of the various branches of the Vincentian family and there are many places in the U.S. (including my current location in the Minneaplis/St. Paul area) where there is little or no Vincentian presence that might serve an educative function. This is particularly unfortunate because when people do learn about Vincent, they become excited about the idea of living the Gospel message through service to the poor and seek to follow his example.

Fortunately, there are now some wonderful internet-based resources to learn more about St. Vincent and the work of the Vincentian family. In addition to the famvin website and the Vincentian Wikipedia (to which new material is being added almost daily), there is a new website, VinFormation, that provides various resources, including podcasts, timelines of Vincentian Saints and Blesseds, testimonials, games and other interactive learning tools. Although it is still a work-in-progress and still undergoing extensive development (some of the features are not yet fully operational), it is already a wonderful site, one you will enjoy as well as learn from.

In May 2002, Pope John Paul II titled his World Communication Day message, Internet: A New Forum for Proclaiming the Gospel. Recognizing the power of the internet to provide a new avenue for evangelization and catechesis, he “summon[ed] the whole Church bravely to cross this new threshold, to put out into the deep of the Net.” These resourses on St. Vincent and the Vincentians represent a response to Pope John Paul’s challenge that will benefit all of us. If you aren’t already a friend of this wonderful Saint who so took the Gospel to heart (and even if you already are), take a look at VinFormation and the other sites I’ve linked.

Filled with the Fullness of God

We’ve been reading from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians for the first Mass reading for the past week. The first part of today’s reading is one of my favorite parts of the letter – Paul’s prayer to God for the people of Ephesus. During my eight-day retreat several years ago, this was one of the passages I prayed with, and I can still remember the power of the experience – of feeling as though the words were being prayed especially for me. Paul prays:

that [God] may grant you in accord with the riches of his glory to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in the inner self, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the holy ones, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

When I re-read the passage just now, I remembered my strong response to the phrase “filled with all the fullness of God.” The sense of God’s limitlessness. The sense of feeling completely filled with God’s love, with God’s spirit – a sense I experience now from merely saying the words out loud to myself. And the feeling that my being filled with God neither diminishes God nor anyone else’s experience of the fullness of God.

As to that last, as I look back at my journal entries for that retreat, I remember how struck I was by the communal aspect of being filled with God’s fullness. After one of my prayer periods I wrote of my prayer experience, “Spirit of God flowing not just in me but in all people and therefore a source of not just my union with God but my union with everyone. Not like spokes of a wheel with God’s spirit flowing between God and each of us individually, but God’s spirit flowing through everything, as though we were all in an ocean of God Spirit connecting all of us…Filled with the utter fullness of God, which is limitless…God’s spirit pervading everything.”

God desires for us exactly what St. Paul desired for the people of Ephesus – that we be filled with the fullness of God.

Blood of Christ, Inebriate Me

I begin my prayer time every morning with two prayers. One, as I’ve mentioned before, is St. Ignatius’ Suscipe. The other is the Anima Christi, the third petition of which is “Blood of Christ, inebriate me” (“Sanguis Christi, inebria me,” for those who prefer the Latin).

Early after my conversion back to Catholicism, a Franciscan friend of mine gave me a book by Mother Mary Francis, P.C.C., which is an extended commentary on the Anima Christi prayer. I was very moved by the book when I first read it (I used it as the basis for my daily prayer for a period of several weeks) and so I go back to it now and again. In her chapter on this third petition she writes:

[T]his inebriation is not of the senses. It may have nothing whatsoever to do with emotional response or lack of response. It means that the spirit is enlivened, and the body exhilirated, not by what they feel but by what they can do. We see something of this in the Acts of the Apostles when, on the first Pentecost morning, the disciples were speaking with such enlivenment as no one had seen in them before. They were addressing the crowds with an exhiliration that was completely new and far beyond their own powers and ordinary way of acting. The Pentecostal apostles were obviously exceeding their own potential. …They were inebriated with the blood of Christ, whose effects the Holy Spirit was at that moment bringing to climactic action. And whenever we are enabled by the Holy Spirit to exceed ourselves, to surpass our natural capabilities, we are experiencing in our measure and expressing within our possibilities the inebriation that is the effect of the blood of Christ outpoured.

I read these words and look up at the words on the plaque that hangs by the door to my study: I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. As Mother Mary Francis writes, “We are enabled to do the impossible when we are inebriated with the blood of Christ.” And so I pray every morning, Blood of Christ, inebriate me.