Advent 2020 Prayer Study – Week 4

Merry Christmas! I write this in the midst of our celebration of the Christmas Octave. The manger scene is a fitting scene to consider for our final step of the classic “lectio divina” method of praying with Scripture- contemplation. Here we refer not to the human act of prayer, but God’s response. It may be a felt inspiration/guidance or not. However, with faith and hope we take time to listen for God in our prayer. Our goal is not only an interior monologue of our meditation and prayers – we seek a dialogue in which we encounter God’s voice. Just as the figures around the manger gaze in receptive adoration of the birth of the Christ child, let us remember to leave time for contemplation in our prayer to allow space for God to act!

Weekly notes from Facebook-

Monday: Silence can scare us, and drive us to want to fill up the space with noise or busy-ness. However, silence gives a space where relationship can grow and a gift can be received. Our prayerful time with Scripture should include not only reading, reflecting, and expressing our reflections in prayer, but also silence and open receptivity to God.

Tuesday: St Teresa of Avila, one of the master teachers on prayer, describes the difference between human cooperation in prayer (what we have been discussing in the first three steps) and God’s response. Here are some of her words on this topic from Way of Perfection (ch. 31): “I still want to describe this prayer of quiet to you in the way that I have heard it explained and as the Lord has been pleased to teach it to me. . . . This is a supernatural state and however hard we try, we cannot acquire it by ourselves. . . . The faculties are stilled and have no wish to move, for any movement they make seems to hinder the soul from loving God. They are not completely lost, however, since two of them are free and they can realize in whose presence they are. It is the will that is captive now. . . . The intellect tries to occupy itself with only one thing, and the memory has no desire to busy itself with more. They both see that this is the one thing necessary; anything else will cause them to be disturbed.”

Wednesday: Often we are tempted to rate our prayer as “good or bad” based on whether we feel a certain way at the end. While at times we do experience a sense of inspiration, this isn’t the only time that God is active. The response we “feel” can depend on many factors (what is going on in our life at the time, emotional state, etc). If we have spent the time seeking conversation with God (despite distractions), we can be confident that God is at work in our life to guide us by His grace!

Thursday: Yesterday I spoke of not trying to force a particular response in prayer and not to evaluate prayer just on our emotional response, but that doesn’t mean we should have low expectations! As we wait in joyful anticipation of the celebration of the birth of Christ tomorrow, it is good to remember that we should approach prayer with an expectant faith, confident God will be present and active in whatever situation we may be!

Friday: (no post on this topic, as it was Christmas day!)

Advent 2020 Prayer Study – Week 3

The third step of Lectio Divina is prayer. This may sound strange, since isn’t this whole process about praying with the Scriptures? The distinction here is not just doing something in a prayerful manner (eg reading or reflection), but actually talking with God. In our first steps there is a danger of just staying trapped in our own mind or thoughts. Here we need to turn that interior monologue into a dialogue with God. After reading and reflecting on the Scripture passage, what do we want to say to God? What do we want to ask God? For whom or what do we want to pray or give thanks?

Monday: Our ability to make tasks “routine” is often a good thing (eg we don’t want to spend as much time thinking about how to tie our shoes now as we did when we first learned!). However, this can lead to struggle in prayer since we can become less engaged with our conversation with God as our words become habitual. This can happen with formulas of prayer (like the Our Father) or even with our own patterns of thought if we make use of personal prayers. So, let’s look at the types of things we say in prayer, and remember what they really mean! I will guide the reflections this week along the structure of the beginning of Mass, since this is something that has become “routine” for many of us!

Tuesday: We make the Sign of the Cross as we begin Mass, and usually at the beginning of our personal prayers. This gives us an opportunity to reflect on who we are and to Whom we are speaking: we are a baptized child of God and are speaking with the Holy Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit! This connection of relationship is important to remember as we move from reflection on our Scripture reading into conversation with God.

Wednesday: After the Sign of the Cross comes the Penitential Rite, in which we ask pardon from God for failings “in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done, and in what I have failed to do.” Was there something in the Scripture passage that reminded us of a need to ask pardon? We can ask the Lord to give us the grace to learn from our faults. Honesty about failures helps to build a stronger relationship with God. And, although this is an important step, we remember that sorrow for sin is not the only step of prayer. Sometimes we might be tempted to skip saying sorry, but at other times we might be tempted to spend all of our time wallowing in our failures. Instead, we take the time to ask forgives so that we can clear the path to move forward.

Thursday: The Gloria comes after the Penitential Rite at Mass. Here we express our praise and thanksgiving to God in words that are drawn from the message of the angels to the Shepherds at Christmas. This is definitely the longest part of the opening rites to Mass, and I think that this is an important lesson. If we struggle with this prayer, the problem is probably not that the Gloria is too long and needs to be shortened, but that we need to grow in our awareness of gratitude and praise! After reading the passage of Scripture we we can speak with God about what ways it inspired us to give praise or thanks.

Friday: The final part of the introductory rites of Mass is the Opening Prayer or “Collect.” After having called to mind to Whom we are speaking in the Sign of the Cross, asked pardon for sins in the Penitential Rite, and given praise and thanks to God in the Gloria, we now “collect” together our prayers to ask God for what we need and for the needs of the world. What petitions come to our mind based on our meditation on the Scripture passage that we just read?

Advent 2020 Prayer Study – Week 2

The second step of the “lectio divina” method of praying with the Bible is called “Meditation.” This word can be used to mean many different things, and nowadays often is used in terms of what we spoke about last week – mental preparation for prayer in order to focus our attention, etc. However, in the classic sense this word refers not just to mental preparation, but to prayerful reflection and consideration of the Scripture passage. Last week we sought to read through the passage and pay attention to where we felt called to “go deeper.” The first step was like searching for spiritual food, and now in meditation we begin to chew and digest what we encountered. Our prayer to the Holy Spirit is important here so that it can be more than just human reflection or talking to ourselves in our head. What does this passage seem to be saying to us? How does it connect with or shine light on other parts of the Scriptures? What does it tell us about Christ, the Christian life, or heaven? All of these questions can help us to enter into a conversation with God, which we will discuss next week! Below are some daily reflections I posted on Facebook-

Monday: Can a word in Holy Scripture have several senses? St Thomas Aquinas considers this question in the beginning of his famous work called the Summa Theologiae/”Summary of Theology” (Q. 1 A. 10). He answers that yes, a word can have several senses, because God is able of speaking on many levels at once! St Thomas speaks of the literal sense of the text, and then three levels of spiritual meaning – the allegorical, the moral, and the anagogical. The rest of this week we will be looking at each of these for an aid to our meditation and prayer with Scripture!

Tuesday: The first “sense” of Scripture that St Thomas Aquinas identifies is the literal or historical sense. We may be tempted to skip over the account itself to look for other meanings, but taking the time to consider the scene in depth may help to shed new light on it. A method that could be helpful here is one we spoke of last week – the encouragement of Ignatius Loyola to put ourselves somewhere in the scene as an observer or participant. This can help us to understand the text in a way that prepares us for deeper spiritual senses contained within it!

Wednesday: In addition to the literal/historical sense of a passage, St Thomas identifies three spiritual senses. The first is the Analogical Sense, insofar as “the things of the Old Law signify the things of the New Law.” The Old Testament prepares for what happens in the New Testament. For example, St Paul sees a symbol for baptism in the Israelites crossing the Red Sea (1 Corinthians 10), and St Peter sees one in Noah’s Ark (1 Peter 3). In a related way, we may even see analogies within the New Testament itself (eg Jesus being lost in the Temple for three days in Luke 2 and Jesus being in the tomb for three days). So, one way of meditating on a passage is considering what analogies/connections it may have with other parts of the Bible!

Thursday: St Thomas’ second spiritual sense is the Moral Sense, “so far as the things which signify Christ, are types of what we ought to do.“ This is probably the most common one that comes to our mind, as it involves asking how the passage at hand can guide us in living a Christian life.  Our temptation can often be to try to change Christ into our own version of Him, but here we are invited to let him renew our way of thinking and acting so that we can be transformed into His image.

Friday: The final spiritual sense has the oddest name… the Anagogical Sense! St Thomas says this refers to “so far as they signify what relates to eternal glory.” In other words, how does this passage direct us to better understand the life of heaven? For example, the healing of the blind or lame may invite us to reflect on the joy of being set free from what binds us here. This sense can especially help to nourish our hearts with hope and desire when we are tempted by discouragement or sadness!

“The Search” Parish Study

This week we are beginning an online study called “The Search!” I thought I’d give a little explanation of it here to help build connections.

It is produced by the Augustine Institute, and available through their formed.org streaming service. This is a great, user-friendly way to connect with a lot of high-quality materials for growing in faith (it uses the same interface as Netflix, which probably helps for many!). It can be used through your web browser or through an excellent app. St Malachy/St Elizabeth parishioners can get a free log-in by noting that they belong to the parish on the log-in screen, otherwise you may need to check with your local parish to see about availability.

Out of all of the series on the website, why did I choose to start with “The Search?” I think it provides an excellent step-by-step reflection on our search for God, and therefore is a great resource for anyone, no matter where they are on the spectrum of faith. As we go through the seven videos in the series, we are asked to begin our reflection on the desires of the human heart and our identity. The topics then move through the encounter with God, our encounter with Jesus Christ, and our encounter with the Catholic Church. Along the way we are able to reflect on the reasons for our belief as well as make/deepen a personal connection.

Each Sunday I will share a link to the next excerpt on my social media (see the links on the sidebar of the main page of this website), and each Thursday I will host a discussion on Facebook live at 5:30pm (6pm en español). All are welcome! If you’re not able to join this live, the recap will be available to view on Facebook/YouTube.

Here is a short excerpt (four minutes) from the first video, which should be accessible to all: http://watch.formed.org/videos/the-search-excerpt-what-do-you-seek (the full twenty minute version is available on formed.org).

También hay una versión en español: http://watch.formed.org/videos/thesearch-ep1-formed-esp-1

I hope you can take part in this reflection, God bless!

The Angelus Prayer

Have you ever heard of the Angelus prayer? It is an old and widely popular devotion throughout the world, but was not one that was part of my home parish/family growing up (no matter how much we learn growing up, there is always so much more out there!). I first encountered it at the Newman Center at the University of Illinois, where we would pray it before the noon daily Masses. Then, in seminary it became even more prominent – we were all expected to have it memorized, we prayed it before most meals, and bells rang for it three times every day! It was at this point when I realized how well-known this devotion had been, and came to appreciate it as a daily practice.

The “Angelus” became popular in the Middle Ages, and gets its name from the beginning of the prayer in Latin, “Angelus Domini nuntiavit Mariae…” (“The angel of the Lord declared unto Mary…”). It commemorates the appearance of the Archangel Gabriel to announce the birth of Jesus to the Virgin Mary (Gospel of Luke 1:26-38). Traditionally it would be prayed at 6:00am, Noon, and 6:00pm. Church bells would ring to mark the times. People throughout the town – whether at work in the fields or at home – would pause and pray the prayer together. It consists of three sets of responses each followed by a Hail Mary, and then a closing prayer (I will list the full prayer at the end of this post).

What I came to love about the Angelus was the way that it invites us to pause at three key points of the day – the beginning, middle, and end (or breakfast, lunch, and dinner) – to reflect on the presence and action of God. Praying the Hail Mary in between the verses gives us a moment to reflect on the meaning of each section.

The first verse proclaims the Annunciation to Mary – a moment to reflect on what God has done in the history of salvation, and what He has done/is doing in our personal life. Next, it remembers Mary’s response: “Be it done unto me according to Thy word.” It invites us to see God’s will in the concrete circumstances of our life and to respond positively to His call. Finally, the Angelus calls to mind the fruit of Mary’s response: the Incarnation, Christ dwelling among us in her womb. The end result of cooperation with God’s will is receiving the life of Christ. We have no need to fear it or avoid it.

I wanted to share this devotion as a practice that may be helpful to you in your daily life now! Whether you pray it at multiple times a day or just once, it can help to give us a practical moment of discernment and reflection in the middle of a busy day. Like Mary, may we be open to the voice of God, and respond with our “yes” in every circumstance!

The Angelus

[Note: if two or more people are praying together, the leader says the parts in normal type, and the other(s) respond with the italicized parts]

The Angel of the Lord declared unto to Mary:

And she conceived by the Holy Spirit.

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

Behold the handmaid of the Lord:

Be it done unto me according to Thy word.

Hail Mary…

And the Word was made Flesh:

And dwelt among us. [Traditionally a bow or genuflection is done here]

 Hail Mary…

Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God,

that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

Let us pray:

Pour forth, we beseech Thee, O Lord, Thy grace into our hearts; that we, to whom the incarnation of Christ, Thy Son, was made known by the message of an angel, may by His Passion and Cross be brought to the glory of His Resurrection, through the same Christ Our Lord. Amen.

A Way to Start Prayer Based on the Baptismal Promises

The way we begin our prayer often sets the tone for our receptivity to God’s action. God can work through even a distracted soul, but having an organized plan for the start often bears great fruit. As Catholics we generally begin with the Sign of the Cross, which roots our prayer in our relationship with God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I think a great way to build on this is to follow the approach of the ancient baptismal promises, which were made by us (or on our behalf) shortly before we were baptized in the name of the same Holy Trinity. This approach was shared with me by a retreat director, and so I’d like to take a moment to share it with you!

The baptismal promises are structured with three renunciations (of Satan, his empty works, and his empty promises), followed by three professions of faith (in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit). Similarly, at the beginning of prayer we can take a moment to renounce the obstacles that keep us from prayer, or hinder our engagement. It is good to be specific to the moment. For example, a person might say, “I renounce the belief that God is not present to me,” “I renounce the belief that my television/phone/etc is a better use of my time than prayer,” or “I renounce the belief that I can live life to the fullest without prayer.” The retreat director recommended invoking the name of Jesus during these statements. It doesn’t have to be list of three things, it can just depend on what is on our mind at the time. The point is that this practice identifies things that sap our strength in prayer. Often these are unconscious thoughts, and naming them can bring them to light and lessen their power over us. Other times, naming them may show them to be illogical or inconsistent.

However, we don’t end with renunciations. What we profess in faith is at the center of our identity; what we reject is only to clear the way for these truths. Therefore, we can continue to follow the structure of the baptismal promises by naming what we believe. “I believe that God is present. That He hears me. That He loves me.” “I believe that God has something to share with me in this time of prayer.” “I believe that God is at work to strengthen my soul and give light to my mind even when I do not feel any emotional response.” Whereas naming a lie can rob it of some of its power over us, naming a truth reinforces the power that it can give to us.

This approach to prayer may only take a minute or two, or it may be extended. I think in particular it is a great way to begin longer times of reflection (whether personal prayer or at Mass). It can give us the help to push beyond merely reciting prayers without much reflection, and instead enable true heart-to-heart dialogue with God. God bless!

Easter Homily 2019 (summary!)

Alleluia, He is Risen!

Today I think of an experience that we probably all have had as a child – what I call the “reassuring glance.” I can remember times as a kid of being nervous about an at bat in baseball, or jumping off the high dive in the pool, or having to speak in public, and then looking over and seeing my mom, dad, a coach, or a friend. In seeing them present, I was given courage to face the situation before me. When we see a child in one of these nervous situations make a reassuring glance like that, we can see their whole mood and expression change. They become more confident. Their fear is overcome and they can deal with the challenge.

For us as Christians, our ultimate source of assurance can be found in the Resurrected Christ. He has conquered death! Death no longer has power over Him, as St Paul says. As Christ drew all of our sufferings and failures to Himself in His death, He now includes all of our victories in His resurrection. This is what transformed the Apostles. As a saint said, if they were afraid to follow Him publicly while He was alive, what makes them rise up courageous and unconquerable after His death? It is their encounter with Jesus in His resurrection. For this reason St Paul can say that he can do all things through Christ who strengthens him.

However, this change didn’t reach its fulfillment in one day. Jesus spent forty days after His resurrection with them before His ascension, strengthening them and letting this reassurance deepen. They spent the next ten days in prayer waiting for the Holy Spirit, and on the fiftieth day – Pentecost – they were ready. No matter how many Easters we have celebrated, we are invited in these next fifty days to return to this meditation on victory! When we face challenges – whether the every-day sort or the types that shake us to the core – let us repeat those words, “Jesus, you are risen. You are victorious. You are with me. I can face this situation in the light of your victory over death.” May we arrive at the end of this Easter season more deeply connected with our Risen Lord. Amen, alleluia!

John Henry Cardinal Newman

I first heard of Cardinal Newman as the namesake of the “Newman Center” that I attended at the University of Illinois (the Catholic student center). It was with great joy that I heard he had been approved for canonization as a saint! In this post I thought I’d give a few reasons as to how he has been a positive influence in my life.

Cardinal Newman was a significant theologian of the 19th century (lived 1801-1890). He was a member of the Oxford Movement within Anglicanism and developed a deep interest in the writings of early Christians. Much of his research can be found in his work, “An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine” (although the word ‘essay’ may be deceiving… my paperback copy is 480 pages!). This study is particularly interesting because he began the research before entering the Catholic Church, and finished it as Catholic. It documents his discovery of the historical roots and unity of the early Church with the Catholic Church today. His writing is full of profound insight into the reasons for belief—which was not an abstract study for him, but a burning personal question. Newman’s writing can be dense at times, but very rewarding!

Second, I find his spirituality compelling and timely. He took as his motto “Cor ad cor loquitur” (heart speaks to heart). As important as study was to him, Newman recognized that what is most powerful is when the Gospel is embodied in a personal witness. In it we can consider the Heart of God speaking to our heart, as well as seeking to let our heart speak to others. My favorite explanation of this phrase comes from a book by Louis Bouyer about St Philip Neri (side note— When Newman entered the Catholic Church he decided to start a community of the Congregation of the Oratory, the religious order founded by Neri. At some point I will write a post on Neri! He is my favorite non-biblical saint). Bouyer writes, “Cardinal Newman’s motto, ‘Cor ad cor loquitur,’ sums up the Philippian ideal; neither speeches nor arguments can awaken a living faith in those whom Christianity has lost its meaning. Only contact with people whose daily lives are dominated by an intense and personal experience of the truths of the Faith can achieve such a result, and it is precisely this result which Philip achieved through his dual life of intimate communion with God and men.” There is a personal touch to his approach to preaching and teaching, and a good reminder that the Faith isn’t just to be studied, but to be lived.

Finally, his legacy keeps popping up in my life. Newman was the rector of a Catholic university and wrote a book called “The Idea of a University,” and his interest in this topic helped him to become the patron of the line of Catholic student centers that I encountered on campus in Champaign-Urbana. This center helped me to make the transition from my high school faith into a more adult faith, and to discern my vocation as a priest (another side note—when I entered seminary, the directors of our diocesan retreat center would begin the retreats with his prayer “Some Definite Service,” it’s worth looking up!). Also, his community and school at the Birmingham Oratory was closely connected with two of my favorite British writers: Hilaire Belloc and JRR Tolkien. Belloc graduated from there as a student himself. Tolkien’s mother appointed a priest of the community as the guardian for him when she was near death, which helped guide him to develop his faith and studies to become the author and professor that he was. Tolkien then sent his children to the school. So, Newman’s influence is all over!

I never can capture everything about a person in a summary like this, but hopefully that gives a little crash course on Newman. God bless!

Counsels in Contrast to Commandments

Everyone is generally familiar with the Ten Commandments as classic guidelines of the moral life. However, it wasn’t until seminary that I encountered the concept of “evangelical counsels” (ie, counsels from the Gospels). This phrase refers to invitations that are made to us to work closer to Christ. They are not strictly required, but are avenues of new life.

I think this distinction is important because unfortunately many times we get focused on just trying to stay above the water (ie, obey the commandments). We want to balance a relationship with God with as much focus on worldly things as we can, which can be a painful battle that doesn’t bear a lot of fruit. Likewise, many people identify Christianity with merely trying to avoid certain sins. This misses the truth about what the faith really is, and what it offers us.

The counsels of the Gospel, in contrast, invite us to step away from the edge and venture more fully into the life of Christ. They invite us to go beyond what is strictly required, and experience a freedom and joy that only comes with setting aside our fear of the Cross. When someone lives out the counsels we see transformation in them and in the world. Our hesitation to follow these counsels is what often gives others the dull impression of Christian life.

One of my favorite Gospel examples of this is the encounter between Christ and the rich man (see Mark 10:17-22). He asks Jesus what he should do, and Jesus starts by listing the commandments. When the rich man says he has been fulfilling these, Jesus, “looking at him, loved him and said to him, ‘You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’” The rich man goes away sad at this counsel. Notice that the Gospel points out the personal nature of this invitation from Jesus by mentioning the look and love that Christ had as He spoke these words. They did not come from a desire to take something away from the man, but from a deep knowledge of how to fulfill the desire of his heart. Unfortunately the rich man takes this as sad news. He is bound by his wealth, afraid to let it go even when it is an obstacle for him.

I might write another post described the response to such a call of entering consecrated life (as a religious brother/sister or monk/nun), but each of us experiences the call at times to live our Christian life more fully. Often this call asks us to set aside something that we have come to rely on in an unhealthy manner, and set forth with a new freedom. Are you experiencing a call like this in your life right now? We must ask ourselves if we will respond with sadness and fear, or confidence and faith.

Faith and the War Within

St James writes, “Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from? Is it not from your passions that make war within your members?” (James 4:1). He describes something that we all experience – the fact that within ourselves we feel a battle between many different desires and emotions. This can make us feel like we are being pulled apart, and St James lists conquering this as one of the pre-requisites for true peace (both personally and in the world as a whole!). We each have to address this in some way. Should we work against any of these desires, and if so, how? I thought today I’d give some reflections on these questions from a Catholic perspective.

We see our creation as both body and soul as leading to these different sets of desires. We perceive things with our senses, and we are drawn toward the pleasurable and away from the painful. With our minds we also are drawn toward what we perceive to be true, and toward doing what we believe is good (although people use many different standards to make these judgments).

In the beginning of creation, we believe the grace of integrity was given to unite all of these desires toward a unified and true goal, but one of the fruits of sin was to introduce disorder into our heart. From here we are often drawn to seek superficial goods that are in conflict with our true and long-term goals, and we see selfishness work its destruction across the world every day.

The Christian vocation, in contrast, is to be transformed into a living image of God. Rather than a rampaging horde of barbarians (which is what our passions may seem like some times), the mission of the Church is to be more like a horde of images of Christ – people who will live with the love and wisdom of Christ, His patience, and His strength. In the “cloud of witnesses” of the saints we can see ways in which this has been successful, although we also know the great need to re-commit to this mission today.

Our first step in winning the war within as Catholics, then, is to make an act of faith in the power of God. Our biggest obstacle is our self-reliance, which hesitates to rely on the grace of God, and is reluctant to reach out for the help that we need. We want to be perfect in a day without involving others, and are discouraged when this transformation does not take place according to our time-table. It is a grace-fueled cooperation of our will with God’s, not just a passive process that happens automatically. But, moving beyond self-reliance, we are called to face this battle with trust in personal prayer, the Sacraments (especially the Eucharist and Confession), friendship, and perhaps other aids (e.g. counseling, small groups, etc).

This is a path of freedom and healing. It brings us back towards that unity of the initial creation – and what will be restored in the life to come. Many may struggle with the decision to enter into this battle from the point of faith, and instead choose a path that relies on human power and wisdom alone (doubting a chance for anything else). But, the faith that we are invited to is not a “blind” faith with no evidence. I am encouraged on by seeing how this has happened in others, how it is happening now, and how it has happened in my own life. I believe that Christ is alive and that I have encountered Him. May He work in my life and yours, and may we in confidence follow where He leads!