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!

What is Divine Mercy Sunday?

The second Sunday of Easter (i.e., one week after Easter Sunday) is celebrated in the Catholic Church as Divine Mercy Sunday. The day has had a long history as a special occasion since it is the “octave” (eighth day) of the great feast, including celebration for the newly baptized. Also, it corresponds to one of the Biblical apparitions. The Gospel read at Mass is always John 20:19-31, which recounts Jesus’ appearance to the Apostles after His resurrection. It includes Jesus’ initial words of “Peace be with you,” and when He breathes the Holy Spirit on the Apostles to commission them for the forgiveness of sins. Another important part is the absence of Thomas and his statement that he will not believe the resurrection until he sees the wounds. Jesus appears the following Sunday to make this revelation, which corresponds to this second Sunday of Easter.

The specific Divine Mercy devotion comes from St Faustina Kowalska, a Polish nun that lived from 1905-1938. She received many messages in prayer of Jesus’ desire to spread the truth of His mercy throughout the world. She recorded these in her diary, but was always very cautious about discerning to make sure this was truly the will of God. Over time her writings were approved, and have borne great fruit! Considering the World War that occurred during her life and the second that came just as she was passing, there certainly was a great awareness of this need for mercy. She wrote many beautiful prayers and reflections which have helped many (including myself!) to gain a great awareness of the greatness of Divine Mercy. She commissioned an artist to draw an image of Christ with rays of blood and water coming forth from His heart (as happened when He was pierced on the Cross) as a symbol of this mercy, with the phrase “Jesus, I trust in You” written at the bottom. In particular, her message was very dear to Pope John Paul II, who officially introduced the title into the liturgy.

To return to the Gospel of the day, we see the way that Jesus pours out His mercy on the Apostles (who were well aware of their lack of faithfulness during His suffering and death), and at the same time commissions them to go forth and spread this mercy. I think this is such an important truth—the awareness of God’s mercy in our own life is a powerful foundation for our mission in the world. I encourage you to learn more about her if this message is of interest to you. May we continue to open ourselves to the mercy of God, and to spread this to the ends of the earth!

Spiritual Thoughts on the Desert

The Israelites spent 40 years in the desert in preparation for entering the Promised Land, and Jesus spent 40 days in the desert before beginning to proclaim the arrival of the Kingdom of God. In the early Church (as the threat of martyrdom waned) the desert became a place that was sought for spiritual renewal. As Christianity had spread throughout the Roman Empire and become more publicly acceptable there was a much greater temptation to mediocrity/lukewarmness. The early flame of lives transformed by the Gospel seemed to be less bright. Christians such as St Anthony the Abbot sought out the desert as a place to reconnect with this early fire. I think we face the same challenge today, and thought I’d share some thoughts about entering our yearly desert of Lent:

  1. The desert was a place where some of the noise and clutter of daily life was set aside. Therefore, it could be a special place of encounter with God in prayer. Jesus often prayed to his Father in the wilderness. We need this nourishment of prayer, too. Why do we stay away from it, or see it as a burden? Imagine someone that is a coffee drinker—coffee to them is seen as a source of life that helps them to enter into the day rather than a burden or obligation that must be laboriously accomplished. It is true that prayer at times includes an aspect of “spiritual combat” (petition, etc), but if this is our only experience of prayer then perhaps we are being called to include more relational prayer in our spiritual life. Find or make space for prayer, and spend time in conversation with God. Receive from his grace, and renew your desire for the life of Christ.
  2. However, the desert is also a place of trial, and this may be why we stay away from it. By stripping away distractions it brings us face to face with some of our difficulties and the challenges of silence. We become more aware of our unhealthy attachments or addictions. As we encounter these difficult truths, though, we can allow God to work to truly heal us. We invite the grace of God into this practice of discipline and seek freedom for love and fidelity. Why are we afraid of silence, or spiritual discipline? What might this reveal to us about what is in need of healing?
  3. Finally, the desert is a place of preparation. Christianity is not a religion that seeks suffering as a final goal, or the annihilation of self. Instead, as our freedom grows the love of God and neighbor reach more profound depths. We enter deeper into communion with others while becoming more fully that person we were created to be. The desert wasn’t the final stop for the Israelites, Jesus, or the saints. Instead, it was a step to something greater to come

God bless!