How do you pray with the Scriptures?

The Bible is not an ordinary book. First, it is in fact a collection of many different books. Only the modern printing press allows us to conceive of them as one volume! However, these books are bound together, we believe, by a common Author working through various human authors. Therefore, it is more than just a historical record of information. The Scriptures offer us a chance to come into conversation with the God that inspired them, which we call prayer.

I first approached reading the Scriptures primarily from the perspective of “quantity.” When I sat down to read, I was looking to see how much information I could get through. This is how I read most other books. I knew people did pray with the Scriptures but wasn’t really sure how. For me, the primary change was realizing that I should have been focusing on “quality” of reading. The goal of prayer isn’t to read over as many words as possible. It is to discover riches that are hidden and to begin to savor them. This approach is classically called lectio divina (“divine reading”). It focuses on entering into the texts as a treasure house for prayer. A theological study of the Bible supports and nourishes this reading, but it stands distinct.

Divine reading begins by selecting a text. Again, the goal isn’t quantity, but quality. We read over a section and continue until we come across an idea or phrase that strikes us. It is important to be watchful, because we do not know when the Lord will speak! We begin to meditate and reflect on this. Maybe we imagine ourselves in the scene. We think of the way that it gives insight into our past, present, or future. We think of its implications for us. But, prayer can’t remain at only the level of personal consideration. When we turn this reflection into a conversation with God, it becomes prayer. Maybe the meditation inspires us to expression of praise or thanksgiving; maybe petition and intercession; or, maybe even to express sorrow for some event. We speak to God about our meditation on this passage. Then, we listen for a response. Contemplation refers to this phase of God’s response to our prayer. It is important to have some times of silence. Our goal isn’t just to fill up the space with our own thoughts and words. We need room for God to work. There is a need to be open if God is going to direct our prayer somewhere, and not to try to force the conclusion we want. If we find our attention wavering, we can return to the earlier steps and move back and forth. This cycle of reading, meditating, praying, and contemplating forms the structure of lectio divina. It may happen over the course of five minutes, or an hour. In this, the riches of the Scriptures can be opened to us in a new way.

I’d like to end with one final note. While these four steps form the classic structure, there is an implicit fifth step that is contained in the practice. True prayer gives us inspiration for action. It doesn’t always mean starting some new routine—perhaps it might just be encouragement to persevere in our spiritual life. But, at the end of the time of prayer, it is very helpful to make a practical resolution. I think a lot of problems can come up if we ignore this. Often it leads to a separation between prayer and life. Going to prayer might become something completely divorced from everyday life, which is not healthy. Instead, I encourage you to end your prayer by asking God for a practical resolution. This resolution could be to continue a practice, change a habit, take a particular action, or even seek the answer to a question that arose during the time. It might mean some study or speaking to a spiritual director. In this final step, though, we can let the graces given through prayer take root and bear fruit.

A great resource if you would like to learn more about this form of prayer is Praying Scripture for a Change by Tim Gray. I highly recommend it.

God bless!

What led me to the rosary?

The rosary is one of the most distinctive Catholic prayers, but it didn’t come easily to me. It seemed so long, and kind of outdated. Others have concerns about devotions to Mary in general—do they lead us to Christ? In the end the rosary proved to be one of the devotions that most helped me grow closer to God—and a key step in beginning to consider a vocation to the priesthood.

When I entered college I joined the campus council of the Knights of Columbus (around November). They gave out rosaries, asked us to carry them, and encouraged us to pray them as often as we could. I did begin keeping mine in my pocket but never prayed it. I don’t think I had prayed a rosary since Sunday school, but it did intrigue me. I knew other people prayed the rosary and spoke highly of it. So, when it came time to pick a Lenten goal in the spring my mind went back to the rosary. I had a sense it would be a good thing to do, and a little sense of responsibility since I had not followed through on praying it yet. I set a goal to pray it each day during Lent.

At first I had to look up the instructions online. I knew the basic prayers by memory, but was fuzzy on some of the details. In particular, I needed a refresher on the “mysteries” of the rosary. These are one of the keys to what makes the rosary such a powerful method of prayer. If you aren’t familiar with them, how it works is that each “decade” of the rosary is made up of an Our Father, 10 Hail Marys, and a Glory Be. During each decade you call to mind a particular event from the life of Christ or Mary (called the “mysteries”) and reflect on it. These mysteries are grouped into four categories (Joyful, Luminous, Sorrowful, and Glorious). A standard rosary consists of praying all five decades of one group of mysteries. For example, the Joyful mysteries include the Annunciation of the birth of Jesus to Mary, the Visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth, the birth of Jesus, the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, and the finding of the child Jesus in the Temple.

It was a tough habit to start. In the beginning most of my effort was focused on the logistics (what to say and when). After a little while I began to be able to focus on the mysteries and really think about them. The set of prayers gave me a fixed amount of time to think, and something to “do” to help focus. I gradually realized that the mysteries basically took you through the life of Christ, from the Annunciation all the way through our entrance into the life of heaven. These reflections began to bring together the “big picture” for me, and I began to really think about these things. I came to understand more about what the mysteries meant and how they connected with events I was facing. It wasn’t an abstract or solitary reflection, but one carried out in union with Jesus’ mother, Mary. Thanks be to God, I was able to continue this practice throughout all of Lent, and it really changed me. It’s hard to exaggerate how much this helped me to grow in an adult understanding of my faith and in my ability to enter into conversation with God during prayer. It ended up being my Lenten practice again my sophomore year of college, and it was shortly after that when I began to consider my calling from God. Developing this serious life of prayer (even if just 15-20 minutes a day) was something essential in becoming who I am today. Providentially, I later found out the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary is the anniversary of my baptism—a connection that brings me great joy!

There are different forms of prayer, but I wanted to share this one since it was a powerful avenue of grace in my life (and in countless others over the past 800 years or so!). It can be prayed in its fuller form, or even just one decade at a time. It is a great prayer for groups or to pray alone. It can be prayed in a church, on a walk, or in the car. Each decade can be offered for a particular intention, which makes it a great prayer of petition. It is a prayer that continues to adapt with you throughout life! I really had no idea where it would lead me, but am so grateful for what God has done. It humbles me to realize how God overcame my resistance and led me to follow Him

Take the time to pray. If you don’t know where to start or how to grow, take the time to have a conversation with someone that does have a serious life of prayer. You won’t regret it. God bless!

How do we pray in solidarity?

As Christians we pray for other people. This is what we call “intercession.” It isn’t the only type of prayer, but is an important one! St Paul writes, “First of all, then, I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone” (1 Timothy 2:1). It is a way that we extend our concern for all. We are convinced that we are better able to face our difficulties when we pray, and that likewise we are better prepared when others are praying for us.

However, how do we keep everyone in mind? We know that we have limited financial resources, but even with prayer we experience our limitations. The modern world gives us more and more opportunities to learn about problems, which often surpasses what we can do in response. It is an impossible task to always be aware of everything. It can make the mission of prayer seem overwhelming. We see this at times with the modern attempt to stay “woke” (aware of every current issue). This easily degenerates into a discouraging treadmill or a sort of one-upmanship (highlighting the way that others aren’t as current as ourselves, etc).

I want to highlight a few ways to approach the work of intercession from a Christian perspective. First, we recognize that our responsibilities begin within our sphere of influence. We start with care for those that are closest to us, and seek to grow that circle however we are able. If we do not have the resources (material or spiritual) to go very far, we humbly begin with the portion of the Lord’s work that we can undertake. We resist the temptation to give up because of the immensity of the task. Second, we rely on our public prayers, which draw us into wider circles. The prayers at Mass in particular range out to touch the needs of the entire world. Where two or three are gathered, the Lord is present in our midst (Matthew 18:20). Finally, in our prayer we can leave space for the Lord to work within us. When we put an excessive burden on ourselves we forget that prayer involves the work of God to draw us into his work of redemption. St Paul writes, “for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings” (Romans 8:26). It is important to create room for silence in our prayer, because it is here that the Spirit can work.

When the needs of the world overwhelm us, let us humbly offer our hearts and minds to the Lord, that the gift of intercession may well up within us when the needs of our brothers and sisters surpass what we are able to face alone.

How do you carry a cross with grace?

One of Jesus’ famous sayings is, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). What does it mean to carry a cross, and how do we do so with grace?

“The cross” symbolizes the difficulties of the mission or calling we have received in life. Some of those difficulties may come from our own poor choices. We may have made decisions that caused damage to our life or to other relationships, and now require work to repair. Some aspects of the cross may be beyond our control. Other people may create obstacles, or circumstances may present difficulties beyond anyone’s control. However, whether they are voluntary or involuntary, we have the interior choice to embrace them to the extent that we must, or to allow them to overcome us. When we embrace them we remember that we are not embracing suffering for its own sake, but for the sake of the mission we have received. Will it be accomplished, or will we allow it to remain unfinished?

Making the decision to “take up our cross” is only a first step. How do we plan to carry that cross? As funny as it is, we so often choose to do so in the most difficult way. I’ve certainly chosen to tackle things the “hard way” plenty of times myself! So, we also want to look at how we can carry the cross with grace.

  1. We shouldn’t be afraid of our failures or weaknesses. Instead, they are opportunities to grow in the essential virtue of humility. Humility doesn’t mean thinking of ourselves as terrible people but is about acknowledging the truth about ourselves. The cross will at times reveal our weaknesses, and so can allow us to grow in better self-awareness. Christ came to save our real self, not an image that we have created to show to others.
  2. Related to that, the cross can open us up to an experience of mercy. Mercy is a gift freely offered by God, and it is a powerful thing to receive it when we are aware of our true need for it. Likewise, we shouldn’t be afraid to receive mercy and help from others. God didn’t intend us to carry our cross alone, and trying to do so is an example of choosing to do things the hard way! When we experience our weaknesses we should reach out for support. It is not true that no one cares, or that no one can help us. We need a serious prayer life. We need friends or some form of community. For Catholics we have the profound gift of the Sacrament of Confession/Reconciliation. Many stay away from this out of embarrassment, when it is a tremendous opportunity to talk directly about our greatest difficulties. God desires to give forgiveness, grace, and counsel. Why stay away?
  3. Being aware of our weaknesses can also help us to grow in compassion for others. Understanding our own cross gives us grounds to understand others who struggle (whether in similar or different ways). We can pray for an increase in patience and understanding with others when we encounter our own weakness.
  4. Last (at least for this list!), Christ invites us to see our cross as united with his in the work of the fulfillment of the redemption. There is a tradition among Catholics of “offering up” our struggles as a form of prayer for others. For example, when we engage in our least favorite part of our vocation or job, we can offer it for the needs of others. This can be done in general or for some particular need (e.g. those who struggle with similar things, the needs of our family, a world disaster, etc). It is a way of imitating the profound words of St Paul: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church” (Colossians 1:24). We don’t understand this as saying that there is something insufficient in the work of Christ, but rather that we can share in the continued extension of this work. In the Mass we have a concrete moment to unite our cross with Christ’s. The truth is that if we avoid our mission there is some work in the world that will not be done. Instead of being so afraid of taking up our cross, maybe we should be afraid of not allowing the mission given to us to be fulfilled!

Carrying the cross is not easy, and these words only tackle a few of the issues. However, I hope they give some help to understanding the work we are called to undertake, and how to do it with grace. God bless!

John Chrysostom Homily on “You are the Salt of the Earth”

Today I am going to include a “guest post” from St John Chrysostom (a bishop of Constantinople, d. 407 AD). It is a favorite of mine, and I think a powerful witness to the truth that we as Christians are not called to be transformed by the world into its own image, but to transform the world through God’s work in us. God bless!

(From his 15th homily on the Gospel of St Matthew)

“You are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13).

It is not for your own sake, he says, but for the world’s sake that the word is entrusted to you. I am not sending you only into two cities only or ten to twenty, not to a single nation, as I sent the prophets of old, but across land and sea, to the whole world. And that world is in a miserable state. For when he says: You are the salt of the earth, he is indicating that all mankind had lost its savour and had been corrupted by sin. Therefore, he requires of these men those virtues which are especially useful and even necessary if they are to bear the burdens of many. For the man who is kindly, modest, merciful and just will not keep his good works to himself but will see to it that these admirable fountains send out their streams for the good of others. Again, the man who is clean of heart, a peacemaker and ardent for truth will order his life so as to contribute to the common good.
  Do not think, he says, that you are destined for easy struggles or unimportant tasks. You are the salt of the earth. What do these words imply? Did the disciples restore what had already turned rotten? Not at all. Salt cannot help what is already corrupted. That is not what they did. But what had first been renewed and freed from corruption and then turned over to them, they salted and preserved in the newness the Lord had bestowed. It took the power of Christ to free men from the corruption caused by sin; it was the task of the apostles through strenuous labour to keep that corruption from returning.
  Have you noticed how, bit by bit, Christ shows them to be superior to the prophets? He says they are to be teachers not simply for Palestine but for the whole world. Do not be surprised, then, he says, that I address you apart from the others and involve you in such a dangerous enterprise. Consider the numerous and extensive cities, peoples and nations I will be sending you to govern. For this reason I would have you make others prudent, as well as being prudent yourselves. For unless you can do that, you will not be able to sustain even yourselves.
  If others lose their savour, then your ministry will help them regain it. But if you yourselves suffer that loss, you will drag others down with you. Therefore, the greater the undertakings put into your hands, the more zealous you must be. For this reason he says: But if the salt becomes tasteless, how can its flavour be restored? It is good for nothing now, but to be thrown out and trampled by men’s feet.
  When they hear the words: When they curse you and persecute you and accuse you of every evil, They may be afraid to come forward. Therefore he says: “Unless you are prepared for that sort of thing, it is in vain that I have chosen you. Curses shall necessarily be your lot but they shall not harm you and will simply be a testimony to your constancy. If through fear, however, you fail to show the forcefulness your mission demands, your lot will be much worse, for all will speak evil of you and despise you. That is what being trampled by men’s feet means.”
  Then he passes on to a more exalted comparison: You are the light of the world. Once again, “of the world”: not of one nation or twenty cities, but of the whole world. The light he means is an intelligible light, far superior to the rays of the sun we see, just as the salt is a spiritual salt. First salt, then light, so that you may learn how profitable sharp words may be and how useful serious doctrine. Such teaching holds in check and prevents dissipation; it leads to virtue and sharpens the mind’s eye. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor do men light a lamp and put it under a basket. Here again he is urging them to a careful manner of life and teaching them to be watchful, for they live under the eyes of all and have the whole world for the arena of their struggles.


What is faith?

We generally think of faith in religious terms, but I want to start by looking at it in a broader context. Faith, at a basic level, simply refers to the act of taking something on the word of another.

The Letter to the Hebrews describes faith as “evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Walking by faith is different from walking by sight (2 Cor 5:7)—by faith we receive things as true based on the word of another; by sight we ourselves can see the proof. If we were to limit ourselves to accepting only those things that we had personally proven or tested, we would live in a very small world. Instead, we trust the people that build our houses, prepare our food, or teach us complex sciences. This frees us from starting from scratch and allows us to flourish. Faith is not something strange to human beings. It is basically necessary for survival! The question is not really whether to have faith or not, but where we should place our faith.

Faith can also expand our vision. I think a great analogy for this (although a little technical) is light. Human beings are able to see some of the light spectrum with the naked eye, but that is just a small portion. With aid we can see the infrared, ultraviolet, etc. It is a pretty bold claim to say that there is nothing to be known beyond what we can know by human knowledge alone! And, this additional knowledge that we hold by faith isn’t necessarily less certain- although it may seem less clear to us personally. A child that (by faith) believes the world is round participates in the certainty of the astronaut who has seen it. So, it can be reasonable to have faith. Faith and reason are not opposed. They interact as two complementary ways to achieve knowledge.

The final point, then, is to examine the source of faith. There are basically three main claims of faith that are held by the Church: that God exists, that Jesus Christ is God Incarnate, and that the Catholic Church holds to the fullness of his revelation. In my next posts I will look at some reasons for belief in these claims.

God bless!

Why have an active spiritual life?

Why have an active spiritual life?

We can’t do everything. That is one of the guiding principles of life—each of us has to make choices about how we spend the time that we are given. Those choices flow from priorities, whether conscious or unconscious. So, is it worth investing in our spiritual life?

I’m not talking about any type spiritual life. I think most people (and certainly anyone reading this blog!) have at least a *passive* spiritual life—we try to take in bits of wisdom and reflection when they come across our path. We try to reflect on things when challenges arise. But, this is different from an *active* spiritual life. Do we make sacrifices for our relationship with God, and foster it even when circumstances don’t place easy opportunities in our path?

We do have a spirit. We are capable of fixing our life on something other than comfort or popularity. We are able to know, love, and follow God. We are able to do this whatever our situation. These are some of the core principles we need to believe in order to consider our spiritual life worthy of active investment.

If you believe these things I hope you find help on this page to continue to grow and become more alive! As our spiritual life matures, it enhances and enriches our other relationships (if it does not I think there is something suspect in our approach).

But, if you have doubts about these core principles, I hope that you still keep coming back and exploring these questions. An active spiritual life doesn’t automatically happen, even for a priest! It is a choice I have to renew daily, and so hope that by sharing some of what has convinced and sustained me I can help you in your own quest.

God bless!