Saturday, August 11, 2018

Contemplative Prayer: Attending to the Heart

“More than all else, keep watch over your heart, since here are the wellsprings of life” (Proverbs 4:23). What a remarkable text from Proverbs, a text we heard at our Morning Prayer on Thursday.  There is a paradox in this selection because the very next verse reads: “Put away from you crooked speech, and put devious talk far from you” (4:24). Turning to the gospel, we have Jesus who says: “It is what comes out of a person that defiles.  For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come…” (Mk 7:20-21a). My dear sisters we are given a paradox, a paradox which takes the shape of a cross…yes, a cross, which we are asked to shoulder if we want Life, Life in abundance!  On the one hand the heart is the source of life; on the other hand from the heart also comes forth devious and crooked speech, along with an array of things that defile and profane, destroy even the beauty of life entrusted to us.

So what are to do?  We can quickly observe such darkness in others and especially now in our world where for example such devious and crooked speech seems to be the norm.  But how observant are we of our own hearts?  In John’s gospel for this Sunday Jesus is saying ‘work for food that lasts’ (6:27). Fr. Russ Terra in his homily spoke of the ongoing spiritual work that is so essential for bringing forth life and that carries the grace to transform what defiles and profanes.  

Along with the essential inner work of self-knowledge and conversion, I put forth the main reason why this monastery exists and why we each found our way here. We are part of an Order whose nature and purpose is “wholly ordered to contemplation” (CST 2). What does it mean that the focus of our lives together, that the use of our time and energy is to be ordered to contemplation?  John Main describes meditation and contemplation in this pithy way:  “‘The word meditation comes from the Latin meditarewhich breaks down into the roots stare in medio—to remain in the center.  The word contemplation suggests the same.  The word contemplation does not mean looking at anything—God or anyone else.  Contemplation is being in the temple with God.  The temple is your own heart, the depths of your own being’” (quoted in Prayer In the Cave of the Heart, Cyprian Consiglio, p.50).  Our prayer practice:  lectio, silent prayer, the Divine Office and Mass, these are to help us as we do our daily activities ‘to remain in the center’, to be in the temple of the heart with God.    The fruit of contemplative prayer is that it slowly changes us from within; it shifts our consciousness from a predominately ego-oriented one to a God-centered awareness.  Such cultivated awareness helps us to observe, to see what fills the heart and not get taken by it.  The silence, the healing silence, which is the silence of God, awaits us beneath this emotional content that arises unbidden.  Dwelling even for a moment in this silence in prayer can help us as we engage in our outer activities and relationships.  

In the gospels we hear often that Jesus goes off ‘to a lonely place to pray’.  In this lonely quiet space he nurtures his connection to his Abba and he attends to his heart.  We hear such questions in the gospels as ‘where does he get all this wisdom? (Mt 13:54)’ and we see how with such cunning he cuts through hypocrisy; we see how he accesses wisdom and the power to heal.  Where do you think he got the knowledge to say that it is from the human heart that evil intentions come?  All these things were part of a profound listening, the fruit of his prayer, the fruit of maintaining his connection with his Abba: the Father and Jesus are one…but this relationship was not automatic: it was maintained through prayer.  He went to a lonely place to pray, or in the midst of his ministry, when tested, he bent down into the silence and wrote in the sand and then stood up and spoke words of truth to the hypocrisy of those challenging him (Jn 8:1-11).  What am I getting to by referring to these statements?  Prayer, especially contemplative silent prayer, where we hear the silent voice of the Spirit, where we dwell in that secret room with Christ, we are given eyes that are clearer, a heart ready to forgive, a perspective that is Christ like and not dominated by pettiness or harsh judgments towards one another.  When we have to discern something, or when we are in a conflict with another…the first place to go is that silent room, that inner temple where God is waiting. Prayer as Sr. Ruth Burrows has said is not primarily something we do but what God does within us (The Essence of Prayer, p.1).  And so it is: we enter the silence of that inner chamber and let God act, purifying, transforming, healing…

Sunday, April 8, 2018

The Transformational Power of Easter

In the gospel reading of St. Luke, which we heard during the octave of Easter, the disciples recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread.  Here in today’s gospel of St. John, before Thomas arrives on the scene with his doubts, Jesus shows his wounds and the disciples immediately recognize him.  What do these two recognitions of the Risen One tell us would be believers?

Before Jesus shows his wounds he greets the disciples with the word “Peace be with you”.  He then shows his wounds and once again says “Peace be with you”.  He concludes this encounter by saying as God has sent him he is now sending his disciples forth…then he breathes on them and says: “Receive the Holy Spirit”.  Peace, wounds, receiving the Spirit and go forth, live the gospel way…a way not disconnected from suffering and our own wounds, wounds that we receive in life early on, now, wounds that are part of the mystery of bringing forth God’s life, of revealing a love that transforms suffering and brings one to know, existentially, this transforming love that is stronger than any darkness or death.

To me it is striking that two of the major resurrection appearances involve the breaking of bread and showing of wounds accompanied by Jesus breathing the Holy Spirit upon his disciples.  Pope Francis on April 4thgave a catechesis on the Eucharist.  He is saying that the Mass is to enter our heart and when we leave the Mass our Christian witness begins: “Every time I go out of the Mass I must leave better than I entered, with more life, with more strength, with a greater desire to give Christian witness” (The Holy Father’s Catechesis, April 4, 2018).  For my Holy Thursday chapter talk I ended with this saying of Br. Christophe: “If we understand the Eucharist we understand everything” (Born From the Gaze of God, p.29).  Here is something of what Eucharist means in the words of Pope Francis:  “Christians are men and women that let their soul be enlarged with the strength of the Holy Spirit, after having received the Body and Blood of Christ.  Let your soul be enlarged!  Not these narrow and closed, small and egoistic souls, no!  Wide souls, great souls, with great horizons…Let your soul be enlarged with the strength of the Spirit, after having received the Body and Blood of Christ”  (The Holy Father’s Catechesis, April 4, 2018).

My sisters: we have no excuse!  Easter tells us to put away these attitudes that diminish us: such as, I am this way because of this person or those events of the past.  This Love, which is the gift of Easter, has the power to transform, to change us from inside.  Our wounds can become a strength, if we only believe, which is to say, if we live into the Love God gives us through Jesus, through following his way, growing into the consciousness that he embodied.  No, the Life of God is so much greater and this Life is given to each one of us.  With this Gift of God we can put aside our narrow, closed, egoistic souls and let them be enlarged.  This is the risen life: rising out of suffering, rising out of our hopelessness and disbelief, yes, rising up out of our wounded-ness.   Do we carry this precious life of ours with the dignity of being sons and daughters of God?  Or, do we carry it bent over by criticism, anger, resentment, hopelessness, obsessive worry?  Yes, we have our crosses; however we are to carry them with heads held up high, carry them, not be dragged down by them.  Eucharist is the celebration of the Resurrection.  No wonder the Pope focuses on it for part of his continued Easter message.  Eucharist, if we let it enter into our hearts, is a sacrament calling us to be enlarged in mind and heart.  It is calling us not to let God’s Gift be tossed away by our disbelief and failure to connect to what is happening as we enter this daily ritual.

To quote Pope Francis: “The fruits of the Mass are destined to mature in everyday life.  We can say so, forcing somewhat the image: the Mass is as the grain, the grain of wheat, which then grows in ordinary life, it grows and matures in good works, in attitudes that make us similar to Jesus.” Growing in attitudes that make us similar to Jesus: we are given the grace and the Love so let us go forward letting our souls be enlarged, this is living the Easter gift!

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Holy Thursday 2018

‘He goes before us…’:  Do we desire life, do we long for freedom, do we want the love that is stronger than death, and the joy that makes our lives complete, then we must follow.  Holy Week is like a ‘bas relief’ painting:  it puts front and center the Paschal Mystery, a mystery that is woven in our lives.   Our lives are stamped with the ‘paschal mystery’, stamped with this paradigm of Life that rises up out of death, the precious life that expands, with each surrender to the Divine will.  We are to follow with a living faith…a faith alive, a faith that can move mountains of doubt and transform negativity, despair, and hopelessness.  He goes before us showing us the Way, embodying the Way that is to be our way to life and unconditional love.  He goes before us right now.   What will this ‘renewed encounter with Jesus’ offer us, what will it ask of us, what will it open up for us as we follow? 
The Holy Thursday liturgy revolves around two rituals: the Eucharist and the washing of the feet.  I continue to re-read Br. Christophe’s journal, Born From the Gaze of God.  It is one of those books where entries that I did not focus on before suddenly jump out and speak new things that were not there before!  The three short, pithy texts that I will read give us a glimpse into Christophe’s encounter with Jesus.  To me these texts express Eucharist and what Jesus is communicating in the washing of his disciples’ feet.  The first: “To be sowers of love just where we are” (p.xiv).  Next: “It’s better to be the Body of your Presence resolutely and simply, to be simply there in a relation of love, vulnerable, exposed” (p.xiv).  The third: “Yes, to be your body here” (p.8).  These words of Christophe bring Eucharist into daily life; they are a way of washing another’s feet in whatever relationships we meet in ordinary moments of our lives.  We are called, each one of us, to be Christ’s body, the body of his Presence as we follow the Way of the gospel. 

What is the force, the power behind the Paschal Mystery?  It is Love…unconditional Love.  This is what comes to us in the encounter.  As we receive this Gift, we are transformed within our heart’s depths and almost imperceptibly we begin to embody this same unconditional Love….Of course, we will fall many times along the way.  Still, with each ‘renewed encounter with Christ’, we will once again be met by unconditional Love.  What will be the outcome if we engage in this living encounter with Love?  It will be impossible not to live by and give what we have received.  We will be more like Christ in mind and heart, and this will spill over into our choices and relationships.

Listen to another encounter of Br. Christophe: “Since here you are hard at work in my heart.  Ah, first of all: disarm it.  And if the thing is not too hard—this whole self of mine—purify me then I may perhaps be able to help you a little to LOVE” (p.201).  To pray: disarm my heart puts us in relationship, in an encounter with Love.   Such an authentic encounter with Christ will disarm us of our defenses, of our false sense of self, of our self-righteousness, of whatever keeps our hearts hardened.   This disarming, this opening of the heart, then enables us to receive the Love that is always coming towards us…the Love that can heal and transform the powers of darkness and death.  Yes, with this disarmed, converted heart, we become co-workers with Christ, helping to build up this body of God’s Love and Life!  And it does not matter what we are doing or how small the act: ‘sowing love right where we are’.

The gift of God’s Son: what we meet in the Eucharist is the gift of God’s unconditional Love…Love incarnate.  Through, with and in the One we are following, we encounter a Love that is fully surrendered, the only Love that is stronger than any power of evil and darkness. 

I conclude with yet another encounter of Christophe with Jesus:

“Today you tell your terrified disciples to row with the wind against them:
Courage: I am.  Do not be afraid.
If one understands the Eucharist, one understands everything” (p.29).

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Living the Truth

Fourth Sunday of Lent

I like to begin with the last sentence from the gospel of this Sunday and then move to the beginning two sentences of the same gospel.   The last sentence reads: ‘Whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his or her works may be clearly seen as done in God’ (John 3:21).  Is this not something we all aspire to, to live the truth?  This is what brings meaning to one’s life; this is what makes us free and joyful.  It is what reveals our true face and helps us glimpse the face of God.   But ‘living the truth’ is no small matter.  It involves I think what is said in the first two sentences of the gospel: ‘Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.  For God so loved the world that he gave us his only Son…’ (John 3:14-15).  Jesus offered his life totally and was raised up, and in his raising, he opened for us life, life that is divine and so ‘eternal’.  The image of ‘lifting up’ has a ‘saving effect’.  For us, living the truth involves surrender, dying to all that is not true, and is not giving life.  We die, like the seed falling into the ground, for more life, for more of the truth of God’s life and our lives to be revealed….As we surrender we are lifted up to a more profound level of seeing and believing: we see more the truth of our selves and one another….We are lifted up to see yet again the love God has for us.

The commentators that I read all refer to this gospel as revealing the immense love of God.  Von Balthasar says it the most clearly:  “The Gospel gives us a chance to revise our understanding of divine judgment during a time of repentance.  The decisive point is that whoever scorns God’s love condemns himself.  God is not at all eager to condemn people.  God is nothing but love, love that goes as far as his sacrificing his Son out of love for the world” (Light of the Word, p.177-178).  It seems to me that ‘living the truth’ is possible only so far as we know and receive this love that God has for us…and we know it most concretely through the self-offering of Jesus.  The closer we can come to Christ in his Word and through how he lived, the closer we are to experiencing and receiving God’s love.

The reality that Jesus became fully human says his humanity is bound up with ours, whether we are aware of it or not.  This is how close God’s love is.  To read again from von Balthasar’s commentary: “The whole question is whether we accept God’s love so that it can prove effective and fruitful in us, or whether we cower in our darkness in order to evade the light of love” (p.178).  These are powerful images:  our acceptance of God’s love makes this love ‘effective and fruitful in us’…imagine this!  Or, dear sisters, do we rather ‘cower in our darkness’ fearful of the truth of where we are in any given moment…forgetting that love encompasses any truth.  We are raised up to a deeper and fuller truth by love.

To summarize what I gleaned in my lectio on this gospel:  to live the truth involves dying, surrender, letting go and we will be raised up by love.  To live the truth pivots around our faith: do we accept God’s love for us moment within moment.  Our faith is not static; it needs to be renewed daily.  So we are ushered into the fourth Sunday and week of Lent remembering God’s great gift of love given to us in Jesus.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Transfiguration - Transformed in Love

The gospel for the Second Sunday of Lent is always the Transfiguration; it parallels the First Sunday   What immediately precedes the Temptations of Jesus is his baptism in the Jordan.  As Jesus comes up out of the waters he hears the voice of his Abba, ‘You are my beloved Son’.  Michael Casey in his book, Fully Human Fully Divine, translates this phrase with a slight change:   ‘You are my Son, you are loved by me, in you I find my delight’ (Mark 1:11).  Here in changing ‘beloved’ to ‘you are loved by me’ we sense more powerfully that God has poured the fullness of his Love into his Son.  Jesus faces the temptations in and through the experience of knowing the depth and breadth of love from his Father.  Today’s gospel of the Transfiguration of Jesus repeats once again the total Love of the Father towards his Son.  As Jesus is transfigured once again a voice is heard.  And what does it say?  Using Michael Casey’s translation:  ‘This is my Son whom I love.  Listen to him’ (Mark 9:8).  Unconditional love bestowed on Jesus at his baptism and re-affirmed at his Transfiguration as his ministry is taking a final turn, leading him to his death and Resurrection.
of Lent, which always has the gospel of the Temptations.

Unconditional Love:  this is the face we behold at the Transfiguration, this is the One whom we are to become more and more like…this is the One in whom we move, and live and have our being.  Michael Casey writes: “By being instructed to listen to Jesus, the disciples are being informed that he is God’s voice on earth because this man is, in reality, the Son of God’s love” (p.195).  The Son of God’s love, the face of Christ is the face of unconditional Love, the Love that Jesus has received from the Father.  And we see through Jesus’ life how this unconditional Love is incarnated in both word and deed.  The Jesuit scripture scholar Fr. John Donahue comments the following on this gospel: “Such a mystery of total self-giving is rooted in the very nature of God, ‘who did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us’(Hearing the Word of God, p.44).  These words I believe give us some idea of what unconditional Love is: total self-giving…The incarnate face of God’s unconditional Love is Christ.  Jesus gave his Self totally for us…at the root of unconditional Love is the gift of Self.

With the memorial Mass that we had for Val McKee I was very moved by the different ways the family saw their mother…grandmother.  She lived…she reflected ‘unconditional love’.  Obviously it was not 100% of the time, but this was what she was growing into; she lived it enough, embodied it enough that this was one of the main memories left in the heart and consciousness of the family.

What precedes the gospel of the Transfiguration in all three synoptic accounts is the first prediction of the passion of Jesus.  Then, right after Jesus’ prediction of his passion he says: if you are to be my disciples you must take up your cross and follow me, for whoever wants to save their life will lose it and whoever surrenders their life will find it.  There is no following of Jesus, there is no Transfiguration without the cross.  There are no attachments with unconditional Love…it is unrequited…expecting nothing in return….surrender, letting go free us to love without condition.  We live it when we take up our own cross, when we die to our selfish self for greater life and love.  What transforms evil, what transforms those dark, negative pulls into what is not life?  It is only the power of Love…love transforms, love absorbs the darkness and transfigures it into life.  We see this lived fully and completely in Jesus and as his followers this is the work of discipleship that we are called to continue.

What passages in the gospels show us show us Jesus embodying ‘unconditional love’?   What in the writings of St. Paul do we find him speaking of this Love that is stronger than death?  To name a few from the Gospels:  how many times must I forgive?  Jesus says, ‘70 times 7’, that is infinitely.  With the woman caught in adultery from John’s gospel: Jesus says ‘Whoever has not sinned throw the first stone?’  One by one the accusers leave and Jesus goes a step further with the woman:  ‘Woman, I don’t condemn you…go and do not sin again’.    And this saying: ‘If you are struck on one cheek offer the other as well’.  Don’t return hurt for hurt.  And, ‘Love your enemies’.  Loving those who love you is easy…but love your enemies.

If we turn to St. Paul:  the Philippians hymn about Jesus is a hymn of unconditional Love; ‘his state was divine, yet he did not cling to his equality with God…but emptied himself….’  In Romans St. Paul tells us that nothing can ever come between us and the love of God made visible in Christ…this is the power of Love. 

The message of today’s gospel is to be transformed in love, that is the love that has no conditions and expects nothing back for its self-offering.  This is the love that is ready to stretch itself in the shape of a cross.  This is the love that Jesus meets us with daily.  To paraphrase Pope Francis from a talk several years ago: ‘stop and contemplate the face of Jesus’…do this in order to transformed in love and to put into practice this love with which we are loved.  With Jesus we can love unconditionally.