The Path of Life

The Path of Life

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Being with God in prayer


"The spirit of God made me,
the breath of the Almighty keeps me."
Job 33:4


Our lives as human beings—whether or not we’re aware of it or acknowledge it—are intimately bound together within the presence of God. Our mere existence is a manifestation of the divine presence, since it is God who creates all things, and gives life to all being. As the Book of Genesis tells us, God formed the first human being from the dust, breathing the spirit or breath of life into his nostrils (cf 2:7). In this way we became living beings—literally and spiritually animated by the breath of God.

Thousands of years after the first human being was enlivened with God’s breath, St. Paul expanded on this theme, telling the Athenians in the Acts of the Apostles (17:24-28):
He himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For “in him we live and move and have our being.”
Several hundred years later, St. Benedict incorporated this profound, foundational theology into his Rule for monks, writing, “We must believe that God is always with us” (7:23) and “We believe that the divine presence is everywhere” (19:1).

Of course, this intimate connection between the human and divine has been short-circuited by Original Sin. Though we live and move and have our being in our Life-Giving Creator, on our own, we do not have the capacity to fully participate in and be aware of the mystery of the Divine Presence in the same way Adam and Eve did before the Fall.

As Christians, though, we believe that God gives us the necessary help in this regard through the Person of Jesus Christ, and with the aid of the Holy Spirit. Jesus bridges the gap between the human and divine, and offers us a participation in the life-breath shared among the three Persons of the Holy Trinity. Jesus came into the world bodily 2,000 years ago, but the beginning of John’s Gospel tells us that his Word made flesh was one with us long before that: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him” (John 1:1-3). In other words, Jesus is not only the instrument of our redemption and resurrection; he was also there at our creation. God’s breath—or spirit—held our being within his Word before being spoken into this world—and before the world even came to be!

“In him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). Before he left this world, Jesus promised that he would fulfill this through the Holy Spirit. “I am with you always, to the end of the age,” he said (Matthew 28:20). “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (John 14:19-20, 26).

So we are never apart from the presence of God. Throughout all of Scripture, we hear God repeatedly reassure his chosen leaders, prophets, and disciples with these or similar words: “I am with you.”

So, truly, “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

Besides within our very life and being, this divine presence is manifested to us—if we’re receptive to it—in numerous other ways each day. For example, the Rule of St. Benedict tells us that we meet Christ especially in the guest, the sick, and the poor. We also can glimpse God’s mysterious beauty and wisdom in such things as a magnificent sunset or the startling profundity of a small child’s words.

Prayer, however, is the principal means by which we are invited to immerse ourselves in the Divine Presence. First, God calls us. Although we forget God, hide from God, make for ourselves lesser gods, and even accuse God of abandoning us—God still calls us. “God tirelessly calls each person to that mysterious encounter known as prayer. In prayer, the faithful God’s initiative of love always comes first; our own first step is always a response” (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2567).

But what is prayer?

Prayer is a lifelong rhythm of listening and responding to God’s call for conversion of heart—personally and communally. In other words, it is an honest, living, breathing, Spirit-filled relationship with God. It is a holy and privileged conversation: God speaks, we listen, and then we respond. It is a rhythm of sincere sharing as between two close friends.

This relationship already exists between God and each one of us. We don’t need to establish anything ourselves. We must simply be receptive to what already is—just like a radio must be tuned in to receive a broadcast signal before we can hear the music or program.

Most importantly, prayer is an invitation to surrender our very being to God’s movement of grace in our hearts. We pray not to obtain what we want, but to become what God desires—which is oneness with him. As Trappist monk Michael Casey has written, “We do not produce prayer. We allow prayer to act. We do not create prayer; it creates us” (Toward God: The Ancient Wisdom of Western Prayer).

In prayer, we listen for the invitation, for that “tiny whispering sound” in our hearts that draws us toward God. And to do this we must surrender, let go of our preoccupations, our expectations, and simply be still before the God who created us, chose us, and redeemed us—the God who knows us better than we know ourselves, the God in whom “we live and move and have our being.”

Dwight Judy, a Methodist minister, author, and retreat director, points out that even when we petition God, “the answer to our prayer is not the immediate fulfillment of a specific request. Rather, the answer is a living relationship with the ‘peace of God’ (Philippians 4:7). … What we ultimately receive is the assurance that God is with us, regardless of the way our life [unfolds]” (Discerning Life Transitions).

As Christians, God invites us to pray primarily by meditating on the life of Christ, and we do this in many ways. We do this in personal prayer and in public prayer and communal worship—through the traditional forms or types of prayer such as petition, declaration, intercession, and thanksgiving and praise (cf. 1 Timothy 2:1, CCC 2644). We do this by sincerely praying the “Our Father”—the words Jesus taught us to pray when his disciples implored him, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1-4). We do this with devotions like the rosary. We do this by reading, listening to, and praying with Scripture. In the Catholic tradition, we do all this more intensely in the celebration of the Eucharist—where, and in which, we believe Christ is most fully present.

In addition, we pray by practicing mindfulness of God throughout the day’s activities and human interactions, sometimes with short, silent, memorized prayers.

In addition to all these ways of prayer, there are the brief but graced and priceless moments of wordless adoration and contemplation we sometimes receive from God. Then, of course, there is the more weighty prayer of suffering we all must bear from time to time, offering ourselves to God with trust, but in the dark silence, weakness, and tears that are beyond words or thoughts. In all these moments, when all our normal human faculties are rendered defenseless, God is more present to us than ever. That is because it is God’s Spirit who actually prays in us. As St. Paul wrote to the Romans (8:26-27):
The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
All of these ways of praying are important for the life of the Christian who desires to meditate on Christ and therefore dwell in true relationship within the presence of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. However, there is another form of prayer that is especially dear to Benedictine hearts. That is the regular praying of the psalms—commonly referred to as the Liturgy of the Hours or the Divine Office. It is in the Divine Office—or Work of God, as St. Benedict terms it—that we participate, in a special way, in the life-breath shared among the three Persons of the Holy Trinity. Being with God in prayer is uniquely manifested as hearts and voices unite in the conversational rhythm of listening and responding to one another with the Psalms—the ancient prayers that Jesus himself prayed as a faithful Jew.

Together, animated by the Holy Spirit, our voices become one with Christ’s in praying to God the Father on behalf of the Church and the world. As St. Benedict says in his Rule, “We believe that the divine presence is everywhere … but beyond the least doubt we should believe this to be especially true when we celebrate the divine office” (19:1-2).

Why this is the case can be traced specifically to Jesus, who taught his disciples by word and example about “the need to pray always” (Luke 18:1). When we pray in Spirit and in Truth, Jesus promises, he is fully present to us, and prays with us and in us: “Where two or three are gathered,” Jesus said, “there I am among them” (Matthew 18:20). “In the Holy Spirit, Christ carries out through the Church ‘the task of redeeming humanity and giving perfect glory to God’” in the Eucharist and other sacraments, “but also in other ways, and especially when the Liturgy of the Hours is celebrated. There, Christ himself is present” (General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours, I-III, 13).

So, whether we are praying the psalms together or alone, and regardless of whether or not the sentiment of a particular psalm corresponds with our individual state of mind, we pray in Spirit with Christ, and as Christ, to God the Father for the salvation of all. The Trappist monk and writer Thomas Merton had some beautiful things to say on this subject:
There is one mystical Person chanting the psalms. It is no longer we alone…It is the eternal Christ. … All we who are members of his Body are one in Him and one with Him. His Church and bride is one with Him, two in one flesh. … It is not merely the solution of one person’s problem that is achieved in the psalms or in the Mystery of Christ. If in my chanting of the psalms, I arrive only at a sense of individual or personal fulfillment in Christ, a sense that does not reach out and embrace all the other members of the Body who find their fulfillment in Him, then I fall far short. ... The One Man who suffers in the psalms, who cries out to God in them, and by God is heard, this One Man is the Whole Christ. …The mere fact of standing together and hearing 20 or 30 or 50 or 100 voices all blending into one voice, crying out to God in the first person singular, is a great help toward realizing this truth. We all differ, we all have our own problems and troubles, and yet we all sing together: ‘O God, hear my cry, hearken to my prayer.’ … Our vision goes out to embrace the whole Mystical Body, in all its scattered members in every part of the world. And wherever they may be, those men and women are also here, and we are there with them, because we are all One in Christ. Wherever two or three are gathered together in His Name, Christ, in the midst of them, imparts to them his identity. He becomes the ‘I’ who sings and prays and praises in us all.” (Bread in the Wilderness).
So, in the psalms we have been entrusted with a great gift. In them, the voice of Christ is breathed into the world through the very Spirit of God that animates each one of us. For “in him we live and move and have our being.” May we all be faithful in living out this mystery in the presence of God, who is everywhere we are.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Uplifted hearts and voices


We all need a little life-giving music in our lives. The selection above certainly qualifies--a hymn sung during the preparation of the altar Thursday in the Archabbey Church for our eucharistic celebration of the Solemnity of Our Lady of Einsiedeln. This beautiful piece was sung by a combination of monks and interns with the One Bread One Cup program, along with George Hubbard and Sr. Jeana Visel, O.S.B. The organist is Brent Stamey.

Prepare to be awed, inspired, and soothed. I certainly was.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Chosen, then qualified by God

"The place God calls you to is the place where
your deep gladness 
and the world’s deep hunger meet."
Frederick Buechner


A reflection on the Mass readings
for the 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B):
Amos 7:12-15; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:7-13

Just who were the Twelve Apostles, really? Nobody special. They were not "high-class," or well-educated, or upstanding citizens. Quite the contrary is true. They did not apply for the position, and they were not vetted for particular credentials. In fact, they were not qualified at all.

And yet, unqualified, unprepared and flawed as they were, Jesus “called” them, as Mark’s Gospel states (6:7-13). He sent them out to preach the gospel, gave them authority, and instructed them. He chose them, and then he qualified them. “You did not choose me but I chose you,” Jesus says in the Gospel of John (15:16); “Apart from me, you can do nothing” (15:5).

The prophet Amos, prefiguring the Christian response to God’s call long before Jesus’ time, knew the nature of this gift. “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son,” he says. “I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people.’” And so he went—nobody special, yet accomplishing God’s work (Amos 7:12-15).

Today, all Christians have precisely the same call—in different ways and circumstances, to be sure, but the call to live and preach the gospel is universal. Not everyone hears the call, or responds to it. Some take their time answering. Others simply (and sadly) refuse. But the call is there.

In a beautiful and theologically rich passage from the Letter to the Ephesians (1:3-14), we are told that God blesses and chooses each one of us “before the foundation of the world.” Think about that for a minute. It’s an astounding declaration. Before the One God in Three Persons created the universe, before anyone was born, before Jesus as God the Son came into the world, God chose us. Otherwise, we simply would not be. And knowing us completely—more fully than we will ever know ourselves—God understood beforehand how unqualified we would be, how unprepared, how flawed. He knew that we would all turn away from him, would sin, and would know failure, sorrow, and pain.

Yet he still chose us. He knew before anything was that Jesus would enter into a point in time to show us the way to God. He knew that a Savior would be necessary before sin existed, before we existed—to make us holy, to adopt us, to redeem us, to make himself known to us, and to involve us in his plan to “gather up all things” in Christ (Ephesians 1:10). As St. Paul says elsewhere, “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). We are, as the Letter to the Ephesians says, chosen and destined by a God who accomplishes all things, to “live for the praise of his glory.”

This is a wonderful mystery that cannot be fully grasped. We must simply let it grasp us, guide us. But that is difficult to do, isn’t it?

A couple years before coming to the monastery, I had a discussion with a very wise priest. I knew I was being called to something new, to something that was both exciting and terrifying, simply because it was unknown. I felt totally overwhelmed and unqualified for whatever it was that God had in store for me (at that time I didn’t know precisely what it was, but I felt the pull, so to speak). “I can’t do it,” I told the priest. He listened to my reasons, and then gently said, “If God is calling you to something, he will give you everything you need to accomplish it. Do not be afraid. He is always with you.”

It took me a while longer to realize that indeed, God calls first; then he qualifies. We do not—and cannot—qualify ourselves first. Once I was granted the grace to understand that, I was able to make a leap of faith that I never could have foreseen; such an act went completely against the grain of how I typically operated. In fact, some people thought I had gone nuts!

New parents, no doubt, feel completely overwhelmed and unqualified. But God calls each newborn child into this world and into the lives of his/her parents for a reason. With the infant’s unwitting (and malodorous) assistance, God qualifies each parent after choosing them. Years later, each child is called along his or her own vocational path. In one way or another, each of us is called to participate in God’s plan to “gather up all things” in Christ.

At one level, these Scripture passages revolve around vocation, and the fact that everybody has one where God is concerned. No one is qualified. No is one is prepared. Everyone is flawed. Yet God still calls. However, at a still deeper level, Scripture emphasizes God’s initiative and his providence. We love because he first loved us before the foundation of the world (cf. 1 John 4:19; John 1:1-5).

Ultimately, vocation is not about what we do, but about who we are. Just like the Apostles, we are nobody special—but chosen nonetheless. We are chosen by God to give what we do not have, to bestow in Christ every spiritual blessing from absolute nothingness, to live in the mystery of God’s will in order to gather up all things in Christ. And he is with us each step of the way.

Excerpted from Grace in the Wilderness:
Reflections on God's Sustaining Word Along Life's Journey
by Br. Francis Wagner, O.S.B., Abbey Press, 2013

Monday, July 6, 2015

Tinker, tweak, tidy


No need to reboot your computer. Just re-arranging a few things. It's been a while since I've freshened up this site. I'm trying to streamline a little. Same old blog, though. Everything's there. Things may look a little funky for a while. Now, where did I put that whatchamacallit...?

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Praying the Word


A prayer based on today's Mass readings for the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B): Ezekiel 2:2-5; 2Corinthians 12:7-10; Mark 6:1-6.

Speak to me, Lord God.
May your Spirit enter into me,
and set me solidly on feet of faith.

Help me to hear your word,
to go where you send me,
and to speak as a prophet.

May your grace be sufficient.
Perfect me through my weakness,
so that the power of Christ dwells with me.

For the sake of Christ, help me
to endure weakness, insult, hardship,
persecution, and limitation.
In these, I am truly strong.

Open my eyes and ears
to your wisdom, so I may experience
your mighty deeds all around me
and proclaim them to others.

Increase my faith, Lord!

Friday, June 19, 2015

Liturgy of the Frogs


There are many things about our temporary lodgings in Anselm Hall while the monastery is under renovation that I find agreeable. Other things, not so much. Home is home, and we all long to be there. The temporary move, however, has been a good opportunity to practice virtues like charity, patience, simplicity, and surrendering expectations.

In any event, one thing about my room in Anselm Hall I enjoy very much is the symphony outside my window each evening. My third-floor room overlooks two courtyards--one directly below me, and another just off to the right. Dwelling near the small pond in each courtyard is at least one frog, though I have never seen either. Each evening--say, about 8 p.m. or so--one of them pipes up. The other, occupying the courtyard on the other side of the wing that separates them, responds in kind. And they continue in this manner, first one and then the other, back and forth. For hours. Soon, a couple seemingly smaller, less throaty specimens join in--forming some sort of amphibious backup chorus. 

(There also are three box turtles in the courtyard directly below me--having been transported from their previous confines in the monastery, where it would be too dangerous for them to be right now. Unlike the frogs, however, they don't say much.)

I find the little nightly concert very relaxing, peaceful, and soothing. A good way to end the day. I sit in my chair and listen to the frogs perform each evening (I can hear them distinctly even with my windows closed and the air-conditioning on) before turning in for the night. Of course, I have no idea what they are communicating to one another, or even if they know what they are doing, but there is a beautiful symmetry and harmony to it all. Creatures praising Creator by simply being what they were created to be.

Back and forth, one after the other, listening and responding, making music together. Like monks chanting the Divine Office.

A couple evenings ago, I opened a window, placed my laptop on the sill, and used a sound-recording function to capture this "Liturgy of the Frogs." Novice Timothy--a fellow frog-lover who hails, as I do, from Findlay, Ohio--joined the audio recording to a few images from around Saint Meinrad Archabbey, producing the two-minute video above (and enabling me to post the result here). Many thanks to him.

Enjoy the show (remember to turn your volume up). Another live performance due up in a few hours... 

Saturday, June 13, 2015

We know not how it grows


By Br. Peter Sullivan, O.S.B.

A reflection on the Mass readings for the 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
(Ezekiel 17:22-24; 2 Corinthians 5:6-10; Mark 4:26-34)
XXX
As beautiful as it is, nature can sometimes seem harsh and indiscriminate—whether it’s the environment we’re talking about, humanity itself, or all the natural forces that direct them. The storms of life fell many trees in the world, both literally and figuratively, and the body, mind, and soul are not exempted.

While it is necessary and healthy to survey and mourn the damage wrought by the occasional tempest, focusing on it can severely limit or distort our perception of all the good surrounding the storm—or even arising from it. We must, as St. Paul says, “walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).

Life certainly takes many unexpected twists and turns, but God’s promise to us is that he is always at work in the world—whether we see it or not, or even whether we believe it or not. Like a tiny seed slowly sprouting, taking root, maturing, blooming, and striving toward the sun, the Kingdom of God continues to grow upward and outward. “See, I am making all things new,” God promises, for “all things work together for good for those who love God” (cf. Revelation 21:5; Romans 8:28).

As Jesus states in Mark’s Gospel (4:26-34), “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.” God gently beckons every withered tree to bloom, put forth branches, and bear fruit, so that all may dwell beneath the shade of the Almighty (cf. Ezekiel 17:23-25; Mark 4:32).

By God’s promise and grace, through the Tree of Life that is Christ, the Kingdom of God is sprouting and growing night and day, in war and peace, in raging storms and restful stillness … though we know not how.

by Br. Francis Wagner, O.S.B., Abbey Press, 2013