The Path of Life

The Path of Life

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Taste and see

Lord, your promise
is sweeter to my taste
than honey in the mouth.

Psalm 119:103

Monday, October 28, 2013

Like living stones

Brothers and sisters:
You are no longer strangers and sojourners,
but you are fellow citizens with the holy ones
and members of the household of God,
built upon the foundation of the Apostles and prophets,
with Christ Jesus himself as the capstone.
Through him the whole structure is held together
and grows into a temple sacred in the Lord;
in him you also are being built together
into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.

Ephesians 2:19-22

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Honest truth

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time—Year C
Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14
Jesus addressed this parable
to those who were convinced of their own righteousness
and despised everyone else.
“Two people went up to the temple area to pray;
one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector.
The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself,
‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity—
greedy, dishonest, adulterous—or even like this tax collector.
I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’
But the tax collector stood off at a distance
and would not even raise his eyes to heaven
but beat his breast and prayed,
‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’
I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former;
for whoever exalts himself will be humbled,
and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
This parable from today’s Gospel does not merely recall the situation 2,000 years ago in Jerusalem. It is played out every day all over this planet in our own times—in our homes, workplaces, schools, communities, in the media, and especially in our churches. The first sentence makes the point that the story goes on to illustrate: “Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.” That same message is for all of us today.

The Pharisee in each one of us likes to think that we’re always correct, that we are doing what is right, and that some of those around us are clearly wrong, and essentially beneath us. We may pay lip service to God, but inwardly we congratulate ourselves for our virtues while condemning others for their shortcomings. This is the sin of pride committed first by our parents in the Garden of Eden, who sought to “be like God.” The Pharisee in this parable, although socially considered devout and “religious,” thinks so much of himself that he does not really need God, let alone the rest of humanity.

However, in our more honest and reflective moments, the tax collector in each one of us makes no attempt to appear good in the eyes of others, to take credit for any virtue, or to point fingers at what is wrong with someone else. Rather, we simply and humbly acknowledge who we truly are, and place our confidence in God’s mercy alone. The tax collector in this parable, although socially considered the most rotten of sinners (like the prodigal son and the good thief on the cross, Luke 15:11-32 and 23:39-42), knows who he really is, and that he needs God.

And so despite all appearances, Jesus says, the sinner is justified, not the self-righteous.

This is not about beating ourselves up for our faults and failings. Rather, it is about honestly owning up to who we really are in God’s sight, aware of our need for his mercy and grace for all the good we accomplish. As the author of the Cloud of Unknowing puts it:
A man is humble when he stands in the truth with a knowledge and appreciation for himself as he really is. And actually, anyone who saw and experienced himself as he really and truly is would have no difficulty being humble, for two things would become very clear to him. In the first place, he would see clearly the degradation, misery, and weakness of the human condition resulting from original sin. From these effects of original sin man will never be entirely free in this life, no matter how holy he becomes. In the second place, he would recognize the transcendent goodness of God as he is in himself and his overflowing, superabundant love for man. Before such goodness and love nature trembles, sages stammer like fools, and the saints and angels are blinded with glory.
The truth is that while God’s salvation is offered to all, only those who genuinely acknowledge their sinfulness and look to God will be justified. Faithfulness is required, not perfection. No sinner is beyond redemption. In fact, Satan doesn’t bother with the truly wayward (God is the one who pursues those in that state). Rather, Satan’s primary purpose is to lure the devout and “religious” into a state of mind that exalts their own righteousness while holding others in disdain. Illusion is Satan’s game.

Those who are sincerely committed to the spiritual life, and those who are engaged in lives of ministry and service--whether in the clerical or lay state--are perhaps more subject than anyone to this temptation of spiritual pride. Satan would like to make Pharisees of us all.

This calls to mind a passage from C.S. Lewis’ classic, The Screwtape Letters (if you haven’t read the whole book, it’s well worth your time, conveying spiritual truths in biting, yet entertaining fashion). In this passage, the demon-trainer Screwtape advises demon-in-training Wormwood about his human “patient” (the “Enemy” referred to is God):
One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. … It is quite invisible to these humans. … When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbors whom he has avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbors. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like “the body of Christ” and the actual faces in the next pew. It matters very little, of course, what kind of people that next pew really contains. … Provided that any of those neighbors sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous. At his present stage, you see, he has an idea of “Christians” in his mind which he supposes to be spiritual but which, in fact, is largely pictorial. ... What he says, even on his knees, about his own sinfulness is all parrot talk. At bottom, he still believes he has run up a very favorable credit-balance in the Enemy's ledger by allowing himself to be converted, and thinks that he is showing great humility and condescension in going to church with these “smug,” commonplace neighbors at all. Keep him in that state of mind as long as you can.
Let us pray:

O God,
be merciful to me,
a sinner.
You promise
that the prayer
of the lowly
pierces the clouds.
Make me
humble of heart
as I pour myself out
like your Son.
Help me
to keep the faith,
to finish the race.
Stand by me
and give me strength,
and bring us all safely
to your heavenly kingdom.
 Agnus Day appears with the permission of

Thursday, October 24, 2013

What is prayer?

Prayer is simply the means by which we train ourselves to be more aware of our relationship with God and his presence in the world. The relationship already exists; prayer is what nourishes it.

As a pilgrim people belonging to God, through prayer we are called like the ancient Israelites into the desert—where it is dry, desolate, untamed, and uninhabited. God calls us where he can most fully manifest himself to us. Spiritually speaking, the desert is where we have no resources of our own and are utterly dependent on God. It is where we are overwhelmed by God’s infinite mercy.

The desert deep within our soul is a difficult place to go. It frightens us. We try to avoid it if we can. We can take care of ourselves, we think. But it is only in the desert we realize that we can’t, and that we need God. And when we accept that, an oasis of riches springs forth from that desert to nourish us.

Prayer, ultimately, is about conversion, our transformation in Christ, and that occurs when we become aware of God’s infinite willingness and ability to supply all that we lack. His mercy and love are greater than our sin and failure. But to know infinite goodness, we must first acknowledge what is limited and imperfect.

The desert provides this contrast, and it is where the Holy Spirit invites us in prayer.

Prayer also expresses our faith. Other things (such as works of mercy) do as well, but prayer is foremost because it acknowledges our need to be in right relationship with God—it is our relationship with God. Prayer is God’s invitation to dedicate our time and being to a fuller appreciation of the divine, so that our vision broadens and our hearts expand with love. It is a lifelong rhythm of listening and responding to God’s call for conversion of heart—personally and communally.

Prayer is not a means by which we attempt to persuade God to give us this or that, or to do this or that. It is open, honest, full-hearted conversation with a God who loves us beyond measure, so that we may become our true selves in the divine image. We pray to be changed into who God wishes us to be—not orphans, but children of God.

-- Excerpted from Grace in the Wilderness:
Reflections on God’s Sustaining Word Along Life’s Journey
© Abbey Press Publications, Saint Meinrad Archabbey, 2013

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Grace along the way

"The people who survived the sword
found grace in the wilderness.
Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears;
there is hope for your future, says the Lord.”
Jeremiah 31

NOTE: The following is an extended excerpt from the introduction to my new book (shown above), Grace in the Wilderness: Reflections on God's Sustaining Word Along Life's Journey. The book, being published by Abbey Press' Path of Life Publications, will be published at the end of November. Primarily, it is a thematic collection of adapted posts (from this and my previous blog) from 2009 to 2013, reflecting on scriptural passages during the liturgical year. -- Br. Francis

You are not alone. Whatever the circumstances may be and no matter how you may feel at any given moment, no matter what you may have done or failed to do, no matter how painful or hopeless things may seem, one thing is certain: God is with you. There is hope for your future.
This is the promise of God’s Word to us. Wherever we may be physically, emotionally, and especially spiritually, God is prepared to meet us, journey with us, and lead us out of the wilderness. The route may not be the one we would have chosen for ourselves, but grace ultimately guides us toward joy, gladness, purpose, reconciliation, and redemption beyond anything we can imagine. Crooked lines are made straight. Along the way, we need only to put our faith in the voice that softly whispers in our hearts, as it was proclaimed to a dispirited people by the prophet Haggai: “Take courage, all you people, says the Lord. I am with you. My spirit abides among you; do not fear” (Haggai 2:4-5).
This is grace in the wilderness, as the prophet Jeremiah wrote so long ago to give the exiled Israelites hope, evoking the memory of an even earlier time when God led their ancestors out of slavery in Egypt. It is essentially the same message of hope and transformation declared by all the prophets, and ultimately fulfilled in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, who was crucified for us. This magnificent manifestation of God’s love for us—for you—is the point of Scripture, with Christ’s resurrection and ascension, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost providing the exclamation point.
The reflections in Grace in the Wilderness simply retell this story or forward the message. Unfortunately (sometimes tragically), Scripture is reduced to a moral code of conduct, a narrow-minded justification for various causes, or a blanket of sentimentality with which we insulate ourselves. But life is messier than that. Inspired by God, the Bible was written by human beings who lived,  struggled, and died amid the same perplexities and contradictions in life in which we find ourselves today. Modernity only gives them a new face. In one way or another, and at one time or another, we are each lost and need to be found. We wander in the wilderness. We seek—through various things, behaviors, or relationships—the rest that only God can provide. We seem to be abandoned. We mourn and sorrow. We weep, and our eyes are filled with tears.
Where is God? Right there— not up in the clouds or in some vague event too distant to consider; not in a false sense of security or certainty. Paradoxically, we find grace in the wilderness—redemption in the crucifixion. With the eyes of faith, we can see (albeit dimly) God’s sustaining presence in the midst of all that would seem to deny it. The late 19th- and early 20th-century French poet and dramatist Paul Claudel sums it up nicely: “Jesus did not come to remove suffering, or to explain it, but to fill it with his presence.”
God does not cause suffering or justify the human malfeasance that ultimately gives rise to it. In the person of Christ, the Good Shepherd, he comes to redeem what was lost and release what was imprisoned. He comes to rebuild what was destroyed, to reunite what was scattered, and to regenerate what had seemed lifeless. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17).
In other words, your life at this very moment has meaning—if you allow that meaning to unfold within it, that grace to take root in the wilderness.
Viewed as a whole, this is the promise of Scripture, and the good news I hope to convey through the collection of meditations in this book. The fruit of my own prayer, study, and reflection, they are primarily gathered from posts on my personal blog (first,, and, later, from 2009 to 2013. Although most were written with a view toward the liturgical year in the Roman Catholic Church and its cycle of readings for Mass, they have been adapted and arranged thematically in the book under the general sections: Grace, Prayer, The Body of Christ, Conversion, God in the Moment, Christian Life, Faith, Hope, Love, Peace and Joy, and Redemption and Resurrection.
As we know from the New Testament, St. Paul is perhaps the world’s most renowned beneficiary of grace: “I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God,” he writes in the First Letter to the Corinthians (15:19-20). “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” His conversion from persecutor to apostle led to the rapid spread of Christianity in a way that could not have been foreseen. While this work was immensely fruitful, it was far from easy.
Whatever trials and obstacles he encountered in the wilderness of his own life (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:23-30), Paul seemed to have an intuitive sense of what grace is and what it means. “I have been crucified with Christ,” he wrote to the Galatians (2:19-20). “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
Grace is God’s very presence among us and within us, in the midst of all that would seem to argue against it. Jeremiah sought to bolster the hope of the Israelites after the fall of Jerusalem and their exile to Babylon in 587 B.C. Their Temple destroyed and their homeland taken from them, they seemed to have lost absolutely everything as captives in a foreign land. The prophet’s statement, writes Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann in his Commentary on Jeremiah, “makes an allusion back to the wilderness sojourn in the ancient days of Moses, when God surprisingly gave sustenance in the wilderness (cf. Exodus 16:12; Jeremiah 2:2). At the same time, however, ‘wilderness’ is a reference to contemporary exile, so that the assertion not only remembers surprising graciousness in the past, but is a statement concerning God’s powerful, gracious presence” in present circumstances. “The present reality of exile is not godless and not graceless.”
The same is no less true for each one of us today. Just as with the ancient Israelites, God walks in our midst through the wilderness, and beckons us to follow. Just as the pillars of cloud and fire signifying God’s presence went ahead of Moses and his people as they journeyed out of Egypt (Exodus 13:17-22); just as the cloud filled Solomon’s newly built Temple in Jerusalem (1 Kings 8:10-13); and just as the heavens parted over Jesus at his baptism to reveal the Spirit of God and the Father’s declaration, “This is my Son, the Beloved” (Matthew 3:16-17)—God is with us every inch of the way. And just as Jesus—Emmanuel, “God is with us (cf. Matthew 1:23)—is led by the Spirit into the wilderness to face trial and temptation (Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13), so are we. But we are not alone; God joins us in that struggle, as the wonderful mystery of the Incarnation demonstrates. God voluntarily limits himself in human form to re-establish a partnership of grace with all of creation, thereby providing hope for our future.
The same Spirit which Jesus breathed upon his disciples (cf. John 20:21-22) is conferred upon us at Baptism. This Holy Spirit now animates the Body of Christ, the Church—through the very human (and still-flawed) life of its members, through worship and the Sacraments, and through Scripture, God’s Word to us. Through these means, in God “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). They provide us with the strength and courage we need to persevere. They guide our course toward joy, gladness, purpose, reconciliation, and redemption. They give us the grace of God—who reveals himself in the wilderness.
© Abbey Press Publications, Saint Meinrad Archabbey, St. Meinrad, IN, 2013

Sunday, October 6, 2013

The flame of faith

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time—Year C
Habakkuk 1:2-3; 2:2-4; 2 Timothy 1:6-8, 13-14; Luke 17:5-10

(A meditation on this week's readings
in the form of a conversation with God.)
God, are you there? I cannot see you. It is dark and cold and lonely. From the shadows, beasts threaten to overtake me. Violence, strife and discord surround me. Why have you left me in such misery?
"Wait for the fire of light and warmth and peace to build. It will surely come. You have not been forgotten. Walk by faith.”
I have no faith.
"Are you baptized? Then you have faith—unless you have willfully renounced what you have received from me. If you had done that, however, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. Faith is a supernatural gift through my grace. It is steadfastness or strength, which I myself bestow upon you. It cannot be earned—only freely received.
Why can’t I see it?
Where are you looking? Faith itself, like the light of day, cannot be seen—only what it illumines. Faith, as my Word says, “is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Raise your eyes and see by the light of faith all that I have given you. Without me, you can do nothing and would have nothing; without me, you would not be. In me, you live and move and have your being (cf. Acts 17:28).
But it is so hard!
Dearly beloved, bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from me. I am your strength and salvation (cf. Psalm 118:4).
So I just sit here and wait?!
Wait, yes. Sit, no. I have ignited the fire of faith within you, but like a glowing ember which must be stoked lest it be reduced to lifeless ashes, you must stir into flame the gift that I have given you. Do this, and the light and warmth and peace of faith will build within you, gradually transforming you like a living tree aflame in my love.
How do I stir this faith into flame?
Ah, my child, now we’re getting somewhere! Stir it through prayer, nurturing a living relationship with me in your heart, and conversing with me as you are now. Speak to me, but also allow me to speak in the silence of your heart. Stir it by regularly reading and meditating on my Word, which is living and active. Stir your faith through participation in the sacraments, which I give to sustain you along the way. Stir it through worship and charity in a community of believers, devoting yourself to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and the prayers (cf. Acts 2:42). Strengthened by these gifts, grow in virtue by loving your neighbor as yourself and forgiving, as I have forgiven you. Take up your cross daily and follow me. Give yourself to me wholeheartedly, as did my Son, the Word made flesh, who was crucified for you—and whom I raised from the dead to sit at my right at the eternal banquet of love. Come to the feast!
Lord, increase my faith!
The size or amount of your faith does not matter. Faith as tiny as a mustard seed can—and will—work wonders. Again, stir into flame what you already have—no matter how small and lifeless it may seem.
But what about the darkness, cold, and loneliness I feel—the beasts that lurk in the shadows, the violence and discord that surround me?
These are not from me, but through the Word made flesh, I experience them with you, give them meaning, and redeem them through the Light of the Resurrection. This is my promise: the Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it. I am the light of the world. Follow me and you will have the Light of Life (cf. John 1:5; 8:12). What is more, by doing so, you become this light for others who are in similar circumstances. Through me, you become their light, warmth, and peace. In the form of service, give as you have received. Every good tree bears good fruit (cf. Matthew 7:17), just as my Son, the Tree of Life. If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet (cf. John 13:14).
Lord, I believe; help my unbelief! (cf. Mark 9:24)
As I have promised, so have I done—am doing this very moment. So, with the Light of Faith, wait…stir…grow into a consuming fire…and serve by spreading my light, warmth, and peace. And remember: I am with you always (cf. Matthew 28:20).

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The heart of action

I turned to the letters of St. Paul in the hope of finally finding an answer [for my mission, vocation in life, as a contemplative]. By chance, the 12th and 13th chapters of 1Corinthians caught my attention, and in the first section I read that not everyone can be an apostle, prophet or teacher, that the Church is composed of a variety of members, and that the eye cannot be the hand. Even with such an answer revealed before me, I was not satisfied and did not find peace.
I continued reading and did not let my mind wander until I found this encouraging theme: Set your desires on the greater gifts. And I will show you the way which surpasses all others. For St. Paul insists that the greater gifts are nothing at all without love, and that this same love is surely the best path leading directly to God. At length I had found peace of mind.
When I had looked upon the mystical body of the Church, I recognized myself in none of the members which St. Paul described, and what is more, I desired to distinguish myself more favorably within the whole body. Love appeared to me to be the hinge for my vocation. Indeed, I knew that the Church had a body composed of various members, but in this body the necessary and nobler member was this: I knew that the Church had a heart and that such a heart appeared to be aflame with love. I realized that one love drives the members of the Church to action, and that if this love were extinguished, the apostles would have proclaimed the gospel no longer, the martyrs would have shed their blood no more. I saw and realized that love sets off the bounds of all vocations, that love is everything, that this same love embraces every time and every place. In one word, that love is everlasting.
Then, nearly ecstatic with the supreme joy in my soul, I proclaimed: O Jesus, my love, at last I have found my calling: my call is love. Certainly I have found my place in the Church, and you gave me that very place, my God. In the heart of the Church, my mother, I will be love, and thus I will be all things, as my desire finds its direction.
-- St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the “Little Flower.”