Sunday, December 20, 2015

Into The Dark - A Christmas Meditation

A Christmas Meditation on the Incarnation, for a Troubled World
And the angel said to them,
"Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you Good News of a great joy that will come to all the people: for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger" (Luke 2:10-12).

On Christmas night the shepherds are addressed by an angel who shines upon them with the blinding glory of God, and they are very much afraid. The tremendous, unearthly radiance shows that the angel is a messenger of heaven and clothes him with an incontrovertible authority. With this authority he commands them not to be afraid but to embrace the great joy he is announcing to them. And while the angel is speaking thus to these poor frightened people, he is joined by a vast number of others, who unite in a "Gloria" praising God in heaven's heights and announcing the peace of God's goodwill to men on earth. Then, we read, "the angels went away from them into heaven." In all probability the singing was very beautiful and the shepherds were glad to listen; doubtless they were sorry when the concert was over and the performers disappeared behind heaven's curtain. Probably, however, they were secretly a little relieved when the unwonted light of divine glory and the unwonted sound of heavenly music came to an end, and they found themselves once more in their familiar earthly darkness. They probably felt like shabby beggars who had suddenly been set in a king's audience chamber among courtiers dressed in magnificent robes and were glad to slip away unnoticed and take to their heels.

But the strange thing is that the intimidating glory of the heavenly realm, which has now vanished, has left behind a human glow of joy in their souls, a light of joyous expectation, reinforcing the heavenward-pointing angel's word and causing them to set out for Bethlehem. Now they can turn their backs on the whole epiphany of the heavenly glory—for it was only a starting point, an initial spark, a stimulus leading to what was really intended; all that remains of it is the tiny seed of the word that has been implanted in their hearts and that now starts to grow in the form of expectation, curiosity and hope: "Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us." 

They want to see the word that has taken place. Not the angel's word with its heavenly radiance: that has already become unimportant. They want to see the content of the angel's word, that is, the Child, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. They want to see the word that has "happened", the word that has taken place, the word that is not only something uttered but something done, something that can not only be heard but also seen.

Thus the word that the shepherds want to see is not the angel's word. This was only the proclamation (the kerygma, as people say nowadays); it was only a pointer. The angels, with their heavenly authority, disappear: they belong to the heavenly realm; all that remains is a pointer to a word that has been done. By God, of course. Just as it is God who made it known to them through the angels.

So they set off, heaven behind them, and the earthly sign before them. But, Lord, what a sign! Not even the Child, but a child. Some child or other. No special child. Not a child radiating a light of glory, as the religious painters depicted, but on the contrary: a child that looks as 'inglorious as possible. Wrapped in swaddling clothes. So that it cannot move. It lies there, imprisoned, as it were, in the clothes in which it has been wrapped through the solicitude of others. There is nothing elevating about the manger in which it lies, either, nothing even remotely corresponding to the heavenly glory of the singing angels. There is practically nothing even half worth seeing; the destination of the shepherds' nightly journey is the most ordinary scene. Indeed, in its poverty it is decidedly disappointing. It is something entirely human and ordinary, something quite profane, in no way distinguished—except for the fact that this is the promised sign, and it fits.

The shepherds believed the word. The word sends them from heaven and to earth, and as they proceed along this path, from light to darkness, from the extraordinary to the ordinary, from the solitary experience of God to the realm of ordinary human intercourse, from the splendor above to the poverty below, they are given the confirmation they need: the sign fits. Only now does their fearful joy under heaven's radiance turn into a completely uninhibited, human and Christian joy. Because it fits. And why does it fit? Because the Lord, the High God, has taken the same path as they have: he has left his glory behind him and gone into the dark world, into the child's apparent insignificance, into the unfreedom of human restrictions and bonds, into the poverty of the crib. This is the Word in action, and as yet the shepherds do not know, no one knows, how far down into the darkness this Word-in-action will lead. At all events it will descend much deeper than anyone else into what is worldly, apparently insignificant and profane; into what is bound, poor and powerless; so much so that we shall not be able to follow the last stage of his path. A heavy stone will block the way, preventing the others from approaching, while, in utter night, in ultimate loneliness and forsakenness, he descends to his dead human brothers.

It is true, therefore: in order that he shall find God, the Christian is placed on the streets of the world, sent to his manacled and poor brethren, to all who suffer, hunger and thirst; to all who are naked, sick and in prison. From henceforth this is his place; he must identify with them all. This is the great joy that is proclaimed to him today, for it is the same way that God sent a Savior to us. We ourselves may be poor and in bondage too, in need of liberation; yet at the same time all of us who have been given a share in the joy of deliverance are sent to be companions of those who are poor and in bondage.

But who will step out along this road that leads from God's glory to the figure of the poor Child lying in the manger? Not the person who is taking a walk for his own pleasure. He will walk along other paths that are more likely to run in the opposite direction, paths that lead from the misery of his own existence toward some imaginary or dreamed-up attempt at a heaven, whether of a brief pleasure or of a long oblivion. The only one to journey from heaven, through the world, to the hell of the lost, is he who is aware, deep in his heart, of a mission to do so; such a one obeys a call that is stronger than his own comfort and his resistance. This is a call that has complete power and authority over my life; I submit to it because it comes from a higher plane than my entire existence. It is an appeal to my heart, demanding the investment of my total self; its hidden, magisterial radiance obliges me, willy-nilly, to submit. I may not know who it is that so takes me into his service. But one thing I do know: if l stay locked within myself, if I seek myself, I shall not find the peace that is promised to the man on whom God's favor rests. I must go. I must enter the service of the poor and imprisoned. I must lose my soul if I am to regain it, for so long as I hold onto it, I shall lose it. This implacable, silent word (which yet is so unmistakable) burns in my heart and will not leave me in peace.

In other lands there are millions who are starving, who work themselves to death for a derisory day's wage, heartlessly exploited like cattle. There too are the slaughtered peoples whose wars cannot end because certain interests (which are not theirs) are tied up with the continuance of their misery. And I know that all my talk about progress and mankind's liberation will be dismissed with laughter and mockery by all the realistic forecasters of mankind's next few decades. Indeed, I only need to open my eyes and ears, and I shall hear the cry of those unjustly oppressed growing louder every day, along with the clamor of those who are resolved to gain power at any price, through hatred and annihilation. These are the superpowers of darkness; in the face of them all our courage drains away, and we lose all belief in the mission that resides in our hearts, that mission that was once so bright, joyous and peace bringing; we lose all hope of really finding the poor Child wrapped in swaddling clothes. What can my pitiful mission achieve, this drop of water in the white-hot furnace? What is the point of my efforts, my dedication, my sacrifice, my pleading to God for a world that is resolved to perish?

"Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you Good News of a great joy... This day is born the Savior", that is, he who, as Son of God and Son of the Father, has traveled (in obedience to the Father) the path that leads away from the Father and into the darkness of the world. Behind him omnipotence and freedom; before, powerlessness, bonds and obedience. Behind him the comprehensive divine vision; before him the prospect of the meaninglessness of death on the Cross between two criminals, Behind him the bliss of life with the Father; before him, grievous solidarity with all who do not know the Father, do not want to know him and deny his existence. Rejoice then, for God himself has passed this way! The Son took with him the awareness of doing the Father's will. He took with him the unceasing prayer that the Father's will would be done on the dark earth as in the brightness of heaven. He took with him his rejoicing that the Father had hidden these things from the wise and revealed them to babes, to the simple and the poor. "I am the way", and this way is "the truth" for you; along this way you will find "the life". Along "the way" that I am you will learn to lose your life in order to find it; you will learn to grow beyond yourselves and your insincerity into a truth that is greater than you are. From a worldly point of view everything may seem very dark; your dedication may seem unproductive and a failure. But do not be afraid: you are on God's path. "Let not your hearts be troubled: believe in God; believe also in me." I am walking on ahead of you and blazing the trail of Christian love for you. It leads to your most inaccessible brother, the person most forsaken by God. But it is the path of divine love itself. You are on the right path. All who deny themselves in order to carry out love's commission are on the right path.

Miracles happen along this path. Apparently insignificant miracles, noticed by hardly anyone. The very finding of a Child wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger—is this not a miracle in itself? Then there is the miracle when a particular mission, hidden in a person's heart, really reaches its goal, bringing God's peace and joy where there were nothing but despair and resignation; when someone succeeds in striking a tiny light in the midst of an overpowering darkness. When joy irradiates a heart that no longer dared to believe in it. Now and again we ourselves are assured that the angel's word we are trying to obey will bring us to the place where God's Word and Son is already made man. We are assured that, in spite of all the noise and nonsense, today, December 25, is Christmas just as truly as two millennia ago. Once and for all God has started out on his journey toward us, and nothing, till the world's end, will stop him from coming to us and abiding in us.

December 23, 2004

HANS URS VON BALTHASAR is considered one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century. This sermon is from the collection "You Crown the Year With Your Goodness," Ignatius Press, 1989. (The German original was published in 1982).

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

A Reflection for Christmas by James Stephen Behrens

In her blog Heather King shares an essay from a friend of hers, James Stephen Behrensa former diocesan priest in NJ and for many years now a Cistercian monk at Holy Spirit Monastery in Conyers, Georgia.

King tells us that James Stephen is a photographer, a writer, and a close observer: of deer, cobwebs, shadows, stars, people.  The essay is titled, "Christmas 2014" but it could just as well be called "Christmas is Forever."

There is a strip mall not far from the monastery.  I was there a week or so before Christmas.  Most of the stores are vacant and have been that way for a long time. The “For Lease” signs in the windows are faded.  I parked the car and walked around a bit.  I looked in a few windows and the views were all pretty much the same – gatherings of dust, empty coffee cups on the floor, dismantled shelves, scraps of paper.  When I walked back to my car I noticed something strange. All the tall lampposts were decorated for Christmas.  Each one had a variation of a Christmas theme.  Some had big foam Santa Clauses.  Others had silver bells and red and green ribbons, all covered with glitter that sparkled in the sunlight.The big parking lot was almost empty of cars.  I wondered about the decorations.  I suppose that each year they are put up on the lampposts, even if there are no shoppers, no stores, no Christmas music streaming from loudspeakers.

I suppose that one very important dimension of Christmas thrives on fullness.  I know that there are malls, restaurants, churches, banks and credit card companies that thrive during the Christmas Season.  They promise the best that this Season can bring, with bows and ribbons, discounts galore, deferred payments and Christmas bonuses. But there is another dimension to Christmas that draws near to places that are empty, deserted and in need of the hope that only the meaning of Christmas can bring.  Emptiness gnaws at us, like a hunger that we are incapable of satisfying, of filling, with our own resources.  And yet this expectation rises in the human heart at this time of the year. Maybe a good place to ponder this dimension is an abandoned strip mall, a place off the busy and thriving places of the Christmas map, a place where the only music that can be made is a Christmas carol as it plays on the car radio or goes through one’s mind as the emptiness waits for a fullness that may be a long time in coming.

I am listening to the radio as I am stringing these words along.  Over one-hundred and forty children were killed in an attack on a school by the Taliban.  It happened in the Pakistani city of Peshawar.  It is one of many tragic stories that ride the airwaves along side the carols of good cheer and wondrous gifts to come.  It is hard for me to separate the bad news from the good.  Seen from a place far above us, the earth must look like a beautiful place, a place where city lights twinkle back at the light of the stars and the vast oceans glisten as the tides rise and fall.  The wounds born by its people cannot be seen.  And nothing at all seems to be crippled by the ache of emptiness.  But upon a closer look, the earth and its inhabitants struggle to fill the emptiness that hollows the heart and deadens the mind.

There are lights at this time of the year.  Lights on trees, lights on homes, lights in churches, synagogues, and in gatherings of the faithful all over the earth.  These, too, can be seen from afar.  And Scripture tells us that a Child was found by three Wise Men who followed the moving light of a star across a vast desert, and when it settled above a little town, they knew the Child awaited them. And they worshipped him, and brought him gifts.

It is the Light of that Child that makes everything different, makes of all things not what they seem to be. For this Light that is Life, when brought to bear upon the darkest corners of human life, promises that there will be redemption, that the light of goodness, of God, will overcome whatever darkness we see about us. The Light will fill our emptiness and we will someday learn not to assuage our emptiness with excess, with violence, with the murder of the innocent.

I like to think that the lights and decorations of that little strip mall are okay, even though no one comes to the place. For I like to think that our lives are kind of like that mall. We wander in the midst of a poorly decorated world, a world like a half-baked Christmas awaiting a crowd. But if you pull off the road and into the mall, and think just a bit, and maybe pray, you will better know why God came to us as one of us. He can be most clearly seen in the empty and abandoned places of life, places that we normally avoid when sales are non-existent and the frenzied crowds at the mega-malls. And in the silence of that little empty mall, his message is barely a whisper, but it is clear: Christmas is for all, the rich and the poor, the empty and half-hearted, as free gift, and it is eternal, and no darkness will overcome it. But you have to pull off the highway just a bit, and stay for a while in a place that life seems to have passed by. God is waiting there, as he waits everywhere, amidst the lonely decorations and the row of closed stores – a place that looks to be waiting for something real good to happen, when in fact, it already has, a Big Time arrival, from afar. 

--James Stephen Behrens, OCSO

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Giving thanks in all circumstances

The following reflection comes from Jennifer Hubbard, a contributing writer for The Magnificat

I tilt my chin to the sky, allowing the sun’s warmth to reach the depths of my soul grateful for God’s light. I cherish the sounds and absorb the beauty that surrounds me grateful for God’s creation. There was a time when I thought this was the ultimate expression of gratitude, and thankfulness came easily. I could not understand how one could sing praises of gratitude when life choked and weighed heavy on one’s shoulders. And then the unthinkable happened, and all I could do was sit in the pew and absorb the words. Only then, when my world was crushed, did I really listen to the words I had prayed my whole life. When I truly heard the words, everything changed.

I bow my head as the priest says, “Giving you thanks, he broke the bread and gave it to his disciples.” The magnitude of what is happening convicts me Jesus is preparing to be beaten and bruised and nailed to a cross, and still he gives thanks. In his giving thanks Jesus shows me why it is truly “our duty and our salvation”. In this moment I see it is not about for what I give thanks, but in all circumstances give thanks (1 Thes 5:18).

In everything give thanks, confident in his faithfulness and love, desiring only that his will be done. In everything give thanks, walking with certainty that the messy, scary, and lonely will serve his purpose. In everything give thanks, acting with assurance that he will make beauty from the ashes. When I am deflated, exhausted, and frail, I reach for his hand and I am carried. When I stray he redirects me. It is in these moments that I am left with a deep sense of gratitude, and sing his praises that my suffering is not in vain. I bow deeply in thanksgiving and confidence that the cross I bear makes way for his will to be done.

- Jennifer Hubbard, who resides in Newtown, CT, writes this reflection entitled: Thanksgiving Day. The younger of her two children, Catherine Violet, was a victim of the Sandy River Elementary School shooting in December 2012.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

René Girard tribute from Gil Bailie

Link here to read my friend, Gil Bailie's tribute to René Girard in it's entirety. 

I have simply pulled out a couple rich comments from the tribute.

"Beginning with discoveries and insights gained from the careful reading of first literature and then anthropology, Girard turned to the scriptures, only to find there an anthropological perspicacity that completely distinguished this tradition, and in light of which the continuity between the Old and New Testaments came more clearly into focus. Girard saw the mounting chorus of anti-sacrificial admonitions issued by the prophets and the sympathy for the victim found in the psalms and wisdom literature as evidence of the Bible’s religious and moral movement toward the culminating, history-altering revelation of the Cross. Those who might regard Girard’s work as the reduction of the mystery of Christian redemption to a moral repudiation of an odious example of human sinfulness are mistaken. Not only has Girard shown how profoundly and unavoidably humans are implicated in the sacrificial paradigm, but his discovery of these things was accompanied by the deepening of his Catholic faith, sacramental participation, and personal piety – indicative of both his humility and of the gravity of the anthropological conclusions to which his researches led him."

"René understood that the unavoidably mimetic feature of our makeup makes us in some way spiritually permeable to each other and therefore in some way spiritually responsible for one another. Humble and self-effacing though he was, he conducted himself as a spiritual aristocrat. It is difficult to estimate, wrote Blessed John Henry Newman, “the moral power which a single individual, trained to practice what he teaches, may acquire in his own circle, in the course of years.” It was my privilege to be among those who not only to appreciated the importance of his intellectual contribution but who felt the subtle power of his spiritual integrity and the warmth and wisdom that emanated from it."

Thursday, November 5, 2015

René Girard shares his view on Peter's denial

From friend, Erik Buys' blog, Mimetic Margins:

René Girard explains how this realization in forgiveness, that people are more like 'sinners' than they would acknowledge, is at the core of the conversion experience of Peter, Paul and the other disciples of Jesus. What enables Peter, Paul and others to become “saints” thus precisely and paradoxically is their realization that they are not “saints” (i.e. that they are far from ever being “perfect”). This truly spiritual experience, which enables people to face reality, is also the experience that guided René Girard himself throughout his life. René Girard gets to the essence of what a conversion to Christ should be all about in his explanation of the denial of Peter. (click to watch):

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Henri Nouwen - Praying is not only listening to but listening with

Praying is not only listening to but listening with. The discipline of the heart makes us stand in the presence of God with all we have and are: our fears and anxieties, our guilt and shame, our sexual fantasies, our greed and anger, our joys, successes, aspirations and hopes, our reflections, dreams and mental wandering, and most of all our people, family, friends and enemies, in short all that makes us who we are…. We tend to present to God only those parts of ourselves with which we feel relatively comfortable and which we think will evoke a positive response. Thus our prayer becomes very selective and narrow. And not just our prayer but also our self-knowledge because by behaving as strangers before God we become strangers to ourselves.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Casting Out the Demons - Caryll Houselander

Caryll Houselander
'But when it comes to someone who has arrived at some measure of strongly conscious spirituality, who has proved a willingness to suffer for God and his truth, the devil must find subtler ways:  he must find something which resembles God in this -- that it is always present.  What could be better than self? -- and what more certain to imprison and ultimately obsess a sensitive soul than awareness of something wrong with self?

Somehow or other the soul must be made to strive to attain a certain level of holiness, a certain peace or at least untroubledness, before abandoning itself to God.  It will be held back by this, prevented from seeing more and more the beauty of God.  The devil knows that the soul whose heart is fixed on God is lost to hell, so he must drag the gaze back from God to self.  He whispers, through a clergyman or a friend, or just your own prompting:  "You are doing wrong.  Of course you have no peace; you are putting your peace of soul before the happiness of better souls, anyway" -- and so on and so on.  If you listen, you half agree; you begin again to examine your motives; you let conflict and anxiety rage in you -- which is in itself exhausting.  A vicious circle begins:  you are too tired to pray; you think all consolation has been taken from you, aridity sets in....

I feel sure that the treatment is to ignore the suggestions.  Even ignore your own soul:  keep your mind on God, on his love....

Do not wait until you feel not uneasy; do not wait to be doing a more prayerful act; do not wait to feel more unity and completeness:  offer yourself, your will to do right, your anxiety about not doing it, your being interrupted just now, the act of taking So-and-so's temperature -- all, just as it is, to God.  Leave it to God to transform all this into himself.  It's all you've got, and he gave it to you.'

-- Caryll Houselander (+ A.D. 1954) was a British mystic, poet & spiritual teacher. (Magnificat 9/1/15)

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Gazing requires a space within the heart - St Clare spirituality

The gaze on the crucified Christ is like an embrace, a desire to allow the otherness of God's love into our lives. Therefore it can never be an immediate vision; rather, it is a daily encounter with a God of humble love who is hidden in fragile humanity. Gazing is not simply physical sight like other physical senses that help situate oneself in an environment. Rather, gazing is of the heart by which the heart "opens its arms" so to speak to allow the Spirit of God's love to enter. 
Gazing requires a space within the heart to receive what we see and to embrace what we see. Poverty helps create this space because when we are free of things that possess us or that we possess we are able to see more clearly and to receive what we see within us. 
The type of prayer that Clare directs us to - this prayer of gazing - requires openness to grace. To gaze is to be open to the Spirit of the Lord, for it is the Spirit within us who really gazes or, we might say, who "embraces" the God of humble love. - Ilia Delio, chapter from Franciscan at Prayer, p 46.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Living into Holiness

Is holiness more than we can strive for?

I think most of us dismiss any connection to being holy, usually saying something like; 'well you don't see a halo over my head' or 'Mother Teresa, Pope John Paul II, St Ignatius of Loyola, St Francis and any of the other saints are examples of what it is to be holy, and there is no way I am in a league like that'.  Reflecting on these and other excuses I think they all miss the mark of what we are all called to, a life of holiness (1 Peter 1:15).  So what is holiness?

In our world of the ‘autonomous self’ it is hard to realized that holiness is not 'something' we do, rather holiness is a gift that is offered to all.  

Pope Benedict XVI writes: “Holiness does not consist in never having erred or sinned. Holiness increases the capacity for conversion, for repentance, for willingness to start again and, especially, for reconciliation and forgiveness… Consequently, it is not the fact that we have never erred but our capacity for reconciliation and forgiveness which makes us saints. And we can all learn this way of holiness”

So the first exercise is to discern our capacity or receptivity for receiving a gift.

The next lesson is humility with a sense of accountability: being open to the unfathomableness of the Gift-bearer and not being afraid to say yes.  Thomas Merton reflected after being at Gethsemani for less than two weeks: “Your brightness is my darkness. I know nothing of You and, by myself, I cannot even imagine how to go about knowing You. If I imagine You, I am mistaken. If I understand You, I am deluded. If I am conscious and certain I know You, I am crazy. The darkness is enough.”

Merton’s quote touches on the abyss between what we can imagine and the incomprehensibility of God and though he ends saying that the darkness is enough, in actuality, it is so often not enough for us and we will, if not kept accountable, makeover Christ in our own image.

As we take our first steps into the labyrinth of holiness we somehow find ourselves being expanded, seeing the world and everyone in it through new eyes. The landscape has changed and the effect is illuminating - creating a new sense of abundance and excess with an invitation to become an active participant, accentuating the gifts we were open to receive and playing it forward.  

At this point we are approaching the center of the labyrinth discovering how our gifts received help others - revealing a way of living into holiness - when holiness bounces off of you to reflect on others.

So, what is holiness?  It is a gift received; and by saying yes to God we enter into God’s realm of love and service helping others to recognize the gift that all are called to receive.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

St Antony - he was filled with the love of holiness - his whole life was not one of observing, but of becoming

After reading this post you may want to visit another post I created here.

Ross Mackenzie: Solitude, Truth, and Vision: Antony and the Desert Tradition of Prayer

Temptation of StAntony by Joos van Craesbeech
St. Antony’s venture into the desert led to discoveries that are models for the discoveries that we Christians of the twentieth century need to make.

IN his Confessions Augustine records how one of his friends, while walking near the city walls of Treves, found a copy of the life of Antony, written by Athanasius:
All at once he was filled with the love of holiness. Angry with himself and full of remorse, he looked at his friend and said, “What do we hope to gain by all the efforts we make? What are we looking for? What is our purpose in serving the state? Can we hope for anything better than to be the Emperor’s friends? . . . But if I wish, I can become the friend of God at this moment.”(1)
Shortly afterwards, in the garden in Milan, Augustine himself, like Antony, was confronted directly by the word of the gospel. In a crisis of reorientation similar to Antony’s, he turned towards what he was later to call “a truly great vision for a life’s work.”(2) Augustine’s influence on subsequent Christian faith and practice is beyond easy measurement. It is significant, however, that his conversion occurred as he studied the life of a Coptic ascetic through whose anachoresis, or ingress, into the wilderness we may still discover the way to the true life that is hidden “in, under, and with” our everyday existence.
Athanasius composed the life of Antony during his third exile (A.D. 355-62), presumably just after the death of Antony at an advanced age in 356. The century during which Antony had lived was one of political instability, attempts at reconstruction, and recurrent collapse. The empire was being cannibalized, and an enormous price was paid by the civil population for increases in military expenditures. The church was beginning to enjoy, on the one hand, great prestige and temporal power in the new Christian establishment, where to be a Christian and to be a citizen were increasingly not just coextensive but in fact identical. On the other hand, the doctrinal crisis of Arianism seemed to be making half of the Christian church refuse to acknowledge the orthodoxy or even the good faith of the other half. A Christianity of diminished intensity may have been politically desirable and socially acceptable, but clearly not for Antony. So, just as the Jews had escaped from their bondage in Egypt and had gone out into the wilderness, Antony took his departure from the city to the Egyptian desert, there to build, as Georges Florovsky expressed it, “on the virginal soil of the Desert, a New Society, to organize there, on the Evangelical pattern, the true Christian Community.”(3)
We may summarize Antony’s contribution to the development of Christian spirituality in three ways which sound especially congenial to modern thinking about prayer and appropriate to contemporary needs. We can speak of these as the discoveries of solitude, truth, and vision.
The first discovery is that of solitude. Antony’s first discovery in the desert is the first also in the spiritual life: we choose to surrender to Jesus Christ every other primary claim. “Draw inspiration from Christ always,” Antony advised, “and trust in him. And live as though dying daily.”(4) Prayer, as Antony’s own life demonstrates, is the surrender of all things in which I lay my confidence (including my own self-certitude). I surrender them all, so that I may stand before God in my nothingness. As Christ’s own life was a negation of the tyranny of the world and a self-surrender to God, so, by sharing in that renunciation, we may find the beginning of a genuinely new (and not simply refurbished) life.
To what primary claims does the actual life of a Christian congregation, or its several members, bear witness today? Do they “pray through” their political, economic, and personal decisions in ways which show that, in Origen’s words, “we have another system of allegiance”? Explicit in Jesus’ own teaching is a summons to an evangelical anachoresis — a withdrawal from existing social structures, “house, brothers, sisters, father, children, or land” for his sake (Mark 10:29); or, to use different phraseology, it is an ingress into the reality of God’s rule which is present in Jesus of Nazareth.
The second discovery is that of the desert as the place of truth. In prayer we may find the possibility of advancing to a new degree of liberation, the awakening of a new consciousness of self so charged and changed that it will recast the whole of our day-to-day existence. Antony describes his experience in the desert typically as an encounter with the demons. It may be helpful if we transpose into modern terms what he says about his struggles in the depths.
To be a human being is to think. But thinking has its own regions of darkness. So does prayer, which has what can be called its own morbid psychology. Prayer can be a way of recasting my everyday existence through the renewing of my mind, through allowing Christ to take captive its every thought. It can also be my attempt to put God in a relation to me that parallels the way I relate to my own inner being. Thus, if I fear or hate my own urge to control, or my competitiveness, or my gross sexuality, then I will find a God who will hate my controlling ways, my aggressiveness, or my repressed or distorted sexuality. But in this behavioral maneuver I am merely inviting God to have towards me the same dis-integrative relationship I have towards myself. Paradoxically, in the very prayer which should be a bond or communion between God and myself, I can actually create a sense of distance and make myself unassailable by encompassing God in my own delusions about myself — or supposing that I can. If, when I pray, I disclose a self-contempt which is actually a form of self-preservation, my confession of sins may actually prevent me from dying to the old and coming alive to the new that is in Christ.
To “encounter the demons,” therefore, is to penetrate into the unknown abyss which all of us encounter within, and which conceals the dark forces which threaten or dominate us. Against the darkness of this interior the light of Christ’s resurrection throws its light. His death was a negation of all “worldly” power — that is to say, controlling or manipulative power — and at the same time a total surrender to the love of God and neighbor with heart, mind, and soul. Faith in Jesus Christ as the acceptance of his call to bear the cross means sharing in this negation and self-surrender, but at the same time it also means sharing in his resurrection. To pray, in this sense, is both to say no to that ominous and self-assertive power of controlling others and to say yes to the loving service of God and neighbor. To use the sign of the cross in praying, as Antony characteristically did,(5) is to say no and yes in a single moment; it is to ask God’s aid in seeking to give up every shred of conventionalized and structured existence and to awaken to a new sense of living in reality and no longer in pretense.
The third discovery is that of the desert as a place of vision. The life by Athanasius frequently refers to Antony’s visions. We read, for example, of the beam of light which drenched him as he heard a voice, saying, “I will be your helper for ever.”(6) The visions occurred, evidently, in the later period of his life, after the time when he came out of the wilderness, “having been led into the divine mysteries,” as he puts it, “and inspired by God.”(7) By this stage in his life as a contemplative Antony had become responsive and open at every point to the Spirit of God. He no longer, therefore, needed to remain a solitary and was thus available to serve those who sought his guidance or healing in the places of human need from which he had withdrawn. Living a simple and unencumbered life, he began to immerse himself in the issues of injustice, social oppression, pastoral concern, and theological controversy.
The only safe revolutionary, it has been said, is the contemplative. If by safe we refer to that credibility which is grounded in the example of Christ, Antony provides us with a pattern that will be most helpful when we transpose it into modern terms. He remains a remarkable example of a spirituality that involves a daily reorientation of our life to Christ through a massive shift in personhood in which everything of oneself is now drenched in the light of the risen Christ — eating and drinking, buying and selling, justice, culture, and custom. To pray is not simply to renounce the demonic or to strip ourselves of everything. It is to commit ourselves to the transformation of all things through Christ, in whom all things are coming to their fulfillment. It is to enjoy all things in the joy of the new age. “The world, life and death, the present and the future, are all your servants,” says Paul (1 Cor. 3:21). “All I have is yours,” the father says in Jesus’ parable (Luke 15:31).To pray is to ponder and to commit ourselves to those actions by which we begin to participate in the renewal of creation as we say, “Thy kingdom come.” The contemplative way, as Antony understood and practiced it, is a form of discipleship which is inevitably and radically social; and yet it is marked by a peacefulness and tranquility that do not yield to the pressures of others to conform to their own world views.
“To remember Antony,” Athanasius wrote in the Life, “is a great profit and assistance.” It remains so. In Antony, evangelical treasures, long hidden, remain to be found by those who follow him deeper and deeper into the country whose Lord and giver of life is the Spirit.
  1.  Augustine, Confessions, 7,6.
  2.  Augustine, De ordine, 2,10,28.
  3.  Georges Florovsky, Christianity and Culture (Belmont, Mass.: Nordland Publishing Co., 1974), p. 86.
  4.  Athanasius, The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcelinus, trans. Robert C. Gregg (New York: Paulist Press, 1980), p. 91.
  5.  E.g., ibid., 13, 35, 53, 79, 80.
  6.  Ibid., 10.
  7.  Ibid., 14.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Life recognized as a vocation - it is about being more and being whole

I came across a great article/homily by Fr Charles Klamut on life lived as vocation. I found myself nodding in agreement with much of his assessment and hope that you find it thought-provoking as well. 

The Vocation To Life

A few years ago, during a retreat for priests, Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete shared with us a story of his friend, Cardinal Angelo Scola.  When asked by a journalist about the shortage of vocations to the priesthood in Italy, Scola replied that the problem stemmed from a deeper crisis: the problem, he said, was that life itself is no longer seen as a vocation.
Albacete reflected on this insight for the next few days, calling it very important, explaining to us what he thought Scola was getting at.  The call to life is something given, something prior to our thoughts and schemes.  It’s even prior to the particular vocations like marriage and the priesthood.  We did not choose it; it’s just there. Within the human heart is a cry for life, real life, eternal life: life properly so-called.  The New Testament, using a more nuanced Greek vocabulary than our modern-day English, used multiple words for “life:”bios to refer to material, physical life; zoe to refer to a more comprehensive, metaphysical, all-encompassing life, such as the kind promised by Jesus. The heart cries for infinite life, not just bios, but zoe.  The heart cries for a freedom and happiness which, alas, we cannot give ourselves.  In short, the heart cries for God.
This call to life which our heart always hears, even if we don’t (affected as we are by reductionist cultural forces), is awakened and answered by the exceptional presence of Christ.  Jesus Christ is the infinite made visible and historical, the answer to the heart’s cry for life: “I came that they might have life, and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10).
Albacete spoke of the experience of the first apostles as recorded in the Scriptures.  For them, Christ provoked a total human awakening, provided a total human answer, not just a spiritual one.  From Christ’s first question to John and Andrew,
“What do you seek?” he was engaging them on the level of life itself.  Their response to his question was: “Where are you staying?”  This suggests their longing for a lasting place to be with him, to share life with him.  Only with time would the call of Christ reveal itself in its ecclesiastical specifics, as a logical extension of the vocation to life.
A number of priests at the retreat were puzzled that so much time was spent on the general theme of the call to life, and they were wondering when the specifics of the priesthood, such as the Eucharist, would be addressed.  Albacete insisted that the vocation to life, and subsequently, to Christianity, provided the solid foundation on which the vocation to the priesthood is built.  Without the former, the latter will be unstable and will eventually crumble, as we have all sadly seen so many times in recent years.
The retreat had a major impact on me and on many of the others present.  It challenged me to think more deeply about my entire life, not just my priesthood.  I was challenged to recall why I was moved to be a Christian in the first place, let alone a priest.  Looking at experiences along my way, I remembered how Christ really has, time and again, answered the cry of my heart.  In unexpected and exceptional ways, Christ has made it possible for me to live a free and human life, and has rescued me from confusion and despair, from the prison of my ego.  In this context, the specifics of the priesthood make sense. Like the apostles, I first said “yes” to Christ because of the total answer he provided for my human need, and only within this context did a specific vocation to serve as a priest gradually begin to reveal itself.
With the vocation to life as a defining principle, I began with excitement to notice a similar emphasis in Church teaching.  Consider the line from the Second Vatican Council, often quoted by Pope John Paul II:  “Christ, the new Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and his love, fully reveals man to himself and makes his supreme calling clear.”
Man is no longer a mystery, a stranger to himself.  Humanity now knows who he/she is and who God is, thanks to Christ.  Humanity now sees that life has meaning, that each of us has a “supreme calling.”
Pope Benedict XVI has advanced this theme in his own way, speaking repeatedly of the need for the Church to advance “a true humanism, which acknowledges that man is made in the image of God and wants to help him live in a way consonant with that dignity” (God is Love, 30). True humanism comes from Christ, because only Christ reveals man to himself, clarifying his supreme calling to life.  The Pope, like his predecessor, seems unwilling to consign salvation to heaven.  Rather, he seems eager to see the Kingdom arrive here and now, through the response of men and women to Christ’s call to life, bearing fruit in a true humanism of dignity and redemption.
Christians are the true humanists.  Perhaps it’s time to be bolder in asserting this. Turning to the Pope Benedict's encyclical, Charity in Truth, the vocation to life is discussed with great insight in the context of the development of peoples.  In an extended section discussing Pope Paul VI’s social teaching from forty years earlier, Pope Benedict reaffirms that progress and development cannot be reduced to the material plane, as, unfortunately, so often happens.  Development involves not just having more, but being more, including the “whole man.”
Pope Paul VI, says Pope Benedict, insisted on the link between the proclamation of Christ and the advancement of the individual in society (the humanism theme again).  Christ knows that man does not live on bread alone. Christ feeds man’s whole being with the Word of God, redeeming him, “developing” him, and thus enabling him, in turn, to contribute to the true development of others.  Pope Paul VI insisted that progress is, first and foremost, a vocation, a call initiated and made possible by God, saying that “in the design of God, every man is called upon to develop and fulfill himself, for every life is itself a vocation.
Continuing his discussion of Pope Paul VI and development, Pope Benedict says:
To regard development as a vocation is to recognize, on the one hand, that it derives from a transcendent call, and on the other hand that it is incapable, on its own, of supplying its ultimate meaning.  Not without reason, the word “vocation” is also found in another passage of the Encyclical (by Pope Paul VI), where we read: “There is no true humanism but that which is open to the Absolute, and is conscious of a vocation which gives human life its true meaning” (Charity in Truth, 16).
It’s interesting that the word “vocation” is repeatedly mentioned (dozens of times), yet it’s not linked here to specific vocations to marriage or priesthood, as is typical in Catholic discussions.  Instead, the word is used in an all-encompassing way: “being more,” “true humanism,” being called by God “to develop and fulfill himself.”  This is a surprisingly historical and human approach, and seems a far cry from the “pie in the sky when you die,” otherworldly type of salvation for which Marx so bitterly criticized Christianity.  The repeated references to “meaning” suggest the Pope’s deep awareness of the existential crisis that so many people face in recent times. This crisis saps the human spirit and thwarts development perhaps even more than material imbalances.  The Pope wishes to see every human being respond to the vocation to development and thus flourish; he wishes to see the development of the “whole man” and “every man.”  Who else in the world truly wants this?
When you experience something freeing and beautiful, love impels you to share it.  The approach I have mentioned thus far, from all I have seen, heard, and read, is something truly original and exceptional.  It has caused a paradigm shift in my own thinking, and an awareness of what it means to be a human, a Christian, and a priest.  This shift is of seismic proportions, providing clarity to my mission and a new zest for life.  It has made me feel more challenged and eager than ever, giving me a new way of looking at the future of the Church, to which I have pledged my life.
My human needs always precede my priesthood.  When I am struggling as a priest, it is a sign that I am struggling as a man.  The way Christ relates to me, looks at me, and saves me touches, on some deep, mysterious level, the recesses of my human heart. Deeper than my ecclesiastical vocation, he always reaches me at this human level, which, in turn, touches on my priesthood.  He reaches out to me primarily through his Church, most specifically through my friends.  As a friend recently said, “Treat friendship like the eighth sacrament—there you will understand the Church as the universal sacrament of salvation.”
The idea of life itself as a vocation puts the responsibility on each one of us to take this call seriously, and follow it, living out its implications in all their ensuing adventure.  It charges Christianity with a new energy and new focus.  It takes the emphasis off circumstances, putting it back onto my own reason and freedom, challenging me to seek out and follow what most moves me. It takes Christian life out of the confines of the sanctuary or church building and makes every detail of life significant and charged with meaning.   It provides a context within which more specific vocations take on perspective and focus.
In my experience as a priest, people are more confused and more desperate than ever to find meaning in life.  Unfortunately, many see their Christian faith as something to get them to heaven (hopefully) when they die, so long as they are “good.”  They do not see how faith makes their real life—here and now—better and happier, new and beautiful.  Some, especially the young, may speak earnestly about finding their “vocation.” But this is usually muddled and often means no more than finding a “soul mate” to make them happy, as the popular myth proposes, collapsing the vocation to life into the vocation to marriage, priesthood, etc.   Those concerned with “development” often zealously work for social justice, but fail to see how the care of people’s material needs connects to the needs of their heart. They end up offering, in spite of their good intentions, far too little.  Often priests seem to allow their self-awareness to be reduced to religious specialization.  These are fragmented people seeking fragmented goals.
In the midst of this turmoil and confusion, Cardinal Scola, Msgr. Albacete, and the recent popes insist that life is a “vocation.” This cuts to the core and returns us to the beginning, the first things that matter: the cry of the human heart for God.  Fr. Luigi Giussani once said, “The true protagonist of history is the beggar, Christ, who begs for man’s heart; and man’s heart, which begs for Christ.”  If ever there was a need for a new bunch of protagonists in the Church and in the world, it is now.
Today, Christian faith is often reduced to sentimentality or sectarianism, or a subjectively comforting ideology.  The idea of faith as knowledge of real, existing (if mysterious) things seems more and more foreign.  The connection of faith to reality and life seems farther than ever.  The irrelevance of faith to life seems more obvious than ever.  The casualties are people, and by extension, church, culture, and society.
“Life itself is no longer seen as a vocation,” said Cardinal Scola to the journalist.  “This is the real problem.”
What if the Church is right? What if there really is a vocation to life, a call from God to have life, and have it more abundantly, each and every day?  What if this vocation is really a call to an integral development, beginning with self and extending to “every man”? What if it is a call for the fulfillment of the “whole man”; a call not just to have more, but to be more? What if it is a call to a “true humanism”?  How might this change the way we live as Christians? It would seem, at the very least, to require a serious, ongoing response, engaging all our intelligence and freedom.  Imagine what the Church, and the world, might look like if a sizeable number, or even a handful, of people were behaving this way.
Well, it may mean that the cry of my heart for life is not absurd; that it is not to be suppressed, censored, or reduced to despair and resignation; nor should it be too painful to bear.  It may mean, instead, that the cry of my heart is beautiful, lovingly made and given by God—and answered.  It may point out that the meaning of my life is to answer the call that life itself makes.  It may mean that the infinite really has revealed itself in the person of Jesus, who really died and rose.  It may mean that a whole new horizon of possibility has opened.
Suddenly, being a Christian just became a lot more exciting.
avatarAbout Fr. Charles Klamut Fr. Charles Klamut was ordained in 1999 for the Diocese of Peoria, Illinois. He has served in parish and high school ministry. He is worked in campus ministry at St John's Catholic Newman Center at the University of Illinois and is currently pastor at St Ambrose Parish in Milan, Illinois. He is also a part-time chaplain at Alleman High School in Rock Island.