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.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Living in and for the "SOMETHING GREATER" - St Bonaventure

July 15th is the feast day of St Bonaventure, one of the pillars in the Franciscan Order. For St Bonaventure the ultimate destiny of the human being is to love God, to encounter him and to be united in His Love. For him this is the most satisfactory definition of our happiness.

Pope Benedict XVI spoke of St Bonaventure;

“A specific emphasis he gave to his theology is explained on the basis of the Franciscan charism. The "Poverello" of Assisi, notwithstanding the intellectual debates of his time, had shown with his whole life the primacy of love. He was a living icon of Christ in love with Christ and thus he made the figure of the Lord present in his time he did not convince his contemporaries with his words but rather with his life. In all St Bonaventure's works, precisely also his scientific works, his scholarly works, one sees and finds this Franciscan inspiration; in other words one notices that his thought starts with his encounter with the "Poverello" of Assisi.”

Throughout his writings he expressed this life inspired as a special gift of God and not attainable through some act of our own will. As the third pillar of the Franciscan Order (Francis and Clare being the other two) one finds the order more modest, more realistic, and yet always helping its members to come ever closer to revealing one's life as a living icon of Christ.

St Bonaventure goes further in his theology to express that this ascent towards living as an icon of Christ cannot be reached by reason only.  In the darkness of reason and intellect it is love that sees all. In all works of St Bonaventure one can marvel at his pointing toward something greater than mere words, as love goes beyond reason, it sees further, it enters more profoundly into God's mystery.

This morning at Mass at St Mary's Church, a Franciscan parish, Father Gregg read a brief excerpt from a favorite writing of mine:

In this passing over,
if it is to be perfect,
all intellectual activities must be left behind
and the height of our affection
must be totally transferred and transformed into God.
This, however, is mystical and most secret,
which “no one knows except him who receives it” (Rv 2,17)

If you should ask how these things come about,
question grace, not instruction;
desire, not intellect;
the cry of prayer, not pursuit of study;
the Bridegroom, not the teacher;
God, not man;
darkness, not clarity;
not light, but the wholly fire
which inflames and carries you aloft to God
with fullest unction and burning affection.

This fire is God,
and the furnace of this fire leads to Jerusalem;
and Christ the man kindles it
in the fervor of His burning Passion,
which he alone truly perceives who says,
"My soul chooses hanging and my bones death" [Job, 7, 15].

He who chooses this death can see God because this is indubitably true:
"Man shall not see me and live" [Exod., 33, 20].

Let us then die and pass over into darkness;
let us impose silence
upon our cares, our desires, and our phantasms (imaginings).

Let us pass over with the crucified Christ
from this world to the Father [John, 13, 1],
so that when the Father is shown to us
we may say with Philip:
"It is enough for us" [John, 14, 8];
let us hear with Paul:
"My grace is sufficient for thee" [II Cor., 12, 9];
let us exult with David, saying:
"My flesh and my heart have grown faint; Thou art the God of my heart, and portion forever" [Ps. 73, 26].
"Blessed be the Lord God of Israel from everlasting to everlasting; and let all the people say:
So be it, so be it! Amen! Hallelujah!" [Ps., 106, 48].

Everywhere in Bonaventure’s writings one is invited to be awaken by the One Reality: that there is something greater than... (myself) here. Reason has to be conquered by revelation. Contemplation can not stop on the first or second level, where the rational soul attempts to make sense of the outer world and itself. The true and final contemplation is when the soul sees beyond the outer world and itself; when it ascends with the whole of creation above itself. There IS Something Greater than... (myself) Here!