Monday, December 31, 2012

Fr. Barron comments on Effective Evangelization

I couldn't resist the opportunity to share this video. I'm becoming more and more a fan of Fr. Barron's short YouTube videos, but this one is one of my favorites. Whether you're Roman Catholic, Eastern or Oriental Catholic, or Eastern or Oriental Orthodox, it doesn't matter. If you want to evangelize the culture around you effectively you MUST allow the joy of friendship with Christ to shine through you. You must be transparent so that the light of Christ can shine through you onto others.

I've often found that Roman Catholics, in their efforts to evangelize, are too focused on apologetics (which in many areas have become little more than winning debates), ethics, or dogmatic teaching. Many Easterners say that Roman Catholics need to get their Liturgy right and then their efforts at evangelization will be more effective. But I find that oftentimes Easterners rely too much on the beauty of their liturgical services (and they are beautiful) to evangelize. What needs to happen among both Catholics - Eastern and Western - and Orthodox is that we need to radiate the joy of Christ in our lives. It's wonderful if our liturgies are beautiful, but if we ourselves are not joyful then no amount of beautiful artwork or chant is going to bring this culture to Christ. It's also wonderful to share the dogmatic and ethical teachings of our Faith, but if people don't see the joy in us that flows from our Faith in the Blessed Trinity the no amount of apologetic debates is going to bring this culture to the Triune God that loves us infinitely.

As Fr. Barron says, our joy flows from our relationship with Christ. This is why the topic of Christian spirituality is so important for our day and age, and it is why this blog exists. Let us enter more deeply into relationship in Christ, then we can go out and invite others to "come and see" why we are as joyful as we are. May heaven consume us!

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Christ is born! God is Revealed!

This Christmas season the liturgical texts of the Byzantine and Maronite Churches have reminded me of an aspect of Eastern spirituality that I have always found particularly appealing; that is, the unknowability of God. By this we do not mean, of course, that we can in no way come to know anything of God or about God. God has revealed Himself to us through creation, His actions throughout history, and most particularly through Salvation History as revealed in the Scriptures. The fulness of God's revelation has come to us in the Person of Jesus Christ, whose birth we are currently celebrating (incidentally the Byzantines celebrate Christ's birth not for twelve days or until Epiphany, but until the feast of the Presentation in the Temple on February 2). No, what we mean by the unknowability of God is the impossibility of human language and human concepts to fully grasp and communicate the infinite mystery of God. Every Sunday in the anaphora of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom before recounting God's deeds in creation and redemption the priest (and through him we the people) prays:

"IT IS FITTING AND RIGHT to sing to You, to bless You, to praise You, to give thanks to You, to worship You in every place of your dominion: for You are God, beyond description, beyond understanding, invisible, incomprehensible, always existing, always the same; You and your only-begotten Son and your Holy Spirit."

We are reminded here that words cannot suffice to describe God, intellectual concepts cannot fully grasp him, nor can the eye of the mind see or understand God in His essence. The Scriptures remind us that God's ways are not our ways, that no man can look on the face of God and live, that only the Son knows the Father, and those to whom the Son reveals Him.

In the Maronite tradition the texts of Safro/Morning Prayer remind us of this unknowability of God. In the Sedro we pray:

"Son of God, Word and image of the Father, his only begotten and well-beloved Son, you are the infant that neither mind can encompass, nor the spirit comprehend, wisdom fathom, science know, nor knowledge reveal. No description can portray you, O Lord, no name name you, no language explain you, no lips pronounce you."

Such a message, in my opinion, is extremely important for our day and age. We live in an age where we want nothing but forensic, scientific, "factual" knowledge. If something cannot be weighed, measured, calculated, dissected, poked, and prodded, then it is either not real, or its truth is relative. Even within the Church there is this strong desire for such "forensic" knowledge. In my experience the Churches of both East and West, Catholic and Orthodox, have emphasized often their own theological positions to such an extent that God seems little more than a concept, an intellectual exercise, or a list of dogmatic beliefs.

What the liturgical texts of this Christmas season teach us is that God is not a list of philosophical or dogmatic truths that we have come to believe. Nor is He something that scientific study can analyze. Rather, "God is the Lord, and has revealed Himself to us!" as we pray every Sunday in the Byzantine tradition. God is a Person, or rather a Trinity of Persons, that we come to know through personal encounter. This personal encounter with God is only possible because God has first sought us out and revealed Himself to us. He loves us so much that in creating us He desired to be in relationship with us, to know us and to be known by us. Do we not read, after all, that when God first created Adam and Eve He used to walk with them in the garden, conversing with them in the cool of the evening! Although we lost this intimacy with God through our own sinfulness, He has always sought us out and sought to restore that intimacy, that ability to converse with Him face-to-face as with a friend.

When God revealed His name, YHWH, to Moses He revealed also His deep love for us. We often translate YHWH as meaning "I am who am," or "I am who I am." This translation is fraught with Greek philosophical concepts. YHWH is translated into Greek as "ho on" meaning, "I am the one who is," or "I am the essence of being itself." This of course is true. But it actually fails to accurately translate the Hebrew YHWH. YHWH means active being or active presence. According to Fr. John Custer the best translation of the Hebrew would be, "I will be there as who I am." Fr. John says,

"What God went on to promise Moses is that He would be actively present in the lives of His people..."

Fr. George Maloney also speaks of this active presence of God in his book Bright Darkness: Jesus - Lover of Mankind. The point is that God is not an abstract being, somewhere "up there." Rather God is actively among us, always with us, always present to us. Are we present to Him?

This is especially true in this Christmas season where we celebrate the birth of the Word of God made flesh. As Archbishop Joseph Raya likes to point out in so many of his writings, the ultimate revelation of a person is the revelation of a person's face. Through Jesus' birth God has revealed His face to us! If, as Jesus said, the eyes are the lamp of the soul, then by looking into the human eyes of Christ we behold the very soul, the very heart of God! God is not abstract, He is not a list of dogmas that we believe in. No, God is a living Trinity of Persons that is constantly inviting us to join in their dance of love. Dogmas are, of course, important. But relationship is even more important. While dogmatic knowledge of God is foundational for our relationship with Him, we must be humble about dogma and admit that it does not say everything that there is to say about God. We can ultimately only come to know God by moving beyond dogma into the realm of the "bright dazzling darkness" or the "dark night of faith" where all concepts are laid aside and we simply behold God in awe and wonder. May heaven consume us!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Another Prayer Rule!

Hi Everyone,

I'm sorry I've been absent for some time. My family and I just moved from the Northern Virginia area to the Northern Kentucky area (Greater Cincinnati). The move has been quite an adventure, but my wife and I are both very happy with it because we're in a much better place and we're closer to family here. It's nice to be back in the area that I grew up in - albeit on the Kentucky side of that area.

Another happy circumstance that came from the move is that I've stumbled across another prayer rule focused on the Jesus Prayer. I found this rule in the prayer book Let Us Pray to the Lord: Volume 1, Daily Office published by Eastern Christian Publications. This is an excellent little prayer book that I highly recommend, especially to those who are interested in the Slavic (Ukrainian, Russian, Carpatho-Russyn/Ruthenian and, to some extent, Romanian) usage of the Byzantine tradition. Although my favorite prayer book is still the Publican's Prayer Book put out by the Melkite Greek Catholic Eparchy of Newton, I find Let Us Pray to the Lord to be a wonderful source of prayer as well, particularly if you'd prefer a prayer rule that is more centered around the Divine Office/Liturgy of the Hours.

Towards the back of the book there are a couple pages on the Jesus Prayer, including a short rule intended for monastic use, but certainly usable/adaptable for the purposes of us lay folk as well. The rule itself comes from the typical edition of the Casoslav/Horologion published originally in 1950 in Rome as part of the historic Ruthenian Recension. The Recension is a very interesting multi-volume liturgical publication that was the result of years of turmoil within the Slavic-Byzantine Catholic Churches as they struggled between a desire to cling to "Latinizations" on the one hand, and a desire to restore the authentic Byzantine tradition on the other. One of my personal heroes, Metropolitan Andrew Sheptytsky, was at the center of the turmoil, fighting tooth and nail to restore authentic Eastern praxis. The Recension was Rome's response to the turmoil after being asked to intervene. Interestingly, the result was a recension so "purified" of Latin influence that it was/is used among the Orthodox in the Slavic lands as well.

But setting aside the background of the Recension itself, the book provides the following simple rule for the Jesus Prayer:

After making the Sign of the Cross, each of the following prayers are said with accompanying prostrations:

O God, be merciful to me, a sinner!

O God, cleanse me of my sins, and have mercy on me!

O Lord, You are my Creator, have mercy on me!

O Lord, forgive me, for I have sinned without number.

Then we pray:

O Virgin Lady, Theotokos (Mother of God), save me!

My holy guardian angel, protect me from all harm!

Holy (your patron saint), pray to God for me.

Then we pray the Jesus Prayer 100 times. If there are divider beads on your prayer rope, one would pray "Most Holy Theotokos (Mother of God), save us!" on those beads.

The beauty of such a simple rule is its ease of adaptation. One could just as easily pray 33, 50, 100, 150, or even 300 Jesus Prayers with such a simple rule. It is also an easy rule to memorize since all the prayers are so short. I actually find this rule to be much easier to perform and adapt than the Rule of St. Pachomius I posted some time back.

The only thing I find wanting in this simple rule is the lack of closing prayers. I like to have closure at the end of my prayer rule. Such a lack is easily remedied, however. I just simply pray:

"It is truly meet to bless you, O Theotokos. You are ever-blessed and all-blameless, and the Mother of our God. Higher in honor than the Cherubim, and more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim. You who without corruption did bear God the Word. You are truly Theotokos, we magnify you."

And then:

"Through the prayers + of our holy fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us."

It's simple, it's easily remembered, it is adaptable! I'm quite pleased to have rediscovered this little rule and will be using it much more often from here on out. May heaven consume us!

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Custom-Made Mequtaria

The following pictures are of a custom-made mequtaria that I did for a customer. It is a 41 knot mequtaria (including the joining knot) divided with a bead every 10 knots. Originally he wanted it with purple beads, but I didn't have any available so he said the white(ish) beads would be just fine. Enjoy! :)

Friday, December 7, 2012

A Roman Catholic's Journey to Eastern Catholicism: Part 4 The Journey Continues

Shortly after my official introduction to the Byzantine tradition in Michigan my wife and I moved to Northern Virginia so that I could pursue graduate studies in psychology (for various reasons those studies were quickly abandoned). Before we moved, however, I made sure that there was at least one Byzantine parish in the area. In fact, there are several. The one that we began attending regularly is called "Holy Epiphany of Our Lord Byzantine (Ruthenian) Catholic Church." We attended Liturgy there for the first several months after our move, and I came to know the pastor and a number of parishioners, all of them wonderful people. It was here that my prayer rope-making business really got a good start. The pastor noticed my rope, and when it came out that I had made it he asked if I'd be willing to make one for him as well. He kept saying over and over that my ropes were "like the old ropes" where the knots were separated instead of being all squished together like the majority of today's prayer ropes. After I made a rope for him he excitedly showed it to a number of folks, and it wasn't long before the parish bookstore started carrying my ropes as well. I also made a rope for a visiting Jesuit priest who had been learning to celebrate the Divine Liturgy in order to gain bi-ritual faculties and help out some of the local Byzantine parishes.

During one of my conversations with the pastor in the sacristy a gentleman walked in and began chatting with us. The pastor quickly showed him his new prayer rope that I'd made, and the gentleman, being very impressed, asked if I'd make one for him as well. I was very happy to do so. While we were chatting it came out that I was looking for a job because my wife, who was seven months pregnant at the time, had just undergone surgery and I'd just dropped out of graduate school in order to find a job to support my family. It turns out that the gentleman was none other than Jack Figel, founder and owner of "Eastern Christian Publications" in Fairfax, VA. He had been looking for some help with the publishing company and I quickly accepted his offer. A couple of days later I embarked upon a journey that has all but solidified my identification as an Eastern Catholic.

Working at Eastern Christian Publications was life-changing for me. I had access to tons of books and articles on the Christian East (both Catholic and Orthodox), her theology, spirituality, tradition, etc. I also came to a deeper understanding of the problems and struggles of ecumenical relations between Catholics and Orthodox, as well as the struggles for identity among Eastern Catholics and what their role in the Catholic Church as a whole ought to be. What was truly amazing for me, however, was the hours and hours I got to spend shooting and editing video footage of guest lecturers such as the leading Byzantine liturgical scholar, Fr. Robert Taft, S.J., or professor of iconology at St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, Prof. Richard Schneider, and folks of similar dynamism. I was also privileged to edit hours and hours of video footage by Met. Kallistos Ware, Fr. David Anderson, Archpriest Lawrence Cross, Met. Jonah (former Metropolitan of the Orthodox Church in America), Fr. Maximos Davies, and others. Being able to listen to and absorb their wisdom and experience, as well as reading some of the works of folks like Archbishop Elias Zoghby and Fr. Cyril Korolevsky, really formed my love and understanding of the Byzantine tradition. For me, these experiences brought the tradition to life in a way that, I believe, would've taken decades of study otherwise. I'm very grateful for the time that I spent working at Eastern Christian Publications, and I whole-heartedly recommend any and all of their publications to both Catholics and Orthodox alike.

Shortly after I began working at Eastern Christian Publications I had occasion to attend the local Melkite Greek Catholic parish in McLean, VA. The parish is called "Holy Transfiguration Melkite Greek Catholic Church." I'd known about the parish prior to moving to Virginia because of the search I'd done for Byzantine parishes online. I'd always intended on checking the parish out once we got settled because of my curiosity about the Melkite tradition ignited by the lecture I'd listened to by Bishop Nicolas Samra on the Jesus Prayer. Unfortunately it took a number of months for us to get settled, and it wasn't until just a week or two before Christmas in 2008 that I was able to attend my first Divine Liturgy there. I was immediately blown away by both the celebration of the Liturgy itself, and the strength and warmth of the community there. It wasn't long before my wife and I officially became parishioners. We've been attending there ever since. Both of our children have been baptized, chirsmated, and communicated into that parish, and if I could I would have the same for all of our future children. What working at Eastern Christian Publications did for me on an intellectual level, Holy Transfiguration solidified and raised it up to a more spiritual level. What I'd learned from the metropolitans, bishops, priests, monks, and scholars through conversation became experiential through participation in Holy Transfiguration's rich liturgical life and the love with which the Liturgy is celebrated there.

Now that my wife and I are preparing to move from the Northern Virginia area back home to my beloved Greater Cincinnati area, I'm going to feel the loss of the community at Holy Transfiguration most keenly. There is no Melkite parish in the Cincinnati area, and the closest parish that celebrates the Byzantine tradition is a small mission out in Dayton, Ohio. Most likely we will not be able to make it out there. But I do look forward to broadening my perspective on the traditions of the East after our move. There is a Maronite Catholic parish in Cincinnati which we plan on checking out and, possibly, making our home parish. If I had my way, however, there would be a Melkite parish in Cincinnati some time in the next few years.

Perhaps as my pilgrimage to the East continues I may post some of my experiences in the Maronite tradition and the great insights that that tradition has to offer us. In the meantime I will remain a Byzantine at heart and will look forward to the day that some sort of Byzantine parish is firmly established in Cincinnati. May heaven consume us.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

A Roman Catholic's Journey to Eastern Catholicism: Part 3 The Jesus Prayer

While in Ann Arbor, two other circumstances - or perhaps encounters is a better word - fostered my journey into Eastern Catholicism. Actually the two are almost inseparably related. Mr. Richard Marquis, twin brother of Byzantine priest Fr. Joseph Marquis, gave me a talk on CD about the Jesus Prayer. The talk was presented at Sacred Heart Ruthenian Catholic Church by Bishop Nicholas Samra (now Eparch of the Melkite Greek Catholic Eparchy of Newton). Thus was fostered my introduction both to the spirituality of the Jesus prayer, as well as to the Melkites.

Bishop Nicholas' talk had a deep impact on me. I had heard of the Jesus Prayer before, but had only been given a vague description. With all this talk about breathing techniques and whatever else that are often associated with the Jesus Prayer, I simply presumed that it was some sort of modern pseudo-New Age style of prayer being adapted for Catholic use (like "centering" prayer). Little did I realize that the Jesus Prayer was such an ancient and traditional way of prayer. Bishop Nicholas' talk served to clear up all my misconceptions about the prayer. There were still a few problems that I had, but mostly in terminology. Sayedna (an affectionate name used among the Melkites to refer to their bishops) spoke about God's "energies" and allowing those energies to penetrate us. The only other place I'd heard any talk about "energy" was from my wife, who was studying massage therapy at the time. I immediately began to associate that with some sort of New Age drivel. But, I thought, perhaps Sayedna was speaking of "energies" within a certain context. I decided it would be best if I looked more deeply into the Eastern/Byzantine understanding of this word.

Since listening to that talk, the Jesus Prayer has become my constant companion. I grew up in an environment that fostered a strong devotion to the Holy Name. As a young boy my brother read a booklet on devotion to the Holy Name, then promptly wrote the name of "Jesus" on little scraps of paper and taped it to the doors of every room in our house. Every morning when I'd wake up and leave my bedroom I would see the name of Jesus and be reminded to breathe out my first prayer of the day. Studying the life of St. Francis of Assisi also instilled in me a great devotion to the name of Jesus. He had such a strong devotion to Jesus' name that he would lick his lips any time he would say it, because the sweetness of Jesus' name tasted like honey on his lips. There were also stories about how Jesus' name had been worn out of the Bible that St. Francis used because he would kiss the name anywhere he would see it printed. I was also taught to bow or make the Sign of the Cross any time I would hear or say the name of Jesus. I was also taught to whisper a prayer any time someone would take that precious name in vain.

During my time in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, one thing that always really stuck out to me was the strong devotion to Jesus' name, and the strong sense of its power. I remember standing at prayer meetings during intervals in the music when everyone would just simply whisper words of praise, thanksgiving, adoration, and worship to God. The most common praise given was the lovingly whispered name of Jesus. Friends of mine would seem to be drawn almost into an ecstasy simply from lovingly and attentively repeating Jesus' name. For me, repeating the name at prayer meetings always seemed to refocus my prayer on the person of Jesus himself rather than on what I was experiencing during those times of intense and very emotional prayer.

So this introduction to the Jesus Prayer was, for me, the continuation of a long process that had begun early in my life. I was shocked to learn that certain breathing methods and other physical methods associated with the Jesus Prayer had absolutely no connections to the New Age movements, but were actually very ancient methods of prayer used by some of the greatest mystics of the Christian East.

Shortly after listening to the talk I decided to order my first "chotki," or "prayer rope." It was made by the monks if St. Isaac Skete, who are more well-known for producing mounted reproductions of various icons, as well as painting their own icons. When the rope arrived I was surprised by the simplicity of the design. It was simple wool with a couple of plastic beads. That's it! I thought to myself, "I wonder if I could make one of these." I had grown up making traditional style rosaries using beads and wire, as well as the plastic "missionary" rosaries made from plastic beads and knotted strings. A quick YouTube search produced one video on tying the traditional knot used for making prayer ropes - the knot is known as the "Angelic Knot" because it was supposedly taught to St. Pachomius by the Archangel Gabriel. I spent hours and hours sitting in front of that video, watching it closely, examining every move, then going over to a website to read instructions and again examine every move. I made every mistake I possibly could've, so that by the time I had my first knot tied I had the entire process memorized. It took me at least two hours to tie my first knot. From there I kept practicing, tying knot after knot until I had finally made my first prayer rope. I still have that little rope. It's a 33 knot rope and isn't bad for a first attempt. I keep it tucked away in a drawer along with a few other prayer ropes as a reminder of how God has blessed me with this gift of being able to make prayer ropes. Every now and then I like to pull it out and prayerfully finger it, letting the knots pass through my fingers and quietly whispering the name of Jesus, thanking him for this gift.

It was also from the talk given by Bishop Nicholas that I first heard of the Melkites. Previously I had only known about the Ruthenian Greek Catholics, who are more commonly known in the U.S. simply as the "Byzantine Catholic Church." I had thought that they were the only Eastern Catholics, other than the Maronites, and was surprised to learn, therefore, that there was also this group called the "Melkites." At one point in the talk Bishop Samra simply chanted "Lord, have mercy" in a traditional Byzantine tone (the same way the Greek Orthodox would chant it). That chant had an almost haunting effect on me. I wanted to hear more. I decided I needed to check out these "Melkites" at some point. I would be afforded that opportunity when my wife and I moved to the Washington, D.C. area (shortly after we discovered that she was pregnant with our first child!).

Friday, November 30, 2012

The Arena: St. Ignatius Briachaninov's Councils on Prayer: Part 2 Attention

Returning to our series of meditations on The Arena by St. Ignatius Brianchaninov, today I want to pick up his theme of attention at prayer.

With attention, prayer becomes the inalienable property of the person praying; in the absence of attention, it is extraneous to the person praying. With attention it bears abundant fruit; without attention, it produces thorns and thistles.

St. Ignatius provides us here with both encouragement and warning. Prayer is necessary and, in a sense, mandatory for all Christians - for what is Christianity if not relationship with God, and what is prayer if not conversation with God? Relationships without conversation quickly die and become little more than a distant memory. Likewise Christianity without prayer quickly loses its true essence and becomes little more than one philosophy among many instead of the relationship that it is meant to be. But, as our Savior warns us, when we pray we must not heap up vain words. If we pray without attention to the words and to God's loving presence, then we are doing little more than heaping up vain words. As Fr. Dimitru Staniloue said, when we pray without attentiveness we are doing nothing more than talking to ourselves.

Prayer without attention becomes a pathway to egotism, neuroses, self-esteem, and a pharisaical attitude. Instead of regarding all others as angels and one's self as the only sinner among angels, the complete opposite happens. We begin to regard ourselves as the angels and all others as sinners. All meekness and humility disappears and we are left with nothing but our own pride and vanity. When the Fathers warn us of the potential for spiritual delusion, this is what they are talking about.

Attentiveness at prayer leads to meekness and humility, to that attitude that all others and angels and I myself am the only sinner. Such attentiveness, however, is a gift from God and we must await it and pray for it in hopeful expectation that, in His own time, God will grant it. When the gift is given prayer becomes something that wells up from within us, not something exterior to us that we have to force ourselves to do. That being said, however, until such a time as true prayer is given we must force ourselves to pray, to keep our prayer rule daily and to force our attention to remain with God in prayer. This is very difficult to do. As St. Ignatius points out:

Fallen spirits, knowing the power of prayer and its beneficial effect, endeavor by all possible means to divert us from it, prompting us to use the time assigned to prayer for other occupations; or else they try to annul it and profane it with mundane distractions and sinful inattention, by producing at the time of prayer a countless swarm of earthly thoughts, sinful daydreams and reveries, imaginings and fantasies.

During my own prayer time I know that my mind is often in a million other places and not always with God. I am distracted by what I have to do at work that day, what my goals are for my future life and for my family. I am often distracted with worry for my wife and children, or finances, or political situations. I often even find myself distracted by seemingly holy thoughts; maybe I should pursue a vocation to the married priesthood, or perhaps I could help promote Eastern Christianity in another way, or perhaps I should go on the road and give talks introducing people to the Eastern Christian tradition and encouraging them in the ways of the Jesus Prayer, etc., etc., etc. Such thoughts are nothing more than distractions, temptations meant to divert my attention from the true task at hand.

It is also not uncommon for folks to be tempted by lustful thoughts during prayer. The Fathers of the Philokalia mention this peculiarity, as does St. Theophan the Recluse. A key to dealing with such temptations is to give them no power. Certain Fathers use the image of a fly buzzing around the room (for me a mosquito is more to the point). Temptations have no power to distract us unless we allow them to, just like a fly (or mosquito) buzzing around the room can do us no harm and is really more a nuisance than anything. Even St. Teresa of Avila spoke of simply ignoring temptations when they arose during prayer and simply continuing on with prayer as you normally would. I've found that occasionally it can be helpful to talk to God about my temptations when they arise during prayer, in that way turning the temptation itself into a prayer and making my prayer time itself more "conversational."

But what does St. Ignatius tell us? How can we maintain a certain level of attentiveness at prayer? He divides attentiveness into two categories: "wrapped attention" or undistracted prayer, and "artificial attention." The first I mentioned above as a gift of God beyond our power to gain. For some it is given almost immediately, and for others it only comes after years of suffering and toil in prayer. The second is well within our means to attain if we are willing to put in the work. St. Ignatius tells us:

Especially helpful in holding the attention during prayer is an extremely unhurried pronunciation of the words of the prayer... so that the mind may quite easily stay enclosed in the words of the prayer, and not slip say from a single word. Say the words in an audible voice when you pray alone; this also helps to hold the attention.

I find praying audibly to be very effective for holding my attention, and I typically do this while I'm driving to work as that's the only alone time that I really get throughout the day. Audible prayer is effective first because you have to put the effort into speaking the words, and then also you hear the words being pronounced. Oftentimes when my mind starts to drift despite the fact that I'm praying audibly I find it helpful to sing the Jesus Prayer - St. Augustine tells us that "he who sings prays twice" after all.

So, slow steady pronunciation, wrapping the mind in the words of the prayer and focusing on their meaning, an attentive and loving awareness of God's presence; these are all means of "artificial attentiveness" at prayer. It is hard work. Even the Fathers admit that. We will fall. We will get distracted. Sometimes we may even set aside our prayer time completely to pursue other activities (I know I've been guilty of this). But the point is that we ought not to be cast down when this happens. Simply repent. Ask God's forgiveness for your weakness. Beg His aid and ask Him to bestow the strength and perseverance necessary to pray. Above all, ask in hopeful expectation for the "wrapped attention" in prayer, even if it takes years and years for such attention to be given. The journey may be long and arduous, but to goal is worth the sweat and blood. May heaven consume us!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

A Roman Catholic's Journey to Eastern Catholicism: Part 2 God's Voice Thunders!

After moving up to Ann Arbor I took a job working at a Catholic bookstore. I loved the work in part because of the people - both the other employees as well as the folks that would come into the store - and because of the books that surrounded me on a daily basis. I loved being able to pick up a book from the Catholic tradition and just browse around for tidbits of spiritual wisdom. I didn't realize it at the time, but one of the authors we carried, Fr. George Maloney, S.J., was a Russian Catholic priest who converted to Orthodoxy just prior to his death. Fr. Maloney was a strong voice for Eastern/Byzantine Catholic spirituality in the U.S. and worked tirelessly to join together Eastern Spirituality with the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. His writings are definitely worth reading as they are both tradition and a breath of fresh air. It was also while working at this bookstore that I picked up a copy of The Way of the Pilgrim, a book that has become all but required reading as an introduction into the spirituality of the Jesus Prayer.

While living in Ann Arbor I attended "Christ the King" Roman Catholic Church. This was the parish into which my wife had been baptized as a child, and where she had received her First Communion and been Confirmed. It was also the parish from which we were married. To this day I still consider "Christ the King" to be one of my spiritual homes. It was here that I learned to focus more on an experiential and personal relationship with God rather than a strictly intellectual relationship. All the studying I had done in college, all the "head-knowledge" I had gained through that study, had the chance to really sink in. I learned to allow what I had learned in college to penetrate from my head to my heart so that God became for me less of an intellectual idea and more of a living Reality; the only living Reality. In many ways I consider this the core of Catholic Charismatic spirituality, and it is a primary theme in Byzantine spirituality. Hans Urs von Balthasar once said that the most appropriate posture for the theologian was to kneel: "Theology ought to be done on one's knees," he is known as having said. This echoes the words of Evagrios Ponticus (I believe it was him) who said, "A theologian is one who prays truly, and if you pray truly you are a theologian." St. John of Krondstadt and other Orthodox saints are always talking about learning of God through experience, through encounter, through personal contact and relation. Books and head-knowledge are great, but they are a means, not the end. The end, the goal, is to encounter God, to experience His living presence within us, in our lives, in the world around us. Without this encounter we run the risk of reducing God to a syllogism and thus constructing an idol for ourselves.

There was another aspect of "Christ the King" that has always stuck with me. In their Perpetual Adoration chapel - a chapel that I frequented on my walks to and from work - there was a very large icon of Christ Enthroned. I was later to learn that this icon was actually a replica of an icon painted by Andrei Rublev, the great Russian iconographer whose most famous work is the icon of the Trinity, more properly called the "Hospitality of Abraham." I spent hours gazing at this icon in the Presence of the great "Icon of the West," the exposed Eucharist. There were times when I felt guilty for spending more time gazing at the icon rather than at the Sacrament, but after a talk with my spiritual father on the matter I felt more at ease. It was he who first told me that the exposed Sacrament is the great "Icon of the West." I needn't be concerned because one way or another I was in the Presence of Christ, whether mediated through the icon or through the great Icon.

For me, however, there was a great peace that came simply through gazing at that icon. I felt as though Christ were looking back at me with love and mercy as I looked at him enthroned in glory. The power and majesty of Christ, and the holy fear that that instills, that was depicted with the Cherubim and Seraphim soaring around and holding up Christ's throne was somehow softened by the loving gaze that poured forth from the icon, a gaze made all the more real by Christ's true Presence in front of me. I have since carried a holy card with that icon on it, and I keep one in my prayer books. If I am praying somewhere without icons today, I make sure to have that icon with me in order to feel Christ's presence and gaze again into those eyes. I suppose it was here as well as in that chapel in Austria that I learned a central theme in iconography and iconology, that icons themselves mediate a presence, a divine reality.

All of this was going on and I still had not attended my first Byzantine Divine Liturgy. Thinking back on it now it really does seem as though God was preparing me to receive the Byzantine tradition as my own, my home. By the time I experience my first Divine Liturgy, it felt completely natural and familiar. But we'll come to that in a moment.

I always looked forward to Saturdays while I was working at the bookstore. Nine times out of ten I could expect either Fr. Joseph Marquis or his identical twin brother, Richard, to show up. Frequently they would show up together, then I knew I was in for a fun afternoon. Fr. Joseph was a "convert" to Byzantine Catholicism from Roman Catholicism, and his brother Richard, a wonderful man, remains Roman Catholic, but with a deep and genuine love of the East. Week after week they would come in and ask me when I was going to come out to Fr. Joe's parish in Detroit, "Sacred Heart Ruthenian Catholic Church." Week after week my response was the same, "I'm waiting for my wife to come with me." Finally one Sunday, my wife being sick and in bed, I decided to head up to Detroit on my own. As I stepped inside "Sacred Heart" the same at-home feeling that I'd experienced in that chapel in Austria returned. I felt as though I'd been there before, as though I'd grown up there.

The deacon's son had grown up with my wife and was a life-long friend of hers. I sat next to him at my first Divine Liturgy and just sort of watched and mimicked what he did. For awhile I tried to follow along in the green book, but eventually gave up and just tried to absorb what was happening around me. When the deacon sung out, "Reverend father, give the blessing," and Fr. Joe responded, "Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and forever," I was immediately enthralled and taken up into that Kingdom. The thing that has always stood out to me most was Fr. Joseph's voice; it was deep and booming, like the voice of God thundering out of the sanctuary. His voice was full of love and reverence, but also full of power. Although I'm sure Fr. Joseph doesn't have an angry bone in his body, his voice was one that would instill fear if it were ever raised in anger. Love and compassion, power and might; to me this voice always echoes in my head and makes me think of our heavenly Father.

I honestly remember little of the Liturgy itself from that day. I just remember feeling as though I were in another world, but a world that was somehow familiar, somehow home. Later that week the deacon's wife came into the bookstore and we fell into talking. It came out that I wasn't Byzantine at all and that that had been my first Divine Liturgy. She was shocked and said that watching me she thought I had grown up Byzantine, like I had been attending Divine Liturgy my entire life.

The next week I took a couple of friends up there with me. Again I was right at home. It took some time before I was finally able to get my wife to come, but she very much liked it when she finally made it there. For her, however, it took a bit more time for the Byzantine tradition to become home. It wasn't until we moved to the Washington, D.C. area that we together embraced the tradition in its Melkite expression.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Arena: St. Ignatius Briachaninov's Councils on Prayer: Part 1 Preparation

This is the first part of a planned series of meditations on St. Ignatius Brianchaninov's councils on prayer from his book The Arena. I'm not yet sure how long this series will be. As of right now I'm planning on doing one meditation per chapter that he has explicitly devoted to the practice of prayer. We'll have to wait and see what happens though. Who knows. I could find that there's a lot more to say than I think there is. :)

St. Ignatius' first chapter is devoted to preparation for prayer. In this chapter he isn't caught up so much in the "practical" concerns of preparation - setting up an icon corner, preparing prayer texts, meditating on Scripture passages, etc. Rather he's concerned more with preparing one's very self, one's life, for prayer; he calls this a "disposition of the soul." With this in mind there are a number of essential attitudes that St. Ignatius lists as being a necessary preliminary to our actual prayer time.

He tells us that in order to pray properly and in a way pleasing to the Lord we must first reject attitudes of resentment and condemnation of our neighbors. This I find particularly pertinent to the practice of the Jesus Prayer. After all, one of the New Testament passages from which we derive the Jesus Prayer is the story of the Pharisee and the Publican. In that story we see the Pharisee standing before God and singing his own praises, even to the point of thanking God that he is not like other sinners, particularly the publican that stood off in the distance begging God's mercy. The attitude of the Pharisee here is the exact attitude that St. Ignatius is warning us against, and it is an attitude all too easy for us to fall into throughout our daily lives, as those of us who spend any amount of time in the secular world can attest to. We see around us folks who have no problems with alcohol and drug abuse, elicit sex lives, and overall general immorality and it's easy for us to condemn them. From my own experience I find it rather easy to be resentful when I see immoral people prospering and their ways seeming to be "blessed" when I myself struggle to even scratch out a decent living. But remember what St. Ignatius said about considering all others to be angels and yourself to be the only sinner among angels. We must leave no room for resentment and condemnation.

Secondly St. Ignatius tells us that we must have a contrite and repentant attitude. The reality is that we do sin. We do become resentful and condemnatory of others. We allow ourselves to be distracted at prayer. We forget God's presence. Because of this we need to cultivate penthos, an attitude of true repentance and contrition in our hearts. In Byzantine spirituality there is a strong emphasis on tears, whether physical tears or "tears of the heart." These tears are representative of our sorrow for our sins and failings. St. Ignatius tells us, "assist your prayer by sorrow of heart, sighs from the depth of your soul, and abundant tears." For men in particular this may be particularly hard to do. In general we have a hard time weeping over anything, let alone something that seems so abstract as "sin." But when we come the realization that sin is not the breaking of an arbitrary moral code, but rather the fracturing of an all-important relationship, then tears may become a little easier. For those of us who are married you know how hard it is knowing that you have done something that has greatly offended and hurt your spouse. There is this sense that you have let your spouse down and done something that has caused them a great deal of emotional distress. I, for one, can't stand to see my wife weeping over something that I did wrong. It tears me apart on the inside. I remember too when I was growing up I used to get disciplined rather frequently. It wasn't the discipline so much that hurt, as seeing my mother weeping over having to punish me. It was hard to realize just how much I had let her down. Such things do represent a very real fracture in relationships. Do we think of this when we sin? Do we realize that we are neglecting the one relationship that matters the most? We were created out of love and our lives were given to us as a gift. We need not be here. God need not have created us. And yet, here we are. Any sin we commit, any offense against God, is not a mere breaking of a moral code. Rather, it is a very real rejection of a fundamental relationship that we have to God as our Creator, and most importantly, as our loving Father, our Redeemer, and our Life-Giver.

This actually brings us to the third attitude or disposition that St. Ignatius says we must have in preparation for prayer. We must cultivate an attitude of thankfulness, gratitude. We live in a society that has a very strong sense of entitlement. We believe that we deserve and are entitled to certain things, and God help the world if we don't get those things. But think back again to the fact that God created us from nothing and need not have created us at all! Our life itself is a gift! Are we grateful for this gift? Are we grateful for the things that God has provided for us in order to sustain the gift of life? Are we grateful above all for the spiritual gifts that God has given us in order to sustain us, particularly the Church and Her Sacraments? Spirituality is often defined very vaguely in our day and age. People somehow believe that they can be "spiritual" without being "religious," or that they don't need Church, they can just sit at home and pray on Sundays. This is a failure to recognize the gifts that God has given us to sustain our spiritual lives. We need to learn to cultivate a "eucharistic" attitude. Eucharist, in the original Greek, means "thanksgiving." We we attend the Divine Liturgy, the Mass, the Qurbono, or whatever you may call it, are we attending with an attitude of thanksgiving. The Eucharistic Liturgy is the most profound act of gratitude for God's work of creation, and so often we attend it without a sense of gratitude. How often have we gone to Mass or the Divine Liturgy with the mentality that it is nothing more than a "Communion dispenser." Many times in the past I've heard folks reply that they go to Mass just to receive Communion. How sad that that's their only attitude. It misses the whole point! The reception of Communion isn't done in a vacuum, as if the rest of the Mass is just sort of nice trimmings that we add on to fancy things up. Rather Communion is the culmination, the high-point of an entire act that is taking place throughout the Mass. The act is an act of gratitude and celebration of Who God is and what He has done for us! In the end, the supreme act of gratitude that is the Eucharistic Liturgy is meant to be carried over into our lives outside of Church. Our lives themselves much become eucharistic liturgies, celebrations and services of thanksgiving to God for all that He has done for us. When our lives become this, our prayer reflects this as well.

Finally St. Ignatius tells us that we must develop an overall awareness of God's presence. In particular he says that we must be aware of God's presence as Judge. This is not so much to cultivate a sense of depression at the fact that we are sinners before an all-just God, but rather in order to cultivate a true sense of repentance. Remember, when we sin we do not break a moral code arbitrarily defined by a cruel God that just likes to watch us squirm. Rather sin is the fracturing of a relationship with our loving Father who wants nothing but what is best for us and is willing to do anything to show His love for us and win our love for Him. To be aware of God's presence as Judge is not merely to stand before Him in fear and trembling (although this attitude is necessary as well), but it is also to stand before Him Who loves us eternally and to measure our love for Him in comparison to His love for us. Have we measured up? Has our love measured up?

St. Ignatius does provide us also with a couple of physical postures that we can adopt in order to aid prayer and our sense of contrition. Standing with our weight equally distributed, not swaying one way or the other, with our heads bowed can aid in this sense of contrition and the awareness of God's presence. This, he says, is particularly good for beginners "in whom the disposition of the soul conforms largely to the posture of the body." But we will go into postures more in a future reflection.

Become a Child

While I was showering before going to work yesterday I had a bit of a revelation (if I may presume to call it that). I recently heard a story about the great Romanian Orthodox theologian, Fr. Dumitru Stanialou. It seems that Fr. Dumitru always used the Horologion as his prayer book. Whenever he didn't have his Horologion with him, however, he would just repeat short ejaculatory prayers for his entire prayer time.  "Lord, have mercy," "Lord, hear me," "O God come to my assistance," etc., etc., etc. When asked about this he said that the temptation for theologians is to theologize while they pray. This, he said, is not prayer, but the theologian simply talking to himself.

With this in mind I got to thinking; what a childlike confidence and hope in God it must take for such a great academic theologian to "reduce" his prayer to such simple phrases, especially within the context of the Byzantine tradition where we pride ourselves on having these long and very poetic prayers (it's often been said that Byzantines don't take anything away from their prayers, they only add to them). There is, of course, a time and place for long and poetic prayers. That's why the Liturgy is so full of them. But there is also a time and place for short prayers that really cut to the heart of the matter. This is why the Fathers have put so much emphasis on the Jesus Prayer. Earlier in Church history the Eastern Fathers also put a great deal of emphasis on other short ejaculatory prayers, not just the Jesus Prayer.

There are short prayers for nearly every experience, emotion, psychological state, intention, or what have you. I've found that such prayers really challenge me to place all my confidence in God. Often when I pray for something in particular I feel the need to explain to God why I need this or that, or why I need something else to happen. I tend to get very specific and at the end of my prayer my hope in God's goodness becomes almost like a footnote to the prayer itself. My prayer becomes more like making demands of God rather than placing my hope in our Father's loving care. "God, grant xyz because I believe this will be best for my family, for myself, I believe it's your will.... Oh, and by the way, I place this in your hands, my hope is in you." That's not childlike confidence, nor is it true hope in God. True hope is to turn to the Father even in the face of great suffering and say as Jesus said, "If it is your will... yet not my will but yours be done."

God knows what we desire and what we most need. He wants us to approach Him with our desires because we are His children. But He wants us to approach with the confident and hopeful expectancy of a child, not the presumptuous expectancy that all of us are all too familiar with. When a child asks something of their parents, they are confident that their parents will give them what they want, knowing also that sometimes it is necessary for their parents to deny their request in order to give them what they really need. They don't go into long explanations as to why the really need something. "Mama, can I have a cookie?" That's the language of a child. Short, simply, confident. Our prayer should have this same confidence.

Apart from the Jesus Prayer, some prayers that have helped me over the last few years are: "Incline my heart according to your will, O God," "O God, come to my assistance. Lord, hasten to help me," and "Deliver me, O Lord." One of my favorite responses in the Liturgy is simply, "Grant this, O Lord." These are all simple prayers that are short and to the point. The Fathers called such prayers arrows that fly straight up to the heart of God. There's no need for us to heap up vain words, as our Lord warns us against. All that is needed is a childlike hope in our loving Father. This attitude, however, can be more difficult to acquire than first meets the eye. May God grant us all this childlike confidence in Him.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

New Series

So I have a couple of series that I'm working on. The first is about my journey from Roman Catholicism into Eastern Catholicism. As some of you may have noticed the first installment of that one is up and available for your enjoyment. The second will be reflections from St. Ignatius Brianchaninov's book The Arena on formulating your own personal prayer rule. I will start that one up some time later this week. So stay tuned. There is more coming and I haven't fallen off the face of the earth. I've just been studying up and gathering my sources so that I can share more with you. May heaven consume us!

A Roman Catholic's Journey to Eastern Catholicism: Part 1: Shadows and Rumors from the East

It all started while I was attending college at Franciscan University of Steubenville. A couple of young men I knew were somehow different in their expression of Catholicism than I. One spoke of being Ukrainian Catholic, the other Ruthenian. At the time it didn't really register to me that this meant they not only celebrated a different form of the Mass, but that they even had their own theology, their own spirituality, their own traditions, and even their own history different from what I'd experienced growing up. Somewhere in the back of my mind I heard "Catholic" and presumed "Roman Catholic."

I grew up in an area where Eastern Catholic was more or less non-existent. Oh, there were the Maronites, but they were all the way out in Cincinnati and I had no experience of them. The most I knew of them was that a family friend had married a Maronite man and had become Maronite herself. Apart from the all I knew of Eastern Christianity was that there were some Churches called the "Orthodox Churches," they were not Catholic, and I couldn't fulfill my Sunday obligation at one of their parishes. Growing up in a rural German-Irish community we tended to be suspicious of anything that wasn't explicitly (and borderline triumphalistically) Roman Catholic.

So when these friends of mine at college began speaking of Eastern Catholics, somehow it didn't even register in my mind that Eastern Catholics are not Roman Catholic. I'd even watched brief videos of parts of the Byzantine Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom and it still didn't enter my thoughts that, hey, this is different from what I know. The language was different (Ukrainian). The music was different. The setting itself was different. And yet I was too thick-headed to see this.

I had occasion to encounter the Byzantine tradition on a more personal experiential level while I was studying on our campus in Gaming, Austria. There we shared a campus with the "International Theological Institute." It was here that I met my first married priest... and married to a Franciscan graduate nonetheless. Fr. Yuri was quite an amazing man. Very quiet and gentle mannered, but very good at leading and guiding young people. Despite the fact that he was married, it still didn't occur to me that he came from a different tradition within the Catholic Church.

I don't really remember being encouraged to attend the Liturgies in the Byzantine chapel on campus in Gaming. I had friends who went quite frequently, but I could never bring myself to do so. In my mind they were Orthodox. I wouldn't be permitted to receive Communion and I'd still have to go to Mass later that Sunday. So I just avoided the Byzantine Liturgies. Needless to say I've greatly regretted that decision ever since.

One thing I did do, however, was spend a great deal of time in prayer in the Byzantine chapel. There was something about it that kept drawing me in. It wasn't so much the icons, the mystique, or the exotic feel of the place. To me their chapel felt familiar, homey and warm. I felt as if I'd always been there; like I'd grown up there and was simply coming back to my childhood parish. There was nothing unfamiliar or exotic about the place to me. It simply was what it was and in being so it brought me closer to God. I spent more time in there than I did in our Perpetual Adoration chapel.

After I returned home I didn't really think about this experience in the chapel again for a number of years. It wasn't until after graduation and my move up to Ann Arbor, Michigan, that these rumors and shadows from the East began to take form. But you'll have to stick around for the next installment to hear about that.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

I Alone Have Sinned

In his book, The Arena: Guidelines for Spiritual and Monastic Life, St. Ignatius Brianchaninov has a remarkable piece of advice.

While living in a monastery with brethren, regard only yourself as a sinner and all the brethren without exception as angels.

I've found from experience that this applies equally to everyone, not just monastics. In married life, if I have this attitude towards my wife, any bitterness or resentment that may have built up disappears. If I spend my time focusing on my own sins and failings, regarding my own wife "as an angel," I find peace in myself and peace in my family. Why should I worry, after all, about the sins of others when I have a host of my own personal sins to deal with? Didn't Christ tell us to remove the board from our own eyes before removing the splinter from our brother's? St. Ignatius goes on to tell us:

Through humility in your dealings with your neighbor, and through love of your neighbor, hardness and callousness is expelled from your heart. It is rolled away like a heavy rock from the entrance to a tomb, and the heart revives for spiritual relations with God for which it has been hitherto dead.

I have always found it sad whenever I've seen spouses - whether in real life or as portrayed in the media - living in little more than a passive-aggressive relationship with years of bitterness, resentment, fault-finding, pettiness, etc., etc., etc. I've seen women roll their eyes every time someone mentions their husband's name. I've seen men's gaze turn cold at the sight of their wife. I know of couples who divorced and families that were torn apart because the spouses were overly concerned with each other's faults and sins rather than focusing on their own.

Obviously I would not condone that one spouse become the doormat of the other, allowing the other to trample them down and oppress them. Obviously couples need to work together for the betterment of each other on the physical/material, emotional, psychological, and spiritual levels. But an unhealthy focus on the other's faults does not lead to such betterment, especially when such a focus leads us to ignore our own faults.

St. Ignatius' advice could be equally applied to the workplace, parish life, our network of close friends, our extended family, etc., etc., etc. St. Seraphim of Sarov had a saying that has since become quite famous in Byzantine spirituality: "Acquire the spirit of peace, and thousands around you will be saved."  That, I believe, pretty much sums up the teaching the St. Ignatius is presenting to us in his book.

I remember a story from St. Therese of Lisieux's diary Story of a Soul. It seems that while in the convent there was one nun who was particularly nasty towards Therese, whether because of her youth, her innocence, or what we do not know. But Therese, instead of responding in kind, went out of her way to be kind to this nun and to treat her with the utmost love and respect. Over time Therese's love wore down the walls of anger in this old nun's heart and drew her not only to a love and affection for Therese, but also into a deeper love for Christ. Here we see a wonderful illustration of St. Ignatius' teaching in action.

In closing I would simply like to point out how we can apply this to our praying the Jesus Prayer. Common English translations of the Jesus Prayer would have us say, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner," as though we were simply one sinner among many. But it is possible for the Prayer to be translated from the Greek as, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me the sinner." This would perhaps be more in keeping with the vision of St. Ignatius, and would give us a solid grounding in prayer to treat all our neighbors as though they are angels and we are the only sinner among them. May heaven consume us!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

What To Do? What To Do?

For some years now I have been more or less involved in the Charismatic Renewal, a movement that has a presence in both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. As with any movement in any Church there are certain catch-phrases that one hears among "charismatics." One that has been on my mind recently is, "The Spirit moved me to...," or "I felt called to...," or again "God told me to..." The vast majority of the time the one(s) who utters this phrase will then go on to tell you some good thing that they feel called to do. There is, however, a certain danger here. The great saints and mystics of both East and West show us that it is possible to feel drawn to some great good at an inappropriate time, or one that is inappropriate for one's circumstances.

In his excellent work, The Arena: Guidelines for Spiritual and Monastic Life, St. Ignatius Brianchaninov gives concrete examples of people - some of them saints - who felt called to a great good at an inappropriate time. He mentions a number of people who felt drawn to the life of solitude and, against the will of their monastic superiors, entered such a life. Some of them became completely duped by Satan and his wiles. Others literally lost their sanity for a number of years before returning once again to themselves. In my own life I know that there have been times when I've felt called to some good, but the time was either inappropriate or the specific good was not right for me and my circumstances. My family has had to suffer in the past because of decisions I've made for a good that was wrong for us.

The great saint of the Western tradition, Francis of Assisi, was known to be a very impulsive person. He would feel these great "movements of the Spirit" and jump in head first without fully discerning the will of God. Sometimes he made the right decisions, other times not so much. He learned from his mistakes, however, and as he grew in the spiritual life God tempered this impulsive aspect of his personality and he became much more discerning.

But how is it possible for something to be good, but not good for me, especially when it involves some sort of spiritual good? The pastor of my parish has a great homily he likes to give during the Great Fast (Lent). He speaks of our fasting practices as Eastern-Byzantine Catholics and mentions how we give up certain foods not because they are bad, but because we want to be able to focus our attention on a greater good. We acknowledge that the foods we give up are in themselves good, but by giving them up we free ourselves to focus on the greater spiritual good. He then goes on to give an example. Almost everyone will admit that chocolate cake is good... some will admit that it is VERY good. But for a diabetic chocolate cake, although good in and of itself, can be very harmful, even life-threatening. A severe diabetic can go into a diabetic coma simply by eating a piece of chocolate cake. So they "give up" eating chocolate cake for the greater good of one's health. The cake is good, but "not for me; not now."

I've found this "not for me; not now" to be a very handy phrase to remember when discerning the movements of my own heart. Yes, whatever presents itself to me may be a great good indeed, but is it appropriate to my situation, my circumstance, my greater vocation, etc., etc., etc. The advice that my spiritual father gave to me some years ago always rings in my head during these moments: "Calm down, Phillip." St. Ignatius Brianchaninov has this to say:

Has some good thought come to you? Stop! Whatever you do, do not rush to implement it or carry it out over hastily, without thinking. Have you felt some good impulse or inclination in your heart? Stop! Do not dare to be drawn by it. Check it with the Gospel. See whether your good thought and your heart's good impulse tally with the Lord's holy teaching.

By checking our good impulses against the Gospel we learn to humble ourselves in the sight of the Lord and submit even our good impulses to His will. We risk falling into great pride and arrogance when we do not submit such impulses to God's Word.

I remember hearing a story about the parents of St. Therese of Lisieux. Apparently when they were first married they decided to sleep in separate rooms and not to engage in marital relations. They chose to live together "chastely" as brother and sister. Now celibacy is a good thing in and of itself. But married couples are not called to celibacy, and marital chastity is not the same as celibate chastity. After some time of living in this way St. Therese's parents began to experience a good deal of marital discord, to the point that they went to speak to their local priest about it. When he learned that they were not sharing the marital bed he promptly corrected them. From then on out they lived their marriage according to the Gospel teaching on marriage and marital chastity. In the end one of their children became one of the greatest saints of the Catholic Church in the 20th Century, another one of their children is on the path to canonization, and they themselves have been held up as role-models for married couples through their beatification! Although they felt a great impulse to the good of celibacy, celibacy was not good for them. They submitted their wills to the will of God shown forth in the Gospel's teachings on marriage and lived a much happier life because of it.

We who read the writings of the Fathers and great mystics of the East and West often feel drawn to the way of life that these men and women lived, especially since so many of us are beginners on the spiritual journey. St. Ignatius warns us that we need to read the writings of the Fathers and mystics with great caution. (Notice he doesn't tell us not to read their writings, but to read them with caution and discernment). We need to learn to adapt the teachings of the great spiritual masters to our condition, our times, our circumstances, our vocation, etc. The Fathers may speak of the glories of monastic life, but a married person is not a monk or nun. They may speak of the glories of external silence and solitude, but most lay people living in the world are not called to that amount of silence and solitude. I remember hearing a priest once recommend that all lay people should spend at least two hours a day in prayer! In my own life I personally have a hard time getting in my 20 minutes in the morning for my prayer rule before going about my daily obligations as a husband and father, let alone two whole hours.

What we need is discernment. Check your impulses against the commands and demands of the Gospel. Put on the mind of Christ and allow Him to form even your good and holy desires. More reward is given for submitting to God's will - He seeks the greater good for us, after all - than for following our own impulses and inclinations, even when such impulses are good. In all things may God bless us with this spirit of discernment. May heaven consume us.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Memento Mori

I wrote most of the following meditation yesterday (Saturday) but was unable to finish it as I had to rush off to work. Since I'm posting it on a Sunday I attempted to end it on a note of hope in the final resurrection. :)

In the Byzantine and Maronite traditions, Saturday is considered the memorial of the faithful departed. It is on Saturdays in particular that we remember "those who have gone before us marked with the sign of Faith." It is on Saturdays, too, that we remember our own mortality, the shortness of our own lives, and that we too shall soon join those who have already departed this life. The reading from Safro - Maronite "morning prayer" - this morning was taken from 1 Thessalonians 5:1 - 11. In this reading St. Paul reminds us, "You know very well that the day of the Lord is coming like a thief in the night. Just when people are saying 'Peace and security,' ruin will fall on them with the suddenness of pains overtaking a woman in labor, and there will be no escape." The Byzantine funeral service reminds us:

Our life indeed is but a fragile flower, a vapor, a drop of dew in the morning. Let us approach and contemplate the grave: where now is the graceful form? Where is youth? Where are the bright eyes? Where is the moving beauty of the face? All has withered as the grass of the field and has vanished. Come, brethren, let us fall on our knees in humble prayer before Christ... Vain and perishing indeed are the pleasures and honors of this life. We shall all die because we are destined to decay: kings and princes, rich and poor and all human beings. Those who had been among the powerful of this world now are stretched lifeless in the graves. Let us pray to the Lord our God that He may give rest to their souls.

Most folks don't like to be reminded of the fact that, sooner or later, they will die. But the mystical traditions of both Eastern and Western Christianity are universal in their focus on the importance of the remembrance of death. At one time in the Western monastic tradition monks used to proclaim "memento mori" (remember your death) as they would walk past one another. While I was studying in a defunct monastery in Austria there was still a painting in the courtyard of skeletons with the saying "We were once like you, you shall soon be like us" painted on the wall of the courtyard. Saints such as Alphonsus Liguori wrote quite explicit meditations on death. I remember reading the first bit of his book Preparation for Death many years ago. In it the first couple of chapters/meditations are devoted totally to describing a rotting corpse. Not the most pleasant imagery, but it really drove home the fact that one day we will all die, and this body that we worry so much about will decay. Have we prepared ourselves sufficiently for what will come after death?

Even the great Byzantine mystics tell us over and over again that we must remember our death. This is not in order to have a morbid fixation on death, but to reveal to us the futility of our sinful ways in order that we might fix our hope on Christ. Continuing the reading from Safro this (Saturday) morning, St. Paul reminds us, "You are not in the dark, brothers, that the day should catch you off guard, like a thief. No, all of you are children of light and of day... We who live by day must be alert, putting on faith and love as a breastplate and the hope of salvation as a helmet. God has not destined us for wrath but for acquiring salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us, that all of us, whether awake or asleep, together might live in him."

This is the whole purpose of our spiritual and moral lives; to be ready. We live lives filled with love of God and love of neighbor because, frankly, in the life to come God and neighbor is all that we will have (and incidentally all that we will need). God will be all in all. Heaven is not just going to be "God and me, and to hell with thee" as my spiritual father used to say. "One Christian is no Christian." This holds just as true for the life to come as it does for this life. Heaven will be "God, me, and thee" so to speak. But we have to prepare ourselves in this life.

The Maronite prayers of Hoosoyo in both Ramsho (Vespers) and Safro (Matins) paint a very vivid picture for us of what the final judgment will be like.

On the awesome day of judgment, the foundations of the universe will be shaken; the sun will be darkened and the moon hide itself when you, O just Judge, will be seated at the tribunal of judgment. You will call all people to stand before you, and will open the register which lists all their deeds. With your piercing look, you examine consciences and heart and nothing will be hidden from you; works will appear in the light of your justice, in all their truth... (Safro)

Christ our God, on the last day you will come in glory to judge the living and the dead, each person will stand before your throne to hear judgment from your mouth and receive retribution from your hand. Then the light of truth will shine on the secrets, consciences will be revealed, and men and women will be divided to your left and right. The just will be in glory and joy and raise up songs of praise and glory. The evil ones will be in confusion and, full of sadness; they will burst into tears and sobbing with no one able to help them.

To me such imagery is both powerful and horrifying. Knowing that everyone who has ever been shall know every one of my thoughts and actions - miserable sinner that I am - makes me want to run and hide. But there will be no hiding from God's judgment on that day.

The Byzantine liturgical texts paint a somewhat more hopeful picture while being just as realistic:

O God of all spirits and of all flesh, who have destroyed death, overcome the devil, and given life to the world: grant, O Lord, to the soul of your servant N, who has departed this life, that it may rest in a place of light, in a place of happiness, in a place of peace, where there is no pain, no grief, no sighing. And since You are a gracious God and the Lover of Mankind, forgive him every sin he has committed by thought, or word, or deed, for there is not a man who lives and does not sin: You alone are without sin, your righteousness is everlasting, and your word is true. You are the Resurrection and the Life, and the repose of your departed servant N, O Christ our God, and we send up glory to you... etc.

Here the Byzantine tradition focuses on the fact that as sinners we are in constant need of God's mercy. How wonderful for us that our God is "a gracious God and the Lover of Mankind." I believe it was St. Symeon the New Theologian who spoke about how we ought not to put so much emphasis on God's justice, because each of us justly deserves eternal damnation for even the slightest sin. Rather, he says, we ought to speak of God's mercy, because it was out of mercy that God sent His Son to die for us that we might have eternal life. Obviously this is not an endorsement for "loose living," but rather encouragement that every time we fall, so often as we get up and repent, our heavenly Father is waiting there for us with open arms.

Hoosoyo from Safro/Matins in the Maronite tradition concludes the prayer in the following manner:

On this day, treat with mercy your believing servants who partook of your body and your blood as their final food and now rest in the hope of resurrection. Forgive them the sins they have committed on this earth; save them from eternal loss and temporary suffering; open to them the gates of your heavenly dwelling through the intercession of Mary your Mother, queen of the universe, and through the prayers of your pure apostles and saints; then we will praise and glorify you, for ever.

Here there are a number of exclamations of hope for us. First, we who have partaken of Christ's Body and Blood as our spiritual food, so long as we have done so worthily, have also a special hope to receive His mercy. We also rest in the hope of resurrection. If the liturgical week is a miniature of the liturgical year, and Sunday is the day of Resurrection, Saturday is the day that we not only are reminded of Jesus time in the tomb as well as ours, but also the day that we look forward to the resurrection to come. We lie in the tomb in the hope of one day being raised from there unto new life! Death no longer has the final word over us, nor does our sinful nature have the final word. As we sing on Easter Sunday in the Byzantine tradition, "Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the tomb!"

So in remembering our death, in order to avoid any morbid fixation and/or despair, it is also vitally important that we remember in hope the promise of resurrection. This promise has already begun in Christ Jesus, who was raised from the dead. "Christ is risen from the dead, and by His death He has trampled upon death, and has given life to those who were in the tombs!"

May heaven consume us.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Failure to Communicate

I had what I found to be a rather sad realization at work yesterday. We are a society that no longer knows how to communicate. We have all of this technology that enables us to be "plugged in" at almost all times; we have all this "social media" so that we can stay in touch with friends and family; we have all this information at our fingertips, and yet when it comes down to it we don't know how to communicate. Everyone's talking, but no one's listening.

I was watching a family eat dinner in Panera. The whole time the son was texting someone on his cell phone. I've watched friends have "conversations" with one another without even looking at one another. The whole time they were staring at their iPhones or iPads or whatever the latest craze is. They were saying a lot, but not listening, not being present to either the one they were talking to face-to-face, nor to the one they were communicating with over the phone.

This made me wonder, what kind of effect does such "communication" have on our prayer life? The Fathers are always talking about giving God our undivided attention during prayer, turning our heart away from all distractions and focusing on God alone. It was hard enough during times when communication was either done face-to-face, or through a very slow system of mail. How hard it is today when we are accustomed to "communicating" with four or five people simultaneously!

I know I personally tend to relegate a good chunk of my prayer time to my drive to work. There's nothing wrong with this, of course. It's good to pray whenever you have a chance to pray. But by limiting a good portion of my prayer time to that drive, I've realized how much my prayer life in general has suffered. Not only am I more distracted while I'm driving, I find that I have also become more distracted when I actually have the time to sit down and concentrate my attention on God in prayer. I find myself thinking of all the other things in need to be doing or getting done that day. I find myself thinking of other conversations I've had with folks. Heck, I even find myself interrupting my prayer time simply to make a phone call! What a failure on my part! I've allowed myself to turn from the one relationship, the one conversation in the day that matters most. But isn't this typical in our society of "mass communication?" Isn't this how we all converse now; always thinking about the next conversation we need to have with someone else?

It has always bothered me whenever I'm talking to someone, and instead of looking at me and paying attention, they're looking over my shoulder at the next person they need to talk to. But I know I've been guilty of doing that to others as well. How horrible! Here we are face-to-face with someone giving themselves to us by giving us a small bit of their time, and we're not willing to return the favor by giving ourselves to them by focusing our attention on them! And here, in prayer, we have God, our Creator, our Master, our Father, Brother, Spirit, etc., giving us their undivided attention, and we half-heartedly mumble a few words while looking over their shoulders so to speak. What a way to treat the one who suffered and died for us so that we might have life in the fullest in this life and the next!

Sts. John of Kronstadt (thank you Kim and Seraphim) and Theophan the Recluse are both very adamant; half-hearted prayer mumbled without the slightest attention in the heart is no prayer at all, but merely empty words. So during our prayer, they tell us, if we find ourselves becoming distracted, pause, take a moment, collect yourself, admit your failing and ask for God's mercy, then continue your prayer. In the Western tradition Sts. Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross spoke of turning distractions into prayer as well. Fr. Robert Taft mentions talking to God about your distractions, admitting that you're weak and can barely focus for more than two minutes before a new thought pops into your head. I've found that sometimes, when I'm tempted during prayer, if I talk to God about the temptation or pray for the person causing the temptation, that I can actually turn the distraction itself into prayer. Sometimes it's best to gently bring your attention back into focus in this manner than to violently force yourself from distraction to focus. But the point is, we need to remember to redirect our attention to God during prayer, especially when we find ourselves tempted to distraction. May heaven consume us.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Prayer Request

Hello Everyone,

I have a special prayer request today. Fox news reported on a priest from Indiana who had been sent by Rome to study in Greece. Apparently that priest's life had been threatened. As he was trying to escape from Greece with his translator, he called his family and told them that if they didn't hear from him within the next 12 - 24 hours, then they should presume he's been killed. That was on Monday and no one has heard from him since.

It just so happens that this priest, a Fr. Kappes, was not only my high school Latin teacher (he offered Latin classes for the local home schoolers), but was also a good family friend and my mother's spiritual director. Please pray for his safe return; and if God has called him into eternity, then please pray for his blessed repose. Knowing this priest, it wouldn't surprise me to discover that he'd been martyred preaching the truth of Christ.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Prayer and Presence

This morning as I rocked my daughter back to sleep - she woke up at 6:00ish because her brother was crying - I was reminded of a personal story St. Therese of Lisieux relates in her diary Story of a Soul. It seems that at one point after she entered the convent she had a difficult time staying awake during the long vigils and prayer services required of monastics. It upset her that she would often fall asleep in the midst of these services. One day, however, she realized that children are just as pleasing to their parents when they are asleep as when they are awake. Sometimes even more so because when the child sleeps all fussing ceases. A mother can then shower her little boy with kisses without him saying, "Ewww! Mom!" and pushing her away. I like to simply hold my daughter's hand or stroke her curly blond hair. After she came to this realization, St. Therese no longer felt guilty about falling asleep during prayer. Of course, she would never go into her prayer time with the intention of falling asleep; but if she happened to doze off, she wouldn't let that bother her. It was enough, she figured, that she was in the Presence of God and that she was focused on that presence.

The Servant of God, Catherine Doherty, speaks similarly of the "poustinik" in his solitude. In her book Poustinia, she speaks of how the poustinik is free to work at manual labor, read some spiritual text, sit quietly and listen to the sounds of nature, or simply lie down and sleep. This is so because all is done with an attentive and loving awareness of God's Presence. Sometimes it is enough simply to be in God's Presence without words. Indeed, these can be the moments when God is most able to fill us with His love, work in our hearts, heal us from our spiritual infirmities, etc. When we are simply with Him and lovingly attentive to Him without putting up a fuss over words, or making petitions, or whatever else, then we become more docile to His actions in our hearts and lives.

I may have mentioned this before, but I have a friend who is currently renting a room in a monastery. In the morning he takes his breakfast and coffee with him down to the chapel. There he simply sits in Christ's Presence in the Eucharist, quietly eating his breakfast and enjoying the Lord's company. What an ingenious use of one's prayer time! There is not always a need for words. Sometimes God just wants to be with us, and wants us to be with Him.

Another friend of mine, a father of two with a third on the way, observed how one's participation in Sunday Mass changes after one has children. With little ones to keep in order during Mass or Divine Liturgy a parent's participation is split between paying attention to the prayers and keeping their young ones in order. Attendance at Mass, he said, becomes more like a simple presence. You may not be able to pray all the prayers or even hear the homily, but at least you are there.

Perhaps those of us who have busy lives can learn something from all this. Perhaps it would be best if we kept our prayer rules short and simple. Stick to them, of course, but keep them simple. Don't get upset if you can't spend two or three hours a day in prayer. Rather, after you have completed your prayer rule, try to maintain this sense of loving awareness to God's Presence, and try to be docile to His workings within you just as a sleeping child is docile in his parents arms. Sometimes it helps to stop and take a very brief moment throughout the day just to re-focus yourself on God's Presence, and to simply be present to Him.

May heaven consume us.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Laity are the Church in the World

Here is a link to a talk by Archbishop Fulton Sheen that I was lucky enough to stumble across today. What a great meditation for a Sunday.

Keep Your Stick on the Ice

About a month ago, on one of the Byzantine Catholic forums that I enjoy reading and participating in from time to time, a generous gentleman began a thread offering to lift up young parents in prayer. The motivation for this was the fact that so often young people, particularly young parents with young families, have little time for personal prayer due to the time constraints that come from raising children, working a job (or multiple jobs), household duties, etc. He called this a "take-off on the Communion of Saints." As he said, "We lift each other up and go it together."

What a marvelous idea! In my mind this simply reinforces the fact that even in our private spiritual lives we are never alone, never separated from the rest of the Body of Christ. As my spiritual father used to say, our spiritual lives are not just "Jesus and me, and to hell with thee." We are part of a Body made up of many members. When we feel that our spiritual lives are lacking, when we are pressed for time and simply cannot devote as much time to prayer as we would like, why not take advantage of the fact that we are not alone?! Why not ask our brothers and sisters in Christ to lift us up in prayer?

Soldiers on the battlefield develop a deep sense of camaraderie that oftentimes goes even beyond that with blood relations. Having been through the same trials, suffering and struggling alongside one another, they become a source of support for one another. The history of warfare is full of men performing heroic deeds simply to save the lives of their fellow brothers-in-arms. Who of us hasn't heard stories of men in modern times throwing themselves on live hand-grenades and sacrificing their lives so that their friends might live? Do you think the spiritual life is any different?

Universally the great mystics of the Christian East and West refer to the spiritual life as "warfare." The Eastern Fathers in particular are very detailed and sometimes quite graphic when describing the tactics and state of this spiritual warfare. They speak of the tactics of the enemy and what we must do to overcome the onslaught of temptation coming from "the world, the flesh, and the devil." In all of this they emphasize having a spiritual father/mother, one who has been through the battle and can aid in guiding us safely through as well. If this is not possible, then they recommend having spiritual friends alongside us, to fight the good fight with us. Such spiritual friends act the same way fellow soldiers act to one another. They are a sense of support and encouragement when we are down, wounded by the enemy, by our own personal failings and sin, or simply from sheer exhaustion of keeping up such an intense fight. We in our turn also act as a source of support and encouragement for them.

One of the great things I encountered within the Catholic Charismatic Renewal is the formation of "small groups" or "men's/women's groups." Usually these were groups of a handful of people - no more than five or six - that would meet once a week to discuss what was going on in their spiritual lives, what their struggles were, what they needed prayer for, etc. The group would then offer any support and suggestions that they thought could be helpful. In an age where spiritual fathers and mothers are rather limited, what a great way to find some support and encouragement in the spiritual fight!

There was/is a Canadian comedian who used to end his television program with a saying directed at the men in his audience: "I'm pulling for you. We're all in this together." How true. In this spiritual warfare, we, as the Body of Christ, are all in this together; and we ought to be pulling for one another. We ought to be able to rely upon one another for support against the onslaught of our enemies, whether that onslaught comes from our own fallen nature, from the world around us, or from the devil and his minions.

This world is passing away. This battle is not permanent. But, as a professor of mine used to say, "We're all in this together, and none of us is getting out of here alive." At the end of our lives, when the dust clears and our personal battle is over, we have more of a chance of standing victorious over our enemies when we have fought against them not as individuals, but with the help and support of our brothers and sisters in Christ. And our brothers and sisters also stand more of a chance if we have been there to support them and to lift them up in prayer. So let's lift one another up in prayer and support one another in the good fight so that when this is all over we may stand in the rays of the eternal Sun and shout in victory to our God Who has saved us! May heaven consume us.

Liturgical Prayer Ropes: Colors of the Byzantine Liturgical Year

As I've mentioned in a previous post, I would like to start offering prayer ropes made in the various colors of the Byzantine liturgical year. Following is a list of the various liturgical seasons and their designated colors according to the Byzantine tradition. As the summit of the liturgical year I will begin with Easter/Pascha and work my way through the liturgical seasons from there.

- Great and Holy Pascha - White

- Pentecost - Green

- Annunciation/Incarnation - Light Blue or White

- Advent - Dark Blue, Purple, Dark Green, Dark Red

- Christmas/Birth of Our Lord - Gold or shades of Yellow

- Epiphany - White

- Transfiguration - White

- Great Lent - Black, Dark Blue, Purple, Dark Green, Dark Red

- Palm Sunday - Green

- Feasts of the Cross (including Great and Holy Friday) - Purple or Dark Red

- Feasts of Our Lord, the Prophets, the Apostles, and Holy Hierarchs - Gold and Yellow shades.

- Feasts of the Mother of God/Theotokos - Light Blue or  White

- Feasts of the Prophets, Apostles, or Holy Hierarchs - Gold or Yellow

- Feasts of the Bodiless Powers (angels) or Virgins - Light Blue or White

- Feasts of Martyrs - Red

- Feasts of Monastic Saints or Fools for Christ - Green

It is my hope that this will generate more interest in liturgical prayer and the connection between our private prayer (particularly the Jesus Prayer in the Eastern tradition, and the Rosary in the Latin tradition) and the prayer of the Church - i.e. the Liturgy. If there are Roman Catholics out there who would like rosaries or any other chaplets made according to the liturgical colors of the Roman tradition, I am more than happy to oblige.

We must always remember that we never pray alone. When we pray truly, it is the Spirit that prays within us because, as St. Paul says, we do not know how to pray as we ought. Prayer is not only our personal dialogue with God, but is above all our entrance into God's eternal dialogue mediated to us through the Body of Christ, the Church, enlivened by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit teaches us to pray through the mediation of the Church. And it is particularly by being attentive to the Church's rhythm of prayer in her liturgical life that we learn how to pray truly.