Sunday, December 1, 2013

Greed or Generosity?

Here in the U.S. we experience an odd phenomenon every year. The day after Thanksgiving retail stores offer some hefty discounts on items, and folks rush to those stores in the wee hours of the morning to get all their Christmas shopping done at once. The rush can be so intense that some folks are injured and others have been killed, just so that we can save a few bucks on a gift that will most likely be set aside in a matter of a few hours.

Many Christians sit by and shake their heads, condemning the greed that they see; and rightly so. No material thing is worth putting another person's life at risk to obtain. But it has become almost stylish to condemn the "materialism" of Christmas. Today, however, I would like to propose an alternative to both the "materialistic" attitude towards Christmas, and to those who silently (or not so silently) condemn such an attitude.

I would like to put forward to you that Christmas, and particularly our giving at Christmas, is about God's generosity towards us. In His deep love for us, He gave us everything. And after giving us everything, He poured Himself out for us "emptying Himself and taking on the form of a servant." You see, we often get so caught up in giving at Christmas that we forget why we give and Who we are imitating.

This was first brought to my attention while reading one of the books by Archbishop Joseph Raya. I can't remember if it was his book on Christmas or his book on the Incarnation, but in the book Sayedna Raya encourages us to continue to give generously at Christmas, and not to cease giving, because our giving is a reflection of the Gift that God has given us on this Holiday. Our giving is a reflection of God's generosity towards us. Since we are made in God's image and likeness, our very nature demands that we reflect God's generosity. And so this time of year more than any other, we feel the urge to pour ourselves out to those we love through gifts in imitation of the One in Whose image we are created.

I'm not, of course, encouraging anyone to abandon themselves to reckless materialism during this time of year. We can take things too far and we must respect one another. But what we need to do is stand back and reflect on why we are giving (and why we are receiving as well). From the second prayer of Safro this morning we read:

"O Christ,
from your rich treasure you have enriched our poverty."

And we continue to pray that Christ enrich us by filling our hearts with veneration and respect; our souls with faith and love; our minds with spiritual thoughts; our lips with praise and glory; and our lives with good works. Enrichment, filling, abundance, these are the words the speak to us of God's generosity and humility in willing "to submit Himself to the law of human nature," as we pray in the third prayer of Safro this morning.

I think that very often we ignore or forget this great outpouring of God, His magnificent generosity. We think of this outpouring more in terms of His having created us. We think also of His death on the Cross, but I believe we often ignore the immense outpouring of the Incarnation - an outpouring without which the Cross is both impossible and meaningless. But our Liturgies are full of references to this outpouring.

The Proemion of Ramsho says:

"The cherubim fear Him when they bear Him on the fiery chariot
but in His love He concealed Himself within the pure womb of Mary."

And the Sedro of Ramsho reads:

"You are the King of kings who crowns princes and saves His people.
You raised our human nature to the throne of your glory
when you descended from that throne,
took the condition of a slave and truly became man."

And from Safro the Proemion says:

"Praise, glory and honor to the true God
whose Spirit one cannot fathom and upon whose face one cannot gaze."

And yet have we ever stopped to think that through the Incarnation we have been given the great gift to gaze upon the face of God! That is one of the reasons that we can paint icons of Christ. God has taken on flesh and we have seen His face. That is also one of the reasons that the Shroud of Turin is such an amazing gift to mankind. The face of Christ is preserved there! Do we dare to gaze into the very Face of generosity and self-gift?

The Sedro of Safro reads:

"You, Who dwell in the heights and are served by Seraphim and glorified by the Cherubim,
descended from your heavens and came to us.

And finally we pray in the Mazmooro of Saphro:

"The One Whom the Seraphim serve and dare not gaze upon the splendor of His face,
descended into the womb of the pure Virgin
and entered the house of His Forerunner."

Have we stopped to contemplate this generosity? Have we sought to imitate it? Do we embrace this self-emptying attitude towards our giving at Christmas in imitation of the Divine Gift that is being given to us (not has been, but is being  given because this Gift is eternal)? Or do we simply sit there and sneer at those "materialistic" folks who simply use Christmas as an excuse to go on shopping sprees? Are we a light to the world as Christ is our Light, or do we hide that light while sitting at home content with our own self-righteousness?

"From on high our Savior came, the Rising Sun who shone from the East, to visit us in His great mercy, we who sat in darkness and gloom. But now we see the Light of Truth, for the Lord Jesus is born of a pure Virgin Mother." (Exapostilarion of the Nativity [Byzantine])

I don't want to make this out as though giving gifts is the only, or even primary, form of generosity that we are to practice particular during this time of year. Christ is "Emmanuel," God-With-Us! Similarly this time of year we gather to be with our families and loved ones. To show them that even when we are physically absent from them, they are in our hearts and we are with them in spirit.

So as we continue to prepare ourselves for the feast of the Nativity of Christ, I think it is important that we keep all of this in mind. We are celebrating God's generosity towards us. The all-powerful One, Whom the Seraphim dare not gaze upon and Who is borne aloft by the Cherubim, emptied Himself and poured His richness upon us. He has allowed us to gaze on His face, to look into His eyes. By taking on our nature He has seated us, the lowest of His creatures, on His very throne. In celebrating God's generosity, we seek to imitate that generosity; to pour ourselves out for our loved ones and to elevate them above ourselves. To set aside our cares, desires and needs for the moment and place those of others before us. Enjoy the giving. Enjoy the receiving. Do all in love for and imitation of Christ. May heaven consume us!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Cool Off, Heat Up!

Throughout my own spiritual journey I've noticed that there have been times where I have been on fire for the Lord. With prayer comes great consolations, insights, revelations, etc. Spiritual reading is alive and I see where it applies in my life. The Scriptures leap to life. The Liturgy reduces me to tears with the insight of the love of God that is literally given over to us in Communion. And like the pilgrim in The Way of the Pilgrim, all of creation seems to spring to life and speak of God's love, power, beauty, etc.

But then there are times where all that fades away. Prayer is simply going through the motions. The Liturgy becomes a burden of obligation rather than an occasion of joy. Read the Scriptures or any spiritual writings is dry and they might as well be in a foreign language. And even the joy that I find in creation seems to fade. The birds continue to sing, but I no longer hear them. The sun shines, but I am not illumined. The rain falls, but I don't feel the cooling drops on my face. The snow falls and all I can think of is slick roads and potential car accidents (and all the stupid drivers out there who don't know how to handle snow).

This "heating and cooling" is something that has bothered me for some time. Is it my own lack of true zeal that causes the fire of God's love to cool within me? Have I ever really had zeal for God? Have I ever truly loved God? Does God really love me? Why do I not feel this love constantly? Doubts begin to creep into my mind and I am tempted to just give up on the whole venture.

But I have come to find that these feelings are rather normal in the spiritual life. In fact, St. Theophan the Recluse dealt with these very issues in his correspondence with a young noblewoman who was seeking to live a truly spiritual life. It seems that she noticed such tendencies within her, and that these tendencies caused her no little amount of fear concerning her growth in the spiritual life. St. Theophan's response to her, like his writings in general, is so simple and so beautiful, but so deep and powerful at the same time.

In dealing with the tendency towards spiritual "heating" and "cooling" St. Theophan gives us three reasons that we might experience the (shorter or longer) periods of cooling. I'm going to start with the second one that he mentions. We may experience cooling because of physical illness. It is obviously difficult to maintain zeal for anything when one is ill. I would presume that this is so especially when one has a prolonged illness. That is one reason I admire so much the people who are ill for long periods of time and yet still maintain that zeal for the love of God. When my own mother was dying of cancer the fire of God's love seemed all the more alive in her. I'm sure we all have memories of folks who struggled through a prolonged illness and yet maintained that love of God. As for myself, if I even get the slightest fever I can't even think about uttering a single prayer, let alone maintain the fire of zeal for God.

So with the cooling caused by illness aside, let's move on to the other two reasons for spiritual cooling. The last reason that St. Theophan mentions in the letter is sin. This should be obvious to all of us. Sin - and in particular the habitual and deliberate sin to which St. Theophan refers - causes us to slowly stop listening to God's voice speaking within us. Little by little sin causes us to turn from the face of God and towards the things of the world. Sin causes us to slowly replace God and erect our own idols in His stead. Through sin we gradually deaden our conscience and reason within us and start living according to the passions. Sin really does cause us to become little more than animals, allowing ourselves to be controlled by any impulse that comes up. I'm reminded of the creation story in the Chronicles of Narnia where Aslan gives certain animals the ability to talk, but warns them that they can lose this ability and become like all the rest of the animals if they abuse the gift that he has given them.

Although in the letter St. Theophan doesn't really address the remedy for cooling caused by sin, I believe the answer is obvious. We need to confess our sins, receive absolution, and then go out and do penance. In the East (at least among the Byzantines) it is not the norm for the priest to prescribe some sort of penance after giving absolution; and in the West "penance" has become little more than a few Our Fathers and Hail Marys said immediately after Confession. But the best penances I have ever received have been ones that directly addressed the most common themes of my confession - themes that were noticed after going to the same priest numerous times to confess. The penance assigned becomes a sort of remedy against the sinful habit. That should be the ideal of a penance. In the East this "medicine" would be prescribed by one's spiritual father/mother, not necessarily the one to whom you made your confession. But East and West the concept is the same, prescribe some sort of antidote to the sickness of the sin.

The most common source of cooling among those who actively strive along the path of the spiritual life, according to St. Theophan, is "as a result of excessive tension of the soul's strength." This is quite humbling (and perhaps that's why God allows it). It's as if God is telling us that we are not yet strong enough to handle what He has in store for us. So, in His wisdom, He eases the tension of zeal and forces the soul to rest even if the soul doesn't want it. Perhaps it can be compared to a parent making their young child take a nap in the middle of the day even when the child doesn't think he needs the nap (yes, I'm thinking of my son right now). There will come a time when we will be able to stay awake through the entire day, but for the time being we need our "nap" in order to carry the burden of the rest of the day.

I sort of mentioned that analogy of the child taking a nap as a half-joke. But the more I think of it, the more apt it seems. I know so often in my own journey when these periods of "coolness," "aridity," "spiritual dryness," or whatever you want to call it have come up, I have complained to God - gone to my nap kicking and screaming. "Where are you, God?" "Why are you allowing this?" "Why can't I be on fire with love for you like everyone else?" "Why won't you answer me?" "Why won't you help me?" etc., etc., etc. So often I forget that God is a loving Father, and what He does isn't for my punishment, but for my own good. If we progress too quickly in the spiritual life (or perceive that we are progressing quickly), then we run the risk of falling into spiritual pride. We are unable to bear the burden of the day, maintain that spiritual tension, and so, like the child, we crash. Have you ever witnessed or experienced a crash brought about by spiritual pride because the tension of holy zeal was maintained for too long by someone (perhaps yourself) who was not yet strong enough to maintain it? God knows that we need rest. He knows that we are children and we need a break every now and then.

So what, then, is the advice of the wise St. Theophan to those who are going through this form of spiritual "cooling" brought about by too much tension? Patience!

Patience. I love this word. It reminds me so of my own spiritual father. "Calm down, Phillip." "Be patient, Phillip." "Don't worry, Phillip." How many times he repeated those lines to me. "Settle down, Phillip. It's going to be just fine." Reading the words of St. Theophan, I can hear my spiritual father's voice behind them, as if he himself is saying them to me. "Be patient. Hold fast. Don't fear. Don't fret. All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well." Patience is so important in the spiritual life. Steadfast endurance! Patience is what allows us to look beyond the struggles of the moment and gaze into the future with hope. There is a wonderful line in Jane Austin's Pride and Prejudice (yes, I have read it and seen almost every version put to film) uttered by the father of the heroine's family: "I'm not afraid of being overcome by the emotion. It will pass soon enough." Although he utters the line with an almost phlegmatic apathy, it can be applied to the natural cooling periods of the spiritual life. Don't be overcome by the feeling of spiritual coolness. Be patient. It will pass.

What are we to do in the meantime? How ought we to behave during these periods of spiritual cooling? Simple. Just do what you have been doing! St. Theophan tells us:

"Concerning the unintentional, inadvertent coolings that are the result of fatigue and sickness, there is one rule: Be patient and do not violate any established and pious ways, although in carrying them out, you may just be going through the motions. The cooling will quickly depart from whoever endures this patiently, and the usual warmth and sincere zeal will return... You should keep persisting in your established ways with the conviction that this routine execution of things will soon bring back the liveliness and warmth of diligence."
So first and foremost we are to be patient. St. Theophan really hammers this home by insisting explicitly twice that we must be patient, and then by also mentioning the patience of persistence. But then we are to continue in our spiritual rule - which includes our prayer rule(s) as well as our rule of living - even if that means just going through the motions for the time being. We must learn to "fake it 'til you make it." Keep to your routine. If you wake up early to pray in the morning, then continue to do so. If you have time set aside in the evening for prayer, then don't abandon that time. Don't abandon your daily spiritual reading. And definitely don't abandon your participation in the Liturgy. Keep to this even if it takes years before the fire of zeal is rekindled. Mother Teresa is known to have struggled through this spiritual coolness for the greater part of her life. Now she is considered one of the holiest women of the past century. So be patient. Be persistent. Hold steady, and be steadfast in your endurance. May heaven consume us.
(As an aside it seems very apt that as I'm writing this I'm gazing out my window at the first "major" snowfall this winter in the Greater Cincinnati area. I love the winter because it seems to quiet all the noise, the hustle and the bustle of the spring and summer. With the snow comes a certain silence that seems to deaden or dull noises that seem to echo in the summer. Even the train that passes through the valley below my apartment seems quieter at the moment. Perhaps sometimes this silence, even silence from God, can be refreshing. Have you ever sat silently at your dining room table in the morning with a loved one, just sipping coffee and reading the paper? Even though neither person seems to notice it, the presence is there and one can be refreshed and feel closer to another just by sitting in their company without words).

Friday, November 22, 2013

Prayer Rope Orders

If anyone is looking to order prayer ropes as Christmas gifts, I strongly encourage you to place the order before the end of this month (November). That way I have the time to complete all orders before the Feast of the Nativity is upon us.

Both And

So I've had a number of ideas floating around in my head lately, and I do have some upcoming posts that are still in the development stages, but as I was praying this morning something struck me. I realized that in the Eastern traditions of the Church, particularly in the Oriental traditions, there is a very different attitude towards prayer than there is in the West. Allow me to elaborate a bit.

In the West the predominant attitude towards prayer is focused on the individual and his personal/private relationship with the Lord. The Liturgy of the Hours and even the Mass is almost supplemental to that private relationship. Personally I believe that's why we get so many folks who stop going to Mass because they "don't get anything out of it." The Mass and the Liturgical life of the Church are viewed almost as extensions of our private devotions. What happens when a private devotion doesn't ignite some sort of spark within us? We set it aside and search for another private devotion that does kindle that spark of God's love.

In the East, however, there is this strong emphasis on the corporate or communal nature of prayer. Any and all private devotions are meant to flow from the Liturgical life of the Church and be formed by a healthy liturgical life. I realized this especially this morning when I realized that in the Maronite tradition and the Chaldean tradition there are not numerous books of private prayers, but rather books containing primarily the Liturgical prayers of those particular Churches. Even in certain traditions like the Coptic and Ethiopian traditions there is still a sense that the faithful are obligated to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, even if they cannot participate in the Hours at their parish or a local monastery. So in the East the primary focus is on corporate worship that is meant to form the individual, the private/personal worship and relationship with God.

I'm not here to say that one of these is better than the other. Both have their strengths and weaknesses. In the West the strength is that emphasis on personal relationship. We do need to develop a strong personal relationship with God the Trinity. But we need to learn from the East and realize that our relationship with God is mediated through Christ and His Body, the Church, and that we must allow our relationship with God to be formed within that context.

In the East the strength is that emphasis on the corporate nature of our relationship to God. But we need to learn from the West in developing a healthy emphasis on the personal relationship as well. I've seen far too many Eastern Christians who believe that showing up for Liturgy and for parish events is the sum total of a healthy relationship with God. That completely ignores the priest's injunction at the end of the Liturgy: "Let us go forth in peace!" And we respond: "In the name of the Lord." What we experience in Liturgy is meant to carry over into our personal lives, including a nurturing of the relationship with the Trinity that is rooted in the Liturgical life of the Church.

May heaven consume us.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Captivated by God's Word

There is a prayer from Safro (Maronite Morning Prayer) for Thursday morning that I've been mulling over in my mind and heart for the past couple of weeks. Let me quote the complete prayer as it appears in Prayer of the Faithful.

Lord, in your goodness have compassion on sinners and bring back to your truth those who are wandering.
Draw us to yourself,
enrich our voices with your praises and our tongues with inspired songs.
Captivate us by your teachings.
Drawing from your treasure of compassion,
grant us the consolation that gives healing to body and soul.
Lord and God, to you be glory forever.

"Captivate us by your teachings..." Think about that for a moment. Let that phrase sink in good and deep. How many of us can truthfully say that we are captivated by the teachings of Christ? If you look up some synonyms for "captivate" you'll discover the following: enthrall, charm, enchant, fascinate, enrapture, delight, attract, allure. Can we apply these words to ourselves and the level of our captivation with Christ's teachings? More specifically, can we apply these words to ourselves and our reading of the Scriptures?

I bring this up because the daily reading of the Scriptures is something that was central to the spirituality of the Eastern Church Fathers and Mothers. Universally they encourage us to read the Scriptures on a daily basis. St. Seraphim of Sarov is known to have read through all four Gospels once a week. I'll admit that I have a hard time getting through just one Gospel in a week. But we are talking about the Word of God here! Just as Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, so too the Scriptures are the Word of God in the words of man. Are we captivated by the words of Scripture? Are we enthralled by the Word of God? St. Jerome says that ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ! Do you delight in the pages of Scripture? Do you encounter Christ there?

I know that I personally struggle with the daily reading of the Scriptures. To me so much of it seems so far removed from our time and space that I feel as though there is no possible way I can understand the text. So I turn to commentaries if I'm having a good day. Otherwise I put down any pursuit of knowledge of the Scriptures and turn once again to that which is comfortable for me - the spiritual writings of the Fathers. But ought not the Scriptures take huge precedence over the writings of the Fathers? After all, the Bible is the inspired (Spirit-breathed) Word of God; the writings of the Fathers are not. Plus, the writings of the Fathers are so steeped in the Scriptures that one would be hard-pressed to accurately understand their teachings without a firm foundation in the Scriptures.

It seems to me that many Christians like the idea of the Scriptures and of reading them daily. But when it comes to the work of actually daily reading the Scriptures and encountering Christ there, I think we all shy away from it. I may be presuming too much here, but this has been my own personal experience. I've made excuses such as, "Oh, I hear the Scriptures every Sunday in the Liturgy," or, "I read a passage from the Scriptures every day in the Liturgy of the Hours," or, "Tradition is so steeped in the Scriptures that I can gain knowledge of them simply by being attentive at Liturgy and reading the writings of the Fathers," etc., etc., etc. All of these are excuses to avoid actually picking up a Bible and reading it. Is this being "delighted" in the Word of God? Is this being "enthralled" by what God has spoken to us? Is this being "captivated" by the teachings of Christ? Certainly not!

Perhaps there are folks out there who are afraid that they will not understand the Scriptures. I know I'm certainly afraid of that every time I pick up a Bible (and I've taken multiple university courses on the Scriptures at both the undergraduate and graduate levels). I begin reading and I just become confused. I wonder why certain passages were retained. I wonder what the significance of certain stories are. Some books I wonder why they're in there at all.

Don't be afraid of the Bible. Pick it up and start reading. If you are actively engaging the Word of God, then questions will start to form. Be attentive for answers. Just as the Scriptures are God's Word in writings, the Liturgy is the Scriptures in action. Being attentive at the Liturgy (and I mean the entire liturgical life of the Church, not just the Divine Liturgy/Mass/Qurbono) does so much to open up the Scriptures to us and reveal their meaning. Also, having a good commentary, or concordance, or Bible dictionary (or all three) can do wonders to aid our understanding. The main thing is that we need to engage the text. We need to start asking questions and seeking answers. This is our conversation with God through His Word. If we don't understand what He is saying to us, then we must as Him what He means and trust Him to reveal the answer. But we must be willing to do the work. To engage the text. To read prayerfully and, yes, even to study prayerfully.

The Fathers of the East and the West all encourage us to read the Scriptures daily. The only way you are going to gain knowledge of the Scriptures is to sit down and read them. May we be captivated by them. May we be enthralled and delighted by the Word of God. And may heaven consume us.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

From the Mountain to the Cross

One thing that has always attracted me to the spirituality of the East is the balance between mysticism and the daily grind, between a focus on this world and a focus on the world to come. Growing up in the Roman Church there often seemed to be an emphasis - at least at the popular level - of escaping this world; of running away from the trials and miseries of daily life and running too a prayer life that was less about communion with God and neighbor and more about escaping from problems. I'm not saying that this is the predominant spiritual attitude of the West, nor am I saying that this attitude doesn't exist in the East, I'm simply stating that this was my experience growing up around very devout (if somewhat misguided) Roman Catholics.

In the East, however, there is an attitude that in order for the spiritual life to be truly authentic, it must have applications in this world. Christ went off to pray by Himself, but He always came back to minister to others. The pinnacle moment of the Transfiguration of Our Lord on Mt. Tabor was immediately followed by Christ coming down off the mountain and healing a demoniac. Incidentally the Transfiguration was also followed by Christ predicting His death and starting on His way towards Jerusalem where he would be crucified (a very "this worldly" event). Even in the saints, those saints who went off to be alone with the Alone very often came back to guide others to the Other. Hermits often amassed throngs of followers seeking wisdom and a deepening of their spiritual life. St. Seraphim of Sarov, who lived as a hermit for many years, was called out of his hermitage and became one of the greatest startsi of Russian Orthodox history. St. Theophan the Recluse spent a great deal of time in his reclusion writing letters of spiritual guidance to people who wrote to him. He also wrote numerous books and translated numerous spiritual texts (as well as philosophical texts if memory serves me correctly).

The point is that authentic spirituality always has an impact on our day-to-day living. In speaking of the effects that reception of the Eucharist ought to have in us, Archbishop Joseph Raya says,

"In the Eucharist the Son of God penetrates our bodies and souls, minds and feelings, moral behavior and artistic talents, and all the powers of our personality. Thus nourished by Christ we are empowered to extend his presence on earth. With Christ we can radiate healing, and help inaugurate the era of the Kingdom of  God." (Theophany and Sacraments of Initiation, 131; emphasis mine)

If this can be said about receiving Holy Communion, then it must be said also about personal prayer and the spiritual life, because the reception of the Eucharist is the source and summit of prayer. Why? Because what is prayer if not entering into communion with the Trinity? And what is reception of the Eucharist if not a true and full communion in the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ Jesus and, through Him, an entry into the inner life of the Trinity?

So our prayer and spiritual life must not be used as an escape from this world, but as a reordering of this world to its original purpose - life in the Trinity - by first reordering ourselves to that purpose. Through prayer we develop - with the help of God's grace - this constant communion with God. We learn to work constantly in synergy with God's ongoing transformative actions in our life. We then take not only that experience, but God Himself out into the world. To paraphrase St. Teresa of Avile, through our divinization in prayer we become the hands and feet, the eyes and ears, the mouthpiece of the risen Christ in this world. No one knew this more than the saints.

I was reminded of this in a particular way this week while praying Safro/Morning Prayer in the Maronite tradition. Yesterday, on the Maronite and Roman calendars, was the feastday of one of my all-time favorite saints, St. Francis of Assisi. In the Sedro of the Hoosoyo at morning prayer on the feasts of confessors we find this beautiful prayer:

"O God, we offer you praise and glory on this blessed morning, the feast day of Saint N. You have chosen him as a light for the Church, a model for believers, and a witness to you in the world.

Already at the beginning of this prayer we discover the very "this-worldly" emphasis in the spirituality of the saints as celebrated in the East. God is glorified through the saint because the saint was a witness to God in this world. The saints make God present in this world and allow us to see the face of God. But at this point the prayer continues on with a shift in address. As you will see we address God and then shift to addressing the saint:

Blessed are you who distribute your gifts on those whom you wish and in the measure which you desire, and give a generous part to the saints.

Blessed are you, who did well with the talents you have received, because your Lord has now confided much in you!

Blessed are you who understood the gospel and have put it into practice!

Blessed are you because you have loved God and your neighbor, and observed the commandments and counsels."

We are here reminded of the "Parable of the Talents" found in Matthew's Gospel 25:14-30 in which the master doles out talents to three servants, two of whom invest those talents, and one of whom buries his portion until his master returns. God bestows on us certain blessings or "talents" that are meant to help draw us closer to the Kingdom. Do we invest those talents? As Christians we are called to be stewards of the Gospel. In Christ we have been given the Good News of salvation. This Good News is not meant to be hoarded by us like some old miser hoarding his wealth. We are called to share this Good News with others. But we are each called to share this Good News in ways consistent with the gifts, the "talents," that God has given us. Not all are called to preach. Not all are called to lives of scholarship. Not all are called into the monastery. And not all are called to the priesthood or religious life. So it is important in our spiritual lives that we discern the gifts that God has given us in order that we might more effectively go out and share the Good News of salvation in Christ.

St. Paul reminds us in his letter to the Romans: "Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice holy and acceptable to God, your spiritual worship." He then exhorts us on to generosity, giving of the gifts which we have been given, investing the talents that have been entrusted to us. But first St. Paul exhorts us to humility:

"Thus, in virtue of the favor given to me, I warn each of you not to think more highly of himself than he ought. Let him estimate soberly, in keeping with the measure of faith that God has apportioned to him."

Already we are called to discern. What have I been given? What is my portion? How can I best invest that portion so as to bring the most souls to Christ? We must look upon ourselves with humility and not presume that we have been given gifts which are not ours. I am not a priest, and so I cannot go about acting as if I have the specific graces of a priest. Nor am I good accounting. It would be an act of pride for me to take on the role of an accountant even in the service of Christ. St. Paul goes on:

"Just as each of us has one body with many members, and not all the members have the same function, so too we, though many, are one body in Christ and individually members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the favor bestowed on each of us. One's gift may be prophecy; its use should be in proportion to his faith. It may be the gift of ministry; it should be used for service. One who is a teacher should use his gift for teaching; one with the power of exhortation should exhort. He who gives alms should do so generously; he who rules should exercise his authority with care; he who performs works of mercy should do so cheerfully."

And here's the real clincher. After all this St. Paul tells us, "Your love must be sincere." We each have our gifts. In prayer we discern what those gifts are so that we might then come down off the mountain of prayer and be stewards of the Gospel according to the gifts which we have been given. But our stewardship must be in sincere love of God and neighbor.

How do we "do well with the talents we have received?" For those of us who are married our witness to the Gospel is first to our family. Are we generous with our family? Is our love sincere. In ministering to our family do minister cheerfully? Do we use our gift of ministry to our family for selfless service to them, or do we "keep score," expecting something in return? I know there are times when I just don't want to be bothered to change yet another diaper. And while I may go ahead and change that diaper, I am all but cheerful about it. This is not a generous giving of myself. It is not a good exercise of the gift of ministry that has been given me by virtue of the graces of marriage. You can apply this to any aspect of married life. Perhaps you hate doing the dishes, or sitting down to work out the family budget, or running the vacuum cleaner, or shopping for groceries. Perhaps you feel as though you would come closer to God if you could just skip all that and go pray. But this is a deception. We must pray, of course, but our prayer must lead us to action in the world. For us married folks this action starts within our own family and the duties of family life.

Priests, monks, and nuns can apply this to their lives as well. Monasticism has always had a strong emphasis on balancing work and prayer. What is your gift within your monastery or convent? How can you apply that gift to exhort your brethren to deeper holiness? Priests, I'm sure there are days where you just don't want to go out there and hear confessions for the millionth time, knowing that you're probably going to be hearing the same things that you've heard over and over again. Perhaps you don't want to make yet another trip to the hospital to visit that one person who just gets under your skin. Or perhaps there is a young know-it-all punk like me in your parish that you would just rather not talk to, but who seems insistent on coming over once or twice a week for a chat. But what is the gift that has been given to you by virtue of your ordination?

I was challenged this past week by a dear friend of mine. I've been told time and again by numerous people that I have a gift for writing. This friend told me I needed to sit down and start writing some books. I must admit that while I'd love to do this, I am a bit frightened at the prospect of writing a book. I don't really know why, but I am. But I have to discern. Is this really a gift that God has given me? Will my use of this gift be for my own pride's sake, or is this going to be an act of genuine love for Christ and service to my neighbor?

"Blessed are you, who did well with the talents you have received, because your Lord has now confided much in you!"

It seems like something so simple. But what are your talents? How can you invest them? Seek this out in prayer. It may take years, but you will get an answer. Once you have the answer, do not remain on the mountain. St. Peter wanted to remain on Mt. Tabor, to extend that mountain-top experience and to keep it for himself. But Christ, through His action, reminded Peter (and He reminds us) that this mountain-top experience has to be brought down into the world. Christ came down off the mountain of His Transfiguration and shortly thereafter poured out His very life for the salvation of the world. We too are called to come down off the mountain of prayer and pour ourselves out, in sincere love of God and neighbor, for the life of the world. May heaven consume us.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Making Eye Contact

Have you ever been in a conversation with someone where the other person was obviously not paying attention to a word you said? They look around at every little thing going on around you, except at you. It's as if they go out of their way to avoid making any sort of eye contact with you. One of my biggest pet-peeves is having a conversation with a person who is messing around with their i-phone. I've gotten up and walked away from folks who were "texting" while trying to have a conversation with me. Conversing with such people is exhausting, maddening, frustrating, and pointless. It makes one feel like you don't really matter to the person with whom you are trying to speak.

Or have you ever been in a conversation with a person who simply seems incapable of making eye contact with you. They stare at the floor, at their shoes, at their hands in their laps, anywhere but into your eyes. For me, conversations like that are unsettling. It makes me feel like the person has something to hide, or as if they aren't really interested in opening up to having any sort of personal relationship with me because such a relationship would require them to move outside of their comfort zone.

But then we've all been in those conversations where eye-contact is constant. The intensity of such conversations is almost electrifying. If you're an observer of such a conversation you can feel the intensity coming from the people conversing. If you are the person in such a conversation you may feel as if you're looking into the soul of the other and he is looking into your soul. Such conversations happen between the twitterpated couple on a date, and between good friends simply sharing their thoughts with one another. Such conversations even happen between married couples and friends without a word being spoken. They glance over at each other, make eye contact, and it seems as if they've just communicated an entire world to one another.

When you work in sales you understand the importance of eye-contact. Eye-contact makes your customer/client/prospect feel important. Eye-contact lets your prospect know that you genuinely care about his concerns and his needs. Through this it builds trust. By building trust you lay the foundation for a solid professional relationship. In my own work in sales I've found that when I maintain eye-contact with my customer I generally have a much easier time selling to them, not because I am manipulating them in any way, but because I am demonstrating that I genuinely care for them and that I think my product and my services are exactly the thing that is going to help make their experience with my company a completely satisfactory experience.

While I was working yesterday all of this flooded into my mind at once and I realized that it applies to our prayer life every bit as much as to our day-to-day relationships. We've all experienced distraction at prayer. It is one of the biggest struggles against which we must constantly fight. I realized, however, that those thoughts and distractions during prayer correspond to the friend who is always fidgeting with their i-phone while we're trying to talk to them. Prayer is a two-way conversation. Even if you are reading your prayers from a book, God is communicating to you through the words of the prayer every bit as much as you are communicating to Him through those same words. It is no wonder that the saints all say that when we just prattle off the words without giving them any thought, without being attentive, then we are not truly praying. When we allow ourselves to be distracted at prayer, thinking of the things we have to do today, or the conversations we had with friends the night before, or fretting about unknown futures, or whatever, then we are no different in our relationship with God than that friend who will not let go of texting for 20 minutes to have a real conversation with you.

For others among us, letting go and letting God penetrate to the depths of our being makes us uncomfortable. Maybe you have a heightened sense of your own sinfulness and unworthiness. Perhaps you are ashamed of some past misdeeds. Perhaps you are afraid that if you enter into a deeper relationship with God - if you make "eye-contact" with Him - then He will see you for what you are and reject you. I know I have been affected by this in my own spiritual life every bit as much as by just general distraction. But here's a news flash for all of us. God knows the depths of our beings. He knew us before we were even thought of by our parents. He knows our hearts inner-most desires and longings, even the disordered and sinful passions that have made their home in our hearts. And yet, despite all that God has not rejected us, nor will He. As St. Paul mentions, Christ came while we were yet sinners, and He died for us in order to heal our iniquities. That thought alone should give us ample courage to lift our mind's eye from the ground and make "eye-contact" with God in prayer, allowing Him to enter our hearts and heal us.

St. Theophan the Recluse spoke of prayer as descending with the mind into the heart and standing there unswervingly before God. Perhaps another way we can think of this is making eye-contact with God, and holding that gaze unswervingly. The Jesus Prayer, repeated throughout the day, becomes that quick loving glance to the Other that communicates more than words alone could ever hope to communicate. In order to pray truly we must learn to enter the with our mind into the heart, and there to gaze into the eyes of a God Who loves us beyond our own comprehension. That gaze is intense. That gaze is purifying. That gaze is healing. I'm reminded of all the times in the Gospels where there is mention of Christ looking upon someone. Any time the Gospel mentions "the look" things happen. Lepers and blind men are healed, the dead are raised to life, hearts are converted. We can also think of the power of Christ's gaze over His enemies. When at Nazareth the people sought to throw Him over the cliff, he simply gazed at them and walked through the crowds unharmed. In the Gethsemene, when the court Temple came to arrest Him Jesus gazed at them and they fell to the ground.

In prayer that gaze, that "eye-contact," has the same power. It has the power to raise us to new life and to heal the wounds of our sin. It also has the power to drive the demons out of our hearts and to cut through the passions of this world that we have allowed to penetrate us. But Our Lord will never allow that power to have any effect on us unless we first turn our gaze to His gaze. We must learn to gaze into the eyes of our Lord and Savior. May heaven consume us.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Pray Continually?

One of the most challenging aspects of the spirituality surrounding the Jesus Prayer is its emphasis on following the command of St. Paul to "pray always." Prayer, I'm venturing to guess, in the minds of most people means reading written prayers or saying memorized prayers. It may even mean simply turning to God and saying a prayer that wells up from your heart. This, of course, is one aspect of prayer, but it is not prayer at its core. All the great mystics have pointed out that prayer is more an attitude or disposition than the recitation of formulas. No matter the tradition, Eastern or Western, whether you're reading the writings contained in the Philokalia, or the writings of the great Syrian mystics; whether you're reading the writings of Sts. Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross or the wisdom of Russian masters like Sts. Theophan the Recluse and Ignatius Brianchaninov, it doesn't matter. They all emphasize that prayer is much more than a mere repetition of written or memorized formulas. Prayer is beyond words.

However, perhaps we still fall into the trap of reducing prayer to words, to a repetition of written or memorized formulas, or spouting out a quick prayer that wells up from within. I know that I personally fall into this trap all the time. I sit in my little corner in the morning and pray my morning prayers out of my little book. Perhaps I sit in "silence" for a little while trying to glean what bits insight I can from the prayers I just read (in reality my mind is racing over the things I need to get done today). Even on my way to work I may pray the Jesus Prayer, but my mind is full of other thoughts and my heart is grasping at the lures of the world which present themselves to me day-in and day-out. I may know in my head what prayer is, I may have an academic understanding of it and be able to define it, but so often my day-to-day prayer life is simply routine. If I miss a day of my routine then my entire day is thrown off.

Don't get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with routine even in one's prayer life. If you are in a stage in your prayer life where all you can do is go through the motions, then it is better to go through the motions with hope that this time will pass than to give up on prayer all together. Sometimes we have to "fake it 'till we make it." But as we go through the motions we have to still be striving for authentic prayer.

I believe I have mentioned in previous posts that authentic prayer is a Presence. Authentic prayer is a humble awareness of God's Presence with us. Authentic prayer also requires that we be present to God.  Sometimes while I'm at work my fellow employees and I may become preoccupied with whatever tasks we are attempting to complete. We become so focused on our tasks that we are not even aware of each other. We have blinders on, and all we see is the task in front of us. From time to time throughout the day, in order to break up the monotony, I will reach out to the employee next to me and "fist bump" him, or "high-five" my manager, or simply smile at one of my other coworkers. No words are spoken. But such actions demonstrate to my fellow employees that I'm aware of them, I appreciate them. I believe it reminds all of us that we are all in this together. But most importantly for our purposes, it is a form of being present to them.

The same holds true in our prayer life, and particularly in our striving to pray without ceasing. If prayer truly means to be humbly aware of God's Presence, and to be present to Him, then words are not necessary. All we need to do is to turn to God in our mind and heart and acknowledge Him. In dealing with these same questions, Fr. George Maloney, S.J. makes the following comments in his wonderful book Prayer of the Heart: The Contemplative Tradition of the Christian East:

"The majority of the desert fathers saw prayer, not in terms of the strong intellectual accent that Evagrius gave to the subject, but rather in terms of the praxis or ascetical life along with the inner "pushing" of one's consciousness always more toward God as the goal of all one's actions or thoughts..."

Fr. Maloney goes on to describe prayer as "straining toward God" and to say that while the early monks went about their daily labors, the invented short prayers that they would then repeat in order to push the mind toward God. This was the roots of the Jesus Prayer. The short prayers themselves were never meant as an end in themselves. Rather, they were always intended to bring the mind and heart into the Presence of God. These short prayers, and the Jesus Prayer in particular, are meant to break us out of our focus on our day-to-day tasks and to remind us of God's Presence to us and the necessity of our presence to Him. Fr. Maloney goes on to say:

"This is the beginning of the Jesus Prayer that centers around a phrase, including the name of Jesus, repeated as often as the person can do so, accompanied by an interior desire to be in the presence of the Lord and Savior. The prayer element consists in the longing and the stretching out spiritually toward the Lord." (Emphasis Mine).

Prayer consists of longing for and stretching out to the Lord. St. Augustine famously said, "My heart searches restlessly, and it finds no rest until it rests in you." Our hearts long for a Presence. Too often we seek to fill that longing with anything but the Presence for which our hearts desire. The point of written prayers, even the Jesus Prayer, is to remind us that our real longing is for the Presence of God. That Presence, the hesychast Fathers teach us, can be found within us if we have the courage to look for it.

For me I know that my own prayer becomes rout oftentimes because I fear allowing Christ to shed His light into my heart. I am ashamed at what He will find there. But most of all I am ashamed at what I will see there. And so I go through my prayers and I do all the talking. I ignore God's Presence while I pray. It's as though I say to the Lord, "What I have to say to you now is more important than what you have to say to me. So please be quiet, sit back, and listen. And if there's time after I'm done talking, then maybe I'll let you do some talking." But this morning, as I was going through my prayer routine, I realized that I have lost sight of my faith in the power of Christ's light to transform and transfigure. Most importantly I have lost sight of the power of God's Word to heal the wounds of my sins and to transform my heart of stone into a heart of flesh. But Christ can only heal if we allow Him. The Word of God will only exercise His Power over us if we allow Him to be present to us, and if we are present to Him. The power of the Holy Spirit that the Father bestows through Christ Jesus will only come upon us if we invite Him and open ourselves to Him. So much for such a little effort! And yet how often are we hesitant to make such an effort? The "longing and the stretching out spiritually towards the Lord" simply means attentiveness to His Presence, and attentive and humble listening to His Word wherever we encounter it/Him.

In the Cherubic Hymn of the Byzantine Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom we sing, "Let us lay aside all earthly cares that we may welcome the King of all." The first step to continual prayer is the laying aside of whatever care we have before us at the moment and welcoming the Presence of God the Trinity within us. Over time the more we break up our day with these moments of welcoming the Trinity, the more we become aware of and attentive to God's Presence until eventually we have a continual attentiveness to this Presence. It is then that the gift of continual prayer has been given to us. But we must do our part and strive, longing and stretching out towards that Presence. May Heaven consume us!

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Holy Vocation or Vocation to Holiness?

Whether you're Catholic or Orthodox no doubt you have heard over and over again that we have a vocations crisis on our hands. Parents are told that they need to encourage their children to become priests, monks, or nuns. We parents need to be open to the fact that God may call our children to the religious life. This is all well and good. Of course we do need more vocations to the religious life, and such vocations ought to be encouraged.

Here is something that's been weighing on my mind this past week. So often we hear talk of how we need young men and women to enter the religious life, to embrace a "holy vocation." But often the encouragement towards the religious life is presented in such a way as to diminish the holiness of a vocation to the married life (yes, marriage too is a vocation); as if marriage is, somehow, a lesser vocation. But we need holy men and women to become holy husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, every bit as much as we need holy men and women in the priesthood and religious life.

All vocations start at home. A young person may have a calling to the religious life, but if they are not taught how to listen for that calling within the home, then the call will fall on deaf ears. The Church has been repeating to us over and over again for decades now that all religious formation begins at home. The home is the "domestic Church" where children first learn to pray, to live holy lives, where the consciences are first formed and where they first learn the teachings of the Church. The home is where a child first encounters Christ. As Christian parents we are our children's first contact with Christ. Do we model the love of Christ for our children? Do we pour ourselves out for our spouse and our family in the same way that Christ emptied Himself for us? Have we created a home for our children that would foster holy vocations to either the religious life or to marriage?

The vocation to marriage is the most fundamental to all other vocations in the sense that it is only through marriage that future generations of Christians are brought into the world. But we, as married couples and heads of our families, have a vocation to live holy lives, to model holiness for our children. We must be able to listen to and hear the voice of God so that we can teach our children to do so as well, whether it be through example, direct teaching, or both. It is only through fully living our vocation to marriage that our children will learn how to fully live out their vocations, whether to marriage or the religious life, in a holy way.

In the end we all have the same vocation. We all have a vocation to holiness. To be the light of Christ shining in a world that seems to be ever more darkened by the darkness of sin. But, if we fully live out our vocation to holiness, whether that holiness is lived out in the married life or the religious life, then our children will learn to go out and be a light unto the world. Only when holy men and women fully embrace their vocation to holiness within the married life will we have a greater increase in vocations to the religious life. Think of it this way; all the great saints had at least one parent who modeled holiness for them. Sts. Augustine, Francis of Assisi, and Seraphim of Sarov all had their mothers as models of holiness for them. These three men became some of the most influential saints in their regions and throughout the world. But for them it all started at home. St. Therese of Lisieux and her sisters also learned to live holy lives through both their mother and their father. It is no coincidence that the majority of the Martin (St. Therese's family name) sisters entered the religious life and went on to reach the heights of holiness. Because of her holy parents - who are now "blesseds" in the Roman Church - nearly an entire family has been elevated or is in the process of being elevated to sainthood.

So I suppose my bit of encouragement for all of us this week is to strive for holiness in whatever vocation you find yourself. Fully embrace and live your vocation. As St. Seraphim is so famous for saying, "Acquire the Spirit of peace, and thousands around you will be saved." We could paraphrase that to say, "Fully live your vocation to holiness - whether in the religious or married life - and thousands around you will be saved." May Heaven consume us.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

His Tender Arms

Have you ever felt as if God has abandoned you? Have you ever looked around the world in fear, feeling as though God was not carrying you in His arms to safety? Have you ever felt as if God has just completely withdrawn from you and left you to the attacks of the world, the flesh and the devil? If so, you're in good company. I believe all Christians who are actively seeking a deeper relationship with God have gone through this at some point. In fact, all of the great mystics - East and West - have stated that such abandonment is a stage in the spiritual life. Our spiritual life begins with great consolations - the "honeymoon phase" I call it - but we eventually get to the point where any and all consolation ceases and we must just press on in hope.

What I've come to realize is that these aren't stages that we progress through, so much as they are intermittent phases. God gives us consolation as we need it and desolation when it will do us some good. Sts. Ignatios and Kallistos Xanthopoulos mention this in their wonderful writings on the spiritual life contained in the Philokalia. But what I'd like to discuss here is an image that they presented that has given me a great deal of comfort and that I will certainly continue to meditate upon as I attempt to progress in the spiritual life.

First, they mention that God never fully withdraws His grace and presence from us, unless we ourselves have first withdrawn from God. Only when we have withdrawn from God does He allow us to go our own way - like the father of the prodigal son allowing his son to abandon him and make his own mistakes, all the while hoping he will come to his senses and return home. No, under normal circumstance God withdraws from us in order to keep us from becoming puffed up, full of ourselves wrongfully proud of the progress that we have made in the spiritual life (as though any progress is a result of our efforts alone). God withdraws from us in order that we might more clearly see just how much we depend on Him.

This is the way they put it. God is like a mother nursing her child. The child becomes fidgety and wants to be put down. It thinks that it will be fine on its own and does not need its mother to protect it. So the mother, in order to teach the child just how much it relies on her, puts the child down. When the child is confronted by the faces of strangers and roaming animals, it perceives the danger that exists beyond its mother's loving arms and comes running back to her, and crying and screaming and reaching up to her until she picks it up.

What a powerful image! God's attentiveness to us and His tenderness towards us is like that of a mother towards her baby. How many mothers can let their child cry for very long before picking up her little baby and comforting it? If our earthly mothers scoop us up so quickly, how much more quickly will our heavenly Father, who's tenderness is beyond that of any earthly mother, come to our aid when we cry out to Him.

We all experience abandonment, desolation, "spiritual aridity," spiritual dryness, etc. Whatever name we may label it with, remember, we have a loving Father. He has only set us down for a short time so that we might come running back to Him with a renewed realization of how much we depend on Him for any progress in the spiritual life. This may only happen once during our lifetime, or it may happen multiple times. It may be of shorter or longer duration, depending on what we need to grow. I know for me it is an almost regular occurrence. I guess I just get puffed up too quickly. I've experienced dryness that has lasted years, and I've experienced dryness that has lasted only a few days. The point isn't the dryness. The point is that we realize just how much we need our loving Father, and we come back to Him begging for His mercy and grace.

In this context, the Jesus Prayer is a wonderful remedy. When we really focus on the words of the prayer and take them to heart, when we descend with our mind into our heart with this Prayer, we realize just how much we are in need of God's mercy. We are constantly admitting to it and asking for it. But we must pray the Prayer in humility and with attention. Otherwise it, like any other prayer, can serve to puff us up, to inflate our self-image and make us think (at least subconsciously) that we do not need God's grace and mercy, His tender embrace. So meditate on the Prayer, think it over, take it to heart. We will still experience those times of abandonment, but when we do we will know that it's for our own good and we will come running back to God with this Prayer, and we will find ourselves again in His tender arms. May heaven consume us.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

What's Coming?

I know I've not been as good about posting things as I'd like to be, and as I've said I'd be. So I just wanted to let everyone know what I've been working on. Other than actually filling a good number of orders for prayer ropes and rosaries, I've been reading through the series of 100 "sentences" by Sts. Ignatios and Kallistos Xanthopoulos. These "sentences" were written for monastics who lived in inner-city monasteries that were often very busy with visitors and other ministries. Because of this there is a lot of amazing and very practical advice for busy lay folks like myself and, I'm sure, most of you all.

I've almost completed my first reading of their "sentences." Once I'm done with that I am going to go through it and write some meditations/posts on some of their pieces that I think might most easily be applied to our day-to-day lives as lay people seeking to come closer to the Lord, to prepare our hearts to receive Him. So I will be creating another series similar to the one I did on The Arena by St. Ignatius Brianchaninov.

Thanks for your patience with all of this, and thanks for coming back and visiting this humble little blog. Happy Sunday, and may heaven consume us!


Thursday, August 15, 2013

Who Are You?

A day or two ago as I was driving around for work and listening to the local AM Catholic radio station (Sacred Heart Radio [740 AM for you Cincinnati dwellers]), I was struck by a quote from St. Francis of Assisi given by the show host. The quote was a prayer of St. Francis that the host credited to instilling Francis with his sense of joy and love of God's creation. "Lord, show me Who You are, and who I am." What a profound prayer in its simplicity. It has been weighing on my mind since I heard it, and it has been welling up from within my heart as well. Lord, Who are You? And who am I? As I was thinking on this tonight, I realized some connections that this has to the Jesus Prayer, and how the Jesus Prayer actually answers both of those questions for us, if we are willing to open our hearts and listen to God speaking to us through the Prayer.

The answer(s) revolves around the simple word "mercy." Our God is a God of mercy. He is a merciful God not only in the sense that when we fell from His love and grace He went to the Cross in order to save us and restore our relationship with Him. But He is merciful in the very act of creation itself! It is, after all, better to be than not to be; there is no question about that despite Shakespeare's question from the lips of Hamlet (I think). God is also merciful in that after creating us He not only wished to maintain a relationship with us, but entered into covenant relationship with us. Dr. Scott Hahn and other biblical scholars have gone to great lengths to demonstrate to us that covenant bonds in ancient societies were oftentimes even stronger than familial bonds. So, although we speak of our being "foster" or "adopted" children of God the Father in Christ Jesus, the reality is that our relationship to our Heavenly Father is much closer than that of adoption. It is so close that Christ taught us to call the Father "Abba" - an affectionate title the connotes intimate familiarity and family ties (in much the same way that my family referred to my late grandparents as "Ma'am" and "Pops," and I refer to my dad as "Pops").

But what does the Jesus Prayer reveal to us about ourselves? Or rather, what does God our Abba reveal to us about ourselves through the Jesus Prayer? At surface-level we might be tempted to say that the Jesus Prayer teaches us that we are sinners: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner. I won't deny that such a reading is true. We are all sinners. I am a sinner. I have fallen short of God's plan for me. But there are two things that we must remember here. First, the more ancient form of the Jesus Prayer does not include the final words "a sinner." That was an addition that was added through Russian piety. I am not saying that it shouldn't have been added, but simply that it was a later addition. The more ancient form, in my opinion, focused more on God's mercy and our need of His mercy regardless of whether or not we sin.

Secondly, by admitting that we are sinners and that we are in need of God's mercy we are admitting something else. Archbishop Fulton Sheen points out that "sin" simply means missing the mark, or missing a target. It is, quite simply, falling short of an intended goal. Think of that! Sin isn't a violation of some arbitrary commandment placed on us by a tyrant God. Sin is missing the mark. It is failing to live up to who and what God created us to be! It is failing to "be all that you can be," as the Army so aptly puts it. Who are you? Who am I? We are children of God our Abba! We were created to share in the very life and glory of the Trinity! We weren't created to merely worship God in an extrinsic manner, offering praise and sacrifice to Him because He's God. God, in His love and mercy, created us to share in His very life. Our sins, therefore, are not breaking a commandment that is extrinsic to us. Our sins are a refusal to participate in that life for which we were created! Our sins are a denial of our very nature, who we are! We were created for light, not darkness, for life, not death, for glory, not misery, for joy, not suffering. That is God's mercy!

So Who is God? God is our Abba, our Daddy, our Papa. He is our Abba Who showers His love, His steadfast love, His longsuffering love, His mercy upon us from creation to the very act of sending His only begotten Son for our salvation. He is a God, a Father, an Abba Who so earnestly desires a relationship with us that He is willing to give up and has given up everything for that relationship. "God, show me Who You are."

And who are we? We are His creatures, His greatest creation, His adopted children, His covenant family! What mercy! But we often fall short of our dignity as members of His family. We often cast ourselves out of that family through our own sinfulness. We often participate in that life, the Trinitarian life, for which we were created and we choose, rather, darkness, despair, nothingness, death. But the reality doesn't change. In God's eyes we are still His children. God does not reject us. In our sinfulness we reject Him. But He is always there to welcome us back into the family. What mercy! On the one hand we need to take a sort of "holy pride" in who we are. We are, after all, God's children. What child who grew up in a loving family is not proud of that family? I know some folks who are so proud of their family that it is almost annoying. I'm very proud of my family. I believe that I grew up with the greatest parents and siblings a person could ask for, and I hope to pass that on to my children as well. So if we can be proud of our earthly families and our role in those families, how much more so God's family! But at the same time we must be humble and recognize how we abuse and reject our "family pride;" how we cast ourselves outside of the family through our sinfulness. "God, show me... who I am."

He is Abba, we are His children. Think about that the next time you pray, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me (a sinner)." May heaven consume us!

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

"Hail Mary" of Syriac Christians

Many Eastern Christians reject the "Hail Mary" as a Western prayer. By now I've come to realize that each Church has its own version of the "Hail Mary." The Byzantine version runs:

"Rejoice, Virgin Theotokos, Mary full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb, for you have borne the Savior of our sous."

The version used while praying the mequtaria is quite long. I'm not so sure it could be called a "version" of the "Hail Mary," but it certainly bears some striking similarities to the other versions of the "Hail Mary" I've come across.

This morning, while I was searching to find out what "Sootoro" is in the Maronite/Syrian tradition, I came across the following version of the "Hail Mary" used among the Syriac Churches:

"Hail Mary, full of grace, Our Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, our Lord, Jesus Christ. O Virgin Saint Mary, O Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at all times, and at the hour of our death. Amen. 

I believe I'm going to use this as the foundation of a Maronite/Syrian rosary, time permitting. May heaven consume us.

(P.S. Incidentally "Sootoro" is Compline or "Night Prayer" in the Syrian/Syriac tradition and is prayed immediately before retiring to bed.)

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Knowledge or Entertainment?

Recently I was browsing through a work by St. Theophan the Recluse. In a letter he wrote to one of his correspondences he mentions how it is perfectly acceptable for the spiritual person to read non-spiritual books and literature, so long as they are not harmful to our faith and so long as they present truth and not lies. He mentions that the spiritual person can even find a great deal of spiritual insight from non-spiritual literature.

Bearing this in mind, I have recently been reading a lot of books on sales. Working as I do in the sales profession I figured it's best that I hone my skills in order to provide a better service to my clients and a better living for my family. Sales is both a science and an art. As such, good salesmanship can be learned. But I digress.

In the book that I am currently working my way through on the subject I stumbled across a great gem of insight. The book is The Accidental Salesperson by Chris Lytle. On page 120, in the midst of talking about the importance of pre-meeting planning and getting one's prospects involved, he throws out this great comment: "Education without action is entertainment. To know and not to do is not to know."

This got me to thinking, how much of our spiritual reading is done merely for entertainment. All the saints are unanimous that if we are going to do spiritual reading (which we ought to be doing), then we need to put what we read into practice. This does not mean that we do every little thing that we read. We have to use discernment and apply what the saints are talking about to our lives and our unique circumstances as non-monastics living in the world - or even as monastics living in monasteries. But we do have to act upon what we read, otherwise we will never come to know God through the deeper knowledge of experience and experiential relationship with Him. If we do not act upon what we read and discern what is best to apply in our lives, then our reading is nothing more than entertainment. God is not a necessity in our lives, but merely one more form of entertainment competing with other (potentially better) forms of entertainment.

The spiritual life, however, is not entertainment. Of course, it can be fun at times. I will be the first to admit that spirituality can be fun. And there should certainly be an element of fun and playfulness in our spiritual lives. Archbishop Joseph Raya is very adamant about this, as are other great spiritual masters. But there is also a great deal of struggle, suffering, pain, and hardship in the spiritual life. If we only approach the spiritual life and our relationship with God as a form of entertainment, then why would we persevere when the going gets tough?

The saints wrote what they did in order to give us a roadmap in the spiritual life, especially for when the going gets tough. Their writings give us the focus we need to keep our eye on the prize at the end of the journey and to encourage us along the way. They have made the journey and were kind enough to leave us a roadmap. In gratitude, let's put that map to use instead of just looking at it as an intriguing piece of archaic literature and an insight into ancient monastic culture. Practice what they preach! They sure did, and now they are reaping the eternal rewards. May heaven consume us.

Friday, July 19, 2013

A Prayer Before Reading the Scriptures

So it's after 2:00 AM and I can't sleep for some reason. That means I'm up and looking at liturgical texts online. About a week ago I stumbled across the liturgical texts for the "Rite of the Divine Mysteries" of the Church of the East (Chaldeans and Assyrians). The texts are those used by Chaldean and Assyrian Catholics here in the U.S. and other English-speaking countries. Curiosity made me bookmark the texts so that I could peruse them at a later date. While going through them tonight I found the following prayer that is perfect for beginning one's Bible study or Lectio Divina. In the Liturgy it is prayed by the priest before the Epistle is read. I believe the priest prays it out loud (I can't say for sure since I've never been to a Chaldean or Assyrian Divine Liturgy).

Enlighten our mental faculties, our Lord and our God, that we may understand and savor the sweet sound of your life-giving and divine commands. Grant, in your grace and your mercies, that we may reap benefit from them: love, hope and the salvation that befits both body and soul. Thus will we unceasingly sing a perpetual praise to you at all times O Lord of all, Father, Son and Holy Spirit forever.

And for good measure, here is the prayer prayed before the announcing of the Gospel in the Byzantine tradition. This translation is from the Melkite text that was revised a couple of years ago.

Shine in our hearts, Master who love mankind, the pure light of Your divine knowledge and open the eyes of our mind that we may understand the announcing of Your Good News; set in us the fear of Your blessed commandments, so that, trampling all carnal desires, we may live according to the Spirit, both willing and doing everything that pleases You. For You are the light of our souls and bodies, O Christ God, and we render glory to You, and to Your Eternal Father and to Your All-Holy, Good and Life-­Giving Spirit, now and always and forever and ever. Amen. 

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Arena: Ignatius Brianchaninov's Councils on Prayer Part 6: Practice Makes Perfect

So often when speaking of the Jesus Prayer or unceasing prayer we have a tendency to focus on one of two topics: 1) the Jesus Prayer itself, its theological richness, its history, its spirituality, etc; 2) the question of prayer, what it is, how we ought to pray, etc. In reading St. Ignatius Brianchaninov's Arena this morning I realized that we ignore a very key aspect in praying the Jesus Prayer. PRACTICE!

Anyone who wants to be good at something knows that they have to practice. We've all heard that worn out adage, "practice makes perfect." Heck, I'm sure most of us have used that on numerous occasions. In the world of music, if someone wants to learn an instrument for the first time, or pick up a second instrument, one of the first things a professional musician will tell them is to practice for at least a half an hour every day (ideally at least an hour). Salespeople are encouraged to practice their sales scripts and pitches. Athletes practice their particular sports for hours and hours. Even soldiers in the military "practice" for combat through drills. What makes us think the spiritual life would be any different? When entering into the arena of spiritual combat, what makes us think we can come out victorious over our enemy if we haven't first prepared by practicing the Jesus Prayer or any other form of prayer?

The goal of all prayer, according to St. Ignatius and countless other great spiritual masters, is unceasing prayer, unceasing communion with God the Trinity, unceasing remembrance of God. St. Ignatius makes a very interesting point:

"In order to become eventually capable of unceasing prayer he (the novice or beginner at prayer) must practice frequent prayer."

"Frequent prayer!" The word is self-explanatory and really needs no definition. Frequent prayer means turning to God whenever we have the chance. We can use the Jesus Prayer or any other short prayer that draws us into God's presence. St. Ignatius says:

"Do you happen to have a free moment? Do not waste it in idleness!... Use it for the practice of the Jesus Prayer."

I remember listening to Metropolitan Kallistos Ware talk on the Jesus Prayer. He mentions some very practical moments in which we can turn to God with the Jesus Prayer. Any time we are standing in line waiting our turn at something we have a free moment to practice the Jesus Prayer. While we wait for the bus at a bus stop. While we're driving in traffic. While we're walking from one place to another. Any time we are engaged in any sort of activity that doesn't require our complete focus we can engage the Jesus Prayer. Practice!

It is this practice of frequent prayer that leads to the habit of prayer. As I mentioned in a previous post, the more we do something the more it becomes a part of who we are. The more we practice frequent prayer the deeper it enters into the core of our being and changes our hearts. In time and by God's gift of grace eventually unceasing prayer will be granted to us. We just have to persevere in hope. We just have to practice!

In our practice, however, we must remember not to become despondent no matter how many mistakes we might make. We will get distracted. We will lose focus. There will be days, months, or even years where it will just feel like our heart isn't in it. Don't let that discourage you. Don't let that lead you to abandon your practice. Stay the course and be strong. Confess your fallenness to God. Beg is forgiveness, mercy, compassion, and help. He's already sent His Son to die for us, so giving us a little help in prayer is an easy thing!

Not to belabor examples from the world of music, but musicians often go through similar struggles as those seeking to deepen the prayer life and spiritual life. Musicians are told to practice the fundamentals. Even professional musicians who have been playing their instruments for decades will always come back and practice scales, various basic finger techniques, proper breathing, etc., etc., etc. When we first get started playing music we don't want to practice this stuff. We want to play music, not scales and techniques. But by practicing these scales and techniques it becomes easier for us to actually play the music and learn new music. I knew a young fiddle player who, for a number of years, could only play a handful of tunes. He focused on those tunes so that he could develop his style and technique. He practiced and practiced these tunes for years, only learning a couple of new tunes each year. Eventually, however, he had solidified his unique style, and then learning tunes was nothing for him. He went from knowing only a handful to knowing a wealth of music; and he is now one of the finest Irish fiddle players you will ever hear (no, it's not me).

The same applies to our prayer life. Sure the Jesus Prayer is simple, it is short, we may get bored of it after some time because, on the surface, it doesn't seem to have the theological richness of some lengthier prayers. But if we stick with it and practice this fundamental prayer, then unceasing prayer will eventually be granted. Once it is we will be able to pray any prayer and be drawn immediately into the heart of that prayer, and that prayer will be immediately in our hearts. God will be with us as He always is, but we will be constantly with Him as well. May heaven consume us.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Kallistos Ware - Saint Gregory Palamas

One last lecture from the good Metropolitan. :)

Kallistos Ware - How should we study Theology?

More gold from Metropolitan Kallistos.

A Conversation on the Philokalia with Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware)

A friend of mine up in Michigan shared this video interview on Facebook. Having watched the whole thing this morning I felt I had to share it here on "The Master Beadsman." Of course, anything written or spoken by Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) is worth listening to. Given, however, that he has been so heavily involved in the translation of the Philokalia into the English language, his words on the genesis, translation, publication, history, etc. of the Philokalia are all the more pertinent.

Towards the end of the interview he mentions a very fascinating story. Supposedly St. Paissy Velichkovsky was not a supporter of publishing the Philokalia and making it available to the general public. He believed that it should be kept in folio form and only read by monks or nuns who had a spiritual elder to guide them through the writings. St. Nichodimus of the Holy Mountain, however, and somewhat later St. Theophan the Recluse, disagreed. They believed that such an important work should be published and that we should trust in the Holy Spirit to guide the folks who read it. Metropolitan Kallistos, agree with them, even goes so far as to say that the Holy Spirit guides certain people to read the Philokalia, but not everyone is guided to do so. Our reading of the Philokalia should be supplemented by reading the writings of other spiritual masters that are easier to understand. We should also hope and pray that the Holy Spirit send some elder or other spiritual person our way that may, perhaps, give us a deeper insight into the meaning of the texts. As always, we should read slowly, carefully, and with great humility. Enjoy!

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Focus on God's Love!

The more I pray the Maronite Liturgy of the Hours, the more I am drawn in by it's beauty and theological richness. At least in its English translation, the language is very simple and direct. Although it is poetic in its own way, it does not engage poetry to quite the extent that the Byzantine tradition does. Rather it is very simple in its poetry, maintaining what, to me, is a nice balance between the dignified prose of the Roman tradition and the poetic richness of the Byzantine tradition.

But what draws me in to this the most is its emphasis on the Light of Christ, the mercy of God, the steadfast love of the Trinity, while at the same time reminding us that we are sinners in need of that mercy, love and light. Whereas in other traditions it seems to me that the emphasis is on our sinfulness, the Maronites seem to focus on God's mercy and His plan of salvation. Certainly we are to acknowledge our sins and failings, but not to the point that we lose sight of God's love. To lose sight of God's love is not moving from darkness to light, but from darkness to deeper darkness. I forget where I read it, but I recall reading in some spiritual work that to overly focus on our sinfulness is not humility, but is actually a form of pride. Are we sinners? Sure. We have to acknowledge that. But we must acknowledge all the more that our God is a God of love and mercy. Not the kind of love that is wishy-washy - a mere "warm fuzzy" feeling; nor the kind of mercy that is indulgent. God's love is a love that seeks what is best for us. His mercy is a mercy that recognizes the reality of who we are. God is patient for us to become who and what He created us to be, and so His love for us remains steadfast even when our love for Him falters and our commitment to Him wavers.

In Safro/Morning Prayer this morning we prayed that our minds may always focus on God's love for us, not on our own sinfulness.

" You are the Light that is never extinguished, the Day that never ends, the Morning that has no night.
Lord, may the eyes of our hearts be illumined by your light,
and the rising of your day be  the source of all good.
May our minds be focused on your love.
In your kindness you free us from the darkness of night and
draw us to the light of day;
by the power of your word disperse the evils that come to us.
Thus through your wisdom we will conquer the snares of the
evil one who dons the garb of an angel of light.
Guard us from works of darkness, and keep our gaze fixed on
your resplendent light."
(emphasis mine)

When we focus on the love of God and His steadfast mercy towards us, the snares of the enemy cannot trap us. If, however, we become so self-invovled that we focus primarily on our own sinfulness and the darkness within us, as well as the darkness throughout the rest of the world, then how can we help but fall into the traps of the evil one?

But what is this love and mercy that God has shown and continues to show to us? We pray over it every day. We talk about it almost constantly. But do we ever stop to think about it? Do we ever allow the reality of God's love and mercy sink in? Here is what the Sedro of Safro/Morning prayer has to say:

Christ Jesus, our Lord, God and Savior,
you are long-suffering, full of grace and truth.
You created us from nothing and gave us life.
After the fall you redeemed us and made us your children by
holy baptism.
Now we implore your merciful goodness, as we remember all
you have done for us:

your birth, baptism, crucifixion, death and burial;
your resurrection, ascension, reign at the right hand
of the Father;
your return in judgment when you will come in
glory, on behalf of the Father, to judge the living
and the dead.

We beg you to accept from us, poor and sinful servants, these
prayers and supplications.
Hear the call of our weakness and the plea of our repentance.
Lord, do not turn your face from us in anger;
do not let your justice threaten us.
Remember not the faults and shameful sins we have committed;
do not find us guilty at the moment of judgment
and do not cast us, who have acknowledged you, into the darkness
with those who have not known you.
Grant rather, that purified by our tears of penitence,
we may escape the moaning and gnashing of teeth,
and meet you with confidence at your Second Coming.
(emphasis mine)

We implore God's mercy "as we remember all" He has done for us. Bear in mind that when the Church uses the language of "memory" She uses it in the more ancient sense of making that which is remembered present to those who are remembering. When we remember all that God has done for us, we make present for us the saving reality of God's actions in history, especially as the culminate in the Person of Jesus, Who was born, baptized, crucified, buried, is risen and ascended and enthroned at the right hand of the Father. We remember Jesus, Who will come on behalf of the Father to judge the living and the dead. This is what God - the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit - has done for us. The Second Person of the Trinity became one of us "in all things but sin," died for us in order to conquer the reign of death and darkness, and rose for us that we might rise to glory. He did all of this for us! God does not need us to glorify Him. God does not need us for anything. But in His love for us He wants to give us everything, and He has sacrificed everything - His only Son - in order that we might have everything - the very life of the Trinity!

That is why we can pray that God not look upon our faults and failings; that He withhold His justice and instead show us His mercy and compassion. That is why we can ask Him not to find us guilty at the moment of judgment. We are all guilty of sin, and even the smallest sin deserves eternal punishment (think about that one for a moment). But God was and is willing to do everything to be with us and to have us with Him. All we have to do is keep our minds focused on His love and our gaze fixed upon His light. When we do this, all our sins, faults and bad habits will melt away. Then we can truly stand with confidence before Christ at His Second Coming. We are confident not because we have overcome our sinful nature. No! We are confident in the love God has for us and the mercy He has shown us.

Remember, however, there is a difference between confidence and presumption. Presumption assumes that God will give us the reward even if we have done nothing on our part to merit it. Confidence is to stand in the presence of God knowing that, despite the fact that you have fallen many times, you have persevered in the struggle. You have worked out your salvation in fear and trembling, trusting in the saving power of the Cross and Resurrection of Christ, not in your own ability to save yourself. Confidence is knowing that you have worked in synergy with God's plan of salvation. What we do, ultimately, is nothing compared to what God has done for us. We are the baby who takes one step towards its parent and then tumbles. God is the Father Who sees His child taking that one step, and then runs across the room to scoop them up with pride and shed tears of joy over a single step. We have a loving Father. May His love consume us!

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Lessons from the World of Music

For as long as I can remember I've had unusual tastes in music. I've always tended to prefer the traditional folk musics from all over the world. This fascination has led me to explore the worlds of traditional Irish, Scottish, Chinese, Japanese, and American musics more-or-less in-depth. Growing up, as I did, in the Greater Cincinnati area near the Ohio River in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains I've never wonted for exposure to folk music. Bluegrass and Appalachian music abounds, as does a thriving Irish and Scottish music community, and, I've come to find out, a Chinese music community as well. My family used to make fairly regular trips to Music Hall to listen to some of the great Classical composers, and every year we would sell our wares at the Appalachian Festival in Kentucky, where I'd walk around listening to some great Bluegrass bands and eavesdropping on Bluegrass sessions.

Most recently I've been exploring the world of Tuvan and Mongolian throat singing. This exploration has led me to rediscover a band that I'd actually heard at an Irish music concert years and years ago. The band is called "Huun Huur Tu." At one point in time they did a concert tour with "The Chieftans," one of the classic Irish music groups of the past couple of generations. Why a group of Tuvan throat singers was touring with a group of Irish musicians is beyond me, but I'm sure glad they did.

Why am I bringing up my odd musical tastes? It's not just for curiosity's sake, and it's not to make a big deal over the fact that I have such unusual tastes in music. This morning I was re-watching a concert performed by Huun Huur Tu that has been posted on YouTube. While watching the musicians perform I realized something. Here they are, a group of men that have been performing these songs for years and years, they've performed them so many times that they could perform them in their sleep. And yet there is still a great deal of heart and soul in their music.

The more I thought about this, the more I realized that this is true of musicians across the board. The longer you play music, the easier it becomes, but also the more the music transforms you and you transform it. It becomes a part of you. It enters your soul and transforms you. But at the same time it becomes your own and you have a certain impact on it. I've been playing Irish music since I was eleven. Most tunes that I play I could play in my sleep, or hold entire conversations while I'm playing, if I didn't have to blow into my flute. I can play without thinking about it. It's more like I'm listening to someone else play than actually playing the music myself.

I realized here that there is a great parallel between music and the Jesus Prayer. In The Way of a Pilgrim  the anonymous author mentions the difficulty in beginning the Jesus Prayer. His spiritual father recommended he pray the prayer first 1000 times a day, then 2000, then 3000, then to just keep praying it all day long. After some time and great effort the pilgrim found that the Jesus Prayer became automatic, self-actualized, constant within him. He was always praying it even when he wasn't fully aware. He could be having conversations with others and still be praying the Prayer. It was almost as if he wasn't praying the prayer, but Someone was praying within him. Obviously the implication is that the Holy Spirit was praying within him. Isn't this the ultimate goal of prayer; that we cease to be the ones praying and that the Spirit is constantly praying within us?

I find the similarities to learning and playing music striking. The musician dedicates hours and hours to learning the fundamentals of their instrument and some basic simple melodies. Over time more complicated melodies are introduced. Techniques become easier and easier. With a little more time and practice it isn't long before the musician can learn a new melody with little effort. Eventually, after years of practice, playing, and performing the music has become so much a part of him or her that they barely have to think about it when they are playing. This doesn't mean that their heart is not present in the music, but that the music itself has simply become an extension of themselves. Every note they play flows from the heart.

How true this is in our pursuit of prayer as well. At first it is difficult. We have a hard time focusing. We don't have the attention span to be able to concentrate on long prayers, so we must be content with the "short and sweet," those little arrows that are simple to learn, but packed with meaning. We must be content with constant repetition. In our daily prayer we practice the Jesus Prayer or the Rosary over and over again. We delve into the repetitious liturgical cycle, whether that means we follow the cycles of the Liturgy of the Hours along with Sunday Liturgy, or we simply participate in Sunday Liturgy on a weekly basis. After years and years of this sort of practice and repetition prayer becomes a part of us, an extension of ourselves. We are constantly praying. We are constantly with God, aware of His presence. The Spirit moves within us enabling us to engage our relationship with God all the more, while at the same time reaching out to our neighbors. At this point it doesn't take much effort for us to learn a new prayer and for that prayer to simply flow from our hearts. The prayer is already there in our hearts, it has now just been put to words.

Time, practice, patience, perseverance, focus. This is all it takes to learn to pray. I don't mean to imply that the effort is solely on our part. Of course, we must await for our Lord to grant us the gift of prayer. But if we put in that effort, the gift will be given. Whether it is in a day, a year, or sixty years doesn't really matter. I've seen musicians who just seem to pick up an instrument and be brilliant at it within a matter of days. For others I've seen it take them just a little longer. And then I've known others who have put in years and years of practice and yet never seem to improve. But those who persist, whether it take more or less time, the rewards have always been great. The music they've produced has been brilliant. The same is true of our prayer life. We can't worry about how quickly some people seem to "get it," or how long it's taking us. We must simply persist. The fact that it may take us longer doesn't necessarily mean that we are less holy than others. It simply means that the Lord has a plan for our lives and is perhaps working out something deeper within us. May heaven consume us.