Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Gift of a Spiritual Director

By way of encouragement, I wanted to relate a story to you from my recent journeys in the spiritual life. Of course, we all know that the great mystics of both the Christian East and West tell us that if we want to make serious progress in the spiritual life, we have to have a spiritual director (mother or father). This person needs to have a great deal of experience in the spiritual life. He or she does not need to be a priest or religious - although having a priest as your spiritual director can also provide the added benefit of being your confessor - nor do the necessarily need to be educated. But they do need to be people of holiness, who have a great deal of experience on the path of spiritual progress.

That's a tall order to expect from a spiritual director, especially in our day and age. Even in what we perceive to be the "golden ages" of Christianity, the saints of those times grieved over the lack of holiness in the world and said that it would be nearly impossible to find one person in a thousand that had the requisite experience to be a spiritual director. If that was true for their times, how much more so for ours!

Nevertheless, it seems to me that God puts the right people in our path along this journey at the right time. I've been fortunate enough to have a few spiritual directors, and a number of other encounters with holy people, that have come into my life at key moments. Throughout my struggles as a teenager I was fortunate enough to have Fr. Nestor, an Australian priest who had studied at the John Paul II Institute for Studies in Marriage and Family, and was serving as an assistant pastor at my home parish. He help guide me through the years of "teenage angst" with all its struggles to discover one's purpose and vocation, to maintain one's chastity, to learn one's identity in Christ, and to develop a new sense of purpose and responsibility as one enters adulthood.

An congregation of priests, The Fathers of Mercy, in southern Kentucky were all very helpful in forming me in the Faith through retreats that they preached at local parishes near my home in Indiana. Fr. William Casey, the Minister General of the order at the time, one year invited me to come to their annual priests retreat. I was 17 at the time and actually had to leave the retreat a couple days early because I was flying to Ireland for a music competition. I don't particularly know why God put it on Fr. Bill's heart to invite me down for that retreat; all I remember is being both the youngest person there, and the only layperson. The retreat was lead by Fr. Benedict Groeschell, a Franciscan priest, author, lecturer, and psychologist who is widely known in the Catholic world thanks to his television programs on EWTN. It was Fr. Benedict who really helped me to embrace my personality. Up to that point I really didn't want to be myself. I felt that others were more talented, smarter, better-looking, or whatever than I was and that I had nothing really special to offer the world. But Fr. Benedict, with his background in psychology, helped me to discover who I am in a way that had never been revealed to me before. I was afterward able to embrace my personality and have since been working to develop myself along the lines of the great saints who had similar personalities. I only had the one meeting with Fr. Benedict, so I suppose my encounter with him could be likened to the pilgrims going out into the deserts of the Middle East or the woodlands of Russian to seek a "word" from the hermits and poustiniki who lived there, and then carry that word with them through their lives.

Out of all the directors I've had in the past, however, there is one that has probably had more influence on me than the others; Fr. Giles. Fr. Giles is a Dominican priest. He was a professor of mine while I was attending university at Franciscan University of Steubenville, and for some reason he took an interest in me. We used to share meals together, pray the Liturgy of the Hours together, talk about spiritual matters that were going on in my life at the time, and he would regularly hear my confession. One of the major themes that I learned from Fr. Giles is one that I have spoken of a number of times on this blog; patience. Calm down. Relax. It's going to be okay. Be patient. These were things Fr. Giles would say to me almost every time we would meet for direction. For me, the hardest part of graduating from college was leaving my spiritual father and going out into the world on my own.

God seemed to have different plans. When I moved to Ann Arbor, MI. to help my fiance prepare for our wedding, it wasn't long before Fr. Giles was transferred by his Minister General to serve the Dominican Sisters in Ann Arbor. About a year or two after my wife and I moved to Northern Virginia, I got a call from Fr. Giles informing me that he was being transferred to teach at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. - about twenty minutes up the road from where I was living at the time. In both cases it was good to be able to meet with my spiritual father to talk over matters that had been coming up in my prayer life and to seek his guidance. Sadly, shortly before my wife and I moved to Northern Kentucky, Fr. Giles was transferred to another part of Virginia. I don't know remember being able to meet with him before he left due to my work schedule.

Now that we have been settled in Northern Kentucky for a couple of years, I have noticed some themes that keep coming up in my prayer life. They are themes that seem to require some sort of action, but I'm not sure what, and I don't really know where to turn. So I have been praying for some time now that God would send me another spiritual director. I had been thinking of writing a bishop that I know and have had direction from in the past, but I know that he is busy and I don't want to importune him. I had also been thinking of speaking with a subdeacon at my parish, but again I know that he is busy and I didn't want to importune him either. Every time I would pray that God would send me a spiritual director I would hear this voice in the back of my head, "Be patient, Phillip. Calm down. It's all right."

One day, as I was driving a car to the local gas station to fuel it up for delivery, I turned on the local Catholic radio station. Mass was on. Usually I just skip through because I don't really like listening to Mass over the radio. But this time I thought to myself, "Well, even if I can't participate in the Liturgy, I can always learn something simply by listening to the prayers." It reached the point in the Mass where, during the Eucharistic Prayers, the concelebrating priests all take different parts of the prayer. Suddenly I heard a familiar voice over the airwaves. I didn't recognize it at first, and even when I didn't I couldn't believe it. Could it be that Fr. Giles has been transferred to Cincinnati, just across the river from me?! You see, Mass is broadcast from the local Dominican parish, so I suppose it wasn't a complete impossibility, but still a highly unlikely scenario.

When I arrived home that night I immediately jumped onto the internet to see if Fr. Giles' name had been listed at the local Dominican parish. Sure enough, he is there helping out with the novices. Naturally I immediately sent an email to him and have since met with him, with plans to meet again regularly in the future. As we spoke at our most recent meeting, we came to the conclusion that he had only been in town here for a couple of days before that broadcast. Isn't it funny how God works.

What's my point in sharing this story? We often despair over finding a spiritual director. We morn the fact that there are very few holy people left in this world that are capable of giving us solid guidance as we try to make our way along the inner path of holiness. But do we let that stop us from seeking guidance? And, above all, do we let that stop us from praying with sincere faith that God will send us a guide, trusting that He will send us one in His time? Or do we use this as an excuse not to seek spiritual guidance or to stop the search for a spiritual guide? Even if God sends you just one guide that you only get to meet with once for a brief moment, even that would be worth years of persistent prayer for the sake of growing in holiness. May heaven consume us!

Friday, September 19, 2014

Good News and Bad News

During my prayer time this morning a thought occurred to me. Among many self-proclaimed "traditional Catholics" I often hear bemoaned the fact that we rarely hear homilies on sin and hell from the pulpit these days. "Oh, if only father would preach on hell and the reality of sin! Give us that good old fire and brimstone, padre! Look at people's lives. They need to hear it. They need to hear that they're on the fast-track to hell. They (literally) need to have the hell scared out of them so they can turn their lives around." I'm generalizing here, but this is a common attitude among many traditionalists - I know because quite some time ago I myself held the same attitude (briefly).

I find two problems with this line of thinking. The first one is the "speck vs. beam" problem. The attitude above betrays a certain amount of self-righteousness. "They need to hear... People need to hear... Scare the hell out of them..." as if we ourselves do not need to be reminded of the reality of sin in our own lives. Our Lord told us to remove the beam from our own eyes before we remove the speck from our brother's. But I don't want to dwell on this point and getting bogged down in something that I think has been rather extensively talked about elsewhere.

What dawned on me in prayer this morning is that people don't need to hear so many homilies on sin and hell because for so many people the reality of sin is a lived daily experience. For so many people their lives are hell-on-earth. If you want to hear a homily on sin and hell, turn on the news channel. You will hear about the chaos in the world: war, sickness and death, starvation, violence, promiscuity, exile, homelessness. For many of us these things are just words, theories. They have a certain amount of meaning attached to them, but they exist in our minds primarily as a theory and not so much as something we've experienced. But for millions of people these realities are a part of their daily lives. They cannot escape the hell that they are living in.

And if these things are too far removed from your own personal reality, then reflect on this. In our society divorce, domestic violence, violence at school, depression and despair, suicide, sickness with unknown causes, stress, anxiety, worry; these are all a part of our daily lives. So often with things like divorce, abuse, drug addiction, pornography, etc. we get so caught up in the sinfulness of the actions and pointing out how wrong such things are that we don't stop to ask what it is that led a person to these things and what effects they are having in their lives. Take, for example, the divorced couple. We've all known folks whose marriages were torn apart by divorce. There is no such thing as a clean or happy divorce. It may tear the couple apart in society's eyes, but it also, in many ways, tears them apart within as well. Anger, resentment, bitterness, etc. they all set in and eat away at the gut.

One thing that I've been encountering on a near daily basis is young women - barely out of high-school if they're not still in high-school - who have had children out of wedlock. They struggle. They suffer. They may feel like their lives are over. Children are a huge responsibility, and how can they lift the burden of that responsibility if they themselves are still children? And it becomes even more difficult when we "churchy" people cast judgmental glances in their direction.

Have you tried to enter the inner world of the single-mother, or the drug addict, or the porn addict, or the depressed person, or the anxious? They don't need sermons on sin and hell. They've lived it. They've experienced it. The world is tired. The world has grown old. The reality of sin and hell in our world has caused it to age more and more with each passing day.

What the world needs is hope, joy, peace. What the world needs is some Good News. Why did Christ command His Apostles to preach the Good News and not the bad news? Because people already know the bad news. Have you ever flipped on the news channel, watched it for about 30 minutes, then shut it off feeling tired and emotionally drained? I can't listen to the news on the radio for more than 5 minutes without feeling that way. We all know the bad news. We all know the reality of sin in this world. We all know and have experienced hell on earth.

But Christ tells us that the Kingdom of God is at hand; and the Church proclaims that She is the Kingdom of God on earth. This theme of the Kingdom is very dominant in the Byzantine Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. At the beginning of the Divine Liturgy the priest proclaims, "Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages." But if this theme is explicit in the Byzantine Liturgy, it is still present, although implicitly, in the other Liturgical Rites of the Church.

The Good News proclaims Christ's Kingdom, and Christ's Kingdom is one of peace. In the Maronite tradition every Divine Liturgy begins and ends with peace. We pray "Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth and good will to all. Praise the Lord, all you nations. Glorify Him, all you peoples. For steadfast is His mercy towards us, and the truth of the Lord endures forever." And the priest, at the beginning of the Liturgy, blesses the people singing, "Peace be with the Church and Her children." At the end of the Liturgy we are told to "go in peace... with the nourishment you have received from the forgiving altar of the Lord." And as we sing our final hymn the priest prays, "I leave you in peace, O holy Altar..."

Even in the Roman Mass the priest opens by proclaiming "Peace be with you," and closes by proclaiming, "Go in peace..." Through the Roman Mass, the Maronite Qurbono, the Byzantine Divine Liturgy, and all the other Liturgies of the Church we hear these proclamations of peace. The priest is constantly saying to us, "Peace be with you..." or some form of that.

The Kingdom of God ushers peace into the world. How well are we living that peace? Are we letting the peace of Christ, the peace of the Kingdom, shine through us upon the darkness of the world around us? Are we letting that peace shine into the darkness of our own hearts? Are we allowing the peace of the Kingdom to transform us so that we might go out and transform the chaos of the world?

People don't need to hear about sin and hell so much. They need the Good News. They need the peace of Christ proclaimed to them. But most importantly, they need to encounter that peace in another, they need to experience that peace in their own lives. How can they experience it if they have no one to bring it to them? And how can we bring it to them if we have not allowed ourselves to first be transformed by the light of Christ's peace?

St. Paul tells us in Philippian 4:4-7; "Rejoice in our Lord always; and again I say, Rejoice. Let your humility be known to all men. Our Lord is at hand. Do not worry over things, but always by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving (NAB says: "petitions full of gratitude") let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Jesus Christ."

Rejoicing, humiliy, God's presence, calm through trust in God and gratitude for His gifts, peace; these are the signs of God's Kingdom in our lives. May His Kingdom spread, beginning with us. May the Good News touch and transform our lives, so that we might take that Good News out into a world that has been so full of bad news. And may heaven consume us.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Get Messy

I am coming to realize more and more that there is no room for timidity in the spiritual life. One cannot expect to advance in the spiritual life if one is unwilling to boldly take the first step, even if that first step is in the wrong direction. You cannot draw closer to God if you are not willing to move from where you currently stand. You can read and study and listen to spiritual talks all you want, but if you are too timid to put into action the truths that you study, then you will not progress.

This particularly struck home to me yesterday while I was reading St. Theophan the Recluse's book The Path to Salvation: A Manual of Spiritual Transformation. I know I have been quoting from St. Theophan for some time now, but I cannot recommend his writings highly enough. He has a way of cutting to the chase and presenting his themes with a clarity and honesty that make his writings easily accessible - and as a busy husband, father and employee I need writings that are easily accessible; I'm sure you all can relate.

St. Theophan tells us that in the spiritual life "Experience is the best teacher - one only needs to have the zealous desire to conquer himself" (The Path to Salvation, pg. 297). This means that, whether or not we have a spiritual father or mother available to us, we can still only progress by jumping headlong into the spiritual life, all the while trusting in our loving Father to send us the people we need to guide and correct us as we go along. The "desire to conquer" oneself is nothing less than the willingness to humbly accept correction when correction is needed, as well as encouragement when encouragement is offered. Sometimes we get so caught up in giving and receiving correction that we forget the necessity of giving and receiving encouragement.

I think that over time and because of our past experiences we develop an almost paralyzing timidity towards life in general, and towards the spiritual life in particular. I know that I personally have encountered so many difficulties, setbacks and failures in my life that I feel more comfortable thoroughly researching any new project or undertaking before I take my first steps - if I take my first steps. I must admit that I've applied this principle, this timidity, in my spiritual life as well. I will sit and read book after book and listen to talk after talk on the spiritual life, but it takes me a great deal of time before I start applying what I've learned in my own life. Not that reading and listening to spiritual lectures is a bad thing, but what use are they if we are not going to act? St. Francis of Assisi was famous for acting before he thought. He would be inspired to some course of action and jump headlong into it. Oftentimes he would realize later that it was a wrong course of action, and then he would correct his course - in essence he would repent. This is characteristic of all the saints. It's not that they had a roadmap completely laid out for them in detail and then they just walked straight into heaven without taking a wrong turn from time to time. No. They made mistakes and then accepted correction and changed course.

"The first ascetics did not study from books, but nevertheless they represent the very image of conquerors" (The Path of Salvation, pg. 297). The ascetics of the early Church, the great desert fathers and mothers, were bold enough to take action on what they heard. We see this in the life of St. Antony the Great. Upon hearing Christ command us in the Gospel to go out and sell our belongings, he willingly gave up everything so that he could follow Christ without attachment. The Scriptures, as they are proclaimed and prayed liturgically, were the primary guide of the desert fathers and mothers. They made mistakes and often times went to excess in their ascetic labors. But they were always open to correction. The main point is that the put the Gospel, the Good News, into action. They took that first step, even if it was in the wrong direction.

Fr. Robert Taft, S.J., in a lecture he gave on the role of the laity in the Church, relates the story of a seminarian's mother at home in India. They lived in a town where they were the only Christian family. This seminarian's mother could not read. But she was attentive to the Gospel message that she heard proclaimed in the Church, and she put that message to action in her life. Her life itself was such an example of holiness that it led her son into the priesthood. Her life itself was such an example of holiness that, upon hearing her story (and even upon retelling it), it reduced such a great scholar as Fr. Taft to tears! A little old woman who could not read reducing the learned to tears simply by her life! That is a woman who heard the message and boldly took those first steps.

In his opening address to the congregation gathered in Rome, anxiously awaiting a word from the newly elected Pontiff, Pope St. John Paul II said, "Do not be afraid." Don't be afraid to throw yourself headlong into the loving arms of our Abba. Sure there will be difficulties and disappointments. Of course you will fall and need to get back up. But fortitude isn't just courage in the face of danger. Fortitude is persistence in times of difficulty. It is resilience during moments of disappointment. It is the ability to stand up after falling and to continue doing what is right. Fortitude is the ability to accept correction and change course when needed.

My son has been very much about watching an old show that I used to watch when I was little; "The Magic Schoolbus." In the show the teacher, Ms. Frizzle, has a line to encourage her students to jump headlong into their scientific inquiries: "It's time to get messy and make mistakes." This could easily be applied to our spiritual life. We have to be bold. We have to be willing to get messy. No soldier in combat comes out of combat clean. He comes out filthy, smeared with dirt, smelling of sweat and gunpowder, sometimes covered in blood. The only clean soldier is one who has never seen combat. A clean soldier does not win victories. It's true in the spiritual life as well. We can study the tactics of spiritual warfare until the day we die, but if we do not utilize those tactics to engage the enemy within, then we will never know the glory of victory. So get messy! Make mistakes! Struggle so as to win the victory. It is time. May heaven consume us.