Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Life's a Journey

There is a great temptation in our spiritual life to think of progress in prayer and in the spiritual life as a series of stages that we pass through and then leave behind. This is in no small way thanks to the efforts of mystical theology to define or identify certain moments that appear universal throughout the spiritual life. Anyone acquainted with the writings of the great mystics, East or West, knows of the three major stages spoken of by nearly all of them: purgative, illuminative, and unitive. Although these three terms grew specifically out of the Carmelite mystical tradition, the realities that they convey are every bit as present in the writings of the great Eastern mystics. St. Isaac of Nineveh, for example, speaks of three degrees in the spiritual life:  the novitiate, the "middle one," and perfection. But so often in our spiritual lives, however, we get caught up in which stage we may be in, and that becomes our primary focus. All the mystics explain that this should not be the case. The "three stages" are meant simply as guideposts that we glance down at so that we can then continue our journey.

And here is the main point I'd like to make today. Our spiritual life is truly a journey. Although the guides and maps that the saints provide us for the journey are certainly useful and absolutely necessary to keep at hand, we must bear in mind, nevertheless, that this is our journey and we must make it. We can't substitute the relationship the saints have with God for the relationship that we must also have. Although we keep their writings near at hand for guidance, we must ultimately allow the Lord to grasp our hand and lead us on the spiritual way that He calls each one of us to individually. The goal may seem far off, but it is worth the trip. "A thousand mile journey begins with a single step."

The Catechism of the Catholic Church provided me with a great source of comfort as I came to this realization over the last couple of weeks. In paragraph 2599 we are told that Jesus Himself, in His human nature, also had to learn to pray. Can you imagine! The Son of God, Who is "Light from Light, and true God from true God," had to learn in His human nature to commune with His heavenly Father! Jesus had to be formed in prayer over time. He Himself had to enter the school of prayer. He had to learn the basics of prayer so that He could then go out and make that spiritual journey to which all of us are called. And what was the school of prayer in which Christ was formed? Essentially, we are told, Christ's prayer and spiritual life were formed within the domestic church, and through the rhythms and formulas of the public liturgical life of the Temple.

Jesus "learns the formulas of prayer from his mother, who kept in her heart and meditated upon all the "great things" done by the Almighty. Mary taught Jesus to ponder God's acts throughout history as those acts are contained in the Scriptures and celebrated in the liturgy of the Temple. Here we find two important things we must keep in mind. First of all, Jesus learned specific formulas for prayer. Psychologically speaking formulas and their repetition are extremely necessary. There is a saying, "You become what you think about most of the time." By learning the formulas of prayer and repeating them over and over again, we gradually become what we are thinking about. If the goal of the Christian life is to become "little Christs" (that is the original meaning of the word "Christian"), to put on the mind of Christ as St. Paul tells us, then we must allow our minds to be formed by the repetition of the various formulas our Mother, the Church, gives us. As our minds are formed through this repetition, gradually our hearts begin to change, to be transformed by the realities that we ponder. And here we come to the second point. We must learn to "descend with the mind into the heart," as St. Theophan tells us. We mustn't allow the formulas we repeat and the realities that we study in the Scriptures to remain "head knowledge," but rather must allow those realities to descend into the very core of our being. We must learn to meditate on these things in our hearts so that we can be transformed at the core. Christ tells us that it is not that which is outside that defiles a man, but that which is within. Why? Because our outward actions flow from our inner state of being. Again, you become what you think about most of the time. As our hearts are transformed, so too will our lives be.

The other school of prayer at which Jesus learned to pray was in the rhythms of the prayers in the synagogue and the Temple. While we learn at home to ponder these things in our hearts, it is the liturgy that provides the structure for pondering. We find that there is a daily, a weekly, an annual, and a life-cycle rhythm of prayer at which we, just like Jesus, learn to pray, or rather are formed in prayer. We are trained by the liturgical life of the Church to "pray without ceasing." Even our private devotions resonate and echo with the liturgical rhythms of the Church. As I've mentioned in other posts, both the Western Rosary and the Eastern Jesus Prayer grew out of the daily liturgical cycle for those monastics who were either unable to read the Psalter, or who, for various reasons, could not celebrate the Hours with their monastic brethren. These two great devotions to this day maintain that liturgical connection.

So we are formed in the domestic church, and we are formed in the liturgical life of the Church at large. There is one more thing to keep in mind here. Jesus was formed in these two things for 33 years before He went out and began His public ministry! So often we read or hear about these great mystics who seemed to have been given the gift of pure prayer almost instantaneously. All they had to do was ask for it and, BOOM, they're going into ecstasy and praying for hours on end without the slightest awareness of the amount of time that passed. In the meantime, we set aside 15 minutes a day for prayer and, after we feel like we've been there for hours, glance over at the clock only to realize that a mere two minutes have passed. The instantaneous gift of pure prayer, however, is not the norm. It is so much not the norm that not even the Son of God incarnate experienced this! Again, we are taught that He was gradually formed in prayer, and that after 33 years of this formation He finally went out to complete the mission for which He was sent by His heavenly Father. So often we hear that Christ entered fully into our humanity, and even took on all the sufferings of our humanity. How true even in the struggles of our prayer life.

Prayer and the spiritual life are a journey. They are a life-long journey. We know our goal and we hope to one day reach that goal. But our purpose here is to continue on that journey, whether we feel like we are running forward leaping around like a deer, or are trudging through the mud and muck of daily troubles. The point isn't the speed at which we make the journey. The point is that we keep moving forward, allowing ourselves to be formed by our Mother, the Church, through Her liturgical life, and by pondering God's saving work in our hearts. May heaven consume us!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Suffering of Love

Anyone who is seriously pursuing progress in the spiritual life knows that there are ups and downs along the way. We go through periods of great joy and consolation, and we go through periods of great dryness and desolation. Even the lives and writings of the saints attest to this. Anyone with even an introductory knowledge of saints such as Therese of Lisieux or Blessed Teresa of Calcutta know the great trials that the saints have endured in order to achieve the highest goals of the spiritual life. The question becomes, therefore, not whether or not we ourselves will experience these ups and downs, but why do we experience them and how do we deal with them. As always, turning to the wisdom and experience found in the lives and writings of the saints is the best way to find our answers.

Here I would like to turn to the homilies of St. Isaac of Nineveh (a.k.a. "the Syrian") for a little illumination. In his homily "On the Different Ways of Wise Guidance for the Instruction of Disciples" (homily 29 according to A.J. Wensinck, or 30 according to Holy Transfiguration Monastery), St. Isaac reminds us that a loving father does not always deal in the same ways with his child, but adjust his actions and behavior towards his child so as to instruct the child and to teach him right and wrong. St. Isaac says:

"Now the Father of truth deals with His sons in different ways. For the profit of His sons He restrains Himself from uniformity that consists in always showing to them the same face. Nay rather, to discipline them, He secretly withdraws His love. Thus He displays the appearance of a state that does not really exist; but that which He is, He restrains."

Certainly this does not mean that our loving Father, our Abba, withholds His love from us at any given time. But He does manifest His love in different ways so as to help us grow to maturity in the spiritual life. We may experience times of trial and hardship, times of spiritual dryness, times of great suffering, as a withdrawal of God's love, but we must acknowledge that such is not the case. Our heavenly Father's love remains constant. But just as a child must be weened from its mother's breast so as to receive the nourishment of solid food in order to grow to physical maturity, so too must we be weened from the milk of spiritual consolation in order to grow to spiritual maturity through the solid food of pure prayer. And, again, just as the infant experiences this as a painful separation from its mother, so too we will feel this growth as being an absence of God's presence with us along the journey.

St. Isaac reminds us:

"A wise son recognizes his father's care for him as well as his discerning love in the changes of his behavior toward him. The activity of true love, when rightly understood, will appear twofold: in what causes joy but also in what causes sorrow."

Being "wise sons/daughters" of our heavenly Father, we must learn to see our Father's loving care for us in all the joys and sorrows of this life. We are being taught to "love the Giver, not the gift." Our Father gives us good things, but He desires the best for us. And the best gift that He could possibly give us is the gift of Himself. How can we receive such a gift if our attention is focused on these lesser gifts that He bestows upon us? And so, in His love, He must teach us to turn from these lesser gifts - which are still, in fact, very good - so as to turn to the greater Gift. We must learn to be detached from the gifts of this life - including the spiritual gifts that are bestowed on us in this life for our instruction - in order to attach ourselves more fully to the one Gift that truly matters.

But still there is the temptation to view the periods of suffering and dryness as acts of cruelty from our Father. We today have such a low image of fatherhood. Blame it on the culture, blame it on society, blame it on the media, blame it on whoever you want, but our culture teaches us that fathers, if they are not complete buffoons, are little more than cruel tyrants dominating and suppressing those under them in order to maintain some semblance of power over another. How often we carry this skewed image over into our view of God, our loving Abba! And so when sufferings come upon us, when times of spiritual dryness dominate our spiritual life, we receive this as validating our view of our Father as tyrannically exercising arbitrary power over us. It's as if we hear Him say, "Okay, I've given you enough happiness for awhile. It's time for you to suffer." We then completely misunderstand the writings of the saints when they tell us that it is God's good pleasure that we should experience suffering. God doesn't take some sort of sick pleasure in watching us suffer. No parent, seeing their child severely ill, stands by and takes delight in their child's illness. As parents, our first instinct in seeing our child suffer is to work to relieve that suffering. What makes us think that our Abba is not the same? As Christ tells us, "If you who are evil know how to give good things to your children, how much more your Father Who is in heaven" (I may be paraphrasing here, of course)?"

Turning again to St. Isaac, listen to what he has to tell us about our Abba's love:

"Love is constantly ready to give pleasure to its beloved; yet sometimes it causes its beloved to suffer for the very reason that it loves much, and it suffers with its beloved even as it causes suffering. It firmly resists the stirrings of natural compassion, fearing lest its beloved should be harmed afterward."

There is the love of our Abba! In order that we might grow to spiritual maturity, our Abba instructs us and allows us to experience difficulties and hardships, as well as joys in our spiritual life. But, as any good parent, when our Abba sees us struggling and suffering His "natural urge," if you will, is to compassion. As we suffer He suffers with us because He doesn't want to see us suffer. He allows the difficulties and the sufferings because He knows that they are for our own good and that, once we have borne them, we will be closer to Him in the end. And yet we can say that our Father suffers with us because what parent doesn't suffer when their child is struggling! At the same time, what parent hasn't restrained themselves from that natural urge, those "stirrings of natural compassion," to intervene in their child's life when they see their beloved one suffering.

Allow me to give a personal example. My son loves chocolate. I know, I know. You may be thinking, "Everyone loves chocolate." No. My son LOVES chocolate. He loves it to the point that we use it as a motivator for potty training, and he is horrified of the toilette for some reason. But if I let my boy eat chocolate whenever he wanted, then he'd develop a whole host of health issues. He wouldn't live a long and healthy life, but would most likely develop some form of diabetes or cancer or heart disease at a very young age. So what do I do as a father who loves his son more than anything? I tell him "no, you cannot have chocolate right now." He can't wake up in the morning and start chowing down on a candy bar. Of course, being two years old, he throws a fit and cries, throwing himself around on the floor. In my heart I don't want him to be so upset and I don't want to see him "suffer" like that. He doesn't understand that too much chocolate isn't good for him. He just knows that chocolate is really REALLY tasty. It's my job, as his father, to teach him what is good for him and what will allow him to lead a long and healthy life. It is my job to help him develop good habits and to avoid or uproot bad habits. It is my job to help him to become the "best-version-of-himself," as the author and speaker Matthew Kelly would say. But that doesn't change the fact that I suffer with my child even when I am, for lack of a better term, causing him suffering by denying him certain things that may not be good for him at the time.

It may seem like such a silly analogy, but it is apt. Remember, we are children in the spiritual life. We like to think of ourselves as mature adults, but really when was the last time you joyfully bore a suffering, a trial, some difficulty, or a setback in your life? When was the last time that you endured suffering without kicking and screaming the whole time? "God, why are you doing this to me?" "God, where are you? Why aren't you helping me?" "Lord, why don't you fix this?" I know nine times out of ten these are my first reactions upon entering into some sort of hardship. So often we like to quote Christ on the cross saying, "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me," but then we forget that that Psalm in particular is a Psalm of hope and joyful expectation, not a Psalm of abandonment. If we stick through to the end and endure with patient endurance, we will see the hand of love and the compassion of our Abba even in the midst of our suffering.

There is a famous saying among Eastern Christians that "The Church is a hospital, not a courtroom." Bearing this image in mind, listen to these final words from St. Isaac:

"It is unbecoming to the wisdom of love to give the identical kind of sustenance to its beloved in times of both health and sickness... The man who kills his son by feeding him honey does not differ from the man who kills him with a dagger."

So what are we to take from this? We need to bear in mind always, in times of joy and in times of sorrow, that God is our loving Abba. As the Church prays in the Maronite tradition, we must keep our minds focused on the love of our Abba. In order to mature in the spiritual life we must see our Abba's love for us even in the midst of severe difficulties and sufferings, just as we see and experience His love for us in times of great joy and consolation. God doesn't delight in our sufferings, but He allows them because He knows, as any good father knows, that through trials and difficulties come growth and ultimate victory. May heaven consume us!

God is our Abba, and we keep our minds focused on His love.

Saturday, October 11, 2014


In the struggle that is the spiritual life, dealing with the myriad of temptations that arise can often become overwhelming. There are temptations that arise from outside of us, and there are temptations that arise from the disordered passions within us. It seems everywhere we turn there is a new thing that is there to tempt us in some way or another. Listening to the news can often tempt us to anger or despair. Modern advertising often gives rise to temptations of unchastity, of greed, of hoarding, of covetousness, etc. There are temptations to judge people simply by the way they look or talk. We can be tempted to withdraw from humanity, not in order to pray for humanity out of love, but out of despair for the human race. With all the things going on in the world today, we can easily be tempted to fear, anxiety, lack of trust in God's loving kindness. The list can go on and on.

Adding to the temptations that arise simply from the world around us, we have the temptations that arise from within us; from our passions and disordered impulses. We have bad habits that we have formed over the years that, as we struggle to overcome them, still beckon to us and allure us. Perhaps you struggle with anger and it seems to arise spontaneously within you even over little things that don't merit an angry response. Perhaps you struggle with sadness and melancholy and have a difficult time offering gratitude for the blessings that God has placed in your life. Perhaps you struggle with a sense of self-righteousness, a "holier-than-thou" mentality.

Whatever temptations that arise from the world around you or from the world within you, the struggle against those temptations can become overwhelming. Oftentimes, as we walk on the sea of life and journey to reach out and grasp the hand of Christ, we, like Peter, take our eyes off of Christ and see only the storms, tempests and tumult around us. How easily we begin to drown in life's vast ocean. How easily the confusion of the world sets in within us when we take our eyes off of Christ. How easily we fall...

We shouldn't, however, fear temptation. Temptation, St. Isaac of Nineveh (a.k.a. "The Syrian") points out, is given to us in order to test our will. Temptation arises in order to test our resolve on the path of holiness, of "excellence." Temptations reveal to us the disorders of our nature, and so spur us on to humility. Temptations call us to turn to God for help and to rely on His aid to deliver us.

We shouldn't seek out temptations. In fact, because of our weakness we ought to avoid all "near occasions of sin." But neither should we despair over temptations when they inevitably arise. Temptation, because of our fallen nature, is a part of life. In fact, we could argue that temptation was a part of life even prior to the fall. Adam and Eve weren't tempted because they fell. They were tempted and then they fell. They fell because they didn't call out to God for deliverance in time of temptation.

Sometimes God allows temptations and impulses to remain in us simply to keep us humble. We are all familiar with St. Paul talking about the "thorn in the flesh" with which he struggled and constantly asked God to remove from him. St. Isaac of Ninevah admonishes us to imitate the importune widow. In times of temptation we must continually cry out to the Just Judge until He delivers us, if for no other reason than because of our importunity.

What are the methods for dealing with temptation? The same methods required for growth in the spiritual life. We must work, meditate and pray. First of all, we must keep ourselves active. We mustn't allow ourselves to be idle. "Idleness is the playground of the devil," I've often heard it said. Keep busy with something, particularly with developing the virtues. Perform all acts with great love. St. Therese of Lisieux was famous for her "little way." Not everyone is necessarily called to great and heroic acts of virtue. But we are all called to perform little acts of virtue with great and heroic love. Do you hate taking out the garbage? Do you hate washing the dishes? Do you hate going to the same dead-end job every day? Do you hate the fact that it seems like house-cleaning is a never-ending task; as soon as you get something cleaned the kids come through like a tornado and before you know it your entire home looks like a toy-bomb went off inside of it? These are all opportunities for us to do little things with great love.

Secondly we must meditate on God's Word constantly. The saints, without exception, urge us to read the Scriptures and the writings of the Church Fathers and mystics every day. We must learn to keep the mysteries of our Faith continually before our mind's eye. We must take the opportunity on a daily basis to read the Bible and the writings of some great saint. We should also avail ourselves of the opportunity to read and meditate on the lives of the saints; to learn from their lives and apply the lessons of their lives to our own lives. Perhaps you have one saint in particular that is a great inspiration to you. Study that saint's life. Learn to imitate that saint.

In our day and age there is almost no excuse for not making time every day to read the Scriptures, the writings of the saints, or their lives. Books are more easily available today than at any time in history. Many of the writings of the Early Church Fathers are available for free online. One can purchase a Bible for next to nothing and begin reading it immediately. And with modern technology we have an even greater access to information today than at any time in the past. Do you listen to the radio while you're driving to and from work every day? Why not listen to a CD program on the Faith, a talk on Christian spirituality, or a lecture on becoming a better father, mother, husband, wife, etc.? As Christians who are on fire for the Lord, we should be looking for every opportunity to hear His Word and meditate on it.

Finally, in order to combat temptation we must develop the habit of continual prayer. We shouldn't only turn to God when we need deliverance from temptation - although God often uses temptation to wake us up and turn us to Him. Rather, we should be constantly turning to God and remembering His presence with us throughout every moment of every day. Maintaining a daily rule of prayer, praying the Jesus Prayer or the Rosary throughout the day, and remembering to thank God for His blessings help to cultivate continual prayer within us. Make it a habit to turn to God and talk to Him throughout the day, just as you would talk to a friend who was visit your home. Most importantly, set aside time in the morning or in the evening that you can devote 100% to prayer.

Even when we "do all the right things," so to speak, we will still fall. We are, after all, weakened by the effects of our personal sin in our life. When we fall, we mustn't lose heart, but should get up and continue fighting to overcome the enemy. I've heard it said before that a saint isn't someone who never falls, but someone who continues to get up after falling. St. Isaac of Nineveh, reference Theodore of Mopsuestia, says: "To abandon hope profits not. It is more expedient for us to be judged on account of special sins than on account of complete abandonment (of the struggle against sin)." In other words, it is better for us to show up before the judgment seat of Christ battered, bloodied and bruised from our struggle against our sins, than it is to show up without any sign of putting up a fight against our sinfulness. So in your struggle, do not lose hope even if you fall a hundred times. God gave us the Sacrament of Confession for a reason. His mercy is eternal, and His love is infinite. Turn to God in times of temptation. Turn to God when you fall. Trust in His love and mercy. Rely on His delivering power. As we pray in the Maronite tradition:

"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."

May heaven consume us!