Saturday, August 27, 2011

"A stable spiritual life requires much prayer..."

Without going into great detail, back at the end of June the Lord, stooping down once again to take pity on my nothingness, stopped me in my tracks. I was close to ministerial burn-out, which was making me less effective at work, more irascible at home, and generally-speaking, just not very happy or interested in anything. I have always despised busyness for busyness' sake, a trap that far too many people get sucked into. Even in writing about this, I am very conscious of my desire to write everything, which is never possible, but always leaves me feeling dissatisfied, for whatever reason.

It would be an exaggeration to say that I was not praying, but my prayers, like everything else, were quite perfunctory, that is, shallow attempts to maintain the discipline of prayer, but not really prayer. So, after a period of serious prayer and discernment, which culminated with seeking the wise counsel of a priest who is a friend and someone whose judgment I trust, the pastor of a parish at which I do not serve, nor one in which I am resident, thus making him objective, I determined how I was going to cut back. After meeting with the rector of the Cathedral at which I serve and discussing my plans with him, receiving his gracious approval, I took a difficult, but necessary step in the right direction. So, I have been praying more, really praying, which is a great grace and not the result of any effort of mine, except making myself genuinely available.

Today I want to share a few of the things that have helped me during this time of re-ordering my life in collaboration with the Lord. The first is from the hermit Richard Rolle, who lived in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries: "A stable spiritual life requires much prayer and devout singing of psalms. Evil is only conquered by continual prayer." He goes on to write that prayer and meditation need to become habitual, like breathing. This requires focusing our attention exclusively on God. As we do so "we do not think of anything in particular," just directing our entire will toward God. "The Holy Spirit," then, "burns in our soul" because "God is at the very heart of our being." In this way "[o]ur prayers are made with affection and become effective." When our prayers require words, which they often do, "we do not rush." "We can offer almost every syllable as a prayer in itself. The love burning in us will give fiery life to our prayers." "Prayer of this kind," he concludes, far from being a chore, a task, a discipline to be maintained, "is a delight." With Nehemiah, I say, "The joy of the Lord is my strength" (Neh. 8:10).

The next few insights come from a contemporary Polish hermit, who is about a year older than me, Fr. Cornelius Wencel, a Camdolese hermit, whose book The Eremitic Life: Encountering God in Silence and Solitude, came into my hands in a way that left no doubt it was the Lord who gave it to me. What I find so wonderful about Fr. Cornelius' insights is that they cohere nicely with the charism of Communion & Liberation in which I am most blessed to share (without this charism that teaches me how to judge to experience, I would not have been able to realize the dire spiritual straits I was in):
We know the experience of many spiritually deep and mature people that the growth of faith, as well as the process of opening up to higher values, leads through many painful and difficult experiences in life. Things that are beautiful and eternal can only be realized through love, sacrifice and service
Fr. Cornelius also goes on to write something about hermits that is applicable to anyone who is serious about following Jesus Christ, something that is applicable to all the acrimony in the world, which creeps into the Church: A disciple of Jesus
is not an ideologist who attracts others with a utopian vision of a new humanity. He will not support projects, plans, or structures that want to "accommodate" us to the worldly order of financial gain and self-interest, because the life of faith is not a mere pragmatic philosophy of living
This kind of insight is precisely what makes things like yesterday's traditio so attractive to me. I am deeply suspicious of anyone who is eager to be in charge. After all, it was the the Lord himself who said:
You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave. Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matt. 20:25-28)
True leadership is servant leadership, a phrase, which sadly, has been appropriated by the worldly leadership and management gurus, who seek, by their ministrations, to turn what is spiritual into something fleshly, trying to make it pragmatic, profitable, and at the service of our never- ending and futile quest to make ourselves healthy, wealthy, and wise. This is why I am so grateful for the Holy Father, Pope Benedict, who consistently shows us what Jesus really meant.

Taking a page from both Balthasar, on whose Theo-drama he wrote his doctoral dissertation, something that also finds deep resonance in the teaching of my beloved Don Gius (with whom I think I would have spent a lot of time arguing) and our recently concluded CL Spiritual Exercises, which dealt with the absolute necessity of cultivating a deeper understanding of and appreciation for the mystery of my I, the hermit Cornelius observes:
The mystery of human existence will remain unfathomable as long as we approach it as something static and separated from the reality of life. To understand the human person is to approach and gain an insight into the mystery of love and the mystery of all the relations caused by love. The mystery of human nature is revealed in the One who gives testimony to unconditional love by giving up Himself for the salvation of the world
I cannot think of a better explication of Don Gius' axiom that the human person is a direct relationship with the Mystery than this.

Finally, I want to share something from a true master, Hans Urs Von Balthasar, who notes that it is not the goal of Christian prayer, meditation, and contemplation to obliterate one's self. Indeed, such an approach leads to the conclusion that my "self" does not really exist, that there is no mystery of my I apart from having the illusion that I exist as myself, which is an evasion of reality as we experience it. For Christians, Balthasar notes, the infinite comes to dwell in the finite. One vivid image of how this happens comes to us from St. Paul, when he wrote about God's love being "poured out into our hearts through the holy Spirit" (Rom. 5:5). This is a radical feature of true faith, which only comes through Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. Nonetheless, God's dwells in us "without needing to explode and annihilate the finite self; on the contrary, here, in the mysterious way, the self comes to fulfillment beyond itself in God." While this fulfillment of my "self", as Jesus notes in our Gospel for the Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time, is not an annihilation, it does result in what Balthasar calls a "love-death," which occurs "in such a way that this dying [to self] is a genuine, even bodily resurrection in God." This is the dynamic to which St. Paul referred, when, in 2 Corinthians, he states that "whoever is in Christ is a new creation" (5:17)

I am full of gratitude for wise teachers. While I possess a lot of information, I lay no claim to being wise. This is fine because my lack of wisdom is precisely what makes me conscious of my great need, of the necessity of begging for Christ daily, but I do so in the confidence that He, in turn, begs for my heart.


  1. I will have to read The Eremitic Life...thanks for the recommendation.

    Glad you received good guidance and took it!

  2. Thank you for this post. May I use excerpts from your post on our blog at
    God's blessings to you!


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