Dear Creator Family,
As we enter Fall, it is time for us to give God thanks for all we have been given this summer. In a global sense, we give thanks for…
We face what we must contend with each day. In a global sense, we fear that…
Come unto Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. (1)
We strive to rest in God and live through God’s call for liberty and justice for all. Our faith, history, and heritage become one in our deepening submission and relinquishment to God in all things. We have no greater clarity or assurance than that which springs from the heart of God:
Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” (2)
This year’s Fall programs and events are, in part, our answer to the call of God and the opportunity that Jesus gives us to grow. They are:
It is my prayer that you will be filled and will have power, together with all the saints, to comprehend the length and width and height and depth of the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (3)
Learning and growing in Christ Jesus,
1. Matthew 11:28
2. Matthew 11:29-30
3. Ephesians 3:18-19
* Please check our calendar for additional gatherings and parish events.
“To love Jesus Christ is the greatest work that we can perform on this earth but it is a work and a gift that we cannot have of ourselves; it must come to us from Him and He is ready to give it to those who ask Him for it . . . A day will come . . . where we shall find united with us many hundreds of thousands of souls who at one time did not love God but who, brought back to His grace by means of us, will love Him and will be for all eternity a cause of gladness to ourselves. Should not this thought alone spur us on to give ourselves completely to the love of Jesus Christ, and to making others love Him? I finish but I could go on forever from the desire I have that I might see you all filled with love for Jesus Christ, and working for His glory.”
–St. Alphonsus Liguori, Founder of the Redemptorists Congregation
So, the hustle and bustle started once again. School, the fall rush, and all those cooler-weather chores waiting in the wings, are almost upon us—so be it. We are not overwhelmed or done-in; we are people of faith! Our strength comes from the Lord! And our peace is found in God’s companionship. The “long green season” of Pentecost is green, in part, to hold before our eyes what we know in our hearts: the world is where we live, but eternity is where we belong.
Long through the centuries men and woman have prayed for religious renewal and the deepening of the spirit for which we are so in need. St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787) was known as the Patron Saint of Moral Theologians because of his brilliance, the Patron Saint of the work of Lay People because of his productivity, and the Patron Saint of Confessors. For 64 years he served the church as an Italian bishop, composer, musician, artist, poet, lawyer, scholastic philosopher, theologian, and founder of The Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer (known as the Redemptorists). To say the least, St. Alphonsus was truly devoted to Christ. His 111 spiritual texts have gone through more than 20,000 separate editions and have been translated into more than 60 languages, making him the most published author in history.
St. Alphonsus’ prayer beautifully articulates the prayer of devotion and service to God. How in need we are of Christ’s inspiration and leadership as we seek His call to serve. As we begin the rush of the impending fall months, pray for guidance for us all and a discernment of call for yourself. The Fire of the Holy Spirit is ours as we face challenges every day, and we pray with St. Alphonsus to keep that truth before us always:
Holy Spirit, divine Consoler, I adore You as my true God, with God the Father and God the Son. I adore You and unite myself to the adoration You receive from the angels and saints.
I give You my heart and I offer my ardent thanksgiving for all the grace which You never cease to bestow on me.
O Giver of all supernatural gifts, who filled the soul of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Theotokos, with such immense favors, I beg You to visit me with Your grace and Your love and to grant me the gift of holy fear, so that it may act on me as a check to prevent me from falling back into my past sins, for which I beg pardon.
Grant me the gift of piety, so that I may serve You for the future with increased fervor, follow with more promptness Your holy inspirations, and observe your divine precepts with greater fidelity.
Grant me the gift of knowledge, so that I may know the things of God and, enlightened by Your holy teaching, may walk, without deviation, in the path of eternal salvation.
Grant me the gift of fortitude, so that I may overcome courageously all the assaults of the devil, and all the dangers of this world which threaten the salvation of my soul.
Grant me the gift of counsel, so that I may choose what is more conducive to my spiritual advancement and may discover the wiles and snares of the tempter.
Grant me the gift of understanding, so that I may apprehend the divine mysteries and by contemplation of heavenly things detach my thoughts and affections from the vain things of this miserable world.
Grant me the gift of wisdom, so that I may rightly direct all my actions, referring them to God as my last end; so that, having loved Him and served Him in this life, I may have the happiness of possessing Him eternally in the next. Amen.
St. Alphonsus Liguori
Peace in Christ,
Reflection, Contemplation, and Prayer: A Triad of Spiritual Awareness
Part 6: The End of the Beginning
In the realm of prayer and contemplation, experience is the key word. We experience our experience of prayer as a special thing/time/process in which we practice various techniques and apply specific methods. Our experience is one of being an adventurer, beginning that amazing journey for the first time–even though we may have passed “this way” many times before. Unknown lands and unimagined vistas await us, but first, we must figure out how to navigate the ticket counter and endure the long boring bus ride.
That bus is taking us to those places we have dreamed of, seen in our minds, and felt in our hearts. We KNOW those places are real and waiting for us, but the journey to get there (at least at this early stage) is duplicitous and numbing. Somehow the miles of anticipation are sucked dry by the distance yet untraveled. We rally by re-reading that National Geographic we brought along and by re-living the dream, forcing to mind the excited conversations we had about the journey before we left. For a while we are satisfied with our progress, but just before we fade into sleep, the noisy brakes squeal and the bus lurches to a stop at yet another road-side diner.
History and well-written memoirs have chronicled more than one starry-eyed adventurer who turned back, depressed and dissuaded by the monotony of the road. How eagerly we start our journey, but how tragic can be our ending. So it can be with spiritual progress. Our journey, while it resembles that earlier adventurer is different in that, as we travel, the ride itself is part of the journey, not simply a means-to-an-end. Those road-side diners aren’t just delays keeping us from the far-off vistas, but incredible opportunities in and of themselves!
Experience is the key word here. We experience our experience of prayer as a special thing/time/process, linearly not linear; it is a state of being rather than a state of doing.
The fits and starts we have discussed here are mostly unavoidable as you begin this journey; but unlike our ill-fated counterpart, your bus ride actually began long before you bought that ticket. Perhaps the greatest attestation to your effort to pray and grow in your spiritual life is your pre-experienced awareness of the presence of God. You may feel you are far along on this journey or maybe just starting out; either way now is the time to revisit how you got here.
Think back on it. You wanted to grow closer to God, to pray, to grow in your spiritual life. You have undertaken the steps and are dedicated to the process through discipline and devotion–and this is true, but now look again. Read this out loud:
Jesus is pulling me closer. God is speaking to me through prayer and giving me eyes that see all in spiritual beauty. I am a handmaid of the most high, a son of the living God! I belong to God and I am following Jesus.
And there it is. You didn’t start this, God did. You have always known it, but the miles have obscured and confused this truth. As a child that has wandered too far from home, plagued by a sense of distant belonging–no matter how old, you long to go back. There you know you will be safe and secure and loved–that special love, again. This is the way you must see and know your life from now on; God is your home. The Father has been providing and Jesus has been walking and the Holy Spirit has been talking with you all along. To look around is to see God at work; to look inside is to see Divine peace. Home is where your heart is.
The longer you seek after the presence and awareness of Christ in your life the more easily you will see and know him to be. Interrupted prayer time, wandering mind, fractured attention span, and another road-side diner, are all experiences of the presence of God and your growth in the spirit!
There is much more to learn and experience, God is every moment of every moment showing you the Way. With Jesus as your companion on this journey, you will experience unknown lands and unimagined vistas in everything you do. If you would like some companionship navigating the ticket counter or just sitting with you on the bus, I am here for you.
A million miles along and unimaginable distances to go…
On the journey with Christ,
Reflection, Contemplation, and Prayer:
A Triad of Spiritual Awareness
Part 5: Contemplation
For the Christian, the question is not “Can I connect with God?” but rather “am I aware of God?” Awareness is the same thing as being conscious, present in the moment of the moment's presence. Awareness is the knowing of a thing beyond sound and sensation; it is a connection that exists below the surface and permeates deep into the being. Sitting alone in my house reading, I suddenly become aware of a change, a subtle shift in the world around me. It is a ripple in the flow of life into which we pour ourselves, discerning anew that we were already aware of.
For the purpose of this series, I have separated Contemplation from Reflection and defined them as overlapping, but different:
Reflection: 1. Approaching a time, object, memory, or circumstance with the intention of seeing God at work. 2. Engaging a time, object, memory, or circumstance, such as recalling a memory or looking at a crucifix, focused on God to perceive God reflected in the moment/object.
Contemplation: 1. To be fully present in our heart and mind, focused on one aspect of our selves while also being emptied of the self in order for God to be present. 2. Intentionally emptying the mind of thought to provide a quietude to encounter God.
Paradoxically, Christian contemplation is as if one is being emptied and filled at the same time–a series of moments in which the individual empties her mind and heart even as she is being deeply filled. Ultimately, contemplation is the state of being fully aware with God and God being fully present with us. We embrace the connection of self and the divine which is ever present, in order to become what we already are, but is dangerously obscured.
The goal of Christian contemplation is to simply be with God at rest, to be in the presence of God – “resting in God,” as Gregory the Great called it – and enjoying the love of Christ. In an odd way, the state of emptying is in itself an action filled with effort and distraction. How do we achieve the peace which enables emptying?
John Cassian, also known as John the Ascetic (c. AD 360 – c. 435), was a Christian monk and theologian who penned much on the mystical way. As he writes in The Contemplative Life:
“To cling always to God and to the things of God—this must be our major effort; this must be the road that the heart follows unswervingly. Any diversion, however impressive, must be regarded as secondary, low-grade, and certainly dangerous.” (Conferences, Vol. I, 8, 42.)
The danger Cassian speaks of is something you and I experience constantly. When I was young, I remember watching a movie (the name escapes me) where one man yelled at another, “You're losing your soul!” It was very dramatic. I was impressed by the danger the man was in, but I didn’t really know what the man meant. I do now. It wasn't about his soul being ripped away, torn from him by some horrible creature; he was literally losing it.
And our illustrious C. S. Lewis writes in Screwtape Letters, instructing Wormwood of the subtlety of loss:
You will say that these are very small sins; and doubtless, like all young tempters, you are anxious to be able to report spectacular wickedness. But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy. It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts. (Letter 12)
Lewis answers Cassian by giving flesh and blood to the dangers once spoken of. It’s the small things, or rather, the lack of the small things, that will do us in: fewer and fewer small ways of seeing God, hearing God, thanking God, small moments of devotion, and small thoughts of others, the safest road…is the gradual one.
The need for awareness–the contemplation of God–is rooted in the core of our being. Drawing close to God is what we were meant for, and God waits for us patiently inside every moment. The how of achieving this is two-fold: as Cassian said, “To cling always to God and to the things of God—this must be our major effort.” So yes, it is an effort.
In preparation for your prayer time, as you reflect on that passage of scripture, your reward will be your growing awareness of yourself. The effort to include God in the fabric of your day changes the tapestry of your life. The picture is different, you are not alone, and you can see it.
In your prayer time, whether or not you have suffered through the stages (part 4) or experienced the prayer awareness trap (part 1), you are able to Contemplate. Contemplation is emptying. Emptying yourself of the thoughts that assail your effort to be quiet requires an effort that itself can become a trap. Thinking about not thinking about the things you think about often produces a “Mobius strip” of the mind. While it may be ‘natural’ to respond with frustration over your inability to find quietude, the better response is to talk.
What should you do when this happens? Talk to God, laugh at the event, and invite God into the moment as a partner and companion. God is not somewhere else, and you have to find him; God is right there with you. Now, try again. Before or after your “formal” prayers, simply stop and think no more. I know; that's easy to say…
The key here is to remember, as you seek to quiet your mind, that God is already there in that place of waiting. Now slow down; time itself will drag and flounder. God is helping you to be at peace and quiet and suddenly, or slowly, you are there. This is the place of Contemplation.
In the end, Contemplation is not something that can be achieved through will, but rather it’s God’s gift. It is the opening of mind and heart – one’s whole being – to God. Contemplation is a process of interior transformation. It is a relationship initiated by God and, as we participate in it, leading to divine union.
Isaac the Syrian (c. 613 – c. 700), also remembered as Abba Isaac, was a 7th-century bishop and theologian best remembered for his written works on Christian asceticism. One of the greatest spiritual thinkers, he describes Contemplation and the fruits of Contemplation in his Ascetic Treatise 31:
The joy of prayer is one thing; the prayer of contemplation is another. The latter is more precious than the former, as an adult is more advanced than a child. The verses of a psalm may be very delightful on the tongue, and the singing of a single verse during prayer may prevent us from continuing and passing on to another verse, so inexhaustible is it. But it may also happen that prayer gives rise to contemplation, which interrupts what the lips are saying. Then the person is in ecstasy. Contemplation makes him, as it were, a body without breath. This is what we call the prayer of contemplation . . . but there is still a measure in this contemplation . . . it is always a prayer. The meditation has not yet reached the point where there is no longer any prayer. It has not yet arrived at the higher state. In fact, the movements of the tongue and of the heart are keys. And what comes next is entry into the treasure house. Here every tongue and every mouth falls silent and the heart, too, that gathers together the thoughts, and the spirit that governs the senses, and the work of meditation. They are like a flutter of impudent birds. Let their activity cease . . . for the Master of the house has come.
Through the heart, you are led to God. By the Holy Spirit, you are joined with Christ.
A more elevated state of the soul . . . it is the contemplation of God alone, an immeasurable fire of love. The soul settles in it and sinks into its depths. It converses with God as with its own Father, very familiarly, with special tenderness. - Cassian, Conferences IX, 18, 111–112.
Reflection, Contemplation, and Prayer:
A Triad of Spiritual Awareness
Part 4: Interlude Two
Stages of Prayer
When we began this journey together, I said to you that we were undertaking a “four-week walk toward spiritual awareness.” Did I lie? This is the fourth week, and we are not finished. Perhaps I meant four weeks separated by other weeks, or maybe I misjudged, or I am illustrating a point. I will go with that last one.
How desperately we want our progression into the depths of God to be smooth and speedy. With leaps and bounds, we joyfully ascend the heights of spiritual maturity, basking in the divine light of God’s companionship! How wonderful that would be. Alas, we all know that our desires for easy and constant progression through spiritual discernment are fraught with difficulty, punctuated with loneliness, desperation, and doubt.
Your first decision when undertaking this adventure thus, is whether you are serious enough to embrace the punctuations and deal with the disappointments. Four weeks turn into forty, time stands still; the unexpected becomes the norm. Our life experience, as badly as we might want to regularize and systematize it, is a series of random interruptions and constant adjustment after another. At our best we flow with the undulations; at our worst, we rebel in destructive fury; but neither way will change the system. “The best-made plans of mice and men” are companions in futility, if we believe that we can muscle or wish our lives into perfect order.
Embracing the punctuations and disappointments of life with optimism and grace acknowledges the power of the system and our mastery over it. Yes, mastery! When St. Paul proclaims, “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor. 4:8-9) he is proclaiming victory over the forces of this world. Jesus never told us or implied that all troubles, or even interruptions, would go away when we follow him. St. Paul emphasizes Jesus’ teaching by sharing his own difficulties in the missionary journeys he undertook and in his personal life. His and our mastery over the forces of “sin and death” does not mean bending reality to our will, but embracing all we encounter with Jesus Christ.
As believers, we claim the promises Jesus made as he proclaimed: “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:20b) Our confrontation with the random and often disagreeable forces of life can be with optimism and grace as we remain aware that we are not alone—even when we feel we are.
Stages of Prayer
As you undertake your prayer you will find, as we discussed in Part 1, that it will quickly fracture and degrade; this is unavoidable. This is the normal progression, the same system of life we struggle with—or embrace—every moment of every day. Can you relate? But when we turn to God to grow spiritually, we often believe that this system will be healed, even overwritten by God. When that does not happen, when the system breaks our vision of perfection, then we are in the most danger. Without some kind of intervention, you may write all this off as a fantasy, or as some overrated emotional fiction. Let me assure you it is neither.
That God can and will heal the fracture with focus and peace and will overwrite the degradation with presence and love, is without question. You will get glimpses (you may already have), but it may be a while before it becomes a constant respite. To progress along the path, you must be constantly aware of the stages of prayer. By this I do not mean the method of praying or even the order of prayers, but the stages of victory and failure, light and darkness, knowledge and unknowing.
Stage One: Encounter
You receive immediate and blessed contact with the divine as you release yourself to God in prayer. This is God’s gift to you and is intended to strengthen you for what is to come.
Stage Two: Dedication
You dedicate yourself to prayer and the process of prayer. Empowered by the Encounter, you are energized and elated, filled with optimism and love.
Stage Three: Distortion
You have “a bad night” or a “hard day,” which will explain your lack of focus and feeling at your prayer time. You move into your own thoughts and explain away the distant feeling you have as a product of outside forces.
Stage Four: Rally
You redouble your efforts and force yourself through your prayers with the sheer force of will. With personal resolve, you power through your prayers, aware of your own effort.
Stage Five: Fracture
You are unable to find peace or focus even before you pray. Even the thought of prayer seems exhausting. You decide to “take a break” until you feel better.
Stage Six: Disillusionment
Thinking about the prayer experience, you decide it didn’t work because it is “not for you,” or that it may not even be real. You convince yourself that the great feeling you had when you started was of your own making, as when you get excited to go to a party. You don’t go back.
Maybe I should have called these,
The Stages of Response to the Call to Communion
by God through Prayer
by My Own Power.
The time that we are spending together here is intended to short-circuit these stages. At any stage, you are capable of breaking out and reinitiating your journey. At any point in your prayer process, you can interrupt the stages and begin again. The secret is to be aware of the stages themselves. Remember what St Paul proclaims, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Roman 8:38-39) While St. Paul is absolutely correct, he did not mention the greatest power of all: our ability to turn away from God. Jesus will always be with us, but we can ignore, or even try to run away from him. My thoughts, my power, my practice, and my rationalization will keep me from feeling and knowing the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
You must expect the fracture and the distortion, the degradation of your thoughts, and the breaking of your expectations as you fail to pray and fail to feel the presence of God. At that moment, you must recognize that Jesus is with you and knows what you are thinking and feeling and will save you from yourself.
Stage Zero: Awareness and Relinquishment
Know what you are doing, and embrace doing and thinking it. See yourself in the moment and give that person to God. Relinquish your thoughts and breathe the holy breath of calm surrender. Start again with this thought: “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
In Him as He is with me,
Father Bill Burk†