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What a saint!

You can, of course, read her major works online here, as well as in many other places online.

For an introduction, let’s turn to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

Back in 2011, as part of his series of General Audience talks on great figures in the Church (beginning with the Apostles), he turned to Teresa.  It’s a wonderful introduction to her life.  After outlining her biography and achievements, he turns to the impact of her life and work:

In the first place St Teresa proposes the evangelical virtues as the basis of all Christian and "teresa of avila"human life and in particular, detachment from possessions, that is, evangelical poverty, and this concerns all of us; love for one another as an essential element of community and social life; humility as love for the truth; determination as a fruit of Christian daring; theological hope, which she describes as the thirst for living water.

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Secondly, St Teresa proposes a profound harmony with the great biblical figures and eager listening to the word of God. She feels above all closely in tune with the Bride in the Song of Songs and with the Apostle Paul, as well as with Christ in the Passion and with Jesus in the Eucharist. The Saint then stresses how essential prayer is. Praying, she says, “means being on terms of friendship with God frequently conversing in secret with him who, we know, loves us” (Vida 8, 5).

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Prayer is life and develops gradually, in pace with the growth of Christian life: it begins with vocal prayer, passes through interiorization by means of meditation and recollection, until it attains the union of love with Christ and with the Holy Trinity. Obviously, in the development of prayer climbing to the highest steps does not mean abandoning the previous type of prayer. Rather, it is a gradual deepening of the relationship with God that envelops the whole of life.

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Another subject dear to the Saint is the centrality of Christ’s humanity. For Teresa, in fact, Christian life is the personal relationship with Jesus that culminates in union with him through grace, love and imitation. Hence the importance she attaches to meditation on the Passion and on the Eucharist as the presence of Christ in the Church for the life of every believer, and as the heart of the Liturgy. St Teresa lives out unconditional love for the Church: she shows a lively “sensus Ecclesiae”, in the face of the episodes of division and conflict in the Church of her time.

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Dear brothers and sisters, St Teresa of Jesus is a true teacher of Christian life for the faithful of every time. In our society, which all too often lacks spiritual values, St Teresa teaches us to be unflagging witnesses of God, of his presence and of his action. She teaches us truly to feel this thirst for God that exists in the depths of our hearts, this desire to see God, to seek God, to be in conversation with him and to be his friends.

This is the friendship we all need that we must seek anew, day after day. May the example of this Saint, profoundly contemplative and effectively active, spur us too every day to dedicate the right time to prayer, to this openness to God, to this journey, in order to seek God, to see him, to discover his friendship and so to find true life; indeed many of us should truly say: “I am not alive, I am not truly alive because I do not live the essence of my life”.

Therefore time devoted to prayer is not time wasted, it is time in which the path of life unfolds, the path unfolds to learning from God an ardent love for him, for his Church, and practical charity for our brothers and sisters. Many thanks.

Then, in 2012, Benedict sent a letter to the Bishop of Avila on the occasion of the 450th anniversary of the beginning of Teresa’s reform. It’s really a wonderful letter:

By distancing herself from the Mitigated Rule in order to further a radical return to the primitive Rule, St Teresa de Jesús wished to encourage a form of life that would favour the personal encounter with the Lord, for which “we have only to find a place where we can be alone and look upon him present within us. Nor need we feel strange in the presence of so kind a Guest” (Camino de perfección [the Way of Perfection] 28, 2). The Monastery of San José came into being precisely in order that all its daughters might have the best possible conditions for speaking to God and establishing a profound and intimate relationship with him.

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Teresa of Avila’s example is a great help to us in this exciting task. We can say that in her time the Saint evangelized without mincing her words, with unfailing ardour, with methods foreign to inertia and with expressions haloed with light. Her example keeps all its freshness at the crossroads of our time. It is here that we feel the urgent need for the baptized to renew their hearts through personal prayer which, in accordance with the dictates of the Mystic of Avila, is also centred on contemplation of the Most Holy Humanity of Christ as the only way on which to find God’s glory (cf. Libro de la Vida, 22, 1; Las Moradas [Interior Castle] 6, 7). Thus they will be able to form authentic families which discover in the Gospel the fire of their hearths; lively and united Christian communities, cemented on Christ as their corner-stone and which thirst after a life of generous and brotherly service. It should also be hoped that ceaseless prayer will foster priority attention to the vocations ministry, emphasizing in particular the beauty of the consecrated life which, as a treasure of the Church and an outpouring of graces, must be duly accompanied in both its active and contemplative dimensions.

The power of Christ will likewise lead to the multiplication of projects to enable the People of God to recover its strength in the only possible way: by making room within us for the sentiments of the Lord Jesus (cf. Phil 2:5), seeking in every circumstance a radical experience of his Gospel. This means, first of all, allowing the Holy Spirit to make us friends of the Teacher and to conform us to him.

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Today, this most illustrious daughter of the Diocese of Avila invites us to this radicalism and faithfulness. Accepting her beautiful legacy at this moment in history, the Pope asks all the members of this particular Church, and especially youth, to take seriously the common vocation to holiness. Following in the footsteps of Teresa of Jesus, allow me to say to all who have their future before them: may you too, aspire to belong totally to Jesus, only to Jesus and always to Jesus. Do not be afraid to say to Our Lord, as she did, “I am yours; I was born for you, what do you want to do with me?” (Poem 2).

I do think here that you can really see the particular way of expression that Benedict used again and again: the journey of the Christian is to be conformed to Christ. (Very Pauline, yes?)  Not merely to imitate, but to be conformed.  This suggests a deep level of engagement, a degree of surrender and understanding of the dynamic and purpose of human life that is far different that simply “trying to be like.”

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I kept wanting to write about the television series Rectify last year, but I never did, did I? I meant to because I found the program fascinating, beautiful, and spiritually suggestive in a way that is absolutely unique to television – indeed American pop culture.

The program is about Daniel Holden a man released from 19 years on death row. He had been convicted for the rape and murder of his girlfriend, but finally released because of issues with DNA evidence.

The show’s first season had only six episodes, each covering a day or so in Daniel’s first week of freedom.  It’s a meticulous rectifyexamination of his reintroduction to life outside, his family’s reintroduction to him, as well as the small town that still holds him guilty (as he well might be – we don’t know at this point.)

The tone is a combination of meditative and the grotesque – and since it’s set in a small Georgia town and has spiritual undertones, we are obliged to term that grotesque “Flannery O’Connor-esque” aren’t we?  But it’s valid here.  And be warned – there are rough points, unpleasant to watch, but they always have a point.

Spirituality is taken very seriously – conversations happen, questions are raised, and differences explored. It’s refreshing.

Last night, the show returned, this time for a ten-episode run. I don’t think I’d recommend starting fresh with this season.  Even I, who’d watched the previous season twice through, was a little confused at some points and regretted not re-watching at least the last episode of season one.   But…let’s go on:

The episode picks up where the last ended: Daniel had visited the grave of the girl he was convicted of killing, and while there, was beaten almost to death.  We find him now in the hospital in an induced coma, his mother and his sister at his side.  The episode moves between the present moment and the reactions of Daniel’s family and the townspeople to his beating and the dreams deep within Daniel’s damaged self, all of which reflect his prison time – the dehumanizing moments and the life-giving ones.

Matt Seitz has a piece on Vulture today that calls Rectify “truly Christian art.”   This is startling, coming from a website and magazine that normally has no interest in religion except the sneering kind, but the piece is good and true and the description of the show isn’t even intended ironically:

Rectify is a straightforwardly spiritually minded drama in which Southerners weave talk of the presence or absence of God into everyday conversation, along with allusions to prayer and doubt, heaven and hell, sin and redemption. Daniel’s deeply devout sister-in-law, Tawney Talbot (Adelaide Clemens), has casual conversations about God, sin, and afterlife with Daniel, and much pricklier ones with his sister Amantha (Abigail Spencer), who isn’t too big on the whole “God has a plan” thing, given all that’s happened to Daniel and their extended family. Tawney knows her husband Ted Talbot Jr. (Clayne Crawford) is growing apart from her because “we don’t pray together anymore.” This is a world that a lot of Americans live in, and yet you rarely see it depicted on TV. Here it’s portrayed without hype, and with zero condescension. 

Old and New Testament imagery are built right into the story. The first season consisted of six episodes that unfolded over six consecutive days. The season ended with Young’s character, the former death row inmate and autodidact Daniel Holden, comatose after being attacked by vigilantes; somehow McKinnon has turned “He is risen” upside down (“He has fallen”) and fused it with “On the seventh day, He rested.” Add that to all the different variations of death/birth already depicted on the series (Daniel was reborn intellectually through his studies in prison, reborn again upon his release, and then reborn yet again when evangelicals baptized him; his presence in town forces many citizens to grapple with un-Christlike revenge fantasies) and you’ve got more Christ imagery than you’d think any TV show could handle. Somehow Rectify handles it. It’s all part of the texture. It’s there if you want to latch onto it, and if you don’t, no biggie. 

Well, I would disagree with that last point – given the centrality of these themes and images, if you don’t want to “latch onto it,” you’ll miss quite a bit – going back to O’Connor – if you don’t understand that her stories are about grace and our resistance to it, then yes, it’s a biggie.

Last’s nights conversation between the devout Tawney and the doubter Amantha (and yes, she is as annoying as her name – I sometimes wonder if McKinnon gave the character this irritating name that isn’t quite right to subtly guide our reaction to her character) brings out the best of Rectify’s treatment of spiritual matters – and a weakness.

In the waiting room, Tawney tearfully wonders how God could have let this happen – she fully believes in Daniel’s innocence and seems puzzled as to why the rest of the world doesn’t agree.  My quibble with this particular articulation of theodicy is that I really don’t think any devout Christian would ask that question – “How could God let this happen” about that incident – thugs beating up a guy they thought was guilty of a terrible crime.  She might ask different questions – why can’t we see the good in others? Why do we judge? How can help others reconcile?  But I think Tawney, given her understanding of her faith, wouldn’t be tempted to blame God for the actions of others in this case.

BUT – here’s the good part.  And it was only a few words, but it expressed so much.  Amantha is the free spirit, of course, with undefined spiritual views.  We might assume she’s an atheist or at the very least agnostic.  Tawney turns to her.

“Do you believe in God, Amantha?”

Amantha stumbles over her words, waves her off, shakes her head – and perhaps we think she is going to say straight out “no” – but instead she says in aggravated resignation, “Well, I believe in evil, so…..”

And off she goes, wondering.

How very interesting. Suggestive. Who else said something like that?

My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing the universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it? A man feels wet when he falls into water, because man is not a water animal: a fish would not feel wet. Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too – for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist – in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless – I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality – namely my idea of justice – was full of sense. Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be a word without meaning.

 

 

 

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From Pope Benedict’s General Audiences of 2006.

(You may recall that during many of the General Audiences of his pontificate, Pope Benedict spoke of great figures of Christian history, beginning with the Apostles.   They were, of course, all collected into the book form, published by various publishers around the world.   OSV published The Apostles for which I wrote a study guide. )

July 5:

According to tradition, John is the “disciple whom Jesus loved”, who in the Fourth Gospel laid his head against the Teacher’s breast at the Last Supper (cf. Jn 13: 23), stood at the foot of the Cross together with the Mother of Jesus (cf. Jn 19: 25) and lastly, witnessed both the empty tomb and the presence of the Risen One himself (cf. Jn 20: 2; 21: 7).

We know that this identification is disputed by scholars today, some of whom view him merely as the prototype of a disciple of Jesus. Leaving the exegetes to settle the matter, let us be content here with learning an important lesson for our lives: the Lord wishes to make each one of us a disciple who lives in personal friendship with him.

To achieve this, it is not enough to follow him and to listen to him outwardly: it is also necessary to live with him and like him. This is only possible in the context of a relationship of deep familiarity, imbued with the warmth of total trust. This is what happens between friends; for this reason Jesus said one day: “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends…. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (Jn 15: 13, 15).

August 9:

Before the holidays I had begun sketching small portraits of the Twelve Apostles. The Apostles were Jesus’ travelling companions, Jesus’ friends. Their journey with Jesus was not only a physical journey from Galilee to Jerusalem, but an interior journey during which they learned faith in Jesus Christ, not without difficulty, for they were people like us.

But for this very reason, because they were Jesus’ travelling companions, Jesus’ friends, who learned faith on a journey that was far from easy, they are also guides for us, who help us to know Jesus Christ, to love him and to have faith in him.

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If there is one characteristic topic that emerges from John’s writings, it is love. It is not by chance that I wanted to begin my first Encyclical Letter with this Apostle’s words, “God is love (Deus caritas est); he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (I Jn 4: 16). It is very difficult to find texts of this kind in other religions. Thus, words such as these bring us face to face with an element that is truly peculiar to Christianity.

John, of course, is not the only author of Christian origin to speak of love. Since this is an essential constituent of Christianity, all the New Testament writers speak of it, although with different emphases.

If we are now pausing to reflect on this subject in John, it is because he has outlined its principal features insistently and incisively. We therefore trust his words. One thing is certain: he does not provide an abstract, philosophical or even theological treatment of what love is.

No, he is not a theoretician. True love, in fact, by its nature is never purely speculative but makes a direct, concrete and even verifiable reference to real persons. Well, John, as an Apostle and a friend of Jesus, makes us see what its components are, or rather, the phases of Christian love, a movement marked by three moments.  more

August 23

The subject of one of the most important visions of the Book of Revelation is this Lamb in the act of opening a scroll, previously closed with seven seals that no one had been able to break open. John is even shown in tears, for he finds no one worthy of opening the scroll or reading it (cf. Rv 5: 4).

History remains indecipherable, incomprehensible. No one can read it. Perhaps John’s weeping before the mystery of a history so obscure expresses the Asian Churches’ dismay at God’s silence in the face of the persecutions to which they were exposed at that time.

It is a dismay that can clearly mirror our consternation in the face of the serious difficulties, misunderstandings and hostility that the Church also suffers today in various parts of the world.

 

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..if only….!

 

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I’m pleased to let you know about the Catholicism Pilgrimage Journal  - written to help teens and young adults connect more deeply with the content of Fr. Robert Barron’s Catholicism series.

 

It evolved last year as Fr. Stephen Grunow and I brainstormed on ways to integrate the program more deeply into various aspects of parish life.  You can find more details about the program here.

Here’s an interview I did with Word on Fire.

Today (5/7), I’ll be on Sheila Liaugminas’ radio show, talking about the Pilgrimage Journal and other projects.

(In other work with WOF, I wrote a study guide for Fr. Barron’s excellent series on Conversion - think about it for next Lent!)

 

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Doctor of the Church, Patron  of writers, educators and confessors.

Pope Benedict spoke of him at a General Audience in 2011.  Well worth your time:

The life of St Francis de Sales was a relatively short life but was lived with great intensity. The figure of this Saint radiates an impression of rare fullness, demonstrated in the serenity of his intellectual research, but also in the riches of his affection and the “sweetness” of his teachings, which had an important influence on the Christian conscience.

He embodied the different meanings of the word “humanity” which this term can assume today, as it could in the past: culture and courtesy, freedom and tenderness, nobility and solidarity. His appearance reflected something of the majesty of the landscape in which he lived and preserved its simplicity and naturalness. Moreover the words of the past and the images he used resonate unexpectedly in the ears of men and women today, as a native and familiar language.

To Philotea, the ideal person to whom he dedicated his Introduction to a Devout Life (1607),Francis de Sales addressed an invitation that might well have seemed revolutionary at the time. It is the invitation to belong completely to God, while living to the full her presence in the world and the tasks proper to her state. “My intention is to teach those who are living in towns, in the conjugal state, at court” (Preface to The Introduction to a Devout Life). The Document with which Pope Leo xiii, more than two centuries later, was to proclaim him a Doctor of the Church, would insist on this expansion of the call to perfection, to holiness.

It says: “[true piety] shone its light everywhere and gained entrance to the thrones of kings, the tents of generals, the courts of judges, custom houses, workshops, and even the huts of herdsmen” (cf. Brief, Dives in Misericordia, 16 November 1877).

Thus came into being the appeal to lay people and the care for the consecration of temporal things and for the sanctification of daily life on which the Second Vatican Council and the spirituality of our time were to insist.

The ideal of a reconciled humanity was expressed in the harmony between prayer and action in the world, between the search for perfection and the secular condition, with the help of God’s grace that permeates the human being and, without destroying him, purifies him, raising him to divine heights. To Theotimus, the spiritually mature Christian adult to whom a few years later he addressed his Treatise on the Love of God, St Francis de Sales offered a more complex lesson.

At the beginning it presents a precise vision of the human being, an anthropology: human “reason”, indeed “our soul in so far as it is reasonable”, is seen there as harmonious architecture, a temple, divided into various courts around a centre, which, together with the great mystics he calls the “extremity and summit of our soul, this highest point of our spirit”.

This is the point where reason, having ascended all its steps, “closes its eyes” and knowledge becomes one with love (cf. Book I, chapter XII). The fact that love in its theological and divine dimension, may be the raison d’être of all things, on an ascending ladder that does not seem to experience breaks or abysses, St Francis de Sales summed up in a famous sentence: “man is the perfection of the universe; the spirit is the perfection of man; love, that of the spirit; and charity, that of love” (ibid., Book X, chap. 1).

In an intensely flourishing season of mysticism The Treatise on the Love of God was a true and proper summa and at the same time a fascinating literary work. St Francis’ description of the journey towards God starts from recognition of the “natural inclination” (ibid., Book 1, chapter XVI), planted in man’s heart — although he is a sinner — to love God above all things.

According to the model of Sacred Scripture, St Francis de Sales speaks of the union between God and man, developing a whole series of images and interpersonal relationships. His God is Father and Lord, husband and friend, who has the characteristics of mother and of wet-nurse and is the sun of which even the night is a mysterious revelation. Such a God draws man to himself with bonds of love, namely, true freedom for: “love has neither convicts nor slaves, but brings all things under its obedience with a force so delightful, that as nothing is so strong as love nothing also is so sweet as its strength” (ibid., Book 1, chapter VI).

In our Saint’s Treatise we find a profound meditation on the human will and the description of its flowing, passing and dying in order to live (cf. ibid. Book IX, chapter XIII) in complete surrender not only to God’s will but also to what pleases him, to his “bon plaisir”, his good pleasure (cf. ibid.,Book IX, chapter I).

As well as by raptures of contemplative ecstasy, union with God is crowned by that reappearance of charitable action that is attentive to all the needs of others and which he calls “the ecstasy of action and life” (ibid., Book VII, chapter VI).

In reading his book on the love of God and especially his many letters of spiritual direction and friendship one clearly perceives that St Francis was well acquainted with the human heart. He wrote to St Jane de Chantal: “… this is the rule of our obedience, which I write for you in capital letters: do all through love, nothing through constraint; love obedience more than you fear disobedience. I leave you the spirit of freedom, not that which excludes obedience, which is the freedom of the world, but that liberty that excludes violence, anxiety and scruples” (Letter of 14 October 1604).

It is not for nothing that we rediscover traces precisely of this teacher at the origin of many contemporary paths of pedagogy and spirituality; without him neither St John Bosco nor the heroic “Little Way” of St Thérèse of Lisieux would have have come into being.

Dear brothers and sisters, in an age such as ours that seeks freedom, even with violence and unrest, the timeliness of this great teacher of spirituality and peace who gave his followers the “spirit of freedom”, the true spirit.

St Francis de Sales is an exemplary witness of Christian humanism; with his familiar style, with words which at times have a poetic touch, he reminds us that human beings have planted in their innermost depths the longing for God and that in him alone can they find true joy and the most complete fulfilment.

 

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Work of Mercy

"amy welborn"

A doorway in Assisi.

 By loving your neighbour, by having care for your neighbour, you are travelling on a journey. Where are you journeying, except to the Lord God, whom we must love with all our heart and all our soul and all our mind? We have not yet reached the Lord, but our neighbour is with us already. So support your neighbour, who is travelling with you, so that you may reach him with whom you long to dwell.

-St. Augustine.  From today’s Office of Readings. 

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