Thursday, August 30, 2007

I have often said that prayer is relationship with God. It can take many forms - talking to God, being silent with God, using traditional forms such as the rosary, etc. Sometimes we ask God for something, sometimes we thank God for something, and sometimes we do not know what to pray. Sometimes we pray for faith. One of my favorite lines in Scripture is the father of a little boy, who says in response to Jesus' proclamation that everything is possible for one who has faith, "I do believe, help my unbelief!" (Mark 9:24)

There have been very few times in my prayer when I have felt some sort of concrete response, and even those times, there was no booming voice from heaven telling me what to do or what I needed to hear. It was more subtle than that. Most of the time, I suspect God answers our prayers in ways we never even realize or recognize. We are reading the book Eat, Love, Pray by Elizabeth Gilbert for our book club right now, and her description of a prayer experience really resonated with me. Gilbert was raised Christian, but had not really practiced her faith as an adult. At a low point in her life, in the middle of the night on her bathroom floor struggling with her misery in an unhappy marriage, she says she begins to pray. She begins, amusingly enough, by introducing herself to God - literally. She says,
"That's right--I was speaking to the creator of the universe as though we'd just been introduced at a cocktail party. But we work with what we know in this life, and these are the words I always use at the beginning of a relationship." (pg. 15)
As she cries, she begs God over and over to tell her what to do, and she says that she hears a voice. But the voice is not that, in her words, "Old Testament Hollywood Charlton Heston voice," but rather:
"It was merely my own voice speaking from within myself. But this was my voice as I had never heard it before. This was my voice, but perfectly wise, calm and compassionate. This was what my voice would sound like if I'd only ever experience love and certainty in my life. How can I describe the warmth of affection in that voice, as it gave me the answer that would forever seal my faith in the divine?" (pg. 16)
I like to think that this is how God speaks to us. That there is this inner voice within us, if we really and truly listen to it, that is God's voice speaking in us and through us. So what did the voice say to her? Here is the real brilliance of it - the voice told her to go back to bed. That is it. She reflects:
"It was so immediately clear that this was the only thing to do. I would not have accepted any other answer. I would not have trusted a great booming voice that said either: You Must Divorce Your Husband! or You Must Not Divorce Your Husband! Because that's not true wisdom. True wisdom gives the only possible answer. Go back to bed, said this omniscient interior voice, because you don't need to know the final answer right now, at three o'clock in the morning on a Thursday in November. Go back to bed, because I love you. Go back to bed, because the only thing you need for now is to get some rest and take good care of yourself until you do know the answer. Go back to bed so that when the tempest comes, you'll be strong enough to deal with it. And the tempest is coming, dear one. Very soon. But not tonight. Therefore: Go back to bed, Liz."
This passage made me cry. It just speaks to me of God's presence with us in our darkest moments. Prayer, relationship with God, is not about God "fixing" things or solving our problems for us. Prayer is about letting God be with us and love us during the good times and the times when life seems so very hard.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Death has a way of bringing life into very sharp focus, especially when that death is unexpected and tragic. We generally cannot listen to the news these days without hearing about death: the soldiers and civilians in Iraq, the miners in Utah, the victims of the floods in the midwest, the victims of the earthquake in Peru. The list could go on and on. At the same time I am very fortunate in my circumstances in life that death is usually not a part of my day to day existence, therefore when it does touch my life, it is unexpected and tragic. This past week the wife of one of my relatives unexpectedly died from a blood clot that went to her heart. She injured her foot a couple of weeks ago, the blood clot formed without anyone's knowledge, and now suddenly she has died. She leaves behind her husband and 3 year old son. In the midst our sorrow, I am forced to recognize that life is a very precious and fragile gift. I take it for granted. For the most part my family members have lived long and happy lives, dying in their 80s or 90s. That is my paradigm and my expectation: that I and those I love will live, that life is somehow a given. But it is not, and it can be lost suddenly and unexpectedly. People who live in war stricken countries or even in the more violent neighborhoods of our own country realize this much more vividly than I usually do. In having that sort of lived ignorance, I am very fortunate. That potential loss of life, for me who can see this instance as somewhat the exception to the norm, makes me appreciate how grateful I should be for each moment of life, for each relationship with a loved one, for the beauty of nature that constantly surrounds me, for the very breath that I breathe, and for the fact that all of the cells and organs in my body operate day in and day out the way they are supposed to.

In Deuteronomy, God says to the people,
I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendents may live, by loving the LORD, your God, heeding his voice, and holding fast to him. For that will mean life for you. 30:19-20
Death can cause us to despair or it can cause us to choose life, forcing us to recognize that what we have here does not last forever. It is an extraordinarily precious gift that we are given to cherish and to make the most of each and every day.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

I have been reading Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander by Thomas Merton over the last couple of weeks as part of my daily spiritual reading. I want to begin by quoting a lengthy passage from this work that was written in the 1960s and continues to be so very relevant today:

It is no exaggeration to say that democratic society is founded on a kind of faith: on the conviction that each citizen is capable of, and assumes, complete political responsibility. Each one not only broadly understands the problems of government but is willing and ready to take part in their solution. In a word, democracy assumes that the citizen knows what is going on, understands the difficulties of the situation, and has worked out for himself an answer that can help him to contribute, intelligently and constructively, to the common work (or "liturgy") of running his society.

For this to be true, there must be a considerable amount of solid educational preparation. A real training of the mind. A genuine formation in those intellectual and spiritual disciplines without which freedom is impossible.

There must be a completely free exchange of ideas. Minority opinions, even opinions which may appear to be dangerous, must be given a hearing, clearly understood and seriously evaluated on their own merits, not merely suppressed. Religious beliefs and disciplines must be respected. The rights of individual conscience must be protected against every kind of open or occult encroachment.

Democracy cannot exist when men prefer ideas and opinions that are fabricated for them. The actions and statements of the citizen must not be mere automatic "reactions"--mere mechanical salutes, gesticulations signifying passive conformity with those in power.

To be truthful, we will have to admit that one cannot expect this to be realized in all the citizens of a democracy. But if it is not realized in a significant proportion to them, democracy ceases to be an objective fact and becomes nothing but an emotionally loaded word.

What is the situation in the United States today? (100-101)

The question with which Merton ends his reflection is one we must ask ourselves today. We finished two different series at the parish recently, one on Vatican II and the other on immigration. In the series on Vatican II, we ended by discussing Gaudium et Spes (The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World). If you have not read this document, you should click on the link above and begin. The Council calls all of us to take responsibility as citizens, not only of our country, but of the world, and be an active part of working toward solving the problems of the world such as the economic disparity between the rich and the poor and issues of peace and justice.

Too often politics in our country is all about rhetoric instead of education, sound bytes rather than constructive reflection. The politicians define themselves in opposition to one another instead of entering into dialogue to find common ground and ways to move forward and make progress. Too often we as citizens don't bother to inform ourselves but simply swallow the party line, preferring ideas and opinions that are fabricated for us, as Merton says, rather than doing the hard work of thinking through the issue for ourselves.

The recent discussion series we had on immigration was a shining example of the exact opposite of this type of complacency. Here a group of intelligent, committed Christian Americans came together to struggle with a very complex problem, to understand better the different viewpoints, and to try to figure out how they could individually make a difference. In a time when our politicians have somewhat given up on this issue, it was invigorating to see a group of people willing to stay with the issue and the struggle to figure out what the right course of action might be. There was no consensus in the group of what the solution might be, but everyone agreed that we could not give up. These people were doing exactly what Merton maintains the citizens of a democracy must do if democracy is to work: they were struggling to understand the situation and its difficulties and trying to figure out their own answers in a way that would allow them to contribute "intelligently and constructively" to solving the problem. This is the challenge and the beauty of democracy.

Friday, August 03, 2007

I was sitting on our deck up north with my eight year old niece watching the sunset, and she commented on the peace and quiet. She lives in a house with 2 parents, 4 kids, a dog, a talking bird (Macaw), doves, and rabbits (her dad is a magician). Sitting on the deck, she said to me, "Sometimes at mass Fr. Tom closes his eyes, and we all take a moment. That is about the only peace and quiet I ever get!" Out of the mouths of babes! We do not live in a culture that values silence. With all of our cell phones, ipods, entertainment systems, etc., not to mention just the chaotic households many live in, how often do we get to truly experience silence? And yet we have a deep need for silence and contemplation. Even an eight year old can recognize that fact!

In the Vatican II series we are currently having at the parish, we just discussed the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. While the main point of the document is the importance of the "full, conscious, and active participation of the laity" in prayer and song (which, by the way, is prayer - in fact Augustine says singing is praying twice!), there is also a line in the Constitution that notes the importance of times of reverent silence during the liturgy. I have been at parishes where the pastors have tried to incorporate such times of silence, and the tangible uncomfortableness of many people is almost amusing, if it weren't so sad. We don't know how to be silent. Sitting and being silent is often regarded as a waste of time in our very efficient society. At my parents' church up north, the priest would sit down after the homily and close his eyes for a good amount of time. Since the church was usually full of tourists, who were unaware that this was his normal mode of operation, eventually you would hear the whispers, "Is he alright? (he was in his late 70s or early 80s) "Did he fall asleep?" Silence often seems to indicate to us that something has gone wrong. Silence is often referred to as "awkward". In theatre, silence often means that someone has forgotten an entrance or a line, so the after that silent pause, the other actors quickly jump in and improv to fill that silence until everything is on track again. Hence the other assumption that is sometimes made when a priest is silent: "Did he forget what comes next?"

And yet most of us do also know peaceful silence. Many of us have experienced that beautiful silence of holding a sleeping child. Loved ones know what it means to walk or sit in companionable silence. There is a song that came out not too long ago by the Dixie Chicks called "Easy Silence." The refrain is:

The easy silence that you make for me. It's okay when there's nothing more to say to me. And the peaceful quiet you create for me, and the way you keep the world at bay for me.

The song immediately captivated me because it just invokes that sense of loving silence. In our spiritual lives, we need that kind of silence as well. We need to simply be with God. In Centering prayer they say,

"God's first language is silence."

One does not necessarily need to spend 20 minutes in silence as we do in centering prayer; even just taking a few moments during the day to be quiet is important, as Scripture advises us, to

Be still and know that I am God.
-Psalm 46:11

Last night I saw the movie, Into Great Silence. Not only is the movie filmed at the Grande Chartreuse Carthusian monastery where the monks spend most of their time in silence, but the film itself is basically silent. There is no narration or music, other than the occasional scene in which the monks are chanting or very rarely speaking. Most of the movie is simply silent, allowing you to hear the natural sounds from the fall of footsteps on the stairs to the sound of the wind or the water. While I will admit, the movie is quite long, and I did get rather restless during the middle section, it is also unbelievably beautiful. You enter into the monks' silence, and the filming directs your attention to the simple beauty we often miss in the chaos of our lives, from a drop of water to the way the sunlight shines on the wooden floor. The natural beauty, from the majestic French Alps to the minute intricacy of a seed pod, is heightened through the calm quiet of the movie. Reiterated through the movie is the written line from the prophet Jeremiah (20:7) that would appear on the screen,

"You seduced me, O Lord, and I was seduced."

A more accurate translation (which did come through in French and German, also written on the screen) is, "You seduced me, O Lord, and I let myself be seduced." Actually, our English translations often uses the word "duped" instead of "seduced" (Jeremiah is rather upset with God in this passage), and I like both translations, depending on my mood, but my challenge to all of us this week is to take a moment to let ourselves be seduced by the silence of God.