Sunday, January 18, 2015

Listening Prayer

Fr. Larry Richards tells a story that I'd like to embellish a bit.  Two guys are visiting and the phone rings. One answers and says:  "Oh ... hello ... am I ever glad that you called. You see I could really use your help. My job isn't going so well right now. My supervisor is always on my case. And one of my kids is failing chemistry and needs good grades this semester for his college application.  I'm really worried about my dad.  He seems to be losing it. He's very confused and my mom is afraid he's got dementia and she doesn't know what to do.  And, well, you know, there's a big game this afternoon and the Packers are 7 1/2 points underdogs.  So I'd really appreciate your help. Thanks. Bye."  The other guy then asks, "Who was that?" "God." "Well, what did God want?"  "Uh ... well ... I don't know."

Isn't that often the case in prayer? It can be pretty one-sided with us doing the talking and never really listening.

A good relationship requires good communication which involves listening.

In the first reading at Mass today (2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle B, 1 Samuel 3: 3-10, 19) Samuel hears God speak but isn't listening.  It can happen that sometimes a person hears but doesn't listen because one's mind is a million miles away, focused on one's own agenda or concerns. Samuel hears but doesn't recognize who it is that is calling him because he is "not familiar with the Lord." Finally, on the third time, Eli, his spiritual director, understands that it's God who is calling Samuel and he instructs him to say, "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening."  With these words, Samuel tunes in to God. He goes beyond hearing to listening and receiving God's word to him.

We all need to be like Samuel. We need quiet time and space in order to tune in to God, to listen. God speaks to us through the Scriptures.  God also speaks to us through the thoughts that arise in our hearts when we are engaged in good spiritual reading. In Chapter 4 of The Book of Her Life, St. Teresa of Avila wrote that during eighteen years of terrible dryness in prayer, she "never dared to begin prayer without a book," which she called "a partner or a shield by which to sustain the blows of my many thoughts."  "With a book," she writes, "I began to collect them, and my soul was drawn to recollection. And many times just opening the book was enough; at other times I read a little, and at others a great deal, according to the favor the Lord granted me."

Another way that we can listen to God is to prayerfully review our day asking what God was trying to tell us through its people and events. The Bible is the record of God's presence and activity in the lives of individuals and the community. Each of us could write our own record of God's activity in our lives, how God spoke to us through the people we met and challenged or blessed us through the events of the day.

Sometimes our prayer of listening is simply being in God's presence with nothing seemingly going on. In the Gospel (John 1: 35-42), Andrew responds to Jesus' question "What are you looking for?" with "Teacher, where are you staying?" He wants to be with Jesus. It is enough simply to be in his presence. Our contemporary culture's emphasis on productivity goes against this attitude of simply being.  Yet, when one truly loves another, words don't matter. It's enough to simply be in the presence of the beloved.  And how powerful it is to be in God's presence!  If the sun radiates with an energy that warms and burns, how much more the Creator of the sun!  It is enough to be in his Eucharistic presence and to receive the rays of his radiating and transforming love.

In his presence, Jesus reveals to us who we are.  When Jesus looked upon Andrew's brother "Simon the son of John," he saw him not only as he was but as he would become. He saw more than his impetuous nature which would declare in a single night that he would love him to the death and then would deny that he even knew him. He saw all of Simon's potential and he named it, telling Simon, "you will be called Cephas" or Peter.  Rock. The Rock on which he would build his Church (Matthew 16: 18).

The Scripture scholar William Barclay tells the story that the great artist Michelangelo was once working on a shapeless piece of marble.  A visitor asked him what he was doing.  He responded, "I am releasing the angel imprisoned in this marble."

Jesus, the Master Artist, looks at us in prayer and sees not only the present reality but also the future. He sees the potential that will be realized through the power of his grace at work in us, shaping and molding us like an artist.

If we persevere, stay close to Jesus, listen to him, and allow him to shape us through our prayer and the activities of our day, he will not, like Michelangelo, release a hidden angel, but a hidden saint. We will become holy as God is holy.  We will become whole, fully human and alive as Jesus was and is. All it takes is to stay close to the Lord and listen to him. He will do the rest.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

St. Francis of Assisi Church

 I am in Springfield, IL, at the Motherhouse of the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis where I am helping direct some seminarians from Kenrick Seminary in St. Louis on their annual retreat.

While the weather has been desperately cold, I've stayed indoors where it is cozy and warm.  The Sisters run a retreat and conference center called Chiara Center.  The hospitality has been great.

One of the beauties of this retreat center is the church which clearly shows we are still in the Christmas Season.

This Nativity set is up yearlong and includes St. Francis who is credited with organizing the first living creche.

The church also includes a shrine of St. Therese of Lisieux which depicts various scenes from her life.

The Sisters ran a Tuberculosis Sanitarium here from 1919 to 1973.

St. Therese died of TB and so it was natural to create this shrine in the church and to ask her help for the patients as well as for the missionaries who left this Motherhouse and journeyed throughout the world.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Mary's Motherhood and Ours

Today is the Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God.  There are many feasts that celebrate Mary. We recently celebrated her Immaculate Conception--that she was conceived without sin. In August we celebrate her Assumption--that at the end of her earthly life she was taken body and soul into heaven. Now, on the eighth day after Christmas, we celebrate her motherhood.

She is a mother unlike any other mother. First, she is a virgin mother.  Secondly, she is the mother of a child who is God.  Early theologians marvelled that the Creator of the universe, whom the world could not hold, was held in the womb and in the arms of Mary, a creature.

Early Christians were in awe of this and wondered how this could be. Some went so far as to say that while Mary could rightly be called the Mother of Christ she ought not be called the Mother of God. How can God, who is eternal, who has no beginning or end, have a mother who gives him a beginning in time?  The 5th Century Council of Ephesus declared that because Jesus Christ is truly God and truly man and because Mary gave birth to him, she can truly be called the Mother of God. This is a mystery beyond human comprehension.

The mystery continues. As Mother of Jesus Christ, Mary can also be said to be Mother of the Body of Christ, the Church. She is the Mother of all who are united to Jesus, the Head of the Body.

And there is more. We are called to share in the Motherhood of Mary.  Once, according to Matthew's Gospel (12: 26-50), when Jesus was busy teaching in a crowded house, Mary and some other close relatives came and asked to see Jesus.  He asked "Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?"  Then he pointed to his disciples and said, "Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, and sister, and mother." Whoever listens to the Word, as Mary did, and acts upon it by doing the will of God, is a mother who gives flesh to Jesus, the Word.

Recall that at the Annunciation Mary received the Word of God from the Angel Gabriel. Surrendering to the will of God for her, she conceived the Word in her womb.  Her Immaculate Heart received the Word who became flesh through her.

St. John Paul II, in his encyclical on the Eucharist, called Mary "the Woman of the Eucharist" and said that her "Fiat" or "Yes" to God allowed Jesus to take flesh within her. He said that something analogously happens when we receive the Word-made-flesh, the Body of Christ, in Holy Communion. Our "Amen" is like Mary's "Fiat." The Word takes flesh within us and transforms us. We become what we receive. We become, in Pope Benedict's words at World Youth Day 2005, "the Body of Christ, his own Flesh and Blood."

On this day when we honor the Motherhood of Mary, we also celebrate the World Day of Peace. In a 1974 apostolic exhortation about Mary, Bl. Paul VI wrote about the connection between Mary's Motherhood and Peace: "This celebration ... is meant to commemorate the part played by Mary in this mystery of salvation. ... It is likewise a fitting occasion for renewed adoration of the newborn Prince of Peace, for listening once more to the glad tidings of the angels, and for imploring from God, through the Queen of Peace, the supreme gift of peace. For this reason ... we have instituted the World Day of Peace...."

As Mary gave flesh to Jesus, who is our Peace, so we, members of his Body, give flesh to peace.

Pope Francis' Message for the 2015 World Day of Peace is entitled "No Longer Slaves, But Brothers and Sisters." This comes from St. Paul's Letter to Philemon, a Christian who had a slave named Onesimus who had escaped and, after encountering Paul, was baptized. Paul wrote Philemon asking him to receive Onesimus back not as a slave but as a brother Christian.  With this in mind, Pope Francis wrote about the terrible phenomenon of human trafficking and modern slavery. Though slavery is outlawed throughout the world, tens of millions of people of all ages find themselves victims of various forms of slavery including forced labor, the sex trade and arranged marriages, child soldiers and drug runners, and people held captive by terrorists.

Pope Francis writes: "Today, as in the past, slavery is rooted in a notion of the human person which allows him or her to be treated as an object."  This is a sin against the sanctity of life. Persons, made in the image and likeness of God, are being treated as objects to be used for other people's gain or pleasure.  Such an objectification of the human person is a root cause of conflicts and war.

Pope Francis challenges all of us to view others as sacred, made in the image of God who sent his Son to live and die for them.  We are called to reverence life in a world that sees some human beings as garbage to be disposed of before birth and as burdens to be disposed of when they are no longer productive and become a drain on the economy.  Without such a reverence for the sanctity of human life, there will be no peace.

Peace begins here, in each individual heart, each family, each community.  As we receive the Word of Life, the Prince of Peace, and give flesh to him as members of his Body, we make peace a reality.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

God's Family Planning

The Feast of the Holy Family has an essential lesson for the contemporary world.  In the Gospel of Luke 1: 31-35 we read that Mary conceived her child through the Holy Spirit and “the power of the Most High.”  (See also the angel’s words to Joseph in Matthew 1: 20.) Mary did not need Joseph, her espoused, to conceive Jesus.  But Jesus needed both of them—Mary and Joseph—to be the Holy Family.

On November 17, 2014, at a conference sponsored by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on “The Complementarity Between Man and Woman,” Pope Francis said: “Children have a right to grow up in a family with a father and a mother capable of creating a suitable environment for the child’s growth and emotional development.”

Why do children have this right which is under attack today?  Because of the complementarity of the sexes.  St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and now Pope Francis, have all spoken of the importance of recognizing and supporting the unique contribution of women—“the feminine genius.”  In “The Joy of the Gospel” #103, Pope Francis wrote of “the sensitivity, intuition and other distinctive skill sets which they, more than men, tend to possess.”  He went on to write about “the special concern which women show to others” and which can be called a mothering or nurturing instinct. 

Men, in turn, have their own “distinctive skill sets” which, if we look at Pope Francis’ Inaugural Homily, are found in St. Joseph.
 He is a guide and protector.  In the words of Pope Francis, “Joseph is a ‘protector’ because he is able to hear God’s voice and be guided by his will; and for this reason he is all the more sensitive to the persons entrusted to his safekeeping. He can look at things realistically, he is in touch with his surroundings, he can make truly wise decisions.”  Joseph reveals the fatherhood which has God as its origin.  St. Paul, as he begins a prayer for the Ephesians, writes, “I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named…” (3:15). One could say that “the masculine genius” is to reveal to children something of God’s fatherhood.

Sometimes circumstances like death, conception out of wedlock, and the break-up of a marriage lead to single-parent families.  While this does indeed happen, it is not the way God intended families to exist. 

The Second Vatican Council’s document on the Church in the Modern World, “Gaudium et Spes” #52, called the family “the school of deeper humanity.”  It is there where children best learn the lessons of life, of what it means to be human. 

In his homily for this feast last year, Pope Francis talked about the lessons that are learned in families: 

“Today our gaze on the Holy Family lets us also be drawn into the simplicity of the life they led in Nazareth.  It is an example that does our families great good, helping them increasingly to become communities of love and reconciliation, in which tenderness, mutual help, and mutual forgiveness is experienced.  Let us remember the three key words for living in peace and joy in the family: “may I”, “thank you” and “sorry”.  In our family, when we are not intrusive and ask “may I”, in our family when we are not selfish and learn to say “thank you”, and when in a family one realizes he has done something wrong and knows how to say “sorry”, in that family there is peace and joy.  Let us remember these three words.  I would also like to encourage families to become aware of the importance they have in the Church and in society.  The proclamation of the Gospel, in fact, first passes through the family to reach the various spheres of daily life. Let us fervently call upon Mary Most Holy, the Mother of Jesus and our Mother, and St Joseph her spouse.  Let us ask them to enlighten, comfort and guide every family in the world, so that they may fulfil with dignity and peace the mission which God has entrusted to them.”
As our ancestral parents were tempted in the Garden of Eden to redefine themselves as gods who could determine for themselves right and wrong, good and bad, so contemporary society is seeking a power that does not belong to it.  This same demonic temptation to change nature according to one’s own desires appears in the first temptation that Jesus faced in the desert. He was hungry and was tempted to change rocks into bread.  But it is not the nature of a rock to become grain which in turn is baked and becomes food. 

In a similar way, the world wants to change the nature of marriage and family.  According to Pope Francis, this has devastating effects. In his November 17, 2014 address he said: “Marriage and the family are in crisis today. We now live in a culture of the temporary, in which more and more people reject marriage as a public obligation. This revolution of customs and morals has often waved ‘the flag of freedom’, but it has, in reality, brought spiritual and material devastation to countless human beings, especially the poorest and most vulnerable.”

As we reflect of the importance and beauty of family life today, let us pray for families everywhere and for the Synod of Bishops that will meet in October, 2015. 

Jesus, Mary and Joseph,
in you we contemplate
the splendor of true love,
to you we turn with trust.

Holy Family of Nazareth,
grant that our families too
may be places of communion and prayer,
authentic schools of the Gospel
and small domestic Churches.

Holy Family of Nazareth,
may families never again
experience violence, rejection and division:
may all who have been hurt or scandalized
find ready comfort and healing.

Holy Family of Nazareth,
may the approaching Synod of Bishops
make us once more mindful
of the sacredness and inviolability of the family,
and its beauty in God’s plan.

Jesus, Mary and Joseph,
graciously hear our prayer.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

God in the Flesh, a Real Baby

I was going to post a picture of the newborn Jesus in the manger, but most religious art does not do justice to the reality that the Son of God became an honest-to-goodness baby.  I blogged about this in 2009.

And so, whenever I give retreats and talk about the Nativity, I quote Fr. Al Lauer, a priest of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati and founder of Presentation Ministries,  who died of cancer in 2002 at the age of 55. His description in one of his daily reflections that appeared in Presentation Ministries "One Bread, One Body," is one of the best that I've come across.  He wrote:

"He emptied Himself (Phil 2: 7) when He became a helpless Infant. The all-powerful Creator of the world could not walk, talk, or roll over. The second Person of the blessed Trinity talked baby-talk, wet His diapers, and spit out His food. Almighty God weighed just a few pounds, shivered, cried, and nursed at His mother's breast.  

"The message of Christmas and God's incarnation is shocking. He Who created the billions of galaxies with billions of stars, Who created the countless creatures on this little planet, became completely dependent on His parents, just like us. It seems almost blasphemous to suggest that God became a weak human being. Yet He did, out of love for us.... The meaning of Christmas is shocking, but ultimately, it is love."

Yesterday Karen from Nebraska called the Apostleship of Prayer office. Her favorite video among the hundreds of two minute daily reflections that we've produced over the past six years is called "A Helpless Baby."  In it I quote Fr. Lauer.

Pope Benedict said a similar thing in his Midnight Mass Homily of 2008.  He said:

"God stooped down--he himself comes down as a child to the lowly stable, the symbol of all humanity's neediness and forsakenness. God truly comes down. He becomes a child and puts himself in the state of complete dependence typical of a newborn child. The Creator who holds all things in his hands, on whom we all depend, makes himself small and in need of human love. God is in the stable."

Last year in his Midnight Mass Homily, Pope Francis echoed these thoughts:

"God has entered our history; he has shared our journey. He came to free us from darkness and to grant us light. In him was revealed the grace, the mercy, and the tender love of the Father: Jesus is Love incarnate. He is not simply a teacher of wisdom, he is not an ideal for which we strive while knowing that we are hopelessly distant from it. ... Let us pause before the Child, let us pause in silence. ... Let us thank the Lord for having given Jesus to us.  ... We bless you, Lord God most high, who lowered yourself for our sake. You are immense, and you made yourself small; you are rich and you made yourself poor; you are all-powerful and you made yourself vulnerable."

Blessed and Peaceful Christmas Eve to all!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Marian Servants of Divine Providence

I celebrated Mass this morning with some of the Apostleship of Prayer staff and four women who are members of the Marian Servants of Divine Providence.  The Mass was part of a re-commitment ceremony in which that group made promises to continue as Servants for one year.

The Marian Servants are a Private Association of the Christian Faithful that was recognized by Bishop Robert Lynch of the Diocese of St. Petersburg in 1997.  A flyer that the Servants shared with me states:

"The mission of the Marian Servants is this: to bring Christians to a deeper understanding of their vocation and mission in Christ, in the Church and in the world. The Marian Servants realize that Spiritual Direction is a vital component in carrying out this mission. Therefore the Marian Servants minister to the Mystical Body, the People of God, through Spiritual Direction by utilizing the Ignatian form of praying Scripture and seeking the designated graces."

The main community house in Clearwater, Florida offers retreats and courses in spiritual direction designed to prepare people not only to provide spiritual direction but also to guide others in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.

Each local community has its own unique ministry and name. After a period of discernment, the
Milwaukee group decided to call itself "The Marian Servants of Jesus Christ Lord and King."  Providentially, the small chapel where we celebrated Mass today has a statue of Christ the King.

Thursday, November 27, 2014


There are three short verses in Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians that are good not only for Thanksgiving Day but for all days.  They are verses 16 to 18 of Chapter 5 and go like this:

“Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.” 

In other words, God wants us to always be grateful and to rejoice.  Easier said than done! What about when we are feeling down and things are not going well in our lives and in the lives of our loved ones? Can we give thanks then? Isn’t that na├»ve or dishonest?

Gratitude, like forgiveness and like love, is not so much a feeling but an act of the will. Yes, it’s easier to be grateful when we are feeling good, but St. Paul says we should give thanks in all circumstances.

This takes faith—faith that, in St. Paul’s words, “all things work for good for those who love God” (Romans 8: 28).  We can be grateful even in the midst of difficulties by making an act of faith that God is using those difficulties to work some good in the world. After all, God used one of the most horrible things that could ever happen—the crucifixion of Jesus—to bring about the greatest good—our salvation.

The natural human tendency is directed toward negativity. We tend to see the glasses in our lives as half-empty rather than half-full and this gives us dark rather than rose-colored glasses with which we view the world.  One could say that it is the will of God for us, as St. Paul wrote, to be grateful because such an attitude of thanksgiving, no matter how we are feeling, is good for us—for our spiritual, emotional, and physical health.

We don’t develop an “attitude of gratitude” overnight nor is it a matter of “once acquired, always there.”  A grateful heart needs to be exercised.  One way that we can develop a grateful heart is to make thanksgiving a part of our end-of-the-day prayer. 

In the middle of the “Inner Life” call-in spiritual direction radio show yesterday, Ann from Wisconsin sent in an email about how helpful an evening examination that includes thanksgiving has been for her. She started doing this after reading Jesuit Fr. Chris Collins’ book “Three Moments of the Day.” 

She wrote: “I read Fr. Chris Collins' book "3 Momentsof the Day" a few months ago and it's changed my life. During the Examen at the end of the day, I start my prayer with all the things I'm grateful for, that happened during the day. And then I go through the list of things I beg God for, but it's been put into perspective now, because I've just told God what I'm grateful for. And I think I've started to realize what's important... For example: Rather than beg God to improve my high school son's grades and make him work harder, I start by thanking God for my son's health and the fact that he's enjoying swim team. Then the grades don't take on as much importance.”

You can listen to the entire show on the “Inner Life”archives.

Oh, and thank you for reading this and passing it on!