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.