Thursday, 31 March 2011

Working together with God

I notice that in my last few blogs I have reflected on the importance of personal discipline in the spiritual journey. This emphasis on the importance of our decisions and habits is not meant to down play the complete primacy of God’s action. The Spirit of God brings about our transformation but we are to work together with grace. At every step God relies on our consent and co-operation. All spiritual growth is a collaborative effort between the individual and the Holy Spirit.

Scripture tells us: “Continue to work out your salvation in fear and trembling, for it is God who, for His own generous purpose, works in you both the desire and the power to act” (Philippians 2:12,13).

So we are clearly told that there are two definite  parts to spiritual growth. The “working in” is God’s role; deep within each of us the Holy Spirit unceasingly draws us to deeper love and freedom. It is the grace of God that gives us both the desire and the strength for good.

But the “working out” is our responsibility; we co-operate with grace and drawing on the divine energy to make the choices that reveal themselves in Christ-like behaviour, in word and deed. God has given us a new life by the gift of the indwelling Spirit. It is now our responsibility to develop this life “in fear and trembling” – that is, take our spiritual growth seriously. 

There are still several weeks left on our Lenten journey...  time to begin again if we have slackened off!

Monday, 28 March 2011

Our Daily Choices

Gregory of Nyssa, writing of the power of our daily choices to form us into the persons we become, states: "We are, in a sense, our own parents.”  Fr Aelfred Squire comments on this line: “There are indeed few who will not recognise the justice of believing that, when allowance is made for the obscurities in which we have to work out our salvation, we never become what in fact we do become, unless deep down in ourselves, we have chosen and desired it, and gone on doing so for a lifetime... From the cradle to the grave we are, either consciously or unconsciously, involved in activity, whether that activity is externally manifested or not. It is in our activity that we are all the time becoming what, at any given moment, we are.”

“No one makes a fool of God! A person reaps only what he sows.” (Galatians 6:7). If that is the case, it is an indispensable practice to reflect regularly on what I am sowing day by day. It is a sobering but true thought that I am as close to God as I choose to be. God’s love for us does not waver. But the extent to which that love enters and impacts on our lives depends on our free choices. Respecting the liberty He gave us the gracious Lover does not force His love upon us.

I am constantly making choices as I live my life  - choosing how I spend my time and money, how I relate to people, choosing to pray or not, to forgive or not,  to be generous or not, etc, etc. Often these choices are made without much reflection.  So during this time of Lent I am especially asked to consider the power of these personal choices to form the person I am becoming.  It is true - in a very real sense I am my own parent!

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Christian Maturity

Francis: Wholehearted in following Christ

St Francis was a man who was wholehearted about whatever he did. Before his conversion he was full of enthusiasm for becoming a famous knight. But after he had found Christ, or better still when Christ had captured his heart - he lived his life fully for the Lord. This dedication allowed God's grace to deepen and mature him. 

The Scriptures speak often of maturity in our walk with God.  In one of the psalms God laments that His people are like “a bow the which the archer cannot count on” (78:57). They are undependable. A steady spirit is a sign of a mature spirit, of a person who knows the direction in life to take and sticks with it.

The Scriptures speak often of Christian maturity. “Our greatest wish and prayer is that you will become mature Christians” (2Corinthians 13:9). “We are not meant to remain children at the mercy of every chance wind of teaching… But we are meant to speak the truth in love, and to grow up in every way into Christ the Head” (Ephesians 4:14).

The ultimate goal of spiritual growth is to become more and more like Christ as child and servant of the Father, alive in the Holy Spirit. This is God’s plan for us from the beginning. “For those God foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of His Son, that He might be the firstborn of many brothers and sisters” (Romans 8:29). God wants every believer to develop the character of Christ.
It is at this point that many of us can miss out on God’s  full dream for our lives. Some of us fear to commit to anything and so just drift through life. Others of us can end up making half-hearted commitments to competing values. A simple example: a person may decide at the beginning of Lent that she will give more time to prayer or reading the Bible. But her commitment to television, shown by the amount of time spent in front of the box, goes unchanged. The result is frustration and mediocrity.

 A clear purpose not only defines what we do, it also defines what we don’t do. “The life of a person of divided loyalty will reveal instability at every turn” (James 1:8). An indecisive Christian is an unsteady Christian.  Something for us all to think about as Lent continues.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Disciplines for Disciples

I always find that Lent reminds me of some of the basics I tend to forget. One of these basics is the notion of having "good habits" in my life

Christian discipleship begins with a decision that is then constantly renewed. Becoming like Christ is the result of the commitments we make as we co-operate with God. Nothing shapes our lives more than the commitments we chose. We become what we are committed to. The question is who or what will get our commitment? And that is where good habits come it.

Scriptures often compares training for the Christian life to the way athletes stay in shape. “Train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but the discipline of religion has far greater value, with its promise of life, here and hereafter” (1Tim 4:7,8).  The path to spiritual fitness is as practical as physical fitness. If we just keep it on the level of some vague, mystical aspiration – it will never happen.

Just Do It!

We learn by Doing

We learn by doing. This is true in all areas of life. For a believer it  is possible to be theologically knowledgeable but spiritually ignorant, having much theory but no experience of the divine reality. Spiritual maturity is not measured by what you know. We are indeed called to grow more and more in knowledge of God and the Christian life. But maturity in the disciple is demonstrated more by behaviour than by beliefs. “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do” (James 2:18).

All the theory in the world will not change me. No one learns to ride a bicycle or play the violin by reading about bicycles or violins. We have to get up on the bicycle or pick up the violin. In the same way, we learn to pray by praying. And the more we pray the better we get at praying.

Christian Character
It was a wise man who said:  “Sow a thought and you reap and act; sow an act and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character and you reap a destiny.”  Our characters are shaped in great measure by the habits we develop. Character is made in the small moments of our lives not in crises. Rather times of crises reveal our characters. For example, a life lived yielded to God’s will comes from the habit of daily surrender, even in small matters. Christ’s surrender to the Father’s purposes did not begin in the terrible crisis of Gethsemani. He could say: “I always do the things that are pleasing to Him” (John 8:29).

Strength of character comes out of the decisions we make, the temptations we face, and the struggles we endure.  Dostoevsky said: “The second half of a person’s life is made up of the habits he acquired during the first half.” And the great Catholic thinker Pascal believed that “the strength of a person’s virtue is measured by his habitual acts.”

Good habits, patterns and rhythms in one's daily life that support and sustain us in our Christian discipleship are essential.

Some people do not like the notion of habits when speaking of the spiritual life. They feel that their relationship with the Lord should be spontaneous. No one wants to advocate mindless routine. But we readily understand that for our physical health good habits of diet and exercise are essential. In the same way, our spiritual well-being and growth are very practical matters. 

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

St Patrick's Breastplate

The Breastplate Prayer of St. Patrick also called "The Lorica" and "The Deer's Cry" is one of the most beautiful Irish Celtic invocations.

Tradition has it that it was written by the saint to place himself completely under God's protection as he prepared to confront the hostile Leogaire, High King of Ireland. But it probably comes later than Patrick's fifth century. It is first  found in the ninth century Book of Armagh.

Most people just know the section "Christ be beside me" that has become a favourite hymn. But in this ancient prayer we bind the Triune God, then Christ’s Gospel history to ourselves, followed by the spiritual powers of the universe, of Scripture, and of Christian history. We also bind to ourselves the elemental powers. Finally we immerse ourselves in Christ. The hymn offers us a thorough-going vision of the Christian faith.

This prayer reminds us of the spiritual resources that are ours as we trust in God's saving power. Scripture speaks of clothing ourselves in "the armour of light", and putting on the "full armour of God". This prayer gives us a way of intentionally clothing ourselves in the Spirit protecting presence.  What is remarkable is the thoroughness with which we are called to bind God’s spiritual power to ourselves.

This prayer is a beautiful example of the Celtic emphasis on the pervasiveness of the Divine in the world around us. 

I Rise Today
I rise today
in the power’s strength, invoking the Trinity
believing in threeness,
confessing the oneness,
of creation’s Creator.

I rise today
in the power of Christ’s birth and baptism,
in the power of his crucifixion and burial,
in the power of his rising and ascending,
in the power of his descending and judging.

I rise today
in the power of the love of cherubim,
in the obedience of angels
and service of archangels,
in hope of rising to receive the reward,
in the prayers of patriarchs,
in the predictions of the prophets,
in the preaching of apostles,
in the faith of confessors,
in the innocence of holy virgins,
in the deeds of the righteous.

I rise today
in heaven’s might,
in sun’s brightness,
in moon’s radiance,
in fire’s glory,
in lightning’s quickness,
in wind’s swiftness,
in sea’s depth,
in earth’s stability,
in rock’s fixity.

I rise today
with the power of God to pilot me,
God’s strength to sustain me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look ahead for me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to protect me,
God’s way before me,
God’s shield to defend me,
God’s host to deliver me,
from snares of devils,
from evil temptations,
from nature’s failings,
from all who wish to harm me,
far or near,
alone and in a crowd.

Around me I gather today all these powers
against every cruel and merciless force
to attack my body and soul,
against the charms of false prophets,
the black laws of paganism,
the false laws of heretics,
the deceptions of idolatry,
against spells cast by women, smiths, and druids,
and all unlawful knowledge that harms the body and soul.

May Christ protect me today
against poison and burning,
against drowning and wounding,
so that I may have abundant reward;
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me;
Christ within me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me;
Christ to the right of me, Christ to the left of me;
Christ in my lying, Christ in my sitting, Christ in my rising;
Christ in the heart of all who think of me,
Christ on the tongue of all who speak to me,
Christ in the eye of all who see me,
Christ in the ear of all who hear me.

I rise today
in power’s strength, invoking the Trinity,
believing in threeness,
confessing the oneness,
of creation’s Creator.

For to the Lord belongs
and to the Lord belongs salvation
and to Christ belongs salvation.
May your salvation, Lord, be with us always.

[Saint Patrick’s BreastplatePrayer from Oliver Davies and Fiona Bowie, Celtic Christian Spirituality: An Anthology of Medieval and Modern Sources (SPCK, 1995).]

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Spiritual Nappies!

The crocuses in the flower pots on my window are thriving; they have grown so much in the last few days. It is a joy watching their progress. Unfortunately growth in our Christian life is not automatic with the passing of time. Pews can be filled with people who have attended church all their lives and are still spiritual infants. A danger for us all is that we grow older but never grow up spiritually. We can spend our lives in spiritual nappies.

Yes, we are indeed called to live as children of God. But that entails living with child-like trust in God, in abiding awareness of our absolute dependence on Him. It does not be mean being childish, never growing in Christian maturity, never experiencing strength in discipleship, never moving beyond a life that lacks constancy, governed by changing moods and circumstances.

Before all and above all, we are told to seek the Kingdom of God. Here is no casual approach to the spiritual journey. Here is a search that is clear and deliberate and definite.

Spiritual growth is intentional. It is a choice renewed constantly. A person must want to grow in grace and make an effort to grow.  It requires commitment to stay faithful.  It requires steadfastness to continue the spiritual practices that keep us open to God.  It requires effort to cooperate with the Spirit’s action in our lives. No one has ever drifted into holiness. Our growth in grace cannot be hurried or forced; but we are called to give ourselves as fully as possible to the process.

This is a timely reflection for me as Lent approaches – Ash Wednesday is just over a week away – when the Christian community seeks to live more fully the gift of our Baptism. God wants our lives to be both faithful and fruitful. And He unceasingly offers us the grace we need to grow.

It is a blessing to be able to say: yes, I want to be strengthened in goodness, to grown in love, to be less burdened by what weights me down.

But am I willing to pay the price for that growth?

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Taken Hold of by the Word

Still down here in Ennis friary with the novices, and we continued today to reflect on the Minister General's Letter on the Word of God, Mendicants of Meaning: Led by the Word. If yesterday's work focused on St Francis' relationship with the Sacred Scriptures, today we looked at our own approach. We asked the fundamental question: What importance does the Word of God have in my life?

The Letter makes clear that the purpose of our encounter with the Word is to lead us to a deeper faith and commitment to Christ.

“‘Listen, my sons and brothers,” our father and brother Francis exhorts us, listen carefully to what I say. Incline the ears of your heart and obey the voice of the Son of God.’ If it is urgent today to know better the man Jesus, to recognise Him as Christ and to confess Him to be the Lord, we have no other way of achieving this objective except by taking the book of Scriptures into our hands, opening the doors of our hearts to it and offering a hearing and acceptance to the Word. If our heart has an ardent desire to get away from the insignificance or weakness of our everyday failures, we have no other way than allowing ourselves be taken hold of by the Word and giving it ample space in our lives. Being taken hold of by the Word and by Christ are one and the same thing. If we wish to re-create and re-found our life and mission, there is no other way for us than opening up space to the Word, re-reading it, studying it, meditating on it, receiving it with an empty and poor heart, ‘murmuring it day and night’ (see Ps 1:2) in order to live it and celebrate it."

There follows a beautiful passage on all the ways we can "spend time" with the Word.

“Frequenting the Word, approaching it, pestering and courting it, being silent before it, listening to it, familiarising ourselves with it, guarding, like a treasure in the memory, that Word which at some time made our heart burn (see Lk 24:32) and allowing ourselves to be surprised by it - all this will permit us to move to the rhythm of the music of God, like Francis. Then our life will recover its youth and our tiredness will be left behind, we will go our with renewed joy to meet Christ and all men and women, our brothers and sisters. And we will be able to walk more securely in the way of the commands of the Lord.”
Reverence and Openness
This attitude of faith reveals itself in a spirit of reverence before the Scriptures, and an openness to their power.

“Let us venerate and carefully accept the Scriptures as they are, the Word of God, just  as Francis taught us. Origin, one of the Church Fathers, said to the Christians of his time and says to us today: ‘You who are accustomed to take part in the divine mysteries, when you receive the Body of the Lord you keep it with great care and every veneration so that not even a particle falls to the ground, so that nothing of the consecrated gift may be lost. You are convinced, and rightly so, that it would be blameworthy to allow its fragments to fall through carelessness. If you are so careful in preserving His Body – and it is right that you should be – you should know that to neglect the Word of God is no less blameworthy than to neglect His Body.’”

“If the seven sacraments are signs which are seen, the Word is a sacrament which is heard. It is a sign which, through human words, allows us to enter mysteriously into contact with the living truth and will of God, and to hear the very voice of Christ, who, as He did to the paralytic, heals us of our paralysis and enables us to walk or, like He did to the man born blind, He opens our eyes so that we may see. The waters of Israel which healed the leprosy of Namaan the Syrian (see 2Kg 12:14) were the divine Scriptures for the holy Fathers. They continue to cure us of our illnesses, as the Scriptures themselves testify: No herb, no poultice cured them, but it was your Word, Lord, which heals all things’ (Wis 16:12).”

 Absolute Lord
This section of the Letter ends with a strong plea to open our hearts to Christ, the Word of God:

“The Amen, the faithful witness, who is outside and is calling us, invites us to open the door which separates Him from us: ‘Look, I am standing at the door, knocking. If one of you hears me calling and opens the door, I will come in to share my throne’ (Rev 3:20). We have secret resistances to believing that we are wanted by the Lord and that it is He who seeks our presence. Let us open the door to the Word, allow ourselves to be indwelt by it, and many people wounded by life, by the experiences of failure, loneliness, weakness and indifference will enter in with it and dwell in our 'house', a dwelling place shaped and formed by God's compassionate and grace-filled Word."

"Let us give primacy to the Word in our lives so that it may be He, Christ the Lord, and He alone who is the absolute Lord of our lives, as He was in the life of Francis and Clare. Then we will be happy: ‘Happy the man who… finds his pleasure in the law of the Lord and murmurs his law day and night. He is like a tree that is planted by water streams, yielding its fruit in season, its leaves never fading’ (Ps 1:1-3).”

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Francis and the Word of God

I am here in our friary in Ennis, Co Clare, for my monthly visit of a few days to give classes on spirituality to our novices. These three young men are full of energy and enthusiasm as they continue their journey on the Franciscan way. The topic for the next few days is the Word of God, our "relationship" with the Sacred Scriptures. Today we looked at a lengthly letter by our Minister General, José Carballo, written in 2008. Entitled Mendicants of Meaning: Led by the Word, it reflects on the Word of God in our lives

In particular today we read and discussed the section that speaks of how Francis himself approached the Word and through it allow the Lord to transform his life. Some passages from the letter express the depth of his reverence and joy in the gift of the Scriptures.

Marked by the Word
"It is amazing to see the great knowledge Francis had of Sacred Scripture and the great love he nourished for the Word. His life, in fact, was totally marked by the Word. At the beginning of his evangelical journey it was the word which showed him what he had to do, and at the end of his days it would also be the word which accompany him in his glorious passing over to God. The Word was, for him, his travelling companion at all times, even allowing himself be totally penetrated by it. It is not strange that all his writings, from the Prayers to the Rules, the Letters and Admonitions, are full of biblical quotes; they are real and proper Scriptural mosaics. The Word of the Lord is 'perfumed' and Francis was inebriated by its fragrance. The 'ignorant and stupid' Francis, as he used to present himself, was without great instruction, that is, without a formation proper to the clergy or to the learned of the time. But he had such knowledge of the word as to, as St Bonaventure wrote: 'penetrate hidden mysteries. Where the knowledge of teachers is outside, the passion of the lover entered.'"

Known only by Love
The Minister General asks: How was it possible that Francis, who had no formal learning, could gain such a deep insight into the Scriptures? He then goes on to give three reasons:

*  "If God is only known by loving Him, Francis knew God and the secrets of God hidden in the word because he loved.
 *  If the Father reveals His secrets to the simple (cf. Lk 10, 21-22; Dn 2, 22; Si 4, 18), Francis knew those secrets because he listened to the Word with a poor and disposed heart, just like Mary (cf. Lk 2, 19. 51).
*   If the Word is known in the measure in which it is put into practice, Francis knew it because 'he was not a deaf listener' to the Word, but hurried to live it without delay: as he himself cried out: 'This is what I want to do with all my strength.'"

"His knowledge of Scripture was not a speculative knowledge, but wise. For him, the Word was not a text from the past, but of the present, and for the present, as he showed when he wrote so often: 'the Lord says in the Gospel', and not 'Jesus said at that time', as was usual on quoting the sayings of Jesus. Francis had not studied, but had lived the word in simplicity and purity, just as he said he had written his Rule, which he wished to be merely an echo of the Gospel."

Word and Eucharist
In our discussion of the letter we were particularly struck by the passage that shows how Francis saw the close link between the Word and the Eucharist, both gifts of Christ's presence among us. This linking of the Word and Eucharist was something rediscovered only recently by the Church as a whole.

“The holy words were, for Francis, tangible, actual and life-giving signs of the real Presence of Christ, as the Eucharistic Bread and Wine are. For him, the Word, like the Eucharist, was a prolongation of the Incarnation. In the Word, as in the Eucharist, God reveals Himself and acts. The Word, like the Eucharist, brings us close to the heart of God and saves us. To receive the Word is to receive Life, to reject the Word is to reject Life which is also offered to us, above all, in the Eucharist. Even we, used to reading this truth in the documents of the Second Vatican Council, are surprised by such comparison. For Francis it was a proof of faith: ‘And let all of us know for certain that no one can be saved except through the holy words and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ which the clergy pronounce, proclaim and minister.’"

"This faith in the real presence of Christ in His word is what explains Francis’ profound veneration of the word: ‘I, therefore, admonish all my brothers and encourage them in Christ to venerate, as best they can, the divine written words wherever they find them. If they are not well kept or are carelessly thrown around in some place, let them gather them up and preserve them, inasmuch as it concerns them, honouring in the words the Lord Who spoke them.’ And he himself did what he asked on the friars, as Br. Leo noted in his own handwriting in the breviary which is preserved in the Proto-monastery of St. Clare in Assisi: ‘Having heard or read the Gospel, blessed Francis always kissed the Gospel with the greatest reverence for the Lord.’ And we see no sign of fundamentalism or of integralism in this attitude of profound veneration of the sacred text. It was an external expression of a profoundly believing attitude before the word of God.”

As the novices and I reflected on these passages and discussed them today we were given a deeper awareness of the gift of the Scriptures and a desire to make them more central in our journey with the Lord.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Franciscan Spirituality: Open to Receive

While it emphasises joy in God and being, as Francis said, “cheerful in the Lord” the Franciscan tradition is not naive about the human condition. It does not shy away from the reality of our interior struggles that reveal the reality of human failure and frailty. Faced with our personal foibles and weakness that might seem to hinder the journey we are encouraged to boundless confidence in God's unconditional love, to show tenderness and patience toward one another and to our own selves, to steadfastly avoided the faintest hint of judgementalism, and to chose not to compare ourselves with others or even to be overly anxious about our progress. It is understood that to be human is to be flawed, to be in conflict, to be unfinished. Our failures become an essential part of our life’s journey. Instead of being obstacles, they are a privileged place to experience the divine compassion. The flaw in the oyster is the birthplace of the pearl. When we are empty and open we are ready to receive.

And just as it does not ignore the dark tensions of the heart, the Franciscan approach involves an unrelenting realism about the pain and anguish in the world marred as it is by injustice and poverty. The struggle for justice, peace and the integrity of creation are seen as an essential component of the path. The search for God must flower in a life that is compassionate and just. Franciscan spirituality at its best has an ethical vigour and beauty about it.  Francis, in choosing to side with the outcasts, the lepers, ascended low enough so as to discover the Incarnation writ everywhere. The tradition speaks of a ‘redemptive compassion’ – sharing a goodness that lifts people up with the hope that our life  and our world can indeed be different.  It has been said that Francis ‘walked the world as the Pardon of God.’ What condemnation and accusation cannot do, gentle kindness, courtesy and understanding can achieve. All live in God’s goodness; all breathe His compassion.

The Story Continues
In 1209 Francis walk to Rome from Assisi with his first eleven followers and gained verbal approval from Pope Innocent III for this new way of life within the Church. Like an acorn planted in a fertile field that seed has put down deep roots and flourished. Today the Franciscan Family is numerous, consisting of the three branches of friars (Franciscan, Capuchin, Conventual), the Poor Clare contemplative nuns, the multitude of male and female religious Franciscan congregations, and some hundreds of thousands of Secular Franciscans throughout the world, lay men and women who wish to live guided by this particular understanding of self, God and creation.

As he lay dying Francis told the friars: ‘I have done what is mine to do, may Christ teach you yours.’  The story continues... the story of a Gospel way of life that still has the power  to captivate the mind and nourish the heart.