Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Spirituality for Dummies

When the holy Abba Anthony lived in the desert he was beset by 'accidie' - lethargy - , and attacked by many sinful thoughts. He said to God, 'Lord, I want to be saved, but these thoughts will not leave me alone. What shall I do in my affliction? How can I be saved?' A short while afterwards, when he got up to go out, Anthony saw a man like himself sitting at his work, getting up from his work to pray, then sitting down and plaiting a rope, then getting up again to pray. It was an angel of the Lord sent to correct and reassure him. He heard the angel saying to him, "Do this and you will be saved." At these words, Anthony was filled with joy and courage. He did this, and he was saved.

When the same Abba Anthony thought about the depth of the judgments of God, he asked, "Lord, how is it that some die when they are young, while others drag on to extreme old age? Why are there those who are poor and those who are rich? Why do wicked men prosper and why are the just in need?" He heard a voice answering him, "Anthony, keep your attention on yourself; these things are according to the judgment of God, and it is not to your advantage to know anything about them.'

Someone asked Abba Anthony, "What must one do in order to please God?" The old man replied, "Pay attention to what I tell you: whoever you may be, always have God before your eyes, whatever you do, do it according to the testimony of the Holy Scriptures; in whatever place you live do not easily leave it. Keep these three precepts and you will be saved."
Desert Father Stories

Reflection – We have here some basic spiritual principles laid down by Abba Anthony, who was one of the first and the greatest of the fathers, one of the few of them who is a canonized saint on the universal calendar of the Roman church.

These three stories taken together clear up an awful lot about the spiritual life, it seems to me. They are like a kind of ‘spiritual life for dummies’, and aren’t we all a little dumb when it comes to these things?

‘Accidie’, usually rendered in English as acedia, is that horrible drag that comes upon all of us when spiritual life and spiritual effort just don’t seem worth bothering about, when it all just seems kind of pointless and useless. There are no lives entirely free of acedia; the greatest of saints battle with it, the worst of sinners are wholly lost in it, but everyone has it. And so the first lesson of these stories is the fundamental way of the Christian in the world, the monk in his cell, everyone.

Ora et labora—pray and work, work and pray. Attend to the tasks and duties of your state of life, and then say some prayers, and then work some more, and then say some more prayers. The monastic schedule, which of course is very rigorous in its long offices and not suitable in its details for lay life, is nonetheless a sort of pattern for all Christian spiritual life. We have to alternate prayer and work, work and prayer, and this is the way to live simply and humbly in the presence of God. It has been thus from the beginning, and has not changed in our times. We tend, we moderns, to be so sure that everything is different now and that these old stories don’t apply to us. They do, they always will.

And this prayer and work is what is meant by ‘keeping one’s attention on oneself’, the attitude recommended. It is not self-centeredness that is being recommended here, but basically minding one’s own spiritual business. This is a good bit of advice for us in the social media age, when it seems to be the norm to pry one’s nose into the details of everyone else’s spiritual and moral life without much regard at all for the privacy of conscience and the simple fact that we know very little indeed about the lives of other people, and particularly their innermost life with God.

I do an awful lot of spiritual direction, you know (it’s more or less my principal work in MH), and even when a person has spent hours and hours pouring out to me the most intimate details of their lives and hearts, I am verrrrrry slow to give counsel, to say that such and such a choice was wrong or that they should definitely go this way or that way or not. So I’m always a bit bemused when I see people on a Facebook thread or combox issuing rather sweeping statements about total strangers, based on next to nothing.

No, keep your mind on yourself and your own journey to God and be very slow to get involved in the spiritual affairs of another, and if they happen to invite you into their affairs, go in on your knees and with fear and trembling.

And the final story is such a good summary of spiritual wisdom—keep God before your eyes, take the Scriptures as a guide in all things, and be very slow to leave a place you are in. This latter may strike us as odd and ‘one of these things is not like the other’-ish. But the desert fathers knew very well the phenomenon of itchy feet and restlessness, and that human beings can easily think that if they just change things around, move here, move there, leave their spouse, leave their community, change their job… it will all be better.

It is a terrible spiritual trap, one that many are in these days, which causes us to waste years and even decades of life trying to make all the externals of our life just so, when what needs to happen is interior purification and transformation. Commitment to a vocation, to a marriage, a community, a way of life, stability in a single place and occupation is vital so that the real work of life, the growth into freedom and joy, can happen without distractions.


And that’s quite enough for one day—but you can see how these wild monks from the deserts of the Middle East have laid down the path of holiness for all Christians, and how the study of these men and women is vital for our own walking of that path in confidence and security.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Where's Your Head At?

There were two monks who committed a very serious sin when they went to the village to sell their wares. But they were wise enough not to let the devil trick them into discouragement and so they came back to the desert and went to the Abba to confess their sins. To ease them into their conversion, they were asked to go and live on their own for one month on bread and water, to pray and do penance.

When the time was over, Abba himself came over to reunite them with the disciples. However he was very surprised because one came out grim, downcast, pale while the other was radiant, buoyant and brisk. "What did you meditate upon?" Abba asked.

The sad monk answered : "I thought constantly on the punishment which I merit and the justice of God". The happy monk answered : "Well, I used to remind myself constantly of the mercy of God and the love which Jesus Christ had for the sinner."

Both of them were joyfully accepted back in the community but Abba remarked on the wisdom of the brother who kept his mind fixed on the compassion of God.
Desert Father Stories
Reflection – One humorous (to us) note about this story is that to ease (!) these two monks into their conversion, they were put on bread and water and solitary confinement for a month. That’s ‘easing’ in desert father world, I guess! I don’t think too many of us would be very impressed with being given that as a penance, even if we had murdered someone.

Of course that’s not the point of the story – in fact, that is pretty ordinary unremarkable stuff by the standards of the fathers, which itself bears some reflection. I’m not advocating priests commonly handing out hard, heavy penances to people, but we could give some thought to our own personal practice of penance in light of our sins and the sins of the world.

But the point, of course, is what we fix our mind on, and the difference that makes in our joy. Again, note that neither of these monks spent much time meditating on how they really weren’t such bad guys, and all this sin business is kind of stupid, and the Church needs to get with the times, and really, I’m a good person.

No, they both knew full well that they were sinners, they were messed up and had messed up, and neither of them was giving a lot of mental real estate to their own selves. That, too, is worth our considering, isn’t it? Quite often these days a lot of the pseudo-spirituality and pop psychology of our church culture is really self-aggrandizement dressed up in a pious cloak.

But really, the nub of the story is how we deal with our sins, how we deal with the fact that we really are on the outs with God and with our brothers and sisters in some fundamental way. One monk trembled in fear and anxiety over this, one monk rejoiced in the infinite mercy of God. Both are reconciled, but one is sad, the other joyous.

Of course, if you think of it, the one who is filled with fear and anxiety and sadness is, in his own way, falling into a subtle snare of pride, one of the trickier ones. To have an excessive and exaggerated sorrow over one’s sins can imply that I am grieved that someone as wonderful as myself should have possibly fallen into such a state. ‘How could I, I, have done this thing?’ And to be filled with fear and anxiety over God’s anger and God’s punishment can also have a little pride component, too. Somehow it’s on us to fix it, to earn God’s favor, to make ourselves not so displeasing to Him.

No, the monk who simply turns his mind and heart to the infinite and tender mercy of God, knowing full well that he is a sinner who needs that mercy, but constant marveling and rejoicing at the gift given, is both on the path of joy and on the path of true humility.

So, while the details of this story are rather far removed from the details of our life—I won’t be living in poustinia on bread and water for a month any time soon, alas—the heart of the story is utterly relevant and not removed at all from our lives. So let us spend this day keeping our minds fixed on God, and not the God of anger and punishment, but the God of Jesus Christ, the merciful Father of us all.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep

When I call, answer me O God of justice!
From anguish you released me; have mercy and hear me.
O men, how long will your hearts be closed,
Will you love what is futile and seek what is false?

It is the Lord who grants favors to those whom he loves;
The Lord hears me whenever I call him.
Fear him; do not sin: ponder on your bed and be still.
Makes justice your sacrifice and trust in the Lord.

‘What can bring us happiness?’, many say.
Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord.
You have put into my heart a greater joy
Than they have from abundance of corn and new wine.
I will lie down in peace and sleep comes at once
For you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety.
Psalm 4

Reflection – Monday Psalter time again. This one is offered, logically, as one of the psalms of Compline, the night office that is prayed before bedtime in the Liturgy of the Hours. All of the language of pondering God on your bed and lying down in peace and sleeping in safety is, of course, fitting sentiment for that hour of the day.

I believe the psalms are arranged biblically at least some of the time to have some relation to each other, and we certainly see here allusions to Psalms 1-3, a development of thought from the first three psalms we have read.

Psalm 1 with its classic ‘two ways’ dichotomy, the way of the righteous and wise and the way of the wicked and foolish, is here again. Here, again, we see that contrast—those who love what is false and futile versus those who seek the light of the face of God.

Psalm 2 introduced the note of conflict, of a war raging in the world against God, and the sovereignty of God and his anointed one. Psalm 3 placed us in the heart of that battle, besieged and beleaguered by enemies far more powerful than us, but with a deep assurance of God’s deliverance.

That deliverance was expressed by the image of lying down to sleep and waking to find God has won the victory. So Psalm 4 now is a sort of peaceful meditation on everything that has gone before—we see the two camps in the world, we see the utter futility and folly of the one opposed to God, we see that a fierce battle is raging, but we rest secure in God’s power to save, to deliver his people.

It seems to me that this is always the repeating pattern of life in this world, until we see God face to face in the next. We move from a decision of faith to walk in the path of the righteous and reject the way of sin; we encounter opposition, within and without, to that decision and find ourselves in a battle indeed. The Lord and his Anointed, his Christ, are in the battle with us, but we still find experience ourselves as deeply imperiled, outnumbered and outgunned.

And then… the moment of deliverance, so mysterious, so strangely hard to define or describe. It happens when we sleep. Let us never forget that sleep, while an image of trust and confidence in God, is also a biblical image of the mystical life, of the moment when God directly acts upon us without our knowledge or cooperation.

God acts to save us in a way that is ultimately a mystical grace, something entirely His and so entirely hidden from us. But from this salvation, this mysterious encounter and the movement from battle and peril to peace and quiet, we utter this psalm, Psalm 4, reflecting again on the wisdom of the choice we have made, the choice for God, but now knowing a little more of the cost of that choice and the joy and happiness that arises from it.


It is a very deep little psalm, very mystical, very much a reflection of profound spiritual experience and meditation. And so it helps us to get there, too, and this is a good example indeed of why praying the psalms is such a core element of our Christian prayer, both liturgical and personal.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Corn Soup and Prayers

The brethren came to Abba Anthony and said to him, "Speak a word: how are we to be saved?" The old man said to them, "You have read the Scriptures. That should teach you how." But they said, "We want to hear from you too, Father." Then the old man said to them, "The Gospel says, 'if anyone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also.'" (Mt 5:30) 

They said, "We cannot do that." The old man said, "If you cannot offer the other cheek, at least allow one cheek to be struck." "We cannot do that, either," they said. So he said, "If you are not able to do that, do not return evil for evil," and they said, "We cannot do that, either." Then the old man said to his disciple, "prepare a little brew of corn for these invalids. If you cannot do this, or that, what can I do for you? What you need is prayers."
Desert Father Stories

Reflection – There are so many of these desert father stories and sayings that shine a bright light on the spiritual life and its ways, that I am sore tempted to just keep on with them for a little way yet. I have done quite a bit of ‘controversy blogging’ in past weeks, which is fine too, but sometimes I think we can’t really resolve any of the tough issues of our times and the matters that divide and confuse us because we are not building our lives on solid spiritual principles. This is the great genius and contribution of the desert fathers—to elaborate for us what those principles are.

This story, again showing the touches of humor that are frequent in the desert corpus, highlights the attitude of soul that brings the spiritual life to a grinding halt faster than anything else. Namely, ‘I cannot do that.’

Forgive your enemies… I cannot do that. Take a little time each day to pray… I cannot do that. Give alms to the poor... I cannot do that. Control your temper… I cannot do that. Uhhh... fast a little? I cannot do that. And so on and so forth. There can be an affliction of soul that truly makes us spiritual invalids, and makes it impossible for anyone to give us any help or spiritual counsel.

No, just a bit of corn soup and prayers is all that can help the invalid soul, the person who refuses to exert any spiritual effort whatsoever. The truth is, we have to be fighters if we are going to be Christian, have to have a bit of spirit, some fire in the belly, some degree of enthusiasm. The person who meets every challenge of the spiritual life with a plaintive ‘But it’s hard! Why does it have to be so hard?’ is in a truly lamentable condition, one which only God can deliver them from.

Now it is true that we in this matter there are heresies on all sides, and we have to pick our way carefully to stay on the path of orthodoxy. Pelagianism is the heresy that says that if we just try really, really hard, we will be able to live a life pleasing to God. Semi-pelagianism says that God’s grace is necessary, but he withholds that grace until he sees us making the first efforts unaided. Quietism is over on the other side, saying that everything is God’s grace to the extent that all we have to do is be passive and let God do it all in us. Jansenism is a truly demonic heresy in which (in its popular expression) God withholds his grace and love from us unless we are already in a state of purity and goodness.

The fact is, grace is needed for the slightest effort in the spiritual life, and we cannot even begin the journey to God, cannot even make the first steps of living the Gospel unless he graces us, helps us. But grace is given, this grace to make those first steps is always available to us, because God loves us and wants us to be holy. And because that grace is given to us preveniently (that is, before our efforts kick in) we can cooperating with it and confidently take on the challenge of the Gospel.

In a sense it is true that ‘we cannot do that.’ We cannot. God can. And God does, in us. The power is in us, not because we’re such fabulous creatures (although we are, actually!), but because we have a Father in heaven who loves us and who gives us the power to do all these things, all these beautiful Gospel acts.

The one who says, not just in an occasional bad mood (who doesn’t have those?) but habitually, ‘I cannot do that’ is really sinning against faith. God is real, God is here, God is with you, with me. We can do it, the Gospel that is. It is difficult, it requires prayer and constant recourse to God to do it, but with that constant help from Him, we can do it.

But we do need to have that fighting spirit, that determination and passion, and if that is truly and wholly lacking, then corn soup and prayers it is for us until we’re ready to put some effort into life. And if the corn soup doesn’t work… well, may God have mercy on us. Happy Sunday!

Saturday, July 26, 2014

This Week in Madonna House - July 19-26

I was genuinely sorry to not be able to write this end-of-week wrap up last week, due to the fact that I wasn't here and couldn't tell you what all went on in MH. I felt bad about it, because we are really having an extraordinary summer here this year, and I really wish I could tell you everything that's going on here without missing any of it.

The house continues to be packed full of guests, a constant stream of people coming in and out. This in itself is not unusual for the summer here especially, but we have all been struck this year not just with the quantity of guests, but with their quality. At the risk of embarrassing any of our recent guests who may read this, the 40 or so guests who have been with us these past weeks are uniformly lively, engaged, interested, keen, energetic.

A good example was the last Saturday night seminar, a question and answer session with the three directors-general of MH, Susanne Stubbs, Mark Schlingerman, and Fr. David May. This is a summer institution in our community, established by Catherine Doherty from the tumultuous 1960s on, to allow guests to ask just about anything they want of the directors of the apostolate. It is usually not boring, and it's always good to see the real questions people have. Last week's though, could have gone on well into the night, as hands were shooting up in the air continually. From the humorous and somewhat plaintive 'why did God create mosquitoes?' to the heartfelt 'why does God allow abortion to continue?' and 'so why can't women be priests, anyhow?', to serious questions about discernment and hearing God's voice, the questions just kept on coming and coming.

Last week's theme had been on discernment and hearing God's voice, and from all accounts all the talks had been stellar on the question. This week the theme was on the mystery of suffering and joy. I was the presenter for the Wednesday evening class and basically presented Pope St. John Paul II's apostolic letter Salvifici Doloris, which in my view is just about the best thing ever written on the subject.

My own schedule unfortunately prevented me from hearing the other talks this week, but I heard they were quite good. The week concluded last night at our Friday fast night supper with 'Rewind', a chance for the guests to share their thoughts on the talks they heard, followed by an optional holy hour in the chapel.

Another noteworthy events of the week was our annual summer day of recollection, held this past Monday. We have three of these days throughout the year, generally on Catherine Doherty's annivesary of death in December and on February 2, the feast of the Presentation, and then this one. The summer one is essentially due to our sense that this season in MH is one of intense activity and work--besides all the summer program stuff, there is a ton of work to be done on the farm, in the shops, in the gardens, at Cana, and so forth. So, just to communicate to our guests that we are not all about work here, and to communicate that to ourselves as well, we have this day of silence and prayer together in the heart of our busiest season.

The theme this year was on the importance of silence in the spiritual life. Fr. Blair Bernard gave an excellent homily about that at the Mass, and Fr. David May gave an equally excellent conference on it in the afternoon. Otherwise, we were simply silent, with adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and lots of time to pray, read, and rest in the Lord together. For me, these days always pass all too quickly, and by the time Vespers and Benediction rolls around I'm nowhere near done revelling in the beautiful silence of the community together.

So aside from all that, life has been marching along at a pretty good pace here. The early harvests are coming in--snow peas, zucchini, green beans. The first cut of hay is in, and looks pretty good. We really have had exceptional weather this summer--lots of moisture and warmth, but also the spells of dry weather needed for the haying.

There are lots of little things going on in just about every corner of the place, perhaps too many to mention, and many of which I don't know about until I see it happening. The carpenters also have their busy season now, as they do their outside projects, and we have a new women's outhouse in consequence, and a new shed for a wood-fired kiln (we have some superb potters in the community).

Anyhow, it's been a truly grand summer so far, and it's nowhere near over, so I'll be keeping you posted as it goes, and meanwhile be assured of my prayers for all of you and whatever your summer holds.