It seems that in this age when few feel called to go to God by the career of the sublime austerities of former times, God wills to show us that love can supply for everything, and that this way of love is the easiest and shortest way of perfection.”
“You speak to me of the weight of years and you are twenty years old! Twenty, oh! I want sixty more years for you, filled with good sacrifices, all perfumed with myrrh and incense to console the Heart of your divine Spouse at your own expense.”
“May Jesus always keep for you this ideal of the exile which your eyes can discover and your soul taste. The Saints loved so much everything that was amiable in the works of God: flowers, nature, above all souls, and heavenly affections.”
“Could a spoiled child like you ever hesitate to abandon herself, to fall asleep peacefully in the arms of her Jesus, never fearing to be betrayed?”
“Sursum corda! Let us lift up our hearts! Let us soar more and more far away from what is earthly and human. Let us climb up to the Heart of Jesus. This is heaven before heaven; the heaven of heavens.”
“Long live peace, joy, confidence. Always smile for the divine Spouse.”
The work of salvation takes place in obscurity and stillness. In the heart’s quiet dialogue with God the living building blocks out of which the kingdom of God grows are prepared, the chosen instruments for the construction forged. The mystical stream that flows through all centuries is no spurious tributary that has strayed from the prayer life of the church—it is its deepest life.
When this mystical stream breaks through traditional forms, it does so because the Spirit that blows where it will is living in it, this Spirit that has created all traditional forms and must ever create new ones. Without him there would be no liturgy and no church. Was not the soul of the royal psalmist a harp whose strings resounded under the gentle breath of the Holy Spirit?
From the overflowing heart of the Virgin Mary blessed by God streamed the exultant hymn of the “Magnificat.” When the angel’s mysterious word became visible reality, the prophetic “Benedictus” hymn unsealed the lips of the old priest Zechariah, who had been struck dumb. Whatever arose from spirit-filled hearts found expression in words and melodies and continues to be communicated from mouth to mouth. The “Divine Office” is to see that it continues to resound from generation to generation. So the mystical stream forms the many-voiced, continually swelling hymn of praise to the triune God, the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Perfecter.
Therefore, it is not a question of placing the inner prayer free of all traditional forms as “subjective” piety in contrast to the liturgy as the “objective” prayer of the church. All authentic prayer is prayer of the church. Through every sincere prayer something happens in the church, and it is the church itself that is praying therein, for it is the Holy Spirit living in the church that intercedes for every individual soul “with sighs too deep for words.” This is exactly what “authentic” prayer is, for “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.” What could the prayer of the church be, if not great lovers giving themselves to God who is love!
The unbounded loving surrender to God and God’s return gift, full and enduring union, this is the highest elevation of the heart attainable, the highest level of prayer. Souls who have attained it are truly the heart of the church, and in them lives Jesus’ high priestly love. Hidden with Christ in God, they can do nothing but radiate to other hearts the divine love that fills them and so participate in the perfection of all into unity in God, which was and is Jesus’ great desire.
This was how Marie Antoinette de Geuser understood her vocation. She had to undertake this highest Christian duty in the midst of the world. Her way is certainly a very meaningful and strengthening model for the many people who, having become radically serious about their inner lives, want to stand up for the church and who cannot follow this call into the seclusion of a monastery. The soul that has achieved the highest level of mystical prayer and entered into the “calm activity of divine life” no longer thinks of anything but of giving itself to the apostolate to which God has called it.
This is repose in orderliness and, at the same time, activity free of all constraint. The soul conducts the battle in peace, because it is acting entirely from the viewpoint of eternal decrees. She knows that the will of her God will be perfectly fulfilled to his greater glory, because—though the human will often, as it were, sets limits for divine omnipotence—that divine omnipotence triumphs after all by creating something magnificent out of whatever material is left. This victory of divine power over human freedom, which he nevertheless permits to do as it pleases, is one of the most wonderful and adorable aspects of God’s plan for the world…
Laudetur Jesus Christus! I’m back at Mt. Angel Seminary as of this week, getting settled in again to diocesan seminary life and preparing to begin my fourth and final year of studies in philosophy. There will be many blog posts coming soon, but in the meantime, I want to share with you all this excellent video from the Catholic Sentinel showing off the parish where I was assigned this summer: St. Stephen’s in Southeast Portland. As Shawn Natola says, “it’s awesome, and kind of weird, and really, really beautiful.” Go watch it! And come visit!
Read the accompanying article from the Catholic Sentinel here.
August 10—Lourdes. At the procession of the Blessed Sacrament, I was thinking of a proud answer I had just given.
(With tender pity.) “How your littleness makes you suffer!”
And I remembered what He had told me once before from the monstrance in the same place, surrounded by cardinals and archbishops in rich vestments:
“You see, I am the smallest.”
“You were the ladder by which God descended,
Through you the Highest came to seek the lowest;
By your protection, help us as we journey
Onwards to heaven.”
—Hymn Gaudium mundi (“Joy of Poor Sinners”), First Vespers of the Assumption
Those who give up mental prayer I really pity. They serve God now at their own cost. It is not so with those who continue to practise mental prayer. This adorable master pays their expenses. In exchange for a little trouble, he gives them consolations which enable them to bear all crosses.”
Source: How Much Easier
“The world is in flames: do you wish to put them out? Contemplate the Cross: from the open Heart the blood of the Redeemer pours, blood which can put out even the flames of hell. Through the faithful observance of the vows you make your heart free and open; and then the floods of that divine love will be able to flow into it, making it overflow and bear fruit to the furthest reaches of the earth.”
“The eyes of the Crucified gaze upon you. They question you and appeal to you. Do you wish seriously to renew your alliance with Him? What will your response be? ‘Lord, where shall I go? You alone have the words of life.’ Ave Crux Spes Unica!”
Do you ever think about the hidden life of Jesus? I remember my postulant master, Fr. Robert of Divine Mercy, observing once that the Lord had lived 30 years in obscurity and obedience to Mary and Joseph before the 3 brief years of his public life. The hidden life of Jesus: hidden, that is, under the veil of the ordinary, the domestic—unrecorded because who, in dusty Galilee long before the days of Instagram, would have thought it was worth writing down?
Lately I have been feeling drawn to these thirty hidden years in the life of the Lord. And I can't help but remember my favorite scene in The Passion of the Christ—maybe you know it—where Jesus is working on a table, and Mary comes to ask if he is hungry. They joke around; he splashes her with water; she laughs in surprise and the inexpressible delight of a mother who loves to be loved by her son. That's all. A quiet day in Nazareth. How many days must the Lord have spent like that: His sacred hands busy with woodwork til sundown, a rhythm of prayer and work, play and work, eating his mother's cooking, practicing his foster-father's trade? Would those days have seemed endless in the Galilean summer? Or did he treasure each one of them, unutterable, unrepeatable wonder, glory of God in time?
At the end of this long winter, on the threshold of spring, I left my "Mount Carmel" in Silicon Valley to return to Portland, and for 14 weeks since, I have been laboring quietly in this mission ground the Lord has called me back to. I say "quietly" because, like Jesus' tables, much of what I have done this summer at St. Stephen's parish will never be known or remembered by anyone but God alone. How much time have I spent in finance council meetings, organizing files, sorting mail and answering phone calls—putting out tables and chairs for this or that event, setting up for hundreds of Masses, weeding flowerbeds, deadheading roses!
These are hidden tasks, menial tasks, and yet we know they can give great glory to God in proportion to the love with which we do them. "The value of the gift is the love of the giver"—and so my dear and beloved little Sister Thérèse Martin could become a saint by carefully folding her sisters' mantles, which they left haphazardly in the sacristy closet at Lisieux Carmel. In fact, our little hidden acts of virtue can give infinitely greater glory to God than the great deeds of the mighty and powerful, or the perpetual activity of busy and distracted disciples! What is important to God is not the grandeur or the multiplication of activities, but the disposition of the heart. (How many vain and lukewarm homilies by preoccupied priests, how many half-hearted, lack-love prayers on the lips, but never reaching the heart, must St. Thérèse's folded mantles have been worth in the eyes of God!)
Yes, the hidden life of Jesus and our great saints "hidden with Christ in God" should be examples for us, teaching us how to consecrate the everyday and the mundane to the eternal glory of the Trinity. But what about when we find ourselves lacking in love? "Love turns work into rest," says St. Teresa of Jesus, and rightly so—but when love is lacking, it seems like even rest turns into work!
The answer, of course, is to humbly begin again. We fall and get up. We fall and get up again. I cannot tell you how many times this summer I have been humbled to recognize my own lack of love, the frustration bubbling over in my heart at having to change all the altar cloths for the third time that day, or the wounded pride flaring up at some minor correction I'd received, or the self-righteous anger at having my prayer interrupted by some minor request that so-and-so really could have done himself faster than coming to ask me, and don't you know I'm trying to become a saint here?!—recognized it, I say, and begun again. "Lord, let me love you with your own love."
That prayer is the heart of it all. The moments that I have felt most "like a priest" in the parish have been those moments, quiet, personal, with just one or two others, when I am faithful to the movements of the Holy Spirit and allow Him to put certain words on my lips, or to move me, unimpeded for once by my pride and stubbornness, to approach somebody, to go out of my way, to touch, to listen. When Immanuel is with His people through me as His instrument. When I spoke some words to a woman in pain, words which I never could have devised or known to say on my own, and she cried and then said, pointing right at my heart, "There's a father in there. I can see it." Those moments, by their very nature, are few, fleeting, hidden. The hiddenness is the beauty of them, the intimacy is the majesty.
A year or two ago I remember writing a poem reflecting on my ministry assignment at that time, which was, principally, washing the floors and stocking the shelves at a food pantry, but on this particular occasion my partner and I were asked to put together some chairs (a task I repeated several times this summer in the rectory!) and break down some old furniture that was beyond repair. "How much of ministry / is knowing when to break / and when to build?" the poem began. "How much is simply saying 'yes'? / How much is nothing more / than being there / when you are broken down by a stray blow?"
And it concludes:
How much of ministry is in the spending
of time, or of energy,
strength, money, freedom, gasoline,
ink on paper, words on a screen,
or any other old thing:
poured out like fragrant oil
from an alabaster jar
on the feet of one you love
and not to count the cost?—or if you do,
as I do,
tally up the hours
but lay them down too
at the feet of the beloved
and let them value naught for you.
I don't claim that poem is very good—certainly it has no great artistic merit—but those last lines echo in my heart as I pray over my time in the parish this summer, reconsecrating everything that I have done here to God and offering it all back to Him in praise and thanksgiving for His goodness to this poor sinner. As seminarians, we live six or eight or ten years in our own Nazareths, a blessed rhythm of prayer and work, play and work, learning our fathers' trade: the care of souls. (How much I have learned from two good and holy priests this summer! Not "book learning"—that could fill a teaspoon, maybe—but the ways they have formed me will shape the rest of my life as a priest and a Christian man.) We live our hidden lives, learn our philosophy and theology, make our little hidden acts of virtue, touch a few hearts here and there (if we let God touch them through us, that is)—and all the while being formed and shaped, as the potter continually molds the clay on the wheel. All the while, though we don't notice it as the moments and days and years slip by, being transformed: "from grace unto grace and glory unto glory."
Almost as soon as my assignment ended, I left on a road trip to visit friends in California, and the highlight of this trip has been visiting my old monastery (how strange it feels to say that!) for a couple of days. In so many ways, it felt as if I had never left. I came right in the back door as if I had only gone for a walk that afternoon, rather than flown home four months ago. (Bella, the dog, jumped all over me like she thought I was never ever coming back, but then again, she used to do that every time I came outside even if I'd only been gone 5 minutes!) I sat in my old choir stall in the chapel, I helped the brothers set up and clean up for meals, we all rode in the van together to a Melkite Catholic Church for Divine Liturgy on Sunday morning, and we all watched a movie together until late Sunday night. The singing in the liturgy was still horribly off-key (not helped one bit by my presence!) The brothers were still telling the same jokes they had been in April, I pointed out in mock exasperation. Had I dreamed this whole summer? Would I look down and see I was wearing a brown tunic and scapular again instead of my black cassock?
But even though all the externals were exactly the same, this visit felt deeply different to the months I spent in Carmel as a postulant and novice. On the day I decided to leave back in April, I wrote exuberantly in my journal—the page practically glowing with joy—that I felt like I had gone "from the condition of slavery to the condition of freedom."
What was different in this visit to my old monastery? Me. I am different. No longer the seminarian who visited a year ago, longing to know and love God deeply and to live the spiritual life intensely, ready to plunge into Carmel both feet first! No longer the novice who was determined to persevere in the darkness and the dryness of the interior desert, seeking the Beloved of my soul, even though at every turn I found my heart was pounded more deeply into the dust. Through the many twists and turns of this year—from Mount Angel to Mount St. Joseph to the parish of St. Stephen, now again (if only for a brief visit) to Mount St. Joseph, and soon again to Mount Angel—God has been revealing to me where and how He desires me to live.
I am still figuring it all out, of course. What the Lord has revealed in this year will continue to deepen in me in the years to come. But both externally, and in an invisible, interior way, I am now precisely where God wants me to be, and I can take comfort in that, can put down roots securely and confidently in that, can flourish in that!—can accept the hidden life I am living now, and make my little hidden acts of virtue, because I know that God, who is Love, has called me to this—and what more could I ask for?
What more could any of us ask for than that?
Header photo credit: John Ivezic, St. Stephen Catholic Church, Portland, OR.
Every day crowds of unknown people come to him, who feel as hard, as cold, as empty as the tomb. They come with the first light, before going to the day's work, and with the grey mind of early morning, hardly able to concentrate at all on the mystery which they themselves are part of: impelled only by the persistent will of love, not by any sweetness of consolation, and it seems to them as if nothing happens at all. But Christ's response to that dogged, devoted will of a multitude of insignificant people is his coming to life in them, his Resurrection in their souls. In the eyes of the world they are without importance, but in fact, because of them and their unemotional Communions, when the world seems to be finished, given up to hatred and pride, secretly, in unimaginable humility, Love comes to life again. There is resurrection everywhere."