Episode 109: The Virtues and the Passions

19 December 2022 | Fourth Monday in Advent | Menlo Park, Calif.

This week, I share some thoughts from a recent discussion on authenticity and relatability. Are they virtues, and if so, how do they fit into our moral life and pastoral work? We continue to prepare for Christmas with the Carmelites, reading St. John of the Cross’s beautiful “Romances on the Incarnation.” Finally, Rachel and I discuss Barnaby Rudge, discussing the passions that give rise to mob violence and the role of fathers and sons.

Opening music: “Rorate cæli,” composed by William Byrd, sung by the Gesualdo Six, dir. Owain Park, 2021. All rights reserved.

Send in a voice message: https://ift.tt/2CKFlN1

https://ift.tt/IK0tfrv

Episode 108: An Unpetalled Rose

12 December 2022 | Our Lady of Guadalupe | Menlo Park, Calif.

Christ’s peace be with you! In the midst of the busiest season of the year, we could all use a little break to contemplate something beautiful and discuss the deeper meaning of things. This week on the podcast, I wanted to pause and give you just that gift. We read a beautiful poem by St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus, then enjoy a lovely conversation with Rachel on Dickens’ Old Curiosity Shop and the themes of martyrdom, memory, and much more.

Opening music: “Aue Maria” from the Mass of the Americas, composed by Frank La Rocca, dir. Ash Walker, 2018. All rights reserved.


Listen here: https://spotifyanchor-web.app.link/e/GkcwK10qIvb

Send in a voice message: https://ift.tt/AdCYmrl

Return to Joy

This homily was given at Mater Dolorosa Catholic Church, South San Francisco, CA on the Third Sunday in Advent, December 11, 2022. The audio is available here.


When we were little, around this time of year, Grandma and Grandpa would start coming round to ask what we wanted for Christmas, and we would tell them: 

I want this one book, I want that new game, I want a BMX bike.

And on Christmas morning, when we saw that big present under the tree from Grandma, and we just know under the wrapping paper was the bike we’d been dreaming of, our hearts just about exploded with delight.

As we get older, though, the things we want at Christmas tend to be a little harder to put on a shopping list.

We want rest from the busyness of our daily life.

We want time with our families and friends.

Maybe we want the kids to come home and gather around the table again, laughing and enjoying each other’s company.

If we dare to say it out loud … we want joy!

The innocent, rapturous joy of the boy with the bike on Christmas morning. 

But these days, joy so often seems frustratingly out of reach.

We can’t order it off Amazon with free 2-day shipping.

We can chase after that joy with more and more stuff: a better vacation, a nicer car, new clothes, fine wines… 

But the more we look to creatures—meaning created stuff—the more we look to creatures to satisfy our deepest longings, the more frustrated, bored, hopeless, and empty our hearts become.

Because the truth is, even when we were kids, it wasn’t about the bike.

The childlike joy of Christmas morning is the joy of feeling loved…

Feeling, for one moment, for one morning, like everything, everything is right in the world, and I am safe, and I am loved, and we’re good … and I’m gonna ride my bike. 

Joy and love are inseparable; “joy is the fruit of love’s enduring embrace.”

So joy requires another person, just as love requires another person.

The boy on Christmas morning wouldn’t feel that same joy if he got a gift card to REI in the mail from a distant uncle he barely knows.

Maybe he could buy the same bike, but it’s not the same gift.

Joy is that simultaneous delight and rest we feel deep down in our hearts when we love another who we know loves us, who delights in us, who gives us the gift of their loving presence as we are present with them.

That’s why, today, the Church cries out with a wild, childlike joy: “rejoice!” – return to joy, that childlike Christmas joy – “rejoice! … in the Lord.”

And in case we missed it, she says it again: “Again I say, rejoice!—For indeed, the Lord is near.”

Jesus is near.

He is the one we’ve been waiting for.

Jesus is joy incarnate. 

In Jesus, all the deepest longings of the human heart are satisfied.

“The blind regain their sight; the lame walk; the deaf hear; the dead are raised.”

The busy find rest; the lonely are loved; the empty are filled with His goodness, and the hopeless and the bored come alive in His presence.

Today, at this Holy Mass, we rejoice in the presence of the Lord.

Here, in this church, we have the secret of that childlike Christmas joy the whole world longs for and strives for without knowing where to find it.

Jesus, the Christ-child, is born for us again on this altar in the Holy Eucharist, not wrapped in swaddling clothes this time, not lain in a manger, but clothed in bread and wine and laid upon our lips.

As we receive Jesus, the joy of the Father, the Gift of Gifts, we lay aside all earthly cares and rejoice in communion with the One who loves us so well.

Ask Jesus for the grace to remain in that joy, not just for a few minutes, not just for today, but all week long, from this Holy Mass to the next, and from that Holy Mass to the one after that.

As we live in His Christmas joy, we taste that love and delight and rest even now, “on earth as it is in Heaven.”

And on the last day, when we are crowned with everlasting joy, we shall enter the endless communion of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit in the eternal Christmas morning of God’s own delight, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Fight, Flight, Freeze

This homily was given at Mater Dolorosa Catholic Church, South San Francisco, CA on the Second Sunday in Advent, December 4, 2022. The audio is available here.


Fear usually causes one of three reactions: fight, flight, or freeze.

Whether it’s a lion coming after you on the Serengeti or a call from your mom, who you’ve been avoiding, we tend to react in the same way.

Some of us get fired up right away, ready to fight back and defend ourselves.

Others run from danger. 

We see the name on caller ID and send it straight to voicemail.

“I’ll deal with them … later.” 

And others freeze up.

Sometimes, fear has so much power over us that we just stand there like a tree, rooted in place, powerless and paralyzed.

We feel afraid whenever we’re unsafe, whether that’s from physical danger, or emotional or moral danger that threatens our well-being.

It makes no difference to our nervous system; our bodies don’t distinguish between the prowling lion and the scary phone call.

It just perceives them both as threats and triggers the fear response.

And God designed our bodies this way to protect us from danger.

The problem is that sometimes, we perceive situations that aren’t really dangerous to us as a threat … and we respond accordingly.

Some of us fear God as a threat.

We’re afraid He’s going to punish us, that He’s not trustworthy, that He’ll abuse His power over us and reject us if He sees what we’re really like.

So we may fight against God by sinning to keep Him at arm’s length…

Or we fly from God, avoiding prayer, not going to Mass…

Or we might freeze up in His presence, our hearts going cold and numb without knowing why.

Fight, flight, freeze…

One response that we don’t typically have when we’re afraid is delight.

Yet, confusingly, that’s what today’s prophecy says about Jesus: “His delight shall be the fear of the Lord.”

Clearly, this is a different kind of fear than we’re used to.

But if you’ve ever stood on the edge of a cliff, or at the top of a raging waterfall, or a mountain peak overlooking the wide world spread out below, you may have tasted something of this other kind of fear.

If you’ve had a real, overpowering experience of God, in prayer, or at some difficult moment in your life, then you know it as well.

This is a holy fear, produced, not by danger and feeling unsafe, but by wonder and awe and love … and we can tell the difference at once by the kind of fruit it bears in our souls.

It’s not a fear that triggers us to fight or flight or freeze; this fear awakens something deep down within our hearts, making us feel alive, very small yet part of something great.

It produces peace, freedom, confidence, delight.

Jesus is not afraid of His Father, not the way we sometimes are.

Jesus gazes on the face of His Father with wonder and awe and love.

His delight is in the holy fear of the Father because He knows His Father’s heart; He knows Him, and He loves Him, and so He strives to please Him, never doing anything that would hurt His heart.

Jesus walked this earth the freest, most whole-hearted man who ever lived, because He lived at every moment in the holy fear of God. 

Take a good, hard look at our own hearts.

Which kind of fear do I have of God?

Look at the fruits in our own lives: is there sin, shame, coldness of heart, avoiding God, hiding from God … or delighting in God, seeking His face, striving to please Him, avoiding anything that might hurt His heart?

The first kind of fear, unholy fear, comes from a distorted image of the Father, from lies we have come to believe about Him.

So today, we repent of the lies we have believed about the Father…

And as we receive Jesus in the Holy Eucharist, we ask Him to show us the Father’s face and the truth of the Father’s heart He knows so well.

“Now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.”

“Come, let us set things right,” says the Lord.

As we repent of the lies we have believed and return to the Father, we find that unholy fear loses its grip on us, and we begin to delight, like Jesus, in the holy fear of the Lord, the wonder and awe and love of God.

We begin to experience what it is to walk this earth in freedom and whole-hearted confidence as sons and daughters of the Most High God.

And on the last day, at His glorious and second coming, when “the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the Lord, as water covers the sea,” we will not run and hide our faces…

We shall rejoice with Jesus and all the saints in the all-holy presence of God, for we know His heart, and He knows us, always, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Busy and Blind

This homily was given at St. Patrick’s Seminary, Menlo Park, CA on the First Friday in Advent, December 2, 2022. The audio is available here.


Archbishop Sample says the greatest avenue of spiritual attack facing priests and bishops and seminarians right now … is busyness.

Busyness causes a kind of blindness: we see the trees, but we miss the forest.

We see the 101 things on our to-do list, but we miss the purpose.

Wherever the spirit of busyness takes over, there is worry, hurry, anxiety, restlessness, a lack of peace, deep exhaustion. 

And at the end of the day, we’re tired but wired, unable to rest, and we try in vain to treat our weariness of soul with our familiar addictions, which only leave us more empty and hopeless than before.

Make no mistake: the spirit of busyness is antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus.

There is no beatitude that says, “Blessed are the busy.”

The demons and the damned are busy in hell, burdened under Satan’s yoke. But the angels and the saints live lightly, rejoicing in the presence of God.

Jesus offers us, blinded as we are by busyness, the choice to live differently.

We may have 100 things to do before this semester ends, but remember, onething is necessary: to live in the presence of the living God.

Today, Jesus calls us to declare war on the spirit of busyness: to keep our Holy Hours; to take a day off; to go for a walk and listen for his voice; to turn our laptops off at the end of the day and go to bed, trusting in Him.

As we receive Jesus today at this Holy Mass, we release the spirit of busyness and we receive the gentle yoke of Jesus, saying: “Lord, one thing I ask: let me hear your voice; let me see your face; let me dwell in your house, with you, all the days of my life.” 

For those who keep God before their eyes, not keeping busy but keeping close to Him, will see the bounty of the Lord even now in the land of the living; we will live lightly, and on the last day, we will enter into His rest, in the kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Give Thanks in Everything

This homily was given at St. Joseph Parish, Roseburg, OR on the Thirty-fourth Friday in Ordinary Time, November 25, 2022. The audio is available here.


Yesterday, at the Mass for Thanksgiving Day, many of you shared things you were thankful for. 

Family, friends, kids, health, life, and pie were among the responses. 

Others identified spiritual goods: the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and in our hearts.  

But one response was so bold, so unexpected, it stood out among all the rest. 

”I thank God for my sickness.”

We can all understand setting aside a day to give thanks to God for the good things He gives us, above all for the gift of Himself, Jesus Christ, who gives Himself away to save us from slavery to sin and death and raise us up for eternal life.

We give thanks for that gift, not just once a year, but every time we come to Holy Mass, where His sacrifice is renewed!

But in light of that supreme gift, everything else takes on a different meaning. 

We see everything in life comes to us from the hand of our Father who loves us, who is saving us, who allows even the most difficult and painful circumstances of this life for the sake of our ultimate good: eternal life. 

Because Christ is with us, in us as “the hope of glory,” the seed of eternal life sown in our souls, we “give thanks in everything,” even in sickness, even in suffering, even in those terrible trials we cannot change—because the winters of this life, terrible as they are, are passing, and summer is near. 

Today, now, at this Holy Mass, “our redemption is at hand.”

As we prepare to receive Jesus once more, lift up our heads and our hearts to Him and say: “Thank you. For everything that has come to pass…”

And we shall rejoice with Jesus among the saints in glory in the Kingdom of Our Father, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen. 

The Poorest King Who Ever Lived

This homily was given at Mater Dolorosa Parish, South San Francisco, CA on the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, November 20, 2022. The audio is available here.


In the Lord of the Rings, there is an ancient kingdom called Gondor.

For many generations, Gondor was ruled by a royal family of kings and queens.

But when the last king died and his heir disappeared, the king’s steward took charge of the kingdom.

And for almost a thousand years, the stewards, who had been the servants of the king, ruled Gondor as if they were kings themselves.

So when Boromir, the son of the steward, meets Aragorn, the last, secret descendant of the line of kings and the true heir to the throne, he says:

“Gondor has no king. Gondor needs no king.”

It’s not very appealing to have a king when you’re used to ruling yourself.

If there’s a king on a throne, then suddenly, my authority to make up my own rules, to determine my own destiny, is limited.

There’s another, higher authority that I must answer to. 

We think a king must be a tyrant.

We think someone ruling over us will only have his own interests in mind.

A king will use and abuse us, whereas if rule, then I can make sure that my needs are met, that I’m happy and safe and live a good life.

But Gondor, for all its pride, is on the verge of collapse.

The steward in charge has brought the kingdom to the point of ruin.

Gondor needs a king. Gondor needs a savior! … And so do we. 

I need a king, because if I look honestly at the kingdom of my own life, I have to admit that I am a useless steward—incapable of meeting my own needs, unable to engineer my own happiness, powerless to save myself from sickness, from loss, from grief, from despair, from death.

If that describes you, too, then this Sunday is very good news … because we have a king, and this king is no tyrant.

Ours is the poorest king who ever lived.

His throne is the cross.

No golden crown for him, but a circlet of thorns; not dressed in rich clothes, but stripped naked and exposed before the mockery of the crowds.

“Save yourself, you king; if you are the king, then get down off that cross and save yourself and us!”

Even in mocking him, they reveal the depths of their desperation for a savior, a true king with the power to deliver them from themselves, the terrible tyranny of self-rule, the desperate need to succeed on their own.

But our king, Jesus, does not get down from that cross.

He just … hangs there, between heaven and earth.

Jesus, who is God, created the heavens and the earth and everything in them, could have conquered the world without lifting a finger.

But he, the All-Powerful God, chose to make himself powerless.

He humbled himself as far as that, because He was after a greater prize than earthly kingdoms, greater by far than wealth and power and glory.

Jesus Christ came to win our hearts and souls back for God, His Father, and to win that kingdom, He had to show us what the Father is really like: 

Not a tyrant, not a bully, not an abuser in the sky, not a threat to our freedom, but a loving and kind and tender Father, a merciful Father, who gives everything He has away out of love for us.

Jesus Christ, the King on the cross, is the perfect image of the Father’s love.

And to all of us who admit that we need a king, Jesus gives us a simple invitation: “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy-burdened; come into my kingdom, and I will give you rest. Come and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart.” 

Today, at this Holy Mass, as we receive Jesus Christ, the crucified King of the Universe, veiled here under the appearance of bread, we ask Jesus to rule over our own lives, in every detail.

And as we pray, “Thy kingdom come,” we ask our most humble King to teach us how to live in His kingdom:

Jesus, teach us your way of humility instead of pride, meekness instead of insisting on our own way, powerlessness before God instead of grasping for control.

As we surrender our lives to the gentle rule of Jesus and learn the way of life of the kingdom of God, we begin to taste the peace, the happiness, the security, the freedom that we could not achieve on our own.

We will suffer, as our King suffered, but we will suffer like Jesus on the cross: in our suffering, we will be free, and no one will be able to take away our joy. 

And on the last day, when the veil is torn apart and the Heavenly King is revealed in all His glory, when every knee shall bend before the King of All, we shall cry out with all the angels and saints: “Blessed be the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.”

And we will hear him say: “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” 

Christ is Passing By

This homily was given at Byzantine Divine Liturgy at Mater Dolorosa Parish, South San Francisco, CA on the Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, November 13, 2022. The audio is available here.


It didn’t have to happen this way.

God could have prevented this man from falling victim to the robbers.

He could have intervened!

He might have sent the good Samaritan down the road just a little sooner, with an escort of angels at his side, to drive the robbers away.

But instead, by the time the Samaritan reaches him, the robbers have done their work, and left him for dead by the side of the road.

St. Ambrose of Milan says this man is Adam, our forefather, and summed up in his miserable condition are all his sons and daughters.

Jericho is the city of sinful Man, the image of this fallen world, and Adam is going down from the city of God—from Paradise, the Jerusalem above—into this present darkness, into exile, by his own free choice.

Having turned from the law of the Lord to the sin of this world, it’s no wonder Adam falls victim to robbers, “the spirits of night and darkness,” who first steal the garments of grace we have received from God and then beat us up for good measure, leaving us wounded, humiliated…

But not alone.

Jesus Christ, the Good Samaritan, is passing by, and He is not too late to save us.

Yes, He could have prevented us from falling victim to sin and death.

And by the gift of His prevenient grace, He does prevent us from falling victim to many, many sins which might otherwise have ensnared us.

The spiritual director of St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus attested that she never committed a mortal sin. 

But Thérèse herself was certain that if it weren’t for God’s prevenient mercy, she would have been the worst sinner who ever walked the earth!

The sins we do commit fall within the realm of God’s permissive will.

To be sure, Adam would not have fallen among the robbers if he hadn’t first strayed from God’s commands and made himself vulnerable to them.

God is not the author of sin; we are. 

But God permits that we fall, just as He permitted Adam to fall.

He allows us to turn from Him, to listen to the Devil, to fall victim to the demons, to choose Jericho over Jerusalem, sin over grace, death over life.

As a holy Archbishop said to me, “God knows I have many faults, but I love Jesus Christ with all my heart … and if it weren’t for the sins that have humbled me, that have left me powerless and dependent on on his mercy, I would not love Jesus and trust Him as much as I do now.” 

St. Thérèse says much the same: “The memory of my faults humiliates me, it brings me to never lean on my own strength … but even more this memory speaks to me of mercy and love. When you throw your faults with total, filial trust in the burning all-consuming brazier of love, how would they not be consumed without coming back?”

God permits us at times to fall among the robbers so that even our faults, even our sins, may become fuel for the fire of love and trust in Jesus.

For love and trust is the fulfillment of the law and the way to eternal life.

Here, now, at this Divine Liturgy, Jesus Christ is passing by. 

Whatever sins, whatever wounds lie in our past, whatever we have done or failed to do, we lay bare before the gaze of His saving mercy … and forgetting what lies behind us, placing all our trust in Jesus, we get up and set out for what still lies ahead.

There, in the new Jerusalem, we shall rejoice with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and our joy shall be full, for we shall know Him as we are known and loved, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

The Great Ones

This homily was given at Mater Dolorosa Parish, South San Francisco, CA on the Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time, November 6, 2022. The audio is available here.


In the seminary, we often sing a hymn to the martyrs which goes like this: 

“These were thy great ones: we, thy least,
One in desire and faith with them,
Called by the Lord to keep one feast,
Journey to one Jerusalem.”

The seven brothers in today’s first reading were truly great ones.

“Even the king and his attendants marveled at their courage, because those young men regarded their sufferings as nothing.”

Nothing!

They were “ready to die rather than transgress the laws of their ancestors.”

For these holy brothers, the issue was not just about forbidden food; it was about who was king in Israel: God, or their pagan overlords, who wanted to humiliate them and destroy their faith by forcing them to eat pork. 

In the history of the Church, many martyrs have died for less.

Thousands upon thousands of Christians died in the Roman Empire because they refused to burn a pinch of incense before a statue of the Emperor.

The issue was the same: who was King, Christ or Caesar?

For the Christians, it was idolatry, blasphemy, to offer a sacrifice of worship to a man, when all glory, honor, and worship belong to Jesus Christ alone.

They were ready to die rather than deny Christ the King.

Most of us have grown up and lived all our lives in places where being a Christian was no great risk.

The United States, the Philippines, Mexico: these were Christian countries, and even as the faith is fading, we have not had much to fear.

When I became Catholic in high school, I got teased and lost some friends—I didn’t face torture and death. 

But make no mistake: we are living in a new apostolic age.

As we believe and follow Jesus, we can expect to suffer some consequences.

The teacher who bravely stands up for the truth that “God created them male and female…” 

The nurse who refuses to assist with abortions or euthanasia…

Or the pharmacist who refuses to dispense contraception…

Even the ordinary Catholic who dares to go out in public wearing a cross around her neck or praying the rosary, or says God bless you at Safeway!

The world sees our faith in Jesus and His Gospel as a threat to its own power, just like our forefathers who refused to burn a pinch of incense to the Emperor, or the Maccabees who refused to take a bite of pork.

Our reputations, our jobs, our livelihood may all be on the line before long.

It’s natural for us to be afraid, to count the cost … even to be tempted to burn the pinches of incense our new pagan overlords demand.

But like the martyrs, “one in desire and faith with them,” there comes a time for all of us that we must choose on whose side we stand: God or the world, Jesus Christ or the princes and powers of this age. 

Jesus Christ is the true King of the world.

And Jesus is not afraid.

All authority and dominion has been given to Him by His Father.

Jesus holds all the princes and powers of this age in the palm of his hand.

He knows it, and the Devil knows it: “he knows his time is short,” his power is temporary; his defeat is already accomplished; God’s victory is secure.

Following King Jesus, like the great martyrs in former days, we hold on to the faith of our fathers steadfastly, courageously, through times of trial.

We stand strong, like lights in the darkness, to give hope and a good example to those who might falter and fall.

Whatever we may risk, whatever we may lose, we know “it was from Heaven that we received them, and from Jesus we hope to receive them again.”

For Jesus is “faithful; he will strengthen us and guard us from the evil one,” the Devil, whom He conquered once and for all on the Cross.

And even though we pass through the valley of the shadow of death, following our King, we know that on the last day He, the King of Life, will “raise us up to live again forever.”

Today, at this Holy Mass, ask Jesus to encourage and strengthen us with faith in His kingdom and good hope through His grace.

Ask Him to be with us and support us when trials come.

As we receive Jesus today in the Holy Eucharist and choose to follow Him unreservedly, we are united in the Body of Christ with all the saints and martyrs.

We share in their strength, their courage, the full inheritance of the saints.

And when the final trumpet sounds, when the dead are raised and the Lord appears in glory, our joy will be full, and we will be welcomed into their company to share in the victory that lasts forever.

“To Contemplate the Beauty of the Face of Christ”: The Rosary and the Jesus Prayer as Complementary Devotions

Introduction

St. John of the Cross, acclaimed by the Western Church as a true “master in the faith”[i] and “guide of those within the holy Church who seek greater intimacy with God,”[ii] teaches that all Christian prayer must undergo a process of maturation. In the early stages of the spiritual life, prayer tends to be primarily discursive, reliant on words and images, whereas more mature prayer tends to be characterized by wordless, loving attentiveness to the presence of God.[iii] The decisive transition is described by St. John as an interior movement from “meditation to contemplation,”[iv] that is, from prayer which is more active to prayer which is more passive and still. In one memorable passage, the Mystical Doctor compares this transition to God “weaning [the soul] from the delicate and sweet food of infants and making it eat bread with crust … the food of the strong.”[v] St. Teresa of Jesus, for her part, describes the same transition as the change from laboriously drawing water from a well to receiving “heavenly water that in its abundance soaks and saturates”[vi] the soul. In either analogy, it is clear that this maturation in prayer comes in God’s time and as a result of his initiative, not as something achieved by the one praying as a result of willpower or technique. 

The individual has an indispensable part to play, however, in disposing themselves to receive the gift of contemplation. St. Teresa notes that “in the beginning it almost always occurs after a long period of mental prayer.”[vii]The practice of mental prayer is thus recommended by the masters of the spiritual life in order to dispose the soul to receive the gift of contemplation and advance to the more mature degrees of Christian prayer. The Carmelite doctors are careful to distinguish, however, that this mental prayer does not require one to abandon vocal prayer and seek some purely apophatic state of consciousness. “The nature of mental prayer isn’t determined by whether or not the mouth is closed,” St. Teresa of Jesus wryly observes: “If while speaking I thoroughly understand and know that I am speaking with God and I have greater awareness of this than I do of the words I’m saying, mental and vocal prayer are joined.”[viii] Father Wilfrid Stinissen, a spiritual son of Saints Teresa and John, distinguishes

three degrees in the development of prayer. In the beginning, it is often a prayer with the lips. While the tongue repeats the words, the thoughts continue to swarm around. When you succeed in reaching the content of the words, you have reached the second degree—the prayer of understanding … As you rise up to this meaning with your whole essence and not only with your understanding … the prayer sinks down into the heart. This is the third degree. … To a certain degree, the entire spiritual development, especially for us Westerners, deals with this transfer from the head to the heart.[ix]

When vocal prayer is prayed with understanding, and preeminently when it is prayed with the engagement of the heart, which is “the place of this quest and encounter”[x] with God, “this vocal prayer is now in fact mental prayer.”[xi]Progress in prayer, then, consists most essentially not in the renunciation of words and images, but rather in engaging the heart in what is said with the lips and meditated upon with the intellect: “to stand before God with the mind in the heart,”[xii] as the Eastern spiritual master Theophan the Recluse has it. The one who begins to pray “whole-heartedly” in this way opens himself up in time to the possibility of a purgative interior transformation, effected by God, who leads the soul into new, supernatural degrees of prayer. 

In the Churches of the East and West, two highly distinctive traditions of prayer have arisen, reflective of deep and irreducible differences in their theological and devotional “styles.” Arguably the most characteristic devotion of the Western Church is the Holy Rosary, in which it meditates, with the words of Scripture, on the central events of the life of Christ. The Rosary is “a form of Christocentric contemplation,”[xiii] according to the phrase of St. John Paul II; it is a meditative gaze fixed on Christ, seen through the eyes of his Mother. In the Christian East, the tradition of the Jesus Prayer likewise aims to maintain a simple, insistent focus on Christ the Redeemer by the repetition of His divine name, a repetition which “simplifies and unifies” the soul and “gathers everything into itself,”[xiv] integrating body, mind, and heart in the loving contemplation of the LordThese two forms of vocal prayer, with due respect to their irreducible distinctness in style, nonetheless have the same end, which is to integrate the whole person in prayer and so dispose the soul to receive the gift of contemplation. Furthermore, far from being mere culturally conditioned (and therefore interchangeable) expressions of a basic impulse of Christian prayer towards integration, contemplation, and union, the Holy Rosary and the Jesus Prayer are mutually enriching approaches in disposing the soul to receive those gifts. While it is no doubt true that “the best prayer is for everybody the prayer to which he or she is moved by the Holy Spirit,”[xv] all Christians, whether in the East or in the West, ought to consider making use of these two priceless treasures of devotion, which so complement each other in the integration and maturation of the soul towards perfect prayer and union with God.

The Holy Rosary

The Holy Rosary is first and foremost a Marian prayer, yet it “belongs to the kind of veneration of the Mother of God described by the [Second Vatican] Council: a devotion directed to the Christological centre of the Christian faith.”[xvi] In each decade of the Rosary, the faithful meditate upon one of the central mysteries of the life of Christ; each decade, in fact, is a “‘meditation’ with Mary on Christ.”[xvii] This insight is the key to praying the Rosary with understanding. The style of the Holy Rosary is entirely Marian, inasmuch as it is prayed with Mary and in “the school of Mary,”[xviii] but the content of the Rosary is entirely Christological.[xix] The Rosary presents the mysteries of Christ to us precisely as seen “through the eyes of her who was closest to the Lord.”[xx] Like the Mother of God herself, who at the Wedding of Cana pointed the servants toward her Son and instructed them, “Do whatever he tells you” (Jn 2:5), the course of Hail Mary’s repeated in each decade of the Holy Rosary bring the soul into “the constant contemplation – in Mary’s company – of the face of Christ.”[xxi]

It is not accidental, then, that “the center of gravity in the Hail Mary, the hinge as it were which joins its two parts, is the name of Jesus.[xxii] Indeed, “when we repeat the name of Jesus – the only name given to us by which we may hope for salvation (cf. Acts 4:12) – in close association with the name of his Blessed Mother, almost as if it were done at her suggestion, we set out on a path of assimilation meant to help us enter more deeply into the life of Christ.”[xxiii] This path is the way of deepening faith and maturation in prayer which Mary herself walked in the course of her earthly life, from the Annunciation (the first of the Joyful Mysteries) to the Crucifixion (last of the Sorrowful Mysteries), and which she completed in glory with her Assumption and Coronation in Heaven. Since Mary has gone before us all on this path, she who is now “more honorable than the Cherubim, and more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim,”[xxiv] opens up “the possibility of us too becoming assenters”[xxv] to the will of God for us. From Mary and with Mary, we learn to offer our own ‘fiat voluntas tua to the Lord, imitating her posture of confident faith, of “silent waiting, humble serving, ready praise.”[xxvi] In the delightful phrase of St. John Paul II, “the Rosary mystically transports us to Mary’s side as she is busy watching over the human growth of Christ in the home of Nazareth. This enables her to train us and to mold us with the same care, until Christ is ‘fully formed’ in us (cf. Gal 4:19).”[xxvii]

Indeed, it is only with Mary—not just by her example, nor even by her intercession, but by joining ourselves withher on this path of faith—that we can attain to the fullness of maturity in Christ.  “If it was only through prayer that Mary trained to utter her own word of assent,” Hans Urs von Balthasar observes, “then we are truly unable to accomplish our assent by our own power: we must remain in an attitude of grateful attention looking to her who has truly been able to assent.”[xxviii] As we attend to Mary, contemplating Christ with her and through her eyes, we find that we are conformedto Christ with her; Mary, who formed the humanity of Christ in her virginal womb, forms Christ anew in us.[xxix]

The Jesus Prayer 

At the outset of his classic work On the Invocation of the Name of Jesus, Lev Gillet, a monk of the Eastern Church, notes that “the invocation of the Name of Jesus can be put into many frames … but, whatever formula may be used, the heart and center of the invocation must be the Holy Name itself, the word Jesus. There resides the whole strength of the invocation.”[xxx] As St. John Paul II observed, the center of each Hail Mary and so the heart of the Rosary as a whole is the repetition of the name of Jesus. Thus, without in any way diminishing its unique and irreducible value in itself, one might call the Rosary an elaborate Marian “frame” surrounding the Name of Jesus, a characteristically Western “formula” of the Jesus Prayer; indeed, “it is, as Frithjof Schuon has stated, ‘the Jesus Prayer of the Western Church.’”[xxxi]

Nonetheless, the Jesus Prayer as it is prayed in the Eastern Church has its own distinctive value, part of which “lies precisely in the fact that, because of its radical simplicity, it can be prayed in conditions of distraction when more complex forms of prayer are impossible.”[xxxii] The spiritual masters of the East recommend that “we daily assign a certain time to the invocation of the Name (besides the ‘free’ invocation which should be as frequent as possible),”[xxxiii]with the result that “in time … the Name of Jesus will spontaneously come to your lips and almost continuously be present to your mind.”[xxxiv] This “one-word prayer”[xxxv] is a concrete and eminently practical means of fulfilling the Lord’s command to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:16), of keeping, as Bishop Theophan the Recluse recommends, “the hands at work, the mind and heart with God.”[xxxvi] It is not always possible to meditate; it is always possible to pronounce the name of Jesus, whether with the lips or in one’s mind alone.

The practice of the Jesus Prayer differs most sharply from the Holy Rosary in that it is not meditation, but invocation. The late Bishop Kallistos Ware clarifies this distinction:

According to the teaching of Eastern Christianity, the faculty of the imagination by means of which we form more or less living images according to our aptitude, has only a very limited place in the work of prayer … ‘He who sees nothing in prayer, sees God.’ Our minds, habitually dispersed in a great diversity of thoughts and ideas, should be unified, brought back from multiplicity to simplicity and emptiness; from diversity to sobriety. It [sic] should be purified of all mental images and all intellectual concepts until it is no longer conscious of anything other than the presence of God, invisible and incomprehensible.[xxxvii]

In the evocative phrase of St. John Climacus, “it is necessary to imprison the intellect in words.”[xxxviii] Rather than meditating upon the individual mysteries of the life of Christ, then, the practitioner of the Jesus Prayer binds his mind in a resolute attentiveness to “the Mystery that surpasses all understanding (cf. Eph 3:19): the Mystery of the Word made flesh.”[xxxix] Thus, Gillet’s classic introduction to the Jesus Prayer advises beginners, “Begin to pronounce [the Name] with adoration and love. Cling to it. Repeat it. Do not think that you are invoking the Name; think only of Jesus himself.”[xl] The goal of the practice is for the words of the prayer, even the Name itself, to become imperceptible to the one praying, transparent to the presence of the One who is named. In effect, what is described by the eastern masters is the transition from vocal prayer to mental prayer and on to the prayer of the heart. One recognizes the same integration of the whole person, described by St. John Paul II as the goal of prayer in the school of Mary, in this description of the fruits of the Jesus Prayer: “The participation of the mind becomes more intense and spontaneous, while the sounds uttered by the tongue become less important … Like a drop of ink that falls on blotting paper, the act of prayer should spread steadily outwards from the conscious and reasoning center of the brain, until it embraces every part of ourselves.”[xli]

To be sure, the indispensable Marian dispositions described in the previous section, particularly her posture “of faith, of silence, of attentive listening,”[xlii] are not absent from the Jesus Prayer. Anyone who would be attentive to the presence of Jesus must do so, consciously or not, in the posture and attitude of Mary. Bishop Ware even indicates in passing that Mary is present implicitly every time “He is invoked by the human name, ‘Jesus,’ which His Mother Mary gave to Him after His birth in Bethlehem.”[xliii] The distinguishing characteristic of the Jesus Prayer, however, is its unrelenting simplicity of focus on Jesus, leading to a state of “pure prayer”[xliv] and union with God. This purity of focus can be a helpful complement and corrective to our more discursive forms of Western devotion. 

Conclusion

The most characteristic devotions of the Christian East and West, namely, the Jesus Prayer and the Holy Rosary, are irreducibly different yet deeply complementary forms of prayer. On the one hand, the “Marian posture” inculcated by the prayer of the Holy Rosary is a necessary disposition to receive the gift of contemplation. It is “a constitutive condition for the way which is Christ.”[xlv] Thus the Rosary can enrich our practice of the Jesus Prayer, and indeed of all vocal prayer, by habituating us to the Marian dispositions so essential for progress in prayer and Christian maturity. On the other hand, the insistent focus on Christ alone instilled by the Jesus Prayer forms in the soul a habit of seeking Jesus, which can only lead to more fruitful meditation on His mysteries and encountering Him through the memories of Mary as we pray the Holy Rosary. May the Church strive with ever greater zeal to “breathe with her two lungs,”[xlvi] and may Christians everywhere who desire a deeper life of intimacy with Christ make use of the treasures of her tradition, East and West, to attain to the fullness of life in God.


[i] John Paul II, “Master in the Faith” [Apostolic Letter on the 4th Centenary of the Death of St. John of the Cross] (December 14, 1990), §1, at http://www.ewtn.com.

[ii] John Paul II, “Master in the Faith,” §17.

[iii] See John Paul II, “Master in the Faith,” §13.

[iv] John of the Cross, The Dark Night of the Soul, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez (Washington, DC: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1991), I, 10, 1.

[v] John of the Cross, Dark Night, I, 12, 1.

[vi] Teresa of Jesus, The Book of Her Life, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez (Washington, DC: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1976), 18, 9.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Teresa of Jesus, The Way of Perfection, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez (Washington, DC: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1980), 22, 1.

[ix] Wilfrid Stinissen, Praying the Name of Jesus: The Ancient Wisdom of the Jesus Prayer, trans. Joseph B. Board (Liguori, MO: Liguori Publications, 1999), 92-93.

[x] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 2710.

[xi] Teresa of Jesus, Way of Perfection, 24, 6.

[xii] Theophan the Recluse, quoted in Igumen Chariton of Valamo, The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology, translated by E. Kadloubovsky and E. M. Palmer (London: Faber & Faber, 1966), 63.

[xiii] John Paul II, Rosarium Virginis Mariæ [On the Most Holy Rosary] (October 16, 2002), §12.

[xiv] Lev Gillet, On the Invocation of the Name of Jesus (Oxford: Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius, 1949), 19.

[xv] Gillet, On the Invocation of the Name of Jesus, 18.

[xvi] John Paul II, Rosarium Virginis Mariæ, §4.

[xvii] John Paul II, Rosarium Virginis Mariæ, §13. Emphasis added.

[xviii] John Paul II, Rosarium Virginis Mariæ, §1.

[xix] This language, however, leaves much to be desired, as the Marian style is itself Christological and the Christological content is itself Marian. “By divine choice,” writes Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis in his preface to von Balthasar’s Threefold Garland, the mysteries of Christ and Mary are “utterly inseparable from one another” (10). 

[xx] Paul VI, Marialis Cultus [For the Right Ordering and Development of Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary] (February 2, 1974), §156.

[xxi] John Paul II, Rosarium Virginis Mariæ, §15.

[xxii] John Paul II, Rosarium Virginis Mariæ, §33.

[xxiii] Ibid.

[xxiv] “Hymn to the Theotokos,” Orthodox Church in America, accessed November 4, 2022, https://www.oca.org/orthodoxy/prayers/hymn-to-the-theotokos.

[xxv] Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Threefold Garland (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1982), 20.

[xxvi] Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, “Preface,” in Balthasar, Threefold Garland, 14.

[xxvii] John Paul II, Rosarium Virginis Mariæ, §15.

[xxviii] Balthasar, Threefold Garland, 23.

[xxix] See John Paul II, Rosarium Virginis Mariæ, §15 ff.

[xxx] Gillet, On the Invocation of the Name of Jesus, 1.

[xxxi] Jean Hani, “The Rosary as Spiritual Way,” in Ye Shall Know the Truth: Christianity and the Perennial Philosophy, edited by Mateus Soares de Azevedo (Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom, 2005), 101.

[xxxii] Kallistos Ware, “The Power of the Name: The Jesus Prayer in Orthodox Spirituality,” in Ye Shall Know the Truth, 79-80.

[xxxiii] Gillet, On the Invocation of the Name of Jesus, 7.

[xxxiv] Gillet, On the Invocation of the Name of Jesus, 12.

[xxxv] Gillet, On the Invocation of the Name of Jesus, 19.

[xxxvi] Theophan the Recluse, in The Art of Prayer, 92.

[xxxvii] Kallistos Ware, qtd. in Rama Coomaraswamy, The Invocation of the Name of Jesus as Practiced in the Western Church (Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 1999), 245-246.

[xxxviii] John Climacus, qtd. in Coomaraswamy, The Invocation of the Name of Jesus, 235.

[xxxix] John Paul II, Rosarium Virginis Mariæ, §24.

[xl] Gillet, On the Invocation of the Name of Jesus, 9.

[xli] Ware, “The Power of the Name,” 88-89.

[xlii] John Paul II, Rosarium Virginis Mariæ, §24.

[xliii] Ware, “The Power of the Name,” 82.

[xliv] Coomaraswamy, The Invocation of the Name of Jesus, 246.

[xlv] Balthasar, Threefold Garland, 23.

[xlvi] John Paul II, Ut unum sint [On Commitment to Ecumenism] (May 25, 1995), §54.