“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
“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."
There is a divine jealousy for your soul, the jealousy of a Bridegroom. Keep Him in your heart, alone and separated. Let love be your ‘cloister’; carry him with you everywhere, and thus you will find solitude even in the midst of a crowd of people. Love itself is solitude.”
One day in winter, I left my monastery and braved the highways of San Jose to meet up with my spiritual director in Cupertino and make a general confession of my sins, and as I drove, heart pounding, I heard (on a CD another brother had left in the car) this heart-rending rendition of Psalm 103, sung by the monachói of St. Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery, Florence, Arizona. God’s mercy is so great: “from eternity, even unto eternity!” At the very moment I was preparing, with “fear and trembling,” to pour out a lifetime of sins at the feet of the Father, I hear a distant voice chanting, as if carried on the wind over a vast and lonely desert or the Spirit hovering over the waters of my heart: “As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our iniquities from us.”
Bonus: the most beautiful Kyrie I have ever heard, sung by Serbian Orthodox musician Divna Ljubojevic.
Pray for unity in the Church! The East is such a treasury of beauty for the glory of God and the salvation of souls. How true that “the Church must breathe with both lungs”—East and West, mystical and prophetic.
Distressed by exile or sickness, the soul recounts God’s infinite kindness and is calmed by the knowledge that its merciful Father in heaven is loving and forgiving and can effect any redemption or cure.
Bless the LORD, O my soul; blessed art Thou, O LORD! Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless His holy name! Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all that He hath done for thee. Who is gracious unto all thine inquities, Who healeth all thine infirmities. Who redeemeth thy life from corruption, Who crowneth thee with mercy and compassion. Who fulfilleth thy desire with good things; Thy youth shall be renewed as the eagle’s. The LORD performeth deeds of mercy and executeth judgment for all them that are wronged. He hath made his ways known unto Moses, unto the sons of Israel the things that he hath willed. Compassionate and merciful is the LORD, long-suffering and plenteous in mercy. Not unto the end will He be angered, Neither unto eternity will He be wronged. Not according to our iniquities hath He dealth with us, Neither according to our sins hath He rewarded us. For according to the height of heaven from the earth, the LORD hath made His mercy to prevail over them that fear Him. As far as the east is from the west, so far hath He removed our iniquities from us. Like as a father hath compassion upon his sons, so hath the LORD compassion upon them that fear Him. For He knoweth whereof we are made, He hath remembered that we are dust. As for men, his deeds are as the grass—as a flower of the field, so shall he blossom forth. For when the wind hath passed over it, then it shall be gone, and no longer will it know the place thereof. But the mercy of the Lord is from eternity, even unto eternity, upon them that fear Him. And His righteousness is upon sons of sons, upon them that keep His testament and remember His commandments to do them. The LORD in heaven hath prepared His throne, and His kingdom ruleth over all. Bless the Lord, all you His angels, mighty in strength, that perform His word, who hear the voice of His words. Bless the LORD, all ye His hosts, His ministers that do His will. Bless the LORD, all ye His works, in every place of His dominion. Bless the LORD, O my soul! Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, both now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen. Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless His holy name! Blessed art Thou, O Lord!
When I picture you, Mary, going, as in the Gospel, to a hill country of Judah, to perform an act of charity for your cousin Elizabeth—I see you as beautiful, serene, majestic, absorbed in contemplation of the Word of God within you.”
The ascent is long and arduous, but the summit is bathed in sunlight.”
It’s hard to believe, in a way, that nearly two months have passed already since I flew home from San Jose; that in just one more month’s time, I will have been home as long as I was in Carmel. Funny, now, to think my postulancy and novitiate there will continue receding further and further into the distance as the months and years wear on, until one day those tumultuous months in the monastery are indistinguishable from the whole broad horizon of my past.
I came back to Mt. Angel today for a personal day of recollection (which happened to coincide with the first day of the archdiocesan Priests’ Retreat), and woke up to the sunrise bursting over the mountains through my window, sudden and dazzling. That quote from Fr. Anastasius of the Most Holy Rosary (and “can there be any cooler name?” as Fr. Robert said once) came to my mind as the sunlight gently suffused the room. “The ascent is long and arduous, but the summit bathed in sunlight.”
How TRUE that is!—And what cause for hope and for joy, even in the midst of trials. I took a walk today with one of my brothers in Carmel, and I was telling him, among other things, about how happy I had felt, and zealous, when I left San Jose to return to Portland. I had such a sense of certainty in my vocation and mission, and it seemed to me then that the dark night was ending: I was coming home, transformed, and ready to set about the next stage of the journey! Of course, in every stage, we must be prepared to undergo the formation, deformation, and transformation that brings us from grace unto grace, and glory unto glory. To reach the dawn, one must wait patiently through the long hours of the night—and once the dawn arrives, the night is sure to follow again, until we reach that eternal day in which “we need neither light from lamps, nor the sun, for the Lord God shall be our light.”
Yet for a moment, I told my brother, when the time came to leave Carmel, I stood near the summit, and all was clear and radiant before me, bathed in the glory of God. That day I wrote, “My whole life is ‘in laudem gloriae Dei,‘ in praise of His glory. Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ, king of endless GLORY! You do not abandon your beloved sons; you may try us for a little while, but the suffering is nothing compared to the glory; and I can truly say the same words which fell from Your sacred lips: ‘The One who sent me is with me!’ Yes, my God, you are with me, and my cries to you in distress and confusion do not, have not, gone unanswered. How lovingly, Abba, you look your son! With what brotherly affection, Lord Jesus, your radiant glance falls on me and enlightens even the deepest darkness with the splendor of Love!”
Now I am back in the valley, if you like: in obscurity, in amongst the branches and thorns and under thick leaves and branches. I can see, but not so clearly; today it is bright, but often lately it has all been in shadow. Yet, Bro. John pointed out, I can lean now on that certainty I had not so long ago, just as I leaned on the certainty of my prior discernment during the uncertainty and desolation of my postulancy. Our God is a good Father, the very best, and He gives us just what we need—in such abundance. If we feel uncertain on our journey, in whatever stage we may find ourselves, it is because we do not need any more certainty—perhaps it would not be any good for us to have it! In my case, the certainty He gave me then, which impelled me to leave Carmel, is sufficient for me now—and the darkness into which I have lately returned is His gift, as all darkness is, for it is an opportunity to keep building up my faith (that “He leads me along right paths for His name’s sake”) and hope (of “the glory that is yet to be revealed in us”).
For a few days, and today most of all, I have been walking as on a rocky ridge, in and out of the trees—here in sunlight, there in shade—and the sun is very bright and warm, and the shade not so dark at all. Tomorrow, who knows? The shepherd leads where He wills. It reminds me of this morning when, after saying goodbye to the brothers, I hopped over the gate down behind the House of Studies and walked way back on the abbey grounds, where there are gnarled trees and old barns and pastures for the sheep. I was following what started out as a wide dirt road, but gradually narrowed and faded to a rough trail which disappeared, as often as not, amongst the long grass and heather and flowering weeds, only to surface yards away and in a completely unexpected direction. It took me through meadows and thick, dark copses of trees, and down hillsides, and up them again, and along the very narrow ridge of a steep gravel bank, along which I could only progress in long, leaping steps like a deer.
So it is in the spiritual life! What starts out clear quickly becomes lost amid the weeds; the trail resurfaces here and there, just enough to point the way somewhere you never would have expected; it meanders up and down, over all terrain, according to the purpose (quite unknown to you) of Someone else who came before, and “who made the earth and all that it contains / even grandmother-trees and wild hares and / all the more unknowable deep down things.” But oh!—what an adventure: to trust, and to follow.
I suppose I have not been making much sense, and truth be told, I hardly know what I’m writing. Yes, I have been in desolation for much of this last month at my summer parish assignment, but, as my brother pointed out, in some ways, that is the best sign that I am doing God’s will! Our Lord never promised this would be easy. On the contrary: “Si quis vult post me sequere, abneget semetipsum, et tollet crucem suum, et sequatur me.” “If anyone wants to follow after me,” He said, “let him abnegate himself, and take his cross, and follow me.” (“And the heavier your cross is,” one old priest put it once, “the more you know you’re following Jesus Christ.”)
It is a good sign, for “He chastises those whom he loves,” and the sufferings and the trials we endure are nothing compared to the glory which they are bringing about in us. In my case, the darkness reveals so clearly that the good work He was doing in me in Carmel is still very much in progress. He builds up faith in us by means of darkness, humility (how else?) by humiliations.
I have been striving hard to keep up my two hours of mental prayer, but my pastoral supervisor recently cautioned me to pray less!—”What a compliment!” Bro. Matthias laughed when I told him, and pointed out that the Lord is more pleased with the mother of five who spends half an hour in prayer with a generous spirit than with the Carmelite who routinely spends two without, perhaps, the same disposition. It is the generosity that counts: the value of the gift, as always, is in the love of the giver.
For the time being, I am going to start making half an hour of mental prayer a day, as the Secular Carmelites do, instead of two. And this is no compromise—perhaps in the particulars, but not in the essence of the charism. How often it seems that even when I make myself sit still in silence for two hours, I’m lucky to get half an hour of decent prayer out of it anyway! We need to keep an eye on what is essential and hold everything else with an open hand, for the Lord to give or take away as He chooses, all in laudem gloriae eius—all for His glory!
Thanks be to God for our trials, for our sufferings, our purifications and purgations which bring us on to glory. In my own case, how else could I have learned so well as I am having to learn now how to live out my Carmelite charism in the midst of parish life? This assignment is testing my resolve—”how determined is your determination?” as St. Teresa might say with a twinkle in her eye. Thanks be to God, again, for the uncompromising demands of the parish. The little wounds I suffer will strengthen me and make me a better pastor of souls, as the little wounds we all suffer day to day strengthen us, if we let them, to love God, love our families, love our neighbors and love one another better, more purely, more perfectly, more completely.
I have had such good conversations today with the brothers, and in each of them I have spoken with the Lord. That is the vocation!—To be so utterly simplified and suffused with, submerged in, subsumed by God that the dazzling radiance of His glory shines out clearly in your every word and action, like the golden dawn this morning bursting over the mountains. As our beautiful Sister Elizabeth of the Trinity loved to say: to live in laudem gloriae eius!
So now let us pray together, for ourselves and one another: “Lord, renew our spirits in the light of your love, and by that light illuminate again the trail which is mine alone to walk—let me not forget, let me not lose it or wander too far astray!—but simply stick close to you, and follow where you lead, my only peace, my sweet refuge, my strength, my Beloved One.”
It was important for me that the Church is one with herself interiorly, with her own past: that what was previously holy to her is not somehow wrong now. The rite must develop; in that sense, reform is appropriate. But the continuity must not be ruptured.”
Friends, I was deeply impressed and moved by this testimony of our shepherd, His Grace, Alexander Sample, at this year’s International Liturgical Conference in Cologne. How blessed we are to have him here in the Archdiocese of Portland! May he remain here for many years to come. Please take the time to listen to this successor to the apostles speaking on our Catholic liturgical heritage and the ‘reform of the reform’.