Reflections of a New Priest

Fr. Peter Gruber

Before I was ordained, I was asked what I looked forward to most about being a priest. My answer happened to be the same thing that filled me with the greatest uncertainty: hearing confessions.

Everything else about being a priest seemed somehow already familiar – daily Mass had made me accustomed to the priest’s role, diaconate ordination acclimated me to preaching, I had already adjusted to our primary ministry to the students at our universities.

However, hearing confessions was an entirely new experience. Sure, I had grown used to being on the penitent side of the screen, but the idea of encountering other people in what seems their most personal details had given me pause. Would I have anything to offer?

But upon being ordained, I quickly found hearing confessions the most impactful and formative aspect of being a priest of Jesus Christ.

I’m a priest of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri and hearing confessions is a particularly Oratorian thing to do – St. Philip Neri did the bulk of his pastoral care within the sacrament of Penance. Even the time spent waiting for the next penitent has become a new facet of my spiritual life. More than any other time do I get to practice what Blessed John Henry Newman would call (in his Advent sermon of the same name) “watching.” I pray that I may have the same zeal as St. Philip, who would go throughout the streets of Rome to attract people to the confessional early in his priesthood, and later would “attract souls as a magnet draws iron.” To support such zeal, I all the more have to be rooted in intimacy with Christ in prayer, as St. Philip was.

In one of our confessionals, we have a small statue of St. Padre Pio. A few years ago, while I was still in college, I found Padre Pio’s Prayer after Communion, and since then, St. Pio has accompanied me through this prayer with every communion. And now, he accompanies me as a priest. I’m reminded when I see him there how his advice in the confessional was short but filled with insight, and I pray that I may have something of his depth or brevity in my counsel.

As a mediator of Christ, it is His mercy that I dispense. Behind that screen, at the intersection of God’s love and human misery, I have to make real the words of John the Baptist, “He must increase, I must decrease” (John 3:30). It’s His cross, His sacrifice, that I witness to, and I pray that I do not get in the way of his outpouring mercy.

More than anything, I have found that sins do not make us who we are. The priest does not see our deepest selves when he hears our confession; he sees our deepest selves when he gives us absolution. “We are not the sum of our faults,” St. John Paul II says, “we are the sum of the Father’s love for us.”

“Shallow Entry Point” – The Youth Dilemma

I recall quite clearly an encounter I had shortly after having been accepted as a diocesan seminarian at the tender age of 18. One of the older brethren was describing to me our upcoming annual retreat and convocation. He noted it would be pretty laid back, not too intense, and that there would be “more serious retreats” in seminary. “Okay,” I thought, “that should be no problem. I’ve been on plenty of retreats before.”

What I experienced was something quite at odds with what I was expecting… Sure, there was plenty of recreation, but every day also had Morning Prayer, Mass, Day Prayer, Holy Hour, Evening Prayer, Night Prayer, conferences, private meditation, and sometimes a rosary or extra Holy Hour… All that was a bit overwhelming at the time, as the retreats I’d been on in high school contained very little prayer by comparison, and yet this was “not too intense,” etc. “What then,” I wondered, “will the serious retreats be like? And do priests really have to pray this whole breviary thing every day? Oh my goodness!”

Well, I survived, and looking back I can definitely agree with the older seminarian’s description. For the average man in formation or clerical ministry, basically all those disciplines should constitute a normal day. Mass, rosary, the breviary, maybe some study, Holy Hour… In fact, it is not realistic to expect oneself to persist in celibacy or to be effective as a physician of souls without such a regimen. A “serious retreat” then, should consist of mostly silence, prayer, and possibly some extra mortification. It should be a time to focus exclusively on fellowship with God and the improvement of one’s spiritual life, not strengthening your volleyball serve, learning to play the guitar, or finally making a move on your crush, as good as these goals might be.

This brings me to the issue at hand: the amount of prayer and silence at many, or even most, youth retreats and conferences, or even regular events at the parish. Some are so incredibly noisy and chaotic one must wonder if the point is to traumatize kids into practicing the Faith, as if the louder the keynote speaker says something, the more the Holy Spirit is there. This is not really what is going on, of course; the point is to make the Gospel and prayer accessible by providing a “shallow entry point” to largely unchurched kids coming from a noisy and hostile culture, and “breaking in” can be done effectively with such means.

Okay. There is merit to this. But how shallow is too shallow? And how do you gently push the “big kids” into the deep end?

I suppose I am, to some extent, a product of “shallow entry-point” praxis, and I have known it to reap lasting fruit in others as well. On the other hand, I have also seen the growth spring up and wither away with the sun. (Matthew 13:6, 20-21)

It might be helpful to take a look at St. John of the Cross for a moment.  A few tidbits from the beginning pages of Dark Night will be enough to get a clear sense of the problems which inevitably come with a one-size-fits-all shallow entry-point praxis.

“Sometimes they are anxious that others shall realize how spiritual and devout they are, to which end they occasionally give outward evidence thereof in movements, sighs and other ceremonies; and at times they are apt to fall into certain ecstasies, in public rather than in secret, wherein the devil aids them, and they are pleased that this should be noticed, and are often eager that it should be noticed more.”

“Furthermore, they burden themselves with images and rosaries which are very curious; now they put down one, now take up another; now they change about, now change back again; now they want this kind of thing, now that, preferring one kind of cross to another, because it is more curious.”

“These persons, in [receiving Holy Communion], strive with every nerve to obtain some kind of sensible sweetness and pleasure, instead of humbly doing reverence and giving praise within themselves to God. And in such wise do they devote themselves to this that, when they have received no pleasure or sweetness in the senses, they think that they have accomplished nothing at all. This is to judge God very unworthily; they have not realized that the least of the benefits which come from this Most Holy Sacrament is that which concerns the senses; and that the invisible part of the grace that it bestows is much greater; for, in order that they may look at it with the eyes of faith, God oftentimes withholds from them these other consolations and sweetnesses of sense. And thus they desire to feel and taste God as though He were comprehensible by them and accessible to them, not only in this, but likewise in other spiritual practices.”

One can only imagine what this great Doctor of the Church would say about the average American youth conference – surely, his tongue would be as a whip. In fact, John would argue that the violent noise and flashy lights are exactly the opposite of the way out of the beginning stages of spirituality for someone already accustomed to such things. What the beginner needs is a calm introduction and encouragement into small mortifications and deprivations of the senses which their charity is already prompting them to make. Staying up all night in Adoration is certainly a good thing – on a retreat. But such an experience might prove rather fruitless without some firm resolution to grow in a reasonable way in the practice of daily prayer, mortification, detachment from some creature or even from some sin. So-called “retreat highs” constitute a serious obstacle to such discipline, as they soothe one’s senses and trick the soul into thinking itself to have grown on account of feeling consoled, while there has often been no earnest commitment made to rise higher in the spiritual life. In fact, a person who allows himself to be satisfied with feeling holy and therefore does not seek to purge himself of sin and vice is actually likely to be regressing. In other words:

Sincere and interested kids might be allowing themselves to be fooled by their own emotions. (Would it really be a surprise that this happens in the spiritual life as well as in natural affairs?) Teens (and adults, by the way,) who are already intrigued and present a modicum of commitment ought to be led away from self-serving spirituality into a more disciplined and moderate spirituality ordered toward a careful generosity. (I say the generosity should be “careful” because all too often a person moving out of the early stages of the spiritual life will want to make big commitments which are often the product of an earnest explicit desire to be generous with the Lord but which rest upon a secret pride or simple ignorance of what the sacrifice they are making actually entails. This sets the person up for bitterness, despair, or, worst of all, hubristic pride in their spiritual disciplines. Unlike a normal, merely human relationship, we must never give the Lord more than what He wants.)

On the other hand, many kids showing up for retreats or youth group are not being prompted by charity to move forward because, tragically, they do not have charity: they are in mortal sin and are often attached to it. They are there because their parents made them go, and they want to leave as soon as possible. They have not even really begun the spiritual life in earnest. Trying to lead them into silence, solitude, and mortification would likely be a total overload and utterly repel them. Even kids who have made a break with grave sin are often still so overwhelmed by the frantic quest of the senses for satiation that the thought of a whole day without human communication or any entertainment would be enough to crush their spirit to the point of making the whole exercise a waste or even a damaging experience. This reality shows the sense of Paul’s approach with the Corinthians: “I gave you milk to drink, not solid food, for you were not ready for it…” (1 Cor. 3:2) It seems that the quickest way to “hook” such kids might be to use the pleasant things they are already familiar with – loud noise, novelty, emotion, etc. There are, however, plenty of kids who will be even more repelled by such an attempt, especially if some imitation of the world is a bad imitation. They sense the lack of authenticity and figure that there couldn’t be something so great behind the mask, otherwise whatever it really is wouldn’t be pretending to be something it’s not. And these kids are on to something, aren’t they…

What to do? Here are some options which present themselves, arranged (in my opinion) from the most challenging to the least, though they are not mutually exclusive.

  1. Separate the kids who are more advanced, and give them more “solid food.” But how to go about this… What criteria would be used? Where are the human and economic resources for this? What social tension could be caused? What temptation would there be to “get into the holy group?” Etc. Perhaps something like this could be done informally and/or discreetly.
  2. Provide more variety at retreats and conferences. This is often difficult because of resources… Time, money, space, chaperones (!), etc. However, it might sometimes also be a function of a lack of expressed interest. Might there be some designated “quiet areas” at some larger youth conferences? Options for talks on more “difficult” subjects, like mortification? Perhaps…
  3. Provide different voluntary opportunities for more serious spiritual experiences throughout the year. Some high school kids really could benefit, for example, from an 8 day silent retreat, doing the Ignatian Exercises. Perhaps this number is small, and these things can be expensive, but the option ought to be there periodically. A lot of kids don’t even know that such opportunities exist – why are they not being informed? Even something communal could be done in a more seriously contemplative mode.
  4. Teach more about the spiritual life throughout the course of the year. This is practical, but those responsible for youth would have to put in the effort to learn and teach the basics of ascetical theology (in addition to other relevant things, like Scripture, fundamental morals, Sacraments, and so on). For the fringe kids who are only showing up to check the box to make Confirmation, this education would need to be extremely tactful but also assertive and frequent. Having a teen a grade higher give a talk before everyone goes on a Confirmation retreat is good; a series of letters to parents and those preparing for Confirmation which then are followed up with a one-on-one meeting with the pastor about their understanding of those letters and the spiritual life both in general and as it relates to their preparation for Confirmation might be better.
  5. Actively and tirelessly encourage kids to go to confession on a regular basis. Get Father to come by youth group once a month just for this reason. Seeing as not every kid could have a real spiritual director, as there are not enough clergy for the task (at least in America), this is the next best thing. Oh and they will have their sins forgiven too, making sure they are in grace and ready to make the most of whatever else is going on in youth group that day.
  6. Increase the use of neutral methods of attracting kids which lend themselves more easily to showing and providing the depth of the spiritual treasures of the Church, and decrease the use of other methods. For example, take the youth group hiking… This is basically what Our Lord did for three years with the Twelve. Get the kids involved with service to their own community (maybe not some far off land where their perceived use will far exceed their actual use)… Feed the homeless, visit the sick, etc. Have them step up to help with the parish’s broader life, especially liturgy. And so on. These are all activities that would satisfy a Borromeo or a Vianney but would also not be too much for the average 9th grader. In the meantime, try to strip away some of the kitsch and imitation of secular life that tend to deter (in the short term and in the long term) more than they attract.

Shepherding teenagers from various backgrounds and with differing levels of interest, maturity, and sensibility is undoubtedly a massive challenge which only grows with the numbers, and youth ministers are often under appreciated for all the work they do. But we ought to be able to admit that a monolithic (and therefore less work-intensive) “no child left behind” policy, where the lowest common spiritual denominators are always catered to, tends to stunt the growth of kids who are looking to go further but find no exterior means to do so; and this can sometimes result in their own eventual drifting away, as they see nothing beyond what they have already experienced and realize one day that what they have experienced is not as great as they once thought. Who wants to stay in the shallows forever? People will eventually look for a deep end to swim in, whether those waters are safe or not. There need not be a “youth dilemma” – we are a both/and kind of Church, after all. The pool should have a shallow end, but it can and should have a deep end too.

These are my thoughts and suggestions from my limited perspective. Please add your own in the comments!

 

Post by: Eamonn Clark

Main image source: http://www.sparhawk.info

The Grotesqueness of the Mass and the Problem of Evil

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I would like you to imagine the classic love story. You know the one: The daring knight rescues the damsel in distress from the fiery dragon. The details really don’t matter. All the story needs, seemingly, is a knight, a dragon, and a princess. However, it seems that there is one other element needed in the story, and that is the element of danger. For the story to work, the knight must triumph in the end, but only after a battle in which he might have lost. And this seems to be true, not just from our perspective, but from the perspective of the princess as well.

I mean, if the story is to be believed, the princess loves her knight, and love seems to include a desire for the beloved to be safe from harm. Yet, imagine how the princess would feel if the daring knight, instead of facing the dragon in hand to hand combat, camped a mile away from the castle with a sniper rifle, killed the dragon from a safe distance, and then waltzed in to pick up the princess. A bit anticlimactic isn’t it? Don’t we all feel, as much as we might not like to admit it, that if we were the princess, we’d prefer our beloved risking it all to save us? Don’t we, in a secret place in our heart, want our knight to be scarred?

Now, I’m not going to try to understand the motivation for this desire. I don’t know where it comes from, I only know that it seems true that we have it. But, I do think it has to do with what comes after the knight’s daring rescue. While the knight and princess gallop away on a snow white stallion, isn’t there already a natural bond forged by their shared experience of the dragon? If the knight had faced no danger and suffered no injury in his battle with the dragon, wouldn’t the princess, as much as she loves her knight, feel estranged from him? Wouldn’t she ask herself, “Does he understand what the dragon did to me?”

I have often had that question about my relationship with God. Knowing how much my sin has hurt me and made me despicable to myself, and reflecting on the glory and perfection of God, I sometimes have asked myself, “Does He understand what sin did to me?” The answer God gave me at the cross, and continues to give me every day in the Mass is, “Yes, because sin has done it to me too.” There seems to be a deep psychological reason that the bread and wine are consecrated separately in the mass: We want a God who knows what it feels like to have his blood separated from his body, in the same way that we have spilled our blood living in a broken world. Of course, we want a God who is all-powerful, who triumphs over sin and death, no denying that, but we also want a God who bleeds in the process. We want our God to carry the same scars we do.

That is “the grotesqueness of the mass.” In the mass, as a continuation of the eternal sacrifice of Christ on the cross, God makes himself vulnerable to us, so that He can share in our weakness. Our suffering becomes the point of encounter with God. In the mass, God enters our brokenness, our loneliness, our anger, our numbness. That is the horrible beauty of the Mass and the cross: that the hour of good’s triumph over evil is when good is weakest. It is when God looks most like a man. God suffers with us, in order to make Himself capable of being understood by His creatures who have so long suffered under sin, that they are unable to comprehend a life of love without suffering.

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And yet, we know that this is not the end. God chose to suffer not just to meet us in our suffering, but to bring us out of it. We have hope that there is a love that transcends suffering, and though, in our broken human condition, we can’t experience it now, (or at least, our experience of it is limited,) our hope in God is that some day we will. That is why the problem of evil (Why does a good God allow suffering in the world) is not so much a problem as it is a recognition of our broken selves. As fallen men and women, our experience of our own brokenness makes us want others to have experienced our suffering. This is not because we are evil and sadistically want others to suffer, but because we want to know we are not alone. The cross not only gives us that reality, but also the hope for something more: something we cannot fully comprehend now, but something we know we’ve been missing. Evil exists because in our broken state, we need evil to help us recognize the good. In the evil of the cross, we see the ultimate good, and that ultimate good gives us hope for a good without evil, a love without pain, a final victory over sin.

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Post by: Niko Wentworth

Main image: The Deposition from the Cross, Bl. Francis Angelico, 1434

First Fridays: Leviticus 23

“The LORD said to Moses, ‘These are the festivals of the LORD which you shall celebrate at their proper time with a sacred assembly.’”

So begins the Old Testament reading for today. Following this introduction, the reading continues with God pronouncing the major feasts that would make up the Jewish calendar: The Sabbath, the Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread, the Offering of First Fruits, Festival of Weeks, the Festival of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and the Festival of Tabernacles. It may seem that this list of Jewish festivals may not appear to be particularly relevant to the modern Christian. After all, we don’t celebrate these feasts; so why did this passage and others like it make its way into our lectionary? What can we take away from them?

One reason why these readings are important to us is the historical background which they provide us about our ancestors in faith and the religious culture into which our Lord was born. The present is shaped by the past, so learning about the lived experience of those who preceded us and how they kept their traditions alive gives us a blueprint for doing the same today. For example, that the Festival of Weeks is a celebration commemorating the wheat harvest in Israel does not seem to be of utmost importance to the modern Christian. However, knowing that the Festival of Weeks was also known as Pentecost because it fell 50 days after Passover, in the same way as the Christian Pentecost follows 50 days after Easter, and that apart from being a harvest celebration, it commemorates the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai, allows us to enter into the liturgical importance of this festival. Understanding the relationship between the giving of the law at Sinai, and the giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost allows us to see the gradual fulfillment of salvation history and the slow unveiling of God’s love throughout time.

But for this post, I don’t want to talk about the rich theological insights a close study of each of these festivals would give us. There are others who have done a much better job than I could. Interested readers could do no better than to check out the Berit Olam commentaries published by The Liturgical Press. Rather, I want to focus on the general theme present throughout the entire narrative, (which in the reading is presented in a redacted form.) That is, the elements of time and space, and how they are ordered to the worship of God. If you look at Leviticus 23:1-44, there are several phrases that you would find repeated multiple times. “The Lord said to Moses, speak to the Israelites,” “The appointed festivals” or “sacred assemblies,” “Do no regular work,” and “lasting ordinance for generations to come” and “Wherever you live.” I want to concentrate on these repeated phrases as revelatory of the kind of relationship God wants the children of Israel to have with Him and with each other. Finally, after looking at these, I want to address the seemingly out of place verse of Leviticus 23:22 which I think is central to the passage.

To begin, it should be noted that Leviticus 23 begins a new “section” in the book of Leviticus. The previous “section” dealt with the conduct of the priests, and now we have seemed to move on from that to norms of general conduct for all the Israelites. How fascinating that the first directive God gives to His people is a calendar! Even before the seemingly paramount sections on rewards for obedience and punishments for disobedience (Leviticus 26), God gives very specific instructions for when to celebrate liturgical feasts. Furthermore, the passage makes it clear that this is a divine command. “The Lord said to Moses, speak to the Israelites,” is repeated several times, reiterating how the giving of the calendar of feasts comes from God Himself. In fact, the chapter ends with God saying, “I am the Lord your God,” using the divine “I am” with which he first identified Himself to Moses to underline the sacred nature of the festivals just commanded. Furthermore, the repetition of “lasting ordinance for generations to come” and “wherever you live” reflect the universality of these commands. These commands hold true, not just for the small group being spoken to, but for all of God’s people, wherever and whenever they are.

It is because of this that we hear repeated the command to do “no regular work” (in other translations, servile or laborious work). Is this command given because God disapproved of the work they Israelites did? Of course not. God commands that sacred days be days of rest as a reminder that these are not normal “work days.” They are days that we rededicate ourselves to the work of the Lord, that is, prayer. Just as God “rested” on the seventh day after the work of creation, we rest after our participation in that unfolding work of creation to remind ourselves of what that work is ordered to – God.

And that is what I think this passage reveals the most about God and about ourselves. Our work is ordered to our rest, which is itself ordered towards our relationship with God. As human beings, we are transcendent creatures. We have limited needs like any other animal; we eat until we aren’t hungry anymore, we sleep until we aren’t tired anymore, we seek shelter from the elements, and all the other basic necessities. But we also have unlimited transcendent desires. We have a desire for beauty, for companionship, for wholeness, for infinite joy. That is, we have a desire for God. God led the Israelites out of Egypt and he gave them the calendar of feasts not to satisfy their basic animal needs, but their transcendent human needs. God gave the Israelites a calendar of feasts and directions of how to celebrate them even before He finished leading Israel into the Holy Land because it was given to them for the purpose of worship, and so their time in the land and their use of it must be ordered to that purpose.

Do we find this to be the reality in our lives today? Do we order our time and our space to that reality? How often do we find our work encroaching into our time with God? How often are we tempted to skip prayer or even just healthy social activities in order to get work done because we think that is what is expected of us? Could you imagine what kind of a society we would be if our calendars were arranged around preserving the sacredness of the day of rest? Imagine if employers arranged work schedules in a way that not only provided employees with sufficient “days of rest” but also such that they could participate with dignity in community activities (both religious and other healthy communal gatherings.)

It is to that point which I think the, seemingly out of place, verse of Leviticus 22:23 is ordered. “‘When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you. I am the Lord your God.’” This is the “gleaning law” of ancient Israel, which essentially stated that those who owned and worked farmland ought not be so exacting in their harvest that those without land wouldn’t be able to find food should they glean from the field. In a passage about liturgical feasts, why would this command be placed in the exact middle? It’s true, the Festival of Weeks is a harvest festival and so making a point about harvesting is not completely out of place here, but it still seems a little strange.

However, reflecting on the idea that our time and resources are ultimately ordered to the service of God, we might find religious significance in the gleaning law. In some sense, the gleaning law made it possible for the poor to participate in the festival. It ensured that there would be food available after the harvest for those who begged in order to fulfill their basic needs. The poor would not have to worry if taking time off from their job for the festival would impact their ability to fill their needs. Just as a farmer has a right to collect the fruit of his labor from his field but not be so exacting that there is none left for others, an employer has a right to his employees time (for a fair wage of course,) but not to be so exacting in his demands that an employee does not have time or energy left for religious and community oriented activities in a respite from “regular work.”

As a reflection, we might ask ourselves, do we keep the “gleaning law” in our own lives? Do we ensure that every day we have several periods of time protected from the encroachment of our daily demands, our regular and laborious work? Do we use that time to concentrate not on our basic animal needs, but our transcendent human needs? What “mini-festivals” do we have planned in our day in which our focus is on prayer to God and charity towards our neighbor? Is our time away from the office ordered towards these higher things, or is it only a brief respite to prepare for the next day on the job? Essentially, do we work to live, or are we living to work? With these thoughts in mind, thanks be to our God, who takes care of our needs so that we can use this time on Earth to grow closer to Him!

 

Post by: Niko Wentworth

Main image: The Gleaners, Jean-François Millet, 1857, oil on canvas

Intercession and Science

Once in a while some zealous atheist, agnostic, or deist will throw down a challenge: “If God answers prayers, we should be able to prove it with an experiment. But we see no statistically significant difference between groups of sick people who are prayed for and groups who are not. Therefore: A) there is no God, or B) we can’t be sure if there is a God, or  C) God does not involve Himself with us.”

It seems like a strong argument at first. If God really does respond to intercession, then we ought to be able to observe that response in contrast with a lack of response corresponding to a lack of intercession. Intercession is an action, healing or whatever response is or would be an equal and opposite reaction, while on the other hand whatever is in motion tends to stay in motion – those who are sick or in need will continue to be so unless they are helped.

There are some problems with this argument.

First, let’s take a look at the Temptations of Christ (Mt. 4:1-11)… It is Lent after all.

  1. Turn stones into bread – Jesus could solve world hunger and win over all the crowds this way. (Jn. 6:26 – “Amen, amen, I say to you, you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled.”) He responds, “One does not live on bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.”
  2. Fly around Jerusalem – Jesus could publicly manifest Himself with abundant clarity in a way that would leave everyone in awe. (Mt. 16:4 – “An evil and unfaithful generation seeks a sign…” And in the same chapter, v. 17 – “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in Heaven.”) He responds, “You shall not put the Lord thy God to the test.”
  3. Make a compromise – Jesus could rule over the Earth without the Cross, without the public ministry, and generally without much effort. (Jn. 18:36 – “My Kingdom is not of this world.” And Lk. 24:26 – “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”) He responds, “Get away, Satan! For it is written, ‘The Lord, your God, shall you worship and Him alone shall you serve.'”

Christ’s Temptations provide the first major counterpoint to the skeptic, which is that God is not primarily concerned with making this life easy for us. We are promised that we will receive whatever we ask in His Name (Lk. 11:9, Jn. 14:13), but we are also promised trouble and suffering, the acceptance of which is even a condition of discipleship (Mt. 10: 16-39). These two promises do not square with each other unless we see that Jesus does not mean we will be given whatever material convenience we want, like a genie would do for us, but that we will be given every spiritual gift truly suited for us for which we pray sincerely. Virtues are the goods which truly help us.

Furthermore, God is wise to our tests and designs (Jn. 2:24). And no, He does not care to play along. A mysterious kingdom needs a mysterious road to lead to it. The New Jerusalem is nothing like the New Rome. Citizenship in the one is gained by unyielding faith in a crucified carpenter as God Incarnate, while in the other citizenship would be gained by simple obedience to an opulent and benevolent dictator.

Let us consider another passage, Mk. 9:14-29, where Jesus heals a possessed child. The crowd gathers, and the boy’s father explains the damage the demon has done over the years… “But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” Jesus does not take kindly to the word “if”: “‘If you can!’ Everything is possible to one who has faith.” Then we are given the famous line, “I do believe, help my unbelief!” Jesus rebukes the spirit and tells his disciples that this kind of demon only comes out “through prayer.”

This episode gives us an insight into the project of the public ministry – it is not primarily about fixing people’s inconveniences, it is about fixing people’s souls. Jesus waited to do a good deed until the boy’s father manifested faith… This was His prerogative, since He came to draw people away from the world to Himself. The Christ did not open a miraculous hospital, or an infinite soup kitchen, or an infallible psychic hotline; rather, He told people to beg for God’s forgiveness (Mt. 4:17), to sin no more (Jn. 8:11), and to extend faith in God to Him as well (Jn. 14:1). Fixing people’s earthly problems were and are for Christ merely a means to an end: moving people to repentance, conversion, discipleship, and finally perfection in union with Himself and the Father. Just because we don’t get exactly what material convenience we want, when we want, how we want it, does not mean that God does not exist or concern Himself with us. When He doesn’t give worldly help, even when asked sincerely, it’s because He knows that to give us some particular opportunity to forsake the world and cling to Him in abandonment to His will is better than to give us what we’re asking for. (Remember the dichotomy of promises!)

We are not in the same position. It does not belong to us to help others conditionally to the same extent as God because we do not have the same privileged insight into people’s souls that He has, and even if we did we would not always know how best to use that knowledge. Sometimes we can be quite sure that withholding some help will be good for another – like when we allow a child to “learn the hard way” – but by and large we have a duty to provide basic goods for others we encounter and are able to help. We do need to open hospitals. We do need to run soup kitchens. (No psychic hotlines, however.) In fact, we would never be able to show love for each other without the opportunity to do these kinds of selfless acts.

So, can we test God’s response to prayer and prove with statistically significant results that He does indeed answer them? As it turns out, we actually can. Anyone who prays earnestly and frequently for help to become virtuous and holy will become virtuous and holy. And you can survey the lives of the saints and see that this is indeed how they prayed.

I will now teach you a short but powerful prayer which if you repeat often and with sincerity will change your life radically by changing you radically: “Oh Lord, help me to become a saint as soon as possible and at any cost to myself! Amen.”

Don’t be afraid to have this prayer answered.

 

Post by: Eamonn Clark

 

Main image: screenshot from the film Aladdin (1992)

There was no music on Calvary

Chances are, you’ve heard of St. Ignatius Loyola. Chances also are that you have tried his oft-recommended technique of meditation involving placing yourself in some scriptural scene, trying to imagine all the details of what is going on around you.

This is certainly a good method for reflecting on Scripture, but we 21st century Christians typically have a roadblock to achieving the real purpose of this exercise. It is a case of art revealing and concealing the truth simultaneously… We usually want to “cinematize” what we imagine.

This is easily proven. If you were asked to place yourself at the Mount of Olives during the Ascension, you would probably be tempted to insert a soundtrack at least, and maybe even some crazy angles and close-ups of wide-eyed apostles. But this is just not how we experience real events. So why would we try to experience the Gospel in this way? If I asked you to imagine eating breakfast, there wouldn’t be any orchestral accompaniment. When you start to dream about going home after a long day at work, are your kids running in slow-motion to embrace you? Maybe this type of dramatization opens up a place in ourselves that allows for a greater emotional response, which certainly can quicken true devotion up to a point, but eventually we might find ourselves responding more to the “art” than to God. Of course, this is a new phenomenon, since film is a new art form.

This scene from Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is pretty well done. But try watching it once with the sound, and once without. Notice the difference – perhaps the one is more emotional, but perhaps the other is more spiritual. (One day I would love to make a short film about some incident in the Life of Christ with no “fluff”… No music, dramatic lighting, slow motion, etc.)

The “silence and normalcy” of the events in the Life of Christ highlight His Incarnation – Jesus is really human, and, like other humans, does not have built-in theme music, a wind-machine on hand (that incident on the Sea of Galilee notwithstanding), or a traveling make-up crew.

The truth is that we are all outdone in spiritual maturity by Elijah. If we weren’t taken in by the storm, we would have been enthralled by the earthquake. If that didn’t get us, we would have bowed down at the fire. But Elijah knew it was the small whisper of wind that was the voice of the Lord.

It is significant for us Christians that Elijah encounters this voice at Horeb, where all those same kinds of things had happened before with Moses and actually were true representations of the voice of God. It seems that in general God becomes quieter and quieter throughout the course of Scripture and salvation history… Paradoxically, the quieter He becomes, the closer we can get to Him.

Sometimes a little fire or earthquake is fine, but often it is a snare. The true life of the spirit is quiet, invisible, and secret. Just as the flesh of the Son of God concealed His Divinity on the cross while simultaneously revealing it, our outer life conceals and reveals our deepest interior life; and since the interior life is what matters most, our default habit ought to be to deal with it directly insofar as it is possible. If we feed the spirit, that will shine forth in our flesh (just ask Moses). On the contrary, expending too much energy enhancing our outer lives through entertainment and pleasures leaves our interior life hanging high and dry – though sometimes people can be tricked into thinking that a fun and “rewarding” life is sure evidence of holiness and Divine affirmation of one’s choices (or even mistakenly branded by well-meaning persons as critical tools of the New Evangelization). Hormones, seratonin, and even genuine spiritual consolations are not the real substance of the spiritual life, they are only afterthoughts and can even be obstacles to growth. The really good stuff is quiet, and sometimes without a drop of sensible devotion. This is a bit like how cinematizing the Life of Our Lord can, in a way, rob it of some of its power. That isn’t to say there is no place for it, just as sometimes God really does bless us materially, but it ought not be the primary way we try to encounter the Almighty.

There was screaming, crying, and there were even a few words, but there was no music on Calvary.

 

Main image: The Deposition from the Cross, Fra Angelico