Imagine

Worth Revisiting Wednesday – This post originally appeared on April 6, 2014.

In John Biguenet’s short story, The Vulgar Soul, an atheist who is unexpectedly experiencing the stigmata is speaking to a psychiatrist, who asks,

‘“What about religion?”

“Well, I’m Catholic — at least I was raised a Catholic — but of course I don’t practice.”

“Why not?”

Vulgar soul

To believe in God, he patiently explained to the psychiatrist, one has to be willing to close his eyes to a great deal. “Isn’t that what they mean by faith — refusing to accept the obvious, refusing to accept what has always been right there in front of our eyes.”

 

“But that’s exactly what believers say,” she countered. “God has always been right there in front of us. We just won’t open our eyes.”

“Maybe it’s not so easy to see what right in front of our eyes.”

The psychiatrist laughed. “That’s certainly true, Mr. Hogue. I’d be out of business if that weren’t true.”’

Faith is an act of seeing what God reveals. As seeing, it is an act of the imagination. The tradition speaks of the “eyes of faith” that see what the “light of faith” reveals. Seeing and believing are complementary. By believing one can see and by seeing one can believe. The phrase “blind faith” is profoundly misleading. God cannot bypass the senses, and since the senses lead to knowledge through the imagination, God cannot bypass the imagination, the means by which the eyes of faith see the form/gestalt of God’s revelation, Jesus Christ. The form is the incarnate, yet risen, human reality of Jesus. The risen Jesus is absent to the physical eyes, but is visible to the eyes of faith. John says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” But those who believe now see. Jesus must be imagined to be believed in, or if he is believed in, Jesus is then imagined. To the eyes of the believer, the risen Jesus is not imaginary, but is indeed imagined, and thus the whole world is seen as transformed. If the world is transformed by the resurrection of Jesus, then a living faith must be Catholic, where “Catholic” means “through the whole.” The dynamic imagination of Catholicism, “through-the whole-ness,” cannot rest short of attempting to see and then understand everything.

Daniel Sheridan is Professor of Theology at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine and former Director of the Online Theology Program.

 

Catherine McAuley’s Option for the Poor

Catherine McAuley (foundress of the Sisters of Mercy) grounded her option for the poor in her special devotion to Christ’s passion. For Catherine, the crucified Christ was identified with the poor. Christ’s complete self-divestment on the cross in the name of love deeply inspired her to follow Him in living in solidarity with the poor.

Catherine expressed her preferential love of the poor by embracing a life of simplicity. She Catherine McAuleyinsisted, for instance, that she be the last to be served at meals in her community. This action demonstrated her desire to identify with the poor who seldom if ever are first to be seated at table and then have to accept whatever is left to eat. Catherine’s way of viewing dress demonstrated her resolve to live out her option for the poor. She often “deprived herself of articles of dress. . . to relieve the necessities of her neighbors.”[1] Regarding dress, Catherine advised her Sisters:

Let us even love to want what is convenient and necessary to us, and rejoice, if possible, when we are not supplied with everything we require or wish for, since we are poor Religious who, like the poor, must be satisfied to want conveniences.[2]

Prayer was a central part of Catherine’s reaching out in love to the unemployed, illiterate, sick and dying poor. She began and ended her works of Mercy with prayer. She urged her Sisters to live out their option for the poor in a similar contemplative fashion. In so doing, she and her Sisters acknowledged
doing Mercy is God’s work, i.e., that God seeks to be present to the needy through others’ love of them.

Catherine considered herself privileged to love the poor of her day. She instructed her Sisters: “What an ineffable consolation to serve Christ himself in the person of the poor and to walk in the very same path which he trod!”[3] In the faces and lives of the poor, sick, and uneducated, Catherine met Christ. She sought out the poor to pour out Christ’s love upon them, writing in her Rule for her sisters:

Mercy, the principal path pointed out by Jesus Christ to those who are desirous of following Him, has in all ages of the Church elicited the faithful in a particular manner to instruct and comfort the sick and dying poor. (Original Rule, Chapter 3, Article 1)

Sr. Marilyn Sunderman, R.S.M., teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College. The preceding is an excerpt from an article that appeared in The MAST Journal (Vol. 8, No.1 Fall 1997), and is shared here with permission from the author.

[1] A Sister of Mercy of the Diocese of Oklahoma, The Spirit of M. Catherine McAuley (Oklahoma City: Sisters of Mercy, Mt. St. Mary’s Academy, 1922), 8.

[2] Catherine McAuley, Familiar Instructions (St. Louis: Vincentian Press, 1927), 34.

[3] Ibid., 16.

Silence, Stillness, Simplicity – Maranatha

I am convinced, after studying the writings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers and the medieval mystics, as well as the more contemporary writings of Thomas Merton, John Main, Thomas Keating, and Richard Rohr, that recovering the elements of contemplation is crucial to one’s relationship with others and ultimately one’s unique relationship with Christ. Contemplation in the Christian West, though, was restricted for centuries to within monastery walls, and the resulting polarity of the active and contemplative life has alienated many from the deep prayer “that transcends complexity and restores unity.”[1] Our lives should be a “both, and” rather than an “either, or” – we need action and contemplation. How, though, do we as lay individuals become contemplatives? How do we leave behind our daily distractions and self-piety? How do we enter into the deep prayer of the heart?

Fr. John Main, OSB (1926-1982) understood, like his contemporary Thomas Merton, that John Main OSBcontemplative prayer provides those answers. We know: God is our creator, Jesus is our redeemer, and the Holy Spirit dwells within us. Nevertheless, do we realize these truths? John Main held that the great weakness of Christians was to know the truths theologically but never obtain living the truths in their hearts.[2] He understood that prayer beyond thoughts and images was a universal calling, and leaning on the teachings of the fourth-century monk, John Cassian, he brought the Christian tradition of using a mantra to the laity through the practice of Christian meditation.

“Meditation is the work we do to accept the gift of contemplation which is already given and present in the heart.”[3] However, the term “meditation” in our culture has a variety of meanings. Though meditation is a universal spiritual wisdom, Christian meditation is a form of contemplation (also known as contemplative or meditative prayer) that allows one to experience the fundamental relationship of one’s life – to be in the fullness of one’s Wheelrelationship with the Holy Trinity. The old analogy of prayer as a wheel is helpful: the spokes of the wheel are our various expressions of prayer (the Eucharist, the liturgy, the other sacraments, lectio divina, the Rosary, personal devotions, etc.); the hub, the center, is where the spokes converge (the prayer of Jesus in our hearts). Without the hub, without the center, the wheel cannot turn. In the center, in our heart, we find silence, stillness, and simplicity – we find Christ.

The silence of meditation follows Matthew’s advice to go to our inner room and pray in silence (Mt 6:5). The stillness of meditation reminds us to live in the world without being subject to it (ref. Mt 6:19-21). The simplicity of meditation helps us set our minds on the Kingdom of God first (ref. Mt 6:25-34). In meditation, one stops thinking about the past or future and lives in the present moment – in the presence of God. Christian meditation revives the meaning of all our expressions of prayer and can influence positively one’s relationships with others.

Thomas Merton, in some of the final words of his life, said, “In prayer we discover what we already have. You start where you are and you deepen what you already have. And you realize that you are already there. We already have everything, but we don’t know it and we don’t experience it. Everything has been given to us in Christ. All we need is to experience what we already possess. The trouble is we aren’t taking time to do so.”[4] Christian meditation is one method to find the necessary center and experience what we already possess.

John Main taught that sitting in silence and stillness and repetitively and silently using a mantra such as maranatha, an Aramaic word meaning, “Come, Lord,” helps us quiet our multitasking minds and truly move our prayer to our hearts. He instructed:

Sit down. Sit still with your back straight. Close your eyes lightly. Then interiorly, silently begin to recite a single word – a prayer word or mantra. We recommend the ancient Christian prayer-word “Maranatha.” Say it as four equal syllables. Breathe normally and give your full attention to the word as you say it, silently, gently, faithfully, and – above all – simply. The essence of meditation is simplicity. Stay with the same word during the whole meditation and in each meditation day to day. Do not visualize but listen to the word, as you say it. Let go of all thoughts (even good thoughts), images, and other words. Do not fight your distractions: let them go by saying your word faithfully, gently and attentively and returning to it as soon as you realize you have stopped saying or it or when your attention wanders. Meditate twice a day, morning, and evening, for between 20 and 30 minutes. It may take a time to develop this discipline and the support of a tradition and community is always helpful.

John Main provided instruction on individual and group Christian meditation showing us how to live a contemplative life within the chaos of our daily lives. His vision for a “monastery without walls” continues with the World Community for Christian Meditation, founded in 1991. In John Main’s words, we pray: Heavenly Father, open our hearts to the silent presence of the spirit of your Son. Lead us into that mysterious silence where your love is revealed to all who call, Maranatha…Come, Lord Jesus.

Fawn Waranauskas teaches spirituality for Saint Joseph’s College.

[1] John Main, OSB, Word into Silence (London: Canterbury Press Norwich, 2006) viii.

[2] Ibid. 5.

[3] Laurence Freeman, OSB, Jesus the Teacher Within (New York: Continuum, 2000) 197.

[4] Pennington, M. Basil, OCSO. Centering Prayer: Renewing an Ancient Christian Prayer Form. (New York: Doubleday, 2001) 49-50.

Mary’s Prophetic Witness as Our Model

Worth Revisiting Wednesday – This post originally appeared on September 10, 2014.

This work week begins with our September 8 liturgical celebration of the birthday of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  We may echo the words of her divine Son in the Gospel of John (18:37) and apply them to His Mother: the Virgin Mary came into the world to bear witness to the Truth, to Jesus Christ.  All who are on the side of truth listen to His voice—this is Mary’s directive to us, also: “Do whatever He tells you” (John 2:5).

100_0107(rev 0)The Virgin Mary and her prophetic mission really resonate with today’s September 10 readings.  The first reading from 1 Corinthians begins with St. Paul’s reference to virgins and ends with his assertion that “the world in its present form is passing away.”  The Virgin Mary’s detachment from worldly attractions, and her focus on “what is above” (Colossians 3:1-2)—on embracing God’s will (Luke 1:38)—underscore the transiency of this world.  Today’s Responsorial Psalm, drawing from Psalm 45, addresses the “king’s daughter.”  The high Christological tone is obvious: the king above kings is God, and His God has anointed Him (45:7-8).  The name of the king’s daughter will be renowned through all generations (45:18): Mary’s Magnificat alludes to this—“from now on all generations shall call me blessed” (Luke 1:48).

The Blessed Virgin certainly embodies the teaching of Jesus in His Sermon on the Plain, imparted through the Gospel reading according to St. Luke.  Jesus tells us, “Blessed are you who are poor, for the Kingdom of God is yours.”  Mary is blessed by being poor—materially poor, yes (e.g., Luke 2:24, offering the poor person’s sacrifice), but more importantly, spiritually poor, or humble.  She demonstrated her humility so profoundly by embracing God’s will in all things, including accepting the humbling, humiliating, and devastating circumstances that befell her.

Mary of Nazareth had to place her newborn Son in a manger because there was no room for the Holy Family in the inn.  She lived in the Nazarene community in which citizens—some of whom Mary probably knew quite well—rejected her only Son and disdained Him enough to try to hurl Him down the brow of the hill upon which Nazareth was built. (Luke 4:29).  Not too long afterward, the leaders of His own people delivered Him to betrayal, torture, and execution.  Mary was there.  She felt His pain and shared in His rejection.

The Virgin Mary fulfilled Simeon’s prophecy: “And a sword shall pierce your own soul, too” (Luke 2:35).  Simeon seems to prophesy about Mary in continuity with and in partial fulfillment of Zechariah 12:10: “And I will pour out on the House of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication.  And they shall look upon me, whom they have pierced; and they shall mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a first-born son.” [This is my own translation from Biblical Hebrew into English.  Notice, from the Hebrew translation, the identity of the object pronoun—“they shall look upon me”!  Many translations change the pronoun from first masculine singular to third masculine singular.]  As Jesus, the first-born and prophesied Shepherd (Zechariah 13:7-9) is struck and pierced by the sword/lance as a sign of contradiction, so too Mary’s soul is pierced by the sword, metaphorically.  Her pain, in union with her Son, is emotional and spiritual.

In the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus tells us, “Blessed are you who are now weeping, for you will laugh.  Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude and insult you…on account of the Son of Man…your reward will be great in heaven!”  The Blessed Virgin exemplifies this blessed and exalted one of whom Jesus speaks.  Her fidelity and obedience to God’s will in her life is our standard for authentic discipleship and prophetic witness.  With the Virgin Mary’s example and powerful intercession for divine grace, we may be light in darkness, love in a world gone cold, setting the earth ablaze by the love of Christ!

Mark Koehne teaches moral theology for Saint Joseph’s College.

 

The Church Doing Theology

Sex, marriage, infidelity, behind the scene politicking, leaked documents.  Is this the plot of a  cable TV blockbuster? No, actually, it is some of how the Synod on the Family, taking place in Rome this month is being described! Synods don’t usually create this much attention from religious and secular media alike.  The last two synods focused on Scripture and the New Evangelization and so were watched closely only by the most serious church geeks!

Night view at St. Peter's cathedral in Rome, Italy

Night view at St. Peter’s cathedral in Rome, Italy

The Synod on the Family, however is capturing world-wide attention because it is seeking to address some of the most hotly debated topics of the day; the definition of marriage, the pastoral care of persons with same-sex attraction, the reception of Eucharist by men and who are divorced and remarried outside of the Church and ministry of families caught in the destructive cycle of addiction and domestic violence. Pope Francis, in his address to the participants in the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia said “The family has a divine identity card. Do you see what I mean? God gave the family an identity card, so that families could be places in our world where his truth, love and beauty could continue to take root and grow.”

The Church is concerned for the state of marriage and family because spouses and families are at the heart of the mission of the Church in the World. If this were not reason enough to follow the work of the synod, following this synod, under the leadership of Pope Francis gives us a window to how the Church does theology.  A Synod “is an assembly of bishops from around the world who assist the Holy Father by providing counsel on important questions facing the Church in a manner that preserves the Church’s teaching and strengthens her internal discipline” (USCCB.org., “Basic Information About The Synod of Bishops”).

Last December Pope Francis asked that a questionnaire on issues related to marriage and family life be sent to every diocese in the world and that it be made available for Catholics to read and contribute to a series of questions related to the joys and challenges of family life.  As the person who compiled the data for the report from the Archdiocese of Washington, I know how seriously and enthusiastically people responded to the request for insight on the real-life experience of spouses and families. All of those reports from all over the globe were then collated and shaped into the Instrumentum Laboris which is the working document for the bishops and cardinals participating in the 2015 Synod.

Over the next couple of weeks there will be prayer, presentations, small group discussion by language and geographical groups and large group reflections and discussion, all aimed at affirming the truth of God’s plan for marriage and family and identifying pastoral practices that will best serve the vocation and mission of the family today and into the future.

Plan to follow the developments by checking in with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops at usccb.org or the Vatican website at  Vatican.va and watch the Church turn to the world with the good news of the Gospel.

Susan Timoney is Secretary for Pastoral Ministry and Social Concerns for the Archdiocese of Washington and teaches spirituality for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Culture of Encounter

Mother Theresa diagnosed the world’s problems in these words:  “We have just forgotten that we belong to one another.”   Perhaps you were like many in the nation who watched or participated in the recent pastoral visit of Pope Francis to the United States of America and witnessed his actions and heard his words that echoed these very same sentiments of St. Mother Theresa of Calcutta.   I was on a plane during his Mass in New York City.  As I strolled up the aisle to the front of the plane, almost every person had their electronic device tuned in and were watching with apt attention Pope Francis deliver his homily!

The antidote Francis offers to a world who has simply forgotten that we belong to one another is to build a culture of encounter and to offer a spirituality of accompaniment.  Recent studies have come out that show the sad reality that our modern lifestyle is making us more lonely! A report by the Mental Health Foundation suggests loneliness among youth and older adults is increasing and is having lasting repercussions on how we relate (or do not relate) with one another.

With each homily, pastoral visit or written document of his papacy, there emerges from Pope Francis reoccurring themes that are at one and the same time both simple and profound, basic yet revolutionary.  Francis’ terminology speak to the heart which longs for happiness, pines for love, and seeks its definitive meaning and purpose in life.   To academia he once stated: “the university (is) a place where the culture of closeness develops…. Isolation and withdrawing into one’s own interests are never the way to Pope Francisrestore hope and bring about a renewal. Rather, it is closeness, it is the culture of encounter.”  Speaking as a “brother among brothers” in Philadelphia, Pope Francis, urged the Bishops:  “As shepherds following in the footsteps of the Good Shepherd, we are asked to seek out, to accompany, to lift up, to bind up the wounds of our time.” To those gathered as members of ecclesial communities, Francis challenged:  “In this ‘stepping out’ it is important to be ready for encounter. For me this word is very important. Encounter with others. Why? Because faith is an encounter with Jesus, and we must do what Jesus does: encounter others….with our faith we must create a culture of encounter, a culture of friendship, a culture in which we find brothers and sisters.”  In a homily on the Year of Mercy this theme with still richer terminology is offered, “the Holy Year must keep alive the desire to know how to welcome the numerous signs of the tenderness which God offers to the whole world and, above all, to those who suffer, who are alone and abandoned, without hope of being pardoned or feeling the Father’s love.”  In fact, Pope Francis calls for a “revolution of tenderness.”  To the Cuban youth he rooted evangelization in this culture of encounter and spirituality of accompaniment with these words: “the path of hope is not an easy one. And it can’t be taken alone. There is an African proverb which says: ‘If you want to go quickly, walk alone, but if you want to go far, walk with another’…. I would like you to walk with others, together, looking for hope, seeking the future…  Please, let us not “dis-encounter” one another. Let us go side by side with one other, as one. Encountering one another….”

Francis is clear as to the antidote for the culture which forgets that we belong to one another and that we are made in the image and likeness of God. Francis’ witness of life sets the example that we must accompany one another in this world no matter rich or poor, sinner or saint.  To accompany another, for Pope Francis is to reveal the mercy of God, to point the way to Jesus, and to serve God and our neighbor.

The work of the evangelization, entrusted to all, is to teach Faith in a way which allows all people to discover one’s unshakeable inner goodness, one’s deep and abiding worthiness, and one’s sheer beauty because we are beloved children of God.

The beautiful Christmas hymn, O Holy Night, says it all:

It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
‘Til He appeared and the soul felt its worth
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

That is at the heart of the Church’s mission to which all the baptized are commissioned and sent forth. We help people encounter Christ and the sacraments of the Church so they can feel their worth.  The poet Galway Kinnel wrote “sometimes it is necessary to reteach a thing its loveliness and when that happens we begin to foster tenderness for our own human predicament. A spacious and undefended heart finds room for who we are and carves a space for everyone else!”    Pope Francis’ message to help everyone experience the tenderness mercies of God and thus to feel the worth of the soul is truly at the heart of his plea to return to the fundamental principles of the Faith and to accompany one another on the journey to the Father’s house.  Perhaps then will this pervasive loneliness be dispelled and fulfillment in Christ be found in the company of one another in his community the Church.

Lisa Gulino teaches pastoral theology for Saint Joseph’s College.

Who is Saint Francis of Assisi?

Saint Francis of Assisi, born in 1182, lived only 44 years, dying in 1226. He was the son of st_francis_assisi_prayer_carda wealthy merchant, known for taking to the streets with his friends for fun and frolic. However, as he reached manhood, he took off for battle between his town of Assisi and the town of Perugia, Italy, where he landed in prison. Upon his release from prison in 1205, he sought the meaning of life, thinking it should be so much more than following in his father’s footsteps. Therefore, Francis turned his back on the family business to embrace the love of God and serve God through the imitation of Christ. He became a living human example of Christ in action, loving God and all that God made.

Francis was not a theologian, buried amidst a pile of books looking for the true meaning of God. No, Francis found God in his own heart, the heart that burned with love. Through prayer and contemplation, penance and sacrifice, Francis developed a loving relationship with God from which the essence of his spirituality flowed.

Francis trusted God. By detaching himself from earthly cares, he freed himself to open his heart to God. He moved from a life of luxury and indulgence to a life of austerity and self-imposed poverty. He embraced the simplicity of Christ’s life, following Christ as closely as possible. Three biblical passages were near and dear to Francis’ heart and guided his every action:

  1. Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me’ (Matt 19:21).
  2. Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me’ (Matt 16:24).
  3. He said to them ‘Take nothing for the journey, neither walking stick, nor sack, nor food, nor money, nor let no one take a second tunic’ (Luke 9:3).

Francis lived by these instructions. He never worried about where his next meal would come from; where he would lay his head to rest; or how he would keep warm in winter. He knew God would provide.

Francis’ approach came across as refreshing to those who became followers. By his own example, he lived the Gospel, rather than talk about the Gospel. Francis did everything for love of God, neighbor and nature, by expressing passion about God and everything that God made.

Francis liked being around people most of the time. However, he understood the need for solitude, silence and stillness. In living the Gospel, he recognized that Christ would also go to pray alone before important decisions or events. Francis would do the same. Yet, he also saw the need to be among the people in service to their needs. He balanced his time between service and solitude.

Within only three years of release from prison, Francis had twelve companions who joined him. They were a community emphasizing a top priority on love, fellowship, brotherliness, and mutual support. Within a year’s time of banding together, Francis recognized a need for organization and a rule of conduct for his little community. The very first sentence of the Rule summarizes all that Francis wanted to accomplish in establishing the Order of Friars Minor:

The rule and life of the Minor Brothers is this, namely to observe the holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ by living in obedience, without property, and in chastity (Rule of Saint Francis, Catholic Encyclopedia).

This statement directly correlates back to the three biblical passages from the New Testament, continually referred to by Francis to define what it means to follow Christ.

Men of all different walks of life joined the Order; the wealthy and the poor, the educated and the uneducated; all were welcome. Everyone was treated the same, with no distinctions, except for ordained priests. Francis thought it important that all men should be considered equal, to better foster humility. Francis also believed in obedience, poverty and chastity because Jesus was obedient to God the Father. Jesus lived a life on earth in poverty, and Jesus never married. With the establishment of the Order of Friars Minor formally blessed by papal authority, Francis sent his fellow brothers throughout Europe in pairs of two to evangelize as described in Luke 9:3.

Saint Francis of Assisi is considered one of the greatest saints because of his simplicity, sincerity, compassion, humility, gentleness, and joyous nature, the radical commitment to following Christ, and trust in God to provide. Francis possessed a willingness to live amongst the poor, to understand their struggles and to strive to bring souls to God through his preaching. Francis imitated Christ in everything that he thought and did. He encountered Christ daily, truly living the deep Christian way of living that defines Christian spirituality. Francis was open to God; giving his life over to God, so that the will of God would be accomplished in the life of Francis.

The charisms of Saint Francis flow forth into every person who becomes a Franciscan (Order of Friars Minor, Poor Clares, or Secular Franciscan). Today, we have over one million Franciscans. The simplicity, sincerity, compassion, humility, gentleness, and joyous nature, the radical commitment to following Christ, and trust in God to provide, so effervescent in Francis, are trademarks of Franciscan spirituality to this day. Living the Gospel, with authenticity, is a very alluring attitude that draws people in. Extending care and concern keeps one’s attention. Service with love converts followers. Coming to know Jesus in your heart, not just knowing about Him from reading books, that creates Christians – and that is what Franciscans do – they “rebuild the Church!”

Virginia Lieto teaches spirituality for Saint Joseph’s College. She recently published her first children’s book Finding Patience and blogs at virginialieto.com.