Friday, July 13, 2007

Prayer and faith

I have difficulty praying. That's not the first time I've mentioned it here, but I'll say it again: it's a real struggle. When my cell phone beeps at me, reminding me to pray, every time it beeps it reminds me of how far prayer is from my mind (and my agenda) at each of those moments. I pray daily, but not regularly; and the most valuable and beautiful kind of prayer--prayer at moments I feel least like praying--are precisely the ones that are absent. Conspicuously so. I fear I have been without a spiritual director for too long--not that I was any kind of spiritual athlete when I had one in the seminary. But I've tried to do it myself and I am a failure; "we do not know how to pray as we ought." "Lord, teach us how to pray."

This city's excessively laid-back priests would give me a grand old pat on the back just for being concerned about it. But I think one should not necessarily look to one's confessor for encouragement toward holiness. Confessors are there to be reservoirs of God's forgiveness and the sacrament of his absolution; this is a gift given them via their Ordination, and not earned. In other words, any knucklehead can absolve. But to be a voice outside of myself, a serious agent of discipline to a spoiled youth, someone who sees "holiness" not as a churchy word descriptive only of natural virtues, but an irreducibly unique, salvific, visible, active love of God and in God--that is no ordinary confessor, and it is not a "spiritual director" in the perfunctory sense. It is a Spiritual. Director. I wonder if men like that exist anymore. I hope so.
The most common yet most hidden temptation is our lack of faith. It expresses itself less by declared incredulity than by our actual preferences. When we begin to pray, a thousand labors or cares thought to be urgent vie for priority; once again, it is the moment of truth for the heart: what is its real love? Sometimes we turn to the Lord as a last resort, but do we really believe he is? Sometimes we enlist the Lord as an ally, but our heart remains presumptuous. In each case, our lack of faith reveals that we do not yet share in the disposition of a humble heart: "Apart from me, you can do nothing." - CCC 2732
My friend Brother Thomas has a whole category of posts on his blog dedicated to "struggling with doubt." Yet he has consecrated his very life to Christ; he may well do so in a startling and permanent way, if the Lord leads him to make solemn profession in a couple of years. What I find odd in my own circumstance is that my own doubt has never taken quite the same shape as that of Brother Thomas's; if his has been intellectual, mine has been practical. My own mind is a kind of idealistic cathedral, but it's also largely an uncrowded tourist attraction; it is the Lateran at Rome. Maybe the things that have bothered him haven't bothered me in the same way--for example, reading a few too many articles from infidels.org. No big deal; there I can see the gloomy shadows of positive atheism for what they are: paper thin, scarcely a breath of wind.

But it isn't gloomy shadows that haunt me; it is worldly delights. The turning away from the Creator to the creature, the primordial sin, dogs me and feels so heavy around my arms and legs. To be drowning in things while I gasp for the air of the cathedral, even while I sometimes see it becoming more and more shadow-like itself--what an ignoble destiny! I am afraid that, unless I be helped in a radical way, I will constantly be in danger of going to the 8th circle with the hypocrites; a deep circle, precisely because they held something so good before they spoiled it.

I am concerned, yes, but not sad. God is strong, and he asks for so little--only that I am persistent in my love for him and that I turn back to him wholly when I realize I have done wrong. Please, Lord, burn my heart, rip my chains, kill my lust, even if it kills me. Only have mercy on me in my weakness.

Little "everyone is a mystery" disclaimer: I understand that the distinction I draw between Brother Thomas's battles and my own is simplistic and crude; I hope caricatures can be forgiven, if I have written anything fruitful here. In any case, nobody who lives long enough is a stranger to any kind of temptation.

8 comments:

Br. Thomas said...

Jeff,

The reason I joined the monastery is precisely because every time I have 'lived in the world' I had become so worldly that my faith, prayer and self-identity began to disappear.

I'm reminded of a summer internship in college; I lived in another state and made good money, went to Mass every Sunday, sometimes daily.

I couldn't pray. It didn't happen slowly; as soon as I left the University I couldn't pray, and it was like I couldn't breathe.

I fell into all kinds of sin, and confession and visiting churches, even talking to some Dominicans didn't help. I went on walks, shut out distractions, fasted; but, nothing worked.

My faith and prayer life only came back when I was safe in the school community again; the atmosphere, the surroundings, were more important to me than the individual things I could do.

When I came back to myself I met a girl at school, she was interested in my comments in philosophy classes. We became a little close and I told her about how I just lost my faith and have begun to find it again.

She remarked the same thing happens to her, but it was the University life that made her unable to pray, while being at home in the everyday world was her arena of faith.

I could go on, but suffice it to say that I'm praying for you. There are real spiritual directors out there. Try a Byzantine priest (I'm very serious), they are more aware of the venerable tradition of spiritual fatherhood.

The posts I make about 'doubt' are indeed more about intellectual doubt than existential angst before the absurdity of common life. I think these deeper problems don't stem from doubt, or any other virtue/vice we may live. This sounds more like being away from the real sources of Grace in your life?

Where do you feel the presence of God, where do you feel like yourself, where can you live and breathe? Go there and see what happens.

Matt of CG said...

"I could go on, but suffice it to say that I'm praying for you. There are real spiritual directors out there. Try a Byzantine priest (I'm very serious), they are more aware of the venerable tradition of spiritual fatherhood."

More aware than whom, Brother Thomas? More aware than a Roman Catholic priest?

Cannon 844 of the Code of Cannon Law. (What applies to the gravity of the sacraments should also be valid for lesser things like spiritual counsel.)

If it is full well within your power to seek counsel within the Catholic Church, then do so.

If you are going to see a Byzantine priest, then it must be under the pretense that you seek to galvanize your current commitment to Roman Catholicism. Listen carefully to what the Byzantine priest would have to say and weigh it against our church. Your only permissible internal response should be, "Wow, they believe that too? God be praised, your truth as we know it in the Roman Catholic way is showing up in little bits and pieces everywhere else!" Any other response would be erroneous.

"In other words, any knucklehead can absolve. But to be a voice outside of myself, a serious agent of discipline to a spoiled youth, someone who sees "holiness" not as a churchy word descriptive only of natural virtues, but an irreducibly unique, salvific, visible, active love of God and in God--that is no ordinary confessor, and it is not a "spiritual director" in the perfunctory sense. It is a Spiritual. Director. I wonder if men like that exist anymore. I hope so."

Men like that do still exist. Men like Fr. Juan Carlos Aguirre. He was St. Paul and we here in Casa Grande were Corinth, ready to kill him. We threw dirty diapers and condoms on his car and sprayed grafitti all over it.

He's says he's an "ex opere operato" type of guy. He had offered us the most beautiful, simple and sensible truth I have ever heard. And because he didn't give us our lollipop after we got our inoculation, we were going to kill him.

He is the pastor for St. Helen's in Eloy. Need I break out Luke 11:9,10 ?

Listen to me, teacher...

Outside of the New American Bible, the catechism, cannon law and any other books you would use to teach your pupils the full form and matter of Roman Catholicism, you should refrain from reading for a while.

You make time daily to read a book, don't you? Well, the time that you would have set aside for some recreational, albeit philisophical reading should be used to pray. Try that Jeff. When you are about to sit down and read, tell yourself, "Nope, I've read and compiled everything I needed to for today's lesson so now I'm gonna pray."

You see, the time to pray was always there to begin with. Do this until your next birthday. As time passes, you will naturally find equilibrium.

My justification:

Visit catholic.org and read about St. Augustine of Hippo. (He's the St. Augustine I'm always refering to.)

Then, ponder the life of St. John the Baptist. What would motivate a man to live as he did? How is it that without any discernable, exterior distractions or scholastic stimulus was he able to maintain a state of grace and be a worthy herald of Jesus Christ? Where was his written word, where was his book?

Also, ponder the life of St. John Vianney who was self-admittedly, "dumb as a post" so to speak. This was a guy who let a considerably younger schoolmate annoyed with his simple mind, push him to the ground. How cognizant was he of the written word being such a stupid man? If he couldn't read worth a hoot, then what was he good at? I'll give you a hint, aye: Pr---r. And what did his strongest attribute afford him the ability to do? They didn't call him the "Cure' d'Ars" for nothin'! St. John Vianney is probably laughing right now, "You're right Jeff, any knucklehead can absolve, even me!"

Br. Thomas said...

Re Matt of CG: Just a clarification... Byzantine priests are CATHOLIC priests of a byzantine rite. John Paul II exhorted all Roman Catholics to learn to "breathe with both lungs," meaning the Eastern and Western rites of the same Catholic Church.

The Orthodox Church, however, is probably what you were referring to. Yet our Roman Catholic Church considers the Orthodox as a valid Church, with valid orders, valid sacraments, etc.

It is possible for a Roman Catholic priest to 'bi-ritual,' meaning he can celebrate the Mass in another Rite, like the Byzantine Ruthenian, Byzantine Melkite Rite, etc.

There are many Roman Catholic priests who are excellent spiritual directors, spiritual fathers. If someone has a hard time finding one, then I have suggested he look also at eastern Catholic priests.

Jeff said...

Dear Matt,

I do not understand the source of your offense.

The Catholic Church holds the Eastern Rites in equal esteem with the Roman Rite. They are not in any competition with each other. While it is certainly laudable to have pride in one's own rite, your comments here seem borne of a basic misunderstanding. It might be helpful for you to skim the contents of Orientalium Ecclesiarum, the Second Vatican Council's "Decree on the Catholic Churches of the Eastern Rite".

Generally speaking, seminaries are governed by one or another rite, just like parishes are. This makes sense, because the two rites actually have their own Codes of Canon Law. A Google search turned up this lovely Web site for The Byzantine Catholic Seminary of SS. Cyril & Methodius.

Nevertheless, because both rites share absolutely, *without qualification,* the same Faith and the same Church founded by Jesus Christ, there is nothing preventing any Catholic from partaking of the Sacraments, or spiritual direction, in a rite not his own. This freedom extends to priests themselves, who may receive training in the sacred liturgy of either rite, and celebrate both, validly and licitly.

Catholics may even, for serious reasons and with due process, change from one rite to another, provided there is no corruption in the motivation for doing so. However, for political reasons this is rarely done in the direction of changing from Eastern to Roman (they are a statistical minority and are sensitive to losing members).

The reason why Brother Thomas suggested that I not exclude Byzantine/Eastern Rite priests from my pool of potential spiritual directors has nothing to do with a prejudice against the Roman rite as such. The Roman rite, lived by a community to its full potential, is every bit as beautiful and glorious and saving as the Eastern rite.

If an Eastern rite priest is more likely than a Roman rite priest to be a serious spiritual director, this is only for historical, not theological reasons. The poisonous convictions that have mixed with Catholic doctrine to create "liberal Catholicism" did not make the same inroads into the life of the Eastern rite that they did in the life of the Roman rite.

As to why that is, there are several possible explanations. My personal belief is that the Eastern rite churches' self-awareness as a minority within Christendom and Catholicism strengthened their sense of unique identity while never giving them license to take it for granted. It is a strange paradox of God's Providence that oppression is good for orthodoxy. However, even in this strength is buried a weakness, namely, that it is difficult, for the same reason, for the beauty of Eastern Catholic spirituality to make inroads in the vast sea of irreligion. Their languages are almost too difficult.

(If my comments here are out of line I would love to be corrected. My prejudice--and it is only a prejudice--is that Eastern Rite churches have a tough time of evangelization ad gentes).

Matt, I hope this has been helpful to you. I think it would be appropriate if you made a gesture of good will to Brother Thomas, since he meant none of the harm that you seem to have attributed to him.

Jeff said...

"Their languages are almost too difficult."

I meant to say:

"Their languages are almost to different."

Matt of CG said...

"If an Eastern rite priest is more likely than a Roman rite priest to be a serious spiritual director, this is only for historical, not theological reasons. The poisonous convictions that have mixed with Catholic doctrine to create "liberal Catholicism" did not make the same inroads into the life of the Eastern rite that they did in the life of the Roman rite."

Thank you, Jeff. I've experienced the results those 'poisonous convictions' first hand and it breaks my heart. (Fr. Steve.)

I've also seen the cost of a priest's convictions for the fidelity to the Roman rite. (Fr. Juan.)

--

Remember my Sylmar story, Jeff? The only thing my uncle Horacio knew about me for certain after 13 years is that I am a Roman Catholic; beyond which I was a complete and total stranger to him.
He has never set foot in a Roman Catholic church, but I set foot in his.

And as for Dave? Well, my Roman Catholic disposition made it easy for him to 'know' me, God bless it. He must have been very comfortable with me or else he would've taken better care to hide his rage.

--

In my own parish, the influence of other rites is evident. Never a day goes by that I don't see the liturgy carried over the head of the one who carries it. Fr. Juan told me our way is to carry it over the heart and that there should be no holder for the liturgy to stand up and be prominent. He never told me why, but here is my assumption (Please correct me if I'm wrong):

"In a few minutes the altar is about to become the most important utensil in the mass. The liturgy is the roadway to the destination at the altar, the foot of the Cross of Christ.

So lay the liturgy down, it had its time and place, it's purpose was served for today. Now is the time for the altar. Pay attention."

When it comes to Roman Catholicism, I believe assimilation is a one way street. I believe that all roads lead to Rome.

Granted, my knowledge of the mechanics of the mass isn't explicit, but taking into account what I've just told you, do you now understand why I'm such a staunch supporter of the Roman rite?

This would be my only reason for learning Spanish, so that I can see how the church in Rome conducts herself during mass. After all, the Pope is there and what's good enough for him should be good enough for us, right?

Outside of the current Middle Eastern madness, the only recent incident that sticks out in my mind regarding a church of another rite taking a beating for the truth is the Armenian Catholic Church.

A few years ago, I saw a report complete with pictures of a blood stained carpet detailing how a priest and some parishioners were blown up with a small bomb during the communion procession.

At least they died with Jesus Christ in their mouths, standing at the threashold of Heaven. I couldn't think of a better time to be murdered, could you?

While I was in Sylmar, my own relatives spoke against the Armenians and I made sure to shut that down quick. Poor Armenians.

Brother Thomas, when I saw the words 'more than' I got pissed off. I said while reading, "How can you make that assumption? The fault doesn't lie with the tradition, but with the apostles conducting it! As disciples, the fault is always ours. Always. More than? You're just not looking hard enough."

So, I'll let you have your opinion Brother Thomas and I'm sorry for coming out at you so strong.

Jeff, won't you please show Brother Thomas what I wrote you in response to your wonderful Youtube video about discernment? You'll know where I'm coming from Brother Thomas.

Br. Thomas said...

**group hug**

and

**pats on the back all around**

We all respect each other.

Matt of CG said...

thanks, broham.