Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Dying Alone

From The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, in the section about Abba Bessarion, as told by his disciple:

...[W]e walked on and came to a cave where, on entering we found a brother seated, engaged in plaiting a rope. He did not raise his eyes to us, nor greet us, since he did not want to enter into conversation with us. So the old man said to me, "Let us go; no doubt the old man is not sure if he ought to speak with us." We continued our journey...

On our return, we came again to the cave where we had seen the brother. The old man said to me, "Let us go in and see him; perhaps God has told him to speak to us." When we had entered, we found him dead. The old man said to me, "Come, brother, let us take the body; it is for this reason God has sent us here."

When we took the body to bury it, we perceived that it was a woman. Filled with astonishment, the old man said, "See how the women triumph over Satan, while we still behave badly in the towns." Having given thanks to God, who protects those who love him, we went away.

Well, somehow there is something very attractive about that scenario to me: living all alone, have people stop in occasionally, and then finally having someone find me dead, and bury me – and of course, having that triumph over Satan!

I don’t have a desire or feel a need to have anyone around me when I die. Of course, it would be good to die with the sacraments, so it would be necessary to have a priest there for that. But it has always seemed to me that most people who are at the moment of death really are not too concerned about who is there with them…but who knows?

I was with my mother at the moment of her death. Did she know I was there holding her hand as I listened to the “death rattle” of her labored semi-breathing? I don’t know. But I do know that I couldn’t continue to hold that icy hand after a while; it seemed like she was not there. My mom was the type who probably would have been saying, “Sure, hold my hand if it makes you feel any better”, but would not have cared one way or the other for herself.

I was with my sister at the moment of her death, too. I wasn’t holding her hand. I had entered her hospital room hours before, and she had acknowledged my presence with a vocalization that held not clue as to her state of mind; she was busy dying, I think. Anyway, as the time of her death approached, I was just sitting there in the darkness of 5am, listening to her struggle to take a breath and then remain silent as I counted the seconds between those breaths. Her husband was there too, and we didn’t speak; neither of us really knew if the other was awake. Finally, he arose and stood beside her. She hadn’t made a sound in a couple of minutes…I’d lost track of the seconds I’d been counting. He said, “I think she’s gone.”

That’s the extent of my experience with the dying. The thought of dying alone doesn’t bother me; it’s the meeting with God, my own personal judgement, that has me worried! And there is no one on earth who will be able to help me at that moment.

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Holy Innocents

I love the Feast of the Holy Innocents. Why? Well…I am not sure, exactly; probably it is in part because it is also my daughter’s birthday.

The Holy Innocents are knows as
the "flowers of martyrdom".
Last night as I was praying vigils, though, I realized something I had not thought of before. And that is the tension between the celebration of the martyrdom of the Holy Innocents, and the mourning of their horrible deaths at the hands of a tyrant.
Here is the 4th lesson from vigils, from a sermon of St. Augustine:

Dearly beloved brethren, today we keep the birthday of those children, who, as we are informed by the Gospel, were massacred by the savage King Herod. Therefore let earth rejoice with exceeding joy, for she is the mother of these heavenly soldiers, and of this numerous host. The love of the vile Herod could never have crowned these blessed ones as hath his hatred. For the Church testifieth by this holy solemnity, that whereas iniquity did specially abound against these little saints, so much the more were heavenly blessings poured out upon them.

They were massacred, but we rejoice; they are crowned by Herod’s hatred in a way his love could never have accomplished.

In the responsory, we focus more on the tragic circumstances of martyrdom:

R. The blood of thy saints have they shed like water round about Jerusalem.
* And there was none to bury them.
V. The dead bodies of thy servants have they given to be meat unto the fowls of the air, the flesh of thy saints unto the beasts of the earth.
R. And there was none to bury them.

In the 5th lesson, St. Augustine continues:

Blessed art thou, O Bethlehem in the land of Judah, which hast suffered the cruelty of King Herod in the slaughter of thy children; who art found worthy to offer at once to God a whole white-robed army of guileless martyrs! Surely, it is well to keep their birthday, even that blessed birthday which gave them from earth to heaven, more blessed than the day that brought them out of their mother's womb. Scarcely had they entered on the life that now is, when they obtained that glorious life which is to come.

Those Holy Innocents have been found worthy! The event of their murder – their birth into Heaven – is more blessed than their birth on earth. But we acknowledge the evil done to them in the responsory:

R. These holy ones suffered for thy sake, O Lord take vengeance for them.
* For day by day they cry unto thee.
V. Avenge, O Lord, the blood of thy saints which is shed.
R. For day by day they cry unto thee.

Always in our Catholic life, I think, we should be thinking about the possiblity of physical martyrdom and the fact that our Faith is worth paying that price. But also, I think that as Catholics we should always be mindful of that tension between the tragedy and horror of the death of the body, which is of course linked to the possibility of eternal life in Heaven with God and all the saints.

It is a tension that our shepherds, sadly, seem to have forgotten to preach to us…

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.


Monday, December 23, 2013

Anticipation

For the first time in many years, I’m feeling some genuine excitement and anticipation about Christmas!

I don’t mean that I haven’t felt that excitement and anticipation at all; but this year is so different just because we did not put up the Christmas tree on Thanksgiving day or the day after! That is because our daughter has moved out on her own, and she was the main impetus for setting up the tree. I just have always seemed to be powerless to say “no” to her on that point (and many others, much to my chagrin. But she seems to be turning out okay anyway).

So, the tree is still not up, and I am actually looking forward to that little project! This is in contrast to most years, when I have not enjoyed doing it because we were doing it so early.

On a more spiritual level, there’s that little “Christmas novena” which is more than a novena. It starts on the feast of St. Andrew (Nov. 30) and continues through Christmas Eve. It’s the one where you are to say 15 times per day:

Hail, and blessed by the hour and moment at which the Son of God was born of a most pure virgin, in a stable in Bethlehem, at midnight, in the piercing cold. At that hour, vouchsafe I beseech Thee, to hear my prayers and grant my desires.

I did this last year, too. I am not good at keeping count, though; I just say the prayer at the beginning and end of each of the hours of the Divine Office, and at other times if the thought comes to me. The idea, I am sure, is simply to keep the thought of this incredible meaning of the feast in our minds. And saying the prayer all through the day certainly does that.

For me, it’s not about the particular intention I have for the prayer, though I do form an intention. Rather, it’s about the Nativity of Our Lord…of course! Saying the prayer builds anticipation in me; it makes me think about that Holy Night in a new way, somehow. I thought I might not say the novena this year, but then I remembered how much it affected me last year. And this year has been even more special, largely due to the timing of the setting up of the Christmas tree!

So I am anticipating. And I was so looking forward to the Midnight Mass of Christmas. But alas…apparently there is no Midnight Mass scheduled at my parish this year. I am very sad and disappointed about that. But never mind! I will offer it up, and my prayers for the Office of vigils will be extra special.


Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Spiders and Demons

I was reading an excerpt from a book entitled Evagrius of Pontus: Talking Back. It has the subtitle of “A Monastic Handbook for Combating Demons” – quite the promising volume, I would say!

Evagrius lists “thoughts” that come from demons, or from our own concupiscence, I guess, and offers Scripture verses to combat them – “talking back” to the demons in the words of Scripture. Evagrius, according to the introduction, emphasized the importance of confronting the thoughts as soon as possible, and heading them off at the pass, so to speak, before the thoughts can become sinful actions. Evagrius notes the need for the grace of discernment to do this.

I know only too well the value of cutting off the demons’ voices early in the game! I hope I am learning to do that.

Well, anyway, last night when I went out to the chapel, there was a spider on the wall. As I usually do, I removed my shoe and squished the little creepy crawler. I don’t like spiders. But it made me think of Evagrius and the demons.

My chapel seems to be quite attractive to spiders, and a few other bugs. But mostly spiders. Perhaps that’s because it was just a garden shed once upon a time, and maybe the spiders had taken up residence in force. Certainly there were more spiders in the beginning than there are now.

But that brings us back to Evagrius. When the shed became the chapel, and I saw spiders crawling out of the woodwork, I started killing them. And slowly, there became less of them. I think that is an apt analogy for “talking back” to the demons. Cut them off at the knees with Scripture, and after a while there will be fewer of them!

With the spiders, my discernment of their presence has grown. I am very, very sensitive to them, and I am very, very vigilant, too. I hate it when they scurry across the page of my prayer book in the middle of a psalm! I don’t like spiders. Oh yes, I think I mentioned that. When I walk into the chapel, I usually take a quick look around. I have become expert at spotting the tiniest dark spot on the white walls, and identifying it as a spider. Off comes the shoe; down goes the spider!

Now, if I can hone my demon-discerning skills to that level, I will be making some progress! I guess there’s a lesson there. I must be as vigilant and discerning about the thoughts that enter my mind as I am about the spiders that enter my chapel.

And Scripture certainly will make an effective “shoe” with which to squish them.


Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Efficacy of Our Prayers

About a month ago, I saw this quote from Dr. Peter Kreeft:

I strongly suspect that if we saw all the difference even the tiniest of our prayers to God make, and all the people those little prayers were destined to affect, and all the consequences of those effects down through the centuries, we would be so paralyzed with awe at the power of prayer that we would be unable to get up off our knees for the rest of our lives.    

I was a little taken aback. I thought: can that be true? So I asked my spiritual director that very question. He replied, “Indubitably, my dear Photini. (If it weren’t, I’m wasting my life away.)”

Well, I thought, the same goes for me! But this little exchange made me realize that I don’t really believe that my prayers have much of an effect. And I realized that a conversation I had had with my spiritual director years ago had led me to that conclusion. I still believe it was important to pray (obviously! Since I have kept up the practice all along!), but I didn’t realize how much I doubted the efficacy of my prayers.

My SD further reminded me that whether or not there’s anything special about my prayers is immaterial: the Bible commands us to pray for one another. The degree of efficacy is something only God knows. As long as we desire to and actually try to conform our wayward wills to His perfect will, we need not concern ourselves with investing in an “efficacimeter”: we can leave that to God. Even if, objectively speaking, they’re only 1% efficacious, we still ought to pray for one another. And to assure another of our prayers is itself a spiritual work of mercy.

I also started to wonder why God should listen to me, sinner that I am! But my SD pointed out that God will listen to me because He’s promised to do so. And if we can’t rely on God’s promises, then what else is there?

Those demons will do whatever they can to stop us from praying, won't they!? Reading that quote above and thinking about it, and asking my SD those question gave me a newfound confidence in my prayers. And with that growing confidence in my prayers, and I want to pray. Instead, though, after the initial burst of joy, I began to feel depressed, and I just want to weep. Why? Who knows? Tears of relief, in part. Tears of despair in part, too, for lost years. Tears over misunderstandings. Tears over my current life. 

But, I looked at it as another trial-and-tribulation to offer for the love of God and salvation of souls, etc. I was happy about that. I can’t change the past, so there’s no point in dwelling on it, other than to repent with a firm purpose of amendment.

“Delicta juventutis meƦ, et ignorantias meas ne memineris.” - Ps 25(24):7
(Remember no more the sins of my youth)

Yes, the Prince of Darkness will do whatever he can to stop us from praying. If he can’t make us stop, he'll try to cover us with a spirit of darkness, of confusion, of doubt, of despair.

My SD’s advice: Be aware of his tactics, make the Sign of the Cross in faith, and just laugh at his futile efforts. Above all, perfect the virtue of hope: hope and trust in the Divine Mercy.

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.



Thursday, December 12, 2013

Sin and Contrition, Prayer and Penance

A reading from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers mentions Abba Apollo of Scetis, who had been an “uncouth” shepherd. As such, he had one day been prompted by the devil to kill a pregnant woman in order that he might see the child in her womb. The story continues:

Immediately his heart was troubled, and filled with compunction, he went to Scetis and told the Fathers what he had done… He said, “I am forty years old and I have not made one prayer; and now, if I live another year, I shall not cease to pray God that he may pardon my sins.” In fact, he did not work with his hands but passed all his time in prayer, saying, “I, who as man have sinned, do you, as God, forgive.”

… And he was sure that God had forgiven him all his sins, including the murder of the woman; but for the child’s murder, he was in doubt. Then an old man said to him, “God has forgiven you even the death of the child, but he leaves you in grief because that is good for your soul.”

Elsewhere, I have read that it is good, when making a confession, to sometimes confess again a past grievous sin, in order to achieve a greater degree of contrition for one’s sins. This story seems to illustrate that point.

Also, this story made me think about women who have aborted their babies. It might be easy for them to fall into Satan’s trap of believing that in the case of the murder of a little unborn baby, even God would not be able to forgive that sin. But of course, that is not true. Nevertheless, it is a horrible sin (and I suppose the degree of horrible-ness depends on the willingness of the woman, whether she was coerced in some way, her own degree of ignorance, etc.); therefore, wouldn’t that sin require, perhaps, a greater degree of penance? a greater degree of purging?

If one can endure feeling “unforgiven” but at the same time maintain the intellectual knowledge of God’s endless mercy, doing so would reduce, perhaps, the time in purgatory which might be required in order to be purged of the stain of that particular sin. At least, that seems a reasonable thought to me. I do not know whether it is the correct theological perspective, though.

At any rate, I feel a similar sort of compunction and contrition when I think of the children whose birth I prevented via use of artificial contraception, or the children I may have unknowingly aborted through the same avenue. Sometimes when I think of that sin, and other sins I have committed – which have been confessed – I feel a horror that is painful, and a remorse that is unremitting at least for a time. And I think that what I am likely to experience in purgatory will be a hundred times more intense than that. That’s an incentive to embrace the pain here; that is what could make one say, “If I live another year, I shall not cease to pray God that he may pardon my sin”…and do penance accordingly.

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.



Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Trusting God For Our Very Lives

This reading from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers raises an interesting question:

One day Abba Agathon questioned Abba Alonius saying, “How can I control my tongue so as to tell no more lies?”

And Abba Alonius said to him, “If you do not lie, you prepare many sins for yourself.”

“How is that?” said he.

The old man said to him, “Suppose two men have committed a murder before your eyes and one of them fled to your cell. The magistrate, seeking him, asks you, ‘Have you seen the murderer?’  If you do not lie, you will deliver that man to death. It is better for you to abandon him unconditionally to God, for he knows all things.”

It is so very difficult to trust God in situations where we really think we know what to do, isn’t it?

The Desert Fathers excerpt reminded me of something I had seen on canon lawyer Dr. Ed Peters Face Book page. He quoted the following, with the preliminary comment, “Who thinks things through at these levels today?” (emphases added)

Par. 269. It is asked, first, whether it is permissible to kill a drunken or insane aggressor? Answer. Yes, more than probably [probabilius], unless it is clear to you that [the aggressor] is in a state of mortal l sin. The reasoning is that, although a drunk or insane person is not a formally unjust aggressor, he is nevertheless a materially unjust one, and your right to life is not lost because of his drunkenness or insanity. But if you know certainly (which would be extremely rare) that he is in a state of deadly sin, from which he would be able to recover after his disturbance or inebriation [passes], and at the same time you believe with moral [certitude] yourself to be in the state of grace, charity requires that you prefer his eternal salvation to your temporal life. Nevertheless nothing forbids, even in this hypothetical, that you strike or wound him so that, though his life is safe, he is rendered unable to harm. Aloysio Sabetti (Italian Jesuit, 1839-1898), COMPENDIUM THEOLOGIAE MORALIS, 30th ed., 4th ed. post Cod. as rev. by Barret (Pustet, 1924) at 274.

sin. The reasoning is that, although a drunk or insane person is not a formally unjust aggressor, he is nevertheless a materially unjust one, and your right to life is not lost because of his drunkenness or insanity. But if you know certainly (which would be extremely rare) that he is in a state of deadly sin, from which he would be able to recover after his disturbance or inebriation [passes], and at the same time you believe with moral [certitude] yourself to be in the state of grace, charity requires that you believe with moral [certitude] yourself to be in the state of grace, charity requires that you prefer his eternal salvation to your temporal life. Nevertheless nothing forbids, even in this hypothetical, that you strike or wound him so that, though his life is safe, he is rendered unable to harm. Aloysio Sabetti (Italian Jesuit, 1839-1898), COMPENDIUM THEOLOGIAE MORALIS, 30th ed., 4th ed. post Cod. as rev. by Barret (Pustet, 1924) at 274.

 Yes, that is certainly something to think about, isn’t it? When I read it, I realized that it is the underlying thought that makes me believe I could not kill someone even in self-defense. Who am I to take another’s life?! Their very soul could be in danger of hell!

Of course, I have not been in the situation, so I don’t know whether my resolve would hold, or whether I would be swept up in the passion of the moment. After all, we do have a survival instinct, and we are supposed to desire life over death, all things being equal.

Both of the examples, though, are pointing toward a definition of true charity. Are we really concerned for the other person’s soul? If so, that will sometimes, perhaps, require that we act in a way that seems to make no sense at all. When it’s a matter of verbally offering correction to a sinner, many of us probably can see the value of risking “offending” the other person. But when it’s a matter of life or death? Well…that complicates the issue a bit, doesn’t it?

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Thinking About Death

Do you think about death much? I asked a friend that question, and she said she didn’t.

Maybe it's the “monastic” training I've received from my spiritual director that has led to my habitual consideration of death; monks are supposed to think about it daily. I also read a book about purgatory a few years ago: Hungry Souls. Now there is a book that will make you think long and hard about death!

Sometimes when I really "see" my sins, I realize what an affront they are to God; then I experience a horrible feeling of filth on my soul, and it makes me want to escape from myself because it is so awful – but of course, there’s nowhere to go! You can’t escape from yourself, not even (maybe especially) in death. When we die, we face God, and I think we will finally have a realistic sense of our own sinfulness; the pain I feel concerning my sins here on earth is probably a drop in the bucket compared to the pain I will feel at the moment of death and judgment.

In purgatory, I think, that stain of sin will be so visible and painful that it will be practically unbearable, and yet I will have to bear it until it is purged from me! And that leads me to the thought of how truly awful hell is. And all of that makes me resolve to avoid sin, though of course I soon forget the horror of it and fall back into old habits. But I think I have improved a little bit!

I read something about death on a blog the other day; the blogger was commenting on the actor that recently died in a car crash.  The blogger’s thoughts sounded like he was reading my mind! He wrote:

I do not know, as I was saying, much of Paul Walker’s life. … What I do know is that when he got up on Saturday morning his guardian angel, the Blessed Virgin, and the Holy Ghost knew he would never wake up alive again. And I know, I know, that some serious work was going on in the background as Paul Walker’s immortal soul lived its last hours on earth.

Whenever I read about a local death, even if I don't know the person, I think about it exactly as he is saying above. And I think, "What is it like to stand before God and suddenly be aware of every sin you've ever committed? Of all your shortcomings?" Etc.  

It sounds morbid (ha!) and depressing, but I don't think of it that way, generally speaking. It's just...well... reality. We're all headed in that direction!

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!


Saturday, November 30, 2013

Empty Nest

Our daughter moved out on her own a couple of months ago.

I miss her…and yet I don’t miss her. It was time for her to move out, even though we share a close bond. There just comes a time, you know.

One thing I don’t miss is putting the Christmas tree up at the crack of Advent. I was not strong enough to insist on waiting, and I have a couple of excuses. It had been the practice in my own family as I was growing up to put up the tree early in December and sit and admire it and wait for Christmas (presents) for weeks. I knew nothing about Advent then; we weren’t Catholic, and we didn’t even attend church after I was about 7 years old. I knew about the birth of Jesus, but I was more interested in opening gifts. 

So it was hard not to give in to a persistent child - and boy, can she be persistent! But now, this year, Thanksgiving has come and gone (barely), and Advent has arrived. As a Catholic, I love Advent, and I all these years I have wanted to avoid all the Christmas stuff until it was actually, well, Christmas. This year will be more like that.

That’s just the stuff on the surface, though, when it comes to thinking about my daughter growing up and moving out of our home. Underneath, I worry about her. I worry that she won’t hold on to her faith. I worry that she’ll stop attending Mass. I worry that she won’t go to confession at least once a year. I worry that she won’t remain pure.

But of course there is no use in worrying. I try not to. I pray. I know Our Blessed Mother will watch out for my baby. I am grateful for all the saints in Heaven who intercede for us!
 
 Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Death of Faithless Loved Ones

The 3rd anniversary of my brother-in-law’s death has just passed.

He was a fallen-away Catholic. Very fallen away, if the things my sister told me were true (and I do not doubt her word). I prayed for the salvation of his soul before he died, and I continue to do so. I try not to wonder whether he escaped hell.

My sister died quite a few years before her husband did, but at least I feel more of a sense of hope where she is concerned. She was not Catholic – we were all baptized in the Episcopal Church, though. She had returned to a semblance of Christian belief in the few years preceding her death, and on her death bed she did profess a belief in Jesus as the Son of God, and our Savior…though I wasn’t Catholic at the time, and both of us had a rather weak theological understanding of the issue, I think.

My brother-in-law, though…I don’t know. As a non-Catholic Christian, I once sent him a card asking him to think about Heaven and Hell, and to return to a Christian understanding of death and the afterlife. I don’t know whether that made any difference to him; we never discussed it.

I had had very little contact with him for several years before his death; in fact, I didn’t even know he had been ill (with cancer) when I received the news that he had died.  I hold little hope for the notion that he repented and contacted a priest, though, because he didn’t have a Catholic funeral, and he had been in a position to request such if he had wanted to.

When I think about him, and other people I know who died with no faith, I feel an intense horror. I think about what it’s like to die and stand before God; I think about what it’s like in purgatory, and what pain and agony those souls are enduring – but with Heaven in sight. I can barely stand to think about the ones I know who might possibly be in hell. Eternity…hell…despair… The thought makes me tremble and feel sick.

But we must always hope, mustn’t we? We must always pray. I pray for my brother-in-law daily. I hope that my prayers over many years before his death resulted in some sort of encounter with Our Blessed Mother, perhaps, as in some stories of the Miraculous Medal.

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.


Tuesday, November 19, 2013

If Only I Knew

The reading for the 11th day of the De Montfort consecration to Mary is from the Imitation of Christ: Book 1, Chapter 25. It says, in part:

When a certain anxious person, who often times wavered between hope and fear, once overcome with sadness, threw himself upon the ground in prayer, before one of the altars in the Church and thinking these things in his mind, said "Oh, if I only knew how to persevere," that very instant he heard within him, this heavenly answer: "And if thou didst know this, what would thou do? Do now what you would do, and thou shall be perfectly secure."

And immediately being consoled, and comforted, he committed himself to the Divine Will, and his anxious thoughts ceased. He no longer wished for curious things; searching to find out what would happen to him, but studied rather to learn what was the acceptable and perfect will of God for the beginning and the perfection of every good work.

Well, I have often cried out “If only…”! If only I knew whether I am truly called to this vocation! If only I truly knew how to live it, having one foot in the secular world, and one in the world of "religion"!

So, I tell myself, imagine what you would do if you really did know, and do it. Easier said than done, of course; but still, we often do know what needs to be done, if we just think about it.


For myself, I have determined that the way to live the vocation I think I am called to is to…well…live it! That means following my Rule of Life more conscientiously, and not making easy excuses for the times I fail to keep it. 

This is what I strive for now, daily.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

How Little We Do, Compared to the Saints

I am renewing my De Montfort consecration to Mary, and so have been re-reading many tidbits from The Imitation of Christ.

Here is the reading for the sixth day of the program (with my bolding), from Imitation, Book 1, Chapter 18:

Look upon the lively examples of the holy Fathers in whom shone real perfection and the religious life, and you will see how little it is, and almost nothing that we do. Alas, what is our life when we compare it with theirs? Saints and friends of Christ, they served our Lord in hunger and in thirst, in cold, in nakedness, in labor and in weariness, in watching, in fasting, prayers and holy meditations, and in frequent persecutions and reproaches. Oh, how many grievous tribulations did the Apostles suffer and the Martyrs and Confessors and Virgins, and all the rest who resolved to follow the steps of Christ! For they hated their lives in this world, that they might keep them in life everlasting. Oh what a strict and self-renouncing life the holy Fathers of the desert led! What long and grievous temptations did they bear! How often were they harassed by the enemy, what frequent and fervent prayers did they offer up to God, what rigorous abstinence did they practice!

What a valiant contest wag I ed they to subdue their imperfections! What purity and straightforwardness of purpose kept they towards God! By day they labored, and much of the night they spent in prayer; though while they labored, they were far from leaving off mental prayer. They spent all their time profitably. Every hour seemed short to spend with God; and even their necessary bodily refreshment was forgotten in the great sweetness of contemplation. They renounced all riches, dignities, honors and kindred; they hardly took what was necessary for life. It grieved them to serve the body even in its necessity. Accordingly, they were poor in earthly things, but very rich in grace and virtues.

I remember the first time I ever started to read the Imitation. I was not even Catholic then. I did not finish the book that time. I found it of interest, but I remember saying to myself, “This is so depressing!” I suppose it seemed that way because I had no desire to really give up the pleasures of my daily life at that time!

When I read these passages the first time I followed the De Montfort consecration program, I didn’t find them so depressing, at least as far as I can remember. That first consecration was also before I became Catholic, but only a few months before I was received into the Church.

Every time I read these passages, I find more in them of interest and inspiration. I decided recently that it’s time to re-read the entire book, cover to cover. I’ve started, but “stuff” gets in the way. I shall persevere, though!


Wednesday, November 6, 2013

A Hand from Heaven Pointing the Way

From The Sayings of the Desert Fathers:

Abba Ammonas was going to pay a visit to Abba Anthony, one day, and he lost his way. So sitting down, he fell asleep for a little while.

On waking, he prayed thus to God, “I beseech you, O Lord my God, do not let your creature perish.”

Then there appeared to him as it were a man’s hand in the heavens, which showed him the way, till he reached Abba Anthony’s cave.

I sometimes wish that I could see a hand in the heavens pointing me in the right spiritual direction!

I suppose that the reason Abba Ammonus was given such a vision is that he was already, by virtue of his contemplative life of prayer and penance, in close communion with God’s will.    

Once, I lost my way while driving in a large city, trying to meet my son at a pre-arranged location. As I experienced a growing sense of mild panic, I decided to pull over and consult the GPS on my i-phone. Then the panic escalated, because I discovered that I had left the phone in my motel room! I’m embarrassed to remember how helpless I felt, as if that phone were the only thing that could save me!

After a couple of deep breaths, I realized that there was a time in my life when I had not owned such a device, and that at those times, when lost, I would simply stop at a gas station and ask for directions. Calming myself with that thought, I looked around and saw that I was not in a very good neighborhood…

Well, I had not traveled too far from the motel, and had a general idea of which direction to take, so I started to make my way back along the way I had come. But this time, I used the supernatural GPS…I prayed that I would be guided to make the right turns and that I would find a familiar landmark soon. I also prayed that if such were not to happen, that a safe-looking gas station would appear on the horizon!

There was no hand from heaven to point to the correct path, but my prayers at least brought my mind back to a calmer state that allowed me to function as a reasonably intelligent human being who was slightly lost in new surroundings! And I returned successfully to the motel, where I found a message waiting for me on my phone. It was my son, asking, “Are you lost?”

Ha!

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Distractions

Ah, those demons love to distract, don’t they?

Just make a resolution to apply yourself more diligently and ardently to prayer, and there will certainly arise distractions.

My distractions this past week have included problems with our hot water heater, followed closely by a problem with the washing machine. Both required visits from repairmen, of course, and I’m sure you know that visits from repairmen require waiting…and waiting…for them to arrive. And they you wait around while the work on the problem. I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to excuse myself for the Divine Office at those times, and I find it difficult to concentrate on reading anything. So, time goes by, and I am distracted.

In being distracted from prayer, I become distracted in the other areas of my life.  I have been learning to struggle through it, to try to maintain some equanimity, but this week harder than usual because of financial issues. In addition to the cost of the repairs, we discovered that repairing our 10-year-old washing machine was practically throwing money away. Purchasing a new one is a stressor, as our family finances are simply an atrocious mess of debt. That is definitely distracting.

So now, a new washing machine will arrive tomorrow…more distractions!

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Prayer to the Saints

I like this prayer to the saints for intercession. It’s from St. Ephraim the Syrian:

Come to my aid, O saints and righteous ones, who have performed good deeds unto salvation, and lament for me as for one deceased, or take pity on me as one who is among the living but half-dead. For I am full of shame and lack boldness because of the sins I have knowingly committed.

Pour out on me your kindness as you would for a prisoner or for one covered with festering sores. Be kind to me, O initiates of the merciful God, our Savior, and pray that He might freely convert me, and that in the hour of His coming I might not be found unworthy and not hear the terrible condemnation: “get away from Me, O worker of deceit. I tell you that I know you not.”

This is from a book called A Spiritual Psalter or Reflections on God, and is “excerpted by Bishop Theophan the Recluse. I have read some excellent words from Theophan, as well.

Why do we not hear these kinds of prayers in our Novus Ordo Church these days? That’s a rhetorical question, actually. The point is, so many Catholics no longer think about death in this way; they simply have not been taught to do so. That makes me very sad. Souls are being lost, I’m afraid.

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.


Saturday, October 19, 2013

A Different Sort of Retreat

As I mentioned, I was on retreat for a few days this past week. Usually that means a few days of peace and quiet in a pine forest setting, in what my spiritual director calls a “rustic” cabin. (It’s got electricity, running water, a shower, and a flush toilet; how “rustic” is that?!?)

This time, one could not describe the scene as quiet. By virtue of a government grant, a crew of fire prevention workers was diligently cutting down trees, bucking them into firewood size pieces, and then chipping the remaining debris. Buzzing, roaring, whirring noise throughout the day…

It was a little distracting, but at the same time, it didn’t bother me much. Don’t ask me why; I am pretty sensitive to noise!

Another “distraction” during this retreat was the sudden, unannounced appearance of a man seeking solace and counseling from the priest. This sort of thing doesn’t usually happen when I’m there; I’m usually alone, and any visitors have made prior arrangements, and I am informed ahead of time. In addition, this man was in such a state of turmoil that it was practically palpable.

Two evenings in a row he showed up right about Vespers time. The second evening, I was alone in the main building when he arrived. As I talked with him, he exhibited some rather odd stress-related behaviors (intense stuttering, for instance), and I wondered briefly about my own safety!

I knew, however, that reinforcements (the priest) would arrive shortly, so I did my best to abandon myself to the moment and the task at hand, and simply tried to listen and respond appropriately to the man, hoping I could be of some help to him. (I do have some experience with this, having done some work with troubled men and women in a drug and alcohol rehab program run by the Pentecostal church I was attending at that time.)

At any rate, the retreat seemed to be God simply showing me that He is, after all, in control, and that if I abandon myself to His Divine Providence, a noisy retreat can be as fruitful as a quiet one. I’m a little surprised that I didn’t resist more, but…by God’s grace, I didn’t. I accepted it as it came. I was left with a sense of having rested in God’s will – even though that “rest” was peppered with exterior noises!

 Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Maternity of Mary

I was praying the office of matins for the feast of the Maternity of Mary last night, and had one of those “moments”…it left me lost in thought for a minute. It was simply an image, really, but there was a concept, too.

You know how we read in Scripture about the Holy Spirit “overshadowing” Mary; well, I saw that in my mind’s eye, only differently than I have pictured it before. I saw it in connection with God’s will for Mary, and in connection with the Son of God passing through the walls of His Mother’s womb into the world, without causing any rupture of pain to her. It was all of a piece – God’s essence surrounding and engulfing Mary’s essence, and then Jesus, in essence and in physical “reality” appearing in human form as a newborn baby.

Well, it’s hard to explain.

I guess the change in my personal imagery of it comes from that idea of Jesus passing through the wall of Mary’s virginity in a miraculous way that caused her no physical pain and no rupture or distortion of her virginity. I never thought about that before, or knew what the Fathers and Doctors of the Church taught about it until I read in on the blog of a priest, Fr. Ryan Erlenbush (“The New Theological Movement”).

That description of the nativity of Jesus just astounds me. It makes so much sense. Fr. Erlenbush related it to the later appearance of the resurrected Jesus in the Upper Room, when all the doors were locked. I think it is just simply awe-inspiring. Which I guess is what it’s supposed to be!

But the miraculous nature of the Nativity of Jesus was extended, for me, to my image of the miraculous conception. I just saw it differently; I can’t really say it any differently than I did above. It was a merging, a uniting, an engulfing…but it was so much more than that.

I thank God for moments like that. Generally, I can’t explain them very articulately to others, but somewhere in my soul, I know that God has given me some new insight (new to me, I mean), and that I am changed by it.


Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Prayer is Warfare the Demons Detest

A reading from The Sayings of the Desert Fathers:

The brethren also asked [Abba Agathon], “Amongst all good works, which is the virtue which requires the greatest effort?”

He answered, “Forgive me, but I think there is no labor greater than that of prayer to God. For every time a man wants to pray, his enemies, the demons, want to prevent him, for they know that it is only by turning him from prayer that they can hinder his journey. Whatever good work a man undertakes, if he perseveres in in, he will attain rest. But prayer is warfare to the last breath.”

Ah, those demons. How is it that they are so clever, anyway? They have ambushed me twice in the last week, and neither time did I see it coming, nor recognize the attack for what it was until they had the upper hand. They managed to disrupt my praying of the Divine Office a couple of times.

Of course, the Lord and the saints come to my aid. Still, sometimes it’s hard to take back the ground that is lost – something that requires, I think, absolute trust in God’s mercy, and reliance on our saintly defenders in Heaven.

Always, the demons leave me with a lingering sense of depression. It’s a struggle to overcome that vestige of their attack, and I am trying to learn ways to cope with it. It does help to “offer it up”; sometimes the thought that I can offer my suffering for the salvation of souls even makes me happy to be depressed!

Other times, I simply remind myself that it’s just the demons manipulating my emotions, and that how I “feel” doesn’t matter – what matters is what one knows to be the truth about God, about His great mercy, about our Faith.

And then there’s always chocolate. ;-)


Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Bodily Ascetism Protects the Spirit

From The Sayings of the Desert Fathers:

Someone asked Abba Agathon, “Which is better, bodily asceticism or interior vigilance?”

The old man replied, “Man is like a tree, bodily asceticism is the foliage, interior vigilance is the fruit. According to that which is written, ‘Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit shall be cut down and cast into the fire’ (Matt 3:10) it is clear that all our care should be directed towards the fruit, that is to say, guard of the spirit, but it needs protection and the embellishment of the foliage, which is bodily asceticism."

I like this analogy very much. And isn’t it true? Doesn’t filling our stomachs with food, and making our physical lives as comfortable as possible, lead to complacency and sloth? It is hard to pray on a full stomach, I have found (too often!).

It seems to me that we are so much weaker, physically, in modern times than our Desert Fathers were. They took physical hardship almost for granted. For us, we have to intentionally put a pebble in our shoe to induce some physical trial into our lives! For them, and for many people before our times of electronic gadgets and labor-saving devices, there were many physical hardships that were just a part of daily living.

Hmmm…This leads my thoughts off on a tangent. The priest whose homily I heard at Sunday Mass gave an amusing example that reflects this somewhat. He said he was in his kitchen in the rectory, admiring how beautiful it was, with the lovely fridge, the big microwave, and the beautiful cooking utensils his associate priest had recently purchased. “Fr. M cooked something, and it was good, and I was meditating on our beautiful kitchen,” he said.

But then he said he realized that none of those beautiful appliances were worth much without electricity. He is from Africa, and he told us that “in Africa, we don’t always have electricity, so we know how to cook with firewood.” He was amused that someone had recently told him a story about camping with some children who found cooking over a campfire to be novel and sort of magical.

And he added that our spiritual life is like this, too; without Jesus as the “power” behind our spiritual life, all of our “utensils” are worthless.


So… two good thoughts: bodily asceticism protects the spirit; and our prayers are not worth much without faith in Our Lord.