Category Archives: Prayer

Resolving for a Change

Without having the benefit of Divine Revelation, Socrates, and by extension, Plato, was able to discover many truths about humanity.  Lacking an understanding of Original Sin and its effects however, he also made a serious mistake in the area of ethics.  This error is on display in the dialogue with Gorgias when Socrates makes the claim that all wrongdoing is a result of ignorance.  He thought that once we know the good, we would automatically do it.  Socrates’ ignorance was the problem, but it was ignorance of the Christian explanation of Original Sin that leaves him in error.  With the fall of man there was not only a darkening of the intellect that caused ignorance but also a weakening of the will that makes even the good we know difficult to do.  No one is immune to this defect in our nature, even the great Apostle to the Gentiles St. Paul, who candidly shared with the Romans his own struggle: “For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want” (Romans 7:19).   So universal is the experience that it almost seems to be common sense, which makes it odd that the wisest man in Athens did not catch it.  Odd, that is, until we, especially those who have earnestly set out on the Christian journey, realize that all too often we make the same mistake.

Why did I single out those who have “earnestly set out on the Christian journey”?  Because they are the ones who presumably pray, reflect upon their short comings and sins and do spiritual reading.  And, therefore they are the ones that, according to St. Francis de Sales, are the most likely to fall victim to a subtle form of self-deception.  They are the ones who, for example, want to learn from Our Lord to be meek and humble of heart.  They begin by reading about and meditating on humility and meekness.  They expose themselves to the lives of the saints who were meek and humble.  They learn all Scripture has to say about humility and meekness.  They even speculate what it might look like in their own life.

As all learning does is apt to do, knowledge about humility and meekness brings them great pleasure.  Hearing or reading of humility and meekness puts them in a humble and meek state of mind.  It gives them, as Screwtape says, “humble feelings”.  This pleasure serves as a counterfeit of the real pleasure attached to mature virtue.  That is, they become meek and humble only in their imagination.  This imaginary humility and meekness helps them to quiet their conscience causing them to leave aside any self-reflection in these areas.  They are virtues that have been conquered and it is time to move to the next set.  The problem is that meekness and humility, like all the moral virtues, reside in the will and not in the intellect.  You must do humble and meek things repeatedly and with ever greater vehemence to actually become humble and meek.  You must, as St. James cautions, “become not just hearers of the word, but doers” (James 1:22).

Becoming Doers of the Word

St Francis de Sales issues the above mentioned caution, but also offers us a simple solution, a re-solution, you might say.

“Above all things, my child, strive when your meditation is ended to retain the thoughts and resolutions you have made as your earnest practice throughout the day. This is the real fruit of meditation, without which it is apt to be unprofitable, if not actually harmful–inasmuch as to dwell upon virtues without practicing them lends to puff us up with unrealities, until we begin to fancy ourselves all that we have meditated upon and resolved to be; which is all very well if our resolutions are earnest and substantial, but on the contrary hollow and dangerous if they are not put in practice. You must then diligently endeavor to carry out your resolutions, and seek for all opportunities, great or small. For instance, if your resolution was to win over those who oppose you by gentleness, seek through the day any occasion of meeting such persons kindly, and if none offers, strive to speak well of them, and pray for them” (Introduction to the Devout Life II, 8).

In speaking with many Christians who are soberly trying to live out their Christian call, but find themselves stuck, I find a common thread.  They may devote consistent time to prayer, but they do not devote themselves to making concrete resolutions based on that prayer.  I find this because I saw it in my own life first.  I would religiously (literally) devote 30 minutes to meditation every day and would find that, when I wasn’t deceiving myself, that I had made little progress.  That is until I read St. Francis de Sales’ great treatise on living a lay Catholic life, the Introduction to the Devout Life.  It was the quote above that made me realize I was not consistently making resolutions and when I did they were too general.  And while that persisted I was simply a hearer of the word.  But when I allowed that word to penetrate not just my mind, but my will, I began to move again.

The key was making not just a vague resolution like “I will act humble today” but instead “when my co-worker who is constantly challenging me about everything does it again today, I will defer to him.”  We might fail, but it was not for a lack of trying.  The more effort we make even in failing, the more God responds with grace. Before long virtues that were arduous begin to bring some pleasure with them pushing along further.

Over the last few weeks my inbox has been flooded with this or that devotional for Lent.  They are all good, but I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if I simply put into practice what I already knew.  What if rather than purchasing another devotional, I practiced greater devotion?  Perhaps, you were wondering the same thing.

Praying with the Dead

In a previous post, the supreme importance of avoiding personally canonizing those who have died was highlighted.  The “holy souls” in Purgatory depend greatly upon our prayers in order that they may be loosed from the lingering effects of their sins after their death.  Many of us grasp this and, out of charity, regularly offer prayers for the dead.  But there is a flip side to this coin—nearly every saint who has been canonized in the last two centuries was recognized because people began asking for their intercession.  In other words, rather than primarily praying for them, people began praying to them.  It seems that we must then exercise judgment as to whether the person is in Purgatory or in Heaven, the very thing I said not to do.  Stuck in a spiritual no-man’s land, we tend towards neither praying for them or to them.  The problem becomes theological rather than governed by the logic of love.  The rich relationship of the Communion of Saints becomes a sterile doctrine and our personal faith falters with it.  All of this seems unavoidable unless we can find a way around this spiritual dilemma.

A single paragraph in the Catechism, quoting an indulged prayer from Pope Leo XIII, helps part the clouds of obscurity.  The Catechism says:

“In full consciousness of this communion of the whole Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, the Church in its pilgrim members, from the very earliest days of the Christian religion, has honored with great respect the memory of the dead; and ‘because it is a holy and a wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins’ she offers her suffrages for them.’ Our prayer for them is capable not only of helping them, but also of making their intercession for us effective.” (CCC 959, emphasis added).

In summary, it is our prayers for the dead that not only help them, but also make their intercession for us effective.  What this tells us is that the holy souls in Purgatory, as members of the Church, have the power to intercede for the members of the Church Militant.  But this power comes in some way through our prayers for them.  How this works is obviously a mystery, but that it works is immediately relevant to the discussion at hand.  It gives us an immediate plan of action that will enable us to do both—pray for them and pray for their intercession.

Covering Our Bases

For some of us, this still has a Russian roulette type feel to it—like we are simply trying to cover our bases.  This only serves to make it more mechanical and less personal, the very antithesis of what prayer should be.  But this stems from a certain anxiety that our prayers may actually be wasted.  After all, if the person is in heaven and you are praying for their release from Purgatory, then your prayers have been wasted.

All of our prayer draws its power from the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ.  In other words, our prayer is caught up in the Eternal Now of Our Lord’s act of redemption where time and eternity met.  This means our prayer, although uttered in time, enters into the timelessness of God.  God knows “when” you will pray and He can apply the merits of those prayers as He sees fit.  More to the point, even if the soul of our departed loved one is in heaven, it is still your prayer here and now that got them there.  They may have even received the graces you interceded for just now while they were still on the earth.  Just as there are many natural causes that God uses to guide His providential plan, prayer too is a cause.  But because of its supernatural power, it operates outside of the natural constraints of time.

The Power of Prayer Over Time

Once we grasp this hidden power of prayer, we can see that our prayer, even if the soul has left Purgatory, is never wasted.  But it is still necessary because it is a power by which they have been or will be released.  It is also empowers them to intercede for the members of the Church Militant so that we should confidently ask for their intercession in our needs as well.  So our prayers for and to the dead are no different than they were while they were still living—praying both for them and asking them to pray for us.  Because “the prayer of a righteous man has great power to prevail” (James 5:16), we should go to them with confidence for our needs.  This also carries with it a rich experience of the true nature of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ.  It is a supernatural reality that spans Heaven and Earth and in between (Purgatory).

As long as we are speaking of covering our bases, how do we explain the prayers for the dead who are actually in hell?  Aren’t these wasted?  By now the answer ought to be clear that God wastes none of our prayers.  Our prayers obviously cannot lift them out of hell, but they could be applied to the person prior to their death.  They may lead the person towards conversion prior to their death (there is a beautiful account of the conversion of a despairing soul on the door of death who receives a final grace in St. Faustina’s Dairy #1486).  Or, perhaps it “only” kept them from further sin and, in a sense, lightened their suffering in hell.  Not knowing anyone’s destiny, we should confidently pray based on the overwhelming power of God’s mercy.  By praying, we become instruments of that same mercy.

Spreading Hope


During a September series between the San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers in Dodger Stadium, Giants’ rightfielder Hunter Pence wore a necklace that contained the cremains of a devoted Dodgers’ fan, after the Dodgers refused the request to have the man’s daughter spread his ashes on the field.  The plea was one of many that the Dodgers and the rest of the MLB teams receive and routinely refuse yearly.  There is an ongoing campaign to develop a compromise of sorts in that the teams could allow on certain days a small amount of a person’s ashes to be spread on the field.  Setting aside the pragmatic reasoning, this decision ultimately represents an act of charity toward the dead and their loved ones.

The Book of Tobit reveals God’s pleasure in Tobit’s dogged persistence in burying the dead (Tobit 14:14) and it has long been considered a corporal work of mercy in the Christian tradition.  Understanding why God looks favorably upon this act however can help us to see the reason the Church insists that cremated remains not be scattered.

Spreading Faith

Christians have long seen death not as annihilation nor as the releasing of the soul from its incarceration in the body, but as having a fundamental positive meaning.  By being united to Christ’s death and resurrection in Baptism, the believer sees his own death in Christ as the pathway to a share in His glorious resurrection.  Like the resurrection of the Lord, the Christian’s is a bodily resurrection.  Our temporal bodies become as a seed of the body that will rise in glory (c.f. 1Cor 15:42-44).

This motivation helps to reveal the meaning of Christian burial.  If we really believe that our resurrected bodies are found in seed form in our earthly bodies, then our actions ought to reveal this.  Seeds must be buried and die so that new life may spring forth.   Christian burial is a sign of this; a sacrament that point to this reality.

Historically, pagans practiced funeral rites that included cremation, reflecting the widespread belief that there was no resurrection of the body.  Even when the pagans did practice burial (based on the belief that only when their bodies were buried could the soul rest), the Christians still buried their separately from the pagans because of the great difference in their understanding of the future resurrection.  It was this connection between paganism (and later certain secret societies and cults) and cremation that led the Church to remove it as an option for the faithful.

Considering some of the practical difficulties of burial in modern times (mostly exorbitant costs and decreasing space) the Church relaxed some of her restrictions on cremation when the new code of Canon Law was released in 1983.  Burial because of its nature as a sign remains the preferred method, but unless it is chosen for reasons contrary to Christian beliefs (i.e. a lack of belief in the resurrection of the body) then it is permitted when necessary (Canon 1176.3).  Cremation can testify to the omnipotence of God in raising up the deceased body to new life and therefore “in and of itself, objectively negates neither the Christian doctrine of the soul’s immortality nor that of the resurrection of the body” (Piam et constantem, 5 July 1963).

The cremated remains of the person should always “be laid to rest in a sacred place, that is, in a cemetery, or, in certain cases, in a church or an area which has been set aside for this purpose…” (Instruction Regarding the Burial of the Deceased and the Conservation of Ashes in the Case of Cremation, CDF, 2016).  This means that the ashes should never be scattered or preserved as mementos or pieces of jewelry.   To do any of these things would be testimony of pantheism, naturalism, or nihilism.

Based on what has been said so far, one might be willing to concede that the prohibition on scattering ashes should be binding on Christians, but what about non-Christians?  In other words, what if the man whose remains Hunter Pence wore didn’t believe in the resurrection of the body?  How is insisting on his burial an act of charity to both he and his family?

Of particular mention as well is that whether or not someone believes in the resurrection of the body has no bearing on whether it is true.  It may be an article of faith but it is an article of true faith, and so we as Christians have an obligation to do all that we can to bear witness to this truth.  Burial or interment also constitutes an act of charity to the dead as well.  For the dead it creates a “monument” that serves as a reminder to the living to pray for the deceased.  It assures that they will not be forgotten.  One whose ashes have been scattered will soon be forgotten, perhaps not by their immediate loved ones, but to subsequent generations they will be as one blotted out.  By not spreading ashes, we are spreading hope.

Spreading Charity

This highlights the intrinsic connection between the corporal work of mercy, burying the dead, and the spiritual work of mercy of praying for the dead.  This is perhaps the “easiest” of all works of mercy but also the most often neglected.  To pray for the dead is a great act of charity especially considering that only Catholics do it.  Very likely that man whose remains were worn by the Giants’ outfielder and many others like him have no one to pray for him.  We may have no way of knowing how the person has been judged, but we always trust that God’s mercy is more powerful than any man’s sins.  And so we pray and by praying, ironically enough, repair the harm done by our own sins, reducing our own time in Purgatory.  Charity covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8).

Many of the souls in Purgatory spend more time there than they should for want of having someone to pray for them.  Therefore the Church Militant devotes a whole month of special focus to relieving their suffering and offers a plenary indulgence for the Holy Souls during the week of Nov 2-Nov 8 each year.  By way of reminder, one can obtain a plenary indulgence (one per day), when in a state of grace and with a complete detachment from sin, receive Holy Communion, pray for the intentions of the Pope and go to Confession within 20 days before or after the act (one Confession can cover all 7 days, but the other acts must be done daily).  One can gain this particular indulgence by, in addition to the above conditions, devoutly visiting a cemetery and praying for the departed, even if the prayer is only mental.

A partial indulgence for the Souls in Purgatory can be obtained when the Requiem aeternam is prayed. This can be prayed all year, but should be especially prayed during the month of November:

Eternal rest grant to them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.



A Defense of Name Dropping

Is there a habit that is met with great disdain today than name-dropping?  Most of us hate when others do it, but have a hard time avoiding it ourselves.  In an age of “networking” it is practically unavoidable—who you know is often more important than what you know.  Your contacts bestow status.  Christians are not exempt from this practice.  In fact our eternal status is based on our contact with one Person—Christians should constantly be dropping His name—the Holy Name of Jesus.  We are admonished that “there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12) and told “whatever you ask in My name, that I will do” (John 14:13).

Traditionally, January has been set aside as dedicated to the Holy Name of Jesus and in 2011, Pope St. John Paul II restored the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus to January 3rd.  Therefore it seems an appropriate time to reflect upon the name that should be the cause of every knee to bend (c.f.Phil 2:10).

The Power of a Name

A word first about names.  St. Thomas says that names “should answer to the nature of a thing” (ST III, q.37, a.2).  Building upon this, the Catechism says that a name is an “icon of the person” (CCC 2158).  What is meant by this is that someone’s name is a sacrament of the person.  Although this may have become obscure when names are often selected simply based on novelty, St. Thomas says that names ought to be “taken from some property of the men to whom they are given” (ST III, q.37, a.2).   The names may be given with respect to a saint (either one to whom the parents have a particular devotion or whose feast day the person was born on) or some blood relation or even based on some quality of the person (like Esau whose name means red).  The point is that the name reveals something of the person either relationally or personally.

When God gives a name it is always to signify some gift He has bestowed on them.  Abraham is made the “father of nations”, Peter is made to be the “rock upon which the Church is built” and Mary identifies herself as “the Immaculate Conception” to St. Bernadette.  In this regard, Jesus which means “God saves” is so named because “He will save the people from their sins” (Mt 1:21).

Our Lord’s name denotes the essence of Who He is because it reveals His mission.  He cannot be separated from His mission; He is never, as Pope Benedict XVI says, “off-duty.”  Everything that He did and said from the moment of the Incarnation until it was finished on the Cross was to save me and save you.  The power flowing from those actions touch me and you here and now.  Jesus saves me right here and right now and you as well.

It was said that the name is like a sacrament of the person not just because it is a sign of the person, but also because it carries with it a power to bring about the one it signifies.  This is why we name-drop—it is as if the person is present testifying for us.  It also gives as the actual power to make the person present.  In a loud and crowded restaurant I have the power to call the waiter to me immediately when I know his name.

This power is amplified when it comes to the name of Jesus.  Eternally God, He is present at all times and always.  But when I call upon His Holy Name, He is present to me not just as the source of my existence but as the source of eternal life.

This is what makes using the Lord’s name in vain so soul-deadening.  God commands that the name of Jesus is holy and to be revered at all times, but not because He is somehow disrespected by us when we abuse it.  The commandments are for our benefit, not God’s.  He gives us this commandment so that we never forget or take for granted the privilege we have in calling upon God by name.

The power attached to the knowledge of another’s name is why the Jews in the Old Testament would not utter the name of God.  Jesus’ very name (God saves) contains God’s name and thus we cannot say His name without also uttering God’s name.  The Catechism captures this well in the section on Prayer saying, “the divine name may not be spoken by human lips, but by assuming our humanity The Word of God hands it over to us and we can invoke it: ‘Jesus,’ ‘YHWH saves.’  The name ‘Jesus’ contains all: God and man and the whole economy of creation and salvation. To pray ‘Jesus’ is to invoke him and to call him within us. His name is the only one that contains the presence it signifies…” (CCC 2666).

If the name invokes the Person and the Person sanctifies by His presence, then we ought to make a regular habit of invoking Jesus’ name.  The Church has offered a partial indulgence attached to the recitation of the Litany of the Most Holy Name of Jesus.

The Jesus Prayer

As many people look to Eastern Spirituality and non-Christian forms of prayer in the West, I would like to commend to you a practice with roots in Eastern Christianity called the Jesus Prayer.  While no one knows exactly when it started, it has been in the tradition of the Eastern monks back to at least the 6th Century.  In an attempt to “pray without ceasing” the monks began to repetitively say short prayers invoking the name of Jesus.  The most common of these prayers was “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”  Rather than being a merely a mantra that seeks to empty the mind, the Jesus Prayer was meant to engage the whole person—body, heart and mind.  One exhales the name of Jesus and inhale His mercy while forming a mental picture of His presence and making acts of love towards Him.  Those who practice this with regularity will find it to be a powerful means of drawing closer to Our Lord by invoking Him and opening yourself up to the gift of higher levels of prayer.

In The Way of the Pilgrim, the master describes the prayer to the pilgrim saying:


“The continuous interior prayer of Jesus is a constant uninterrupted calling upon the divine name of Jesus with the lips, in the spirit, in the heart, while forming a mental picture of His constant presence, and imploring His grace, during every occupation, at all times, in all places, even during sleep. The appeal is couched in these terms, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.’ One who accustoms himself to this appeal experiences as a result so deep a consolation and so great a need to offer the prayer always that he can no longer live without it, and it will continue to voice itself within him of its own accord. Now do you understand what prayer without ceasing is?”

Make us, O Lord, to have a perpetual fear and love of Your holy name, for You never fail to govern those whom You establish in Your love. You, Who live and reign forever and ever. Amen



Running Through the Finish Line of Advent

Within Church tradition, Advent has been viewed as a “little” Lent.  Lent, because it involved a prolonged period of preparation marked by the spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving.  “Little,” because it was a shorter time period (4 weeks vs 40 days) and because it lacked some of the rigor normally associated with Lent.  For many of us, despite the best of initial intentions, Advent has had any rigor at all.  The commercial trappings of Christmas can ensnare all of us to some degree, something we do not necessarily have to combat at Easter.  We may easily be tempted to give up and try again next year.  But there is still a week left in the season and the Church has the perfect prescription within her traditions to recoup some of the spiritual fruit that may have fallen off your Advent tree. It may be that Advent has been very good so far and you are looking for a way to stretch to gather the fruit from the top.  Either way, we can finish Advent by turning to the Church’s tradition of “little Advent.”

In the spirit of always acting with the end in mind, a brief reminder about the purpose of Advent.  All too often Advent and even Christmas can feel like a game of make believe.  We know that God has already come in the Incarnation.  We know that He is here in the Eucharist.  Sure we are awaiting His Second Coming in glory, but that is something that we are always waiting for.  Why do we need a special season of waiting?

It is precisely that reason that the Church gives us Advent leading up to the theophany of Christmas.  We may always be, as the embolism of the Mass says, waiting “in joyful hope for the coming of Our Savior.”  But Advent offers us a special time to focus solely on this waiting so as to stir up love in us and to awaken our otherwise dormant hope.  God’s promises really do come to fruition, not just “spiritually” but as history.  Not just once upon a time, but “in the first enrollment (of the census ordered by Caesar Augustus) when Quirinius was governor of Syria.”  God made good on His promise to be Emmanuel, God with us and He will continue until He has ransomed all of captive Israel.

This waiting is especially acute in Advent and ought to be our primary focus.  We do the things that waiting people do—pray, fast and give alms.


Beginning on December 17th, the Church has traditional marked seven days with a series of special antiphons known as the O Antiphons.  These antiphons frame the Magnificat in each evening’s Liturgy of the Hours.  Not only are these antiphons tied to the official prayer of the Church, but are also well known to most of us as they comprise the verses of O Come, O Come Emmanuel.

Within the Liturgy of the Hours, antiphons are short verses that are sung (or recited) prior to and after the Psalm or Canticle that provide an interpretive key to the mystical meaning of the passage or the feast day.  This is what makes the O Antiphons perfect material to recharge or redeem Advent for us—they are short reflections that capture the meaning of the season.  The O Antiphons allow us to make present the expectation of Israel and ignite within us any aspect of hope that has lain dormant in our hearts.  And because they are appended onto the Magnificat, Mary’s great prayer of expectation and thanksgiving, they unite us with her as well.

Each of the Great Antiphons as some have called them, invokes the name of the Messiah under his various Old Testament titles and closes with a proper petition.  The medieval church masters say there are seven as a reminder of the miseries of our fallen condition; each of which the Messiah came to rescue us from.  On the first day we recall how it is the Wisdom from on high that can free us from ignorance.  On the second day, we beg for the coming Redeemer who will save us from eternal punishment.  On the third day, longing for our heavenly homeland, we invoke the promised Root of Jesse to hurry to us.  Imprisoned in sin and death, on the fourth day, we plead for the Key of David to unlock our chains and guard us.  Trapped in darkness, we beg for the Dayspring to enlighten our way on the fifth day.  Because we are enslaved under the terrible reign of the devil, we invoke the King of Nations on the sixth day.  Finally, separated from God, we invoke Emmanuel, God with us.  In short, each of the seven days we should meditate upon our fallen condition and God’s remedy as outlined by that day’s antiphon.


At this stage of Advent, our longings ought to be felt, not just spiritually, but also bodily.  This is why the last week is a time to fast.  In teaching His disciples, Our Lord associates fasting with waiting for the Bridegroom (Mt 6:16).  It is a spiritual discipline that has fallen into disuse, but this last week of Advent offers a great time to get back into the practice.  Fasting allows us to truly experience longing for something we simply cannot live without.  By going without that which is necessary, namely food, we express our desire for the One Thing that is most necessary.  One would be hard pressed to come up with a better way to express the true meaning of the banquet most of us will partake of on Christmas Day than to have first fasted.  Feasts are only meaningful when we have had the experience of fasting.

Pope Benedict XVI often said we are living in the “already, but not yet.”  What he meant is that Christ has come and is with us really and truly, but we have not yet seen His glory.  It is in this spirit that fasting should always be accompanied by Daily Mass and reception of the Eucharist.  By having our actual hunger temporarily satisfied by the Bread of Life, we will again experience in our bodies the truth of what happens in our souls.


In a season marked by a spirit of  giving, it seems that almsgiving plays a large part already.  But we often miss the real point of almsgiving which is to give until it hurts.  We do this not because we are nice, but because we love God and want to give in the way that He gives—until it hurts.  Almsgiving should always flow from a supernatural motive that is based on a love of God and a desire for Him to spread His love through us.

There is also the tendency to give only from our surplus, especially for those of us who have families to support.  It seems wrong to take from what the family needs in order to help another family.  This was my own thinking for many years until I came across a quote from Pope Francis in which he said “we would do well to ask ourselves what we can give up in order to enrich others by our poverty.”  What I took the Holy Father to be saying is that, and this is especially true for parents, we should look to see what we can sacrifice personally.  Then there is no conflict with our obligations to our children and spouses.  As a father I may not be willing to have one of my children forgo a thick winter coat, but as a man I might be willing to forgo one myself so that someone else can be warm.  By personally going without something of importance, I can enrich others.  These “others” include not just the direct beneficiary of your charity but your children as well who catch the spirit of sacrifice so inimical to our Christian spirit.

There is another aspect of our almsgiving that should be a focus during Advent which can be a time of great loneliness for many people.  The greatest poverty is often a lack of being loved.  Too often we are tempted to take a “I gave at the office” type mentality that removes us from actual contact with the poor.  Giving money is a good thing, but the problem with it is that, as Pope Benedict XVI said, we have a tendency to give too little of ourselves.  What the other person needs most is the knowledge that they are loved, a knowledge that is only acquired by our face to face contact with them.  Our almsgiving should not just be focused on meeting material needs, but should always leave the person spiritually enriched as well.  Christians are not social workers, but manifestations of Christ’s self-giving love in the world.

Entering the home stretch of our Advent journeys, there is still plenty of time to seize the graces God had planned from the beginning of time to give to us.  By returning to our Catholic roots—through Prayer, especially the great O Antiphons, fasting and almsgiving—we can with great joy welcome Christ the newborn babe.

Encountering Jesus

Stunned silence—that is invariably the response when I ask what, at first glance, seems to be a softball for any Christian.  How do you know that Christ died, not just “for us”, but for you?  It is the classic head and heart problem.  The head can answer that Christ died for all of us and that includes me.  But only the heart can echo the confidence of St. Paul “I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me” (Gal 2:20, emphasis added).  All of the Church’s doctrine and dogma is meant to feed the head with truths that are then realized in the heart of the believer.  But it is this very specific truth upon which the entire edifice of faith rests.

When the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” time and eternity met.  Everything that the Son of God did during His earthly sojourn does not merely remain the past as a single historical event, but “participates in the divine eternity, and so transcends all times while being made present in them all” (CCC 1085).  Abstractly we can say that this means that the effects of the Cross and Resurrection are felt at all times (even those “prior” to the actual event).  We can move beyond the abstraction if reverse what is being said: at every moment during the Incarnation, all of history was present to the Son.

Sitting with this for a moment, something profoundly personal emerges.  If all moments of time were present to Him, then every moment of my life was present to Him.  In other words, there was not a single moment in time when I was not on Our Lord’s mind.  There was not a single moment of His life that He did not love me, not just affectively, but effectively.  At every moment He was actively working out my salvation for me and winning some very specific grace for me.

Now, I recognize that this may be very difficult to believe, not because it is unbelievable per se but because it is almost too good to be true.  That is why it helps to come at this truth from the darker side first.  Christ took on the burden of our sins during His Agony in the Garden.  The guilt of each and every sin of mankind was laid upon Him so that He could pay the price of our reconciliation.  While He saw each and every act of disobedience, there is a flip side of this as well; a side that Pope Pius XI points out in his encyclical on the Sacred Heart:

“For anyone who has great love of God, if he will look back through the tract of past time may dwell in meditation on Christ, and see Him laboring for man, sorrowing, suffering the greatest hardships, ‘for us men and for our salvation,’ well-nigh worn out with sadness, with anguish, nay ‘bruised for our sins,’ and healing us by His bruises… Now if, because of our sins also which were as yet in the future, but were foreseen, the soul of Christ became sorrowful unto death, it cannot be doubted that then, too, already He derived somewhat of solace from our reparation, which was likewise foreseen, when ‘there appeared to Him an angel from heaven’, in order that His Heart, oppressed with weariness and anguish, might find consolation. And so even now, in a wondrous yet true manner, we can and ought to console that Most Sacred Heart …” (Pope Pius XI, On Reparation to the Sacred Heart, 13).

More on the implications of this in a moment, but it reinforces the truth that what Christ did, He did very specifically for me.  How do I know this?  Because what I do now, effected Him then, both good and bad.  In other words, I know this because I was there with Him.  He willed to do what He did for me.  I can say that Christ would have still done what He did even if I was the only one who needed saving because in a very real sense, I am.  Each and every one of His acts is a personal act done for me.  It is not a single moment or act, but all of His moments and acts.

Conversion of Paul

Profound as this seems, this idea is not something new.  It has been part of the treasury of the Church and is summed up best by Pope Pius XII in his encyclical on the Mystical Body:

“[F]or hardly was He conceived in the womb of the Mother of God, when He began to enjoy the Beatific Vision, and in that vision all the members of His Mystical Body were continually and unceasingly present to Him, and He embraced them with His redeeming love. O marvelous condescension of divine love for us! O inestimable dispensation of boundless charity! In the crib, on the Cross, in the unending glory of the Father, Christ has all the members of the Church present before Him and united to Him in a much clearer and more loving manner than that of a mother who clasps her child to her breast, or than that with which a man knows and loves himself” (Mystici Corporis Christi, 75).

Certainly our hearts are stirred when we grasp this, but we can realize in our lives in two particular ways.

Once grasped this truth takes flesh in our prayer lives; changing them forever.  St. Ignatius taught his followers to use their imagination in developing a composition of place when meditating on the life of Christ.  The reason why this is such an effective means to entering into dialogue with Our Lord is because we were actually in those places with Our Lord.  It is left to us to discover why Our Lord had us there.  In essence, we enter into those moments with Our Lord and ask Him what He wanted to give to us for our particular situation.  This also explains why when we meditate on the same event in Our Lord’s life at two different times, our experience is vastly different each time.  He didn’t just have a single grace to give us, but a particular grace suited to the very time we would approach Him.  It also keeps us from merely offering exegesis on Scripture during our prayer, but breathing it all in.  We will be exhausted long before we exhaust all that Our Lord willed to give us by His actions.

The second way is particularly appropriate during this Year of Mercy.  In Dives in Misericordia, St. John Paul II says that it is possible for us to show mercy to Jesus Himself.  He is referring not just to the Scriptural Works of Mercy of Matthew 25, but also acts of love that relieve the sufferings of Christ (DM, 8).  This follows directly from Pius XI’s teaching on Reparation to the Sacred Heart quoted above.  The idea of reparation may seem mechanical and cold, but once we look on it as “mercy” on Jesus it becomes a richly personal activity.  Mercy means to take on the misery of your friend as if it is your own.  So, for example when we genuflect before Him in the Tabernacle, we alleviate the pain of the mockery during His Crowning with Thorns.  When we have a bad night’s sleep we can offer it to Him who had nowhere to lie His head.  The instances could be multiplied, but the point is that in “offering it up” we are not mechanically writing in some spiritual ledger but personally entering into the Incarnation.

Pope Francis throughout his pontificate has spoken of the necessity for Christians to foster a “Culture of Encounter” by which we step out of ourselves to encounter other people.  This encounter is founded upon a very real encounter first with Jesus Himself—a response to His encounter with each of us during the Incarnation..

On Petitionary Prayer

To the outsider, Christian doctrine gives the appearance of having many contradictions.  A common example concerns the Christian practice of petitionary prayer.  The objection goes something like this, “If God is omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent, then why would we pray to Him?  If something is good and part of His plan, isn’t He going to do it anyway?  How could a mere creature ‘suggest’ to God what He should do?”  We must admit from the outset that this line of thinking is a slippery slope.  It turns out not to be an argument against prayer per se, but an argument against us doing anything since God will do it anyway.  Nevertheless, the question about petitionary prayer is a good one, especially when asked in a true spirit of inquiry (rather than merely trying to “debunk” Christianity).  Therefore this question deserves a well formulated response.

If we turn to the teachings of Our Lord, the spirit of our interlocutor appears to be something that He had in mind during His preaching.  While giving the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus, when addressing petitionary prayer says that “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Mt 6:8).  Despite the knowledge God has of what we need, Jesus still commands His followers to “[A]sk and it will be given to you…If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him” (Mt 7:7,11).  Based on this, we can conclude definitively that God both knows what we need and that we must ask.  It remains then for us to understand why this might be so.

Jesus Praying

We might begin our inquiry by looking at the principle of causality with respect to God Himself.  Because God is omnipotent, we can say that God is the primary cause of all that is.  This manifests itself through His Providence, that is, He has a plan and the power to carry out His plan in exactly the manner He intends.  Despite this power, He will everywhere throughout creation use secondary causes to bring about the desired effects.  This includes not only using something like the law of gravity to bring about His will, but also the wind or even free will decisions of His creatures.  He might intend to heal someone from illness and rather than miraculously intervening, He uses the skill of a doctor in aiding the body to heal itself.  While we clearly differentiate between the miraculous healing and the natural healing, both have God as their author.  It is only in the miraculous is He also an actor in the drama.  It is also helpful to point out that when there is a “natural” healing of the patient God used not only the doctor but also the body’s natural healing faculties.  Therefore God uses not just single secondary causes but multiple causes to bring about a given effect.

What does this have to do with petitionary prayer?  Prayer simply is another cause in bringing about an effect.  In other words when a given person is sick, God has ordained that the cause of his healing is not just medicine and the body’s natural healing faculties, but prayer as well.  It is those three causes (at least) that bring about the effect.  Each is built into God’s plan as a singular cause and therefore all three are necessary for the healing of the patient.

It is not just the outsider that struggles with seeing the use of petitionary prayer.  Many Christians look upon it as a lower form of prayer and therefore as something to be left behind.  But very often what they are really questioning is the purpose.  There is nothing “spiritual” about setting petitionary prayer aside because you don’t think it works.  No matter what level of prayer you have achieved, petitionary prayer is never something that can be left off.  With growth in the levels of prayer, there will be a corresponding increase in the role petitionary prayer will play.  One of the fruits of mental prayer is to “put on the mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16) so that we develop the habit of asking for exactly the right thing at the right time in the right way.  This is why St. James can confidently assert that the “prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much” (James 5:16).

Prayer, even petitionary prayer, is primarily about relationship.  God wants us to ask so that we know where it came from.  He does this not so that we will pat Him on the back, but so that we will concretely experience His love for us.  He wants us to know how much He loves us and there is no better way than for Him to give us something after we ask for it, especially when we ask boldly for things that seem impossible.  Gratitude, while it is directed to God, is primarily for our own benefit.  The more often we are aware of God’s action in our life as an experience of His Fatherly care, the more convinced we are of His love.  If things just appeared without ever being asked for, we would begin to forget about the Giver.  It is not without accident in a culture of such material wealth that petitionary prayer has fallen into disuse.

As a necessary tangent it is worth mentioning that there is nothing noble about not praying for yourself.  It really betrays a hidden sense of pride—“I have everything I need and therefore I will pray for others.”  At the very least, if God really does know what we need before we ask, shouldn’t we ask Him what it is that we really need?  In other words, perhaps our greatest need is to know what we need so that we can ask for it and so that He may give it to us.  We should pray for ourselves because very often what others need more than anything else is that we become holier.

Some of this is also caused by our own thinking that there is a limitation on the number of Divine withdrawals we can make each day.  With this limit in place, we want to make sure others are taken care of.  But we aren’t somehow limited as to the number of things we can ask for.  God is beyond generous and so “we should put all our cares before the Lord” (1 Pt 5:7).

There is also the habit of thinking that we should only pray for those things that we need; for the things we might like or want, we are on our own.  Certainly there is a hierarchy of sorts related to what we should ask God for so that we do not lose sight of the heavenly treasure.  But God wants us to ask for the things we want as well.  He cares about our temporal happiness too, especially when we acknowledge Him as the benefactor.  When Jesus turned the water into wine, it was not based on any absolute need.  Instead He produced a superabundance of 520 liters of wine for a private party to help us to see the depth of His generosity, even of temporal goods.  While this is in no way an endorsement of the “health and wealth Gospel” which creates an unhealthy attachment to temporal goods, material things beyond mere biological needs can be a good.  I can remember a number of years ago one of my sons wanted a pet frog.  I didn’t want him to have a pet frog so I foolishly told him to pray for it.  He did and when we came home there was a huge frog sitting in the driveway.  When he got out of the car, the frog started hopping toward him.  He had a pet frog like he asked and there was no question where it came from—Deo Gratias.

Pascal once said that “God instituted prayer to communicate to creatures the dignity of causality.”  In other words prayer raises our dignity by allowing us to share in God’s power of being primary cause.  In this way it is our most potent work because by exercising it we are most like God.  God speaks and things happen.  His words are His actions.  So too when we speak in prayer, things happen merely by our words.  We hold great power in our tongues, especially when our prayers are uttered in the name of Jesus.

Living the Mysteries

Two weeks after being elected as Pope, St. John Paul II gave the members of the Church a glimpse into one of his secrets to sanctity when he admitted that the “Rosary is my favorite prayer. A marvelous prayer! Marvelous in its simplicity and its depth.”  Its simplicity is marked by its humanity.  Unlike any other method of Christian prayer, it engages the entire person—hands, voice, imagination, memory, intellect and will.  Its depth is unparalleled because of its content—the Mysteries of the Life of Christ offered to us food for contemplation.  As Paul VI said, without contemplation “the Rosary is a body without a soul and its recitation is in danger of becoming a mechanical repetition of formulas and of going counter to the warning of Christ: “And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words” (Mt. 6:7)…” (Blessed Paul VI, Marialis Cultus, 47).  Unfortunately, for many of us who pray the Rosary regularly, this danger is ever-present.

Why do we refer to the events in which we contemplate as the Mysteries of the Rosary?  What exactly do we mean when we use the word “Mysteries” when referring to the events in the life of Christ?  Once we are able to grasp the meaning and implications of using this term, the Rosary comes alive and becomes a source of grace in the life of every Christian who prays it.

In his book titled Christ in His Mysteries, Blessed Columba Marmion defines mysteries as “human and visible signs of a divine and hidden reality.”  He uses “mysteries” in the plural to differentiate from the Mystery of the Incarnation as a whole in order to refer to the fact that in Christ’s life there were no mere events or circumstances.  Everything He did and said has eternal significance and dimension.

The truth that everything that the Word Made Flesh did during His earthly sojourn was charged with eternal meaning stems from the very nature of the Incarnation; time and eternity meet in each event in the life of Christ.  He may have been performing the simplest human action but it was always the Eternal, Unchanging God Who did it.  It may have been accomplished at a specific historic moment, but it is an act that reverberates through all times.  This means that although the historical duration of His actions are past, “they still influence us because each of the mysteries brings its own special grace for our salvation” (Pope Pius XII, Mediator Dei, 165).

Because of this, Blessed Columba says that all of Christ’s mysteries are meant to become our mysteries.  Christ received the fullness of grace in His sacred humanity but it was not for Himself alone.  Instead it is for us—“of His fullness that we have all received grace upon grace”(John 1:16).    What he means is not just that we collectively receive graces from each of His mysteries, but individually.  The Catechism, quoting John Paul II’s Encyclical Redemptor Hominis, says that “All Christ’s riches ‘are for every individual and are everybody’s property” (CCC 521—emphasis added).  This means that I can say not just Christ came for us but echo St. Paul’s conviction that Christ “loved me and gave Himself up for me” Gal 2:20).

Fra Angelico--Crucifixion with Sts Dominic and Thomas

In order to take ownership of what Christ won for me, I have to come to the conviction Christ had me very specifically in mind when each of these events happened.  Cultivating this conviction is the key to applying the events of the Gospel to our lives and to praying the Mysteries of the Rosary well.

This is where it is helpful to look at some of the effects of the Incarnation.  Specifically, how could Jesus, a man in all things but sin, have had me in mind when He did something?  After all, He was, like all of us, constrained by time.  He did not have “time” to think of all people, at all times when He did something.  But this was no mere earthly man, but the “man come down from heaven” (John 6:46) whose soul was united to the Second Person of the Trinity. In Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer in John’s Gospel, He says that eternal life is that the blessed should know God.  When we speak of the beatific vision, what we mean is eternal union with God.  Christ’s soul had this from the moment of conception because it was more closely united to God than any other soul.  It was united in the Person.  This truth is more than mere theological musing, but has very specific consequences related to our discussion.  In Mystici Corporis Christi, Pope Pius XII says “[F]or hardly was He conceived in the womb of the Mother of God, when He began to enjoy the Beatific Vision, and in that vision all the members of His Mystical Body were continually and unceasingly present to Him, and He embraced them with His redeeming love. O marvelous condescension of divine love for us! O inestimable dispensation of boundless charity! In the crib, on the Cross, in the unending glory of the Father, Christ has all the members of the Church present before Him and united to Him in a much clearer and more loving manner than that of a mother who clasps her child to her breast, or than that with which a man knows and loves himself” (75).  I never ceased to leave His mind during His earthly life even as I never cease to leave it today.

This awareness that I was present to Christ when a specific event was occurring changes the very tenor of my prayer.  I am able to enter the event in the manner that He intended and participate it.  I may speak to Him about the specific grace that He won for me and ask Him to prepare me to receive it.  Without this, Christian meditation is always in danger of becoming merely pious sentiments or intellectual investigation instead of a Spirit-driven response to the Word made Flesh.

This is what make the Rosary such a powerful Christian prayer.  By contemplating the Joyful Mysteries, I am able to be present in the “Hidden Years” of Christ’s life when He wins the graces of everyday life for me.  By contemplating the Luminous Mysteries, I am able to be present in those moments when Christ sought to reveal Himself more fully to me.  By contemplating the Sorrowful Mysteries, I am able to be present in those moments of His sufferings offering Him consolation.  By contemplating the Glorious Mysteries, I am able to share now in the personal fruits of the Resurrection and Pentecost with Mary, the Queen Assumed into Heaven.  The point is that the Rosary grows in depth in proportion to our habit of placing ourselves within the specific mystery, knowing we were already there in Christ’s mind and that He has something very specific He intended to give us personally.

Very often art can teach us deep truths in ways that mere words cannot.  It seems that no artist captures this truth regarding our presence with Christ during His life than Blessed Giovanni of Fiesole, better known as Fra Angelico.  In many of his paintings that depict scenes from the life of Christ, he also includes a well-known saint alongside Him to reveal this deep truth.  May we too strive to take our rightful places in the life of Our Lord!