Teresa of Avila: ‘Prayer is Dynamic’

Sculpture of Teresa in Avila, Spain (photo by Jim Forest)

October 15 is the feastday of Teresa of Avila, mystic, philosopher, author, reformer, and saint.

In 1970, Pope Paul VI awarded Teresa and Catherine of Siena the distinction Doctors of the Church, making them the first women to be so named.

“Prayer is not just spending time with God … If it ends there, it is fruitless. No, prayer is dynamic. Authentic prayer changes us–unmasks us.”Teresa of Avila

Benedictine Joan Chittister offers a wonderful reflection on prayer for this feastday:

To wait for God does not mean that there is nothing else for me to do in the spiritual life than pray. Prayer is not a cocoon. We do not simply go into prayer and hope to come out on the other end of the exercise fully grown in the Spirit, perfectly new, totally finished. All dross removed. All rust scoured. The soul burnished. The heart refurbished. The soul bright and radiant. The mind clear and certain.

Not at all. There is too much of us in us to ever disappear. Nor is it meant to. No, the function of prayer is not to obliviate the self. It is to become to the utmost what we are meant to be no matter what situation we are in. Prayer is the process that leads us to become what Jesus models for us to be.

To pray does not mean that we will cease to be ourselves. It simply means that we will come to know clearly what it will take to become more of the Jesus figure we are all meant to be.

We watch Jesus confront the leaders of the day. He calls the priests and Pharisees to cleanse the temple and lift from the backs of the people the laws of the synagogue that burden them. He calls the leaders of the state to stop living off the backs of the poor. And he calls us to do the same.

Being immersed in prayer, really immersed in prayer, sears our souls. It forces us to see how far from our own ideals we stand. It challenges the images of goodness and piety and integrity we project. It confronts us with what it really means to live a good life. It requires courage of us rather than simply piety.

It is in following Jesus down from the mountaintop, along the roads of the world, through the public parts of the city, into the ghettoes of the poor and the halls of government and the chanceries of the churches, saying with John the Baptist, “Repent and sin no more” that prayer gets its hallmark of undisputed credibility.–Joan Chittister, OSB

Excerpted from The Breath of the Soul by Joan Chittister

Thomas Merton: ‘Make All Beauty Holy’

“The eyes of the saint make all beauty holy and the hands of the saint consecrate everything they touch to the glory of God, and the saint is never offended by anything and is scandalized at no [person’s] sin because [s]he does not know  sin. [S]He knows nothing but the love and the mercy of God and [s]he is on earth to bring that love and that mercy to all.”

From Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton (New Directions Books, 1949, p 21)

British Screenwriter Frank Boyce on Saints, Writing, and Imagination

Brilliant and hilarious lecture by Frank Boyce on the conversion of John Henry Newman from Anglican to Catholic and what spurred Newman to leave the ivied towers of Oxford and take up the life of a Catholic priest in Birmingham. Well worth reading Boyce’s newman-lecture-2011, especially if you want a look at the side-splitting, seedy side of Catholic saints. But below is a nice section on the surprising power of stories. Happy All Saint’s Day.

[Writers] have our mission though we may not know what it is. We commit ourselves to something without knowing how it’s going to turn out – but isn’t that also true of parents, of cooks, or teachers, of anyone who starts any project that seems to be failing but which they keep going? Maybe he should be the patron saint of anyone who keeps going in spite of doubt and failure? The patron saint of anyone who can marry strong belief with a toleration of others?

There is an ecology in the World of Knowing things. An Ecology that is often forgotten or undermined. Intellectual rigour can only thrive if our other means of apprehension – imagination, faith, emotion, pleasure – are all at work too. These are all intertwined and when we try to unravel them, we lose. In the current face off between fundamentalist science and fundamentalist religion, for instance, one group has switched off their intellect, the other their sense of wonder.

We think in stories. Before you can build a rocket to go to the Moon, you have to dream of being able to do so. Before you can sail across the Atlantic to America you have to dream of Hy Brazil or the Happy Isles. Think of what an important part of your mental equipment the story of The Ugly Duckling is, or Frankenstein, Cinderella or the Prodigal Son. These stories are like scientific discoveries – they name something that exists in the world but which we couldn’t see clearly – or feel clearly – until we were told the story.

The truly creative act – I’m speaking about writing because it’s what I know but it’s also true of parenting, teaching, evangelising, engaging with others – is a kind a scientific experiment in which all our different ways of knowing are fully engaged. It’s a voyage of discovery. Every voyage of discovery has to begin with the possibility of failure. Almost every discovery made in the history of thought was not quite the discovery that the discoverer was hoping for. You have your definite purpose. You may not know what it is. But you do have your definite purpose.–British screenwriter and novelist Frank Cottrell Boyce, Inaugural Cardinal John Henry Newman Lecture 2011

Read the whole newman-lecture-2011.

October 4: Francis of Assisi

October 4 is the Feast of Saint Francis of Assisi, il poverello, the poor one, whose voice in the newly emerging mercantile class of the 13th century warned of the greed and corruption and destitution that would come when the world was run more on profit for the rich than it was on a prophetic commitment to the poor. And he was right.

But Francis was known for more than protests.

Francis loved animals, too. He was a walking apostle for ecology and the protection of woodlands, which, having been destroyed for parking lots and housing estates, leave animals who once lived in caves and forests to spill over into our largest cities. He talked to the animals. He understood them. He knew their place in creation.

No doubt about it. In a world where species after species is disappearing under the rubric of “progress,” where animals are being used for research on materials and cosmetics, where the boundaries between forests and cities are fast disappearing, where bears show up in shopping districts of major cities and crocodiles show up on people’s front lawns, we need St. Francis now.

It is also becoming clear that Francis knew what we are only now discovering.

Continue reading “October 4: Francis of Assisi”

Cosmas and Damian: Patron Saints of Universal Health Care

Saints Cosmas and Damian

Martyr. Patron saints of doctors. According to legend, these two early Christian martyrs were twins. Born in Arabia, they are said to have studied medicine in Syria. They then set up a practice in Aegeae, in Cilicia.

They were considered brilliant at their work, but what set them apart from other doctors at the time, was their refusal to charge any fees for their services. They believed that as Christians this was the best form of charity they could practice.

During the Diocletian persecutions, Lysias, the governor of Cilicia, had them arrested and tried. They were hung on crosses and a mob stoned them. Archers then shot them with arrows. Finally they were cut down and beheaded. This took place around 303AD.

The bodies of the two doctors were taken to Syria and buried at Cyrrhus.

In later years many people, including the Emperor Justinian I, would dream of these two saints when ill. In the dreams the doctors would advise patients on treatments and many healings took place after the dreams.

Justinian built a church in their honour in the city of Constantinople. A basilica at Cyrrhus and another in Rome was also dedicated to them. Their names are mentioned in the Roman Canon of the Mass. —Independent Catholic News

St. Benedict: Pray. Work. Read.

Painting of Benedict from Peramiho, Tanzania. Kanuni means "Rule" in Swahili.

Today is the feast day of St. Benedict. If you’ve had a chance to see the amazing movie Of Gods and Men – about Trappist monks in Algeria in the mid-1990s – then you’ll appreciate learning more about St. Benedict of Nursia, one of the founders of monasticism. Below is a short reflection on Benedict from Sr. Joan Chittister, a Benedictine sister.

There is one thing Benedict teaches us before all other possible insights about the spiritual life and that is this: God is with us. It is as simple as that. God does not need to be earned. God cannot be merited. God is not persuaded by human behavior to attend to us. God is not intent on ignoring us. “The divine presence is everywhere,” St. Benedict tells us.

God is the very breath of our souls, the creative energy that gives us life and carries us through all our days. God, our hope, is the magnet that draws us and the spirit that carries us from dark to light through life. Our beginning and our end is God, our present hope and life eternal.

We come to rest in that assurance, St. Benedict says, by realizing that whatever happens to us in life — when things go wrong, when our plans go awry, when our future seems dashed and the present seems impossible — God’s will for us is our welfare and not our woe.

Along the way, God sends guides to light our path — spiritual mentors and models to lead us, taskmasters to train us, disciplines to curb us — so that, for those “who endure and not grow weary,” growth from the trivial to the significant may be complete. Then, aware of our own limitations, honest in our sense of self, subdued in our demands of the world and simple in our needs, we lose the demons of exaggerated expectations. We are ready now to take life as it comes to us, unafraid and secure in the presence of God to lead us through it.–Joan Chittister, OSB

From Searching for Balance by Joan Chittister (Abbey Press)

“Thou Shalt Not Live for Punishment or Reward”

Isa ibn Maryam

“Love God and do what you will,” John of the Cross wrote. It’s only when I got old enough, experienced enough and wise enough in the ways of mystics that I knew what John really meant. It’s not what we do that makes us holy. It’s what we love that makes the difference between being simply a spiritual virtuoso and being a saint.

The Sufi understood the paradox very well. They tell a story about Isa ibn Maryam: Jesus, Son of Mary. One day Isa saw a group of people sitting miserably on a wall, moaning out loud and full of fear. “What is your affliction?” he asked. “It is our fear of hell,” the people complained.

Then Isa came upon a second group. They were emaciated and wan and full of anxiety. “What is your affliction?” Isa asked them. “Desire for Paradise has made us like this,” the people cried.

Finally, Isa came upon a third group. They were scarred and bruised, wounded and tired but their faces were radiant with joy. “What has made you like this?” Isa asked. And the people answered, “We have seen the Spirit of Truth. We have seen Reality,” they sighed. “And this has made us oblivious of lesser goals.”

And Isa said, “These are the ones who attain. On the Last Day, they will be in the Presence of God.”

If we live our spiritual lives only in fear of punishment or in hope of reward, rather than in the awareness of the One because of whom all life is worthwhile, we can be religious people but we will never be holy people. Then life is simply a series of tests and trials and scores, not the moment by moment revelation of God who is present in everything that happens to us, in everything we do.

Sanctity is about how we view life. It is not about spiritual exercises designed to evaluate our spiritual athleticism or a kind of spiritual bribery designed to win us spiritual prizes we do not deserve.

Coming to know the sacred — the energy of air, the possibility in children, the beauty of regret, the value of life — is what makes us holy. –Joan Chittister

From Becoming Fully Human by Joan Chittister

Teresa of Avila: Is Prayer Just ‘Spending Time with God’?

Sculpture of Teresa in Avila, Spain.

I was drinking my coffee this morning at the local coffee shop while reading the daily lectionary. Along with Matthew 13–where the disciples beg Jesus to let them peek at the answers at the back of the book (“Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.”)–there was this confounding quote from Teresa of Avila. Five hundred years later and she’s still able to make me set down my coffee in surprise!

“Prayer is not just spending time with God. It is partly that–but if it ends there, it is fruitless. No, prayer is dynamic. Authentic prayer changes us–unmasks us–strips us–indicates where growth is needed. Authentic prayer never leads to complacency, but needles us–makes us uneasy at times. It leads us to true self-knowledge, to true humility.”–Teresa of Avila

For a delightful short video series on the life of Teresa of Avila, check out Sister Donna on YouTube.

St. Thomas: ‘Anticipate the Needs of the Poor’

ST. THOMAS OF VILLANUEVA DIVIDING HIS CLOTHES AMONG BEGGAR BOYS (1667) by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo at the Cincinnati Museum of Art
St.Thomas Villanueva (Cincinnati Museum of Art)

“If you want God to hear your prayers, hear the voice of the poor. If you wish God to anticipate your wants, provide those of the needy without waiting for them to ask you. Especially anticipate the needs of those who are ashamed to beg. To make them ask for alms is to make them buy it.”–St. Thomas de Villanueva

Chittister: ‘Call on God, but Row Away From the Rocks’

chittister

Joan Chittister is a Benedictine sister, author, excellent lecturer, and leading champion for women around the world. I like the way Chittister and her community ground themselves in daily prayer and take a very realistic view of the world – a view that is shot through with a sense of humor.

Here’s an excerpt from her book The Breath of the Soul: Reflections on Prayer:

“Call on God but row away from the rocks.”–Indian Proverb

Healthy prayer and neurotic prayer are two different things. Neurotic prayer denies reality. Healthy prayer grows both spiritually and psychologically as a result of it.

When we fail to accept the fact that some things just are: that rain rains and sickness comes and the unexpected is commonplace—when we fail to realize that life is life, all of it meant to teach us something, to give new opportunities to be better, stronger people—we miss both the meaning of life and the real role of prayer in it.

The spiritually mature person does not rely on God for miracles. They rely on God for strength and courage, for insight and hope, for vision and endurance. They know that God is with them; they do not believe that God is an instrument for the comfort of human beings.

They do know that one of the purposes of prayer is to give them the courage it takes to do what we are each meant to do in the world that is ours. They do not forgive themselves the responsibility for changing their own little piece of the world on the grounds that if they pray hard enough God will change the world for them. They know that, without doubt, it is their responsibility to change the world.

The mystic Catherine of Siena, whose relationship with God was legendary, changed her part of the world by chiding popes and feeding the poor.

The mystic Ignatius of Loyola, whose life of prayer is exactly what took him and his men to the streets of Europe, changed the world by defending the faith and re-catechizing a generation gone dry.

The contemplative Thomas Merton, whose life in a cloistered religious community made prayer the context of his very life, changed the world by speaking out from the cloister to lead an anti-war movement intent on stopping the illegal war in Vietnam.

The laywoman Dorothy Day, whose life of prayer followed a tumultuous life, changed the world by modeling the care of the poor on the streets of New York City.

None of the great spiritual personalities of the Church have ever made prayer a substitute for justice and mercy, for peace and equality, for honesty and courage.

They “rowed the world away from the rocks,” made the miracles the world needed—and so must we.–Sr. Joan Chittister, OSB

An excerpt from The Breath of the Soul: Reflections on Prayer by Joan Chittister (Twenty-Third Publications)