Tag Archives: Prayer

Jesus of Nazareth

Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration

by Joseph Ratzinger, as Pope Benedict XVI (2007)

This book could be Pope Benedict’s version of “What I did on my summer vacation.” True. When it comes to theology this pope was a trekkie in every sense of the word. And I love him for it. I love that he didn’t let his job as the keeper of the papacy hold him down. He just had the good taste to make sure he did this stuff on his own time.  Not that he let that give him an excuse for shoddy workmanship. This book was world class all the way.

My favorite parts are the entire chapter on The Lord’s Prayer and the chapter on the parables, with particular mention to his treatment of The Good Samaritan. Another tip of the hat goes to the part called “The Dispute Concerning the Sabbath” in the chapter on the Sermon on the Mount.

From the last chapter, Chapter Ten, “Jesus Declares His Identity”, we have an excerpt from a section called “The Son of Man”:

Let us turn now to the scriptural passages themselves. We saw that the first group of sayings about the Son of Man refers to his future coming. Most of these occur in Jesus’ discourse about the end of the world (cf. Mk 13:24-27) and in his trial before the Sanhedrin (cf. Mk 14:62). Discussion of them therefore belongs in the second volume of this book. There is just one important point that I would like to make here: They are sayings about Jesus’ future glory, about his coming to judge and to gather the righteous, the “elect.” We must not overlook, however, that they are spoken by a man who stands before his judges, accused and mocked: In these very words glory and the Passion are inextricably intertwined.

Admittedly, they do not expressly mention the Passion, but that is the reality in which Jesus finds himself and in which he is speaking. We encounter this connection in a uniquely concentrated form in the parable about the Last Judgment recounted in Saint Matthew’s Gospel (25:31-46), in which the Son of Man, in the role of judge, identifies himself with those who hunger and thirst, with the strangers, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned–with all those who suffer in this world–and he describes behavior toward them as behavior toward himself. This is no mere fiction about the judge of the world, invented after the Resurrection. In becoming incarnate, he accomplished this identification with the utmost literalism. He is the man without property or home who has no place to lay his head (cf. Mt 8:19; Lk 9:58). He is the prisoner, the accused, and he dies naked on the Cross. The identification of the Son of Man who judges the world with those who suffer in every way presupposes the judge’s identity with the earthly Jesus and reveals the inner unity of Cross and glory, of earthly existence in lowliness and future authority to judge the world. The Son of Man is one person alone, and that person is Jesus. This identity shows us the way, shows us the criterion according to which our lives will one day be judged.

– pp. 327-328

Not everything in this volume is as readable as the passage above, but the entire thing is worth the challenge.

 

 

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Spiritual Direction & Meditation

Spiritual Direction & Meditation

by Thomas Merton (1960)

This is a great little no-nonsense book by Merton. Check out how he clears up a common misconception about spiritual direction:

This [previous] description of spiritual direction brings out certain important differences between direction and counselling, or direction and psychotherapy. Spiritual direction is not merely the cumulative effect of encouragements and admonitions which we all need in order to live up to our state in life. It is not mere ethical, social or psychological guidance. It is spiritual.

But it is important for us to understand what this word “spiritual” means here. There is a temptation to think that spiritual direction is the guidance of one’s spiritual activities, considered a small part or department of one’s life. You go to a spiritual director to have him take care of your spirit, the way you go to a dentist to have him take care of your teeth, or to a barber to get a haircut. This is completely false. The spiritual director is concerned with the whole person, for the spiritual life is not just the life of the mind, or of the affections, or of the “summit of the soul” — it is the life of the whole person. For the spiritual man (pneumatikos) is one whose whole life, in all its aspects and all its activities, has been spiritualized by the action of the Holy Spirit, whether through the sacraments or by personal and interior inspirations. Moreover, spiritual direction is concerned with the whole person not simply as an individual human being, but as a son of God, another Christ, seeking to recover the perfect likeness to God in Christ, and by the Spirit of Christ.

– pp. 14-15

His insights on meditation and mental prayer are even more penetrating:

The Sense of Indigence

In order to make a serious and fruitful meditation we must enter into our prayer with a real sense of our need for these fruits. It is not enough to apply our minds to spiritual things in the same way  as we might observe some natural phenomenon, or conduct a scientific experiment. In mental prayer we enter a realm of which we are no longer the masters and we propose to ourselves the consideration of truths which exceed our natural comprehension and which,  nevertheless, contain the secret of our destiny. We seek to enter more deeply into the life of God. But God is infinitely above us, although He is within us and is the principle of our being. The grace of close union with Him, although it is something we can obtain by prayer and good works, remains nevertheless His gift to us.

One who begs an alms must adopt a different attitude from one who demands what is due to him by his own right. A meditation that is no more than a dispassionate study of spiritual truths indicates no desire, on our part, to share more fully in the spiritual benefits which are the fruit of prayer. We have to enter into our meditation with a realization of our spiritual poverty, our complete lack of the things we seek, and of our abject nothingness in the sight of the infinite God.

– pp. 79-80

 

The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross

The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross (primarily The Dark Night)

by St. John of the Cross (1585: The Dark Night commentary is completed)

The Dark Night (or as it is oftentimes called “The Dark Night of the Soul“) is the best known of the writings of St. John of the Cross, a Spanish Carmelite priest who was a contemporary of St. Teresa of Avila.

The Dark Night would most likely be the main attraction of a volume of his collected works, as it was for me. But there are three other major works that are also quite worthwhile: The Ascent of Mount Carmel, The Spiritual Canticle, and The Living Flame of Love. All four are based off of the same general pattern. First there is a poem of some length, broken into stanzas, usually five lines each. Then what follows is a commentary that takes one stanza at a time and shows how these stanzas, by design, apply to the spiritual principles St. John is trying to illuminate for us.

Like Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross is not easy reading. Therefore, like I  did for The Interior Castle, I once again strongly advise the reading of Fr. Thomas Dubay’s Fire Within beforehand.

As it turns out for me, I found myself liking The Living Flame of Love as much if not more than The Dark Night.

As John is such a superior and gifted writer and theologian, let’s share some excerpts.

First, from The Ascent of Mount Carmel, we have a passage that could serve as a summary of God Wants You Happy by Father Jonathan Morris. It comes from Book Two, Chapter 6, section 1 (which covers the second stanza):

The theological virtues perfect the faculties of the soul and produce emptiness and darkness in them.

1. We must discuss the method of leading the three faculties (intellect, memory, and will) into this spiritual night, the means to divine union. But we must first explain how the theological virtues, faith, hope, and charity (related to those faculties as their proper supernatural objects), through which the soul is united with God, cause the same emptiness and darkness in their respective faculties: faith in the intellect, hope in the memory, and charity in the will. Then we shall explain how in order to journey to God the intellect must be perfected in the darkness of faith, the memory in the emptiness of hope, and the will in the nakedness and absence of every affection.

As a result it will be seen how necessary it is for the soul, if it is to walk securely, to journey through this dark night with the support of these three virtues. They darken and empty it of all things. As we said, the soul is not united with God in this life through understanding, or through enjoyment, or through imagination, or through any other sense; but only faith, hope, and charity (according to the intellect, memory, and will) can unite the soul with God in this life.

– pg. 166

Next, from The Dark Night, we have another concentrated dose which comes from Book Two, Chapter 11, section 3:

3. This happens very particularly in this dark purgation, as was said, since God so weans and recollects the appetites that they cannot find satisfaction in any of their objects. God proceeds thus so that by both withdrawing the appetites from other objects and recollecting them in himself, he strengthens the soul and gives it the capacity for this strong union of love, which he begins to accord by means of this purgation. In this union the soul loves God intensely with all its strength and all its sensory and spiritual appetites. Such love is impossible if these appetites are scattered by their satisfaction in other things. In order to  receive the strength of this union of love, David exclaimed to God: I will keep my strength for you [Ps. 59:9], that is, all the ability, appetites, and strength of my faculties, by not desiring to make use of them or find satisfaction in anything outside of you.

– pg. 420

And finally, from The Living Flame of Love, the commentary on Stanza 1, section 24:

24. Not many people undergo so strong a purgation, only those whom God wishes to elevate to the highest degree of union. For he prepares individuals by a purification more or less severe in accordance with the degree to which he wishes to raise them, and also according to their impurity and imperfection.

This suffering resembles that of purgatory. Just as the spirits suffer purgation there so as to be able to see God through a clear vision in the next life, souls in their own way suffer purgation here on earth so as to be able to be transformed in him through love in this life.

– pg. 651

NOTE: John of the Cross was influential on many saints and saints-to-be, such as Térèse of Lisieux, Edith Stein (see her Science of the Cross), and John Paul II, who wrote one of his two doctoral dissertations on John of the Cross.

 

Prayer Primer

Prayer Primer: Igniting a Fire Within

by Thomas Dubay, S.M. (2002)

Much like Seeking Spiritual Direction, also by Fr. Dubay, this book’s best part is the question and answer portion toward the end. The answers are reassuring and not at all intimidating. Consider the exchange on distractions in Chapter 15, “Problems and Pitfalls”:

3. “I am often pestered with distractions at prayer. I really do not want them, but is there anything I can do to get rid of them? I try but don’t much succeed.”

The first thing you can do is be at peace. As long as distractions are not deliberate or intentional, they do much less harm than you think. If you sincerely want to pray, and you try reasonably well, you are praying.

– pg. 149

Other highlights are a chapter dedicated to the “Liturgy of the Hours”, and the final two chapters, “Assessing Progress” and “Growing in Depth”.

 

The Interior Castle

The Interior Castle

by St. Teresa of Avila (1577)

I would not recommend reading this book — even a study edition — without first having been prepped by Fr. Thomas Dubay’s Fire Within. If you are wrestling with trying to locate yourself within the landscape of the spiritual journey, Teresa of Avila will help shed some light, but I will warn that reading her raised as many questions as answers for me. This is not all bad: we are talking about an extremely transcendent subject, so anything less would not be nearly as interesting, and even captivating and engrossing.

Her basic model is of a castle with seven chambers, each of which represents a major stage within the soul’s spiritual journey inward. The first three are fairly basic, but the fourth is clearly a departure, in which the beginnings of contemplative prayer are discovered. Five, and especially six and seven, are described in ways that are full of vivid imagery and indications of exceptional phenomena, though I have come to understand that these are not necessarily essential.

If you are going to explore deeply the mystical aspects of the spiritual life, you will not want to omit St. Teresa. Just go in prepared.

 

Crossing the Threshold of Hope

Crossing the Threshold of Hope

by Pope Saint John Paul II (1994)

John Paul II will be canonized on April 27, 2014 — just inside four weeks from now. Now might be a good time to pick this one up and read, or reread it.

This was intended originally to be an in-person broadcast interview, but because of the Pope’s busy travel schedule, it had to be cancelled. But the interviewer-to-be, Vittorio Messori, had sent John Paul the list of questions beforehand. The Pope thought they were good questions, worthy of thoughtful answers, so he developed answers to them in his spare moments, sending them back through his secretary, with a suggested title, which Messori kept.

Thus this book came to be. It is a bit of a one of a kind work. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (and later as Pope Benedict VXI) sat for similar book length interviews, but this one was done in isolation — a virtual interview of sorts, that reads more like a live chat might today. If the person live-chatting was the visible head of the Roman Catholic Church.

Here are a couple segments from early in the book. First, from “Praying: How and Why” (all emphasis original):

One can and must pray in many different ways, as the Bible teaches through a multitude of examples. The Book of Psalms is irreplaceable. We must pray with “inexpressible groanings” in order to enter into rhythm with the Spirit’s own entreaties. To obtain forgiveness one must implore, becoming part of the loud cries of Christ the Redeemer (cf. Heb 5:7). Through all of this one must proclaim glory. Prayer is always an opus gloriae (a work, a labor, of glory). Man is the priest of all creation. Christ conferred upon him this dignity and vocation. Creation completes its opus gloriae both by being what it is and by its duty to become what should be.

In a certain sense science and technology also contribute to this goal. But at the same time, since they are human works, they can lead away from this goal. In our civilization in particular there is such a risk, making it difficult for our civilization to be one of life and love. Missing is precisely the opus gloriae, which is the fundamental destiny of every creature, and above all of man, who was created in order to become, in Christ, the priest, prophet, and king of all earthly creatures.

Much has been written about prayer, and further, prayer has been widely experienced in the history of humankind, especially in the history of Israel and Christianity. Man achieves the fullness of prayer not when he expresses himself, but when he lets God be most fully present in prayer. The history of mystical prayer in the East and West attests to this: Saint Francis, Saint Teresa of Avila, Saint John of the Cross, Saint Ignatius of Loyola, and, in the East, for example, Saint Serafim of Sarov and many others.

-pp. 16-17

The second excerpt is from ‘What Does “To Save” Mean?’:

Christianity is a religion of salvation. The salvation in question is that of the Cross and the Resurrection. God, who desires that man “may live” (cf. Ez 18:23), draws near to him through the death of His Son in order to reveal that life to which he is called in God Himself. Everyone who looks for salvation, not only the Christian, must stop before the Cross of Christ.

Will he be willing to accept the truth of the Paschal Mystery, or not? Will he have faith? This is yet another issue. This Mystery of salvation is an event which has already taken place. God has embraced all men by the Cross and the Resurrection of His Son. God embraces all men with the life which was revealed in the Cross and in the Resurrection, and which is constantly being born anew from them. As indicated by the allegory of “the vine” and “the branches” in the Gospel of John (cf. Jn 15:1-8), the Paschal Mystery is by now grafted onto the history of humanity, onto the history of every individual.

-pp. 70-71

In some ways, the theme of hope found in these pages seems to have made its way into Benedict’s encyclical Saved in Hope.

 

 

Treatise on the Love of God

Treatise on the Love of God

by St. Francis de Sales (1616; contemporary English edition, 2011)

Francis was the Bishop of Geneva and made it his life’s work to try to win back Catholics lost to the Protestant Reformation. He was hugely successful. St. Francis de Sales is known more for his earlier work, Introduction to the Devout Life, which he addressed to “Philothea”, as a stand-in for the soul (though it was written as a series of correspondence to an actual lady).  This work is addressed to “Theotimus”, due to some objections by men that they did not want to take advice addressed to a woman. De Sales decided to give equal time, though I suspect he would have preferred to keep the addressee feminine had there been no objections to the first book. It obviously bothered him at least a little, as he goes on about it in the preface. In the end, it turns out to be a minor thing. The end result is a great book. Or actually twelve books.

This is a modern abridged version that takes twelve books down to twelve chapters. Since this work, like The Cloud of Unknowing, is referenced by many other writers, it seemed like one with which I should familiarize myself.

I offer two excerpts from this one. First, from Chapter 6, “Contemplation and Meditation–Love in Prayer”:

This makes contemplation quite different than meditation, which nearly always takes a lot of effort on our part. Meditation is like eating. It is necessary to chew, turning spiritual meat this way and that between the teeth of consideration. Working on it, we grind it up to make it digestible. Contemplation is like drinking. There is no protracted labor by our teeth. We calmly swallow our drink with pleasure. There is even the possibility of sacred drunkenness. We can contemplate frequently and ardently enough to be completely out of ourselves and totally in God. This is quite different from inebriation of the flesh. It does not make us dull and stupid. Instead of lowering us to the level of animals, it lifts us to the level of angels. It allows us to live more in God than in ourselves.

To arrive at contemplation, we must hear the word of God, confer with others on spiritual matters, read, pray, sing, and conceive worthy thoughts.

– pg. 52

And from Chapter 11, “The Love of God Inspires Other Virtues”, in a section titled, “Fruit of the Spirit”:

“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galations 5:22-23). Notice, Theotimus, that when Paul lists the various qualities of the fruits of the Holy Spirit, he counts them as one single fruit. He does not begin with the plural, “fruits.” He uses the singular. This is why: “God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us” (Romans 5:5). Love is the only fruit of the Holy Spirit. This one fruit has an infinite number of excellent properties. Paul mentions a few of them as examples. When we state that the fruit of the vine is grapes, wine, brandy, the drink “to gladden the human heart” (Psalm 104:15 NRSV), the beverage that settles the stomach [1 Timothy 5:23], we do not mean all these different things grow on the vine. There is only one fruit, yet it has many different qualities depending on how it is used.

Paul simply means that the fruit of the Holy Spirit is love. This love can be joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, and gentle, and it can improve self-control. Divine love prompts all these things and more.

Love is the life of the spirit.

– pg.  127