Tuesday, October 18, 2016

When Absence is Presence: Praying to God for Signs and Seeming to Receive None (A Brief Reflection on the Experience of the Grace of Desolation in Prayer, in Life, and in our Vocation).

"Father, why am I not feeling anything?” was a question I was once asked by a struggling young seminarian. “What do I do? I feel nothing. It’s like all my zest has disappeared and the fire has died.” There was a hint of slight panic in his questioning. “I’ve asked God for help, but he doesn’t seem to answer. I’ve asked for a sign, any sign, and there’s none of that either.”

This was a good young man I was talking to, a sincere, hardworking young man whose commitment to his vocation (and his spiritual life) was beyond question. And yet here he was, struggling to make sense of what he called the "absence of signs”.

Was God denying him what he was asking for? He wanted to know. At the same time, he said he didn’t want to be presumptuous and think that since he had been doing everything he thought God had asked of him, that God would somehow feel obligated to answer his prayers, make him “feel something” again, or at the very least, show him a sign.

“I remember that the Pharisees kept pestering Jesus for a sign,” he says to me. “He didn’t give them any. Am I being like them? Should I just stop asking?”

He wasn’t, of course… being like the Pharisees, that is. They wanted signs to test Jesus. Which in itself wasn’t wrong, by the way, since it was, at that time, one of the ways by which people could tell true prophets and holy men from false ones. Besides, Jesus denied them the signs they were asking for, not because he just didn't want to be tested, but because it didn't really matter whether he granted their request or not.  Their hearts and minds had already been closed; this would’ve prevented them from seeing whatever sign was given them.

Even if Moses or one of the prophets were sent back from the dead, they still wouldn’t have believed. Jesus was already standing right in front of them; how could they miss that sign?

My young friend was simply asking for some kind of response to his prayer, a response that would somehow allow him, in his words, “to feel enthusiastic and on fire again”. This young man’s situation was different from that of the Pharisees.

Was God denying him then? Or was he, in fact (not unlike the Pharisees) also somehow missing the sign that was right in front of him though (unlike them), not because of hardness of heart, but on account of something else?

What if the absence of signs were, in fact, the sign? What if the absence of the feeling of fire, zest, and enthusiasm (which he once had) were in fact the very sign he had been begging God to give him? Perhaps the absence of a sign was the answer to his prayer.

The great Christian mystics tell us that the spiritual life involves two distinct but related phases: a period of consolation, and that of desolation. God, they say, sends us both: in prayer, in our vocation, but in other areas of our life as well: in our studies, in our daily work, in our relationships with people, and yes, even in our relationship with God himself.

Think of those moments when we feel everything’s alright; when our heart feels like singing God’s praises because everything’s going well. We’re able to concentrate in prayer, focus on our work or studies or ministry, our relationships are good, our discernment is proceeding smoothly, and life in general is the way we want it to be. These moments are God’s gifts.

But then, they pass, and instead of feeling on top of the world, we suddenly feel barren, arid and dry, not only spiritually, but in the other areas of life as well. And no matter how hard we try to snap out of it, no matter how hard we pray and ask God to rid us of the dryness and restore our zest for things, no matter how hard we work, we can’t seem to get rid of the feeling of emptiness.

These are the moments of desolation that come to us all; the saints sometimes call it “the dark night”. And they tell us that at such moments, we must remember that for one who sincerely desires to know God and love Him, the absence of signs could very well be a sign.

The absence of signs may, in fact, itself be the sign.

Paradoxically, the presence of God is known through his absence at such moments. And we realize that desolation is itself God’s gift. Mother Teresa went through it for almost half a century, and the 18th century Italian mystic, Paul of the Cross, went through it for an even longer period. Both persevered, both held on, with faith, confidence and trust, that God was there, in the dryness, in the absence, in the night of their souls.

It is during such moments of barrenness, when we don’t seem to feel anything, when the usual consolations and highs of life, of prayer, of our vocation, and our ministry suddenly seem absent that we have to recognize the invitation God is putting before us.

And it’s the invitation to ask ourselves why we chose to follow Him in the first place. Was it because of the consolations and highs that we felt? Was it because of the signs God had given us? Or did we seek to follow, know, and love God because of God himself?

The dark night can be one of the most profound invitations to an even deeper intimacy with Him.

For it is when we experience the dryness and desolation of the spiritual life that we are able to discern the gifts from the Giver, the consolation from the Consoler, the signs from the One they signify. And as we are slowly able to distinguish the two, we come to realize that it isn’t the gifts, or the consolations, or the signs that must ultimately matter to us, but God himself, and Him alone.

The occasional absence of signs—the spiritual dryness we all go through every so often—is an invitation to deepen our faith and mature in our vocation to follow Christ.

“Father, why am I not feeling anything? Why are there no signs?” Perhaps the answer is simple; and it’s right there before us. Jesus wants us to follow him, to know him, to be intimate with him, and slowly learn to give up looking for signs.

Monday, October 17, 2016

What we pray for is a reflection and a revelation of who we are, of our deepest values and longings, of what we hold to be important in life. (Luke 11:5-13)

“Ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and the door shall be opened to you.” 

If God knows all things, if he knows our needs even before we ask for them—why is there a need for us to pray?

A story is told of Alexander the Great wanting to meet the great philosopher, Diogenes. He finally had the chance one day, as he learned Diogenes was sitting alone on the beach. Alexander, with his retinue of soldiers went to the beach and saw Diogenes sunbathing. 

They walked towards the old man and Alexander stood right in front of him. Diogenes looks up and sees the young Alexander who then says: “Great Diogenes, I have heard your renown and the great things you have taught many. I have come to pay you homage. Ask me for anything and I will grant it”. 

Without even thinking, the old philosopher says to the young man: “There is but one thing I ask of you, great king. Do move aside. I am sunbathing, and you are blocking the sun”.

What we ask for in prayer shows who and what we are as persons, what we value and cherish most, what we find meaningful and important in life.

What do we ask of God when we pray? Do we pray for ourselves? For those connected to us? Do we pray for wealth? For health? For success? Do we pray for that thing which will give us what we are really looking for in life?

God hears our prayers, we know that. “Ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and the door shall be opened to you”, Jesus tells us. We may not get exactly what we ask for, but God does hear our prayers.

The question is, do we—hear our own prayers? Do we listen to ourselves when we pray? Does our prayer make us realize important things about ourselves? Does our prayer make us realize what kind of person, what kind of man, brother, friend, co-worker, classmate, seminarian, disciple we are? 

Do we wear masks before God when we pray or do we stand before him (and ourselves) as we truly are? 

What we pray for is a reflection and a revelation of who we are: of our deepest values and longings, of what we believe to be most important in life. Sometimes, the things we ask for are daily needs, sometimes, they’re urgent needs; but they are always a reflection of who and what we are. 

If God knows all things, if he knows our needs even before we ask them—why is there a need for us to pray? 

The answer is simple. God knows us, even before we ask him for anything. He knows us through and through. He knows our needs, our wants, and our desires. It is we, who often do not know ourselves. 

When we pray and ask God for things, it is not so much to tell him about us, but to tell us about ourselves. By letting Him know what we want and what we desire—we come face to face with who and what we really are, and we allow his grace to purify and transform us, into the kind of person he wants us to be, the kind of seminarian and future priest that he can use to continue his work of transforming the world and walking with his people. May our prayer always be: 

"Lord, this is who I am. This is all of me: my strengths, my weaknesses, my fears, my worries, my anxieties, my gifts, talents, and skills. I hide nothing from you; I keep nothing from you; I hold nothing back. I stand before you, just as I am, with no masks, no pretensions, no made-up ideal image of myself. Just me. And I am truly grateful. Make use me as you will. Change me, as you changed water into wine at Cana. Transform me into the person you want me to be. I place my life completely in your hands.”

Sunday, October 16, 2016

"Time is the patience of God." (Reflections on Perseverance in Prayer, on the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Luke 18:1-8)

The pagans of Jesus' time had a practice they called fatigare deos, “tiring the gods”. They believed that their perseverance in telling the gods what they want would pay off, because the gods would eventually get sick and tired of hearing their prayers and would finally grant their requests.

The story of the woman and the judge in today’s gospel reading seems to resemble this ancient pagan practice of “tiring the gods”.

But it is quite different in fact! Because the point of Jesus’ story is precisely that we aren’t like the poor ignored woman before God, and that God is not at all like this indifferent judge. God isn’t someone who will hear and respond to us only because we’ve worn him out with our prayers.

“Consider the birds of the air”, Jesus says in another part of the Gospels. “They neither sow nor reap. Yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Or look at the lilies of the field. They neither sew nor spin. Yet not even Solomon in all his splendor was arrayed like them”. “If you know how to give your children good things, how much more will your heavenly Father give you what you need”.

Trusting in God’s wisdom is the point of today's parable. We are to trust that God knows all our needs even before we speak them. “Even the hairs on our heads have all been counted", for "God knows each one of us by name”.

We don’t have to ‘tire’ God; we have to trust him. And trusting him means two things.

First, it means trusting that while he may not immediately give us what we ask for, God always knows what we need, and will always give it to us when we need it.

We all have our challenges, our crosses, the things about ourselves we strive to overcome. Because I entered seminary at a very young age, one of the constant problems I had was a very strong attraction and fascination with girls. On many occasions, it caused me an inordinate amount of inner turmoil. I spoke to my spiritual director, I was honest with my formators, I busied myself with work, I prayed for help, but the challenge never seemed to go away.

One afternoon, fed up, frustrated and ready to throw in the towel, I poured my heart out to my spiritual director. "Be patient", he said. "Persevere. In God's own time and in his own way, trust that He will assist you, perhaps even free you from this burden". A philosopher once said, "time is the patience of God". It should be ours too. In God's own time, all shall be well.

Second, trusting in God’s wisdom means realizing that we pray, not to tire him into giving what we ask, but to remind ourselves of our dependence on him. To persevere in prayer is to increase our trust in God, because in doing so, we increase our confidence in ourselves. The ultimate purpose of prayer is not just to get what we ask, but to make us strong, confident, and without fear in facing the challenges and difficulties of our life and vocation.

“Do not fear", Scripture tells us, "for God has our name written on the palm of His hand”. It is when we realize the profound meaning of trust in God’s care that we discover deep within our very selves, a power and force that can overcoming tremendous odds—something that is itself a gift of grace.

To borrow the words of a famous atheist, “in the midst of winter,” prayer allows us to “find in ourselves, an invincible summer”.

“Persevere”, Jesus challenges us in today’s gospel, and trust that in God's own time, all things are possible.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Seminary as a 'School of Honesty' before God, before others, and before ourselves (A Brief Reflection on the Gospel of Friday of the 28th Week in Ordinary Time, Luke 12:1-7)

“Beware of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees,” Jesus admonishes us in today’s gospel. The Greek root of the word “hypocrisy” is hypokrinomai, which means “to pretend,” “to play a part,” or “to feign”. It was one of the greatest sins of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, and he never tired of reminding them of the need to be honest before God. 

“The seminary,” my old spiritual director used to tell me, “is a place where a young man must be initiated into that school of honesty and integrity where he is challenged to stand before God, stripped of all his pretensions and masks, so he can present himself to God as he is, in the fullness of his humanity, with its good and bad, its light and its shadows.” 

Our time in seminary must be a time of growth in heroic truthfulness before God, before those forming us, and before ourselves, because it is the only way by which our humanity can be transformed by God’s grace.

In this effort, though, one the greatest enemies we shall encounter is fear. Fear can make us hide our true selves, from those forming us (sometimes even from our spiritual directors), from God, and often, even from ourselves. It makes us want to not see those things about us that we don’t like, things that embarrass or make us uncomfortable.

Fear makes us want to run away from the shadowy parts of ourselves, from things that perhaps our family and our society have told us are bad and unacceptable. And so we hide them, pushing them deep into a corner of our souls where we think no one will see them, and where they can stay hidden and forgotten.

And that is a problem. Because they don’t stay hidden forever. They reassert themselves even more powerfully later on, especially after we’re ordained and the support of seminary life is gone. 

Hypocrisy is a manifestation of a great insecurity, a great fear to look at oneself with courage, honesty, and trust in God’s mercy and love. It was one of the Pharisees’ greatest sins.

With ourselves and with God, Fr. Adrian Van Kaam, author of Religion and Personality says, we must be “brutally and ruthlessly honest.” We mustn’t be afraid nor embarrassed to look into the darker and shadowy side of who we are. For they too - as my spiritual director never tired of reminding me - are God’s gifts; hard, tough, difficult and even painful, but gifts nonetheless.

Older Christian terminology calls them the “crosses,” we have to bear. Saint Paul calls them “thorns in the flesh.” Of these “thorns,” Van Kaam says:

“We fear that by looking at those things about ourselves which we aren’t so proud of, that by acknowledging their existence, they will destroy us. Paradoxically though, when we do acknowledge them in all honesty before God and ourselves, they don’t destroy us. Instead, they become sources of strength, for ourselves and for those we shall later on serve as priests."

Because through such honest acknowledgment of our thorns, and with the suffering and pain such honesty can cause us, we allow God’s grace to shine its light into those darkened areas of our lives, purifying and transforming them.

And we come to understand the truth of Paul’s words: “In weakness, power reaches perfection. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)