Thursday, July 14, 2011

Interior Silence, Prayer and Seminary Formation

A candidate for the priesthood must become capable of listening to and understanding God’s Word. He must have an experience of interior silence, must acquire a genuine sense of it, and must be able to communicate the experience to others. It is important that priests should have a precise idea about this silence. They must know in what it consists. Surely nobody will confuse it with a simple external silence, from which, however, it is in a certain way inseparable. There are other, more serious, ambiguities in this field, and many have become exposed to them when they get involved in eastern mysticism or other similar activities.

Christian mysticism has no other aim than to bring about a meeting, an encounter with Christ, to foster an interior intimacy and a real dialogue with Him. Genuine interior silence, about which someone like St. John of the Cross speaks so well, has in Christ its true source and goal. It is the fruit of living faith and of charity. It is abandonment to God and dependence upon Him and is, in itself, distinct from one’s feelings and from what is ‘extraordinary’.

It is a profound attitude of soul which seeks everything from God and is entirely turned towards Him. It is not linked essentially to any bodily position and even loess does it concern a sensible manifestation of the Holy Spirit.

This is what a seminarian will have to be made to discover and accept. This will be done by training him in the school of sound spiritual masters and in that of the Church itself in its official prayers.

To attain interior silence, proper steps need to be taken. Training in this area is often slow and difficult because it involves liberating a person from certain internal inclinations and from the constant distractions of the world. One must beware of “short cuts” that promise too much too soon, throw one off the right track, and create false quests with an illusion of almost automatic and deceptive results.

What results? A certain human warmth is sometimes taken for spiritual well-being. Violence is sometimes done to the body in a way that harms the soul. Beguiling music is taken for prayer.

The school of faith is arduous and it is this that one must enter into. Its authentic instruments are contact with authentic teachers, prayer that is patiently cultivated, and, above all, a perfect and deep participation and sharing in the prayer of the Church.

Spiritual Teachers

The Church, through God’s providence, has never lacked “spiritual teachers”. Their recognized personal holiness and the extraordinary richness of their activity are there to invite and encourage us. They are the “saints” who have in turn formed generations of saints. Everyone remembers their names, but how many future priests will come in real contact with them before leaving the seminary? How many will, through such contact, acquire a genuine spiritual climate for themselves, a taste for the things of God, and a desire for interior silence, which is not deceptive and which allows them to discern falsehood in these areas? Every seminary must provide its students with a habit and a taste for the great spiritual writers, the real “classics”.

Learning how to pray

In this context, those being formed to be future priests must be taught to pray. They must learn to accept the fact that at first this may be arduous and sometimes even disappointing. There should be no fear of following its rules, of humbly adopting a method of prayer, and of putting such method into practice. Aside from ample prayer in common, times for personal prayer must be firmly stipulated and the seminary must make certain that it is conscientiously carried out.

Abstract preparation for prayer should be avoided. Instead, one must turn to the Gospel and constantly recall the goal: “to search for Christ”, “to wait on Him alone”, “not thinking a beautiful idea is necessarily a good result”, “learning the limits of one’s knowledge”, and “deepening rather than widening one’s experience”. This then effects a development, from simply listening one passes to asking, from wordless adoration one passes to praise.

The prayer of the Church

Nothing is more important and decisive than a deeper and more complete participation in the official prayer of the Church. This is to say, first of all, the Eucharist and the Liturgy of the Word which constitutes the first part of it. But, it also means the Liturgy of the Hours.

The prayer of the Church is nourished by the prayer of the psalms. The Church receives from God Himself these “inspired” words. They are like the “mold” into which she pours human thoughts and emotions. it is the Holy Spirit who through the psalms suggests words and forms the heart.

It was thus that Jesus prayed. His passion bears witness to this. It was thus that Mary prayed, if one accepts the evidence of her “Magnificat”. There is no prayer more able to gradually create the inner silence that men seek, the silence which is true, the silence which comes from God, than the Divine Office when it is simply, intelligently, and perfectly sung, either inwardly or in community.

External silence

In all this, material silence is not useless nor a matter of indifference. When inner silence exists it calls forth external silence. It demands and fosters it. In its turn external silence serves the purpose of interior silence. A seminary’s Rule of Life must provide for this as a priority. And yet if a student does not understand the origin of such silence and what it is meant for, it can only be received by him as meaningless and will be badly accepted. On the other hand, where internal silence has been deepened, the demand for material silence is all the stronger and vigorous. There can be no doubt that in seminary formation where external silence does not exist internal silence will also be absent.

Seminary climate

It is obvious that such initiation into prayer requires certain conditions and if such conditions are not provided, a seminary will fail in its duty. Formation for prayer is inseparable from academic and intellectual formation. These cannot be isolated. Formation in prayer must be linked to a life of neighborly love and to a search for Christ through study and to the service of the kingdom of God which is present and will be present in the future.

However, training in prayer also demands specific and particular methods. Above all, the main task of those responsible for the running of a seminary is the formation of students in interior silence. Each has a special part to play in this, from the Rector to the Spiritual Director, to each member of the staff. If this chain is broken, there is no real formation. If each seminary authority is not aware of his responsibility for this formation in his conscience and in fact or if he does not allow this to be the object of mutual and continuous reflection, the best methods will lose their value because the right general climate will not exist.

[Congregation for Catholic Education, "Urgent Aspects of Spiritual Formation in Seminaries"]

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Letting God be God (A Brief Reflection on the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Matt. 11:25-30)

“I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to little ones”.

Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel reminded me of a poem I once read:

I asked God for strength, that I might achieve.
I was made weak, that I might learn to obey.

I asked for health, that I might do greater things.

I was given infirmity, that I might do better things.

I asked for wealth, that I might be happy.
I was given poverty, that I might be wise.

I asked for power, that I might have the praise of men.

I was given weakness, that I might feel the need for God.

I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life.

I was given life, that I might enjoy all things.

I got nothing that I asked for—but everything I had hoped for.

Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.

I am, among all people, most richly blessed.

The ways of the Almighty are truly different from ours.

That does not mean that they are completely inscrutable,
or that we should simply raise our hands in surrender
and refuse to use our minds to probe and unlock
the great mysteries of life He himself
has set before us.

What it does mean, however, is that we must take to heart two things.

First, we must learn to put our entire trust and confidence in a God
who will never abandon us, especially at those moments
when the perplexities of human existence
threaten to overwhelm our feeble nature.

Second, we must understand and acknowledge
that no matter how great and awesome
our achievements in life might be,
God is God, we are His creation;
and our lives are held safely in His hands.

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