Saturday, January 30, 2016

"Why Are You Terrified?"

Jesus and the Apostles were out at sea. Jesus was catching up on some well-deserved sleep when a violent storm hit, so violent that the boat began taking on water. Jesus kept right on sleeping - until the Apostles woke him, screaming, "Don't you care that we are perishing?" Jesus rose, "rebuked" the wind and sea and then spun to face the Apostles, "Why were you terrified?  Do you not yet have faith?" (Mark 4:40).

After having been with Him, after seeing Him heal and cast out devils, after hearing His proclamation of the Father's great love for them, Jesus was shocked by the Apostles' abject terror. They had yet to look at the world through His eyes and to understand that nothing outside of them had the power to snatch them from the Father's hand - not even death. They would not understand until Jesus had been raised and the Spirit poured out on Pentecost.

In the light of Christ's Resurrection, the Apostles finally saw the world as it was: under the Lord's dominion. Nothing is outside His power. Yes, men can commit gross evils, but only because God allows them to exercise their freewills. And, the divine power can turn evil back upon itself with a simple command. The rulers of this world crucified the Lord Jesus; but the Father raised Him and Christ now sits enthroned at His right hand, ready to judge the living and the dead (Acts 2:23-24, 36). That is reality.

Our culture is disintegrating. Our brothers and sisters in the Middle East and Africa are persecuted and killed, and some form of persecution seems to loom on the horizon for us (in addition to that already occurring in academia and the court of public opinion). But I hear the Lord say, "Why are you terrified?"; and I remember the reality to which Jesus witnessed to before Pilate, and Peter and John before the Sanhedrin:
[Pilate said,] "Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:10-11). 
[The Sanhedrin] called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John replied, “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges! As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:18-20).
We follow Jesus, Who had power to lay down His life and take it up again (John 10:18), and Who has promised to raise us up, too (John 6:40). What do men and women who have been promised a resurrection from the dead have to fear?  I hate to insert Star Wars into such a serious post, but Obi Wan Kenobi's words to Vader at their final duel capture this truth perfectly: "If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine."What can possibly terrify a Christian? Nothing, except allowing ourselves to be robbed of that transformation and eternal treasure. We must continue praying for the grace to persevere and not give into a fear of pain. We must pray, so that
...we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal (2 Cor. 4:16-18)
This reality should fill us with a deep, authentic joy. Thank You, Lord. 

Saturday, January 23, 2016

New Lenten Resources from Ave Maria Press

Ave Maria Press and the Apostleship of Prayer have partnered to provide two amazing tools for helping us to go deeper into prayer this Lent. (And at a combined price of $7.70, they're mighty kind to the pocketbook!) One of the themes that has dominated my thought these past five years is the way our sacramental and devotional lives unite us to the human prayer of Christ Himself (CCC 2740). Two of the devotions I discussed in Through, With, and In Him were lectio divina (sacred reading) and the Stations of the Cross. These new resources from AMP not only provide wonderful introductions to both, but lead you step by step to make real progress in their use.

I've decided that Sacred Reading for Lent 2016 by Douglas Leonard, executive director of the Apostleship of Prayer, is going to be my daily devotional this Lent. Beginning on Ash Wednesday and going through Easter Sunday, it provides readers with six simple steps for practicing lectio divina with the Mass's daily Gospel reading:
1) A short prayer for intentionally placing ourselves in God's presence 
2) The text of the day's Gospel reading 
3) Text-specific prompts to help us notice what we think and feel as we read the passage 
4) A prayer starter for speaking to the Lord about what we have read 
5) The words the author felt that Jesus impressed upon his own heart while meditating upon the passage and the invitation for us to listen for Jesus' words to us 
6) A prayerful invitation for God to show us, concretely, how we are to live this day in the light of our reading and listening.
Lectio is such a simple manner of prayer, but it yields powerful results. In His humility the Lord Jesus, the Word Incarnate, listened as the Father spoke to Him through Moses and the prophets (Luke 9:28-31). When we practice lectio, Jesus manifests this aspect of His prayer in us. 

[ALLOW ME TO OFFER TWO BRIEF CAUTIONS. First: If you sense that the Lord is saying something to you during the listening portion of your prayer (#5 in this resource) that is at odds with the Catholic Faith, then it is not the Lord that you are hearing. Second: In the Introduction to Sacred Reading, the author encourages us to speak to the saints in our prayer as well to the Lord. I wholeheartedly agree. Use your imagination as to how the Blessed Mother, Peter, and the other saints in the Gospel reading felt witnessing those events. Speak to them about what you've read and ask them to intercede for you. Do not, however, make the mistake of asking the saints to share his/her thoughts with you. Our communication with the saints is meant to be one-way (unless the Lord should take the highly unusual step of sending them to speak us; and then we shouldn't give the message any credence until we taken it to a trusted spiritual director or knowledgeable priest).]

The Fridays of Lent are of course even more intense times of
prayer, and the Stations of the Cross are a time-honored means for uniting ourselves to our Lord in the midst of His Passion. This new book of meditations from Father William Prosper, however, focuses our gaze on the way that each of the fourteen stations speak to us of the Eucharist, the source and summit of our Faith.

Stations of the Cross with the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus reawakens us to the awesome truth that what Jesus accomplished in His Passion becomes present to us at every celebration of the Eucharist. Each station is introduced by an image and either a passage of Scripture or quotation from a saint. These are followed by a page-length meditation penned by Fr. Prospero and conclude with the prayer, "Heart of Jesus, present in the Most Blessed Sacrament, I offer myself to you for the salvation of all."
William Prospero, S.J.
The book's foreword adds significance to the words of that prayer. It reveals how "Fr. Will," the author, walked the way of the Cross with Jesus, trustfully surrendering himself to the perfect will of the Father as he suffered kidney cancer, chemotherapy, and fungal pneumonia before his death on Sept. 18, 2014. Father Will's meditations bear the stamp of authenticity.

Hats off to Ave Maria Press and the Apostleship of Prayer for such solid resources...and please pray throughout Lent for the repose of the soul of our brother, Fr. Will.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

My Awe of St. Antony of Egypt

Since reading Bennett's The Apostasy That Wasn't over Christmas, I've felt drawn to the example of St. Antony of Egypt (also known as St. Antony the Abbot). Here was a man who followed Christ with all of the fire of the Apostles - abandoning wealth and the complacent Christianity of Alexandria, to seek Christ amidst fasting, physical labor, the acquisition of virtue, and constant prayer in the desert. He sought Jesus in solitude; but when the Lord sent him disciples, Antony shared his way of life with them. And when the Spirit stirred him to reenter society and face-down the Church's persecutors, Antony obediently went. He was instrumental in molding God's faithful soldier, Athanasius.

Imagine my surprise when I looked at today's readings and discovered that it was this great man's feast. I am celebrating by reading St. Athanasius' biography of Antony. The PDF is available here. Like most ancient books (Athanasius wrote c. 360), it is a relatively quick read - 80 pages. I hope you'll give it a look; I bet you'll be hooked within the first five pages. I particularly love the way that Athanasius continually reminds us that it was Christ accomplishing all these things in Antony.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Book Review: "The Mystery of Suffering" by Hubert Van Zeller, O.S.B.

This is a tough review for me to write... because it is impossible to do justice to what is clearly a modern classic. Accepting the fact that God allows suffering into our lives - and means to make use of it to perfect us - is what separates "real" Christianity, lived Christianity, from the false gospel so prevalent in American culture. I have been meditating upon this subject for several years; and yet, as I leaf back through this book, I seem to have highlighted at least one or two sentences per page (and there are over a hundred pages).

Dom Hubert Van Zeller, the Benedictine monk, author, and sculptor, departed this life in 1984; but he bequeathed many valuable treasures to the Church militant before doing so. His The Mystery of Suffering is a frank, profound, and sympathetic discussion of the most difficult reality we human beings face. Van Zeller writes in such a way, though, that you read his words and think, "Of course." Let me give an example:
"The truth is that in this matter of religion, and more especially in this matter of the perfect service of God which is here envisaged, the really important things come to us disguised. The more important, the more disguised. Obvious examples would be the ways in which our Lord comes to us disguised as an ordinary baby, as a prisoner hanging on a cross, as a piece of bread. So it is hardly to be expected that the cross, which is such an essential part of religion, and of perfect service, should proclaim its nature with a neatly printed label...The quality of hiddenness is certainly present in the matter of suffering." (p. 16-17)
What can you say after that, except "Amen"?

Van Zeller's approach is balanced. Our goal is love - to love God in the midst of both suffering and enjoyment. (One of the happy surprises I experienced while reading this book was an increase in my thanks to God for life's "simple" things.) Van Zeller reminds us that suffering can be a corrective punishment, but that it is usually just part and parcel of our living in a fallen world. What changed with the coming of Christ, however, was that we have the opportunity to unite each discomfort to the sufferings of Christ crucified and thus, to invest them with meaning and value. (By entrusting ourselves, with Christ, to the Father, we simultaneously grow in supernatural faith, hope, and charity, and increase our likeness to Christ.)

I need to read this book several more times. There is truth here - so great and so at odds with this fallen world and the patterns of thought we all share, that I will need to return to it again and again to better acclimate myself to Reality. I appreciated the foreword supplied by Al Kresta. He first read the book while suffering through the loss of a leg to flesh-eating bacteria, and, as a result, is able to offer real world testimony to the power of Van Zeller's insights.

Allow me to close with one more quotation:
"Our darkness may be as nothing compared to the saints - just as theirs was nothing when compared with that endured by Christ when he cried from the Cross, 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' (Mt 27:46) - but the chances are we shall be floundering about and unable to see our way through to the other side. Darkness cannot be fought: hitting out at darkness gets you no results. Nor can darkness be argued into light: you cannot think your way toward God in suffering. The only thing that helps is prayer." (p.15)
The Mystery of Suffering (Ave Maria Press, 2015)

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Hey St. Louis, You're Invited!

St. Ferdinand Parish in St. Louis, is hosting me for a Lenten talk - and anyone and everyone is cordially invited. There is no charge. 

If you'd like a preview of some of the information I'll be sharing, here are a few links:
The Sacred Heart - Source of Our Prayer
Jesus' Transfiguration: 4 Steps to Hearing God's Voice
How to Pray When the Words Won't Come
If You Can't Make Daily Mass, Pray Like JMJ
If Jesus Prayed Judaism's Eighteen Benedictions, Why Don't We?
Daily Consecration - Christ's and Ours
The Shema and the Sign of the Cross
Why I Love "Rote" Catholic Prayers
Our Prayer: God's Love for God
The Rosary and Mary's Jewish Prayer Life
Jesus' Prayer for His Church at His Ascension
We Still Find Him in the Temple
Praying Around the Clock: The Liturgy of the Hours

I will wrap my presentation around 8 p.m., and then Fr. Tom Haley will lead us in Evening Prayer (from the Liturgy of the Hours).  We hope you'll stick around afterwards to visit. Also, if you are interested in purchasing a book, there will be a small table in the gathering space.

You can find directions here: 1765 Charbonier Road, Florissant, MO  63031

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Book Review: "The Apostasy That Wasn't" by Rod Bennett

Rod Bennett's The Apostasy That Wasn't: The Extraordinary Story of the Unbreakable Early Church is sure to be one of the best-written histories you will ever encounter. Bennett is an astonishingly talented writer, and he successfully brings to life the most tumultuous period in Church history. If you understand the importance of the Council of Nicea, but remain fuzzy on the build-up, key players, and immediate aftermath, then this your guide.

The book's title actually does double-duty. In terms of apologetics it answers the popular (but erroneous) charge that Christianity was corrupted at the time of Constantine, and Christ's simple, straight-forward Gospel was shot through with elements of paganism and stood in need of reclamation (via the Reformation, Joseph Smith, Charles Taze Russell, etc.). In terms of Christian history, however, the book's title captures the way that Antony of Coma, Athanasius, Pope St. Julius I, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzen, and others fought and overcame the most dangerous, far-reaching, successful heresy ever faced by the Church - Arianism.

Bennett zeroes in on the most important actors, with Athanasius as the book's main protagonist, and provides enough back story to bring the second and third centuries to life. Dramatized vignettes may seem out of place in a work of history, but Bennett uses them sparingly and in a way that breathes life into historical characters. A lesser writer couldn't pull it off, but Bennett hits the mark. His vivid prose draws you into the action, and you remain there when he transitions back to narrating the history. (On a personal note, after reading Bennett, I can finally keep my Eusebiuses straight.)

The Apostasy That Wasn't  is exceptional.

Book Review: "Handed Down" by James L. Papandrea

The first thing that drew me to Handed Down: The Catholic Faith of the Early Christians was the simple elegance of its cover; and guess what? Sometimes you really can judge a book by its cover! I found Papandrea to be a gifted writer with a masterful grasp upon the writings of the Fathers. Those two traits have resulted in a book that, in my opinion, has something of value for everyone.

The first centuries of the Church were incredibly turbulent, but the Holy Spirit raised up truly inspirational pastors, preachers, and teachers to maintain the Faith in the purity in which it had been passed on by the Apostles. The Church Fathers is the name given to those early men of the Church who left writings to us – Clement of Rome (c. 90), Ignatitus of Antioch (c.107), Justin Martyr (c.150),  Irenaeus of Lyons (c.180), etc. Papandrea, an associate professor of Church history at Garrett-Evangelical Seminary at Northwestern University and a convert to Catholicism, explores six issues that are important in the Protestant-Catholic dialogue: Scripture and Tradition, faith and works, the seven sacraments, the Eucharist, the communion of saints, and the papacy. As a man with one foot on each side of the ecumenical divide and an encyclopedic knowledge of the source material, Papandrea is uniquely positioned to serve as a guide; and he does so superbly.

This book is of value for those new to the study of the early Church as well as those who have meandered through its writings for decades. Newcomers will find a source book of quotations from the early post-apostolic period, illuminating how the early Church understood (now-disputed) verses of Scripture and how their practices (ministerial priesthood, veneration of relics, petitioning of the martyrs, penances, etc.), are continued by Catholics and Eastern Orthodox today. Papandrea concludes each chapter with a biographical sketch of one of the Fathers discussed therein. This gives additional context for their writings as well as challenging us to imitate their passion for the purity of the Gospel. Readers already familiar with the writings and lives of the Fathers will find expert analysis and new insights. Papandrea's chapter on the Eucharist - with his commentary on the terminology used by Tertullian, Cyprian, Ambrose, and Augustine - was incredibly illuminating. His discussion of the Novationists as the first accepted "non-Catholic denomination," or "proto-Protestants," was completely new to me; and I remain intrigued.

Papandrea has some truly memorable turns of phrase in this book, too. Here are a few to whet your appetite:
“So baptism is a clean slate, but not a free ride” (p.63). 
“Jesus said, ‘Remain in me, as I remain in you’ (John 15:4). This means that we have to do something to remain in him – to remain is not a static state of being, but an active participation in Christ” (p.69).  
“...whether one enjoys a painting of Jesus or sets up a nativity scene at Christmas time; or even whether one wears a t-shirt with a Christian slogan or puts a fish on the bumper of a car; we all have icons as part of the practice of our faith" (p.198). 
“It’s not that [the pope] speaks for the Church because he is infallible, but that he is infallible because he speaks for the Church” (p.222). 
I admire a writer who captures deep truths so pithily. (Isn't that what we love about Chesterton and Lewis?)

Handed Down is the first title I have read from Papandrea, but he has several; and at a near date I hope to wade into his Novation of Rome and the Culmination of Pre-Nicene Orthodoxy and The Wedding of the Lamb: A Historical Approach to the Book of Revelation. I urge you to visit his author page at Amazon.