They Belong Together…

Jesus fasting

Bacon and eggs go together.  Salt and pepper go together. Man and woman belong together.  It is so neat that God has created things to go together!  When things go together, there is a unity and a completion that takes place.  It is the same in our spiritual life.  Various virtues seem to go together: in order to be patient with someone we need humility.  In order to practice charity, we need faith and hope.

Have you ever had a time where you wondered: “what is taking God so long to answer my prayer?”  Our faith tells us that sometimes what we are asking God for is not His plan for us, rather he will answer our prayer in a more perfect way that will bring us closer to Him.  Our faith also tells us that perhaps our prayer will be answered, but in God’s perfect timing.  However, I propose that there might be another reason why God asks us to wait: our prayers are not complete…in other words our prayer is not finished yet.

Let’s look at an example.  A man tells his wife that he loves her.  A woman tells her husband that she loves him.  That’s wonderful and good.  It needs to be said!  But how is love shown?  You see, sometimes words are not enough.  We can mouth the words, but it is nothing if it is not with the heart.  For example, many popular songs say: I would walk 1000 miles, swim in the ocean and climb the mountain for you!  I remember thinking to myself: “okay buddy, starting swimming and start climbing.”  In a sense, these popular songs make a good point…love entails sacrifice.  Could God perhaps be asking us to make a sacrifice…a form of self-denial before he answers our prayer?

Two questions were once asked by our retreat master on one of our annual retreats.  The whole of our spiritual life hinges on these questions and I turn them over to you for your reflection: What does Jesus mean to me?  Is He everything to me?

We talked in the last post about attachments…now we must speak about one way of letting go of attachments…a way in which we can respond to the Father’s love for us and imitate Christ.  It is the way that can make our prayer complete…the way of sacrifice and fasting.

I know our first reaction is “But I don’t want to fast!” It is just like getting a kid to eat broccoli…you say, “Honey it is good for you!  You will grow and become stronger!”  It is sort of the same thing…we are children in the spiritual life…and fasting is like spiritual broccoli.  Ponder on these words of St. Peter Chrysologus: “Fasting is the soul of prayer, mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. So if you pray, fast; if you fast, show mercy; if you want your petition to be heard, hear the petition of others. If you do not close your ear to others, you open God’s ear to yourself.”

Fasting is necessary and essential in becoming disciples of Christ.  How do we know this?  Jesus fasted.  Before His public ministry he was led into the desert for 40 days and 40 nights eating nothing and drinking nothing (Matthew 4:1-11).  Not only did Jesus fast, but he expected his apostles to fast.  Some of the greatest saints: St. Padre Pio, St. John Vianney, St. Catherine of Sienna and so many others became great saints because they were willing to fast.

So what is fasting?  Fasting is a voluntary denial of a certain pleasure as a sacrifice offered to God.  Pope Benedict XVI says, “It is good to see how the ultimate goal of fasting is to help each one of us to make a complete gift of self to God.”  It can mean denying certain nourishment for the body such as food or drink.  There are several types of fasting on nourishment: Biblical fast (not eating or drinking anything until after 3:00 pm) Black fast (no food all day or all night), Ecclesiastical fast (Church calls for one full meal and 2 small snacks) and Abstinence (denial of certain types of food such as meat).  It is also possible for people to deny themselves sleep which are called “vigils.”  People can rise early in the morning to pray, or stay up and pray, or rise in the middle of the night and pray.  There were times where Jesus spent all night in prayer.  Before choosing the twelve apostles, “all night he continued in prayer to God” (Luke 6:12) So these were the two forms of fasting that Jesus practiced: fasting of physical nourishment and vigils.

Fasting is so necessary and essential for us.  As a sacrifice, it cleanses the soul of sin and strengthens us in virtue and releases graces upon us and the whole world.  Since man is composed of soul, body and spirit, we can say that fasting is good for body, soul and spirit.  Fasting, as much as health demands, helps us maintain good health and avoid gluttony (overindulging).  Indeed, we need healthy bodies to do God’s work!

Fasting is also good for the soul and spirit.  It helps us to maintain self-control, so that in times of temptation we have the strength to resist.  In other words, fasting is strengthening our will against indulging in certain pleasures that would not be good for us.  Fasting prevents us from being slaves to pleasure, and makes us more grateful for God’s creation. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:17-18).  Sometimes when certain pleasures come frequently, for example food or sports, things tend to lose their excitement.  Fasting helps keep things new and fresh!

Fasting can serve as a penitential act with value that calls down God’s mercy and it makes atonement (satisfaction) for sins that have occurred in the world.  Indeed, many prayers are not answered because sometimes our prayers are not complete until we sacrifice something.  I was once told by a very wise priest: “Prayer is elevation of the soul to God and fasting is elevation of the body to God.”  Fasting is necessary in prayers of intercession.  We can recall in the Gospels how the Apostles were not able to drive a demon out of a person because it could only “be cast out by prayer and fasting.” (Mark 9:29).  Prayer must be accompanied with sacrifice to be complete.

Finally, fasting disposes us to a higher form of prayer that we call contemplation where the soul is lifted upward to God.  To receive the Spirit of God entails silence before Him deeply immersed in the mysteries of God.  If someone is fasting, they are disciplined and less distracted. St. John Chrysostom says, “Fasting is the support of our soul: it gives us wings to ascend on high, and to enjoy the highest contemplation! […] God, like an indulgent father, offers us a cure by fasting.”

Now I know that this may have sparked your enthusiasm for fasting!  I know that we are all ready to fast more for the Lord and that is great!  But…hold the horses!  One final note is to be prudent…do not fast more then your health permits.  Fasting should never make you incapable of fulfilling your duties of state in life.  Also, in your fasting, are the Fruits of the Spirit more present in your life?  Are you a more loving, joyful, peaceful, patient person?  All fasting must be done cheerfully.  You do not measure holiness by how much someone suffers or sacrifices, but by the love that is in it.  It is for Jesus…always for Him.  Also, extraordinary penances must be approved by an authority such as a spiritual director or superior.  Obedience always before sacrifice!

St. John Vianney once said: “When we must do something we dislike let us say to God, ‘My God I offer you this in honor of the moment when you died for me.’”  Reflect today: What does Jesus mean to me?  Is He everything to me?

 

Me? A Saint?… Now Please!!!

Miraculous Perfection

st. alphonsus

 

I believe in miracles…I am sure you do to!  It is amazing how we can be so blind to all the miracles that happen around us!  I was talking to a Sister recently from another community about baking.  She told me that she was making cheese bread (you know bread with cheese in it!) and she said that she did not really measure the ingredients…but it came out like a 5 star cheese bread!  She was amazed!  Then she said a statement that really caught my attention: “It was miraculous perfection!”  I then pondered on this and thought to myself how becoming a saint is really a miracle of grace… we cannot do it by ourselves.  God gives us all the ingredients, everything we need to become saints: redemptive love of Jesus, the love of Mary, our guardian angels, the Church, the sacraments, prayer, good works, challenges that help us to grow.  We might wish sometimes that being a saint was as easy as snapping our fingers, however, if it were that easy, would we really know how to love?

We have been talking about the need of purification and how God allows the purifying fire for our sanctification.  Today, we are going to focus on one particular aspect of the purifying fire… the need to break free of attachments.  Jesus often speaks about detachment in the Gospels: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24).  St. Paul talks about this when he says “put off your old self which belongs to your former manner of life…and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness…” (Ephesians 4:22-24).  Jesus and St. Paul are not saying that things in the world are bad…but they are saying that our love must be properly ordered…God must be first!  Denying ourselves means the cross, but we should not fear becoming disciples of the Lord.  If we detach ourselves from the world, we do not lose anything…but we gain everything…union with God and we become saints…yes we will become saints faster!!!!!

So, let us first understand what an attachment is not.  St. John of the Cross spoke a lot about this in his various writings which we will summarize here.  An attachment is not merely a pleasure we find in something, for pleasure is meant to draw us to what is good.  Our pleasures can incite gratitude to God and help us have a deeper joy in the Lord.  Attachments are not about possessing or using things we like, for we need things in this life in order to live.  Nor is an attachment an attraction to something because our attraction to beautiful things or people remind us of the beauty of God.  The holiness of the saints made them so attractive to people, that those who saw them wanted to love God just like that saint did.  So, what is an attachment?

An attachment is an inordinate (obsessive) desire where we become so fixated on something or someone to the point that our souls are constantly attentive to that particular thing or person. So, when does desire become inordinate, an attachment?  When it becomes excessive and we begin to make that particular thing or person our everything.  I once heard a priest explain it in this way, “Remember that man is destined to a union of likeness with God, but that can only happen when what is unlike God or not conformed to Him is cast out!”  Attachments can deprive us of the Spirit of God.  Any attachment we have impedes the Holy Spirit from directing the soul.

So, what is the prescription to being healed of attachments for the sake of Divine Union? First, we need to cultivate a desire to imitate Christ by studying the Scriptures and cultivating a great love for Him in the Liturgy.  It is a profound fact that we imitate those we love.  When we seek to imitate Jesus, we will not allow our hearts to become attached to anything or anyone else.  Secondly, in mental prayer, we can contemplate the life of Christ, especially His life of self-denial and voluntary mortification.  In seeing how much Christ has loved you and me by contemplating his sacrifices for us, it grows in us as reciprocal love that also chooses to suffer rather than to have pleasure, as a means of imitating His love for each of us.  St. John of the Cross points out, if we wish to be more like Our Lord, we should be more inclined not to what is easiest, but to the most difficult…in this way we learn to deny ourselves and cultivate a love for the crucified Christ.  St John of the Cross says,

“As regards the sense, if anything pleasant comes your way which is not purely for the glory of God, put it away immediately for the love of Jesus Christ.  For instance, if you feel the urge to see or hear something which will not of itself lead you closer to God do less of it.  As for appetites, prefer always what is worse, more unpleasant, or poorer…”

Attachment and love are two different things.  Attachments are sought out for one’s own pleasure and to obtain a sense of worthiness but in a selfish way.  Love is not self-seeking rather it is self-sacrificing.  Attachments make us more corrupt and diminish us as people…love transforms us and elevates us to an intimacy with God.  St. Catherine of Sienna once said: “A soul cannot live without loving. It must have something to love, for it was created to love.”  If our love is God-centered, it is a healthy love.  Enjoying persons and things (cheese bread!) in God without trying to be totally consumed by them is key…in that way there can be an inflow of God in our soul and then we are on our way to becoming saints…in the fast lane!

 

 

Consumed in the Fire of God’s Love

Beginning of the Soul’s Journey to Union with God

Candle Image

Have you ever heard the expression: if you can’t take the heat get out of the kitchen!  There is something very uncomfortable about heat and very dangerous about getting close to fire…You get burned!  However, in the spiritual life we are called not only to get burned, but to be totally consumed with the fire of God’s love!  How does this happen?  The Feast of the Purification of Mary calls to mind the need of our interior purification.  Many of the saints spoke about how purification in the spiritual life is like a cleansing fire: “a fire that rages against vices only to produce a healing unction in the soul” says St. Bernard.  There are parts of us that need to be cleansed and purified in order for us to become love.   To obtain this cleansing we must pray like the psalmist: “Create a clean heart in me oh God and put a steadfast spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10).

I once heard a story about two old men who dwelt together for many years and who never quarreled.
Then one said to the other: “Let us pick a quarrel with each other like other men do.”
“I do not know how quarrels arise,” answered his companion. So the other said to him:
“Look, I will put a brick down here between us and I will say ‘This is mine.’ Then you can say ‘No it is not, it is mine.’ Then we will be able to have a quarrel.” So they placed the brick between them and the first one said: “This is mine.” His companion answered him: “This is not so, for it is mine.”
To this, the first one said: “If it is so and the brick is yours, then take it and go your way.”
And so they were not able to have a quarrel.

Monastery of Christ in the Desert. Sayings and Stories of the Desert Fathers. Accessed February 3, 2020.

https://christdesert.org/prayer/desert-fathers-stories/the-quarrel/

I like this story because it reminds me of the peace that is present when we learn to combat vice and embrace virtue.  We could say that these two men had interior peace and were not attached to anything created.  Their hearts were purified! Remember in the beginning of time how Adam and Eve had it all!  They had sanctifying gifts (infused virtues and gifts of the Holy Spirit) and preternatural gifts (knowledge, harmony, freedom from death)!  That must have been a nice life!  But, after they had sinned, the wound of original sin, which we are all infected with, put a major wall between us and God.  Concupiscence (inordinate desire for pleasure), weakness (shying away from work), malice (self-love) and ignorance (difficultly learning) are these wounds of that filthy, rotten, stinky, original sin.  The filthy, rotten, stinky sin also causes pride in us and concupiscence in our flesh and eyes.  We have a tendency to sin, and we are weak. We need to ask ourselves: What can I do to purify my soul and prepare it for union with God?

We have been pondering on God’s love for us and our response to God’s love.  Now, we will begin to talk about the stages of the Spiritual Life according to writings by St. John of the Cross, St. Catherine of Sienna, St. Teresa of Avila and St. Bernard, St. Therese and so many others!  In order for us to grow in holiness and love for God, we need to understand the movements that the Holy Spirit is making in our soul, and the ways in which He is purifying us.  In this way, we will come to know how to cooperate with God.

When God sees that a soul is truly trying to give themselves completely to God, He loves that soul and wishes them to be like Himself: Christ strips the soul, yet He clothes it with His own divine Life. Remember at the Last Supper, Jesus prayed to His Father for perfect union saying: “that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us” (John17:21).  When we consider the Passion of Jesus, we are reminded that our purification cost the Son of God Innocence itself.  Keeping this in mind we realize that we can endure purification since we have offended God so often.  Purification is the work of God’s love for us, and our acceptance of purification is proof of our love for Him.  If a person is prone to anger, God will give many opportunities to practice patience.  If someone is prone to follow lustful desires, God will give many opportunities to practice chastity and custody of the eyes.  If someone is prone to pride, God will give opportunities to practice humility most often in the form of humiliations.  If someone is prone to sloth, God will give many opportunities to give generously.  If someone is prone to envy, God will give many opportunities to practice gratitude.  If someone is prone to fear and anxiety, God will give many opportunities to practice courage in spite of the fear and stress.  We must not be afraid of this, but must be convinced that purification is the work of Love. In light of all this, let us take the words of St. John of the Cross seriously: “To love is to labor to detach and strip ourselves for God’s sake of all that is not God.”