Dry as a Desert!!!

Desert

What do you think of when you think of a desert?  If you say cheesecake…that’s dessert…not desert…good try though!!  Perhaps you think of those fun looking cactus plants or hot dry desert sand…perhaps you think of one of those country western shows!  Being in the desert is not pleasant… actually it is very uncomfortable!!  However, everyone must go through a desert experience at some point…especially the desert experience in our prayer life.  What happens when we are in the desert?  We seek out water.  Jesus is the living water that we search for in our desert experience of prayer.

It is very common during the purgative stage of the journey to experience dryness in prayer.  Many people ask, “What do I do when my prayer life seems dry and empty?”  What is dryness in prayer?  Dryness in prayer is an experience of not being able to feel the presence of God during our prayer.  Perhaps we are not experiencing His presence the way that we did before…however, God is very present!!  There may be a few causes to this dryness in prayer that I found in reading, The Fulfillment of All Desire by Ralph Martin.  In this book, he goes through the different stages of the spiritual journey.   We will explore specifically what he says about lukewarmness and lack of fidelity to our prayer life, fatigue or illness, and the experience of the dark night!!

It is possible that we have become careless in fidelity to our spiritual life especially through neglect of daily prayers, attending Mass, lack of spiritual reading and so on.  It is possible that we have become careless in fighting temptations as well.  There may be times when distractions of worldly entertainments enter into our lives and we may make them the center of our life.  What is the solution to this lukewarmness and infidelity?  The solution is to come back to being faithful.  We need to humble ourselves, ask God for forgiveness and realize that we have not been as faithful to God as we should be.  Then, with complete and total confidence in God’s love for us, we get back on our feet and try to do better!

Sometimes there are other reasons for dryness in prayer such as fatigue and illness.  We are composed of body and soul so our mental, physical, psychological, emotional state can greatly affect our relationship with God.  Fatigue and illness will come in our lives.  However, the important thing is how we carry this burden.  Indeed, the saints encourage us to seek medical attention when we need to do so.  They also propose another way to handle fatigue and illness… by offering up everything and uniting our sufferings with the sufferings of Christ.  St. Francis says, “Look often with your inward eyes on Christ Jesus, crucified, naked, blasphemed, slandered, forsaken, and overwhelmed with every kind of weariness, sorrow and labour.  Remember that your sufferings are not comparable to His…you can never suffer for His sake anything equal to what he has suffered for you.”  However, when we offer our sufferings to God, He takes them and we become instruments of His love in the world!  Through offering our sufferings, souls can and will be saved!!

When we feel loved by God is it easy to love Him in return?  This is a question that raises another question: “Are we loving God for Himself, or for do we love Him only for what we receive from Him?”  It is clear that we cannot rely solely on our emotions.  Even though we cannot feel God’s presence sometimes, or even feel His love for us…does that mean God has stopped loving us?  Does that mean that God is no longer present with me?  Am I now alone on this journey?  NO!!  God permits the dark night at times in order to purify our love for the Lord.  A good sign that God has permitted us to enter this dark night is basically when we continue to serve and please the Lord despite how we are feeling.  A wife and mother may not feel like getting up to comfort and console the crying baby, but she does it because she loves that child.  Even though we may not feel like praying, if we do it anyways, God is glorified.  Also, this dark night could be a sign that God is aiding the soul to enter into a different form of prayer, a prayer of quiet.  The prayer of quiet involves being still before God in the silence and know that He is God.  God wants the soul to rely on Him and not His consolations as sweet as they are when they come.  Consolations from God are a good thing, they give us strength when the road gets tough; however we should not go looking for them.  If consolations come, we should thank God and move forward.  If dryness comes, we praise the Lord anyway!!

So, these are just some things to think about…the bottom line is we cannot be impatient when it comes to our spiritual life, rather we must hold fast to Jesus as best as we can in prayer trusting that He is very near to us and He will never abandon us!!

Healing Hearts…

Return of the prodigal son

Life has many twists and turns…just like a roller coaster.  If you have ever been on a roller coaster, there are two emotions people generally feel.  The first is terror…this utter feeling like you are going to die… and the second is excitement…EXTREME excitement.  If we compare our lives to a roller coaster ride, we can say that it consists of times of sadness and sorrow, but also times of great joy and excitement!  We cannot always predict where God is leading us on our spiritual journey…sometimes all we know for sure is that every experience that we have is an opportunity to love Jesus more… He is leading us closer to Himself.   But no matter how intense the twists and turns of life, no matter how many bumps and bruises we may receive along the way, God is always at work healing our hearts.

Conversion happens when we can learn to call God “Father.”  Jesus taught His Apostles to call God “Father” when he gave us the Our Father.  Jesus gave us the parable of the Prodigal Son in order for us to see God as he is…a merciful, loving Father.  He has his arms outstretched ready to embrace us…we just need to call on him and he comes to meet us!  That is the love of a Father…he comes to meet us.

So, we have been making our way through the purgative stage of our spiritual journey.  We have already talked about the initial conversion and the trials and temptations within this stage; however, we need to explain one key aspect about the purgative stage which we can call the “healing stage.”  We are now turning towards God through our conversion experiences.  We are coming to see what trials and temptations befall us the most.  But now, we are in the process of healing.  One important step towards healing is developing an ongoing relationship with Jesus in prayer.

Because our senses are so powerful and worldly attractions are so rooted in our nature, a greater love for God needs to flame in us.  A common occurrence for people in this stage is to see prayer as a boring activity and a “waste of time” especially if we do not see the fruits.  We must realize that we need prayer…even before that we need to recognize that we need God.

Real healing of our hearts will come when we begin to have lives of prayer.  Our relationship with God in prayer is much like our human relationships which need time, attention and care for them to continue to grow.  Our prayers can be spontaneous, “Lord help me!” or, like a good and wise priest always prays, “Jesus mercy, Mary help!”  We need to be honest and real with God when we pray…we can’t fool him…He is God.  What is most important is that we believe with all our heart that whatever we ask God in prayer, he hears every petition and will answer every prayer, perhaps not in the way that we expect!  God sees the big picture…we just see a little tiny portion of the picture.  The point is, we need to trust that God knows what is best for us…we need to trust Him!  Being attentive to God is so key at this stage.  St. Therese of Lisieux tells us concerning prayer: “How great is the power of Prayer!…Prayer is an aspiration of the heart, it is a simple glance toward heaven, it is a cry of gratitude and love in the midst of trial as well as joy…it expands my soul and unites me to Jesus.”  Teresa of Avila also made the point that it does not matter whether our prayers are memorized or not said out loud that determines their value but whether or not we try to pay attention that counts.

Many saints offer suggestions on how to pray well.  We all struggle with prayer sometimes, so it is good to look at saint writings for some help.  If we look at St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises for example we will see a few steps to help us grow in our prayer life.  Placing ourselves in God’s Presence realizing that God is very near and in the depth of your heart is very key.  If we struggle with this we need to ask God for help.  Say “Lord please help me to be attentive to you!”  Ignatius also suggests picking a passage from Scripture to help you meditate.  Place yourself in that scene and picture yourself in that scene.  The purpose of this meditation is to help you love the Lord more.  Take some moments to give thanks to God for the many graces that you have received in prayer.  It is important to make some resolutions in how your love for God is going to increase.  Perhaps you resolve to be more attentive in prayer, more ready to forgive others…these are some examples.

So, overall, I think it is a miracle of grace that we are able to communicate with God through prayer.  We are made in God’s image and likeness and He loves us.  As our prayer life grows so does our union with God grow.  Our prayer life is so key especially as we turn away from the sins, imperfections, and temptations of the past.  But what about those times when prayer feels so hard…when we experience dryness in our prayer…perhaps this could be the topic of our next post!

The Spiritual Battle Is On!!

Mary and Jesus crushing evil

We have all seen them…when you least expect to see them there they are!!  They tend to take us by surprise…most of us scream when we see them…  I am talking about snakes!  The other day, the Sisters and I saw a garter snake.  I know that they are God’s creatures and I have a deep respect for people who like them and take care of them…but I don’t do well with snakes.    Grasshoppers…okay…bees…fine…but snakes…no.  I guess because every time I see a snake I think of the evil serpent, the devil, who tempted Adam and Eve in Genesis.

The image that I have on this blog post is the image of Madonna and Child in Heidelberg Germany that totally captures what Genesis 3:15 says: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head and you shall bruise his heal.”  If you look at it closely, you will see that the Child Jesus has this angry expression in his face as He is stabbing the serpent with His spear!  I looked at this image and I said, “YES!!!”  Our Lady, looks so peaceful and content to be stepping on that evil serpent!  Just think about it…he is being stepped on by the Mother of God who is the most beautiful, virtuous, loving Mother in the whole world!!  Again I looked at this image and said, “YES!!!!!”

So many times in our lives, we need to beg the Child Jesus and the Mother of God to crush the evil serpents in our lives.  We all have evil serpents that spring up from time to time.  Lies, confusion, fear, discouragement, despair, loneliness and sufferings of every kind come into our lives.  The devil, the evil serpent, tends to lead us into temptation.  We just began speaking about the purgative way, and as we are on the road of conversion, at this stage, it is very likely and possible to encounter temptations.  Now let’s get one thing straight!!  Everyone…EVERYONE experiences temptation at some point in their lives!!  Even the saints: St. Augustine and St. Catherine of Sienna had temptations against chastity, St. Jerome was tempted to anger, St. Ignatius of Loyola was tempted to despair, St. Vitus had temptations of tardiness (he found it hard to get out of bed in the morning!  St. Vitus pray for us!)  Even the Saints endured temptation!!  Temptation is necessary in order for us to make spiritual progress.  Imagine for a moment if we never struggled…if everything was easy…would we grow in virtue and love?  Would we even acknowledge that we desperately need God?  Indeed, trials and temptations are not pleasant, however if we respond to them peacefully and with patience, it will help us to become holy.  “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).

So how do we respond to temptations when they come?  First we need to realize that temptation is a means of purification where we can put on the armor of faith as St. Paul speaks about and put our trust in God.  Suffering through temptations can make us atone and make reparation (do penance) for our past wrongs.  We can call temptations the “school of humility” where through them we realize our weakness, powerlessness, and how much we need grace from God!!  Suffering through temptations is also an opportunity to live out the words of Jesus, “Take up your cross and follow me!”  Temptation is also a school of love where we can throw ourselves into the arms of God and there seek the strength and shelter we need as His children.

It is extremely important for someone experiencing temptations, especially violent ones, as soon as they become aware of them to immediately reject both the pleasure and the temptation of it.  For example, even though we may feel an automatic pleasure to revenge or lust, we must immediately reject any voluntary delight in it once we realize that it is a temptation.  This might mean distracting ourselves from the temptation by performing an act of charity, going for a walk, beginning a new project etc…  Sometimes it is hard to combat these temptations on our own.  Having a good spiritual director and a good confessor who you can have regular contact with, especially with violent temptations is extremely necessary and important!  Do not be afraid to go to them and speak, even if what you need to say feels embarrassing.  Don’t be afraid of what the spiritual director or confessor will think…this is often a tactic the devil will use to make us be silent…spiritual directors and confessors know that life is a spiritual battle and they will not be surprised with what you say!  The devil hates the light…SO BRING THINGS IN THE LIGHT!!   Catherine of Sienna speaks about fighting the spiritual battle with a two-edged sword in our hands, with hatred of sin as one edge of the blade and love of virtue on the other.  IT IS NECESSARY TO HATE SIN!!!  Sin is ugly and offensive to Almighty God!!  No wonder the Child Jesus looked angry at the evil serpent in the statue of Madonna and Child…

The frequency and amount of time that temptations can vary.  Some people are often violently tempted, others are rarely tempted.  Temperament can play a part in this; there are some who have a temperament that is very emotional and passionate, but have a weak will and are upset with temptations.  Others are very well-balanced and energetic and are able to keep their peace in the midst of temptation.  God has providential designs for every soul.  Every person is called to sanctity but our journey there will look very different.  For most of us, our path to sanctity means passing through some severe tests only to ground us more in virtue!  So don’t be alarmed!  This is a tremendous grace!

There are three phases of temptation that we can address now which are: suggestion, pleasure, and consent.  Suggestion is basically a proposal of some evil.  There can be suggestions to so many different things: anger, suspicion, jealousy, envy, flirtatious behavior, frivolity, vanity, inappropriate affection, craftiness, and evil thoughts.  Our imagination is attracted to the “forbidden fruit,” meaning something looks good and attractive but it is not good and we should stay away from it.  No matter how dangerous this suggestion is, it is not a sin unless we consent to it.

Pleasure follows the suggestion.  As St. Francis de Sales points out: “many a time it happens that the inferior part of the soul takes pleasure in the temptation, without having been consent… This is the warfare which the Apostle St. Paul describes when he says his flesh wars against his spirit.”  The pleasure, as long as our will does not get involved, is not a sin, but it is a danger since it is opening a door to the possibility of consenting.  If the soul combats the temptation and succeeds in not “giving in” to it then the soul has performed a very meritorious act.  If, on the contrary the will delights in the pleasure, willingly enjoys it and consents to it, then a sin is committed.

So, how do we know when we have consented?  Indeed, there are times when we can easily see that there was no consent.  For example, in spite of the suggestion and pleasure accompanying it, if the soul feels disgust, annoyance, embarrassment, frustration, if they hold the evil in horror, and if they turn to God in prayer, there is no consent.  However, there are times where we might have to take responsibility for giving in to the temptation.  St. Francis gives us an example of this, “If I know, that some certain conversation leads me to temptation and to a fall and I do voluntarily indulge therein, I am, doubtless, culpable of all the temptations that shall arise.”

It is possible therefore for our consent to be imperfect for example there might be times where fear of offending God will come upon the soul, but only after relishing into the pleasure a bit.  Also, it is possible for temptation to be resisted in a half-hearted way.  This means resisting the temptation, but in a lazy, slow way, which means that there was half-consent.  We are called to fight the temptations promptly, energetically, perseveringly and humbly.  When it comes to temptations of thought, the best thing to do is to peacefully turn the thought over to God and peacefully think of something else.  Trying to fight them violently may only add more fuel to the fire.  To put out fire we need water and that water is the grace and peace of God.

When consent is full and entire, we know it!  Despite our conscience that recognizes the evil there are times where we can let ourselves be drawn to the sinful pleasure and give into it, sometimes in grave ways, sometimes in smaller ways.  If someone has consented, it means they made a decision.  They said “yes” to the suggestions and the pleasurable feelings that accompany them knowing that is an offense to Almighty God and they are hurting themselves and others.   If we do have the misfortune of falling into sin due to giving in to temptation, let us not lose heart!!  This is the time where we humble ourselves before God, acknowledge that we need his forgiveness, grace, and mercy.  Let us firmly resolve to be more alert and listen closely to the words of Jesus, “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation…the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:41).

Let us pray for each other that in these times of temptation we can turn to the Lord with all the faith that is in us!  Let us pray for each other that we can be brave in the spiritual war!  Let us pray for each other that we hold fast to Jesus and Mary in every temptation and ask them to crush the evil serpent!!

 

With Eyes Wide Open…

Fix our eyes on Jesus

I am always amazed when I see a little child get excited about the smallest things.  It is amazing to see how their faces brighten up with things like eating an ice-cream cone, or witnessing the first snowfall of the year, or even opening presents on their Birthday.  Jesus calls us to be like little children: “Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3-4)  God wants us to always have a sense of wonder and beauty about God and the things of God.

In the spiritual life, there are various stages that we must go through on the road to holiness.  These stages help us to open our eyes wide like a little child and discover the beauty and goodness of God.  As a result, we come to know God and ourselves in a more profound way.  The purgative stage is the first stage which can be described as the entrance into the life of grace.  As St. Paul explains in his letter to the Romans: “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2)  This stage marks the beginning of conversion.  Conversion basically means to turn around, to have a change of heart.  Conversion involves turning away from a past life in order to be transformed by God.  Usually an individual entering into the purgative stage has had a conversion experience to Christ where they know that God is good and forgiving and that they are loved by Him.  In this stage the individual begins to realize that certain vices need to be uprooted and purged and virtues need to take their place.  The person who has entered this stage realizes that they must avoid near occasions of sin by changing their lifestyle and turning away from sin and sinful attachments.  Hard to do!!  This brings to mind St. Augustine, who struggled a long time with living a life of chastity.  In his early stages of conversion to Christ he prays, “Oh, Lord make me chaste but not yet!!” (Confessions 8,7)  Changing our lives is very difficult, but with the grace of God, prayer and the Sacraments all things are possible.

A person who is in the purgative stage realizes that in order to be healed of their past life, and to be on the path to the life of eternal happiness, they must begin to follow the Commandments of God.  I like to think of this stage like a patient who approaches the doctor with aches and pains.  The patient realizes that they need help, and that this pain or ache is not going to go away on its own…they need healing.  This happens in our spiritual life too!  We are awakened to the fact that there is some ache, pain, loneliness, loss, discouragement, a sense that this world does not fulfill us… and we need a spiritual doctor!!  Our spiritual doctor just so happens to be God Himself, who is the greatest healer.

Persons who have had this conversion towards to Lord also realize that there is a duty now to have a habit of prayer, both vocal and liturgical prayer, as well as meditation with the Scriptures.  They begin to pray the prayers of the Church such as the Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be etc…  They begin to practice various forms of piety such as regular confession, spiritual reading, retreats, and sacred study.  They realize that in performing acts of charity and works of mercy, virtue is just beginning to develop and vices are beginning to be exposed, uprooted and thrown away.

The result of a person who has passed through the Purgative stage of their journey is that they begin to have a regular, stable life in the Church where they are now living the life of faith.  Even though there might be storms and struggles that occur in the Church, their faith is rooted in Christ who gave us the Church.  They are able to respond fully to the Lord because they have discovered the loving mercy of God and they want to love Him more.  St. Teresa of Avila tell us:

“Through the blood He shed for us, I ask those who have not begun to enter within themselves to do so; and those who have begun, not to let the war make them turn back…Let them trust in the mercy of God and not at all in themselves, and they will see how His majesty brings them from the dwelling places of one stage to those of another…and they shall enjoy many more blessings than one can desire….blessings even in this life I mean.”

But we are only at the beginning everyone…only the beginning…more to come!!!