Lean On Me…When You’re Not Strong

Healing blind man

I like music!  There are some songs that just stick in your head.  Livin’ On A Prayer by Bon Jovi, Summer of 69 by Bryan Adams, Everything is Awesome by those guys in the Lego Movie, The Song That Never Ends by those kids in the commercial riding in the back of their parents car…are just a few examples of songs that come into your head when your washing dishes, doing the laundry.  It is fun in the convent!  Sometimes you sing one line of a song and all the other Sisters start singing with you!  That’s pretty awesome!  I know that you have heard the famous song “Lean on me.”  It is one of those songs that sticks in your head forever…sorry about that!  I like the lyrics of that song: “lean on me, when you’re not strong, and I’ll be your friend…I’ll help you carry on…”

To have a good friend is a special gift…someone that you can share your likes, dislikes, what you hope for, what you are upset about.  I have always found it a comfort to say to people, “can you please pray for this situation or this person.”  When the Cross is heavy, somehow God gives tremendous strength to carry it, provided we cooperate with His grace.  Sometimes that strength comes from sending a friend.  By having that friend, God is revealing to us more of His mercy…that He is with us through that person.  There is something special about sharing a burden with someone…it helps us grow in trust.  There is something special when that friend takes your hand, or puts their hand on your shoulder making sure that you know they are there for you through it all.  Treasure the people that come into your life!  Thank God for them everyday.  How do you know when you have found a good friend?  When they challenge you to be a better you!  When they challenge you to grow in holiness both by their words and actions.  When they look at you and you know that no matter what you have done or said in your life, they love you, because you are you.  Then you know you have found a treasure!

God permitted our Lord to be helped by Simon when Jesus carried His Cross.  We all need Simon in our life…and we need to be Simon to others as well.  By now in our journey of the spiritual life, I think we are beginning to see that we desperately need to rely on the grace of God.    I heard one priest say over and over in his homilies: “We need God’s help!”  That is a good ejaculatory prayer: “Lord help me” or “Jesus have Mercy, Mary help!”  Don’t be afraid to make “help” prayers to the Lord.  Remember in the Gospel when the blind man cried out to Jesus.  He cried, “Jesus, Son of David have mercy on me!” (Luke 18:38).  What did Jesus do?  He asked the blind man: “What do you want me to do for you?” (Luke 18:41)  After asking Jesus that he may see, Jesus responds, “Receive your sight; your faith has made you well.” (Luke 18:42).  With prayer like that, God always sends help!  Going into the dark night does not mean that we are losing our sight, rather it means that Jesus is helping us to come out of the darkness and to be able to see.  When we are experiencing a dark night, it is actually the Lord saying to us, “Receive your sight!”  Let’s not let the dark night make us afraid, but let us see it as a healing from darkness to light.

In order for us to heal and to be who God is calling us to be, God needs to correct things in a passive manner.  This is a point in our spiritual journey when we really need to lean on the Lord when we are not strong.  In the active night, we strive to do our part in being purified, but “despite all our efforts, which are only possible through God’s grace, we will fall short unless the Lord Himself acts deeply within us” (The Fulfillment of all Desire Ralph Martin pg. 337).  Passive purgations go to the depths of our body, soul and spirit.  Our spirit is perfected, and so is our senses.  We desperately need to lean on the Lord!

There are two phases of the passive dark night.  The night of the senses where God heals the disorders which are still present in the senses which we may not even be conscious of.  The night of the spirit is when God reaches into our intellect, memory and will and purifies them in order to come closer to that full and complete union with God.  We will begin with the passive dark night of the senses.

Basically the dark night of the senses is a time where there is aridity (dryness) that puts the soul in a painful state with severe tests of perseverance on the journey towards sanctity.  Many people stop advancing at this point unfortunately because souls are afraid.  In one’s prayer life during this period, God is weaning the soul away from milk, and beginning to give solid food. This means that God is instructing the soul to pray in a new way.  The dark night of the senses is caused by infused contemplation where God is communicating his grace directly to it by passing the sense faculties.

St. John of the Cross points out in his writings that a soul who has entered the dark night is usually someone who is detached or detaching from venial sin, has built up a life of virtue, and is also practiced in meditation and affective prayer.  This is a person who is striving to control their imagination, who practices penances and is striving to overcome self-love.

The soul enters this dark night because there is a need to purge unconscious attachments, even the delights that come from one’s spiritual life.  St. John of the Cross also explains that God is granting infused prayer and the soul is not accustomed to it, so the person experiences a dark night.  In other words, if a soul is attached to consolations in prayer, underneath this practice of prayer is a hidden self-love and this needs to be purged!  God is bringing light into darkness, and the soul realizes that it cannot rely on the things of this world.  The soul knows that only God is their salvation through this time of darkness.  God is communicating to the soul but in a different way…he is giving great spiritual grace that the soul is not accustomed to.  This is the point where the capital sins resurge!  We will begin going through these in the next few posts.

So this is a point where we really need to lean on the Lord because we are not strong…the song is still in my head!!

 

Step By Step…

jesus taking steps

 

First Steps of Our Saviour

Watching a baby learn how to walk is one of the most beautiful and funny things I have ever seen!  The parents are standing behind the child holding their hands guiding them one step at a time.  The child’s legs feel like jelly…this is something new…they seem to be getting the hang of it!!  Then…the moment happens!  Mom and Dad let go of the child’s hands.  The child lets out a high-pitched cry of distress and if they could talk it would be something like this: “Mom and Dad!  Come back!”  Mom and Dad move to the other side of the room… the child sees this and again if they could talk they would say: “I’m here!  I’m coming!”  The child musters all the strength that they have…they rise… and step by step they go, with legs that move like jelly and big eyes…they continue forward.  Mission baby: fall into the arms of Mom and Dad.  Mom and Dad are saying with the most beautiful high-pitched tone of voice: “Come on honey!  Come to Mom and Dad!”   Mom and Dad catch their little one with great joy! They finally made their first steps!!

I sometimes wonder what it was like for the Mother of God and St. Joseph to see the Son of God take His first steps on earth.  I am sure that it was a moment fixated in the mind of Mary in which she pondered often.  The feet that he took His first steps with would be the feet kissed by the sinful woman in whom our Lord would forgive.  Those were the same feet which would travel miles and miles in order to do the will of the Father.  Those were the same feet which would travel up to Calvary, and the same feet which would be nailed to the Cross for our salvation.  And those are the same feet that we all fall down before in our brokenness and weakness and in a spirit of contrition.

Taking those first few steps is one example of “letting go.”  It was a moment in which we needed to let go of the hands of our parents.  However, there are moments in life where letting go is very hard to do.  When someone we love dies, or is separated from us for long periods of time, we experience grief and struggle.  When someone does something to us that hurts us, it makes it very difficult to move on because of the pain, we have a hard time forgiving and letting go.  Jesus tells us “Come to me…and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28-30).

Letting go takes time, patience, faith and great love.  We cannot do it on our own, especially if it is a matter of love. Letting go does not mean that we stop loving, but it means that we love in a deeper way.  When we are attached to creatures, it means that our love is disordered in some way.  Attachment is not love.  Attachments do not bring us closer to God.  Love brings us closer to God.  The dark night is meant to help us break the attachments so that we can really love.  This means maintaining healthy boundaries with those we love and care for, and have everything in our lives properly ordered. God must help us and by His grace we are able to do it!  Letting go involves making sacrifices and knowing that God is in control.  Letting go means giving God control, surrendering to Him and His plan, and then cooperating with His grace.  It calls to mind the story of Abraham when God asks Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac…this was a test of his faith.  God gave this painful task to Abraham; however (spoiler alert!) God was only testing Abraham and so Abraham did not kill His son!  Abraham’s story can teach us so many lessons, but one big lesson that it teaches me is learning to let go of my own will in order to follow God’s will.  Other saints had to experience this process of “letting go.”  St. Maximilian Kolbe comes to mind because he was willing to sacrifice his own life so another man would live.  St. Augustine had to let go of his life of impurity in order say “yes” to God.  St. Francis of Assisi and St. Clare of Assisi chose to let go of their lives of luxury in order to follow the Gospel.  Sacrifice is hard.  Letting go is hard, but if we see with the eyes of faith…once we let go we know through faith that we receive everything in return…because God is everything.

How do the things I love in this world bring me closer to God?

Are the relationships that I am in currently helping me to grow closer to God or further away?

What or who am I attached to?  How can I maintain healthy boundaries?

Is there a little sacrifice that I can make today out of love for God?

Going through the dark night means being ready to let go!  I already spoke about attachments in a previous blog post, however, more can be said in this regard.  God is outside of creation…yet He became one of us in order to love us and save us.  He transcends everything.  All wisdom and power is contained in God. God shares His goodness through creation and He calls man to be holy.  We realize through Jesus that holiness is a supernatural gift.  Man cannot be holy on his own; God is holy, therefore it is by God’s grace and our cooperation with Him that we become holy too.

St. John of the Cross tells us that God is All and creatures are nothing (nada).  Creatures are something in so far as they are made by God, but in the light of eternity, how do creatures compare to almighty God?  The creatures of the world are things that we need to detach ourselves from.  In order to ascend to God, we must be detached.  This does not mean that we cannot enjoy God’s creation.  God made creatures out of His great love, and He wants us to enjoy them and give thanks to God for them.  However, creatures are finite which means they are not everlasting.  What are finite things compared to the infinite God?

So overall, two contrary points cannot exist in one person.  St. John of the Cross points out that to live in the darkness means to be attached to creatures.  To live in the light means to be attached to God.  If you have a love for higher things, you enhance your dignity and you become more of who God is calling you to be.  If we are attached to creatures, we become slaves of the world, carrying within ourselves a heart of a slave rather than a heart of a son or a daughter of God.  When we are in union with the Lord we lose nothing, but gain everything!

Have you ever been hungry?  Like really hungry?  They say never go shopping when you are hungry!!  I know from experience that this is very wise advice.  Our appetites can sometimes be intense!  What we crave can take hold of us!  In the dark night, God wants to purify our desires for things.  He wants to help us order our passions and appetites so that they will give glory to God and not to ourselves.  St. John of the Cross makes a good point: behind every appetite there is a desire for God.  We might have appetites for friendship, union with a spouse, food, sports, etc…  If we take our appetite for friendship as an example, behind that desire for friendship is a desire for union with God.  My professor of the course that I took on Christian Asceticism of St. John of the Cross told us that “creatures are meant to wet our appetite for God.”  He told us that creatures are meant to awaken our desire to see that which is to be revealed.  Appetites are not bad things…but too much of a good thing is not always a good thing.  Our appetites need to be mortified and disciplined, since their purpose is only to draw us closer to God.  If our appetites are ordered and detached, the proper object that we attain is union with God who is our infinite good.  However, if our appetites are not properly ordered, we attain a vicious cycle of disobedience and discontentment and so the object we attain is self.  Happiness is a state of being where we are in communion with God.  Our appetites need to be ordered upward to God through Faith, and so we must put them under the rule of Faith and thus we will be happy.

So you see now the necessity of the dark night.  Creatures cannot totally satisfy us.  Our selfishness cannot satisfy us.  Power, success, money, and pleasure cannot fully satisfy us.  Thus God needs to purify and strengthen us to see that all our desires point to the fact that we are thirsting for God, and in order to be in union with God which is our ultimate purpose, that means we need to learn how to let go of all our attachments.

The next post we will begin to discuss the dark night of the senses, specifically the passive purgations and what that means.  We have already spoken a lot about the active night, but we are now going to discuss the passive night.  We will go through each of the seven deadly sins in detail such as spiritual pride, spiritual avarice, spiritual lust, spiritual anger, spiritual gluttony, spiritual envy, spiritual sloth.  Then we will discuss signs of discerning the dark night which will hopefully be very beneficial to all of you as it has been for me!

 

 

Climbing the Ladder of Sanctity…Entering the Dark Night!

Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane

So here we have come at last!  After spending time looking at the purgative and illuminative ways, we have come to see how the Lord is forming us to grow more in union with Himself.  We spoke in our last blog about the development and growth in our prayer life…now we are entering into the topic of the Dark Night.

Now when I say Dark Night…I do not want you to think of Halloween, or monsters in the closet, or even Batman!  I want you to look at the Dark Night as a necessary step on the ladder of sanctity.  It is not something to be afraid of, or even to despair about, rather the Dark Night is something to really be grateful for!  In a sense, Jesus also underwent His dark night when He went through His Passion and Death.  We read in the Scriptures how our Lord suffered: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me, nevertheless not my will, but thine be done” (Luke 22:42).  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)   Jesus knows suffering!  He knows the Dark Night…but Jesus also gives the example of how one is to go through it: with surrender and trust in the help of God.

I was taking a course a few summers ago on Christian Asceticism in St. John of the Cross.  Most of the information that I will be giving you is from my notes of the course, and it has helped me so much, so I want to share it with all of you!  The professor there gave probably one of the most heart-moving definitions of the Dark Night that I have ever heard.  He said, “The Dark Night is an inflow of God into the soul who teaches the soul secretly and instructs it in perfection of love…it is a moving towards greater and greater love.”

So we begin in the soul.  The soul has certain faculties and powers…the ultimate object being God Himself.  When we deny ourselves and offer ourselves, our prayers, works, actions etc…it is possible at times, to experience a sort of darkness.  We can think of St. Mother Teresa who completely poured herself out for other especially the poor, but she herself was living in what she describes as a type of darkness.  Yet, she continued to pour herself out, no matter how she felt.

The path of faith is the road which the soul travels to God.  Faith is a dark night!  If we take a certain dogmatic teaching such as the Holy Trinity (one God, three persons) it is not possible to fully understand that teaching…we can say that our intellect is in darkness.  The Goal of the Dark Night is to put us in union with God who is, as St. John of the Cross puts it, an “unapproachable light.”  Love is what leads us…it draws us like a magnet to the object, and you become what you love.  As our love grows, our intellect becomes swept by our intimate union with God.  Our intellect may be in darkness, but our love for God confirms that the dogmatic truths professed by the Church are true…because God is truth.

There are different levels of purgation which we will take some time to go through in detail in the upcoming weeks.  But today, we will go through the ways in which the purgation comes which we call modalities and the levels of purgation briefly.  The first modality is an active purgation: what the soul can do by working on itself with God’s grace.  For example, someone can work on having more self-control…God supports the person in this resolution, but the person is very much involved in cutting away certain attachments that they have had before whether it be people, addictions and obsessions. In this type of purgation, the soul can also strive to root out certain vices that have been holding them imprisoned, for example making acts of courage when they feel fear…trying to be more patient when they are tempted to impatience and the list can go on.

There is also the passive purgation which involves God’s work…what God does to the soul through the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  This can be done through mystical activity where God is working directly on the soul.  God is cleaning the house, purging it out, and taking the roots of our faults and purging it out of us!  I don’t know if you have ever done spring cleaning…I have… and sometimes you find things hiding around the house that you did not even know were there!  That is what is happening in a sense with the passive purgation…God is removing those hidden attachments that are in us.  This can be painful…but necessary for our union with God.

My professor also said, again using the Dark Night by St. John of the Cross, that there are certain phases or levels that the soul can go through when experiencing the dark night.  There is the sense level which involves a purification of the senses through the internal senses and the appetites.  Then you have the phase of the spirit where intellect, memory and will are all purified.

There are four divisions of the purgation:

Active night of the senses: We are at work with God, cooperating with Him.  This is the stage where we are attentive to His Word, and where we are captivated by His Beauty and Majesty.  We are learning to mortify our passions, emotions, memory in order to be more conformed to God.  We are trying to root out vices and start practicing virtues such as self-control and patience as described earlier…

Active night of the spirit:  We are at work with God through mortification of our intellect and will.  We strive to mortify ourselves, with the help of God through curbing our curiosity and by learning to submit to the will of another person.  Hard to do!!

Passive night of the senses: God is very much at work…and now He must complete the good work that has begun!  Wishing you to move forward and in a more intense love for Him, you do not feel with your senses the presence of God.  This is to ensure that your relationship with God is centered on God and not on yourself.  You may begin to lose the capability to meditate, aridity in prayer becomes a norm.  You may lose the wish to work in service to others, but you do it anyway for the sake of loving God.

Passive night of the spirit: Again, God is very much involved!  As a lover who is in pursuit of the one He loves, God is like a mad lover looking for union with us.  He is so close to us at this stage!  This is the stage where God is strengthening us, and so he permits us to have doubts against faith, feeling abandoned by Him.  At this stage most especially, receiving the Sacraments frequently is so important as well as finding a good and wise spiritual director.  This is the time to strengthen our love for God!  God is permitting it to strengthen our love for Him, and to allow us to enter the transforming union with Him!

Okay talk about brain overload!!  I hope this is making sense.  We are next going to go through why the dark night is necessary, what are some signs that you could be going through the dark night, and then we will discuss some other key important factors in the dark night such as the purgation of the seven deadly sins!

 

Surge of the Heart…

airplane picture

I don’t know if you have ever had the experience of sky-diving.  If you have God bless you!!  If not…  neither have I…but I think that would be a really extraordinary experience…to have the experience of flying!  There is something really thrilling about seeing the world from above!  I remember going on an airplane for the first time not too long ago.  I am a small town country girl and so growing up, I hardly ever saw an airplane up close before!  I was heading to university…and I was so thrilled that I would be travelling on a plane!!  I wanted the window seat for sure!  It was amazing to see the world from above!

I suppose growing in our prayer life feels something like sky-diving, or even flying in an airplane.  We are beginning to believe that with God all things are possible, and we are beginning to see that no matter what we have done, or what we have failed to do, we are infinitely loved by God!  God begins to take over our prayer life as we enter more deeply into contemplation with Him.  We just need to throw ourselves into the arms of God, like a little child.  I am sure our ancestors years and years ago would not have even dreamed that one day, there would be airplanes that could take people all over the world.  For sure our ancestors would have never thought that we would have a chance to sky-dive!  We are beginning to see the world with new eyes…in a sense we are being transformed into Christ.  In our prayer, we are able to trust that with God all things are possible!

Do I have trust that with God all things are possible?  Is there someone in my life who really needs my prayers?  Do I really believe that God is going to help them?

Are there areas of my life that I need conversion and healing?  Do I believe that God is going to supply me with everything I need to help me in the healing process?

Do I trust in the power of the Sacraments?  How much do I trust the Sacraments to bring about healing in my life?

St Teresa of Avila is awesome!  If you ever get a chance to read what she has written, you will not be disappointed!  In her discussions on the various mansions in the spiritual life, she speaks about how in the beginning of our spiritual lives, it feels as though we are doing most of the work in our prayer life; however, as we grow, we will begin to see that it is God working in us.  St. Teresa of Avila also speaks about the quieting of the soul in prayer, where we can be totally absorbed in God.     

Prayer is very special.  St. Therese says, “For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.”  There is so much to be said about prayer, and eventually we will have more blog posts on prayer.  But here we will indicate some very simple thoughts on what growth in prayer looks like.

In order for us to obtain the true conversion of heart that we are all seeking after, we must pray!  It is important to allow ourselves to become recollected.  In his book, The Fulfillment of All Desire, Ralph Martin explains that there are two types of recollection: acquired and contemplative.  Acquired recollection involves our own effort to still our souls through Scripture, music, spiritual reading etc…  Contemplation on the other hand, he describes as the “touch of God” in the soul.  It is like a spiritual communication that manifests truth as St. Bernard says, “When the Word therefore tells the soul, “You are beautiful,” and calls it friend, he infuses into it the power to love, and to know it is loved in return…the soul’s response is wonder and thanksgiving.”  The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines contemplation as follows: “A form of wordless prayer in which the mind and heart focus on God’s greatness and goodness in affective, loving adoration; to look on Jesus and the mysteries of his life with faith and love” (CCC 2626, 2715).

As we dive more into the spiritual life, we begin to desire periods of silence and recollection more and more.  I don’t know if you have ever seen the movie “Up” where you see glimpses of the life of Mr. Fredrickson and his wife.  You see that they do not even have to say anything to each other…they are just happy to be together.  I believe that the prayer of quiet is very similar to this.  Teresa of Avila explains that this is a “foretaste of what will be given to those He brings to His Kingdom.”  The soul is just happy and content to be in the presence of God.

The prayer of union is being “captured” by the Lord in deep absorption and prayer.  Ralph Martin says in his book that the memory, imagination and intellect are totally absorbed in God.  It can be so intense that the person is not even aware of his surroundings!  They are just aware of the Lord’s presence and are completely absorbed in Him!  St. Teresa of Avila says, “God so places Himself in the interior of the soul that when it returns to itself it can in no way doubt that it was in God and God was in it.”

So what is the point of growing in these different stages?  The point is simply, to help us be more united to the Lord which is what we are called to do, and to do His will.  Prayer is not about having certain experiences, rather it is about growing in a relationship with Christ and learning to soar with Him.  St Bernard as well as St. Teresa of Avila and even St. Therese of Lisieux all speak about the importance of opening ourselves to the mercy of God in our prayer life.  Confidence in the infinite mercy of God will help us soar and fly in the spiritual life!

However, we must keep in mind that in order to grow in love for someone sometimes entails suffering.  Suffering can be a real test of love…and a growth in love.  God will permit us, at some point in our lives to pass through a dark night.  This will look different for all of us, but the dark night is necessary and essential for our growth in holiness…this is something we will speak about in our next post!

 

 

My Love…His Love

magdalen2

Mary Magdalene at the foot of the Cross

I once learned in a Human Embryology class all about the heart!  It is amazing that the job of the heart is to pump blood and distribute oxygen throughout the whole body!  To me that is so amazing, that one organ the size of a fist has such an important job!  When we think of hearts we think of love.  How many songs talk about broken hearts, mending hearts, or capturing hearts.  Even the Scriptures speak about the heart in the context of love: “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ezekiel 36: 26)  To St. Margaret Mary, Jesus revealed His heart and said, “Behold this heart which has so loved men and is so unloved in return.”

So at this stage of our spiritual journey we are hoping and praying that God will expand our hearts to a greater love.  Of course Jesus challenges us in the Gospels: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13-15).  “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5: 43).  Jesus produces for us a challenge: to have a love that goes beyond the natural human love.  Pope Benedict XVI in his encyclical entitled: “Deus Caritas Est” says “Love looks to the eternal…[it] is an ongoing exodus out of the closed, inward-looking self toward its liberation through self-giving, and thus toward authentic self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God.” (Deus Caritas Est par.6)

Pope Benedict XVI is basically saying that if love is to be real and true, it must look beyond the natural, then we will really come to know ourselves and are able to give ourselves.  We have a tendency to only love others if we get something from them, or if they love us in return.  However, Jesus challenges us to a new type of love…a love that can only deepen with the help of grace.

In his book entitled: “The Fulfillment of all Desire,” Ralph Martin indicates the three stages of growth in love spoken about by St. Catharine of Sienna.  Using imagery of Jesus on the Cross, St. Catherine is able to draw out some observations.  The first stage, which is the purgative stage, we can picture ourselves hanging onto the feet of Jesus.  This is where our love may still be quite self-centered.  Our love may be based on a fear of not going to hell, and of trying to avoid the pain in this life of committing sin (Martin, 253).  This is a good place to start…of course we want to be brought to eternal life!  Yet there is still room for growth!

The second stage that St. Catharine speaks about can be identified with the wound of Christ.  This is where we grasp more of Christ’s love and are more open to hearing the truths about Christ.  At this stage, we are like servants for we love Christ, and are willing to serve Him, but we expect something in return.  St. Bernard says, “Fear is the lot of a slave, unless he is freed by love” (Martin, 254).  We are trying to reach the third stage of union, symbolized by a “kiss of the mouth” as St. Bernard puts it.  This is the stage where abiding union with Christ occurs just like when two spouses kiss as an expression of their union.  Love has grown, been purified and no longer looks at what we are receiving in the relationship, but on what we can give, by way of love.

Do you ever become distressed when it seems as though those you really love are not returning love to you?  Do you love them anyways?  Do you pray for them?

Does it distress you never to hear the words I love you?  Do you realize how much God loves you?

Do you pray to have a greater love for others, even if they do not return love to you?

Indeed, we must not let ourselves be overwhelmed if someone does not express love in the way that we wish them too.  Sometimes people really do love…deeply…but they do not know how to express it.  Many times they want to say “I love you” and they want to show it, but they are not sure how.  This is a wonderful thing to bring to prayer: “Lord, I am glad that you have brought this person in my life.  Thank you!  They are a wonderful gift to me!  Even though I may never hear the words, I am so happy that they are in my life.  May they learn to love you Lord, that is what matters the most to me.  Help them to grow in love for you Lord…that is what matters the most to me!”  Making a prayer like this is bringing your relationship with this person to a different level then just the natural. You are beginning to want the good for the other person, without needing anything in return.  This is a special love!

I am learning more as time goes on that love knows how to suffer and maintain peace in the Cross.  The more attuned we are to the gaze of the face of Christ, the more aware we are that we are loved beyond imagining.  Then the Fruits of the Spirit are more active in us: we have more joy which proceeds from love, peace where we rest in our Beloved, patient endurance especially at the end of our lives, generosity where we give more without measuring, kindness which allows us to image Christ and His Blessed Mother, faith where our love grows until the end, self-control and chastity where we can love appropriately with our bodies seeing ourselves as true Temples of the Holy Spirit.

Overall, to learn how to love takes conversion on our part.  We need to pray that God will break our hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh.  True Love became man…He gave everything for us.  I once heard a wise priest say, “We mean everything to God, even the Blood of His own Son.”

When I made final vows, not too long ago, I chose to put on the back of my Final Vows card the passage from 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 and 13.  It is to remind me of what love is, and the type of love that I desire to have as a Bride of Christ.  I will leave it with you now:

“Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude.  Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right.  Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things…So faith, hope, love abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

 

Messy…But Priceless

glowing-sunset-over-water

You are irreplaceable!  No one can take your place.  God made us unique…there is no one exactly like you.  God loves us…even when we get into messes… God loves us!  I really love going through old photo albums and I remember seeing so many pictures of babies with chocolate cake all over their faces…painting all over the kitchen floor and walls…playing in the sandbox!  Messy…but priceless!

When we were kids, we got into many messes!  At the time, we needed help cleaning ourselves up!  God, like a loving Father wants to help us clean our spiritual messes (sins, imperfections, temptations etc…).  He gives us everything we need, especially the love of His own Son!

So, we have already talked about the purgative way which is basically the stage of cleaning house and looking at those areas of our lives that need to change.  St. John of the Cross speaks about the next stage of the spiritual journey called the illuminative way.  We will continue looking at this spiritual journey by sharing some thoughts of St. John of the Cross, a little more from Ralph Martin’s book The Fulfillment of All Desire, and some reflections of the saints to help us out!

So the illuminative way…just saying “illuminative” makes me think of light.  We have come to this awareness of ourselves and we are working with the help of grace on resisting temptations, enduring trials, and centering our life on prayer.  This means we are developing a greater self-knowledge.  This means that there are certain parts of us that need healing and purification that perhaps we have not seen before.  Picture this: when you walk into a dark room, you might conclude that the room looks very clean.  However, when you open the curtains you are now able to see the dust and cobwebs in the room.  It is only when light enters the room are you able to see the dirt and dust.  The illuminative way simply means that God’s light shines through, brighter then it ever has, and we are able to see ourselves and others more as God sees.

I once took a course on John of the Cross and there are a few key aspects that the professor drew when considering the illuminative stage.  He said that this is a stage where prayer and contemplation help us to rest in God’s love and truth.  This is also a stage where virtues become stronger and where God strengthens these virtues through the Gifts of the Holy Spirit.  He also indicated that this is the stage where there is a deepening of love of neighbour.  This is the stage where we can see Christ in others more beautifully.  There is also a greater moral stability in individuals who are in the illuminative way.  Since souls are striving to gain more self-control over their passions, they are more attune to obeying the laws of God.  This means that their souls are strengthened by the power of the Cross.  They are able to see that in carrying the Cross there are tremendous graces, and through it all they are able to surrender themselves completely to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.  In this stage, the professor said that there is a greater detachment from all that is not sin.  This means becoming detached from creatures and transformed so that there is a greater desire for union with God.

Having more self-knowledge also helps us to have a greater stability and a greater freedom.  St. John of the Cross says that at this stage, someone is able to occupy themselves with thoughts of God and their joy is more interior and more abundant then before.  Even though the purification of the senses is not yet complete, St. John of the Cross says there will be temptations against the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity.  He warns that there will be times where God will permit natural causes to afflict the soul such as the persecutions of men and the ingratitude of friends.  What is called for in this state is what St. John of the Cross calls “patient suffering.”  Don’t let these things worry you!  These trials are really meant to help us grow.  If we did not have trials and struggles, would we grow in our love for God?  If the road was not difficult sometimes, would we see our need for God?  God permits these things to help us become more whole, and even though they are hard at the time, the end result is worth it!  We become transformed into Christ who was also persecuted, betrayed, abandoned, yet HE LOVES!!!

We know that God is love and mercy.  St. Bernard explains what true self-knowledge should look like:

“As for me, as long as I look at myself, my eye is filled with bitterness (Job 17:2).  But if I look up and fix my eyes on the aid of the divine mercy, this happy vision of God soon tempers the bitter vision of myself.”

In saying this, Bernard is expressing that the more we acknowledge the mercy of God, the more we look at ourselves with more mercy.  His mercy takes away some of the heartache that we have for ourselves of our own misery and messiness.  It is easy to be really down on ourselves, but when we consider the mercy of God we have hope that even in our sinful, messy state, God loves us unconditionally.

As we make our way throughout the illuminative way we discover that in this stage, there is growth in self-knowledge and there is a deeper awareness of the mercy and love God.  We know that God loves us in our messiness.  We are priceless…messy but priceless!

I mentioned earlier about sense purifications.  These we will speak about in the weeks to come….

 

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!!!