Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Concerning Prayer - 1

Emilie Griffin in her book Clinging says that the moment between wanting to pray and actually praying is the most pivotal instant in our life of faith. I liken it to standing on the edge of pool and not being quite sure that one wants to get wet but knowing that the water is going to be so refreshing and so wonderfully invigorating and cleansing. Suddenly, you just jump in and you find yourself completely immersed in the deep end of the pool and you begin to swim. Then you say to yourself, “I should do this more often ….” The dynamic of prayer is just like that. You have to just jump in. You have to just do it and you have to immerse yourself in it. You have to get wet. But still we often remain frozen between the desire to pray and actually praying.

Why? Well, prayer takes time, something that we don’t seem to have a lot of. The demands that are made upon us by work, family, school, sports, and all the other things that make up our daily activities, do not, at first glance, allow for a great deal of extra time for prayer. Yet, I would offer that if we were to chart out exactly what we do each day and when we do it, we could easily find a lot of time being used for activities that could be substituted for prayer. Let me ask you, in the grand scheme of life, what is more important, watching the latest edition of “Dancing with the Stars” or “Keeping up with the Kardashians” or taking the time to pray? When we get up in the morning, do we really need to put our feet on the floor and rise off the bed so quickly or can we keep our feet on the floor or even bend our knees for a few minutes of prayer to begin the day. When we look at what we are actually doing with our time each day, we realize that there is time to pray, it’s just a matter of priorities.

We need to pray daily. In the greatest of our prayers, the Lord’s Prayer, we say, “Give us this day our daily bread.” No matter how you try to get around it, the emphasis is on daily. In the great story of creation that we find in the book of Genesis, the first thing that God creates is the separation of light from darkness. “God called the light "day," and the darkness he called "night." Thus evening came, and morning followed--the first day.” The most primitive unit of time is the day. It requires no clocks, no mathematics, no astronomy. It marks the simple movement from light to darkness and back again, the simple rhythm of sleep and wakefulness. It is the first of God’s created gifts and calls forth from the believer a simple act of thankfulness. If anything, we should pause both at the beginning of the day and at its end to offer prayerful thanks for all that God has done for us. This was part of Jesus’ prayer. As a devout Jew, each day he would turn towards Jerusalem and pray both in the morning and the evening a prayer called the Shema Yisrael – “Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is One ….” Thus, when we commit ourselves to prayer at these times each day, we are imitating the example of Christ himself.

Prayer also means to be focused on one thing and one thing only – conversation with God. Yet in a world with so many distractions and so many ways to multitask, it is hard to do that. Think about all the potentials for being distracted: the cell phone, the radio, the TV, the people around us, the noise around us. We have to turn them all off (well maybe not the people around us) if we are to pray. Do you work with music from the radio or computer on? Is the TV always on somewhere in the house? To turn on to prayer, you have to turn off those things that distract from prayer. All of this means that we have to choose to pray, to jump into the pool and get wet. Once we do, we realize how wonderful the ‘waters’ of prayer are – refreshing, cleansing, and invigorating.

If I may quote a famous ad campaign, the most important advice that one can receive when it comes to prayer is “just do it!” The early Christians were certainly a people of relentless prayer.  In an ancient church order entitled the Apostolic Tradition written in the 3rd or the 4th c. we read of the practice of prayer in the early church: Let every faithful man and every faithful woman, when they rise from sleep at dawn,... before they undertake any work, wash their hands and pray to God. Then they may go to … work. If there is a day when there is no instruction, let each one at home take a holy book and ...read enough of it to gain an advantage from it…. If you are at home, pray at the third hour and praise God. If you are elsewhere at that … time, pray in your heart to God. For in this hour Christ was seen nailed to the wood… Pray also at the sixth hour. Because when Christ was attached to the wood of the cross,... the daylight ceased and became darkness. Thus you should pray a powerful prayer at this ...hour, imitating the cry of him who prayed and all creation was made dark for the ... unbelieving Jews…. Pray also at the ninth hour a great prayer with great praise, imitating the souls of the... righteous who do not lie, who glorify God who remembered his saints and sent his Word... to them to enlighten them. For in that hour Christ was pierced in his side, pouring out... water and blood, and the rest of the time of the day, he gave light until evening. This way... he made the dawn of another day at the beginning of his sleep, fulfilling the type of his resurrection…. Pray also before your body rests on your bed… [Toward the middle of the night], rise and pray. Because at this hour, with the ...cockcrow, the children of Israel refused Christ, who we know through faith, hoping daily… in the hope of eternal light in the resurrection of the dead. Wow! That certainly is a lot of prayer. Think about how our lives would change even more for the better if we just did half of the ‘hours’ of prayer!

But the writer(s) of the Apostolic Tradition does not leave the reader simply with encouragement to pray at these hours but also with instruction on how to pray. Prayer should begin with the “sign,” what we call the Sign of the Cross. The text explains it to be the “sign of the passion” and speaks of it as useful to invoke throughout the day especially when tempted because the Adversary [the devil], when he sees the strength of the heart and when he sees the inner... man which is animated by the Word shown formed on the exterior, the interior image of the ...Word, he is made to flee by the Spirit which is in you. But even beyond the use of the ‘sign’ as a small rite against the power of evil, when we begin our prayer with the Sign of the Cross, we recall the beginning of our life in faith when we were baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

It is interesting to note that when we greet adults and children at the beginning of the rites of initiation, whether it’s the Rite of Becoming a Catechumen or the Rite of Infant Baptism, we sign them without words on their forehead with the sign of the Cross anticipating the fullness of the sign that they will receive in baptism, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In making the Sign of the Cross, we are reminded, too, that we are conformed to Christ, that we are new creations by virtue of our baptism, having died with him and risen to new life. So, the outward sign of the Cross expresses the inner being of the Christian. If as we make the sign of the Cross to begin our prayer, we were to pause and make the Sign slowly, recalling the gracious love of God poured forth through each person of the Trinity and then take a moment to recall our own conformity to that Sign, it seems to me we have already begun our prayer well. We have collected our thoughts, begun to focus on God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and slowed ourselves down so that we may enter more fully into the prayer that lies ahead.

Catholic Identity and the New Evangelization

Last year Trinity College in Hartford, CT released a study of a nationwide survey, based on 54,000 telephone interviews, in which people were asked to identify their religious affiliation. The results are interesting for us Catholics, to say the least. While the total number of Roman Catholics within the United States has remained basically the same since 1990 – about one quarter of the population - the number of people in New England who identify themselves as Roman Catholic has dropped considerably. The study, found that the six-state region is now 36 percent Catholic, down from 50 percent in 1990. According to an article in the Boston Globe, “In Massachusetts, the decline is particularly striking - in 1990, Catholics made up a majority of the state, with 54 percent of the residents, but in 2008, the Catholic population was 39 percent. At the same time, the percentage of the state's residents who say they have no religious affiliation rose sharply, from 8 percent to 22 percent.” As such, the vast majority of new Catholics are located in the southern and southwestern parts of the United States and are mainly new immigrants from Central and South America. We are seeing then a major shift in the Catholic population from the northeast – north central states and cities of Boston, New York, and Chicago consisting of Catholics of European descent – Irish, Italian, Polish, etc. – to a Church whose population centers are now in Texas, Florida, and California, markedly Hispanic in language and culture. The study did not ask people why they ceased identifying themselves as Catholics or why they had dropped any religious affiliation whatsoever. It simply collected data. Of course, that leaves a bit of an information vacuum for those of us who are still Catholic to consider. So, allow me to offer a few thoughts on the matter, not just in terms of the “why?” but also the “how?” – How do we respond to this in a positive way? How do we pick-up the challenge that this offers us.

The late John Paul II early in his papacy called for a “new evangelization,” an evangelization not to mission countries but right in the heart of Catholic Europe and North America. John Paul noted the many challenges the Church faced in the modern world: the marginalization of religion as a value in societies that were becoming more and more secular if not hostile to religion, the declining population within Europe, the rise of Islam and the immigration of Muslims to many countries in Europe, to name a few. These are challenges from mainly outside the Church that we must continue to face as it serves its mission in the world. But, he also rightly recognized a challenge from inside the Church as well. The Holy Father drew our attention to the fact that while many in the first world – the United States and its European allies – were nominally Catholic, they were not in fact spiritually or existentially Catholic. People who never darkened the door of a church except for an occasional funeral, wedding, or holiday would still self-identify themselves as Catholics. He issued a challenge to the church to begin to evangelize itself, to begin to recruit to the life of the church not just the person who has never believed or been baptized but also the person who has been baptized and, yet, has no belief – the unchurched Catholic. He warned that if we did not address this challenge we would soon see a marked decrease in the size of our Church and the loss of many Catholics to other things. But it is important to remember that Pope John Paul’s call was not just about numbers. The new evangelization was about salvation, the salvation of souls, ours and those of many others. If we believe that the Christian message is mostly fully and perfectly professed within the Catholic Church then we need to preach that truth in our words and deeds to all we meet so that they, too, might have a “new life.”

While some picked up the challenge of the new evangelization, most did not. The decline in the number of Catholics in New England over the last twenty years is not just because of fallout from the clergy abuse crisis or church closings. While those sad chapters in our church’s life certainly led to or hastened the departure of many from our pews, the fact is that many were already leaving or not coming prior to 2002. I think that the main reason for this is that we had become a church of complacency. Through the late 19th and then into the majority of 20th century, the Catholic Church in the United States had seen a huge growth in its numbers and political power. As time went on, we came to believe that this would continue without doing anything other than we had in the past. Catholic Boston would always be Catholic Boston. The church would provide the sacraments and religious schools and education and people would keep coming. Clearly this did not happen. We failed to recognize and respond to major shifts in our culture: secularization, the sexual revolution, the liberalization of public education, the increased affluence and education of Catholics, the movement of Catholics from city parishes to the suburbs, and the major upheaval within the church as a result of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Now we are left with a church at present whose numbers are in decline, whose parishes are being closed, and who in the eyes of many seems to be less and less relevant within the general conversation of our common life. We are left with a church in which members feel it is allowable to say that while “I believe in the sanctity of human life, I will not vote to pass a law to do so.” We are left with a church in which many believe that the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is just symbolic. (Wow! To quote Flannery O’Connor, “Well, if it’s just a symbol, to hell with it.’) We are left with a church where many send their children to religious education in order to “get the sacraments” but never come to Mass on the weekend. It seems pretty bleak.

But we are also left with a church that is the Church of the Body of Christ founded on the Apostles endowed with the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Church in which we believe is a beacon of salvation and hope to a world that has become more and more secularized, divided, lonely and lost. I think we need to pick up the challenge of the new evangelization, to evangelize ourselves so that we may grow in the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ in order to spread that good news to others. I read the numbers and see what is happening in the church but I am not filled with despair. I see many reasons for hope that we can turn this decline in the United States around: the good faith of the people and families that are still in our churches, the many young people who are actively working on our college campuses doing the work of the “new evangelization” right now, the powerful witness of the social works of the Church in our hospitals, homeless shelters, food pantries, and St. Vincent de Paul societies, and the continuous and clear voice of the Church’s social teaching on the sanctity of all human life from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death. I see hope in the lively faith of the new immigrants to our country who bring their culture, history, and language, adding them to the many voices that already make up the Catholic Church in the United States. I also take great solace in the words of Jesus Himself, “and behold, I am with you always until the end of time.” That promise itself gives us more than enough hope to keep spreading the good news that Jesus Christ is Lord to God’s praise and glory forever and ever.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Changes

I cannot begin to thank all of the friends and family who have texted, emailed, and called me to offer congratulations on my being named a bishop. It has been overwhelming! Thank you!

Obviously, there are a lot of changes going on in my life right now but I still intend to keep blogging. Stay tuned.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

"Hello Lord"

“Hello, Lord”
(Written while faced with a difficult decision)

"Hello Lord, it's me your child. I have a few things on my mind. Right now I'm faced with big decisions, and I'm wondering if you have a minute.

"Right now I don't hear so well and I was wondering if you could speak up. I know that you tore the veil so I could sit with you in person and hear what you're saying, but right now, I just can't hear you."


These words were composed by a Christian songwriter whose name is Sara Groves. It’s one of my favorite songs, not just because it’s such a peaceful and beautiful song, but because she seems to capture so well the struggle that we sometimes face in prayer and discernment. We Christians often turn to prayer at moments of personal distress or when we are “faced with big decisions” looking for some kind of guidance from the Lord.


I was recently talking to a friend whose 42-year-old daughter, a mother of four, had just suddenly died of an aneurism. My friend has always been a person of strong faith but she was telling me that right now she was “standing on the edge” between believing in God or not believing in God. She said, “I am so mad at God right now and I don’t know what to do. I’m still praying but I’m not getting any answers.”

"Right now I don't hear so well and I was wondering if you could speak up. I know that you tore the veil so I could sit with you in person and hear what you're saying, but right now, I just can't hear you."


I talked with her for quite a while and tried to offer some words of consolation. I didn’t think it was the right time to try and give her any answers. She needed to vent. I needed to listen. With an assurance of my prayers and a promise to see her as soon as I could, I hung up the phone.


I started thinking about what my friend had said and my mind kept drifting back to the song, “right now I just can’t hear you” and how I had known those moments of separation from God in my life too. I just can’t hear you. Why? Over the years, it took me a while to begin to figure it out. The disconnect was not so much about God as it was about me. It was not so much that God was not speaking to me but that in my brokenness and humanity, I couldn’t hear Him and that was because God was speaking in a different way than just through prayer. As time went on, I came to realize that I often overlooked what God was saying because I was listening with only one ear, the ear of prayer, and not with both ears within the community of faith and friends. He was talking all around me through my friends and family and Church. God speaks to us in and through the faith and teaching of the Church. God speaks to us through the words of encouragement, consolation, and advice spoken to us by our family and friends when we need to hear it. I just was listening in the wrong place.


This makes a lot more sense than some kind of direct communication by God in prayer - something like, “Okay, my child, here is your answer” which, really, borders on the miraculous. By speaking to us through the teaching of the Church and the people of the Church, God communicates through the natural order of things. This doesn’t mean that we cannot be lead by the Spirit in prayer to place of clarity or consolation but that our prayer is only one part of the way in which we come to know God and His will, resting on the foundation of our normal day to day interactions with others.


I don’t pretend to have a perfect or complete answer for why my friend’s lovely daughter died. I can only sit with her in her pain and listen. I can only try and alleviate the sorrow she is feeling by letting her know that she is not alone. I can only speak words of hope and encouragement that point to an eternal life beyond this world. But, in a sense, is that not God speaking to us through his Son Jesus Christ: “You are not alone. I, too, have suffered. I, too, have known death and I offer the hope of eternal life to those who persevere in the faith in me.”


Right now I don't hear so well and I was wondering if you could speak up. “I am speaking, all around you. Just listen with both ears.”
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