Sunday, October 25, 2009

Prayer of Invitation

Lord God, the Eternal Source of all Being,

Our souls hunger for you because you have sown your Word in our hearts. So often, though, we lose our way because we are distracted, preoccupied, even focused on good things for the wrong reasons. Our vision becomes clouded, and we feed on things that ultimately leave us empty.

Lead us by your Spirit into the desert of our souls, the secret room of our hearts, where you invite us to a personal relationship with Jesus, your Son. Help us to encounter and embrace there what we truly desire, and what you truly wish to give us, in union with your church throughout the world.

Deepen our prayer through your grace so that we may listen and hear your loving invitation, your gentle call. Help us to recognize and respond to your ever-present voice through the surrender of whatever holds us back or turns us away.

May we discover--and rediscover each day--your creating power, your saving grace, your constant presence. We wish to taste and see that you are good. Fill us with your wisdom, your food for our journey toward you.

Bring our hearts into prayer, so that our whole time and being rests in you and you alone, that we may bear the fruit that your food alone provides. Lord of the harvest, feed us.

We ask all this through Christ your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Invitation to Prayer II: Hunger for God

Where do we encounter this hunger for God and find what truly fills us? As a pilgrim people belonging to God, we are called into the desert--where it is dry, desolate, untamed, and uninhabited. God calls us where he can most fully manifest himself to us.

The desert is where we have no resources of our own and are utterly dependent on him. It is where we are overwhelmed by his infinite mercy.

The desert deep within our soul is a difficult place to go, especially in these times and in this culture. It frightens us. We try to avoid it if we can. We can take care of ourselves, we think. But it is only in the desert we realize that we can’t, and that we need God. And when we accept that, an oasis of riches springs forth from that desert to nourish us.

Prayer, ultimately, is about conversion, our transformation in Christ, and that occurs when we become aware of God’s infinite willingness and ability to supply all that we lack. His mercy and love are greater than our sin and failure. But to know infinite goodness, we must first acknowledge what is limited and imperfect.

The desert provides this contrast, and it is where Jesus invites us in prayer. Consider the following Scripture passages and notice the theme that runs through and connects them:

Bread from Heaven

In the desert the whole Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites told them: “Would that we had died at the Lord’s hand in the land of Egypt, as we sat by our fleshpots and ate our fill of bread! But you had to lead us into this desert to make the whole community die of famine!”

Then the Lord said to Moses: “I will now rain down bread from heaven for you.” Moses said to Aaron: “Tell the whole Israelite community: Present yourselves before the Lord, for he has heard your grumbling.” When Aaron announced this to the whole Israelite community, they turned toward the desert, and lo, the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud!

The Lord spoke to Moses and said, “I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites. Tell them: In the evening twilight you shall eat flesh, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread, so that you may know that I, the Lord, am your God.”

In the evening quail came up and covered the camp. In the morning a dew lay all about the camp, and when the dew evaporated, there on the surface of the desert were fine flakes like hoarfrost on the ground. On seeing it, the Israelites asked one another, “What is this?” Moses told them, “This is the bread which the Lord has given you to eat. The Lord, your God, has directed all your journeying in the desert. He let you be afflicted with hunger, and then fed you with manna, a food unknown to you and your fathers, in order to show you that not by bread alone does man live, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of the Lord.”

Exodus 16:2-4a, 9-15; Deut. 8:2a, 3

Led into the Desert

Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was hungry. The tempter approached and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread.” He said in reply: “It is written: ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.’”

Mt. 4: 1-4

'To a Deserted Place'

The apostles gathered together with Jesus and reported all they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.” People were coming and going in great numbers, and they had no opportunity even to eat.

So they went off in the boat by themselves to a deserted place. People saw them leaving and many came to know about it. They hastened there on food from all the towns and arrived at the place before them.

When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.

By now it was already late and his disciples approached him and said, “This is a deserted place and it is already very late. Dismiss them so that they can go to the surrounding farms and villages and buy themselves something to eat.”

He said to them in reply, “Give them some food yourselves.” But they said to him, “Are we to buy two hundred days’ wages worth of food and give it to them to eat?” He asked them, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.” And when they had found out they said, “Five loaves and two fish.”

So he gave orders to have them sit down in groups on the green grass. The people took their places in rows by hundreds and by fifties. Then, taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; he also divided the two fish among them all.

They all ate and were satisfied. And they picked up twelve wicker baskets full of fragments and what was left of the fish. Those who ate of the loaves were five thousand men.

Mk 6: 30-44


What really strikes me about these passages is not only the care God provides for the Israelites in the desert, but the solidarity Jesus shares with all his people—including us. Just like the Israelites, he was led into the desert and tempted to turn away from it. Just like all of us, he gets hungry. After relying on the word of God as his source of strength, he then leads his followers into the desert to experience the same thing.

When he sees the crowd, he experiences gut-wrenching compassion for them as the Good Shepherd, and he begins to feed them, first with Wisdom—the word of God—then with bread.

There is a very clear connection with the journey the pilgrim people of God have made, and are making, through the wilderness to be fed the bread of life.

Michael Casey, in his book Fully Human, Fully Divine, has an interesting reflection on the passage from Mark:

It was literally a gut reaction for Jesus. It was as though Jesus absorbed into himself the chaos of the crowd and allowed it to generate within his own awareness the sharp anxiety and pain which they dimly experienced. Taking their condition on himself, he acted to reduce their confusion by clear and authoritative teaching which was simultaneously comforting and challenging. The important thing to note, however, is that Jesus did not see himself merely as a supplier of unmet bodily needs. His response was, rather, to open a relationship in which all that was his would be accessible to those who approached him. His solidarity with their pain led him to invite them to a solidarity with his connectedness to his heavenly Father.

Another point that comes across, particularly in the passage from Mark, is that of need. The apostles return to Jesus to report “all they had done and taught.” Jesus doesn’t say, “Good job!” Instead, he says, “Come into the desert with me.”

There, faced with the prospect of feeding 5,000 people, the apostles realize they can do nothing, or very little, on their own. There’s really a lesson in humility here—it is God who works wonders, and we can only experience them if we acknowledge that we can’t work them. “Apart from me, you can do nothing,” Jesus tells his disciples. We need God.

The Word of God invites us to need him because as Casey says, he “has become part of human history. He is one with us in our suffering; we are one with him in journeying toward the Father, in the Spirit.”

What does this journey through the desert mean in terms of prayer? It means Jesus has been there. He knows what it’s like for each and every one of us. He knows what we each need, where we each hurt. But he can only provide it if we come to him in prayer and honestly acknowledge it, and let go of our self-reliance and fear.

Thomas Merton spoke of facing our own existential dread before we can know the joy and love of God—“where we stand alone before God in our nothingness, without explanation, without theories, completely dependent upon his providential care, in dire need of the gift of his grace, his mercy, and the light of faith.”

That, to put it quite simply, is conversion. It may sound stark and forbidding, but Merton is in agreement with the saints and the fathers of the church when he says it is not a mournful or discouraging experience.

“On the contrary,” he says, “it can be deeply tranquil and joyful since it brings us in direct contact with the source of all joy and all life. Prayer, then, means yearning for the simple presence of God, for a personal understanding of his word, for knowledge of his will and for capacity to hear and obey him. It is much more than uttering petitions for good things external to our deepest concerns. We wish to lose ourselves, and rest in his love, and rest in him. We wish to hear his word and respond to it with our whole being.”

This is a holy hunger that only God can fully satisfy.

I like the way Benedictine monk Cyprian Smith puts it:

We cannot feel God’s voice thrilling through us unless we first become aware of the tomb-like emptiness within ourselves which provides the echo-chamber for the divine Word. In prayer we lose all and find all. It is the journey, food for the journey, and the journey’s end.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Invitation to Prayer

As Christians, we are all called to encounter and embrace God’s Word to each of us individually deep within our hearts. Personal prayer is simply training ourselves to be more aware of our relationship with God and his presence in the world.

The relationship already exists; personal prayer is what nourishes it.

By this, I do not mean to imply that public or liturgical prayer is not important. Obviously, it is essential—it’s how the Body of Christ expresses itself, transcends time, and joins eternity in the praise of God. It cannot be separated from personal prayer as if they were two distinct or competing aspects of our faith. They are intimately bound with one another, just like breathing requires both inhaling and exhaling. They feed one another. Without one, the other dies.

But the focus here, for now, is on personal prayer—and more specifically, that silent surrender to God’s movement of grace within.

Trappist monk Michael Casey says:

Prayer is an attempt to realize the love that unites us with God, allow it to become more present to us, and give it greater scope to act upon us and change us. We do not produce prayer. We allow prayer to act. We do not create prayer; it creates us.

But we can listen for the invitation, for that “tiny whispering sound” in our hearts that draws us toward God. And to do that, we have to surrender to God, let go of our preoccupations, preconceived notions, our expectations, and simply be still before the God who created us, chose us, redeemed us—the God who knows us better than we know ourselves. In short, we have to let go of ourselves—or better yet, let go of who we perceive ourselves to be—so we are totally immersed in God’s presence.

It seems to me that the more I pray, and the more I study and learn about prayer, the more I discover that I really know less than ever. In the course of my monastic formation the last three years, our common life of prayer and work in the monastery, and my studies, I’ve gained a deeper knowledge of prayer, but I wonder sometimes if my prayer has really deepened. I think it has, but only time will tell. It has certainly changed, and hopefully it is moving me toward God day by day.

Ora et labora, or prayer and work, is the motto adopted by Benedictines. It is intended to be a symbiotic relationship, a rhythm of life in which intervals of communal and personal prayer, work, and our common life together as monks are interwoven into one continuous thread. Sometimes though, this rhythm may be a little out of step. Many of us like to joke that, in reality, our motto is: Ora et labora, et labora, et labora

It can seem that way at times, perhaps. We are on the go around here from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. I am far busier now than I ever was before coming to the monastery. No one, it seems, has less than three or four jobs. Part of that is our heritage here at Saint Meinrad. We are descended from German monks, and Germans know how to work.

However, a wonderful and mysterious thing occurs here each day, several times a day. No matter what we are doing, or how busy we are, we are called back every few hours to the church for our common prayer. And we have two specific periods each day—one in the morning and one in the evening—set aside for personal prayer and lectio divina or sacred reading. When the bells announce these periods, the faithful monk goes, and leaves everything else behind (physically if not always mentally).

Our ordered round of prayer in the monastery continually calls us, invites us back to listen to God in the spoken Word, and in the depths of our hearts. No matter what else we do, we constantly come back to praise God, who is the center of our lives, and who guides, sustains and completes everything we do.

Through this dedication of our time and our being with God, we are called to become more deeply aware of God’s presence at all times and in everything and everyone, and to broaden our vision on this journey toward God, who is Love.

Fr. Harry, our former novice-master, likes to say that, “Monastic life is not difficult. It’s relentless.” The same can likely be said of any state in life. It takes commitment, concentration, and discipline to faithfully live as a Christian, whether you’re a monk or not. It always has.

Our abbot is fond of saying that “Monks do not do different things than other people do. They just do them differently.”

Indeed. Monks are human beings.

We struggle. We celebrate.
We laugh. We mourn.
We fail. We succeed.
We live peaceably. We get angry.
We work. We rest.
We get tired and frustrated. We are energetic and focused.
We love, and we get lonely.
We sin, and we practice virtue.
We become distracted, and we live joyfully by grace.

And in our work as part of this monastery, we are not so different. We are teachers, administrators, writers, artists, psychologists, tailors, laborers, gardeners, students, health-care providers, retreat directors, spiritual guides, pastors, business managers, computer technicians, musicians, foresters, scholars, locksmiths, delivery persons, craftsmen, housekeepers, cooks, librarians, firefighters, and carpenters.

However, one thing we do quite differently than most people is center our lives in prayer. Through our prayer, work, and common lives together, we seek God—to know and love and serve God above all else, and our neighbors as ourselves. We do this in common and individually. We bring our lives to prayer, and our prayer to our lives. Both are one. It is a unity and integrity of life I never knew existed before coming to the monastery.

It is not only relentless, but relentlessly full of grace.

But it does not necessarily make us experts on prayer, and it does not mean that that unity and integrity can only be lived inside a monastery. Our prayer in the monastery is nothing more than the intentional offering of our time and being for the praise of God. The monastic life is a specific way in which some are called to do that. But all people, whatever their state in life, are called to this intentional offering of time and being for the praise of God. Whoever we are, and whatever we do, all Christians are called to a life of prayer.

God’s pure and simple invitation to prayer is open to all, however we live it out. Each of us is a member of the Body of Christ, and we relate to the whole through each other. But each of us also has a personal and unique invitation from God.

God’s Word is sown in our hearts, and it is there that he calls us. We are born with the desire, or spiritual hunger, to seek God, but we must truly listen for this invitation. As I’ve mentioned, to do that, we have to do something we often resist: Be still, get out of the way, and let God do the talking. We have to be willing to follow Jesus into the desert and let him feed us with the bread from heaven.

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you,” Jesus tells us in the Gospel of Matthew (7:7-8). “For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”

We all do well to reflect on these words and what they really mean. If we are willing to follow Jesus into the desert, to be fed, to seek, to knock, to ask, what is it we truly desire—deep down in our souls, which words cannot begin to express?

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus asks a very simple question, one he poses to each and every one of us amid our busy lives, our work, our prayer, our failures, our successes, our joys, our sorrows:

“What do you want me to do for you?”

Actually, he asks the same question twice. First, he asks two of his apostles, James and John. They ask for power and glory. Wrong answer. Next he asks a blind beggar by the road, who says, “Master, I want to see.” In other words, “I want to see you, follow you.” His was the correct answer because while he asked from his deepest need, his focus was on Jesus and not himself, nor his preconceived ideas and expectations.

“What do you want me to do for you?” It takes a hungry heart to answer that question truthfully. That scares a lot of people because it means being vulnerable, acknowledging our need. We don’t like to feel that way. We don’t want to be hungry. We want to be full. But too often we fill ourselves with the wrong things and are left dissatisfied. Only the Bread of Life satisfies.

Prayer teaches us how to enter into the question. And it must be pure prayer from the heart, arising from that personal hunger—that need. It must be fiery prayer, beyond words, immersed in the love of God, as John Cassian would say.

The story is told of St. John Vianney noticing an old farmer who would sit for hours in a church. One day, he asked the farmer what he was doing. He replied, “God looks at me, and I look at him.”

This is contemplation, and we are all called to it. In heaven, we will spend an eternity doing it. Here, by God’s grace, we are given a foretaste if we are open to it. It is not complicated, and it cannot be taught. It requires only a heart completely open to God’s grace.

As Christians—especially men—we sometimes tend to over-intellectualize prayer and the spiritual life, to classify it, and systematize it. Monks do it, too. We make it something to be studied and taught, something to produce practical results like a good moral life. That is all good and necessary. Our prayer must be informed, have structure, be communal, and make us better people.

But that is not all the invitation to prayer involves. God did not become man merely to teach or introduce a system of moral conduct, or to inspire our involvement in a myriad of activities and programs. Jesus came to love us, to call us, to draw us, to invite us into his saving action of grace. We are called Christians not because of what we do, but because of who we are. “Come to me,” Jesus says, to discover who you are truly meant to be.

In this invitation, God promises us his presence. “I am with you,” he says repeatedly in Scripture. The gift of presence is the most valuable gift we can either receive or give. It is the gift of self. Prayer is simply being present to God, who is always present to us.

“What do you want me to do for you? Ask and it will be given you.”

Whatever the answer to that question might be for each of us, God has accomplished it in Christ, and he reveals it through our hunger. Our deepest desires are satisfied by our greatest needs.

We're all invited to hunger for the One thing necessary.