Wow. It’s been a while since I blogged, hasn’t it? This happens every six months or so, because as editor of The Priest, all my “spare time” at the computer is monopolised by my preparations for that august journal.
I’ll send the latest issue to the printers soon, and when I do, I’ll provide a preview here. It’s a great magazine, even if I do say so myself!
Meanwhile, this video turned up in my Facebook feed today:
This sort of thing happens to me. All. The. Time.
1. A sacred host is spoiled.
2. I place it in a covered dish of water as proscribed.
3. It does not dissolve in minutes!!
4. Over a week or longer, it slowly disintegrates.
5. It always turns red.
I don’t think this is a miracle. I think it’s just nature taking its course. I imagine other priests can corroborate this.
That said, I’m a great believer in eucharistic miracles. I hope to visit Lanciano during my Year of Mercy pilgrimage next year. I’m looking forward to that very much.
In April 2005, at the time of Pope John Paul II’s death, I was only a few months into my seminary studies. The whole College assembled in the refectory to watch his funeral, but I have no memory of it.
I can picture the Book of Gospels on his coffin, blown open by the wind. And I can recall then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s evocative homily, describing the late pope standing at the window of his room in the Father’s house, bestowing a blessing upon us. But those moments are easily relived on Youtube, so it may be repeated viewings that engrained them in my memory, not a recollection of the funeral itself.
A few weeks later, the seminary cohort again assembled in the Cluny refectory, again around the big screen, to watch the inauguration of Pope Benedict XVI. I remember that occasion much better, if only because a wide selection of German beers were available at the bar!
It’s hard to believe this all happened ten years ago. Some of the current crop of seminarians were still in primary school. That may not be the case for first year seminarian Andrew Kwiatkowski. I think he was already in secondary school — but only just! In this latest instalment of Corpus Christi College’s video series on the saints, Andrew recalls his own memories of the pope’s funeral, and the impact the great man had on him.
Andrew’s reflections remind me of a newly published book that one of the third year seminarians, James Baptist, has highly recommended to me: St John Paul the Great: his five loves, by Jason Evert. It is especially suited to young people, most of whom have a limited memory of John Paul II, and no attachment to him.
This book, James tells me, changes that. It fosters in a new generation of Catholic youth the sort of love and affection which my own generation had for our dear Holy Father. It’s on my reading list; add it to yours!
The Year of Mercy logo is not very beautiful. I’d go so far as to say it’s ugly. But I wouldn’t go to the stake on that claim. Horses for courses.
Nonetheless, I do like some of the symbolism behind the logo. It most obviously evokes the parable of the Good Shepherd, carrying the lost sheep on his shoulders:
I think we can draw four points out of today’s gospel which are very pertinent to the year of mercy, and more specifically, to our response to God’s mercy.
1. Bartimaeus knew he was blind; he seeks God’s help.
Bartimaeus calls out; he requests help. When the Lord asks him, “what do you want me to do for you?” he doesn’t hesitate. “Rabbuni, let me see again.”
Do we know our own blindness? Can we view our neighbours as God views them? That’s true vision. Just as importantly, can we see ourselves as Jesus sees us?
2. The world turns against Bartimaeus; he defies the world.
When the crowd turns on him, Bartimaeus is very vulnerable. He is blind, he is surrounded by hostile forces, but still he perseveres. Any faith worthy of the name requires the same sort of courage.
Faith starts with the humility of recognising ourselves as needy of salvation, it entails interior and exterior struggle, and it culminates in an intimate encounter with Jesus. There is no intimacy without vulnerability. Intimacy is what God seeks, and our vulnerability is its catalyst.
This is one of the reasons the Church doesn’t countenance general absolution, except in emergencies. Sacramental confession models the life of faith: recognising one’s needs, making oneself vulnerable, and seeking an intimate encounter with the Lord.
3. Jesus stops and gives Bartimaeus personal attention.
The decisive moment in today’s Gospel is this direct, personal encounter between God and man. They are face to face: God with his desire to heal, and Bartimaeus with his desire to be healed. Two freedoms; two converging desires.
Bartimaeus receives physical healing, but I bet a spiritual healing occurs too. Perhaps his intimate encounter with the Lord enables him to see the world as our Lord sees it. What a wondrous gift of sight that would be! That’s why I think of today’s Gospel when I contemplate a particular detail of the Year of Mercy logo:
One particular feature worthy of note is that while the Good Shepherd, in his great mercy, takes humanity upon himself, his eyes are merged with those of man. Christ sees with the eyes of Adam, and Adam with the eyes of Christ.
I think divine mercy is just like that. Nothing is more pleasing to God, than us seeking and him ministering his divine mercy. But having received his mercy, we’re then commissioned to exercise his mercy. We receive healing and power – power to love our enemies: to pray for them; to show them affection. “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
4. Bartimaeus followed Jesus along the road.
The Gospel ends with Bartimaeus’s conversion. Mark says he followed Jesus along the road. He followed in the way and the truth and the life of Jesus. That’s the metaphorical meaning.
The literal meaning, though, is no less resonant. Immediately after this healing, our Lord locates a donkey, and rides into Jerusalem on a carpet of palms. In less than a week, Jesus is dead. So Bartimaeus literally follows Jesus to the cross.
It’s good for us to remember that, and imitate it of course. There comes a time in every life when suffering is unavoidable, and death awaits us all. Our task as Christians is to unite our suffering and death with the Lord’s. Then our own crosses become part of the Lord’s redemptive sacrifice, bringing graces to others, and shedding mercy on the whole world.
Contemplatio translates as contemplation, but really this is one best left in the Latin.
A good definition of contemplatio is “the mind and the soul suspended in God.” It is knowing Jesus in the most sublime fashion; a preview of the Beatific Vision; a taste of the Heavenly Banquet. I think this is often what beginners imagine prayer to be. A tangible closeness with God. An experience. Something we feel, rather than something we do. But we have no agency in contemplatio. It is absolute grace — a gift from God which many souls receive frequently, and other souls receive very rarely. It is never a measure of holiness or progress in the spiritual life.
For example, take Mother Teresa. At the age of 36, when she was a Loreto sister, then-Sister Teresa received extraordinary graces and consolations which ultimately inspired her to leave the Loreto convent and found the Missionaries of Charity. But once that work had begun, the Lord withdrew from her. By all accounts, for the rest of her life — fifty years, except for a three week respite in 1958 — her prayer was desolate. She confided to her spiritual director that she felt no presence of God whatsoever, neither in her heart, nor in the eucharist.
Where is my faith? Even deep down … there is nothing but emptiness and darkness … If there be a God — please forgive me. When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul … How painful is this unknown pain — I have no Faith. Repulsed, empty, no faith, no love, no zeal, … What do I labour for? If there be no God, there can be no soul. If there be no soul then Jesus, you also are not true.
Mother Teresa, Come Be My Light, p. 193.
You might recall, when these recollections were first published, that it caused sensation in the secular press, and it caused scandal among some of the faithful. Don’t Mother Teresa’s doubts expose a lack of faith and holiness?
The answer is no. The Lord withdrew his consolations, which meant that Mother Teresa never attained the heights of contemplatio. But still she was faithful to her apostolic work with the poor, and she was faithful to her prayer. Every day, without exception, she practiced lectio and meditatio and oratio. Every day. And she insisted her daughters do the same. The daily rule of life for Missionaries of Charity includes an hour of oratio in the morning, and an hour and three quarters of of lectio, meditatio, and Eucharistic adoration in the afternoon.
So that’s contemplatio. Don’t despair if you have never reached this, even after years of effort. Contemplatio is pure gift; it is never earned, and it is not a measure of holiness. Many of the saints were deprived of it.
Oratio transliterates as “prayer”, but obviously our word “prayer” is a catch all. Lectio and Meditatio and Contemplatio are also forms of prayer.
Oratio is more specifically the heart’s reaching out to God. The heart is the seat of the will. This is where we choose God or ourselves. Where we choose good or evil.
If in lectio we engage with the senses (touching the page, reading the text), and in meditatio we engage with the intellect (asking questions, imagining the scene), in oratio we engage with the will.
Oratio is often called “mental prayer,” but that’s misleading because we’re not talking about thinking at this point. That’s meditatio. I think the best modern translation of oratio is “interior prayer.”
This is where we enter into conversation with our Lord. St Teresa of Avila puts it this way:
“Oratio in my opinion is nothing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us.”
Teresa of Avila, The Book of Her Life, 8,5.
It means applying what we have read and thought and imagined to our present and our future. We might share some thought, or ask for a grace or favour, or make a resolution to act or think some way. (This is naturally what happens, when we’re in the company of anyone we love.)
Because our normal interactions with people we love are incarnate, but in the Lord’s case we’re dealing with someone who is invisible to our senses, I think oratio is the hardest type of prayer. Harder than lectio and meditatio, anyway. But like going to the gym, it gets easier with practice. The senses can be trained to permit the interior silence which facilitates focus on the Lord.
“You will only have to make a sign to show that you wish to enter into recollection and the senses will obey and let themselves be recollected.”
Teresa of Avila, The Way of Perfection, ch. 28.
Still, Teresa is adamant that oratio is something we will, not something mystical.
“You must understand that this is not a supernatural state, but depends on our will, and that, by God’s favor, we can enter it of our own accord. . . . For this is not a silence of the faculties; it is an enclosing of the faculties within itself by the soul.”
Teresa of Avila, The Way of Perfection, ch. 29.
Don’t find time, make time
That means that we should schedule oratio into the day. It also means that if we scheduled ten minutes, we don’t abandon ship at seven minutes. We have to persevere! My old seminary confrere and well-known priest, Fr Rob Galea, has a good rule. He schedules a very precise 31 minutes of prayer to eliminate the temptation, during a hard slog, to round up 26 or 27 minutes to “half an hour.”
Find somewhere quiet
Ideally, we sit before the tabernacle. But remember, “pray as you can, not as you ought.” Oratio can be done at home — before an icon or holy image. It can be done in the bush or on a mountain top. As long as the place is quiet and lends itself to conversation with God.
If you prefer sitting to kneeling, then sit. If an extreme temperature distracts you, then turn on the heater or air conditioning. Oratio is not the time to mortify the senses. Remember, we need to train ourselves to quieten the senses, so that we can focus our will on God.
Now I can do all this — schedule time, find somewhere quiet, get comfortable — and then conduct a monologue. It’s very easy to think about myself, imagine conversations with other people, and plan my next meal. Hardly a raising up of my heart to God. So St Teresa gives one more word of advice:
BRING A BOOK!
The fuel for oratio, and the greatest protection against monologue, are the previous steps I blogged on: lectio and meditatio.
As Saint Augustine puts it:
“Your prayer is the word you speak to God. When you read the Bible, God speaks to you; when you pray, you speak to God.”
Augustine, Enarrationes in Psalmos, 85, 7: PL 37, 1086.