praying to oneself


Posted By on Mar 28, 2014

Back in the ‘80s both Pope John Paul II and then-Cardinal Ratzinger were quite suspicious of anything to do with Eastern spirituality. At one point each one of them made a statement that was inadvertently very offensive to Buddhists. When John Paul found out about it, he rectified it partially by writing Fides et Ratio, in some way acknowledging that he had learned something along the way. (It was a subtle point about soteriology that most people wouldn’t have understood anyway. William Johnson writes about this in Arise My Love.) I am not sure if Cardinal Ratzinger ever did get the chance to rectify his statement, but it seems it might have been more a question of a mistranslation. (Anyway, our friend the Chinese Buddhist monk Heng Sure wound up having a one-on-one conversation with him, and at least Heng Sure came away satisfied.) But one of the things that they were warning Western Christians about, especially Cardinal Ratzinger in his warnings about Eastern style meditation, was very valid, though it is not clear that Buddhists or other meditators were actually guilty of it—and it’s something that’s right here in today’s Gospel (Lk 18:9-14). ‘The Pharisee… trusted in himself...’ and he was ‘standing by himself’, one translation has it that he was praying to himself! Even worse than, or at least just as bad as, this Pharisee being judgmental and arrogant, is the fact that he was trusting in himself, standing by himself, praying to himself. How many times does Jesus give the piece of advice that those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted in one form or another? This is absolutely central to Jesus’ Way, and here he also applies it to prayer: those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted. Prayer is not an exaltation of ourselves; it is humbly standing before God, as Master Romuald says, either as one stands before an emperor or as a chick stands before mother hen, but either way in a very humble position. John Main taught that the inner journey especially in our day and age can tap into the incredible hunger that we have for self-analysis, and “the self-preoccupation that often masquerades as spirituality.” Ouch! There is a danger that the interior journey can become a getting caught in the trap of our own subjective experience, instead of being “relieved of the bondage of self,” as the Twelve Steps would say. What we are seeking through our journey to the depths of the being is the reign of God, the presence of the Holy...

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(Fr. Cyprian) There are two stories about the life of St. Benedict that are recorded in the Dialogues of St. Gregory that I heard Fr. Jeremy Driscoll speak about recently. I was already familiar with one of them, but the other, if I ever knew, I didn’t remember at all. So I want to give credit where credit is due, though please don’t blame him for my own quirky insight into them. Both of them come near the end of Benedict’s life. The first one is about a Goth named Zalla (who Gregory tells us was also an Arian heretic) who was trying to extort money out of a poor farmer. In order to escape with his life, the farmer tells Zalla the Goth that he has left all his money with the abbot Benedict. So Zalla ties him up and while he rides on a horse forces the farmer walk to the monastery. When they get to the monastery, Benedict is “sitting alone in front of the entrance reading” and Zalla “glared at him with eyes full of hate and shouted harshly, ‘Get up? Do you hear? Get up and give back the money this man left with you!’” Then, Gregory says, Benedict looked up from his reading and, as he glanced at Zalla, he noticed the farmer with his hands bound together. And the moment Benedict catches sight of the cord that held the farmer’s hands, it miraculously fell to the ground. Zalla fell trembling to his knees and bends his neck at Benedict’s feet, begging for his prayers. Benedict stays cool still; without rising from his place, Benedict calls for his monks and has them take Zalla inside for some food and drink. After that “he urged him to give up his heartless cruelty.” The other story is more familiar, and is especially appropriate today as we celebrate Benedict’s transitus: (Gregory actually mentions it twice, once here in the life of Benedict and another time in Dialogue 4). This is right after his twin sister Scholastica has died, and both times Gregory mentions it, it is in connection with the death of Germanus the bishop of Capua. In the dead of the night he suddenly beheld a flood of light shining down from above, more brilliant than the sun, and with it every trace of darkness cleared away… According to his own description, the whole world was gathered up before his eyes in what appeared to be a single ray of light. I think the two of those stories go together. In the first story Fr. Jeremy said we could safely assume that Benedict is reading...

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(Fr. Cyprian) I have learned this much about developmental psychology, and it’s become kind of a guiding principle, a kind of first truth for me in dealing with myself and with others: that every child has a legitimate need to be noticed, to be understood, to be taken seriously and respected. Understand this is a need that the child has for a “mirror” (in my words), somebody to give the child her self or his self, someone to gaze into the child’s eyes and not project their own needs and expectations onto the child, but rather to give him his own self, to see a subject rather than an object. That’s how children come into healthy contact with their individual strength and self-esteem. But there is another step yet for really healthy parents and mentors, and that is to be secure enough to allow the child to rebel, to let the child to be angry, to allow the child to not like something, in a sense to let the child break off without it being taken as a negative reflection back on the parent or mentor. The phrase that the German therapist Alice Miller uses that struck me like a bullet was that a child needs a “usable self-object (ie., a parent or mentor) that can survive its own destruction.” And that’s what I think is going on with Joseph. Right from the very start Joseph gets left out, destroyed, done away with. Of course we know what a proud thing it was to trace the father’s bloodline. So we trace Joseph’s bloodline in Luke back to Adam, in Matthew back to Abraham––and then it gets cut off, because he had no relations with Mary! We are let known right away that something new is happening. As John says in the prologue to his Gospel, Jesus was one born not by blood or by desire of the flesh, not by human will, but born of God. And this will be a theme of Jesus’ throughout his ministry until after his death as the Christian movement sweeps Palestine and Europe: that even the bloodline of Abraham doesn’t matter anymore. This is how the gentiles get included in, even without circumcision! The first covenant has been fulfilled, abrogated. In a sense it too has survived its own destruction; it dies like a seed in the soil and springs up anew as the Gospel. So both Matthew and Luke, right after tracing Jesus’ lineage back to or through Abraham, record John the Baptist preparing the way by saying, ‘Don’t pride yourself on the claim that Abraham is our father. God could raise...

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thought, word or deed


Posted By on Mar 17, 2014

(Fr. Cyprian) In the school of Yoga that I studied, which is called ashtanga yoga–or “eight limbed yoga,” the first limb is the moral restraints (the yamas), and the first of those moral restraints is called ahimsa–non-violence. This is from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the classic text of ashtanga yoga: When we become steadfast in our abstention from harming others, / then all living creatures will cease to feel enmity in our presence.” It is sometimes said that all the other moral restraints are just a variation on this one; this is the basic restraint, and the basis for all yoga. It is even this that is partially the basis for vegetarianism, by the way. By non-violence, of course, we mean a refusal to commit violence in thought, word or deed. I remember the first day I heard that––all violence whether in thought, word or deed, I thought that it was one of the most profound things I had ever heard: “Wow, so not only my actions and not only my words; but I should strive to be non-violent even in my thoughts.” And I kept thinking to myself, “Where have I heard that before?” And then it occurred to me, “Ah yes: the Confiteor! ‘…I have sinned in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do.’” And the other place I had heard it was this very gospel passage (Mt 5:20-26)—not only not to kill, not to call anyone a fool, but don’t even be angry! It somehow sounded more brilliant coming from another tradition, but it was right there in my own backyard. I already preached on the first part of this gospel a few weeks back, suggesting that Jesus was not necessarily putting the Pharisees down here; that they themselves might have actually been holy, and Jesus was calling us to that and more. And here is the more. I was taught to always list things from the gross to the subtle, so I would turn this list around: deeds or actions, words, and then thoughts. We are striving for non-violence in our actions first; but then in our words, as well. And finally we are striving for non-violence in our thoughts, too: Whoever is even angry will be liable to judgment. That goes up there with committing lust in the heart. It gets more and more subtle. I almost feel like we don’t have to deal with the actions: those are obvious, self-evident. The Ten Commandments lay it out, and Jesus’ articulation of the Golden Rule, which we heard yesterday––a version of which is found...

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grace and acceptance


Posted By on Mar 9, 2014

(Fr. Cyprian) As we were reminded the other day at table reading, from an essay by Thomas Merton, this 1st Sunday of Lent is actually the beginning of the season of Lent. Ash Wednesday and the days after it were added on to make up the nice, even symbolic number of 40. Of course we also need to put this Sunday in the context of Easter and Baptism, and especially with the renewed Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. Now begins the intensive time of catechesis for the catechumens and their catechesis is a lectionary-based catechesis, meaning they are learning all about Catholic Christianity from the readings that they hear at Mass. This is Catholic spirituality at its best: learning about the faith through the scriptures through the liturgy. We are this year, of course, in Cycle A, which has the default readings for the RCIA no matter what year it is, so again especially let’s see these readings in this light. If you had to pick three readings to introduce people to Catholic Christianity, which would you choose? Or we might ask ourselves, why did the Church pick these three? Or maybe even more to the point, how would you explain our faith in the light of these three readings? The focus does seem to be on sin––Adam and Eve’s Fall (Gen 2:7-9; 3:1-7); Paul’s teaching on sin and the Law from the Letter to the Romans (Rom 5:12-19); and Jesus’ overcoming temptation to sin in the desert (Mt 4:1-11). But I think there is also something subtler at play here, underlying all this. In some way you could see these three readings as an explanation of the human condition, a kind of an anthropology. What I mean by anthropology is this: we are asking three questions: “What is God? Who are we? And what do those three things have to do with each other?” In the first reading, the compilers of the lectionary could have just told the story of the Fall from Chapter 3 in Genesis without any introduction, but instead they went through some pains to add that last line from the brief second story of creation in Chapter 2 as an introduction to it­­––The Lord God formed Adam out of the clay of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and Adam became a living being. It all starts here. Even the Incarnation already begins here. I have spoken so often about the anthropology that I got from Bede Griffiths, of always seeing the human person not simply as body and soul, but as spirit, soul and body. And this...

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leave the past in ashes


Posted By on Mar 6, 2014

(Fr. Cyprian) There’s a little phrase that we used to sing during the distribution of ashes that really captured my attention (I liked it so much I set it to music twice), and that I think sums up our purpose for the season of Lent: Leave the past in ashes, and turn to God with tears and fasting. I always try to keep everything about spirituality in the positive light. Even asceticism I try to view in a positive light, not concentrating on its penitential aspects so much (and avoiding at all costs the word “mortification”!), as much as on asceticism as joyful acts of training the senses with the aim so of stilling the mind to make it available for prayer and meditation. And in the confessional I was trained to be ever so pastorally sensitive, and usually I see most sins, even if they are grave matters, and even if there was full knowledge, as rarely having full consent, there is such a lack of freedom in so many people. Of course without making light of someone’s sins, we simply give them to God, count on God’s mercy as it is promised to us by the scriptures, and commit ourselves to avoiding the “near occasions” that lead us down those slippery slopes. I’ve been reading lately some critiques of the “evolutionary optimism” of certain schools of thought like that of Teilhard de Chardin, that everything is just slowly, slowly working itself out––“It’s all good!”––, but which don’t take into account evil and sin; and I had to admit I think at first glance I could be accused of that. But in my defense I fall back on the distinction yet again of Cornell West: Optimism is a secular construct. No, I’m not necessarily an optimist, because I truly believe that we also have to grapple with evil, and with sin. In this book we have been reading with the formation guys (Spiritual Passages, by Benedict Groeschel) he makes the point that “evil is not a being, but it is a reality.” We don’t believe as other religions might that what we consider evil is an equal and opposite force to the goodness of God; but it is still a force, and a force to be reckoned with. And in ways great and small, this is what also we grapple with in the season of Lent, and especially on Ash Wednesday when we are reminded of the fragility of life, how quick it passes, and how urgent this work of being totally available to God really is. There is a total positive thrust to Lent––this joyful preparation for...

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a multitude of friends


Posted By on Mar 1, 2014

(Fr. Robert) “Whoever is not against us is for us” –Jesus Ours is a rather troubled time, after 9/11, and with so much violence seemingly all around: in Syria, and the Ukraine, African nations—and on our own streets, and sometimes our own families. It becomes too easy to see enemies virtually everywhere. But the Gospel invites us to quite a different way of seeing. Jesus affirms: “Whoever is not against us, is for us.” That is amazing in its implications! Psychologists suggest that when we meet a person for the first time, our first question to ourselves, at least at the unconscious level can be this: “Is this person potentially for me or against me?” Well, Jesus’ approach broadens the possibilities. If the person isn’t explicitly against me, explicitly against Christ, that person can be seen to be in some way for me. The apostles were into a religious form of in-group exclusivism in the Gospel when they complained that someone who was not of their group was casting out demons, in Jesus’ name! A very positive action. Still, for the apostles, he was not of their group, so they tried to prevent him. And thus Jesus’ very different response: “Whoever is not against us is for us.” There are huge implications for ecumenical dialogue here. Not too long ago, Roman Catholics tended to look upon any other Church or Denomination as “those others,” rivals, even feel hostile towards them. An older nun told me that when she was growing up, in a good Catholic family, if they were out walking and saw that they would pass near a non Catholic Church, they would cross over the street to pass on the other side, in order to witness to their negative views of that church. Now, after Vatican II, and its “Decree on Ecumenism,” she is on the diocesan ecumenical committee, and often visits, other churches, for meetings, and pulpit sharing etc. With the ecumenical dialogue we have come to remember that al the baptized share in the one body of Christ, and in the love of Christ, of the Gospel, and we share therefore so many things. Those “others” are more “for us” in Christ than we might have imagined. Beyond ecumenism, what about the inter-religious dialogue? Fr. William Johnston, S.J., who did his doctorate on the “Cloud of Unknowing,” and wrote beautifully about Christian contemplative spirituality, taught for decades in Japan, and was part of the official Christian/Zen dialogue. He noted that at the level of what we would call contemplative prayer, or meditation, there are amazing resonances between Christian and Zen spirituality. And he was amazed...

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