Greetings and Peace of Christ be with you. One of the passions which I cultivated in my youth prior to becoming a seminarian for the Diocese of Austin is writing. I love to read, to observe, to reflect, and to write. In order to continue this passion of mine I hope to some how help, in what ever insignificant way, continue the efforts of the New Evangelization which has become the modern day means of communication between Catholics and a world gone numb to love, mercy, and true freedom. It is my hope to not only share with you more about myself from these postings, but that you will some how be able to share with me in the common things which make us human: creatures in the hands of a loving Creator. You do not have to be Catholic as I am to enjoy this blog. It does not matter whether you are a Christian, atheist, Gentile, Jew, or too busy in your life to even think about it at the present moment. All that matters is that you are seeker as I, seeking after the Truth and after a Spirit greater than yourself. Hold on to that instinct to look up at the stars, the feeling that something greater lies beyond this earthly realm, because it does. Hold on to your inclinations for greatness, because no matter where you've been or what you've done, at your very core is something more; something greater than you'll ever know in this life. Pray about it, and pray with me as we take this pilrimage home, to heaven, together. O if I forget where my home truly remains and where my soul is destined to rest, "let my right hand wither."

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Perfect Strangers

St. Joseph Abbey Church
St. Benedict, Louisiana
 Let me begin with these beautifully personal words of St. Augustine which, though written in the 3rd century, speak to each one of us as humans who share in the common experience of longing for God, something much larger than what we merely see around us: I implore you to live with me and, by believing, to run with me; let us long for our heavenly country, let us sigh for our heavenly home, let us truly feel that here we are strangers.  It is fitting that as another liturgical year comes to a close, we together as strangers celebrated the Solemnity of Christ the King during the last Sunday of Ordinary Time, recalling our very beginning and ultimate end in the Kingdom of God.  It is truly remarkable that while we are strangers, we are strangers together who, though in earthly exile, sigh for our heavenly home with one another.  In this respect, we are never strangers in the sense that we may not know one another personally, but we are strangers in that we are all unfamiliar with the physical realm we currently inhabit as we are not made for this earth.  By this common trait of ours, though we all may differ in regards to color, creed, or culture, the fact that we are on this earthly pilgrimage together means that we are all intimately bound to each other as one.
Christ tells us, The kingdom of God, does not come for all to see; nor shall they say: Behold, here it is, or behold, there it is, but the kingdom of God is within us, for the word of God is very near, in our mouth and in our heart.  It is very clear that by Jesus’ own teaching and followed by the living tradition of the Church, since we are all created in the image and likeness of God, the dignity we possess as creatures in the hands of our loving Creator is the same dignity bestowed on us as bearers of God, his dwelling place.  St. Teresa of Avila explains to her fellow consecrated sisters that the soul of the just person is nothing else but a paradise where the Lord says he finds his delight.  St. Teresa goes on to illustrate the interior dwelling of God within each of us as an immense castle where our soul progresses from room to room until it finds its rest in the royal chamber of our Lord and King, Jesus Christ.  This journey of our soul is indeed a way toward greater and greater perfection as the more perfect we are interiorly (i.e. the more our desires are rightly-ordered), the more inviting we become for the Spirit of God to find his rest within us.  Christ, speaking with the Father, wonderfully describes the blessedness of the faithful person with a well-ordered soul: We shall come to him and make our home with him.

But what is it to be well-ordered and prefect?  What supernatural, angelic being must we become in order to possess the entire immensity of the omnipotent Trinity within us, God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit?  No.  No, perfection is much simpler and within our reach than that, so simple in fact it must come from God himself; any complication in the matter is a mere pesky habit of human origin.  Let us understand, as St. Teresa tells us that true perfection consists in love of God and neighbor; the more perfectly we keep these two commandments, the more perfect we will be.  The simplicity of what it means to be perfect leads us to the simplicity of being perfect, which is quite simply love of God and neighbor.  By the very fact that we are not strangers with one another, in virtue of our heavenly origin, but rather brothers and sisters who journey together as strangers in a strange land, to be perfect is deeply rooted in the instinct we possess and the command we are given to love each other with the same love we have for God.

The endeavor to reach this perfection begins, as with any endeavor we undertake, with prayer.  Of all that has been written about prayer throughout the centuries, one thing remains constant: prayer is the conformity of our will with the will of God.  When writing his Rule for monks, St. Benedict instructs his brothers that every time you begin a good work, you must pray to him most earnestly to bring it to perfection. In whatever form our prayer may take, whether a group praying the rosary, a person meditating under an oak tree, a community praying together at mass, or a poor soul contemplating God while stuck in traffic, our prayer should come from and lead us toward the surrendering of our will, with all its desires, passions, wants, fears, anxieties, dreams, concerns, joys, etc., etc., into the trusting care of the God who made us, just as we pray in the prayer Jesus himself taught us: thy Kingdom come, thy Will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  Again, St. Teresa illumines this point with words more authoritative than mine: Don’t think that in what concerns perfection there is some mystery or things unknown or still to be understood, for in perfect conformity to God’s will lies all our good.

As another season of Advent draws near, let us prepare ourselves to receive the birth of our Lord, Jesus Christ interiorly, who is truly God with us.  Although we as humans are citizens of a heavenly kingdom, continuing our journey home by each passing day we are blessed with, let us make use of the time we have on earth to welcome the Kingdom of God within us, a place where God may make his dwelling.  Let us never forget our task as strangers to prepare ourselves and one other for welcoming our King who humbly comes down from his heavenly throne to walk with us, to encourage us, and to be our strength.  This is the dignity in which we are created, and so it is through this same dignity that we live, treat one another as bearers of God, and pray with all the humility Christ shows us by his birth, his life, and his death.  Be perfect with the loving simplicity of your lives brothers and sisters, and the Kingdom of God will reign within you.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Wind and Rain, Bless the Lord!

I had wrapped myself in my rain jacket and was walking as fast as I could from the seminary campus with my hood covered head dug tight into my soaked stiff chest.  It was still pitch black at 5:52 am with the only light coming from the orange lamps which illumined the front of the abbey church, reflecting a shine upon the sidewalk leading me toward dry refuge.  Hurricane Isaac had finally reached the North Shore of Lake Pontchartrain a few hours prior, bringing side sweeping sheets of rain and 75 mph wind gusts with him.  As I continued the journey I could see how the entire area of the abbey grounds was now entrenched by an inch deep puddle with the church building now resembling a sort of mighty ship emerging from the harbor waters, completely unshaken, unmoved.  By the time I had reached the covered doorway my pant legs were drenched and my muscles were still tightened from the work it took to walk against the blowing gusts.  Luckily my boat was firmly moored, ready for six o’clock vigils.

It took every bit of strength I had left to open the towering wooden doors; it seemed as though my spirit was being tested by the powering winds of heaven and earth.  As soon as I was safely within the walls of the church and the door was shut behind me, I quietly slipped off my jacket, hung it on the post, and quickly began whipping the droplets of water from the lenses of my glasses using the inside cloth of my front pants pocket.  Once I positioned them back on my face it took a few seconds for my eyes to adjust to the solemn darkness within the sanctuary.  The only lights were those which hung above the altar revealing the two rows of choir stalls below: each facing the other, one of the north side, the other on the south.  The sanctuary lamp flickered a small candle light above the tabernacle; all is well, my Lord is here.

The abbey church is humongous; the prized pearl of the bayou.  It’s a good 50 yard walk to the choir stalls and by the time I had reached them, I quickly recognized the four early bird monks who are always there seated before I arrive each morning.  And this morning of all mornings, why should a silly hurricane keep me from attending prayer with the monks?  As I slipped into my cedar plank seat it had occurred to me that I hadn’t taken a breath since entering the church for fear I would disturb the monastic silence.  And so upon slowly exhaling I looked up to see the large fresco of angels circling above me, singing their celestial hymn.  When I looked down toward the wall opposite from my stall, I noticed the fresco of old father Abraham with knife in hand, all too ready to sacrifice his son Isaac at God’s command.  Luckily for Isaac, the hand of the angel of God is keeping Abraham from going through with the deadly blow, and luckily for me, Isaac is only blowing back as a category 1 this morning.

The wind can be heard swirling all around the outside of the church building as tiny droplets of rain sizzled loudly on the window panes much like bacon on a hot iron skillet.  As the remaining members of the monastic community begin to trickle in from the passage way which connects the church to the monastery building, a warm feeling of peace and security begins to overwhelm my entire body causing every one of my muscles to go limp.  The inside of the ship begins to creak and groan as it floats atop the troubled waters, or perhaps it’s the hard winds bellowing against the large wooden doors at the entrance.  The howling gets louder and softer and louder as the monks flip through the pages of their prayer books, all to ready to begin this day with thanks, praise, and prayers for the whole world.  As the abbot taps his wooden gavel signaling the brothers to rise, I know I must offer these prayers for those who are not as fortunate as I to be safely in the thick hull of this ancient abbey, those without shelter or who will be without shelter by the end of Isaac’s wrath.

Facing east towards the crucifix each monk crosses their mouth with their thumb while chanting:

Lord, open my lips…
And my mouth shall proclaim thy praise…

The cantor begins the intonation of the invitatory psalm:

Come ring out our joy to the Lord,
Hail the Rock who saves us;
Let us come before Him giving thanks,
With songs let us hail the Lord…
(Psalm 95)

Just another day’s work for the monk.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Love Unerring, Love Divine

Basilica de San Benedetto (Norcia, Italy)
Photo by Author

If we run away from the Truth, what happens?  Does something happen to us now, or in the hereafter?  Does this affect the spinning of the planets or cause the eagle to blink?  But would it even be possible to deny Him, since He has revealed Himself to us just by the act of creating us and keeping us alive?  Some may think they have chosen not to believe or follow, and sure we have our free will, but what’s to say salvation does not continue to aid and guide us all along our merry way?  He who is so rich in compassion, who IS compassion, could not possibly cease the focus of His watchful eye from caring for our every step.  Creation was not a single event in the history of our being but a continual process which encompasses every moment of our lives.  Creation is God's act of love, a God who created us and loves us who cannot deny us just as He cannot deny Himself.  As creation unfolds so too does Incarnation: the perfection of creation by the act of God becoming man, Jesus Christ.  And once Jesus comes into our lives to help us make sense of it all, to show us this isn't it, that enternal joy lies beyond our earthly lives, the rest is history.

No, I don’t think it’s possible to cease a journey we have once begun, this one we began from the moment of our conception.  To say it’s possible to quit on God, to say “I’m done seeking Him” would be the same as claiming you chose to no longer breath one more breathe.  Seeking God is the only constant we have as humans this side of heaven.  Someone may claim to be an atheist, may claim to not be seeking this God whom they don’t believe in, but little to their knowing, they are still seeking heavenly fulfillment, in whatever way, shape, or form.  When one does not wish to fill the void with God, the only person who can make us whole again, then all they are doing is using that which is insatiable to slake a thirst only God can quench.  What are the common insatiable means of achieving a self-defined nirvana?  Media, drugs, material things, other people, ourselves…basically everything on earth that isn’t God.  Every thing we have been given on earth will eventually foresake us; God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is all who remains in eternity.

 It does not require any special circumstance to begin an act of faith.  It does not matter how you were raised, what horrible things you have done, or who you believe you think you are.  All that is required is that you begin.  Do not believe it comes naturally for anyone or that it’s just easy for certain “types” of people.  Believing is hard and faith is not natural, it’s supernatural, it’s not easy for anybody.  But thank God for His grace, for faith is a gift which can in no way be achieved or earned by our own means.  Allow faith and hope to reign in your life, for when we reach heaven we will no longer require such gifts as we will behold God face-to-face; all that will remain is love.  And never be afraid, you have absolutely nothing to lose, for everything around you is temporal and already passing by its very nature.  Never stop looking up.  Never deny the instinct you have for searching for something which lies beyond this earthly creation.  One step at a time.  Believe.  One more step.  Inhale.  Take another step, and repeat.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Transformation into Beauty

Consecrate them in the truth. Your word is truth.  As you sent me into the world, so I sent them into the world.  And I consecrate myself for them, so that they also may be consecrated in truth. 
- John 17:17-19

Our transformations, however painful yet consoling and joyous, are the means by which we are consecrated (set apart or made holy) for the mission we are all made for; we are called forth from our former selves for that which is ours to do.  For myself personally, be they those moments of greater understanding which fill my heart and soul with an ecstasy that pierces through all earthly sense of my surroundings, revealing only that which is of heaven as I am able to stand before our Father with nothing less than the dignity of being His child.  Or, be they those transformations which purge all superficial, self-centered perceptions of my relationship with God when I seem to be completely empty, bringing me back to the reality of my heavenly exile; when I feel neither hot nor cold, light nor darkness, life nor death.  In all things pleasant or painful, bitter or sweet, we can gain a greater sense of the balance between what God brings us or keeps from us while on this earthly journey.  Divine wisdom, incompressible to a mind of what is here and now, truly holds  in her hands with a maternal love all that which knows only what will keep us one, true, and good: beautiful.

So, an ecstatic joy of the most intimate communion with God is tempered by a painful sense of confused loneliness and the most horrible awareness of wretched indignity is uplifted to enthralling heights never before known by the perfect love of Christ’s forgiving embrace; THANKS BE TO GOD!  Divine wisdom created us good and therefore can know only that which is good for us.  There is no growth to a greater and truer relationship with God by keeping our senses dulled with the intoxication of eternal “spiritual highs” just as nothing good comes from nor is a loving response generated from us by keeping us down in the dumps of perpetual desolation.  The most comforting truth I can possess as a Christian is knowing that between what happens to me or doesn’t happen to me, everything lies in hands which are capable only of manifesting truth, goodness, and beauty…more so than I could ever possibly conjure by my own doing.

Sometimes, that which dilutes our spiritual concoction comes to us from the outside.  I sit in prayerful bliss and happiness while my brother jokingly snickers in my direction while texting on his cell phone.  Do I shoot him with the sharp stare of indignation?  No, no Jamie Ford that would be an expression of cold, self-centered religiosity, and we know of this impulse all too well; there is nothing generous about it.  No, we continue to sit in the joy of knowing that even our most pleasurable moments of prayer might not even be prayer at all.  We need these events which we may see as distractions to bring us out of ourselves and into the God who speaks with us through the beauty of the world which surrounds us.  The rising of the sun, the setting of the sun, the raising of the Son; we are embraced with an everlasting beauty greater than we will ever know. The most perfect response one can give to the highs and lows we experience in our daily lives is that which is Immaculate: fiat, fiat

Like the mystery of our faith, beauty can be contradictory to human perceptions.  How beautiful it is to proclaim the Word in a smelly, humid, muddied chapel of a homeless shelter.  How beautiful it is, while in heart-tearing sorrowfulness, to make the sign of the cross before a priest in the confessional.  How beautiful it is to forgive those who have caused us pain.  There is great joy in knowing that despite our senses and emotional response, there is something greater beneath the present moment.  Our reaction to beauty, to goodness and truth, is that which truly brings us closer to God.  Indeed, our spiritual growth can be seen as an evolution of our response to beauty, however contradictory that beauty may seem to be, and the maturation of how we choose to respond can come only from the command Jesus leaves us: love God and love one another.  We have been created to live as artists alongside the Divine Artist, and we are capable of creating such beauty with God by our own moral actions, creating art that is pleasing to God and to one another.  The way to God is truly a two-way street: The beauty made manifest by the bond of the Trinity coming into our lives meeting the beauty created by our prayers, words, and actions going into that perfect, heavenly bond who continues to beckon us home.

Canyon de Chelley
Navajo Reservation, Arizona
(Photo by Author)

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Spirit of Kateri

It's only fitting that the memorial of soon-to-be-canonized Bl. Kateri Tekakwitha should follow so close to that of St. Benedict's, considering how just weeks after I arrived back in the States from my four months of monastic discernment in Italy, I began living and working with Franciscan friars on the Navajo Reservation in Northeastern Arizona.  The transition from a very traditional, very Latin monastery in the cloistered mountains of Umbira to a mission chapel in the middle of a most desolate, most impoverished desert was indeed some what strange; neither of the two settings were in the least bit of my familiarity.  Yet in the most profound way, the desert proved to encompass a more naturally innate solitude than the monastery ever could: beautiful, hauntingly vast, eerily endless, but beautiful.

And the Spirit of Kateri is very much alive with the Navajo people, both Catholic and non-Catholic alike.  Although she belonged to the Algonquin and Iroquois tribes of 17th century French Canada, this "Lily of the Mohawks" has been accepted by countless Native Americans as a model of virtue, conversion, and purity.  While working as a catechist with children and adults around the different missions which dotted the highland desert, it was amazing how well and eager the Navajo were to make connections between Catholicism and their native spirituality.  Everything from creation stories, tales of love, trickery, and miracles, to legendary figures who withstand time, it is evident that the Holy Spirit has been working with and preparing these people to be evangelized and receive the Truth since their very beginnings.  One of my favorites includes the mystical figure Changing Woman.  This woman, who is present throughout the Navajo oral tradition and takes different forms in each story, has been seen by many to symbolize the Blessed Virgin Mary in the way she has come to us in different apparitions throughout our history since her Assumption.  These, along with other ways of expressing and teaching our faith to native spiritualities, has helped me come to greater grips on the universality of our Church and the mystical outreach of God's grace among all peoples.

Kateri, like all Native Americans, was no foreigner to the consequence of foreign take over.  Stricken by small pox at a very young age (which left her face scarred), Kateri was eventually left orphaned as a result of war and famine by the time the French had occupied the region.  Even before her conversion, at thirteen years of age the young Lily had devoted herself to a life of purity by choosing to remain a virgin and refusing to be wed.  Once the Jesuits had established their missions, she was baptized at the age of twenty and it was then that she was given the name Kateri (Katherine).  This is remarkable considering that the practice of these missionaries at the time was to hold off baptisms until a time when the native is close to death just to be safe that they would not turn back to their old ways.  Baptizing a native at this young age is a testament to how serious and sincere Kateri had become as a follower of Christ.  Despite the great sufferings she had already known, with all the joy she had for her faith and the grace she had been given, Kateri led an austere life of mortification and penance for the mercy and conversion of her kinsmen.  Continuing to live out her faith, she was eventually ostracized by her people and lived among other devout female converts just as herself, forming a sort of religious community under the direction of the Jesuit missionaries.  It was within this mission community that Kateri died at the age of 24, beginning what would be a history of miracles attributed toward her intercession along with a wide-range of peoples who place hope in their devotion toward her prayers and witness.

Bl. Kateri Tekawitha saw her earthly life for what it truly was: temporal and passing, yet a gift from God as the only opportunity we have to come closer to Him through His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, before we pass from this life onto the next.  Surrounded by the reality of life and death from a very young age, Kateri knew how important it was to prepare for the moment she stood before her Father in judgement.  This faith went beyond a concern she had for her own soul, but led her to a life of incessant prayers and penances for the conversion of her people.  How beautiful is this example of agapic love: a love which is lived for another, not for their own sake, but ultimately out of love for God and the gift of love He has given.  The example we have from the Communion of Saints reveals to us the richness of our Church.  Though diverse throughout time, culture, ethnicity, and background, the Saints each stand together as a witness to the unity which is found in our faith: in our love for God and our love for one another. 

In a way the diversity we share on earth, when brought together in the unity of our liturgy, helps us to come to a much deeper understanding of our faith.  Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again: there are many different angles to look at the one mystery (a crucified God now resurrected).  When celebrated in a different language, a different setting, or a different cultural backdrop, we can enter into not only a deeper level of understanding, but a more sincere level of prayer and reverence we had never before known.  Each Mass we attend should not leave us the same but should send us out into the world with new found faith, and this can be accomplished during the sacred liturgy of a traditional Latin Mass, a Spanish Mass, an English Mass, or a Navajo Mass; the list is endless.  Though celebrated differently the message is still same, Go out into the world and proclaim the Gospel with your life.  This is what it is to be a Saint, not separating religion from the secular, but having the faith to live our religion within the secular.  That's our call to be witnesses to Christ and envangelize, to live our faith.

Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.
And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.  - Matthew 28:19-20

Thursday, July 12, 2012

St. Benedict: Ancient Voice, Forever Relevant

This time last year I was a postulant for the Benedictine monastery, Monastero de San Benedetto, in Nursia, Italy (the birthplace of St. Benedict and his twin sister St. Scholastica) for an amazing four months, beginning what would be for me a year away from diocesan seminary formation for a time of greater discernment.  As St. Benedict, along with the Rule and rich tradition he left behind, has and always will be a tremendous inspiration for my formation and ministry, and since this day (July 11th) is the day our Roman Catholic Church memorializes him, I have been given way to much reflection and reminiscing on memories past and dreams to come regarding this amazing abbot and saint.  The Rule of St. Benedict, although short in length, has inspired centuries upon centuries of countless pages written for commentary, even to this day, as remnants of Benedict's ideas can be seen between the lines of the constitutions and rules of virtually every religious community and order created since the 6th century.

What made Benedict's idea for the ideal monastery, or any community of faithful for that matter, so influential was his emphasis on moderation.  Benedict knew all too well, as St. John Cassian observed before him, that an extreme observation of life in either direction will ultimately lead to complete failure.  For example, one who eats too much will obviously slow their wits to the point of spiritual and moral numbness, however one who fasts unrealistically will eventually end up breaking down to the extreme and eating far more than they would if they ate in moderation.  The practice of submitting to and observing a community rule (i.e. being exactly like everyone else) was seen by Benedict as the ultimate form of asceticism, as it would ensure that ones own passions or desires would never come before oneself and following Christ.  This is perhaps  most suiting for our age when following one's own feelings or passions is seen as the norm; being a sheep just isn't cool anymore no matter who your Shepherd is.  In fact to make light of the rule of common observance, Australian monk Fr. Michael Casey would say that eating exactly what was placed before you in a 10th century monastery was perhaps more ascetic than not eating at all! 

Another way St. Benedict expresses his ideal for moderation can be found in the way he charges each abbot (head of a monastery) with the task of implementing the Rule in a way which is best suited for each individual monk, as well as for the monastic community as a whole.  In other words, Benedict gives all abbots the discretion to add to or take away from the Rule (anything from the schedule of weekly servers in the kitchen to the exact order of how Psalms are prayed) whatever is required for the common good of all the brothers, just as long as the essence of the Rule still remains.  As for each individual monk, the abbot is to be a caring father who can recognize when a weaker brother needs leniency just as when a stronger brother needs to be challenged further.  The embodiment of moderation and avoidance of extreme behavior in any person can be manifested in a form of gentleness, fatherly concern, and what one could call "tough love."  The abbot is seen as one who can meet brothers where they are, not placing unrealistic expectations on them or the whole community, but reaching out from where they stand.  In the end, the tremendous task of judgement and discernment on the part of the abbot is given serious consequences as the Rule states, let the Abbot always bear in mind that he must give an account in the dread judgment of God of both his own teaching and of the obedience of his disciples (Ch. 2). 

The perfect summary St. Benedict's charism comes from one line towards the end of his Rule which reads, Let them put Christ before all else; that may He lead us all to everlasting life (Ch. 72).  The entire idea of preferring nothing to the love of Christ is and always will be the perfect and surest way to Gospel living.  However Benedict does not condemn material things as Christ never did during His earthly life since it is not wealth itself which should be denied but the love of wealth; our love should only rest in Christ and loving others for love of Christ.  The truth is we need certain tools to work, because just as the motto for Benedictines is Ora et Labora, or Pray and Work, you cannot accomplish much work without the use of tools.  I believe Pope St. Gregory the Great, perhaps Benedict's greatest admirer who's Dialogues provide us with the life story of St. Benedict, said it perfectly in one of his homilies: Whatever you possess must not possess you; whatever you own must be under the power of your soul; for if your soul is overpowered by the love of this world's goods, it will be totally at the mercy of its possessions...we make us of the temporal things, but our hearts are set on what is eternal.  Temporal goods help us on our way, but our desire must be for those eternal realities which are our goal (Book 2, Homily 36).

But certainly this way of life is nothing new and Benedict would be the first to make that claim since it was St. Paul who testified, I have come to rate all as loss in the light of the surpassing knowledge of my Lord Jesus Christ.  For His sake I have forfeited everything; I have accounted all else as rubbish so that Christ may be my wealth and I may be in Him (Philippians 3:8).  To let nothing of the earth take possession of ourselves nor drive our desires and passions, along with the practice of moderation, is ultimately an issue for the department of humility.  Humility is a word which most basically means lowliness, since it comes from the Latin humus, or "of the earth."  The challenge to live humbly is no contemporary issue, as it wasn't for Benedict before us nor for Christ when he constantly combated the lofty images His own disciples would conjure up on the false earthly power of what they thought a messiah should inherit.  The goal of this kind of humility, to come down to a lowliness which places us in the essence of who we really are, that is creatures in the hands of a loving Creator, is and always should be so that we may more readily and ably follow Christ.  St. Gregory nails it again when he gives the sole purpose of all ascetic practices: No carnal pleasure, no worldy curiousity, no surge of ambition must keep us from the Lord's Supper (Homily 36 cont.). 

When I think of humility in terms of lowliness as low as the earth itself, I am sent beyond myself and placed within a cave in Subiaco, Italy.  It was here that St. Benedict first fled from his worldly studies in Rome and consequently all worldly ambitions.  He spent three years of his young adult life in this cave in incessant prayer before God, learning from Him in the silence of solitude and contemplation exactly what was his to do with the life he was given.  This cave is dark, damp, and musky; the only peace and consolation one could ever be given in such a hole is that from God Himself.  Eventually, local shepherds and towns folk flocked to receive words of wisdom from him, and soon after, men seeking a monastic way of life came before him in order to be placed under his direction as their abbot.  Monasteries were built, the Rule was written, the rest is history.  However, observing the Rule is not the end, but only a beginning: now, we have written this Rule that, observing it in monasteries, we may show that we have acquired at least some moral righteousness, or a beginning of the monastic life (Ch. 73).

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Little Things of Newness

"So whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come." - 2 Corinthians 5:17 (NAB)

There came a point early in my priestly formation when I realized: I am a very different person than I used to be.  Now granted, this is a given when becoming a more mature adult, or at least I always hoped it would be a given.  But no matter how many times I've read, meditated, and prayed over St. Paul's wide-spread theme of the newness which is a consequence of conversion, I never actually thought about how that would become so real and concrete in my life, like it was actually going to happen!  Six years ago I was studying creative writing at Texas State University.  Three years ago I was a Petty Officer 3rd Class in the United States Coast Guard aboard the USCGC Bertholf in Alameda, California.  Two years ago I was honorably discharged and entered seminary formation with the Diocese of Austin, answering the long-standing desire God had placed within me to become a priest.

With these major transitions I had under gone, not only physically but mentally and spiritually as well, I was slowly becoming a new creation.  As a different person at different stages of my life, I had different interests, different friends, different relationships, and a different way of looking at myself, the world, and God.  But its not the big things that catch your attention, its always the little ones.  As a seminarian, I cannot stand most of the movies I enjoyed so much in college, the music that once defined my character, or the literature which sparked my first love for the spirit of the written word.  There simply came a point when they no longer stood significant.  Its not to say that there are no longer movies, music, or books which I enjoy, only that these things no longer have the influence they once held on my life and now they've become exactly that which they always were: things. 

Now the examples which stand out for me are all artistic forms of entertainment, but our gadgets and devices are without a doubt the most potent forms of distraction the modern world is addicted to.  The little things: taken for what they are can make for a pleasant occasion for recreation or a useful tool for communication.  But once they become our means of self-definition and world outlook, when our little things are given a big place we no longer reflect the greatness we are created and called to embody, but are turned into exactly that which controls us: a thing.  I can only make these bold observations on the lot of modern man because, prior to my own conversion, I was once he: distracted, addicted, and completely indifferent to God. 

The other day I noticed just how few things I have left in my possession as seminarians tend to be on the move quite a bit during their formation, between schools, pastoral assignments, and holidays, one cannot hold on to much when one does not know how small or smaller their next living quarters will be (just one of many similarities between seminary and military life).  I recall days prior to leaving for basic training selling boxes and boxes of books, movies, CDs, records, and giving away anything else which couldn't be sold.  Upon being discharged and preparing to enter my first year of seminary formation, I realized just how few things I had left and consequently, just how few things were taking possession of my time and concern.  Consequently, when the things which once not only possessed your mind but gave you self-definition are taken away, a sort of identity crisis can begin to take root.  Perhaps the most significant pain we feel during a conversion is the pain of "self-emptying": a purification of all that we once held as true which can no longer exist alongside the newness we now possess, or better yet, now possess us.  Our fears, or at the very least hesitations, toward conversion lie in our avoidance of this pain and an unwillingness to change, to turn toward the unfamiliar and the uncertain: a Truth which requires faith.

But only when we empty ourselves of ourselves, only then will our conversion begin.  Once this happens, once we turn to Christ through prayer, hear his Word in Scripture, and come together in a community of faithful who are continually undergoing a conversion alongside us, at that point we will begin to be filled with the newness promised to those who seek Him.  Paradoxically (as our faith is filled with paradoxes), the more we look beyond ourselves toward the God around us, the more we dwell in the Spirit, and the more we give our very lives for the sake of selfless love, only then do we discover our true selves.  The more we deny of who we think we are, the more we are given of who we truly are.  St. Paul, the exemplar of conversion, continues, it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me (Galatians 2:20).  Any conversion takes great faith, but for the Catholic Church we do not hold onto the "leap of faith" doctrine.  As children of God, we are given the grace and strength needed to live a life of faith; all that is ours to do is to open ourselves to the God who longs to fill those who seek Him.  Although our God is a mysterious God, no leap is required, only that you begin.

Sure it can be strange to notice yourself as no longer resembling the person you once were, and those closest to you will be the first to recognize it.  However the newness you seek and which now defines you will find peace and consolation in the realization that your identity is now coming closer and closer to that of Christ as the One who gives to you His entire self.  As the little things you once held in great regard take their proper place, only then will the greatness of newness begin to take root in you.  Our emptiness, our weakness, and our vulnerability is given strength in Christ Jesus and the new creation He wills for us to embrace and become.