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No matter how many prayers I pray, I always feel like I need to offer God more gratitude than I do. It’s not so much that I am ungrateful (although that might be the case at times, sorry to say), as that He deserves so much gratitude! Infinite gratitude, in fact. And we are finite creatures. Sometimes I even feel frustration at what I can or cannot express with words.
At times like that, the Psalms are a special blessing! Whatever you are feeling, whatever inside you is yearning for expression, there is always a fitting Psalm. Tonight, that Psalm for me was in Evening Prayer, Psalm 138:
The kings of the earth will bring his glory and honor into the holy city (see Revelation 21:24).
I thank you, Lord, with all my heart,
you have heard the words of my mouth.
In the presence of the angels I will bless you.
I will adore before your holy temple.
I thank you for your faithfulness and love
which excel all we ever knew of you.
On the day I called, you answered;
you increased the strength of my soul.
All earth’s kings shall thank you
when they hear the words of your mouth.
They shall sing of the Lord’s ways:
“How great is the glory of the Lord!”
The Lord is high yet he looks on the lowly
and the haughty he knows from afar.
Though I walk in the midst of affliction
you give me life and frustrate my foes.
You stretch out your hand and save me,
your hand will do all things for me.
Your love, O Lord, is eternal,
discard not the work of your hands.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son,
and to the Holy Spirit:
as it was in the beginning, is now,
and will be for ever. Amen.
When I began reading this Psalm tonight, my heart became light, as if a weight was literally being lifted from it. I read the Liturgy of the Hours each day (at least Morning and Evening Prayer). It is always instructive. But occasionally, exactly the right Psalm comes up at exactly the right time.
The part that struck me most of all was the second stanza:
I thank you for your faithfulness and love
which excel all we ever knew of you.
On the day I called, you answered;
you increased the strength of my soul.
No matter how greatly I experience God’s faithfulness and love, I am always surprised and bewildered, in a good way. It often leaves me lost in wonder. He excels, and then excels again, and excels once more, and on and on and on! Just when you might think He could not lavish any more upon you, He does. And He has given a great deal of much-needed strength to my soul. And all the gratitude in the world is not enough for Him and His deeds!
Thank God for the Psalms. There is always such depth in them. Sometimes I pray them and may not even realize why I am so strongly affected by them. The words are often very simple. But the Psalms are more than their words. Of course, we hold them to be divinely inspired. I think they are imbued with the Holy Spirit’s own prayers, into which He elevates and transforms our humble and insufficient words and feelings and thoughts.
I say again, thank God for the Psalms!
It is impossible not to be struck by the epistle from today’s Mass:
Brothers and sisters:
Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God,
with which you were sealed for the day of redemption.
All bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling
must be removed from you, along with all malice.
And be kind to one another, compassionate,
forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ.
So be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love,
as Christ loved us and handed himself over for us
as a sacrificial offering to God for a fragrant aroma.
St. Paul gives us quite a tall order, and he frames it in our relationship with the Holy Trinity: “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit,” “be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us.” We are all children of God, and naturally, how we treat each other is an integral part of how we relate to God–and vice versa. For if you love God and have a strong and true relationship with Him, you will be much more cognizant of how you treat other people, and all other things that He has created.
Probably the most difficult thing in the above scripture is to “[forgive] one another as God has forgiven you.” This is not a new idea, for it is part of the Lord’s Prayer: “And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” It is also in the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.” And in other places in scripture, the point is made very clear: mercy comes to the merciful, and those who receive mercy are obliged to show mercy. No Christian can claim ignorance of this teaching.
And yet, to forgive and to show mercy… I find it extremely difficult sometimes! Even though I know how merciful God has been to me, and how merciful other people have been to me many times, and even though I know my obligation to forgive others… I often find it much easier said than done. Fortunately, the priest spoke to this difficulty during his homily. He said that forgiveness will almost always be willed long, perhaps very long, before it is felt–but that the will to forgive is the more important of the two, and that God will always accept and work with a willingness to forgive. It might take a long time before the heart catches up with the mind–but that is often true.
So, we should not worry nor fear nor be anxious if we don’t immediately “feel like” forgiving somebody, or even feel like we can forgive them. God in His wisdom has made a point of drilling it into our minds that we need to forgive others, and that forgiving others is the best thing for us. Even if we feel a great aversion to forgiving, we should offer it up to God, saying, “Lord, you know how greatly I am suffering from what so-and-so did to me, and that I’m having a very hard time forgiving them. But I want to forgive them. Please help me do so, and to heal from the sufferings they’ve caused me.” I pray this way often. And gradually, I do find healing and find that I am able to move beyond whatever injury I’ve suffered.
It’s not easy, but it’s far better than allowing “bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling … along with all malice” to dwell within us and fester. Those things are the raptor claws of the devil that inject poison into us and seek to tear us from God’s side forever. It’s far better to just try your best to forgive–no matter how feeble you may think your efforts are. God will not let them go to waste.
I have never been one to switch gears with lightning speed, but all in all, I think my personal retreat is off to a good start.
I got up at 6 AM, said my Divine Office and Rosary, ate some breakfast and did some light housework. Then I did my morning washing and grooming and dressing. Unfortunately, I was moving rather slowly and drowsily and was not able to fit in Mass before work. I need to work on that, but considering the great weary malaise I’ve been steeped in for so long, I am fairly pleased with my level of morning activity.
I did my usual work; actually, I worked a bit late. I was able to fit a little bit of spiritual reading in during lunch.
I came home, ate a bit of supper, did a little more housework, and said the Divine Office. And now I am doing a bit of writing!
One thing that my mind has been coming back to today was the Epistle from Sunday’s Mass:
That I, Paul, might not become too elated,
because of the abundance of the revelations,
a thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan,
to beat me, to keep me from being too elated.
Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me,
but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you,
for power is made perfect in weakness.”
I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses,
in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me.
Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults,
hardships, persecutions, and constraints,
for the sake of Christ;
for when I am weak, then I am strong.
~ 2 Corinthians 12:7-10
If there is one thing I know about myself, it’s that I hate weakness. And there is no weakness I hate more than that which is my own. And there is so much of it! When I think of my own weakness, the grace of God is not what tends to come to mind, much less the thought of boasting of my weaknesses. I tend to brood and loathe and get discouraged and just want to wipe all of it away. So, St. Paul’s message is one that I need to receive over and over and over… and over.
Weakness is part of what defines humanity. There is no human person who lacks weakness. And so, we have to humbly and honestly admit our weakness, simply and truthfully, and with a certain degree of acceptance. If we do this, then our minds and hearts will be lifted toward God, toward Him who is power, strength, glory, majesty, perfection and so many other things that we humans are not. To accept weakness is simply to acknowledge what we humans are and where we stand in relation to God.
To scorn human weakness is an act of arrogance, as if we ourselves are somehow entitled to and capable of divine perfection. Such arrogance turned Lucifer into a demon–and he, by nature, was closer to divine perfection than any of us. But what we lack in nature is more than made up for by divine love and providence. By nature, the angels are far greater, but we have the singular honor of adoption as God’s own children! And how can we fully appreciate and enjoy and live out this incredible state as God’s children, if we are consumed with hatred of our own nature? If it weren’t for the weakness of human nature, we would have no need or desire for God, no need for redemption, no need for salvation, and no need for Heaven.
And so, weakness, when rightly regarded by us, can open us up to God and His countless graces. Knowledge of our own weakness disposes us to be drawn ever closer to God out of humility and desire and need. And the closer we are drawn to Him, and the more open we are to Him, the stronger, healthier, and more alive we become.
I have been studying the story of the prophet Elijah for a term paper in my Hebrew Bible class. It is a fascinating story for many reasons, and one that remains quite actively debated among Bible scholars.
What speaks to me most on a personal level is the theophany on Mount Horeb.
And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake;
and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.
And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.
1 Kings 19:11-13 (RSV)
To briefly put this passage in context, Elijah had recently obtained a spectacular miracle by calling upon God to send down fire to consume an offering (you really must read the whole story in 1 Kings 18:20-40). He had hoped to re-convert the people of Israel to faithful and exclusive worship of God via this spectacular display of power, and at first it seemed that he had succeeded. But it was a very short-lived victory and brought a death-threat from the infuriated Queen Jezebel, who had brought Baal-worship to Israel. When he realized his failure, Elijah went out into the desert, disillusioned and even suicidal.
Eventually, he came to Mount Horeb (aka Sinai), and like Moses before him, received the rare gift of a theophany–a manifestation of God’s presence. Phenomena such as tempest, earthquake, and fire were characteristic of a theophany–and exactly what one would expect. But to Elijah, God presented Himself in a very different and unexpected way: in “a still small voice.” It was in that tiny sound that the prophet perceived God’s presence.
It’s important to note that Elijah was not a person who much appreciated silence and stillness. He was a gutsy, intrepid, self-assured man of action. When he called upon God, God listened and acted. And Elijah expected God to act with power, as He did when He sent down fire to consume Elijah’s offering. Elijah wanted to shock and stun the people of Israel into straightening up their act, and he expected God to cooperate. But ultimately, that plan had failed, and Elijah wasn’t sure what to do.
In this scene, we see the prophet at his weakest and most human. Can we not see ourselves in him? I know I can see myself. I often expect God to act according to my expectations and my timing. Occasionally, He deigns to do so, at least on the surface. In fact, it rarely turns out the way I would like it to. And that doesn’t make me very happy!
What God teaches Elijah–and what He teaches to us all at times–is that His true essence and His true way are not found in earth-shattering power. Oh, He is mighty, very mighty! But true might is much more than mere brute force. We honor God’s true power when we fall silent and still and allow His still small voice to permeate our souls, our innermost beings. The truth is, that is a far more humbling, stunning, and awe-inspiring experience than any external tour de force we could ever imagine! The realization that God wants first and foremost to be Master of our souls is enough to make these souls of ours shiver and prostrate themselves!
Instead of wishing to exert power over others or over our circumstances, we should strive to submit ourselves to God’s power, lest our own hearts grow hard and turn away from Him. When we do so, we receive the greatest miracles of all: the life and love and grace that come only from our Lord and Master.
The scripture reading from today’s Morning Prayer:
We should be grateful to the Lord our God, for putting us to the test, as He did our forefathers. … Not for vengeance did the Lord put them in the crucible to try their hearts, nor has He done so with us. It is by way of admonition that He chastises those who are close to Him.
~ Judith 8:25-27
I find this passage very comforting… and I have found it to be quite true in my life. Sooner or later, in one way or another, suffering always draws me closer to God, and into a better, more abundant life.
(Note: For those who are not familiar with the book of Judith, it is one of the books of the deuterocanonicals (or apocrypha) that Catholics accept as holy scripture.)
Because lately, I’ve been stuck at Meriba and Massah quite a bit.
Today, listen to the voice of the Lord:
Do not grow stubborn, as your fathers did in the wilderness,
when at Meriba and Massah they challenged Me and provoked Me,
although they had seen all of My works.
~ Invitatory Psalm (Ps. 95)
It’s not a good place to be, but leaving is much easier said than done. Lord, help me.
Right now, I’m not even sure if I can make it through just this day. Lord, carry me.
More than once, I’ve doubted that God even exists. Lord, have mercy on me.
Yes, even though I have seen His works. Lord, illuminate me.
I’ve mentioned before what an inexhaustible treasure trove the Divine Office is–because, of course, it is a prayer of holy scripture. No matter how many times you pray it, no matter how many times you read a particular passage, there will always be something that speaks to you in a different way or at a louder volume than before. It is always new and fresh.
This morning, while praying the Canticle of Zechariah, which is part of every day’s Morning Prayer, I was especially struck by this stanza:
This was the oath He swore to our father Abraham:
to set us free from the hands of our enemies,
free to worship Him without fear,
holy and righteous in His sight all the days of our life.
It reminded me of the true meaning and nature of freedom. These days we confuse freedom for many things: license, self-rule, individualism. A right to do whatever we want and to decide for ourselves whether we are doing right or wrong, good or evil. Today, it sometimes seems that we hear more about freedom from religion than freedom of religion. Freedom from God–freedom to be our own masters.
What folly! We our own masters? That was the trap into which Satan seduced our first ancestors, and has that been some sort of smashing success? For Satan, sure. But we are still burdened and fragile creatures, and declaring independence from God and religion have never improved matters. Quite the opposite, in fact–you have only to glance back at the 20th century to realize that. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it till I’m dead: we don’t get to be our own masters. If we declare ourselves free of God, then we become Satan’s slaves. That is the default. There is no void in power that we can fill ourselves. There are too many more powerful things–either good or evil.
But, we can choose whom we will serve. That is the basis of all freedom. It is inalienable to human beings, an intrinsic part of who and what we are. That is how God made us. Satan can never give us freedom, much less can he weave it into our very persons. So, to reject God is ultimately to reject true freedom.
In our world, where religion has become so despised, and where being holy and being righteous are usually the unpopular, counter-cultural things to do, we must remember that we are still free. We are still free to worship, and still free to do what is holy and righteous. No slaves are we who serve the Lord! When we bow before Him, we are raised up. When we submit ourselves to Him, we are infused with full human dignity. When we obey His decrees, we are liberated.
It doesn’t matter whether we are despised or mocked. It doesn’t matter whether we are silenced or imprisoned. It doesn’t matter if we are tortured or killed. We are still free as long as we seek and worship God, and we cannot be enslaved by anyone. This is the truth to which all the martyrs have testified. This is the truth that causes Christianity to flourish the more when Christians are persecuted. This is the truth that sustains us through every kind of hardship.
In fact, this truth is much better realized and understood in places where human freedom is seemingly lacking most. I think of China, India, the Middle East. Here in the West, and particularly in the United States, where freedom is more or less taken for granted, we have lost sight of freedom’s significance and of its very meaning. And while there may be much less blood-martyrdom here, we are every bit as imperiled as those who are in prison and in danger of torture and death.
So the message is a universal one which must be proclaimed ever and everywhere: Dare to worship! Dare to strive for holiness! You are free!
As the anniversary of my father’s death approaches, and as several people I know have recently lost loved ones, I have been praying the Divine Office’s Office for the Dead (this link, courtesy of the Holy Souls Sodality, gives the full text: Office of Readings, Morning Prayer, Daytime Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Night Prayer).
As I pray these beautiful Psalms, scriptures, and petitions, I find myself surrounded by such a comfort and peace. They brim over with hope not only for our deceased loved ones, but for all of us. They remind me that I too shall die and stand before God, but they also remind me how very merciful and loving God is, how eternal and beatific the life He offers to us, and what unspeakable joy and rest the soul of the faithful shall find in His presence.
Here is one of my favorite passages from Evening Prayer:
My soul is waiting for the Lord,
I count on His word.
My soul is longing for the Lord
more than watchman for daybreak.
Let the watchman count on daybreak
and Israel on the Lord.
(Psalm 130 – De profundis)
How wonderful and refreshing it must be to finally have our waiting and longing satisfied… it’s hard to even imagine. But that time shall come for us all, sooner or later. Pretty amazing, isn’t it? A little frightening, sure. But as the Psalmist says, we can definitely count on the Lord, whom we revere for His mercy.
This past Sunday was the feast of Christ the King, the last Sunday in the Church’s year. The Gospel reading gave me a mental and spiritual shaking:
The rulers sneered at Jesus and said,
“He saved others, let him save himself
if he is the chosen one, the Christ of God.”
Even the soldiers jeered at him.
As they approached to offer him wine they called out,
“If you are King of the Jews, save yourself.”
Above him there was an inscription that read,
“This is the King of the Jews.”
Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying,
“Are you not the Christ?
Save yourself and us.”
The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply,
“Have you no fear of God,
for you are subject to the same condemnation?
And indeed, we have been condemned justly,
for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes,
but this man has done nothing criminal.”
Then he said,
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
He replied to him,
“Amen, I say to you,
today you will be with me in Paradise.”Luke 23:35-43
Hearing this story from Good Friday proclaimed at a time when our secular lives are occupied with preparing Thanksgiving dinners and buying Christmas gifts, among other things, makes quite an impact doesn’t it? It forces us to pause and re-consider this time of year. It can be easy to get swept up in worldly activities and busyness. It is also easy to regard this time of year as a sort of pleasant countdown to Christmas and lose sight of the fact that the Advent season is meant to make us mindful of Christ’s second coming. Likewise, this end of the Church year is meant to make us mindful our the end of our own lives, when we will present ourselves to Christ the King face-to-face.
Of course, the story itself is extremely striking, no matter when we read or hear it.
What strikes me first is always the tragic irony. Christ the King–not only of the Jews, but of all Creation–is sneered at and mocked as a false king. And yet even as He hangs crucified, bearing the enormous indignity and the excruciating pain with infinite patience, He acts as a King, issuing pardon to the repentant criminal. He rules even from the Cross.
What strikes me almost as much as the graciousness of Christ, however, are the humble words of the repentant criminal. He recognizes that he has earned crucifixion by his own deeds. He, unlike Christ, is being punished justly. He does not ask Christ to save him or release him from his torments. He simply asks, “Remember me.” And Christ does so much more than that–Christ indeed saves him, far beyond any worldly means.
When I read this story and the repentant criminal’s words, I often think to myself, “I wish I were that humble and that radically converted!” It inevitably leads me to examine my life and how I have lived in relation to God and to my fellow man and my fellow creatures. I ask myself who or what has ruled over me, to whom or what I have subjected myself. I ask myself how humble and obedient I have been before God.
When I am really honest and forthright with myself, when I make a real effort of humility–recognizing myself for who and what I am–I realize how very far I have to go to truly be a subject of Christ the King. I realize how profoundly self-serving and self-centered I am, how very stingy and stubborn and prideful. I realize how many boundaries I have established and built up between Christ and myself and between other people and myself. I realize how many limits I have placed upon how far I am willing to follow Christ. Instead of freely and generously offering a simple fiat, I have tended to add lots of fine-print restrictions to my offering of self to God.
Is that really what I want to offer God when I stand before Him at the end of my life? What an absurd notion!
But the story of the repentant crucified criminal gives hope that it is never too late to change, never too late to turn to the Lord. There is no more merciful and magnanimous King than He who rules from the Cross! Let us kneel before Him, and let us thank, praise, adore, and worship Him! And let us thank Him and His Church for giving us this particular time each year–the Solemnity of Christ the King and the following week that leads up to Advent–to help us to examine ourselves and to consider endings. It is also a time to perhaps make some Church New Year’s resolutions!
Obviously, I have plenty to think about.
Many blessings to you all–and a very happy and blessed Thanksgiving to my fellow Americans!
I see it was only a little over a year ago when I last wrote on this topic. Well, I’m in a similar situation once again. At a point last week, weakness led me to a state of mortal sin.
At this point in my life, it is always a shocking and painful experience when I realize my bond with God has been severed over some foolish, selfish indulgence of a temptation. It is utterly humiliating to wake up in the Enemy’s bedchamber and know that I went there of my own free will, abandoning the secure castle of my Lord and Father for some promise of luxury and pleasure–a false promise my mind should have easily seen through, and my love and faithfulness should have easily demolished. It is an almost unbearable pain to find the dagger of betrayal in my own bloody hand.
But before long, the aftermath of mortal sin brings one to a stark moment of decision: continue to wallow in your own filth, compounded with self-pity and self-hatred, and thus surrender in despair to the Enemy… or rise to your feet to return to your Lord and Father and beg His forgiveness. At this point, we all become the Prodigal Son in Christ’s parable, and if there is any shred of conscience, intellect, and love left, we know there’s only one correct choice.
We cry to God and place ourselves at His mercy. We acknowledge how wrong we were and how much we depend on Him for health, sanity, happiness, security, and wholeness. If nothing else, we do it because we realize how much better we are in His castle than in the Enemy’s infernal palace. If nothing else, we do it out of base fear of the Enemy. That is not the best and noblest of motivations, but it suffices for our merciful and compassionate Lord to gather us back into His arms and the safe confines of His castle.
We rightly rejoice in His goodness and love and praise Him. One of the Psalms in this morning’s Divine Office captures the entire experience–both the pleading and the praising–very well:
The prayer of the poor man in distress
Blessed be God who comforts us in all our trials (2 Corinthians 1:3, 4).
Turn your ear, O Lord, and give answer
for I am poor and needy.
Preserve my life, for I am faithful;
save the servant who trusts in you.
You are my God, have mercy on me, Lord,
for I cry to you all the day long.
Give joy to your servant, O Lord,
for to you I lift up my soul.
O Lord, you are good and forgiving,
full of love to all who call.
Give heed, O Lord, to my prayer
and attend to the sound of my voice.
In the day of distress I will call
and surely you will reply.
Among the gods there is none like you, O Lord;
nor work to compare with yours.
All the nations shall come to adore you
and glorify your name, O Lord:
for you are great and do marvelous deeds,
you who alone are God.
Show me, Lord, your way
so that I may walk in your truth.
Guide my heart to fear your name.
I will praise you, Lord my God, with all my heart
and glorify your name for ever;
for your love to me has been great:
you have saved me from the depths of the grave.
The proud have risen against me;
ruthless men seek my life;
to you they pay no heed.
But you, God of mercy and compassion,
slow to anger, O Lord,
abounding in love and truth,
turn and take pity on me.
O give your strength to your servant
and save your handmaid’s son.
Show me the sign of your favor
that my foes may see to their shame
that you console me and give me your help.
I have confessed my sin to God and implored His forgiveness, and I believe I have received His forgiveness and had our broken bond mended. That is where I am now. But as Catholic, I find that my heart still yearns for something. It longs to make a more formal, mature, and responsible pledge of fealty to its Lord. It longs to actively re-dedicate itself to Him and His service. And because it is still human flesh, it also desires a more concrete and more certain expression of God’s healing and restoration.
To quench these yearnings, only one thing will do: namely, the Sacrament of Confession. To confess my sins in my own human voice to one of God’s ordained priests, and to hear in the priest’s human voice that my sins are absolved–these are necessary for my well-being, as I have found time and time again. I cannot over-emphasize how salutary this holy Sacrament is!
Moreover, it is a duty and a privilege to which I am bound as a member of the Church. It must be understood that for Catholics, there is no division, no dichotomy, between God and His Church. He is the Church’s Head, and the Church is His Body. Only a gruesome decapitation could cause such a division. In being bound to the Church, I am bound to God, and vice versa. In doing my duty to the Church, I do my duty to God, and vice versa. If the Church requires me to confess to a priest, I do not doubt for a moment that it is because God desires it.
To me, it is absolutely clear why He would desire it–as I said, I have experienced over and over how very good and necessary it is for me. But God is more than a physician who hands me a prescription. He is a loving Father who wishes me to possess some of His own freedom and dignity. Presenting myself to Him in the Sacrament of Confession provides me with that freedom and dignity. That is why it is not only a duty but also a privilege. It is a privilege to actively co-operate in re-forging the bond between Him and myself. It is a privilege to know that God loves me so much and regards me so much as His own child, that He calls me to take action, as well as to be a passive recipient of His grace.
As I always say, it is not an either-or situation, but a both-and situation. Love can never be one-way or one-sided. My going to the Sacrament of Confession is a free act of love and obedience to God, just as His granting of mercy is a free act of love and providence to me and to everybody who prays to Him.
I am still in need of going to the Sacrament… like last time, various circumstances have conspired against it. Hopefully tomorrow evening! I really, really, really need to receive Holy Communion! I never realize how much it means to me until I’m in a situation where I cannot receive it. Please pray for me as I ride out this little interval.