Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Habit of Prayer

This morning I got up early while everyone was still sleeping and went downstairs to pray. I had gotten out of the habit of setting aside regular, structured quiet time with the Lord in the way one gets out of the habit of exercise...missing a run here, a routine there, and before you know it you're off the wagon. I went downstairs and did some laundry, made coffee, put dishes away, ate some yogurt...but I didn't do what I had gone downstairs to do. Even as I type this I'm not praying!

Contrast this to some men I know, men strong in their faith, who seize on every opportunity with prayer. Before we end a phone conversation, it's "Well, let's pray real quick," and we go right into it. Before and after a bible study, they intentionally turn it over to the Lord in prayer. They pray before meals and before trips, in public and private, over the phone and in person. Their lives are informed by intentional prayer, and they make time for it.

Why is it so hard to pray? Why is it easier to read about prayer, or say "Our prayers are with the victims" on Facebook, or "I'm praying for you" to a friend and not actually pray, as if the declaration were the thing itself?

Truth be told, I probably converse with God in prayer more than I realize, at those little stolen moments throughout the day--in the car on the way to work, walking, etc. But I think there is something to be said for intentional time set aside in a posture of prayer so that should someone walk in on us and catch us on our knees in the act and embarrassingly mutter "Sorry!", there is no mistaking what we were doing.

Prayer is an intimate opportunity to encounter God. This is why Jesus advised those who would wish to pray to "go into their rooms, and close the door, and pray to the Father who is unseen" (Mt 6:6). Unfortunately my wife and kids are sleeping in my room as I type, so I can't go there, but there's nothing keeping me from going into another room in the house, or driving to a nearby church or chapel, or even heading up to the attic or shed.

The bigger deal I make of praying, or that I need x, y, and z before I can engage in it, the more of a production it seems, when nothing could really be further from the truth. Prayer should not be complicated, and it should not be a barrier, but it should be intentional and habitual. That's why I think the best course of action in prayer is to imitate my friends who are men of faith and seize on any moment as being the perfect time to pray. To use the old Nike adage, to "JUST DO IT." Fold your hands, bow your head, drop to your knees...whatever posture you adopt to make it clear that this is not ordinary time, but sacred time, and that it is set aside and reserved. And then just dive in. The more habitual it becomes, the more it will engrain itself in your life. Don't know how to pray? Read Luke 11:2-4, or Matthew 6:9-13 as a starting point...Jesus will teach you, the same way he taught his disciples when they asked him, "Lord, teach us to pray."

Prayer is like the oxygen in our blood. Without it our spiritual organs, our lifeline to God, is not in good shape. Prayer is an extension of our faith, a necessary component of relationship and communion, for "without faith it is impossible to please God" (Heb 11:6). We simply cannot have a fruitful life of faith if prayer and the Word are not a regular part of our lives.

Intentional prayer--prayer itself--is an action a thousand times more fruitful then reading about prayer, writing about prayer, or telling someone you are praying for them. So the next time you are tempted to send good vibes through the Universe, or to send your thoughts and prayers via social media, it's a good reminder to go in your room, close the door, get on your knees, and actually pray, even if its only for a few minutes. There is no perfect time except now.

Monday, July 25, 2016

The Shores of Continence

We just got back from a vacation to Massachusetts. It was great. Relaxed in a hammock, played mini golf, went biking, got ice cream. We also tried to go swimming every day in a freshwater lake near where we were staying on the Cape. I love swimming and floating in the water, especially lakes. But what gets me every time is the getting wet part. Usually the water is cold and I wade in to my ankles and hem and haw about getting any wetter, though I try to get subsequently more submerged a little bit at a time, but it's never pleasant. 

The alternative is just jumping in, head first underwater, total and immediate submersion. I don't know why this is such an intimidating prospect. I'm not afraid of water, or the bottom of the lake. Yet, every time my kids laugh at me as I yell "One...Two...Two and a haaaalf...THREE!!", run toward the water, and then cower back at the last minute. The funny thing is when I do finally dive in head first, it's great! The water is not nearly cold as I thought it was when I was wading in an inch at a time, and my body adjusts quickly to the point where it is more pleasant being in the water than out of it. But every time it comes to swimming, I go through the same battle of the will, the same "Shoreline Shuffle", as if I forget that it's really no big deal (and in fact, more pleasant) in the end.


Jumping in a lake is kind of a silly example of how the 'battle of the will' plays out, but it strikes me every time I go through it (which is pretty much every summer). I wonder if it's the imagery, but it takes me back to when I read Confessions for the first time. It is a poignant scene, one close to my heart. In Book VIII, Augustine is on the shores of conversion and going through the birthing pangs of separating from sin into life in Christ:   

"For I said with myself, "Be it done now, be it done now." And as I spake, I all but enacted it: I all but did it, and did it not: yet sunk not back to my former state, but kept my stand hard by, and took breath. And I essayed again, and wanted somewhat less of it, and somewhat less, and all but touched, and laid hold of it; and yet came not at it, nor touched nor laid hold of it; hesitating to die to death and to live to life"

Soul-sick, "rolling and turning in his chain," Augustine desires to reach the shores of Continence, put to death the flesh and leave his worldly life, going from dry to wet, yet is gripped by the fear of loss--loss of those pleasures, those:

"...very toys of toys, and vanities of vanities, my ancient mistresses, [that] still held me; they plucked my fleshy garment, and whispered softly, "Dost thou cast us off? and from that moment shall we no more be with thee for ever? and from that moment shall not this or that be lawful for thee for ever? Yet they did retard me, so that I hesitated to burst and shake myself free from them, and to spring over whither I was called; a violent habit saying to me, "Thinkest thou, thou canst live without them?" 

However, a new voice has come onto the scene, one that: 

"...spake very faintly. For on that side whither I had set my face, and whither I trembled to go, there appeared unto me the chaste dignity of Continency, serene, yet not relaxedly, gay, honestly alluring me to come and doubt not; and stretching forth to receive and embrace me, her holy hands full of multitudes of good examples...and Continence herself in all, not barren, but a fruitful mother of children of joys, by Thee her Husband, O Lord."

This existential moment of "leaping to faith," in the words of Kierkegaard, is a pivotal and terrifying moment: for how can we trust One who promises to catch us who we cannot see? Who promises life though death? The terror of self-destruction, that we will be wiped away, that nothing will appear beneath our feet--the burning away of the false self, like falling onto the surface of the sun--feels real.  There is a war for our soul and our will in these moments, and all the cosmos holds its breath in anticipation of the outcome. 

Lady Continence addresses this fear in Augustine, and salvation becomes a matter of trust in One who, unlike the false idols and worldly trifles, is trustworthy:

"Why standest thou in thyself, and so standest not? cast thyself upon Him, fear not He will not withdraw Himself that thou shouldest fall; cast thyself fearlessly upon Him, He will receive, and will heal thee." 

Have you ever been lied to? Taken advantage of? Let down? Sin does that. It promises but does not deliver. It meeks out 5 cent pleasure that costs us a dollar a shot. And it absolutely exploits the fear that we cannot do without it, in order to keep us from God.

I went through this recently when I made the decision that I did not want nicotine in my life anymore. For me, smoking/dipping/e-cigarettes was not a habit worthy of a disciple of Christ, and one I kept pretty hidden. It became a kind of puppet-master, an idol that controlled me by pulling strings to make me do things I didn't want to do. I would get anxious when I did not have it, and would not think twice about driving to Wawa at one in the morning in a thunderstorm if that's what it took to make sure I had a supply. It was, in Augustine's words, a "violent habit."

After twenty years of use, nicotine was no longer about pleasure--it was about an addiction making a home in my body, mind, and spirit, like a wasp laying an egg. Smoking was not altogether pleasurable anymore, but the alternative--not smoking--was absolutely painful. I had somehow gotten convinced that living without nicotine would be altogether too painful to endure.

For the first five days, it pretty much was. But then a funny thing happened--it was completely out of my system, and the physical withdrawal symptoms ceased. It then became a head game not to use, and I had to do some cognitive habit rewiring to help with ensuring success. This was hard too, but not impossible. And another funny thing happened: after a while, not having to smoke or use nicotine all the time became enjoyable in and of itself. There was a lightness to it. I gained some weight, but I also gained a modicum of control back, especially of my moods. The drug wasn't telling me what to do anymore. It was really freeing. It will be thirty days tomorrow without nicotine, and contrary to what fear of not using was whispering to me, life is not "barren, but a fruitful mother of children of joy." 


I write of this struggle of mine not because it is unique, but because it is easily substitutable. For me it was a big one. Maybe for you it is pornography. Or gossip. An abusive relationship. Or overeating, or drinking, or binge spending. Whatever it is, the promise is, I would guess, not living up to the reality. Maybe you're not even aware it is a problem. And maybe it's not--that's for you to judge. 

But I will say--we are being fed lies all the time, red pill/blue pill style. Lies that force us to live in fear, chained to trifles. To stay with what's familiar but slowly killing us. The lie that this is all there is. Some things we work out of slowly, over time. Some people need to rip them off like a bandaid in one fell swoop. Faith is not dissimilar. But there does come that point when you have to go from dry to wet, when the change in substance becomes definitive, when you leap to faith and become a new creation in Christ. If you are on the precipice, it is terrifying. But I promise you...what is on the other side trifles cannot compare.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

A More Violent Harvest

I came across an article on Facebook today saying that a meteor was going to hit Earth next week (next week!!) and we are all toast so get ready the end is near and here. I don't know if it was a joke or not, but all day I am thinking about that meteor and all the things I want to do in the week leading up to my imminent, now scheduled death, wondering where I am going to be when it hits, feeling kind of anxious, but also meditative, like St. Benedict praying while clutching a skull under lintels reading


Wondering how to prepare for my death next week, I start reading the stories of those kamikaze followers of Christ--those who run into the certitude of annihilation without a second thought--to see if I could learn anything. After all, they are following in the footsteps of the one who said, "those who wish to save their lives will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it." (Mt 16:25). Fr. Damien--ministering to the walking corpses sequestered on the island of Molokai (Hawaii) in the late 1800's--was one of those followers.

The reality of existence on the island was stark:

Ambrose Hutchinson, a veteran of half a century in the colony, describes an incident in the settlement's early days. "A man, his face partly covered below the eyes, with a white rag or handkerchief tied behind his head, came out from the house that stood near the road. He was pushing a wheelbarrow loaded with a bundle, which, at first, I mistook for soiled rags. He wheeled it across the yard to a small windowless shack.... The man then half turned over the wheelbarrow and shook it. The bundle (instead of rags it was a human being) rolled out on the floor with an agonizing groan. The fellow turned the wheelbarrow around and wheeled it away, leaving the sick man lying there helpless. After a while the dying man raised and pushed himself in the doorway; with his body and his legs stretched out, he lay there face down."

Fr. Damien welcomed death in the service of the Lord Jesus, because he knew it led to life.

While a student for the priesthood in France, Damien had symbolically faced and accepted death. At the public profession of his final vows, as was the religious custom of the times, his superiors covered him with a funeral pall. He had truly believed then that only by accepting death would he discover life. Now, thirteen years later, he was putting his dedication to the test. He sought to serve the most pitiful of all men, the lepers of Molokai. By so doing, in the words of Robert Louis Stevenson, "he shut to, with his own hands, the doors of his own sepulcher."

Damien ministered for sixteen years to the lepers before succumbing to death--a death that in all likelihood came from direct exposure to the people harboring the disease, an exposure he did not shy away from and in fact committed to, all-in:

He touched his lepers, he embraced them, he dined with them, he cleaned and bandaged their wounds and sores. He placed the host upon their battered mouths. He put his thumb on their forehead when he annointed them with the holy oil. All these actions involved touch. Touch is, of course, necessary if one is to communicate love and concern. The Hawaiians instinctively knew this. And that is why the Hawaiians shrank from the Yankee divines. Although these Yankee religious leaders expended much money on their mission endeavors, few Hawaiians joined their churches. The islanders sensed the contempt in which the puritan minds held them.

God had summoned Fr. Damien to labor in a different field--cultivate a more violent harvest.

My takeaways from living in the shadow of hurtling meteors and the legacies of kamikaze priests? 

  • When God calls, don't hesitate to answer the call. No time to bury family. Both hands on the plow. (Lk 9:62)
  • When Christ calls, he bids a man come and die (Bonhoeffer).
  • Life is realized full only in death. (Mt 16:25)
  • There is no escaping death. (Ps 89:48)
  • Knowing the end is near is a grace and keeps complacency at bay. (Ecc 8:8)
  • Reach out and touch faith (Depeche Mode)

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Sometimes The Right Time Is Now

"Can I tell you my penance?" Deb asks as we're making our beds in the guest beach house we're staying in tonight.

Deb and I were able to get to Confession at the local church last night before Mass. Thankfully I don't have many hangups about Confession. I try to go once a month or so for a good 'soul-scrubbing and heart cleansing' and spiritual inventory. I look forward to it. In the way a piece of thread is easy to break by itself, but wrapped around your wrists a thousand times would bind the hands, little sins can weaken our spiritual resolve and accumulate, binding us. So I try to do a spiritual check-in at least once every few months. The Lord's forgiveness imparted in the sacrament is a blessing, not a punishment to be avoided, though there is a penance involved.

"Sure," I say.

"Well," Deb says, "when I told the priest it was hard to find time to pray, he told me, 'people think you have to make some grandiose commitment to spend hours and hours a day praying. Sometimes you just need to take five minutes. Even if you have to lock yourself in your bathroom to get it.' So that was my penance...take five minutes a day to intentionally pray, for the next week."

"Cool," I reply. "When are you going to pray today?"

"I don't know," she says, "I'm trying to find the right time."

"Sometimes the right time is now. Yeah?"

She thought about it a minute. "Yes you're right." I offered to watch the kids while she took five minutes to close the door to our room, lock it, and spend time with The Lord.

I kind of take issue with 'prayer-as-a-penance,' since I don't see it as a kind of punishment, though I understand the rationale. Sometimes we need to force the time, intentionally interject it, or we won't do it. When the priest writes the prescription for spiritual healing, he knows what he is doing. Sometimes the prescription is standard and rote, sometimes tailored, but always with intention of repairing what was damaged by sin--namely, our relationship with God. This isn't an 'earning your salvation through works' approach. It is a recognition that sin causes ruptures, damage to relationships. In taking time to spend with God intentionally--not as punishment, but to allow for healing--even if it is only five minutes, we reorient ourselves into right relationship with the One who made us.

I think the 'five minutes a day' prescription of prayer is a good one. It may be too light for some people, but it is also not overly burdensome, so there is more chance we will actually DO it (as opposed to, say, being prescribed a 1 or 2 hr session 2x a day). I've found when I have something to do or something to remember, it's best for me to just do it right away--either so I don't forget, or so I am not tempted to put it off.

I tried an experiment last week--I would make a list of goals I wanted to accomplish each hour of the day, and would check them off as I accomplished them. They were manageable goals--do 10 pushups, pray for 5 minutes, etc. I wrote them down. Writing them down ended up being a really affective way of ensuring I actually did them. When I forgot to write them down, it was easier to forget about or rationalize away. The little accomplishments gave me momentum for bigger things, but I needed to start small to ensure success (versus guaranteeing failure through making the goals too big). I have found it's better for me to do something for a shorter period of time more consistently (praying 5 minutes a day for instance, versus praying 35 minutes once a week), because it builds habit, which builds virtue, which builds character.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Not One Stone Left Upon Another

I'm not a huge history buff, but I think it's good to not be ignorant of history, especially since it tends to repeat itself. While there are many reasons for the collapse of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, here are a few of the commonly agreed upon factors contributing to the demise:

  • Constant wars and overspending, which weakened essential infrastructure
  • Oppressive taxation and inflation that widened the gap between rich and poor.
  • Self-division of the Empire between East (Byzantium) and West (Milan)
  • Government corruption and political instability, including a loss of civic pride an allegiance among the citizenry and trust in government
  • Invasion by neighboring tribes
  • Loss of traditional values (in the case of Rome, the displacement of traditional paganism at the hands of the cult of Christianity)
  • Hiring of private foreign mercenaries to prop up the army, who held no loyalty to Rome.
  • General laxity and leisure

When I think about the state of our country as we approach this holiday weekend, I wonder "generally speaking, are things getting better, or are they getting worse in the United States? Are we on a [economic/cultural/moral] decline, or are we arising to something great?" I have to be somewhat pessimistic here--I think we have really lost our way. Using the fall of Rome fifteen hundred years ago as a model, things fall nicely in place for our own country:

  • Constant wars and military overspending, crumbling infrastructure and deficits.
  • The disappearance of the middle class
  • Extreme partisanship = a divided country
  • Distrust of government, bureaucratic waste and stupidity.
  • home-grown and foreign terrorists engaging in guerrilla tactics of weakening the empire from the inside
  • Common morality not a given. Hardening of hearts and scorning of the need for repentance. 
  • War-for-hire (private defense contracting)
  • laxity and leisure, taking freedom for granted.

How can God bless us when as a country have rejected His sovereign rule? This life will pass away, but the eternal will remain. 

So, what do to? Pray and work, but recognize that empires are not a given. Put things in perspective. Prepare for the next life, because I'm pretty sure we are approaching the point of no return. Do not put your faith in worldly powers, princes, and principalities, but in the living God.

"For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against rulers, against authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand." (Eph 6:12-13)