Prayer as Listening

ART: IVAN MESTROVIC
Recently we received some conferences on prayer in the monastic tradition by Fr. Daniel Hombergen OCSO.  I was moved by Fr. Daniel’s reflections of Enzo Bianchi’s book, Why Pray, How to Pray especially the chapters On the subjects of The Initiative God takes in relationship,“ and “The germinating of authentic prayer where there is listening.”  Fr. Daniel differentiates two movements with our relationship to God.The first is the strong initiative taken by God in searching for humanity, calling us, questioning us, as well as asking us to listen and receive what God has shared with humankind from Genesis to Revelation.  The God who “first loved us” (1 Jn. 4 :19) speaks. God begins the dialogue with His people.  Enzo Bianchi states, “God has turned Himself towards human beings in order to enter into relationship with them, in order to open up dialogue with them which is directed toward communion” ( Why Pray? How to  Pray, p.24). “God reveals Himself as Word and makes of Israel a people who listen, even before making them a people of faith, unveiling to them their vocation: the call to listen” (p.25).

After God’s self- revelation throughout history human beings respond in faith, blessing, laudes, thanksgiving, adoration, supplication and the confession of one’s own sins (Why Pray, How to Pray, p.22-23). This second movement,  being incomplete, is the human person’s response to God, directed at love for God and the neighbor. This movement can be a distortion if our human attempt at prayer is limited to our own effort and if we believe we can pray solely by ourselves. “If human prayer, as the desire for God, presents an ascending movement of words toward heaven, listening on the other hand, is characterized by a descending movement, by a descent of the Word of God towards the human being; the one who truly prays, from Abraham  onwards (Gen. 12:1) is the one who listens, who opens his ears to God” ( Why Pray? How to Pray, p.25).

Authentic prayer germinates where there is listening; it is integral as it precedes our capacity to reply. We hear this most poignantly in the gospel readings for the feast of the Transfiguration, namely; “Then a cloud came, casting a shadow over them; then from the cloud came a voice, ‘This is my beloved Son. Listen to him’ ( Mk. 9:7, Mt. 17:2, Lk.9 :35).  “Speak Lord for your servant is listening” ( 1 Sam. 3 :9). This is the first act of prayer, which, unfortunately, we are tempted to reverse into “Listen, Lord, because your servant is speaking” (Why Pray? How to Pray, p. 26). Enzo Bianchi re-states, “Listening is already praying and should have absolute priority, as it acknowledges God as the One who takes initiative for our encounter with him” (p.26).  An example of a response to active listening in the Old Testament is 1 Kings 3 :9.  God asked Solomon what he wanted, the young Solomon replied, a “heart capable of listening,” not a docile heart.”  It pleased the Lord that Solomon asked for this (1Kings 3 :10).  St. Paul in his epistle to the Romans also says, “faith comes from listening.”

Enzo Bianchi cautions, “when one searches for formulas and gestures to give shape to prayer in which an individual is particularly in search of assurance  and satisfaction, prayer can degenerate into an expression of spiritual arrogance, a substitute for really performing God’s will" (Why Pray? How to Pray, p.27).  By being aware and attentive to the Word of God, namely listening, we will hear the Lord speaking ( Dt. 4 : 32-33 ) and loving ( Dt.7 : 7-8) for our God truly loves us!  Jesus when asked what the first commandment was replied, “Listen” knowing very well that it is from the capacity to listen that the capacity to know and love God and neighbor flow ( Mk. 12 : 29-31).  Enzo Bianchi notes then that the movement of Christian prayer is delineated:  from listening to faith, from faith to knowledge of God and from  knowledge to love, the ultimate response to God’s gratuitous love for us (p.27).

We, for our part, struggle to pray because in our lives we encounter the 8 vices or thoughts of gluttony, fornication, avarice, melancholy, anger, acedia, vainglory and pride of which both Cassian and Evagrius write about in the Conferences and Praktikos respectively.  To counter these negative thoughts, we have the example of Christ the Incarnate Word, namely, to cry out to our “Abba”, your will be done, not mine, and have mercy on me a sinner as we hear the tax collector say in Scripture. We are powerless over these vices in our lives and it is only by God’s grace and mercy that our thoughts may be purified by reaching out to our “Abba.” Hopefully our little mustard seed of faith in God and renunciation of the ways of the world will help us to convert distracting struggles into occasions of prayer so a greater self-knowledge and a pure heart can be created in our being.

Sr Ann-Marie, OCSO
As our listening deepens and matures we enter into the mystery of dialogue between the three persons of the Trinity. This communion of love between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is fed by reciprocal listening, as some of the Words of Jesus demonstrate: “I have made known to you everything I have learned (heard) from my Father” ( Jn. 15:15).  “When the Spirit of Truth comes…, he will not be speaking as from himself, but will say only what he has learned (heard)” ( Jn. 16:13).  “Father, thank you for hearing my prayer” ( Jn. 11 : 41) ( Why Pray, How to Pray,p.28).

The Father’s gift of Jesus to us provides an excellent model on how to be a daughter/son  by listening, in order to do the will of God, even in the times of suffering and struggles.  We know that love overcomes as we remember the Paschal Mystery, and that the Holy Spirit is given as gift to reassure us that God’s presence is always with us. The mystery of Love is incomprehensible, however let us foster a deep listening in our lives as we daily come to Christ in prayer and are nourished with his wisdom and love.









Comments

Celebrating the Humility of St Bernard of Clairvaux


What would be a way to celebrate St. Bernard today in this 21st century?  Perhaps one way is to ponder:  what would he strive to be in the sight of God and what would he call his brother monks to be?  Or, what did Bernard so often refer to in his teaching, which forms the essential framework of his monastic theology?  It can be described, I believe, in one word: love, charity.  For Bernard, St. Benedict’s ‘school of the Lord’s service’, became the ‘schola caritatis’, the school of charity, the school of love.  He taught about this school of love in many different ways and it pervades all of his writings. 

“You will never have real mercy for the failings of another until you know and realize that you have the same failings in your soul…” (The Spiritual Teachings of Bernard of Clairvaux, John Sommerfeldt, p.89-90).  Without humility our love for our neighbor is weak and empathy is not possible.  Imagine: “Empathy is possible only to someone who is truly humble” (p.93).  Humility embraces the truth of our selves; it recognizes our own weaknesses.  When through the eye of the heart we see the failings of another, the first movement must be to return to our selves, this movement is already the beginning of a humble posture, for then we are better able to recognize that we have this same failing as well.  It is only when we have this connection first to our selves that can we reach out to the other in true compassion.  I wonder: can there be authentic love of one another without humility?  The truth of our selves first puts us on humble ground, then mercy, compassion freely flow to our neighbor.  Then we can truly be empathetic for the other.  Bernard underscores this in these words: “Look well first to your self, brother, sister, so you may know how to be compassionate with your neighbor” (p.93).

Holding this relation of humility and love of our neighbor, here is another nuance, in the words of John Sommerfeldt:  “The experience of one’s true self in love enables one to experience others in love” (p. 104).  And from Bernard in the Song of Songs: “…If you are to experience your neighbor as she is, you will actually experience her only as you do your self, for she is what you are” (p.104).  ‘She or he is what you are’:  again this is saying we are not so different from the sister or brother we are criticizing.  What would it feel like if we saw our sister or brother as we are?  The plain fact is that we are not living from our true self nor living from a humble posture when get caught in our negative criticisms and fail to exercise loving kindness toward our sister.  Bernard’s medicine is that experiencing our true self in love opens us to experience others in love. 

And finally, Bernard says, in this most radical statement, from the same passage in the Song of Songs: “The love that is open does not permit the refusal of some feeling, however small, to any person, even to one’s greatest enemy” (p.104-105).  ‘The love that is open’:  what makes our love ‘open’ and not closed in on itself?  I go back to Dom Thomas in the retreat he gave us: the abasement of Christ…that total self-emptying, kenosis, which enables love to flow live a stream, like a river…healing us and our neighbor.  Jesus on the cross with outstretched arms: he is totally open: on the cross is God’s love open to all, every person, even those who attacked him and put him on the cross.  And what of us?  Those daily ‘martyrdoms of the heart’, an ancient monastic metaphor that describes an essential dimension of the monastic ascesis.  Can we with the sisters and brothers we live with each day and the persons who cross the threshold of this monastery, can we say that our love is open, both individually and as a community?


This daily ascesis will be before each one of us as we face the usual irritations, reactions, one to another, the hurts and misunderstandings, our individual ways of controlling and pushing our own agenda and so on.  Will our love be open?  Will our love be open to help us find our true self rooted in a humble heart?  Will we take the first step back into our selves before responding in a conflict?  Will we trust enough the God who is always with us, whose Spirit is ready to breathe life and healing forth into a heart whose windows are open?  Let’s keep the window of our heart open, let’s keep our love open, always the first movement inward, to re-find our true self and then the movement outward toward our neighbor exercising the transforming power of God’s love, loving our sister as we have been first loved.
Comments

Christianity:a love that does not cease to ask and to give

In February we had conferences on John Ruusbroeck, the Flemish mystic of the late 13th / 14th century.  I was struck by a question that was posed to us during the course of the week.  I thought and felt then, that this question could provide a fruitful entrance into Jesus’ passion and resurrection, and even lead us into a ‘renewed encounter with Christ’, to use the expression of Pope Francis, as we interface Jesus’ life with our own.  The question is this: ‘What happens when we open ourselves to love without condition?’  We can imagine that this could have been a question, perhaps expressed in different words, which Jesus addressed to his followers.

I feel this question is an important one to ponder given all that is happening in our world and the invitation of Pope Francis to a ‘renewed encounter with Christ’.   To walk with Jesus, to let this question pulsate within our heart and soul, will lead us into the paschal mystery, and will reveal what Christian discipleship is all about.  The sacramental life of the Church on Holy Thursday is, in many ways, at its richest and deepest.  In the Eucharist we witness and participate in an embodied love as Jesus offers his life in the words:  “This is my body, this is my blood given for you.”  And then again in the washing of the feet, which in the gospel of John is another type of ‘Eucharist’.   The words of the evangelist sum up this profound ritual: ‘He loved them to the end’.

Br. Christophe, in his journal titled Born From the Gaze of God, wrote: “Christianity is the great adventure for through it one is called by an infinite love that is, by a love that does not  Called by an infinite love that asks something of us; called by an infinite love that never ceases to give us something, always.  The love we receive, as we take it into our lives naturally leads us to want to do something with it…to give to others and in this way we are giving back to God.  It is an amazing exchange of love: of God’s covenant, ‘My love will never leave you’ and of our ‘yes’ to follow and to live from the impulses of the Spirit, allowing God, as Mary did, to work through our lives: ‘Let it be done to me according to your word’.
cease to ask and to give” (p.16).

Loving without condition:  if not in small ways we will never do it in larger ways…Keep in mind during these days, Jesus’ journey with his disciples: the figure of Peter who betrays him, who often does not understand, though, still step by step he changes…James and John as they argue about who is the greatest…the rich young man, a would-be disciple, who Jesus looked at and loved and then asked him to follow: who could not quite take the leap and turns away…Such human stuff that we all know and all fall into…and yet this call of infinite love remains: whoever would follow: take up your cross and come…and how often we hear Jesus say, ‘Do not be afraid’…we are afraid…we do not know where we are being led or what we are being led into…still we have the One who goes before us…

Loving without condition involves ‘kenosis’:  a kenotic opening of heart, mind, and body.   Without kenosis, without this self-emptying process, whatever we do ends up being more about us than about God.  To lose this self-centered, non-clinging, controlling ego, opens us up to the immensity of God’s love, to freedom.  With each kenotic opening, where we ‘lose our lives’, we are lifted up as God’s love pours forth gracing us with a renewed heart and mind, giving us the capacity to serve and to be stewards of God’s mysteries, not counting the cost.

Cynthia Bourgeault, in her book, The Wisdom Jesus, wrote: “In Jesus everything hangs together around a single center of gravity, and you need to know what this center is before you can sense the subtle but cohesive power of the path he is laying out.  What name might we give to this center?  The apostle Paul suggests the word kenosis… ‘to let go,’ ‘to empty oneself…’” (p.63).  And later she writes on this same theme: “The act of self-giving is simultaneously an act of self-communication; it allows something that was coiled and latent to manifest outwardly” (p.68).  This is the humble power of kenosis: it unleashes God’s transforming love not only within our lives, surely as well, in our communities, our Church, our world.


The Eucharist and the washing of the feet: sacramental rituals that reveal and proclaim one message: He loved without condition.  Last year for my Holy Thursday talk I emphasized that both these rituals, happen within the context of community.  Several days ago I received a letter, which included these words of Dom Helder Camara:  “When we are dreaming alone, it is only a dream.  When we are dreaming with others, it is the beginning of reality”.  We gather during these days as one community.  As we live into the discipleship call ‘to love without condition’, let us dream together of peace for our world:  a peace that begins with us as we follow Jesus, and live his embodied love, in the daily happenings of our lives and in the larger ways that this call of infinite love will continue to ask of each of us. 
Comments (1)

A "Yes" That Overcame All Fear


“Her willingness was her magnificence.  This we know and marvel at when we recall how You first came to us,” (Upon A Luminous Night, Christine Rogers, p.9).  Mary’s willingness was echoed in her ‘yes’…her ‘yes’, says the poem further on, “to a thing she only partly understood” (p.9).  This ‘yes’, which was encircled with mystery, with fear, not knowing what it all would mean or ask…still she proclaimed her ‘yes’ and never turned back.

No wonder she is the icon of our ‘yes’.  This Advent season asks each one of us to utter with our lives this ‘yes’ once again…‘yes’ to the promise that God will be born in the humbleness of human flesh…our flesh, our lives, no matter how imperfect, how much struggling we are going through.  But, (there is always a but!) it all pivots around our saying again ‘yes’, ‘yes’ to the Spirit who is hovering over our lives right now.  Even if we do not sense the Spirit hovering, God is present ready to breathe new life, ready to become more in our lives.

Holding the reality of Mary’s ‘yes’, I want to turn to some of the images put forth in the readings for this third Sunday of Advent: ‘strengthen the hands that are feeble’, ‘make firm the knees that are weak’, ‘be strong, fear not’; ‘be patient’, ‘make your hearts firm’.  While we may feel weak, not strong enough, fearful, our ‘yes’ can root us beneath these fears and weaknesses…remembering the Spirit is overshadowing and waits our ‘yes’.  Mary had her doubts but she sensed and felt something more and after some pondering gave her assent in these words: ‘Let it be done to me according to your word.’ 

In the annual Pax Christi Advent and Christmas reflections Sr. Anne-Louise Nadeau, for this Sunday of Advent, focuses on what she calls the “tyranny of fear”.  She writes: “The common element that appears to limit the fullness of life is fear.  Fear blinds our eyes to seeing our own possibilities, our own shadow side, our own goodness, and the goodness of others.  Fear closes up our ears to the truth and distorts our humanness” (p.18).  It is striking how much we hear in the Advent scriptures ‘Fear not your God is coming’.  At Mary’s Annunciation after the angel’s greeting, she is ‘greatly troubled at what was said’ and then she ‘pondered’, she went deeper, stretching to understand what this all could mean.  She went deeper than her fears and found faith, enough faith to face and accept the message that would change her life.  The angel’s response to Mary as she pulls back and ponders is ‘Do not be afraid’.  Fear in and of itself is not bad; it can be an opening into the life of God, into deeper listening and understanding about our existential situation and that of our world.  The Holy Spirit is always hovering; we are not alone.  But we have to be ready to meet our fears with faith.  God will not disappoint.  Her willingness, even with her fear of what all this could mean, even with so much that she did not understand, became her magnificence.







Comments
See Older Posts...