A “Lectio Divina” of Life

Progress isn't always a straight path.

Life isn’t always a straight path.

Lectio Divina, or “divine reading,” is a powerful way to engage Sacred Scripture in a prayerful way. Dating back as one of the oldest practices in the Church, Lectio Divina is the process of reading Scripture as the living Word of God.  Rather than approaching it as something to be studied or dissected, this process invites the one praying to enter into the text and to be moved by it.

The first step is an obvious one: read the text. There’s no specific criteria for choosing which part of the Bible to read, but the Gospels are always a good place to start. After one has read the text (it is preferable to read it aloud so that it can be proclaimed and heard, even if doing it alone) time is taken to meditate on what was just heard.  This is a time to focus on a particular word or phrase that captured the attention of the reader, thinking about the significance of that word or phrase in the larger context of the passage, and to offer a response. “What did this passage mean to me? How is it calling me to change my life?” Essentially, it is the human response to the Word. Once the reader has exhausted the meditative process, it is appropriate to move into a time for prayer. This can be personal and spontaneous, or communal and pre-written, but the purpose of this portion is to turn one’s will over to God and to ask for God’s aid in prayer. Words are not even necessary for this portion; all that is necessary is a will like Mary as she says, “Thy will be done.” If this is truly achieved, one enters finally into contemplation, the height of mystical prayer. This level of prayer is not easy, and I must admit I have very little experience with it, but it is in essence being so free from one’s own will that God is able to respond to our prayer. Think of it as surrender or radical openness, a time for God to gaze upon the one praying and be in union with them. The mystics have experienced this as a state of ecstasy, but it does not always have to be so radical. Often times, this is simply the time when God chooses to speak to our hearts.

But this is not the end, for the end is just the beginning. With each finished cycle brings the start of a new one, returning to the text to read the passage again. By repeating the process multiple times in one session, each prayer builds upon itself, calling the one praying to a deeper experience each time.  The text does not change, but the one hearing it, having now mediated, prayed, and contemplated on it with God, now comes back to the text with a different perspective. Words or phrases that seemed unimportant before may take on a new meaning or be heard in a different way. The text calls the reader to a deeper consciousness each time. This is the essence of the Living Word.

This, however, is incomplete for us as Franciscans. Lection Divina can only be considered an appropriate prayer with the addition of a final step: action. Once we have read, meditated, prayed, and contemplated, there must be something that takes root in our lives to inspire a conversion. How has the passage or life experience moved us closer to God? How are we converted by God’s presence in our lives?

It was after a wonderful conversation about just this that my spiritual director made the connection that the process we follow in Lectio Divina is the same process we follow in our own lives.  What he meant by this was that the journey of our life is something that can be prayerfully entered into, rather than just analyzed, and that we can experience God in reliving, or rereading our life’s journey. In some ways, the stories of our past are unchanging, set in stone. But as we read our life’s stories and allow time for meditation, prayer, and contemplation, we are called to a deeper understanding of what each event means to us.

The clear example I have right now is my novitiate. I believe very strongly that the majority of the stuff that “happened” to me during novitiate, the bulk of what we may call “revelation,” occurred in the first three months. The remaining nine months I believe I spent trying to understand and integrate what I had experienced into myself.

What I also realized was that life is a cyclical set of situations that recur on a regular basis; progress, then, looks much more like a spiral staircase than it does a ladder.  We want to think sometimes that we can find a solution to our problems that will leave them in our past, stepping up a step on the ladder never to come back down. And yet, a short period of time later, we find ourselves face-to-face with the same problem. Have we regressed? Not necessary. Just like in Lectio Divina and just like walking up a spiral staircase, each step brings us somewhere new and yet ever closer to where we first began.  While I found myself becoming frustrated with the lack of “progress” in my life, I realized that with true introspection, by recognizing the situation, meditating on it, bringing it to prayer, and then contemplating with God, there was something new that I could bring to the situation. I may have be standing in the same spot as before, but my perspective had changed; one floor higher, there was a slightly new vantage point on the same situation from which to act. Once I chose how to act, there began a new cycle of prayerfully reading that situation into the corpus of my life.

My advice, then, is twofold. The first is to read scripture in this way, prayerfully engaging the text and letting it speak to you in a way that studying cannot. A common practice is to find the Gospel reading for the upcoming Sunday and to spend time during the week going through this process. It will change your week and will most definitely change your experience at mass. The second is a bit more demanding, but potentially more fruitful: keep a journal. I cannot tell you how powerful it has been to reread my entries from the past two years, to notice patterns, and to identify growth.

Either way, know that life is not something to be solved once and for all, and that “growth” is not in leaving our problems behind. The best we can ever be is a people humble enough to know our own failings, smart enough to learn from them, and faithful enough to ask God for help.

Bad Worship or No Worship?

Being bored in church is an all-too-common phenomenon.

Being bored in church is an all-too-common phenomenon. I think that it’s much more than an inconvenience: it produces bad faith.

Bad worship is an all-to-common phenomenon in our churches. As I’ve traveled around quite a bit in the past 7-10 years, I’ve experienced choirs reminiscent to the movie Sister Act to no choir at all; preachers that have absolutely no life to preachers with a little too much life and no tact (I’m looking at you priests that preach about abortion on Christmas or tell your congregation that voting for a particular candidate is a mortal sin); lectors that are impossible to understand to lectors that would be better suited for a kindergarten class; congregations that range from disinterested to indignant.

As I began to notice the lack of consistency from church to church, and left many “celebrations” of the Eucharist with a feeling ranging from emptiness to anger, I asked myself this question: “Is bad worship better than no worship at all?” It’s an interesting question that I’ve asked myself and many priests over the past three years with a wide range of responses.

The biggest difficulty in answering this question, I think, is coming to an appropriate definition of what “bad worship” really is. In one sense, this means determining what is essential in making the mass a valid sacrament; in another, it means determining what best allows for the sacrament to be received and reciprocated. Put another way, there are both objective and subjective elements to the mass.

Objective

The objective elements of the mass are easy to understand and evaluate because, well, they’re objective. Were the words of consecration said? Did the presider use bread and wine? Was the presider an ordained member of the priesthood, and did he have the appropriate faculties? All of these questions, among others, help to determine whether or not the mass was in fact valid, or in other words, that the sacrament really happened.

Rarely is this ever an issue, and even if it is question, there are a few safeguards for the people. For instance, Ecclesia Supplet, canon 144.1 in the Code of Canon Law, says that the “Church provides” governance when it may otherwise be in question, as in the case of a priest not having faculties. In the case that a priest may not say the exact words of consecration, Pope Pius V declared in the papal bull De defectibus that the sacrament remains valid, even if the words have been changed, as long as the new words do not change the original meaning.

Even in the case of a priest in the state of mortal sin, or with malicious or indifferent intentions, the Church has argued since the Donatists of the 4th century that mass is in fact valid. Since it is actually Christ that is conferring the grace through the sacrament, the Church says that it is “by the very fact of the action’s being performed,” not the state of it’s celebrant, that matters (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1128).

In this way, we may take solace in the fact that no matter how bad the music may be, how boring or offensive the priest’s homily may be, how terribly ugly the religious vestments or sacred art may be, or even how terrible of a person the priest may in fact be, we are receiving God’s grace by partaking in the action.

Subjective

For this reason, unfortunately, some presiders and church leaders end their concerns here: if the elements are present to make the sacrament valid, what else could possibly matter?

There are plenty of things that matter! Preaching and music have a critical importance to the worship experience. Art is a gateway into the transcendent. One would think that interaction with a community of believers would be paramount to the experience.

It’s because of this that I find it a bit silly when I hear people accuse others, “You’re only going to that church because of that priest and/or the music. Church is more than a preaching and music you know!” I just want to say, “Yup, that’s exactly why I’m going there. And of course it’s more than that. But if both churches are going to offer me an equally ‘valid’ sacrament, but one church is lively, engaging, and filled with people who want to participate, why should I be forced to go to one that puts little to no effort into worship?”

I believe that the subjective elements are much more than simply peripheral perks of a grace-filled experience, though. I believe that they are essential to good faith, and are equally important to having a graced experience as the objective ones. As I’ve mentioned before, “Faith grows when it is well expressed in celebration. Good celebrations foster and nourish faith. Poor celebrations may weaken and destroy faith” (Music in Catholic Worship: 6; 1983). To say that preaching and music are simply aesthetic, non-essential additions to the what really matters, the words of consecration, is nonsense. Sure, the objective elements may remain the same, and God is equally present no matter how it is performed, but isn’t the one receiving the grace much more willing to accept it if they are in a welcoming, engaging, inspiring, beautiful environment? There is a reason that the church builds transcendent buildings, installs captivating art, requires a homily, and encourages that many parts of the mass be sung: each of these make a tremendous difference in worship.

And so we come to our original question, but now phrase it in a new way: “Are the subjective elements of Mass essential enough to the worshipping experience that, in the event of their absence or privation, the validity of the mass is called into question?”

The fact of the matter is that Christ’s words, no matter how poorly spoken, are still the words of Christ. Can I really say that the power of Christ is dependent on the charisma of a single man or choir? I cannot. To hear them in any context, in any form, is a blessing. The quality of the sign does not affect the fullness of grace.

But on the other hand, I do not want to promote a theology that borders on magic: the words are said, things happen. There’s something more going on at mass than those words; more than the transcendent; more than God acting upon us. Eucharist is an act of thanksgiving: it is a meal that must be done in common, with active participation, in love. The liturgy is by its very nature a drama, and should cause and assist a memory of Christ. To remember the words of a lover, “I love you,” holds it’s meaning no matter the context; to remember these words with another, done in an emotionally and aesthetically provocative way, effects an experience that has more meaning than it’s original words because they begin to participate in history as it is today. This is entirely impossible without inspiring, well-executed subjective elements.

So, is bad worship better than no worship? Barely. But it should not be tolerated in our churches. There is an experience of God that is possible that heightens our faith and builds our communities. Why should we ever settle for less? Good preaching, good music, good art, and good community are essential to good worship.

Spiritual Boot Camp

Francis most likely prayed more than anything else throughout his life.

The friars have always been known for the great work they do. Through their direct assistance to the poor, world-renowned Franciscan scholarship, advocacy initiatives on the local and federal levels, thriving parishes and campus ministries, foreign missions, and rejuvenating contemplative centers, to name just a few, friars make a huge difference in the world.

For many, including myself at times, the Novitiate year ahead of me seems contrary to that notion of the friars. So let me get this straight. For an entire year, all you’re going to do is pray, study, clean and cook, and go on retreat? How can you justify not working for an entire year when there’s so much to be done in the world? Because our identity as Franciscans is so often linked to the work we do, the idea of not doing great work seems like a contradiction or a letdown of expectations. How is that Franciscan?

The truth is that being Franciscan has little to do with what one does, and everything to do with the way one lives. Francis did not set out to found an order with a particular task or expertise, no matter how useful it may be, he set out to live the Gospel as perfectly as he could, imitating Christ so as to grow closer to him. Sure, Francis swept and rebuilt churches, cleaned and fed lepers, and preached any chance he got. But for him, these were not ends in themselves as much as they were expressions of his commitment to a new life and identity, one that sought to be poor and humble, fraternal, and most of all, prayerful.

At first, I think it surprised me to find out how much Francis prayed. Given the fact that he observed each liturgical hour of the day, retreated to a cave at Mount La Verna, wrote his own Office of the Passion, and organized a Rule for Hermitages, there’s little chance that he did anything as much as he prayed. Seriously. Some friars even joke that Francis wouldn’t have earned a full month’s wage in his entire life because he was constantly running away to pray. Although this might be an exaggeration, there’s truth and inspiration in the way Francis lived: he was so in love with God and wished to always be closer to God than he was at any given moment.

This is the core of our life and charism. Prayer is our source of strength, inspiration, insight, wisdom, motivation, rejuvenation, and direction. Prayer is the very thing that makes effective ministry possible. Anyone can run a soup kitchen; teach at a university; hold a sign in front of the court house; be liked by parishioners and college students; go to a foreign country; offer quiet places. But without prayer, without a love for God and a desire to be closer to God as our starting point, what motivates us to engage in ministry at all? Altruism and a sense of the “greater good” only go so far. Prayer is at the core of any truly effective ministry.

Thus, the Novitiate year. Many have called it “Spiritual Boot Camp” and I have no reason to see it otherwise. The year will challenge and strengthen us spiritually so that we may lay a solid enough foundation for any experience we may face in life. One friar told me that it was a time in which he realized that Jesus alone was enough for him, that he needed nothing else in the whole world. This is the sort of foundation we as friars in training hope to lay.

Ultimately, yes, it’s going to be difficult to remove myself from the world and almost all forms of apostolic ministry for an entire year. There is a lot I could be doing that I will not be doing. But then I ask myself: How much more effectively could I show love to people if I, myself, understood the love God shows me? How much more effectively could I be the hands of God if I knew who God was and how God’s hands wished to be used? How much more effectively could I minister if prayer actually became the centerpiece of my life? It’s going to take nothing less that Spiritual Boot Camp to find out. I’m up for the challenge (and a challenge it will be!)

The Will to Believe

How do we deal with the doubts we experience each day?

As a religion major in college, I was taught how to look at the world in a very academic way.  This meant having a strong grasp of the historical contexts surrounding experiences of God and the literary devices used to tell about these experiences.  It meant questioning the plausibility and accuracy of religious texts against similar sources.  We were taught to assume nothing, and to deconstruct everything.

In one sense, this can be very helpful: understanding the historical context, author, audience, and genre of a religious source heightens one’s understanding of the truth about both God and humanity.  In another sense, however, the deconstruction of religion can be the start of a slippery slope of doubt that, without proper reconstruction, leads to one’s inevitable loss of faith.

What does one do upon learning that the first five books of the Bible are allegorical stories similar to the stories found in other cultures of the Ancient Near East; that there is no historical proof of anything in the Bible until David, including evidence against the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt; and that Paul most likely didn’t write half of the epistles attributed to him?  For some, information like this pulled the rug out from under their faith: “If X isn’t true, something I’ve always believed, then how could Y and Z possibly be true?”

As a Catholic, the majority of these things were not troubling.  We do not read the bible as a literal, inerrant text, and so finding out that everything probably didn’t happen exactly as it was written was a non-issue for me; it’s a text written by humans, inspired by God, and so I accept the truth it reveals without needing to read it as empirical fact.

That being said, I left my undergraduate experience with many more doubts than I had before I started.  Maybe ‘God’ is a human construct created by misinformed people to explain scientific phenomenon that they didn’t understand.  Maybe our experience of miracles is simply a series of coincidence enhanced with meaning through our own confirmation bias.  Maybe our perception of God can be attributed to chemical imbalances, natural phenomenon, and blind faith. These questions began creeping into the back of my head, and I began to question every aspect of my faith. Why do I believe in something that cannot explain and cannot prove?

I began answering this question a little more critically after my powerful prayer experience at the Benedictine monastery, Mount Savior.  In my time before the eucharist, I asked myself this question, and asked that I be guided in prayer to an answer. Here are a few things I came up with:

  • I often feel an overwhelming with joy during the celebration of the eucharist, personal and communal prayer, and volunteer work.
  • My heart seeks peace and justice, humility and sacrifice, and a universal brotherhood/sisterhood that I believe is in line with my perception of the Christian God.
  • While I often doubt the existence of God, I find it very difficult to conceive of a world without an intelligent creator.  Maybe it is simply my socialization from a young age that leaves my mind rigid, but the thought seems unfathomable to me.
  • I hope that there is a God in a fundamentally different way than I hope for other things.

Through this prayer, I realized that I had strong experiential evidence and a strong desire to believe.  What was in my heart showed me clearly that God had given me the gift of Faith long ago; it was my head that was in the way.  My inability to prove my faith to others, the fear of being made a fool for irrational beliefs, kept me from accepting what I knew at the core of who I was.  I had been given the gift, but did not have the will to accept it.

It may sound weird, and certainly in a different context it sounds psychotic, but what I’ve done since is simply will myself to believe.  I’ve had to give up the useless necessity for proof, and take a chance at following what I find to be meaningful.  I’ve had to actively tell the intellectual side of me to take a risk and just believe.  Sure, I may be wrong, but what good is it to let that fear get in the way of what I feel to be right?

I still doubt many things. I imagine I always will. For now, I have to remind myself of the powerful experiences of God I’ve had over the years, willing myself to be open enough for God to grow in me. It’s certainly not easy, but my experience has been that it is entirely worth it.

This Moment Is Sufficient

A simple meal, a breviary, and solitude. What more does one need to be with God?

After more than three weeks of analysis, decompression, and procrastination, I finally have a few thoughts on my hermitage experience.

***

I was a Franciscan hermit for nearly 95 hours. With the exception of an hour and a half a day for mass, dinner, and evening prayer, I was left a in a one-person cabin by myself. I was without a phone, computer, television, newspaper, and clock, leaving me with no way to know anything about the world outside of what my own senses could perceive. I was alone with myself. I was alone with God.

At the onset, I was very excited, but unsure of what was in store. I knew from my experience at Mt. Savior (Living In the Moment) that prayer did not have to be planned, systematized, well-constructed, or even articulated in an understandable way for it to be affective. Rather than seeing prayer as something that begins with the sign of the cross and ceases to exist with the final Amen, I needed to understand prayer as more of a constant act, a conscious state of being that both informs my every action and is informed by my worldly experiences. Every moment can be a prayer if I allow it to be. With this in mind, I closed the door, entered into solitude with this to say:

So what’s my plan? I have no idea. I’m afraid of the free-flowing, “do-whatever-I-feel-called-to-do” type retreat because it has the possibility of getting nothing done. On the other hand, too much planning (or even any at all) doesn’t leave room for God to operate. In that way, I’m going to err on the side of inefficiency. I’m going to let God lead.

With that said, I also knew that there was absolutely no way that my IFNJ/3 personality was going to be able to survive five days of solitude without at least a framework from which to start. Each morning I woke up with the sun around 7:00 and prayed morning prayer on my porch. After a simple breakfast, I would return to the porch to gaze at nature and contemplate a few things with God for an hour or so. When the time felt right, I would come in to shower, pray midmorning prayer (which, with midday and midafternoon, only takes about 5 minutes) and head out for a hike. After a good hike it was usually time for lunch, and so I sat an ate my humble meal (pictured above) with a prayer. By this point in the day, I started getting a little itchy and needed to actually accomplish something (or I would go crazy), so I usually sat for a while and read either from the Gospels or Francis’ writings, filling in the time before dinner with “productive things.” The bell rang sometime around 4:30, and it was off to Mass, dinner, and evening prayer with my brothers, before returning ever so soon for some more solitude. Partially because I was bored out of my mind at this point of the night, and partially because I was tired, I found myself heading to bed with the darkness, what I can only guess was about 8:30 or 9:00.

It may seem like a lot of “planning” for someone who was letting God lead, but each day was somehow entirely different. One day on my hike, I prayed my own Canticle of the Creatures in the style of the Rosary, replacing each Hail Mary with a praise of God through one of his creations, followed by Francis’ prayer before the crucifix. This was completely off-the-cuff, and to no surprise, moved me in a profound way. Similarly, I decided on another day to observe each of the hours of the Divine Office, but to use my own prayers instead of the ones in the breviary so as to be more attentive to where I was being moved at that moment.

And do you know what? Even if it does seem like a lot, it took me more than twelve hours to complete it all! Do you have any idea how quiet, quiet can be when there’s nothing to do but sit and listen? Better yet, do you have any idea how much there is to hear/feel/understand/know when you’re still enough to let it happen? It’s dangerous, I tell you!

In the stillness of the moment, I was reminded of two people that I had neither spoken to nor thought about in years. What makes these individuals special is that they hurt me in a profound way a long time ago, and I have bottled my resentment towards them ever since, never seeking to let go or to seek reconciliation. Only when my heart was still enough to hear God did I realize that my subconscious bitterness towards both of them had been stinting my relationship with God, and that it was time for me to “unclench my fist” so to speak. Was it possible for me to love God while hating my brother, I asked myself. Providentially, the Gospel that afternoon was The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:21-35), a Gospel that gave me a pretty good answer. Without the openness to be still, I would have never heard in the way I needed to hear it.

Which brings me to the culminating point of this post: this moment is sufficient. Unlike in our Western, capitalistic society in which we’ve been trained to want more and to work to achieve more in the future, God offers everything that we could ever possibly want in each present moment: Himself. As C.S. Lewis correctly points out in the Screwtape Letters, “The present is the point at which time touches eternity” (#15). To be more concerned with future possibilities than with present realities is it to implicitly accept a false existence, a construct of our own imaginations that bears only a semblance of truth, over the concrete Truth presented to us by God in this moment alone. While we should always remain hopeful for the future, and plan for it in the sense that we will be open to the new possibilities that God may provide, to allow either of these to distract us from the fullness of God’s presence in our lives in this very moment is utterly useless. When I was still enough to listen, I realized that there’s nothing I need to be left wanting for. In this moment, I can know God.