Living In The Moment

(My apologies for the length of this post, but there is a lot to say after an eight-day retreat.)

I’m not sure if everyone else is like this, but I have a very active imagination. I find myself with my head in the clouds quite often, either remembering some past experience or creating an elaborate hypothetical situation in the future, often times taking both sides of an argument or practicing eloquent dissertations. I’ve been told that this doesn’t make me crazy (really!), and that it can actually be a great form of prayer. On the other hand, it can be an escape that leaves me having never experienced the present moment; to only contemplate the past and future leaves no room for experiencing a great homily, the beauty of nature, the particularities of the mass, or most tragically, an experience of direct communication with God. My goal for this retreat was to fight the temptation to drift off and to stay focused on the present, to live in the moment.

And so we began. Ora et labora. Pray and work. St. Benedict’s great motto was our Rule for a week. Off went the cell phone, and quiet went the mouth for the majority of the day.

Each day was greatly dictated by the schedule for prayer: seven times a day, we dropped whatever we were doing and met the monks for a highly formalized prayer. This included Vigils (4:45am), Lauds (7:00am), Mass (9:00am), Sext (12:00pm), None (3:00pm), Vespers (6:30pm), and Compline (8:15pm). Though I found some of the hours to be a bit monotonous, at least intellectually I found the commitment to prayer to be quite profound. Even for minor hours such as Sext and None that lasted literally 6 minutes, no one ever missed it. Because prayer is the most important part of their life, other tasks had to work their way around the prayer schedule. This was a great witness to the rest of the world that prays as an afterthought or only in its “free time.”

Between prayers, we were free to read, go for walks, journal, pray privately, or best of all, nap extensively. With nothing required for us to do and being banned from our phones and unnecessary conversation, I saw the week as an excellent time to relax while being productive enough to catch up on some reading and writing.

To my great surprise, however, there can actually be such a thing as too much free time! And because it is very easy to forget to focus on the present and revert to a normal task-oriented way of thinking, I become restless within just a few days when there wasn’t enough to occupy my time. Without the news, music, conversation, tasks, games, or television to keep my attention, I was left in a world of which I was unfamiliar: silence. I even found myself treating prayer as something to be completed, allotting specific amounts of time for it and expecting certain results. In doing so, I inadvertently focused my attention more on how much time I had left and what my next task was than on my experience at that moment.

In the afternoon of day four, I hit a wall. I had no interest in reading. I had just taken a nap. had nothing to journal about. The thought of formal prayer didn’t entice me. I was in a state of lethargy that left me feeling apathetic, and honestly, a bit helpless. What was I going to do for another seven hours before bed and for four more days? 

Forcing myself to get up, I walked over to the chapel and sat down in eucharistic chapel with one goal: just exist. I told myself not to worry about how long I was going to be there, what I was going to focus on, how I was supposed to prayer. Just exist. Just live in the moment. Instead of closing my eyes and trying to block out the sounds around me, I embraced every one of my senses as a way to take part in the present moment. I thought to myself, “Since Jesus in his Eucharistic presence is in this specific place, I will just sit here and experience the surroundings with him.”

What was I hoping to get out of it? Nothing but a shared experience with a friend.

When was I going to finish? Whenever I didn’t want to enjoy the moment any more.

That was it. Just exist, together.

Though it was my goal from the start, it took time for me to actually realize what that meant. When I finally did, it was amazing how freeing of an experience it was to just sit and enjoy the moment with him. In that moment, for however long it lasted, I was given a faith that hadn’t been there before, connected in a way unlike any other in the past. It was unexpected. It was life giving. It shaped the rest of the week.

And yet, it was only the first wall I had to break through. No sooner did I have this revelation did I fall into the comfort of complacency: Now that I’ve had such a great experience, I’m good for a while. It was as if it gave me a free pass to stop seeking, to stop wanting more experiences, to be comfortable in the current state.

Had the retreat of lasted three days, I would have never gotten to the point of desperation that forced me to let myself go; had it of lasted six days, I would have never had to deal with the complacency that followed. Even though a life following St. Francis doesn’t exist in a cloister and focus entirely on prayer, it is clearly the first way of life described as “contemplative in action.” Without a fruitful foundation in prayer, our life is simply not possibile.

As a final note, there are no pictures from this week. Keeping with the goal of living in the moment, I was inspired by the words of John Mayer in his song 3×5:

Didn’t have a camera by my side this time
Hoping I would see the world through both my eyes
Maybe I will tell you all about it
When I’m in the mood to lose my way with words

Sometimes I can be so focused on capturing the perfect picture (angle, settings, lighting, etc) that I forget to see the world around me as it is. I was taken aback by the lush rolling hills, the open fields in such vastness, the multiplicity of shades of blue in one sky, and the quiet of the human-free world.

Shhh!

This is going to be difficult...

After almost 12 days in Wilmington, we’re off again on another adventure! This one, however, will be quite unlike the rest. Whereas the others were collaborated efforts with other orders or provinces, this one is strictly the six of us; whereas the others were usually workshops or educational trips, this one is a retreat; whereas the others were fairly causal, this one will be require us to be silent, abide by a strick and extensive prayer schedule, and most different of all, cut ourselves off completely from the outside world for one week.

Tomorrow morning we’ll be heading up to near Elmira, NY where we’ll find Mt. Saviour Monastery, home to a community of Benedictine Monks in the American Cassinese Congregation. For one full week, we will join them for prayer seven times a day (the first at 4:45am, the last at 8:00pm), and three silent meals a day, while spending the rest of our time in quiet contemplation. With the exception of a short period of time each day to discuss an assigned book, the entire retreat will be silent. This also means shutting off my cell phone and computer, refraining from listening to music or watching the news, and truly being present to silence.

Part of me is quite overwhelmed. The lack of technology will definitely be a shock for someone who grew up in the technology age, and I’m not quite sure how I’m going to cope without the news, email, Facebook, ESPN, my favorite music, and the general power to search the internet. It’s become normative, and I don’t look forward to that sort of change. What’s much more unsettling, however, is knowing that I might find something much deeper when I actually listen. What does one think about for ten hours in a day? What sorts of examinations of conscience, reflections of self, experiences in prayer are possible with that much time set aside? There’s quite a bit of uncertainty is such a vastness of contemplation.

On the other hand, what an incredible chance this is to begin the Advent season! Each year I complain that I’m too busy with papers, tests, work, shopping, and so on, and Christmas comes before I’m ready. I love that I’ll have intentional time set aside for prayer and relaxation to truly prepare for the celebration of the birth of our Lord. I don’t know how that could be much better!

Obviously, I won’t be able to post until we get back, so take the chance for your own personal internet hiatus, and spend some time in solidarity with me, praying and reflecting! I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving, and I thank all of you who read and/or comment for your support!

“I think of it like a…”

Christ is the light of the world.

I like to think of God’s presence as being similar to light. It is source by which we can see and know things; it is brighter in some places than others; and one would have to search high and low to find a place void of it completely. God is most everywhere, yes, but concentrated in certain places more than others.

 

This used to be a huge body of water.

 

Sometimes I have to remind myself not to follow the examples of Death Valley or the Dead Sea. The former gave so much of itself without replenishment that it ended up dry and withered, incapable of giving any longer; the latter took so much from others without sharing that it became so salty that it cannot support life.

Letting go can hurt more than holding on.

 

Purgatory is like a powerfully clenched fist refusing to let go. The only way out is accepting, forgiving, and releasing one’s will. There is no outside force violently ripping the hand open and causing pain. There’s only the inside pain caused by the slow realization that the thing it’s holding isn’t what it truly wants anymore, and finding a way to let it go.

Same thing, three forms

 

 

Trying to wrap my head around one God as three persons is difficult. The best I can do is remember that ice, water, and steam are all the same chemical but each take different forms.

 

We are the "Go Between" God and the world.

I think we’re each like an individual GOBO, an apparatus placed on the front of a light with a specific shape or color for use in theatre (literally a “Goes before optics” or “Go Between”). By itself, it projects nothing; it needs a light source. Each Gobo comes with its own individual angles, colors, and levels of transparency through which the light must pass, causing the same light source to be projected in different ways. For me, it’s better than the image of empty pipe that connects God to the world because it accepts that we can’t ever be objectively unbiased; how we accept God, interpret him, and transmit him are all biases we bring to the world.

The Charism of Preaching

Dennis and I hold a bible study every Wednesday.

While acting as Retreat Coordinator and Program Director for my Catholic Campus Ministry in college, I was able to recognize and develop a charism of speaking/preaching. Though difficult and uncomfortable at first, many years of practice helped me to develop confidence, and eventually find great joy in each experience. I can’t say that I’m ready to stand up and give a sermon everyday in front of a church full of people, but given my experience so far, it’s definitely charism that I would like discern for the future. As a postulant, I’ve been given two great opportunities to do just that.

The first opportunity is a shared bible study that Dennis and I run each week at our ministry site, the Little Sisters of the Poor, Jeanne Jugan Residence. Usually attended by about 15-20 residents, Dennis and I spend an hour reading and preaching about a number of passages related to an overall theme, trying to engage the residents in a discussion about their own experiences. So far we’ve looked at women in the bible, images of God, parables related to the kingdom of heaven, forgiveness and humility, and Christ the King.

Because of the laid-back nature of the bible study, we’ve enjoyed the chance to preach in an almost pressure-free atmosphere to see what it might be like at a larger venue. The consistency of a weekly bible study helps to simulate a weekly homily and to get in the habit of preparing beforehand with well written thoughts. On the other hand, it also gives us the opportunity to speak a bit more extemporaneously, honing in our ability to come up with fruitful responses with little preparation.

The second opportunity occurred yesterday when Ramon and I traveled down to Rehoboth Beach, DE, to help with a parish mission. Speaking to some of the 7th, 8th, and 9th graders in religious education, we were given an hour to share about our experience of Church at that age in order to promote a more active involvement. Our tandem speech had three parts, each beginning with participation from the students: 1) what is Church? 2) What can a middle schooler do to be a part of Church? and 3) What does it mean to be an adult in the Church?

Not unlike the bible studies with Dennis, this opportunity allowed us to speek in front of a small group of people on topic of which we are very passionate, gauging the responsiveness of the listeners and adapting our styles based on their questions and responses. But unlike the bible study, the parish mission required us to prepare a bit more beforehand, and to coordinate our speeches so as to present a common message. Having never given a partner speech such as this, it was certainly a challenging but fruitful experience in teamwork.

If for nothing else, these two experiences have (and will continue) to help me discern the charism of preaching in my own life. I realize that I’ve been given at least a mustard seed worth of this charism, and through practice and prayer will have to wait and see if it grows into a full-sized vocation. As a supplement to my discernment, I’ve also been reading a lot about St. Anthony of Padua: besides being great at finding things, he is noted as being one of the greatest preachers the Church has ever known, and a truly inspirational figure. Hopefully through his intercession I will be able to discern this charism a bit more fully and maybe even have a little bit of his ability rub off on me!

An Alternative Interpretation…

Is this figure God, or an unjust king?

This week in the lectionary, we got the opportunity to hear the the same story, the parable of the talents, from two different writers, used in two different liturgical settings. Found in both Matthew and Luke, it is a very familiar passage, and the sermon that follows is often just as common: God gives each of us gifts, and we are expected to use them for his glory. It’s a nice message, sure. But is that what Jesus is actually trying to tell us? I would like to offer an alternate interpretation for discernment.

Today’s first reading from 2 Maccabees helps to frame the story in a different light. Having already tortured and killed six of a woman’s seven sons because they refused to renounce the LORD, Antiochus turned to the last son: “As the youngest brother was still alive, the king appealed to him, not with mere words, but with promises on oath, to make him rich and happy if he would abandon his ancestral customs: he would make him his Friend and entrust him with high office.” Ultimately, the youngest son declines his offer and accepts death rather than denounce his faith in the LORD; all of the money, power, and status in the world are not worth the price of supporting evil.

Using this message as a foundation, I think the traditional interpretation of the parable of the talents is largely insufficient. Take, for instance, the role of the nobleman. If he is a symbol for God from whom we receive “talents,” why do his servants send ahead to say they wish him not to be king? Why does he “take up where he does not lay down,” or “harvest where he does not plant?” Why does he condemn the servent for not engaging in usury, an act clearly condemned by God in the Law? Why, just before the parable of the sheep and the goats in which Jesus rewards those who help the poor (Matthew 25:31-46), would a God figure say, “For to everyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away”? These are all qualities of an unjust ruler, greedy and merciless to his people; they are not the qualities of God.

When we begin to understand this, the handing over of talents is almost a perfect parallel the story of Antiochus. Wishing to further himself, the nobleman entrusts his money to three servants with the hopes that they will carry out his unjust business while he’s gone. Two of the men decide to accept the offer to take part in the unjust system, and the nobleman rewards them with money and friendship based on their profitability. But the third servant, similar to the youngest son, does nothing. He recognizes that the king is a wicked person and refuses to take part in his unjust system. Because of this, he is denied, suffers greatly, and is put to death for his insubordination.

Taken together, I see the message of these passages to be that the world and God have different expectations, and it is impossible at times to follow both. The world will offer us many things, fulfill many of our temporal needs, even make us very happy and comfortable, but sometimes it will require us to compromise our faith. It’s also a reminder that truly following God is not an easy task, and that even Jesus endured suffering because he challenged the evil of the world and sought to bring justice to all. But for those who follow in his footsteps and endure the trials of the world, there is hope for redemption and just judgment in the God’s Kingdom.

I offer this not as a condemnation of the common homily or the priests that give them, but rather as an alternate interpretation for prayer and discernment. Hopefully it is grounded in some truth and it may be helpful for my prayer and discernment process moving forward.