Thursday, February 12, 2015

Be of Strong Heart During Lent


A Letter from Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio

My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,

Next Wednesday, Feb. 18, we begin the season of Lent, the time when we prepare ourselves to celebrate the Easter Mystery. It is a time of preparation which over the centuries has taken many different forms.
Bishop DiMarzio's Bio

In the Message for Lent that our Holy Father, Pope Francis, has issued this year, he has taken the theme: “Make your hearts firm.” (Jas 5:8) The season of Lent is the time when we are asked to firm up our faith, when we are to give special attention to training our will so that we can love God all the more. The phrase “make your hearts firm” has special meaning to me because five-and-a-half years ago I underwent quadruple bypass surgery. One of the wonderful gifts one receives following this surgery is a red heart-shaped pillow which is needed to hold tight to your chest whenever you cough since you do feel that you are coming apart. Quadruple bypass surgery entails breaking the sternum, commonly called the breastbone, for the surgery. It takes many months for that bone to heal and to this day I still feel the wires which were put in place to keep it together.

The pillow has a special meaning, as it is called the “Brave Heart Pillow.” Yes, your heart must be brave to undergo that type of operation. And so it is with Lent, we have that brave heart, for without brave hearts we will have wills that are weak and we will not be allowed to follow the will of God. As Pope Francis says in his Lenten Message, “As a way of overcoming indifference and our pretensions of self-sufficiency, I would invite you all to live this Lent as an opportunity for engaging in what Benedict XVI called a formation of the heart (cf. Deus Caritas Est, 31). A merciful heart does not mean a weak heart. Anyone who wishes to be merciful must have a strong and steadfast heart, closed to the tempter but open to God. A head which lets itself be pieced by the Spirit so as to bring love along the roads that lead to our brothers and sisters. And, ultimately, a poor heart, one which realizes its own poverty and gives itself freely for others.”

Many times we see Lent as a time of mortification and that is good. To mortify means to kill, killing or deadening our wills through a set of good practices such as fasting, doing good works and trying to rein in our disordered appetites which hinder the full integration of our human person and to freely respond to the Holy Spirit. Sometimes this entails doing the things we do not want to do, which is the greatest kind of mortification. St. Paul tells us, “So then, my brothers, we have no obligation to human nature to be dominated by it. If you do live in that way, you are doomed to die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the habits originating in the body, you will have life.” (Rm 8-13) How important it is that we acquire good habits. It is unfortunate that bad habits are much easier to acquire. To change our bad habits into good habits is something that we all can work on during Lent.

The Lenten tradition of 40-days of preparation has its roots in the Old Testament. In the Book of Deuteronomy, 9-18, we hear that Moses falls prostrate before Yahweh and spent 40 days and 40 nights with nothing to eat or drink on account of all the sins which the people of Israel had committed. They had broken His Covenant and Moses tried to restore the Covenant by his personal fasting.

In the First Book of Kings, we hear of the Prophet Elijah who on his journey to Horeb, where he was to encounter God, ate and drank to be strengthened for his walk of 40 days and 40 nights to reach Horeb. And so we see that fasting can be positive or negative in preparing us for the journey of Lent. We can abstain or we can do good works.

Perhaps our greatest example, however, is the Lord, Himself, who we hear on this First Sunday of Lent being tempted in all of the synoptic Gospels. We see that the temptations that the Lord undergoes all have something to do with our human nature, and all of the temptations come from the devil. We know that He is tempted by the devil to turn stones into bread, as we are to satisfy our basic human needs and natural desire for pleasure. We see how Jesus was tempted to jump into the pinnacle of the Temple with the promise that God would save Him, testing God’s providence in enhancing the human pride that comes from testing God. And finally, Jesus is tempted to bow down and worship the devil, to make a concession so that Jesus can have the whole world as His Kingdom. Through the course of our lifetime, we experience ourselves all of these temptations in some way.

And so, we return to the practices of Lent and the mortification which I mentioned previously. We must deaden the will to the wrong appetites, enabling us to be active in doing certain good works and passive in accepting the contradictions and the difficulties of our daily life.

At times, we need to mortify our interior senses. Sometimes our intelligence, or imagination, leaves us daydreaming and wasting time and not being able to get rid of a thought which leads us nowhere. Exteriorly, this is fasting which sometimes helps us to be more cognizant of our relationship to God and enables us to be more positive by giving up something and seeking God in our lives.

Mortification has been described as the drawbridge that enables us to enter into the castle of prayer, because prayer is the ultimate goal of mortification. We are not masochists as Christians, yet we know that without mortification we will not find the true happiness which is ours on Earth. Only the person who understands mortification, who can live simply and enjoys the good things of life, will understand how to accept the suffering that is part of every human life. Another spiritual author said that a day without mortification is a day lost because we have not united ourselves to God.

Finally, Jesus came to the cross having prepared Himself for 33 years. His disciples who are most intimate with Him, do not understand the mystery of the cross, not until the Resurrection.

And so it is with us, as we put out into the deep of Lent, we will not understand the meaning of our mortification, our suffering, our good works. Only at the time of the Resurrection, this Easter for us, will we understand the deeper meaning of why we have undergone this period of preparation that is so much part of our faith which at the same time enlivens and challenges our faith.
From the Tablet

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Seeking God in the Silence



“Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence…”
∼ T.S. Eliot, Ash-Wednesday

One of the truly awful torments of modern life, from whose myriad aggressions no one is entirely safe, is noise. More and more, it fills the space that was once marked by that silence whose absence we seem increasingly not to notice. Nor even, it seems, to mind, so accustomed have we grown to ever higher and more intrusive levels of din. Indeed, so often are we in flight from silence, so quickly do we turn up the volume, that one might think the work of suppression part of a larger strategy to deflect the emptiness of our own lives. Thus the ambient noise allows us not to think, to leave unattended the whole inner life, which we might otherwise activate, were there only enough silence to encourage the exercise.



“We are no longer able to hear God,” warns Pope Benedict, “when there are too many different frequencies filling our ears.” Where the decibel levels are so screamingly shrill as to drive all the silence away, it is no surprise that his presence goes undetected. So where does one go to escape the din? And if such places actually exist, will it cost very much to stay? For how long? The writer Pico Iyer, author of a number of studies on the subject, tells us that he regularly disappears into the silence, sequestering himself every three or four months in a small monastic cell about a thousand feet above an ocean. Why does he do it? He goes, he tells us, “to become another self, the self that we all are if only we choose to unpack our overstuffed lives and leave our selves at home.”


It is obviously something very important to him, this entering into the silence. Where, effectively removed from the noise and the clutter of the daily round, he ventures with the utmost daring, “to lay claim to a mystery at the heart of me.” And I know just what he means, having myself spent a number of days in a comparable state of silence; I too found it wonderful and welcoming. Of course, unlike Mr. Pico, who finds himself seasonally ensconced in a monastery whose faith he does not share, I can’t imagine a setting both silent and yet without recourse to God. Except for the fact that Mr. Pico is free to come and go as he pleases, his situation strikes me as not much different from solitary confinement in a prison. The silence is undeniably there, all right, but it leads to a fixation on the self that seems, well, solipsistic.


So on what terms of incarceration do I spend my silent stretches? Well, the last time around, it was the result of an invitation to speak to a community of Cistercian monks, who had asked me to come and give a series of conferences on the spiritual life. Here are men who take the vocation of silence with utter seriousness. Their monastery, located high in the mountains outside Salt Lake City, had been founded in 1947 by a handful of Trappists from Gethsemani, Kentucky, determined on building a contemplative outpost in the heart of Mormon country. It was the aftermath of the Second World War, and among the GIs returning home, many having experienced firsthand the futility and horror of battle, there were some, a heroic few, who sought enlistment in a discipline more demanding even than the Marine Corps. It was holiness they were after. Unending intimacy with God. But it had to be pursued in a setting surrounded by, immersed in, silence. How else could they seek and find that Sounding Silence of which all the great mystics speak? There, amid the stillness, they would, in the words of T.S. Eliot, “be still and still moving / Into another intensity / For a further union, a deeper communion….”


And so it happened that a small contingent of resolute young men belonging to the Order of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance, headed west in search of God. Throwing up a couple of Quonset huts for themselves, they set about in the spirit of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the order’s most celebrated member, to rediscover the joys of twelfth-century religious life.


So what was it like living among medievals in a world rendered blessedly mute save for the movement of the wind outside, the lovely lilt of music and prayer inside? It was as if time itself had stood still. Will heaven be like this? I wondered. In his moving encyclicalOn Christian Hope, Pope Benedict provides a glimpse—a sudden, luminous glint, as it were—of the joys that may await us on the other side of silence.


To imagine ourselves outside the temporality that imprisons us and in some way to sense that eternity is not an unending succession of days in the calendar, but something more like the supreme moment of satisfaction, in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality—this we can only attempt. It would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time—the before and after—no longer exists … such a moment is life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy.


And while we do not as yet possess this life, we nevertheless feel ourselves drawn to it in the silence that beckons, soliciting us by its benign and gentle grasp to let go, “to put off” (again, the words of Eliot come to mind):


Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.


Can this happen without silence? Is it possible to acquire this repose of the soul, never mind how imperfect, unless there is silence? Certainly we long for it, and even in the midst of its noisy absence we feel ourselves drawn towards it; but without some conscious effort to create a space for it, nothing will happen. “A condition of complete simplicity,” is how Eliot describes it. And the cost, he asks? It can never be less than everything.


And all shall be well and
All manner of things shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.


So, yes, it will take some getting used to, this business of finding time for silence. A lifetime at least. But the effort will be worth it, providing as it must the setting for that necessary and salutary cultivation of the soul on which the life of holiness depends. And what really is silence but a whole world in which the spirit is set free to commune, not simply with its own deepest self, but with God himself. He Who Is.


Which is pretty much what the twenty or so monks living in Utah have been about all these years. Of that original group that began sixty or more years ago, not many have survived, and those who have, along with a handful of others who signed on later, all looked pretty long in the tooth to me. The abbot, for example, a most agreeable young man in his early seventies, told me the average age was just over eighty. I’d have put the figure rather higher than that. (Between conferences, I will confess, I could never be quite sure if anyone would survive.) Still, it was the oldest ones, those closest to the end of their journeys, who impressed me most. I think of dear Brother Felix, for example, who, God willing, must be in his late nineties by now. What a lovely man he was! Bent and gnarled by age and illness, his sight virtually gone, I watched him day by day moving in a sort of rhythmic silence from station to station, in a Via Dolorossa that had become his life.


And what will the fate of the monastery be, if fresh recruits cannot be found? Will God supply the need? He surely did seven centuries ago when the charism of Cistercian life found concrete expression in over five-hundred abbey churches strewn about the countryside of Northern Europe by the year 1300. Another one-hundred-and-fifty arose in the following century. “It’s a matter for prayer,” the Abbot says, his voice bespeaking a confidence borne of his own intense life of prayer.


All things being possible with God, I’d put my money on the monks. After all, isn’t prayer the thing they do best? And inhabiting, as they feel themselves obliged to do, a whole world of silence, the perfect medium for the life of prayer could scarcely be improved upon. Yes, I do believe God will reward such faithfulness to prayer with renewed life and vocations.

Monday, February 2, 2015

February 2nd - Feast of the Presentation of the Lord

February 2nd is the Feast of the Presentation, often called Candlemas, which commemorates the purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the presentation of Christ in the temple, which took place 40 days after His birth as Jewish law required. According to Mosaic law, a mother who had given birth to a boy was considered unclean for seven days. Also, she was to remain 33 days "in the blood of her purification."

Luke tells us, quoting Exodus 13:2,12, that Mary and Joseph took Jesus to Jerusalem because every firstborn child was to be dedicated to the Lord. They also went to sacrifice a pair of doves or two young pigeons, showing that Mary and Joseph were poor.

Once in the temple, Jesus was purified by the prayer of Simeon, in the presence of Anna the prophetess. Simeon, upon seeing the Messiah, gave thanks to the Lord, singing a hymn now called the Nunc Dimittis:


Lord, now you let your servant go in peace,
your word has been fulfilled:
My own eyes have seen the salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of every people:
a light to reveal you to the nations
and the glory of your people Israel.

Simeon told Mary, "Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against, (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed." Simeon thus foreshadowed the crucifixion and the sorrows of Mary at seeing the death of her Son.

The name Candlemas comes from the activities associated with the feast. It came to be known as the Candle Mass. In the Western Church, a procession with lighted candles is the distinctive rite. According to post Vatican-II discipline, (if possible) the beeswax candles are to be blessed somewhere other than where the Mass is held. Often your local parish will hand out candles, or you may bring your own, to be blessed before the procession. These may be saved for later use in your home. After an antiphon, during which the candles held by the people are lighted, there is a procession into the church. During the procession to the church, the Nunc Dimittis is sung, with the antiphon "Lumen ad revelationem" (Luke 2:32). This procession into the church for Mass commemorates Christ's entrance into the temple. 


Since Vatican II, the feast is reckoned a feast of the Lord (as opposed to a feast of Mary), and officially designated "The Presentation of the Lord."

The reading from Malachi tells us that God will send his messenger to prepare the way and that, suddenly, the Lord himself will appear. This reminds us of John the Baptist’s preaching. St Paul, in the second reading from the letter to the Hebrews, tells us that Christ had to become human in order to fully represent us before God the Father. In our gospel passage from St Luke, we see Mary and Joseph going to the Temple with the infant Jesus to be purified. There, they meet Simeon and also Anna who both speak of the child as being salvation for all the nations. Simeon praises God and says that he can now rest in peace for he has seen the Savior. Though he was the Son of God and himself God, Jesus was still brought up in the faith and with respect to the Law of Moses. (Reflection on readings from Irish Carmelites)


History of the feast

Egeria, writing around AD 380, attests to a feast of the Presentation in the Jerusalem Church. It was kept on February 14th. The day was kept by a procession to the Constantinian basilica of the Resurrection, with a homily on Luke 2:22-39. However, the feast had no proper name at this point; it was simply called the 40th day after Epiphany. This shows that the Jerusalem church celebrated Jesus' birth on the Epiphany Feast (as is common in some Eastern Churches today). In regions where Christ's birth was celebrated on December 25th, the feast began to be celebrated on February 2nd, where it is kept in the West today. In 542, the Emperor Justinian introduced the feast to the entire Eastern Roman empire in thanksgiving for the end to a great pestilence afflicting the city of Constantinople. Perhaps this is when Pope Gregory I brought the feast to Rome. Either way, by the 7th century, it is contained in the Gelasianum Sacramentary. Pope Sergius (687-701) introduced the procession to the Candlemas service. The blessing of candles did not come into common use until the 11th century. While some scholars have asserted that the Candlemas feast was developed in the Middle Ages to counteract the pagan feasts of Imbolc and Lupercalia, many scholars reject this, based on Medieval documents. While the feast does coincide with these two pagan holidays, the origins of the feast are based in Scriptural chronology. Some superstitions developed about Candlemas, including the belief that if one does not take down Christmas decorations by Candlemas, traces of the holly and berries will bring about the death of the person involved. In past times, Candlemas was seen as the end of the Christmas season.

Candlemas Day was also the day when some cultures predicted weather patterns. Farmers believed that the remainder of winter would be the opposite of whatever the weather was like on Candlemas Day. An old English song goes:

If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Come winter, have another flight;
If Candlemas bring clouds and rain,
Go winter, and come not again.

Thus if the sun cast a shadow on Candlemas day, more winter was on the way; if there was no shadow, winter was thought to be ending soon. This practice led to the folklore behind "Groundhog's Day," which falls on Candlemas Day.

Today, the feast is still celebrated on February 14th in some Eastern Churches, including the Armenian Church, where the feast is called, "The Coming of the Son of God into the Temple." Most churches celebrate it on February 2nd.

And finally a Reading From a sermon by Saint Sophronius, bishop which is the suggested second reading from the Office of Readings for the feast:

Let us receive the light whose brilliance is eternal

In honour of the divine mystery that we celebrate today, let us all hasten to meet Christ. Everyone should be eager to join the procession and to carry a light.

Our lighted candles are a sign of the divine splendour of the one who comes to expel the dark shadows of evil and to make the whole universe radiant with the brilliance of his eternal light. Our candles also show how bright our souls should be when we go to meet Christ.

The Mother of God, the most pure Virgin, carried the true light in her arms and brought him to those who lay in darkness. We too should carry a light for all to see and reflect the radiance of the true light as we hasten to meet him.

The light has come and has shone upon a world enveloped in shadows; the Dayspring from on high has visited us and given light to those who lived in darkness. This, then, is our feast, and we join in procession with lighted candles to reveal the light that has shone upon us and the glory that is yet to come to us through him. So let us hasten all together to meet our God.

The true light has come, the light that enlightens every man who is born into this world. Let all of us, my brethren, be enlightened and made radiant by this light. Let all of us share in its splendour, and be so filled with it that no one remains in the darkness. Let us be shining ourselves as we go together to meet and to receive with the aged Simeon the light whose brilliance is eternal. Rejoicing with Simeon, let us sing a hymn of thanksgiving to God, the Father of the light, who sent the true light to dispel the darkness and to give us all a share in his splendour.

Through Simeon’s eyes we too have seen the salvation of God which he prepared for all the nations and revealed as the glory of the new Israel, which is ourselves. As Simeon was released from the bonds of this life when he had seen Christ, so we too were at once freed from our old state of sinfulness.

By faith we too embraced Christ, the salvation of God the Father, as he came to us from Bethlehem. Gentiles before, we have now become the people of God. Our eyes have seen God incarnate, and because we have seen him present among us and have mentally received him into our arms, we are called the new Israel. Never shall we forget this presence; every year we keep a feast in his honour.
The blessings of candles, symbolic of Christ the Light to all peoples, is observed on this feast is a poignant reminder that the great feast of the Incarnation of our Lord and Savior means something as it fails to reduce God-becoming man to sentiment or ethics. Taken by the faithful to their homes, the blessed candles are a reminder that Jesus Christ is indeed "Light from Light, True God from True God." The Presentation of the Lord in the Temple emphasizes in yet a more radical way the manifestation of the Christ child at Epiphany celebrated a few weeks ago. This feast, like the Christmas-Epiphany cycle, proclaims Jesus as Lumen gentium (the Light of the world). He is the true foundation of our lives. At the singing of the Canticle of Simeon (see above) the Church puts on our lips the words of Scripture instructing us that Jesus is "The light for the revelation of the Gentiles: and for the glory of Thy people Israel."

In a nutshell, the Church says of the observance of the feast of the Presentation:

"The feast of February 2 still retains a popular character. It is necessary, however, that such should reflect the true Christian significance of the feast. It would not be proper for popular piety in its celebration of this feast to overlook its Christological significance and concentrate exclusively on its Marian aspects. The fact that this feast should be "considered [...] a joint memorial of Son and Mother" would not support such an inversion. The candles kept by the faithful in their homes should be seen as a sign of Christ "the light of the world" and an expression of faith. (Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy, 123)