The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Although I am an ordained deacon of the Catholic Church, the opinions expressed in this blog are my personal opinions. In offering these personal opinions I am not acting as a representative of the Church or any Church organization.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Bumper Stickers and Other Signs

I've always enjoyed reading bumper stickers. I suppose the messages people attach to their back bumpers must be pretty important to them. Some messages are very clever, some generate a laugh or two, some are serious, some odd, and others are rather foolish. But every one tells you something about the person driving the car.

Here in The Villages, most folks fall on the conservative side of the political spectrum and so one sees a lot of "Trump 2020" bumper stickers on cars and golf carts. And although I've seen a few anti-Trump stickers, I've yet to see one with a "Biden 2020" message, at least not here in The Villages. I'm sure there are some, but I sure haven't seen one. This tells me that although some folks might not be too happy with our current president, they seem to have little enthusiasm for his opponent. 

Many of our local churches give their members bumper stickers or license plate frames advertising their church. I like to see them because it indicates the importance folks place on their religious faith and their willingness to tell the world.

Every so often I see one of those "Coexist" bumper stickers with letters made up of various religious and other symbols. They've been around a while so I'm sure you've seen them. 
It's a message of "toleration" -- the kind that tries to tell us one religion's as good as another. I suppose it expresses a form of syncretism that strives to realize religious unity by ignoring the differences among various faiths based on an assumption that all religions are essentially the same. This, of course, denies the Great Commission Jesus gave the disciples immediately before His Ascension: 
"Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age" [Mt 28:19-20]
For Christians, then, toleration cannot mean acceptance, for we are called to evangelize. Sometimes it's important to question that which seems okay when it's first encountered.

As for me, I’ve never been much of a bumper-sticker guy. I’ve stuck a few on my back bumper over the years, but generally I tend to avoid them. About 25 years ago, when I was working at Providence College, my bumper sported a sticker that read, "Choose Life, Your Mother Did." 
Naively I thought it was a nice sentiment, one that wouldn’t generate any controversy. After all, who wouldn’t be happy their mother didn’t abort them? 

Boy, was I wrong! Every day, as I drove my little Dodge Neon along I-195 on my rather long commute, a number of drivers would greet me with that all too common sign of highway hostility: a single finger raised high for all to see. Many, to ensure I knew the depth of their disagreement, would sound a simultaneous blast on their horns. I’ll admit I was surprised, but unbothered, by it all. I usually just smiled and waved as if they were old friends.

I can’t recall the exact wording of my next bumper sticker, but it supported the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, an organization of Vietnam vets who strongly opposed John Kerry during the 2004 presidential election. John O’Neil, the group’s spokesman and one of its founders, is a Naval Academy classmate (1967) of mine and, unlike John Kerry, is a man of honor. As a Vietnam veteran myself, I had no reservations putting their sticker on my bumper. Of course, once the election was over, I removed it.

Today there's also a small sticker on the back window of my car indicating I'm a Vietnam veteran. It's there primarily to remind folks that we're still around and proud of our service in that conflict. 
The other day I placed a new bumper sticker on my current car, one that reads: "I Vote Pro-Life."  
I chose it because it states the truth. I have never voted for a candidate, at any level of government, who was not pro-life. I simply cannot vote for a person who supports the slaughter of the most innocent of human lives. On many occasions, because I lived in Massachusetts for 25 years, I’d be faced with two candidates who both supported abortion. When this happened I simply did not vote for either or I wrote in the name of another. 

I’ve actually had several priests tell me I shouldn't be so narrow in my views. As one lectured me, “Don’t be so abortion-focused. You can vote for the lesser of two evils. Anyway, there are other important issues.” Sadly, many of our bishops seem to agree with this. My only response? 
Over 60 million innocent American babies have been murdered since 1973. What could possibly be more important than that? 
And before you accuse me of ignoring capital punishment, you should know that I’m also against the death penalty. I simply do not trust our government — or any earthly government — and our very fallible systems of justice to get it right. Because human justice is inherently unjust, I see no reason to give it the power to take a life.

Another small decal on the back window of my car reads “Faith over Fear”.
What a fitting reminder to folks who seem overly worried about the COVID-19 pandemic; for so many are so very afraid. 

A week or so ago, in a conversation with a parishioner, I expressed my concern that many people, even many of our parishioners, live in fear because of the pandemic. Her response astounded me. Almost shouting, she said,  “Of course we’re afraid! This virus kills older people like us.” Wow! And this from a Christian.

In response I simply reminded her that yes, indeed, we are older and more susceptible to this virus. But that's nothing new. We're more susceptible to most ailments, and so we're far more likely to be dead in five or ten years from any number of causes. But as disciples of Jesus Christ, that really shouldn't bother us. After all, Jesus commanded us, again and again, to "Be not afraid" but to live our faith in trust. 

Every week at Sunday Mass we conclude the Liturgy of the Word by joining together and confessing our faith. And what are the last words of the Nicene Creed? 
"I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen." 
I suppose, then, that's the question for all of us. Do we really look forward to the life of the world to come, or do we instead fear the death that precedes it? 

The only folks who should really be afraid of death are committed atheists. After all, for them this life is all there is and old age must be a very scary thing.

I guess the things that are important to me include faith, life, and country; or at least that's what I'm telling others when they check out the back end of my car.

Note: By the way, John O'Neill, the Swift Boat veteran mentioned above, has written a wonderful book on the discovery of St. Peter's tomb far below the main altar of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. It's an excellent read and I recommend it highly: The Fisherman's Tomb

Friday, July 10, 2020


An old friend sent me the below tribute in honor of those who have devoted their lives to defending our country. I don't know who wrote it but the author suggested we pass it along to others, so I thought I'd simply post it on my blog, along with a few of my own comments. 

I'm not a big fan of professional athletics. I haven't watched a major league baseball game in years and haven't attended one in decades. The NBA and NFL have both lost me as well. The NFL, for example, has displaced religion in the lives of many Americans, who would much rather devote their Sundays to football than to "keep holy the Sabbath Day." Indeed, this fanatical focus on professional (and college) sports, along with all the other celebrity worship that permeates our society, is symptomatic of our nation's moral decline. When we remove the "cult" -- the religious foundation -- from our culture, we are left with nothing.

I find it remarkable that so many of our professional athletes, who have reaped rewards unavailable elsewhere, seem to despise the nation that provided them with the opportunity to achieve such material success. One would think they would be overwhelmed by a sense of gratitude. Instead they pay homage to groups like "Black Lives Matter," a movement founded by committed Marxists whose stated goal is not the saving of all, or even most black lives, but the destruction of the family and religious faith, two major obstacles to the power they seek. It's all very sad, and so we pray for them, knowing we have a loving God who has promised to be with us "until the end of the age."

As for me, I was honored to have been able to serve my country and its citizens for many years as a officer in the U.S. Navy. During all those years, and even afterwards, I lost many Naval Academy classmates and close friends. Some lost their lives in combat, others in aircraft accidents, and some as a result of the lingering effects of wounds or agent orange. But none died in vain, despite what the current crop of neo-Marxist protesters and rioters scream at us as they try to destroy our nation and its history, while belittling all the good the United States has brought to the world.

The tribute (and its fitting rebuke) follows: 

To the NFL and its players,

If I have brain cancer, I don't ask my dentist what I should do. If my car has a problem, I don't seek help from a plumber! Why do you think the public cares what a football player thinks about politics? If we want to know about football, then depending on the information we seek, we might consult with you, but even a quarterback doesn't seek advice on playing his position from a punter.

You seem to have this over-inflated view of yourselves, thinking because you enjoy working on such a large-scale stage, that somehow your opinion about everything matters. The NFL realizes the importance of its "image" so it has rules that specify the clothes and insignia you can wear, the language you can use, and your "antics" after a touchdown or other "great" play. But somehow you and your employer don't seem to care that you disgrace the entire nation and its 320 million people in the eyes of the world by publicly disrespecting this country, its flag, and its anthem! The taxpaying citizens of this country subsidize your plush work environments, yet you choose to use those venues to openly offend those very citizens.

Do you even understand what the flag of this country means to so many of its citizens before you choose to "take a knee" in protest of this country during our national anthem?

You may think because you are paid so much that your job is tough, but you are clueless when it comes to tough. Let me show you those whose jobs are really tough.

You are spoiled babies who stand around and have staff squirt Gatorade in your mouths, sit in front of misting cooling fans when its warm, and sit on heated benches when its cold. That's not tough, that's pampered.

You think you deserve to be paid excessively high salaries because you play a "dangerous" game where you can incur career-ending injuries. Let me show you career-ending injuries!

You think you deserve immediate medical attention and the best medical facilities and doctors when injured. Let me show you what it's like for those who really need and deserve medical attention.

You think you have the right to disrespect the flag of the United States, the flag our veterans fought for, risked limbs and mental stability to defend, and in many cases died for. Let me show you what our flag means to them, their families, and their friends.

You believe you are our heroes, when in reality you are nothing but overpaid entertainers, who exist solely for our enjoyment! Well, your current antics are neither entertaining nor enjoyable, but rather a disgrace to this country, its citizens, all our veterans and their families, and the sacrifices they have made to ensure this country remains free. You choose to openly disgrace this country in the eyes of the rest of the world, yet with all your money, still choose to live here rather than any other country. People with even the slightest amount of "class" will stand and respect our flag. Where does that put you? You want to see are this country's heroes!

You can protest policies, the current government, or anything else you choose. That is your right. But when you "protest" our flag and anthem, you insult the nation we all live in and love, and all those who have served, been wounded, or died to keep it free. There is nothing you can do or say that will make your actions anything more than the arrogance of a classless people, who care about themselves more than our country or the freedoms for which our veterans and their families have sacrificed so much, all to ensure you have the right to speak freely. Our country is far from perfect, but if you can point to any other country with greater freedom and opportunity, then you just might want to go there and show respect for their flag! 

That's all of it...a fitting tribute to those who, since the Battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, have sacrificed their lives and their livelihood for this remarkable nation.

God bless America, folks. 

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

COVID-19 Reflection #10 – Leaping For Joy

Because I’ve already devoted one of these reflections to discipleship, I wasn’t sure if I should address the subject more deeply. But when I came across these words by G. K. Chesterton I was convinced:
“Jesus promised His disciples three things – that they would be completely fearless, absurdly happy, and in constant trouble.”
Chesterton gave us a wonderful benchmark, didn’t he? If you and I are afraid, if we’re unhappy, and if our lives are all right with the world…well, then, we’re probably not the best of disciples. After all, Jesus tells us not to fear, to be joyful, and to accept not the world but God’s kingdom, “For behold, the kingdom of God is among you” [Lk 17:21]. In truth, fear, unhappiness, and worldliness are all symptoms of self-love. They’re certainly not symptoms of God-love. The true disciple has died to self through faith. As St. Paul teaches:
“…yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me” [Gal 2:20].  
Sadly, not all Christians accept this. Many years ago, on a road trip from Pensacola up to New England, I was driving through the Carolina mountains. The only thing I could pick up on the car radio were country music stations, farm reports, and obituaries. I’d never before heard obituaries broadcast over a local radio station. I guess it’s a Southern thing. Anyway, I found it all fascinating. 

After the obits and some local news, the announcer introduced a preacher who began with these words: “Now, let me tell y’all something. You’re all sinners.” And I found myself thinking, well, preacher, you’re certainly right about that. But then he added, “And God wants nothing to do with you until you repent of your evil lives.” With that I shouted at the speaker, “No, preacher, you’re wrong, about as wrong as you can be.”

He reminded me of the disciples and others in the Gospel who were always trying to keep those pesky sinners away from Jesus. But Jesus called them anyway, didn’t He? They hadn’t repented, at least not yet. That would come later. First came the call, then the response.

Yes, indeed, the world, along with some folks who should know better, try to separate you and me from the love of God. Others, echoing the serpent in Eden, belittle God and try to convince us we’re masters of our own fate: “Don’t be a fool,” they tell us, “You can be like God if only you believe in yourself.”

Believe in myself? What exactly does that mean? Are they saying that I’m the measure of all things? That happiness will result when I focus only on my own needs, my own desires? That God is unnecessary, that He’s nothing more than a threat to my self-esteem? Yes, the world speaks to us through a thousand loud voices all hoping to drown out or alter the Word of the living God.

Some of you who’ve known me a while, know that the event described in chapter 10 of Mark’s Gospel is among my favorites. It’s really a beautiful example of what I’m trying to explain…so let’s listen to Mark as he relates what happened at the gate of the city of Jericho. [See Mk 10:46-52]:
They came to Jericho. 
And as He was leaving Jericho with His disciples and a sizable crowd, Bartimaeus, a blind man, the son of Timaeus, sat by the roadside begging.
On hearing that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out and say, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me.” 
And many rebuked him, telling him to be silent. But he kept calling out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me.” 
Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.” 
So, they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take courage; get up, He is calling you.” 
He threw aside his cloak, leapt up, and came to Jesus. 
Jesus said to him in reply, “What do you want me to do for you?” 
The blind man replied to Him, “Master, I want to see.” Jesus told him, “Go your way; your faith has saved you.” 
Immediately he received his sight and followed Him on the way.
It’s a brief passage, isn’t it? But it reveals so much about the call to discipleship, so let’s dig into it more deeply and see what the Spirit reveals to us.

Now Jericho is an ancient city, believed by many archaeologists to be among the oldest, continuously occupied cities in the world.

Jesus was leaving Jericho, on His way to Jerusalem, on His way to the Cross. Accompanied by His disciples and a great crowd of people, he approached the city’s gate. Unlike the crowd, a man named Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, sat alone, apart, sunken in the misery of his affliction.

In those days, if you were blind and poor, you had no choice. You became a beggar. Unable to earn a living, Bartimaeus spent his days sitting by the road, begging for alms. You can almost hear him, can’t you? “Have pity. Have pity. A coin for a poor blind man.”  A small thing to ask, but on this day Bartimaeus mustered up the courage to ask for something far greater. 

Humbled by his blindness, Bartimaeus knew how needy he was, how helpless if left to himself. In his humility, he had already fulfilled the first condition for being a disciple: to acknowledge one’s total dependence on God. Notice, too, Bartimaeus didn’t hide from the world. He didn’t shut himself up in his father’s house, sitting in some dark corner feeling sorry for himself. No, he was willing to expose his misery to the world’s stream of life and to God.

I suspect most days were the same, but not this day. Bartimaeus heard the commotion of the crowd and learned that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by. He knew of this Jesus, the healer, the one many believe to be the Messiah. And so, from deep within, he summoned courage and cried out: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” No longer the quiet, blind beggar, no longer looking for alms, Bartimaeus wanted only what God can give. He wanted divine mercy.

Unlike most of the disciples, Bartimaeus seemed to sense Jesus’ true identity. Open to the movement of the Holy Spirit within him, he called Jesus by the messianic title, “Son of David.” In doing so he made a public act of worship, shouting again and again to compensate for what his eyes cannot see: “Son of David have mercy on me.”

Filled with the Spirit he became bold, begging God: “Pour out Your goodness and mercy upon me, the one in need.” With this, Bartimaeus teaches us three essential demands of discipleship:

First, a recognition of one’s true condition. This is the inner realization, an awareness that we are broken in ways we cannot repair on our own. It’s really our acceptance of the reality of our human condition. It is true humility. Bartimaeus also teaches you and me to pray in humility, seeking only God’s will in our lives, for God always offers mercy.

I first encountered this in another when I visited a state prison in Massachusetts. As I was praying with an inmate, a lifer who had committed murder, he suddenly exclaimed:

“I am the lowest of the low. I am messed up beyond belief, and it’s all my fault. Only God can heal me of all this junk. And isn’t that the most amazing thing, the most wonderful thing? It just makes me want to leap for joy.” 

I immediately thought of Bartimaeus, leaping for joy in response to the love of Jesus Christ. That inmate also grasped the next demand of discipleship.

Second, exposing one’s condition to the only One who can heal us. The true disciple hears and accepts God’s call to repentance, a call that brings forgiveness and a new life as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Third, persistence in the face of all opposition. Overwhelmed by God’s Presence, His goodness and forgiveness, the disciple is given a gift: a single-minded and single-hearted focus that hears only God’s call and refuses to let the world overwhelm it.

The question for us, of course, is whether you and I have the boldness of Bartimaeus, or are we so ashamed of our weaknesses and sinfulness, or so timid, or so proud, that we are unable to turn to God and cry out for His mercy?

Jesus always listens, dear friends. He listens for your voice rising above the world and above your own passions. He listens, hoping you will call out his Holy Name, hoping you will shout (or even whisper) for Him to come into your life. 

And He always responds. Jesus stopped at that gateway to Jericho and commanded, “Call him.” Yes, the still unformed disciples tried to keep a blind beggar far away from their teacher, but Jesus ordered them to bring Bartimaeus to Him. The disciples, you see, didn’t think this blind beggar was worth Jesus’ time. 

The crowd, too, dismissed this blind beggar. You can almost hear them can’t you: “How dare you, a beggar, speak to the great teacher, the holy man, perhaps the Messiah?” Rebuffed and scolded, does Bartimaeus worry that he might be pushed aside? No, for he is persistent, despite all opposition.

Indeed, only two people at Jericho’s gate believed Bartimaeus was worth Jesus’ time: Bartimaeus and Jesus.

It is here we see the true disciple. He is the one who rids himself of those purely human desires to keep up appearances, of that tendency to keep God’s dearest creatures separated from Him. Indeed, the primary task of those who have been called by Jesus is to call others to Jesus. This is why the Church defines its mission as one of evangelization.

From this brief scene, we find that we are to implore Jesus boldly and unceasingly. We are to encourage others to respond to God’s call and accept His healing and His mercy.

But our visit to Jericho isn’t quite over…

For when he heard Jesus call him, Bartimaeus leaped to his feet, tossed his coat aside, and went straight to Our Lord. 

The blind, of course, learn to magnify their other senses, and Bartimaeus no doubt knew from which direction the voice of Jesus came. But it’s still interesting that no disciple led the blind Bartimaeus to Jesus, and yet, even in the midst of that large crowd, he went directly to Our Lord.

I‘ve always thought this was the work of the Holy Spirit, for that is what He does: He leads, He guides, He inspires – and on this day he led a blind, hopeful, and faithful Bartimaeus to the One who had called him.

Yes, Bartimaeus displayed, for all to see, the enthusiasm of the true disciple. He leaped, the Gospel tells us, and we can almost feel his joy! He’d waited so long for this moment – the moment when he would be summoned before His Lord so he could be forgiven and healed.

What else did Bartimaeus do? He tossed aside his coat, his beggar’s rags, the symbol of his lowly state in life, and came to Jesus unencumbered, with nothing but his enthusiasm, his love, his faith. He knew he could leave his old life behind because he knew he would be healed. This is the remarkable faith of Bartimaeus, for he already knew what Jesus was going to do for him.

Bartimaeus received the gift of salvation because he had accepted the gift of faith. He shows us that to be saved one must want to be saved; one must direct his steps toward the only One who can work this miracle of salvation, for miracle it is. We certainly can’t save ourselves.

When Jesus asked, “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus simply replied, “Master, I want to see.” He asked only for his sight…and nothing else. He asked for that which only God can give. He asked only to be restored to wholeness.

Bartimaeus realized Jesus was present just for him, just for Bartimaeus. He knew Jesus was the divine healer, the forgiver of sins, the redeemer of the world. The Son of David, the Messiah that called him hasn’t come to liberate Israel from the Romans, or to establish an earthly kingdom, or to fulfill our every whim. And Bartimaeus knew this. Yes, he knew that Jesus came to restore him to wholeness and to restore the whole of humanity to what it once was, to what God had made it in the beginning. It was in Eden before the Fall that man and woman walked and talked with God. And it is in the streets of Jericho that Bartimaeus walked and talked with the Son of God.

Notice then that Jesus didn’t say, “I have saved you.” No, instead, he said, “Your faith has saved you.” God seeks that kernel of faith into which He can extend His love and power. 

He wants to change lives, and often enough He calls us again and again, in the most outrageous ways. He never gives up on us, but always hopes to find a heart that recognizes who He is, a heart that calls to Him, so He can intervene and change that life.

Invite Jesus to be Lord of your life. Jesus never imposes Himself on us, never forces us to love Him, for love can exist only in freedom. Love is always a decision.

Too often, instead of loving God unconditionally, we Christians spend much of our time piously trying to manipulate His power to suit our own desires. This little scene in Jericho ends with Jesus telling Bartimaeus, now cured of his blindness, to go away. 

“Go your way,” Jesus tells him, perhaps testing him one last time.

But Bartimaeus no longer wishes his life to follow any way other than that of Jesus Christ, and as Mark tells us, he followed Jesus “on the Way”. In other words, he became a disciple, and anticipated what Jesus would tell the apostles just a few days later, on that holy night, the night before He died:
“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” [Jn 14:6]
Oh, that we could all be disciples like Bartimaeus. Let’s make that our prayer: that we can recognize our own blindness, all the apparent dead ends in our lives, and expose them to the light of God’s mercy in Jesus Christ.

We’re surrounded by a lot of noise, aren’t we? The world tries to drown out God’s voice, and God’s call. So many people never take the time to listen for God’s call, or even believe He’s calling them. 

How many, like the blind Bartimaeus, want to find God, but are led astray by voices telling them God cares nothing for them, or that He’s not even there to hear their prayer? How many sit alone along life’s roadside, hoping God might one day pass by? 

Recall again how Jesus called Bartimaeus. He did it through His disciples, didn’t He? “Call him,” he commanded. How many have you and I ignored as we move through our own troubled lives, too involved in ourselves to pay attention to those God loves? How many wait for another to take them by the hand, to lead them into the presence of the living God where they will find healing, purpose, and life?

Discipleship always involves a second call, a call to the one who has already responded, a call to lead others to the Lord. Bartimaeus heard that second call and responded. He “followed Him on the way,” and did so fearlessly, happily, and no doubt expecting lots of trouble.

Monday, June 29, 2020

COVID-19 Bible Study Reflection #9: A Prayerful Attitude

In our last reflection (#8), we took a brief look at the Book of Psalms and its place in our spirituality as a source, a starting point, for different forms of prayer. In today’s reflection, I hope to focus on a prayerful attitude, the state of mind best suited to mental prayer, or meditative and contemplative prayer. (This, too, will be no more than a brief introduction.) 

Such prayer is really a wonderful way to enter into the kind of personal relationship with God that He desires for each of us. In a very real sense, mental prayer becomes a pathway to the joy that comes from this relationship, enabling us to "taste and see that the Lord is good" [Ps 34:9].

So then, how do we prepare ourselves, how do we develop the attitude of prayer that opens us to be receptive to God’s prayerful grace? Why not begin with the words of Our Lord? In His Sermon on the Mount Jesus instructed His disciples:
"When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you" [Mt 6:6].
In saying this, Jesus wasn’t telling us not to engage in communal or liturgical prayer; not at all. Indeed, Jesus often encouraged communal prayer, and the “Our Father” is, in fact, a beautiful example, one of the reasons the Church includes it in its sacramental rites. We also find Jesus praying with His apostles and calling them to communal prayer. Just read the final words of His last discourse as described in the Gospel according to John [Jn 17] and you will encounter a prayerful Jesus who, by His words, teaches the apostles how to pray. And Matthew, in his Gospel, tells us how Jesus concluded the Last Supper with a hymn, which is simply communal prayer as song.
“Then, after singing a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives” [Mt 26:30].
And what prayer could be more communal and liturgical than the prayer of those gathered in the New Jerusalem in heaven:
“Then I heard something like the sound of a great multitude or the sound of rushing water or mighty peals of thunder, as they said: ‘Alleluia! The Lord has established his reign, our God, the almighty. Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory’” [Rev 19:6-7].
No, Jesus wasn’t discouraging communal prayer. His concern was for those who prayed only to be seen by others, for whom prayer was a means to glorify themselves rather than God. By praying “to your Father in secret,” you avoid this form of hypocrisy. 

Perhaps we can begin by saying what mental prayer isn't. It's not the result of technique; it's not something we do. Rather it's a gift; it's something God does for us.

This, then, is our first truth: mental prayer is, quite simply, a grace.

Among other things, this is what separates Christian mental prayer from such Eastern meditation methods as yoga or Zen. We make a serious mistake when we try to reduce everything to technique, when we try to make life, even our spiritual life, into something to be manipulated at will. Mental prayer is not Christian yoga. Mental doesn't rely on human effort. There's certainly room for initiative and activity on our part, but we must understand that the foundation of a life of prayer is built on God's initiative and grace, on God giving of Himself freely.

Since we needn’t worry about mastering techniques, let’s focus instead on the necessary conditions, the dispositions of heart, for receiving the gift. Understanding this is critical since one of the temptations of the spiritual life is to rely on our efforts and not on God's freely given mercy.

St. Teresa of Avila gives us our second truth: the entire edifice of prayer is founded on humility. Teresa stressed that Mary’s humility is the perfect model: a humility not only capable of receiving God, but of holding Him, and safeguarding all received graces. Growth, Teresa, added is “not concerned with receiving graces, but of becoming capable of not losing them.”

St Peter also stressed humility when he instructed the early Christian community:
“…clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for: ‘God opposes the proud but bestows favor on the humble’” [1 Pet 5:5].
In other words, we ourselves can do nothing, and it is God alone who produces good in our souls. True mental prayer is, then, abandonment. (You might want to revisit our Reflection #6 on this subject.) 

Unlike community or liturgical prayer, when we’re immersed in solitude and silence before God, we find ourselves unsupported, alone with the reality of ourselves and our poverty. Jesus reminded us of this spiritual poverty when He instructed His apostles:
“I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing” [Jn 15:5].
If we allow these words to sink in, we come to appreciate three things: (1) that God’s greatness is beyond our imagining; but that (2) He wants to connect with us in the most intimate way; and (3) He is in complete charge and we need only accept this. 

In Reflection #6 I included Blessed Charles de Foucauld’s prayer of abandonment, but here’s another, perhaps more relevant for some people today. It was written by the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself; and that I think I am following your will does not mean I am actually doing so.
But I believe the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all I am doing. I hope I will never do anything apart from that desire. I know if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
Possessed of the attitude exemplified by this example of simple, humble abandonment, we can approach mental prayer in a way most pleasing to Our Lord. Our human pride might rebel at this, but such abandonment is actually liberating since God, who loves us, will carry us farther than we can ever go on our own.

There's another wonderful, liberating consequence of true Christian prayer. Since it's not based on technique, it's never a matter of some people possessing the necessary skill while others don't. We can all partake in it. This, then, leads us to our third truth: God’s call to holiness is universal.

Holiness demands prayer, and because God's call to holiness is universal, nobody is excluded. Jesus calls every single one of us to holiness and to prayer without exception. The life of prayer isn’t reserved for some religious elite; it’s for everyone. And God will provide the graces and the strength each person needs.

Through our faith we believe that all people without exception – wise and foolish, just and sinners, well-balanced and deeply wounded – are called to an authentic life of prayer in which God communicates and reveals Himself to us. 

Just turn to the Gospels, Who is called by Jesus? The poor, the wealthy, the ill, the dying, the wise, the foolish, the blind, the possessed, the young, the old, the loved, the despised, the ruled, and those who rule…Jesus calls them all.

This is hard for some people to accept. Their faith, distorted by pride, leads them to dismiss some others as unworthy, when in truth we’re all unworthy. It’s the same pride we encountered over the centuries in all the heresies that rose up to attack the Church. In every instance heresy begins with someone believing and asserting, “I am holier than the Church.”

Each of us, then, with our different personalities, and our weaknesses and strengths, can have a deep mental prayer life by being faithfully open to God's grace. But our God sees each person uniquely; after all, He created each of us in a unique act of personal love. We should not, therefore, expect that every person will experience God’s prayerful graces in the same manner. Let God direct your prayer life as He desires.

This leads us to our fourth truth: Faith is the basis of all mental prayer.

Prayer always involves struggle; and it’s a struggle that can overwhelm us. This is why we need faith, for faith strengthens us and gives us the confidence to persevere. Indeed, faith is our capacity to act according to what we are told by Jesus Christ, the Word of God Incarnate. And God cannot lie. 

Speaking of faith, Pope Benedict XVI wrote:
“This faith, however, is not a thought, an opinion, an idea. This faith is communion with Christ, which the Lord gives to us, and which thus becomes life, becomes conformity with him…Faith is looking at Christ, entrusting oneself to Christ, being united to Christ, conformed to Christ, to his life.”
This, then, must be the basis, the very foundation, of our prayer: to become more Christ-like, for that’s what growing in holiness is all about.

Our fifth truth is another of those wonderful revelations that should change our thinking and our lives. It states, quite simply, that God desires us infinitely more than we desire Him.

This, of course, is the essence of the Good News, the same truth that Jesus spoke to Nicodemus on that dark night in Jerusalem:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” [Jn 3:16-17].
If God desires us, and if He is omnipotent, then He must always be with us. And so, He is always present when we pray. 

No matter what I feel, or how poorly prepared or inarticulate or confused I am, regardless of my inner state, my sinfulness, God is there, listening and helping and loving. He is there not because of my worthiness, but because He promised: “…pray to your Father who is there in secret…” 

And in John 6, Jesus promises: “I will not reject anyone who comes to me” [Jn 6:37]. How often do we think about that? It should really drive us to our knees in thankfulness and joy.

Our next truth, number six, is one of those unexpected truths, but it’s the logical outgrowth of all the others: The fruits of a life of prayer are infinite.

Just consider what prayer does. It transforms us, sanctifies us, heals us, deepens our knowledge and love for God, makes us fervent and generous in our love of neighbor, and leads us to the perfection Christ wants for us
. If you persevere in mental prayer, you can be certain of this and much more. So, don’t get discouraged when you stumble or when your prayer seems sterile or arid.

People often give up mental prayer because they don’t see quick results. Reject this temptation. Make an act of faith that God’s promise will be fulfilled in His time. Remember what St. James wrote:
“Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You too must be patient. Make your hearts firm, because the coming of the Lord is at hand” [Jas 5:7-8].
Yes, indeed, the Lord is at hand. He is with you even when you seem so very alone. Remain open to His presence and He will make Himself known.

And from this, we’re led to another truth: Pray faithfully, every day, even when your prayer is poor, brief, and distracted.

Daily, faithful prayer, even when it encounters dryness or obstacles or is interrupted by the distractions of our lives, is worth more than on-again, off-again sublime prayer.

Once, years ago, I experienced what can only be described as a kind of vision, the presence of Jesus before me as I prayed. It was so real I believed I could reach out and touch Him. It was a wonderful, unforgettable encounter with Our Lord, and for a while afterwards I tried to find a spiritual path that would let me experience this beatitude once again. But I finally realized it had been a gift, a one-time blessing to strengthen my faith and lead me to a deeper prayer life. It came at a time when the need was particularly great, and for some reason known only to God, he sent me this particular grace.

The battle to be faithful is not easily won, especially since Satan wants to keep you from daily prayer. You see, Satan knows that one who is faithful in daily mental prayer has escaped him. It is faithfulness alone that enables the life of prayer to bear its wonderful fruit.

Finally, truth number eight: Mental prayer is no more than an exercise in loving God. This, then, must be our intention. Faith and fidelity are important, but without purity of intention, our prayer has no life in it. How did Jesus put it?
“Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God” [Mt 5:8].
Who are the pure of heart? The sinless? No, not at all. The pure of heart are those who are inspired in all they do by a sincere intention of forgetting themselves in order to please God, living not for themselves but for Him. They are those who truly love God.

Pure love doesn’t seek its own interests but seeks only to give joy to another. And so, we pray to please God simply because He asks us to do so and we want to please Him.
This purity of heart, this self-forgetting and loving intention, doesn’t come easy. It takes time, and for most it is never fully attained. But God is pleased that we’ve simply undertaken the journey, so long as we strive to realize in our hearts an ever-purer love for God.

Once again, Satan will try to discourage you by demonstrating how weak and self-seeking you are. Ignore him. God wants only your effort. Tell God, very simply, that you want to love Him with a pure love, and then abandon yourself totally and trustingly to him. He will purify you.

As I said earlier, these truths are dispositions, and form the foundational attitude necessary to deepen your life of prayer. I hope they will help you as they have helped me. I’ve learned most of them the hard way, through constant spiritual struggle. And I still struggle, and will no doubt continue to do so until my last breath. But, believe me, God will hold your hand and lift you up as you progress. He’ll be there with you always, in the easy times and the hard times.
God’s peace…

Here are a few books I have found helpful when it comes to prayer (with Amazon links):

von Balthasar, Hans Urs – Prayer

Bouyer, Louis – Introduction to the Spiritual Life 

Daniélou, Jean – Prayer, the Mission of the Church

Dubay, Thomas – Prayer Primer, Igniting a Fire Within

Garrigou-Lagrange, Reginald – Knowing the Love of God (Ch.12-15 on prayer)

Graef, Hilda – The Commonsense Book of Catholic Prayer and Meditation

Merton, Thomas – Contemplative Prayer

COVID-19 Bible Study Reflection #8: Prayer in the Psalms

Note: This reflection was originally written on June 20. I simply neglected to post it here on the blog. I trust you will find it of some value in your prayer life.

Once again, I offer another reflection, one I hope will help us – and I include myself as well – get through these challenging times. As always, we ask the Holy Spirit to be with us, to guide and inspire us. That’s important because without the Holy Spirit, we can do little indeed. 

Today we’re going to look at prayer, the Spirit of prayer, especially as it’s found in Sacred Scripture, remembering that it’s only through the Holy Spirit that we can “pray as we ought” [Rom 8:26].

I’ll begin by saying I’m not an expert on prayer. Indeed, my own prayer life, my own time with God, is sometimes pretty messy. I think of all the fits and starts, the spiritual dead-ends, the dryness, the challenges – and all of it so often focused more on myself than on God. How, then, can I talk with you about prayer when my own prayer life falls so short of the mark set by the saints? Well, I actually prayed about this and decided that maybe the Holy Spirit wanted me to share those problems with you too. Maybe He knows how these same things trouble your prayer life, and that you’re not alone. Fortunately, the Holy Spirit’s a lot smarter than you and me. And as Luke tells us, Our Lord Himself promised His disciples:
“…the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say” [Lk 12:12].
So, let’s just agree that the Holy Spirit is the source of any good resulting from this reflection, and that all the not-so-goods come only from me. With that we can press on and open ourselves to the movement of the Spirit.

Here we are, in the middle of Ordinary Time. Lent and Easter are behind us, and Advent and Christmas still far ahead of us, so perhaps this might be a good time to reflect on how we’re doing. The Church, of course, knows that Ordinary Time can sometimes seem...well, so very ordinary. And so, during this quieter liturgical time, it repeats many of the Lenten readings. It wants us to know that prayer and fasting and almsgiving aren’t just Lenten practices…no they’re Christian practices, and should be an active part of our ongoing, daily spiritual lives. The practices of Lent, for example, should result in permanent change; they should bring about our continued spiritual growth. 

Too many of us, though, tend to spend much of our lives drifting to and from God, as if our spirituality is a kind of seasonal thing, not realizing that God wants constant spiritual movement toward Him. Yes, He wants us to do extraordinary things even in Ordinary Time, and it’s all wrapped up in God’s call to love Him and each other. How did St. Paul put it?
"If I speak in human and angelic tongues, but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal" [1 Cor 13:1].
Wow! …So, our prayer and all we do mean little if they’re not grounded in love. Let me read something else Paul wrote, in his 2nd Letter to the Thessalonians:
“We are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brethren, as is fitting, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing”  [2 Thes 1:3].
Now, out of all the verses in the New Testament, why do you think I chose this one? It was the words: “…because your faith is growing abundantly.” It’s all about growth, isn’t it? It’s all about growth in faith, growth in prayer, and growth in love. In other words, it’s about growth in holiness. But how do we measure it?

In the Night Prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours there’s a point at which we are asked to make an examination of conscience, to review the day and our place in it. It’s a wonderful habit to develop and practice. Just take a few moments at the end of each day to call on the Holy Spirit, asking Him to remind us of how we journeyed through the day – what we have thought, and said, and done. It’s a prayer in which we place ourselves at the feet of Jesus and lay bare our soul in repentance and thanksgiving.
What did I do today to advance God’s Kingdom on earth?
Was I a willing ambassador for Christ in my interaction with others?
Did I see the presence of Jesus in all who crossed my path today? 
Did I submerge my own needs and wants and focus instead on helping them?
What I said and did today – did it lead people to salvation or turn them away?
How will I do things differently tomorrow?
Honest answers to these and other questions help us focus on our spiritual growth. The direction we’re heading becomes either painfully or gratefully obvious. We can then ask the Holy Spirit to show us the best path to spiritual growth and let Him lead us. 

Maybe this would be a good time to pause for a moment, turn to the Holy Spirit, and reflect on our personal growth in holiness. Like St. Paul, let’s set high expectations for our growth in holiness, and continually thank God for the grace He mercifully provides.
Holy Spirit, clear my mind of everything but Your love for me and my love for You. And in that love place before me that which You call me to do, that which will help me grow in holiness.
A few years ago, in a course for catechists and Catholic school teachers, I asked the participants write down an answer to this question: “When, outside of Mass, do you most often pray?” 

The most common answer? When I ask for God’s help in times of trouble or in solving some problem; in other words, Prayers of Petition.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with asking God for something, so long as it’s not something bad for us. But if that represents the full extent of our prayer life, we really don’t have much of a prayer life at all. 
Jesus and the Apostles Singing a Psalm
So, let’s look at prayer in many of its forms by turning to the Bible. Interestingly, virtually every form of prayer can be found in the Bible’s own book of prayer, the book we call the Book of Psalms. In each of the following I have offered only a single example of each type of prayer, in most instances just a single verse. But the Book of Psalms is filled with prayers and I recommend reading and praying with this wonderful book daily. 

Prayers of Petition – God works wonders for those He loves:
“Know that the LORD works wonders for his faithful one; the LORD hears when I call out to him” [Ps 4:4].
Prayers of Adoration, Praise, Blessing – We bless and praise God, not just once in a while, but always:
“I will bless the LORD at all times; his praise shall be always in my mouth” [Ps 34:2].
Prayers of Thanksgiving – We offer God an endless proclamation of Thanksgiving for all that we have, even our very being:
“Give thanks to the LORD for he is good, his mercy endures forever!” [Ps 107:1]
Prayers of Longing and Yearning – We yearn for God just as the deer yearns for the running waters of a stream:
“As the deer longs for streams of water, so my soul longs for you, O God.  My soul thirsts for God, the living God. When can I enter and see the face of God?” [Ps 42:2-3] 
Prayerful Suffering – We express our sorrows, our pains in the light of God’s will, and unload our burdens on Him:
“Listen, God, to my prayer; do not hide from my pleading; hear me and give answer. I rock with grief; I groan… My heart pounds within me; death’s terrors fall upon me. Fear and trembling overwhelm me; shuddering sweeps over me” [Ps 55:2-3,5-6].
Prayers of Repentance – In a spirit of conversion we renounce our sin, express sorrow, and return to the Father, the only one who can heal us:
“Have mercy on me, God, in accord with your merciful love; in your abundant compassion blot out my transgressions. Thoroughly wash away my guilt; and from my sin cleanse me. For I know my transgressions; my sin is always before me” [Ps 51:3-5].
Prayers of Marvel and Wonder – Ps 104:1-35 – We marvel at the glories of God’s creation and celebrate with joy all that He has done:
"Bless the LORD, my soul! LORD, my God, you are great indeed! You are clothed with majesty and splendor, robed in light as with a cloak. You spread out the heavens like a tent; setting the beams of your chambers upon the waters. You make the clouds your chariot; traveling on the wings of the wind. You make the winds your messengers; flaming fire, your ministers" [Ps 104:1-4]. 
Meditative Prayer – The very first two verses of the Book of Psalms are designed to lead us to meditative prayer:
“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.” [Ps 1:1-2]
In the same way, Luke offers us the example of our Blessed Mother: 
“…Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart” [Lk 2:19]
Contemplative Prayer – Loving contemplative immersion – Christ-centered contemplative prayer is a divine gift, a gift of growth in mental prayer, given when we are ready, not before. Through loving contemplative prayer, we “Taste and see that the LORD is good” [Ps 34:9]. In other words, we experience for ourselves the very goodness of God.

Both St. Peter and St. Paul tell us that when we pray so deeply, words are not only unnecessary but unable to describe what takes place. Here's how St. Paul described it to the Romans:
“…the Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings” [Rom 8:26].
Prayers of Delight and Joy – We delight in the Lord, in His goodness and His works, and take joy in His love for us:
“I will praise you, LORD, with all my heart; I will declare all your wondrous deeds. I will delight and rejoice in you; I will sing hymns to your name, Most High” [Ps 9:2-3].
Prayer in Song (Hymns) – Most of the psalms were written as poetic hymns; they were the songs of a people to their Beloved. This is why the Church has given music such a key role in her liturgy, particularly when it comes to the Psalms:
“Give thanks to the LORD, invoke his name; make known among the peoples his deeds! Sing praise to him, play music; proclaim all his wondrous deeds! Glory in his holy name; let hearts that seek the LORD rejoice!” [Ps 105:1-3]
Indeed, the last thing Jesus and the apostles did at the Last Supper before going to the Garden was sing:
“And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives” [Mt 25:30].
Jesus and the Apostles had just completed the Passover Meal, which traditionally was concluded with the singing of Thanksgiving Psalms; e.g., Ps 114-118. 

Prayer of Amen – The prayerful affirmation of God’s will in all things. Here we say
“Yes!” to God and for all that He does – just as Mary said “Yes” to the archangel Gabriel and Jesus said “Yes” to the Father in the Garden. St. Paul’s famous instruction to the Romans is, in a sense, a trusting “Amen!” to our God:
“We know that all things work for good for those who love God,* who are called according to his purpose” [Rom 8:28].
Consider, too, the Great Amen we sing at Mass in response to the Final Doxology prayed by the priest: 
"Through him, and with him, and in him, O God, almighty Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is yours, for ever and ever…AMEN"
The word “doxology” literally means to speak of glory, to openly praise God’s glory. And so, we shout, “Amen!”, as an affirmation of our complete Faith in God’s goodness.

Liturgical prayer is the prayer of the Church – the Mass, other sacramental prayer, the Liturgy of the Hours, and other liturgical rites. It is the Church’s prayerful communal worship, the ecclesial prayer that the Lord Himself established. And not surprisingly our liturgies are filled with prayers from the Book of Psalms. 

That’s quite a list of prayer forms, isn’t it? And so, don’t hesitate to turn to the Psalms in prayer when you need some inspiration and guidance from the Holy Spirit. Keep in mind that He inspired David and all the other authors of these sacred hymns – living proof that He understands our needs even better than we understand them ourselves. 

Perhaps I’ll expand on the subject of prayer in our next reflection.

God’s peace.