Becoming Agape: The Role of Prayer

In the last article, we discussed how the spiritual life is about becoming agape; becoming selfless. How does one achieve this objective? First, we must understand that the work of becoming agape is the job of the Holy Spirit. However, because the Holy Spirit will not work without our consent, we must participate in the process.

How do we consent to the work of the Holy Spirit? Well, the first step is prayer. There are many forms of prayer, and all forms are required for the journey. The first part of this journey begins with vocal prayer. We must ask the Holy Spirit to make us holy, to make us agape. We must ask him to open our hearts to his work.

The next stage of prayer is mental prayer, which is also called meditation. Here, I am using the word meditation in a very broad sense. There are many forms of mental prayer that fall within this category. To explain the difference between vocal and mental prayer, I would use the concept of conversation. In vocal prayer, we monologue with God. We tell him our wants, our needs. We offer him thanks and praise. In mental prayer, we begin to dialogue with God. In addition, we use our cognitive skills and our imagination. The best forms of mental prayer are rooted in biblical studies, because we are in dialogue with the word of God. However, many people have found fruit in studying the lives of the Saints, treatises on various aspects of Christianity, and the like.

Mental prayer can be accomplished in several ways, and I will describe here the two most commonly used forms. The first of these is Lectio Divina. In Lectio, one invites the Holy Spirit into this prayer, opens the Bible and starts to read. Try not to get too caught up in worry about where to being.  You can start in the beginning with Matthew, choose your favorite book, or just open the bible and start reading.  Old Testament passages are great, too, but I recommend starting with the words of Jesus. I started with the daily readings for mass. This took the guess work out of it, and if I stayed with the reading long enough, I always found fruit.  

The objective is to identify where the Holy Spirit is working; to find the word or phrase that resonates. When one finds this word or phrase, one stops, and like Mary, ponders these things in one’s heart. Lk 2:19.  It is hard to describe this state of pondering. It can be sitting in silence while repeating the word or phrase. It can be asking questions about the word or phrase. Keep in mind that the goal of mental prayer is silent prayer (where God monologues in us). So, if you choose the latter, try and tag on several minutes of silence. I will describe silent prayer in more detail as this series develops. 

The second method is the more traditional form of meditation where one picks a story in the bible, and uses one’s imagination to enter into the story, and, just as with Lectio Divina, one looks for where the Holy Spirit is working.  Be open to the idea of exploring inanimate objects. I once heard of a great prayer experience when someone pondered the cloth Jesus used to wash  the disciples’ feet, and I once found myself in the rubble of Jerusalem after the first temple was destroyed.  

When we pray with scripture in the company of the Holy Spirit, the word of God comes alive, strengthens our faith, and leads us to the deeper gifts of knowledge, wisdom, and understanding.  When we encounter the Holy Spirit in prayer, our love of God cannot help but be expanded, and our desire to serve him also grows. Every expert on prayer that I have studied said beginners should commit at least 20 minutes per day to this form of prayer.  As one learn the joy of more fully living life in the Spirit, one’s commitment will likely increase as time goes on; however, according to those who have engaged in this process, this increased commitment is something that comes naturally and joyfully.

Remember that the goal becoming agape is selflessness.  You will likely find resistance to prayer, but know that the sacrifice of committing to prayer when you don’t want to pray is a great way of shedding selfishness.

Spend some time with the Holy Sprit reading scripture.  Ask him to help you be open to how he leads you in mental prayer. Ask him to help you hear the dialogue so you can enter into the conversation with him.  Spend some time setting out commitments for daily mental prayer, and contributing to the process of becoming agape.  

In Him,

dw  

The Nature Of Divine Essence

In the last blog, I mentioned that the spiritual life is something that transforms us into the divine essence. What is divine essence? According to John, it is agape; selfless love.  John also tells us that Jesus desires his people to be one with him and the father. We are called to be fully united to agape. Thus, it makes sense that the spiritual journey is about shedding selfishness. 

If you want more than my word on this, all you have to do is look at the concordance to see what Jesus and the apostles said about love, the nature of God, and the importance of love in the Christian life. One of my favorite examples is in the story when Jesus asks Peter if he loves him.  When you understand the original Greek version of the text, the conversation goes along these lines: Peter, do you love me as God loves you? Peter answers, Jesus, I love you like a brother. This conversation is repeated, but in the third instance, Jesus asks if Peter loves him like a brother.  Peter emphatically says, “Yes! You know I do.” In this conversation, I see God calling us to a higher form of love. He may accept us where we are in our love tainted by selfishness, but he is calling us to something more. 

In the Bible, Jesus tells us many ways of becoming agape.  One can look to the beatitudes, the way he interacts with others, and in the metaphors he uses for seeking the kingdom of God.  However, the very first step in the way of agape is conversion. Catherine of Siena tells us that self knowledge precedes love. Knowledge of our sinful self, our selfishness, comes before we can see that there is something better.  In addition, knowledge of self opens us to an encounter with mercy, and this encounter is what leads us to desire the perfection of love.  

The second step on the way of agape is baptism. Through this act of faith, we are united to the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is God, and God is agape.  The on-going journey is the perfection of this union.  Eternal life is about perpetual union with selflessness, and eternal life begins with baptism.  

For some of us, this process is reversed, especially for those of us who are baptized as infants. There is nothing wrong with this inversion; however, as adults, we must personally choose conversion because the Holy Spirit cannot be effective within us if we do not turn our hearts towards God. In truth, most, if not all of us, will find ourselves back at the beginning on numerous occasions as we get distracted, mislead, or otherwise step off the path. The way of conversion is something that we must return to every time we turn back to God. In addition, even when we stay the course, we will find the Spirit of Truth convicting us of areas of sinfulness that we previously failed to see.  So, regardless of the order of the first two steps, conversion is one that we will encounter multiple times along the way. 

Spend some time in prayer pondering your understanding of agape.  Some call it unconditional love, but it is more than that. Unconditional love implies a sense of accepting one for who one is.  God does accept us where we are, but he is calling us to something more.  He is calling us to selflessness.  Ponder your favorite Bible verse on love, and see how it corresponds to God’s call to agape.  Ponder what it means to go to Heaven where we will live in the presence of agape, and ask the Holy Spirit to show you what that entails.  Ask the Holy Spirit to help you penetrate the mysteries of union with him, and what this means.  Spend some time with him confessing your sins, asking for his forgiveness, and for healing in the areas of your life that keep you from becoming agape. In closing, spend some time offering him a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving for offering you this path of life, and for leading you along the way. 

In Him,

dw 

Baby In A Manger

This morning, as I was reading Luke’s gospel, I was taken by the words related to finding a baby in a manger; the place where animals find food.  Right before the words about finding the baby in the manger, the angel told the shepherds that this baby was a savior, a deliverer. From what did we need saving, and how is it tied to the image of the baby Jesus in the manger?   

As I prayerfully pondered this question, I remembered that what separates humans from animals is the intellect. Could it be that we needed to be saved from our inability to use our intellect to act like humans made both in the image and likeness of God? In other words, maybe his purpose was to deliver us from the animalistic tendencies that exist within the sinful components of human nature.

The idea here is that animals live a life based on minimal intellectual activities. Animals are naturally wired to fight or flee in the face of danger. They act on instinct and compulsion. They do not have the ability to reason through decisions (at least at the same level as humans).  

I think we can all relate to these tendencies when it comes to food and the sin of gluttony, whether through our own experiences or that of others. For example, many of us tend to instinctually gravitate towards food that is to our liking, as opposed to that which nourishes the body more thoroughly.  At least on occasion, we compulsively eat more than we should.  Therefore, one might say that one of the reasons Jesus came was to free us from these impulsive and instinctual inclinations.  He came to free our intellect to choose the greater good, and the greater good is God.  

So, how does the baby in the manger free us? By feeding us the very essence of God.  Let me see if I can explain at least one component of this mystery.  The Bible contains several statements against drinking the blood of animals because it is the life essence of the animal itself; it feeds our animalistic tendencies.  So, why does Jesus go against the Biblical mandates, and tell us to drink his blood? So that we can take on the divine essence of God. 

Through the Eucharist and our participation in the other sacraments, we are moved in the direction of union with God. The spiritual life is about the perfection of all that is not Godly, and he does this, in part, through the baby in the manger.  

While, this mystery is tied to the presence of the Holy Spirit within all who are baptized, that is the topic of a future blog.  For now, let us just spend a moment in prayer with the Holy Spirit, and ask Him to further enlighten us regarding the truth of the baby in a manger, a baby who came to free us from our sinful inclinations.

In Him,

dw   

On God’s Greatness

I am always amused when I read the story of the transfiguration. I see so much of myself in Peter. Every time my eyes are open to the greatness of God, I want to get busy (metaphorically speaking) building tents. There is something about encountering the all powerful God that humbles me.  It humbles me because I think I spend a lot of time either trying to make myself god-like or making God like me. I do not do this consciously, but the further I go in the spiritual life, the more I see human nature. The more I understand selfishness and pride.

As I was pondering this concept, I thought about the greatness of God in nature. I saw the greatness of God in his people, even if faulty because of sin. I thought about those moments when I really experienced God. Then I thought about how beautiful the world would be if I would just stop building tents; if I would just spend more time allowing myself to be humbled.

This reminds me of something I recently read. I do not remember which spiritual writer said this, but the statement was about how our image of God is purified early on in the spiritual journey.  If you struggle with this idea of a faulty image of God, ponder how often people become angry with God when they grow confused by his methods. How many people have turned away from God because he did not behave the way they wanted? How many people are angry because God did not meet their expectations; did not do things the way they would do them if we were God? Can we each say that we have not had something similar happen to us? In fact, is it even possible to fully comprehend a God who is transcendent; who is beyond our full capacity to understand?

Today, I encourage you to spend some time pondering your own reaction to encounters with God’s greatness.  Invite the Holy Spirit into your prayer to ask him to help you be open to where he wants to work.  Ask yourself questions like, how do I respond when I encounter God? Do I fall on my knees as evidenced by Peter’s response to the transfiguration as captured in Matthew, or do I get busy wanting to build tents as portrayed in Mark and Luke? Ask the Holy Spirit to show you where your concept of God needs some purification. If you harbor any anger towards God, take that to prayer, and ask the Holy Spirit to show you how to be healed and reconciled with God.  He loves you. He wants to reveal himself to you, and he wants to lead you into the fullness of life. To do so, he needs you to spend time in prayer and being open to his truth and his light.  

In Him,

dw

What The World Needs Now Is Love, Sweet Love

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of leading a discussion group on the first 55 paragraphs of Pope Francis’ most recent publication, Fratelli Tutti. While I have yet to completely read this lengthy document, he has some very interesting ideas in this section.

He addresses this document to a worldwide population. His thesis is set in promoting the idea of a world culture founded in familial love. He notes that readers who are not Christian might think that he is seeking to indoctrinate others in Christian principles, but he points out that love is incidentally a Christian principal. Everyone would benefit from a world that was more accepting and inclusive. While I am skeptical of ever achieving this goal because sin isn’t going away until Jesus’ return, ideals have the ability of setting a bar, and even if one person embraces some of these principles, the world would be a better place. 

On that note, I intend to lay out some of his thoughts over the next couple of days for your reflection. The idea is that the Holy Spirit can help us use these themes to see where we are being called to change behavior in order to become more loving. In addition, with the beginning of the Lenten season fast approaching, some of these thoughts may help us see things we can “give up” to help us build habits that will make the world a more loving place. 

One of the themes in this first chapter is integration. He is speaking at a worldwide level, but we are going to take it down to the personal. In this section, he sees the world as having moved in the direction of integration over the last few decades, but he sees a troubling trend that points to a regression on this point. 

One example that comes to mind is the image of the Body of Christ.  Our world is heavily focused on individualism, and maybe there are ways that we can better connect with each other in order to further the goals of the Body of Christ. 

A second example is rooted in the idea of isolation during the pandemic. I doubt I am the only one who has, at times, used it as an excuse to be less connected.

Spend some time with the Holy Spirit reflecting on your life. Ask him to help you see where you might be backing off from being more connected with other people. Ask the Holy Spirit to show you ways of maintaining proper boundaries, while still being open to all types of people. Feel free to share your thoughts for the benefit of others. 

In Him,

dw 

Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee

There are many discussions going on about how to get Christians to go deeper in their faith. Here are my two cents.

First, we must realize that there are many reasons that Christians call themselves Christians. There are those who do the right thing because it is the right thing to do. There are those who are afraid of hell, and are Christians because they want to go to heaven. Finally, some have had an encounter with Truth, and this encounter has led them to professing Jesus as Lord and Savior.  In my humble opinion, we are likely compelled to be Christians for more than one reason, and some of those reasons may not be listed here. 

Why do I point this out? Because when we start to analyze why we don’t go further in our faith, we realize that these drivers can sabotage our progress. We cannot live in the peace and love of God if our journey is tainted with a fear of hell.  We cannot live in a proper humble attitude towards God if we are proud of doing the right thing.  While encounters with God that prompt us towards the Christian life are the proper drivers, the experiences in and of themselves can become a source of pride. 

The second springboard for going deeper in faith goes back to the point that deep faith comes from an encounter with God, which is an encounter with love. However, encounters with God often lead to one of two extremes. The first extreme is an encounter with God as a punitive father.  The second is and encounter with an unconditionally loving father, which leads us to accept ourselves where we are. This is ok if it does not build complacency that resists becoming even better. I believe that the perfect spiritual journey places these two extremes in tension with one another. It lives with an awareness of sin and unworthiness and the joy of unconditional love. At the same time, it seeks to cooperate with the Holy Spirit so that one can be stripped of selfishness in order to be fully united with the unconditional lover.

If the idea of being one with God, one with love, does not create joy in the depth of our heart, then I don’t know what will. At the same time, there is something within us that resists seeing the depths of our sinful nature. It seems to go against everything within us. However, Catherine of Siena tells us that self-awareness comes before love.  We can understand this better if we look at some of the other metaphors for describing God.  God is light, and if we hide the depths of our sinful nature in darkness, then how can one be one with light? If we are lying to ourselves about the depth of our sinful nature, how can we be one with Truth? 

Based on the above, I suggest that the goal of the spiritual journey is leveraging the joy of unconditional love with the help of the Holy Spirit in order to overcome all that keeps us from becoming one with God. The  first step of the journey requires one to have an encounter with love.  While there are many ways to encounter God’s love, the most important one is through silent prayer.  It is in silent prayer that the Holy Spirit perfects us.  It is through sitting in silence that we humbly submit to the Holy Spirit and empower him to do his work. 

What is silent prayer?  It is a process of sitting in awareness of God’s presence within us and his love for us. When people persist in this process, they find themselves experiencing immense joy.  Yes, there is great joy found in adoring him. 

Spend time with the Holy Spirit pondering his presence within you. Ask him make you aware of his presence. Ask him to kindle a fire of desire to be transformed in a manner that you may be one with the Trinity. Ask him for an encounter with his love, an encounter that will likely make you confront the truth of your unworthiness. Ask him to help you find the balance between the negative feelings that arise from self-awareness and the truth of his love for us. Ask him to reveal to you the way of perfection. Ask him to make you one with himself. Then, spend some time just being in his presence.  As you wrap up your time of prayer, I encourage you to take some notes about your experience, and to set forth any action items that might help you on the way.

In Him,

dw

The Spirituality of Ignatius of Antioch

This morning I read Ignatius of Antioch’s Letter to the Romans as a continuation of my quest to understand the spirituality of the early church; to better understand Christian living as it was in the beginning. Ignatius was a bishop in Syria at the beginning of the second century. This letter was written to the Roman church to dissuade them from interfering in his martyrdom.  The exact date of his death is unknown as one source reports his death as early as 108 AD, and others as late as 140 AD. 

As I read this letter (which is easy to find for free on the internet with a simple search), the lessons I learned from my spirituality class came to mind. Early Christians saw spirituality as imitating the life of Christ, especially in regards to carrying one’s cross. Carrying one’s cross meant, at least in part, accepting one’s circumstances as a way of surrendering to the will of God, just as the all-powerful Jesus, true God and true man, surrendered to his crucifixion at the hands of Pilate.  

In one paragraph, Ignatius describes the guards who transport him from Syria to Rome as leopards. These wild animals responded to kindness (i.e., to Christlike behavior) with scorn and bad temperament. In other words, he described them the same way the authors of the Gospels described the behavior of the Jews and Romans who led Jesus from the Praetorium to Calgary.

He then goes on to describe his anticipated end in the Colosseum with horrific yet exultant words. He wanted his body to be mauled and mangled by the beasts. He described his joy at becoming the pure bread of Christ as the animals devoured his body, which he described as a grain of wheat. This and other images created by his letter brought several scriptural images to mind.  I saw Jesus preaching that a grain of wheat must fall to the ground. I saw images of Paul’s body of Christ. I saw Jesus holding up the bread while saying, this is my body. In all of this, I saw Ignatius’ understanding that his surrender to martyrdom reflected a Christ-like life. 

As I pondered whether there was a blog behind these images, I was reminded of a class I took while working on my Masters in Theological Studies: Theological Reflections.  TR teaches a process of reflecting on one’s experiences through the lens of Christian teaching (especially Scripture) and culture.   The process is intended to bring more meaning to one’s life, just as Ignatius saw his martyrdom as being more than a meaningless death at the hands of the Romans.  His death was a way of imitating Christ, attaining Heaven, and empowering others to make difficult decisions when society, culture, and personal fears worked to get in the way.   

Spend some time with the Holy Spirit analyzing your own life. What experience comes to the surface? If more than one, then prayerfully choose one.  Ponder this experience in light of the Gospel. What scripture(s) come(s) to mind? How do these Scriptures shed light on the experience? Do the Scriptures help you figure out how to better interpret the experience? Do they give you insight into how to respond to an ongoing experience? While this is only one half of the TR process, it is a good beginning.  I encourage you to jot down your findings with as much detail as you can muster. Sometimes, these notes find their way back into our lives at moments when we need them. The notes can likewise form the basis of an intentional process of reflection that helps us see more clearly how God works in our life.

In him,

dw

Temple of God

In the Old Testament, the Israelites twice built a temple to God in Jerusalem. The temple was the place where God resided. He made his home in Jerusalem. In fact, during the time of the prophets, the people, even though living outside of their covenant obligations, believed that God would not allow the Babylonians to sack Jerusalem because of the presence of the temple. The prophets make it very clear that God was more interested in his people repenting than in saving his earthly dwelling.

The temple, as the house of God, was a place where many people worked diligently to maintain the temple in a way befitting the mighty and powerful God of Israel.  This was a place where the sacrifices required in the Book of Leviticus were performed. The temple was a very special place. In fact, the Israelites mourned the fact that the second temple was not as grand and majestic as the one originally built by Solomon, the one destroyed by the Babylonians. They mourned the fact that the current house of God was less befitting the God of Israel.

The New Testament clearly emphasizes the fact that the people of God are now the dwelling place of God because by our baptism the Holy Spirit has taken up residence within us.  By reflecting on the way the ancient Israelites understood the temple and maintained it, we can learn a lot about how we should be treating our bodies as a dwelling place of God.  We can learn a lot about mourning the fact that it is less than perfect, and balancing this grief with a knowledge that God is working with us to perfect his dwelling; he is working to make it and us a proper home for him. In return, he will make us a home with him. Our inferior house will be replaced with the most magnificent of houses when we our joined with God in perfection.

Spend some time with the Holy Spirit picturing the ancient temple in Jerusalem. Feel free to google images depicting the temple. Imagine the people preparing sacrifices, laying out the bread of presence, managing the candles, and otherwise tending to the comforts of their God and creator. Spend some time with the Spirit reflecting on your own temple. How well do you care for God’s residence? What more can you do to make him feel comfortable and at home? Spend some time jotting down some notes from your time of prayer, and make some commitments related to doing a better job of treating your body as the temple of God.

In Him,

dw

Temple-Bearer

This morning, I find myself reflecting on one’s personal being as the temple of God. In the Old Testament, the Israelites had to endure the discomfort and dangers of the road to travel to Jerusalem several times a year in order to worship God in the temple. New covenant living has a component of us being able to worship God interiorly, and also as being ones who takes God to others. We reverse the trend from the Old Testament. We make God more accessible to his people.

As I ponder this, I think about a world transformed because people encounter God through us. Of course, this is misleading because the goal is not to be God to others, but to make present the indwelling Holy Spirit to everyone we encounter. In other words, by allowing the loving nature of Jesus to shine forth through us, we have the ability to be instruments of God’s salvation to others. Not the means of salvation, just an instrument, a tool.

As I ponder this statement further, the question of how comes to mind. How do we allow Jesus to shine fourth through us? My current thoughts lead me to believe that we need to invite the Holy Spirit into each and every encounter we have every moment of every day. This is something that is seemingly impossible, but it is something that we should endeavor to make a habit. I suggest that we start each day with a general prayer that covers each of our encounters. We invite him into our entire day, and ask him to be in each and every encounter of our day.  However, this is just the stopgap  approach. The overall goal is to work towards forming a habit of  inviting him into each encounter with others. The stopgap covers our current failure to be perfect in this endeavor. 

When I ponder the Holy Spirit shining forth through us, I see people who seek to excel at maintaining peace even when these encounters with others bring negative feelings to the surface.  I see people who affirm others by treating them with dignity, even when society or circumstances say that they are unworthy.  I see people who put the needs of others before themselves, or at least at the same level as self.  I see people who are prayerful before, during, and after these encounters. People who are apologetic when they are less than perfect in their endeavors to be temple-bearers. People who through their post encounter reflections critique their performance and continue to seek ways to improve their openness to and manner of being temple-bearers. 

Spend some time with the Holy Spirit asking him to help you be a better temple-bearer to those you encounter today. Ask him to help you build a habit of inviting him into each and every encounter you have throughout your life.  Ask him to further enlighten you to his presence within. Of course, if you are in need of your own encounter with a temple-bearer, feel free to pray for this as well. Jot down some notes from your time in prayer; notes about what you learned and/or some thoughts on how you can improve upon your life as a bearer of the temple of God Most High.

In Him,

dw

Jesus’ Baptism

Today, many Christian denominations celebrate the baptism of Jesus. It is interesting to read the four Gospels and note the differences. Who sees the heavens torn open? Who hears the voice of God? Does John appear to recognize Jesus? None of these questions or the answers thereto have much bearing, but it does make for interesting reading.

One of the important factors about Jesus’ baptism is him being submerged and coming up out of the water. Many commentators believe that he allowed himself to be baptized in order to sanctify the water for future baptisms. One might even say that he sanctified the new earth. Another reason is that Jesus is the way, and he shows us our proper response to his calling; a proper practice for all disciples.

Another interesting fact is that in the last couple of centuries, there has been a lot of comparison of modern beliefs to those of the early church. One of the points of note was that over time the focus of baptism moved away from the idea of dying and rising with Christ and became about induction into the church. I don’t know about other denominations, but the Catholic Church has recognize both points as important, and has expended energy re-focusing baptism so that both aspects are highlighted. 

Why is it important to view baptism as an act of dying and rising with Christ? I think Paul says it best when he says I live no longer I, but Christ in me. Gal 2:20. There is a brand new focus on the direction of our life when we see ourselves as having died with Christ. We live no longer for self. We live in connection with the indwelling Holy Spirit. This is important too because John testified that Jesus would baptize not with water, but with the Holy Spirit. Thus, the tie between life in the spirit and baptism is strong.

Spend some time with the Holy Spirit pondering your own baptism. Does it reflect for you the idea of dying and rising with Christ? How does this impact your walk with Christ? What is the role of the spirit in your spiritual life?  How does your life emulate the life of Christ? Jot down some notes about where you are doing well in this regards as well as some ideas for improvement.

In Him,

dw