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How to Pray in a Distracted World – The Philosophy of Maurice Blondel as an Aid in the Spiritual Life

Maurice Blondel

In yesterday’s post, I spoke about the importance of prayer in order to become a saint, and I spoke especially about listening in prayer.  I would like to develop that thought a bit more with the help of a recently acquired new friend: Maurice Blondel.

Let me, first, tell you a little bit about Blondel.  He was born in France in the area of Dijon in 1861.  He is a philosopher who’s most popular work “L’Action” was defended at the Sorbonne in 1893.  Blondel was a devout Catholic and felt that philosophy gave way too much to positive science: philosophy was only being based on the quantifiable.  Blondel was not pleased with this and developed a philosophy of action.  It is in this philosophy of action that he demonstrates that philosophy cannot avoid the religious problem, though it also cannot answer it.  He was a major influence on many of the theologians who would give shape to the Second Vatican Council.  As Bishop Peter Henrici states: “Blondel is the philosopher of Vatican II”.

So, why am I speaking about a philosopher with regards to prayer and the spiritual life?  It is because in his philosophy of action – which, admittedly, I have yet to finish – I have had  a spiritual encounter, all due to the fact that Blondel is an astute observer of human nature.  So, before I go into why he is important for prayer, I want to speak, in as simple a way as I can, about his philosophy of action.

Blondel argues that if we look into the life of our mind, we see a limitless number of choices.  Our reason goes through these tendencies and desires and we make a judgment: “This is the good thing to do.”  Yet, it is not enough to will to do a good thing.  Let us use a consistent example.  We are in the Church about to start praying a rosary.  Yet, just as we are about to begin, we find ourselves seemingly overwhelmed and outnumbered by many other desires and tendencies.  Perhaps we feel like going out for a coffee instead, making a phone call, checking our e-mail, talking to a friend, etc.  The other possible choices seem endless and the choice to just say the rosary seems overwhelmed by these other desires.  Blondel goes into some fine tuning with regards to this, but that is generally the point.  So we are faced with a choice: do we will to do the rosary or allow the variety of other tendencies and desires to overwhelm us?  Where does our true desire lie?  Before I go on, Blondel makes an interesting point: if we choose not to act, then we submit our self and our will to our tendencies, giving them more power over us.  We have a choice: to act or not to act (though to not act is itself an act, though not in the positive sense)

Let us presume we are holy people – or at least attempting to be – and thus say we see, in this moment, the greatest value to be the rosary.  But it is not enough to intend to say the rosary: one must say it.  Blondel states that the will is perfected in its choice only when it is acted upon.  Furthermore, action is a synthesis for the entire person: it “sums up” the person as both body and soul.  When an action happens – in this case saying the rosary – we become aware in a deeper way that this is our true value because it is the choice we have acted upon.  The action also sums up all our other desires and tendencies: they are given a new life in the action that has been chosen.  In short: action reveals our self to ourselves.  We see – either good or bad – what we are really like, what is really what we value, etc.  Thus, even bad actions have a positive end: if we choose them (and we do: we’re sinners!) then we are aware of what needs to be worked on in our life.  Furthermore, every time we act, we hone our will, especially when it is towards the same desire.  By constantly acting on the same desire over and over again – in this case prayer and love of God – then that virtue becomes habituated in us and the other tendencies, though present, lose their power over us.  In short: Blondel is promoting fasting, penance, asceticism: by saying yes to one thing, we are saying no to a seeming infinite.

This may seem a bit dense – I am still unpacking this myself – but the principle is really simple: action has consequences, both positive and negative for the spiritual life.  When we are praying, many thoughts enter our minds.  We often give too much credence to these distractions.  What Blondel has been helping me with in my spiritual life is to see that a) the spiritual life is a battle and b) that I have a freedom over what I act on with the grace of God as my help.

The Spiritual Life is a Battle

The fact that there is one thing I can only choose against an infinite number of other choices seems daunting, but my experience is in accord with that truth.  Thus, I allow myself to be overwhelmed with the infinite and do not see the power of the choice.  The choice for that deeper value, that truth – God’s love and grace present in my life – has a power over my other tendencies and desires.  In short, when I am praying or choosing to pray, I have a choice: I can listen to those distractions or I can shut them up.  Yet the only way I can begin to shut-up the distractions is by acting on the good grace that has been given me by God.  Action is the only means to experiencing the freedom of God’s love.  If I stand around and allow the distractions to overwhelm me, then I allow the distractions to take hold and either do nothing or allow the distractions to become habituated in my life through action.  We act no matter what: what will we do with this necessary action: that is up to us with God’s help.

So, it is a battle, a fight against concupiscable desires.  It means it will not be easy, but it means, in each moment, saying “YES” to the Lord and no to the other desires that hinder us from following Him.  As we continue the battle, we will find ourselves more attuned to the grace given then the possible sins.  Yes is the means to freedom.

Freedom to Act on God’s Grace

When we are praying, many distractions come up.  When we desire to pray many distractions come up.  Distractions are a natural part of life; they are the unfortunate adversary of our spiritual life.  When we are in prayer though, we may be praying the rosary when suddenly the idea pops in our head: “oh yeah, I need to get that organized for tomorrow.”  We cannot, per se, control that: distractions will lessen the more we choose in our actions the Lord.  However, when the distraction arises, we act on it: “I have a choice in front of me: I can either give into the distraction and listen to it while I say my rosary or I can concentrate on the mystery I am praying.”  It really is that simple!  Do you choose Jesus or the distraction?  This is difficult at first – unfortunately most of us are habituated to letting the infinite desires take a reign in our life – and thus it causes suffering, pain, and effort.  But the freedom that comes from it is worth it and we experience the joy of that when we make that firm choice in our action for the Lord: “I will focus on that mystery”.

These, in the end, are just preliminary thoughts I have had about Blondel and the prayer life.  I have found it helpful, and I know I have to “unpack” a lot more of his thought (I am only half-way through L’Action) in order to see how much benefit it has.  I have a feeling it will only get better.

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Faith in Jesus is Very, Very Rare

In today’s Daily Round Up, I mention the life and sanctity of Fr. Alfred Delp, SJ.  In particular, I linked to the following article by a British Jesuit and his encounter with Fr. Delp.  When I read the article, I must say, I was deeply moved by it, and it prompted me to begin reflecting on our devotion to Jesus Christ.

In particular, Fr. Holman challenges us to ask: our we being the prophetic witness to Jesus Christ in our world?  In relation to this question, he quotes Ruth Burrows, OCD, who says that “faith in Jesus is very, very rare”.

The question that immediately comes to mind is a personal one: “do I have faith in Jesus?”  Hearing the words of Ruth Burrows, hearing the prophetic story of Fr. Delp, one can’t help but be sobered and say: “I do, but I need more.”  Why is that the answer?  Because I would not be challenged by those words or that life if I did not have a conviction that Christ is Lord of my life and of history.  When I hear them, I think “Yes, I want a greater intimacy with the Lord.”  What is faith but the firm conviction that the Lord is present in one’s life and loves you.  But faith can grow insofar as we open ourselves to receive the grace of His Person in our heart. Thus, when Ruth Burrows speaks of faith in Jesus, she is talking about the faith which Fr. Delp walked by: the assured presence of the Lord in our lives, the knowledge of a Person that is guaranteed by an intimate heart-to-heart.

And if that is the faith we are speaking about – the faith of Fr. Delp, then yes, faith in Jesus is very, very rare.  The question we must then ask ourselves: does such a faith need to be rare?  I think not.  Why, then, is such a faith so rare?  I think there are two reasons which we can give.

The first reason is that we do not see the rare faith.  We don’t see it either because we do not have the eyes to see it, or that these people are, simply, rare.  In terms of not having the eyes to see, that will be the focus of the next point.  The rarity, then, is a scandal to the world.  “Where is your Lord?  If He is so real, why are there so few of you who really live according to the pattern of His life?”  The world, despite its blindness, sees one thing clear: to be a Christian means to be Christ-like, it means to be Christ to the world.  Their accusation, in the end, is a cry for help: they too want to encounter the Lord, but the Lord is not presented to them.  We cover Him with the filth of our egocentrism, our politics, our points-of-view, our selfishness, our greed, our complaints, our gossip, our inability to recognize Jesus in others, in our unwillingness to help the poor, the helpless, the downtrodden.  How can the Lord shine through us when we are in the way?  It is simple: He can’t, and He doesn’t.  He doesn’t because He respects our freedom, and every time we sin, we choose to put ourselves in front of Him.  So, the world sees us, not Him.  The saint, the rare Christian, the true Christian is the one in whom we see the Lord and, seeing the Lord in Him, we see that person in their fullness.  It is the great paradox of Christian life: the more we allow Jesus to shine through us, the more we put ourselves to the side, the more we are ourselves and that our true selves are seen.  But that is where the struggle arises.

In this struggle, there is a drama.  A friend of mine recently said to me that they don’t understand how there can’t be drama for the Lord, how people do not accept the drama of holiness.  My friend is dead on.  To the world, most Christians are an apologetic against Christianity.  But the saint is the apologetic for Christianity.  And how is it that we can become the saints that the world demands of Christianity?  As I have said: by becoming Christ to the world.  But how does this happen?  It means entering the drama of holiness.  In us there is a conflict of a million competing desires.  What we do is choose Christ, and choose the will of His Father in each action we do.  Thus we ‘habituate’ ourselves according to the life of holiness.  And the greatest action the Christian can do is pray.  To pray is to be with the Lord.  It means not just talking, not just saying the breviary, nor just saying the rosary, nor just reading the Scriptures, nor just going to Mass.  Those things are important, to be sure.  But it means having a heart-to-heart with the Lord.  It means both speaking and listening.  We cannot become the saints God wants us to be if we do not sit back and listen to His desire for us.  It means shutting up and listening.  If we do not listen to Jesus, we will not become the Saint His love calls us to be.  Prayer is the encounter of love and love both speaks and listens.  We tend to speak, we do not make an effort in listening.

By prayer, our desires become manifest to us, and we begin to see with greater clarity what the Lord asks us to act on and what we ought not to act on.  Thus we begin doing fasting and asceticism: giving up things that turn us away from the Lord and take on that which brings us closer to Him.  Thus we start to live the Christian life.  Thus we start loving others.  We speak to the homeless, help them with what they need.  We visit the sick and the imprisoned: we love others because, by loving them, we will see the Lord in them.  In the encounter with others, we encounter Jesus: the encounter is a revelation of His love to us.  We become the radical saints God calls us to be.

The second point is that the rare sanctity is in the world, but some do not have the eyes to see it or accept it.  I am thinking of those who harden their lives with sin by consciously turning away from God.  I do not mean the drug addict, the drunkard, the prostitute: they tend to not do their activities as a conscious act against the Lord.  I am speaking of the one who denies God and their denial is lived out in their actions, or the one who refuses to allow God the slightest sliver of openness.  They become so engrossed in themselves and their reality that they cannot see beyond their own ego.  With those, we can only do two things.  We continue to love them, and we pray, fast, and do penance for them.  Even if we do not know them, we do this.  With the Lord as our source, these actions receive a graced existence and are effective in the lives of those closed to God.   We may never know the effects.  But we know it works.

If we wish to really follow the Lord, we must ask ourselves, right now, each day: “Do I have faith in Jesus?”  If I do, it better start showing in my life.  If I need to grow – and we all need to grow in our faith – then I need to begin doing greater actions of love towards Him and others, to listening to Him more.  We become the saints we are called to be not by radical actions and poverty, but radical love in each circumstance of our life.  Faith in Jesus indeed is rare, but it need not be.

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John 17 Reveals the Heart of Prayer

Today, I did my weekly preaching in the parish and preached on the Gospel (for those concerned about liturgy, fear not!  I do it before the sign of the Cross, thus outside the bounds of the liturgy, a place and time anyone can say anything 🙂 ).

I decided, first, to approach it differently.  Instead of focusing on the whole text, I focused on a little.  Instead of writing it out, I sat with the text a lot, I wrote down a couple points I may wish to say, and attempted to preach from the heart.  All in all, I will say, it was a successful strategy.

It began with the statement that “as the hour approached for Him to pass from this world to the Father.”  This “Hour” is the time of His atonement, it is the fulfilling of the will of His Father.  He fulfills this will by passing from the world to the Father.  The way by which He passes is the Cross.

We too can enter into Christ’s hour.  If the hour is to fulfill the will of the Father, then it is our duty to seek out His will and participate in Christ’s hour.  We do so by seeking out the Cross in our lives, for it is the Cross that is a gift to us and aids us in being saved and bringing salvation to others.  Jesus says in Luke 9:23 “Unless you take up your Cross daily and deny yourself, you cannot be my disciple.”  But what is the Cross we are called to carry, how do we seek it out?

The next part of the opening verse gives us a hint: “Jesus looked up to heaven and said.”  Does it mean that Jesus looked up with His head?  No.  It is something deeper than that.  He resides in the heart of the Father, and the Father resides in the heart of Jesus.  The heart is where they give themselves to each other in an intimate dialogue of love.  So, Jesus looked into His heart.  It is the “Room” He speaks about where we are to go to speak to our Father in secret.  Yes, we can go to places which are private, but the most private, intimate room we have is our heart, where we can speak to the Father in the intimacy that only He can know.

Now, how do we pray?  If we pray in our hearts, if it is the place of communion between us and the Father, what do we do next?  The rest of today’s Gospel gives us a hint.  Jesus uses words in the imperative: Make them, sanctify them.  He is asking, but it is an asking that tells: Do this.  Do we do this in prayer?  Do we involve our will in prayer, or do we simply rattle off the words necessary?  When you start paying attention to prayer, you start noticing that, in fact, prayer expresses itself in demands.  St Paul says in one of his letters that God is always faithful, even if we are unfaithful, for He cannot deny Himself.  God gives us Himself in a covenant and to refuse the “terms” of the covenant is to refuse Himself.  God will not do that.  He has made a promise, He will keep it.

If you begin listening to prayers of the Mass: the Collects, the Our Father, the Confiteor, the Eucharistic Prayers, etc., you will notice that there is a demanding tone to the prayers.  Father, send forth your Spirit, lead us not into temptation, deliver us from evil.  Just as a child has a boldness in demanding what it needs, so are we to be bold when approaching our Father in Heaven as His children.  And we must remember: this is how Jesus prayed.  In fact, this is how all of Scripture prays!

This means, ultimately, using our will in our prayers.  The will is the place where the act of faith happens.  We cannot say “I believe” unless we involve the “I”.  Sure, we can say the words, but they are not coming from the will, from our hearts, and thus have no effect in our lives.  Plus, in this case, prayer becomes dry, boring, and burdensome, whether spontaneous or formal.  We must involve our heart in prayer.  When we do, it becomes effective in our lives because we are using the will that God has graced with His redemptive love.  Our will has been sanctified, but for too many of us, we let it sit there, motionless, uninvolved.  When we begin to use the will, things change.  I recall one priest saying that in prayer we do not say “God, look how big my sins are” but rather “sins, look how big my God is!”  Do we believe?  If we do, God will work in our lives.  This is not pelagianism, because it is not our work: God’s grace is always primary.  But we must cooperate with it, we must answer the call of grace in our lives.  To do so means to involve our I, to wake it from it’s sleep, and to bring it into the “I” of Christ.

So, let’s start to use our will in prayer.  It is only this way that we can give ourselves to God, when we actually involve our whole self, and that includes the will.  This makes prayer come alive because we are finally starting the life God wishes us to live, we are finally answering to His call, we are finally living in the life of grace.

in Christ

-Harrison

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The Glory of Scripture

I just returned from a wonderful retreat in which we had Fr. Dominic Borg as our retreat master.

I had encountered Fr. Borg when I lived and worked at the Cathedral prior to entering the seminary.  I remember liking him, but forgot about just how good he really is until I heard him this week.

What made him so good was that Scripture simply flowed from his heart.  He knew so much Scripture, but it simply flowed from his heart.  He was convicted by the Word, by the Church, and, most importantly, by Christ.  It simply came from him and it was contagious, you wanted what he had.  That is, to me, the sign of the saint: they have Jesus, and they let him flow out of them, and you want the Jesus that they love.

It has inspired me to really begin to immerse myself into the life of Scripture, to let the Word permeate my being in my prayer.  I have experienced in the past that when I allow the Scriptures to flow into me through quiet prayer, I begin to be transformed and it is no longer me, but Christ who lives in me.  I am planning on redoubling my efforts to allow Scripture to form my life, I hope others will as well.

I do find, however, that many people in the world have a hard time accepting Christian beliefs, or they have a hard time being obedient to the teaching of the Church, or living a particular aspect of the moral life, etc.  What I have discovered, though, is that many people in the world do not have a listening spirit: they are unwilling/unable to open up their hearts to let God speak to them.  They have made up their minds before encountering their Maker, and refuse to be docile to God’s Spirit in their lives.

I have, myself, in the past, entered into arguments.  Many people, for example, will find that the Church’s belief in the Eucharist is weird and crazy (though, first off, they tend to completely misunderstand the doctrine of the Eucharist).  But I have realized that it is totally pointless to enter into such arguments.  It is not a knock against said people, but in order to understand the Catholic doctrines, one needs to have a docile spirit, a receptive soul, a listening ear.

I am becoming more and more a believer in the idea that the best argument is sanctity: the best argument is a heart convicted by the love of Jesus Christ.  The heart convicted allows Christ to take form in you, and the best means to do that is to read Scripture and to spend time with Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.  These two elements of the spiritual life are so important, so central, and they are the means through which we allow Jesus to be formed in us.

In Scripture, the words and actions of Jesus take form in our soul, while in adoration, in reception of the Eucharist, we allow the very Person of Jesus to radiate upon us: we are “tanned” by the rays of Jesus.  By these two means, we allow Jesus to take us over completely, thus becoming most ourselves.  Thus, we no longer speak with our own words, but the words of Scripture, the words of Jesus, become our words.  When people call us crazy, we can show through our lives, by which the Scriptures and the Eucharist have become incarnated in us, that we are not crazy, but living a life fulfilled.

So, let us become Saints.  Let us spend time with Jesus, in the Eucharist and in the Word, and allow Him to take form in our lives.

In Christ

-Harrison

 

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Key Elements of the Spiritual Life

For aid in my meditation, I have, of late, returned to a small book I encountered last summer while I was doing CPE in Toronto. The name of the book is “Time for God” by Jacques Philippe, a priest of the Community of the Beatitudes.

It is a wonderful book and I am happy I am reading it again. In fact, all his books are well worth the read, they are great guides to aiding you in the practice of the spiritual life.

I just read the section on faithfulness in prayer and I found it to be very moving and helpful in my prayer life. He states that if we love someone, then we want to spend time with them regularly. It doesn’t matter how long: the more we grow in love with them, the more we will want to spend time with them. Nor, he says, does quality matter because the important thing is to be with that person and not the eloquence of your words to that person. Being creates communion, words are simply an expression of the inner working of our soul. He states that even if it is time that is poor, distracted, and not producing any sense of accomplishment that this type of prayer is, in fact, more beneficial to our souls than the times when we can wax eloquence in our words or are lifted up into the most sublime feelings and sense of peace. The former is more important than the latter because in the latter, we stay despite the circumstances while in the latter we tend to stay because it feels good.

This has had me pondering further about the nature of prayer because I know that I can be quite weak when it comes to prayer. I am, to an extent, a man of great practicality. I want to know how to do what is necessary, to get the methods down right so as to ensure that the effects of an activity bear fruit for me and others. This is helpful in day to day life to an extent, but I have struggled for such a long time to overcome this tendency with regards to prayer. Why? Because prayer is not our work, but God’s work.

The way to begin the life of prayer is to accept and realize that it is God Who is inviting you into His intimate communion of love.  Until this is realized, no real progress can be made in the spiritual life.  I recall from January, when we had the seminary winter retreat, Bishop Corriveau quoted St Bonaventure’s “Journey of the Mind to God”.  In this, Bonaventure begins with a prologue begging God for aid as he attempts his work.  One of his intentions is that God grant him “grace, not understanding.”  I remember hearing this and being blown over by the power of such words.  Grant me, Lord, grace, not understanding.  I prayed on those five words all weekend long.  What does it mean, why is it that it hit me so very hard?  I then came to realize something: when I have approached the spiritual life, I have approached it as if it were a method, as if it were something I had to do certain things in order to attain certain ends.  When we pray for grace, not understanding, we are praying for God to do the work in us.  When He gives us His grace, it moves us to a response (which, as Augustine would say, is also graced).

This led me to realize that when we pray for grace, we are praying for the guidance necessary in our spiritual life.  God will give us the answers, we simply need to be obedient to them.  I have been growing in the awareness over the past year of the absolute centrality of the concept of obedience.  Obedience means that when God gives us something, we do not question it, we do not enter into discussion, we simply follow.  If God has the best intentions for us, then we can only say “yes” to Him.  We often think that God is not giving us what we need.  I know I have fallen into that trap.  What I have realized over the years is that this is a total lie.  God always gives us what we need, we just choose to ignore it, usually because we enter into conversation with temptation instead of listening to God’s still small voice.  Am I still weak in not being obedient to God?  You betcha!  But I know, thanks be to God, that I am growing, day by day, in the realization that His love is what gives me peace, His presence is what grants me stability, His patience which brings me to freedom.  The key, I am discovering each day, is to seek out His will in things and to simply say “yes”.  It doesn’t need to be complicated, because God is not complicated.  Our sinfulness is what complicates things.

So what does this all mean for us?

I have discovered that there important things that are fundamental to every Christian:

  • Silent Prayer: we live in a noisy world, but Christ went up a mountain or into the desert to pray.  We need not even go to the Church: find a space in your house and put a holy image or icon there.  Give God 10 minutes a day.  It is small, but it is sufficient.  Bring to God your heart for the day.  Sometimes it will seem like nothing happened, but, at the end of the day, you will notice that there is a quiet peace about you.  It is because you  have given God your heart for a small part of the day.  Do this every day, though.  I know that when I haven’t done this for a day, or even a couple days, my life gets out of whack and I go through all sorts of crises.  Root yourself in Christ, He is the rock of your salvation.
  • Mass:  This almost goes without saying.  If you can, try and find a weekday Mass you can go to.  There is too much to say about the Mass, but it is also self-evident, so I will leave it there.
  • The Rosary: I have, myself, had a love-hate relationship with the rosary.  But the more I pray it (and the more reading I do), the more I realize its importance.  The rosary is the school of Mary, the place where we see the mysteries of the life of Christ through her eyes.  In the rosary, we are in communion with Our Lady.  The more you pray it, the more you take on the characteristics of Mary and the more you realize how much you don’t have the faith she had, bringing you to a deeper desire to be formed in the image of her Son.
  • Reconciliation: I am so very convinced that this is the great neglected sacrament!  This sacrament is where Christ enters our being through the Cross and renews us completely and totally.  Bring everything to Him, He will heal you.  It is a great sacrament because it reminds us that we are sinners and are in need of God’s healing love.  I have never understood people’s fear of the sacrament.  It is a sacrament!  It is a place where we encounter the Christ in His very Person!  Ought we not to avail ourselves of this sacrament?  I would recommend it at least once a month.  We all make mistakes, we all fail to live up to the image of Christ.  Let us go to Him to be renewed in His image.

There is much more I could say, but that is enough for today.  I know that when I live out those 4 simple things each day, I am rooted in Christ Who supports me in the day and, day by day, aids me to be a little bit more like Him and a little less like my sinful self.

in the Risen Christ

-Harrison

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