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Joy in Parentheses

11 Nov

The next to last chapter of Thomas Merton’s Seeds of Contemplation (1949) is entitled Contemplata aliis Tradere – roughly translated, “To teach others contemplation.” It’s one of the mottos of the Dominican Order, and it’s drawn from Thomas Aquinas’s Summa. “That form of active life in which a man, by preaching and teaching, delivers to others the fruits of his contemplation,” writes St. Thomas, “is more perfect than the life that stops at contemplation.” In other words, an active Christian life is good, a contemplative life is better, but better still is a contemplative life that leads to action – more specifically, action directed at helping others become contemplatives themselves.

Merton points out that this is tough to achieve because true contemplation doesn’t lend itself to didactic practices. Teaching and preaching generally involves words, and contemplation, as I understand it, is an approach to the divine that is devoid of words, concepts, and propositions.

I’ll have to take Merton’s word on this. As much as I enjoy his meditations in Seeds, I’m nowhere near anything resembling contemplative prayer in my own life. Even so, there’s a passage in this particular chapter that leaps out at me. It comes after he describes the unspeakable, “incorruptible” joy associated with contemplative prayer – a joy that’s meant to “overflow from our souls and help other men to rejoice in God.” And then Merton makes this parenthetical point:

(But do not think that you have to see how it overflows into the souls of others. In the economy of His grace, you may be sharing His gifts with someone you will never know until you get to heaven.)

I love it that Merton puts this comment in parentheses – almost as an afterthought. It makes me think he threw it in as a gift, almost an alms, for all his readers, not just full-fledged contemplatives, but also posers and spiritual bumblers like me – those of us who are doing what we can with what we got, plodding along in the active life, trying to choose good and avoid evil, aspiring to virtue and carrying out the duties of our vocations with varying degrees of success. Our prayer lives, such as they are, are on the shore opposite the leafy glades of contemplation island, and we’re in no position, for whatever reason, to make the crossing. We’re doing well just to get to Mass with our families and stay awake – sometimes not even that. But we’re getting to Mass, and that’s something at least.

So, we have no fruits of contemplation to pass along because we have no contemplation. But we still have joy. We still have that little spark of anticipation that getting to Mass, receiving the sacraments, saying our prayers, and living our vocations are actions pleasing to God, maybe even equipping us for eternity. Sometimes things go wrong, sometimes disastrously wrong, and we cling to hope, stick to the practice of our faith, and struggle to choose love, love, and love again, especially when we don’t want to. Sometimes, often, we blow it, and we say we’re sorry and go to confession. Then we take a crack at loving again.

And who benefits? Hopefully, those closest to us – our spouses, our children, our neighbors and co-workers – the direct recipients of our efforts to love. But Merton’s secret, his parenthetical boon, is that many others will observe our efforts, and be blessed as well. They’ll see our faltering and failing and our not giving up. They’ll sense that we possess some kind of spiritual flame within, no matter how muted, and they’ll be warmed by its radiance.

Best of all, we’ll have no idea – that would be a tempting distraction. Instead, we can be content to carry on in our parentheses and leave the economy of radiated joy to God.
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A version of this reflection appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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Fitting Our Journey to God’s Map

10 Aug

“You must have a map, no matter how rough.
Otherwise you wander all over the place.”
~ J.R.R. Tolkien

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Death Prep (Part 1): What It Is, What We Can’t Do

1 Nov

“Death can be very beautiful…if we make it so.”
~ Ven. Solanus Casey

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Blessed Maria Theresia Bonzel (1830-1905)

19 Oct

Toward the back of the Franciscan Sisters’ hilltop property in Mishawaka, Indiana, there’s a life-size bronze statue of their foundress situated near blooming flowers. “Mother always wanted the sisters to have a garden,” says Sr. Rose Agnes of Blessed Maria Theresia Bonzel, “and she herself regularly prayed the Rosary in a garden.”

Accordingly, the sculpture features a Rosary spread out in Mother’s lap, but there’s another, more memorable feature: The Blessed’s gentle grin. It might seem insignificant, but it’s a telling artistic detail. “As we pray, so we live,” Bonzel used to say, “and as our life, so our prayer.” The joy evinced in that bronze grin not only marked Bl. Maria Theresia’s life and prayer, but her astounding legacy as well.

Born in Olpe, Germany, in 1830, Aline Bonzel had a comfortable upbringing rooted in her parish and eucharistic devotion. Sent to study in Cologne with the Ursulines, Aline found the sisters’ life appealing, and her own religious calling took shape.

Although illness and her mother’s initial resistance delayed that aspiration, Aline persevered by taking incremental steps, including membership in the Franciscan Third Order (where she adopted the name Maria Theresia) and a private vow of chastity.

Once her health improved and her mother consented, Maria Theresia joined with likeminded friends to care for Olpe’s orphans. Such were the humble origins of the Sisters of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration which was founded in 1863 with Maria Theresia as their first superior.

Bonzel’s foresight ensured that the numerous young women attracted to her ebullient congregation received sound formation, but also a proper education. “Let us joyfully spend…our strength in the service of God,” she wrote, and the sisters indeed had a far-reaching impact through their teaching and healthcare apostolates. Nonetheless, their first commitment was always to constant eucharistic prayer.

The 1870s ushered in an official effort to undermine Catholic influence in Germany, yet under Mother’s bold leadership, the community emerged from the persecution intact. What’s more, the coterie of sisters she sent to Indiana during this period flourished beyond all expectations. When Blessed Maria Theresia died in 1905, she left behind some 1,500 heirs throughout Germany and North America.

Today, this joy-filled community continues to attract young postulants around the world, and many of them happily attended the beatification of their spiritual mother in Germany in 2013.
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A version of this story originally appeared in Franciscan Magazine, Franciscan University of Steubenville.

Felicia’s Glimpse of Heaven

12 Sep

“That I may gaze on the loveliness of the LORD…” (Ps 27).

I sat in my usual place on Mary’s side of the church for the 5:30 evening Mass, which is why I didn’t spot Felicia until it was time for Holy Communion. She’d come to St. Matt’s with Anthony, and Anthony always sits on the Joseph side off the main aisle.

It must’ve been a Thursday, my day to serve as an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist. Following the fraction rite and the centurion’s prayer, the celebrant entrusted me with the Precious Blood, and I made my way over to the Joseph side of the church to await communicants.

“The Blood of Christ,” I said as I presented the chalice.

“Amen,” the first recipient replied with a bow before receiving. Once the vessel was returned, I swiped it with a purificator, rotated it slightly, and held it ready for the next in line.

Only the next in line eventually was Felicia – and I admit I was taken aback. “The Blood of Christ,” I said holding the chalice aloft, and I know my eyebrows went up as well. St. Matt’s wasn’t Felicia’s parish, and I’d never seen her there for daily Mass before. Plus I knew she’d been sick, very sick – too sick, I would’ve surmised, to be out to a parish on the other side of town.

Felicia caught my expression and flashed her wide smile. “A-men,” she said with emphasis. After receiving her sacred sip and handing back the cup, she leaned in: “Come talk with me afterwards.”

Following the closing prayers, I tracked her down in Anthony’s pew. They were talking – rather Felicia was talking and Anthony was listening. She looked fatigued, but she spoke with her characteristic passion nonetheless, expostulating, pointing. When I walked up, she grabbed my hand, clutched it, clasped it tight – and kept on talking. “It’s in the way,” she was saying to both of us as she motioned toward the altar with her free hand. “Someone needs to tell the priest to get that cross out of the way – get a smaller cross.” She was referring to our altar crucifix, which, admittedly, is on the tall side. “It’s in the way,” Felicia repeated. “It blocks the gestures, the epiclesis. Nobody can see the epiclesis.” Still hanging on to my hand – as if to ensure I was listening, that I was catching the urgency of her entreaty – she emphasized the importance of an unimpeded line of sight during the consecration.

It was awkward – I felt like I was intruding on a moment of intimacy, for it was clear that there was more behind Felicia’s animated pleas than a liturgical preference. She kept staring at the altar, staring at the place where her visual participation in the epiclesis and Eucharistic offering had been disrupted – gestures that, in the words of Sofia Cavalletti and Patricia Coulter, “express the covenant in a visible way: God’s self-giving to us, our gift of self to God.” Through her eyes, Felicia seemed to be reaching out to the Good Shepherd whose self-giving appearance on the altar had been momentarily obscured.

In time, the three of us made our way to the exit where we briefly embraced and said our goodbyes. I took off, but Felicia remained behind on the steps to continue tutoring Anthony – to extend and expand the delight of that shared liturgical encounter.

The whole episode was somewhat dreamlike, even strange, yet I was so glad for it. It turned out to be a blessed and serendipitous opportunity to take leave of an old friend. A week and a half later, I heard that she’d passed away – at home, surrounded by her family, peaceably.

Fr. Tom Shoemaker, Felicia’s former pastor, came over from Fort Wayne to celebrate her funeral Mass. “That was her place, right down there,” he said during the homily, pointing out the first pew where Felicia’s family was seated. “She’d sit there in the front, leaning over, on the edge of her pew – as if to be as close as possible to the Word, listening with full attention, ready to respond.”

Listening – and watching, I’ll bet. Just like she did at St. Matt’s, yearning and stretching, thrusting aside distractions, zeroing in on the Good Shepherd, and inviting others to join her – through her words and teaching, yes, but particularly through her forward-looking example.

“Here below we know God…by the idea we have formed of him,” writes Frank Sheed, but “in heaven, our seeing will be direct…. That is why the very essence of the life of heaven is called the Beatific Vision – which means the seeing that causes bliss.”

Felicia’s life revolved around promoting and instilling blissful sight – in her family and friends, in her school, in the children given into her care, including my children. What a blessing to be remembered that way. God, I hope I live my life such that I can be similarly remembered. Toward that end, I’m banking on Felicia’s prayers, like an unseen clutch of the hand, like a nudge. Redirect my vision accordingly, Lord. Help me see what she saw.
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A version of this reflection appeared on Catholic Exchange.

When You Have Less Than a Day at an Abbey

27 Jun

“And I will never, never, never
Grow so old again.”
~ Van Morrison

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Of ‘Zen,’ Gumption, and Conversion

9 May

“A person filled with gumption doesn’t sit around dissipating and stewing about things. He’s at the front of the train of his own awareness, watching to see what’s up the track and meeting it when it comes.”
~ Robert Pirsig

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