Monday, January 12, 2015

Everyday Struggles

I have had the chance over the past few weeks on multiple occasions to meet with and pray with some people who are struggling. Sometimes these moments of prayer are triggered by a health crisis, sometimes by family difficulties, sometimes health or job worries lead to family difficulties. While praying with these new friends, I happened to come across the quote above in a 12th century work by an English saint, Aelred of Rievaulx.

What, doesn’t everybody read spiritual works by twelfth century monks? Well, those who know me know my enjoyment of libraries, and for following footnotes. In one of Father Tim Gallagher’s books on spiritual direction, a footnote mentioned a book, “On Jesus at Twelve Years Old,” and the title intrigued me. So through my connections at Immaculate Conception Seminary, who happened to have a copy in their library (“Thanks, Mike!”), I had the chance to read a translation of this little book written before the printing press was invented. The quote struck me as having a lot of wisdom for today, almost a thousand years after the abbot, Saint Aelred, was writing this as instruction for one of the other young monks.

Consider the premise: if the temptations of the Devil, the passions of our own emotions, or the attacks from the world we live in seem to get us down, we should turn to Jesus. Each of us have “bad days,” when we are pulled down by the chaos around us, perhaps invited to give in to a little depression or despair. The wisdom of this monk, writing about a century before Saint Thomas Aquinas, remains good advice today: “then you must run to Jesus.”

I connect this thought with a more modern writer, Karl Rahner, who reminds us about prayer in the everyday life. He wrote, “The Lord is not only our God on the holy days of life. He didn’t create the exalted so that he could have it back for his glory. He also willed into existence the petty, the insignificant, the ever-the-same which fills our life.” Our challenge is to run to Jesus in the middle of everyday struggles.

“Everyday struggles” becomes a phrase we need to examine. Does it mean the routine difficulties we encounter each day, challenges that nudge us and give us some dents and bruises, and which add up over time to a painful burden? Or, are “everyday struggles” the massive, can’t-hide-from-them crisis of health or jobs or family life that can crush us easily, which for some people have become an everyday occurrence?

The answer is, “Yes.” Both the small and the massive struggles can become every day events, and so we need to remember the ancient monk’s advice: run to Jesus. Surrender to His embrace, Who knows every struggle of our heart, every emotion streaked with tears, every pain that racks our bodies. As Rahner states, we can only pray in the everyday (it’s the only place where our life takes place), and we must pray in the everyday. He goes on to state, “Temptation is a moment of decision. And whoever prays during it will conquer it.”

Let’s all choose to run to Jesus every day.

[Saint Aelred, "On Jesus At Twelve Years Old," translated by Geoffrey Webb and Adrian Walker, London: A. R. Mowray & Co, 1956.

Karl Rahner, "The Need and the Blessing of Prayer," translated by Bruce W. Gillette, Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1997.]

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Sacred Time, Prayer Time

As my year of pastoral formation continues to fly ahead, one area where I know I am particularly blessed is with the freedom and luxury of time for prayer. Through the close of Advent, and in this past week, two special “times of prayer” stand out for me.

The first was during our parish Advent Penance Service. Not yet in priestly service, my role was pretty much behind the scenes: assist with setting up the extra places for the visiting priests, make sure they were comfortable with where they would go as the service began, and so forth. But once the common elements of the Penance Service were completed, and people were loosely gathering in lines throughout the church, in subdued lighting and with quiet music in the background … I had a chance to simply pray. It was a unique opportunity to focus my prayers on those who were gathered that night, gathered to receive the forgiveness promised by Jesus to Peter: “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you have loosed on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16:19).

God’s mercy and forgiveness is rooted in His death and resurrection, and we, His disciples, are Easter People. But part of the deal is that we are invited to accept that forgiveness in the Sacrament of Reconciliation; each of us are sinners, and we all need to celebrate this Sacrament of Reconciliation regularly to feel the freedom and peace of God’s mercy. So this first, special sacred time allowed me to simply close my eyes, and gathered in the church, to offer my petition to God that each person would, with courage and humility, find their way closer to Jesus.

The second sacred prayer time has been occurring this week. I have the chance to teach the religious education classes for our second graders who are preparing for the sacraments of Reconciliation and Eucharist. In particular, between classes, I have about 15-20 minutes alone in the chapel, and I have made this a time to pray for these little ones, and for their parents. The questions they ask during the classes are enthusiastic, and I can begin to feel their growing excitement about the Eucharist. So my prayer for them is that they remain excited about their relationship with Jesus, and that it is lasting for them, guided by their parents, for a lifetime.

I view these sacred, extra prayer times as a blessing and a luxury; I’m sure that I won’t always be able to sit quietly and pray for others like this. One day, before I know it, I hope to be sitting, listening as their parish priest and offering that mercy and forgiveness of Jesus to the faithful during Reconciliation services. And so I ask all my readers to remember this note the next time you are in church, especially for a Penance Service; take a moment, and pray for those around you who may have struggled to come back to Jesus. His forgiveness is offered to all, but we need to make that journey back to ask for it, with humble hearts. Pray for the little ones preparing to meet Jesus. Pray for the parents who are trying their best to teach and share their faith with these little ones they once brought for Baptism. And pray for the lonely young, the seniors, and all those in between; make your sacred time of prayer one that is offered not for yourself, but for others. Pray, as Saint Paul did in his Letter to the Ephesians, that each may be filled with the fullness of God.