Saturday, August 27, 2011

Flight from the world

St. Anthony of Egypt
In the early Church, again just after the age of the martyrs, there appeared another trend: the desert hermits. Men, generally, although not exclusively, who desired to live wholly for Christ - and to get away from the distraction of the world - went into the desert to live a life of extreme austerity and prayer. Living chastely and poorly, they gave themselves up to the service of the Gospel. And became saints.

It always happened - it still does. The holy man, the holy woman, attracts people. They see the profound beauty of a holy life and "want some of that." So, the desert hermits had a very difficult time staying hermits. Others came out to ask the holy man to direct them, to teach them how to come to God.

(If you want a modern example, look at the phenomenon of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Same thing.)

So these holy ones began to direct others in their lives. Thus did the vow of obedience have its earliest beginnings. The desire to come to God led a man or a woman to say, "I'll do anything you say - just help me become a saint." They would bind themselves to follow the holy person in order to attain God's will. 

Over time, this too stabilized. The Church blessed it, directed it, made it firm. The vow of obedience has as it's immediate end the overwhelming desire to do God's will. It is the desire to be a saint - and the knowledge that I am really good at rationalizing. I am an expert at looking at what I want and canonizing it. Rather than that, I choose to do the will of another. That other has been elected and is directed by all kinds of safeguards. I can know that by doing something ordered in "Holy Obedience," I do the will of God. He is ever faithful and accepts my vow. He will use it to make me the saint he calls me to be.

Can't ask for more than that.

Friday, August 26, 2011

So how did it all begin?

Why would anybody want to be a religious Sister? You give up everything...and what do you get in return? I have had countless people ask the question: "How can you???" and usually chastity is the big question. If you stop to think about it, obedience is the more profound sacrifice, but people see chastity and shudder.  It is always the first and biggest question.

St. Agnes
It's about love. And it always has been. It's about loving someone so much that you give him your life. It's about loving "someones" enough to lay down your life for them. It really is all about love - otherwise we would never do it.

Trust me on that.

In the beginning, the heroes were the martyrs. Actually, if you think about it, they still are. We admire those Christians who give everything, up to and including life itself, for the faith. Martyrdom has always been with the Church, and it has resurfaced in our time all over the world. Those are the real believers - the ones who are heroic, the ones who give it all.

But we don't all have that opportunity. We may yet, but in our space and time, it is not so likely that we will be called upon to die for the faith. The heroism, the desire to give everything is still there - and it has always been in generous Christian souls. The desire to lay down your life.

And so religious life was born.

Almost as soon as there were Christians, there were virgins. Women who consecrated their hearts, their love, their bodies to Christ. Living a life of vowed virginity, they prayed and gave witness to a life without end. Their lives bore fruit for the Church through hidden love and sacrifice. 

In most cultures people misunderstood such a life - and so were born the virgin martyrs, the women who died rather than surrender their consecrated chastity. Their heroism amazed a world. 

These women and girls led the way to what is now a stable form of life in the Church. Women vow their virginity to God and live a life of sacrificial love and prayer - joyfully. For love is always a happy thing.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

And then there is the religious life

The plan of this endeavor is to alternate between posts on prayer and the development of one's personal life with God through formal prayer time and posts on religious life, its history and the discernment of a religious vocation. So, for a bit, we'll turn our attention to the latter theme.

What is religious life? In the context in which we are speaking, I mean. "Religious life" can mean any number of things to any number of people, but in the Catholic Church, east and west, it has a specific defined meaning. It is a stable form of life, characterized by public vows, usually poverty, chastity and obedience, following a common rule of life, wholly dedicated to the sanctification of oneself and the love of neighbor. 

That's really general. In a certain sense, it has to be, because the "regular" religious life in the Church takes myriad forms. We are not concerned with everything here, although I will touch on the general history so we can get some context; we will look at women's religious life and, specifically, the forms in which it finds itself in the United States today. 

This is a practical work after all. 

Neither is this a controversial series. There have been numerous trends in religious life in the last forty years or so, and a lot of uncharitable conversation. Not here. It is just the presentation of what is "out there" right now: what is the lived experience, what are the options. Of course, this is all colored by my experience and my opinions - it's not possible, or even desirable, that I am textbook objective. (Boring!) But I respect people and know that many seek God in many and diverse ways. I pray (fervently) that that respect comes through. 

Such is the kingdom of God.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Perseverance in Prayer

Once we have a schedule, the next hurdle is perseverance. There are a thousand reasons why prayer will seem tiresome, unproductive, less-than-optimal. Resist such thoughts. You made the choice to pray (and yes, it was a good choice). You thought it through. You came up with something that works for your schedule. Now stick to it. 

A bit of energy is helpful. So is refusing to give ground. When the first thought of "maybe I should be doing..." arrives at the doorstep of your heart, throw it out. You have made an amazing choice, rational, reasonable. Be firm. The other things are just temptations and distractions.

Rhythm, routine, going deeper...these things are essential for a deep and stable life of prayer. Coming close to God is like any other relationship, worthy only in the long haul. So fight the good fight...with energy.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Prayer schedule

So, all that being said, create a schedule. Do it prayerfully, thoughtfully, practically, but make one - and write it down.

I find it helpful to keep a record, a daily record, and you can do it any way you like. Again, this is not something to be rigid about, but it is important, and building new habits is not easy. So come up with a format to record what you want to do and then how you do it. 

A sample page of my own is shown here. I set them up at the beginning of the week. The top of the page is for the day's schedule - and I keep it kind of loose, because my days get interrupted. The bottom left is for a record of the morning meditation and prayer periods of the day. The bottom right is for the examination of conscience from mid-day and evening. 

It gives direction. But it does not have to be that format. This is something that I have come up with that works for me - and it is still a work in progress. 

Having some form is really helpful though. For one thing, it gives you a sense of progress. It also keeps you accountable. And when it comes to confession time, I find that the examen piece is extraordinarily valuable. Not to be nit-picky, just to remember what happened that week. I actually record in my notebook when I go to confession, just so I can figure out how long it has been since my last. (And I go every seven to ten days and still can't keep it in mind!)

The form really does not matter; having one is good.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Too busy to pray

We all feel it. The younger, the older - and everyone in between. We're too busy to pray. 

It's a lie.

Someone once said to me, in an entirely different context: "You will do whatever you really want to do. If you want it, you'll make time for it." That was the end of my excuse. Now, if I don't do...whatever, including pray, I can only say "I didn't want it badly enough today."

Now, it's a common problem. We have commitments. We have studies and work and family and hobbies and... and where does God fit in? Is he the last on my overfilled to do list? 

So why is it that although "I want to" "I don't want to"? 

It's a good examination of conscience. But not really something about which to beat myself up. Rather, the better way to do it is to increase my desire and my commitment. The desire, well we need to touch God and then we will want to be with him always. The commitment? It's a choice and then a choice chosen to be acted and then acted again - until it becomes habit. 

It is a necessary habit, if we want to know what God wants for our life. But it should be entered into with creativity. Play with it. Find a time and a space and a place for real prayer. For you. And then choose, and choose again to do it.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Points to ponder

In coming up with a schedule that works, it is good to ponder things that are likely to make your choices practical:

Reflecting on Psalm 139: "O God, you search me and you know me..."
  • What does that mean in my life? How does he know me? How do I know myself? How do I want to get to know him? 
  • In what way do I pray? What surroundings - where? What time of day - when? In what manner do I best pray? Structured prayers (Rosary, Mass...)? Unstructured prayers (time before the Blessed Sacrament, walking outdoors...)?
  • How much time do I devote to prayer each day? How much would I like to give to prayer? Practically speaking, what will work with my schedule?
Reflection, prayer, perhaps a bit of writing can help to make things more clear.

    Thursday, August 18, 2011

    Helpfulness of a schedule

    The spiritual life takes discipline. It means being able to be in communication with the Lord no matter when or how we feel or where we are. And that's not easy.

    So, like anything else worthwhile, it takes practice and commitment and a bit of sweat.

    A schedule, a rhythm, can be immensely useful. We don't want to create something so rigid that all it induces is rebellion and discouragement, but neither do we just want to float on the ever-changing "Do I feel like it?" Not if we are serious about it.

    Finding the right rhythm takes practice. It is not the same for everyone. It needs to mesh with our other obligations, for one thing. Work, school, family - these things all demand a certain part of our time. And that's fair.

    But there is a trap here. It's the "I'm too busy to pray" syndrome. We are all too busy to pray. For whatever reason, we always want to put prayer last on the list of things to do. So we need to come up with something that works, is doable, but also constitutes a real commitment to daily prayer.

    What would that look like for you?

    Wednesday, August 17, 2011

    Images of faithful love

    The photos are in. Those which follow are only a sampling. Visit our community website for more information or the House of Formation Flickr page for more images.

    Sister M. Immaculata and Sister M. Gabriela, behind the scenes

    Sister Marysia, Kitchen Captain

    Sister M. Ancilla, Organist

    Sister Mary Gianna, sacristan

    Bishop Paprocki blesses the newly professed

    Asking for admission
    Sisters and Bishops

    Monday, August 15, 2011

    Our Lady Immaculate

    Today is, in my opinion, one of the highest feasts of the Church. I am sure the Blessed Trinity does not feel slighted - she is after all his most blessed work. To honor our Lady is to honor the Father who loved her, the Son from whom she took our nature and the Spirit who made her his most pure spouse.

    Granted, the feast does have some serious personal meaning: it is traditionally the Profession and Reception Day in our American Province. And today is no exception. Two Sisters will profess First Vows and three postulants will be received into the novitiate. It is a day of rejoicing, commitment and glory. 

    This post is brief because I hope to do a bit more after the feastday Mass. Pictures always tell the story more easily than words.

    Stay tuned...and pray for our young Sisters. 

    Sunday, August 14, 2011

    General Examination and Confession

    As we have said, the purpose of self-examination on a regular basis is not morbid. It's not an exercise in self-destructive nit-picking or an engaging way to enter into discouragement or depression. No, the purpose is positive. We want to grow into the most beautiful soul we can be, and that requires a good look at the stains and smudges that obscure the lovliness of the child of God.

    The general examen really prepares us to unburden all of our sins in the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. If the examen finds the dirt, confession washes it away. 

    It  can be a bit overwhelming to prepare for confession when you have not been for a while. Later on in these pages, I will tell the tale of my second confession. It should console anyone who has the hebbe-jeebees at the thought of plunging into confession.

    So, if you are out of practice, I have included a link to a fairly standard and comprehensive general Examination of Conscience. This is only for the general examen; remember that the particular examen takes only one, or at most, two points.

    Later posts will take up the topic of confession, but this will get started anyone who is looking for a help to begin now.

    Saturday, August 13, 2011

    Examining Particulars

    The particular examen faded somewhat in prominence over the last forty years, but it is the true training of the spiritual athlete. Like the wrestler who weighs in or the runner who anxiously checks her time, the particular examen is the daily inspection. It moves us forward.

    Often it takes place at a different time than the other examination of conscience: one at midday, the other in the evening. It's purpose is distinct from that of the general examen. Here, we are not so much concerned with staying on course in general, but on honing a particular virtue or good habit.

    So in this exercise, we pick one particular area in which we need to grow. (It's usually really easy to figure out what it is!) Break it down. How can I practice this virtue or habit in the day to day? And write it down. Putting things on paper and referring back to them is the best way to be accountable when working alone.

    So the steps would look something like:
    1. Place myself in God's presence.
    2. Pray to the Holy Spirit for light and help (without grace, we can do nothing.)
    3. take up my notebook and look at my resolutions. Examine carefully how I done in the past time - how many times have I succeeded? How many times have I failed. Write it down.
    4. Express gratitude and sorrow to God - gratitude for his help in all that I have done well; sorrow insofar as my failures keep me from freely serving him.
    5. Plan for future action. How can I energetically take up the challenge in the next period of time? What are my likely obstacles? What are my likely helps?
    6. Ask God for his grace to continue to grow in this area. Be specific.
    A few notes. 

    First, the particular examen can be to fight a particular sin in my life. If I have a problem with gossip or glutton or keeping my temper, I can use this means to work my way out of that snare. More often in the lives of those seeking God, the particular examen is used to grow in a particular virtue. I may want to take more time for prayer or go out of my way to be kind or listen to others more attentively. Unless the particular examen is concerned with overcoming a particular sin, the sorrow here is not necessarily contrition. It can be more a sorrow for failing to be the transparent child of God I am called to be. 

    Second, the particular examen, like all examinations of conscience, is not to become rigid or discouraging or hurtful. The best test of growth in virtue is a sense of joy and freedom. That does not mean that it will be easy. Working against our ingrained habits can take as much internal sweat as training for a marathon, but it should not induce sadness or anxiety. That is a sure sign that there is something not quite right.

    We are called to the freedom of the children of God. Both the general and the particular examen are means to grow in grace and freedom and joy. They are the moments when we check out internal GPS to make sure we are still on the road to God and adjust our actions to stay firmly in the path of virtue.

    Friday, August 12, 2011

    General Examination

    In the post below, we looked at a method St. Francis de Sales recommended for a general examination. There really are two ways to examine one's conscience - particular and general. Each supports a different kind of growth in the spiritual life. Both are necessary.

    The general examination of conscience, which we make daily, is essential to keep the whole person moving in the right direction. It gives us a view of our life - a global vision of where we stand before God. Every action is placed before his throne and bathed in his light. 

    And it is essential. It's like standing in front of a full-length mirror, looking at all the details, before we go into an important interview. It wouldn't help much to make sure that no hair is out of place if we're wearing mismatched shoes. Similarly, it wouldn't make much sense to check the sleeves and cuffs, if the collar is torn. We need to look at everything regularly.

    In this examen, we look over the entire day, the big things, and some of the little things - the ones that stand out - and see that all of it remains moving toward God.

    There is another type of examen, with a different purpose. That is another tale for another time.

    Wednesday, August 10, 2011

    Examine yourself regularly

    Athletes test themselves all the time. 

    Those who run for the Olympic gold train ceaselessly and attentively examine their progress day by day. In the spiritual life, St. Paul compares us to athletes on several occasions. We run a race that has eternal consequences - and we really want to win.

    So testing, examining, finding the best way. This is not a morbid navel-gazing under the stern gaze of an angry God who will punish the least flaw. No, it is the desire to live with him and for him to the very best of our ability - and even beyond.

    Examine. It is good to have the right attitude. It is easy to fall into a "rule" mindset. You know, "how much can I get away with without breaking the rules?" "How much can I 'cheat?'" The idea here is that we are entirely free. As long as we're not choosing sin, we have freedom to choose the good. 

    We want to be saints. It is not enough to be "good." Goodness is good, after all, but why not make our lives "something beautiful for God?"

    Spiritual athletes need to test themselves all the time.

    Tuesday, August 9, 2011

    Examination of Conscience - An introduction

    Know Thyself

    The ancients knew that self-knowledge was the most important and the most difficult to obtain of all the sciences. It's not that we don't know ourselves; it's that we don't want to know ourselves, not entirely. We want to look good, so that other people will love us. We even have the bizarre notion that we have to look good so we can earn the love of God.

    No, it's not just you. Every single one of us has this deceptive interior bent.

    So we hide from ourselves and when a well-meaning (or not so well-meaning) person points out one of our faults or foibles or sins or flaws, we grow bitter, agitated, hurt, angry.

    It's been called pride. But it's pride running scared from being not loved. Humility has been called truth. That is good. I prefer "resolute adherence to reality." It is not easy to walk in the reality of myself, but it's really pretty amazing once we realize that we don't have to be perfect. God really does love each one us, as we are, and it's his job to make us good. He can only do that if we're willing to admit that we've not yet reached the summit of perfection.

    So the examination of conscience.

    Begin simply. If we seek the truth, we don't have to be complicated about it.

    1. Come into the presence of God.
    2. Thank him for the many gifts he has given me today.
    3. Ask him to shine the light of his grace on my day and highlight the areas which he wants to examine.
    4. Talk these things over with him; give thanks for the good; repent of any sins. Perhaps make note of them in a spiritual journal, particularly if there is something I want to remember for my next confession.
    5. Plan how to avoid the sins and how to extend the good.
    6. Pray, fervently, for his grace to firmly and enthusiastically put my resolutions into practice.
    We can examine ourselves at any time and in any place. It is best to fix a time of day to do so. If this is a new practice, some help may be needed at first. Remember, any step is a good step as long as we keep moving forward.

    It is a great grace to know thyself.

    Monday, August 8, 2011

    Spiritual Exercises for the Evening

    In the morning, we prepare for the day, we plan for the work, for the prayer, for the ups and downs that we can dimly forecast. We ask for the grace to walk in the grace of God throughout the day...

    And now, day is done. We have walked through the day with more or less success. And before we retire, it is a good practice to stand before the Lord and place all of it back into his hands - the good, the bad, the tears and the laughter. All of it. Without exception.

    St. Francis de Sales, to who we currently look for guidance has some practical tips for this time before bed.
    We thank God for having preserved us during the past day.
    I would add that it is a good thing to think for a minute on one or two of the "highs" of the day - the graces, the joys, the time with those we love...

    We examine how we have behaved ourselves during all the hours of the day; and in order to do so more easily, we consider where, with whom, and in what we have been employed.
    This can either be chronological: hour by hour, or in other ways. We can consider the different things we have done, or the people we have spent time with and how those relationships went. We can look at it in any way that is most practical, but the entire day should be considered.
    If we find that we have done any good, we thank God for it.
    In considering human nature and its tendencies, every good that we do is a great gift. It is right to thank God for every good action that we do, since we could have chosen to do the opposite.

    Notice, too, that St. Francis asks us to look first at the good that we have done. For one who is striving to do good and come close to the Lord, the examination of conscience is a hopeful, forward looking thing.
    If, on the other hand, we have done evil in thought, word or deed, we ask pardon of his Divine Majesty, with a resolution to confess at the first opportunity and carefully to amend it.
    We will talk more about Confession later. For right now, it is sufficient to note that mortal sins must be confessed and we are encouraged to confess venial sins, especially the stubborn ones. The firm purpose to amend our lives is very important. Otherwise, we tend to wander around in a fog, never making progress.
    After that, we commend to the care of Divine Providence our body, our soul, the Church, our relations, our friends. We ask Our Lady, our good Angel and the Saints to watch over us and for us.
    And then to sleep. In peace. For we are most dearly loved.

    Saturday, August 6, 2011

    Praise God, all you who serve him, great and small

    A Pause For Station Identification.

    It's so easy to get caught up in thinking and pondering and trying and this is a break from the norm, just for fun.

    The Most Holy Trinity
    Since we like him the best of all....

    Sister M. Luka's Nameday - does this look like October?

    2010 Aspirants, Sister M. Mediatrix and Bishop Callahan

    Sister Mary David and Sister M. Ancilla - we like to be outside - can you tell?

     I found this and forgot that this is how we all looked in mid-October. I had mentioned a wish to see the view from the bluff, so they kidnapped me for a picnic. So it was almost freezing - who cares? We laughed a lot.

    And our good Bishop.

    Sister Mary David's Nameday is in April. Things were much more promising for an outing.

    An angel in Assisi

    Just because I like angels.

    Sister M. Bernadette and Sister M. Isabella

    And our young Sisters are on retreat. They make first vows on August 15th.

    This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be filled with all gladness.