A SHORT NOTE ON THE ULTIMATE MEANING OF JANE EYRE


“You think I have no feelings, and that I can do without one bit of love or kindness, but I cannot live so: and you have no pity” (Jane Eyre talking to Mrs. Reed at Gateshead)

“Eight years [at Lowood]! you must be tenacious of life.” (Mr. Rochester talking to Jane Eyre)

The most important and famous line in the novel, Jane Eyre, is, “Reader, I married him.” In her marriage to Mr. Rochester all the tensions of the novel, and all the unfulfilled desires of Jane’s heart, are revolved: Jane finds true love, equality of souls, and peace with God. The ultimate meaning of Jane Eyre is that a human being is completed, or made whole, by an authentic love rooted in moral integrity and an equality of justice. If Jane Eyre suffered immensely from being unloved and from living in isolation at the beginning of the novel (at Gateshead), she ultimately finds true love and affirmation in her marriage to Mr. Rochester at the end of the novel (after many struggles and a profound purification of Mr. Rochester’s heart). “In their marriage,” says Eric Knies in The Art of Charlotte Bronte, “all the conflicts of the novel are resolved. Jane is at peace with God and man, and especially with herself.”

The two virtues I see Jane Eyre striving after during the course of the novel are real justice and authentic love. She insists on these two things; she demands them; she will not compromise them, no matter how dear the sacrifice (even if she has to sleep on the ground and almost starve to death). At Gateshead she is precocious precisely because she is treated unfairly by the Reeds. At Lowood she is profoundly upset by unjustly being labelled a liar. At Thornfield she will not consent to be Mr. Rochester’s mistress; at Moor House she cannot accept a marriage proposal by St. John Rivers based on self-sacrifice and moral duty (but without love). Clearly, a blessed rage for justice and true love burns within the heart of Jane Eyre, and she will not compromise it!

Jane Eyre is not primarily a novel about Jane’s growth in self-knowledge (which doesn’t mean she didn’t learn a few things along the way and, to be sure, her dying school-mate, Helen Burns, teaches Jane a powerful lesson about Christian forgiveness in Chapter 6). There is a moral sturdiness to Jane Eyre from the very beginning of the novel, and she has a keen eye for the counterfeit throughout the story. Jane does not suffer from self-deceit, but from the deceit of others (such as Mr. Brocklehurst’s religious hypocrisy, Mrs. Reed’s deception about the inheritance, and Mr. Rochester’s concealment of an existing marriage). Jane will not enter into love on deceptive terms, and her moral integrity is never in doubt throughout the novel, even though there is conflict in her heart when Mr. Rochester essentailly pleads with her to stay with him after their failed wedding at Thornfield. The character in the novel who grows in self-knowledge is Mr. Rochester, who no doubt undergoes a significant conversion after the devastating fire at Thornfield, a conversion not unrelated to his prayer and penitence (“I began to see and acknowledge the hand of God in my doom. I began to experience remorse, repentance, the wish for reconcilement to my Maker. I began sometimes to pray: very brief prayers they were but very sincere”).

In reality, Mr. Rochester underwent the most painful of purifications, losing everything, as his entire life is essentially purged in the devastating fire at Thornfield, wiped out so to speak, burned up. He emerges from this holocaust as a new man, humbled, repentant, blinded and maimed. And yet in God’s Providence, which is an underlying theme in the novel, he and Jane will be reunited, and will experience true happiness, true communion of souls.

Acknowledging Charlotte Bronte’s literary prowess and imaginative genius in weaving a story out of various strands of story-telling techniques, Jane Eyre is, nevertheless, to quote Professor Ruth A. Blackburn (who is in turn relying on Robert B. Martin’s study, The Accents of PersuasionCharlotte Bronte’s Novels)“essentially a religious novel”. Indeed, if one were assigned the task of demonstrating how Jane Eyre exemplifies the theological virtues of faith, hope and love, there would be plenty of material in the novel to successfully complete the assignment. Still, Charlotte Bronte utilized her wonderful skill at incorporating suspenseful Gothic elements into her Jane Eyre story, and relied also on her knowledge and appreciation of the Romantic movement in literature to give the story (to borrow from Milton) a sensuous, personal and passionate style. And yet, for all of this, Bronte is able to maintain the story’s realism.  As G.K. Chesterton acutely observes of Jane Eyre:

“The shortest way  of stating [Charlotte Bronte’s] strong contribution is, I think, this: that she reached the highest romance through the lowest realism. She did not set out with Amadis of Gaul in a forest or with Mr. Pickwick in a comic club. She set out with herself, with her own dingy clothes, and accidental ugliness, and flat, coarse, provincial household; and forcibly fused all such muddy materials into a spirited fairy-tale. If the first chapters on the home and school had not proved how heavy and hateful sanity can be, there would really be less point in the insanity of Mr. Rochester’s wife—or the not much milder insanity of Mrs. Rochester’s husband. She discovered the secret of hiding the sensational in the commonplace: and Jane Eyre remains the best of her books (better even than Villette) because while it is a human document written in blood, it is also one of the best blood-and-thunder detective stories in the world” (The Victorian Age in Literature (1913).

For all its utilization of Gothic literary techniques and Romanticism, Jane Eyre is essentially the story of a quest for authentic, life-affirming human love, and this is realized especially through prayer, perseverance and Providence, and a keen sense of the counterfeit. As Professor Blackburn observes, “Knies agrees…that the theme of Jane Eyre is the search for love; but he makes clear that it must be the right kind of love, based on ‘moral and individual integrity’, each partner retaining ‘his uniqueness as an individual,’ which ‘in turn requires a firm religious orientation’.”

It would be useless to argue that Jane Eyre is not a religious novel, because at major key points in the novel faith, hope and reliance upon God’s Providential care play a key role in the telling of Jane’s story, whether it is Helen Burns teaching Jane about Christian forgiveness or Mr. Rochester attesting to his personal redemption. Here, briefly, in proof thereof, are some of the main examples of the profound religious dimension of Jane Eyre’s life by way of direct quotes from the mouth of Jane Eyre:

“I desired liberty; for liberty I gasped; for liberty I uttered a prayer; it seemed scattered on the wind then faintly blowing. I abandoned it, and framed an humbler supplication; for change, stimulus; that petition, too, seemed swept off into vague space: ‘Then,’ I cried, half desperate, ‘grant me at least a new servitude’!” (Chapter 10).
“Love me, then, or hate me, as you will,” I said at last, “you have my full and free forgiveness: ask now for God’s, and be at peace.” (Chapter 21)
“One idea only still throbbed life-like within me – a remembrance of God: it begot a muttered prayer…’Be not far from me, for trouble is near: there is none to help’.” (Chapter 26)
“Trust in God…Believe in Heaven…We were born to strive and endure.” (Chapter 27)
“I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man. I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad—as I am now. Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth?” (Chapter 27)
“God must have led me on…I was weeping wildly as I walked along my solitary way…a weakness seized me and I fell: I lay on the ground some minutes, pressing my face to the wet turf. I had some fear – or hope – that here I should die: but I was soon up: crawling forward on my hands and knees, and then again raised to my feet – as eager and as determined as ever to reach the road” (Chapter 27).
“I felt the might and strength of God. Sure was I of His efficiency to save what He had made: convinced I grew that neither earth should perish, nor one of the souls it treasured. I turned my prayer to thanksgiving: the Source of Life was also the Saviour of spirits. Mr. Rochester was safe; he was God’s, and by God would he be guarded. I again nestled to the breast of the hill; and ere long in sleep forgot sorrow.” (Chapter 28)
“Oh, Providence! sustain me a little longer! Aid – direct me!” (Chapter 28)
“I can but die,” I said, “and I believe in God. Let me try to wait His will in silence”…I thanked God – experienced amidst unutterable exhaustion a glow of grateful joy – and slept.” (Chapter 28)
“I adhered to principle and law, and scorned and crushed the insane promptings of a frenzied moment. God directed me to a correct choice: I thank His providence for the guidance!” (Chapter 31)
“When his first born was put into his arms, he could see that the boy had inherited his own eyes….On that occasion, he again, with a full heart, acknowledged that God had tempered judgment with mercy.” (Chapter 37)

I pray that I might have as much faith in God’s providential help as Jane Eyre during my times of trial and tribulation! Moreover, the claim sometimes made that Jane Eyre is hostile to religion, especially by the manner in which it portrays ministers in the story, is specifically rebutted by Charlotte Bronte in her “Preface to the Second Edition” of Jane Eyre, a preface which also clearly attests to Charlotte Bronte’s strong personal faith.

Jane Eyre’s faith is intensely personal, subjective in nature (characteristic of the Romantic movement), and this subjectivity is seen too in Helen Burns who appears to hold to an overly idealistic view of salvation, touching upon the idea of universal redemption in stark contrast to the fire and brimstone preaching of Mr. Brocklehurst (see Chapter 6 where Helen says, “I hold another creed…for it extends hope to all: it makes Eternity a rest…not a terror and abyss.”). This is the biggest theological difficulty presented in the novel, but fortunately it does not compromise the strong moral thrust of the story.

At the end of Jane Eyre, Jane glories in the joy and happiness of being loved, and of giving and receiving love. She says:

“I have now been married ten years. I know what it is to live entirely for and with what I love best on earth. I hold myself supremely blest – blest beyond what language can express; because I am my husband’s life as fully as he is mine. No woman was ever nearer to her mate than I am: ever more absolutely bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh. I know no weariness of my Edward’s society: he knows none of mine, any more than we each do the pulsation of the heart that beats in our separate bosoms; consequently, we are ever together. To be together is for us to be at once free as in solitude, as gay as in company. We talk, I believe, all day long: to talk to each other is but more animated and an audible thinking. All my confidence is bestowed on him, all his confidence is devoted to me; we are precisely suited in character – perfect concord is the result.” (Chapter 38)

Finally, by an equality of justice (as I mentioned in the opening paragraph of this note), or perhaps I should call it an equality of love, I am referring to Jane’s social commentary in Chapter 12, where she says:

“Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.”(Chapter 12)

It was this equality of souls that endeared Jane to Mr. Rochester, and helped her to fall in love with him. As she said in Chapter 23, when she thought Mr. Rochester was going to marry Blanche Ingram, necessitating Jane to leave Thornfield:

“I grieve to leave Thornfield: I love Thornfield – I love it, because I have lived in it a full and delightful life, -momentarily at least. I have not been trampled on. I have not been petrified. I have not been buried with inferior minds, and excluded from every glimpse of communion with what is bright and energetic, and high. I have talked, face to face, with what I reverence; with what I delight in, -with an original, a vigorous, an expanded mind. I have known you, Mr. Rochester; and it strikes me with terror and anguish to feel I absolutely must be torn from you for ever. I see the necessity of departure; and it is like looking on the necessity of death.”

Of course, however important this equality of love (or equality of souls) is –  it is, nevertheless, not sufficient, in and of itself, to secure a happy marriage for Jane Eyre. It is not until Mr. Rochester’s profound conversion and turning towards God that all the difficulties in the novel are resolved paving the way for the novel’s joyful ending!

CONCLUSION:

Jane Eyre’s incredible journey in search of authentic, life-affirming love, a journey which took her from Gateshead, to Lowood, to Thornfield, to Moor House, and ultimately to Ferndean, is not so much a geographical journey but a journey of the heart. But it is ultimately a journey sustained by faith and trust in God!

It is a journey sustained by Jane’s quest for justice; it is a journey sustained by Jane’s tenacity for life; it is  a journey sustained by Jane’s quest to be loved; but ultimately it is a journey sustained by Jane’s faith in God and in His providential care for her life, a faith sustained even in the midst of tremendous sufferings and heroically endured privations. In this regard, who can ever forget Jane’s advice to Mr. Rochester in Chapter 27 as some of the best advice anyone could ever be given:

         “Trust in God…Believe in Heaven…We were born to strive and endure.”

Thomas L. Mulcahy, M.A.

References: I looked at a bunch of internet notes on Jane Eyre in preparation for this post (which were helpful), but in my particular case what was most helpful was an old study guide by Professor Ruth A. Blackburn, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and, more precisely, the note therein entitled, “Survey of Criticism,” pertaining to the novel. The influence of Gothic and Romantic literary styles in Jane Eyre is touched upon in many commentaries. The commentators agree that the burning down of Thornfield is symbolic of Mr. Rochester’s personal purification.

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WHAT ARE THE RULES FOR LENT?

 2048px-US_Navy_080206-N-7869M-057_Electronics_Technician_3rd_Class_Leila_Tardieu_receives_the_sacramental_ashes_during_an_Ash_Wednesday_celebration

“The seasons and days of penance in the course of the liturgical year (Lent, and each Friday in memory of the death of the Lord) are intense moments of the Church’s penitential practice. These times are particularly appropriate for spiritual exercises, penitential liturgies, pilgrimages as signs of penance, voluntary self-denial such as fasting and alms-giving, and fraternal sharing (charitable and missionary works).” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1438)

Someone emailed me the question, “CAN I RELAX MY LENTEN FAST ON SUNDAYS?” Here’s my response:

Here’s my take. The “forty” day fast during Lent you have in mind (of giving something up during Lent as a penance) is purely voluntary and traditional…it is not mandated by Church law, but is highly recommended in our tradition. 

What is mandated during Lent is to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday – which means one full meal and two snack meals on those two days. This is called a fast (age requirement: obligatory for those 18-59 years old).

Also during Lent we are required by canon law to abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and all Fridays during Lent. This is called abstinence (age requirement: anyone 14 or older).

Naturally, you are not required to fast or abstain from meat if you have a medical condition that prevents you from doing so.

The so called forty day fast during Lent is in imitation of our Lord’s forty day fast in the desert. See the Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 540, which reads:

“‘For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sinning’ [Heb 4:15]. By the solemn forty days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert.” (CCC 540).

The 40 day fast (or penance) is not mandatory, only voluntary. The only binding rules during Lent are mentioned above. The “Sunday” exception is thus really only an exception to a non-binding idea of justice for those doing the 40 day fast voluntarily, based on two considerations: (1) that Sunday, celebrating the Resurrection, is a day of celebration, not fasting, and (2) the period of time from Ash Wednesday to the official ending of Lent with the Mass of the Last Supper on Holy Thursday is actually 44 days long, so you’re still going about 40 days even if you skip Sundays!

What do I do? I do my voluntary fast every day from Ash Wednesday until the dawn of Easter! I’m with you…once I start I stay in the desert with Jesus until Easter Sunday! However, to answer the question posed  –  Yes, you can skip fasting on Sundays during Lent, and this is simply up to your own choice.

Lent begins on Ash Wednesday!

God Bless you,

Tom Mulcahy

P.S. I do relax my 40 day fast on my wedding anniversary, and perhaps for other good reasons.

Ref. I reviewed a number of internet articles on this issue, and found the posts by Jimmy Akin to be among the most helpful. Photo by “U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Brian May,” in the Public Domain, U.S.A., per Wikipedia.

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A SIMPLE AND LOVING GAZE UPON GOD (THE PRAYER OF SIMPLE REGARD)

“Those who are able thus to enclose themselves within the little heaven of their soul where dwells the Creator of both heaven and earth, and who can accustom themselves not to look at anything nor to remain in any place which would preoccupy their exterior senses, may feel sure that they are traveling by an excellent way, and that they will certainly attain to drink of the water from the fountain, for they will journey far in a short time” (Saint Teresa of Avila)

INTRODUCTION

In this note we are looking at what is sometimes called the prayer of simple regard or the prayer of simplicity, which, in its essence, involves a simple and loving gaze upon God (and which is explained in detail below).

By supernatural prayer I mean the infused, loving contemplation of God which God bestows upon the soul as a grace through an experimental knowledge of His presence, although there are many levels of this contemplative union with God. This is a grace that, strictly speaking, cannot be merited, but we can prepare for it through the practice of virtue, a profound sacramental life, the practice of prayer, and acceptance of the passive purifications God sends to us in order to rid us of the many defects we cannot overcome by our own effort. These few words do not do justice to the profound purification a soul goes through before God grants the grace of supernatural prayer. Still, all those in sanctifying grace are called to this lofty state.

Thus Father Garrigou-Lagrange states:

“….far from being essentially extraordinary, the mystical life alone, which is characterized by the reality of the quasi-experimental knowledge of God present in us, is completely normal. Only the saints, all of whom live this sort of life, are fully in order. Before experiencing this intimate union with God present in us, we are somewhat like souls still half-asleep, souls not yet spiritually awakened. Our knowledge of the consoling mystery of the indwelling of the Blessed Trinity is still too superficial and bookish, and yet overflowing life is offered to us.”

One particular prayer that helps to prepare us for the gift of supernatural prayer is the Prayer of Simplicity. To that end, let us first review the various stages of prayer in their proper – or at least conceptual –  order. “These grades [of prayer] are (1) vocal prayer, (2) meditation, (3) affective prayer, (4) prayer of simplicity, (5) infused contemplation, (6) prayer of quiet, (7) prayer of union, (8) prayer of conforming union, and (9) prayer of transforming union. The first four grades belong to the predominantly ascetical stage of the spiritual life; the remaining five grades are infused [supernatural] prayer and belong to the mystical phase of the spiritual life” (Father Jordan Aumann, O.P.).

So you see from the list above that the prayer of simplicity is the last level of ordinary prayer just prior to the beginning of supernatural prayer which begins in number five above under the name of infused contemplation. The very beginning of supernatural prayer normally involves faint touches of the infused contemplation of God – which is nevertheless a true and experimental knowledge of God. The prayer of simplicity, being a prayer of active, interior recollection helps to prepare us for this transition from ascetical prayer to infused prayer, should God be disposed to grant it to us.

HOW TO PRACTICE THE PRAYER OF SIMPLICITY

Sometimes when I drive on a long trip with my wife we engage in long and productive conversations. At other times during such trips, for example when she is reading a book and I’m driving, I will simply glance over at her, and her back at me, and we both know that all is well between us and nothing more needs to be said. In like manner, the prayer of simplicity is a movement from long meditations about God to a simple glance upon Him. This is fundamentally why it is called the prayer of simplicity.

Father Grou, one of the great writers on prayer, states:

“The true devout man is a man of prayer, whose sole delight is to be with God, and to speak with Him, and who scarcely ever loses his sense of the presence of God. Not that he is always thinking of God for that is impossible here below but because he is always united to God in his heart, and is guided in everything by His Spirit. To pray, he has no need of a book, or of a method, or of great efforts of the head or even of the will. He has only to retire quietly into himself; there he finds God, there he finds peace, sometimes a peace full of joy, sometimes a peace in spite of dryness, but always a deep and real peace. He prefers the prayer in which he gives much to God, and in which he suffers, the prayer in which self-love is undermined gradually, until it can find nothing to feed upon; in short, a simple prayer, denuded of all images or of perceptible feelings, and of all those things which the soul can remark or experience in other kinds of prayer” (from Manual For Interior Souls).

Father Garrigou-Lagrange adds:

“In proportion as the soul grows, the acts of humility, faith, hope… tend, under the influence of the Holy Ghost, to fuse in a gaze of ardent love. Hence a simple method, useful at the beginning, should gradually give place to docility to the Holy Ghost, who breathes where He will. Prayer thus tends to become a prolonged spiritual communion, as the peasant of Ars, whom we quoted above, defined it: ‘I look at our Lord, and He looks at me.’ The prayerful soul says much in a few words, which he often says over and over without ever repeating himself. This prolonged spiritual communion is like the breathing of the soul or its repose in God; by faith and hope it breathes in the truth and goodness of God, and it breathes out love. What the soul receives from God under the form of ever new graces, it gives back to Him under the form of adoration and love.

Consequently, to ask for the grace of Christian contemplation is to ask that the bandage of pride, which still covers the eyes of the spirit, may fall away completely in order that we may be able truly to penetrate and taste the great mysteries of salvation: that of the sacrifice of the cross perpetuated by the Mass, that of the sacrament of the Eucharist, the food of our soul.

Surely without any danger of quietism, [the great spiritual writer] Bossuet invites us to this simplified affective prayer in his substantial little work, A Short and  Simple Manner of making our Prayer in the Spirit of Faith, and in the Simple Presence of God.” I have taken the liberty of editing this famous and important essay of Bossuet and substantially reducing it in size to the following six salient points:

1.”We must accustom ourselves to nourish our souls with a simple and loving look at God and at Jesus Christ our Lord. To do this we must withdraw our souls gently from all reasoning, from all arguments, and from a multiplicity of affections, to keep them in simplicity, respect, and attention, and thus to draw nearer and nearer to God, our only Sovereign Good, our first beginning and our last end.

2. Meditation is very good in its proper time, and very useful in the beginning of the spiritual life. But we must not stop there, since the soul, by her fidelity to mortification and recollection, generally receives the gift of a purer and higher state of prayer, which we may call the prayer of simplicity, because it consists of one simple look of ours, one loving attention on our part, towards God (in His Infinite perfections) or Jesus Christ (in some of his mysteries).

3. The soul, then, leaving all reasoning, makes us of a sweet contemplation, which keeps her in peace, attentive and susceptible to all the Divine operations and impressions which the Holy Spirit communicates to her. She does little, and receives much; her labor is sweet, and nevertheless it is very fruitful; and as she now approaches nearer to the Source of all light, of all grace, and of all virtue, blessings also increase in her more and more.

4. The practice of this kind of prayer must begin by our making an act of faith in the presence of God. After this, we need not try to produce several other dispositions, but we may remain simply and peacefully attentive to the presence of God, knowing that his Divine looks are fixed upon us, and continuing this devout attention as long as the Lord gives us the grace to do so; for this prayer is a prayer with God alone, so that the less the creature labors the more powefully God works in her. And since the work of God is always a rest and a deep peace, the soul becomes in this kind of prayer in a manner like unto Him, and receives also most wonderful effects from His Divine Goodness.

5. The soul might imagine at first she is loosing a great deal by omitting all these acts, but experience will teach her that, on the contrary, she is gaining very much, because the greater her knowledge of God is, the purer will be her love.

6. The best prayer of all is that in which we abandon ourselves most to the feelings and dispositions which God Himself implants in the soul, and in which we study with the greatest simplicity, humility, and fidelity to conform ourselves to the will and example of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

Regarding this prayer of simplicity, Rev. Dom Vitalis Lehodey states: “This prayer got its clear and expressive name from Bossuet. When it has reached its more simplified form, others call it the prayer of simple look [or] active recollection. This simple look is always accompanied with love – a love, it may be, almost imperceptible or all on fire, calm or impetuous, bitter or savoury. This love is even that which is the chief thing of contemplation. Thus the soul, ceasing ‘to meditate – that is, to produce acts by dint of reasoning,’ thinks simply on God ‘by an attention, loving, simple, and fixed solely upon its object, almost like that of one who opens his eyes to give a loving look’ ” (The Way of Mental Prayer, pages 191-195, quoting St. John of the Cross, as edited).

CONCLUSION:

Practicing the prayer of simplicity is hardly an invitation to abandon other forms of prayer, although by such practice our vocal prayers may become more interior, our meditations more simplified, our Rosary paused during a mystery simply to unite ourselves to Jesus in that mystery, and our liturgical prayer made in closer union with God. But the real purpose of practicing the prayer of simplicity is to draw closer to God – not so much through knowledge about God but to God Himself by an inward gaze of loving contemplation. In this prayer of simplicity we stand in awe of the God who resides within our soul, loving Him, and resting in His incomprehensible and amazing presence. “The soul does little, but receives much” – because it is so close to the Source of all goodness, whose love is transformative like no other.

Thomas L. Mulcahy, M.A.

References: The quotes from Father Garrigou-Lagrange are from The Three Ages of the Interior Life. The full essay of Bossuet is an appendix in Father Grou’s masterpiece, Manual For Interior Souls.

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FIVE QUALITIES OF A WELL-MADE PRAYER

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your request to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7)

Any prayer (it seems to me) where we lovingly lift our heart to God and talk to Him is a good prayer. And even when we experience dryness in our prayer life, or even repugnance, persevering through such difficulties has special merit and helps us to grow in holiness.

In this note we will review five essential qualities or components of a well-made prayer, relying on one of the Church’s greatest spiritual writers, Father Jean Nicolas Grou (1731-1803). Evelyn Underhill, one of the great writers on Christian mysticism, once remarked that Father Grou’s work, How to Pray, is “one of the best short expositions of the essence of prayer which has ever been written.”

According to Father Grou the five essential components of a well-made prayer are that it be made: attentively, reverently, lovingly, confidently and perseveringly. Here are condensed and edited comments from Father Grou pertaining to these five qualities of a well-made prayer.

PRAY ATTENTIVELY: “A prayer addressed to God, whether to pay him homage or to plead with him for our highest interests, must be attentive to the point of keeping all our powers concentrated on [God]. But let me ask you this: when you pray do you seriously wish to be attentive? Is it your first care to recollect yourself and think [about] what you are going to do? If you do not begin by this [recollection], you do not prepare yourself for so holy an action, and you are responsible for your distractions.”

PRAY REVERENTLY: “The very idea of prayer involves that of reverence and humility. He who prays is a creature; it is God to whom he prays. What is God compared with the creature? What is the creature compared with God? This thought alone ought to fill us with the deepest humility; how much greater will this humility be when we remember that we are sinners and that God is infinitely holy. If you do not feel this, if you do not approach God with a profound sense of your own nothingness, you should mistrust your prayer.”

PRAY LOVINGLY: “The third characteristic of prayer is that it is loving. God desires to be loved as much as he is respected, and the Holy Spirit, who is the eternal love of the Father and the Son, inspires no prayer that is not a prayer for love and a prayer which leads to love. It is love which must inspire the Christian to pray: love must be the final aim [of his prayer], and the increase of love must be its fruit.” This takes us back to what I have said before: it is the heart that prays and therefore loves or aspires to love.”

PRAY CONFIDENTLY: “Confidence is the fourth characteristic of the prayer that is taught to us of the Holy Spirit. When the [Holy Spirit] makes us pray, it is plain that he influences us to ask only such things as he has resolved to give us, and that the first thing he grants us is a firm confidence that we shall obtain our requests. This is the confidence the [Holy Spirit] answers and inspires. It is our part to respond to it and not let our confidence be weakened  by any fear or any kind of reasoning. We see in the Gospels that Jesus Christ’s miracles were all performed in response to faith. That faith [Jesus] sought was not just the faith in divine power, but rather the hope he would grant what was asked. If the Spirit of God were the only wind that blew on you, he would incline and urge your heart in the direction of confidence.”

PRAY PERSEVERINGLY: “Lastly, the prayer produced by the Spirit is persevering. Let us be humble and patient and never let us doubt that, if our requests tend to the glory of God and our own salvation, they will be granted in the end. If our requests are not granted, it is because they will attend neither to his glory nor our own benefit; and so we should not wish to obtain them. God has promised to open the door to him who knocks, but he has not said that he would not keep him waiting. He has fixed the right time to give us the boon, and likewise the right time for us to be inspired with the first thought of seeking it. Whenever we have reason to believe that this thought is from him, we must persevere in our prayer, being certain that he will reward our perseverance.”

Concluding Prayer of Father Grou: “Oh my Savior, teach me to pray then no more in my own way and according to human wisdom, but according to the method of the Holy Spirit. May the [Holy Spirit] quicken me and pray in me with those ‘groanings which cannot be uttered’ of which thine Apostle [Paul] speaks. Amen.”

Thomas L. Mulcahy, M.A.

Reference: My edition of How to Pray by Father Grou is published by The Upper Room. My edited quotes are from pages 32-41, Chapter Three. The book itself elaborates in much more detail on these five essential points and is highly recommended. Note as well that How to Pray is taken from a much larger work of Father Grou called The School of Jesus Christ, a very difficult book to find in English. The quote from Evelyn Underhill is in the forward of How to Pray. Spiritual writers balance “our nothingness,” our indigence, our great need for God against the complementary truth of our dignity as children of God.

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FIVE QUICK KEYS TO MAINTAINING THE SPIRITUAL JOURNEY

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Jesus said, “Enter by the narrow gate, for the gate is wide and broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it.” (Matt. 7: 13-14)

 

1. THE CHRISTIAN LIFE REQUIRES AN INTENSE SPIRITUAL COMMITMENT

Comment: Saint Pope John Paul II wrote, “[Although] the journey is totally sustained by grace, it nonetheless demands an intense spiritual commitment” (NMI 32). In other words, our effort is “indispensable.” Succinctly stated, the spiritual journey is going to require great effort on our part – really all that we have. “Strive for…the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). This is not a commitment to self-sufficiency – rather it is a commitment to serving God in the power of His grace. As St. Paul exhorts, “Run in such a way that you may win” (1 Cor. 9:24).

2. TO SUSTAIN THE JOURNEY, KEEP YOUR EYES ON THE GOAL: ETERNAL LIFE

Comment: The forms of this world are passing away. The great good is Heaven. How quickly our lives will come to an end. Do not try to make an absolute out of some fleeting pleasure or good of this world. The goal is eternal happiness and joy with God and the saints. Keep in mind that eternity will last quite a long time. Conversely, it would be quite a tragedy to “waste away the ages in hell” (F.W. Faber). Here, then, is a powerful verse to meditate on from time to time: “For this light momentary affliction [here on planet earth] is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17).

3. IF YOU FALL INTO SIN, GET BACK UP IMMEDIATELY AND SEEK GOD’S MERCY

Comment: A key spiritual point made by the saints is to rise promptly after every fall. We often hear the proverb that the good man falls seven times a day, but the rest of that verse says, “BUT HE GETS BACK UP” (Proverbs 27:16). Judas betrayed Jesus and fell into despair. Peter betrayed Jesus and sought His forgiveness. God is not unsympathetic to the fact that we are weak. He wants us to keep trying and to never give up. In short, we should learn from our mistakes and use them as a foundation for growth, not diminishment, with joyful recourse to the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

4. GROWTH IN HOLINESS IS ESSENTIAL

Comment: The spiritual journey in general is a turning away from sin and a turning towards God. The goal is to grow closer and closer to God through a life of prayer, virtuous living, and good works. If we are not growing in the faith, we run the risk of backsliding. George MacDonald, the famous writer, puts it this way: “Do not be content not to grow. If you are not growing bigger you are growing less. If the light is not increasing the darkness is encroaching. If we are not growing upward we are growing downward.” The Christian model of faith is one of growth in relationship with God. “The Fathers of the Church tell us that he who does not go forward on the way to God goes back” (Father Garrigou-LaGrange).

5. TRUSTING GOD DURING TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS IS ESSENTIAL

Comment:  The essence of faith is trust in the Father’s care for our lives. This can be a source of great joy during times of spiritual sweetness and consolation, but far more difficult during times of tribulation and darkness. The great spiritual writers remind us that God will lead us through times of dryness, darkness and suffering, and that these trials will lead us to deeper union with God. The key is to patiently trust in God even when it appears He has abandoned us. It is in this sense that the victory comes by FAITH. The saints coach us to practice certitude of faith during times of darkness, and boundless confidence in God during trials and tribulations.

Tom Mulcahy, M.A.

Primary Reference: I am relying for this post primarily on The Fulfillment of All Desire by Dr. Ralph Martin (an excellent, highly recommended book which maps out the spiritual journey).

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THE IGNATIAN PRAYER OF GRATITUDE AT THE END OF THE DAY

WHY IS DAILY SPIRITUAL READING SO IMPORTANT?

“Only God knows the good that can come about by reading one good Catholic book.” (St. John Bosco)

The incalculable importance of spiritual reading is the subject of this note. And our conclusion will simply be that spiritual reading is an incredibly important part of the spiritual life, something which we must make time for on a regular basis.

The correlation between spiritual reading and the prayer of meditation is well understood. Spiritual reading is the platform upon which we kindle the logs of meditation, until they flame-up into acts of affective praise, adoration and interior prayer, and when the flames die down, into resolutions for growth in holiness. Of course, on a given day, if we are dry, and we can only manage to muster a few loving aspirations to God, our spiritual reading will still be of great value as our minds are deeply nourished by Catholic truth, and we receive powerful advice from the great spiritual masters on how to overcome our faults and grow in holiness. Spiritual writers sometimes caution us to discern whether our time of meditation has regressed into mere spiritual reading, nevertheless, spiritual reading, in and of itself, is a highly valuable component of the spiritual life! As Father John Hardon observes:

“Spiritual reading is necessary as the normal way of nourishing the Christian faith, which means getting food for the mind so that the will and affections might love and serve God accordingly. I say the normal way, allowing for exceptions that simply prove the rule. We must take the ordinary means to preserve our physical life and the obligation is a grave one. Among these ordinary means none is more basic than food for the body. Without eating the body dies. And it is no comfort to say I am alive now and there is food outside of me. Either that food gets inside of me or I die. Being near me is not enough. I can be surrounded by food and starve. So too we must take the ordinary means to preserve our supernatural life and again the obligation is a grave one. Among these ordinary means none is more basic than food for the mind to nourish the faith. Without food for the mind the faith withers and dies, and there is no mental nourishment for the soul more available and accessible and providable than spiritual reading as just described. Not to nourish the mind, and in the mind the faith, with this food is to tempt Providence, which means to tempt God.”

And the great Father Faber adds this insight about the importance of spiritual reading:

“A person beginning the spiritual life with a taste for reading has a much greater chance of advancing and of persevering than one who is destitute of such a taste. Experience shows that it is really almost equal to a grace. The power of reading,… the taste for reading, [is] one of the most important of all the personal nonsupernatural qualifications for an inward life….He who begins a devout life without it [a taste for spiritual reading] may consider the ordinary difficulties of such a life multiplied in his case at least by ten.”

Still, the important correlation between spiritual reading and mental prayer is duly noted by the great spiritual writers:

“To our mind [spiritual reading] ranks equally with mental prayer and the other exercises of devotion in importance, and, in fact, it is so closely connected with these other exercises, especially the essential one of mental prayer, that without it – unless one finds a substitute,  – there is no possibility of advancing in the spiritual life; even perseverance therein is rendered very doubtful” (This Tremendous Lover, p. 101, by Father M. Eugene Boylan).

“The sixth means [to attain solid virtue] is spiritual reading. And we must be very careful in the choice of books. As a rule, we should prefer to all others those which touch the heart….Rodriguez is excellent for beginners. For those who are more advanced, The Imitation of Christ, the writings of Father Surin, Saint Francis de Sales, the Psalms and the New Testament, [and] the ‘Lives of the Saints.’ Our spiritual reading should be half prayer; that is to say, that in reading we should listen to the voice of God, and stop to meditate [engage in mental prayer] when we feel ourselves touched by what we read. We ought to read with a view to practice what we read” (Father Jean Grou, Manual for Interior Souls, p. 16).

“We must regard spiritual reading as being to meditation what oil is to the lamp” – F.W. Faber.

“Spiritual reading…is an intrinsic portion of a devout life, one of its actual and almost indispensable exercises. Prayer is the grand difficulty of most souls. Now, [spiritual] reading feeds and furnishes prayer. It supplies matter. It plants the wilderness. Rightly practiced spiritual reading obviates at least half the difficulties of meditation” – F.W. Faber.

Spiritual reading also tends to have the remarkable capacity to help us in our present needs. “We derive the greatest assistance from [spiritual] reading. Indeed, it is astonishing how pertinent all our reading seems to become when we are in difficulties. It is as if the Holy Ghost, rather than ourselves, had chosen what we should read; and it is he most assuredly who gives it now such a special unction and special message to our souls in their present straits” (Spiritual Conferences, p. 270).

In her excellent book, Am I Living a Spiritual Life?, acclaimed Catholic author, Dr. Susan Muto, urges us to find time each day for spiritual reading. She says: “The possibility of experiencing the touch of God in daily tasks increases in accordance with the time we spend in spiritual reading. The complaint of not having enough time to do spiritual reading might be traceable to an inability to put each aspect of life in its proper perspective. If my primary commitment is the love of God, then I’ll take time to imbibe his word. Professional life is important, but what about all the extras that get added to it? When I look over my day, I find there’s time to do spiritual reading, provided I use my time to the best advantage. We mustn’t forget that the Spirit is capable of illuminating some bland word or trite maxim so that our spirits are transformed in a brief moment of genuine attention [during spiritual reading]” (p.43-44, as edited).

Father Robert Eiten adds the following insights regarding the benefits of spiritual reading:

“Spiritual reading affects both our mind and our will. By spiritual reading our mind is uplifted, spiritually enlightened, given new ideas and new approaches to things; new motives are placed before it or the old ones are refreshed and renewed in our minds. We get new ways of looking at things and old truths are put under new labels. Our will is inspired and strengthened; enthusiasm is aroused in us; appeal is made to our hero instinct and our courage is renewed….Some might object that they have not [the] time for daily spiritual reading. If one is habitually neglecting such reading in general, sooner or later this neglect will show up in his conversation, correspondence, and dealing with others” (A Layman’s Way To Perfection, pp. 88-90).

CONCLUSION: For the reasons stated above it is quite important to set aside time each day for spiritual reading. It is not easy to persevere in the spiritual life, and the great spiritual writers have spoken as if spiritual reading is a necessary component of our perseverance. And frankly: – perseverance is everything!  Our spiritual reading is like a road map: it gives us the knowledge and insight we need to safely traverse the hazards of the spiritual journey and to stay on the path that leads to God and eternal life. And as this knowledge enters our minds and hearts it is to be expected that our spiritual reading will become as much prayer and petition as it is a private tutorial for growth in holiness. Without this spiritual road map – that is to say, without a commitment to spiritual reading – we are bound to get lost and confused in the noise of the world which drowns out spiritual life. It is thus important to keep a good Catholic book nearby for daily spiritual reading and nourishment.

I conclude with five recommendations for spiritual reading, but there is literally a full library of solid Catholic books to choose from:

  1. The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis
  2. Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales
  3. The Story of a Soul by St. Therese of Lisieux
  4. The Creator and the Creature by Father F,W. Faber
  5. Consoling the Heart of Jesus by Father Michael E. Gaitley

Tom Mulcahy, M.A.

 

References: The book by Susuan Muto, Am I Leading a Spiritual Life?, is co-authored by Father Adrian van Kaam. The quotes from Father Faber are from his book, Spiritual Conferences. In the conclusion, where I talk about the challenge of perseverance and the necessity of spiritual reading, I am drawing from Father Faber.

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KEEP PRAYING: NEVER STOP PRAYING!

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                                   “Pray without ceasing” (1. Thes. 5:17)

Mark these words as so true and so important that they should be engraved in your mind and in your heart and possibly even tattooed to your hand so that you don’t forget them: – the decline of supernatural life begins when you start neglecting prayer. When prayer is completely abandoned you have simply returned to “the world” for your comfort and repose. You were made for prayer, and the language of the soul is prayer. “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).

But do we have time to “be still” and be in the presence of God, to talk to Him and to listen to Him, and to make our needs known to Him? As a flower needs water and sunshine, we need prayer. And so it is incalculably harmful to us when we consciously or unconsciously make the decision not to pray, and thus put up a barrier between ourselves and our true happiness: a personal relationship with our God and Eternal Father. Oh Holy Spirit, give me a renewed and zealous attention to prayer; give me the grace to see the incalculable power of prayer; help me to see with Saint Alphonsus de Ligouri that those who pray shall be saved (see CCC 2744).

Therefore, we must be committed to prayer.  It is akin to spiritual suicide not to pray. Prayer should be the very foundation of our lives as we grow closer and closer to God. And if we are in need of a certain virtue, say, for example, patience, or chastity, or the grace to pray better, we must relentlessly ask God for this grace in prayer. “Ask and it will be given to you”(Matt. 7:7).

Why is prayer so important, other than it being the very basis of your loving relationship with God? Here are two reasons:

1. Prayer directs our attention away from the passing things of this world (that so distract us) and toward God: in Whom all our happiness consists. Prayer, then, is a profound remedy against worldliness, since it augments our union with God.

2. In God’s Providential direction of the universe He has ordained that we should pray to Him, and He continually gives us actual graces to pray when we would rather not.

Father Hardon comments:

“And what is the primary source of grace that we always have at our disposal? It is prayer. ***  Why? Because part of the divine plan, which is what providence means, is that we should obtain many of the things we need only by asking God to grant them.” [Thus], “we have no choice; either we pray or we do not get the divine light and strength we need.”

I know that there are good reasons for not missing American Idol, or Hannity, or the Lions, or the 10 PM news, or playing that video game upon which rests the world’s safety from terrorism, but rest assured that it is a great mismanagement of our time to neglect prayer. Oh Happy Day when we understand this!

Tom Mulcahy, M.A.

Sources: I am relying primarily on Father Weiss. On Page 83 of The Christian Life by the German Dominican, Father Albert M. Weiss, he talks about how “the decline of the supernatural life begins…with…the neglect of prayer.” 
He explains that this loss can only be “renewed” by a “zealous attention to prayer.” On page 80 he talks about the “incalculable…power of prayer.” On Page 81 he discusses how prayer withdraws us from the world and “turns [us] wholly to God.” You can see, then, that I have used these words of Father Weiss in several places in this note. Are you looking for a remarkable spiritual book?: get his book! I am not picking on any particular TV show, but I am suggesting that television and other electronic media often distract us from prayer (which should be a priority).

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THE BIBLE AND THE BEGINNING OF THE UNIVERSE

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   “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1)

Not too long ago most astronomers and physicists held to the “steady-state” theory of the universe. This theory postulates that the universe has no beginning or end because it maintains a “constant average density” despite whatever change or expansion occurs.

But the scientific community began to chip away at the steady-state theory. “The death knell for the theory sounded when radio astronomers Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson discovered [in the 1960s] the cosmic microwave background, the leftover radiation from the Big Bang. The steady-staters had no reasonable way to explain this radiation, and their theory slowly faded away as so many of its predecessors had” (pbs.org).

The evidence now generally accepted in the scientific community is that the universe did, in fact, have a beginning, exploding into being billions of years ago in what is referred to as the “Big-Bang” theory. The astronomer Robert Jastrow explains to us that “three lines of evidence – the motions of galaxies, the laws of thermodynamics, and the life story of the stars – pointed to one conclusion: all indicated that the universe had a beginning” (God and the Astronomers, p.111).

“Arno Penzias, who won the Nobel Prize for his discovery of the cosmic background radiation [a ghostly whisper from the original moment of creation] that corroborated the Big-Bang, said, ‘The best data we have are exactly what I would have predicted had I nothing to go on but the five books of Moses, the Psalms, and the Bible as a whole.’”

Astronomer Robert Jastrow concludes: “Now we see how the astronomical evidence [of the Big-Bang origin of the universe] leads to a biblical view of the origin of the world. The details differ, but the essential elements in the astronomical and biblical accounts of genesis are the same: the chain of events leading to man commence suddenly and sharply at a definite moment in time, in a flash of light and energy” (A Scientist Caught, p.14). “Astronomers now find that they have painted themselves into a corner because they have proven, by their own methods, that the world began abruptly in an act of creation…as a product of forces they cannot hope to discover” (God and the Astronomers, p.15).

Tom Mulcahy, M.A.

Sources: My primary sources for this note, and for the quotes set forth above, are Norman Geisler’s article, “Big Bang Theory,” in the Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, and chapter eleven of What’s So Great About Christianity by D. D’Souza. I understand that astronomer Robert  Jastrow is an agnostic.

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THERE IS POWER IN JESUS’ HOLY NAME

“Therefore God exalted [Jesus] to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (Phil. 2: 9-10)

“Jesus” literally means “he saves.” It is thus a saving name, or rather a name full of saving power. “[Mary] will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). This child of Mary is full of incredible blessings, and the power of His holy name is one of them!

Why is Jesus’ name more powerful than all other names (indeed, more powerful than all other names combined)? – because Jesus has been resurrected, because Jesus has ascended into Heaven, because Jesus has been crowned Lord of all creation, and because, enthroned in Heaven, Jesus always lives to make intercession for you (Hebrews 7:25). This is power. This is the power of invoking Jesus’ name!

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states (at 519):

All Christ’s riches “are for every individual and are everybody’s property.” Christ did not live his life for himself but for us, from his Incarnation “for us men and for our salvation” to his death “for our sins” and Resurrection “for our justification”. He is still “our advocate with the Father”, who “always lives to make intercession” for us (Hebrews 7:25). He remains ever “in the presence of God on our behalf, bringing before him all that he lived and suffered for us” (Hebrews 9:25).

Therefore, an easy yet powerful way to grow closer to Jesus is to simply hold His name in great reverence. The basic assumption for this devotion is that Jesus’ name is full of power and grace. The Church apparently agrees with this assessment because it sets aside January 3 as the Feast of the Most Holy Name of Jesus. It is a reminder to us to greatly reverence Jesus’ name the rest of the year. What an awesome New Year’s resolution that would be! Imagine the growth in holiness you would experience if you kept that resolution.

Father Paul O’Sullivan writes that the “Holy Name of Jesus fills our souls with a peace and a joy we never had before.” He adds that the “Name of Jesus is the shortest, the easiest and the most powerful of prayers. Everyone can say it, even in the midst of his daily work. God cannot refuse to hear it.”

“The frequent repetition of this Divine name [Jesus],” says Father O’Sullivan, will save you from much suffering and great dangers.” It seems to me the key to this devotion is to say Jesus’ name with great reverence and love, calling to mind – without even having to think about it – all that Jesus is and means to us. This is a formula which will clearly increase our love for Jesus and will maintain us in a spirit of faith. We should never forget that faith is one of the most important virtues in the spiritual life (it is a theological virtue, literally meaning “God-directed”).

Father O’Sullivan encourages us to “understand clearly the meaning and value of the Name of Jesus.” He adds that the “Holy Name of Jesus saves us from innumerable evils and delivers us especially from the power of the devil, who is constantly seeking to do us harm.” He says that “every time we say ‘Jesus,’ we are saying a fervent prayer for…all that we need.”

If you are looking for a simple devotion, filled with power, this is it! Father O’Sullivan assures us that the simple devotion of reverently saying Jesus’ name throughout the day has amazing power. And, as Father Faber states, what do we need more in the spiritual life than “power” to overcome our tepidity and weakness.

“[Mary] will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). May the most holy name of Jesus be on your lips and in your heart throughout the year.

Thomas L. Mulcahy, M.A.

References: The Wonders of the Holy Name by Father Paul O’Sullivan (TAN). “With the release of the revised Roman Missal in March 2002, the feast [of the Most Holy Name of Jesus] was restored as an optional memorial in the Ordinary Form on January 3” (from catholicculture.org).

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