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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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SAINT FRANCIS DE SALES AND DEVOTION TO THE HOLY INNOCENTS

(THE MASSACRE OF THE INNOCENTS BY GIOTTO, CIRCA 1304)

“Then Herod, when he saw that he had been outwitted by the wise men, flew into a rage. He gave orders to massacre all the male children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under, in keeping with the time he had learned from the wise men” (Matthew 2:16)

I have to admit that I have a special fascination with obscure devotions in the Church that have largely fallen out of practice. It is like discovering a hidden mine, full of gold! After all, these children of Bethlehem – these murdered children – were the first Christian martyrs. That has to mean something. That has to mean a lot. The Church thinks so – the feast of the Holy Innocents is celebrated on December 28.

Some biblical scholars have questioned whether the massacre of the Holy Innocents (as related in Matthew’s Gospel above) is more of a midrash than literal history, and yet we know from genuine historical sources that Herod was a ruthless madman who even killed his own sons. “Extrabiblical history paints a similar [Biblical] portrait of Herod; he murdered his favorite wife, three of his sons, and others who threatened his throne” (Ignatius Catholic Study Bible, p.10). “The number of these children was so small that this crime appeared insignificant amongst the other misdeeds of Herod” (Catholic Encyclopedia). Scripture scholar Scott Hahn adds that Herod “slaughtered Jerusalem priests whose scriptural interpretations made him anxious, and his other sporadic purges claimed victims by the hundreds” (Joy to the World, p.138).

“The two chapters of Matthew’s Gospel devoted to the infancy narratives are not a meditation presented under the guise of stories, but the converse: Matthew is recounting real history, theologically thought through and interpreted….” (Pope Benedict XVI).

Add to this the testimony of a great saint regarding the efficacy of this particular devotion and you have ample reasons to practice it! A gifted spiritual writer, F.W. Faber, relates the following: “The revelations of the Saints also tell us of the singular power now accorded in Heaven to these infant Martyrs, especially in connections with death-beds, and St. Francis of Sales died reiterating with marked emphasis and significance the invocation of the Holy Innocents” (Bethlehem, p.198).

Of these infant martyrs Faber states: “They were [Jesus’] companions in nativity, His mates in age and size; and though it was no slight thing to have these natural alliances with Him, by grace they were much more, for they were likenesses of Him, and they were His Martyrs” (Id). “The Church has always held the firm conviction that those who suffer death for the sake of the faith without having received Baptism are baptized by their death for and with Christ. This Baptism of blood, like the desire for Baptism, brings about the fruits of Baptism without being a sacrament” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1258).

Faber relates that this devotion has a special relationship to Mary and to growth in the virtue of purity.

“A twofold light shines in the faces of this infant crowd, the light of Mary and the light of Jesus. They resembled Mary in their sinless purity; for even if our Lord had not constituted them in a state of grace before, their Original Sin would be more than expiated by their guileless blood, when it was shed for Him. It was a fearful font, a most bloody sacrament…. They were like Mary in their Martryrdom for Jesus, as all the Martyrs were; but they were like her also, in that their Martyrdom was as it were the act of Jesus Himself….It is only more remotely so with the other Martyrs. This is one of their distinctions. They resembled her also in their nearness to Jesus. They were among the few who were admitted into the hierarchy of the Incarnation” (Bethlehem, p. 198).

Finally, these infant martyrs remind us that meritorious suffering has a special place in a Christian’s life. Father Faber reminds us that the “law of the Incarnation is a law of suffering. Our Blessed Lord was the man of sorrows, and by suffering He redeemed the world….Calvary was not unlike Bethlehem….This same law of suffering, which belongs to Jesus, touches all who come nigh Him, and in proportion to their holiness, envelops them, and claims them wholly for itself” (The Foot of the Cross, p. 13, as edited). Pertaining specifically to these Holy Innocents, Faber states:

“These infant Martyrs represent also what must in its measure befall everyone who draws near to Jesus. Suffering goes out of him, like an atmosphere. The air is charged with the seed of crosses, and the soul is sown all over with them before it is aware. Moreover, the cross is a quick growth and can spring up, and blossom, and bear fruit almost in a night, while from its vivacious root a score of fresh crosses will spring up and cover the soul with the peculiar verdure of Calvary. They that come nearest to our Lord are those who suffer most, and who suffer the most unselfishly” (Bethlehem, p.198).

CONCLUSION: An intense, mysterious, supernatural aroma hovers over our devotion to the Holy Innocents, teaching us to “manage our sorrows” and sufferings according to “supernatural principles”. Certainly this devotion teaches us that there is “no solid peace to be found among the perishable things of this life.” This devotion seems to focus light and grace in three areas: it has a special efficacy for the dying; it helps us to grow in purity and in devotion to Mary; and finally it teaches us to value and see all our sufferings in a supernatural light. All of the Holy Innocents lived less than three years, but now they live in the glorious splendor of an untiringly joyous eternity! Praise be Jesus Christ! Now and forever. Amen.

Tom Mulcahy, M.A.

References: All the quotes in the conclusion are from Faber, so you can see I am relying on him for the conclusion; and it is Faber who writes in one of his books about an “untired eternity.” Pope Benedict XVI defends the historicity of the Infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke in his series of books, Jesus of Nazareth. See page 119: “The two chapters of Matthew’s Gospel devoted to the infancy narratives are not a meditation presented under the guise of stories, but the converse: Matthew is recounting real history, theologically thought through and interpreted, and thus he helps us to understand the mystery of Jesus more deeply” (The Infancy Narratives, Image).

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YOU’VE REALLY HAD A WONDERFUL LIFE!

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(GEORGE BAILEY AND HIS GUARDIAN ANGEL, CLARENCE)

           “You see, George, you’ve really had a wonderful life”

It’s that time of year again! Time to watch one of the most meaningful movies of all time – a movie which gets more meaningful each time I watch it. I understand Frank Capra made It’s A Wonderful Life after an experience of deepening faith that would ultimately (under the influence of his wife) lead him back to the Catholic church. There is more good theology in this movie than in some theology texts!

The movie starts off with people in the town praying for George Bailey – one of the prayers is to Jesus, Mary and Joseph. It is through prayer that God is going to transform George Bailey’ life and show George all the good he has done in the world. In fact, just before George is about to commit suicide, he makes a short prayer to God, saying, “SHOW ME THE WAY.” It’s hard to imagine a more powerful prayer. And God hears George’s prayer and begins to unveil to him (George Bailey) the rich tapestry of his life.

Everything is accomplished through PRAYER.

The key point in the movie is that every person’s life touches the lives of many others – either for the good or bad. This is all about the solidarity that exists between human beings. Our sin hurts others, but our personal holiness and good works “put into motion powerful spiritual forces” that help out other human beings (and thus help to create a good and just society). If George Bailey hadn’t lived, Bedford Falls would have been Pottersville – a corrupt and immoral town (as George Bailey was allowed to see). When George prays for his life back, the town changes back to Bedford Falls (and the movie theater, as one example, reverts to showing The Bells of St. Mary’s, whereas in Pottersville it was a place to watch 20 show girls). We will never know this side of Heaven how much our good works and love of neighbor help out other people, but we can rest assured that they are helping out many souls. I think the guy who authored #1475 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church must have had It’s a Wonderful Life in mind when he said:

“In the communion of saints,  ‘a perennial link of charity exists between the faithful who have already reached their heavenly home, those who are expiating their sins in purgatory and those who are still pilgrims on earth. Between them there is, too, an abundant exchange of all good things.’ In this wonderful exchange, the holiness of one profits others, well beyond the harm that the sin of one could cause others. Thus recourse to the communion of saints lets the contrite sinner be more promptly and efficaciously purified of the punishments for sin.”

George didn’t realize that through his mundane and hum-drum life in Bedford Falls, God was accomplishing much good. When the veil was lifted from his eyes, and he was allowed to see how different things would have been without him, he was filled with the deepest gratitude for all the great things in his life – most especially his family and friends.

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Let us rejoice and be thankful for all the good things God has given to us. By the way, The Bells of St. Mary’s is also a powerful movie (and my second favorite Christmas movie is The Bishop’s Wife).

Merry Christmas!

Tom Mulcahy

Ref. Images at Wikipedia, Public Domain, U.S.A.  See “The Catholic Vision of Frank Capra” via Google. “Puts into motion positive spiritual forces” : a phrase borrowed from Cardinal Ciappi he used in the context of Marian consecration (see CCC 1477). In his great spiritual classic, Abandonment to Divine Providence, Father de Caussade wrote something which applies very well to George Bailey:“Faith, piercing the superficialities, disclosed that God was accomplishing very great things [in his life].” Let us pray for a great spirit of faith.

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OVERCOMING WOUNDED FEELINGS

“We take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5)

There comes a time when we get stuck in our wounded feelings, and we simply must bring them into the light and heal them.

Advent is a wonderful time to forgive and heal – as we prepare for the Prince of Peace to bring God’s forgiveness and reconciliation to the world (and to each person, in particular).

Sensitivity can be like a virtue, as in a mature sensitivity to sin, or as in sensitivity to those in need of emotional or material help. A sensitivity to the inspirations of the Holy Spirit is a pathway to great holiness. But in this note we are addressing over-sensitivity as a hindrance to spiritual growth and well-being. We are talking primarily about superficial wounds that should have been healed a long time ago, but wounded feelings gave a seemingly small hurt a much longer life than it deserved as it was magnified, day in and day out, completely out of proportion to the harm it should have caused. Hopefully, we will find a remedy to this problem!

Oh those wounded feelings – we give such power to them to become much more than they ever should have been! A great spiritual writer of keen psychological insight, F.W. Faber, states that oversensitivity manifested in wounded feelings “is the secret cause of one-half of the disedifying inconsistencies of religious people. It rules us more powerfully than any of our passions. It absorbs our character into itself, until it alone almost becomes our character.” He adds: “We behold every day into what depths of incalculable meanness it can plunge” otherwise “affectionate hearts” (Spiritual Conferences, p.230, as edited).

“Thus the mortification of it becomes one of the primary duties of the spiritual life; and the intense suffering which this causes is the ladder by which we climb higher” (p. 232). The “mortification of sensitiveness is a peculiar process. It is not a blunting…or putting to death of sensitiveness, as it is with vices. But it is a brave making use of the torture of our wounded feelings to get nearer God and kinder to men.”

“Sensitiveness affects us in various ways. We imagine offense has been intended where it was never dreamed of. It constructs entire imaginary histories upon what is often no foundation at all . It magnifies and exaggerates things. It puts the wildest construction upon innocent actions. It throws a monstrous significance into a catch phrase, and then broods upon it for years. Our mind is crowded with suspicions. We are hardly able to distinguish between what is shadow and what is substance. We forget God. We give shadows the power to harm us. We grow moody and bitter. Now, what grace, what conceivable Christ-like thing, can grow in such an atmosphere as this” (pages 233-34, as edited)?

This “morose brooding” over our wounded feelings can become “almost incurable.” The judgment is “burned into our mind” that this person has been so unkind that we simply cannot forgive him. “We have now gone very far. We have come in sight of hatred. It is possible now for us to hate. These “ugly developments of our sensitiveness” must be overcome. We must get this “ruin out of the way” (pages 234-35, as edited).

REMEDIES

Because of all the harm oversensitivity can cause to our life in general, and to our spiritual progress, it is ALL-IMPORTANT that we find the grace and strength to overcome it. Contance Hull relates that Saint Therese became overly sensitive at a very earl age secondary to her sister’s death. “She became overly-sensitive and cried easily. This would be her battle for ten years, when at fourteen, she found the grace and strength to overcome this oversensitivity and truly began to live her journey of spiritual freedom.”

The first step toward the healing of oversensitivity would seem to be an honest recognition of all the harm oversensitivity is causing in our life, together with a strong desire to overcome it (or to moderate it). In modern psychology the recognition of distorted thinking patterns is essentially curative. Our conscious thoughts, when exaggerated or magnified, become distorted and this can become the source of much unhappiness – especially for an oversensitive soul. When we learn to check these distortions, essentially keeping them down so to speak, we are on the road to recovery! This proper management of our thoughts, this “cognitive therapy,” is very helpful.

Father Faber, who lived well before the advent of cognitive behavioral therapy but seemingly anticipated its value, urges us to suffer bravely in this mortification of oversensitivity. He says: “There is abundance to mortify in all this. We must be very unsparing of ourselves. A touch will not cure the matter. We must hold the caustic firmly, and press it hard, and keep it long on the place….” We must overcome “the quickness to feel an unkindness” and the “subtlety which causes us to fancy unkind intentions when there were none.” Further, “we must check ourselves sharply whenever we have caught ourselves brooding on the matter [in our mind]” (pages 236-37, as edited).

Now in the spiritual life mortification of oversensitivity is aided by prayer and sacramental life. The call of the spiritual life is toward the love of God and neighbor. When we keep this primary call in mind – that we are under a profound obligation to love God and neighbor – it brings a proper perspective not only to all our relationships but also to all our thoughts. If to fulfill this duty we must thicken our skin a bit, and mortify our unkind thoughts, and keep a forgiving heart, all of these acts are supernaturally meritorious, causing us to grow in holiness. Let us therefore contemplate, as Faber says, “the magnificent fruits of wounded feelings when they are consecrated by grace.”

Thomas L. Mulcahy, M.A.

References: I am relying primarily on Father Faber’s essay, “Wounded Feelings,” in Spiritual Conferences (TAN Books). The essay is about thirteen pages long.

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