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Posted by on May 14, 2018

Mystagogy: A Journey with the Holy Spirit into Deeper Faith

Mystagogy: A Journey with the Holy Spirit into Deeper Faith

Mystagogy is the fourth and last stage in RCIA (the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults). The term comes from the Greek for “secret.”  The reason this term is appropriate for Christianity is that the tradition understands much of its focus as being on the supernatural. By definition the supernatural is often not known nor experienced through ordinary reasoning or empirical interaction. During the time of Mystagogy, RCIA neophytes are called to deepen their experience of the Sacraments (or Mysteries) received at Easter and to understand them. The sacraments are a primary encounter of Christians with God and thus events with an ineffable dimension.

This time after the Easter Sacraments therefore includes opportunities for experience, reflection and learning.  The most important goal is that neophytes grow in closeness to God. The second goal is that they know the joy of sharing their faith in the community of the Church. Neophytes are then encouraged to reach out eventually to those not part of the church community.

For new Catholics, the Eucharist, a mystery itself, is the model and the means of why and how one can live the life of a new creation. In the Eucharist, Jesus gives himself to believers in a humble and personal way and models the self-giving and purest kind of love that happened at the Crucifixion. The Eucharist transforms and empowers recipients to live a life that is full of the kind of love we see in Jesus. As they are fed, they can go out and feed others.

This new life is not something one can read about and just do. It is not a skill. It is a relationship. As a living relationship with God, it takes time. This relationship grows through the reception of the sacraments, prayer, and doing service. The period of Mystagogy is the beginning of what St. Paul calls “putting on Christ.”  (Romans 13:14)

After the intense months of RCIA, it can be a shock for new Catholics suddenly not to be a part of a group attending the liturgy and practicing prayer, learning, and reflection. Many people involved in RCIA teams, as well as new Catholics, feel that Mystagogy, which usually lasts a month to six weeks, is not nearly long enough. Some parishes have RCIA programs that run one and one half years to two years. Other parishes encourage RCIA graduates to join Bible studies, prayer groups, adult religious education, parish retreats, and ministries within the parish community.

In the end, Mystagogy and the ensuing Christian life are a matter of trust. God lives in our depths and graces us in unseen ways. We often do not know exactly where we are going in life, but we know that Jesus is with us. During Mystagogy, the New Christian is led by the Holy Spirit deeper into God and the life of faith, both a matter of intellectual knowledge and unfathomable mystery. It is the beginning of a great adventure.

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Posted by on May 9, 2018

“It is Time for the Lord to Act”

“It is Time for the Lord to Act”

“It is time for the Lord to act.” These words proclaimed by the deacon to the priest in the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox churches just before the beginning of the Divine Liturgy (known as the Mass in the Roman Catholic church) tell us something important about God’s participation in human life. The word for time used in this statement is “kairos,” meaning the perfect or decisive moment in which conditions are right for something very important to take place — a time when God acts. The beginning of a Eucharistic celebration (Mass or Divine Liturgy) is one such time.

In a very real way, the celebration of the Rite of Initiation of Christian Adults (RCIA), culminating at Easter Vigil with Baptism, Confirmation, and first reception of Communion, is a series of kairos events in the life of believers.

In Roman Catholic tradition, we have baptized infants and children for centuries. Most members of the church have no memory of their baptism. First Communion, around the age of reason, is more commonly remembered. Confirmation, when received in adolescence, is remembered more clearly. Nevertheless, the three Sacraments of Initiation are designed to be received at the same time. In fact, since Vatican II, the Church has asked dioceses around the world to re-unite them, including with the initiation of children. This is the practice in the Eastern churches.

But children are not the only source of new Christians. Adults have always come to the Christian community and asked to be admitted to membership. The process of instructing and welcoming new members has taken many forms over the 2,000 year history of our community. Since Vatican II, returning to the tradition of the early Church, the RCIA has been the way we have welcomed new believers.

This year at Easter Vigil, as we again lit the new fire and blessed the waters of baptism, we welcomed our new sisters and brothers by plunging them into the newly blessed baptismal waters or pouring the water over their heads. We have anointed them with chrism, the oil blessed by the bishop during Holy Week.  Chrism is used to anoint the hands of priests, the heads of bishops, the altar and walls of a church, and the newly baptized. In Confirmation, it is also used to anoint and strengthen the new Christian, bringing the wisdom and strength from the Holy Spirit to witness to the presence and activity of God in all creation. Finally, we complete their initiation by sharing the very Body and Blood of our Lord with them as food for the day-to-day journey of faith.

Such a lot happens in a very short time! It’s far too much to fully comprehend in the moment. It will take a lifetime to ponder and experience the growth and flowering of the seed brought to birth at Easter Vigil – the new life of faith and community of travelers on the way in God’s kingdom.

The newly baptized ideally are continuing their journey in a time of sharing and learning known as mystagogy – a time of awakening in the Spirit and entering ever more deeply into the mystery. Common reactions/experiences of those who have newly received these sacraments include a hunger for scripture, a desire to learn more, a longing for community and sharing, an urge to step away to pray and ponder what they have experienced, excitement, wonder, and joy. Eventually, they may also experience a quieting of the initial excitement, a sense of God not being so close anymore, disillusionment upon discovering the “warts” or “clay feet” of other members of the community. All of this is normal. It’s all part of the journey of faith.

Jesus’ disciples and friends did not fully understand what happened in that Kairos moment of Easter and resurrection. Two thousand years later, we still cannot explain it. God acted in a decisive way, defeating the power of death and separation between God-self and humanity by becoming one of us and experiencing human life fully. Now it is our turn to enter, as members of the Christian community, into the life of the Trinity. It is a journey of a lifetime, lived step by step by the baptized.

Welcome, Sisters and Brothers to this amazing journey. Our thoughts and prayers are with you. We look forward to learning from you of the wonders our God is doing in your life and we promise to share with you the wonders we have seen. The Kairos moment has come into our lives. Christ is Risen! He is truly Risen!

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Posted by on Sep 19, 2012

The First Fruit of the Spirit is Love

The First Fruit of the Spirit is Love

Driftwood Flowers

Writing about LOVE is daunting. What can one say about it that has not already been said? How many songs and poems, plays and stories have been written about it?

But the hesitation about this is based on a false premise. The false premise is that our lives and thoughts are set and not constantly changing. Change scares us but change also frees us and gives us hope.  So, LOVE is always new in us. Everyday we grow and greet life with new thoughts and feelings. These may be negative, but even if they are, we are exploring new ways to reach for love, to know love, to experience love, to be angry at love.

Recently I was wrestling with the tremendous variety in love. From the Greeks forward we know the ancient spectrum of types of love: from pleasure to sacrificial spiritual love — pure altruism.  I have always considered the “ideal love” — the purely altruistic love — the standard against which I judge my feelings and actions. I put myself down for having “Mixed Motives.” I see that I often pursue people for double motives. I may want to help that person or validate that person, but he or she also makes me feel good or important or useful. Does that nullify my help to them? From the point of view of suffering, especially suffering from things such as depression or trauma, the love of things we enjoy, including relationships and sexuality, is rare and to be sought. Many people enjoy very little. If they could get pleasure out of a painting or a meal, it would be a good thing, possibly a very holy thing. So, love should not be interpreted as something free of my concerns or enjoyment. It is possible both to please God and others and also please myself.

Teilhard de Chardin, in The Divine Milieu, speaks of being both attached and detached at the same time. We should love what we do or enjoy but we at the same time must surrender control over the processes or outcomes. Love involves the risk of caring, of getting involved. But if an affinity or pursuit is taking us away from God, we have to detach ourselves from it. So, love includes the maturity of wisdom, of surrendering to what is best, not just to what I want.

Love is said to be generous. Paul in I Corinthians 13 presents a description of extraordinary generosity and lack of ego, patience and kindness. How can love be so generous and still please me? There is a double answer to this. First, we believe that everything is grace. The very ability to love without counting the cost to us, is a sign of God’s work in us. So, being able to do loving actions is a sign that God is close. Secondly, it is a very good thing to see ourselves as loving. We don’t need to feel like failures at life. It is not a prideful thing to know ourselves as happy, as someone who is doing well, or as someone who enjoys giving in appropriate ways.

Love requires discernment. When love is expressed as giving, it can be beneficial but it can also be harmful. Actions that seem to help people may actually be robbing people of their independence or need to do things on their own. Loving actions may be good in themselves, such as cooking a meal for the homeless, but not actually be loving because I may really need to use that time to do something else, such as study for an exam.  As we all know, sometimes the most loving thing is not to do something or not to say something. I cringe at the thought of letting my children make mistakes; but, not trying to control them or lecture them, now that they are grown, is a very loving thing.

Love is often a decision, not a feeling. Putting my mother in a skilled nursing facility was a very painful thing for me. It was the very best thing to do given her level of medical difficulty and my need to work full time. It was a loving thing to do especially since I had visited and researched all the possible facilities and knew my mother’s likes and dislikes. Every step of the way I had to be supportive and creative with my mother’s reactions to her new home, which turned out to be multiple. As she aged and grew more ill, I tried to find the best fit for her in residences. I met a number of people in the same situation who also were making hard decisions that nevertheless were out of love. For the last nine months of her life I drove 40 miles from work to where my mother lived just about every day. She was in pain and often unhappy. I could not fix her or her situation with my love for her. I decided to be there, listen to her and solve whatever problems I could. I wanted to take her off her cross. Oddly enough, that would not have been loving.

Real love always involves some suffering. By its very nature it involves attachment to who or what is loved and when that person or thing leaves, dies or deteriorates we suffer. That is not wrong, but it does hurt.

Love also involves longing. Built into our spirit is the desire to be united to what we love. We feel separation all the time. In developing our own identities we do so in relation to others who are separate from us. It is necessary and good to be our unique selves, but it is also taxing. We sometimes feel that we want to fall back into union with our mothers, or mother images of infancy so that we can get out from under all the responsibilities and worries of life. We also long to be truly known as we really are. We want unconditional love.  These feelings are in all of us and good in themselves. In this life our task is to become our true selves. We travel through a series of experiences which challenge and teach us. One of the things that draws us forward is the desire to be known and loved. God is in the midst of all these experiences — knowing and loving us. The more we see how God loves us into growth, the more we can love this way in our lives. This love can be both sensitive and harsh. If we mediate on the Gospels we can see these two expressions of love in the way that Jesus lived and how he related to people. We can see how he relates to us, to me.

This sense of God’s personal love for me is sustaining. Its gentle and challenging aspects make sense to me. In The Living Flame of  Love, John of the Cross, speaks of God wounding us to get our attention in order to purify and heal us. Love is not always pretty but it is the most important thing in life.

Public Domain image by Christina Spiegeland

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Posted by on Jun 2, 2012

The Fifth Gift: Courage

Courage comes from the Latin word for heart cor and the French coeur.  To have the heart for something means to be able to face something difficult or frightening and to persevere.  Courage therefore does not mean not being afraid.  It means to be afraid and go ahead and do the right thing anyway.  Plato, Aristotle and Cicero wrote about this virtue as well as others, just as the authors of the Bible did.  They and later philosophers and theologians recognized the importance of courage for the moral life.  Courage is considered the most important of the virtues by many because without it the others cannot be practiced consistently.

There is an interesting and important distinction between the non-Christian and the Christian traditions in the understanding of courage.  The Greeks, Romans, Buddhists, Taoists, Shintoists and others did not/do not believe in grace. They feel that if someone does not have courage, he or she has not been trained properly, has a psychological problem, has a physical illness or is being compromised or harassed by evil spirits. All or one of these may be true, but at base, Christianity teaches that true courage or heroism, which is not self-seeking, is a gift which builds on the other natural human efforts. Christianity often quotes St.  Thomas Aquinas’ famous teaching that “Grace builds on nature.”

In considering courage, the teachings of Aristotle make sense as a foundation. Courage can be taught to a great extent and moderation is important in exercising it.  A person does not have to take risks all the time or confront every fearful thing in order to be morally strong.  On the other hand, it is good to try new things, to face one’s fears and develop parts of the personality that are underdeveloped.  If I want to be able to dance I can take dancing lessons.  If I would like to be able to do public presentations I can get some personal coaching and feel more comfortable.  From the faith perspective, even these decisions are based on the work of the Spirit.  It is the life of the Spirit, the Paraclete, in the world which calls us and empowers us.

At times I may find truly upsetting or frightening situations in my path.  I may face an illness, the addictions of a child, or the possible loss of my job.  Being at peace or thinking clearly may be beyond me.  I can internalize this crisis and work on it by myself or I can consciously offer it to God and ask for help.  I can practice consciously giving it to God over and over and ask for light on it.

I can also use Discernment to identify if any motions are going on inside me that lead to distress.  These powerful negative thoughts can come from my own psychology but often they come from the Enemy (St. Ignatius of Loyola’s, term for the Devil) who loves to undermine us by introducing negative interpretations and scenarios.  St. Paul confronts these deceptions by reminding us that if at all possible we have to counter anything that does not bring peace.  I might be feeling fairly stable even in the middle of a crisis and all of a sudden a thought comes that is very scary.  The thought says: “This might happen.  That might happen.”  Someone who is seasoned in courage will immediately sweep away speculative frightened thinking.  The only thing that matters in a frightening life or event is the question addressed to God: “What should I be doing right now?”  Cultivating a prayer life all the time goes a long way later on when I need to center myself and ask God for courage.

Courage is a grace.  We get the grace when we need it.  The saints who have done heroic things or died as martyrs were given the grace for that at the time.

Courage also may be needed for non-crisis situations.  It may be needed for a long term commitment to something difficult.  Parents who find that they have given birth to a sick baby may need a lot of courage to live day-to-day with this struggling child.  Courage can be called fortitude or perseverance in this case. Caregivers who take care of a spouse with Alzheimers or any severe condition also have need of great courage in order to live out the other gifts of knowledge, understanding and wisdom.  In both cases,watching another suffer without becoming cynical requires the gift of courage.

It is sometimes startling how far life can challenge and stretch us.  The tragedies, injustice, and atrocities can almost strip us clean of hope and energy. Christ had the courage to take the side of goodness and it cost him his life. We can be called to extend ourselves and donate ourselves for the good of another.  Wisdom and Right Judgement can take us to the point of choice but the Gift of Courage will have to take us across the line.

For an excellent movie on courage rent Of Gods and Men about 7 Cistercian monks in Algeria — good casting — fantastic music.

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Posted by on May 31, 2012

A Fourth Gift of the Holy Spirit: Counsel or Right Judgement

A recent issue of the Costco Magazine, The Costco Connection, included an article on Sir James Dyson, inventor of the Dyson vacuum and an number of other products. The article described the history of the development of the vacuum as a way of also relating the process that Dyson went through in the development of his business and his values.  One of the most compelling aspects of the story was Dyson’s clarity about his decision to produce the best vacuum possible.  Sir James went through 13 years of failures (5,127 prototypes), near bankruptcy, 2 lawsuits, rejections, illicit copycats, and supply problems.  But, in it all he knew his concept was right.  He also did not mind working alone.  Now that his product is a huge success (number one in the UK) he is quite happy to let go of total control of his business to a group of engineers.  He is very involved but not hovering.  Dyson has never been concerned with a certain timeline for getting products from concept to marketing.  He told The Connection, “I don’t care how long things take.”  He also states: “Failure is to be celebrated–That’s how we learn.  I learned from each of my mistakes. That’s how I came up with a solution.  So I don’t mind failure.”  There is not a shred of religious talk in this article but it is in fact full of Gospel values and the basic principles of Right Judgement.

This gift of the Holy Spirit was exclusively referred to as Counsel” until the end of the 20th century.  The more recent use of “Right Judgement”  for this gift points to the balance needed in availing oneself of the gift.  “Counsel” has always emphasized the active need for and role of the Holy Spirit in determining the truth and making decisions.  The term “Right Judgement” emphasizes the role of the person.  In Catholic thinking, both God and the person are involved in the constant process of identifying what is real and what is best and correcting one’s course towards these.  Some religious groups emphasize either the sovereignty of God in the process or the sovereignty of the person. Catholicism holds both in balance.  The Tradition is sufficiently optimistic about humanity to affirm the role of free will and yet well aware enough of human weakness to affirm the need for grace.   Another term for this gift is Discernment.

James Dyson speaks of not being afraid of being alone, of failure, of learning new things, or of long processes.  With these values as his foundation, he is in a perfect place to make good decisions.  The only thing he is missing from this life stance is the place of God in his perceptions and actions.  Why does it matter that God be involved if Dyson is so successful and reportedly happy?

In the article, Sir James reports that he loves to invent and has a passion about setting one goal after another and working toward them.  All of that is fantastic on one level.  On another level, one could ask if a person might let God get a word in edgewise about the over-all direction of his life?  The surrender of that basic orientation of life is incomprehensible  to nonbelievers.  The idea that life is a dance with the Spirit is crazy to the successful person in the normal secular context.  Dyson is happy, so why bother with him?  My inclination is to leave him alone, but a large part of me has had a lot of experience with universal human limitation.  By definition, James Dyson (and all of us), does not have access to the sum of his full potential.  At this point, he is controlling all variables of his life as far as he perceives them.  The idea of consciously referring himself to a high reality is not in his view.

In seeking Right Judgement, a person first lives a life as open to the truth as possible.  With specific aspects of life, such as job, relationships, health, education, finances, civic involvement, or faith, a person is expected to do as much as possible to grow in knowledge of these things and self-knowledge in relation to these things.  Beyond this, he or she can bring these things to prayer.  Doing a daily exercise of putting different aspects of life or the way the day has gone in front of God can open up a type of detachment in which one can sort through how a specific part of one’s life or the whole day feels.  If I ask for an openness to my finances I may see that I fritter away money on creative projects that I end up not doing, supplies I never use.  If I ask for an openness to the truth of my health and consistently feel a kind of anxiety about how I eat, I can let this commitment to the truth carry me past the desire not to see the truth and ask to see why I am troubled.  I may like to collect things, but I may never face the fact that as long as I am in debt I should not be buying anything unnecessary. In Right Judgement, I learn to identify my feelings when I entertain helpful ideas or unhelpful ideas.

Two days ago I knew I needed to get gasoline for my car because I was going to go on a trip the next day.  As I got off the freeway to go to a store, I approached a gas station I know well and a voice inside me said that I should go in there right now and get gas.  I absolutely, positively did not want to do that.  I was tired and sick of errands and obligations and wanted to continue up the street to the last errand and get that over with.  I would get gas later (in some vague gas station– who knows where?).  This was just a bald case of procrastination.  My brain forced me off the road into the gas station.  I saw an inner vision of a taller me as a parental figure leaning over me saying, “You will be so messed up tomorrow if you don’t get gas today.  You will be yelling at yourself as you pay 20 cents more per gallon for gas in San Francisco!!  Go get the d…n gas and quit whining.  You will feel so much better.”   It is the same inner conversation when calling for a dental appointment, walking the dogs two miles, or setting up my durable power of attorney.  I do not want to deal with complications (as if procrastinating on these things will not create any complications!). Right Judgement helps us identify the feelings around the truth versus the feelings prompted by false reasons to do or not do something. With Right Judgement I ask God to send me whatever imagery or feelings will clarify what is His will and what is best for me.

Right Judgement always involves self knowledge.  We often choose out of very deep desires and fears.  If I recognize that I am in pain over never being noticed in my family, then I will understand why I often get depressed at bigger family gatherings.  I will see that I can be quite happy being in the same room with these insensitive people or on a inner tube in a murky river with them if I bond with someone like my sister-in-law or a cousin.  With Right Judgement I will begin to see if I regularly surrender appropriate control of life to overbearing people.  I might see that I give up on things I want for myself legitimately before I even begin to figure out how I might get them.  I will feel the difference between longings I should pursue and guilt or laziness I should ignore.

We can ask for and receive this inner feedback at any time.  We may not want to hear or feel the motions of the Spirit versus our own appetites or emotions, but they are there all the same.  The more we obey the loving, healthy voice, the easier it gets.  Thanks be to God!

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Posted by on May 23, 2012

The Feast of Pentecost, The Holy Spirit and The Seven Gifts: Why it Matters

Today more than ever we dig deep within to center ourselves around calm and inner peace.  We don’t do this to tranquilize ourselves. We do this to be in the best possible position to live fully.  For believers, this includes seeking a real growing relationship with God.  There is a dance going on between our decisions and actions and God’s involvement in our lives, a dance which we call grace.  We have freedom and gifts.  God has insight, power and ingenuity.  If we consent to His involvement in our lives, He can move us into positive places we cannot even imagine.

The person of the Trinity whom we identify as a creative and loving agent of action and change is the Holy Spirit.  This person is believed to be the action of God in the world — both visible and invisible.  One of the names for the Holy Spirit is the Paraclete.  This is an ancient Greek word meaning “one who consoles, uplifts, comforts.”  In the New Testament it also is translated as “helper” and “advocate.”  The Holy Spirit or Paraclete is the divine reality whom we celebrate on Pentecost.  “Pentecost” comes from the word “pente” meaning fifty which refers to 50 days after Easter. At the Last Supper Jesus said he was going to send us the Paraclete.  He let us know that this third person of the Trinity, who expresses the love between the Father and the Son, would be the spirit of Christ operative in the created world — that we would not be alone.

On Pentecost we focus on God as Paraclete in the world of space and time, of the particulars of life.  The Paraclete comforts and uplifts us by working in us and in our lives to give us greater holiness and power for good in the world.  We speak of the work the Paraclete does in us as the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit.  We are going to take a look at all seven in a series of posts.  In the Bible there are a number of lists of  spiritual gifts of the Holy Spirit. They can be found in Isaiah 11, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, and 1 Peter. These are all indeed gifts of the Paraclete, but many of the “gifts” in these texts are roles and leadership skills that are gifted by God.  The Seven Gifts on which we will focus are basic qualities that all human persons need no matter what they do in life.  We are given these seven gifts at baptism but the Sacrament of Confirmation gives us to grace to live these fully out in the world of decision and action.

Knowledge is the first gift we will consider.  In the everyday world we use knowledge constantly.  It matters that I know how to get my car fixed or that it is important to check the oil periodically.  A dentist needs to know how to work on my teeth.  Knowledge as a gift of the Paraclete who wants to help us grow fully first includes the knowledge of God.  As we mature we will know God more and will also develop in our images, concepts, and feelings about God.  We will come to know ourselves better and better as well.  To the extent that we are open we will come to more and more realistic and energizing knowledge of God and ourselves.  If we fear God we may learn more positive things about God — maybe from talking to others.  If we are depressed we may find out why.  Much of this knowledge is from God.  We think we are learning on our own.  But, in fact, it is the Paraclete who is offering us knowledge all the time.  We have resistances in us and God is working all the time to help us see the truth, often a positive truth.  God presents ideas to us from different angles constantly and we can consent to be open to these prompts.  My eye may fall on a magazine in the doctor’s office and suddenly I can feel myself slightly more inclined to actually do exercise every day.  The ideas in the article, the knowledge, may have made it easier to see how I can move into a new life skill.

Knowledge of others is also a great gift.  I may not know why a neighbor or relative is so hard for me to get along with and then find out that he is in pain all the time.  I may then find out that the medication he is on has terrible side effects from a commercial on television.  Or, I may find out that an adult school near me has a watercolor class that is very reasonable in price.  I may need that for my emotional life.  The Paraclete is gifting us with knowledge internally and from external sources all the time.  We only need to consent to not try to control what the this Consoler sends our way. God sees us totally and knows what we need.  We can practice a daily Examen or a time of reflection on how things are going and ask to see what we need to see.  In that way we can receive the gift of knowledge and become more fully who we were born to be.

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