Lately, I have been really busy. Spring has sprung and with it...LIFE! With the end of the school year comes vegetable gardens, chicken butchering, the ongoing battle with taming the weeds on our little corner of the 28 acres, and the inevitable run-in with ticks, bees, and dive-bombing barn swallows. This is also the time designed by God for us to pray the traditional novena to the Holy Ghost.
Spring always has a powerful effect on me. I chalk it up to my farming ancestors and the need to work harder and longer during these weeks of planting. The windows of opportunity to get seed in the ground are small, and the farmer is ever aware of the quality of the soil and sun. Spring is the time God has set for planting, not only in the field of the earth, but also in the field of eternity. We celebrate the joy of Easter, but ultimately, the Holy Ghost is coming to finally give life to the seed that was planted on Good Friday ("unless a seed falls to the ground and die..."). Pentecost is the great feast of establishing the Kingdom of God in the power and courage that was hidden in the hearts of Peter, John, and the rest of the Apostles.
I have often had a problem with those that have called recent years or events, "a New Springtime". Whether it was Pope John Paul II calling for a new springtime in the Church or those calling the modern revolutions in the east, the Arab Spring. It always struck me as odd...in the Church it seemed like the hem was coming loose and more and more dissent was becoming metastasized in the Church (think Georgetown today?!) How was this a Springtime? As to the Arab Spring, well, it may well become a Christian Autumn in the Middle East. All of this being said, I have recently reflected upon springtime and may see what the Holy Father was trying to inspire.
Springtime is a time for planting, fertilizing, growth, new life, etc, etc etc. To use some old scholastic philosphical terminology, Spring is the great time of potentiality. The seed holds within it potential to become a verdant head of lettuce. The egg holds within it the potential to become a chick, then a full grown chicken, and then dinner for my family. The Apostles held this potentiality in themselves from Christ breathing on them in the upper room. We hold potentiality within us from our Baptism to become all that God desires of us. As Christian men, we hold within ourselves the great potential to become the priest, prophet, and king of our family and of turning our little corner of the world to the good God that has made us.
All of this potential is what ultimately makes Spring great. I often laugh at the image of the pessimistic farmer (yep, they are all around). What is funny is that, although he may be pessimistic, he still tills...he still plants...he still fertilizes...and yes, he still harvests the crop in due season. Many of us may also be pessimistic in our attitudes about ourselves, our kids, our wives, our families. We seem to be stuck and can't change our ways. We are stuck in our addictions to entertainment, food, pleasure, and selfishness. Spring tells us, "Don't give up...just plant some seed...watch it grow!" God is telling us, "If you have died with me, so you shall be raised up with me." All the potentiality of our Baptism is there, waiting for us to pray and act. Pentecost will see the great germination of the seed of our Baptism if only we will let it grow.
Today is the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. On a feast like this we celebrate all of the Carmelites that have blessed our lives, such as St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. Terese the Little Flower (and of course, all of those secular Carmelite Saints). I thought it would be fun to think of the littlest one, the one called the Little Flower...perfect for a site entitled ChristianManhood.org!
I have always been intrigued by this little girl who forces the hands of all of the tough guys around her so that she can hide herself in the Lord's secret garden. Her father, Louis, was a simple and holy man was her first example of a holy man, and I believe this helped her to achieve her level of sanctity...but this post isn't about him. Her mother Zelie, along with Louis, was a secular Franciscan, and was undoubtedly a holy woman...but this post isn't about her either. While we usually speak about men and family issues, I was thinking, this little girl has something to teach us men about prayer and holiness.
Do you know about St. Therese's Little Way? Do you try to live it? While I could go through her autobiography and pick out all the nuances of her spirituality that led her to be proclaimed a Doctor of the Church, I am going to keep it simple, just like her. The two things that stand out, particularly for us men are the following:
1. Simple Prayer
2. Simple Sacrifice
St. Therese had a great way of looking at her relationship with God. She wanted to be closer to Him everyday so that she could simply "gaze" upon Him. As men, we may find ourselves struggling with "wordy" prayer and becoming uncomfortable when put in a position to have to "ad lib" a "spontaneous" prayer publicly. We may also find ourselves unable to get comfortable with long, dictated prayers or other pre-written forms. This cuts to the root of how God made us as men to communicate. We (generally speaking) don't communicate emotionally without forcing it. We prefer to sit in the canoe fishing quietly as opposed to sharing intimate feelings with our pals. This, of course, drives our wives crazy, because they are wired differently and communicate emotionally all the time. Their gaze is inward, ours is on the horizon.
This way that God has designed us is, of course, perfect for us. This gazing outward is a wonderful way to pray. For the past couple of weeks, my wife and I have gone for rosary walks in the evening and are always blessed by the sunsets over the open fields on the top of our property. I look at the clouds and bless the Lord, my gaze drawn from the physical world to God. This simple way of "glorying" in God's creation is humbling and a great starting point for deeper prayer. This gazing can also be used in Eucharistic Adoration, gazing upon religious Icons ("windows to heaven"), or by just acknowledging God's presence in other persons.
The beauty of this type of prayer is that one doesn't need to complicate it with many words. I can simply "gaze" and maybe add a few phrases to keep my attention, such as "Praise God", or "God have mercy". These phrases were traditionally called "aspirations" and spring from a heart focused on God. These short prayers can also be used to gain a spirit of recollection during one's workday, the most famous being the long form, "Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, Have mercy on me, a sinner!" These are all simple ways of growing our relationship with God - aka Prayer.
The second thing that Little St. Therese can teach us tough guys is how to live a life of sacrifice. If you haven't read her autobiography, The Story of a Soul, do it NOW! This little girl combines the focus of a person set upon her goal (life in the Carmelite monastery, and ultimately Heaven) and yet does this without willfulness. She constantly accepted little sacrifices, and it was in this that she gained her great holiness. When one of the nuns was asked to fix her favorite meal (since her health was failing), the nun responded that she had no idea what her favorite meal was because she never complained. For the nuns around her, St. Therese had no specific tastes at the dinner table, but in truth, there were things she liked and didn't like.
I often think of this when my wife serves something not totally suiting my tastes. I have a choice of accepting the little sacrifice and complimenting her cooking, or I can complain, acting like the overbearing bull that most feminists "see" manly patriarchs as. One is a way that brings about the Kingdom of God, the other the kingdom of "me"! It is these little sacrifices, that St. Therese has taught us, are the way to move us further and further away from ourselves and the world, and closer to God.
So, as big, tough guys, let us embrace the Way of the Little Flower. Be simple. Be prayerful. Be Holy. Be a Man!
I recently stumbled upon this quote from Pope Benedict said during his Wednesday Audience:
"Dear newlyweds," he said, "I offer the heartfelt wish that you learn to pray together, so that your love be ever truer and lasting."
Praying together as a couple - ah...yes. My wife and I just celebrated our 14th wedding anniversary, yes, fourteen years and seven children later we are the models of Christian parenthood and marital bliss - right? As it is with most "ideals" we are no where near attaining anything slightly resembling sanctity and bliss, but we do try, at least occasionally!
As newlyweds, fresh out of the fire of Steubenville we had high ideals inspired in us by the likes of Steve Wood and Scott Hahn. We were going to take the world by storm through our little family. We were going to be hardcore saints dedicated to life, love, and the pursuit of holy poverty. We went to confession before our wedding, danced to Christian music at our reception, and prayed upon our marital bed on our honeymoon. We were young and strong and full of foolish notions as to what life would dish out. Within a year we couldn't even talk about the faith, let alone pray together.
After our courtship being so full of prayer and centered around the faith, we found ourselves a year into marriage completely lost when it came to sharing our faith. When my wife would speak of her prayer time or of some aspect of the faith it was like I was hearing a Sherpa from Mongolia speak about the trails heading to his favorite hunting spot...I just couldn't understand or process what she was saying. I am guessing it was much the same for Katie, but more like the Sherpa was a deaf-mute.
Over the past 14 years we have had grande moments of prayerful exaltation, but the daily grind is something completely different. We have through caution to the wind and packed all our belongings and moved across the country based upon what we thought God wanted us to do... and yet we still struggle with hearing His Voice everyday. Prayer is such a personal thing. It is such a powerful thing. It is such a misunderstood thing. Prayer is like going for a walk with a friend to a nearby lake - some like to take notes along the way, some like to quietly listen as their friend speaks, some like to speak more than listen, some like to just hold hands and walk along quietly, some like to run to the lake, while others like to leave the beaten path and ramble along slowly. Marriage is ultimately learning to do all of these things with the beloved, together.
In Our Lord's wisdom He has given us the Holy Mass. Of course, for the prayerful couple, this is the Source and Summit of all their other prayer. How do we pray together at Mass as a couple? Mostly we just juggle children, try to keep as many of them as we can from either leaving the pew, cracking their head on the pew in front of us, and generally keeping the peace as we attempt to witness the greatest Act of Worship. This in itself is a powerful lesson for us. At Mass we are not trying to control the Act of Worship, but rather are embracing the Act of Christ's worship of the Father. We "assist" at Mass through our joining of our hearts and minds to Christ's. Praying together as a couple starts here, and ends here.
Here are a couple lessons we can learn from the Holy Mass:
1. Prayer is both internal and external - it requires mind and body. Prayer starts with the rote and regular, which gives the space and opportunity for rich internal prayer.
2. While we are all different and have different ways of praying, communal prayer is required to join our acts of praise together. The fact that the Holy Mass includes nothing spontaneous gives us comfort by allowing us a framework to come to know Christ. We could never come to really love our spouse if his/her personality changed on a daily basis. Regular, standard ways of praying as a family bring comfort in routine.
3. Spiritual fruit from Holy Mass requires constant tending. The saints say that one should start to prepare for their next Holy Mass as soon as one leaves the church. In other words, all of our spiritual life culminates at Mass, but it is also the start of our spiritual life. It is the same with our spousal relationship. The "garden" must be tended daily, lest weeds and lack of water destroy it.
4. There must be an "Alter Christus" to offer the act of worship. At Holy Mass, the priest acts in the place of Christ and makes Him present. In the home, the father must take the leadership role as catechist and familial priest. He must model the faith first, for his wife and children to follow. He should lead all prayers, at least as much as possible. This is a challenge, no doubt, but the fruit is worth it.
The framework given to us by the Church can free us from the constraints of having to "make up" prayers and para-liturgies in the home, but it does not allow us to be lazy. Prayer oftentimes has to start as an act of work before it can become an act of worship. Praying together as a couple and family can be a challenge to overcome, but I believe this is why our gentle Pope Benedict is asking us to do it: it is a sacrificial act that ultimately bears fruit through faithfulness. We are not all the same, nor are we supposed to be...it is bearing with one another and praying throughout life that "love be ever truer and lasting!"