Advent and the Dark Night of the Soul

Today’s saint, St. John of the Cross, is known for his writings on the “dark night of the soul.” He was a man of prayer who was intimately close to God; however, he suffered a great deal throughout his life as he attempted to reform the Carmelite order. St. John, along with St. Teresa of Avila, sought to cultivate a way of life that fostered a greater closeness with God through prayer and sacrifice. They faced strong opposition, however, from those who did not want the Carmelites to change their ways. John was immersed in the experience of the Cross, facing imprisonment, unjust accusations, persecution, and abuse. For seeking to grow in holiness, he was treated like a criminal.

But John’s greatest legacy is not his initial zeal to reform the Carmelite order; rather, it is how he responded when his holy passion was met with censure and condemnation. He turned to poetry and prayer as a means of expressing the great sorrow he felt, and he began to reflect on how he could grow ever closer to Jesus through this experience of suffering. Faced with the bitter reality that even our purest, most faithful actions can be met with cruelty and indifference, and that bad things do, in fact, happen to good people, John refused to believe that God was not present in that darkness. He wrote of his experiences undergoing this dark night of the soul and how the light that dawned on the other end was brighter than anything he had experienced. By passing through the darkness, he came to know a more brilliant Light; by “dying to self,” he rose to new life. John assures us that while the spiritual life will bring suffering and pain, the dark night is not the end. It is preparing us for a greater glory to come.

How do we cultivate a real, lasting joy instead of the fleeting happiness that comes and goes with our ever-changing circumstances? Even when God is hidden to us—even, in fact, when we pass through a dark night of the soul—joy is ours for the taking. We struggle, of course, to have joy in times when we do not feel happy; but true joy is deeper than mere happiness. So what is this mysterious, profound joy that can transcend our outward emotions? It comes from God alone.

The saints exuded joy in every moment of their lives—even amidst intense suffering and grief. God wants us to have this unshakeable joy, too, to be sustained by His promises at every moment, come what may. When we are taken with the joy only God can provide, we know beyond any question that we are known and loved and deeply cherished by a Love that knows no bounds. He wants to sustain our flagging spirits with that boundless joy.

We cannot control our circumstances, but if we are deeply rooted in God’s Word and continue to remind ourselves of His promises, we will have a hope that endures beyond our earthly trials. The joy that remains will cause us to remain convinced of God’s presence and goodness, even as we walk through the deserts of life.

This weekend, we will light the rose-colored candle on our Advent wreaths as we celebrate Gaudete Sunday. Most of Advent is a time of quiet preparation, putting everything in order as Christmas draws near, making our hearts ready to receive the Christ child. But this coming week we will focus on joyful anticipation of the birth of Christ. The child has not yet arrived, but we are joyful and confident in His coming; even though we are yet in darkness, we celebrate the promise of the Light. We walk in the midst of darkest night, yet we cannot contain our joy—for the light has already dawned in our hearts.

Without having seen him you love him; though you do not now see him you believe in him and rejoice with unutterable and exalted joy.
—1 Peter 1:8

Cluttered Hearts

“O house of Jacob, come,
let us walk in the light of the LORD!” -Isaiah 2:5

Advent is upon us, and it seems like each year my heart cries out with more and more longing for the coming of our Savior.

Jesus, we need You.

We need You in our broken and hurting world full of darkness, sin, and deep, deep pain.

We need You to be the center of our families, our marriages, our friendships. We need You to heal our relationships with others.

We need You in our workplaces.

We need You in our bleeding Church; oh how we need You to make all things new and right. We need You to bind up our wounds, to bring mighty justice, to shine Your piercing light into the darkness of the appalling sin, shame, hiding, and cover-up, to direct our next steps and to guide us forward.

We need You in the messy parts of our hearts, the parts we are too ashamed to tell other people about, the parts You see and love us anyway.

We need You to uproot and cast out shame, fear, and distrust of Your goodness from our lives.

We need You in every inch of the world, in every part of our beings, in the deepest depths of our souls. Every minute, every hour, every second—we need You.

Dear brothers and sisters, Advent is a season full of hopeful expectation of God’s saving power. It’s a season of light shining forth in the darkness. As we light each new candle of the Advent wreath, may we allow that much more of the light of Christ to pierce our hearts and renew us.

The other day in prayer, I imagined Jesus knocking on the door of the home of my heart, like a guest that comes forty-five minutes before the party when you’re still cleaning and haven’t showered. I imagined myself panic-stricken, trying to shove certain things behind the couch. And there He stood before me, smiling, seeing right through my couch cushions to all the mess and sin that I tried to hide. Yet He responded with nothing but tenderness. His kindness leads to our conversion.

We need to let Jesus in before we feel ready. Sometimes we need Him to help point out where we need to grow, and sometimes we need the affirmation of knowing that He loves us just the same no matter what mess we have in our hearts. He takes us as we are. When we let our Savior in, prepared or not, He speaks to our cluttered and weary hearts, “You are good. You are seen. You are known. I love you fully, as you are.”

At Midnight, in Bethlehem, in Piercing Cold

Today begins the St. Andrew Christmas Novena, also called the Christmas Anticipation Prayer. I first heard about this tradition a few years ago, and it’s a really beautiful prayer:

Hail and blessed be the hour and moment in which the Son of God was born of the most pure Virgin Mary, at midnight, in Bethlehem, in the piercing cold. In that hour, vouchsafe, O my God! to hear my prayer and grant my desires, through the merits of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of His Blessed Mother. Amen.

Traditionally, this prayer is recited fifteen times a day, beginning on November 30, the Feast of St. Andrew, and finishing on Christmas Eve. It is a meditative prayer, helping us to place ourselves in Bethlehem and focus on the coming of the Christ child as we prepare for Christmas. Praying with this novena has given me a richer awareness of God throughout the Advent and Christmas seasons. It helps me to connect my own present experiences and petitions with the miracle of the incarnation.

Last year, I created a lock screen for my phone with the novena prayer written on it, so that throughout the day, whenever I checked my phone, I would see the novena and be reminded to pray it. I’ll share it with you here, in case any of you need the same reminder!

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Wishing you all a blessed Advent!

Unceasingly

“As Jesus approached Jericho
a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging,
and hearing a crowd going by, he inquired what was happening.
They told him,
“Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.”
He shouted, “Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me!”
The people walking in front rebuked him,
telling him to be silent,
but he kept calling out all the more,
“Son of David, have pity on me!”
Then Jesus stopped and ordered that he be brought to him;
and when he came near, Jesus asked him,
“What do you want me to do for you?”
He replied, “Lord, please let me see.”
Jesus told him, “Have sight; your faith has saved you.”
He immediately received his sight
and followed him, giving glory to God.
When they saw this, all the people gave praise to God.” (Luke 18:35-43)

Dear friends, I cannot tell you the number of times my prayers for certain intentions have dwindled over time because they’ve gone seemingly unanswered. I get disheartened, listen to that tiny voice of despair telling me to doubt God’s faithfulness, and don’t pray about it as much—and not out of surrender, but out of fear, out of feeling unworthy.

Mea culpa. Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me.

The blind man in today’s Gospel was persistent in his cry for Jesus. He, a beggar, an outcast and someone seen as less-than, didn’t doubt that Jesus would hear and answer him because of who he was. Even when the crowd told him to be silent, they couldn’t stifle the outcry of his prayer.

When people tell us to give up, when the world screams that God isn’t good, we cannot cease our prayer. When we pray steadfastly, we allow the steadfast love of God to enter our hearts. We renew our trust in Him each time we cry out to Him. We proclaim how much we need a Savior.

In acknowledging Jesus as the “Son of David,” the blind man is declaring that Jesus Christ is Lord, that as the Son of David, He is the Messiah. This shows his great faith in who Jesus is.

Even though the man couldn’t see Jesus and the miracles He was working before his sight was restored, he had faith. He believed that Jesus is the Savior. When we can’t see what God is up to or when our prayers seem ignored, we can have faith that Jesus hasn’t left the picture. He never abandons us, and He always hears and answers our prayers.

One of my favorite worship songs, “The King of My Heart,” has a line that says, “You’re never going to let me down.” Has God ever let us down? Even in the darkest moments, no. Will God ever let us down? No, we can trust in His unending love. We can pray unceasingly, knowing that God is with us, fulfilling our every need.

What’s For Dinner?

I used to think that my name, Grace, was a bit of irony from God.  But I have come to realize that it is in fact the best name for me.  Not because I am graceful (ha!), nor because I am full of it, but because it is what we say before food.  Even not-yet-two Zippy knows this.  When they tell her: “Say Hi to Aunt Grace!” she tries to make the sign of the cross, thinking that food must be coming.  And that’s about right.

As a lover of food, I can’t help but find today’s Gospel rather puzzling.  Who, when invited to a royal banquet, would prefer lesser things?  Who would say No to the promise of such a feast?  Who indeed.

The invitation to faith is the invitation to trust in the goodness of God. It is the invitation to reverse the sin of Eden, to reverse the decision to doubt, to reverse the decision to choose lesser but attractive foods.

True faith is trust in the goodness of God, in His Providence for us in all things.  It is also trust in the desires that He Himself gives us.

In C.S. Lewis’s novel Perelandra, a man named Ransom finds himself in a new paradise.  He is in a world of floating islands, filled with trees bearing the most wonderful fruits he has ever tasted.  Every need is provided for in this new Eden, but there is one catch.  Because the islands are floating, constantly changing, it is impossible to “save,” to “keep,” to “hold on to for future use” anything at all.  The Tempter comes, proposing an alternative: A Fixed Land.  The choice is proposed: trust in continued Providence, or choose the safety of control.

It is easy to know the right choice, turning pages from the comfort of an easy chair, with my cup of coffee and a chocolate chip muffin still warm in my belly.

But when the hunger sets in—and I have nothing saved for myself—do I still trust?

What if the hunger is itself food, itself a gift?

In the song Blessings Laura Story wonders if our sufferings—the “rain, the storms, the hardest nights” are in fact blessings in disguise.  But then she goes a step further:

…All the while, You hear each spoken need

Yet love us way too much to give us lesser things

…What if my greatest disappointments

Or the aching of this life

Is the revealing of a greater thirst this world can’t satisfy?

We all know that sometimes things that seem to be evil can turn out to be good.  But what if the longing for good, the thirst for God, is itself a good to be sought?  What if hunger is a gift?

C.S. Lewis argues that desire for heaven is one of the proofs for the existence of God.  He notes that all desires have a corresponding means of fulfillment on this earth, all but one—our desire for eternity.  “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world” he concludes.

St. Augustine is known for saying “our hearts are restless oh Lord, until they rest in thee.”  He wrote extensively on the longing for God—and held that the longing itself increased the soul’s capacity for God.

“The deeper our faith, the stronger our hope, the greater our desire, the larger will be our capacity to receive the gift, which is very great indeed…The more fervent the desire, the more worthy will be its fruits. When the Apostle tells us: Pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:16), he means this: Desire unceasingly that life of happiness which is nothing if not eternal, and ask it of Him alone who is able to give it.”

Saint Thérèse  of Lisieux lived total confidence in God, was confident that He would make her a saint, in spite of her littleness.  She believed that her desire for God was itself a pledge, that He would not give her very great desires if He did not mean to fill them: “I am certain, then, that You will grant my desires; I know O my God! That the more You want to give, the more You make us desire.”

Indeed, many saints have written that as they have ascended the heights of holiness, plumbed the depths of prayer, that their desire for God, rather than being satiated, was only increased.

May we be fed today with renewed hunger for God.  See you at the feast!

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Photo attribution: Banquet in the House of Levi © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro 

The Cave

Jesus said to the crowds,
“When you see a cloud rising in the west
you say immediately that it is going to rain–and so it does;
and when you notice that the wind is blowing from the south
you say that it is going to be hot—and so it is.
You hypocrites!
You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky;
why do you not know how to interpret the present time?
—Luke 12:54–56

In the daily rush of work deadlines and subway delays, I often lose touch with an awareness of God’s presence. I’m so focused on my own plans and worries that I’m not really looking for Him. To use the analogy Jesus tells the crowds in today’s Gospel, if the “signs of the time” are being revealed through rising clouds and blowing winds, I’m not even looking up at the sky. I’ve closed myself off into a cave of my own complacency, safe from the winds but unable to hear the voice of God speaking to me through Creation. My desire for normalcy is greater than my desire for intimacy with God, and so I fall into a routine of keeping the status quo.

So how do I begin to take those first steps out of the cave and into the light? I think the most important step is to move beyond perfunctory prayer and to be truly honest and open with God. I know that I can fall into the habit of treating prayer as a chore to be completed rather than a conversation to engage in. As in any human relationship, if we come to each encounter with an agenda, then we aren’t able to fully see the other person and simply appreciate them for who they are. I’m trying to find more times in my week when I can simply be with God, without any agenda. My requests and petitions can come later; first I need to soak in His presence, and then everything else will flow from that.

And when we are attentive to the signs of God’s presence, we are called to point them out to others, to wake them up out of their own complacencies and reveal to them the beauty that surrounds us all and the greatness to which we are called.

Living in the Spirit, Following the Spirit

Brothers and sisters:
If you are guided by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
Now the works of the flesh are obvious:
immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry,
sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy,
outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness,
dissensions, factions, occasions of envy,
drinking bouts, orgies, and the like.
I warn you, as I warned you before,
that those who do such things will not inherit the Kingdom of God.
In contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace,
patience, kindness, generosity,
faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
Against such there is no law.
Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified their flesh
with its passions and desires.
If we live in the Spirit, let us also follow the Spirit.
—Galatians 5:18-25

Do you ever catch yourself reading a Scripture verse and thinking, “Okay that seems obvious”? Or maybe a better way to phrase the phenomenon is glazing over a verse here or there because it just seems too…straightforward? Easy to digest? Unremarkable?\

Sure, you do. We all do, we all know the feeling. It’s happens all the time when our minds wander, and sometimes even when you’re pretty well focused. That happened to me with today’s first reading.

Luckily, I caught myself this time. Do I really think St. Paul was redundant? Should I really write him off as an over-communicator? Of course not.

So I went back to the last verse of the reading: If we live in the Spirit, let us also follow the Spirit. Straightforward, no? Yet what happens if we break this verse down grammatically? If I believe and profess that the Bible is the written Word of God, then every sentence, and possibly every word, should get this treatment. There are so many “levels” on which you can read Scripture, and God can speak to you through all of them! Read a chapter for the story, or meditate on a single sentence or passage a la lectio divina; the Spirit speaks either way.

So. Back to today’s verse: If we live in the Spirit, let us also follow the Spirit.

Why wouldn’t somebody be doing both? Why does it need to be stated?

As Catholics, what does it look like to live in the Spirit? The most obvious response is being a regular participant/recipient of the Sacraments. Jesus instituted the Sacraments as vehicles of grace, aka the gifts of the Spirit. Regular Mass-goers, you can check this one off: you, in a technical sense, could be considered to be living in the Spirit (if you go to Confession, and if you are not in a state of sin; big ifs)

If we’re living in the Spirit, it does not mean that we are necessarily following the Spirit. Participating and receiving do not mean that we are listening. If we are to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven, do we need to receive the Holy Spirit? Absolutely. Is that enough by itself? Not at all.

“Following the Spirit” can have two related meanings: discerning God’s will in your life (i.e. following as a guide) and acting in accordance with His law (i.e. following as a rule). How often do we participate, but do not seek time in prayer for the Spirit to speak on a personal life decision? How often do we pray before a difficult conversation? A meeting at work?

These two elements, living in the Spirit and following the Spirit, are symbiotic and necessary. The grace of the Sacraments will flow into and inform our prayer and actions, and our prayer and actions inspire a greater desire for the Sacraments.

In addition to seeking out ways you can more deeply live in and follow the Spirit in your life, I ask that you say a special prayer for those who attend Mass regularly, but God does not have a central place in their lives otherwise. Pray that the Spirit would enkindle in them a new fire of love for Christ.