In April 2005, at the time of Pope John Paul II’s death, I was only a few months into my seminary studies. The whole College assembled in the refectory to watch his funeral, but I have no memory of it.
I can picture the Book of Gospels on his coffin, blown open by the wind. And I can recall then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s evocative homily, describing the late pope standing at the window of his room in the Father’s house, bestowing a blessing upon us. But those moments are easily relived on Youtube, so it may be repeated viewings that engrained them in my memory, not a recollection of the funeral itself.
A few weeks later, the seminary cohort again assembled in the Cluny refectory, again around the big screen, to watch the inauguration of Pope Benedict XVI. I remember that occasion much better, if only because a wide selection of German beers were available at the bar!
It’s hard to believe this all happened ten years ago. Some of the current crop of seminarians were still in primary school. That may not be the case for first year seminarian Andrew Kwiatkowski. I think he was already in secondary school — but only just! In this latest instalment of Corpus Christi College’s video series on the saints, Andrew recalls his own memories of the pope’s funeral, and the impact the great man had on him.
Andrew’s reflections remind me of a newly published book that one of the third year seminarians, James Baptist, has highly recommended to me: St John Paul the Great: his five loves, by Jason Evert. It is especially suited to young people, most of whom have a limited memory of John Paul II, and no attachment to him.
This book, James tells me, changes that. It fosters in a new generation of Catholic youth the sort of love and affection which my own generation had for our dear Holy Father. It’s on my reading list; add it to yours!
The Year of Mercy logo is not very beautiful. I’d go so far as to say it’s ugly. But I wouldn’t go to the stake on that claim. Horses for courses.
Nonetheless, I do like some of the symbolism behind the logo. It most obviously evokes the parable of the Good Shepherd, carrying the lost sheep on his shoulders:
I think we can draw four points out of today’s gospel which are very pertinent to the year of mercy, and more specifically, to our response to God’s mercy.
1. Bartimaeus knew he was blind; he seeks God’s help.
Bartimaeus calls out; he requests help. When the Lord asks him, “what do you want me to do for you?” he doesn’t hesitate. “Rabbuni, let me see again.”
Do we know our own blindness? Can we view our neighbours as God views them? That’s true vision. Just as importantly, can we see ourselves as Jesus sees us?
2. The world turns against Bartimaeus; he defies the world.
When the crowd turns on him, Bartimaeus is very vulnerable. He is blind, he is surrounded by hostile forces, but still he perseveres. Any faith worthy of the name requires the same sort of courage.
Faith starts with the humility of recognising ourselves as needy of salvation, it entails interior and exterior struggle, and it culminates in an intimate encounter with Jesus. There is no intimacy without vulnerability. Intimacy is what God seeks, and our vulnerability is its catalyst.
This is one of the reasons the Church doesn’t countenance general absolution, except in emergencies. Sacramental confession models the life of faith: recognising one’s needs, making oneself vulnerable, and seeking an intimate encounter with the Lord.
3. Jesus stops and gives Bartimaeus personal attention.
The decisive moment in today’s Gospel is this direct, personal encounter between God and man. They are face to face: God with his desire to heal, and Bartimaeus with his desire to be healed. Two freedoms; two converging desires.
Bartimaeus receives physical healing, but I bet a spiritual healing occurs too. Perhaps his intimate encounter with the Lord enables him to see the world as our Lord sees it. What a wondrous gift of sight that would be! That’s why I think of today’s Gospel when I contemplate a particular detail of the Year of Mercy logo:
One particular feature worthy of note is that while the Good Shepherd, in his great mercy, takes humanity upon himself, his eyes are merged with those of man. Christ sees with the eyes of Adam, and Adam with the eyes of Christ.
I think divine mercy is just like that. Nothing is more pleasing to God, than us seeking and him ministering his divine mercy. But having received his mercy, we’re then commissioned to exercise his mercy. We receive healing and power – power to love our enemies: to pray for them; to show them affection. “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
4. Bartimaeus followed Jesus along the road.
The Gospel ends with Bartimaeus’s conversion. Mark says he followed Jesus along the road. He followed in the way and the truth and the life of Jesus. That’s the metaphorical meaning.
The literal meaning, though, is no less resonant. Immediately after this healing, our Lord locates a donkey, and rides into Jerusalem on a carpet of palms. In less than a week, Jesus is dead. So Bartimaeus literally follows Jesus to the cross.
It’s good for us to remember that, and imitate it of course. There comes a time in every life when suffering is unavoidable, and death awaits us all. Our task as Christians is to unite our suffering and death with the Lord’s. Then our own crosses become part of the Lord’s redemptive sacrifice, bringing graces to others, and shedding mercy on the whole world.
Contemplatio translates as contemplation, but really this is one best left in the Latin.
A good definition of contemplatio is “the mind and the soul suspended in God.” It is knowing Jesus in the most sublime fashion; a preview of the Beatific Vision; a taste of the Heavenly Banquet. I think this is often what beginners imagine prayer to be. A tangible closeness with God. An experience. Something we feel, rather than something we do. But we have no agency in contemplatio. It is absolute grace — a gift from God which many souls receive frequently, and other souls receive very rarely. It is never a measure of holiness or progress in the spiritual life.
For example, take Mother Teresa. At the age of 36, when she was a Loreto sister, then-Sister Teresa received extraordinary graces and consolations which ultimately inspired her to leave the Loreto convent and found the Missionaries of Charity. But once that work had begun, the Lord withdrew from her. By all accounts, for the rest of her life — fifty years, except for a three week respite in 1958 — her prayer was desolate. She confided to her spiritual director that she felt no presence of God whatsoever, neither in her heart, nor in the eucharist.
Where is my faith? Even deep down … there is nothing but emptiness and darkness … If there be a God — please forgive me. When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul … How painful is this unknown pain — I have no Faith. Repulsed, empty, no faith, no love, no zeal, … What do I labour for? If there be no God, there can be no soul. If there be no soul then Jesus, you also are not true.
Mother Teresa, Come Be My Light, p. 193.
You might recall, when these recollections were first published, that it caused sensation in the secular press, and it caused scandal among some of the faithful. Don’t Mother Teresa’s doubts expose a lack of faith and holiness?
The answer is no. The Lord withdrew his consolations, which meant that Mother Teresa never attained the heights of contemplatio. But still she was faithful to her apostolic work with the poor, and she was faithful to her prayer. Every day, without exception, she practiced lectio and meditatio and oratio. Every day. And she insisted her daughters do the same. The daily rule of life for Missionaries of Charity includes an hour of oratio in the morning, and an hour and three quarters of of lectio, meditatio, and Eucharistic adoration in the afternoon.
So that’s contemplatio. Don’t despair if you have never reached this, even after years of effort. Contemplatio is pure gift; it is never earned, and it is not a measure of holiness. Many of the saints were deprived of it.
Oratio transliterates as “prayer”, but obviously our word “prayer” is a catch all. Lectio and Meditatio and Contemplatio are also forms of prayer.
Oratio is more specifically the heart’s reaching out to God. The heart is the seat of the will. This is where we choose God or ourselves. Where we choose good or evil.
If in lectio we engage with the senses (touching the page, reading the text), and in meditatio we engage with the intellect (asking questions, imagining the scene), in oratio we engage with the will.
Oratio is often called “mental prayer,” but that’s misleading because we’re not talking about thinking at this point. That’s meditatio. I think the best modern translation of oratio is “interior prayer.”
This is where we enter into conversation with our Lord. St Teresa of Avila puts it this way:
“Oratio in my opinion is nothing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us.”
Teresa of Avila, The Book of Her Life, 8,5.
It means applying what we have read and thought and imagined to our present and our future. We might share some thought, or ask for a grace or favour, or make a resolution to act or think some way. (This is naturally what happens, when we’re in the company of anyone we love.)
Because our normal interactions with people we love are incarnate, but in the Lord’s case we’re dealing with someone who is invisible to our senses, I think oratio is the hardest type of prayer. Harder than lectio and meditatio, anyway. But like going to the gym, it gets easier with practice. The senses can be trained to permit the interior silence which facilitates focus on the Lord.
“You will only have to make a sign to show that you wish to enter into recollection and the senses will obey and let themselves be recollected.”
Teresa of Avila, The Way of Perfection, ch. 28.
Still, Teresa is adamant that oratio is something we will, not something mystical.
“You must understand that this is not a supernatural state, but depends on our will, and that, by God’s favor, we can enter it of our own accord. . . . For this is not a silence of the faculties; it is an enclosing of the faculties within itself by the soul.”
Teresa of Avila, The Way of Perfection, ch. 29.
Don’t find time, make time
That means that we should schedule oratio into the day. It also means that if we scheduled ten minutes, we don’t abandon ship at seven minutes. We have to persevere! My old seminary confrere and well-known priest, Fr Rob Galea, has a good rule. He schedules a very precise 31 minutes of prayer to eliminate the temptation, during a hard slog, to round up 26 or 27 minutes to “half an hour.”
Find somewhere quiet
Ideally, we sit before the tabernacle. But remember, “pray as you can, not as you ought.” Oratio can be done at home — before an icon or holy image. It can be done in the bush or on a mountain top. As long as the place is quiet and lends itself to conversation with God.
If you prefer sitting to kneeling, then sit. If an extreme temperature distracts you, then turn on the heater or air conditioning. Oratio is not the time to mortify the senses. Remember, we need to train ourselves to quieten the senses, so that we can focus our will on God.
Now I can do all this — schedule time, find somewhere quiet, get comfortable — and then conduct a monologue. It’s very easy to think about myself, imagine conversations with other people, and plan my next meal. Hardly a raising up of my heart to God. So St Teresa gives one more word of advice:
BRING A BOOK!
The fuel for oratio, and the greatest protection against monologue, are the previous steps I blogged on: lectio and meditatio.
As Saint Augustine puts it:
“Your prayer is the word you speak to God. When you read the Bible, God speaks to you; when you pray, you speak to God.”
Augustine, Enarrationes in Psalmos, 85, 7: PL 37, 1086.
Today is the Feast of St Teresa of Avila. She is arguably the most renowned and authoritative contemplative in the Church’s history, whom Pope Paul VI declared a Doctor of the Church in 1970.
Olek Stirrat, who is a seminarian at Corpus Christi College, describes St Teresa as “one of the most remarkable women the Church has ever seen.” He and his brother seminarian, Dean Taberdo, discuss the great “Doctor of Prayer” in this video.
It was produced by the very talented Adi Indra, yet another seminarian at Corpus Christi College. If, like me, you’d like to see more videos, encourage the guys with a comment at www.facebook.com/corpuschristimelbourne.
Meditatio is the second step in praying with the scriptures. The word is most obviously translated as meditation.
But the popular conception of ‘meditation’ is an Eastern conception which evokes ‘mindfulness’ or some other variation of emptying the mind. St Teresa of Avila warns against such practices:
“Some books advise that as a preparation for hearing what our Lord may say to us we should keep our minds at rest, waiting to see what He will work in our souls. But unless His Majesty has begun to suspend our faculties, I cannot understand how we are to stop thinking, without doing ourselves more harm than good.”
The Interior Castle, chapter 3
Christian meditatio is almost the direct opposite of Eastern meditation.In meditatio, the mind seeks to understand the mysteries of God. Far from emptying the mind, we engage with our reason and our imagination.
Scriptural meditatio is, I think, rather straightforward and easy for us moderns. It’s not much different to reading a newspaper and thinking about what we’ve read. Analysing it. Contemplating consequences. That’s engaging reason.
Or we can engage the imagination. The most famous proponent of imaginative meditatio is St Ignatius of Loyola. In more recent times, another Spanish saint — a compatriot of St Ignatius and St Teresa — and like them a holy founder, also practiced and encouraged imaginative meditatio. Here is St Josemaría Escriva’s description of meditatio:
“My advice is that, in your prayer, you actually take part in the different scenes of the Gospel, as one more among the people present. First of all, imagine the scene or mystery you have chosen to help you recollect your thoughts and meditate. Next apply your mind, concentrating on the particular aspect of the Master’s life you are considering — his merciful Heart, his humility, his purity, the way he fulfils his Father’s Will. Then tell him what happens to you in these matters, how things are with you, what is going on in your soul. Be attentive, because he may want to point something out to you, and you will experience suggestions deep in your soul, realising certain things and feeling his gentle reprimands.
“Make it a habit to mingle with the characters who appear in the New Testament. Capture the flavour of those moving scenes where the Master performs works that are both divine and human, and tells us, with human and divine touches, the wonderful story of his pardon for us and his enduring Love for his children. Those foretastes of Heaven are renewed today, for the Gospel is always true: we can feel, we can sense, we can even say we touch God’s protection with our own hands; a protection that grows stronger as long as we keep advancing despite our stumbles, as long as we begin again and again, for this is what interior life is about, living with our hope placed in God.”
Friends of God, 253, 216
Whether you’re more analytical or more imaginative, I think meditatio is very attractive and easy way for us to pray. It leads directly into the third step, oratio, but that’s a post for another day.
The four-fold method of prayer I’m recommending here comes from Pope Benedict. In fact it is much older, dating back to the time of the Church Fathers, practiced and taught by many saints through the ages.
But Pope Benedict was the first person to make this method of personal prayer magisterial. He outlined its steps, and recommended it to all Catholics, in his post-synodal exhortation to the Church, Verbum Domini. (See paragraphs 86-87.)
The first step in praying with the scriptures is very easy, and even more intuitive. Lectio. Reading. To pray with the scriptures, you have to read the scriptures!
Lectio is a slow and focused reading. In the Internet Age, this can be quite difficult. Our reading habits are very different to medieval monks. In the monastic tradition you read slowly. Very slowly. And repeatedly. You might spend five minutes reading and re-reading one verse, ruminating on the word or phrase that jumps out of you.
For years I understood this to be the heart and soul of Lectio Divina. And I can’t do it. That way of reading is not only alien to me; it is also, quite honestly, abhorrent. So I abandoned any hope of practising Lectio Divina. I forgot one of the first principles of prayer: pray as you can, not as you ought. That principle bears repeating, and it’s well worth memorising:
Pray as you can, not as you ought.
The point of Lectio is not reading one word per minute. The point of Lectio is reading with an open heart. With the intention of receiving the Lord’s word into your heart.
“Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scripture?” (Lk 24:32)
The encouraging example of St Jerome
But what if you don’t particularly enjoy reading Sacred Scripture? What if you find it tedious, and your mind wanders? You’re in good company? St Jerome, “the greatest Doctor” of the Church and father of Bible scholarship, felt the same way. In his memorable letter to Eustochius, St Jerome recalls how he moved to the Holy Land, sacrificing family, friends, food and comfort. He gave up everything to serve the Lord. Everything except his library of classical authors.
He see-sawed, making great gains in the spiritual life, then regressing in a binge of secular reading.
And so, miserable man that I was, I would fast only that I might afterwards read Cicero. After many nights spent in vigil, after floods of tears called from my inmost heart, after the recollection of my past sins, I would once more take up Plautus. And when at times I returned to my right mind, and began to read the prophets, their style seemed rude and repellent. I failed to see the light with my blinded eyes; but I attributed the fault not to them, but to the sun.
How relatable is that? “Their style seemed rude and repellant.” I’ll be honest. I’lol savour every page of a good novel by Evelyn Waugh or Graham Greene. The Bible, not so much.
But Jerome shares with us an important lesson. And a dramatic one, which involves a near-death experience:
While the old serpent was thus making me his plaything, about the middle of Lent a deep-seated fever fell upon my weakened body, and while it destroyed my rest completely — the story seems hardly credible — it so wasted my unhappy frame that scarcely anything was left of me but skin and bone. Meantime preparations for my funeral went on; my body grew gradually colder, and the warmth of life lingered only in my throbbing breast.
Suddenly I was caught up in the spirit and dragged before the judgment seat of the Judge; and here the light was so bright, and those who stood around were so radiant, that I cast myself upon the ground and did not dare to look up. Asked who and what I was I replied: “I am a Christian.”
But He who presided said: “You lie. You are a follower of Cicero and not of Christ. For ‘where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.’”
Instantly I became dumb, and amid the strokes of the lash — for He had ordered me to be scourged — I was tortured more severely still by the fire of conscience, considering with myself that verse, ‘In the grave who shall give you thanks?’
Yet for all that I began to cry and to bewail myself, saying: “Have mercy upon me, O Lord: have mercy upon me.” Amid the sound of the scourges this cry still made itself heard.
At last the bystanders, falling down before the knees of Him who presided, prayed that He would have pity on my youth, and that He would give me space to repent of my error. He might still, they urged, inflict torture on me, should I ever again read the works of the Gentiles. Under the stress of that awful moment I should have been ready to make even still larger promises than these. Accordingly I made oath and called upon His name, saying: “Lord, if ever again I possess worldly books, or if ever again I read such, I have denied You.”
Dismissed, then, on taking this oath, I returned to the upper world, and, to the surprise of all, I opened upon them eyes so drenched with tears that my distress served to convince even the incredulous . . .
I profess that my shoulders were black and blue, that I felt the bruises long after I awoke from my sleep, and that thenceforth I read the books of God with a zeal greater than I had previously given to the books of men.
The moral of this story is not that reading anything else than scripture will condemn you to Hell. Jerome had a particular vocation not shared by you and me. The moral of the story is: if you don’t have a love of Sacred Scripture, pray for it! Ask God for the grace. Ask St Jerome to pray for you.
Do not be surprised — much less discouraged — when you sit down to read the scriptures, and nothing happens. When you’re reading supernatural books, you’re engaging in a supernatural activity. You need grace, so ask for it.
St Jerome himself did not have a natural love for Sacred Scripture. There were other books he preferred. He had to through a purgation — he had to be stripped of his earthly love for earthly books — before he received a supernatural love for supernatural books. The greatest Doctor in the Church endured a radical purgatory before falling in love with the scriptures. The purgative way is a necessary step in the spiritual life. There is no holiness without the cross.
In sum: read Sacred Scriptures with an open heart, prayerfully and attentively. And ask God to help you. Here endeth the first lesson.