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Tag Archive: Prayer

On the Satisfaction of Devotion

Posted: Monday, June 25, 2012 (11:43 pm), by John W Gillis


A friendly hand fell lightly upon my shoulder one January morning several years ago, as I was spending a few extra minutes before the tabernacle, after finishing Morning Prayer. I was running behind schedule that day, but since at least the beginning of the new school year, my old friend had also apparently been coming to the church quite a bit later than she used to, because it seemed to have been the better part of a year since we’d seen each other. I’d wondered about her now and again over the previous few months – wondering if her health were intact, even wondering if she had passed on to heavenly glory while I’d been away over the summer…

I would go into the church to pray most mornings after dropping my girls off at the neighboring parish school, and my friend used to be there almost every morning, in very early anticipation of the 9:00 daily Mass. Usually, she’d come in after me – into the side room where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved – walking with short but determined steps, to stand before the tabernacle: head bowed, right hand extended above her shoulder to gently touch the face of the ark, paying homage to her Lord. But she would never fail to stop and greet me with a friendly smile and a twinkling eye on her way by – unless she’d gotten there before me, in which case she would wave to me energetically from her pew in the middle of the nave, if she saw me come in.

My favorite days were those times I was late, and she didn’t notice me come in. On those days, thinking she was all alone in the church, she would sometimes break out into song, lifting her shaky voice loudly to heaven in obvious gratitude for all the love, grace, and kindness she has been blessed to experience in her life.

And I’d think: if only I could pray like that… On those special mornings, I’d always be sure to catch her eye and give her a big smile on my way out.

The reason I was taking my time that morning was to read a bit from the writings of Saint Francis de Sales, whose feast day it was. In the second section of Part One of “Introduction the the Devout Life”we read:

[T]he world vilifies holy devotion as much as it can. It pictures devout persons as having discontented, gloomy, sullen faces, and claims that devotion brings on depression and unbearable moods. But just as Joshua and Caleb held both that the promised land was good and beautiful, and that its possession would be sweet and agreeable (c.f. Num 13.33-34), so too the Holy Spirit, by the mouths of all the saints, and our Lord by his own mouth (c.f. Mt 11.28-30), assure us that a devout life is a life that is sweet, happy, and lovable.

In our day, no less than in Francis’, the devout are popularly portrayed as somehow missing out on the fun, but the devotion of this old woman clearly reveals a deep satisfaction with the substance of her life – warts and all – which is nurtured in her routine, morning after morning. As she turned from the tabernacle that morning to walk back into the nave, my friend stopped to stoop down and pick up a stick match off the floor. Then she spotted another one next to where I was sitting, and she picked that up as well. She muttered some kind of guess as to how they might have ended up on the rug, then she said: “Now, we can’t have the church burning down, can we? We need it.”

It struck me immediately just how right she was, although earlier in my life, I wouldn’t have really understood her. I recall thinking at the time about the various pockets of local people occupying churches in protest against pastoral decisions to close them, and although I certainly think these folks were missing pretty much the whole point of “church” in their stubborn protestations, I think many of them were also genuinely afraid of losing something precious – not nearly as precious as the salvific fellowship of being joined to the Body of Christ, but precious nonetheless. It’s more than memories. Churches are places where our faith is transformed from the lonely struggle to be personally open to God, into the victorious unity of the communion that actually is itself our promised glorious future in nascent form.

Church is the place where – even more so than anywhere else – we can never be truly alone. Even when we think we’re all alone in a church, warbling at the top of our lungs, there is somebody appreciative standing before the Lord in rapt attention, with a big smile on his face, listening to us. Where else can we experience life like this, in our drive-thru world of screen names and Social Security numbers? Where else can we divest ourselves of the cloud of anonymous networked resources and information streams, to bask in the familiar, quiet strength of the great cloud of witnesses, and the musty, sensual reminders of generations that sacrificed faithfully that we might be here to remember? It’s tempting to consider ourselves too spiritual to really need church buildings, to live like spiritual nomads who can be home wherever our feet take us, but we are a cultivating people at heart, and churches are where Christian community – and a satisfaction known only to shared devotion – is cultivated.

I more or less stopped making that morning drive to the neighboring parish school a couple years ago, when school carpools and other scheduling disruptions changed the substance of the household morning routine. But as my youngest daughter was completing her last days at the school a couple weeks ago, I wanted to circle back and close the loop, so to speak, regarding the heritage of prayerful encounter I’d had the privilege to experience before the tabernacle, morning after morning, for more than seven years. And I wanted to see my sweet, happy, and lovable friend one last time, to say good-bye. So I created opportunities to attend a couple of the 9:00 Masses over there in hopes of seeing her, and I made a point to drive over on the final morning of classes to recite Lauds before the tabernacle one last time, but I never saw my friend.

I don’t know where she is now, but I’m sure she’s singing still. Her devotion was her vow to radiate joy in the world through a life of genuine gratitude for whatever it was that constituted her daily bread, and I am profoundly grateful for the satisfaction of having shared in that joy in some small way, as, each in our own way, we shared that prayer space together before the Lord, day after day.

On a Nationalized American Religious Disposition

Posted: Saturday, September 3, 2011 (8:57 pm), by John W Gillis


I don’t take many calls that come in from 800- or similar area codes, but I took one this morning, because I am expecting a call-back from HP regarding a warranty replacement hard drive for Ezra, my Windows 7 desktop computer (which I had prematurely identified last week as suffering from software problems, but which were being caused by a failing hard drive).

The call was from an organization looking to add my name to a petition supposedly being submitted somewhere or another as a token of protest against the legal successes of a militant atheist group committed to outlawing the observation of the National Day of Prayer. This anti-religious campaign, I was assured, represented an affront or assault (I can’t remember which now) on my “Christian rights”. I listened to the entire recorded message from the organization’s general counsel, but hung up before I could be roped into providing a telephonic “signature” to the petition (or be hit up for a contribution, which was undoubtedly the real point of the call).

It’s not that I’m unsympathetic to the goal of this group: resisting the pernicious agenda of an angry minority intent on manipulating the law to enforce a practical atheism on American society in a kind of ironically inverted federal establishment of (anti)-religion. It also might not be prudent to blithely assume that such clowns, and their judicial enablers, will never be able to pull off their ultimate goal – they have made significant inroads already, after all. Moreover, every battle lost involves real casualties, even in a winning war. Making it illegal for the president to proclaim a National Day of Prayer would surely strike an historically alienating and politically chilling blow against liberal society’s foundational building block of religious freedom, and even against the idea of tolerance itself, and it would teach a stark lesson to society (and to society’s children): that solidarity can and should be trumped by religiously intolerant ideology. This would be grievous, because sans the bitterclingers of atheistic denunciation, the National Day of Prayer effects nothing but a spirit of national solidarity across a wide and diverse body of people, many of whom profess religious views and affiliations that would have surely made them enemies to each other in most pre-American societies – and even still today, in more than a few places:

Religious Hostilities in the World, 2009 (Pew Research)

Still, I have a hard time getting worked up about defending the National Day of Prayer. Partly because I don’t like it. Contrary to those opponents who claim the practice “supports religion”, I think it undermines religion, usurping religion for secular/political purposes. Despite the finding of the U.S. District Court judge who, in April 2010, found in favor of repressing the National Day of Prayer in part because it “promote[s] a particular religious practice”, it is in reality the utter opposite of a “particular religious practice”; it is the very definition of a generic “religious” practice – at least from a religious perspective. It is “particular” only in the sense that it is national, and focused on the nation over against any understanding of the Divine – that is to say, over against religion! Hardly the kind of thing that worried Madison, Jefferson, or their compatriots.

Having been thoroughly steeped in the Old Testament, I am far from comfortable with the idea that God can and should be reduced to a generic concept, or a least-common-denominator deity, invoked for the sake of serving the interests of the state. That smacks of idolatry to me. Nonetheless, I don’t denounce the practice as idolatrous per se, since I can see how it is quite possible to build toward the realization of theological truth through the embrace of virtue inherent in the social idea of solidarity, and so I can warily accept it in Christian hope while rejecting its reductionism.

But perhaps the thing that bothered me most this morning was the acute absence of that other crucially important social idea: solidarity’s sister, subsidiarity. Here was this guy, from somewhere probably half-way across the continent, calling me – a complete stranger – to ask me to listen to a pre-recorded spiel from some overpaid lawyer who wants to argue a silly case in a federal court somewhere, and finally to place my essentially anonymous name as a quantifiable object on a petition (assuming one actually exists) to be submitted as evidence that there is some sufficient mass of people within the republic who object to the theological rape of the public square. Good grief.

Can a handful of judges and lawyers really be allowed to determine the religious character of a nation of over 300 million people? Do we really need lawyers to tell us how and when to pray at all? Is this what citizenship has been reduced to: reciting your name (in perhaps an indignant tone) into a computerized phone bank’s storage array? And what does it mean to fret about a symbolic national prayer event when local churches close for lack of parishioners; families fracture at a continually alarming rate (when they even bother to form at all anymore); the fundamental communal institution of marriage is recast as a personal lifestyle choice of the self-focused individual – until we no longer even know what marriage means; entire generations continue to be reared in a “pop culture” that stridently and effectively promotes alienation from society; employers routinely lack any fealty toward either the communities that support them, or their employees; and political speech has been largely reduced to a propaganda of binary options embracing either faster or slower centralization of power and decision making into a federal bureaucracy.

We don’t need a national day of prayer; we need to stop expecting Leviathan to fix our problems for us. We need to re-learn the idea of community, as an antidote to unfettered individualism – beginning with marriage. And we need to start building a national fellowship based not on cues taken from distant politicians, but on a broad commitment to the commonweal rooted in the social cultivation of virtue – a true patriotism, which can only take place in a society that is open to honest and vigorous religious (and moral) dialog in the public square. This, it seems to me, is not something to be accomplished through national campaigns, events, and petition drives, but by the simple practice of virtuous citizenship, and by the practice of a truly hopeful religious ecumenism: one that refuses to sacrifice truth for serenity, but insists that a real knowledge of God is possible among honest men and women.

We have the duty and joy of sharing in this prayer whenever possible

Posted: Sunday, May 29, 2011 (5:02 pm), by John W Gillis


Quote of the Day for Sunday, May 29th, 2011:

Taken from the website of an Anglican priest in New Zealand, Bosco Peters, on the proper place of the Liturgy of the Hours in the prayer life of the life of the Christian believer:

Many who pray the Daily Office have a personal Rule of Life, or even an expectation or vows that require that regular discipline. These can often end up feeling guilty when a particular Hour has not been prayed by them. Some, in fact, will then try to "catch up" what they have missed – even gluing a number of Hours together and praying them one after the other. This comes out of an individualistic interpretation of Christianity whereby individuals join the church for mutual support of individual spiritual growth. The Liturgy of the Hours seen as the Prayer of the Church, and the spirituality that goes with this approach, flips this on its head.

The Church as Christ’s Body, in that perspective, exists prior to individuals joining it, and individuals become Christians precisely through their incorporation into this community (primarily through baptism). The Liturgy of the Hours, as the Prayer of the Church, and essentially the prayer of Christ (the whole Christ – head and members) is ongoing, and we have the duty and joy of sharing in this prayer whenever possible. When we miss the prayer we can be conscious that the prayer goes on – we do not catch up with it, rather we pick it up again when we can.

Peters makes a great point about how the Liturgy of the Hours should act as a kind of school for understanding the ecclesiology of the Church’s life of prayer. I must admit that I have sometimes done the exact thing he speaks of here, worrying about “catching up” Offices I may have missed. Such an attitude completely misses the point of liturgical prayer. It is the Church who prays – even Christ as Head of the Church – and we believers are invited into that perfect faithfulness as participants in something that totally transcends our own feeble acts, whether pious or impious. Our modernistic mindset resists that wisdom, but the entire enterprise of Christianity is rooted in a self-renouncing, participatory salvation through Christ’s perfect worship of the Father. That is a truth at once humbling and exhilarating.

That sometimes frustrating, sometimes contentious, but always necessary and never-ending process to form a more perfect union

Posted: Thursday, January 13, 2011 (2:46 pm), by John W Gillis


Quote of the Day for Thursday, January 13th, 2011:

President Barack Obama, from his address yesterday at the memorial service for those killed in the Tucson shooting:

In George and Dot, in Dorwan and Mavy, we sense the abiding love we have for our own husbands, our own wives, our own life partners. Phyllis – she’s our mom or grandma; Gabe our brother or son. In Judge Roll, we recognize not only a man who prized his family and doing his job well, but also a man who embodied America’s fidelity to the law. In Gabby, we see a reflection of our public spiritedness, that desire to participate in that sometimes frustrating, sometimes contentious, but always necessary and never-ending process to form a more perfect union.

And in Christina…in Christina we see all of our children. So curious, so trusting, so energetic and full of magic.

So deserving of our love.

And so deserving of our good example. If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let’s make sure it’s worthy of those we have lost. Let’s make sure it’s not on the usual plane of politics and point scoring and pettiness that drifts away with the next news cycle.

In the spirit of giving credit where credit is due, a tip of the hat this morning to President Obama for his deft handing of the Tucson Media Meltdown. It was gratifying and heartening to see that he saw fit to quell the circus unobtrusively, while honoring the dead, the wounded, and the heroes involved in the tragedy.

I’m only half surprised by his approach, as his tenure seems to be building his character. If this had happened two years ago, I honestly don’t think he would have risen above the fray like this, as he persistently displayed a penchant for perpetual campaigning and partisanship. In this address, he sounds presidential to me for the first time.

Like so many Catholics, I pray for the president at Mass every day, and while I still despise his political agenda, it almost feels rewarding to see him able to discern that there is more to leadership than power. I’m proud of him for the first time since he took office.

The Error of Permitting Religious Practice

Posted: Saturday, September 18, 2010 (11:50 pm), by John W Gillis


A local furor erupted a couple days ago over a Wellesley Middle School class’ visit to an area mosque, a story which has subsequently gone national. This whole story is just so wrong, on so many levels, that it approaches (?) the absurd. It is a microcosm of everything wrong with the deracinated public life that has banished religious faith to the margins, and adopted a functional atheism as public policy (despite the lingering religiosity of much of the unwashed masses).

The 6th grade class found itself at the mosque as part of a social studies unit called “Enduring Beliefs and the World Today.” It’s hard to pass over the name chosen for the program without snickering at the irony of it, for unfolding events would make it clear enough that “enduring” pretty well describes the approach these public sector “leaders” take toward beliefs – at least of a religious nature.

Along with visiting the mosque, the learning unit called for visiting a synagogue, and meeting with “Hindu religious representatives” – whatever that means. Oh, there was also apparently a section on Christianity, which I guess also continues to be a belief endured in the modern world. So what did the “Christian” field trip entail? Attending a “gospel music performance!”

OK, so you might be thinking that perhaps it’s hard to find an actual house of Christian worship in Wellesley – hence the detour to hear Al Green covers, or whatever they ended up listening to. Becca_flyer Alas, though, this school is barely more than a stone’s throw from Saint Paul Catholic Church, with its associated elementary and middle school (where my youngest daughter is enrolled). If the teachers were afraid of catching dogma cooties from entering a real church (where Mass, incidentally, is offered daily at 9:00 AM – perfect timing for a walking-distance morning field trip from the public middle school), they could have taken a trip to at least view the parochial school kids, with their frumpy uniforms, old-fashioned manners, and serious classroom demeanor.

But whatever possessed them to so trivialize the “Christian” component of their program, that’s just so much snarky background for what would transpire with the trip to the mosque. A mother accompanying the class took a cell phone video showing several of the school boys motioning along with the men they were standing near during midday prayer. Well, between the knee-jerk anti-Islamic sentiment and the knee-jerkier sentiment that the children had been exposed to “prayer” without donning proper repellent gear, this has turned into an absolute circus.

First came the accusation from a group apparently aggressively intolerant of Islam, named Americans for Peace and Tolerance (founded by Jewish Advocate columnist Robert Jacobs), who claimed in a YouTube video based on the cell phone capture that the boys had been “asked to participate” in the prayer service – a provocative overstatement – and then they go on to ask: “How did Wellesley public school teachers allow this to happen?”

Now, I’m at a loss to understand how any sane person would think that those teachers should have forbade the youngsters to pray – never mind the likelihood that the boys probably engaged the rite on about the same level they’d engage a Cotton Eye Joe dance at a school social, but the superintendent of schools issued an apology for the “error” that “any students were allowed to [participate],” and assured the parents that “it was not the intent for students to be able to participate in any of the religious practices” [emphases added].

Somehow, we’ve gone from Thomas Jefferson’s conviction that the state should not decide which religious beliefs and practices should be suppressed, to an air-headed bureaucratic conviction that government at any level is in “error” if it permits any kind of religious practices among those unfortunate young charges left in its incompetent care. God forbid [can I say that?] we permit any kid to participate in a “religious practice” on the watch of the overbearing nanny-state! Although I do have to wonder: do you think the kids were permitted to sing along at the gospel concert? Did they have to self-censor certain words? What if all they did was dance, or bounce to the beat? Looks pretty similar to Muslim “prayer acts” if you ask me…

However, not to be out-done by the educators in either inanity or self-importance, the director of the group stirring up this trouble, Dennis Hale, has instead likened the “prayer acts” movements to the hypothetical scenario of the children having been taken to a Catholic church, and given Communion! A journalist friend of the group has called for the firing or suspension of the superintendent and/or the teachers involved! And now another Jewish advocacy group – the American Jewish Committee – is calling for the creation of state guidelines for school visits to religious institutions! Oy vey!

I can tolerate a little Jewish over-reaction to Muslim hostility, real or imagined – the Jews don’t have the luxury to consider appeasement – but leave the public schools out of it; those kids are already getting the shaft.

Peeking Into the Past

Posted: Monday, May 31, 2010 (10:12 pm), by John W Gillis


Having reached the end of my second Franciscan University course a couple weeks ago following a mad rush of activity, I’ve found myself wandering a bit aimlessly, contemplating my next move. Over the weekend, I ended up rummaging through a series of old journal entries from the mid-90’s, and came across a handful of comments I’d like to save from the dustbin:

I was able to drive more sanely today. I have many such improvements in mind.
3/5/96

It’s important to make your life worth living; it’s important to live for something worth dying for.
3/5/96

A prayer life is the essential difference between living a truly human life, and living a charade.
9/2/96

The problem with me and drinking is that they’re mutually exclusive.
9/13/96

Once upon a time, I stood up firmly for my beliefs. But that was when I was a rebel: it’s easy to be staunchly egotistical.
9/22/96

I was thinking about change, about repentance, about awareness of sin, and humility. It dawned on me that repentance, or change for the better, is nothing more than being open to a movement toward truth which one already possesses – or apprehends. Repentance, which is spiritual growth, never comes about (never?) as from an outside force, but rather is nothing more than allowing oneself to be convicted of the truth one already apprehends – and which is generally apprehended apprehensively!

This movement brings one closer to the real source of truth, Christ, and consequently opens one up to yet new apprehension of truth – which yet again demands either conversion or aversion. To avert the truth is to refuse and deny repentance. Contrariwise, to confront the truth is to be constantly faced with the perceived need for conversion. Anyone with any experience in that genuine change for the good becomes, as it were, immune to that type of pride which is oblivious of humility. For the one who knows repentance, and who lives a life of spiritual growth, humility is a no-brainer. It is not so much that humility makes repentance possible, as that repentance makes the lack of humility downright impossible. Hence humility grows with repentance, not vice-versa. And spiritual growth is growth in humility.
12/2/96