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"For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them." Matthew 18:20


Prayer and traveling in the dark

Laura DeMaria

I heard a speaker once ask his audience how it is possible to drive across an entire country in the dark. If you think about it, he said, all you know is the few feet in front of you - what is illuminated by the headlights. And yet, you trust and know you will arrive at your destination.

This is a perfect metaphor for the spiritual life and the necessity of trusting God, even when - as is the case most of the time - we only know the next couple feet in front of us, and certainly not what lies ahead in the years to come.

The readings this week have recalled this concept to mind, as in a few places there were reflections on prayer and abundance. In other words, we pray, we stay close to God, and we must trust in His abundance, even when we are not sure of the outcome.

From Wednesday’s (6/19) first reading, 2 Corinthians 9:6-11:

“Brothers and sisters, consider this:

whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly,

and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.

Each must do as already determined, without sadness or compulsion,

for God loves a cheerful giver.

Moreover, God is able to make every grace abundant for you,

so that in all things, always having all you need,

you may have an abundance for every good work.”

Paul goes on to remind his readers that they are being “enriched” and that God will supply, multiply, and increase their harvest.

Enter Bishop Barron in his daily reflection on the Gospel from that same day:

“You also have to pray with persistence. One reason that we don’t receive what we want through prayer is that we give up too easily. Augustine said that God sometimes delays in giving us what we want because he wants our hearts to expand.”

The following day, June 20, the Gospel tells us one of the profound truths of prayer, and one which deserves meditation: “Your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.” (Matthew 6:8)

Enter Bishop Barron again for the hard-hitting truth:

“Keep in mind that prayer is not designed so much to change God’s mind or tell God something he doesn’t know. God isn’t like a big city boss or a reluctant pasha whom we have to persuade. Rather he is the one who wants nothing other than to give us good things - though they might not always be the things we want.”

I connect these things intimately: prayer and trust. And, persistence in prayer. And what results from this prayer? Abundance. I have heard it said that God’s dream for us is so much larger than that which we can dream for ourselves.

The readings themselves, especially from St. Paul, urge a spirit of abundant generosity back to God. Indeed, I believe we must begin with our own attitude of generosity when we approach God, including in our prayer life. After all, everything we have, beginning with the first breath in our lungs, is a gift from God. We are merely giving Him back what is already His. To come to him in prayer with gratitude and trust in His abundance is maybe the whole point - because He already knows what we need. There is, of course, value in praying for specific things we need or desire, but there seems to be something to what Bishop Barron says, that the purpose is not to “change God’s mind,” but rather to be with him, close, trusting, which in turn opens us to His abundance. It is like the difference between having clenched fists to hold on to what you have, versus open hands to receive what God wants to give.

Happy Corpus Christi Sunday to you.

Holy Week and the Senses

Laura DeMaria

It is the end of Holy Week, the evening of Good Friday, and this is the first I have spent Holy Week sincerely from start to finish. More to come, of course, in the great culmination of the Easter Vigil tomorrow night.

This week has been a wonder. I was struck by something a friend said last night during a walk through Brookland, as we joined a larger group of pilgrims doing the traditional 7-churches Holy Thursday journey (you should try it some time). “What I find so genius about the Catholic faith,” she said, “is that it understands humans as sensory beings and reaches us through our senses.” So true, I thought. All of Holy Week was an immersion in lights, smells, sounds that called to mind another time, overlaid simultaneously with the present.

All week I had a feeling that by witnessing the Mass, and all the other song and ritual of Holy Week, I was where the early Christians were. I was seeing what they were seeing. For example: on Wednesday night, the Cathedral hosted Tenebrae. This is not something I have experienced before. There were two moments that struck my heart: the first was as Cardinal Wuerl incensed the altar. How many times have I seen this done, at so many Masses? And yet, in that darkened cathedral, knowing we were making our way to the grief of Good Friday, suddenly I had the thought that I could see Jesus’s crucified body there on the altar, and that is what Cardinal was incensing. Particularly, I thought of Mary Magdalene and the other women coming to the tomb with oils and spices to prepare the body. So, I suppose, we still do today. Cardinal swung the incense, clinking and gold on its chain, sending up puffs of gray perfumed smoke, and it was as if through the smoke I could begin to see the offerings of the women who came before me.

And then, at the end. If you have not attended a tenebrae service, it is a service of sung prayer, with the “hearse,” or a triangular candelabra, at the center of the altar. Slowly over the course of the evening all the candles in the hearse are extinguished and the church is plunged into darkness, at which point one hears the “strepitus,” a horrible “great noise” that signifies nature groaning at Christ’s death.

I began to feel tense as the candles were extinguished. It is the same as knowing Jesus’s “hour” is coming. So that last candle is left, and one of the celebrants took even it, and walked across and out of the church. He walked slowly, his shadows jumping against the marble wall behind him, until suddenly all light was gone. That was the moment of the strepitus, a combination of thunder and grinding noises that startled me utterly. It’s true, I thought. This is what those at the foot of the cross heard and experienced (plus the earth itself shaking) - why wouldn’t nature revolt at what man had done to Jesus - at God Himself dying? The sound and the darkness caused a feeling of utter desolation.

That has been the major grace of Holy Week for me (though I know if many other small graces, too). To be put in the frame of mind to remember that what happened then was not an abstract; not even just an historical event. It was real, it was personal, it is imprinted in time and, because we are made in His image, in our hearts. All that Jesus endured He did for each one of us. I felt that deeply this week. I felt He was not far; in fact, He is very near.

“The word is very near you; it is in your heart, and in your mouth, so that you can do it…”

Tomorrow I will also participate in the Easter Vigil for the first time. And then, on Sunday, will be the feast!

Rethinking Your Lent

Laura DeMaria

I wrote an article for Catholic Stand called Rethinking Lent This Year. As always, I approach these things as a “revert” (when does one stop using that term? After ten years back?) and know that what is rethinking for me may be quite obvious to others.

Here was my approach: in the past, and certainly growing up, Lent was a time with no context. It was just the time of year we gave something up and then showed up at Church on Easter. That was about the extent of my understanding. As a child, I also sometimes took that rice bowl thing from the back of the church and tried to fill it up with coins, but I remember my collection being too small and never turning it in, out of a sense of failure. So, Lent was a time that had neither meaning nor any particular triumph.

Now, as an adult, utterly fascinated by the wise and time-tested traditions of the Church and desirous to bring my own will into accord with God’s, Lent seems like a blessing. And the opportunity to be much more than the month wherein I give up chocolate.

So I wanted to understand this time from other people’s perspectives in order to broaden my own understanding. I crowd-sourced around from the many good and faithful Catholics I know, and received some enlightening responses. My question was, what is the unusual thing you do to observe Lent, besides giving up wine and chocolate, and what sort of inner change do you hope to experience? The answers were wide-ranging, from writing notes to loved ones, to deactivating Facebook, to answering the phone when relatives call, to eating donuts on Sundays because otherwise I’ll get smug about my Lenten weight loss. I especially liked the responses related to other people and relationships. “Stepping on my own pride” was the way one friend phrased it, as he seeks to repair a broken relationship.

There’s much more that can be said on this topic. Ultimately, I see that Lent is like a retreat, and a much-needed one. It is a time to go inward, to simplify, to give something up because in doing so we recognize our own weakness and call out for God, instead.

I received a note from the Dominicans (God bless them) which included a Lenten reflection. Below is a part:

“The true purpose of Lent is not to try and prove to ourselves or to God how good we can be, but rather to grow in self-knowledge and humility. It is a time for more intense self-examination, and for asking God to show us more and more clearly the extent of our sinfulness and need for His mercy. This is the heart, the core, the full realization of death to self - to realize more and more my spiritual poverty, that I am truly nothing without God, and that I can do nothing good apart from him.”

And later:

“…we should put away any thought that we are going to make ourselves holier through our acts of penance, for such a project is doomed to failure, Rather…we should keep in mind that our primary goal is to come to know ourselves better in the light of God’s love. …Lent is not about what we can do for God, but about what He can and wants to do for us. True self-denial is to acknowledge and accept our powerlessness to make ourselves holy. This is the self-denial that leads to new life.”

So, much to think over there. I am grateful for the time to go inward, and dare I say, be a bit hermitty. Except for Sunday nights, when I will feast (preferably, with friends) and remember God’s goodness, in the midst of the desert.

p.s. I also spoke about this topic on Morning Air Radio. You can hear the conversation here, which starts at 18:18.

Wishing you a happy and holy Lent.