Thursday, 6 March 2014

98: The power of Lent

The Grace of Lent Tide

It is of utmost important to understand the changes that happen at the beginning of Lent, throughout it, until we reach Easter Sunday.
Lent starts with a ritual of great humility: having some ashes put on our forehead, often in the form of a Sign of the Cross, accompanied by a word from the Priest that invites us to embark on the Journey of spiritual combat and warfare.
All the Community gathers humbly that day, in order to receive the Seal of that starting point. It is not a sacrament, but it is a sign of a deep grace, “the grace of Lent”. During that intense time of Lent, God seems to double His Grace for us. If during the year He seems to lean more on us, i.e. on the results of our last Lenten period and Easter Grace, during Lent He seems to redouble His grace in order for us to dig deeper. Our journey is a journey of spiritual growth, transformation, sanctification and it goes in circles, but at each turn we go deeper, like a helix (coil); each year, we go up a gear, and Lent is the moment when we change gear. This is why it is important to live Lent fully. In order to do so we need to become aware that God is giving us this redoubled Grace.

Doubling His Grace

Often we call Lent a “time of conversion”, and conversion means to leave creatures, abandon them, and go toward the Creator. Right? Of course it is about opening ourselves (because of God and with God) as well to God in our brothers and sisters. It is still “conversion”.
I would like to focus on another word: a spiritual deepening.
Turning to God, to Jesus is fundamental. But it is important not only to turn to Him, as if the rest of the whole year were spent away from Him, but to go deeper in our relationship with Him. And God's Providence sets up for us this very special time of Grace called Lent.

Discovering/deepening Friendship with Jesus

One of the great ways/means that God uses to reach us in Lent is through the abundance and power of His Word. Scripture is here to help us deepen our relationship with God. Let us remember that we are constantly crossing from one state to another: from the state of a Slave who doesn't know the will of his Master to a Friend who gets to know the will, feelings, behaviour of his Friend. That's a change and a half I would say. Who changes us? Who transforms us? Jesus' Word for us. This is why the main and first activity of Lent is to sit down, take time to listen to Jesus, preferably on a daily basis, in order to undergo this deep change.
The powerful grace of Lent is here to help give us a little push in order to sit down, be quiet, pray, ask and beg in order to listen to the word of our Friend, Jesus, who wants to share with us his thoughts. This can't happen without the Help of the redoubled Grace of the Holy Spirit. So imagine God, from on high, doubling the amount of the Holy Spirit he is pouring out.

Mary the Mother of Our New Heart

One person we hardly mention during Lent is Mary, while often the Feast of the Annunciation occurs during Lent and this is very meaningful. Why? Because the Annunciation is the embodiment of the renewed Grace of Lent, where we sit down, and want to listen to Jesus, to God, to his word. In Lent God wants to renew our heart, he removes some stony parts of our heart to put more human flesh into it. This human part comes out of Mary's Oven, where the Holy Spirit works renewing us. We need to seek the new heart, and this new heart is at the image of Mary's heart, even more: it is made by the Holy Spirit in her womb.

Let us listen to the description of this deep operation that God performs in us cyclically in our life, during Lent: “For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” (Ezekiel 36:24-27)

The Holy Spirit Gathers Us Up

God “gathers” us, this is the Grace of Lent. If you keep quiet you'll sense this discreet increase in the Grace of God, and will start to sense in which sense it goes: it gathers us up. Not “all of us”, but all the parts of our being. In fact we are divided by all that attracts us outside, our energy is scattered here and there. The Grace of God “gathers us”.
It Gathers us closer to God... who dwells in us. And in order to do so, in order to get us closer to us, it has to make us bear more of a resemblance to God: we need a new heart, a heart of flesh moved by the Spirit of God.
How does this happen? With the Powerful guidance of the Word of God. We are rational beings, we have a mind, and this mind guides us everyday. But is the light of the mind purely a natural light? Are all the thoughts and desires that move us from God? Are they inseminated by God's Light? It is very important to understand that the best thing that can happen to us is to receive the Word of God's light in our mind, heart, feelings, imagination, visions and dreams. It is like allowing the Sun to rise on the land of our mind.
A person who never allowed the Light of the Sun to shine on his land can't imagine the difference. This is why God gives us a redoubled grace during Lent to bring us from the land of darkness (our mind left alone) to the land of the Sun, Jesus, where the soil of our Mind is inseminated by the Light of the Word of God. This is a unique experience that shows us that the Lord is not only Risen, but that he is living amongst us.
Without the Holy Spirit, this experience can't happen.

Not guiding, but Being Guided

In Lent we are constantly crossing from being without a Guide to having a Guide, a Shepherd, Jesus himself. We often live our life being the boss of ourself, even if we are Christians and very committed Christians. We are the boss of ourselves. This is not correct. We do even manage Jesus, and tell him where we are going, and he has to make it work, otherwise we will get upset with Him. We take him in our car, beside us and we hold the driving wheel, decide, drive, and he has to sit quietly and make it happen. Is that normal? Not at all. We need to discover this new way of doing things: having him as our real guide, learning to sense him (with the spiritual senses that the Holy Spirit make grow in us), to listen to him, to prefer him, to be patient for the right moment, to allow Him to guide us, and be happy for being with him having him as our only Treasure in life.

Jesus' Love

It is not only about being guided by Jesus, but learning to enter deeper into Jesus himself, discovering his love for us and learning that new reality: that life is worth it because of him because of having him as our unique love. We then start to learn how to love him “with all our heart, all our mind, all our strength”. Loving Him in himself, and not loving him because of what we can get of him. He is not only our Creator, not only our Redeemer, he is our love, the only love, the one that gives meaning to our lives.
Under Jesus' Guidance

As we said, in order to be under his guidance, we need to sit down, and be quiet, ask for the Help of the Holy Spirit, open the Word of God on today's pages (the Reading of the Mass). What will the word of Jesus do to us? Well it will change us from the old creature (old man) to the new creature, made by Jesus on the Cross, coming out of his side, coming out of Mary's womb.
The Word of God, meditating on the Word of God, being in the presence of Jesus, allowing His word to enter within us, we discover its operation: it removes the masks, the fancy dress (costume, disguise) we are wearing, and brings truth into our lives. It removes this double life in us, the inner one and the outer one. The word of God pierces the surface of the outer skin we put on and reaches the depths of our being, our heart, touches us, and makes our heart blossom under the action of the Grace of the Holy Spirit, make us take one step forward in the unification of our being (inner and outer).

The spiritual Senses

One of the most important characteristic of the new way of life with Jesus is the growth in us of “spiritual senses”. This reality is often mentioned by the Fathers of the Church and the Mystics. In fact, our new inner being develops under the new Action of the Holy Spirit. Our new being, received in Baptism and in Confirmation, wakes up, and develops in a specific way: new senses develop in our inner being and their function is to allow us to listen, see and sense Jesus in our lives. Our soul, as the image of our body, develops new capacities, senses, antennas, that allow us to receive Jesus' Spirit (the Holy Spirit), inner guidance. Indeed, our new inner Master is the Holy Spirit: He explains to us Jesus' words, He reminds us at the right time of Jesus' words, He connects us with Him, He gives to our conscience new senses, making us “feel” Jesus' emotions, desires, and guidance.
Lent time, being the time where we deepen our relationship with Jesus, is the time where the Holy Spirit develops our inner being. It is important to take him as our real inner Master and listen to Him, or better said: ask him to help us hear Jesus' words, sense and follow His guidance.
Certainly that deeper opening toward Jesus will open us to his body: our brothers. We can't claim to love him if we neglect him in our brothers and sister. So a greater attention to him in them will increase.

Which Direction?

Where would this new faithfulness to Jesus take us? It will make us much more docile and flexible to Jesus' will and guidance. It will make us more humane. It will help us fulfil our normal daily duties in a better way. In fact, it is not leading us astray on a new and strange/unknown path, I mean in the daily basis of our tasks. We will still have 24 hours/day to live, we will still sleep 6-7-8 hours a day, we will still eat, rest and meet our friends, we will still work, have the same duties at home, but paradoxically everything will change. The exterior frame might not change (it might!) but the interior frame will change. It is like when you fall in love: you have somebody in your life. This person is with you all the time, makes the sun brighter and the evening more beautiful. It gives you a new taste, a new meaning. Wouldn't you call this: happiness? A long lasting one? A real one? Yes, indeed.

Conclusion: The Power of Lent

Is Lent doing all this in our life? Can it?? Welcome Lent, welcome the Grace of Lent!
In fact, the core of Lent is Jesus; He is doing all this. His Passion, Death and Resurrection does all this. Lent is a series or Graces we receive, that will prepare us to receive the Big Grace of going in a new way through the Passion-Death-Resurrection of the Lord. We will then be able to Rise more with him and in him.

Let us thank God for increasing his grace in us in Lent, let us embrace Lent, let us be unified by its grace and unique purpose: getting closer to Jesus.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

97: The power of Fasting

Some time ago, after having put up the post “What is Christian fasting?” I received this question:

Question: Thank you for this post on fasting! It just seems to me, Jean, that this practice of fasting has been lost somewhat in the modern Church. It seems there is not much explanation on the power of fasting or the reasons to fast or how often one should fast. I know that strictly speaking we are obliged to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and that Fridays are a day we ought to try harder to carry out penances.
From the above, I can see that fasting helps us to reach the "Groom" - Jesus. Please could you explain more about the power of fasting?
Also, Jesus in Mk 9:29 explained to the disciples that certain demons cannot be expelled except by prayer and fasting. Does this mean that in certain situations we ought to combine the two? Like when? How often should a Christian fast?

Answer: First thank you L. for your question. We are asked to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Abstaining (from eating meat) happens during Lent, during Advent, during the year on Fridays, and many traditions kept Wednesdays and even Saturdays (in honour of Our Lady) as abstinence days. In the Roman Latin Catholic Rite, Abstinence was (and is) more about not eating meat. Pope Benedict did mention it with regard to Friday.
In what follows I will use only the verb "fasting" in general and flexible terms.

General Aspects of Fasting

Fasting is about self control, helping the poor (you give what you have saved) and you honour the Passion of the Lord (on Friday). It helps as well in spiritual warfare. In order to grow, we need to change our “attachments”, “enslavement”, “addictions”, into other Spiritual “Attachments” first, and then, at a second stage to even get rid of these “spiritual attachments” and strive for Jesus only, the “naked Jesus” as the mystics called Him, not trying to go to the king for any benefits but just for his sake only, finding in Him all your good.

Fasting in general terms is depriving ourselves of something (in general: food (a meal), but it can be anything else as well, like “speaking” (chatter, gossiping), alcohol, cigarettes, TV, other pleasures, other types of loss of time, useless activities,…). In doing so, we create a space for a spiritual activity. We help get rid of bad habits, we reach a greater freedom.
Food can be very addictive (other pleasures as well), whereby the body can control us instead of us controlling it. Control comes through fasting, through other activities instead (like prayer, meditation,…) that will fill us.
With the Grace of God, and with the advice of the Spiritual Director, we can find the right fasting to do, and its amount/degree.

Expelling Demons

You quote the Lord saying: “certain demons cannot be expelled except by prayer and fasting”. Of course. But today, who believes in “demons”? Who believes today that sin as well is an invitation for a “spirit” to take his place in us and be fed (yes be fed: when you do something according to his will you are feeding him, he becomes a parasite in you)? A “small spirit” maybe but still a spirit, i.e. an unwelcome being in you, a new master in you. (I said “small spirit” in order to differentiate it from formal possession.) There are many types of spirits, from the most insignificant ones (low materialistic ones) to the nastiest (most spiritual ones). How do we define addiction today? What is a vice? (vice vs virtue) what is the negative effect that the repetition of a bad act (a sin) has on us? Jesus himself gives the answer: "Truly, truly, I say to you, every one who commits sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). One can’t come out of it through his or her own strength, being in a vicious closed circle (like addiction).
This is why we need to experience the Power of the Grace of God that can help us, free us. We need to ask for it. This experience is simply unique. But it comes at a cost: begging (prayer), spending time with Jesus, exposing ourselves to the Rays of His Love and Mercy, and with the help of God fasting, i.e. abstaining from doing certain things, most importantly food. Because food controls a lot in our behaviour.

Intercession

It is true as well that sometimes we are invited to pray a lot for somebody, or for a cause, and it is normal to couple prayer with fasting, for it gains more power. But with discernment, because we can fall, after a while, into spiritual pride (see below).

Eating the Word of God

It is very important to understand the relationship between eating and listening to the Word of God. Both are food: our bread and the Word of God. If our experience of food is only “bread” and what comes with it, we are in a very poor human state. We are treating ourselves as if we were worse than animals, just having a body, nothing else.
Fasting means directing our appetite to the Word of God, as a real food for the soul (mind, will, freedom,…). It is treating ourselves as really having/being a body, a soul and a spirit. We honour therefore hidden and buried parts of our being (soul and spirit) that haven’t been used for some time (or for long time), watering them, helping them to flourish and blossom. We need to give Divine Food to our Soul, and to our Spirit. We allow God to dismantle various enemies of our soul and spirit, when we turn our attention toward them by fasting with the body, by focusing on the Word of God. Jesus’ words to Satan are a Golden Rule for us: “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the Mouth of God.’” (Matthew 4:4) Jesus is God’s Mouth.
This is why fasting in Christianity is important. It is capable of casting the devil/Satan away. Satan doesn't like the Truth, he is the father of Lies, a Liar from day one says Jesus (see John 8:44). Please note that, in his Temptation, Jesus dealt with Satan using not only the Word of God but a correct reading of the Word of God (in fact Satan was distorting it, so the Bible is not enough, we need the Holy Spirit to make it alive). Why? Because the Word of God bears the Truth, is the Truth, and the word of God helps the Truth enter in us. And the devil hates God’s Light, he prefers to hide behind the darkness of his lies.

For advanced persons

I did say, that after some early experiences with Fasting, one has to ask the advice of his/her spiritual director and follow it diligently even if he/she doesn't like it. The merit of fasting doesn’t only come from what we do. We need discernment. The merit comes from the obedience to a competent spiritual director. Sometimes after a powerful experience of fasting, we could be tempted to fast more, idolising fasting. Turning to our spiritual director he/she might say: well fast less, or in smaller things (like St Therese, she did plenty of small things: l’asc├Ęse de petitesse : the asceticism of little things). We might feel then rightly frustrated, because you started to idolise fasting, become very attached to certain practices, thinking that this is what is saving you. Jesus saved you, and your obedience to him is what matters. What more secure obedience can we have to Jesus than the one through the spiritual director?
This is why, it is of the utmost importance to be very pure in revealing all our thoughts and intentions to the spiritual director (I am aware that these practices are not practised today in the western churches, but this is the clear advice of our living tradition still (see the Desert Fathers and the activity called “revealing the thoughts”, in spiritual direction). I know that we are miles away from that, but mind you, this is a powerful means, because it is one of the highest "affirmations" of the Incarnation: Jesus gave his authority on earth, this being the extension of the Incarnation. This way (obedience) is one of the most powerful ways to disperse the devil, from within or around. “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit which does not confess Jesus is not of God.” (1 John 4:2-3)

Fasting in Lent

As mentioned above we do fast during the year, on Fridays, some on Wednesdays and even Saturdays. But Lent is not only concerned about these days, but it is concerned about a general attitude for all the days. Fasting in Lent has a more specific meaning.
Let us remember that Lent time was engineered around celebrating each year, at a specific time of the year (Easter), the memorial of Jesus' Passion. We do remember Jesus’ Passion at each Eucharist, this is obvious, we remember Him during each week, since we could live each week like a holy week, following Jesus from Thursday evening… through Friday, until he rises on Sunday. Which is great.
But for Lent, we prepare ourselves to celebrate each year in a deeper way the Lord’s Passion, Death and Resurrection.
In the Early Ages in the Church we had something like 3 days to fast then it became longer (a week), until it took the 40 days of Jesus in the Desert as a role model (And Moses fasting 40 days before the revelation of God on Sinai and the People of God in the Desert for 40 years). But all this effort is aimed at preparing ourselves to celebrate (and benefit spiritually which is the key aspect) from the Grace of the Memorial of his Passion-Death-Resurrection. This memorial is the core of our life, and it can easily (because of weakness and routine) become superficial, and not bring the expected fruits. This is why we need to “dig deeper” in order to give more space in our life to Jesus and to the Power of His Resurrection. This is essential. So “lent” is about “digging deeper”, making a greater space in us.
And Fasting in Lent is orientated toward this goal and bears this spirit: getting closer to Jesus, closer to his Cross in order to discover the Power and Glory he gives us when he is on His Cross. The Cross is the most powerful Revelation of God’s love and we need to learn to do that.
So, Lent and Fasting in Lent should have this specific spirit to it: getting closer to Jesus’ Passion, meditating on it, drinking from it, crying because of our sins, when our Saviour looks at us like he did to Peter after he betrayed Him. “Peter said, "Man, I do not know what you are saying." And immediately, while he was still speaking, the cock crowed. And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, "Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times." And he went out and wept bitterly.” (Luke 22:59-62)

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

96: Why Jesus hides his Divinity?

Question: From the Gospel today why does Jesus appear to deny His divinity? "Why do you call me good... No-one is good but God alone" (Mark 10:17-27).

Answer: Thank you very much for your question. This is an fundamental question which puzzles all who find passages from the Gospel where Jesus tries to keep quiet about his divinity. It became even a “locus theologicus” and has a name: “the Messianic secret”.

In the Gospel, Jesus commands silence in many instances. An example is Mark 8:29–30: "And he asked them, But who say ye that I am? Peter answereth and saith unto him, Thou art the Christ. And he charged them that they should tell no man of him." Jesus also issues commands of silence after miracles and healings, e.g. in Mark 1:43–45 in the cleansing of a leper: "After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, 'See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.'" We could include parables and secrets of the Kingdom of God as in Mark 4:11: "And he said unto them, Unto you is given the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all things are done in parables."

First there is a difference between denying and not saying or hiding. He is not denying (that would be lying) but he is acting progressively (pedagogically). Jesus' intention is pedagogical. In order to understand how God worked in the History of our Salvation (think of the Old Testament) and in order to understand how Jesus worked we should think of an aspect that Blessed John Henry Newman deepened and presented to us: “development” and “envelopment” as a Divine pedagogy. God never starts by saying things directly, and clearly, because we don't have the capacity to receive things as holy as they are. So he starts by enveloping himself and the deeper truths about him. Exactly like we do with Children: we tell them things in a certain way when they are young and the more they grow, the more they are capable of understanding and bearing what we have to say, so we open wider the veil, increase information, until they are capable of handling the naked reality/truth (the process of development).

Jesus' divinity is not a light matter to be played with or a subject of debate or arguments. It is the most sacred part of God himself and it is not offered up to be ridiculed. It should be handled with great care and respect. It should be handled with purity.

For the pure and the prepared, God reveals Himself as he is. But in order to reach that purity and holiness, we need to be purified through a journey of growth.
This is why saint John built his Gospel as a journey of purification through the 6 signs he offers us (chapters 1 to 11), until we reach the Cross (18-19), and are enable to “enter” into Jesus' Opened Side.
God doesn't give his pearls to the swine. And he advises us not to do so.

Objection: Should we consider a beginner as a “swine”, an impure person to whom we should hide the knowledge that Jesus is God and the necessity to believe in that from day one ?
Answer: Not really, because experiencing his divinity is the first goal in spiritual life and one needs to know it from day one, even if it is not experienced yet. One embarks in the journey. It is more for people who are not opened to receive Faith. (Faith is a Grace)
If we read carefully saint John's Gospel we will notice various aspects arround Jesus' Divinity.
- First we can see that that there are two ways to reach the Discovery of Jesus's divinity: the first way is to start through baptism by the mere initial baptismal belief (the Creed), and, at the end of the Journey, to reach Jesus divinity, by becoming united to him. Saint John of the Cross describes the grace of the Spiritual Engagement as a powerful glimpse of Jesus' divinity. St Theresa of Avila says that in the 7th Mansion, we see what we believed in while within the previous mansions...
The Gospel of St John starts with one of the First apostles' affirmation: Rabbi you are the Son of God (John 1:50-51), and finishes with that amazing affirmation of St Thomas who was allowed into Jesus' side: “my Lord and my God” (John 20:28).
- Second: one can see throughout St John's Gospel that on the journey of purification (the 6 signs), at each stage people respond to Jesus in different ways. You have the ones who believe, but you have as well the ones who don't, who react very humanly, who struggle. This is intentional in John's mind: he shows the journey of purification, the struggles, the obstacles to reach that experience of Jesus' Divinity that he calls: Faith. Faith for him is entering in Jesus, being transformed in Him, and therefore being able to receive the Holy Spirit, God's Life (see John 20:30-31).

We see then the necessity of a journey of purification. We can translate these following words of Jesus “blessed the pure, they will see God” (Mt 5) into a more precise statement: “Blessed whoever will get his heart purified because he/she will See God.” or “your duty is to become purified in order to see God”. This is why the Masters of Spiritual life from the very beginning of their teaching stated that the goal of the monk is to realise his purification (see Conferences, John Cassian). Let us finally remember as well that the journey of transformation/purification makes us similar to God, to Jesus. This is why and how we will be able to see him “as he is” (1 John 3:2).

Conclusion: we can't say that the Lord denies his own divinity, but he uses the divine pedagogy, i.e. he works progressively with whoever is ready and to the others, he speaks in symbols (parables), fulfilling the golden rule: not to give pearls to the swine.
In that passage mentioned in your question, Jesus starts with the understanding of God as he appears in God's Revelation to Moses. Notice that Jesus' answer will proceed progressively: he will question him about his observation of Moses' Law first. Only after his positive answer will he dare add perfection, the Perfection he is bringing to the Law. He acted pedagogically.