Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Talk to the Legion of Mary #1

Below is the first of 3 talks I gave to the members of the Legion of Mary in this area. The First talk is on Prayer, the second on Devotion to Our Blessed Mother and the Third was on Spiritual Warfare. They are quite long, but hopefully some of you readers will get something from them.

St. Alphonsus Ligouri doesn’t hesitate to say: “Those who pray are certainly saved; those who do not pray are certainly damned”. And it all goes back to the fact that we cannot possibly follow God’s direction for our lives if we don’t take sufficient time to hear what his plan for us is.

The well known passage of scripture which tells of the constant struggle between the active and contemplative sides of life and how easily we can let one (usually the active) get out of sync with the other is the story of Martha and Mary who receive Jesus as a visitor to their home. Martha is delighted to be able to serve the Lord, for without her effort, her guest will go hungry. She is intent on meeting his needs and in so doing she becomes a model of service of Christ and has no doubt inspired countless saints who do not have the Lord before them, but eagerly serve his brothers and sisters who come to them in any need. Martha does nothing wrong and yet her reproach of her sister Mary, shows that she hasn’t quite understood the bigger picture. Martha and Mary, two sisters who share the same home, two attitudes under the same roof, two different ways of serving the Lord, but it is Mary who has chosen the better part.

Many of us are more like Martha than Mary, practical, efficient, self-sacrificing. But there is a danger in all that of falling into the famous trap: Too busy working in the service of the Lord to worry about the Lord we are serving. We all need the Martha tendency to be tempered by a little bit of Mary’s attitude. All our activity – if it is to be truly fruitful, truly of lasting service to the Lord and for his greater glory, must be rooted in prayer, must flow from prayer, must be inspired by the Lord whom we encounter in prayer and must at the end of the day be submitted to him once again in prayer. As one of the Psalms tells us: If the Lord does not build the house, in vain do its labourers build.

It might seem that we are about to condemn Martha for her lack of prayerfulness. But that’s not what that gospel passage is saying. Yes, it praises Mary’s choice to remain at the feet of Christ, to be served by him, to hear his words, to be fed by him. But there is no condemnation of Martha in her busy serving of Christ. Under the same roof Christ is both served and serves. He is fed by Martha, but he feeds Mary with his presence, with his words. And both He and Mary take greater delight in their encounter. Mary has chosen the better part – it will not be taken away from her. But that doesn’t mean that Martha has done something terribly wrong. She seeks to please the Lord by serving him, Mary by spending time in his presence. Both are pleasing to the Lord. But Mary has chosen the better part. As Archbishop Fulton sheen pointed out: “We always make the fatal mistake of thinking that it is what we do that matters, when really what matters is what we let God do to us. God sent the angel to the Virgin Mary, not to ask her to do something, but to let something be done.” Mary has chosen the better part over Martha because Mary allows Christ to do what he came to do, what he loved to do most – to serve and not to be served.

So we need to always have a balance. Prayer that doesn’t overflow into concern for others, for God’s kingdom, for the salvation of souls – hardly seems authentic. But service of others cannot reach its full potential unless we have submitted our plans and efforts to the Lord for his guidance and most especially for his blessing. The kingdom is built not by human hands but by human hearts that have been inflamed by the grace and love of Christ and have been called to cooperate within the limits of the life and opportunities which God has set before them. That inflaming of the heart can only take place in the furnace of the Sacred Heart of Jesus; by a meeting of our heart with his, which comes about in our prayer. We need to encounter the Lord there, in our hearts, often. Take a blazing coal from the fire and it will soon fade and die. Take the most active soul away from his prayers and his activity ceases to be what God intends it to be and indeed runs the risk of ceasing to be altogether.

Prayer is not to be a substitute for action, much less an excuse for inaction; but prayer must be the foundation of our actions. Jesus preached, worked miracles, healed and accomplished salvation in 3 years, but he prayed for 30 years before that, and indeed his ministry was constantly interspersed with prayer – the Gospel tells us that he passed whole nights in prayer. Jesus is the supreme model for us on how to pray and, after him, we have a beautiful model of prayer in Our Blessed Lady – and who but her faithful legion should strive most to imitate her in this great activity of the human soul – conversing lovingly with one by whom we know ourselves to be loved – as St. Teresa of Avila defined prayer.

However, in considering the primacy of prayer over action it is well to remember that it isn’t a case of either/or, but, both prayer and action being essential in our lives – and especially in lives dedicated to service of Our Lady’s cause in the Legion of Mary. The Legion handbook makes it quite clear that legionaries shouldn’t consider that the auxiliary members are the prayer power behind their apostolic activities. No, the active legionary is to appreciate the power of those prayers, but he or she is to be even more so immersed in prayer than the inactive auxiliary who prays. Because the legionary who neglects prayer and relies on the fact that others are praying while he or she is acting, will soon find his or her activity fruitless and burdensome. Only when we pray can we be sure that the activity we carry out – even if it be unfruitful, will be pleasing to God and will be of some unknown benefit to the kingdom of God. As Pope Paul VI put it: “only your personal and profound union with Christ will assure the fruitfulness of your apostolate, whatever it may be.” And that personal and profound union with Christ is only possible for those who cultivate a strong prayer life.

“Souls are won on our knees” say St. Charles Borromeo – and could it be otherwise – to convert, heal, sanctify and save a soul is a supernatural task, and no amount of purely natural activity or means will contribute to that task in any way. Blessed Columba Marmion once wrote: “All the human activity in the world, if it is not made fruitful by grace and Divine Blessing, is powerless to convert or sanctify a single soul.” Our prayer supernaturalises our work – fills it with Divine Power. The more you pray the more your work will be of benefit to souls. The more you pray the more graces are bestowed on our world and the full power of the Holy Spirit can be unleashed on the hearts and minds of millions. A lot of prayer – a lot of power, a little prayer – a little power, no prayer – no power. We must base our hope for success in the vineyard on the Infinite Power of God, to whom we pray, rather than on our own talent, efforts or powers of persuasion. “Millions of favours, says Archbishop Fulton Sheen, are hanging from heaven on silken cords; prayer is the sword that will cut them loose.” Again Blessed Columba gives a warning to priests that could well be suited to all those who are given a special share in the work of the salvation of souls – a work that is certainly part and parcel of the Legion’s reason for existence: “Believe me, he says, whatever may be your talents, your knowledge, and your enthusiasm when you begin your ministry, unless you are men of prayer, you will do nothing worth while… The Saints who accomplished great things for love of God delighted certainly in devotedness and in action, but they were also men of prayer,… they all spent hours conversing with God. Let us be, therefore, mediators conscious of our mission, men of prayer who, by virtue of our constant communion with the Lord, sanctify the souls of which we have charge, while at the same time sanctifying ourselves.”

Nothing does more good to souls than our prayers for them and nothing does our own soul more good than its daily encounters with God. And nowhere do we see this more than in the example of our Heavenly Mother and Queen. While the Apostles who had come to know Jesus over the 3 years of his public ministry went in the pursuit of souls throughout the known world; she who knew him best – his Blessed Mother who had spent 30 years in intimate communion with him – remained in silent, hidden, but heartfelt prayer and how poor would have been the fruits of the Apostles labours had she not done so. How fruitless indeed would the labours of the entire Church to this day have been if she did not continue to pray from her high place in heaven. Prayer is not the only thing that needs to be done for the soul, but it is certainly the most important. St. John Chrysostom taught: “Nothing is equal to prayer; for what is impossible it makes possible, what is difficult, easy.”

The Holy Rosary
First among the many forms of prayer, outside of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and the Sacraments of course, must be The Holy Rosary and Eucharistic Adoration. And I’d like to speak a little about these two essential devotions of our faith. I say essential because they, unlike other devotional practices which are highly commendable and to be encouraged, are two non-negotiables – all the more so for those who are enlisted in Our Blessed Lady’s legion.

About the Rosary Pope John Paul II has stated in his letter on the Holy Rosary, that it releases a great power into our lives and into our world: “Against the background of the words Ave Maria, he tells us, the principal events of the life of Jesus Christ pass before the eyes of the soul… and they put us in living communion with Jesus through – we might say – the heart of his Mother. (RVM, #2) and he goes on to say that: “Mary constantly sets before the faithful the “mysteries” of her Son, with the desire that the contemplation of those mysteries will release all their saving power. (RVM #11). The Holy Father is teaching that in some way as we meditate on the various stages of the life of Jesus and Mary we are tapping into the power with which those two lives are infused and causing that Divine Power – grace – to be released upon the situation we are praying for, the people we bring to our Rosary, the world that is so much in need of Divine Intervention. As we pray the 5th Sorrowful Mystery, for example, we can bring the souls of all those who are dying at that moment to the Heart of Mary as she stands supporting her Son Jesus in his final agony. And as power went out from Jesus in the Gospel to the woman who touched the hem of his garment, how much more will power go out from him to those who touch the heart of his Mother. And the Rosary, according to the teaching of Pope St. Pius X, “is the prayer that touches most the heart of the Mother of God.”

In the 2nd talk, this afternoon, I will speak about love and devotion to Our Blessed Lady, but for now I want to present to you the teaching of St. Jose Maria Escriva on how to develop that love for Mary through the reflective and not superficial praying of the Rosary: “Do you want to love Our Lady? He asks – Well, then get to know her. How? – by praying her rosary well. But in the rosary we always say the same things! But don’t people in love always say the same things to each other? Might it not be that you find the Rosary monotonous because, instead of pronouncing the words like a man, you mumble noises while your mind is very far from God? Pause for a few seconds – 3 or 4 – in silent meditation to consider each mystery of the rosary before you recite the Our Father and the Hail Mary’s of that decade. I am sure, says St. Josemaria, that this practice will increase your recollection and the fruits of your prayer.” Indeed Frank Duff, founder of the Legion of Mary, himself warns against rattling through the Rosary, calling such prayer – disrespectful of Our Blessed Mother. A constant danger in those of us who pray the Rosary is that we might recite it rather than genuinely pray it. Yes grace will be released in that recital, but how much more divine power is left untapped because we have failed to really enter the heart of Mary in our prayers. “The Rosary, says Pope Benedict XVI, when it is prayed in an authentic way, not mechanical and superficial but profoundly, it brings, in fact, peace and reconciliation. It contains within itself the healing power of the Most Holy Name of Jesus, invoked with faith and love at the centre of each "Hail Mary".”

Eucharistic Adoration
And now a word on Eucharistic Adoration and its greatness as a form of devotion. Indeed if it be combined with the meditative prayer of the Holy Rosary, then how great indeed it is for forming our souls in the image of Jesus Christ. The Legion of Mary Handbook states that “every avenue of legionary action must be availed of to awaken knowledge and love of the Blessed Sacrament and to dissipate the sin and indifference which keep men from it.” These are fine sentiments and indeed the handbook, which is the roadmap which guides the legion in its advance, clearly states that the “main object of legion activity is to establish the reign of the Eucharist in all hearts”.

However, in order to extend that Eucharistic Reign of Christ in souls we must first let him triumph and reign over our own soul – the Eucharist must become the centre of our own devotional life – since the Eucharist is Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ is the Divine Sun around which orbits all of creation and towards which every soul is attracted as a moth to a flame. The Handbook states that, “the Legions battle for souls must begin in the heart of the individual legionary.” And the extending of the Eucharistic Reign of the Lord Jesus must begin in each individual legion soul too.

But in order for that reign of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament to begin we have to be utterly convinced of Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist – and, even though we can learn much from the Catechism and from the great spiritual teachings of our Catholic past, that conviction happens only when we are found often before the Eucharistic Lord in loving conversation – gazing at the sacramental veil trying to catch a glimpse of Christ who is hidden behind that veil. For Jesus Christ sits on his Throne in Heaven surrounded by the myriads of Angels and Saints who scarcely dare to gaze upon his majesty – so bright is the glory which surrounds him, the Father and the Holy Spirit. But that same Jesus is present on our altars, in our Tabernacles and he is no less glorious, no less powerful, no less merciful, loving and good, no less God than he is reigning gloriously in Heaven. For our sake and our salvation he became man, for our sake too, he remains with us under the veil of the Eucharist – not surrounded by a blinding light of glory, for we would not then dare approach, but there amid a few meagre candles, not being praised by countless angels but receiving gladly the simple praise of the flowers, which all to quickly wither in the vases before him, not being acclaimed by the saints in glory, but offered the poor prayers and adoration of us sinners. Indeed Jesus in our tabernacles is surrounded by the light of glory, by the angels and saints, but they, like he, have been made invisible to our senses and can only be apprehended by the eyes of faith.

And it is your task, dear members of the Mary’s Legion, as it is my task as a priest, to make the people we come into contact with more aware, more respectful, more loving toward Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. And the best way we can do that is by our example, by showing that we have an awareness of Our Lord’s presence in the way we genuflect (if our knees haven’t yet given out), by showing that we respect his presence by the way we respect the holiness of the Church in which he is to be found, in our dress, in our decorum, in our attitude. It used to be that people dressed up for Sunday Mass, because it was something so utterly special and unique, now more and more our people dress down. They would never present themselves before our madam President in the way they present themselves before Almighty God.

And the supreme witness we can give to the love which is Christ’s due in the Eucharist is to spend time with him - to receive him with loving reverence and to spend some time, even a short time, in thanksgiving after Mass for the great gift Christ has made of himself to us in the Eucharist, and then to commit to some time in his presence each week – to fill up the emptiness he must feel at the indifference and coldness of so many hearts, even Catholic hearts, to his wondrous gift of himself in the Eucharist. Later today we will spend time in prayer before Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament – maybe we could have 2 intentions for that Holy hour: firstly that our faith and love of the Eucharistic Jesus might be increased and, secondly, that the Lord might be consoled for so much indifference he receives in the Blessed Sacrament of the altar – that our poor prayers and presence to him, might be able to make reparation for the solitude which surrounds him in so many churches throughout our land and throughout our world.

Lazy Servants

From the Imitation of Christ:

Many listen more willingly to the world than to God, and are readier to follow the desires of their flesh than God’s good pleasure. The world promises temporal things which are really of small value and it is served with great eagerness; I, the Lord promise most excellent and everlasting things and yet men’s hearts remain sluggish. Who is there that serves and obeys me in all things with that great care with which the world and its lords are served? The shame of it – for an unchangeable good, for an inestimable reward, for the highest honour and never-ending glory, they are loath to undergo even a little fatigue and difficulty. Blush then lazy servant.”

At times, we are exact to the smallest detail when we wish to impress someone, or to obtain some favour, but when it comes to the Lord we can tend to be a bit lax in our attitude. There are those who will go through their CV with a fine tooth comb for possible mistakes before submitting it for the job and then they will put on their best suit and best foot forward and present themselves as best they can for the interview panel so as to increase their chances of getting that job. But they can come to Mass and stand before the Lord of the Universe – their only hope of salvation - and be utterly unprepared in body and more importantly in soul.

Love Life!

You have been trusted to look after something precious; guard it with the Help of the Holy Spirit.

St. Paul is speaking these words to St. Timothy – a young man who he had appointed as a bishop. And Paul is urging Timothy to recognise the great gift he received in being ordained a priest of Jesus Christ and how he is to make every effort to proclaim the truth in season and out. The something precious he has been entrusted to look after was the flock of the Church which he had to look after spiritually.

Now not all of us will be bishops or priests, but everyone of us is entrusted with something precious to look after, or rather with quite a number of things. For me as a priest I am to see to the spiritual welfare of the people of my parish, I am to urge them to be open to the Lord’s leading in their lives, something done more effectively by my example, which is so often less than perfect, than by my preaching, I am to help them to be faithful to their responsibilities as Catholics and I am to warn them against anything that would endanger their eternal salvation.

Many are parents – and so to them have been entrusted the little sons and daughters of God who depend completely on them for the natural things in life, but also that they will lead them to and teach them about the supernatural things in life – about God, Jesus Christ, his Mother and all the other bits and pieces that make up our faith. And that is a great mission given to them by God.

Each of us is entrusted with something special in our lives and we should strive to guard it well. What I am entrusted with is not for you, what your neighbour has to do – not what you have to do. But there is one thing that we have all been entrusted with and which we are commissioned by almighty God to guard well, guard securely and guard with our lives. That thing is life itself – firstly our own and then the lives of others, whether they be next door to us, in a test-tube somewhere, in the womb, or on their death bed – every human being, because he or she is alive has an inalienable dignity that is not given by the law of any country, but given by almighty God himself. It is the job of governments to recognise and protect that right to life and its dignity, but not to legislate about it as though one person’s life is worth more than another’s. That human life is precious and from God is a given, though in many places life is not respected nearly enough. In its early stages as embryos human lives are manipulated in various laboratories. Many people, Catholics included, do not know or choose to ignore the fact that IVF and Embryonic Stem Cell Research are wrong, and strictly forbidden by the Church.

In life’s later stages, when the burden of years begins to take its final toll – we often hear people say things which seem to judge the value of life by its usefulness, rather than by the fact that it is from God and, therefore that it is for him to decide how and when it should cease. How often have I heard at wakes or funerals – sure wasn’t it better for him, better for her – he or she had no quality of life – as if the quality of life should always determine its inherent value. And indeed I have heard that said about the person in their presence at their sickbed – and how cruel that is for those people who are being basically told that they would be better off if they died as soon as possible. The sick need to feel valued, cherished and loved, not that they are a burden, an inconvenience or worthless.

The mentality that places the quality of a person’s life over the inherent value and dignity of their life is, I’m afraid, alive and well in the western world. And if that mentality were to take deep enough root then we will have here, as some countries already do, euthanasia on demand. And that will undoubtedly quickly move from a situation where a person can choose to die, to a situation where a person feels compelled to die because he or she feels themselves to be a burden that their family or wider society could do without. It’s a slippery slope. Quality of life should never trump its inherent value and dignity. Be careful when you hear people use that term – quality of life – what thinking lies behind it? As Catholics we should proclaim the greatness of life at all its stages – even its final stages – always remembering that it was precisely at the weakest, most pain-filled and horrific moments of his life that Jesus Christ brought to fulfillment the great mission of salvation. Who knows what great mission is being worked out at the supernatural level by those in their final days and hours.

Every heartbeat is precious, whether it be the first stirrings of the foetal heart in the womb, the pumping of a strong heart of a young athlete, or the last gasps of an exhausted heart in a hospital bed – equally precious in God’s eyes and equally to be cherished. As Catholics we are called to cherish life in all its stages and to see those stages as the unfolding of God’s plan for the human person. And no law should ever be accepted that seeks to diminish the value of a single human life. The person dying of cancer, perhaps bedridden and in need of constant care – that person’s life is of no less value in God’s eyes than that of a young man or woman in their prime who hasn’t a care in the world. No less value in God’s eyes, then in our eyes too they must be equally cherished, guarded, and loved.