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Feast of the Transfiguration: The Primacy of Prayer

Right after the announcement of his resignation, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI reflected on the role of Peter at the Transfiguration. The lesson of the Transfiguration is the primacy of prayer and communion, the center of all activity. All this comes prior to activity. Contemplative religious are witnesses to this hierarchy. On this Feast of the Transfiguration, let us not lose sight of this ordering. Here is part of the Pope’s address:

Peter’s words “Master, it is well that we are here” represent the impossible attempt to put this mystical experience on hold. St Augustine commented: “[Peter]… on the mountain… had Christ as the food of his soul. Why should he have to go down to return to his hard work and sorrows while up there he was filled with sentiments of holy love for God and which thus inspired in him a holy conduct? (Sermon 78,3: pl 38, 491).

In meditating on this passage of the Gospel, we can learn a very important lesson from it: first of all, the primacy of prayer, without which the entire commitment to the apostolate and to charity is reduced to activism. In Lent we learn to give the right time to prayer, both personal and of the community, which gives rest to our spiritual life. Moreover, prayer does not mean isolating oneself from the world and from its contradictions, as Peter wanted to do on Mount Tabor; rather, prayer leads back to the journey and to action. “The Christian life”, I wrote in my Message for this Lent, “consists in continuously scaling the mountain to meet God and then coming back down, bearing the love and strength drawn from him, so as to serve our brothers and sisters with God’s own love” (n. 3).

St. Ignatius of Loyola and Transformation

 St. Ignatius of Loyola learned from the lives of the saints, and the concrete witness of their lives transformed him. He saw that Christ was the center of their particular lives, and he started to see the narrative of his own life in such a way. In The Grammar of Assent, Bl. John Henry Newman distinguishes between notional assent and real assent. In a nutshell, notional assent is the acknowledgement we give to the truth of abstract propositions. It is not an assent grounded in concrete experiences, and it often makes little difference in the way we live. One can see this in arguments for the existence of God. Often times, the argument from contingency doesn’t transform us. However, as Newman points out, the argument from conscience does have this effect. Many have the real experience of the pangs of conscience, and the intuition of a supreme moral authority. We sense this to be the voice of God. Newman says that religion must have both. However, if you want to transform men real assent is necessary. Newman says, “Many a man will live and die upon a dogma: no man will be a martyr for a conclusion…No one, I say, will die for his calculations: he dies for realities.” Real assent is grounded in real objects that have a force on a person unlike notional assent. It is grounded in experience. As a Brit, Newman resisted the abstractions of continental philosophy. However, he didn’t lead us down the equally abstract empiricism of Hume but to the true experience we all have, i.e. the intuition of the real world and the sense of God that is written on our hearts. Ignatius is an example of the transformation real assent can influence not only one life but the whole world.

St. Ignatius was a warrior. His life centered around glory on the battlefield. However, after his injury he came to see the folly of such ways. His desire was misdirected. He read the lives of the saints and was transformed into a disciple of Christ. The lives of the saints were a concrete witness to him of the glory of martyrdom (witness). This conversion probably wouldn’t occur if he happened to pick up Aquinas’ De Potentia. We need to keep this in mind when we want to evangelize the youth, encouraging them to consider a religious vocation. This will not happen by abstraction, but by the heroism of the saints. In an age of the crisis of reason, abstract arguments will not hold. We need to relearn the art of inspiring real assent, and a good way of doing this is by telling the lives of the saints. On this Feast of St. Ignatius, let us recall the heroism of Ignatius and the early Jesuit saints, calling on them for a renewal in religious life around the world. May people find their vocation by hearing the stories of how the saints found theirs.

Krakow: A City of Saints

While in Krakow I read George Weigel’s book on the city entitled City of Saints: A Pilgrimage to John Paul II’s Krakow.  I cannot think of a more fitting title about a city that has the ethos of sanctity emanating from its streets. Like a fountain, waters of sanctity and history flow from Wawel Hill meandering into the Main Square, thereby soaking into the lives of its people. I hope I do not sound like Krakow is the New Jerusalem; it is a city of sinners and saints. However, from what I witnessed it seems to me that a city can do an awful lot in shaping a man in either direction. Krakow concretely orders man to his destiny of communion with God in Christ. That is partially why no atheistic regime that denied such a destiny could triumph there. Sanctity haunts Krakow.

Many saints lived and died in Krakow. Their monuments are all over the city. Little shrines surprisingly pop up everywhere, even next to a McDonalds by the city’s main gate. A huge crucifixion scene dominates a street that is also littered with clubs and bistros. Nowhere else besides Rome have I seen so many religious. Christ shines everywhere.

Instead of secular skyscrapers, Churches dominate the city’s skyline. Streets from the main square, with names of saints, apostles and evangelists, lead to the façade of Churches and other institutions of importance. An enormous shopping mall fittingly sits on the outskirts of the city, allowing the city’s hierarchy of importance, derived from a Christian vision of things, to be unambiguously expressed. This was revelatory to me. I grew up in a centerless suburb, dominated by a lifeless shopping mall, an inversion of the order expressed in Krakow.

My wife and I met a close friend of John Paul II, the poet/philosopher Stanislaw Grygiel, in the Main Square. Commenting on the different ethos we noticed between Warsaw and Krakow, Grygiel said, “People in Warsaw talk politics. The people of Krakow talk about the Bishop’s homily.” The city had a long history of being Poland’s political center, but it no longer has that role; perhaps, for the better. Yet even when it did have that role, a different vision shaped politics than the one we have today. For the past century, politics has been dominated by a liberal secularism, anything outside its framework seen as an obstruction of justice. Krakow was the center when a noble culture was present that could state in the Preamble to the Act of Horodlo (1413): ‘Whoever is unsupported by the mystery of Love…shall not achieve the Grace of salvation…For by Love, laws are made, kingdoms governed, cities ordered, and the state of the commonweal is brought to its proper goal. Whoever shall cast Love aside, shall lose everything.’ You can see this ordering principle governing the streets of Krakow and the lives of its inhabitants. I only notionally understood ta city was so essential to the shaping its citizens, but now, after walking the streets of Krakow and meeting many Krakowians, I really understand why a city is a major factor in sanctity. Weigel remarks that you cannot fully understand John Paul II without Krakow. He is right. The love that orders the streets of Krakow is the same love that ordered the life of St. John Paul II. We all have much to learn from cities like Krakow, and I do not think it is nostalgic to think that such an order can reestablish cities and the lives of people longing to live the holiness of God. Perhaps, urban planners, politicians, and religious should get together to lay the foundation for cities open to God. This may be one of the reasons why Krakow historically was the home of many vocations.

For more on the urban planning of Krakow, watch Dr. Denis McNamara’s video on the city.


Parents of Vocations Forum

The Kissel family with Sr. M. Gemma, FSGM

One of the little talked about issues surrounding religious vocations is the impact it can have on the parents of a young man or women entering religious life. The process of discernment can be challenging enough but  it is often complicated by the reaction of the parents.

Even in the most supportive of families, the thought of your child entering religious life can bring heartache, questions, sorrow, puzzlement and even anger—the whole gauntlet of emotions. Since religious communities are quite invisible in our culture, parents today typically do not have an aunt or uncle who is in religious life and thus a level of comfort and familiarity with the vocation. They have many questions, and understandably, want the best for their children.

The Blessed Mother & St Joseph present Mary to the Temple

That is why Tom Kissel developed this new website—to have a forum where parents can ask questions, share experiences and network. Tom’s only daughter is in an active Franciscan community (The Sisters of St Francis of the Martyr St. George) so he is familiar first-hand with the path that parents walk along with their son or daughter and the stages of grief and joy.

The website has just been launched but do not hesitate to jump on and participate in this much-needed initiative in the Church.

Please visit to join the conversation!


St. Benedict and the WOW Factor

Contemplation of the vastness and purity of the innate beauty of nature is medicine for the soul that draws us out of ourselves and closer to our loving God. Through this, we can experience what Br. Daniel Sokol, OSB, call, the “WOW Factor”:

We magnify this “WOW Factor” within by prayerfully appreciating passages of sacred scripture or the writings of the saints….When we deliberately engage the “WOW Factor” we build up our appreciation of God, and come to a more abundant sharing of His beneficent and healing graces.  …We keep in mind that heaven will be filled with grateful people.

Here are some examples from the Rule of St. Benedict of how we can recognize and appreciate the multiform “WOW Factors” and holy powers contained therein.  Each word or phrase has a powerful capacity to help us become more aware of, and engaged in the healing graces that God always offers to us, His beloved children.

Some of the “WOW” Factors found in the Rule of St. Benedict are:

  • God’s Presence: When (a man) is to be received, he comes before the whole community in the oratory and promises stability, fidelity to monastic life, and obedience.  This is done in the presence of God and his saints to impress on the novice that if he ever acts otherwise, he will surely be condemned by the one he mocks (RB 58:17-18).
  • The Lord’s Power: These people fear the Lord, and do not become elated over their good deeds; they judge it is the Lord’s power, not their own, that brings about the good in them.  They praise (Ps 14[15]: 4) the Lord working in them, and say with the Prophet: Not to us, Lord, not to us give the glory, but to your name alone (Ps 113[115: 1]: 9) (Prol 30).
  • Delightful Lord: What, dear brothers, is more delightful than this voice of the Lord calling to us?   See how the Lord in his love shows us the way of life  (RB Prol 19-20)?
  • Thankfulness: Thanks to the help and guidance of many, they are now trained to fight against the devil (RB 1:4).
  • Forgiveness: Reciting the entire Lord’s Prayer at the end [of Lauds and Vespers] for all to hear, because thorns of contention are likely to spring up.  Thus warned by the pledge they make to one another in the very words of this prayer: Forgive us as we forgive (Matt 6:12), they may cleanse themselves of this kind of vice (RB 13:12-13).
  • God’s Grace: What is not possible to us by nature, let us ask the Lord to supply by the help of his grace (RB Prologue  41).
  • Reason and Humility: If any brother happens to make an unreasonable demand of him, he should not reject him with disdain and cause him distress, but reasonably and humbly deny the improper request (RB 31:7).
  • Glory to God: They praise (Ps 14[15]: 4) the Lord working in them, and say with the Prophet: Not to us, Lord, not to us give the glory, but to your name alone (Ps 113[115: 1]: 9) (RB Prol 30).
  • Good Works and Humility:   Only in this are we distinguished in his sight: if we are found better than others in good works and in humility (RB 2:21).
  • Sufficiency: Whoever needs less should thank God and not be distressed,  but whoever needs more should feel humble because of his weakness, not self-important because of the kindness shown him  (RB 34:3-4).
  • Delight in Virtue: Through this love, all that he once performed with dread, he will now begin to observe without effort, as though naturally, from habit, no longer out of fear of hell, but out of love for Christ, good habit and delight in virtue  (RB 7:68-69).
  • Zeal for God’s Honor: They may be sure that they will receive a generous reward for this, if they do it with pure motives and zeal for God’s honor (RB 72:3-6).
  • Restraint of Speech: I said, I have resolved to keep watch over my ways that I may never sin with my tongue.  I have put a guard on my mouth.  I was silent and was humbled, and I refrained even from good words (Ps 38[39]:23)  (RB 6:1).
  • Genuine Peace: Never give a hollow greeting of peace  or turn away when someone needs your love (RB 4:25-26).
  • Sense of the Sacred:   He will regard all utensils and goods of the monastery as sacred vessels of the altar  (RB 31:10).
  • Everlasting Life:  Yearn for everlasting life with holy desire (RB 4:46).
  • Heartfelt Devotion: Pray, not in a loud voice, but with tears and heartfelt devotion (RB 52:4).
  • Blessings for Hardships: In truth, those who are patient amid hardships and unjust treatment are fulfilling the Lord’s command: When struck on one cheek, they turn the other; when deprived of their coat, they offer their cloak also; when pressed into service for one mile, they go two (Matt 5:3941).  With the Apostle Paul, they bear with false brothers, endure persecution, and bless those who curse them (2 Cor. 11:26; 1 Cor 4:12) (RB 7:42-43).

From Br. Daniel Sokol, OSB, Prince of Peace Abbey, Oceanside, CA ( )

Christ Hath Made Us Free: Freedom and the Religious Life

Independence Day celebrates the Declaration of Independence when the Continental Congress declared that the thirteen American colonies were separating from the British Empire to found a new nation. Within the great texts of the American founding is an ambiguous understanding of liberty, or freedom. For Catholics, the interpretation of liberty espoused in the American Founding is very controversial. Some believe that Founding Fathers held a “liberal” interpretation of liberty, whereas many conservatives, especially the neo-cons, think otherwise. Clearly, a liberal interpretation has been very dominant in the Courts, maybe since the early 20th century (known as liberal revisionism), going to the extreme in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992) in saying “at the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” This is what I take a radical liberal understanding of freedom to be. It is directly opposed to the Christian creaturely and trinitarian understanding of freedom. Accordingly, freedom is not rooted in self-possession but is anteriorly found in self-gift. This is summed up in Gaudium et Spes par. 24.: “…man cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.” Accordingly, I think the best way of seeing true freedom is in what most people see as its opposite: i.e. the vowed form of life. Hence, the religious life is our model for freedom since it is a radical gift of self to God with the even greater reception of the self perfected.

But many are concerned American culture excludes such a view, thereby not supporting the religious life. In 1899, Pope Leo XIII wrote a letter to Cardinal Gibbons entitled Testem Benevolentiae. In the letter, the pope praises the many virtues of America. However, he states his concern over a controversial figure, i.e. Fr. Isaac Thomas Hecker. Fr. Hecker was the founder of the Paulists, a religious order that does not make their members make vows but make a commitment to living out the evangelical counsels. Leo XIII saw this as  a threat to the religious life, a tendency he found within the culture of modernity. Here is a section from the letter:

“They [those who disregard the evangelical virtues] say vows are alien to the spirit of our times, in that they limit the bounds of human liberty; that they are more suitable to weak than to strong minds; that so far from making for human perfection and the good of human organization, they are hurtful to both; but that this is as false as possible from the practice and the doctrine of the Church is clear, since she has always given the very highest approval to the religious method of life; nor without good cause, for those who under the divine call have freely embraced that state of life did not content themselves with the observance of precepts, but, going forward to the evangelical counsels, showed themselves ready and valiant soldiers of Christ. Shall we judge this to be a characteristic of weak minds, or shall we say that it is useless or hurtful to a more perfect state of life?

Those who so bind themselves by the vows of religion, far from having suffered a loss of liberty, enjoy that fuller and freer kind, that liberty, namely, by which Christ hath made us free. And this further view of theirs, namely, that the religious life is either entirely useless or of little service to the Church, besides being injurious to the religious orders cannot be the opinion of anyone who has read the annals of the Church.”

This Independence Day thank a religious for modeling the perfection of freedom!

Saints Peter and Paul: Called by the Lord

Today the Church celebrates two of its most feisty saints: Peter and Paul. The lives of these two pillars of the Church show the dynamics of vocation. They both experienced the love of Christ and were transformed through Him into their true identities. Such transformation is signaled in the change of their names. Formerly Simon, now Peter;  Saul, now Paul. In the Bible, name change signals identity change, not superficially but substantially, as one’s relationship to God deepens. They are models for us on how to respond to the call of God and where we belong: in the Lord Jesus Christ. They were sinful, yet they responded to the call of the Lord. Here are three points to keep in mind when thinking about the vocations of Peter and Paul:

  1. God’s Initiative

“It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you…” (John 15:16). This flies in the face of absolute self-determination.  We often think we are the masters of our  own destiny and the ultimate possessors of ourselves. However, the Bible has a different view. One’s identity is a gift from God. That is why identity is related to vocation. You are a gift and response to God. Peter and Paul found themselves in God’s mind made manifest to them through Jesus Christ. This was an unveiling of their true identities, not something alien. Very often we get stuck in trying to mold ourselves into an image we conceive, but this becomes futile when it comes up against God. Idols will collapse; an identity separated from God will collapse. Follow Saints Peter and Paul and belong to the Son who belongs to the Father, and remember it is not you who has done this but God.

  1. From Cowardice to Courage

“Without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). When Peter distanced himself from the Lord he was a coward, but when he grew closer to the Lord he became very courageous. Paul does not immediately strike us as a coward. There is no mention of the tears of Paul or his abandonment of the Lord like Peter. However, he indeed was a coward in the face of the nascent Church. He could not just let it be as his mentor Gamaliel suggested. Instead, he actively persecuted it: the mark of fear. However, we see how Paul became a courageous man after his encounter with the Risen Christ. Just read the Acts of the Apostles to see this. Paul inserts himself in dangerous situations to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He would not have put himself on the line like this prior to his conversion. Courage is the act of giving oneself in the face of danger. When one grows close to the Giver they will courageously give despite the circumstance.

  1. Proclaim the Name of Jesus

“For we do not proclaim ourselves, but Christ Jesus as Lord” (2 Cor. 4). Unlike most careers, vocation is not centered on the self but on Jesus. The vocation of Peter and Paul was to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus as widely as possible, bringing all into the power of the name of Jesus. In the Bible, names have power. Those who were gathered in the Name were gathered in the Lord, and this Name had the power of healing and reconciliation with God. In a vocation the Lord calls you by name so as to proclaim his name. We clearly see this in Peter and Paul who spread the Name of Jesus throughout the earth.


Saints Irenaeus and Cyril: On Asceticism

This week we celebrate two bishop saints of the Early Church, i.e. Saints Cyril and Irenaeus. Both are from the Near East, once the home of a vibrant Christian culture. While most of that culture has passed away in the last millennium, the remaining small Christian communities have been destroyed practically overnight by radical Islam. That culture must be defended, and like Remi Brague, I feel I have a responsibility, to the best of my abilities, of rescuing the cultural heritage of Christianity in the Near Eastern world.   Consecrated life finds its beginnings there, and we can learn much it, especially its emphasis on asceticism. The Church Fathers, in our case  Saints Irenaeus and Cyril, saw asceticism as necessary for all Christians, and this is what I would like to focus on.

Saints Irenaeus and Cyril were from regions that are now Muslim. Cyril was from Alexandria in Egypt, and Irenaeus was from Smyrna, now Izmir, Turkey. Both were Greek speaking cities in the Roman Empire. During these early centuries of Christianity, the East was more cultured than the West. While that seems odd to us we must remember that even the Romans considered the East to be more civilized than the West. So Irenaeus was not moving up when he went to Lyon to preach the Gospel. We no longer make a concerted effort to remember the past, and in order to appreciate the consecrated life we must not forget the cultural treasures of Christianity in the East, particularly asceticism. Cyril and Irenaeus are among the greatest figures of the Church and they both practiced asceticism, encouraging all Christians to do likewise. This short essay will focus on asceticism in the East.

St. Paul, who founded many Christian communities in the East, preached life in Christ or life according to the Spirit. A recurring theme in many of his epistles is adoptive sonship, i.e. our means of participation in the true spiritual worship of the Trinity, the source of all life. For participation in the divine life, Paul encouraged the unmarried and widows not to marry (1 Cor.7), since he thought marriage was bound up with many troubles in this life. Such advice, while not denigrating marriage – Paul had a very high view of marriage, calling it a great “mystery” in his Letter to the Ephesians, played a role in the origins of the consecrated life. Monasticism was an aspect of this. Monks did not leave the world behind but entered the true depth of reality, i.e. God. They became living icons of the divine life, something many people sensed, inspiring many to live like them. This gave rise to communal monasticism. Let’s take St. Anthony the Great from Egypt as an example: he encountered the beauty of Christ in the Gospel story of the Rich Young Man and was inspired to leave everything to seek God and find union with Him in the desert. As creatures with unruly passions, union with God was only required through discipline. Cyril’s predecessor, St. Athanasius, popularized Anthony’s asceticism throughout the Christian world by his book The Life of Anthony the Great. This book inspired many young men to set out to become ascetics like Anthony.

Irenaeus was taught by the bishop and martyr Polycarp, a disciple of John the Apostle. From leaning on the heart of Christ to remaining with Christ during his Passion, John was radically intimate with the Lord. This experience was handed on to Polycarp who, in turn, handed it on to Irenaeus. Irenaeus’ lifelong enemy were the Gnostics, a heretical group that saw creation as evil and something to be cast off. In his great work Adversus Heresus, Irenaeus defended the goodness of creation and a healthy form of asceticism. While Irenaeus lived a century before Anthony the Great he was already laying the foundations for Christian asceticism. He saw it as a remedy for the waywardness of creation, realigning the passion back into unity with God. This was something all Christians were called to do and not just monks.

St. Cyril of Alexandria agreed. While he is mostly known for his conflict with Nestorius at the Council of Ephesus (431), his works on asceticism need to be revived. He applied asceticism to scriptural exegesis. For him, exegetes must be ascetics. Such discipline would clear the mind, allowing the exegete to truly live in the Spirit so as to correctly discern the meaning of Scripture. Only the Spirit can unveil the meaning of the text, and discipline is necessary to be attuned to the Spirit. There is evidence that Cyril spent significant time in the Egyptian desert, living with the monks. As a bishop he called his flock to practice bodily and spiritual disciplines. In a culture that encourages license in practically everything but work, athletics and finance, it might be worthwhile to look at the writings of these early Church Fathers and study the lives of desert monks so as to better appreciate the value of asceticism for all the baptized.