Archive for prayer

Retreat: Into The Woods

Posted in Advent, YouTube, YouTube Channel with tags , , , , , on December 13, 2015 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

THUMBNAIL_INTOTHEWOODS_2015This year I had the opportunity to spend the first week of Advent on retreat in a Hermitage at St. Francis Springs Prayer Center outside of Greensboro, NC. It was a week of prayer, spiritual reading, and writings in the North Carolina woods. Here’s a little “behind-the-scenes” video about that experience from the road. For more information about the retreat center: http://www.stfrancissprings.com

Already, Not Yet: The Eschatological Tension of Now

Posted in Advent, Homilies, Scripture, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on November 29, 2015 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

advent-wreathAlready, Not Yet! This is a phrase often associated with the eschatological tension that is made front and center of the liturgical season of Advent that gets underway today. If “Jesus” is the “Reason for the Season” of Christmas, as the popular expression goes (though, in truth, God’s love for creation is really the “reason for the reason,” that is the reason for the Incarnation), then “Now!” is the “Reason for the Season” of Advent.

As we kick off another liturgical year, entering into the Gospel narratives of Luke in the months to come and prepare for the opening of the Jubilee Year of Mercy in about a week, it is worthwhile to step back and remind ourselves why it is that we celebrate Advent, what it is all about, and what it actually means for us (i.e., “so what?”). Our readings this Sunday provide us with excellent insight into the answer to these questions.

Our First Reading from the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah (33:14-16) brings us back to the early centuries of the People of Israel. According to the Hebrew Bible (what Christians call the “Old Testament”), God makes four covenants, each with: (1) Noah, (2) Abraham, (3) Moses, and (4) David. The last of these is what is of interest to Jeremiah and to us here.

The promise God makes is that there will be a restoration of the unified Kingdom of Israel, which has at this time been split into two separate domains (not to mention the various capturing and recapturing of these from foreign nations). The covenant is that God will send someone from the Davidic line to restore the nation and community into one. While this is, on the one hand, about the historical reality of a divided nation, it is also, on the other hand, a prophecy that Christians believe exceeds the particular historical confines of the Davidic kingship.

God will in fact send an anointed one, a messiah from the Davidic line, who happens to be the Eternal Word made Flesh — God in God’s very self! The unity that is brought about is a cosmic unity, not simply uniting historically separated kingdoms, but the whole universe and all people.

Jeremiah is not really aware of this in his time, but nevertheless expresses in his prophetic proclamation a sense of this eschatological tension between the “already” and “not yet.”  The response is to address the question “What do we do now?” and his answer is twofold: to remember the covenant, the past, in which God made this promise and to hope in the future for its fulfillment. Meanwhile, we are to live out this memory and hope in terms of working for justice in our societies.

The Second Reading (1 Thess 3:12–4:2) likewise is concerned about the “already, not yet” theme of this season. Here the Thessalonians are deeply troubled about the length of time that it appears to be taking Jesus to return. They were expecting an immanent Second Coming, and what they got instead was a lot of anxiety about what would happen to those who might die before Jesus shows back up.

Paul addresses this head on in the spirit of Jeremiah, reassuring the Thessalonians by recalling the teaching and actions of Christ, placing their hopes in the future of God’s promise, and focusing on the present, the now. This last point is the bulk of today’s reading, an admonition to this early Christian community to not get all worked up about God not operating according to their schedules, but instead focus on how one is to live in the “now.” Paul explains:

May the Lord make you increase and abound in love
for one another and for all,
just as we have for you,
so as to strengthen your hearts,
to be blameless in holiness before our God and Father…

brothers and sisters,
we earnestly ask and exhort you in the Lord Jesus that,
as you received from us
how you should conduct yourselves to please God
and as you are conducting yourselves
you do so even more.
For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus.

The season of actively waiting, of living into the “already, not yet” of our present reality is a season where we should work to increase or love for one another and live in such a way as to reflect the Gospel that has been handed down to us.

Finally, in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 21:25-28, 34-36) we have within Jesus’s extended foretelling of his death a promise of Christ’s return and a presentation of what that might look like. Despite the apocalyptic imagery that so often leads to fear and trepidation in the minds of most movie-goers, Jesus’s message here is really not about fear at all. Instead there is a clear instruction given about how to live in light of the “already, not yet” of God’s eternal plan.

Jesus describes the end times (eschaton) with vivid imagery, but then offers a twofold admonition to his followers. He says that in the now we are to live in such a way as to avoid (a) drowsiness, drunkenness, a sense of “taking life for granted,” as well as (b) the unnecessary anxieties of daily life.  With regard to the former, we can easily slip into complacency and forget about the Gospel call to live in the moment, to consider the example given to us in Christ.  With regard to the latter, we can get so distracted by our own agendas, interests, and concerns that we also forget to live the Gospel. Both of these should be avoided.

The season of Advent is a season of the now, it is a season that calls us to snap out of our quotidian malaise and our anxieties and fears in order to start living what we’ve been called to in baptism: Gospel life.

Photo: Stock

 

 

‘Understanding Laudato Si’ Episode 03

Posted in Laudato Si, Pope Francis, YouTube Channel with tags , , , , , on September 29, 2015 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

THUMBNAIL_ULS_EP03In this third episode of “Understanding Laudato Si,” we explore the first half of Chapter One of Pope Francis’s encyclical. The three subheadings of Chapter One examined here include the themes of: (A) Pollution and Climate Change; (B) The Issue of Water; and (C) Loss of Biodiversity. Stay tuned for next week’s episode in which I will discuss the second half of Chapter One.

If you haven’t checked out the earlier episodes, be sure to visit the YouTube Channel for them and more.

Please subscribe, like, share, and add your comments or questions below the video. Thanks!

Thomas Merton’s Prayer

Posted in Pope Francis, Thomas Merton, YouTube Channel with tags , , , , , on September 28, 2015 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

THUMBNAIL_MertonPrayerA selection from Thomas Merton’s 1958 book Thoughts in Solitude, which has become one of Thomas Merton’s best-known prayers. In honor of Pope Francis’s mention and praise of Merton in his address to the joint session of Congress during his 2015 visit to the United States, it is read here by Daniel P. Horan, OFM with images from Merton’s life. Learn more about Thomas Merton by visiting Merton.org and there join the International Thomas Merton Society (ITMS).

If you like this prayer, be sure to check out the book itself (it’s definitely worth it): Thoughts in Solitude 

[Here’s the link to the video: Thomas Merton’s Prayer]

God is Not a Genie

Posted in Lent, Scripture with tags , , , , on February 26, 2015 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

usa-pope-lent-2008Today’s Gospel reading offers us a lot to consider as we move onward in this season of Lent, a time of reflection and evaluation. Like Jesus in last Sunday’s reading, who was “driven out” (ekballein in Greek, the same word that is used when talking about ‘driving out demons’) into the desert, we are “driven out” into a place of discomfort and solitude through penance and prayer. It is a spiritual location that is not so much a physical place, like the deserts of Arizona or Egypt, but an internal location. St. Ambrose of Milan describes this place as the “inner room” about which Jesus speaks when instructing his disciples to pray: “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matt 6:6). It is a place always with us, but do we enter it? And, in a season like Lent, when we enter it — either by desire or because we have been “driven there” by the Spirit — what do we do?

This morning’s Gospel, also taken from the Good News according to Matthew, is a passage frequently misunderstood (or, better put, frequently misused). It has been interpreted by some to suggest that God is like a genie, a magical and all-powerful being that can grant us the wishes for which we ask, that can give us whatever it is we desire. But this is not the point.

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Ask and it will be given to you;
seek and you will find;
knock and the door will be opened to you.
For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds;
and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see how this opening part of the Gospel might lead to the “God-as-genie” interpretation. But it cannot be divorced for the following two parts:

Which one of you would hand his son a stone
when he asked for a loaf of bread,
or a snake when he asked for a fish?
If you then, who are wicked,
know how to give good gifts to your children,
how much more will your heavenly Father give good things
to those who ask him.

“Do to others whatever you would have them do to you.
This is the law and the prophets.”

The emphasis is not placed on our asking, as such, but shifts to what it is that God does for us and how God, here presented as an analog to a good parent, knows what’s best for us.

It is actually a reminder that, to quote the Rolling Stones: “You can’t always get what you want / But if you try sometimes well you might find / You get what you need.”

What we need is provided for us by our loving God, yet it is we, you and I, that get in the way of that. We mistake what we need for what we inordinately desire, we mistake ourselves for the center of reality and seek to take care of ourselves first. The interpretive key to this whole Gospel passage comes in the so-called “Golden Rule” invocation at the end: treat others as you want to be treated, care for others as you would care for yourself, look out for one another as God looks out for you!

God doesn’t give stones when God’s daughters and sons, you and I, need bread. But we human beings — we who are tempted to often to be “wicked,” as Jesus puts it — we are the ones who interfere with the generosity of God. We are the ones who must align our wills and wants and desires with the vision of the Kingdom that God reveals to us in Christ.

During this time of Lenten reflection, may we be open to the Spirit’s “driving force,” which pushes us into a place of discomfort in order to see the truth of God’s generosity and our call to be agents of the Gospel in this world. May we enter that “inner room” of our hearts to hear this Word and, as we might have heard on Ash Wednesday, “turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.”

Photo: Stock

Easter is about the General Dance

Posted in Easter, Prayer, Thomas Merton with tags , , , , , , , , on April 20, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

582749main_sunrise_from_iss-4x3_946-710Thomas Merton concluded his beautiful book New Seeds of Contemplation with a chapter titled “The General Dance.” It is a powerful reflection on the reason for the Incarnation, the meaning of humanity in creation, and the time that is inaugurated by the Resurrection — if only we can open our eyes to see it.

To talk about sin in the way St. Bonaventure does is to talk about humanity’s bent-overness, that we can not look up and out, but only down and at ourselves. In a sense, this is what Merton and others mean in terms of when we cannot see, when we cannot look beyond ourselves to see the world as it really is.

Easter is a time to see and a time to join the general dance of creation. To remember not only that which has been fulfilled in Christ’s death and resurrection, but to recall also what St. Francis said in recalling that in the Incarnation we have the promise that salvation is at hand. For, as Merton writes, “The Lord made the world and made humanity in order the He Himself might descend into the world, that He Himself might become human. When He regarded the world He was about to make He say His wisdom, as a man-child, ‘playing in the world, playing before Him at all times.’ And He reflected, ‘My delights are to be with the children of humanity.'”

God has entered our world as one of us, drawn close to us out of a self-emptying desire and love, assumed all of our reality, and consecrates it completely in the Resurrection, where now creation and divinity exist eternally as one. Merton continues: “For in becoming human, God became not only Jesus Christ but also potentially every man and woman that ever existed. In Christ, God became not only ‘this’ man, but also, in a broader and more mystical sense, yet no less truly, ‘every man.'”

Merton ends his book with the following reflection, a reflection that seems to me to speak to the heart of what we are celebrating with acclaims of “Alleluia” today, a celebration beckoning us to join in and dance.

What is serious to men and women is often very trivial in the sight of God. What in God might appear to us as “play” is perhaps what He Himself takes most seriously. At any rate the Lord plays and diverts Himself in the garden of His creation, and if we could let go of our own obsession with what we think is the meaning of it all, we might be able to hear HIs call and follow Him in His mysterious, cosmic dance.

We do not have to go very far to catch the echoes of that game, and of that dancing. When we are along on a starlit night; when by chance we see the migrating birds in autumn descending on a grove of junipers to rest and eat; when we see children in a moment when they are really children; when we know love in our own hearts; or when, like the Japanese poet Basho we hear an old frog land in a quiet pond with a solitary splash — at such times the awakening, the turning inside out of all values, the “newness,” the emptiness and the purity of vision that make themselves evident, provide a glimpse of the cosmic dance.

For the world and time are the dance of the Lord in emptiness. The silence of the spheres is the music of a the wedding feast. The more we persist in misunderstanding the phenomena of life, the more we analyze them out into strange finalities and complex purposes of our own, the more we involve ourselves in sadness, absurdity, and despair.

But it does not matter much, because no despair of ours can alter the reality of things, or stain the joy of the cosmic dance which is always there. Indeed, we are in the midst of it, and it is in the midst of us, for it beats in our good, whether we want it to or not.

Yet the fact remains that we are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds and join in the general dance.

Do we hear the divine music playing on the cosmic dance floor of life? Are we willing to look up, to see around us, to recognize the glorification that all of creation has experienced? Can we join the general dance?

 Photo: NASA

The ‘Unspeakable’ One Year Later

Posted in America Magazine, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on April 15, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

Boston_Marathon_Explosions1_t607It’s difficult to believe that it has been a year since the Boston Marathon bombing. I’m not sure how the rest of the country relates to the event, but living in Boston both during those days last year and now it seems like this is something that remains a constant specter haunting the city. During these last few weeks we have been accompanied by hundreds of stories in the media about the event, about the loss of life, about those whose lives have been directly and painfully affected by the attacks, about what the future holds for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, about what it all means.

Yet, meaning and sense do not always come easily in difficult and tragic circumstances such as these. Is there meaning and sense in the thoughtless slaughter of children in Connecticut? Is there meaning and sense in the terrorist attack in an African mall? Is there meaning and sense in the big and little ways that women and men are daily afflicted by suffering and fear?

Sometimes there are no words to articulate the experience and no meaning that can explain such tragedy. Rather than  offer any attempt to articulate or explain, I thought I might just share an essay I wrote last year in response to the events in Boston we remember this week. We continue to pray for those whose lives were taken, for those who struggle daily to move forward, and for those who afflicted such senseless and needless pain and suffering on others.

The Unspeakable: The Boston Marathon and the Beginning of Christian Hope

There some events we encounter in life for which there is simply no language to describe adequately our experience or words capable of consoling the afflicted. The events last month at the finish line of the Boston Marathon and the siege of the city four days later might rightly fall into this category. Images of the explosions, biographies of the victims and interviews with the witnesses circulated through cyberspace, on television and in print with hypnotizing rapidity and emotion-dulling saturation, only increasing the overwhelming experience of those days. As a resident of Boston, my memory of that week in April will forever be marked by the surreal nature of a scene that seemed closer to an action movie than to the reality playing out in my backyard.

In the initial silence of that Monday afternoon, as confusion ensued and victims were treated, I thought of the renowned
spiritual writer, social activist and Trappist monk, Thomas Merton. He had a term that seemed to capture this event: the
Unspeakable. There are times when we encounter something so terrible and terrifying, the experience pushes us to the edges of the effable. Such experiences of sin and violence in our world are concrete encounters with the Unspeakable. Merton explains, in part, what he means in his 1966 book Raids on the Unspeakable:

It is the void that contradicts everything that is spoken even before the words are said…. It is the emptiness of “the end.” Not necessarily the end of the world, but a theological point of no return, a climax of absolute finality in refusal, in equivocation, in disorder, in absurdity, which can be broken open again to truth only by miracle, by the coming of God…for Christian hope begins where every other hope stands frozen stiff before the face of the Unspeakable.

The Unspeakable is neither a word of comfort nor a greeting of consolation. It is a moniker that is challenging and indicting. It names a reality that most people would rather forget. James Douglass, in his book JFK and the Unspeakable, describes Merton’s concept of the Unspeakable as “a kind of systemic evil that defies speech.” However, it is not simply the object of our fear or an enemy from outside. Douglass continues: “The Unspeakable is not far away. It is not somewhere out there, identical with a government that became foreign to us. The emptiness of the void, the vacuum of responsibility and compassion, is in ourselves.”
To confront the Unspeakable requires that we face the ways we too are always already complicit in a culture of violence present in our world. This does not mean that individuals are exonerated from the particular and egregious acts of violence they commit, but it does mean that to look into the void of the Unspeakable involves looking into the mirror of our own participation in systems of violence.

Our Culture of Violence

One temptation we encounter in the face of violence like the events at the Boston Marathon or in Newtown, Conn., is to objectify the source of the violence and place it as an evil in opposition to the rest of us. This happens frequently, for example, in the use of the phrase “culture of death” (which originally comes from Pope John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical “Evangelium Vitae”). There is a sense in which a Christian might claim to be “for life” and therefore make the “culture of death” an exterior enemy to be fought.

Merton’s approach to evil, sin and violence in the world is more nuanced. To begin, we might realize that “death” is not the most opportune word and recall that death is a natural part of life. Talk about a “culture of death,” while the intention is good and the meaning important, could be taken to suggest that death in itself is a bad thing. St. Francis of Assisi, for instance, has a different take on this. In his “Canticle of the Creatures,” Francis praises God for the gift of “sister bodily death,” whom all living creatures will inevitably encounter. As a people of the Resurrection, we also believe that Jesus Christ has “put an end to death” (2 Tm 1:10) and that death does not have the last word. Death should not be feared in itself.

But violence, unlike death, is not a natural part of life. Violence is made manifest in little and big ways, in words and actions, in things seen and unseen. Merton’s concept of the Unspeakable captures the significance of this reality in two key ways. First, violence is not something that is ascribable only to individuals who commit evil acts, like murder and terror. In his book New Seeds of Contemplation, Merton describes how we are often quick to blame others and acquit ourselves.

When we see crime in others, we try to correct it by destroying them or at least putting them out of sight. It is easy to identify sin with the sinner when he is someone other than our own self.

In ourselves, it is the other way round; we see the sin, but we have great difficulty in shouldering responsibility for it. We find it very hard to identify our sin with our own will and our own malice.

It is difficult to accept that all of us are somehow implicated in the finitude and sinfulness of humanity. Merton writes that “we tend unconsciously to ease ourselves still more of the burden of guilt that is in us, by passing it on to somebody else.”

Here we have the second insight about the Unspeakable, which arises from the realization that we are also sinners and participants in an unnecessary culture of violence. What makes the Unspeakable unspeakable is the masking over and avoidance of this reality in which we too are always already a part. Unlike common conceptions of the “culture of death,” which is an outside enemy to be fought, a “culture of violence” exists in the language, presuppositions, behaviors and attitudes of a population. This is what is hidden, what is reflected back to us when we are forced to look into the void or face of the Unspeakable.

Michael Cohen, a columnist for the British newspaper The Guardian, wrote a sobering piece the day after the bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had been apprehended and his brother, Tamerlan, killed. He asked pointed questions that shine an uncomfortable light on a society that, in the same week, can shut down a major metropolitan city because of one suspect on the loose, yet fail to pass federal legislation to mandate criminal background checks for gun sales, a reform supported by nearly 90 percent of the population. He asked, with all due respect and sympathy to the dead and maimed in the Boston attack, how a society in which more than 30,000 deaths are caused by gun violence annually could react so drastically to the specter of terrorism when, in the past year, 17 Americans were killed in terrorist attacks.

Cohen’s concluding comments echo Merton’s concern:

It is a surreal and difficult-to-explain dynamic. Americans seemingly place an inordinate fear on violence that is random and unexplainable and can be blamed on “others”—jihadists, terrorists, evil-doers, etc. But the lurking dangers all around us—the guns, our unhealthy diets, the workplaces that kill 14 Americans every single day—these are just accepted as part of life, the price of freedom, if you will.

Part of what makes the culture of violence Unspeakable is our strong desire not to face the reality of our complicity in perpetuating injustice through our economic choices, attitudes, language, behaviors, lifestyles, biases, support (or lack thereof ) of legislation and so on.

It is a lot more comforting to blame the “other”— whether a “terrorist” or an amorphous “culture of death”— than it is to accept our individual and collective roles in perpetuating our unspeakable culture of violence.

The Beginning of Christian Hope

On the day of the attack in Boston, Cardinal Seán O’Malley, O.F.M.Cap., archbishop of Boston, wrote: “In the midst of the darkness of this tragedy we turn to the light of Jesus Christ, the light that was evident in the lives of people who immediately turned to help those in need today.” There are times—for example, when those who might otherwise run away from danger out of fear run toward others to provide care and assistance—when signs of Christian hope displace the behaviors and attitudes of the culture of violence. Christian hope is not a belief in a far-off utopia that will come from outside. It is a description of God’s presence in the world now, when, like Jesus, we love the unlovable, forgive the unforgiveable, embrace the marginalized and forgotten and heal the broken and broken-hearted.

Christian hope is a hope that withstands the challenge as it appears to us when we look into the void of the Unspeakable and realize that we can do something about violence in our world and live a different way. It is a hope that proclaims through the incarnate Word of God that what was once ineffable in the Unspeakable can be named and overcome, but it also requires our honest admission of “what we have done and what we have failed to do.” Only then do we confront the culture of violence that we would rather forget.

The Unspeakable culture of violence extends far beyond the city borders of Boston and Newtown. It is perhaps more acutely seen in the communities of Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and in places largely unknown to us. There the experience of the Unspeakable witnessed on a sunny Boston afternoon is an everyday reality: Marketplaces, buses, houses of worship, elementary schools and neighborhoods are all affected by the terror of violence and fear that we in the United States cannot begin to imagine.

In his essay “Letter to an Innocent Bystander,” Merton challenges us with a truth that undergirds the perpetuation of an Unspeakable culture of violence on the local, national and world stage: “A witness of a crime, who just stands by and makes a mental note of the fact that he is an innocent bystander, tends by that very fact to become an accomplice.”

Merton’s challenge for us in Boston and around the world is to overcome the fear that leads us to claim innocence while scapegoating the “other,” to embrace the Gospel and become more human in compassion and to look into the void of the Unspeakable so as to accept our complicity in the continuation of a culture of violence in so many little and big ways. Then we might be able move on to speak and live the word of Christian hope that begins there in the face of the Unspeakable.

This article originally appeared in the May 20, 2013 issue of America magazine.

Photo: Wire
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