Tuesday, November 8, 2011
Seeking Sanctity in the Desert
Seeking Sanctity in the Desert and in the World was originally published on the CatholicCulture.org website in 2006.
Every great mission begins with a personal encounter with God! Before God can use us for the common good, we have to first experience his power in our solitude. Before the Patriarchs and the Prophets carried out their mission, God spoke to them alone. And as for the Saints that changed the world for the better, many of them communed with our Eucharistic Lord in the privacy of their monasteries. The same holds true for Catholics today: it is Eucharistic adoration— being alone before the Blessed Sacrament —that will occasion great things. However, although we are not to seek sanctity only in desert, we cannot forget the desert in seeking sanctity.
Sanctity in the Desert:
Pope Benedict XVI once said that "no great mission can fully ripen without contemplation, tranquility, and self-denial."1 The way to do this is to spend time with God, contemplating who it is that we are serving; who it is that we are living for; and who it is that we are sharing with others.
With every patriarch and prophet God used in the Old Testament, he confronted them personally and he called them by name. To Jeremiah, he said, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you." Likewise, to Abraham, to Moses, and to the prophets, God sought to develop a relationship with them. These messengers of God's word had to personally speak to God himself before they ventured to speak for him.
In the New Testament we find the same thing. Jesus, before he began his public ministry, spent forty days in the desert to do battle with Satan. As St. Jerome so aptly put it: It wasn't the devil that came out to confront Jesus, it was rather Jesus who was led by the Spirit to confront the devil.
In seeking sanctity, therefore, we cannot forget the desert. Like with Samuel and Elijah, it is in solitude that the whisper of the Lord can be heard; it is in solitude that his wisdom can be learned; and it is in solitude that his strength can be our own. If we cannot recognize God's presence in our own solitary existence, then we will be blind to his presence of among the people.
Sanctity in the World:
It is for this reason why the great reforms of the Church and the great achievements of civilization have originated within monasticism. St. Patrick, St. Benedict, St. Boniface, and St. Bernard all produced movements that would ripple through the Church and overflow out into society. Whether it be improving agriculture, education, the sciences, the legal system or the political process, these contemplatives had a decisive role to play in its development. What began as solitary prayer turned into something creative and useful for the common good.
We should bear in mind why the labor of these saintly men occasioned progress for civilization. They united prayer and work, and they joined sanctity in solitude with apostolic action in the community.
It wasn't always like this, however. Important to remember are the contemplatives of the third century known as the Desert Fathers. Although some of these men were saints, such as St. Anthony the Great, they nevertheless retreated from the world to pursue their own sanctification. In one sense, they set a wonderful example for others to follow. However, in another sense, the community they left behind could not directly benefit from their creativity, originality, and wisdom; all of which result from an intense prayer life.
But in the 5th and 6th century, St. Patrick and St. Benedict started a wonderful tradition of combing spiritual solitude and apostolic action from which the monks and the community could benefit from. In times of crisis, the Church would draw strength from this model of prayer and action. It has come to be known as the source of renewal for the Catholic Church.
Alone with Christ:
Just as every great mission began with a personal encounter with God in the Old Testament, similarly, every great mission begins with a personal encounter with Christ for us today. What the pillar of fire was for Abraham, and what the burning bush was for Moses, the Eucharist is for us today. Dare I say that the Son of God in the sacrament of the Eucharist radiates more powerfully than the pillar of fire and the burning bush. For the manifestations of God's glory in the Old Testament were fearful and hence created some distance between the people of God and himself. On the other hand, God's glory in the Eucharist is gentle and inviting. It has a transforming effect. Indeed, to be with Christ is to be transformed into Christ.
Before the coming of Christ, the Lord said through Isaiah: "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD." But in Eucharistic adoration, the thoughts of Christ slowly become our thoughts; his desires become our desires; and his ways become our ways. The more time we spend in his sacramental presence meditating on his Word, the more time we want to be with him. Ironically, both Communion and Eucharistic adoration doesn't quench our thirst for the divine so much as it intensifies it. Yes, there is that sense of peace and joy that we get from being in his presence. Nonetheless, having been in contact with Infinite Goodness, we walk away with the exhilaration of having found Christ and yet knowing that our search for him has only just begun. But even as we search, our life is slowly being replaced by his. As such, we can say with St. Paul, "For to me life is Christ..."
When our will becomes united to his, we can be assured that our prayers will be answered. The promise of Psalm 37 will hence apply to us: "Find your delight in the Lord who will give your heart's desire." Taking delight in the Lord is becoming one with him. When we ask him for something, we are asking what he wants for us. This is the reason why St. James says that "the fervent prayer of a righteous person is very powerful." God cannot deny himself!
Transformation in Christ:
There is a great irony with divine grace and fallen human nature. The delicacy of divine grace is such that the more you grow in holiness, the less you know it. It is not false humility when St. Francis of Assisi says that he is the greatest of all sinners. Because the more God's light shines within us, more we see what is contrary to it; namely, sin and vice. And because every saint knows where his or her goodness comes from, they do not lay claim to it as their own. Instead, their debt to God is felt all the more. Therefore, if you want a good understanding of sin, go to a saint because with God's light, they can see it for what it is.
Conversely, a veteran sinner— one well experienced in sin —is hardly one to understand sin. Sin is one fact of life in which experience leads to greater ignorance. The more evil a man becomes the less he knows it. Sin is darkness and in darkness one cannot even see oneself and certainly not God.
Continuing God's Presence:
Frequenting the sacrament of the Eucharist gives off time-released presence of God. In other words, graces of the Blessed Sacrament perpetuate an awareness of God's presence throughout the day. It wards off darkness and the illusion of God's absence in everyday life. In addition, the recognition of Christ's presence under the appearance of bread psychologically prepares us to see him also in the divine image of our neighbor and in the providential happenings of our life. Thinking about God in the hustle and bustle of the day is an act of grace. Human nature is such that our thoughts are subject to gravity: they tend towards earthly things. It is only with the strength of Jesus that we can live out what St. Paul mandates in Colossians: "Think of what is above, not what is on earth."
The Catholic Church teaches that the Eucharist is "the source and summit of the Christian life." From it, we draw the warmth of Christ's love and the light of his wisdom. The love of Christ not only gives us the incentive to serve others but it gives us the strength to do it. Over the last two-thousand years, the followers of Christ, having been fed by his heavenly bread, went out into the world to witness to God's love. They cared for the infirmed, joined in the sufferings of those in prison, and they preached the Gospel at the expense of their own lives. But the price they had to pay was worth it; because through them, those who were once cold to God's love became inflamed by it.
With light of Christ's wisdom we can see our good deeds and suffering in context. We are neither too elated with success, nor are we despondent when we meet with failure. We begin to see that the power of love is made effective through sacrifice. And that carrying the cross is a collaborated effort between Christ and his follower. He is not someone outside of our suffering and trials as a passive spectator; but rather he is someone whose sufferings are mystically united to us. With his strength, then, the hard work of serving people's physical and spiritual needs bears much fruit. We become Christ-bearers, a kind of living sacrament for those who never use the sacraments; another Christ for those who did not know Christ.
For many people, we are the only "sacrament" they come into contact with. If we are to be sacramental in a materialistic world— serving as a kind of monstrance of Christ's presence to others —then we need to spend time alone before The Sacrament. Like the prophets and the saints, we too can become bearers of God's message in the world. And God willing, it just might change the world for the better.
Posted by Joe at 8:23 PM