My prayer life has been inundated by meditations on the open heart of Christ. Meditating on the Sacred Heart becomes even more poignant on Divine Mercy Sunday, which brings to mind the image of Divine Mercy as revealed to Saint Faustina. The image is characterized by red and white rays coming forth from Christ’s heart, the only feature to set this image apart from most other representations of Christ. These rays, so central to the devotion of Divine Mercy, symbolize the blood and water that flowed from the pierced side of Christ after His death. The blood and water in turn symbolize the sacraments of the Eucharist and Baptism, sources of life, grace, and mercy. It is into this pierced side, the entryway into his heart and the source of grace and mercy, that Christ invites Thomas to put his hand in the gospel for Divine Mercy Sunday.
How beautiful is this open heart that gives freely and “immediately”! It is a fountain flowing continuously, broken open so that the graces can flow liberally over the whole world. An open heart cannot stop its flow. Through pain and anguish he allows divine mercy to spring forth from his heart. It is through this wounded heart that we receive the blood and water that brings us to life.
An open heart does not only indicate a fountain of sacrificial love, but also availability. Christ has created a pathway through his side into his heart, allowing us to be one with him as adopted sons of God and as members of his body through the channels of baptism and the Eucharist. He invites us to come drink in the depths of his divinity through the very flesh of his beating yet broken heart, for the wounds of our Resurrected Lord still remain. His side is not closed off, and neither is his heart!
But Christ’s should not be the only open heart.
“Yet even now,” says the Lord, “return to me with your whole heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning; and tear your hearts, not your garments. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in mercy, and repents of evil.” (Joel 2:12-13)
Divine Mercy and ripping open of hearts are once more closely intertwined in these verses, but this time, the hearts to be opened are our own. God tells his people through the prophet Joel not only to be sincere in their repentance, but also to trust in his mercy! God invites them to return to himself with their whole hearts, and then goes further and tells them to tear their hearts open. This rending of hearts is often considered a symbol of sorrow for sin, for it is given as an alternative to the outward sign of tearing clothes. But an open heart is also a necessary disposition to receive the Lord and his mercy. Only if we follow Christ’s example and rend our own hearts in trust and in love can we fully receive his lifeblood and thus life itself. To be life-giving, blood must enter inside the person through the love and free choice of his own heart.
By letting our hearts be pierced to receive mercy, we become conduits for divine mercy as well. Our hearts, once opened, become hearts of sacrificial love, for open hearts bleed. Those who are brought to life in Christ cannot help but give of themselves to others with mercy for the sake of Christ. To share in divine mercy this way is painful, but blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy! May all our hearts be united with the merciful and torn heart of Christ, and may they be as open as his to give mercy.
“O blood and water, which gushed forth from the heart of Jesus as a fountain of mercy for us, I trust in you!”
A few days ago I was kneeling in prayer. I hadn’t fully settled on a Lenten penance yet, so I said, “Lord, what should I give up for Lent?” At once, I heard His answer in the deepest part of my heart: “yourself.”
The idea profoundly changed how I see Lent. I had never applied the familiar Lenten language of “giving up” to myself. Yet now I see so much more clearly that the penances offered up throughout the season should signify the offering up of the heart. It is amazing how much I try to give to the Lord, but then forget to give Him myself. He has promised so many times that when we let go of who and what we think we ought to be, He will mold us into what we really ought to be. Lent is the perfect time to renew the gift of self to the Lord, and allow Him to work in us.
May we all lose ourselves in sacrifice this Lent, and become a new creation at Easter.
Lent: the season of preparation. People tend to equate that preparation with the dreaded sacrifices they practice throughout Lent, and so they take extra care to pick the “perfect” Lenten offering for the year. But sometimes even the hardest, most creative sacrifices don’t seem to help us grow in our love for God. Committing to a fast from some good for 40 days isn’t a small deal, so it’s important to prepare for that preparation. Too often Lenten sacrifices are treated like an extra New Year’s resolution, and so well-meaning people might choose what they will do based on what they can get out of it, physically or even spiritually. They certainly can give us those benefits, but those should not be the deepest reason why a person would practice a particular penance. Before you decide what particular sacrifice or practice you will take on this year, remember what ought be the source of the sacrifice. Of sacrifices, the Catechism says:
Jesus’ call to conversion and penance, like that of the prophets before him, does not aim first at outward works, “sackcloth and ashes,” fasting and mortification, but at the conversion of the heart, interior conversion. Without this, such penances remain sterile and false; however, interior conversion urges expression in visible signs, gestures and works of penance. (CCC 1430)
We should not pick a practice based merely on how hard or easy it is to achieve, or even based on a physical or spiritual “goal.” If penance is to bring our hearts closer to God, then it should resemble a prayer more than anything else. And this prayer is primarily one of conversion, of a turning away from sin to Love.
Before coming up with your own ideas for your Lenten fast, make an examination of conscience. Recognize your personal addictions and prisons, and your inability to conquer them without grace. Then make an act of contrition, and resolve to continue your journey with increased openness and trust in God’s grace to make you a saint. From this state of mind, you can then decide on a penitential practice, denying yourselves pleasures as a sacrificial gift to the God who has so much more often been denied.
There is nothing wrong with giving up dessert, computer time, secular music, or other common sacrifices. These are common sacrifices for a reason; they aim directly at the pleasures of the flesh. In fact, sometimes they can be a perfect choice of sacrifice because of their simplicity. Don’t aim at something that you know will be torture, but still be generous. Remember that conversion is the center of the physical manifestation of your sacrifice.
Start with Christ, that you may walk with Christ, die with Christ, and finally rise with Christ.
Recently I went on a long road trip by myself, which naturally means listening to music for hours and hours on end. Ironically, while listening to certain albums in a certain order, I made some discoveries on the meaning of silence. The musical themes of the albums flowed seamlessly into one another, providing thought-provoking meditations that struck deep within my heart. There were many themes reappearing and referencing each other throughout the musical experience, but the new understanding they granted me about silence were personally the most poignant, and so I felt a strong desire to share those specifically. But I do want to recommend taking the time to listen to these albums as a meditation and to discover more of their depth on your own!
Movement One – Lent: “Vessel” by Twenty One Pilots
One of Vessel’s main themes is the wandering of a soul dealing with its own brokenness, failures, and fears. The album’s tone is very Lenten, for it recognizes sin and failure as a stain upon one’s life, a stain that needs to be removed. Many of the songs remind me of the psalms, which, though they are full of hope, did not have the Fulfillment of the hope present to them. The lyrics reveal a struggle with simultaneously knowing that there must be healing in the future while still facing troubles in the present moment, and this theme runs through many of the songs on the album.
The soul prior to Christ’s redemption, within this turmoil of heart, cannot find comfort in silence. There are three significant reflections on silence and what it means for the restless soul in Vessel. In “Fake You Out,” the soul prays to God with a dual fear: fear of a life without God but also a fear of what might happen if God is let in.
I, I’ll never be, be what you see inside / You say I’m not alone, but I am petrified / You say that you are close, is close the closest star? / You just feel twice as far
I’m so afraid / Of what you have to say / ‘Cause I am quiet now / And silence gives you space
For someone who does not know God, giving Him space through silence would be terrifying. Who knows what God might demand of him?
“Trees” also presents a negative view of silence, one that focuses on it as an absence. The soul accuses both himself and God of silence, that is, of hiding from each other, of a broken relationship.
I know where you stand / Silent in the trees / And that’s where I am / Silent in the trees
Why won’t you speak? / Where I happen to be / Silent in the trees / Standing cowardly
It reminds me of the soul crying out to God and asking why He does not reveal himself in flashes of light and in large and loud proclamations. Silence seems to indicate disconnect, a lacking, and that God is invisible (or worse, unreal).
But the clearest struggle with silence occurs with the song “Car Radio,” which is placed near the center and the heart of the album. The lyrics tell a story of someone whose car radio has been stolen, and so he can no longer use music to keep him from thinking about his own hurting heart. “Sometimes quiet is violent” is the very honest description of how frightening it is to sit and think in a silent space.
I’m forced to deal with what I feel / There is no distraction to mask what is real
I have these thoughts / So often I ought / To replace that slot / With what I once bought / ‘Cause somebody stole / My car radio / And now I just sit in silence
Silence is feared and rejected by the restless soul. It brings to mind accusations of sin and brokenness in the inner depths of the person, and thus is treated as an evil that needs to be avoided to bring at least some semblance of relief.
But what would happen if the sin and brokenness was healed?
Movement Two – Holy Triduum: “Fortunate Fall” by Audrey Assad
The need for redemption does not end with the beginning of Fortunate Fall, but this new album rather turns the thought of sin on its head with the first line: “O happy fault, o happy fault, that gained for us so great a Redeemer.” How can these faults in any way be “happy”?! This simple phrase summarizes the whole celebration of Holy Triduum. The paradoxes of the gospel, God made man, blessedness in suffering, and glory in humility, all shine forth most clearly as the Lord of all creation is crucified for the sake of sinners. Suddenly, the soul realizes that answers to the wages of sin are found only through Christ’s sacrifice. Fortunate Fall is a meditation of the soul entering into the paradoxes of redemption. After the beginning lines introducing the theme of “O happy fault,” the second song, “Help My Unbelief,” considers the mystery of healing brought by the Savior:
Strange and sweet collision of justice and mercy / Your burden is light and Your yoke is easy
O happy fault that gained for me the chance to know You, Lord / To touch Your wounded side and know the joy of my reward
As the album continues with this contemplation of redemption, it is striking how much more poignant the meditation becomes after having heard the soul’s cry for help from Vessel. But even more striking is that Fortunate Fall has not removed the theme of brokenness – it has added Christ’s saving power and thus transformed the story of brokenness from a catastrophe into a eucatastrophe (as Tolkien would have called it).
So what does this have to do with silence? By redeeming the restless soul, Christ simultaneously redeems silence. In Fortunate Fall, there are two musical interludes, one of which is completely instrumental. This music has the confidence to leave what you might call “open spaces” for interior contemplation, something with which the soul in Vessel would not have been comfortable as demonstrated by “Car Radio.” The musical style is obviously more calm and quiet, and illustrates a kind of peace that only Christ can bring. The soul is no longer afraid of a silence that “gives God space” because it realizes that opening space means that it can be filled with goodness.
But the crowning jewel of Fortunate Fall and the last song of the album, “You Speak,” provides the ultimate answer to Vessel’s wondering how there can be relationship in silence.
You liberate me from my own noise and my own chaos / From the chains of a lesser law You set me free
In the silence of the heart You speak / And it is there that I will know You and You will know me
The silence in Vessel might have been an exterior silence, but there was no interior peace that is the fruit of true silence. Silence was feared because of “my own noise and my own chaos,” but once the soul allowed itself to be loved and led out of the darkness, Christ transformed and then deepened the silence into a sacred place that is an opening to love.
Movement Three – Easter Season: “Alive Again” by Matt Maher
I woke up in darkness, surrounded by silence, o where, where have I gone?
As Alive Again begins, you can almost feel the sun rise on the dark night of the soul. The album begins as if the soul is waking up, and Christ crashes into the soul’s life with an exuberance that seems startling after the focus on quiet and silence. In fact, many of the songs on the album are much more loud and energetic than those on Fortunate Fall. This is not a bad thing. On the contrary, it is like the bursting open of the flower’s bud after the slow growth from a seed planted underground. Now, in Easter, the Church sings “Alleluia!” with joyful voices. When Christ comes into the silence of the redeemed person’s heart, that heart naturally begins to sing out to other people with the message of redemption and goodness.
This album shows a progression from a faith of one person to a faith that is practiced in a community, a Church. While the first two albums mostly focus on the “I,” the individual, this one includes more mentions of “we” and “us” as the subject of the songs. “Hold Us Together” especially captures the new understanding of the primacy of community in Christian life
Love will hold us together / Make us a shelter to weather the storm / And I’ll be my brother’s keeper / So the whole world will know that we’re not alone
These songs are the songs of the newly founded Church, of the first Christians. They have put all of their past fears into the proper perspective and have learned all that matters: Love of God and love of neighbor. The people of God should not remain totally turned inward on themselves; they should give themselves as gifts in relationship. This involves action! Speaking! Singing! Loving!
Then Alive Again closes with the song “Garden.” This is a lovely, quiet song that summarizes the answers to all the questions the soul had in the first two albums. It pulls the soul back from activism to the “one thing necessary,” the first reason for love and the deepest meaning of life: relationship with the Creator. In perfect peace and harmony, the soul walks and converses freely with God, an image of original innocence in the Garden of Eden. It is silence and peace that makes the garden in the heart possible.
Oh, why would I hide / Away from Your face / Where the light of Your love / Illuminates?
Your hand in mine / A steady line / Drawn on my heart / And deep in my mind
And You walk with me / You never leave / You’re making my heart a garden
Silence was once twisted and distorted, for sin warps everything it touches. But once Christ comes into a person’s heart as Healer, silence becomes a welcome place of refreshment and relationship.
P.S. If you want a shorter version of these albums in a playlist with the main themes still intact, I’ve made a playlist you can access here.
It’s the Second Sunday of Advent, so now might be a good time to discuss the hottest theological topic on the Church’s radar: when should we start listening to Christmas carols? Conscientious, Advent-celebrating Catholics have exercised all their self-control to not put on Michael Bublé or Bing Crosby immediately after Thanksgiving. Now that the “too early” has passed, everyone wants to know just the right time to begin getting into the Christmas spirit, because as everyone knows, listening to Christmas music is the true measure of celebrating the solemnity.
Catholics who worry about these important theological issues generally fall into two groups. The first group frowns upon Christmas music between Thanksgiving and Advent, and maybe the first week of Advent. However, its approval rating of Christmas music gradually increases as Christmas approaches. The second group claims that Christmas music should not be played at all during Advent. Advent is the time for “Advent music,” and Christmas is the time for “Christmas music.”
Both of these stances have problems. For the first group, if you begin complaining that the Christmas music is “too early,” there is no reference point for when it stops being too early. Is it okay at the second week of Advent? The fourth week? Christmas Eve? All measures are arbitrary, since technically any time not in the Christmas season is, in fact, “too early.” However, if from this you decide to ban Christmas music from your life until the the beginning of Christmas, you risk being called a Grinch by your friends, and, quite frankly, being a Grinch by constantly reminding them of your spiritual superiority by saying “Turn off that music! It’s Advent! We’re supposed to pretend that Christmas hasn’t happened yet!” Now not all the “no Christmas music till Christmas” people are like this, but there is an increased temptation (or even tendency) for them to loudly proclaim their disapproval by complaining and condemning.
Now I know I began this post by calling the issue one of the most important theological debates of our times. I hope you could tell that was satire. Sometimes I can’t believe how big of a deal people make into Christmas music. The Church really only regulates the use of sacred music in the liturgy, so the only place you have a right to be adamant about the proper time for Christmas music is at mass. Yes, good Catholics should want to celebrate Advent in its rich fullness, but whether or not you sing Christmas music should rank pretty low on the list of what you should or should not do for Advent.
Advent is a time to prepare for the coming of the Lord, both His coming into our lives right now, and His Second Coming at the end of time. We prepare our hearts to celebrate the mystery of the Incarnation with greater appreciation and understanding, and we make greater efforts to follow in the way of our Savior who humbled Himself to become a human baby. The spiritual dimension of Advent is so much more important than deciding whether we should sing “Joy to the World” now or later.
But since we should live incarnationally, I will make this recommendation. I believe that if we consider the internal goals of Advent, we can orient our external practices accordingly. Do you struggle with patience? Then maybe saving Christmas music until the Christmas season would be fruitful for your Advent. Do you struggle with spiritual laziness? Then maybe listening to Christmas music early might help inspire you to love and be generous. Do you just worry about being “seasonally correct”? Then you should listen to Christmas music and learn humility.
I love beautiful churches. We definitely need more of them. Beautiful churches raise the heart and mind to God, the Source of all beauty. They remind us that we are not made for the mediocrity of the rat race, but for the excellence of heavenly virtues. Beautiful churches give glory and honor to God, and provide a holy and reverent atmosphere for the Mass, the source and summit of our Christian lives.
And then there are those churches.
Call them minimalist, modern, or whatever, they are stripped bare of all the grandeur that teach reverence and right worship. We could try to ignore their existence, but there will always be ugly churches around. Rather than calling for them to be torn down and replaced, I propose that these poor ugly churches can teach us valuable lessons, (for God in his providence can pull good out of anything). Here are a couple of things on which you can reflect when you walk into an ugly church.
First of all, always remember that Christ Himself is present in every Catholic church. Wouldn’t He rather you look at the tabernacle and converse with Him than for you to look at the tabernacle and mentally critique its funky design? Even the most modern church is still made holy and sacred by the presence of Our Lord. It is for that reason our hearts can always sing “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord, God of Hosts.” Art is important, but it is only a shadow of True Beauty Himself, Who resides in every single church.
Remember too, when worshiping, that the beauty or grandeur of a mass is not determined by the beauty of the church surrounding it. Every mass is of infinite worth, and draws its participants into the very heart of redemption. The words “This is my Body” and “This is my Blood” should be enough for us to be frozen in wonder and awe, more than even St. Peter’s Basilica. When there is nothing external around to help you concentrate, take it as an invitation to be drawn further into the very heart of the mass, rather than its surroundings. I have seen many beautiful and respectful masses celebrated in ugly worship spaces.
Though sacred images are stepping stones to contemplation, they are just that – stepping stones. Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) explains in The Spirit of the Liturgy: “The sacredness of the image consists precisely in the fact that it comes from an interior vision and thus leads us to such an interior vision. It must be a fruit of contemplation, of an encounter in faith with the new reality of the Christ, and so it leads us in turn into an interior gazing, an encounter in prayer with the Lord.” If an image is not designed to accomplish this purpose, then it is not really a sacred image. Notice, then, the intrinsic nature of images as a help and aid, and the language of “leading” that Ratzinger uses. It is because of our spiritual weakness that we need images to be drawn into relationship into God. This is not a bad thing; if it was, then the Incarnation would be evil. However, the spiritually mature realize that relationship with the Lord is much more than what can be seen by the eyes. I find this section of C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters to be especially enlightening on how easily we can forget the true purposes of images. Written from the viewpoint of a devil, here is a description of the temptations that can spring from this error:
If you examine the object to which [a person in prayer] is attending, you will find that it is a composite object containing many quite ridiculous ingredients. There will be images derived from pictures of the Enemy as He appeared during the discreditable episode known as the Incarnation: there will be vaguer – perhaps quite savage and puerile – images associated with the other two Persons…But whatever the nature of the composite object, you must keep him praying to it – to the thing that he has made, not to the Person who has made him. You may even encourage him to attach great importance to the correction and improvement of his composite object, and to keeping it steadily before his imagination during the whole prayer. For if he ever comes to make the distinction, if he ever consciously directs his prayers “Not to what I think thou art but to what thou knowest thyself to be,” our situation is, for the moment, desperate. Once all his thoughts and images have been flung aside, or, if retained, retained with a full recognition of their merely subjective nature, and the man trusts himself to the completely real, external, invisible Presence, there with him in the room and never knowable by him as he is known by it – why, then it is that the incalculable may occur.
Like all the schemes of devils, this temptation twists of the real value of images, but it does highlight very important point: it is God to Whom we direct our prayers, a God Whom we cannot ever know fully. Sacred images do their best to lead us there, but at a certain point, we must acknowledge their inadequacy and seek a deeper contemplation of the God of all Beauty.
This does not mean we should purposefully build ugly, plain, and minimalist churches. Churches are an appropriate place for the grandeur and guidance of beauty. But the deeper meaning of the use of beauty allows us to find lessons in these plain spaces, and to be redirected to the reason we have beautiful churches in the first place. The next time you go to mass in an ugly church, praise God that He is the only Beauty you will ever need.
“Into Great Silence” is a gorgeous documentary on the lives of the Carthusian monks living at the Grande Chartreuse monastery in France. To achieve a more accurate depiction of monastery life, there is no narrator, no background music, and only one interview throughout the entire two-and-a-half-hour-long movie. The viewer sees the monks at prayer and at work in silence, while occasionally a bible verse will be presented as a rhythmic meditation on the call to silence. The monks live and breathe the presence of God, and their lifestyle exudes an air of holiness. It is a beautiful documentary of the contemplative life that is held to critical acclaim. So what did I do when I watched it?
I dozed off.
There is something very irking about silence in my 21st century world, one in which I can listen to music anywhere and anytime, where entertainment is usually loud and on a screen, and I can talk to anyone I want instantly on my phone. Even in the world of prayer, it’s hard to really be quiet. Silence seems like such an absence. How can we learn anything from silence if you can’t hear anything in silence? It feels like being deaf. Sometimes the way silence is valued is so mysterious and unfathomable. It is a particularly troublesome concept for me, for my theology-of-the-body-inundated background recoils at the apparent lack of actions of love of neighbor. I know in my head that silence must have powerful effects and is a holy way to pray, but it is one of those things that my heart finds difficult to accept.
I mentioned to a friend that I had watched “Into Great Silence” and my difficulties with paying attention and understanding its concepts. She is much wiser than I, and said something that put everything right back into perspective. She pointed me back to the paradox of it all, that silence really is for relationship, a much deeper relationship than what is built on simple, human words. Silence doesn’t make sense to the world, but it does on a supernatural level. When we are quiet, that is when relationship deepens the most, because we allow ourselves to simply BE in His presence. The Carthusian statutes say this on silence:
Our supreme quest and goal is to find God in solitude and silence. There, indeed, as man with his friend, do the Lord and his servant often speak together; there is the faithful soul frequently united with the Word of God; there is the bride made one with her Spouse; there is earth joined to heaven, the divine to the human. (Book 2, Chapter 12)
Silence is indeed beautiful because it is a level of supernatural communion. But because it is supernatural, it is also very difficult, and may seem pointless or dry. From what I can tell, only those who practice the way of silence really understand its power. The Carthusian statutes also admit this:
God has led his servant into solitude to speak to his heart; but he alone who listens in silence hears the whisper of the gentle breeze that reveals the presence of the Lord. In the early stages of our Carthusian life, we may find silence a toilsome burden; however, if we are faithful, there will gradually be born within us of our silence something that will draw us on to still greater silence. (Book 2, Chapter 14)
Spending time in silence might very well be like making ourselves deaf, but I think it’s important to remember that it is the deaf that Christ makes to hear. It is He Who will transform our silence into intimacy. We need not worry that we are not enough.