Thursday, 28 August 2014

Good works, good works, everywhere! And all my time did shrink.

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

~ The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Coleridge's famous poem has these memorable lines of the mariner surrounded by his abundance, yet stranded also because of it, for the water was useless if not drinkable. I have found that much the same can be said for ministry: opportunities abound, even more, they are in excess. And so we are stranded, with good works in every direction we look, but until we take a step, make a commitment, it remains mere potentiality. The mariner can distill the water, but he must take a portion of the sea, he cannot distill it all. So too can we Christians take a portion of ministry as our own, and by doing so do what is good and right, but we cannot do anything if we simply gaze at the plenitude of possibilities for ministry.

There is good to be done in almost any walk of life. Doctors and medics who heal, lawyers who can be advocates for the unjustly accused, priests who can administer the sacraments, social workers who provide all sorts of services, missionaries who provide the Gospel in a manner particular to their calling, politicians who work for the common good of society, natural fathers and mothers who care for their children, contemplative religious who take as their own the yoke of prayer, teachers who educate the young...the list is probably as long as there exists people. There is a lot of good to be done in the world. No one person, however, can do all these things.

If we try and take all of them upon ourselves, we will surely fail. Certainly, one might object, one can be more than one of these professions: one can, for instance, be married (with duties to one's spouse), with children (with parental duties) a doctor and missionary, all in one. I have met such people. Yet even these unsung heroes cannot do everything, they simply do more than most. What remains - and this is clearly evident to the man I know who does combine those professions and vocations, since studying medicine is hardly a weekend hobby - is to commit. A bucket full of water can be taken to be distilled, not the whole ocean.

I want to write about two things in brief: first, how do we pick? I give St Ignatius Loyola's answer. Second, what then do I pick?

What then shall we do?

For Christians, as I explained when I went discussed vocation briefly here, deciding what to do is about discernment, discerning the will of God who knows how best to include us in the unfolding of salvation history. The problem we come to when figuring out what ministry to engage in, however, is that we already have as a premise that the choices are good. We already know what is wrong, and not to be involved in such activities. We have to distinguish, somehow, between good-and-meant-for-me and good-but-not-meant-for-me.

St Ignatius has a profound answer, which would be hard to summarise here. The way I understand it, his answer is threefold: first, a holy person makes holy decisions, so our first step should be to strive in everything to be holy. Second, Following the will of God produces feelings of consolation, and opposing it produces feelings of desolation. These are terms are used in a very specific way in the spirituality of St Ignatius, they do not refer simply to feeling good (consolation) or feeling bad (desolation). For this reason, I will at most touch on them briefly, in connection to one of the central insights of St Ignatius, which is (thirdly) that our deepest and holiest desires accord with the will of God for us.

Before alarm bells go off, this is not a sort of "prosperity discernment," whereby I declare whatever I want to be God's will for me to get. "I want some chocolate? God must want me to have chocolate." - not exactly, sorry. I am going to extrapolate from Ignatius' insight into a new form of language which may be clearer (hopefully without being unfaithful to St Ignatius). Our common desires, for pleasure over pain, having a full belly, being well rested, indulging our whims, can be called first order desires. Our second order desires are our desires of what we want our first order desires to be. Third order desires are about what we want our second order desires to be, and so forth.

Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane exemplifies this division, which is far from being his human will pulling one way and his divine will pulling another. It is a deeply human problem. On the one hand, the natural inclination to avoid pain makes Jesus want to avoid the cross. On the other, his deeper desire is to want whatever the Father wants. His surrender of the will ("not my will be done, but yours") is an act of a high order desire. It is here where St Ignatius places that convergence of God's will and ours.

Let me give an example that is not explicitly moral: my conflicting desires between checking Facebook for the fifth time this hour or doing my coursework. My desire to procrastinate, I assure you, is strong, and Facebook provides an infinite venue for it. Still, I could hardly say that checking Facebook is a particularly deep desire, in fact, it pops up more regularly precisely because it is a superficial, surface level desire. Deeper down, hidden somewhere, I want to do well at university, and in fact, deeper down I thoroughly enjoy my university work.

If it is true that my deepest desires accord with God's will, noting that idea can certainly be misunderstood and perverted, then it follows quite clearly that holy people make the right choice the holier they are. Part of what the stain of original sin does to us is disorder our desires, so what is fundamentally good is perceived as peripherally good, and what is peripheral (at most) is fundamental. So part of undoing that stain and once more being sanctified, being holy, is to re-order our passions so that the true, the good and the beautiful are sought in their right hierarchy. It is not bad, for instance, to be concerned with oneself, it is healthy and good. Yet narcissism is a perverted form of self-concern which comes from placing oneself as the highest good. All sin results in some way from a disordering of these desires, these passions. This message, which could be expanded to fill a book, can be summarised as follows: holy people make holy decisions because their deepest, holiest desires are given centrality.

What then shall I do?

Now it is time for some introspection. What is it that I desire most deeply, what moves and motivates me more than anything else? I have sort of begun to answer that question with my series of blog posts, still unfinished, on what influences my theology. Vocation is an obvious one, but that is almost a given here, other than to note that most profoundly I want to do what God wants me to do. Grace for me implies, at least in part, that I have a deep desire for reconciliation, a point that will become clearer when I write about another crucial element of my theology, which is the focus on communion. This focus of mine on communion also implies that I have a deep desire for community, more than that, covenantal community, or in other words, a community that is based on a bond of sacred kinship. For the Christian, this bond is based on the reality of baptism.

Two other concepts, one I already wrote about and another yet to come, are central to my thought: incarnation and mission. Incarnational ministry, as I view it, is a form of ministry which makes the minister renounce what makes them above those ministered to (where by absolute I might mean, for instance, that a rich person renounces wealth to minister to the poor) in a way that imitates the God who became flesh in Jesus Christ "and dwelt among us." Last but far from least, mission is a central motivating concept for me. It is for every faithful Christian really, since Jesus came proclaiming the good news, St Paul pronounces woe on himself if he does not preach the good news and up to today the apostolic authority entrusted to the Church by Jesus has continued to say such things as "the Church exists to evangelise" (Evangelii Nuntiandi, Pope Paul VI).

That might sound overly intellectual, but it is really quite important, not least because to some extent my innermost is really quite intellectual anyway, perhaps to the point of being (overly) cerebral. Community, incarnational (sometimes called "intentional") community, witness and proclamation of the Gospel. These are all key. If I did not engage these, I would be being false to my vocation. I could name a few others (resurrection and truth are both exceedingly important), but I will skip them for brevity.

Changing modes for a moment, what about people's physical needs? The spiritual is important, and anyone who says otherwise is simply mistaken, but so is the corporal. Are corporal works of mercy something I am called to? Absolutely. Most people, if I may dare to generalise, probably are. Still, what variety? There are diseases to be cared for, homeless to be sheltered, hungry to be fed, the socially marginalised to be included, and so on. The list is long. So what am I meant to do?

I genuinely do not know. There are certain issues I perceive as injust, and yet I do not find myself called to work in those areas. For instance, as it stands at the moment, I do not think I am called to work in political activism for the sake of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders' rights. I am far from claiming it is an unworthy cause, it is simply not my cause. Similarly, whilst I have been to all sorts of rallies, marches and vigils for the end to the murder of children in the womb, it is similarly not fundamentally my cause. Still, nobody who knows me can really say that I do not care about these things. On the other hand, there are some issues where I am compelled to do something: homelessness, hunger, de-humanising poverty, slavery both physical and otherwise (like substance addiction), social marginalisation because of such stigmas as related to race or mental health illness, among others.

To that effect, I have begin discerning committing to various apostolates that deal with these issues, and am involved already in several. To the extent that I can identify key issues, and since engaging with the corporal ones is clearly compatible with engaging in the spiritual ones (which, because they effect eternal consequences, I am compelled to give pre-eminence), it would seem that my problems are largely solved.

That would, I think, be to go too fast. Whilst there is a sense in which I will always have a certain autonomy of will, in a few years time I will be taking not one but two vows of obedience, where I consecrate my will to God via my superiors and the Pope. I find that a comforting thought. But whether comforting or not, I am not sure in the long term what sort of ministry I will be involved in. I can only discern the next two years.

This will involve, as far as my eye can see, continued involvement in soup kitchens and including whoever I meet who seems to lack community. It will involve continued service in the Newman Society at UQ, and Frassati Australia. It will hopefully involved, though I have just started doing so, being involved with outreach initiatives of the St Vincent de Paul Society. It will hopefully involve working with initiatives of the Waiter's Union, soon. All of this, whilst not neglecting that my primary state in life as it stands is that of student at university. These are my buckets of water.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

What Inspires My Theology? Part III: Vocation

When I started reading the works of John Henry Newman, on the road to becoming Catholic, I accidentally stumbled across the University of Queensland's Newman Society, the Catholic society on campus at UQ. I walked into their first meeting, and when the ice-breaker introduction came, I said quite clearly: I am not Catholic, I do not want to be Catholic, but I do need to find out more to know if I should be Catholic. Most of the people were fairly quiet at this, they just tried to continue on to the next person, since I was an atypical person to be in that meeting and in that sense I could make people uncomfortable. There were two exceptions: the president at the time, now a close friend of mine, seemed to be quietly excited about the idea of someone looking into being Catholic, even if it was true that I did not want to. The other person was UQ's chaplain at the time, the priest who would eventually receive me into the Church, and importantly, Fr Morgan Batt was (and continues to be) the Vocations Director for the Archdiocese of Brisbane.

Hence, the idea of vocation has been in my head since before I was Catholic, and it has not left since then. At the beginning, influenced as I was by the office that Fr Batt had, vocation for me was related to what one might call the sacraments of state, that is, Holy Orders and Holy Matrimony. A little later, and influenced now by the Second Vatican Council's clear teaching on the universal call (vocation) to holiness by virtue of baptism, I realised that baptism was a sacrament of state (of sorts). This remains the common usage of the term "vocation": priest, married, religious...? That is an important question to ask oneself, because it is indeed the subject matter of vocation. However, two other people have influenced me and made vocation into a central element of my theology.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer's book The Cost of Discipleship is one of the most important books I have read this year, particularly the initial chapters, leading up to his exposition of the Sermon on the Mount. In it, he attacks cheap grace, replacing it with costly grace, the grace of the cross. Bonhoeffer presents costly grace as grace that demands something of us, namely ourselves, not to repay a debt, but because the debt cannot be repaid.

In reflecting upon this, I realised that the grace of God always implies a calling, a vocation. For instance, the conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus is simultaneously the self-revelation of God acting in Christ, which is an action of grace, the imparting of that grace of conversion and the gift of faith, but at the very same time, and inextricably linked, it is the calling of Saul to be Paul the Apostle. For everyone, in fact, the hearing and believing of the Gospel is at once an act of grace on the part of God and the calling of God to the proclamation of the same Gospel.

Therefore, one's vocation, one's calling, is not just a gift of grace but a necessary element of any gift of grace. First and foremost, every Christian is called to holiness. Secondly, there may be a vocation to married life, to priestly life, to religious life, to consecrated single life... In terms of sacraments, the grace of Baptism is a call to holiness. Then follows the specific path to be taken, for which (if one is to be ordained or married) one receives that grace of office. It is not in vain that the sacrament of ordination is called Holy Orders, because the grace of the sacrament implies by its very nature the orders, the vocation, for the sake of which it is administered. In short, grace and vocation are inseparable.

Bonhoeffer, being a Protestant and not having the same sacramental theology of priesthood or matrimony, also challenges Catholics such as myself to think of vocation in broader terms, though this is not something he had introduced to Christianity. It is at the very least as old as the other influential figure that solidified the centrality of vocation in my thought, the spiritual master and one of the founders of the Society of Jesus, St Ignatius Loyola.

St Ignatius is most remembered for his Spiritual Exercises and as a master of discernment. Discernment is, in one sense, a Catholic version of decision making, but the theology that underpins it sets it aside from its secular analogue. Discernment is not so much about weighing up pros and cons of choices, rather, it is about figuring out (discerning) the will of God. The will of God and his calling are one and the same.

Yet discernment of the calling of God for St Ignatius does not stop when one figures out the state of life one is called to, it is a constant process. I must discern the will of God for me at all moments during my day, during my week, during my life. Discernment is not a matter for big decisions, it is a matter for all decisions. Yet if discernment is for all decisions, then that means that there is a calling of God in all decisions, which means that vocation is a term that encompasses the totality of our lives.

This has influenced me to make the bold claim that Christian ethics can be divided into two categories: general and particular. The general is aptly summarised in the words of Jesus when asked what the greatest commandment was:

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself,' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

The strength of this formulation is evidently its generality, but it hence is overly ambiguous in terms of choosing how to live out the commandment. Scripture abundantly testifies that not all are called to do all good works, that God wills that some dedicate themselves to one form of ministry, others to another. There is hence another way of formulating Christian ethics, in a way that makes note of the particularity and the uniqueness of the vocation given to each person. One could write it in an expanded form as:

The right thing to do is to employ one's charisms in lovingly living out own's vocation for the common good and the glory of God.

It is rough, somewhat academic, and most likely imprecise. It is not quite my intention to give an absolute statement that I would petition the Pope to define as dogma. Rather, I use this as a sketch-statement to show how vocation forms the basis for Christian ethics, and can be more specifically tailored to each person than a general statement about love.

All this implies that what seems good can be bad. St Ignatius talks about feelings of desolation arising because one has followed inclinations that seemed holy, but actually come from the false angel of light. What seems like a good action can be the wrong action if God calls us to do otherwise - indeed, what would be a good action in another circumstance could be the wrong action in this circumstance, because we are not called to do that action then. I wrote a little about how the converse can be true, what seems like a bad idea turns out to be the right action, when I discussed my own vocation here.

Applying the language of vocation to our decision making is important in making decisions about what we will do with our time. This is specially the case because of how many opportunities there are to do good: should we give our time and energy to homeless people, the elderly, the socially marginalised, the mentally ill? Sometimes these categories overlap, but not always, and we need to make decisions about who we are going to minister to. Should I commit to this ministry, or that other one? I know God calls me to do what is required of me in service of him, so how do I divide my time between my work duties, my study duties, and my ministry duties? How much time should I rest? How much time should I dedicate to fellowship with Catholic friends compared to non-Catholic friends?

All these questions are ultimately questions we must discern the answer to, because God has a calling for us that will answer these questions. As you can see, the language of ethics, of should and ought is the language of vocation and calling.

What Inspires My Theology? Part II: Incarnation

If I had to write an blog post on how the Incarnation affects my theology, my thought, and my life, I would rather have to write a book. All my theology is centred around Jesus Christ, who is incarnate - my prayer is incarnational (a point I made tangentially here), when I think of mission or ministry, it is incarnational. My perspective on a theology of creation is incarnational. My thoughts on grace, and how grace and nature intersect, are incarnational.

In short, most of my theology is Incarnational. But what does that mean? For me, the Incarnation is about three things: first, that God does not remain distant from our problems, but through Mary is incarnate and shares in our humanity. This was my point with incarnational intercessory prayer: that when we pray for others, we must take on their poverty as our own, and intercede before God on their behalf. Together with God reaching down to us in human flesh, however, is the elevation of our humanity that comes with it. As St Athanasius writes in his treatise on the Incarnation: "For the Son of God became man so that we might become God." The Incarnation is the concrete illustration of Jesus saying "I have become what you are so that you can become what I am."

Secondly, the Incarnation does not remove the divinity of Christ. It is the supreme example of the both/and approach to theology, where (as we confess in the Nicene creed) Jesus is true God and true man. Not half and half. Not a mix of divinity and humanity. Jesus is both fully God and fully human. The Incarnation is hardly the only instance of paradoxical unions: Catholic Social Teaching has that combination of solidarity and subsidiarity, soteriology has numerous paradoxical combinations, such as free will and predestination, or faith and works. Trinitarian has three persons in one God. Still, the Incarnation is such a special instance of this both/and principle that it is, after some thought, easy to see why so long was spent arguing about Christology, why so many councils were convened to discuss Christological dogmas. Christ is the self-revelation of God, so this very precise theological investigation of Jesus is fundamental to all theology. This unique combination of divinity and humanity means that Jesus Christ is the only mediator between God and humans. It implies with the full force of theological fact that "nobody comes to the Father except through [him]." 

Third, the Incarnation elevates the visible. Before the Incarnation, people were right to be sceptical about the divine being presented in any sort of image, and hence the Decalogue has its injunction against graven images. Yet with the Incarnation, what was invisible and spiritual became visible in Christ Jesus. He is the "image of the invisible God", and therefore we can no longer scorn the created order as bearing the mark of God, not only as Creator, but even to the point of representing God. This is exceedingly important for all sacramental theology, though obviously it is most obvious in that most blessed of Sacraments, the Eucharist, where the fullness of the Godhead dwells under the species of bread and wine. In short, there is a divinisation of all of creation, not only humanity. What is this, however, if not a general statement of the fact that grace builds on nature?

These are just three of the underlying principles of the Incarnation that make this doctrine so crucial to Christianity, so crucial to theology, and so crucial to me in particular. I began to understand this in the context of social outreach ministry, when reflecting on intentional community and the vow of poverty that I hope to be making in a few years time. Why do we become poor to help the poor? It is the way of Jesus Christ, as St Paul writes to the Philippians in one of my favourite canticles:
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 

rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness. 

And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name, 
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.
(Phil. 2:5-11)

As I said, if I could come up with enough material to write a book on anything, it would be on the Incarnation. This, however, is only the briefest collection of points, to which I will add another small one that should merit much lengthier treatment: the Incarnation, in addition to highlighting both/and's in theology, endowing with special importance the visible created order as the means by which the self-communication of God took place, as well as being both and inheritance of our poverty and the exchange of it for riches, it becomes our own model not only insofar as Christ is our model in general, but also insofar as our ecclesiology centres around the Church qua the Body of Christ. One crucial mistake of those who "love Jesus but hate the Church" is that not only did Jesus start the Church, die for the Church, is the Bridegroom of the Church...the Church is also the mystical continuation of the Incarnation, which (though mystical) is still visible. 

Thursday, 14 August 2014

So What if She is Gomer? She is my Gomer

With a couple of rare exceptions, most people are perplexed when they hear I am seeking entry into the Society of Jesus. Several people think celibacy is a ridiculous way of life, others have no idea why I would pick religious and priestly life over a secular career in physics (or a career in pretty much anything else, for that matter). By far the most surprised people are the people who see the Jesuits as a heretical, hyper-liberal and liturgically nonsensical order, and know that I am none of these things. Well, maybe I am a heretic, but I do try and avoid being one. Here is my apologia of sorts.

Why would I pick such an apparently dreadful order when I could be something sensible like a Franciscan or a Dominican? In part, it is because neither of those two orders reflect properly my charisms, though I have admiration for both nonetheless. In part also because I think that the Jesuits are considered far worse than those two quite unfairly; this prejudice is not a new, post-conciliar idea, either, as a glance at the Society's history will demonstrate. There has always been an anti-Jesuit myth.

Still, there is a great deal of truth to the post-conciliar Jesuit bashing, one that it would be hard to deny if one is in regular contact with a Jesuit parish. I am very far from saying that all Jesuits are bad priests, or even that I am in substantial disagreement with all of them. Of my favourite books, the top three are written by 20th century Jesuits: Henri de Lubac, Hugo Rahner and Walter Ciszek. I would be lying, however, if I said I could calmly read a book written by a Jesuit in the past fifty years without being consciously on the lookout for error. Although to be fair, I am rather critical of anyone I read, even canonised saints.

In short, the objection people present to me is this: Lobi, you have high standards for liturgy, a no nonsense attitude to theology, you are more interested in truth than in being airy fairy and nice, and even though you do spout the occasional modernist line, you are pretty far in general from the current ethos of the Jesuits. So, why join them, when you could join some better and more suitable order?

The answer is quite simple. I have full assurance that I am called to the Society of Jesus, and hence that I am not called to another order or another state of life. What does it matter if the Jesuits are a horrible order? If it is God's will, that is the end of the discussion. One cannot pick one's vocation as "whatever suits you" - vocation is necessarily where God calls you to be. Now, if you have some theory of discernment which says that somehow one's deepest and holiest desires are where God communicates one's vocation (as St Ignatius Loyola himself does), then by all means, pick whatever is suitable. But one should not confuse the discernment of the call with the call itself. The call of Jesus comes, and the disciple follows, it is really that simple. Just one verse from the Gospel according to St Mark show this:
And as he passed on, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax office, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him. (Mark 2:13-14)

Some exegetes have tried to imply that there is something between the call and the response, or perhaps some past experience that primes Levi to respond as he does. Surely, they say, nobody would just get up and leave when just presented with a simple "follow me" - without any build up of trust, any prior confidence in this stranger, a conversation separating call and response? Yet such an imposition on the text is a prime example of a crucial error in considering vocations: the idea that there needs to be extensive dialogue between Jesus and oneself, between Master and disciple, before we agree to some conclusion and label that "vocation." That sort of perspective on vocation makes Jesus into a sort of Prime Minister rather than Lord and King, someone that we get to elect rather than someone who we have to accept. We would always get the vocation we wanted, and not in a divine sense, but in a worldly one. It is great when what we want is aligned with what God wants, but when there is tension, one must heed always to the will of God, even in perplexing cases where it seems that even God should want something different. Sometimes our discernment can be marked by pious human wisdom, which leads us to follow what we imagine God would want for us rather than follow what God in actual fact calls us to.

The prophet Hosea's life illustrates this well. Hosea was a northern kingdom prophet who was called to live out in the context of his own marital context the prophecy given to Israel. The call of Hosea is simple:

When the Lord first spoke through Hosea, the Lord said to Hosea, ‘Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord. (Hosea 1:2)

I cannot seem to find a Catholic dating guide that suggests marriage to a harlot is a good idea. Following worldly wisdom for marital discernment would have lead Hosea to picking for himself a wife of better repute. Heck, even following a general sort of Catholic wisdom would lead Hosea to pick a different spouse. But Hosea knew better. He knew that he had to follow the will of God, not his own wisdom, not what he thought God should call him to. So he marries Gomer, an unfaithful woman, and whilst they have children together, Gomer continues to be a harlot.

God gives a reason for why Hosea is called to take a "wife of whoredom", but the reason given is not in any sense an absolute one. There is no logical necessity between Hosea taking Gomer as wife and Israel being unfaithful to God, even if it would make for a good illustration of the nuptial covenant between God and Israel. The call is ultimately senseless to worldly wisdom, but the Lord is not God of worldly wisdom.

Why does God call me to the Jesuits? I have vague ideas about it. I am a missionary at heart, I am adaptable to wherever God wishes to place me, and these make me kin to the authentic Jesuit spirit. I am drawn to Ignatian expressions of spirituality. By the grace of God, I can be equipped to be one of "God's marines." But whether I can figure out why God wants me to pursue entry into the Society or not, this is where he has called me.

I am now more certain of that than ever before. When I first wrote the short essay explaining my discernment process and decision, I had not even been accepted into the Catholic Church, my reception of the sacraments would be months away. It was not quite the complete story when I wrote it, and it is certainly not the whole story now, since I have altered and refined my reasoning. I am completely at peace with celibacy now, I have acquired a more mature desire for liturgy, and as Fr. David Braithwaite, SJ, pointed out in a talk given about a year ago as vocations director for the Society, the development of lay ministry is not fundamentally at odds with more clerical forms of ministry. Whatever tension exists in my mind now between me going to married life or religious life is rather centred on my love of children, something more directly suited to married life. Still, the more I learn and grow, the more certain I become of where God calls me.

Since I have used such harsh words to describe the Society - though not my own, only the accusations of others - it must be the case that I am more resigned to my vocation than happy about it. Quite the contrary. I am entirely at peace, filled with joy, at the prospect of entering the Society. Perhaps this is in part because I do not think that the caricature is largely accurate. More than that, though, I am content to abandon myself to whatever God wants for me. So I go towards the Jesuits not with weariness, but with a happy demeanour, not a forced one either, rather one that wells up from within me. That famous prayer of St Francis of Assisi of which I have a wooden plaque on my wall in front of my desk begins with "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace." Perhaps that great saint had found that he was to be an instrument of peace. As it stands, I cut the prayer even shorter: "Lord, make me an instrument of yours." That is enough for me. Or as Bl. John Henry Newman wrote in his famous hymn "Lead, Kindly Light," words that remind me every time that every vocation is both gift and mystery: "I do not ask to see the distant scene, one step enough for me."

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Intercessory Prayer is Either Power or Poverty

When you are in the world of Christianity, you hear it often: please pray for this or that, for this situation or that person, for me or for someone else. You also, when you are a bit into the game, start remembering that praying for others is not something to be done only on request, but that it forms a core part of any Christian's prayer life. The causes are endless, but some strike us as requiring our attention more than others, and we pray for these things most keenly.

I fall into a trap when it comes to this sort of prayer. Something will catch my eye as being a matter of concern to bring to God, and I will instinctively think of praying for the situation. For instance, I might see a homeless person on the street, or see a car crash that looks nasty, or a build up of armed police officers that signal a dangerous situation. Whatever the case may be, one jumps into prayer mode.

This prayer for others is known as intercessory prayer, and Jesus speaks quite frequently of its importance, for your friends, "your enemies and...those who persecute you" (cf. Mt. 5:44). In light of this, I decided to pray also for anyone who annoyed or perturbed me, in part because of this directive but also because praying for someone else has a profoundly humanising effect. One does not pray for objects, one prays for persons.

I have found that, instead of humanising others like I intended, what often happened is that I perceived myself to be exerting a certain power over others, and hence making objects of them once more. Not that prayer is an exertion of power per se, and it is important to clarify our theology of prayer to make this evident within a framework in which prayer is still efficacious, but that was none the less my experience: insofar as I consider prayer to be effective, praying for others was twisted into self-exaltation, as I elevate myself into a position where I bless others. In other words, if I pray for someone who is doing something wrong, I prayed from a status of exalted moral virtue, or if I pray for a poor person, I prayed from an exaltation of spiritual wealth. In short, my prayer was an expression of self-exaltation and and exercise of power over others, a power that I had because I was praying for them.

This attitude is, I think, highly problematic. It colours not only my interactions with the persons I pray for, but even my perceptions of the more distant situations I pray for. Like giving money to some poor person - which can also be an expression of dominance, a clarification that "I am richer and you are poorer" - praying for someone in this way is just a matter of self-righteous pride and contrary to the beatitude "blessed are the poor in spirit." The poor in spirit cannot dish out these blessings upon others like some people babble words of prayer: "I pray for this, and this, and that, and..ah yes, that one, and him, and those people, and definitely her....hmmm...and that too. Amen." because they have no blessing to give.

What then is the right way to experience intercessory prayer? I think that if intercessory prayer is to be genuine and avoid this pitfall of self-exaltation, it must begin with poverty of spirit. The first step is to recognise that we cannot bless others, that our prayers are simply petitions, we ask God for this or that. Being keenly aware of this fact is the right step towards avoiding the spiritual pride that can come with praying for others, since we become conscious that we are doing nothing for the situation or person other than presenting it to God.

Yet there is a more important step than this mere recognition of fact. I contend that intercessory prayer is a prayer made from the poverty of the other being prayed for. In this petitionary prayer, we enter into the other's needs, not insofar as they affect us, but from within their otherness. I think on this point we can learn from the experience of parents: a good mother, for instance, will not see their own needs, wants, desires and sufferings and those of her children to be particularly separate. If I were to break my arm, I have no doubt that my dad would feel the pain just as much as I would, if not more. Similarly, Jesus makes this link between his hungry brothers and himself in that famous line in the Gospel according to St Matthew when he says "as you did to the least of these my brothers, you did it to me." For a mother, the needs of her children are her own. For Jesus, the hunger of his brothers and sisters is his own. When we pray for another, their needs should be our own.

Hence, I have learnt, and am slowly learning, to shift intercessory prayer from a mode of power to a mode of poverty. For as I pray for the poor man, I do not pray as someone foreign to him, but I go to his side and pray for him as if for myself. I make his poverty mine and plead to God for him.

This is the essence of the Incarnation, is it not? The Son does not intercede to God first at his right hand, instead he takes on our flesh and so represents us before the Father. Indeed, Jesus takes on our poverty until death, even death on a cross. It is written that "the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us," meaning nothing other than that Jesus, as High Priest, first inherits our poverty before God as human creatures before he intercedes for us. Jesus prays as we should pray: from the position of the one being prayed for, from the poverty of the poor man.

If I can make a practical aside for the celebration of the Mass, which as the highest prayer of the Church certainly includes intercessory prayer, the posture of "I stand, not as myself, but for them for whom I pray" is best displayed in Ad Orientum celebration of Mass. The priest acts in the person of Christ as he intercedes to God the Father in the name of Jesus, bringing to God our petitions as our head (for Christ is the head of his Body, the Church), and so it makes most sense to pray in the same direction as the people. A lawyer interceding for the defendant will not speak to the judge facing the defendant, but will look with the defendant towards the judge as the case is pleaded. Likewise, our representative Jesus Christ, in the person of the priest, looks towards God and offers to him our petitions.