We have seen many examples of selflessness and heroism in the midst of some catastrophic situations recently. However, there has also been a sentiment expressed by a few people who are understandably frustrated and overwhelmed by these events. What they have essentially said is that they wish people would stop saying that they would keep them in their thoughts and prayers because the prayers are ineffectual. My response to this is no and yes. I say “no” because prayer is never ineffectual, therefore my first reaction is to emphatically encourage people to continue praying in an intercessory fashion for those who are suffering. But my “yes” is because I also see where these folks might be coming from: if all we do is pray, but then always expect someone else to respond to whatever the need, then our prayer did not change our own hearts, which is indeed a function of prayer. Our society encourages us to have the attitude of 'take a pill and everything will be healed' when it comes to being sick and sometimes this same attitude spills over into our prayer. We unwittingly believe that a prayer said for another is all we have to do and 'that should do the trick.' Not so. The truth lays somewhere in between ‘saying a prayer’ and praying in a way that opens our hearts to change. Indeed, all prayer is good prayer, but to be most effective it is important that we are aware of what it is we are asking and who it is we expect to do the answering.
One of my 'saint-heroes' has always been St. Teresa of Avila, (1515-82) a true giant when it comes to prayer. Briefly, St. Teresa had an inner conversion which took place after she had been a Carmelite nun for 19 years. She realized that she was simply going through the motions, getting by, with all that she should have been doing in her prayer life. A near-death illness changed how she saw her life and her purpose: she felt that she did not deserve the gifts given through Jesus’ suffering and death due to the lack of appreciation she showed by her poor response to Him. Filled with new-found gratitude and inflamed love for Jesus, she began to pray in earnest, becoming a mystic and a master at prayer. Ever humble, she was also direct, and so in addition to cleaning up the lax habits of her entire community, she also wrote a number of books for her sisters to help them learn how to pray more effectively, which essentially meant to open their minds and hearts to God rather than to simply go through the motions of saying the words. Centuries later St. Teresa would be named a Doctor of the Church because of her writings, particularly those on prayer.
St. Teresa taught that we should strive to always grow in our ability to pray. She taught that just about everyone can learn meditation (to prayerfully reflect upon something) and that if we continue to open ourselves to God we can receive the gift of contemplation. She taught that we can start with vocal prayer, prayers which contain words such as the Lord’s Prayer, the Rosary, a Psalm, or any other devotion. But she said that we are then to reflect upon the words we are saying so that we can allow the Holy Spirit to open us to the deeper meaning in the words and devotions and then what God might be trying to say to us through those words. In doing so, one learns how to listen both to what is going on interiorly in our own thoughts and what is being revealed to us deep within our hearts. If we continue at this practice eventually God can give us the gift of contemplation which means we no longer need words, thoughts, or images and simply rest in His presence. However, St. Teresa was brilliant in her understanding of both prayer and of human nature. She recognized that some people would desire so ardently to get to contemplation that they would misplace their priority: the goal is not contemplation, but rather the goal is (always) God.
The other thing St. Teresa knew is that if prayer is authentic, (sincerely from our heart), it will indeed move us outward to action. If all we do is pray, hoping that God will respond in a particular way, that is not a bad thing. All prayer is effective since God can do anything and can inspire anyone. But what if God is calling us to be the answer for someone else’s need? If all we do is pray and then walk away, our prayer did not really change our own heart, which is indeed a purpose of prayer. If our heart is touched by God during our prayer, (regardless of what we feel or don’t feel), then His mercy and love ought to propel us outward in some way to help our brothers and sisters in need. St. Teresa said that “we are the only hands and feet Christ has now” (slight paraphrase) and therefore we must take up the responsibility to work at putting into effect that which we desire. We have a responsibility to do what we can; and it is not responsible to keep expecting someone else to do the work that we know needs to be done. Of course, we have to discern what is within our ability and/or what is reasonable. For example, I can pray for world peace, but it is not reasonable to think that I can solve that problem myself. I can contribute to peace within my community by acting the way Jesus taught, inspired by my meditation, doing corporal works of mercy, being kind to those I meet, forgiving those who have hurt me, exercising patience, and promoting peace through my actions. Also, I cannot heal a sick person, but I can call or visit them to buoy their spirits. Therefore when we pray for a person, if we let God expand our hearts, it ought to lead us to some sort of action, direct or indirect, which might help our prayer to become reality. Simply put, when we pray and walk away, we are limiting God’s ability to respond to our very prayer. We need to realize that perhaps God intends to work through us to be part of the answer to our own prayer along with those who also can contribute.
Another aspect to consider is to examine our understanding of who God is. God is not like the proverbial genie in a bottle and He is not Santa Claus, so we cannot expect that He will give us everything we ask no matter how good we may be or even how beneficial our desire might seem. Even St. Teresa, as great an expert on prayer as she was, struggled with this. It was she who humorously quipped after things did not go as she had hoped: “If this is how you treat your friends, Lord, it is no wonder you have so few of them!” All of us will struggle with hoping for things to go the way we desire and therefore with the frustration when they do not. Of course we often do see the result of answered prayer, but the bottom line is that God’s ways are mysterious and often things are much more complex than we can ever know; if we continue to trust in Him by praying and then responding appropriately, we are indeed living what we profess as Christians, trying our best to give witness to the gospel Jesus taught.
St. Teresa reminded us to pray according to the gifts we have. Her attitude about it was to 'pray as you can, not as you can’t.' In her wisdom she realized that not all of us are able to meditate or to reach contemplation, but we all can and should pray in whatever way we are comfortable. All prayer from the heart is good prayer. However, we should remember that prayer is not something one says, but something one does. In other words, it is a practice, a work in progress, and it always leads us outside of ourselves and our way of doing things. It is always directed to the other: it is directed to God, and it is directed toward the good of others. That is not to say we should never pray for ourselves; yes, we can and should. But even then the prayer is directed toward God insofar as it is about us, but it is to Him. Let us go forward, then, in faith, continuing to pray for the needs of others but with a mind toward putting our prayer into action in accordance with our means and talents. We need to continually discern, but also to trust that our efforts will not be in vain. Never stop praying. All prayer is good prayer and all prayer is effective.
May we ask for the intercession of St. Teresa of Avila that we might continue to grow in our life of prayer! May our efforts at prayer help us to grow in relationship with God that we might know, love, and serve Him better! May we continually become more open to the movements of the Holy Spirit that we might know what we can realistically do to work toward the good for ourselves and others! And may our hearts always be moved with mercy, compassion, and love that we might learn to love as Jesus taught! Let us continue to meet in the heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
Note: Next post will be November 6.
Images: (All the photos are mine, which means everything but the icon in #2 is mine.)
1. This first one was taken at the Western Wall (sometimes referred to as the Wailing Wall) in Jerusalem, Israel. I chose to use it here because there is never a time day or night that people are not gathered here in prayer: it is always a bit of a mob scene. People have been praying in this area for centuries upon centuries since this is the remaining wall of the Temple.
2. This is an icon of St. Teresa of Avila by Fr. William Hart McNichols. I chose it to use here because of the hands. Her hands are uplifted and raised towards the hands of Jesus. She is modeling that we are the hands and feet of Jesus. I love that their hands are directed toward one another. You can find this icon here if you wish to purchase a copy in any of a variety of formats: https://fineartamerica.com/featured/st-teresa-of-avila-177-william-hart-mcnichols.htmlfineartamerica.com/featured/st-teresa-of-avila-177-william-hart-mcnichols.html.
3. I took this photo in the bedroom of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati in Pollone, Italy. I chose it first because of the Rosary which of course belonged to Bl. Pier Giorgio. But I also loved that everything around his bed speaks of prayer, particularly the crucifix and the framed print of a portrait of St. Catherine of Siena, a favorite saint of his. (Both Pier Giorgio and St. Catherine were Third Order Dominicans.) If anyone was a pray-er and a doer it was Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati. He prayed ardently for hours, living a normal life, but one dedicated to helping the poor, marching against injustice, and basically always doing something to work toward evangelization, peace and justice. He was the pray-er led to doing 'par exellence!'
4.This photo is of stained glass taken in a hotel at which I stayed while in Salzburg, Austria a few years ago. The image is of St. Christopher carrying the Child Jesus across a river, according to legend. "Christopher" translates to Christ-bearer. I chose this photo because it reminded me of being the hands and feet of Jesus. Sometimes we need to do more than just be His hands and feet: sometimes we need to completely carry Him to others by an outpouring of love, mercy, forgiveness, kindness and care which is heroic.
5. This was taken in Colorado, in Rocky Mountains National Park. I chose to use it here because when St. Teresa said the words quoted (in the paragraph where the photo appears) she was trying to cross a stream or river which probably looked like this one: the mule she was riding upon stumbled and fell, resulting in Teresa ending up in the water. That was when she made her famous remark to God.
6. This was taken in Bethlehem, Palestine, in a chapel of perpetual adoration near a shrine called the Milk Grotto, a place Mary and Joseph were said to have stopped on the flight into Egypt so Mary could breast feed the child Jesus, (according to legend, but it is not Scriptural.) What is pictured here is actually the tabernacle in the chapel with the tabernacle itself acting as a monstrance. That is indeed the Body of Christ, a consecrated host, in the center of the tabernacle 'door' behind the altar!
7. Finally, I took this photo last year at Port Aransas, on the Texas Gulf Coast (long before Hurricane Harvey sadly destroyed the area and tore up this beach.) I chose to use it because the sun shining through the clouds reminded me of the effectiveness of our prayer. God does 'break through' the darkness. And yes, this beach, like all places affected by storms and disasters, will heal with a bit of love and care.
For some folks autumn is associated with falling leaves, cooler temperatures, shorter amounts of daylight, and a proliferation of pumpkin-spiced foods and drinks. However, it is also the season of angels and saints. We have various liturgical celebrations of saints throughout the year, of course, but during this time of year they seem to occur almost every day. My love for autumn was enhanced many years ago by the experience of making the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, a silent 30 day retreat. It is memorable and spiritually life-changing no matter when one undertakes this long retreat; it can alter the way we make decisions, experience God, and how we respond to Him. As I recall, the retreat was augmented by the gorgeous sights and smells of this season, but also by the various feasts, solemnities, and memorials in the liturgical calendar. Of course, the silence of retreat brings new ways of listening which include using all of our senses to recognize the presence of God and to hear without necessarily having to use our ears; we learn the language of the heart, God’s language. In my experience, everything seemed to become more vivid and therefore I saw things that had previously gone unnoticed. I think that is how it is with the angels who surround us: we are not intentionally looking for them and so the result is that we do not see them or the work they do. Perhaps if we open our awareness to their presence just as one becomes more aware during retreat, we can learn to notice them and also to discover that we are called to work quietly as they do, looking to spread the Kingdom by reflecting the love of God.
On our liturgical calendar there are two celebrations in the space of four days which are centered on the angels. The first is the Feast of the Archangels, Gabriel, Raphael, and Michael, which is celebrated on September 29, and the second is a memorial celebration of the Guardian Angels on October 2. That there are two separate memorials shows that the angels are obviously of importance to the Church and therefore we should pay attention to their presence. We are taught from the beginning of the Old Testament that angels are messengers of God; in fact the very word “angel” comes from the Hebrew which literally translates as “messenger.” Through numerous Scripture references and various theologians scattered throughout Church history such as St. Basil the Great, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, and St. Thomas Aquinas, we are taught that we each have a guardian angel to protect, guard, and guide us throughout our lives. We are also taught that there are nine 'choirs' of angels. Each choir (or grouping) has a unique function, such as the Seraphim who are the ones closest to God who burn with zeal and love of God, or the Scripturally revealed and named ‘big three’ of the choir of Archangels: Raphael, who guided and healed the protagonists in the Book of Tobit, Michael, who led the armies of angels in some major battles between good and evil (Daniel 7 and Revelation 12), and Gabriel, who brought messages to Mary and Joseph (Luke 1 and Matthew 1) and is also named in the letter of Jude.
It is important to be aware that while there are different choirs of angels, they are not in a hierarchy of more or less importance, nor are they in some sort of competition, but rather are ‘ordered’ because each group has a differing function. One description of angels I particularly love is that of the poet Dante Alighieri who described angels as “countless mirrors that reflect God’s love.” (Slight paraphrase)* One translator of The Divine Comedy explains it this way: “Just as God’s light is received differently by each angelic being, so each angel displays a different capacity to love based on its vision of God.”** Therefore, if we are to take away anything from the notion of choirs, it is that like people, angels have different ministries and missions, but all of them include love. Just as St. Paul says that the Church is like a body made up of different members, each important for their diverse functions, (1 Corinthians 12) so too is the angelic realm made up of diverse members with different ‘gifts.’ Therefore, if we are to learn from them, it means that each one of us is called to become such a mirror, reflecting God’s love through whatever gifts we have been given and in everything we do.
We cannot limit our sense of the identity and function of angels to only that of protection, important as that is. Their guidance in the way of love, which is the way of Jesus, is essential to our lives as Christians. They are also gifted in offering comfort, especially in dire times: even Jesus had need of an angel when He was suffering in the Garden. Their service to us, therefore, is essential. Additionally, that we should take the angels seriously is attested to not only by various theologians, but also in the text of the liturgy. In the Penitential Rite at the beginning of Mass we pray the Confiteor prayer which includes a request for intercession from the entire community in the Body of Christ: “…therefore I ask blessed Mary ever-Virgin, all the Angels and Saints, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God.” This means that not only do we believe that they protect us, but that they pray for us when we request it, (and no doubt at any time when they think we need it.) It also seems reasonable to think that a guardian angel works with the Holy Spirit to make sure that we see and hear what God wants to reveal during our time of prayer, teaching us how to discern between what leads us closer to God and that which we should avoid, in addition to helping us come to a greater sensitivity to the needs of those we encounter in our daily lives. God’s grace is not arbitrary, and so we know that He intentionally assigns an individual angel to each person, suited to whatever needs and/or gifts we have been given. As angels reflect God’s love and God’s glory, they can bring to us a deeper awareness which takes root within our mind and heart. Therefore they do have a role in helping us to become more sensitive to the needs of others, to become better listeners - (to be heard is often all the other person really desires) - and to do it all with patience, mercy, and compassion.
If we aspire to learning from the angels we can ask them to teach us humility. As I said earlier, they do not try to climb the ‘choir ladder’ to somehow become nearer to God. Like them, we should embrace the call we have been given rather than desiring one we deem to be better or more worthy. We need to embrace the unique call we have, since our gifts lie within it: like the angels, all of us have important, though differing, gifts to offer. Nor do they concern themselves as to whether we are aware of them or not, (though they are more effective when we consciously call upon them.) They demonstrate how, in humility, we should seek to simply do the work and not seek the glory; we should not seek attention and the reward of adulation. A second thing they teach us is not to confuse the message with the messenger. We are not to get caught up in wondering about the identity or name of our angel, as some ‘new-age-y’ lore mistakenly encourages. Rather we should focus on what God is revealing: perhaps it is in reference to His call, or protecting us from an evil which seeks to ensnare us, or something about His great love. We can learn to focus on others and their needs in a way which brings the message of love and mercy without it having to be ‘about us.’
Finally, the angels can teach us the joy of being in community as one Body of Christ. Although they are in different choirs with specific functions, they work together as a whole to serve God; they are one community, just as we are one people, one family in the Body of Christ. Just as Dante depicted them as each having a different capacity to love based on their different way of perceiving or seeing God, so too are we called to mirror the love of God based on our individual personalities and traits. Like the angels, we can bring light and love to a world which often feels like the darkness is encroaching more than we can withstand. If our faith, hope, and love can be enlivened by the angels and we can become as mirrors of the goodness, mercy, and love of God, then we can bring Christ into the darkest of places. Let us trust our angelic guardians to safeguard our faith, bring hope where we are tempted to despair, and to be as countless mirrors reflecting the love of God.
May we be more conscious of the work of our guardian angel, offering gratitude for that which the angel does to guide and protect us daily! May we turn to the angels often, asking them to show us how to serve God specifically, moment to moment! May we have the humility to serve without need for reward! May we be a comfort to those who suffer or mourn, being as an angel to them! And may we reflect the love of God, acting as a mirror of His mercy and compassion! Let us continue to meet in the heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
* Divine Comedy, Part Three: Paradise, Dante Alighieri, Canto XXIX: 142-144: “And now you see the height, you see the breadth of Eternal Goodness that divides Itself into these countless mirrors that reflect Itself, remaining One, as It was always.”
** The translator of the version used here for both notes is Mark Masa, (Penguin Classics edition of the Divine Comedy). The quote above was in his notes which accompany the text.
Note: Next post October 23.
1. This is one of my photos, taken in Lost Maples State Park in Texas. It is one of my favorite autumn photos since it shows the stark contrast of the brightly colored leaves, some fallen, with the greens of the trees which have not yet turned color.
2. This icon is called Guardian Angel Guiding Little Elijah Gemmell by Fr. William Hart McNichols. I chose it because I love how it shows the angel taking the little boy by the hand and leading him. The lighted candle reminds me that the angels protect, instruct and guide.
If you are interested in purchasing a copy it can be found at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/guardian-angel-guarding-little-elijah-gemmell-191-william-hart-mcnichols.html. (Remember, I do not get anything from promoting Fr. Bill's work, except the joy of sharing it with you.)
3. This is a wonderful painting called Christ Glorified in the Court of Heaven (1419-21) by Bl. Fra Angelico. I chose it because it depicts a multitude of angels playing instruments and making what seems to be a joyful noise. They seemed to be like "countless mirrors" each with a "differing capacity to reflect God's love in many ways."
4. Next is a drawing by Fr. William Hart McNichols which accompanied a reflection on the Agony in the Garden. The book containing the reflection was written by Fr. Basil Pennington; it is called The 15 Mysteries. (It was written before St. Pope John Paul II added the Mysteries of Light to the Rosary.) I think this is one of the tenderest drawings on this mystery I have ever seen.
5. This is a photo I took on a recent trip to the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. I chose to use it here because the mountains are indeed humbling when one stands upon a plain or in a valley and looks up at them.
6. This is a wonderful image called Tree of Life (1905) by Gustav Klimt. I chose it because I loved all the details it contains. It reminds me of the Tree of Life at creation in the Garden of Eden, (Genesis 2) and at the end of the Bible in Revelation 21 and 22. "The angel showed me the river of life giving water, sparkling like crystal, flowing from the throne of God and the Lamb down the middle of its street. On either side of the river grew the Tree of Life..." (Rev 22:1-2) There is a reference here to the angel guiding the author, John, in the vision, and also the tree sparkles, as does Klimt's work. Klimt has not only captured that reference, but the details of the painting show people who symbolize (for me) the Body of Christ. Take a look at it in a larger detail if you really want to see everything contained in this work. This should give you a closer look: http://www.looklateral.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Albero-della-vita-di-Gustav-Klimt-1905-1909.jpg
Heart Speaks to Heart