A few years ago, I developed a talk on Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son, so I am taking advantage of this Year of Mercy to give the talk as much as I can. I have found that the painting offers an excellent way to unpack the beauty of Christ’s famous parable about God’s infinite love and mercy. Every time I give the talk, there is always some detail that strikes me in a new way. Most recently, it has been the way in which the prodigal son’s head rests in the bosom of his father. There is something very peaceful about it.
After so much time spent desperately seeking security and meaning in the fleeting attention of the world, the prodigal son has finally returned to his father and to the paternal love that was always there for him. With this beautiful image, Rembrandt gives us an icon of the peace to which each of us is called.
Like the prodigal son, we are all allured by what the world has to offer us. We all yearn for attention and love, and all too often we enslave ourselves to the unrealistic expectations of others as we search for this love and attention. Just as the prodigal son ran off to a faraway city, so do we flee to the virtual cities of TV and the internet to gaze at the dazzling riches and pleasures awaiting those whom the world favors. We watch the lives of celebrities and frustrate ourselves longing to be as loved and appreciated as them. We dissipate our time, energy, and peace striving to somehow get our own scraps of fame and recognition. We model ourselves on those famous people and spend too much time and money trying to look like them.
All the while, God the Father is waiting for us with arms wide open. The love that we desire so much is actually available with unimaginable intensity in God. The love of the world is always conditional and fickle, but God’s love is infinite and eternal.
It is very important to rest in God’s love. We need to form the habit of withdrawing our thoughts and imagination from the distractions of the world and instead focusing on God. We have to allow ourselves to bask in his love for us. This requires time, but it will always be time well spent. Even if it is only 15 minutes a day spent in prayer or reading of Scripture or sitting before the Eucharist, God will respond generously to our efforts to rest in him.
In my last blog, I proposed the idea of spending more time at leisure this Lent in order to contemplate God’s beauty. In this blog, I would like to suggest another idea that is complementary. Contemplation of God leads to action, so let your contemplation of His Beauty lead to communication of His Beauty. The Corporal Works of Mercy are excellent ways to transmit the beauty of God’s love to others.
Below are some practical ways to carry out the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy within the context of your ordinary daily life. Many days, you may be able to do nothing more than say a prayer for those in need of a particular Work of Mercy, but don’t underestimate the power of your prayer, and remember that just the fact that you took the time to think and pray for those in need is itself something meritorious.
I suggest assigning a particular Work of Mercy to each day of the week, as I do below. Each day, strive to be generous, but do what you realistically fits within your particular state of life.
Feed the hungry (Mondays)
Prepare an extra nice meal for your family or friends.
Say a special prayer for those suffering from hunger.
Give drink to the thirsty (Tuesdays)
Make a donation to help those in a drought-stricken area. (Catholic Relief Services has some exceptional programs to help alleviate the water needs of the poor in Ethiopia.)
Offer to bring a drink to a family member. (Remember what Christ said, “If anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.” – Matthew 10:42)
Say a special prayer for rain for those suffering from drought.
Clothe the naked (Wednesdays)
If you are a parent, take the time to go clothes shopping for your children.
Gather up old clothes in your house and give them to Goodwill or Salvation Army or some other charity.
Say a special prayer for the poor in need of good clothing.
Shelter the homeless (Thursdays)
Do something to improve your home for your family. (Organize a messy closet, clean a room, or fix something that has been needing it for a while.)
Volunteer at or make a donation to your local homeless shelter.
Say a special prayer for a homeless person whom you have seen recently.
Care for the sick (Fridays)
Visit a sick loved one or friend.
Call an elderly family member family or friend to check up on him.
Volunteer some time at a local nursing home.
Pray for someone you know who is struggling with a serious illness.
Visit the imprisoned (Saturdays)
Consider volunteering in some way to help prisoners. (Prison Fellowship has opportunities to volunteer on its website.)
Pray for someone you know or heard about who has recently been imprisoned.
Bury the dead (Sundays)
Make a stop at your local cemetery to pray for the repose of the souls of the people buried there.
Leave flowers at the grave of a family member or friend.
If you are consistent in trying to do something each day this Lent, no matter how small, you will experience in a new way the joy of living these words of Our Lord:
“Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.” – Matthew 25:40
Lent is sneaking up on us more quickly than usual this year: Ash Wednesday is February 10th, almost the earliest it can be. In preparation for this beautiful time of the year, I would like to offer some thoughts on how to make the discipline of the next six weeks spiritually fulfilling.
The first thing to keep in mind is the fundamental reason for Lent. This season is not just about making ourselves suffer with some annoying sacrifice. The primary reason behind Lent is to draw closer to God through detachment from our sins and from whatever can distract us from Our Lord. As you decide on your Lenten commitment, it is important to keep this mind and to discern what will help you, in your particular situation, detach from whatever is distracting you from God. It may be the case that a challenging sacrifice such as fasting or giving up TV will indeed bring you closer to God, but be open to the fact that God may be asking for something else.
“Be still, and know that I am God.” – Psalm 46:10
In particular, I would like to suggest that you consider allowing yourself more leisure. But first, let me clarify what I mean by “leisure.” I am not referring to laziness or even simply to rest but to something more. Laziness (also known as sloth) is a vice that consists in refraining from action when action is due. Rest is ceasing from action in order to recuperate energy for further action. Leisure is the opposite of laziness and much more than mere rest: it is ceasing from normal activity in order to open oneself to the contemplation of the beauty of this world, and ultimately to the contemplation of God, who is Beauty Itself.
Going back to your Lenten commitment: I can think of few better ways to detach from distractions and focus more on God than by commiting yourself to spending more time at leisure. The more you allow yourself to bathe in beauty, the more you open yourself to God. Since all beautiful things are reflections of the Beauty of God, you are learning about God whenever you take time to contemplate the beautiful. Even if your mind and imagination are not directly applied to God Himself, He is nevertheless revealing Himself to you through whatever beautiful thing is the object of your contemplation.
But to be at leisure, you must break away from the ordinary daily concerns that can distract you from God. Let’s get practical on how to do this. First, you will have to decide when you will be at leisure, and than you will have to decide how you will be at leisure.
The evening is the most natural time to be at leisure, since, by then, you are physically and emotionally tired from the activity of the day. Allowing yourself an hour or so to be at leisure will enable you not only to rest but also to raise your mind to things that are greater and more beautiful than your job. You will go to bed not worrying about work but rather thinking about the beauty that you contemplated.
Ideally, all day Sunday should be dedicated to leisure. It is dies Domini – the Day of the Lord – and should be treated as such. Just as we dedicate sacred space to the contemplation worship of God, so should we dedicate sacred time for the same purpose. Going to church on Sunday is the first priority of Sunday, because it is during that time that we turn out minds and hearts directly to Our Creator. However, the rest of the day should be a prolongation of this turning towards God in the form of resting and contemplating the beauty of His creation.
Obviously, exactly when and how long to be at leisure depends on the situation of each person. Some people simply have to work on Sundays and others have to work late hours, but the point is that each should set aside a reasonable amount of time that works with his schedule.
The ways of being at leisure are numerous, but they all share in common this imitation of God on the seventh day: cessation of work and contemplation of creation. You can be at leisure hiking in the mountains, walking in the park, or simply sitting in your backyard marveling at the beauty of nature. Leisure can take the form of being with friends and family, enjoying the beauty of the beloved people God has put in your life.
Leisure can be sitting down with a cup of tea and a well-written book. It can be watching or participating in an athletic event and enjoying the beauty of human athletic talent. It can be attending a musical performance and relishing the beauty of human musical creation. It can be watching a good movie or documentary, going to an art exhibit, or going to a museum. It can be the enjoyment of the finer things of life like good food or vintage wine.
Leisure can also be the development and exercise of creative talents. This Lent may be a good time to start learning that instrument that you have always wanted to play, or it may be a good time to begin that book that you have been thinking of writing. It may be a good time to take up or begin again whatever beautiful art is calling you, be it musical, visual, literary, culinary, or linguistic.
Stick to It!
Even though leisure is a very attractive thing, it is still going to take discipline to make sure that you have it. There will be times when you will be intensely tempted to forego your commitment in order to finish some pressing project or chore. In those moments, resist the temptation! Remember that life is so much more than your work or chores. Sit down, take a deep breath, and turn your mind to your novel, or your instrument, or whatever beautiful thing you have chosen for your leisure time. Before you know it, peace will settle in and you will enjoy that special spiritual dimension which is our privilege as humans and creatures of God.
About seven miles off the western coast of Ireland, a lonely island looms out of the sea, the tip of a massive oceanic mountain. Fifty-four acres and 715 feet high, Skellig Michael is now home only to a colony of Northern Gannets, but there was a time when this remote outcropping hosted more than seabirds. For over 600 years, it was home to Irish monks seeking complete solitude and spiritual freedom.
Skellig Michael has always fascinated me. Even though the monastery has been unoccupied since the 13th century, just thinking of those determined hermits continues to be an inspiration. I marvel at the desire for God that drove them to embrace such a life of radical separation from the world.
Living in a world that idolizes freedom, the idea of constricting oneself to a tiny islet can seem ludicrous, but I think that we can learn a very valuable lesson from those austere Celtic monks: peace and happiness do not depend on the circumstances in which we find ourselves but on the attitude with which we choose live those circumstances.
Flesh and Spirit
We humans are bi-dimensional beings of both flesh and spirit, and this bi-dimensionality touches every aspect of our existence. Because of our bodily dimension, we are always partially curbed by material circumstances such as time and space, but because of our spiritual dimension; we are never fully limited by these circumstances: we are always capable of transcending them and transforming them into conditions for spiritual growth.
We have two different types of freedom: one that is related to our materiality and the other to our spirituality. Material freedom is the absence of material constraints: it is freedom of movement, freedom of time, freedom from hunger, and freedom from anything else that can limit our bodily well-being. Spiritual freedom, on the other hand, is the absence of those things that can hinder our spiritual flourishing, in particular our lower passions and the vices that result from them.
Although both types of freedom are necessary for our integral well-being, spiritual freedom has the priority since it is necessary for achieving eternal life. Due to the superiority of spiritual freedom, it is worth sacrificing some material freedom in order to become more spiritually free.
This is why the monks of Skellig Michael limited their own material freedom so severely: the harsh discipline of their environment helped them build the virtues needed to be free from all that could lead away from God. Although they were physically confined to 54 acres, they were spiritually soaring, because they put the North Atlantic between themselves and anything that could distract them from God.Their material limitation was the condition for their spiritual success.
Although very few of us are called to such radical measures, all of us find ourselves in limiting circumstances; you could say that we all find ourselves on our own “skelligs”. Part of Christian life is accepting the hardships and difficulties of our lives as a necessary condition for achieving closeness to God:
If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. – Luke 9:23
In my own case, my “skellig” is the discipline of the priestly vocation: in order to grow in spiritual virtue, I have “confined” myself to live a life of poverty, obedience, and chastity. I have voluntarily accepted the horizontal limitations imposed by the these three evangelical counsels in order to be free from what could otherwise distract me from achieving the vertical freedom of spiritual growth.
Accepting your “Skellig”
The key to finding peace is learning to love the “skellig” on which God has placed you and allowing yourself to flourish there. Some skelligs are smaller than others, but one thing you can be sure of is that the one on which you find yourself is perfect for you. God knows what you can handle, and he knows exactly what you need to grow in spiritual freedom.
When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves. –Viktor Frankl (Holocaust survivor)
Peace comes when we choose to take advantage of the good things at our disposal rather than longing for what is not. How ridiculous it would be if someone walked into a restaurant and, instead of sitting down and looking at the menu, chose to stand at the window and look at all of the other restaurants that he is missing. We would obviously call that person foolish! But, unfortunately, many of us do the same thing in the way we live. Instead of settling down and seeing what is available to us already, we tend to waste time and energy yearning for something else.
No matter how constricting our personal circumstances may seem to be, they can only hinder our spiritual freedom if we allow them. Peace comes when we choose not to bang our heads against the wall trying to change things that will never change; it comes when we accept the life that God has given us and bloom where we are planted; it comes, when we choose to focus on how we can flourish rather than fixating on the deficiencies of our circumstances, which will always be plentiful.
Let’s take advantage of these last two weeks of Lent to calm our spirits and seek the peace and spiritual freedom that come when we content ourselves with what God has already given us, trusting that He will provide whatever else may be lacking.
I love this painting by the Vermeer. With his beautiful use of light, the 17th-century Dutch artist masterfully illuminates an intimate scene of encounter with Christ. The incident that he illustrates is recounted in the Gospel of Luke as follows:
He entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him. She had a sister named Mary who sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak. Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.” The Lord said to her in reply, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken from her.” – Luke 10:38-42
The Better Part
The Word of God is living and active, which means that it is directed to each of us just as much as it was to those who were the first to hear it. What Christ said to Martha was said with equal intention for our own well-being. It is written as “Martha, Martha”, but it could just as easily be “John, John” or “Jane, Jane” or whatever your name may be. God pronounced those words in the person of Jesus Christ with you in mind.
It is the only instance in all of the Gospels where Christ addresses someone by repeating the person’s name. When you read “Martha, Martha”, you can almost hear the calm tone of Christ’s voice as he lovingly calls her and tries to quiet her troubled soul. Like so many of us, Martha is “anxious and worried about many things”: she is running hither and thither, frantically trying to hold things together and meet the unrealistic personal expectations that she has set for herself.
Mary, on the other hand, has chosen the “better part”; she has chosen the benefit that comes when your life is in order and focused on Christ: peace.
Peace is one of the major fruits of the Lenten exercise of self-denial. Between now and Easter, I would like to share with you some thoughts and reflections on finding this elusive gift.
“Distracted from distraction by distraction”
Peaceful moments are hard to come by in today’s world: there is always something to distract us and disrupt our inner equilibrium. “Distracted from distraction by distraction” is how T.S. Eliot described modern man in his poem Four Quartets. Henry David Thoreau was convinced that “most men lead lives of quiet desperation” as they struggle to satisfy their longing for happiness with empty pleasures.
Although these authors wrote in the 20th and 19th centuries respectively, how well do their words describe the state of humanity in the 21st, and probably even more so than in their own times. We often flutter from one event to the next, desperately seeking ever-elusive satisfaction but never quite getting it.
I am product of contemporary culture just like everyone else, and I have spent too much time and energy worrying about things that really don’t matter in the long run. I make absolutely no claims to having mastered peace, so please take these personal reflections for what they are worth.
Five Elements of Peace
From my conversations with spiritual experts and from my reading on the topic, I have found that there are at least five basic elements to finding peace.
Keep your eyes on Heaven:Re-focusing on our final destination is essential to finding happiness and peace. Putting all of our stock in fleeting worldly things will only frustrate us.
Make the best of your circumstances:“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” As cliché as this adage may sound, it’s still great advice! Blooming where you are planted is one of the keys to finding peace.
Live the present to the full: How much time and energy we waste worrying about what may happen or what has already happened! Peace is found when we leave both the future and the past in God’s hands.
Do not “grasp”:We lose peace when we cling to things that we have or grasp for things that we lack. True peace comes when we content ourselves with what we have and free ourselves from the rest.
In my next five posts, I will deal with each step in-depth, but first we must ask,
What is peace?
According to St. Thomas Aquinas, “peace denotes the union of appetites in one person”, or, more simply, “lack of interior conflict”.
We human beings have a problem: we are both spiritual and physical. Due to our spiritual nature, we are capable of an infinity of things, but due to our physical nature, we are limited and can only achieve one thing at a time. This means that we are often inwardly divided: while we desire many things and have the capacity to achieve them, in order to get one thing we always have to give up another.
Lack of peace occurs when we allow ourselves to be troubled by what we are not able to achieve. Peace comes when we focus all of our interior desires on the only things that can perfectly satisfy us: God and His Will for us.
I hope that you will follow the next five posts and join me on a Lenten journey towards peace.
For the past several years, I have always lived in or near major cities. I can genuinely say that I enjoy city-life; as one who likes to write, I enjoy observing people and the environments in which they live. I also enjoy the many opportunities that our modern metropolises have to offer, from art exhibits and musical performances to architectural masterpieces and museums. Cities are like magnets for skillful people: they attract and possess huge concentrations of amazing human talent and the marvels that come with it.
The Sound of Silence
Needless to say, just as much as they are full of human ingenuity and invention, cities are saturated with noise. As a naturally introverted individual, I find that to survive city-life, I need to get out on a regular basis. As much as cities attract me, I also feel drawn to quiet and desolate places where you hear nothing but silence.
When I was working in New York, I always looked forward to visiting my family in Utah. On one occasion, after traveling from a parish near Times Square to our home near Salt Lake City, I put on my hiking boots as soon as I could and climbed nearby Lewis Peak, relishing the solitude and silence that was all the more peaceful in contrast to the noisiness of Manhattan.
One of my favorite places in Utah is on the northern end of the Great Salt Lake, a remote place known as Promontory Point. To get there, one has to drive miles and miles on a dirt road through treeless ranch land until you reach the saline-saturated shores of the Salt Lake. At Promontory Point, one finds Spiral Jetty, an earthwork created by artist Robert Smithson out of mud, rocks, water, and precipitated salt crystals.
Even though the location is not easy to reach, it still daily attracts at least a handful of curious people who want to see the earthwork. When I go there, I park the car near Spiral Jetty but then walk away from it along the shore until I find a lonely, out-of-sight spot where I sit and bask in the silence. There is something special about being alone in a place where there is no other sign of humanity: for me, it is a privileged time to listen to the Spirit, to forget the worries and distractions of the world, and to remember God’s personal love for me.
Whether we physically live in a city or not, we all live in a virtual city. Thanks to our gadgets, we are never far from the all that our urbanized world has to offer. With just a click of the mouse or a tap on the app, we can deluge ourselves with an infinite amount of words written about anything and everything. Having access to such a smorgasbord can be intellectually distracting, emotionally overwhelming, and spiritually paralyzing.
The Beauty of Silence
As spiritual beings, we are made for more: our hearts and minds tend towards Someone who made us for Himself, who has the capacity of satiating our every desire and giving us complete peace. The problem is that because He transcends us He is not immediately accessible to our reason, which is slowed down by its reliance on sensible information.
So, when given the choice either to reach out to our transcendent God or, say, to watch a movie or check Facebook, we tend to reach for the latter because it is easier to see and more immediately gratifying. However, if we take the time to discipline our senses a little and distance ourselves from the distractions of this info-saturated world that we inhabit, the experiences of God that result are indescribably so much more meaningful and beautiful.
Twitter and iPhones are great things, but sometimes it is healthy to take a break, in the way that a scientist closes himself in his laboratory or an artist retreats to his studio: to be truly creative and find personal fulfillment, we must find ways to distance ourselves from the constant hoopla and ballyhoo of the world that surrounds us. To be peaceful and happy, we must find silence in the city.
I think that Lent is all about taking this break. It is a beautiful opportunity to take a step back and focus on what is really important.
How to Find Silence and Peace This Lent
I recently read a blog post in which the author suggests something that he calls “input deprivation week”. The idea is to go a whole week without consuming unneeded information so as to focus on productivity. He challenges the reader to go seven entire days with no Facebook, no blogs, no books, no TV, no movies, no Reddit, no Twitter, and no talk radio. According to him, a week of dedicated input-deprivation is an amazing catalyst for creativity, so he advises that anyone doing it should always have a notebook handy to write down the numerous thoughts and inspirations that come.
I think that this suggestion is not only good for boosting personal productivity but also for improving one’s spiritual life. Every time we curb exterior stimuli, we create a calm and peaceful inner disposition that is conducive to listening to our Creator, to the only One who can give us total peace.
So here’s an idea for your Lent (which starts next Wednesday): deprive yourself of input! Do a personal input-deprivation week, or perhaps choose to limit your use of one or two forms of input until Easter. For example, you could give up TV and spend evenings reading instead, perhaps choosing books from among the classics of Western literature (check out Amazon’s 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime to get some ideas). Another idea: instead of turning on the radio every time you get into the car or popping in your earphones whenever you go out, try going around in silence. You will be amazed by how much God will take advantage of the quiet in your soul.
My Personal Commitment
Lately, I have been feeling the Spirit moving me to simplify my life so that I can better listen to Him. This Lent, I have decided to translate this general movement of my soul into concrete action: I am going to go on input deprivation for the entire Lenten season. This may be a little ambitious, but I am going to give it a shot!
Since I am in the middle of studies, obviously I will have to keep reading the prescribed texts, but outside of that, I am going to commit myself to the following:
No extra-curricular books
No radio/no podcasts
No Facebook and no Instagram
No magazines or newspapers
So, what will I do with all of the extra time on my hands? I am going to leave that up to the Holy Spirit, but I am sure He has some adventures in store, as He always does. I will keep you posted!