Prayers of Lament

Spiritual Cave Dwelling

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According to the American author Ernest Hemingway in A Moveable Feast, “You expected to be sad in the fall. Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintery light. But you knew there would always be the spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen. When the cold rains kept on and killed the spring, it was as though a young person died for no reason.”  The end of October was a period of consolation in my spiritual journey. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same is true for the 11th month of the year.

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November is a tough month for me personally. Three years ago, my wife and I suffered a miscarriage and all the horrifying feelings resurface during this time of the year. Along with the memory of our loss, the dimming of daylight [especially when we turned the clocks back an hour on November 5th!] provides the perfect recipe for despair and desolation. When it comes to spiritual attach by the Evil One there are generally two general methods to combat him: actively fight through prayer, good works, and reception of the sacraments or secondly retreat from the vices that tempts us.

Today I am going to reflect on the latter strategy. I feel like am called to retreat to my spiritual cave to try to eliminate opportunities for future temptation as to help me avoid further sliding into despair.

Throughout the Bible God calls individuals to experience a conversion in solitude and reflection before granting them power and authority to lead others to Him. For the purpose of eliciting imagery [as I am a visual learner and tend to like symbols] I will refer to such an experience as my “spiritual cave dwelling”!

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  1. Exodus: Throughout the Book of Exodus God calls individuals and His people as a whole to conversation during a trip in the wilderness. Exodus 2-3 details Moses flight from Egypt to the rural land of Midian and his eventually encounter with the Divine presence under the form of the burning bush. God also utilizes a period of spiritual “dryness” to help transform the idol worship of the newly freed Israelites to trust in His Divine Providence. Over a period of forty years, the Israelites had to wander the wildness as reparation for violating the first commandment.

Perhaps, November is my own personal “time in the wilderness” to help me grow in virtue and eliminate bad habits.

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  1. Jesus’ Fasting in the Wilderness: The Gospels placed Jesus’ forty day fast in the desert at the start of his public ministry. Along with calling to mind Moses’ and the Israelites period of conversion, Jesus fasts not because he needs it [because he is without sin!], but rather to be a model of the Christian spiritual life. Sometimes we need to practice self-denial to grow in holiness. While I usually associate fasting relating to physical items such as food or drink, I recently had a thought. What if God allows for consolation to be rescinded from us in order to permit authentic spiritual growth and trust in Him? In my youth I experienced growing pains. Why should be not be different when I grow in my spiritual life? St. Ignatius of Loyala addresses the same point in the Seventh Rule for Discernment of Spirits. He says,

Let him who is in desolation consider how the Lord has left him in trial in his natural powers, in order to resist the different agitations and temptations of the enemy; since he can with the Divine help, which always remains to him, though he does not clearly perceive it [my emphasis]: because the Lord has taken from him his great fervor, great love and intense grace, leaving him, however, grace enough for eternal salvation.

November 2017 could be a spiritual schooling from the Holy Spirit allowing me to wean off the need and desire for God’s spiritual candy of consolation that I too quickly “gobbled up” [along with physical candy 🙂 ] in October!

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  1. Athanasius the Bold: During the 4th century A.D., the Catholic Church faced arguably its worst and most pervasive heresy in history—Arianism. Stemming from the false beliefs of the priest Arius, proponents of this belief denied the divinity of Jesus Christ. According to Arius, “There was a time when He [Jesus Christ] was not.” Confusion was so rampant that the First Ecumenical Council at Nicaea was convened at 325 A.D. which pronounced Arianism as official heresy. While officially the matter was theologically solved, Arian agents still remained throughout the magisterial network for the remainder of the century.

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To combat this heinous heresy, God sent St. Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, to champion authentic truth of the Holy Trinity.  However, testifying to the truth came with a price—a bounty on Athanasius’ life not once but five times! As a result he went into hiding each time. He led his diocese clandestinely through the protections of monks.  St. Athanasius stands as an exemplary model of obedience to God. He could have despaired and lamented his situation, but instead he remained steadfast to the truth!

The easier path this month would be for me to languish in my despair. Job promotion denials, stress at work, and daily anxiety abound.  How did Athanasius prevail with his life on the line? Reading his work On the Incarnation provided me clarity. Athanasius states, “Anyone who wishes to understand the mind of the sacred writers must first cleanse his own life, and approach the saints by copying their deeds.”

Periods of desolation are unavoidable on this side of eternity. Sometimes I feel like crawling into an actual cave to escape the entrapments laid out before me by the Devil. While going away on a sudden sabbatical would be irresponsible to my family duties as husband and father. Warding off vice through removing myself from opportunities to sin is not the same as skirting my vocational calling. Fasting and prayer will be powerful weapons for me the remainder of the month as I strive in my pursuit towards holiness.

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Three Years Later…

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This essay is memoir. It reflects the author’s present recollections of experiences over time. Some names and characteristics may have been changed, some events have been compressed, and some dialogue has been recreated.

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November 2nd, 2016, Somewhere in the Midwest:

Quickly parking my vehicle in the company parking lot, I rushed out of my car toward the crosswalk. I waited several moments for the pedestrian signal to allow us to cross safely. At the intersection I recognized a lady from a prior position I held in the company. We exchanged greetings. Her next words penetrated my heart and are imprinted into my permanent memory still today. Susan exclaimed to me, “I have this profound sense that I am supposed to pray for someone today. I feel that God is calling me to pray to ease someone’s pain this very day.” Half-jokingly, I informed her, “Well, interestingly enough today is All Souls Day! You get to prayer for everyone.”

What I kept hidden from Susan was that in addition to celebrating All Souls Day, that it was the 2nd year anniversary of my wife and I suffering a miscarriage. Her words consoled me and gave me relief that our unborn son—Jeremiah Matthias—was in a better place and looking over us.

November 2nd, 2017, Still Somewhere in the Midwest:

Today is the 3rd year anniversary of my unborn son’s death. I am experiencing a gamut of emotions now: sadness, sorrow, confusion, hope, nostalgia, and joy! The last emotion seems strange. Give me time to provide a little bit of background to explain and I believe my seeming disparaging situation may be able to be viewed more hopeful than it appears.

November 2nd, 2014- Still Somewhere in the Midwest:

My worst experience of my life occurred on November 3rd, 2014. I went from hearing the heartbeat of our son Jeremiah for the first time in my life to a mere 4 hours later consoling my wife as we found out we suffered a miscarriage. This traumatic event immediately crippled my wife. For me despair took root that day and slowly spread its stranglehold over me until it came into full-force several months later. I do not wish such an experience on my worst enemy!

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June 2015:

Crumbling from the evils of despair, I doubted God’s Divine Providence. I was on the verge of apostasy—the sin of renouncing my Catholic faith. “I want something good in my life to happen.” I told my wife. My words proved to be prophetic as two weeks later my wife told me that she had a surprise for me. She exclaimed, “I am pregnant!”

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Present:

That prayer of lament: “I want something good in my life to happen” was the turning point of my life. We conceived our youngest born son. Through the grace of God he is still with us. During the past three years, I have undergone a complete transformation in my Catholic faith. I am literally like a new person, a new man, a new husband, and a new father. I went from being on the brink of renouncing my faith to utilizing my God-given talents to evangelize.

Reading my children Eric Carle’s The Very Hungary Catepillar always reminds me of the transformation that occurred within me over the past three years. Just as a caterpillar’s transformation occurs in secret in its pupae stage so too does our spiritual development happens via a theological cocoon. Growth–both physical and spiritual– involves suffering and pain.  I have learned there exists a fine line between pain and joy. The difference lies in whether we unite our suffering with Christ.

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During these past three years, I developed spiritually through the “womb of suffering”. I am reminded of Matthew 12:40 when Jesus says, “Just as Jonah was in the belly of the whale three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights.” Jonah’s time in the belly of the whale was a foreshadowing or Jesus’ death and so too my three years of “spiritual darkness” is a prefiguration of hopefully my ultimate death to my selfish ways and reliance fully on God. I still struggle with my son’s death on a daily basis but time and God’s grace provide me strength to make it through day by day. While I used to experience a despairing type of sadness, I am making progress on interpreting my family’s suffering through the lens of grace and I am feeling a sense of joyful sadness as I remember my son Jeremiah and the soul’s of the faithful departed. I conclude today with a prayer for the dead:

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Dear souls of the dead,
you are still remembered by my family;
you are most worthy of our perpetual remembrance,
especially you, my grandparents, my parents,
also our relatives, children,
and everyone whom death
took away from our home.
I invite you to this annual feast.
We pray that this feast be agreeable to you,
just like the memory of you is to us. Amen.

A Letter to the Downtrodden

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Dear Fellow Souls and Pilgrims on this Earthly Journey,

Hopelessness seems to cover the world. Hurricane Harvey decimated large parts of Houston. South Asia continues to experience chronic flooding. People suffer across the globe in large and small ways. Today, I wish to share my recent episodes of depression, I am not writing to complain about my situation, rather I hope to unite my suffering [albeit quite small in comparison to others] to others in great need. I want to be in communion with my fellow man. According to Helen Keller, “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” I cannot grow as a decent human being without learning from the school of suffering.

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Depression hit me again the past few weeks. Similar to an ocean, anxiety and sadness move in waves with brief periods of respite before the next deluge of depression comes crashing onto my shore. I feel a sense of hopelessness. What is going on with my life to trigger these feelings? To be frank, I am not sure. Life appears to be going well: I have an amazing wife, family, good shelter, and a job. I had a recent change in anxiety medicine and changes are occurring rather frequently at work. Still, these concerns should be minor compared to people suffering loss due to the recent natural disasters. Depression shrinks my perspective. I see through narrower glasses.

Perhaps, you are similar to me. If you suffer from depression, whether it is severe or mild I want to unite myself to your suffering. I wish to take up my cross if only it may help widen my scope. Prying open a narrow gaze is painful. However, authentic and natural development involves growing pains. If you are downtrodden, as I am currently, share your experience. Talk with people you trust. Talk to God—it works. Prayer is effective because it is communication with Him who created the universe. Oftentimes, I need to fall unto my knees and become downtrodden before I am able to gaze upward in prayer. Saint Mother Teresa once said, “Joy is prayer; joy is strength: joy is love; joy is a net of love by which you can catch souls.”

Although, I know my depression may likely come back again, I am aware of a strength to get me through the valley of tears—prayer. Prayer ultimately leads me toward an even-keeled path in my pilgrim journey on earth.

With great love and hope to alleviate your downtrodden soul,

Matt

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Sacrament of Time

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My wife and I stood outside surrounded by our family and close friends at the local Catholic cemetery. It was a cool November afternoon. Gray clouds lined the sky and appeared to be about ready to burst at any moment. The priest from our parish recited the funeral rite. Throughout this process, my wife and I simply existed. I did not truly take in the meaning or fully process the prayers uttered by Fr. John. Instead, the world seemed to have frozen in silence—a horrific silence. We lost our unborn son Jeremiah. The event of our miscarriage immediately effected and crippled my wife. For me, despair and desolation did not actually set in until several months later. I spiraled into a deep depression. I wrestled with belief in a good and generous God. I doubted my Creator’s providence and presence. Hope seemed futile.

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Fast forward almost 2 years; this event has been without question the turning point of my life [so far]! According to the prophet Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you” (Jeremiah 1:5). Since the death of our son, his namesake’s words hit much closer to home. What I have come to realize is that St. Paul’s words in Romans 8:28, “We know that all things work for good for those who love God,* who are called according to his purpose” is not a pious clique. There exists actual weight, real impact, tangibility to his words. Let me explain. Yesterday, I had a day off from work. I decided to take my three kids to Jeremiah’s grave-site and place flowers on the grave. Before we left for the store, I was trying to wear out the children so they would not be too hyper at the cemetery. I made some paper airplanes for my son and daughter to toss.

Along with making paper airplanes, my son wanted to color on the extra paper. I gave him the closest pen I could find. Soon into the process of drawing, he asked me how to spell three words. I was thinking, “Good, at least he is sitting down and this coloring is keeping him preoccupied. Also he is thinking about school since he wants to learn to spell.” It was not until we were traveling in the car after purchasing the flowers that my son’s true plan came to light. “Daddy, could we please get a little bag to put this book I made for Jeremiah into. I don’t want it to get wet” [it was starting to rain at this point], he said. I was floored by his reply. He actually took what I said to heart and sacrificed play time to make something for his unborn brother. That was probably my proudest moment as a parent. What I have learned in the past two years is that God works all things for the good through the Sacrament of Time! Below are two ways I learned about this ordinary and sometimes forgotten gift from God.

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1. Time Exists to Show Mercy: According to Peter Kreeft, professor of philosophy at Boston College, in his work Time, “We must restore our spiritual sanity. One giant step in that direction is to think truly about time.” He goes on to talk about time existing within prayer as opposed to prayer existing in time. Prayer is communication with God. In other words, Kreeft is saying that time should be viewed under the lens of communication with the Divine. “Prayer determines and changes and miraculously multiplies time…prayer multiplies time only if and when we sacrifice our time, offer it up. There’s the rub. We fear sacrifice. It’s a kind of death,” the Catholic professor tells us. Through my experiences, I have learned that time grants me opportunities to display mercy as well. Forgiving others and showing mercy is tough. Time is one of God’s gifts to make mercy easier. In the offering of many, many prayers of laments to God in the months after our miscarriage the seed of mercy was planted and came to fruition. But it was not until I sacrificed my time and prayed that I gained the ability to show mercy toward myself and be able to learn to forgive God.

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2. Sadness Remains, but it is Transformed: Time heals all wounds. We hear this phrase mentioned frequently when a person experiences a hardship or loss of a loved one. This adage does not contain the full truth. In reality, time does not eliminate sadness or wounds, rather it transforms them. I still experience sadness when I think of my unborn child. However, the sacrament of time has transformed this sadness from a despairing sadness to a joyful sadness [I know if sounds like oxymoron term but I am not sure how else to describe it!].

Time and prayer turn suffering from a destructive force to a purgative, and possibly redemptive force. I have had a few people tell me that they were influenced and inspired by the funeral service we provided for our unborn child. “Your testament and story give me inspiration to have grave markers in our backyard to remember our miscarriages. This was helped me move on and provide healing,” a friend from high school told me when she heard about my loss.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “The sacraments are efficacious[effective] signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us” (CCC 1131). Formally there are seven sacraments, but in reality time when approached in the right manner may be transfigured into a sacrament as well. Time exists in prayer not the other way around. Kreeft tells us, “Eternity is not in the future but in the present. The future is unreal, not yet real” (Time). Instead of worrying about the past and future let us embrace now, the present. Let us embrace the sacrament of time– now!

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4 Reasons Why Crying Out to God is Essential for the Spiritual Life

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Emotions ran high in my family yesterday. I struggled with a stressful situation at work and my son fell off his bike and scrapes his knee—a meltdown ensued. Feelings are part of the fabric of what it means to be human. I am not proud to admit this, but I have greatly failed in keeping my feeling in check during the past couple weeks.

On my drove to work this morning, words from a Christian song over the radio jogged a thought I had about prayer and our communication of God. I pondered how natural it is for humanity to complain when things do not go your way. How do we overcome the sin of complaining? Listening to the song lyrics I realized the answer is incredibly simple—cry out to God!

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Using examples from the Scriptures, excerpts from St. John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul, and my own personal experiences I give 4 reasons why “crying out to God” is not complaining but rather an essential part of the spiritual life.

1. Lesson from Lamentations: Latent within the Old Testament, Lamentations is not among the first books that pop into my mind for having spiritual insight. I usually think of Proverbs or the Book of Wisdom. Lamentations is a collection of five poems that act as a woeful reply to the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C. Both individual and communal prayers of sorrow are found in this book. For my purposes today I will only focus on Lamentations 3:19-31 which contains an individual lament.

The thought of my wretched homelessness is wormwood and poison; 20Remembering it over and over, my soul is downcast.21But this I will call to mind— therefore I will hope: 22The LORD’s acts of mercy are not exhausted, his compassion is not spent. 23They are renewed each morning—great is your faithfulness! 24The LORD is my portion, I tell myself, therefore I will hope in him. 25The LORD is good to those who trust in him, to the one that seeks him; 26It is good to hope in silence for the LORD’s deliverance. 27It is good for a person, when young, to bear the yoke, 28To sit alone and in silence, when its weight lies heavy, 29To put one’s mouth in the dust— there may yet be hope—30 To offer one’s cheek to be struck, to be filled with disgrace. 31For the Lord does not reject forever.

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The inspired writer of Lamentations speaks directly to me in this passage. His words, “Over and over, my soul is downcast,” calls to mind my state of mind and relationship with God over the past several weeks. I was downtrodden and I frequently wanted to give up. Interestingly enough, I actually pondered the fact that there is a glimmer of hope in my situation. The writer of Lamentations is prophetic again when he states, “I tell myself, therefore I will hope in him. 25The LORD is good to those who trust in him, to the one that seeks him; 26It is good to hope in silence for the LORD’s deliverance.”

2. Psalm 22: According to Mark 15:34, Jesus cries out to the Father in similar fashion as the book of Lamentations and myself when I encounter the stresses of life. The evangelist writes, “And at three o’clock Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?”* which is translated, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” These words used to befuddle me. I have since learned that Jesus was invoking the psalmist’s lamenting words in Psalm 22. The psalm begins as a sorrowful prayer to God but similar to Lamentations 3 it ends with hope [see Psalm 22:23-32]. Reading these words, the Holy Spirit connected the dots for me on this subject. Verse 30 references homage toward God on bended knee and I already was planning on talking about how lament leads to kneeling before God even before I read Psalm 22!! The movement of the Holy Spirit is mysterious yet true.

3. Dark Night of a Soul: St John of the Cross was a great mystic of the Catholic Church during the 16th century. His spiritual work Dark Night of the Soul is as relevant today as it was when it was originally written. I will only focus on the dark night of the purgation of our senses and tie it to the theme of crying out towards God. The major characteristic of this dark night is the soul finding no pleasure or consolation in the things of God. I find myself occasionally in a “spiritual rut” where I do not receive consolation or experience direct joy from God. St. John tells us to not worry, “It is well for those who find themselves in this condition to take comfort, to persevere in patience and to be in no wise afflicted. Let them trust in God, Who abandons not those that seek Him with a simple and right heart, and will not fail to give them what is needful for the road, until He bring them into the clear and pure light of love” (Chapter X no 3).

Sounding similar to the writer of Lamentations, John of the Cross, reassures us that for growth to occur in the spiritual life a certain period of purgation is necessary to increase our holiness and awareness of God.

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4. Skinned Up Knees Leads to On Bended Knee: This week my wife and I added training wheels to our son’s bicycle and we being teaching him the quintessential summer experience of riding his first bike! We taught him the fundamentals of pedaling and coaxing him when he got frustrated because they were “too heavy”. Things were going well. He gained momentum and cruised on our neighbor sidewalk for about 50 feet. Suddenly he hit a raised section of the sidewalk and toppled off his bike. Tears immediately streamed down his face. My wife added a Band-Aid and after a few minutes of reassurance had him get back on the bike to try again.

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How does this common childhood experience relate to the spiritual life? Oftentimes we get metaphorical “skinned up knees”. Gossip in the workplace or stressful family events damage our relationship with God. True growth is not without pain—both in learning to ride a bike and deepening our spiritual life. Having undergone lots of skinned up knees in learning to ride my bike it makes it easier for me to be on bended knee in prayer to thank God for going through the school of trials to learn more about Him.

The difference between complaining and lamenting is the former lacks the virtue of hope. Complaining is more self-centered in orientations whereas prayers of lament focuses communication with our Divine Creator. Do not be ashamed to cry out to God, but remember that while it is a necessary step in the spiritual process– it is only the beginning. May we always ask the Holy Spirit to lead us toward prayers of thanksgiving after a season of lament!

Boomerangs and other interesting thoughts…

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Boomerangs. An interesting word to start off this post, but I was thinking today that people commonly treat prayer like it is a boomerang. What I mean is that we quickly throw a “Hail Mary” up to God and hoping that is immediately directed back to us [similar to how a boomerang, upon reaching its apex, curves back to the person who threw it]. To be honest I have been in a “boomerang” type of mindset relating to the subject of prayer for most of my life. It has only recently that I began to see prayer as being more of “like a game of catch with God”. Let me show you what I mean.

Playing catch involves two people just like prayer is a two-way communication with God. Catch also involves a trust on the 2nd person by the 1st person to receive the ball back–similarly God will always answer our prayers and “toss” them back to us. The only difference is the length of time it takes for God to respond and sometimes we feel a sense of abandonment.

Well, for the past half-year I have experienced an intense feeling of abandonment from God in my life. In November 2014, my wife and I suffered a miscarriage of our baby. Earlier that day, we were at the hospital and were able to see Jeremiah’s heartbeat.  Hours later my wife miscarried. She suffered quite dramatically during the ensuing two months. I, however, remained quite stoic–I wanted to put up a steel resolve, to be strong for my wife. But a parent suffering a miscarriage is devastating for many reasons. To list just a couple: I felt like I could not tell anyone about this because my baby was never born and each month leading up to his due date [June} was like a dagger reopening the wound in our hearts that never fully healed.

I experienced a sense of abandonment. I had difficulty in my faith life and trusting in God. Going to the scriptures for comfort I reflected on Matthew 27:46. Jesus utters the words, “My God my God, why have you abandoned me?” It sounds eerily similar to my cries to God these past six months. A contextual read of the bible will show that Jesus is praying Psalm 22–a psalm of lament. Now a lament is a prayer of anguish or sadness especially in a situation where one is angry at God. Knowing that Jesus also experienced a sense of abandonment gives me hope. Weird as that might sound; Jesus’ loneliness on the cross is immediately followed by his resurrection (see Matthew 28). There is hope on the horizon for my family and I strongly urge anyone who is reading this post that prayers of lament are as legitimate as prayers of praise.

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Perhaps I have been seeking to employ a “boomerang” prayer and seeking a fast answer as opposed to undergoing a “cocoon-like” [lonely] period in my relationship with God before He returns my prayers in greater blessing that I could have ever anticipated.