Prayer and Kenosis

Father Voillaume

In the course of centuries Christians have increasingly come to realize that their prayer like the prayer of Christ himself, and because of that prayer, is a work of adoration and intercession in the name of mankind. In our time this awareness has become more vivid than ever, and it has reached the point when many have come to feel that they must give concrete expression to this permanent commission to pray in the name of mankind by really sharing the circumstances of men’s lives.
René Voillaume LBJ (1905–2003)


I’m pretty sure this blog is a smorgasbord of contemplative life in the Church. So I checked: here are some of the major influences, by Congregation (or other):

Of course I have my own leanings. Everything here gets filtered through me. That’s just natural. But… I think I try. ^^

Seeing Jesus In or Seeing Jesus Behind Our Neighbours?

Charles de Foucauld, Father Voillaume, Jacques Maritain

When I first met Little Brother Charles of Jesus and Little Brother René Voillaume, who continued and made known much of Charles’ approach to contemplation on the roads, I was much struck by the notion of seeing Jesus in our neighbours being a kind or way of contemplation.

Then I read a few words of Jacques Maritain, quoted by Father Voillaume himself. Little Brother Jacques said, almost as a throwaway phrase “seeing Jesus in – or perhaps more accurately, behind – others”. The words that caught my attention were “or perhaps more accurately, behind”.

Why would that be more accurate? It is actually true that God is present in everyone by creating them and, if they are in a state of grace, making them just and holy. Why would it be more accurate to say “behind” than to say “in”?

I think, maybe, the reason is simple. If we look to see things in created things, we end up confused. At least, I do. It is a weakness of mine. If I look at created things to find something in them, then that implies that my values are starting to shift a little bit. I want to use my eyes. But if I concentrate on that operation too much, it inevitably leads to some species of “the lust of the eyes” (1 Jn 2:16). I want to see. I want to be consoled in my vision. I want to know with my eyes. I want, I want, I want. It’s spiritual gluttony. This tastes good, this looks good, this consoles me: let me seek it.

On the other hand, if I see Jesus behind my neighbours, I have to look with my spiritual eyes and forget about my bodily eyes. It’s more an enveloping impression of grace, rather than something that admits of a wanting, a desire to operate in a particular way.

Of course, this may just be my own weakness. Maybe it actually is just as good to say “seeing Jesus in” as “seeing Jesus behind” our neighbours. I’m not going to say. I can’t judge. But if these words help you, please take them.

Living with the Church of Heaven

Cemetery at Conception Church in Bangkok, Thailand

Cemetery at Conception Church in Bangkok, Thailand: with pwang mahlai (พวงมาลัย)

There is no sense to living a contemplative life alone, if by saying “alone” one were to also exclude the Church of Heaven. To be alone with God is not to be lonely. To be alone with the saints and angels is not to be lonely.

After the passing of his wife, Jacques Maritain started to concentrate some of his attention on the indissoluble link between the pilgrim Church here-below and the Church of Heaven.  They are, of course, one and the same Church under different states. In a seminar given to some Little Brothers of Jesus, he said,

The Church triumphant and the Church militant are but a single Church, a single and unique mystical body under two essentially different states…

The living link and the living relation between the two are manifested in the public life of the Church here on earth by the liturgy. The liturgy is wholly turned towards Heaven. And Heaven listens to it… the liturgy and the breviary assure and maintain in this way a continuous communication between earth and Heaven.

But in our private prayer, in our personal spiritual life? Heaven, it seems to me, is very distant, abstract, impersonal. Naturally I am not speaking of the Holy Trinity, nor of Jesus and of the Blessed Virgin. Yes, we think of them, in a habitual and profound manner. But the Mystical Body, the angels and the innumerable saints, all the humanity who populate Heaven and who constitute the Mystical Body of which Christ is the head, all of this remains hidden, in general, as though behind a curtain of azure. This is due, without doubt, in part to the fact that Heaven is unimaginable and that Revelation teaches us only a minimum of things concerning the other world. Why? Because we would not understand. We have no landmark. (We are as it were primitives…) But this is due also to our stupidity and to our reluctance to attach ourselves to the invisible, to seek in it our daily bread.

It really is true that we cannot imagine Heaven, the Beatific Vision, the communications of saints and angels among themselves, or even how they interact with our own world. This is beyond our knowledge. We are like “primitives”. What is behind the curtain, we do not know. There is a curtain between us and Heaven, and we can barely hear the whispers that come through.

But the whispers exist. We may not be able to grasp the reality in itself. But Heaven comes to earth.

  • The Humanity of Jesus is housed in countless tabernacles.
  • The Eucharist is the sign and effecting of the Mystical Body of Christ.
  • Feast days go ’round the calendar every year: feasts for the Humanity of Jesus, feasts for his Mother, feasts coming from the calendar of the People from whose roots Mary and Jesus were born, and (finally) feasts of saints and angels.

So, if we feel at home with the Church of Heaven – and if we don’t, why don’t we? – why would we not treat the Church of Heaven as we do God himself? Not, of course, that we are to worship a creature as the Creator – Heaven, itself, forbid! But quite simply, we ask for the will of God to be done on earth. Well, the will of each and every saint and angel is perfected by the Vision of God: why don’t we pray that the will of particular saints be done on earth? Why are we not familiar enough with Heaven to ask this? There is nothing stopping us but ourselves!

This is a bit different from asking saints and angels to do stuff for us. It is common to ask Saint Blaise to heal my disease of the throat or Saint Thomas to help me to study. That’s one way to talk to the saints. But it clearly has a strong element of me in it. It can be fine, but it’s not the same as asking for something that I know is invariably good. Unlike my will, the wills of the saints are invariably good!

We can beg and ask God to fulfil their special intentions. Their intentions are holy. But they are still creatures; they have special cares and concerns, based on their journey through this earth or based upon what God has given them to do.

Jacques Maritain puts it like this:

The idea which I would like to propose to you is the following: Since the Church triumphant is but a single Church with the Church militant, and since the saints continue to occupy themselves with the things of the earth and to interest themselves in them (they see all this in the beatific vision itself), well, they surely have their own idea and their own intentions concerning these things, concerning the life and the behavior of each of us, and the events of the world, and the progress and the expansion of the kingdom of God.

And without doubt each of them also has his ideas on what more especially concerns the mission which he had here on earth, and those whom he loved and was entrusted with protecting here on earth. The founding saints, certainly, have their ideas on their religious order, the patron saints have their ideas on the countries or the cities which are under their aegis. St. Thomas Aquinas on the progress of theological truth and of the truths which he himself established and defended on earth, St. John of the Cross on the progress of the contemplative life; Father de Foucauld on the vocation of those who bear witness for Jesus without preaching or teaching but through fraternal love, and who must be, like Foucauld, universal Little Brothers.

Therefore, is not the true manner in which we have to exist with them and maintain a living communion with them – still more than to pray to them for our intentions and to explain our needs and our desires (which is necessary, of course, and will always continue) – to pray to them for their intentions, for the accomplishment of their aims and of their desires concerning the things of here below, in order that in this way the will of Heaven may be accomplished more on earth? We say in the Our Father: “Your will be done,” and in this sense we pray to God for God, well, what I am saying is that we ought to pray to the saints of God for themselves also, in order that their will may be realized by the idiots that we are.

If the Dominicans all over the world said thousands of Masses for the intentions of St. Thomas Aquinas, well, the things of the intelligence would perhaps progress a little better here on earth. – And likewise

– for other saints and their intentions.

God wants us to be united with the Church of Heaven. In this lies strength!

The Church of Heaven is waiting to break into this poor world. We can only pray for it and live together with the saints and angels. All of this pertains not only to the saints who have been canonized, but for all the saints and angels of Heaven. We could start, quite safely, with the will of our Guardian Angel, whose name is unknown but whose will is united to Jesus':

“May the will of my Guardian Angel be done, Jesus, through you!”

It opens our eyes. It really does. If we mean the prayer, it compels us to see things, hear things, and notice things that we did not previously care so much for. It is one to thing to ask for what we want. We know people altogether differently when we ask for what they want. It is a new degree of friendship and intimacy.

Jacques Maritain continues,

And these saints who concern us and whom we have known – do you believe that they have forgotten us? that they do not desire to help us, and that they do not have a better idea than we do about what is best for us, and that they do not have their own intentions concerning the things of the earth and their friends of this earth?

The Church of Heaven is a marvellous thing, a marvellous reality. God does not want less for us than we can imagine.

The Dark Night’s Dryness Experienced in the World

When Saint John of the Cross talks about the three signs that the soul is being led by God into a dark night of the purgation of the senses, imagination, and sensual parts of the human being, he discusses the second sign like this (Dark Night, Bk. I, Ch. 9):

The second test and condition of this purgation are that the memory dwells ordinarily upon God with a painful anxiety and carefulness, the soul thinks it is not serving God, but going backwards, because it is no longer conscious of any sweetness in the things of God… The true purgative aridity is accompanied in general by a painful anxiety, because the soul thinks that it is not serving God. Though this be occasionally increased by melancholy or other infirmity – so it sometimes happens – yet it is not for that reason without its purgative effects on the desires, because the soul is deprived of all sweetness, and its sole anxieties are referred to God. For when mere bodily indisposition is the cause, all that it does is to produce disgust and the ruin of bodily health, without the desire of serving God which belongs to the purgative aridity. In this aridity, though the sensual part of man be greatly depressed, weak and sluggish in good works, by reason of the little satisfaction they furnish, the spirit is, nevertheless, ready and strong.

The point I want to draw attention to is this: John explicitly says,

… this [can] be occasionally increased by melancholy or other infirmity…

This explicit recognition of the place of human, physical weakness in the dryness of the dark night shows just how real and applicable John’s wisdom is for those of us who live far removed from the cloister, at the heart of the world, on the muddy highways of this life.

For John, this happens “occasionally”. I think it’s fair to say that, if our life is more busy than John’s, it could happen “more than occasionally”.

The value of human weakess and being pushed to the limit (the Greek and desert fathers call it ponos) is dispositive. John acknowledges that it is dispositive in itself. Human weakness, in the form of fatigue or illness, disposes us to throwing everything down and saying, “Jesus, take everything; I cannot feel, I cannot sense; just guide me. I love you.” The human fatigue is natural. And it can kill the imagination and the senses, if we do not resist it by chasing after images and sensations that we’ve lost. If we accept the lot of human nature, grace can work all the more in us. In this case, grace very clearly uses and builds on nature. For example, Marcel Văn gives to Jesus these words:

VanDo not become sad if during these days you feel full of disgust… If it is so, it is not that my love for you has cooled, but rather because you are feeling sick and tired. I do recognize, however, that it is I who am the cause of all this…

It is God who is providence. Even the little things and feelings can induce physical weakness. The God of grace is the same as the God of nature.

René Voillaume, founder of the Little Brothers of Jesus who work in the world but have a contemplative vocation, discusses the same issue in these words:

One of the main objections made to our way of life [as Little Brothers of Jesus] is that fatigue, the noise that it entails most of the time, and even the weighing down of the spirit brought on by a prolonged physical effort, all seem to remove the possibility of an authentic prayer life. This question is important for us and for millions of poor people… There must be an answer to this objection… In reading the Gospel, it seems like Jesus never had any idea of making prayer the reserve of the man of leisure and the man with a fruitful time of meditation: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (Mt 11:28)

Father Voillaume

Yes, we must do our part; but it does happen that, when our time of prayer comes, most of the time, we are unable to meditate, to think. The whole question is whether there is another way offered to us to be joined to God.

And the answer, of course, is contemplation. Father Voillaume knew and loved Saint John of the Cross. He knew the answer is a dark night and contemplation. His state of life and John’s state of life differ. But the essential remains the same! The essential expressed in the Dark Night stays the same. If we accept it as such, physical or mental fatigue (ponos) can condition a dark night and also contemplation.

Are you tired? Are you suffering? Is that causing your imagination, your images, your senses, your sensations, your emotions, your desires for “feel-able” things to disappear? Is it causing dryness? Is it causing aridity? If it is not exactly causing dryness, might it lead to spiritual dryness?

God may take this very road to lead you by a dark night into closer union with him. The God of grace is the God of nature, too. He knows what he permits, and he knows what he’s doing. Just pray. Really accept the littleness of the human condition, of your condition. Be little. Ask for God to come and take you as you are. This is all you can do! God knows what he’s doing.

Theology of the Church

Theology of the Church

Over the course of several decades, Charles Cardinal Journet (1891–1975) wrote a three- or four-volume treatise on the Catholic Church as a fundamental mystery and revelation in the Christian faith (Church of the Word Incarnate).

Three or four volumes: this was long.

But it was the work of a contemplative theologian who loved the Church and wanted others to love her, too.

Cardinal Journet summarized the first two volumes of his treatise. This became Theology of the Church. In fact, it’s not only summarized, it’s made easier to read. It was designed “for popular readership” according to the English-language publisher. Actually, the book is dedicated to the Little Brothers of Jesus, a contemplative-in-the-world religious ordered inspired by Blessed Charles de Foucauld. In short, it’s a book written by a contemplative for contemplatives, thrown into the mud and muck of the world and sometimes lacking time to study and read.

That is the target audience: contemplatives tossed about the waves of the world, wanting an anchor in the Church, what the Church is, and who the Church is. One of the most startling themes of Cardinal Journet was taken up both by the Council and by the Credo of the People of God (1968):

The city of God, the Church, is without sin but not without sinners.

This is not the only way to view the Church, though. The opening pages of Theology of the Church talk about three ways that people saw Jesus when he was on earth: (1) just any other man walking down the road (Jn 6:42); (2) a more penetrating vision that sees in him something unique and surprising (Mt 6:13); (3) finally, the eyes of faith see him, with Thomas, as he really is (Jn 20:28). Charles Journet then says that there are three similar ways of viewing the Church: as any religious organization, as a kind of unique surprise, and with the eyes of faith. It is the eyes of faith that Cardinal Journet helps illuminate.

Georges Cardinal Cottier describes the book thus:

In the present work the brevity of the text hints at a catechetical style, so that the essentials can be easily understood and committed to memory and provide food for meditation; for the theology of Charles Journet naturally flowers into spirituality and prayer.

I don’t know where I’d be without this book. I really don’t know. If one wants to maintain a contemplative view of the Church while being tossed about by the world, in both its madness and its goodness, I can’t see any better way than digesting Charles Journet’s theology.

(Concluding thoughts: There are a couple of substantial developments that Journet later came to: first, through his friend Jacques Maritain, Charles Journet realized that this “catechesis” on the Church can be summarized by saying that the Church is a person of the order of grace; second, the later volumes of the larger Church of the Word Incarnate deal with questions of history that are not treated in Theology of the Church.)

The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats in the Economy of Salvation

This is a long post. It has the goal of deepening the spirituality of Blessed Charles of Jesus and deepening the Gospel sources of a contemplative vocation lived “in the mud”. It also purports to engage in some practical anti-anti-Semitism. If any of these points interest you, please read on.

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When Blessed Charles de Foucauld read the Gospel parable of the sheep and the goats, he found in it something that no other statement had so much transformed his life: whatever we do to Jesus’ brothers, we do to him.

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Mt 25:31–40 NRSV)

Following Brother Charles have been many others. The Lay Fraternity, the Little Sisters and Little Brothers of Jesus, the Little Sisters and Little Brothers of the Gospel, and many more in Charles’ spiritual family follow the same inspiration: We will be judged by what we do to Jesus; therefore let us see Jesus in our neighbour and pray and act accordingly.

In fact, this point of view is not restricted to Blessed Charles’ spiritual family. I have heard more than one homily on the subject. Saint John Chrysostom famously said the same thing as Charles. The Church has emphasized and sorted these corporal works of mercy. Throughout the exegesis and practical spirituality of (Gentile) Christians, there is a strong, living tradition: The parable of the sheep and the goats applies to us, so do to your neighbour as to Jesus.

There’s just a slight problem with this. It’s actually not so simple. The parable of the sheep and the goats, in the context of Saint Matthew’s Gospel, doesn’t refer to Christians being judged. It refers to the goyim (גוים), “the nations”.*

Cardinal Lustiger: The PromiseI lived quite happily for many years without realizing this. However, when I read Jean-Marie Cardinal Lustiger’s book The Promise, a little part of this bubble popped.

It really is quite obvious in context. Immediately prior to the parable of the sheep and the goats, in Matthew 25, we find the parable of the talents:

A man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them. (Mt 25:14 NRSV)

In other words, he called his proper servants, the ones that he had chosen. He called Israel and the disciples of Jesus (the Church in its aspect as having become Christians through the sacramental life of the Church). In the economy of salvation, those are the two who are called immediately and in that economy in that way by God.

Of course, others are called. Those from “the nations” are called, too. They are the ones who have acted well towards their neighbour in the parable of the sheep and the goats. They aimed to live, as Saint Paul says in Romans 2, according to the natural law. And they will be rewarded. They had a call in a different way. They answered.

But in the parable of the talents, we have Israel and the Church (which is actually Israel, insofar as faithful and consciously understanding of Jesus, and the particular Gentiles who are grafted into the Church). Cardinal Lustiger comments:

The talents are evidently riches of grace, the riches of the Kingdom… In reality, the Lord gives to each one according to what he judges suitable: five talents, two talents, one talent. And the proper mission of the servants is to manage the riches of the kingdom according to the logic of the master and not to put it aside as a deposit…

The servant must act according to the revelation made to him of whom the master is and what he wants.

This intimate, personally revealed knowledge of what the master wants only makes sense for his proper servants, those whom he speaks to openly (not in obscure, masked ways like “the nations”). That means the parable of the talents speaks of Christians and the Hebrew people.

Then, later in the same chapter, the Son of Man gathers “all the nations” (in context and in the later Hebrew mentality, excluding Israel – and thus by Saint Paul’s logic of the “graft” in Romans 11, also excluding the Church in its sacramental, visible aspect). It is to the just of the nations that Jesus says, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

This is not said to Christians.** This can’t be underlined enough.

In the economy of salvation as God has laid it out, where the just of “the nations” will be judged after Israel and the Church that God form in its visible aspect, it is not Christians to whom Jesus’ words “You did it to me” are addressed. It’s spoken to “the nations”.

Pop goes the bubble!

However, has the bubble popped completely? Of course not. It is not less that is expected of Israel and the Church. It is more. The baseline is to act towards other people as towards Jesus. This too is expected of the servants to whom “talents” and intimate revelation of the master have been given! This too, not less.

But over and above acting towards others as if they are Jesus, the master has given talents to his servants.

What are those talents? They vary immensely from person to person.

One thing that I am comfortable with asserting is this (because I think I know it from experience).

For the contemplative soul living in the hustle-and-bustle of the world, one talent is simply to not only act towards others as if they are Jesus (the baseline) but, because this characteristic of our neighbours has been revealed intimately to them by the master, to also see Jesus in our neighbour. This is a particular talent, a particular grace. It is the talent of “contemplation in the mud”. It is not a universal demand of the Gospel. The universal demand is in acting, not seeing; whereas the latter is a particular grace to manage, a particular “talent”.

Active lives take other talents. Active-contemplative lives take yet other talents. A contemplative life lived in the cloister, again others.

But the one talent specific to all contemplative vocations lived wholeheartedly in the world is the surpassing of acting towards others as if they were Jesus into consciously seeing others as if they were Jesus – seeing Jesus in our neighbour, seeing Jesus behind or beside our neighbour.

I’d like to think that this way of thinking, while initially disconcerting to anyone inspired by the spirituality of Brother Charles, brings (at least) twofold benefits:

  • It is rooted in our actual economy of salvation, thus preserving the economy as God intended it as regards the election of the Hebrew people and those Gentiles visibly and sacramentally grafted on as the Church.
  • It further roots and integrates the contemplative dimension of seeing Jesus in our neighbour into the eschatological parables of Matthew 25, by (1) expressing it as a possible “talent” and (2) re-emphasizing the contemplative as missionary. While it may be initially disconcerting to discover that Jesus’ words “You did it to me” will not be addressed to Christians, the ultimate result is a strengthening of the Gospel basis of the spirituality and charism of seeing Jesus in our neighbour. In the first place, we recognize that this is a particular “talent”: the talent of “contemplation in the mud”. In the second place, we are reminded of the missionary side to contemplation.

That’s the end of my reflection.

For anyone to whom Blessed Charles’ or Saint John Chrysostom’s reading of the parable of the sheep and the goats has been an inspiration, I simply ask:

What do you think?

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* Of course, being written in Greek, the Gospel doesn’t say גוים. But the meaning is there.

** Think about it this way. If Christians and the Hebrew people, to whom the revelation of Christ was given, were included in “the nations”, why would they be absolutely shocked to know that it was Jesus they fed, welcomed, clothed, and visited: “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food…?” Christians already know. It’s not shocking to them.