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Prayer

"Sono Contente?"

 ~Fr. Michael

Our recent visit to a few monastic communities in Italy taught me some valuable lessons about life.  I always find monastic devotion and dedication rather remarkable, but seeing how it intersected with a different language and culture made it more so. 

The first question all of our monastic hosts asked as soon as people were settled in was, “Tutto sono contente?—Is everybody content?” Contente, I discovered, was a complicated word, with many possible translations: satisfied, comfortable, contained, settled.  It represented a lot about their philosophy of hospitality.  There was hope in their hospitality that we would have enough to be content, not that we should have every momentary whim catered to.  It is the way they live their life, and they freely share it with visitors.

Surrounded by a world of touristy materialism, and lavish opulence, these handful of monastics have found that freedom to be fully alive is found in the context of limitation.  Less is more. The grace of contentment presumes that what one has, is enough. This contentment isn’t passively ‘not caring’, instead it’s an active engagement with life now. It encourages you not to be seduced into believing you must stretch yourself to see everything, do everything, and have everything possible in order to be complete. Rather, contentment comes in growing your roots deeper, into the ground of your being.

Contentment is an active living into the depths of life as you can, right now. And you don’t need much to do that.  In fact, having too much can distract you from being able to do that.  We are invited to live into the provision and revelation of what is already around us.  In contentment we are invited to savor our lives in every way we can, right now.

Monks and nuns often say that this grace of contentment is particularly helpful when you limit your choice, when life is defined or confined in ways which you may never have imagined or desired. This certainly doesn’t mean staying put in an environment that is diminishing or abusive; but rather about trusting others in your family or community with certain choices that can add up to be a burden on you alone.  One monk I know talks about how glad he is that the burden of having to choose whether or not to go and say his prayers is removed from him.  He simply knows where he needs to be and when, he doesn’t have to check in with his mood or his ego or with the circumstances of the day.  And that is hugely liberating.

This way of living means that you must also learn to be content with waiting. This is difficult, as it radically challenges our culture’s false promises of instant gratification. But learning to wait, and to be content with waiting, reveals it to have its own power.  Waiting is a wonder, which piques your attentiveness, and which will cure or clarify your desires. Rather than expending endless energy in worrying about the unknown or wondering, you wait expectantly, and if you can, contentedly.

To be content, to live in the grace of contentment, you must give consent. God is intent on forming you (or reforming you) into the beauty God created you to be, but first you must give God your consent, your co-operation. You might say, “Oh, that would be so difficult, to be so trusting of God.” Maybe so, but it’s not as difficult as not trusting God. You otherwise have to pretend to carry the burden of authoring and managing your whole life completely on your own shoulders. To be content you must surrender trying to be your own god.

Finally:  Contentment is not one more thing to do. The way to contentment is found in surrender to God, in embracing the life God has entrusted to you. You need not go far off to discover the grace of contentment. What does travelling teach us best?  How to come home. Contentment is within your reach, waiting to be claimed.

 

Common Life and Personal Prayer
-Fr. Michael

What would you think if you were watching a baseball game on TV, and in the interviews after the game, the manager said, “my strategy worked out well, didn’t it?” or a player said, ‘I pushed myself hard, and it paid off when I hit that home run, those other guys that I batted in would do well to watch how I do it.” You’d think, ‘where’s the teamwork? Where’s the sportsmanship?’ At the very least, you’d think some-thing was strange, because in real life, no sports team that ever talked only about ‘I’ and ‘me’ would ever win a game. What about a choir where after a performance, everyone said, “Well, I was singing at the right tempo and pitch, everyone else was slow and flat.” You probably wouldn’t waste your time going to the next concert, would you? In families, a man who is focused only on career and goals and personal gratification will be a disaster as a father and a husband. In every circumstance, a healthier, happier, more productive stance is to talk about ‘us’ and ‘we’, rather than ‘I’ and ‘me.’

When we think to ourselves about God, we tend to think about ‘I’ most of the time. We talk about ‘my faith’ or ‘my beliefs’, or we say, ‘I can’t get anywhere when I pray.’ No one would dare to say, ‘we don’t get anywhere when we pray.’ It sounds presumptuous to us. But look at how Jesus taught us to pray: Jesus didn’t teach us to say “My Father…give me today my daily bread…and forgive me my trespasses.” He teaches us to say ‘our’ and ‘us’ not ‘my’ and ‘me’ when we pray. As a result, when we pray in terms of ‘I’ and ‘me’, we can feel very alone and unsatisfied; the words seem inadequate, or unreal. This loneliness and isolation is part of what Jesus was teaching against when He taught us how to pray, and it doesn’t just happen when we talk to God when we’re alone. Often, we can be in a church full of people, and still we imagine ourselves all alone, talking to an almighty, all-powerful God who is also alone.

How did we get from Jesus teaching us to pray together into this bad habit of thinking about our-selves as isolated and separate? There’s no short answer, except to say that it goes back a long way, into our history, into what our parents and grandparents passed on to us. We humans have a tendency to isolate and alienate ourselves, which is just as strong now as it was two-thousand years ago. But the words of Jesus are just as clear and alive now as they were when He first spoke them—we are to pray ‘our Father’ before we pray ‘my Father.’ There is a sense in which there is no such thing as ‘private’ prayer for us Christians. In baptism, we were made members of One Family, One Body. So part of the challenge given to us in our baptism is to learn to say ‘we’ as well as ‘I.’ When I pray, as a Christian, I have to pray the way a baseball team plays baseball, or the way a singer sings in a choir, or the way a healthy, functional family behaves—never thinking just of ‘me’ alone. Even in solitude, even in moments of great desolation, we Christians pray as members of a worldwide community, a timeless and eternal community, The Church.

Does that mean that you shouldn’t pray on your own? Far from it! Prayer on our own, is important and necessary. In a sports team, sometimes a play will be worked out between only two team-mates; in a choir, there are solos and duets; in a family, there are special moments between brothers and sisters, husbands and wives. All of them are important and necessary, but during those special moments we shouldn’t lose sight of the bigger picture. We are part of a team, a family, and we need to know that we are never alone. That knowledge transforms us, it changes us, it gives us a sense of belonging.

What does that mean for us, here and now, as we try to pray? Part of prayer is learning that we are not alone. When we are seeking God, or looking for help, or for guidance, or for patience, or for wisdom, people from all over the world, millions of them, are praying for the same thing, encountering similar obstacles and hardships, and reaching out to God in the same way. It has been figured that if you simply say the ‘Our Father’, at any given moment, more than a million people will be saying it at the same time as you. Some will be saying it in church, some as part of a personal prayer of devotion, some be-cause it’s the only prayer they know by heart. Some will be praying it in English, some in Chinese, some in Maori, some in Shona, some in Italian—but all will be uttering the same prayer at the same time. If you think of them when you say the Lord’s Prayer, the shocking reality is that some of them (there are a million of them, after all) will be thinking of you. There is an open door in prayer that allows us to join together with countless others, the ‘silent multitude of souls at prayer’ as a friend of mine calls it. We are not alone—no matter what. In solitude, in silence, in sleep, in suffering, in birth, in death, in despair, in evil, and in good, there is always the peace of prayer available to us. All we need to do is reach out to God, and we have entered the ‘Church of Souls.’ All of creation is constantly reaching out to God—it is the great song that we are all invited to sing.

What would you do at a party if someone said, “Stand up and sing us a song!” If you’re anything like me, you’d shy away, and try to go unnoticed until the request had been forgotten. What if everyone at the party were singing the same song? That changes things, doesn’t it? It’s easier to sing when you’re part of a company of voices—in a good crowd you might belt out a song so loud it makes you hoarse, but sing-ing alone would make you self-conscious and quiet. Together, it comes naturally—alone, it takes practice and skill. Prayer is the same way—it comes most naturally when we have a sense of doing it together.

So, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for us Christians to talk about ‘my’ prayers; we can’t just say ‘I praise you’ or ‘I ask’ for whatever. But that doesn’t mean that we stop being ourselves, it doesn’t mean that we get swallowed up in some anonymous crowd. In fact, it means the exact opposite. It means we are set free to be ourselves. We are no longer responsible for doing everything—we are part of a community, and we do things together. And that means the world. It means that when we are feeling overwhelmed, it’s not all on us to fix the situation, we have a community that will help to keep us afloat; it means that when we have our doubts, we don’t need to wait for faith or believing to hit us on the head before we join in with the rest of the church, we have a community that will help to carry us through, and our faith will be nourished through them; it also means that we’re not responsible for fixing what’s wrong with the world all by ourselves, we are part of a family, and when we genuinely love each other and listen to each other and help each other, we open the door for God’s grace to heal, nourish, strengthen, and build.

“How Am I supposed to Believe That?” Our Beliefs, Our Worship, and Our Everyday Life
-Fr. Michael

Think of all the people you encounter every day. Maybe they’re in line ahead of you to pay for gas, maybe you cross paths in the street, maybe you catch eyes while waiting next to each other at a red light, but the vast majority of them you know nothing about. Sure, there are first impressions, and we can guess at what another person’s life might be like, but we know from experience that our first impressions are often wrong. It’s only after spending time with someone and having conversations that we begin to really know anything about them; and it’s really only after we’ve been friends or acquaintances with someone for some time that we confidently make any statement about who or what kind of person they are. This seems to be the normal and natural progression of events, doesn’t it?

Yet, most of us try to do the exact opposite with God. We try to say what we think of Him before we know Him. We think we have to know or believe something or another about God before we can start to pray, or come to worship. It is a sort of strange way of doing things, backward from our normal experience of establishing a relationship; and so, many people don’t bother with Christianity: they have too much trouble believing some of the articles of our faith. They say, ‘I just can’t believe those things, so how can I even start?’ But, Jesus shows us a way to engage personally with God, and because of His teaching, we call God ‘Father’. If we take that seriously, we see that this approach is sort of the wrong way around. First comes trust, and a willingness to explore and learn who God is; knowledge and the love of Him follow from that trust.

This can be a stumbling block, even for those who have gone to church every Sunday for years. There are people who don’t join in saying certain phrases in the Creed, because there are parts they can’t believe. When we do that, we are expecting the wrong thing from the Creed. People who get married are in the dark about what it will mean over the rest of their lives; parenthood is even more so. Even in our families, we remain mysteries to each other, to some ex-tent. There is always more to learn about the other, and our relationships are always changing. If the behavior of our family members can be beyond our understanding, then it seems reasonable to expect that God’s behavior will take some understanding, too. If knowing other people depended on knowing or believing something about them from the outset, then we would never get to know anybody.

Certainly, believing things is important, but maybe it isn’t the best starting place. If being a Christian is only about believing certain things, then it seems like nothing more than jumping through hoops. There is plenty of religion like this being offered all around us, where members are asked to leave their common sense behind to swallow something that is pretty far-fetched without questioning or doubting. Looking at that approach, it’s easy to see why so many people can’t take Christianity seriously. They’re put off by that kind of demand, and they often come to the conclusion that all religion is the same.

Mainstream Christianity has always taken common sense seriously. We do not believe that God asks us to turn our brains off, we do not believe that we should seek to escape from reality. It doesn’t deal with some dream world, Christianity deals with reality as we encounter it in daily life. The reality we live in, and the minds with which we perceive that reality are both gifts from God.

Perhaps the great confusion here comes from the fact that the word ‘belief’, that we use so often, actually means two different things. Most of the time when we say ‘belief’, we mean that we believe something to be true: we say, ‘I believe the earth is round’ and when someone asks us if an event actually occurred, we say, ‘I believe so.’ But the other meaning of the word is the one the Christianity is more concerned with, to believe in someone or in an ideal, and to trust: we say, ‘I believe in honesty’, or to someone, ‘I believe in you.’ For Christians, believing that certain facts about God are true is impossible without the other sort of belief. Being a Christian has to do with knowing a person, in just the same way that friendship is about knowing a person. If we look at our family and friends, what is the most important thing about them—that we know things about them, or that we know them? The answer is obvious; and just so, it is more important to know God than to know certain things about Him.

So, when we say the Creed in church, are all these beliefs a waste of time? Don’t we need to believe these teachings of the Church? Yes, of course, we do. They are at the heart of our life together as Christians. But it is not simply a matter of believing that certain things happened, like the Resurrection, or the Virgin Birth (although it is that, too). It is a matter of taking that story and making it our own, of realizing how all those events resonate in our life together as a Christian community. We are encouraged to ‘make friends’ with that story because in it, as with people we want to make friends with, we sense something we can trust.

As an example, when we say together ‘He ascended into heaven’, you may think to yourself, ‘I don’t really believe that, so I’ll just keep quiet here.’ If so, then there is a mistake about what this point of the Creed is about. The Church isn’t attempting to get us to swallow some strange thing on a spoon, for our health or otherwise. This is an invitation to strike up a conversation with the faith of everyone who stands around you and everyone who has come before you. It’s an invitation to step into the Church’s great treasure-house to explore things that make silver and gold seem dull and flat, and ultimately to realize that these treasures belong to you, too. If we see our beliefs as trusted friends rather than as pills to swallow, then something different can happen. Then, we can say, ‘Mystery of the Ascension, I don’t understand you at all, but maybe we can have a conversation some-time.’ We need to put on one side for now the fact that maybe we can’t believe it happened as it is told in the story. Instead, we immerse ourselves in the story and gradually get to know it. If we do that, then we see that the story says many, many things; and that it speaks not only to our minds, but to our hearts, our guts, our bones.

The longer we get to know these stories and beliefs, the more we see that they are like photos in a family album. What is most real is the family and the people in it, not the photos. Some photos are well-composed portraits, some are candid shots, some are funny snaps, some are blurry action shots, some are out-of-focus, some show scenes the family might rather forget. But none of them will show us everything, they don’t show how a person walks and talks, much less what their character is, or what their sense of humor is like. For people who know the family, the pictures in the album can be very entertaining or nostalgic, but to someone who doesn’t know the family, the photo album will be meaningless, boring, and remote. It is like that with belief. Trying to believe all of the Creed, which is kind of the photo album of Christian life, only means something after long experience and relationship. And just as you shouldn’t stop getting to know a family because you don’t like one or even a few photos of them that you’ve been shown, you shouldn’t avoid your Church family because you aren’t at ease with all of it.

There is a problem with this photo album metaphor, though. Families can continue to live quite well without photos and albums. Most families in the past, and even most families alive now get along quite well without them. The Church, on the other hand, needs to say something about what it believes. Of all families, the Church is the largest and most extended one. And with any large family, people drift out of touch and start to do their own thing. The Church is so old that memories of what made us one family in the first place can start to fade. So we have to keep a check on whether we’re all still going the same way together. There is a hitch here, and it is that in the end, our belief requires some sort of assent, some sort of acceptance. In the end, we will have to put our trust in some things that we cannot fully see or understand. The doctrines of the Christian faith are much more than mere photographs. They are more like the people in the photographs, they are there to be befriended, trusted, embraced, and relied upon. But we shouldn’t worry too much about how long it takes to get there. All that is asked of us while we are struggling is that we look on them, as we look on the people in our church, with good will and open-mindedness.

Our first impressions are almost always off target; so we shouldn’t be put off by our first impressions of God or of the Church. We need to persevere, and God will be faithful to us and make Himself known.

Our Complex Minds and Our Everyday Life with God
-Fr. Michael Greene

“How’s it going with you?” “What are you up to?” “What’s that all about?”—Most of us get asked these questions pretty much every day. What’s the answer? Well, we usually answer with simple dismissive phrases like, “fine,” “nothin’,” or “dunno.” But in every case, a more
truthful answer would sound like: “You know, I’m really not sure.” Each of us has an understanding of who we are and what we’re doing, but we are far from understanding everything. There are lots of thoughts and motivations and emotions that we live through that we don’t and
can’t fully comprehend with our conscious minds. Maybe you meet someone and you don’t like them, and you just can’t put your finger on a good reason; maybe you go to a concert, and the music is so exhilarating that you feel spectacular for a day or two; maybe you put down a
crossword puzzle you’re making no headway on only to pick it up the next morning to breeze right through it. What makes that difference? No one really knows.

Our minds are layered and complex. A good example is to think of learning something new, like a language, or a musical instrument, or to drive a car. At the beginning, you have to focus and concentrate on every step: with a new language, you have to map your sentences out before you try to say them; with music every movement of your fingers requires concentration; with driving, you grind gears and kill engines dozens of times before getting it. Eventually, though, the actions become automatic, and you don’t have to think about them so much. Some deeper layer of the mind seems to take over and ‘do’ those things that used to take so much focus. After a long time driving, every once in a while you realize you’ve just driven the last 20 miles sort of automatically, while your mind was miles away. A good musician can focus on tone quality and nuance because things like fingering and rhythm are automatic; just as there comes a time in a foreign country when you don’t have to worry about where the preposition goes, you just say what’s on your mind and the people around you understand.

There are all kinds of hidden layers that are constantly at work in our minds. They can seriously affect what we’re doing, like when you suddenly get crabby and irritable for no apparent reason. Family members and close friends can often sense things about us without anything being said, and they usually act accordingly, instead of waiting for us to articulate what is going on upstairs. We love and care for one another without needing to ask for it, or explain it. The love, and the responsibility that we share, just lives down there in one of our deeper layers.

We tend to forget all of that when we pray, or think about our relationship with God. We think that when we’re praying we should feel something, or our consciousness should change. Our relationship with God is more like one with a family member or close friend. The reward in prayer comes in that day-in, day-out communication, that speaks to our deeper layers, that doesn’t require huge amounts of concentration and focus, that comes when we are faithful and persevere in our relationship with God. Some people pray as if there’s a need to squeeze every drop of experience out of every second, so prayer and relationship with God are stressful things. What would your family relationships be like if you felt like that? They’d probably be stressful. Some people pray only when they are anxious or something has gone wrong, so prayer and relationship with God are fraught with negative connotations. What would your relationship with family and friends be like if you only talked with them about the things that had gone wrong? They’d probably be pretty negative. If we can relax about our relationship with God, and live in it daily, then fear and negativity tend not to be the dominant characteristics, it becomes more real, more human. God, in fact, seems to work best on our hidden layers, rather than with dazzling signs or rigorous discipline that demand our full focus and attention.

If that’s true of the way we speak to God, which is through prayer, then it is true of the way we hear God, which is through scripture and our worship together. There are a lot of words. They usually seem like too many. Our minds can’t take all the words in, especially Bible readings and sermons. But if we think that worship is something that we need to have complete focus on at all times, well, we’re still learning it. The reward in worship comes from letting some of our deeper layers do the work, letting God speak to our whole selves, not just our conscious minds. One of the most important ways to experience liturgy and Bible readings is simply to let them wash over us. When we let that happen, we find, over time, that we are steeped in the mind of God—as one of my spiritual fathers put it: “we are marinated in Divine Love.” The reason we gather together daily for prayer and weekly for our Sunday Eucharist is so that the Word and Spirit that God gives to us as gifts can soak into our very bones.

If any of this is to happen, then there are bound to be times when we ‘don’t feel like it,’ or it all seems complicated, or tedious, or unnecessary. Musicians know that playing like a virtuoso means lots of scales and repetition; athletes know that touchdowns and home-runs are backed up by lots of laps and calisthenics; diagramming sentences is part of learning a language; studying the rules of the road is more a part of learning to drive than seeing if you can hit 100 mph in a new car. We can’t leave out parts of our prayer and worship, we can’t omit the parts of the Bible that we don’t happen to agree with at the moment—all of it is part of this process of immersing ourselves into the life of God that we have been called to share.

Talking to God and listening to God should be like any other normal, everyday experience. We don’t need to keep feeling some ‘special something’—that just isn’t natural. But if we just let it be part of our day-to-day life, then it affects us and touches us in deeper and more profound ways than we can imagine. God prefers to be hidden, rather than to be showy, and He works in ways that we cannot see, in ways that we wouldn’t expect. We simply need to carry on in faith—the rest is up to God. Jump in and soak it up!

New Life in the Spirit
-Fr. Michael Greene

Pentecost is sometimes called ‘the birthday of the Church’—it celebrates the moment when a confused group of disciples and followers could first reasonably be called by the name we still carry today. We are told in the Acts of the Apostles that it was on the Day of Pentecost, when all these folk were gathered together in one place that the Holy Spirit came roaring in like a wildfire and the Church was born. It works almost like a chemical reaction—the followers of Jesus on their own are not a Church, but add Holy Spirit and you’ve got a whole new reality.

The thing that sticks in the mind of most people about this story of the birth of the Church on the day of Pentecost is the account of the miraculous overcoming of the language barriers. The disciples were heard speaking of the great things of God in languages they had never learned. People often refer to this miracle as ‘the gift of tongues,’ but this may be misleading, if not just plain wrong. That phrase is not mentioned here, but in the writings of Paul, and he appears to be talking about something completely different—a gift of prayer that is of little or no use in communicating with people. On the day of Pentecost some-thing happened that broke down the communication barriers and enabled people who otherwise could not have understood to hear and understand.

This miracle tells us something very important about the Church, especially if we look at it in light of some of the Old Testament stories that point to it. The ancient legend of the Tower of Babel (where the word ‘babble’ comes from) tells us about the fragmentation of the human race into isolated tribes that couldn’t speak a common language. They could no longer communicate with one an-other, and so they could no longer challenge the supremacy of God in their pride. Pentecost celebrates the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the followers of Jesus, and the undoing of Babel. People are being reunited as one family in Jesus Christ and ethnic and racial and cultural divisions are no longer going to separate them. This is part of the story of the Birth of the Church, because the Church is a community of reconciliation where we all speak the common language of love for God and one another, and that overcomes other differences.

The message we are given about the birth of the Church is that it is formed and empowered by the Holy Spirit who breaks down every barrier that might shut anyone out of the Kingdom of God. The Church is a community of grace and reconciliation in which everyone has equal right of participation. So, we gather this Pentecost to give our support to those who will be entering that Kingdom for the first time in the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, we will watch and give testimony to our own salvation as the Holy Spirit descends once again, washing away sin, and dissolving all the barriers to the eternal life of the Risen Christ as water is poured out on the heads of those who seek a new life in God. It’s no mistake that the first thing we do after the newly baptized is proclaim our common reliance on the Peace of Christ, and share it with one another. At that point, we are not just shaking hands and sharing a kind word, we are binding ourselves to one another in an acknowledgment that the Spirit has begun the work of reconciling us to one another and to God in Jesus Christ. With the coming of the Holy Spirit, new life, in all of its rich abundance, is begun.

Service Schedule

DUE TO THE COVID-19 HEALTH CONCERNS ALL SERVICES AND ACTIVITIES HAVE BEEN SUSPENDED IN ORDER TO COMPLY WITH THE STATE OF WISCONSIN REQUIREMENTS AND THE HEALTH AND WELLBEING OF OUR COMMUNITY. 

Sunday
Rite II Eucharist – 9:00 am, Cathedral

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