Thursday, February 21, 2008


Lent is a season for intensifying our training in “prayer, fasting and almsgiving”. These Lenten tasks translate into the virtues of “piety” (or “religion”, the habit of giving due worship to God), “penance” and “mercy”. “Penance” also translates into “mortification”.

Mortification, from the Latin, mors, “death”, means dying to one’s self (and one’s selfish tendencies); a renunciation of one’s wellness, comfort, desires, etc.; an act of self-denial. A Christian’s acts of mortifications acquire value to the extent that he is motivated with uniting them to the sufferings of our Lord—in reparation for sin, in imitation of Christ, for love of God and neighbor, in compliance with the command of our Lord: “If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.” (Lk 9:23ff; cf. Mt 16:24; Lk 14:27)

Mortifications may be “active”, i.e., positively sought, as in fasting. They may also be “passive”, i.e., consisting of the cheerful acceptance of difficulties or setbacks. Mortifications may also involve the physical senses and appetites—“corporal” mortifications—or only the internal senses (memory, imagination) and spiritual faculties (intelligence and will)—“interior” mortifications. Like Christian almsgiving, our mortifications must also pass unnoticed, should be “hidden” as much as possible: “When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites.” (Mt 6: 16)

For the lay Christian living in the middle of the world, mortification must necessarily consist, for the most part, of many little acts of self-denial in the ordinary course of the day: eating a little less than we need at meals, maintaining a cheerful disposition in a difficult or uncomfortable situation, foregoing what is the most pleasurable in our choices, fighting distractions in order to work with more intensity, etc.

The Pope teaches:

“There used to be a form of devotion—perhaps less practised today but quite widespread not long ago—that included the idea of ‘offering up’ the minor daily hardships that continually strike at us like irritating ‘jabs’, thereby giving them a meaning. Of course, there were some exaggerations and perhaps unhealthy applications of this devotion, but we need to ask ourselves whether there may not after all have been something essential and helpful contained within it. What does it mean to offer something up? Those who did so were convinced that they could insert these little annoyances into Christ's great ‘com-passion’ so that they somehow became part of the treasury of compassion so greatly needed by the human race. In this way, even the small inconveniences of daily life could acquire meaning and contribute to the economy of good and of human love. Maybe we should consider whether it might be judicious to revive this practice ourselves.” (Pope Benedict XVI, Encyclical Letter Spe Salvi, No. 40)

Our Lenten mortifications should also help to remind us, like the whole observance of Lent itself, that we are only pilgrims on earth. Like the forty years which the Israelites spent in the wilderness before entering the Promised Land (Js 5:6), the life of man on earth is in statu viatoris, a passing-through. Our end, our true home, our permanent residence, our domicile, is in heaven, with God our Father. We will not reach this final destination—heaven, eternal happiness, definitive union with God, sanctity—unless we really want it, because we are free. And we are free creatures precisely so that we could direct ourselves, intelligently and voluntarily, towards that end. Thus, we cannot afford to be too comfortable here; otherwise, we would lose the desire, the drive, to reach our final destination. A spirit of mortification helps us to grow in that willingness to renounce earthly happiness, that detachment vis-a-vis creatures, which we need in order to qualify for heaven.

St. Josemaria writes:

“The Christian vocation is one of sacrifice, penance, expiation. We must make reparation for our sins—for the many times we turned our face aside so as to avoid the gaze of God—and all the sins of mankind. We must try to imitate Christ, ‘always carrying about in our body the dying of Christ,’ his abnegation, his suffering on the cross, ‘so that the life also of Jesus may be made manifest in our bodies’ [2 Cor 4:10]. Our way is one of immolation and, in this denial, we find gaudium cum pace, both joy and peace…

“Mortification is the seasoning of our life. And the best mortification is that which overcomes the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life in little things throughout the day. Ours should be mortifications that do not mortify others, and which give us more finesse, more understanding, and more openness in our dealings with everybody. You are not mortified if you are touchy; if your every thought is for yourself; if you humiliate others; if you don’t know how to give up what is unnecessary and, at times, what is necessary; if you become gloomy because things don’t turn out the way you had hoped. On the other hand, you can be sure you are mortified, if you know how to make yourself ‘all things to all men, in order to save all’ [1 Cor 9:22].” (Christ is Passing By, No. 9)


Wednesday, February 13, 2008


“Prayer” is commonly defined as “the lifting up of the heart and mind to God”. “Heart” here means the seat of our affections—our desire for God, sorrow for sin, gratitude, joy—but it also includes our intelligence and free will. In other words, prayer is the turning of our "inside" (which does not necessarily exclude our exteriors) towards God; a “union with God” or “being with God”—so as to adore Him, to express our contrition for the times of our turning away from Him, to thank Him for everything, and to ask for everything. It involves our spiritual faculties—the intelligence and free will—as well as our sensual appetites (which operate in our passions or emotions).

There are basically three kinds of individual prayer: vocal prayer, meditation, and contemplation. The term, “mental prayer”, is often used to include both meditation and contemplation.

Prayer is vocal when it is “discursive”, i.e., we turn to God using human language, our normal mode of communicating. It is meditation when it goes beyond words into involving more the other faculties: the imagination and memory (the internal senses) and the appetites; the mind, understanding the truths of faith in God’s presence; and our free will, making decisions or resolutions to conform more to God. Prayer becomes contemplation when these operations of the faculties in meditation become simplified into one, integrated whole, as a “single” action of being with God. The saints, especially the “mystics” (gifted with “paranormal” experience of God, e.g., “ecstasy” and intuitive or immediate knowledge of things) describe different degrees of “contemplation”.

Contemplation is the highest form of private, individual prayer: it approaches what is essentially the “activity” of the saints in eternity—simply seeing God “face to face” (the “beatific vision”), simply enjoying God. Meditation, the next highest, helps us get there, as an intermediate stage. Although placed at the lowest level, vocal prayers serve, not only as a good starting point, but also as “fuel” to maintain us in praying. In practice, all three forms of prayer are often intermingled. Maintaining “presence of God” can be contemplation. This is what St. Josemaria meant in saying, “we have to be contemplative souls in the midst of the world, who try to convert their work into prayer.” (Furrow, No. 497) Among the ways to fuel contemplation is to recite, repeatedly, many times during the day, some short vocal prayer—aspirations (“breathed-out” prayers)—taken from sacred scripture or some liturgical prayer, e.g., “Be it done!” Fiat! (Lk 1:38); “Lord, that I may see!” Domine, ut videam! (Lk 18:41); “Lord, what do you want me to do?” Domine, quid me vis facere? (Acts 9:6); etc.

In the liturgy ("public worship", the celebration of the Sacraments and sacramentals)—which is the prayer of the Church, the community of believers—the individual participant may actually enter into all three forms of private prayer (vocal, meditation and contemplation). Liturgical prayer is most pleasing to God because it is Christ Himself praying. Thus, the Eucharist is the highest form of all prayer because in it, Christ Himself is the Priest making the offering as well as the Victim being offered to God.

We need to convert all our time, all our work and leisure, our ordinary activities, into “prayer”, if we are to become saints. This is to comply with the scriptural command: “Pray without ceasing!” (1 Thes 5:17).

To pray always, we need to be able to pray, at least, at fixed times. That is why we should have regular “acts of piety”; so that our daily schedules would be built around our prayer life. Rather than stealing from our time for work, these acts of piety would make our work more valuable (pleasing in the eyes of God) because a well-planned day, in which our regular acts of piety are evenly distributed, would help us to maintain presence of God. Thus, our work can actually be done in God’s presence and so become prayer itself. Prayer also helps to “multiply” our time for work—our work gets done better, becomes more fruitful, especially in terms of sanctifying ourselves and others (personal holiness and apostolate), which is what matters most in the end.

St. Josemaria writes: “Try to commit yourself to a plan of life and to keep to it: a few minutes of mental prayer, Holy Mass—daily, if you can manage it—and frequent Communion; regular recourse to the Holy Sacrament of Forgiveness—even though your consciences do not accuse you of mortal sin; visiting Jesus in the tabernacle; praying and contemplating the mysteries of the Holy Rosary, and so many other marvelous devotions you know or can learn.” (Friends of God, No. 149)

“For some of you, all this may sound quite familiar; for others, it may be something new; for everybody, it is demanding. As for me, as long as I have the strength to breathe, I will continue to preach that it is vitally necessary that we be souls of prayer at all times, at every opportunity, and in the most varied of circumstances…When we seek our Lord in this way, our whole day becomes one intimate and trusting conversation with him… constant prayer should be for a Christian as natural as the beating of his heart.” (Id., No. 247)


Wednesday, February 6, 2008


“Lent” comes from an Old English word, lencten, “springtime”, to designate the forty-day season before Easter in the liturgical calendar. Today, Ash Wednesday, we begin the season of Lent.

The forty days of Lent recall the period that Jesus fasted in the desert (Mt 4:1-11; Mk 1:12-13; Lk 4:1-13). At the end of His fast, our Lord was tempted by the devil to sate His hunger by turning stone into bread; to possess all the kingdoms of the world in exchange for worshipping the devil; and, the devil quoting Psalm 91 (“He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you…”), to test Divine Providence by Jesus’ throwing Himself down from the parapet of the temple. Our Lord disposed of these by quoting from the book of Deuteronomy: “One does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God” (Dt 8:3); “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test” (Dt 6:16); and, “The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve” (Dt 6:13).

Our Lord had to be tempted by the devil because, unlike us, He had no disordered tendencies. These temptations presented to our Lord by the devil correspond to our own “three-fold concupiscence”: “the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 Jn 2:16). Like the “evangelical counsels” of poverty, chastity and obedience, the Lenten “tasks” of prayer, fasting and almsgiving—piety, penance, and works of mercy—are meant to cure us of this three-fold concupiscence.

Pope Benedict XVI teaches:

“1. Each year, Lent offers us a providential opportunity to deepen the meaning and value of our Christian lives, and it stimulates us to rediscover the mercy of God so that we, in turn, become more merciful toward our brothers and sisters. In the Lenten period, the Church makes it her duty to propose some specific tasks that accompany the faithful concretely in this process of interior renewal: these are prayer, fasting and almsgiving. For this year’s Lenten Message, I wish to spend some time reflecting on the practice of almsgiving, which represents a specific way to assist those in need and, at the same time, an exercise in self-denial to free us from attachment to worldly goods…

“2. According to the teaching of the Gospel, we are not owners but rather administrators of the goods we possess: these, then, are not to be considered as our exclusive possession, but means through which the Lord calls each one of us to act as a steward of His providence for our neighbor. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, material goods bear a social value, according to the principle of their universal destination (cf. no. 2404)…

"3. The Gospel highlights a typical feature of Christian almsgiving: it must be hidden: 'Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,' Jesus asserts, 'so that your alms may be done in secret' (Mt 6: 3-4). Just a short while before, He said not to boast of one’s own good works so as not to risk being deprived of the heavenly reward (cf. Mt 6: 1-2). The disciple is to be concerned with God’s greater glory. Jesus warns: 'In this way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven' (Mt 5: 16). Everything, then, must be done for God’s glory and not our own. This understanding, dear brothers and sisters, must accompany every gesture of help to our neighbor, avoiding that it becomes a means to make ourselves the center of attention. If, in accomplishing a good deed, we do not have as our goal God’s glory and the real well being of our brothers and sisters, looking rather for a return of personal interest or simply of applause, we place ourselves outside of the Gospel vision. In today’s world of images, attentive vigilance is required, since this temptation is great. Almsgiving, according to the Gospel, is not mere philanthropy: rather it is a concrete expression of charity, a theological virtue that demands interior conversion to love of God and neighbor, in imitation of Jesus Christ, who, dying on the cross, gave His entire self for us. How could we not thank God for the many people who silently, far from the gaze of the media world, fulfill, with this spirit, generous actions in support of one’s neighbor in difficulty? There is little use in giving one’s personal goods to others if it leads to a heart puffed up in vainglory: for this reason, the one who knows that God 'sees in secret' and in secret will reward, does not seek human recognition for works of mercy.” (Pope Benedict XVI, Message for Lent 2008)

We may also deduce that, besides not seeking applause, almsgiving ought to be “done in secret” because it is not in keeping with human dignity to receive as alms what one should be able to provide for himself and his family by honest work. On the part of the one in need, “the bread of charity is bitter” (as Rizal writes in his Noli Me Tangere). Also, from a social perspective, “dole-outs” naturally tend to detract from productive work.

Lent is a season for renewing our effective desire to turn more towards God. This is conversion—the reverse of “turning away from God and turning towards creatures” which is the essence of sin—and conversion means being detached from the goods of this world, being “poor in spirit” as demanded by the Beatitudes. St. Josemaria writes: “Rather than in not having, true poverty consists in being detached, in voluntarily renouncing one's dominion over things.That is why there are poor who are really rich. And vice-versa." (The Way, No. 632)