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Thursday, July 28, 2011

Let Us Pray

  One of the prefaces for weekday Masses says, "You have no need of our praise, yet the very desire to praise you is itself your gift."  These words provide food for thought regarding the meaning of prayer and why we pray. While I pray every day (and hope you do as well) over the past few months several requests for prayer have captured more than the usual amount of attention for me. From the viewpoint of "outcome" the results have been very different.

   A few months ago a good friend contacted me and asked me to pray for a baby named Evangeline who was born prematurely and had several medical complications. There was a good chance that she would not make it.  Not only did I set about praying for this child and her parents, I asked my Franciscan community to pray for her, and several communities of sisters as well. In addition to that many other friends have been praying for her While Evangeline is not entirely out of the woods she has made great promise and looks to be on her way.   In her case it appears that our prayers have been answered. Certainly the whole story is eloquent testimony to the power of prayer.

   At just about the same time that I heard about Evangeline I was asked to pray for a 2 year old who fell into a swimming pool.  I engaged the same people in prayer and the child's family and circle of friends  spread the request for prayer. Unfortunately the child died.  What are we to make of this?  Both parents are good, practicing Catholics, people of strong faith.  Was one prayer answered and the other not?  This question, of course, as been on the minds of Catholics and others over the centuries.  How do we explain this.

    I wouldn't begin to try to explain the mind of God, but I will say that our prayers are always answered.  I'm sure that the family of the child who drowned in the pool continued to pray and found strength in their grief as a result of this.  In fact I know this to be true.  Deeper than this fact however is the need to understand why we pray and what is means to ask God for something.  When we understand this it puts things into perspective.

   Why do we pray?  The ultimate purpose of prayer is not to get God to do things for us, but rather to seek union with God, to grow in relationship with God. While I don't believe that God sits in heaven and thinks "Hmmm, I think that those folks on earth need a little sickness, death, tragedy and disaster," these things are part of life.  They remind us that life is fragile and that we are finite.  Because of this they open us to the need for God.  Our illusion of total self-sufficiency is shattered by these things.  They open us to God then and our first instinct, which is a good one, is to ask God to take away our pain and suffering, or that of someone we love.  It is easy to believe that our prayer is heard when we get the desired outcome.  When we do not we need to understand that if the ultimate goal of prayer is union with God, then God will indeed be with us when we open our hearts with our desires.  What happens then is that God gives us strength and comfort when we don't get the results we want.  God will always be there.  God's promise to us is not that if we have faith all of our problems will be taken away, but rather that we will never be abandoned. I found this to be true back in 1992 when our family got word from the doctors that my mother would die of cancer.  She had battled for 5 years and during that time we constantly prayed that she would live.  When we found out otherwise we were sad of course, but we found that God gave us all great strength, and my mother went to her death peacefully knowing that she was loved by her husband and three children.  The whole experience brought us closer to God.

   As that line from the Mass preface that I quoted at the beginning says God does not need our praise, our prayer, but we need God.  Hopefully we go to God everyday to open our hearts in prayer and to present whatever is there--a request, a plea for forgiveness, a prayer of praise  and adoration, or one of gratitude. If we do that we will draw ever closer to God and be ever more mindful of God's presence with and among us.

Friday, July 15, 2011

St. Bonaventure

   I celebrated Mass this morning at St. Peter the Fisherman  in Eagle River, WI.  Today is the feast of a great Franciscan saint, St. Bonaventure.  I asked the 20 or so people who were there if they knew anything about Bonaventure.  Only three raised a hand.  That experience reminded me that this great man and doctor of the Church is so well known in Franciscan circles, but not outside of it, so I thought that I would present a little about him on this blog.

   St. Bonaventure hails from a small town in Italy called Bagnoreggio in 1221. he died in 1274.  After entering the Franciscans around 1240 he was eventually ordained, became a professor of theology at the University of Paris and was a contemporary of Thomas Aquinas.  He became Minister General of the Franciscans and eventually was ordained a bishop and became a cardinal.

   It is a difficult challenge to sum up his great theological work in a few paragraphs, but I will try.  The life of Francis of Assisi was the source of his theological reflection.   Basically he looked at Francis and developed a systematic theology based on his understanding of the great saints' life.  He developed what is called a Christocentric view of the universe.  This term means much more though than Christ-centered in the sense that any Christian theology or spirituality must be that.  On a deeper level he gives emphasis to what is pointed out in the prologue of John's Gospel (Jn 1, 1-5)
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
 
 The same thought is expressed in the letter to the Collosians (See Col, 1, 15-16).
Basically what this tells us is that in the mind of God Christ is the first creation in the mind of God and that Christ was ordained to become human right from the beginning, even if humans had not sinned.  How different this is from the thought the Jesus was a type of divine intervention made necessary by sin.  Bonaventure and later Franciscan theologians like Scotus don't deny sin and the need for redemption.  They stress that the coming of Christ is the center and high point of human history, the punctuation mark on it that God planned from the beginning. These thoughts are rooted in Scripture and also in several theologian of the early Church such is Iranaeus of Lyon.  In this theology Jesus was not sent to get crucified. he was sent to proclaim the reign of God and to love us unconditionally.  When that love met sin the cross resulted.  Bonaventure sees the Cross as central and as the ultimate expression of God's unconditional love. Creation itself reflects Christ in whom all is created and the cross in which all discord and opposition are overcome. 
 
   Another aspect of Bonaventure's thought is being looked at today in light of our ever growing understanding of the universe.  He stresses not only that all is created in Christ, but that all will return to Christ, very much in line with our sense of the expanding and contracting universe.

   This theological vision is what animates all of us Franciscans.  Francis lived it.  Bonaventure reflected on it and today I am grateful to God for both of them.  I rejoice with my brother friars at St. Bonaventure University in Olean, NY and with Franciscan theologians all over the world.  I pray that any readers who are not Franciscan will have been enriched by this reflection,