Category Archives: prayer

Revolutionary prayer: Merton and Barth

On December 10, 1968, two great twentieth century religious men died.

One, Karl Barth, was a Swiss Reformed Church pastor and theologian, who is renowned for his role with the German Confessing Church, which saw allegiance to Hitler as heresy and apostasy.

The other, Thomas Merton, was a Trappist monk, famous for his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. In his life of silence in the Abbey of Gethsemani, he wrote books and letters that shared his concern for deep love of God and his opposition to war, racism, and poverty.

Both these men shared a sense that prayer is essential for our spiritual life – and for real change in the world.

For Merton, prayer opens us to the new horizons that God is always revealing to us, if we would listen in prayer. In Contemplation in a World of Action, Merton wrote:

Prayer and meditation have an important part to play in opening up new ways and new horizons. If your prayer is the expression of a deep and grace-inspired desire for newness of life—and not the mere blind attachment to what has always been familiar and “safe”—God will act in us and through us to renew the Church by preparing, in prayer, what we cannot yet imagine or understand. In this way our prayer and faith today will be oriented toward the future which we ourselves may never see fully realized on earth.

In prayer, we can be vulnerable enough to lay aside our visions and open ourselves to the vision that God has for us and for our world. God opens us to what is possible – with God’s help and vision.

I think that is why Karl Barth saw prayer as important and wrote:

To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of our uprising against the disorder of the world.

When we pray we acknowledge that the powers of this world are ephemeral and often tied to fear and violence. When we pray we can see that allegiance to Hitler – and to systems of violence and racism – are apostasy, refusals to acknowledge a living God who call us to solidarity and nonviolence.

Prayer does not take us out of the world; prayer takes us where we can see that the world is not as God wants it; and prayer can change us so that we can be signs and agents of God’s vision for this world and for the Kingdom. Prayer can be revolutionary.

The earth’s shadow and the crescent moon

I missed commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Flannery O’Connor on August 3.

Flannery O’Connor’s novels and short stories are not always the easiest pieces to read and understand, as she often portrays the presence of grace and sin with what, to my prejudiced eye, are bizarre characters. But her works are worthy of study.

Many years ago a friend (I think it was Jim Forest) introduced me to her collection of letters, The Habit of Being, letter which give us a privileged look into the spiritual and intellectual life of this extraordinary woman. They are well worth a read, not once, but several times.

Last year some prayers she wrote early in her life – when she was in Iowa City – were published as A Prayer Journal.

lunar eclipse

lunar eclipse

I began reading the book this afternoon while waiting for a doctor’s appointment. I could not get past these two paragraphs on page 3:

Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon. The crescent is very beautiful and perhaps that is all one like I am should or could see; but what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing.

I do not know You God because I am in the way. Please help me to push myself aside.

Help me push myself aside!

The Romero Prayer by Bishop Untener

Ten years ago today, at the age of 66, Bishop Kenneth Untener of Saginaw, Michigan, passed on to the Lord.

He was a bishop who sought to live as a pastor who opens the door to life in abundance. As he once wrote, “The shepherd brings them to the wide open spaces, green pastures, wider horizons, where they can have a freedom they never knew before.”

His pastoral style was reflected in his greeting to a meeting soon after his consecration as bishop: “Hello, I’m Ken, and I’ll be your waiter.”

He spent much of his time on the road, visiting the parishes in his diocese and staying in various rectories.

But what he might be most remembered for is a prayer he wrote in 1979 for Cardinal Dearden. For some unknown reason it was attributed to Archbishop Oscar Romero and became known as “The Romero Prayer.”

Though it expresses some of the spirituality of Romero, it is the work of Bishop Untener. It is a good prayer to pray this Lent.

It helps now and then to step back
and take the long view.
The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime
only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise
that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete,
which is another way of saying
that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection;
no pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds
that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted,
knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations
that will need further development.
We provide yeast
that produces effects far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything,
and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something,
and do it very well.
It may be incomplete,
but it is a beginning,
a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter
and do the rest.
We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference
between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders,
ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future that is not our own.



Awakening in the Lord

There are a few lines from St. Patrick’s rune which might serve us well this morning.

I arise today:
in the might of God for my piloting;
power of God for my stability;
wisdom of God for my guidance;
eye of God for my foresight;
ear of God for my hearing;
word of God for my word;
hand of God for my guard;
path of God for my prevention;
shield of God for my protection;
host of God for my salvation;
against any demon’s snare;
against all vice’s lure;
against concupiscence;
against ill-wishes far and near.

God’s is always present – if we pay attention.

Listen to Him

The voice heard on the Mount of Transfiguration:

“This is my beloved Son. Listen to Him.”

Rafael's Transfiguration (detail)

Rafael’s Transfiguration (detail)

But do we listen?

And, even if we listen, what do we hear? our own thoughts and desires, our personal ideologies?

How hard it is to really listen, to open my heart to the person on front of me – and above all to listen to God.

Today I am off to Bonito Oriental, Colon, in northeastern Honduras, for a retreat – a time to listen to God.

May I be open to that still small voice, that calls me.




The foolishness of love

The wisdom of this world is foolishness in the eyes of God.
1 Corinthians 3: 9

 What can be as crazy as loving your enemies, as Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel, Matthew 5: 44?

What can be as foolhardy as praying for your persecutors – except praying that they may die before killing you?

An “eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” makes sense, until you realize, with Gandhi, that taking an eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.

Love your enemies.

We won’t even talk to those who hold a political position different from ours.

This is not just a problem in the polarized situation in the US. It is a problem here in the deeply polarized climate of Honduras. A friend recently told me of a base community in which two families have stopped coming – since they are in conflict largely because they supported different political parties (the Nationalists and LIBRE) in the last election.

Pray for your persecutors.

You’ve got to be kidding; they are out to kill me and take away my liberty.

But Saint Polycarp, the second century bishop of Smyrna whose feast is today, made sure that the soldiers who came to take him away had dinner. He went off to pray as they ate.

Closer to our time, one day, Dom Helder Camara, the twentieth century bishop of Recife, Brazil, opened the door of his humble dwelling to a man who was sent to assassinate him. The man demurred – “I cannot kill a man of God.”

Praying for persecutors, responding in love to them is not going to assure that we are not killed or injured. But it can make a difference in our lives and in the world.

Consider the example of Bud Welch whose daughter Julie was killed in the Oklahoma City bombing. It was not easy and it took him a while but he went and visited the father of one of the bombers, Timothy McVeigh.

Bud came to realize that it would be wrong to kill McVeigh and the other bomber, for “the day that we might kill either one of them would be a day of vengeance and rage, and vengeance and rage is exactly why Julie and 167 others are dead.”

How to begin this?

Very simply, pray each day for someone with whom you are in conflict. Let God change your heart as well as theirs.

When I was a kid we prayed at the end of each Mass for the conversion of Russia. We forgot to pray for the conversion of our own country, the United States.

We forgot what Thomas Merton wrote at the end of one of his most poignant articles “The Root of War Is Fear”:

…instead of loving what you think is peace, love other men and love God above all. And instead of hating the people you think are warmongers, hate the appetites and the disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war. If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed—but hate these things in yourself, not in another.

Let us pray for our own conversion and then we may be able to begin to love our enemies.

How foolish!





Meeting Christ

Last week we had an assembly of catechists in the rural parish where I am helping. Many of these have very limited formal education and several cannot read, but they devote themselves to passing on the faith to children and young people.

One of the challenges they face is the pedantic nature of education here in Honduras. They are ingrained with the idea that education means memorizing, knowing things. Imagination is often at a premium.

This means that people here are often taught about Christ – but not formed in how we might encounter Christ. There are lots of prayers – but do they lead to Christ?

To offer an alternative way of praying, we offered an adaptation of Ignatian contemplation.

After some breathing exercise to center ourselves, we invited them to picture themselves at one of their daily tasks. Suddenly Jesus is present where they are. What do they want to tell him? What does he say to them?

The experience was moving. In near complete silence –interrupted only by infants walking around – the catechists took time to open themselves to encountering Christ for themselves.

I’m planning on trying this in a slightly different form in other meetings with catechists – especially helping them to pray Gospel stories imaginatively.

This comes from the Ignatian tradition – found especially in the Spiritual Exercises.

This morning I came across this prayer of Father Pedro Arrupe, S.J., the Father General of the Jesuits who died on February 5, 1991. It provides an example of how one might begin to pray in this fashion.

Teach me your way of looking at people:
as you glanced at Peter after his denial,
as you penetrated the heart of the rich young man
and the hearts of your disciples.

I would like to meet you as you really are,
since your image changes those with whom you come in contact.


The prayer is taken from Hearts on Fire: Praying with  Jesuits, a collection of  prayers published by Loyola Press which I find very helpful.

“Without event”

They also serve
who only stand and wait.
John Milton 

 For more than forty years, Brother Alfonso Rodríguez answered the door at the Jesuit college in Majorca.

But his simple faith, nourished by prayer and service to all who entered the door, brought the love of God to many. This man who had been refused entry to the Jesuits in his late thirties became a spiritual adviser to many – and inspired St. Peter Claver to go to the Americas.

The Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a beautiful sonnet In Honor of St. Alphonsus Rodriguez. In the last stanza he wrote:

 …while there went
Those years and years by of the world without event
That in Majorca Alfonso watched the door.

This morning the words “without event” struck me. Hermano Alfonso did no major deed that the annals of history might recount, but his simple service changed the lives of many.

In today’s first reading. St. Paul tells the Romans (8:39) that nothing “can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Paul, of course, lists death, the powers, and more as possible threats to that love.

But might the ordinariness of life also separate us from God’s love.

When we, unlike Alfonso, do not see and show the love of God in the ordinary people we meet, in the daily tasks of opening doors and treating people with welcoming kindness, are we letting ourselves be separated from the love of Christ?

But what kept Alfonso going?

Perhaps these words of his can give us a hint:

 This is my happiness, this my pleasure:
to live with Jesus, to walk with Jesus,
to converse with Jesus,
to suffer with and for him,
this is my treasure.


Preaching, poverty, and prayer

Saint Dominic – Domingo Guzman – was a contemporary of Saint Francis. Like his contemporary he saw the necessity to preach the Gospel while living in poverty and simplicity.

Dominic began his ministry in southern France, where the dualist Cathars had attracted many, especially by their simple way of life. Dominic saw preaching effectively should include a simple way of life. He and his bishop preached barefoot and did not travel in the fancy carriages of other preachers. They also established a house for women which became the source of the Dominican sisters.

Eventually Dominic and male followers established the Order of Friars Preachers, first with diocesan approval and then later with the approval of the pope.

In one sense Francis sought to personify the Gospel by his life and his preaching, which we witness especially in the stigmata which he bore in the last two years of his life.

Dominic, on the other hand, sought to preach the Good News and saw his followers as disciples and missionaries. For this task, he saw the need for study, something that distinguished him from St. Francis.

But both Francis and Dominic saw the need to live poorly, to witness to the Gospel in the way their friars lived – wandering about preaching, living simply, and begging.

Dominic’s legacy includes great theologians, like St. Albert the Great and St. Thomas Aquinas. The mystic St. Catherine of Siena was a lay Dominican. Bishop Bartolomé de las Casas, the great advocate of the indigenous in the Americas, joined the Dominicans, probably in part because of their strong preaching against slavery. In our days, the liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez joined the Dominicans after many years as a diocesan priest in Perú.

Preaching the Gospel does not only demand knowledge of the scriptures. It is not only nurtured by careful study. Preaching the Gospel demands a simple life, a life where poverty has a part.

As he lay dying, Dominic addressed these words to his brothers, as cited in Richard McBrien’s Lives of the Saints :

My dear sons, there are my bequests: practice charity in common, remain humble, stay poor willingly.

Robert Ellsberg, in All Saints, has a slightly different version:

 All my children, what I leave to you: have charity, guard humility, and make your treasure out of voluntary poverty.

If we would follow these words, our witness and our preaching would be much more credible. Perhaps that is why Pope Francis is so inspiring.

But such ministry must also be based in deep prayer.

In the Dominican friary of San Marco in Florence, Fra Angelico and his students painted frescoes on the walls of the friars’ cell. In the bottom of a fresco of the Mocking of Christ is found the image of Dominic, sitting, meditating on the Scriptures.

St. Dominic (by Fra Angelico)

St. Dominic (by Fra Angelico)

In the sight of the suffering Christ, we are called to meditate on God’s Word – listening to the voice of God.

With this base, we can live the Good News as Francis and Dominic did – in the light of God’s love for us.



July has been a difficult month for me. I am slowly recuperating from a bad case of bronchitis. My car has had numerous problems – brakes (twice), alternator (twice), clutch, and brake booster.

What’s almost worse is that the last week I have not gotten out to the countryside – which is what really gives me deep joy. Yesterday I did help with a workshop on Human Rights and Catholic Social Thought with campesinos from the rural areas of the Santa Rosa parish. But that’s different than being with the people where they live and work.

But this morning as I awoke – after sleeping in till 6:45 am – I had a sense that God was telling me:

I love you and I want you to share my Love with the world, with the poor.

In one way this reflects my experience in the chapel of the Basilica of Saint Clare in Assisi, before the San Damiano crucifix that spoke to Francis. As I knelt in prayer, I found myself asking God what I was to do.

Love. Love Me. Love My people. Love the poor.

All so simple – except when it comes to putting it into practice.

Crucified Christ in Santiago Atitlán Church

Crucified Christ in Santiago Atitlán Church

But then this morning, reading the entry for Father Stan Rother in Robert Ellsberg’s  All Saints,  I came across this request that Father Stan made to his friends, a few months before being killed on July 28, 1981, in his parish in Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala, a request that I make:

Pray for us that we may be a sign of the love of Christ for our people, that our presence among them will fortify them to endure these sufferings in preparation for the coming of the Kingdom.

So today I need to remember God’s love for me and ask for the love to be a sign of Christ’s love.

As Father Stan did, so do I ask for your prayers.

We are in this together.

It’s all too simple.