Let us go to Bethlehem

“Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock.

(Luke 2:8)

Suddenly the shepherds hear the voice of an angel. Struck with awe they listen to the angel say, “Behold, I proclaim to you good news”. 

“For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”

(Luke 2: 11-12)

The shepherds turn to each other and said, “Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” (Luke 2:15)

The shepherds make their way to the little town of Bethlehem. Days before their journey, Mary and St. Joseph travel to this place to take part in the census, even though the timing was not convenient for the expectant mother. The time for her to have her child was drawing near. 

The Virgin consented to the impossible. An angel had visited her too. She gave her “fiat” to be the “handmaid of the Lord” and so the savior of the world was conceived. “The most sublime work of God’s mercy was accomplished: one Person of the Blessed Trinity, the second, came to do for us what we could not do for ourselves. Behold the Word, God’s only-begotten Son, “who for us men and for our salvation, descended from heaven and became incarnate” (Credo).” (Divine Intimacy #26, Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdelen)

The shepherds hurry along prodding the sheep with them. What will they see? 

Joseph and Mary arrive in the village, swarming with other pilgrims. It is night, cold and the time for the child’s birth is fast approaching. Joseph’s poverty as the head of the family is palpable. He must trust in God. St. Joseph trusts with “creative courage”. He arrived “in Bethlehem and finding no lodging where Mary could give birth, Joseph took a stable at hand, as best he could, turned it into a welcoming home for the Son of God come into the world.” (Patris Corde, Pope Francis)

With tender care and attention, Mary wrapped the infant Jesus tightly in cloth as any loving mother would do. Swaddling Him in strips of cloth so that He would be warm, snug and safely protected from the outside world now that He has left the womb. Swaddling infants is still something mothers do today. In past years, narrow stripes of cloth wrapped around a newborn helped to restrain a baby’s movement and quieten him to sleep more contently and prevent him from accidentally scratching his soft, fine skin.

St. Cyril of Jerusalem reminds us that Jesus was wrapped in swaddling clothes, placed in a manger, and was poor, vulnerable, dependent, and cold. The swaddling cloths foreshadowed the burial cloths. However, at His next coming, Jesus will be glorious – wrapped in light! 

“For with you is the fountain of life, and in your light we see light.”

(Ps36:10)

The Lord’s binding as an infant was one of love. He submitted to Mary’s love and attention to his tender, fragile needs as an infant. As a matter of fact, all of His bindings were bonds of love. He was bound and taken by his enemies as His hands were tied and He was led away from the Garden of Gethsemane out of love for us. He was wrapped in bands of cloth for His funeral, but at the resurrection – glorified, He removed the cloths that bound Him.

Now the shepherds have their personal encounter with Jesus, led to this encounter by the Star to a poor manger with a little baby. A baby who will “bring peace on earth”. They behold the infant, a poor infant lying in the poverty of a manger, sleeping, resting. Together with the shepherds, we move from this sight of Jesus with faith to follow Him along His way of sorrows with the Cross. 

This Christmas may we welcome the Savior. May Jesus find our hearts empty and poor with the poverty of the manger where He can come and find his rest. Seeing that only a poor heart can truly receive God, let us make room for Grace. 

Mission

I was scrolling through my Facebook feed and saw this post that was of a meme contrasting a photo of the beautiful Sainte Chapelle Cathedral with a church that had a plain and bare modern altar, plain wood cross and walls that were stark and white. The person who posted it was obviously making a statement about the beautiful architecture from the Dark Ages and how it differs from modern places of worship. I agree that one was more beautiful and attractive to the soul – drawing one to God and heavenly things. But that was not what struck me. What caught my attention was the comment made by someone else. Basically the comment was that both photos depicted money that was wasted on tax free “buildings that no longer house or feed the homeless”. I realize that there may be others that agree with the commentary since I have heard similar words from other people.

However,  this moved me to think about the mission of the Church and the mission of a Carmelite.  Cardinal Sarah in his book The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise noted that, “The Church’s mission is not to solve all the social problems of the world, she must repeat tirelessly the first words of Jesus at the beginning of his public ministry in Galilee: “ The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15)”

Feeding and housing the poor is fundamental to the mission of the Church, but more importantly is the salvation of souls. This is the primary mission of the Church – to draw souls to God, inspire them to conversion and bring these prodigal children back to God who is merciful. Beautiful buildings like the Sainte Chapelle Cathedral is one way to draw souls to God. It is because of its beauty that the building can aid a soul to think of God. These beautiful buildings are for all to enjoy, rich and poor alike, even for the non-believer.

Now the Church has always been interested in the needs of the poor. This is evident in the many hospitals, clinics, schools, and universities that the Church has founded, not to mention the many works of charity that she attends to through soup kitchens, orphanages, homes for the elderly, etc. The Church is often on the front lines in fighting for the end of poverty. Additionally it must be noted that we are all responsible for our neighbor in need. The Church also seeks to avoid the scandal of having much of the world that enjoys “an abundance of wealth, resources and economic power, and yet a huge proportion of the worlds citizens are still tormented by hunger and poverty, while countless numbers suffer from total illiteracy. (Gaudium et spes)

The worst poverty, however, is to be without God. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states in paragraph 341 that “The ultimate purpose of the mission of the Church is none other than to make men share in the communion between the Father and the Son in their Spirit of love.” Which is why the Lord commanded that the message of the Gospel be preached to all men.  For He says in Matthew 28:19-20, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and Lo, I am with you always, until the close of the age.” The truth has been entrusted to the Church, and she must go out and bring all men to the truth. God wants all to be saved and this is the motivation for all of the Church’s activity.

When I was in formation for the Secular Discalced Carmelites my formation director encouraged me to pick up and reread St. Teresa’s The Way of Perfection each year. I have to admit that I did reread it a few times, but haven’t done so every year. So I decided to pick it up again and use it as my daily spiritual reading. The beginning of the book brought to my attention once again the missionary activity of a Carmelite. St. Teresa is clear in the first three chapters that this is to pray for the preachers and teachers of the Church and for the salvation of souls. St. Teresa noted that priests and theologians “are the persons who must strengthen people who are weak”.  She saw that those who labor for the Church need God’s grace, and she wanted her sisters to beg God to help them. She also thought that they needed protection from the enticements and seductions that come from the world. While the Carmelite prays seeking intimate union with God, this is not the only reason a Carmelite prays. Our prayer is at the service of the Church. This is our mission.

 

Voluntary Poverty

Seculars Carmelites promise to strive towards evangelical perfection. Regarding these counsels the Secular Discalced Carmelites Constitutions states:

 

“Following Jesus as members of the Secular Order is expressed by the promise to strive for evangelical perfection in the spirit of the evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty and obedience and through the beatitudes.”

To strive toward evangelical poverty is not poverty for poverty’s sake, but for the sake of the Gospel. Voluntary poverty is something lay Carmelites can do for the love of God. This in not the strict poverty like those in religious orders where their Constitutions require them to relinquish ownership of material goods.

Through voluntary poverty those of us living in the world can live in solidarity with the poor. Poverty in clothes, for example, would look like a closet limited to just a few outfits. Each day could be lived like the poor by economizing the day’s spending habits. This could include not wasting food or other things, and repairing items or repurposing them, if possible, rather than throwing them away. Doing without some comforts and forgoing some conveniences would also be some ways to practice voluntary poverty. Working hard to achieve the day’s necessities, renouncing superfluous things and denying yourself the desire to acquire more things would allow more freedom and resources to help others, especially those closest to you. Doing without so that you could help others in your own family, your children and even friends would be the happy result of voluntary poverty.  You could make contributions financially to the Church, missions and the poor of the world with the money and resources that you deny yourself. This spirit of poverty will also allow you to contribute to other good works, institutions and noble causes.

Not letting material things distract you from God and your relationship with him will come from giving up the less essential things in your life. Not only that, but you will find more freedom from the occupation with things that will allow more time and energy to be given to serving God and to prayer.

Other ways to practice voluntary poverty are to not complain when deprived of something, when something is demanded of you or when confronted with some hardship. Accept your situation serenely and with patience in the spirit of voluntary poverty.

Practice voluntary poverty so that you won’t become a slave to things and develop a divided heart between loving God and loving things. Embracing voluntary poverty will allow you to be more generous with the poor and help you to draw closer to God.

For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be. ~ Mt 6:21

Our Lord’s Humility

In his hidden life, Our Lord’s humility is evident by his poverty and obedience.He was submissive to the will of the Father and left his exalted position to become a little baby. His self-effacement remained during his entire life as a man. He lived in a poor estate,often the object of ingratitude and suffered uncomplainingly. As a child he submitted to his earthly parents and was obedient to them.

When he began his public life proclaiming by word and deed that he was the Son of God, he did so in a discreet, clear manner and spoke in a way to reach the minds of all people of good will. He was totally forgetful of himself, always thinking of others. He surrounded himself with ignorant and unrefined people. Because of this he was little esteemed. This fact is so counter to the actions of the proud. Jesus showed preference to those the world despises: the poor, the afflicted, little children, and those the world disowns. When he taught, he made sure his teaching was plain and simple. Therefore, he was in no way seeking the admiration of others.

Jesus did not engage in calculated acts of austerity. He simply ate what everyone else was eating, he attends a wedding, and was a frequent guest at banquets. He shunned popularity, often having to slip away to avoid the praise and exaltation of the crowds. This was most evident when the people wanted to make him king.

He was totally dependent on God the Father. He did nothing of himself, but only out of submissiveness to his Father. When he spoke it was only to give expression to some doctrine. He never sought his own glory but only that of his Father.

In his passion, he is a man of sorrow. Wearied and betrayed by his friends, he bears the outrages that are mounded upon him. Even though deserted by his friends, he still loves them. He suffers all sorts of insults and offenses and does so in silence. Verbally abused and defamed, he doesn’t justify himself. Even when treated like a fool, he utters not a word. Unjustly condemned, and still he says nothing. Those to whom he had done so much good choose a murder instead. He allows himself to be physically mistreated: whipped, crowned with thorns, mocked and crucified – all without complaint.

Sneered at and insulted by those who hated him, he prays for them and makes excuses for them before his Father. Abandoned by his followers, deprived of his dignity as a man, stripped of his reputation and honor, he surrenders to it all for love of sinful man.

The Two Pillars

The two pillars of St. Teresa’s way of life are poverty and solitude. This should come as no surprise. St. Teresa perceived these to be essential to the reform she set out to undertake. Life in the Incarnation the years before the reform were much different. The monastery was large with a number of nuns, many visitors and lots of activity. Many of the nuns were wealthy and brought their servants with them. There was no strict enclosure, so the nuns could come and go as they pleased.

Given these conditions it is no wonder that St. Teresa focused her new foundation on these two things:

Poverty                           

Solitude

St. Teresa and her nuns of the reform loved poverty. They trusted in God to provide for the things they needed. They held all things in common. No one was to own anything. They were to renounce ownership even of particular offices which were exchanged by the prioress from time to time to keep anyone from becoming attached to any one position or job. They did not worry about having enough food either. “And if at times there wasn’t enough food for everyone and I said that what there was should go to those most in need, each one thought that she could do without, and so the food remained until God sent enough for everyone.” (The Foundations, 1,2).  The fruits yielded from this love were: detachment, charity, abandonment to God and contentment.

For those of us living in the world as seculars, material poverty would be imprudent, especially if we are supporting a family. But we can practice the spirit of poverty. Are we trying to accumulate masses of this or that? A lack of the spirit of poverty can be summed up in being attached to anything. How can you know if you are attached to something? Well, if it is taken away or gone and you become sad – you are attached! The spirit of poverty could also be called a “holy indifference”. It doesn’t matter if you have that new ______or not, or if that favorite ______ is now gone.

St. Teresa also saw that solitude was necessary to live a life of prayer.  To be alone with Christ so that an encounter with Christ can take place. This encounter is life-giving (love-giving) because Christ is the source of life, of love. However, solitude needs time and space. Therefore, we need to make the time and space in order to live this life of prayer. An assessment of our life, of the difficulties and impediments to this time and space needs to be examined and steps made in order to make way for this longed-for encounter with Christ.

Some of the difficulties to living solitude for those of us who live in the world include the business of our state in life. Our duties to family and work come first. Also, the state of our health can present an obstacle to this solitude, so can fatigue. Distractions are a big obstacle, especially – letting other things occupy our heart. A lack of a good time and space can also infringe on our prayer. At home we need to create a time and place to devote to prayer where this can be done regularly and without interruptions.

What is the best time of day for me to pray where it is quiet and I can be alone?

Where is the best place for me to spend in silence and devotion to God?

How can I make this space and time conductive to prayer?

Finally, we should ask -Why would I want to create this time and place for solitude? If the answer is because of a desire to live a life of prayer it must be remembered that a life of prayer needs to be nourished and expressed in love for others.