Here in the monastery we pray the Divine Office five times a day. This is the official prayer of the Church comprised of Psalms and Canticles taken from the Bible, along with various scriptural and spiritual readings, and ending with intercessions on behalf of the people of God. One gets familiarized with the sentiments of these prayers after praying them continually day after day, but there is also something strikingly fresh and relevant in their ancient pleas and praise of the Creator. Most of the time it seems that the Psalmist is in need, dire need, I would say, as he cries out for God’s help in some situation that is pressing down upon him, be it an army of invaders at his door or the weakness of his own puny human resources. There is that realization that without God’s assistance, he just can’t do it alone. So whenever he is in crisis, he does the only logical thing: he lifts up his hands in prayer and cries out to God for help.
Somehow along the line of human history, this simple direct method of unburdening ourselves has been replaced by so many other sophisticated processes. Our knowledge of the human person has expanded in so many directions that asking for God’s help has often been left out of the picture. Indeed, it has frequently been looked upon as an escape or defense mechanism to subvert the true way to get to the real answers to our human dilemmas. So we see how minimally it is called upon in our modern world and tossed aside as an “out-grown” garment would be. There is just no need for it any longer.
Then comes the “uncontrollable” situation. With all our advances and “know-how to’s,” something emerges which is utterly inconceivable and incomprehensible to everything which we have carefully created contingencies for. Again, we are in a jam and that “jam” can be a precious moment of truth or consequences. Does God purposely delight in confounding our best laid plans to teach us that reliance upon Him is what is most important? Surely He does not want to leave us crippled by an unhealthy dependency. His gift of free will to us, as we Christians understand it, leaves the ultimate choice up to us. We can turn to Him when the going gets tough or we can go it on our own. The beauty and the terror are all there in their raw potential. However, should we choose to go the path of trust… well, that is another matter. We must in any case be prepared to travel the road less traveled because nobody gets anywhere without the courage to face up to the fears that surround us on all sides. As someone has phrased it: “Not just fear, but THE fear – the fear that limits the possibilities of human life – fear of death, fear of self, fear of the universe.” Reading the Psalms we encounter this world of distress, fear, annihilation, and taste the inner conflicts of human existence. And what do we learn from such an engagement? We learn true wisdom, if we are open to it and ready for it.
Here are a few proffered morsels of reflection that come from reading the Psalms on a daily basis:
- God hears our pleas even if we don’t get an immediate response. This may be hard to believe when day by day goes by and nothing changes, or seems to get worse. The Psalmist cries out for deliverance and then bemoans “my one companion is darkness!” We are tempted to think that God is immovable and intransigent, untouched by our paltry problems; we give up and take the way of least resistance (which is often the way of the Evil One). Yet we must expect to engage God “ongoingly.”
- God needs our consent to enter our sacred spaces. It is not for sheer poetry that we say and sing “Come Lord Jesus, or O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” We must really invite the Lord into our hearts and lives by telling Him so, every day. This is what the Psalmist does with almost every breath. There is unction in his voice, if we were to hear him speak. Nothing blasé comes from the mouth of the Psalmist. It is all intensity, all heartfelt. God is a consuming fire and loves “burning” hearts and “inflamed” spirits.
- God is God of the impossible. Anything is possible where God is concerned. He is the ultimate in resourcefulness and is undaunted by our waywardness and sometimes catastrophic blunders, though leaves us free to suffer their consequences. However, the divine heart is merciful and kind, willing to give us another chance if we sincerely turn back to Him.
As I continue writing this, I encounter a relevant message during Midday Prayer:
“When I fear, I will trust in you, in God whose word I praise. In God I trust, I shall not fear: what can mortal man do to me?” [Ps 56]
Ah, the good God seems to be right on track with sound advice given at the right moment. Then at Evening Prayer, it continues: “I trusted, even when I said: ‘I am sorely afflicted,’ and when I said in my alarm: ‘No man can be trusted.’” God knows our fears just as He knew the psalmist’s. God assures us just as He assured the psalmist that the time of sorrow will pass and that we can count on Him when all else fails.
The barriers of fear that hem us in due to our human brokenness do have an “escape hatch”: it is the grace that comes from drawing close to the Heart of our Redeemer. Christ is the healer of all our wounds and will aid us in the restoration that we all need. His Divine Heart is a wellspring and when we look to Him and place Him at the center of our lives, spiritual waters of rejuvenation begin to flow over us, helping us to change our fearful hearts into trustful ones.
Recently I’ve become acquainted with the life of Father George Calciu who is a good example of someone whom Christ’s grace slowly transformed into a pillar of fearlessness. Father George was of Romanian birth and Orthodox faith and became enmeshed in the communist crackdown which began to take place in his country around 1944. He was imprisoned in 1948 and mercilessly tortured until he became helpless in body and spirit. “They wanted our souls, not our bodies,” he later confessed. While in captivity he made a vow to become a priest, if he survived his ordeal. His prayer was heard and upon his release in 1964, he entered into the academic world, married, and was secretly ordained in 1973. As time went on he began to speak out more vehemently against the oppression which still gripped his country until he was imprisoned for a second time. This time, however, he did not waver despite beatings and torture and years of solitary confinement (all tolled he spent twenty-one years in prison). Here is a story which he later recounted after his miraculous release and exile to America. It occurred one night when he began to hear the peal of church bells at Easter. “Early the next morning, the worst guard in the prison ‘who delighted in torture’ entered the priest’s cell. He should have turned his face to the wall. Instead, Fr. George looked his tormenter boldly in the eye and proclaimed, ‘Christ is risen!’ Rather than delivering a blow, the guard paused, and blurted out, ‘In Truth He is Risen!’ and nervously backed out of the cell.”* It was then that Fr. George experienced what in the Orthodox faith is known as the Uncreated Light.
He shut the door and I was petrified, because of what he had said. And little by little, I saw myself full of light. The board against the wall was shining like the sun; everything in my cell was full of light. I cannot explain in words the happiness that invaded me then. I can explain nothing. It simply happened.*
Fr. George lived out his days in freedom but deposited his bad memories in the heart of the merciful Redeemer. It is said of him: “He had a beaming smile. He was often amused by life, and ready to laugh… he was joyful… he was naturally affectionate and would hold hands with others… just beaming with a radiant smile.”*
In the Salesian tradition of our founder St. Francis de Sales there is also a great emphasis on confidence in God. We probably all have heard the rather famous prayer which Francis composed:
“Do not look forward to what might happen tomorrow. The same everlasting Father who cares for you today, will take care of you tomorrow and everyday. Either he will shield you from suffering or he will give you unfailing strength to bear it. Be at peace then.”
William Barclay, the renowned scripture scholar reiterates why this is so: “Because God is love, his creating act is followed by his constant care.” Francis truly believed this. God’s constant care, his providence, is always at work, and the more we trust in that providential care, the more we lean into His love, thus lessening our fearfulness. Of course, Francis had many suggestions as to how this could be done. As one current writer noted: “Little consoling phrases pepper Francis’ texts; for instance, “‘we must not fret over our own imperfections’; ‘let us be of good heart’; ‘God will help us’; ‘we will do better’; ‘have great courage and confidence in his mercy’; ‘do not be solicitous and worried’; ‘you will receive countless blessings’”…**
There is a poignant aspiration in this month’s Magnificat magazine which prays:
“Father of all, I am rough, unfinished, and immature. But, however I am, I want to be all yours.”
Surely the fears that lurk in all our hearts can find their consolation in the caring heart of the Eternal One who came as a small babe to assure us and to assuage our fears. The proclamation of good news which the heavens echoed on the first Christmas night of peace to all of good will is something that we need to ponder because only hearts that carry “good will” shall know the absence of fear. Only when the shadows within us are brought into the light will we begin to sweep away the unnamed fears that haunt us and block real peace from happening. The saints tell us that it is only through the trusting embrace of the cross of Christ that we come to understand what true peace is and this doesn’t guarantee the elimination of all fear, but it does give us a supernatural entry into God’s heart. Come what may, then, we have the presence of grace to aid us in our hour of need. So let us look to the Sacred Heart for strength and courage in the days ahead, believing in His immense love for each of us, praying the final words of the Church’s Te Deum: “Come then, Lord, and help your people, bought with the price of your own blood, and bring us with your saints to glory everlasting.” AMEN.†