November 26, 2010

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Pray and keep on looking forward during Advent

For years, I have used a book containing daily meditations as part of my morning reflection. Off and on, I quote from this series in my weekly column.

In order to look ahead to the season of Advent, I took the first volume of In Conversation with God by Opus Dei Father Francis Fernandez (Scepter Press) off my book shelf.

I discovered a passage from the life of St. Teresa of Avila that appeals to me. I had not noticed it before. It addresses the reality of distraction in prayer. I want to quote it at length because some of you have told me that you struggle with this challenge of distraction.

St. Teresa wrote: “It would have been impossible, I think, for me to persevere during the 18 years for which I had to bear this trial and these great aridities due to my being unable to meditate. During all these years, except after receiving Communion, I never dared to begin to pray without a book. My soul was as much afraid to engage in prayer without one as if it were having to go and fight a host of enemies. With this help, which was a companionship and a shield with which I could parry the blows of my many thoughts, I felt comforted. For it was not usual for me to suffer from aridity: this only came when I had no book, whereupon my soul would at once become disturbed and my thoughts begin to wander. As soon as I started to read, they began to collect themselves and the book acted like bait to my soul. Often the mere fact that I had it by me was sufficient. Sometimes I read a little, sometimes a great deal, according to the favor which the Lord showed me” (St. Teresa, Life, 4). St. Teresa is down-to-earth.

As I turned to the suggested meditation for the First Sunday of Advent, I found a quotation from an Advent sermon by Msgr. Ronald Knox. He had a way of preaching that hits home. And so I offer another lengthy quotation.

“Everybody knows, even those of us who have lived most unadventurously, what it is to plod on for miles, it seems, eagerly straining your eyes towards the lights that somehow mean home. How difficult it is, when you are doing that to judge distances! In pitch darkness, it might be a couple of miles to your destination; it might be a few hundred yards. So it was, I think, with the Hebrew prophets, as they looked forward to the redemption of their people. They could not have told you within a hundred years, within 500 years, when it was the deliverance would come. They only knew that some time, the stock of David would burgeon anew; some time, a key would be found to fit the door of their prison house; some time the light that only showed now, like a will-o’-the wisp on the horizon would broaden out, at last, into perfect day.

“This attitude of expectation is one which the Church wants to encourage in us, her children, permanently. She sees it as an essential part of our Christian drill that we should still be looking forward; getting on for 2,000 years, now, since the first Christmas Day came and went, and we must still be looking forward. So she encourages us, during Advent, to take the shepherd-folk for our guides, and imagine ourselves traveling with them, at dead of night, straining our eyes towards that chink of light which streams out, we know, from the cave at Bethlehem” (R. A. Knox, Sermon on Advent, Dec. 21, 1947).

Msgr. Knox said we must keep on looking forward. How do we do so during this time of Advent?

First of all, it means we must watch and pray with a renewed attentiveness. Vigilance is required of us at all times, but in this season of expectation it is ­particularly appropriate. We need to examine our values to see if perhaps we are so fixed on the “things of the earth,” that we miss the point of Christmas, indeed of life itself.

It might be appropriate for us to practice some sacrifices as part of our way of being a little more watchful for the true values presented to us in Advent and for Christmas. Our parishes offer the sacrament of penance and reconciliation. We might make an extra effort to take advantage of this sacrament as a primary way of making ourselves ready for the celebration of Christmas.

Two Marian feasts also offer a special way to celebrate the Advent season. The Feast of the Immaculate Conception and the Feast of Mary as our Lady of Guadalupe are timely. †

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