Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Sign of the Cross as Parenthesis

The Cross is the symbol of the Christian faith: when we see a cross, we remember the Paschal Mystery, we remember how God became man and died and rose for us so that we could be raised to eternal life with Him, to be "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Pt 1:4).  While seeing or meditating on a cross, or especially a crucifix, is one way to bring to mind the Paschal Mystery, the most common way we do so is through the Sign of the Cross.  When we mark ourselves with the Sign of the Cross, we remember that "we were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life" (Rom 6:4).

(As a sidebar before going further, each lung of the Church has a different method of making the Sign of the Cross, and each has its own symbolism.  In the West, the hand is open when crossing oneself: the five fingers spread out represent the five wounds of Christ.  In the East, the thumb, pointer, and middle fingers are touching, and the other two fingers touch the palm: the three fingers pointing up represent the three Persons of the Trinity, and the two fingers pointing down represent the two natures of Jesus Christ, the human and the divine, and this downward direction represents how the Son of God descended from heaven and "emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men" (Phil 2:7).  Also, in the West, the left shoulder is touched first, and in the East, the right shoulder is touched: I do not remember the reason for this, though it was explained to me once.)

Possibly the most frequent use of the Sign of the Cross is in beginning and ending prayers.  Short prayers, such as grace before meals or a prayer before starting a class, almost always begin and end with the Sign of the Cross, and the liturgy does as well (all liturgies: the Mass, the Liturgy of the Hours, the Divine Liturgies in the Eastern Churches, and all others (if any do not, I humbly apologize for my presumption on this point)).  In a sense, then, the Sign of the Cross functions as a parenthesis, opening and closing prayer.  The remembrance of the Paschal Mystery that it brings enters us into a prayerful state of mind, thus "disengaging" us from the world.

(As another sidebar, the Sign of the Cross does not always have this parenthesis usage: during liturgies, it is often used frequently.  The Extraordinary Form of the Mass includes over 50 Signs of the Cross made by the priest, if I remember correctly, and even the Liturgy of the Hours has an extra Sign of the Cross when the Gospel canticle is prayed.  In these usages, the Sign of the Cross functions as either a blessing or as a marker of the importance of a part of the prayer.)

All of this is just background information for one interesting suggestion I heard from a catechist recently: when opening a class in prayer, do not have a second Sign of the Cross at the end of the opening prayer; likewise, when ending the class, do not begin the ending prayer with a Sign of the Cross, but only end it with one.  The purpose of this is to make the entire class a prayer by enclosing it in the parentheses of the Sign of the Cross.  Building from this suggestion, the idea came to mind of making the whole day a prayer by enclosing it in the parentheses of the Cross, that is, opening the day with a Sign of the Cross upon waking and closing the day with it upon going to bed.  To take the parenthesis analogy further, different parts of the day could be marked off as deeper times of prayer within the larger prayer of the day using the typical opening and closing with the Sign of the Cross: thus the Mass would be a deeper prayer within the entire prayer of the day.  This is just one suggestion, and it may be completely ignored: I just wished to offer this as another way to live out St. Paul's exhortation "Pray unceasingly" (1 Thess 5:17). 

To conclude, I offer a few words from St. Cyprian of Carthage on the Sign of the Cross:

"In the...Sign of the Cross is all virtue and power...In this Sign of the Cross is salvation for all who are marked on their foreheads."

I humbly offer this post in the hope that some good may come of it for you, my readers.  Thank you for your patronage, and God Bless.

St. Cyprian of Carthage, pray for us!

Nota Bene: Inspiration for this post came from Kevin Bailey, M.A., who gave the suggestion of making an entire class a prayer through the use of the Sign of the Cross as "parentheses."  The quote from St. Cyprian came from Dr. Scott Hahn's The Lamb's Supper, p. 43.  The video is from the YouTube channel DominicanAllSaints.  I did not make the video, and if the creators wish me to remove it, I will gladly do so.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

A Bipulmonary Spiritual Classic

Dom Lorenzo Scupoli, C.R.'s Il combattimento spirituale (The Spiritual Combat) is one of the classic works of Catholic spirituality regarding spiritual warfare.  The author was a member of the Congregation of Clerks Regular of the Divine Providence, better known as the Theatines, who lived between 1530 and 1610, publishing this work, his most famous, in 1589.  For centuries, this work has been an ascetic classic in the Western Church: one great devotee of the work was St. Francis de Sales, a Doctor of the Church, who carried it in his pocket for 20 years.

The work's popularity did not stop in the Western Church, though: it migrated to the East, making this classic one revered by both lungs of the Church, West and East.  Nicodemus the Hagiorite (Hagiorite means "of the Holy Mountain," that is, Mount Athos in Greece), a Greek Orthodox saint of the 18th century, came across this text and was enamored by it.  Seeing its potential for spiritual growth among the Orthodox, he translated the work into Greek without revealing its origins, while altering a few sections and including notes with copious quotes and examples from both the Scriptures and the Eastern Fathers.  Nicodemus' rendition, entitled Αορατος Πολεμος (Unseen Warfare), became a spiritual classic in the Greek East as well, especially among the monks of Mount Athos, where Nicodemus lived.

The spread of this work was not complete in Greece, though, for there was another major land it would head to: Russia.  Bishop Theophan the Recluse, a famous 19th century Russian monk and saint of the Russian Orthodox Church, found Nicodemus' rendition of Scupoli's work, and he made his own changes to it as he translated it into Russian (among these changes, he reduced the bipulmonary nature of Nicodemus' rendition: while the Greek left Scupoli's many Western references, while adding Eastern ones, the Russian removed the West almost completely, leaving the work almost thoroughly Easternized).

Scupoli's work thus gives an example of the way the Western and Eastern churches are connected.  This work (particularly in Nicodemus' rendition) breathes with both lungs of the Church: it takes its basis from the West while adding the ancient traditions of the East.  If only more spiritual classics could cross the barriers between Rome, Constantinople, and Moscow!  If only we would be enriched with not just the wonderful treasures of the West--St. Benedict, St. Augustine, St. Jerome, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, St. Therese of Lisieux, Bl. Pope John Paul II the Great--but also the countless ancient gems of the East--St. John Climacus, St. Isaac the Syrian, St. Barsanuphius, St. Makarios, St. Maximos, St. Ephrem, St. Basil, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Gregory the Theologian, St. Symeon the New Theologian.  I hope that in the future, the two halves of the Church may be reunited so that the Church will once again be able to breathe with both lungs, as Bl. Pope John Paul II said.

Below are a few quotes from Theophan's rendition of the work: I hope you find them spiritually fruitful, and if so, thank the Lord and his work through these writers.  I am just a channel of their wisdom, passing it on undisturbed from them to you.

"If you really desire to be victorious in this unseen warfare and be rewarded with a crown, you must plant in your heart the following four dispositions and spiritual activities, as it were arming yourself with invisible weapons, the most trustworthy and unconquerable of all, namely: (a) never rely on yourself in anything; (b) bear always in your heart a perfect and all-daring trust in God alone; (c) strive without ceasing; and (d) remain constantly in prayer" (I.1).

"Always sincerely dispose yourself to keep nothing but God's pleasure in view" (I.10).

"Holy Virgin, do not let me yield to the enemies and be vanquished by them.  O my guardian Angel, cover me with your wings against enemy arrows, and with your sword strike them down and cut them off from me" (I.14).

"When you are occupied with reading the word of God, have in mind that God is secretly present beneath every word, and take these words as issuing from His divine lips" (I.23).

"In spiritual warfare, by prayer you put your battle-axes in God's hand, that He should fight your enemies and overcome them" (I.46).

"Full and real prayer is when praying words and praying thoughts are combined with praying feelings" (I.47).

"Your heart, beloved, is made by God for the sole purpose of loving Him alone and of serving as a dwelling for Him" (II.14).

"The key, which opens the mysterious treasure-house of spiritual gifts of knowledge and Divine love, is humility, renunciation of self and surrendering oneself to God at all times and in every action" (II.20).

I hope you found this post fruitful: if so, thank the Lord, not me.  Thank you for reading this work of a sinner, and God Bless.

St. Cajetan, founder of the Theatines, pray for us!

Nota Bene: Information for this post came from Wikipedia (Lorenzo Scupoli, Theatines), Prof. H.A. Hodges' Introduction to Unseen Warfare (see it on Google Books here), and Catholic catechumen.  The quotes come from Bishop Theophan the Recluse's revision of Nicodemus the Hagiorite's edition of Dom Lorenzo Scupoli's The Spiritual Combat, published as Unseen Warfare by St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, translated from the Russian by E. Kadloubovsky and G.E.H. Palmer.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Spiritual Work in the Desert: Suggestions for Lent

Lent is a time of the desert.  In the desert, we lack what we previously thought we needed but truly did not: in the desert, we are stripped of excess.  Yet the desert is not just a place of aridity and ascesis: it is also a place of God. 

"Spiritual work is essential, it is for this that we have come to the desert."

Countless holy men and women went to the desert to be united with the Triune God: St. Anthony the Great, St. Mary of Egypt, Sts. Barsanuphius and John, the great Desert Fathers and Desert Mothers, St. Pachomius, St. Hilarion, and innumerable others.  The desert is a place where we can find Tabor and encounter Christ: in the desert we can become "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Pt 1:4).

During this holy season of Lent, let us not just strip ourselves of distractions and worldly goods, but let us enter deeper into our relationship with Jesus Christ, and let us fight harder in our spiritual battle.

Below is a list of suggestions for making this time in the desert a time of union with Christ, not just a time of ascesis.  They are not suggestions of what to give up: these are suggestions of what to add to our lives.
  • Daily Mass (or in the Byzantine Rite, the Liturgy of Pre-Sanctified Gifts on Wednesdays and Fridays)
  • Daily Rosary
  • Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer of the Divine Office (and extra Hours are always encouraged)
  • Daily additional Scripture reading (I highly recommend the Psalter reading group at Adventures of an Orthodox Mom, which you can still sign up for, even though it has already begun)
  • Daily spiritual reading (there are countless amazing works, though in this desert time of Lent, maybe the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, St. Athanasius' Life of St. Anthony, or the Letters of Sts. Barsanuphius and John would be apt suggestions; to focus more on spiritual warfare, Dom Lorenzo Scupoli's The Spiritual Combat or St. Catherine of Bologna's The Seven Spiritual Weapons may be useful)
  • Daily Examination of Conscience
  • Daily time for silent, contemplative prayer
  • Frequent listening to sacred chant (Gregorian, Ambrosian, Mozarabic, Greek, Russian, Slavic, Byzantine, Armenian, etc.)
  • Daily Holy Hour
  • Daily Akathist Hymn (to Christ, to the Theotokos, to any saint)
  • Weekly of any of these instead of daily
This list is just a skimming of some of the most prominent spiritual practices from both the Western and Eastern Church (mostly Western, since that is what I have the most experience with).  There are unimaginable depths to the Church's spiritual riches, and all of them may bring us closer to God (and if these riches are unimaginable, how much more unimaginable must the Lord of Hosts be!).  

May these suggestions help you as this holy season continues, and may you exit this sacred desert with truer faith, more certain hope, and more perfect charity.  God Bless.

St. Anthony of the Desert, pray for us!

Nota Bene: The quote is from Saying #108 of the Anonymous Series of the Apophthegmata Patrum, found in The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers, translated by Sr. Benedict Ward, SLG.

Friday, March 2, 2012

"Accept My Bitter Tears": A Lenten Prayer by John Saba

John Saba (690-780), also known as John of Dalyatha or John the Venerable, was a Syrian monk from the region of Dalyatha, where modern-day Turkey, Iran, and Iraq meet.  His writings were well-read throughout the Christian East, and they are still popular today, at least in the Oriental Orthodox churches (where he is a saint), despite his being condemned as a Nestorian, a Messalian, and a Sabellian at different times.  Among his writings is the following prayer which fits perfectly for this holy season of Lent:

You who wept and shed tears of sorrow over Lazarus, accept my bitter tears. 

May my passions be allayed by Your Passion; may my wounds be healed by Your wounds, my blood be blended with Your blood, and the lifegiving fragrance of Your holy body be mingled with my body. 

May the bitter drink that was given to You by Your enemies soothe my soul, which has been made to drink wormwood by the evil one. 

May Your body, which was stretched out on the tree, stretch my mind out to you, for it has been shrunken by demons. 

May Your head which was bowed down upon the cross lift up my head, which has been buffeted by impure men. 

May Your pure hands, which were transfixed with nails by unbelievers, draw me up to you from the abyss of evil, as Your mouth has promised. 

May Your face, which has received spit of derision from accursed men, cleanse my face, which has become odious through its sins. 

May Your soul, which on the cross you committed to Your Father bring me up to You by Your grace.

As this first full week of Lent draws to a close, let us recommit ourselves to repentance and asceticism, and let us continue to especially remember the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ.  

Since I am not certain of John Sabas' veneration in the Eastern Catholic churches, let us ask for the prayers of another famous spiritual writer from Syria:

St. Ephrem the Syrian, pray for us!

Nota Bene: This prayer is from John's "Discourse on Flight From the World," and it is Excerpt LXVI in Brian E. Colless' The Wisdom of the Pearlers: An Anthology of Syriac Christian Mysticism.  Information on John was taken from Lucas Cleophas and