Contemplating the Mystery of Christmas

A Reflection for the Second Sunday of Advent
by Sister Donna Fannon, MHSH

Advent-wreath-week-2Each year, the Church invites us to enter more deeply into the mystery of Christmas by focusing on the birth of the One who reveals the infinite love of God, the Creator and Father.  The Sunday Scripture readings that we hear in the season of Advent invite us to look again at God’s creation and rediscover God’s love.  The Advent scriptures offer us some rich images to contemplate as we approach Christmas.  Here’s a sampling:

John the Baptist: …a man who reduced life to the essentials so he would not be distracted from hearing God’s voice and responding to it.  John’s single-hearted response attracted the attention of many who were seeking conversion and repentance, but didn’t know where to turn.  John pointed them to Jesus, the image of the invisible, all-loving God.  What can you do to minimize distractions? What do you do to make yourself available to hearing God’s voice?

Isaiah’s description of rain falling down from the heavens producing plants that sprout and bloom: This image invites us to appreciate the hidden work of God who enlivens all of creation and brings all things into being, including ourselves!  This image calls us to patient attention and grateful appreciation of all God is accomplishing in us and in others.  What are some of God’s gifts for which you are grateful?How do you affirm the gifts of others?

Mary: …in whom the word became flesh. Mary’s example can serve as a blueprint for our own lives.  She holds the mystery of God in her heart.  She trusts God.  She is present and attentive to Jesus from conception to the cross, and beyond.  Her entire life is shaped by Christ.

How do you see your life as shaped by Christ? In what way(s) are you inviting Christ into your life in a new way this year?                       

God’s very being revealed in an infant: …vulnerable, needy and dependent on others for its very existence.  This image invites us to look at our dependence on others, as well as others’ dependence on us.  It leads us to grasp the interconnectedness of everything in the created order and, ultimately, the connection of all creation to God.  We exist in a web of inter-dependence that extends throughout all of creation and into the mystery of the divine.  Who are the people who thrive on your attention?  Who are the people who inspire and enliven you?

Contemplation is a way of discovering the truth that all of creation receives its existence from God.  According to Thomas Aquinas, when we learn a humble, serene attentiveness, we shall see the goodness of the world. The world is simply the expression of divine bounty, simply an expression of love.   As Christmas draws closer, let’s look deeply at creation.  Let’s discover God’s presence in the world around us.   Can you imagine God looking at you?  Can you imagine God loving you?  Can you imagine God depending on you?  Can you see God in others?  That’s the mystery of Christmas!

LENT- A TIME FOR CREATIVE CONTEMPLATION

By Sister Agnesine Seluzicki, MHSH

[Ed. note: Sister Agnesine Seluzicki went home to God on February 13, 2015.

She was 95 years old and had been a member of the Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart Community for 74 years. A daughter of Russian immigrants, she once said that being a member of the Community, ‘enabled me to allow God to work through me. I discovered the truth of the phrase, ‘In him I can do all things.’”

 She shared the following reflection on Lent with us in February 2012. Her belief in the promises of new life and her view of Ash Wednesday and Lent as “movement toward the Resurrection” are both inspiration and comfort as we prepare for her wake and funeral. A wise and gifted teacher and counselor, Sister Agnesine will be greatly missed.]

As the days begin to lengthen, unfolding gradually the promises of new life, the Church enters into its movement toward the great feast of Life – the Resurrection – with the celebration of Ash Wednesday.  For the next forty days, we will be invited to enter into a virtual desert experience, an experience where one can hear more deeply, within one’s own heart, the voice of God.  How is this to be accomplished?  The readings and prayers at the Mass on Ash Wednesday set the tone.  The first reading for Ash Wednesday from the prophet Joel begins,

Even now, says the Lord,
return to me with your whole heart,
with fasting and weeping…
Rend your hearts, not your garments,
and return to the Lord your God.

Saint Paul, in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, follows this up with the exhortation, “…We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God…Behold, now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.”

As you present yourself to be signed with ashes and hear the words “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” or “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” accept this invitation as a call by our God to a renewal of life.  Allow yourself to look at any excesses that may have crept into your life, which are blurring Gospel values.  Settle on the ways in which you are able to find your fasting and desert experiences.

Be creative!  Your most contemplative experiences might just occur on a crowded subway or while performing some unpleasant task.  Your fasting might come from five minutes of listening to that boring individual whom you usually tune out. And, what of a smile to that harried employee at the check-out counter?  Or, that effort to keep from judging others or from complaining.

As we commemorate the sufferings and death of Jesus during Lent, let us remember that Jesus lives and that in our remembering, returning, reconciling and repenting we are responding to the call of our living God who calls us to life in the risen Christ.

A Sacred Time – A Reflection for the First Sunday of Lent

By Marilyn Dunphy, MHSH

[Readings: Genesis 9: 8-15; Ps. 25: 4-5, 6-7, 8-9; 1 Peter 3: 18-22; Mark 1: 12-15]

As you contemplate the season of Lent, you might consider reflecting on its meaning to you now as well as at other times in your life.  For me, growing up in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, Lent was a time set aside for repentance, for “giving up” things that I liked, such as desserts or movies or even the sleep I could have had if I didn’t attend daily Mass.

In the parochial school I attended, participation in the weekly Stations of the Cross on Friday afternoons was mandatory, thus adding to the sense of obligation. While even then I appreciated the sacred nature of Lent experienced through the “smells and bells” of the pre-Vatican II Church, the emphasis was on self-denial and sinfulness.   The season often seemed interminable, oppressive and stark.

Today, Lent is a time that I actually look forward to, as the season seems to invite me to deeper contemplation.  My focus is not on deprivation, but on deepening my relationship with Jesus through prayer.  I think the change occurred when I started to go on weekend and then week-long silent retreats each year.  At first, these retreats truly felt like desert experiences.  Even though there were 30 or 40 other people in the retreat house, we passed our time (and each other) in silence.  Time took on a whole different feeling, with no particular structure to the day.  All the familiar distractions of television, email, internet browsing, phone calls etc, had been left behind.

In that environment, I was tempted to throw myself into reading the many spiritual books in the library, but I had a graced insight that this would only be a further distraction.  So I entered into what at first seemed like the unwelcome, solitary work of looking deeply into my own heart and mind, asking myself where I was in relationship to God, and what I (and God) wanted that relationship to be.

At first, this situation seemed almost as frightening as facing any amount of wild desert beasts.  I was not sure I wanted to head in this direction, and was afraid of what I might hear as answer in prayer.  But with trust in God and the patience of a skilled spiritual director, I was able to pass out of that narrow, somewhat desolate place in which I found myself.  What opened up for me was an abundance of new life.

The God who made a covenant with each of us waits for us to approach.  The psalmist reminds us that God’s ways are love and truth, that God is kind and full of compassion, desiring to guide us through our own personal and communal wildernesses.  With humility and trust, perhaps we can all spend some sacred time with God this Lent, knowing that God will provide us with what we need.

Lenten Prayer

Give yourself permission to carve out some time each day for prayer.  Give it whatever time you can, although 30 minutes or more is desirable.

You can pray with the scripture passages of the day, or with the many fine Lenten reflection books and guides that are available.  You can also simply pray from your own experience.

Tell God what is on your mind and in your heart.  Be sure to include a time of interior silence to listen to what God is saying to you.  Sometimes, just resting in the presence of God is the best prayer.

Getting in Shape—Spiritually

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius   
By Sister Donna Fannon, MHSH

Almost like clockwork, ads for Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers, Nautilus, Bowflex and other quick and easy weight-loss and physical improvement programs flood the media after the Christmas holidays.  It seems that many people make New Year’s resolutions to look and feel better by spring, even though most of us know that a life-long dedication to regular exercise and attention to diet are necessary to achieve overall good health.

What about our spiritual health and well-being?  Can a simple quick-fix approach deepen our relationship with God?  Spiritual masters tell us that we have to develop “habits of the heart” or practice spiritual disciplines consistently throughout our lifetime if we wish to grow closer to Christ.  One such method was developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola in the 16th Century.  Based on the reflection of his own conversion experience, he designed a plan to help spiritual seekers learn the art of discernment: seeking and responding to God’s will in the circumstances of one’s particular life.  He called his method the Spiritual Exercises, and the text is considered a unique spiritual classic.

Ignatius intended the Spiritual Exercises to be completed during a month-long retreat or spread out over many months in the midst of everyday life.  In the process of doing the Exercises the “retreatant” learns various ways of prayer and is invited to reflect on the life of Jesus Christ in order to make a serious decision in tune with the mind and heart of Christ.  The most common method of prayer that Ignatius suggests is a form of contemplation in which the person uses the active imagination in praying with certain gospel events in the life of Christ.  At the end of the Exercises the retreatant has developed a habit of prayer that can be nurtured throughout a lifetime.

Many retreat centers and some parishes offer the longer format of the Spiritual Exercises, often between September and the following May.  Retreatants make a commitment to pray one hour a day and to meet in a group once a week (or every other week) to share prayer and experience support from each other.  This format can be particularly helpful for those who want to develop a way to pray and reflect in the midst of professional careers and family life.

Here is one of St. Ignatius’ prayers:

Lord, I freely yield my freedom to you.
Take my memory, my intellect and my entire will.
You have given me anything I am or have;
I give it all back to you to stand under your will alone.
Your love and your grace are enough for me;
I shall ask for nothing more.