Is Beauty a Moment of Prayer?

Is Beauty a Moment of Prayer?

The spiritual masters, including St. Paul of the Cross can be often heard saying “When you are aware that you are praying, you are not praying very deeply.” At first blush, this may appear to be a surprising statement. Yet, we can all recall doing something without appearing to pay attention to it.
Perhaps one of the most obvious experiences is in driving a car. We drive along the way to our destination and then suddenly realize we don’t “remember” going through the past three towns which were on the way; and yet, we didn’t have an accident along the way.

The same can be true of praying, while deliberate, responsive prayer provides proof we are praying, some of the most powerful prayer experiences go unnoticed. A great example of what St. Paul is saying is the ministry of presence. Remember what it is like when you visit a friend or family member in the hospital, where you just sit together in silence, without a need to say or do anything, and yet, we are often praying very deeply purely by being in their presence. These are prayers without agenda, just sitting at the foot of the Cross with them, being available, a friendly soul is just what is needed. A soul friend.

John O’Donohue, the Irish writer and poet, wrote extensively on this type of friendship in his best-selling book Aman Cara (Gaelic for Soul Friend), where he describes this relationship and the deep prayer life which results.

Another encounter we often have is when the beauty of nature captures our imagination. This prayer of beauty enters our soul in a way we cannot describe, yet we know this of God and we respond with loving admiration or gratitude. The gift was given to us by God, and we are notified with a real recognition of beauty. For myself, photography is one way of holding these moments as they occur, (I almost always have a camera with me), and then I can go back and reflect on the gift recorded by the camera.

Perhaps this week we can consider some of those times in our lives when we find ourselves praying deeply without noticing those moments. Reflecting on the week just past. What were those moments?

Just as I did this past week looking at a “wood-pile” shelter built in a clearing. Perhaps this shelter was an intentional prayer in itself, one where the builders could return to the gift they provided for others as they need it. Is that something I could do for others?

THE SHELTER

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Reflection and photograph Copyright © 2019 Michael J. Cunningham OFS

How critical are you?

How critical are you?
Even good people get criticized.  If you ever read the Scriptures, you can’t help but realize how devastating constant criticism of someone can be.  In fact, in the Scriptures it seems that the better the person is, the more often and cruelly they are criticized!
Have you ever read the Book of the prophet Jeremiah?  There can be little doubt that he was a good person.  In fact, he stands out as one of the very best.  Yet, as Jeremiah tells his story, he often laments the constant criticism he is receiving from so many of his peers, especially the religious leaders of his time.  He comes to the realization that they are not only critical of him but are even “hatching plots against me.”  The religious leaders set out to destroy Jeremiah’s reputation and ultimately, by their false testimony about him and constant harping against him, got him thrown into prison.  No doubt they were pleased that they had destroyed his reputation and forced him out.  Ironically, it was Jeremiah’s vision and witness that sustained the people of Israel during their darkest experiences of defeat and exile.

If we think Jeremiah got a raw deal, it seems that Jesus was treated even more cruelly during his short life.  When Jesus first began his ministry at the age of 30, he was hailed by those who heard him as “one of the prophets” or perhaps “the Christ.”  But soon enough the comments and speculations descended into bickering about where he’s from (Galilee? Bethlehem?), who his parents are, whether he is of the royal line of David, etc., etc.!   The arguments grow more truculent and the enemies of Jesus grow more determined when the soldiers refuse to arrest Jesus when ordered to do so.  Clearly, the chief priests and the Pharisees continue to malign Jesus and soon plan his destruction.  And destroy him they do.  It is only the resurrection of Jesus from the dead that overcomes those who ridiculed him so viciously.

It may be me, but it seems that there is a lot of criticism bandied about these days.  Political leaders, church leaders, local community leaders, members of school boards, parishioners and fellow citizens all seem to be fair targets for someone.  Accusations and denunciations are made with little or no concern about whether they are true.  The more scandalous or scurrilous the charges the more play they are given in the media, on the internet or over the back fence.  Few seem to worry about the impact the gossip has on not only the people targeted but also their families and friends.
It was this same kind of toxic atmosphere that ultimately imprisoned Jeremiah and killed Jesus.  It would seem that as Catholic Christians who know the stories of Jeremiah and Jesus so well, we would refuse to enter into the free-flowing game of criticizing those around us, whether they be family, personal friends, or local and national leaders. Yet, we have to admit that sometimes we seem to forget that Christ’s call to love one another is the true path for us.

How critical am I of the people around me?  Of local or national leaders?  Of Church leaders?  Of the people I love?

Do I let the gossip I hear diminish my respect for others?

Does Christ’s challenge to love everyone in our lives affect the way I talk about others?

Boundaries

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The boundaries are everywhere,
Predefined seats, untouchable yet unwritten thrones.
Predispositions on the menu again,
Reinforced by glances, concealing the glare which lies below.

Others gossip seemingly unaware of the bully present,
Now beating the minds and souls of those who do not share the secret,
Shamefully, the crowd cries out in the Colosseum,
Rises and lowers a thumb to encourage the execution.

As the poison is injected into an unknowing soul.
Again and Again.

© 2019 Reflection by Michael Higgins, C.P.
© 2019 Poem and Photography by Michael J. Cunningham O.F.S.

The Pearl of Great Price

About 8 years ago around this time of year, our daughter-in-law was hospitalized due to a medication reaction. My husband and son are both CPA’s and were working 7 days a week at that time. That day I was charged with looking after our 2 and ½ year old grandson, Mikey, and 8-month-old granddaughter, Cate. I will always remember the sheer panic I felt as my husband left for work that morning leaving me with our grandchildren for the next 8+ hours. While they were frequently at our house and I was well accustomed to their schedule, this was not what I had planned for my day to be sure! 

My week was set out before me with a task list for each day and suddenly I found myself moving from gogo to stop. I admit it took me a while to slow down internally, I used all the clichés and metaphors I could remember to convince myself that this work was my call for the day.  Meeting agendas, papers to be written, and email responses would need to be done on a different day. I told myself that this was my invitation from God to slow down, be present and receive the gift of each moment. 

Mikey was going through a Thomas the Tank phase, so I entered his world of Thomas and listened to his stories of what each character was doing. We ended up outside with sidewalk chalk drawing tracks and islands, and Mikey was enthralled with what we were creating together. I remember looking deeply into his eyes, feeling mesmerized by their clear, earnest and joyfully expression. It was then that I understood I was looking into the Imago Dei and joy filled my heart. 

Later that afternoon when both children were napping (and Grandma was sitting staring into space with a cup of coffee to bolster her during the rest of the evening), I realized that in forcing myself to be present to my life circumstances, I understood what St. Paul was encouraging his audience in his letter to the Philippians. “Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 4:9) I once read that we all want to find the Pearl of Great Price (Matt 13:45-46), but we’re not always willing to pay the price. We want it without putting the time in…. Putting in the time requires hard work and discipline and it doesn’t sound very exciting. How do you respond to the change of plans in your day? What has been your experience when you have been willing to allow that change?

Lord, 
We mirror Your beauty
For we are made for You
We complete your universe

May all we do
May all we think
Be a song of joy

May we add our voices
To the song of the monks
In the quiet hours of night
Who wait patiently for the dawn.

Excerpts from A Prayer to Celebrate Life, The Hope Prayer, Fr. Liam Lawton.

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Reflection and Photograph © 2019 Jean Bowler

Unshakable Inner Peace

Unshakable Inner Peace

Sometimes life creates a lot of pressure on us. This might be a new trial, the illness of a loved one, where we feel the pain through our hearts, or something unexpected in our lives. Learning to accept these trials with fortitude and courage is one way of dealing with them. Putting on a brave face, sometimes not even communicating the problem to others, as if there is some shame associated with whatever is happening.

At times such as this, we can react in many ways; sharing with a close number of friends who provide the love and support we need, shutting down, and trying to keep this pain a secret. Sometimes a mixture of all three. One reaction is to turn to God. Turn to God and ask for help in the matter, to cure the illness, fix the pain, save the day. We get out our ATM Prayer card and request results for either ourselves or others. Such is the power and tradition of intercessory and petitionary prayer in our faith. There is nothing wrong with this approach.
However, we should notice those in the world who never seem to be shaken no matter what happens to them. I continue to be amazed in my ministry at the resilience of those who can deal with terrible situations and still “go on.” They have something which the saints have, and that something is unshakable inner peace.  A peace which only emanates from a deep, intimate and incredibly close relationship with God.

We live in a society which expects results and wants them quickly. From the doctor, the mechanic, our investments, the plumber. Everyone seems to be on call for us, mainly when we are in need. Yet, we know, in our hearts, we cannot have such demands in our relationship with God. We cannot control God, yet we request these results immediately. We all know what “friends” are like who only call us when they need something, I certainly have family members who I know need something when they make contact. It is not a good feeling to be used or called just for this purpose.

So this week, let us make some visits to God without the requests, the demands, the needs. And just be present with Him for the sake of our own loving relationship with him. Let us deepen our feelings towards God, surrendering as St. Theresa of Avila invites us. To leave love to the master of love, and let His love flow into us, unimpeded by a cluster of requests. Then, perhaps one day, we will savor that same unshakable inner peace for which we all yearn.

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Heading Home

Sometimes it’s better just to run,
When the pain is too great,
And we need to return to the source,
The Womb, from whence we came.

And take a rest for a while,
Enjoying the place we momentarily forgot,
Home.

Copyright 2019 Reflection, Poem and Photography by Michael J. Cunningham O.F.S.

A Spiritual Break: Understanding Part II – A Gift of the Holy Spirit

Last week we talked a little about Understanding and Lent. This week I want to dig into this a little more. When we consider the word “understanding” we can think of it in two ways, the secular psychological definition or a spiritual one. The psychological one focuses on our “mind-view” of the word, as illustrated below from Wikipedia:

Understanding is a psychological process related to an abstract or physical object, such as a person, situation, or message whereby one is able to think about it and use concepts to deal adequately with that object. Understanding is a relation between the knower and an object of understanding. Understanding implies abilities and dispositions with respect to an object of knowledge that are sufficient to support intelligent behavior.

However, our spiritual definition is rooted in the heart. The second of our Gifts of the Holy Spirit, understanding is clearly defined in Daniel 2:22-22

“It is he who controls the procession of times and seasons, who makes and unmakes kings, who confers wisdom on the wise, and knowledge on those with discernment, who uncovers depths and mysteries, who knows what lies in darkness; and light dwells with him.”

Understanding, therefore, is the pure gift of God and touches our hearts so we can better integrate our personal closeness to Christ, as the Word Becomes Flesh (Jn 1:14). This closeness is a mysterious gift which allows us to bring Christ into our decision-making process, as the spirit of the Lord rests on us. Pope Francis notes “understanding dwells in the heart and enlightens the mind”, reminding us that the gift emanates from our heart, which God resides and illumines our thinking, behavior and decision making.

The Holy Spirit gives us this gift where God sits centrally in our hearts and minds; it should be the core of our thoughts and actions. This allows the understanding of our heart to meet the observations of the mind. In an ideal world, we can use some guidelines to mine this gift of the Holy Spirit. I try and use the following to help remind me when I get off course on this front.

  • Involve God in the decision-making process.
  • Reflect on our decisions and reactions
  • Select a loving response as the output channel for our response to others

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Perhaps this week you can explore this gift and how it plays out in your life? Do we really involve God in our reactions to others? Or do we judge too quickly in our responses?
I wrote the reflection below some time ago to remind myself of how useful a short reflection can increase the potential for God to be involved in my decisions.

ADD TEN SECONDS

Add ten seconds to each moment,
And my response would be better,
kinder, warmer, more forgiving,
than my first.
But can I ever be as loving as He is to me?

Copyright 2019 Reflection, Poem and Photography by Michael J. Cunningham O.F.S.

UNDERSTANDING … Do I really understand others?

Lent is a great time to reflect. We often look at how we are doing in our own spiritual life and how best we might be able to improve ourselves and our relationship with Christ. Noble goals and efforts. My own 2019 Lenten season started out with a slightly different bent than in previous years. I always felt that I was in the driving seat as to what is on my “Lenten Bucket List” for the year. As a child, it might have been chocolate, which made Easter Sunday all the sweeter. (Excuse the pun). In adulthood, I have tried to focus on issues which are character flaws, or a propensity to sin or deviate from the Word in some way or others. This year was different.

Instead of looking inward, which has been my wont in the past; I am being drawn to look at something different? How others see me, and my actions in the world? The cause and effect of my work in the Church, and my work as a manager in a retreat ministry setting? I must admit, after decades of managing projects and people I have often relied on others being focused on the same goals, creating a good work ethic and a positive (but truth filled) atmosphere as being enough. Now I am beginning to see that perhaps it is not.

We all look for affirmation that our work in appreciated and understood, however, we sometimes don’t do that second “mirror check” to see if the traffic is still following us before we make the maneuver into the next lane. There may be someone in our blind spot who is not in the place we expected them to be.

While it can be simpler just to tell someone whether they are wrong, and not following the instructions, directions or guidance we give them, it may not be enough. Perhaps there have been years of practice in place which are now put into question. Maybe some of the practices are there for a reason. And even if they are not, we should respect them for what they were at the time.

So, Lent this year I take a serious gaze into the lives of others around me; to see how I might appear to them if I was on the receiving end of my behavior, not just trying to correct what I think might need fixing.

St. Theresa of Avilia, the great mystic noted that God is present “in the pots and pans” of our lives, not just the special prayer times. It is there we often have the most encounters with others, so lets ask ourselves the question of how are we doing from the perspective of those around us. How do others see us? Am I truly understanding? Or only understanding what we want?

We might have a very different response than our own answer to this question.

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Understanding

Understanding is not the reasoning of the mind,
Which only leads to conflict and judgment;
taking up roots in the heart,
much firmer than those of scientific or man-made rationality.

Over time, these become immovable mountains,
fixed in place, so others have to go round them,
Or recognize, “do you see that mountain up ahead?”

Let my understanding become of the heart.

Where positions and events are just that.
Waypoints on a soul’s journey through life.

Copyright 2019 Reflection, Poem and Photography by Michael J. Cunningham O.F.S.

What regrets hold you hostage??

What regrets hold you hostage??
Have you ever done anything you regretted?  If you haven’t, I want to meet you because I’ve never met anyone who didn’t regret some things in their lives.  It seems that regret is something of a universal, human experience!  It’s no surprise to have regrets.  After all, sometimes we take risks or do things that have consequences very different from what we planned or imagined.  Or, sometimes we do things because we’re hurt, angry or afraid that we regret when things calm down a bit.  And, of course, when we make decisions based on our feelings of righteousness or of vengeance (often enough rationalized as “justice”) we have much to regret.

The Prophet Zechariah (Chapter 12) speaks of God pouring out on the house of David and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem a “spirit of grace and petition” that frees them to embrace their deep regrets over their destruction of the “one whom they have pierced” so that they can mourn and be purified from their great sin.
All of us need such a grace.  Can we expect God to give us such a gift?  Are you free enough to even receive such a grace?  Or, are you locked into the prison of living in your regrets?  A difficult dilemma we each much face! Perhaps as we struggle with our regrets, the challenging question Jesus asks of his apostles in Luke’s Gospel (Chapter 9) is an important question for us as well.  “But who do you say that I (Jesus) am?”  What is your answer?  Can you reply with Peter, “The Christ of God!”?  Or, are you trapped into believing something less?

If we believe that Jesus is “The Christ of God” then we know that God has given us the “spirit of grace” that frees us to mourn our regrets and be purified of our sin.  That is, after all, what Christ has done for us.  As St. Paul testifies in his letter to the Galatians, “through faith you are all children of God in Christ Jesus.”

One of the great challenges of the Christian life is “to be who we are.”  Are we completely convinced that we are God’s children through the death and resurrection of God’s Son, Jesus Christ?  If we are, we can not only be freed from the prison of our regrets, but we are also freed to share God’s great love with all those in our lives.

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A Trail of Regret 

Copyright 2019 Reflection Michael Higgins, C.PS.
Copyright 2019 Photography Michael J. Cunningham O.F.S.

Can a Photograph be a Prayer?

 

stones

Can a photograph be a prayer?

During a recent retreat program this year, I briefly mentioned the prayer form known as Visio Divina, which means Divine Seeing. In the Catholic Church, we use visuals for just about everything to remind us and bring us into prayer with God. Crucifixes, statues, images, and paintings all fall into the category. Most of what is in the Church (images) have a theological, spiritual or ecclesiastical meaning. So what about those items in our everyday lives.

During the retreat, we looked at everyday items and discussed their relevance to our mission as Catholics. A water bottle, a journal, even a life jacket all can be handled and seen where God has created something which has purpose and meaning in our lives. I wonder if you notice everyday items in your life?

For myself, a photograph is something of value; often holding a spiritual significance. When we decide to take a photograph of someone or something, there is usually a meaning behind it. Perhaps we want to revisit that moment or situation? Maybe we want to share it with another, to bring this joy to another who cannot be there at the same time.

Imagine you were going to a desert island and you could bring three images with you? What would they be? Who would be in those images? Which images can you study and notice more than is there on first glance? We often see this in paintings, as we pry out or interpret the meaning of the artist. While we are looking at the image, we are also seeing the soul of the artist in some way; even if the artist did not intend it.

Perhaps this week we can look at some photographs and meditate on them. What are we seeing? Someone or something we love, or perhaps less so? What emotions does the photograph evoke? Love, desire, sacrifice, rejection, perhaps sadness. Take a moment and consider it. When you have come in contact with your feelings, then ask what God might be saying to me in this image, and in my reflecting on the image? Is God calling to me? What is that call?

I am attaching an image which to many might seem meaningless. It was taken at Valyermo in the high desert, California. Not that is really relevant to its meaning.

As yourself a few questions about this image. What do the stones represent? Why are some out of focus? What did the photographer have in mind, when you might have passed by these everyday items?

Then perhaps, you can ask yourself the question. Can a photograph be a prayer?  Do I have any photographs which I might consider to be a prayer?

 

Copyright 2019 Reflection and Photography Michael J. Cunningham O.F.S.

 

 

 

What’s your favorite story from Scripture?

What’s your favorite story from Scripture?
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Many of us have favorite stories from Scripture.  At least, I do.  One of my favorites is the story of David and Goliath found in the First Book of Samuel.  Clearly, I’m not the only one who savors this story as it is referenced again and again in situations in which there’s one side who is powerful and one who is weak.

Perhaps you know the story well but let me summarize it.  It tells of the confrontation between the grizzled, fearsome, Philistine warrior, Goliath, and the unscarred, inexperienced and perhaps even naïve, yet strangely confident young David. The context is the war between the army of the Philistines and the army of Israel led by King Saul.  Goliath, the champion of the Philistines, calls out any warrior of Saul’s army that is brave enough to face him.  The stakes are winner takes all.  Saul, the King of Israel despairs at the challenge because he has no one of Goliath’s caliber.  He faces losing the war by default.

Up steps young David, inexperienced in war, untried in arms, but filled with faith in God’s protection.  Saul is grateful to David for stepping up to the challenge but tries to dissuade him from going out to meet Goliath.  Saul is sure David will be killed.  But Saul finally agrees to let David represent Israel because there is no one else and David is unafraid and filled with trust in God. The result of the encounter is familiar to us all.  A smooth stone picked up from the riverbed, David’s sling, and a well-placed hit on the forehead of Goliath.  Stunned, Goliath falls.  David walks up to him, takes Goliath’s sword and decapitates him.  A bloody ending it’s true, but a triumph for Israel.

While this story of David has heroic proportions and most of us don’t feel much like heroes most of the time, it can still give us hope in our own life.  Though the fate of a nation rarely depends on us, most of us do have real struggles and often seemingly unsurmountable difficulties in our lives.  Let’s face it, often we just don’t know what to do in response to the challenges we face.  Sometimes it can be our inability to please or even understand what’s going on in members of our family.  Or, it could be in dealing with a particularly difficult situation or person at work.  Or, it could be figuring out how to deal with prickly political or social situations.  We can even feel helpless in responding to world issues such as hunger, social injustice, racial prejudice, and violence.  There are so many situations in our lives that are far beyond our capabilities.  We don’t know how to respond and sometimes doubt our ability even to survive.

At the very core of young David’s ability to deal with the much stronger Goliath is his complete trust in God.  Surely, if David had not had that trust, he would have hesitated to step forward.  And, even if he were able to step up, it would have been very likely that his aim would have been less sure.  Clearly, his calm and confidence and thus, his success was the result of his utter trust in God.  His unimagined victory gives us courage.

Every time I think about this ancient story about David and Goliath, I wonder about my own trust in God.  Do I trust that God is with me, even in the confusing and challenging situations in my life? Does David show the way?  Is it a way that makes sense to me, here and now?  How can I strengthen my conviction that God is with me?

Copyright 2019 Reflection by Michael Higgins, CP
Copyright 2019 Photograph by Michael J. Cunningham OFS

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God’s Voicemail

When we hear those infamous words “the call,” those of my generation think about it as something restricted to saints or vocations for the religious life. We view the words as something sacred, yet something unattainable for us mere mortals. It is left to those special ones chosen by Christ to do the “important” work here on earth.
We could not be more mistaken. God has chosen each one of us, and our unique contribution to do his work. In the Confirmation program at Saint Eulalia’s much of the program is based around the word “chosen.” Each of us is made in His image. The image of God. With that as a starting point, it could not be any other way.

“I have chosen you to be with me.”. “You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you.” (paraphrase of John 15:16 and Mark 3:13)

So when we hear “the call” we, first of all, have to break this down to a more practical level. We don’t get just one call in our lives. There may be calls that are louder than others, which seem impossible to refuse (like my move to California recently for example), but there are many more calls which are reminders of how God wants us to live out our lives.

Perhaps I can reflect on the calls which have been vital in my life. The ones which really changed everything?

If there are many calls, then perhaps the most critical point is for me to listen more attentively so I might hear them. So instead of waiting for a lightning strike that is going to knock me to the ground to get our attention, I should instead be listening for small, still voice in the heart where God is with me all the time.
St. John Paul II always talked of small steps, of micro-conversions during each day, each one moving us in an almost indiscernible way to be closer to God. Each one of these steps moves us closer to God, as we help our neighbor, resolve an ancient dispute or love the unloved.

So the call may not be massive life event (although sometimes it can be) but can be smaller calls during each day. And the call to Holiness is a silent but continuous call which is as present as the air we breathe. Let me look for the small calls, God’s voicemails if you like, to see where I am being called today.

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THE CALL

All calls are not equal.
The fire alarm invites us all to leave the building,
Calling us to safety and anxiety.
While the call for supper invites us to share,
With loved ones in spiritual and bodily nourishment.
Of all calls, the ones imbibed with love should never be screened out.

Because the source validates the message.
And should be acted upon.

Copyright 2019 Reflection, Poem and Photograph by Michael J. Cunningham OFS

You may re-use this material and republish with permission unless used for commercial purposes. If you are using the materials for commercial purposes, please contact us.
Please feel free to forward this email to a friend to sign up for the program at www.spiritualbreak.com or at https://materdolorosa.org/spiritualbreak/