Renewed in Hope and Prayer


(photo: Unsplash)

“Brothers and sisters,” writes St. Paul to the Colossians in the second reading for the Easter Day liturgy, “if, then, you were raised with Christ, seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Think of what is above, not of what is on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ your life appears, then you, too, will appear with him in glory.”

If there is a silver lining in the rapid political and cultural changes that have roiled our nation, it is the tremendous comfort that our sanity and our hope depend on God, not on men.

When life is predictable, our worldly treasure — job security, social status, or politics as usual — appears sufficient. We forget the limits of its power: It cannot inspire us to sacrifice our comfort for another’s good, nor can it fill our yearning for deeper communion.

Today, however, our complacency seems to be ebbing away. Even as we rejoice in the Resurrection of Our Lord, Jesus Christ, at Easter, we sense the arrival of a new era, a time of reckoning for religious believers, who live as “strangers in a strange land,”  as Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia explains in his new book with the same title.

The challenges we face go well beyond emerging threats to our religious liberty. We are grappling with the radical demands of discipleship in the secularized landscape of 21st-century America.

We have been shown time and time again that a milquetoast faith doesn’t cut it anymore, and that truth stirs our anxiety about the future. Will we have the strength and courage to live the faith with joy and integrity, when many of our friends and colleagues are on different paths? Will we succeed in transmitting our deepest beliefs to our children, and how will those values affect our ability to work?

It seems as if we can take nothing for granted — nothing but the infinite love and mercy of the Father. But how do we learn to hear his voice more clearly and trust in his will?

In this challenging time, two new books offer rich practical guidance for strengthening our relationship with God through contemplative prayer and adopting a more distinctively Christian pattern of life.

In The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise, Cardinal Robert Sarah, the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in the Vatican, advises the faithful to shut off the distractions that drown out the voice of God.

For some of us, this task will begin with limiting our access to digital technology, including the smartphones that seemingly accompany our every move.

Then we need to reserve time for prayer. Dom Dysmas de Lassus, the prior general of the Carthusian monastic order, tells Cardinal Sarah, “Being silent with our lips is not difficult; it is enough to will it. Being silent in our thoughts is another matter. … Paradoxically, exterior silence and solitude, which have the objective of promoting interior silence, begin by revealing all the noise that dwells within us.”

The clamor generated by our anxieties, our frustrated plans and unchecked desires impedes contemplative prayer. The noise also distracts us from attending to the needs of others. “The silence of listening is a form of attention, a gift of self to the other,” observes Cardinal Sarah, who wrote his book with Nicolas Diat.

The cardinal added that a concerted act of the will is needed to suppress the din that invades our souls, and traditional spiritual practices, like lectio divina (prayerful reading of Scripture), can help enormously. In time, we will experience the “silences of poverty, humility, self-sacrifice and abasement,” and so pass into the infinite sanctuary of the Father.

In the Easter Day reading, St. Paul reminds us that our “life is hidden with Christ in God.”

This veiled life is protected and nourished by prayer, asceticism, stability and community, explains Rod Dreher in his new book, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation.

While Cardinal Sarah asks ordinary Catholics to learn from the spiritual practices that order monastic life, Dreher picks up the same theme, but he extends a more provocative invitation to weary believers.

The “light of Christianity is flickering out all over the West,” writes Dreher. “This may not be the end of the world, but it is the end of a world.”

Thus, just as St. Benedict of Norcia founded the Benedictine order nearly 1,500 years ago to preserve Christian civilization during the “dark ages,” so the faithful can find fresh inspiration in the Rule of St. Benedict. This blueprint for a shared life of prayer and work can help ordinary families lay the foundation for vibrant Christian communities, where like-minded people can join forces and mitigate the impact of a corrosive secular culture.

Dreher’s critics question whether the majority of Americans ever practiced their faith with the conviction and depth of the author. Dreher accepts this point, but insists that something important has changed in our world: “The main difference is that however far any given society in Christendom has been from the ideal — and every one has — there was a shared understanding that there was an ideal outside of ourselves to which we must aspire.”

While, at the very least, The Benedict Option will nudge some Christians to think more deeply about secular practices they have learned to tolerate, like the privatization of faith in polite society, others may take the next step and boldly investigate more creative ways to start fresh.

Let all such plans, conceived during a time of reckoning for religious believers, be the fruit of our hidden life of prayer and of hope.  But let that fruit be rooted also in the Gospel for Easter from Matthew. As the reading for the day teaches us, an angel at the tomb proclaims to Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, “Do not be afraid! I know that you are seeking Jesus the crucified. He is not here, for he has been raised, just as he said.”

That fundamental truth of our faith should guide us always and help us escape the dictatorship of noise that agitates our souls.

He is risen indeed, Alleluia!