Gradualness: Lessons from Alcuin

Genuine Christian conversion happens gradually, one step at a time. That was the lesson that Gregory the Great imparted to the missionaries in England in the early 600s. By the 700s, there was a great spiritual vibrancy there, particularly in Northumbria. A land still steeped in Anglo-Saxon paganism was transformed in less than a century. In all fairness to my Irish friends, I should point out that Celtic missionaries such as Aidan may have had more to do with that conversion than the Roman missionaries. God can sort that one out! The main point is that gradualness is highly effective, especially when it focuses on inward transformation through conversion.

Enter Alcuin, born in Northumbria in 735. From him we can learn the essential role played by human desire and freedom in the step-by-step journey of conversion.

By the mid-700s, the spreading fire of Christian conversion in Northumbria had ignited many vocations to monasticism as well as an explosion of learning. If you or someone you know has undergone a profound conversion experience, you know how that works. You begin to feel an insatiable zeal to keep learning more about your newly discovered (or newly recovered) faith. It was no different in Northumbria. An influx of manuscripts from the mainland supplied new libraries. At the library in York, Alcuin soaked up all the learning he could: mathematics, literature, law, Scripture, theology, and more.

Enter Charlemagne as king of the Franks. He sought out a circle of intellectual advisers, and persuaded the reluctant Alcuin to come to his court in 782. Alcuin spent eight years in Aachen, educating Charlemagne, returned for a time to Northumbria, then back to Charlemagne’s court, and finally to Tours, where he lived from 796-804.

Perhaps you have heard the stories of Charlemagne forcing conversions among the newly conquered Saxons. Many of them became Christians, not because they desired to, but because they were forced to, upon pain of death. It was a gross misapplication of the Gospel passage: “Go out into the highways and hedges and compel them to come in, so that my house may be filled” (Luke 14:23).

What a difference Alcuin must have noticed! The recently converted Christians in Northumbria were unstoppable in their repentance, their spiritual growth, their eagerness to learn, and in their zeal to go out and evangelize others. By contrast, those forcibly made Christians under Charlemagne were not exactly growing in their Faith.

When Charlemagne began employing the same methods among the Avars in Hungary, Alcuin had seen enough. He wrote three rather scathing letters in 796: a carefully worded one to Charlemagne, a more candid commentary to Arno (Bishop of Salzburg), and an expression of exasperation to his close friend Maegenfrith, one of Charlemagne’s courtiers.

When Alcuin writes Charlemagne, he begins with flattering sentences, but you can detect the veiled sarcasm. He praises the king’s devotion to Christ’s glory, and his prowess in leading the peoples away from the worship of idols and towards the knowledge of the true God. With Charlemagne’s ego sufficiently appeased, Alcuin proceeds to correct the king’s actions, not so much by criticism of the past as by instruction for the future.  He presses upon Charlemagne the urgency to provide worthy and suitable preachers to the newly baptized, in order to foster growth in their faith during this very vulnerable stage. He cautions his king, “If knowledge of the catholic faith does not come first into the soul through the use of reason, the bodily cleansing of holy baptism will be of no avail.”

He is much more candid when he writes to Arno: “The miserable race of the Saxons has so often lost the sacrament of baptism, because they never had a foundation of faith in their heart.” He reiterates the same points to Maegenfrith: “We learn from Saint Augustine that faith is a voluntary thing, not a necessary thing. A man can be attracted toward faith, but not coerced. You can coerce baptism, but it does not profit faith.”

Has this not been the story of “faith” in so many of our Catholic families today? How many kids go to Catholic schools or go through their parish’s religious education program (or get Confirmed) because they have to? How many Catholics still show up at Mass on Sunday not because they eagerly want to be there, but because they feel obliged? Without freedom, without a growing desire, there is no authentic conversion. There is no spark that grows into a blazing fire. Indeed, there is often decline and decay.

Yes, there is a time and place for duty and obligation. It is right and just to give God thanks and praise. Not to gather on Sunday to give him due praise is an injustice against his greatness and his goodness. But even in the virtue of justice and the virtue of religion, there is a willingness and a growing interior freedom. Until there is inward growth, there is not yet virtue.

Many of my best experiences as a priest have come in my work with RCIA, as men and women of all ages find their way into Catholicism or back to Catholicism. Even in those cases where there is painful personal brokenness, the conversion can be amazing and truly transformational. Once that fire is burning, it becomes hard to keep up with the pace of their hearts and their lives.

Children are a different story, yet the same principles apply. In the end, it is desire and freedom that lead to deeply rooted virtue and enduring faith. Early on, we may need to “make” children do things. We may use fear of punishment and eagerness for reward to motivate them. But the long-range goal is to awaken holy desires and motivate them to make a free and wholehearted decision for Jesus. I don’t need to tell you that the raising of children (in the faith and in all things) is a step-by-step process – and not all steps move forward. Alcuin actually appeals to the raising of children as he explains (in some detail) the step-by-step journey of conversion in the heart of a believer. Gregory’s passage about gradualness draws more attention, but Alcuin goes more in depth on the actual steps.

I’ll share more next time.

To be continued…

The General Examen Prayer

In my last post I described the importance of discernment of spirits. The more we notice what is going on in our heart, the more quickly and effectively we can recognize the difference between the promptings of the Holy Spirit, the wiles of evil spirits, and the steady background noise of our own needs and wants.

We can talk all we want about discernment; the only way to become proficient is to engage in it on a regular basis. We may struggle at first, but consistent prayer will yield results, just like daily practice with a sport or a musical instrument.

We’ve already discussed Lectio Divina, which engages our hearts at a profound level. Prayed consistently and well, it will definitely deepen our discernment.

Today we discuss another highly effective prayer method: the Examen prayer taught by Ignatius of Loyola to his companions and his retreatants.

Examen means “examination” – in this case, an examination of our heart. Here we are not so much thinking up a laundry list of sins that need cleansing. That can lead to a spin-cycle of shame that keeps us stuck in our sins. Rather, it is an exercise of the sober-minded watchfulness we discussed last time.

There are two different approaches to the Examen prayer: general and particular. One involves an overall awareness and noticing of what is happening in our heart. The other allows a specific, in-depth focus on one specific area. Today’s post focuses on how to make a general Examen, with the next post describing how to make a particular one.

[BORING NOTE: In case you are a curious reader inclined to cautious self-study, please note that the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola are not meant to be read from cover to cover, like another book. They are, rather, a list of exercises that are meant to be, well, exercised. This best occurs in a serious retreat, under the ongoing guidance of a spiritual mentor, especially if one is undertaking all of the exercises. Today we are simply selecting one of those exercises, the General Examen, as an exercise that easily adapts itself to everyday Christian life].

Ignatius of Loyola identifies five basic steps for making a General Examen: (1) Thanksgiving; (2) Prayer for Light; (3) Examination of the day; (4) Examination of my response; (5) Hopeful resolve. Let us consider them one by one.

1) Recollection and Thanksgiving. Ignatius is a wise spiritual master. He understands how most of us may be disturbed or distracted. The first step is to allow our heart to be expanded in gratitude. Thanksgiving puts us in God’s presence and allows us to step into our watchtower. There we can calmly notice and discern. Nothing is so soothing or calming as a spirit of thanksgiving. We will notice everything in much greater detail if we are in a place of gratitude.

2) Prayer for Light. We should never try to fix ourselves. As Jeremiah says, “More tortuous than all else is the human heart, beyond remedy; who can understand it? I, the Lord, alone probe the mind and test the heart, to reward everyone according to his ways, according to the merit of his deeds” (Jeremiah 17:9-10).  Any examination of ourselves should always be a Spirit-led appreciation of the inner workings of our heart. We give God permission to show us our own heart.

3) Examination of the Day.  This is not so much trying to pile up a list of vices and virtues.  Rather, it involves a growing inner awareness of all the moods, feelings, thoughts, urges, and spiritual movements since our last prayer period.  We can ask ourselves, “What movements have most dominated my heart?”  We will always find one of three forces at work:

a) The Holy Spirit. He is always working within us, planting holy desires, calling us courageously or inviting us gently into deeper levels of holiness.

b) Our own spirit. So many of the movements in our own heart are simply our own human responses to the experiences of daily life.  We all have emotional and spiritual needs, in addition to more selfish wants. We should be especially attentive to negative feelings and to fantasy thinking – those thought patterns that urge us to escape the present moment. We need not judge – just notice. They happened. They were part of our story today. They need an intentional response. Sometimes they are a helpful reminder to pay closer attention to our emotional and spiritual needs. By contrast, if allowed to run wild, our fantasy thoughts will instead become windows for the devil to enter in, enticing us in the wrong direction. That is the beauty of the general examination. As we become more sober and aware, we simultaneously grow in our freedom. We begin to respond proactively to difficult situations – rather than reacting mindlessly.

c) The devil. He tempts us, often quite subtly. We all have wounds and negative emotions. In and of themselves, these are normal – Jesus had them as well, only without sin. These painful places of our heart can become breaches in the garden wall, through which the devil enters as he tries to sow lies about us or about God. He did no differently with Adam and Eve (successfully) or with Jesus in the desert (unsuccessfully).  The devil will bully us in the midst of our wounds, attacking us where we are weakest, predictably and relentlessly. If we resist firmly, he will flee. If we allow God and others to repair the breaches in our defenses, and if we bring our struggles to the light, he loses any power over us.

This “examination” step of the Examen may seem difficult at first, but it gets easier with practice. As Jesus says, “By their fruits you will know them” (Matthew 7:16). We start to recognize the rotten fruits of the devil: discouragement, paralyzing fear, resentment, self-pity, rivalry, factions, self-indulgence, peevishness, etc. We start to recognize the fruits of the Holy Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22). And we become much more aware of ourselves along the way, gaining insight and freedom over our patterns of behavior.

4) Examination of my response. Only after fully appreciating all our interior movements of the day do we move to the next question: “How have I responded?”  When the Holy Spirit has invited me to take the more difficult path, have I done it?  When the evil one has used my daily experiences to lead me away from the Holy Spirit’s path, have I given in? We praise God for any positive response and spiritual growth we have had, and ask Him for grace to help us continue. We express sorrow and contrition for our hesitancy or refusal to respond to God’s invitation, or for the times we gave in to temptation.

5) Hopeful Resolve.  Our reflection and examination should give us a good idea of what challenges today and tomorrow will bring.  Here we invite the Lord to walk with us during the coming hours, and renew our confidence in His ability to win the victory in these daily struggles. We visualize how we can and will overcome – for He is with us to deliver us.

With practice, all 5 steps can be done in 10 minutes – probably even in 5 minutes. It can be done anytime, but evening is an especially good time. During those final hours of the day, many of us tend to be tired or fatigued and are looking for mindless escapes. What a difference to turn first to gratitude in God’s presence as we stay sober and watchful. From there we will much more fruitfully rest and recreate.

Again, consistency is the key. If we are daily and habitually engaging in these five steps – even better if we are talking about them with a trusted spiritual mentor or friend – we will definitely notice over time that we are much more attuned to what is going on in our heart. We will be much more equipped to say “yes” to God and “no” to the evil one, with ever fuller freedom.

Holy Desires

To be human is to desire. Our hearts are made by God to thirst and to be satisfied, to seek and to find. The very virtue of Hope is defined as a desire for the fulfillment of God’s promises. Our whole human journey begins with small seeds of divine desire planted within us, slowly growing until they reach full fruition.

Perhaps one of the biggest pitfalls for Christians is to think of desire as “selfish.” True, we are ultimately called to lay down our lives in imitation of Jesus. But we cannot make a gift without first having something to give. Far from being a “selfish” thing, our desires are actually the way in which God’s grace effects the most growth in us, so that our self-offering to him will truly be for the praise of his glory.

Let me begin by making a distinction between our urges, our needs, and our desires. They often feel the same to the undiscerning heart, but are quite different once we start paying attention.

By “urges” I mean the daily temptations that entice us to grasp for things that we do not actually desire or need, things which will actually harm our relationship with God, self, and others. Typically that comes in the form of one or more of the seven deadly sins: gluttony, lust, greed, envy, anger, sloth, or pride. In the throes of these urges, we experience them as something to be grasped and possessed, indeed as something that we must have. For a visual, just think of Gollum seeking after his “precious” in The Lord of the Rings.

Resisting unhealthy urges can be a battle – a fierce battle indeed if we have been ignoring our authentic human needs. In my last post, I described those needs – on a physical, emotional, and spiritual level. We can choose to disregard them. But when we do, our humanity is walking wounded, and we make ourselves much more susceptible to urges and temptations that promise us much and deliver little. Our own brain will propose the urges to us as a way of trying to feel better. Or the devil will enter in and attack. The devil is not God; he cannot create. But he is definitely the enemy of our human nature who loves to torment us, to kick us when we’re down. When we are feeling empty or desperate in our human needs, he finds it so much easier to sow his lies and ensnare us in habits of sin.

As important as it is to acknowledge our authentic human needs and distinguish them from our urges, it is our holy desires that matter the most. It is there that the grace of God meets us.

Last year, I had the joy of participating at a priest retreat at the John Paul II Healing Center in Tallahassee. The presenter, Dr. Bob Schuchts, focused on this theme of “Holy Desires.” He reminded us that the very word “desire” is of French origin, meaning “from the Lord.” We discover who we truly are by getting in touch with our deepest and holiest desires. It is there that we encounter God the Father’s love for us, and our own unique identity and blessing from Him.

It is through our desires that spiritual growth happens. One day, Scripture tells us, our capacity for God will be so great that we will see Him face to face and, by that experience, be transformed to become like God (1 John 3:2). The great and mighty Moses was warned that no man could see God’s face and live (Exodus 33:20). Holy desires change all that. Little by little, they help us to become ready. They stretch and expand our hearts, slowly but surely increasing our capacity to receive divine gifts. The more we desire, the more we receive. The more we receive, the more we desire. The process transforms us as we become who we are.

There is an old medieval axiom, quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur – “whatever is received is received according to the mode of the receiver.” In the case of God’s grace, He always fills us when we ask him, but our capacity to receive is limited. Saint Augustine puts it this way: “God wants us to exercise our desire through our prayers, so that we may be able to receive what he is preparing to give us. His gift is very great indeed, but our capacity is too small and limited to receive it.”

In some cases, it is our selfish urges that constrict us. Until we are willing to die to self, we cannot be filled. We are coming to God with clenched fists rather than open hands. I suspect He smiles at us. We are like little children clutching our pennies when he is ready to give us hundred dollar bills. He patiently waits until we are ready to trust and surrender. In other cases, we genuinely have the desire, but need more time to grow. Even though God’s grace moves swiftly, all authentic human growth happens slowly. Little by little, his grace stretches us through holy desires, careful not to break us.

Gregory the Great describes how this transformation happens in our hearts: “When our desires are not satisfied, they grow stronger, and becoming stronger they take hold of their object. Holy desires likewise grow with anticipation, and if they do not grow, they are not really desires. Anyone who succeeds in attaining the truth has burned with such a love.”

Have you burned with such a love? Are you in touch with your deepest desires? They are God’s gifts to you. It is He who has planted them.

As God lays bare our hearts, we might be surprised to discover that what we desire the deepest is also what we fear the most intensely, namely, to lay down our life in love. As we get in touch with those deepest desires, we can start responding and growing in them, removing any obstacles and seeking the nurturing we need. Little by little, God will see to the growth and fruitfulness.