The Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ According to Father Gordon Moreland, SJ

(The following blog is from a chapter in my new book, Desert Spirituality for Men, to be published by Wipf and Stock in February 2022)

Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

—Gospel of John[1]

The farther the outward journey takes you, the deeper the inward journey must be. Only when your roots are deep can your fruits be abundant.

—Henri Nouwen[2]

The most important advice I can give to a man seeking a deeper relationship with God is to work faithfully and consistently with a spiritual director. Spiritual direction is “help given by one Christian to another which enables that person to pay attention to God’s personal communication with him or her, to respond to this personally communicating God, to grow in intimacy with God and to live out the consequences of the relationship.”[3]

Father Gordon Moreland, Fr. Brad Karelius and Erik Karelius

Spiritual direction can help you explore your experiences of God, discern important decisions, heal trauma from the past, and grow into God’s deepest desires for you.

The process begins in your prayers as you listen to God’s call for you. Speak with a member of the clergy or someone you know who has been under spiritual direction. Local retreat centers can help you find a spiritual director: someone who has been through a certification program for spiritual direction. Above all, expect that opening yourself up to spiritual direction will take time and commitment.

Spiritual writer and priest Henri Nouwen advises:

“The goal of spiritual direction is spiritual formation—the ever-increasing capacity to live a spiritual life from the heart. A spiritual life cannot be formed without discipline, practice and accountability.”[4]

Nouwen believes there are three disciplines that will complement your experience with spiritual direction: the discipline of the Heart, the discipline of the Book and the discipline of the Church.

The discipline of the Heart involves contemplative prayer, inviting God into our total being, including all that has been hidden and secret.

The discipline of the Book involves reading the scriptures and spiritual writings. You will find that as you read, the Spirit may connect words and phrases to where you now are in your life, what you are currently seeking and pondering. After I began spiritual direction, meditation on scripture helped me to hear those words in a new way, as if they were written for me.

The discipline of the Church will be a challenge for some readers of this book. You may be a spiritual seeker of God, but you do not have a life in a religious community, or, for some reason, you have left that community. The problem is that the Christian faith is communal, not solitary, requiring that if we are to grow with God, we need to have life in community. In regular worship in the Church, we experience the Gospel narratives of Jesus through the liturgical year, an annual calendar of seasons commemorating the life and teachings of Jesus. Our sometimes-messy experience of human relations in a religious community is rich fodder for reflection with a spiritual director.

In our individualistic culture, we can be drawn to the self-reliance of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, how they found a rich spiritual life in their deprivation, silence and solitude. Eventually, they found that physical and spiritual survival in the desert required the help of others, which birthed the first Christian monastic communities. It may be ironic, but successful solitude is always dependent on others. In contrast with the iconic New Yorker Magazine’s cartoons of the solitary guru living in a cave who is visited by eccentric spiritual seekers, Jesus called a community of disciples to follow him.

Nouwen continues:

“The more we let the events of Christ’s life inform and form us, the more we will be able to connect our own daily stories with the great story of God’s presence in our lives. Thus, the discipline of the Church, as a community of faith, functions as our spiritual director by directing our hearts and minds to the One who makes our lives truly eventful.”[5]

In 1990, my psychiatrist Robert Phillips, MD, recommended spiritual direction for me and sent me across the street from his office to the Center for Spiritual Development on the campus of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Orange, California. I had a general idea about spiritual direction, but little experience. I knew it was something deeper than pastoral counseling. I was apprehensive that someone was going to criticize me about my imperfect life or dictate a curriculum for perfection.

Somehow, I ended up with Sister Jeanne Fallon who had recently returned from missionary work in New Guinea. I sensed the fire of God within her. My own life was a frenzy of multi-tasking busyness for the Church. God was in the far distance, and Erik was in and out of the hospital. Sister Jeanne’s exploratory interview awakened in me the realization and the fear that I was actually trying to hide from God. Even after two years of intensive psychotherapy, something lurked in the dark shadows of my consciousness which made me anxious about proceeding. Since that moment of enlightenment, I have asked many clergy about their spiritual directors: most do not have one or if they do, they see them infrequently.

The Spirit urged me to stay with Sister Jeanne. She invited me to begin the year long Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola which take a year to complete. During our weekly meetings, she guided me through this five-hundred-year-old Jesuit program of daily meditation on scripture and contemplative prayer. This experience opened my heart to the actual presence of Jesus as companion and friend, and the secrets in the dark recesses of my soul came out into the light of God’s compassionate love. After I finished the Exercises, Sister Jeanne sent me to a Jesuit priest and recovering alcoholic. At that point, I was attending Twelve-Step meetings of Adult Children of Alcoholics, newly aware of long-term compulsions and addictions. I took a Moral Inventory, admitting to myself, to God and to another human being the exact nature of my wrongs.[6]

I began the Confession with this prayer: “Almighty God, my inventory has shown me who I am, I admit to my wrongs, yet I ask for Your help in admitting my wrongs to another person and to You. Assure me, and be with me, in this step, for without this step I cannot progress in my recovery. With Your Help, I can do this.”[7]

With this priest, I shared a detailed confession. I had written everything down so that I would not try to evade the hard reality of past behaviors. It was this priest who sent me on to Father Gordon Moreland SJ at the House of Prayer for Priests in the Diocese of Orange, located in the foothills of the Saddleback Mountains.

I remember my first encounter with Father Gordon, welcoming me at the entrance to a compound of Southwestern-styled buildings. As I sat in a chair facing him in his office, the windows behind him revealed a vast desert garden. We shared a common interest in desert landscapes and plants. Over months and years, that chair became a sacred space for encounters with the Lord.

Father Gordon Moreland

For many years, Father Gordon had been novice master to young Jesuits, fostering their spiritual formation (some of them would become bishops and cardinals). He spent thirty-five of his sixty-nine years as a Jesuit in the Diocese of Orange where he became a revered retreat leader for its priests. In 2021, he moved to the Jesuit retirement residence in Los Gatos, California.

I remember that my early years with him were filled with tears and anxiety about Erik’s health crises, and epithets and curses of anger and frustration about my parish and diocesan ministries. I would arrive with heart ache or rage-driven fantasies and leave with a spiritual infusion of God’s love and affirmation from Father Gordon. He did not act as a therapist, analyzing my interior life and making prescriptions. In Father Gordon I found a mellow, mature soul to whom I wanted to be accountable. That is something I learned from the Twelve-Step experience: to be accountable for my life and practice bringing everything into the light. As I look back, I believe that as I talked with Father Gordon, I was practicing being real and honest with God.

For twenty-seven years, I committed myself to meeting with Gordon every month.

The four gospels of the New Testament in the Bible are presented as eyewitness accounts of the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. There are also persons who come into our life as “eyewitnesses” to the living Christ, persons whose deep encounters with the Lord radiate their living faith to us and, by their words and presence, draw us closer in faith and friendship with Jesus. A Gospel is an evangelium, “Good News.” Father Gordon Moreland, SJ has been an evangelion of Jesus to me.

As I sat with Father Gordon, I always held a yellow legal pad on my lap. I would write down phrases he said, scripture passages, and spiritual reading to be explored later. Writing helped me to listen. From these notes during my last year With Father Gordon, I have gleaned only a small part of The Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus ChristAccording to Father Gordon Moreland SJ, but here are some of the things he would tell me.

God is love and joy. Most people think of God as power, an entity to cope with, to dread, or to hold in awe. St. Paul shares his own experience of God in the Epistle to the Romans: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”[8]

God is joy. Joy wants to diffuse itself into creation, creating humans who are capable of joy. What God wants from us is joy. Erik radiates that joy to everyone around him. I frequently talked about that nagging critical voice in my head, reminding me of past sins or being negative about people close to me. Gordon’s advice: focus more on seeing myself as the Lord sees me. It helps to remember with gratitude moments of joy.

God is love, personified. God is joy, personified. God is mercy, personified. This creates a new matrix for thinking about God as other than the serious, chastising Judge, watching our every move.

Gordon remembers notorious criminals in prayer at his daily mass. For instance, he remembered in prayer Andrew Cunanan, who murdered Gianni Versace in 1997. Father Gordon prayed for him during an early morning mass. He sensed Cunanan’s presence, who was so full of guilt that he could not accept the Lord’s help. Gordon experienced the blessing of the Lord on his prayer friendship with murderers and the unfaithful departed. He wants to help them let go of their sins to the Lord and pray that they will experience a surge of joy from the Lord. “You cannot welcome the Lord Jesus if you are still given over to your corporal sins.”

I often arrived at the House of Prayer heart-heavy. Memories of dark, depressing times would rise up and become vividly real again. Was this the work of the dark spirit creating resistance to Father Gordon’s words of light and hope? Gordon responded: Jesus said, “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”[9]  He shared his memory of the Spanish mystic John of the Cross (1542-1591), who knew dark times when he was beaten and persecuted by his Carmelite community for his reforming efforts. Yet, locked up in a dark cell next to the monastery latrine, he wrote the Spiritual Canticle, proclaiming his love of God in dark times. As a teenager, St. John had worked in a hospital caring for men with syphilis and dementia. He would clean them with such reverence that people were much taken by his servant persona. In John’s love for these dirty, sick men, he saw Christ in them. This experience made him aware of God’s love.

In my imagination, I see John of the Cross locked up in a tiny, dark room next to the nauseating smell of the monastery latrine. At night, he was in total darkness. His food was bread and water and salted fish. God seemed distant and the fire of his faith was almost out—only embers remained. But the living flame of God’s love did not abandon him. Later, when he escaped captivity, the fiery ardor for God rekindled, inspiring the mystical poem The Living Flame of Love (c1585).

Father Gordon advised:

“It is so important to be in touch with God’s love for us more than our love for God.”

“Let yourself be loved by God. Know yourself as beloved.

“The Lord loves me more than I love me. I am safe in His hands.”

“The Lord loves Erik more than I love Erik. Erick is safe in His hands.”

A friend to China. Gordon made more than a dozen month-long trips to China, touring the back roads-less-traveled with Chinese friends as guides. He carried in his heart remembrance of Matteo Ricci (1552-1620), the Italian Jesuit priest whose profound missionary work pierced the confines of the Forbidden City to encounter and counsel the Emperor, syncretizing Confucian values and traditions with Christian values and traditions. In his travels, Gordon asked the Lord that he might be a friend to China and waited for confirmation from the Spirit.

At the end of one visit, he was at dinner with his friends and several military officers. You can imagine some tension there between Chinese officials and this lone American. Gordon did not speak Chinese, but his expressive face communicated the love and joy of the Lord. All the people at the table stood, raising their glasses, toasting Gordon: “Welcome to a friend of China.” The Lord Jesus seemed to confirm Father Gordon as spiritual ambassador to China. At the end of the evening, he was asked, “What did you think of this evening?”

Gordon responded, “I am a religious man, a Jesuit priest. Before I came to China, I asked the Lord that I could be a friend to China. One thing I am certain of is of God’s love for all of us.”

A guest answered, “On behalf of the Third Regiment, I welcome you as a friend of China.” Gordon told me this story several times, radiating some of the joy he must have communicated at that memorable dinner. The Spirit must have infused the dinner guests with the joy of the Lord, because two men in their fifties approached Gordon as he sat in a car ready to leave. Smiling, they greeted Gordon, saying, “We love you.”

There has been a lot of progress in the country of 1.5 billion Chinese. Though four-hundred million live on one dollar a day, there is a burgeoning middle-class and indeed more billionaires in China than anywhere else. A systemic command-economy has pulled two-thirds of the people out of poverty in just seventy years. The United States has not been able to do that. We need to acknowledge, even applaud this accomplishment.

Rather than “spiritual direction,”Gordon preferred the term, “spiritual conversations.” As a teenager working on his family’s farm in eastern Washington State, he planted new grapevines. Gordon slowly learned how to train two lower branches and two upper branches of the new vine plant on a long wire trellis. The trick is to guess which sprouting buds can be encouraged by pruning correctly. If you choose poorly, then you can lose part of the crop. Working at vine cultivation requires developing intuition, learning to see how the plant wants to grow. The analogy is clear: the task of spiritual direction is to draw out a person’s deepest desires.

Gordon referred to the special dignity of the penitent. I remember hearing private confessions at my parish in Santa Ana. Some people carry their sins like heavy rocks in their spiritual backpack. Shame and guilt wear them down. Previous counseling from other clergy often added to the shame of these penitents. When I look back to that spiritual inventory of the Fifth Step with the Jesuit priest, I remember feeling like Lazarus: The Lord had set me free. As I arrived at a Twelve-Step meeting in Dana Point, California, on a dense foggy night. Several men were outside the entrance welcoming everyone, glad that they had shown up. Listening to those testimonies of recovering alcoholics that night, one of whom was at the time a student of mine at the college, reminded me of an Easter Sunday service, but there was more Easter resurrection there than I have ever felt in church.

When Father Gordon transitioned from the Northwest to southern California, on Ash Wednesday, as he imposed ashes on parishioners, he was especially struck by Latinos, and how they would wear the penitential mark on their foreheads with pride. These ashes are not mortification, as taught by ancient theologies. We glory in our penance. We are worth the blood of the cross of Jesus. It is not that we forgive and forget our sins; it is better to know you are forgiven and remember your liberation from sin and death. I am remembering how through our many years of marriage; Jan and I continue to learn about forgiveness with each other.

Gordon tells a story about a crooked, bent tree that grew beyond the corner of a house, a “wounded tree,” obscured under the lattice of the roof. It worked its way out into the light. The forestry person pronounced the tree as “broken,” but now the tree had become strong, growing to one-hundred feet in height.

From his own life with God, through all the struggles for faith within his own humanity, Father Gordon experienced the love and forgiveness of the Lord. He has lived his evangelion through a radical love for the unfaithful departed, helping them to let go of their sins and embrace the joy of the Lord. You may ask him: What does God want from us? More obedience, following the rules, spiritual perfection? God wants a relationship with you. The trick is this: We love because God has given us the ability to love.

My prayer is that these words and my experience with Father Gordon will encourage you to seek a spiritual director and to make that time together a priority. You and I need the help of these spiritual friends to be reminded again and again that we are beloved by God.

[1] John 20:30-31 NIV

[2] Nouwen, The Inner Voice of Love

[3] William A. Barry and William J. Connolly, The Practice of Spiritual Direction, 8.

[4] Nouwen, Spiritual Direction, xiii.

[5] Nouwen, ibid, xvii.

[6] Step five in Alcoholic Anonymous is called “Confession”, when we “admit to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrong.” This step involves a written inventory of our wrong and should be shared as early as possible in recovery.


[8] Romans 15:13 NIV.

[9] John 8:12 NIV

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Why are Women more Spiritual than Men?

The Angelus, S. Miller, 1857

Late have I loved you. Beauty so ancient and so new,

late have I loved you!

Lo, you were within,

but I outside, seeking there for you,

and upon the shapely things you have made I rushed


I, misshapen.

You were with me, but I was not with you.

—Augustine, Bishop of Hippo[1]                                                         

Let us now consider “the elephant in the sanctuary!” As you and I look over the faces of worshippers gathered on a Sunday in an American church, the majority will be women. Are American women more spiritual and faithful to their religious traditions than men?

Marta Trzebiatowska and her team of sociologists have seriously studied this question, revealing:

“Since 1945, the Gallup polling organization has consistently found that, on every index used, American women are more religious than men and not by small margins.”[2]

The Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan fact tank in Washington, D.C., studies demographic trends and social issues. Recently, they published The Gender Gap in Religion Around the World, observing that “women are generally more religious than men, particularly among Christians.”[3]

The Pew report reveals: “In the United States, for example, women are more likely than men to say religion is ‘very important’ in their lives. American women also are more likely than American men to say they pray daily and attend religious services at least once a week.”

“A few sociologists have theorized that the gender gap in religion is biological in nature, possibly stemming from higher levels of testosterone in men or other physical and genetic differences between the sexes. Christian women are more religious than Christian men…. Christian women report praying daily more frequently than Christian men by an overall average gap of ten percentage points….Scholars of religion have been examining possible reasons for the gender gaps: biology, psychology, family environment, social status, workforce participation and lack of ‘existential security’ felt by many women because they generally are more afflicted than men by poverty, illness, old age and violence.”[4]

David Voas, head of the Department of Social Science at University College London, reflects on this report:

“I’m not an expert in genetics, but there appears to be some fairly compelling evidence (for example, from studies of twins) that genes do affect our disposition to be religious. And if that’s the case, it’s at least plausible that the gender gap in religiosity is partly a matter of biology. If true, though, I doubt that it’s because there’s a ‘God gene’ and women are more likely to have it than men. It seems easier to believe that physiological or hormonal differences could influence personality, which may in turn be linked to variations in ‘spirituality’ or religious thinking.”[5]

As America became more secularized without state support of religion after the 1820’s, Tzrebiatowska reports that, “the division of the life-world into relatively distinct spheres initially insulated women from many of the secularizing forces that bore on the public sphere…(That) the home should be the primary site for religious edification and socialization seems to explain why secularization should have impacted on men earlier and to a greater extent than on women.”[6]

Why do American men struggle with spirituality?

We have inherited the values of critical thinking and science from the European Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries. We now live in a secular culture suspicious of religious experience and dogmatic theology. Religion can be defined as that which connects all of life together. In medieval Paris, France, for example, religion encompassed all aspects of daily life. There was no separation between the sacred and secular. Religious rituals were celebrated in a world of spiritual enchantment. This world view radically changed in 150 years, as early scientists sought knowledge in the Book of Nature rather than the dogma of the Bible. At a time when it was assumed that everyone believed in the Christian God, Rene Descartes (1596-1656) inspired the shift from religious orthodoxy to the primacy of the individual conscience.  

German sociologist Max Weber described this process as the demystification of the modern world. Nature and the cosmos no longer invited mystical contemplation. Instead, they came to be seen as material systems to be studied. The emerging modern world required rational control. Descartes contended that creating a “buffered self” was the best defense against the siren call of old superstitions.

Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor writes:

“The buffered self is the agent who no longer fears demons, spirits, and magic forces. More radically, these no longer impinge; they don’t exist for him; whatever threat or other meaning they proffer doesn’t ‘get it’ from him.

“This super buffered self… is not only not ‘got at’ by demons and spirits; he is also utterly unmoved by the aura of desire. In a mechanistic universe, and in a field of functionally understood passion, there is no more room for such an aura. There is nothing it could correspond to. It is just a disturbing, supercharged feeling which somehow grips us until we can come to our senses and take on our full, buffered identity.”[7]

Max Weber, in The Protestant Ethic and the Rise of Capitalism, describes how ambitious, hard work, accumulation of capital, and the pieties of thrift and simplicity became spiritual virtues of the Protestant Reformation. Success in your profession may be evidence of God’s predestined blessing.

As Enlightenment values for reason, and Reformation values for the work ethic came to the American colonies, each colony had its own established state church, supported by tax money. They legally required all citizens to attend church services. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, influential leaders in the American Revolution, affirmed the Enlightenment’s teachings so that the Constitution expressed the radical idea that every person must be free to choose his or her spiritual path. No one can be compelled to follow any religion in which they did not believe.

When these state churches were disestablished, men who provided leadership to these churches lost status, which diminished interest in participation. Men who worked in government had to deal with people from different religious traditions. Men were more likely to travel extensively for their business or military service. These factors would also have diluted any sense of uniformity of religion and influenced men’s disaffiliation.[8]

This process of disenchantment of the West, through the European Enlightenment, Protestant Reformation and in the American Constitution, resulted in the reality that religion became purely a private matter in the United States.

Noting the displacement of the fire inside us for communion with God with the pursuit of success in the world, a whole publishing industry burst forth, speaking to masculine spirituality.

In the early 1990s. The early book on the men’s movement was Robert Bly’s Iron Man, which sparked exploration of what is unique to men and their spirituality. Masculinity to Bly meant spontaneous wildness and taking risks. To awaken to Bly’s ideal of the true self involves austere, elaborate initiation. Modern Western culture has tamed and suppressed natural male instincts. Mythologies from different cultures give directional clues to an inward awakening. Was Bly countering the feminist critique of masculinity?

A best-selling book on Christian masculinity is John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart (2001). After twenty years, the book continues to be number one on spirituality for men within evangelical Christianity. Eldridge, a Christian counselor, and lecturer, invites men to recover their masculine heart and return to “authentic masculinity,” connecting with their deepest desires. I found kinship with Eldredge as he shares his own retreats in desert and mountain landscapes.

The book has three parts. Part One describes men as image-bearers of God. Men are made to “come through.” As a man, do you have what it takes? Part Two contends all men carry a wound. We all carry a false self that we project to the outer world, expressed in extreme ways in anger or passivity. Healing comes if we bring those wounds to Jesus and recover a restored masculine heart. Part Three, Eldridge describes the Core Desires of a Man’s Heart: battle, adventure, beauty. Within the heart of every man is the heart of a warrior who wants to fight for something important and precious. Within the heart of every man is a longing for exploration and adventure connected to God’s call. Within the heart of every man is a “beauty to rescue,” to be found in nature, the arts, and in a personal relationship with God. We will find our deepest longings and desires in relationship with God. He asks important questions to his male readers: “Who am I. What am I made of? What am I destined for?”[9]

Richard Rohr, Franciscan priest and liberal Roman Catholic, represents the other end of the masculine spirituality spectrum. He has been much criticized by conservative Christians for his lack of orthodoxy—something he has in common with many spiritual mystics. In reading his books From Wild Man to Wise Man and Falling Upward, I can see influence from the analytical psychology of C. G. Jung, his emphasis on archetypes, common figures found in dreams and cross-cultural mythology as clues to the collective unconscious.

Professor Armin M Kummer of the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium, reflects:

“Rohr believes that most contemporary men possess no internal motivation. Their choices are driven by the external motivators, money, sex, and power. They are in the grasp of groupthink and other forms of social control that are opposed to individual consciousness and personal conscience. The traditional masculine enterprise of creating and producing has been replaced with making money as the primary goal in life. In Rohr’s view, the contemporary willingness to dedicate life to the production of items of no social benefit has led to men’s emotional stunting. Relational and social skills have withered because men live their lives at odds with their phallic energy, the masculine drive towards intercourse, and the beginning of life.”[10]

Richard Rohr OFM also contends that men carry a wound, which he calls “father wound,” based on the missing presence of a man’s father. If accumulation of wealth is a man’s ultimate concern, there is little time to nurture relationships with children.

Rohr defines spirituality as “having a source of energy within which is a motivating and directing force for living.”[11] This is similar to Rolheiser’s definition of spirituality: how we channel that fire within us. Spirituality for men, according to Rohr, “would emphasize movement over stillness, action over theory, service to the world over religious discussions, speaking the truth over social niceties and doing justice instead of any self-serving ‘charity’.”[12]

In his recent book Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, Rohr considers the first half of a man’s life, the restless pursuit of power, sex, and money, at the cost of one’s inner self, creating an underdeveloped persona called puer (boy-child). To find our true self, the self that God implanted in us as our spiritual destiny, there is an unavoidable suffering that must come upon us. As you have read this book up to this point, you can hear my “Amen” to this.

Rohr writes about the false self and true self:

“Your false self is your role, title, and personal image that is largely a creation of your own mind and attachments. It will and must die in exact correlation to how much you want the Real…. Your True Self is who you objectively are from the beginning, in the mind and heart of God… It is your substantial self, your absolute identity, which can be neither gained nor lost by any technique, group affiliation, morality, or formula whatsoever. The surrendering of our false self, which we have usually taken for our absolute identity, yet is merely a relative identity, is the necessary suffering needed to find ‘the pearl of great price’ that is always hidden inside this lovely but passing shell.”[13]

Drawing on Eastern and native American religious traditions, Rohr lifts up the role of mentor who can guide and teach a younger man, just as Jesus offered spiritual formation for his disciples.[14] And he encourages desert retreats of silence and solitude and contemplative prayer as resources for building friendship with God.

Contemporary writers on men’s spirituality seem to be motivated by the diminished self-identity of men caused by the women’s movement.

I believe that a way forward for men in rediscovery of their spiritual selves will be found in opportunities for connection with the spiritual lives of women.

I have experienced this in two ways.

For forty years, I have shared ministry with the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Orange, a century-old Roman Catholic religious community in Orange, California.

One of their charisms or spiritual gifts is public work for justice and peace. Sister Eileen McNerney CSJ founded Taller San Jose in 1995 as a response to increased gang violence, youth unemployment, low high school graduation rates and rising teen pregnancy rates. The Hope Builders program enrolls two hundred young adults and helps them achieve and maintain self-sufficiency. Women and men receive training for employment in construction and medical services. I know that the contact with the Sisters by young men in the programs and business professionals who mentor or teach in the programs has stimulated their spiritual renewal. “Preach the gospel at all times, when necessary, use words.” The Sisters of Saint Joseph, in their life-changing ministries of peace and justice, are visible testimonies to the joy of life with God.

Another ministry of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Orange is the Center for Spiritual Development. Spiritual directors are trained at the Center, which also offers seminars on a wide-spectrum on spirituality for men and women who seek a deeper relationship with God. Men who may have no religious affiliation find a welcoming “side-door” for spiritual exploration.

A second experience for me of how women have enriched my spiritual life are the five women priests who have been my colleagues. As a self-driven Alpha male, focusing on fund-raising for low-income early childhood centers and an after school youth center and growing the parish, the multi-tasking can take on a manic momentum. In close partnership with my female clergy colleagues, I had help with paying attention to relationships, conflict management, and taking time at staff meetings for prayer and scripture, reminding us for Whom we are laboring.  Before I would send an angry letter to the bishop or another party with whom I had disagreements, I learned to submit the letter to one of my female colleagues for editing or deletion. I found balance in my professional life and gratitude for the priesthood through shared ministry with these remarkable women.

As a man, passing through the eighth decade of life, I look back with regret and sorrow for things done and left undone. I see the faces of persons I have hurt, disappointed, and neglected. I remember bad choices that had serious life-changing consequences for me and those I loved. I remember addictive behaviors and the deceptive inner voice that urged me on: “You can do this; you are in control.” Thank God I lived long enough to come to this place of contemplative reflection. Thank God for that awakening of the Spirit to help me see that all along, in my frantic restless wanderings and hell-bent fixations, I was somewhere within my deepest self, seeking God. Thank God I had the help of Sister Jeanne Fallon, CSJ and Father Gordon Moreland, SJ to remind me as spiritual directors that I am God’s beloved.

Lord God, my prayers do not conjure your presence. You have always been present throughout my life and I did not know this. You are present everywhere for everyone. The problem has been me being present to you.

The awakening I experienced of God’s love for me and all creation came at the end of praying through the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius Loyola for a year with Sister Jeanne. At the end of that year, she guided me through the Contemplation to Attain Divine Love. I remember that there are four parts:

  1. Remember how much God has done for me.
  2. Think about the way God “dwells in all living things and in me, created in God’s image.”
  3. Consider how God cares for and nurtures creation.
  4. Consider how God inspires us to work for justice and mercy in the world as His active presence.

On our last day of that year together, Sister Jeanne invited me to pray the Suscipe Prayer, a prayer of self-surrender of my life to God, acknowledging that all I need to thrive and serve in this life is God’s love and grace.

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,

my memory, my understanding, and all my will—

all that I have and possess.

You, Lord, have given all that to me.

I now give it back to you, O Lord.

All of it is yours.

Dispose of it according to your will.

Give me love of yourself along with grace,

for that is enough for me.[15]

You and I, in our desire for deeper connection with Jesus, find a helpful brother in Augustine of Hippo, the Black bishop from north Africa, and his autobiographical Confessions (c. 400 A.D.). By that time, Christianity had been legalized in the Roman Empire, the age of physical martyrdom was over and the spiritual work for Christians had become an inner struggle. Some men and women took to the deserts of Palestine, Syria, and Egypt to seek solitude, silence, and contemplation with God. Listening to Augustine’s voice as I read the Confessions, I recognize a person praying to God, like the voice I hear of the Psalmist in the Bible. The quotation at the beginning of this chapter describes our search for God without knowing that it is God for whom we are searching. For thirty-four years of his life, Augustine searched restlessly for meaning and fulfillment in the world. His intense intellectual mind drew him to be a rabid devotee of various Greek philosophies and cults, an ardent lover of women, and ambitious in his teaching career—receiving an academic appointment from the Roman Emperor himself. A desire for God moved within him, but he thought this restless activity in the world had nothing to do with that. The journey inward was not self-initiated. He was in a garden, thinking about thinking, and the way God works, a surprise: he hears a child’s voice chanting “Take up and read.” He opens a book to Paul’s Letter to the Romans: “Not in revelry and drunkenness, not in debauchery and wantonness, not in strike and jealousy, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and as for the flesh, take no thought for its lusts.”[16]

 With clarity of mind, heart, and soul, he chooses baptism and Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior.

Augustine of Hippo joins you and me in awakening to the knowledge that we are beloved sons of God. This is where a man who struggles with his life with God must begin. Augustine prays for all of us as he says to the Lord: “You are good and all-powerful, caring for each one of us as though each is the only one in your care.”[17]


Augustine of Hippo, The Confessions, Editor: David Vincent Meconi; Translator: Maria Boulding Chicago: Ignatius Press, 2012.

Pew Research Center, The Gender Gap in Religion Around the World, March 22, 2016.

Trzebiatowska, Marta; Bruce, Steve. Why are Women more Religious than Men? Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Eldridge, John. Wild at Heart: Discovering Secrets of a Man’s Soul. New York: Thomas Nelson, 2006.

Kummer, Armin M. Men, Spirituality and Gender-specific Biblical Hermeneutics. Leuven, Belgium: Peeters, 2019.

Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007.

Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius Loyola

Martin SJ, James. The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything. New York: HarperOne, 2010.

Rohr, Richard. From Wild Man to Wise Man: Reflections on Male Spirituality. Cincinnati, OH: Franciscan Media, 2005.

Rohr, Richard. Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2011.

[1] Augustine, Confessions, p. 291.

[2] Trzebiatowska, Why Are Women More Religious Than Men? 6

[3] Pew Research Center, The Gender Gap in Religion Around the World, March 22, 2016.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Pew Research Center, “Q & A: Why are Women Generally More Religious than Men? March 23, 2016.

[6] Trzebiatowka, Ibid, 165-166.

[7] Taylor, Secular Age, 135.

[8] Trzbiatowska, Ibid, 165.

[9] Eldridge, Wild at Heart: Discovering Secrets of a Man’s Soul, 5.

[10] Kummer, Men, Spirituality, and Gender-specific Biblical Hermeneutics,  18-19.

[11] Rohr and Martos, From Wild Man to Wise Man, 36.

[12] Ibid, 10.

[13] Rohr, Falling Upward, 85-86.

[14] Kummer,Men, Spirituality, and Gender-specific Biblical Hermeneutics, 21.

[15] Martin, A Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, 396-397.

[16] Romans 13:13-14.

[17] Augustine, Ibid, 50.

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Meeting God at the Rose Bowl: Coach Tom Hamilton and Stacy Harvey

Football is like life. It requires perseverance, self-denial, hard work, sacrifice, dedication, and respect for authority.

—Coach Vince Lombardi.[1]

Some people come into our life, and we are never the same persons. Their presence, friendship, and honesty with us in times of discernment help us to shape who we were meant to be: our true selves.

I first met Coach Tom Hamilton in May 1960. I was soon to graduate from Wilson Junior High School in Pasadena, California. A classmate and I snuck into the Pasadena High School varsity spring football practice at the old Smokestack field on the campus at Pasadena City College. Was it coincidence or God’s amazing grace that I would be there on that special day? We lined up for “non-contact” scrimmage. Before we started, varsity coach Dick Simmons announced with a bold voice, “I want you to meet our new varsity head football coach Tom Hamilton.”

And so it began.

In the first play of the practice scrimmage, Rick Flood, a pulling guard two years older than me, blasted through the line, crashed into me, and busted my nose. Blood spirted from my nostrils, flowing down on to my clothes. Coach Hamilton walked me over to the sidelines, told me to lie down and be still. They later escorted me off the field and admonished me to come back when I was actually a PHS student.

Little did I know that for over forty-four years, Tom would become my best friend and mentor.

Coach Hamilton began a long, successful run as PHS football coach that fall at the new Pasadena High School campus on Sierra Madre Blvd. I remember that in tenth grade, all our home football games were in the Rose Bowl, because the Pasadena City College field was being renovated. Imagine: high school athletes playing football in the famous Rose Bowl: the site of Super Bowl, National Collegiate Football championships, Olympic Games and FIFA Women’s World Cup Soccer. On the PHS team, I made lifelong friendships with teammates Bruce Corker, Pat Cayce, Gary Griffith, Dennis Cosso, Rob Johnston, and Greg Vartanian. Coach Hamilton’s first year of coaching in 1960 was a disaster, losing every league game.

Those first three years at the new PHS campus were a building time for the program, which finally culminated on November 1962 in the annual rivalry game between the two Pasadena schools, John Muir High School and PHS in the venerable Rose Bowl. The intense rivalry drew fifteen-thousand fans. Both schools celebrated Homecoming to draw out the loyal alumni. PHS had lost this game the previous eight years. With the score tied 14-14, seconds to go, quarterback Phil Olwin ran a broken play into the end zone for a touchdown. That victory highlighted our senior year. The football team joyfully carried Coach Hamilton on their shoulders off the field. Coach Hamilton’s career took off from there through the 1970s. The football team rarely lost a game and usually beat John Muir High School.

With a student body of 4200 students in grades 9-12, PHS channeled hundreds of young men through sports programs. I was a face in the crowd, a mediocre athlete. Tom Hamilton coached me in football and baseball. Teenagers have special radar for hypocrisy and facades. I could see in Tom an honorable, good man. I think that was the spark that inspired further contact with him when I was in college and seminary.

PHS Victory at Rose Bowl November 1962

A lesson Tom gifted all of us in athletics was this: there is a place deep within us, when we are beyond thirst, beyond tired, when we do not believe we can give any more, there is a place deep within us where we find the fire to do that which we did not think we could do! I believe Coach Tom helped us connect with the fire deep within us, that is the awakening of our true self.

Coach Gary Griffiths remembers:

“He was just the most unforgettable person I’ve ever met. The most principled. I think the thing that sticks most in my mind was his concept that you play by the rules to win. Everything was done in the right way. So many coaches were unscrupulous. He set an example for all of us coaches to follow.”[2]

Arcadia High School football coach Dick Salter remembers his beloved friend:

“The coach I respected most was Tom Hamilton. He had such high integrity. More than anything else, he was a great person. He was a person of high character and great motivational skills for his kids. He ran wishbone for a while, he ran an unbalanced line like Michigan State, he ran the veer for a while, the I formation. He would adjust to the personnel he had. When he had a good quarterback, he’d run the option. That’s why Tom did so well. He utilized his people well. Even if you lost to him, you felt good, because he was such a good person.”[3]

Former PHS football player Mickey Segal, President of the Rose Bowl Legacy Foundation, remembers:

“Coach Hamilton was an inspiring leader. He was able to get 110% performance from every player. But more importantly, he was able to teach and develop character and responsibility in each and every one of us.”[4]

After I graduated from seminary in 1970, I visited Tom at a football practice. He invited me to pray a blessing for the team the following week. From that day until the 1990s, I drove at least one-hundred-fifty miles almost every Friday night to be with Coach Tom and Coach Gary, as the chaplain to the PHS varsity team.

A mental image burns in my mind:

We are in the Rose Bowl locker room, the most famous football stadium in America, for the annual Turkey Tussle football game against John Muir High School. Tom has helped the players focus again on that fire deep within. We kneel on the Astroturf carpet, in a compact circle, clasping heavily taped hands, the Muir High School drums beat a primal cadence that echoes within the bowels of the stadium and right outside our locker room door, and I pray, yes, I pray for victory. Has there been another day when we felt as alive as that day, felt more like brothers, and blessed to be with Coach Tom Hamilton?

From the wisdom of Celtic spirituality, there is the counsel to remain planted where you are, to stay in place, to resist the allure of seeking greening pastures.

Spiritual writer Philip Sheldrake reflects: “The desert tradition of monastic life, by which Celtic, especially Irish, spirituality may have been influenced, placed a central emphasis on the importance of staying in one place, specifically the ‘ cell ‘, in order to find God.”[5]

The commitment to be planted where you are is an invitation to the Holy Spirit to help you dig deep into the soil of your life and the needs of the world around you.

When both of our careers had achieved some success and the lure of “bigger and better” tugged at our conscience, Tom had several opportunities: assistant coach at the University of Southern California; head coach and athletic director at Santa Monica High School, where he could focus completely on football; coach at an Orange County high school.

Tom decided again and again to remain where he was at PHS. Those decisions were hard, because the demands on coaching were soon to take a dramatic turn.

I frequently visited Tom at his home in Altadena with his life partner, Dr. Lynne Emory, a kinesiology professor at Cal Poly, Pomona, and acclaimed historian on women in the Olympic Games. I would find Tom in his garage working on carpentry. He built a fabulous dining room table, cribs for grandchildren and bookcases. Or I would find him working in the garden with Lynne. He would drop everything and take me into the living room of his modest home. Lynne made coffee and Tom had Royal Crown Cola. We talked. There was a presence in him. He was my best friend, and only after he died did I learn that many men like me felt like adopted sons.

Tom was “father-confessor” as I struggled with a decision to go to Maryland as rector of a large, well-to-do Episcopal Church. He helped me focus on where my real passion was and still is: urban ministry in a struggling, multicultural, inner-city church in the Logan Barrio in Santa Ana. He helped me to remain in place, and from that decision, new ministries were birthed: an after-school tutoring and youth center to counter rising gang violence and an early childhood education center for the poorest families of Santa Ana.

Once when our son was in the hospital in Pediatric ICU and his life seemed like it could end, I received a surprise phone call from Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of Why Bad Things Happen to Good People. His own son had died ten years earlier. We talked about what it feels like being a religious professional, and how God can seem far away when we are in crisis ourselves and our loved ones are suffering.

Rabbi Kushner quoted from his recent book:

“One of my favorite aphorisms comes from a nineteenth-century Hasidic rabbi who once said, ‘Human beings are God’s language.’ When we call out to God in our distress, God answers us by sending us people.”[6]

I do not believe God caused Erik’s many health crises and suffering. God was with us in the people He sent: medical staff, therapists, and Coach Tom’s many phone calls and personal visits.

In the dark nights of my soul, Tom Hamilton has been God’s language to me. He always accepted me where I was. If he did not hear from me for a while, he called me. He helped me to stay in touch with the fire that burns within and to resist the allures of the false self: who I am, what I do, what I have, what others think of me, and to focus on my true self, which has something to do with spending myself for the needs of others.

In the late 1970s, a shift in the demographics of the Pasadena Unified School system challenged Coach Tom Hamilton to adapt to a new cultural world. Coach Hamilton became “Coach Ham.”

For decades, Pasadena had some of the best schools in California, influenced by connection to California Institute of Technology. When I attended PHS in the early 1960s, the quality of education was comparable to an excellent private school today. The student body was mostly white, with perhaps five percent African American and five percent Asian-American. Some of my classmates were born in Manzanar and other World War II relocation camps.

My father attended John Muir Technical High School in the 1930s. The school covered the northwest sector of Pasadena, including a vibrant Black community dating back to the 1880s. Jackie Robinson and his brother Mack were outstanding athletes at John Muir, being on the same sports teams as my father and his brothers Earl and Kenneth. As I read Jackie Robinson’s autobiography, I noticed brief mention of his high school days. His experience of racism at the school and segregation at local recreational facilities affected his remembrance of those early days in Pasadena.

In 1970, a federal court ordered desegregation busing because of “de facto” segregation in the northwest sector of the district, which could affect equal access to quality education. White students dominated the other areas of the city. The Pasadena Unified School Board fought the court decision for a decade. As a result, Pasadena High School became very multicultural and there was a significant white flight to schools in Arcadia, San Marino, and La Crescenta. Private schools went on wait list and new private schools were launched.

The demographics of PHS and its sports teams changed to be more honestly reflective of the real world. Tom became a multicultural coach. The classroom teaching and coaching roles changed. As mothers and fathers had to both work to support family, teachers and coaches became support persons for homework and academics,  health care, and father confessors.

The lure of violent gang life encroached on Pasadena schools as well as the Logan Barrio, where my parish was in Santa Ana. The Bloods and Crips gangs preyed on vulnerable youth, offering alternative “family” and a downward life leading to prison, drug addiction or death. Sports teams and coaches like Tom Hamilton saved many young men, giving vision and hope for the future.

Stacy Harvey as PHS Quarterback

How did Tom adjust to this cultural shift and establish rapport with the black and Latino students? He was the same coach, the same mentor and teacher, who cared deeply about each player.

One of these young men from the Black neighborhood of northwest Pasadena was Stacy Harvey. Stacy joined the team, as gang life tugged at him and his friends. He came to varsity football in the last years of Tom’s coaching. Physically and charismatically bigger than life, he was a natural leader as quarterback. I have this indelible memory of Stacy in his last game against John Muir High School, 1982. The play was quarterback keeper. From the 50-yard line of the Rose Bowl, Stacy blasted through the middle of the line and, like a Sherman tank, continued straight up the field with two Muir players hanging on to him, carrying them all toward a touchdown.

When defense was on the field, I often sat with Stacy on the bench and our friendship began. I stayed in touch with him as he went off to Arizona State University. He had an outstanding four years playing football, culminating in his team’s victory over Michigan in the Rose Bowl. As a linebacker, Stacy led the team with eleven tackles in that game.

He had a long career in management with Los Angeles County Public Works, raised a family, and stayed connected to his PHS friends in the northwest Pasadena neighborhood. Our friendship became closer during the five years we worked together on the Board of the PHS Alumni Association. The school has a history going back to the 1880s, thousands of alumni, but Stacy and his classmates of 1983 were the only ones to launch an alumni association. The Alumni Board met every month. Around the table were the men and women who grew up with Stacy in his neighborhood. All the men had played football and remembered me as a priest to the team. I am grateful to be drawn into the lives of these men and women and to see their devotion to their families, their church, their careers and especially to PHS. Because these neighborhood friendships had deep roots, like any extended family, there were intense arguments. As President, Stacy had a forceful presence, too authoritarian sometimes, but he could motivate these folks to donate scholarships, organize campus work projects and fund equipment for athletic programs.

Stacy Harvey, Pasadena-Muir Game 2016

Stacy had a big heart spiritually, but his physical heart grew weak. I visited Stacy at Huntington Hospital after his heart bypass surgery. This health crises had also been a spiritual catharsis. He knew that he almost died and intended to make amends with friends and family. God was close to him. A few weeks later, Stacy died in his sleep.

Powerful expressions of love and appreciation for Stacy filled the Pasadena High School auditorium at his memorial service. Twenty of his teammates from Arizona State University attended, as well as dozens of rival John Muir High School football alums. Stacy’s son spoke about Stacy’s legacy in sports and as his beloved father.

Ironically, a few weeks before he died, Stacy had planned a picnic at Brookside Park to thank all the people who helped him during his illness. The afternoon of that planned picnic was the day of his memorial service. Lifelong friends from the northeast Pasadena neighborhood, a devoted extended family, celebrated the reunion that Stacy had planned.

Stacy Harvey and Father Brad, Class of 1963 Reunion 2018

Coach Tom Hamilton’s life was also cut short with lung cancer. Tom did not smoke, but I wondered about the effect of those years of smoggy days in Pasadena and his coaching outside at the football field. Up to then, he seemed to always be in training, walking several miles early each morning around the Rose Bowl with his beloved Lynne Emery. The cancer drained him. He struggled for each breath. I have this memory: I am with Tom at his home. A bleak winter day. I help administer morphine under his tongue to assuage the panic that comes with a dying lung. I hold his big hand and gaze out the window at a bird on a barren tree branch. I felt so helpless. There are no words to say, just hold on tight and channel my love for him. Coach Gary Griffith was a caregiver for Tom in those last days. Two days after my visit, Gary called me to say that our beloved Tom had died.

October 31, 2019, I am again at the Rose Bowl. This time I am with former coaches and players to dedicate Tunnel Four in memory of Coach Tom Hamilton. It was a few hours before the annual John Muir High School-PHS rivalry football game. Coach Hamilton’s son, Tom Hamilton, Jr and his family welcomed the gathering. Later, in the football game, Tom flipped the coin at the traditional coin toss before the game began.

Here is a portion of my presentation at this dedication:

“What is a successful coach? Not the win-loss calculation. Not the number of his players that went on to Division One universities or the National Football League. For Tom, it was the nurture of the whole person during those tumultuous years of late adolescence, so many temptations pulling at them. You, his former players, are the proof of a coach who chose long-term commitment through all the hassles and impediments to teaching and coaching. You returned to the school yourselves to teach or coach at PHS.

Tom Hamilton Tunnel Dedication, left to right: Tom Hamilton, Jr, Mickey and Lee Segal

“I was talking with Coach Skip Robinson of Pasadena City College a few months ago, reflecting on how Tom was my best friend. Skip said, ‘I felt like his adopted son.’ And now I have met many men who describe a feeling of special relationship with Coach Tom Hamilton.

“Tom is imbedded in this Rose Bowl. He played in the first Turkey Tussle game in 1947. Most of the home games of his early coaching years were right here in the Rose Bowl. When he retired, he walked around the stadium every morning at 6:30 a.m. with his beloved Dr. Lynne Emery.

“I believe the last time Tom came to the Pasadena-Muir game at the Rose Bowl, he entered with me through this Tunnel Four. As we walked through the tunnel down the long steps to the grassy playing field to be with the team, it took at least a half hour, because the aisle was filled with former players, now fathers and grandfathers, and police officers, who wanted to greet again their beloved coach.”[7]

In a reversal of the image of the stairway to Heaven, I imagine this: Coach Tom Hamilton and Stacy Harvey walking down the stairs of the Rose Bowl, slowly passing by former players and coaches, friends and fans, and teammates, as they walk arm in arm onto the Field of Glory.

This prayer wells up within my heart: Lord God, as I wrote this reflection on Tom and Stacy, you awakened in me again my love for these two good men, my friends, and my grief still aches. Thank you, surprising and generous God, for inviting me into their lives, for the genuine gift of deep, honest, joyful friendship with them. Rest eternal grant to them and may Light Perpetual shine upon them. Amen.


Sheldrake, Philip, Living Between Worlds. London: Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd, 1995.

Pat Williams, Vince Lombardi on Leadership: Life Lessons from a Five-Time NFL Championship Coach. Charleston, SC: Advantage Media Group, Inc, 2015.

Hung, Steve, Tom Hamilton, PHS Icon, Dies of Cancer, Pasadena Star News, March 15, 2004.

Brad Karelius, Dedication of Tunnel Four in Honor of Coach Tom Hamilton, October 31, 2019.

Kushner, Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World. New York: Knopf, 2009.
Inspire: Rose Bowl Legacy Foundation.

[1] Williams, Vince Lombardy on Leadership, 181.

[2] Steve Hung, Pasadena Star News, March 15, 2004.

[3] Ibid.

[4] [4]

[5] Sheldrake, Living Between Worlds, 60.

[6] Kushner, Conquering Fear, 171.

[7] Karelius, Dedication of Tunnel Four in Honor of Coach Tom Hamilton, October 31, 2019.

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Owens Lake Project: Metamorphosis for Contemplation

“Great numbers of water birds are in sight along the lake shore—avocets, phalaropes, ducks. Large flocks of shorebirds in flight over the water in the distance, wheeling about in mass, now silvery, now dark, against the gray blue of the water. There must be literally thousands of birds within sight of this one spot.”[1]

Owens Lake 2021, photo by author

Owens Lake 2021

photo by Author

The silver Freightliner 18-wheel truck lays on its side in the southbound lane of Highway 395 in Olancha, California, four hours north of Los Angeles. My Oldsmobile Bravada, a heavyweight car, shakes in the hard, buffeting desert wind, as I wait in a line of cars in the northbound lane. The road is littered with hundreds of plastic water bottles bearing the logo which is on the side of the truck: Crystal Geyser Water. The bottling factory is a mile north. The beverage holder at my car console holds a half-opened bottle of Crystal Geyser. Through the cottonwood trees to my left, I can see Olancha Peak of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which appears on the water bottle label. The truck driver sits on the ground, supported by a bystander holding a compress to the man’s bleeding head.

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Embracing Joy

I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.

John 15:11

Saturday morning, brilliant sunshine, 75 degrees F. Our son Erik and I begin our walk around the Big Block. I hold on to his upper arm as we begin the climb up the street that will encircle our neighborhood. Erik is alert with his supersonic hearing, responding to every distant sound: dog barking, leaf blower, car door closing, baby crying. He laughs or repeats nonsense phrases. He kicks at a wall, stomps on a dried sycamore leaf, thrusts his leg out toward a bush, laughing. Erik is alive with joy, living only in this present moment.

Erik especially enjoys stepping into the recess in a lawn where the concrete top of the water meter is placed. I tell Erik, “Now don’t step into that hole.” He heads right for it, steps into the hole and laughs. We repeat this at least a dozen times as we walk the one-mile parameter of the Big Walk, up hills, and down hills.

Erik is 37 years old, but mentally 4 years old. That is the age when encephalitis ravaged his brain. I remember when I was 37 years old, pastor of a busy urban parish, propelled by caffeine and the prioritized daily task list in the Franklin Planner. My mind frantically moved in all directions, lamenting an overdue project from yesterday, anxious about a critical board meeting tomorrow. There was no Now, especially a joyful Now. As I experience walking beside our son Erik, in these retirement years, I can give myself fully to being present with Erik, relishing his robust joy at being right here now with me.

I shared with my spiritual director, Fr. Gordon Moreland SJ, last month a nagging issue for me. “I am looking back on my life with deep regrets about my behavior toward people I have wounded. A dark, judgmental energy has been haunting me, causing me to blurt out, ‘I am sorry! I was so stupid!’”

Fr. Gordon responded, “Whoever comes to mind, pray that they will experience a surge of joy from the Lord.”

He expanded that counsel with a more radical spirit:

“The people in your life who have died: let them know you are praying for them to have a surge of joy.

For the Unfaithful Departed, help them let go of their Capital sins (Greed, Lust, Envy, etc.) and embrace the joy of the Lord.”

I remember that Fr. Gordon expanded this counsel in his Christmas Letter:

“The Divine Trinity is the very personification of love. This is the love of God, Father, Son, Holy Spirit. The three persons of the Trinity is also an extravaganza of joy. And that joy diffuses itself by being poured forth into creation. Most especially the Trinity create other persons to share that joy. And we as human beings are the recipients of that joy. Jesus made two things pretty clear; He wanted us to share His joy and he wants our joy to be complete. This is what God wants of us, as Saint Paul proclaims in Philippians, ‘Rejoice always. Again, I say rejoice.’ (Ph. 4:4ff)

“Praying for the eternal happiness of all people means I no longer have enemies, because I no longer carry the heavy burden of resentment toward anyone. At the least, I unburden myself and I am liberated to make room to welcome joy.”[1]

Joy is central to our life with each other and with God.

On the one-year anniversary of the breakout of COVID-19 virus, I am waiting in line at Albertson’s Supermarket (six feet behind the person in front of me). They are out of Lysol wipes, paper towels and TP again. Everyone is wearing masks. I look at the people around me, faces mostly covered, pushing shopping carts, heads down, a mother trying to herd a brood of school-age children who cannot attend school. There is no joy here, only the daily grind, trying not to get sick, trying to pay bills, trying to help children keep up with schoolwork.

St. Patrick’s Day is a couple of weeks away. In past years, celebrants would pack Patty’s Pub, Irish jigs playing as gallons of Guinness pour from wooden kegs. Perhaps the virus census will improve so that bars and restaurants can open again. Festive celebrations, vacations, reunion with family and friends can foster joy once again. But a day or so after the event, we return to routine, ordinary time.

I remember this: a mid-morning hike on a cow trail along Olancha Creek, climbing westward toward the snow-covered Sierra Nevada mountains. In the early days of spring, an icy wind blows down from the mountains. Olancha Creek is dry as a bone, easy to cross to the other side. Enormous granite boulders and coarse gravel litter the landscape. This cow trail makes it easier to walk through dense, scratchy great basin sage and spindly creosote.

Sweat trickles into my eyes. Breathing is labored as I climb the trail. One step after another. The mind slows into No Mind. Then the sound. I stop suddenly. Listen! Water flowing over rocks. I continue climbing, move back toward Olancha Creek, which is now gushing with water.

I see a large, flat rock and collapse to rest. On the ground beside my hiking shoes, I see black obsidian chips. A Paiute once sat on this rock, chipping an arrowhead. Where I am hiking had been a substantial settlement of the Paiute people.

Breath and heart rate return to normal. At that moment, I am filled with a surge of well-being. In this desolate desert place, on this rock, gratitude pours out for my family, my friends, the priesthood, the gift of being here. My heart fills with thankfulness to God. This is genuine joy. It is more than a feeling. The sudden awareness becomes an open door to my heart to invite the Lord to be with me.

I cannot make joy happen. Joy visits us as part of the life we have been living.

Spiritual writer and monk Ron Rolheiser shares:

“Joy is always the by-product of something else. As the various versions of The Prayer of St. Francis put it, we can never attain joy, consolation, peace, forgiveness, love and understanding by actively pursuing them. We attain them by giving them out. That is the great paradox at the center of all spirituality and one of the great foundational truths within the universe itself: The air that we breathe out is the air we will eventually breathe back in. Joy will come to us if we set about actively trying to create it for others.”[2]

The 16th century Spanish mystic and Carmelite John of the Cross echoes this counsel in this poem:

To reach satisfaction in all

desire its possession in nothing.

To come to possess all

Desire the possession of nothing.

To arrive at being all

desire to be nothing.

To come to the knowledge of all

desire the knowledge of nothing.

To come to the pleasure you have not

you must go by the way in which you enjoy not.

To come to the knowledge you have not

you must go by a way in which you know not.

To come to the possession you have not

you must go by a way in which you possess not.

To come to be what you are not

you must go by a way in which you are not. [3]

This is the way to joy.

[1] Gordon Moreland SJ, Christmas Letter 2020.

[2] Rolheiser, A Meditation on Joy, December 15, 2002.

[3] St. John of the Cross, Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book 1, Chapter 13, Verse 11.

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The Peacemaker-Der Friedensstifter: One Lutheran Pastor’s Grassroots Movement that led to the opening of the Berlin Wall and deconstruction of Communist East Germany.

Opening of the Brandenburg Tor in Berlin 1989, photo by Sue Ream

“The followers of Christ have been called to peace…. And they must not only have peace but make it. And to that end they renounce all violence and tumult.  In the cause of Christ nothing is to be gained by such methods…. His disciples keep the peace by choosing to endure suffering themselves rather than inflict it on others.  They maintain fellowship where others would break it off. They renounce hatred and wrong. In so doing they overcome evil with good and establish the peace of God during a world of war and hate.”[1]

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The Peacemaker

The Russian army officer in full dress uniform sits on the bench of the boarding platform of the Hauptbanhof-train station in Magdeburg, East Germany (DDR). Sitting on either side of him are twin daughters, perhaps seven years old. Each girl has large, bright yellow ribbons tied to both sides of her hair.  A lovely moment. However, the officer looks unhappy. I am guessing Papa is mourning the end of his post in East Germany, where food and other products are more plentiful. I wanted to take a photograph, but that was illegal.

 May 1980. I am traveling in East Germany, after a week in Braunschweig, West Germany, researching for a magazine article I was writing for the Jesuit magazine America. I want to contrast the vitality of the West German Lutheran Church with the Lutheran Church in East Germany.

I am visiting Magdeburg, Leipzig, Dresden, and Erfurt, which required advanced planning. I had to secure a visa from the German Democratic Republic and reserve hotel rooms.  I was traveling alone and could not deviate from the itinerary.

After checking in at the Hotel International, I went for a walk to purge the melancholy mood descending on me in the late afternoon.  Standing on a bridge spanning the mighty Elbe River, I focused on the rippling waves of the water expanding outward from passing ships. 

The nervous butterfly feelings in my gut tell me something important will happen.  Or am I anxious this first day living in the restrictive, suppressed country I have entered? 

Bombing ruins of Magdeburg 1945

I could have walked in different directions, deciding to wander toward a war-ruined church, the result of the British bombing on January 16, 1945, that destroyed most of Magdeburg. I passed the ruin and came upon a war-scarred and rebuilt parish church.  A strange sight: a cluster of college age persons are waiting in front of the church.  

 In my curiosity, I came toward the group. I noticed a large poster on the bulletin board announcing Evangelishe Studentenvereinigung (Evangelical Student Union). I asked a young woman if I might attend. She disappeared into the church. I turned to leave, when I saw a short, stocky man walking toward me, with a concerned look on his face.

 He wanted to know why I was there. I introduced myself as a Professor of philosophy at a college in California, being careful about my priest identity. He greeted me with a formal Prussian bow, shook my hand, and smiled warmly. He is Pastor Georg Nuglisch. He guided me by the arm upstairs into a church meeting room, where he presided at a Wednesday night seminar as pastor to the university students of Magdeburg. He had the largest university student group in East Germany.

I walked into a large hall. A dozen tables had been bunched together to create a huge square, providing seating for one-hundred students.  Feeling the energy of these young people, I found a seat near Pastor Georg

Pastor Georg began the evening with a prayer. He introduced a Roman Catholic priest from Karl Marx Stadt (old Chemnitz) who presented a lecture on the Marxist and materialist elements in the Gospel of Matthew.

After the lecture-discussion, Pastor Georg introduced me. The students’ faces lit up when they heard “California” and “America.” I was an unusual visitor. I stood up and a barrage of questions hit me: concern about America’s gluttonous consumption of energy and food resources. I responded with information about church-sponsored programs seeking responsible stewardship.

Other students probed me with questions about racial justice in America and the oppression of African Americans. Marxists see race and class struggle to be interchangeable issues. The example of Black Americans showed the dialectical struggle between the “haves and have nots” as still evident in human history.

I remember my response:

 “Racism against Black Americans is imbedded in American Culture. I experienced this in my family. My parents were wonderful parents, but they had strong opinions against Jews, Black Americans, and Roman Catholics. I know that I have experienced and viewed reality through the limited lens of White privilege. My journey away from my family-rooted prejudice led me to deep friendships with persons of color who were my neighbors, fellow students, and fellow workers. I saw the struggle for life within a Black neighborhood, when I lived in South-Central Los Angeles during the Watts Riot of 1965. I saw the violence, anger, and the police brutality. We had hoped for progress with the Civil Rights Movement, but racial prejudice is still there. I live in a country with freedom of the press, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. These are hopeful tools for transformation and social justice. The first steps are for White Americans to recognize the lens of our privilege, to confront the culture of racism in which we have been tutored, and to look for opportunities for friendship and relationship with persons of color. I am hopeful.”

  At the end of the seminar, the students adjourned to the beer cellar in the church. A student grabbed my arm and guided me to join the group. We sat at small tables set up over old beer barrels. The light was dim, but the environment more gemutlich.

 Pastor Georg stood beside me with his hand on my shoulder. He was pleased to have me there and assured me that no question or statement was out of place.  The students opened up about their university studies. Most of them were studying heavy engineering (although most had not heard of Caltech or MIT). 

Several students shared with their own litany of frustrations of life in the DDR—the poor quality of goods, the difficulty in buying automobiles which self-destruct after a year’s use, and the constant standing in long lines to purchase goods.

Most of the students came from families of practicing Christians. I remember one young man saying to me, “When I graduate, I will have to decide: if I want to have a good professional position, I cannot be a visibly active Christian.”

The next morning Pastor Georg gave me a tour of the old church, built by French Huguenots, persecuted Christians who did much to build up Prussia during the reign of Frederick the Great. The back, unrestored part of the building served as an art gallery.

“Restoration of churches in the DDR is paid for by gifts of hard West Germany currency to the DDR,” said Pastor Georg. “The Cathedral in Berlin was destined for demolition, but soon monies from West German churches came pouring in, and the church was saved.”

Over coffee, he said with pride that his weekly student meeting is the largest Evangelical Student Union in East Germany. He took out a file and showed me the planned seminars for the coming year.

 “I will give a lecture on Ernst Bloch, a philosopher with a moderate critique of Marxism. The Bishop has supported me on this, and I will go ahead, even though it pushes the limits of what the state deems acceptable.

 “We are supposed to study within non-critical limits. Visiting pastors from the West bring in the latest writings in theology. I want these students to know something more than what they get at the University,” he said. “We cannot counter the sophisticated critiques of Christianity by the Marxist materialists, but at least I instill some process of critical thinking into the students.”

 I asked Pastor Georg, “What would happen to you, should you step over the line of permissible behavior and become known as a radical critic of the Communists?”

“They could send me to Bautzen (the most severe political prison camp near the Polish border), but I doubt that,” he responded. “The authorities most likely would send me out of the country.”

The next day, I drove with Pastor George, his wife Ursula, and young son Sebastian, to the north for a day in the country to visit the walled medieval town of Tangermunde. They admired the Mitsubishi Colt I was driving as if it were a Mercedes limousine.  As we drove on country roads, a traffic policeman in a white motorcycle shadowed me for a long time. My Dutch license plate tagged me as a Westerner, a target for speed trap fines that had to be paid on the spot.  We passed 300 Russian soldiers marching in full battle gear along the highway, as T-80 tanks climbed over distant hills. We were 60 km from the East/West border.  If there ever was to be a Warsaw Pact invasion of the West, it would happen in this area.

 We drove past a former Nazi concentration camp hidden in a dense forest, yet marked by the Soviets as a memorial against Fascism.

“We knew of the concentration camps, “Pastor Georg said. “Our Jewish friends were being taken away. There were isolated strikes in factories. But what could we have done? We have the same situation today. Someone is taken away by the Stasi, and they go to Bautzen Prison. Many are never seen again. Who knows? Who dares ask?

His voice grew more intense. “I have seen students taken out of our meetings. I know of young people in my parish who have been brutally beaten by the police. You know what happened: you see the wounds and bruises. But what can you do? Is this not the same situation.?”

The medieval city of Tangermunde

At Tangermunde we walked through the old thousand-year-old walled city. We enjoyed lunch/mittagessen on a ship anchored outside the city gates. Little Sebastian was excited to be there.

How odd were my feelings as we said goodbye late in the evening in front of my hotel. These persons unknown to me two days earlier had shared with me the frustrations and hopes of their lives as I had shared my own life with them. Here we were saying goodbye. They were convinced we would never see each other again.

A week later I was visiting with another pastor in West Germany. His parish was the largest Lutheran church in the community. He was an immaculately dressed, elegant man of about 45. His office bookshelves were filled with all the current theological books.

This pastor had 2,000 people in his parish, but less than 300 came with any regularity. The German Church receives nine percent of every tax bill paid by each German citizen: that fact that almost everyone pays the tax brings the sum to millions of Deutschmarks. But there is no sacrificial giving, no significant giving.

I received more insight into the West German parish situation from a director of Christian education outside Braunschweig. His evaluation of the typical Western pastor was that, after many years in the university, he is highly educated in philosophy and clerical studies, but has been given little experience in practical theology. (His own programs were trying to make up for this by providing practical training in preaching and pastoral counseling.)

Entrenched in a parish, the Western pastor can be there for many years, without having made a single parish call. His sermon usually consists of philosophical lectures since not a few of these men chose the study of theology because the medical and law schools were full. They can live well (in 1980) on an income of $35,000 a year, housing provided, and make a satisfactory life for themselves studying philosophy and theology.

As my main, original intention in this journey was to contrast the church in East Germany with the West German church, I was surprised at the result. I had discovered that the vitality of the church is most strongly felt in a milieu that lacks state affirmation and state support, and that is a struggle for survival, where the cost of discipleship is experienced with intensity.

 Subversive Spirituality

May 1981.

Janice and I have been traveling for the past 21 days through the remains of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, visiting Vienna, traveling up the Danube to Budapest, into Czechoslovakia: Brno, and Prague. Few people from the West travel in a private car in these countries behind the Iron Curtain. We have been shadowed by local police, secret police, and everything we have said in our hotel rooms has been bugged.  I could use my German to communicate, as that was the dominant language in these countries until 1945.

We left Prague that morning, passing through vast, green farmlands. The road made a slow but steady climb into the dense green forests of the Lusatian Mountains.

From one country under surveillance, we entered East Germany, driving on to Dresden, still very much in ruins after the infamous bombing of February 13-15, 1945.

We followed the Reformer Martin Luther, visiting Erfurt, where he was an Augustinian monk and had his life-changing enlightenment about Grace in the Epistle to the Romans. We toured the castle of the Wartburg, where Luther, under the protection of Frederick the Wise, translated the New Testament from Greek into German, and threw a bottle of ink at the Devil.

My heart was beating hard in anticipation of our exit from East Germany when we would stop in Magdeburg and see Pastor Georg and Ulla again.

The door to their home opened. Georg and Ulla greeted us as old friends, meeting Janice for the first time. Janice and Ulla found a common connection in their hospital nursing.

We walked to dinner at our Hotel International, passing a former Luftwaffe Officer’s compound. Looking over the wall, we could see laundry hanging from windows and piles of trash.

“Look what those Russians have done to this place,” shouted Georg. “They live like pigs. This was once a lovely complex. Now the buildings are falling apart.”

Georg’s loud complaints made me nervous. I thought they could arrest us.

Georg walked beside me on a street leading to our hotel; Janice and Ulla, arm in arm, sauntered behind us. We entered the Hotel International, heading toward the restaurant to the right of the lobby. A burley man in a dark suit blocked the way, holding an armload of menus. He whispered to Georg: “What are you doing here? You should not be here!”

Alles in Ordnung (Everything is OK)”, I responded. “They are our family.” This restaurant was off limits to DDR residents. It was only for visitors, who paid in hard Western cash, and government VIPs. I showed my hotel room key to him.

Yes, we had entered a special world of privilege: push green carpets, live piano, and violin music.

The host guided us to a prominent table against a back wall with a wide view of the tables surrounding us.

As I read the menu, I flashed back on the three weeks Janice and I had already spent in Budapest, Prague, and Dresden. When there was food available in a local market, people lined up for fatty sausages, brown-wrinkled oranges from Cuba, shriveled Bulgarian beets, and a strange meat mélange of “parts” that looked like a giant baloney, sliced to order.

This menu revealed a world of dreams:  fish, steaks, Italian pasta, and fresh vegetables. Georg and Ulla ordered the beef steak. Georg had a whiskey.

“How is your ministry going with the University students?” I asked Georg.

Symbol for East German Peace Movement from Micah 4

“Last month we began peace demonstrations at the Cathedral every Monday evening. We call them ‘Peace Prayers.’ It is a small crowd; many of the students were hesitant at first. After prayers in the church, we march through the main street past the Bahnhof.”

A flash of hope-filled energy brightened Georg’s eyes as he spoke about this movement for political change. His parish and the Cathedral hosted opposition groups, who actively protested Communist Party policy. He felt compelled to preach stronger sermons against the oppressive policies and action of the DDR.

“Isn’t that dangerous: public demonstrations that could be perceived as critical of the government?”

“The Church is the only voice permitted to speak critically and openly about the government. We know the Stasi secret police come to these meetings and the peace demonstrations. They take photos and write down names. Participants can receive threatening phone calls and harassment at the university or at work. But the church is the only place in the DDR when one can speak freely.”

I asked Ulla, “How do you deal with threats and harassment? Do you feel more fearful about what the government might do?”

“We have lived with this for many years, especially as the family of a Christian pastor. When I was sick in the hospital, they put me in isolation, cut off from contact with other patients. You remember that our daughter graduated from Gymnasium last year at the top of her class, but she couldn’t go to the better universities.”

“Where do you find the spiritual ballast to push ahead like this with these demonstrations and what reactions they could spark?”, I asked.

“We pray the psalms every night. God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. The Word of God is our ballast. There is powerful solidarity with others, including non-Christians, who hope for a better, freer Germany.

It was a lovely, surrealistic evening with our East German friends. The food was the best we had eaten in a month. But there was an anxious ache in my gut. I was afraid for Georg and Ulla. I knew about the brutalities of the Stasi. I also identified with the urgency of this public witness and the hope for change.

Janice and I walked Georg and Ulla back to their home through the quiet, dark streets. The fragrance of spring flowers scented the night air. I was grateful for this reunion with our friends, knowing we may never see each other again.

I lost direct contact with Ulla and Georg until 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall. I had sent carefully written letters to them, but knowing now that any letter for a pastor had been steamed open and read by the Stasi agents, I suspect that they trashed my letters.

The Internet and Google Search could not help me during those years. As I created this blog, I have been back-filling information I could find about Pastor Georg and the Peace Prayers movement.

What I discovered was that these parochial gatherings and demonstrations became the foundational seeds for much larger demonstrations leading up to the opening of the Berlin Wall and deconstruction of the DDR.

Recently, I found a resource that revealed the important peace work that Pastor Georg continued after my last visit:

Peace demonstration in Berlin, 1989. Photo by DW.

“The working groups for peace and ecology were founded in Magdeburg under the student pastor Georg Nuglisch. They established networks with other activist groups. They took part in the environmental meeting in September 1981 in Halle and in November 1982 in the working meeting of the ESG (Evangelical Student Association) peace groups. Nuglisch also disseminated the Ten Theses on Possibilities for Nonviolent Actions.[2]

Pastor Georg’s grassroots work with his student ministry and peace activism linked with other student groups in the DDR, developing into a populist movement, drawing in hundreds of thousands of citizens in massive demonstrations.

John S. Conway summarizes this liberation process:

“The churches’ courageous stand against political corruption and the misuse of power was hailed as a significant factor in undermining the credibility of the regime. So too was the readiness of church-led ‘basis groups’ to challenge the ubiquitous secret police, commonly known as the ‘Stasi.’  These were valiant demonstrations of the popular demand for fundamental rights to freedom of expression, and for liberation from the oppressive structures which had for so long characterized the Marxist-dominated society. The image of a small indomitable band which refused to bow the knee to Baal, but instead defied the might of the all-powerful atheist state, received widespread acknowledgment and approbation. A large banner paraded through the streets of Leipzig said it all: “Kirche, wir danken dir!”[3]

This year, 2020, Germans celebrate the 30th Anniversary of Reunification. There is a renewed popular regard for the Christian churches in Germany and their prophetic voice amidst new struggles for peace and justice.

“One Berlin pastor put it, ‘We can’t just say, ‘Now we’ll be pious again.’’ The church cannot afford to change its character as a forum for thought and political or social innovation. It must continue its role as public educator and must endeavor to continue its role as a dialogue partner to the government on behalf of the people. Perhaps most importantly, said the same Berlin pastor, the church must not stop being ‘the speaker for the weak.’ ‘After all,’ he said, ‘that’s what we’ve always been.’ “[4]




photoWWII By Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-14898-0002 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de,

Neubert, Ehrhart. “Geschichte der Opposition in der DDR 1949-1989: Forschungen zur DDR-Gesellschaft,” Berlin: Christoph Links Verlag, 1997. (Translation by Brad Karelius).

CONWAY, JOHN S. “The ‘Stasi’ and the Churches: Between Coercion and Compromise in East German Protestantism, 1949-89.” Journal of Church and State, vol. 36, no. 4, 1994, pp. 725–745. JSTOR, Accessed 1 Oct. 2020.

Harris, Todd W. (1992) “The Revolutionary Church? The Role of East German Protestants Amid Political Change,” Occasional Papers on Religion in Eastern Europe: Vol. 12: Iss. 6, Article 2. Available at:

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, “The Cost of Discipleship.”

[1] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. “The Cost of Discipleship.” Pp. 126-127.

[2] Geschichte de Opposition in der DDR 1949-1989, Ehrhart Neubert. P. 466.

[3] Conway, John S. “The ‘Stasi’ and the Churches: Between Coercion and Compromise in East German Protestantism,”  p. 725.

[4] Harris, Todd w. The Revolutionary Church? The Role of East German Protestants Amid Political Change., p. 34.

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Practicing the Presence of God: Contemplative Prayer, Centering Prayer

This is the third and final section of the workshop I presented on 29 August 2020: “Prayer Practices to Nourish Men (and Everyone)”, from the Center for Spiritual Development in Orange, California, Sponsored by the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Orange.

I am sitting on a wooden bench in a garden. This is my third day on retreat at Mount Calvary Monastery, in the foothills above Montecito, California. Each day I have prayed several of the monastic offices with the monks, including daily mass.

In the late afternoon, before Vespers, I sit on this wooden bench in a garden, overlooking Rattlesnake Canyon; the shimmering Pacific Ocean is in the distance. The sun will set soon. A gentle breeze carries the scent of sage and juniper up from the canyon below. Creatures scurry and rustle about in the underbrush.

My mind emptied of all the distracting voices that chattered in my head as I drove 150 miles from my home to this retreat. Those voices are now mostly silent, as I invite the Lord to be present with me. I am listening to the sounds around me, natural sounds, speaking in the rhythm of a day transitioning into night.

There is a warmth penetrating my body that is not the sun. It fills my body with welcome heat, gentleness, sweetness. Is this what God’s embrace of love and peace feels like? I let go to it, closing my eyes.

I did not fall asleep, but this encounter held me tight on this wooden bench in this garden. A bell rings in the distance; a faint sound at first, then it becomes louder and clearer: the bell calling the monks to Vespers. I had been sitting for over an hour, but it seemed like five minutes.

Hours later, lying on my bed in the monastic cell before sleep, I remembered this embrace of God. It was a visitation unconjured, unexpected, and unmanipulated.

The feeling of peace and God’s love stayed with me into my sleeping hours.

Today, as I remember that experience on the prayer bench at the monastery, an image came to me: I had been on a wooden bench at a bus stop for the Holy Spirit. There is no schedule, therefore no expectations. But I had to show up for this encounter to have happened.

I shared this experience with a friend. She asked me an important question: “How do you know you are really praying or just talking to yourself.”

It is common when we pray to talk to ourselves instead of God.

I have tried to approach my prayer with God in this way:

I want to pray as if I am having an encounter with a real person, which I am. I am speaking with God. I begin my prayers by asking God to be with me, to touch my heart, not just my mind. I ask God to remind me again that God loves and forgives me.

Saint Teresa of Avila said, “A prayer in which a person is not aware of whom he/she is speaking to….I do not call prayer, however much the lips move.”[1]

How do I know if God is talking to me in prayer?

One way is from the insight of Ignatius Loyola: our experience of consolation, when God touches our soul and allows it to be comforted and strengthen by an awareness of God’s love.

Another way is when I am doing spiritual reading, or praying Lead, Kindly Light, Cardinal Newman’s hymn in Compline. Sometimes I read words that touch my heart deeply with an awareness of God’s power and goodness.

I am concluding our time together this morning with an experience of Contemplative Prayer. I have this thought: does the discipline of faithfully praying portions of the liturgy of the hours and the Examen open our soul toward Contemplative Prayer?

When I think of contemplative prayer, I remember one of the great spiritual masters, Thomas Merton.

Every semester when I taught the Christianity portion of my college class on world religions, I presented a powerful video on the life of Thomas Merton: Merton: A Film Biography (1984). In my class were many students who had not grown up in a spiritual tradition, but I found that this video was transformative for them.  It connected with their own restless, searching souls.

Thomas Merton was a writer who was a typical “party animal” in his college days of the 1930’s. Yet he had a Holy Longing that eventually led him to be a Trappist monk, one of the most severe forms of monasticism. He found serenity and deep connection with God in his practice of contemplative prayer.

As you read Merton’s journals, that restlessness, that Holy Longing, was relentless. He became the first Trappist monk given permission to be a hermit, living alone on the monastery property. His restlessness pushed him to seek more isolated locations. He went to New Mexico, Arizona and Northern California seeking the right spot.

Father Thomas Keating, a fellow Trappist, met many young people who came to St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, for retreats. They had no understanding of Christian contemplative practices. To help these spiritual seeks of communion with God, Centering Prayer presents specific techniques.

I had the same experience, teaching my college classes on world religions. My students practiced, Transcendental Meditation, Yoga, Zen, Tai Chi, but knew nothing about the Christian contemplative traditions. I recommended Centering Prayer to the students because it does bridge Eastern and Western mystical practices.

Father Basil Pennington shares some of the steps for practicing Centering Prayer.

  1. Sit comfortably with your eyes closed, relax, and quiet yourself. Be in love and faith to God.
  2. Choose a sacred word that best supports your sincere intention to be in the Lord’s presence and open to His divine action within you.
  3. Let that word be gently present as your symbol of your sincere intention to be in the Lord’s presence and open to His divine action within you.
  4. Whenever you become aware of anything (thoughts, feelings, perceptions, images, associations, etc.), simply return to your sacred word, your anchor. Let go of every kind of thought during prayer.[2]

Merton was a master of world mystical traditions. Yet he found that contemplative prayer was not a kind of altered state or blank consciousness, emptied of feeling and thought. There is no special technique to master.

For Merton, contemplation is a way of being present to what is going on within ourselves.

Father Ron Rolheiser helps us to understand this, when he wrote:
“We are in solitude, in contemplation, in prayer, when we feel the warmth of a blanket, taste the flavor of coffee, share love and friendship, and perform the everyday tasks of our lives so as to perceive in them that our lives are not little or anonymous or unimportant, but that what is timeless and eternal is in the ordinary of our lives.”[3]

There was a man who struggled with his faith in God and could not pray. He spoke with a Jesuit priest about this and received this advice:

“Make a promise to yourself to sit in silent prayer for half an hour a day for the next six months. If you are faithful to that, you will recover your sense of God.

The man rejected this suggestion, but his Jesuit friend persisted:

“Just do it! Show up and sit in silent prayer, even if you feel like you are talking to a wall. That is the only advice I can give you.”

Six months later, the man’s faith in God had returned.[4]

There will be more boredom and restlessness than warm fuzzy feelings when we pray. But God invites us to show up and God will work with us.

Let us conclude this section on Prayer Practices to Nourish Men by spending fifteen minutes in silent contemplation. In my written communication with you a few days before our time together today, I advised you to find a quiet place where you can go through our different prayer forms.

I drove 150 miles to sit on the prayer bench at Mount Calvary Monastery. Thomas Merton searched and searched for the best place for solitude and silence for his contemplative prayer.

The place where you choose to pray with the Lord is always the perfect place for you.

(From “Resting in God’s Presence”, Fr. Ron Rolheiser OMI)

  1. Find a place where you can sit quietly, comfortably for fifteen minutes. I will watch the time and ring a bell at the end.
  2. Here is a short Bible passage. “As the Father has love me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love” John 15:9)
  3. Close your eyes or focus on a candle flame or the icon on this screen. Imagine yourself in the presence of God, a God who yearns to be close to you. Some people find it helpful to silently repeat a simple word or phrase: “Jesus”, “Blessed be God”, “Hosanna,” “Lord Have Mercy.” If you worry that you are not doing it right, listen to this advice given to me:
    “I just look at God, and I let God look at me”.

Start Bell

15 minutes for contemplation

End Bell

I must admit to you that I have times when I sit in silent contemplation, but the dark spirit pulls me down. Echoes of recent conflict, lingering depression or a health crisis in our family create a void, a dry desert wasteland. But I show up, while God seems far away. A reminder from St. Teresa of Avila has helped me:

“Love is two people sitting in a room, talking to each other. Neither knows what to say, but they recognize each other.”

I do not want to pray right now. But the Holy Presence is somewhere in this room with me. I know this.


  1. Describe an experience of God’s love for you?
  2. What have you found this morning in our time together that will help you in your prayer friendship with God?


Merton: A Film Biography (1984). Prime Video.

Prayer: Our Deepest Longing, Ronald Rolheiser OMI

Contemplative Prayer, Thomas Merton.

In the School of Contemplation, Andre Louf.

Centering Prayer led by Fr. Thomas Keating at Folsom Prison:



[3] Prayer, Ron Rolheiser OMI, p. 44.

[4] Ibid, p. 45.

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Finding Gratitude, Practicing the Examen Prayer: Prayer Practices to Nourish Men (and Everyone) Part Two

The following comes from the second part of a workshop on spirituality for men that I presented at the Center for Spiritual Development, Orange, California, sponsored by the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Orange, August 29, 2020.

“Twice a day, or at least once, make your particular examens. Be careful never to omit them. So live as to make more account of your good conscience that you do of those of others; for he who is not good in regard to himself, how can he be good in regard to others?”

St. Francis Xavier[1]

When I was five years old, I attended Sunday School at the First Baptist Church in Altadena, California. I remember informing my mother one day that I thought that my teacher, a woman, must be Jesus. Why? Because she embodied the love, compassion, and presence that I experienced in Jesus when she read Bible stories to us.

Our teacher, Mrs. Heaton, (I still remember her name), asked the children to close their eyes and imagine with their senses all that was going on when she read Bible stories. Many of these stories were the classics about the patriarchs and prophets.

At one point, after a story about Moses complaining to God in the Exodus Wilderness, my eyes suddenly opened, and I blurted out: “How come Moses always forgets what God had already done for him. God helped him find water and manna? Why does he forget?”

Today, we can imagine someone complaining to a friend who had been helpful in the past: “” Yes, but what have you done for me lately.”

Forgetfulness about all that God has already accomplished was a chronic spiritual problem for the prophets and patriarchs, and I believe that forgetfulness is a spiritual problem for you and me here today.

The challenge is “to remember,” from the Hebrew word Zakhor.

Zakhor appears 200 times in the Hebrew Bible: remember the Sabbath, remember the covenant, remember the Exodus from Egypt.

Zakhor, remembering, is crystalized in the Jewish Passover meal, the Seder.  In a sacred meal that involves all the human senses, participants hear the story from ages past when God liberated the Hebrew people from slavery. In the Haggadah, the verb tense changes from past tense to present or subjunctive tense, as stated in the Passover Haggadah: “In each generation, every person should see himself as if he/she personally came out of Egypt.” Zakhor brings the past into the present and forward into the future.

In the Sabbath and all their sacred holidays, the Jewish people are involved in a performance of memory—through deeds, actions, and speech—in the process of not forgetting.

In his classic book, The Gifts of the Jews, Thomas Cahill contends that it is the Jewish people who gave to the modern world the concepts of progress and future hope. The classical world was a world of repetitive cycles where nothing changed. In the Jewish experience of their sacred history, history is linear, leading forward to fulfillment of God’s promises.

In all the pogroms and violence that the Jews have suffered in their long history as a people, how in the world could they sustain hope? Liturgically and sacramentally, they remembered with gratitude what God had already done. Thus, they could look to the future, as bleak as it may seem, with faith in God’s grace.

Zakhor has important meaning for Christians. As the Passover Seder was probably the precursor to the Lord’s Supper, Eucharist, Holy Communion, the belief in the Real Presence of Jesus in the bread and wine of the Eucharist is rooted in the Jewish idea of Zakhor: not a remembering as a memorial of an event long ago. It means that even today, in the breaking of the bread, Jesus is fully present with us and we are fully present with him. We remember: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

Gratitude is foundational to Hope. Hope without Gratitude is wishful thinking.

In this introverted world of social isolation and political polarization, how can you and I find hope that is not wishful thinking?

Five hundred years ago, Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order, became conscious of interior movements within him that shifted from an awareness of God’s close presence and a sense of the absence of God. He noticed that event within the celebration of Holy Mass, these interior movements shifted dynamically.

One day, after a strong, consoling sense of God’s comforting presence, Ignatius returned to his room only to be overwhelmed with desolation. In his own words:

“When the mass was finished and I was in my room afterward, I found myself utterly deserted and without any help, unable to feel the presence of my mediators or of the Divine Persons, but feelings so remote and so separated from them as if I had never felt their presence and never would again; on the contrary, thoughts came to me at times against Jesus, at times against another Person, finding myself confused with various thoughts such as to leave the house and rent a room in order to get away from the noise, or to fast, or to begin the Masses all over again, or to move the altar to a higher floor in the house. I could find rest in nothing, desiring to end in a time of consolation and with my heart totally satisfied. (380-81).”

A cloud of confusion enveloped Ignatius. To center himself, he broke down these individual interior movements in his notebook. He longs for the consolation of God’s loving presence.

Ignatius discovered the key to moving out of the web of desolation. He should work at moving his heart toward God’s desires.

“With this, the darkness gradually began to lift and tears began to come. And, as the tears increased, I felt all desire to say more Masses for this purpose disappear.” (382).

The cloud of confusion lifts as Ignatius seeks to bring the desires of his heart toward the desires of God’s heart.

You and I experience these dynamic movements toward and away from God every day in our life, but we do not intentionally notice them.

“Our exploration of even a single half-day in Ignatius’s spiritual experience manifests plainly why he considered prayerful attention to interior spiritual experience and the effort to respond wisely to it to be the key element of the spiritual life, the one ‘spiritual exercise’ that must always be present in a day that seeks to be a lived ‘yes’ to God’s will. Such ongoing prayerful attention to our spiritual experience and our response to it is the practice of the Ignatian examen…”

The Examen Prayer, Timothy M. Gallagher, OMV (pp. 51-52).

The invitation to you and me to practice the examen prayer is to recognize our desire to know God’s desires for us and to grow in awareness “that our hearts are an arena where many different movements stir.” (Spiritual Exercises 32).

The spark that draws us into practice of the examen prayer is our Holy Longing for communion with this loving God, who is always close to us.

The Examination of Consciousness can seem like a simple prayer format with five action points. But as you pray it, it grows in rich complexity. The prayer can awaken profound and important life-changing events that will call out gratitude to God.

The Examen reveals a map with marker points: not leading forward as much as looking back on your life, those crossroads, those grace-filled moments, when you were at the end of your resources, in a corner, in grief or panic, God’s grace broke through. Mapping those marker points of your own sacred history in your life up to today can show you that you have not been alone in your life.  The Lord has been beside you all the way.

Gratitude is foundational to Hope

Hope without Gratitude is wishful thinking.

I read somewhere that we men define our self-worth by what we do, what we accomplish. Multi-tasking can lead us in many distracting directions and away from our best self and our connection with God.

To live more consciously in the presence of God, Ignatius gave us the Examen prayer. In this brief, five-part prayer we spend a few moments reviewing our day, paying attention to when we felt God present with us and times when we felt separated from God. The prayer helps us live in gratitude for those people, situations, and events in our day when we are most grateful. The Examen reminds us of God’s forgiveness.

In a few moments, I will invite you to pray this prayer with me. I pray this prayer every night before I go to sleep.  Here is a description of the steps (with thanks to Fr. James Martin SJ).

Prepare: I invite God to be with me now as I pray.

  1. Gratitude: I recall two or three good things that happened today. I look back on any good news, precious moments, perhaps an encounter in nature. I focus on thanking God. A caution: do not rush through this. Savor and relish this revisiting of events for which you are grateful.
  2. Ask for the Grace to know your sins. As I look back on this day, where did I turn away from my true self, the deepest part of myself. Where did some curt remark or rudeness happen? Listen to your Conscience and that deep voice leading you to be more loving. Do not beat up on yourself but own your need for God’s grace.

Anthony de Mello said, “Be grateful for your sins. They are carriers of Grace.”[2]

  • Review your day. This is the heart of the prayer. I imagine a video camera playing back my day, from when I first got up. I want to pay attention to where there was joy, confusion, conflict and moments of peace and love. Do not rush through this.
  • Forgiveness. Ask God for forgiveness for anything sinful done during the day. Look for the opportunity to make amends.
  • Ask for God’s help tomorrow. Close with a prayer.

This is another structured prayer that takes only fifteen minutes but can become transformative in your life with God. Remind yourself as you pray the Examen: this is not a dialogue with your self; you are doing this reflection of the past day with God as present with you.

This Examen prayer helps us to see the presence of God as we look back on our life.

Father Peter Hans Kolvenbach SJ tell this story about looking back to encounter God:

“There was an abbot in the Middle Ages who would speak to his monks every day “on finding God, on searching for God, on encountering God.” One day a monk asked the abbot if he ever encountered God. Had he ever had a vision or seen God face-to-face?”

“After a long silence, the abbot answered frankly: no; he had not. But, said the abbot, there was not anything surprising in this because even to Moses in the Book of Exodus God said, “You cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” God says that Moses will see his back as he passed by him.”

“’Thus,’ Father Kolvenbach wrote, ‘looking back over the length and breadth of his life the abbot could see for himself the passage of God.’”

“’In this sense, it is less a matter of searching for God than of allowing oneself to be found by Him in all of life’s situations, where He does not cease to pass and where He allows Himself to be recognized once He has really passed.’”[3]

Let us now pray this Examen prayer together. In our communication with you before today, we invited you to prepare for experiences of prayer this morning by doing your best to find a quiet and comfortable place in your home.

I will announce each section and give a little reminder to what we do in that section. Some of you may want to write down what comes to you. I have found it most helpful to close my eyes and visualized the face and places of the day. Since it is only morning here, let us look back on yesterday.

Let us invite the Lord’s Grace to be present with us now.

Begin with Bell

  1. Gratitude: let us recall the good things that happened yesterday and give thanks to God.
  • Ask for the Grace to know our sins.
  • Let us review yesterday from the beginning of our day.
  • Let us ask God for forgiveness for anything sinful we did yesterday.
  • Let us ask God for help during the rest of this day.

We close with the “Our Father.”


Here is a testimony of how the Examen has helped one man:

“For me, the daily Examen provides a prayer structure that enables me to remember that my relationship with God needs intention, time and attention each day, and that the experiences of my daily life direct me to know the ways that God calls me and forms me in my life as a Christian. Through the conscious practice and discipline of this prayer, I can better learn to recognize God’s presence in my life, and I can be more discerning and responsible to God each day.”[4]

An app that has helped me is Examen Prayer: detailed guidance for praying this prayer. There is a tool for creating a daily journal of your reflections after praying the Examen.

Questions for reflection:

  1. As you look back on yesterday: for what are you most grateful to God?
  2. As you look back on the events of your life: for what are you most grateful to God?


The Examen Prayer: Ignatian Wisdom for Our Lives Today, Timothy M Gallagher, OMV

The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything, Fr. James Martin SJ.

An Ignatian Spirituality Reader: Contemporary Writings on St. Ignatius of Loyola, the Spiritual Exercises, Discernment, and More, George W. Traub, SJ

YouTube presentation on Examen with Fr. James Martin SJ

[1] The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life, James Martin, SJ, p. 98.

[2] Ibid, p. 91.

[3] Ibid, p. 98.


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Prayer Forms to Nourish Men. Part One: Compline/Night Prayer

We must know that God regards our purity of heart and tears of compunction, not our many words. Prayer should therefore be short and pure, unless perhaps it is prolonged under the inspiration of divine grace. In community, however, prayer should always be brief; and when the superior gives the signal, all should rise together.

St Benedict of Nursia, The Rule 20:3-5.

(The following is Part I of Prayer Forms to Nourish Men, a workshop I presented at the Center for Spiritual Development, Orange, CA, sponsored by the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Orange)

Welcome to Lord, Teach Us to Pray: Prayer Practices to Nourish Men.

I am grateful this morning for the coordinating help of Sister Karin Nuernberg CSJ, Sonya Longbotham, and Steve Bruce.  We are presenting from the Center for Spiritual Development, Orange California.

I begin with this question to myself: why in the world was I asked to be the presenter on this topic? We are near the Mother House of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange. The psychic-spiritual energy of this religious community, their faithful daily prayers, surely has the collective ability to power the entire city of Orange, California. This Center for Spiritual Development through the years has hosted workshops with some of the most gifted, inspiring, and prayerful people in the Church. Why in the world was I asked to present Prayer Practices to Nourish Men?

I believe I have an answer. As I was asked to work up the presentation this morning many months ago, I believe the Holy Spirit sparked the Center to prod me into this project, because I need to be more attentive to my prayer friendship with God. My daily prayer for the past several weeks has been: Dear Lord, please let me know what your desires are for our workshop on prayer this morning.

I have been a parish priest for fifty years, but this is no qualification for faithful prayer. It has been a distracted, multitasking career in which I have not been faithful to the haunting pull of God’s desire for communion with me.

After two different bouts of cancer and several decades of care for our disabled son Erik, the patient, persistent caresses of the Spirit have worn down my resistant distractions, turning my face toward God in Prayer.

Father Ron Rolheiser, in his book Holy Longing, describes the challenging situation you and I face as we consider prayer practices that nourish men.

The Holy Longing.

“Inside of us, it would seem, something is at odds with the very rhythm of things and we are forever restless, dissatisfied, frustrated and aching. We are so overcharged with desire that it is hard to come to simple rest.”

“We are driven persons, forever obsessed, congenitally dis-eased, living lives of quiet desperation, only occasionally experiencing peace. Desire is the straw that stirs the drink.”

“Spirituality is about what we do with that desire. What we do with our longings. Augustine said: ‘You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.’ Spirituality is about what we do with our unrest.”

Our innate Holy Longing is for experiences of communion and connection with the Lord Jesus.

Are these words speaking to you this morning? I believe you and I are here together this morning because we do recognize our deepest longing is to be in communion with God in our Lord Jesus Christ.

My desire for you this morning is that you will find some practical assistance for your prayer life to nurture your Holy Longing for the Lord.

What forms of prayer might be especially suited for men? Here is an approach suggested by Fr. Ron Rolheiser OMI that we will take this morning to answer this question:

Prayer has the power to transform our inner spirit and how we experience God in the movement of everyday life. Sustaining a daily life of prayer that does not demand of us energy we cannot muster, includes familiar and repetitious ritual that is clearly defined and time limited.

With this in mind, we will learn about and experience three forms of structured prayer in order to foster a discipline of daily prayer:

  • The Daily Office/Breviary: as a way of praying throughout the day and reflecting upon the word of God.” 
  • The Examen of Consciousness: a daily practice of gratitude and discernment of God’s movement in our lives
  • Contemplative prayer: practicing the presence of God.


I think it was Henri Nouwen who said that the essential thing about prayer is you must show up for prayer regularly. Sometimes my heart is deeply moved by a sense of God’s embrace; much of the time I am bored, distracted, looking at the clock. But I stay with my scheduled prayer, mostly. Here is an analogy that has helped me:

When my 97-year-old father was alive, he lived in a board and care home a few blocks from our own home in Laguna Niguel, CA. Of his three children, I was the only one who lived close. I faithfully visited dad every day around noon.  I helped him with his lunch. We talked about the news and the golf games. He could precisely remember PGA golf scores from the day before. We went back to his room and the trivial banter continued, usually nothing too serious. Occasionally, he told me a story about his work adventures in South America. I glanced at the clock to see when I had to leave. These daily visits continued over months and several years. I had the privilege of knowing my father more deeply, and he got to know me more deeply. At a deep level of our relationship, the actual connection between us took place below the surface of our conversation. We came to know each other through simple presence.

Prayer is like that: praying faithfully every day, through weeks, months, years, bored, looking at the clock. But under the surface between you and me and God, a deeper bond is growing.

Praying the Liturgy of Hours

As we live through this Covid-19 pandemic, most of us are at home, in our monastic cell, if you will, minimizing social contact. How can Christian monks help us through these days of isolation to grow our life with God? I have found that a detailed schedule for the day has given me a sense of order, sanity, and control as I try to avoid latching on to this or that distraction, junk food or entertainment that may float by. Finding a contemplative practice is part of this order. Some days I pray the Examen, or contemplative prayer, or the liturgy of the hours.

One of the gifts from monastic culture to us are the Liturgy of the Hours, the Breviary, the Daily Office, the Lutheran Book of Prayers.

These canonical hours were influenced by the Jewish schedule of daily prayers. Early Christians adapted this practice, and it moved into the deserts of Syria and Egypt, where the desert fathers and mothers created the first Christian monastic communities.

Monasticism flourished, but discipline broke down and conflict was common. Saint Benedict of Nursia (AD480-550) lived in those turbulent times, creating in 516 the Rule. The Rule became a guidebook for sustaining religious community, still used 1500 years later.

The Rule gives guidance to how to live a Christocentric life on earth and how to administer a monastery efficiently. Benedict’s golden rule was Ora et Labora, pray and work. A structured schedule of prayer for eight hours, sleep for eight hours and manual work or sacred reading for eight hours.

Benedict gives us direction, as we ponder what prayer forms are best suited for us. In his plan for scheduled prayer, men do not have to come up with their own words to pray. The dominant use of psalms brings men in touch with the feelings and emotions percolating within as they pray. The prayer services can be said within ten to fifteen minutes.

Chapters 8-19 of the Rule regulate the Divine Office with eight canonical prayer hours. Here is the original schedule proposed by Benedict.

This Horarium began at Midnight with Matins.

Lauds at 3am (before wax candles of the 14th century, the monks had to memorize the service to pray in the dark).

Prime at 6am

Terce at 9am

Sext at noon

None at 3pm

Vespers at 6pm

Night Prayer, Compline at 9 pm

Several variations of the schedule have developed over time. After Vatican II, a new arrangement of the Liturgy of the Hours was updated.

The Anglican Church radically simplified Benedict’s prayer schedule in their Book of Common Prayer, combining the first three services into Matins/Morning Prayer and the latter two into Vespers/Evening Prayer.

However, Anglican religious communities revived the original Horarium of Benedict.

I remember forty years of retreats at the Anglican/Episcopal monastery of Mount Calvary of the Order of the Holy Cross, in an old Spanish style hacienda, in the mountains above Montecito, California with a view up and down the California coast.

A brass bell rings outside at 5:45 a.m. in the cold darkness of December. I jolt up from the bed in my cell, pull on a thick hooded sweatshirt and shuffle down the hall over the creaky wooden floor toward the chapel. Dawn is breaking in the distance as I gaze through the huge chapel window, observing the twinkling street lights of Ventura. I find a seat in a long pew on one side of the altar, behind the monks, who seem to have their own personal seats.

We stand as the Prior enters and Prime begins. We sit for the chanting of several long psalms. The words are printed in a special breviary with pointed marks where the tone changes and there is a dot at the end of the first half of each sentence. In this way one side of the chapel chanted the first part of the sentence, the other side responded antiphonally. Praying these long psalms together, I took a deep breath to chant my part and found that everyone on my side eventually breathed in and out together. There was a hypnotic rhythm to the chanting and the breathing. These monks have been chanting and praying the Liturgy of the Hours for decades. Each of the eight prayer services spread out over the day takes only 10-15 minutes.

I made several retreats to Mount Calvary Monastery during low points of Erik’s health. I felt numb and my muscles ached all the time with the internalized stress. I had great difficulty reading or chanting the prayer services. But the communal voice of the monks lifted me up within their own praying and chanting.

Roman Catholic priests and deacons pray all the hours of the Breviary. The laity are encouraged to pray Lauds (Morning Prayer) and vespers (Evening Prayer). The Anglican and Episcopal Book of Common Prayer and the Lutheran Book of Prayer also have these daily liturgical prayers, all coming out of the monastic tradition.

When I first tried to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, this is what I encountered: a lot of confusion colored ribbons to mark readings and prayers that change every day.

Ron Rolheiser shares this helpful understanding:

“We are no longer just a private individual praying: we are the voice, body and soul of the earth itself, continuing the high priesthood of Christ, offering prayers and entreaties, aloud and in silent tears, to go do for the sake of the World.”

We can imagine the earth slowly spinning on its axis, turning from day into night into day into night. If someone in Denver, Colorado prays the Vespers tonight at 9pm, an hour later the ball passes to you: the world turns on these continuous prayers of the people of God.

I thought about a selection of the Liturgy of the Hours for today, and Morning Prayer would fit this hour, but where I find solace and connection with God every day is in Compline, which I often pray at night.

Imagine another day of isolation, your concerns about your friends, family, maybe work, finances, health, the future, and we begin Compline as our last activity before we go to bed:

If you have trouble quieting your mind before sleep, even after a disturbing or troubling day, this is the prayer setting for you. Some psalms appointed sound like they are coming from a dark place, others sing out joyfully in thanksgiving. As you get into the habit of praying them, you will find that they become your own voice to God. Often there is mention of plague, disease, serious illness, calamity, troubles. The psalms reflect the variety of human moods and emotions. They help you get in touch right now with what is moving within your own heart as you pray with God. The prayers invoke God’s embrace of benevolent, protective love, enshrouding you and all those you love as you sleep into the night.

It is complicated to find your way through all those ribbons. Thank God for my iPhone, as I found 2 helpful apps: I Breviary and Universalis. When I want to pray one of the hours, like Compline, I click it and the whole service appears with the psalms and lessons for the day. There is even an extra embellishment that allows a voice to lead you in the prayers. Another setting chants the entire liturgy of Compline in Latin.

This sounds inviting, but I find it hard to bring up the energy to do this every day. You do not have to pray all the hours. You can bundle a few together to try them out, as you also consider the Examen of Conscience and Contemplative Prayer that we will explore together soon.

At lunch time, sitting outside in a garden, maybe you want to click afternoon prayer. If you pray Compline as I do every night at 10pm and you fall asleep in the middle of prayer, you are OK resting in God. The choices can change. The important thing is to show up for prayer friendship with God.

If you want to try the Liturgy of the Hours, I recommend the IBreviary app. Find a time of day that works for you. If you want to use the physical breviary, please ask someone to help you. There are lots of online resources to guide you, but I recommend practicing the prayers and it will grow on you.

Remember, you are not praying alone. You are joining the voice of the Church, which is praying around the world, 24/7, constantly.

Benedictine sister Joan Chittister shares: “We go to prayer to be transfigured ourselves, to come to see the world as God sees the world, to practice the presence of God, to put on a heart of justice, of love and of compassion for others.”

Compline/Night Prayer

Prayer Experience for the Liturgy of the Hours

(Some translations below were taken from

Compline/Night Prayer

O God, come to our aid.

  O Lord make haste to help us.

Glory be to the Father and to the Son

  and to the Holy Spirit,

as it was in the beginning,

  is now, and ever shall be,

  world without end.

Amen. Alleluia.

Examination of Conscience

I confess to almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned through my own fault, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done, and in what I have failed to do; and I ask blessed Mary, ever virgin, all the angels and saints, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord, our God.

May almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins, and bring us to everlasting life.


Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th’encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.

I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou
Shouldst lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path; but now
Lead Thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will. Remember not past years!

So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on.
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone,
And with the morn those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile!

St. John Henry Newman

Psalm 142 (143)
A prayer in time of trouble

Do not hide your face from me, for in you have I put my trust.

Lord, listen to my prayer:

  in your faithfulness turn your ear to my pleading;

  in your justice, hear me.

Do not judge your servant:

  nothing that lives can justify itself before you.

The enemy has hounded my spirit,

  he has crushed my life to the ground,

  he has shut me in darkness, like the dead of long ago.

So my spirit trembles within me,

  my heart turns to stone.

I remind myself of the days of old,

  I reflect on all your works,

  I meditate once more on the work of your hands.

I stretch out my arms to you,

  I stretch out my soul, like a land without water.

Come quickly and hear me, O Lord,

  for my spirit is weakening.

Do not hide your face from me,

  do not let me be like the dead,

  who go down to the underworld.

Show me your mercy at daybreak,

  because of my trust in you.

Tell me the way I should follow,

  for I lift up my soul towards you.

Rescue me from my enemies:

  Lord, I flee to you for refuge.

Teach me to do your will,

  for you are my God.

Your good spirit will lead me to the land of justice;

  for your name’s sake, Lord, you will give me life.

In your righteousness you will lead my soul

  away from all tribulation.

Glory be to the Father and to the Son

  and to the Holy Spirit,

as it was in the beginning,

  is now, and ever shall be,

  world without end.


Do not hide your face from me, for in you have I put my trust.

Short Reading – 1 Peter 5:8-9

Be calm but vigilant, because your enemy the devil is prowling round like a roaring lion, looking for someone to eat. Stand up to him, strong in faith.

Short Responsory

Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit.

– Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit.

You have redeemed us, Lord God of truth.

– Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit.

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.

– Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit.

Canticle – Nunc Dimittis

Save us, Lord, while we are awake; protect us while we sleep; that we may keep watch with Christ and rest with him in peace.

Now, Master, you let your servant go in peace.

  You have fulfilled your promise.

My own eyes have seen your salvation,

  which you have prepared in the sight of all peoples.

A light to bring the Gentiles from darkness;

  the glory of your people Israel.

Glory be to the Father and to the Son

  and to the Holy Spirit,

as it was in the beginning,

  is now, and ever shall be,

  world without end.


Save us, Lord, while we are awake; protect us while we sleep; that we may keep watch with Christ and rest with him in peace.

Let us pray

In your mercy, Lord,

  dispel the darkness of this night.

Let your household so sleep in peace

  that at the dawn of a new day

  they may, with joy, waken in your name.

Through Christ our Lord,


The Lord grant us a quiet night and a perfect end.


Marian Anthem

Loving mother of the Redeemer,

gate of heaven, star of the sea,

assist your people who have fallen yet strive to rise again.

To the wonderment of nature you bore your Creator,

yet remained a virgin after as before.

You who received Gabriel’s joyful greeting,

have pity on us poor sinners.

I am wondering if our experience of Compline/Night Prayer changes as we age? I am 75 years old. As I pray Compline at night before I go to sleep, I can understand how my need to rest draws me into the mystery of the Lord’s death and my own death. I am completing my daily dying to self in order to rise with Christ.

The hymns that are used in Compline ask for God’s gift of rest and protection through the night. The psalms evoke trust in God. The response to the short reading is “into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit:” words I may say again when I am close to death.

The highpoint of Compline is the Nunc Dimitis, with the antiphon: Protect us Lord as we stay awake; watch over us as we sleep, that awake we may keep watch with Christ, and asleep, rest in his peace.

The tradition of a Marian hymn at the end of Compline, such as the Salve Regina, connects with a tradition of the Eastern Church, the Dormition of Mary, her falling asleep in death.

Compline is the prayer of our dormition, of our falling asleep in Christ at the end of this day and at the end of our life. At Compline we grateful acknowledge Christ to be our constant companion.


What are you asking from God today?

What did you find within this first presentation that gives you hope for a more intentional prayer schedule?


Universalis iPhone app and website:

Laudate app

I Breviary iPhone app and website:

Episcopal/Anglican apps for Daily Office

The Lutheran Book of Prayers

Daily Office app

Daily Prayer app

The Rule of Saint Benedict: Latin and English, Translated by Luke Dysinger OSB

A Layman’s Guide to the Liturgy of the Hours: How the Prayers of the Church Can Change Your Life, Fr. Timothy Gallagher OMV

Prayer, Fr. Ron Rolheiser OMI

The Holy Longing, Fr. Ron Rolheiser OMI

Rules for Prayer, William O. Paulsell

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Lord, Teach Us to Pray

An invitation to men seeking to develop their prayer life:

 I will be offering an online spirituality program for men:

Lord, Teach us to Pray, on Saturday, August 29, 2020, from 9am to noon.

This session is part of the “On the Road” spirituality series for men, presented from the Center for Spiritual Development, Orange, California, sponsored by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange. Fr. Jim Clarke of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles has presented other sessions in this series.


The Angelus by Jean Millet, 1857

We will explore three forms of prayer: The Liturgy of the Hours/Breviary/Daily Office, the Examen of Conscience and Centering Prayer/Contemplative Prayer.

Here is the link for more information and registration:

Lord, Teach Us to Pray

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