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 January 11, 2010   •   VOL. 48, NO. 1   •   Oakland, CA

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Cathedral organ — apt image for the Church
How do I become fully open to God in the present moment?
Cathedral organ — apt image
for the Church

We celebrate this happy occasion on the feast day of our Cathedral of Christ the Light. It was the light of a star that guided the Magi to the Christ child. It was Christ himself, though, who was leading them to find him; he is that very light, that very star. This truth is attested to us by St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, in the homily he delivered on this solemn feast day over 1700 years ago:

Above, a musician from Quebec’s Orgues Letourneau Limited voices the new organ at the Cathedral of Christ the Light. Oakland Bishop Salvatore Cordileone blessed the organ Jan. 3, the feast of the Epiphany, the cathedral’s patronal feast. Immediately after the blessing, Rudy de Vos, music director, played J.S. Bach’s Prelude in G Major. The instrument includes a 92-stop console and 3,500 pipes set on two large wooden shelves and in an organ chamber. The organ is a gift of Dan and Katharine Conroy Whelan.

The star is seen by [the Magi] . . . and shows them the way. Therefore this Star is the way, and the way is Christ: for in the mystery of the Incarnation Christ is a star. A Star shall rise out of Jacob, and a man shall rise up from Israel (Num 24:17). Where then Christ is, the star is. For He Himself is the bright and morning star. He shows us Himself, therefore, by His own light.

The meaning of the mystery

Apparently, though, not everyone was able to recognize this light. Yes, the Magi did, and in a sense, curiously so, for they were not among the Chosen People, those privileged with the revelation of the one, true God.

Rather, they were intelligent enough to use human reason and read the signs of the times. Gentiles though they were, they found the fulfillment of the promised Messiah, and recognized him for who he was, as signified by the gifts they offered him: gold for a king; incense as befitting the worship of God; and myrrh in anticipation of his burial, by which he would free us from our sins and reconcile us back to his Father.
Now contrast the Magi with those who failed to recognize the light.

First of all, we have “the chief priests and the scribes of the people.” These were the very ones who most of all should have recognized Christ’s coming, for they were the experts in the law and the prophets; they knew the Sacred Scriptures inside and out. For good reason Herod consulted them when he wanted to know where this rumored King of the Jews was to be born. Yet, for all their expertise, they missed the boat.

Then, of course, we have Herod and, as St. Matthew tells us, “all Jerusalem with him.” Herod certainly did not want anyone taking the title “King of the Jews” away from him, and all the more the power that went with it.

We know the scenario: he was power hungry, he had an insatiable appetite to acquire and wield power, and he would stop at nothing to satisfy it.

Likewise, the citizens of Jerusalem anticipated a threat from this rumored king as did Herod: this is a ruler who would demand changes in the way they lived their lives, changes they found inconvenient and even unacceptable, for it would require them to turn away from their selfish way of life and put him at the center of their life.

They would even, 33 years later, go so far as to put him to death in a vain attempt to silence him. Selfishness, greed and power-mongering are always threatened by the true power of the goodness of God.
But there is good news: we don’t have to be that way. We can be saved!

The Church has always seen in the Magi a prefiguring of the Church herself, that is, the people of the New and Eternal Covenant sealed in the blood of this God-made-man, for the Church was to include all peoples on the face of the earth.

This, indeed, is the principal meaning of the mystery we celebrate today, as brought out in the second reading the Church assigns to this Liturgy for the Epiphany. St. Paul says in his letter to the Ephesians: “the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel.”

And we already heard this prophesied in ancient times through the Prophet Isaiah, in his message of hope to the holy city Jerusalem just proclaimed in the first reading for today’s Mass: “Raise your eyes and look about; they all gather and come to you: your sons come from afar, and your daughters in the arms of their nurses. . . . All from Sheba shall come bearing gold and frankincense, and proclaiming the praises of the Lord.”

Likewise Psalm 72, which we just prayed, attests to this plan of God for all races to be incorporated into His people: “Lord, every nation on earth will adore you” (response), and, “The kings of Tarshish and the Isles shall offer gifts; the kings of Arabia and Seba shall bring tribute. All kings shall pay him homage, all nations shall serve him.”

The sacramental principle

There is even more to the story, though. The Magi do not prefigure the Church simply because of their race, but also because they understood how to read the signs.

That is, the Church speaks in the language of signs, sacramental signs: heavenly realities are mediated through earthly figures, eternity enters our realm of time by means of things that are destined to pass away. This is an appropriately universal language, and this is why liturgy has always had a fundamental, defining importance in the life of the Church.

The Church’s rituals for celebrating the sacraments involve all of the senses: the invisible is made visible through the physical, the inaudible is made perceptible through proclamation in speech and song, the unreachable becomes something we can touch; even the senses of smell and taste get in on the act.

This is also why the Church has always been such a great promoter and patron of the arts — architecture, painting, sculpture, music and so on. All of this is so that the Church’s worship might be a true encounter with the living God, a Christ-centered act of worship, to draw us away from our self-centered lives and be more centered on him.

Our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, alluded to this in the remarks he made during his Apostolic Journey to Bavaria in September 2006, when he gave a greeting at the blessing of a new organ in the Alte Kapelle in city of Regensburg. He said:

In the Constitution on Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council (Sacro-sanctum Concilium), it is emphasized that the ‘combination of sacred music and words . . . forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy’ (No. 112). This means that music and song . . . are themselves part of the liturgical action. Solemn sacred music, with choir, organ, . . . and the singing of the people, is not therefore a kind of addition that frames the liturgy and makes it more pleasing, but an important means of active participation in worship.

We rejoice today that to this magnificent cathedral, already marked by its inspiring architecture and its being continuously embellished with works of art, is added this additional integral element to authentic Catholic life and worship.

The organ and the mystery of the Church

The Church has always most highly esteemed sacred music in her liturgy, and the organ has always had the place of prominence, and for good reason. Pope Benedict also took advantage of the opportunity in his greeting to extol the virtues of the organ:

The organ has always been considered, and rightly so, the king of musical instruments, because it takes up all the sounds of creation . . . and gives resonance to the fullness of human sentiments, from joy to sadness, from praise to lamentation. By transcending the merely human sphere, as all music of quality does, it evokes the divine. The organ’s great range of timbre, from piano through to a thundering fortissimo, makes it an instrument superior to all others. It is capable of echoing and expressing all the experiences of human life. The manifold possibilities of the organ in some way remind us of the immensity and the magnificence of God

But the Holy Father goes further than this. He finds a deeper, even mystical, explanation for why the organ deserves the prominence it has in the Church’s patrimony of sacred art and music: it is an apt image for the Church herself! He says:

In an organ, the many pipes and voices must form a unity. If here or there something becomes blocked, if one pipe is out of tune, this may at first be perceptible only to a trained ear. But if more pipes are out of tune, dissonance ensues and the result is unbearable. Also, the pipes of this organ are exposed to variations of temperature and subject to wear. Now, this is an image of our community in the Church. Just as in an organ an expert hand must constantly bring disharmony back to consonance, so we in the Church, in the variety of our gifts and charisms, always need to find anew, through our communion in faith, harmony in the praise of God and in fraternal love. The more we allow ourselves, through the liturgy, to be transformed in Christ, the more we will be capable of transforming the world, radiating Christ’s goodness, his mercy and his love for others.

This now brings us back to the meaning of the mystery we are celebrating today, which is nothing less than the very purpose of Church’s worship: to lead us into an ever deeper encounter with Christ, and lead others to that same saving encounter.

In other words: to know Christ better, and to make him better known. We must, then, be like the Magi, and not like “Herod . . . and all Jerusalem with him.” This child king is not to be a threat to how we live our lives, but rather the determining factor for how we do so. We must be like the Magi, and not like “the chief priests and the scribes” who should have known better but were oblivious. We, on the contrary, must understand the divine realities we celebrate and receive under sacramental signs.

Yes, we must be like the Magi, and live out the meaning in our own lives of the gifts they offered the new-born king. In order to understand this meaning, we can turn once again to the Fathers of the Church, this time Pope St. Gregory the Great in his homily on this Solemnity:

To the newborn King we offer Gold, if we shine before Him in the brightness of heavenly wisdom. We offer Him incense, if we consume the thoughts of the flesh upon the altar of our heart, so that in our heavenly desires we send up to God an odor of sweetness. We offer Him myrrh, when we mortify through abstinence the vices of our flesh.

Pope Gregory also teaches us a valuable lesson here as to why the Magi returned home by another route, finding the deeper, spiritual meaning of this detail:

In that they return to their own land by another way, the Magi . . . convey to us what we must do. It is paradise that is our true country, to which, having come to know Jesus, we are forbidden to return by the way we came. For we left our land by the way of pride and disobedience, by following after the things of this world, by tasting forbidden food; and so we must return to it by the way of tears, by obedience, by contempt of the world, and by restraining the desire of the flesh.

This marvelous cathedral, standing as it does in the heart of our city, will be a beacon beckoning all in our community to follow Christ the light to everlasting life to the extent that we ourselves faithfully follow him, our life and light.


On this most happy day, a day of great inspiration and thanksgiving, I cannot do better to sum up my sentiments than to make my own the words with which Pope Benedict concluded his remarks at the blessing of the new organ in Regensburg three years ago: “May all those who enter this splendid [cathedral], experiencing the magnificence of its architecture and its liturgy, enriched by solemn song and the harmony of this new organ, be brought to the joy of faith.”

May this joy be evident in our lives, in our worship, in our conduct, and in our service, that Christ’s light might shine through us for the glory of God and our eternal salvation.

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How do I become fully open to God in the present moment?

The following interview with therapist and spiritual guide Robert J. Wicks is adapted from his book “Prayerfulness” with permission from Ave Maria Press, © 2009.

Everyone seems to have their own definition of “prayerfulness.” What is yours?

Prayerfulness, in its purest form, is true receptivity to the essential lessons needed to live a full life. It is being in the present moment with your eyes wide open to the presence of God. I see it as a sense of “spiritual mindfulness.”

Can you teach people to be prayerful in the way you are describing?

Yes and no. Thomas Merton once said that no one can give you a map to your own spiritual life; the terrain is unique. I believe that, but I also am certain that there are ways we can give and receive help so we don’t wander and drift rather than flow with our lives as they unfold.

Well, how would you do that and what would you call such an education?

It is an education in inner formation. To undergo it, we must truly embrace simplicity and the most important virtue of the desert — humility. This then requires a deep desire for transparency and honesty, a willingness to be compassionate, and a true commitment to practice what we learn in daily life.

Are there some specifics that people follow to be more prayerful?

Well, we need to create a simple rule of prayer that will structure our day. Such a “rule”, as committed Christians had in the deserts of the fourth century, include different types of prayer: meditation, formal prayer like reciting the psalms or saying a prayer like the Rosary, liturgy where we can meet God in Eucharist, the Word, and each other.

Spiritual reading, regular reading and taking to heart of Sacred Scripture, journaling, and conversations with God might also be in one’s rule of prayer.

Creating simple rituals like having your morning coffee or tea with God for a few moments before you enter the day. Having people to share your faith with who can support you in your journey and you in theirs is also helpful.

What are the fruits of practicing such a rule?

Well, all of a sudden you start to experience God’s presence in so many ways. A child’s laugh, seeing snow falling on snow, the sound of rain on the roof, a conversation with a friend all become opportunities to sense the presence of God. When the time is especially graced, it is also a call to meet God.

What do you mean by the call to meet God?

Years ago my mentor, who was Thomas Merton’s final abbot, said to me that during the day I would sense God giving me the grace to pray. During that time if I went to make a phone call, it would be graced. If I went to read a book or call a friend, it too would be graced. But when I came back to a place within myself to pray, the grace might then be gone.

However, if I did respond to the call to pray during the day and responded to it in possibly even small ways, given the activity and demands around me, I would deepen my relationship with God rather than merely continue to learn about God.

Let me bring you back to something you said in the beginning about prayerfulness. You referred to it as “spiritual mindfulness.” Can you explain?

During the day, when we don’t have a sense of intrigue in our heart as to how God is self-revealing in so many new ways, we merely drift or run through life. We are mindless. We are like a gargoyle on roller skates, zipping through life toward our grave and we call this living.

What would such mind-lessness look like?

We get upset easily, habits and rules sap life’s freshness, we spend too much time preoccupied with a future that might not happen or in the silver casket of nostalgia. We fail to see transitions or interruptions as possibilities for something new but just complain until we can get back to “normal” which often turns out to be in Freud’s terms, a state of “ordinary unhappiness.” There are many more instances that I point out in my book “Prayerfulness” but that gives you a good idea, I think.

What about suffering and prayerfulness?

Prayerfulness does not always remove the pain in our life but may open up new vistas that lead to a “softening of our soul.” We begin to see our own failings but in a new way. Instead of projecting the blame onto others, condemning ourselves, or becoming discouraged, with God’s grace we start to become filled with intrigue about our life and what is left of it on this earth.

Such intrigue helps us to be countercultural in our dealings with life by valuing faithfulness over success, enjoying developing our talents more than competition, seeing the gifts that are already around us rather than always praying for more, for different, for what we feel will perfectly make us happy. Only God can do that.

Say a bit more about having a prayerful attitude in life.

Well, when we are prayerful, we move away from judging and more to experiencing. We start to recognize that people don’t get up in the morning thinking about us; we become less ego-centered. We have an increased desire to be transparent and be persons without guile rather than manipulating situations. Life does become more enriching . . . more fun, really.

Say a bit more about sadness and prayerfulness? Where does an attitude of prayerfulness fit in there?

In one of his charming “Winnie the Pooh” books, A.A. Milne beautifully captures how we might approach God or a close friend during such gray times. Piglet sidles up to Pooh from behind and whispers, “Pooh!” “Yes, Piglet” Pooh answers. “Nothing,” responds Piglet taking Pooh’s paw. “I just wanted to be sure of you.” I think that is what many of us do and feel when we are sad or when times are gray.

With prayerfulness, we don’t step back from darkness but walk into it with God. You see, it is not the amount of darkness in the world or even in ourselves that matters. It’s how we stand in that darkness and knowing about and practicing prayerfulness helps us with that. It brings us home into the now.

One spiritual guide said that when I think about the past I am often sorry. When I think about the future I worry. So, then I am often sorry, worry, sorry, worry. But when I am mindful and in the present I am happy.

Being with God in the present is so important then and that is why, after a life time of writing books on the integration of psychology and spirituality, this most recent one with the simple, profound title of “Prayerfulness” is so dear to me.

My hope is the little practical suggestions and the stories of people who have jumped from the sideline into a deeper life with God will provide some inspiration and guidance for those who read it. Yes, I really hope so. Prayerfulness is really very important.

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