Friday, September 28, 2012

"Lest They Become Empty Preachers": Rayburn, the Catholic Church and the Word of God

“Ignorance of the scriptures is ignorance of Christ.”  Thus affirmed St. Jerome, fourth century theologian and second most voluminous writer in Christian antiquity (after Augustine).  We know Jesus Christ because we have read, and reflected upon and prayed over the scriptures.  In the modern age, the Catholic Church likewise asserted at the Second Vatican Council that the study of the Bible is “the very soul of theology.”[1] 

In the mission of Young Life we follow in the footsteps of our founder, Jim Rayburn, who considered it the greatest job in the world “to thumb the pages of the New Testament, which was written to make Jesus Christ known, and to do it in the presence of a group of people who are listening, who know you care about them.”[2]  Rayburn loved the scriptures.  His diaries are littered with biblical references which inspired the winsome ways he was able to speak to teenagers about Jesus.  His spirited preaching issued forth from the fount of deep, personal intimacy he had with his Savior through the sacred pages of God’s Word.

The Catholic Church promotes a constant and diligent study of the scriptures, particularly those who are engaged in ministry.  Borrowing from the words of St. Augustine, the Council exhorted, “For it must not happen that any of them become ‘empty preachers of the word of God to others, not being hearers of the word in their own hearts.’”[3]  This phrase, “lest they become empty preachers of the word, not being hearers of the word in their own hearts,” is one worth pondering again and again.  Rayburn was fond of proclaiming Christ as the “strongest, grandest, most attractive personality ever to grace the earth.”[4]  But he also warned, " a careless messenger can reduce all this magnificence to the level of boredom.” 

Lectio divina is a practice of reading, reflecting and praying the scriptures that has blessed the church from its earliest days.  Its power is unleashed in the careful listening to God in the biblical texts, a practice that both Rayburn and Augustine embodied in their lives and ministries.  “Our communication with our Divine Friend needs to be a two-way street,” notes Basil Pennington, Trappist monk and retreat master.  “And if we are smart, we let God get the first word in.  For he surely has a lot more that is worth saying.”[5]

Let us go to the scriptures today and every day with an attentive ear, letting God get the first word in, being hearers of the word in our hearts.  Lest we become empty preachers, let us listen, really listen, to our God who, “in the sacred books, comes lovingly to meet his children and talk to them.”[6]

Father, this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.  God our Savior desires all men and women to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.  There is no other name under heaven by which we must be saved than the name of JESUS.

*For a deeper understanding about the way the Catholic Church studies and understands the Bible, see The Pontifical Biblical Commission’s The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church at

[1]             Dei Verbum (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation), 24.
[2]             Kit Sublett (editor), The Diaries of Jim Rayburn, Colorado Springs, CO:  Morningstar Press, 2008, xv.
[3]             Dei Verbum, 25; St. Augustine, Sermon 179: PL 38, 966.
[4]             Kit Sublett (editor), The Diaries of Jim Rayburn, Colorado Springs, CO:  Morningstar Press, 2008, xviii.
[5]             M. Basil Pennington, Lectio Divina: Renewing the Ancient Practice of Praying the Scriptures, NY: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1998, xi.
[6]             Dei Verbum, 21.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A Message from the Counter-Reformation

The Jesuit order, also known as the Society of Jesus, was created in 1540 amidst the tumult and intrigue of the Protestant Reformation.  Its founder, Ignatius of Loyola, was a swashbuckling Spaniard given more to womanizing and chivalry than God until a cannonball ripped through his leg in an ill-fought battle in Pamplona, an event which was to change his life, and the Church universal, forever.

Weeks later in Loyola, lying invalid and enduring the pain of a butchered leg, the staid soldier sought gallant literature to buoy his spirits - tales of dangerous medieval duels and amorous affairs, anything to take his mind off the pain.  Yet the house yielded only two auspicious volumes – Vita Jesu Christi by Ludolph of Saxony and Flos Sanctorum by Jacopo da Varazze[1].  These two saintly manuscripts on the life of Christ and the saints strangely seized his imagination and prompted a profound religious conversion.  That was 1521, the year that Martin Luther was excommunicated from the Catholic Church.

Though mere mention of the word “Jesuit” often beckons the fierce theological battles of the Counter-Reformation, Ignatius of Loyola, once a ferocious fighter, was now a man of humility and grace.  He now marched under the banner of the Cross, laying down his arms and his ego in deference to the suffering Servant.  In a letter to his Jesuit brothers participating in the Council of Trent, an ecumenical council embroiled in some of the most heated Catholic-Protestant debates in history, Ignatius offered the following advice:

Be slow to speak.  Be considerate and kind.

Be slow to speak, and only after having first listened quietly, so that you may understand the meaning, leanings and wishes of those who speak.

When in discussion, I should consider the reasons on both sides without showing any attachment to my own opinion, and try to avoid bringing dissatisfaction to anyone.

Move as many as possible to prayer and devotion.  Pray and lead others to prayer.

Awaken in souls a thorough knowledge of themselves and a love of their Creator and Lord.[2]

As we lead and minister together, Protestants and Catholics alike would be graced to follow such godly advice.  Let our love and humility awaken the souls of even our most hardened adversaries and set us on a similar course of reconciliation and union in Christ Jesus. 

"All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because,
God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble."
1 Peter 5:5

[1]             These two popular medieval texts were to have a profound influence not only on the spiritual development of young IƱigo but on the very structure and topical composition of the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius’ most prominent and enduring work.  Like Ludolph’s Vita, the Spiritual Exercises charts a 30,000 ft. view of redemptive history, from trinitarian effulgence and creation to the final judgment.  Akin to the evangelical vision of Young Life, the core of Ignatian spirituality rests upon a particular meta-narrative: God’s salvific plan and the human faculty of freedom to discern and live into that plan toward the salvation of one’s soul.
[2]             Letter from Saint Ignatius Loyola to the Fathers Attending the Council of Trent, 1546.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Young Life and the Little Brothers and Sisters of Jesus

Charles de Foucauld was a lot like the kids we work with every day.  He was dealt some tough cards.  He was orphaned at the age of six.  Without care and support, he was easily tempted by base pleasures and easy living.  He lost his faith in adolescence.  And he was no stranger to failure.  Indifferent about school, he failed as a student.  Following in the footsteps of his grandfather who raised him he sought a career in the military but was kicked out.  He had little direction. 

Then he met Jesus Christ.  In a tale all too eerily similar to my own, he was dramatically impacted by the piety of simple Muslims in Morocco and fell headlong back in love with Jesus and his Catholic faith.  His life would never be the same.

Inspired by the witness of Jesus Christ, Foucauld committed his life to poverty, service and solidarity with the lost.  He became a priest and set out to embody the humble life of his Savior.  Setting up camp in a remote oasis in the Algerian desert, Foucauld spent the rest of his life establishing a “ministry of presence” among the poor and oppressed.  “Let us mingle with them,” he said.  “Let us be one of them.”    

He was eventually killed in that remote village by Taureg rebels who misunderstood him.  His plan to start a society of “Little Brothers” who would follow him and the example of Jesus did not come to fruition.  It seemed as if he failed yet again. 

Seventeen years after his death, however, four companions inspired by the humble life of Charles de Foucauld left their comfortable worlds and headed into the Sahara Desert.  Though he was not alive to see it, the Little Brothers of Jesus was formed and Foucauld’s dream had come true. 

All over the world, in forgotten corners that we'll never know about, multitudes of Little Brothers (and now Sisters) of Jesus labor quietly among the lost and marginalized today.  Surely the words of their founder, someone they never met, ring out daily in their heads, “The whole of our existence, the whole of our lives should cry the Gospel from the rooftops. . .not by our words but by our lives.”

Sounds a lot like Young Life.

Monday, September 10, 2012

"My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going..."

Sometimes I feel lost.  I don’t know where I’m going.  Despite all of the powerful works of God in my life, despite the unmistakable ways he has revealed himself and his great love for me, I still doubt.  I doubt that I have enough.  I doubt that I’m going to make it.  I wonder what I was thinking to trust in God so much.  I figure that I have made a mistake in judgment somewhere.  I, too, can slip into despair.

St. Gregory of Nyssa (4th century bishop venerated by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and many Protestant churches) reminds me that I am not alone.  Reflecting on the life of Israel’s founding father, Gregory notes “Abraham left without knowing where he was headed – a sure sign that he was going the right way.”  As Gregory plunged headlong into the Arian controversy of the 4th century, he was in troubled and unchartered waters.  He couldn’t see the road ahead of him.  He couldn’t anticipate the outcome.  Yet his steadfastness would defend the faith against Arian heresy and lay the Christological foundations of the Church for millennia to come.

Over 1500 years later, another great mind would enter the scene and change the course of Christian history forever.  Thomas Merton was a Catholic priest and Trappist monk whose prodigious writings offer some of the most penetrating spiritual reflections of the twentieth century, ranging from social justice to the contemplative life, from the theology of the person to the inter-religious dialogue.  Like St. Gregory, Merton’s mind was lucid and unrivaled.  Yet he too, this man of towering intellect and profound spiritual depth, often found himself lost and in desperate need of the Savior. 

Today his words mean more to me than ever.  Challenged by darkness and divisions (both within and without), we all sense our deep need of God and one another as we take this journey of faith.  Ponder with me this prayer that he wrote and the connections it has to your life:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.

But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire
in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything
apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.

Therefore I will trust you always
though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will not leave me to face my perils alone.