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I am with You Always: Encounters with the Risen Lord in Prayer

“Behold, I am with you always unto the end of time.”  (Matthew 28:20)

These last words of the Risen Christ to the Apostles before He ascended into heaven are words that live in our ongoing encounters with the Son of God today.  Because He has not abandoned us and is at work in the world, He is able to open our prayer to a real conversation with Him and, in the tender but unexpected love He discloses, He constantly works to free us from our own alienation and pride. In the most remarkable ways, saints and mystics have had all kinds of these surprising and life-changing encounters and their witness invites us to seek for the same.

During Holy Week, about seven hundred years ago, Blessed Angela di Foligno received a beautiful grace that purified and deepened her devotion to the Lord.  It was so personal and particular, and at the same time, so necessary for anyone who loves the Lord, that she invites each one of us to seek this grace for ourselves as well.

She describes this encounter with the Lord in the form of His own words spoken directly to her in the silence of her heart.   As only the heart-piecing power of the truth can do, what He disclosed overwhelmed her, stinging her with such fierce compunction, she felt it in her chest.  The words she remembers being spoken to her, however, were not harsh, but tender. Jesus Crucified spoke with frank sincerity into her efforts to attend to Him, “My love for you has not been a hoax.”

By this time in her spiritual life, she was already a very disciplined ascetic who dedicated many hours to prayer.   During Holy Week in particular, she strove to withdraw her mind from everything else so that she could be completely vulnerable to the presence of Christ and completely enter into the mystery of his saving work with her whole heart. When she heard these words echo in her innermost depths, she glimpsed the reason why we believe the Son of God “assumed” our human nature and humbly accepted every form of privation and suffering.

By “assuming” our humanity rather than simply using it or absorbing it, He endows our humanity with new meaning, a salvific meaning by which we can discern the truth of God’s love for us.  God’s love delights in accomplishing its work within the limits of our frail efforts to love.  This is because He loves to be like us — which is the mark of true friendship.  Friends want to be like each other and they want to enter into each other’s worlds.    Jesus, in embracing our humanity to Himself, has found a way to enter into our world of misery so that in prayer we might hear our Crucified God inviting us to enter into His world of glory, a world without end.

We can truly know the love of Jesus, not because of what we achieve, but because the Lord really is loving us in this present moment, in and through His crucified and risen humanity.  If privation and suffering make it difficult to affirm this triumphant presence of love; by means of this His love hidden in these hardships, He is even closer and more accessible to us.    Whenever we face these things, even if it is death itself, we never do so alone.  The love of the Risen Lord for each of us, individually, is not an appearance or a sham – it is true… it is really real.  He is always with us… until the end of time.

These kinds of truths washed over Blessed Angela in that moment she heard Jesus speak personally to her.   Her awareness of His solidarity with her, His particular love for her, all of this mystery those words contained captured her heart in a whole new way.  She was flooded with a painful and sober awareness of just how much of a hoax her own love for Jesus had been up to that point of her life.  Compared to the love with which He loved her, she was sobered by the realization that her own love did not seem to be love at all.   Accepting this difficult truth steeped her in an adoration informed by a holy sorrow, a painful sorrow of heart.   Jesus was not content to leave her alone in this compunction.  He went on to reaffirm to her that she was never far from Him: He had kept her close to Him throughout all her efforts, through all her life.  Indeed, He comforted her by explaining, “I am more present to you than you are to yourself.”

What does this mean?

First, we really do not know ourselves all that well.  We, in fact, are a mystery to ourselves but not to the Lord.   In the light of the love of the Lord we know by faith, there are certain conversations with ourselves that we must renounce.   We should not attend to that self-occupied conversation in which we pat ourselves on the back for our piety.  Neither should we attend to that inner dialogue our ego holds with itself about how unimportant we are.   Neither of conversations of pride or self-pity speak to us with the voice by which the Lord speaks to us in our depths.  Neither of these voices knows the truth about who we are before Christ Jesus.  Neither of these voices understands how much He cherishes us and yearns to share everything with us.

Second, Angela di Foligno’s encounter with Christ teaches us that the truth about ourselves can only be known when we attend to Christ Himself.   We must open our hearts to the Word of the Father and welcome Him into our prayer.   We must allow Him to surprise us with His love and to captivate us with the radiant beauty of His humanity.  Blessed Angela seems convinced that the Lord wants us to know His presence and to feel His love inside us.   She believes that anyone who earnestly seeks to find Jesus and know His love in their hearts will be given these graces.  At the same time, those who want to be the brothers and sisters of Christ must make space in their lives for Christ to disclose Himself to in the particular and wonderful ways He desires to.

The love of the Risen Lord for each of us is the most real thing about our lives.  It is His love and not our inadequacies that most defines who we are.  His love for us is the very ground of our dignity.   It is because we want to hear the voice of Christ rather than our alienated ego that we enter into the silence of prayer, simplicity of life, and the service of those in need – especially the needy who are closest to us.   It is to learn how to share everything in our lives with Christ that we go to mass frequently, and it is to welcome everything He wants to give us that we make every effort to prepare ourselves to worthily receive Holy Communion.    On this point, Blessed Angela helps us see the One who is closer to us that we are to ourselves; how He yearns for us to know, not only with our minds, but also to feel His loving presence; and in this friendship, she also witnesses to how wonderful it is to suffer and rest all in that the Lord yearns to share with those whom He calls His friends.

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About Anthony Lilles

Anthony Lilles, a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, completed his graduate and post-graduate studies in Rome at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas. He and his lovely wife, Agnes, are blessed with three children and live in California, where he is the Academic Dean of St. John's Seminary, Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and Academic Advisor at Juan Diego House, House of Formation for Seminarians. Dr. Lilles worked for the Denver Archdiocese for over twenty years directing parish religious education, R.C.I.A. and youth ministry as well as serving as Director of the Office of Liturgy for the Archdiocese and as Coordinator of Spiritual Formation for the permanent diaconate. In 1999, he became a founding faculty member of St. John Vianney Theological Seminary where he was eventually appointed Academic Dean for nine years. He is an associate professor of theology and a Board Member for the Society of Catholic Liturgy. Dr. Lilles has provided graduate level courses on a variety of topics including the Eucharist, the Sacraments of Healing, Church History, Spiritual Theology, Spiritual Direction and on various classics of Catholic Spirituality. His expertise is in the spiritual doctrine of Blessed Elisabeth of the Trinity and the Carmelite Doctors of the Church: St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross and St. Thérèse of Lisieux. In 2012, Discerning Hearts published his book "Hidden Mountain, Secret Garden: A Theological Contemplation on Prayer," a compilation of discussions with seminarians, students and contemplatives about the spiritual life. Among his many accomplishments and responsibilities, Dr. Lilles now teaches theology for the Avila Institute. He blogs at BeginningtoPray.blogspot.com

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  • http://www.rcspiritualdirection.com/ Dan Burke

    Profound – “Christ teaches us that the truth about ourselves can only be known when we attend to Christ Himself”

    • LizEst

      “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth–in a word, to know himself–so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves (cf. Ex 33:18; Ps 27:8-9; 63:2-3; Jn 14:8; 1 Jn 3:2)” introductory verse to the Encyclical Letter “Fides et Ratio” (On the Relationship between Faith and Reason) John Paul II, September 14, 1998.

    • http://profiles.google.com/alongthelittleway Amanda Rose

      Words worth meditating on!

  • http://www.facebook.com/camila.malta.509 Camila Malta

    “how much He cherishes us and yearns to share everything with us.”

    “Blessed Angela seems convinced that the Lord wants us to know His presence and to feel His love inside us”

    “It is His love and not our inadequacies that most defines who we are.”

    This is beautiful!

  • http://profiles.google.com/alongthelittleway Amanda Rose

    “It is His love and not our inadequacies that most defines who we are. His love for us is the very ground of our dignity. ” The more we understand His love for us, the more we can begin to understand who we are and Who He is.

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  • Erin Pascal

    Very beautiful piece! Thank you for sharing this very good read. It is always an amazing feeling to read articles about how great the love of Christ is. It gives a feeling of great joy, happiness, and comfort. Thank you for this wonderful blog and may God bless you!

  • carl641

    ‘The love of the Risen Lord for each of us, individually, is not an appearance or a sham – it is true… it is really real. He is always with us… until the end of time.’ Lot of comfort in that

  • Grtgrandpa

    Finding God’s love is like finding the Pearl of Great price. God’s love is infused into us by His Sanctifying Grace, and Actual Grace. I agree, it is necessary to know one;s self before you can understand the attributes of a perfect being. Knowing God is a journey of the intellect and faith. Knowing God is like getting close to a fire, the closer you get, the warmer you become.
    The Risen Jesus has made Himself known to many people. I have a Dictionary of Saints which contains a sypnopsis of thier lives. There are around 5,000 names of Saints who ‘testify’ to the Truth of God’s word.
    God is love isn’t just a bumpber sticker. Love by its definition is two way. The lover and the Beloved. God the Father is the Lover, and the Son the Beloved. So the definition of the statement God is Love, is the very essence of His existence. Because Love cannot exist alone, there by God is Love is a testament to the Trinity.

  • Mary@42

    “It is His love and not our inadequacies that most defines who we are.”

    These words means so, so much especially when one is overwhelmed by self-doubt.

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  • http://profiles.google.com/alongthelittleway Amanda Rose

    Beautiful! Amen – especially to “Finding God’s love is like finding the Pearl of Great price.”

  • Tiffany

    I’ve been lurking on this site for just over two months…and this post came on a very dark oppressive day for me. Starting with my favorite scripture in the whole of the canon “And lo I am with you always, even to the end of the ages.” Since I was a young child, this has been my favorite scripture, and always at my lowest moments the Lord has spoken it to me through a picture, a sermon, a writing, a friend. On April 16th it was this beautiful writing by Anthony Lillies. Took it with me a few days later on a short pilgrimage down to the Basilica and let the words heal. Thanked the Lord, but didn’t thank you, Anthony Lillies, for this piece. I’m on the journey to the Catholic Church because of this scripture, and of course so many more, but just wanted to say thank you for posting this. Am slowly working my way through your book, such a blessing.