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  • Writer's pictureDr. Anthony Lilles

The Holy Family and Contemplative Prayer

The Holy Family is the first school of contemplative prayer. One way to know the truth of this is to visit the Holy Family in prayer. St. Francis brought the manger scene into the churches that he rebuilt precisely to build up such prayer. St. Ignatius also invites us to use our imagination to ponder this same mystery. Christmas carols also take us to this same contemplation if we let them.

This spiritual exercise best begins by visiting a manger scene, making the sign of the Cross and calling to mind the presence of God. Sometimes we can be too mechanical about this, taking too much for granted, and this is a mistake. His presence is remarkable. He is closer to us than we are to ourselves, holding us in existence, and at the same time, waiting for us to hold Him. Calling to mind His presence then is always in the form of a person encounter, a heart to heart, a mystery that deserves the complete attention of all the powers of our being. The Lord who relied on Joseph and Mary in His infancy also relies on us, entrusts Himself to us. As we allow this truth to sanctify our minds, if we prayerfully turn to the Gospels, our imagination can begin to probe the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke. The power of our imagination can search for Mary and Joseph on their flight to Egypt. Or else, we can imagine them on their frantic search for Jesus in Jerusalem. The revealed drama that they endured puts Jesus at the center - everything is always in relation to Him, bringing them into a deeper relation to one another. We might take in the surroundings, sounds and smells that live in the silences of the Gospels; and then the search the faces of Mary and Joseph to discern the paradoxes of tension and peace, prayer and practicality, anxious concern and mutual confidence. When we carefully search the devotion of their hearts revealed in the Scriptures, without realizing how, our own heart can suddenly be revealed. In the Biblical images, each verse invites us more deeply into the vast horizons of empathy born in contemplative prayer. Here, with the Holy Family, we discover and can even feel that this empathy has a poignantly familial tenderness to it and a fierce dedication driving it. Yet the Bible allows us to share this tenderness with them - their own fierce solicitude for Jesus and familial devotion is passed on to us through the Church. Ripples on the surface of a deep mystery follow from this. If the concern that Joseph and Mary shared for the Christ-child can rouse our hearts to deeper devotion, then the drama of other hearts in relation to Jesus also belong to us in prayer in some way. And, the anxious concerns and peace that we ourselves know in prayer are also not meant to be carried by ourselves alone, but through the ministry of the Church, by the whole Family of God together in communion. This mystery of communion is why we must never forget the heart of the Church - that place were tenderness and dedication spring just as it sprung in the heart of Mary and Joseph as they drew ever closer to Emmanuel. The familial empathy that impacts contemplation of the Holy Family is ultimately ecclesial. What we behold in the Holy Family is what should live in our own domestic churches, our families, our parishes. Beautiful silences in mental prayer and the mystery of communion in the Church coincide in the Holy Family. Mary and Joseph shared a devotion that was not individualistic but always in relation and bringing all things into relation in them and between them. The silences they knew were filled with this very fullness of encounter and recognition. If we consider their shared devotion to the Christ-child, they teach us how to protect the gentle awareness of God's presence that has begun in each other too. The concern-in-common that we ponder in the stillness of their hearts is meant to become the concern that lives in our hearts as we strive for a deeper communion in the Church. Such love implicates us in each other's life of faith with all the tension and concern that flows from this -- a mystery that defined the very life of the Holy Family.

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