My dear graduates of Chaminade, Kellenberg Memorial, and St. Martin de Porres Marianist School,
If you had me for senior religion, you will no doubt remember that we sang each day as our form of prayer before class. I have to admit that, when I first decided to introduce the idea of singing our daily prayer – to sophisticated, “been there, done that,” “too-cool-for-school” seniors, no less – I was a bit apprehensive. To my pleasant surprise, however, the seniors have embraced the opportunity to sing. Our repertoire includes “Christ Before Us” during Ordinary Time, a variety of Christmas carols for Christmastide, and “Behold the Wood of the Cross” during Lent. Each day during the Advent season, we sing one verse of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”
As Advent (and Christmas!) rapidly approach, I thought that I would spend some time with you meditating on a favorite verse of mine from that December classic:
O come, thou Key of David, come,
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel,
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
Consider, for a moment, the humble key. It is a relatively small item. Few of us would number a key among our prized possessions. Generally, we take our keys for granted. And yet, every now and then, we lose a key or our entire keychain, and when we do, we are driven to distraction. We will turn the house upside down to find that missing key. We’ll search every room in the house, or the entire car – until we find that key.
And why is that? Because, despite its small size, the seemingly insignificant key wields considerable power. It unlocks doors for us. It enables us to start our cars. Without the right key, we are denied entry to the places to which we want access. Whether the keys we use are notched slivers of metal, or magnetized cards and fobs, or even those colorful wristbands with “Mickey ears” that guests to Disney resorts hold next to a sensor, keys get us places, places that we really want to get to.
The Key of David – Clavis David, in the original Latin – is Christ himself. Born of the lineage of King David, the Promised One of Israel, Christ is the key to our salvation, the key to our fulfillment, the key to our happiness, and the key to a life worth living. As I have often remarked in these monthly reflections, we regularly mistake other keys for the key to true happiness. The key to a shiny new car, the key to a safe-deposit box, the key to a corner office on Park Avenue or Chicago’s “Miracle Mile,” the key to a palatial house in a tony neighborhood, the key to the liquor cabinet in our homes – all of these offer the false promise of unlocking the door to happiness. Sadly, none of them do. There is really only one key to that prized possession, and that is Jesus Christ. As Saint Pope John Paul II was so fond of telling the crowds that flocked to him all over the world, when you are searching for your true happiness, “look to Christ.”
Let’s step back and consider another question for a minute: If Christ is the key to our ultimate fulfillment, if it is in His Kingdom that we find our true happiness, then how do we lay hold to the keys to the Kingdom, so to speak? I’d like to make one simple suggestion; I’d like to offer one key to a deeper relationship with Christ. That key is prayer.
Like the simple key, prayer is something we typically take for granted. Perhaps it occupies little or no time in our lives. Even if we pray regularly, perhaps prayer deserves more of our time. But, like a key, prayer is something small. It’s easy to overlook. We can usually think of scores of things we’ve “got” to do before we have time for prayer.
Yet, when we’ve lost our prayer life, just as when we have lost a key, we are locked out. We are locked out from spiritual communion with Christ, we are locked out from the quiet and calm that “make safe the way that leads on high,” and we are locked out from the “spiritual equilibrium” that “closes the path to misery.” Blessed William Joseph Chaminade insisted that “the essential is the interior,” and prayer is precisely the key to that “Interior Castle,” as St. Teresa of Ávila famously called it.
I am embarrassed to tell the story I am about to relate, because it reminds me of misplaced priorities that I still battle today. My first extracurricular assignment as a young teacher was moderator of the yearbook. I was thrilled. The yearbook was exactly the kind of big, attention-getting project that I wanted to tackle, and I was determined to bring the school’s yearbook to the next level. And that we did. We raised more money; added more pages; wrote more in-depth stories; and printed more high-quality, action-packed photos than ever before. I spent hours working on the yearbook every day, and even in the summer, as last-minute proofs arrived almost every day, to be turned around in twenty-four hours. The book was award-winning, but, because of the time I expended, oftentimes to 6:30 in “the afternoon,” I was frequently late for religious exercises, oftentimes absent from chapel, and typically nodding off when I was there. Clearly, this was not a healthy state of affairs for a young religious.
It took me by complete surprise (although, in retrospect, it should not have), when, after four years working on the yearbook, I was told by the director of the Community that this would be my last year as yearbook moderator. I was angry. My pride was wounded. I considered the decision completely unfair. And, now, looking back, I can say that this was probably one of the most salutary directives that I ever had to accept. It took me a while to do so, as you might understand, but, after a few months, I gradually did put my priorities in order. I started getting to chapel on time; staying awake during those early-morning Masses (still a challenge; thank God for the gift of coffee); and realizing over the course of many, many years, that the essential is the interior. You might say that I had found the key to my interior life and to happiness as a Marianist. Had I not found it, I certainly would not be writing you this letter today, and I probably would not have persevered in my vocation as a Marianist.
This Advent and Christmas season, we celebrate Emmanuel, a name that translates “God is with us.” God wants to come to us; this is His greatest desire. Yet, in a marvelous validation of our freedom, it is we who have the key to let Him in. Christ will not enter our lives uninvited. We have to turn the key and open the door. Prayer, even if it’s just ten minutes a day, enables us to do that. Prayer is the key that opens wide the door to Christ.
“O, come thou Key of David, come,
And open wide our heavenly home. . . .
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.”
On behalf of all my Marianist Brother,