Saturday, November 07, 2015

Intellectualizing and Moralizing, or Misery and Mercy?

When I was an ardently practicing Lutheran (an era that concluded when I was about 20), my public formation was largely along the lines of right doctrine. A lot was made of adhering to a right set of beliefs and of learning these beliefs thoroughly.

Now as a Catholic I often feel that my public formation (by way of homilies) has a strong emphasis on right living. We need to do the right things, especially the right daily things such as prayer, service, faith sharing, and acts general goodness.

Both of these are necessary and good, or at least they are when one's conceptualization of rightness actually accords with truth.

But in both of these formulations, the most important Christian thing is missing: the how question. How am I supposed to live this way? How is it I am supposed to believe? How am I to interface with God? Not what do I do or what do I believe, but how do I do it?

How do I do it is, I think, the question of the heart of Christianity, because it hinges on lived experience, not on doctrine or moralizing. And the human heart is indeed key to the heart of Christianity. For one person to teach another how, one must have experienced heart change. (I do not deny that Jesus teaches coaches many people through to conversion interiorly through prayer, but I imagine that this is often a much longer process than being able to be directly discipled by another.)

And I believe that the key to the necessary heart change necessary to teach another is not mere intellectual enlightenment or moral exercise, but the encounter of my misery with God's mercy. Even more than that, our hearts need more than our own experience, we need the encounter with human misery in general. We need real experience with sin and degradation encountering the life-giving love of God. We need to know and experience God's forgiveness and healing for us and for others. This grants us a capacity for compassion. It allows us to realize that sin, suffering, degradation, and the need for God's merciful love is the universal human condition, regardless of what a person may present to our eyes.

The compassion capacity that opens in us is not only to give physical relief to suffering, though of course that is included. Even more it includes lifting souls from shame, shadows, and rejection into the light and solidarity and love of Christian community, of having belonging within the people of God.

Without this dimension, without being able to operate on this level of recognizing both within myself and within you our shared misery and our (at least potentially) shared experience of God's mercy, and addressing the reality, actually talking, teaching, and preaching about it, we are trapped in the intellect or in moralizing. Sharing experiences forms a bond. Human beings finding God's mercy need to rejoice with others who know this same joy or they will spiritually suffocate.

We need to be able to know, touch, courageously face, and articulate our realization of our misery, our utter need for God in every way. To do this, we need humility. We need time spent in silence so that we have the opportunity to meet ourselves. We need courage to face the truth we meet. We need the ability to be present also to another person and his suffering without trying to mute him when we dredges up what we'd rather not face in ourselves. We need frequent confession.

We also need penance and self-denial, but not the kind I do to impress myself with how much sacrifice I can bench press. We need penance that opens us to experiencing and accepting weakness. By this penance I intentionally touch my misery. And touching it, I turn in trust once again to God's infinite  mercy and realize that that, and not my capacities, is what is awesome.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Words we Speak, and the Silences We Keep

Over the last four days, I participated in the 2015 OCDS Congress in Milwaukee. I took copious notes, but now is the moment where I go back over them to see if I can translate them into consumable language so that others can catch at least the gist of the talks that I did, if not the actual intent of the speaker.

The talk that hit me the hardest was by Fr. Marc Foley, O.C.D., so I'm going to start there with transcription. The title he was given was:
Mary and Martha
Carmel: Contemplative and Apostolic
Personal Transformation and Society Change

 but he kind of ditched that and went for a laser-focus instead on the apostolic weight of the words we speak and the silences we keep.

The following is what I captured:

Mary is a symbol of attentive listening. The inflow of God into the soul instructs us in the perfection of love. Peaceful attentiveness to God is contemplation.

St. Therese said that Jesus teaches without words, and that we have no absolute need of teachers and books.

The most important place of this attentive listening is not even so much in our set times of prayer as during our daily occupations.

We have two forms of choice: the words we speak, and the silences we keep. These are deeply significant in our response to God. Essentially all of life can be understood within these two choices. Listening to God's voice and speaking forth what we hear is the core of the apostolic intention.

We tend to think of apostolic activity as answering the question "What do you do?" Do you do parish work? Do you work in a soup kitchen? Do you protest injustice? If you are called to do these, by all means, do them. But the most apostolic of actions is what we hear God instructing us to say. When there is congruence between what we hear God instructing us in and what we do, then Mary and Martha are working together.

When our speech is rooted in the indwelling presence of God, then the Word becomes flesh.

Contemplation and apostolic action in St. Teresa's focal gospel, the first gospel choice for her feast day, the woman at the well: "Spring of water gushing up to eternal life." There are two words here in the Greek. The "well" is man-made. "Spring" is underground, and natural. In the optional gospel, we have Jesus saying, "I am not the source of my words." And this raises in us the question, What is the source of my words? Is it the cistern of my ego, or the wellspring of God's Spirit?

D. W. Winnicott, a psychotherapist, stated that he knew freedom when he no longer had the need to be clever for his clients. This is freedom from self-absorption. No longer needing that psychologically astute response was freedom.

St. Teresa writes in her Meditations on the Song of Songs that "Martha and Mary never fail to work together in a soul in the state of union. When the soul is working interiorly, active work arises that is like lovely and fragrant flowers, spreading from the tree of God's love. No self-interest. Fragrance for the benefit of many, lasts, and has great effect.

When the soul is working interiorly, there is a congruence between what we hear and what we say.

As St. Therese lay dying, a door and a window had been left open in her room, creating a draft. Mother Gonzaga came in and insisted she tell her who did this. Therese knew it had been the infirmarian. And as she was speaking to tell Mother, she said it came to her mind a more charitable way to tell the truth she knew. She followed that way and was rewarded with great peace. Is anything more important, more apostolic, than following such inspirations?

St. John of the Cross teaches that the first movements toward sin and the first movements of inspirations come to the conscious mind, and so we must be alert to them with vigilance as we stand at that threshhold. What will be born into this world?

What is the heart of Carmel? Inner language and outer speech. And yes, it is hard to speak. It is hard to be silent. Our pride, envy, anger, etc want to rise. But this is where detachment and purification comes in.

Writing in a spiritual discipline (it is the speaker's gift, and also something that has made him realize his egotism). It is all a practice of detachment, allowing God to edit our speech. It is necessary for spiritual growth and for fruitfulness.

St. Teresa's words again: If words arise from the deep spiritual root, fragrance spreads, lasts, and has effect. We all ask this question, especially as we get older: Will my life have mattered?

In Night Prayer, we ask that our work may bear fruit for eternal life. This is what we mean.

St. John of the Cross says that for a preacher to benefit people (and, more broadly, one who speaks), it is a spiritual practice and not a vocal one. And it comes in conflict with our fears, with our desires to manipulate, please, or flatter others. We may preach with the intention for spiritual benefit for others, but still have no detachment from pleasing people. And this need to please or flatter can influence what we say and don't say. The need to flatter gives people power over us. When we have detachment, we don't need them.

Silence and its impact on spiritual growth and fruitfulness. Chapter 15 of the Way of Perfection

Being silent in the face of criticism, but with discretion, in the bounds of common sense (would my silence cause anger, guilt, scandal? then don't be silent).

No desire to be held in esteem. Release from fear of what people think of us. Time will be witness of the benefit you see of this silence in yourself. Come to the point where you don't care if people say good things or evil about you. Hear people's talk as if it is another person's affair (with that much detachment). Be present to what is said, but no enmeshed in the emotions. Then you can respond, and then you have PEACE.

From the Councils of St. John of the Cross:  You will be chiseled by people's words, deeds, or temperament. You ought to suffer the mortifications with patience being silent for the love of God.

Essentially, don't over react.

If I don't practice being patient, what will happen? St. John says, profoundly, "They do not get along well with others!" This is huge. People are our world. We become nuclear reactors. People won't want to deal with us. Patience, on the other hand, brings us peace and connects us to others.

Romans 12: "Do not repay evil for evil. Do not avenge yourself but leave room for the wrath of God. Feed and give drink to your enemies, and in so doing heap burning coals on their head." What is this leaving room for the wrath of God? You give opportunity, create enough psychic space for the person to hear their own words. Don't fire back. Allow their own words to echo in their own mind. When they hear what they've said, a work of grace can happen, a moment of revelation.

The silence of pure innocence persuades when words fail.

Words are the most powerful things we possess. God creates by words, and when we speak, there are consequences. Words of kindness heal, and words of hate and evil wound.

St. Edith Stein says (in Vol 5 Essays on Women, The Problem of Women's Education, pp. 231-232). When one has grasped the importance of speech, it brings a responsibility upon oneself. Words reveal the soul. It's inner activity is revealed. Thoughtless speech reveals superficial dealings. Speech has repercussions on others souls: they can guide, or leave injury, cause retreat, or leave a deadly mark.

Milton attempted to show what the world would have been like in the world before sin. He states that paradise is where all language is pure and innocent.

What would the world be if all speech was pure, if all speech and silence came from the tree of God's love?

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Thoughts Before Bedtime...

I'm stealing a few moments from my sleep to write about a dream I had last night.

Somehow I was time-traveling to the era of the US Civil War. There were several people gathered together, President Lincoln among them, and they were all agitated and worried about the possibility of impending assassination. I walked among them and could feel their concern. As I walked away, I was passed by two different versions (in that bizarre way that can only happen in dreams) of John Wilkes Booth, headed toward them.

From my omniscient stance, my calm reaction to all of them was, You know what, not all of you will be assassinated just now, so don't worry. But I'm from the future, and I can tell you for a fact that you will all die.

And I woke with a very clear sense that reality can only be one of two things: Either human life has no meaning at all and a bit of momentary pleasure is all that can be had, or, the only thing that really matters in this life is the drama for each individual human soul's preparedness or lack thereof to approach and enter the life of eternity.

Clearly, I believe reality is the second of these options. But I just as surely hold that there is no middle ground.

There is a lot more to life than dying, but there is nothing else that should give meaning to our life than what our death means.

Just a thought.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Spiritual Violence and Ferocious Love

At my last Carmelite formation small group meeting, I talked through a topic that has played a pretty big role in my spiritual development for my whole life: this notion of spiritual violence. Included in this notion are many questions, such as, how harsh should be we with ourselves? How far should self-denial go? How do we go about it? How do I understand God in terms of His harshness with us? What does "take up your cross and follow me" imply?

People tend to see Carmelites, and especially St. John of the Cross, as bastions of austerity. And it is true, right, fitting, and proper to associate austerity with this spirituality. But austerity is easily misunderstood and made horrific without a correspondingly deep grasp of the intensity of love that is the ground from which this austerity springs.

I decided there's a word I like for love's characteristic: ferocious. God's love is ferocious. And yes, I realize the definition of ferocious is basically violent. But there is also a connotation of strength, intensity, fierceness, a raging love that stops at nothing. It is complete, all-consuming, driving, penetrating, wanting everything. There is energy. And yet, it is love, so it does not violate or destroy, nor is there any lack of order or spinning out of control, like some kind of a rampaging mob. This word gives me a handle on all that.

Twenty years ago, if you had asked me about the intensity of God's love for me and how this relates to His call to leave everything and take up my cross, to lose my life for His sake, I would have told you in some formulaic way how God's intense love calls me to self-denial. I believed the theory that God was worthy and that I had to pray for the grace to be willing to leave aside what was dear to me and put God first. And my words and my demeanor in that conversation would have betrayed my anxiety about it.

Like many of my generation (and doesn't every generation have something like this?), I have struggled with disrupted attachments. As a child of divorce, a child of an alcoholic, and a child in a family with mental illness, comfortable, reliable, and trustworthy relationships were simply not part of my life's foundation. As a result, I have come towards healthy attachments by way of some fairly intense interior problems of over-attachment. And I have come towards holy detachment by way of experiences that have felt like death, and have put me face to face with the terrors I had tried to avoid through over-attachments in the first place. I was not free to give up everything because I hadn't strongly experienced receiving. I was locked into a fearful survival mode.

But along the way of the three ring circus of my interior life, I have tried to figure out what a holy normal really is. When I was in my early 20s and under the influence of a certain teacher, I decided that the music I loved was worldly and I had to abandon it. I took a record collection that held powerfully positive emotional associations for me, put it in a dumpster, and walked away. I did it solely because I felt I had to take a violent stand against myself. It hurt, and I thought hurting myself this way would please God.

 Close relationships for me have often been fraught with issues of control, feelings of desperation, and all sorts of powerful yuck. It has been very hard for me to discern the difference between healthy closeness and a closeness for which I was paying with my dignity. It wasn't until I started having experiences of people showing they could get upset on my behalf (not at me, but for me, because they wanted to protect what they valued in me) that I began to realize there actually was a value in me worth protecting. It often made me laugh with a spontaneous and surprising joy, which struck me as strange because generally the other person was being dead serious and stern. (Come to think of it, sometimes it irked the other person, too.)

Sin violates personal dignity. We are made for holy union with God, but every time we sin, we turn away from love. When we are sinned against, we are hurt and we run the risk of enshrining that hurt in bitterness. God longs for us to repent, to live with Him and to be pure not because He's obsessed with behavioral standards but because He is ferocious love. It is amazing to think of a God with desire for a creature. Why? How? How can it be?

God sees us as we are and knows that because we are fallen we need ever deepening grace and we cannot bear the full brunt of His intense love straight on, without dying. So gently, and according to our nature, He patiently heals us, walks with us, forms us. He frees us to open ourselves, and to choose Him. He frees us to love Him in return. We cannot give Him anything that He does not give us first, and that is true of love more than anything. We love because He first loved us.

And according to our capacity and our desire, God knows how and when to touch us with more love than we can hold, the love that brings us to our knees, to fall on our faces, to cry out, our supposed breaking point far behind. Those moments reveal God to our souls. They reveal our sin to our souls. They reveal truth. Reality is clear and everything pales in comparison to this Love. Nothing temporal is worth clinging to in light of eternal, ferocious love.

And in that moment, those austere calls (taking up one's cross, denying oneself, and renouncing things) show their true characteristic: they are the invitation of Love. Love draws out love in return. And only love can generate and sustain a life of this kind of response.

God does not respond to my offerings; I respond to His invitation. My efforts -- to sufficiently injure myself, to work for His approval, to try hard enough, to be good enough, or to do anything -- do not draw down His invitation or His initiative toward me.

God calls. He is calling. With ferocious heart and gentle, intimate whisper, God calls. He invites. I love you. Come to Me.

Our response? Yes, Lord. I am here. Love me. 

Monday, August 10, 2015

The Importance of Being Human

There's a lot of talk going around right now in the Catholic Church, because of Pope Francis and the general agenda of the Holy Spirit, and common sense, about how we need to stop being so self-referential and actually change our minds (aka be converted) about how we deal with those with distant, loose, or no ties to the Church.

So it was interesting to me to just experience something very similar in a different context: the public school system.

My son wants to try going part-time to the public high school this year. I made a call today for the information. It went like this:

Me: I'm considering enrolling my son as a part-time student. He has been homeschooled in the past. Is there a list available of which classes are offered at which time?

She: My guidance counselors have that list.

Me: (after a brief pause in which I thought I would hear more) Is there a way I could have access to that list?

She: None of them are available right now. They leave at 2. Eight to Two!

Me: When I call back tomorrow is there another number I should call, or whom should I ask for?

She: What's the kid's name?

Me: (I tell her, even though I have no idea what it could matter since we've had zero past dealings with the school)

She: Mrs. [Thing]

Me: Mrs. T-h-i-n-g?

She: Yes, Mrs. [Thing.]

What the exchange taught me is that the woman to whom I was speaking had every expectation that I should simply already know the who, what, and when pieces I was missing. She knew. Everyone in her office knew. So should I. Silly, irritating potential student parent.

But I've never been in this system. It is brand new to me.

It is amusing to see how this plays out, and does not speak well of the humanity of the "system" I am reluctantly entering.

But when this sort of thing happens in a Catholic context, or Christian context, where we are not naturally positioned to respond in the most helpful and welcoming way (without going gushy-overboard, you know) it doesn't speak well of the humanity of the Christian system either. And that is a scandal for which we need to do penance. Because, yes, unfortunate things happens with those initial contacts, too. People leave a phone number and never get a call back, or get a call back with no knowledge of why the original call was placed, or get a terse message to "call so and so to sign up for RCIA" (wait, what?), or get intrusive guesses about why the person wants to become a Catholic. Or they are even met with statements about how they don't really want or need to become Catholics! Don't believe it? I've heard stories about every single one, and have had three of these happen to me, four if you take it out of the calling-the-rectory scenario.

Evangelization skills start with humanity skills. It's as easy and as difficult as that.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

I Do Not Permit a Woman to Teach or Have Authority

I am not a Scripture scholar, although I have studied theology at the graduate level. So what I'm about to say is not the result of textual analysis or research, but rather the result of meditation and living with Jesus, and that sudden moment of "aha!" that gives me a new insight I never once thought about before. Call it a hunch, if you will.

Among the passages of Scripture that really rankle people is 1 Timothy 2, where Paul has his bit to say about women in the church. For example:

I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man. She must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. Further, Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and transgressed. (verses 12-14)
 I've heard any number of teachings trying to bring this Scripture to bear on modern life. There is of course the literalist approach which takes Paul at face value and does not permit women to speak the Word of God in a public church setting. I grew up in a church which taught this way, though we were nothing like fundamentalists (just Lutheran). However, in that same church body I also heard the interpretation which weighted the first word of verse 12 as having all the importance: "I." This approach said it was just Paul's issue, not something that universally applied even at his time.

Yes, it is a bit weird to posit that St. Paul was a jerk who randomly imposed his will and that Scripture preserves that, but once you lose your moorings from a Magisterial understanding of Scripture, anything is possible.

The Ignatius study Bible proposes that this passage (and a similar injunction to silence in 1 Corinthians) means that women are barred from preaching in the context of ordained ministry. Well, ok. There are other arguments about why women do not receive ordination, and I think the strongest one is that to be a father, you need to be a man. But I'll leave that to the side for now.

It sounds to modern ears that St. Paul is barring women from something. Or rather, that God is barring women from something. Yes, we could deconstruct Christianity in terms of power and politics like those do who do not know the power of God, but that way of death has run its course. If we start from the reality of the life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ which has already revolutionized the soul of St. Paul and go from there to the fact that the Holy Spirit was forming a people all drawn from darkness and sin into a completely new life in the new covenant in Jesus Christ, and working through Paul as an apostle, I think we need to look again at what else might be going on here.

Let's just refocus for a moment away from "woman" in that passage, and look at the word "man."

Who has to be taught? For whom is authority structured?

Those who need it, and especially the ignorant and the unruly. Children, basically.

In other places in Scripture, believers are told they have no need of anyone to teach them, because the spirit of God Himself teaches them (cf 1 Jn. 2:27). It also has words to say for those who should be mature, but aren't (1 Cor. 3:2, Heb. 5:12). The authority that Paul most frequently speaks of is a fatherly authority, one who lays down his life and teaches by example how to live. Fathers are mature. Children are not.

Just what if what Paul is really saying here is, "Men, grow up. I'm not letting women do your heavy lifting."

Because look at what he goes on to say: Adam was formed first, but Eve was deceived. Scott Hahn has popularized the approach to the Genesis account of the fall that says Adam's key failure was stepping up to the devil and laying down his life, or being ready to, in order to stop the avalanche of sin. But instead, he simply remained still and silent, and let Eve take the hit. St. Paul reminds us of all that.

What if St. Paul is really saying that while women, holding the preeminent place of honor in the Church in the person of the Blessed Virgin Mary, have certain natural capacities that lend themselves to a strong interior life might have the capacity to teach and hold authority, he wants men to step up and take the spiritual responsibility in their circumstances, unlike Adam. This is the way they would authentically imitate Christ, the new Adam. This way, the reality of the new life of the new covenant would be made manifest to the world.

What if it wasn't about "putting women in their place" all along....

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Sunday is for Heaven

In my mind, the Sunday or feast day celebration is about two things, or two sides of this coin:

First, we unite ourselves as deeply as we can, body, soul and spirit, to the Blessed Trinity in the worship of Christ to the Father in the Holy Spirit. This is carried out in space and time through His Church in the Liturgy of the Hours and especially in the holy sacrifice of the Mass.

And then, believers console each other as best they can that we don't live in heaven yet, but still on earth. We search out and offer each other the best we can find by way of traces of heaven in our souls, in our communion, in God's creation, and in the poor.

And then we move back into our work with a blessed but wistful heart that this earth is not our lasting city.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Practical Christian Intercession, Part Two

God our Father,
make us joyful in the ascension of your Son Jesus Christ.
May we follow him into the new creation,
for his ascension is our glory and our hope.
Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
-- pre-revised prayer for the Feast of the Ascension from the Roman Missal

Dogma and liturgy both exist to teach us how to live. Dogma and liturgy are both, in that sense, maternal. As a young Christian, filled to the gills with catechism and rote prayers and devotional practices, my main longing was for someone to come along and show me how to live Christianity. Not just the "doing" parts, and not just the intellectual explanation parts; I wanted it all understood, done and fleshed-out before my eyes. I wanted to experience Christianity lived.

And I still want that.

In part one of my thoughts on this topic, I pointed out that humans have a tendency toward prayer simply because we are human. Christians need to grasp and contend over this not only because it is true, but because Scripture was penned in an age when philosophical waters over what "human" means were far less muddied. If we cannot understand what it means to be human, we will struggle unnecessarily over grasping Scripture's teaching on what it means to be Christian.

The feast of the Ascension makes it quite clear that to be Christian means to be in Christ. Again, I opened this thought in part one. The entire fourth chapter of Ephesians points out that Christianity is a calling to a life which is a gift. It is received by a Christian (by faith and through sacraments and union with the Body of Christ), and it is in fact Christ's own life, present, living, active and growing in us.

What does this then mean for intercession? What is prayer? How do we live it? What does it look like?

Some say that it amounts to lots and lots of words said. Lots of prayer books, lots of devotions read. Rosaries, novenas, chaplets prayed. People know they've prayed a lot because the clock ticked forward significantly since they sat down to their words.

Others say that their work is their prayer. At some point in their lives, they offered their work to God and then busied themselves with that. When they get weary, they remind themselves that there's some greater purpose in what they are doing.

Others will say their love is their prayer. They are concerned about lots of people and they keep track of how they are and do things to help them when they can.

Others might say they simply are vaguely aware of God surrounding them and keeping them alive, and nothing they do can match that wonder. And so, for them, prayer is simply beholding wonder.

Now, what I'm going to say is that none of these is Christian prayer in completeness, because all of these can be lived selfishly. We all have our natural human tendencies which -- I must hasten to add -- are good! Because prayer is rooted in our humanity, there are different ways of it and different disciplines which fit us. But the key to these disciplines is one thing: love.

And God is love. We think we are love, but we are not. Go back to St. Paul in Ephesians. We need to grow up into love, and we do this by living in the messy pain of community. This means that real love serves real human beings in their real needs. Love means allowing the new creation, God's life, heaven, to be expressed through our humanity. It means that our death (to self) brings (God's) life to the souls of others.

And this gets closer to the heart of what intercession is. But I'll have to go for part three.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Practical Christian Intercession, Part One

It doesn't take a deeply religious person to offer to say a prayer for someone. It is a common response to hearing of a tragedy, sudden need or a deep concern. One recent survey found that even 12% of atheists reported that they pray. So in one regard, prayer is simply a human expression. It is by no means exclusively Christian.

Intercessory prayer, or prayer of one on behalf of another, does have a uniquely Christian meaning, however. It is not opposed to this natural desire for well-being of others that we experience, but it raises it up and supernaturalizes it.

And this is due to the fact that Jesus Himself is our intercessor before the Father. Hebrews 7:25 tells us that Jesus is "able to save those who approach God through Him, since He lives forever to make intercession for them."

Think about this for a moment. Jesus paid the full price of our redemption with His passion, death, resurrection and ascension into heaven. But now, what -- in order for us to "really" be saved, He has to be in heaven saying prayers constantly for all eternity for us? Is that what "making intercession" is all about?

Not exactly. In heaven, He reigns. As victor over sin and death, it is His very presence, the fact of His completed act of redemption, His unending life, that is the eternal offering that speaks for us.

This completed act of redemption has opened the gates of heaven, for all who believe. Those who believe are incorporated into Christ by the sacraments of initiation. In baptism, God gives us a complete package of transforming grace. Our life is then a process in which we are meant to open, receive, use and develop the graces He has given us. We all receive equal graces to become saints, but we do all receive graces that are unique to our own vocation. All the gifts and graces work together, though, so that we come "to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the fully stature of Christ" (Eph. 4:13). To be Christian is to be in community, to belong to other believers, living in real-time with them in truth and love:

We must no longer be children . . . But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body's growth in building itself up in love. (Eph. 4:14-16)

So essentially the difference between a Christian life and a human religious life is this matter of living, growing, and maturing into Christ, in union with His body, the Church.

And this has implications for uniquely Christian intercession, as well. I'll develop that further in part two.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Divine Intimacy, and a Carmelite story

Today, I cracked open my belated Christmas gift just recently in at the used book store for me:

It was quite a moment.

It look me back to another moment roughly 24 years ago, when I cracked open this book, by the same author:

That little green book ended up in my hands because I had mustered up all of my courage to speak to my friend Keith who had joined up with them Catholics and had become a sight hard for me to behold at our weekly home fellowship meetings. Because I had to struggle to find something to say to him other than hurling accusations of apostasy his way, I came up with the best thing I could think of. I reached back into the memory of a paper I wrote in college for which I researched mysticism and had discovered St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. (It was a hefty part of my grade I had to defend, and in answer to my frantic prayer for a topic I distinctly heard the Lord answer me: Mysticism. With true gratitude I told Him in response, Great! But, what's mysticism? Today that little exchange makes me laugh out loud, at least if I'm only telling it to myself.)

Back to the first story. Keith assured me that yes, there were people who still believed like Teresa and John did, and in fact they had a monastery about 35 miles out of town. The next time I saw him, he handed me this little booklet which he'd bought for me there.

I wasn't much keen on anything Catholic at the time, but somehow those Carmelites had held me fascinated yet again. I read the little book, which basically is an introduction to mental prayer in the Carmelite tradition. Right away I realized I wanted to practice this. It was the beginning of a whole array of confusing delights as my intellect and heart inched toward the Catholic Church.

I thought of all that as I read (the completely wrong) entry for today from Divine Intimacy. It is set up on the old liturgical calendar, and so I misunderstood how it was counting the weeks of Easter and so read the selection intended for next Wednesday. But as I read it, I got that sense of spiritual heartburn, the kind that makes you want to cry when something fits everything so well. The meditation was on Mary as the grandest exemplar of spiritual poverty, of knowing oneself to be nothing. I thought of how I have been introduced to living this beatitude. I thought of how X number of years ago, I not only would not have grasped this as a spiritual principle, but probably would have argued against it. I thought of how I never, ever would have been able to design my own path towards this spiritual truth and actually walked the path. I thought of how hard I fought God when, I realize now, He wanted me to embrace the Christian, spiritual meaning of saying "I am nothing." I thought of how all my life God has called me to Carmel, and I am finally able to at least say I'm on the same page, and I see where He points. Theoretically, it is much easier to say "yes" to walking on a path that has actual definition.

Or, it's harder.

Because I understand, even though I really don't.

But really, it is a magnificent journey as long as I keep looking with awe at God, all He does, and all He gives, and learn how to live accordingly.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

A god who loves me

My life has been full of service lately, keeping me busy. More church music than I can shake a stick at. Add to that I've felt out of kilter all week since I did a bit of a complicated face plant onto my bathtub early one morning. I managed to just hit the bridge of my nose; how, I don't know. But I knocked my neck out of alignment and rattled my brain enough to not exactly be my normal self for a few days.

So really, really busy, and not feeling 100%.

This after coming off some other intense moments with my Carmelite retreat, the funeral of a community member, and other things that constitute my normal self in all her grand intensity.

Part of me being normal is that I have a constant undercurrent of thought and awareness going on, seemingly unbidden. This week I noticed many times I simply was unable to do that or "live there." That undercurrent also feeds my prayer life, even though now I realize it is certainly the function of my active soul. (It is strange but good to be able to dissect one's interior life this way. Bumps on the head do a great service.) What I've learned this week is that I have to have a prayer life that is not dependent on my ability to think straight or feel good. I have to have that space where I just put myself before God, knowing He is within me, and just be there. Maybe it isn't that this is new to me, but it has been as if I could hardly do anything else.

In the midst of that, this morning, during down time at a music practice I happened to pick up a children's book (I was in the church library) about a martyr of the early church. She was a Greek girl of the first century, born to a non-believing family. My daughter and I have been reading The Roman Mysteries, so we've gotten pretty familiar with the time period and what worship of the Greek and Roman gods felt like. The book had her praying like this: "Oh mysterious God, if there is a god who loves me, tell me. Show me who you are."

Something about this struck me right between the eyes. A god who loves me. Everything is in those words. The Greek and Roman gods were to be respected, honored, sacrificed to, shown piety, but they did not love people. They were forces, or powers, and they could grant favors or inflict punishment, but they did not form relationships. They did not love. Philosophers embraced ideas and ideals and lived by virtues. But they did not speak of being loved by a God who personally loves.

That is uniquely Christian.

And that struck me, hard. If God loves, if the One God loves me, and that love reaches me, then the only reasonable response to this love is to give my all and everything in return, to love Him in return. Love compels love in return; it is the strongest force in the universe.

A god who loves me.

A mighty rushing wind, an enormous fire, an all-consuming response. That's the only way the reality of a god who loves me can be met.

It would be so easy if I could just turn into a ball of flame. Sometimes the way that fire has to ignite is through virtues like patience, long-suffering, kindness, perseverance, faithfulness, constancy, watching, and waiting. Love actually forms these in the soul. Balls of flame sometimes do intricate little hidden works.

But the God who loves me can create in me anything and everything He desires. That's all I desire.

Because it is true. He is a God who loves me.

Monday, April 13, 2015

So, I Went on Retreat and Turned into a Baby

Last weekend I went on retreat with about 50 other Secular Carmelites in western PA, among them, eight others from my own community. In a way, I felt like I had just left that very retreat house, so strongly did last September's retreat resonate with me. That retreat was on St. Therese and her oblation to Divine Mercy. This retreat was on the weekend of Divine Mercy Sunday and was on the Little Way and the life of St. Therese in the context of St. Teresa's seven mansions. So in many ways the themes overlapped.

I wrote about my experiences of the last retreat here, here and here. My experience this time around had a different feel to it. God is always full of surprises. Lots of times I come into these things with handy spiritual road map download early on of all the choice blessings that await. I suppose I did with this one, too, except that the choice blessing awaiting me was that I was going to experience being a little baby. A little child. A child.


Those days in my life kind of sucked. But so the early-appearing road map read.

There's one really big difference about experiencing childhood as an adult: along with the tons of grace God provides because He planned the trip, He gets to use the adult faith and reasoning He's spent all these years forming. As servants.

Then come the emotions. And I wonder why in the world I am overwhelmed by things that normally never bother me. I wonder why I am going back to crusty old thought patterns. I wonder why am I making allowances for God to be an ogre.

Why? because buried deep inside there's a lie I've hidden away out of fear that it is true. And God's mercy is a misery-detector. He is drawn to our misery, even to the point of drawing it out of us when we allow an opening and He is ready to act. Like venom from a bite.

And His way apparently is to allow these wounded feelings that are connected to the lies to get stirred up. But He doesn't forcefully or magically just start sucking the venom out. This is where the faith and the reasoning He has formed in us get to do their things.

Feelings start puking, and you can't really hold it down. Reason has to look at this and see if there is anything concrete these feelings are telling me to deal with. The purpose of that is to identify the misery, to get a handle on it.

Then faith has to do two jobs: First, take the stuff to Jesus. It's plenty easy to shut down, turn in, self-soothe, and do anything but expose it to another, namely Jesus, or a priest in confession, or to externalize it somehow.

And an equally hard step is after detailing the misery (and remember we're talking the misery feelings of baby/childhood here, so yeah, grab a firm handful o' dat), to declare the truth to oneself in faith. Such as: true, I experienced real hurt and lack, but it is true that I am loved deeply by God. We have to use our faith to declare the truth, despite what we feel.

And then we have to go to that reality that faith declares: Go into that love of God, and receive the One who waits to pour out His mercy. Tell Him all about all of the misery. Tell Him you can't solve it. Tell Him every single thing you need mercy for, which is everything. Experience Him loving you. Right there with all the need, all the hurt. Experience Him being big enough to cover all of it. And stay there.

For me at least, it isn't possible to do all this spiritual work without at least a couple sobbing break-downs. But to meet God in that place after going through the spiritual obstacle course, well, to say it's worth it is just silly. God is immensely, incredibly, life-changingly generous, and He does these things for us over, and over, and over again.

Our pains seem big, but they can actually disappear into Him, because His mercy endures forever.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Little People

I was on retreat this weekend, and the retreat master closed the last conference with this poem. It perfectly sums up how we are called to holiness, especially following the Little Way of St. Therese.

Little People
by Fr. Elijah Joseph Cirigliano

Little people don't need honors. They know they are nothing and awards can't change that.
Little people hide in Mary's mantle. They need a mom.
Little people love the Church. They trust that Christ knew what He was doing.
Little people love the Eucharist. Of course they do, IT'S JESUS!
Little people don't try to understand everything. They're OK with not knowing stuff.
Little people make lots of mistakes. Big deal, what do you expect?
Little people crush the serpent's head. Of course they do, they belong to Mary!
Little people do God's will. They'd never think to do their own.
Little people are bold. They know their Daddy is the biggest.
Little people are peaceful. They know God can handle everything.
Little people are not attached to things. Just God.
Little people don't plan anything. They like surprises.
Little people are not jealous. They don't need to be better.
Little people don't always ask "why." They simply trust.
Little people love the cross. They know it is a gift from Jesus.
Little people are joyful. They know they are loved (infinitely).
Little people love. They disappear into the Hearts of Jesus and Mary.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Easter Frustrations

Perhaps because I am perennially optimistic, I think this is a good sign. Almost everywhere I look, everything I listen to within my Catholic circles (in which I include the inclinations of my own soul) I find frustrating and frustrated cries of cluelessness, for lack of a better way to phrase it. Oh, maybe it all boils down to my having eaten too much contraband food as we celebrate Easter and so my mood is all wonky, but on the other hand, maybe there actually is something out there that is groaning. Let me try to pull out a few examples.

This matter of celebration, for example. I've read a few comments about people wanting to celebrate the whole Easter season, or wanting other people to want to celebrate the whole season, but there goes that whole frustration thing. It's either "I don't know how" or "Why doesn't anyone get it?"

To this I say: mystagogy. It's what Easter is for. Today's gospel seemed to get right to the point. When we have real conversion and because of it, experience real joy, we need to drill down through it to understand more deeply our place in the story of salvation history and the meaning of what we have received. (Hint: it isn't about possession of warm fuzzies.) We also need to listen to Acts during Easter like an apprentice watches the work of the master. From this we learn what to expect as we move out into that meaning. But the liturgical cycle is all about appreciation of what we have and preparing for what is to come. And Pentecost comes later. And yes, of course we live all of it all the time, but the "cycle" part of it means we are always moving through, moving deeper.

And all of that is an aside, a really important aside, and I should probably put it in a different blog post, but this is really about frustrations, and I'm working out my own frustrations by writing, and WHOSE BLOG IS IT, anyway.

Did I mention that too much sugar and wheat aren't always good for my physio-emotional health?

Another thing I am aware of is Christians obsessing over liturgical details in various ways. Worship is super-duper important. But if we reduce Christian worship to liturgical style and rubrics, we are in big trouble. If we lose sight of Romans 12:1 worship, offering our bodies as living sacrifices, we are in trouble. We cannot offer worship to a God who is essentially a cultural icon or ideology.

And to this I say: kerygma! I have been studying the book of Acts with my daughter and yesterday was struck hard by Peter's preaching in Acts 10. I've read it who knows how many times, but when I read it yesterday I thought to myself, if one were to ask 95% of practicing Catholics what the core of the gospel is, how many, including myself, would be at a loss for exactly what to say? Love God and love people? Jesus died for you, so be nice? Obey the Church?

I know lots of Catholics who sincerely want to "tell the good news," but if we can't figure out what that is, well, no wonder we are as frustrated as hell. Are altar girls and communion in the hand really draining the Church of power? Do we need 20 new courses in how to do everything better? Frustration.

And if I want it to really get bad, all I have to do is look in my own life. From childhood I have sensed a yearning that if I was going to be a Christian, I would not be a play-Christian or a Mickey Mouse Christian. At one point I realized that I had sat in a church for some time without living faith, and I wondered if maybe there were others like that, and I felt deeply called to love this sort of person to life. If, you know, there were one or two others. The more I grow the more I realize I have nothing to give anyone that might spiritually help them, but God does, and He can give stuff through me. In fact, that's how He gives everything, just about. So now I'm becoming a Carmelite and I learn that the way I participate in this is by praying. Recently I had to answer a question about whether I am faithfully fulfilling my 30 minutes of prayer daily. I struggled with answering this question far more than I needed to, because I realized I was addressing it subjectively, as if the question were whether I feel I am praying 30 minutes a day. On the first hand, sometimes prayer really works and time flies and it hardly feels I am doing anything, so how can I count that? On the second hand, sometimes prayer walks or plods and feels so effort-laden, and how can I count that? And on the third hand, there are plenty of times that I simply sit before God and tell Him I haven't the foggiest idea what it means to pray, so how can I know if I'm doing it or not? I have a talent for making simple things very complicated. Frustration.

But other than not stressing and over-burdening my physio-emotional self with sugar, wheat, and caffeine, I guess it boils down to setting one's foot firmly on the path of faith, on the revelation of God, on the teachings of the spiritual masters I follow, and disregarding, sometimes, what it all feels like. And all those folks out there and their feelings. I mean, yes, we all get to have our feelings, and we all have to acknowledge them, but woe to us who are led by them. They do not determine how faithful we should be, how diligent we should be, how loving we should be, or what path we should take. Perseverance means that we keep going, regardless of what is going the other way or blowing in our faces.

Sometimes, frustration really is just a cry of "God, I want you!!" If frustration becomes an acknowledgment of our need and a cry for mercy that seeks contact with the God who is mercy, then fine. With patient endurance and openness to God, there's nothing to fear in frustration.

And now I suppose I'll go dig up my garden...

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Learning to Pray: Still, Yet, Again

I am learning. I'm not exactly sure of the chicken-egg sequence involved, but I am learning that when I have a question for the Lord about how to do what He's asked me to do, the question just might exist because He wants to teach me about it.

In general terms, the thrust of my prayer is always the conversion of souls. For years it has just seemed to me that there really isn't anything else that matters all that much. Yes, that could be argued, but basically it seems now that it is just indicative of personal vocation.

But in these days I have a specific situation for which I am praying for particular people, connected to a particular event at a particular time. And suddenly to simply say, "Lord, grant graces of conversion" just doesn't seem to cut it. Or rather, it stirs a deeper question in me: Lord, how do I pray? What is this, anyway?

And two answers come.

The first was a teaching, a fact, that I had previously taken in my head and heart as information, but struck me with a much more personal force today: "[T]he prayer of the Church is at the same time 'the prayer of Christ and his body to the Father.' We must recognize, therefore, as we celebrate the Office, our own voices echoing in Christ, his voice echoing in ours." (from the Apostolic Constitution on The Divine Office, 8.)

This refers specifically to praying the Liturgy of the Hours, but it highlights some truths about prayer. When we pray with the Church, and hence when we pray with Scripture, it is not our will or our heart we pray, but God's. And when we voice human misery in this context (as we do so often in the Psalms), we don't do it on our personal behalf, but on behalf of God's people. We are literally praying for the people, saying the words of God confessing human misery for those who may or may not be calling out to God on behalf of their own misery.

Turning that same truth over, there's this facet to highlight: God desperately wants to pour Himself out in mercy over our misery. He wants to enfold His people with His healing love, and He will, in response to His Church calling out to Him. Now I see why it is such an honor to pray the Liturgy of the Hours: to lift the voice of the Church before God calls down, as St. Therese saw it, the love pent up in the heart of God for lack of someone asking for it to be unleashed.

The second answer was a reminder of a truth God has put a lot of energy into my getting: the power of a daily offering scooping up all of our work during the day, offering it to Him for the salvation of souls, with an ever watchful eye on acting with love for God and love for the people in my life that I serve. The fact that this strikes me has a lot to do with how my mind was war turf for years over the doctrine of total depravity and whether human action have any worth before God at all. But it is true: the Holy Spirit does indeed flow through us by grace in our souls through our actions, even our attitudes. And so we can indeed offer that flow as prayer for souls. This is why, for example, saints tell us that for the love of God we occasionally (or more than occasionally, depending on our vocation and circumstances) need to leave our prayer to serve the people who come to us. Moms usually get this. But to be honest, everything about this offering-of-actions facet of spiritual life I've had to learn like a second language due to my early formation.

Pray and work. Offer it up. Pray God's word.

Pithy sayings like this generally do nothing for me to actually teach me. But they encapsulate truth. Naru hodo.