Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Gospel Is Not Complicated; I Am

I've been thinking a lot lately about this image of undoing knots. I've often told my son about how one of Mary's titles is Our Lady Undoer of Knots as I am trying to tease apart his shoelaces that seem to have fused together. Or to my daughter, when she brings me her wad of tangled necklaces. There is something about knots that makes us want to give up in frustration and bring it to someone else and wait for it to be solved. Knots are baffling and seem impossible.

About 20 years ago or so, when I prayed I often had this sense that my life was tied up in knots -- that I had all sorts of internal complications. I say I had a sense of it because I could feel the mess, but I couldn't see how I was perpetuating it.

But recently, especially as I've been reading the book I referred to about the Little Way of St. Therese, Everything is Grace, I've been understanding both how I had gotten all knotted up, and what it looks like for me to be unknotted.

The process could start with, say, a comment made to me about someone else. Maybe this comment reveals or reminds me of a weakness in that person. The knot might start to form as my soul gloms on to that information, and I turn it over in my mind, I delight in that weakness, I relive everything that person has ever done that upset me, and then everything that has upset me in the concentric circles rippling out from that person (to the larger group, or everyone of "that type of person"). I go off on getting very upset at all these memories for several days or a few weeks. Then I feel remorse, or exhaustion, or depression, and I fling myself at God (whom I now blame for putting me in the whole situation in the first place), and I agonize over why He doesn't seem to love me enough to give me the type of people I really need to be happy. This lasts a good long time. In the meantime, I cry and moan to friends at church, ask them to pray for me, and sob over why I am so unloved. Then, to fix myself, I decide to strenuously study the Bible on a certain topic of God's love, and I fill pages and pages with notes. I am sure that if I study enough, I will get a breakthrough in my understanding and I will be able to believe God loves me. I sing, I pray, and I try very hard to analyze every thought I have about all of my issues. I might even force myself to do something spiritual for the person or group of people I had gotten upset about. I might decide I am called to join their ministry or volunteer for their group, or whatever. Because I am determined to press through and not have a problem with them anymore.

In the meantime, I can't figure out why I'm anxious, tired, frustrated, unfulfilled and terribly unsure about what God really wants for me. And I'm completely and totally in a knot. I couldn't discern God's will if it came and bit me on the nose because I am dreadfully busy making froth.

Now, for the unknotted life. I start with the same circumstance. I learn a piece of info that reminds me of a weakness of a person I've had a problem with, and I find some delight in it.

I take that to God and I say, "Lord, I am so weak. I'm finding delight in this meaningless little piece of info. Bless her. Help me."

What I have there are two strings that are a little bent, but they are not a knot. And instead of wearing myself out with 1,000 self-improvement programs that bear no fruit and only wear me out because they are all of the flesh, I accept that I'm bent and I have proclivities that aren't good. I know it, and I know God knows it, and He's ready to help me with His mercy.

My pastor is fond of reminding me that the gospel is simple. That's true. But it is immensely difficult for a proud person to accept and live by simple things. My pride wants to be fed with attachments, praise, and always wonderful results. Jesus' gospel tells me to seek the kingdom of God, not the goods of earth, the attention of people or feelings of power. The directive "forsake those things; choose God" is simple, but doing it crushes the proud soul. And thereby relieves from it its burden of sin.

The gospel really is simple. I, on the other hand, am not.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

How in the World Did I Get Here?

Do you ever have one of those moments where reality flashes before you (in a good way) and you ask yourself "How in the world did I get here?"

I had one of those this morning.

The question is rhetorical, because of course I know how I got there. I was standing in a packed church, about to lead a team of several instruments and singers and the entire congregation in worship of God at Mass. I had a late start to the early morning, wasn't as practiced as I'd like to have been, was using a new-to-me guitar and a sound system, and normally I lead at less complicated daily Masses. That moment, as my pastor announced the end of greetings and beginning of Mass, was not the moment to ponder my rhetorical question! It was the time to trust that everything the Lord had worked into me over the last several years would be extractable by the same Lord, despite my feelings of the moment.

But the question is really a moment of awe at God's work. Later I was remembering how one Sunday seven years ago I stood at the podium, nervously preparing simply to cantor for the first time at my parish. And how Joe the organist told me, "You seem nervous. Well, don't be." And how I thought to myself, "Who do you think you are, the Son of God, that you can just tell me to be calm and expect it to happen?!"

That was really the first of several prophetic messages (words from God mediated through human speech and experiences) that began to shape my inner being according to a call from God to learn how to teach people to worship, that was itself a prophetic message to me several decades ago.

Nervousness and insecurity are parts of expecting something from one's own natural ability. I imagine that everyone needs to work through that stuff; I know for sure I have. Time, practice, and experience can reduce some of that, but there also needs to be the spiritual progress of submitting one's natural abilities to God for Him to work through -- or to completely set aside! I went through a short time (for complicated "people" reasons) of being barred from music ministry. It ripped my heart out, but it also drove home right quick that I had no "right" to serve. After that burp of my life passed, each time I approached the ambo to cantor and I bowed before the tabernacle, my heart offered sincere thanks for this gift of being able to lead the congregation in praising God.

And you know what else is funny? When I lead worship, I play guitar. I do believe and accept what the Church says about organ having pride of place, and that is also my preference. And I am not what you would call an excellent guitarist. I have one, very narrow strip of expertise, and that is playing rhythm guitar for church music. When I do that, I can truly worship God and more importantly I can rouse others to worship God. Before leading any music for Mass I always pray that God would draw all hearts present to enter into true, self-giving worship of Him. It humbles me to realize that I am really a second string church musician, and that many Catholics would turn up their noses at the music I play. But when a woman approached us after Mass today to comment that a song we played lifted the congregation's hearts right up to God, I was pleased, knowing our mission was successful.

God has called me, formed me, trained me, tested me. And that's how in the world I got there. Thanks be to God. It's kinda awesome.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

God Gives me the Desire of my Heart; I Whine a Little

It seems that God knows better than to talk to me about prices when we are out shopping.

Ok, yes, that's a bit weird. I don't mean shopping, I mean praying. When I'm expressing my desires to Him. He is wiser than to let me know what the cost is of anything I want. Really, though, He knows (because I've told Him over and over again) that I'm carte blanc-willing towards Him. He can have, ask, require anything of me. He knows what I'm made of, and I'm not worried about Him asking for something He's not able to get from me, since it sorta all comes from Him in the first place, right?

But even with the carte blanc thing, I realize that when I go to wanting something, He doesn't generally let on about how much it will cost.

And I've noticed another funny thing. I can really, sorely, desperately want certain things from God, like achingly so, and then when He gives them to me, I'm not really sure I want them. Or at best, I go gee, thanks. At first at least. I barely know the value of anything. At first at least.

I was thinking of all this in the context of a memory of one of those sorely desperate prayers to God, in which for emphasis, I banged a book on my knee and said it all out loud. Way back when, I wrote a blog post about it called In Which She Admits That Which Brings Freedom. The thing that I yelled out as I prayed was "I want this freedom! I need this freedom! I have got to have this freedom!"

Read the blog post to get the context. In classic me style, it took me tons of paragraphs to say that my freedom comes in admitting that I love my friends.

But I tell you what: Today was the day. Today was the day that I found this reality in me. I have that freedom I longed for and over which banged the book on my lap.

The love I am talking about comes with detachment. A love not rooted in possessiveness, and all the anxiety and fear that comes with it. Detachment was the price tag I was clueless about at the time. I struggled to even mouth the word love; you could forget any hope of me loving freely. God knew that I wanted this more than I wanted comfort, even though I sure didn't know how much discomfort I was in for. The good thing is, what I failed to grasp in the days I was kicking and screaming, He allowed me to take a second shot at with a more willing and trusting heart later on. God is patient and awesome like that.

I'm writing about this to formulate thankful thoughts and to remember my earnestness, because I admit that my response today was, you know Lord, is this really going to be good? I mean, peace and freedom are great, but wasn't there something actually pleasant about anxious bondage? See, sometimes I need to put these things into words to catch myself being ridiculous.

The more graces God gives me, the more I realize that His gifts are really cool and they are absolutely not connatural to me!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Vocation: the Call of God

The Scriptures the liturgy proposes to us today focus on the call of God. There is the boy, Samuel, whom God calls but who does not recognize at first that it is indeed God. There is the experience of Andrew and John as John the Baptist points out Jesus to them, and they go after Him. There is the teaching from St. Paul about how to honor God with our bodies and our deepest selves.

When I heard all of this today, I was reminded of what we read in our family devotion last night from Oswald Chambers. It was such a clear exposition of the Catholic concept of vocation, and yet it was so strikingly different from most of what I've heard actual Catholic people say about the subject. It really speaks clarity into the existential confusion that I think is present in the hearts of many Catholics who really want to do God's will. And so, I'll quote here, generously:

The call of God is not a call to serve Him in any particular way. My contact with the nature of God will shape my understanding of His call and will help me realize what I truly desire to do for Him. The call of God is an expression of His nature; the service which results in my life is suited to me and is an expression of my nature...

Service is the overflow which pours a life filled with love and devotion. But strictly speaking, there is no call to that. Service is what I bring to the relationship and is the reflection of my identification with the nature of God. Service becomes a natural part of my life. God brings me into proper relationship with Himself so that I can understand His call, and then I serve Him on my own out of a motivation of absolute love. Service to God is the deliberate love-gift of a nature that has heard the call of God. Service is an expression of my nature, and God's call is an expression of His nature. Therefore, when I receive His nature and hear His call, His divine voice resounds throughout His nature and mine and the two become one in service. The Son of God reveals Himself in me, and out of devotion to Him service becomes my everyday way of life.

--- from My Utmost for His Highest, Oswald Chambers, "The Call of the Natural Life," entry for January 17.
The account of Samuel teaches us that we have to learn to know God's nature, presence, and ways, and we have to know ourselves. Part of knowing ourselves is being in relationship with others, because we all have a certain social dimension of our natures that isn't activated apart from the relational aspect of reality. And it seems that part of how God teaches us about Himself and ourselves is that He allows us to be mistaken for a time. It purifies us. God called; Samuel answered Eli. Samuel was mistaken, but clearly Samuel had a natural and healthy attachment going with Eli, so going to Eli was the clearest, most logical way for Samuel to respond to God. The second time God called, Samuel could have ignored Him, or responded in fear or mistrust about bothering Eli again. But the call prompted enough urgency for Samuel to try his best to figure out what was being asked of him. (This is Samuel learning who he is.) By this time, Eli is probably a tad frustrated, because he is mixed up in something that doesn't seem to have a thing to do with him, and maybe he just wants a peaceful night's sleep. The third time, Samuel has to really want badly enough to remain in integrity. He knows something is happening, but he doesn't really get it, and the one he relies on as his guiding companion seems clueless and maybe irritated. So he really needs courage this time to keep trying his best. This is the essence of discernment. Something is urging me; but I don't get it, and neither does my companion. So, I'll keep pursuing an answer by seeking with my actions.

And then Samuel gets direction. Maybe this comes because Eli is irritated enough to stop thinking only about his desire to sleep. He understands that his young charge needs help. So, he gives direction, and then goes back to sleep. And God takes that moment to reward Samuel's courage and humility, and the path of Samuel's vocation opens out before him. All the seeds present in this reading grow to full stature in the rest of the Scriptural accounts of Samuel's life.

Sure, if I heard God's voice calling me, telling me what to do, it would be so easy, you might say. But in reality the fact that God exists, when you really think about it, is also the fact that I am called. God is the Creator; I am the creature. God made me; I am His. I find my real self by knowing Him. I not only owe God my service out of the justice of giving God what is His due, I also seek my own highest good (and so "owe it to myself," if you will) to give my utmost for His highest (to borrow Chambers' title). It's just a matter of figuring out what really fits my nature, or another way to put it is to notice what is in my hand to give.

It is goofiness to wait for some angelic visitation to direct me. Actually, it is a bad case of insecurity: about myself, or God's reality or His love for me, or all of the above. It is a bad case of seeing myself as an object that God uses rather than a person God loves. It is a bad case of envisioning myself as a slave instead of a son. Or it is a bad case of never having heard the explicit gospel call to leave the things, the attractions of the world, the baubles, the power-lust, and to bring instead your real treasure which is your heart, and to follow Christ.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Where There is no Love, Put Love; and so Draw Out Love

St. John of the Cross famously said, "Where there is no love, put love, and you will draw out love."

I've learned something about this maxim. It involves a leap of faith and moments of something between awkwardness and crucifixion. There's also often a bonus feature of purification involved for the lover.

There's a situation in which I learned some of this almost by mistake. Several times a month I frequent a certain business in town, and I interact with a rotating but small group of employees. One day I approached the employee du jour in the effervescent manner that I tend to reserve for those few moments a day when I am interacting with strangers. I chatted to said employee happily about something or another, animatedly paid for my business, wished her well, and left. And all the while she stared at me, expressionless and business-like.

I left, feeling ever-so-slightly awkward. Because there is something disconcerting to me about using my little bit of effervescence and watching it be met in that stoney way.

But a funny thing happened when several weeks later I was there again, with the same woman. By now I was realizing she is simply reserved, and reserved people are often mistaken for being grumpy in general or upset with given individuals. But this new day on which I approached her, she made a welcoming gesture and spoke in not exactly a bubbly way, but in a comfortable and friendly way. And I realized that almost by mistake, I proved St. John's maxim true: when you invest with love, you will find love available to draw back out.

We all just need help in different ways and to different degrees.

There's also that moment where one's motives in loving are treated as suspicious, when a soul is not able to trust for whatever reasons. I am reminded of the sorts of people who insist on hugging people at a greeting (when it isn't culturally mandated). While this may please that person's sense of herself as loving, it does not always respect the sense of the person who may not be interested in or open to that hug. There is little that is more distressing to a loving heart than watching a gesture of love be rejected, but God does this with us all the time. His offers of love are rejected and ignored by His own children over and over. He insists our love response be free, and so He does not force His way. But He does wait for that cracking open of our hearts, that moment of vulnerability we offer His love.

If we go about with acts of love like children who throw leaves or flowers into a stream, enjoying the flinging part and not too concerned with the where-they-end-up part, God can do many things. With a morning offering prayer, we make each day like a handful of these leaves or flowers. We can present God with the normal sorts of human means He likes to use to bring His supernatural graces to hearts that are dying for His touch.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Praying for What I Want

Today I was at a prayer group meeting, a really beautiful, honest, candid time of sharing needs and interceding.

And while we were doing that, I was struck by something. Fortunately it was not a truck. Just an insight.

Souls long for heaven. All of them. Or I should say, all of our longings and desires are about our longing for heaven. We all have that God-shaped void within us and whether we are aware of it or not, we seek the fulfillment of that void.

That's not to say that everything we desire is capable of fulfilling us. I'd venture to say that most of what we desire is clearly incapable of the task. Some of what we seek does a great deal of harm to ourselves and to others whom our lives touch. Some of what we seek is a desperate attempt to deaden a sense of longing. All this longing-for-stuff business requires enormous energy from us, and deadening this is a less obvious way we do a great deal of harm to ourselves and others.

But then there is a sort of longing that we get caught up in, I think, because it feels so holy. This can be when we long for someone's conversion. We long for people to be healed, to have their lives turned around, to even get turned on to the realization that there is more to life than they realize. We long for change in other people.

That feels really holy. But I know from experience it is possible that this really masks other things, such as: Lord, I really just want my life to be easier. I'm afraid of pain, and I want it to stop. If she were different, I would feel vindicated. If he loved God, I would feel more loved, too. If they were converted, I wouldn't have to trust You so much about this other thing. If everyone around me were holy, I would be free from the cross.

These longings can really be about our comfort and ease.

And these are not bad things. But neither are they God.

When we pray, Jesus taught us to seek God first. To set our hearts straight onto Him. What is heaven after all, but living in union with God and being in His presence? This is the ultimate desire of the human heart.

We have to pray from where we live, and while we live apart from heaven we have to pray like it. God wants us to make all of our requests known to Him, not because He is unaware, but because sharing between friends from the heart is how communion is established. So I would never advise anyone to stop praying simply because their prayer aims too low. We need to wrestle with what is in our hearts, verbalize it, be honest with ourselves and God. And after we do all that, we need to stay aware of the One with whom we are speaking by being silent, building a silent part into our lives, and giving Him time and space to respond to us.

And when He starts telling us about His longings for us, our desires will start to change.

Monday, January 05, 2015

Prejudice Uprooted Before my Very Nose

I have a late night Eucharistic adoration hour. I love it. There is something about consciousness at that hour that makes everything seem a bit sharper and a bit more profound than normal. And it's farther away from the point in the day when I am all about keeping life under my control as a homeschooling Mom and household manager.

So it was in the wee hours of this morning when I was in the chapel, praying Morning Prayer. I normally pause to include my list of people and situations for whom I regularly intercede right after the intercessions printed for the day. This morning, the intercessions included the following: "root out the prejudices which erode the depths of our humanity."

And right then and there it dawned on me that rather than generically praying these intentions for the world, I needed to pray them specifically for myself and also for my list of people and groups for whom I pray.

And then I looked up at the clock, the entire hour had flown by, and my replacement was due any moment. This was a new gent starting that time slot, and I'd never met him before. When he came in, I was struck with one thing: he smelled like cigarette smoke. But I was also struck by the fact that this one fact suddenly stood alone. Why? I was suddenly aware of a hidden prejudice I'd had, based on the whole concept of olfactory memory and all those things our primitive brains store away and kick into to our less-than-rational thought processes. People who carried that kind of smell about them triggered associations for me of addicts and the mentally ill, and so triggered feelings of danger, of fright, of the need to recoil into myself. And time was, I secured myself against these feelings with heavy layers of prideful judgment as well, to make sure The Boogie Man kept far away from me. But suddenly, all of that was clear to me. And I realized that I really new about this new person is that he smelled like smoke. And all I really thought was that it was nice to meet my new replacement.

Seems a very subtle thing, but at 3am it also is easier to see answers to prayer.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

And This is Why I Love Epiphany

God frequently seems to use the liturgy and liturgical feasts to teach me personal things. Sometimes the nature of how this works is that something significant will happen in conjunction with a liturgical celebration of a feast day, but the significance of it will only dawn on me several years down the road. My initial conversion to Catholicism at a Christmas Eve midnight Mass is the most obvious example.

And another such thing is connected to the Epiphany.

The liturgy of the hours for Epiphany preserves the tradition that it has, in the past, encompassed the Visit of the Magi, the Baptism of Jesus, and the Wedding at Cana: the Illuminatio, Manifestatio, and Declaratio. The message is clear: Jesus is on the scene with power and He's changing things.

It took me quite a long time to realize how that applied to this thing that happened to me six years ago tomorrow, on Epiphany Sunday.

That would have been one of those moments that if I had been able to see into the future, I probably would have turned and run away as fast as I could.

I'm glad I didn't. I think.

No, no: I'm sure. And I have the scars to prove it. 

It had been a quiet life for Jesus, Mary and Joseph (as long has he lasted) until the time of Jesus' public manifestation and His first miracle. I can only imagine Mary's heart at the moment when she knew it was time for Him to move on. We make a lot of her request that moved Him to His first public miracle. I'm convinced it was not a giddy moment for her, but one of surrender to the Father. Her statement "Do whatever He tells you," besides the other volumes it speaks, I believe was her fiat to the Messiah's mission which any student of the prophecies must have known would lead to His death.

The rest of us see these glory moments and think Cool! Dude, I want in on this! She realizes that the glory of God comes at the price of suffering and death. Which hearkens back to celebrating martyrs right smack after Christmas Day. Did the Church make some awful blunder in scheduling St. Stephen and the Holy Innocents? Of course not. We make the blunder in forgetting that Christmas flows into Epiphany which flows into Lent which flows into Holy Week, Easter, Ascension and Pentecost. Jesus' birth is the beginning of the pascal mystery.

Christmas is often presented as a sugar-coated fairy tale. But God is born into a world where there is also a great deal of suffering and misery. -- Pope Francis 

And God came to live that suffering and misery with us, as one of us.

And, you know, in my book, when there's suffering and misery and God shows up, that suffering and misery suddenly get changed. Where God is, there is delight. Even when the glory points to a cross, which points to glory.

Funny. Seems like I wandered far away from the purpose I started writing with, which was to remember that Epiphany six years ago when God used the liturgy to show me something I didn't understand yet.

But this is how it works. And that's all I've been talking about.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Powerful Moment: Love Without Violence

A few days before Christmas, I came across this video (if the video doesn't appear, you can try hovering over "Post," or click it, but then come on back):

This little two minute video has been like a needle visiting my life and leaving me with a pretty little patch of embroidery on my soul. That's a weird metaphor, but it is about that astounding. It isn't like it struck me, like a huge light bulb/naru hodo moment. It was as if hearing these words from this Brother left something in me that is tangible. Confirmed in me something I've heard and learned. It's like I heard this, and my soul, or Jesus in my soul proclaimed a Great Amen, and something has changed.

And in two minutes!

Love, in the gospel sense, is a love without violence, especially violence to oneself. That's the punchline.

I am certain that I need to soak in this before I can articulate much about the wonder that surrounds it, in my line of vision. But my raw stab at it goes like this: Basically I've done the same thing he said Therese did. Except I have a distinct feeling I was much more violent at it than she. Pride, perfectionism, measuring up to self-imposed standards, and other assorted crud has all resulted in a long, hard streak of doing violence to myself. And I've always done it under a twisted pretext of it being good, right, and admirable. And it's not! It's really, really not!

This stitching, this Great Amen, this whatever-it-is, is like a peace I've never known before. I really am so little. I really am called and cared for by One who is So Great.

And at the same time, I've been reading the account of the martyrdom of sixteen Carmelites during the French revolution, and have been inspired by them and their embrace of the call to martyrdom, which is the ultimate expression of the call to worship -- a call (worship) which I recognize as my own. There's more to say about that, but it is as if being freed from doing violence to myself is being freed to die to myself. Because it is about grace, not effort. God's gift, not my performance.

I will shortly be ordering Br. Schmidt's book Everything is Grace.

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Redemption of Fantasy Addiction

Here is another quote that struck me recently:

"Just imagine what Mary was actually saying in the words, 'I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let what you have said be done to me' (Luke 1:38). She was saying, 'I don't know what this all means, but I trust that good things will happen.'
"She trusted so deeply that her waiting was open to all possibilities. And she did not want to control them. She believed that when she listened carefully, she could trust what was going to happen.
"To wait open-endedly is an enormously radical attitude toward life. So is to trust that something will happen to us that is far beyond our own imaginings. So, too, is giving up control over our future and letting God define our life, trusting that God molds us according to God's love and not according to our fear.
"The spiritual life is a life in which we wait, actively present to the moment, trusting that new things will happen to us, new things that are far beyond our own imagination, fantasy, or prediction. That, indeed, is a very radical stance toward life in a world preoccupied with control."
---Henri Nouwen, from "A Spirituality of Waiting: Being Alert to God's Presence in Our Lives", Weavings, January 1987
What struck me about this is this matter of our imaginings:  "The spiritual life is a life in which we wait, actively present to the moment, trusting that new things will happen to us, new things that are far beyond our own imagination, fantasy, or prediction."

I live a very interior life by personality. As with all personality types, this means I lean toward specific strengths and weaknesses. And certain weaknesses can lend themselves towards even addictions and interior pathologies. I have had my own experience of this when it comes to the life of my mind. From a very young age, I learned that I could escape emotional pain by constructing an imaginary world that eliminated problems I could not change and provided saviors I otherwise did  not experience. This is a coping mechanism, a self-generated sort of mercy that serves a frightened child. But addiction arises when no other mercy emerges to move a soul from "coping with" to "dealing with." Mix in layers of religious ideas in accretion to this basic coping addiction. Compound it with a strong intellectual bent and a weak social bent. Yeah, you have a mess.

Among other things, one ends up with elaborate mental constructs about God that don't so much take the reality of a personal God into account, while never denying Him and while in fact crying out to Him regularly in desperation. One also ends up with severely contorted and intensely felt passions about other people and what they could and could not, or would and would not do for one. It is like living in a completely invisible but completely impenetrable bubble of Saran wrap, blocking a vital connection with reality.

And I lived this, on varying levels, for many years of my life.

Today it is easy for me to look back and see the work God has done in freeing me of all this. It was  during a most painful spiritual trial, when God seemed farthest from my cries, that I became aware of a distinct lack. It's hard to put into words, but that old place where one version of this coping mechanism had always kicked in was as if a lump I had had all my life on my arm or my leg was suddenly not there. I could feel its absence. And thinking about it couldn't make it come back. It was astounding. It was this kind of indisputable interior evidence that showed me God was active in me profoundly even though I otherwise felt like I was breaking apart.

But back to the quote, which reminded me of something I've blogged about before in this post called We are Saved in Community. It was a dream that I had which became part of the interior "catechesis" God gave me during the time I was becoming a Catholic (when I had really no human being to reliably teach me). In this dream, a voice asked me what I would like to eat, and I asked for a slice of pizza. "Is that all? Just a piece of pizza?" The voice seemed to want to stretch my imagination a bit. So I thought about it and changed my request to a whole pizza: large, and with lots of toppings. See, I was working my interior fantasy thing to its limit, to the wildest desire for myself that I could muster. But then in the dream, the voice seemed a bit disappointed with "my wildest," and asked me if I was going to insist that it had to be that. "No," I tentatively answered, but I was confused, because the voice seemed to want to know what I wanted. Why did you ask if you didn't want to hear my idea, I thought. Then in the dream my grandfather appeared carrying a huge container of homemade beef stew, and suddenly I was aware of an enormous banquet table set for many and stocked with all manner of delicious and lovingly made homemade food.

Now the point of what I learned from this, and the point of which this quote reminded me is that God actually is interested in my being aware of my imagination, my fantasy, my desires, my predictions, my earth-bound desires simply so that I can understand how tremendously transcendent and enormously good He is. So that I can begin to comprehend how far beyond my comprehension His love for me runs. How wide, how long, how high, how deep is the love of God. How far beyond my puny human power of desire His ability to fulfill me goes.

Sometimes my tendency is to waste a lot of energy on condemnation of what my mind dreams up to express my desires in life. But Nouwen here teaches me that my attitude should not be condemnation but surrender. I'm really not wedded to my request for a piece of pizza! But God wants to rouse my longings for what He knows will truly satisfy me. God is Reality; the mental world I wanted to construct was a feeble cry for Him to save me. 
And now I see He is here. He longs for my cry, and He personally steps in to save me.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Loneliness and Christian Emptiness

Earlier this week, I came across this quote which speaks volumes to me:

God looked over the world for an empty heart -- but not a lonely heart -- a heart that was empty like a flute on which He might pipe a tune -- not lonely like an empty abyss, which is filled by death. And the emptiest heart He could find was the heart of a Lady. Since there was no self there, He filled it with His very Self.
~ Fulton Sheen, The World's First Love: Mary Mother of God
In a manner of speaking, one of God's goals for us is for us to become empty. This emptiness, of course, has to be understood, as Sheen's sense has it, in the Carmelite way. Empty means ready. Empty implies availability, and it implies purpose and community. One is available for something, or rather for Someone.

It speaks, of course, to the scene of Joseph and Mary journeying to Bethlehem, looking for available space where Jesus might be born. Is my house, am I, available? Not much is made of this in Scripture, but much has been made of it in meditations such as the custom of Las Posadas

The enemy of this kind of emptiness is loneliness. When I read this, the naru hodo alarm rang within me as my personal history instantly shot up multiple instances of proof of this. Oh my goodness how my nature has recoiled from self-emptying for fear of loneliness, of that sense of being left out of the life-stream that certainly everyone else was deeply enjoying. The voices that speak contrary to truth: the world, the flesh and the devil, scream that I must have things, people, experiences that fill me, things I can possess, things I must hold on to to stay afloat. For certainly life revolves around something I don't have but need, or something I don't have enough of, or something I might lose, or something someone else controls and I have to posture myself in order to receive. Certainly without having, I am nothing.


Um, no.

In the midst of frantic craving I lose sight of reality. Reality is that the God of the universe, the Blessed Trinity, created me for a purpose. My purpose is to love and worship God in a holy communion of persons. I worship God as I lay down my life, as I empty myself and empty from myself all lesser pursuits.

I do this not because I am a masochist and don't believe in or want good things for myself. It is not Christian to understand "empty" in the sense of "denude." I do this out of great faith in the One who reciprocates my emptiness with Himself. The availability we offer to God is always for communion. God's ultimate goal for us is union with Him, not for us to become simply a great void. As I relinquish my obsessive self-factor I see that God loves, gives, and is deeply merciful in response to enter into human misery and to be, literally, God-with-us.

To break it down and make it real simple: faith in Jesus calls me to abandon everything to Him in love. I long to be empty, I agree to be emptied, I move towards emptiness because I know, love, and trust in the One who fills. And that infilling is what every smidgeon of my being longs for.

Oh yeah, there might be long, painful gaps where there are no blissful feelings. Stuff of earth feels useless and the bliss of heaven is nowhere. You experience loss, dependencies will be broken, and temporal security will be shaken.

But I believe and trust in the promise -- no, in the One who made the promise. He is faithful. He is true. I love Him; He calls me. To wait for such a One in emptiness is not the death-filled abyss of loneliness. It is the strengthening and deepening of love. It is worth giving your life for. In fact, it is the only thing worth giving your life for.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Hope, Heaven, "Epiphanic Pointers"

I value words highly. I especially value words that are able to convey something that is deeply meaningful to me. Sometimes I'm not able to pull it off myself, but I find someone else who has. That's when I post quotes.

"Hope is the virtue that prevents us from setting our hearts on this world as the final aim of living. Knowing how much more awaits us in the life to come, we shed all clothing that would kill or erode this hope. Thus we learn the greatest lesson of Christian commitment: how to live in this world in service to God while at the same time rising above the things of the world (cf. John 15:19). I mean things insofar as they are seen as merely worldly rather than as epiphanic pointers to the Most High. We thus comprehend what it means from experience what it means to care for the persons, situations, and things entrusted to us by God without tarnishing our green veneer of hope for the home He has prepared for us from the beginning."

Susan Muto, St. John of the Cross for Today: The Dark Night, p. 277, emphasis mine.
 I have waited years to come upon this phrase: epiphanic pointers. Yes. 

Sunday, December 14, 2014

When Weirdness Gives Way to Delight

This has been a strange Advent for me thus far. But if ever I have known a peace that surpasses understanding and a joy that makes no earthly-calculable sense, now would be it. My heart is so full of a peaceful gratitude that I just have to write about it.

There is something about following the Lord's lead. It grieves; it consoles. It confuses; it gives clarity. It takes things away; it gives everything. The path is dark, but it gives light. I feel heavy, but He gives freedom. The more I follow, the less I understand where I am going, but the more sure I am. I want to say everything to explain, but words fail (multi-dimensionally); and something deeper than words germinates.

All I can say is that I am so grateful to God for my life and His call to me to Carmel. Today is the feast of St. John of the Cross, my spiritual father. His words almost always embody to me exactly the state in which I find myself tonight. He is all about renunciation, detachment, penance, and self-emptying. And yet I find such joy in his words. It's the type of joy that makes me want to embrace my own soul, this dwelling place of God, and exclaim that indeed, something makes my life make sense. A human being is actually able to convey to me that my life makes sense. It is the opposite of the feeling of alienation, disorientation, self-loathing, and mistrust. From the first time I met St. John and St. Teresa of Avila when I was in college, this has been the affect these saints have had on me.  And a few years ago it was like St. John of the Cross seemed to seek me out to explain what I deeply needed to understand about where my life was going. I can't find adequate words to describe the delight this gives me. For someone with an intellectual bent like me, there is a strong temptation to view life at its core as absurd and meaningless. This is the joyful dance of knowing that to be a lie -- and that another human being is an instrument of that certainty, which can only come from God.

Jesus said to His disciples: "Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? Or what can one give in exchange for his soul?" (Mt. 16:24-26)

Friday, December 12, 2014

Intercession Evolution

This morning at Mass something prompted me to think about the path on which God has led me in learning to intercede for others.

There was a time when I did a whole lot more thinking than praying, and most of that thinking centered on myself, even though one could term it "thinking about God".

The Lord had to catch my attention before He could shift it, and in my case He did this by making me feel my needs and then by meeting them through other people. And after this, I began to feel the urgent need to pray for others.

Sometimes this felt need was extremely intense, and it seemed I could not escape it. I could not turn my heart to any kind of prayer at all without feeling this compelling need to pray for one or another specific person, or for some collective of people.

Out of this compelling felt need, I developed a discipline of daily prayer with this intercessory component. In other words, the need I felt to intercede overcame my natural haphazard, start-again-stop-again approach to everything in life. Where I once mostly lounged and lazed around in my general thoughts about God, His will and His ways, I was now steadily walking in prayer.

It is said that you can never remain angry at anyone for whom you pray. But there can be dangers as well as blessings in interceding. It is possible (ask me how I know... no, don't) to start to feel the good one is praying for to become one's project, one's possession, one's attachment. And as soon as a soul wants anything other than God, there is a need for purification in that soul. The way God led me when this happened was first to call me to penance. The penance followed the pattern of a compelling sense of my need to do this at first, and then a discipline. At first it seemed to me the process was mostly about penance I was offering for the good of others, but in due time I realized how much I needed it to purge me.

But there came a deeper purging, too, because the need for purification really goes deep. In this step, it seemed I simply could not deny that God knows through and through every desire I'd ever presented to Him. I had asked Him repeatedly, I knew He heard, and I was not seeing much if anything of the outcomes I had desired. But regardless of how intently God Himself seemed to beckon me earlier to pray, now it seemed God was simply saying, "Shhh. You, come to me."

Can I just say yes? Can I let go of ever seeing results? Can I realize that God's ultimate desire for me is that I grow in union with Him? Can I want that more than I want to see thousands of people exhibit tangible and measurable characteristics of conversion? I say I want to see the Lord Jesus be loved deeply by many, but it seems the Lord is content that I concern myself with my response to Him instead of theirs. Do I pray and intercede so that I feel or look powerful, or do I pray that I may know Love and hide in Him? How in the world do I reckon myself so terribly small that I really and honestly want nothing at all but God?

This, like everything else, is only a work of God's grace. It's utterly impossible for me. Just like causing my own existence, or sustaining the universe, or planning salvation, or creating a world-wide family of communion. Just like all the other things God gratuitously does for me and for all of us.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Insecurity, Conformity, Freedom

Our Lord has a way of coming on pretty strong sometimes. Don't know how else to put it. It's been one of those times of late. It is actually very much like having a rushing wind come blow through, because things that don't normally move or that I don't normally have to think about start fluttering and flying all over. Uncontrollable movement. And sometimes, all I can do is say, "Wow, look at that thing flying around!" It's one thing when it's a Styrofoam cup (like the one my daughter and I saw blow down the street today), and it's another thing altogether when it is something you thought your internal security was directly connected to.

But regardless, the net result is that stuff gets moved around and I'm left looking at it all.

And in this blowing, one of the more discussable things I have found tipped over is a blechy residue of conformity.

I think at heart I have always been a non-conformist in the sense that I have little natural inclination to look at others to figure out what I should do. I've never been one to try to blend in or match others, especially when the issue is the basic question "Who am I?".

Conformity, to me, seems to have roots in insecurity. I see insecurity working in two different dimensions: personal and social insecurity. My personal security is pretty strong by my temperament. I don't naturally have a lot of social security, but I have been through a lot of things the hard way and have developed my social security muscles that way.

It is, though, in social or relational settings that I am most vulnerable. And what this wind has made me realize is that I have areas where I have been controlled by my fear of others' judgments. I have felt there are certain things I must do because I want to be sure to be included on the right bandwagons: liturgical, fashion, intellectual, etc.

And in that blowing wind, I realize this is wrong and it is silly.

First of all, who wants to be on a bandwagon with a bunch of judgmental boors, anyway?

Second of all, I know myself well enough to realize that it isn't other people's standards that actually concern me; it is my own made-up standards of what I currently figure is the ideal that hamstring me. So many times I have gone through "if I do xyz, so-and-so will be hurt/upset/angry" and then I learn from the mouth of so-and-so that no such thing is actually true and that it was me keeping myself locked in a cage all along.

Some people have a natural tendency toward rebellion. I have a natural tendency toward submission. It sounds weird, but I have always longed to find someone to tell me how to live. Even though, with the non-conformist thing happening simultaneously, I often have the urge to do exactly the opposite of what a group is doing or what someone specifically instructs me to do. I realize what these seemingly opposite desires of mine mean: I have had all my life is a driving call from God for my innermost being to belong to Him alone. Only God is really able to show me how to live while actually bringing life. Any other person or system that is not in sync with God or His will for me will crush, abuse, or limit.

That is not to say that God will not bring the cross. Oh yes He certainly will! That's a clear sign of God's authentic presence. We may even use the word "crush" in connection with the cross, but the cross always brings life. Life is found in repentance from sin, in an amended life, in greater detachment from created goods and greater attachment to eternal goods.

And it's not that I want to thumb my nose at even my imaginary judgmental community and do "brash" things to prove a point. What God has always pointed me to is the glorious freedom to be myself. To choose for myself. Maybe that person who makes a bugaboo about how we all need to do X is really saying it vacantly, out of a need to say something, or some other need. Goodness knows that not every word that falls into public hearing is well discerned, chosen, or intended or actually worth listening to.

Freedom doesn't mean doing whatever the hell I feel like. Freedom means having the power to live in increasingly deeper union with God.

And that, my friends, is exactly what I desire.