Saturday, February 06, 2016

The Fourth Joyful Mystery: The Presentation in the Temple

 Photo from this blog

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon. This man was righteous and devout, awaiting the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Messiah of the Lord. He came in the Spirit into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus to perform the custom of the law in regard to him, he took him into his arms and blessed God... (Luke 2:25-28)

When I pray the fourth joyful mystery, my mind gravitates towards Simeon. Scripture does not tell us that he was an old man, though he is generally depicted as such. We are told he had been waiting, at the Lord's promise, to see the Messiah.

My experience is that when the Lord personally quickens me to trust in a promise of something that is to happen in time, He does so to hollow me out. This stands to reason, because everything about our life in Christ is about being conformed to His death and resurrection, so that death may be at work in me and life in those God calls to whom God calls me to serve (2 Cor. 4:12).

I think of the perseverance Simeon exercised in waiting. Impatience boils over in us because waiting requires us to bow our control to the unknown factors of timing. You get up, you go through the day; your thing did not happen. You have another birthday, another anniversary; you remember your thing did not happen. You are called to faithfully, joyfully, undertake your daily duty despite the fact that your thing did not happen. This is perseverance.

But there is another aspect that comes into my meditation. Getting hollowed out means we are detached from our own desires, our own plans, our own sense of control. But this is not so that our souls fade into nothingness. No, Christianity does not beckon us into some kind of void. It prepares us for encounter. It frees us for union. It emboldens us for that moment of embrace.

Because one day, the waiting is over. Simeon has not become a placid zombie who just doesn't care anymore about his desires. He knows that the promise of the Holy Spirit will fulfill his life's desire totally. His desire has not been killed, it has been awakened, honed, sharpened, purified. On this normal day, Mary and Joseph enter the temple. They usher in the most profound miracle God has yet brought to earth: His only begotten Son, now in flesh appearing. And Simeon knows it.

He embraces the child. He sings to the Lord the song he was born to sing. He prophesies over Mary's future. He is now ready for dying and entering the next stage of union with God.

So don't let your perseverance lose its purpose. We don't persevere, nor do we exercise or pursue any virtue except love itself, for its own sake. They all find their end in union with Jesus.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Christian Unity Comes from This

It is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, O.C.D., describes very well what is necessary for Christians to experience the unity that Jesus prayed for:

The intimate dispositions of Jesus toward God and His relations with Him are of the utmost importance to us. Jesus is the Son of God; herein lies all His greatness and holiness. By His very nature, He is the only Son of God; we who are made to His image, have become children of God by His mediation. This divine sonship, which belongs to Him by nature, is communicated to us by grace; hence, like Him, all our greatness and holiness consist in our living as true children of God. Therefore, as far as is consistence with our human nature, we should try to reproduce in ourselves the interior attitude of Jesus toward His heavenly Father.

First of all, we note an attitude, or rather a state, of intimate union. It is as the Word that Jesus declares, "The Father is in Me, and I in the Father" (Jn. 10:38). He is referring, of course, to the substantial, incommunicable union of the Word with the Father, which no one can ever imitate; this union is the prerogative of the Son of God alone. But He also made the statement as Man, because, as Man, all His love is concentrated on the Father and dominated by the Father. His whole mind is directed toward Him in an effort to please Him. This union of Jesus with His divine Father is the mode for our union, precisely because it is a union of grace. Grace in Jesus is "infinite," in the language of the theologians, and in this respect it differs from ours; yet even the grace we possess enables us to keep our souls directed toward the Father and our affections centered in Him. Jesus gives us the example Himself, and asks of the Father this close union for us: "As Thou, Father, in Me and I in Thee; that they also may be one in Us" (Jn. 17:21)....

O Jesus, what great treasures are hidden in Your words: "As Thou, Father, in Me, and I in Thee; that they also may be one in Us!" It is not enough for us to imitate Your exterior life; You want more than that. You want us to imitate, as far as mere creatures can, Your interior life, Your intimacy and Your unceasing union with the Father! It would be folly and arrogant temerity even to think of doing this, had You not commanded us to do so. But You have commanded it, and these words of Yours are particularly sacred because they form part of Your last prayer to Your Father, a prayer which contains Your spiritual testament.... (Divine Intimacy, pp. 169, 171)

The key to Christian unity is the all-consuming desire for union with God our Father. When our desire is fixed on God, seeking only Him, and giving Him permission to go into those areas where we can't even discern our own intentions and desires, and mess with us, then we are on the path of being one in Christ with other believers who also are inflamed with this same desire. And those believers who are not yet aflame, but who struggle with weeds and rocks and beaten-down paths? Jesus calls them too and we all journey up the mountain of holiness. Who desires God wholeheartedly who once did not desire Him but half-heartedly?

In this week of prayer for Christian Unity, let's allow ourselves to be caught on fire by one another, with the fire of desire for God and God alone.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Great Patience with One's Own Humanity

I've had a life-long struggle with separating, in my mind, what is human from what is sinful.

My religious formation growing up emphasized that "all our righteous acts are as filthy rags (Is. 64:6), that all persons were made totally depraved by the sin of Adam, and that Christ's righteousness imputed to us is everything we must hope for. In and of ourselves, we are sinful, unclean, and worthy of condemnation.

The theological corrective is that the image of God in us was broken and damaged, but not destroyed. When God created the world, He said it was good, and when He created human beings, He said it was very good. Grace does not only cover us; it really does purify what was broken and damaged, and elevates our nature, and infuses God's very life into us. Sanctity really is a possibility in this life for human beings, and our our willingness to cooperate with grace is a significant factor there.

The theology is indeed dreadfully important, but when you live life, the theology has to get practical.

And when I read this quote this morning, it all got practical.

"Because the Lord wills to reveal His power in our weakness, growth in contemplative prayer requires great patience with one's own humanity, a patience that comes not from surmounting one's frailties, but rather in offering those to God in love. This means that mood swings, fluctuations in pious affections, boredom and even struggles with distractions do not ultimately define our prayer, if through it all we never lose trust in God"
See, I have frailties. Another word for that is needs. I am incomplete. I feel my humanity, my needs, my vulnerabilities, my drives, my desires. And somehow I used to think that I would serve God best by killing these off. I've written a few posts about times that I went for really long without water or food, not on purpose, but because I was too timid to tell anyone that I was thirsty or hungry. I was too afraid of my need putting someone out. I saw my humanity as a nasty bother not just to myself but to the entire universe.

My son as a toddler started pointing me to liberation from that. He would feel a need and immediately start insisting it be met. I remember one night blurting out "I wish I felt like I could just demand my needs to be met like that!" And slowly, I began to realize that this is part of what it means to have a heart of a child. To freely admit needs and seek to have them met.

Sometimes we have needs that are more complicated than a glass of water. Sometimes we have frailties we don't really know how to handle. Having patience with them is part humility to recognize the need, part trust to know God cares and is powerful, and part detachment from the urgency of having it all resolved NOW. It is about accepting that I am a work in progress, and that since I did not make me to begin with, it is ok that I can't see how it will all turn out just yet. Just because two notes clash doesn't mean they don't both belong in the song.

So I don't like it when people use the term "human" as a synonym for sinful, messed up, wrong. It should be a synonym for weak, but with potential to be filled with grace; incomplete, but able to be raised to sonship. To be human is to be one in whom God wills to reveal His great power.

Saturday, January 02, 2016

Onething2015: My Initial, Personal Report

I have just returned from the Onething2015 conference where for the first time ever there was a Catholic track. And here I am in my very own verbal workspace to try to start to share what is in my heart about this. This may not turn out neatly.

So, I was there to intercede and to gather intercessors. During the course of conversations before the event, I realized that I had an aversion to going basically because I have an aversion to suffering. From the promo ad copy I had my sense that there was something about this I just wouldn't like. And I can't say I was mistaken. It wasn't a dislike in the sense of "oooh, bad," just in the sense of "this really isn't my personal preference." I don't like loud music that I feel in my chest (for more than about three minutes). I don't like my ears to ring and I don't find that particularly healthy. And as much as I love music and I love to sing and as much as worshipping God in song is central to my life, I just don't like praise music that much anymore. I used to love it, love it, love it and found myself instantly at a fountain of overflowing healing. And I just don't, anymore. That was actually something I began to find happening just a bit when I first left my non-denom fellowship. It began to be the sort of thing were I had to fix my mind to really dig into the words being sung to meditate and suck the marrow out of them, and often it felt I was sucking dry bones. Sometimes it could be easier, especially if it was a song I knew and had developed a "meditative history" with. But I realized I have as much difficulty really praying with praise music as others do praying with the rosary and its repetitions.

I was also reminded, before and during, of things I experienced in my exodus from the charismatic fellowship world into the Catholic Church. I remembered how shocked I was when I first started attending daily Mass, which lasted 20-30 minutes, when I had been used to a 3 or 3.5 hour service. On the one hand, I realized I had to walk in to Mass ready to concentrate and pay attention to everything. Before, I was used to a lot of "warm up" time and a generally less intense approach. But on the other hand, I was stunned and amazed in those days, day after day, of how efficient God could be. Like a laser beam, He penetrated my soul with far deeper spiritual experiences in this short time than I had ever experienced in those long church services (although I had lots of powerful and needed emotional experiences in the former days, and these required more time. Sometimes I really needed to cry through 75 minutes of worship music.) So when at Onething, the sessions or preaching went on for hours, I sometimes longed for them to discover this efficient nature of God. :)

But the important lesson in all of this for me is that I do not live for myself. Sometimes I really want to. But if I live for God, I must also live for His people. Jesus lived for His people by serving them, not to expect to be served. Sometimes serving someone means to relent and do it their way, when it is really a matter of preference. Preferences can become passions pretty easily, and we start to think we can't live without our passions being fulfilled, that our passions are really divine urgings, when really they are just our desires with a strong upper hand in our soul's functioning. And sometimes that putting to death of our passions is exactly the type of service, and living for God and neighbor that God asks of an intercessor who feels interior things deeply. I was a little surprised at the intensity of the death and the struggle and the temptation I felt surrounding all this. Which shows me how weak and inexperienced I am at serving this way.

So, there was this big huge thing that happened about unity. I mean, it was big and huge on a spiritual level. I kept saying to our host friends how this type of gathering with Catholics just probably wouldn't have happened back in my charismatic days, at least not in the circles I moved in. My evangelism training had a slide that depicted non-Christian groups like Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons, and there was a significant point made about how the guy just couldn't decide whether to add Roman Catholics to that list, and his hesitation about it seemed almost scandalously generous to some people. That was my world. So for Catholics to be welcomed as equal Christians, and for one speaker to publicly (though he didn't use the name Catholic) apologize for past statements of arrogance to a particular Catholic present, it was profound. And there were other profundities.

I know I experienced something of a personal call, although I can't articulate all of it, or maybe even much of it, in any meaningful way right now. The first order of the day is in my own family. The second order of the day has to do with me being a Carmelite. Each day I always ask my prayer team of saints to intercede for me, and one morning I had forgotten to do so until a certain point during one of the sessions. Immediately I remembered, as if St. Teresa spoke it to me, "Four centuries ago I sat in my convent and prayed for a return of the 'Lutherans' to the Church. Yes, of course you are called." (See the very end of The Interior Castle).

From my young childhood, even what I count as my pre-following-Jesus childhood I have had a sense that my life is oriented towards a Church that would become pure and serious.

When I was a brand new Catholic, I had a profound blow-me-away experience of being called by God into His plan to raise Catholics, and me with them, from the dead. Read it here: When Confirmation Received Me. When you read it, you see this experience had to do with John Michael Talbot. A few years ago during a new season in my life I went to a mission of his in Pittsburgh. Now, JMT has very piercing eyes. And as he preached through the crowd, his piercing eyes made contact with mind as he said "Fan into flame the gift God has given you." BAM. It resurrected the earlier experience and, though I couldn't understand it at the time, that moment alerted me to the fact that I was stepping forward in this plan. Now, just when that thing from years ago makes some sense, I have this new thing that is just as persistently urgent and just as inscrutable. I guess I really aught to get used to this and realize that not knowing is part of how I get to know things.

So, there you have it. I have returned from Onething2015 with a heart full of something I can't explain or understand, and I know that today and tomorrow I need to pray and live faithfully, just like every day, but I also need to intentionally forsake the vast tracts of selfishness and misery I yet find within.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

An Advent Examination of Conscience

An examination of conscience is very important, but the term is not one I use much. I once thought it required me to mentally castigate and punish myself for everything I did wrong, and since as a child I had learned that I was incapable of doing good, I had a hard time getting past the need to accuse myself of the sin of existing. Bad theology really messes with the mind.

So instead I find it helpful to review my day and look for where I experienced God most profoundly, and how it changed my day, and how it needs to still change my day.

Today, that was fairly easy. The first whaabang was in praying the Office of Readings this morning, especially in the reading from St. Augustine. The readings about St. John the Baptist almost always strike me very profoundly, because God gave me a personal gift of a St. John in my life. This line especially: "We should take our lesson from St. John the Baptist. He is thought to be the Christ; he declares he is not what they think. He does not take advantage of their mistake to further his own glory." I could never really put into words how that made me weep, but consider how not only easy but common it is for one person to take advantage of another, but what an act of love and honor of God it is to choose to humble oneself rather than hurt another person. And how rare that is. For a person to put the honor of God even above how they wish to be received by another or what advantage they want for themselves -- that is a big deal. And when I could have truly been used, I instead encountered this witness of honoring God. Today I wept in gratitude for that. And I know that those tears washed yet clearer the true image of what I was spiritually perceiving.

The other moment was at Mass, while singing the communion hymn. I thought of how grateful, how content, how peaceful I am, not because everything is perfect, but because I was there with the Lord who has given me so much, has set so much at rights, has surrounded me, provided me with everything I need to be happy. I have no blind eye turned to what could be better, but that is so much my natural inclination -- seeing the problems, seeing the lacks -- that it is so beautiful to me to just say "I am here, and it is good." It is God's love that fills me and enables me to be grateful, satisfied, peaceful. And love bubbles from me and seeks others. That is not natural to me, and I know it full well.

I did other things throughout the day, I got tired, I began to take on other people's emotions. I had an interesting extended experience of thinking about who I was 20 years ago as I finished watching a video I took when I lived in Japan. Listening to myself talk (so sarcastic, so pain-sopped, so disconnected from other people) was deeply cringeworthy, as my son put it. I faced other aspects of my life that are problematic.

But then I thought, examination of conscience: go back to where I experienced God, not my own misery. With God, He teaches me to have mercy on my old self, understanding the pain that motivated me, while honoring the courage. It is a recipe for every day, and not only for myself. Have understanding for the pain that is behind others' actions, too, honor the courage with which they act nonetheless.

But mostly, nothing trumps being with Jesus. He gives the best gifts. Sometimes it takes us years to fully appreciate them. Every pain we pass through in pursuit of Him is worth it. He promises us the difficulties, but he also promises the hundred fold. I have been so silly, but He keeps being more and more generous to me. All I can offer Him is all of me, anything and everything that He wants. Just want He wants of me. I am convinced that no matter what it is, it will always be the best possible thing.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

All the Way My Savior Leads Me

I was baptized as an infant, had an early childhood of religious indifference, and after a short flirtation with threatening God I'd become a satanist, I gave my life to the Lord at age 10. I was once an anti-Catholic Protestant, and currently I am becoming a lay member of the Carmelites, an ancient order of the Catholic church, devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary and dedicated to prayer and the mystical life. How does that happen, you ask? By the grace and mercy of God, I've had to learn to recognize the difference between my sin and God's holiness, and to seek Him alone.

First, let me summarize for you how I see the core of what God is teaching me today. Then let me try to trace out for you some of how I arrived at this conviction.

I firmly believe that the Christian life means living a continual state of conversion unto Jesus Christ, after we have accepted the salvation He won for us, until we reach perfect union with God. This work of conversion is a work entirely of grace, entirely a gift, but it is a grace and a gift with which a soul can and must cooperate. We have to say yes to God and do what is ours to do. This perfect union with God is something that we can and should enter into during this lifetime, but not all the saved do. We enter into it by a gift of God I'll call purgation. Scripture tells us that nothing impure can enter heaven (Rev. 21:27) and that our works will be tried by fire to remove what is worthless (1 Cor.  3:15). But we can't control or command our own purgation; God has to do it. We can either let Him do it as He wills in the course of our earthly lives, or we will have to experience it after this life is done and before we enter heaven. People call that purgatory. Everything I want is summed up in seeing the face of Jesus in heaven. Everything I hope for on earth has to do with living out the fruits of purgation and the holiness God works in me. Nothing is worth anything in comparison with the glory of being united, with all the holy ones, with the Blessed Trinity for all eternity. And the quest for eternal glory has already begun now. So Lord, whatever it takes, with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength, I give you my yes.

Now, every church I have belonged to has been somewhere on the scale from diametrically opposed to what I just wrote, to uncomfortable and uncertain about how to teach it and train believers in living it. And I've been right there in the midst with them.

My first religious formation, after first giving my life to the Lord as a child, was in an ultra-conservative Lutheran setting. Here I learned to honor the Bible as the Word of God, to read and to memorize it. While I did this, though, I had a lot of sin in my life. I've always been an interior-oriented person, so these sins were the seething sort, like hatred, bitterness, pride, arrogance, judgment, grudges, and the like. The Lutheran teaching on sin did not help me repent or be cleansed of these sins. The emphasis was that all we do is like filthy rags, but that the Father imputes Jesus' righteousness to us. Sin was all handled in the eternal perspective and we simply lived with our inevitable corruption while in heaven God had a clean tally sheet with our name on it, our bill paid by Jesus. And I went on hating, being bitter, and so on. Occasionally in those days, Bible verses such as 1 Jn. 4:20 ("Whoever claims to love God but hates his brother is a liar") jumped out and startled me. But the conflicting theology left me more confused than convicted.

One summer during college, I met Christians who witnessed to me that the Holy Spirit could personally enter my life and empower me with Himself. They called this being baptized in the Holy Spirit. Once I cautiously read through all of the Scriptures and decided that they had the Bible on their side, for the first time I had to face down this entirely passive notion I had that God did everything for me. When I was convinced from Scripture that God would baptize me in the Holy Spirit, I simply got depressed that apparently He hadn't. I figured it must mean He didn't love me or I wasn't important enough. I sadly moaned prayers in the self-pitying and despairing style that was common to me. Then, a revolutionary thought came to mind: Ask Him. Maybe you don't have because you don't ask. I had to make an elaborate ritual of it that included meticulously finishing all of my schoolwork, buying a book and setting aside an entire evening to read it, but I accomplished all that within 8 hours of this revolutionary thought that I could ask God, and I asked. And when I asked, BAM, the floodgates opened, and I had a powerful encounter with the Holy Spirit.

Immediately I sought out a new church to be among people who could help me understand what happened to me. The primary grace I experienced here was the release of years and years of hurt and sin during praise and worship. I learned to open my heart to God in the midst of other people, and I also began to be aware that God would speak to my heart. Gradually I learned to recognize the difference between His leading and my own confusion. This was something I could not do when I was isolated.

While still in a Lutheran college and attending that charismatic fellowship, God planted a seed that has had far-reaching effect. I had to write a paper for a very difficult class that was to count for 50% of my grade, and I had no idea what to do. The class was on Medieval and Renaissance philosophy. One day I paced the library stacks and begged God for some insight as to a topic. He answered with one word: "mysticism." I responded happily, "Ok, Lord! But, what is that?"

I researched St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Hugh of St. Victor, the Cloud of Unknowing, and others. I was captivated. Yes, I was a bit put off that these were Catholic authors because everything I'd ever learned about Catholicism concerned how it was wrong.  But these people... they wrote from an experience of loving God that left me with a pounding heart and breathless. At one point I just dropped my book on the library table and told the Lord, "If there is anyone left on the face of the earth who knows you and loves you like these people did, Lord, that is who I want to be with."

A few years later, the memory of that day in the library was the only thing that kept me from losing it as I talked with a friend I had deeply respected who had shocked me by becoming Catholic. I later had to face lots of ugly judgments, pride, and arrogance as I finally admitted to myself I had never once in my life read anything about Catholic doctrine written by a Catholic. My friend told me, yes, there are indeed people who love God like St. Teresa of Avila. They are called Carmelites. He gave me a little book about how to pray like a Carmelite. And I was amazed all over again.

I became a Catholic in 1993 in order to enter the world of mystics and saints, and I found the world of bingo, indifference, and sometimes outright scandal. Jesus had called me, though. The first time I had gone to Mass to actually be open to Him, He stunned me, shocked me, overwhelmed me, by revealing His presence to me in the Holy Eucharist. I knew I could not walk away from the Catholic Church without walking away from Jesus. He also spoke to me the promise that He is the Resurrection and the Life, and that all who believe in Him, though they die, yet shall they live. I wanted mystics and saints, but felt nothing but death in me and around me. But Jesus promised me life.

In the last two decades I've known purgations both slow and steady, and sharp and painful. God has also blessed me beyond belief with joy and the utter certainty of His love for me, and I've always seen Him provide everything I need, especially when I hardly realized what I needed. Together we have broken open and laid flat my hard crust of a heart, and He has indeed given me a heart of flesh.

It takes six years to become a Carmelite secular, and I have three years remaining in my initial formation. Part of the mission of a secular Carmelite is to teach God's people the wisdom of the saints I've mentioned, to help ourselves and others to grow in holiness and unto union with Christ. Every day I renew to God my desire to become His instrument, that He may teach His people holiness both through our words and hidden prayer. What other response can I have but to give all that I am to Him who has given me everything?

This post also appeared at MajorChange as Draw Me After You... 

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.