Thursday, January 12, 2017

Thoughts on Story of a Soul: Chapter III

I'm reserving the right to be completely random and start a series of posts in the middle of a book.

I've been through Story of a Soul several times now both before and during Carmelite formation, but this time I am actually able to glean something from it. Follow this link for my many comments previously regarding my relationship with this particular Doctor of the Church.

I think what I am learning now is to enter spiritually and theologically into the experiences she reports. I am intuiting that she chose to report the details she reports not simply because she is reminiscing, but because she understands very well the meaning of her life. She is opening the book of her life for us to read God's writing there. Never before was I able to see what I feel I can see now. It has taken me some time for my vision to adjust.

What strikes me in this chapter in overview is how she is struggling to appropriate for herself this parrhesia, the humble boldness, this confidence of being loved as herself by God. She does not know how to bear herself at school with the jealous girl (of whom she said, "She made me pay in a thousand ways for my little successes."), and she does not have the mature detachment to not become overly sad at Pauline's entrance into Carmel. The help and healing comes from the Blessed Virgin Mary when she has exhausted all of the love from her family, realizing that even though it never failed her, it is not enough and she needs divine help to satisfy her soul. And yet, she doesn't know how to handle that grace either. She wants to, or at least she does, share it with Marie and the Carmelites,  (whether she really wanted to or not) but neither comprehend it exactly as she has experienced it. (They can't. It was for her.) She has the disappointment of not finding the union of wills on earth, in the way she talks about having had with her cousin. Her will is meant for union with heaven. This seems to stress her love for her most beloved ones.

Her discussion of her fragility at school was very enlightening to me. She silently suffers the jealousy of the girl who "made her pay" for being first in the class, because, she says, she didn't know how to defend herself. She didn't "have enough virtue" to "rise above" these miseries, but -- and there is a helpful word here -- when she returned home at night her "heart expanded." I can identify strongly with young Therese, her heart shrinking in some situations and expanding in others. I thought to myself, if she lacked virtue, what virtue might that be? I thought of 1 John 2 where we read "remain in Christ so that when he returns, you will be full of confidence and not shrink back from him in shame." It seemed that the opposite of an expanding heart is a shrinking heart, and that in turn is contrasted with confidence. That was when I came upon this paragraph from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

2778 This power of the Spirit who introduces us to the Lord's Prayer is expressed in the liturgies of East and of West by the beautiful, characteristically Christian expression: parrhesia, straightforward simplicity, filial trust, joyous assurance, humble boldness, the certainty of being loved.

This seems to summarize St. Therese's life, the Carmelite vocation, and my life, too. This is what she was made for. But at this point in her life, it was what she struggled with. She had to learn to own her own honor and glory, and to fully accept them as hers from God.

She goes on to say that she needed assurances in her family life that she was loved, or her life would have been too hard. Again, I can relate to Therese. And it is somewhat amazing that I can. That is, now I realize that I need assurances of love. I do. And I did in the past, too, without having them, and life was essentially too hard, and I became that way too. But the beautiful thing is to be able to say "I need." Sometimes for me the only way that I become able to say "I need" is to feel my lack, to feel ignored or unloved. Perhaps I need, as an exercise, to practice saying "I need" before I get to the point of feeling ignored. Perhaps it will change how I respond to other's needs.

I continue to relate when she says she didn't know how to play with other children, and she was bored by their games and dancing. She was pleased by being alone with one friend, by playing hermit, by practicing surrender of will (until she knocked over the shopkeeper's display by walking with her eyes closed).

She has a real union of love with her sister and experiences Celine's First Communion with as much joy as if it were her own. She shows zero jealousy. This is a delightful expression of selfless love.

Then there is this moment:

"In one instant, I understood what life was; until then, I had never seen it so sad; but it appeared to me in all its reality, and I saw it was nothing but a continual suffering and separation. I shed bitter tears because I did not yet understand the joy of sacrifice."
This is why she needed all of those assurances of love. It is also interesting to know that she shed tears when Pauline announced her leaving, but she shed no tears when her mother died. But this is also the moment of her realizing her personal vocation to Carmel. And this is why she says she should have not despaired so, because as of this time, she knew she too was meant for Carmel (no slow processing for her!).

And yet, after this, she falls ill. She goes to visit Pauline at Carmel with her cousins and aunt, and out of consideration for them, Pauline does not direct many words to Therese, and Therese feels herself abandoned by her. It is too much for her, and she collapses under a mysterious sickness. The assurances of love are missing, even her father's desire to distract and entertain her don't cut it. She fears she is faking her sickness. It does seem that there is something morbid going on psychologically. Therese herself at the time of writing is certain it was demonic. But somehow when she calls to Mary, instead of her sister, she is healed. It seems to me that the assurances of love that she needed and thought she could not live without had to fail her.

The bit about not wanting to talk about the grace that happened to her shows me there was a disconnect between these who were closest to her and she struggled to make the grace her own, to fully accept it as hers from God. This is the same kind of disconnect that she experienced with the kids at school. Except now it detached her from those she loved the most. Fascinating.


Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Should We Do the Works of Jesus? Really?

Today's Mass gospel reading brought my childhood to mind.

On leaving the synagogueJesus entered the house of Simon and Andrew with James and John.Simon's mother-in-law lay sick with a fever.They immediately told him about her.He approached, grasped her hand, and helped her up.Then the fever left her and she waited on them.
When it was evening, after sunset,they brought to him all who were ill or possessed by demons.The whole town was gathered at the door.He cured many who were sick with various diseases,and he drove out many demons,not permitting them to speak because they knew him.
Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed.Simon and those who were with him pursued himand on finding him said, "Everyone is looking for you."He told them, "Let us go on to the nearby villagesthat I may preach there also.For this purpose have I come."So he went into their synagogues, preaching and driving out demons throughout the whole of Galilee.   (Mark 1:29-39)

 It is not that my childhood was filled with miraculous ministry. That's not the connection.

When I was a child, the message that I gleaned from my Protestant church was that when Jesus said things like "Love your enemies," "Sell all you have and give to the poor," and "Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect," He didn't really mean what He said. He was setting a standard, an ideal, a new law. But we are sinners and can't do that stuff. He didn't mean it. Just be glad God forgives you. We are weak. It's basically wrong to think you should do what He said.

The primary theological difference between my faith then and my faith now is the reality of grace. The Catholic Church does not teach me that grace is about positional status change. It is not a legal fiction God creates in order to declare sinners not guilty. The Church does teach me that grace actually transforms the human soul, changing our very nature, giving us the very life of God alive inside of us. Therefore, it is not only possible to love (which is radical enough in itself). We are actually called to sanctity -- total and thorough soaking transformation by grace of our nature, so that we are "divinized" as 2 Peter 1:4 has it.

I wonder, though. How many Catholics hear gospels like today's in the way I heard most of Jesus' teachings as a child? Oh, Jesus healed the sick and cast out demons, but He did that because He is God. We can't imitate that. Can you heal the sick? Of course not. We're not God. He didn't mean for us to be like Him. If we think this way, we have to come to the conclusion that Jesus was modeling something other than God the Father's will in His life. Or, we are simply unaware that Jesus commanded his disciples to do the works He had been doing. Or, we think the era of miracles has passed. (Let me tug you aside and discuss transubstantiation, in that case.)

Theologically, if miracles are not part and parcel of Christian life, Catholicism has zero leg to stand on. Could it be that it is Christ's followers who have lost touch with the reality of what grace really is?

Could it be that now is the time, when talk is so cheap and lying so prevalent and trust so destroyed -- that now is the time that God wants to demonstrate the power of His love through people who know He is good, strong, loving, and wise?

If you think perhaps the answer is yes, I'd invite you to carve out 75 minutes to watch this video. Tell me what you think.


Monday, January 02, 2017

What Just Happened Here?: Onething 2016 and the Catholic Ecumenical Track

What I'm writing here is a spiritual first draft. That means that while thoughts and inspirations have passed through my heart and soul about my topic, I haven't explored them yet. This is writing of discovery.

If you don't know what the Onething conference is, look at this, and if you don't know about the little history of the Catholic Track and MajorChange, then go here. I'm not going to spend time explaining the event from a technical perspective.

And suddenly, just as I sat down to write, my clear entry into my thoughts is not clear any more. But this is part of the process.

I remember the spot where I stood, in a kitchen in Japan about 20 years ago, when I realized that to evangelize means to tell someone the reality of who they are. To be evangelized means to have revealed to one the truth of who they are. And in this regard, we need to be regularly evangelized. It simply means to have God's truth about us spoken over us. God's truth is incredibly good news, and it is also a call, and it is also a challenge.

This, I think, strikes at the core of how I experienced the last several days at Onething. On a simple level, we spent a lot of time meditating in various ways over what is contained in the chorus:

You're a good, good Father -- it's who You are, it's who You are, it's who You are
And I'm loved by You -- it's who I am, it's who I am, it's who I am

This is meditation on truth. This is healing to our minds and souls, and doing this, especially in the wide context of Scripture meditation, prayer, praise, Eucharist, and fellowship with the saints, this meditation becomes a river of revelation through which we invite and "free" the Holy Spirit to bring all sorts of goods to us. Our attention, heart, and desire, focused on God, tunes us in to that which He has patiently waited to pour out to us. Part, I think, is our lack of interest (reason for not otherwise receiving his outpouring), but part of it is that God does this sort of thing when His people gather. And when they gather to seek Him. St. Teresa of Avila knew that "God withholds Himself from no one who perseveres," and if we want God to move among us as a Church, we need to persevere together, which involves gathering and seeking. We also spur one another on to love and good deeds. Yes, we need to encourage our own hearts in God (this is actually incredibly vital), but we can't do without gathering for mutual encouragement.

Ok, so. During the 18 months that I spent post-conversion, on my way into the Catholic Church, God spoke to me a lot about the importance of being myself. This is another way of saying, about knowing who I am in Him. And not just about the category of self-knowledge in the spiritual life. I mean, about me being me. Because all these great principles have to get applied and lived in each one of us. I believe it takes incredible faith and courage, and grace, to do this. The Christian life in totality is supernatural, you see. This was another central message. From many corners the message came that now is a time that God wants signs and wonders carried out by His people, in order to reach the lost and dying with salvation and hope. People need to see Christ. Christ healed, delivered, raised the dead, and miraculously provided. People need to see Christ. This is not about anything but love, obedience, and purity, and responding to God. Because that is Who Christ is, and it is what He came to earth to do.

The daily supernatural activity I am called to is to be myself. This is also about love, obedience, purity, and responding to God. Of course, to respond to God, I need to be in constant contact with God by prayer, Scriptural meditation, Eucharist, and the fellowship with the saints. And, I need to live in reality, because this is where God is ALWAYS found.

Personal observations.
During the first segment of the Catholic Track, people from Columbus, Ohio talked about how God is leading them to start seeing supernatural manifestations in ministry of praying for healing and words of knowledge, and they led us in practicing this. (They are doing some kind of something-school-of-this in the fall, and I am already there in my heart.) As I prayed with a woman, I could see immediately how normal this is and I could identify the interior issues I need to address: namely that I put myself under pressure, feeling a need to rush along instead of staying comfortable with God at God's pace when another person is in the mix. Also, I realize I have a tremendous need for physical silence, which may not be a problem at all, just something I personally need to learn how to address.

And then folks prayed for folks for an impartation of grace. I indentified myself to the man who prayed for me as a Carmelite, and told him I sensed God wanting more for me to give, basically. He said he saw me walking up Mount Carmel with a backpack, but God wanted to trade what I want in that pack for His pack and the more He wants in it. Completely agreed, we prayed. Well, a few nights later, when Bill Johnson was speaking and again praying prayers of impartation and commissioning for this very thing of bringing God's signs and wonders, and I prayed, offering myself for those I always pray and offer myself, I felt my back burning -- burning -- essentially in the shape of a backpack.

The next morning (I hadn't really seen this chronology before), during the Catholic Track, we gathered for worship and prayer. We had done this one other time (truly, the days and events blur together when so much happens), when some folks were asking for prayer, and Iwona was inviting people to come and pray for others, if they felt like they should pray for others. And here is where this practical stuff about being myself came into play. I have a very strong pull to be a dutiful person. I also have a strong sense of submission and response to what is asked. But this, I realize, is where discernment is needed between the difference of what God asks of me, and what someone asks of me, even if it is someone I know and love and generally would always want to respond to. I knew that one of the big but general differences for me this year from Onething 2015 is that last year, I felt that I had to dutifully stay with every single last thing from every single last speaker, every last worship song, keep my heart attuned to them, respond with my energy to the people involved. And for that reason, I think I felt more dragged out. I did not feel the freedom (or the wisdom) to simply say, "What's going on here right now, that's not for me. It's not my duty." So. There I was at the aforementioned time of prayer in the Catholic Track, and while I am a prayerful type, and I don't have a problem praying with or over other people, I simply felt that wasn't for me. And I didn't. I felt the need to pray for the whole room.

So now, let's make our way back to where I started the last paragraph, that Saturday morning of worship and prayer. I settled into the worship, again, not doing exactly what other people were doing. I wasn't singing what other people were singing. I can't always put my mind into meditation mode, because God takes me somewhere else. And at first, where He took me was a meditation on my Carmelite name, the name I chose back a few years ago. We were singing John 1, and my name is Elijah Benedicta of the Incarnate Word. I chose this, in part (there are many parts) because for years I have known that God is after my mouth. He is after my use of words. God was dealing with my heart about who I am. How I am Elijah Benedicta of the Incarnate Word. In part, the profound impact here was that, I know that as a Carmelite and as an intercessor I am basically a hidden part of the Body. And a huge part of my story, personally and in terms of my theological and mental formation, has been countering the lie that my life and my actions essentially have no significance and no importance at all. And essentially God showed me my significance and my importance. And then, in this communion, I began to pray. This is something I cannot explain apart from faith and the experience, but as I prayed things forth, I saw them happen. Again, and again, and again. It is all essentially about living the reality of God being with me.

And then I stood up and gave a 40 minute talk on intercession that was supposed to be some vague plan of a conversation with a group and a priest who ended up not showing up because of illness. I had nothing planned (zip!) but I asked God on my way to the bathroom what it was I should lead with, and two things came immediately to mind, and there it was. And afterwards a woman who heard me asked if she could talk with me, and we talked for hours and she found hope, we prayed, and we understood each other very well.

And the biggest problem in the Church at large is that we are not in love with Jesus. We don't need to be emotionally hyped; that is largely an attempt to hide and cover, I think. Being in love is something else. It makes you want to study, to discover, to spend time, to think about, to be with, to work with, to give to. It absolutely absorbs all of your emotions, but it makes you more yourself, not less. Is there a love potion to make people fall in love? I need that answer.
.
People who see other people who are in love can feel deeply judged, rejected, and hated, and it can make them come out swinging, and/or plunge them into depression. It sometimes surfaces nasty crap in others because they start to feel what they lack. But the healing is in the revealing.

Still I think seeing people who are in love can melt hearts who don't even know they are isolated from love. Love is a call to self-giving. First, to awakening.

I want the Grand Theater in my town to become a place where people gather to pray and worship something like they do at IHOP.

I also want people to understand Mary's prophetic role.

Mostly I want more people to fall in love with Jesus.

I want to be myself and clearly recognize what choices I need to be get firm about to walk that way. I want to live every day with Jesus, with prayer, meditating on Scripture, the Eucharist, and the fellowship of the saints.

Yep.

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Anawim of Advent: Infertility

I remembered it this morning during Mass.

"If you struggle with infertility and are already depressed, it's not a good idea to go to daily Mass the week before Christmas."

We discussed it in my infertility support group back in the day. Because, for several days, the Scriptures tell several stories of women who were infertile, and then got pregnant and had babies who grew up to be someone significant in salvation history.

And no one who is infertile and depressed about it so close to Christmas wants to hear yet another story about a baby.

My days of anguish are years behind me, ever since the positive pregnancy test I had in 2004. My daughter will be 12 next year. She was born the day after we finalized our son's adoption (when he was 3 1/2).

And I hear all those stories differently now, too. The problem is, we all need to learn to feel the anguish in them. What flies by in a few moments' reading needs to be something that hits us all in the gut.

An angel of the LORD appeared to the woman and said to her,
“Though you are barren and have had no children,yet you will conceive and bear a son. The woman went and told her husband,“A man of God came to me;he had the appearance of an angel of God, terrible indeed. I did not ask him where he came from, nor did he tell me his name. But he said to me,‘You will be with child and will bear a son.  (Judges 13)


Both were righteous in the eyes of God,observing all the commandmentsand ordinances of the Lord blamelessly. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barrenand both were advanced in years. 
 “Do not be afraid, Zechariah,because your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son,and you shall name him John. And you will have joy and gladness,and many will rejoice at his birth,for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. 
“How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” And the angel said to him in reply,“I am Gabriel, who stand before God.I was sent to speak to you and to announce to you this good news. But now you will be speechless and unable to talkuntil the day these things take place,because you did not believe my words,which will be fulfilled at their proper time.”
After this time his wife Elizabeth conceived,
and she went into seclusion for five months, saying,
“So has the Lord done for me at a time when he has seen fit
to take away my disgrace before others.” (Luke 1)

There is an awe, a fear, that descends upon the wife of Manoah, whose name we are not told. Zechariah, on the other hand, has grown old with the pain of barrenness, and the pain has gotten so crusty that he no longer has power to believe. His long pain needed a long rehabilitation -- even longer than Elizabeth's confinement. During that time, his fear of hoping is replaced by joyful faith, magnified in silence.

Longing for a child that cannot be conceived is the strange ache, not of a loss, but of something that has never been. It is a form of anguish, a sense of impotence, of deep inability, of powerlessness. In biblical times, if not now, it was the worst of social shames. One does not belong; one has no people, no future. The fact that God is "the Lord and giver of life" is of deep, distressing consternation. It seems one also has no standing with God.

And yet from the outside, no one can see this anguish. One carries on through a private, intimate humiliation, disappointment, and grief.

Spiritually, this is a place of incredible value, and it is the path along which God brought Israel, making it the anawim, "the poor who depend on the Lord for deliverance."

It is very difficult, especially for powerful, modern Americans, to be in the position of the anawim. It is painful. And like it did to Zechariah, the pain can make one crusty and quick to doubt.

To be brought to this place, and to cry out for strength and to cling in trust to God who is Good, is a priceless gift. We need to help others who are in this situation to persevere in hope and faith, not for the deliverance of their choice, but for their choice of Deliverer.

The message of Advent is: Our God will come and will not delay. He is the Deliverer.

Lord, grant us the grace to open our hearts and to receive You as You are.

Saturday, November 05, 2016

Power, Corruption, and Impure Love

Earlier today, I wrote this on my pilgrimage blog:

And a third intertwining point, connected here, is that love, the pure love of God in us, brings us holy death. We resist this with all our energy. 
What God wants most deeply from us all is to let Him love us. Once He has this, He can move. We cannot induce this "letting" in anyone; each door must be unlocked from within the heart.
And this was the upshot of my second point:
St. John and St. James made it clear that we lie if we say we love God but do not love our neighbor in practical, active terms. Likewise, if we seek to love our neighbor based on personal power and agenda that omits surrendering Lordship to Jesus, it is not love in which we deal, but corruption.
And while that post was complicated enough without developing these thoughts any further, the whole post was really born from the collision of those two points in my soul. That's something I need to go back to and think about.

There is a moment when even a genuine love can turn into ugliest violence. It is all the easier, the less genuine and the more impure that love is. I have done this. There is that moment when a soul, which loves, but impurely, makes a terrible shift in its motivation and its fuel. Genuine love gives and seeks the good of the other, even at the cost of the lover. This shift in motivation is about exerting power over another and attaining something for itself by some degree of force. Perhaps all of the time, this shift into the corruption of exerting power over another comes because the desired good is to be loved in return, but the person is not able to believe either that they are loved, that they can be loved, or that they will be loved, and so they take out their rage on someone they do love, because of their cavernous failure to believe.

There is perhaps nothing so agonizing as to extend all of ones energy, effort, heart, and soul, to hold it forth in deep vulnerability, and to feel it slapped down, rejected, crushed. But it is very important to a real relationship of love that rejection be borne with patiently. Under no circumstances should rejection by a loved one trigger a show of force of any sort by the one rejected. Sadness should never provoke violence, either in act or word.

There is nothing so frustrating to impure love as to not be able to impel love in return. It is death. It is precisely how impure love is purified. It is the price we are to pay; the cost of loving is this process of dying for the beloved. We love, and we long to be loved in return. When the one we love disappoints us, the disappointment is to be the flame that darts up and purifies our love to love all the more ardently, and with more detachment. We can even experience a taste of the bitter way God is treated by His creatures regularly, and we can praise Him more ardently for His faithfulness to us.

There have been moments when I have felt justified in being angry or frustrated over someone's failure to have a change of heart. There have been times when I have expressed that anger in just the corrupt way I am describing, as if the primary problem in their lack of conversion to Christ is that they have offended me. Decades ago the Lord was trying to teach me something that I have only begun to truly take in from the Carmelite Doctors: the point of prayer is to unite my heart to God's, not to bend creation to my will. The powerful intercessor is not the one who can call fire down from the sky to consume God's enemies; the powerful intercessor is the one who believes what God has said about Himself and who is consumed by His love.

And so I come back to the point I highlighted in the last post: What God wants most deeply from all of us is to let Him love us. Not infrequently, "letting Him love us" means willingly bearing a bit of pain, a bit of fear, a bit of vulnerability, as a concrete way of telling God that we believe He is worth it and His love for us is true. To believe in God, I keep teaching my daughter, is not so much to just believe He exists as to believe that He loves you. How much it grieves His heart when His own people do not trust His love.

But it is a grief He will bear, patiently. It will never provoke violence against you.

What Pilgrimage Made Grow: I didn't see this coming

One of the outcroppings of my pilgrimage which I did not at all see coming while I was in Poland was a certain practical shifting in my prayer focus. It continues to surprise me, though "surprise" isn't exactly the right word for something that I find having taken root in my soul.

Because it is the Year of Mercy, works of mercy came through as a theme at various World Youth Day events. And during that time, the spiritual works of mercy in particular sort of hummed with an attention-getting sort of resonance with me. But upon returning home, I found myself drawn powerfully to pray specifically for those in addictions, for those working in sex trafficking (pimps and prostitutes), and for those suffering violent abuse, whether physical or emotional.

It isn't that I have never prayed before for these needs, but since returning from Poland,



(Cross-posted from my blog "A Pilgrim in Poland".)

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Please People, Always Bring your Toddlers to Confession with You

I went to confession today.

I think some of the silliest temptations that ever go through my interior strike me when I am considering or planning going to confession. It is crazy. One of the thoughts is generally that I have no sins to confess. Another is that any other time would be better than now. Another popular one is that I am in the wrong mood or the wrong frame of mind to make a good confession. And it is all balderdash, of course.

Overthinking is no good either, and that used to be what plagued me, to the point where sometimes I could not get any words out at all because I had worked myself into a state of emotional paralysis.

So anyway, I went to confession today.

I hated going to confession for years, or rather I did it because I knew I should, but I couldn't really grasp what was supposed to be happening. I have stumbled and bumbled through for 23 years now as a Catholic, but now I realize that every single time I go to confession, I experience an encounter with the Lord. Often it shakes me deep down. Always, I think, I leave re-oriented.

Today I went by faith. None of the appropriate feelings seemed present. But then there was that woman with her kids.

One of them was old enough to be confessing, I'm guessing 8 or 9. The other was about 2. The older one popped out of the confessional just as mom was going in. This left the toddler looking a little forlorn about disappearing Mommy. He looked with huge, sad eyes at the closed door, and told his brother he wanted Mommy, and resisted a little being picked up by brother. Just then, he caught my eyes, too. I could feel that little boy's pain, and I tried to reassure him that his Mommy was right there and would be right back. Just then, the CD playing in the church went to a song based on Psalm 42: "Even as the deer pants for running streams, so my soul longs for you. When will I come to the end of my pilgrimage and enter and see the face of my God?" And the refrain rang out "My soul longs for you// My soul longs for you."

Those words, sung to that melody, and the face of the little boy became a sudden scalpel opening my heart in such a way that if it had lasted very long at all, I would not have been able to bear it. I realized that under all my adult clutter and dullness of soul and foul play in relationships, my soul is desperate for the tender embrace of God. I design so many things to hush up that desire, to make it more manageable, less of a panic.

But the panic is reasonable, because I am needier than a toddler. But it also is not necessary, because the tenderness of God, and of His Blessed Mother, his greatest minister, is imminently available to me. I need only come and ask.

It is hard to stay with the feelings, with the raw experience of the need that fuels asking, and of experiencing the need for tenderness being met. I thank God I can experience this to one degree; if I could really feel my need and God's response always I would not be able to carry on with normal life.

The beautiful thing to realize, of course, is that other people need simple human tenderness and personal presence from me, because this is the normal way that God's healing presence is mediated among people.

These days in our country have not been tremendous moments of tenderness. Everyone is riled up, it seems. We toughen as a way to cope.

But, let's do this: let's long for God. Let's allow our souls to long for God. He is able to break us out of cycles of longing for not-God, for things that never will satisfy. He is not slow to hear our desire, nor is He slow to answer. So let's honor Him with our trust and make a carte blanche of our souls, intent on Him alone.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Changing a Pharisee's Heart



Today's gospel reading was this:
After Jesus had spoken,
a Pharisee invited him to dine at his home.
He entered and reclined at table to eat.
The Pharisee was amazed to see
that he did not observe the prescribed washing before the meal.
The Lord said to him, “Oh you Pharisees!
Although you cleanse the outside of the cup and the dish,
inside you are filled with plunder and evil.
You fools!
Did not the maker of the outside also make the inside?
But as to what is within, give alms,
and behold, everything will be clean for you.”  Luke 11:37-41
This is a gospel passage which struck me right between the eyes one day while I lived in Japan, and today I am back at meditating on what Jesus is getting at with his admonition to "give alms from what you have. (Four years ago, my thoughts went like this.)

Just last Friday, I was at the National Rosary Rally in Washington DC, where a speaker challenged us to broaden our understanding of almsgiving beyond an act of putting money in a collection plate. Almsgiving, he said, is any act of charity, any act of pouring out love from ourselves towards other people. My favorite definition of the human person is "a walking, aching need for love." Whenever we acknowledge the human dignity of the person before us, and meet that person with our hearts, we enter that moment of charity, of almsgiving, ripe with potential for our generosity. The first and last thing almsgiving consists of is self-donation. It may very well take the form of giving something to meet a material need. But I think we all have experienced a time when a presenting need was for the contact with a human heart, and what was given instead was a thing, food, a gadget, a present, money. A gift given without a heart moved is a sad thing, indeed. A heart moved without action taken is a cowardly thing. Christians don't have to be sad and cowardly. Because of grace, we can be like God.

But, I want to get back to this text and what it is provoking in me now.

I used to suffer greatly from a heavy dose of pharisaical religiosity. And what I mean by that is I was extremely concerned with having the right ideas, with having correct doctrine, and with having right religious observances. Now, none of these is bad, and I would say I am still concerned with these. However, back in the day, I was concerned only with these, and there I stopped. And I saw today that this results in the very big problem that Jesus is talking about: interior filth. Death on the inside.

Merge Jesus' remedy with Friday's speaker's expanded notion of almsgiving, and you get something beautiful. Jesus doesn't ever tell the Pharisees to give up their external practices and precise theology. He tells them to give alms. They should let flow from their hearts the charity which can only be present by God being present within them.

First, the Pharisees need to be joined to Christ, that streams of living water are present to flow up from within them (Jn. 7:38). Second, as the stream begins to flow and they begin to open their hearts to give, junk from their hearts will come out. Oh crap! People might see! I'll have to see it! However will I be able to live with myself!?! How? With the humiliation and purification that comes from confessing your sins, that's how (1 Jn. 1:9).

It is only when we have the humility to know our own misery, our own need, our own humanity, our own "walking, aching need for love," that right ideas, right doctrine, and right observance will serve God and neighbor. Otherwise, they, like everything else, will simply serve ego. Ego loves to hide on the throne dressed in religious robes marked "God and neighbor."

When I open my heart to give alms, my interior is made clean. My egotistical vision of myself is trashed, and that trashing is a very wholesome thing.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Transcript: The Words We Speak and the Silences We Keep, Fr. Marc Foley, OCD

October I posted notes that I had taken from a talk by Fr. Marc Foley, OCD given at the OCDS National Convention in Milwaukee. Today I decided to transcribe the talk essentially word for word. It was time well spent.

Fr. Marc Foley, OCD
The Words We Speak and the Silences We Keep
2015 OCDS National Congress
Milwaukee, WI


It’s a bad sign when the speaker has to drink coffee to stay awake….

Martha symbolizes the active life, and Mary symbolizes the contemplative life.

(snores loudly)

(audience: laughter, applause)

Two years ago, when Don and Carolyn O’Meara suggested that I talk on Martha and Mary in Carmel, this age old classification, this time-honored distinction of two lifestyles came to my mind. The contemplative life usually identified with cloistered nuns and monks, and the active life referring to people who primarily work in the marketplace. I’m going to take this talk in a different direction.  I’m going to use Mary as a symbol of attentive listening, to what John of the Cross calls contemplation, which he defines as “an inflow of God into the soul which teaches us secretly and instructs us in the perfection of love” and John says growth in contemplation is a loving and peaceful attentiveness to God. Usually when we think of contemplation, we think of something we do in the chapel. But for the most part, it is something that happens during our daily life. Let me read a passage from A Story of a Soul:

“Jesus has no need for books or teachers to instruct our soul. He teaches without words. Never have I heard him speak but I feel that he is within me at each moment, guiding and inspiring me in what to say and do. And it isn’t most frequently during my hours of prayer that these inspirations are most abundant, but rather in the midst of my daily occupations.”

So when you think of contemplation, that is, God instructing us in the perfection of love, the most important place, as Therese says, is right in the midst of our daily occupations. If we are attentive to what God is saying within us, being a Mary, then as we go around our daily tasks, then we respond to what we hear. And this is Martha, the way I’m defining it in this talk, as a symbol of our response to God’s guiding presence.

In this talk, I’m going to focus on two forms of choice regarding the interchange between our attentiveness to God’s Spirit in the inner world and our response to our neighbor in the outer word Namely, the words we speak, and the silences that we keep. And I’m having this focus for two reasons. First, speaking and choosing to be silent really encompasses most of our life. At any moment of the day, we are either doing two things. We are either talking, or we are being silent. And therefore it constitutes a significant part of our response to God. What is it that regulates our speech and our silence?

Second, I would propose to you that listening to God’s voice and speaking what we hear is at the core of the interrelationship of the contemplative/apostolic dimension of our Carmelite vocation. When you made your promise as a Carmelite, you were asked the following question: “Do you wish to bind yourself more strictly to the Church in order to collaborate by your mission by means of contemplative prayer and apostolic activity?” In my own experience of talking to either individual Carmelites or groups, there’s often a problem… people are at a loss… what do you do to fulfill this obligation of apostolic activity? I think we need to re-image what is being said here. Often “apostolic activity” conjures up images of working in a parish, on a project, working in a soup kitchen, perhaps protesting some issue of injustice. And if you are called to do so, please do. But what I would like to propose to you this afternoon is that there is no activity more apostolic, more fruitful for the church, and more transformative in society, than when language is an expression of what we hear God instructing us to say. The answer to that question is literally on the tip of your tongue.

When there is a congruence between what we hear God saying inside of us and what we say, then in the words of St Teresa, “Martha and Mary never fail to work together, because one is an expression of the other.” When our speech is rooted in the indwelling presence of God, then the Word becomes flesh.

We find a (laughter, applause …. Coffee is delivered)

We find a symbol of the relationship between contemplation and apostolic activity in one of the gospels that the Order has chosen for the feast day of Holy Mother. “And the Samaritan woman said to Jesus, ‘Sir, you have no bucket and this well is deep.’ And Jesus responded, ‘But the water I will give will become a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’”

The Greek word that is translated “well,” it refers to a cistern, something that is man-made, whereas the Greek word that is translated “spring” refers to an underground stream that arises out of the depths of the earth. When our words and silences arise from the spring of God’s indwelling presence, and not from our ego, God’s life flows out of ourselves, to others.

Or, in the alternate gospel for the feast of St. Teresa, Jesus says, “I am not the source of my words.” A central question regarding whether or not our life is both contemplative and apostolic is, what is the source of my words? Are they drawn up out of the cistern of my own ego? Or do they arise out of the well-spring of God’s Spirit?

The British psychoanalyst and theorist, D. W. Winnicott, once said that the most significant turning point in his professional career as a psychotherapist was the day that he no longer had a need to be clever for his clients. Once his mind was freed from his preoccupation and his self-absorption of trying to formulate the psychologically astute response, he could relax and have access to a wisdom not of his own making.

The difference that the source out of which our words arise is symbolized by an image from St. Teresa’s work the Meditations on the Song of Songs. She writes: "Martha and Mary never fail to work together when a soul is in this state of union. For in the active and seemingly exterior work, the soul is working interiorly. And when the active work arises from this interior root, they become lovely and very fragrant flowers, for they proceed from this tree of God's love and are done for Him without any self-interest. The fragrance from these flowers spreads for the benefit of many. It is a fragrance that lasts, not passing quickly, but having great effect. When the soul is working interiorly, that is, when we are attentive to what God is teaching us, there is a congruence between what we hear and what we say.

We have an example of this in The Last Conversations of St. Therese. St. Therese tells us that, as she lay dying, one day Mother Gonzaga came in to the infirmary and she noticed that someone had left both a door and a window open, which created a draft. Mother Gonzaga was very, very angry, and demanded that Therese tell her who was responsible. Therese knew it was the infirmarian, Sr. St. Stanislaus. Therese related to Pauline what happened inside of her as she was speaking, and this is what she says: “I told Mother Prioress the truth, but while I was speaking, there came to my mind a more charitable way of expressing it than the one I was going to use. I followed this inspiration and God rewarded me with great peace.” Therese’s choice to have her words formed by what came to her mind of God instructing her in the perfection of love may sound very insignificant to this world. But seen in the eyes of faith, is there anything more important, more apostolic, than charity, which is at the very heart of God, being born into this world?

In the Spiritual Canticle John of the Cross speaks of what he calls the threshold of the soul. Kinda that liminal space inside of us where he says the first movements towards sin and the first movements of inspiration come to our conscious mind. And contemplation is having a vigilance of standing at that threshold. And we have a choice. What will be born and not born into this world? And that’s the heart of the contemplative life which flows over into the apostolic life. If you are looking for significance in your life, if you are looking for what is the heart of Carmel, it is right at that inner crossroads where inner language and outer speech interconnect. But it’s hard to speak what God wants us to say and restrict what God doesn’t want us to say, because it comes in conflict with our pride, our envy, our anger, our animosities, our pettiness. But this is where detachment and purification comes in.

Fifteen years ago, after I had my first book published, two realities became very evident to me. The first is that God has given me a gift to write. The second is, I’m very, very egotistical. (laughter) As I continued to write, there was a battle between what God wanted me to say, and my desire to dazzle my readers with my brilliance. Yeah. I was actually thinking of selling sunglasses out of my book so that people, you know, so their eyes would, uh, you know...But honestly, I remember, and this is the height of arrogance, but for the first six months I actually looked at the New York Times book review to see whether my book was on that best seller list. (laughter) But in the last ten years, or the last fifteen years, I’ve come to realize that writing is a spiritual discipline. It is an aethetical practice of detachment. In the same vein, how hard it is to allow God to edit our speech. But how necessary it is  for both our spiritual purification and our apostolic fruitfulness.

What happens when the words that we speak and the silences that we keep proceed from the tree of God’s love? Well, to quote Teresa: “Their fragrance spreads to the benefit of many, a fragrance that lasts  and that has great effect. And I think this bears on a question that haunts all of us, the older we become: When I come to die, will it make any difference that I have ever lived? If our words proceed from a deep contemplative root, then the fragrance of our life spreads to the benefit of many, and it’s a fragrance that lasts and has great effect.

Isn’t one of the prayers that we pray at Night Prayer, that what we have done during the day may bear fruit for eternal life. This is what we’re talking about, folks.

I’d like to connect this passage from St. Teresa to one taken at the end of the Ascent of Mount Carmel which, although specifically John is talking about preachers, it can be applied to speaking in general.  He writes: “For the preacher to benefit people he should keep in mind that preaching is more a spiritual practice and not a vocal one.” Or, to paraphrase John, speaking is a spiritual practice, probably the most arduous practice that we can engage in in our lives. Speaking what God wants us to say is a spiritual practice which requires detachment as it comes in conflict with our fears, our egotism, our ambitions, our animosities, our tendencies to manipulate, our desires to please and to flatter other people. Again, St. Teresa says in her Meditation on the Song of Songs, “someone preaches a sermon with the intention of benefiting souls but he’s not so detached from human consideration that he doesn’t make some attempt to please, or to gain honor, or credit, or he had in his mind receiving an office of canon for having preached well.” Where are his words coming from? That deep well? Hmm… yes and no. Often it comes from one’s ego. The need to please, the fear to displease, the need to flatter, are motives that can strongly impact what we say and what we don't say. And the question is, who edits our speech. There’s a story about the ancient Greek philosopher Aristippus who, by means of flattery, was able to procure a very lucrative job with Dionysius the King of Sicily. And one day he’s walking down the street, and he sees, sitting on the roadside, the philosopher Diogenes eating a little bowl of lentils. So Aristippus says to him, “Let me offer you some worldly wisdom. If you would only learn to flatter the king, you would not have to live on lentils.” And Diogenes responds, “And if you would only learn to live on lentils, you would not have to flatter the king.” (laughter) “What do kings and lords matter to me?” writes St. Teresa, “if I don’t want their riches, or don’t care to please them?” It is our needs to please people or to flatter people that gives people power over us. And when there’s a detachment, I don't need them.

I would now like to shift our topic from the words that we speak to the silences that we keep. There are many areas that we…. this was tough to choose one… that we could consider regarding silence impacting our spiritual growth and also making our apostolic activity fruitful. But because of time constraints, I’d like to focus on one practice that St. Teresa mentions, and that’s in chapter 15 of The Way of Perfection. And it consists of being silent in the face of criticism. Now, Teresa however, before she gets into this practice, she says it has to be practiced with discretion, within the bounds of common sense. For example, she says that it should not be practiced if by not clarifying a situation, it would cause anger, or give scandal. Ok? So she gives different clarifications where this should not be used. And after making these clarifications or qualifications, Teresa writes of the transformative effect that results in being silent in the face of criticism, and this the first one she gives. “You will not desire to be held in esteem.” Think of that for a moment. We will be released from one of our greatest fears: what other people think of us. Teresa says this takes a long period of time. And she continues … this is an incredible passage here, and it takes you a while to kind of get into it. She says, “Time will be the witness to the benefit you will see in your soul. For one begins to obtain freedom and doesn’t care whether people say good or evil things of you, but rather thinks of what is being said as though it were another person’s affair. The situation is like this, that in which we have two people talking together, but not to you. And then you don’t care about answering. So it is here with the habit that has been acquired of not responding. It doesn’t seem they are speaking to you.” It’s almost as if, when you are detached from what people think of you, people are talking to you, and Teresa is saying, it’s a weird experience, it’s like you’re over here, watching this person talk to you. (laughter) Or, like you are in an audience and you’re seeing yourself up on a stage talking to another person. Now this is true detachment. It’s being present to what is being said, but not being enmeshed in one’s emotions, which make us overreact to what is being said. And we can therefore just simply respond. Take the situation where somebody is attacking you, and you’re standing there in silence, and after the person stops speaking, you simply say, “I really don’t know how to respond to that.” It’s not reacting; he says, “I don’t know what to say.” And you don’t have to engage into a conversation. This gets into the practice of a deep interior peace.

Now, John of the Cross describes a similar practice in his Councils: What to do when you are being chiseled by other people. He says “some people will chisel you by their words, telling you what you would rather not hear, others by their deeds, others by their very temperament, not loving you.” This is a reality. People chisel us, and it’s not going to change. Just take that for granted. Listen to John’s advice. “You ought to suffer these mortifications and annoyances with inner patience being silent for the love of God.” Ultimately, this practice will bring us peace because the fruit of being patient and silent in the face of being chiseled is simply that we don’t overreact to being chiseled. It’s a way of being in a situation that’s not going to change.

A good question to ask oneself regarding any practice is this: If I don't practice being patient and silent for the love of God when I’m being chiseled, what will happen? St. John of the Cross gives us a very, very sobering answer. "They do not get along well with others!" (laughter) That is huge. People are our world. If we are always reacting every time that life chisels us, we become nuclear reactors, and people will not want to deal with us. I mean, this is real tragedy, that people won’t want to deal with you. You are always overreacting. So, it brings us peace, and also it connects us to others.

Finally I would like to say a word about the apostolic fruitfulness of Teresa’s practice of being silent in the face of being criticized, or being silent as we are being chiseled. St. Paul in chapter 12 in his letter to the Romans writes, "Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Never avenge yourselves but leave room for the wrath of God. If your enemy is hungry, feed them and if they are thirsty, give them something to drink, for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their head." (laughter) Biblical scholar Fr Joseph Fitzmeyer says that this phrase “leave room for God’s wrath” can be translated “give an opportunity,” or what we might say “create enough psychic space in the person who is speaking to you that they can hear their own words.” If someone is saying something to you that is either mean or nasty, and you don't fire back, all they have is their own words echoing in their mind. And this provides an opportunity for the person to hear what they have said, and an opportunkity for God’s grace to be operative. And when this happens, the coals of burning shame are heaped upon the person’s head, and this can be a moment of revelation. This is an example of the apostolic fruitfulness of Teresa’s practice of being silent in the face of criticism or of being maligned in some way.

As Shakespeare puts it, the silence of pure innocence persuades when speaking fails.

If there’s one thing I would like all of us to take away from this talk, is whether we accept it or not, whether we like it or not, all of us are very powerful people. And words are perhaps the most powerful thing that we possess The first image of God that we have in the Scriptures is a God who creates by words. “And God said, and so it came into being.”  Likewise, when we speak, there are consequences. When we speak words of kindness and forgiveness, people are healed.And when we spew out words of hate and envy, people are wounded.

In regards to this, Edith Stein writes the following (in Vol 5 Essays on Women, The Problem of Women's Education, pp. 231-232): “When one has grasped the essential import of speech, one knows that it signifies a responsibility taken upon oneself, and that one must have reverence for words. Intentionally or not, the word always reveals the speaker’s soul. It is released from the soul’s innermost depths like a ripened fruit, and discloses the soul’s inner activity. An unrestrained verbal outburst betrays the soul’s seeking or raging. Thoughtless speech testifies to superficial dealings. And speech always has its repercussions on others souls. The word can enrich other souls, stimulate and guide them, or it can injure them, and cause them to retreat into themselves, and it can leave a deadly mark upon them.”

I’d like to end this talk with an image taken from Paradise Lost by John Milton. It’s taken from book four where Milton attempts to do something that is virtually impossible. He tries to describe to us who live in a fallen world, who has not known anything except a fallen world, what the world was like before the fall. And in one passage, Milton describes the rivers that arise out of the crystal pure spring located in the center of the garden. “There rose a fresh fountain that watered the garden and rolled on Oriental pearl and sands of gold with maisy error under pendant shades.” Error -- that’s e-r-r-o-r. And all of a sudden you’re shocked. He deliberately jars us with the word “error” which has connotations of offense and violation and sin. In paradise? What’s he trying to do? Well, Milton was the greatest Latinist of his day, and he often chose a word based on the original Latin meaning. And Milton scholars feel that this is what he is doing here. Before the word “error” took on any moral connotations, it simply meant to wander, what an innocent child would do.  Thus what Milton is saying is that paradise is a place where all language is innocent. Where all language is pure. It is unaffected by pride, envy, hate. Because all language arises from a crystal clear fount.

Think how different our world would be if all speech and all silences arose out of the inner dwelling place of God’s presence. Think of a world in which all of us are like Martha and Mary who never fail to work together, in which our active works arise from a deep, interior root. They become lovely and very fragrant flowers, for they proceed from the tree of God's love. And the fragrance from these flowers spreads for the benefit of many, a fragrance that lasts and has great effect.

Thank you.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

A Pilgrimage Blog

I hesitated to do this, but I have started a new blog. It will not replace this blog, or at least that's not my intention. If I sense it spinning out of control, I'll re-evaluate. But to be able to more easily share just about my experience of pilgrimage to Poland, I have started A Pilgrim in Poland. Please consider checking it out.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

One Massive Paradigm Shift


Just today I was thinking about one of the most important paradigm shifts of my life. I believe it was in 2009 or 2010, which was a season of big, important changes for me. I was at a presentation on the Theology of the Body, which is only cursorily important to the shift. In one moment, I realized that all of my life I had understood myself, either consciously or subconsciously, as a wounded child: broken, dysfunctional, and needy. Place the most emphasis on that last word: needy. Needy, in the sense that I could not give to others because my own needs were so overwhelmingly great. And in that moment of paradigm shift, I realized that this simply was no longer true of how I saw myself. I saw that I have received so much, to the degree that I have a lot to give, and indeed have been called to give it.

And as I look back over the last six or seven years, I see that this one little moment was a flash of insight that showed me a completely new direction in which my life was headed.

For years, the healing stories of Jesus have fascinated me. Think of it: a lot of the stories involve people with long-standing problems that are suddenly gone. The blind man sees. The lepers are healed. The hemorrhaging woman is freed. The withered hand is whole. Just think of the crisis this kind of change provokes, and the courage that it actually requires to have a life-defining circumstance removed, even if it has been a plague. One has to thoroughly relearn how to live, how to re-establish relationships, and one's own sense of self.

It is one thing to have a physical symptom removed; it is another thing to live with a new identity. What I realized today is that I have to work very hard to even remember that I once had a chronic underlying identity as one too broken, too unloved, too dysfunctional to even think in terms of contributing to the well-being of the world or to be part of the new creation.

We all have pain and brokenness. Ironically it is healed by facing reality. "Reality is too harsh, too painful," many say, and it is true; sometimes it is extremely painful. It is why we can only handle so much at once, and it is why we numb ourselves by all sorts of means. But God is in reality. Faith in God, practically speaking, is really about entrusting our personal pain to the real, open gaze of God, and not bolting. Letting Him see us, which generally entails us seeing us and then trusting that God is not the ogre we imagine, because of whatever pain we hold in the first place.

It's not a quick fix. It is a steady process. And even thought I had that sudden paradigm shift, there was still a long process, before and after, of appropriation. And we don't have to run that program, only cooperate with the program God runs. Mostly we need to stay faithful to saying, "Lord, you're seeing this, right?" and being honest about what we think and feel and want and about forgiving the people, including ourselves, that we blame for not being God. And we need to repent of the idolatry of wanting what is created to be all-fulfilling to us. There is only one God, and we cannot order Him around like a cosmic butler who exists to keep us cared for. He is God; we serve Him. His love transforms us, and in the process of all things in us becoming new, we lose our cravings for earthly goods and are enflamed with desire for union with Him instead. Our souls become agents, partners, of His transforming love in this creation.

This is my testimony. It has happened to me, or rather is happening to me in some degree. It is the work of God in my life, and I am grateful. If I could reproduce this in the souls and lives of others it would make me incredibly happy. Many, many times I have sensed, almost like seeing in shadows, many unknown, hidden souls who have prayed me through many layers of conversion in my life. And I have known the call to join their number, to prepare in prayer the same banquet of love for others.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Buy Gold

For you say, ‘I am rich and affluent and have no need of anything,’ and yet do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I advise you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich, and white garments to put on so that your shameful nakedness may not be exposed, and buy ointment to smear on your eyes so that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and chastise. Be earnest, therefore, and repent.

This word from the book of Revelation chapter 3 has been echoing inside me all morning. Every bit of commenting I read about the presumptive Republican nominee sends it echoing again.

But our need in this country is for something much greater than a statesman or a decent politician. I'm going to look the professing Christians in the eye and issue this challenge, the same one that Jesus gave the Laodiceans: Buy Gold.

And what does it mean? How do you do it? For that's the first thing: if Christians don't even know what makes the Christian life distinctive from human attempts at being morally upright, it is no wonder that we are spiritually bankrupt.

Jesus has the gold. We buy it from Him by picking up the cross that is ours and following Him. As we do this, we give ourselves over to conformity to Him by the Holy Spirit. (Fear not, little freedom lover, conformity is not a dirty word when you are conforming to the infinite God.) As we follow Him, taking His concerns as ours, He takes our concerns as His. They are transformed. We are changed. And He compensates us with gold.

Then we exchange that gold for the transformation of souls and the world around us through love, grace and peace.

If we don't follow, we don't gain gold. Without gold, we are left deeply poor, too poor to even cover ourselves. If we don't grasp the futility of human work to accomplish divine things, we are blind fools. The only thing that we can offer to God for the transformation of souls is the good He has given us through our personal share in His cross.


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Sunday, April 17, 2016

Lessons from the Mystics for Normal People

Last weekend was the annual retreat for my Secular Carmelite community, and for the first time since I have been involved we had a Carmelite friar as retreat master. I loved our previous retreat master who preached the last three I attended; his messages moved my heart and have stayed alive with me all this time. But there was something uniquely wonderful about having a Father of my own charism teaching this time. It was not so much the things he said that have stayed with me (although I gleaned much) as it was his lived witness of being a Carmelite.

The Lord taught me many years ago that a key component in evangelizing a soul is to reveal to that soul, by the grace of God, who he or she is, deeply, in the truth and reality that is God Himself. In other words, when God uses me to tell someone else who they truly are, an encounter with Christ has taken place.

So I'd say I encountered Christ last weekend.

And he reminded me of reality: You are a Carmelite. You are a mystic. And here's what it means for you.

Now, hold the phone. Mystics are weird, right? They have bizarre experiences and it is probably either psychological delusion supported by the ignorant, pious blindness of those around them, and probably half the stories about them are prideful, desperate, embellished daydreams to wield power over simple people, or blah blah blah.

Well, no. Although we spent the weekend learning about a mystic of recent times who would have to push the envelope of skeptics to the breaking point very quickly: St. Mary of Jesus Crucified. She had experiences that make the mystical phenomenon of St. Padre Pio look tame.

Mystical prayer simply means prayer that is the Holy Spirit's that happens in us humans. It is not necessarily accompanied by unusual experiences, though it can be. It is not necessarily a sensibly powerful experience, though it can be.

Secular Carmelites make a promise to spend a half hour each day in this type of prayer. This promised prayer is not for personal benefit or growth, but for the Church. Friars and nuns promise two hours of this type of prayer every day.

I've known this for years now, but I had a moment this last weekend where this simply clicked for me on a deeper level. A "naru hodo" moment. And in conjunction with this whole retreat, I found an incredible joy in being able to stretch out my whole being into this vocation and exclaim "This is who I am. This is where I belong."


St. Mary of Jesus Crucified (1846-1878)

As we studied the life of St. Mary of Jesus Crucified, we learned this means sharing the gloriously joyful delights of union with God, as well as the crushing pains and sufferings of union with Jesus. But it also means simply living the normal life we have as normal secular Carmelites, by faith.

And that is what normal people can glean from mystics who levitate, have visions of heaven and hell, converse with saints and angels, have the stigmata which bleed onto sheets in drops that spell out words, who persuade Popes of things by letters someone else has to transcribe because of being illiterate, being martyred but surviving because the Blessed Virgin comes to personally nurse her back to life for a month (and on, and on, and on). We hear the testimony of the mystic, of the Carmelite, whose call, according to our rule, is to bear witness to the experience of God. The vast majority of mystical phenomenon may be things we never experience, but by faith we can acknowledge the things mystics see face to face, and live in the light of their reality.

So, yes, I believe the testimony of a mystic to whom it was given to see how many angels are crowded into an empty church, and how many more guardian angels are present during a Mass. I can't see them, but I remember when I enter a church that they are there (sometimes, I do), and I respond accordingly.

Yes, I believe the testimony of many, many mystics who have seen visions of many souls falling into hell, because I know it is a possibility and I am called to pray that it not happen.

Yes, I believe the experience of the mystics who suffer interior torments when people think they are crazy, but then they find that this is typical of a process of purification Jesus often employs for souls with this vocation. I use this insight to face my own blander struggles with courage, offer them to God, and then refocus my attention away from my own needs and onto what is going on in the heart of Jesus, trusting that Jesus will care for me and I don't have to obsess.

And when mysterious things happen in my own life, I am not surprised but simply realize this is evidence God is real, which is exactly what I should expect, and that he uses these things to purify souls and draw them away from the baubles and distractions of the world. So I take courage and thank God for drawing me.

So don't bristle at the term mystic. Like many words it has experienced abuse, but it is a genuine stream of Catholic spirituality that is indispensable for our time.