Wednesday, October 29, 2014

What Prayer Isn't About

Ask ten different people; get ten different answers. Actually, it wouldn't even require that. All I would need is to dip into ten different points in my own history. I could easily find moments where I found prayer to be boring, emotional, introspection, rote, liturgical, charismatic, frightening, healing, painful, anger-inducing, and on and on. And then there are all of those formal definitions, like prayer is raising the mind to God, or ACTS (adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, supplication), or claiming God's promises, or meditating on Scripture. The intellectual mind likes a nice default definition so that it feels like it knows something.

But what is prayer about? Prayer is basically the Carmelite charism. Pope Benedict XVI put it very simply: "Carmel teaches the Church how to pray." It sure has been teaching me. The Lord has been gently correcting me on what prayer isn't about.

Maybe, faithful Christian, you've had this kind of experience: You pray earnestly for something and you actually have felt the Holy Spirit nudging you to pray in a certain way or for a certain concern. Maybe that nudge has been long and even strong. So you pray. You pray, and pray some more.

Now, what do you really want as a result?

You want to see your prayers answered. You want to see God come through and deal with it. Right?

Here's one thing I've learned: That isn't necessarily what God wants.

Oh, but the prayer of a righteous man availeth much, and we are agreeing with God's will to be done, and no man can stand against what God has ordained, and ...

And God actually wants your heart.

He's not really into you getting a happy little sense of control by your prayers, like you are the lynch-pin that makes things happen. Like without you, He can't do a thing. And why are you wringing your hands as if you can explain to God why it is so important that He do what you are asking? Do you think He only started caring about it since you prayed?

It is true: we are called to partnership with God, and He does ask us to ask that His will be done. But His will is primarily that He is Lord, fully and completely. More than anything, He wants us, in our totality. Surrendered, available, desiring nothing else but Him. Not His blessings, not proof of His power or ours, not answers, only our Ultimate Good. 

God wants our union with Him, and then He will orchestrate our lives and circumstances so that His kingdom is extended through us. He wants each of His children to become the answer to the prayers of the humble who cry out to Him in their need.

And part of our transformation comes via constantly sharing our heart with Him, emptying out before Him all of our thoughts, loves, concerns, problems, and feelings, worries for others. We pour it all out, and we behold Him who poured out everything for us. Do we want Him who fills us? Or does it take something else?

And when we come to that moment where we simply love God, our hearts overflow over all the needs and loves and people, and God's mercy that is enveloping us embraces all these, and we extend that fountain of mercy to the whole world. Not by might, and not by power (or willing it, or getting the right prayer formula, or length of time or number of words), but by the power of the Holy Spirit operating through us. So it is Jesus, really, praying through us, loving through us, ministering through us, extending His life, His love, His kingdom, His healing to the world.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

God the Servant

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Gird your loins and light your lamps
and be like servants who await their master’s return from a wedding,
ready to open immediately when he comes and knocks.
Blessed are those servants
whom the master finds vigilant on his arrival.
Amen, I say to you, he will gird himself,
have them recline at table, and proceed to wait on them.
And should he come in the second or third watch
and find them prepared in this way,
blessed are those servants.”  Luke 12:35-38

Maybe it is because I've been doing a lot of reading about the early Roman Empire lately, but one word from this passage struck me today: servant. Jesus was appealing to his followers to learn to emulate those of the lowest class. I find this striking because of what it says about Jesus' attention versus the typical attention focus.

Those who want to become somebody typically look to those they consider to be somebody. We look to the powerful, the influential, those with money, those with what we want. And then either we hate them, or we get in camps behind them, or beat ourselves up over how we aren't them, or we try to figure out how to be them. But however we respond, our attention is focused.

Jesus' attention is focused on the most lowly. He shows his disciples his own pursuit, and so reveals something terribly profound about God.

Jesus tells us to wait with vigilance for the presence of the Master. We have been charged with a responsibility to carry out what the Master desires. We know what He desires both because He tells us but even more so simply because of living with Him.

But while his listeners are still trying to digest the directive to set aside their pride and become lowly in their own eyes, Jesus says something that surely would have made their heads spin: the Master Himself will become their servant! This is life in union with God! Just when we thought we have given everything and have laid our lives out as an offering, the Master comes with mercy that meets our needs, fills us, and humbles us even further, inflaming our hearts with love for Him and spurring us on to long for some opportunity for service.

The longer and the more sacrificial the wait, the deeper the blessing.

Our Father wants nothing to interrupt the flow of His giving to us and our giving back to Him. That is life with God.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A Feast Day Gift (Or, When Things Make Sense)

Today is the feast of St. Teresa of Avila, reformer of the Carmelites, my spiritual mother, mi Madre. I use that term with deep affection and a tremendous conviction which is far beyond my ability to simply drum up from myself. I have been called. Though I am still four years away from my definitive profession, there is probably nothing of which I am more sure than this: I am called to be a daughter of St. Teresa.

Several days ago I met some Carmelite nuns who happened to give me a prayer card with the official prayer of the Centenary (we are celebrating St. Teresa's 500th birthday beginning today and for a year). I had read the prayer several times before today, but in typical feast day fashion I read it today and it blew me away. Here is the text:

Saint Teresa of Jesus, holy mother,
wholehearted servant of love,
teach us to walk with determined fidelity
along the path of interior prayer,
attentive to the presence
of the Blessed Trinity,
God dwelling deep within us.
At the school of Mary our Mother
strengthen within us these foundations:
a genuine humility,
a heart free from attachment,
and an unconditional love for others.
Share with us your intense
apostolic love for the Church.
May Jesus be our joy,
our hope and our energy,
an unquenchable fountain
and our most intimate Friend.
Bless our Carmelite family.
Teach us to make your prayer our own:
"I am yours, I was born for you.
What is your will for me?"

God weaves the weird bits of our lives into a tapestry that eventually makes sense. And this morning after Mass was one of those breath-catching and tear-spilling moments when I saw, instead of the random chaos of threads, God's weaving work.

Here's what I see now, clearly.

God has been calling me to Carmel since I was a Protestant. That I know, and I've written about that stuff here. And even in that post I had a strongly inkling about the rest of what I'll write now.

A few years ago I went through a horrendously difficult spiritual season, that followed directly after a gloriously powerful spiritual season. Both stemmed from a relationship that had no real reason (other than God's design) not to be average and mundane. But instead of mundane, it was mystical. No, actually, it was both. At the same time. God did lots of unusual things in conjunction with this person, through him, but completely without his knowledge. I knew all along it was God who was communicating with me, acting in me. These seasons have occurred to me in the past in smaller or greater degrees, but they hadn't for about 20 years at that time. I rather thought I'd outgrown that sort of thing.

The Lord even told me towards the beginning of all this that this man was like St. John the Baptist for me. I remember saying, "Gee, Lord, I hope he's not going to die in three years." Well, he did not die, but after three years there was a sudden death-knell to the glory of what had been our friendship. And one of the final kicks in my gut came on the Feast of the Beheading of John the Baptist. Nice touch, Lord.

And what set the death-knell in process was also a mystical thing, an action God required of me. It was a firm call, with a set time. It left me wide-open vulnerable to far more than I realized at the time, even though I had no goal other than obedience. I knew God was launching me forth, but I had no idea where -- I didn't even think about that sort of thing.

The image that time evokes is St. Bernadette hearing the Blessed Mother say to her, "Drink from the spring, wash in the spring" when there wasn't any spring. The Song of Bernadette depicts her scratching in the dirt, wiping mud on her face and eating weeds. People carried her off presuming her to be crazy. And then the water flowed, and the healings started.

What happened as the upshot of that obedience I carried out, that wiping of mud all over my face, was the most spiritually painful thing I have ever endured. It was a solid 18 months, with several extra bonus periods dribbling over, of soul-searing pain. I've used this analogy before, but it was like God spent those first three years gently caressing my head, and gathering back all of my (very long and thick) hair into His hands. But then in one movement, He cut it off. I had to decide who that was with His hands in my hair: were we like St. Francis and St. Claire -- was God responding to my loving entreaties to belong entirely to Him? Or was it like the WWII movie I once saw -- where I was a Jewess and God a Nazi barber, shearing away my hair and my dignity. What pained me the most was that in the deepest part of my feeling, I wasn't sure.


Here's what I know now.

During this long searing process, I gained three things, had three new foundations laid in me (check out that prayer again):

Humility. Oy vey. Pride and self-righteousness underwent mass destruction. God wanted me to see clearly everything I'm made of, the good, the bad and the ugly. And the beautiful.

A heart free from attachment: Oy vey again. Yes, I became very attached to this man, like a little child gets attached to, say, a puppy that it loves dearly but also relies on for comfort. God gives us comfort to heal our wounds, but He also knows that if we rely too long on comfort, we stay childish when we should be growing strong. To everything there is a season. And to really learn detachment, we have to really experience an attachment that can safely be broken.

An unconditional love for others: Oy, oy, oy vey. You see, after things blew apart and St. John got his head lopped off, there were many, many facets of what happened that angered me deeply. But God would not let me turn to bitterness and hatred. In fact, He insisted that I use this as a means to learn to keep loving, sans the good feelings. In fact, I tried refusing to love this man, and I found I could not love anyone. The Lord showed me that if I want to to try loving the way He loves, it's going to hurt. But it frees.

This season of my life hurt so badly primarily because love, detachment, and humility were so terribly foreign to me. I felt like I was dying. And in fact, I was. I was dying to myself.

And I was having the stage set for my being called to Carmel. It was a huge gift. It was a mystical gift and an intense trial of faith. And today mi Madre sat me down to show me how it makes sense.

Oh, and there's one more thing. A month ago, on retreat, the Lord gave me this one phrase that captured what had remained ineffable to me for years, this thing I knew and longed for: Apostolic Love. And there it is in that prayer: "Share with us your intense apostolic love for the Church." Of course St. Teresa had apostolic love: she went all over Spain making new foundations of the new reform of the Carmelites. She was entirely fueled by love and she worked as hard as she prayed.

I'm nothing original. I'm just called to be a daughter of St. Teresa. It all makes sense. Ha!

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Why Praise Music Fails

It's been almost two months since I went on this walking pilgrimage, but today a certain facet of it is standing out to me in big relief: praise music.

Music has always been a very big deal to me, and I lived through 80s charismatic praise music (at least in the tail end of that decade), and because I became a Catholic in the early 90s, I also got to experience some of the 60s/70s praise music. (Some of you will realize what I mean.)  I experienced genuine healing through very good worship leaders in various stages of my life.

But I also experienced this:

When we stick with any format simply because it is what we know, there is the danger of having no idea at all why we are doing it or even what we are doing.All of a sudden, our experience is empty.

When I was on that walking pilgrimage, I discovered a truth about praising God. Simply put, the time to praise God is when complaining comes more naturally. The moment to praise God is when we are feeling the cross we carry get heavier. That is the time to look at your brothers and sisters and point them towards God's mercy and goodness, and simply proclaim that He is worthy of our lives, our praise, our cross-carrying. That is the moment to proclaim my choice to serve God who is all good and worthy of my love.

Praise expands that love in my own heart. Praise edifies those who hear. Praise lifts us up from the difficulties we are all simultaneously acknowledging, but looking beyond. Praise is not denial of our human experience (like my friends who would not "confess" they had a cold, but simply that cold symptoms were manifesting). Praise is instead acknowledging the greater truth of God and His kingdom.

Praise is the way to embrace the cross.

To embrace the cross in community requires everyone being in tune with and on the level about the crosses they face.

And frankly I think that is why praise music is such an empty fail in many communal settings. We don't typically have any impetus gathering us this way, and we all try to hide our sufferings from ourselves and from one another.

The joy exhibited in this communal praise is, however, I believe, precisely the joy Pope Francis continually calls Christians to exhibit.

This is from the English group in 2009, not this year, but it gives a sense of what I mean. Note this is not about musical quality!

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

St Thérèse and the Terrifying Joy of Vulnerability

It is no secret that I was a devout non-fan of St. Thérèse for many of my Catholic years. Everyone was all "St. Thérèse this" and "St. Thérèse that," and I just simply could not warm up to her. In fact, she was the only saint that I felt a particular aversion towards.

My aversion was rooted in my ignorance, and my ignorance was fed by the tiny bit of knowledge I had about her. She was sweet, humble, simple, joyful, trusting.... and childlike.

Ok, let's be honest. Another factor in my aversion is that I really thought she simply was these things naturally. And, the heart of all my aversion was that I knew I am not those things.

But of course no saint comes by her virtues naturally. Not every saint goes through the dregs of sin, but no saint comes by virtue except by walking the way of the cross. I missed that about St. Thérèse.

But now, I have to admit, I am beginning to grasp St. Thérèse's profundity and why she is a Doctor of the Church, and perhaps some of why she was given to our age. And, particularly, why I need her so dang much.

St. Thérèse was the one who famously summarized her vocation, the Carmelite vocation, thus: "In the heart of the Church, I shall be love." She knew that love encompassed everything that she wanted to be -- Carmelite, spouse, mother, warrior, priest, apostle, doctor, martyr -- because love is the essence of all these things.

God is love, and the love of the Father is made manifest in Christ. If you want to see the ultimate in love, behold the Crucified One.

It is true, what Freud says. We are never so vulnerable as when we love. St. Thérèse embraced this call to be love, as she says, with "delirious joy." But vulnerability like that of the Crucified One is no weakling's task, nor it is anything akin to natural to any mere human.

St. Thérèse had made of herself an oblation to Divine Love, asking that all the pent-up mercy of God's heart be poured out upon her. Mercy is for misery. It seems to me that there is a connection between this offering and the fact of her tremendous spiritual and physical suffering she endured in the last phase of her life, offered all for the conversion of sinners. For example, she had no feeling of certainty that there was a heaven, or anything beyond death except nothingness. She desired to experience this type of suffering for the conversion of atheists and all manner of souls who had separated themselves from God. This is heavy-duty, tough-slogging intercession.

The essence of what I could never appreciate about St. Thérèse earlier is that I did not understand what it takes for the human heart to be made child-like, vulnerable, loving, and sweetly self-giving. It takes the cross. It takes death to self. It takes the spiritual night, where the light faith gives becomes like darkness. The mystery of the cross is in that moment where Christ cries out "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" There is something so child-like in this mystery of experiencing being deeply alone when in reality, we are not.

In my experience, vulnerability is terrifying, but then it is freeing. The experience of the cross is terrifying, and then it is freeing. The terror comes from our darkness being purged from us, from losing that which binds us, like the young men in the fiery furnace. But instead of knowing our bondage as bondage, we tend to think it is what is "keeping us together."

The joy and childlike abandon of St. Thérèse is not a natural state. It is the fruit of the cross going deep. When I look at her now, I realize that in Christ there is hope for me, a newcomer to joy, innocence, and trust. The more I open myself to God's mercy, the more I too can become little and know how fiercely I am loved.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Gift of Vulnerability

"[God] will not find us at the center of our certainties. That is not where the Lord looks. He will find us on the margins, in our sins, in our mistakes, in our need for spiritual healing, for salvation; that is where the Lord will find us”.

This quote from Pope Francis is one to which the preacher on my recent silent retreat referred several times.

The "margins" of our hearts are the places where we stand in need of God's mercy, and we know it, but dang, we don't really like it.

Ironically, these are the places most people expend enormous energy in order to hide from others, from their own meditation, or hope they can hide from God. Our sorry stock of shame is exactly where God is attracted, exactly where He is hoping most to be admitted. It's where we are most painfully in need.

The margins of our hearts are where we are vulnerable.

I've had an interesting and varied relationship with vulnerability in my almost-47 years. But currently I realize that I have both a natural propensity for it, and I've also exercised it to the point where I am OK with being vulnerable. What is most interesting to me is that I have only now realized that this not something to hate about myself; is a gift, and something to be desired for growth in the spiritual life.

I've certainly spent a lot of time hating myself for getting in vulnerable situations and feeling needy. Of course, it hasn't helped that a lot of normal things make me feel that way! I have beaten myself up over how much it seems everything in my life has required courage. Everything! It has always seemed that things that came so easily to everyone else made me feel so terribly vulnerable.

A few decades ago I lived in an old apartment building that grew gigantic icicles in the winter. One day I watched one of these glisten on my fire escape: snow, melting from heat escaping from the poorly insulated roof, dripped down the icicle's side and hovered at the tip and froze there. I mused that its point of greatest vulnerability to breaking was also where it was growing and becoming what it was.

We are people, though, not icicles. The only way vulnerability can become a moment of growth is when you choose to step forward into that vulnerable state and find that not only are you not crushed, but you are safe. Completely safe. And the only way to step forward, I have found, is a combination of trust or faith in God (more-or-less specifically) or in the goodness inherent in the unknown factors involved. There is also something to be said simply for cumulative experiences of risk-taking. You leap across a rickety bridge, and each sure step gives you the courage to take another that you hope will also support you long enough to keep hopping.

And you know what? There are times when one steps out in faith into a vulnerable position and you free fall for a little bit. It doesn't feel safe at all. You have to seriously consider whether you just made a terrible, awful mistake. There is no immediate reward of a sense of safety. There is only faith, and the assurance faith gives you can be like a vaguely flickering light. This might last for weeks, months, or years. It kinda sucks.

But then the pieces come together, the lights come on, and you see all the risk and faith was perfectly reasonable.

I think if I were to watch my life like a movie running from God's perspective, I might see the action  differently. I think I would see the Holy Spirit orchestrating opportunity after opportunity to answer my desire to be drawn close to God. To God, the lights are always on. And He constantly sends the message: Trust Me. Be brave. Step forward. Yes, you feel all a mess because, in places, you are a mess. But I madly love you, and want to enter all that mess, all those margins, with My mercy. And then you can go and be My mercy to others so they might receive it, too.

When we feel accompanied in a place of our vulnerability, our hearts open wide. God's mercy is able to enter, and tremendous things result. Old pains are healed. We realize we are lovable and we can start to bask in being loved. Our thinking and our actions change as a result. We experience conversion.

But something else can happen when third parties witness experiences of vulnerability in others. This stirs up their own sense of vulnerability, from which they are busy hiding themselves. When these people start to feel their vulnerability, instead of feeling accompanied by witnessing God's mercy to a soul, they feel alone and left out. They shut down. They harden. They hunker down in their position of rejecting God's mercy and love or snap themselves out of any faint stirrings they felt towards openness and receiving. They push others away with layers of whatever they protect themselves with. They may resort to expressions of hatred, ridicule, and violence, or more respectable responses like indifference, eye-rolling, or the pursuit of distractions. Anything but the courage to believe that God's mercy is for them, too.

Sometimes I struggle to respect the delicate space where others hide their vulnerability. I have exercised so much courage, sometimes rather gruffly, for myself, that I forget that I cannot come ramming at full steam into the heart and life of another. And perhaps more often than not, fear of my own "full steam" will cause me to stall out before I get to the place where I can actually be of help to someone who desires it from me.

Because surely God has not tutored me with this bizarre gift that I railed against and rejected for so long just for the fun of it. Everything God gives to each one is for everyone.

So show me, Lord, how you gave me this for someone else. Or, at least make it a benefit for someone else, whether I see it or not.

Monday, September 15, 2014

My Word in Silence: Apostolic Love

This last weekend I was on a silent retreat whose theme was mercy. This was a genuine experience of God's grace for everyone I spoke with (and there were about 60 of us there). There is much that I will be able to bask in and meditate on and practice with for months to come. But I also came away with a word, a phrase really, that wasn't so much a part of the theme or the preaching, but it was simply from God for me. Really, yes, it has everything to do with God's mercy for me.

There is a reality that I have experienced and grown in for years, and have been able to identify, to feel, to mourn the lack of, to long for, to be called to -- and yet I never had a word for it. It wasn't, I think, because I lacked the creativity or the intelligence to know what to call it. It was more like God wanted it to stay in the realm of the ineffable for me. So it could do its work in me without my being able to communicate about it with any precision. But now He has given me the word.

And the word is this: apostolic love.

No, not Christian love; not spiritual love; not spiritual friendship; not apostolic zeal.

But apostolic love.

This is a love that is born from the cross of Christ in the hearts of those who share in it. It is a love that wants to stand shoulder-to-shoulder and move out into the world to bring Christ's love to those who do not know Christ's love. It inspires risk and work and joy and pain. It creates a bond that is not about cementing people to each other, but about a common drawing to the cross of Christ, which is the freeing unity of becoming His bond-slaves. It means giving one's life for Christ by giving it to Christ's people. It is the bond of unity in the Holy Spirit -- the person's unity with Christ and unity with fellow-Christian.

It takes incredible faith to move into this, because there is tremendous personal cost involved. This experience of unity with Christ and other souls requires the experience of Christ's cross.

It is what the Bishop-martyrs testify to: St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. John Chrysostom, St. Paul with the Ephesians in Acts 20.

When Christian life is calculated on the basis of intellectual assent to dogmatic or moral norms and lame "moral choices" made while ensconced on the comfortable couch of one's luxuries, all this zealous vigor of apostolic love gets drained and we are left with lifeless, fruitless, motionless religiosity that, I believe, is the essence of what made Jesus want to spew the Laodiceans out of his mouth.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Detachment and the Prophetic Vocation

Several months ago I started to feel sort of spiritually stalked by the prophets of Scripture. Actually, truth be told, I've always felt an affinity to them, especially to Elijah. But roughly a year ago it was like they were closing in on me, tugging on me and speaking to my heart.

At first this made me feel self-conscious and strange, mostly because prophets seem weird and awesome. Whenever I've heard a reading proclaimed at Mass from a prophet or about a prophet, I've always been intrigued more about how the message impacted the prophet than the impact of the message on the people. My fascination always took that shape. So, this tugging I felt troubled me a bit.

Slowly I have realized the obvious: God has called me to be a Carmelite. The Carmelite vocation is prophetic. Well, duh.

Actually, the Christian vocation is prophetic. But the Christian vocation is everything. It used to scandalize me that within the Catholic Church there were unique paths for individuals. I was scandalized because I only knew how to think in terms of being "right." How could both Franciscans and Jesuits be "right" about their spirituality?! One may as well ask how blue and yellow can both be "right." "Blue is blue and must be that, but yellow is none the worse for it" the poem goes.

And I have learned, am learning, that to follow in the footsteps of our holy father Elijah, I need all this stuff that God has been investing Himself into teaching me in these last years: courage, detachment, obedience, detachment, a listening heart, detachment, freedom of tongue, detachment, fearlessness, detachment. And detachment. Did I mention detachment?

Detachment is not about aloofness. It is about having my whole orientation governed by dependence on and union with God, and not by my own preferences and tastes, fears or obsessions. It is learning to go when God says go, to stop when God says stop, to speak and be silent whenever God says speak or be silent. It seems also to mean not to put my expectations in myself, and to accept my own limitations and frailty. But it also means to never, ever excuse myself from following through on what my conscience tells me to do, even though I'm aware my conscience is fallible. God throws His voice sometimes. He might very well plant a directive that, at the time, seems to have no use at all. But faith responds and the light comes later.

Mostly, I guess, detachment teaches me that I belong to Christ and His Body, which are much bigger than I am. When I do what is mine, others can function. And yet, I'm not a cog. I also grow in freedom and self-possession when I give myself to God and others. I give, and I become more, not less.

Inside me, being prophetic seems to be about asking the Lord to speak, move, live, love, minister and be present through me. Sometimes the Lord does that in ways that feel a bit freaky. But mostly the Lord works quietly, peacefully, and humbly, and this is the part I struggle to master. So much to let go of. So much truth to welcome in and allow to penetrate. Such a great Mystery to adore.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Unnatural Attachment to Chaos

Today is the feast of St. Rose of Lima. This morning I read this from her writings:

Let all men know that grace comes after tribulation. Let them know that without the burden of afflictions it is impossible to reach the height of grace.... This is the only true stairway to paradise, and without the cross they can find no road to climb to heaven.

We cannot obtain grace unless we suffer afflictions...

No one would complain about his cross or about troubles that may happen to him, if he would come to know the scales on which they are weighed when they are distributed to men.

Last year when I read this same thing on her feast day, I remember being struck by this truth that graces come to us through our crosses, or rather through our experience of Christ's cross.

But this morning, something rather different struck me.

Yes, there's the natural shrinking from what is unpleasant. But I believe in this generation there is another problem as well: there is sometimes an unnatural gravitation towards chaos, turmoil and self-inflicted pain.

There's something in the psyche of one who has experienced childhood chaos, turmoil and pain that has taught us that somehow these are where to seek comfort. No, it doesn't make sense, and I think those who repeat this cycle have some level of awareness of its absurdity. The mixture of this kind of mentality with religion is terribly toxic and, I believe, deceptive. One could read St. Rose's words and glory in reproducing or mentally wallowing in life's pains, making them worse than they need to be. For the non-religious person, the reproduction or the wallowing will be there anyway, but not so much the glorying. The saint might give this religious person an excuse to keep living in bondage to injury.

The key to breaking out of this cycle is detachment from one's own will, even the will to "endure pain." St. Rose makes it clear that the cross she describes is something that happens, something given to us, not something created by us. If I have a dreadfully messy house in which I can never find anything, that is not a cross given to me by God; it is something I have created. If I bemoan the fact that no one ever calls me, that is something I can remedy by reaching out to others. It would be wrong for me to sit at home and feel despised and glory in this, thinking I am winning souls to God this way. The gift God makes of suffering, and salutary penances I can choose have absolutely nothing to do with twisted self-punishment.

Sometimes we cling to the only security blankets we have ever known. If pain or generalized discomfort is life-long, it can actually become a crutch, something we don't know how to live without. Submission of our will to God will need to take the form of welcoming and receiving His love, peace, and joy. "Be loved!" and "be happy!" can, for some souls, be the hardest commands to which to respond "Yes, Lord."

Monday, August 11, 2014

Reflections on the Walking Pilgrimage to Czestochowa

Yesterday my two kids and I returned from a four day walking pilgrimage from Great Meadows, NJ to the National Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa. I was really excited about it, with more than a little apprehension about whether I could physically handle it, or whether my kids would either be crushed or complain bitterly against me for suggesting we do this.

They both loved it. My asthmatic daughter had not one breathing problem. Everyone was tired, but no one complained. I don't want to use the cliche "it was amazing," because really, it was walking. And praying. And sleeping in tents with a couple thousand people doing the same within inches of you. And lining up for porta potties. And eating more wheat than I have in a long time. And being in the hot sun. And no longer caring what you look like. And thinking a chance for both water AND soap in significant quantities is luxurious. And remembering the pain of not understanding the language at Mass, but experiencing how rich it actually makes you feel to suck all the life out of the one bit you do understand.

The whole thing was a grace, and an offering of love.

Things confirmed to me:

i) The key to joy in life is penance. Penance is suffering experienced and offered back to God out of love for Him and for someone else. Like King David said in 2 Sam. 24:24, offering something to God that doesn't cost you anything doesn't cut it. If you want to tell God you love Him, let it cost you your comfort. If you want to tell God you love someone and you want Him to work in them, let it cost you your comfort. Love costs and love seeks to give of itself. When we habitually live for our comforts our lives become grey and empty.

ii) Witnessing to Jesus means telling Him we love Him, in public, so someone else sees and hears. Maybe it isn't the literal act of walking through the streets and singing "I love you Jesus," like we did, but doing that literal act makes it all the clearer in my mind that corporal and spiritual works of mercy are simply ways we tell Jesus we love Him. It is possible, of course, to do right things for wrong reasons, and going through the streets singing about how we love God is a great way to hose out dead stuff.

iii) Other people are really, really important, but they aren't God. And if "people" take up positions in our hearts that need to be filled by God, they are idols and we are idolaters. Only God can purify our hearts and make them at home with Him so that we do not have to bend to whatever our culture demands as the social idolatry du jour. Only God gives us freedom to love people authentically. And true love calls for courage to be different.


There was a moment when I felt grace ripping through my heart right towards the end of the pilgrimage. We were getting ready for our last turn up to the Shrine, and the CFR friar musicians who were leading us with music broke out into this, sung to the tune of "Sweet Home Alabama":

Sweet Home Czestochowa
Where the Lady's dressed in blue
Sweet Home Czestochowa
Mom, I'm coming home to you

Now, doing this sort of thing, changing words to pop/rock songs, was the first real way I prayed as a kid. It's just sooo liturgically incorrect! But it's such a pure expression of joy and love, in a nitty-gritty and childlike way for me. I just wept with the joy of being able to be me, asserting *me* into relationship with the Blessed Mother, and by extension, with God, just as I am with all my uniquity. It was like I realized I am fulfilling a desire of God when I am fully me. And that is mind blowing.

The bottom line is: you should do this pilgrimage thing, too. Follow the Lord in penance with people proclaiming how much they love God. It isn't about doing anything perfectly. It's about doing it. And you know what they say about how God is never outdone in generosity. That part's true.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Fasting and Humility

I really could have said that the three themes for fasting this week (instead of gratitude, right submission of authority and humility) are humility, humility, and humility. Because fasting really only boils down to that.

When I first associated with people who fasted regularly (as a non-denominational charismatic) and I started fasting with them, I had no one who taught me what it meant. They only vaguely swept me along in what we did: refrain from eating. Now, by nature I stop eating when I'm stressed. So I vaguely formed myself in fasting with this thought that what God really wanted from me was to inflict some kind of misery upon myself, some kind of deprivation, so that I would get brownie points from God. I didn't articulate it so clearly to myself, but I see now that's what I believed as I tried to imitate the people I saw around me.

The same mentality stayed with me after I became a Catholic and actually started fasting more often.

The fact that I never got cozy with this vague notion seemed both to fit my idea of what fasting is, and fight against it.

And then I had this moment of revelation that involved Shirley Jackson's short story "The Lottery." I realized that, like the people in her fictitious town, I was trying to make a sacrificial offering of myself to buy something spiritual. The bullhorn of spiritual correction from the Lord to me was that Jesus had already done that, and my attempt to substitute myself for Him for the salvation of the world was prideful, death-wishing spiritual masochism.

Fasting is not about that.

Fasting is about humility.

Fasting is about acknowledging that I am needy and that I cannot fill myself with what I most need; I must receive it. I am a beggar before God, but I am a deeply loved beggar who tends towards deafness when my Lover calls to me. Fasting is not about getting God to hear me. It is about acknowledging that He always hears me... every excuse, every doubt, every over-confident assertion. It is about my coming back to Reality, which is where God dwells.

It is about opening my eyes to see. It is about opening wide my mouth, so that God may fill it.

So let's pray. Let's fast. Let's turn to God and wait for Him to act. Let's let Him change us.


Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A Few Thoughts on Fasting and Parental Authoriity

The second thing on my mind about Friday's day of fasting is this matter of a check-up, a little moment of reckoning, where my handling of parental authority is concerned.

Becoming a parent is a little bit like becoming a child all over again, or at least it was for me. There's the newness, the excitement, the ease in recognizing the sacredness of it all. But there is also the cluelessness, the hardheadedess, the perfectionism, the heeding of any voice that sounds remotely authoritative. There is so much we have to learn, especially if we did not spend our youth caring for an assortment of babies and children.

Learners though we must be, parents also have authority.

Yesterday as I was walking I witnessed a doe carefully checking out the road before she and her fawn quickly shot across it to the woods on the opposite side. Somehow, the intelligent instinct she demonstrated reminded me of that fact that holy authority must not only lead, but follow. The parent out in front is all the child sees, but that parent must operate not only by knowledge, wisdom and that famous parental "instinct," but also by consciously following the grace of God, the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the example of Jesus Christ.

Jesus said that worldly leaders lord it over their subjects, but that it must not be that way with His followers. We lord it over others when we mistake ourselves as the ultimate and others as essentially unequal to us.

So in this fast I feel called to lay my call of authority in my children's lives down before God, to remember again that I follow Him, that He (not my comfort or my ego) is my ultimate desire for myself and for them. I can do what I can do, and I cannot do what I cannot do. And 99.9% of the time, I'm a bit murky on exactly what falls into which of those two categories. That's why I must follow.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

A Few Thoughts about Fasting and Gratitude

Some Encounter. parents are embarking on a day of prayer and fasting for our families, and in light of that I'm sharing a few thoughts on fasting and gratitude.

Someone recently sent me this:

And ain't that the truth. There's our ideal world of how we think we'd like life to be, and then there's reality. Reality is messy because nature is messy, and reality is also messy because we are sinners in a sinful world. For 20 years it has blown my mind to contemplate the Incarnation for this very reason. God came to live in the midst of our messy reality, and in doing so, He redeemed it. It's amazing.

The gratitude I feel called to in this fast is the gratitude that looks at messy reality and accepts it. With a smile. And not because I'm some stupid Pollyanna or Stepford Wife that keeps smiling in the face of the craptitude of life. But because God proved His love for us in the person of Jesus Christ, who was born homeless and poor, whom others judged by their standards, and who died a violent death for no other reason than my eternal benefit. My life ain't perfect. I bear scars, my kids sin, my marriage is not St. Teresa's 7th mansion. God knows it. I know it. I accept it. And I thank God for all He does in my life, not in spite of the fact that I am a mess, but because of it.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Elijah and the Widow

The daily Mass readings currently feature the prophet Elijah, legendary founder of the Carmelite order and my favorite Old Testament figure.

Here is a link to today's readings.

I always hear readings involving prophets as if from the shoes of the prophet. A lot strikes me about this exchange between Elijah and the widow. First off, of course one could look at God's provision, but think about it: Elijah faces death from drought, but God has a plan! An extremely poor woman (read: with no ability to economically support herself or anyone else) is going to provide for his needs! It's almost funny if you can hear the humor in it. The point is that the prophet must rely completely on God, and put no trust in "the normal way things work."

And not only that. Elijah also has to convince the widow of this. Yeah, lady, so you have nothing, and you are afraid of death. Well, God promises you provision. (Wait, I thought it was Elijah who had to believe that. I guess now we know why: he's supposed to call others to faith, too.) And she is so poor that she has nothing to lose, and she acts in faith. I'll bet Elijah was relieved. But the audacity of that request! Sure, you have a young son to care for, but hey, take care of me first! Why does acting on the Word of the Lord make the prophet appear like such a jerk? He was not egotistical; rather he knew that her response to him was her response to the Lord. And the Lord wants that total surrender because He wants to give Himself totally. He teaches Elijah this by demonstrating it in double layers to both him and the widow.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Meditations on the Pentecost Sequence

I'm putting into one place my novena's worth of meditations I wrote on the Pentecost sequence, Veni Sancte Spiritus. Here are the links, in order:

Come, O Father of the Poor
Sweet, Comforting, Refreshing Guest
Labor, Heat and Woe
Fearing the Light of the Holy Spirit
Nothing Without You
Wanting to "Look Good" for God
Scary Changes
Why Ask for the Gifts of the Holy Spirit
Give Us Virtue's Sure Reward

In short, what I've gleaned from reflecting on this Sequence is this: The entrance of the Holy Spirit gives light, but that light reveals sin, disorder, attachments, things that need healing and purification, further enlightenment, and an even greater need for the Holy Spirit's work. (Once upon a time I thought it was all about spiritual bling.)

The Holy Spirit's role is to transform us into other Christs. This is not only about inner purification, but also about real fruit born in ministry. But, it is also not only about outward fruit and ministry, but also about inner purification.

I have more to muse on regarding all this, but I'll save it for a future post.