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.


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.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

What Lectors Might Learn from Good Storytellers

In combing through a stack of books today, I happened to come across these paragraphs in an essay on attributes needed by a good storyteller. Immediately I thought one could change the word "storyteller" to "lector," as in one who reads the Scriptures in church, with great benefit. I enjoy lectoring almost as much as I enjoy cantoring (to sing the Psalms in church), and I have been told I do it well. I completely attribute that to reading aloud to my children for hours on end over the last 13 years.

The text from which I quote is the 1947 edition of Children and Books by May Hill Arbuthnot, pages 242-243. I will edit out some sections that do not carry over to my purpose.


The successful [lector] must have two types of equipment for his art. First, he must possess those outward and visible evidences of fitness for the task -- good voice, clear diction, adequate vocabulary, and pleasant appearance. Second, he must achieve a certain elusive inner and spiritual grace made up of complete sincerity, delight in his [text], self-forgetfulness, and a respect for his audience and for his... art. The first equipment can be attained through patient practice. the second must grow from living and from loving both [Scripture] and people.

An agreeable voice and clear, pure diction are perhaps the first requisites for the [lector] to consider. Needless to say, there should not be a special voice reserved for [lectoring]... You should take stock of your own vocal equipment. Ask others to evaluate your voice honestly. Record it if possible, so that you can listen to it yourself. If your voice is nasal, harsh, or monotonous, try to improve it for everyday use to the point where it is agreeable and lovely for special use. Women tend to pitch their voices higher and shriller than they should. Try  your speaking voice at the piano and see where it falls in relation to middle C. Most of us can profitably pitch our everyday speaking voices a key or so lower than we have been doing, and both we and [those who hear us] will be more peaceful as a result. Go to the theater or turn on the radio, and deliberately listen to and compare voices. Be critical of oversweet voices of some radio personalities, both male and female. Try to discover the voices of Katharine Cornell, Helen Hayes, Ethel Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Maurice Evans, and Paul Robeson so moving and satisfying. Put on Lynn Fotanne's recording of "The White Cliffs of Dover" and notice the range and variety in that high, sweet voice. Lessons with an expert in voice placement and production will help you, but by cultivating a listening ear you can do much for yourself.

A good voice is invariably supported by deep and controlled breathing. Breath must come from down in the diaphragm, not from the upper chest. Read aloud sustained passages from the Psalms or from Shakespeare. Put on Maurice Evans' recording of the lines from Richard II and read them with him.You can then tell when you run out of breath and he does not. Breathe deeper, and not only will you be able to sustain those long sonorous passages, but your voice will grow in richness and resonance. Shallow breathing makes thin, tired voices, which are apt to become shrill and sharp. Deep controlled breathing gives to the voice both a sense of support and increased range and color.

When you read Shakespeare's Sonnet XXIX and phrase it correctly without running out of breath, then you have good breath control, which will make your voice grow in depth and power as you use it. Notice that this sonnet has only the final period and only two semicolons to break the sequential phrases. Try lines 2, 3, and 4 on one breath, and, of course, lines 11 and 12.

When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featur'd like him, like him with friends possess'd,
Desiring this man's art and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
For thy sweet love remember'd such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings. 

Now, after having huffed and puffed self-consciously as you worked for breath control, read the sonnet for enjoyment.

 Clear articulation of words is as essential as an agreeable voice. Of course, nothing is worse than an artificial, overprecise enunciation, except perhaps an attempt to imitate the speech of another district that is quite foreign to us. If we are New England, Southern, Midwestern, or Western, let's not try for Oxford English or any other accent unnatural to us. Instead, let's eradicate the impurities of our own particular region (every region has them), and try to speak the purest, most vigorous pattern of English that obtains in our section of the country. [Lectoring] is ruined if it sounds artificial or pretentious....


Even though little else carries directly over, I love how these thoughts of the section called "Living the Story" fit nicely:

"Of course, if you have not the emotional capacity to be deeply moved by these stories, then do not try to tell them, for there must be warmth and a loving appreciation for every word of a story if it is to reach an audience...

"To love a story in this way means that the teller has not only learned the story mechanically and lived with it for some time but  has learned it with her heart, brooding over it and fussing with the phraseology until words and voice convey precisely what she feels. She does not rattle through it merely to get the words but re-creates it imaginatively. She tells it slowly and thoughtfully to the darkness after she has gone to bed or she thinks it through, scene by scene, on the streetcar until finally it is her story. Such solitary telling is a process of disciplining herself until she can give an honest interpretation of the way the story makes her feel."

It's called prayer, of course. Meditation and rumination on Scripture in general is necessary so that when we proclaim it, we are proclaiming it as ours -- my own, and our shared experience and record of God's revelation. This type of proclamation draws the hearers in to claim the Word for themselves.

Saturday, April 02, 2016

Oblation to Divine Mercy

In recent years, I have learned about St. Therese's Act of Oblation to Merciful Love. In her day, of course, there was no Divine Mercy Sunday, but this feast day is an obvious one for thinking about this oblation a little bit.

It has been explained to me that in St. Therese's day and place (so, very late 19th century in France) it was popular for Catholics to offer themselves to God to appease His wrath. The Jansenist tendency towards self righteousness fueled the desire for people to be strict with themselves and others, fearing offending God, striving for extraordinary feats of sacrifice and whatnot.

Against this backdrop, St. Therese came on the scene, emphasizing instead that she had a child's capacity for difficult things and could not do them. Instead, she entrusted herself to her Father's great love, certain of His love to raise her where she could not take herself. Her concern was not for God's unspent wrath, but on His unspent, un-sought-after merciful love. She offered to receive all of this unspent, unwelcomed mercy into her own soul.

Over the last 18 months or so I've been meditating quite a bit on mercy, and something is beginning to dawn on me about this Oblation. To pray this is really to make a commitment to become deeply, profoundly aware of one's need for God. And one's need for God is felt simply in experiencing one's own misery in its various forms.

Misery, or need, is the depth of the experience that God is God and I am not. Most of the time most of us anesthetize ourselves from this reality so that the pain of our gaping need does not take our breath away.

Why should it hurt, really, this truth that God is God and I am not? Is it not the most obvious reality?

If life were all about filling in the proper answer on a worksheet, this one would be easy. But the difficulty is that if we deeply accept this as true, it must change the way we live. If I am not God, but there is a God, then it stands to reason that God's will for me must take precedence over my will for me. If there is a God, and I am not He, then I am answerable to this God.

And if I am making an oblation, a self-offering, to God who is Merciful Love, then the only thing that is terrifying in this equation is myself, who am not love and who am not even familiar with the depth of love, even though it is all my conscious and unconscious longing. But no, it is not myself who is terrifying.

It is the fact that I stand to experience Love in all its Immensity.

It's really just awesome. And the freaky part is having to pause and breathe it in, until the "too good to be true" sensation has passed. And because this Oblation is made with the salvation of others in view, part of breathing it in, part of accepting it, really is to be aware of how much other living, breathing human beings need to encounter a person who has encountered Love.

I will let you love me, O Lord, so that You can love others through me.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Ardent Love of Jesus in Gethsemane

Today at my Carmelite Seculars meeting, we used the following passage from the Passion narrative as the basis of our Lectio Divina meditation:

Then going out, he went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives,
and the disciples followed him.
When he arrived at the place he said to them,
“Pray that you may not undergo the test.”
After withdrawing about a stone’s throw from them and kneeling,
he prayed, saying, “Father, if you are willing,
take this cup away from me;
still, not my will but yours be done.”
And to strengthen him an angel from heaven appeared to him.
He was in such agony and he prayed so fervently
that his sweat became like drops of blood
falling on the ground.
When he rose from prayer and returned to his disciples,
he found them sleeping from grief.
He said to them, “Why are you sleeping?
Get up and pray that you may not undergo the test.” (Luke 22:39-46)
I was powerfully struck by this as if I hadn't really heard it before, even though I heard it proclaimed twice just this morning. That is the power of Lectio Divina.

Specifically what struck me was the incredible humility of His prayer. He is the Son of God, yet He kneels, and asks His Father about what His will is for this moment. God incarnate is then given strength by His own creature, an angel. His human anguish was so incredibly strong that it maxed out what His body could hold in, and He sweat blood, something the human body is capable of under extremely severe stress.

Yet, it struck me: He received the angel's ministry, but what did He urgently, passionately, dare I say even frantically desire with every drop of Himself? He wanted consolation from his disciples. He asked for it twice. Pray! Pray that you not undergo the test! Because, think: what had Jesus just been praying about? He was praying that He not undergo the test, if possible. He wanted His disciples with Him, doing what He was doing. What was foremost in His heart, He wanted to find foremost in theirs, with the same power with which He felt it.

Were their hearts with His? Nope. What did they do? They fell asleep.

At His most vulnerable human moment, He was left all alone by those in whom He had invested the last three years of His life -- all His public ministry. All the important stuff, they had shared and seen, and when His need was greatest, they were completely incapable of reciprocating, of being with Him. They slept.

Jesus knew the Father's answer: Yes, you want those who followed you to be with you. But they cannot, by any means they have, cross that chasm to be with you, because that chasm is the death-sin they inherited from Adam. The only way they will be able to be with you is if you go forward to and through death, defeat it, cancel out the separation that is theirs because of sin, and reconcile the world to Me by Your death on the cross. You want them so badly to be with you. So you must drink the cup. Then the power will flow, and We will be in them and they in Us.

Jesus was resolute: "Yes, Father. Because my human terror is so real right now, because the love I have for these people You have given me, the love that is exploding my capillaries and causing me to sweat blood, I am feeling with everything in me the mission for which I came. On I go to death. Love compels me. So that they might be one in Us, as I am one with you."

It was almost as if I could see the overwhelming, all-consuming desire in the heart of Jesus at that moment for his disciples to be truly one with Him.

The difference between then and now, in the economy of grace, is that now He already has made it possible for us to be one with Him. He no longer suffers the torment He felt in the Garden; He no longer sweats blood. But His heart still yearns for those who will simply turn to Him and receive the mercy He has already poured out. Redemption has been won. He longs for our openness to ask and receive. There is no need at all to think we have to beg and yell and plead and perform to get God to favor us. No. He favors us. He passionately longs for us. We need to trust that is true, and receive Him.

Lord Jesus, help more people to trust in Your love.

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

God is the Redeemer, Even of Scary Childhood Art

The Lord has been doing some major excavations in me during Lent. And I realize it has been awhile since I have freely written about this type of thing. I've never regretted being raw before, so why should I stop now.

Today at Mass, I handed over to the Lord for His redemption a piece of artwork I created when I was 6 years old. It feels like lifting up an old concrete slab, complete with the escaping swarm of creepy-crawlies. But life will grow there, now.

I remember this piece of artwork not because I still have it, but because I looked at it regularly into my teenage years. And I suppose because I saw frequently and because of what I will now describe, it burned its way into my memory.

Supposedly, a drawing by a typical 6 year old looks something like this:

It looks a little too neat for me, but then again I have never claimed to have any artistic talent.

The picture I drew, however, was actually frightening. It showed a child holding balloons, a house, a sun, and a grassy lawn. But everything was drawn with jagged edges -- the grass, the body, the feet, the balloons. The colors were dark: black, purple, red, dark green, with splashes of orange and yellow buried underneath. And the most striking thing was that every image -- the child, the house, the balloons -- were all divided down the middle with a jagged, black line. The child looked a lot more like a monster.

That was my view of myself and my world in the year my parents were divorced. The reason I saw this picture so frequently was that my dad had it hanging on the wall of his house. But how it got there is what I have been thinking about afresh recently.

I remember bringing it home from school and showing it to my mom. "You show that to your father. He should have that. You give that to him," she told me.

It hasn't been until now, when I am older than my mom was then, that I have thought about what was in her statement that resulted in me remembering this picture. Anyone who looked at this picture could realize there was something wrong with the child who drew it. And I can see now that she felt that whatever was wrong with me was to be blamed on my father. And by giving him the picture, she hoped he would wake up and take responsibility for me emotionally, or at least feel the weight of this scary thing coming out of the mind of a little girl.

My father was a man with many issues of his own. Her hopes did not come to fruition. That I have known, and I long ago addressed it.

What I have not fully seen until now was the depth of my emotional need at that age (and beyond), and the simple fact that it was not met by anyone. My mother saw something was wrong, and simply did not address it beyond trying to pass it off onto my father. Later, there wasn't even that attempt. I very quickly learned to stop making my needs known to anyone.

All my life I have struggled with whether it is right to say things that sound accusatory about my own family. But I realize that stating objective facts about what happened is simply facing truth. Facing truth is always a good thing, and I can leave intentions and motives aside, as they are not mine to judge or to fear.

I've also learned that a name has been given to this lack of parental emotional response: Childhood Emotional Neglect. And there are a whole slew of emotional attunement issues related to this missing piece. For years I've worked on addressing many of them, including the difficulty I have getting angry, and taking my own feelings seriously.

A while back, I had a friend in her 80s confide to me that God was healing her of issues with her childhood, so I guess I'll just accept that life is always this way.Whether we seek truth and healing, or we hide in the dark, something won't feel good. I would rather cry over an old pain and receive healing than live adult life numb to others and my surroundings.

It takes courage to seek healing. But God really does heal. Seeking wholeness is worth facing the pain involved.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

From The Heart

This morning at Mass I was struck by hearing the gospel highlighted in a markedly different way than past hearings.

Peter approached Jesus and asked him,
“Lord, if my brother sins against me,
how often must I forgive him?
As many as seven times?”
Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.
That is why the Kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king
who decided to settle accounts with his servants.
When he began the accounting,
a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount.
Since he had no way of paying it back,
his master ordered him to be sold,
along with his wife, his children, and all his property,
in payment of the debt.
At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said,
‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.’
Moved with compassion the master of that servant
let him go and forgave him the loan.
When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants
who owed him a much smaller amount.
He seized him and started to choke him, demanding,
‘Pay back what you owe.’
Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him,
‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’
But he refused.
Instead, he had him put in prison
until he paid back the debt.
Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened,
they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master
and reported the whole affair.
His master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant!
I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to.
Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant,
as I had pity on you?’
Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers
until he should pay back the whole debt.
So will my heavenly Father do to you,
unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart.”

That's Matthew 18:21-35.

The first thing that stood out was "the servant fell down, did him homage, and said..." And then, the master's response, "moved with compassion, the master of that servant let him go."

Then after the report of this man throttling a peer, he tells him he is wicked and says "I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to." And Jesus summarizes the point of the parable as the need to forgive from the heart.

Now, God is speaking to me the same way He speaks to any of us, and that is in the midst of my own circumstances. And my circumstances, my tutelage from God in this stage of Lent seems to be focused on getting in touch with the well-spring of human feeling that arises from my heart. To really notice what goes on in my emotions. I'm becoming aware of how frequently I am unaware of my emotions, due to long-time habit and conditioning.

So I found myself being able to relate to the experience of this guy who receives mercy and then throttles his peer. He falls down at the master's feet and begs for patience from him. And the master is moved with compassion. As a result, he gives far more than patience; he forgives the whole debt. That shows that the master's heart can experience the servant's vulnerability and respond from his moved heart, from his aroused emotions. And while the servant took the news, he did not receive the compassion. He couldn't, and he proves it by not being moved by hearing the same plea from someone else. His heart could not be moved with compassion, because compassion had never registered with him. When he met vulnerability, even just a little bit, he lacked the heart to respond. He could have cultivated it by meditating on his own pitiful state, or at least at the state of his wife and children who were going to become slaves. He could have faced it, had his emotional center torn by it, and then when he was offered compassion, it would have filled him with mercy. Instead, he went through mechanical motions.

The homily I heard mentioned the rabbinic tradition of offering forgiveness to someone who offended you three times. And Peter thought he was being generous by stretching the rabbinic limit to be more liberal. Jesus was trying to move Peter out of notions of liberal mechanics out into a life lived from a changed heart. To be moved with compassion at the suffering of another and to give mercy is really a fruit of the cross. It is not logical justice. It is not what someone is "entitled to." It is the echo of God's way.

In order to really understand what mercy is, you need a visceral experience of your wretchedness. And you need to not turn away from the sight for any reason, including boredom, indifference, shame, fright, despair. Look at it. Then see Jesus on the cross, sharing it. Then know he shares it because of irrevocable love for you. That's the moment when mercy breaks in.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

On Confession, by Fr.Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalene, OCD

This is the best thing I have ever read about the Sacrament of Reconciliation. By Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalene, OCD, in Divine Intimacy: Meditations on the Interior Life for Every Day of the Liturgical Year

"Penance is the sacrament of Christ's Precious Blood in which God -- according to the eloquent words of St. Catherine of Siena -- "has bathed us in order to cleanse the face of our souls from the leprosy of sin." If mortal sin only is the necessary matter of this sacrament, venial sin is sufficient matter, since all Catholic tradition insists on frequent confession, even when one has only venial sins to confess. However, those who confess weekly must take great care lest their confessions become a mere routine, instead of the really vital acts which would enable these souls to profit fully from all the graces offered by the sacrament.

" 'Do not despise the Blood of Christ!' exclaims St. Cather of Siena. Certainly anyone who appreciates it will not approach the sacrament of penance lightly. To this end it is useful to recall that absolution is truly the pouring forth of the Precious Blood which, inundating and penetrating the soul, purifies it from sin, and restores sanctifying grace if it has been lost, or increases this gift if it is already present in the soul. The remission of sin and the imparting of grace are the fruits of the action of Jesus, expressed by the formula the priest pronounces in His Name: 'I absolve thee.' At that moment it is Jesus who is acting in the soul, either by remitting sin or by producing or increasing grace. It is well to remember that the efficacy of the absolution is not limited merely to sins that have already been committed, but that it even extends into the future. By means of the particular sacramental grace, the soul is strengthened beforehand against relapses and it is offered the fortitude to resist temptations and to carry out its good resolutions. The Blood of Christ is, in this sense, not only a remedy for the past, but also a preservative and a strengthening help for the future. The soul which plunges into it, as into a healthful bath, draws from it new vigor and sees the strength of its passions extinguished little by little. We see then the importance of frequent confession for a soul desirous of union with God, a sould which must necessarily aspire to total purification.

"When the soul in the tribunal of penance has only venial sins to confess, it is not necessary that it preoccupy itself with confessing all of them, either as to their number or their kind. This completeness is necessary only when there is a question of mortal sin. In other cases, however, it is much more profitable to fix the attention on deliberate faults first, then on those which are semi-deliberate -- even if they are only simple imperfections -- telling not only the faults themselves but also the motives behind them. Although this method is not required for the validity of the confession, it is certain that the soul will draw much profit from it since the accusation will have exposed the root of the evil. The soul will benefit too by its act of humility, which will be a stimulus to deeper repentance and will arouse in it a more ardent desire to amend its life, for this is the logical result of considering the motives -- usually not noble ones! -- from which our faults arise. Furthermore, an accusation of this kind helps the confessor to have a better knowledge of the penitent's weak points, and to suggest the most suitable remedies, a matter of special importance when direction is given with confession.

"In addition to its accusation, the soul must also occupy itself with sorrow for its sins because they offend God, who is infinite Goodness. This should be a sorrow ex amore, springing from love, the repentance of the child who is more disconsolate over the displeasure given to a father who loves it so much and to whom it should return love for love, than over the thought of its guilt and the punishment it deserves. For the validity of the sacrament, sorrow is necessary; if it is lacking, the absolution will be null. However, the more perfect the contrition, the more effectively will the absolution erase not only the sin but also the temporal punishment which it has incurred. The Blood of Jesus will purify, renew, and enrich the heart of the penitent with fortitude, charity, and grace, in the measure of his contrition.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Time to Stop Being a Baby

I don't generally make big penitential plans for myself during Lent. It seems the Lord likes to introduce His own program for me, and for my part I try to enter that. Right now it seems a big theme is to examine why I interact with people the way I do. This post is not a report; it is a dive. I'm going to dive into it and see where I end up.

Recently I heard a news report about the rising percentage of kids who show up in college and have significant difficulty dealing with stresses. Everything just seems to be "too much" and they don't have the coping skills to handle things and they come unglued.

Since my son has entered high school, I have thought to myself repeatedly how stress and anxiety became my motivators. When I didn't understand Algebra-Trig, it actually kept me awake at night with worry. I remember getting tears in my eyes with anxiety over my first physics test. It was enough to energize me to struggle and try hard, and it also taught me the joy of doing classwork that came easy to me and allowed me to express myself, like literature and writing. Anxiety would push me over the hump of Impossible to at least fall on my face on the other side.

Academic work was not the origin of my anxiety. I was a good student and for the most part got good grades without putting in much effort (which is a seperate problem). My anxiety was more a response to my sense that my world had gotten ripped to shreds through my parents' divorce and the alcoholism and mental illness in my family. Talking these things through was not yet fashionable when I was young, so in a terrible anti-Marian sense I kept all these sadnesses and pondered them in my heart. And I quickly learned that one of the less destructive ways I could deal with anxiety was to go about trying to solve all the problems I saw, especially the ones that weren't mine. I would take on more and more responsibility for things as a way of keeping chaos at bay.

This made me popular with employers, because when I finished my work, I would go looking for other unfinished work to help with. I would use spare time brainstorming contributions to others' projects. As a child, I would clean the house instead of worrying that the visitor my mom was expecting would have to see it as it was. When I wasn't sure she would be home on time to take me to my school concert, I would throw myself into a flurry of activity to make the time go faster.

(The interesting thing is that even though doctors pointed out to me that I was extremely tense and didn't seem to know what "relax this muscle" meant, it wasn't until I started cantoring for Masses that I realized I had any issues with anxiety. That's how natural it was to me.)

So, back to the kids in schools. Lots of them have Gen X parents. Lots of Gen Xers have stories like mine: lives ripped apart, coping skills often had to be on steroids. What is the natural expression of "love" in this environment? Here, let me do that for you. I'll take care of it.

Guilt says that kind of stuff. One feels at fault, so one tries to make amends -- for everything. And the offspring of such over-carers remain infantile, unable to cope with stressors.

Recently I found myself with a pain I didn't expect. I've been struggling with one of my kid's morning rising patterns, but have set a deadline by which time a goal has to be reached for a desired outcome to be possible for him. And to work towards it, I recently announced I would only issue at maximum one wake up call to him, and then if he was late to his classes, it would be on his head. My first day of working with this, I suddenly saw that even though I hate repeatedly nagging him, pledging to stop filled me with great anxiety. Somehow, my personal sense of safety and peace was shaken when I just left his responsibility to him and let him bear the weight of it.

But you know what? He did it. I had to sweat for awhile, but he hasn't been late yet. Oh, it's only been two days, but, you know...

Facing this in myself does not make me happy, that's for sure.

I've been thinking about all the references all over Paul's letters where he talks about Christians' need to grow up, to stop being mere babies, to go on to maturity. And for me, yeah, I'm down with that. I want to be super-Christian. Sure. But I realize that no one is ever super-Christian off in their own private world. Not even a hermit. By penance and by teaching and by interacting with people, Christians are to exhort others to grow up and stop being babies. And you know what? That provokes tantrums and hurt and accusations and bad feelings, and just a whole lot of loud complaints that growing up just is too much to ask. Provoking that is about as much fun as a room of noisy, crying toddlers. The good thing about toddlers is that you know in 20 years they'll be chronological adults. We have no such guarantee about Christians.

Love does not mean swallowing up all hurt so that other people can be indulged. I could swallow until I burst and it would never please or satisfy another person, and I'm left with an aching, hurting belly. Love means speaking the truth and letting Jesus fill both of us, even if it hurts both of us.

Well, I guess all that Scripture is the next thing I need to dive into.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

The Fourth Joyful Mystery: The Presentation in the Temple

 Photo from this blog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Christian Unity Comes from This

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 18, 2016

Great Patience with One's Own Humanity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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