Friday, April 14, 2017

His Hour

At the Holy Thursday Mass, I had one of those moments where the Scriptures exploded in my head in multiple directions at once.

It was that first line of the gospel reading: Before the feast of Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to pass from this world to the Father.   

Just a couple of weeks ago at the Sonshine Bible Club I had been teaching my kids about the miracle at the wedding feast of Cana, where Jesus tells his mother "My hour is not yet come." One of the things I have been impressing on these kids every week with every gospel story is that Jesus had his mind constantly set on fulfilling his Father's will that he lay down his life for us. His love focused him on the mission for which he was born, which was to be the atoning sacrifice for our salvation.

So, when I heard these, where Jesus knew that finally, his hour had come, and knowing all that his Passion would entail, my mind shot back again to that moment at the wedding feast. I know that account is rich with layers of spiritual meaning, especially because of how the wedding feast prefigures the marriage supper of the Lamb which Jesus would bring about when his hour did finally come. But what struck me at that moment was on a much more human level. And also, it was born of a time of prayer several years ago where I felt greatly consoled by the Blessed Virgin in the understanding of her grief when Jesus left her in Nazareth to head out into his ministry. This moment of the wedding feast happened probably very shortly afterwards, a brief hiatus in their separation. 

What struck me Thursday night was how it must have affected the human heart of Jesus, also, not only to leave his mother in Nazareth, but to cast his gaze ahead to the day when his hour would come, and he would suffer this kind of separation from her, and the pain of her pain. I think of Jesus in Gethsemane. He wanted his disciples to stay awake and pray. We know he was in anguish. We should not dismiss the pain his humanity endured in being left alone by everyone he loved in that moment -- including his mother. 

Why is it that we go through these moments on earth with no sense of consolation at all, no experience or feeling of love? God allows these moments; at some point, it is his way. In them, we face our misery, brokenness, and need, and we know that without the Father, we are nothing. So Jesus, too, reveals himself to us in this very place. 

In fact, Jesus calls us to himself in this desolate place, and bids us have the courage to meet him there, and love him there, and to know that even there in that place of immense human suffering, he is filled with nothing but love and longing for us.

And because love calls forth love, it can be very disturbing to hear that call unless you are prepared to also lay down all consolation, and the experience of the love of your closest ones, and embrace the desolation that is his in his moment of determination to love us to the end.

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Life-Changing Holy Week

Five years ago, I experienced a Holy Week that changed my life. If I had known at the time what lay ahead of me, I probably would have bolted and run.

Now that it is Holy Week again, I cannot help but think back to those days. In many ways, the pain of those days is gone, and the fruit of those days is with me. For example, without that experience I doubt very much if I would have recognized my call to Carmel.

In another way of thinking about it, what God gave me during that time is so deeply etched into my heart that I don't think I would recognize myself without it, and everything still continues to flow in my life as of one piece with it.

My deacon friend who preached today's homily mentioned how we hear the Passion story so often that we can be dull to it; that it strikes as so much "ho hum." As he said this, I was wiping tears from my face because of the force with which I heard even the abbreviated version we had of the reading. Something about that experience five years ago has moved the Passion from something that happened to Jesus 2000 years ago to something that I have participated in. Even as a kid, I was one to cry while watching Jesus of Nazareth or other movies about the crucifixion. But there is something of Holy Week that strikes fear in me. Not in the sense that fails to understand God as Love, but in the sense that the end game for which all penultimate loves, all loves of creatures, is destined, is death. Loves of things are to be purged from us; loves of people will all go through the separation of death. We will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ alone, and we do not know when this will be. Those in Egypt who went to worship today and were killed probably did not expect to die during the liturgy. They would not have anticipated worship of God costing them their lives.

As I waved my palm branch this morning, and reflected on the words of St. Andrew of Crete from the Office of Readings ("Let our souls take the place of the welcoming branches"), and as I went forward to receive communion, I was deeply aware of the price those new martyrs of Egypt paid, and the price many around the world pay for simply going into a church to worship on a feast day. Here I am, here is my whole life, I hand it all over. I don't know what will come as I do this. I do it because you bid me to do it by your great and awesome love. 

And so it was five years ago. God had a purifying trial that I could not have imagined, and from which I would have run. So, what exactly have I learned?

  • God is always to be trusted. 
  • Understanding what is happening is not most important.
  • The cross of suffering like this is like a royal scepter extended to the soul. It is favor.
  • God desires far, far better for me than I desire for myself.
  • God never belittles me in my woundedness, but meets my wretchedness with elevating grace.
  • Trustworthy people exist. 
  • He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.
  • St. Teresa of Avila knows what she is talking about when she says courage is an essential component of a life of prayer. 
  • God loves me; He knows every pain I've ever felt, and He is concerned to heal my wounds.
  • It is so powerfully tempting to throw away everything good for what offers pleasure.
  • God's mercy reaches the full extent of all of my folly.
  • God is real. His love is real. His desire for me is for good, but this does not mean I will not feel the pain of my folly burning off. 
  • Folly burning off is extremely painful, especially the tighter you hug it to yourself.
Ultimately, following the Lord Jesus Christ is worth the total surrender of oneself. God is immeasurably good.

And yet, I tremble when it is Holy Week. Because there is always the walking through it part.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Teaching with the Sonshine Bible Club

This academic year, I have taught Scripture lessons to groups of public school kids in an after-school program known as the Sunshine Bible Club. The Club is ecumenical in nature, and is held at a downtown Presbyterian church. I was invited to be involved with the group by the man who has spearheaded this and many other city-wide ministries to youth and teens in our small town. It was a Holy Ghost appointment, because at the time of his invitation, one season in my life had closed (when friends leading another youth ministry I'd been with moved away), and a desire for deeper involvement in my town outside of my Catholic bubble was already growing in my heart.

Initially I had prayed about offering music, but when I was told that one of the teachers had backed out just a few weeks before beginning, I decided I'd take a chance with teaching. Frankly, I've never, ever enjoyed teaching Sunday School or Vacation Bible School or Parish School of Religion sessions, and I didn't expect much of the experience.

As I prayed about what to teach, I landed on the idea of presenting the gospels connected to the mysteries of the rosary. I wanted some kind of structure that gave me direction without being too restrictive (because that desire is the story of my life).

The kids who come to this Club are registered for it by their parents, guardians, or caregivers, and that registration and the bussing is handled by the various public elementary schools in town. The precise format had undergone tweaks in the preceding couple of years of its existence, and at the suggestion of the schools, in order to help curb some of the wild discipline scenarios that had been experienced, the kids were split into two groups: 3rd and 4th grades during the first semester, and 1st and 2nd grade kids during second semester. (In this town, 5th grade is included in Middle School.) Friends who operate a Christian martial arts school volunteered to run through some very basic energy expenditure/self-defense movements with kids as they arrive off of the school bus at 2:30. Then, they sing praise music (or at least listen to it). Then, with the assistance of several adults and teens, the kids are divided into three groups of perhaps 7-12 kids each: one comes to my Bible lessons, the second goes to another teacher, and the third eats snacks. We rotate all three groups around, and then their caregivers come to take them home at about 4:00.

We have brilliant conversations some days; other days everyone is shouting, talking, moving around, and/or everyone is telling everyone to be quiet. (That's always my favorite. Five kids shouting over each other telling everyone to be quiet.) Sometimes it is a mixture of these two. I have generally 15 minutes with each group of kids.

Our town has significant pockets of poverty, especially among the population that has children in the public schools. There is also a strong presence here of drug activity, crime, violence, and all of the fear and hopelessness that tends to accompany these things. And the children are definitely affected. Children are good at slipping comments out about their personal lives in between all the chaos. And so I hear how they have witnessed domestic violence or known homelessness, how parents have been in prison, how they and their siblings have been separated by foster care, how they are bullied, how they are scared, and how they themselves are violent.

Some of the kids go to a church. Some of them know almost nothing about God and have never read a Bible. Most of them have detailed questions to ask me about the devil or magic or the nature of evil. To my knowledge, not a single one of them is Catholic.

The first thing I began to notice as I taught, starting with the Joyful Mysteries, was how much I was accustomed to presuming. My past experiences had taught me to presume that because I was teaching kids in a church, surely they already know who Jesus is. My past reference point had been kids I regularly saw in church.

So as I stopped presuming, I began enjoying the freshness of introducing Jesus to them. And, using the gospels of the mysteries to systematically walk through God's plan unfolding in history, I also saw the freshness of the gospels through these new eyes of theirs, these new hearts that I was getting to know. I was instantly sensitized to details about Jesus' life that resonated with them: Jesus had a "foster father," lived a materially poor life, had to flee from those who wanted to kill him. Mary had to trust, she went to serve instead of glorying in herself. They lived a simple life of humility. They were not powerful by worldly standards.

I have never mentioned the rosary to the kids. But I have seen the logic of the mysteries pop into 3-D. Everything can speak of God's plan of salvation: how Jesus came to reveal God's love, to make clear to us that the misery we all feel comes from separation from God, and to love us to the point of laying down His life so that he could open heaven, and we could all receive His life through baptism, faith, repentance and following Him. Jesus had his mind always on His mission to lay down His life out of love. Almost every week, I illustrate that to repent means to turn from walking toward a sin that I love to turning my back on it and walking away from it and to God who loves me. I also frequently illustrate how Jesus opens heaven, then calls us to follow Him and be with Him. I repeat how to believe in God really means to believe God loves me, and to know that God does not stop loving us when we sin. I teach them a very simply morning offering prayer: "Jesus, I give you my day," and I encourage the kids to start every day by asking Jesus in this way to be with them. He knows well what to do with that invitation.

When I pray in the time before the crowd descends (after drawing one of my famous white board Jesus illustrations -- she who cannot draw), I think often of the image of planting seeds. Who knows where these kids may go or what may happen to them, even in the next 10 years. But I know from my own life that it does not take anything big and fancy to secure a seed of truth planted deep that sprouts to life when it is ready. It takes only the Word of God spoken and anointed by the Holy Spirit. So, I do not tire of telling them the same things, and even of struggling sometimes to be heard over verbal skirmishes between kids.

I have benefited so much from teaching these kids by getting to "see" how Jesus loves them, and loves getting introduced to them. Peeling back to the basics and presenting the kerygma has made me realize that Catholics stupidly often skip this step, assuming that because kids have been baptized, they don't need to meet and come to faith in Jesus. I would also be stupid to think that the kids in Catholic schools or in homeschool settings have no tastes of the pains of life that these kids as young as six or seven are facing. We have to deal with the reality of kids' lives, and if we think we can represent God or speak the gospel at a determined disconnect from the lived reality of our audiences, we are sorely mistaken.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Retreat: St. Joseph

This weekend I was on a retreat that focused on St. Joseph.

My Carmelite community does a weekend retreat each year. This year actually less than half were able to participate in this one, and it was not exclusively a Carmelite retreat, but as Carmelites we follow our Holy Mother's special devotion to St. Joseph, so it's all good.

This is how I see Joseph. Not an old, dried up geezer, but a handsome, manly man.
The Church Fathers tend to agree with me.
Do you know the feeling when you go to work or are doing your responsibilities, but all you really want inside is to sit at the beach, or curl up in a blanket and sleep? Well, I can be a bit of the opposite. Sometimes, I really want to be intense and I long to burn tons of energy, but instead I am called by God to rest and be at peace. That was this retreat. No matter from which direction we come, God calls us to live by His energy and unto His will. And in this season in my life, I am learning to love and be loved, to receive, to rest, to share and not manage, to stop the interior drumming of demand and to sing the interior song of gratitude, praise, wonder, love. To burn energy not like a car with the accelerator stuck, but to behold the immensity of His fiery love, bring all the aching needs of the world there, but most of all to know the peace and rest that He is in the core of that.

St. Joseph and I don't really have an extensive relationship (though that might change, now). But back in 2009, he did sort of drop something down deep into my soul, which I wrote about here. It struck me then that love, exemplified in the fiery and virginal love of Joseph and Mary, is a death, a complete, sacrificial, handing over of oneself, a crucifixion -- which also lasts but a time before the glory of the resurrection is revealed.

A love which is completely human, yet completely transformed by self-gift to God in holiness seems to challenge our thinking (in which we generally tend to hold up ourselves as the highest standard of holiness we can imagine -- God help us). Did Joseph have to be an old man in order to not have sexual relations with Mary? Did God design a creepy family, like the child brides we all recoil from seeing in modern news (14 year old girl, 70 year old man?!) Or does God work with real human beings, real lives, real love, and real sanctity? Yes, that's it.

When people saw Peter and John after Pentecost, what was noted as striking about them? That they had been with Jesus. Well, Joseph and Mary are the hidden ones who not only had been with Jesus, but were given the vocation and the accompanying gifts to raise Him as parents. Was that a holy setting? Oh, you bet. Was it flashy, attention-getting, the hot news in Nazareth? Apparently not. When Jesus started His publicly ministry, his neighbors made "Who is this guy?" complaints. The most holiness ever in one domicile, and apparently it was all wasted on normal life. Huh.

Joseph's tables didn't survive. Cloth that Mary wove or the meals she made went they way of earth. But the virtue they lived endures in them for all eternity, and they share with all the children of the Church, and all who are called to it. So we can ask Joseph and Mary to teach us to be with Jesus in our normal life like they were, and thereby to be sanctified, like they were. They share everything. This is kingdom life. This is cool.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Praying God's Word

Today's Mass readings (found here) bring forth one package to teach us about prayer.

From my childhood, I read the passage from Isaiah 55:10-11 as something akin to magic:

Thus says the LORD:Just as from the heavensthe rain and snow come downAnd do not return theretill they have watered the earth,making it fertile and fruitful,Giving seed to the one who sowsand bread to the one who eats,So shall my word bethat goes forth from my mouth;It shall not return to me void,but shall do my will,achieving the end for which I sent it.
It seemed to me that all that was needed was to quote Scripture, and something powerful would happen. Or, all I had to do was read Scripture, and God would take care of every concern in the world. At one point, I felt this freed me from disconcerting notions like living according to Scripture, and at others, I felt this would give me instant gratification of all my desires, spiritualized though I may have made them.

But today it strikes me clearly that the word that goes forth from the mouth of God is not simply any random verse of Scripture that we pick out for ourselves. The word God sends, reminiscent of course of the Incarnation, the Word who does God's will, is the word which is born of the Holy Spirit in the open field of the heart of the believer, the child of Mary. It is the living and active word which God speaks into the prophet, which will work in that heart because it is God's work, and which will grow and develop of its own accord, because this is the fecund nature of the heart God recreates and enters by grace (Phil. 2:13).

The path to prepare this heart for the Lord is addressed in the psalm: God delivers the just from their distress. He hears the cry of the afflicted. He saves and is close to the crushed. We can know then that distress, afflictions and crushing are part and parcel of the purification of our hearts for God's garden to grow. He will confront every doing of evil within us, and cause remembrance of it to be destroyed out of us. This is a work of his mercy, to be neither feared nor resisted.

And the gospel simply tells us that we are to pray as Jesus instructs us. And he has instructed us. We can fall into two errors here: we can hammer the words of the Lord's Prayer by so much ardent repetition that they become one auditory splat that we don't even recognize with our hearts. We can also resist repeating Jesus' words and judge others as pagans for doing so to the point that we ignore Jesus' teaching to "pray, saying." Any decent instruction in prayer is going to teach us how to pray the Lord's Prayer. But the fact is, we pray by receiving the living and active word. We first need to approach God with silence, with emptiness, by feeling our inadequacy and the impossibility of reaching him by our own means. We pray first with our longing. Then we can pray, saying. As we pray, saying, we receive the living and active word. We stay with it for as long of a growing season God gives: minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Pilgrimage T-Shirt, and the Pursuit of Beauty

This morning, my daughter was telling me about her desires. She loves beautiful things -- creating them and enjoying others' creations. The desires she told me about centered on acquiring beautiful things, and items that would help her create more beautiful things.

And then she started telling me about how maybe she should get this instead of that, because it would be cheaper.

And I knew I was hearing a sad re-echoing of myself. She was trying to accommodate her desire for the Beautiful to my ingrained habit of frugality that frankly borders on occasional closed-hearted, fear-provoked stinginess.

So as we later drove on an errand, I told her my story about The Pilgrimage T-Shirt in order to let her know that my tendency to closed-fisted spending is not always a virtue to be imitated, but a weakness to be avoided.

Here is my Pilgrimage T-Shirt, old and wrinkled now:

And here is a close-up of the Scripture text, which is Is. 32:7: "Break forth into joy, sing together you waste places of Jerusalem. For the Lord has comforted His people. He has redeemed Jerusalem."

The story goes, I was on pilgrimage to the Holy Land in May of 1993, right after having come into the Catholic Church. Our group walked in to yet another gift shop along the way one day, and I saw this shirt hanging on the wall. I was so struck by it; it was like the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. (Those who know me well, including my daughter, know that I don't react this way to many things that I see. I just don't.) I was so moved by how beautiful it was that I said out loud, "Oh! I want one of those!" There was a motherly-like woman from the pilgrimage group near me who clearly heard and understood that I saw speaking from some deep place in my heart that needed a response. She said to me, "Well, honey, you just go right ahead and buy one for yourself, then."

Her prompting moved me to follow and act on what was happening in my heart. Without her words, I may have followed instead my deeply ingrained habit of squashing all of my desires until they were safely dead. But she made me bold, and I bought the shirt. As you can see, I still have it, and I occasionally still wear it.

As I told my daughter this (I was driving), I could see out of the corner of my eye that she was smiling powerfully. She understood that pursuit of Beauty sometimes involves, yes, buying things. It involves giving what I have to unite myself with the One I desire. And she was bouncing in her seat as we drove, telling me how much money she had, and she was delighting in the prospect of pursuing her desires, too.

It is entirely possible that I really was moved to buy that shirt in 1993 in order to move my daughter in 2017 to pursue God's will for her. I still need the same message echoing in my heart: I don't serve money; it serves me, and I serve God. Every part of my natural fiber says that spending money is essentially a necessary evil. Every part of my natural fiber needs to be transformed by grace. "God has not given us a spirit of fear, but a spirit of love, power, and a sound mind." 2 Timothy 1:7

And, that Scripture, though. It makes the T-Shirt story complete:
Break forth into joy, sing together you waste places of Jerusalem. For the Lord has comforted His people. He has redeemed Jerusalem. Is. 32:7

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Become a Disciple of Love

Lately I have felt myself drawn back to a particular moment during last summer's pilgrimage to Poland. It was a moment of awareness about my life that came mid-way into the journey. I suddenly became aware that I had been wasting a lot of energy in my spiritual life. I had been trying hard, pushing, being austere, getting tough, setting my bar high, and talking up this spiritual lifestyle to my kids. And it was all me. Lots of empty froth. It was "of the flesh."

I was praying in a 1000 year old church when the realization congealed within me. I saw that I had gotten stooped over, spiritually, in my efforts towards austerity, and in stooping I had lost clear vision of God's incredible love which beckons me outward, to Him and to others. My efforts left me pulled into myself. In that ancient church, in that foreign land where I had nothing else to distract me but what was ahead of me that hour, I saw more clearly that the only true value is love, and that I was over-doing my effort.

Lately, also, I have remembered a time 25 years ago when the Lord began to teach me from these simple words, in the context of learning to be led by the Spirit of God: "Using your own energies wears you down. Using my energy builds you up."

I lived a deeply passive lifestyle in my young adulthood, so it was a victory when I learned to assert effort. We do need to live with all of the strength of our heart, mind, and soul. However, it is just as important that we continually turn our natural strength over to God, and be willing to die to it, to take up His supernatural strength. To put it more clearly, we need to purposely soak ourselves in God's love daily, meditating on the reality that we are nothing -- zippidee doo da -- without His love. His love is the power of our lives. His love that becomes ours is to be our power. Love is the value.

To become a student of love, a practitioner of love, a disciple of love... this is the call of God I hear right now. Again. And always.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Thoughts on Story of a Soul: Chapter III

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then there is this moment:

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Should We Do the Works of Jesus? Really?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 02, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, December 19, 2016

The Anawim of Advent: Infertility

I remembered it this morning during Mass.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 05, 2016

Power, Corruption, and Impure Love

Earlier today, I wrote this on my pilgrimage blog:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Please People, Always Bring your Toddlers to Confession with You

I went to confession today.

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

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

So anyway, I went to confession today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Changing a Pharisee's Heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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