Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Learning to Pray: Still, Yet, Again

I am learning. I'm not exactly sure of the chicken-egg sequence involved, but I am learning that when I have a question for the Lord about how to do what He's asked me to do, the question just might exist because He wants to teach me about it.

In general terms, the thrust of my prayer is always the conversion of souls. For years it has just seemed to me that there really isn't anything else that matters all that much. Yes, that could be argued, but basically it seems now that it is just indicative of personal vocation.

But in these days I have a specific situation for which I am praying for particular people, connected to a particular event at a particular time. And suddenly to simply say, "Lord, grant graces of conversion" just doesn't seem to cut it. Or rather, it stirs a deeper question in me: Lord, how do I pray? What is this, anyway?

And two answers come.

The first was a teaching, a fact, that I had previously taken in my head and heart as information, but struck me with a much more personal force today: "[T]he prayer of the Church is at the same time 'the prayer of Christ and his body to the Father.' We must recognize, therefore, as we celebrate the Office, our own voices echoing in Christ, his voice echoing in ours." (from the Apostolic Constitution on The Divine Office, 8.)

This refers specifically to praying the Liturgy of the Hours, but it highlights some truths about prayer. When we pray with the Church, and hence when we pray with Scripture, it is not our will or our heart we pray, but God's. And when we voice human misery in this context (as we do so often in the Psalms), we don't do it on our personal behalf, but on behalf of God's people. We are literally praying for the people, saying the words of God confessing human misery for those who may or may not be calling out to God on behalf of their own misery.

Turning that same truth over, there's this facet to highlight: God desperately wants to pour Himself out in mercy over our misery. He wants to enfold His people with His healing love, and He will, in response to His Church calling out to Him. Now I see why it is such an honor to pray the Liturgy of the Hours: to lift the voice of the Church before God calls down, as St. Therese saw it, the love pent up in the heart of God for lack of someone asking for it to be unleashed.

The second answer was a reminder of a truth God has put a lot of energy into my getting: the power of a daily offering scooping up all of our work during the day, offering it to Him for the salvation of souls, with an ever watchful eye on acting with love for God and love for the people in my life that I serve. The fact that this strikes me has a lot to do with how my mind was war turf for years over the doctrine of total depravity and whether human action have any worth before God at all. But it is true: the Holy Spirit does indeed flow through us by grace in our souls through our actions, even our attitudes. And so we can indeed offer that flow as prayer for souls. This is why, for example, saints tell us that for the love of God we occasionally (or more than occasionally, depending on our vocation and circumstances) need to leave our prayer to serve the people who come to us. Moms usually get this. But to be honest, everything about this offering-of-actions facet of spiritual life I've had to learn like a second language due to my early formation.

Pray and work. Offer it up. Pray God's word.

Pithy sayings like this generally do nothing for me to actually teach me. But they encapsulate truth. Naru hodo.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Dear Ms. Disappointed Catholic Blogger Woman

I read this post earlier today about a woman's disappointment with belonging to an average parish, and how she found her solace in books. It made me a bit sad. I mean, everyone should do good spiritual reading, and I'm all for the good things it can do for your interior life. But it made me sad that she has not seemed to resolve any of the negative people experiences she has encountered as an ex-Evangelical Protestant.

Them people; we need them.

When our interior life is shaped by other believers, and I don't mean just by having Christian BFFs, but because we have thrown in our lot with people because they were somehow part of the scene when Jesus came among us and did something amazing -- when these people become part of our faith journey, God can use the smallest thing to teach whole lessons in seconds. Because there is joint experience and joint memory. And Jesus is right there in the midst of it, just like He said He would be.

I had one such moment yesterday. And the other person involved is by no means my BFF. That made it all the better lesson.

In this thing called the Church, the mystical Body of Christ, we are all called by Christ to give our all -- everything we've got -- for love of Him and also for the good of our fellows. My giving my all is actually needed by other members of the Body, just as their giving all is needed by me. Even when particular members may not exactly be thrilled with each other, we do actually need each other, and the rest of the Body actually needs both our input to work together. In other words, our love for Christ and the gift we make of ourselves really does have to supersede whatever differences or hard feelings may exist. It's ideal when there's nothing to supersede, but in the meantime we are called to keep rendering the gift.

All that in a one-second glance.

So, Ms. Disappointed Catholic blogger woman (and her tribe), I pray that God will lead you to an experience of grace amidst the people of your average, disappointing parish. Beautiful Christian community, a supernatural experience of Jesus among us in the flesh, doesn't always mean everyone feels good. In fact, woe to you if good feelings are what you have your heart set on. But keep looking for Him in your parish. God might just have a surprise up His sleeve for you.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Little Charismatic Way

This is a thinking post, not a thought-out post. I'm writing so that I understand.

Yesterday I posted about having finished the book Everything Is Grace. It helped me grasp not only the spirituality of Therese, but also the spiritual culture that was dominant at the time, for which her spirituality was a corrective. Her Little Way emphasizes simple, empty, confident trust in God's boundless love and mercy with which He longs to embrace sinners in their misery and lift them up. It emphasizes willingness -- God's willingness calling forth our own -- rather than human efforts to go through great labors to be heroic, to embrace harsh ascetic practices, and thereby to attempt spiritual self-perfection. (That was the Jansenistic flavor that religious, even Carmelite, life had in Therese's time.)

Schmidt's book made me see the connection others have pointed out to me between Therese's spirituality and the "nada" of St. John of the Cross. St. Therese went through plenty of dying to self, as she chronicles in Story of a Soul. It had been hard for me to relate to her saintly family and her exceptionally pious and religious formation as a child, but I can relate to her emotional attachments and her need to let go of the dynamism that drove her, which in her case was her need to please other people in order to feel secure. Schmidt recounts that even as she was dying she apologized in advance to her blood sisters with her in Carmel that she would cast her dying glance toward the superior and not one of them (she apologized because she did not wish them to feel hurt). Even to the moment of her death she was aware of the feelings of others, but free of the violence of a less-than-genuine love that is more about establishing one's own security than simply giving love.

The "nada" means one renounces everything from which one seeks to establish one's own security. Complete detachment. This is not even something we can produce for ourselves. This kind of deep detachment is something we can only be open to, willing for, and receive from God who gives it in trial. Or rather, maybe it is not so much that we have to be in suffering to receive it as receiving it is a suffering, because it brings light where we have darkness, but it feels like darkness where once was light.

Back to the post title: The Little Charismatic Way. What does Therese have to do with the modern charismatic movement?

I have considered myself a charismatic since 1987. I wrote some of my testimony about that here. I've had different thoughts and anti-thoughts about what that means to me now, as a Catholic. And to be honest, I have not in these 20 Catholic years had much in the way of intimate contact with other charismatics, living out and discussing what this dimension of faith means, although every year or two I have gone through a season of asking questions along these lines either of others or of myself or of Church documents.

And now St. Therese steps into these questions. Maybe it simply is my current moment in Carmelite formation, but I'll be danged if she doesn't seem to simply speak clarity both into my questions and into my experiences.

Here's what's helpful:
  1. God is love. Be open, completely open to Him.
  2. God is big. I am little. I never control or determine what He does. That's not only silly, it's warped.
  3. God has a mission. He wants souls to be with Him in heaven, but with heaven starting now. He can do that.
  4. God chooses and graces His children to work with Him. He makes it happen, with our willingness.
And since the Holy Spirit is God, all of these things are true specifically of the charismatic graces of the Holy Spirit. Maybe I could call living according to these points to be the Little Charismatic Way.

There are some issues, of course.
  1. The charismatic graces of the Holy Spirit as described in the New Testament and lived since that time are not always taught about, and people have difficulty responding to something about which they have no teaching or exposure.
  2. The way people initially get exposure to operating charismatic graces often stirs up all manner of things we need "nada"ed out of us. And this is true both of the one who receives and operates in these graces as well as those who witness it or hear about it.
Right now I'm particularly thinking about this latter point as regards any action of God that prompts us to decision, change, or a deeper conversion. People seem OK with God as long as they can control the relationship. I can pay as much attention to Him as I want or don't want. I can keep it in the realm of either the intellect or the feeling, whichever keeps me comfortable. I can accept all of His basic rules that make no significant demands on me to stand out, or I can console myself with being better than others who don't want to stand out in the ways I want to. And really, I don't have to bother so much with God Himself. I'll just stay in the company of those I consider His people.

But all of this is religion on a human level, and none of it strikes me as being of worship. There's no death here; there's no abandonment, there's no giving it all away. There's no love affair. It is all very controlled.

But we are designed as humans to worship God.

So being religious in this way can really get in the way of meeting God in the Little Way, and encountering the working of the Holy Spirit in the Church in what I'm calling the Little Charismatic Way. (I'm sorry, Therese. I'm really just turning this around in my mind. Forgive my presumption, here!)

The book of Acts gives lots of fascinating insights into how people react to this experience of the new covenant in Christ as it began to be lived in Jerusalem. We see, for example that the religious leaders were jealous of the apostles. For some, this went well and brought them to seek and enter into faith in the Messiah for themselves. For others, it moved them to violence and sins because they really couldn't overcome the irritation of being less significant than the apostles to the people.
This makes me think about those things that get stirred up in people when they experience something supernatural. It can make them curious and simply move them to want God. I've seen people have that response. It can also kick up feelings of rivalry (they have that; I'll have to prove myself to God to get something better, since I don't really believe He loves me), competitiveness (who do those jack-asses think they are, since they obviously are claiming to be better than me?), defeat (I'm less-than. God might love me, but obviously not as much as He loves them), deprivation (I can't trust God to give me good things like that), despair (God has forgotten me. I'm doomed.), or people pleasing (Wow! That's great for you! I on the other hand don't really exist. Don't mind me.) All of these problems are essentially ways that we do not believe in God's love and as a result we close ourselves off from Him.

The opposite of our littleness is the vast array of pride that comes with associating with experiences of power. Pride is so insidious and pervasive that one can hardly begin to list all the ways it poisons both the human exercise of religion and the experience of the supernatural. Essentially, pride is connected to "having." And this is why, when we "have" our experiences of God, we are so prone to being obnoxious to others. And this is exactly why God's work in us is to detach us from everything, even, in Therese's case, any consolation of the thought of heaven. He brings us to utter darkness so that we cling to him purely in faith, and not through delight and consolation. It is ironic to say that God wants souls in heaven with Him, starting now, and that the way there is through this bleak, forsaken-feeling darkness. But this is exactly what St. John of the Cross teaches. We need to be thoroughly purged from not only sin, but also attachment to everything that is not God.

God's mission of redemption was fully accomplished in Christ, but His mission for the rescue of souls continues in space and time through the Body of Christ, the Church, and through each one called to join that Body. As we are open, humble, and purified, God accomplishes His purposes through us, through our willingness, through our small actions rendered to Him in worship. I say small actions... certainly Therese's months of gradually suffocating from tuberculosis without pain medication and with so much serenity and sweet concern for others that many of her Sisters in Carmel doubted she was seriously ill, all that in the midst of a dark night that left her with zero feelings of assurance that there was any heaven after death at all -- surely all that is not a small action.

I am reminded of an experience I wrote about here, about a teaching from the mystic Anne to the effect that God can move graces through us even if all we have to offer him is cleaning the house and making peanut butter sandwiches all day. It truly is not the things we offer God as the love with which we offer them. Different actions call us to exercise different virtues, but all these are grace. The worship we offer God is truly God crowning His own gifts in us. God gives to us; we give back to Him. This is to remain constant regardless of how it feels to us.

Yes, this is a long post! But I am seeing how, if we can simply grasp and follow these principles, understanding what God's way is and allowing Him to have it with us, not getting sidetracked by our wounded, unbelieving hearts, our pride, and especially understanding detachment from sin and self, and grasping that Christ's mission continues through faithfulness in His Body, the Church... All of these things put us in the position where God can accomplish His will through us.

The glorification of Therese in the life of the church, particularly among the little ones longing for God, as well as among all those seeking enlightenment, peace, and love, is the resounding affirmation of the truth that the measureless desires of the human heart are ultimately from God and for God. That glorification is also but a shadow of Therese's full glory and of what awaits all the poor in spirit who desire God and are willing to reciprocate divine love in their lives through works of peace and charity. The respect and honor extended to Therese from within the church and beyond are a testimony to the truth that union with God is possible to anyone who is open to the Holy Spirit, always available in the ordinary experiences of human life.

-- Everything is Grace, p. 330, italics in the original

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Read This Book! Everything is Grace:The Life and Way of Therese of Lisieux

I have just finished reading the book Everything Is Grace: The Life and Way of Therese of Lisieux by Joseph F. Schmidt, FSC. I can't recommend it highly enough, especially if you've ever secretly or not-so-secretly wondered what the big deal is about this woman that she was declared a Doctor of the Church and seems loved by everyone.

That was my estimation of her, once, as I've written about over the last couple of years. My first impressions of her were the sweet, cartoony drawings of her, the roses, and then that movie. She just seemed such a (forgive me, Therese!) sappy thing, always breaking down in tears, and despite myself I would always cry too, watching it. For someone of a strong intellectual bent, reading that Therese taught us to be little children and trust in the good Jesus, well, I'm sorry, but she just annoyed me.

I read Story of a Soul, and at first that didn't help. Then I read her letters to Maurice, and the door of my heart's understanding swung open. I began to understand the suffering that she was neglectful of making a huge deal out of in her own writings. I saw that her "sappy" image was a gross misunderstanding on my part.

But this book is simply stunning in the way Schmidt captures the psychological suffering and her path of spiritual maturity from her earliest childhood and shows through them how Therese is absolutely the saint for our age and the Doctor the Church is so much in need of in the 21st century.

I feel like this post is just for me to gush and not give a detailed review or praise for specific points Schmidt makes, although I could pull out many, many, many. In fact, I've already blogged about a few of them, here and here.

See, the thing is, even though St. Therese used to annoy me, I turned to her intercession at two moments in my spiritual life that at the time I had no idea of realizing would be so hugely pivotal for me. So part of my gushing here is simply my growing realization of the communion of saints being so vibrantly real. The love pouring out from the saints in heaven is palpable to me. And amazing! And astounding! Getting to know these saints is a needed boon to our lives.

Do yourself a favor and read this book. It also has me thinking on a post I'll need to write when I'm done exuding and more able to resume more analytical thought: The Little Charismatic Way; How to Cut the Crap and Simply Be Open to the Holy Spirit.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

The Problem with Catholics

This has been rattling around in my heart for a long time but has recently struck me with pristine clarity: American Catholic Christians are deeply confused about who we are because we have lost touch with Christ's mission to save souls.

To some, that might be so baldly obvious that it hardly bears repeating. To others, it might provoke great defensive argument. (And of course others won't care at all.)

The liturgical cycle teaches us everything we need to know, and worship gives us all the sanctity we need. We need to live as saints, and specifically, each of us needs to become the particular saint God intends us to be. It really is that easy, and it certainly is nothing new. We can wring our hands and write books and strategize and give conferences but it really is this basic.

We have lost sight of our liturgical celebrations and liturgical seasons as having a launching dynamism. We have utterly forgotten the dramatic climax of Scripture (hint: it's supposed to be where we still live). We have made of Christ an idol to bow before, to whom we pay reverence while ignoring the mission He died to inaugurate.

How can we claim to love Christ and remain unconcerned with the desires of His heart? Yes, it is true that He desires that we ourselves be saved and grow in virtue. But if we have limited the scope of our spiritual concern to keeping ourselves out of hell, we suffer horrible myopic vision.

God prepared a people for a few thousand years through promises and covenants, and in the fullness of time sent His Son to establish the lasting covenant, and then prepared a new people in the Upper Room and unleashed them with His own power to go to the highways and byways of the entire world and call everyone to Himself. He provided a huge array of gifts, always changing to meet the need and to face the inevitable human and spiritual backlash.

There has been sin and division, and there has been sanctity and glory. But never has there been another plan announced from heaven about what Christ's Church essentially is: the presence of Jesus Christ in time and space.

And how can we know who we are if we don't know who Christ is?

Christ is the Messiah of Israel: the people God formed through His actions, His laws, His covenants, His prophets, and through their tremendous suffering. Christ opened up God's plan for a universal covenant of salvation for all people, Jew and Gentile. Christ gifted this covenant with human guardians whom He Himself guarantees. In the same way, He empowers with the Holy Spirit all who enter Him through this covenant. These gifts, when activated in and through faith, mutually upbuild the whole structure that is the Church. And the whole purpose of that Church is to continue bearing witness to Christ's resurrection, His life, His reality, His call, His power, His love, His truth.

We exist to announce to the world: come and join us in our mission of announcing and demonstrating the power and love of God, of rescuing souls from self-destruction and despair. It is not ourselves we preach, but Christ, and ourselves your servants for Jesus' sake.

It is time Catholics step out of our confusion by the simple step of daily self-offering, nurtured by liturgical prayer and silence. Give God permission and space to act, expect Him to act, and respond as He speaks. Lather, rinse, repeat.

 "Oh Lord, I am yours. Remove from my life those things that hinder me from you. Plant firmly in my life the people with whom you desire to form me. Teach me, guide me,  and make me the believer you have created me to be."

Thursday, February 26, 2015


I am constantly just beginning to learn things about the spiritual life.

Last night as I was tired earlier than usual I pulled St. Faustina's Diary Divine Mercy In My Soul off my bedside shelf and began to read parts I had underlined during previous readings. Among other things, in three different parts of the large book I noted where she said that responding to inspirations from the Holy Spirit calls forth greater graces. I was glad to not be the only one to whom God seemed to present the same lessons over and over again and each time it seems like a strikingly new revelation. But I hadn't opened the book with any particular agenda, and I knew there were a lot of things that I could have pulled out of it, so I made a mental note that was what registered with me.

This afternoon I was out grocery shopping at Aldi. When it came time to check out, I noticed the checker was rubbing her hands to warm them, so we made small talk about the cold. She seemed to open up with unusual readiness after a brief exchange, and she made a comment about how she was truly miserable, as the next customer's order came along.

And then as I was bagging my stuff I was struck with the thought to give her a miraculous medal. (I often have more of these than change in my wallet.) And that thought from St. Faustina was there. Obey promptings, and greater graces flow.

Now, I have stood right there in front of a prompting like that many, many times since I was young. Many times, I would start to reason What good would that possibly do? Isn't that almost superstitious? What if she gets offended? What if she throws it away? What if I just look weird? What if this just me, and not the Holy Spirit? What if .... 

And more often than not, if the prompting had to do with me interacting with another person, I'd skip it. Then I would beat myself up for not doing it for hours or days. I'd design myself some kind of punishment to make up for my lack of courage. Or I'd just tell myself to stop paying so much attention to every dang thought in my head and just live, because how could it matter.

But I realize that I don't have to understand what it "means" for in the other person's life, or concern myself with what happens because of it. I don't have to "be sure" it is the Holy Spirit's personal bullhorn up against my head. But I can simply be aware of another person, desire their good, and take the chance that I'm the silliest person on the face of the earth, and just do it. Just respond to the internal inspiration. Take the chance that maybe grace is in this equation somewhere.

And today, I did. I gave her the miraculous medal. I wished her "a better day" and told her the medal was for a necklace. She beamed a really bright smile and thanked me.

It seems to me that the way to move towards seriously being involved in God's work is to stop taking myself so seriously. Be open, yes. Be loving, yes. Intend the other person's good, yes. Second-guess myself tortuously, no. The less self-consciousness and the more freedom I have, the better I can simply be available to Jesus.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Yeah, Basically my Life has Always Been this Weird.

Memories can provoke a whole assortment of responses. Bad memories can depress or frighten and good memories can bring comfort and a smile. Then there's that category of mysterious memories. Today one of these broke to the surface while I was praying and I was moved to an equally mysterious sense of gratitude for God's presence in my life.

The story: as I remember it, it was a warm time of the year, and given how I remember my visual perspective at our side door I imagine I was about 4 or 5 years old. So, we're talking early 1970s. My brother (who would have been about 8 or 9) was playing outside. Now, we lived on one of the busiest roads in our city of 140,000, so there was always all sorts of traffic, including pedestrians. As my brother played, a young man stopped and talked to him and (my brother told me later) asked him if there were anyone else at home with him. He told the man yes, that I was home too. He fetched me, and we stood outside on the sidewalk. In my mind's eye I remember this young man as looking like a hippie. He had longish curly hair, and he was dressed in white or light clothes. I don't remember anything at all the man said, but he prayed with us. And then he walked on by, and my brother went back to playing, and I stood there for some moments, watching the young man walk on down the street.

There have been moments when I've wondered if he hadn't been an angel. It's more likely that he was a "Jesus Freak" as they were called in those days, those who were saved from the hippie culture and wandered about as spiritual troubadours. But it always struck me that he came to my house and basically sought for me to pray for me.

Right around that time, my mother was divorcing my alcoholic father, and the life that lay ahead of me for the next few years was not to be filled with happy memories. But throughout my life God has driven these pegs of awareness that people I did not know prayed for me. As if, you know, God had a hand in it or something.

And now, as a Carmelite in formation, I am learning to pray as God leads. May I never discount the odd one-off prayer here and there for a stranger or for someone God brings to mind. A humble act offered in love God can use to fulfill plans that we cannot begin to comprehend.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

One Red Marble

I have certain memories that stand out like parables that I return to again and again. Recently I found myself thinking about this one.

It was the first semester of my Sophomore year in college, and I was enrolled in a psychology class for which one textbook was required and one study guide suggested. By the time I bought books, the study guide was out of stock. So of course I was driven to anxiety when the professor indicated that although the study guide was optional, when it came time for the exam those without it would be in deep trouble.

Anxiety over what I lacked inspired me to carefully study that textbook like I had never studied a textbook before. I carefully took notes from the text, highlighted, studied the vocabulary terms, used the study questions and basically applied myself full-steam to learning the material.

Then came the midterm. It was something like 500 multiple choice questions. I faced the challenge with serious, if still anxious, determination.

When the professor handed the exams back, he was visibly disappointed. He explained that the vast majority of the class either failed miserably or came close to it, and that a retake was being offered. After his all-class tongue-lashing he mentioned that one student got only four wrong.

That was me. I was so mad.

I was mad at the rest of the class for not using their precious study guides, at myself for studying so carefully and for being driven by anxiety to do so. I was angry at what felt like foolishly spent effort. I was mad at the professor for inspiring me with this anxiety. And at deepest I felt angry at myself for being the one oddball who was applying myself to learning as if there were something to be gained from it.

There is so much in this memory that epitomizes my basic struggles in life. But I am only just beginning to be able to look at this with a bit of humor. For one thing, anxiety has been such an unwaveringly normal engine in my life that only in recent years have I been aware of optional ways of functioning. For way too long I have faced my natural characteristics, like my tendency toward earnest seriousness about everything, as enemies to be subdued and problems to be stamped out instead of just the human package I am. I can appreciate that some anxiety is indeed helpful and can motivate good things, like attentiveness and thoroughness.

Another significant issue here is feeling like this:

a red marble in a sea of yellow marbles. For me, this is also about accepting the human package that I am and not being angry at myself or at others that we all are who we are. Accepting that God wishes me to be me, and that's why He made me as me. Accepting that I cannot find my way by trying to be like someone else. Accepting that my cues do not come from what I can see in others, and that my confidence is not born from conformity.

This also goes a long way to make sense of how much work God has had to do in my heart with regards to detachment in my relationships. Find a human soul that resonates with mine? Why, glom on with all my might down to the very cost of my soul, of course! Oddly missing from my memory of the exam is any real delight in doing well, or even a sense of boasting over the flunkers. Because the overwhelming value to me here was the sense of isolation that shoved delight off the stage before it could take one step out. In this, too, I have finally begun to find peace because I begin to realize that what I have thought of or felt as isolation is really a path towards union with God. Living in harmony with my design may make me unique, but it does not isolate me. Rather, it communicates God's glory and so offers real delight.

What is true of all creation in general is true of my creation as well, as the Catechism teaches:

St. Bonaventure explains that God created all things "not to increase his glory, but to show it forth and to communicate it", for God has no other reason for creating than his love and goodness: "Creatures came into existence when the key of love opened his hand."  
(Catechism of the Catholic Church 293)

If I am a red marble in a sea of yellow, it is not because God is mean. His creation of me reveals to me and to others His love and goodness, because that's who He is.

St. Therese teaches that the power of the Holy Spirit is blocked in our lives when we cannot serenely accept ourselves as we are, inherent weaknesses and powerlessness, as well as gifts and graces lavished on us by our loving Father. When we are stuck in our willfulness, the "I want my way," we are bound up in our limitations.  When instead we open in ourselves willingness, the "Yes, Lord -- your love!" to all God intends for us, which includes of course the path of the cross and suffering, that is all it takes to please God and be in our full potential before Him.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Lent: Face to Face with Love

So, what is this Lent thing all about, anyway?

Recently I was talking with my spiritual director about Lent, and I got one of those God-echoes that made a tear escape down my cheek. You know, one of those "God-has-been-telling-me-this-for-years, and clearly-now-it's-happening-again" things. Either he has profound insight into me (meh, don't really think so), or my struggles really aren't unlike those of others (could it be? I'm a little normal?!)

The basic theme was that Lent is about becoming more fully the one God has made us to be. Owning it; living it. Of course God has made us to be holy, to be saints. But there are no generic saints; there are specific humans. We don't get to be holy by destroying or rejecting the model God has made and remaking something that strikes us as more acceptable. We become holy by being ourselves. Humbly, acceptingly, being ourselves.

That is exactly what God told me when I was in my Catholic no-man's land, when I was going to Mass but waiting on the doorstep, for 18 months, to be received. "If you want to serve me simply be yourself." (I leave out the potential commas in that sentence, because everything God says always bears more than one nuance.)

This used to terrify me, this notion of being myself. I had no idea how to do it, first of all, and it also seemed incredibly risky. I kinda knew I am by nature a red marble in a sea of yellow marbles.

I read something last night that illustrates this thing I've said about how I come to grips with some truth, and then hear it taught by the Carmelites. Apparently, this thing was the cornerstone of St. Therese's spirituality as well.

"If you are willing to bear serenely the trial of being displeasing to yourself, then you will be... [for Jesus] a pleasant place of shelter." St. Therese, to her sister Celine as a new member of Carmel.

Joseph F. Schmidt, FSC, elaborates (in his book Everything is Grace): "In this case, Therese saw that Celine needed to lose her discouragement, which was self-centered, and particularly to lose her willfulness, which drove her to strive for self-improvement. That harsh willfulness was itself a kind of violent obstacle to the power of the Holy Spirit in her. If Celine would be willing to lose her attachments to herself and enter the path of humility, serenely bearing the pain of honestly being herself, that willingness, humility and honesty would put her on the path of transformation."
One reason it takes so much courage to be ourselves is that we all have this displeasing aspect to us. I'm quite sure God made us that way. If we could be thoroughly pleased with ourselves (honestly, not arrogantly) we would not seek Him. To believe that we are loved by God and by others while at the same time not pleasing ourselves to some degree or another is an act of faith. An incredible one, to my mind. To believe we are loved is to accept that Love is bigger than we are. To believe we are loved is to be humble.

Lent is really about coming face to face with believing we are loved, with Love who loves us. It is about letting God have His way. It is about letting His love enter in. When it enters in, by its nature it changes us and starts to flow out of us. That is so much different from a self-improvement checklist that we conquer by willpower.

Lent is not about starving myself or proving to myself, to God, or others how good I am. It's not about mentally beating myself up because I'm so weak, and yelling at myself to improve. This idea that inflicting pain and suffering on ourselves earns us God's love is either pride, or a grossly deficient understanding of God. Self-inflicted suffering is NOT synonymous with penance. Penance is to dig deeper into love, to dig deeper into the ground of our weakness and failings that will always be there and to find ourselves, again, loved -- even there.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

The Importance of Saying Yes

I get the sense that right now it is very important for Christians to say yes to the crosses that Jesus hands them.

Suffering comes to all, regardless of our disposition to it. And it is true that there are sufferings we bring on ourselves. It isn't right to credit Jesus for every struggle we face. But what I mean here is that when Christians are living an honest commitment to their baptismal covenant, not harboring or nurturing sin, not living primarily forgetful lives, not placing God as a figurehead or a cultural flag somewhere in their self-identity package, but actually thinking like a disciple who wants to follow, to these, there is a call sounding. Take up your cross, and follow me.

Pious statements roll easily off the back, and this one is no exception. That's why we need to pay attention.

Jesus entrusts crosses to us. Get that. Jesus chooses them, and He hands them out. There is nothing random here, and there is nothing sadistic. God does not delight in our suffering. God delights in His children.

Wait, what? Isn't that a contradiction? If God delights in us, why does He allow us to suffer? It is the path to knowing God, from the inside out if you will. We don't say yes to the objective evil of the things that cause us the pain. We say yes to Jesus, who holds it all. Saying yes to Jesus, saying yes to His cross, is our step, in union with the One who loves us. Union means being deeply with. When we say yes to the cross Jesus hands us, we say yes to being deeply with Him.

When we are deeply with Him, not only are we freed, healed, brought peace, and filled with God's life (probably in the face of the objective evil remaining steady), but we also become a highway, a means for freedom, healing, peace and life to flow into this world. We become the means of God's mission going forward. We build God's kingdom.

God doesn't need our means, our power, our riches. He doesn't need our lives to be perfect or trouble free. He doesn't need us to be secure in the things of this world. He needs our yes. He needs hearts that want to be deeply with Him more than we want any other good or pleasure.

And this all pivots on a very difficult point: Trust.

We have to trust that God is good. We have to trust that God is good.

We experience so much that is not-God, even in the name of love, religion, friendship, and... God. And just look at the central image of the Christian faith, the crucifix. That hurt. Really bad. How do we trust a God who has that as His plan?

When all we want to do is shake our fists and scream and curse the evil and curl up in a ball and hide, how do we trust that God is good?

Start with the fact that you exist. You did not make you. God did. Even if you do not like what He made and see nothing good in it, you are the evidence of a power greater than yourself. And that power gave. Start right there by saying thank you, and yes.

Christian, your yes is very important. God will meet your needs and open your eyes to see beyond the ache in your heart. He who is mighty has promised. And He is asking and calling you to do your part in His plan for the rest of needy humanity. So, say yes to what He entrusts to you. Remember heaven. On that shore, we'll never regret it.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Intercession Basics

I spend some time each day interceding for various individuals, groups, and areas. Over time, I have boiled down the way I pray for the at-large community of my life into two different themes: souls who are carrying a cross that Jesus has given them, and souls trapped under their own sin or the sins of others.

I don't really spend any time evaluating who fits into which category how, because God knows these things, and I don't. But I do know that while I might wish that suffering could be eliminated from the lives of people I care about, I realize that when Peter mentioned this desire to Jesus, Jesus rebuked him. The truth is, a share in the cross handed the soul by Jesus is a great and precious gift. Every fiber of one's being balks at that truth, but that doesn't change it. What souls who have been handed a cross need are the graces of acceptance, courage, trust, and protection from attacks of the enemy. They need to be able to lift their gaze up to Jesus on the cross, and allow His gaze to penetrate through theirs, to find in Him the meaning of their cross. I pray best going to the core of the spiritual need. God usually uses people and practical help to meet those needs, but I don't discount the possibility that He can reach in mystically to meet the needs Himself.

Those who are being handed a special share in the cross of Jesus are being called and trained to offer their hearts in worship, and really to be built up as a highway for the goods of heaven to come into this earth through their souls and for souls to be brought to God through their love. Shares in Christ's cross are like a huge spiritual infrastructure expansion project going forward. As souls say Yes to God's work in them, God gains access to that soul and to those around him. And the truth is, we all have small crosses daily. It isn't only when someone's child has a life-threatening illness or there is a major disaster that the offer of the cross comes to us. Some souls might think that is the only time God is really asking anything from them. But the cross also comes when someone is being difficult or we fear losing attention, status, or a small comfort. Acceptance, courage, trust, and refuge from the enemy. You think the devil never needles an annoyed person to cause them to reject this kind of cross, and so hinder the upbuilding of the kingdom? Of course he does. Health problem, sure; I'll accept that. Death of a loved one; ok, God is asking me something hard. But accept that this person is put in my life to annoy me? Surely, God. Never!

The other theme I pray is for people trapped under their own sin or under the sins of others. I of course pray that Jesus would come and destroy the nets, the webs, the chains of sin. So many, children especially, are trapped under the sins of adults in their lives. It is true that each person makes his own choices and is ultimately responsible for his own sin, but so many are weakened tremendously in knowing right from wrong because of living with the sins of others. The voice of conscience gets more and more muted and confused.

I especially pray that Jesus would destroy the pretty nets and chains first. These are the lovely sins of Christians; the ones we have forgotten how to be ashamed of. Of course they are not pretty to God. But religiosity can treat as acceptable those things which are actually loathsome.

The image of going with the Blessed Mother with a spiritual syringe is very helpful to me. I like to pray with her that by prayer we are spiritually injecting Truth into walls built of lies, Light into the darkness where sin hides, Love and peace where walls of hatred imprison people. And so with repeated applications we work to break down and weaken the fortresses sin and evil have built that keep people from God. And of course, I proclaim her Son Jesus the Savior, the Redeemer, the One who sets captives free and ransoms the slave. His is the victory!

These are the general ways I intercede, especially for the geographical area where I live, as well as my parish and those in our Catholic school. It is a good practice, that I was taught long ago, to pray systematically for the place where you live, the groups in which you mix. And right now, this is the basic outline I've learned.

Learning to Pray, Part I

It seems like there is nothing like the act of praying to teach one how to pray.

In the last several years, as I have written about in other posts, the Lord has taught me many things about specifically how to pray. For years I prayed without really realizing the dialogue quality of prayer -- that it is a meeting, a two-way street. I would have agreed to those ideas, but I agreed with a lot of truths without experiencing them in those days.

Meetings depend on so much more than one of the parties involved. And since I was a teenager, I was interested in finding someone who could actually show me how Christianity is done. In the realm of prayer, while I have found tremendously joyful and resonating confirmations in the writings of the Carmelites, the resonances have been with how God has taught me simply in the course of praying. In fact, it has almost been embarrassing to me the number of times I've learned something, and maybe even blogged about it, and then read St. Teresa or St. John describe it. I suppose it makes sense. And I suppose for all those things I read in their stuff that I don't understand, I'll come back to in future days, when God finds me ready for them. Maybe it's not so much that it is embarrassing, but it is humbling in that it drives home to me that these ain't my ideas. God teaches us all. And I realize I'm in the right school.

And speaking of school, the other thing I realize is that the Secular Carmelite has a vocation to make known to others the teachings on prayer of the Carmelite saints. I look into my toolkit and I realize I don't really know how to do that. But I guess that's why God is writing these lessons into my life. Academic prowess is all very well and good, but not, I think, for me. Too ego-sticky. But lessons that one has learned with one's heart, one can communicate from one's heart to the heart of another.

And all that is part of why I blog on matters of prayer. Practice, and thought-sort.

So now I'm ready to write my post.  Next Page.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Gospel Is Not Complicated; I Am

I've been thinking a lot lately about this image of undoing knots. I've often told my son about how one of Mary's titles is Our Lady Undoer of Knots as I am trying to tease apart his shoelaces that seem to have fused together. Or to my daughter, when she brings me her wad of tangled necklaces. There is something about knots that makes us want to give up in frustration and bring it to someone else and wait for it to be solved. Knots are baffling and seem impossible.

About 20 years ago or so, when I prayed I often had this sense that my life was tied up in knots -- that I had all sorts of internal complications. I say I had a sense of it because I could feel the mess, but I couldn't see how I was perpetuating it.

But recently, especially as I've been reading the book I referred to about the Little Way of St. Therese, Everything is Grace, I've been understanding both how I had gotten all knotted up, and what it looks like for me to be unknotted.

The process could start with, say, a comment made to me about someone else. Maybe this comment reveals or reminds me of a weakness in that person. The knot might start to form as my soul gloms on to that information, and I turn it over in my mind, I delight in that weakness, I relive everything that person has ever done that upset me, and then everything that has upset me in the concentric circles rippling out from that person (to the larger group, or everyone of "that type of person"). I go off on getting very upset at all these memories for several days or a few weeks. Then I feel remorse, or exhaustion, or depression, and I fling myself at God (whom I now blame for putting me in the whole situation in the first place), and I agonize over why He doesn't seem to love me enough to give me the type of people I really need to be happy. This lasts a good long time. In the meantime, I cry and moan to friends at church, ask them to pray for me, and sob over why I am so unloved. Then, to fix myself, I decide to strenuously study the Bible on a certain topic of God's love, and I fill pages and pages with notes. I am sure that if I study enough, I will get a breakthrough in my understanding and I will be able to believe God loves me. I sing, I pray, and I try very hard to analyze every thought I have about all of my issues. I might even force myself to do something spiritual for the person or group of people I had gotten upset about. I might decide I am called to join their ministry or volunteer for their group, or whatever. Because I am determined to press through and not have a problem with them anymore.

In the meantime, I can't figure out why I'm anxious, tired, frustrated, unfulfilled and terribly unsure about what God really wants for me. And I'm completely and totally in a knot. I couldn't discern God's will if it came and bit me on the nose because I am dreadfully busy making froth.

Now, for the unknotted life. I start with the same circumstance. I learn a piece of info that reminds me of a weakness of a person I've had a problem with, and I find some delight in it.

I take that to God and I say, "Lord, I am so weak. I'm finding delight in this meaningless little piece of info. Bless her. Help me."

What I have there are two strings that are a little bent, but they are not a knot. And instead of wearing myself out with 1,000 self-improvement programs that bear no fruit and only wear me out because they are all of the flesh, I accept that I'm bent and I have proclivities that aren't good. I know it, and I know God knows it, and He's ready to help me with His mercy.

My pastor is fond of reminding me that the gospel is simple. That's true. But it is immensely difficult for a proud person to accept and live by simple things. My pride wants to be fed with attachments, praise, and always wonderful results. Jesus' gospel tells me to seek the kingdom of God, not the goods of earth, the attention of people or feelings of power. The directive "forsake those things; choose God" is simple, but doing it crushes the proud soul. And thereby relieves from it its burden of sin.

The gospel really is simple. I, on the other hand, am not.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

How in the World Did I Get Here?

Do you ever have one of those moments where reality flashes before you (in a good way) and you ask yourself "How in the world did I get here?"

I had one of those this morning.

The question is rhetorical, because of course I know how I got there. I was standing in a packed church, about to lead a team of several instruments and singers and the entire congregation in worship of God at Mass. I had a late start to the early morning, wasn't as practiced as I'd like to have been, was using a new-to-me guitar and a sound system, and normally I lead at less complicated daily Masses. That moment, as my pastor announced the end of greetings and beginning of Mass, was not the moment to ponder my rhetorical question! It was the time to trust that everything the Lord had worked into me over the last several years would be extractable by the same Lord, despite my feelings of the moment.

But the question is really a moment of awe at God's work. Later I was remembering how one Sunday seven years ago I stood at the podium, nervously preparing simply to cantor for the first time at my parish. And how Joe the organist told me, "You seem nervous. Well, don't be." And how I thought to myself, "Who do you think you are, the Son of God, that you can just tell me to be calm and expect it to happen?!"

That was really the first of several prophetic messages (words from God mediated through human speech and experiences) that began to shape my inner being according to a call from God to learn how to teach people to worship, that was itself a prophetic message to me several decades ago.

Nervousness and insecurity are parts of expecting something from one's own natural ability. I imagine that everyone needs to work through that stuff; I know for sure I have. Time, practice, and experience can reduce some of that, but there also needs to be the spiritual progress of submitting one's natural abilities to God for Him to work through -- or to completely set aside! I went through a short time (for complicated "people" reasons) of being barred from music ministry. It ripped my heart out, but it also drove home right quick that I had no "right" to serve. After that burp of my life passed, each time I approached the ambo to cantor and I bowed before the tabernacle, my heart offered sincere thanks for this gift of being able to lead the congregation in praising God.

And you know what else is funny? When I lead worship, I play guitar. I do believe and accept what the Church says about organ having pride of place, and that is also my preference. And I am not what you would call an excellent guitarist. I have one, very narrow strip of expertise, and that is playing rhythm guitar for church music. When I do that, I can truly worship God and more importantly I can rouse others to worship God. Before leading any music for Mass I always pray that God would draw all hearts present to enter into true, self-giving worship of Him. It humbles me to realize that I am really a second string church musician, and that many Catholics would turn up their noses at the music I play. But when a woman approached us after Mass today to comment that a song we played lifted the congregation's hearts right up to God, I was pleased, knowing our mission was successful.

God has called me, formed me, trained me, tested me. And that's how in the world I got there. Thanks be to God. It's kinda awesome.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

God Gives me the Desire of my Heart; I Whine a Little

It seems that God knows better than to talk to me about prices when we are out shopping.

Ok, yes, that's a bit weird. I don't mean shopping, I mean praying. When I'm expressing my desires to Him. He is wiser than to let me know what the cost is of anything I want. Really, though, He knows (because I've told Him over and over again) that I'm carte blanc-willing towards Him. He can have, ask, require anything of me. He knows what I'm made of, and I'm not worried about Him asking for something He's not able to get from me, since it sorta all comes from Him in the first place, right?

But even with the carte blanc thing, I realize that when I go to wanting something, He doesn't generally let on about how much it will cost.

And I've noticed another funny thing. I can really, sorely, desperately want certain things from God, like achingly so, and then when He gives them to me, I'm not really sure I want them. Or at best, I go gee, thanks. At first at least. I barely know the value of anything. At first at least.

I was thinking of all this in the context of a memory of one of those sorely desperate prayers to God, in which for emphasis, I banged a book on my knee and said it all out loud. Way back when, I wrote a blog post about it called In Which She Admits That Which Brings Freedom. The thing that I yelled out as I prayed was "I want this freedom! I need this freedom! I have got to have this freedom!"

Read the blog post to get the context. In classic me style, it took me tons of paragraphs to say that my freedom comes in admitting that I love my friends.

But I tell you what: Today was the day. Today was the day that I found this reality in me. I have that freedom I longed for and over which banged the book on my lap.

The love I am talking about comes with detachment. A love not rooted in possessiveness, and all the anxiety and fear that comes with it. Detachment was the price tag I was clueless about at the time. I struggled to even mouth the word love; you could forget any hope of me loving freely. God knew that I wanted this more than I wanted comfort, even though I sure didn't know how much discomfort I was in for. The good thing is, what I failed to grasp in the days I was kicking and screaming, He allowed me to take a second shot at with a more willing and trusting heart later on. God is patient and awesome like that.

I'm writing about this to formulate thankful thoughts and to remember my earnestness, because I admit that my response today was, you know Lord, is this really going to be good? I mean, peace and freedom are great, but wasn't there something actually pleasant about anxious bondage? See, sometimes I need to put these things into words to catch myself being ridiculous.

The more graces God gives me, the more I realize that His gifts are really cool and they are absolutely not connatural to me!