Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Unnatural Attachment to Chaos

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

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

We cannot obtain grace unless we suffer afflictions...

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

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

But this morning, something rather different struck me.

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 11, 2014

Reflections on the Walking Pilgrimage to Czestochowa

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

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

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



Things confirmed to me:

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

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

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

And,

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

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

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

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




Thursday, July 31, 2014

Fasting and Humility

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

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

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

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

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

Fasting is not about that.

Fasting is about humility.

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

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

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

Amen?

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A Few Thoughts on Fasting and Parental Authoriity

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

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

Learners though we must be, parents also have authority.

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

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

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


Tuesday, July 29, 2014

A Few Thoughts about Fasting and Gratitude

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

Someone recently sent me this:






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

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


Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Elijah and the Widow

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



Here is a link to today's readings.

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

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




Sunday, June 08, 2014

Meditations on the Pentecost Sequence

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

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

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

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

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





Saturday, June 07, 2014

Give us Virtue's Sure Reward

The final piece of the Pentecost sequence:

Give us virtue's sure reward
Give us your salvation, Lord
Give us joys that never end.
Amen. Alleluia.

Da virtutis meritum
Da salutis exitum
Da perenne gaudium
Amen. Alleluia.

Give reward of virtue, give us salvation at our passing on, give us eternal joy. Amen. Alleluia.

Just based on the feeling of words, I like that the word used for virtue (virtutis) is so close to the word for miracles (vertutis). I also like how the "Amen. Alleluia" is sung in chant so much that I've typed it three times. (Actually, four!) Some prayers are just so awesome that you can't conclude them any other way.

This prayer ends with the ultimate cry of faith. If we live in step with the Holy Spirit, undergoing purgings, prunings, choosing against selfishness and for love, choosing spiritual poverty and not living for sense gratification, I think we come to a point where we either rethink it all and revert to living in and for the flesh, or we bet everything on the way of Christ. And these concluding words are what is in the heart of those who have bet all. Sometimes we experience no evidence at all that choosing for God has a reward. But we are promised it. So we have hope for it. We cannot see what is on the other side of death, but we have come to know and love the One who has gone there. So we have faith in Him. And ultimately after living in Him we can imagine no other joy than to be with Him. That love will finally reach its pure fulfillment when we see His face in eternity.

These are the things that sustain martyrs and witnesses to the daily Yes to God. And when you and I add our Yes to their resounding chorus of Yeses, this is how the Church moves forward to our ultimate home.

Like I said, AMEN, ALLELUIA!


Friday, June 06, 2014

Why Ask for the Gifts of the Holy Spirit?

Today's piece of the Pentecost sequence:

On the faithful who adore
And confess you evermore
In your sevenfold gift descend

Da tuis fidelibus
In te confidentibus
Sacrum septenarium

Give to the faithful who trust in you the sacred sevenfold gifts.

This puts me in mind of a very basic truth of Christianity that was lost on me as a Protestant. I mean, I had been taught the concept, but I found too many (theo)logical loopholes in the rest of what I was taught so that this truth had no ability to grip my heart and convince my life. And that is simply that the point of living on earth as Christians is to live as Jesus did.

In fact, just a few days before I met the people who were to become instrumental in my experiencing the Holy Spirit in His charismatic dimension, I wrote a song called "We See But Darkly." And in the song I asked the question that plagued me in those days:  "If Jesus is my Lord, and God my Father/Why should I have to even bother with this earthly life?/Why can't I just go to heaven now?/What difference would it make, anyhow?"

The answer to that question is in what we beg for in this piece of the sequence.

We beg for the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit primarily because our life in Christ before entering heaven is about practicing love, and getting used to Divine Love. That entails being sanctified. Being sanctified has to do with embracing God's will, so that all of our energies are trained on what God most desires for us: Love of God and love of neighbor.

When wisdom, understanding, counsel, knowledge, fortitude, piety and the fear of the Lord fill us, we are true to our name: Christian. Jesus is the Christ, the Anointed One, because He is in perfect union with the Holy Spirit, making visible the invisible God. We as His Body are called to do the same: make visible the invisible God.

God forms a people to live in the world and make Him known. That's what I missed as a Protestant, and that's why we ask for these gifts of the Holy Spirit.


Thursday, June 05, 2014

Scary Changes

Today's piece of the Pentecost sequence:

Bend the stubborn heart and will
Melt the frozen, warm the chill
Guide the steps that go astray

Flecte quod est rigidum
Fove quod est frigidum
Rege quod est devium

So, sorta like this: Bend that which is rigid, warm that which is cold, make true that which has gone wrong.


I don't know about you, but I have been Queen of Rigid, Cold and Wrong. Empress, really.

Sometimes there is nothing scarier than the Holy Spirit bending you when you are rigid. Because really and truly, if you are actually able to discern that it is the Holy Spirit who is acting, you really think He is completely messing up your life. That rigidity is security. It's a standard. It feels so righteous. Well, except for the joyless, pained and isolated parts. Butthosearesoeasytoignore! Because, security!

When we trade our humanity for security, we are in big trouble.

And when God warms us? Another potential for confusion! Warmness entails nearness, and, dear me, nearness activates all sorts of puritanical fears. Too much warmness, and there might be a fire! We might really get purified!

What if our steps leave the path we are used to, even if our normal is just a weenzie bit wrong? Heck, we could end up anywhere if we open up to course correction. See earlier complaint about security.

But in this prayer we beg for the changes we might not even recognize we need. For Jesus to be Lord of my life means that I put my life at the disposal of the Holy Spirit to be refashioned until I look like Jesus. That will require a lifetime of course corrections, meltings and bendings. This is where trust come in. We've got to trust God's perspective. This is also where meditating on Scripture comes in! We need to know what Jesus looks like, so that shock of what the Holy Spirit sets out to do doesn't blow us out of the water. This is also where prayer comes in, so we can discuss with the Lord all the anxiety that sanctification provokes.


Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Wanting to "Look Good" for God

Today, I want to think about this piece of the Pentecost Sequence:

Heal our wounds, our strength renew
On our dryness, pour your dew
Wash the stains of guilt away

Lava quod est sordidum
Riga quod est aridum
Sana quod est saucium

The Latin is a bit more blunt: wash that which is dirty, water that which is dry, heal that which is wounded. I like that, perhaps because with use, the English has lost some of its punch for me in these lines. Jesus did not come for the (self-) righteous, but for sinners, and the better grasp we have on our need for God's mercy, the better shape we are in for receiving it. I'm not sure where we get this goofy religious idea that we have to try to "dress up nice" to present ourselves to God so that we will be acceptable to Him. Where's the logic there? God knows all (or He wouldn't be God) and can see through me and understand me better than I know myself. If I were perfect without God, I would be God myself. And last I checked, I am not uncaused being.

Quite often, when I am in the communion procession at Mass, I think of the hymn "Just As I Am."
Just as I am, without one plea
But that Thy blood was shed for me
And that Thou biddst me come to Thee
O Lamb of God, I come....
I come to Jesus because He asks me to come. He desires me to come. It isn't because I have something He needs or because He's going to put me in a line-up to choose someone who is good enough to be in His company. He wants me to come to Him because that is who He is.

And this bit of the Pentecost sequence reminds me of who I am: wounded, parched (unable to sustain or produce anything of life), and stained by my sin. But the Holy Spirit, Lord and Giver of Life, who binds Father and Son and sends the Son into the world, desires to come to me and change me into the very image of Christ: Whole and healing, with a stream of living water that brings life wherever it goes, made pure and bringing purity.

That's awesome.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Nothing Without You

Today's bit of the Pentecost sequence:

Where you are not, we have naught
Nothing good in deed or thought
Nothing free from taint of ill

Sine tuo numine
Nihil est in homine
Nihil est innoxium

Here, the Latin is much simpler and the English has to dance around with a bit more flair to fill the same syllable count. Remember of course that the Church sings her prayers, which in itself reflects the holy nature of prayer, of superfluous beauty spent for God's glory.

The Latin really just says, "Without you [oh deity], nothing is in man, nothing is freely innocent." The paradox is that God who is omnipresent can be excluded from souls by the very will given to the souls by the omnipotent God.

It seems that the root sin of humanity is pride: we think we are something when we are nothing. And this prayer says it plainly: we are nothing without the presence, the life breathed by the Holy Spirit. I'm not much of a linguist, nor am I much of a philosopher, but it strikes me as interesting to meditate on the phrase "nihil est in homine" -- nothing is in man. "Is" generally refers to the existence of something, while "nothing" of course is about the lack of something. Perhaps this drives at the God-shaped hole we all have within us, this having-been-created-for which we need to discover so that our calling out to God means something to us. It's this sense that I don't know who I am without You. And an existence that doesn't make sense to myself is unbearable, so I must seek so that I have peace.

We are designed for communion with God. In that communion, we experience the flow of freedom and innocence through us, which is the Spirit of God living through us. So today's chunk of this prayer expresses awareness of the depth of our need. Our human identity depends on our union with the Holy Spirit.


Monday, June 02, 2014

Fearing the Light of the Holy Spirit

Today I want to think about this bit of the Pentecost sequence:

Oh most Blessed Light Divine
Shine within these hearts of thine
And our inmost being fill

O lux beatissima
Reple cordis intima
Tuorum fidelium

To be filled with light connotes to me a complete lack of any need for fear, for suspicion, for lack of trust. Nothing evil can hide; everything is plain.

The irony is of course that we do fear the light. The whole contest between light and darkness in Scripture (especially from St. John) demonstrates clearly that sin is comfortable with darkness and fears light. So light can actually be a very threatening thing to our sinful status quo. Praying for an influx of the Holy Spirit is not for the faint of heart. As C. S. Lewis tells us about Aslan, he is wild, but he is good.

Even though the light of the Holy Spirit is pure goodness, we are likely to experience it as pain because of our impurities, St. John of the Cross reminds us: "The soul, because of its impurity, suffers immensely at the time this divine light truly assails it." (The Dark Night, Bk. 2 Ch. 5.5)

So this prayer is really one of deep surrender. When we know that God's ways and plans and desires for us are higher than our own, we can trust Him to do within us whatever He wants. But fasten your seatbelt. God answers all sincere invitations.


Sunday, June 01, 2014

Labor, Heat and Woe

Today's bit of the Pentecost Sequence:

In  our labor, rest most sweet
Grateful coolness in the heat
Solace in the midst of woe

In labore requies
In aestu temperies
In fletu solatium

This puts me in mind of St. Teresa of Avila's analogy on prayer about the different ways a garden gets watered. Sometimes we need to carry those buckets of water and manually dump it out on each plant. That is when prayer takes mental effort to get cranking. There's also the water-wheel where some effort constructs a system that waters more automatically. But then there are the times when the rain comes directly and no effort is involved at all. This prayer is a gift given by the Holy Spirit. Teresa calls it contemplation.

A more tangible thing this puts me in mind of is something I find happened a lot with my daughter when she was younger. I would always find her at productive peace when I was busy working, doing something she could see, like cleaning or cooking. My quiet presence registered with her quiet presence as peace, security and stability. Quiet people really appreciate this kind of flow! But if I was doing think-work (or wasting my time on the computer), she would start to feel agitated and would get clingy. In those moments, if I got up to clean, it would bring neither of us peace. I couldn't drag her into a place of peace by flipping a switch into "work = peace" mode.

The parallel I'm drawing is that we can't command the graces of the Holy Spirit. We can only discover them active while we are going about what God has given us to do. When we don't feel particularly inspired to pray, we pray out of discipline. Inspiration may or may not come later. Sometimes God leads us through moments of woe on purpose, and we need to walk through them on purpose. Eventually we will see that the Holy Spirit meets us there and brings consolation.

The labor, the heat, the woe are just normal aspects of Christian life. We are not to fear them, be surprised at them or try to avoid them, but rather keep an eye gazing heaven-ward, expecting the Holy Spirit whom we implore to meet us when the moment is right.


Saturday, May 31, 2014

Sweet, Comforting, Refreshing Guest

Today's bit of the Pentecost Sequence to consider:

You of all comforters best
You the soul's most welcome guest
Sweet refreshment here below

Consolator optime
Dulcis hospes animae
Dulce refrigerium

So, we are calling the Holy Spirit: best comforter, sweet guest of the soul, sweet refresher.

What comes to mind, I think because of that word that is like "refrigerator" is how when you are kind of hot and weary from working, say, in a kitchen with little moving air, and you just don't really want to trudge much further, but there isn't any way to cool off. And then it rains. Ahhh.... so refreshing. Making you feel energized again, giving you the ability to keep on. That Presence which I cannot cause but I welcome with great joy.

I also think of how, in the spiritual life, how we can feel weary and dull because of the sameness of sin, even if we convince ourselves we only have little sins in our life. When we live according to the flesh, according to natural inclinations, we get to feel dull and heavy. The Spirit of God challenges us, shakes us up, calls us to repent, to dig deeper, to reject complacency and couch-potato-hood.

Guests have a way of doing that, don't they? We clean our house with amazing diligence when someone comes to visit. Everyone gets along well and speaks politely when a guest is here. Everyone pays a bit more attention to how they act.

The Holy Spirit reminds us that, in Christ, we do not live our lives for ourselves, and that when we do, we become sad. We are made glad by the daily dose of the cross He brings to us -- that stirring that brings us life and bends us again to truth and love. Our openness to Him teaches us to be open to all people, and especially to other believers.

Sweet Holy Spirit, come