Friday, April 16, 2010

Rich Mullins

Recently I've been on a huge Rich Mullins kick. He and John Michael Talbot have been the only Christian musicians whose albums (do we still call them that?) I purchased diligently, release after release, back in the days when I still did that sort of thing.

I started buying his albums when I worked at a Christian bookstore and had them under my nose all the time. My first purchase was Winds of Heaven, Stuff of Earth which contains the song Awesome God. This is the song currently responsible for my Mullins resurgence, as I am trying to coordinate the performance of this song for a benefit concert I'm organizing for next weekend. It is still his most popular song, but by his own admission, he didn't much care for it. It has a strong pop feel to it, which is decidedly different from most of his music.

I was privileged to see him in concert twice in the early 90s. As everyone else was getting seated, he would unobtrusively come to the stage (in ripped jeans, a t-shirt and barefoot) set up his instruments with the band, and just start to play with no fanfare or introduction.

What really strikes me about Rich's music, and always has, is a sense of the sort of beauty in it that makes one's heart ache. Songs like The Color Green or Calling Out Your Name evoke a sense of longing and yearning that is palpable.

One metaphor that appears repeatedly in Rich's music is that of the beauty of the stars, the same stars that Abraham saw. His song Sometimes By Step speaks of how "sometimes [the sky] seems to stoop so close/ you could touch it but your heart would break." I was thinking a lot about this image today, and it seems the perfect one for the longing for the transcendence of God. This Beauty approaches us, we sometimes feel wrapped up in it, but if we try to grasp it and hold it as ours, we suddenly realize how Other it is. We cannot hold it. It is infinitely far from us, yet close enough to completely surround and envelop us, filling us. We cannot grasp God, so to speak, but we can surrender to His embrace of us. This is the sense of the aching longing, of the immense, infinite Beauty of which he sings. His songs can leave one feeling something like sadness, yet it is not really sadness. It is like the sadness of one who has seen the joy of heaven but must live on earth. Ok, yes, it is sadness. But it is the most hopeful kind of sadness possible to mankind.

Rich was killed in a car accident in September of 1997. He was 41 years old. He died on a Friday, and the following Monday he was to be received into the Catholic Church. This seems so consonant with the way Rich lived. He spoke and sang about dying more than once, and as a single man with no children he seemed more than ready. I guess God desired to fulfill His longing not with Sacrament, but with the Reality itself, sans veil.

His life and death still leaves much that Christians admire, discuss and ponder. His attraction to Catholicism was not easy for many Christians to swallow, and because he never did actually enter the Church some deny that he intended to. But none of that matters, and Rich would be the first to tell us so. Giving oneself entirely to Christ, radically, as He calls each one -- that is the thing.

It is impossible for me to choose my favorite song by him. I think my favorite is usually whichever I happen to be listening to at the moment. This one is called Peace: A Communion Blessing from St. Joseph's Square, and is from his album A Liturgy, A Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band.

Rich, I miss you so much! Pray for us.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Testifying to the Resurrection

There is nothing truer to the celebration of Easter than bearing witness to the Resurrection. The Resurrection of Christ, after all, is not simply an historical event, very nice for Jesus and all, and a nice way to start a new religion. It has intense meaning for every person who has met Christ, and for those who have not yet met Christ. We who are baptized are baptized into Christ's dying and rising. What He did for us also happens in us as the Holy Spirit gives it birth in us throughout our life.

And so I wish to celebrate Easter and this Divine Mercy Sunday by giving testimony to something the Holy Spirit has given birth to in me, recently.

Even though the process leading up to the moment, of course, was a looooooooooong time in coming (my whole life, I think) the moment of this blessed experience of the Resurrection of Christ for me was the sacrament of Confession. A pastor of mine once told me that sometimes the grace of the sacrament "hits you" before you actually make your confession, and sometimes it hits you afterwards, but at still other times it hits you right there while in the process. My experience, a couple of weeks ago now, was exactly the latter. While I confessed and received absolution, I experienced a grace which I can only describe in hindsight as life-altering.

I focus on the grace, of course, and not on what I confessed. The image that came to mind right away was that of moving a long, flat rock that lay exposed in a garden. Nothing was ever going to bloom under that rock, but moving it aside changes all that, and it sure explains why trying to plant or dig there has never worked well!

Specifically, the immense freedom that I have experienced as a result of the Holy Spirit's landscaping efforts in my soul seems best described by the notion (what I mean will be easily misunderstandable at first) of giving up on finding the meaning in life. Let me try to explain.

You need to start with the image of an intensely brooding young teenage girl, one who is obsessed with the "meaning of life." I say that in quotation marks, because what she doesn't really know is that she is not obsessed with the true meaning of life or finding it, even though she thinks she is. She is obsessed with defining the meaning of everything around her. This was me. Being an intellectual and spiritual girl made this probably all the deeper a tangle for me, because I was not completely inaccurate about some of the definitions I gave to things. Yet, they were mine. It was in my hands to reinvent every wheel, to discover it all, to say what it all meant. To keep all the plates spinning.

This is nothing but a Satanic tactic. Because under this seemingly marvelous (in my eyes) spiritual and intellectual endeavor to find the meaning of life (and subsequently to appreciate it far more than anyone else around me -- snoot in the air) was the terrifying worry that there actually was no meaning. To anything. It didn't exist without me putting it there, and as soon as I stopped, meaning stopped. This was the lie that got reinforced with my every effort to tighten the screws of my soul around "what it all really means."

How can I capture in words the happy grace that is like this stone being moved away? What I see now is that it is not up to me to say what it means, or even to know what it means. It is up to me to simply embrace the meaning that is there, given not by me, but by the Creator of all things. I simply need to open my eyes and see.

For concomitant with this sense of my quest to "find meaning" everywhere was a sense of fear in the face of the profound. The profound would hint to me of true meaning, which served to confuse my sense of my plate-spinning responsibility. Was profundity merely the product of my own machinations? If this were true, though I so dearly wanted it not to be, then I knew profundity would vanish, shatter, upon too close an embrace. Good would all prove a mirage.

But the experience of this grace of giving up "finding meaning" is freedom. And freedom here means knowledge that the Good simply is, and more than that -- is given to me quite apart from my own machinations. God is real. Meaning is real. Love is real. All existed before me, and I enter into their world, not them into mine.

So instead of wasting so much time and effort trying to carry the weight of the world on my shoulders, I see I am free now to embrace, more deeply, the Good Itself. I have awe, but not fear and panic, in the face of the profundity of love. Practically speaking, this removes another barrier from my communication with other people. Life feels simpler. Freer. Like things will start to grow in newly fertile soil. And Beauty is all around me.

This is how Christ's Resurrection touches my life now.

He has done all things well! (Mark 7:31)

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Impact of God: Soundings from St. John of the Cross

I recently finished the book The Impact of God: Soundings from St. John of the Cross by Iain Matthew. I rarely actually buy books, having a very well-worn library card, but this is one I purchased after reading a quote a friend had posted on Facebook. And in fact, having finished the book I immediately started it again, this time reading with pen in hand. Having read the whole thing it strikes me as all the more valuable the second time around.

I read St. John of the Cross, or tried to, some 18 years ago, after first having met him during a research project in college some five years before that. I recall the more recent of those attempts being somewhat frustrating, like trying to eat crab without a decent tool to open the shell. In fact, speaking of tools, I picked up another book recently (from our church library) about the writings of St. John of the Cross and quickly realized that it had all the warm fuzzies of looking inside a tool box. Now, I can imagine a person who could actually get warm fuzzies from looking in a tool box, but it would be someone who already knew tools, knew what they could do and what s/he could do with them. But it's very hard to interface with tools apart from that experience! And that's how I was left feeling about John after picking up that other book.

But, I'm not writing about that other book here. The brilliance of Iain Matthew's book is that he is not merely expounding on a spiritual master's technique or writings. The subtitle is Soundings from St. John of the Cross, because his point is really get us to meet St. John, to hear him bear witness to the God John adores, and ultimately to know, trust and adore Him also.

Meeting St. John of the Cross this way, through this Carmelite prior, has been a heart burning within me sort of experience. His life was one "forged by a conjunction of love and pain," raised in the lowest strata of class-conscious Spanish society by his widowed mother and working as a teen in a hospice for those with syphilis. Then, after beginning his ministry with the Carmelite reform, he was imprisoned for several months by rival priests who opposed him. Toward the end of his life, he was opposed by those in his community to the point where his counsel to them was ignored. Matthew says:

He had been hauled beyond the threshold of his own resources, taken to those outer limits where the only alternatives are a Spirit who fills, or chaos. It was as if the anaesthetic which normal life provides had worn off, his inner self had been scraped bare, and now he ached in a way he never had before for a God who was utterly beyond him. (p.10)
It was in the midst of his hardest trial, in prison, when he composed the stunningly beautiful Canticle. In fact, Matthew explains that while it seems St. John does not spend much ink writing explicitly about himself, the lack of personal anecdote is deceptive. Because in reality he is writing always of his own experiences, or at least the fruit of them. He explains:

[The word St. John speaks to us] is not the creation of his ingenuity -- he submitted to the word in abject poverty. But he is original in saying it because it claimed him unreservedly and issues from him as his. In his darkness, there was disclosed to him Christ's unpaid-for desire to love him. A God who gives himself, to the poor: that pattern will explain all John has to say. (p. 12)
It seems some people get nervous about the great mystics because their spirituality seems so far removed from "normal life." Certainly being a mystic is not about multiplying religious activities. It is about the encounter with a Person, with the Divine. I love the way Matthew reveals St. John's view of God as available to all.

Sensitivity to the other person characterised John because, in his view, it characterises God... This, John believes, is God's teaching method: to give himself in a way the person can handle. Why does God give people experiences they may later have to leave behind? Because, he says, God treats us 'with order, gentleness, and in a way that suits the soul.'

And John himself wrote that in his writings he really wanted to give only a general light, not specific instruction.

And I think that this is better. Where words are born of love, it is better to leave them open, so that each person can benefit from them in their own way and at their own spiritual level -- this rather than tying the verses down to a meaning that not everyone could relish (p. 15)
And who does John know God to be? In his poetry, he places these words in God's mouth:

'I am yours, and for you, and I am please to be as I am that I may be yours and give myself to you.'

If our understanding of [John's book] the Flame is correct, John experienced this as real. He is aware that people may find it too much to cope with, and looks for an explanation. The only one he finds is God himself.

'When a person loves another and does her good, he does her good and loves her with his own personality and character. So with your Bridegroom, who is in you: it is as he who he is that he shows you favour.' (p. 26)
Further, Matthew says:

The gospel has eyes -- 'the eyes I long for so', John calls them -- and the point comes on the journey where the bride meets those eyes which had long been looking on: 'It seems to her that he is now always gazing upon her.' It is a moment of exposure, as she finds herself a factor in another's life and heart... It has been said that 'a person is enlightened', not 'when they get an idea', but 'when someone looks at them'. A person is enlightened when another loves them. The eyes are windows on to the heart; they search the person out and have power to elicit life... Christianity is an effect, the effect of a God who is constantly gazing at us, whose eyes anticipate, radiate, penetrate and elicit beauty. (p. 28)
I could go on quoting huge chunks of this book! However I will quote just one other section (at length) that made explicit to me the help that St. John of the Cross is to me.

Given a sense of the vitality of prayer, as a supreme value, and a real possibility, then the practice of it becomes easier to handle. John's vision presents us, not with a blank page and the command 'Fill it', but with something that is taking place, and with that invitation, 'Step into it, be part of it.'

The happening is God present within us, giving himself. That is John's exultant answer to his own tense question, 'Where?' [as in, 'where have you hidden, beloved? from the Canticle.]

'Oh soul, most beautiful among all creatures, you who so long to know the place where your beloved is, so as to seek him and become one with him, now it has been stated: you yourself are the home in which he dwells... Here is a reason to be happy; here is a cause for joy; the realisation that every blessing and all you hope for is so close to you as to be within you.'

John grounds the answer in Scripture: 'The kingdom of God is within you' (Luke 17:21); 'You are God's temple' (2 Cor. 6:16). Then he draws from it an answer to our question, 'How?'

'Be glad, find joy there, gathered together and present to him who dwells within, since he is so close to you; desire him there, adore him there, and do not go off looking for him elsewhere... There is just one thing: even though he is within you, he is hidden.'

That is John's description of the encounter of prayer, which opens us to the impact of God and helps change the world (p. 142).
Matthew goes on to explain that John taught in person that this experience was rooted in a vivid contemplation of the gospels, even though his famous writings tend to assume this point.

This, I grasp. This I can relate to, and it fills me with peace. It is a cause for joy! Somehow, it is easy for me to relate to God through meeting St. John of the Cross in this text. His testimony resonates with me, and the nod of his experience to me gives me the courage to trust, to know that God is the self-bestowing, the infilling God. Our relationship is His initiative.

Here are selected poems of St. John of the Cross.

William Wallace

I believe I now have a happy and healthy computer, after several bouts of difficulties in the last weeks.

One of the things I did while without a computer was watch the movie Braveheart. Yes, I know, I'm way behind the times, but at least this movie did come out while I lived in Japan, so I had a halfway plausible excuse for knowing almost nothing about it until reading Wild at Heart which I wrote about here.

The movie is notable for its violence, which makes the Lord of the Rings trilogy almost look like a Sunday School picnic. But other than that, I had a bit of a naru hodo moment about a piece of genealogical information in my family tree. My great-great grandfather's given name was William Wallace (Wally) Van Valin. I was only vaguely aware before this that I had come across other men with that first and middle name combination, and figured they were named for someone, but I didn't realize the mythical status of the famous Scot, William Wallace. Wally's great-grandmother was Scottish, and others in his family line were named for her family, so perhaps the family had an affinity for that branch of their heritage. I know I've always liked to milk the tiny drop of Scottish that comes down to me for all it's worth! I think there's something of the Highlander freedom fighter in my psyche.

So, here's one of my all-time favorite tunes to celebrate:

Monday, April 05, 2010

Easter Ponderings

It is Easter Monday. He is risen! Alleluia!

I am enjoying a very restful day and reviewing the events and stirrings of the Triduum, of Lent, of life in general.

So, with no particular order in mind, some random ponderings:

There are so many reasons why I don't like "planning" Lenten penances. Some of these have to do with why I don't really like to plan anything: counter-productivity and inevitable lack of follow through. But also, I simply know that I don't ever have a grasp of what I really need, what I really lack. I always think if I did know that, then I wouldn't lack it, right? It seems to me that a far more effective way for me is simply to come to the Lord daily, giving Him full permission to instruct me in the way I should go. It might take me awhile to get clued in, but making a practice of a real daily offering over these last few years has helped.

And the fun thing about this approach is the joy of discovery. Something I felt frequently throughout this Lent was my attention directed toward my housework. My relationship with housework is perhaps different than some. I don't really have an antipathy towards it, but I do sometimes simply ignore it for other things. The same could be said for small interactions with my children, the kind I could easily overlook as almost meaningless. What I discovered somewhere during the Triduum was this overwhelming sense (that I'm sure has been translated into a great children's story somewhere) that the small things I could easily ignore or do without love are in fact the exact moments in which priceless treasures, graces, are garnered. It hit me like a ton of bricks: this is given to me for my holiness, for the salvation of the world!

Good Friday sure felt penitential. Really, this whole Triduum was one I experienced with my emotions in a way that was like a gift of love to me. Holy Thursday night I sat in the church after the Mass and contemplated how I long to be close to Jesus, not with a sense of frustration that I might have felt at other times in my life because of a perceived lack of closeness, but more as an awareness of my desire. Jesus doesn't thwart me. It's just that I don't always pick up on how He actually fulfills my desire to be close to Him. It's awareness of His closeness to me that makes the difference.

And yes, Good Friday felt penitential. I awoke to discover more computer problems that destroyed my email capacities for about the sixth time since December. I was faced with many things to do, and I knew that the day would be a challenge for my children, which would in turn challenge me. And on top of it, I got one of those pesky ideas stuck in my mind, an offer of something that I felt urged, compelled to make to a friend. I call it a pesky idea because making these kinds of offers leave me feeling very vulnerable and frankly really stupid. But it was something I couldn't not do. And yes, my children struggled, my patience was stretched, I felt my powerlessness, and I made my brave offer which was politely refused. My obedience to my conscience felt completely pointless.

I was so excited for the Easter Vigil, though! I spent all day cleaning the house, which amazed me, because I accomplished so much, and with so much joy. I got to cantor my favorite Psalm ("Let us sing to the Lord, He has covered Himself in glory") and nailed it. And I don't only mean I sang it the way I wanted to be able to (which is true) but simply the chance to proclaim that Scripture with my whole heart was a great blessing. My parish had 13 baptisms. And that seemingly pointless obedience revealed an opening to a completely unanticipated "conversation" that is all potential.

Another thing hit me during the Easter Vigil. Catholic liturgy is full of symbols, but they really are not about "the community finding meaning in ritual behavior" and suchlike as a sociological view of religion will often say. Symbols point tangibly to unseen spiritual realities that are actually far more what makes the world go around than the things we see. This struck me again as we did the renewal of baptismal vows Saturday night. This is our triumph over Satan, exercised in real time. The trick for us is to enter into the liturgy as into the deepest reality, not as if we are children repeating the sounds of words we don't comprehend.

I thoroughly enjoyed the strangest thing after the Vigil: I went to a bar to meet up with some friends from choir (and my librarian friend) to hear their kids' band play. Not the kind of thing this recovering holier-than-thou type would normally enjoy, but it felt entirely appropriate to the celebration of new life.

And for the first time ever, I believe, I made a served a holiday dinner to family and guests and had everything done at the same time and on time. No last minute stressing out. I spent the morning cooking and singing my little heart out along with John Michael Talbot. This is the kind of contemplation in action I love!

I'm so glad there are 50 days in the Easter season. We've only just begun... to live!

Thanks be to God, Alleluia!

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Are You Tempted to Believe Love is not Enough?

On the first of every month, Our Lord gives Anne a new message about his call to service.

April 1, 2010


My dear apostles, I am with you. I am present in every challenge you experience. I see your struggle and I provide everything you need to serve Me in each day. If you have given Me your day, then the day belongs to Me. Your self-will has been offered to heaven and heaven exchanges it for My will. How do you experience this? On most days your experience of serving Me is a mystery to you. How could it be otherwise when you are seeing with eyes that have not yet been exposed to the divine vision? Day after day, you offer your will to Me and day after day, I use your offering to gently push Myself through you to others. Do you feel successful? Or do you feel, at times, that you are unsuccessful? Poor little apostles, I understand your questions and I understand your doubts. I assure you, in My human experience, I did not feel successful at every moment. My experience was often much to the contrary. I often experienced the temptation to believe that I was failing the Father. I sometimes, in moments of human temptation, wondered if, in fact, love was enough. Could love succeed in turning hearts to goodness? Could love succeed in persuading God’s children to accept the Father’s beautiful plan for humanity? Yes, please believe that I suffered temptation. And now, you suffer temptation. Together, our temptations suffered for the Father, bring soothing graces to others. You, My beautiful apostle, serve despite temptations to abandon Me. Where others leave, you endure. You endure for Me, as I endured for you. From My perspective, all is well, despite your suffering. My plan is perfect and if you are serving Me, listening to My voice, there are no problems. If you are not serving Me and you are not listening to My voice, then there are many problems for you and there will continue to be many problems for you. ‘Ah’, you say, ‘Jesus, I am listening to you and still I have these problems’. We must differentiate small problems from big problems. Small problems are the sufferings you bear for the sake of the divine will. Big problems are the problems you face when you abandon My will and insert your own will. Are you praying? Are you in steady communication with Me? Do you ask Me what I want you to do in situations where you are unsure? Do you spend time in silence, considering heaven and heaven’s plan for you in the day? Answer yes to these questions and I assure you, your problems will be manageable. Do not believe I ignore your sighs or turn away from your fears. I am with you. I will never abandon you. My plan will be realised through your perseverance and through the perseverance of many apostles like you. I am so pleased when you pray for each other because this is how you experience, in advance, My gratitude. You see My gratitude in the graces received by others through your intercession. Rejoice. I am responding to your pain and answering your prayers. Truly, I am with you.