Saturday, May 29, 2010

John Michael Talbot: Mission in Pittsburgh

This week I had the completely unexpected pleasure of taking part in a two-day mission led by John Michael Talbot at a Pittsburgh parish. The pleasure was unexpected because I learned it was happening only about 30 hours before its beginning. But it was also unexpected in the sense that one can never anticipate exactly what the Spirit of God has in mind in this sort of encounter. We can imagine what we will, but God always seems to have a better surprise up His divine sleeve.

I am left with a burning sense in my heart, and yet another occasion where I feel the need to put words to the ineffable. Let me try running at it this way:

At one point in the mission, John talked about his community, the Brothers and Sisters of Charity, in both its monastic and domestic expressions. He talked about its charism, and the charism of the larger movement of God of which he sees them as a part: the New Monasticism. He said there are many new monastic communities emerging primarily in Western Europe. His was the first in North America. These are not the Benedictines or Cistercians of the past, but new expressions of monastic life, and they are drawing people in large numbers. He stated that a primary characteristic of this New Monasticism is integration of expressions that some in the past might have thought could not blend together, for example, charismatic and liturgical worship; marrieds and celibates; Catholics and Protestants.

I have to admit that as he spoke I was filled with the same kind of longing that I felt 17 years ago when I made up my mind to explore joining his order, in the monastic expression. I don't at all regret my week or two at the monastery, but God did make it very clear to me that that wasn't where my life was headed. Not even the domestic expression of the order seemed... in order for me. I think this probably isn't the only time that I've mistaken the glimpse of something very valuable to me, a charism that awakened something in me, powerfully, with a specific and immediate call of God to my life. In some degree of a like manner I have met the Militia Immaculate, the Discalced Carmelites, a charismatic covenant community, and most recently Direction for Our Times and Communion and Liberation. All of these have given specific and needed formation for my life.

And yet. And yet... what?

John Michael gave a bit of his testimony, a much abbreviated version of the testimony I have posted here. He recounted an experience in which the Lord told him (this event was essentially his conversion to Catholicism, in the 70s) that the Catholic Church was His original Church, but that it had been sick and had almost died, but that the Lord was going to raise it up again, and He wanted John Michael to be a part of it. I had heard him recount this in the past, but when I heard it this week, I was struck with the memory of my own most intense personal interaction with JMT from the 1993 pilgrimage. As a brand new Catholic, I was struggling with the deluge of "Catholic stuff" I was experiencing on this trip: rosary beads, holy water, statues, genuflections, holy objects, holy places.... I didn't get it. It was painfully foreign. I was in culture shock. And it all felt like deadness. I knew that somewhere the Catholic Church had amazing springs of life, but I couldn't see them and I couldn't feel them, and I didn't know who to believe or where to look. I prayed an "atheist's prayer" about it, telling the Lord I didn't believe in holy places or holy objects or special graces connected to them, but if He wanted to convince me otherwise, He was free to go ahead. It was in Bethany, at the Church of the Tomb of Lazarus, that I was completely... I don't even know what word to use... completely undone by the Lord. His grace just came and dismantled my heart, and He reached right down into my doubts and my fears and proclaimed boldly to my entire being "I am the Resurrection and the Life. He who lives and believes in me will live, even though he dies. And everyone who lives and believes in me will never die." It was also the only time on the pilgrimage that John Michael served as an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion. I was literally hardly able to stand as I took the chalice from him. He spoke afterwards to the assembly in a way that helped me grasp what was happening to me.

I recount all of this simply because I saw only this week how that pivotal moment in my life whose impact has stayed with me, not just as a memory but as a constant reality, was very much a re-echoing of the call Jesus gave to John Michael. What I mean is, even though I knew God had called me to be a Catholic, I experienced the Church sometimes as dead, as frustrating, as sick. But what really shook me to my core and made me feel so terribly small and even unable to stand in that Mass was this overpowering awareness that God had called me here, (me, the experiential atheist!) to the Church, to share His life: to bear it to others. That is, after all, the only call there is from Christ.

And yet... and yet... what?

The same eyes that met mine in Bethany met mine again Thursday, and John said "Fan into flame the gift God has given you."

I want to say that I don't even know what that is. But I guess perhaps the closest I can come to capping this all off with some closure is that what I took away from this two-day mission is that everything that has happened in my life thus far is of one weaving, with meaning. But again, this isn't a meaning I give to myself; it's not a calling, a way, a path that I like and therefore I choose. It is what the Lord brings about and the Lord calls me to. And it seems to me the Lord wants me paying attention to Him.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Testimony of Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa

This testimony was recently shared with me by a friend. As a side note, I have met a few people from different backgrounds who were at the 1977 Kansas City meeting Father mentions, and all recalled the event he recounts as one of the most striking of their spiritual lives.

Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM, CAP

Fr. Cantalamessa is the preacher to the Papal Household. For the last 21 years he has preached for Pope John Paul II on Fridays during Advent and Lent. He leads numerous formation sessions and retreats throughout the world. Fr. Cantalamessa is a prophetic voice speaking to many people throughout the world. He has a deep passion for Christian unity.

In 1975, while I was a professor of Ancient Christianity at the Catholic University of Milan, I began hearing about a new move in the church, a new spirit, a new way of praying. In the beginning I was very "anti." I told the lady who described this activity to me: "You should never go again to that particular retreat house." I was surprised to see that these people, whom you already realize were part of the charismatic renewal, were not
offended by my criticism. They loved me and even asked me to give them teachings.

I once gave a university course about the charismatic and prophetic movements in the early church just to try to understand what was going on now. Some manifestations were exactly like those which had occurred in the first Christian communities, in Corinth, for instance. But, as you may imagine, I was unprepared to accept other things, like speaking in tongues.

In 1977, a lady from Milan received four all-inclusive tickets to go to America to attend a conference in Kansas City. This was to be a large interdenominational gathering of 40,000 people, half Catholics and half other Christian denominations. I was given one of these tickets because I was coming to the States to start learning English. I thought to myself: "After all, in a week I shall be over all this annoyance."

In Kansas City, there was one thing which particularly impressed me and I must share it with you. At one moment during the conference someone began to speak prophetic words. Prophetic words are authoritative messages spoken in the name of God: "You bishops, mourn and weep because the body of my Son is broken. You priests, mourn and weep because the body of my Son is broken. You lay people, mourn and weep because the body of my Son is broken." One after another, almost all the 40,000 people fell to their knees. This huge crowd in Kansas City was crying out as one in repentance. And above the stadium a huge sign proclaimed: "Jesus is Lord."

I was looking at all this as an outsider but I couldn't help being moved. I said to myself: "This is a prophecy for the future of the church. One day the church shall be reunited in one single visible body. This is how it will happen; through all of us repenting, praying and weeping together, under the Lordship of Christ." But can you imagine, I was still very critical and said to myself: "This is very beautiful. No doubt this comes from the Lord, but I cannot accept it." I was unprepared to understand the expressions of other Christian denominations, especially Pentecostals.

Choose Jesus as Lord of your Life

One of the hymns sung on this occasion said: "Lift high the banner of  love; Jericho must fall." It's the story of Jericho falling before the sound of the trumpets. When the crowd sang the refrain, "Jericho must fall," my fellow Italians (there were five of us) nudged me and said: "Listen carefully, because Jericho is you."

And Jericho did fall. It was a spectacular fall that began in Kansas City, Missouri, and ended in Convent Station, New Jersey. There was a prayer meeting to be held in New Jersey and someone invited me to attend. A priest said: "Stay with us this week." I remember thinking to myself: "This, after all, is not a house of perdition or prostitution. It is a house of prayer, and staying there won't do me any harm." I decided: "Lord, I will stay. I will give you another chance to speak to me."

After this decision everything went smoothly, even though I resisted with all my strength. You must realize that I did my best. There was a moment during the prayer meeting when we were in the chapel praying, and I remember saying to myself: "I am a son of St. Francis of Assisi. I have a beautiful spirituality. What am I looking for among these lay brothers?" At that moment a lady opened her Bible and started reading. It was the passage where John the Baptist said to the Pharisees: "Don't say in your hearts, We are sons of Abraham, we are sons of Abraham."'

I assure you, this is the way the Holy Spirit builds when he is present in a gathering. He speaks in a simple but very, very strong way. So I stood up (speaking Italian because I did not know any English then) and everybody seemed to understand my Italian. I said: "Lord, I don't want to say any longer that I am a son of St. Francis of Assisi. I ask you to make me a true son of St. Francis of Assisi. Baptize me with your Holy Spirit." Then they prayed over me. I recall somebody saying: "Choose Jesus as Lord of your life."

The Cross of Jesus Christ 
Why am I mentioning my experience? Because if we are to receive the Holy Spirit in this new, dramatic way scripture says that we must be baptized. But if we have already been baptized, there is need of a new baptism or a renewal of our baptism. For me, baptism in the Spirit was precisely this-a chance the Lord gave me to ratify and renew my baptism.

For most of us, baptism is a bound sacrament. That means that while we have received baptism in the church, the church gave it in the hope that at some point in our adult life we would confirm our "I believe" in a personal, free act of faith. Until there is this act of faith in the life of a Christian, baptism remains a bound sacrament. Baptism allows us to receive Holy Communion but it also reveals why there are so many inactive Christians, passive and lacking any power. Jesus promised power to his believers, power enough to cast out demons and convict the world. Why, then, are we so powerless?

Coming back to my experience, my perception was that I was simply renewing my baptism, choosing Jesus as
my Lord, and renewing my ordination-my religious profession. There was a moment when somebody said: "Choose Jesus as your Lord." At that very instant I lifted up my eyes and saw the crucifix. It was as if Jesus was waiting to tell me a very important thing. "Careful, Raniero." Of course there was no audible speaking by Jesus. Nothing visible-only a deeper communication.

This is the way God communicates something without verbal expression, without visible images. He speaks
directly to the heart. He was speaking to my heart. "Be careful. This Jesus you are choosing as your Lord is not an easy Jesus. Not a rosewater Jesus. This is the crucified Jesus." This was when all my doubts fell away. If I was still wondering if the charismatic renewal was something superficial and emotional-just a lifting of our arms to impress each other, I was convinced at that moment that this renewal goes straight to the heart of the gospel, which is the cross of Jesus Christ!

A Love for the Word of God 

Nothing spectacular happened during this moment of my baptism in the Spirit. Nothing. But there was prophecy. Somebody said: "You will experience a new joy in proclaiming my word." At that time I was more a professor than a preacher. For a while, this remained for me a kind of question mark. Now, after seventeen or eighteen years, I can tell you that this prophecy has come true. I have experienced a new joy in proclaiming the word of God.

On the plane from Newark to Washington I had one of my first experiences as I found that in just praying my breviary the scriptures came alive. The psalms were not just words I knew by heart; no, they came alive. I was astonished. I read: "One generation proclaims to the other the greatness of the Lord." And a whole world opened in front of me. I remembered what is written in the New Testament: "Then at that moment Jesus opened their minds so that they were able to understand the scriptures."

This is what the Holy Spirit does. One of the first actions of the Holy Spirit is to open our minds to understand scripture, to see how true it is and that it is the word of God-the passionate word of a father to his children, for use in very personal situations. The love of scripture which results from receiving the Holy Spirit is unbelievable. I know people who cannot separate themselves from the Bible.

For example, I know a young widow who, after she lost her husband, was lost in fear. The first months were terrible. Then she discovered the Bible, so much so that sometimes when she went to bed she placed the Bible on became a woman filled with an understanding of scripture which sometimes enriches and instructs me.

When I came to Washington, I realized that I had a new desire for prayer. Something was attracting me to the chapel, and prayer opened to me the world of the Trinity. The Father spoke to me about the Son; the Son spoke to me about the Father; the Father and the Son about the Holy Spirit. I discovered the law of love which is the law of the Trinity. Do you know what the law of love is? The law of love consists of not speaking of oneself, but speaking always of the other person. This is why the Father reveals the Son. The Son doesn't speak very much about himself; he speaks about the Father. When the Holy Spirit comes, what does he say? He doesn't start revealing his name; he doesn't proclaim ruah, ruah (r~cah is the Hebrew name for the Holy Spirit). When the Spirit comes, he says: "Abbe, Abba." This is the law. Imagine if this law of love were to be applied in a family. Imagine a father speaking to his children always of the good of their mother, and the mother always telling them of the goodness of their father. Oh, this would change many, many things.

Leave Everything and Come

A few months after my return to Italy, something happened which visibly and practically changed my life. One day as I was praying in my cell in the friary, I prayed for the first time in a manner vaguely like speaking in tongues; not exactly the same, but somewhat similar. For a moment there was a very deep-down communication-nothing verbal or visible-but I sensed that Jesus was passing in front of me. It was the
same Jesus who came back from the Jordan after his baptism in the Spirit and he was saying to me: "If you want to help me in proclaiming the kingdom of God, leave everything and come. 'I understood that he meant that I was to leave my teaching position. At that time I was head of a department at a huge university. I felt an instant of panic. This university had established this chair especially for me. But I understood that Jesus was inviting me-a man who has many things to do and is always in a hurry. I was afraid that I would not be ready to answer "yes." At the end of this hour of prayer, however, by the grace of God, I found in my heart a full 'yes, Lord, I can." The Lord called me to leave my professorship and become an itinerant preacher of the gospel. Because I am a religious man with a vow of obedience, I went to my superior general and told him: "Father, I think the Lord is asking me to do something completely different." He said (as any good bishop or pastor would), "Let us wait one year more." So I went on teaching for one year. At the end of this time I went to my superior general in Rome.
We both prayed and then he said: 'yes, it is the will of God. They will say that you and |I are both mad, but in ten years maybe they will change their opinion."

On the very day when the superior general gave me permiission to start a new life, the breviary contained this beautiful passage from the prophet Haggai, in which God sends Haggai to encourage the people. The people stopped rebuilding their own houses and started rebuilding the temple of God. God was pleased and sent prophets to encourage them. Haggai said: "Now take courage you Joshua, son of Jehozadak; take courage Zerubbabel: take courage, you people of the land and work, because I am with you, says the Lord" (Haggai 2:3-5).

Do you know what the law of love is? The law of love consists of not speaking of oneself, but speaking always of the other person. This is why the Father reveals the Son. The Son doesn't speak very much about himself he speaks about the Father.

After reading this in the breviary, I went to St. Peter's Square to ask St. Peter for a new gift
of faith for my new ministry. It was a rainy October day, and St. Peter's Square was completely empty. Something compelled me to look at the window of the Pope-you know, where the window of the Pope is in the Square. It was as if the word of God were crying through me: "Take courage, John Paul II; take courage, you cardinals and bishops of the
Catholic Church; and work, because I am with you, says the Lord." So far so good. Except that three months later I was appointed preacher to the Pope!
 Maybe it would be worth while to say a little about what this means. Many Catholics don't know that every Friday during Lent and Advent the Holy Father takes time to listen to a sermon, a meditation given by a priest of the Catholic Church, which, for the last sixteen years, has been me. He never misses a sermon. Once when he was traveling around Central America, he missed two Fridays. When he returned he came straight to me, apologizing for having missed two sermons. It's really he who gives the sermons to me through his humility, his example.

The first time I was in front of this very unusual audience I couldn't help telling what had happened to me in St. Peter's Square, just below the Pope's window. So again I quoted Haggai the prophet-not just as a quotation but as a living prophecy. I heard him say to this audience: "Take courage, John Paul II; take courage, you cardinals and bishops, you people of the land, and work, because I am with you, says the Lord." And I could see in the eyes of my listeners the word of God becoming an active reality at that very moment.

Very often when the Lord sends me around the world to proclaim the word of God, I repeat this prophecy of Haggai. Now I have the pleasure, the joy, of proclaiming it for you: 'Take courage, you bishops of this country; take courage, you priests; take courage, you lay people, and walk, because I am with you, says the Lord."

This first appeared in The Word Among Us, A Daily Approach to Prayer & Scripture, and
is used with permission.

Thursday, May 27, 2010


Lately I have been thinking on the matter of attraction. Three different strands of awareness have sort of joined in chorus to get my attention on this. First, I've been re-working a paper I wrote during my graduate studies. My professor suggested that I cut it back a bit and submit it for publication, and I'm just now revisiting that idea. It is interesting to me to re-read this paper. It's not like re-reading my blog or journal, because I'm well aware of the hard work I did to synthesize thoughts that were not my own. The paper is on St. Thomas Aquinas' Treatise on Law and the New Evangelization. So, I'm learning all over again, but with several years' greater Christian experience under my belt. So this time it actually feels like learning.

Ok, all that said, the point in the paper about attraction is basically this: "The New Israel is to be the embodiment of hope on earth, witnessing to the availability of God's transforming power for everyone who embraces the obedience of faith. As we are beacons of hope to the world, we are to have the effect on others that the law was to have on Israel -- to render people open to God's gracious action in their own lives." In other words, part of God's plan of salvation is that people are to be able to look at the Body of Christ and say "Holy Cow! I want what they have!" That is attraction.

A few days ago I attended Mass at Franciscan University, and it was a particular Franciscan feast day. The reading was from Revelation 21: "I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband." This immediately sent me pondering the experience of the beauty of a woman and the attraction of a man to her. Attraction. If you have experienced this kind of attraction you know any elaboration I could make on this point would be but irritating noise. Unless of course pondering this attraction leaves you feeling dirty, used, or guilty, and therefore with a disconnect between the notion of attraction and the purity of heaven.

Now, for a bold assertion on my part: I believe all attraction, all of it, is an attraction to God. God is the only One in the universe who is attractive. Everything we experience as attraction is a call from Him. If we can believe that and own it, then the fear in attraction dissipates. When we do not believe it, we are open to seduction by the Evil One, who cannot himself produce anything to lure us away from God. He can, however, inject our attractions with our guilt, our unconfessed sin, and our woundedness and resulting fear -- anything we leave around us that is his domain -- and he can blind us, drown out God's call to us with the clamor of our own pain, convincing us that we are alone in a closed universe. That God is not bothering to call us. That our attractions are useless, or evil, or such a pile of disintegrated mess that God could not possibly be in any of it. Lies, lies, all lies!

Let's go back to that bride and groom for a second. Perhaps you also have seen two people so attracted to each other that it is clear neither of them sees or knows anything else going on around them just at that moment. Perhaps you've also then had the experience of looking at such a couple and then looking at other people around them, and sharing a smile, because everyone realizes that wild horses couldn't separate these two. This is the sort of gaze of attraction, I think, that Christ has for us, and we return to Him, that causes that cry of "Holy Cow! I want what you have." It need not be romantic or sexual attraction. I recall once soon after my return from living abroad being introduced by a mutual friend to a man who had been a missionary in the Philippines. He spent some relaxing time in Japan and had loved it there. I had the inverse experience, having roughed it out in Japan and loved my month spent in the Philippines. As we both processed our experiences and pain as the three of us had dinner, our mutual friend sort of cleared his throat and commented "Ok, I'll leave you two love birds for a minute and go over there..." I remember being jarred by that comment, because I certainly did not see the exchange as romantic, but it was only his noticing of the intensity of our exchange that alerted me to the amazement that we had found such a mutually needed sense of shared experience in each other.

I've also had the experience of being "within" the dynamic of the gaze of attraction, too. I saw a friend interacting with other friends and smiling. Watching his face made me smile, and then he saw me smiling at him smiling, which made me smile all the more, which brought out a sort of "next level" smile of amazement from both of us that what each of us saw was coming from Someone else. This happens so frequently with my children that I sometimes fail to notice it. I think of this kind of smile as a true release of joy from my soul, because it is taken up only in consciousness of the one I'm looking at, and not myself.

I'm asserting that attraction, this thing of God calling to us, is self-understood, if pondered. The Love of God is the underlying Fact of the universe, and most of us can recognize its tug on us, if but only in our disconnect from it. Those who cannot say "my heart is drawn" still understand "I feel dead inside. I feel nothing." How could we feel that "nothing" if we did not intuit a place meant for Something?

Ok, third point. The other day I was praying for my kids and my interior struggles birthed from our life of not participating in institutional education. I was reviewing, rehearsing in my mind, how force is no way to "teach" and no way to parent. And yet there are so many good things that I want for them, and it can cause me some pain to me to want these for them and for my children to be oblivious! As I prayed this word came back to me: attraction. My prayer then turned to becoming alert to how they are attracted. I admit, so often they are attracted to me, or need me for something they are attracted to, but I'm busy, and so they settle for something else. This sobers me. Whose voice do I wish to echo? "I am calling to you, to your own soul, in a way that is precious, intimate, made just for you. Respond to me" or "Your attractions are useless, evil, or such a pile of disintegrated mess that I don't want to waste my time on them"?  Because I am no longer a child, nor have I ever been any child but myself, it takes a great act of trust and humility to both observe how my children are attracted and to try to discern when they are merely complying or "zoning out" and not engaging any attraction at all. To propose the kingdom of God to my children may be a simple as digging in the dirt together, or hanging up laundry. It used to drive me mad to hear Catholics saying that very kind of statement . It's not about digging in the dirt! It's about preaching and teaching the gospel! and prayer! and discipleship!  Well, it is first about love. It presumes the Gospel, the Church, but it requires the Gospel, the Church to be lived. And sometimes living with someone means digging in the dirt with them.

Which brings me to yet another thought, because of the memory of the (seemingly) utter impossibility of my becoming attracted to Catholicism or Catholics at one point in my life. We have a word, for women especially, who go all out to try to make themselves attractive to others... and it's not a nice word. Desperate is a nicer word. At the heart of all that hard trying is disbelief. I will never be attractive... unless maybe I try really, really, really hard! No, at heart is the belief I will never be attractive. Ok, fine. Accept that you will never be God, if you need that step. But accept that God made you for Himself, to be attracted by Him, and that as you respond, you will be imbued, bathed, flushed with the light of his countenance, radiant in the glory uniquely designed to be reflected through you. It is not about trying and striving; it is about letting go and receiving. It's not about passivity, either, for receiving does take hard work, but it is work oriented toward opening to the Other, and not "improving" myself. For my children, it is not about pressuring them, it is about responding to them. Providing formation of who they already are, not designing them. For my heart it is about hearing the God who is always speaking, responding to the God who is always there, always working, always active. Always attracting me, always purifying me.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Are You At This Time Going to Restore the Kingdom to Israel?

Today at Mass was an instance where I heard a Scripture passage that I've heard hundreds of times before, but it struck me in a new way. The passage was this, from the first chapter of Acts: "When they had gathered together they asked him, 'Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?' He answered them, 'It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has established by his own authority.'" 

Now, I've heard this passage discussed from a few different theological viewpoints. One typical line of thinking is "Oh, those silly apostles. They still don't understand that Jesus didn't come to establish a political kingdom. They still think He's all about defeating the Romans." Another line of thinking is more to the effect that Jesus is going to cut straight to Judgment Day, where He will rule the world from Jerusalem. And Jesus simply tells them, Be patient; not yet.

But something completely different came to mind today. Of late I've been mulling on the Biblical notion of the Church as the New Israel, sort of as quiet background music in the midst of other thoughts. I've kept in touch with a friend from my pre-Catholic charismatic days who is currently leading an Intercessory Worship group in his fellowship. And in a recent email from him, he quoted again this passage from Acts 15:  "Hereafter I will return and rebuild the fallen hut of David: from its ruins I will rebuild it and set it up again, so that all the rest of mankind and all the nations that bear my name may seek out the Lord." He uses this passage, I think not entirely incorrectly, to point out that what will be rebuilt, that "fallen hut of David," is the worship of God's people. David, of course, was both king and priest and led Israel not only militarily but in worship. While I do not disagree with this friend, I assert that his understanding of this passage is truncated. He finds it to be a move of God that is just coming into full fruition now, with a "new" type of intercessory worship. I understand this passage, coming from a Catholic point of view, as part of the first ecumenical council of Jerusalem. The Apostles James quotes the prophet Amos and teaches he was prophesying the establishment of the New Covenant Church. For indeed, this is where worship is made new and fulfilled. This is where the perfect sacrifice is offered and where heaven and earth join together to glorify and praise God, and where worship transforms the worshippers because they encounter God Almighty Himself in a foretaste of heaven.

But, now let's go back to those apostles now watching Jesus ascend into heaven. If we put ourselves in their shoes in real time, they really had very little idea what was happening to them. Jesus told them He was going away, but how did they understand that? They had no idea what this promise of the Holy Spirit was that they were told to wait for. I don't think they picked this moment to ask Jesus a random political question, either. But they knew, on one level, that Jesus had taught them something about Israel. (Keep in mind that "Israel" as a nation had ceased to exist some 700 years earlier, when the 10 northern tribes never returned to their land. The former Judah was what was left.) It would seem reasonable that Jesus laid out for them the plan, which they completely did not yet understand, that the Gentiles would be brought to faith and hence "all Israel would be saved" (Rom 9-11), as the Jerusalem Council and Acts 15 hint at. But they had none of the lived experience to understand any of this yet. Any answer, any further information Jesus could have given at this point would have made no sense to them. But Jesus redirects them: "It is not for you to know the times and seasons." Understanding these things is not the key! "But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes to you." I can just see Jesus perhaps consoled in His humanity, when faced with leaving the earth permanently, at the thought of everything that was in store for them in a just a few days' time, since the Holy Spirit would not come to them until He returned to the Father. It's like He was telling them: don't worry about trying to sort out understanding things abstractly for yourself. Just live what's given to you, because you know what? My Father IS restoring the kingdom as we speak! It's just that you can't see it, you have to live it. You might not even see it as you live it, but just be faithful, because it is happening. If I told you what was coming next, you'd never believe me anyway! Just be faithful to what I do tell you every day. Live faithfully; that's how the Father's plan gets carried out!

Saturday, May 15, 2010


I've always used writing as a way to understand what I think, even long before Naru Hodo existed.. Some of what I've written I have stored away in various folders and crates. And it is very interesting to me to go back and re-read occasionally, to review internal places I've been. Often it helps me to understand where I am right now, and helps me to understand my life as having a continuity, a flow of God's purposeful activity in my life.

I came across something just recently that I wrote in reflecting on my relationship with my father. The paper was undated, but it came from the late 1990s. Reading it made me happy, because I find that what I've experienced over the last year or so has been the incarnation, the fulfillment (as penultimate as any fulfillment on earth ever is) of the desires expressed as struggles, especially in the closing paragraph:

"It's the blood of Christ, the power of the Holy Spirit, and the love of my heavenly Father which has allowed me to change from the hate-filled child I once was. I am still struggling to live in the Father Love of God; re-learning this stuff as an adult is no easy task. But I know that I often form ideas in my mind about what God thinks about me, what He expects of me, what He's willing to bless me with. I forget all the time that my ideas are my ideas. So much of what I do in my spiritual life is in response to this figment of my imagination: God My Father as I Think He Is. I'm reminded to go to His heart to find out who He really is. Maybe I'm used to being scared that I'll be "too much for Him to handle." But really, I get the inkling that I'm scared of the overwhelming power of His love. Scared to find out that I really don't have to go through life a love-beggar. The He really does love me. Abba, Abba. Help me know."

 And thank you, Lord, for your steady work in my life to teach me, lead me, guide me, heal me -- to love me!

Friday, May 14, 2010

Suffering, Penance, and Evangelization

In terms of what we today can discover in this message, attacks against the Pope or the Church do not only come from outside; rather the sufferings of the Church come from within, from the sins that exist in the Church. This too has always been known, but today we see it in a really terrifying way: the greatest persecution of the Church does not come from enemies on the outside, but is born from the sin within the church, the Church therefore has a deep need to re-learn penance, to accept purification, to learn on one hand forgiveness but also the need for justice. Forgiveness is not a substitute for justice. In one word we have to re-learn these essentials: conversion, prayer, penance, and the theological virtues. That is how we respond, and we need to be realistic in expecting that evil will always attack, from within and from outside, but the forces of good are also always present, and finally the Lord is stronger than evil and the Virgin Mary is for us the visible maternal guarantee that the will of God is always the last word in history. -- Pope Benedict XVI, May 12, 2010, on the plane on the way to Fatima.

I have been thinking quite a bit about this statement made by Pope Benedict the other day, made in reference to the famous third secret of Fatima. I have been thinking especially about what it means to re-learn penance. Sometimes when I hear the word, I think of one of the first Life Chain events I participated in as a Protestant. It was a freezing and blustery day, and one woman standing near me said "This is a good penance, isn't it?" I looked at her as if she had just said "I worship the Anti-Christ!" I know that it is not only non-Catholics who misunderstand penance as I did then, I suppose as some method of earning salvation or of making God less angry by making myself miserable.

I had an experience a few months ago that helped me learn the meaning of penance. There is a line in the Catechism of the Catholic Church which illuminated this experience very precisely: "The human heart is converted by looking upon him whom our sins have pierced." This experience was simply that of looking into the eyes of someone I realized I had sinned against, and feeling the impact of the fact of what I had done. My love for this person immediately caused me to feel deep pain, and the desire for the suffering I had caused to be alleviated. In a word, it was a desire for penance.

Penance is not about punishing myself or depriving myself or trying to pay with my pound of flesh for some abstract fault, either of my own or for the sin of the world. I've thought this in the past. But now I understand penance as simply what happens when we see what we have done, when we truly look and see. I had a dream many years ago when I taught in Japan about the Blessed Mother standing in my 6th grade class room, by far my most difficult students, where Jesus was hanging on the cross. The room was filled with people who were chatting with each other, reading, and doing everything but looking. She was going from person to person, asking them to just look at her Son. Just look at His suffering. That act alone, done by a human person, has the power to convert us, because we cannot truly look at suffering without our hearts being moved. Conversion is a long process, life-long for sure, understood this way. Conversion lasts our whole life long because it is possible for us to love for our whole life long. And because conversion and love are gifts from an infinite God, we can never exhaust them.

So, what of standing in the freezing rain. Why is that a "good penance?" Well, love dares to do generous, daring things for the beloved, like give up one's umbrella in a downpour, or stay up all night to make a special gift, or sacrifice one's time to do a favor. If suddenly a car splashes the umbrella-less one, or the gift requires a restart or the sacrifice of time becomes quite inconvenient, these can actually make the love of the giver more intense, the choice to do the task from love all the more conscious, calling forth a greater nobility from the act of love. That's why awful weather for Life Chain makes for a great penance, because it enables our act of love to be more noble. No brownie points. No returns owed for "all I'm doing for you." Just purer love. And if it's not about purer love, then it's likely to be nothing more than what the Catechism calls "sterile and false" penance.

Just this morning I hunted down a paper I'd written 12 years ago on Aquinas' Treatise on Law and the New Evangelization. I remembered that I was surprised while writing it to make the connection between evangelization and the need to practice and preach penance. I was really surprised to read many things today that I'd written over a decade ago! I guess that's a matter for a separate post. But it did tie in both with the Pope's statement, this meditation on penance and with a quotation I came across today from St. Teresa of Avila: "All the troubles of the Church, all the evils in the world, flow from this source: That men do not by clear and sound knowledge and serious consideration penetrate into the truths of Sacred Scripture!"

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Snapping Into Focus

I've written of late about the flurry of activity I've been in not just recently, but in a more extended sense as well, this rush of change that has been my life in the last year. I was anticipating throughout April the nice, uncluttered calendar I found when I turned the page to May.

Little did I know how different it would be, complete with my husband home more often (which is wonderful) because he is looking for a new job (which has its definite downside). It was a cherry-on-the-whipped-cream kind of touch for me to eat way too much wheat-based cake last weekend and simultaneously forgot my daily dose of 5-HTP, which about as silly as me going out driving without my glasses on. Sometimes moments like that can get downright ugly for me, but in this case somehow it all mushed together to produce a sort of snapping into focus moment for me.

And what I mean by that is I see things I've seen before, but suddenly they look outlined in thick black magic marker. This is important. Pay attention over here.

One of those directives for me is time spent in Scripture. Today I started reading Jeremiah. In just the opening verses, I was struck by the fact that the book starts with the prophet recalling when the word of the Lord began coming to him, and when it culminated: the exile. There is a plan in life that God unfolds to us, sometimes by announcing the whole kit and kaboodle right from the start, when none of it makes sense or is even imaginable. Then time passes, and finally there's some sense of what at least some of it meant. And we still look back on Jeremiah's prophecy today and still unpack it. And it all started where everything God does starts: dealing with the personal relationship between God and (in this case) Jeremiah. Don't say you're too young. Go wherever I send you and say whatever I tell you.

So this tells me I don't have to understand "all the reasons" why I have certain needs, why my children have the personalities they do, why I have certain people and situations in my life. Life isn't about understanding why. It's about engaging the what, obedient to the reality. The why does and will make complete and perfect sense; of that I am absolutely sure. God doesn't play with us. We might even get a glimpse or a rough idea of the meaning while we still live. Great! But not vital.

So what snaps into focus are obvious things that have become more than abstract ideas. For one, the primary time focus of my life is the formation of my children. Not should be, is, regardless of how I handle my part. I realize that so many of the things that have stretched my heart of late are the ways that God reaches them through the stuff of my life. For another, my primary form of prayer and sacrifice and penance is domestic life. Again, a complete no-brainer, but it is so easy to just say "yeah, it's my vocation, blah blah blah" and not find any real, lived meaning in laundry, cleaning, cooking, building lego creations and serving in the community.

And there are things more difficult to articulate. The people who surround and intersect with my life are a far different crowd than they were, say, five years ago. That is to say, there was no crowd five years ago. I've said to lots of people over the last few months that my natural comfort zone is in the back of a closet, with the door closed, with a book (maybe a hymnal) and a flashlight. I'd probably have to include a computer to be honest. People can be bewildering and overwhelming to me, because I'm an absorber; much time in the course of my relationships with people is spent simply taking them in. Others are quick to size up a situation, and sometimes that serves everyone very well. I have to do lots of taking in, and I may never get around to sizing up, and sometimes that doesn't serve me well at all. But what snaps into focus for me is what I ultimately desire for people, the beckoning from God that grows in my heart, as I take them in: heaven, healing, Jesus, conversion. All four (and more) say the one thing in my vocabulary. This is where that domestic prayer and sacrifice and penance come in. This is the breath of my day. As I allow the love of God to flow into my heart, through my heart to the people in my life, there is that moment of meeting, and then as I allow my love to be lifted back up to Him with them in it, imploring the one thing God desires for them, this is the breath of my day, if breathe I do.

This is what matters, and this is really all that matters. Everything is brought into order around that which matters.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Happy Birthday...

Somewhere in the world today, a friend of mine turned 45. It's strange for me to think of a contemporary of mine actually being that old, in the first place, and strange again for me to think of the fact that I haven't heard from this friend in 15 years.

Once upon a time, my life was deeply impacted by his presence in my life. It was a case of God writing straight with the crooked lines drawn by me and others, but God is expert at things like that. It was because of the way his journey intersected with mine that I learned the truth of a song popular in those days that went like this: Love is sacrifice/To live love/To give love/It means laying down your life/Like Jesus.

He was both instrumental in my conversion to Catholicism and instrumental in my understanding of just how deeply another person could feel alienation from God. His presence in my life taught me to begin opening myself, giving myself to another.

The way I learned to finally love this person was like a wound opening up in my heart, a sort of portal to embracing, in his pain, the pain echoed through the whole world.

Because of this I'll never forget him. Every few years, around May, I check the Social Security Death Index to make sure he's still alive. I always expect that one day I will see him again.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Copying Beethoven

I've just finished watching, for the second time, the movie Copying Beethoven. The story is fictitious, but I find this fictional rendering of Beethoven's interaction with a young female composer sent to assist him with preparing his score for his 9th Symphony most interesting. The first time I watched it, I was moved by the forcefulness of Beethoven's personality and the beauty of his music, which appears as a sort of main character in the movie. But what has intrigued me this time around has been how Beethoven's relationship with God, and his spiritual relationship with Anna Holz, the young copyist, is portrayed.

We are introduced to his character as beastly, arrogant, crude, and only later do we see how these dark aspects serve to frame a sort of pure light that radiates as from the divine through him, not only through his music, but personally, in conversation with Anna. Beethoven's beastliness, arrogance and crudeness as depicted in this character strike me as decidedly different from these qualities in modern characters, fictitious or otherwise. He strikes me as one who is beastly because of the intensity with which he experiences the melodies of God. It is as if he knows he is only a conduit; the Beauty has not taken up residence in his soul, and he cannot bear the injustice of being treated as if it had. And he cannot bear the injustice done to God if the music of God that comes through him is not recognized as such. It is a very interesting tangle of raging jealousy for God's honor.

Anna, the copyist, rises to the call to meet Beethoven's beastliness and respect it for what it is, and not fear him or fawn on him as a person. He sees her as a sign from God that he is ready to die, ready to cross the bridge musically into areas that no one but future musicians will understand or appreciate. Her own call from God to compose music draws her towards Beethoven, despite his shocking ways, and also away from her attachment to herself, her understanding, her loves. He tells her at one point that she can leave him, but that doing so will not free her from him, so certain is he of the spiritual purpose of their encounter.

I am no expert on the historical life of Beethoven, other than to know that the broad strokes with which this portrait is painted (of Beethoven, not of fictitious Anna) are held to be true. It is interesting to me to read the lives of famous classical musicians, and painters. There seems to be a common thread in many of their stories. Their personal lives tend to be tragic and troubled, or at the very least, far from pious. Yet their music (I confess I relate less readily to other works of art) can make the human spirit soar and ache for all that is divine. The Beethoven character in this movie tells an architect at one point (after destroying the bridge model he so painstakingly constructed for a competition) that only when he feels, for example, rage and anger so that he could kill someone is he ready to create art, out of that gut-wrenching. I think there's some truth in these lines. Piety, commonly held, is often destroyed, finally, only by the unleashing of the deepest churnings and fomentings of the soul. Come to think of it, it seems humanity would be far better off if more so-called piety and other forms of complacency were so destroyed. I think this is the service that artistic expression is designed to do for humanity: to upset us so deeply that we feel again what it is to be human.
This causes me to think on two matters: music and mental illness, and music and sanctity. I can't think (can you?) of a single vocational classical music composer who has been canonized. Surely the sort of genius that produces beautiful music, that transcribes these heavenly melodies, differs from the sort of spiritual genius, if you will, of a soul that is transformed by grace and therefore loves as God does. It seems clear that one may produce excellent art and yet love no one, if historical accounts are to be believed.

I've also wondered if musicians are more likely than the average population to be mentally ill, or at least to be thought of as such in the society in which they lived. I once worked for a man who is arguably something very close to a genius, and I can testify that there are areas of normal, common sense thinking that just don't work for him. So my tentative theory is that when one has certain capacities for excellence, other human capacities can be grossly limited. Maybe this is why great art seems to come hand-in-hand with bizarre behaviour that is chalked up to mental illness.

How does God look on the souls of men like Beethoven and Mozart? Is He quick to forgive their moral faults for the love their music bears Him, just as He is quick to forgive socially adjusted Christians their insipid, tame lives, devoid of gutsy creations, for the love our prayers and piety bear Him? How is it they clung to their Savior, communed with Him -- through staff and note and melody? As I cling to Him through dustpan and stove and library trips?

Eternity, I think, will afford us greater opportunities than earth to learn of the depths of God's mercy. So many stories to hear!

Monday, May 03, 2010

Blathering about how things change

I didn't realize how not full of words I've felt of late until I noticed I had only six blog posts for April. Of course, it was an extremely busy month for me and my computer was malfunctioning for much of the first half of the month. We learned that the problem is rectified simply by having moved the computer to the basement. It makes close to no sense at all. Previously, instead of starting up, it gave a "no operating system"error message -- last in a long string of inexplicable problems that never happened when it was in the shop. This has been going on all year.

One thing that has happened during this whole process is that my computer usage has changed significantly, and I can make out the faint trace of the hand of Providence in all this. It takes a long time to change habits, but repeatedly losing my ability to email has loosened my grip on this realm.

It takes time to change habits... Oh yeah, this is what I was thinking about when I set out to write.

Last year I organized this Tax Day Tea Party and honestly I suffered anxiety-related blow-back for months afterwards. Last spring I kept saying to my husband "when this is finally all finished, I'm going to figure out what has happened to me." I was aware that I was in the midst of a very profound change in my life, yet I barely understood what was happening within me. When I think about it now, this blog post captures the moment that made all the difference. There was this moment at a Vigil Mass where the choir was singing, and Joe had not chosen a cantor ahead of time. I didn't realize it as well as I would now (as I'd only been around a bare two months at the time), but I was the only logical choice to cantor. But Joe was not going to draft me; he was waiting for me to volunteer. I hesitated, not because I didn't want to cantor, but because I did want to. I wanted to, so I thought I shouldn't. Old tape, played constantly. Finally, I said I would do it. And I was filled with this sort of clash of worlds within me that seems nonsensical to me now, but it provoked intense anxiety for me. But I also knew I had experienced something that was deeply significant for my life.

It was remembering that lesson that led me to create a Facebook event for a Tea Party in my town and click "send". I remember doing this and literally not looking back. I packed my kids in the car and we drove to Pittsburgh for the day. When I came back and checked, the Facebook invitation had gone out to over 600 people. And my anxiety didn't abate for months.

Fast forward to the last few weeks. Among other things, I organized a public forum for the candidates in our area running for Congress, with the group that sprouted out of the Tea Party last year. When it came time to creating a Facebook event for it, I hesitated for days, remembering the impact of that other click.

But things have changed. Acting on things my desire brings to me has become more normal to me. And I'm learning to ask for help to accomplish these things. It sounds pretty lame, but it was like a little revelation to me that if I have something given to me to accomplish, but I don't have the ability to face it peacefully or do it well, that perhaps God is placing someone in my life whose help I can and should call on! Imagine that!

I can't say that I've figured out this profound change I've felt. But I've also realized that living the change is more important than sitting back and thinking, or writing, about it.

And here's another go-around. My husband lost his job the end of last week. I wrote somewhere on this blog about the last time we went through this, and I know I got all intense and anxiety-ridden and determined for big dramatic changes to come upon us, inside and out. And then he up and found a new job, and I wasn't done with my dramatic production. Humph. Granted, last time he had a month's notice and this time it was cold turkey. But this time around I realize that the God with whom I meet in prayer is the same whose love holds me in existence and is with me more closely than I can comprehend. His love and His purpose overflow, and my family and I are securely held by Him. I have no idea what the future might hold, and obviously economic factors are much worse now than the last time we faced this. Money is money; it has its important role. But grace and transformation are what this life is really for. Blessed are we when called out to experience this in uncertainty. Isn't every day uncertain? It's all a matter of degrees.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Human Flaws Nothwithstanding

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

May 1, 2010


My dear apostles, how often you are challenged personally when you attempt to speak the Good News. This brings with it a temptation to connect the authenticity of the Good News to your personal holiness. Alas, you find that you fall short, of course, because you serve within the limitations of your flawed humanity. Does this decrease the force of the Good News you are called to share? Does this diminish the authenticity of the Good News? No. Your flawed humanity is rather testimony to the extent of the Good News. Yes, the scope of the Good News is such that each of My little apostles becomes a true herald, human flaws notwithstanding. You are each uniquely qualified to bring this Good News to a wounded world. You see, dearest apostle, it is through accepting your own pain and offering yourself for healing that you become My greatest example. You, in your willingness to accept healing and in your willingness to grow, show others what I am offering to the world in this time of Renewal. Beautiful humanity, how painful is My desire to heal you, to console you, to bring you to the Father where you will find eternal dignity and confidence. I ache with the desire that you accept My love. There are people who are waiting to experience Me, but it is through your acceptance of Me, with complete abandonment, that I will be brought to them. Do I burden you with My work? Do you find My friendship a heavy cross to carry? Let Me assure you, it is only in this cross that you will find your joy.