Sunday, June 27, 2010

Of Bicycles and Resurrection

This week I had an experience that leaves me in awe at the One who orchestrates my life. I couldn't dream this stuff up or try really hard to suck a good lesson out of a bad turn. This is the real thing.

On Wednesday afternoon, my daughter went outside to ride her bike. We bought this pink Disney princess bike in the early spring at a thrift shop in town, and though she had never ridden before, it quickly became one of her delights. She could take herself places! Her friend down the street has a purple Disney princess bike, and riding together was how they came to be friends.

But Wednesday, her bike was nowhere to be found. Not on our porch, not in the yard, not left on the sidewalk or in front of a neighbor's house. I knew she had ridden it the day before, and I know she has an excellent memory and thrives on the routine of putting things like this back roughly where they belong. We looked at her friend's house down the street; did she leave it there and they tucked it onto their porch? No. I asked the neighbor boy who was mowing their lawn, Did you see Felicity's bike from when she was here yesterday? No. It was nowhere. After I pronounced the sad conclusion to my daughter that someone obviously took it, I found her with her head sadly hanging down, crying her little eyes out.

I held her, and I cried too. But along with my tears I became very angry.

I took a whole hour to calm down (we had a previous engagement which we followed through on, though we were late) and then to select printable language before posting on Facebook the question: What kind of a shameless SOB steals a little girl's bicycle?

Truth be told, I did not realize until this morning how much of a impact this event had on my soul. I was ripping mad at the selfish whim of whomever it was who didn't care about the tears and heartbreak of a 5-year-old. Even if a girl young enough to ride it was walking through the neighborhood without someone with the brains to tell her not to walk off with other people's things, surely eventually an adult would notice the acquisition and demand it be returned to its rightful owner. That's simply justice. Everyone understands you don't steal from children. Right? Then why the &%$(! did this happen?!

Compounding matters of course is the fact that my husband is still out of a job and we are pinching our pennies tighter than this penny-pincher ever has before. Simply going down to WalMart and buying a new one was right out of the question. That's reality, and that's fine. But it sure added to the sting.

I had been bearing up under the stress of unemployment acceptably well. We've had some set backs and unforeseen expenses during this time, but at this point in my life I'd be an idiot if I doubted God's constant presence and fully loving, aware concern for every need we have. But to be honest, after this bike episode I began to lose it. I tend to lose it rather quietly and internally, and the soft spot for the enemy attack has to do with very basic drives for staying alive, for example, the desire for food and water. I simply lose interest. And after the weight of this bike episode sank into me, I quickly began to suffer the physical consequences.

I'm saying all this from hindsight, because the episode is now resolved. But I did also quickly rally to address those physical consequences. So I was feeling pretty good physically, when last night, as I was bringing my daughter downstairs from her bath, I was shocked to see her bicycle laying on our lawn. We both saw it together, we were both shocked together, and her bed time was shot as she was now far too excited to lay down. I thought of what my husband had said: Let's give it a few days. Maybe it will turn up.

Yeah, right. This morning I couldn't help but think of a song our choir sang at Easter time with the line: "The dead do not rise." Isn't this exactly what the disciples thought? What any sane person would think? Why hope? Why delude yourself with vain dreams of things working out? Either get cynical or get crushed: The dead do not rise, and little girls do not have things restored to them that were stolen.

Ok, take a deep breath and dive down into this with me. But first let me tell you what happened with the bike. My daughter had gone to the next-door neighbor's house on Tuesday and they decided to play dolls with it inside the house. This neighbor girl is nearly 10 and had no problem bringing the bike in, but apparently Felicity forgot all about it when she came back home. Even though I'd inquired with that neighbor, no one thought to check inside the basement, where they'd taken it. My son then returned it, muddy from his transport, and left it sprawled out on the lawn, looking like it had been dumped. He told me all about this a few hours after we discovered it.

Let me tell you something else. A year ago, if the bike would have disappeared without a trace, I would have been incapable of the type of anger I felt Wednesday. I would have thought things like "easy come, easy go" or "well, it's only a bike" or "I'm sure whoever took it had some reason, some problem to explain why." I wouldn't have been able to look at my daughter's tears and simply say "This is wrong! Stealing from children is wrong!"

But last year, crescendoing in the fall, I experienced something else that had a profound impact on me. God reached down into my heart, into an area in my heart that had gotten locked away until He found a particular person to whom He could give the key. The key had to be in a musical shape, and in that part of my heart I confronted many things I had lost, had thought were stolen from me, had thought were dead, never to rise again. My father figured largely into all of that, his presence, his meaning in my life. There are many parallels there to a bike that was missing, but not stolen. But even deeper than all that I found locked away another piece of my own humanity. In the bedrock of my soul God corrected me, and healed in me, a sense of justice toward myself. He taught me that it is no longer acceptable for me to think: "It's only me. It doesn't matter."

And this bike episode has taught me that the change in me is real, solid, complete.

I have spent a couple hours this morning with eyes wet with tears of joy. I'm grateful to have had this test case that in the end was nothing more than a misunderstanding. I'm grateful that God once again shows Himself as the faithful orchestrator of reality that is more complicated than fiction. I'm grateful for the "fire drill" that teaches me again to be vigilant about caring for my own physical needs. I'm grateful for the people God gives me to show His face and sound His voice.

As a friend said last night: Life is good. God is great.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Father Elijah

A couple of weeks ago, a friend stopped me after Mass to chat about the state of the world and politics, something that has tended to happen to me a lot within this last year. She went on to relate how a friend of hers felt compelled to get this book, Father Elijah by Michael O'Brien, from the library for her. She said she'd read it years ago, and was starting in on it again. She encouraged me to read it as well, promising fruitful discussion for us afterwards.

This might have been the sort of exchange that I just walk away from and say "OK, whatever." But I've been practicing taking the events and people in my life a bit more seriously than that. So, I put in my library request, and a week later, the book was in my hands. I was a bit daunted by the size of it -- almost 600 pages. But when I started to read I found very quickly I had a hard time putting it down.

It is a work of fiction, but it is Catholic fiction. In other words, the characters and their journeys resonated with me so deeply that when I finished I honestly felt lonely, like a good friend had just left. The main character, Father Elijah, is a Carmelite priest of Polish birth and Jewish ancestry who, after the death of his wife, had converted to Christianity and subsequently become a priest. It is apocalyptic fiction, meaning it deals with life at the end of the world, which is set basically in contemporary times. (Written in the late 90s, it was interesting how conspicuous the lack of cell phones and Internet was in the story. Already dated!) Father Elijah is called to the Vatican on special assignment to develop a relationship and bear witness to the man the Pope believes to be (or will become) the anti-Christ. Along the way he interacts with other saints and sinners, and we see the inner workings of his soul in the process. It is absolutely fascinating to me.

It also sets me again to contemplating how Christians are called to be involved in society, in politics, in the countless "crusades" for good and decency. I get so many emails asking for my action on this, that, and the other issue that frankly I get bewildered. Top that off with the various news articles I read from many different and usually contradictory points of view. I am not one to throw up my hands and say "It doesn't matter." This world does matter. This is where we bear witness to Christ. But, what does it mean to bear witness to Christ? What is most important?

Though it is a work of fiction, Father Elijah reminds me that of utmost importance is to maintain relationship with Christ. Not "stay comfortable with the religious surroundings I've gotten used to," no, constantly follow where Christ leads. There's a dynamic. Movement is called for. And then, do what is in your hand. There are no magic answers. Discerning Christ's call is not an excuse for laziness or apathy. But activism does not equal holiness, either. It's about Christ.

I remember years ago being at a farewell party at the home of a woman (also) named Marie. At the time I knew her to be a prayerful woman, hot on the pursuit of holiness, but she also struck me as a bit odd. Other-wordly. She didn't laugh at my impious jokes, and I had a sneaking suspicion she prayed for me instead. At this party we were praying for this family that was moving away, and most people prayed for things like safety, friends in the new place, health. All good things. Suddenly Marie pipes in with asking for all the graces they would need to end the journey of their lives in heaven. I was so stunned by that, because once again, I saw that Marie had her eyes fixed on the Ultimate. Father Elijah reminds me that right now, in the midst of world turmoil, if I love the people around me I will have my desires set on the Ultimate for them. And that's not just saying "yeah, great, heaven is where we'll all be when this life is done." But it is realizing that we are in a spiritual war, and that it is not for nothing that St. Paul tells us to be diligent, train, be wary, have each other's backs, and spread and deeply root that which is holy in our lives and the lives of others by the grace of God.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Why I Go to Daily Mass

Going to Mass this morning put me in memory of those early days of my sojourn into Catholicism when I first started attending daily Mass. Very early on in my process of conversion, after I had experienced Christ's call and tremulously responded, I was complaining to the Lord one day abut how scared I was and how hard this would be for me. The Lord responded by telling me "Be going to Mass." I knew that He meant daily Mass, and on an on-going basis. This felt like tough love to me, and like He was completely not indulging me in my nervous complaint. In hindsight I can see the Lord was holding out a precious gift to me, one I'm sure I'll never value highly enough this side of heaven.

But one thing that always struck me when I was new to daily Mass going was how miraculous the whole thing was. And not just in the "technical" sense in which the miracle of transubstantiation takes place so that Jesus is really present with us in the Eucharist (as if that isn't super-abundantly more than enough right there!). But personally, for me, the Mass often felt like an intimate communication, a lesson, a teaching, advice, even, for me in the particular need I had at that particular time, on that particular day. It felt like the Lord was personally weaving together, stitching up, the loose and flailing bits of my life, my thoughts, my prayers, and making something reasonable from them. It was in this way that I fell in love with the liturgy and absolutely could not wait for Mass each day. It helped that I was learning so much at the time. Everything seemed new. And I was so thankful for Fr. John who offered the Mass I attended most of the time. He was one who had a cadence to his prayer that was absolutely predictable and yet never sounded like he was "just saying" prayers. And I loved him so much to boot. His presence subtly taught me so many things, but I think most important among these was that these profound experiences with Christ happened for me within the context of the church community. I loved Christ, I loved Fr. John, and those loves washed over and gathered up all the rest of the community gathered there. It reminds me of CL parties at my friend Suzanne's house. I'd just love anyone who came in those doors, because they were part of who gathered. At the time, I struggled with this at Sunday Mass because it felt so anonymous, and truth be told I struggled at daily Mass as well. But it was in the daily Mass context that I apprenticed in this love.

Today at my parish I was put in memory of all these things. My head was the typical jumble of half-awake thoughts and concerns as I entered Mass (a few seconds late), but from the opening prayer, I heard words designed to perfectly heal my soul. To do that stitching. The Scriptures spoke their living word to me. The love I have known in that community beamed its memories and reality brightly into my soul. And Jesus, my Lord, came again, just for me. Oh Lord, I am not worthy, but only speak the word and I shall be healed! This is good, rich soil, and the Lord gives me all I need -- for me, and for those He gives me.

How shall I make a return/ for all the good He has done for me?/ The cup of salvation I will take up/ I will call on the name of the Lord/

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Taken, Blessed, Broken, Given

Many years ago, when I was a new Catholic or about to become one, I was impressed one day in prayer with this series of words: taken, blessed, broken, given. To Catholics it is somewhat obvious that these words have strong Eucharistic overtones. I was really new to Eucharistic spirituality at the time. Yet I understood that God meant these words to somehow apply to my life. As I meditated on them, I could readily identify how God had "taken" me: He had intervened in my life, He had called me, He had claimed me as His own. I could see that. I could also see how God had blessed me. I saw His favor poured out on me in many ways, through friends and material blessings, favorable circumstances, and His faithful, providential care that all didn't have to be that way. I also was quite aware of being broken. In fact, that's what I was most aware of at the time. Now I would phrase it that I was becoming aware of my need for God. Some of that had to do with trusting in Him more than in the blessings He'd given me. I was in a transition time: leaving the church where I felt secure and going to where He called. It was a time where trust was all I had to go on. God was still faithful, but it was scarier than I was used to.

I remember telling this to my spiritual director. My sense was that I had been taken, blessed, and broken, but I couldn't bear to just stop there. The dynamism of the whole thing pointed to the last word... given. What I didn't know, though, was what that exactly meant. I mean, I knew what the word meant, and I knew it meant that what God did in me would go out from me to others. But I didn't know that I knew that I knew what it was from experience. In fact, I knew I didn't know from experience.

Today, the whole thing became clear and simple. I think this is how God converses with us (me, at least): suddenly, it all becomes simple. It is the feast of Corpus Christi, The Body and Blood of Christ. It was our last choir Mass of the season (I can't stand it when people say "year" when it is June and we'll sing again in three months. We are not in school!) At some point during the Mass, can't even say when it happened, I realized that I knew what it is to be "given" in this Eucharistic sense, and therefore, what all the rest means and is for as well: it means simply to love. I am taken up by God's love, I am blessed by God's love, yes I am broken by God's love so that I can be given in God's love to someone else, as love -- as God's love, to restart the cycle in them. And I know that I know that I know this from experience.

Simple, but profound.

As if to solidify this thought in my mind, a friend of mine posted this article on Facebook: A Requiem for Friendship. It is a bit long and circuitous, but it discusses how the cultural acceptance of open expression of homosexuality among men has caused boys problems when it comes to forming or expressing ardent bonds of friendship among themselves. The point can be expanded to embrace friendship-love in any context, and I would contend that it isn't necessarily only homosexuality but the sexualization of society in general which causes us problems. And, I contend, in Christian culture, we sometimes get this reactionary "luv" about which there is nothing human nor ardent nor Christlike. Everyone luvs each other. But my question is, will you die for me? Will you suffer for me? If not, keep your luv, and buy a puppy or some other object that makes you feel happy now and then.

The love God calls us to is not about enjoyment or happy feelings. It's not about eroticism either. It is about expressing an ardent desire for the other to know the fullness of God's gift, and going to the point of my willingness to sacrifice, to suffer, to die to make it so. Not so that I can admire what a great martyr I am, but given, freely.

Just as Christ gives Himself to me.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Random Morning Ponderings

I get up very early on Friday mornings, so I've already had many rounds of pondering going on. Here's a little bouquet:

I was remembering a couple of exchanges I had with Viola Talbot during the short time I stayed at Little Portion Hermitage, discerning. One of these happened my first morning on work detail. It was dreadfully early in the morning, and I was with a group of women preparing the grounds for the upcoming celebration of the feast of St. Francis. We were ripping overgrown grass off of a brick walkway. The task was simple enough on the surface, but I felt completely and totally bewildered. This was about 6 months after I'd become a Catholic. I had no clue whatsoever what this task had to do with monastic life. I didn't know how to pray this way, much less how to be with people I barely knew.

At one point, one of the Sisters near me uncovered a mound of nasty ants and recoiled. She said quietly (they have a rule of silence in the mornings) "Does anyone want a good penance?" Without a word, Viola, who was also nearby, reached into the mound of ants and really dove into tearing the grass out. Her strong response to the Sister -- really, to the Lord in this circumstance -- spoke volumes to me.

Later, when it was time for me to have "my official talk" with Viola about what where my discernment had taken me, I remember her telling me (after I told her that I worked in an office) that when she first took on working in the Hermitage business office, that she didn't even know how to go into the room or do any of the work. I also remember not understanding why she told me that. I've since figured it out! She realized far better than I did how clueless I was about their life. What I remember this morning is her patience, her complete lack of judgment, and a very quiet charity.

Next random pondering:  At Mass this morning, we celebrated a votive Mass of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. At communion, I thought of how, at the many Eucharistic miracles that have been scientifically verified, hosts which have turned to flesh are always found to be heart tissue. A text I'd read recently came to mind, talking about how the true center of what we call "the heart" metaphorically speaking is the will. "The heart" includes our affection and our feeling or sentiment, but the core of who we are is our will, which certainly does not preclude but raises up our affections and sentiments. So, I receive Jesus, His Sacred Heart which is filled with love for me. And this love is expressed in His will -- His will for me, which includes all the circumstances of my life right now, and indeed many things of which I grasp very little. I receive, and with my little love, I say yes. My will says yes to His will. This is harmony!

Last random pondering: Recently the organist at one of the local parishes passed away. He was a gifted musician but a surly man, known for being rashly rude. He was not Catholic, which I mention simply to highlight that he seemed to be drawn to be on the outside of things always, never a part of the people he was with. Some months ago, one of my husband's friends explained to me that this organist had lost someone very close to him, a child I think, and that in his sorrow he was never quite "right" after that. I was sad to learn from my husband today that he had opted for no obituary, no funeral, and an anonymous cremation. He had been in a coma before he died, so perhaps he never realized that two of my husband's friends were at his bedside praying just before he died. It really is a sadness to believe that our meanness could really banish all love from our lives.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Ask for the grace of perseverance

On the first of every month, our Lord gives Anne a new message about His call to service.
June 1, 2010
Dearest apostles, are you weary? Do you wonder why My service requires such holiness? I know that you do not always understand the relationship between your suffering and the graces I am sending to others. This is not clear to you when you are carrying heavy crosses that require great trust. When you are with Me for eternity, you will understand this connection and you will rejoice that you were willing to remain in My service despite the demands made upon your will. I ask and I ask and again I ask, and you answer, and you answer, and again, you answer. My dear apostles, you are in such a habit of saying yes to Me, that you continue on, day after day. The days are passing, are they not? One after another, days are completed and you have claimed grace for the world. This is how it has been arranged for you, dearest children of the Father. You are asked to be good and holy and in return, the Father cooperates by keeping your intentions close to His heart. In this moment, where you have been placed, there is grace. Do you feel it? Do you trust Me? I am with you. I have not abandoned you. Will you resist the temptation to leave Me when I press on your commitment? If you ask Me for the grace of perseverance, I will give this to you. This is My gift. But you must ask for and then accept this gift. If you feel like you are failing and yet you are trying to serve as best you can, then you must spend time with Me and examine the concept of failure from heaven’s view. You may find that you are a success in My eyes, even while the world dismisses your contribution. All is well. Do not fear fatigue. Only fear a decision to abandon Me. Remember, I will never leave you. Never.