Saturday, July 31, 2010

Some Thoughts on this Matter of Gouging Out One's Eye

Recently in the midst of some off-hand chatter, a friend made reference to a Scripture in a way that was quite jarring to me, like the proverbial needle ripped off the record. I've been turning over in my mind just why it struck me that way.

You see, there are the "hard sayings" of Jesus, and then it seems there are the "weird sayings" of Jesus. And to me, what my friend referred to was one of these weirder ones:  "If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell." (cf. Mt. 5:27-30)

I'll chalk it up to the fact that I'm not a man that I've not spent a lot of time meditating on this particular passage. But the way these words struck me put me in memory of the seasons in my life when I agonized over the meaning of "If anyone would follow me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me." (Lk. 9:23)

Let him deny himself. Gouge out your eye.

What in the world is wrong with Jesus, anyway? It sure sounds like He'd be quite pleased if we destroyed ourselves for His sake.

And you know what? I've tried that. I've tried a religion that was all about holding my stinky humanity at arm's length while I got out the gasoline and the torch, determined to get rid of the culprit, which was essentially me. I think of it now as simply a spiritualization of an emotional tendency I had some years earlier towards suicide. I think of it as the basic form of my struggle against grace, this idea that God made some sort of heinous mistake when He made me, and that to right the wrong He made, I should make myself go away. Salvation, Marie's way, is self-destruction.

Religion turns into a mess when I start with my own twisted self-evaluation and work from there towards making me right myself. This religion starts and ends with, and completely revolves around, me. Me, in all my wretchedness, still convinced I should be able to get myself happy. And always failing.

The ever-patient Blessed Trinity looks on, heart about to explode with love, waiting for me to just look upward toward heaven, where I think I'm propelling myself.

Let's go back to that eye gouging verse. I'm no Scripture scholar, but it seems to me that Jesus is trying to get folks to recognize the disconnect between a do-it-yourself, me-centered approach and a Father, madly in love with His creation who has sent the Second Person of the Trinity in the flesh to look them in those eyes and announce Himself to them and beg them to come home to Him. Note carefully to what Jesus says:  "If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out." If... your eye causes you to sin. Another time when the disciples just don't get it when he talks about the law and defilement, Jesus makes it pretty clear: "For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, unchastity, theft, false witness, blasphemy." (Mt. 15:19) It's pretty clear that it isn't your eye that produces sin, it's your heart. You want a program to save yourself? the Lord says, I've got a logical one for you. Here's a knife. Have at it. If you can't see anything, your sin will be resolved, right? Reading this, it sure seems to me the hearers are supposed to recoil from his suggestion, and say No Way!

But then what? That's the question I think Jesus is begging by His presence, by His Incarnation. But if you want to get at the root of the issue, if you want peace(Mk. 10:17), then know your eyeball is not at fault, it is your heart. And I am here because I'm calling to your heart! (Jn. 7:37) I'm saying, Come, follow me (Jn. 1:38-39). That tug that you feel when you hear me preach, (Jn. 1:41) that amazement (Jn. 7:21) you experience when you see me heal someone (Mk. 7:37) -- that 's divine in origin (Jn. 10:37-38). Answer the tug! (Mt. 11:28) Give me your heart! You want your heart fixed?(Jn. 14:15) Well, I made it. Give it to me, run after me (Jn. 7:37-38). Together, we'll go Home.

And what about this whole matter of denying oneself?  It cannot mean that God's desire is that I hate, mutilate, destroy, or kill myself, literally, or just hate myself a bit seasonally, like during Lent. Jesus teaches us that it is the evil thief who "comes to steal, kill and destroy," but that Jesus comes that His flock "might have life and have it more abundantly" (John 10:10). It's not just that God doesn't want us dead. It's that He really, really wants us to be fully alive!

As I see it, to deny myself, as Christ teaches me, is to forsake my privately produced program for salvation. God, I've had so many. They're like potions. Take this much religious stuff, pick this group of people and figure out how to feel two steps morally superior to them, interact with people in a way that makes me feel all smug, mix well and take two gulps daily. Feel terrible in these prescribed ways. Ignore that reaction your heart has to all this; it doesn't matter. What does it know? Measure up against a standard you have decided, whether impossibly high or ridiculously low. On and on, ad nauseum.

It's all idolatry. It's all the deadly religion of me and has nothing to do with Christ. And Jesus says, deny it. Leave behind all your attempts to save yourself. It's all a bunch of shit.(Phil. 3:8) Follow Me! I'm the one who made your heart, who knows your heart, who loves your heart. If you want your heart back and you want to live from it, then come, follow me. That's what I want, too. I want you to be you, to be happy, to be whole, to be alive, to be human. With two eyes, to see My face!

Today I was listening to a teaching John Michael Talbot gave his community a couple of weeks ago. He said, “When you die to yourself, you are not going to become nothing. You are going to become something new.” This is the promise of Christianity, and we each have to test it with our lives. The process, of course, is not instantaneous. John Michael went on to talk about how the Potter goes about fixing us (remember, it's His way, not mine!). When we are cracked, in a wrong shape, the potter will re-wet the clay by His Holy Spirit, make us malleable again and then take us down to nothing. We become like a lump. And then, He reshapes us, resurrects us into something new, and (this is my favorite part) nothing is wasted. Every single bit of us that is from God gets put back into that new creation that He makes of us when we give our lives to Him. God did not make a heinous mistake in creating me who I am. I just need to let it all go into His hand, especially the bits I wish I didn't have to think about putting into His hand because I hate them so much. As I give it all over, He makes of it something of His glory. Then I live His life here, and share in His life for eternity.

If we do not live as if glory is real, are we not living as Christian agnostics, and missing all the good stuff?

Monday, July 12, 2010

Pontifical Council on the New Evangelization

This is a three-part series on the recent establishment of a brand-new Pontifical Council on the New Evangelization, published on the St. Catherine of Siena Institute blog, Intentional Disciples.

part one
part two
part three

This is exciting stuff to me.

Unfinished Thoughts on Worship

I wrote this a couple of weeks ago and never felt finished with it, but decided to post it as part of thoughts in process.
I've been thinking lately about what the word "worship" had meant to me in the various contexts of my life. I suppose most recently I've landed on Romans 12:1 as the baseline for how I normally think and speak this word: "...offer your bodies, as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God -- which is your spiritual worship." Worship is the offering of myself to God the Father, in union and only because of the offering Jesus Christ made to the Father, and because He has taken me up into Himself. As a Catholic then, the Eucharist is clearly the supreme act of worship from which all the rest derives.

Ok, I've got the theology student in me satisfied for the moment.

I speak more than one dialect of Christianese however, and this makes me happy.
In another dialect, "worship" gets paired with "praise," as in "Praise and Worship." Praise and Worship has a contextual meaning of a certain form of prayer that is generally done in singing, with instruments, and with the body. I have almost always experienced this kind of prayer in the company of people who have experienced pentecostal manifestations of spiritual gifts, but I understand that in some settings it is simply considered a musical taste toward the modern. So perhaps I will nuance my use of this term by specifying charismatic praise and worship as distinct from praise music.

I was thinking about these things while at Mass today. We sang some great praise songs, including one that I had learned many years ago at Risen Savior Fellowship before I became a Catholic. During communion we sang one of my very favorite worship songs, Take Lord, Receive, which is the prayer of St. Ignatius of Loyola. We closed with the Rich Mullins song Step by Step. And I thought, surely a Mass can be powerful and beautiful in the most rudimentary of settings, with the barest of liturgical flourish. Certainly priests have said Mass in dire conditions where they barely dared to speak above a whisper, if that. Certainly there is a very human element that comes into play in worship (for otherwise it would be no worship, just a form) and praise, and Praise and Worship.

God is not the one who needs our prayer. We are the ones who need to pray, who need to worship, who need to praise God, who need to find the way our heart can give itself and, for some, the way we can lead others into worship. Today I was musing on how I miss the way I used to praise God. Mind you, I still attend charismatic praise and worship now and then, but I have noticed that those who lead it (who are either younger or older than I) tend toward the gentle. Gentle is sometimes good; it is sometimes how the Spirit blows. But full-throated and energetic is also good. Sometimes gentle feels like timid, or unsure, and therefore hardly a stance that Christ has before the Father. Sometimes those of us with a melancholy bent need to simply "make a joyful noise unto the Lord" and dance and clap and all that. Now, I know it can get to be not much more than fun, and cease to really bring the heart before God, but let's be honest: so can any sort of worship. The most sublime liturgical celebration can seem like a boring routine, and lively praise music can feel like a bad concert. How do we pierce into the heart of it? How do we touch the heart of God in worship? Of course, we start with the desire to do so, the need, the Reality, and a heart that bows into the Reality.

Recently a friend of mine emailed me a link to this video. It presents very well the heart of the kind of charismatic praise and worship that I cut my teeth on some two decades ago, with all its associated strengths and weaknesses. To me it seems that both the strength and the weakness can be summarized in one word: submission. The strength I see is a tremendous desire on the part of these worshippers to submit themselves to the Word of God. The weakness I see is not the risk toward wild emotional expression, but rather the truncated understanding of the Word of God in the manifestation of word definitions in the original Hebrew. When one longs to submit (and I understand this desire from the inside out) sometimes one ends up submitted fully to something that is penultimate, or even not even close to penultimate, just plain old incomplete. I think the heart of a worshipper longs to give itself as a lover to the Beloved. But we must bear in mind that the One we long for is Transcendent, calling us out into the great realm of Mystery. God chose for the Old Testament to be written primarily in Hebrew, but as Scripture says, the highest heavens cannot contain the Lord, much less Hebrew words.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

The Wrongness of Feeling Unworthy

Last night at a charismatic praise gathering I heard a talk given by a young neighbor of mine (young = early 20s) about this matter of feeling unworthy of the gifts God gives. The subsequent Scriptures and words shared all flowed into a theme of our need to embrace the reality of who we are in Christ.

I really appreciated his talk. He read from Psalm 8, "What is man that you are mindful of him?" but then boiled down the matter to this: Yes, ok, on the one hand, who am I that God should give me gifts, but more importantly, who am I to turn away from God the Father Almighty because I feel unworthy of His approach to me?

That nails it.

When God approaches a soul, all of the grace that is needed by that soul to stand before Him is made available. To turn aside is to refuse God's grace and cling to pride instead. Our self-absorption is revealed, brought to light. If, however, we acknowledge God's grace and praise Him for who He is (the One who approaches, Love, Light), then we can accept the gifts He brings -- not because of any evaluation of worthiness on our part (for that is not the economy in which God operates) -- but because clearly it is His will to bring a gift. To submit to God's will is to accept the embrace of His love which floods our hearts with joy and delight. This embrace cleanses us, purifies us, enables us to appropriately respond.

Then the question "Who am I, oh Lord, that you are mindful of me" becomes not one of self-reproach or even of trying to coax oneself into believing that one is acceptable by God. It becomes a question of wonder. The wonder originates with God. I am nothing spectacular, nor are you, per se. There are billions of humans pretty much just like us. And yet the wonder arises because of the One who has made you. His love makes you, in His mind at least, unrepeatable, captivating, priceless, precious.

So accept what He brings you.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

What Does "Poverty" Mean?

One of the things I love about social media like blogs and Facebook is coming across quotations that friends (or strangers) share. I come across several that I like, and every once in a while I come across a treasure that really lends itself to contemplation or further reading.

I came across one such quotation last week, from Lewis Mumford, a 20th century thinker of whom I'd never heard before:

A day spent without the sight or sound of beauty, the contemplation of mystery, or the search of truth or perfection is a poverty-stricken day; and a succession of such days is fatal to human life.
I think this quote struck me for several reasons, but where I plunge my thought most deeply in this short sentence is into the phrase "poverty-stricken day."


I have thought about that word often, but never did so much before encountering the Catholic Church. It was something I noticed quickly when I started attending Mass in Milwaukee; there was much more use of this word poverty than in the churches I had belonged to previously. Regardless of how it was used, I had a hard time getting comfortable with the word, with figuring out how to incorporate this word into my new Catholic vocabulary. I got that there was a spiritual dimension to poverty. But mostly I observed middle class suburbanites talking about the terrible plight of other people -- those in poverty. Something in the equation seemed off. At the time, I was living in what a co-worker had described (with some shock when we had discussed my plans to move there) as poverty-level housing. And I guess it was. But I could afford it, and I loved it there. I've never cared what things look like.

In fact, my whole relationship to economic prosperity has always been rather indifferent. With the possible exception of my time in Japan, where I earned far more money than I was expecting to (I went with the understanding that I was a volunteer receiving room and board), I've never lived with lots of means. But I have felt oftentimes like a material glutton, that I have much more than I need. I spent a short time doing mission work in Jamaica in my young 20s and witnessed families who lived in tin shacks the size of a closet and who drew water whenever the pump happened to be working that week. It was laughable for me to think of my "poverty-level housing" as any sort of deprivation after that.

Again this idea of poverty comes to mind these days because we've been living without my husband having a job for a couple of months. Lots of families are in this boat right now. It has been useful for me to shift out what truly we need and what we do not. I have struggled in the past with simply shifting into a "get tough" mode where I refuse to need anything. This is a self-martyrdom problem where I think I will make everything better my killing myself off. I see that this stance does not demonstrate trust in God nor respect for His love for me.

So, what of this thing of poverty? Mumford strikes it on the head. Poverty consists in being deprived of the sight or sound of beauty. Poverty consists in forsaking the contemplation of mystery. Poverty consists in giving up the search for truth and perfection. Beauty, Goodness, Truth. The Catholic Catechism states: "God created the world to show forth and communicate his glory. That his creatures should share in his truth, goodness and beauty - this is the glory for which God created them" (CCC 319). Sharing in the glory of God is all the riches the soul actually needs and desires. A life spent in this pursuit is rich, it is pleasing, it is life-giving. If we lack these things, as Mumford points out, especially chronically, we risk a fatality, the demise of our humanity, our souls.

The deceiver of our souls would convince us that Beauty is ugly, or meaningless, or superfluous -- to be sacrificed. He would convince us that there is no Goodness, there is only expedience, there is only what makes the opportunity before worth grabbing, despite what it means for my own soul or for another. He would convince us that the only Truth is what brings me momentary satisfaction. Got my goodie, gonna get my next goodie; there ain't no more to it than that.

It truly doesn't matter whether we have lots of money or little; either way we can live in poverty. Ironically I think it can be dreadfully hard to alert those in affluent poverty to the state of their souls. It sounds like a bunch of hippie nonsense to tell people their souls are dead. So maybe that's not the approach. Perhaps the approach is to pray folks into a wrestling match. Truth? Beauty? Goodness? Does it matter which facet grabs us, which of our lacks, which of our longings stabs out of our hearts and refuses to shut up? God knows the embrace each of our souls most needs today. Let us pray for each other that we will not shout down God's approach, not drown it, not turn Him aside, not try to stay "comfortable". Not try to stay in poverty. Allow Him who became poor for our sakes to make us rich.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

"Experience each day the grace that you are urging others to accept."

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

July 1, 2010 

My beloved apostles, I send many graces into the world through your commitment to Me. You do not see the graces but sometimes you see the effect of the graces. When you see the effect of the graces I send through you, rejoice. Thank Me. Your gratitude expressed to Me gives Me consolation. Also, your gratitude expressed to Me, gives you a disposition that is joyful. I want you to be joyful, dear apostles, because I am giving you so much. You are cooperating with Me and working hard, it is true, but you are also benefiting because My heart is so grateful to you for your fidelity that I hasten to answer your prayers, both for your loved ones and for the whole world. When a traveller goes a short distance, he can become a little tired. When a traveller goes a greater distance, he can become a little more tired. When a traveller travels a distance that stretches out for the remainder of his time on earth, as in your case, that traveller understands that fatigue will be his companion. This companionship should accomplish two things. One, it should provide a bond between the saved and the Saviour because I, too, experienced fatigue and I, too, devoted My life to the Kingdom. The other thing fatigue should provide for you is a compelling need to adapt your service to My pace which is a steady pace, as opposed to a hurried pace. I ask for steady service. I do not want hesitation in My service, no, but neither do I want irresponsible treatment of either your physical wellness or your spiritual wellness. If you are standing next to a well and do not drink, you will become dehydrated, regardless of your proximity to the well. Drink, dear apostles. Experience each day the grace that you are urging others to accept. I am with you and I feed you steadily. You have the grace for today. You will have to return to Me tomorrow to accept the grace for that day. I want My beloved apostles to be sustained and I offer them sustenance. Dear friends, all is well. You are working hard as I worked hard but you will be given all that you need. I am so grateful to you. I am so pleased with you. Believe Me when I say this. It is very important for the world that you accept My gratitude because if you do not accept My gratitude, truly, the world will not understand Me and the world will not understand service to Me. People must look at you and see that service to Me brings blessings. I am with you and My gratitude to you will be evident for eternity.