Sunday, September 26, 2010

Contemplating the Angels

I have had angels on my radar screen of late. Ok, that sounds a bit weird. I think it began when a friend made a passing comment about how a choir, in the grand scheme of worship at Mass, acts in a way akin to "in persona chorus angelorum." As I contemplated that, I began to see all the references to angels that surround us in our Catholic life sort of highlighted in bright yellow as it were. And then more recently I re-read Volume Nine from Direction for our Times on angels, which you can download here. I've also read the book Send Me Your Guardian Angel about the ministry of St. (Padre) Pio and an currently working through two others which focus on patristic angelology.

There is no denying the reality of angels within Scripture, within Catholic teaching, within the lives and witness of the saints, and within the experiences of regular people. Still, there's this temptation to ignore them or relegate talk of angels to some theosophic, Christless spirituality. Coming up here in just a few days, the Church liturgically reminds us again of the Archangels, with their feast on September 29, and our Guardian Angels and their feast October 2. So, we need to counter the temptation to forgetfulness and listen to the witnesses who tell us of God's wonders.

Today I happened to attend a prayer meeting of the Lay Apostles (associated with Direction for our Times). The discussion was on, you guessed it, the angels. Of the fifteen or so people who attended, many spontaneously shared experiences of their own lives of asking for and receiving specific help and guidance from their guardian angels. These are the things we tend to think of as strange, isolated incidences in our lives, until we begin to share with others of the faithful and discover that while these are personal and sometimes private experiences, they are also as common as water.

I'll just share one personal experience that has happened in these last weeks since I've been paying more attention to my guardian angel. I was contemplating the fact that angels are pure intellect, with wisdom of exactly what God's will is for me at any given time. So I asked my guardian angel for help in making a good confession the last time I participated in that Sacrament. I had no flash of insight until I was in the midst of confessing my sins to God before the priest. Suddenly, I saw that everything I brought hinged together, and the difference between how I had made these various choices and what God's will for me actually is became very clear. I walked out of that confessional not only grateful to God for His grace, but with a deep respect for the ministry of my angel!

A Scripture that came to mind early on in this adventure that I mulled over was St. Paul's passing statement in 1 Corinthians 13 about speaking "in tongues of men and of angels." Years ago when I first encountered the baptism of the Holy Spirit (as we called it then) and speaking in tongues I had read many testimonies in which one person's prayer language was confirmed to be an actual spoken language that a native speaker could understand perfectly. But then there seemed to be many other people whose prayer language was not recognizable as such. I had never thought much about this little insertion of St. Paul's, apparently making a reference that was not necessary to explain to his readers, of the tongues of angels. I wondered if perhaps what God was giving with this gift was the possibility for human beings to ask for intercessions from the angels according to their perfect wisdom and understanding of God's will, in ways that the human intellect wouldn't conceive of asking. (Doesn't this just resonate wonderfully with the fact that everything God gives us is a grace, a gift? Nothing is of our own merit or labor, and yet we must give ourselves personally to God, with the exercise of our wills. Does not the Spirit pray for us with groans that words cannot express?)

Then, after contemplating this, I read of Padre Pio's ministry. At one point, in order to test him (and he was always having people test him), his superiors wrote to him in languages Pio could not understand. But he read the letter and responded naturally, saying that -- of course! -- his guardian angel translated the letter for him. Language is no barrier to heaven; only to us limited humans.

God never forces grace on us, and angels never force their help on us. But we can be more inclined to accept their ministry and if we ask, we receive. We can also intercede for others whose minds and hearts are far from focused on the Lord Jesus, asking for the specific helps their guardian angels are able to minister to be given to them. We each have a (usually) small but (always) vital part to play in the grand drama of the Kingdom that God had designed and that God sustains. It is a gift to us that He calls us to participate with Him, with heaven, to bring heaven to souls who need Him.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Thoughts on Waldstein's Talk: "Redeeming the Erotic: John Paul II's Reading of the Song of Songs."

The other night I has the opportunity to listen in on a live broadcast of a talk by Dr. Michael Waldstein entitled "Redeeming the Erotic: John Paul II's Reading of the Song of Songs." Because it was a live feed and not a recording, I am at the disadvantage of not being able to go back and listen to it again, nor can I quote from it as I was not taking notes of any sort at the time. But with that said, I was struck by one phrase that he developed regarding the character of the Bride in the Song of Songs. This was not from a line of Scripture per se but from John Paul II's discussion of her. It was this: She is the master of her own mystery.

The master of her own mystery.

The concept, of course, is that one can only give the gift of oneself if one possesses oneself.

The sort of related concept that Waldstein mentioned that pertains to the Lover in the Song of Songs is this notion that he calls the woman "My sister, my bride." He states that this shows that she is a person in her own right. She is not a commodity that he can grasp and take for himself as one might pick up a candy bar at the grocery store. In other words, the Lover knows that the woman is a person, not a thing.

And as a person, the woman is master of her own mystery. She chooses to make of herself a gift, which she bestows on her Lover, and he then receives her.

This struck a deep chord in me.

Then shortly afterwards, I came across a quote that I have been reflecting on for quite some time in a different context, weighing how this applies to various aspects of life: "He who makes himself his own master subjects himself to a fool for a master." -- St. Bernard of Clairvaux. (This, by the way, is one of the reasons I love Facebook. Where else can I be a part of little conversations here and there about the sayings of saints?!)

On the one hand we have John Paul II saying the Beloved is "the master of her own mystery," and on the other hand we have St. Bernard warning against being one's own master. What gives?

The discussion of the St. Bernard quote made it clear to me that the options here are a) Jesus is the master of my life or b) Jesus is not, and I am. So, what kind of Master is Jesus? If we lose our lives for His sake, we find them. If we give all to Him at His cross, He gives all back to us, redeemed, purified, sanctified and ready for life with Him in His kingdom, following Him. If I follow myself, I wander aimlessly, led by my animal desires.

So, how does the Bride get to be the master of her own mystery? From whence comes her mystery?! From the Lord. The enticement, the seduction, the beauty that is hers is only hers because it is truly His in origin. The Lord bestows to each, graces. Talents, as Matthew 25 has it. We are set as master over what God gives, and harsh words are reserved for the servant who did not act as master. But the image of the Bride in the Song of Songs is clearly a woman acts as master. "Awake, O north wind; and come, thou south; blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out. Let my beloved come into his garden, and eat his pleasant fruits" (SS 4:16). This is a woman who possesses herself so that she may make a free gift of herself to her Lover.

I am reminded what the Catechism of the Catholic Church has to say about self-mastery:

2339 Chastity includes an apprenticeship in self-mastery which is a training in human freedom. The alternative is clear: either man governs his passions and finds peace, or he lets himself be dominated by them and becomes unhappy. "Man's dignity therefore requires him to act out of conscious and free choice, as moved and drawn in a personal way from within, and not by blind impulses in himself or by mere external constraint. Man gains such dignity when, ridding himself of all slavery to the passions, he presses forward to his goal by freely choosing what is good and, by his diligence and skill, effectively secures for himself the means suited to this end."

2346 Charity is the form of all the virtues. Under its influence, chastity appears as a school of the gift of the person. Self-mastery is ordered to the gift of self. Chastity leads him who practices it to become a witness to his neighbor of God's fidelity and loving kindness.
2347 The virtue of chastity blossoms in friendship. It shows the disciple how to follow and imitate him who has chosen us as his friends, who has given himself totally to us and allows us to participate in his divine estate. Chastity is a promise of immortality.
Chastity is expressed notably in friendship with one's neighbor. Whether it develops between persons of the same or opposite sex, friendship represents a great good for all. It leads to spiritual communion. 
Not surprisingly, self-mastery is linked with the notion of chastity. At first blush, it seems that Eros and chastity have blessed little to do with each other except as some kind of opposites. It seems to me that this is because the word "chastity" gets used in an awkward, embarrassed way to mean "not all that dirty stuff." And what do we mean by "all that dirty stuff," anyway, if we are pressed for a definition? We usually mean "what we actually desire." This was Waldstein's first point: the Lover and the Beloved are both quite in tune with their desire. And this is where religious folk tend to get tripped up. We think that to be presentable to God we have to take all of our desires and stuff them under the couch cushions and into the closet, quick, before He sees them. Do you see how completely silly that is?!

The Lover and the Beloved are both very much in tune with their desires. If you read Song of Songs, you have to concur that it is erotic stuff. So, how is the erotic redeemed? Just like everything else that is a created good is redeemed: by the cross. 

If we take the Beloved as symbol of the Church for a moment, or at least if I take her as a symbol of myself as a woman, I need self-mastery to be able to give myself the way the Beloved does. This I know by my personal experience. The Beloved's got it; I'm working toward it! Again, the Catechism states: "Self-mastery is a long and exacting work. One can never consider it acquired once and for all. It presupposes renewed effort at all stages of life." (CCC 2342). It is a work of grace. Grace operates in our lives by bringing our human hearts, filled with their desires, to the cross. I can't surrender something to the Lord that I can first own as mine. And I can't receive back from the Lord something I haven't given over in the first place. The only place we have the "laudable exchange" with the Lord is the cross. I bring my sin, my unfulfilled longings, my powerlessness for good, my need, and I meet His inexhaustible love, mercy, compassion, forgiveness, healing and meaning. I bring me; I meet Him.

So. Eros redeemed, then, is demonstrated by a "me" who has met "Him" and experienced the transformation into Him that this meeting brings. Looking back at the Catechism, Eros redeemed is demonstrated by a free and conscious gift of the self, given personally. I keep in mind my personhood: I am not a thing; and the personhood of the one to whom the gift is given: there is no acquisition going on. I am not purchasing the other with my gift. Only when I am giving myself this way, freely, personally, consciously, am I chaste. If I am just restrained by external pressures, I am not chaste.

As the catechism puts it, the virtue of chastity "blossoms" in friendship, of the sort that leads to spiritual communion and actually tutors us in how to follow the Lord. Now there's a beautiful image that I can relate to after a summer of gardening. The gift of self, the gift of Eros, the gift of the cross, the gift of friendship: it all brings us ultimately to know, love and serve God more and more deeply. There is a constant flow of grace as God gives to us and we give back to Him.

Saturday, September 11, 2010


My need is not my difficulty. My need, in its most pure form, will always lead me, pull me, draw me, to God, to fulfillment, to the One who fills my need.

My difficulty is in how I go about pursuing fulfillment to what I need. I have options. For example, I can think, worry, ponder. I can weigh all the factors I can think of. I can wallow in indecision and do nothing. I can bolt forth in pride, in the heat of my own passion, in the brilliance of my own ideas and plans. I can meekly follow what most other people do. I can comfortably follow how my friends think. I can automatically do whatever I feel like.

Or, I can in the first place consider that I am a creature, that I have been made a daughter of the Most High God in baptism and I have been made a member of His family. I can consider to Whom I belong. I can ask for help. I can be simple. I can take my fears, my thoughts, my passions, my plans, my worries, my loves, my self to the cross and acknowledge that what I need ultimately springs from that place. I can open my heart in trust to receive back from Him the fulfillment of all I bring, of all I need.

My biggest problem, I suppose, is not accepting that I need in the first place.

Maybe the way around that is to ask a simple question each day: What do I want? What am I looking for?

Instead of sighing and figuring happiness and love are impossible or out of reach, I can acknowledge that what I want, deep in my heart, only serves to point me to what I need.

Then, with God and all His heavenly court always cheering for me, I think I'll be just fine. How could I not be?

Friday, September 03, 2010

And With Your Spirit

Soon and very soon, Latin rite Catholic liturgy, prayed in English, will sound a bit different than it does right now. After several years of apparently necessary fuss and bother, a translation is coming down the pike that is more faithful to the normative Latin and less concerned with the flair of the particular incarnation of English most in use around the world. Being not only a lover of the Church and her liturgy, but a lover of words as well, I am very excited by this development. The translation, of course, is already set, but liturgical composers on the one hand and catechists on the other need to get their proverbial ducks in a row and then put them on parade effectively before the laity so that these changes don't hit us too much like rumble strips.

Then again, I've always found rumble strips sort of fun. Driving along the turnpike, hour after hour of highway, and suddenly you hit GADAGADAGADAGADA, and you wake up before you slam into the cars stopped at the toll booth, in case you missed all of the signs in the preceding ten miles indicating their impending presence.

Yesterday in the mail we got from our parish a nifty little pamphlet that like one of those signs. It outlined exactly which phrases in the liturgy which are prayed by the congregation will be changed. This isn't the first time I've read about these changes. And still, I was especially struck this time by the change most frequently repeated: Our response to the priest stating "The Lord be with you" changes from "And also with you" (which is my standard dry-humor response to church friends who wish me a good day or whatever, which I suppose will now sound "so early 21st century") to "and with your spirit. Oooh, thought I. I like that.

And with your spirit. I grew up saying that, or rather singing that, in the WELS Lutheran liturgy. And of course older Catholics grew up saying it in Latin. I don't know about anyone else, but for the most part I didn't really think about why we said "and with your spirit." I probably did simply presume this was a stilted churchy way of saying "and also with you," and so I probably would have been very sympathetic to those who wanted to get rid of Churchese and talk like normal folk. For the most part, I'm for that. However, the normative Latin specifies we are asking the Lord to be with the priest's spirit, so let's talk the way Mama teaches us.

Now, in the years since I've stopped singing "and with your spirit" I've learned about the tri-partite nature of man, as St. Paul describes it, of body, soul and spirit. There was a lot of talk about this in the charismatic fellowship that was my worship home for the five years before I became a Catholic. And recently, the Lord has brought this front-and-center to my attention again through the teachings of John Michael Talbot. He uses this body, soul, and spirit language from St. Paul (and modern charismatics) in a way that enables me to bridge the lingo gap very easily into the ancient monastic wisdom which he unpacks for us moderns and our spiritual formation.

Scripture speaks of the spirit and the flesh, or soul and spirit in many places. My own conjecture about why this language is not much understood and not much used is that it can only be used with meaning when discussing experience, precisely, spiritual experience of conversion, of change. Homilies often focus on  concrete things we can do, instead of the internal factors of how we respond to the Spirit of God, or what happens to us when we do. Perhaps this is more appropriate, or it is thought to be more appropriate, to spiritual direction than to homilies. Conversion is an individual matter, and yet it is to be the collective experience to which we can all relate. Really, I think this is the crux of the problem. Even when conversion is our collective experience, we don't seem to have the language to employ to talk about it. And what we can't discuss tends to drop away from our collective spiritual experience. That's just my conjecture on our modern Catholic Catch-22.

The liturgy, of course, is a key spiritual experience in the life of a Catholic Christian. So it seems very fitting to keep this word "spirit" constantly reverberating in our ears, bringing us back to clue in to the existence of something important. We can start by asking What's a spirit? And how does it differ from plain "me," or my soul?

John Michael Talbot has an audio teaching touching on this point which you can find on this site. Look for the cell group teaching dated July 13. He also talks about it in his book The Joy of Music Ministry in this way:

Using the anthropology of St. Paul, we can define the human being as having a spirit, soul, and body. Due to our current condition we usually think of these things the other way around, or body, soul, spirit. Body is our senses and emotions. Soul is the spiritual mind, or the ability to be cognitively aware of reality. Body and soul are the house of the spirit and are rightly engaged in the things of space and time. Spirit is the deepest reality of our being. It is pure spiritual intuition that is beyond senses, emotions, or thoughts, but builds on, complements, and completes them all. In union with God's Spirit, our spirit has a wonderful and unique capacity for eternity and infinity. It is present in eternity now and does all things even while body and soul are engaged in the matters of space and time.(p. 16)

But then, there's this matter of the fall into sin, in which we all participate!

It starts in the way we function with the basic body, soul and spirit "stuff" of which we are made. When the senses of the body lead the way, we become primarily concerned with sense gratification. Rather than being positively incarnational, we become "sensual" or "carnal." ... When we don't get what we want, we become angry and upset. When the emotions become clouded, the thoughts become conflicted, unfocused, and confused. The spirit gets totally ignored and covered up in this chaotic cacophony of discord. It is as if the spirit is asleep, or even dead....The spirit has to be awakened. (p. 19)

After conversion to Christ, it is in the Church that we come to see how He heals and transforms us:

It is here that the authenticity of our own reordering according to His teaching is really tested. If we let the Lord turn us right side up again, from body and soul with a sleeping spirit, to spirit, soul, and body, then we find a common union with all people and all creation by the very fact of this reorientation of living. When the spirit is really first in our lives, then we intuitively see and are united with this essence in all creation, animate and inanimate...From this position of awakening and rebirth we begin to unite with others in their own potential for this reality whether they actually see it or not!...This takes great faith and patience, but it can be done. We actually call forth the hidden Spirit of Jesus in others when we act as Jesus would with them. This helps to spread the Music of God through Christ. This sings the Divine Song. (p. 33-34)

So, yes, I'm rather excited about our having the word "spirit" on our lips more often so that we can be moved closer to contemplation of the realities of the design and function of the human spirit. And that's just one tiny aspect of the coming changes.

Something in me really loves rumble strips.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Like Throwing Leaves in a Stream...

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

September 1, 2010
Be at peace in your day, dear apostles. Perhaps you are learning to move more slowly, and perhaps this has helped you to be more connected to My presence in your service. How blessed you are if this lesson has taken root in your life. Strive to achieve this way of life because you will have the greatest gifts available to you if you move methodically, with Me. Sometimes, people are unaware of the nature of My grace flowing into the day through their cooperation. This is best, dear apostles. Be like little children who throw many leaves from a bridge into a stream and then walk away. The impact of their action flows down the stream without any help from the child and the impact from your daily service flows into the greater stream of the Church without any further action on your part. Truly, your consistent service impacts the entire Church in some way, both in the day you are spending your time and in the future where you may not be spending time. Each of you serves as a result of the service of many people. You were formed and directed in your faith by the sacrifice of those who went before you in service. Be grateful for their sacrifice and then you, also, give willingly and generously for those around you and those who will come after you. Dear friends, I am sending formation through each of you that is very specific for this time. It is for this reason that I implore you to remain fixed on Me and all that I am asking you to do. I want you to be holy. I can bring the greatest amount of mercy into the world if My beloved friends help Me. Be disinterested when the enemy of unity brings you reasons to disagree with those around you. Be interested when your Jesus begs you to overlook the flaws of others and serve alongside them in harmony. Dear apostles, we have nothing without unity. Our campaign of love will only be successful if we concentrate on love. Love overcomes everything, even the most profound suffering. Because, when one of God’s children has nothing and he is bereft, the smallest bit of love is like the greatest feast. I, your Jesus, am now a beggar. I am begging you to love. Allow Me to see to justice because only I am equipped to pass judgement. You must see to loving, despite any wounds you have suffered. I am the greatest victim of injustice so I am the best consoler. Bring your suffering to Me and I will send you away with love, which you will then continue to distribute on My behalf. Be serious about My work, dear apostles. It is important.