Friday, December 31, 2010

Praying for Unity

Yesterday my children and I had the opportunity to attend Mass at St. Patrick's in Pittsburgh's Strip District. The structure of the interior of this church is a bit unusual as the seating area for Mass is at the second floor level. The entry level of the church seems to be primarily an area of devotional prayer. The prominent feature that catches your eye immediately upon entering through the front door is the Holy Stairs, a replica of the 28 steps in the Church of the Holy Stairs in Rome. Those steps were brought from Jerusalem to Rome by St. Helena and were said to be the very ones that lay between Christ and Pontius Pilate when Christ was condemned to death.

The custom, in Rome and in Pittsburgh, is to climb these steps on one's knees, praying as one ascends. In 1993 when I visited Rome, I did this with the vast crowd there present, and yesterday I did this with my children. It was a powerful moment. As we started up the steps, I remembered distinctly how I prayed back in 1993. As a brand new Catholic, so new I could almost still smell the chrism on my forehead, with each step I prayed for people of various Christian denominations to return to union with Rome. At first yesterday I began to pray the same way, but it struck me that differentiating people this way, by denomination, touched nothing of the depth of need we all have. Instead I prayed for the grace of conversion for those who have been repulsed by Christianity and organized religion because of the sins of Christians and those acting in the name of the Church.

Christian unity comes as we all repent of our sin and embrace the cross. Only in the cross will we all be drawn together.

May this be our aim in the coming year. May the world know that we are Christians because of our love for one another.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Reflecting on "The Big Silence"

Yesterday, a Facebook friend posted the first of 12 parts of a BBC documentary entitled "The Big Silence." It is the story of an endeavor of a Benedictine monk to teach five ordinary people the value of integrating silence into their daily lives.

There were enough buzz words in just the short introduction to the clip to have me completely hooked into the story, and by this morning I had spent the requisite three hours to watch the entire documentary. It was the most interesting thing I've seen in ages. I was completely intrigued by the experiences of these volunteers as they entered first into a monastic "dry run" of silence, experimented with trying silence on their own, and then as they dove into, and subsequently came "down off of" the meat of the experiment, which was an eight day silent retreat at a Jesuit retreat center. Their encounters with themselves, with God, with each other, were all fascinating to me.

Silence is fascinating to me. Like many things, I have this intuition that my relationship with silence is somewhat inverse to that of most people. It seems that many people fear silence. They fear facing themselves in silence; they fear what demons and dragons may emerge if they are alone with no distractions by which to dodge reality. I normally consider silence my friend, even though sometimes it goes by the name Darkness, that Simon and Garfunkel once sang about. I get wiggy if I spend too much time without silence. Far from fearing silence, I often crave silence. But I do experience a related difficulty. There are times when I try to take refuge in silence when I really need to speak out. And sometimes, that speaking is exactly what I fear. There are occasions where I fear what demons and dragons may emerge if I speak my mind too freely to someone. And there are times when Jeremiah's words are my own: "I say to myself, I will not mention him, I will speak in his name no more. But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it." (Jer. 20:9)  I have discovered that sometimes, in order to return to my peaceful quiet, I absolutely must say, or write, something.

Yesterday, before I started watching this documentary, I was pondering hard on a comment made by the friend of a Facebook friend (or, in other words, a total stranger). She had commented to me that sharing my conversion testimony (the post I wrote on Christmas Eve) must have taken a lot of courage. I suppose, in a way, it does require courage to share something from the depth of my heart. But I realize that I have practiced doing this for years. Starting when I was barely 11, I would write letters to my best friend almost every day, and I quickly discovered that writing was a way I find understanding, and that understanding brings relief to my soul. So, I hardly think about it any longer, the courage it might take to use my pen (keyboard, these days) to dig out my heart for another. The thing I struggle with is not the digging out, but choosing, or desiring, or (ouch) really needing to say to another person "I need you to hear this. I need you to read this. I need to say this to you." But I have discovered that there are times when I cannot get back to my fertile silence unless I purposefully make my voice heard to others. That thing of making my voice heard, of moving out of the silence with the word that burns in my heart, that is where my heart quakes.

I am left strongly challenged by the experiences these five individuals shared in this documentary. I am curious about the quality of my own relationship with silence. Though I love it, there are times when I am stung by how silence rhymes with violence, because indeed there have been times when the silence I keep is the silence that kills, as Rich Mullins wrote about. I have always been moved by a sequence of songs on John Michael Talbot's album The Regathering. The song "Keep Silence" (Keep silence/before the Lord/And wait for Him...) is followed by the fiery song "For Zion's Sake" (For Zion's Sake I will not keep silent/For Jerusalem's sake I will not be still/until her vindication shines forth/like dawning/and her victory like the flame of the Lord). There clearly is a time for silence and a time to speak (Ecc. 3:7). It seems, though, that there is a fine point of discernment here to know when each is appropriate. Or perhaps more accurately, both silence and speech that are open to the power of the Most High require courage that is born only of grace.

To explore the BBC series, check out The Big Silence, Growing Into Silence, or simply start watching the first portion of the program below:

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Impact of Liturgy Celebrated Well

A few weeks ago, I happened to be listening to a CD by Scott Hahn on Advent, which is available from Lighthouse Catholic Media. Some of you who read this blog may realize that I used to work for Scott several years ago. So you'll understand when I say that this is the first recording of his that I've listened to in a long time! In fact, I was listening, and at a certain point I got a little bored with it, and I put in on pause and went about other business. But the next day, I realized it was still on pause, and I hit play. It just happened to be at this following section. Listening to it was one of those "peeling the paint off my soul" moments. It struck me so hard that I went back to listen to it over again, and then went back again and transcribed it all.

I share it here as I continue to ponder it. He is talking about what Pope Pius XI wrote on the occasion of establishing the Feast of Christ the King.

"There is no better way to establish Christ's kingship than to institute this special feast in honor of Christ the King. For people are better instructed in the truths of faith and brought to appreciate the interior joys of religion far more effectively by the annual celebration of our sacred mysteries than by even the weightiest pronouncements of the teaching of the Church." Catch that? We learn the truth of Christ more profoundly, more personally, in a more life-changing way through entering authentically into the liturgy and the liturgical calendar whereby we celebrate the Mass, the glorious sacrifice, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in the different seasons that correspond to the redemptive work and the cycles of Christ. He says that this is more profound and lasting, the changes this brings, than if the Church made all of these weighty pronouncements. "For such pronouncements," Pius XI says, "reach only the few, and these generally the more learned. Whereas the faithful are stirred by the celebrations and feasts." Amen. Especially if they are done well. Pronouncements speak only once; celebrations, he says, speak annually and forever. Pronouncements affect the mind primarily, celebrations have a salutary, a saving, influence on the mind and the heart, on the whole man. Man, being composed of body and soul is so moved and stimulated by the external solemnities of festivals and such is the variety of beauty of the sacred rites that he drinks more deeply of divine doctrine, he assimilates it into his very system and makes it a source of strength for progress in the spiritual life.

I'd encourage you to throw yourself, body and soul, not only into the spontaneous worship that the Holy Spirit inspires but into the liturgical worship of the Church, which the Holy Spirit has also inspired. The Holy Spirit can inspire you in the moment and the Holy Spirit can inspire us through the ages, according to the natural cycles and the seasonal festivals that our fathers established. For what family grows strong that doesn't celebrate anniversaries and birthdays with a lot of vim and vigor? When we enter into the season of Advent, this is the greatest birthday celebration of all....

Friday, December 24, 2010

My Christmas Eve Conversion Story

I have a rare opportunity this Christmas Eve evening to sit down in silence and write. Tonight my heart is pounding against what contains me to mull over what I think of as my major conversion experience. So, let me  tell the story.

It was 1991 or so, I don't remember the exact month. I had a very good friend who was married to a man attending Lutheran seminary. For some time he had been toying with the idea of becoming Catholic. His wife, my good friend, was not thrilled with the idea, and I commiserated with her. In fact I suggested that he was being attacked by demons to wish such a thing. This drama went on for several months, and finally my friend announced to me that rather than fight with her husband about it, she had agreed that they would become Catholics. Gulp.

About the same time, a man who attended my charismatic fellowship who had been raised Catholic announced to me, somewhat privately, that he was going to receive Confirmation and return to the Church. I was agitated by my married friends' announcement, but I was dumbfounded by his. I had always considered him the most intelligent, theologically correct person in the whole fellowship. And besides that, I was in love with him. In my confused way, yes, I was in love with him.

These announcements hit me within a very short time of each other. I was left very confused and very compelled to start some serious thinking about Catholicism. Growing up as a conservative Lutheran, in a church which taught that the papacy is the anti-christ, I nurtured a strong anti-Catholic sentiment. It was somehow a strong part of my own spiritual understanding of my world that I was not only not Catholic, but I was opposed to Catholicism. Why? Because I honestly believed that God was opposed to Catholicism. I believed it was an evil religious system. I remember earnestly and honestly praying this way: "Lord, I know that you hate Catholicism. But when I think about hating my friends, I get confused. Lord, if you don't want me to hate Catholics, then you have to show me why not."

It took me a long time to emotionally calm down enough to get to the point of grasping that I knew nothing about Catholicism except what I had been taught as a Lutheran. Well, it wasn't only a matter of calming down emotionally, it was also a matter of surrendering my pride. I truly thought I knew it all. I truly thought I was superior. It took me several months to come to see that if I wanted to understand the Catholic paradigm, if I wanted to understand what made Catholics different, I had to start investigating Catholic sources. I remembered that I had read Medieval mystics in college and my heart had caught fire, so to speak. I just didn't believe that anyone knew about them anymore (because, of course, I didn't, before then). That little spark of hope awoke. I bought a Catholic Bible, a copy of the documents of Vatican II, and later the book Catholic and Christian by Alan Schreck. And tapes by John Michael Talbot and the Brothers and Sisters of Charity.

I read. I studied. I prayed. I was shocked. Catholics quoted the Bible. They talked about evangelism. They talked about the supernatural power of God to change lives. The arguments for doctrines like Apostolic Succession and the Marian dogmas were logical, and Biblical. I began to discover valuable riches. Things began to make sense.

Some time before this, I had been experiencing a sort of hunger for something in the worship I had loved so much in our charismatic fellowship. I had thought of liturgical worship as a ball and chain, but more and more I saw that what we did had a similar kind of planned format. I felt as if I were experiencing nothing but the "dead religion" we railed against in the mainline churches. I had been musing that surely, Lord, there was something deeper than this. I wanted to be free of "dead religion" at all cost. But it seemed to cling to me.

And here I was now, discovering riches. This process had taken all of 1991. This man who I was so in love with had left Milwaukee for seminary in London (there is so much to that story; don't know if I'll ever write about that one!). But he wrote to let me know he was coming home for Christmas. We had arranged to go out for lunch on the 23rd. On the 22nd, my grandmother passed away, and we decided that our family would not celebrate Christmas until after her funeral, which would be the 27th. This left me in Milwaukee on my own for Christmas. Keith (yes, he has a name) therefore invited me to go to the Midnight Mass with him and some friends on Christmas Eve. I was ready to say yes. In fact, it had been going through my head that attending a Mass probably would be fitting for me at some point, as another step in my investigation of Catholicism.

Before the Mass that night, we gathered at his friends' house. One of them tried to show me his rosary that had turned gold, but I couldn't look at it or even touch it. I wasn't that comfortable with Catholic things! All that stuff that had to do with saints and people and humanity turning holy -- that was just still unfathomable to me.

We walked in the church, which was named for St. Anthony of Padua. There was a large statue of him in the foyer, and I instinctively recoiled from it. I was trying to be open, but those saints were the hardest for me to stomach. We went into the church to sit down, and I saw another statue of some other Catholic guy I didn't recognize. I grumbled to Keith, "Who is that?!" "Marie!" he answered, somewhat shocked at me, "That's Jesus!"

We sat there in silence for a good long time. Other than the fact that I vaguely recognized the liturgy (it had been only four years or so since I had been at a Lutheran service), I remember only two main things striking me. (Well, the one really odd thing was how at the beginning of the gospel reading the entire congregation developed an itch on their foreheads at the same time!) The first was the penitential rite. The way I heard it, the priest was asking his people, the Catholics, to repent of their sin. It reeked of humility. And I was undone. I thought to myself, "No, Lord, it's not these people that need to repent -- it's me! I have spent years and years belittling them, hating them, making fun of them, judging them, using them to make me feel superior... They don't need to repent, Lord, I do." If that moment brought me to my knees, the next profound moment put a state of awe into me, and literally I have never been the same. Keith and his friends went forward to receive the Eucharist, and we were sitting in the very front pew. As they came back and sat down around me, my eyes were drawn to the Eucharist at the altar and I suddenly was aware that this was Jesus. This was the Second Person of the Most Blessed Trinity, giving Himself away right there. And what, my heart shouted, was Jesus doing in a Catholic Church?

Keith dropped me off at home and I sat up until at least 4am, mostly just staring. I can't even say I was trying to take in what happened. I was so shocked. I read a magazine Keith's friend had given me, and I stared some more. Finally, I slept. I spent the next day with friends from my church, and the following day at work. But internally I was still in this moment of complete shock. I couldn't even pray, or ask the Lord about what had happened. Finally, on the evening of the 26th, I was doing some envelope stuffing at home and listening to yet another John Michael Talbot tape a friend had given me. His voice sounded so peaceful. I had to turn it off. I yelled at the tape player: "You're a Catholic, and you're supposed to be wrong. I'm a Protestant, and I'm supposed to be the one with all the peace!!"

I had finally broken the ice to sort of speak about what had happened to me at that Mass. I felt the Lord Jesus, as real as if I could see Him, sort of tap me on the shoulder and say "When you're ready to talk about this, I'll be right over there" (on my couch, where I often went to pray). I went over to the couch and began sadly lamenting and complaining to the Lord that I didn't know what to do or what this was all about. I had a lot of lament to pour out. When I was done, the Lord showed me a sort of mental vision. There were two roads. One road was wide open, and empty. I knew that this represented my life as it was right then, and I knew that one option for me was to continue on just as I had been. Then I saw the next road. A short ways down it, there was a cross standing in the road. I immediately knew three things. The cross meant that that's where Jesus was. The cross meant the Catholic Church. And I knew that I would choose to go that way.

More lamenting. (I did a lot of that in those days! No joy.) I told the Lord, in a martyrish sort of way "Oh Lord, Ok, if you want me to become a Catholic, I will. I'll become a Catholic." The Lord answered me clearly. "I don't want you to say it. I want you to sing it." The Lord was after no less than my heart. No surfacy response would do. Suddenly I sprang up. "But Lord, what about that thing about saint intercession. If I could just find that Bible verse again and ask you how that really speaks of the saints praying for us?! I'm just not sure about that yet." The Lord was stern, but kind. "Sing."

Somehow I knew exactly what to sing, so I did:

I have decided to follow Jesus, I have decided to follow Jesus, I have decided to follow Jesus
No turning back, No turning back

The cross before me, the world behind me; The cross before me, the world behind me; The cross before me, the world behind me
No turning back, No turning back

Though none go with me, still I will follow; Though none go with me, still I will follow; Though none go with me, still I will follow
No turning back, No turning back

Well, no, come to think of it, that isn't what I sang, but it was in what I sang which was this:  "I have decided to become a Catholic. I have decided to become a Catholic. I have decided to become a Catholic. No turning back, No turning back."

I am still unpacking this experience. I realize now that it was absolutely no mistake that this happened at a Midnight Mass of Christmas. The message that has been sinking into my heart ever since that night is that in the Incarnation, God proclaims that holiness and humanity have wedded. In Christ, the way is open for holiness to enter the frailty of our human existence. This does a drop kick to the notion that humanity is, in its essence, depraved and capable only of depravity. The goodness of creation is once again restored and proclaimed and affirmed, and in it I too am restored and proclaimed good, and affirmed. We humans are made for the lofty purpose of receiving from the Lord glory, and bearing it forth to all the world. We are made for transformation unto holiness. We are not only loved by God because we are have been cleaned up by Jesus' blood. While we were yet sinners, Christ loved us, unto death! He loves us because of who we are, even in our sin! I think my notion of Christianity had been that our sin had messed things up so badly that Jesus had to fix us and then God let us into heaven simply because he agreed to forget about who we really are. But all along it was really only Himself that He loved. No! The Incarnation proves that Jesus loved us enough to live among us in our sin, and to patiently love us until we are made hungry for His love.

The Incarnation continues, of course, in the Body of Christ, His Church. I love being Catholic, but more importantly, I love Catholics! I love non-Catholics too, but I have a special love for the very type of Catholic I once judged myself superior to. Every time I see a run-of-the-mill Catholic (no, wait. I decided just recently these don't exist. Each Catholic is a miracle.) Every time I witness a certain flame of the love of God in the heart of a Catholic person, I well up with awe inside my soul, and a wave of unworthiness to be in their presence washes over me. There are moments when I kneel in Mass and I am so overcome with gratitude for the privilege of just being there. God has filled me with great joy, great peace, and great delight.

Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift! (2 Cor. 915)

Post Script:
After I wrote this post, at Midnight Mass, the priest in his homily commented on a quotation from St. Leo the Great that sums up succinctly what is in my heart: the key of what we are given in the Incarnation is our own dignity, restored. The quote:
"Christian, remember your dignity, and now that you share in God's own nature, do not return by sin to your former base condition. Bear in mind who is your head and of whose body you are a member. Do not forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of God's kingdom. Through the sacrament of baptism you have become a temple of the Holy Spirit."

Friday, December 17, 2010

A Miscarriage Anniversary... Gift

Some days simply have so many joyful bits and deep important things happening in them that I feel like I go around with my arms full of jewels, dropping them all over as I go.

Today I had an experience that left me feeling God wrapping me in His strong arms, pulling me close to Him, and whispering in my ear, "It's OK. I understand." Even if I write it out sloppily I wanted to try to capture it in words before I drop it, too.

This morning I had about 25 minutes to work on learning some music we will sing in choir for Christmas. It's in Latin and sort of polyphonic, which is not the sort of thing I can just belt out at first sight-reading. It requires work. My attempts to work on it thus far have not gone well at all. While it is true that my brain does not learn music well when the piece is in Latin, in the past I have been able to learn such things by putting in a lot of effort. It just wasn't working for me, now nor did it last year when we practiced it (but ended up setting it aside as it wasn't coming together). Today, attacking the work with great determination, I realized the hurdle I wasn't clearing was precisely the memory of last year's effort. Though I tried then, I was simply too depressed last year to do this type of work because I was overwhelmed by the first anniversary of a baby we lost, two years ago tomorrow. And until I faced that haunting memory I emotionally associated with this piece, my attempts to work at learning it were futile. But face it I did, and I was finally able to make great strides in learning it today.

Right after this realization, I gathered my children and we were off to Mass. When we go to Franciscan University I always drop them off near the door of the chapel so that they don't have to walk with me up the big hill where I park. While I walked I thought of how I had struggled so hard against singing my alto part for this song. The tenor part sunk into my mind, but I just couldn't focus on my part. I thought to myself, part of my grief of losing this baby is this experience of my part as a woman, of my body becoming a graveyard. It felt even a bit too melodramatic as I thought it, but thought it I did, and I shed a few tears in the quick moment up the hill. I realize that sometimes when life hurts, I really don't want to be a woman!

I was seated as Mass, and heard the reading from Isaiah:

Raise a glad cry, you barren one who did not bear, break forth in jubilant song, you who were not in labor, For more numerous are the children of the deserted wife than the children of her who has a husband, says the LORD. Enlarge the space for your tent, spread out your tent cloths unsparingly; lengthen your ropes and make firm your stakes. For you shall spread abroad to the right and to the left; Your descendants shall dispossess the nations and shall people the desolate cities. Fear not, you shall not be put to shame; you need not blush, for you shall not be disgraced. The shame of your youth you shall forget, the reproach of your widowhood no longer remember. For he who has become your husband is your Maker; his name is the LORD of hosts; Your redeemer is the Holy One of Israel, called God of all the earth. The LORD calls you back, like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit, A wife married in youth and then cast off, says your God. For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great tenderness I will take you back. In an outburst of wrath, for a moment I hid my face from you; But with enduring love I take pity on you, says the LORD, your redeemer. This is for me like the days of Noah, when I swore that the waters of Noah should never again deluge the earth; So I have sworn not to be angry with you, or to rebuke you. Though the mountains leave their place and the hills be shaken, My love shall never leave you nor my covenant of peace be shaken, says the LORD, who has mercy on you.
The priest in his homily talked about how the kingdom of God belongs to the small, to the forgotten ones, and does not come in glitz and glamor. The all powerful one comes, how? As a baby. What could be more vulnerable, he asked, than a newborn baby. (I can tell you, I thought. A newly conceived baby.)
As I continued to pray in that Mass, I sensed small ways the Lord has been nudging at my heart, and just as had happened with the first baby I miscarried, I had a sudden insight into the significance of the name we had chosen for this baby. (It was really my children who chose the name; I could not bring myself to be involved.)

All of these things floating through the hour and a half I've talked about here were like one flowing conversation with the Lord. I was washed over again by the mystery of His presence with me, the tenderness of His love toward me, and His persistent yet mysterious leading.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

"Please Be Joyful"!

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

December 1, 2010
My dear apostles, together, we are making advances. Humanity groans with the changes coming upon them and yet heaven’s servants become holier and holier. The project that is your holiness is on track. Dear apostles, this is the most important thing and this should be your greatest concern. I want you to be aware of your progress. Instead of being distracted by the changes occurring in the world, you are actively participating in the changes through your personal commitment to remain connected to My will in each day. You are offering your service through your allegiance prayer and I am accepting your service and using you to teach others what true holiness looks like. From the outside, you probably look as though you are working hard. From the outside, it is probably evident that your commitment has cost you something, meaning, your own plan. You have submitted your plan to Me and I have handed you My plan in return. Accepting My plan for your life is not easy and some moments are more difficult than other moments, and yet, you continue. You strive for total acceptance of My will. This is what I am asking of you and this is what the Father asked of Me. Abandonment. If you want to learn about abandonment, simply look to My figure on the cross. My Passion offers you a glimpse of where abandonment took Me. Your joy in service offers others a glimpse of where abandonment has taken you. Please be joyful. Your joy offers the world hope. Joy is infectious. And hope is infectious. Suffering passes away and what remains is your offering. I am returning. I tell you this because it is true and I want you to be prepared and to help others to be prepared. All is well. The infant King looks out upon a world which craves Him. Bring Me to others, that they may also herald My return.