Friday, January 28, 2011

"I love you Steve," turns into "You failed me, Steve"

I seem to be on a kick lately of watching movies about mentally ill musicians. I just finished watching the movie The Soloist. The plot involves a newspaper reporter, Steve Lopez, who tells the story of a homeless man, Nathaniel Ayers, who had once attended Julliard School of Music and who was a gifted cellist. It was interesting, but not what I would call profoundly moving, with the exception of one scene. Nathaniel had just told Steve that he loved him, and Steve was feeling the pressure of being the only positive human contact Nathaniel knew. Steve tells another character, "I don't want him to love me. 'I love you Steve,' turns into 'You failed me, Steve.'" And this potential of failing in yet another relationship (as we get hints of the failed relationship with his ex-wife and son) is more than Steve can bear.

That admission struck me like a ton of bricks. It was at once so obvious that he might feel that way (I immediately understood his emotional logic) and yet it was such a completely foreign idea to me (I don't believe it has ever occurred to me that anyone would think that way).

I had many thoughts at once upon processing this bit of dialogue. I thought of how I would consider anyone I love as a reflection of God, of human love as a taste of the transcendent, and therefore demanding or expecting something from another limited human being that I would expect to satisfy me fully doesn't seem logically consistent in the least. Holding out a worry as this character does seems to indicate the pride of feeling he really was all that was operative in the good that was happening. He was no instrument, in his own mind. I can understand that this is a terrifying feeling. There is only peace in knowing there is One who is greater who fills and animates us, who is closer than our own breath and is the Meaning of everything. Otherwise, my goodness, the pressure on anyone's back to be the All for another! Yikes!

But then I also thought of how my own love for God went through a phase where this exact sort of thing was involved: "God I love you" did become "God, you failed me." For example, when I was in the throes of dealing with my infertility, I did get very angry at God and didn't understand where His love was in all of the pain. I remember going to confession and identifying with the older son of the prodigal parable. Here I am, doing everything right, and you don't even give me a goat to celebrate with my friends!! But at that point I wasn't really relating to God at all; I was sorting out my own heart to be able to relate to Him again not as an idea, but as a Person. A personal God with a desire for a personal journey with me. With a will of His own, with things of His own to share with me. I was missing out on that completely and just fishing for things I wanted. God's goods; His products, things He could do for me. But not God Himself. Same is true with people. If I'm just fishing for what I want in a relationship with another person, I'm going to be missing that person completely.

In the movie, we do see that Steve was sorting out his own heart to be able to relate to Nathaniel as a person instead of a story or a project or an annoyance. I guess there is quite a journey we need to make sometimes, just to be able to meet another person as a person, rather than as a tool, a toy, or an obstacle. Without an admission, an acknowledgment, an awareness, an experience of Transcendence, what is the hope for any sort of personal relationship at all?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Each Catholic, Called to be a Missionary

I respect my son as an extremely reliable barometer in my life. He is very good at picking up on things and allowing me to become aware of them when I otherwise probably would not, at least no where near as quickly.

So when as a family we were going through our little Q&A catechism, and I read a question in the section on Sacraments about whether the Church is necessary for salvation, an alarm went off in me with his answer. At first he adamantly said No. Because, he said, what about all those people who don't have the Church, who don't have Sacraments. Surely God wants them to have a chance to be saved, too!

My alarm wasn't first and foremost about the gap in my son's understanding. Good heavens, we all have those. My alarm was that I saw clearly that he was reflecting back to me the lived experience of Catholics that he has experienced. He has been very blessed in the community with which we live. It has great riches and vibrancy, and he has many spiritual opportunities that are not so easily had in other areas of the country. For example, we have Franciscan University of Steubenville in our backyard and often go to hear outstanding speakers who come here. My son has heard many admonitions: to pray, to serve, to help the poor, to speak out for justice, to defend truth, to give one's life to God, to embrace one's vocation. But apparently he has not so often heard it emphasized that each Catholic is obligated to participate in the missionary endeavor of the Church by preaching the truth and explicitly leading people to embrace Her Sacraments. In other words, we act like the eternal salvation of the souls of others has absolutely nothing to do with us, our witness, with preaching, with the Church.

If the Church is not missionary, then what is it? A feel-good club for us? One of many generic service organizations by which humanitarian good is done, if you happen to like the brand we offer?

Then today I read this article on Church Exists to Evangelize! Pope Calls every Catholic to Become a Missionary. The New Evangelization is no new idea. But I am so grateful to Pope Benedict XVI for sounding this call again. Especially in the West, and in the United States, this is a radical call, meaning it is one that takes us back down to the root of who we are. Evangelizing is not synonymous with obnoxiously arguing or manipulating or venting our religious spleen on unwitting victims. Evangelization is the fruit of conversion and penance and the following of God's call. It is not a program we can implement. I think of it in terms of living a healthy marriage relationship. Programs don't work where relationships must lead, but systematic teaching can be of assistance to us to discover common pitfalls that harm our relationships. I believe that one of these common pitfalls that stop us from evangelizing is the religious relativism that says as long as people are good, it doesn't really matter what they believe. Another pitfall is that of fundamentalism that says if you don't know all of the answers according to the book, there's no way you are good. Catholics are squeezed by both into staying in the pews, praying, and hoping that all those seekers of truth who want to become Catholics somehow wander in the right direction and find us.

The answer seems simple enough: Fall in love with Jesus Christ, give Him all your life, then follow where He leads. He's going to lead you to His People, and He's going to send you out to love others with a message written into your life. Live that life!! There are specific truths, and they make people deeply happy and free. Be deeply happy and free, and others will see and want this too.

I can't help but think of the St. Catherine of Siena Institute which helps people discern and employ their spiritual gifts, so that they can understand God's call to them. On their blog, they also share lots of good information about the state of Christianity in the world that should shake us out of our pew-sitting ways to realize God doesn't have another normative plan for the salvation of the world but us.

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in us the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created, and You shall renew the face of the earth.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


Sometimes when I clean my house, in an effort to do a quick and efficient job, I get a large box and pick up all of the scattered bits and just toss them in. It makes for a quick tidy, and there's always a chance to sort later.

Today my brain is a bit like that, or my thoughts, rather. I've spent the day picking up significant bits and tossing them into one big hopper. So part of my evening cool-down now is to go back and sort and articulate the theme.

Because the day, after all, is the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. Conversion is one of my favorite things to think about, even to dream affectionately about. Love this feast.

This morning I heard a really wonderful homily by the missionary priest who is helping at my parish these days. He spoke about his conversion that led him to embrace the priesthood, and about the events that jar us and move us and cause us, like St. Paul, to have a major course change. He spoke about the song "Here I am, Lord" which was instrumental in his conversion. This struck me, because a hymn (similar in theme, at least) called "Hark the Voice of Jesus Crying" had a role in my initial conversion to God as well, because it gave me the words to phrase my response to God's call.

Also early this morning, a friend happened to comment on a 10-year-old picture I had posted on Facebook, saying that she didn't think I had aged. This was one of those comments that banged around in my head all day on many different levels. What I thought about the most was how, as a child of perhaps nine or ten, I had decided that on the inside I had always been, and always would be, 33 years old. I have always been a serious-hearted person, so it seemed strangely fitting to me. But there is a nuance to this that I think can only be captured in the idea expressed in this Rich Mullins song, Growing Young.

The refrain perhaps says it best:
And everybody used to tell me big boys don't cry
Well I've been around enough to know that that was the lie
That held back the tears in the eyes of a thousand prodigal sons
Well we are children no more, we have sinned and grown old
And our Father still waits and He watches down the road
To see the crying boys come running back to His arms
And be growing young
Growing young
So, in my convoluted thought process, I hope the fact that I now don't seem to be aging (in the picture my friend referenced I was in my early 30s) stems from the fact that I'm now growing young instead of growing old. Because of my commitment to on-going conversion.

Another random bit: There is something that has happened in me within the last month. It's very, very significant, but of course I don't have all the words for it yet. I have a degree of freedom that I didn't have before. And I know this because I am more able to focus on what is immediately in my hand to do, and I'm able to know it has profound meaning. It's more real to me now that meaning is not off somewhere else in another time, another place, another circumstance, another ideal. The hidden, seemingly meaningless, and potentially irritating tasks I undertake each day, like sweeping up spilled cat litter or picking up socks, are truly my sharing in building the Kingdom of God, because they are bits of my life, which I am called to live with love, and united to Christ, my Lover. This, too, has been conversion.

Recently I wrote a song, which I used to do a lot of, but haven't done since about 1994. And I like it. Last night I was thinking of something else I want to write about, something I think holds a lot of people back from flinging their hearts open wide to conversion. And it is our difficulty in trusting God with our pleasures. We derive a certain pleasure from our own will, from our own agenda, and I think we tend to fear surrendering our will and our agenda because we fear conversion will remove that pleasure and there will be nothing suitable in its place that we will actually relish. In other words, I think we hesitate to trust that the way of Jesus can please us more than our own. Isn't this how we tend to face Lent? Oh my gosh, I don't want to give up xyz for Lent because I love it so much...  Why not go into Lent thinking I really want to be a happier person, and I know God loves me more than I could ever love myself, so why not turn my full face to Him, and let Him burn Himself deeply into me, barriers be damned! And let me share this adventure of passion with everyone my life touches, barriers be damned! Yeah, now there's a Lenten theme!

So. I guess the theme in my thought-hopper tonight is conversion. This is always my prayer for myself, for those I love, for those near to me, and for everyone who has ever touched my life. So it is my prayer for you, too.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

January 18 through 25 is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. In its honor, I thought I would "replay" a recent post on the subject.

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. (Read the rest here.)

Sunday, January 09, 2011

When "Family" Becomes Bondage

Several weeks ago while driving through town I saw a bumper sticker which said something like "My Family is Everything To Me." I had a complex and multi-layered negative reaction to this simple statement. I have complex and multi-layered negative reactions to all sorts of things, but this one I've been thinking about just a bit, so I think it is time to unwrap it a bit.

What first sprang to mind was the "hard saying" from Jesus that "whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me" (Mt. 10:37). Now, was a day when I would have been inclined to understand this verse to have come from the heart of a heartless, sledgehammer God who simple demanded servile subjection from His adherents, humanity be damned, and who cares about tender feelings towards family. I wouldn't have actually described God as proposing these sentiments because, well, it wouldn't make Him seem very nice. But when you look at the literal words, what else can you do with it if you take the Word of God seriously, right?

This certainly is a radical word from Jesus, but fortunately we have the wisdom of the Church Fathers who have followed the Lord radically and therefore understand His heart and can instruct us. In my experience, it is John Michael Talbot who has gleaned these things and passed them down to me in recent teachings. And the instruction is this: When Jesus calls us to surrender our lives to Him, He is asking that everything we hold dear be placed under His Lordship. This includes the relationships which make us human. When Jesus becomes our Lord in these areas, He gives His order to all things, including our relationships. It is a process of transformation. When He is Lord, we are free, in this example, to enter into our relationships of family without them controlling us or being themselves our master and lord.

So, the bumper sticker. Family indeed cannot "be everything to me" without it also holding me in bondage. If family is everything to me, then it is my Lord, my Master, and not Jesus. Therefore, I will have no freedom.

But it sounds very moral, doesn't it? Isn't "family values" at the core of what decent people are made of?

I think there is a danger of many these days confusing conservative social values with the message of Christianity. If Christians don't differentiate we will soon wake up to having lost both!

Why did Jesus insist that we cannot love our family members more than Him and still follow Him? What does He have against family?

He has nothing against family, per se, but He has every concern for our true need, which is to realize the One who gives us our life, our self, our meaning, our existence, our purpose. We are made for the Infinite, and only He satisfies us. It is dangerously easy for one to look at a loved one, a person God Himself has place into one's life, and to declare "You are why I exist!" You, my newborn baby, you my wife, my husband, you my very dear mother.... my life revolves around you! In doing this we run the risk of forgetting God and ultimately replacing Him and idolizing a creature. We run the risk of forgetting that the vocation to marriage is about bringing one's spouse, children and the friends that surround us to heaven! Jesus does not come to break apart family relationships, He comes to preserve them. They can only be preserved if grace remains to keep the relationship with the Blessed Trinity preeminent for each one. When by our mutual prayer and evangelization my heart and your heart draw near to the cross of Christ, then our hearts also draw near to each other. This is how families stay united.

If I make an idol of my family, I am actually destroying it. And instead of my sacrament of marriage being an oasis of grace, a unit of mission into the world for Jesus Christ and His Church, I am actually sending out a message of despair to the world. I am really saying: Settle for something finite, and pretend it actually is enough to fulfill your soul! And if your family is actually a crushing source of pain, well, you must simply really be a loser! (How's that for a great bumper sticker?!)

In this light, does it not seem that "My Family is Everything to Me" is a downright anti-Christian statement?

Thursday, January 06, 2011

2010: Prayer Evolution

At the turn of the year, it seems a natural thing to ask myself whether anything has changed for me in over the last 365 days. Actually, to be honest, it just seems like a natural time for me to write about that subject; I am very aware of changes that occur in my life because they have always seemed to flood in on me. Stopping to take stock of just what those changes are over a nice chunk of time like a calendar year seems very helpful to benchmark where I am as opposed to where I was.

I think the most significant change in my interior life has been with regard to prayer. I've always been a deeply interior person, but stewing around in my awareness, while it has value, is not exactly the same as the traditional Catholic practice of prayer. I guess what I mean to say is that there are many types of prayer, and my life has changed the most in regards to what sort of prayer I have practiced. Very early last year I took up the practice of the daily rosary. It wasn't exactly a New Year's resolution; it was more like a fitting time to embark on a quest for light and answers that I needed at that point. Saints and Popes for centuries have advocated praying the rosary daily, but I must admit that it was a devotion I had sparse attempts with before this year. In the past it felt clunky and awkward and frustrating to me. But when I started praying with a desire for light fueling me, I not only received light but developed a love for the rosary and a great deepening of meaning in meditating on the mysteries. In short, it started really working for me.

This prayer led me to a renewed mindset with regards to intercessory prayer. As a pre-Catholic pentecostal believer, I attended many intercessory prayer meetings, and found that, for this young believer, intercession was a lot about airing one's personal beefs and troubles to others while directing words to God. Sometimes it was venting anger at or hopelessness in the world, sometimes it was expressing delight, but it was always rather detailed and complex. And complicated. I gleaned that God required a lot of our words to get anything done. Now, I do hold that our prayer plays a definite role in the out-working of the Kingdom, and I believe it is good to be specific in petitioning God. But when friends attended a Mass with me where the intercessions took less than five minutes and all we said was "Lord, hear our prayer," my friend quipped to his wife that he would much rather have our pastor's wife intercede for him (complete with full emotionality, detail, and a good 15 minutes spent on one request)!

While I can understand that kind of intercession, it seems to me that if one has real power in prayer, hardly a word is necessary. That is, I do not have to invent a formula and then work myself up to a place of feeling something so that I have access to prayer power. I do need to tap into reality. Reality is God's love for me and for the world, my need or the need of my neighbor that I lift in prayer, and the love of all God's people "agreeing" with me (Mt. 18:19). And then my trust in God's will to accomplish the good, which He desires far more than I do. For these reasons I have found novena prayers and requests for the intercession of certain saints to have also found a prominent place in my prayer life. I see that intercession is a bit like housework: it is best done on a daily basis, with some general sort of system to it, based on the on-going needs closest to my heart and life. A daily offering has been part of my life for several years now, and this opens the door for grace to enter every moment of every day, making all of my activities prayer, or an offering lifted to God, for the salvation of souls.

Towards the end of the year I found myself drawn to return to praying the Divine Office. This is something I have puttered with on and off since the very first day I decided to become a Catholic. It too felt dry most of the time. But lately I sense the power in uniting myself to the Word of God in the fellowship of the Church in this way.

Writing about this reminds me that I am looking forward to reading John Michael Talbot's new book The Universal Monk: The Way of the New Monastics. I remember reading in one of his books that he wrote long ago that God had given him a vision that one day when his hair was white and flowing, a new thing would be emerging: the heart of monastic life lived by lay people in the world. The fire that destroyed their beautiful monastery in Arkansas a few years ago seems to have been a signal from God that the day of the new thing is dawning.

New things, a new year. We are always just beginning!

Monday, January 03, 2011

New Book by Anne, a Lay Apostle: Lessons In Love

I've just finished reading the latest book, Lessons in Love, written by Anne of the Direction for our Times apostolate. Anne is the public name used by the woman who receives locutions and a variety of mystical experiences from Our Lord. I always post on this blog the monthly messages she receives, and you can read all about the apostolate on this website. I've heard her speak a handful of times now and, while of course leaving all final judgment to the Church, I am convinced that what she receives and passes on is of divine origin.

But back to this book. I've read not only the messages she's received, but the books she's written, and this one I've found the most moving by far. That's not to say the others were pedestrian; it's to say that this one was breathtaking.

For some time now I have found the messages that Anne receives to echo what the Lord is doing in my own life right at the time I read them. But this entire book seems to echo a place God has been taking me over the last few years. It touches on matters of what holy relationships look like: intimacy with God, intimacy with other people, sins to avoid and virtues to pursue in step with growing in intimacy, and then a slew of issues related to marriage and sexuality. From these bare-bones words of description of the book's contents, it might not seem that one could expect more than some worn-out words of advice about the spiritual life and morality. No way. What I experienced in reading this book was Jesus Himself looking into my soul with His gaze of love, and my realizing that He knew everything about me, my life, and my experiences. He encouraged me to continue with Him, even closer. It's impossible to adequately put into words, really. But reading this book was an experience of Christ. It both affirmed and challenged me. At one point I simply broke into the hardest sobs of relief I have known in a long time as I knew His affirmation of my longing for Him. At another I was challenged to open my grasp and let Him rearrange things I have not been able to budge on my own. And throughout I saw how His merciful love and truth is extended to everyone on earth -- and how much He longs for His Church to imitate Him in this as well.

It seems to me that the reason why this apostolate exists at all was summed up in the message for January 1, 2011: "I want to assure you that I am present. I desire to assure you of this so that you can be confident about the plan I have chosen for your life." The plan Jesus has for us is that through us, He wants to make His love known to every person on the face of the earth, and to call them to make Him welcome as King of our hearts. 

If you are someone who wants more of God, I recommend that you read this book. You can find it at this link.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

What Would Christianity Be Without Christ's Suffering?

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

January 1, 2011
My friends, do you hear My voice? Can you feel My presence? I want to assure you that I am present. I desire to assure you of this so that you can be confident about the plan I have chosen for your life. I know that you feel temptations against the plan I have arranged for you. Perhaps not today, but on other days, or perhaps you experience this temptation every day. Perhaps you are suffering and you wonder why I allow this for you given that you feel you would be more productive without the crosses in your life. Consider for a moment what would have happened if I had rejected the cross and went on to preach. What would have remained after My life? Consider the absence of the Passion in the faith life that exists today. How can we preach the Gospel if we are unwilling to accept the crosses which inevitably accompany it? No, dearest friends. In order to accurately represent the Kingdom of God to others, we have to be willing to sacrifice, even to death in some cases. The glory of your work is seen in the souls of those whom you have touched directly or those who have been touched by others because you have agreed to My plan. My plan for you will bring the greatest benefit to those suffering loneliness and separation from joy. Such sadness! If you are serving Me, I thank you. If you are considering service to Me, I need you. If you are suffering great crosses because of your commitment to heaven, I rejoice in you. In all cases, I am with you. I urge you to believe this and live this truth. When you are finished with your time on earth you will gaze at My kingdom and view the benefits that you brought to it through your service. Life is not easy for any person and temptations come to all. Be assured that you can use My strength when you feel weak. You will not always feel conviction but you must live conviction. I will ignite fires of love through you if you do this for Me. Do not be afraid of your human struggle because it is through this struggle that others see the force of the One who works through you.