Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Year I'd Rather Forget... Maybe

This has been a year that, simply put, I never wish to repeat. In reality it has probably been one of the most important years of my life in recent memory. It has brought me to a very good place. But it has hurt. A lot. More than life has hurt in two decades.

And even though this isn't the perspective I've had going through this year, I suddenly feel rather sure that I will look back on 2012 as "the year I started towards Carmel."

I wrote about this almost a year ago, after I finished recording my CD. I had an inkling then. I get inklings of what God intends with me. In fact, He pretty much let me know ahead of time exactly what was going to transpire, the pain and all. Only thing was, having even God say "I want this and this, and that and the other is necessary to get there," and assenting to it with my will, is absolutely nothing like walking through the actual process of the this and this and that and the other. Oy vey. I think God wants to teach me to take seriously the inklings He sends my way.

And speaking of inklings, I've been thinking of late how I could tell the story of my walk with God in a way I haven't before: all of the inklings I've had about the Carmelites. You see, on December 16 I was officially accepted as an aspirant in the OCDS, the Secular Order of Discalced Carmelites. (The initials don't seem to go in the right order because the acronym is based on the Latin title.) That is my very first step towards becoming a full member of the Carmelite religious order.

The Carmelites, and the saints and places associated with them, have held an attraction for me since before I was a Catholic. In my single-digits, before going to church was a regular part of my life, I remember glomming onto one story from my Sunday School attendance: Elijah and the prophets of Baal. This involved Elijah summoning these pagan prophets to Mount Carmel (ding!) and challenging them to a sacrifice-off, so to speak. They were to set up an offering, and Elijah would, and whoever's god answered by fire would be declared the victor. It's a very entertaining story. Go read it in 1 Kings 18 if you haven't in a while.

But you see, the way I glommed on to this story reflected my quite sorry state at that point in my life. I basically took to threatening God, Whom I wasn't at all sure was paying the slightest bit of attention to me at all, that if He didn't show me He was answering me, that I would become a Satan-worshipper instead. I had the whole audacity thing going for me like Elijah, only I had a) no clue and b) no faith. But Elijah has always stayed with me as someone I feel very drawn to. He is considered the first founder of the Carmelites.

Ok, fast forward to when I was in college. I've written about this elsewhere too, but I'll just summarize the story. My Junior year I was taking Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy, which was very difficult. I had to write a paper which would comprise 50% of my grade, and I had no clue which direction to take for my topic, so I prayed. Walking the library stacks I heard distinctly this answer: Mysticism. "OK, Lord," I responded. "Great! Mysticism. But, what's that?"

As I started researching I stumbled for the very first time into the world of Catholicism, at least in an academic way. I read St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Hugh of St. Victor, and St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila (the latter two being the modern reformers/founders of the Carmelite order). I was Completely. Blown. Away. I vividly remember sitting in a certain seat in the library and dropping the book I was reading onto the table, my heart burning inside me, and praying, "Lord, if there are any people at all left on the face of this earth who know you and love you like what I reading here, those are the people I want to be with."

I was especially struck by reading of St. Teresa's notion of the seven mansions, or stages of spiritual growth through which the Christian life passes. As a young woman already obsessed with finding a husband and distressed that the search was going nowhere, I remember being especially disheartened when I read in the Catholic Encyclopedia that the final mansion, known as the "spiritual marriage" was experienced by very few people. I thought, Geez, I have a hard enough time finding a human husband, and now you're telling me that reaching this spiritual marriage is even less likely. It was depressing.

Some years later, when I was confronted with the fact of the Catholic Church by my friend Keith, this desire, and the name St. Teresa of Avila popped up as a tiny flicker of hope. I asked him if there was anyone who lived that kind of faith, and he assured me there were, and mentioned these people called the Carmelites, who operated a huge shrine called Holy Hill, near where we lived. He gave me a little book called "The Teresian Way of Prayer" which enthralled me to no end. In the months that followed, as I wrestled with the claims of the Catholic Church, I often went to Holy Hill to walk around and try to find peace.

After I decided to enter the Church, I read the book The Way of a Pilgrim, by an anonymous Russian Orthodox believer. I was struck by his desire to go to Mount Carmel in the Holy Land. I was struck so hard, and stirred so hard in my heart that I promised the Lord that if I ever got the chance to go to Mount Carmel, I would. I said that thinking it might be when I was 80 or something. Just a few days later I went to a John Michael Talbot concert, and he mentioned that he would be leading a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He mentioned that one place they would stop would be Mount Carmel. I interiorly looked at the Lord with a very raised eyebrow, and realized I should book that pilgrimage.

As it turned out, I went about two weeks after coming into the Church. The whole trip was wonderful, but I recall arriving in Carmel with a great sense of anticipation. Of what, I wasn't sure. It was a rushed visit, but the Lord deeply impressed this Scripture on me when I was there: "... the fullness of him who fills everything in every way." (Eph. 1:23). I didn't get it, but it was clear that Jesus was identifying Himself strongly with His body, the Church, and impressing this on me. I still can't say that I get it, but I remember it in the kind of way that I couldn't forget.

After that, the Carmelites always were floating around in my peripheral vision so to speak. My husband and I even attended one meeting of the seculars some 13 years ago, but at the time the commitment to prayer seemed like too much.

But a few years ago, a Facebook friend posted a quote from the book The Impact of God, about the life and writings of St. John of the Cross. I've written about that elsewhere, too. Again, whatever it was that was quoted hit me so hard that I bought the book, read it, and immediately re-read it with great excitement. It was as if St. John of the Cross was sitting me down and explaining my life to me. The sort of strange-to-me path that God had been leading me on at the time not only began to make great sense, but it was as if the Lord Himself became "visible" to me through it as plain as day. From that point on I began again in earnest to pursue the wisdom of the Carmelite saints.

And then there came this year. Then it got super personal. There was the "this and that" conversation I mentioned above, and in theory I was all-in. But when it came to what needed to happen, well, things got ugly inside me.

And glorious, at the same time. It is hard to convey since it is still all rather fresh. But an image that comes to mind is of gathering up long hair into a pony tail, making sure every last bit is tucked in, and then *snip* cutting it all off. Then undoing the pony tail, and cutting some more. Two emotional images come to mind here. One is St. Claire, presenting herself to St. Francis, founding the Franciscan Sisters. She consents to having her hair cut very short, and accepts the veil. This was a loving act of self-surrender, an embrace of love and the beginning of a new life. The other image is from a movie about concentration camps in WWII. This scene was seared into my memory: Huge groups of women were herded into a room where their eyeglasses were thrown in a pile and their hair was all cut off. All you could hear was the snipping of dozens of pairs of scissors. Chilling. Dehumanizing. Demonic.

The test of my faith has been to trust in the call and the loving purpose of God during a time of internal, spiritual stripping, and to learn the immense difference between a humility that comes from God and  humiliation that comes from people. Not every hard thing, not every painful thing, is an evil to be fought against. Sometimes one needs to turn full face into the sting and say yes, and smile. Even when it means having the things I leaned on that are not God broken away from me, including my abilities -- to sense God's direction, His presence, His favor -- and my joys. Yes. Yes. Yes.

Every time now I read texts for my Carmelite formation, I see over and over that precisely these things make up the path on which God leads souls close to Him. I realize God has given me a tremendously precious gift, all because He wants me to be His. He wants to give me the gift of Himself in a deeper way. How could I possible balk or say no? Hundreds of ways, that's how! God is so very patient with me, and has waited so very long for me to hear His call and He waits longer for my response.

I see now that everything is about Jesus and me. I don't mean that in a theologically distorted way. I mean that my actions, my choices, my everything is about following the Way to union with God, Who is Jesus. He gives me a path, and I will run in it. As He gives me the grace, I will run. I will not plod or saunter or dilly-dally, or hang back over-cautiously. I will run. The path is but a path, and even my guides, Holy Father St. John and Holy Mother St. Teresa, are but guides. My goal is the Blessed Trinity, which is also my starting gate, and my everything along the way. And I will run in the Church, the Body of Christ, the fullness of Him who fills everything in every way. That can't help but mean it's not isolationist, as "Jesus and me" can sound. Like Elijah, maybe I'll piss off some people along the way. I don't care where the path leads or what it entails or what it costs. If the Lord directs, I will run.

This year has been worth it, even if I am primarily declaring that in faith and not feeling it yet. I know it, more than feel it.

God is good.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Thoughts on Responding to Suffering

Sitting down to the keyboard to see if I can't sort through some thoughts.

I'm thinking about how I respond to the suffering of friends, particularly suffering that gets verbalized in conversation. I suppose my primary response is to listen. I do this because I tend to be a quieter person, and because I find consolation in someone listening to me. It seems the first right thing to do. However, even within that there might be a time where the listener intuits that, while the person could go on and on with the details of suffering, more talk might not be leading the speaker towards the light.

There is also the point of wanting to share something to help the person. For decades I have told God that I want to have the power to bring healing to people whose hearts are crushed with pain. Isn't that a normal reaction? You see someone in pain, and you wish for it to stop so that they will not suffer, because suffering is evil. Eliminate evil. Simple.

What isn't simple is the connection between desiring their peace and wanting to say or do something. I am faced with the fact that my best-intentioned words or actions might go far wide of the point of need. They might be rejected for a variety of valid reasons.

At this point, I realize that God calls me to share in His humility. I can't be so caught up in the rightness of my idea, the power of my own experience, my good intention that I miss honoring the person present to me and her pain. When Jesus healed someone, He focused on that someone. He didn't sit them down to a theological lecture about His divinity or about the pascal mystery. He said "Go in peace and be freed of your suffering," or "Go in peace, your faith has saved you," or "Go show yourselves to the priest." He saw and addressed their deepest need. He did not use the healing as a platform for meeting His own needs.

I also find myself, in conversation, how shall I say... being a little embarrassed for God. This is a call to share in His humility also. If I have no magic words to say, if I can't produce a bottle with the right fix-it stuff in it, and I am still faced with a person suffering, I have to say "It isn't in our power, but it is in God's. Ask Him, and He will come to you with what you need." Saying this to someone who has been praying the best they know how for years, and suffering only all the more does feel a bit like standing in front of an army tank that barrels down on you with only a daisy as your defense.

But that daisy, as I see it, is these truths: God is real, and God is good. There is much I don't know, and much I can't answer, but these things I know for sure. God is real, and God is good. The prayers I repeat a thousand times a day, if necessary, are "Jesus, I trust in You" and "Lord, have mercy."

I guess the other thing I have learned is that being brought to the end of yourself (which I don't believe is a one-time deal, since we are like onions) is a gift. A painful gift. A gift that feels like it should be fought against. A gift that can violate every fiber of religious feeling, every fiber of my estimation of myself as a good person, as a faithful person. Humility in suffering is, I think, powerful. Pride sucks any time. I think pride is essentially a response of the heart that says "There is not enough love to help me, so I won't be open." But pride can become a habit, too. A habitual way of seeing the world. And a habitual way of pushing God away, even when we think we aren't because we think we are as open to God as anyone can be. We need to constantly learn that God's love is always more than we think it is. It's like living at a precipice of trust and presumption, maybe...

Rambling thoughts....

The most exquisite moments of God breaking through my suffering have simply been when someone was there -- I knew I wasn't alone. But the power, the presence was definitely God's orchestration.

For me then, I guess the need is to be surrendered daily to God, and to act in love in the smallest things. My love, flawed as it is by being mine, originates from God, and as such is the connection with Him I can offer to the world. I can't "make" God do anything, heal, or be profoundly present. I can't bring about healing. God can, and most of the time He only needs an instrument. Better to focus on His love flowing through me than on my solutions to people's pain.

As my pastor always tells us, we can always pray. That's like turning from the suffering back to God, rendering the heart wide open, and asking for help. Lord, make my heart a busy highway for your graces and the needs of people to meet up.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Things Yet to Come

Advent has my heart about ready to explode. Truly, I have this spiritual throbbing sense that I imagine is comparable to what kids feel when they really hope for some wish to be fulfilled by a Christmas present on Christmas morning. Except that I know what my heart senses near and longs for is eternal, doesn't break or get boring. But I also have the feeling that the root joy is exactly the same.

What fills me with this throbbing sense of joy is the sense that events in my life converge with meaning. The biggest thing is always that I remember my conversion to the Catholic faith with such wonder. I hear the prayers of Mass and of Liturgy of the Hours these days, and I just know that these same prayers were offered for me, for my conversion, by people I didn't even know. They prayed and sacrificed for me so that I could experience a dramatic and total conversion on that Christmas Eve in 1991. God had led me to that point, but it was such a total surprise and shock, and so powerful. I'm sure it will only be in heaven that I will see the prayers that brought down those graces for me.

And now here I am, praying the same prayers, earnestly entreating God for graces of conversion for other people. Don't ever write off anyone when it comes to praying for their conversion. I had been anti-Catholic and had long wrestled with a kind of animosity towards Christmas that was born of a host of bad theology and sad memories. God instantly and completely changed all that.

I got this little note in a Christmas card from the Camaldolese Hermits today. It hits the nail on the head:

A good thought on Christmas comes down to us from Pope St. Leo the Great in the fifth century, via his successor Pope Benedict XVI. "That day has not passed away in such a way that the power of the work, which was then revealed, has passed away with it... All things therefore that the Son of God did and taught for the world's reconciliation, we not only know as a matter of past history, but appreciate in the power of their present effect."

In the liturgy, we do not just recall past events, we relive them. The spiritual excitement and gratification we feel are not imaginary. Rather, the saving power of the mystery becomes present to us today.

This is true of every experience of the liturgy, but for me it is particularly true of these days of Advent, and especially of the Christmas Mass. I experience not only a reliving of Calvary, but a reliving of that particular moment when Jesus first revealed Himself to me as present and real in the Mass, which prompted my conversion. Spiritually I go back to it, and it blows me away all over again.

It makes me stand in awe at where God has led me. More than that, it makes me stand in awe, realizing that it really has been God that has led me, even when I thought I was just floundering around, alone. It fills me with courage and faith. And I am aware that this is not from me; it is a gift from God. I am surrounded, enveloped, in gifts from God. I am freed, knowing that I'm not alone, that my spiritual excitement is not imaginary. God is real -- my life is proof! It makes me want to tell everyone everything that has ever happened to me.

Like a little child, my eyes keep gazing under the "spiritual Christmas tree" for a special gift I am asking for from the Lord. I've been asking basically the same thing for several Christmases now. This year, my request has special meaning, and a heightened sense of anticipation. Little children, even loaded down with gifts and lavishly provided for, can still have that special place in their heart for that one thing. So do I. Just as I'm writing this I'm wondering to myself how I might respond if Christmas comes and goes without my seeing there what I hope to see. I do see that each year my desire and request has upgraded. But it hasn't gone away. Maybe that's how it has been answered each year so far. What I do know is that my heavenly Father couldn't possibly be unmoved by my desire. And He certainly can move heaven and earth to give me what I desire, if indeed my desire has finally gotten grand enough for Him. Either way you slice it, I am excited. Jesus has told mystics and saints in private revelation all over the place that heaven participates in giving gifts at Christmastime, too. "He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also, along with Him, graciously give us all things?" (Rom. 8:32) God certainly is not going to stop being generous with me any time soon. If only my heart can delight with Him in real time as He gives... and see what He is giving. Oooh, I'm happy already!

December 20, 2012
P.S. You know, Lord, I've been thinking about this. I do get excited about what I want. But I've learned something about your gifts. Sometimes their beauty plays to my weakness, and my distractable heart goes off after them. Lord, I'd rather not have your gifts if it could mean my heart moving off from you. What I really want is you, Lord. So, attach my wandery heart to you by whatever means works best. "Being with you, I desire nothing on earth..." If you give me a gift, please draw me up on your lap and hold me close there, first. I don't want to get scared of your gifts, but I'm gonna need a lot of help...

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Coming to Peace with my Brain

So, here's something else I've learned lately. I'm learning about how to get along with my brain.

It is rather rare and unusual for me to get into conflicts with other people, but inside myself, I am very hard to get along with. For me, I mean. They say that self-knowledge is absolutely necessary for making progress in the spiritual path, and I think I'm seeing the truth of this more and more.

I am a cerebral person. I think a lot. If I'm stressed, I can get just a tad obsessive. I'm not necessarily emotionally sensitive; sometimes I'm a bit of a dolt that way. But I'm sensitive to everything I hear, and, as one woman once put it, I have extremely sensitive spiritual antennae.

What this has tended to amount to is that I have a lot of data coming in to me that I don't know how to process. Usually this confusing data comes from other people. I can use my own cerebralness to try to figure it out, but eventually it overwhelms me and causes me so much suffering that I am forced out of myself into the world of someone else in order to get understanding, to try to find peace. And for a once-self-professed misanthrope, that's significant.

I realize the importance of the people with whom I surround myself. I find that when I spend a significant chunk of time with someone, or when I've had a conversation with someone, the next day that experience or those words will replay in my head. If that person or that conversation draws me towards the Lord and His movement in my life, I am edified. If not, I can get drawn instead to anxious thoughts or get easily agitated. I am finding that sometimes movies or idle chit-chat that I needn't have been part of can really act like brain-pollution, like a bad smell I need to then air out of my thinking.

Something that has been a profound help to me is praying the Liturgy of the Hours. Some years ago the Lord started impressing on me, in a way that both respected and required the kicking into gear of my free will, my dire need to meditate more on Scripture. I thought maybe just trying to dwell on the Mass readings or theological thoughts in general would be enough. But it wasn't. Nor was it adequate to start randomly reading the Bible, as I started to do more of. As a Protestant, I thought of meditating on Scripture as reading through it, and stopping when something struck me. But choosing what to read was either an exercise in picking what I wanted to hear or simple dogged determination. Suddenly it started to dawn on me that I should meditate on Scripture the way the Church instructs us to: liturgically. I had prayed the Hours on and off since the first day I decided to become a Catholic. But I've been doing so regularly for the last few years, and lately I have endeavored to pray all seven hours. (Which, for the record, does not mean I pray for 420 minutes a day. It is just seven sessions of prayer sprinkled throughout the day.) This has been spectacular in terms of being a reset button for my thinking. It is not without reason that Scripture itself teaches us to actually pray Scripture out loud. To sing it. Chant it. Mutter it. To rub it into your thoughts like oil into dry skin.

Dipping in to Scripture often throughout the day, not to exercise my intellectualization, but to find my life reflected there, is hugely valuable. God becomes the One I think about all day long. My idle brain noise is His praise instead of my anxieties. I get used to realizing that He always has something to say to me, and that my need for Him is constant, like my need for air and love. It gets my hyper-sensitivity working for me instead of against me. I am focused on truth, on reality. And I refocus throughout the day.

And slowly, I begin to not fret as much about the perplexities of who I am. The more I know who He is, the more I understand and can be at peace with who I am. Because I know I am not the main attraction. Knowing the One who holds everything, who creates everything, who is all powerful and all loving, and has been for all of history, lets me settle in to my life of service with peace. It lets me learn spiritual childhood. I don't have to have it all figured out, because I am beholding right in front of me One who is mighty and can handle it all. Praise God -- it's all right to not understand! It's peaceful to realize I am not in charge of the universe. 

I am freed to be available for service to the One who is in charge, and who knows all.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Some Profound Morning Thoughts about Hair

Yesterday I was on the phone with someone whom I apparently have met but can't quite picture. She told me she knew our neighbors, and added "You're the woman with that beautiful red hair!"

Other than the irony of having just that morning re-hennaed my hair so that it does almost look red again, I was really struck by her exuberance about this hair of mine.

See, there was an earlier time in my life, a long time actually, when I was also as regularly identified with/by my hair as I tend to be now, except in those days I was tormented and taunted about it. Even certain progenitors of mine drilled into my thinking that my hair was a "big, ugly bush" and often bought me gifts like "bad hair day" plaques or dolls with giant straw hair because they reminded of me. Every boy in high school who ever commented about what I looked like teased me about my hair. One older boy nicknamed me "Fuzzy," and to another I was "Brillo Head." Girls teased that they could look like me if they would just rat up their hair.

Those days are long gone, thanks be to God, and I admit that not until I was 40 did I really learn how to take care of my naturally curly hair in such a way that I could actually get it to look the way I wanted. I have never been particularly fashion conscious nor am I a visually-oriented person, so I have never obsessed over my looks. But regardless, I realize now how deeply these words wounded my soul.

I really like my hair, and to be honest I always have. I just haven't known how to get along with it. It strikes me to the heart every time someone comments to me about it, because I realize no one does so in a mocking way any longer. It is to me like a little message of the victory of the anawim every time I get a hair compliment.

Awhile ago, though, there happened in my life a moment that captures why I'm bothering to write about this. This was a little chit-chat conversation with my confessor, after having completed the sacramental part of our exchange. Even though he knew nothing of my hair history, I knew that between the lines he was communicating something deeper than the chit chat, though:

He:  How do you get your hair to look so pretty like that? Is that all natural?
Me:  Yes. It grows like that.
He:  Wow. Well isn't that a gift?

See, the fact of the matter is that, yes, my hair does look the way it does when I allow it to grow and help it to do what it wants to do by nature, which is to curl. When I work against my hair by brushing it, combing it, washing it with shampoo often (instead of conditioner), and not feeding it what it needs to stay in its shape -- in other words, when I treat my hair the way every "normal," straight-haired person does -- it suffers and loses its beauty.

Is this not the way our souls are? How often do we not take as our own identity the lies of the devil, which tell us we are worthless, ugly, useless, irredeemable? How often are we not made to feel guilty because we are unique? How often do we forget that each person is a unique miracle of God, whom God alone has the right to instruct as to our dignity, our beauty, and the right way for us to walk? God has no assembly line where He makes standard-issue souls. We must all be formed by the unique way of the cross that He designs for each of us. We can't copy what someone else is doing or hang our self-worth on their opinion or approval and expect to find our glory. Only God reveals that glory to and in us. We must look to Him and follow Him.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Advent, and my New Patron Saint

Advent has long held a deep attraction for me. Can't even say when it began, or why, other than the fact that God has been calling me, I guess. And every year I feel like I am understanding it for the first time. It is no different now. It is difficult to put this into words, but this year I am getting the sense of how Advent teaches us that God comes through, He is faithful, He makes good on His promises. (Such dull, lifeless words compared with what is in my heart...) It is the beginning of the liturgical year, and we begin with this meditation on how God fulfilled the thousands of years of yearning of His people with the Messiah. And from there we get blown away by how God decided to come through, the Incarnation. But that's another story...

Last Saturday I went to the Random Saint Generator for my long-awaited new patron saint of the year. You basically click twice and yet get a random saint's name. Oh, but I had been praying about this "random" saint, asking God to match me up well, and to prepare my heart well. I take this pretty seriously. Up popped the name: Bl. Alexandrina Maria da Costa. I confess, my first reaction was along the lines of "Gee, I didn't even get a full-fledged saint, just a blessed..." I had never heard of this woman.

I proceeded to read her short biography:
On Holy Saturday of 1918, Alexandrina Maria da Costa, a fourteen-year-old native of Balasar, Portugal, was sewing when three men broke into her home, threatening to violate her chastity. Resolute to preserve her purity, she fled by jumping out a window. The thirteen-foot plunge to the ground crippled her for life. At the age of twenty-one, she became totally paralyzed and permanently bedridden. Alexandrina accepted this affliction as God’s will for her and an opportunity to offer herself totally as a “victim soul” for the conversion of sinners. For a period of three and a half years, she received the mystical gift of experiencing each Friday the pains of Christ on the cross. For thirteen years, she was imbued with the mystical phenomenon of being nourished solely by the Eucharist. Out of zeal to convert sinners, Alexandrina requested for her tombstone these words: “Sinners, how much I want to tell you…Do not risk losing Jesus for all eternity, for he is so good. Enough with sin. Love Jesus, love him!” On October 13, 1955, before breathing her last, Alexandrina declared, “I am happy, because I am going to heaven.”
I read further and found this:  

She had a special calling to a life of suffering. It all began with her tragic escape while defending her chastity. Her via crucis began then and it involved extreme detachment and total sacrifice. The Lord said to her: “Rarely will you feel comfort. Very rarely, until the end of your life; your heart will live in pain [...] but you will have a smile on your lips.” And she willingly accepted this plan, both the pain and the witnessing of joy. One of her moving pleas was: “Put a smile on my lips, dear Lord, a deceiving smile!” In fact, visitors were struck by her joy and ignorant of how much she suffered. Only a few were able to fathom the suffering she hid behind her smile.
Now, I certainly know that I am not called to become my patron saint, but I have to say that after I read a bit about her I was shaking for an hour or so. I can't fully explain why, and I won't even partially venture it. All I know is that my response was a wholehearted, "Lord, I don't have to understand. But I am here, and You may have or do whatever You wish." This was not a prayer of sweet, tender affection, this was a prayer of being utterly terrified at the awesome presence and reality of God. It's all so hard to explain. That's why I won't try.

I might sound to a random reader like I was superstitiously freaking out over this. But, my dear random reader, I'm not really writing for you. I'm writing for me, so that I can remember the steps the Lord has drawn me through. I know that along with this moment that struck me like this was a completely new sense of hope, of promise, of Advent fulfillment of God's desires in and for me. But, as always, it is beyond my comprehension.

I was telling an acquaintance of mine about this episode with my patron saint the other day, and the quote about her life of suffering, and found myself belly-laughing with joy over it. And at the same time I realized that the struggle this acquaintance was relating to me from her own life was something that God has spent considerable time working with me on as well. Long and short of it: I realize God has given me something that other people need. It is His stuff. I think this means He will work out a way to move what He gave me, through me, to other people. He's got a plan. He's working His plan. And I don't have to understand in order to participate in it. I'll know in time those things that I need to know.

Man, sometimes it is hard to write meaningfully about ineffable things. But if I've learned anything, it is that some day it will all make more sense than it does now.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

And Then it All Makes Sense

It is early afternoon, and I've been awake for nearly 12 hours now. I probably should be napping. However, I figure I might use this opportunity to write an amusing blog post. What else could it be on roughly four hours' sleep?

This is probably the best state of mind for me to write about the current subject matter, however. I'm not even sure why I write things sometimes, except for the fact that writing is part of who I am. To be myself, I write. I've never particularly expected anyone to read what I write, but people do. Fascinating. And beside the point.

(Rambling is part of little sleep. Mostly.)

If you look back through recent posts, I've written about a spiritual trial, without getting too specific about it. I dare not say that it is finished, because it hasn't been mine to start or to finish, only to experience. So I won't say it is finished. But I will say that all of a sudden, many things make sense. Many spiritual things make sense.

I want to list some things that make sense.

The rootedness of the new covenant in the old covenant makes sense. This teaches me that when God sets out to do things, He starts out early, setting things up that don't look like they make a lot of sense or have a lot of meaning to them. When these things transpire in people's lives, they look like stuff made up of random suffering, injustice, cravings, sin, and choices on God's part that look like whimsy. But God does everything for His purposes, and He can redeem absolutely anything that befalls anyone. God invested a lot of time with the patriarchs of the old covenant, and He did it for our sakes -- for the sake of everyone who has lived since then. Christians impoverish themselves if they are not fluent in the Old Testament.

Poverty makes sense to me. I've written about this on this blog a few times. It has always sat awkwardly with me since my earliest contacts with the Catholic Church, whenever a homily or instruction has talked about poverty being all about someone else, and God's concern for those in poverty to be all about how we need to treat somebody else. No. We, God's people, are called to poverty. Spiritual poverty, and material poverty or detachment born of that spiritual poverty.

Mercy makes sense. Pride is the poison that keeps us from the heart of God. Mercy and the works of mercy is what breaks pride, both when we receive mercy and when we give mercy. Mercy comes to and from a heart that knows poverty.

This is a daring statement, but God's love makes sense. Jesus is God's mercy. The only thing we should think when looking upon any image of the Savior is how deeply God loves us. How "expensive" in terms of personal suffering Jesus' love for us is. That He paid the price for us isn't just some religious gobbedlygook talk. He lived a human life and He paid with human suffering in order for us to experience love. And not just any love, but a love that is infinite, and capable of literally anything. An all-powerful love.

I am God's child. And this makes sense. Children cannot take care of themselves, entirely. Small children cannot do it at all. They have needs which are far beyond their own capacity to fulfill. God wants me to reckon myself a very small child. In many ways, I have never been a very small child. In many ways, it takes great adult strength to reckon oneself a very small child, because God does not wish us to turn our brains off. Adults know the dangers of human frailty (our own and that of others) and the power of sin and temptation and what happens when a soul relinquishes itself to evil. Or at least adults can know these things. Chronological maturity and spiritual maturity sometimes have precious little association one with the other. But with my brain all the way on, God wishes me to simply turn to Him and say "You are Almighty. I am not. I will trust what you say, walk in your way, but You must be the one who comes through in this situation. But I'm not going to sit here gritting my teeth, waiting for you. I'm going to follow your directives, smile at you and hug you with my heart, because I know how much you love me. Anything you do in my life is going to show me that. Cuz I read the last paragraph."

I've learned that when I come to God I should say "Here I am, Lord. Anything You want, I want it too." So often my approach has been more like "Lord, I want to understand. What does this mean?" He knows my bent, He knows my needs, and understanding is not bad. What gets bad is anything that becomes a precondition for self-donation. "I'd be able to give you anything, Lord, if I just understood what was happening." Nope. That's not trust. That's not loving abandon. That's calculation.

I've learned that when God puts something in my heart to do, I should do it. It is God before whom I live. He is the one who matters. My mistakes in discerning the what and the how -- they can not only be redeemed, but they allow me a chance to be refined and to do better the next time around. And there will be a next time around. What is the worst thing that could happen? I could feel foolish. God's love is big enough to cover it. And I don't need all that pride baggage.

This doesn't mean that my life won't ever feel like it is being shredded alive. But that is a grace and a blessing, too. God is all-loving, and He is sovereign. No part of my suffering escapes His notice. This present moment is such a small piece of the whole equation.

For we who live are constantly being given up to death for the sake of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. Since, then, we have the same spirit of faith, according to what is written, “I believed, therefore I spoke,” we too believe and therefore speak, knowing that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and place us with you in his presence. Everything indeed is for you, so that the grace bestowed in abundance on more and more people may cause the thanksgiving to overflow for the glory of God. Therefore, we are not discouraged; rather, although our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to what is seen but to what is unseen; for what is seen is transitory, but what is unseen is eternal. -- 2 Corinthians 4:11-18
I've learned that God keeps His promises not to make His people feel smug and self-righteous, but because He is who He is. He is worthy of our worship. He is worthy of our lives. When we worship Him, we are seeing Him, and in the perspective of other people we are pointing to what we see: to heaven, to glory, to eternity. We are living signs. We are the living proof that He is faithful, that hope is reasonable, that love is reasonable, that peace is reasonable. Because we point to the fact that God is. When God fulfills His promises in our lives, it is about Him, and only then it is about us, because we are about Him. When our hearts are all His, He gives us everything we want and everything we ask for, because it is His nature to give Himself. Our worship is all about our saying, "I was in terrible need! I could do nothing for myself! But I cried to the Lord, and He rescued me. He saved my soul. I am running to meet Him. I will never stop." It is the todah sacrifice. It is the Mass. It is knowing that we exist so that we can give ourselves away, to Him, and to everyone in His name and at His bidding.

So, maybe this post hasn't been exactly amusing, but I could sense that only in a state of weakness could I bring out what God has given me. God has called me to fast, and because extended food fasts are tricky on my health, and because I had prior good reason to, I decided to do a particular sleep-fast, getting up earlier than usual, knowing that occasionally (though not of late, at least, not until today!) I am susceptible to insomnia. There is something to the voluntary weakness of fasting that is actually rather delicious. To hear God say "Give yourself to me," and to be able to respond with my very body. It is amazing. It is a grace. And I thank Him and give Him praise.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Patron Saint of the Year

It is nearly the first day of Advent, and though it is hardly a virtue I've been pretty much chomping at the bit in anticipation of its arrival. For several years now I've had the custom to choose, or have selected for me rather, a patron saint of the year beginning with the first Sunday of Advent. For the last little while I've used this site. Some people find the practice akin to superstition, or at least to the practice of "finding a word from God" by randomly opening the Bible to a verse. But truly I have found great and profound meaning, and specific help from God in doing this.

In fact, so much was this the case that I don't think I ever mentioned to my husband or to anyone else who my patron saint of this last year has been, until last week. I was a bit taken aback when last Advent I "was chosen by" St. Helen. She is the patroness of divorced people and those with troubled marriages. I also right now have two other patrons that I chose based on particular situations and needs, one that I've kept on board for over a year, and one for the last several months. Both of them were also decisive messages to me, and I'm sure their prayer helped me profoundly in all the weirdness of this last year.

So, I'm over-eager for Advent because I foolishly surmise that I've learned my lessons of this year well enough to leave those tutors behind, and I want to start in with someone else. I'm going to stretch my patience and wait until Saturday. I don't suppose there are any "and they lived happily ever after and never had to do anything difficult again" saints. Saints are able to teach us something because they all point us to Jesus, His cross, and His glory.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012


I guess I'm in a silent phase right now. It's weird -- I know that good and deep things are happening to me, but every once in a while something brushes across my path that threatens to trigger a swift and sharp reaction, like a stab of pain. Each brush gets less severe, but the swiftness of my reaction always startles me.

At the same time, I know more now than ever that I am on not only the right path interiorly, but the one that I most desire. I guess what I mean is that sometimes I am aware of certain desires of my carnal nature, things that really appeal to me on one level. Mostly they have to do with me being the center of the universe. But then I am aware of certain desires of my spirit. These things appeal to me on a very different level, and they appeal to me not as something I want to chase after, something that I jealously long for, but something that I have and which I desire for to keep growing. These things make my carnal desires seem totally paltry, empty, useless, stupid. It's not like I even want to have these ego-centered desires. But I also have no magic wand to wave to make them go away. The trick is, I want them to go away, but I really hate the process by which they go away. I guess it is like having a severe toothache but being terrified of the dentist.

At Mass this morning, it occurred to me. (An aside: there's this priest whose preaching I've heard a lot of over the last several months. It baffles me how his homilies vacillate between being, in my opinion, some of the most banal and point-missing that I've ever heard, and being not just inspiring, but downright prophetic, like the Lord Himself answering my secret prayers out in the open.) Anyway, this priest was talking about trusting in God and not being afraid of death. And I realize that this is what the Lord has been leading me through these last many months: a death. Sometimes, I doubted that the Lord was really leading me at all. Oddly enough, in these times that God has been so strangely but darkly active in my heart, I've gone through three distinct bouts of temptation to atheism. Because the only two things I can logically conclude is that either God is leading me, or there is no God. What I concluded, and told my confessor, is simply that I know God is leading me, but I just don't like how it's going. It's back to that toothache thing. More than anything, even more than my desire for comfort, I want God's way. It's just that when I get to the part where my comfort gets shredded (always in ways I don't expect or could even imagine), I start to yell. Oh, I know it's the only way. I know if I were orchestrating my own happiness I'd be miserable. I know I can and must trust the Lord to have far superior ways to my own. Dang it, can't I die and stay comfortable at the same time?!?

I also remembered this blog post that I wrote almost exactly three years ago. I realized this morning how every single word in it represented a grace God was giving me. There are words in it that only I understand, and I know that at the time I was sort of haphazardly flippant with whether I really believed that God was leading me or not. I think one thing I have learned since then is to treat the graces that come to me as precious. Yet, even when I don't, God is so generous. He does not go off in a huff when He, King of the Universe, is not honored to His liking. In other words, He does not have hangups about getting His ego-needs met through us. In other words, He is not me. (Thank you, Lord.)

Then I remembered one line that I wrote in a post this July. It was a rambly post, not unlike this one, but I finally got to the point of saying that the scary thing to me about love is that I always hear it shouting "I will die one day." Not love, me. I think I have been afraid of love and loving, to the extent that I have, because deep down I know that everything on this earth has an end. We know change here. We know beginnings, and ends. It is true that death brings a very pleasant and blessed change, but to be honest all we see beforehand is the part where stuff ends.

One of my favorite movies is Shadowlands. I love the part where Joy tells C.S. Lewis that the happiness they experience together while she is alive is part of the sorrow he will experience when she dies. The whole vibrancy, the whole power of love is knowing that there is death, there is the surrender. Without a deep living of that surrender, an embrace of it, a welcoming of the death, there is also no real freedom to love. There is no passion in one's life without acceptance of the suffering of surrender. Sometimes people are happy enough to drag along, flat lining, numb to pain and numb to love. I decided long ago to refuse that kind of "life." Nothing, nothing makes me sadder than to see someone choose numbness over love and pain. Sometimes I feel like my mission in life is to be a witness not only to my love but to my pain.

Which, I guess, is why I ramble on about my struggles. This is my practice in embracing what I have to embrace. I don't want to be uncomfortable. But I'd rather be uncomfortable than go to hell, frankly. And there comes a point where Jesus asks for a conscious choice: Do you want to follow Me, or do you want to turn back? Do you want the cross, or your paltry, empty, useless, stupid way?

Jesus gives me so many graces, only I suppose it takes me a good long time to recognize them. It also takes me a good long time to not wince and yell "Damn it, no!" when death brushes past me once again. This is why it takes courage to draw close to God, as St. Teresa of Avila teaches us. It takes courage to face those moments of death that only you yourself know about. They are practice for bigger things.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

A Different Twist on "The Other Nine"

Something struck me the other day when the Gospel reading at Mass was the healing of the ten lepers. I know this gospel is coming up again (in this country at least) when we celebrate Thanksgiving on Thursday.

The ten are healed, one comes back and gives thanks to Jesus for his healing. And Jesus says "Where are the other nine?"

I think in every homily I've heard, the point has been that there were nine ingrates and one who had the decency to thank Jesus. And Jesus' comment to the thankful man seems a little huffy that nine are so impolite.

Maybe I just really like being a contrarian. Maybe I cannot stand to hear the same homily over and over again. Maybe there is something to the thoughts that went through my head when I heard it this time. But how is struck me is that this one man left the company of the others, and Jesus is causing that one to think: are you just going to leave them? Sure, you're grateful. But you've lived your lives together, ostracized together, suffering together. Are you just going to check out and leave them behind, now? Where are they? You didn't think to ask them to come with you? They are obviously not here giving thanks, but you are. Now that you have been with me, what are you going to do about it? Are you going to go off, glad to leave your past behind, including your past associates? Or are you going to go back to them and tell them about our little chat here -- about why you came, and what about what I reminded you of?

You come to me to give thanks, and that's great. But don't forget about them. Tell them I asked about them. Maybe they need you now more than ever.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Dear Trial: Take me Somewhere

I haven't been able to get myself to write much, of late. It's not that I haven't had thoughts along the line of which I would normally blog. It just hasn't happened.

So for the moment, I just want to gather up the major themes upon which I've been ruminating, and post a little sketch, which I may or may not enlarge at some other point.

First, everywhere I look in Scripture, the theme of God's covenant people has been standing out as if in giant bold print. Especially this theme of the anawim as I've mentioned in recent posts. God's people are in distress, they call out to Him in their helplessness, and God saves them, though not without their trial leaving a definite mark. How this is striking me is that this process stands in contrast to the ubiquitous human desire to "do something" about one's struggles. Don't get me wrong, I'm no fan of passively staring at one's problems and simply wishing they would go away. But the desire to "do something" about the sort of distress that cuts into our covenant relationship with God betrays our lack of understanding of the brokenness of our nature, and what it really takes to fix it. It is more than we have within our capacity to "do." It must be a movement of God's grace, and therefore waiting on God's initiative is absolutely necessary. The wait is the birthplace of humility, a crucible of purification, and a test and testimony of our faith in God, our hope in God, and our love for God.

Second, I have been asking the Lord frequently, as much like Mary and as little like Zachariah as I am able, why exactly He allows me to go through these cycles of forming attachments to people, only for Him to ask for them back again. (I mean of course that Mary and Zachariah both asked the angel "How can this be?" only the former asked with faith while the latter asked in doubt.) My daughter happened to read to me from her Fr. Lovasik saint book tonight the entry on St. John of the Cross, where he was quoted as saying, "Live in the world as if only God and your soul were in it; then your heart will never be made captive by any earthly thing." Now, that struck me as a balm tonight. Just a few short years ago, I was influenced by a spirituality that was quite different from this that emphasized the encounter with Christ in the Church (i.e. other people) as the only authentic way of encountering Christ. I don't think these two thoughts contradict each other in the least, but they certainly lead me in two different directions. That was then, this is now. St. John of the Cross was a Carmelite, and so he knew what it meant to belong to a specific community of believers, and how essential this was (and what terrible, awful suffering it was, too!). One cannot authentically encounter Christ all by oneself, shut up with one's Bible. And yet, within the Church, some are called to a deeper interior solitude. I keep thinking of this particular passage from St. Claude de la Colombiere that spoke to me so profoundly on Holy Saturday of 2011, when the Lord called me to place this friend of mine in His hand. I should post the text, I guess. It was such a strong call that I have taken the text as something of a promise from God. The gist of it was St. Claude's prayer that in handing over his friendships, Christ would take the place in his heart that these friends had had, and that likewise in the friends' hearts, Christ would take the place that St. Claude had in theirs. He speaks of it as a most painful sacrifice. I did this immediately when the Lord called me to, though I saw no fruit of this prayer for over a year. Now the fruit is clear to me. And the Lord is beginning to fulfill this word on my end. It is becoming my greatest prayer that he would fulfill it on the other end where my friend is concerned as well.

Then, there was that election. I wasn't terribly surprised Obama won re-election. I certainly was not happy with it, but neither was I dejected. Nor did I find it an occasion for panic. What I did find in my heart was a sure sense that I have been through a trial in the last several months that is preparing me for something else. Something that is moving me to a different spiritual place. Something that is necessary for where we stand in history. I don't know how to say it, but the sense is clear.

All I long for, really, is to do and to become what God wants of me. It is humbles me to admit it, but lately I realize that this friendship that I coveted so strongly can and could never really give me the sort of happiness I long for, even if it were miraculously restored today. Only God can fill my heart. I also know through and through that what made me so adamant about clinging to this friendship in the past was that I did experience amazing graces -- God Himself -- through it. I think of the Psalm verse that says "This is what causes my sorrow: that the ways of the Most High have changed." I was like Peter, wanting to build a booth on Mount Tabor, to stay right there with that glory forever. But what God wanted me to see, which I could describe months ago, but only experientially know now, is the immense gulf between Him, His grace and the instrument He chose to deliver that grace. It's that old God and goodies of God thing. Our relationship is with Him as a person, not with ways He chooses or particular paths down which He leads us for a time. I see that He will never (if we are determined to follow Him always) let us get stuck on His blessings so that we lose Him. Oh, of course it is possible to stop being determined to follow Him and take a deadly detour. I see now how deeply tempting it is. But the heart is never satisfied (for long) with less than God. If we want to stay satisfied, we have to keep moving, with Him. I know that He never, ever prunes us back without purpose. We can never give to Him without Him returning to us in greater measure. Oh, we can do lots of futile "something" to make ourselves feel productive and fluff our wounded pride. We don't get a return on futility and pride. But I think we always get a return when we are focused on living in the covenant, in faith, obedience, trust, and humility.

It's just that those things are so foreign to our way of life, that it seems absurd and even immoral sometimes to embrace them.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Meekness and Anger

Recently I finished Fr. Hinnebusch's book on the Beatitudes that I mentioned a few posts back. It seems a rare thing that I read a book by a contemporary author that really deeply teaches me something like this book did. It had a lot to say to me, but the thing that I take away from it right now is this matter of meekness, as in "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth."

He writes about meekness as a virtue which regulates anger. But he makes a very important distinction that I need to sink my teeth into. Meekness is not a matter of simply being placid in the face of any kind of treatment, like some kind of soulless machine or Stepford Wife. It is the strength to be patient in the face of injustice without becoming vengeful, bitter, or resentful. It is the capacity to be in control of oneself in all emotional regards. It is also the capacity to express anger and zeal when it is appropriate, but in the way Jesus did.

I have long practiced a sort of unrighteous placidity. In more recent years I have "learned" to not-quite-randomly uncork anger as well, while I have moved away from both occasions of being treated in overtly bad ways and also from the unrighteous placidity to which I referred. For example, I could easily call to mind some examples where I have been treated with significant wrong (like the man in a grocery store in Japan who just reached up --he was short -- and grabbed my breast!) and the most I responded with was an eye roll. I guess the shock was too much to process for me, and then I just, you know, didn't bother to get angry about it. That's what I mean by unrighteous placidity. But there have been lots of more subtle occasions where I just overlook things, mostly because getting upset would seem too costly to my "peace."

Sometimes "peace" has to be sacrificed for truth and dignity, though. But that doesn't mean a righteous response is violently angry, or bitter, or all the rest. It seems a righteous response is like a lion's roar: timed naturally, to the point, and communicating that there is holiness to which we all are accountable. Failing to point to that holiness to which we are all accountable is to sin by not getting angry. So it seems to me.

It seems this requires virtue ready-present in the soul when the situation arises so that the response can rise without calculation. That is what I am finding the most challenging. I tend to rely on cerebralizing everything, but sometimes gut reactions are most fitting. The freedom to let holy gut reactions out, and to hold back not-so-holy gut reactions -- that's the matter.

Lord, have mercy, and help me learn.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Holy Darkness

This afternoon at the Mass for the Carmelite community's profession, we sang this as the communion hymn. In fact, it was these precise verses.

Talk about profoundly capturing my soul in words. I didn't sing much, but sat with tears streaming down my face.

I know that God is giving me a gift, and slowly I am able to bow my head to begin receiving. It is a gift of knowing that God is the giver of all that is good. When He gives, something is given. When He does not give, He does not give. There is no manipulating God with actions or desires or other attempts to posture just so because one thinks that will win something from God. There is no winning from God. There is need -- aching, dire need -- and there is receiving. And in between, there is need of trust and faith. And in the aching chasm of dire need, room opens up for virtue, like meekness, humility, and all manor of holy desire.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Singing the Praises of God's Faithfulness

I am still contemplating the anawim theme I wrote about in the last post in the light of my current life circumstances.

I cannot pretend that this thing I've been going through has not been the hardest thing I've faced since I lived in Japan. Scripture commands and models again and again calling to mind the Lord's faithfulness in history -- both the history of the chosen people and in one's own personal history. So I have been meditating on what happened the last time I went through a spiritual trial as trying as this one. The faithfulness of the Lord does not change. That is worth meditating on.

My time in Japan was the lowest point in my Christian journey in many ways. I had been a Catholic only 18 months before I left. I had very little in terms of community roots and connection -- basically just my spiritual director whom I missed horribly. It was a very poorly discerned decision to go in the first place, and my lack of preparedness left me vulnerable. Because of my intense loneliness I ended up in a relationship that was bad news in many ways. It was the only time in the last 20 years that I stopped, for a time, attending daily Mass. My health deteriorated, and I operated almost entirely in survival mode. I was peeled to the core, spiritually, and most everything I'd ever relied on in that department felt like an empty shell. I learned what it felt like to be powerless, though I raged against it. But out of all of that, I got pointed in a new direction, and the Lord sent me many assurances. I had been so trapped inside myself, and when I left Japan I knew that He had broken me out of that so that I knew I needed other people, and they needed me. That was a major step for me. I actually thought in terms of living in society. But it took me two and half years.

And after a rough first six weeks back during which time I worked on basic health needs (my body was so nutritionally exhausted that I routinely slept at least 12 hours a day), I arrived in Steubenville. During a visit during those six weeks I met a woman who had been divorced from a Japanese man, and within five minutes of meeting me, she invited me to cancel my hotel reservation and stay at her home. Through her I met the woman who became my first roommate in a house with very inexpensive rent, so that when I arrived in May I had a place to move into. I prayed that God would help me meet the people he wanted me to meet. Within my first two weeks in town, I met my future husband and the man who became my boss, Dr. Scott Hahn. I had grown men in the grad theology program practically crying at my feet when they heard I had become Scott's assistant, so coveted was that position, to which I was introduced by the same woman who took me in when I visited. (To tell the truth, she was his assistant and wanted to quit, so she had me come in "for a day" and then quit and offered me her job! I had told her I worked well under a lot of stress, a very desirable skill for that position.)

I felt at home and peaceful immediately when I moved in. That had never happened to me before. Within two days, I began feeling spiritually bathed and cleaned up from the pain, mire, sin and downright delusion I'd wallowed in. I carried on long and lovely conversations with people about spiritual things -- she who struggled to say anything much to anyone before that. It wasn't like everything went from pain to bliss in a matter of months, but at that time I began moving in a positive direction and I never turned back. I faced some moments of truth when I had to deal with the aftermath of bad decisions I made, but I knew God's help with that in profound ways. I consecrated myself Mary, and sins that had made me spiritually stink began to fall away from me.

In other words, God was faithful. He even granted me my heart's desire to get married and stay in Steubenville. He surrounded me with everything I needed to soak in. I learned so much from working for Scott. I learned so much by being able to soak in an academic setting, and the money was there, even though I had gone to Japan with the understanding that I was a volunteer and would get room and board. I had only two suitcases and some boxes full of possessions returning from Japan, but people gave me a closet full of clothes. Everything I needed was taken care of. God was faithful.

I couldn't even fully appreciate at the time that I was moving to this place that would make me so happy for years to come, and that I was so privileged in the connections and friendships and community I was entering. People here say that those who come here come because God draws them and calls them. It is true, I believe. This place is not perfect, but it is unique, and there is nowhere else on earth I'd rather live. I would never have come here were it not for my difficult time in Japan.

God's plan is much bigger than we ever see. And I know all of the same is true now, too. God is faithful. God is always faithful. God never leaves His children in the lurch, despite our unworthiness. It is not about rewarding behavior, it is about His nature. God is good. All the time.

Including now.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Call to be Anawim

Lately I've been slowly leaking it out that I am in the midst of a difficult spiritual trial. Explaining it all is not something I intend to do because anyone can relate out of their own life; the details don't really matter to anyone else. But I am really writing about this to document for myself the Lord's faithfulness in leading me and responding to me.

In my last post I talked about the revelation I had about the Blessed Mother having gone through a time of being separated from Jesus when He began His public ministry. There was a certain communion of life that they shared that they simply never went back to after that time. Of course, the glory gained for the whole world (not to mention Mary's personal joy) far outweighed anything that was lost in that transition. And yet I cannot imagine that the change wasn't a suffering for Mary.

I can relate to this. This was the first "light" to come my way in this thing that has been brewing almost all of this year in my heart that gave me some sense of ... of purpose in what I am facing.

So I asked the Blessed Mother to teach me how to be with her in this place.

What has been flooding my mind, my heart, my spiritual radar screen since then is this theme of the anawim. The point of that is that the people God forms as His own are the poor, the lowly, the humble, those whose hearts are purified and whose hope is in God alone. They do not have power or resources of their own to lean on. They rejoice in the Lord, who finally rewards them with the Messiah, with the power of the Holy Spirit, and life in Him. They are contrasted with the wicked and those who oppress. Those who exercise power of their own. The proud.

This is a light, a significant and beautiful light, but also one to which it is difficult to open my eyes. There is pain in coming out of darkness and into light, but even more than pain there is the fear of pain.

A primary catalyst in seeing this theme has been the book The Beatitudes: Finding the Joy of God's Kingdom by Fr. Paul Hinnebusch, but in the last few days I have been seeing this in everything Scriptural, liturgical and prayerful. I also see why, psychologically, it can be so painful to accept the call to be poor, lowly and humble in this Biblical sense. One must trust that taking this stance before God is radically different from taking this stance before anyone else, and indeed one must trust that it truly is God before whom one stands in his/her present circumstance; that it truly isn't a matter of simply being done wrong by a person. It is all too easy to remember, for example, being a child or in another vulnerable state and experiencing hurt or mistreatment or the failure of others to protect when one was powerless. It is all too easy to let the decision "I will never let that happen to me again" block one from trust, and therefore to lead one to cling tenaciously to pride, and to refuse to take a stance of humility before God. Or to make it unthinkable. Or to wrestle to the point of exhaustion every time His call to humility is sounded.

If it is God who calls me to come in humility, I can trust it is because He wants to honor me with His love and presence. It might hurt, but He will not do me wrong.

To feel powerless in the face of a powerfully felt need for something to change is very difficult. That's the difficulty I've been facing. I get in certain circumstances where I feel it almost like a physical twisting inside my body. It is my natural reaction to want to do something, to want to be able to do something to make the change.

And it seems the Blessed Mother would teach me to embrace being poor and needy, and to trust in the One who lifts up the meek and the lowly, and Who fills the hungry with good things.

And I see why there is spiritual power in praising God. Praise is the song of the anawim. It is about the poor and lowly who hoped in God rejoicing when they are lifted up, and when they are filled with good things. It is rejoicing because God has visited His people. And it is an expression of faith that this is who God is in the moment when one might not be experiencing victory or deliverance. It is proclaiming the truth of who God is, and expecting that He is the same regardless of my current circumstances. And it must drive the devil batty. It almost reminds me of those images of the flower children standing in front of an army tank with a daisy. Spiritual battle, won by singing and chanting praises? People with no worldly power toppling spiritual forces by recounting in prayer and song God's faithfulness? What kind of craziness is this?

I guess it is the same kind of craziness as the one who taught us this:
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the land.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the clean of heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you [falsely] because of me.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Meeting Mary in a New Way

Wow. Just wow.

You never know when reading a children’s book is going to completely peel your paint.

My daughter was sick yesterday with a fever, so I didn’t send her to her catechism class this evening. Which was too bad, because she was looking forward to the little party her class was having to which parents were invited to kick off the Year of Faith. There were to be snacks and games and prizes. I remembered to call her teacher beforehand to let her know Felicity would be missing, and the teacher (who lives only about seven doors down from us) dropped off my daughter’s portion of the stash of goods for this party before leaving to teach the class.

So while I was in the middle of a rosary, my daughter brought in these things to me and we took the little quizzes and played the games. And then she handed me the book The Holy Family by Fr. Jude Winkler. I read it to her. Then she took her stash back downstairs, and I sat and had a good heart-to-heart with the Blessed Mother, thanked her profusely, and shed more tears as I finished that rosary with new faith.

Because I was made to know something that had just never entered my radar before, ever.

The book simply presents everything the Scripture says about Joseph and Mary and their relationship with Jesus, and His with them. Consider this from Mary’s perspective. For 30 years she lived in daily contact with Jesus. Joseph died at some point; Jesus was her sole support. I’m sure they did not live in isolation from the community, but I’m sure they didn’t spend a lot of time in frivolous socializing, either. Imagine what it must have been for her to live in this kind of communion with her Son.

Then one day, it happens. Jesus is 30, and it is time for Him to go ministering. He leaves, and entrusts her to relatives. For the first time since she was very young, Mary is without Jesus.

They see each other only rarely, Scripture says. There’s the wedding at Cana, before He’s gone too far from home. Some would see it that he was disregarding her request at first. Then there’s the episode where Mary and those relatives come to see Jesus, and Jesus uses it as a teaching moment to say those who hear the Word of God and obey it are his mother and brother and sister. Hardly a response full of enthusiasm to run out and meet Mom. And then where does Mary find Him? At the end of the road, carrying His cross on the way to Calvary. Being crucified. Dead.

Jesus had lots of disciples, 12 apostles, and several women who followed them to care for their needs, and good friends like Mary, Martha and Lazarus. But it is not reported that His mother was among His followers. It was the Father’s will that Jesus travel about and preach; it was the Father’s will that Mary not join Him. It was the Father’s will that they endure this separation.

I can only imagine that Mary prayed constantly for the success of Jesus’ ministry and His apostles and for hearts to be opened to receive Him and to love Him as He deserved to be loved. Her prayers could not stop the intrigue that caused His death.

But I think the sword that pierced her heart was not only on Good Friday, but in relinquishing Him for three whole years. She was sinless, but she was completely and only human. Would this not have hurt deeply, to not be able to be at her Son’s side at every step? Would she not have missed Him horribly? Would it not have grieved her that He was rejected in Nazareth? She is a mother, after all!

And yet, she wouldn’t do the sorts of things I would be, and am, tempted to do, like be bitter and snarky and refuse to say hi when she did see Him, or complain to her friends about how He was treating her, or refuse to pray because of what a bum deal God was giving her. She faced the Father’s will with an open heart, even when her openness meant receiving the sword. Only she who had such a unique relationship with the Lord could experience the unique sacrifice of being without Him in the way she was.

In the particular difficulty that I currently navigate, I am clearly not sinless, and it is not so clear-cut and concrete a situation as Mary’s. But long before this difficulty became what it is today, I entrusted the situation over and over and over to our Blessed Mother, asking her to make of it everything she wants. As I told my husband recently, I can’t imagine what the Blessed Mother wants most is the mess it all currently is. This very morning I thought to myself Wow, I’ve prayed and prayed and it seems like heaven has failed me. But tonight as I gazed into the eyes of the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, I prayed, Thank you for showing yourself a mother to me. You are not asking anything of me that you have not experienced yourself, only I require so much in the way of being purified from sin, and you teach me by your pure example. Let me stay with you in Nazareth, let me pray in faith, and let me embrace everything the Father wills with an open heart.

A Bad Place

I'm in a bad place. Or am I in a good place? I guess it depends on whether you ask my soul or my spirit.

The image that comes to mind is that photo of Niagara Falls almost entirely frozen over. I've been to Niagara Falls a few times, and the first time I was there, I was struck by how green and lush the grass was all around it, even a significant distance from the water, because of the constant spray. This is like the flow of grace. I have had times, in the past, of pausing and realizing that grace was really flowing and moving in my life. I have a card from my first spiritual director and he made this comment in it that a significant movement of the Holy Spirit seems to characterize God's way with me. Lots of movement.

But God is doing something new. It is like He has turned off the Niagara Falls of grace to my spiritual sense abilities.

This is a whole new type of quiet. I hate it.

This reveals a lot of slime that has been covered over by the constant movement. I resent seeing it.

This reveals that I have found delight in a lot of things that were of the flesh, but I mistook my delight for the presence of God.

I have mistaken conduits of grace for sources of grace and have grown inappropriate attachments. Conduits of grace without grace are mere empty shells and offer no life. Grace is the gift. Conduits exist to serve the gift, but they are expendable, because the Lord of grace calls the shots.

And I see that at the end of our lives, we will be judged on our love. Love is not a feeling. Love is expressed in the choices that we make based on faith in God's promises, on which we continue to stand even to the point of loss of all. Grace is there, even when I don't sense it. That is a truth on which I stand in the faith I cannot feel, by a love which I do not feel, and my ability to do so comes from a God I cannot perceive.

Without grace, I too am an empty shell. Good for nothing. And I hate it.

I read some quote recently from St. Therese of Lisieux in which she said she loved her poverty, her nothingness, her littleness, because it was why the Lord was pleased with her. Well, dandy. I'm not there. This is all a rather new shock to me. It is a mercy to have one's crap revealed, I know. But I don't love it. I hate it. Like I said, I'm in a bad place.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Words out of Silence

This morning I had an interesting experience. It is the feast of St. Teresa of Avila, so some of the local Carmelite community met for Mass and a little reception later. There weren't that many of us, and after even a few of the few had to leave, the other few stayed to chat about our lives.

And I faced this scenario that seems to constantly repeat throughout my life.

One woman talked about how at the current stage in life, the Lord is showing her to retreat from a lot of activity and learn to be really, completely quiet inside. Others seemed to nod in sympathy.

And I felt like a salmon swimming upstream.

Silence has been co-natural to me my whole life to the point where it sometimes is my vice. I wrote about this in this post. There is a difference between being externally quiet and having interior silence, and I get that. However, interior silence has come really relatively easily for me because of my externally quiet nature. I'm not a woman who is at all likely to over-extend herself in care giving, or one to whom people flock to get their needs cared for. I don't get emotionally drawn into worrying over how people are faring. At almost any point, I tend to have a very good feel for where I am "at" interiorly (even if I don't understand why I'm there). I spend lots of time, and have for my whole life, in the cavernous regions of my soul, to the point that sometimes I haven't known how to interact socially. I've intuited that I couldn't just pull people in to one of the only things I felt personally well-versed at discussing -- interior life.

I shouldn't be bothered by this because it is simply who I am. And yet frankly sometimes it makes me feel abnormal as a woman.

What today's experience highlighted for me, however, is how God has led me since I was in my young 20s, and that is the fact that He wants my mouth. I have known that for years, and it has been a struggle. My mouth is symbolic, really, of my self-expression. I wonder why He hasn't put it to me that He wants my fingers, because I tend to write more than speak. But then again I needn't wonder that, because my mouth is what makes me feel my vulnerability more.

I knew a woman once who taught me that some people are made to feel extremely vulnerable when they are silent. We were in Japan, and she said she tried to make a one-day silent retreat, and after a few hours of the morning went by she had to walk down to the shopping district and meet someone, anyone, and talk. (I do know the feeling, although it literally took me 2.5 years of living alone in Japan before I started doing that sort of thing. And it lasted only a few weeks until I then left.) It is very difficult for me to grasp that some people are afraid of meeting themselves in silence, as, I suppose it might be hard for others to understand what have been my phobias.

But I get this sense that God's desire is for me to bring forth from my silence words that help bring others to silence. And I get this sense that this entails being able to face scary things with people. That means I probably need to learn a little sensitivity to people's fear of that intimate place of silence, of solitude, of the nakedness that leaves nothing to hide behind.

My song writing mentor friend said to me last year something about how every artist yearns to get to this place of soul-nakedness, to be able to really pour out his heart. I feel like that's what I've practiced in writing since I was 10 years old. And, yeah, I think the difficulty I have face all my life is figuring out how to insert myself in "normal society" when this is my bent. Without pretending to be someone else, without fear of being taken advantage of, and without fear of others' fear.

Maybe this is it. Maybe this is what I need to learn right now.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Service, the Gift of Self, and Joy (Wherever that went...)

Today I attended our local Lay Apostles prayer meeting, where we prayed the rosary for each other's intentions and discussed the following message:

October 1, 2005


"I have willed a time of great joy for My beloved apostles. Joy is something that the world wishes to take from God's children, but joy is available nonetheless. The world encourages souls to concentrate on comfort and earthly possessions. I ask you to concentrate on service. This is a marked contrast, is it not? Let me explain why concentrating on service brings you joy. If you rise each day and pledge allegiance to God, you will begin that day with more thought of serving than being served. In this way, you look at your day as an opportunity to work for heaven and to work for heaven's children, your brothers and sisters. This perspective sends you into the day as a servant. When the day presents you with the inevitable opportunities to assist or console, or simply to be tolerant of your brothers or sisters, you do not view this as a burden, or an interruption in your entertainment and comfort, but as a request made to you directly from the Throne of your God. And fulfilling a request made to you by your God brings you joy. You serve heaven and we fulfill our part of the agreement by sending you joy. If all of God's children were living this way, there would be great joy on earth and through this joy would come peace. But if even one of God's children makes the commitment to serve as a beloved apostle, there is an increase of joy and an increase in peace. This is because an apostle does not become angry when he or she is inconvenienced. That apostle responds in calm trust when the world presents them with difficulty or even pain. There is no striking out at others. There is no rebelliousness. There is peace. The world is changing and it is changing one soul at a time. Join Me now and make a commitment to peace in your world. I will send it through you, My beloved apostles."
We spent a good deal of time sharing experiences of the joy coming in the midst of suffering, and how it is sometimes so striking that what brings the joy is the realization that some particular blessing is coming straight from the hand of God. We also discussed this point of how service brings joy.

These thoughts struck me hard, and had my eyes flowing with tears. Sometimes it is a blessing to hear others talk about their sufferings, because it puts one's own in perspective. If there has been a comfort I have been seeking, or grieving as it flies away from me, it is that of spiritual consolation. Even the ability to emotionally feel anything except pain. I realize that what God is doing is purging my spirit by removing all sense of joy as a means of purifying my attachments. I do still have a sense of calm, of peace, and of purpose. But it hurts. At times it is downright scary. When this all began, I had a sense that God was teaching me to focus on my daily duty with greater devotion, offering that to Him as true worship, as a true giving of myself through that means. Then I had the sense that He was saying, "Ok, I've shown you what to do, now you show me you doing it." Teaching. Purging. This is a gift. I am aware of it, even though I don't like how it feels.

A few weeks ago the message that kept coming through is that I need to embrace the cross as Jesus' offer of love extended to me. The message that comes through now is that this will not last forever; that God is in control of it, and there is purpose and deeper peace and joy on the other side of it. However, nothing I can do will get me there.

I am struggling, though, with trusting God's good purposes, and with my desire to inflate myself rather than wait for God to fill me. I am failing at it astoundingly at every turn, filling myself that is, so I guess that helps. The quicker all my strength fails me the better, I suppose. I often find myself with almost no emotional reserve for the self-preservation sorts of things I've been trying. What is left is to serve the needs around me, despite sometimes feeling like I just want to hide, curl up in a ball, retreat. And to pray. Even though it feels like my prayer leaves me with greater need to repent when I'm done than when I started.

The only prayer that gives my heart a sense of buoyancy is "Jezu ufam tobje" -- Jesus, I trust in You, the words revealed to St. Faustina with the Divine Mercy. It is only because of and in the mercy of Jesus that I have any hope of standing at all.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Love vs. The Strong Man

Today's gospel reading has one section that just grabbed me and made me smile this morning. Listen to this:

When a strong man fully armed guards his palace,
his possessions are safe.
But when one stronger than he attacks and overcomes him,
he takes away the armor on which he relied
and distributes the spoils.
Whoever is not with me is against me,
and whoever does not gather with me scatters.

That's Luke 11:21-23.

Now, passages about the demonic can sometimes leave preachers a little uncertain what to say. But here's how I heard it in my heart this morning. I'm no exegete, but my personal experience and what I have observed in others bears this out.

The "strong man" guarding his palace is not the righteous man making sure his holiness is secure. The "strong man" is the sinner who keeps his own heart in bondage due to his unrepented sin. The one who is stronger who attacks and overcomes is love. Somehow, the "strong man" allows love to seep into his life, and then the fight is on. Love is stronger than sin. Love is stronger than death. Love, however, yields to the human will. Love must be chosen; love must be acquiesced to. It is the strongest tug on the human will, since love is what the human being was created for in the first place. Love is able to "take away the armor," or the pride, on which the sinner relied, and free the heart from its bondage to sin, allowing the heart to go and do and experience that for which it was made. That is where the heart must choose. Am I with Jesus? Am I with love? Will I choose Love? Or will I scatter away from Him, opposing Jesus, choosing instead my possessions, my bondage, my strength, my "keeping myself safe"?

The only way we keep our lives free from evil is to allow ourselves to be filled with love, so that the evil spirit finds no place to return to (Lk. 11:24-26). We are not safe without saying Yes to love.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Putting Faith into Practice

Today at Mass we celebrated a votive Mass for Evangelization, a fitting beginning for the Year of Faith. The homily really caught my attention in a thought-provoking kind of way. The priest gave us his list of ten practical suggestions for how one could celebrate the Year of Faith. Somewhere down the list (actually, at number 9) I started having sirens and bells go off in my head.

Before I go into those sirens and bells, let me just say that I know I was born for such a time as this. My first memory of prayer that I offered to God after my initial childhood conversion (as a Lutheran, age 10) was to sort of wonder at God about whether there were any other people who ever went to church, warmed pews, but didn't really get, believe in, or care that much about what was being said. I felt compelled that it was the call of my life to find out and, if possibly there were, to help correct that.

Well, now I realize that there are plenty of folks like that in churches, and plenty of folks like that who used to go to churches, and that "getting" God, believing in Him and giving a rip (of charity) are things in which even the holiest people need continuous renewal. I was born at just the right time to be experiencing the New Evangelization right now. Funny how God works stuff like that out.

But back to the bells and sirens. The ninth item on the priest's list, after things like praying the creed and acts of faith mindfully, reading the catechism and speaking out to share truth, was "put your faith into practice by concrete acts of charity."

Now, you may wonder why this would send off sirens in my soul. It seems to me that right here is the real proof of the crisis of faith we are experiencing. And I don't mean that, oh, it's so shameful that we don't have more people to man the soup kitchens and visit the sick. We could always use more people to do those things, of course, but from where I sit in my parish, we don't do an absolutely horrible job with those things. What I do mean is this: For many people "put faith into practice" really means "be a generically nice person."

That's a big problem.

Following Christ is not about being a generically nice person; it is about a complete transformation of one's life through union with Jesus Christ.

I have nothing against people being nice and doing generic good. Recycling and donating used clothes and serving soup to the homeless and petting puppies and smiling at the cashier in the grocery store and teaching a fatherless child to read and lectoring at your parish and selling trinkets to raise money for hurricane victims are all wonderful things that everyone should do who can. But they can all be done while harboring wicked pride in your heart, and they can also be done by atheists. They do not have any necessary connection to faith at all.

In order to put faith into practice, one must first possess a personal faith. This personal faith is a response to encountering a personal God. This means that at a certain time, through certain events that one can tell about, God called you, and you answered. A personal faith means the call continues and the answer continues. And in the call continuing, God personally asks certain things of you. He asks for concrete steps. Do this. Go there. Say that. Give these.

Responding to those calls for those concrete steps is "putting faith into practice." They might be any number of things listed in the above paragraph under "generic good," but this time they won't just be generic good that I do to get an ego massage. They will be obedience to the voice of Christ, believing that He has asked it, and acting on that faith. As such, they will be actions that transform me and actions that bring Christ's presence into this world in a specific way He has designed.

The big, huge difference, is the reason why we do what we do. Putting faith into practice means listening to the Holy Spirit, discerning the Lord's voice (which we know, because that's how we came to encounter Him in the first place), and obeying. It is not primarily about wanting to look good to ourselves or others, meeting someone else's expectations, or trying to assuage guilt. It is the fruit of relationship.

Faith is not just knowing a set of beliefs. Of course I want to know everything about my Lord and His Church once I am madly in love with Him. Love! That's what God wants from us, and that is all we long for and need. Ok, I'm a hippie at heart. But it's true -- Love is all we need! Love is also like a magnet, and attracts all the right things into the right order, if we allow our love to be constantly purified. Love will attract right knowledge, right thinking, right action.

So, let's not try to "live faith" as if it were our own personal "I'm-a-good-person" project. Christian faith is a relationship with the Living God that changes everything for us.