Wednesday, July 25, 2012

A Couple of Thoughts on Mystical Phenomena

I recently finished reading Ralph Martin's book The Fulfillment of All Desire. It's a great book on the stages of spiritual life, all drawn from various doctors of the Church, with a heavy emphasis on the Carmelite trio of St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila and St. Thérèse of Lisieux. I first discovered the mystics when I was in college (wrote about that here) and was very much not Catholic, and was still very much of the mind that Catholicism was dead at best and evil at worst. But even then, when I discovered and read these saints, my jaw dropped open and my heart yearned with an agonizing desperation to be with people like this. It was like I could feel the furnace blast of love for God that was their hearts come right off the page and into my face.

What I wanted was, of course, the Lord Himself. My only problem was that I had Him already. Sometimes it is hard to want more of someone you already have. I think that's why we confess that we believe in "the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic church, the communion of saints...." God manifests Himself through the Holy Spirit in the life and vocation of each baptized believer differently so that we all know we are called to be part of a body or a temple as St. Paul puts it -- we are each deeply significant but none of us has the fullness of who we are created to be without belonging to all the others in the covenantal structure called the Church!

The mystical life of prayer, the realm of spiritual life, is grossly misunderstood by many, I think. Some folks want their religion tidy and predictable, so they can stay in control, and are quick to dismiss mystical phenomena as 98% products of the minds of those far sillier than theirs, and 2% reserved to people like Pope John Paul II. Other folks totter between the extremes of finding it yet another indication that they are "less than" other people, or basing their entire spiritual life on one momentary flash of something that happened to them that was extraordinary. Both of those two extremes are great examples of what I like to call "Satan-bait." True mystical prayer is focused on union with God in the person of Jesus Christ, period.

Mystical phenomena are far more common in the lives of believers than many might be led to think. Several different settings have shown me that people have these experiences that they don't always know what to do with, or even how to mention to others. Many Catholics who leave the Church in order to join others do so because they can't find someone who can help them make sense of how they've experienced God. And that's a shame. 

It is true that St. John of the Cross generally encouraged people not to pay too much attention to things like locutions, visions, prophetic words and the like. Apparently it was extremely common in his time and place for people to be experiencing these things, and he was very concerned that people stay focused on the Giver of gifts, not the gifts themselves, that people not get deluded and led astray from the truth of the Church and Scripture. I've seen people get goofy over these things, and I had my own go-around with getting severely tested, too. But lately I've thought again about a positive experience I had, and that's really what I set out to write about in this post (said she, the long-winded writer!).

In about 1988 at a Sunday evening service, I responded to an altar call issued by a visiting missionary, and I asked for prayer about what God wanted for me in my post-college life. After a general prayer, and completely without the dramatics one might stereotypically imagine, the missionary prophecied over me to the effect that God had called me to prayer, to worship Him, to teach and lead others to worship Him, and to some kind of academic teaching.

To be honest, I was disappointed. Prayer: boring. Worship: yeah, ok, no-brainer, everyone said that. Academic teaching: I had just made a bargain with God that since I hated the Education class I took, even though an English degree was useless without a teaching certificate, I really totally didn't want to be a teacher.

Without any difficulty at all (but for all the wrong reasons) I was able to follow the advice St. John of the Cross gives and I didn't give this much attention, and just went on my way, struggling to live my faith.

Not too long ago I was reminded again of this prophetic word. And I do believe it was an authentic word from God. He showed it to me this way -- Prayer: the soul of Carmel, which my heart climbs even if I'm not in the 3rd order yet. If you think a life of prayer is boring, I think you don't pray, or haven't been at it very long. Yes. Worship: Yes. Don't understand it all, but yes. Academic teaching: Guess what, I homeschool my two miracles. When I looked at this recently I was struck that I am doing exactly what I'm made to do. That doesn't mean that life is without its pains and challenges. I admit that right now I have the strange sense that even in the midst of this realization I still have cravings that gnaw at my soul that make me need to choose my life every day. The other day a Facebook friend posted this song snippet: "Shepherd me, Oh God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life." I have always resonated deeply with that song, but when I read it that time, I balked, like St. Augustine when he prayed, "Give me chastity, Lord, but not yet." Chastity wasn't Augustine's natural inclination, and I too have natural inclinations that lean away from where God leads me. His leading is a gift of grace. And that is exactly what things like prophetic messages given 24 years ago are supposed to help with: when the time comes and it fits with God's plan, you can look back and say, yep, God has been building this for a long time, and He knew all that time ago that I would need a hand right now. So, take it and trust.

I don't believe St. John of the Cross meant at all for us to reject mystical phenomena, or even to be overly suspicious. He did want to encourage us to follow only Jesus, though, which means embracing His cross, and His Church, and allowing Him to be in control, not we ourselves. If God wants to make something of something, He certainly will. Let nothing at all be my concern except Him, and He will take up all that concerns me.

And if all this intrigues you, by all means read Ralph's book.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

I Hate it When I Wake up in the Morning and I'm Not the Center of the Universe

The other day I was washing our fruit bowl and this caused me to realize how tremendously patient, merciful and humble God is in His relationship to me. I am quite slow to have things really sink in. He is masterful at teaching, though.

The fruit bowl was a wedding present. I was 31 when we married, so I'd already lived on my own for a decade. Unwrapping all those gifts, I noticed a sharp difference between all this fancy stuff we got and the old, random junk I was used to using for daily living. Somehow, because of these gifts, an arrow of intuition shot through me that told me marriage was ultimately about being called to serve others. Not just my husband and presumed family, but the great social beyond. I didn't really have any social beyond at the time. So this intuition was like a nudge, telling me a different life was ahead.

Looking back I see that I treated this nudge at the time sort of like one treats a waitress who comes by after dinner and says "Would you like dessert, or maybe an after-dinner drink?" It's an interesting prospect, and maybe it makes me feel momentarily enthused, and maybe I even respond positively, but the bottom line is, it's all about whether I want extra goodies added on to my goodie-laden experience or not. What will please me?

The other day I held this bowl and I realized how much my life has revolved around that question: What will please me?

Oh. So that's where all of my unhappiness has come from.

God is not opposed to our happiness -- that's a stupid notion, though one I wrestled with for years. God absolutely is all about our being happy. (Here's proof.) In fact, He's really the only one who knows how we get there. It makes lots of sense for us to pay heed to His direction if we are serious about wanting happiness.

But we have this stubborn thing, this intentness on staying attached to our own plans for our own happiness. It's a sort of entitlement sense, I suppose, this cry, however buried, that insists that we have the right to our own happiness, our own way. We're sort of right, except for that last part. If we don't surrender to God and His way, well, we can kiss that chance at happiness goodbye as we get all the more frantic at trying to make it happen ourselves. It's that whole "He who loses his life will find it, and he who saves his life will lose it" thing. Heads, you lose; tails, you lose.

Here's an illustration from my life. Shortly after we got married, I really wanted to become an RCIA catechist. I had my almost-finished Masters in Theology degree and my plan that I entered grad school with -- I was going to go teach people and save the world. What better thing to do than to serve God and His Church, right? We even changed parishes so that I could do this. I slogged at it for five years. I made a lasting friendship with the then-director, but for the most part I was a lousy catechist. I mean, I tried my best, and didn't teach anyone heresy, but my efforts were like a lot of chaff flying around.

There was some value to trying to serve God the way I wanted, but the value was mostly in me seeing how ineffective it was. I thought it would please me to live out this vision of me "serving God."

A few years later, I actually felt called by God to step up for music ministry in my parish. This was not my vision for myself, and I was hesitant at first. But later, ohmygosh, I was so happy. Amazing things happened. God started blessing me so much it was almost like being high. It pleased me very much.

Just over a year ago, the Lord asked me in no uncertain terms to put it all back in His hands. And I did. This was all an interior experience of prayer. It was actually like another degree of high. But nothing changed on the outside. This year, God has broken in again far more profoundly in ways only He can with this most disturbing question: What pleases you more? Spiritual consolations, insights, revelations, favor, healing.... or obedient service to Me?

Who is this about?

Who is the One all worthy to be pleased? 

Who do you love more: yourself, or Me?

You know that it is God posing choices like this to your soul when you need to actually stop and consider it. And really, really wrestle with the desire to yell, "Me! I really only care about me! What about meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee?"

That's a good time to revisit the facts about God being the author of all that is, and the only one who really knows our path to happiness.

There is a losing that is gaining. You gain everything. All the good stuff. You just have to trust Him enough to die.

That's all.

To die to the question What will please me? and instead ask, What pleases You, Lord?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

I Think I'm Too Much of a Chicken to Give this Post the Title It Should Have

I shall now go off about something that is not really my problem, though it is my concern and has been my concern for years.

I feel like, with saying this, I am now officially old, too.

I'm talking about the music ministry at Franciscan University of Steubenville.

Now, I love FUS, I love the community that has sprung up in this town with and because of it, and I have been attending daily Mass at the University, on and off, schedule and family life permitting, for 15 years. I was a grad student at FUS from 1997-1999, and I was head of a music ministry team that lead music for the 12:05 Mass on Fridays for a semester. I also led music at various times during summer and Christmas breaks way back when. Before I had those leadership experiences, I used to occasionally critique and criticize those who lead music. Mostly I had a beef with people whose style was not mine. But then I stepped up to the plate to do it myself, and I learned only a stupid person criticizes something at which they've never made their own mistakes.

My favorite story in that regard is the time I completely forgot the word "Alleluia." We got to the gospel acclamation, I strummed the chord, and I could not for the life of me remember what it was we were supposed to sing. Not the notes, not the words, nothing. That was the last time I ever got up there without music, or at least without the word "Alleluia" written down with chord notation. I desperately whispered to the singer nearest me, "Sing something!!" She did, and the moment was saved.

I've also seen very experienced leaders sing the Lamb of God where the Holy, Holy goes, and other things that people remember and tell with chagrin until the day they die.

But there's thing that that has been steadily gnawing on me for the last several years, and today is the day I say it: There needs to be a music ministry formation program at Franciscan.

I wrote about this last year in this post called Thoughts on a Vocation of Music Ministry, and I got to this climactic moment of saying what is this "something" that is needed, and I stalled out, not able to name it. I think it is simply the ability to be an effective leader of music ministry.

That's a multi-faceted thing. For one thing, basic liturgical knowledge is very helpful.

Wait, let me back up. Yes, it's been roughly 13 years since I was in the loop of music ministry on campus, but it doesn't seem to me that the modus operandi has changed any. Someone correct me if it has. Whoever was designated the "leader" of the group made all of the decisions about choosing songs, Mass settings, how things would be sung, with only the most general of guidelines coming from the chapel staff. For example, at the 12:05 Mass, the psalm used to be sung by the music ministry, but now it is read by the lector. That was a very good call, not only because of the time constraints, but also because those psalms spun way out of control, because the music ministry leader was also responsible for, if you will, composing the setting for the psalm. Often they ended up in 6- or 7-part harmony (depending on the population of the given ministry group) and they were completely inarticulate. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Ok, so you've got a bunch of college kids, with the occasional non-trad or graduate student thrown in, and they are completely in charge of the music for their day of the week. Back to the liturgical knowledge bit. It's great to have Lenten hymns during Lent. It's great to have Easter hymns during Easter week and the extended season. Etc. It often seems that leaders are just picking their favorite tunes that have blessed little to do with anything, or perhaps there is a line from the gospel that matches, but the season is off.

There is also the matter of what can be pulled off by whom. I appreciate the genre of contemporary worship music that is often employed at FUS Masses, but some songs are just very difficult for one guitarist to pull off. Some songs are equally difficult for an organ or keyboard to try to pull off. What doesn't work well shouldn't be tried anyway.

But apart from these things, the thing that screams out to me the most is what I wrote about in the above-mentioned post: the difference between standing up and worshipping God in front of people, and leading people in worship. I say it that way because quite often we are talking about a guitarist and a group of singers, perhaps with a keyboard who is following the guitar lead (though sometimes it is reversed). I suppose the same could be said about an organist who is just playing songs. There has to be a certain sense that is clear and consciously known in the mind of the leader that s/he is there to be the leader. I think there is such a thing as a natural-born leader, even in music, but I think there is also such a thing as learning how to lead.

And there is a personal and spiritual element to that that requires personal and spiritual formation.

Now, back in my day, we were all encouraged to pray together before singing. That's good, and I'm all for it. But something deeper is needed. That prayer becomes a way of the singers/musicians saying to each other "Golly, I'm nervous. Let's do a little group huddle and go out and do this thing!" That's not even necessarily the worst thing in the world, but it is on a rather immature level, both as an emotional expression and especially as a prayer expression. God wants something deeper from us than to be our lucky rabbit's foot that we rub for confidence.

How does one develop confidence? Part of it is about living a life of discipleship in Christ. Another part of it is mentoring and training. Wait, did I just repeat myself? Jesus didn't just find a bunch of disciples and send them out the next day. He spent time with them, so they could see what He did. Then He sent them out to learn by doing, and to get feedback to do better. Formation!

The vast majority of the many, many leaders and groups I have witnessed in recent years desperately need formation in leadership confidence, and often some help with basic liturgical tools. Occasionally, musical ones as well. These are students, I know, they are young and immature by definition, and to me they are getting younger and more immature all the time. They are there as students; they are not part of a religious order. And yet, Franciscan has always been about spiritual formation of its students. A big part of that formation in general actually flows through the liturgical celebrations. And an integral part of those celebrations is the music ministry. (And the lectors -- and they do get their own training. That's another story.)

It seems to me that part of the weakness of the charismatic heritage on which Franciscan's music ministry has been mostly built is that it was expected that if the musicians just prayed and "did their thing," that God would bring it all together and the worship would be effective. Then of course there's all the blather about styles of music that people have been tussling over there for decades. Part of the problem is that, in order to have any music at all, the chapel is dependent on whomever they can dredge up to provide it, and Catholics have not considered musical training an integral part of education, like learning to read (as the Lutherans are more apt to).

But, whatever the problems or the source of the problems, I have this concern, because I love liturgy. I'm a third-rate, relatively ignorant musician who has a sharp and painful passion for liturgical music being "just so," or at least close to it. Music should give the people the freedom to worship God, not to focus for good or for ill on what they are hearing.

Ok, rant done. I think. Concern, ongoing.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Power of Carrying Out One's Duty

In 2007 my family and I traveled a few counties to our north to hear Anne speak (Anne, a lay apostle, associated with Direction for our Times). I wrote about that particular experience here. There was one little thing that happened during that talk that has stuck with me vividly all these years. My daughter was not quite two years old at the time, and during the talk she wanted to move around a bit. We were sitting on the far end of a church where the seating was a semi-circle around the altar area, and we happened to be at the end of a pew near a statue of Mary, I think. I stood up and let her interact with the statue, and all of a sudden she let out some sort of noise that was audible to the whole, packed church. This didn't bother me, really, nor did what happened next, but this is what stuck in my memory. Anne paused in her talk and said, "Every single mom sitting here is thinking, 'Glad that's not my child!'"

Now, as I said, this didn't bother me. I scooped up my daughter and we started walking the large hallway. But I could almost feel what went through Anne's head right then: "Well, every single mom, except one -- the one whose child that is!"

As I walked the hall, at one point I was smack at the center aisle of the church, standing many feet away and out of the sanctuary, but in direct eye shot of Anne, and I noticed her sort of stop where she was in her talk, and fold in a comment about how God could both use us and make us great saints if all we had to offer Him was cleaning the house and making peanut butter sandwiches all day. I got the feeling that she saw "the one whose child that was" and felt the need to insert a comment directed at me, sort of to make up for the understandable but perhaps potentially embarrassing comment she'd made.

At the time, her words hit me like pious platitudes that went from one ear to another like so much other stuff like that.

One thing I appreciate about this blog is that I can write about the "latest, greatest" thing God is teaching me, then go back a year later, after writing almost the same thing, and the re-read earlier posts to discover that what I thought was a brand new thing God was showing me was simply something I didn't pay attention to very well, earlier.

The fact is, though, that growing steadily in my heart is this realization that I participate in building up God's kingdom by my faithfulness to my hidden, domestic duty. I wish I could find a way to say that that gives it all the wallop it deserves. I've thought in the past that God was served by my intellectualizing over things and all the hot air I've spewed to people in trying to tell them how much more right I am than them, or by all my grandiose plans and intentions or at least all of my holy (or not so holy) daydreaming that I love to do, or at least by the religious trappings I've tried to surround myself in. But God keeps redirecting me: Do the laundry. With love. Change the cat litter. Without complaining. Make dinner. While trying to please others. Be patient with your children. Pay attention when they drone on and on about boring things. Be nice to people who come to the door, even when you feel like you spend all your day running up the stairs to answer it (because your butt is always at the computer chair). Let your husband know you're glad you live together. Clean the house diligently regardless of who notices.

And why? Because this unleashes powerful graces on the world, that's why. Responding to plain old reality in a Christlike way within our personal vocations is all we get in order to participate in the life of grace. I don't so much care what my house looks like, as anyone who has visited can attest. I'm not obsessive about cleaning, and most of the time I'd much rather think than do. But if I don't do my duty, I realize, my chance to participate in God's plan for spreading graces goes to waste. And what of the people who would have benefited from those graces? Well, St. Claude, who was my patron for my CD project, had some pretty strong words to say about this:  "More souls are lost for this reason than for any other. Half are damned for not having performed the duties of their state, the other half because others have neglected their duties with regard to them."

It is pretty easy to start believing that the simple carrying out of our daily duties, of faithfully doing our jobs, of being faithful to our families, has no real impact on the world. Who cares? Who can see it? But that completely misses the spiritual dimension of living as part of the mystical body of Christ and offering our bodies as living sacrifices. If there is one area where my Christian formation in the pentecostal tradition has failed me, it was that I drunk in this notion that doing something for the kingdom of God has to be big, flashy, miraculous or "ministry." No. Faithfulness and love expressed through normal life, whatever God gives us as our duty, is how we build the kingdom. Anne did not come up with some new idea when she talked about peanut butter sandwiches. She just reiterated what the Church has told us for 2000 years. And finally, I get it on a level deeper than in my head.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

In Which She Goes On and On about Attachment and Detachment (But Finally Comes to an Important Realization)

Early last year, I experienced a huge paradigm shift. This happened while I was taking part in a discussion on Theology of the Body with and among a group of University students.

The old paradigm sat on my thought-shelf, dusty, largely untouched for well over a decade, but still there in the back of my mind. It said: "You have had more problems than most people you know."

I listened to these students' perspectives and concerns, and suddenly it hit me. No, not just that I was the same age as most of their mothers. It hit me, new paradigm: "You have experienced more healing than most people you know."

It was an astounding moment, and one that I have only barely begun to digest and grasp what this asks of me.

But I thought of this again today as I ponder where I am in life about attachment and detachment.

I am not the world's most empathic person. I admit that. I do not walk into life with my emotions in the lead; I tend to go head first, with thinking leading the way. So I don't get all teary-eyed over someone telling me they've had a difficult life or a difficult childhood, and that's why they have issues. I suppose this is because I don't go all soft on myself, trying to explain that fact that I have had difficulty in both attaching to people and detaching from people. I suppose this is also because I see what a complete waste of time it is to sit around in self-pity and say "Man, I have it so tough." What I have concluded is that in reality everyone has it tough. Some people face it, and some people scramble to fill their voids another way. Blessed are they who admit they have issues. It's the human condition. Welcome to the human race, honey.

The fun part is, I guess, that we don't all have the same issues to the same degree. God designs us with a capacity for our own range of strengths and weaknesses so that we can be interdependent on each other, not so that we can proudly crush and dominate each other, or whimper in a corner for someone to come along and live life for us. Like Bill Withers sang, we all need somebody to lean on.

Dear God, sometimes I hate that fact.

I didn't do so good attaching to people in childhood. I'm the sort of person who needs information; I like to be able to make sense out of what is happening around me. Explanations, discussions, clarifications, and communication of any sort were not things my family was good at. So when my parents separated and divorced one year, my oldest sister moved away the next, my other sister shortly after, there was a lot I didn't understand about people disappearing. Then my Dad was living in a new place, and there was this alcoholism thing going on, and people who wouldn't speak to each other. And no one ever talked about it. Even though we fought constantly, I was deeply attached to my brother. One day when I was 15, he announced he was moving away. The next day. So, he was gone. I'll admit now that until I was 19 years old and already in college, I lived with the fear that I'd come home from work one day to discover that my Mom had moved out of our house without leaving a note behind. Two or three times circumstances were such that I was sure it had finally happened.

But it really doesn't matter what circumstances befall us when we hand over our hearts to the Lord. I think St. Faustina helps us grasp that Jesus' mercy is the deepest and richest where our misery is the worst, if we but open that misery up to Him. Our Father always knows just what remedy we need.

It's funny, though, because the Lord isn't just a kisser and bandager of wounds. It's more like after we break a bone, he not only sets it but puts us through physical therapy to get the muscles back to work again. And so He will indeed put stress on the very thing that has been our weak spot. Healing isn't all fun and games.

Maybe another way to look at that with the issue of attachment and detachment is that both are necessary functions of a human being. We need to be able to do both. God's grace has allowed me to look into the face of my difficulty attaching to people, and to know and believe in God's love enough to do it anyway. Some of the scenes I can replay in my head of detaching from people in my life -- saying goodbye, moving, moving on with life -- oh dear, these range from my feeling foolish to feeling like I had a sword cut gashes across my chest.

The way I have learned to think about it is that our human connections -- mine, in particular -- are orchestrated by God. Long ago, when I was in college and trying to extricate myself from a very difficult relationship, the Lord told me I want to be the One in charge of what people are in your life.  I had no sense of power to filter out good people from bad, or people I welcomed from those I didn't. That at least taught me that I was not at the mercy of the people around me. I could ask God for help and realize that He was God, not them.

I've grown in discernment for sure, and the world no longer seems so scary and threatening at every turn. But I have to admit, I am still afraid of people. Sort of. I'm more afraid of me, and at heart I'm just afraid of pain. I get this image that in a way we are to be like Legos in God's hands. A good Lego attaches well to another and can stay that way, and detaches from another in the hand of the builder, sometimes with the use of a tool. The whole point of Legos is that they do this, and doing so they build really nifty structures.

There's a difference, of course, because Legos are not persons. We, however, given into God's service, need to be able to become attached to others for service and for God's kingdom to be built. But we must not become more attached to our position than we are committed to the Lord whose plan it is. So, we need to be free enough to both give of ourselves to people and to let go in relationships. It has helped me to learn from mystics and visionaries like St. Catherine of Siena that no love we experience in Christ on earth is ever lost; heaven sees the continuation and flourishing of every holy relationship begun on earth. That makes the letting go a bit easier.

I still have a fear. It's not a fear of getting hurt, though. That inevitably happens, but it's ultimately no big deal to me. No, here it is -- I finally realize that attachments bring me face to face with death in a very intense way. Finally, I have the words for it. Love, the daily stuff on this earth, is a little death. It's giving myself away. And a big love, the intensity of attachment I tend to experience -- I am seeing now I fear it because it is like a trumpet blaring in my soul that this is not for this world, it is all about the next, and I love here to get ready for the next. I will die. Love is me exercising for the real thing, heaven. And at this juncture in my life, this still frightens me. The fact that I will die and let go of everything frightens me. My mind tells me it shouldn't, but apparently my mind and my will have some work to do to get on the same page.

Loving deeply should be the most joyous thing there is, and it should also be the most genuine. For that to be true, I truly need the freedom of soul to detach at any moment from this life to attach to eternity. Or, to undergo any other detaching or attaching the Lord desires for me in this life, without fearing it. Otherwise, my love is intermixed with self-seeking, with clinging, with those "disordered attachments" the saints write about. Thanks be to God that He allows us to muddle through in our impurity, offering Him the best we can and all the while pleading that His mercy may purify us and make us fit for Him.

Latest Installment in my Recurring Church Dream

For the last many years -- don't even know how long, really -- I have had a recurring dream. It isn't actually one where I have the exact same dream; rather it is the same theme played out in different ways. I've come to almost look forward to these dreams in a way, because they sort of help me think about where my life has gone of late. I'd say I have one of these dreams once or maybe twice a year.

The theme is that there is some connection to my hometown, or occasionally the town where my grandparents lived, and that I am trying to get to a Catholic church. In the beginning of having these dreams, I was in the church where I grew up, going to a Sunday service, and ignoring the fact that I was now Catholic. I would wake up and be disappointed with myself for missing Mass. Then it became an anxiety dream where I would realize I was in the Lutheran church and I'd be running, trying to find a Catholic church, then trying to find a Mass, or trying to get there on time. Later, it was stumbling upon Catholic churches that I hadn't known existed, trying to get inside or waiting for Mass to start. More recently these dreams have been about discoveries, like one where I returned to my grandparents' home to find that it had once been a chapel and still had a hidden and occupied tabernacle there.

The symbolism for me is that the Lutheran church represents (sorry, my Lutheran friends) the unregenerate part of my heart that is comfortable with doing things in the old way, whereas the Catholic things represent the life of grace and my concern to find it and stick with it. Same is true of the fact that it is my hometown that is associated with the old. In some of these dreams I am trying to drive to Milwaukee, which is where I became a Catholic. In one rather powerful dream a few years ago, I was required by circumstances to move back to Wisconsin, which meant leaving behind my Catholic community here. I remember waking with a jolt and suddenly being overcome with tears, realizing that, yes, it was only a dream, but more importantly that yes, I really do have a real Catholic community surrounding me here.

I was wondering if I would have another installment in this recurring dream while I was visiting my mom, because we were going back and forth over whether I would be taking her to church (the very one that used to always be the beginning of this dream). I never saw the church in person or in a dream. But the night before leaving, lo and behold, there was one with another weird twist. I've been too tired and busy to think through what my mind is telling me, so that's why it shows up here.

In this dream I was back in my real home. I was with a group of people and we were sort of Christmas caroling door-to-door, except we were actually chanting the Liturgy of the Hours. We came to a specific storefront in my neighborhood (I drove past it today; it's really there!) and stopped to sing in front of it. We were welcomed in to discover that it was -- a Lutheran church! LCA, to be exact (this was the most liberal of the three branches that merged some 25 years ago to form the ELCA). It was packed with people, but its pastor was a former priest, a man I actually love very much (in real life) but who was removed from the priesthood on the decision of his Bishop because of criminal allegations. When I saw that he was the pastor, I first ran to give him a hug, so happy to see him, but then he looked at me, rather crestfallen, as if to acknowledge how disappointed I must have been that he had become Lutheran. I didn't think too much of that, but noticed that all of these Lutherans had rosaries and were excitedly learning about Catholicism. It was a whirlwind of life in there where things were not quite properly Catholic, but definitely not really Lutheran, either. Most of the people in the congregation were black. And some started in on the Liturgy of the Hours with us.

I don't take these things too seriously as prophetic, but if anything, it makes it clear to me that in my mind I see myself standing on the threshold of very new things. And perhaps that life in God is more vital than having appearances all "just so."

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Living One Life

For over a week now, I've been away from home and in the midst of what I've come to think of as a spiritual palate cleanser. Once again I see that God my Father always knows exactly what I need. That whole omniscience thing is quite an advantage. And I, for my part, learn to say "Yes, Lord" on a daily basis, and that I don't have to understand the why of everything that happens at every moment.

A few months ago, I wrote a post called "Living Two Lives" in which I mulled over some issues of  how I handled my spiritual life as a child, and some difficulty I've had in carrying that over into adulthood. Oddly enough, I'm now back in my childhood hometown with my face smack in as much of the concreteness of my childhood as is left. I wasn't at all expecting this, but like I said, God has His ways.

When I wrote that post, I felt every bit of the intensity of it. The post is no lie. But life does flow onward. Two things seem much clearer and much calmer to me right now. One is this thing that God has been reminding me of again and again for at least twenty years: He calls me to be myself. And the only way I learn to be myself is by looking at Him. It seems a classic theme of dramas from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to Yentl that sometimes people need a lot of courage to strike off on a path to be true to themselves, to be who they are, despite the voices around them. I can tell you it is pretty terrifying when you sense this call but have no idea where it leads, or perhaps deep down you do, but it seems so contrary to everything that you've learned is right and good that you don't know how to proceed. So, you have to fake something somewhere along the line until such a time as you learn how to have all the pieces come together. For me, embracing the Catholic faith as someone with a contemplative, mystical bent has been this kind of journey. I see now that it wasn't only my rabid anti-Catholicism as a child that was a roadblock in the way. Self-rejection was a far larger roadblock and one that was much harder for me to see at work. I suppose it stands to reason that the whole point of God repeatedly telling me to be myself is that I always thought I had to be like someone else in order to please Him. Or at the very least, if I was going to be me, I had to make fun of myself for being so damn weird. I finally see that to think that way is to insult my Creator.

All I know is that there are a thousand and one ways for the heart to become a torture chamber. God's enemy is always ready to help the torture along, to be sure.

But the other thing that has become so clear to me is that God gives peace. Union with God's will simply gives peace and is worth any and every struggle that it calls for. The struggle is primarily that of overcoming sin and pride, because humility frees intimacy to happen, and only when we humble ourselves before God are we able to enjoy the intimacy of uniting our wills to His. Only when I can humble myself in my own estimation am I able to accept myself as I am. Only when I can do this can I accept others as they are. And all of this can only happen in the awareness that God's mercy comes first. His tsunami-like torrent of love for me makes it possible for me to face my sin, my pride, and to embrace humility and acceptance without fear of obliteration. I have to know how deeply I am loved, or there's no hope for me at all.

So, the one life I live is this: God deeply and profoundly loves me. In fact, He'd even die to prove it. (Oh, wait -- He did!) And into this infinitely deep and wide love I can fling myself, whole and entire, with no fear of harm, and I do every day, saying "Yes, Lord, whatever You want." Living this some days may thrill me, some days this may break me, some days this may seem dull and meaningless. God will always, always do what is best for me and He is always to be trusted.

That is my one life. Me, broken sinner that I am, living for God as He teaches me in His Church and under His mercy.

Monday, July 02, 2012

Beauty, Worship, and the Brick Wall Parish

This has been such a long day. But I don't want to lose track of something that happened this morning.

I'm visiting my hometown, where I never lived while I was a Catholic. That being the case, I don't have any sense of a "home" parish here. This morning my husband and I went to Mass just down the road, at what I am now going to start calling The Brick Wall Parish. The poor thing was built in 1968, which was not such a bad year for people, but for Catholic churches, well, forget it. It is boxlike, and the prominent thing you look at when seated in the church is a brick wall. The second prominent thing you see is a large heating apparatus, running the length of the brick wall, in  a pleasing similar shade as the bricks. There is also a large crucifix on the wall, flanked by two banners, which happened to be solid green right now for ordinary time. Then there is the altar, done in faux-prehistoric style, which looks to be sitting on three gigantic black djembe drums. The furniture looks like it was purchased from Office Max.

I commented to my husband on the way home that essentially everything possible about the look of the church was reduced to utilitarian purpose. Sadly, the liturgy was the same way. It hurts to even give too much detail by way of example. Every last thing that could be omitted was omitted, like pausing for a second or two between words. There was no sense of grandeur to anything. This Mass was not rushed because folks were headed off to work; besides the two of us, I counted one, perhaps two others who were not of retirement age, as that is the make-up of the parish.

I contrast this to another parish we frequent when we can. It is far older, and gorgeous. The liturgy, reverent.

It strikes me that properly worshipping God seems to demand a lot of superfluous beauty. God is not about utilitarianism. Fr. Robert Barron said in the DVD series "Catholicism" something like this: worship at Mass is the absolutely highest thing a human being can do exactly because it has no utilitarian purpose at all. God seems to love us to waste our time on Him, and to lavish worshipping Him with as much beauty we can muster, even if it is gone as the note fades, or the flowers die, or the building crumbles. The existence of beauty doesn't even really make sense apart from the fact that it is the cry of creation itself back to its Creator. A church, a liturgy, the worship of God, the life of the human person (all so closely related one to another) should be oozing with this completely non-functional, strictly-speaking-unnecessary beauty.

When worship is reduced to functionality, it destroys hope in the soul. It squelches the sense of mystery, of wonder, of the sense that our souls are designed exactly for the kind of grandeur we see. When I look at bricks I think about surviving concentration camps. When I look at marble and fine metals and carved statues, I contemplate surrendering my life to Christ in love. We have our senses for a purpose, and that purpose is not to make us desolate.

A favorite quote of mine, one I wish church architects had been familiar with in 1968:  "A day spent without the sight or sound of beauty, the contemplation of mystery, or the search of truth or perfection is a poverty-stricken day; and a succession of such days is fatal to human life."