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.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Preparing for God's Infilling

God is a mystery. He is, at one and the same time, the one of which I am most sure and the one which I comprehend least. This is the way it should be, and yet there is an element of tantalizing frustration in this. That frustration is the longing the human soul feels that keeps it seeking, searching, despite the cost.

Today I was thinking about how in years past, I've had different kinds of "issues" in my relationship with God. Two decades ago, I wrestled with the fear that if I totally committed my life to the Lord, I would end up in some situation that seemed odious to me. The way I thought of it was "scrubbing toilets in some tiny town somewhere." In other words, I feared finding no fulfillment in life.

I don't struggle with that fear anymore, even though I live in a small town and occasionally scrub my toilet. The Lord has proven to me beyond the shadow of a doubt that He fills my life with joy so unspeakable at times that I can hardly breathe.

Just a few years ago I still struggled with the fear (this one has hung around a lot longer than the toilet fear) that God was bent on ripping away from me people that I love and relationships that are important to me. The thing to underline here is that I believed God was like that, that He somehow was not keen on human beings experiencing healthy attachments. It was another, more personal version of the "following God makes one miserable" saw.

The very odd thing is that right now, I must say I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that God is not like that; He is all about His love being demonstrated in this world one person to the other. I simply cannot any longer buy into this fear. But in the very same moment, I am living through one of the most painful separations from a friend that I have ever known, and I know it is coming to me from the hand of God this way.


It seems to me that God continues to extend invitations to us. If you think that there was but one invitation to you to "get saved" and that's it, you need to think again. God continues to call us after Him. Every day He beckons us to be with Him, to go with Him, to follow where He leads. One of the ways He does this is by extending to us the cross. It is true, there are many who suffer things that they rage against; they are not choosing it or submitting to it or wanting it. There is much suffering no one in their right mind should ever want, because it has nothing to do with God's will at all. But there are crosses that God offers. There are many little ways that God offers to give us the opportunity to say to Him, "Yes, Lord, anything you want." But that "yes, Lord" a genuine one, is an expression of love. Sometimes God tests our love so we can see how genuine it is, or isn't. We can only truly give a response of love to a God of whom we are not afraid, in a servile way. Only when our fear of God is an awe-filled dread of disbelieving His love because of how convincingly He has already shown it, and because of how pigheadedly wicked a lack of trust would actually feel -- that's when love's "yes" has some depth to it.

As the dialogue of love deepens, there is also this deepening call to detachment. Perhaps in a way neither my intuitions were completely off, though they were misinformed because Love was not in the center of my understanding. I've heard priests and religious describe celibacy in the sense not of what you give up, but what you open yourself to receive. We have to think of detachment this way. There has to be that huge, looming, overwhelming, beckoning presence of Love so that we know God does not call us just to be austere and empty and silent, but rather to be prepared for the great influx of His love for which this detachment prepares. There is a movement of faith here. We detach, we move away from, we empty, we experience pruning, all for the sake of greater life, something with which we cannot fill ourselves, something which we must receive from the God who fills.

I wish the gospels told us about Mary's life in the months before the Annunciation. How was she prepared for the single greatest infilling of God ever known to human history? Was her betrothal to Joseph, as traditions hint, a major death to her life's dream of remaining unmarried for the Lord? Did she experience a dark night when nothing made sense, but submit to the Lord's directives anyway?

Come Holy Spirit. Show me once again how the power of your presence and love causes me to be completely undone. Help me not to refuse the cross by which the Lord desires to draw me close. And let me not seek to be loved, but to love all with the love that comes from You.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Jealousy and the Zero-Sum Game

Some years ago, a woman on an infertility forum I was in made a very profound point that makes more sense to me as time passes. You see, this was a group of faithful Catholic women who were both struggling with the desire to have children and struggling against the notion, broadcast so loudly in both the medical community and the infertility culture at large, that children are a commodity to be demanded and produced at will. This is an incredibly painful rock and hard place to be between. To truly entrust oneself to God and seek to do all that is humanly possible to open oneself to the most optimal health.... and to try to maintain this within a loving and patient relationship with one's spouse, all while yearning for children -- this is a very heavy cross.

And in that support group context, it would occasionally happen that a woman would get pregnant and stay pregnant. And that gave all of the rest of us the occasion to decide how we would react.

Some women were gracious and excited for one so blessed. Oh, we were all excited, but some had an easier time expressing it. Some, myself included, had a harder time with this. After reading through fifty emails of congratulations, and a few rounds of the amazed new mother responding how she is so grateful and thrilled at God's blessing, there would often be at least one honest soul who confessed to having a very hard time at watching someone else be blessed. I imagine there were others who simply quietly slunk off and had a good cry.

It's not that anyone would wish ill on someone who had struggled, but it was just so dang painful, and rejoicing with those who rejoice never seemed harder.

This whole scenario would replay itself every so often, and one of these times was the prompt for the insight that has stuck with me:  God's blessings are not a zero-sum game.

Meaning, of course, that just because God had blessed x person, nothing had been taken away from y person. Your blessing does not diminish me. My blessing does not threaten you.

And that is so, so hard to take in when you are in pain and are already feeling threatened by everything.

I think part of the way we get in pain in the first place is by getting stuck defining goodness in our own self-centered terms. We know we are limited. We know that if we, say, give our time to sewing wonderful outfits, we won't have time for cooking wonderful meals -- or at least not that same time. If we worship a god that we have created in our own image, we think of this god as being as limited as ourselves, probably without being aware of how silly such a god would be. If god has blessed you, that must mean there is less for me. If you didn't exist, I might be the one being blessed. This is why jealousy leads to hatred.

To truly rejoice with the one who rejoices, we need to grasp that the one who bestows blessings is infinite. God is good. It is His nature. He is not some idol like ourselves of our own making.

But again, trusting that God is good when one is in pain is difficult. There were plenty of times when I yelled at God, cried at God, got disgusted at God, and turned away from God in self-pity because of pain. It's that last one that is really the goal of the enemy of our souls. If the devil can get a soul to just poke a toe into the miry tar of self-pity, he will have little more work to do. By just rumpling around the slightest bit in self-pity, that soul will lose sight of God's goodness, love and mercy, and lose sight of its own identity as a child of God who is loved and as a creature of God who, by mere fact of one's existence, owes the Lord reverence and worship in justice.

So much is corrected by praying "Lord, You are God; I am not."

The answer to pain, jealousy, and every other sin and negative thing we experience is to bring them to God for a good long show-and-tell. Just make sure you are talking to the real God, and not navel gazing, or you are really just back in the trap of self-pity.

It is hard. But when you bring pain to God, He responds. He acts, He answers, He involves Himself. He is Almighty. He is not a gumball dispenser, though, so along with your pain, bring respect, honor and surrender.

Because you want out. You want the blessing this time.

Instead of cursing the candle which has shown you God's blessing is possible, extend your wick in faith and trust, and receive the light of Christ.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

I Don't Do People Very Well

Some of the reasons I write this blog to begin with include helping me process and understand what happens in my life and thoughts, and having a place where I have the accountability of putting what I say "out there" for hypothetical readers, because I know this requires me to be honest with myself. But another reason I write is so that later I can go back and read what I said at a certain time, remembering what was going on at that certain time, and hopefully at that later point I can have a better understanding of all the pieces of living because, as Kierkegaard said, life must be lived forward but can only be understood backwards.

So, I write now in hopes of better understanding later. Or at least in hopes of chuckling to myself about how silly I used to be.

They say that when you draw close to the Lord you are able to see more clearly how much junk you have in your life. Well, it seems the Lord is busy drawing me close to Him. I am starting to realize that although I have certain kinds of sensitivity to spiritual things, to connections with truth, to seeing spiritual patterns, I am a dullard when it comes to people. To use a phrase that my husband over-uses to the point of irritation, I can be like a bull in a china shop. No wonder I make my daughter cry when we work on academic stuff, and no wonder I frustrate my fun-loving son to the point of tears sometimes. Sometimes I have all the finesse of an axe-wielder.

I have made my way through life by forcing myself up over obstacles, plowing ahead, clearing a path generally, not carefully. I suppose someone has to do that sort of thing, and to me it has been necessary, because I had debilitating passivity and depression standing in my way for years. But I realize now that many situations simply do not call for this approach. Many situations require delicate handling, patient endurance, a gentle hand and a calm approach. These are not characteristics that rush to mind when one would describe me, if one knew what one were talking about.

And so I see how much I need to learn from those who are not like me. And I see how much I need those who are not like me. And I see how I have to acknowledge that the entire world is not my nail to pound in my hammerness. And I see how much I need to go before the Lord each day and ask what He would have me do, and for His way of doing it, rather than presuming that just because I want it a certain way that it is wise to have it that way.

It is true that God has been teaching me for 20 years to be myself. But now I see that being myself means that I am needy, incomplete, a part of a whole, interdependent with others, and totally dependent upon God, who loves me despite my boorishness.

As I allow myself to soak in God's love, perhaps I will lose more boorish edges. I think that soaking really boils down not to an emotional experience but to a conscious awareness -- faith, in other words -- in God's love and mercy. If I stay aware of God's mercy towards me, then I will soften my approach to others, aware that it is His mercy flowing through me, not some emotional concoction I can whip up on my own. Because that's all I can bank on, really. The Lord, I am sure of. Me, I know I'm not reliable, except perhaps as a chaff dispenser. So each day I must pray, Jesus, love these people through me. Not my way with them, Lord, but yours.

Otherwise, what does it mean to belong to Him?