Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Year I'd Rather Forget... Maybe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God is good.

No comments: