Saturday, December 21, 2013

A Meditation on St. Ambrose's Commentary on the Visitation

Have I ever mentioned that I love Advent? And have I ever mentioned how thrilling it can be to pray and feel your life standing in God's presence, yes, even despite Him allowing a few more things to be unhidden about the mystery, often the totally miserable mystery, one is to oneself? Because when you stand in God's presence, even though you realize what a miserable wretch one is in oneself, one is also aware of God's all-sufficient love and being which is at the ready to fill us. The timing, the process are His. We need not fear or fret or let shame swallow us; we need only stay aware of our need and of His bigness.

This morning I read the commentary by St. Ambrose on Luke that appears in the Office of Readings for December 21. This is what has inspired my little outburst of delight in Advent and prayer. I found myself stopping in the middle of reading to exclaim, "Gosh, St. Ambrose, I love you!" Here's the link to the full text: (you'll need to scroll to the bottom).

Stroll through this with me and let me show you what makes me so happy.

First it says: "When the angel revealed his message to the Virgin Mary he gave her a sign to win her trust." God really seems to like signs. He felt one was appropriate for Mary -- I want to say even for Mary, the sinless one, but perhaps it should be especially for the sinless one. What is it about signs that require purity to be received? In the next paragraph, St. Ambrose says "she does not disbelieve God's word; she feels no uncertainty over the message or doubt about the sign." And I think, wow. Mary knows very well the difference between God's message, God's promise, God's word, and make-believe, her own thoughts, her own desires. She knows the Word of God before He is even incarnate. And she trusts Him completely.

I wrote about my experience with a big sign in my life, back a few posts. My experience has been, uh, quite different. Actually, I've had many incidents of "signs" in my life and frankly most of the time I've hated this kind of thing. But I realize now this is a process of purification for me, and what I've hated is the pain associated with purification. Every time, this type of thing drags out vast tracts of impurity out from hiding into my awareness. And that can be, well, a little hard to deal with, shall we say. St. Ambrose says the Blessed Mother goes "eager in purpose, dutiful in conscience, hastening for joy." I have often been stuck with an inner sense of certainty (for example, the moment of my first encountering the Lord in the Eucharist -- I knew for certain that I was before the Lord Jesus) and complications in my soul that left me anything but eager, dutiful and hastening for joy in response to my certainty. This scenario has played out again and again in my life. But I think I'm learning. Mary had nothing to learn about getting freed from sin since the Lord accomplished that work in her by a special grace from her conception, as a living portrait of hope for the rest of us, so we would have someone human to look to and follow. Our being able to do that is super duper important to God.

Ok back to St. Ambrose.

"The Holy Spirit does not proceed by slow, laborious efforts." Oh, this makes me happy. Someone once was sermonizing to me about how conversion is a slow process. As I listened, my gut said a firm "no." But most people who sermonize are quite sure of their wisdom, and this left me in the common position of listening patiently to something my deep-down simply flat out disagreed with. Conversion is a work of the Holy Spirit, and it is more like lightning. What takes a long time is the lead-up to conversion and the follow-on from the change He brings about. This is of course especially slow the more resistance we throw up to God's work in us. When I met the Lord at St. Anthony of Padua parish on Christmas morning of 1991, I was changed forever, but it has taken decades for that change to unfold. We can cooperate to unfold what God gives, but we cannot give ourselves that moment of encounter, regardless of how badly we want it. When God comes to us, it is His work and His gift, period. We stand in utter need of Him.

Then St. Ambrose looks at the contrasts involved with the four people present at the Visitation. Elizabeth hears Mary's voice, but John is the first to be aware of grace. I can relate just a little to John the prophet, and how his disposition makes for awkward social moments (if awkwardness is something one is to worry about). Elizabeth is aware of Mary, and certainly she has a joy in seeing her. But John is responding on a completely different level. There have been times when I've felt like people are exchanging the proverbial social niceties, and I am leaping for joy. And of course, the response of those who are "dealing with reality" is like: (raised eyebrow) what's going on there? But St. Ambrose goes on to say that when St. John leaps in the womb, Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit. He responds to, and thereby points out and makes accessible for others, the unseen presence and reality of God. This can feel strange when it plays out in real life. It's like dancing to a melody others can't hear. And I realize this is one way to describe exactly the Carmelite vocation.

And then St. Ambrose talks about how Mary's soul is to be in each of us, in the sense that we are all to receive and bring forth the Word of God. "The Lord is magnified, not because the human voice can add anything to God but because he is magnified within us. Christ is the image of God, and if the soul does what is right and holy, it magnifies that image of God, in whose likeness it was created..." And thus we are blessed and exalted by God, purely as His gift.

And what he doesn't say is that this exaltation by God then draws others, enabling them to encounter God and enter into their own odyssey of faith. God is good. And He chooses to need us. To the degree one can grasp that, what other response can we give but to give our hearts to Him entirely in worship?

Thursday, December 19, 2013

God's Answer to my "How To" Question

I wish I had a word for this mood surrounding me of late. I think of it as a sort of impotent intensity. I feel this great driving urge within me and also the inability of that drive to go anywhere. It's like a great desire to "pray hard" and then realizing that one can only stumblingly form words to lift to God let alone find any depth of feeling inside them.

Perhaps this is fitting for the great Advent wait.

Starting last fall, the theme that jumped out at me with my every approach towards Scripture was the theme of the anawim: the humbled remnant that has no power and can look only to God to be the Savior, the Redeemer. Last year had an Advent in it as I recall, and I heard the same readings then as I hear now. But then, it was all the call to become anawim.

This Advent, everything I hear is swirling around God the judge, the one Who arrives on the scene on behalf of the anawim. The one who takes evil out. The One with power.

So lately I've been asking God "how" questions: How do I relate to You? How do I draw near to You? What is it I'm actually supposed to do?

My problem with asking things like this is that sometimes I make nice little collections out of the answers I get. I get really happy with answers from God. The answer is a sign of God's love. But I don't always take it seriously, until the second or third or fifth time God reminds me to actually DO what He says. Geez, I sound like my kids.

Today I came across this from St. Irenaeus, and I realize it reads almost like one of those annoying "Five Simple Steps to a More Fruitful Spiritual Life" articles. But, I was asking, and I read this, so writing about it is step one in etching these things into my heart. First, the quote:

If man, without being puffed up or boastful, has a right belief regarding created things and their divine Creator, who, having given them being, holds them all in his power, and if man perseveres in God's love, and in obedience and gratitude to him, he will receive greater glory from him. It will be a glory which will grow ever brighter until he takes on the likeness of the one who died for him.

So, here's how I break that down.
Without being puffed up or boastful -- humility
Right belief regarding created things, etc. -- detachment
Persevering in God's love -- believing in, receiving, and returning God's love
Obedience -- to Scripture and to the Church
Gratitude -- for everything, towards God and people

The net result, says St. Irenaeus, is receiving greater glory. This is the same saint who says "the glory of God is man fully alive." The glory of God is really the manifestation of His presence. And St. Ireneus says that this presence will grow brighter until we actually seem to be like the Lord Jesus Himself.

So, my answer to "How do I draw near to God" is simple clear. Seek humility, seek detachment. Love God, obey Him, and be continually thankful.

All of these have given me quite a workout, but I must say the one that is left most loose and flapping on me is gratitude. I have the temperamental tendency to always see how things could be better, how they are not quite perfect. And I realize as I write that that I have some difficulty really owning that for what it is. A friend of mine who decorates our church was telling me recently how she has learned to use her own critical eye in her art to train more people to see as she sees, and to encourage others' talents, using hers to merely tweak their work rather than take the whole burden on herself. And there is a lot of wisdom in that. It isn't quite as easy to do in music, which is where I have the opportunity to train others to hear what I hear. Too often I settle for "ok, whatever" instead of helping others improve. This, too, is a lesson God has given me and I have not paid attention to.

But back to gratitude. Working to correct someone constructively is a far cry from simply crabbing and complaining about everything that's not perfect. Even if it isn't verbally articulated exactly that way, even a subtle tendency to moan over imperfect things can fuel a general direction into ingratitude. That is very easy for me to slide into. I have been making it a point to explicitly thank God for things I often take for granted. It will take some time before this becomes habitual or natural to my way of thinking, though.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

I Used to Hate Christmas

I was just scrolling through Facebook posts recently when suddenly I remembered: I used to hate Christmas.

It's true. I did.

I was uptightly religious about it, too. When I was in college, from somewhere I got this bendy plastic, tall, skinny Santa figurine that somehow had just a metal hook where its head was supposed to be. I taped it upside down to a big piece of paper and put in big bold letters "DEATH TO SANTA" across it and taped it to my dorm door. The RA, somewhat disturbed by this, eventually removed it and refused to give it back. Apparently doing things like that to Santa in a Lutheran college was just too much.

I was against all the commercialism, you know. That's a pretty self-righteous position, isn't it? Aren't good people opposed to commercialism, after all? Sales, carols, decorations, people with no right to go about with smiles on their faces, thinking they can or should make other people happy... to me it was all so obviously a lie and hypocrisy. Bah. Humbug.

Buying presents for people just because they are related to you seemed so dumb. No one really seemed to ever know what anyone really liked, wanted, or needed. I mostly just wished someone cared in others months about what people liked, wanted, or needed.

Ok, the truth is I hated Christmas because it shoved all the pain of my life up into my face. My parents' divorce, the fact that my dad seemed to get drunk more often at Christmastime and terrorize us with drunken phone calls and arguments, the tense eggshell environment we all lived in as we all agreed to simply pretend these problems and more didn't really exist and never had. The isolation that grew thicker the more I was with people. The spiritual emptiness of it all, on what was supposed to be a profound Christian celebration.

I hated being a human being, even as a Christian.

And then, one night 22 years ago, that all changed.

God knows everything. He knows every pain each one of us faces, and He doesn't know it as if He read about it once in a magazine. He knows because He has been present with us while each one of them has happened. And He is our Redeemer. When we are finally ready to turn our hearts to Him and open them just a bit, humble ourselves, and ask Him for help, He rushes in.

That's what He did for me at a Christmas Eve Midnight Mass in 1991 in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. I had an enormous barrier to get over, namely a carefully nursed hatred of all things Catholic. But that night He helped me hand over that hatred, and then He scooped me up and began whispering to my soul that He humbled Himself for me, became a human being for me, in order to redeem me, because I was worth it. It took 20 years for those whispers of that night to finish rocking my world.

Christmas awesomeness. Total redemption.

And today, I couldn't even remember the person I once was without conscious effort.

Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Prophets, Prophets Everywhere

I have prophets on the brain of late.

Those Advent Mass readings, right? Even if I've heard the same thing every year in the past, I'm not hearing it the same way this year. 

Today, there's Balaam, the dude who is better known for getting so angry at his donkey that God gives the donkey speech to tell him off. Hired to curse Israel, eh? Well, we'll see about that. God makes it clear that He is the one who gives messages, even to asses like Balaam. I love, though, the eloquent intro he gives to his prophecy of the Messiah:
the utterance of a man whose eye is true,
The utterance of one who hears what God says,
and knows what the Most High knows,
Of one who sees what the Almighty sees,
enraptured, and with eyes unveiled:
 It's like you just want to tell him, ok, enough puffery, get on with it. And yet, it seems that almost in spite of himself, Balaam speaks the truth.

The Psalm: "Teach me your ways, O Lord." I heard that immediately as the prayer coming from the heart of one being discipled in the prophetic, in what it means to be a prophet. God's ways are prophetic; He is speaking forth. And the key there, as to the entire spiritual life, seems to be humility.

Then that gospel that just made me grin as I heard it. I wrote a post yesterday about St. John the Baptist, and how he speaks to me as a prophetic sign in my own life. And I love how Jesus interacts with these religious leaders. They are concerned that Jesus defend his right to, you know, exist and do Messiah-y things. They have clearly not grasped His divinity; at most they have considered it a theoretical possibility, but they are waiting for it to make sense to them before they are willing to embrace the idea. They live religion on the level of ideology. It is about the idea of a coming Messiah, the idea of religious authority, not faith, not the openness to experience that leads to the embrace of faith.

And Jesus simply will not meet them on that level.

What about John the Baptist? What about that whole experience? Was it from God? Or was it just another human thing. (Good golly, in reference to my post I wrote yesterday, how many zillions of times did I work through those questions?! Does this experience bear the marks of the work of God, or is it a simple human flash-in-the-pan?)

But these religious leaders weren't even really ready to wrestle with the question. They still worried about how the question made them look to other people. If they said it was from God, Jesus would "get" them. If they said it was all a human nothing, popular opinion would "get" them. And at all costs, they would not be "gotten" by anyone. They had to stay far removed from all that. And that's why they lived in their isolationary ideological ivory tower (oooh -- "i" alliteration; be still my poetic heart!)

No answer, Jesus. We'll stay with ideology.

Okees. You choose to stay there. Then I won't answer you, because you don't really want it and my answer will do you no good.

And right there is Jesus' prophetic lesson: this is how you talk about truth. Step one: you have to be all about the person in front of you -- understanding, loving, respecting, challenging, and then letting go.

And then I come across this homily of Pope Francis' today.
Commenting on the day’s readings, Pope Francis said a prophet is someone who listens to the words of God, who reads the spirit of the times, and who knows how to move forward towards the future. True prophets, the Pope said, hold within themselves three different moments: past, present, and future. They keep the promise of God alive, they see the suffering of their people, and they bring us the strength to look ahead. 

'Tis certainly the season to think about prophets, but there's something insistent here for me to pay attention to.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

John the Baptist and The Sign

Sometimes, a picture is just worth a thousand words:

The Mass readings of today held many layers of personal meaning for me. But they are all summed up in the figure of St. John the Baptist.

This passage from St. Augustine in the Office of Readings also blew me away today:

From a sermon by Saint Augustine
John is the voice, and Christ is the Word
John is the voice, but the Lord is the Word who was in the beginning. John is the voice that lasts for a time; from the beginning Christ is the Word who lives for ever.
  Take away the word, the meaning, and what is the voice? Where there is no understanding, there is only a meaningless sound. The voice without the word strikes the ear but does not build up the heart.
  However, let us observe what happens when we first seek to build up our hearts. When I think about what I am going to say, the word or message is already in my heart. When I want to speak to you, I look for a way to share with your heart what is already in mine.
  In my search for a way to let this message reach you, so that the word already in my heart may find place also in yours, I use my voice to speak to you. The sound of my voice brings the meaning of the word to you and then passes away. The word which the sound has brought to you is now in your heart, and yet it is still also in mine.
  When the word has been conveyed to you, does not the sound seem to say: The word ought to grow, and I should diminish? The sound of the voice has made itself heard in the service of the word, and has gone away, as though it were saying: My joy is complete. Let us hold on to the word; we must not lose the word conceived inwardly in our hearts.
  Do you need proof that the voice passes away but the divine Word remains? Where is John’s baptism today? It served its purpose, and it went away. Now it is Christ’s baptism that we celebrate. It is in Christ that we all believe; we hope for salvation in him. This is the message the voice cried out.
  Because it is hard to distinguish word from voice, even John himself was thought to be the Christ. The voice was thought to be the word. But the voice acknowledged what it was, anxious not to give offence to the word. I am not the Christ, he said, nor Elijah, nor the prophet. And the question came: Who are you, then? He replied: I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way for the Lord. The voice of one crying in the wilderness is the voice of one breaking the silence. Prepare the way for the Lord, he says, as though he were saying: “I speak out in order to lead him into your hearts, but he does not choose to come where I lead him unless you prepare the way for him.”
  What does prepare the way mean, if not “pray well”? What does prepare the way mean, if not “be humble in your thoughts”? We should take our lesson from John the Baptist. He is thought to be the Christ; he declares he is not what they think. He does not take advantage of their mistake to further his own glory.
  If he had said, “I am the Christ,” you can imagine how readily he would have been believed, since they believed he was the Christ even before he spoke. But he did not say it; he acknowledged what he was. He pointed out clearly who he was; he humbled himself.
  He saw where his salvation lay. He understood that he was a lamp, and his fear was that it might be blown out by the wind of pride.

Here's my take-home pondering. A few years back, God placed someone in my life and a little bit later gave me to understand that this person had a John-the-Baptist-like role in my life. I really didn't understand at the time what that meant. But today I see with greater clarity. John the Baptist signaled the end of the old covenant and the beginning of the new. His role was limited; he pointed to Christ, and then he was beheaded. And yet he was the greatest of prophets because he literally pointed not centuries ahead (see yesterday's post) but feet ahead to the present Messiah.

Now, it seems a little tricky for a person to be put in my life as a prophetic sign, but I think that's what I'm saying has happened. This person has been more than a prophetic sign, though. There have been other aspects ranging from the good to the bad to the very, very difficult in our relationship with each other. Today, though, it seems that the important thing for me to pay attention to is the meaning of the prophetic sign. Because of this person, God dug through some very old things in my life, pre-Catholic, even pre-conversion to Christ, and did away with them. Boom, gone. Well, that "boom" took a few years, but still. And also through this person, God has ushered me in to a new era of my life. As I look back now, it is clear-as-day undeniable. God has used this person to call me to a new and deeper life in Christ and the Church, which has a concrete name: the Secular Carmelites. My personal relationship with the Lord has been utterly transformed. And there's even been something like a beheading. Fortunately it has not been literal, but the whole ordeal was painful enough that it feels like it should have been. Just to drive the point home that it was a non-coincidental move of God, a certain division landed smack on the feast of the beheading of John the Baptist a couple years ago.

I can get really caught up looking at signs. It reminds me of the gospel scene of Jesus having ascended to heaven, and the disciples stand there staring up into the sky, probably with their mouths open, gaping and dumbfounded. The angel has to come and say "Yo, dudes. What are you doing? Close your mouths, and then go do what He just got done telling you. Shoo, go, make disciples!"

I have stood gaping at the sign God gave me. Signs are precious gifts. But signs exist so that we put our faith in the power of the One who has revealed Himself to us, not so that we can build booths and stay on the mountain top forever with the sign.

God is calling me onward. Onward, for me, usually means something interior. I have sensed this for at least one solid year, but "senses" never come just once; they build in layers of prayer and experience. But I know that this "onward" means this understanding: Love means giving myself for the other. Which other? Any and every other God puts in my path. It means loving and giving for the sake of the other, not for what I get out of the loving or the giving. My life is a blank check. Absolutely all of it is put at God's disposal for His purposes, which means it is at the disposal of the people in my life: "my neighbor." I am reminded how Bl. Teresa of Calcutta said that God does not command us to love the world because "the world" is an abstraction. He calls us to love our neighbor. That means the concrete person sharing our life.

But that person, those people, do not become my security. I do not lay claim to any person. Love with detachment, as the Father does and Jesus reveals to us. This does not mean God is aloof; it means that He does not love with self-seeking. He loves with complete self-giving, to the point of death.

My security, my attachment is to Christ on the cross: the sign of God's eternal love which becomes mine. May I love Him and come to imitate Him.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Prophecy, Reality, and the Done Deal

Under the category: Scriptures that Blow me Away
I was listening to the Seraphic Fire recording of Handel's Messiah today. Any average time I listen to the Messiah I am bound to be captivated by some Scripture or another from it, as I have written about on previous occasions. But this time, it was a completely new aspect that grabbed me and, to be honest, made me heave joyful but surprising sobs that I didn't completely understand.

It was the words of the very first definitive proclamation of the birth of the Savior as having happened.

And they are recorded in the book of the prophet Isaiah, and were penned some handful of centuries before Christ.

For unto us a child is born
Unto us a son is given
And the government shall be upon his shoulders
And his name shall be called
Wonderful, Counselor
The Mighty God, the Everlasting Father
The Prince of Peace
I heard this with completely new ears today. Imagine it. The prophet proclaims that something has happened, already. One who is called God has been born a child. This sent my mind and spirit tumbling in a sort of timeless free fall where faith is the only solid foundation. When the prophet wrote these words, were they true? Were they fact? Jesus Christ was born something like 500-700 years later, depending on how you date Isaiah. But the prophet did more than see the future. He saw the heart of God. He heard the promise of God, uttered in the moment of the eternal gift of salvation.

Then I imagined people who read Isaiah's words when the ink was still fresh. Ok, buster, where's this child? Nice poetry, but I don't see God ruling us. Why don't you go off in your little religious corner and daydream some more. 

Maybe people did have an understanding and appreciation of the prophets and prophecy back then. But then I remember what Jesus said about how all the prophets endured persecution. So, maybe my guess is fairly accurate.

I think perhaps my sobs today were because I was rejoicing with the prophet that His words were vindicated by the concrete event of history that was the birth of Jesus Christ of the Virgin Mary. But it was more than that, too, for even the concrete event -- the truth of it -- can only truly be seen and known by faith.  I was sobbing because I realized I was standing in the same faith that the prophet had. He saw by faith something that was yet to be. I saw by faith something that had happened. And yet in each case, the Reality of the One promised was present, right now, by faith.

And if He is present right now by faith to me, then that means that all those things that I long for, pray for, sacrifice for, everything that actually originates in His heart and somehow makes its way into mine, all those things are completely fulfilled in Him, too. Right now. Done deal.

Just like the child spoken of centuries before He was conceived in the womb of the Virgin.

And I live to pray into being that which already is. Whoa. Was that mystery-induced dizziness that just struck me?

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Feeling Guilty Because Your Advent is Crazy-Hectic?

Advent has grown on me every year. There is always something so heart-throbbingly beautiful about it to me; potent but elusive. One minute the longing of it all draws me up out of myself, and the next that wave crashes out of me into an infinite shore so vast that every longing I'm capable of from here to eternity feels like it can only culminate into a tiny speck of nothing.

Ah, Advent.

For lots of Christians in the Western world, the season comes at the traditionally busiest, bustliest, frenetic and frazzled time of year: The Holiday Season, or preparing for Christmas. For many other people in the northern hemisphere it is also a time of sadness, loneliness and depression, no doubt partly fueled by people's dark-days-induced lack of vitamin D. It is also fueled by a vague sense that at Christmastime, everyone is supposed to be happy. The depth of everyone's loving connections, the warmth and empathy that surround us are all supposed to be on display, caressing us and making everything bright and wonderful. Solving our problems. Giving us hope. But what often happens instead is that either our vague hopes get dashed, and we are sad once again, or the hearts we have turned to steel against all such soft feelings over the years get revealed for what they are, and we reject notions of warmth, love and empathy either outright (bah, humbug), or in more subtle ways that go mostly unnoticed, even to ourselves.

And in the midst of it all, we find Christians who feel guilty because they are so busy trying to prepare for Christ's birth that they hardly feel like they are living Advent at all.

I've been listening inside my own frazzledness, and I think I hear hope for us.

I draw this hope from my own lived experience of conversion which I've blogged about extensively, so if you'd like to read the stories, just follow the links.

I've written about the Christmas Eve midnight Mass 22 years ago which was the turning point in my conversion to the Catholic faith. The liturgical timing of that moment of conversion was absolutely prophetic for me; God chose it to teach and form me in a very deep way. I've also written about another major turning point in my life that happened only five years ago (almost) on the feast of Epiphany. Because that one is far newer I am still very much still writing the story, so to speak. But I know that it is about mission. And the mission is one God has taught me about in the context of Advent, but also in the context of my Carmelite vocation.

And because of all those experiences, it feels clear to me that my spiritual purpose in Advent is to pray and offer sacrifice for the conversion of souls. We like to give gifts to those we love at Christmastime, and we really like it if we can find a gift that really brings joy to another person. What greater joy does Jesus ever have than the conversion of a soul who has been cold towards Him? His nature is love, and nothing pleases Him more than to be able to have that love received and enjoyed by a soul who has been without. And when you consider the end-time focus of Advent, every Christian's thoughts should immediately turn toward the eternal salvation of those who have lost or who are in grave danger of completely losing sight of God's love. And we should also keep solidly before our eyes remnant Israel, humbled, anawim, waiting, expecting. Israel, which has learned that salvation comes from God alone. Israel, who has endured suffering and trial, whose hope is not in its own might but in the One who makes and will fulfill His promises.

So, I lay in to everything I want to do to be in Advent and prepare for Christmas, and I find, oh dear!, obstacles! Stress! A crazy schedule! A grumpy attitude! Doubts about whether it is worth it, and, if I'm honest, creeping resentment towards some of those people I'm supposedly wanting to make happy!

What is happening?!

It's just Advent. Welcome to your normal life, with all the potential for sacrifice highlighted.

It will get easier if you stop thinking you find a holy Advent somewhere else. Your holy Advent is in embracing the few extra weights in your pack as you climb this mountain. The weights, the stresses, are not evidence convicting you of failure. They are your share that you can chip in to give Jesus what He's always wanted: your heart, and a path to the heart of others.

Holiness does not come in feeling "together," or in being so in control that nothing ever bothers us. That's stuff of the flesh. Holiness comes only from union with the Lord, and feelings are no sure indication of that union. Holiness has a lot to do with simply showing up for duty, with no consultation with our sense of competence, let alone perfection. Perhaps it is when our feelings register "ain't got nothin'! but Lord, here I am" that Jesus can be biggest in us. When we are all offering, taking upon our lips and into our lives Christ's prayer to the Father, He can be all Gift through us.

That is Advent prayer and sacrifice. God does tremendous work through His Church. When we Christians humbly count ourselves members of Him, as we are, we become His outposts in this world through whom He achieves the salvation of souls.

So, back into the list of things before me today, and you too. If When it gets hectic, smile inside at Jesus, and tell Him it's for a present for Him.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Trust is the Beginning

As I was working with my daughter on her math lesson the other day, she taught me about a stumbling block on a spiritual level that I've experienced and watched others struggle with too.

The truth is simple: The goal of being taught is learning, that is, to grasp in practical terms the truth or skill we are being taught so we can turn around and use the skill or apply the truth.

And as I sat there explaining "part one plus part two equals whole; whole minus part one equals part two; whole minus part two equals part one" to my daughter, she assured me "Yeah, yeah, I get it. That's easy. 7+4=11; 11-4=7; 11-7=4." I worked through some slightly more complicated exercises with her, and as long as I was working with her, she got it.

But the structure of her lessons moves her from my teaching, to working together, to her working independently. And when she came to that step, I saw it. She asked me questions, but they weren't related to understanding the concept. They were relational-fishing questions. She was focused relationally, wanting to make sure I was still with her.

But exactly that became her place of insecurity: "Are you really here with me?" In order to master the skill, she had to know, to decide, in her gut that I am there and give herself to "part + part = whole." Otherwise, anything she would accomplish with math would be scraps of work, not learning.

And when I saw that, I saw so much of my own history with God. To be trained by God as effective builders of His kingdom, to work with Him in mission, we have to have it settled that He is with us. He is for us. We have to trust His love.

Joyce Meyer used to do this bit that drove home the point of accepting God's role in our relationship. She'd sit in a chair, and then say "So, what if someone came up to me and told me to sit down when I'm already sitting?" And she'd flail around trying to "sit more" in the chair. The point is, if you are positionally related to the chair (or to God) and then you start to question and doubt the basic fact and try to see if you can make it "more true" by "trying harder," well, it just gets impossibly silly. When you are sitting and someone tells you to sit, you assert the fact: I'm already seated. You do not give in to insecurity that questions the fact.

And yet this is a snare that grabs so many. We spend all our energy trying to get God to prove that He is listening, prove that He loves us, prove that we are good enough for Him.... all because we lack faith. God tells us that He is love (1 Jn. 4:8), that He loves the world and everyone in it (Jn. 3:16), and that He will never reject anyone who comes to Him (Jn. 6:37). These are the facts. We need to stop doubting them, and believe. We have to trust His love. We have to do business with God on His terms.

So many people believe it while they feel it, and when something happens to challenge their feeling, they lose "faith." Instead of losing faith, they need to be choosing faith.

Because to be trained by God we have to have it settled that He is with us. Then and only then do we even hear what He is trying to teach us when He is with us. He is teaching us skills and giving us experiences that He means for us to reproduce in love and service to others. But we have to grasp some basic things before our hearts are free to apply them to the real world with wisdom, as God desires us to.

God loves us, and He wants us to be firm in knowing it. But He also wants to teach us, because God loves everyone, and He calls us to take His love to others. And He wants not only to teach us, but for us to bring His love to others, once we get the skill He has desired to form in us.

Once a soul trusts Jesus, this is the trajectory on which He sends it.

Friday, November 29, 2013

The Power of Managing a Household Well

There have been a few themes clunking around in my head like stuff you keep in your trunk and keep telling yourself, every time you take a sharp corner, you are going finally unload it so you don't have to keep listening to it.

And pretty much it boils down to how parents are supposed to get sanctified by raising their children. It is just a slight variant on saying we are sanctified by fulfilling our duty. Those who are not married or are married without children are in no way exempt from this kind of sanctification, although I admit that it possibly might be harder to see and carry out duty.

But I do have children, so to dig into my own reality I have to write about it that way.

And I keep coming back to those passages like 1 Tim. 3:4 where Paul says a bishop needs to manage his household well. (You can read elsewhere about the history of married priests and bishops in the Church. That's not my concern here.)

Managing a household well is constitutes being a channel of grace for one's family, and this is no small thing. If having been a child is not reminder enough, I am reminded constantly by my children's behavior that their eyes take in all my day-to-day behavior: the good, the bad, the ugly. They are their own persons, to be sure, but I am communicating to them a certain standard of "normal." They know what they can reasonably expect from me. And that will shape them until something more powerful comes along to shape them differently.

Some of the safest-feeling times I can remember as a child (and they did not flow thick) were when I would come into the kitchen in the early evening and find my mom cleaning up. I'm sure that she didn't do it because she loved in any more than I do it because I love it, but her work made me feel secure. I see the same thing in my daughter. When I am working, she will contentedly do whatever she is doing. Especially when she was younger, when I would be reading emails or Facebook posts, she would be far more restless. She could sense that I wasn't really spending that time for her.

But there's more to managing a household than being this kind of grace-channel. There is also my own sacrifice and pruning. Just recently I realized I needed to put more effort into making family meals a more attractive and stress-free service for everyone. So I made a meal plan, and we all benefited and enjoyed dinner more. And then, lo and behold, I had a schedule change that really made having that thing in place not just nice, but a sanity saver. This is how God teaches me the wisdom in following His inspirations. God prunes us and asks things of us for our own good.

I have also found it a "pruning" for me to take the time to teach my kids to do things for themselves and to serve the rest of the family. It sometimes suits my choleric nature to just plow through doing everything myself. But this short-changes my kids, and in the end can frustrate me. I also have to have the humility to patiently instruct my husband about some things, because it is simply better emotional hygiene for me. I realize that my needs are not about me lording it over others or insisting that everyone pull his weight. My needs are the signals for me to provide the training that others really need from me so that everyone can be happy together.

There is also a layer in all of the hidden work I do that is prayer and sacrifice offered for others. There are so many times when taking that next step in front of me in my duty is just so much not what I feel like doing. And yet, it is there. When I choose it because it is an act of service and love, I can (and do) offer that movement of my will as intercession for the salvation of souls and the conversion of sinners. That is why I make that daily offering in the morning, uniting my day and all that it in it to the desires of God. My work isn't about priding myself on being a perfect homemaker, but about humbling myself to offer prayer that is so quickly forgotten, even by myself.

And in the midst of this way of living, God teaches me, guides me, speaks to me in real-life ways. I am a slow learner, but I learn wisdom this slow way.

And that is exactly how St. Paul is saying bishops are supposed to learn to shepherd God's people.

I will never be a bishop, but this is also how God teaches me to have spiritual wisdom to minister to others. No textbook courses or gnostic wisdom. It is about living daily life, doing dishes and laundry, and interacting with children who very gradually develop maturity. Along the way, they forget their times tables, they chronically leave their belongings strewn everywhere, they have a hard time managing all of their emotions, they ask hard questions, they talk endlessly about things in which I barely know how to be interested, and they need to be trained to work and express care about others. And I am called to respond with love, patience, wisdom, attentiveness, and all the other virtues that get shown up in me as so very lacking. So I fall on my knees and beg God for help.

That's exactly how it is supposed to work, for moms and bishops.

This is what power in the Church looks like and where it comes from. It is not a power that makes any sense to the world.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Edith Stein, and What's New

Last week I rather unexpectedly ended up spending a lot of solitary time in my parish hall, which is immediately connected to the church proper. In other words, I had about 20 times more "face time" with Jesus in the tabernacle than I normally have in a week.

Which was lovely.

And powerful, and just slightly weird.

Because that's the way my life works.

One of the things I did a lot of was reading this book on the life of Edith Stein:

The more I read by her and about her, the more I am stirred in my soul to the point of being stunned. I wrote about what happened in me on her feast day this year here. That was like a whole bunch of bells going off, alerting me to my need to read everything I can get my hands on by and about her. She resonates with me. But she also thoroughly "schools" me when it comes to moral conduct. Kowabunga! She is just exactly the woman I need walking with me right now. But, of course, the fact that she was a martyr of Auschwitz is more than sobering to me. I would almost say it is just a tad on the scary side.

Here's a quote from a letter she wrote to a fellow former student of her beloved phenomenology mentor,  Edmund Husserl:

I suppose it is good to be able to speak freely with him about ultimate questions. And yet, not only does it increase his own level of responsibility, it also heightens our responsibility for him. Prayer and sacrifice, in my opinion, are much more crucial than anything we can say ... It's very possible that he could be a "chosen instrument" without being in a state of grace. I don't mean that we should judge him, and of course we have every right to hope in God's unfathomable mercy. On the other hand, we have no right to conceal how serious the issues are. After every meeting with him, I come away convinced of my inability to influence him directly, and feeling the urgent necessity of offering some holocaust of my own for him.

I don't have someone in Husserl's exact circumstance in my life, but then again, I myself could write something similar to this in a certain circumstance I do have....

And besides having Edith Stein burrowing into my soul, I am sensing God's call to me to propose a few things in my parish. Hanging in the hall also gave me opportunities for people to strike up conversations with me that normally would not happen. (Yes, that's the way it goes with me; people sit down and start telling me everything, and I listen. Works for me.)

Which reminds me of some things I've learned recently. I realize I don't spend much time at all thinking about what other people must think, about me, about things we are involved in together. This is good to the extent that I don't spend time comparing or being jealous. It is not always so good to the extent that I don't always have a good grasp of others' needs, unless they spell it out to me. People assume a lot, and generally they assume that others think as they do. Which is probably not true, most of the time. I've also learned that I have a certain characteristic that most other people do not share: I regularly deal with deeply personal and even intimate things rather analytically. That doesn't mean that I am cold and distant from their reality. But it does mean just what I said. For, I guess, most people, deeply personal and even intimate things strike the emotions and not the head. I have a deep need to thrash through things, to wrestle with them, to understand (to seek truth, like Edith). For others, these things strike the emotions, and they react emotionally, and then they are done. If it is a "happy" emotion, that lingers, and if it is an uncomfortable emotion, that lingers. In my world, emotions have to be evaluated because of how they are connected to our passions, and it is the movement of the passions that determines the moral value and whether these emotions should be nurtured or whether reason has to step in and turn to soul in a new direction.

Yeah, and I've also had the clearest example yet in my life of what it is like to be hated.

Hah, I'm just thinking how every once in a while someone will ask me "What's new?" If I were honest, I'd read them this blog post. Sometimes I wonder why people ever ask me that. And I wonder what really would be holiest response for me to give when someone asks me that. I have absolutely no idea. Most of the time I am baffled about how best to be myself with others. At least in theory, like when I sit and write on my blog and no one is actually speaking to me.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

When the Son of Man Comes, Will He Find Faith?

Jesus told his disciples a parable
about the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary.
He said, “There was a judge in a certain town
who neither feared God nor respected any human being.
And a widow in that town used to come to him and say,
‘Render a just decision for me against my adversary.’
For a long time the judge was unwilling, but eventually he thought,
‘While it is true that I neither fear God nor respect any human being,
because this widow keeps bothering me
I shall deliver a just decision for her
lest she finally come and strike me.’”
The Lord said, “Pay attention to what the dishonest judge says.
Will not God then secure the rights of his chosen ones
who call out to him day and night?
Will he be slow to answer them?
I tell you, he will see to it that justice is done for them speedily.
But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”  Luke 18:1-8

Consider how easy it is to get impatient with a person who unjustly ignores our need when they are in a position to help us get our need met. Consider how irritating it is when after several of our best attempts, we are treated with contempt and cold-heartedness. There is some huge disconnect between my human need and that person's human capacity.

Now consider who it is who teaches us this parable. Consider that it concerns praying to God and making our concerns known to Him.

Consider that this God has been actively pursuing and forming a people for ages unknown. Consider that for almost two thousand years, this God has descended into the hands of priests on altars around the world. Consider all the graces of baptism and all the other sacraments He has poured out. Consider His Word which has resounded daily from the time it was prayed "Hear O Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord is One."

There's patience.

That patient flood of giving awaits a response from us that is not cold-hearted or filled with contempt. That work of God draws us out of our self-focus, out of our personal empire of indifference to Reality.

"Faith on the earth" means that we know there is Something bigger than ourselves that has loved us into existence, and we bow before this Love. This is the only way we learn who we really are.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Like a Fire In My Soul

There have been many times I've come to my blog wishing I could effectively scream with a keyboard or maybe write in tongues so that I could get something from the inside of me to the outside of me.

I'm not even sure what it would accomplish, or what I even want when I say that.

I say that I write so that I can understand. I think I also write to find some relief from what I hold inside.

Well, I've decided some things lately. For good or for ill, this is the way it goes:

I really don't care how I compare to other people. I've been reminded of late, verbally, that I'm not like other people. In the past, I've usually greeted that with a half of a smile and a thank you, but in this context it was clear that I was supposed to apologize for that. But you know what? I'm not going to. I may irritate you, I may challenge you, I may make you feel uncomfortable by not being like everyone else. That is your problem, not mine.

I don't believe in the word awkward. I was at a prayer meeting last night with a bunch of young people, and they talked about the viral picture of the Pope hugging the man with neurofibromatosis. They talked about how this would make them feel awkward, like they don't know what to do with themselves, and for that reason, they would shy away from someone with some deformity. And I kept thinking of a woman I used to work with who had NF. I'm sure she had her challenges, but to me she was another co-worker. When I think of feeling awkward, I think of a general life condition I faced for decades, and one which I  have exercised myself against adamantly for decades. I just don't believe in awkward. The feeling of being awkward is a call to conversion, and I say embrace it.

I confess that sometimes I don't know how to look at humanity without falling into despair. I know that there is another way, because God looks at us in all His perfection, and He does not despair. He looks at our poor, pitiful, wretched, blind and lame state and is filled with merciful love towards us. His heart must break sometimes with the desire for us to turn our stubborn wills and just open to Him a crack. Maybe I opt for despair because the option of aching with that much love just seems unbearable. Or maybe I just haven't found the way to splay my heart so that His love can love in me like that. I don't find it natively resident in me.

Spiritual battle is real. That I didn't decide, I realize it. Battle means there is something of value whose control is being determined. And it probably means a whole bunch of other things, too. I'm an intercessor, so I know it goes beyond my little world. And that goes with....

We can be connected with heaven now. In fact, it makes things make more sense. I first was wooed into being able to think this way through reading the writings of Anne, a Lay Apostle. And it makes so much sense. We say that eternity is what matters, and our life here is preparation for it, and that we work and pray for the salvation of eternal souls. But so often those words ring like meaningless religious platitudes. However, they are the deepest truths. And I think they are where I got my first two statements. When we are thinking in terms of eternity, who cares about comparisons, social niceties, and being cool?

I told someone recently that although I look like a quiet person, I am actually a volcano. But it is not anger that churns within me. I think it is words. In my younger days I prayed for years and years that my words would have the power to heal people. I don't know that lava is a healing force, but I keep experiencing results my words that show me there is a power there. It is actually not the delight I imagined, but rather scary. "The tongue has the power of life and death" (Prov. 18:21). Pray for me that I (and my tongue, and my words, and my voice, and my keyboard) may be all God's.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Just Shoot Me

I have learned so much in the last week that, once again, I am just about ready to pop.

Back in my 20s I went through several years where every day seemed the same. I was piddling along, feeling alone and miserable most of the time, amusing myself as I knew how, and pretty much waiting for it all to change. Occasionally I would become vaguely aware that I might just be wasting some time.

How loudly can I say duh?

I used to love to do things like scrape the paint off my woodwork or clean little detaily things in my apartment and just think and muse and wonder and wish.

And I spent a lot of time with a very macabre image: Marie going through a meat grinder.

Yeah, seriously.

I can look back and see it as a way I was crying out for God's mercy on my messed-up-edness. I would think of everything that was wrong with me or hard for me or hopeless and unconquerable, and I would mentally send myself through the meat grinder. I somehow vaguely hoped that I would come out purer. That somehow that I wanted to be purged of all those things, and some day break free.

As I came to know Christ in a new way in becoming Catholic, I stopped thinking about that just like that. I realized that God was indeed purging me. Maybe I started having enough real life struggle that I didn't have to imagine it so much any more. My cry for being purged started happening in reality.

Which isn't much fun either, but it is emotionally much healthier than constantly feeling one should be crushed.

But occasionally, over the years, I would feel a stab of deep remorse, of meeting something in myself that I desperately want changed but have no power to change. And what would slip either out of my thoughts or out of my mouth would be this weird prayer:  Lord, just shoot me.

It's that flash of shame, that flash of realizing how deeply hopeless I am apart from the Lord.

But it can also be a sense of harshness on myself, a lack of mercy, which is not right. I certainly cannot have any real mercy or understanding for any other person if I do not fully receive God's mercy for myself, and refrain from even a reflexive beating up on myself.

Sometime over the last week, when once again my soul was found raw and open, I suddenly had these words slip out of my internal prayer: Lord, just shoot me.

For a split second, I thought, oh, no Lord. I can't go back there.

But suddenly I had an image come to mind, and a Scripture:

Before birth the LORD called me,
from my mother’s womb he gave me my name.
He made my mouth like a sharp-edged sword,
concealed me, shielded by his hand.
He made me a sharpened arrow,
in his quiver he hid me.
(Isaiah 49:1-2)

And then I said it again.

Lord, just shoot me.

And the rest of what I learned this week, well, I'll have to process that another time.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

How Parishes Can Alienate the Faithful

This week I was involved in a conversation in a closed discussion group among Catholic women (across the country) that I found so enlightening. The conversation began with a simple question: Am I the only one who cringes at the terms "fellowship" and "church community"?

Many women chimed in, assuring the commenter she was by no means alone. Fellowship as a verb, church family, church community, building community -- many were agreeing these terms were the source of great irritation.

This was fascinating to me. As I thought about it, these used to bother me, too. Even the word "our" used in some parish contexts did not seem right to me, as when I first started attending Mass and a priest made a comment that such and such a fundraiser would "benefit our school." "Faith community" was one that I used to not be able to stand.

I knew this, and yet I realize that now I hear, read, and even use terms like this frequently, and I don't even bat an eye.

The important thing in this conversation was why these terms elicited so much irritation among this group.

"It all feels so fake and forced."

"Our local Catholic school requires parents to put in 20 hours of community service to the school to 'build fellowship and a sense of community.'"

"It is like putting the cart before the horse. Those things naturally flow when you live a Christian life. Backwards, it doesn't last, and is just another club."

"It all sounds warm and lovely, but there's no skeleton, no structure. Completely rudderless. Holding hands doesn't 'make us community.'"

I realized that these women truly resented having their own relationships with God and others, and the fruits and blossoms of their own spiritual quests minimalized, disrespected, and set aside for someone else's vision or agenda for making Christians live together as Christians. I was seeing alienation in the very process of happening.

It reminded me of a friendship I once had with someone who was quite adamant about imposing her terms on others. Because her terms had to do with being "giving" and "loving," it was easy to feel confused and guilty about sensing something wrong with her "kindness." But because there was a clear element of force involved, what should have fostered closeness repelled instead.

I inquired among these women: what is it that you need to see instead of this kind of forced, programmatic, "let's build community" emphasis. The answer was not surprising:  authenticity.

First of all, only persons can be authentic. Programs, work committees, a pastoral persona, these things can't be authentic.

Secondly, persons must authentically relate to other persons. Forum members related experiences of the sting of judgmentalism aimed at them and at others. As one woman pointed out, what is needed is hospitality. This is not merely having pals over for tea. Hospitality includes the ability to look at someone who is completely not you, and to communicate "I accept you." I accept you, regardless of your political views, I accept you regardless of your age or marital status, your history. I accept you, regardless of how or whether you express any faith in Christ, and despite any obvious sins you may be in the midst of. I accept you.

Because deep down, we all have insecurities. We all have things we find questionable about ourselves, and especially when acceptance is not explicitly communicated, it is easy to paint ourselves into a corner and see Holier than Thou attitudes even where they aren't present. And we all hunger for the love of God that we know the Church hides away somewhere! We don't want it hidden any more. We want to see it. We want to experience it. We want to see Catholics accepting each other and everyone, not communicating silently that only those meeting the unwritten standard will be accepted.

We also desire our parishes to welcome of the gifts and talents God has given us that we have already developed apart from some parish program to orchestrate us into community. We want the community we are already experiencing to be acknowledged and nurtured. When parishes act like we have nothing brewing based on God's work already present in us, we feel a deep disconnect. We feel un-known. Oh, we know God knows us, but somewhere between God and the parish, it is clear that something fell apart. And all those "community formation" efforts ring hollow and fake. Eventually they become a mockery of all that is holy.

The two-day discussion was topped off by a lovely homily from Pope Francis, touching on the very same theme.

The faith becomes ideology and ideology frightens, ideology chases away the people, distances, distances the people and distances of the Church of the people. But it is a serious illness, this of ideological Christians. It is an illness, but it is not new, eh? Already the Apostle John, in his first Letter, spoke of this. Christians who lose the faith and prefer the ideologies. His attitude is: be rigid, moralistic, ethical, but without kindness. This can be the question, no? But why is it that a Christian can become like this? Just one thing: this Christian does not pray...

We can make an ideology out of forming community, out of "fellowship," but it will not satisfy, and it will not bear any fruit. There is one thing that draws all people, and that is the cross of Jesus Christ. The true experience of the Savior is the only means for true Christian fellowship. And when we stand at the cross, either we authentically confess our sins and look with mercy on every single other sinner who is called to stand with us, or we make a terrible mockery of that holy place, and leave unjustified. The key? Open your heart. Pray. Look at Jesus' suffering on the cross, and know it is for you. Receive that love pouring down. Pray.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Exposing Lies

Something that has been impressed on me significantly of late is how urgent is the need to combat lies. And I'm talking about the kind of lies that affect how we think, our motivations, the interior life. In other words, spiritual falsehoods. As we used to say in pentecostal parlance, the lies of the enemy. It is clear from Scripture that the devil is a liar and the father of lies (Jn. 8:44) but unfortunately the human can become an excellent long-term incubator for lies once sown. Combating lies is sometimes about resisting messages coming at you in real-time, but it also needs to be about examining the hidden foundations of one's thinking, or rather opening oneself deeply, fearlessly, relentlessly to the gentle and powerful action of the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of Truth and the vanquisher of lies.

There is a holy darkness and a sacred silence, but there is also darkness and silence that kill and conceal death. Exposing lies to the light and sound of day is their undoing. Here are some the Holy Spirit has been working on outing from my hiding places.

1)  You should be ashamed of love.
Lies have this characteristic subtlety combined with blatant falsehood, and this biggie proves it.

Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 2331: "God is love and in himself he lives a mystery of personal loving communion. Creating the human race in his own image . . .. God inscribed in the humanity of man and woman the vocation, and thus the capacity and responsibility, of love and communion."

The father of lies has tried all my life to twist in my mind that which I was made to do into either something that is impossible for me, something that proves I am a filthy rag, or something that shows I am psychologically unstable. 

Last week, on the feast of St. Therese the Little Flower, I was bowled over when I read her words that summarize the life of one called to the vocation of Carmel: "In the heart of the Church, I will be love." I was bowled over because I realized how God has been writing into the fiber of my life these last several years with His very own precious tool of healing, lessons in love. I have been scared by His lessons, I have been bewildered by His lessons, and I have been jaw-droppingly awed by His lessons. But the nitty-gritty practicality is that God calls me to walk in the opposite direction of the lie that tried to destroy my vocation. Love is not only possible for me, it is real and present. Loving another does not make me a filthy rag, by it I live as God Himself. Love is not psychological sickness; it is strength, wholeness and life.

2)  Humility is stupid.

As St. Augustine said, man is a beggar before God, and therefore the only logical stance a human being can have is one of humility before Him. This lie is connected to the suggestion that God as revealed in Christ cannot be trusted. Pride believes that one is able to produce his own protection, his own provision, and indeed even conjure his own existence. Pride is grossly irrational. Pride is stupid.

Pride also isolates, alienates, cuts us off from the fellowship and love of other people and from our roots. The antidote that smashes the lie that humility is stupid is salvation history, particularly the entire Old Testament up through the Incarnation of Christ. God put a lot into promising Himself to and forming His chosen people. Then, in the fullness of time, God came into the scene in the flesh, and was born in humble obscurity. Humility is always the way God chooses to come into this world. One of the clearest promises in Scripture is that the proud will be humbled and the humble will be exalted. This is probably one of the biggest points in which Christianity has not been "tried and found wanting, but found difficult and not tried," as Chesterton puts it.

3)  You are destitute.
This is another swipe at the trustworthiness of God and at the value of His love, but it is a bit more personal that the humility lie. It can fuel the felt need for pride, for doing it all ourselves. The enemy's goal here is our dissatisfaction and the agitation of the vague desire for "more."

This is combated by repentance from greed and self pity. That repentance is probably easiest fueled by cluing into reality outside yourself until compassion and gratitude and allowed to well up in your heart. Open your eyes and notice that other people suffer too. Let your heart be moved by it. Then sit down and list every good in and around your life. Acknowledge God as the giver of every good gift (Jas. 1:17). Realize He wants you to give as freely as He does, not grasp for more.

4)  The people around you are hopeless.
Wrong. The people around you are just like you: made in the image and likeness of God with the vocation, the capacity, and the responsibility to love. You can help them be who they are by being faithful to who you are, and reminding them of the truth, not the lies.

The people around you deserve your fellowship and your love. In other words, they deserve the fruit of your humility, not of your pride.

The people around you are part of the treasure God gives you. Honor their presence in your life as His precious gift. Ask Him what you can learn from them. Open your life to them as you would to Him.

Expose the lies; live the truth. This is no theoretical game. Living the truth will purify the heart and continue to uproot falsehood's tendrils. This is the spiritual battle for which we can become fit and ready. This is really what makes life exciting and gives it zest. Spiritual complacency makes life boring, dull and unsatisfying. Ripping in to this stuff and doing the right thing is where you find joy. Yeah, ok, it sucks at first to realize you aren't the perfect center of the universe, but deep down you already know that, right?

Come, Holy Spirit. May it be done unto me according to Your Word.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

St. Therese and the Vocation to be Love

St. Therese strikes again.

I have to admit that in many ways I have more of a personal affinity for St. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross as I relate to her intellectual nature more than to St. Therese's sweetness. However that does not stop God from using the Little Flower in my life in consistent ways all her own. Today is her feast day, and this morning I was once again blown away by her. I am not a huge novena-prayer, but I have now prayed several novenas for her intercession. Not once have I been left without a surprising answer.

This morning in the Office of Readings I read this famous passage from St. Therese:

Then, nearly ecstatic with the supreme joy of my soul, I proclaimed: O Jesus, my love, at last I have found my calling: my call is love. Certainly I have found my proper place in the Church, and you gave me that very place, my God. In the heart of the Church, my mother, I will be love, and thus I will be all things, as my desire finds its direction.

When I read those words "I will be love," something went kablam inside me. My soul staggered to be able to stand upright and catch its breath. That's it.

It is hard to explain how God communicates to a soul, but it isn't as hard to say that it happens.

At Mass as well I was overwhelmingly walloped with this realization -- I have found my call, too, where God has placed me: to be love. Oh, I'm not the same as St. Therese by any means, nor are my life, vocation, or circumstances like hers. But the call is the same. My path to realizing this has been my own, too. I've written a lot about the struggle of the last two years, the dark and hard path when it seemed that God had ripped my interior life into confusing shreds and made everything nonsensical. Now I see. It has all been for this: to teach me to be love. So I could know better what love is and what it isn't, what it costs, how it is designed to withstand and endure suffering, how it is to shape everything. How it is of God. Mostly this.

At Mass, I realized that I am giving what I have received. I have known great natural obstacles to love, but they are not too much for God. And I realize that not even I can destroy love in my own heart, as long as I'm willing to keep putting my hand back in the Lord's hand, even when I think perhaps He only wants to destroy something that I thought is good.

God is Love, and He simply desires our hearts to so belong to Him that He can be Himself and be at home in us.

As the Psalm response said today so simply, "God is with us."

I have struggled with doubt about this call because deep down I have thought I was only capable of that which is shameful. "Love," was for me as I was growing up always a dirty word, subconsciously. The word was not spoken in my home. I learned its meaning from TV and from music, so it was always connected to shame. So when God started His tutoring of me in recent years, He had some interesting obstacles to undo. But He does all things well. What can I say but may God be praised. Here I am, Lord. I am all Yours. Love through me, and I will love as you will.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Do Pregnancy Complaints Rip Your Heart Out?

I have written at length in the past about the unspoken pain many women carry due to infertility. I lived there for five years. Women who are in the grips of such pain rarely speak out about it, except perhaps to others they know who have experienced the same pain and therefore can understand. It can be an all-consuming pain, and all-consuming pains are very difficult to speak about at all, let alone objectively, to try to explain it to someone to whom it is foreign.

But the other day I startled myself a little by finding myself in a 180° situation while being party to a conversation about a certain pregnancy. In that moment I pictured right where I had been, in the Children's department of the library, with my toddler foster son. It was some "bring your kids to play and learn" gathering, and it was the two of us with two other women and their children. One of the women was pregnant. And she was complaining.

At the time I had never experienced pregnancy, and I wanted to with all my heart. Anyone who complained about giving life was branded in my book as an ungrateful, selfish lout.

So a decade later, seeing the scene in my mind, I was startled to realize I've learned a few things since then. I thought I should write a blog post to the misery-gripped infertile woman I was back then. And, to anyone else it might help.

You hear her say: "I've already gained so much weight."
What it hurts her too much to say: I've always felt so ugly. God, I hate myself.

You hear her say: "I'm gonna make my husband pay for doing this to me!"
What it hurts her too much to say: The last time I was pregnant he started going to a prostitute. He doesn't know I know, and I'm too devastated to bring it up.

You hear her say: "What am I gonna do with another baby?"
What it hurts her too much to say: Why should a horrible woman like me, that no one could really love, bring an innocent child into this world? I'll miss her up too badly.

You hear her say: "Ugh! All those doctor appointments."
What it hurts her too much to say: My last child miscarried/was stillborn/had a serious birth defect/was sick and I'm terrified it will happen again.

You hear her say: "I can't stand feeling sick!"
What it hurts her too much to say: I'm getting pressure to abort this baby, too.

My dear infertile sister, the next time you cringe or rage at the complaints of a woman about her pregnancy, consider that she, too, might just know pain that is too profound for her to face and to put into honest words. Yes, her words hurt and wound you. Just remember the maxim that hurting people hurt people. When you hear it, open your heart, even silently, and offer her your love. Ask God to offer His love to her through you. And guess what? When you do that, you do the maternal thing.

You exercise spiritual maternity.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Evangelical Counsel of Obedience, for Laity

And here we are at the last of the three evangelical counsels, obedience, and what I have learned about it.

I am very aware that my thoughts often feel backwards to me when I compare myself with the standard line -- about anything, really. What I mean is that if myself and 99 other people played word association, I might be with only one or two other people in relating what seems like an obvious connection between concept A and concept B. That's just how my brain works. And of course, my observations are always rooted in my own unique history.

My own unique history when it comes to obedience is that my heart has been searching all my life for someone who can explain life to me, and by that I mean how to live it. I told this story awhile back about the woman who identified that I had "such a submissive spirit." I wrote that six years ago, and I still have no concept at all how to explain what happened there, but I will tell you it is true. There is something in me that has always longed to find a suitable home for that submissive spirit of mine. And my search has taught me something.

You might think that a submissive spirit would bow down readily before anyone willing to dominate it. But in truth, a submissive spirit recognizes quickly the incapacity for authority that is inherent in domination. Did I just lose you with those statements? Maybe I'd better back up and define my terms.

I am defining "submissive" here as one who wants to say Yes, loudly, strongly, boldly, to what is right, true and good. That means to assent, to believe, but also to act. To want those things. I have always wanted these things. My difficulty came in despairing of ever finding them, especially because I realized that the Right, the True, and the Good are not doctrines you can believe, but a way you live. It seems that for  years, all I found was the compromised, the half truth, and the mediocre.

Domineering types seem to be strong, and seem to have something solid to say about what is right, true, and good, but there's always a sort of red flag, an invisible, spiritual one, that I see flying around them, and as courage allows, I have rejected what they say, even while being drawn to how they say it (namely, with strength). There's always something in a domineering, authoritative person that demands a surrender of one's personal freedom to them. And why would I want to give my personal freedom to another person who is just like me?

And I think that a lot of people figure that when you talk about obedience to the Church, or in the Church, it can only mean that kind of being dominated.

But if you accept that there is a God, then there is another option.

That option would be a submission, an obedience to Being who is not just like me, which gives the deepest freedom humanly possible.

And that option is what my soul has been searching for all my life.

Here's what the OCDS Constitutions have to say about obedience:

The promise of obedience is a pledge to live open to the will of God, “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Ac 17:28) imitating Christ who accepted the Father’s will and was “obedient unto death, death on a cross” (Ph 2:8). The promise of obedience is an exercise of faith leading to the search for God’s will in the events and challenges in society and our own personal life. For this reason the Secular Carmelite freely cooperates with those who have responsibility for guiding the community and the Order in discerning and accepting God’s ways: the Community’s Council, the Provincial and the General.
To me it is a mistake, and a big one, to think of obedience as looking to a legitimate authority, even to God, for a set of parameters inside which I will carefully stay. It is not, of course, that I am looking to break through boundaries reason sets in place. That would be, well, unreasonable! But I prefer to think of obedience as the open sky, into which I am committed to fly on the wings God has granted me. God has desires that are as infinite as His love, and how deep and broad and wide His desires for me must be. What dreams and plans He must treasure as He looks at my life with its potential. Obedience is to say yes to God's will, His desires, His dreams for me, and through me for this world. It is to fly with all the strength I can muster. It is to delve into His Word, to know His will, to embrace it with all I am, and live it with my full passion, in the concrete reality before me daily.

His will for me is love and mercy itself. To submit to His will is to unite myself with His love and mercy, thereby becoming my free and genuine self.  God alone is big enough for me to give myself to in this way.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

The Evangelical Counsel of Chastity, for Laity

Chastity is the love of God flowing through me, in my relationship to another human being. Chastity is the love of God flowing freely, overcoming obstacles, blockages and impediments of fear, pride and selfishness. Chastity is dynamic; it is meant to be grown with, and grown into. There is a drawing element of this dynamic, because relationships between people are the normative means by which God draws the Church together to thrive and grow. Chastity is directly linked to death, that is, the gospel death to self that leads to the fullest life possible, for ourselves, and for all.

This is what God has been teaching me for the last several years.

And learning it has been very interesting to say the least.

Chastity is not about a list of sexual don'ts. Moral law, and simply reason, tell us that. Our culture has lost a sense of that, and I think it is one of the effects of losing our reason that we have to talk about matters we can arrive at by reason and make religious talk out of it. (I wrote a post about that called Natural Law, Marriage, and the Normality of Ignorance.)

Note, of course, that chastity and celibacy are not synonymous. 

Chastity is a positive thing; it is about what we do. There is a sexual dimension to chastity, because being male or female impacts everything we are and do and all of our relationships. Chastity is simply relating with other people with the full extent of who we are.

Here's what the Secular Carmelite Constitutions have to say about chastity:

The promise of chastity reinforces the commitment to love God above all else, and to love others with the love God has for them. In this promise the Secular Carmelite seeks the freedom to love God and neighbour unselfishly giving witness to the divine intimacy promised by the beatitude “blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God” (Mt 5:8). The promise of chastity is a commitment to Christian love in its personal and social dimensions in order to create authentic community in the world. By this promise the Secular Carmelite also expresses the conscious desire to respect each person as required by God’s law and one’s state of life, as a single person or married or widowed. This promise does not prevent a change in state of life.

The truth of this has been quite an ordeal for me to learn. Chastity has by no means come naturally to me. And I don't mean that I have had a particularly sordid past. In fact, considering the weird men I've known, my guardian angel must have some incredible muscle. Chastity has come hard for me because of being wounded with the loss of significant relationships at a young age. To prevent more hurt, I locked myself away. The only thing that flowed out of me was my hurt. The love God had made available to me in my baptism, I let sit. I clung tight to fear, to pride, to selfishness.

And I've written a lot about all those stories in this blog in the past. Here I want to write about what I've learned about chastity.

The beginning for me was realizing that I should not have to "pay a price" to gain friends. In other words, I realized purposefully being a fake to feel like I was fitting in or gaining a desired person's approval, was bad. The love of God is not flowing freely from one who is stifling or sacrificing one's soul to be liked.

I learned that the only way to learn to love other people is to trust deeply in God. To be open to give love means to be open to all manner of hurt from others, and of seeing my own limitations and sin. The way that none of this is devastating is to trust that God is Love. He is the cause of the love that flows through us, and His love is more powerful, more abundant than hurt or sin. Because I have so misunderstood God's love at times and have been so unwilling to feel the pain associated with it, I have begged God to take a spiritual power-washer and blast it out of me. But, no, He didn't. Instead He showed me that this love is my salvation, even when it hurts. Knowing that it hurts to love means getting a peak into understanding God's heart, who loves us with unimaginable passion, and who waits, longing for hearts who forget Him.

I have learned, too, that chaste love flowing through us reminds us of death. God's love shared, especially reciprocated, creates a bond. Bonds are what make us cry at funerals, or when friends leave, or when sickness slowly carries one away. Sometimes when I open my heart to another, I am very aware that in so doing I am creating another bucket of tears I will cry when we part. But that does not stop me. It can't -- not if this is how God builds His kingdom to which I have committed my life, and how we draws me and those other souls together into that kingdom where nothing is ever lost. This is the love that was manifest in Acts and in Paul's writings. Think of Acts chapter 20, where Paul is at Miletus telling the believers they won't ever see him again. It says: "They were all weeping loudly as they threw their arms around Paul and kissed him, for they were deeply distressed that he had said that they would never see his face again. Then they escorted him to the ship." This is kingdom-building chastity.

The evangelical counsels are all about pointing to heaven. Chastity sure does it for me. There really is no reason for love to exist if there is no God, and I know the only way I could have learned to love anyone is by supernatural intervention. I also know that no love born of God ends here on earth.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

The Evangelical Counsel of Poverty, for Laity

As I mentioned in my post-of-intention, I have been contemplating what living the evangelical counsels actually entails for a lay person. No, not really "for a lay person," but for me. I've been mulling over what the Lord has been teaching me about poverty, chastity, and obedience. Of course, He seems to teach me most things without my realizing what it is about until much later when I get a word to package the lesson in, and I say .... (guess what).... naru hodo!

And then I often find much later, when I am in a more practical stage of life where I am actually required to make choices and decisions based on the lessons I have been taught, that I read something I wrote, and I suddenly realize it was meant to be carried out very concretely, not just in the realm of "having wisdom." Sometimes that's a bit of a bummer... But it is then valuable to realize that pretty words have all their value in being applied.

So, yeah, that's my warm up for why I'm writing this.

Here's what the OCDS Constitutions have to say about poverty:

By the promise of poverty the Secular Carmelite expresses the desire to live in accordance with the Gospel and its values. In evangelical poverty there is a wealth of generosity, self-denial, and interior liberty and a dependence on Him who “Though rich, yet for our sake, became poor” (2 Co 8:9), and who “emptied Himself” (Ph 2:7), to be at the service of His brothers and sisters. The promise of poverty seeks an evangelical use of the goods of this world and of personal talents, as well as the exercise of personal responsibilities in society, in family, and work, confidently placing all in the hands of God. It also implies a commitment to the cause of justice so that the world itself responds to God’s plan. In combination with these, evangelical poverty recognizes personal limitations and surrenders them to God with confidence in His goodness and fidelity.
Now, here's what I have been learning.

I've always had a thin line to walk about this business of denying oneself, and of poverty of spirit. I think that is because to counter each of the evangelical counsels, the devil throws out a different pack a lies to distort God's image and make Him look hateful. By desiring us to have poverty of spirit God is not communicating You are nothing, but rather You are mine. And that is not in some violently possessive way. In being God's, we are made completely free -- not possessed by things or goods.

One of my biggest struggles has been poverty in my thinking. I can remember right where I was sitting when the Lord impressed on me that I had a big need to meditate more on Scripture. Actually, that message came through to me more than once. At first I tried just randomly reading a book of Scripture, but soon drifted away from that. Slowly I moved back towards praying the Liturgy of the Hours, which I've done in fits and starts since the day I decided to become a Catholic. I discovered that the more I did that, the more my meditation started picking up steam. Now I simply can't believe how beautiful and packed with meaning it is (because I remember how boring it felt when I first started).

But my point is there that it is very natural for me to ruminate and reason and just sit and think (sometimes quite unreasonably!). Poverty of spirit in terms of thinking, for me means allowing the Word of God to so fill my mind that when I ponder a situation or person or event, I can let Him infill my own thoughts, rather than being carried away simply by my inclinations, my reactions, my emotions, my mood, or the state of my indigestion.

And so with any good or gift that comes to me. I can receive it, not accepting lies about it or worrying or getting defensive over attacks on the said good, but I hold it in an open hand, offering it. I place it entirely in the presence/at the disposal of God. If I have it, that's good. If I don't have it, that's good too. It is my place to make anything I am or have available to God. It is God's action to create the dynamic that makes for poverty of spirit. He will wedge one into the place where one's offering turns into a sacrifice.

For me this has happened when I have been in the midst of change I completely did not understand. My own thoughts turning over events only found pain. In those moments, turning to Scripture to delve into God's thoughts, to repeat His promises, His commands, the history of how He interacted with His people -- all this sunk down into the crevasses formed by my own soul splitting open. In this way, God was able to float out more things in me that bore no resemblance to Him. It stung, like death always does. Sometimes we really do prefer the general anesthesia of our dullness to either real life or real death. But along with that sting of death, one finds oneself looking into the face of the Savior, the Redeemer, the One with all the power, the One who speaks those powerful words that seem at the time to only have terrible power. We know that He holds in His hands all that we lack. And we only feel that lack. But we know that as long as we are with Him, He has all we need. If we trust, we know that at the right time it will be ours.

That is the blessed state of poverty: feeling our lack keenly, but knowing we are with the One who holds all we need. This is the state of the anawim, or Mary who rejoices in God her Savior who has done to her great things. Poor, yet possessing everything, because He is Everything.

Monday, September 02, 2013

Eventually, I Will Write About....

It seems that blogging has been happening only in my mind, lately. Between the new intensity of the school year starting (yeah, I've succumbed to the regular old notion of a school year) and limited quiet time to think with a keyboard at my fingers, I just haven't gotten to type much of anything.

However, I do have a writing intention.

Even though I am not far enough along in my Carmelite formation to be preparing for taking the promises, due to being in two different formation sessions I have been somewhat prematurely reading the Constitutions (which I will only officially receive late next month). In these Constitutions is discussion of the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience. As I meditate on these I am quite blown away to realize that in the midst of what sometimes just looked like a horrendous mess of a life, God has actually been teaching me, coaching me, preparing me, to understand and live these. As a lay person, of course.

It just seems that there isn't a great deal of discussion of what these counsels look like for anyone but nuns, sisters, friars and priests. What about a married laywoman?

So my plan is to bat around what God has been teaching me, to try to wrestle it into words.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Hi. Let Me Re-Write Your Homily (again)

So, today's gospel was the one about the man who hired the guys standing around in the market place all at different times of the day, but paid each one the "regular daily wage." And the homily was basically: God is generous, and we don't get judged on a bell curve.

The second point was what really struck me as I listened to the gospel, but like always, what I drew from it was almost the opposite from what was preached. It was "You aren't John Paul II, and you aren't Mother Theresa. They had their lives and their circumstances, and you have yours. We aren't expected to be them. Just be the best you you can be."

And that's right and good. Just too conciliatory for my need today.

But what I really needed to hear was "You see Joe Schmoe over there, or Jane Schmane. Who cares about what they are doing. You might compare yourself to them and say 'Heck, I'm doing as well as they are. Everything's fine. We're all happy and comfy together, and after all, we're not perfect.' But no. God has given you gifts, and you are the only you He has made. You have an obligation to fulfill what God has given you to do, and you are never going to realize what that is by looking around at everyone else. Don't give one thought to how you compare to others, or get comfy because you feel like you fit and look like those around you. Maybe I want you to be the only orange crayon in your bin. You'll never understand how to be a perfect orange if all you look at is yellow and green."

Come to think of it, I've written a bunch of songs with this exact theme.

For some reason I crave hearing an exhortation to courage. Perhaps I want preachers to realize how much this moment in human history calls for it. Or, as St. Teresa of Avila says, how much courage it takes to pursue holiness, at any point in history.