Monday, May 27, 2013

Possessions Vs. Knowing and Believing in Love

I'm reflecting on Pope Francis' homily for today, Monday of the 8th week in Ordinary time.

When heard the gospel proclaimed at Mass, it hit me in the same way this gospel always tends to:  “'You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.' At that statement, his face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions."

The Holy Father focused on the sense of economic well-being that makes us uncourageous , lazy and selfish. He also mentions the fascination for the temporary. He says "We want to be masters of time, we live for the moment." He speaks of a contrast to these provisionally-minded people: those who have left their homes to become missionaries, and those who have committed themselves to a life-long marriage.

I have many possessions. I wrote about this in January, about attachments. This weekend I have faced a painful revisiting of this problem, this need for healing. I'm just now trying to sort out in writing the light I'm being given from these Scriptures, from the Pope's simple teaching, from my life experience.

The possessions I'm talking about don't have to do with material things. I have plenty of them, but I am not what most Americans would call wealthy. We will in a poor region on one income, but with God's blessing we manage to be comfortable.

The things that hold me back, that make me stumble, have to do with emotional certainties. When I look at my life objectively, I know this is folly. When I live my life subjectively, I struggle often. I grew up with what I realize now was an chronic insecurity about my emotional well-being and about whether I was welcomed on planet earth. I couldn't have said it at the time; I didn't know I was insecure. Or rather, I didn't know what security was. I didn't know there was any other way to be.

So as soon as I became an adult and headed into life on my own, my first quest was to figure out if I was loved or not. It is with good reason that St. John writes "We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us" (1 Jn. 4:16). We have to believe in love; there has to be a movement of faith.

I'm mishmoshing my thoughts all together here because I'm not telling stories like I need to in order to make sense of things. Sort version of childhood: Born into turmoil, alcoholism, mental illness. Then divorce, diaspora of siblings, grossly hobbled communication and role reversal about who was the nurturer and who was the nurtured. All under the veneer of a relatively "normal" life. A Gen-Xer growing up in the 70s. Conversion to Christ during that childhood, though without any spiritual mentors for the first nine years. Then in young adulthood, I was ravenously hungry for spiritual things, and took in everything Christian I could find. God protected me from so much, especially from myself and my tendency to leave myself over-vulnerable.

So, there I was, a young adult, learning to believe God loves me. There has got to be little that is more pastorally frustrating than "trying" to get someone to believe in God's love. It has to be a work of grace. There is probably more damage done than we realize by well-meaning Christians who are zealous for souls to know God's love. In my experience, attempts to "love one another" can be so devastating. And yet we must learn to do it.

Let me not ramble away from those possessions.

You see, I did learn to believe in God's love. Layer by layer, I have learned. I lived in Japan as a new Catholic for 30 months, which was a poorly discerned decision on my part, but I can back wiser. I had all my romantic notions about following God beaten out of me during that time. I came back knowing myself on an equal footing with all children of God, yes, but all sinners too. I came back knowing I need people. It was easy, before that, for my insecurity to push me away from people, not even understanding that I was undermining myself. I was naively proud enough to think I was better off without all those "other" messed up people. When I arrived in Steubenville (where I moved immediately after my return Stateside), I took the Lord up on a promise I had felt He made me some years earlier, that He wanted to be the one responsible for choosing what people would be part of my life. Mix my people-naivete with my lack of trust, and just having a sense that God would provide people for me was the greatest weight off my mind. It was the beginning of a sense that my life was partnered with God. For some people, meeting others comes as naturally as breathing, but to me it involved all manner of terror.

Within a few days of arriving in town, I met the man I eventually married (although I had no inkling of it at first). I have always said that my husband is my stability. Since meeting him, my life has known a secure foundation. This is really what attracted me to him, because he is very predictable and is slow to change, not erratic, not a flyer-off-the-handle. Childhood insecurity can train the brain to worry and to anticipate weird things like sudden abandonment. Marriage has re-trained my brain to anticipate continuity, peace, and certainty.

All that is beautiful. All that goes right along with the Pope's comments about take Jesus up on His definitive proposals, that stuff that says "put your whole life right here. That's how you follow me."

But, ok, great. I'm married. But gosh dang, if it ain't true that during that long haul, we get lots of opportunities to revisit all those needs for healing and all those calls to recommit and to understand deeper, and all that.

So it's no great wonder that as a fully grown adult, married for a bunch of years, I get to revisit whether I believe I am loved or not. We get these things, like gifts, to trip over, to wake us up, to force the question. First it was why we weren't having babies. God gives life; why wasn't He doing it for us? Am I loved? Do I believe?

Then God started calling me to pour out my life and my heart to people. That isn't something that flowed in real ways for me in the past. My naivete has been a blessing and a curse. I am interiorly compelled to pour everything out, but I make mistakes and sometimes even when I'm not making mistakes I learn that that kind of vulnerability welcomes incredible pain.

Dang it! Following Jesus means welcoming incredible pain! It's not about staying comfortable! He really meant all that stuff about the cross!

What did the Pope say: our riches "anesthetize" us. Wellbeing is an anaesthetic. And what does an anaesthetic do? It deadens us to pain. It also deadens us to pleasure. It simply deadens us. And I decided some time ago that I do not wish to live that way.

But I am forced to reconsider that decision occasionally. Like now. Do I still believe in pouring my heart out to people? Can I accept the reality of the people in my life -- that those who could not nurture still can't? That most people to whom I pour out my heart will not be moved? That none of them are God, and while I am called to love God in them and through them, no human love will ever move my heart like divine love will? That God's love for me, that constant, unrelenting, driving, powerful force in my life, is completely outside my control -- I cannot produce it nor command it nor tailor it to suit my moment? That You are my Sovereign God?

Oh God, you are such a seductive Lover! You force me out of myself, then leave me looking for You. You leave me no romantic notions of what it means to follow after You, and yet I cannot turn back, despite the cross, after seeing a glimpse of Your all-embracing love. Oh God, do not leave me alone or I fear I will turn back away from You. And yet You are only hidden from my sight because of Your incredible closeness.

Teach me, Lord, this ironic necessity to stop trying to possess love. Let me know and believe that You are the one who possesses me.

Friday, May 24, 2013

A Hard Heart

Today I faced an emotional challenge, and I think I've learned something from it.

For one thing, I realized I've come a long way from the days when I would have tied myself in knots for a few weeks over something like this. (The "this" involved making a phone call and having a conversation I didn't relish.) More importantly, I've realized something about why I felt challenged in the first place.

I felt I had to proffer some information about my current health struggle to someone. It had been in the back of my mind for a few days, and I had been putting it off, always with the concern that "I didn't want to cause worry." That was, you know, my formal statement to myself. But today I had some time to be quiet with my thoughts, and I realized that if I am going to be consistent with my conviction that God has allowed this situation into my life for His purposes, and what is more, if my life is His for His purposes, then I don't get to horde, or control, the reality of what is going on. Either I live the relationships given to me openly, or I deny that my life is His. I can't control the reactions of others, but keeping them in the dark on purpose because I think it will give me greater comfort is no way to live a relationship, with others or with God.

So I called. I talked. And I realized.

I realized that probably the only thing worse than feeling like I will cause someone worry is to realize that I could not provoke a response of concern for myself at any cost. My formal statement to myself was basically a painful-reality shield.

But this doesn't make me angry. I do feel sad, but I think it is a sadness that helps me embrace wisdom. I heard a homily this morning that fits so well with what I'm experiencing. It was about how hardness of heart is really a closing off of oneself from others, a sort of self-absorption. Hard hearts are spared certain hurts, the hurts that come from others. The bad news is that they are also "spared" love that comes from others. As a result, they do not really know how to open their hearts to the needs of another, and all exchanges in life secretly (or not so secretly) boil down to how it affects them. That's a vicious cycle, because their self-absorption leaves no open door to their needs being met, either. Only love can satisfy us, and only the heart that will choose to be vulnerable and open will receive it.

I speak like I know all about this because, simply, I do. Been there, lived that. But I see now that I have thoroughly come to know and live a new way, where love is my primary reality. This is a gift from God. It is sad for me to realize that not everyone I open my heart to will respond in like manner. Not everyone is in a place of knowing how. God has a gift for them, too. I guess it makes my heart ache to realize what we humans choose to live without.

Monday, May 20, 2013

God is ALWAYS to be Trusted

So, back a couple posts I wrote about this novena to St. Therese I was doing. I was giving myself a little pep talk to persevere with it, and wrote this:

I think that's the way some things are in my life, too -- only God understands them. But He does all things well, and for His purposes. Absolutely nothing transpires in our lives apart from the will of God. We need only to align ourselves with rightly with God, and whether it makes sense during this life or not, His purposes will always prevail.
Well, I went back and re-read that several days after I finished the novena, and I had to sorta laugh to myself.  I should include the fact that I was slightly bummed when I finished this novena that I did not get the customary rose handed to me at its conclusion. Well, OK, Marie, don't get all silly about this... I told myself. But then I had to stop and think again. Maybe this time the "rose," the sign of my answered prayer, was gonna look different.

Because what happened in between time was that I've developed these lumps on my neck. To make a long story short, I've run the course of two meds, supposedly ruled out the possibility of a normal problem like an ear infection, and am now awaiting testing to find out if it might be something really nasty like cancer.

So, why am I laughing at that? Well, in part I laugh because I don't want to curl into fetal position and die. But it is also because I know, like rock-solid know, that absolutely nothing transpires in my life apart from the will of God. This last year (I am officially proclaiming) was the hardest, most painful, confusing, scary, bewildering spiritual path I have ever faced. Even though I knew God was leading me on it I also hated every minute of it, at least when I wasn't scared to death. Have you ever lived through hating something God was handing you? It makes life kinda hard.

But then all of a sudden, the pain is gone, and there's this silence, like between movements of music.

And then there's this.

And all of a sudden, having a doctor say "maybe... lymphoma" to me feels like a walk in the park.

Because I know better than I know my name that God knows my life more intimately than I do. I know nothing transpires apart from His will. I know, even, that crosses are royal blessings, given to those He desires to draw close to Him, and that I am unworthy of receiving them. I know that my life exists to glorify Him and love others. I know that suffering can be offered as prayer so that others can know God. I know that what I desire more than anything is the salvation of souls. My life does not belong to me, nor do my children's lives. All that I have and experience is a gracious gift from God.

God knows what He's doing. He is always to be trusted.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Pentecost is our Ordinary

I was at the Mass for the Vigil of Pentecost this evening, and had one of those moments where I was listening to the readings from so far deep inside that I forgot where I was or what was supposed to happen next. Which was kinda interesting, considering that I was the cantor and was supposed to get up and sing the psalm. I recovered quickly enough, but not without that sense of disorientation, wondering for a moment if I was doing the completely wrong thing at the completely wrong time.

The first reading: the Tower of Babel. (Deep breath, recovery..) Psalm petitioning God to send forth the Holy Spirit and renew the face of the earth. The bit about the Holy Spirit praying for us when we don't know how with groans that words cannot express. Then this great gospel:

On the last and greatest day of the feast,
Jesus stood up and exclaimed,
“Let anyone who thirsts come to me and drink.
As Scripture says:
Rivers of living water will flow from within him
who believes in me.”

He said this in reference to the Spirit
that those who came to believe in him were to receive.
There was, of course, no Spirit yet,
because Jesus had not yet been glorified. 
There are those moments when familiar Scriptures take on a whole new layer of meaning, reveal another depth, when splashed over my life, my experiences, as they accrue to me to this day. That is the beauty of life with God: everything is always made new.

Here's how it struck me today.

There are two ways that people can be united, so to speak. The first is a unity unworthy of the name, but it is actually a very sticky unity. It is the unity of sin. Sin speaks one language, and that language says "me" in a thousand ways. Even when it says "you," it really says "me." This is the unity that humanity had at Babel. The people were all about making a name for themselves, establishing their own glory and power. They worked with other folks who had the same selfish intention, willing to use and be used for the purpose of self-glorification. When "God confused their language," they discovered that they didn't understand each other anymore. There is a grace here. The facade of unity crumbled away, and each one was revealed for what they were: out for themselves. Their language now betrayed "me" when it said "you." And each selfish builder went off to build for himself instead of being invincible in the sticky, fake unity of sin. This reminds me of how the devil will butter people up with attractive perks, only to kill, steal and destroy in the end.

But this relationship amongst humanity and between persons is not God's will. This is not the image of God. God is a relationship, a family, a unity of self-giving. It is the Holy Spirit, sent by the glorified Messiah that refashions humanity to live as the images of God we are created to be.

When we are in Christ, when we have died with Him and risen with Him and we receive His Spirit, something happens to us. We experience this labor, this groaning as the Spirit births new things in us. It is glorious, but it is like a pain. But it is a pain we can't escape, and we wouldn't want to if we could realize what it is, for it is part of the birth of new life. That new life is not for ourselves. That new life is what God has done in us, and it is for His glory and His people. In our utter dependence on God for this process that we did not begin and that we do not control, we are completely surrendered to His action in our spirits.

This is the opposite of the self-seeking and other-using of Babel. This is living as self-gift, first to God, and then to the world. This is "I am not my own; no one lives as his own master, and no one dies as his own master." This is living in the awareness that God causes me to be, causes everything to be, that His love courses through me so that I sometimes do not even know (realize) what I am saying and doing, only I discover that there is a river flowing from within me that does not come from me. Jesus has given all to me, and in giving all I have in return, I find that I give God's life itself. This is living as images of God, as God intends. This is our joy.

This is why Pentecost is our "ordinary time." Yes, I know ordinary means "counted." But it is also true that the commonplace life of the Christian IS God's Holy Spirit present and active in and through us so that we are empowered to carry forth His work and His presence in this world. Don't leave out that part about Jesus being glorified, and remember that in the gospel "being glorified" means being nailed to a cross and dying. We share in that part first. But it all goes in onion layers.

This is the only way that joy is possible. This is how Christianity works. This is not about my efforts to be good, moral and nice. This is about transformation from dead to living. This is God's life soaking, flooding, pouring through my leaky, frail, clay pot and making it an outpost of His own life in this world.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Paging St. Therese

I'm in the middle of what I think is only my third ever novena to St. Therese. I wrote last summer about how I just never could warm up to her until I read letters exchanged between her and Maurice, who became a missionary priest and was her spiritual brother.

But a lot has changed since last summer. Now I am in formation as a secular Carmelite and learning how this spirituality is actually my vocation. (I realize now that approaching a spirituality in a try-it-on mentality, or an everyone-else-is-doing-it mentality isn't as good as it gets. It seems the "well, this sure explains a lot" approach is fuller, because it is about discovering the meaning of something God has already put there. It's a deeper way of learning to be who God has made me.)

So, there's St. Therese, not only a huge Carmelite saint but a Doctor of the Church.

Some people are just harder for me to get to know than others.

Some posts are harder for me to write without rambling, too.

My first novena to her, I confess, I didn't finish. And why? That rose appeared on the very first day, so I stopped. I was dead earnest about my intention, and that prayer has figured very large in the landscape of my spiritual life in the last few years. I had absolute confidence that my prayer had been answered, which is kind of ironic, because I didn't even understand how central confidence in God is to St. Therese's Little Way. This intention wasn't the sort of thing that was about an immediate manifestation. In fact, it was very much a "someday" sort of thing. The way the "someday" has been working out has gotten bigger and bigger over the last few years.

With my second one, I was asked to pray for someone, and while I wasn't thinking about a novena to St. Therese, I do remember praying about how to pray, and that was what came to me, so I did it. Rose. I had no idea how ironic that was going to prove, either.

Leading up to her feast day last October, I remember now, as a community we prayed a very simple novena for a return to the Faith for those who had lost it. But that was not this same novena I'm talking about here, so let's say it doesn't count.

But here I am again, knocking at Theresie's door (yeah, I call her that privately; hope she doesn't mind). I understand now more of her way of humility, of confidence, of spiritual childhood, of abandonment to God's will and of embracing whatever suffering comes with it. I understand more than I did before why she is a Doctor of the Church. I'm sure, in reality, my understanding is very rudimentary. But at least when I go to her I am praying more deeply this time.

And dang, if I am not wrestling hard.

Humility is a good thing. It is beautiful and it is powerful. It is pure. But in my heart I still hear echos of fighting for myself, defending myself from being put down, nursing my own wounds. Jesus, who is profoundly humble, calls me not to try to heal myself from hurts to my pride, but to bring my heart to Him for Him to love it to wholeness. Filled with His love, I don't need the kind of self-love that is all about shutting others out (including God). Filled with His love, I spill over to others without noticing.

God is all-powerful, and I am not. But in my heart I still want to get in there and do it, my own thing, to fix it. Even though I don't know how to or even what fixes I want. I know enough to know I want something from God, but I am proud enough to think I can do it myself.

Today, one line in the novena prayer said something about the delays and disappointments that St. Therese experienced, and how if what I were asking for was not in God's will, and therefore not to be granted, that I would be disappointed. At that point, I burst into tears. "Like a baby," I thought, but then I thought again... no, like St. Therese. Sometimes we just aren't given to know whys about things. When I read Story of a Soul the first time, I thought she was being rather the drama queen to weep so about her desire to enter Carmel. But there was an intensity in her soul, partly natural to her, to be sure, but it was there for reasons that no one but God understood. That's the way He wanted it. I think that's the way some things are in my life, too -- only God understands them. But He does all things well, and for His purposes. Absolutely nothing transpires in our lives apart from the will of God. We need only to align ourselves with rightly with God, and whether it makes sense during this life or not, His purposes will always prevail.

Ok, so, now I see this has been a pep talk so that I continue with this novena, continue entrusting myself to the Lord who is all wise and all powerful and all loving, and not run off half cocked in my pride. Or, at least I will wait to do that until after the novena. Hey, I don't ask for graces I'm not in desperate need of!