Tuesday, July 30, 2013

What Happened at Holy Hill

It's time for another show-and-tell.

A week ago we visited the Basilica of National Shrine of Mary Help of Christians, which is otherwise known simply as Holy Hill. It is operated by Carmelite Friars whose monastery is located on the grounds.

View from the rear of the Basilica

It isn't so much the physical beauty of the place that stirs me, though it is nice. There is something very powerful that moves me when I am here, and even to an extent when I remember being here.

The first time I heard of this place was in a conversation with my friend Keith who had just returned to the Church, while I was still an anti-Catholic pentecostal. I had encountered one brief glimmer of light coming from the Catholic Church while I was in college, and that was in the writings of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. I remember then dropping whatever book I was reading onto the table in the library out of sheer awe and saying to God, "Lord, if there are any people left in the world who believe like this, those are the people I want to be among." Now, three years later, I was asking Keith in a dire attempt to be conciliatory to a man I was very fond of, "You know St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross? Are there any people like them around the Catholic Church these days?" I didn't even know what I was asking, I mean, I certainly didn't understand all about religious orders, nor did I understand that they were basically the founders of one, the Discalced Carmelites. And he told me yes there were, just in the next county north, at Holy Hill.

My Protestant friends took me there the first time, mostly for sightseeing, since in the fall everyone comes to see the beautiful leaves from atop the high church tower. But I returned many, many times. More often than not, my feeling there was one of desperate and tremulous quest. I knew and believed that the Church was God's profound beauty, but I also knew I was encountering other stuff, both in the Church and in myself, that was ugly. I was often confused and scared, and amidst these new and foreign surroundings I tried to beg God to show me what He was doing.

Holy Hill has a monthly healing Mass, and at one of these I took the offer to go in the prayer line afterwards. This felt comfortingly familiar to my pentecostal experience. And yet, I wasn't entirely sure if these women who were going to pray with me were trustworthy or not. I don't remember anything I said to them or what we prayed for, though I have a feeling I started to cry. But I do remember vividly what the one woman told me as I got ready to leave. She told me to go and pray to Jesus, and she asked me if I knew where to find Him. I blurted out, with a bit of a question mark in my voice, "In my heart?" And she smiled and said yes, in my heart.

I had no idea at the time what a Carmelite-flavored exchange that was. I don't know for  sure, but I have a feeling she was a member of the local OCDS community, just like the one I am in formation with.

Last week's trip might have been my 20th trip there. This time was different, because I'm actually an aspirant of the order. Secular Carmelites are not addenda to the "real" order. I am actually going to be part of the exact same order that St. John and St. Teresa were. To think -- God answered that extremely earnest cry of my 20-year-old heart that I didn't even understand at the time! 

During the whole visit last week, I was vibrating inside . It is hard to describe, but as I took the picture above I was thinking "I wish I could eat this place." It's that sort of experience of grace where you just want everything of you to be part of everything of it. This is Carmel. This isn't just my home, it is the room within my home where I encounter Jesus, where He encounters me. Where I am His and He is mine. 

If I had that same book from my college days in my hands now, I'd drop it in sheer awe again.

Side altars: St. Teresa and St. John

Our Lady of Mount Carmel

Main Altar

Monday, July 29, 2013

Where "Unleashed" Goes from Here

In 2011, I recorded a CD called Unleashed, and if you know me or follow this blog, you've heard something about that.

The whole process was a strange ride, a sort of biopsy out of my life, especially my interior, spiritual life (which has always had characteristics of a three-ring circus).

I had an urgent sense of a call to do the recording, a strong desire that flamed up, and a boatload of questions and worries that just dared me to wrestling matches. My interior questions were bad enough, but my biggest objective concern was, of course, the cost. Even with the reasonable studio I found, the budget for recording and duplicating was not going to be chump change I had lying around. I told the Lord one day that if He really wanted me to do this, He would have to provide the money. The following day I had an unexpected rebate check from Ford in the mail. It wasn't enough to cover costs, but it was significant enough to get my attention. I was assured that God knew what He was doing.

So I proceeded in faith.

My ducks began to line up, and I even began recording.

Two weeks after we began, my sister Bonnie died rather unexpectedly, although she had been suffering from cancer and complications for some time. Several weeks later it came as another surprise to me that an amount of money was coming my way from her. It was more than enough to cover all the expenses I eventually incurred with the CD.

After the CDs arrived (the official "release" date was the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes -- more on that in a bit), I had a little flurry of having friends buy them, selling them on-line, and happily celebrating what had been a significant stretching for me.

Not long after that, those of you who follow this blog might recall that I hit what I can only call a spiritual dark night, and among other things quite frankly I could not even listen to the CD for about a year, let alone think much about it.

But before all that happened, and while I was recording, I did invest a lot of prayer into this whole thing. The feast of Our Lady of Lourdes timing was significant to me, because it seemed that there was something about healing here. I prayed always for the conversion of those who would listen, and for their healing.

Also, during this "dark night" time, I began to be convinced and convicted that selling these CDs was not to be primarily how I would go about getting them where they needed to be. It became clearer to me that Bonnie's death and the money that funded the recording was by no means incidental. My sister, who was mentally ill for most of her adult life, was well known for being generous even to a fault, and gathering up things only to give them away. I became more convinced that I should give the CDs to anyone who wanted them.

Recently I began to see that the time has come for me to take a fresh look at this whole journey, and to ask the Lord again what He wants. It is no great burden to me to have these CDs in my house, but I realize if the Lord wanted me to do the project and give them away, then they do not belong to me and I need to find where they do belong. In praying and discerning and talking with people, I have decided to offer these free of charge to hospices, to those who work with the mentally ill, with grieving families, to those suffering illnesses, to religious orders who minister to those who so suffer, to those who use recorded music in therapy. And really, to anyone else who simply asks.

I will still make them available for sale so that those who want to help fund postage to these other people can do so. (Amazon and CDBaby sell them, but if you buy from me directly they don't get a cut.)

I am beginning to work through some contacts I have in these areas, but I would be greatly pleased to hear from anyone with further leads for me. Anyone who wants to hear the album to judge if it is something you want can do so at my Facebook page or at my website.

If you would share this post generously I would appreciate that too.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

My Year of Faith Sacramental Pilgrimage

Awhile back a blogger I saw wrote about going on pilgrimage during this Year of Faith to the place where one received ones sacraments. I tucked that in the corner of my mind to undertake while in Wisconsin this summer. We just did that, and here's my show-and-tell.

Here I am in front of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Madison, WI, where I was baptized in December of 1967. My family never went to church here after that. We actually moved away the week following my baptism for about six months, and after we returned, the LC-MS/WELS split had happened, and my mom stayed with the WELS. I've only been inside this church one time since my baptism, when I was about 19 years old.

This next one is not, strictly speaking, part of my sacramental life. This is the door of St. Vincent Pallotti parish in Wauwatosa, WI. In 1991 it was called St. Anthony of Padua (the name change apparently came after a parish merger). This was the parish where at a Christmas Eve midnight Mass I experienced Jesus in the Eucharist so profoundly that I ended up becoming a Catholic.

This is St. Rita Parish in West Allis, WI, where I was confirmed and received into the Church on April 18, 1993. I went to Sunday Mass here from the beginning of 1992 until the summer of 1993.

I wish I could say these were out of order, but this is at Gesu Parish in Milwaukee where I made my first confession the day after I was confirmed. Yeah, that's not the way it was supposed to be, but the priest who did my RCIA formation told me confession was optional, so I decided to opt out. The Holy Spirit had other ideas, and the following day at work He picked me up by the scruff of my neck and suddenly I could find no rest at all without going to confession. Off I went to Gesu, where I had been attending daily Mass for over a year, and where confessions were heard every afternoon. I crashed into the confessional chair, startling the blind priest who apparently was not used to loud water buffalos seeking the sacrament, and I explained that this was my first confession and that I had just been confirmed. "Ah, the Holy Spirit is stirring up the embers," he said. What struck me was that after I made my confession, the priest proclaimed that God forgave me all my sins. I was stunned at this. All my sins? Not just what I managed to blurt out? What a deal!

Oh, and I'm standing near this statue of St. Katherine Drexel because the confessionals I used have been replaced by rooms.

This is the altar in the lower church at Gesu. I attended daily Mass here for about two and a half years, where my former spiritual director Fr. John Campbell, SJ presided. This was the first parish I actually joined, because Fr. John was for me the heart of the sense of community I knew. Fr. Confession-is-Optional made no particular impression on me...

This last picture captures for me the heart of this sacramental pilgrimage. It is a very plain chapel there in the Lower Church, and yet it was the site where deeply profound changes began to transform my heart. Many days I stumbled through the doors for Mass after work, weary and stressed, and a flood of peace enveloped me the second I came into the presence of that tabernacle that holds Jesus inside. When Fr. John (may he rest in peace) stood behind that altar and prayed he formed me in what liturgy means. Jesus spoke to my heart and I learned the first steps in becoming a Catholic. All those priceless moments stay with me to this day.

Interiors and exteriors of the churches looked old and worn, or conversely were so newly repaired that they were foreign to me. This speaks to me of the humility and the transience of the things God uses. They are just material things, and even the most grand of them will crumble and be gone one day (as was the apartment building where I lived!) Even the people get old and die. But the graces remain.

When I moved to Japan I cried at the thought of leaving Fr. John and my new parish behind. Being homesick meant wanting to be at that 5:30 Mass again. Eight years ago, Fr. John passed away at 60 years young, and when I learned of it I felt completely alone in the world. But the beauty of what I have experienced in the sacraments is learning the reality that God's power really does come to us through humble signs, through people, through created matter, and it is within God's power that we actually find our home. In fact, God Himself is our home. He gives us all of these means to call us home. Even though human love would make us want to attach to the means, we have to have the eyes of a mystic to become attached to the One who calls us through them. 

The thing that always makes me slack-jawed is that He really does use created things to communicate Himself. The eternal Word of God really and truly did become man in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. Deepest reality is sacramental.

And this is where all that first happened to me.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

An Offer of Utmost Love

Hey you. Yeah, you. This is for you, a quick word of exhortation.

Choose for God. He has a specific way that He wants you to take, and it's worth it to choose for His way.

Oh, of course nobody can pull off doing God's thing on their own. But I'm talking about something radically different from just "doing your best," because, let's face it, how's that been working for you so far? It is impossible to go God's way, to do God's will, that way. I am, in fact, talking about doing something that is humanly impossible. It is actually possible, but not apart from humility, apart from dependence on the One who is Higher, apart from the grace and power of the Holy Spirit.

But here's the good news: God gives that stuff. He empowers, He graces. That is His way. He gives when we ask, and He is always hugely generous to everyone who desires Him. If you want the best He has for your life, tell God that you do. Tell Him you want everything He wants you to have.

Ok, ok, I know that feels awkward. Because even if you want to do God's will, you have this sin, this fault, this junk that besets you, that messes you up, that makes you feel like a gross disappointment to yourself and to God.

Valid point. Sin is real. But if you can believe sin is real, then you have got to accept that God's love and power are more real. After all, sin is just our junk. Love and power, that's God's. Which do you think is more likely to be more powerful:  you, or God?

Got sin that you can't make go away? I deal with that, too. There's a great verse in the Bible that I've learned to rely on. Sins you are powerless against require you to "First John One Nine" it. That says:

If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to purify us from all unrighteousness.
This is really great news. He doesn't only forgive, He also takes away the stuff that we can't budge. Our part is to come to Him with humility and say "I want this to be different, I want to be pure, but I can't make it happen." But not with some whiny, irritating, self-hating, prideful, woe-is-me bellyaching. Just like a little child who asks for a box or a bottle to be opened that he can't get. Removing sin from ourselves and making ourselves holy is beyond our capabilities. But it isn't beyond God's. In fact, that's exactly what He's waiting for us to come and ask Him for. (Quite literally, He was dying for us to come to Him that way.)

But we don't ask for sin to be taken away just to meet some stupid standard of goodness we have. The whole point of that awkward sin junk being removed is that God is madly in love with us, and as long as we are obsessing over how we aren't good enough, we can't see that He is busting His... whatever... to woo us unto Himself, longing to fill us beyond our wildest desires with good. When the sin is confessed, the love can flow in, and we can see that it is all about living in that relationship. That's what He's after, and that's what we need. We don't know who we are apart from God. Even with God we're confused enough! We have to keep coming back to that middle C -- relationship, relationship, relationship. If you think you are living Christianity and you have something other than a relationship with God in Christ Jesus through His Body made present in time and space by the Holy Spirit (called the Church), you are building over the wrong foundation. No wonder it is so damn unsatisfying.

If you want to make God sing (Zephaniah 3:17), then come to Him in simple humility and give Him a signed blank check on the account of your life. Say, "Here, Lord. Here it is. Here I am. All of me. Yours. Please show me what your love means for my life."

He is bursting at the seams to show you.

Friday, July 05, 2013

Natural Law, Marriage, and the Normality of Ignorance

I almost interjected myself into a homily yesterday.

It wasn't actually in response to the homily itself, but in response to the reaction of the congregation.

Let me start the story at the beginning.

It was the 4th of July, and I was attending Mass at Once-In-a-Blue-Moon parish. The deacon there preached along the lines of the closing of the Fortnight for Freedom. His basic theme was on understanding and addressing well the cultural times in which we live.

He told a story of speaking with a 30-something woman about sexual morality. She dismissed his rejection of sex outside of marriage as being merely a product of his toeing the Catholic line. He explained that one could passionately hold this position based purely on reason, with no reference to faith or religion. And then he detailed how:

When a man and woman engage in sex, he explained, it often happens that a child is conceived. It is justice for this child to be born and raised into a stable, peaceful environment. The biggest part of that stability comes through a relationship with its parents which remains constant and reliable throughout the childhood and further, throughout life. The best way to accomplish that is for these parents to be already committed to each other for life before the child comes on the scene.

Then the deacon went on to say that this woman with whom he was talking responded with: "That's a compelling argument. I've never heard anyone explain it like that to me before."

And at that point, I heard audible gasps from people seated behind me.

In the next breath, the deacon made reference to how this woman's rejection of Catholic teaching had come from her ignorance. Then I heard, on the other side of me, audible chuckling, as if to say "Boy howdy, that's right. Ignorant."

That was when I fought the urge to stand up and turn this into a round table discussion. (As you can see, I opted for a blog post.)

Much of what I'm going to say has to do with a generational divide, as the people I was surrounded with were a few decades my senior.

First, to respond to the gaspers. Normally I feel like the most naive person in any group, but I just cannot wrap my head around someone being shocked that the natural law view on marriage is entirely absent from the landscape of the mind. I am on the older end of Gen-X, but it seems that anyone of my generation or younger has had this common sense view of marriage either blotted out or made murky by either personal or sympathetic experience, and by consistent cultural messaging.

Sex equals babies? Says who. Since when. Certainly not since the 60s! In April, 1967, seven months before I was born, the first law was passed in the US to legalize abortion in some cases. And three decades before that contraception went from illegal to holding a prominent place in medical training.

And what about a two-parent family being an aspect of justice to children? Divorce rates shot through the roof in the late 60s as well. How many 30-somethings can you even find who were born and have lived their whole lives with their parents married to each other? When you have entire generations riddled through with divorced or separated parents, with many of these offspring able to reason that their lives were better off that way, how do you expect the same people to have any concept of the justice that was actually due them? Are not people more likely to assure themselves that they turned out OK, despite their parents' problems?

You can only possess what you experience. When you grow up in an environment where parents did not self-sacrificially lay down their lives for one another and give themselves to provide stability for their own vulnerable offspring, how the hell do kids learn that this is even how life should work?

They don't.

The only hope is if they see it happening that way for other people. That's called the witness of Christian family. (In reality, it takes more than tacit witness. The witness needs to be wedded to words of testimony of encountering Christ and an explicit call to likewise follow Him in conversion.)

I can remember as a late teen meeting the family of a Lutheran pastor I knew. My friend and I knew his son, and one day we had lunch with them after church on Sunday. I wanted to stay there all day and suck in their life. It was so wonderful. Two parents, kids, a dining room table, a meal together, everyone talked and joked. The poor pastor had to actually hand me a map with driving directions back home as a hint to get me to leave. I didn't even know, really, what I was hungry for, but I saw that these folks had it.

From my childhood into my adult years, I misunderstood marriage as not a means for partnering with a man to give life to the vulnerable among us, but as finally finding someone who loved me. As a kid I met a friend of my grandmother's who told me she had been married at age 15. I thought that was perfect. I also wanted to have 12 kids. Then, surely, I would finally be loved. Oh, I didn't think about it explicitly that way, but I realize now that's what it meant to me. The older I got (more and more frantic that I was "old" and single), the Lord had to reveal to me that my desire for "marriage" was actually at cross purposes with my following Him. I was a very hard sell when it came to believing that His love was the love I needed. Somehow I thought that meant no human being would ever love me. I had no idea that I couldn't give love to anyone unless I let His love flood me first. You can only possess what you experience, and you can only give what you possess.

All human beings are essentially walking, gaping needs-for-love. But perhaps my generation (and younger) experiences this more starkly than the folks who were raised in a time and place when natural law values and basic decency and love were more common.

Now to address that chuckler: Yes, the woman the deacon spoke of is ignorant. But this sort of ignorance of heart should make us double over in pain and weep. On a broad scale, we no longer understand what it means to be human, in the image and likeness of God. Marriage is thought of now as a source of pleasure for people, in whatever way and for whatever duration they agree to. This ignorance is deeply rooted in the family experience of most young people. This was my ignorance, too, but I was able to abide in a moral straitjacket that kept me from debauchery, even though I didn't understand God's loving purpose in natural law restrictions. God was gracious and merciful to me, but I can tell you that straitjackets are not comfortable. As the ignorance of the culture becomes deeper, I doubt that many would endure them for long.

We who call ourselves Christians have a dire responsibility to live dripping with God's love. That means we need to seriously turn our hearts to God on a daily basis and expand our relationship with Him to the extent that His love and His way, His disciplines, fill our hearts and lives. Forget brownie points. God wants YOU. Then, we have a responsibility to live the nitty gritty of our relationships with the determined action to do good. That's what love is. Open your heart and put it into the way you serve your family, your friends, the people in your life. We also need to repent of how we have been selfish, self-centered, unwilling to work, unwilling to give ourselves to others, unwilling to follow disciplines of prayer and spiritual growth.

We are the signs of God's reality to our culture. Let us be wise, courageous, and clear about who we are.