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.