Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Lent that Would Not End

If you have kids, you might have had the, uh, pleasure of learning this song:

(If you really want punishment, you can go here and listen to it for 10 hours straight!)

Well, a few years ago I had a Lent that remind me of this song.

"This is the Lent that does not end/ It just goes on and on my friend
Some people/Started praying it not knowing what it was
And they'll continue praying it forever just because...."

In fact, the whole year felt like a Lent, and then it was followed up by another Lent and almost another whole year of a similar feeling. Just back up a couple years' worth of posts and you'll get the feeling of it.

I look back now and I see it has been a time of intense purification. When I started I had a true but purely theoretical understanding of what needed to be purified in me. I had no idea what the process I knew I was headed for felt like, and I didn't really understand in any experiential way God's purposes in bringing me through it. As Soren Kierkkegard famously said, life can only be understood backwards but has to be lived forwards. So I was left in a place for a long time where I was devoid of understanding. That is an extremely difficult place for me to be. I thrive on being able to understand and figure stuff out.

I announced to myself and others a few times during this process that everything was "all done." And I was wrong each time. So I am not now saying that all of that is done, and I know for a fact it is not. When I touch that spot in me that knows that, I still experience the struggle and the desire for complete resolution. There is a very real possibility that it will not be in this life. And that's ok.

What I have gained and learned in this time is all the gift of God. He knows how much I have fought against and resisted Him every step along the way of His trying to bless me. He knows how tenderly and respectfully and gently He prepared me for very difficult moments.

I realize that while God is deeply concerned with the healing of our souls and the wholeness of our personhood, He has a purpose that is higher than all that. He doesn't heal us just so that we can live peaceful, happy lives on this earth for the rest of our years. He heals us so that we are whole, so that we possess ourselves, and so that in possessing ourselves we can make of ourselves an oblation to Him. With St. Teresa of Avila we can then say, "I am yours; I was born for you. What is your will for me?"  There is absolutely nothing this world can offer that is worth exchanging for the delight of being the Lord's in this way.

Humiliation, anguish of heart, the pressing down of the cross, experiences of rejection, of relationship being repudiated, calumny, conflict.... This is the way the Lover brings His beloved deeper into intimacy with Him. This was His experience. To have it offered to any soul is like a golden crown being extended. How often we go chasing after our favorite pretty trinket instead of bowing to receive the great honor of such a crown.

God's ways simply are amazing. Recently I was looking at a sculpture I own, of Jesus embracing His cross on the via dolorosa. It occurred to me that I was, quite literally, Jesus' cross. My sin caused His suffering, caused His cross, and His embrace of His cross was His embrace of me. His embrace of His cross bore the fruit of the Eucharist, which now brings healing to the entire universe and transforms me into Him, makes us one. And yet still today, that Eucharist, that grace, that healing, that transformation, that union, can be rejected by me and by anyone. But Jesus loved anyway. That love is my salvation.

And He calls me to live His very life, in imitation, in union.

Let us praise God now and forever. He alone is worthy of our worship. To Him be glory forever.

Friday, March 28, 2014

When Understanding is Folly

For a long time I've had the phrase "I write, therefore I understand" in the header of this blog. The title is all about that because naru hodo is like "oh, now I get it" in Japanese.

But I've learned that there is something more important than that. In fact, I can think of at least three things that are more important to have than understanding.

Faith. The only way that we can really function in this world that we did not create as persons who have not created ourselves is to acknowledge that we came from somewhere else. Faith is completely reasonable, although it does take us beyond what reason can deduce. And faith is really the only thing that gives me solid grounding under my feet, the only thing that can assure me of things I can't see. Faith in God is a supernatural gift that is available to every human being. When that supernatural gift functions in our lives it often requires one to do things that are reasonable, and yet beyond our understanding. So understanding bows before faith.

Hope.  God relates to us. He is relational, or rather we are relational and can begin to grasp what that means because He is relational and we are made in His image. Relationships are opened out beyond this moment. We don't know the what, but in knowing the who, or better, being in relationship with the who, we also have solid footing. We cannot understand things that haven't even come to be yet. But we can be in peace when the who is free to take us anywhere. So understanding bows before hope.

Love.  This is what God is. This is what comes to live in the heart of a human who is covenanted with God by baptism. This is the Holy Spirit alive and at work within us and through us. This is also the purifying fire of God. And this hurts -- like the dickens -- to the degree that we are open to God and yet embracing attachments that are not God. That hurt just flat out squashes understanding to bewildered smithereens sometimes. So understanding bows before love.

It is fine and good to seek understanding. But it is not fine and good to seek one's security in it. It is good, right and necessary to be at peace without understanding at times, especially when one is seeking answers that are personal and not in reference to specifically revealed truths, like the morality of ending life, or other questions that can be presented in catechism format.

When understanding it not available to rest in, one must realize the call is to rest in God Himself. God deeply respects our minds (He created them, after all!). He will give us to understand what we truly need. But the beauty of the understanding He gives is that it is the fruit of receiving His love into our hearts and allowing His love to shape us. Love gives understanding on that personal level. So without embracing God, without embracing love (with faith and hope -- they travel together), we never really reach the potential we could in human understanding.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

"I Have Come not to Abolish but to Fulfill"

"Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets. I have come, not to abolish them, but to fulfill them." (Mt. 5:17, NAB)

This is the first line of today's gospel reading.

Jesus wants us to think about him correctly. He wants us not to misunderstand His intentions, and mostly I think He doesn't want us meditating on ourselves, imagining God in our own image, but leaving the realm of our thoughts and entering into His.

And so He tells us not to think He's come to abolish the law and the prophets. Scripture is full of admonitions not to add to or subtract from God's word, specifically the directives He gives, and the prophetic messages He gives. He wants them just the way He gives them.

And yet... He gives them in such a way that they have an aspect of "emptiness" to them -- of lack of fulfillment. This is on purpose. The law, the prophetic messages, are given in such a way that they cause us to look deeper, to look beyond, to look for what they really hold. They are designed to cause even a certain dissatisfaction. It is when we want mastery over the mystery of God that we add our own embellishments or take away the more onerous or confusing bits from the law and prophets. But then we've made God over into our image, and made Him more manageable and palatable, suiting our current whim.

Christ is the fulfillment. What is more, Ephesians 1:23 tells us that the Christ is the head of the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills everything in every way. Christ comes not only to personally keep the law and be the promised Messiah the prophets foretold. He comes to form the perfected people that the old covenant was never able to produce. This must be why He goes on (after the verse I quoted above) to talk about those who will be called greatest and least in the kingdom of God.

Still now, in the new covenant, we know in part and we prophesy in part. We too have that which causes a yearning in our souls. This also is by God's design, to draw us more deeply into the experience of His life, and to direct our gaze heavenward.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

When God Promises to Kill

"You shall not wrong any widow or orphan. If ever you wrong them and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry. My wrath will flare up, and I will kill you with the sword; then your own wives will be widows, and your children orphans."

The word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.

No, really.

This is from today's Office of Readings, from Exodus 22. I know that Christians (not to mention non-Christians) can read stuff like this and feel compelled to go into significant contortions to try to get comfortable with words like this. We can end up with interesting theological positions, like the undoing of the inerrancy of Scripture, or the creation of an "Old Testament God" that is different from the God of the New Testament.

The Church and her liturgy teach us how to read Scripture, and one key to that is understanding both the old and new covenants in light of each other. The Fathers teach us by their example to read the Old Testament in light of how the Holy Spirit works in our hearts in the new covenant.

So when I read this piece from Exodus this morning, I was moved to tears in two directions at once.

There are aspects in which I am like the "widow and orphan" of early Israel. There are ways in which I am utterly helpless and at the mercy of others. There is that aspect of me in which God is my only defense.

And yet there is also the aspect in me through which I am the wronger of the vulnerable. I have the propensity to sin, and I do. And God promises, what? To kill me with the sword. Am I to shrink from this? No, this is exactly what I signed on for in baptism.

God puts His life into me in baptism, and when I live it out, living in the Holy Spirit, I am called to put to death all sin, because that is what contact with God does to us. Each day we get to choose -- God, or not God?

The most merciful thing God can do for us is to convict us of sin and place the cross in our lives so that our choice for sin gets crushed out of us. God never crushes our humanity. We get confused and lose clarity about what is our humanity and what is our idolatry. The love of God burns as a strong fire, and He bids us toss our idols into it to repudiate them. His fire destroys them. His fire does not destroy us. His fire, His love, envelops us. But we have to not shrink from Him in fear. We can be so accustomed to living without the experience of God's love, wrapped in serving our own idols, that we see God's love as our enemy.

The God who comes to save and protect me is exactly the same God who comes to refine the dross right out of me by the fiery furnace. This is truly one and the same act.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Remembering My First Love

I went to Mass for about 18 months before I received Confirmation and entered the Church. All that time I already knew I would become a Catholic. All that time I had a lot going on inside of me. I really had no human being to accompany me; those who had been instrumental in my conversion lived far away from me and I saw them very infrequently. Letters were our contact. God gave me a lot of graces in those days that I realize now were a little unusual. I also had heaps of pride and prejudice to work through, and no, there's no oblique Jane Austen reference there.

After I decided to become a Catholic, God really had only one directive for me: "Be going to Mass." I understood the Lord meant I should go to daily Mass, and I did, though it took me several months before I moved beyond Sundays only.

But even when it was just Sundays, I began to discover my first love. Liturgy.

There's that first kiss or first touch or embrace from someone you love that makes every nerve involved stand on end for a couple days. The physical memory seems indelible. I had those moments with the liturgy in those, my early Mass-going days. I remember how profoundly struck I was by the prophetic power present in the liturgical dialogue between priest and people. I was struck by how immanent heaven and all its treasures felt, and that I was being drawn up into it. I was amazed at how much work God could do in my soul in such a quick, efficient way, day after day. I realized that I had found my home and my family for the first time ever. I would come in sight of the tabernacle after my day at work and feel God's peace wrapping me up and drawing my weariness out of me.

But much of this mystical sensation was lifted from me quickly. The memory stayed, but my more regular experience was of my frustration over my own dullness and the lifeless way that seemed demanded of me, by general consensus, as this new Catholic family of mine celebrated liturgy. I had very serious struggles accepting the flesh and blood people next to me in the pews, and it seemed just as important to God that I learn to love them as Him. He always knows what He is doing as He leads His children.

I have come to a completely different place in my life now. I really have learned to love people. I have had some mighty lessons in that department.

And now the Lord calls me to remember my first love in the way He first introduced me. Maturity makes love make more sense, and there is always so much more room to grow both in understanding and in the actual action of loving.

I love the fact that no matter how long I have walked with Jesus, He is always doing something new with me, and I always feel I am just beginning to know Him.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Wanna See Me Make the Golden Rule Complicated?

Today's gospel reading had the golden rule in it: Do to others what you would have them do to you.

For a long time now, I've had a hunch about that golden rule. It has always struck me that perhaps in the original stating, it was descriptive and not prescriptive. "You do to other people what you would have them do to you."

The truth is more likely that the average person over the millenia has been far more practical than I. So, it's more like I don't cheat you, you don't cheat me.

But I generally think in terms like this: I want someone to challenge me, to love me enough to say hard things to me. I want someone to see where I'm stuck, especially where I can't see it, and to uncoercively coach me beyond that stuck point.

That's what I want. (Well, that and someone to cook for me.) But sometimes I "golden rule" people, doing to them what I want for me, and it just doesn't go over.

Or do people with complicated brains get an exemption here?

But let's face it. Some people really love to avoid conflict. They don't want anyone getting into conflict with them, so they don't get into conflict with others. Some people like their egos massaged, so they massage the egos of others. People want all sorts of things from others that aren't so good.

Is this the definition of thinking too much?