Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Unnatural Attachment to Chaos

Today is the feast of St. Rose of Lima. This morning I read this from her writings:

Let all men know that grace comes after tribulation. Let them know that without the burden of afflictions it is impossible to reach the height of grace.... This is the only true stairway to paradise, and without the cross they can find no road to climb to heaven.

We cannot obtain grace unless we suffer afflictions...

No one would complain about his cross or about troubles that may happen to him, if he would come to know the scales on which they are weighed when they are distributed to men.

Last year when I read this same thing on her feast day, I remember being struck by this truth that graces come to us through our crosses, or rather through our experience of Christ's cross.

But this morning, something rather different struck me.

Yes, there's the natural shrinking from what is unpleasant. But I believe in this generation there is another problem as well: there is sometimes an unnatural gravitation towards chaos, turmoil and self-inflicted pain.

There's something in the psyche of one who has experienced childhood chaos, turmoil and pain that has taught us that somehow these are where to seek comfort. No, it doesn't make sense, and I think those who repeat this cycle have some level of awareness of its absurdity. The mixture of this kind of mentality with religion is terribly toxic and, I believe, deceptive. One could read St. Rose's words and glory in reproducing or mentally wallowing in life's pains, making them worse than they need to be. For the non-religious person, the reproduction or the wallowing will be there anyway, but not so much the glorying. The saint might give this religious person an excuse to keep living in bondage to injury.

The key to breaking out of this cycle is detachment from one's own will, even the will to "endure pain." St. Rose makes it clear that the cross she describes is something that happens, something given to us, not something created by us. If I have a dreadfully messy house in which I can never find anything, that is not a cross given to me by God; it is something I have created. If I bemoan the fact that no one ever calls me, that is something I can remedy by reaching out to others. It would be wrong for me to sit at home and feel despised and glory in this, thinking I am winning souls to God this way. The gift God makes of suffering, and salutary penances I can choose have absolutely nothing to do with twisted self-punishment.

Sometimes we cling to the only security blankets we have ever known. If pain or generalized discomfort is life-long, it can actually become a crutch, something we don't know how to live without. Submission of our will to God will need to take the form of welcoming and receiving His love, peace, and joy. "Be loved!" and "be happy!" can, for some souls, be the hardest commands to which to respond "Yes, Lord."

Monday, August 11, 2014

Reflections on the Walking Pilgrimage to Czestochowa

Yesterday my two kids and I returned from a four day walking pilgrimage from Great Meadows, NJ to the National Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa. I was really excited about it, with more than a little apprehension about whether I could physically handle it, or whether my kids would either be crushed or complain bitterly against me for suggesting we do this.

They both loved it. My asthmatic daughter had not one breathing problem. Everyone was tired, but no one complained. I don't want to use the cliche "it was amazing," because really, it was walking. And praying. And sleeping in tents with a couple thousand people doing the same within inches of you. And lining up for porta potties. And eating more wheat than I have in a long time. And being in the hot sun. And no longer caring what you look like. And thinking a chance for both water AND soap in significant quantities is luxurious. And remembering the pain of not understanding the language at Mass, but experiencing how rich it actually makes you feel to suck all the life out of the one bit you do understand.

The whole thing was a grace, and an offering of love.

Things confirmed to me:

i) The key to joy in life is penance. Penance is suffering experienced and offered back to God out of love for Him and for someone else. Like King David said in 2 Sam. 24:24, offering something to God that doesn't cost you anything doesn't cut it. If you want to tell God you love Him, let it cost you your comfort. If you want to tell God you love someone and you want Him to work in them, let it cost you your comfort. Love costs and love seeks to give of itself. When we habitually live for our comforts our lives become grey and empty.

ii) Witnessing to Jesus means telling Him we love Him, in public, so someone else sees and hears. Maybe it isn't the literal act of walking through the streets and singing "I love you Jesus," like we did, but doing that literal act makes it all the clearer in my mind that corporal and spiritual works of mercy are simply ways we tell Jesus we love Him. It is possible, of course, to do right things for wrong reasons, and going through the streets singing about how we love God is a great way to hose out dead stuff.

iii) Other people are really, really important, but they aren't God. And if "people" take up positions in our hearts that need to be filled by God, they are idols and we are idolaters. Only God can purify our hearts and make them at home with Him so that we do not have to bend to whatever our culture demands as the social idolatry du jour. Only God gives us freedom to love people authentically. And true love calls for courage to be different.


There was a moment when I felt grace ripping through my heart right towards the end of the pilgrimage. We were getting ready for our last turn up to the Shrine, and the CFR friar musicians who were leading us with music broke out into this, sung to the tune of "Sweet Home Alabama":

Sweet Home Czestochowa
Where the Lady's dressed in blue
Sweet Home Czestochowa
Mom, I'm coming home to you

Now, doing this sort of thing, changing words to pop/rock songs, was the first real way I prayed as a kid. It's just sooo liturgically incorrect! But it's such a pure expression of joy and love, in a nitty-gritty and childlike way for me. I just wept with the joy of being able to be me, asserting *me* into relationship with the Blessed Mother, and by extension, with God, just as I am with all my uniquity. It was like I realized I am fulfilling a desire of God when I am fully me. And that is mind blowing.

The bottom line is: you should do this pilgrimage thing, too. Follow the Lord in penance with people proclaiming how much they love God. It isn't about doing anything perfectly. It's about doing it. And you know what they say about how God is never outdone in generosity. That part's true.