Tuesday, September 30, 2014

St Thérèse and the Terrifying Joy of Vulnerability

It is no secret that I was a devout non-fan of St. Thérèse for many of my Catholic years. Everyone was all "St. Thérèse this" and "St. Thérèse that," and I just simply could not warm up to her. In fact, she was the only saint that I felt a particular aversion towards.

My aversion was rooted in my ignorance, and my ignorance was fed by the tiny bit of knowledge I had about her. She was sweet, humble, simple, joyful, trusting.... and childlike.

Ok, let's be honest. Another factor in my aversion is that I really thought she simply was these things naturally. And, the heart of all my aversion was that I knew I am not those things.

But of course no saint comes by her virtues naturally. Not every saint goes through the dregs of sin, but no saint comes by virtue except by walking the way of the cross. I missed that about St. Thérèse.

But now, I have to admit, I am beginning to grasp St. Thérèse's profundity and why she is a Doctor of the Church, and perhaps some of why she was given to our age. And, particularly, why I need her so dang much.

St. Thérèse was the one who famously summarized her vocation, the Carmelite vocation, thus: "In the heart of the Church, I shall be love." She knew that love encompassed everything that she wanted to be -- Carmelite, spouse, mother, warrior, priest, apostle, doctor, martyr -- because love is the essence of all these things.

God is love, and the love of the Father is made manifest in Christ. If you want to see the ultimate in love, behold the Crucified One.

It is true, what Freud says. We are never so vulnerable as when we love. St. Thérèse embraced this call to be love, as she says, with "delirious joy." But vulnerability like that of the Crucified One is no weakling's task, nor it is anything akin to natural to any mere human.

St. Thérèse had made of herself an oblation to Divine Love, asking that all the pent-up mercy of God's heart be poured out upon her. Mercy is for misery. It seems to me that there is a connection between this offering and the fact of her tremendous spiritual and physical suffering she endured in the last phase of her life, offered all for the conversion of sinners. For example, she had no feeling of certainty that there was a heaven, or anything beyond death except nothingness. She desired to experience this type of suffering for the conversion of atheists and all manner of souls who had separated themselves from God. This is heavy-duty, tough-slogging intercession.

The essence of what I could never appreciate about St. Thérèse earlier is that I did not understand what it takes for the human heart to be made child-like, vulnerable, loving, and sweetly self-giving. It takes the cross. It takes death to self. It takes the spiritual night, where the light faith gives becomes like darkness. The mystery of the cross is in that moment where Christ cries out "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" There is something so child-like in this mystery of experiencing being deeply alone when in reality, we are not.

In my experience, vulnerability is terrifying, but then it is freeing. The experience of the cross is terrifying, and then it is freeing. The terror comes from our darkness being purged from us, from losing that which binds us, like the young men in the fiery furnace. But instead of knowing our bondage as bondage, we tend to think it is what is "keeping us together."

The joy and childlike abandon of St. Thérèse is not a natural state. It is the fruit of the cross going deep. When I look at her now, I realize that in Christ there is hope for me, a newcomer to joy, innocence, and trust. The more I open myself to God's mercy, the more I too can become little and know how fiercely I am loved.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Gift of Vulnerability

"[God] will not find us at the center of our certainties. That is not where the Lord looks. He will find us on the margins, in our sins, in our mistakes, in our need for spiritual healing, for salvation; that is where the Lord will find us”.

This quote from Pope Francis is one to which the preacher on my recent silent retreat referred several times.

The "margins" of our hearts are the places where we stand in need of God's mercy, and we know it, but dang, we don't really like it.

Ironically, these are the places most people expend enormous energy in order to hide from others, from their own meditation, or hope they can hide from God. Our sorry stock of shame is exactly where God is attracted, exactly where He is hoping most to be admitted. It's where we are most painfully in need.

The margins of our hearts are where we are vulnerable.

I've had an interesting and varied relationship with vulnerability in my almost-47 years. But currently I realize that I have both a natural propensity for it, and I've also exercised it to the point where I am OK with being vulnerable. What is most interesting to me is that I have only now realized that this not something to hate about myself; is a gift, and something to be desired for growth in the spiritual life.

I've certainly spent a lot of time hating myself for getting in vulnerable situations and feeling needy. Of course, it hasn't helped that a lot of normal things make me feel that way! I have beaten myself up over how much it seems everything in my life has required courage. Everything! It has always seemed that things that came so easily to everyone else made me feel so terribly vulnerable.

A few decades ago I lived in an old apartment building that grew gigantic icicles in the winter. One day I watched one of these glisten on my fire escape: snow, melting from heat escaping from the poorly insulated roof, dripped down the icicle's side and hovered at the tip and froze there. I mused that its point of greatest vulnerability to breaking was also where it was growing and becoming what it was.

We are people, though, not icicles. The only way vulnerability can become a moment of growth is when you choose to step forward into that vulnerable state and find that not only are you not crushed, but you are safe. Completely safe. And the only way to step forward, I have found, is a combination of trust or faith in God (more-or-less specifically) or in the goodness inherent in the unknown factors involved. There is also something to be said simply for cumulative experiences of risk-taking. You leap across a rickety bridge, and each sure step gives you the courage to take another that you hope will also support you long enough to keep hopping.

And you know what? There are times when one steps out in faith into a vulnerable position and you free fall for a little bit. It doesn't feel safe at all. You have to seriously consider whether you just made a terrible, awful mistake. There is no immediate reward of a sense of safety. There is only faith, and the assurance faith gives you can be like a vaguely flickering light. This might last for weeks, months, or years. It kinda sucks.

But then the pieces come together, the lights come on, and you see all the risk and faith was perfectly reasonable.

I think if I were to watch my life like a movie running from God's perspective, I might see the action  differently. I think I would see the Holy Spirit orchestrating opportunity after opportunity to answer my desire to be drawn close to God. To God, the lights are always on. And He constantly sends the message: Trust Me. Be brave. Step forward. Yes, you feel all a mess because, in places, you are a mess. But I madly love you, and want to enter all that mess, all those margins, with My mercy. And then you can go and be My mercy to others so they might receive it, too.

When we feel accompanied in a place of our vulnerability, our hearts open wide. God's mercy is able to enter, and tremendous things result. Old pains are healed. We realize we are lovable and we can start to bask in being loved. Our thinking and our actions change as a result. We experience conversion.

But something else can happen when third parties witness experiences of vulnerability in others. This stirs up their own sense of vulnerability, from which they are busy hiding themselves. When these people start to feel their vulnerability, instead of feeling accompanied by witnessing God's mercy to a soul, they feel alone and left out. They shut down. They harden. They hunker down in their position of rejecting God's mercy and love or snap themselves out of any faint stirrings they felt towards openness and receiving. They push others away with layers of whatever they protect themselves with. They may resort to expressions of hatred, ridicule, and violence, or more respectable responses like indifference, eye-rolling, or the pursuit of distractions. Anything but the courage to believe that God's mercy is for them, too.

Sometimes I struggle to respect the delicate space where others hide their vulnerability. I have exercised so much courage, sometimes rather gruffly, for myself, that I forget that I cannot come ramming at full steam into the heart and life of another. And perhaps more often than not, fear of my own "full steam" will cause me to stall out before I get to the place where I can actually be of help to someone who desires it from me.

Because surely God has not tutored me with this bizarre gift that I railed against and rejected for so long just for the fun of it. Everything God gives to each one is for everyone.

So show me, Lord, how you gave me this for someone else. Or, at least make it a benefit for someone else, whether I see it or not.

Monday, September 15, 2014

My Word in Silence: Apostolic Love

This last weekend I was on a silent retreat whose theme was mercy. This was a genuine experience of God's grace for everyone I spoke with (and there were about 60 of us there). There is much that I will be able to bask in and meditate on and practice with for months to come. But I also came away with a word, a phrase really, that wasn't so much a part of the theme or the preaching, but it was simply from God for me. Really, yes, it has everything to do with God's mercy for me.

There is a reality that I have experienced and grown in for years, and have been able to identify, to feel, to mourn the lack of, to long for, to be called to -- and yet I never had a word for it. It wasn't, I think, because I lacked the creativity or the intelligence to know what to call it. It was more like God wanted it to stay in the realm of the ineffable for me. So it could do its work in me without my being able to communicate about it with any precision. But now He has given me the word.

And the word is this: apostolic love.

No, not Christian love; not spiritual love; not spiritual friendship; not apostolic zeal.

But apostolic love.

This is a love that is born from the cross of Christ in the hearts of those who share in it. It is a love that wants to stand shoulder-to-shoulder and move out into the world to bring Christ's love to those who do not know Christ's love. It inspires risk and work and joy and pain. It creates a bond that is not about cementing people to each other, but about a common drawing to the cross of Christ, which is the freeing unity of becoming His bond-slaves. It means giving one's life for Christ by giving it to Christ's people. It is the bond of unity in the Holy Spirit -- the person's unity with Christ and unity with fellow-Christian.

It takes incredible faith to move into this, because there is tremendous personal cost involved. This experience of unity with Christ and other souls requires the experience of Christ's cross.

It is what the Bishop-martyrs testify to: St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. John Chrysostom, St. Paul with the Ephesians in Acts 20.

When Christian life is calculated on the basis of intellectual assent to dogmatic or moral norms and lame "moral choices" made while ensconced on the comfortable couch of one's luxuries, all this zealous vigor of apostolic love gets drained and we are left with lifeless, fruitless, motionless religiosity that, I believe, is the essence of what made Jesus want to spew the Laodiceans out of his mouth.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Detachment and the Prophetic Vocation

Several months ago I started to feel sort of spiritually stalked by the prophets of Scripture. Actually, truth be told, I've always felt an affinity to them, especially to Elijah. But roughly a year ago it was like they were closing in on me, tugging on me and speaking to my heart.

At first this made me feel self-conscious and strange, mostly because prophets seem weird and awesome. Whenever I've heard a reading proclaimed at Mass from a prophet or about a prophet, I've always been intrigued more about how the message impacted the prophet than the impact of the message on the people. My fascination always took that shape. So, this tugging I felt troubled me a bit.

Slowly I have realized the obvious: God has called me to be a Carmelite. The Carmelite vocation is prophetic. Well, duh.

Actually, the Christian vocation is prophetic. But the Christian vocation is everything. It used to scandalize me that within the Catholic Church there were unique paths for individuals. I was scandalized because I only knew how to think in terms of being "right." How could both Franciscans and Jesuits be "right" about their spirituality?! One may as well ask how blue and yellow can both be "right." "Blue is blue and must be that, but yellow is none the worse for it" the poem goes.

And I have learned, am learning, that to follow in the footsteps of our holy father Elijah, I need all this stuff that God has been investing Himself into teaching me in these last years: courage, detachment, obedience, detachment, a listening heart, detachment, freedom of tongue, detachment, fearlessness, detachment. And detachment. Did I mention detachment?

Detachment is not about aloofness. It is about having my whole orientation governed by dependence on and union with God, and not by my own preferences and tastes, fears or obsessions. It is learning to go when God says go, to stop when God says stop, to speak and be silent whenever God says speak or be silent. It seems also to mean not to put my expectations in myself, and to accept my own limitations and frailty. But it also means to never, ever excuse myself from following through on what my conscience tells me to do, even though I'm aware my conscience is fallible. God throws His voice sometimes. He might very well plant a directive that, at the time, seems to have no use at all. But faith responds and the light comes later.

Mostly, I guess, detachment teaches me that I belong to Christ and His Body, which are much bigger than I am. When I do what is mine, others can function. And yet, I'm not a cog. I also grow in freedom and self-possession when I give myself to God and others. I give, and I become more, not less.

Inside me, being prophetic seems to be about asking the Lord to speak, move, live, love, minister and be present through me. Sometimes the Lord does that in ways that feel a bit freaky. But mostly the Lord works quietly, peacefully, and humbly, and this is the part I struggle to master. So much to let go of. So much truth to welcome in and allow to penetrate. Such a great Mystery to adore.