Wednesday, October 29, 2014

What Prayer Isn't About

Ask ten different people; get ten different answers. Actually, it wouldn't even require that. All I would need is to dip into ten different points in my own history. I could easily find moments where I found prayer to be boring, emotional, introspection, rote, liturgical, charismatic, frightening, healing, painful, anger-inducing, and on and on. And then there are all of those formal definitions, like prayer is raising the mind to God, or ACTS (adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, supplication), or claiming God's promises, or meditating on Scripture. The intellectual mind likes a nice default definition so that it feels like it knows something.

But what is prayer about? Prayer is basically the Carmelite charism. Pope Benedict XVI put it very simply: "Carmel teaches the Church how to pray." It sure has been teaching me. The Lord has been gently correcting me on what prayer isn't about.

Maybe, faithful Christian, you've had this kind of experience: You pray earnestly for something and you actually have felt the Holy Spirit nudging you to pray in a certain way or for a certain concern. Maybe that nudge has been long and even strong. So you pray. You pray, and pray some more.

Now, what do you really want as a result?

You want to see your prayers answered. You want to see God come through and deal with it. Right?

Here's one thing I've learned: That isn't necessarily what God wants.

Oh, but the prayer of a righteous man availeth much, and we are agreeing with God's will to be done, and no man can stand against what God has ordained, and ...

And God actually wants your heart.

He's not really into you getting a happy little sense of control by your prayers, like you are the lynch-pin that makes things happen. Like without you, He can't do a thing. And why are you wringing your hands as if you can explain to God why it is so important that He do what you are asking? Do you think He only started caring about it since you prayed?

It is true: we are called to partnership with God, and He does ask us to ask that His will be done. But His will is primarily that He is Lord, fully and completely. More than anything, He wants us, in our totality. Surrendered, available, desiring nothing else but Him. Not His blessings, not proof of His power or ours, not answers, only our Ultimate Good. 

God wants our union with Him, and then He will orchestrate our lives and circumstances so that His kingdom is extended through us. He wants each of His children to become the answer to the prayers of the humble who cry out to Him in their need.

And part of our transformation comes via constantly sharing our heart with Him, emptying out before Him all of our thoughts, loves, concerns, problems, and feelings, worries for others. We pour it all out, and we behold Him who poured out everything for us. Do we want Him who fills us? Or does it take something else?

And when we come to that moment where we simply love God, our hearts overflow over all the needs and loves and people, and God's mercy that is enveloping us embraces all these, and we extend that fountain of mercy to the whole world. Not by might, and not by power (or willing it, or getting the right prayer formula, or length of time or number of words), but by the power of the Holy Spirit operating through us. So it is Jesus, really, praying through us, loving through us, ministering through us, extending His life, His love, His kingdom, His healing to the world.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

God the Servant

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Gird your loins and light your lamps
and be like servants who await their master’s return from a wedding,
ready to open immediately when he comes and knocks.
Blessed are those servants
whom the master finds vigilant on his arrival.
Amen, I say to you, he will gird himself,
have them recline at table, and proceed to wait on them.
And should he come in the second or third watch
and find them prepared in this way,
blessed are those servants.”  Luke 12:35-38

Maybe it is because I've been doing a lot of reading about the early Roman Empire lately, but one word from this passage struck me today: servant. Jesus was appealing to his followers to learn to emulate those of the lowest class. I find this striking because of what it says about Jesus' attention versus the typical attention focus.

Those who want to become somebody typically look to those they consider to be somebody. We look to the powerful, the influential, those with money, those with what we want. And then either we hate them, or we get in camps behind them, or beat ourselves up over how we aren't them, or we try to figure out how to be them. But however we respond, our attention is focused.

Jesus' attention is focused on the most lowly. He shows his disciples his own pursuit, and so reveals something terribly profound about God.

Jesus tells us to wait with vigilance for the presence of the Master. We have been charged with a responsibility to carry out what the Master desires. We know what He desires both because He tells us but even more so simply because of living with Him.

But while his listeners are still trying to digest the directive to set aside their pride and become lowly in their own eyes, Jesus says something that surely would have made their heads spin: the Master Himself will become their servant! This is life in union with God! Just when we thought we have given everything and have laid our lives out as an offering, the Master comes with mercy that meets our needs, fills us, and humbles us even further, inflaming our hearts with love for Him and spurring us on to long for some opportunity for service.

The longer and the more sacrificial the wait, the deeper the blessing.

Our Father wants nothing to interrupt the flow of His giving to us and our giving back to Him. That is life with God.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A Feast Day Gift (Or, When Things Make Sense)

Today is the feast of St. Teresa of Avila, reformer of the Carmelites, my spiritual mother, mi Madre. I use that term with deep affection and a tremendous conviction which is far beyond my ability to simply drum up from myself. I have been called. Though I am still four years away from my definitive profession, there is probably nothing of which I am more sure than this: I am called to be a daughter of St. Teresa.

Several days ago I met some Carmelite nuns who happened to give me a prayer card with the official prayer of the Centenary (we are celebrating St. Teresa's 500th birthday beginning today and for a year). I had read the prayer several times before today, but in typical feast day fashion I read it today and it blew me away. Here is the text:

Saint Teresa of Jesus, holy mother,
wholehearted servant of love,
teach us to walk with determined fidelity
along the path of interior prayer,
attentive to the presence
of the Blessed Trinity,
God dwelling deep within us.
At the school of Mary our Mother
strengthen within us these foundations:
a genuine humility,
a heart free from attachment,
and an unconditional love for others.
Share with us your intense
apostolic love for the Church.
May Jesus be our joy,
our hope and our energy,
an unquenchable fountain
and our most intimate Friend.
Bless our Carmelite family.
Teach us to make your prayer our own:
"I am yours, I was born for you.
What is your will for me?"

God weaves the weird bits of our lives into a tapestry that eventually makes sense. And this morning after Mass was one of those breath-catching and tear-spilling moments when I saw, instead of the random chaos of threads, God's weaving work.

Here's what I see now, clearly.

God has been calling me to Carmel since I was a Protestant. That I know, and I've written about that stuff here. And even in that post I had a strongly inkling about the rest of what I'll write now.

A few years ago I went through a horrendously difficult spiritual season, that followed directly after a gloriously powerful spiritual season. Both stemmed from a relationship that had no real reason (other than God's design) not to be average and mundane. But instead of mundane, it was mystical. No, actually, it was both. At the same time. God did lots of unusual things in conjunction with this person, through him, but completely without his knowledge. I knew all along it was God who was communicating with me, acting in me. These seasons have occurred to me in the past in smaller or greater degrees, but they hadn't for about 20 years at that time. I rather thought I'd outgrown that sort of thing.

The Lord even told me towards the beginning of all this that this man was like St. John the Baptist for me. I remember saying, "Gee, Lord, I hope he's not going to die in three years." Well, he did not die, but after three years there was a sudden death-knell to the glory of what had been our friendship. And one of the final kicks in my gut came on the Feast of the Beheading of John the Baptist. Nice touch, Lord.

And what set the death-knell in process was also a mystical thing, an action God required of me. It was a firm call, with a set time. It left me wide-open vulnerable to far more than I realized at the time, even though I had no goal other than obedience. I knew God was launching me forth, but I had no idea where -- I didn't even think about that sort of thing.

The image that time evokes is St. Bernadette hearing the Blessed Mother say to her, "Drink from the spring, wash in the spring" when there wasn't any spring. The Song of Bernadette depicts her scratching in the dirt, wiping mud on her face and eating weeds. People carried her off presuming her to be crazy. And then the water flowed, and the healings started.

What happened as the upshot of that obedience I carried out, that wiping of mud all over my face, was the most spiritually painful thing I have ever endured. It was a solid 18 months, with several extra bonus periods dribbling over, of soul-searing pain. I've used this analogy before, but it was like God spent those first three years gently caressing my head, and gathering back all of my (very long and thick) hair into His hands. But then in one movement, He cut it off. I had to decide who that was with His hands in my hair: were we like St. Francis and St. Claire -- was God responding to my loving entreaties to belong entirely to Him? Or was it like the WWII movie I once saw -- where I was a Jewess and God a Nazi barber, shearing away my hair and my dignity. What pained me the most was that in the deepest part of my feeling, I wasn't sure.


Here's what I know now.

During this long searing process, I gained three things, had three new foundations laid in me (check out that prayer again):

Humility. Oy vey. Pride and self-righteousness underwent mass destruction. God wanted me to see clearly everything I'm made of, the good, the bad and the ugly. And the beautiful.

A heart free from attachment: Oy vey again. Yes, I became very attached to this man, like a little child gets attached to, say, a puppy that it loves dearly but also relies on for comfort. God gives us comfort to heal our wounds, but He also knows that if we rely too long on comfort, we stay childish when we should be growing strong. To everything there is a season. And to really learn detachment, we have to really experience an attachment that can safely be broken.

An unconditional love for others: Oy, oy, oy vey. You see, after things blew apart and St. John got his head lopped off, there were many, many facets of what happened that angered me deeply. But God would not let me turn to bitterness and hatred. In fact, He insisted that I use this as a means to learn to keep loving, sans the good feelings. In fact, I tried refusing to love this man, and I found I could not love anyone. The Lord showed me that if I want to to try loving the way He loves, it's going to hurt. But it frees.

This season of my life hurt so badly primarily because love, detachment, and humility were so terribly foreign to me. I felt like I was dying. And in fact, I was. I was dying to myself.

And I was having the stage set for my being called to Carmel. It was a huge gift. It was a mystical gift and an intense trial of faith. And today mi Madre sat me down to show me how it makes sense.

Oh, and there's one more thing. A month ago, on retreat, the Lord gave me this one phrase that captured what had remained ineffable to me for years, this thing I knew and longed for: Apostolic Love. And there it is in that prayer: "Share with us your intense apostolic love for the Church." Of course St. Teresa had apostolic love: she went all over Spain making new foundations of the new reform of the Carmelites. She was entirely fueled by love and she worked as hard as she prayed.

I'm nothing original. I'm just called to be a daughter of St. Teresa. It all makes sense. Ha!

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Why Praise Music Fails

It's been almost two months since I went on this walking pilgrimage, but today a certain facet of it is standing out to me in big relief: praise music.

Music has always been a very big deal to me, and I lived through 80s charismatic praise music (at least in the tail end of that decade), and because I became a Catholic in the early 90s, I also got to experience some of the 60s/70s praise music. (Some of you will realize what I mean.)  I experienced genuine healing through very good worship leaders in various stages of my life.

But I also experienced this:

When we stick with any format simply because it is what we know, there is the danger of having no idea at all why we are doing it or even what we are doing.All of a sudden, our experience is empty.

When I was on that walking pilgrimage, I discovered a truth about praising God. Simply put, the time to praise God is when complaining comes more naturally. The moment to praise God is when we are feeling the cross we carry get heavier. That is the time to look at your brothers and sisters and point them towards God's mercy and goodness, and simply proclaim that He is worthy of our lives, our praise, our cross-carrying. That is the moment to proclaim my choice to serve God who is all good and worthy of my love.

Praise expands that love in my own heart. Praise edifies those who hear. Praise lifts us up from the difficulties we are all simultaneously acknowledging, but looking beyond. Praise is not denial of our human experience (like my friends who would not "confess" they had a cold, but simply that cold symptoms were manifesting). Praise is instead acknowledging the greater truth of God and His kingdom.

Praise is the way to embrace the cross.

To embrace the cross in community requires everyone being in tune with and on the level about the crosses they face.

And frankly I think that is why praise music is such an empty fail in many communal settings. We don't typically have any impetus gathering us this way, and we all try to hide our sufferings from ourselves and from one another.

The joy exhibited in this communal praise is, however, I believe, precisely the joy Pope Francis continually calls Christians to exhibit.

This is from the English group in 2009, not this year, but it gives a sense of what I mean. Note this is not about musical quality!