Monday, December 22, 2014

The Redemption of Fantasy Addiction

Here is another quote that struck me recently:

"Just imagine what Mary was actually saying in the words, 'I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let what you have said be done to me' (Luke 1:38). She was saying, 'I don't know what this all means, but I trust that good things will happen.'
"She trusted so deeply that her waiting was open to all possibilities. And she did not want to control them. She believed that when she listened carefully, she could trust what was going to happen.
"To wait open-endedly is an enormously radical attitude toward life. So is to trust that something will happen to us that is far beyond our own imaginings. So, too, is giving up control over our future and letting God define our life, trusting that God molds us according to God's love and not according to our fear.
"The spiritual life is a life in which we wait, actively present to the moment, trusting that new things will happen to us, new things that are far beyond our own imagination, fantasy, or prediction. That, indeed, is a very radical stance toward life in a world preoccupied with control."
---Henri Nouwen, from "A Spirituality of Waiting: Being Alert to God's Presence in Our Lives", Weavings, January 1987
What struck me about this is this matter of our imaginings:  "The spiritual life is a life in which we wait, actively present to the moment, trusting that new things will happen to us, new things that are far beyond our own imagination, fantasy, or prediction."

I live a very interior life by personality. As with all personality types, this means I lean toward specific strengths and weaknesses. And certain weaknesses can lend themselves towards even addictions and interior pathologies. I have had my own experience of this when it comes to the life of my mind. From a very young age, I learned that I could escape emotional pain by constructing an imaginary world that eliminated problems I could not change and provided saviors I otherwise did  not experience. This is a coping mechanism, a self-generated sort of mercy that serves a frightened child. But addiction arises when no other mercy emerges to move a soul from "coping with" to "dealing with." Mix in layers of religious ideas in accretion to this basic coping addiction. Compound it with a strong intellectual bent and a weak social bent. Yeah, you have a mess.

Among other things, one ends up with elaborate mental constructs about God that don't so much take the reality of a personal God into account, while never denying Him and while in fact crying out to Him regularly in desperation. One also ends up with severely contorted and intensely felt passions about other people and what they could and could not, or would and would not do for one. It is like living in a completely invisible but completely impenetrable bubble of Saran wrap, blocking a vital connection with reality.

And I lived this, on varying levels, for many years of my life.

Today it is easy for me to look back and see the work God has done in freeing me of all this. It was  during a most painful spiritual trial, when God seemed farthest from my cries, that I became aware of a distinct lack. It's hard to put into words, but that old place where one version of this coping mechanism had always kicked in was as if a lump I had had all my life on my arm or my leg was suddenly not there. I could feel its absence. And thinking about it couldn't make it come back. It was astounding. It was this kind of indisputable interior evidence that showed me God was active in me profoundly even though I otherwise felt like I was breaking apart.

But back to the quote, which reminded me of something I've blogged about before in this post called We are Saved in Community. It was a dream that I had which became part of the interior "catechesis" God gave me during the time I was becoming a Catholic (when I had really no human being to reliably teach me). In this dream, a voice asked me what I would like to eat, and I asked for a slice of pizza. "Is that all? Just a piece of pizza?" The voice seemed to want to stretch my imagination a bit. So I thought about it and changed my request to a whole pizza: large, and with lots of toppings. See, I was working my interior fantasy thing to its limit, to the wildest desire for myself that I could muster. But then in the dream, the voice seemed a bit disappointed with "my wildest," and asked me if I was going to insist that it had to be that. "No," I tentatively answered, but I was confused, because the voice seemed to want to know what I wanted. Why did you ask if you didn't want to hear my idea, I thought. Then in the dream my grandfather appeared carrying a huge container of homemade beef stew, and suddenly I was aware of an enormous banquet table set for many and stocked with all manner of delicious and lovingly made homemade food.

Now the point of what I learned from this, and the point of which this quote reminded me is that God actually is interested in my being aware of my imagination, my fantasy, my desires, my predictions, my earth-bound desires simply so that I can understand how tremendously transcendent and enormously good He is. So that I can begin to comprehend how far beyond my comprehension His love for me runs. How wide, how long, how high, how deep is the love of God. How far beyond my puny human power of desire His ability to fulfill me goes.

Sometimes my tendency is to waste a lot of energy on condemnation of what my mind dreams up to express my desires in life. But Nouwen here teaches me that my attitude should not be condemnation but surrender. I'm really not wedded to my request for a piece of pizza! But God wants to rouse my longings for what He knows will truly satisfy me. God is Reality; the mental world I wanted to construct was a feeble cry for Him to save me. 
And now I see He is here. He longs for my cry, and He personally steps in to save me.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Loneliness and Christian Emptiness

Earlier this week, I came across this quote which speaks volumes to me:

God looked over the world for an empty heart -- but not a lonely heart -- a heart that was empty like a flute on which He might pipe a tune -- not lonely like an empty abyss, which is filled by death. And the emptiest heart He could find was the heart of a Lady. Since there was no self there, He filled it with His very Self.
~ Fulton Sheen, The World's First Love: Mary Mother of God
In a manner of speaking, one of God's goals for us is for us to become empty. This emptiness, of course, has to be understood, as Sheen's sense has it, in the Carmelite way. Empty means ready. Empty implies availability, and it implies purpose and community. One is available for something, or rather for Someone.

It speaks, of course, to the scene of Joseph and Mary journeying to Bethlehem, looking for available space where Jesus might be born. Is my house, am I, available? Not much is made of this in Scripture, but much has been made of it in meditations such as the custom of Las Posadas

The enemy of this kind of emptiness is loneliness. When I read this, the naru hodo alarm rang within me as my personal history instantly shot up multiple instances of proof of this. Oh my goodness how my nature has recoiled from self-emptying for fear of loneliness, of that sense of being left out of the life-stream that certainly everyone else was deeply enjoying. The voices that speak contrary to truth: the world, the flesh and the devil, scream that I must have things, people, experiences that fill me, things I can possess, things I must hold on to to stay afloat. For certainly life revolves around something I don't have but need, or something I don't have enough of, or something I might lose, or something someone else controls and I have to posture myself in order to receive. Certainly without having, I am nothing.


Um, no.

In the midst of frantic craving I lose sight of reality. Reality is that the God of the universe, the Blessed Trinity, created me for a purpose. My purpose is to love and worship God in a holy communion of persons. I worship God as I lay down my life, as I empty myself and empty from myself all lesser pursuits.

I do this not because I am a masochist and don't believe in or want good things for myself. It is not Christian to understand "empty" in the sense of "denude." I do this out of great faith in the One who reciprocates my emptiness with Himself. The availability we offer to God is always for communion. God's ultimate goal for us is union with Him, not for us to become simply a great void. As I relinquish my obsessive self-factor I see that God loves, gives, and is deeply merciful in response to enter into human misery and to be, literally, God-with-us.

To break it down and make it real simple: faith in Jesus calls me to abandon everything to Him in love. I long to be empty, I agree to be emptied, I move towards emptiness because I know, love, and trust in the One who fills. And that infilling is what every smidgeon of my being longs for.

Oh yeah, there might be long, painful gaps where there are no blissful feelings. Stuff of earth feels useless and the bliss of heaven is nowhere. You experience loss, dependencies will be broken, and temporal security will be shaken.

But I believe and trust in the promise -- no, in the One who made the promise. He is faithful. He is true. I love Him; He calls me. To wait for such a One in emptiness is not the death-filled abyss of loneliness. It is the strengthening and deepening of love. It is worth giving your life for. In fact, it is the only thing worth giving your life for.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Hope, Heaven, "Epiphanic Pointers"

I value words highly. I especially value words that are able to convey something that is deeply meaningful to me. Sometimes I'm not able to pull it off myself, but I find someone else who has. That's when I post quotes.

"Hope is the virtue that prevents us from setting our hearts on this world as the final aim of living. Knowing how much more awaits us in the life to come, we shed all clothing that would kill or erode this hope. Thus we learn the greatest lesson of Christian commitment: how to live in this world in service to God while at the same time rising above the things of the world (cf. John 15:19). I mean things insofar as they are seen as merely worldly rather than as epiphanic pointers to the Most High. We thus comprehend what it means from experience what it means to care for the persons, situations, and things entrusted to us by God without tarnishing our green veneer of hope for the home He has prepared for us from the beginning."

Susan Muto, St. John of the Cross for Today: The Dark Night, p. 277, emphasis mine.
 I have waited years to come upon this phrase: epiphanic pointers. Yes. 

Sunday, December 14, 2014

When Weirdness Gives Way to Delight

This has been a strange Advent for me thus far. But if ever I have known a peace that surpasses understanding and a joy that makes no earthly-calculable sense, now would be it. My heart is so full of a peaceful gratitude that I just have to write about it.

There is something about following the Lord's lead. It grieves; it consoles. It confuses; it gives clarity. It takes things away; it gives everything. The path is dark, but it gives light. I feel heavy, but He gives freedom. The more I follow, the less I understand where I am going, but the more sure I am. I want to say everything to explain, but words fail (multi-dimensionally); and something deeper than words germinates.

All I can say is that I am so grateful to God for my life and His call to me to Carmel. Today is the feast of St. John of the Cross, my spiritual father. His words almost always embody to me exactly the state in which I find myself tonight. He is all about renunciation, detachment, penance, and self-emptying. And yet I find such joy in his words. It's the type of joy that makes me want to embrace my own soul, this dwelling place of God, and exclaim that indeed, something makes my life make sense. A human being is actually able to convey to me that my life makes sense. It is the opposite of the feeling of alienation, disorientation, self-loathing, and mistrust. From the first time I met St. John and St. Teresa of Avila when I was in college, this has been the affect these saints have had on me.  And a few years ago it was like St. John of the Cross seemed to seek me out to explain what I deeply needed to understand about where my life was going. I can't find adequate words to describe the delight this gives me. For someone with an intellectual bent like me, there is a strong temptation to view life at its core as absurd and meaningless. This is the joyful dance of knowing that to be a lie -- and that another human being is an instrument of that certainty, which can only come from God.

Jesus said to His disciples: "Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? Or what can one give in exchange for his soul?" (Mt. 16:24-26)

Friday, December 12, 2014

Intercession Evolution

This morning at Mass something prompted me to think about the path on which God has led me in learning to intercede for others.

There was a time when I did a whole lot more thinking than praying, and most of that thinking centered on myself, even though one could term it "thinking about God".

The Lord had to catch my attention before He could shift it, and in my case He did this by making me feel my needs and then by meeting them through other people. And after this, I began to feel the urgent need to pray for others.

Sometimes this felt need was extremely intense, and it seemed I could not escape it. I could not turn my heart to any kind of prayer at all without feeling this compelling need to pray for one or another specific person, or for some collective of people.

Out of this compelling felt need, I developed a discipline of daily prayer with this intercessory component. In other words, the need I felt to intercede overcame my natural haphazard, start-again-stop-again approach to everything in life. Where I once mostly lounged and lazed around in my general thoughts about God, His will and His ways, I was now steadily walking in prayer.

It is said that you can never remain angry at anyone for whom you pray. But there can be dangers as well as blessings in interceding. It is possible (ask me how I know... no, don't) to start to feel the good one is praying for to become one's project, one's possession, one's attachment. And as soon as a soul wants anything other than God, there is a need for purification in that soul. The way God led me when this happened was first to call me to penance. The penance followed the pattern of a compelling sense of my need to do this at first, and then a discipline. At first it seemed to me the process was mostly about penance I was offering for the good of others, but in due time I realized how much I needed it to purge me.

But there came a deeper purging, too, because the need for purification really goes deep. In this step, it seemed I simply could not deny that God knows through and through every desire I'd ever presented to Him. I had asked Him repeatedly, I knew He heard, and I was not seeing much if anything of the outcomes I had desired. But regardless of how intently God Himself seemed to beckon me earlier to pray, now it seemed God was simply saying, "Shhh. You, come to me."

Can I just say yes? Can I let go of ever seeing results? Can I realize that God's ultimate desire for me is that I grow in union with Him? Can I want that more than I want to see thousands of people exhibit tangible and measurable characteristics of conversion? I say I want to see the Lord Jesus be loved deeply by many, but it seems the Lord is content that I concern myself with my response to Him instead of theirs. Do I pray and intercede so that I feel or look powerful, or do I pray that I may know Love and hide in Him? How in the world do I reckon myself so terribly small that I really and honestly want nothing at all but God?

This, like everything else, is only a work of God's grace. It's utterly impossible for me. Just like causing my own existence, or sustaining the universe, or planning salvation, or creating a world-wide family of communion. Just like all the other things God gratuitously does for me and for all of us.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Insecurity, Conformity, Freedom

Our Lord has a way of coming on pretty strong sometimes. Don't know how else to put it. It's been one of those times of late. It is actually very much like having a rushing wind come blow through, because things that don't normally move or that I don't normally have to think about start fluttering and flying all over. Uncontrollable movement. And sometimes, all I can do is say, "Wow, look at that thing flying around!" It's one thing when it's a Styrofoam cup (like the one my daughter and I saw blow down the street today), and it's another thing altogether when it is something you thought your internal security was directly connected to.

But regardless, the net result is that stuff gets moved around and I'm left looking at it all.

And in this blowing, one of the more discussable things I have found tipped over is a blechy residue of conformity.

I think at heart I have always been a non-conformist in the sense that I have little natural inclination to look at others to figure out what I should do. I've never been one to try to blend in or match others, especially when the issue is the basic question "Who am I?".

Conformity, to me, seems to have roots in insecurity. I see insecurity working in two different dimensions: personal and social insecurity. My personal security is pretty strong by my temperament. I don't naturally have a lot of social security, but I have been through a lot of things the hard way and have developed my social security muscles that way.

It is, though, in social or relational settings that I am most vulnerable. And what this wind has made me realize is that I have areas where I have been controlled by my fear of others' judgments. I have felt there are certain things I must do because I want to be sure to be included on the right bandwagons: liturgical, fashion, intellectual, etc.

And in that blowing wind, I realize this is wrong and it is silly.

First of all, who wants to be on a bandwagon with a bunch of judgmental boors, anyway?

Second of all, I know myself well enough to realize that it isn't other people's standards that actually concern me; it is my own made-up standards of what I currently figure is the ideal that hamstring me. So many times I have gone through "if I do xyz, so-and-so will be hurt/upset/angry" and then I learn from the mouth of so-and-so that no such thing is actually true and that it was me keeping myself locked in a cage all along.

Some people have a natural tendency toward rebellion. I have a natural tendency toward submission. It sounds weird, but I have always longed to find someone to tell me how to live. Even though, with the non-conformist thing happening simultaneously, I often have the urge to do exactly the opposite of what a group is doing or what someone specifically instructs me to do. I realize what these seemingly opposite desires of mine mean: I have had all my life is a driving call from God for my innermost being to belong to Him alone. Only God is really able to show me how to live while actually bringing life. Any other person or system that is not in sync with God or His will for me will crush, abuse, or limit.

That is not to say that God will not bring the cross. Oh yes He certainly will! That's a clear sign of God's authentic presence. We may even use the word "crush" in connection with the cross, but the cross always brings life. Life is found in repentance from sin, in an amended life, in greater detachment from created goods and greater attachment to eternal goods.

And it's not that I want to thumb my nose at even my imaginary judgmental community and do "brash" things to prove a point. What God has always pointed me to is the glorious freedom to be myself. To choose for myself. Maybe that person who makes a bugaboo about how we all need to do X is really saying it vacantly, out of a need to say something, or some other need. Goodness knows that not every word that falls into public hearing is well discerned, chosen, or intended or actually worth listening to.

Freedom doesn't mean doing whatever the hell I feel like. Freedom means having the power to live in increasingly deeper union with God.

And that, my friends, is exactly what I desire.