Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Gospel Is Not Complicated; I Am

I've been thinking a lot lately about this image of undoing knots. I've often told my son about how one of Mary's titles is Our Lady Undoer of Knots as I am trying to tease apart his shoelaces that seem to have fused together. Or to my daughter, when she brings me her wad of tangled necklaces. There is something about knots that makes us want to give up in frustration and bring it to someone else and wait for it to be solved. Knots are baffling and seem impossible.

About 20 years ago or so, when I prayed I often had this sense that my life was tied up in knots -- that I had all sorts of internal complications. I say I had a sense of it because I could feel the mess, but I couldn't see how I was perpetuating it.

But recently, especially as I've been reading the book I referred to about the Little Way of St. Therese, Everything is Grace, I've been understanding both how I had gotten all knotted up, and what it looks like for me to be unknotted.

The process could start with, say, a comment made to me about someone else. Maybe this comment reveals or reminds me of a weakness in that person. The knot might start to form as my soul gloms on to that information, and I turn it over in my mind, I delight in that weakness, I relive everything that person has ever done that upset me, and then everything that has upset me in the concentric circles rippling out from that person (to the larger group, or everyone of "that type of person"). I go off on getting very upset at all these memories for several days or a few weeks. Then I feel remorse, or exhaustion, or depression, and I fling myself at God (whom I now blame for putting me in the whole situation in the first place), and I agonize over why He doesn't seem to love me enough to give me the type of people I really need to be happy. This lasts a good long time. In the meantime, I cry and moan to friends at church, ask them to pray for me, and sob over why I am so unloved. Then, to fix myself, I decide to strenuously study the Bible on a certain topic of God's love, and I fill pages and pages with notes. I am sure that if I study enough, I will get a breakthrough in my understanding and I will be able to believe God loves me. I sing, I pray, and I try very hard to analyze every thought I have about all of my issues. I might even force myself to do something spiritual for the person or group of people I had gotten upset about. I might decide I am called to join their ministry or volunteer for their group, or whatever. Because I am determined to press through and not have a problem with them anymore.

In the meantime, I can't figure out why I'm anxious, tired, frustrated, unfulfilled and terribly unsure about what God really wants for me. And I'm completely and totally in a knot. I couldn't discern God's will if it came and bit me on the nose because I am dreadfully busy making froth.

Now, for the unknotted life. I start with the same circumstance. I learn a piece of info that reminds me of a weakness of a person I've had a problem with, and I find some delight in it.

I take that to God and I say, "Lord, I am so weak. I'm finding delight in this meaningless little piece of info. Bless her. Help me."

What I have there are two strings that are a little bent, but they are not a knot. And instead of wearing myself out with 1,000 self-improvement programs that bear no fruit and only wear me out because they are all of the flesh, I accept that I'm bent and I have proclivities that aren't good. I know it, and I know God knows it, and He's ready to help me with His mercy.

My pastor is fond of reminding me that the gospel is simple. That's true. But it is immensely difficult for a proud person to accept and live by simple things. My pride wants to be fed with attachments, praise, and always wonderful results. Jesus' gospel tells me to seek the kingdom of God, not the goods of earth, the attention of people or feelings of power. The directive "forsake those things; choose God" is simple, but doing it crushes the proud soul. And thereby relieves from it its burden of sin.

The gospel really is simple. I, on the other hand, am not.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

How in the World Did I Get Here?

Do you ever have one of those moments where reality flashes before you (in a good way) and you ask yourself "How in the world did I get here?"

I had one of those this morning.

The question is rhetorical, because of course I know how I got there. I was standing in a packed church, about to lead a team of several instruments and singers and the entire congregation in worship of God at Mass. I had a late start to the early morning, wasn't as practiced as I'd like to have been, was using a new-to-me guitar and a sound system, and normally I lead at less complicated daily Masses. That moment, as my pastor announced the end of greetings and beginning of Mass, was not the moment to ponder my rhetorical question! It was the time to trust that everything the Lord had worked into me over the last several years would be extractable by the same Lord, despite my feelings of the moment.

But the question is really a moment of awe at God's work. Later I was remembering how one Sunday seven years ago I stood at the podium, nervously preparing simply to cantor for the first time at my parish. And how Joe the organist told me, "You seem nervous. Well, don't be." And how I thought to myself, "Who do you think you are, the Son of God, that you can just tell me to be calm and expect it to happen?!"

That was really the first of several prophetic messages (words from God mediated through human speech and experiences) that began to shape my inner being according to a call from God to learn how to teach people to worship, that was itself a prophetic message to me several decades ago.

Nervousness and insecurity are parts of expecting something from one's own natural ability. I imagine that everyone needs to work through that stuff; I know for sure I have. Time, practice, and experience can reduce some of that, but there also needs to be the spiritual progress of submitting one's natural abilities to God for Him to work through -- or to completely set aside! I went through a short time (for complicated "people" reasons) of being barred from music ministry. It ripped my heart out, but it also drove home right quick that I had no "right" to serve. After that burp of my life passed, each time I approached the ambo to cantor and I bowed before the tabernacle, my heart offered sincere thanks for this gift of being able to lead the congregation in praising God.

And you know what else is funny? When I lead worship, I play guitar. I do believe and accept what the Church says about organ having pride of place, and that is also my preference. And I am not what you would call an excellent guitarist. I have one, very narrow strip of expertise, and that is playing rhythm guitar for church music. When I do that, I can truly worship God and more importantly I can rouse others to worship God. Before leading any music for Mass I always pray that God would draw all hearts present to enter into true, self-giving worship of Him. It humbles me to realize that I am really a second string church musician, and that many Catholics would turn up their noses at the music I play. But when a woman approached us after Mass today to comment that a song we played lifted the congregation's hearts right up to God, I was pleased, knowing our mission was successful.

God has called me, formed me, trained me, tested me. And that's how in the world I got there. Thanks be to God. It's kinda awesome.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

God Gives me the Desire of my Heart; I Whine a Little

It seems that God knows better than to talk to me about prices when we are out shopping.

Ok, yes, that's a bit weird. I don't mean shopping, I mean praying. When I'm expressing my desires to Him. He is wiser than to let me know what the cost is of anything I want. Really, though, He knows (because I've told Him over and over again) that I'm carte blanc-willing towards Him. He can have, ask, require anything of me. He knows what I'm made of, and I'm not worried about Him asking for something He's not able to get from me, since it sorta all comes from Him in the first place, right?

But even with the carte blanc thing, I realize that when I go to wanting something, He doesn't generally let on about how much it will cost.

And I've noticed another funny thing. I can really, sorely, desperately want certain things from God, like achingly so, and then when He gives them to me, I'm not really sure I want them. Or at best, I go gee, thanks. At first at least. I barely know the value of anything. At first at least.

I was thinking of all this in the context of a memory of one of those sorely desperate prayers to God, in which for emphasis, I banged a book on my knee and said it all out loud. Way back when, I wrote a blog post about it called In Which She Admits That Which Brings Freedom. The thing that I yelled out as I prayed was "I want this freedom! I need this freedom! I have got to have this freedom!"

Read the blog post to get the context. In classic me style, it took me tons of paragraphs to say that my freedom comes in admitting that I love my friends.

But I tell you what: Today was the day. Today was the day that I found this reality in me. I have that freedom I longed for and over which banged the book on my lap.

The love I am talking about comes with detachment. A love not rooted in possessiveness, and all the anxiety and fear that comes with it. Detachment was the price tag I was clueless about at the time. I struggled to even mouth the word love; you could forget any hope of me loving freely. God knew that I wanted this more than I wanted comfort, even though I sure didn't know how much discomfort I was in for. The good thing is, what I failed to grasp in the days I was kicking and screaming, He allowed me to take a second shot at with a more willing and trusting heart later on. God is patient and awesome like that.

I'm writing about this to formulate thankful thoughts and to remember my earnestness, because I admit that my response today was, you know Lord, is this really going to be good? I mean, peace and freedom are great, but wasn't there something actually pleasant about anxious bondage? See, sometimes I need to put these things into words to catch myself being ridiculous.

The more graces God gives me, the more I realize that His gifts are really cool and they are absolutely not connatural to me!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Vocation: the Call of God

The Scriptures the liturgy proposes to us today focus on the call of God. There is the boy, Samuel, whom God calls but who does not recognize at first that it is indeed God. There is the experience of Andrew and John as John the Baptist points out Jesus to them, and they go after Him. There is the teaching from St. Paul about how to honor God with our bodies and our deepest selves.

When I heard all of this today, I was reminded of what we read in our family devotion last night from Oswald Chambers. It was such a clear exposition of the Catholic concept of vocation, and yet it was so strikingly different from most of what I've heard actual Catholic people say about the subject. It really speaks clarity into the existential confusion that I think is present in the hearts of many Catholics who really want to do God's will. And so, I'll quote here, generously:

The call of God is not a call to serve Him in any particular way. My contact with the nature of God will shape my understanding of His call and will help me realize what I truly desire to do for Him. The call of God is an expression of His nature; the service which results in my life is suited to me and is an expression of my nature...

Service is the overflow which pours a life filled with love and devotion. But strictly speaking, there is no call to that. Service is what I bring to the relationship and is the reflection of my identification with the nature of God. Service becomes a natural part of my life. God brings me into proper relationship with Himself so that I can understand His call, and then I serve Him on my own out of a motivation of absolute love. Service to God is the deliberate love-gift of a nature that has heard the call of God. Service is an expression of my nature, and God's call is an expression of His nature. Therefore, when I receive His nature and hear His call, His divine voice resounds throughout His nature and mine and the two become one in service. The Son of God reveals Himself in me, and out of devotion to Him service becomes my everyday way of life.

--- from My Utmost for His Highest, Oswald Chambers, "The Call of the Natural Life," entry for January 17.
The account of Samuel teaches us that we have to learn to know God's nature, presence, and ways, and we have to know ourselves. Part of knowing ourselves is being in relationship with others, because we all have a certain social dimension of our natures that isn't activated apart from the relational aspect of reality. And it seems that part of how God teaches us about Himself and ourselves is that He allows us to be mistaken for a time. It purifies us. God called; Samuel answered Eli. Samuel was mistaken, but clearly Samuel had a natural and healthy attachment going with Eli, so going to Eli was the clearest, most logical way for Samuel to respond to God. The second time God called, Samuel could have ignored Him, or responded in fear or mistrust about bothering Eli again. But the call prompted enough urgency for Samuel to try his best to figure out what was being asked of him. (This is Samuel learning who he is.) By this time, Eli is probably a tad frustrated, because he is mixed up in something that doesn't seem to have a thing to do with him, and maybe he just wants a peaceful night's sleep. The third time, Samuel has to really want badly enough to remain in integrity. He knows something is happening, but he doesn't really get it, and the one he relies on as his guiding companion seems clueless and maybe irritated. So he really needs courage this time to keep trying his best. This is the essence of discernment. Something is urging me; but I don't get it, and neither does my companion. So, I'll keep pursuing an answer by seeking with my actions.

And then Samuel gets direction. Maybe this comes because Eli is irritated enough to stop thinking only about his desire to sleep. He understands that his young charge needs help. So, he gives direction, and then goes back to sleep. And God takes that moment to reward Samuel's courage and humility, and the path of Samuel's vocation opens out before him. All the seeds present in this reading grow to full stature in the rest of the Scriptural accounts of Samuel's life.

Sure, if I heard God's voice calling me, telling me what to do, it would be so easy, you might say. But in reality the fact that God exists, when you really think about it, is also the fact that I am called. God is the Creator; I am the creature. God made me; I am His. I find my real self by knowing Him. I not only owe God my service out of the justice of giving God what is His due, I also seek my own highest good (and so "owe it to myself," if you will) to give my utmost for His highest (to borrow Chambers' title). It's just a matter of figuring out what really fits my nature, or another way to put it is to notice what is in my hand to give.

It is goofiness to wait for some angelic visitation to direct me. Actually, it is a bad case of insecurity: about myself, or God's reality or His love for me, or all of the above. It is a bad case of seeing myself as an object that God uses rather than a person God loves. It is a bad case of envisioning myself as a slave instead of a son. Or it is a bad case of never having heard the explicit gospel call to leave the things, the attractions of the world, the baubles, the power-lust, and to bring instead your real treasure which is your heart, and to follow Christ.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Where There is no Love, Put Love; and so Draw Out Love

St. John of the Cross famously said, "Where there is no love, put love, and you will draw out love."

I've learned something about this maxim. It involves a leap of faith and moments of something between awkwardness and crucifixion. There's also often a bonus feature of purification involved for the lover.

There's a situation in which I learned some of this almost by mistake. Several times a month I frequent a certain business in town, and I interact with a rotating but small group of employees. One day I approached the employee du jour in the effervescent manner that I tend to reserve for those few moments a day when I am interacting with strangers. I chatted to said employee happily about something or another, animatedly paid for my business, wished her well, and left. And all the while she stared at me, expressionless and business-like.

I left, feeling ever-so-slightly awkward. Because there is something disconcerting to me about using my little bit of effervescence and watching it be met in that stoney way.

But a funny thing happened when several weeks later I was there again, with the same woman. By now I was realizing she is simply reserved, and reserved people are often mistaken for being grumpy in general or upset with given individuals. But this new day on which I approached her, she made a welcoming gesture and spoke in not exactly a bubbly way, but in a comfortable and friendly way. And I realized that almost by mistake, I proved St. John's maxim true: when you invest with love, you will find love available to draw back out.

We all just need help in different ways and to different degrees.

There's also that moment where one's motives in loving are treated as suspicious, when a soul is not able to trust for whatever reasons. I am reminded of the sorts of people who insist on hugging people at a greeting (when it isn't culturally mandated). While this may please that person's sense of herself as loving, it does not always respect the sense of the person who may not be interested in or open to that hug. There is little that is more distressing to a loving heart than watching a gesture of love be rejected, but God does this with us all the time. His offers of love are rejected and ignored by His own children over and over. He insists our love response be free, and so He does not force His way. But He does wait for that cracking open of our hearts, that moment of vulnerability we offer His love.

If we go about with acts of love like children who throw leaves or flowers into a stream, enjoying the flinging part and not too concerned with the where-they-end-up part, God can do many things. With a morning offering prayer, we make each day like a handful of these leaves or flowers. We can present God with the normal sorts of human means He likes to use to bring His supernatural graces to hearts that are dying for His touch.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Praying for What I Want

Today I was at a prayer group meeting, a really beautiful, honest, candid time of sharing needs and interceding.

And while we were doing that, I was struck by something. Fortunately it was not a truck. Just an insight.

Souls long for heaven. All of them. Or I should say, all of our longings and desires are about our longing for heaven. We all have that God-shaped void within us and whether we are aware of it or not, we seek the fulfillment of that void.

That's not to say that everything we desire is capable of fulfilling us. I'd venture to say that most of what we desire is clearly incapable of the task. Some of what we seek does a great deal of harm to ourselves and to others whom our lives touch. Some of what we seek is a desperate attempt to deaden a sense of longing. All this longing-for-stuff business requires enormous energy from us, and deadening this is a less obvious way we do a great deal of harm to ourselves and others.

But then there is a sort of longing that we get caught up in, I think, because it feels so holy. This can be when we long for someone's conversion. We long for people to be healed, to have their lives turned around, to even get turned on to the realization that there is more to life than they realize. We long for change in other people.

That feels really holy. But I know from experience it is possible that this really masks other things, such as: Lord, I really just want my life to be easier. I'm afraid of pain, and I want it to stop. If she were different, I would feel vindicated. If he loved God, I would feel more loved, too. If they were converted, I wouldn't have to trust You so much about this other thing. If everyone around me were holy, I would be free from the cross.

These longings can really be about our comfort and ease.

And these are not bad things. But neither are they God.

When we pray, Jesus taught us to seek God first. To set our hearts straight onto Him. What is heaven after all, but living in union with God and being in His presence? This is the ultimate desire of the human heart.

We have to pray from where we live, and while we live apart from heaven we have to pray like it. God wants us to make all of our requests known to Him, not because He is unaware, but because sharing between friends from the heart is how communion is established. So I would never advise anyone to stop praying simply because their prayer aims too low. We need to wrestle with what is in our hearts, verbalize it, be honest with ourselves and God. And after we do all that, we need to stay aware of the One with whom we are speaking by being silent, building a silent part into our lives, and giving Him time and space to respond to us.

And when He starts telling us about His longings for us, our desires will start to change.

Monday, January 05, 2015

Prejudice Uprooted Before my Very Nose

I have a late night Eucharistic adoration hour. I love it. There is something about consciousness at that hour that makes everything seem a bit sharper and a bit more profound than normal. And it's farther away from the point in the day when I am all about keeping life under my control as a homeschooling Mom and household manager.

So it was in the wee hours of this morning when I was in the chapel, praying Morning Prayer. I normally pause to include my list of people and situations for whom I regularly intercede right after the intercessions printed for the day. This morning, the intercessions included the following: "root out the prejudices which erode the depths of our humanity."

And right then and there it dawned on me that rather than generically praying these intentions for the world, I needed to pray them specifically for myself and also for my list of people and groups for whom I pray.

And then I looked up at the clock, the entire hour had flown by, and my replacement was due any moment. This was a new gent starting that time slot, and I'd never met him before. When he came in, I was struck with one thing: he smelled like cigarette smoke. But I was also struck by the fact that this one fact suddenly stood alone. Why? I was suddenly aware of a hidden prejudice I'd had, based on the whole concept of olfactory memory and all those things our primitive brains store away and kick into to our less-than-rational thought processes. People who carried that kind of smell about them triggered associations for me of addicts and the mentally ill, and so triggered feelings of danger, of fright, of the need to recoil into myself. And time was, I secured myself against these feelings with heavy layers of prideful judgment as well, to make sure The Boogie Man kept far away from me. But suddenly, all of that was clear to me. And I realized that I really new about this new person is that he smelled like smoke. And all I really thought was that it was nice to meet my new replacement.

Seems a very subtle thing, but at 3am it also is easier to see answers to prayer.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

And This is Why I Love Epiphany

God frequently seems to use the liturgy and liturgical feasts to teach me personal things. Sometimes the nature of how this works is that something significant will happen in conjunction with a liturgical celebration of a feast day, but the significance of it will only dawn on me several years down the road. My initial conversion to Catholicism at a Christmas Eve midnight Mass is the most obvious example.

And another such thing is connected to the Epiphany.

The liturgy of the hours for Epiphany preserves the tradition that it has, in the past, encompassed the Visit of the Magi, the Baptism of Jesus, and the Wedding at Cana: the Illuminatio, Manifestatio, and Declaratio. The message is clear: Jesus is on the scene with power and He's changing things.

It took me quite a long time to realize how that applied to this thing that happened to me six years ago tomorrow, on Epiphany Sunday.

That would have been one of those moments that if I had been able to see into the future, I probably would have turned and run away as fast as I could.

I'm glad I didn't. I think.

No, no: I'm sure. And I have the scars to prove it. 

It had been a quiet life for Jesus, Mary and Joseph (as long has he lasted) until the time of Jesus' public manifestation and His first miracle. I can only imagine Mary's heart at the moment when she knew it was time for Him to move on. We make a lot of her request that moved Him to His first public miracle. I'm convinced it was not a giddy moment for her, but one of surrender to the Father. Her statement "Do whatever He tells you," besides the other volumes it speaks, I believe was her fiat to the Messiah's mission which any student of the prophecies must have known would lead to His death.

The rest of us see these glory moments and think Cool! Dude, I want in on this! She realizes that the glory of God comes at the price of suffering and death. Which hearkens back to celebrating martyrs right smack after Christmas Day. Did the Church make some awful blunder in scheduling St. Stephen and the Holy Innocents? Of course not. We make the blunder in forgetting that Christmas flows into Epiphany which flows into Lent which flows into Holy Week, Easter, Ascension and Pentecost. Jesus' birth is the beginning of the pascal mystery.

Christmas is often presented as a sugar-coated fairy tale. But God is born into a world where there is also a great deal of suffering and misery. -- Pope Francis 

And God came to live that suffering and misery with us, as one of us.

And, you know, in my book, when there's suffering and misery and God shows up, that suffering and misery suddenly get changed. Where God is, there is delight. Even when the glory points to a cross, which points to glory.

Funny. Seems like I wandered far away from the purpose I started writing with, which was to remember that Epiphany six years ago when God used the liturgy to show me something I didn't understand yet.

But this is how it works. And that's all I've been talking about.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Powerful Moment: Love Without Violence

A few days before Christmas, I came across this video (if the video doesn't appear, you can try hovering over "Post," or click it, but then come on back):

This little two minute video has been like a needle visiting my life and leaving me with a pretty little patch of embroidery on my soul. That's a weird metaphor, but it is about that astounding. It isn't like it struck me, like a huge light bulb/naru hodo moment. It was as if hearing these words from this Brother left something in me that is tangible. Confirmed in me something I've heard and learned. It's like I heard this, and my soul, or Jesus in my soul proclaimed a Great Amen, and something has changed.

And in two minutes!

Love, in the gospel sense, is a love without violence, especially violence to oneself. That's the punchline.

I am certain that I need to soak in this before I can articulate much about the wonder that surrounds it, in my line of vision. But my raw stab at it goes like this: Basically I've done the same thing he said Therese did. Except I have a distinct feeling I was much more violent at it than she. Pride, perfectionism, measuring up to self-imposed standards, and other assorted crud has all resulted in a long, hard streak of doing violence to myself. And I've always done it under a twisted pretext of it being good, right, and admirable. And it's not! It's really, really not!

This stitching, this Great Amen, this whatever-it-is, is like a peace I've never known before. I really am so little. I really am called and cared for by One who is So Great.

And at the same time, I've been reading the account of the martyrdom of sixteen Carmelites during the French revolution, and have been inspired by them and their embrace of the call to martyrdom, which is the ultimate expression of the call to worship -- a call (worship) which I recognize as my own. There's more to say about that, but it is as if being freed from doing violence to myself is being freed to die to myself. Because it is about grace, not effort. God's gift, not my performance.

I will shortly be ordering Br. Schmidt's book Everything is Grace.