Thursday, February 26, 2015


I am constantly just beginning to learn things about the spiritual life.

Last night as I was tired earlier than usual I pulled St. Faustina's Diary Divine Mercy In My Soul off my bedside shelf and began to read parts I had underlined during previous readings. Among other things, in three different parts of the large book I noted where she said that responding to inspirations from the Holy Spirit calls forth greater graces. I was glad to not be the only one to whom God seemed to present the same lessons over and over again and each time it seems like a strikingly new revelation. But I hadn't opened the book with any particular agenda, and I knew there were a lot of things that I could have pulled out of it, so I made a mental note that was what registered with me.

This afternoon I was out grocery shopping at Aldi. When it came time to check out, I noticed the checker was rubbing her hands to warm them, so we made small talk about the cold. She seemed to open up with unusual readiness after a brief exchange, and she made a comment about how she was truly miserable, as the next customer's order came along.

And then as I was bagging my stuff I was struck with the thought to give her a miraculous medal. (I often have more of these than change in my wallet.) And that thought from St. Faustina was there. Obey promptings, and greater graces flow.

Now, I have stood right there in front of a prompting like that many, many times since I was young. Many times, I would start to reason What good would that possibly do? Isn't that almost superstitious? What if she gets offended? What if she throws it away? What if I just look weird? What if this just me, and not the Holy Spirit? What if .... 

And more often than not, if the prompting had to do with me interacting with another person, I'd skip it. Then I would beat myself up for not doing it for hours or days. I'd design myself some kind of punishment to make up for my lack of courage. Or I'd just tell myself to stop paying so much attention to every dang thought in my head and just live, because how could it matter.

But I realize that I don't have to understand what it "means" for in the other person's life, or concern myself with what happens because of it. I don't have to "be sure" it is the Holy Spirit's personal bullhorn up against my head. But I can simply be aware of another person, desire their good, and take the chance that I'm the silliest person on the face of the earth, and just do it. Just respond to the internal inspiration. Take the chance that maybe grace is in this equation somewhere.

And today, I did. I gave her the miraculous medal. I wished her "a better day" and told her the medal was for a necklace. She beamed a really bright smile and thanked me.

It seems to me that the way to move towards seriously being involved in God's work is to stop taking myself so seriously. Be open, yes. Be loving, yes. Intend the other person's good, yes. Second-guess myself tortuously, no. The less self-consciousness and the more freedom I have, the better I can simply be available to Jesus.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Yeah, Basically my Life has Always Been this Weird.

Memories can provoke a whole assortment of responses. Bad memories can depress or frighten and good memories can bring comfort and a smile. Then there's that category of mysterious memories. Today one of these broke to the surface while I was praying and I was moved to an equally mysterious sense of gratitude for God's presence in my life.

The story: as I remember it, it was a warm time of the year, and given how I remember my visual perspective at our side door I imagine I was about 4 or 5 years old. So, we're talking early 1970s. My brother (who would have been about 8 or 9) was playing outside. Now, we lived on one of the busiest roads in our city of 140,000, so there was always all sorts of traffic, including pedestrians. As my brother played, a young man stopped and talked to him and (my brother told me later) asked him if there were anyone else at home with him. He told the man yes, that I was home too. He fetched me, and we stood outside on the sidewalk. In my mind's eye I remember this young man as looking like a hippie. He had longish curly hair, and he was dressed in white or light clothes. I don't remember anything at all the man said, but he prayed with us. And then he walked on by, and my brother went back to playing, and I stood there for some moments, watching the young man walk on down the street.

There have been moments when I've wondered if he hadn't been an angel. It's more likely that he was a "Jesus Freak" as they were called in those days, those who were saved from the hippie culture and wandered about as spiritual troubadours. But it always struck me that he came to my house and basically sought for me to pray for me.

Right around that time, my mother was divorcing my alcoholic father, and the life that lay ahead of me for the next few years was not to be filled with happy memories. But throughout my life God has driven these pegs of awareness that people I did not know prayed for me. As if, you know, God had a hand in it or something.

And now, as a Carmelite in formation, I am learning to pray as God leads. May I never discount the odd one-off prayer here and there for a stranger or for someone God brings to mind. A humble act offered in love God can use to fulfill plans that we cannot begin to comprehend.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

One Red Marble

I have certain memories that stand out like parables that I return to again and again. Recently I found myself thinking about this one.

It was the first semester of my Sophomore year in college, and I was enrolled in a psychology class for which one textbook was required and one study guide suggested. By the time I bought books, the study guide was out of stock. So of course I was driven to anxiety when the professor indicated that although the study guide was optional, when it came time for the exam those without it would be in deep trouble.

Anxiety over what I lacked inspired me to carefully study that textbook like I had never studied a textbook before. I carefully took notes from the text, highlighted, studied the vocabulary terms, used the study questions and basically applied myself full-steam to learning the material.

Then came the midterm. It was something like 500 multiple choice questions. I faced the challenge with serious, if still anxious, determination.

When the professor handed the exams back, he was visibly disappointed. He explained that the vast majority of the class either failed miserably or came close to it, and that a retake was being offered. After his all-class tongue-lashing he mentioned that one student got only four wrong.

That was me. I was so mad.

I was mad at the rest of the class for not using their precious study guides, at myself for studying so carefully and for being driven by anxiety to do so. I was angry at what felt like foolishly spent effort. I was mad at the professor for inspiring me with this anxiety. And at deepest I felt angry at myself for being the one oddball who was applying myself to learning as if there were something to be gained from it.

There is so much in this memory that epitomizes my basic struggles in life. But I am only just beginning to be able to look at this with a bit of humor. For one thing, anxiety has been such an unwaveringly normal engine in my life that only in recent years have I been aware of optional ways of functioning. For way too long I have faced my natural characteristics, like my tendency toward earnest seriousness about everything, as enemies to be subdued and problems to be stamped out instead of just the human package I am. I can appreciate that some anxiety is indeed helpful and can motivate good things, like attentiveness and thoroughness.

Another significant issue here is feeling like this:

a red marble in a sea of yellow marbles. For me, this is also about accepting the human package that I am and not being angry at myself or at others that we all are who we are. Accepting that God wishes me to be me, and that's why He made me as me. Accepting that I cannot find my way by trying to be like someone else. Accepting that my cues do not come from what I can see in others, and that my confidence is not born from conformity.

This also goes a long way to make sense of how much work God has had to do in my heart with regards to detachment in my relationships. Find a human soul that resonates with mine? Why, glom on with all my might down to the very cost of my soul, of course! Oddly missing from my memory of the exam is any real delight in doing well, or even a sense of boasting over the flunkers. Because the overwhelming value to me here was the sense of isolation that shoved delight off the stage before it could take one step out. In this, too, I have finally begun to find peace because I begin to realize that what I have thought of or felt as isolation is really a path towards union with God. Living in harmony with my design may make me unique, but it does not isolate me. Rather, it communicates God's glory and so offers real delight.

What is true of all creation in general is true of my creation as well, as the Catechism teaches:

St. Bonaventure explains that God created all things "not to increase his glory, but to show it forth and to communicate it", for God has no other reason for creating than his love and goodness: "Creatures came into existence when the key of love opened his hand."  
(Catechism of the Catholic Church 293)

If I am a red marble in a sea of yellow, it is not because God is mean. His creation of me reveals to me and to others His love and goodness, because that's who He is.

St. Therese teaches that the power of the Holy Spirit is blocked in our lives when we cannot serenely accept ourselves as we are, inherent weaknesses and powerlessness, as well as gifts and graces lavished on us by our loving Father. When we are stuck in our willfulness, the "I want my way," we are bound up in our limitations.  When instead we open in ourselves willingness, the "Yes, Lord -- your love!" to all God intends for us, which includes of course the path of the cross and suffering, that is all it takes to please God and be in our full potential before Him.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Lent: Face to Face with Love

So, what is this Lent thing all about, anyway?

Recently I was talking with my spiritual director about Lent, and I got one of those God-echoes that made a tear escape down my cheek. You know, one of those "God-has-been-telling-me-this-for-years, and clearly-now-it's-happening-again" things. Either he has profound insight into me (meh, don't really think so), or my struggles really aren't unlike those of others (could it be? I'm a little normal?!)

The basic theme was that Lent is about becoming more fully the one God has made us to be. Owning it; living it. Of course God has made us to be holy, to be saints. But there are no generic saints; there are specific humans. We don't get to be holy by destroying or rejecting the model God has made and remaking something that strikes us as more acceptable. We become holy by being ourselves. Humbly, acceptingly, being ourselves.

That is exactly what God told me when I was in my Catholic no-man's land, when I was going to Mass but waiting on the doorstep, for 18 months, to be received. "If you want to serve me simply be yourself." (I leave out the potential commas in that sentence, because everything God says always bears more than one nuance.)

This used to terrify me, this notion of being myself. I had no idea how to do it, first of all, and it also seemed incredibly risky. I kinda knew I am by nature a red marble in a sea of yellow marbles.

I read something last night that illustrates this thing I've said about how I come to grips with some truth, and then hear it taught by the Carmelites. Apparently, this thing was the cornerstone of St. Therese's spirituality as well.

"If you are willing to bear serenely the trial of being displeasing to yourself, then you will be... [for Jesus] a pleasant place of shelter." St. Therese, to her sister Celine as a new member of Carmel.

Joseph F. Schmidt, FSC, elaborates (in his book Everything is Grace): "In this case, Therese saw that Celine needed to lose her discouragement, which was self-centered, and particularly to lose her willfulness, which drove her to strive for self-improvement. That harsh willfulness was itself a kind of violent obstacle to the power of the Holy Spirit in her. If Celine would be willing to lose her attachments to herself and enter the path of humility, serenely bearing the pain of honestly being herself, that willingness, humility and honesty would put her on the path of transformation."
One reason it takes so much courage to be ourselves is that we all have this displeasing aspect to us. I'm quite sure God made us that way. If we could be thoroughly pleased with ourselves (honestly, not arrogantly) we would not seek Him. To believe that we are loved by God and by others while at the same time not pleasing ourselves to some degree or another is an act of faith. An incredible one, to my mind. To believe we are loved is to accept that Love is bigger than we are. To believe we are loved is to be humble.

Lent is really about coming face to face with believing we are loved, with Love who loves us. It is about letting God have His way. It is about letting His love enter in. When it enters in, by its nature it changes us and starts to flow out of us. That is so much different from a self-improvement checklist that we conquer by willpower.

Lent is not about starving myself or proving to myself, to God, or others how good I am. It's not about mentally beating myself up because I'm so weak, and yelling at myself to improve. This idea that inflicting pain and suffering on ourselves earns us God's love is either pride, or a grossly deficient understanding of God. Self-inflicted suffering is NOT synonymous with penance. Penance is to dig deeper into love, to dig deeper into the ground of our weakness and failings that will always be there and to find ourselves, again, loved -- even there.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

The Importance of Saying Yes

I get the sense that right now it is very important for Christians to say yes to the crosses that Jesus hands them.

Suffering comes to all, regardless of our disposition to it. And it is true that there are sufferings we bring on ourselves. It isn't right to credit Jesus for every struggle we face. But what I mean here is that when Christians are living an honest commitment to their baptismal covenant, not harboring or nurturing sin, not living primarily forgetful lives, not placing God as a figurehead or a cultural flag somewhere in their self-identity package, but actually thinking like a disciple who wants to follow, to these, there is a call sounding. Take up your cross, and follow me.

Pious statements roll easily off the back, and this one is no exception. That's why we need to pay attention.

Jesus entrusts crosses to us. Get that. Jesus chooses them, and He hands them out. There is nothing random here, and there is nothing sadistic. God does not delight in our suffering. God delights in His children.

Wait, what? Isn't that a contradiction? If God delights in us, why does He allow us to suffer? It is the path to knowing God, from the inside out if you will. We don't say yes to the objective evil of the things that cause us the pain. We say yes to Jesus, who holds it all. Saying yes to Jesus, saying yes to His cross, is our step, in union with the One who loves us. Union means being deeply with. When we say yes to the cross Jesus hands us, we say yes to being deeply with Him.

When we are deeply with Him, not only are we freed, healed, brought peace, and filled with God's life (probably in the face of the objective evil remaining steady), but we also become a highway, a means for freedom, healing, peace and life to flow into this world. We become the means of God's mission going forward. We build God's kingdom.

God doesn't need our means, our power, our riches. He doesn't need our lives to be perfect or trouble free. He doesn't need us to be secure in the things of this world. He needs our yes. He needs hearts that want to be deeply with Him more than we want any other good or pleasure.

And this all pivots on a very difficult point: Trust.

We have to trust that God is good. We have to trust that God is good.

We experience so much that is not-God, even in the name of love, religion, friendship, and... God. And just look at the central image of the Christian faith, the crucifix. That hurt. Really bad. How do we trust a God who has that as His plan?

When all we want to do is shake our fists and scream and curse the evil and curl up in a ball and hide, how do we trust that God is good?

Start with the fact that you exist. You did not make you. God did. Even if you do not like what He made and see nothing good in it, you are the evidence of a power greater than yourself. And that power gave. Start right there by saying thank you, and yes.

Christian, your yes is very important. God will meet your needs and open your eyes to see beyond the ache in your heart. He who is mighty has promised. And He is asking and calling you to do your part in His plan for the rest of needy humanity. So, say yes to what He entrusts to you. Remember heaven. On that shore, we'll never regret it.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Intercession Basics

I spend some time each day interceding for various individuals, groups, and areas. Over time, I have boiled down the way I pray for the at-large community of my life into two different themes: souls who are carrying a cross that Jesus has given them, and souls trapped under their own sin or the sins of others.

I don't really spend any time evaluating who fits into which category how, because God knows these things, and I don't. But I do know that while I might wish that suffering could be eliminated from the lives of people I care about, I realize that when Peter mentioned this desire to Jesus, Jesus rebuked him. The truth is, a share in the cross handed the soul by Jesus is a great and precious gift. Every fiber of one's being balks at that truth, but that doesn't change it. What souls who have been handed a cross need are the graces of acceptance, courage, trust, and protection from attacks of the enemy. They need to be able to lift their gaze up to Jesus on the cross, and allow His gaze to penetrate through theirs, to find in Him the meaning of their cross. I pray best going to the core of the spiritual need. God usually uses people and practical help to meet those needs, but I don't discount the possibility that He can reach in mystically to meet the needs Himself.

Those who are being handed a special share in the cross of Jesus are being called and trained to offer their hearts in worship, and really to be built up as a highway for the goods of heaven to come into this earth through their souls and for souls to be brought to God through their love. Shares in Christ's cross are like a huge spiritual infrastructure expansion project going forward. As souls say Yes to God's work in them, God gains access to that soul and to those around him. And the truth is, we all have small crosses daily. It isn't only when someone's child has a life-threatening illness or there is a major disaster that the offer of the cross comes to us. Some souls might think that is the only time God is really asking anything from them. But the cross also comes when someone is being difficult or we fear losing attention, status, or a small comfort. Acceptance, courage, trust, and refuge from the enemy. You think the devil never needles an annoyed person to cause them to reject this kind of cross, and so hinder the upbuilding of the kingdom? Of course he does. Health problem, sure; I'll accept that. Death of a loved one; ok, God is asking me something hard. But accept that this person is put in my life to annoy me? Surely, God. Never!

The other theme I pray is for people trapped under their own sin or under the sins of others. I of course pray that Jesus would come and destroy the nets, the webs, the chains of sin. So many, children especially, are trapped under the sins of adults in their lives. It is true that each person makes his own choices and is ultimately responsible for his own sin, but so many are weakened tremendously in knowing right from wrong because of living with the sins of others. The voice of conscience gets more and more muted and confused.

I especially pray that Jesus would destroy the pretty nets and chains first. These are the lovely sins of Christians; the ones we have forgotten how to be ashamed of. Of course they are not pretty to God. But religiosity can treat as acceptable those things which are actually loathsome.

The image of going with the Blessed Mother with a spiritual syringe is very helpful to me. I like to pray with her that by prayer we are spiritually injecting Truth into walls built of lies, Light into the darkness where sin hides, Love and peace where walls of hatred imprison people. And so with repeated applications we work to break down and weaken the fortresses sin and evil have built that keep people from God. And of course, I proclaim her Son Jesus the Savior, the Redeemer, the One who sets captives free and ransoms the slave. His is the victory!

These are the general ways I intercede, especially for the geographical area where I live, as well as my parish and those in our Catholic school. It is a good practice, that I was taught long ago, to pray systematically for the place where you live, the groups in which you mix. And right now, this is the basic outline I've learned.

Learning to Pray, Part I

It seems like there is nothing like the act of praying to teach one how to pray.

In the last several years, as I have written about in other posts, the Lord has taught me many things about specifically how to pray. For years I prayed without really realizing the dialogue quality of prayer -- that it is a meeting, a two-way street. I would have agreed to those ideas, but I agreed with a lot of truths without experiencing them in those days.

Meetings depend on so much more than one of the parties involved. And since I was a teenager, I was interested in finding someone who could actually show me how Christianity is done. In the realm of prayer, while I have found tremendously joyful and resonating confirmations in the writings of the Carmelites, the resonances have been with how God has taught me simply in the course of praying. In fact, it has almost been embarrassing to me the number of times I've learned something, and maybe even blogged about it, and then read St. Teresa or St. John describe it. I suppose it makes sense. And I suppose for all those things I read in their stuff that I don't understand, I'll come back to in future days, when God finds me ready for them. Maybe it's not so much that it is embarrassing, but it is humbling in that it drives home to me that these ain't my ideas. God teaches us all. And I realize I'm in the right school.

And speaking of school, the other thing I realize is that the Secular Carmelite has a vocation to make known to others the teachings on prayer of the Carmelite saints. I look into my toolkit and I realize I don't really know how to do that. But I guess that's why God is writing these lessons into my life. Academic prowess is all very well and good, but not, I think, for me. Too ego-sticky. But lessons that one has learned with one's heart, one can communicate from one's heart to the heart of another.

And all that is part of why I blog on matters of prayer. Practice, and thought-sort.

So now I'm ready to write my post.  Next Page.