Sunday, April 17, 2016

Lessons from the Mystics for Normal People

Last weekend was the annual retreat for my Secular Carmelite community, and for the first time since I have been involved we had a Carmelite friar as retreat master. I loved our previous retreat master who preached the last three I attended; his messages moved my heart and have stayed alive with me all this time. But there was something uniquely wonderful about having a Father of my own charism teaching this time. It was not so much the things he said that have stayed with me (although I gleaned much) as it was his lived witness of being a Carmelite.

The Lord taught me many years ago that a key component in evangelizing a soul is to reveal to that soul, by the grace of God, who he or she is, deeply, in the truth and reality that is God Himself. In other words, when God uses me to tell someone else who they truly are, an encounter with Christ has taken place.

So I'd say I encountered Christ last weekend.

And he reminded me of reality: You are a Carmelite. You are a mystic. And here's what it means for you.

Now, hold the phone. Mystics are weird, right? They have bizarre experiences and it is probably either psychological delusion supported by the ignorant, pious blindness of those around them, and probably half the stories about them are prideful, desperate, embellished daydreams to wield power over simple people, or blah blah blah.

Well, no. Although we spent the weekend learning about a mystic of recent times who would have to push the envelope of skeptics to the breaking point very quickly: St. Mary of Jesus Crucified. She had experiences that make the mystical phenomenon of St. Padre Pio look tame.

Mystical prayer simply means prayer that is the Holy Spirit's that happens in us humans. It is not necessarily accompanied by unusual experiences, though it can be. It is not necessarily a sensibly powerful experience, though it can be.

Secular Carmelites make a promise to spend a half hour each day in this type of prayer. This promised prayer is not for personal benefit or growth, but for the Church. Friars and nuns promise two hours of this type of prayer every day.

I've known this for years now, but I had a moment this last weekend where this simply clicked for me on a deeper level. A "naru hodo" moment. And in conjunction with this whole retreat, I found an incredible joy in being able to stretch out my whole being into this vocation and exclaim "This is who I am. This is where I belong."

St. Mary of Jesus Crucified (1846-1878)

As we studied the life of St. Mary of Jesus Crucified, we learned this means sharing the gloriously joyful delights of union with God, as well as the crushing pains and sufferings of union with Jesus. But it also means simply living the normal life we have as normal secular Carmelites, by faith.

And that is what normal people can glean from mystics who levitate, have visions of heaven and hell, converse with saints and angels, have the stigmata which bleed onto sheets in drops that spell out words, who persuade Popes of things by letters someone else has to transcribe because of being illiterate, being martyred but surviving because the Blessed Virgin comes to personally nurse her back to life for a month (and on, and on, and on). We hear the testimony of the mystic, of the Carmelite, whose call, according to our rule, is to bear witness to the experience of God. The vast majority of mystical phenomenon may be things we never experience, but by faith we can acknowledge the things mystics see face to face, and live in the light of their reality.

So, yes, I believe the testimony of a mystic to whom it was given to see how many angels are crowded into an empty church, and how many more guardian angels are present during a Mass. I can't see them, but I remember when I enter a church that they are there (sometimes, I do), and I respond accordingly.

Yes, I believe the testimony of many, many mystics who have seen visions of many souls falling into hell, because I know it is a possibility and I am called to pray that it not happen.

Yes, I believe the experience of the mystics who suffer interior torments when people think they are crazy, but then they find that this is typical of a process of purification Jesus often employs for souls with this vocation. I use this insight to face my own blander struggles with courage, offer them to God, and then refocus my attention away from my own needs and onto what is going on in the heart of Jesus, trusting that Jesus will care for me and I don't have to obsess.

And when mysterious things happen in my own life, I am not surprised but simply realize this is evidence God is real, which is exactly what I should expect, and that he uses these things to purify souls and draw them away from the baubles and distractions of the world. So I take courage and thank God for drawing me.

So don't bristle at the term mystic. Like many words it has experienced abuse, but it is a genuine stream of Catholic spirituality that is indispensable for our time.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

What Lectors Might Learn from Good Storytellers

In combing through a stack of books today, I happened to come across these paragraphs in an essay on attributes needed by a good storyteller. Immediately I thought one could change the word "storyteller" to "lector," as in one who reads the Scriptures in church, with great benefit. I enjoy lectoring almost as much as I enjoy cantoring (to sing the Psalms in church), and I have been told I do it well. I completely attribute that to reading aloud to my children for hours on end over the last 13 years.

The text from which I quote is the 1947 edition of Children and Books by May Hill Arbuthnot, pages 242-243. I will edit out some sections that do not carry over to my purpose.


The successful [lector] must have two types of equipment for his art. First, he must possess those outward and visible evidences of fitness for the task -- good voice, clear diction, adequate vocabulary, and pleasant appearance. Second, he must achieve a certain elusive inner and spiritual grace made up of complete sincerity, delight in his [text], self-forgetfulness, and a respect for his audience and for his... art. The first equipment can be attained through patient practice. the second must grow from living and from loving both [Scripture] and people.

An agreeable voice and clear, pure diction are perhaps the first requisites for the [lector] to consider. Needless to say, there should not be a special voice reserved for [lectoring]... You should take stock of your own vocal equipment. Ask others to evaluate your voice honestly. Record it if possible, so that you can listen to it yourself. If your voice is nasal, harsh, or monotonous, try to improve it for everyday use to the point where it is agreeable and lovely for special use. Women tend to pitch their voices higher and shriller than they should. Try  your speaking voice at the piano and see where it falls in relation to middle C. Most of us can profitably pitch our everyday speaking voices a key or so lower than we have been doing, and both we and [those who hear us] will be more peaceful as a result. Go to the theater or turn on the radio, and deliberately listen to and compare voices. Be critical of oversweet voices of some radio personalities, both male and female. Try to discover the voices of Katharine Cornell, Helen Hayes, Ethel Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Maurice Evans, and Paul Robeson so moving and satisfying. Put on Lynn Fotanne's recording of "The White Cliffs of Dover" and notice the range and variety in that high, sweet voice. Lessons with an expert in voice placement and production will help you, but by cultivating a listening ear you can do much for yourself.

A good voice is invariably supported by deep and controlled breathing. Breath must come from down in the diaphragm, not from the upper chest. Read aloud sustained passages from the Psalms or from Shakespeare. Put on Maurice Evans' recording of the lines from Richard II and read them with him.You can then tell when you run out of breath and he does not. Breathe deeper, and not only will you be able to sustain those long sonorous passages, but your voice will grow in richness and resonance. Shallow breathing makes thin, tired voices, which are apt to become shrill and sharp. Deep controlled breathing gives to the voice both a sense of support and increased range and color.

When you read Shakespeare's Sonnet XXIX and phrase it correctly without running out of breath, then you have good breath control, which will make your voice grow in depth and power as you use it. Notice that this sonnet has only the final period and only two semicolons to break the sequential phrases. Try lines 2, 3, and 4 on one breath, and, of course, lines 11 and 12.

When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featur'd like him, like him with friends possess'd,
Desiring this man's art and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
For thy sweet love remember'd such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings. 

Now, after having huffed and puffed self-consciously as you worked for breath control, read the sonnet for enjoyment.

 Clear articulation of words is as essential as an agreeable voice. Of course, nothing is worse than an artificial, overprecise enunciation, except perhaps an attempt to imitate the speech of another district that is quite foreign to us. If we are New England, Southern, Midwestern, or Western, let's not try for Oxford English or any other accent unnatural to us. Instead, let's eradicate the impurities of our own particular region (every region has them), and try to speak the purest, most vigorous pattern of English that obtains in our section of the country. [Lectoring] is ruined if it sounds artificial or pretentious....


Even though little else carries directly over, I love how these thoughts of the section called "Living the Story" fit nicely:

"Of course, if you have not the emotional capacity to be deeply moved by these stories, then do not try to tell them, for there must be warmth and a loving appreciation for every word of a story if it is to reach an audience...

"To love a story in this way means that the teller has not only learned the story mechanically and lived with it for some time but  has learned it with her heart, brooding over it and fussing with the phraseology until words and voice convey precisely what she feels. She does not rattle through it merely to get the words but re-creates it imaginatively. She tells it slowly and thoughtfully to the darkness after she has gone to bed or she thinks it through, scene by scene, on the streetcar until finally it is her story. Such solitary telling is a process of disciplining herself until she can give an honest interpretation of the way the story makes her feel."

It's called prayer, of course. Meditation and rumination on Scripture in general is necessary so that when we proclaim it, we are proclaiming it as ours -- my own, and our shared experience and record of God's revelation. This type of proclamation draws the hearers in to claim the Word for themselves.

Saturday, April 02, 2016

Oblation to Divine Mercy

In recent years, I have learned about St. Therese's Act of Oblation to Merciful Love. In her day, of course, there was no Divine Mercy Sunday, but this feast day is an obvious one for thinking about this oblation a little bit.

It has been explained to me that in St. Therese's day and place (so, very late 19th century in France) it was popular for Catholics to offer themselves to God to appease His wrath. The Jansenist tendency towards self righteousness fueled the desire for people to be strict with themselves and others, fearing offending God, striving for extraordinary feats of sacrifice and whatnot.

Against this backdrop, St. Therese came on the scene, emphasizing instead that she had a child's capacity for difficult things and could not do them. Instead, she entrusted herself to her Father's great love, certain of His love to raise her where she could not take herself. Her concern was not for God's unspent wrath, but on His unspent, un-sought-after merciful love. She offered to receive all of this unspent, unwelcomed mercy into her own soul.

Over the last 18 months or so I've been meditating quite a bit on mercy, and something is beginning to dawn on me about this Oblation. To pray this is really to make a commitment to become deeply, profoundly aware of one's need for God. And one's need for God is felt simply in experiencing one's own misery in its various forms.

Misery, or need, is the depth of the experience that God is God and I am not. Most of the time most of us anesthetize ourselves from this reality so that the pain of our gaping need does not take our breath away.

Why should it hurt, really, this truth that God is God and I am not? Is it not the most obvious reality?

If life were all about filling in the proper answer on a worksheet, this one would be easy. But the difficulty is that if we deeply accept this as true, it must change the way we live. If I am not God, but there is a God, then it stands to reason that God's will for me must take precedence over my will for me. If there is a God, and I am not He, then I am answerable to this God.

And if I am making an oblation, a self-offering, to God who is Merciful Love, then the only thing that is terrifying in this equation is myself, who am not love and who am not even familiar with the depth of love, even though it is all my conscious and unconscious longing. But no, it is not myself who is terrifying.

It is the fact that I stand to experience Love in all its Immensity.

It's really just awesome. And the freaky part is having to pause and breathe it in, until the "too good to be true" sensation has passed. And because this Oblation is made with the salvation of others in view, part of breathing it in, part of accepting it, really is to be aware of how much other living, breathing human beings need to encounter a person who has encountered Love.

I will let you love me, O Lord, so that You can love others through me.