Saturday, December 09, 2017

Year of Healing

The year isn't over with yet, I know. But I have been reflecting on the healing that has come to my life in 2017. It's been a year of surprises: both of the "Wow! I didn't expect that to happen" sort, and of the sort that is more like a realization of something I hadn't known that I hadn't known before.

All of these have involved relationships changing.

But the greatest fruit, the thing that got me reflecting on this, is the great increase of peace I've known. I've written in the past about how much pressure I have habitually put myself under, forcing myself to do things that I found difficult but necessary. There is good in being able to choose to do the hard thing, but there is a problem with habitual self-violence. The chief problem is why it originates, and for me it was due to relational isolation. To put it more plainly, I mourned that I had no one to help me, no one to mentor me, no one to disciple me, no one to teach me. No one to follow. I didn't know how to enter into that kind of relationship, or look for it, or ask for it. So I did what kids do who are left, in their play, to be bosses of themselves -- I was mercilessly hard on myself.

Then, my internal reward system was set up around how well I responded to merciless hardness. If I felt like I had busted my spiritual/mental/physical/relational butt, then I deserved some kind of applause, and I took whatever good was at hand as fitting payment, thank you very much. If I hadn't pushed enough, I was subpar, and had to go at it harder. Good things were not allowed to register interiorly, much.

Any system like this that we ourselves set up fails. We end up miserable, burnt out, resentful, prideful, self-loathing, etc. But it can get to be like a treadmill that we just can't step off of. Also, because it supports and is supported by the flesh, stuff hides in the darkness, and to some degree we perpetuate sin or our pet brokenness to which we become attached like an old comfort.

God in His grace threw some wrenches in my dance of self-violence of this sort. It started with needing to face and own truth, and then speak it. I thought it would kill me, but instead it dismantled some machinery I had going in me. It astonished me for some months. It is hard to explain, but it was like having some kind of fear of death and this habitual self-violence broken off of me. It was a work of God. Deo Gratias.

I have learned to enjoy my life and God's blessings. Gone (or going) are the feelings that if I rest and delight, if I let go of my whip to drive myself on, that I am failing in holiness, that I am failing as a person. The hardness has softened. In delight I find that God is present to me by His grace, and whether I feel great about my efforts and or I don't, His love and truth don't change. His love is far more fascinating to look at than my strained interior "muscles." And that which He feeds me by His love is so incredibly more nourishing than what I dig up by vigorously grubbing for love. And I don't have to waste energy in false expectation of return from sources of the flesh that just can't make the return that His love can.

I do have someone to follow. Concretely, it is the Carmelite saints, but ultimately it is the Lord Jesus, because He had to teach me, painstakingly, to trust Him before He could show me my Carmelite vocation. And it is never not by faith that we walk. So it isn't "clear," except to the eyes of faith. It requires practice to walk by faith, to learn to recognize God's leading, to know what to take seriously and when to just walk and trust like a child, knowing that the desires that fill my heart with yearning, will still need parsing between the Beautiful and Holy that are their cause, and the stuff that gets picked up in my flesh in the interpretation and/or expression of these desires. God can handle it. He is the one I live to please, not myself. So if I have uncertainty in my own mind, but give it to Him, then I can accept not knowing stuff all at once. I can be at peace in the work He is doing.

This has actually been a really great year. No, life isn't suddenly perfect of course, but if the fruit of the Spirit is peace, I am living more deeply in the Holy Spirit than I have been in the past. That can happen regardless of imperfection level. I am deeply grateful for this. God has such good ideas.

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Patron Saint of 2018: St. Catherine of Bologna

It's the most wonderful time of the year.... Advent! Or, rather, it will begin liturgically in just over an hour, from where I sit.

So I have randomly generated my patron saint of the next liturgical year just now. I look forward to this little ritual every year. I know that every saint reflects the glory of God in a unique way, and I always ask the Lord that I may glean something needed from the one generated to be my patron for the next year. I have always found timely help this way, even though I didn't necessarily understand what my forthcoming needs of the year would be as each Advent began.

This year my saint is St. Catherine of Bologna. She was a Franciscan tertiary who went on to found two convents of Poor Claires, and lived in the 15th century. Interestingly, she died at age 50, which age I currently am. She also wrote a work called The Seven Spiritual Weapons. She was an artist and a poet in addition to being a foundress and an abbess. She is the patroness of artists, of the liberal arts, of the city of Bologna, and against temptations. Her body is incorrupt, and her corpse is seated on a gold throne. Frankly, she doesn't look so great any more. I opted for an artistic rendering rather than a photo of her body to memorialize her on this blog. I rather like the sort of cartoonish effect of her oversized head and tiny body.

St. Catherine, pray for me!

Saturday, November 18, 2017

You Are the Beauty of God -- Carmelite Charism, Take Two

I am still processing the presentation I heard on the Carmelite charism by Jeanne Kamat, and since I am preparing to talk to my community about what I take away from it, blog I shall. I'm not even going to consider that or what I've already written about this, in an effort to shoot from the hip, or rather, to write directly from my very moved heart.

Many times, when I've struggled to communicate something to my husband, for example, I have said, "If I knew how to say this, I wouldn't have to say it." Wrestling things out into words is necessary for me to own things, and to know things. But it is also necessary, I think, for me to commit to things. To recognize the way in which I am called to walk.

Therefore, Secular Carmelites, for the sake of the joy of souls, you are the beauty of God in the heart of the world.

This is how Dr. Kamat ended the written version of her talk, which I just read this afternoon for the first time. This beauty of God in the heart of the world, as she teaches it, is the inner peace that chat omes from the confidence and courage that comes from affirmation, that comes from a life of prayer that transforms the soul and purifies it and unites it to God.

This thing about affirmation struck me hard. It was like a shovel digging down into my heart that made a bit of a klinking sound when it hit a rock of uncertainty. It is really safe to affirm a human being? Is it right to affirm a human being? Is it good to affirm a human being? Is it love to affirm a human being?

The question that need to be settled first is: what is a human being? Is a human being sin? Is a human being evil? The underlying klink I found wanted to object: Yes! Human beings are sin and they are evil! Therefore it is wrong to affirm people.... The only problem with this is that it flies in the face of the Scriptures, especially the second creation account on which Dr. Kamat based her talk. There is such a thing as original solitude, in which man was created to be in relationship with God. Human beings can commit sin, can live outside of covenant with God and can do evil and thereby become evil, but in their own being this is not what they are. This is exactly why sin is alienation from God, self, and others, and this is exactly what penance aims at: reconciliation and healing. This is basic Catholic theology.

Human beings are created through the Word of God, permeated by the Holy Spirit, by God the Almighty. This is our origin; union with this God is our intended destiny. This is who we are; this is how anything makes sense.

Is it good to affirm the life of a person? Absolutely. Is it love to affirm the life of a person? Absolutely. Is it safe to affirm the life a person? Hahahahahahah! Hahahahahaha! There is nothing safe about God; are you kidding? Up-end your entire life, bring total chaos to any establishment of darkness that has taken root, or that is connected to anything so rooted, pull everything completely out of your control, yes. When we live in God, we are not "safe," we are ALIVE.

I have a scene etched in my mind. I was in Japan, visiting this family whose job it was to help me learn Japanese, I think -- or maybe I was taching them English -- in any event, I went to their house once a week for dinner for a time. I was standing in their kitchen when this thought exploded inside my mind: To evangelize someone is to tell them who they are. To communicate to them the truth of who they are. I'm not sure why then and there, but it came like a flash of understanding that has only unfolded since that day. And here is a piece that goes "click" -- to affirm the life of a person is to impart to them the knowledge that they have an origin and a destiny.

The devil is a liar and comes only to kill, steal, and destroy. And we are born under his dominion. Unless we are both given grace and formed in it, we will not by nature know that we have an origin that is glorious or a destiny that is glorious, nor a vocation to belong to the people who minister this reality to each other and into those still under his dominion. That is exactly what he wants to kill off, steal, and destroy. He tells us lies about who we are until we either believe them or are so confused that we don't believe there is truth, meaning, reality, or goodness.

Several years ago I underwent a transformation that I can now understand as being rooted in affirmation. It was so powerful because it not only brought me healing in showing me who I was, but also showed me the vocation to which God was calling me. It was powerful both in its glory, and eventually in its pain as well -- because of that very process of purgation and purification and up-ending and uprooting of darkness. I regret only the pain I caused others in the process, but I do not regret one drop of the pain it produced in me. Dr. Kamat's talk also made sense of out of this for me, showing me the rock solid confidence and inner peace that affirmation gives, even as she spoke about our vocation as becoming the ones who create this very same thing in the world through our prayer.

In my lived experience in the last weeks that I've been meditating on this, I have found both increased joy and confidence in my interactions with people and greater pain. Understanding things from their deepest meaning gives energy like nothing else. I have often second-guessed myself about why I would interact with people to a point of paralysis and painful self-doubt. I would wonder what I should say, if I should say something, why I want to say something and so forth until I had no peace and no confidence. I would keep silent and appear cold, and then wonder why people felt I had done them ill when I had done nothing. I did not appreciate that one can sin mightily by omission when it comes to affirmation. I have also felt the pain of meeting a heart walled off in self-protection, miserable behind its efforts to not need affirmation. I see my younger self here. Then I find myself setting-to to find ways to love. This is creativity, and I think true creativity cannot come without this kind of pain.

And I haven't even gotten to the part of the talk which treated Jesus as our Shabbat, about how we are created for eternal Shabbat and living in the presence of God in time. About how the commandments really treat God's covenant promise to be constantly present to us, his requirement that we keep his fidelity to us constantly in mind and to respect those who minister it to us, and how our life falls into ruin when we turn from God, turn from rest.

In the few weeks before my travels, I was so stressed from constant activity, even from great and spiritual things. I could not un-crank, and physically I was feeling it. I find myself now asking, "What do people do?" in the sense of what are we really made for -- and seeing how it is love. We can and should be fully consumed in loving, but we can also be doing great things from a place that isn't consumed with loving, and then we will grow weary. Then, we need rest. But none of this need necessarily be about "cutting back" in what we do. We are made to be fruitful, and that can involve tremendous life output. We see that in the example of some saints. Rather, we need to "cut into" what we do with that creativity of love, and walking in affirmation, which makes us a conduit of life. "The soul that walks in love neither wearies others nor grows tired," said St. John of the Cross. When we use our own energies, we wear out. When we use God's, we are built up. The key is coming back every day to receive God's forgiveness and love -- and then to offer that very gift of love back to the Father that He gives.

It seems God has opened up a new chapter in my heart and life, and I am awed. He is good. I am very, very glad.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

The Carmelite Charism

Last weekend I experienced the 2017 OCDS Congress in San Antonio. In many ways, it was a very ordinary event, but I'm also aware that God has spoken to new word to me. I mean, it isn't a new word. But as it was spoken, I became new. It was a moment when there was a loud "CLICK" in my spirit, and I became more whole. It's really hard to put into words, because it certainly isn't that suddenly a) I understand all things or b) I feel great as a result, so the delight I feel isn't an intellectual or an emotional rush. It is a spiritual delight, but a sobering one.

I found that the hub of this word spoken to me came in one particular presentation, by Dr. Jeanne Kamat, on the Carmelite charism. It wasn't so much that it was new information, but more like an impartation, when something is bestowed on one. I do have the text from which she spoke, and I have the audio of the actual presentation, but the Spirit is not going to be exactly in either of these. 

She began by saying that "the Carmelite charism is to pray and to create in the world the inner peace that arises from affirmation." She emphasized that we do this by affirming the life of the other person, regardless of how we see their faults, crimes, etc. We see the goodness of the person with the eyes of heaven. And, that to be such a witness of God's affirmation of the life of each person, we must know and affirm the goodness of our own selves (self-knowledge), and to know what we most deeply and truly believe. 

She went on to deal with the second creation account in Genesis as a basis for man's original relation with God, with himself, and with others, and then explored Wisdom literature and the prophets, highlighting that to be made in the image of God is not merely to be created as a relational being, but that we are indeed created out of Wisdom. 

Jewish understanding of the Old Testament Scriptures colored everything she said. I have yet to even completely take in the second half of the talk, but by the time she talked about Jesus fulfilling it all by actually imparting the Holy Spirit and being Himself our rest and making us a new creation that then enables His life to be present in the world through us... I felt like I was swooning under the presence of a Beauty unfathomable. 

If at the end I felt I was dripping exclamation marks from my pores, to be honest at the beginning I may have shed a few question marks. Her words about the place of affirming the life of God within dug into the inner recesses of my soul that had been formed by the doctrine of Total Depravity. Really? Isn't there something about humanity that is evil in essense? Scripture is pretty clear that there is an original condition of man which is not evil, is not divine, but does indeed come forth in beauty from the hand of God. 

Sin obfuscates. Sin renders us incapable of knowing God, of knowing who we are, of knowing what is right, of seeing according to Wisdom. Sin brings confusion and activates our passions to dig deeper away from the presence of God, and into deeper alienation from ourselves and from others. 

But Jesus comes to give life. His first affirmation of us is the Incarnation. As Dr. Kamat put it, what a impoverishment of the Incarnation if we see it only about God's plan to deal with sin, and not as the ultimate expression of loving desire for communion with us. The Incarnation as an act of God's desire for communion could be the theme song of my conversion to the Catholic Church. It has been a jaw-dropping meditation for me for 25 years. 

I was also able to see the occasions in my life when the power of affirmation healed me and changed the course of my life. This is a double-whammy because not only did the affirmation heal me, but it simultaneously taught me who I am and how God made me: to go and do the same. 

Words hold the power of life and the power of death (Prov. 18:21). We will be held accountable for every idle word (Mt. 12:36). We are commanded to speak only what will build others up according to their needs (Eph. 4:29). These are amazing Scriptures, and they point to our need, not to become self-obsessive, but to allow "the word of Christ to dwell" in us richly and to be transformed by his glory and the renewal of our minds.

Two years ago I was powerfully struck by a talk at the Milwaukee Congress by Fr. Marc Foley, OCD, which was about the words we speak and the silences we keep. This talk goes one step deeper, because this is about what goes on in the silence, when we rest our heads on the heart of Jesus and receive His breath, which then forms the words and silences with which we interact with the world. 

"When you rest your heart on Christ, He reveals the Father. He puts in love, wisdom, etc., according to your nature. It will permeate your being. You become capable. You are transformed. You don't have to know it." This ministry of affirmation arises mostly without our being aware of any divine transaction, but it is sharing the love, the affirmation, the redemption, the wholeness we have been given.

This is true. This is how it works. In this is my vocation. This is how I bear witness to God in the world.

I have been crucified with Christ; The life I live now, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:19-20)

Friday, October 20, 2017

I believe in God

So, I'm trying to work through my mind some prayerful experiences of late.

The other day I started a rosary, and was stopped at the words "I believe in God..." And I was stopped by an immediate contrast presented to me of a human being believing in God, and a human being believing in another human being.

And the way I saw it, what was differentiated was both the act of believing and the one being believed in. I was also looking at the substance of what happens in "believing in." That substance seems to have to do with potential drawn out of the believing one. That was really the beginning aspect point, what struck me first. An act of believing draws something out of me.

When I believe in another person, the vulnerable state is created for me of being drawn out of myself towards him. I am drawn out of myself towards him with whatever baggage I have, because it is part of me. I come with my whole package: imperfections, strengths, weaknesses, talents.

This process is intended for the mutual upbuilding of myself and himself. When I am courageously vulnerable, and work to sustain this act of faith, I offer my strengths and talents to the other person's needs, imperfections, and weaknesses. When the other person also is courageously vulnerable and works to sustain his act of faith, he offers to my needs, imperfections and weaknesses his strength and talents. This is a the flowing of God's grace and providence. When it works, to a greater degree, we all expect needs and weaknesses, and we recognize the gifts of others.

Of course, this can all go much differently. We can choose to not believe another person, or refuse to be vulnerable, or offer our packages as tools of power and control, or currency to get what we want. In some relationships, we are wise and even responsible if we refuse belief. But in others it is not virtue that guides; we can be driven by fear which does not have vulnerability in its repertoire.

As messy human beings, we often experience these things as mixtures. We have virtues, but not perfectly. But the concept holds that believing in another sets us in this mix of drawing them out to give them what is good, and receiving the good they offer in a state of vulnerable trust.

When we believe in God, we are in a completely different field. This was the actual thing that stopped me the other day, as I started out "credo," and these others appeared before me.

When we believe in God, we are doing what is most rational. We did not make ourselves; we are made by another. God is Personal; God is Love (and I know that these mean much more than I understand). I not only can, but should -- by rights -- believe in Him totally and completely. It is what I am made for. My potential to be drawn out of myself has way more than its full capacity met in the One who created me out of love to belong to Him. He gives Himself to me in return, filling my life with His life, making me thereby more of who I am, not less.

And this is the difference between believing in God and believing in a person. A person does not immediately have the ability to tell me who I am. God does, and He has that right by being the Creator.

But God gives us to share in His own life, so by that capacity, we can and sometimes do participate in revealing truth to another person. And so we are back full circle with believing in another person.

Then, Jesus tells us to ask God for the same forgiveness that we owe each other.

This is the key to all of it right here for me, right now.

I have always had a complicated desire to believe in people with all my heart, even being willing to erase from my field of vision anything that would make believing them a problem for me, such as their own faultiness, and even their deliberate attempts to do wrong to me. This desire actually rendered me incapable of belief, though, because it rendered me incapable of entering into relationship aware of my own needs. It was self-objectification. Objects cannot have relationships of faith. Objects are for use.

I have been turned the wrong way, essentially. Complete and total faith is rightly directed towards God and finds completely safe expression there. Well, safe if you consider crucifixion safe. There is a death we have to undergo, and it is the ultimate test of the love we don't even have within us unless God gives it birth. God gives us everything; acting with it brings us through purification. And through it all ... I believe in God.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Lying God of Comfort

Everyone knows my daughter loves crafting. Having a daughter who loves crafting requires me a few trips to craft stores now and then. Recently we were in one such store, where I noted with interest an array of feel-good spiritual-y, faith-y feeling decorations, lauding virtues of family, comfort, peace, comfort, being generally good, comfort, and comfort.

Among them, I saw this item:

What came to mind right away was a homily I recently heard at my parish by the inimitable Deacon Ralph Poyo. He aptly pointed out that we Americans tend to worship at the altar of hedonism. Oh, we might dress it up in conservative, or even religious garb. But essentially, if pushed to frame what we practice in reality, we worship a god who wants everything to be easy for us. Our god does not ask us to endure difficulties. Our god frees us from anxieties by keeping us comfortable. This god is a lot like a down blanket, hot chocolate, and a crackling fire on a beautiful snowy day.

This is a false god, and a demon.

This, brothers and sisters, is the Christian God:

And if this is too much of a leap for your theology of suffering to make all at once, consider that this, too, is the Christian God:

Jesus born in vulnerable poverty

And this:

Jesus and His parents flee the country as refugees

And this:

Jesus and the one who betrayed Him

Friends, this idea that God handles all our problems so that we can enjoy comfort and ease is a lie. 

It is entirely true that following Jesus by repenting of our sins, dying to ourselves, and allowing His love to transforms us in His Body heals us and frees us from the crap of this world that fills us with so much dis-ease, falsehood, and pain. It is completely true that where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom, and there is peace.

But this freedom and peace means that we are empowered to live as He did, IN the world full of pain, bringing love to it. Our God gives us the grace not to become comfort-loving marshmallows, but to go to the margins, to go where there is pain -- in our world as well as within our own hearts -- and to minister peace, as we get dirty, sweaty, and involved.

Let's face it. Sitting by that crackling fire under the cozy blanket sipping hot chocolate, what are we thinking about? What are we feeling? Do we have the peace that Pinterest promises? Or are we racked with regrets, with guilt, with pain, with self-loathing? Are we so numb that we can't feel anything anymore, and just flatly question whether anything is worth anything? 

In the end, don't we have to admit that the god who makes everything easy fails us all the time

The god of comfort lies.

See, part two of this lie is that Comfort God does, actually make everything easy for the ones he really loves. It just ain't you. Sorry. Try harder to get Him to favor you, maybe by being richer or better or less irritating, or something.

Lies. Lies. All lies.

The god of comfort lies.

“Christ did not promise an easy life. Those who desire comforts have dialed the wrong number. Rather, he shows us the way to great things, the good, towards an authentic human life.” -- Pope Benedict XVI

Monday, September 25, 2017

Football, Fasting, and the Love of God

I am agitated.

I opened Facebook yesterday and found that everyone was all upset, again. This time everyone was upset by athletes who did not present themselves for the National Anthem.

The athletes did this because they were upset at words used about them by their President in response to a political or moral position taken by some, which clearly the President objected to.

I read that many of my friends were going to give up watching their beloved Steelers because they felt the players were immature in how they communicated their views and disrespectful to the USA by not standing for the anthem.

My agitation:

  • I welcome the fast from football, and encourage those who are giving it up to gather and pray for revival instead.
  • I am honestly shocked, because I know how deep the love for football goes in the hearts of many. 
  • I'm not interested in football.
  • I am surprised that I haven't heard one single, solitary person object to the President of the United States calling citizens an objectionable name which I would reprimand my teenage son from using, even if he were justly upset with someone. And yet there is much concern expressed for proper respect being shown. I'm tired of Christians giving the President a pass on immature and immoral behavior.
  • Standing for the National Anthem is a respectful ritual which I support. 
  • If someone is making a protest that strikes at the heart of a respectful ritual, I immediate want to ask "why?", and I mean that literally. I want to know their reasons, not jump to judgments. It's a small, but symbolic gesture. Tell me why it is chosen. I will listen.
  • I suggest that one way to honor American military veterans is to make sure that none are homeless, unemployed, or left with an inadequate Veterans health care system. Symbolic acts warm the heart and then pass. Real honor gives care.

  • Most importantly, as my friend Cookie put it, for Christians who believe there is a hell, why is such fiery energy expended and acts of mortification taken over THIS, but not over the consideration that souls may die today without Christ? Do we just yawn and say, "Yeah, whatever...." Why do football and national symbols stir people where the gospel can't? Where is our love?
Division, hatred, wrath, and anger are not of God, and neither are sloth, complacency, or pride. The love of God is a consuming fire, and when the immensity of God's love comes in contact with sin, the result is pain in the heart of the one who loves. I believe the heart of God is pained over how Americans treat each other in general, and over how little love is returned to Him by His own children.

  • If we do not feel pain over souls who live without Christ, how can we say the love of God lives in us? 
  • If we do not feel the putridness of idolatry, may God have mercy on us and draw us clear from love of the works of death.
  • If we are not willing to listen to the pain of another human being, and instead shout him down and ridicule him, how can we demonstrate to them the love of Christ? Do we even want to be at square one of evangelizing?

I want to be part of the solution. I'm deeply sick of the problem. Division is the devil's game. When Jesus prayed for unity in John 17, primarily he was speaking about a unity of love; that human beings who have met the Father in Jesus Christ would, by the power of the Holy Spirit, receive and give the very love of God, so that the world would know Jesus and know they too are loved.

I don't care if you think it sounds trite and silly that I care about God's love. If you do, I assure you, you don't know the reality of it.

Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear. Ephesians 4:29

But now you also, put them all aside: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech from your mouth. Colossians 3:8

and there must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks. Ephesians 5:4

and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ will be put to shame. 1 Peter 3:16

For I am afraid that perhaps when I come I may find you to be not what I wish and may be found by you to be not what you wish; that perhaps there will be strife, jealousy, angry tempers, disputes, slanders, gossip, arrogance, disturbances; 2 Corinthians 12:20

And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper, being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful; and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them. Romans 1:28-32

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Reflections on St Therese as a Revolutionary

So today during my Carmelite formation meeting, we took in a talk by Fr. Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD on St. Therese as a spiritual revolutionary. The following is a smattering of notes from the talk and my own thoughts and reflections on it.

What was really valuable to me about it was how he clearly outlined the historical development of the prevailing spiritual attitude among the French Carmelites of St. Therese's day. It is one thing to say that Jansenism had had a negative impact on French Catholicism and that the waves of it were still being felt in the 1890s. It is quite another thing to hear quotations from the influential books and the formative figures of those intervening centuries, and to understand how various private revelations and juridical aberrations lead to imbalances which led to St. Therese's Little Way then corrected.

What I thought was very interesting was how Jesus was understood in the milieu of French Catholicism, and Carmel in particular, after the Counter Reformation. Fr. Kavanaugh mentioned how the incarnation came to be understood as Jesus "handing over his human nature to the Incarnate Word" crushing his natural humanity by complete abnegation and austerity, and how glorifying God in imitation of his hidden life entailed seeking to do the same. It is all about crushing, mortification, crucifixion, and about how large hearted souls would seek to be immolated with Jesus in this way.

This sounds nothing at all like Teresa of Jesus or John of the Cross. The fire of Love is not leading the way here. There is almost exclusive emphasis on the annihilation of the human self.

The French Carmels were under the jurisdiction of Cardinal Berulle of France who managed to bring them there from Spain, yet sought to separate the Sisters from the Friars and stand in between as the sole figure responsible for their formation. Under him, the formation of the Sisters kept this severe austerity popular at the time and it colored the teaching of the Carmelite parents, Teresa and John.

In the mid 1800s, the private revelations of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque had their deep effect on the spirituality of the Carmelite Sisters. She spoke often of the justice of God, his anger at the outrages of France ad the wounds inflicted by his chosen people. The first French prioress (after the two original Spaniards, friends of the then-deceased Teresa of Jesus, left the French foundation) was of this mind centuries before. She also spoke of the need to "make reparations for the outrages," to "atone for the sins of France", to "appease the anger of the Father". Jesus was to her the "perpetual victimhood". The devotion to the Holy Face had this flavor to it, and of course that was part of St. Therese's experience in the Lisieux Carmel.

This simply sounds like Catholicism had become classical Protestantism. It is hard to distinguish between Luther, Calvin, and some Jansenist-flavored Catholic teaching of that time. "God beholds His Son as a sinner; Jesus suffers the disdain of God".

But the simple fact of the matter is that none of this is true, nor does it match with Teresa and John's teaching about Jesus and the spiritual life. It is not Catholic, and it is not Carmelite. It's plain wrong.

God the Father did not crush the innocent Jesus with sin. God the Father did not reject the hideousness of sin in Jesus. God the Father does not call us to destroy our humanity in imitation of Jesus nor to crush ourselves with suffering. God does not call us to become victims of his justice, nor does he wreak vengeance on innocent souls or Jesus to atone for sin.

It is impossible for Christ to be an object of God's wrath.

It is all, always, and only about God's love.

Jesus chose to love us unto death. His love redeemed us. The Trinity did not rip asunder; Jesus did not become foul in His Father's eyes. From eternity, the Second Person of the Trinity poured out love (Third) to the First. He did this on earth in his humanity, and this is called the Redemption. His love transformed everything.

For us, God's love is a fire that burns, and it causes suffering to the extent we do not allow ourselves to be loved. To the extent that we push away vulnerability and the suffering that comes from loving, and the love that desires to consume us, it causes pain. All of the expiation and reparation we do really boils down to allowing ourselves to be loved by God. This is what relieves God's heart. God does suffer thirst for us. He does not suffer from a lack of perfections, as human beings do. He suffers out of the superabundance of His love. Love suffers violence when love meets in encounter with sin. But it is also a happiness in suffering, because it is the result of love. This is what St. Therese knew.

I believe we are poised at a time when the felt need for love among humanity is so palpable that inventing new ways to make ourselves extremely vulnerable is almost an addiction. We need a theological realignment to dump substitutionary atonement and to embrace instead God as a Fire that burns and purifies with love. But we can't have a true doctrinal shift without the lived experience of holiness. The two will help each other. At some level, I believe this is what awaits us in the reunification of Christians.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Blessed Be God Who Filled My Soul With Fire!

The title of this post was the Psalm response from today's Mass. I don't recall it from years past. It's my new favorite.

The homily I heard today focused on fraternal correction -- that we need to give it, and how, and the humility to requires to receive it. We were encouraged to ask for the grace to give and receive, according to God's will.

A salient point was omitted about the nature of fraternal correction, though, something I was taught some years ago. When you boil down fraternal correction, its essence is this: You have forgotten how ardently and jealously loved you are.

When we sin, when we are stuck in screw-up mode, or are chronically deficient in virtue and character, what we suffer from is not a lack of being nit-picked by people who know the rules, the definitions, the logical progressions, the historical development, etc of virtue and right. What we suffer from is a deficiency of the inflow of Love. We have walls in the depths of our beings against God and reality. We have put up defenses to keep us away from Truth, for fear of what Truth is.

Fraternal correction says, "You are loved. You have value. You are better than that."

Oh, I know terms like love and value are worn out and they become white noise against our interior realities. This is why fraternal correction also requires being known, and taking the time to know another before presuming to correct them.

That reminds me of an experience I had in my 20s. I was coming to daily Mass but had not yet been received into the Church. I wore a sweatshirt to Mass one day that says in bold white-on-black letters "Carpe Diem". After Mass, a gentleman approached and instructed me that the phrase on my shirt represented hedonism and an immoral approach to life that excluded love and trust in God. He wasn't mean about it, but neither did he ask me anything about myself, or extend to me any other invitation into the community or anything better than what he perceived me to be a part of. Had he asked me, I would have told him I bought the shirt because of a lifelong struggle with passivity and to help me with my fears of stepping forward and living my life, which included at that time entering the Catholic Church.

And guess what? I still have that sweatshirt. :)

So what the man said did not remind me that I was deeply loved by God; he merely reacted to something he saw. That wasn't fraternal correction; it was being a busybody. It might have been very nice had he introduced himself and asked me about my shirt. Generally if people ask me "why" questions, I have ready answers, and you will meet my soul.

Look what happened when Jesus told and showed people how profoundly they are loved. The woman caught in adultery. The woman who anointed Jesus' feet at Simon's house. Lazarus. Things things set off firestorms of indignation from those who felt God was their personal possession. That is how you know you have real love making real waves into real hearts: some people melt and repent, others see and become furious.

It takes courage to love. It takes courage to open yourself to God to allow Him to love through you. We are not our own; we are bought at a price. His love bonds us to Him and our souls are filled with His fire. 

Sunday, August 13, 2017


I'm seeing a negative tendency of mine surface again; I'll call it hypercompetence. I don't mean by this a special giftedness. I mean a tendency I have to mentally and emotionally take on what I perceive as problems caused by, or poised to happen as a result of, the incompetence of people around me, whose responsibilities they actually are. I get confused about whose job is whose.

I've told my spiritual director about this scene several times: many years ago during a snow emergency in Steubenville, I decided to go outside and shovel the driveway. A snow emergency means there are legal restrictions on travel due to the bad conditions of the roads. Most of the time, it also means that streets are not cleared at the time, especially not side streets like the one I lived on at the time. I couldn't stop with shoveling the driveway; I was compelled to go out and shovel in the street as well. Later, an acquaintance told me he'd seen me shoveling, and not knowing it was me said he felt sorry for the poor soul out there taking on the snow storm single-handedly.

There is something noble in this Goliath-style battle, and there can also be something danged neurotic in it. It all depends on why the battle is engaged.

Elijah expected God's presence, because God had told him to be ready. But Elijah had learned not to respond to everything as if it were God's messenger. Not everything is God's call to action. The need here is to be intimate with God, to know Him, to recognize His voice. Knowing him requires letting some things that would naturally get our attention pass on by us, and to wait for the supernatural presence of God.

This is no excuse for laziness or lack of discipline. Daily we pray, daily we meditate on the Word of God, daily we receive Eucharist, daily we examine our hearts and confess our sins. We respond with sacrificial love when needs are put before us; we don't walk by on the other side of the road and allow religion to exempt us from love.

But it does mean there will be monkeys and circuses that truly are not ours.

They may even be close enough that we hear and smell them; some of those monkeys may touch us. But to live with God is not to take on all the problems we see. I am not called to be the fixer of all things. I am called to be the lover of Christ and His people. A thousand competitors may clamor for my attention, but not one of them should pull me from this love into panic, worry, or hypercompetence, whereby I launch out to become the Savior apart from Christ. I am not the Savior, but I know Him. My call is to love, and by loving to open paths of grace in prayer, and sometimes grace in speech -- including encouragement, correction, rebuke, and teaching.

And sometimes all it takes is a deep breath, and letting the wind, the earthquake, and the fire pass by.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Work and Love

I've always been a mix of the melancholic and choleric personalities. As I've aged I think I've flipped dominant characteristics, though. I don't brood and analyze in the same ways, nor as much as I used to, and I love the challenge of hard work. I love to feel productive. And the easiest way for me to develop a closeness with someone is to work at something with them.

Part of the Christian reality is that no matter which are our dominant traits, we all struggle until virtue is formed in us. My love for work used to be fueled by and crippled by an overwhelming sense of exclusive personal responsibility -- that everything depended on me. Many years ago, a snow storm put my town in what we call a Level Three Emergency: so much snow had fallen that no one was supposed to drive. Not even the snow plows had made it out. There I was, with my little snow shovel. After I did our sidewalk and our driveway, I felt compelled to start shoveling the street. Sometime later, an acquaintance told me he had seen me outside, and he thought "Look at that poor person out there, shoveling the street!" To him, I looked pitiful and a bit silly. But I was answering some internal prompt that told me that because the authorities had failed to meet the needs of the city, it was somehow up to me. Personally. To clean the whole street.

I got tired, and I went in, but the illustration of my response to this difficulty stayed with me.

In reality, it was a response to fears I had felt as a child when the adults in my world did not provide me with feelings of security, and I felt I needed to be the caretaker, doing my best to provide security for myself and them. Basically, work for me in those days was panic in motion.

The Lord has patiently loved me, wooed me, calmed me, and showed me His strength. And he has taught me to work with Him as with a partner, and has given me other people to work with and to enjoy. This has been how I have learned to relax and find work as a joy.

I still have the tendency to love to take on big loads. I get bored if I don't have enough challenge, and sometimes collecting big challenges is exciting, to the point where I don't discern well and say yes to too much, or I get overwhelmed and intimidated at the size of the task before me. At these times, I can lose the focus that love gives, and instead of joyfully and gratefully and freely spending myself at my work (all of which puts love into action), I focus on finishing or accomplishing, or wondering how I ended up the only choleric in my family, or other such attitudes which are prone to breeding resentment of my own human limitations, or those of others. The work becomes the master instead of the means to love and prayer, and partnering with Jesus.

I want to expand and express my love, just like something in me really wanted to clean the whole street. I know that when I clean my kitchen or do laundry, I can do it as a concrete expression of love, and it is not out of place to see this love in union with Jesus' ultimate work of love in His passion. I also know that when I call and train my family to similar acts of love, I am calling them to the same kind of union, and I need to do it with patience, gentleness, and spiritual sensitivity, not just with irritation.

But on the other hand, when I expect infinity and the grace of God to spring from my own finite and very weak capacity (or anyone else's), I am doomed to be disappointed. Ain't gonna happen, and I'm only going to reinforce my resentments. Using my own energies will wear me out; drawing on Love and asking Jesus to live and work through me will build me up. Knowing the difference between human limitation and the grace of God is of basic importance.

The key to humility is these two Bible verses together: "Apart from Me, you can do nothing" and "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." I am nothing of myself. I give all that I have to Jesus, that He may live through me as He sees fit.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Apostles Fast, Day 3

A few days ago I joined in the Apostles' Fast, which for several reasons feels a perfect fit in my life at the moment. Essentially I am here to capture this moment in time to understand it as it unfolds.

I've learned a few things and gained experience of a few things lately that seem rather significant. One of these is that just because God does something in a hidden way does not at all mean that it is somehow imperceptible. The Carmelite way of life is a hidden way of life, but it would be wrong to think that this means that all of God's activity in a soul is somehow about Him walking the soul off to a quiet corner where the self has no knowledge of what is happening, as if God could have a private conference with "part" of ourselves that the rest of the person is not privy to. Does God fly under the radar of our understanding: of course. Can we ever say for sure what God is accomplishing in us in any of his actions: not without his gift of revealing that. But God does not divide us up and make us secret from ourselves. We are incomprehensible to ourselves from the start, and God restores us to integrity. We are hidden in Christ, which draws us to be everywhere in the world with the embrace of love, but also to be out of sync with paths whose wisdom is of earth.

To summarize that in plain English: when God puts me back together again, I'm gonna know it, and hell is going to feel it, because it will change how I live.

God has restored much in my life in the last several months. And I mean things I had [and was required to] completely, totally given up on and despaired of fixing myself. It hasn't come out of the blue; God has led the way in prayer for years and years, sometimes dragging me, and often with me ungratefully oblivious to the fact that I was following, and often with all the lights off and me creeping in fear. It is all part of the package. I see the wisdom in the admonition that our part in prayer is really to just keep showing up, regardless of what it feels like and certainly without needing to produce any emotional display for ourselves or anyone else. We show up at the foot of the cross like Mary and John.

The restoration isn't really even about what God has given. It is about a new relationship for me with God Himself.

In this process, one thing I have noticed within myself with some surprise is that the place where apparently I used to carry a significant measure of jealousy is now empty. I wrote about it before, this unslakable urge to hoard and to be attached to my loved ones. Aquinas says that jealousy, which shares a root with "zeal," in whatever way it's taken, arises out of the intensity of love. This is very interesting to me, because God has indeed been walking me on the path of my own natural love being expanded, then purified. And since my own natural love started out something like a peach pit instead of a heart, it makes total sense.

But that phrase from Aquinas about the intensity of love brings me to the point that got me out of bed to write this morning. God has also alerted me to the fact that it is time once again to watch carefully and to be ready to move in a new way. This is another reason why I am entering this fast. As I read recently, fasting offers to God ones willingness to be consumed by Him.

And so in this moment, I find God pointing back to my intensity of love. It can at times feel alarming, dangerous, and far, far more powerful than my ability to wield it.

I woke up thinking about this experience of being included, and the frustration that can arise from feeling excluded. Both of these things need to be inspected. I can see how my general desire to be included in things can generally lead me to say yes to lots of involvements and commitments. I'm naturally an easy-going person, and it takes me awhile to feel stressed, and right now I'm in a place where it's like I have lots of tomatoes in my garden, but I know many of them are growing too close together. I will either need to thin them, or expand my territory and replant them. But they will either die or not bear fruit if they keep growing so close together.

But there comes along a desire with its resulting frustration of a completely different sort. There is the violent upsurge of the intensity of love that seems to yell, "I belong here!" This, I experience too, and I can't help but have everything in me set on high, clanging alert. My natural tendency is to crush the upsurge, but I've learned that is wrong. So, reject that.

The point of discernment that I am in really is accepting and embracing the zeal, and finding the way to fittingly wield the powerful, dangerous, alarming intensity of my love, aiming aright, which means that it does not seek to gain for myself, but for the glory of God and the good of other people. It's what all the purified love is for. After all, God doesn't make museum pieces.

I guess this must be how God does it.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Pulling Down Strongholds

There is a type of injury that happens in religious formation that can, so to speak, blow out the bridge between a person and the truth. As I see it, this happens when truths or half-truths are communicated via an environment that lacks virtue, thereby creating internal dissonance in those taught by it. For example, I grew up in a church which was emphatic about the authority and sacredness of Scripture, but demonstrated a lackadaisical attitude towards living in obedience to what Scripture says. Scripture in this way became for me an instrument of ideology, not light and truth leading me to know, love, and worship God. But if you challenged me on the importance of the Bible, boy, I'd give you an earful.

I've heard others speak of their own disconnects, such as being told to "offer up" their suffering, but without any accompanying sense of God's tender love from those so instructing them. For them, the doctrine of redemptive suffering might then be reduced to, "Shut up, you unworthy irritation, and suffer like everyone else." And they might resent anyone who speaks of spiritual experience that suggests rising out of this cowed position is even possible: who does she think she is that God would love her so specially?

Unchecked, these disconnects foment in our souls, attract darkness, and grow into sick, lying thought patterns which we believe, but rarely think about, or challenge. Or if we do think about them, we find a way to fight about them, and they make us sick with misery and despair, or lead us to degrade and destroy ourselves and others. These thoughts become what St. Paul calls a "stronghold." He teaches us to destroy them:

For though we live in the world we are not carrying on a worldly war, for the weapons of our warfare are not worldly but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, (2 Cor. 10:3-5)

Ironically enough, I experienced one of these disconnects I mentioned above when learning about this spiritual practice of destroying, or "pulling down" strongholds. This is not a phrase a lot of Catholics use regularly, but my pre-Catholic environment sometimes bandied this term about. I came away with a vague sense that it meant getting angry at wrong ideas, and prayer-yelling at spirits who took up habitation in people who thought incorrectly. It also seemed the single most popular "stronghold" was a "religious stronghold," which meant people who practiced a Christianity that looked different than the prayer-yellers'. And when you boiled that down, it meant non-charismatic Protestants, and, of course, Catholics of all stripes.

So eventually when I heard someone talk about pulling down strongholds, I loosely translated it "become a self-righteous religious bigot." And since I had enough of that going for me without help, I just tuned it all out. And then I became a Catholic, and my new people didn't use that lingo.

But recently, like digging up the garden for spring planting and finding something accidentally buried there, I came across this Scripture with fresh eyes. And I realize I have come to a completely different understanding of it than the caricature of it I gave up on years ago.

The truth is, we do have spiritual power, and it comes in speaking and living with integrity the truth and the light, which is Jesus. We will encounter lies believed, both in our own hearts and in the hearts of others. No heart can bear to see all of its darkness at once, so daily we pray to be brought into the union of light and love which yields to truth in thought and action. And our power to confront and destroy falsehood does not come from how strenuously we can yell. Our power is in love. There is the moment when love blazes forth in anger at evil, but the motivation of that anger is to proclaim God the supreme power in that contest. In most cases, actual listening and entry with the other into the place where the falsehood first got lodged, with patient truth speaking, light shining, and firmness of integrity, will be the most effective in ushering in God's light.

We have to go to the heart of the mess with truth and light.

We need to always speak and act in truth and light. And integrity means, when we mess up, we fess up. Every time. Ask God daily to correct all of your ways, renew your mind, and to cleanse you for worship of Him. And then trust Him to do it!

And when you aren't invited in but fought against, don't argue; pray for the entrance of light, for darkness to be exposed, and for truth to reign.

This is love for another person, to enfold them in truth, which makes them free.

Friday, April 14, 2017

His Hour

At the Holy Thursday Mass, I had one of those moments where the Scriptures exploded in my head in multiple directions at once.

It was that first line of the gospel reading: Before the feast of Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to pass from this world to the Father.   

Just a couple of weeks ago at the Sonshine Bible Club I had been teaching my kids about the miracle at the wedding feast of Cana, where Jesus tells his mother "My hour is not yet come." One of the things I have been impressing on these kids every week with every gospel story is that Jesus had his mind constantly set on fulfilling his Father's will that he lay down his life for us. His love focused him on the mission for which he was born, which was to be the atoning sacrifice for our salvation.

So, when I heard these, where Jesus knew that finally, his hour had come, and knowing all that his Passion would entail, my mind shot back again to that moment at the wedding feast. I know that account is rich with layers of spiritual meaning, especially because of how the wedding feast prefigures the marriage supper of the Lamb which Jesus would bring about when his hour did finally come. But what struck me at that moment was on a much more human level. And also, it was born of a time of prayer several years ago where I felt greatly consoled by the Blessed Virgin in the understanding of her grief when Jesus left her in Nazareth to head out into his ministry. This moment of the wedding feast happened probably very shortly afterwards, a brief hiatus in their separation. 

What struck me Thursday night was how it must have affected the human heart of Jesus, also, not only to leave his mother in Nazareth, but to cast his gaze ahead to the day when his hour would come, and he would suffer this kind of separation from her, and the pain of her pain. I think of Jesus in Gethsemane. He wanted his disciples to stay awake and pray. We know he was in anguish. We should not dismiss the pain his humanity endured in being left alone by everyone he loved in that moment -- including his mother. 

Why is it that we go through these moments on earth with no sense of consolation at all, no experience or feeling of love? God allows these moments; at some point, it is his way. In them, we face our misery, brokenness, and need, and we know that without the Father, we are nothing. So Jesus, too, reveals himself to us in this very place. 

In fact, Jesus calls us to himself in this desolate place, and bids us have the courage to meet him there, and love him there, and to know that even there in that place of immense human suffering, he is filled with nothing but love and longing for us.

And because love calls forth love, it can be very disturbing to hear that call unless you are prepared to also lay down all consolation, and the experience of the love of your closest ones, and embrace the desolation that is his in his moment of determination to love us to the end.

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Life-Changing Holy Week

Five years ago, I experienced a Holy Week that changed my life. If I had known at the time what lay ahead of me, I probably would have bolted and run.

Now that it is Holy Week again, I cannot help but think back to those days. In many ways, the pain of those days is gone, and the fruit of those days is with me. For example, without that experience I doubt very much if I would have recognized my call to Carmel.

In another way of thinking about it, what God gave me during that time is so deeply etched into my heart that I don't think I would recognize myself without it, and everything still continues to flow in my life as of one piece with it.

My deacon friend who preached today's homily mentioned how we hear the Passion story so often that we can be dull to it; that it strikes as so much "ho hum." As he said this, I was wiping tears from my face because of the force with which I heard even the abbreviated version we had of the reading. Something about that experience five years ago has moved the Passion from something that happened to Jesus 2000 years ago to something that I have participated in. Even as a kid, I was one to cry while watching Jesus of Nazareth or other movies about the crucifixion. But there is something of Holy Week that strikes fear in me. Not in the sense that fails to understand God as Love, but in the sense that the end game for which all penultimate loves, all loves of creatures, is destined, is death. Loves of things are to be purged from us; loves of people will all go through the separation of death. We will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ alone, and we do not know when this will be. Those in Egypt who went to worship today and were killed probably did not expect to die during the liturgy. They would not have anticipated worship of God costing them their lives.

As I waved my palm branch this morning, and reflected on the words of St. Andrew of Crete from the Office of Readings ("Let our souls take the place of the welcoming branches"), and as I went forward to receive communion, I was deeply aware of the price those new martyrs of Egypt paid, and the price many around the world pay for simply going into a church to worship on a feast day. Here I am, here is my whole life, I hand it all over. I don't know what will come as I do this. I do it because you bid me to do it by your great and awesome love. 

And so it was five years ago. God had a purifying trial that I could not have imagined, and from which I would have run. So, what exactly have I learned?

  • God is always to be trusted. 
  • Understanding what is happening is not most important.
  • The cross of suffering like this is like a royal scepter extended to the soul. It is favor.
  • God desires far, far better for me than I desire for myself.
  • God never belittles me in my woundedness, but meets my wretchedness with elevating grace.
  • Trustworthy people exist. 
  • He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.
  • St. Teresa of Avila knows what she is talking about when she says courage is an essential component of a life of prayer. 
  • God loves me; He knows every pain I've ever felt, and He is concerned to heal my wounds.
  • It is so powerfully tempting to throw away everything good for what offers pleasure.
  • God's mercy reaches the full extent of all of my folly.
  • God is real. His love is real. His desire for me is for good, but this does not mean I will not feel the pain of my folly burning off. 
  • Folly burning off is extremely painful, especially the tighter you hug it to yourself.
Ultimately, following the Lord Jesus Christ is worth the total surrender of oneself. God is immeasurably good.

And yet, I tremble when it is Holy Week. Because there is always the walking through it part.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Teaching with the Sonshine Bible Club

This academic year, I have taught Scripture lessons to groups of public school kids in an after-school program known as the Sunshine Bible Club. The Club is ecumenical in nature, and is held at a downtown Presbyterian church. I was invited to be involved with the group by the man who has spearheaded this and many other city-wide ministries to youth and teens in our small town. It was a Holy Ghost appointment, because at the time of his invitation, one season in my life had closed (when friends leading another youth ministry I'd been with moved away), and a desire for deeper involvement in my town outside of my Catholic bubble was already growing in my heart.

Initially I had prayed about offering music, but when I was told that one of the teachers had backed out just a few weeks before beginning, I decided I'd take a chance with teaching. Frankly, I've never, ever enjoyed teaching Sunday School or Vacation Bible School or Parish School of Religion sessions, and I didn't expect much of the experience.

As I prayed about what to teach, I landed on the idea of presenting the gospels connected to the mysteries of the rosary. I wanted some kind of structure that gave me direction without being too restrictive (because that desire is the story of my life).

The kids who come to this Club are registered for it by their parents, guardians, or caregivers, and that registration and the bussing is handled by the various public elementary schools in town. The precise format had undergone tweaks in the preceding couple of years of its existence, and at the suggestion of the schools, in order to help curb some of the wild discipline scenarios that had been experienced, the kids were split into two groups: 3rd and 4th grades during the first semester, and 1st and 2nd grade kids during second semester. (In this town, 5th grade is included in Middle School.) Friends who operate a Christian martial arts school volunteered to run through some very basic energy expenditure/self-defense movements with kids as they arrive off of the school bus at 2:30. Then, they sing praise music (or at least listen to it). Then, with the assistance of several adults and teens, the kids are divided into three groups of perhaps 7-12 kids each: one comes to my Bible lessons, the second goes to another teacher, and the third eats snacks. We rotate all three groups around, and then their caregivers come to take them home at about 4:00.

We have brilliant conversations some days; other days everyone is shouting, talking, moving around, and/or everyone is telling everyone to be quiet. (That's always my favorite. Five kids shouting over each other telling everyone to be quiet.) Sometimes it is a mixture of these two. I have generally 15 minutes with each group of kids.

Our town has significant pockets of poverty, especially among the population that has children in the public schools. There is also a strong presence here of drug activity, crime, violence, and all of the fear and hopelessness that tends to accompany these things. And the children are definitely affected. Children are good at slipping comments out about their personal lives in between all the chaos. And so I hear how they have witnessed domestic violence or known homelessness, how parents have been in prison, how they and their siblings have been separated by foster care, how they are bullied, how they are scared, and how they themselves are violent.

Some of the kids go to a church. Some of them know almost nothing about God and have never read a Bible. Most of them have detailed questions to ask me about the devil or magic or the nature of evil. To my knowledge, not a single one of them is Catholic.

The first thing I began to notice as I taught, starting with the Joyful Mysteries, was how much I was accustomed to presuming. My past experiences had taught me to presume that because I was teaching kids in a church, surely they already know who Jesus is. My past reference point had been kids I regularly saw in church.

So as I stopped presuming, I began enjoying the freshness of introducing Jesus to them. And, using the gospels of the mysteries to systematically walk through God's plan unfolding in history, I also saw the freshness of the gospels through these new eyes of theirs, these new hearts that I was getting to know. I was instantly sensitized to details about Jesus' life that resonated with them: Jesus had a "foster father," lived a materially poor life, had to flee from those who wanted to kill him. Mary had to trust, she went to serve instead of glorying in herself. They lived a simple life of humility. They were not powerful by worldly standards.

I have never mentioned the rosary to the kids. But I have seen the logic of the mysteries pop into 3-D. Everything can speak of God's plan of salvation: how Jesus came to reveal God's love, to make clear to us that the misery we all feel comes from separation from God, and to love us to the point of laying down His life so that he could open heaven, and we could all receive His life through baptism, faith, repentance and following Him. Jesus had his mind always on His mission to lay down His life out of love. Almost every week, I illustrate that to repent means to turn from walking toward a sin that I love to turning my back on it and walking away from it and to God who loves me. I also frequently illustrate how Jesus opens heaven, then calls us to follow Him and be with Him. I repeat how to believe in God really means to believe God loves me, and to know that God does not stop loving us when we sin. I teach them a very simply morning offering prayer: "Jesus, I give you my day," and I encourage the kids to start every day by asking Jesus in this way to be with them. He knows well what to do with that invitation.

When I pray in the time before the crowd descends (after drawing one of my famous white board Jesus illustrations -- she who cannot draw), I think often of the image of planting seeds. Who knows where these kids may go or what may happen to them, even in the next 10 years. But I know from my own life that it does not take anything big and fancy to secure a seed of truth planted deep that sprouts to life when it is ready. It takes only the Word of God spoken and anointed by the Holy Spirit. So, I do not tire of telling them the same things, and even of struggling sometimes to be heard over verbal skirmishes between kids.

I have benefited so much from teaching these kids by getting to "see" how Jesus loves them, and loves getting introduced to them. Peeling back to the basics and presenting the kerygma has made me realize that Catholics stupidly often skip this step, assuming that because kids have been baptized, they don't need to meet and come to faith in Jesus. I would also be stupid to think that the kids in Catholic schools or in homeschool settings have no tastes of the pains of life that these kids as young as six or seven are facing. We have to deal with the reality of kids' lives, and if we think we can represent God or speak the gospel at a determined disconnect from the lived reality of our audiences, we are sorely mistaken.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Retreat: St. Joseph

This weekend I was on a retreat that focused on St. Joseph.

My Carmelite community does a weekend retreat each year. This year actually less than half were able to participate in this one, and it was not exclusively a Carmelite retreat, but as Carmelites we follow our Holy Mother's special devotion to St. Joseph, so it's all good.

This is how I see Joseph. Not an old, dried up geezer, but a handsome, manly man.
The Church Fathers tend to agree with me.
Do you know the feeling when you go to work or are doing your responsibilities, but all you really want inside is to sit at the beach, or curl up in a blanket and sleep? Well, I can be a bit of the opposite. Sometimes, I really want to be intense and I long to burn tons of energy, but instead I am called by God to rest and be at peace. That was this retreat. No matter from which direction we come, God calls us to live by His energy and unto His will. And in this season in my life, I am learning to love and be loved, to receive, to rest, to share and not manage, to stop the interior drumming of demand and to sing the interior song of gratitude, praise, wonder, love. To burn energy not like a car with the accelerator stuck, but to behold the immensity of His fiery love, bring all the aching needs of the world there, but most of all to know the peace and rest that He is in the core of that.

St. Joseph and I don't really have an extensive relationship (though that might change, now). But back in 2009, he did sort of drop something down deep into my soul, which I wrote about here. It struck me then that love, exemplified in the fiery and virginal love of Joseph and Mary, is a death, a complete, sacrificial, handing over of oneself, a crucifixion -- which also lasts but a time before the glory of the resurrection is revealed.

A love which is completely human, yet completely transformed by self-gift to God in holiness seems to challenge our thinking (in which we generally tend to hold up ourselves as the highest standard of holiness we can imagine -- God help us). Did Joseph have to be an old man in order to not have sexual relations with Mary? Did God design a creepy family, like the child brides we all recoil from seeing in modern news (14 year old girl, 70 year old man?!) Or does God work with real human beings, real lives, real love, and real sanctity? Yes, that's it.

When people saw Peter and John after Pentecost, what was noted as striking about them? That they had been with Jesus. Well, Joseph and Mary are the hidden ones who not only had been with Jesus, but were given the vocation and the accompanying gifts to raise Him as parents. Was that a holy setting? Oh, you bet. Was it flashy, attention-getting, the hot news in Nazareth? Apparently not. When Jesus started His publicly ministry, his neighbors made "Who is this guy?" complaints. The most holiness ever in one domicile, and apparently it was all wasted on normal life. Huh.

Joseph's tables didn't survive. Cloth that Mary wove or the meals she made went they way of earth. But the virtue they lived endures in them for all eternity, and they share with all the children of the Church, and all who are called to it. So we can ask Joseph and Mary to teach us to be with Jesus in our normal life like they were, and thereby to be sanctified, like they were. They share everything. This is kingdom life. This is cool.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Praying God's Word

Today's Mass readings (found here) bring forth one package to teach us about prayer.

From my childhood, I read the passage from Isaiah 55:10-11 as something akin to magic:

Thus says the LORD:Just as from the heavensthe rain and snow come downAnd do not return theretill they have watered the earth,making it fertile and fruitful,Giving seed to the one who sowsand bread to the one who eats,So shall my word bethat goes forth from my mouth;It shall not return to me void,but shall do my will,achieving the end for which I sent it.
It seemed to me that all that was needed was to quote Scripture, and something powerful would happen. Or, all I had to do was read Scripture, and God would take care of every concern in the world. At one point, I felt this freed me from disconcerting notions like living according to Scripture, and at others, I felt this would give me instant gratification of all my desires, spiritualized though I may have made them.

But today it strikes me clearly that the word that goes forth from the mouth of God is not simply any random verse of Scripture that we pick out for ourselves. The word God sends, reminiscent of course of the Incarnation, the Word who does God's will, is the word which is born of the Holy Spirit in the open field of the heart of the believer, the child of Mary. It is the living and active word which God speaks into the prophet, which will work in that heart because it is God's work, and which will grow and develop of its own accord, because this is the fecund nature of the heart God recreates and enters by grace (Phil. 2:13).

The path to prepare this heart for the Lord is addressed in the psalm: God delivers the just from their distress. He hears the cry of the afflicted. He saves and is close to the crushed. We can know then that distress, afflictions and crushing are part and parcel of the purification of our hearts for God's garden to grow. He will confront every doing of evil within us, and cause remembrance of it to be destroyed out of us. This is a work of his mercy, to be neither feared nor resisted.

And the gospel simply tells us that we are to pray as Jesus instructs us. And he has instructed us. We can fall into two errors here: we can hammer the words of the Lord's Prayer by so much ardent repetition that they become one auditory splat that we don't even recognize with our hearts. We can also resist repeating Jesus' words and judge others as pagans for doing so to the point that we ignore Jesus' teaching to "pray, saying." Any decent instruction in prayer is going to teach us how to pray the Lord's Prayer. But the fact is, we pray by receiving the living and active word. We first need to approach God with silence, with emptiness, by feeling our inadequacy and the impossibility of reaching him by our own means. We pray first with our longing. Then we can pray, saying. As we pray, saying, we receive the living and active word. We stay with it for as long of a growing season God gives: minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Pilgrimage T-Shirt, and the Pursuit of Beauty

This morning, my daughter was telling me about her desires. She loves beautiful things -- creating them and enjoying others' creations. The desires she told me about centered on acquiring beautiful things, and items that would help her create more beautiful things.

And then she started telling me about how maybe she should get this instead of that, because it would be cheaper.

And I knew I was hearing a sad re-echoing of myself. She was trying to accommodate her desire for the Beautiful to my ingrained habit of frugality that frankly borders on occasional closed-hearted, fear-provoked stinginess.

So as we later drove on an errand, I told her my story about The Pilgrimage T-Shirt in order to let her know that my tendency to closed-fisted spending is not always a virtue to be imitated, but a weakness to be avoided.

Here is my Pilgrimage T-Shirt, old and wrinkled now:

And here is a close-up of the Scripture text, which is Is. 32:7: "Break forth into joy, sing together you waste places of Jerusalem. For the Lord has comforted His people. He has redeemed Jerusalem."

The story goes, I was on pilgrimage to the Holy Land in May of 1993, right after having come into the Catholic Church. Our group walked in to yet another gift shop along the way one day, and I saw this shirt hanging on the wall. I was so struck by it; it was like the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. (Those who know me well, including my daughter, know that I don't react this way to many things that I see. I just don't.) I was so moved by how beautiful it was that I said out loud, "Oh! I want one of those!" There was a motherly-like woman from the pilgrimage group near me who clearly heard and understood that I saw speaking from some deep place in my heart that needed a response. She said to me, "Well, honey, you just go right ahead and buy one for yourself, then."

Her prompting moved me to follow and act on what was happening in my heart. Without her words, I may have followed instead my deeply ingrained habit of squashing all of my desires until they were safely dead. But she made me bold, and I bought the shirt. As you can see, I still have it, and I occasionally still wear it.

As I told my daughter this (I was driving), I could see out of the corner of my eye that she was smiling powerfully. She understood that pursuit of Beauty sometimes involves, yes, buying things. It involves giving what I have to unite myself with the One I desire. And she was bouncing in her seat as we drove, telling me how much money she had, and she was delighting in the prospect of pursuing her desires, too.

It is entirely possible that I really was moved to buy that shirt in 1993 in order to move my daughter in 2017 to pursue God's will for her. I still need the same message echoing in my heart: I don't serve money; it serves me, and I serve God. Every part of my natural fiber says that spending money is essentially a necessary evil. Every part of my natural fiber needs to be transformed by grace. "God has not given us a spirit of fear, but a spirit of love, power, and a sound mind." 2 Timothy 1:7

And, that Scripture, though. It makes the T-Shirt story complete:
Break forth into joy, sing together you waste places of Jerusalem. For the Lord has comforted His people. He has redeemed Jerusalem. Is. 32:7