Friday, June 10, 2022

Pentecost Retreat

So, this last weekend, Pentecost weekend, I was on retreat at Little Portion Hermitage and Monastery in Arkansas, the home of the Brothers and Sisters of Charity, the community founded by John Michael Talbot. I'm writing now to try to process that experience.

In the past, retreats or conference weekends were the types of experiences where I would arrive with great, vulnerable-feeling anticipation, which would be met with equally explosive emotional catharsis and maybe either spiritual breakthrough, or at least enough of a feeling of a new freedom, that I could come home and say, "This is what happened...."

This time was different. Probably the last several retreats I've been on have been not like I described above, and that might be a factor of both the retreat and a change in me. But this time was not only different from my earlier experiences, but different from recent stuff too.

Speaking of the old days, this was actually my fourth trip to Arkansas. The first two times were to other retreats at their old retreat center. Well, the first one was actually cancelled, but I went anyway and spent time on my own, because I felt such an intense need to go there. It was on St. John of the Cross, actually (hah!) and was called The Lover and the Beloved. When I arrived, there was a young priest or seminarian who gave me his copy of the book that he had brought to the non-retreat. So, I read the book there. Now, I was not Catholic yet, but I believe I was at that point decided that I would become one. I remember the point in reading the book where I was brought back to my college library and reading the Carmelite mystics, and saying to the Lord, "If there's anyone left on the face of the earth who knows you like this, those are the people I want to be with."

The second retreat was with John and Paula Sanford, on inner healing, and my third trip was to the location I was at for this retreat, while I discerned joining the community. That last time was October of 1993, and I did not recognize anything this time, between it being so long ago, and their buildings burning down in 2008.

So, this retreat was called "Exploring the Gifts of the Holy Spirit." The information presented was not what I'd call new to me. It was a very small group; under 20 retreatants. In theory, the bulk of Saturday was in silence, but in reality not much of that happened. Yeah, that's ok. Being in their gardens and just drinking in the views -- not something I'm necesarily known for -- was very restful. I embraced my inner Franciscan. Right upon entering the dining room (after my GPS sent me on a wild goose chase, and my cortisol levels were boosted), I met another woman from Ohio, and that was pretty much the only social interaction step I needed for the weekend. We sat by each other in all the session and meals and chatted a bit. In such a small group, we were able to get to know each other a bit just from the interactions. 

But what impacted me the most? I think for one it was meeting the anxiety level in me, the froth, the kind of addictive behavior that emerged in a land without data access (honestly, after that was hard, it was quickly very nice). I realized I had been trying to fill myself with work, with social media "connections." But seeing it, I was able to be dissatisfied, turn from it, and seek God. Peacefully.

The other thing that impacted me was just looking into John Michael's face, figuratively speaking. I found in him an authentic and dedicated seeker after God. I found in him the imprint of long obedience, of conformity to Christ, a witness to living in faith, a witness to what happens when one seeks truth and surrenders to love. He was careful with his words, but I got to hear not the part where he is still working at saying the right thing, but the evidence that the Lord has taught him through long experience. He was the most welcoming and open-hearted to non-Catholic Christians of any Catholic, I believe, that I've met. He also spoke truth about the identity of the Catholic Church more firmly than any Catholic I've met. He simply lives in Christ, in Scripture, in the Church. He does not live in politics, in factions, in trends. I know he has said that among Catholics, he is considered too progressive for the conservatives to stomach, and too conservative for the progressives to stomach. I think it reveals how we all want to make gods after our own likeness.

But it really isn't so much about him. It is really about what Christ does in a soul surrendered to Him. 

One point of discussion that impacted me was that of speaking in tongues. I received tongues when I was 19, when I was still Lutheran. I came to associate tongues and charismatic gifts with the non-denominational fellowship I joined and spent five years in. Then part of me felt some disassociation with all of that when I became a Catholic, and part of me never had a good theological grasp of what was happenning with this gift. So to a large extent, I ceased to use it. 

John Michael's comments on this gift, in part, emphasized how it involves our spirits praying and bypassing our rational minds. Our spirits can use this gift to praise God when our minds "can't even." And then he talked about how when we pray in faith, we actually speak into existence those things that we are agreeing with God about. I know that I have found this to happen, that when I am praying in tongues, my spirit then knows what to pray for with my mind. As he put it, the veil between heaven and earth is made very thin when we use this gift. 

Now, if you look at how many words I feel the need to churn out just to finally write about an impact, you see that my rational mind has a lot to say. And I realize I tend to get very elaborate thought trains which sometimes take me off in directions and tangle me. Bypassing my rational mind and seeking instead to agree with the mind of God and speak forth his praise by faith is a prescription I need right now.

I have arrived home with a lively sense of God's presence with me. I see clearly how much we need love, hope. I see more clearly how we have an enemy that wants to rob us. I see how walking by faith is our way of living in union with God. Where there is faith, love and hope grow, too. 

He made one comment about St. Padre Pio and the "Three Days of Darkness." I've had this flavor of thought before, as well. He believes that this is an accurate prophecy, and that we are currently in the Three Days. The beeswax candles without which we won't see? Pure faith. From there, one can extrapolate what it means about "going outside" and "looking out the windows," and the many other things that are mentioned. 

Wednesday, June 01, 2022

Well, it was Clear When I Started

Yesterday was the Feast of the Visitation, and something in the Scriptures for the Mass struck me significantly. It wasn't that I felt a sudden awareness or a "naru hodo" moment; it was more like I saw clearly something which was a long time in coming to that point. Like when you travel down a long, flat road and when you arrive at the landmark, you realize you've been looking at it already for some time.

The Scriptures were about how to love in practical terms, and the comparison was made to the perfection of how Mary went in haste to serve Elizabeth in her need, even after receiving the amazing news that Mary is now THE Theotokos.

Rom 12:9-16

Brothers and sisters:
Let love be sincere;
hate what is evil,
hold on to what is good;
love one another with mutual affection;
anticipate one another in showing honor.
Do not grow slack in zeal,
be fervent in spirit,
serve the Lord.
Rejoice in hope,
endure in affliction,
persevere in prayer.
Contribute to the needs of the holy ones,
exercise hospitality.
Bless those who persecute you,
bless and do not curse them.
Rejoice with those who rejoice,
weep with those who weep.
Have the same regard for one another;
do not be haughty but associate with the lowly;
do not be wise in your own estimation.

And here's how it hit me: My life formation was impacted in a fragmenting way by alcoholism, divorce, and mental illness. I wanted all the bad feelings from this to go away, and that was primarily the engine driving my understanding of love. If I couldn't fix the unfixable person, I could hate them, I could blame them, I could avoid them, I could shut them out, or I could hide myself from them so I could at least feel I had some freedom. Not only do I not remember the moment when I realized I couldn't fix the unfixable person, I do remember the feeling of more and more people in my life falling into the pit of a category called "unfixable people." I even started gravitating towards "unfixable people" (addicts, social misfits, impossible relationships). 

All of these interactions with unfixables also flooded me with guilt: I couldn't do it. I could make zero impact for the good. In fact, I didn't seem to be able to impact anyone at all.

Now, I do remember grace freeing me, step by step, from hating, from blaming, and from avoiding people who caused me hurt. And let's be honest, that came to be everyone, because that was all I expected from people, and so I dished out distance naturally, and hid behind my walls of hurt and my impenetrable armor. God has indeed freed me significantly.

But here I am. Generally speaking, I don't think of "unfixable" people as people that I must fix. Generally speaking, I have learned to accept people where they are. But, I realize a problem spot, and I think this is what the Holy Spirit is showing me. If I could describe it exactly it wouldn't be a problem spot (which is why the blog exists -- I write so that I understand). 

Part of me hasn't let go of the resentment, of the despair, of the experience of having "unfixable" people in my life. I see that I do not accept the broken human condition as a good. It just isn't. But there is a call to action that is stuck in me, when it comes to accepting individuals but not accepting that their brokenness is ok. I have a fiery love which is frustrated. 

Also, I give up too early when it comes to concrete actions of love sometimes because I have conceded that my love is impotent. I have at times mildly to grossly miscalculated the impact I can have on another. Generally, all I know for sure is how I respond emotionally to my own actions. I fail at times to even begin to realize how I impact another -- because of years and years of pouring myself out but never seeing it do anything.

So... now that I write this, what seemed clear and too obvious to me to even put into words has turned out to be much more nebulous than I thought. The sincerity of my love is measured in not feeling like I'm going to get something out of what I do for others. I'm not going to generate my own safety by any kind of juju I produce which is going to reunite my parents or stop their drinking or bring my family into peace. I'm never going to change another person by trying to change them. I am not going to ride on anyone's codependency merry-go-round, even if they hate me for it. Trying to feed myself on someone else is evil, and I hate that (Rom. 12:9). Let my love be free, from a desire to do good for another, not to try to win peace, respect, favor for myself or beat back feelings of guilt or whatever. But let my love be God loving through me, and may the frustration be broken open.

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

And I Will Give You Rest

 Come to me, all you who labor and are weary, and I will give you rest, says the Lord.

 I feel like, ever since Easter hit, I have been mostly "busy" and harried, with a few breaks. I know that I'm able to plow through a lot of work while at peace and stable interiorly, and I also know that I'm able to be thoroughly non-productive while spinning interiorly. Maybe this has been trying to plow through a lot while also not being at rest, interiorly.

These experiences teach me the need for physical rest; not inactivity, but the right kind of activity that basically pays attention to and honors my physical needs. Stretching makes my back not hurt. Stuff like that. I also need mental rest -- letting go of the list of things to do. I need relational rest, where I really understand the needs expressed (not always directly) by others, and how I play a part in how God will address those needs. It is easier and more natural for me to wear myself out mentally, emotionally and physically to meet the needs around me than it is for me to take the need to the Lord, ask how to respond, especially if what I need to do is to leave it, or direct the person to get that need met some other way. You know, if I have a need, for the most part I will do everything within the limits of my power to meet that need myself. But asking someone else to do the same -- do everything within their power to meet their own need -- somehow that seems treasonous. I seem to have this expectation, which is totally unrealistic -- that everyone is straining at 99.9% of their capacity to deal with their own need. Maybe other people are just really good at spotting someone (namely, me) who is willing to step in and help out. 

So, I come back to "come to me all you who labor and are weary." Jesus didn't condemn labor. But he does tell us that we need to come back to him. I see this as a call to contemplation. Resting in God. 

Lately when I come to prayer, I find inside me a lot of antsiness. Like interiorly I can't sit still. Gotta think about what to do next. If I'm doing this in prayer, I'm pretty sure what comes next is burn out. Prayer is the place of soaking. Soaking in God's presence, love. Resting in his embrace. Often, I need to empty myself out to get to that place of peace; and therefore I write. I need to get the things said so that the words aren't banging around in my head and heart anymore. 

What to do about all the needs people either bring to me directly, or that I can see without anyone saying anything? How did Jesus deal with this during his ministry? People came to him from all sides, sometimes lining up for days, and sometimes without food. This is exactly how the feeding of the 5000 took place -- so much need, so little resource. And Jesus asks Andrew, "So, what are we going to do about this?" I feel like I'm in an Andrew momet right now. "He asked him this to test him." 

Ok, Lord. The need is overwhelming. I've come up with this definition of a human being as a walking, breathing, aching need. And I'm surrounded by them. 

But who are we in Christ? We are a capacity for God. We are the extension of the ministry of Christ in time and space (that's the Church). We are broken vessels, in which the power of God is revealed. We are the scum of the earth, through whom the power of God is made manifest. 

And the difference is soaking in God. Being open to God: "Come to me, and I will give you rest." 

Also, this post is helpful.

Friday, April 29, 2022

Christian Identity; Christian Prayer

 Here's what I'm hearing. Christian prayer is immersion into Christian identity. Christian identity is a spiritual reality, and comes from being engrafted into Christ in baptism and grows by faith, which is nurtured by prayer, that is, by communing with God. The fruit of faith and prayer is action, prompted by the love born in us through the Spirit and the Word. All of this grows out of the seed bed of hope, a position of receiving what God is giving.

Is prayer recitation? Words? This is where we need Teresa's mansions. We need to realize that each journey from the baptismal font into glory is individual, and that every plant grows differently, even though everyone needs the same basic dirt, sun, water, air.

The difficulty comes when there is a disconnect, either between a practice of prayer and Christian identity (when prayer becomes my own effort only, and that effort starts blocking off, choking out, working against, the flowing of the Holy Spirit and the intention of Jesus). Or when there is a wilting on the vine, and Christian identity itself is foreign, and we lose sight of who we are, and any attempts at Christian prayer are external words, and we struggle to find a connection to reality with them. The first disconnect can find us chugging along for quite some time, but without joy and peace -- basically with no fruit of the Holy Spirit. The second disconnect moves us away from the Church either literally, like we leave the Church, or it becomes or remains a cultural, human experience.

All of my Christian life, since childhood, I have felt myself called to Christians with these disconnects, especially to the latter.

I also suspect both disconnects can be operative at the same time.

What I am hearing now is that for me, prayer is my tether to my identity. My identity is not a product of my prayer. I don't make it. I don't fret over it. I don't try to discover it. I receive it. My life is hidden with Christ in God, and as I pray, I am receiving His life -- my life. Communing with God is an infilling. An infilling of His love. It isn't so much that I become enraptured or have any particular emotional experience as much as I am receiving what God is giving. Life. I don't actually comprehend the transaction nor what I receive, but I am aware of receiving. I mean, sometimes I am. Right now I am. I am also called to act, to care, to love, to intercede out of that -- regardless of what I feel, I know that I can immerse others in it, by my will of bringing them before the Lord and sharing what I am receiving with them in the spiritual exchange of "praying for them." I also, from this receiving, move into my active life, after I am done praying (Luke 11:1), and this life shows how deeply or shallowly my receiving soaks, and gives me opportunities to interact with the world around me, now shaped to the degree I have been by Love. And then later I go back to prayer and the cycle of growing and receiving and being washed of faults and seeing my nothingness and God's everythingness starts again. But, "it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me." This is what it means to be a Christian; to bear the presence of Christ in this way into the world. 

I have been baptized into Christ. I pray. This is how Christ comes into the world, now: through us who are formed into living stones, the Church.

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Who Am I, Anyway

 I love the song "The Secret of Time" by Charlie Peacock. There's a line in there that speaks to me today: "The moment I found out who You were, I found out who I was..." 

If I see the truth of who God is, with clarity, I will see who I am, with clarity. 

As I see who I am, with clarity, I can see, with clarity, how I should act and what I should do.

This is the way that the pursuit of knowing God gives me practical discernment. 

This is, I image, why Holy Mother Teresa says that self knowledge is so very important, as well as humility. "We will never succeed in knowing ourselves unless we seek to know God" says she in Interior Castle. It makes sense that in opening ourselves to the one who made us, we come to see ourselves as we truly are. Not that we won't gag at much of what we see. But, to poorly paraphrase Fr. Iain's explanation in one of his talks on St. Teresa, God sees us in Christ in our full potential reached, as we are in Him in heaven, while we experience ourselves journeying towards this. God knows us as we really are. What we really are, we who have the power of Christ residing in us by entering Him in baptism, is fully alive in Christ. It remains for me to become who I am. 

So it remains for me, as long as I am alive, to seek truth, to long for truth, to love Truth and abide with Him. 

This stands in direct opposition to all the thoughts of the post I wrote four or five back -- all the competing voices who were willing to tell me with certainty what God will is for me. 

It always needs to be God Himself that I seek. I think if one puts too much on seeking the will of God, what one is really looking for is shelter for ones insecurity. It is fine and good to admit ones insecurity. But what we need more than knowledge of a particular thing to do is to know to whom we belong. We find security in belonging, but to whom do I belong? 

The Christian Church is primarily a place of belonging -- to Christ first, but also to each other and to the world, the needy, the suffering. 

I've been praying for years that God would teach us how to belong to one another. Yet, we don't know, until we learn what it is to belong to God. 

Part of belonging is knowing that I matter. What I do matters. What I do has an effect, for good or for bad. I can bless, and I can hurt. Part of belonging is to be willing to go without anesthesia -- the various things that block our pain. Part of belonging is knowing what to do with the pain we feel because of being together. 

I cannot know who I am without knowing God, and I cannot completely know who I am apart from community. This explains both why people are hungry for Christian community and why others want to avoid it. 

In part, I think God has made me a trumpet. A clarion. Here's the sounding: it's time to move together, it's time to respond. It's time to pay attention to what is happening in you, and around you. It's time to get ready to see people who are moving towards you, and to see the people to move towards. Time to get into position. 

Friday, April 15, 2022

Butterfly Release

Today is Good Friday. I'm not quite clear whether technically the Triduum is Lent, or if it is uber-Lent, but regardless, I am pausing to reflect on what I sense the Lord has been pointing to for me this Lent.

  • For probably the first time (hah, we are constantly only beginning) I feel that I have entered into fasting with some intensity, and without a worried layer of doubt that what God really wants is to watch my misery. As I wrote about early on, that has been hard for me to shake. And I cannot say how fasting works, but I find a resulting clarity and freedom that is striking in its power. When I fast, I feel anything but clear-minded and powerful. But subsequently I find myself with a level of freedom from old tethers that I did not anticipate, and clear resolution to questions on courses of action that had left me frustrated when I tried to just noodle them out.
  • Writing really is a form of prayer for me. I had lost motivation to do much of it here. But it helps me dig to the bottom of my heart, and access to that place is the best place from which to speak to God and make available to Him to receive from Him. But I can kill that process by thinking too much or writing as for publication (even though on a blog, technically, I am writing for publication).
Here's a big gong that went off for me yesterday. I happened to read a Facebook ad for a vagus nerve therapy. It started out (and I paraphrase): "An inability to speak is one of the most common yet unknown symptoms of unresolved trauma." BAM.

Very BAM.

My life started to flash before my eyes. First scene: the first time I was "slain in the Spirit," before I knew what that meant.  I had gone forward, asking for prayer, I was overwhelmed by the presence of the Holy Spirit, fell backwards onto the floor of the church, and lay there, continuing to be overwhelmed by the presence of the holy. What I became aware of was that my mouth felt like it was electrified, like the angel had taken the hot coal (ala Isaiah) and touched my lips. This lasted for several minutes, and I was left with a permanent knowing that God wants my mouth.

I thought of how, in my early 20s, I tried in a few occasions to tell people about painful things in my life, but all I could do was cry. 

I thought of how I used to panic for days whenever I had to make a phone call.

I thought of the hundreds of times I have keep silence instead of speaking forth what I wanted, needed, or thought. Probably thousands of times. 

I thought of how I found a refuge in narrow denominational or intellectual arguments, because they were words I felt sure of (because they weren't my own).

I thought of how I learned, starting at age 10 writing to my friend Gail, how to safely express myself in writing when I couldn't say things. Of how letters opened up a vein of exposure, healing, and then crisis.

An inability to speak is one of the most common yet unknown symptoms of unresolved trauma.

I believed as a child that the best thing I could do to bring peace to my divorcing parents and family trauma was to "shut up and go away." I got that wrong. And I clung so tightly to that wrong solution. 

When I was laying on the floor of that church, sensing that God wanted my mouth, I realize that I internalized a bit of a belief that God was displeased with my lack of courage to speak up. I thought he had expectations of me that I was not meeting. Sometimes I would feel urged, in a panic, to speak up about something, I wrestled with condemning thoughts that I lacked courage, or that I should not worry that something I was considering saying seemed wreckless or ill-advised; I had to choose courage or I would be failing God. Insidiously subtle temptations.

What I realize now is that when I went up for prayer that evening at church, God saw my trauma and wanted to initiate freeing me from it. The very first time I gave God an opening, He rushed in. He is able to bestow time-release graces that may take an entire lifetime to be absorbed. Blessed be God forever.

A long, long time ago I wrote a reflection after watching a butterfly that was trapped in a car repair shop. It was fluttering up and down the window, "seeing" the outside, but not able to access it through that window. A hand reaching in to bring it to freedom made it panic all the more, because hands like that are able to crush and destroy. I watched that poor butterfly sit on the wrong side of that window, seeing freedom but being unable to participate. I knew that butterfly was me.

Now I realize that God has slowly, slowly, worked with me to restore my voice to me, to give me the ability to speak, both literally and metaphorically. His wanting my mouth is not about "measuring up." It is about him redeeming me, reclaiming me, and setting me to live in his presence, as He wants for every single one of us. It is about His love. Lent is about His love. Purification is about His love. Jesus' death is about His love. His love frees, His love empowers, His love sets ablaze. 

The graces He gives us are personal, and they are intended for making us fully alive in Him, transforming us into a union with Him that is both unique to each created individual, and universal in availability. 

Monday, April 11, 2022

Gratia non tollit naturam, sed perficit; And Community

The Lord has been faithful to pour out His graces to me this Lent; and I hope to be more faithful than I have been to be attentive and responsive to what He gives. 

Today's thought: if the enemy of our souls cannot pick apart our faith, he will try to pick apart our fruitfulness. One way he can do this is by muting our spiritual gifts, burning us out, heaping up the opposition, blocking the edification; causing us to doubt them, "sacrifice them" in trying to "practice detachment" from exercising them and thinking we are doing a good, unselfish thing. If we do not employ the means God has given us to build up others, we ourselves will be less purified, and there will be less praise and glory rising up from those who are meant to see what God has given us, and rejoice in the help it gives them. 

When we come to serve the Lord, we can expect refining, says Sirach chapter 2. Serving the Lord implies putting the gifts he has given us to work. I love the phrasing of St. Thomas Aquinas: Gratia non tollit naturam, sed perficit, or "Grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it." There are such things as natural gifts, certain talents or potencies we are born with. These we are called to live fully, and they are to be integrated into our relationship with Jesus. As we give Him our hearts, we are giving Him everything about us; everything we have, everything we are. This includes all of our abilities (and our disabilities!). Everything finds its place in Jesus' heart. 

Not everything easily finds its place in this world, though, and so we face this process of refining. We entrust ourselves to Jesus, and we live in this world. This fallen world is bound to hurt us. We are bound, at some point, to not fit, to be told we in our very essence are wrong, bad, untalented, lacking, worthless. If we aren't very careful, we will internalize these voices (and we will have demonic help with this). If we aren't careful again, we will spend our lives fighting representatives of all the warring voices, spending ourselves in self-protection, self-justification, or self-rejection. Or all of the above.

Grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it. To live as human beings in grace in a fallen world, we must first believe in the love God has for us. We must acknowledge the worth He says we have. We must embrace the identity He says is ours as children engrafted into Him by the new covenant. We must stop fighting the warring voices and listen to the One who shows us who we are. We must live in truth. We must internalize truth. 

When we then turn our hearts over to Him daily, asking for His grace, we are not asking for the destruction of our nature. We must stop cooperating with every aspect of the agenda of the enemy here. We must instead seek his purification. We find this purification as we live out the gifts he has given. We allow ourselves to be seen as we truly are. We bring our vulnerable hearts out of their coffin storage. If we have pushed them down too hard and too far, they'll come springing out like tennis balls under water. It might be embarrasing to us and mess with those who try to manage everything efficiently. Conflict might very well erupt with those who don't know how to deal with our nature and try to force us back into our coffins, thinking that coffin is where holiness is to be formed. We might misunderstand the correction we are given, thinking we are being forced back into our coffins, when in fact we simply lack a category in our understanding for what lived virtue actually looks like. 

This right here is the life of Christian fraternal community. Grace perfects nature. I'm not likely to have all the wisdom to perfect you. I'm certainly not likely to have all the wisdom to perfect me. You are not likely to have all the wisdom to perfect me (and this hearkens back to the post I wrote last week, about all the voices telling me what is the will of God, and me gloming on to each individual one as authoritative). What it takes is community.

So many times, what has powerfully spoken to me was not words spoken to me at all, but something I observed pass between two other people. For example (and it almost makes me shudder, now), I recall overhearing a choir member telling our director that he wouldn't be at rehearsal the next week or two. In response: "Ok." Today, this seems like such a normal exchange. But at the time I was just coming out of a relationship that was so cloyingly weird, where an announcement of someone being away would have been met with effusions of how the person would be missed and was so valuable and on and on until you just about wanted to puke... that that "ok" spoke to me as the voice of respectful freedom, instead of the emotional manipulation that I felt compelled to sell my soul to. Yuck.

So what do you do when you need to stand up and say "yuck"? Well, you are going to need fortitude. You are going to need strong internalized truth, and a knowledge of your identity in Christ. You are going to need to exercise the role of the prophet, perhaps, to speak out, or you are going to need to exercise discernment to realize it is time to move out of an unhealthy group, to help it fall apart and disintegrate.

All Christians need a healthy community where we become who we are, where we exercise and grow in our gifts, where we are supported by one another, where we are lifted out of lonliness and learn to belong to one another. Without it, we get desperate and we do desperate things. Without it, the church suffers. Without it, the lost stay lost, and more and more of the baptized drift away and become lost. God gives each of us gifts for the upbuilding of the others. We have to get to the point where we are with others and allowing this upbuilding to happen, open-heartedly allowing grace to perfect our nature.

Friday, April 08, 2022

What is Prayer


As a Secular Carmelite, I have committed myself to a 30 minute slot of mental/silent/interior prayer every day. Let me tell you what this feels like much of the time.

I sit down, and the main thing I am aware of is that I don't even know what it means to pray. I come with purpose, with intentionality, to open my heart, to listen to the Lord in Scripture, to bring all and everyone that is in my heart and present them before the Lord, all this yearning love, but mostly I feel like I don't even know what prayer is. 

I said that once at an OCDS community meeting, and one of the women just reflexively blurted out, "Oh, of course you do." I mean, I just described it above. So yes, I do know what it is. But it feels bewildering. Sometimes it feels like a force field that I'm pressing into. Sometimes the image that comes to mind is someone who hates winter, but is heading out into a wintery night to go to the outhouse, because the interior pressure cannot be withstood.

Sometimes I think prayer should feel like sunshine and roses and the delight of a conversation between lovers. I think even when prayer is consoling, it is never quite that. And I think that speaks to my questionable experience of sunshine, roses, and lovers more than to the reality of prayer.

When it is sweetest the time flies, and I am most aware of Emmanuel: God with... me. At times like that, I find myself suggesting that He deflect his love: Lord, what about xyz and this other person. Surely what I need to be doing is reminding you about them and "praying for them." While the reality that is going on is that God's immense love in seeking out me. 

Always start prayer at your place of felt need. That's where God is going. 

It took me a few years as a Carmelite to lose this idea that long lists of the intentions of others were all there was to prayer. What God wants is to transform me into a saint. To do that, I have to open all the secret hatches, at least the ones I have keys to. And point to the others where I've lost the keys and ask Jesus to access them through other means. In prayer, I soak in God, so that when I leave prayer and interact, I am not wearing myself out over the weight of the world with my own limited energies, but instead I learn to love and give from what I've soaked in. 

I think I have a long habit of feeling that I am poor when in fact I am rich. For the longest time, I truly believed that I was the single most messed up person who existed. The self-centered egotism of youth, no doubt. The voice of an isolated person who didn't realize that everyone has problems. 

Someone said to me yesterday that she has begun having a little interior jubilation when she sees another Catholic out in public, because it reminds her how she isn't alone and that others are walking the same path and fighting the same fight that she is. That was a lovely statement, really. We need to acknowledge the gift we have from God, that we share, that belong to each one, and to one another. 

So, where is this going. Maybe instead of going in to prayer and being overwhelmed with what I feel I don't know, I can go, knowing that I belong, and that my prayer belongs, and my time belongs, not just to me, but to the Church. And I a praying with her for all people. 

That consecration on March 25 -- what a wonderful feeling it was to be in a large crowd of people all praying, and I was one voice among many. It is a great feeling to be one voice, lifted to God, among many. And even when I pray alone, I know that's what I am -- one voice among many. It's just that I can't see or hear the others. 

Tuesday, April 05, 2022

Union of Wills: A Lenten Breakthrough

This morning's gospel and the homily I heard on it helped turn on some lights for me to see and name a problem I have danced with for most of my life. The passage at issue was Jesus saying, "I do nothing on my own, but I say only what the Father taught me" (John 8:28). 

The homily's emphasis was on how Jesus models for us -- even though He is the incarnate Son of God -- submission to and union with the Father's will, as opposed to Him just doing what was right in his own eyes, the way humans tend to do (Judges 21:25). 

The lights that turned on showed me this: For decades, when I have heard exhortations to do "not your own will, but God's," or even when I have exhorted myself, there was a piece missing, and a wrong piece present. I generally heard it this way.

Random Person: You should not choose your way; you should choose God's will. 

Me: Ok, that's right.

Random Person: And now I'm going to tell you what God's will is.

Me: Ok, I'm sure you're right

The direction that followed was a flood of all sorts of things: Unmarried women should live at home under their parents' authority until they are married. You should never complain about any injustice done to yourself. Your husband is always going to be right, and even if he isn't, it is your Christian responsibility to be on his side. Woman, you shouldn't pursue serving in the church or community. If you become Catholic you are worthy of rejection. Pleasure is wrong. The teachings of the Church need to be re-written by people who use their imagination in prayer. You need to be on hand whenever I need you to feel better about myself. You must never step out with initiative. All you really need to do is keep going to church on Sunday, and don't become an atheist. It doesn't matter. Here's my dress code and rules of conduct that shows that you really love God. Here are the rules to being a good person.

And on. And on. And on. 

Whether these were significant relationships with lots of strings attached or teaching purported to be infallible truth, I have unwittingly collected a swarming brood of voices telling me what God's will is. 

The missing piece absent was the agency of my own will to choose a course of action and to have my own relationship with God in prayer. That wrong piece present made it clear I was to be directed by someone who was going to inform me. Lo and behold, whatever I was given to drink tasted an awful lot like the vessel and not the Water of Life.

But what Jesus was talking about was union with the Father. What St. Teresa of Jesus and St. John of the Cross point me to is union with the Father. What my Carmelite practice trains me toward is union with the Father. What God Himself has been calling me to, woven in between all of these distorted messages that I then believed I needed and sought out, was a partnership of union of wills with Him. 

So along my path towards union with God, I have needed to learn how to identify and exercise myself in what I actually want. And I mean, on the level of acknowledging my needs on every level -- food and water, for example! It means giving up the violence I've done to myself by handing over my will to others. It means feeling, as an adult, the very real pain of wanting formation and direction as a young child, but having the Gen-X experience of raising myself. 

It now makes sense to me that for years and years, when I have prayed, what God impressed upon me was "to serve me, simply be yourself." When I first heard this, frankly it terrified me because I had no idea how to do it. I didn't know that I had a self, with whom God wished to engage, by which I would excerise self-mastery. To be fully a human being is to bring our wills into union with His, not to crush and destroy our own identity and call that service to God.

This is big. I linked to just a few of the blog posts above where I see I have been grappling with this for decades. Thanks be to God.

Sunday, April 03, 2022

One Day You Shall Laugh

Listening at today's Mass was a completely different experience than it was when I wrote about this on Sunday, March 20. Today was an experience, not of searching for the gaze, but of feeling myself held in the center of God's heart with his presence all around me. Every element of the Mass seemed to speak from previous years' journeying with the Lord. I was in an ocean of gratitude. 

Father asked the rhetorical question, "What would it be like for you if Jesus had not come?" And honestly, thinking about it, I had to restrain myself from energetic crying. The encounter with Christ in my life that was speaking to me so profoundly -- where would I be if I were still where I was in my faith journey at, say, age 15. I could easily see myself mixed up with courses of life involving highly illegal and addictive paths. 

During communion we sang "Be Not Afraid," which, when I was in Japan, I sang almost every time I prayed night prayer with the Sisters at their house after our weekly shared dinner. Consider, we sang this song because it was in English, and I was there. When we came to the words, "blessed are you who weep and mourn, for one day you shall laugh," I almost always started to cry and couldn't continue. I just had so much pain right on the surface of my heart in those days that it whapped me silly, every time. 

But what I saw and heard today was a promise fulfilled that God spoke to me years and years ago, when He first called me to become a Catholic, but hadn't entered the Church yet. It was, "I want the glorious to become commonplace in your life." And, by the grace of God, it has. I have walked through some very frightening darkness, times that my soul felt completely shredded, but I can now look back and see God has never been the source of my pain. He has been the source of my healing, but it has not been without spiritual surgical procedures to free me from clutching death and destruction. He absolutely desires glory for His children and bestows it. When he tells us, give, and it shall be given unto you, I think what He desires we give him is everything of our brokenness, held open, frankly, before our mutual gazes. Not in a way that we pursue crushing our own selves, as if for his attention. But owning it, surrendering it to His lordship, and trusting him to see us looking at our own poverty. He, of course, knows. We are only coming to know ourselves, and Him. This looking, owning, and bringing is an act of humility. This is an act of hope. This is an act of trust and vulnerability which grace empowers. Hope heals our memory. Hope unites us to God. Hope makes sense of things. Hope brings laughter. 

"Neither do I condemn you," says Jesus to the woman, left alone with Him. Yes, child, I see it. But I see more than anyone else does, including you. I don't condemn you; I give you your life back. Live it now as my gift. You don't need to scrabble for bits of love or purpose any longer. You have met Me, now. Nothing, and no one, can ever take this encounter away from you.

Thanks be to God.

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

But Wait... There's More

When I was 14 I hit my first spiritual crisis. I had been confirmed the year in my Lutheran church and had started high school, my first exposure to a Lutheran school. My confirmation prep had been two years of catechism classes, in which we memorized (again) all the parts of the catechism (this had been a facet of Sunday School as well) and hundreds of Bible verses. By any standards I have witnessed since then, it was a rigorous intellectual preparation. We had Examination Sunday where, in place of a sermon, we were asked questions off of a list of at least a hundred which we were expected to either memorize or be able to articulate thoroughly -- or face the embarassment of standing mute in front of the whole congregation. That was a practice from earlier decades that our new pastor revived in my second year. One of the more dreaded questions was to recite all the books of the Old Testament. I rose to the challenge and knew my stuff.

So when I got to high school and found my Freshman Old Testament class not very much of a challenge, the crisis hit. Here I was, 14 years old, and I knew everything there was to know about God. I had conquered Luther's Small Catechism, and it seemed there was nothing else out there to challenge me. Now, basically, I had to hold on to this knowledge until I died. 

I trust you can hear how laughable this is, but I felt it keenly and it made me depressed. I tried reading Luther's other works, and started to get frustrated that even though these were supposed to me authoritative documents for doctrine, no one was teaching them or studying them or encouraging that.  I found in subsequent years, including college, that commentaries or Bible studies never really expected any intellectual advance beyond the point we attained in confirmation prep. And I realized I hungered for something beyond sheer memorization of the Ten Commandments, Apostles Creed, and catechesis on the sacraments. I really hungered for someone to show me how to live this out. These days I would call it discipleship. I wanted to share life with people who wanted God to lead them through life together.

I had no one, literally. I started listening to Christian radio every day, and became a devotee to a lot of the Bible teachers there, even though much of their doctrine turned me off and some of their voices grated on me. The music was very Lawrence Welk-ish, with a touch or two of very mild pop, so it really didn't appeal to me. Yet I listened because I was starving for connection, for fellowship, for answers, for direction, for peace. During the summer when I was 15, too young to work and home alone most of the time, I played solitare at the kitchen table and listened to Christian radio all day long, almost every day. I wrote letters to almost every ministry that gave their address and asked them to pray for me. It was actually a really depressing stretch as I think of it, but I believe that at least some prayers were offered for me, because my life did start onto a new trajectory about a year later.

My point in getting in touch with these memories is to share what is now one of the most precious truths to me about Christian life: There is always somewhere to go.

Years later I became familiar with St. Teresa of Avila's teaching on the mansions, or interior castles as she puts it, or the four waters -- all these ways she breaks down what God taught her about stages of spiritual growth. You know, I remember clearly the first time I read about this, including her seventh (and final) mansion, which she calls Spiritual Marriage. I think it was an entry in the Catholic Encyclopedia I read while researching for a paper. I was, at the time, also depressed that no Prince Charming had appeared and I was desperately afraid one never would. When I read that Teresa taught that few people reach Spiritual Marriage, I groaned inwardly: Great. Yet another joy I'll never have. 

And here I am, about 34 years later, a fully professed Secular Carmelite. Now I have read and studied Teresa a bit, and I tell new aspirants, with great confidence, that there is always more. God always has some place for us to go. Our life of prayer is a life of seeking and being open, and God always will be leading us on and bringing us somewhere.

This morning I have to check in with myself and ask if I am feeling that. Am I believing that? I can't say that I am conscious of a burning desire to move forward. 

I've been writing about overwork and being busy and clogged and tired and stiff, and I realize this might be a spiritual reflection. I mean, like a mirror to my interior. I'm pretty comfortable in life. I'm fairly connected with people. I have service and work that I love to do. I'm not bored. I'm learning. I either have a lot of things that make me comfortable, or I've figured out how to be comfortable enough without them. I manage to turn over to the Lord the stresses and distresses that come my way. 

So, I don't have a lot poking me in the side, motivating me to want more. 

I wonder though... Maybe I do, but I'm not feeling it. Maybe I don't really want to feel it. There's nothing wrong with not desiring turmoil. But if I apply my mind to this, and leave my feelings to one side for a bit, I know that God's adventures always leave me with an increase of peace, even if they come by way of increased tension for a time. I do, objectively, choose openness to God. I know my daughter is going to be an adult in basically one short year, and her growing independence will take her away from me. So I'm due for some changes soon. 

This is probably going to be one of those blogposts I look back on and say, see, God was prepping me. I'm totally at peace with that, and really I don't want to get so caught up in finding everything all nicely settled that I miss it. I know with certainty that God has always been patient with me. 

So, today I purpose to say, yes Lord. I open my heart to whatever More you desire for me, because I want to be able to offer you a wider heart through which you can give life through me.

Monday, March 28, 2022

Birthing Grace

I had frankly forgotten how well writing serves me. Life has seasons, and like anything organically growing, seasons change and all that. But this Lent I realize that writing helps me take seriously the path of discovery to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit, and to not forget significant moments. It isn't so much about memory, actually, as it is about faith. "Remembering" isn't "not forgetting" as much as it is believing that God loves me, is with me, that I hear His voice, and therefore can follow with confidence.

What I'm seeing taking shape on the horizon is the absolutely incredible reality of the incarnation of the Son of God, and how that changes everything. And how full of folly it is to act like God becoming man, coming to earth, dying for us to remove every blockage we have to the divine, and then sending His divine power to reside within our persons, by which miracles of transforming grace happen --- is all a normal, run of the mill, human religious idea. The thing that throws it all off is transforming grace. Miraculous power. 

My Psychology prof in college stood there one day explaining how, once someone has a dysfunction, a problem, whatever, it never really goes away. There is no healing, essentially, he said. Now, I'm not sure what he meant to say, because he was a Christian man in a Lutheran school. But I know what I heard. And I sat there with a hot, defiant tear going down my cheek. If God has no ability to heal, then I don't want anything to do with him was what I raged, interiorly. Hope and despair were wrestling hard.

My Catholic theology prof stood there one day about ten years later explaining how grace does not destroy nature but elevates and perfects it, and I knew I was hearing THE truth whose lack I felt so keenly in Protestantism. Grace is power. It is real. God does things in us, with our yes, that we are not able to produce within ourselves. He doesn't invade and sort of abuse our freedom to give us life, like a woman being drugged and date raped, and thereby impregnated -- which we are supposed to somehow be grateful for later because the gift of life is so great.  Grace builds us as a people. We are made for community, and when parents bring their children to receive sacraments, they are doing what they can to avail them to all the aspects of life, not only the natural life they have co-created, but the supernatural life in which they also partake. But to live as the community of grace, that child must activate the gifts received. This is both so necessary and so often reduced to a meaningless formula. In fact it is right here at this point that my heart groans like a woman in labor. Sometimes I just want to, I dunno, sit on people and groan until they open their hearts to the Lord, and say "Yes! Yes, to what you want, Lord. Yes to all of it. I will live my life in the fellowship of believers seeking your grace and moving with every word you speak!"

The sense that I get is that this groaning, this kind of spiritual/physical/emotional frustrated yearning, is actually a gift of grace, too. When Elijah prayed for rain in 1 Kings 18 it says this: "Elijah went up to the top of Carmel, crouched down to the earth, and put his head between his knees." Seven times he had his servant to look for rain, and only on the seventh was there a small cloud. He was in the position of birthing. As mothers and prophets know, birthing is a work of grace. No one conceives a child all by herself; she must receive and co-create. And once the process in begun, there is a dynamism there which will call forth all the mother's energy, and yet is not controlled by her. Her reactions can stall it, but her cooperation in availability will see that child born. And yet who that child is that is driving the dynamism is a complete mystery unto him or herself, also a gift of the Creator. 

So there's something like this going on in me. For years and years I have had this call to pray for conversion of souls, and the awareness that so many people need to know how to ratify their baptism. Not just a sinner's prayer, leaving one anxious if one "really meant it" this time, so that it really took, or leaving one feeling absolved from actually doing anything Jesus commanded. Not just a perfunctory mumbling of the renewal of baptismal promises during the Easter season and a vague sense of relief that I can pretty much do whatever, because I can always go say it in the confessional. Not just the assurance that I'm basically a decent person, like many other secular folks, and frankly better than those five religious people I knew. 

Rather, the experience of God. God who is present, the outpouring God. The God who acts. The God who hears. The God who responds. Who "is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness."

Carmelites are called to be witnesses to the experience of God, as Elijah was. If I weren't one already, I know I would need to become one.

* TIL: as I searched for an image of Elijah crouching on the ground with his head between his knees, I first observed that I can't find any depictions that are completely faithful to this description, and I second observed that there is a name for this postion in Sanskrit, which translates to: garland, necklace, or..... rosary..... position. You just can't make this stuff up.

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Unless you Forgive

I gently employed the same prayer approach today at Mass as Sunday, looking for the Lord's gaze at me through the Scriptures. It was then that I recognized a little whisper I had heard a few days before regarding my need to forgive a certain person. Today's gospel reading, and the homily that I heard that unpacked it, were of the walloping sort. Forgive or go to hell. Not exactly an episode of Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild. But I heard something else in this, other than what can feel like a frightening threat.

Here's the gospel (Mt. 18:21-35):

Peter approached Jesus and asked him,
“Lord, if my brother sins against me,
how often must I forgive him?
As many as seven times?”
Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.
That is why the Kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king
who decided to settle accounts with his servants.
When he began the accounting,
a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount.
Since he had no way of paying it back,
his master ordered him to be sold,
along with his wife, his children, and all his property,
in payment of the debt.
At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said,
‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.’
Moved with compassion the master of that servant
let him go and forgave him the loan.
When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants
who owed him a much smaller amount.
He seized him and started to choke him, demanding,
‘Pay back what you owe.’
Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him,
‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’
But he refused.
Instead, he had him put in prison
until he paid back the debt.
Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened,
they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master
and reported the whole affair.
His master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant!
I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to.
Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant,
as I had pity on you?’
Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers
until he should pay back the whole debt.
So will my heavenly Father do to you,
unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart.”

So, what happens with this being commanded to forgive? When I went back to read the Scripture again after Mass, what I noticed was Jesus says there's a king, who is settling accounts, a debtor, and the debtor's master. It isn't entirely clear to me anymore that the king is the debtor's direct master. Rather, it seems like the king is the one who is now hearing about the conduct of the debtor, the master, and the debtor's fellow servants who complained about the injustice they witnessed. I'm not sure this matters, other than the fact that it would make much more clear that the judgment that God extends is directly about humans interactions with each other, rather than with some abstract moral code that is represented by the king. It would sound like the king is hearing the case pleaded by the master about the debtor's injustice. I'll leave the biblical exegetes to deal with that.

Another question: what is forgiveness, anyway? What is being commanded here? Fr. Drake mentioned in his homily that the Greek text makes it clear that the amount of money owned by the debtor would have taken multiple lifetimes of daily wages to pay off. In other words, it was an impossible, unpayable debt. This clearly represents the human standing before God. We are broken, we fall so far short of divine standing, and we start life out this way. Through the mystery of sin, we simply are not fit by nature for relationship with God, and nothing we can do can get us there. Nada. 

So the first movement we see in this story is that the debtor is forgiven his debt. The master of the debtor takes this debt into himself, and takes it away, freeing the debtor and his family from being sold into slavery. In the Old Testament, too, God had a system for forgiving sins. He had prescriptions for offerings, symbolic deaths, symbolic gifts, brought to a symbolic place with symbolic people who offered prayers to wipe out offences. All of this was to point to the one who was to come, was to point to some amazing promise of fulfillment that God would one day send to His faithful people. Israel had a very mixed-bag track record of staying faithful to this type of worship, of all the laws that were to prevent the sins in the first place, and the hope that was to sustain them that God would come as their redeemer. 

But Jesus takes it one step further in the story. The forgiven debtor was supposed to, now, have within him the same nature, the same lifeforce that allowed for the unforgiveable debt to be forgiven him. He was to operate with other people the way that God forgave through sacrifice. Yikes! Something stronger than the Old Covenant had to come into play here. Jesus is here expecting that the debtor act like God, not live out of brokenness but live with the divine nature actually present within, to act like God! Wow, Jesus, that's impossible, isn't it? 

The heart of the gospel isn't only that God has forgiven us and so we are off the hook and our sins don't matter anymore. The heart of the gospel is that God's divine nature comes to take up residence in us, transforming us, and causing his own life to be active in us and through us. We are made sons in the Son. We are called to live in union with God, like the flame totally consumes the wood.

If that is the Christian call, what does this gospel say about forgiveness? That priest who just was convicted of grossly abusing a vulnerable woman for years with basically spiritual torture -- is she, are we all, just supposed to say "you are forgiven, it's erased, done; you are free"? I actually had a man in my life at one point whose only exposure to Christianity was listening to a few sermons on the radio. He actually suggested to me that I should allow him to sexually violate me, because I was a Christian, and Christians are supposed to forgive everything. Is that what this is?

No, thank the Lord, the command to Christians to forgive is not the command that we provide a pass for violation to romp unchecked. Quite the opposite. We need to know righteous from unrighteous as God knows it.

Note the pattern in the latter portion of the gospel: The forgiven debtor perpetrates violence against one of his equals, overpowers him, and takes up an arrogant position against him, putting him in debtor's prison. The fellow servants are deeply disturbed and report it. The master responds to the deeply distubed report. He declares the wickedness of the arrogant one and declares pity for the fellow servant. 

The master has ears for the one who has been sinned against. The master takes it in hand.

I see two things here. First: from experience I know that sometimes it is difficult for a person who has been violated to say, That was wrong for you to do to me. An injustice was done to me. Righteousness would have looked different, this was not it. 

I wish parsing righteousness from unrighteousness were never difficult, but at times it is. Consider, for example, a person placed for adoption as a baby. She may have loved her adoptive parents so dearly and exercised so much gratitude for the fact that she was born and cared for, that she may feel grossly disloyal and guilty for acknowledging the feelings surrounding "I had the right to be raised by the mother and father who created me." Consider someone who, at the cost of losing the only scraps of feeling loved they know, cannot admit that the relationship partner has wronged them, or is continually doing so.

Second: when the deeply disturbed report reaches the master's ears, not only forgiveness, but healing is unleashed. We don't hear that debtor #2 was released from prison, but we hear that debtor #1 owed him pity. 

Jesus's punchline is that each of us needs to forgive his brother from his heart. How I hear it is not that we say, "that thing you did doesn't matter." It is that we admit, "that thing that you did violated me. I'm punched in the gut." First, our thinking gets corrected about the nature of what happened (righteousness vs unrighteousness). Then, because we are in a community of equals, those around us see, and are deeply disturbed. We experience the healing love and intercession of those to whom we reveal this brokenness. We experience intercession: someone takes my hot mess before God, who responds. Healing pours out. 

Because we are all equals, and because each of us needs to be in this process, we are formed as a people who, because we have the very nature of God poured into us in baptism, are constantly being built up in the grace of the Holy Spirit. We are all in varying stages and places of hurting, forgiving, repenting, being forgiven, receiving healing, calling out injustice, interceding. But the one who tramples another faces the king's judgment.

This is Jesus telling us how the new covenant people of God will act.

I'm reminded of John's reminder of sins you pray about so that the other will be forgiven, and sins that lead to death, that you don't just pray about (1 Jn. 5:16-17). 

It takes tremendous courage to open up our brokenness, especially those things that happened to us as children or in a particularly vulnerable time. It takes the courage of knowing and trusting that we are loved, by God and by people. These things are not healed immediately, but the power of God absolutely does heal them. The new covenant people of God, the Church, is to be this place where God's healing is unleashed through us, to the world. That is why Jesus begins with "the kingdom of heaven may be likened to..."

Sunday, March 20, 2022

The Gospel Has Eyes

Today is Sunday. I went to Mass this morning with this prayer: to find God's gaze on me in His Word. 

This book that I love so much, The Impact of God: Soundings from St. John of the Cross by Fr. Iain Matthew, OCD, has as the title of chapter of chapter five "The Gospel Has Eyes." This expression has helped my heart so frequently. As I have noted elsewhere, I could quote huge chunks of this book, but here is the heart of the topic:

The gospel has eyes -- 'the eyes I long for so', John calls them -- and the point comes on the journey where the bride meets those eyes which had long been looking on: 'It seems to her that he is now always gazing upon her.' It is a moment of exposure, as she finds herself a factor in another's life and heart... It has been said that 'a person is enlightened', not 'when they get an idea', but 'when someone looks at them'. A person is enlightened when another loves them. The eyes are windows on to the heart; they search the person out and have power to elicit life... Christianity is an effect, the effect of a God who is constantly gazing at us, whose eyes anticipate, radiate, penetrate and elicit beauty. (p. 28)

"Christianity is an effect, the effect of a God who is constantly gazing at us." Yes, that's what my heart was calling out from this morning. Lord, you are gazing at me. I need to catch your gaze. My heart, my whole being, needs the life-giving joy of catching your gaze on me. 

I pre-read the Scripture readings and listened attentively and was reminded how one listens actively, hungrily, like when I'm with someone and I want them to hear some truth coming from someone else and I'm eager for every word that comes out, in hopes that it is going to make a great penetration...

But as it often happens, it wasn't the Scripture reading where I caught the gaze. It was a hymn we sang based on Psalm 139. It was in fact the same psalm, the same song, played and sung by the same musician who played for my son's baptism almost twenty years ago. I've been thinking about my son's baptism a lot lately, perhaps about all of our baptisms. How we are given so much. How we need to learn to receive. How so much gets in the way. When I was my son's age, I had actually repudiated my baptism. I was theologically confused, had joined a church my aunt thought was some kind of cult, and was mixed up frankly with an addicted con man who was more than twice my age as his side-chick. It's funny how my life has only looked (to me) like a total diarrhea-production in hindsight. 

When I walk or lie down, you are before me

with love everlasting, you besiege me

You are with me beyond my understanding
God of my present, my past and future, too

Although your Spirit is upon me
Still I search for shelter from your light
There is nowhere on Earth I can escape you
Even the darkness is radiant in your sight
Safe in your hands, all creation is made new

God is the one. He alone has been my Savior, He alone has kept me safe, despite my numerous very foolish steps. And this promise is for me, and for my children, and for those who are far off. 

And Christianity is an effect, the effect of God who is constantly gazing at us. As Psalm 33 says, from his dwelling place, God gazes on all the dwellers on the earth. For all of us who are baptized, his dwelling place is within us. 

Let us hear this call to enter the castle, the mansion, the dwelling of God. Meet his gaze, and enter into his rest.


Saturday, March 19, 2022

Enter into God's Rest

 "Let us listen to the voice of God; let us enter into His rest."

This is the way we begin the invitatory psalm on Saturday of weeks two and four of the Liturgy of the Hours. It evokes Psalm 95 (which typically is the psalm prayed at this point), where we exhort each other to "listen to the voice of the Lord, do not grow stubborn" [and not end up like the people to whom God said] "They shall not enter into my rest." Who were they? People whose hearts went astray, who challenged God and provoked God, regardless of seeing him in action, people who did not know his ways.

It also evokes Hebrews chapter 4 where we read that there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God. Our Sabbath rest is our union with the Blessed Trinity, opened to us by Jesus and modeled for us by Jesus, to which we are drawn by the Holy Spirit to our identity as sons and daughters of the Father. 

I woke unusually early this morning and listened to a 50 minute teaching on YouTube which a Facebook friend of mine happend to post. What drew me was the title: Becoming a Non-Anxious Presence. The title comes from the work of an Internal Family Systems psychologist (something else I've been learning about within the last year), and in my mind it struck me as equivalent to someone who embodies hope. That's language that makes my spiritual antennae perk up. And while I've pulled a minor imitation of mi Madre Teresa of Avila in not going back to re-read my recent posts, I feel like I have been developing a life theme right now of letting go of anxiety in its various manifestations. 

So, yeah. This Vineyard minister, apparently right before shut downs affected public gatherings in the UK in 2020, is teaching here on the need for contemplative silence and prayer in leadership and life, to operate from a place of listening to the voice of God, not with a goal of fixing problems. 

Consider the witness of martyrs, like Ss. Perpetua and Felicity. The account of their martyrdom shows them basically in a state of ecstacy so profound that they do not feel physical pain. Now, I do not take that as a guarantee that martyrs do not feel fear or pain (the Carmelite martyrs of Compiègne certainly had to steel themselves to approach their deaths). But there is also the Scriptural account of Stephen, the first martyr, who saw heaven opened and Jesus standing there. This is an extreme example of entering God's rest in the midst of turmoil, and I believe it is an example left to us by God on purpose. It doesn't glorify death; it reminds us that we have nothing to fear. If death and hell have lost their sting, then there is nothing before which we ultimately must cower. 

What we must journey through is purification of our attachments, or as Comer puts it (referencing St. Ignatius Loyola), our journey to freedom. Purification frees us for union with God; purification frees us for service, for ministry, for life to flow through us. We cease being reactive, of being determined by problems, by fears, by other people's issues, by the rage machine. 

It was a good talk. Where does it leave me?

Human formation is really important. If we think that all we need is correct doctrine or right worship or receiving sacraments, or any of these other things that are all objective, we don't get the whole picture. For good life, we need good human formation, good ground in which the seed of truth is sown, grows, and bears fruit. 

I personally need to examine my drive to produce. I've been on overdrive. God is calling me to slow down and rest in Him. And to not make prayer "more work to do." I think there's a danger for Carmelites and for intercessors to make prayer always about "work." 

Fasting is, in part, about letting go and letting God. "Letting God" is such an ironic expression. But to take God seriously at the level of relationship, every day I need to realize, to touch, the reality of his presence with me, and to once again acknowledge that I am partnered to him, apprenticed to him, and that once I catch his eye on me (the gospel has eyes, as St. John of the Cross says) I am drawn once again into the drama that is my unfolding life in him. And sometimes I'm just tired and can't even focus my eyes. And still he is with me. 

I have also been reminded how anxious my thinking can be. I remember back in the 90s I tended to specialize, at work, in trying to mentally solve problems in other departments that weren't even my responsibility. Seeing big problems just laying out there, apparently unattended, is a huge anxiety trigger for me. It is part of how I try to calm myself through overwork. Insert rueful laugh. I am drawn back to the realization that I am not the Savior of the universe, I just belong to Him. He is the master orchestrator, and I am available to Him in whatever way our partnership asks of me. 

Lent isn't over; it's barely under way. So for now I guess this is enough...