Tuesday, June 15, 2021


 I became a Catholic when I was 25. (I shared my conversion story here, if you haven't read it.) In my first fifteen or so years as a Catholic, I would occasionally catch a glimpse of a flickering and deeply attractive beauty in the heart of another Catholic. I didn't have a word for it. Whenever I encountered it, I felt like a dry sponge encountering something that I wanted to immediately sop up and take into myself. It felt like quality humanity. I always got the sense that the person who manifested it had no idea they were manifesting it. I sensed, especially early on, that this was something that had been fairly foreign in my experience of Christians in my pre-Catholic days. When I encountered this flickering beauty, I felt instinctively I could trust the person who possessed it.

And now I think I finally have a word for it: integration. The beauty I perceived in such a person was the beauty of being a well-integrated person.

Lately I've been listening to a podcast called Interior Integration for Catholics, which is all about the psychology of the interior life. I highly recommend it. I also listened to the audiobook Boundaries for Your Soul over Holy Week, which is a practical look at how to get all the warring parts of yourself to both work together and to come before the Lord. How to make the bossy bits of you calm down and listen, and how to draw out the parts of you that hide in shame, and how to give your overworked bits a break. It's good.

It is interesting to me that the Catechism says this in paragraph 2114: 

The commandment to worship the Lord alone integrates man and saves him from an endless disintegration.

 And then there is this, in paragraph 2338:

The chaste person maintains the integrity of the powers of life and love placed in him. This integrity ensures the unity of the person; it is opposed to any behavior that would impair it. It tolerates neither a double life nor duplicity in speech.

When I think about these two things:  worship, and loving with all one's power, I basically see my vocation in life, especially as a Carmelite. It makes me understand why, when I would encounter this grace present in another person, that my antennae would stand up and twitch. 

It seems to me that God calls us not so much according to our great ability, but according to our great wounds. At least, that's how it seems to me with my Carmelite eyes. We are to be the Great Empty before the God who is present to In-Fill. 

I mean, I just think of my college-age self, and I just have to shake my head in amazement at God. Even though I considered myself a devout Christian -- and I was, to the extent I was -- I was also an avowed misanthrope. Chastity, a commitment to Christian love, to create community? Like, what are you smoking? No, I was completely incapable. Nada. 

So for all of those years, slowly, I encountered grace, and God fed me by placing a longing in me. He broke me apart to put me together -- all of the pieces. He put my pieces together, to make me whole. At least now I am on the other side, where I can know what it is I long for. And I know that He will complete what He has begun. 

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Ascension, the Kingdom, and Scampering off, Stage-Right

The Feast of the Ascension penetrated my mind in a new-feeling way today. God was gracing me to take things in. I can actually share with you the homily I heard, how about that:

The Kingdom of God is Jesus reigning in heaven, through the Church, the continuation of his ministry throughout time and space, the fullness of Him who fills everything in every way. We live now in the kingdom, because Jesus has ascended into heaven in his human body, opening it to us, going there ahead of us, promising us all we need for Him to pull the rest of his mystical body through. When we say yes to Him, yes to his church, we are agreeing to all of the purgation and purification necessary. We basically have no idea what we are really saying yes to (gee, kinda like marriage...) but we say yes, and we keep saying yes, and he brings us through. That's the promise of the Ascension for the believer. When we pray "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as in heaven," we say yes again to the whole mess. Yes, Lord, come and rearrange anything you want; you are the Lord; I will adjust. 

It makes me think of all the brokenness we have and continue to live in, even while we also have the power of the Holy Spirit resident in us, but it might not look like it, hardly ever. Or maybe it does. We still have the brokenness, and this is what Jesus continually heals and refines (gee, kinda like marriage).

But then there was this beautiful moment at the end of Mass (not pictured in the video). We did our May Crowning right before the end of Mass. The little children brought their flowers, tried to stuff them into a vase, while the music ministry, perhaps not knowing this was going to happen, did an early rendition of the closing hymn (which then got repeated moments later). What caught my attention was the last two little girls. The younger of the two sisters went first, directed by her slightly older sister. She shoved her flower in, but then went running in little tittering steps back to her seat. The slightly older girl (I'm guessing maybe 5 or 6) suddenly became aware that she was the last child in line, and was now all alone. She shoved the flower in and ran back to her parents also. 

What struck me was what it takes to be one little person, alone, publicly rendering honor or publicly giving testimony. I thought of my tiny little mystical self, apart from Carmel. When you are the only one, and you do not consciously know yourself as part of something bigger, caught up in something that is not about you, when you suddenly lose your nerve. You feel your lack of your people. You feel away from where you belong. You run for cover. And I realized that being part of Carmel is, for me, and has been, this knowledge not only that I'm not alone, and that there are other people called just as I am, but that my life truly is not about me. My life is part of something bigger, and that is to bear witness, sometimes in a very solitary and odd-feeling way, to the experience of God. And that if I do "walk alone," I am only alone in one perspective. Personally, I know I am walking with Teresa. I know I am walking with Elijah. But seeing that little girl scamper off also made me realize this isn't just a psychological reality, it is a spiritual reality. 

Thursday, March 25, 2021

The Day to Say Yes

Twenty-four years ago today, I set out on a journey home. I had been in Japan for two and a half soul-crushing years, and even though that Spring was the anticipated end date of that time, I had been strongly entertaining the possibility of either staying in Japan for the long term and entering a marriage that would have been a disaster, or returning home long enough to earn a degree to spend my life supporting both of us. I hadn't completely forsaken the latter possibility when my plane landed Stateside, but I did come eyeball to eyeball with the immensity of my brokenness which left me even open to this possibility. I felt very much like Jonah, transformed into a great heap of whale vomit. 

But I timed my return with the Feast of the Annunciation, because my return to the States was an act of saying yes to the Lord, saying yes to a new life, as the Blessed Mother had. Well, not exactly as she had, but in my attempt to imitate her faith that when we say Yes, God unfolds His graces.

His graces are still unfolding, and there's nothing magic about it. One false image of God that I grappled with a lot in those days was God as a Great Magician. I had learned to believe in the supernatural, but I had not so solidly experienced a good natural foundation on which grace was to build. So my prayer did sometimes unwittingly devolve into magical thinking, or just meditation on my own anxieties. In my early Catholic days, I often caught a glimpse of something I could barely identify, but for which my soul deeply hungered: it was this good, natural, human foundation. I heard it in how many priests spoke. I witnessed it comfortably being lived by some believers. It was a healing dew; I could never see it arrive and I could never preserve it to examine it, but when it fell it was so refreshing.

Today, I am chosing to continue to say yes. The history that was mine in 1997 is still mine today, and while I've grown, it isn't like we ever leave our brokenness behind. Jesus rose from the dead with His wounds in tact, oddly enough! No matter where we have "arrived" in relationship with Jesus and life on earth, we can never exhaust the degrees and measures of Love that God has ready to pour out, if only we have emptiness in us for Him. 

When Mary said yes, the Word became flesh. Jesus entered our disorderd, broken, sinful world to love, heal, redeem. He comes to bring glory, grace, sonship, belonging. This is such a mind-boggling truth to me that it is part of my name in Carmel: Elijah Benedicta of the Incarnate Word.

Even so, Lord Jesus, Come.

Saturday, March 06, 2021

The Prodigal, The Fatherless, and St. Joseph

This morning's Mass has shaken loose quite a bit of useful thought fodder, so here I am to sort it all out.

The gospel reading was the parable of the Prodigal Son, famous of course for the son who squanders wealth, the father who compassionately welcomes him back after long expectation, and the brother who resents both of them. 

The homily I heard, though, was one of those ripping the needle off the record moments that backhandedly spoke into my personal situation and also has me pondering this year of St. Joseph.

Father mentioned, reminiscent of the writer to the Hebrews, that "we have all had that moment where we did something wrong, and we awaited that moment of how our fathers were going to deal with us about it." As Hebrews 12:9-10 puts it, "we have all had earthly fathers to discipline us and we respect them...they disciplined us for a short time at their pleasure, but [God] disciplines us for our good..."

The needle ripped off the record because, no, I don't have any childhood memories like that. In fact, the first thing I thought of was my experience of being corrected for singing harmonies out of turn when I joined our parish choir. I was ... 41 at the time. 

What felt so odd was to have this discussed as a universal human experience from which we all learned something about God. I went to that same category interiorly, and came up empty. That's not to say that God hasn't abundantly compensated that emptiness for me, because He has.

 My second thought went to the 23% of American households with children that are currently headed by single parents. And the divorce rate in the era of the childhoods of my generation (1970s and 1980s) that was at nearly 50%. And the trend, also prevalent within my generation of what Dr. Jonice Webb calls Childhood Emotional Neglect, where even physically present parents can be emotionally absent to their children. All of this is so much a given in my awareness of life around me that frankly Father's comments struck me like data from a different planet.

But my concern is not really with sociological trends, nor with Family Privilege, my personal experience or anyone else's per se. The direction these thoughts have taken me have been about human formation, and how that impacts spiritual formation.

I love what my Secular Carmelite Constitutions have to say about this: 

Both initial and ongoing formation in the teachings of Teresa and John of the Cross, help to develop in the Carmelite Secular a human, Christian and spiritual maturity for service to the Church. Human formation develops the ability for interpersonal dialogue, mutual respect and tolerance, the possibility of being corrected and correcting with serenity, and the capacity to persevere commitments. (OCDS Constitutions, No. 34)

Pope Francis has been insistent on reminding us that God meets us with His great spiritual riches on the peripheries of society and on the peripheries of our own hearts. The more clearly we see our poverty, our need, our lack, our misery, the more immediately God bestows His abundant grace. This is exactly why I say God has abundantly compensated me for the empty category I have felt in my human formation; though it did not always feel a blessing, I realize I have been tremendously blessed in being solidly in touch with my misery and crying out to God over it. It has taken me a few decades, but here I am!

I am now vigorously curious to learn how to help others in their human formation in this regard. Human formation happens when my human experience butts up against your human experience, and we both act with the graces God has given us. There is plentious room for correction and being corrected, for learning respect, to learn to tolerate persons and accept them as they are, not as we want them to be. The end result is to be that we both learn to persevere in our baptismal commitments, having been refined by the other. Multiply this by many people, many human experiences, much grace. This is an element that dare not be missing from spiritual formation (entailing learning Scriptural, doctrinal and spiritual truths). For dry bones to live we need both spirit and flesh to take part in resurrection.

And then my thoughts went to Our Lord Jesus. At the beginning of his life, he went straight for our vulnerable edges, in the persons of Mary and Joseph. Biblical scholars still debate over the nature of their legal and moral status at the time of Jesus' conception. They were betrothed but had not lived together as husband and wife; did this mean that Jesus' birth was legitimate or illegitimate? Regardless of how the eyes of the law looked upon them, or what people thought of Mary and Joseph, I can't imagine that Joseph avoided a dark night of faith. He knew that Jesus was not his child. Scripture clearly says he was of a mind to divorce Mary quietly. Some scholars say this was only because Joseph knew he was not worthy to be the father of the Son of God, and not that he doubted Mary or didn't know or believe that she was the mother of the Messiah until this was revealed by the angel (as if human Joseph having merely human thoughts somehow detracts from his holiness or vocation.) Mary also had to have needed to exercise dark faith in what the angel told her. I remember those early weeks of pregnancy where, in my case, I was sure I had lost my baby because I felt absolutely nothing. Mary had no advantage of seeing the blue line show up on her pregnancy test. In this very intimate, unprecidented and singular event of the pregnancy with the Son of God, both Mary and Joseph were pressed to the human limits of faith that God's word is to be believed above all else, including the entire natural order. I highly doubt that there were not intense conversations during that time that shaped and prepared them to live in their society in a radically, profoundly different way from anyone else. Their bond had to be a profound solitude that God transformed with every manner of compassion, wisdom, worship, and strength.

Jesus did not come to remove troubles by sanitizing humanity. He came to sanctify us by redeeming our broken humanity, and making sons of those whom sin had completely alienated. He entered into our human experience, sharing everything but sin, in order to drink the dregs and fill all with his healing and powerful presence, to make of us a people who witness to his presence in a broken world. As he raises us up to share in his divine nature, he fulfills through human beings what he promised in Psalm 10:18, "to vindicate the fatherless and the oppressed, that the men of the earth may strike terror no more."

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Interiority, Psychology, and Several Recommendations

For as long as I can remember, I have had an attaction for the personal depths of human beings. Just like some people love symphonies or nature hikes or bright colors or fast-paced cities with lots of culture, I have always been fascinated by the interior depths of individuals. I suppose it is telling that I majored in English, with a literature and writing focus, but that I had originally thought of Psychology instead. Sifting through character motivation and pulling out my own reactions in the face of various world views was my chosen path into my own educational formation.

But I quickly learned that most people don't like mucking around inside of themselves, that I didn't have the tools to actually deal with the stuff I found in myself or others, and that modern life can be seen as an endless variety of ways to avoid interior realities. Also, that without grace, interior dwellers can become morose, delusional, and/or weird.

We aren't made to be strictly interior dwellers of course, any more than we are created to be exterior dwellers. St. Teresa of Avila's famous image of the Interior Castle makes it clear that the interior life is about union with the King, with God who dwells in the soul. Union with God entails loving neighbor as God loves. So interior life is no place for escapists who just want to snap judgmentally at others for being shallow. The interior life is a place from which life springs up and flows forth, for the good of all.

So what do we do when the spring isn't springing? When channels are blocked up? Do we simply and only need to pray more? 

If "pray more" means "keep trying to get God to fix what's wrong with me," I think we now stumble upon a key problem. Prayer is about communion with God. When prayer becomes focused on my problems and not on God, it might be a sign that we are not so much dealing with a spiritual problem as a psychological problem. If we stay in that place, what we call prayer and our relationship with God is laid open to a lot of undue stress and deformation, and it can become a barrier against reality instead of the doorway into it.

I heard this point articulated recently in a podcast I heard on Souls & Hearts, a unique platform dedicated to helping Catholics overcome pyschological barriers towards intimacy with God. I recommend it. 

And while I'm making recommendations, here's another. A few years ago I was hired to edit the English translation of a Polish book on this very topic. The English version is called Personal Development: How to Cooperate with Grace? The authors are Monika and Marcin Gajda, who have had years of clinical and Catholic ministerial practice in Poland, helping people to develop a true, contemplative life of prayer, to die to a false self, and live a new life of love, focused on the pursuit of the true good. The paperback book is now in print. (Hey, if you get a copy and read it, leave a review on Amazon, ok?)

It's been said that St. John of the Cross was an extremely astute psychologist, before psychology was even developed. He was, of course, operating with a 16th century scholastic understanding of the human person, and to a large extent this is so unfamiliar to modern readers as to make him almost unintelligble. So, one more recommendation. I have to give one more round of applause to Fr. Iain Matthew's book The Impact of God. In January I listened to three seminars Fr. Iain gave on faith, hope, and charity, and I was once again blown away by his presentation of St. John. If ever you've wished you could grasp him but his writings were just too scary, please get a copy of Fr. Iain's book. He makes St. John of the Cross and his teachings come to life in such a life-giving way.

Let  us not get stuck in mucking around in interiority as an end in itself. Let us not flee from the thought of self-confrontation for fear of the beasts we shall encounter! Let us be drawn to the King, the Lover, dwelling in the center of the castle, and finding Him, be empowered to bring His love and that taste of freedom to others who will set out on this same journey.

Monday, February 08, 2021

Ego and Conversion

I'm probably not the only one.

As I was sorting out adulthood, faith, and what it meant to hear God's call, I regularly got tripped up over Scripture passages like "deny yourself and follow Me [Jesus]." (Mt. 16:24, Mk. 8:34, Lk. 9:23, Jn. 3:30)

In looking back at that, I believe it was because of having a strong yet unconscious formation in annihilation as a positive value. (Is that what nihilism is all about?) What I mean of this is I had an underlying diabolical belief that my personal existence is a fault, an error, the bad element in the equation of what is. That it would be better if I were not.

And there were reasons for that, but this post isn't aimed there. This is aimed at how this affects the workings of ego.

And by ego, I mean the self. Self at the center. Self as Lord. Self as master.

As a young Christian, I knew that self wasn't supposed to be master. Literally, the essence of the gospel invitation had been presented to me as a promise of Jesus sitting on the throne (the place of determining courses of action and thinking) when the self gets off the throne and invites Him there. These gospel passages of self-denial mentioned above seemed to take this dethronement even further, into a kind of required self-death or self-hatred. I figured, what else would it mean to "deny yourself" or to "hate your life" in this world to keep it for eternal life?

Because I already had this latent self-annihilation wish gnawing at me, I found myself pretty good at self-hatred. This became a twisted religiously-decorated ego-delight: how much I could castigate and hate my selfish self. And when I came up for a breather from self-loathing, I smiled up into an imagined face of God who clearly took delight in me for doing this.

In reality, however, I was stuck. I thought I was deeply religious, but I was not making significant spiritual progress, even to the minimal extent I understood spiritual progress could or should be made. While I lived a normal looking life, in my interiority I mostly hardened out a path between these two points: feeling deeply unloved, and trying to impress God with how hard I was on myself. And being rather an intense sort, that path was trodden down rather firmly.

When I encountered Jesus on my way into the Catholic Church, He beckoned me off in a completely new direction. Significantly, the first big episode here happened at a Christmas Eve Midnight Mass. The message came through loud and clear: I, Jesus, entered your human reality. If it shocks you that becoming a human being was good enough for Me, it is because you are grossly mistaken about the value of your own human creation. You are not an error. You are not a mistake. You are not a problem or a curse. Your being is not a blight on this world. You are loved. You are here on purpose, and it's My purpose.

Allowing myself to be loved, all the way down into my depths, took a long time. But knowing that Love was the trajectory of reality helped tremendously in reshaping my thinking about God, about myself, and about everything in between. I came to realize that having Jesus seated on the throne of my heart does not start with a hateful kicking and beating of myself, like so much evil garbage. The pleased face I sought out in my attempts at self-annihilation was not the face of God, but of the father of lies. Bowing in worship before the Lord Jesus Christ is an act that brings right order. I, a beloved creation, limited by nature, bow before the Creator who gives Himself to his creation. This is not a relationship of domination and subjegation, of conqueror and conquered, of the All and the obliterated. God is Love; Love gives Itself. I open; He infills. I become a son, I share the divine nature, I am brought into union (2 Pet. 1:4; Jn. 17:23; Eph. 1:23).

This is the sense in which one must understand the self-emptying, the self-denying. As St. John of the Cross would put it, the nada, nada, nada we embrace as God becomes all for us. By faith I can move out to receive from this supernatural transcendant reality.

Saturday, January 09, 2021

Salvation Is From The Jews

When the pandemic was just getting into full swing in the United States, I joined a now-closed theological discussion forum on Facebook. Can anything good come from a Facebook discussion group? you ask. And I answer, yes, it can. 

The exchanges were fascinating. For one thing, my sense that true unity and acceptance among Christians is growing and deepening received two charlie horses and fell over, frantically moaning in pain and rubbing its legs for relief. There are plenty of people who at all costs avoid conflict or disagreement over anything. There are plenty of people who will lock and load their theology and let you have it. But, there are also plenty of people who, given enough time on their hands due to a pandemic, will pull up a chair, present a position, and pick it apart with others who may have varying degrees of agreement. I find that kind of discussion fruitful, enjoyable, and edifying.

One challenging discussion I had was with a Messianic believer who took strong issue with St. John Chrysostom and his rantings against Jews. I happened to share a glowing quote from SJC, supporting some completely disconnected point, and this man in the forum upbraided me and found it easy grounds to dismiss my Catholic theology. 

In the ensuing discussion, I shared extensive quotes from the documents of Vatican II on the Catholic teaching regarding the role of Judiam. My interlocutor was somewhat shocked, because he could find nothing at all objectionable in it. He couldn't believe it came from a Catholic document.

There was much we still disagreed on, but he challenged me to read and dig deeper. I messaged a Jewish Catholic friend of mine, asked for her input about St. John Chrysostom and some of the discussions we were having, and asked her for a suggestion for how I could educate myself. She recommended Roy H. Schoeman's book Salvation is From the Jews

I had other books to finish, I'm slow, and it's 350+ pages, so I just finally finished it recently. I highly recommend it to my fellow Catholics.

Judism and Jewish people were never on my radar screen in my younger days; I grew up in Wisconsin where the debate was Lutheran vs. Catholic. For five years I belonged to a non-denominational charismatic fellowship whose strongest institutional connection was with the Christ For the Nations Bible school in Texas, which flies the flag of Israel on its campus. While it was in the order of a minor footnote, escatology that touched on the political state of Israel got an occasional mention. But my biggest take away (like so much of helpful religious formation) was a subliminal, intuitive, and delicate sense of awe about the Jewish people, because obviously Jesus was Jewish. I vividly recall the first time (well into my 20s) I ever saw men dressed in the style of Orthodox Jews. We were in the post office. I gave a little interior gasp like one would at suddenly finding a huge diamond. 

But I had never really grappled with questions theological or social about Jews, Judaism, or the intersection of Christianity or modernity with them. Oh, I knew the Shoah was a deeply repulsive moment in history and that antisemitism was wrong. Right after I became a Catholic, I did ask John Michael Talbot, during the pilgrimage to the Holy Land for which he was a guide, to elaborate on what the Church taught about Israel. He asked, "theologically, or politically?" to which I replied, "Yes." I don't recall what he said about the theology, but what did stick with me was his statement that Evangelical Christianity's political embrace of modern Israel was theologically in error, and stemmed from a lack of understanding of the Church. Since most of what I had ever heard regarding theology and Israel had to do with unconditional support for Israel militarily, I thought I had a grasp on all there was to know there.

Enter Roy Schoeman's book. To begin with, he does an overview of Scripture, and the Messianic claims of the Old Testament which was all thoroughly familiar territory to me. A big chunk of his book covers the historical and spiritual roots of antisemitism, the roots of Nazism, anti-semitism after World War II, and the impact all of this has had on Judaism. 

Let me stop right there a second.

We are not made in such a way as to be able to gain a view of pain and suffering and walk away unchanged. Right here was the place of change for me.

During the time I was reading this section, I was engaged in a days-long process of recording all seven sections of the Liturgy of the Hours for Advent. I spent a few whole days listening to the Psalms being prayed. With this view into pain and suffering that I had gained, I listened to the Word of God cry out the pain, anguish, confusion, terror, the hope and praise, of God's people. The pleading for the Messiah to come. 

Later I recounted this tectonic movement within my soul to my spiritual director with tears. There is something very deep going on here. 

St. John of the Cross teaches us about the dark nights, how we move forward only by faith, having lost all supports. The Catechism teaches us that there is a movement like this through which the entire Church must pass.

He also writes about the mystical life. The dark nights aren't designed to grind us to nothing. They capacitate us for living in union with God.

Schoeman's final sections include discussion of the mystical revelation to many Jews of Jesus the Messiah. Of how Catholicism was viewed by them not as a new religion, but as the completion of Judaism. (As an aside here, I am shocked to learn that in the Evangelical world, Jews are told they need to "break the chains of Judaism" and renounce it in order to become Christians.) 

He also discusses his views, based on Scripture and Church teaching, how the second coming of Christ will be preceded by an influx of Jews believing in the Messiah. And there I am, back with my Messianic believer Facebook aquaintance. One of his chief complaints was the lack of evangelistic outreach to ethnic or believing Jews. Why does no one care?

This Carmelite right here has a strong sense of connection to both the prophet Elijah and St. Edith Stein, also to St. John of the Cross, and the call to meditate on the law of the Lord day and night. The landscape of my heart shifted here. 

More than that I cannot now say.

But, this is why I write.   

Monday, November 16, 2020

My Testimony of Asking in Faith for the Holy Spirit

In the summer of 1987, when I was about to enter my Junior year of college, I met two people who had a significant impact on my spiritual life. One was Mary, mother of two pre-school children, a member of my hometown Lutheran church. The other was a middle-aged man named Jim. Mary had a prayer gathering for women that met occasionally in her home; I had seen it advertised in the bulletin. Within maybe 48 hours of my first conversation with Jim, he was in a crisis state which both landed him him jail and brought about, in his words, his trying to come back to the Lord. Going from my quiet, solitary life as a fast food employee to being caught up in the whirlwind of this stranger's "reversion" shook me pretty hard, and I felt an urgent need to pray, both on my own and with other people. So I cold-called Mary, asked her about her prayer group, and she invited me over and befriended me. 

At this point in my life, I was serious about reading Scripture, serious about evangelizing, serious about writing music through which I poured out my heart to God. I had graduated from a Lutheran high school and was in a Lutheran college and considered myself a committed Christian, although I felt somewhat restless. I was very, very good at knowing the Lutheran catechism answers, and I asked adult-level questions of my church. The intellectual quest invigorated me and took the edge of not being satisfied with the answers I was given.

But then Jim started challenging me about the person of the Holy Spirit. Over the phone, he walked me through a study of the book of Acts, pointing out how things changed when the Holy Spirit showed up on the scene. 

I knew about people who believed that, and I knew that my church had an official position that actual manifestations of the Holy Spirit where "things happened" no longer happened. As a high school student at a youth rally I had even witnessed pastors telling jokes to the whole assembly that made fun of people who said they were speaking in tongues and who raised their hands in the air. 

But then one day, Mary also asked me if I believed that God still filled people with the Holy Spirit as in the book of Acts. "Maybe He does," I responded. It was actually a radical openness that flew in the face of my Lutheran identity.

I studied those passages of Scripture again and again that summer. Mary even prayed with me that I would be filled with the Holy Spirit. I didn't notice anything happen. 

By the time my fall semester started and I was back at school, I was doctrinally convinced that there was no reason to believe God didn't pour out His Holy Spirit on people today, like in the Bible. I had changed my mind.

But changing my doctrinal position did nothing for me, personally. I was like a person who got an A in her nutrition class, but was suffering from an eating disorder. This came to a head when another mutual friend of Jim's, Mary's and mine, who had also been studying about the Holy Spirit with us, actually asked the Lord to fill her with the Holy Spirit, and she experienced a transformative encounter with the love of God. She was changed.

I remember hanging up the phone on my dorm floor after hearing this news. I was depressed for two days. So, God loved her so much that something real actually happened for her. The lies that had suffocated me for my whole life blew up again. I'm not loved. I'll never be loved. God does things for other people, not for me. It's hopeless. I'm hopeless. Forget it. I'll just stay here, alone, like always.

I tried to pray, but this sadness (and all these lies) kept pulling me down. But I had this nagging thought that we always talked about "receiving" the Holy Spirit. There was something I actually had to do. I never actually had gone to God to ask or receive. Literally, I had NEVER thought to ask God for any spiritual good, believing that he would give it. I doctrinally believed God gave things to people; I just didn't at all believe He'd do it for me

After the two depressed days were done, I decided I was going to pursue asking God. But I couldn't just ask. I had to go buy a book, and read it first. I spent all night reviewing all the theology again. Then finally I prayed the prayer that was in the book, thanking Jesus for saving me, asking Him to be the Lord of the my life and to fill me with the Holy Spirit. 

It was like a lightning bolt struck me. I was washed over with the most profound sense of love and cleansing and acceptance. My hopelessness was replaced with ecstatic joy. The next day I went down to breakfast in my best dress, and a professor, seeing my smile, said, "My, you look.... radiant ... this morning!"

It wasn't an instant fix of everything in my life, but it was the equivalent of going from standing in line for a rollar coaster, and riding it.

And it all boiled down to asking.

Friday, July 31, 2020

Turning Hardness of Heart into Purity of Heart

Recently I was called upon to teach a formation session for my Carmelite community, a task that doesn't typically fall to me. Given the circumstances, I essentially listened to a teaching on CD by one of the Carmelite friars, digested it, followed his outline, and presented his talk myself. The subject of this talk was the sixth beatitude from St. Matthew's gospel: "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God."

It is one thing to read a teaching, and another to hear a teaching. It is an entirely different animal to give a teaching, and to really meditate on it. It was a gift to be able to do so.

And now, several days later, something is jumping out at me from the teaching that I think has application to the current social turmoil which Christians are not immune from. 

Fr. Kevin Culligan, OCD, taught that there are two things about the heart that are involved in becoming pure of heart. First, there are the matters of impurities which arise from the heart, such as those Jesus enumerates in Matthew 15: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, malice, deceit, indecency, envy, slander, pride, folly. These things which come from the heart, and not the ritual purity and obedience, is what makes a person impure, because the "heart" in Scripture is the center of all that we are: our emotional, spiritual, moral life, our desires, passions, our thoughts, will and choices. 

So part of having a pure heart is our own choices, flowing from all this stuff going on inside us.

But the other part of having a pure heart has to do with that which Fr. Culligan states is that which Jesus laments the most: hardness of heart. If our hearts are hard, they will not be pure. Why? Because having a hard heart closes one off from the Word of God. Hardness of heart isolates you from love/Love. And how does hardness of heart develop? Through becoming overly absorbed in one's own agenda. The beatitudes, after all, are, if you will, Jesus'  plan of blessedness, of happiness, and not that of uninformed human striving to fill itself. 

Religious people know not to pursue big commandment-breaking matter. But religious people can get hot and heavy over their own agendas without necessarily realizing it.

This is why St. John of the Cross's teaching on detachment is so vital for us. He presumes that someone pursuing the Christian life will leave behind attachments involved with breaking the Ten Commandments. He teaches us, though, the dangers entailed in remaining attached to anything, even good things, even spiritual things. He is relentless.

And the point is not austerity for the sake of austerity, or detachment out of some kind of psychological aberation that leaves one wanting to grind one's own self into powder to win some divine approval. 

The point is that the beloved longs to see her lover, and God longs for us. To see Him, we must have soft hearts. We must not be overly absorbed with our own agenda, even if our own agenda is something we think is great: service to the Church, loving my family, prayer, being holy, speaking the truth. If it is mine, if I grasp it tightly, if it becomes my identity, if I've forgotten God in the midst of trying to serve Him, then we risk hardening our hearts. We risk what we perceive as our own steadfastness, our own faithfulness becoming that which actually closes us off from the Word and isolates us from Love.

But a beautiful thing happens then. God meets us then with a gift that St. John calls the Dark Night. The Dark Night of the Senses (very generally speaking) is when we are left without the external helps and supports that once held us up. The Dark Night of the Spirit is when we are left without the internal and interior helps that once held us up. This is the time when God is at work within us in a mysterious way. It hurts like the dickens. It is God's purifying action in us, which we cannot produce ourselves, and in which the only way to move forward is in faith. We don't tend to get to understand much of anything or feel like we can see where He leads. 

What might it look like practically? It might entail facing having our doctrinal or religious certainty shaken deeply. It might involve a public humiliation, or someone close to us embracing something which we deeply oppose, thereby challenging how we love them. Losing a job or having a business or a venture fail could trigger this. Facing a sudden and drastic health change... anything that throws our hearts open in a way we could not have anticipated, that leaves us thinking, "How did I get here," and where nothing we knew before quite fits. And these things might all be interior so that no one else would even know anything is going on. 

But what God does in this is call us to have faith in His goodness with us, His presence with us, and His leading, even though we may feel nothing, or animosity, or even doubt that He exists, because we thought the things we lost were where He was. It is here that God softens our hearts, takes our agendas, and gives us His.

But we can't make the Dark Nights happen. They are a gift. We can't give ourselves this kind of purification, but when we have tastes of it, we can say yes. We can ask the Lord to soften our hearts, to take away our hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh.

When we have soft hearts, the Word of God speaks to us easily. When we have a soft heart, love flows to us and through us easily. When we see Jesus hanging on the cross (in the person of the least, here with us) we can look on with sorrow. We can empathize. We can feel His pain. Our love is not cold. We are not caught up in the thinking that standards must be met before love is given. We are also not caught up in the thinking that evil in any form can be winked at, because all that matters is that everyone feel comfortable. Primarily we experience God's love flowing to us, and then through us as He would give it, without bitterness, unforgiveness, resentment and other corrosive elements. 

Having that in which we trusted shaken is messy business, and it is painful. Broken bits fly. But we need not lose everything. We can tell the Lord, "not my self-righteousness, but Yours; not my understanding, but Yours; not my will, but Yours. And I'll leave behind all my acts of uncleanness." Our trust that He is good will be rewarded, and like the men in the fiery furnace (Daniel 3) we will lose only that which was bondage for us.

Friday, March 13, 2020

A Few Thoughts on Fear

It seems the first stage of corona virus infection is the spread of fear. If you spend any time on Facebook or other social media, or even any humans at all, you've already probably witnessed people taking up positions. I've seen people emote, learn, educate, change, grow, plan... and mostly try really hard to keep laughing.

This is new territory for us. That alone can be enough to make people afraid.

This morning as I prayed Office of Readings, I read from Exodus about Moses receiving the covenant from God on Mout Sinai. There was some fear built into this process for the People of God. The threat God told Moses to pass on to the people was that no one should approach the mountain, and if they did, they were to be stoned to death or shot with arrows. Their signal was to be the ram's horn. When they heard that ram's horn, and then only, they could approach.

Think of it: we hear that God purposefully struck fear into the hearts of his people.

St. Irenaeus explains why this was the case: "He made them afraid as they listened, to warn them not to hold their Creator in contempt."

  1. the feeling that a person or a thing is beneath consideration, worthless, or deserving scorn.

As Irenaeus sees it, God was training his people to give him the consideration he deserves. Why? because God is an insecure egomaniac? Of course not. We need to give God due consideration because he is our origin, our Creator. Without giving him his proper due, his proper worship, we are serious out of tune with ourselves and we fall short of that for which we were created. If we don't worship, we are dysfunctional. It's for our good.

Fear, therefore, like all things we can feel, should be our servant. In this case of the corona virus, it is not a bad thing for fear to move us to prepare, if not for ourselves, then to be able to serve the vulnerable around us who don't have means, who won't necessarily be able to care for themselves, and who will suffer. Use the precautions that scientists advise to flatten the curve. Become more aware of the needs people have, if we tend to be on the dull side of thinking about others.

Fear, however, should not be our master, nor our enemy that we desperately try to beat away from us. Allow fear to do its necessary work, then bring it to Jesus, to Perfect Love, who casts it out. Pushing down fear, refusing to feel it, will create the panic that harms. Don't refuse God's servant. Don't forget it is ONLY God's servant. God is the master. Let him be that. Trust him, and entrust all of your concerns to him.

Therefore, put on the armor of God, that you may be able to resist on the evil day and, having done everything, to stand. Ephesians 6:13

Thursday, January 09, 2020


Recently I had a revelation about how much I both need and love silence.

The silence I love and need is more than the lack of sounds reverberating around me, although that is a good start. Silence, or within the silence I am drawn to and crave, there is a presence. The French OCDS talk about it a bit here. This silence is primarily a meeting place. It is a place where I meet God, or at least I am available to be met, should He desire to make his constant presence with me felt and sensible. It is me tuned in, tuned away from distraction, setting all the clatter aside.

Some people surround themselves with clatter, hug it to themselves, and panic if they are without it for a moment. This wearies me, saddens me, drains me.

But it isn't only about sounds: music, TV, radio, talking, "white noise," and so forth.

Thoughts make noise. My thoughts aren't as noisy as they used to be, and I don't find them demanding or deserving of the same attention they once did. It probably is why I don't blog as much as I used to.

But speaking of blogging, I have also known the state where I have to say something in order to enter into this silence. It's like another presence will stand in the middle of my heart and clear its throat until I pay attention to it, say or write the words to the one I need to say or write them to, thereby dismissing or rather dispatching this presence to go where it needs to go. And then I also can go where I need to go, which is into silence.

This silence is also linked to solitude. And since I am re-working this clunky English language to be able to express the state of my soul, I will also re-work the word solitude. I don't necessarily mean by solitude a state of being alone. I definitely do not mean by it a state of being lonely. I think of it more as a state of there being one present. Only one being is present. It is more of an idea of union, or communion, than of isolation. If I am in solitude with you, I am at complete peace, and your presence speaks and ministers peace to me, and I to you. In this peace, we are united, one, and more importantly it is a communion with the One who fills the silence. It is actually the most heavy, profound presence rather than some kind of lonely state. In this way, I think heaven would actually be perfect solitude (communion) and perfect silence (presence).

So I need and love heaven. Yeah, it always comes down to that, doesn't it.

But be practical. I'm on earth. I'm talking about an earthly experience. Our earthly experiences of divine communion must pale to the real thing. But you know what, I'll take pale experiences of heaven on earth any old day.

I experience this at times when I am home alone, and my heart is peacefully pouring outwards. I experience this at times in prayer at church when suddenly I am aware of God's presence, and I'm there, too. I experience this at times with another person, even without saying anything. Peace. Presence.

And the other day it struck me that this is real need of my soul. I could throw my husband's TV out the window, but that would not be the entire solution. I also need to throw out the things that make me feel rushed and therefore not peaceful -- like a disordered sense of responsibility for situations real, imagined, or unconsciously triggered.

And I suppose like the spiritual life often goes, entering into this silence is something one needs to practice, seek after, and pour energy into. It is both gift and task, as the trite, hippy-flavored saying goes.

My Beloved is the mountains,
The solitary wooded valleys,
The strange islands,
The roaring torrents,
The whisper of the amorous gales;
The tranquil night
At the approaches of the dawn,
The silent music,
The murmuring solitude,
The supper which revives, and enkindles love. 

Sunday, November 10, 2019

They Neither Marry Nor Are Given in Marriage; They Can No Longer Die

"The children of this age marry and remarry;
but those who are deemed worthy to attain to the coming age
and to the resurrection of the dead
neither marry nor are given in marriage.
They can no longer die..." (Lk 20:34-36)

This portion of the gospel read at today's liturgies has struck me in recent years as rarely getting the attention it deserves. Now, it is true that it doesn't quite fit in the larger theme of the other Scripture readings of the day. This is all the more reason to just give it a moment's focus.

I am reminded of the story of this town in Croatia which has become famous in the last few years. There have been no divorces in this town at all. Zero. It is attributed to the custom of putting the crucifix front and center in the wedding ceremony. 

And I believe this is what Jesus is alluding to when he talks about marriage and the resurrection. The question put to him (by people who didn't believe there was a resurrection) was, if seven brothers married one woman, whose wife would she be at the resurrection? Jesus points out that people who live "in this age" marry, but at the resurrection of the dead, people don't marry, because they can no longer die.

Ok, this translation doesn't include the word "because." To me, there is a logical connection here. Why do we marry? Is it to find happiness? To get love? According to Jesus, we marry in order to die. 

According to the Croatian marriage custom, marriage is about embracing the cross of Christ, about surrendering ourselves, about total self-gift, about love.  Marriage is about love. Love is about death. Marriage has a purpose that is only for this life, and that is the death and results in self-gift. Once we are in the beatific vision, we no longer live marriage, because we are in the state for which we have invested our life and our love during "this age."

When you love someone with all the human dynamics of passion, you will go to great lengths for that person. Christian marriage means those dynamics are oriented to self-sacrifice and self-giving for conformity to the cross of Jesus and for the highest good of the beloved, which is his/her conformity to the cross of Jesus. For the Christian, there is no other ultimate purpose for marriage.

When you choose a spouse, you choose the one best able to help you give everything. If you've ever been in any scenario where your "everything" is being called out, you realize that without a firm commitment and the foreknowledge that you are going to hate it at least a good chunk of the time, you are going to be in a mess.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Complete Joy

Without necessarily noticing how or when it happened, I realized I have felt spiritually stuck. The prayer not taking off kind of stuck. And I noticed this in the retrospect of getting unstuck.

What has unstuck me is literally being surprised by joy, to steal a C. S. Lewis phrase. This theme of joy has been standing out to me in Scripture, but it has been that sort of moment where you read a passage of Scripture you have read for 40 years, but suddenly it opens up for you in a completely unheard of way.

That's how joy has struck me.

I'm not sure I have ever previously meditated on what joy is. I have tended to passively regard it as either something I experience, or I don't. Or, actively I have regarded it as a choice: I will choose to rejoice and be glad. Gritting my teeth, telling God I'm glad for xyz. I've probably gotten that mixed in with "In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus." Or as they say in Fiddler on the Roof: God would like us to be joyful/ even when our hearts lie panting on the floor/How much more can we be joyful/ when there's really something to be joyful for?

What is this joy thing?

What is striking me right now is that joy comes from the union of my will with God's will. God's will for me is extreme love and goodness, overflowing and filling me. But this is not prosperity gospel nonsense, because God's will is also that I be conformed to Jesus, and Jesus suffered and died and redeemed the world. God's love overflowing through me occasionally results in my sorrow. That famous one-liner from my late spiritual director: Jesus gave Mary pain. Love is powerful redemptive stuff, and it is possible to love until it hurts. Think of the stories of the martyrs like Perpetua and Felicity and their companions. They were literally so full of joy that they did not immediately feel the wild animals ripping their flesh in the coliseum.

Joy is an ecstatic experience: it takes us out of ourselves. The union of my will with God's takes me out of myself and unites me to God. It fills me with the power, the ability to do things, and the fuel is love, ecstatic love.

In order to experience joy, I need to have my will both strengthened and purified. I need to have a strong faith to believe in God's goodness and in His love for me. I need to be purified and humbled through the experience of receiving his love. I need to have all the passageways of my soul opened up and flowing. I need detachment. I need submission and obedience. I need good reason. I need to examine my life, know what my duty is, and give my full yes.

And then ask, ask, ask for his joy to fill me.

I read John 15 about the vine and the branches this morning as if I'd never seen it before. It struck me, when Jesus says: "I am the vine, and my father is the vine dresser. He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit, and every one that does, he prunes so that it bears more fruit," that he is telling us something about his interior life. It also struck me that he is telling us something about our interior lives as well. We are branches in him, but our lives also have branches from us, and, just like I wrote above, all the passageways of our souls need to stay opened up and flowing. There will be nothing to flow if we do not stay connected to Jesus, and through Him to the Father. We do not have life in ourselves apart from his life in us.

He tells us all of this and then says (v. 11) "I have told you all this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete." He doesn't say I'm telling you this so you can feel really happy, and then embroider this on a throw pillow. He is talking about union with God, remaining in Him, living His life, bearing His fruit, being of one mind and one will with God. Complete joy. He says all this immediately before his passion and crucifixion. "For the joy set before him, he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God" (Heb. 12:2).

So joy is not something I try to feel, or feel by choosing, or just sit around and pine after like an impossible dream. It is a reality I step into, acknowledge, welcome, live in. "Lord, when your glory appears, my joy will be full." So says the psalm antiphon I have sung over and over again. The glory of God is man fully alive. Union of God is the ultimate aim of human life on earth. It is the what opens out into the beatific vision. It is joy. Pain, suffering, and human life are in no way incompatible with joy, but life without joy grinds down to fleshly willpower or tired indifference. To be vigilant for the presence of joy is also to be vigilant after union with the Beloved.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Trying Again

Obviously I didn't move very far in getting back to writing, as I said I intended to back in June. But I do occasionally get around to reading. Lots of things I wrote in past years stick vividly in my mind (as do the experiences that occasioned them). It is a concrete reminder of what has happened, interiorly. More often than not I am stunned as I go back in my emotional and spiritual memory to recognize and really face how much I have changed in the last few years. 

But for some reason, writing is off-putting to me now. It isn't only that I made myself so rawly vulnerable in the past that I basically had to heal from it. I may have a teensy weensy bit of PTSD when it comes to writing. 

It also seems to me that if I cannot write, or do not write, there is some fear at work, some hiding at work, and I don't think that's so good. 

Life is at a different speed, that's for sure. Not only am I constantly busy, but I am finding myself staying busy as a shield. One difference in my life is I have a lot more people who are asking for my attention, for my service, for my help, for my input, for my time, for my energy. To be honest, I used to feed myself on those kinds of requests. I took this kind of busy-ness for being loved and valued. Well, that's a good way to just get used, because I was always ready to say yes and give more, because once you start to try to fill the need for love in your heart with activity, you can never stop. But these days, it isn't like that. I am surrounded by people with need of one kind or another, and I'm the go-to person to help, to do. There are times when all these different people in my life -- who don't know about each other -- are all coming at me at the same time wanting me to do something for them, needing my help. I don't get warm fuzzies from helping. Sometimes I want to spend the entire day quiet and alone -- and goodness knows when the last time was that I did that. But I recognize that the needs are real and I'm available. I recognize the call to serve, to give, to care, to love -- but it is by no means an emotional warm fuzzy thing. Most of the time it is very not that.

And here's the thing. So, I have a new spiritual director these days. I had another for a few months and, well, we won't even get into that. But this new director has an approach focused on plopping me into Scripture and dealing with what happens there. And guess what I end up facing again. I have to go back to what God has given me, in all those years of transformation when I wrote a lot. I have to, with this kind of seasoned approach, go back, look at it all, own it, re-own it, bask in it, with the consciousness that is more mature than the WOW of the first experience. To fully acknowledge what God has given. And to drink from THAT well. Go straight to Him and drink there, from the anamnesis, so to speak. 

So I groan a bit. Anamnesis is the memorial offering, the thanksgiving offering, but it is also the reminiscence. The true thing is, when I think back on the beauty of what God has done, I cry, and I'm stirred. But it is also a battle, frankly. The part I see right now is that it is a battle because I am faced with more choices. I'm faced with rejecting the Pharisiacal heart that holds my own standards up as That Which Must Be Met. Do I want to feel good about myself, or do I want to be whole and holy. That's what it boils down to, sometimes. 

I think of St. Teresa whose feast it is today. She wrote a commentary on the Song of Songs when it was considered a tad scandalous for a woman to do that. But I guess she felt the Spirit of God tell her to write. And now she's a Doctor of the Church. I also thing of St. Catherine of Siena, trotting off to advise the Pope. I'm sure there was someone who told her (if not her own interior voice, at times) that this was not the place of a Dominican teriary, and a woman at that. But how does being whom God created us to be set the world on fire if there is no death to self in the process? Sometimes the hardest way to die to self is to feel unrighteous in what God calls us to do. Been at this location, performed that task. Back here again.

There are other reasons I groan. I kinda know some of them. Physically I've been exercising a losing weight and restarting my metabolism, which is like my body getting younger by a few years, which is all great, but it also sets me back into some anxiety issues I had those few years ago. Working with that. I'm feeling pretty powerless in several relationships these days. I guess I'm not working with that because frankly I don't know how. So I give them every day to Jesus, which is more than I can say I've done in years past. And there's a layer I'm not sure of. I've always thought I was sure of everything, especially about the inside of me. I hope its progress that mostly I feel like a shoulder shrug. Meanwhile, I keep answering the immediate requests of people for my energy. 

I guess I groan because I feel a shift on the horizon. That's nebulous. Maybe it is wishful thinking. Probably not, because there is always a shift on the horizon; my life is constantly changing. I'm learning to partner with the Lord. 

Pray for me, neh?

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Singing, Vulnerability, and Conversion

So, I mentioned in my catch-up post that I'm involved in ChristLife. I've been in several different roles, including administration, music ministry, and prayer teams, and I've also visited a few different parishes that have been running the program. I always have my antennae up and I'm running a future-looking analysis app in the background of all of these experiences.

Music is a hot topic in post-course evaluation discussions. And as a music minister my antennae twitch vibrantly when the topic comes up anywhere. At least in my community, nothing sparks intensity of opinion quite like the type of music used to lead people in worship and the way in which that music is executed.

But the ping pong match of "freedom in the Spirit" vs "comfort of tradition" and all the ways in which one can imperceptibly move into the other is predictable and boring after hearing out the personal views of particular individuals. A more fundamental question emerges from the strongly held stances.

Why do Christians sing? What does it have to do with being human? What does it have to do with prayer, and does anything about it lend itself to the life of conversion? And specifically how can singing together help propel our parish's ChristLife to its intended goal?

Why do Christians sing?

Ok, Scripture. Just in the book of Psalms we are enjoined to sing to God a bazillion times. We've been doing it forever, and our Jewish forefathers in faith have been doing it forever. So it isn't something that those who are raised in the church even think about, because it is so much a part of us. When I lived in Japan, though, it was pointed out to me, "Christianity is the religion where people sing together." Of all of the things that characterize religions, it never dawned on me that this would be striking for someone to whom Christianity was completely foreign. "They sing together." Japanese people sing together. We even use a Japanese word for one way to do that: karaoke. They have corporate songs and school songs, but not really any religious songs.

Being corporate

And Japanese singing tells us something about how music functions for human beings. Singing together requires an experience of corporateness. Many parts make up one body, one song-singing mass. We think or read the same words, the same timing, the same feeling, and we express these together. We speak one thing as one group.

Bump that up to the liturgical responses of Mass, or a Scriptural song where we are acclaiming God's word back to Him. Here, we are focus our words, our minds, our voices on the action of God or on the thoughts of God, and together with Him, we sing the words. We are corporate, with God. Singing, in this way, is one of the clearest human manifestations of being Church.

But at what cost?

There is something very vulnerable about being Church like this. This is not an accident. In order to actually sing, you have to let your voice be heard. But it's not your normal, daily voice. It's not your business voice. It's not your negotiating voice. For most of us, it isn't our most trained voice, the one we feel in control of. Singing denotes a revealing of a secret voice, one for sacred or intimate use. Scientists tell us that singing releases endorphins and bonds us to those we sing with. Human beings are designed to grow and thrive through this experience of giving into the vulnerability of singing together.

It sounds beautiful and poetic, and those of us who love music can be cheerleaders for this point. But those who have any experience of performing music for others will tell you there is a side to this beautiful and poetic experience that is terrifying. If you are performing a new piece or in a new context or it is especially important to you for whatever reason to do a certain thing very well, the adrenaline flows. You get nervous. Fight or flight instincts activate. Alertness levels peak. Doing this in community is actually part of what bonds people as they sing or perform.

So what about prayer?

Not everyone loves to sing. Singing in any context, let alone public performance, can evoke anxiety for some people, and therefore some simply don't sing, perhaps claiming that they actually cannot. I wonder how many of these would also feel they cannot pray. That they do not know how to make their voice or their heart heard to God. The hint I'd like to give them is that singing, in one way of understanding it, is unavoidably essential to prayer.

Oh, you can say prayers, recite them. You can pray silently. I do both of these every day. But in reality if the heart does not sing, the prayer does not rise.

And specifically, ChristLife

Let's look at a specific ChristLife context now. The fourth talk in Following Christ is all about forgiving those who have wronged us. The concept of forgiving someone is beautiful and poetic. Right? We are inspired by stories of people who do it. But the act of forgiving can be terrifying. It requires our energy, our focus. The experience is likely to dredge up what happened and lots of feelings. It takes courage to forgive.

And as we venture out into this fray of Following Christ session four, we sing a few songs. Why? Why throw songs in here, or in any Mass or any Christian context? It is not filler, it is not entertainment, it is not custom, it is no mere artistic segue. We sing to acknowledge our vulnerability before the God who made us, but loves us. We acknowledge that as God, he has every right to direct our lives. We acknowledge that we need and desire His grace. 

So what is this worship music for?

We sing to open our hearts, to be real, to assent to our vulnerability, and to declare truth.  I do not sing just for myself, but in singing for myself I am simultaneously singing to support the one next to me with the same truth. We sing to belong to each other.

To worship God is to lay our lives and hearts bare before the Lord, to allow His loving gaze to fall upon us, and to respond to His creative gaze with the love His Holy Spirit births into our hearts as we are there. And that's true whether we are singing, speaking, silent, acting, or crying: it is all a song. To worship God is an experience of emotion, but not only emotion. It is an experience of will, but not only will. It is a personal and private experience, and yet it is not only personal and private. Worship is to be the place of corporate authenticity of our deepest hearts, before God. Worship, expressed in song, is a place of faith and vulnerability. I believe this is the essense of the "new territory" that my community is learning to experience through ChristLife. And to navigate it well, it helps to state it explicitly.