Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Religious Phase, and A Thorn in the Flesh

Later on, like practically everyone else in our stupid and godless society, I was to consider these two years as "my religious phase". I am glad that that now seems very funny. But it is sad that it is funny in so few cases....If the impulse to worship God and to adore Him in truth by the goodness and order of our own lives is nothing more than a transitory and emotional thing, that is our own fault. - Thomas Merton from The Seven Storey Mountain

A few weeks ago at the park, I was talking to a couple of Catholic friends about our upbringings, whether they were religious. Mine was, but we really had family church with Dad in our home, on Saturdays, and it was sufficient. One dear friend was raised in Nicaragua where going to church on Sunday was pretty much a cultural obligation. The other was raised by a busy single mother in the USA, and only went to church with friends and their families. Both said that they remembered having the desire to pray often at about nine years of age.

I thought this was very interesting, and I wondered if this is something that occurs with most children around that developmental stage, the impetus to reach out to God. I also wondered if the opposite could often be true, too - a religious crisis. That is what happened to me at nine. I read a passage in the New Testament that scared the wits out of me, began to obsess about it and through months of mental agony felt certain I was going to offend God in an irreversible way.

Sadly, I felt that way again yesterday.

My old childhood affliction showed up with its WMD. And instantly, I was reduced, felt again that horrible separation from my Creator and the terror of it being permanent.

For years I had avoided this very specific torture, my personal thorn in the flesh, and I had come to believe that it could never debilitate me again. But yesterday, I became extremely aggravated about my special package of worldly concerns, and I mixed for myself a dangerous mental cocktail of weariness, frustration, self-condemnation, and depression. I should have seen the portal I was opening for an "angel of Satan" while stewing in my own insidious juices. But I didn't, and so I was an easy target. That is my own fault.

A thought struck with all its old familiar power, and after it came all the painful contemplations of what exactly I had thought, whether it was my own thought, and whether God would cease to have anything to do with me.

As I sat in the corner of my tiny kitchen, crying, and unable to distract myself with anything, my nine-year-old found me, asked if I was okay. After the third time, I finally answered him by lifting my hands mutely.

"It's okay, Mama," he said, having heard me tell his dad, obliquely, the source of my ordeal. "I've had bad thoughts, too. Really bad thoughts, and they used to bug me. It's gotten better - after about five days of praying."

That made me feel a tiny bit better. And then I remembered this passage from Saint Paul, but very imperfectly:

That I, Paul, might not become too elated, because of the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me, but he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me.  2 Corinthians 12:7-10

Unfortunately, when I remembered it I could only recall the "thorn in the flesh" and how Paul begged God to remove it, and I did not recall where in Paul's letters I could locate this passage. I wanted to find some comfort in it, because I remembered my dad quoting it to me when I was a child, suffering from my spiritual malady.

This morning I woke up, and bad as it may seem considering it was what I probably most needed, I did not feel like going to church. Besides, we were too late to make 9 am mass. Nevertheless, my husband insisted we go to the eleven o'clock.

You can imagine my astonishment and my gratitude when this passage from the letter to the Corinthians was the second reading. I had prayed God to bolster me, forgive me, not to desert me or deny me his Holy Spirit in the aftermath of my temporary defeat yesterday. And though I am nowhere close to a St. Paul, I felt assured as I followed the reading in my missal today that He would bolster me, forgive me, stay with me and keep His Comforter with me even in my abject weakness.

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