Monday, November 9, 2015

We are each given a gift...

"I can see God in everything. I see Him in my rye grass!" I cried during a come apart last Sunday afternoon after confessing that I felt ugly inside and out. My husband nodded; he knows. He has admitted that it is hard for him to find God continually in the things I do.

Later I sobbed, "But maybe I see Him everywhere, because if I didn't, He knows I would be hopeless."

That is not true, I know. Well, I know it now that God has rescued me out of that most recent storm. But at that moment in time I felt hopeless, a continual failure, an impossible project held together by a thread. His thread.

"My father told me...a long time ago...that we are all given something...a gift," an old shepherd says to Mary about the child in her womb in the movie The Nativity Story, but when she asks what his gift was, he shakes his head and answers, "Nothing but the hope of waiting for one." When the angel announces Christ's birth, "Rejoice! For, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy...", and the old shepherd flocks to look at the Savior with many other poor shepherds and sees him with his own eyes and touches him with his own trembling hand, Mary repeats to him, "We are each given a gift."

I know my gift. Understanding Scripture easily it is not. Perfect knowledge, a God's eye view? No. Courage I have to pray for every day. Humility and selflessness are constant decisions to be made. I don't yet know how or when to be silent and serene most of the time, how to bear my yoke patiently. My prayer is clumsy. My thoughts are wild. My heart needs constant fixing. But.....friends have said that what I do have is a childlike faith. That is my gift.

I truly see God in everything.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

This fresh battle of mine

The emotional upheaval I've been going through lately is kind of like the Loch Ness Monster. I have yet to discover its residence in the deep, but every so often it rears its head above the surface and causes fear and confusion and, later, a big let down and isolation, because I am the only one who sees how truly massive and disruptive it is.

Sometimes, often lately, I feel like I will never be a better wife, mother, Christian. In the words of St Paul:

What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate. Romans 7:15

So, then, I discover the principle that when I want to do right, evil is at hand. Romans 7:21 (NAB)

I am battling myself, and that is the hardest battle. I now more fully understand "the enemy within". As I beat back negative thought after negative thought and futile feeling after futile feeling, I am tempted to say my faith is no help at all right now, that I am on a slow, inevitable slide with every now and then a tiny ledge to cling to for a few moments or a few days.

But I know that is not so. My faith is each tiny ledge, each reprieve. My faith means I do not speak all the foolish words I could. It means I stop the thoughts - Thou shall not pass! It means I keep going when I want to give up on myself, a sinner who requires too much work and is too beaten down by the struggle, by her own innumerable foibles.

This past Sunday, one of my days of hope and reprieve, our Gospel reading at church came from Mark 10: 46-52:

As Jesus was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a sizable crowd, Bartimaeus, a blind man, the son of Timaeus, sat by the roadside begging. On hearing that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out and say, "Jesus, son of David, have pity on me." And many rebuked him, telling him to be silent. But he kept calling out all the more, "Son of David, have pity on me." Jesus stopped and said, "Call him." So they called the blind man, saying to him, "Take courage, get up, Jesus is calling you." He threw aside his cloak, sprang up, and came to Jesus. Jesus said to him in reply, "What do you want me to do for you?" The blind man replied to him, "Master, I want to see." Jesus told him, "Go your way; your faith has saved you." Immediately he received his sight and followed him on the way. (NAB)

And I found in this passage a personal message from God's living Word. Essentially, I must not give up. I am going through a thing right now, not unlike a spiritual, emotional and mental blindness, but that does not mean I should give up on myself. No, I must call out to Christ all the more. It means I must ignore the thoughts that tell me to be quiet, to sink, because I am not worth the effort, and instead I must recognize the words, thoughts and situations that are plainly saying, "Take courage, get up, Jesus is calling you."

When I spring up to meet Him, and He asks what I want him to do for me, I need only reply, trusting in my faith to save me, "I want to see." And, as our Deacon said in his homily, just like Bartimaeus, when Christ tells me to go my way, I must choose His way.

Miserable one that I am! Who will deliver me from this mortal body? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord. Romans 7:24-25

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Fear's antidote: Hope, yielding courage

My sister Annie recommended a great movie to me when I recently saw her for the first time in years.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty it's called. Ben Stiller is its director and star.

I knew if Annie liked this movie, my chances were really good to love it. She introduced me to Miss Potter, after all. I also knew my chances were even better when I saw that this movie for adults was rated PG.

There's a great scene, my favorite scene, where the woman Walter Mitty admires is singing "Space Oddity" by David Bowie to Mitty - with its line of "and may God's love be with you" - and he abandons reserve and fear and runs to catch a helicopter as it takes off, amazed at himself when he jumps and hangs on as its lifting off into stormy skies.

Really, the movie is about chasing life, taking chances, embracing adventure, trading daydreams for experience and overcoming the fear that challenges our initiative.

Overcoming fear, yes. That's a theme I understand. It's the theme of my life at the moment it seems. I'm afraid I will never learn to do that expertly, but I keep trying, and that, I suppose, takes a kind of bravery in itself. The trying and not giving up part.

Fear would control my life if I gave up. The thoughts about worst possible outcomes would steal my vitality and even my love if I caved to them. I am constantly at war. I am constantly praying for courage. I am constantly beating back the large, dark, negative thoughts, growing weary in the cold waters but still determined.

I fear the known and the unknown. The possible and the impossible. But most of all I fear my fear will keep me from God.

I know it's not His gift. It is another's choice weapon, wielded remorselessly.

A couple days ago my friend Dana told me a parable of sorts as we chatted over coffee, a short story about letting go, about going with the flow and finding peace in it, and I recognized quite clearly that that's what I need to do. Let go, go with the flow. Stop being afraid of the current and its eventual destination. Stop fighting phantoms of the future so dang hard.

Not go with the flow of this convoluted culture, not follow the crowds down the broad, beaten way, but let go in a Godly way, being faithful and hopeful as I face the changes in my family's life together, as I face the changeable world around us. And that's just what an acquaintance spoke about with me today at church, being faithful in the storm, keeping Him and seeing Him, Jesus, in every new situation and new face and new challenge. I needed to hear that, and I thanked her for sharing her wisdom with me. God was reaching out to me in these friends, I believe, touching and instructing me.

I know I need strength to accept the adventure, the uncertainty of this life, to let go, trusting in myself, my family and others.

Courage to live and to live well, that is what we all need. We acquire a little more of it with each fresh step forward, with each faithful leap and spring of hope into uncharted waters.

May God's love
be with us.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Jesus in the confessional

I suffer from scrupulosity. It's a form of OCD and means quite simply that I fear my own sins and their consequences with an unholy fear. I fear losing a relationship with God, because I feel I sin or am prone to sinning continually.

Because of this condition and because I am a Catholic Christian, I often feel I need to go to confession for thoughts or feelings that circle constantly, and an anxiety builds until Saturday, the usual day for the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. I agonize often, Do I need to go this week before participating in Communion? Having learned to trust in God's mercy more, I have learned that I cannot run to confession every week if I wish to maintain my own balance and proper relationship with this Sacrament.

But this last Saturday I felt I needed to go. Obsessive and uncharitable thoughts - often impacting my speech and actions and the peace of my home - have been a terrible struggle for two months now.

While waiting in line for confession, I heard a loud guffaw come from the confessional. I thought it was the person confessing. How strange!

But when I entered the confessional, I soon realized by his tone that it must have been the priest.

A merry priest.

To the world that must sound crazy, but that is who I encountered.

He was the only one there that day to hear confessions, one long line coming to kneel near him behind a screen and pour out their hearts. I have often thought about these priests sitting and listening for over an hour to the sins of one person after another, on and on. That is a job description, a responsibility, a demand on your resources and patience that could surely wear you down. How hard it must be to give the right guidance, to point to the love and mercy of God in everything while yet directing people away from their sins and back on to the narrow path, following Christ.

What are the chances that all the priests I have spoken with in confession would be good confessors? All such different men. Some young, some old. Some Americans. Some from other nations and cultures. Some loquacious. Some austere. Some friendly. Some strictly the business at hand. Some gentler. Some strict. Thinking about human beings generally, I would say the chances are not high they would all know what to say. But in their way, they have all been good confessors. Why?

By the grace of God, I believe.

I have often felt, even when difficult to swallow or causing me greater pain before healing, that what I heard in the confessional was what God wanted me to hear, his pruning action on my soul.

And this past week what he wanted for me and for others was a merry priest. One who when I got to a certain part in my confession, declared, "Bingo!" to indicate he thought I had gotten to the heart of the matter. One who told me that he knew it was pointless to tell me not to worry. One who told me plainly that my struggle will not be easy but was yet so cheerful and so hopeful that I felt I could muster on. One who lifted me up by stressing that when God is invited into the mix, everything is better. Even our worry. Even our fear. If we can invite his help with it, if we can be grateful for what we have, and positively ask him to increase it, our love and faith, then we don't need to feel isolated in our struggle, because the struggle is not all our own. God is fighting and winning for us.

He laughed before my confession was over, and I was grateful for its influence, and then he said a long and quite specific prayer over me, one that pinned up my frayed edges in the clear light of love, and I was astounded and thankful yet again for guiding wisdom.

I left the confessional, and I knelt and prayed near the Blessed Sacrament, grateful for mercy and a lighter yoke.

When I left the church I stopped and bought myself a chocolate candy bar, because sometimes you feel so freed and lighthearted that you just have to celebrate.

I encountered Jesus in the confessional.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Better with Jesus

Many months ago I was surveying my many snowman knick-knacks with childlike pleasure.

"Snowmen make me happy," I said to my children. "I don't even really know why. Just like strawberries make your Grandmama happy."

Then something struck me. What could be better than snowmen? Well...

"The only thing better than snowmen would be building a snowman with Jesus," I said.

If there was a prize given for most childlike love of Jesus, I think I would be in the running every year. I picture him often: walking with him, running down a dirt road toward him, holding his hand, running to give him a hug, seeing him offer the chalice and bread to my family during Mass.

My children were like, "Yeah!" when I mentioned building a snowman with Jesus. They could see it as I could. And thus it began.

"Everything would be better with Jesus."

A snowball fight? Better with Jesus!

Playing soccer? Better with Jesus.

Seeing the Grand Canyon? Better with Jesus.

Playing fetch with the dog? Better with Jesus.

Having a beer? Better with Jesus.

Gardening? Better with Jesus, of course.

Watching the sunset or sunrise? Better with Jesus.

Life is simply better lived with Jesus.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Short Reflection: Music and Praise

The organ at Bath Abbey in Bath, UK

Catholics are sometimes criticized for not having lively worship music with plenty of instrumental accompaniment in church. It depends on the church, really, but I have been in a fair amount of Protestant and Catholic churches, and I can understand where the critics are coming from to a certain degree. I love how passionately my aunt plays the piano in her church, abandoning herself and her unique gifts to exuberant praise.

But I have always been someone who listens to lyrics, words being how I express myself most often, and those are the most likely to move me, especially if heartfelt, soulful lyrics are paired with beautiful melodies, such as is the case with "Amazing Grace".

In my parish church we usually have just one pianist/organist and one cantor (the person who sings the Psalm and leads the hymns). Yet, I have had some heart-piercing experiences with music in our simple musical setting.

I think part of our appreciation and worship experience stems from how we receive sacred music. Yes, I love belting out Christmas carols, but I also love solemnly intoning, "Stay with me. Remain here with me. Watch and pray..." on Holy Thursday before Good Friday.

We sing the "Gloria" at every Mass except during Lent as Catholics. It is an affirmation of faith. It is a song of praise. It is a prayer of thanksgiving. If it is sung with joy, ebullience, it unites the whole community, but if is sung sleepily or mechanically, it falters. I have caught myself roaming away from the words, singing it without heart, and I wake myself up and pick up my pitch and start to really sing, so my Heavenly Father can hear that this child is grateful. This child is happy, because of His love. We and all creation are a part of that "great glory" of the Father's for which we thank him in the Gloria, so we should sing it with gusto.

But the quieter moments in song often move me more. During and after communion in my home parish, I kneel and say my most urgent prayers of thanksgiving and supplication on behalf of my family and of others whose needs I know. But sometimes I am caught up in the soft words of the communion hymn, and I am mesmerized by the voices of my fellow parishioners around me. Once, as I knelt after receiving, I could hear the voices of my husband, the male cantor that morning, and of another male parishioner, and as tears rolled down my cheeks, my prayers were caught up in the words of the hymn that they sang in their deep tones. It was peaceful, beautiful, and joyful.

That has often happened to me during Mass. During hymns I have often cried. I am not stomping my feet or clapping my hands or smiling, but my tears are happy tears, and through them and the words I sing, I see Jesus and I pray.

Christ be beside me, Christ be before me, Christ be behind me, King of my heart.
Christ be within me, Christ be below me, Christ be above me, Never to part.

Christ on my right hand, Christ on my left hand, Christ all around me, Shield in the strife.
Christ in my sleeping, Christ in my sitting, Christ in my rising, Light of my life.

A hymn with text attributed to St. Patrick, 372-466, and music by James Quinn, 1969

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Saints: Always Friends, Forever Family

Happy St. Patrick's Day! I find St. Patrick's story to be astounding and encouraging. He truly did love his enemies and lose his life for Christ. To know more about him than shamrocks, Ireland and green beer (something which he did not invent), I recommend you read this post from a fellow blogger.

I've decided to write about saints today since it is a very prominent saint's day. I had a friend tell me recently that she went to a Bible study group and was surprised that Protestants in the group referred to St. Paul merely as "Paul" when discussing his letters. I had to laugh. I had forgotten that, but of course it's true. Since I have converted, like fellow Catholics, it has become second nature to say St. Peter, St. Paul, St. John, St. Gabriel, etc..

But what do we crazy, silly Catholics mean by talking of or to saints, by asking them to pray for us? Aren't they dead? Shouldn't all supernatural conversation be limited to God our Father and Jesus His Son? What can the saints even do for us?

To express it simply, we view saints - those who lived, sacrificed and died for Jesus - as our big brothers and sisters in Christ. We do not view them as dead and unapproachable, just as many do not view their deceased relatives as being completely absent from their lives just because they are absent from this world. Saints are part of our Christian family, one body in Christ. Instead of being here with us, they are now with God - a great cloud of witnesses ( Hebrews 12:1) - for he is not the God of the dead but of the living, as Jesus told those tricky Sadducees (Mark 12:26-27).

Jesus also told the thief on the cross that he would be with him that day in Paradise, and so we believe that the saints are with God now. We ask them to pray for us -  for "The fervent prayer of a righteous person is very powerful." (James 5:16, NAB) - just as we and all Christians regularly ask for the prayers of our neighbors, friends, and family.

On a more personal note, I have a confirmation saint, St. Therese Lisieux, who I view as a dear friend, my big sister in Christ, an ally who is rooting for me and helping me to keep my eyes on Jesus. Her autobiography, The Story of a Soul, was very eye-opening, encouraging and comforting for me as I read of some of her struggles that are quite similar to my own. My husband gave the book to me as a Confirmation gift. I was hoping for a necklace, silly woman, but I am grateful God provided spiritual nourishment instead. Just as I love reading the conversion stories and faith journeys of women in a Christian bloggers' group I was fortunate to join, reading about St Therese's life was a source of Christian inspiration for me, and it continues to be.

So, yes, we crazy Catholics do ask the many Christians who have come before us to pray for us to our Heavenly Father. We do indeed ask the angels, including our Guardian angels, to pray for us. At Holy Saturday Mass we sing the extremely beautiful "Litany of Saints" in which we ask saint after saint to pray for us, beginning with Mary, the angels and the apostles. Though there are many, many Christian saints that only God knows about, we also find a great deal of courage, encouragement and solace in reading the stories of the lives of those we do honor. They are our elder Christian siblings, and they are great examples for us.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Sunlight on the Forest Floor: Children of God

A while ago I read an article from someone who was debating the Catholic belief in the Eucharist. He essentially asked, Why on earth would the King of the Universe lower himself to become something we eat and digest?

The questions that must follow such a query are: Why would the King of the Universe die on a tree for us? Or be born as one of us, a dependent infant, in a stable?

The cross was considered a very humiliating death, and yet God suffered it for us as only God could. And the manger itself speaks volumes about how much our God values humility, honesty and simplicity, not the transient wealth, station, or power the world esteems.

Why is God present with us? Why was he born among animals and crucified with criminals?

Love, my friends. Crazy, incomprehensible love.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone that believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. John 3:16-17

We know we were created in the image of God, and as I have recently learned more fully that does not mean we look like him or have a static image stamped within our chest. It means that God put a navigational system within us that guides us always closer to him, along the path of his Truth. If we listen. Faith is a gift; it is God's call and our response. Sadly, it is always possible to turn away from the GPS or to grow so accustomed to ignoring it that we do not even pay it mind. That is part and parcel of the gift of Free Will. We can run toward the One who made us or we can flee from him.

Before I became a Catholic, I observed a lot of fire and brimstone opinions about humankind, and I think I believed them. Essentially, the idea was that God could not wait to punish people, that he was very impatient indeed to bring the world to an end, so that he could banish a lot of people to hell for their vile ways. To sum up this viewpoint: human beings are fundamentally evil, and God cannot wait to destroy this race.

My understanding now is quite different. Why would God call creation good and then pine after its destruction? Why would he make us in his image and then desire our eternal punishment? Why would he send His Son to teach, to heal, to forgive, to die for us if he believed we were not worth the effort? Why indeed was God the Son criticized so utterly for hanging around sinners? The answer is that we have been corrupted by sin, but we are essentially good, for we are made in the image of the One in whom there is no darkness at all. (1 John 1:5)

Yet we know darkness exists in the world. The story of Adam and Eve, not read literally but nevertheless as absolute spiritual truth, teaches us that humankind tried to run from their Maker long ago, and they attempted to grasp "to become like gods". This is called Original Sin, and if you have ever observed small children fighting over toys, biting, hitting, lying, criticizing those they love, uttering "Me first!", then you have seen its effects played out (not to mention adults and what we grow capable of). As for the evil one by whom deceit entered, Christ referred to him, "the ruler of the world" (John 14:30), thus:

Why do you not understand what I am saying? Because you cannot bear to hear my word. You belong to your father the devil and you willingly carry out your father's wishes. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in truth, because there is no truth in him. When he tells a lie, he speaks in character, because he is a liar and the father of lies. John 8:43-44

That is Satan. Unfortunately, too many doubt his existence or influence. As the gospel singer Keith Green sang in a song about the devil: You know it's getting very simple now, cause no one believes in me anymore!

But what is our hope if we know evil exists and recognize that there is an evil one who prowls about, seeking those whom he can destroy? (1 Peter 5:8)

The cross, the cross upon which hung God made Flesh. That cross is bursting with meaning for those who gaze upon it. That cross is freeing. That cross defeated death and evil and Original Sin by the power of the one who hung upon it in sheer agony and asked His Father to forgive those who had put them there, for they knew not what they did. (Luke 23:34)

Once upon a time I heard a lot of criticism of the prevalence of the crucifix in Christianity. After all, do we not worship a risen Christ? Indeed we do, but the image of that crucifix, like that of the simple cross, speaks wonders to us. It reminds us of the immense love God has for us in dying for us, His creation. It reminds us that He humbled himself in so great a way as to endure our uneasy existence and then curses, beatings, mockeries, agony, lashings, and death by torture in order to free us from sin, to give us hope and life, and to restore that Made-in-the-Image GPS system to proper function. It reminds us that we are sinners like everyone else, and that we need to follow Christ daily.

But it reminds me most of love, that incomprehensible, overflowing love that I can feel every day.

If you know what was done for humanity on that cross, what was given to us that day in history and outside of history, you cannot help but love God mightily. Through Jesus' death and resurrection, and by faith, repentance and grace, we can become sons and daughters of God. Through the Holy Spirit we then cry out, "Abba, Father!"

For those who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a spirit of adoption, through which we cry, "Abba, Father!" The Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit that we are Children of God...Romans 8:14-16 (NAB)

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Grasping and Running

RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) classes are the means by which inquirers seeking to learn more about the ancient Christian Church discover what Catholics truly believe. I am already fully initiated in the Catholic Church, but I received so much from being in the classes before my initiation and helping in them after my confirmation on Easter 2012 that I continue to go still. It's my mom's night out, the place where I can go to talk with adults about my absolute favorite subject: God. Unfortunately, talking for me can be a problem. I speak far too much in these classes, laugh too loud, and add my opinion when completely unnecessary. I am supposed to be helping, but my assistance is not needed by the intelligent, professor-like priest who leads the class. He has a far better handle on theology than I do. It's an exercise in humility for me and an exercise in restraint. Learning to curb my tongue can do me nothing but good, so I am trying to do my best to listen and learn. As is true with the life he gave to us, when it comes to God, learning never ends.

In one of the classes we watched a segment of the excellent and beautifully produced Catholicism with Fr. Robert Barron, a very charismatic priest with a wonderful ministry, in which he spoke about the human condition and the story of Adam and Eve. When it comes to God, he said, some of us are graspers and some of us are runners. We either try to grasp God and explain him in specific, well-defined terms, or we try to flee and hide from him.

I knew right away what I was. I'm a grasper. I don't run from God. I'm chasing him. I am trying to get him to fit in this big box I hold in my hands. I want understanding so badly; I don't have time to just sit around and wait for it.

But we cannot grasp God. He is a Mystery. Not the kind to be solved and explained, with parameters marked out and nifty equations to memorize for future use, but the kind that pulls us deeper into a profound truth, deeper into Himself. (Yes, I learned that in RCIA.)

Long ago my dad told me something about myself I have not forgotten - that I would be the one to read all about a great invention, study it, memorize how it works, and then claim that I had invented it. I don't think that was unfair. As I recall, I needed to be put in my place that day. Well, often I treat Scripture as a God manual, trying to figure him out. But that is not how Scripture should be read, as a device to support our theology or our personal ideas. Margaret Nutting Ralph, a writer of a guide to understanding Scripture, suggested that we pray while reading the Bible, and instead of asking if the words supports our own ideas, we ask, "What is this passage trying to teach me?" It is a much more fruitful and humble question, I think, and therefore likely to provide insight.

As for being a grasper, I am not merely that, I know. I'm a runner, too, but in a good way. I am running toward God, because I want to know him. I want to meet him in person someday, and the truth is this marathon is a gift. He is the One pulling me. He is my Creator; I was made by him, for him, so it is natural for me to run toward him even when I think it is unreasonable, even when I get exhausted, even when I sit my behind in the weeds, whine and think of turning back. By his grace I get up and run on, and he grasps my hand.