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I’m blessed to share my home with two adorable furry housemates: Sabrina and Alvis. In addition to companionship, comfort, and fun, they’ve also given me occasion to ponder my relationship with God, how I see Him, and how He perhaps sees me. Granted, the analogy isn’t perfect; God sees me as His own daughter, not as a pet, and at the same time, He is far more superior to me than I am to my cats. But it’s been helpful nevertheless.
No matter how unpleasant your situation is, no matter how little sense it makes to you, keep trusting!
To my cats, getting locked up in a carrier, being taken to a strange place to be poked and prodded by strange people, then coming home only to be force-fed pills or vile liquids–sometimes with the added indignity of being wrapped up in a towel like a cat burrito–is nothing but a series of meaningless trauma. They don’t understand that these things are happening in order to make, or keep, them healthy and feeling well. And it is surely mystifying that the same person who was cuddling and feeding and playing with them just a short time ago should now turn so cruel and cold, ignoring their cries and their squirming. So it is sometimes with me and God. Sometimes life seems to take a cruel turn for no apparent reason, and sometimes God seems like a completely different Person, seemingly ignoring my pleas.
But just as I know that taking my cats to the vet and treating any ill condition is for their good, so does God know what good may come from times of testing, purification, building and re-building, fortifying my weak spots, strengthening me where I need it, and chiseling away ugly spots or sharp edges. And if my will toward my cats is so good, then surely God’s will toward me is far better still! And well, at least He hasn’t given me the burrito-wrap treatment… yet.
At the same time, be prepared to accept and to marvel that God is a complete mystery.
Each and every morning, my cats witness an astonishing ritual. Each and every morning they see me close myself up in a small, cramped torture chamber that–horror of horrors!–sprays water all over me. Water! All over me! And I submit myself to this insanity willingly, even with delight! What sort of messed up masochist does that?! And that’s just one example of the apparent insanity that possesses me.
Likewise, there are things I just can’t understand about God–things no mortal human can understand. Like the Trinity. Like the Passion and Crucifixion. Like the Resurrection. Like what exactly He sees in me that is so special that He created me out of nothing and holds me lovingly in existence, a little speck afloat in the unspeakable vastness of the universe–not only that but that He loves me! These mysteries–both majestic and intensely intimate to my little life–always surround God, as He surrounds me with His marvelous deeds, His tremendous power, His unwavering attention, and His boundless love. And how He must smile when we gaze toward Him wide-eyed and bewildered, just as I smile at my cat sitting nervously outside my shower!
How many people prefer to dismiss Him today as something impossible and foolish to believe in! How many people are eager to dismiss all things that are mysterious and marvelous just because they cannot be examined by human eyes or neatly defined by human definitions! What a magnificent relationship they are missing!
You’re always your best when you are simply yourself, flaws and all–there’s no need to fear rejection!
My cats sometimes make me crack up with laughter (see: Sabrina being silly at left). They do it without any shame whatsoever. They are free spirits who do whatever comes naturally in the moment. Sometimes, they make me shake my head because they don’t realize how incredibly comfy and easy their lives are–but I wouldn’t ever want it any other way! Sometimes they’re a real handful–like when I’m trying to give them medicine and they just won’t be still, and I have to resort to the burrito-wrap. But I understand and just do my best to make it as quick and painless as possible (knowing full well that they would beg to differ). And sometimes they are so incredibly sensitive and insightful and tender toward me when I am sad or sick or in any kind of pain that it’s like God is acting through them. They may never know what it means to me that they are just who and what they are, and that I love them for it.
I think God regards us the same way, whether we make Him laugh or shake His head or even when we squirm and kick and scratch and protest and do our darnedest to shove Him away. He knows when we are trying to lie or hide or BS Him. He sees straight through us. He knows how we are made. He knows our limitations. He knows our individual personalities. He knows them–He loves them–He even died for them. And no matter how much we may reject Him–for He made us free to do so if we truly wish it–He never wills nor wishes to reject us. That’s pretty amazing, isn’t it? Sometimes, it’s a bit difficulty and even frightening to believe! We are so fearful of the rejection we sometimes suffer from our fellow man. We may instinctively try to throw up walls between ourselves and God.
But what liberty, what joy, what lightness of being and peace of mind can be ours if we will venture to just be ourselves before God! I could never reject my cats just for being the cats they are. And God would never reject me for just being the human being I am. Nor would he reject any one of us for being who and what we are.
As good as we are to our pets, those little creatures we share our lives and homes with, God is far better–infinitely better!–to us. And as much as we enjoy our pets, God rejoices so much more in us, His own children. And as much as we would love to spend our whole lives with our beloved pets, so much more does God desire to spend all eternity with us. So never doubt, never fear, never dismiss Him! Curl up in his arms with all the confidence and security that your pets curl up next to you with!
Alvis says “Relax!”
I know that sounds selfish and prideful, and it certainly is if that is your prevailing attitude in life. But sometimes it is completely necessary and beneficial. You can’t give of yourself if you are running on empty. And I have been running on empty. It’s sort of like when you’re on a plane and they give you the run-down on safety matters–put your own oxygen mask on first, and then assist others. It was years before I understood the good and logical reason behind that instruction. You can’t very well assist anybody if you can’t breathe yourself.
And so, I have been trying to focus on myself. Doing things that I know will be profitable to me. I’m even taking a break from looking for Mr. Right–this is partly out of scientific curiosity; I want to test the very popular and widespread theory that “When you’re not looking, that’s when the perfect person will come along.” We shall see about that.
Among other things, I just completed an introductory computer programming course via Coursera. I took it just because I felt like learning something completely new. I wasn’t too sure whether I would be any good at it, but I did it anyway, and it turns out I am pretty good at it (so far)! It might even lead me down a new path in my career. I’ve already signed up for some future classes in math and science.
For so many years, I was convinced that I was no good at math and science and never could be, not in a thousand years. Now, I wish I could go back in time and give my younger self a sound shaking and say “Don’t you believe it. Don’t you dare believe it!” Now, I am trying to make up for lost time. The truth is, I’ve always had a natural love and fascination with science. My mind has always worked in scientific ways. My heart and soul have always been in it–regardless of what marks I got in school. I always knew a truth that was far more important than anything I could learn in school: I knew that science would help me know God better. And I know that now more than ever before. That is my driving force.
It feels good to broaden my horizons and unfurl my sails! Who knows where I might end up? Adventure–I think that is what I need most of all right now. An adventure with the One who knows me best and loves me most.
I’ll close with one of my favorite G.K. Chesterton quotations: “All science, even the divine science, is a sublime detective story. Only it is not set to detect why a man is dead, but the darker secret of why he is alive.”
It is impossible not to be struck by the epistle from today’s Mass:
Brothers and sisters:
Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God,
with which you were sealed for the day of redemption.
All bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling
must be removed from you, along with all malice.
And be kind to one another, compassionate,
forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ.
So be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love,
as Christ loved us and handed himself over for us
as a sacrificial offering to God for a fragrant aroma.
St. Paul gives us quite a tall order, and he frames it in our relationship with the Holy Trinity: “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit,” “be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us.” We are all children of God, and naturally, how we treat each other is an integral part of how we relate to God–and vice versa. For if you love God and have a strong and true relationship with Him, you will be much more cognizant of how you treat other people, and all other things that He has created.
Probably the most difficult thing in the above scripture is to “[forgive] one another as God has forgiven you.” This is not a new idea, for it is part of the Lord’s Prayer: “And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” It is also in the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.” And in other places in scripture, the point is made very clear: mercy comes to the merciful, and those who receive mercy are obliged to show mercy. No Christian can claim ignorance of this teaching.
And yet, to forgive and to show mercy… I find it extremely difficult sometimes! Even though I know how merciful God has been to me, and how merciful other people have been to me many times, and even though I know my obligation to forgive others… I often find it much easier said than done. Fortunately, the priest spoke to this difficulty during his homily. He said that forgiveness will almost always be willed long, perhaps very long, before it is felt–but that the will to forgive is the more important of the two, and that God will always accept and work with a willingness to forgive. It might take a long time before the heart catches up with the mind–but that is often true.
So, we should not worry nor fear nor be anxious if we don’t immediately “feel like” forgiving somebody, or even feel like we can forgive them. God in His wisdom has made a point of drilling it into our minds that we need to forgive others, and that forgiving others is the best thing for us. Even if we feel a great aversion to forgiving, we should offer it up to God, saying, “Lord, you know how greatly I am suffering from what so-and-so did to me, and that I’m having a very hard time forgiving them. But I want to forgive them. Please help me do so, and to heal from the sufferings they’ve caused me.” I pray this way often. And gradually, I do find healing and find that I am able to move beyond whatever injury I’ve suffered.
It’s not easy, but it’s far better than allowing “bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling … along with all malice” to dwell within us and fester. Those things are the raptor claws of the devil that inject poison into us and seek to tear us from God’s side forever. It’s far better to just try your best to forgive–no matter how feeble you may think your efforts are. God will not let them go to waste.
Some have asked me how long my retreat will last. It’s always hard to predict before hand, but I always know when I’ve reached the end. The end is when when I reach the point where all the things I’ve done during the retreat become things I do every single day, without having to set my mind to it very hard. The end is when the lessons I’ve learned become deeply engrained and immovable. The end is when I can face some kind of crisis without totally falling apart. In short, the end is when my world and everything in it fall back into their correct places, bathed in the light of God.
This particular retreat has been rather lengthy. But that’s all right. Such things need as much time as they need, nothing more and nothing less. It’s not something that can be limited or planned out.
I can’t tell you what relief and rejuvenation I feel.
What I would tell you is this: You have to rest sometimes. What my life has been lacking for a long time is rest. I don’t just mean sleep, although that is very important. I mean periods of silence, stillness, and simple communion with God. If you don’t remain in contact with God, you will lose yourself and you will lose your sense of what is truly important. You’ll get pulled in a thousand different directions. You’ll pour your time and energy into things that don’t really matter in either this world or the next. You’ll start losing the voice of your Good Shepherd and start getting led about by other voices: the world, the flesh, and the devil. You’ll start becoming somebody you’re not, and you’ll start wanting to be somebody you’re not. You’ll start letting other things and other people define you and your values.
But in God, you will find yourself again. That’s what I needed more than anything. To find myself again. To be myself again. To let everything else fall by the wayside: all the distractions, all the noise, all the pride, all the masks, all the walls, all the many things coming between God and me.
Ideally, we should always be making time for rest and for communion with God. Ideally, we should never let all the other “stuff” intervene and build up so thick around us that we have to have it chiseled away. The reality is that it can be a really slippery slope. The reality is that sometimes things have to get overwhelmingly bad before we are compelled to fix them. At least, that’s the reality for me. And that’s why I sometimes have to undergo retreats. I have to force myself with every shred of will and discipline to just withdraw and seek out rest and seek out God.
Things have gotten much better and much easier. I feel like everything is finally the way it should be. Thank You Lord! I hope I can keep myself on the right path… for a while…
I’m still here and still doing my retreat. During this time, I’ve talked about shaking things off, or having things chiseled off. And for a while, that has been happening. Many things have fallen away or been taken away from me: worldly and spiritual indolence… arrogance… trying to be somebody other than who I am and who God created me to be… overall malaise… grudges and non-forgiving… putting too much value on material things… lots of unhealthy and unattractive things.
I have now come to a place where I am rather bare. Raw in some spots. Vulnerable. There are things I would still like to shake off or have removed. And God says, “There are some things that can’t be shaken. And there are some things I will not remove from you. There are some things so integral to who you are that you would not be yourself without them. You may not understand them. You may not want them. You may think they are not good for you, that they are even harmful to you. You will understand someday. For now, you have only to trust me and accept them. Accept yourself.”
This takes me back to the very first day of my current retreat, when I pondered weakness and strength. I put my finger squarely on one of my greatest weaknesses: namely, that I hate weakness. Now, I have been brought to the heart of the matter. After so much has fallen away from me, I still have weaknesses. It’s still difficult to accept them and to put them in God’s hands. But it is far less difficult than it was on day 1.
Things that can’t be shaken… things integral to me… I think the chief among these is grief. A few nights ago, it hit me like a hammer: the loss of my father, and ever farther back, the loss of my intended husband. I wept and cried and felt the losses in my soul as I have not done in years. I think that my grief for my father has only recently fully sunk into me. And I think the reason is that I’ve put up barriers to it… not been true to myself and to my situation. It’s one of those spots that has newly been stripped away. Grief, for losses old and new… it is always going to part of me. Not only my past, but also my present and future. I can’t be rid of it and still be myself.
But the surprising and wonderful part of this is: when I acknowledge that grief has a place in myself and in my life, then that place becomes very defined. Because grief has a place, it can’t fully occupy me or take over my whole life and being. When it has a place–and when I allow it its place–it stays in its place. And that’s a good thing. Grief occupies its own chamber within my heart. But my heart keeps beating and growing and expanding. It opens wide to include new people and new joys and new possibilities. When I give grief its place, then my life and my love and my self flourish.
St. Paul’s words come back to me: “For when I am weak, then I am strong.” I think I understand that better now.
There are many other such integral and unshakable things. Some are genuine strengths–for we all have strengths, just as we all have weaknesses. Some are strengths that may come across as weaknesses to the outside world–I am a “still waters run deep” kind of person; not very impressive on the outside, but a constant wellspring of thinking and sensing and reasoning and understanding. Sometimes I would like to be a lot more impressive on the outside, but then I would be just a shallow, dried-up, graven image of a person, and not my authentic self.
Being anything other than my authentic self is just draining… exhausting… it doesn’t get me anywhere. I’d rather just be myself, with all my strengths and weaknesses and quirks. That is when I can make true progress. That is when I can be closer to God and to other people.
As it turns out, I have more to shake off than I realized. And what I expected to be a refreshing rest has been more like lying on an operating table. Once again, I should have known better–for it often happens: I reach a point where I myself cannot loosen the things that immobilize and bind and mar me.
So now, God has His chisel in hand and is slowly but surely chipping away at all the pieces that still need dislodging, chipping away at things that hold me captive and mar my form, chipping away at the barriers I’ve thrown up myself.
It’s a painful process, and difficult to remain still and be utterly trusting in God’s sure hand and eye. The baser parts of my nature resent it and cry out, “Why are You doing this to me? I’ve turned to You for help, and yet You cause me such pain!” But the higher parts of my nature understand perfectly. After all, what am I but a clump of earth that God has seen fit to fashion in His own image and–wonder of wonders–to love? And if He is willing to work, again and again, to bring forth the greatness He sees in me, to liberate and purify and beautify me, then why should I complain?
It reminds me of one of my favorite passages from C.S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain:
One can imagine a sentient picture, after being rubbed and scraped and recommenced for the tenth time, wishing that it were only a thumbnail sketch whose making was over in a minute. In the same way, it is natural for us to wish that God had designed for us a less glorious and less arduous destiny; but then we are wishing not for more love but for less.
(HarperCollins, p. 34)
Or, as St. Augustine said, “The doctor doesn’t stop cutting just because his patient is screaming for him to stop.”
There are many, maybe hundreds, of other sayings to express the idea that pain is sometimes necessary and beneficial for us. It is one of those timeless and universal human experiences. That gives me a little comfort. Just a little! So does looking forward to the final result. It is always worthwhile. But for now–just gotta be still and be trusting!
I have never been one to switch gears with lightning speed, but all in all, I think my personal retreat is off to a good start.
I got up at 6 AM, said my Divine Office and Rosary, ate some breakfast and did some light housework. Then I did my morning washing and grooming and dressing. Unfortunately, I was moving rather slowly and drowsily and was not able to fit in Mass before work. I need to work on that, but considering the great weary malaise I’ve been steeped in for so long, I am fairly pleased with my level of morning activity.
I did my usual work; actually, I worked a bit late. I was able to fit a little bit of spiritual reading in during lunch.
I came home, ate a bit of supper, did a little more housework, and said the Divine Office. And now I am doing a bit of writing!
One thing that my mind has been coming back to today was the Epistle from Sunday’s Mass:
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.
Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults,
hardships, persecutions, and constraints,
for the sake of Christ;
for when I am weak, then I am strong.
~ 2 Corinthians 12:7-10
If there is one thing I know about myself, it’s that I hate weakness. And there is no weakness I hate more than that which is my own. And there is so much of it! When I think of my own weakness, the grace of God is not what tends to come to mind, much less the thought of boasting of my weaknesses. I tend to brood and loathe and get discouraged and just want to wipe all of it away. So, St. Paul’s message is one that I need to receive over and over and over… and over.
Weakness is part of what defines humanity. There is no human person who lacks weakness. And so, we have to humbly and honestly admit our weakness, simply and truthfully, and with a certain degree of acceptance. If we do this, then our minds and hearts will be lifted toward God, toward Him who is power, strength, glory, majesty, perfection and so many other things that we humans are not. To accept weakness is simply to acknowledge what we humans are and where we stand in relation to God.
To scorn human weakness is an act of arrogance, as if we ourselves are somehow entitled to and capable of divine perfection. Such arrogance turned Lucifer into a demon–and he, by nature, was closer to divine perfection than any of us. But what we lack in nature is more than made up for by divine love and providence. By nature, the angels are far greater, but we have the singular honor of adoption as God’s own children! And how can we fully appreciate and enjoy and live out this incredible state as God’s children, if we are consumed with hatred of our own nature? If it weren’t for the weakness of human nature, we would have no need or desire for God, no need for redemption, no need for salvation, and no need for Heaven.
And so, weakness, when rightly regarded by us, can open us up to God and His countless graces. Knowledge of our own weakness disposes us to be drawn ever closer to God out of humility and desire and need. And the closer we are drawn to Him, and the more open we are to Him, the stronger, healthier, and more alive we become.
As I wait to receive my patron Saint for 2012, I have also looked back at 2011 and my patron, St. John Berchmans. In my post last year, I hoped that St. John might help me find greater simplicity and holiness in everyday life, and that his youth might help me stay in touch with my own youth.
I have to say, I have not been a very good companion this year. I have not devoted myself to cultivating my relationship with my patron as much as I would have liked. And yet, being the Saint that he is, St. John has been faithfully present with me, working behind the scenes, gently steering me toward where I need to go. This past year has been fraught with difficulty, and yet I have come through it with a simple grace that I cannot attribute to myself alone. In fact, it has sometimes been in the midst of difficulties that I have come to understand the great value and necessity of simplicity and of childlike faith and humility before God.
Although I cannot pinpoint any specific lessons, I can definitely say that I have learned a lot over this last year. That is often how God and the Saints and the angels work in our lives. They rarely come upon us like flashes of lightning. Rather they gradually kindle a flame in us, nurturing it to a lasting glow. Eventually, we come to see that our lives and the world around us have taken on a new color, a new clarity.
I thank God and St. John Berchmans for being with me this year, speaking softly to my soul and helping it grow.
I have been studying the story of the prophet Elijah for a term paper in my Hebrew Bible class. It is a fascinating story for many reasons, and one that remains quite actively debated among Bible scholars.
What speaks to me most on a personal level is the theophany on Mount Horeb.
And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake;
and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.
And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.
1 Kings 19:11-13 (RSV)
To briefly put this passage in context, Elijah had recently obtained a spectacular miracle by calling upon God to send down fire to consume an offering (you really must read the whole story in 1 Kings 18:20-40). He had hoped to re-convert the people of Israel to faithful and exclusive worship of God via this spectacular display of power, and at first it seemed that he had succeeded. But it was a very short-lived victory and brought a death-threat from the infuriated Queen Jezebel, who had brought Baal-worship to Israel. When he realized his failure, Elijah went out into the desert, disillusioned and even suicidal.
Eventually, he came to Mount Horeb (aka Sinai), and like Moses before him, received the rare gift of a theophany–a manifestation of God’s presence. Phenomena such as tempest, earthquake, and fire were characteristic of a theophany–and exactly what one would expect. But to Elijah, God presented Himself in a very different and unexpected way: in “a still small voice.” It was in that tiny sound that the prophet perceived God’s presence.
It’s important to note that Elijah was not a person who much appreciated silence and stillness. He was a gutsy, intrepid, self-assured man of action. When he called upon God, God listened and acted. And Elijah expected God to act with power, as He did when He sent down fire to consume Elijah’s offering. Elijah wanted to shock and stun the people of Israel into straightening up their act, and he expected God to cooperate. But ultimately, that plan had failed, and Elijah wasn’t sure what to do.
In this scene, we see the prophet at his weakest and most human. Can we not see ourselves in him? I know I can see myself. I often expect God to act according to my expectations and my timing. Occasionally, He deigns to do so, at least on the surface. In fact, it rarely turns out the way I would like it to. And that doesn’t make me very happy!
What God teaches Elijah–and what He teaches to us all at times–is that His true essence and His true way are not found in earth-shattering power. Oh, He is mighty, very mighty! But true might is much more than mere brute force. We honor God’s true power when we fall silent and still and allow His still small voice to permeate our souls, our innermost beings. The truth is, that is a far more humbling, stunning, and awe-inspiring experience than any external tour de force we could ever imagine! The realization that God wants first and foremost to be Master of our souls is enough to make these souls of ours shiver and prostrate themselves!
Instead of wishing to exert power over others or over our circumstances, we should strive to submit ourselves to God’s power, lest our own hearts grow hard and turn away from Him. When we do so, we receive the greatest miracles of all: the life and love and grace that come only from our Lord and Master.
Just a few months ago I seriously started looking for a relationship with a man again. This is the first serious effort I’ve made since losing my intended husband 6.5 years ago. And, as you may have gathered from some of my recent posts… to say the least, things have not been going very well!
I don’t know if I’ve just had the bad fortune of running into lousy men, or if I am just so rusty with interacting with men that I have been making my own lousy mistakes, or if the rules have changed drastically in the last 6.5 years. Maybe it’s just that I am 6.5 years older now, and decades more mature than a person my age should be.
In any case, it has been so hard not to get utterly discouraged and fall into despair. Yeah, it’s only been a few months, but I’ve gotten quite a few fresh wounds in this short time! My spiritual life has been pushed nearly to its limits as I struggle not to lose hope and patience and trust in God.
However, I have also found great comfort in God and the Church–particularly the Communion of Saints. I have found some novenas that are said to bring wonderful, even miraculous, assistance in finding a spouse:
Currently, I have just completed the Novena to St. Jude–since finding a decent man and potential husband does seem like a rather impossible cause.
I also pray each day this prayer to St. Raphael the Archangel.
In these and in my daily Divine Office and Rosary, and each time I go to Mass, I pray that I will soon meet a good man to be my husband, and that in the meantime, I will devote myself to growing deeper in love with God and to preparing myself to be a good wife and mother, with the Virgin Mary as my role-model.
I also pray for all the other single Catholic women who are also longing for a good husband and marriage and children.
I offer prayers for my future husband and children and ask that we all be together as a family soon.
I pray very hard for all the single men out there, especially Catholics, that they will fervently and steadfastly and courageously pursue the vocation of marriage and be open to loving women, no matter how many times they may have been hurt or rejected.
I pray that all of my own wounds from the past will be healed so that I can give myself whole and healthy and happy to my future husband.
Overall, I am just trying to put God first in my life and trust that He will richly provide for every need and desire I have. I am trying to be mindful of, and very grateful for all that He has given to me and done for me, to focus on the blessings I have, rather than focusing on what I lack. And I am trying to always remember that I am His daughter, and He is my Father. He loves me, and I love Him, and from that love springs all others.
Whenever I ponder love, I am brought back to this quotation from the film, Diary of a Country Priest:
Priest: We did not invent love. It has its order, its law.
Countess: God is its master.
Priest: He is not the master of love. He is love itself. If you would love, don’t place yourself beyond love’s reach.
Words to live by.