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November is by far my favorite month of the year. It’s sort of bittersweet, but that is why I like it. The darkness lengthens, the trees turn, the air becomes chilled. And yet there is a special light and warmth as well. The warm hues of autumn leaves and gourds and chrysanthemums. The golden tone of the slanting sunlight. All the abundance and togetherness and festivities–not to mention smells and tastes–of the Thanksgiving feast. Wearing sweaters and fleecy pajamas for the first time in months. I appreciate and cherish these things more with each passing year!
I turned 36 this month, and that too was bittersweet. On one hand, I feel disappointment because my life at this age is nothing like how I always hoped and anticipated. I thought that surely by this time, I would be married and have at least a couple of children and a house all our own. Maybe I would even be able to leave the workforce to tend to the home and educate the children. I fully expected to be living a normal, respectable, successful life. But things have not turned out that way. In some ways, I feel like I have not made any progress at all from where I was ten years ago… only I’ve lost people and things that made up so much of the joy I had ten years ago.
But I’ve also gained important things: faith, maturity, and wisdom. And the older I get, the more I cherish the important things and the less I care about unimportant things, such as what people think or say about me, or how the world measures what is normal, respectable, and successful. The older I get, the more content (but not complacent) I become. And that is very liberating!
Also this month was Election Day in the United States, and it included the biggest election of all, the presidential election. I did my civic duty as a voter, and did so proudly and gratefully. But on the whole, I don’t put too much stock in government and politics. There is no form of worldly government that can make me entirely secure and confident. There is no form of worldly government that can make people happy. Happiness and security and confidence come from the heavenly kingdom and its Lord. This is not to say that the election didn’t impact me. It impacted me in that it revealed, yet again, how very polarized this nation is. No matter who won the most votes, nearly half the nation was going to feel defeated and frustrated and defiant. That’s not a good thing, and I don’t envy the president one bit. I also don’t much envy those who put him in office, for the burden of what happens in the next four years is going to be largely upon them.
But as for me, I shall continue doing what I always do and putting my trust and hope where I always put them, in my King and my God. My citizenship and good standing in His kingdom will always come first. Funny how folks in this country used to be suspicious of Catholics and say that Catholics could never be good Americans because they give their primary allegiance to the Vatican. The Vatican?! Boy, they didn’t know the half of it! They thought much too lowly and safely and mundanely of us. For we Catholics don’t just give our primary allegiance to another worldly kingdom, but to a completely otherworldly kingdom. We Catholics are far more bold and radical than our fellow citizens have ever given us credit for. The rather ironic part is that our allegiance to God and His kingdom actually entail being loyal and responsible to our earthly homes and leaders (or at least their offices). In the spirit of true charity, we love and serve our nation and respect our leaders out of love for God and Heaven. To adapt the famous last words of St. Thomas More, “I am the Republic’s good servant, but God’s first.”
November increases my tendency to wax poetic and philosophic.
For now, I am going to put aside my computer and go fix myself a nightcap of hot chocolate blended with a little tot of whiskey.
I’ve had a busy but wonderful weekend. The retreat on faith and science was fantastic! A lot to absorb, a lot to think and pray about. Of course, I will try to share some of what I have learned and pondered.
One thing we discussed at the retreat is the nature of faith: that it is an act of trust and steadfastness. One phrase I wrote down and that has really stuck with me is: “Faith is the habit of trusting God.” I think that came from St. Thomas Aquinas.
Faith is the habit of trusting God. I have to say, this makes me a bit uncomfortable. To tell you the truth, it makes me seriously question just how much faith I’ve got. Looking back over the last couple of months, I see a pattern of me not trusting in God. It’s something I’ve have to bring up with my confessor a few times.
Oh, I know God is good. I know God is generous. I know God has saved my skin (and my soul) more times than I can remember. I know God is trustworthy and constant. I know, I know, I know. I believe in God’s goodness and generosity. I believe that He will not cease to save me, provide for me, be good and generous to me. I believe, I believe, I believe.
And yet… I still have the awful habit of worrying that my life is just going to be a huge disaster and I’m never going to be happy. I still have the awful habit of demanding that God prove to me His goodness and love… usually by demanding that He do what I want Him to do, give me what I want Him to give me–and do it now because I’m tired of waiting!
Where is the trust? Where is the steadfastness? Where is the good habit? In short–where is the faith?
As if I weren’t already being haunted by these questions, our parish priest (who is also my confessor), gave his homily this morning on pretty much the exact same topic: faith as trust. I got that sinking “This is not a coincidence” feeling deep in my gut. That unnerving “Here we go again, the Holy Spirit is not going to let me go until He’s thoroughly banged this into my head!” feeling.
I felt like Father was speaking directly to me this morning when he said that faith is much more than just checking off the list of beliefs you assent to. Rather, it is based on steadfast trust, on a strong personal relationship with God that perseveres even in the times when we don’t understand, even when we feel doubt. Faith pushes us beyond the comfortable things we think we know about God and draws us into the mystery of who He really is. It draws us into the “hard sayings,” such as that He gives us His flesh to feed, indeed to gnaw, upon. And at that point, we, like the original disciples, have to make a choice: do we stay with Him or do we leave?
I realized that lately, in my life, I’ve come to a point where I don’t know what God is doing. I don’t know what He’s got in the works. I can’t see, and I don’t understand. Doubt, frustration, and impatience creep in. And I make the wrong choice. I choose to go my own way. I choose to walk away.
It’s not a permanent choice, obviously. Something brings me to repentance. Something opens my eyes and makes me say, “Oh Lord, what have I done?” I think that something is the personal relationship I have formed with God so far. It’s remembering that His love and goodness are real, that they are not just a list of things I believe. They are the fabric of my life and who I am. They have been proven over and over, without my demanding it. There is something more there.
I am not without faith (thank God). It just needs to grow. I need to let it grow. If I can’t see things clearly now, as is bound to happen, I don’t have to bang my own head against it–nothing is more futile than that. Rather, I can take that opportunity to look back on all that God has done for me and given to me. In fact, this was my confessor’s advice on a recent occasion: stop and look back to where you have been. See the ways in which God has led you and provided for you, and see how you have received and responded–or not. Get your bearing so that you can stay the course.
This also relates to some things Father Powell told us. That faith is a gift from God, among countless other gifts He gives us. God’s giving is a given. The question is: Do we receive? Do we receive with gratitude? So, gratitude is an important piece of the puzzle also. What other reaction can we have when we realize just how good God has been to us? Does not gratitude engender trust?
So, you can see, even beyond the retreat, I have lots to think and pray about. Lots to learn and lots to overcome. And I’m sure the Holy Spirit will bang me on the head as much as needed. But as always, that is a good thing. Sometimes we need our walls torn down, and our foundations built up.
[UPDATE 1] Oh, and this section from today’s Evening Prayer scripture passage (1 Peter 1:3-7) struck out at me as one more bang on the head:
You may for a time have to suffer the distress of many trials; but this is so that you faith, which is more precious than the passing splendor of fire-tried gold, may by its genuineness lead to praise, glory, and honor when Jesus Christ appears.
[UPDATE 2] And then I found this quotation over at Exultet:
“Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair.”
I think this advice may resonate with me most of all. Leave it to good ol’ G.K.! :D
In this fair month of May when we celebrate motherhood in a special way, I’ve been thinking about the ways in which I have been realizing and experiencing my own maternal nature and instincts. It wasn’t until quite recently that I have thought of myself as having motherly qualities and indeed being a mother in spirit. It has come with my maturing in the faith, with understanding who I am and who God created me to be, with learning what it truly means to be a woman, with developing a closer relationship with the Blessed Virgin Mary and taking her as my model, and with coming to a real appreciation for how very precious life is and how very good God is.
For many years, I had no wish to be a mother. In fact, I was often quite hostile to the idea. There was a time when I would sooner have had a abortion than had a child. And yes, I would have considered it my right, the safeguard of my freedom. How very deceived I was! How very ignorant and at war with my own nature.
Now everything is so different. I see womanhood and motherhood being so intrinsically linked. I may not have children, but I still have many ways of expressing, exercising, and exploring my own motherhood.
I am not one of those people who think that animals can substitute for children, but I have learned some valuable lessons from caring for my two cats. Lessons of joy and being childlike of course. Also lessons of selflessness, patience, and forbearance. There’s nothing like coming home after a long, stressful day and just wanting to kick off your shoes and collapse into your favorite chair… only to find a great big yucky hairball on your favorite chair. And better yet, to get one mess cleaned up only to have another pop up somewhere else. But you look into those little green eyes and somehow you manage to just overlook the messes and the tiredness and the drudgery. Poof! They vanish.
Oh, and the expenses these little furballs can incur–I often feel that I spend more money on them than on myself. That can cause some dismay… for a moment. These little ones have nobody else on whom they can depend, apart from the good Lord Himself. When I think of how well He has provided for me, who am I to begrudge what I have, even to lesser creatures? God is much more superior to me than I am to my cats. At least the cats and I share the status of corporeal, mortal, finite creatures. If God loves, has mercy upon, and provides what is so small, should we not do the same?
Sure, animals aren’t people. But in our interactions with them and attitudes toward them, we can learn how to be human, how to love, how to be motherly and fatherly. As I wrote to one of my friends/commentors on another post, if we can’t love in small ways, how will we ever learn to love in great ways? The smallest acts of steadfastness, patience, self-giving, tenderness, empathy, and intuition can bear good and lasting fruit. They can grow and flourish and spill over into our relationships with other people, and with God too.
How often do I meditate upon the Incarnation and the Nativity of the Lord and picture my Lord, God, King, and Savior as a tiny, helpless babe. How often do I long to cradle Him in my arms. Or even when meditating upon the Passion and gazing upon the Crucifix, how often do I wish I were strong enough to bear away some of His pain and agony. Of course, it’s all I can do just to bear the much smaller and fleeting discomforts of my own unarguably comfortable life. Oh, and nothing is so dear to me as receiving Him in Communion! How often am I lost in wonder at the blessed union! For those precious moments, I can experience bearing Him in my own body just as the Blessed Mother did! All I want is to offer Him a good, pure, and loving place within me. No filth of sin, no weakness of constitution. Just a beautiful, firm, and worthy sanctuary within.
I think back also to October 2007, when I spent time caring for my parents. It was truly such a privilege for me. It was an act of filial love, but also drew upon my maternal instincts as well. I was actually quite nervous going into the situation. Worried that I would be inadequate. I mean, me caring for the two people who have always cared for me and given so greatly and freely of themselves to me my entire life… that was a huge deal, and a huge first. But something within me responded… something graceful, peaceful, and self-assured. A well of calmness and understanding. It bore me up whenever I felt overwhelmed.
I feel it stir within me pretty often, when I think about it. I often lie awake late into the night, thinking of family, friends, and other people in my life. Sometimes I feel consternation because I don’t know what I can really do for them… other than pray. So I do pray. And that well comes bubbling up, reassuring me that I am doing something for them, that my love and concern are not bound by the material world with its time and space, they are not limited to sheer physical action. And sometimes the best thing we can do is simply entrust our loved ones to God. After all, none of us belongs entirely to each other; we all belong to God. I have learned this from my own parents. My own mother and father have been in situations when they could only pray and trust in God. Situations I put them in. And pray and trust they did. And their prayers have been answered, perhaps more abundantly than they ever expected. Their prayers and trust in God have helped to give me new life, and I trust that my prayers and trust will do the same for all of my loved ones.
Since returning to the Church, I have developed a particular love for our priests and seminarians. I’ve been blessed to get to know and interact with a number of these gentlemen, each his own unique person, yet all of them among the brightest, kindest, most dedicated, most courageous, and most generous people I’ve ever known. I can’t help but be impressed, and really quite proud! I certainly regard them as my fathers and brothers in spirit, but I also feel a certain kind of affection, concern, pride, desire for their success, and longing to provide them support which I can only describe as “maternal.” With priests, of course, a lady must observe a certain prudent reserve, out of respect for their consecration to the Church and for the sake of their purity and good reputation, as well as her own. I suppose it is not too different from the more reserved love and admiration a mother feels for an adult son. Oh, I would be so happy to see any biological, adopted, or spiritual son of mine join the ranks of the priesthood! In the meantime, it gives me joy to support all of our current and future priests (as well as those who may be in Purgatory) with prayers, letters, attention, and when possible, the odd bit of material assistance.
Last but not least, there are the souls of the little innocents, those tiny victims of abortion. Since becoming more involved in the pro-life movement, I have thought a great deal about those little ones. I sense their presence around me sometimes, like little starbursts of pure light and life and love and warmth. No poor, unhappy, desolate souls, these! They live in the presence of God and His mother, amid the angels and the saints. It’s a marvelous example of God transforming evil into good. We may mourn, but they do not. Still, I feel like they do love, appreciate, and respond to the maternal and paternal love of we who live on earth. They love being loved by us. They love being regarded as the eternal children they are. And what joy they give in return, and what encouragement! This blessed army of little souls will help lead us to victory. And they will plead on our behalf when we reach Heaven, just as we’ve tried to plead on their behalf on earth.
Wow. Taking time to write all of this has made me even more aware of how very rich and blessed my life is. When my dear Patrick passed away a little over 4 years ago, I thought my life was over. Part of mourning my loss of him was mourning my loss of ever becoming a mother. Motherhood was narrowly defined as conceiving and bearing and raising a child of my own. But as you see, motherhood is something much greater than that. It is something every woman has simply because she is a woman. Of course, having children of one’s own is a very special blessing. But we needn’t feel bereft or inferior or desolate if we don’t have biological children. There are so many people who need our special kind of love and devotion and nurturing and womanly genius, and even other creatures and God Himself are not beyond the sphere of motherly love!
Oh… life and love and humanity are truly wondrous and endless treasures! We have only to open our eyes, hands, and hearts!
My Catholic ladies’ book club is reading Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation this month. I have mixed feelings about the book, but it does include some good thoughts, including some that I have found very helpful with the Lenten Lesson. One of the best I’ve come across so far is this:
Be content that you are not yet a saint, even though you realize that the only thing worth living for is sanctity. Then you will be satisfied to let God lead you to sanctity by paths that you cannot understand. You will travel in darkness in which you will no longer be concerned with yourself and no longer compare yourself with other men.
That encapsulates the Lenten Lesson quite well. Namely:
1. To acknowledge that I am on a journey and in a process; I’m not there yet
2. To allow God to lead me, with more trust and less resistance
3. To not be so concerned with myself; to be less self-centered
4. To not always compare myself with other people; to be authentically myself, the person God created me to be
To a large extent, I feel like I need to find myself, and to be myself. And in order to do that, I need to be closer to God. That’s another thing Merton talks about in this book: how we come to know ourselves through knowing God and shedding lots of false conceptions of ourselves. I think that is very true for me.
Over the past several years, God has deconstructed and reconstructed me. And rather than trust Him, I have also attempted to reconstruct myself as I see fit. It has only distracted and confused me. It has come to nothing. Right now, I need to get to know how God has reconstructed me. I need to explore and grow into the new structure He has given me. I need to fulfill His vision of me. I need to be a peace with myself, to feel more comfortable with myself.
I have been feeling rather in the dark. At times I feel like the only thing I can do is put one foot in front of the other… inhale and exhale… and keep praying, even if I don’t feel like it.
Also today, a friend and reader “coincidentally” sent me an excerpt from Thomas Keating’s Intimacy with God:
At this point, the initial graces that were given to our rational faculties and emotions are withdrawn–a classic experience in the spiritual journey known as “the dark night of sense.” Our enthusiasm for various devotional practices and activities disappears because God no longer gives the grace that works through the levels of reason and emotion. God, too, seems to withdraw, to our great distress or consternation. Instead of being present during our time of prayer, God seems not to show up anymore; it feels as if God could not care less. This is especially painful if the former relationship was very satisfying, exciting, or consoling. The thought rises, “God has abandoned me!” When the dryness is extreme, Lectio Divina is like reading the telephone book and spiritual exercises are just a bore. We are irritable and discouraged because the light of our life has gone out. It took so many years to find God and now God has gone away. There is a constant temptation to think we have done something wrong, but we can’t figure out what it was. Our tendency is to project onto God the way we would feel in a similar deteriorating relationship with another human being, namely, hopeless. This judgment is most unfair to God. At this point a lot of people throw in the towel and decide, “The spiritual journey is not for me.”
As the transition to the next layer takes place, there may be a discouraging sense that all is ending, and in a sense, it is the end of our world: But our world is not the world; it is just one of them. God cannot possibly go away. It is true, our relationship with God, if we deliberately walk away, can be injured for a while, but God does not really leave us. If God did, we would just disappear or turn into a grease spot, since God is the very life of our being.
Creation is ongoing. What God has done in this situation is simply to “go downstairs” to a more intimate place on the spiral staircase, where he is waiting for us to join him at a new level of maturity and trust. If we are very quiet in the night of sense, St. John of the Cross writes, we may notice a delicate sense of peace and may even begin to enjoy the more substantial food of pure faith. As we let go of the level on which we formerly found satisfaction, we move to a deeper level of faith, which is far more reliable and much more strengthening for the journey.
I do feel like I need to quieten myself and delve deeper. I said recently that I feel like I am at some kind of turning point, some kind of break-though point. I feel a great deal of tension, a small touch of trepidation, and also excitement–the latter being a small testament that I do know that God wills wonderful things for me and for all of us if we just follow His lead. I know the rewards of taking the plunge into deeper spiritual waters. I know that “delicate sense of peace” that blooms from spiritual perseverance.
But there is still so much mystery and uncertainty. No two lessons are exactly the same. Knowing the good results doesn’t necessarily calm one’s nerves. It still demands submission and a willingness to just… let… go. It still demands a leap of faith, with the understanding that God might allow us to plummet and tumble and madly flap our arms for a while before He catches us. I know that feeling too!
I still feel like I’m clinging to the cliff, peering into the chasm. But I feel more and more like letting go. If it will bring me nearer to God, and make me more myself, then I just have to do it.
I remember something Mark Shea said at one of the talks he was in town a little while back. He was talking about falling in love as something that hits you like a bolt out of the blue, and then you spend the rest of your life trying to figure out what the heck happened. (I can’t recall his exact words, but that was the gist of it.)
At the time, I thought, “That’s sort of how I feel about my re-conversion to Catholicism, and falling back in love with God and the Church.”
Lately, I’ve been having these moments of near-panic when I stop and take a few harried breaths and ask myself, “Oh good heavens, what am I doing here?! And who is this person I’ve become? Are you kidding me? How on earth did I come to this?”
Now let me tell you what all of this does NOT mean: it does not mean that I am having second thoughts about being Catholic, or that there is anything I would rather be. Or at least–it means that even if there is something I would rather be, I’m not going to give in to it.
I’ll be honest. Sometimes I’d rather be comfortable. Sometimes I’d rather be super popular and maybe famous. Sometimes I’d rather be selfish. Sometimes I’d rather float along with the mainstream.
But I can’t and I won’t. Because I have met Truth, Goodness, and Beauty–I’ve met Love, Mercy, and Devotion. I’ve met them, and I’ve been compelled, consumed, and radically transformed by them. And that’s–for lack of a better word–bewildering.
It’s bewildering that I believe that bread and wine become the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ. It’s bewildering that I believe that this same Jesus Christ is both God and man and suffered and died for the sin of Adam and all of us and then rose from the dead and ascended into Heaven… and yet still unites Himself intimately with us when we eat the transubstantiated bread.
I know it’s true. I don’t doubt for an instant that it’s true. But it takes me aback all the same!
If you’d told me about 4 years ago that I’d believe these things, I would have said you were out of your ****ing mind. Only a lunatic could believe such hocus pocus drivel.
But the glorious mysteries of Catholic doctrine and divine Truth aren’t the only bewildering thing.
Lately, I’ve been feeling a strong isolation wrapping itself in around me. Isolation from our world. Isolation from our society and culture. Isolation from people I care about. Even isolation from parts of myself. My faith, my beliefs, my values… these have been cutting a great swathe between me and other people and things. A great feeling of aloneness and distance has come over me. A kind of separation. Not anything negative–not hatred nor anger nor any such thing. Not loneliness, either (which is not the same thing as aloneness).
It’s really hard to describe, and while I greatly dislike being vague, a lot of it is too personal to air publicly.
I mentioned some of the issues to a friend, who replied with Matthew 10:34-40:
Do not think that I came to send peace upon earth: I came not to send peace, but the sword. For I came to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man’s enemies shall be they of his own household. He that loveth father or mother more than me, is not worthy of me; and he that loveth son or daughter more than me, is not worthy of me. And he that taketh not up his cross, and followeth me, is not worthy of me. He that findeth his life, shall lose it: and he that shall lose his life for me, shall find it. He that receiveth you, receiveth me: and he that receiveth me, receiveth him that sent me.
I have read and heard this verse. I’ve thought on it and assented to it. But now I feel like, for the first time, I am being called to live it. Intellectually, I was pretty sure that this time would come. And now it has. And that is something altogether different.
What am I doing here?!
I could harrumph and turn the other way. I could just pick and choose what I’m going to believe and how I am going to live my life. I could choose the smoother, wider path. I could define Catholicism however I wish. I could do all that and more. So many other people have.
But I keep seeing the face of Christ, His eyes gazing directly into mine, and I hear his His voice: “Will you also go away?”
I see Him, my Lord and King… my God who humbled Himself to be a man and to pour forth His own blood til death… my Lord who strangely, wonderfully remains close not only in spirit but in flesh… He who created and maintains the universe, He who governs and provides, He who alone is supreme and sovereign… and He asks me whether I will go or stay!
And I realize there is only one right answer. What can I really do or say, except to echo St. Peter: “Lord, to whom shall I go? You have the words of eternal life; and I have believed, and have come to know, that You are the Holy One of God.”
Who is this person I’ve become?
A Catholic, a Christian, a disciple, a subject, a devotee… Bewildering.
Oh. All of these seemingly self-evident and non-surprising realizations. All coming about at once. I feel like I am at a threshold, a turning point, a break-through, a spot where the rubber hits the road. I don’t feel trepidation about it. I assume it’s just “one of those Catholic things” that comes along in all our lives. Just part of growing and becoming a more mature Catholic. Gosh, I feel a little like an adolescent again!
I’m sure that in another four years, I’ll probably look back at this and snicker at how dumbstruck I was and how it was really nothing compared to what would come about afterward. Who knows what I have to look forward to?
The important thing to take along with me is this: As long as I am at my Lord’s side, I am where I want to be and who I want to be. Without Him, I am nothing, and nothing matters. I would rather be in a desert with Him than in luxury without Him. I’d rather walk in His footsteps than sit pretty on a worldly throne.