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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 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.

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.”

–G.K. Chesterton

I think this advice may resonate with me most of all.  Leave it to good ol’ G.K.!  :D

I had this little book sitting on my shelf and thought it would be helpful right now: Taming the Restless Heart by Father Gerald Vann, OP (Sophia Institute Press, 1999; originally published in 1947 as His Will is our Peace).

I read the entire thing, slowly, in maybe 2 hours.  But boy did it pack a punch!  And I really wish I had read it during Lent, because it’s all about keeping your eyes on God and keeping yourself in His presence… not turning in on yourself and your very limited resources… and not letting bad things get you down.  It would have been a great “textbook” for my Lenten Lesson:

[The Lord] does not tell us that we must not work, must not plan ahead. He does not tell us that everything will be done for us. But He does tell us that we must not be always worrying and fretting and making a great commotion, as though we, and not He, were responsible for the universe.

Yeah… the Lenten Lesson!  Well, reading this book really helped to reinforce the Lenten Lesson.

The book is written in a very clear, sort of conversational tone.  It seems very much written for us ordinary layfolk–and Father Vann understands what we need!  He doesn’t give us anything esoteric or complicated.  In fact, he emphasizes the importance of starting with small steps and gradually, naturally building those small actions into lasting habits.  He speaks of things very familiar to us all, such as the actions we do at Mass, our interactions with other created things–objects, animals, and other humans–and the power of the Our Father.

Even a small action like genuflecting can take on great significance with a bit of reflection and concentration:

To genuflect, to bend the knee: what does it mean? It is a sign of submission, of dependence, of loyalty and service, as of a subject to his king. It means: I recognize that You are the important one, not I. It means, in the words of the psalmist, “I am Thy servant, and the son of Thy handmaid.” It means, in short, “Thy will be done,” expressing precisely that union of our will with God’s which it is our object to achieve.

Now, we tend, of course, by force of habit, to make our genuflections rather automatically, unreflectingly; they become a matter of routine. But if we do that, we again miss a great opportunity.

In the first place, a genuflection is a sacramental. This means that if it is done with sufficient care and devotion in mind and will, it can be an occasion of actual grace for us; it can bring us nearer to God. And there is thus a sense in which, like the sacraments, although in a different way, it will effect what it signifies: it will lead to the bringing about in us of a deeper sense of that loving acceptance of God’s will which it expresses in symbolic form.

In the second place, we shall, if we are wise, form a conscious habit to counteract the effect of the unconscious effect of routine.  We shall choose some phrase that, for us individually, expresses vividly and cogently the sense of worship and of creaturely concentration on God and the will of God,* and we shall make our genuflection deliberately enough to allow us to say the phrase in our hearts, with our eyes and our minds on Christ in the tabernacle, addressing the prayer to Him.  And so we shall make His presence a reality to ourselves, until perhaps, in time, the sense of that presence becomes habitual with us even when we are not in the church…

* It could be, for example, the words of the publican: “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13); our our Lady’s “Behold the handmaid of the Lord” (Luke 1:38); or the words of the apostle Thomas: “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28); or simply “Thy will be done.”

I just love how he delves into the meaning of that small gesture we so easily take for granted.  I am definitely going to take a moment to offer a small prayer as I genuflect from now on!

I highly recommend Taming the Restless Heart for a brief but very inspiring spiritual pick-me-up.

This was my 3rd Holy Thursday observance.  And the first when I did not stay in the church with the reposed Blessed Sacrament until midnight.  I would love to have stayed, but one must be prudent about these things… I had nobody to drive me home should I grow too exhausted.

Of all that could be said of Holy Thursday–the magnificent liturgy, Father L’s typical stirring homily, the incense and the bells, the five, yes five, fine young seminarians who assisted at Mass–the one thing that strikes me year after year (all 3 of them so far) is that Holy Thursday always leaves me empty… and yet so very full.  Empty of myself, and full of Christ.

I know that Christ is always at work in me.  That was part of Father’s lesson to us tonight.  But how often do I allow myself to be emptied out?  Not nearly enough as I ought.  And never to this extent that occurs one Thursday a year.

Clearly, it is a most intimate encounter, and identification, with Christ.  Christ, Who emptied Himself so that we men and women might once again take our place in the heart of God and in the divine life of God.  So was I emptied tonight so that Christ might take His proper place in my little heart and my fleeting life.  When this union, this profound convergence with Christ occurs, everything changes!  The entire world becomes so very precious in my eyes, and I love deeply everything and everybody I see.  It comes to be as if I am looking at everything through His eyes.

I can’t describe what a marvelous gift that is!

The stripping of the altar also takes on a haunting new dimension.  As I stared into the cavernous dark sanctuary, the empty tabernacle laid open, the bare cold marble of the altar…  I felt such great compassion.  I thought to myself, There are churches that are like this all the time.  There are empty tabernacles in the world.  There are altars at which no priest offers the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.  There are fellow Catholics, brothers and sisters, who face such desolation and yearning on a daily basis.  In some cases, it is due to war, persecution, or other disasters, either natural or man-made.  It may be due to simple and unavoidable changes.  But in other cases, it’s due to far worse things: human selfishness and disobedience, saying yes to the world and ourselves and no to God and His Church,human negligence, betrayal, and abandonment.

To experience that one Thursday a month is fortunate.  And it fills one with gratitude for the worthy things we always take for granted: church, priest, Sacraments.  Having Christ really and truly present before us.

Everything looks different on Holy Thursday.  I pray that maybe I will reach a point one of these days where such perspective is not limited to Holy Thursday… a point where I am more emtpy of myself and more full of Christ.

Today begins a new year in my life!  I’ve lived 32 of them now.  I’m not one of those ladies who stops counting at 29.  On the contrary, I’m filled with wonder and gratitude each time I complete a trip around the sun!  When I think of where I’ve come so far–good places and bad, brilliant places and horribly dark, happy places and mournful–I just feel so amazed and so very blessed!  Sometimes I can’t believe how far I’ve come, and how very good God has been, and always is!

He gave me a most beautiful and glorious day.  I saw more trees with turning leaves.  And as I was driving home this evening, there was a beautiful sunset, with a crescent moon hanging out with the beautiful planet Venus.

I didn’t do much today.  Just relaxed.  Went to Mass.  Visited some stores.  Ate some sushi and drank some beer.  Bought myself a little birthday cake too.  It’s been a good day!  I’ve been needing the rest.  So, I’m really going to enjoy the extra hour of nighttime tonight!  That may be the best birthday gift of all, LOL!

Actually, I’ve received many wonderful gifts.  Many lovely cards and kind notes–it’s wonderful just to know that I’m in people’s thoughts and prayers!  Mom and Dad gave me some clothes money, and I bought some really nice and much-needed new clothes–3 skirts, 2 blouses, and some new shoes!  My sister made a donation to one of my favorite charities, Aid to the Church in Need, and is sending me another gift, which I am looking forward to!  My dear friend from college gave me a copy of the book Thy Will be Done, which is a collection of letters written by St. Francis de Sales–one of my favorite Saints and favorite writers!  He always offers such practical and helpful advice!  I’ve been meaning to read this book for a long time.  A dear co-worker gave me a beautiful little porcelain statue of Mary holding some roses; it has a little light inside, and glows beautifully!  I look to her while praying my Rosary.

Today was also All Saints Day, of course.  The Saints are a true family to me, a very important part of my life, especially since I live alone.  Whenever I’m lonely, sad, or need to talk, they are always there.  I just think about them, call out to them, and there they are.  I can truly feel their presences!  Most often, I will call for our Blessed Mother, or for my spiritual father, St. Dominic, or for my guardian angel and/or St. Raphael.  If I’m in a particular situation, I might call upon an appropriate Patron Saint, or else a Saint who perhaps dealt with a similar situation in his or her life.  I find that all the Saints are very experienced and wise, and sometimes I just call upon whoever cares to listen.

I was thinking earlier today that we Catholics (and other, Catholic-like Christians) are so blessed in the Communion of Saints!  When you think about it, it’s quite a wonderful notion: that we have people in Heaven who know and love us, who counsel and comfort us, who help us in many wonderful ways.  I don’t know that any other religious tradition provides such an understanding and such a rich and living relationship with the dead (who, for us, are even more alive than we are!).

Our understanding and relationship with the dead stems naturally from our understanding and relationship with the living and loving God.  I know that even some Christians reject the Communion of Saints and the ways in which Catholics interact with them… they seem to think that our relationships with the Saints somehow detract from our relationship with God.  They might as well say that our relationships with people on Earth detract from our relationship with God–but that would be untrue and pretty absurd.  God created us to relate with each other and to know and love and help each other.  In fact, we can’t have a good relationship with God if we don’t have good relationships with each other.  And death does not have the power to change that!  God frees us from death.  The Saints are living proof of that.

So… why shouldn’t we talk to them and form relationships with them?  They’re exactly like people on Earth… only better!  And they can help us to be better people.  They can teach us to know and to love God better, to pray better, to live better.  Far from distracting us from God, they actually direct us to Him, just as they themselves were directed during their earthly lives.  They are such a blessing!  May we follow in their footsteps.

Yesterday, sort of out of nowhere, I was thinking about Patrick’s death and funeral.  His casket was kept closed.  At the time, it was a huge relief… I didn’t want to see him dead.  I am pretty sure I couldn’t have handled it.  But looking back, sometimes I wish I had had to face it.  Because without facing it, I have been able to still imagine that he’s not dead.  I find myself feeling sure sometimes that he will come knock on my door one day, and the last 3 years and 4 months will have been nothing but a dream, a crazy mistake.

I know that’s not the reality of things, and yet it’s hard for me to find any real evidence to latch onto.  Now, obviously, I believe in many things I can’t see.  Patrick was a real person, with a body that could be seen and touched and heard.  And yet what happened to him seems like a bigger mystery to me than God and angels or microwaves or quarks.  The last time I saw him, he was sitting next to me in my car, outside Love Field, smiling and giving me a goodbye kiss.  And after that… gone?  Just gone?  No more seeing him?  It doesn’t make any sense sometimes!

Seeing things makes them more real to us.  Or at least, seeing things makes a greater impression upon us.

St. Dominic embracing the Crucifix by Fra Angelico

Later yesterday, I understood the importance of that as I knelt in prayer near the front of my parish church, my eyes locked upon the Crucifix, the crown of thorns, the nailed hands, the agonized, imploring heavenward gaze of the Savior.  Looking at that image, taking it deeply into my mind, embossing it in my heart… Christ’s suffering and death were no mere abstractions, no hazy concept or foggy collective memory or phantasm.  When you stare at the Crucifix, there is nothing distant or uncertain about the Savior and what He has done for us.  Likewise, when you take in the image of Him glorious and resurrected, there is nothing distant or uncertain.  Nor when we see any other good, true, and beautiful image of Him.  The image of the invisible God, God’s Word Incarnate.

I thought to myself, “I am so very glad and grateful to be able to see His face!”  It is so very important!  It is important for understanding that He is not some mental abstraction, no amorphous energy or force–He is a Person!  A Person who constantly calls us into relationship with Him, a relationship He has initiated, and a relationship that depends on our response to Him.  We generally have no problem understanding ourselves as persons, but when we understand Him as a Person… that changes everything.  We come to realize that we cannot be indifferent to Him.  We respond to Him either with love and attraction or with loathing and rejection.

When the atheists portray Him as just a flight of fancy or a mental construct… when people of various other faiths speak of Him as an impersonal force, as natural (but not human or fully human) manifestations, or as a master so transcendent He can’t possibly be related to, among other things… when some of our fellow Christians can talk about Him all day long but never look Him in the face or see His hands and feet nailed to the cross…  They are all missing a fundamentally important aspect of Him as He really is.  Obviously, with varying degrees of consciousness and deliberateness.  The atheist is extremely conscious and deliberate in denying that God is a Person and in refusing to be held in any relationship with Him.  Christians and people of other faiths, more likely, simply don’t realize what they are missing, or why it is important.

I am grateful to belong to a religious tradition which has ever been extremely rich, prolific, creative, and yet very realistic when it comes to seeing our Lord and portraying our Lord as a Person.  A Person who, for a time, and for our benefit became a man who could be seen, touched, heard.  A man who was born and who suffered and died.  He didn’t have to do it… but He knows how He made us: we need to see.  And for that reason, He made Himself visible and tangible, so that we might see Him, and not only believe more deeply, but know Him more deeply, and in knowing Him, that we might love Him more deeply.

I know that much, much more could be said, such as the reality that God is actually three Persons.  That doesn’t mean so much if we don’t come to understand God’s Personhood in general, and being in relationship with Him, whatever that relationship may be.  Being in relationship with Him, person to Person, is the first step toward delving into deeper mysteries like the Trinity.  It is also the first step to learning what love really is and to living a really happy, healthy, full human life.

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(Image from a painting at St. Catherine of Siena Parish, Metairie, Louisiana)

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