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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’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!

Well, this week has been a little bit crazy.  But I still consider it a success.

I had a lot to shake off, and I think I’ve pretty much shaken it off, with lots of help from the Lord Holy Spirit.  Tonight, I’ve reached the point where I feel I can breathe with clear lungs, think with clear mind, and rest a while in peace.  I feel that my connection with God has finally been restored and my ties to the world have been severed.  I feel much more recollected.  I have my eyes back on the prize.

Tomorrow, the real, positive work will begin: the work of overcoming and ascending.  Tomorrow I can pick up my full regimen of prayer and study.  Tomorrow I resume the great journey heavenward.

So far, so good.

I don’t know what I was thinking! All those ideas about having a nice, clean, regimented, scheduled retreat… it’s like I was daring the Holy Spirit to take matters into His own hands. And did He ever!

The short version of the story is that these last two days have not gone as planned at all. In fact, I’ve been rather miserable. But–and this is the important part–I have learned a lot. And grown a lot. And grown closer to God. And become a bit truer to myself as well.

I wanted to just withdraw and rest. I wanted to meditate and contemplate. The Holy Spirit was having none of that! He likes to throw me into a fire and have all of my flaws and impurities be burned away and all of my soft spots and jagged edges tempered. He likes to throw me off a high cliff and see me learn to fly. While my soul is screaming and crying and begging and flapping around for dear life, I can sense His delight through it all. I can almost hear His laughter.

Of course, He knows what sort of creature I am. He knows that when He tries me and when He takes delight in it, it ratchets my determination up to the max. “I’m not going to fail,” my soul says with gritted teeth. “I am not going to give up!” And my soul strives ever harder toward God, toward faith, toward love.

I guess I should be thankful that the Spirit allowed me at least one day of relative calm. I might say that I hope He allows my coming days to be full of calm… but I don’t want to tempt Him! I’m not sure how much more of His tough love I can stand just now.

 

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.

Self reflection, along with the observations of people near me, urges me to embark upon a retreat. I need to recollect myself, refocus, and recenter. Lest my dear, faithful readers fear another prolonged silence, let me assure you that writing will play an integral part of this retreat. The inability or unwillingness to write is for me as dire and bizarre as it would be for most people to be unable or unwilling to talk. It’s not as if I have some adequate alternative mode of self-expression.

I’ve realized that I simply haven’t had anything worthy of writing about, and that tells me that my life has lost its focus. I’ve been adrift amid distractions. I’ve become disconnected from the things that matter to me and that evoke thoughts and emotions so great that I cannot bear to keep them inside me. I’ve lost my spirit. And I must regain it.

In the spirit of my recent Independence Day post, I have decided to declare my independence from distractions. From all things vapid and inconsequential. From all life’s petty comforts, fleeting concerns, and overblown dramas. From all self-pity, self-coddling, self-importance, and self-indulgence. From the judgments of other mere mortals regarding my appearance, my station, my values, and my character.

The only things and only people worth depending on are things and people I already have and that are not going anywhere. What more do I need, except to just become more myself so that I can give more of myself to those that matter?

My regimen for this retreat is simple–it’s basically just to live more faithfully according to my rule of life as a Lay Dominican: to pray, to study, to preach, to be a person for and with others, and to cut away anything that doesn’t contribute to those four pillars.

I am currently setting myself to read and re-read Transformation in Christ by Dietrich von Hildebrand, as well as writings of the Dominican masters, such as St. Catherine of Siena’s Dialogue. I shall also be exercising disciplines such as fasting and being faithful to the present moment–which is something extremely difficult for me, as I tend to pine for the past and yearn for the future.

This isn’t going to be easy. But I am being called, pulled, compelled to it. My poor soul yearns for her self, and even more for her Lord. Please keep me in your prayers.

It’s almost August, which means… Lay Dominican retreat with Father Powell!  You don’t have to be a Dominican to come.  For that matter, you don’t even have to be Catholic (although it will be of most interest to Catholics).

Please note that this is by no means a “silent retreat”–that wouldn’t be very Dominican.  ;)  Our retreats are based on the Four Pillars of Dominican Life: Prayer, Study, Community, and Apostolate.

Father Powell is an excellent speaker.  I always get so much out of these annual retreats.  Here is the info.  You might want to check our Lay Dominican group’s site for updates.

————————————————————-

Day of Reflection for the Dominican Laity

“Putting Out into the Deep:  Catholic Laity and the New Evangelization”

Conferences given by Fr. Phillip Powell.

Saturday, August 6, 2011, 10:00am – 3:30pm

Gorman Lecture Center, University of Dallas, Irving, TX

All are invited. No registration required.

Parking available near Chapel of the Incarnation and outside of Gorman Hall

What to bring:   A notebook or laptop for notes, either a sack lunch or money for lunch on campus (cafeteria open, lunch cost about $6.50), and friends/spouses if you like!

Costs: Free. “Love offering” accepted toward financing Father’s continued studies

Agenda

10:00 – 10:15    Meet and greet, then begin 1st Decade of the Rosary
10:15 – 11:00     First Conference
11:00 – 12:30     Individual reflection time / Optional Mass / Lunch
12:30 –   1:15      2nd Decade of the Rosary, and Second Conference
1:15 –    1:45      Individual reflection time
1:45 –   2:30      3rd Decade of the Rosary, and Third Conference
2:30 –   2:45     4th Decade of the Rosary/ Break
2:45 –   3:15     Questions and Answer period/ wrap up
3:15 –    3:30     Fifth Decade of the Rosary and Blessing

At the Lay Dominican retreat last Saturday, I mentioned to Father Powell that I read his blog, and he encouraged me to leave comments.

So I left one (it’s at the bottom) that basically said, “Thank you for giving the retreat, it was wonderful, and by the way, what happens to us after we die?”

Here is his response.

:)

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

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

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