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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.

good-shepherd-glassMy Lenten Lesson for this year was to be sheepish:

Not in any bad sense.  Just trusting more in our Lord’s mercy.  Putting myself in His arms.  Not chasing after my own designs so much.  Being more genuine.  Being more humble.  Seeing in greater clarity my weak humanity and all its struggling and suffering… and not freaking out about it as if I’m supposed to be some other creature.  Just today alone, I’ve come to realize that sometimes I think I’m supposed to be God–I’m supposed to be the infinitely strong, mighty, wise, and merciful one–to the point where I don’t feel like I need to turn to God or entrust myself to Him.

I guess there’s something in all of us that craves to be in control at times.  I know I can be a control freak now and then.  But that’s not who we are, that’s not how we’re made. We don’t thrive that way, nor do we learn anything.  We need God to be God, and us to be ourselves.  We need to be the rescued wayward sheep at least sometimes.

I had a feeling that it was going to be challenging, and it has been.  But I feel it has been a success!  It’s hard to go through and enumerate all the steps in the process, but I do feel I’ve learned and changed.  I have put myself more in God’s hands.

It has taken some discipline, but in disciplining myself, I feel I have been much kinder and gentler to myself.  If that makes sense.  To put it another way, I’ve always been my own harshest and most unreasonable critic.  When I am able to just put myself in God’s hands and look to Him for my needs and for solutions, I always find that He is infinitely gentler and more forgiving than I am to myself.  The same is true with other people, even.  When I look outward and when I trust God and others, I find so much more love than when I look inside myself.

This Lenten Lesson was partly about learning to see myself more the way God does, and the way other people do.  And treating myself more the way I would treat others.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about laxity.  This isn’t about letting myself slide or take license.  It’s just about compassion… happiness… not agonizing over things to the point where it’s really hard for me to appreciate how good life is, how good God and other people are to me.

Most of all, I feel like I have received a great deal of healing this Lent.  You know, the last several years have been so hard and brought about so much change… not all of it good.  Even though I can’t help it that my fiance died, even though it was so completely out of my hands and my control… being single and alone again has been such a huge, painful blow to me, to my confidence and to my sense of my own identity and value.  It has made me self-reliant in a positive way, but it has also turned me inward on myself to a very unhealthy and unhappy degree.

I think it has left some chinks through which some remnant of my old feminist and atheist attitudes have seeped back into me.  There’s been this nasty little voice saying,  “You don’t need a man.  You don’t need anybody.  And you definitely don’t need some god in heaven.  All the power you need is in you.  You are in control.”  And it ignited in me some awful need to overcompensate for my loss and cope with all the change.

I guess some part of me still found that more attractive than accepting the truth of the matter, that sometimes I need somebody greater and more powerful than me to help, to provide, to heal, to comfort, to control, and to fight for me.  I need to be carried sometimes.  And that’s not a put-down of myself, nor is it self-pity.  It’s simply the truth.  And right now, that Somebody is God.  My parents and other relatives and friends and Church communities help a lot too!  But mostly, it’s just me and God.

Not me or God (as that nasty little voice would have me believe).  But me and God.  He has blessed me with many abilities and strengths… and weaknesses.  Most of all, He has blessed me with Himself!  When I accept and receive Him, I also accept and receive my self.  He gives me my self in all authenticity and truth.  He looks upon it with love, and that makes me more capable of doing the same.

I still have lots of questions about how to be myself and exactly who that is right now.  About how I am different than in the past and how I’m still the same.  I have things to learn about how to interact with people too.  Lots to learn and explore.  There is nobody who can give me more answers than God can.  Nobody knows me or my questions better than He does.  I don’t even know how to ask them–but He knows what they are.

So I need to keep on building upon my relationship and partnership with God.  And with other people too–because they will always be part of my life and who I am.  I know God uses us to help each other.  But honestly, after almost 4 years, nearly everybody around me either 1) doesn’t realize all I’ve been through, or 2) assumes that what happened then no longer affects me, that I am “over it,” not to put it too bluntly.  I don’t hold that against anybody.  There’s no way they could still be as aware of my difficulties as I am.  But that’s why I say it’s mostly just me and God for now.

The Lenten Lesson has helped me see how close He is to me, all the time.  And that He is there for me.  I don’t need to try to shoulder anything alone.  I don’t have to accept the little voices that lie to me and try to build walls between me and Him.  I now recognize them for what they are.  And I no longer want anything to do with them.  I just want Him.  And I just want to be whole and live well, with as much happiness as possible.

Not happiness as defined by the world, but happiness as defined by my soul’s relationship with God.  Whether it is the relationship between Father and daughter, Shepherd and sheep, King and subject, Teacher and student, Master and handmaid, Creator and creature, there is no shame in it.  God’s love and devotion gives it worth.  And that is where happiness is born.  That is where our selves are most true: in His love.

(Image is a detail from a photo by Flickr user Lawrence OP)

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.

This blog is brought to you by a Lay Dominican

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

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