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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!
Just a few months ago I seriously started looking for a relationship with a man again. This is the first serious effort I’ve made since losing my intended husband 6.5 years ago. And, as you may have gathered from some of my recent posts… to say the least, things have not been going very well!
I don’t know if I’ve just had the bad fortune of running into lousy men, or if I am just so rusty with interacting with men that I have been making my own lousy mistakes, or if the rules have changed drastically in the last 6.5 years. Maybe it’s just that I am 6.5 years older now, and decades more mature than a person my age should be.
In any case, it has been so hard not to get utterly discouraged and fall into despair. Yeah, it’s only been a few months, but I’ve gotten quite a few fresh wounds in this short time! My spiritual life has been pushed nearly to its limits as I struggle not to lose hope and patience and trust in God.
However, I have also found great comfort in God and the Church–particularly the Communion of Saints. I have found some novenas that are said to bring wonderful, even miraculous, assistance in finding a spouse:
Currently, I have just completed the Novena to St. Jude–since finding a decent man and potential husband does seem like a rather impossible cause.
I also pray each day this prayer to St. Raphael the Archangel.
In these and in my daily Divine Office and Rosary, and each time I go to Mass, I pray that I will soon meet a good man to be my husband, and that in the meantime, I will devote myself to growing deeper in love with God and to preparing myself to be a good wife and mother, with the Virgin Mary as my role-model.
I also pray for all the other single Catholic women who are also longing for a good husband and marriage and children.
I offer prayers for my future husband and children and ask that we all be together as a family soon.
I pray very hard for all the single men out there, especially Catholics, that they will fervently and steadfastly and courageously pursue the vocation of marriage and be open to loving women, no matter how many times they may have been hurt or rejected.
I pray that all of my own wounds from the past will be healed so that I can give myself whole and healthy and happy to my future husband.
Overall, I am just trying to put God first in my life and trust that He will richly provide for every need and desire I have. I am trying to be mindful of, and very grateful for all that He has given to me and done for me, to focus on the blessings I have, rather than focusing on what I lack. And I am trying to always remember that I am His daughter, and He is my Father. He loves me, and I love Him, and from that love springs all others.
Whenever I ponder love, I am brought back to this quotation from the film, Diary of a Country Priest:
Priest: We did not invent love. It has its order, its law.
Countess: God is its master.
Priest: He is not the master of love. He is love itself. If you would love, don’t place yourself beyond love’s reach.
Words to live by.
Today, 16 October, is the birthday of Elisabeth Leseur. Here is something she wrote the day after her 39th birthday in 1905:
How plainly visible is Providence in the history of my soul and of my life! It must be the same for all, if one knows how to discern its beneficent action; when I look back, in spite of misfortunes and tears, I can only bless and adore. I begin this new period of life–long or short, calm or sorrowful, according to God’s will–with these words from the depths of my soul: I believe, I adore, I hope.
I too can clearly see God’s Providence when I look back over my life, and especially in the past five years. Years of so much sorrow, grief, pain, and battle. And like Mme. Leseur, I can only bless and adore God for it all.
The Scripture readings for yesterday wonderfully communicate God’s abundant grace to us. They also teach us an important lesson about who we are and who God is–a lesson in pride and humility, doubt and trust.
I can so empathize with the prophet Isaiah:
“Woe is me, I am doomed!
For I am a man of unclean lips,
living among a people of unclean lips;
yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”
And with St. Paul:
For I am the least of the apostles,
not fit to be called an apostle,
because I persecuted the church of God.
And with St. Peter:
“Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”
Even after nearly five years of being back in the Church, I occasionally look at my life and say, “Oh Lord, after all I’ve done, I am not worthy to be part of Your Church!” But then God says, “You are part of My Church for one reason only: because I created you to be.” Or in other words, “It’s not all about you and what you’re worthy of. It’s much more about Me and what My will for you is.”
Sometimes our egos are our worst enemies. What folly to suppose that we could ever be worthy of what God gives us! And what folly to second-guess His freely-given love and blessings! What a cleverly-disguised pride! A pride that preys upon our trust in God and in His providence.
Fortunately, Isaiah, Paul, and Peter also provide examples of true purity and trust that we can follow. Reassured by God, Isaiah and Peter put themselves at His service. And Paul says so beautifully:
But by the grace of God I am what I am,
and his grace to me has not been ineffective.
When I look at my life with genuine humility, I too can see that God’s grace has been abundant and extremely effective. It has never failed me. I may fail myself in not being open and receptive to it. But He does not fail me. On Him we can depend completely.
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
Happy feast day to my beloved spiritual father, St. Dominic!
Appropriately, I will be on retreat today with my Lay Dominican chapter, praying, studying, fellowshipping. What better way to spend our founding father’s feast day?
There are two things that struck me early on about St. Dominic, and still today spring to my mind whenever I think of him: courage and trust in divine providence. Probably because they are two lessons that I most need to learn! Here are a couple of quotations from Dominican Spirituality : Principles and Practice by Fr. William A. Hinnebusch, OP.
An example of courage:
With courage he traveled through the Albigensian country. At times he knew his enemies were planning to kill him, yet he continued on his way. Once they took him, but seeing that he offered no resistance, they asked: “What would you have done, had we carried out our plans?” “I would have begged you to put me to death in the slowest possible way, to cut me to pieces bit by bit so my martyrdom would be prolonged for the good of souls.” Realizing how much he wanted martyrdom, they did not kill him. He was a martyr by desire.
A martyr by desire. How many of us can say that about ourselves?
On his trust in divine providence:
The very fact that Dominic was willing to found a mendicant Order, one that owned no property and had no revenues, indicates his mighty trust in Divine Providence. He relied on the free-will offerings the faithful would give him. He so believed in God’s help, that he did not want the brethren to store up more food than they needed for a day. That is why they sometimes went hungry. But his faith was rewarded, more than once, by the miracle of the loaves. Both in Bologna and in Rome there were days when the early friars, unknown newcomers, did not get enough from their begging tours. Then they found a bare refectory. There was nothing to place before them. But the Founder had them offer the grace and take their places just the same. At Rome the angels came and distributed a loaf of bread to each friar. This was the answer of Providence to Dominic’s trust.
The sad thing about my having to constantly learn to trust divine providence is that… I know I can trust in it! I because it has come through for me time after time after time. Maybe not via the miracle of the loaves, but still in some pretty marvelous ways. And yet… I still need to work on it. Why, why is it so easy to lose sight of things like that?
At least I am in good hands. If anybody can help me master it, it’s St. Dominic.
May his prayers and blessings be with you all… especially my fellow Dominicans! :)
I happened to come across this, posted by one of my Facebook friends. I needed to read it today:
“God in His infinite goodness sometimes sees fit to test our courage and love by depriving us of the things which it seems to us would be advantageous to our souls; and if He finds us earnest in their pursuit, yet humble, tranquil and resigned to do without them if He wishes us to, He will give us more blessings than we should have had in the possession of what we craved.” ~St. Philip Neri
Actually, I think I need to read it every day!
I apologize again for not writing much lately. I may be silent, but I am not idle. I’ve hit a rather dry, rough patch in my spiritual life. These are never easy, nor much fun. But they always turn out to be worthwhile.
Whenever I have times like this, I’m reminded of this verse from the Book of Hosea where God says of Israel:
“Therefore, behold, I will allure her,
and bring her into the wilderness,
and speak tenderly to her.”
The desolation I feel is only an illusion. I know that God is near, speaking to me in depths of my soul, so deeply that I simply cannot sense it. But who knows what seeds he may be planting there? Just like plant seeds, they take time and nurturing to grow and come to fruition.
It’s tempting for us to get impatient, to harden ourselves about those seeds and crush them. It is tempting to grow cross toward God, who would lovingly, patiently, mysterious bring about their unfolding. This is what can easily happen if we let the seeming desolation get to us and turn us cold.
Our spiritual lives have seasons just as the material world does. There is a time for planting and a time for harvesting. There is a time for dryness and a time for lushness. These spiritual seasons may not always be as measured and predictable as the physical seasons. But they are written in God’s mind and He provides for them as need be.
There can be no harvest, no fruits, without the planting of seeds. Dryness can be good also, for too much dampness can bring about not lushness, but rot.
At times like these, we have to do our best to just lay ourselves open and allow God to plant the seeds and make them grow. To trust in God’s wisdom and goodness, and look forward with joy and eagerness to what He will bring forth in us.
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!