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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.
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.
[UPDATE: The prayer below is actually from the third Sunday of Lent, not the second, which is today. Somehow I got my place in the Proper of Seasons mixed up. Doh! I never lose my place like that! And this time I did it publicly! Oh well. I suppose it "accidentally" happened because I really needed that prayer today. :)]
Sometimes when praying the Divine Office (AKA Liturgy of the Hours), do you ever feel like the prayers are reaching up from the page and smacking you, or perhaps giving you a vigorous shaking? Not in a mean, hurtful way, of course, but in a “HEY, wake up and pay attention!” way.
I had a couple of moments like that just this morning. One was in the scripture reading from Nehemiah:
Today is holy to the Lord your God. Do not be sad, and do not weep; for today is holy to our Lord. Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the Lord must be your strength!
I wouldn’t say that I’ve been sad, exactly. But I haven’t exactly been rejoicing, either. There are reasons for that which I don’t feel like divulging in detail. But after I read that scripture, I tried to push myself beyond all that and to think about all the many reasons I have to rejoice in God. Not least of which is His inexhaustible patience with me. And you know what? It did give me strength!
The flood gates opened when I was praying my personal intercessions… but they weren’t tears of sadness. They were tears of gratitude, tears of relief, tears of joy… and tears of repentance too. They came from knowing that I could just take everything within me and throw it all into God’s hands. I could throw myself wholly and without hesitance into God’s arms. I could say, “Lord, I don’t think I can keep following on my own–please, I need You to carry me for a while.”
Another day and another step of progress in this year’s Lenten Lesson.
And then I arrived at the closing prayer, and the part that struck me was:
When we are discouraged by our weakness,
give us confidence in Your love.
Discouragement and confidence have been serious issues for me of late. Yes, even confidence in God’s love, I hate to say. But more so, confidence in myself. And I’ve said before that my own weakness discourages me, that sometimes I get caught up in feeling as though I am supposed to be my own god. That’s something I have not consciously realized until this Lent–and it’s surely the root at which the Lord, via the Lenten Lesson, is taking aim.
As a related aside, I have often been very fond of the image of God as a gardener who must sometimes hack away at roots that are invading and trying to strangle His beloved plants (you and me). And that sometimes He must prune us of our own perverse outgrowths, rid us of diseased and dead limbs, and graft new, healthy ones in. Sometimes He might have to uproot us altogether and replant us somewhere else. All of which can be painful, distressing, and downright frightening for us plants, especially since we can’t always see the Gardener’s purpose.
I guess that image speaks to me because I’m named after a plant. I often find it a little amazing that God should invest so much care in a wild common broom shrub like me. But that’s God for ya! He is the reason I bloom.
Something that strikes me every morning is the last stanza of the “Benedictus,” particularly the phrase:
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death
I think about our world, and especially my own beloved country, so frightfully dominated by the Culture of Death and becoming more so all the time. Even though some of us have seen and known the light of that heavenly dawn, we still largely “dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,” inasmuch as we are completely surrounded by them, citizens of a nation permeated by them. And we are surrounded by people who do not see or know–or worse, who deny and reject–the light of day, the Sun of Justice. Praying that prayer every morning really makes one aware of where we stand in this world. It’s easy to be tempted to look around and say, “Oh, everything is just fine and dandy.” That’s living in denial. And until the dawn from on high shines on our entire country, none of us is going to be completely free from dwelling in death’s dark shadow. We have to see things as they are, and we have to take responsibility for it. We have to work and pray and do everything we can to share and reflect the light that we have received. We may or may not succeed… but we do have to try. As the late Rep. Hyde said, we won’t be judged on whether we succeeded, but we will be judged on whether we tried.
And all of this is why praying the Divine Office is so very useful in the spiritual life! I recommend giving a try if you haven’t. eBreviary is a good resource for seeing what the prayers look like and getting acquainted with them; you can see all of the prayers for Sundays and Fridays; to get access to them every day requires a subscription. They do offer free trials if you’d like to try it out for a few weeks (see under “additional subscription options”). That is how I became familiar with the Divine Office.
I now use Christian Prayer, and there is also a Shorter Christian Prayer that simply gives the morning and evening prayer for the ordinary 4-week psalter–I would consider that perfectly adequate for basic devotional purposes. There is also the excellent monthly publication, Magnificat which gives shorter morning and evening prayers, in addition to all Mass readings and other items. You can send for a free sample issue. My parish orders bulk subscriptions which give everyone a significant discount–you might ask your parish about that, or suggest that they consider doing that.
As with any family, the Church that prays together stays together!