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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)


My Catholic ladies’ book club is reading Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation this month.  I have mixed feelings about the book, but it does include some good thoughts, including some that I have found very helpful with the Lenten Lesson.  One of the best I’ve come across so far is this:

Be content that you are not yet a saint, even though you realize that the only thing worth living for is sanctity.  Then you will be satisfied to let God lead you to sanctity by paths that you cannot understand.  You will travel in darkness in which you will no longer be concerned with yourself and no longer compare yourself with other men.

That encapsulates the Lenten Lesson quite well.  Namely:

1.  To acknowledge that I am on a journey and in a process; I’m not there yet

2.  To allow God to lead me, with more trust and less resistance

3.  To not be so concerned with myself; to be less self-centered

4.  To not always compare myself with other people; to be authentically myself, the person God created me to be

To a large extent, I feel like I need to find myself, and to be myself.  And in order to do that, I need to be closer to God.  That’s another thing Merton talks about in this book: how we come to know ourselves through knowing God and shedding lots of false conceptions of ourselves.  I think that is very true for me.

Over the past several years, God has deconstructed and reconstructed me.  And rather than trust Him, I have also attempted to reconstruct myself as I see fit.  It has only distracted and confused me.  It has come to nothing.  Right now, I need to get to know how God has reconstructed me.  I need to explore and grow into the new structure He has given me.  I need to fulfill His vision of me.  I need to be a peace with myself, to feel more comfortable with myself.

I have been feeling rather in the dark.  At times I feel like the only thing I can do is put one foot in front of the other… inhale and exhale… and keep praying, even if I don’t feel like it.

Also today, a friend and reader “coincidentally” sent me an excerpt from Thomas Keating’s Intimacy with God:

At this point, the initial graces that were given to our rational faculties and emotions are withdrawn–a classic experience in the spiritual journey known as “the dark night of sense.” Our enthusiasm for various devotional practices and activities disappears because God no longer gives the grace that works through the levels of reason and emotion. God, too, seems to withdraw, to our great distress or consternation. Instead of being present during our time of prayer, God seems not to show up anymore; it feels as if God could not care less. This is especially painful if the former relationship was very satisfying, exciting, or consoling. The thought rises, “God has abandoned me!” When the dryness is extreme, Lectio Divina is like reading the telephone book and spiritual exercises are just a bore. We are irritable and discouraged because the light of our life has gone out. It took so many years to find God and now God has gone away. There is a constant temptation to think we have done something wrong, but we can’t figure out what it was. Our tendency is to project onto God the way we would feel in a similar deteriorating relationship with another human being, namely, hopeless. This judgment is most unfair to God. At this point a lot of people throw in the towel and decide, “The spiritual journey is not for me.”

As the transition to the next layer takes place, there may be a discouraging sense that all is ending, and in a sense, it is the end of our world: But our world is not the world; it is just one of them. God cannot possibly go away. It is true, our relationship with God, if we deliberately walk away, can be injured for a while, but God does not really leave us. If God did, we would just disappear or turn into a grease spot, since God is the very life of our being.

Creation is ongoing. What God has done in this situation is simply to “go downstairs” to a more intimate place on the spiral staircase, where he is waiting for us to join him at a new level of maturity and trust. If we are very quiet in the night of sense, St. John of the Cross writes, we may notice a delicate sense of peace and may even begin to enjoy the more substantial food of pure faith. As we let go of the level on which we formerly found satisfaction, we move to a deeper level of faith, which is far more reliable and much more strengthening for the journey.

I do feel like I need to quieten myself and delve deeper.  I said recently that I feel like I am at some kind of turning point, some kind of break-though point.  I feel a great deal of tension, a small touch of trepidation, and also excitement–the latter being a small testament that I do know that God wills wonderful things for me and for all of us if we just follow His lead.  I know the rewards of taking the plunge into deeper spiritual waters.  I know that “delicate sense of peace” that blooms from spiritual perseverance.

But there is still so much mystery and uncertainty.  No two lessons are exactly the same.  Knowing the good results doesn’t necessarily calm one’s nerves.  It still demands submission and a willingness to just… let… go.  It still demands a leap of faith, with the understanding that God might allow us to plummet and tumble and madly flap our arms for a while before He catches us.  I know that feeling too!

I still feel like I’m clinging to the cliff, peering into the chasm.  But I feel more and more like letting go.  If it will bring me nearer to God, and make me more myself, then I just have to do it.

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

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