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I’m still reading Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation, and I am finding more and more to like… more and more that “clicks” in my mind.  The chapter on “Tradition and Revolution” is one of my favorites.  Here are some excerpts that particularly resonated with me and with my Dominican soul.  They also relate a bit to what I was talking about in my Easter Sunday post on belief and understanding.

… the saints arrived at the deepest and most vital and also the most individual and personal knowledge of God precisely because of the Church’s teaching authority, precisely through the tradition that is guarded and fostered by that authority.

The first step to contemplation is faith; and faith begins with an assent to Christ teaching through His Church; fides ex auditu, qui vos audit, me audit.  “He that heareth you, heareth Me.”  And “faith cometh by hearing.”

It is not the dry formula of a dogmatic definition by itself that pours light into the mind of a Catholic contemplative, but the assent to the content of that definition deepens and broadens into a vital, personal and incommunicable penetration of the supernatural truth which it expresses–an understanding that is a gift of the Holy Ghost and which merges into the Wisdom of Love, to possess Truth in its infinite Substance, God Himself.

… The dogmas defined and taught by the Church have a very precise, positive and definite meaning which those who have the grace to do so must explore and penetrate if they would live an integral spiritual life.  For the understanding of dogma is the proximate and ordinary way to contemplation.

Yet true contemplation is not arrived at by an effort of the mind. … But God gives true theologians a hunger born of humility, which cannot be satisfied with formulas and arguments, and which looks for something closer to God than anaology can bring you.

This serene hunger of the spirit penetrates the surface of words and goes beyond the human formulation of mysteries and seeks, in the humiliation of silence, intellectual solitude and interior poverty, the givt of a supernatural apprehension which words cannot truly signify.

Beyond the labor of argument it finds rest in faith and beneath the noise of discourse it apprehends the Truth, not in distinct and clear-cut definitions but in the limpid obscurity of a single intuition that unites all dogmas in one simple Light, shining into the soul directly from God’s eternity …

Here the Truth is One Whom we not only know and possess but by Whom we are known and possessed.

I have had countless experiences where studying Scripture, the Catechism, or some theological text has led me to a more direct, intuitive apprehension of God.

At times it can be dramatic, like a bolt of lightning. I remember one day sweating over the concept of the Holy Trinity (one of my favorite theological mysteries).  My brain was going round and round, tying itself into knots.  And then, out of nowhere, without my seeking it or expecting it, there was a kind of “flash”–and all in an instant, I suddenly understood!  But in the very next instant, of course, I realized what was happening, and instead of resting in the light and in the sublime vision, my fool of a mind latched on to the experience itself–“Oh my gosh, this must be some kind of contemplative experience!”–and the light vanished as quickly as it had come.

That’s happened to me a few times, and sadly I haven’t learned to stay still and be quiet.  Or maybe it’s just supposed to be a quick “flash.”  Maybe that’s all I can handle.  In any case, it’s always enough to inspire me and keep me going in my pursuit of Truth.

More often, however, I’ll be in the process of studying, and I will just be moved by how incredible God is.  How good and beautiful and tremendous and majestic He is.  And I find that my studying becomes a form of prayer in which as my mind absorbs the divine truths, it also responds with praise, with thanksgiving, with worship.  It becomes like a dialogue between God and my soul.  A deep, wordless connection.  A sea of love and understanding and wisdom.

This is why it is so important to submit yourself to learning and, if necessary, struggling with Church teaching.  And why you must begin from a position of submission and faith, from the position, “I believe that the Church is right.”  Do that, and before you know it, your mind and your soul will open up to something and Somebody far greater than you.  You will see the light of Truth.  It might not happen in a bolt of lightning–it may happen slowly and gradually.  But it will happen if you are open.

It’s also why studying theology is so important for me.  People ask, “Why do you want to study theology?  What good will that do you?”  That’s understandable because in our society, studying is often intricately tied to career, to earning a salary, to getting ahead in the world, to gaining prestige.  Sure, people also study for leisure and enjoyment, for self-cultivation.  Theology is not a field of study usually associated with either career or leisure.  OK, maybe it’s part of your “career” if you are becoming a priest, but beyond that, it doesn’t seem to provide any real prospects.  So what is it that compels me and so many other people to study it, or to wish to study it?

It is simply this: that theology is an encounter with God.  With Life and Love and Truth and Goodness and Beauty and Mercy and Justice and Happiness.  With everything that the human soul loves, longs for, and adores.

That is the value in studying theology.  It is also the true value in studying anything else, insomuch as any genuine and earnest search for truth will ultimately lead the soul to God Who is Truth.


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)

Many heartfelt thanks to those who have sent prayers my way.  They started working immediately!  I have been praying for you all in return.  I feel much better!

Yesterday, I went to Confession and told my priest about what has been going on and my less-than-charitable part in it.  What it comes down to is that I’ve been mired down with lots of anger and lots of fear too.  It’s had an awful effect on pretty much my entire life.  I really need help overcoming it, and there’s no better way than through prayer and sanctifying grace.  Confession is a wonderfully, powerfully, healing Sacrament.  So that definitely helped too, together with your prayers and my own!

After Confession, I stayed in the church to await the Vigil Mass.  It did a lot to calm me down.  The sound of the chanting, interspersed with organ interludes was enough to do that!  I knelt before altar and tabernacle and Crucifix and prayed and prayed… really poured my heart out to God.  I asked Him to please help me to stay even-tempered and master my emotions, to be strong and self-possessed, to be wise and prudent enough to deal with some difficult situations and difficult people in my life right now.  There’s nothing like handing your busted-up heart to God and having Him put it back together again, better, stronger, and more pure!

The Mass readings for this Sunday couldn’t have been more timely and significant for me and for our nation, nor could Father’s homily!  That’s another thing I love so much about my parish church: Father’s homilies!  The deacons deliver good homilies too, but our pastor is the best.  He’s a very educated, intellectual man, a very fine rhetorician and teacher, and also a very good pastor.  He delves into the meanings of the readings themselves (all the literary and historical contexts and things like that), and then he tells us what they mean for our everyday lives.  He always emphasizes that our faith is not just “something we do” on Sundays within the walls of the church, but rather something we are to live out every single day, wherever we are, and he exhorts us to do just that.  There is always a very genuine passion to his speaking.  I could listen to Father for hours–and I really mean that!

There are some things that are so fundamental to Christianity that we often take them for granted, don’t really think about them, or perhaps even regard them as sort of cliché, as a kind of “nice sentiment.”  And one of these things is summed up especially in the short little reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans–namely, love.

Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another;
for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.
The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery;
you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not covet, ”
and whatever other commandment there may be,
are summed up in this saying, namely,
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Love does no evil to the neighbor;
hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.

Our society teaches that love really is a “nice sentiment,” a pleasing emotion.  Our society also teaches the importance of self-love (sometimes portraying it as more important than anything else!).  So it’s no wonder that we might happily float over this reading.  But the Church doesn’t let us just float happily over it, and neither does a good homilist.  This nice reading is couched between some much more difficult readings: the readings from Ezekiel and the Gospel of Matthew.  In these, we are reminded of our duty to correct–and be corrected by–our brethren, especially when we start to fall into step with the world and lose step with our faith.  Father didn’t mention this specifically, but I immediately thought about Nancy Pelosi and her fellow allegedly-Catholic politicians.  I also thought about the fact that until very recently, our bishops have not responded all that strongly to them (with a few notable exceptions).  Thank God that the latter has shown signs of changing!

We are all prophets by Baptism; we Christians are called to speak out what is true and right and good, without worrying what the world will think.  We are to correct each other when we stray–we all need that from time to time; I know I do!  Not only that, but we must speak out with love.  Sure, it may not always be accepted as love; like I said, the world doesn’t really understand what love is.  And far from being a “nice sentiment,” it can actually be incredibly difficult!  But that is where prayer and sanctifying grace come in.  God doesn’t leave us on our own.  Never.

This is a theme that comes into my life fairly regularly: speaking the truth in love.  For me, it is the greatest of lessons.  One that I still need to work very hard on.  Truth and love cannot really be separated for a Catholic.  Our God is love, and our God is also truth.  He’s not one or the other, He is both at once. If we are to live as His children, if we are to become like Him, we too must integrate truth and love into our lives, our actions, and indeed into our very persons.  That’s a monumental task that may take us all our lives, and maybe a little time in Purgatory too!

Easy?  No.  A “nice sentiment”?  Definitely not.  It definitely takes us out of any comfort zones we may have.  But it also sheds light and grace upon us, illuminating the way to overcome things like anger and fear.  And that makes it all worthwhile!  After these past few days, and experiencing first-hand the destructive, harmful, and painful effects on my soul of such negativities,  I am willing to do just about anything to overcome them!  Lord help me!

I’m off to make a holy hour at church!  I know I’m going to need it this week…

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

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