Sunday, August 30, 2009

Gold Star Religion

‘Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.’ ~~James 1:27

Have you ever noticed how life imitates Scripture? Or do I mean to say, have you ever noticed how when you hear – or read – something in the Bible, you are reminded of an example of it—either good or bad—in your own life?

Does that ever happen to you?

It happens to me all the time.

Usually, I am reminded of someone I love, or admire, who lives out the positive exhortation, the Gospel command. Most often, that ‘someone’ is my husband, the Godliest man I know.

Last night at Mass when we heard that lovely definition of pure and undefiled religion, I thought of my Bear the afternoon 21 years ago almost to the day when he came home to our little German apartment sweaty, dirty, and distraught beyond words, trying to communicate the horror he had just witnessed at the worst air show disaster ever.

He had done what he could for the injured, the dying, the terrified and their rescuers. It hadn’t been enough. It took him months before he could sleep again without nightmares—and he knew how blessed he was. We both did.

A little over a year ago, a B-52, Raider 21, went down just off Guam with all crew lost. The B-52 Stratofortress, the “Buff” – as it’s been affectionately nicknamed by those associated with it – has one of the safest flying records of all the airplanes in the United States Air Force. It was the last aircraft I was privileged to work with while I was still on active duty and it’s my favorite of all. It’s old, 40’s technology, brought into the inventory even before I was born in 1955, but reliable. So when we learned about Raider 21 going down on 21 July 2008, it felt like a family loss. Even though my husband is now retired from the Air Force, he still works on and with issues involving the B-52’s. He knows the history of most of the planes, the aircrew, missions and other bits of minutiae that would put an aviation trivia expert to shame. He’s been to the USAF Aircraft Accident Investigation School and he followed the investigation of this mishap with his usual micro precision. In tribute to the men who died and recognition of their sacrifice, Bear painted the above picture and had prints made.

Fast-forward a year. Last month, I overheard a colleague mention to our supervisor she was still trying to get out of jury duty so that she could fly to Guam for an Air Force ceremony in honor of her son. I kept eavesdropping. This sweet, reserved woman, some years senior to me doesn’t speak often. She's always there to lend a hand, has a ready smile but goes her own quiet way. I learned her son had been on Raider 21 and died last year—her only son.

I told Bear. I knew he’d want to help. He knows a lot of people. He started making some phone calls and pretty soon, she was off jury duty and on her way to Guam.

Last night, Bear and I had the distinct pleasure of taking that lovely Gold Star Mom out for dinner. We didn’t know a lot about her before the night began, but we learned that she’s been a widow for many years now. Up until his death, her son was her best friend, yet she didn’t whine, complain or bemoan her fate. She shared her pictures of the trip with us, told us how lovely everyone had treated her and her father, and all the other surviving family members from Raider 21. She was gracious, eager to tell us about her son and his children, but also wanted to hear all about our Air Force experiences. Even the restaurant we tentatively suggested, she said, was her favorite and one she’d go to her by herself just for the food, she liked it so much. Was she just being nice? Maybe, but I don’t think so. I think she’s just one of those genuinely good souls.

Later she showed us the home her son had bought her. She was very proud of it—and him. She still didn’t have a lot of things on her walls, but we saw the print of my husband’s Raider 21 painting and her Gold Star Mom banner.

I can say I have met a Gold Star Mom. She really is Gold Star all the way.

And so is my Bear. At one point, this bereaved mother asked about the body of her son, which the authorities had recommended her not view. My husband got a little choked up when he explained a few things to her, but she remained calm, and she said she appreciated his technical explanations.

As I reread St. James’ definition above, I see the world’s ‘staining’ not so much as sin—because we all sin while we walk this earth—but as becoming embittered by the horrors we encounter. My dear husband has seen things which make him cry, strong man though he is, yet he is able to rise above his own pain and help widows and orphans in their affliction. I am his witness. May God bless and preserve him in this life and reward him richly in the next.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

time to remodel

Jesus said: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You pay tithes of mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier things of the law: judgment and mercy and fidelity. But these you should have done, without neglecting the others. Blind guides, who strain out the gnat and swallow the camel! “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You cleanse the outside of cup and dish, but inside they are full of plunder and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee, cleanse first the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may be clean.” ~~Mt 23:23-26

Remember when you were a kid and the teacher really ‘gave it’ to some kid—or group of kids—who really deserved it?! Didn’t you sit there in your chair and secretly (or not so secretly!) smile, feeling rather smug that you’d witnessed justice-in-action? It so often goes the other way that it’s nice when the “bad” guys get their due.

What am I saying? Even as adults, we rather enjoy watching our powerful enemies step in their own traps, embarrassed or brought to shame by excesses or crimes. So to have someone of Jesus’ impeccable reputation chastise the scribes and Pharisees in that way must have been satisfying for his audience.

And yet, I read—or heard—somewhere once that we’re always supposed to put ourselves into every situation in Scripture; that in order to derive maximum benefit from the stories and situations, we have to imagine ourselves capable of every sin committed.

We cannot view the scribes and Pharisees as “other” but that we are them.

Jesus is talking to us.
To me.
I am blind.
I am full of plunder and self-indulgence.
I am in need of cleaning, first on the inside.

Jesus’ harsh admonition in today’s Gospel is a personal invitation to ‘remodel’ ourselves ... myself from the inside out.

I know I have some serious work to do, but with His help, it can be done. He knows my Pharisaical insides and yet He loves me even so. Jesus’ words sound harsh, but just think how beautiful something is after it is remodeled—from the inside out. He alone can do that, because He alone KNOWS me.

It was no coincidence the Responsorial Psalm today is 139. Listen to these beautiful words and be filled with Hope, Joy and Peace:

R. You have searched me and you know me, Lord.
O LORD, you have probed me and you know me;
you know when I sit and when I stand;
you understand my thoughts from afar.
My journeys and my rest you scrutinize,
with all my ways you are familiar.
R. You have searched me and you know me, Lord.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
behold, O LORD, you know the whole of it.
Behind me and before, you hem me in
and rest your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
too lofty for me to attain.
R. You have searched me and you know me, Lord.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Mental Prayer, Part 6

“Let nothing disturb thee; Let nothing dismay thee; All thing pass; God never changes. Patience attains All that it strives for. He who has God Finds he lacks nothing: God alone suffices.” ~~ St. Teresa of Ávila

“Be gentle to all, and stern with yourself.” ~~ St. Teresa of Ávila

One of the (many) things I like about Santa Teresa de Jesús is the way she seems to contradict herself. I contradict myself too. But then if you read Jesus carefully in Holy Scripture even He seems to say one thing and turn around and say almost the opposite a few chapters later. Know what I mean?¹

We humans are a complicated and contradictory lot. But then Life is a strange and confusing journey at times, isn’t it?

So what does Teresa mean when she says on one hand that patience attains all, but on the other to be stern with ourselves? Which is it? And is she even referring to prayer in these quotes? Good questions! With Teresa, one never knows ... exactly—which is why it is very dangerous to take her out of context, just as it is to take Our Lord's words apart from, or out of, Holy Scripture. And even reading her writing in context, one must be very careful, as she freely admitted, which is why she was stern with herself; she knew herself. She knew and recognized her own shortcomings—and that is the real point of that second quote.

Recently when I was reading Father Christopher Renger's The 33 Doctors of the Church, I discovered Teresa’s title was “Doctor of Prayer”. In light of what I've been trying to write about and do in my own life, I was amazed by this. And yet, why so? If we Catholics truly believe that it's God who passionately loves us and initiates all, then why is it so strange to think that our patron saints choose us and are actively involved in our lives?

Ever since watching the mini-series on Santa Teresa many years ago, I’ve been drawn to her like a fly to honey. I share her enthusiasm for books, love her sense of humor, have a deep affection for my brother and know I possess all of her faults without having yet acquired her virtues. Still, when I visited her home town of Ávila (in 2007) I begged for her help and protection—and believe she is giving it to me every day.

In a previous post, I spoke about my firm belief in the Communion of Saints. Every time we say the Rosary or the Creed, we say, “I believe in the Communion of Saints!” Do we mean it? Do we really mean it?! We call – and call on – our earthly friends all the time, but what about our Heavenly ones? They are nearest Him who we profess to love. They long to help us in our prayer. Ask them to help you. Beg for their help every time you pray ... which is also becoming the poor beggar.

Begin all things in prayer and be a beggar when you pray.

'“To make a lame man walk without a limp is less absurd than to try and succeed without Thee, my Savior” (St. Augustine). Why do my resolutions bear no fruit? It can only be because my belief that “I can do all things” is not followed by; “in Him Who strengtheneth me.” And this brings me, then, to that part of my prayer which is in certain respects the most important of all: supplication, or the language of hope.

Without Your grace, Jesus, I can do nothing. And there is absolutely nothing that entitles me to it, Yet I know that my ceaseless prayers, far from irking You, will determine the amount of help You will give me, if they reflect a thirst to belong to You, distrust in myself, and an unlimited, not to say mad, confidence in Your Sacred Heart. Like the Canaanite woman, I cast myself at Your feet, O infinite goodness. With her persistence, full of humility and hope, I ask You not for a few crumbs but a full share in this banquet of which You said: “My meat is to do the will of Him that sent Me.”' ~~DOM JEAN-BAPTISTE CHAUTARD, O.C.S.O.

Which Beloved of God has chosen you? Is calling to you ... asking you to continue 'to do the will of Him' by following in that Saint's footsteps?

¹ Matthew 10:34 and Matthew 26:52

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Mental Prayer, Part 5

“We are to love God for Himself, because of a twofold reason; nothing is more reasonable, nothing more profitable. When one asks, ‘Why should I love God?’ he may mean, ‘What is lovely in God?’ or, ‘What shall I gain by loving God?’ In either case, the same sufficient cause of love exists, namely, God Himself.” ~~ St. Bernard of Clairvaux

Sometimes I’ve thought I mistitled this series of posts, “Mental Prayer” when it might have been more appropriate to give it the broader heading of “The Interior Life”. Well, it’s too late to change now I suppose, but just so you realize they go hand-in-hand, although they are not interchangeable. Mental prayer is the fuel for a powerful and rich Interior Life. In an earlier post we mentioned the first three of eleven Truths laid out by Dom Chautard in The Soul of the Apostolate. Notice he doesn’t call these ‘important’ or even ‘crucial’ but ‘Truths’. His description of them reads:

'“What Is the Interior Life? In this book the words life of prayer, contemplative life will be applied, as they are in the Imitation of Christ to the state of those souls who have dedicated themselves to a Christian life which is at the same time out of the common, and accessible to all, and, in substance, obligatory for all. Without embarking upon a study of asceticism, let us at least remind the reader that EVERYONE is obliged to accept the following principles as absolutely certain, and base his inner life upon them.


FOURTH TRUTH. In proportion to the intensity of my love for God, my supernatural life may increase at every moment by a new infusion of the grace of the active presence of Jesus in me; an infusion produced:

1. By each meritorious act (virtue, work, suffering under all its varying forms, such as privation of creatures, physical or moral pain, humiliation, self-denial; prayer, Mass, acts of devotion to Our Lady, etc.).

2. By the Sacraments especially the Eucharist. It is certain, then (and here is a consequence that overwhelms me with its sublimity and its depth, but above all, fills me with courage and with joy) that, by every event, person or thing, Thou Jesus, Thou Thyself, dost present Thyself, objectively, to me, at every instant of the day. Thou dost hide Thy wisdom and Thy love beneath these appearances and dost request my co-operation to increase Thy life in myself. O my soul, at every instant Jesus presents Himself to you by the GRACE OF THE PRESENT MOMENT — every time there is a prayer to say, a Mass to celebrate or to hear, reading to be done, or acts of patience, of zeal, of renunciation, of struggle, confidence, or love to be produced. Would you dare look the other way, or try to avoid His gaze?'

When I read this I was reminded of the saint whose feast day we celebrate today, the great Mellifluous¹ Doctor of the Church, St. Bernard of Clairvaux. One of his greatest works, On Loving God is available on-line through Christian Classics Ethereal Library which I highly recommend if you’ve never tried any of their services.

According to Father Christopher Renger's The 33 Doctors of the Church, St. Bernard worked more miracles in his lifetime than any other saint whose miracles are recorded. He was a man of strong friendships, charming personality and a delightful sense of humor. A story is told where 'once, when he had cured a possessed man, he brushed aside the admiration caused by this by explaining, “It were small wonder that the devil suffered defeat; for with such a helpmate as I, God could not fail. Besides, we were two against one.”' (p. 290)

And yet despite all his activities and accomplishments St. Bernard was—is—one of the world’s great contemplatives. Or perhaps I should write, because St. Bernard was such a great contemplative, through the power of the Holy Spirit, he was able to accomplish so much. 'It has been claimed that the Imitation of Christ, printed more than any other book Catholic book except the Bible is in substance contained in the works of St. Bernard.' (p. 295)

Oracle of the Twelve Century down to our own, Last of the Church Fathers, Arbiter of Christendom, Thaumaturgus² of the West, St. Bernard pray for us that we may learn to adore, love and serve Him as you did!

¹ 1. Flowing with sweetness or honey. 2 Smooth and sweet: "polite and cordial, with a mellifluous, well-educated voice" (H.W. Crocker III).

² Miracle worker

Monday, August 17, 2009

days like today

Today my oldest nephew starts high school.

Today is also my brother's 47Th birthday. Funny how things like that work out. My daughter, Michelle, is named after Michael. And she even looks a little like him too.

He would have loved her so much I know. He would have been a wonderful uncle but he never knew any of his nieces or nephews.
I don't mourn him for myself anymore, but every so often I can't help mourning all that my children and their cousins missed out on. Perhaps especially my two nephews, locked in worlds of their own by the strange and complex family of disorders known as Aspergers and autism.

Michael was always an introvert, quiet but good at making things. What would his relationship have been with Eric and Luke? And Meg and Michelle, too, for that matter? I suppose it doesn't matter now, but still I wonder ... on days like today.

And yet, this isn't a sad post but a happy one, because as I said, my nephew, Eric, is starting high school today. After almost eight years at private and/or special schools, my sister and her husband are mainstreaming him in a public school nearer their home. This will mean less driving for my sister who will still need to get Luke to his special school. Eric is considered a highly functional child with Aspergers. With Luke, the situation is more difficult. He is more typically autistic in most ways, although interestingly, more affectionate than his brother. Please remember my dear sister and her family in your prayers. Still, this is an exciting day, a milestone, and a day made extra-special because Eric starts high school on his Uncle Mike's birthday.

One other important event happened today: yours truly submitted her first ever real, professional job resume. I won't know the outcome for almost a month, but I've done my best, so I turned it all over to Him. And I can't help feeling good about whatever happens knowing that I applied for this job on my brother's birthday.

May your day be blessed by the love of God, family and many friends!

P.S. My sister let us know Eric had a pretty good first day of high school. He found all his classes (he said he had to ask for directions a few times), he sat with someone for lunch (and could even remember the boy's name!), he had homework in two subjects but found time to do it during classes and overall came home in a great mood. Apparently, he was happiest because he saw a fire drill schedule and there isn't one of those until the 27th. ☺ Thanks in advance for prayers!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Mental Prayer, Part 4

Wisdom calls, “Let whoever is simple turn in here; To the one who lacks understanding, come, eat of my food, and drink of the wine I have mixed! Forsake foolishness that you may live; advance in the way of understanding.” ~~Proverbs 9:1-6

It's been a week now and I admit there were times I thought I was crazy to have started this ‘mental prayer’. There were also times I wondered where God was? Here I am trying to pray and nothing is happening. I mean NOTHING! I’m thinking to myself, ‘This is the biggest waste of time ever. I could be doing A, B, C ... Z!’ And then came yesterday – the biggest setback of all. Here's what happened...

I could barely make myself get to work on time at 6:30. We had extended hours for back-to-school sales and I asked for early hours so I could get to evening Mass, but then I was still tired from working late the night before, etc., etc., so I decide to fore go getting up even earlier and instead devote my lunch hour to my mental prayer.

My lunch time comes, I down my coffee, head for the Blessed Sacrament Chapel (5 minutes away) for a peaceful prayer time and there’s a funeral going on at our parish. Where am I supposed to go?! Where can you find 30 minutes of quiet at a busy shopping mall on the Saturday before schools resume? I sit in my hot car, first with my air conditioning on, then with it off and hot Oklahoma winds blowing through open windows.

Do I need to tell you it wasn’t a good prayer time? I caught my mind wandering; no that's an understatement—I couldn’t stop my mind from wandering. Oh great! God, this is hopeless! I’m supposed to be here praying and look at what I’m thinking?! I drug my wayward mind back and there it went again. I was thinking dishonest, playful and even prideful thoughts, and then grumpy, frustrated, disorganized ones until finally I started to veer off into despair. WOW! How can anyone get herself in so much trouble just trying to pray?! Then it dawned on me. Calm down booklady. This is perfectly normal. The mind is an undisciplined, runaway young colt; you know that. That’s the whole point of this mental prayer: to learn good mental habits, to learn how to ignore, overcome and eventually transcend these episodes. Just another step along the road of training...

So I thanked God for the lesson, closed my prayer session with formal prayers—which I was very, very grateful to fall back on—and returned to work.

Today, my mental prayer session was the most profitable, in terms of actual things I took away from it, of any I’ve had so far. These are the realizations I had:

1. I’ve engaged in mental prayer many times in life without knowing I was doing it.
a. Usually I read a book, often Holy Scripture, for a period of time, then closed my eyes and used it as the basis for my conversation with God.

b. Several years I had prayer journals with selections from spiritual classics (Imitation of Christ, God Calling and Streams in the Desert) which I read and wrote in. As the writings were directed to God—much as a friend writing a letter to another friend—they constitute another form of mental prayer.

c. My belief is most devout people engage in a regular practice of mental prayer, either with or without realizing they are actually doing so.

2. Morning mental prayer needs to be combined with daily Mass and regular Confession as much as possible.

3. It seems to be allowing me to let go of things more easily, i.e., I don’t find myself as troubled by events, people or even my own follies and sins. Things that in the past would have stayed with me for days, I resolve in hours or less. Other matters, even more quickly. I just seem able to let go and move on.

4. I find myself with a longing to love more deeply – as Jesus does – and an awareness of how often I usually don’t.

5. There’s a growing awareness of His Presence and an abiding sense of Trust in Him.

Jesus said to the crowds: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” ~~John 6:51

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Mental Prayer, Part 3

‘We congratulate you sincerely upon having brought out so clearly the absolute necessity of the interior life for those engaged in good works, a life so necessary for the success of their ministry.’ ~~ Pope Benedict XV to Dom Chautard, author of The Soul of the Apostolate

Why mental prayer? If I'm going to spend at least thirty minutes every morning doing something, I want to be very, very sure I'm engaged in a worthwhile endeavor. So, why mental prayer?

‘So many enterprises in our time, and yet so often fruitless: why is it that they have not put society back on its feet? … Why? Because they are not firmly enough based on the interior life, the Eucharistic life, the liturgical life, fully and properly understood. Leaders of Catholic Action, at the head of these enterprises, have been full of logic, talent, and even of a certain piety. They have poured forth floods of light, and have managed to introduce some devotional practices: and that, of course, is already something. But because they have not gone back nearly enough to the Source of life, they have not been able to pass on to others that fervor which tempers wills to their great task.’ ~~ Dom Chautard, The Soul of the Apostolate, pp. 186-7

Once again, I can attest to the truth of the good father’s words—as if he needed my endorsement! But for what it’s worth, I remember so many past efforts where I attempted to do what I thought were “good works”, even going so far as to pray to do “God’s Will”. And yet, in retrospect – looking back – the reason my efforts bore so little fruit may have been because I neglected my interior life.

Jesus is the only source of Life. In and through Him we receive all power to do whatever it is He has given us to do.

‘I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.’ John 10:10 The development of the interior life – through regular mental prayer – is the recognition that Christ dwells within us and wants to aid His apostles in performing His Father’s Will.

Father Chautard teaches Eleven Truths regarding the Interior Life: (I will list the first three today, continuing on with the others in future posts.)

1. ‘The supernatural life is the life of Jesus Christ Himself in my soul, by Faith, Hope and Charity; for Jesus is the meritorious, exemplary, and final cause for sanctifying grace, and as Word, with the Father and the Holy Ghost, He is the efficient cause in our souls.’ This, isn’t to be confused with the Real Presence proper to Holy Communion, but a presence of vital action which lies deep within us and God ordinarily hides from the soul so as to increase the merit of faith. Our text contains more on this…

2. ‘By this life, Jesus Christ imparts to me His Spirit. … And thus I tend to realize the ideal of the INTERIOR LIFE that was formulated by St. Paul when he said: “I live, now not I, but Christ, liveth in me.”’

3. ‘When Jesus … becomes my light, my ideal, my counsel, my support, my refuge, my strength, my healer, my consolation, my joy, my love, in a word, my life, I shall acquire all virtues.’

One other thing Fr. Chautard stresses is holy reading in the evening, reading which will awaken in the apostle the desire to begin the following day with mental prayer. It is also useful to make many loving ejaculations throughout the day. Just as the modern person calls, texts, e-mails or talks to friends, family, loved ones, Our Lord Jesus should be “called” very often throughout the day:

“Hello Jesus! This is your dearest child! I am here! How are You right now my sweet Jesus? For once I don’t want anything, except to worship and adore You! I lift my little heart to you. Join it with Your Sacred One! Stay close to me tonight dearest Savior and thank You so so much for all of the many ways You have blessed me today. Kiss Your Mother for me! Good night!”

The Food Which Endures: Living a Eucharistic Life: Devotion to the Sacred Heart

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Mental Prayer, Part 2

"The devil knows that he has lost the soul that perseveringly practices mental prayer" ~~ St. Teresa of Ávila.

What is mental prayer?

Dom Jean-Baptiste Chautard, O.C.S.O. says, “Mental prayer is real hard work, especially for beginners.” I can attest to that! This is only my third day – of my nine hundred and ninety-ninth time – of starting a practice of regular morning mental prayer and I'm struggling as usual. My biggest problem always is staying awake! No matter what I do, I want to fall back asleep. Sorry God, but there it is. Yes, Father Chautard, mental prayer is hard work! Still I am determined, with God's help, to continue.

What else is mental prayer?

St. Teresa says, “Mental prayer is nothing but a friendly conversation in which the soul speaks, heart-to-heart, with the One Who we know loves us.” Dom Chautard goes on to say, “It would be blasphemous to imagine that God, Who makes me feel the need and at times the attraction of this converse, and what is more, makes it an obligation for me, should not want to make it easy for me. Even if I have long neglected it, Jesus calls me tenderly to mental prayer, and offers me special help in speaking this language of faith, hope and love...”

A friendly who I know loves me...called tenderly... Hmmmm...better and better! Yes, I think I can do this.

Each morning I begin my prayer time as if I am having a simple one-on-one conversation with a dear friend. Usually I have my Bible in my lap. Sometimes I refer to it, but mostly I just hold it. I tell Jesus how much I love Him and I ask Him to watch over me and my loved ones for the coming day. Sometimes I complain and sometimes I complain ... a lot. Other times, I tell Him how grateful I am for my many blessings. I'm not very consistent. But that's okay, Jesus knows me. I'm not going to 'fool' Him, so why pretend? And after I finish whining or ranting He and I both know that I have to go ahead and do what's required. Still, somehow it's better after I've told Him.

When my thirty minutes is almost up, I say my usual morning prayers and then I quit. I'm not exactly sure this is how it's supposed to go. My guess is that if you got a hundred Catholics in one place practicing mental prayer, they'd each do it slightly differently. I'm also pretty sure that if I actually stick with it this time, I'll learn quite a bit and my prayer life will deepen. In the meantime, the important thing is to keep at it.

Dearest Mother Mary, please help me remain faithful to this simple daily practice.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Mental Prayer, Part 1

Beginning again...

'What a wonderful Ideal is that which I behold in You, my Jesus. But is my life in harmony with that perfect Exemplar? That is what I now set out to discover, under Your earnest gaze, O my Divine Companion. Now You are all Mercy; but when I come before you in Particular Judgment – then at a single glance You will take in all the secret motives underlying the smallest acts of my life. Am I living according to this Ideal? Jesus, if I were to die right now, would You not find that my life is in contradiction with it?

Good Master, what are the points that You want me to correct?'

~~Dom Jean Baptiste Chautard, O.C.S.O.

I was hoping to find the text to The Soul of the Apostolate on-line somewhere. Sadly, it doesn't seem to have made the jump yet.* I'm not sure exactly why that is; it's an indescribably accessible book on prayer and the spiritual life. In fact, I can see how an ordinary soul (like me) with nothing but Holy Scripture, this book, and the help of the Holy Spirit, could make great progress ... if I would but apply myself.

Published in 1946, just at the end of World War II, The Soul of the Apostolate was translated by the youthful Thomas Merton, whose spiritual autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, was written only two years later. I hope to return to that classic as well and see if I can detect French Dom Chautard's influence on the American Trappist.

Ah! But again I digress! This is how a booklady gets herself in trouble. The point of this post was the opening quote (above) from page 206 and that all important question:
Good Master, what are the points that You want me to correct?

* After publishing this, I am happy to report, I discovered the text on-line here.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Soul Searching -- The Journey of Thomas Merton

One of my mentors and favorite authors is Thomas Merton. Difficult to pin down, he is alternately described as a Catholic mystic, a spiritual rebel, a modern pilgrim, a compulsive writer and a beatnik-turned-monk. He is all of these and so much more besides.

It was his relentless quest for Truth—for God—which drove him all his life and it was this search which is explored in this recent film by Duckworks, Inc., called, Soul Searching—The Journey of Thomas Merton.

Born in France in 1915, Merton had an unusual upbringing—forced to leave Europe due to World War I, his mother died when he was six, then his father’s avant-garde lifestyle took him back and forth across the Atlantic until he was eventually left an orphan with one younger brother.

Although financially provided for himself, the young Thomas came of age at a time when the rest of the world was entering the Great Depression. This further set him at odds with what he saw around him. The documentary discusses the disgust he felt with himself after a night spent in dissipation when morning came; he’d watch the rest of the world going about their lives with a purpose he knew his lacked. Soon, his own purpose was to find him as well.

Shortly thereafter he experienced a dramatic conversion to Catholicism which he later described in his youthful autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain—published ten years later in 1948, which may well be the first book I ever read by Merton.

My own journey to Father Louis, as he was known after he was ordained at Abbey of Gethsemani at Trappist, KY, goes back so far I cannot even remember the first time I heard of him or the first book of his I’ve read. He absolutely fascinates me. His writing is alive and compelling; he writes on seemingly dry subjects with an intensity which must have been electric when he was speaking the same words to a retreat group or a class of novices.

Watching this moving testimony to the life and works of Father Louis, I want to go back and pick up his books again. He was a 20th Century pioneer in Catholic spiritual renewal. He reminded us we're all called to pray contemplatively—there are not two paths, one for the elect and another for everyone else. In this, he was echoing almost lost teachings of the doctors of the Church, Sts. John of the Cross and Teresa of Ávila. Mental prayer and meaningful spiritual lives are not just for priests and nuns. Nor are we to be discouraged by our own sinfulness, inadequacies and failures.

‘Faith means doubt. Faith is not the suppression of doubt. It is the overcoming of doubt. And you overcome doubt by going through it. The man of Faith who has never experienced doubt, is not a man of Faith.’ ~~Thomas Merton

Merton’s early writing on prayer, spiritual biographies and conversion would later move on to more controversial issues, including Christian responsibility in race relations, violence, nuclear war and economic injustice. He died in 1968 in Bangkok, Thailand at age 53 due to an electrical accident. He left behind over 60 books, 2000 poems and countless letters, journals and various other documents. As I said early on, he was a compulsive writer. Make it a point to see Soul Searching and read Merton!


Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Dog Woman

A Canaanite woman of that district came and called out, “Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not say a word in answer to her. His disciples came and asked him, “Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.” He said in reply, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But the woman came and did him homage, saying, “Lord, help me.” He said in reply, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” Then Jesus said to her in reply, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed from that hour.

The Canaanite Woman is one of my favorite stories—people—in the entire New Testament. I remember puzzling over Our Lord’s seemingly callous treatment of her when I was a child. Back then I knew that repeated pleas – or pestering – adults for something never got you anywhere. The Gospel passage didn’t make sense, but then much about the mysterious world of grown-ups doesn’t mean anything to us when we’re still young. And sadly, so many of us learn all too soon to stop asking for what we need, to stop trying. We give up and shut up. We become everything the Canaanite Woman was not.

Which is precisely the point of the story. There was a time I thought Jesus was just toying with her, testing her tenacity, so to speak … and to a certain extent He is. In Consolation for My Soul, Thomas Á Kempis writes,

‘Remember that verse in Matthew? 'One doesn't take bread baked for the tots and toss it to the dogs' (15:26) That's what the Lord said to that Canaanite woman. She was one of those impossible pagans with outrageous requests who dogged His footsteps while on earth. The Evangelist almost called her that Canine woman. But rereading that passage, I find my wretched state now matches hers then. She replied humbly but firmly then; I can only hide behind her skirts.’

The dog woman?! I can think of a word – which starts with a “B”, means ‘female dog’ and is even less complimentary. Can’t you almost read that into what the Apostles say about her? She was so annoying!

And yet! This was her daughter! Many years ago when my first daughter was born, something happened to me; I changed radically. This new little helpless being was placed into my arms and suddenly I grew fangs. I distinctly remember telling my husband a few weeks later that although I didn’t believe in violence, I was sure I could – and would – do anything necessary to protect my new baby.

So to the Dog Woman, it didn’t matter what anyone thought about her or called her. It didn’t matter if Our Lord ignored her. She wouldn’t be put off. She was there to do whatever was necessary. But it was more even than love for her daughter, dogged determination and a lack of pride that kept her one step behind Jesus. It was her faith. She knew He, and He alone, represented healing for her daughter. So she was willing to take whatever scraps Jesus would throw her, knowing that His castoffs would be better than anything else anyone could offer.

And for that, Christ honors her by calling her, “Woman”. I’m not sure, but I don’t think Jesus calls another “Woman” in the Gospels besides His Mother. To share anything with Our Lady is indeed to be esteemed highly. But then Jesus said, “Whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, and sister, and mother." (Matthew 12:50)

Pray for me Dog Woman! I desire to have a faith as strong, humble and beautiful as yours.