Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Reclaiming the Hidden Treasures: Day 19 of 31 Days of Falling by Faith

As I was preparing and waiting for the Great Storm Sandy to have it's full impact on my Pennsylvania community, I was almost hoping to be forced into some Internet downtime so I could do a lot of reading, writing, and praying by candlelight. It didn't happen, and instead I remained glued to the computer screen throughout the day and into the night, devouring weather reports, satellite maps, and Facebook updates.

This morning I was surprised to find calmness outside my windows, and colder air both outside and in, so I drained the tub of cold water I'd filled yesterday afternoon, refilled the tub with hot water, and settled into it with the book I'd imagined devouring during the anticipated power outage.

My Peace I Give You, by Dawn Eden, is subtitled Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints. In Amazon's description of the book, Dawn is described as "a Jewish-born rock journalist turned salty Christian blog queen." The word left out of that description is Catholic—Dawn Eden is a Catholic Christian, and My Peace I Give You is about the hope and healing she has received from the stories of more than a dozen saints—hope and healing from childhood sexual abuse, hope and healing that she wants to point her readers toward as well.

I'm familiar (and you probably are too) with some of the saints she discusses—St. Ignatius Loyola, St. Therese of Lisieux, Dorothy Day, and St. Thomas Aquinas—but at least half of them I'd not heard of before. The first of these, introduced in chapter one, is St. Josephine Bakhita.

The first canonized saint from Sudan was born in Darfur in about 1869, into a happy family with seven children (four girls, three boys). When she was seven, she was kidnapped by "two ugly armed strangers." From that point until she was thirteen, she was bought and sold several times as a slave. Each time she was put up for sale she was displayed naked, like an animal, to her potential buyers. During those years she was beaten and tattooed by her owners—and these tattoos were made not with ink but from cutting patterns into her body to create scars. She was given 114 of these when she was eleven.

When she was thirteen, she was sold to an Italian man to serve as his housekeeper. In his household she was, for the first time, not beaten and abused. Three years later he took her with him to Genoa, Italy, where later, when she was eighteen, he gave her to a woman named Maria, the wife of a fellow businessman. Several years later, Maria left her very young daughter and Bakhita at a home run by Canossian Sisters while she was away for a while with her husband. It was there that Bakhita met and fell in love with Jesus. When Maria returned to claim her, Bakhita chose to remain with the Sisters. She was soon baptized and confirmed and then received her first Communion. She eventually became a Canossian Sister herself.

In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI wrote of Bakhita in his encyclical Spe Salvi, which means "saved by hope." As a slave, Bakhita was owned by a series of "masters," but in Jesus she "came to know a totally different kind of 'master." ...Up to that time she had known only masters who despised and maltreated her, or at best considered her a useful slave. Now, however, she heard that there is a [master] above all masters, the Lord of all lords, and that this Lord is good, goodness in person ... that this Lord ... actually loved her.... She was known and loved and she was awaited." But even more than that, he wrote, this Master who loved her "had himself accepted the destiny of being flogged.... Now she had hope—no longer simply the modest hope of finding masters who would be less cruel, but the great hope."

Eden weaves through Bakhita's story the parallel thread of her own experience of childhood abuse and its effects in her life. I was drawn to her book because I have a thread like that running through my own childhood. One of the elements of healing that Eden writes about is the need for "purification of memory." By this she means not forgetting the trauma but, rather, remembering the parts of childhood that "were not traumatic.... When we do this," she says, "we reclaim the hidden treasures that are rightfully ours."

For Eden, one of these treasures is her memory of celebrating Passover. The insight she has gained from remembering this experience in the light of her Catholic faith is the brightest light in this book for me so far. "In describing the Exodus," she writes,
"the Haggadah isn't just retelling a past event. It insists, again and again, that the Exodus is now. It isn't just about the deliverance of Jews thousands of years ago; it is about our own deliverance today.... Literally speaking, the Exodus was a historical event, tied forever to a particular time and place. Figuratively speaking, it is present now and ever will be, in all times and places, wherever the People of God are present 'to thank, to laud, to praise, to glorify' the One who redeemed us."
And this, for me, is the best part:
"That same timeless time that I contemplated with endless fascination—that is what I now contemplate in the Mass. I am not literally at the Incarnation, at Calvary, or at the empty tomb. Yet, as I kneel before the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, all those events are now before me."
So, just as the Passover celebrates both a remembered ancient deliverance and a present, personal deliverance, the Eucharist both remembers the death and resurrection of Christ and makes that death and resurrection our own by literally uniting us, body and blood, with the resurrected body and blood of Jesus.

What treasures await me in the rest of Eden's book? I can hardly wait to discover them!


Monday, October 29, 2012

Adoring Jesus in a Flash: Day 19 of 31 Days of Falling by Faith

"O Jesus! for evermore be Thy name adored.
Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing;
O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
Christ the Lord."

Most of us, Christian or not, have sung this song at Christmastime. How many of us, however, have actually done this, that is, adored Jesus, "Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing"?

Today a Facebook friend posted a video of what has come to be called a "flash mob." In these videos, typically, someone in a public place begins to sing, or play an instrument or dance, and then gradually others join in as the rest of the crowd watches and listens. These performances aren't actually spontaneous, though they try to appear to be; rather, the singers or musicians or dancers have prepared for the occasion.

In June 2011, a brown-robed Franciscan monk stopped outside the entrance to a busy shopping center in Northwest England, set a dufflebag on the ground, pulled a white stole out of the bag, and hung it around his neck. He then took out of the bag a monstrance—a sort of statue that displays a consecrated wafer (a flat, round piece of bread that Catholics believe has been transformed into the resurrected body of Jesus Christ by a priest repeating the words that Jesus himself said over the bread at the Last Supper; see Matthew 26:26)—and lifted it above his head. At that moment, the loud reggae music that had been playing stopped and was replaced by a man's voice saying, "Jesus Christ is in every book of the Bible. In Genesis, Jesus is the Seed of the Woman."* As he continued ... well, you'll just have to watch to see what happens.

O come, let us adore Him--and not just at Christmas!


* The rest of the litany can be found here.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

We Aren't in Heaven Yet: Day 18 of 31 Days of Falling by Faith

If God wanted to save us without our help, he wouldn't have made the entrance of Christ into humanity dependent on the yes of a woman. That yes—her "be it done unto me according to your word"—was all he asked for and needed, however, and that's all he asks for and needs from us. Yet how resistant we are to that one little word!
I scribbled this little paragraph while in the middle of reading the latest blog post of my multi-talented Australian Facebook friend Renato Bonasera. In his fourth post in a series on Mary, Jesus' mother, our Blessed Mother (see Luke 1:48 and John 19:26-27), he reminds his readers (and instructs those who didn't previously realize) that Blessed Pope John Paul II was devoted to and much influenced by Mary, and clarifies that she is present in many of the documents that emerged from the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) that took place in the 1960s.

One of these documents is Lumen Gentium, the "Dogmatic Constitution on the Church." If you sincerely want to understand the Roman Catholic Church and have time to read only one thing, then read this document that came "from the horse's mouth," so to speak.

Lumen Gentium is rich in both scripture and metaphor. The first sentence is this: "Christ is the Light of nations." The purpose of Lumen Gentium, as stated in the first paragraph, is this: "to unfold more fully to the faithful of the Church and to the whole world [the Church's] own inner nature and universal mission . . . so that all men, joined more closely today by various social, technical and cultural ties, might also attain fuller unity in Christ." ("Universal" is what Catholic means.)

Chapter VIII of this document teaches how the Church understands Mary: "The Catholic Church, taught by the Holy Spirit, honors her with filial affection and piety as a most beloved mother." Section II of this chapter, "The Role of the Blessed Mother in the Economy of Salvation," shows that Mary is foreshadowed in the Old Testament, that her salvation by grace (and the foreshadowing of ours) is announced by the angel who greets her as "full of grace," and that she accepts that grace (as we also are invited to) with her fiat ("be it done unto me according to thy word"). "Thus," we are told, "Mary, a daughter of Adam, consenting to the divine Word, became the mother of Jesus, the one and only Mediator." It is by saying yes to God's gift—at that moment and for the rest of her life, both on earth and for eternity—that Mary cooperates with God's grace. When we say yes, we do the same.

At Mass today, the sentence I've used as the title for this post popped into my head. I wrote it down so I wouldn't forget it, not completely sure what it was calling me to write about, but knowing that just as taking pictures with my camera helps me to see, writing helps me to listen and hear.

Lately I've been praying a lot for a friend and for our broken friendship. This has made me think, more than usual, about the efficacy ("the capacity to produce an effect," according to Wikipedia) of prayer. Although Jesus is recorded as saying such things as "everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened" (Matthew 7:8; see also today's Gospel reading, Mark 10:46-52), this is often not what seems to happen. The common response to this concern is that we just don't always recognize God's answers, or he often doesn't give us what we ask for because it wouldn't be good for us, or he has another plan. These reasons may often or even usually be the case, but I think it must also be true, at least sometimes, that we—meaning sometimes I and sometimes you—don't say yes to what God asks of or offers to us. This must be what happens sometimes, otherwise our yeses would be meaningless and unnecessary. This is often why we suffer: because we or someone else has said no to grace—which, after all, is what sin is.

Lumen Gentium reminds us that we are on a "pilgrimage toward eternal happiness." We're not there yet. Meanwhile, sometimes we must, like St. Paul, be "content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints" (2 Corinthians 12:10). When others say no, we must still say yes to God's commandment to love, even when the only way to do that, for a while, is through prayer.


Saturday, October 27, 2012

What I Really Wanted All Along: Day 17 of 31 Days of Falling by Faith

"Those who live in sin hardly understand the horror of sin. The one peculiar and terrifying thing about sin is that the more experience you have with it, the less you know about it. You become so identified with it that you know neither the depths to which you have sunk nor the heights from which you have fallen."
—Fulton J. Sheen, Seven Words of Jesus and Mary
"We can only hold people's attention in a speech by revealing our inmost self. Usually I do this, but sometimes I get sort of afraid suddenly and withhold something for fear that it might be used against me or that the audience might not respond.... It is painful but very beautiful to give one's whole self to a group."
—Ronda De Sola Chervin
I've passed the middle of my commitment to blog for 31 days in a row. It has been a roller coaster so far. A few days I have had lots of time to write and rewrite and come up with something that feels complete to me—not complete like a biography of a dead person, but complete in the way of a short story or an episode of a TV drama, with unanswered questions or hints of things to come. More often I have squeezed out something in the final hour of the day and pressed the publish button with some degree of fear and trembling. Some days I have known all day what I needed to write about. Other days it has been a struggle to choose among many options, or to focus on even one.

There has always been a tension, even a tug of war, between writing about "personal" things and writing about "issues." Ultimately I desire and hope to illustrate what I have learned about how they are intertwined, at least in my own life.

It has taken me a lifetime to grow the courage to open my mouth about or sign my name to an opinion about any controversial issue. If you had or have known me as a child or teen in school, as a college student, or as a fellow employee, you know, or would know, that I tend to be silent in groups and have preferred to avoid disagreement and conflict. I am much more comfortable behind the scenes than in the spotlight. That's why, in high school, I was on the stage crew for the drama club rather than one of the actors (even though I am actually, I realize now, quite skilled at playing a role and pretending to be someone other than myself). That's why I was administrative assistant in an elementary school for four years rather than a teacher. That's why I have worked as a copy and production editor for 25 years rather than (until recently) publishing my own writing. I was afraid of being ridiculed, afraid of being wrong, and afraid of disappointing.

I'm still afraid of disappointing people (I know I do and will), but my fears of being ridiculed and of being wrong have shrunk greatly over the past few years. It's not that I think I'll never, or even rarely, be wrong; of course I will. But knowing how wrong I was for so many years about things that caused so much harm to myself and to others makes me feel certain about the difference between right and wrong on a lot of issues. My certainty comes not from trusting myself but from trusting the truth itself, and the Source of truth. I am no longer afraid of being ridiculed for this trust, because I have been and it has hurt a lot less than the guilt and sorrow I have felt for the harm I did by believing the misunderstandings, distortions, and lies I embraced for so long.

"Sometimes we 'sin' not by saying evil but by overly enjoying when others make fun of our enemies" (Ronda Chervin). I am very disturbed when people or groups on both sides of the divide speak about, or to, those on the other side without compassion and respect. (I'm sure I have done this myself, I hope and pray not to do it again, and I ask to be forgiven for when I have done it and thoughtlessly do it again.) Because I used to see some things so differently than I do now, and because I know and understand (and constantly seek to understand better) how and why I took that path for such a distance, I have great empathy for those who remain in that mode that I now see as a kind of brainwashing and hostage situation. I am reminded of an episode (season 1, episode 9) of the TV show Flashpoint in which a negotiator succeeds in persuading a teenaged girl who was kidnapped and held hostage for eight years that what her abductor had told her about the world outside were lies. The first time I watched it, I knew it was an analogy for what had happened to me, and to many others. I also felt, and still feel, deeply grateful to those (especially one person) who, like hostage negotiator Jules, convinced me to trust that I no longer needed to hold a gun, so to speak, on those who were trying to free me from my captivity.

I remember another mind-opening moment, a conversation with a friend seven or eight years ago. I told him all the reasons that my observations of my parents' traditional marriage had made me feel that I didn't want to become my mother, or even a mother at all, and definitely not in a marriage to a man anything like my father. At the same time, I sought, and still hope for, a relationship such as I now see in the traditional marriages and families of many friends with traditional beliefs about marriage, and I am heartbroken not to have experienced, and be experiencing, what they have. My friend's observation of and challenge to me was that just because the example of my role models had not painted an attractive picture didn't mean that the concept itself was wrong. That's when I started to realize what I'd lost, and that what I'd given up is what I'd really wanted all along.

More later—I have to prepare for a hurricane.


Resisting the Googly Eyed: Day 16 of Falling by Faith

"Futility or ineffectiveness do not dispense one from speaking the truth, declaring what is wrong, and standing for what is right and just."
—Alfred Delp, S.J.
Alfred Delp was a Jesuit priest executed in February 1945 for his involvement in resisting the Nazi regime in Germany. He spent six months in prison prior to his death. During that time he wrote letters and reflections that were smuggled out before the January trial in which he was sentenced to death by hanging. He was offered freedom if he would renounce the Jesuits, but he refused.

I found the above quote at the top of a blog I wandered into today while doing a bit of online research. A short while later, I learned about the new Obama campaign ad published yesterday on YouTube. In this ad, a young googly-eyed woman discusses voting for the first time as though she is talking about having sex for the first time. The first requirement, she says, that this first-time man must meet is he must be someone who "really cares about and understands women, a guy who cares whether you get health insurance, and specifically whether you get birth control."

Really? A guy whose priority is making sure that women don't have to pay for "birth control"—which we know both includes abortion and often leads to it*—is someone who "really cares about and understands women"? I can guarantee that there are, at the very least, 37,000 women in this country who disagree strongly with this assertion. These are the women who have signed the "Open Letter to President Obama, Secretary Sebelius, and Members of Congress." I am number 16,378 on the list of cosigners. One of the reasons I signed it is I know firsthand the harm that Obama's priority does to a woman, whether she realizes it or not (because for a long time I didn't realize it). This demeaning ad angers me—not just on my own behalf, but also on behalf of all the other women and girls who have been, are being, and will be harmed by it.

In a pre-Christmas sermon preached in Munich on December 22, 1942, Fr. Delp said, "We will not be abused and violated, not even forced to be good or forced to love. We are challenged to do so, but it calls for a decision. The grace of God our Savior 'teaches us to renounce godlessness and to live moral, upright, and pious lives in this world' (Tit 2:12)." These are the words of a man willing to die for resisting an immoral regime. We need to think seriously before giving another morally compromised regime four more years to do what it will.


* The pro-choice Guttmacher Institute admits that an astounding 54 percent of women who have had abortions used a contraceptive method during the month they became pregnant.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

"My Category Is Truth, and Deep Beauty": Day 15 of 31 Days of Falling by Faith

"I don't want to wear it because my category is truth,
and deep beauty, not attractiveness."

That is Ronda Chervin's answer to "the silly question of cosmetics"—"to use or not to use." I would like to adapt it for this blog:

"I want to write it because my category is truth, and deep beauty, not attractiveness."

This morning's meditation in the Magnificat Year of Faith Companion was about Noah. Fr. Vincent Nagle described him as "the kid . . . who just could not get with the program, who was always on the sidelines . . . the strange one who seems to be in a daydream, not keeping up. . . .  His gaze is somewhere else." It is this "kid," Fr. Nagle says, who was commanded by God to build the ark. His neighbors watched and laughed, even as they suspected that he might really know something they didn't.

I was that kind of kid, but at some point after I "grew up," I decided I'd had enough of that and wanted to know what I was missing, wanted to fit in. So I said no to building God's ark and walked away in the other direction.

It took me more than twenty years to turn around and start making my way back toward the innocence I'd rejected. I'm not there yet, but at least now, thanks be to God, I'm headed, I think, in the right direction.

And that's all I can manage to say here tonight.


Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Limits and Dangers of Categories: Day 14 of 31 Days of Falling by Faith

I just read an article published yesterday on the website of U.S. Catholic magazine called "'Social Justice' Catholics Versus 'Pro-life' Catholics—Can't We Have It Both Ways?" by Scott Alessi.

Apparently the Public Religion Research Institute has published a survey that separates American Catholics into two categories: "social justice Catholics" and "right to life Catholics." My instant reaction was that there is no social justice issue more fundamental than the right to life. Thankfully, this is more or less Alessi's response as well.

What pushed my rant button, however, is the following comment posted by someone named Dave Stump:
"Abortion is wrong. Every year thousands of children are aborted and that is a tragedy. But where are the souls of those children? They are in the hands of God along with the souls of the stillborn and the miscarried.

"Every year thousands of children are born into poverty, into situations where they will be surrounded by the near occasions of sin. Many of them will become involved with drugs, gangs, and violence. Many of them will die young with mortal sins on their souls after ruining several other lives. Which of these is the greater tragedy?"
I couldn't help but bang out the following reply to Mr. Stump:
"Yes, the souls of the aborted are in the hands of our merciful and compassionate God along with the souls of the stillborn and miscarried; the souls we should be concerned about are the souls of the women who have chosen abortion, the souls of those who have persuaded and convinced them that it's OK to kill their prenatal children (rather than provide them with the support they need—and that means you and me, not the government), and those who have performed and assisted in that killing.

"I'm one of those post-abortive women who—thanks be to God and to Christians who respect his commandment not to kill the innocent—have had time to repent and make reparation. Every year thousands of children are born into WEALTH and surrounded by the near occasions of sin. Many of THEM will become involved with drugs, cliques, and violence. Many of THEM will die young, and many of them will ruin several other lives as well. I think anyone who uses these excuses as validations of abortion should be ashamed of themselves, repent, and dedicate the rest of their lives to seeking out those who are in danger of killing their prenatal children (in imitation of the Good Shepherd who came to seek the lost sheep), convince them not to abort, and give them or help find for them all the support they will need to save their children's lives and make sure their children grow up loved and cared for. If you're not doing something yourself to make a difference for even one vulnerable mother and child (including just being careful how you speak and write about this topic), then you should just be silent, because you are endangering the eternal salvation and potentially helping to ruin the lives of other souls.

Thank you.
This isn't the topic I was mulling over in my mind all day with the intention of blogging about it, but it's the topic that, so to speak, pulled the trigger tonight. It's not, perhaps, the most gentle response, but then abortion is not a gentle procedure with a gentle effect on those it affects, and for the sake of protecting its potential victims it should be addressed unequivocally and passionately.

I was struggling with how to end this piece when I suddenly remembered today's meditation in the Magnificat Year of Faith Companion, which I read this morning. It states that all of the Church's
"doctrines are interconnected and, taken together, they all 'add up.' This means, for example, that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception [that's the conception of Mary, Jesus' mother], teaches us something about the Eucharist. The reality of married love reflects some truth about the Blessed Trinity. We can no more take apart pieces from our faith as we could take apart a number puzzle and still have it make sense. God gives us . . . faith precisely to see how it all fits together, and then to live according to what has been revealed."
Of course, me being me, reading this again (and typing it here) makes me want to consider just what does the Immaculate Conception doctrine teach about the Eucharist, and what truth does married love reflect about the Trinity? These explorations will have to wait for another time, however, but the seeds have been planted.

Meanwhile, the point is that being Catholic, being Christian, being a rational human being means looking for and incorporating all the pieces before claiming you've finished putting the puzzle together.


Firebreak: Day 13 of 31 Days of Falling by Faith

"I am always bent on turning everything that comes into the soul into food.... So it is second or even first nature to me to go over thoughts and cut them up and order them."
—Ronda Chervin, Becoming a Handmaid of the Lord
Here I go again: it's getting late, I'm tired, and I feel like the proverbial kid in a candy shop with only a nickel to spend. (I literally used to be one of those, half a century ago, so I know exactly what it feels like.)

I've kept a journal pretty consistently since I was eleven or twelve, when for Christmas my parents gave me one of those diaries with gold-edged pages and an actual key. There have been dry periods, such as segments of my life with David in San Francisco, when talking to him satisfied, for a while, whatever need it is that drives me to write. That satisfaction was always temporary—always ended up being not enough—and I don't know why that is either.

A while after David and I separated, I met someone—a coworker—who eventually flipped some switch that turned on the part of me (brain? soul?) that can't help seizing and playing with words as though they were paint, and for a few years I was able to write poetry again. At first his effect was inadvertent, but then he learned to cultivate it, and I let him, like a spark hungry for oxygen.

He didn't understand the danger of playing with fire.

When I started blogging a couple of years ago, I hoped it would serve as a virtual "firebreak" to divert away from him the blazes he continually ignited. A couple of months ago he turned off the fuel completely—maybe because he thought it was the only way he could prevail over the fire he'd started but could no longer control.

His absence is just one more proof to me that people are not interchangeable and no one is replaceable.
"The soul desires such a companion . . . anyone who can understand it, in order to communicate its joys and troubles, to that person, and when it finds none it is sad."
—St. Teresa of Avila

Monday, October 22, 2012

Learning to Vote Without David: Day 12 of 31 Days of Falling by Faith

This is one of the times—presidential election coming up, debates, analyses—that I miss David most. Just like I needed him with me in order to make sense out of a football game (in fact, in my whole life I've only ever watched one whole game without him), I know my understanding of the current season of political games is much less rich and deep without him than it would have been if he were still here. Indeed, it just occurred to me that this is the first presidential campaign since his death.

During our first twelve years in San Francisco we didn't have a TV, so we didn't follow the nightly news coverage of the first three presidential campaign seasons we lived through there (we were there for four of them: 1988, 1992, 1996, and 2000). However, each of those election nights he rented a hotel room in which we would watch the returns until we fell asleep. It energized him the way crowds did—two ways in which we were the exact opposite (probably because he grew up in DC and I didn't).

I've always registered independent; David always registered Republican—so he could get all their campaign literature in the mail, he said—but he rarely revealed his opinion on political issues (he got a much bigger kick out of just listening to other people argue about them), and I'm not sure who he voted for in every election, but I suspect he did actually vote Republican. His bookshelves included many books on Reagan and Nixon and—yes, he was a Republican—Lincoln, and he enjoyed reading books by conservative pundits, but he also read both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, daily.

I'm not sure what he'd say about tonight's debate or about the candidates, I just know I'd enjoy talking with him about it and I'm sad that I can't.


Sunday, October 21, 2012

Weep with Those Who Weep: Day 11 of 31 Days of Falling by Faith

I discovered this beautiful, wrenching video a few weeks ago and have watched it almost every night since. It never fails to make me cry—and in that way has been good medicine, perhaps even divinely prescribed.

The morning of the day I discovered it, I woke with the sort of all-over pain that has become too familiar in recent months. I prayed for the will to get out of bed, asking "Why? Why?" And then the thought came to me, in these very words: "Because your body is filled with grief. Just cry."

"Really?" I replied, then found that I could indeed cry, easily. In a few minutes the pain volume was dialed down to barely audible, and I was able to get up.

I saw this movie—The Passion of the Christ—once, literally on the big screen, during the first week or two after it came out, with a crowd of coworkers. I don't recall shedding a tear during that viewing. In fact, I remember feeling tough and proud that I had resisted a blatant attempt to manipulate my emotions. A lot has happened since then, and now I gratefully accept the grace and healing, and insights, that these scenes and this music offer me. (It was only while I previewed this post before publishing it that it struck me that in this video Jesus himself falls, in a sense, by faith.)


Saturday, October 20, 2012

Friday, October 19, 2012

"It Made My Heart Burn to Read It": Day 9 of 31 Days of Falling by Faith

"Let me not fail thee utterly by becoming a mere babbler instead of a saint."

—Ronda De Sola Chervin

Sitting at Starbucks, alone at a table designed for a large family, gazing pensively outward at the rain-filled dark over the top of my computer screen.

Actually, now that I've written that sentence (fragment), it describes more than this moment; in a poetic way, it also describes my whole day—well, mainly the facing-outward part. It wasn't until a couple of hours ago that I finally arrived at space and time to look inward, in search of something to blog about.

I haven't found it. No, that's not it: I've found too much.

So, as the deadline for blogging today approaches quickly, I think it's time to concede: I don't have time to compose today. (I probably chose the word compose here because I've been listening to beautiful hymns, and music by not-necessarily famous composers—such as this, and this—while trying, unsuccessfully, to unknot the as-though-jumbled-by-a-kitten mess of thought-yarn in my head.)

I opened with a quote from Ronda Chervin. I'll close with one too, without comment.
"St. Francis of Sales writes of how loving it is of our God to command us to love him, thereby annulling our sense of inequality and misery. Without that command we would think ourselves too unworthy to think of loving him. It also shows how much he wants our love. It made my heart burn to read it."

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Faith, a Kind of Friendship; Friendship, a Kind of Faith: Day 8 of 31 Days of Falling by Faith

"God is not related to as the answer to a philosophical riddle but instead is related to as a friend. Friendship involves self-disclosure. So when God gives the gift of faith he tells us something personal about himself.... He tells us that he made everything not out of need but out of a desire to share his own life.... Everything depends on whether or not the gift of faith is accepted. 'I believe it' becomes 'I believe you.' "

—Fr. John Dominic Corbett, O.P.
"If only Eve had turned and said, 'Adam, my love, forgive me!' If only she had bowed her head before God and said, 'Yes, my Lord, we were both wrong.' "

—Heather King

I have taken both of these quotes from the readings for yesterday and today in the Magnificat Year of Faith Companion. Both of them draw, for me, analogies between faith in God—which requires and builds a kind of friendship—and human friendship—which requires and builds a kind of faith.

The key word for me in the first quote is need. God doesn't need us; he created us because he wanted to and because he could. And he created us with the will and the freedom to want him in the same way. That's why he built into us and our world the freedom to live as though we don't need him, the freedom to think we are doing it all without him. That is why he invites rather than forces us to have faith—which, when we accept it, opens the door to friendship with him.

Human friendship is, or should be, like this too: an invitation "to share [one's] own life." It is a gift that can be either accepted or rejected, and we are free to think we don't need it, free to live as though we don't need it—whether friendship in general or friendship with a particular person.

Genesis tells us that God created Adam and Eve (and us) for such friendship with him. He must have known—just as he knows now—about the danger our freedom posed to us (not to him but to us). I imagine his intention was always to forgive—even Adam and Eve, as Heather King suggests in the second passage I've quoted—as long as we choose our friendship with him over the need to hide our shame (as though we could, or can). An Old Testament scholar (which I am not) would be able to show how this intention is clear throughout the scriptures, beginning in Genesis; and in Luke 24:27 we are told that "beginning with Moses and all the prophets, Jesus interpreted to them what referred to him in all the scriptures."

Friendship between people has the same possibilities—we can call each other "my love," admit our errors, and preserve the relationship—and the same risks—as Heather King writes, "What if we tell the truth and they don't love us anymore! What if we act with integrity and they kick us out?" We can choose to hide from one another, and thereby give up the friendship.

Faith—the friendship that God offers us—"is like a seed," writes Fr. Corbett. So, I choose to believe, is real human friendship. "It is alive and growing and pregnant with the promise of harvest, even when buried in mid-winter soil." It is "like a lamp shining in the middle of darkness. With its aid, we can truly see, even though it is midnight. Right now we see as in a glass darkly. But dawn is coming and our faith is the very beginning of eternal life." So are our friendships with one another—if we let them be.


Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Only God Can Make the Church: Day 7 of 31 Days of Falling by Faith

"Not to frighten us with your immensity / you come to us / first unthreatening / as water, bread and wine"
"He knows I will make mistakes. It is his perfection that will win out, not mine."
 — Ronda De Sola Chervin, Becoming a Handmaid of the Lord

One day last week at Mass, while I was waiting to receive the Eucharist, I suddenly realized something more clearly and deeply than I had before: that being a Christian is in every way about saying yes, just like Mary—the first and greatest model of what it means to accept Jesus—said yes to the angel when he announced to her that God wanted her to be the mother of his son. "Be it done unto me according to your word," she replied, after a moment of wonder over how in the world this could possibly happen. This is also what I have been saying for several years now when I am offered the Body and Blood of Jesus in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. After many years of questioning how in the world this could possibly happen, I now say, "Be it done unto me according to your word"—and that word is, "Take and eat, this is my body" (Matthew 26:26).

I also grasped in a new way that day that, in addition to being an actual gift of himself to me, the Eucharist is also, each and every time I receive it, a reminder that everything I am offered through Christ's Church is what God has done and continues to do for me. "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God" (Ephesians 2:8).

These thoughts returned to my mind today when I read the transcript of Pope Benedict XVI's opening address to the Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization, which is currently under way in Rome. What God has done for us and given to us, and continues to give to us, is not only what the Church offers; it is also the Church itself.
"We cannot make the Church, we can only announce what [God] has done. The Church does not begin with our 'making,' but with the 'making' and 'speaking' of God.... The Apostles did not say, after a few meetings: now we want to make a church, and that by means of a constituent assembly they were going to draft a constitution. No, they prayed and in prayer they waited, because they knew that only God himself can create his Church, that God is the first agent: if God does not act, our things are only ours and are insufficient, and only God can testify that it is he who speaks and has spoken.... God is not only a past, because it is a true past that always carries in itself the present and the future. God has spoken means, 'He speaks.' ...At that time it was only on God's initiative that the Church could be born, that the Gospel could be known ... in the same way today only God can begin, we can only cooperate...."
The reason for evangelization, and for "the New Evangelization" for which the Pope calls, is to tell the world that
"God has power, God gives joy, he opens the doors of exile; after the long night of exile, his light appears and provides the possibility of returning to his people, he renews the story of good, the story of his love.... Tepidness really discredits Christianity. Faith must become in us the flame of love, flame that really ignites my being, becomes the great passion of my being, and so ignites my neighbor...."
So, as the Church (and we are made so by God and not by ourselves) we must proclaim, "The LORD has done great things for us; oh, how happy we are!" (Psalm 126:3). And as one who gratefully said, and continues to say, yes to the invitation, I must and do sing (with the Mother of my Redeemer), "The Almighty has done great things for me and holy is his name" (Luke 1:49).

 Why? Not because he has made my life easier, or even always more joyful (in fact, he has made it safe for me to feel my great sorrow), but because he has restored my faith in him, and nurtured it into more than I ever imagined it could be.


Tuesday, October 16, 2012

On Becoming a Widow, Part One: Day 6 of 31 Days of Falling by Faith

I have discovered Ronda De Sola Chervin.

A convert to Catholicism (previously an atheistic Jew), she currently teaches philosophy at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut. She is also a mother, a grandmother, and a widow.

I'd not known of her before buying her book Becoming a Handmaid of the Lord at the St. Philomena Bookstore in Emmitsburg, Maryland, a week ago. The book contains portions of journals she kept from 1977 to 1996. Looking for her on the Internet, I found her website, which includes a page called "Options for Catholic Widows." She has also published a couple of books on widowhood: Walk with Me Jesus: A Widow's Journey and A Widow's Walk: Encouragement, Comfort, and Wisdom from the Widow-Saints.

Although in the eyes of the law my husband and I were no longer husband and wife during the last five years of his life, I never completely stopped feeling like we were, and I have been certain since the day I learned of his death that, in the eyes of God, we were still married. I knew it even before I got that unforgettable, wrenching call from the police detective. It had been a week since we'd talked, but on the way home from Mass that morning, without prelude, as though someone else was speaking it to me, the thought was loud and clear in my head that, yes, David was indeed my husband. I have accepted, therefore, with humility and honor, the title widow. I have a lot more to say about that later.

Meanwhile, I am very slowly reading Becoming a Handmaid of the Lord, and doing what I do as I read: underlining sentences I want to return to later--such as these:
"Jesus made me feel that it made no difference where I was or will be. 'I want you to be my Bride whom I can set down anywhere in my Church. Be in my heart.' No more fantasies about ideal places to be, no more wishes, worries about the future." In other words, freedom!
"I feel that Jesus waits for me to be alone if only for a few minutes and then floods me with His love afresh . . . and that He will not abandon me for little failures to respond." In other words, patience and persistence!
"I asked the Lord if it were selfish of me to be so eager for this solitude. He seemed to say that he wanted me alone to comfort me for all the years of suffering." In other words....
There are no other words.

For now.


Monday, October 15, 2012

Who Created That Particle? Day 5 of 31 Days of Falling by Faith

"No matter what science unveils, God will always be a possibility. Even if they find proof of how human life evolved, to the first basic particle, there is always the question of who created that particle. Even if we find the origins of the universe, there will always be the question of 'why'? The only answer is God......and God is just a word, but it will always be possible for believers to believe that whatever happened at the beginning of time, something we can never understand is what, or who, is behind it. Therein lies the possibility of 'God.' And I can't call myself a 'believer,' just a logical thinker."
—"Joyce" commenting at CNN's religion blog

I read this delightful comment not long after reading the following sentences from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which many Catholics are adding to their daily reading during the "Year of Faith" that began this past Thursday: "The Church . . . holds and teaches that God, the first principle and last end of all things, can be known with certainty from the created world by the natural light of human reason." This teaching comes from scripture. For example, in Wisdom 13:1-5 we find the following:
"From the good things seen [they] did not succeed in knowing the one who is, and from studying the works did not discern the artisan; instead, either fire, or wind, or the swift air, or the circuit of the stars, or the mighty water, or the luminaries of heaven, the governors of the world, they considered gods. Now, if out of joy in their beauty they thought them gods, let them know how far more excellent is the Lord than these; for the original source of beauty fashioned them. Or if they were struck by their might and energy, let them realize from these things how much more powerful is the one who made them. For from the greatness and the beauty of created things their original author, by analogy, is seen."
The New Testament's most prolific letter-writer, St. Paul, a Jew by birth and upbringing, echoed the Book of Wisdom when he told the Athenians at the Areopagus,
"I see that in every respect you are very religious. For as I walked around looking carefully at your shrines, I even discovered an altar inscribed, 'To an Unknown God.' What therefore you unknowingly worship, I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and all that is in it . . . is he who gives to everyone life and breath and everything. He made from one the whole human race to dwell on the entire surface of the earth, and he fixed the ordered seasons and the boundaries of their regions, so that people might seek God, even perhaps grope for him and find him, though indeed he is not far from any one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being,’ as even some of your poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.'" [Acts 17:22-28]
The Book of Wisdom, St. Paul, and the Catholic Catechism all also agree that "there are many obstacles which prevent reason from the effective and fruitful use of this inborn faculty," and that we "easily persuade [our]selves that what [we] would not like to be true is false or at least doubtful. This is why," the Catechism continues, "man stands in need of being enlightened by God's revelation, not only about those things that exceed his understanding, but also about those religious and moral truths which of themselves are not beyond the grasp of human reason, so that even in the present condition of the human race, they can be known by all men with ease, with firm certainty and with no admixture of error."

If indeed "man stands in need of being enlightened by God's revelation," then where do we find it? The answer offered by the Christian scriptures are these verses written by St. Paul at the beginning of his Letter to the Hebrews: "In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, he spoke to us through a son, whom he made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe." Accepting this answer is the first step in the process of coming to understand "who created that particle" and why.

As St. Paul continued speaking to the Athenians, "some began to scoff, but others said, 'We should like to hear you on this some other time.'" Later, "some did join him, and became believers." Two thousand years later, the teaching modeled by St. Paul and the Apostles continues, and so do both the scoffing and the conversions. I am grateful to be among the latter.


Sunday, October 14, 2012

Cocoons and the Fuss About Resurrection: Day 4 of 31 Days of Falling by Faith

Last Sunday afternoon—a week ago today—I took my 81-year-old stepmother, Dorcas, to a visitation prior to the funeral for the husband of one of her childhood friends. The funeral was to be on Monday morning and she had arranged to attend it with another woman from the retirement community where she lives, but she wanted to go to the visitation as well because, she said, it would be her only opportunity to talk to her friend.

After a fifty-minute drive (which included five minutes on a wrong road and five minutes of backtracking) we arrived at the Simmontown Mennonite Church, which was already filled with traditionally dressed Mennonite men, women, and children. I silently thanked God that I had at least decided to wear a skirt. (Dorcas hadn't, but she hasn't worn one in years, and on the way home in the car she announced, "It doesn't matter to me what anybody thinks about that.")

The line of people waiting to greet the family of the deceased was long and slow moving, but we eventually arrived at the front of the church. On the way we had to stand for a couple of minutes next to the casket.

My first thought as I looked at the lifeless body was the memory of seeing my father in that same position almost nine years ago. (I don't have a similar memory of my husband; because of the circumstances of his death, the casket was closed.) My second thought was, as though someone was whispering it to me, only one word: cocoon. Ah, I replied; the object lying in that box is merely a no-longer-needed cocoon that has been discarded by a butterfly.

I was almost right. Being an editor and a glutton for metaphors, I of course looked, at my first opportunity, for a definition and description of cocoon and what happens inside it. What I learned is that, technically speaking, what emerges from a cocoon is a moth, not a butterfly. The technical term for what hatches a butterfly is chrysalis. There are lots of websites that discuss the differences between cocoons and chrysalises (the purpose of both is the same), and between moths and butterflies. I'll let you explore them more yourself, if you want to, while I stick with metaphor-making.

According to Wikipedia:

  • "Cocoons may be tough or soft, opaque or translucent, solid or meshlike, of various colors, or composed of multiple layers, depending on the type of insect larva producing it." The bodies of human beings similarly display various differences, depending on the individual body's genetic coding. 
  • "Insects that pupate in a cocoon must escape from it." So must every human soul sooner or later "escape" from its earthbound body. 
  • "Some cocoons are constructed with built-in lines of weakness along which they will tear easily from inside." The equivalent in the human body may be a genetic "mutation" or perhaps a susceptibility or sensitivity to toxic environmental influences that "enables" the soul to leave the body soon after birth, or in the early years of the person's childhood or adulthood, or sometimes even before birth., the website of BUGMAN Educational Enterprises (BEE) in Columbus, Ohio, describes the cocoon or chrysalis stage of bug metamorphosis as "probably very difficult! And painful!!" The human condition is known for its propensity for and conduciveness to pain and suffering, and for its powerful inclination to avoid the same.

So, if the human body, as we know it, is merely a stage of metamorphosis that all human souls are destined, sooner or later, to emerge from, why all the Christian fuss about resurrection?

Well, a butterfly or moth still has a body, but one very different from the body of a caterpillar. When the Risen Christ appeared to His disciples after His Resurrection, he ate and drank with them, and they could touch the scars that remained where the nails had pierced His hands and feet (a detail of resurrection that deserves a post of its own).

In 1 Corinthians 15, St. Paul speaks of the metamorphosis of the human body: "It is sown corruptible; it is raised incorruptible. It is sown dishonorable; it is raised glorious. It is sown weak; it is raised powerful. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual one.... But the spiritual was not first; rather the natural and then the spiritual."

Is Paul speaking of each and every human soul that spends a moment or a lifetime in a "natural body"? Will each and every soul emerge from its cocoon an "incorruptible . . . glorious . . . powerful . . . spiritual" butterfly or moth? Or is something more required?

According to Wikipedia, "Within the chrysalis, growth and differentiation occur." It is these processes that transform the "natural" caterpillar body into the "spiritual" butterfly or moth body. But as we know, any process that can occur may also not occur; it therefore seems, well, natural, that not every caterpillar that enters a cocoon grows and develops into a butterfly or moth.

In 1 Corinthians 15, St. Paul distinguishes between "the first man, Adam," and "the last Adam," Jesus Christ, "a life-giving spirit." Each of us receives our "natural body" from the first Adam, but our "spiritual body" must be received from the "life-giving spirit," the "last Adam."

How does that happen? The different divisions (an apt word) of the Christian Church answer that question in a variety of ways, but they all agree that the spiritual body is a gift, or grace, that the recipient receives through faith in the giver.

And that is all I will say for now.


Saturday, October 13, 2012

Hit, Stripped, and Shown Mercy: Day 3 of 31 Days of Falling by Faith

There are three things I need to write about, now that I have finished reading the book I mentioned in yesterday's post, A Greater Vision, by Joan Ulicny. I will just touch on each of them briefly tonight (because it is late, but I need to meet my commitment to blog every day for 31 days), and then explore each of them in more detail in the coming days.

(1) When Joan's car was hit by a truck on December 2, 1986, her life as she had known it came to an end. It was a mystery and miracle that she didn't die, and the damage done to her brain and her body required years of painstaking effort on her part, and almost constant assistance and support from professionals, family, and friends, so that she could again walk, talk, and care for her own most basic needs. Her need for help, and the need for extreme patience on everyone's part, was obvious.

But what happens when the damage done is not so obvious, not so physical--such as when a person is "hit" by a loved one's departure or death? When life as one has known it comes suddenly to an end in this way, what damage is done to the one left behind, what help and patience are needed, and how does the injured person ask for that help and patience, even if recovery takes years?

(2) What Joan wanted more than anything but what she didn't get, even after every other part of her had healed, was her eyesight. Yet she titled her book A Greater Vision and wrote, "In place of my eyesight, God has given me a greater vision, one with which I see myself through His eyes, eyes of love rather than condemnation. In order to gain this greater vision, to see myself as God saw me . . . I had to be stripped of everything I was, so that he might recreate me in the image he desired" (p. 172). Thirteen years ago, I was feeling safe and secure in every way I had always longed to be--and then everything started to fall apart....

(3) The subtitle of Joan's book, which I haven't previously mentioned, is Back from Abortion. The book has ten chapters. Abortion isn't mentioned until Chapter Nine. "One grows comfortable with a lie after so many years," she writes. "Satan lied to Adam and Eve by telling them that they could forget God, and by forgetting God, they could become God. I bought into this same lie when I chose to have an abortion. But God in his great love and mercy would not let the story end there."

I, however, must let the story end here--for now.

Until tomorrow.


Friday, October 12, 2012

The Equivalent Joy of Isaiah 61: Day 2 of 31 Days of Falling by Faith

I am about halfway through a book I bought earlier this week in a little Catholic bookstore-coffee shop in Emmitsburg, Maryland. A Greater Vision, by Joan Ulicny, is her memoir about her recovery from a car accident at age 29 that left her suffering the effects of numerous closed-head brain injuries, including greatly impaired vision. I expect I will be writing more about, and in response to, this book in the coming days, but for now I just want to share most of a quote from "Writer Unknown" that sits between the last page of Part One and the first page of Part Two:
"No matter what is taken away from you, if you keep your eyes on Jesus and praise Him, He will restore it to you. You will be joyful to the exact same degree you have hurt. What you have lost will be replaced . . . joy for mourning . . . beauty for ashes . . . God, I don't see how it could possibly work now. I don't see how you will ever come to me again in any shape or form. But . . . if, and when, you restore the years that the locusts have eaten, I will tell people about it, and write about it. I am committing to you to remember this agony, and if you can come up with some kind of joy to the equivalent that I have hurt, you are truly a God of miracles."
Joy for mourning: those words come from the same chapter of scripture that Jesus read from in the Temple when he launched his public ministry: Isaiah 61. Jesus read (see Luke 4:18-19) from verses 1 and 2: "The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; He has sent me to bring good news to the afflicted, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, release to the prisoners, and to announce a year of favor from the Lord." The Isaiah chapter continues with additional statements of God's intentions for "all who mourn": to comfort us, to replace our ashes with a crown, to give us "oil of gladness instead of mourning, a glorious mantle instead of a faint spirit."

And why will he do this? Will it be just to make us feel better? No, it seems, making us feel better is not the goal but, rather, a means. "They will be called oaks of justice," he says. "They shall rebuild" and they shall "restore"—and they will give all the glory to God.

So, first God turns sorrow into joy. Then, because we feel better and our spirits are no longer "faint," we are able to do what is right and just, for others and ourselves. Finally, we praise and thank God and give Him all the credit.

Why that last part? Because God is a glutton for glory?

How many times have you asked someone to recommend a good doctor, a trustworthy car mechanic, a fair plumber? God wants us to praise and thank Him because he wants other afflicted, brokenhearted, captive mourners to know who to turn to for healing and freedom.

Like "Writer Unknown," I often "don't see how it could possibly work now. I don't see how" God "will ever" restore my own personal Locust-eaten years. But "if, and when," God does "restore the years that the locusts have eaten, I will tell people about it, and write about it." To a great degree, the fact that I am writing, publicly, at all is a kind of "first fruit" of restoration, and to all those who have played a part in nurturing that fruit, I am deeply grateful. But most of all, I "rejoice heartily in the Lord, my being exults in my God" (Isaiah 61:10).


Thursday, October 11, 2012

"I'll Be Thinking of You, My Beloved": Day 1 of 31 Days of Falling by Faith

Fifty years ago today, on October 11, 1962, a three-year meeting of leaders, invited guests, and other observers of the Roman Catholic Church commenced at the Vatican. This occasion is recalled by the Church today as it begins a yearlong observance called the Year of Faith. Pope Benedict XVI launched this year of focused attention on evangelization and renewal in a homily that can be read in English here.

I have to admit that the first thing I think of when I hear "Vatican II" is that in the middle year of those meetings, 1963, my dad spent a week in that "Eternal City"—which is what he called it in a letter he wrote to my mother on flimsy blue paper while a passenger on an Alitalia plane high above the Atlantic ocean. "Beloved," he addressed her—a name that caught me quite off guard the first time I read it, because I couldn't recall sensing that he ever felt that way toward her. "It's hard to believe that all this is actually happening," he wrote." He never could have afforded such a journey or such a stay in a foreign country without the financing of the publisher who had hired him to translate, from Italian into English, a biography of Pope John XXIII, who had convened the Council but then died in the middle of it, in June 1963. My dad’s letter ended, "I'll be thinking of you, my beloved"—again, that surprising endearment—“and asking God to watch over you and protect you from loneliness and whatever other stresses and strains my absence may cause you." In addition to being left alone with their three children aged six and under, my mother was also very pregnant with my youngest sister, who was born that August.

A young Starbucks friend named Sarah recently issued a commencement challenge of her own: to make "a fresh blog start." In the past two years I have made two attempts to be a blogger—I mean I've started two blogs. The first one has thirty-seven posts written in several bursts of activity, the last burst ending with a post on July 16, 2012. My second blog—this one—went dormant after only six posts, the last one published last April 30.

I make my (meager) income helping other people write or write better what they want to say. Meanwhile, my own life is in (at the least) its autumn, and I keep thinking about my own "beloved," David, the man who was my husband for ten years and friend for thirty years. Three and (almost) a half years ago I had the last conversation I would have with him on this side of the veil. One of the things he told me during that hour-plus phone call was about the assignment his therapist had given him at their last session (they met once a month). Despite years of on-again, off-again substance abuse, David's brain was an uneraseable database of every person he'd ever met, every word and image and sound he'd ever read or heard, every experience he'd ever lived through, consciously or even half-consciously, and he could pull out an applicable piece of data or a whole story for any occasion. His therapist, it seemed, had convinced him (like his friends and family had tried to for years) to write—something, anything, whatever came out—to give to him at their next session. He sounded excited, hopeful. Less than a week later, he was dead, and erased were all his untold stories (except for the ones he had flash-transferred to those of us who are still here).

So, for the next 31 days, I will be taking Sarah’s challenge and writing here; the first 31 days of the Church's Year of Faith will also be for me 31 days of "falling by faith."

Until tomorrow, then.