The Spirit Speaks In The Ordinary

Spirit Window at NewmanIf I have to pick a favorite person of the Trinity, there’s no question: the Holy Spirit wins, hands down. It’s the Spirit who guides me, whose help I invoke when I’m at the end of my rope, whose whisper has inSpired all the best words and melodies and harmonies I have ever written.

I’m not one of those people who thinks it’s a one-way relationship, that I just get to look pretty and hold my hands out while Person #3 drops finished works in my lap. The Spirit doesn’t “give” me songs (or stories, or reflections); he inSpires them and I have to do the bloody, sweaty work of beating them into a form that can actually pass muster in the world. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I don’t. But I know there’s no chance without the Spirit.

I first got to know the Spirit when I was battling crippling anxiety. In the presence of the Blessed Sacrament chapel or on the muddy bank of a placid Iowa river, I discovered that I could “let go” the knot of tension in my chest or in my head. And when I did, what remained felt like cool water on a burn, or a long drink smoothing a parched throat. It was a long time before I understood Whose Presence I was experiencing.

That feeling is elusive in the presence of chaos and stimulus, and life with small children is nothing but. At this very moment I have a complaining, wiggling 16-month-old on my lap, trying to type for me. This is why I need the time away: otherwise, I lose not only the words and melodies I’m called to write, but my very equilibrium as a human being.

Still, I’m learning that even if I can’t feel it, He’s there. If love is identified not by overwhelming passion, but by the daily repetition of choices and actions, then why should God, who is love, be expected to provide a nonstop barrage of emotional stimuli? Emotions are not the point. They’re just a nice side effect.

“I don’t feel my faith,” I told a priest in Confession once.

“Feelings.” He dismissed my preteen angst with a wave. “If you see a man without a coat and you feel for him, that doesn’t keep him warm. What keeps him warm is giving him a coat. You don’t need to feel anything.”

But–but! I like that cool spreading-out in the center of my chest. I like that shiver when my brain or my body releases in His presence. I like that buzz in my brain that comes when He’s working inside it. I like to say, “Come Holy Spirit,” and have the words and ideas start to flow as I get out of the way and listen to the divine whisper.

Yet sometimes I have to go do something utterly mundane, like sweep the crumb-y  residue off the kitchen floor, and lunge and pull a wet mop over the surface while perspiration tightens my hairline. Sometimes that’s when the Spirit nudges: “Hey, here’s that blog tour idea you’ve been asking Me for. And oh yes, that missing word that will make that entire song verse work? Done.” No glorious shiver. No chorus of angels. Just everyday, nose-to-the-grindstone, do-whatcha-gotta-do-as-best-you-know-how…work.

And you know, I think that’s as it should be. Because after all, isn’t that what most of the work of the Gospel is?

Published in: on March 18, 2013 at 8:01 am  Comments (7)  
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Pathways To Heaven

Photo by VISION Vocation Guide, via Flickr

We had a pretty good discussion here last week on the topic of marriage and whether there is only one man for one woman. As I was writing, I knew I was spending too much time on one part of what I was trying to communicate, but not until later did I realize I had buried the really important point. So I decided to revisit it today–briefly. (No epic-length post today, I promise!)

The quotes I shared about marriage were actually made in the context of a discussion of vocation to consecrated life:

“Usually, in refusing (a vocation) from God, a person finds his or her path to heaven more difficult. It is not so much that there is only one way to heaven for each of us. But it seems that God calls us to the best possible vocation suited to our personalities and talents.

“God would never violate his own creative act by compelling human persons to act in a certain way. This is why God tolerates the choice to sin. … Therefore, there must be more than one possible path to heaven for each of us, although for each of us there is a best vocation.” (ToB/Hogan, p. 155)

This is the point I was hoping to make last week, and I got off-track by spinning out my neurosis about marriage as an example. It’s a big deal to discern a vocation, but sometimes we leave kids with the impression that if we incorrectly identify GOD’S WILL FOR MY LIFE, we’re just basically screwed (pardon my language). Like, if we get it wrong, we’ll never be able to get to Heaven because we aren’t following GOD’S WILL FOR MY LIFE.

Once you put it in those terms it’s kind of obviously nonsensical, but does it ever occur to us that maybe people resist the idea of discerning a religious vocation because we make it such a big deal? That maybe they’d rather not risk asking the question and getting the answer “wrong”?

Hogan went on to explain “best vocation” by saying that God calls each of us to our vocation based on our talents and interests; a person who isn’t good with kids might not be well-suited to marriage, for instance…but all is not lost if that person does get married–it’s just that the path to Heaven is harder, because the daily demands of life are going to push their buttons more. Likewise, someone called to marriage might not function as well in the priesthood, because loneliness might be a heavy burden–but it’s not impossible, it’s just harder. So it’s okay to step out and discern, because that’s the point of seminary or novitiate–to ask the question, and learn by living out the life whether it is or isn’t meant for you.

That, in the end, was what I was getting at by saying this was such a liberating idea.

Published in: on January 22, 2013 at 8:12 am  Comments (1)  
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A Word For A New Year: Charity

Plus haut

Plus haut (Photo credit: iko)

I love the idea of celebrating New Years, but in reality the idea’s not even on the table anymore. Last night we went to bed at 10:30 and called it an hour late…because by eleven Nicholas woke up with a nightmare, and when the fireworks hit at midnight Michael woke up scared. And then there were the “Happy New Year!” text messages beeping on Christian’s phone. (Face palm.)

Well, in any case, it’s just ahead of six a.m. on New Years Day, 2013, and here I sit, reflecting forward. For the last few Januaries many of my bloggy friends have been choosing a word for the year, a word to direct their spiritual focus for the coming months. I’ve never participated before, but there’s been a word rattling around in my head for the last several weeks, consistently enough for me to recognize the Spirit at work. The word is charity.

Charity is a funny word. My whole life I’ve associated it with giving money to those in need, but in Scriptural terms it’s used interchangeably with “love.” It makes sense; love is a series of choices and actions, so it should naturally bear itself out in giving.

But there’s still another definition. For me, charity is a call to change my heart.

I’ve fussed often enough on this blog about the way we talk to each other in the modern world: the vitriol, the rigid mindset that causes us to dig in at the extremes of any political, philosophical or religious disagreement. A mindset in which we make assumptions about others’ thoughts and motivations and pass snap judgment based upon assumptions, sound bites and half-truths, while simultaneously refusing to recognize our own self-righteousness in doing so. It’s a state of mind and heart that shreds others’ human dignity, and as such it stands contrary to what we believe as Christians.

But you know, what a person focuses on sheds a great deal of light on their own mindset. I’ve said it a lot recently: religious writing is like one ongoing examination of conscience. And I’m at least as guilty of these sins as anyone I call to task for them. Charity for me this year means changing my internal monologue from judgment to acceptance. It means giving people the benefit of the doubt instead of assuming the worst about their beliefs, motivations and actions. It is an exercise in finding Christ in others, and in myself.

And it’s probably the hardest task I’ve ever set myself for a new year.

(Others are sharing their word-of-the-year here.)

Published in: on January 1, 2013 at 8:37 am  Comments (5)  
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Moon-set

Photo by Stephen Little, via Flickr

In the quiet of early morning, I bundled up against the newly-arrived winter temperatures and slipped out the front door for a 5:30 a.m. walk. Above, the stars gleamed as they only can when the humidity and temperature drop, and as I stepped off the porch my breath caught to see Venus, radiant and huge, a spotlight in the blackness, and barely north of it, the thinnest sliver of moon peeking from the shadow of the Earth, its yellow so slim that it seemed airbrushed on the edge of a smoky gray full moon. There’s something mysterious in seeing the whole moon when most of it is not “lit,” something that quiets the mind and highlights how small I am in the grand scheme of the universe.

I kept my eyes on it throughout my walk; the sliver was deceptive, I realized. There was a faint outline of light ringing the dark part, which made the fullness clearer. I watched it edge closer to the horizon and morph slowly in color, from charcoal to slate gray to something bluer and bluer as the sky around it lightened. By the time I arrived home, the sky was no longer black, but pale blue, and all that remained was the hairs-breath of a crescent. I knew by the next morning, it would be gone altogether, and the knowledge humbled me, filled me with an awareness of all that is beyond me, all that is holy and beautiful, and good.

Yay God.

Published in: on November 13, 2012 at 7:54 am  Comments (3)  
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When You Pray…

It’s been a crazy weekend, and today’s slated to be an even crazier day, so I’m pulling one out of the archives today. Be back tomorrow with fresh thoughts!

***

Pray without ceasing.” I Thessalonians 5:17

The Angelus by Millet ca 1857

I’ve known a lot of faithful people in my life. And one of the most striking things I have noticed is that it’s frighteningly easy to abuse faith. To turn it into an idol of its own.

Maybe I should be more specific. It’s easy to abuse religious practice. Like prayer, for instance.

I’ve known people who substitute prayer for action. I’ve known people who go for quantity of words, as if they think if they go on long enough, they’ll beat God into submission. I’ve known people who go for flowery language, thinking it makes their prayers more important. I’ve known people who use prayer, consciously or unconsciously, as a way to lecture other people in the room. (I should add that at least once in every category above, “people” refers to me.)

“Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.” Garth Brooks

And I’ve known people who have bought into the idea of the unanswered prayer. This is one of my biggest pet peeves, because there is no such thing. That lesson, learned in my youngest elementary school days at Catholic school, still forms my world view. God answers every prayer. Every one. But sometimes, the answer is “no.”

And sometimes, the answer is “not yet.”

“If I really wanted to pray I’ll tell you what I’d do. I’d go out into a great big field alone or into the deep, deep woods, and I’d look up into the sky – up – up – up- into that lovely blue sky that looks like there’s no end to its blueness. And then I’d just feel a prayer.” Anne Shirley

At some point in my life, someone offered this “formula” for prayer:

First praise, then thanksgiving, and then (and only then), petition.

I struggled for years with the difference between praise and thanksgiving, but finally my daughter taught me the answer to that one.

The trouble is with that last bit. The petition bit. The part that overwhelms prayer for most of us.

The trouble is that we grow up with a wrong-headed idea of what prayer is supposed to do. Prayer isn’t about changing God’s mind. I mean, do you REALLY think you’re going to change the mind of the maker of the entire universe? If that was even possible, I’d lose my faith instantly; who can depend on a God that fickle?

No, prayer is about changing me. It is a lesson in humility, an opportunity to stretch my soul by bending my will to someone else’s. It’s about shifting my attitude from what I want, what I need, what I fear, to what God wants. To what God is asking of me.

That kind of prayer is a lot harder. But it’s also liberating.

I learned the power of this prayer during three years of infertility, when all my life was consumed by the desperate desire for a child. It was such a bruising experience, to pray two dozen times a day, every day for three years, for the same thing, and never once to hear a “yes” in reply. That is spiritual exercise of the most powerful kind. I thought I would never know the reason why God said “not yet” for so long. But in time, that question was answered, too.

“Pray without ceasing.” I Thessalonians 5:17

When I was a kid, I used to hear that quote and shake my head. What a boring life. Are you supposed to just live on your knees? But now I understand that life itself can be a prayer. It doesn’t have to be formal. It doesn’t have to be eloquent. It doesn’t need words at all. It begins with praise, it continues with thanksgiving, and ends with “Thy Will be done.”

And when I manage to live up to it…it works for me.

Published in: on April 30, 2012 at 5:12 am  Leave a Comment  
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Bigger Than Me

After two blissful weeks of uninterrupted sleep, Michael started waking to nurse again. I took it philosophically, because I’d been expecting it–I’ve said often enough that sleeping through the night is a myth–and these days he mixes it up; a night or two on, a night or two off.

This was an “on” night, and his roommate (Julianna) pulled a drama number at 4:30 a.m. and woke him up, so it was, in fact, a double-nursing night…something I don’t take so philosophically. I sat in my nursing chair while he wiggled and pushed his legs against the spindles, mostly playing around while my temper shortened with the dwindling minutes till morning. He needs his nails clipped…badly. And he likes to grab things these days. Sometimes he gets my shirt, but more often he goes for skin, and pulls the breast right out of his mouth. Repeatedly. After he’s torn the skin to shreds, of course.

So as often as he’ll consent, I grab his hand and let him hold my thumb. And as I sat there in the murky quiet of early morning, I suddenly saw the scene from his point of view. I saw the absolute trust, the craving for closeness with something Bigger Than Me. So much bigger, in fact, that his entire hand will wrap around its thumb. So big that it can protect him from the terrorizing of older siblings, and the specter of loneliness. So big that it fills up most of his world.

It occurred to me then that this is the source of faith, the first way in which our longing for God manifests itself. What do we adults have that can compare to that experience of infancy? We long for the security being cared for, too, and we long for Someone so big that we can rest upon that person. But it isn’t the same, because the physical Being is missing. We can’t snuggle up to God and wrap ourselves around a divine hand, knowing because of what we can see and touch that we’re safe. As adults, we have to reach into our souls and our intellects, to see God present in the beauty and power of nature and in the presence of community and supernatural Presence at church. In our “show-me” world, those connections are held suspect, even by those of us who believe them sincerely. We’d like more, and the frustration of knowing we can’t have it leads everyone to question at some point, and many to turn their backs.

It’s good that we grow and become parents ourselves, that we can see these moments in a new way and recognize the truths in them, truths we might otherwise lose touch with.

Published in: on April 18, 2012 at 7:14 am  Comments (3)  
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Ordinary Time Christian

Photo by jameschew, via Flickr

Anne Rice once wrote that Christians are either Christmas Christians or Easter Christians. In other words, they find their faith centered around Incarnation and gift, or around suffering and redemption.

But I realized something on Christmas Eve, in between the annual welling of tears during Adeste Fidelis and nursing a baby in the sacristy throughout the Liturgy of the Word. She’s not entirely right; she missed a category. I am an ordinary time Christian.

I love both Advent/Christmas and Lent/Easter. These central events of Christianity are packed with profound beauty and insight. I know the themes and connection points backward and forward. I tear up whenever I write about them, awestruck by the beauty of what I’m putting into words. But the reality is that on the days themselves, I hardly ever feel the profundity and the awe.

The high feast days can’t hold the weight of the expectations placed upon them. They’re supposed to be idyllic family times, lots of anticipation and the thrill of gifts (at Christmas) and egg hunts and candy (at Easter). On top of that, they’re supposed to move us to renewal of spiritual commitment.

But no one day can do all that–at least, not for me. Maybe occasionally, maybe by chance, maybe for a moment. Perhaps this is because I’m a choir director, and my job on those occasions is to be on top of the minutiae: making sure everyone starts and stays together, making sure the sound is properly balanced and adjusting microphone placement and levels if it isn’t, communicating corrections to members, making sure we lengthen or curtail the music to fit the ritual at hand. If I was sitting in a pew, or even following someone else’s lead, I wouldn’t have so much of my mind occupied by busy work, and perhaps I’d be a bit more present to the moment.

For me, faith and renewal belong to prosaic times. Faith ignites and inspires when glimpses of the divine pop up within the boring routine of daily life–sometimes in a church building, but more often outside it, when what I hear on Sundays and high feasts illuminates my humdrum everyday. My “yay God” moments come on ordinary days, during ordinary tasks involving ordinary externals. Spiritual insight flames most clearly when the profound truths we celebrate on Christmas and Easter come together to show me something about an unremarkable Tuesday morning, something I wouldn’t have seen otherwise.

And it occurs to me that this is “right and just,” to quote the new translation. Because we don’t live in the high seasons–we live in an ordinary world, and if faith is to have any chance of changing us, and through us, the world, it has to live there too. It has to surround our ordinary moments, whisper holiness into them, fill them up with purpose and meaning. More importantly, it has to direct our actions and thoughts–not just on Sunday, but every day. It has to become who we are, inseparable from what we think and do.

I am an Ordinary Time Christian. No longer will I feel inadequate or deprived when the high feasts don’t live up to the spiritual expectations placed upon them. Because God is everywhere at all times, and I will seek him where he is to be found.

Shared with Hear it on Sunday, Use it on Monday at Michellederusha.com

Published in: on December 27, 2011 at 8:12 am  Comments (7)  
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Does Jesus Laugh?

Jesus

Image by glasgow's finest via Flickr

On Saturday night I was singing Julianna through hair washing (“I’ve got that joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart!”) when Alex turned to me and launched into an unfinished conversation from the day before. “Mommy, we don’t sing that Devil verse at school because it would be wrong.

I paused in the middle of “If the Devil doesn’t like it he can sit on a tack—ouch!” (Julianna’s reward verse for getting through the rest of the torture. It makes her giggle.) “What do you mean?”

“I mean, we can’t sing that at church!” He looked appalled by the very thought. Somewhere deep in my gut, I felt a disturbing flutter. “Well,” I said, “I don’t know that I ever sang it at church when I was little, either. But Alex, church isn’t supposed to be all gloom and doom.”

He looked at me like I was completely nuts. “It’s supposed to be…” He couldn’t find the word, but I knew what he was searching for.

BORING.

IRRELEVANT.

I wasn’t about to fill those words in for him.

There are so many ways to skew how we approach God. An acquaintance of mine once told me, “A person’s faith ought to be a comfort to them, not a source of misery.” The point being that faith should never require suffering or challenge you to do anything you don’t want to do. There’s a strong movement in the world in which church is entertainment—I heard recently of a church where the cross isn’t even used, because it might “make people uncomfortable, and we want all to be welcome.”

On the other hand, there is a strong reaction to all this which focuses myopically on formality, on sacredness—to the point where it’s viewed as disrespectful at least, and perhaps sacrilegious, to crack a smile, to play an upbeat song, or to speak above a whisper.

Believing that God lies squarely in the middle on this topic as almost every other, I find myself continually frustrated. But to see the dawning of POV #2 in my own child brings me to a whole new level of soul disturbance. God created us as people who love laughter and companionship. And since we’re created in God’s image, doesn’t that say something pretty important about God?

At first, casting about for explanation, my mind settled on the strict regimen of behavior expected at parochial school. But as Alex stood beside me during Mass yesterday, his nose pressed to the shiny lacquer of the piano his daddy was playing, looking at reflections of his face and the ceiling in its depths—and more importantly, as we tried to scold him into paying attention—I realized that we bear a large portion of the blame, too.

Not so long ago, I read somewhere that when we’re trying to make the liturgy “relevant” for our young people, the opposite of boring is not entertaining, but meaningful. That’s what I want for my children. Alex shows some really wonderful early signs of reaching that goal—he’s trying to listen to Paul’s brutally convoluted rhetoric and make sense of it, and when he doesn’t (which is every week, of course), he tugs on my arm and says plaintively, “I don’t understand.” I love that about him.

But I think as his parents, we have a huge role in this too. Guidance and formation might happen without us…but it’s not very likely.

“Alex,” I said, “you know, Jesus didn’t walk around being all solemn all the time. He loved to laugh and tell jokes. Jesus was a human being, too.”

Two little ones screamed for attention then, and we never finished the conversation. But maybe that’s okay. Because this isn’t really a conversation that ever gets “finished,” is it?

Published in: on November 21, 2011 at 6:27 am  Comments (19)  
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Blowing In the Wind

The smell caught me…that distinct, absolutely divine scent that only comes in the fall, the smell of dead leaves. I think of Anne Shirley rhapsodizing over dead fir leaves, and her friends thinking it somehow unholy to think of things dead in Heaven. I think it’s just one of those “Yay God”-worthy moments, realizing that God can take death and make something so beautiful of it.

Alex has been waiting for the chance to jump in the leaves. Julianna has been waiting for the chance to plunge through them and kick them up, just like her mommy loves to do in the fall. Nicholas is ready to follow his siblings’ lead, wherever it takes him.

The sun shines warm, tempered by the chill of a wind waiting to steal the warmth as evening draws near. The smell drifts upward as I crouch close to the ground with the camera.

Time to dig small hands in the leaves, to crinkle them beneath fingernails, and fling them skyward.

Yay God, indeed.

Shared with Wordful Wednesday at Angie’s Seven Clown Circus.

Published in: on November 16, 2011 at 4:43 am  Comments (6)  
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Time, Talent, Pride

“The one who had received five talents came forward
bringing the additional five.
He said, ‘Master, you gave me five talents.
See, I have made five more.’
His master said to him, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant.
Since you were faithful in small matters,
I will give you great responsibilities.
Come, share your master’s joy.”

(Mt. 25)

“Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.”

(Lk. 12:48)

God is busy, may I help you?

Not long ago, I came across a blog post that asked, “How big is your plate?” She was reflecting on busyness and how we prioritize our commitments. How to set limits, to say enough is enough, I can’t do any more. I thought of my mother telling me, “You can do many ministries consecutively, but not necessarily concurrently.”

Among people of faith, there’s a strong predisposition to encourage women to focus on the vocation, or ministry, of motherhood, and to lay the rest of it aside until that commitment is largely fulfilled. But as I was pondering last week, if we’re given gifts—talents (how interesting it is that the word should be translated that way!)—are we not meant to use them all? And if we simply ignore them for a couple of decades, aren’t we, in effect, burying them?

That is the question each one of us faces. Where do we draw the line between giving back/paying forward the gifts we have been given, and thinking the world can’t possibly get by without our particular charism? One is stewardship; the other is pride. And it’s really easy to stray across the line.

A few years ago I probably would have built a big soapbox and tried to tell the world how to tell the difference. But like another blog friend, the more I learn about God, the less certain I am of anything except that absolute certainty is more likely to be a harbinger of pride than stewardship. I can’t claim to know where anyone else’s line is drawn. I can only do my utmost to stay on the right side of it in my own life…and to correct course when it becomes clear I’ve wandered into the path of oncoming traffic.

Published in: on November 13, 2011 at 8:19 pm  Comments (13)  
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