The past two weeks. It has almost been too much to bear, all the heartache. All the hatred and the hurting and brokenness everywhere we turn. It is too much. I am tempted to shut it out: turn off the news, avoid the rapid-fire of social media politicking. Sink into my own comfortable life, where my biggest inconveniences of the day revolve around the fact that we have too many clothes to wash in our HE washer in our house with electricity and running water. Continue about my day to day life, free from stigma of skin color, free from fear of opression and violence.What can I do about all that is wrong in this world? I am often paralyzed by insignificance. I don’t work in a job where I make or carry out policy. I know nothing about medicine. I am not educated about how to approach issues of race in this country. I don’t have the means to travel abroad or adopt an orphan. I don’t know any refugees.When God allows our hearts to be broken, what is it for? It can’t just be so that we feel sad for a few minutes or days until we forget. ….
To my fellow Christians who are up in arms about the so-called “war on Christmas”:
Cut it out.
No, really. Just stop. You’re giving all of us a bad name. And worse, you’re giving Christ a bad name.
There is no war on Christmas. Christian America quite successfully corrupted Christmas into a free-for-all greed fest without any help from people who hate religion.
And as for the rest…Does it really matter if Starbucks prints a red cup instead of a red cup with completely non-religious ornament shapes on it? Is anyone’s right to worship really being curtailed by the failure of the city to put a tacky light-up Nativity scene on public property? Have we forgotten that when people say “happy holidays,” they are actually, literally referring to a holy day? And why are we making such a hullabaloo about Christmas in the first place, when the reason for Christianity’s existence is Easter?
There are plenty of things in this world worth raising the ire of those of us who profess to follow Christ. Violations of human dignity in many forms we’d rather not confront, because the fingers point back at us as often as they point elsewhere. Violence. Pollution and overconsumption. (See: disposable red cups.) Refugee crises, and the violations of human rights and dignity that cause them. Various -isms. A government full of politicians who can’t play well enough with others to do something as fundamental as pass a budget.
But no, by all means, let’s focus on the design of disposable cups and whether we say “happy holidays” or “Merry Christmas.” Priorities, you know.
And with that, I’m going quiet for the week. I need to circle the wagons and get some work done.
One: A priest I know once talked about throwing open the Bible and taking whatever your eye (or finger) lands on first as a sign from God. He called it Bible abuse. A provocative statement, given that probably every one of us has done that at some point.
Two: Long ago I read about a person who invited a couple of missionaries over for dinner. They would not eat from the dishes being passed around the table until they had prayed over each one and received Heavenly “clearance” to proceed. At first, the author was offended. Then he decided this was a sign of their total dependence on God to tell them what was and was not safe.
To me, these two examples illuminate how easy it is to twist faith and try to turn God into a trained monkey that performs on command. We’ve been trained, by a fascination with larger-than-life stories of faith, to expect big and dramatic communications from God–and to esteem blind, uninformed faith in defiance of reason.
And I realized that fascination with these kind of stories encourage the mindset that led to my struggles with anxiety in the first place.
There are certain catch phrases in religious conversation: God’s will and radical faith, for instance. In my brain, over the course of years, that twisted into: if you aren’t willing to leap off a proverbial high bridge, trusting God to catch you, your faith is not good enough. Never mind what you know about gravity. Having faith means being willing to do what doesn’t make sense to you, because God’s way is not your way.
It’s that whole billboard thing again: the expectation that God is going to arrange a message so clear, so obviously aimed right at you, that you can’t possibly mistake His meaning.
God certainly can and sometimes does work that way, but if you expect all divine communication to consist of a “billboard,” you’re going to spend most of your life thinking God has nothing to say at all.
Hearing the voice of God is a skill that takes practice, and if you neglect that practice even briefly, you start to lose it. If I say that modern life is not conducive to hearing God, it sounds so trite as to render the words useless, but that doesn’t make them any less true. How many people fill every waking moment with noise–and sleeping moments, too, for that matter? The radio has to be on in the car, exercise must be accessorized by ear buds, and white noise generators are supposed to facilitate sleep.
There’s a reason people throughout history have gone on silent retreats and even lived as hermits. It’s silence where you learn to recognize God’s tiny whispering sound in the midst of the earthquakes and thunderstorms that make up life. It’s in the emptiness that the puzzle pieces begin to click. And it’s when you start to be comfortable in the void that you start to realize it’s not a void at all, but a wonderful sense of peace, and the beginning of a new way to know God.
I do believe there are times when God speaks in a thunderclap or a burning bush–proverbial or otherwise. The vast majority of the time, though, God’s voice speaks from within, through the utterly ordinary stuff of life. But you only recognize it if you’ve invested the time to listen to the silence that makes the connection in the first place.
If 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?
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.
- Vocation: Whatever You Do, Do It For the Lord and Don’t Worry About the Consequences (patheos.com)
- National Vocation Awareness Week (lancasterdominicans.wordpress.com)
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.
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.