Saturday, July 30, 2011

quick thoughts on Tobit

Recently in Adoration I've been flipping my Bible open to the book of Tobit. I guess it's been a while since I've read this book, because I was struck by what a great story it is, and how captivating. There's a lot of trial and tribulation for the main characters in the beginning of the book, and it sounds terribly similar to Job. But then this stranger, this angel, appears out of nowhere to intervene. Raphael explains at the end ("gloriously revealing the works of God") that he did not come as a favor of his own accord but because it was the will of God.

I think it's important to remember that when our novenas to various saints or other intercessory prayers are answered, it is not because God is bending His will to "do us a favor." He wants good things be heaped upon us, good measure, and flowing over. He loves us with a passionate, all-embracing, providential love and everything that happens in our lives is a manifestation of that love and is willed or permitted for our sanctification. It's a great mystery, and I would say a beautiful divine gift, that He allows our prayers to help in bringing that good that He wills for us all to fruition.

I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with the phrase "God's will", because it can be touted so glibly as the one thing you need to figure out, after which all your problems will be solved. In the story of Tobit, God's will seemed to include both the trials that resulted from Tobit's good works, and the ending of those trials with the aid of the angel Raphael. Tobit couldn't act to bring about, or even figure out, this happy ending part of God's will. All he could do was try to be faithful, accept his suffering, send his son on a journey, and wait for the rest to unfold.

The other thing that struck me in the twelfth chapter of Tobit was the emphasis on praising God and declaring His works. It struck my attention because my meditation yesterday was about listening (stemming from the Gospel for St. Martha's feast day on Martha and Mary), and today's was all about speaking. It was a good reminder for me of the need for balance between listening and speaking in prayer. "Praise God, and give thanks to him in the presence of all the living for what he has done for you. It is good to praise God and to exalt his name, worthily declaring the works of God. Do not be slow to give him thanks" (Tob. 12:6).

That is my prayer for tonight, that I am never slow to praise Him and give Him thanks, for answered prayers and for unanswered ones, for the beauty of creation, for my daily bread, for all the wonderful people He has placed in my life, and for His own unfailing love.

Here's a great quote from Blessed John Paul II to end these thoughts: "In any case, in the path of love which life entails, always remember that above every love there is one Love. One Love. Love without constraint or hesitation. It is the love with which Christ loves each one of you."

Sunday, April 10, 2011

renunciation, part 2

I've always heard the word renunciation used in stories about saints who entered religious life (e.g. St. Francis of Assisi, who renounced everything, even the clothes on his back, to follow Christ). Renunciation, in this context seemed a heroic, almost glamorous word, but quite beyond anything I might practice in my humdrum single life. Thus realizing that I could renounce something in a pretty major way, i.e. renouncing, not simply my idea of how I was going to spend my Saturday afternoon, but my idea of how I was going to spend the rest of my life, was quite a revolutionary idea for me (see my previous entry for further details).

What is renunciation? First of all, renunciation implies ownership. To be able to renounce all his possessions and even his relationship with his family, St. Francis first had to be blessed with property and a family. To be able to renounce my love for my ex-boyfriend, I had to have previously called him mine. And this calling him mine was not a bad thing (though perhaps it happened rather too quickly in this particular case). This is going to sound trite, but God wants us to dream big dreams. I imagine when one of his children is falling in love, God wants to hear all about his or her hopes and dreams and plans for life with the beloved. God doesn't want us to hold no one dear anymore than he wants us all to live without personal possessions. The key is to be able to let go of the possessions or the dear one in the blink of an eye if that is what God should ask of us.

Secondly, renunciation implies accepting a change in our plans. In my parish's young adult fellowship group we were recently discussing the life of St. Anthony of the Desert. This amazing saint lived one of the most austere lives on record, subsisting for years on bread, water and salt, living in a cave in the desert. Yet he had had an unfulfilled plan for his life, too. He had desired above all things to be a martyr. But the Roman persecutions ended during the early part of his life, and he had to give up his desire to shed his blood for Christ. His ascetic way of life was his response, a kind of martyrdom of the spirit. I think that his faithfulness to the Lord in the face of this unfulfilled desire is what I found inspiring about his life. St. Anthony had a beautiful plan for his life, but wasn't afraid to drop the plan and make a new one when it became apparent that his plan wasn't going to work out. Instead of giving up on God or staying in Alexandria and sulking, he went off to the desert to live a life of austerity, inspiring countless others who later followed in his footsteps.

It can be a temptation in the face of continually having to give up our own plans simply not to make any plans. Perhaps this is a particular temptation for those who, like me, are living the single life. Many of us don't know for sure what permanent vocation (if any) we will be called to embrace. We've been through many disappointments and our dreams seem like they will never come true. But we need to trust the Lord and keep dreaming them.

I'm well aware that we're only human. We're probably not going to be ready to embark on a new adventure immediately after our previous adventure has been brought to an inglorious end. The Lord doesn't expect us to find a new love immediately after an old love has been snatched away. But he does expect us to be faithful and pray to the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete who is ever at our side, for his guiding help and inspiration.

It is in our nature to make plans. It is supernatural to be able to give up our plans in favor of God's and not to lose courage in the grating process of continually having to make new plans.

"We have to learn therefore to have a will of our own and then to surrender it. To make plans and while doing so let go of the plan. The ultimate meaning is found, not in the plan, but in the obedience" (Adrienne von Speyr, The Passion From Within).

renunciation vs. resignation

While experiencing major heartache after a breakup a year and a half ago or so, I remember striving hard to feel resigned to God's will. But it seemed an impossible task. Everything had seemed so right, and I felt strongly that there had been some horrible mistake, either with God or with this guy. A lot of my prayer time was taking up with telling God how I felt about all this. But I would always strive to end my prayer by resigning myself to God's will -- "not my will, but Yours be done". I'm sure this attempt was valuable in the Lord's eyes, but it didn't feel very effective at the time.

Then one day, feeling at my wit's end with my self-pitying, confused, miserable broken heart and asking God what I could possibly do attain the resignation I was seeking, the word renunciation popped into my head. Perhaps it's only a slight nuance to think of renunciation rather than resignation. But it made a big difference to me to think about "renouncing" this guy and the love I had felt for him and simply being "resigned" to circumstances beyond my control. I felt like I was finally taking an active step to regaining ownership of my heart. Rather than simply saying "your will be done", I was spelling it out to God: I do not want this path if You don't want this path for me and I hereby renounce it. In my mind, I was taking this dream I had conjured up of my life with this guy and pushing it away. It was not the final step in the healing of my heart, but it was very helpful.

There is something in the human spirit that rebels against the idea of mere resignation to circumstance. William Ernest Henley, the author of the poem "Invictus," seems to be crying out against resignation when he says: "In the fell clutch of circumstance / I have not winced nor cried aloud. / Under the bludgeonings of chance / My head is bloody, but unbowed."

But knowing that a loving God is behind the seemingly mysterious twists and turns of fortune makes all the difference. As Christians, we aren't being called upon to be resigned to mere circumstance or dumb chance, but actively to place our wills in the hands of a loving Father. Dorothy Day wrote a superb, line by line, response to "Invictus" which she entitled "My Captain". I will quote the corresponding passage here: "Since His the sway of circumstance, / I would not wince nor cry aloud. / Under that rule which men call chance / My head with joy is humbly bowed."

Don't get me wrong, I think there's a definite good being conveyed when we talk of being resigned to God's will. But the concept of renunciation has been so much more helpful for me in my ongoing attempt to surrender myself to the Lord. To me it makes all the difference between the idea of grudgingly accepting the trials that God allows and embracing the trials as they come. For only once I renounce my own plans can I go forward to embrace what God is presenting to me. And as the Lord reminds us in John's Gospel, He has not called us slaves, but friends. "No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I make known to you" (Jn. 15:15)

Sunday, April 3, 2011

drastic action

Are you ever tempted to take drastic action, any kind of action, just to break the monotony of your life? Let's face it, the single life is sometimes a dreary struggle to be content and I don't always win the struggle. Sometimes I wonder whether there is something that I'm supposed to be doing that I've been ignoring. Sometimes I get so sick of the status quo that I think about quitting my job, moving across the country, being a missionary, anything as long as it's drastic.

This attitude of mine has been responsible for some wonderful experiences, such as the five months that I spent living in a trailer and working on an organic farm last summer. This desire for change can be rooted in a real need for change in one's life, and sometimes the Lord asks us to put out into the deep in a radical way. Sometimes, however, at least in my case, this desire for change is just a tactic the devil uses to sow discontent in my life.

In my prayer this spring I've been getting the sense that I need to stay put right now. It has been a struggle for me not to compare my life to friends of mine who are embarking on new adventures.

A week or two ago, I opened my Bible to this passage from Lamentations: "The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is thy faithfulness" (Lam. 3: 22-23). The Lord seemed to be speaking directly to my heart. Perhaps Jesus is asking me to let Him make every day new and exciting. Perhaps I unintentionally hurt Him when I seek excitement and fulfillment from mere outward change. Do I doubt his faithfulness or his mercy in my life? Change of scenery, new work, or new relationships can never compete with the dynamic love of my Lord.

The passage continues: "'The Lord is my portion,' says my soul, 'therefore I will hope in him.' The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth" (Lam. 3:24-27). More pertinent advice I could not have found if I had been searching for it. So my prayer right now is that I leave the drastic action to the Lord and learn to wait quietly while seeking and hoping in Him. He makes all things new.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

stiff necks

Today's first reading from Jeremiah describes the Israelites' response to God's commands: "They obeyed not, nor did they pay heed. They walked in the hardness of their evil hearts and turned their backs, not their faces, to me. From the day that your fathers left the land of Egypt even to this day, I have sent you untiringly all my servants the prophets. Yet they have not obeyed me nor paid heed; they have stiffened their necks and done worse than their fathers" (Jer. 7: 25-26). Over and over in the Pentateuch, the Lord uses this peculiar epithet, stiff-necked, for the children of Israel. It means something along the lines of stubborn or obstinate.

Today this passage struck me because I have a very stiff neck right now. (I'm not really sure why, but think it has something to do with jumping on a trampoline.) Anyway, it just occurred to me to ask: what is so bad about having a stiff neck? After all, we're also called to walk the straight and narrow, and to look neither to the left nor to the right.

Perhaps this psalm provides an answer: "To thee I lift up my eyes, O thou who art enthroned in the heavens! Behold, as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God, till he have mercy upon us" (Ps. 123:1-2). With a neck which is spiritually stiff, we're unable to raise our eyes to heaven and keep them fixed faithfully on the Lord.

Conversely, we're also called to bear the yoke of the Lord and to bend ourselves to his will. Perhaps this sounds like it would result in a stiff neck rather than being the cure for a stiff neck, but I think not. After all, the Lord is the one who fashioned our necks, and indeed our whole body and soul. Surely then He knows best how to keep our necks in good working order. They need to be pliable and supple enough to do His will as it is revealed to us in every moment, rather than stubbornly insisting on our own will.

And if I do my spiritual exercises every day and alternate raising my eyes to the Lord and bowing submissively before him, perhaps I won't be able to complain about my stiff neck anymore.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Catholic + single + Lent

I just entered the following in a contest on Catholic Match:

I used to feel an impulse at the beginning of every Lent to make close to a dozen Lenten resolutions. Of course, I would never end up keeping them all, but I am an ambitious perfectionist, and I would always think . . . maybe this Lent will be the time I finally succeed in getting everything right. And behind that desire there was sometimes this sneaking thought: Maybe once I correct all these faults, God will finally reward me with the man of my dreams.

The problem with that attitude is not just that it is impractical, but that it is self-centered. Lent is supposed to be about me turning toward God in a more radical way, not me making myself the holiest woman on Catholic Match.

An insightful priest once informed me that singles have a very hard life. I had gone to him for advice on how to handle the emptiness I was feeling. Well, yes, I thought, sometimes I am lonely and discouraged, but look at all the extra free time I have compared to those that are raising families. Shouldn’t I be doing more? Praying for three hours every day? Volunteering? No, he told me, the Lord was asking me, not to do more, but to let Him do everything with me.

This year, I’ll still be making a Lenten plan. To let the Lord in, I need to spend some solid time in prayer every day. I may still give up chocolate and try to be reminded of how my desire for the Lord should be even stronger than my sugar cravings. But the best mortification is surely to accept my singleness with trust and live my daily life in His company, embracing all the crosses that come my way unsought.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

to the heights

I had the opportunity to take an indoor rock climbing class recently. I had done it in high school at an adventure camp and loved the mental and physical challenge of climbing. Then, I had been belayed by a professional, but in this class, I had to learn how to belay before I could climb. I went with my sister, so after having everything explained and demonstrated, we paired up to take turns belaying and climbing. I climbed first, and had no problem trusting that my sister would do everything right. But I was much more trepidatious when it came time to take my turn belaying. Our instructor checked all our equipment and our knots, and my sister and I double checked each other, but when the moment came to give her permission to climb ("climb on"), I was really scared. What if I didn't take up the slack fast enough? What if I let something the rope slip through my fingers?

I think there is an analogy to the spiritual life here beyond the obvious one of trust. That evening, I was responsible in a concrete, physical way for my sister's life. But I bear responsibility for the lives of those around me at all times. We are all our brothers and sisters' keepers. It can be scary to think about our responsibility for the souls of others (especially when we think about Our Lord's words: to whom much is given, much will be expected). But I know that Our Lord is there to give me courage if I but turn to Him to ask for it.

I was on retreat recently, and found a beautiful holy card of Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati. Here is the prayer on the back, which I think relates to this discussion:

Heavenly Father,
Give me the courage to strive for the highest goals,
to flee everything temptation to be mediocre.
Enable me to aspire to greatness,
as Pier Giorgio did,
and to open my heart with joy to Your call to holiness.
Free me from the fear of failure.
I want to be, Lord, firmly and forever united to You.
Grant me the graces I ask You through Pier Giorgio's intercession,
by the merits of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.