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.