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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Gratitude Gives Life

This is such a simple principle, and those are always the ones which captivate me.

I am listening to wind howl around the trees outside my window, and watching the lights of the town flicker as the branches move in and out of their light. It takes me back to a time when I was miles about the ground, dumbstruck flying over Africa. We'd been passing over the desert for hours. Yes, as when you fly over the ocean to get from the United States to Europe, except that vast expanse that stretched below me was brown and tan and formless, rather than blue and sparkly.

I was spellbound because for all of that time, all of those many miles, I had seen barely any civilization. One might expect even a military base or some type of shelter, maybe the proverbial and then literal oasis; but there was just nothing out there.

It grew dark, and then it was easier to distinguish life on this foreign tundra... you could see the lights. Granted, they were sparse and very few collectively, but at least there was something down there, right? I'd never been afraid of crashing in a plane over water, mainly because everyone knows you get in your life boats and land is never too far off. This was totally different. I was quite sure if we went down anywhere around here, there wasn't much to hope for.

Anyway, we began to approach our stop, Addis Ababa, the capitol city of Ethiopia. Now, as an American, I'm conditioned to think "big," "busy," and so on when I see a capitol of a country. I think that is generally standard for the Western European nations as well. This was completely different. The amount of total lights twinkling in the dark was much like the little window I have here in Virginia. Not a ton. Not even a lot. It was like Nowheresville in Ohio.

I was so baffled, and to be honest, I was thinking something like, "what have I gotten myself into?" If that was all the electricity they had to work with, how were they going to feed us for a month?!

Well, fortunately my time spent there did not result in anyone starving, but it was absolutely a cut back from my lifestyle here in the States. I leaned things from those people that have been with me for the past four years and I'm sure will never leave. They had nothing. I've been to Jamaica and I've seen poor places on this earth, but these people had nothing. Nothing! The Missionaries of Charity seemed the most well-off, and they own two tunics. They wash one every other day, alternating. Their food is provided by God, through donation. They care for all their sick, all those dying from malaria at their gate, they educate all those orphaned children and give them food each day through donation. So what does that say about everyone else?

I have never seen so many sick people in my life. I did not speak with one native Ethiopian that I can recall who had not lost at least one family member to disease in their lifetime. Not one. I thought it was horrifying when I discovered one of our guides had lost one or both parents and at least one sibling to malaria, and he himself had nearly died of it as a child. I came to discover nearly everyone else had the same story. If it wasn't malaria it was the common cold. You wanted to say their immune systems couldn't be so poor, most weren't HIV positive. Yet, undernourishment goes a long way, or rather, proper nourishment makes all the difference. Every day that we left the Missionaries compound to go to the village or to buy food, we'd be guaranteed to return to another person lying outside their gate, nearly dead or already dead, and just hoping the sisters would pick him up and ease him out of this world.

I did not have the stomach for it at first. I couldn't conceive of these people surviving. How, with so much sorrow and pain, were they able to function. I've seen a bit of loss myself, and by God's grace I endured, but if the coals kept on being heaped upon my head I just don't know if I would have kept fighting. Yet, so many were! Not only fighting, they were grateful.

This came as a cultural surprise to many of us on our first days there, but in their culture men will hold hands. Now, what does that instantly cause us to assume? Of course. Not for these people, however. In their culture, men who are friends hold hands walking through the streets just like eight year old girls here would. It means nothing more than, 'You are my friend and brother.' But it does mean more than that, at least I believed it did. It meant, 'We have only today to show that we love and are thankful. Tomorrow you or I might be gone. So let us be thankful.' It was highly entertaining to watch the men who came with me on mission initially recoil from the Ethiopian hands thrown over their shoulders as if they were a tired bird finally reaching its nest. It did not take them too long, however, to adapt. Even through their initial discomfort they made the effort, and by the time we left it was hugs and hand holding and arm tossing left and right. It was actually beautiful. To me, that was the most obvious sign of our inner transformation from these people. We came, Americans on a mission to serve and love. We left, Americans on a mission to serve and love. We thought we meant to help the Ethiopians, but they informed us we needed to go back and help our own culture! How little we understand the shortness of life, the nearness of death, the possibility of taking such joy from every moment of every day!

I recently watched Avatar, and I am not going into how I felt because that's a can of worms for another day, but I will say this - when they refer to how soft muscles become in space, I thought of how we, the Western culture with all of our conveniences and pleasures, are the epitome of that experience. Most often, I think we get soft. Things become routine, we rarely have to fight too hard for anything, and we can deal with it when things don't go our way so we never bother to make changes. I sat in class today drawing pictures, mentally traveling to who knows where, plotting out the rest of my afternoon, writing notes to my classmate, and occasionally writing something down from the class. I was dying to get out, itching to move. I like that class and it's content (it's Christology), but I was just not ready to sit still.
Seriously? I couldn't pause to rejoice that while I met so many people in one country who had not the luxury of education to the extent that they did not even know the national language because they'd never gone to school, there I was partaking in a Masters course? I can afford to expand my mind because I'm not just trying to survive. That is a gift! I'm certainly not always fond of our laziness here, but I'm also not trying to detract from our great nation either! We have so much potential - potential to make the world better for the millions who do not have the opportunities that we do. Yet, we cannot for a moment think that because we have clothes and they do not, because we can read and write and they can't, that we do not have anything to learn from them. That would be our great mistake. They understand life and death. They see a big picture we have a hard time finding. They understand how to make every moment and every person count.

I pray that we can all find quiet places to hear the wind whistle and watch the world outside and consider just how small we are. That wind may have blown over my family just hours before. It may travel across the ocean. And here I am, staring out the window. I pray we can be thankful, no matter where we are or what our circumstances. Gratitude was the lifestyle of Christ. In Scriptures Jesus is always "giving thanks" to our Father in Heaven. This is how we find life, true alive-ness in our daily activities. When we're bored and sitting in an hour of traffic, we rejoice. We delight because this life has one goal, and that is to come to know and love the Father, and He has given us the gift of living.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Verso l'alto

You know the feeling of delight that overcomes you so that this is the internal scenario:

I'm standing on the precipice of wonder and awe... I cannot tell whether I am falling, falling, falling further and faster and deeper and becoming more and more free, or if in quite the opposite direction the spiraling heat is lifting me, raising me, moving me so that I am flying, higher and higher, faster and lighter so that I am lost in the abyss of the sky... they seem to be the same thing, yet complete opposite directions. Which is it to be, my heart? Where are you going?

Well, if you don't recall this feeling, or worse, if you're quite sure you've never felt this way, you really must take some time to discover it. Sometimes it comes from the silence, just being still while the wind whips around you and you recognize that you are, although what and who you are seems to be in an ongoing process of coming-to-be. Other times it is a distinct encounter, one person who says "I love you" and you are shocked that when you respond you mean it so totally that there are no inhibitions left. Other times you will discover this in the mundane day-to-day processes, that somehow you are just tickled inside that you make coffee every morning or that you have this or that book to read for class.

The truth is, if you want to stand on the precipice and dive off the cliff, you have to first get to a cliff. You can't be sitting in the sand safe and warm awaiting some ridiculous joy to find you there! Get to climbing! The higher you climb the farther you can fall, or the swifter you shall be caught up on the winds. This is far too abstract for me to give you a concrete example, because although I absolutely believe you need to really physically climb up something from time to time (trees, mountains, even stairs can do the trick), this is more so meant to be an internal hike.

There you are, your mind safe and secure, wallowing in the muck of comfort. Start shaking up the ground my friends! If you're not sure where to start, ask the Lord for some light. So often we get stuck there because the lights grow dim while we're resting, and it just isn't practical to start a journey in the dark - you have no idea where you're going or what you'll end up facing. But let us not stay at rest with these rationalities dictating our pace! If we have passion for life, let it explode to a passion for everything! If I really delighted that I could type on this computer.. well why not? I remember being in 7th grade and having to work at reading what came up on the screen in instant messenger instead of watching my hands on the keyboard. I also remember when I first picked up that guitar and strummed a G. Oh boy! God bless my roommates who patiently endured my practicing. Yet now, when my soul finds its home in the notes of that same instrument, am I stupefied that I am the one making the music? I should be!

Open up your eyes, your heart, your life. Ask for the light that enlightens every man to enlighten your internal eyes. Be blind not as the pharisees, on the inside, but to the world in its temptations. See with your heart instead. See with gratitude, thanksgiving, surprise and awe! I am amazed that this snow is STILL falling outside (second blizzard in a row), but I am also amazed that those trees haven't fallen on my apartment, since they have fallen on cars! I mean honestly, how can we desire the fire and passion of freedom-in-love if we do not practice loving things? It makes no sense that I will ascend the mountain of love if I have not learned how to walk on the rocky terrain and how to judge when my footing is sure or not. These skills come from the small day to day practices of gratitude in everything. I am grateful I am stuck inside! It has taken six days of this to place me in a state of mind where I can really reflect on who I am.

Do not fear the fire of love the Lord places within you. It will mean change - sometimes instantaneous and sometimes very slow - but do not try to control it! Allow him the room to move and work within you. We all have imaginations and can be creative and be full of hopes and dreams - but none of our own creations are going to be quite as full of love and freedom as his will for us. So let us get to climbing. As Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati said, "Verso l'alto!" (To the highest!)

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Before the Face of Christ

I have nothing of anything worth saying.

I recently read something for class concerning St. Bernard of Clairvaux as a mystic and writer. The discussion was on his humility when approaching writing, how he managed to be detached and uncredited while at the same time being a learned and talented writer.

It made me think more about the journey of being little. I remember too vividly a time when I wanted all the recognition in the world for any achievement, however small or insignificant. I believe we all need to grow through a time of affirmation as we're attempting to define who we are and to be sure that there is "good" about us. However, it was refreshingly freeing when I realized that it was good to let go of your own honor or praise and allow others, and the Lord, to take the credit. It's certainly less stressful to not seek the attention.

Yet, that is just one step in a very tall journey. Beyond a simple "not needing to be the center of attention," there comes the awareness and settling in of reality, which is just how small you truly are. "Small" is hardly the word... tiny, little, worthless, broken, needy, empty, pitiful, pathetic, etc... and yet these are only somewhat true, because the awareness of this reality is in full conjunction with an awareness of your wonder before God. It is thus an affirmation and a let down, a let down within an affirmation, an affirmation of the let down and yet the let down is for the sake of the affirmation. You are instantaneously able to know that you are nothing so that you can be handed the something that you are. If you are not able to be so emptied and so poured out, you will never have room to receive what the Lord would pour in.

This is easily summed up in Guadiem et Spes 22, Christ "fully reveals man to himself." Cliche? Some might think so. Simple? Too profound to mean anything? No. Not in the least. It is that Jesus is the perfection of what man is meant to be, the "whole puzzle" of our many little pieces. His person contains and reveals all we are called to become. The title to be given to this fullness is none other than "Child." Who is Jesus, if not Son? Before he is God he is Son of the Father. He is the Word. Jesus' identity before the Incarnation and after is still God in the fullness of Divinity, one and the same with the Father and the Spirit, three in one, the Blessed Trinity. It is always risky to attempt to chat about the Trinity and hope to not leave oneself in heresy, but that's my goal - no heresy! Here goes: So within this beautiful and awe-inspiring existence of God as Father, Son and Spirit, each is known and named according to their relation to the other. God the Father is not and cannot be God the Son, nor the Son the Spirit, etc... they are all God, one and the same, yet each their own relation which cannot be removed or changed. Therefore, as Christ is the Son, and his very identity bound to his relation to the Father, does it not then follow that if he is the fullness of perfection for what man is called to be that man is thus called to be Child? Yes! We are not "sons and daughters of God" only because it sounds nice and fluffy. We are truly made into new creations through the waters of Baptism, and we emerge as a child of God through the redeeming work of Christ.

One of my favorite images to pray with is the Scripture passage concerning the wineskins. It reads as follows:

"Go and learn the meaning of the words, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' I did not come to call the righteous but sinners." Then the disciples of John approached him and said, "Why do we and the Pharisees fast (much), but your disciples do not fast?" Jesus answered them, "Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. No one patches an old cloak with a piece of unshrunken cloth for its fullness pulls away from the cloak and the tear gets worse.  People do not put new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise the skins will burst, the wine spills out, and the skins are ruined. Rather, they pour new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved." Matt 9:13-17

So often I think we are ready to tell Jesus who we think we are... we're certainly attempting to be prepared to tell our friends, our family, the world etc... And so we must, because we know very well that if we do not present a picture for others to name, to know how to call us, they will assign us one themselves, and what is worse than being forced to create ourselves is being named by others! At least we are somewhat aware of ourselves - others will simply label as they see fit.

Yet, this is not the correct way at all! True, we must come to know ourselves. That is vital. But to know ourselves is NOT to decide who we are according to the standards we're presented with, as if at a buffet table that we are being shoved along in a line "here, pick if you are punk or classical, smart or fun, but hurry up before we give you meatloaf." Rather, to know ourselves is above all to allow ourselves to be given. Now, don't go crazy pious on me and think I mean you must go wash all the dishes, give all your favorite clothes away and periodically beat yourself when no one is around! Those things are certainly well and good (well, some of them), but those are meant to come from a heart that is full, not one that is empty. But when we are the ones defining ourselves, we are terrifyingly empty. And we will never be enough. We cannot have what is needed to serve and fulfill others on our own. We won't even have enough to serve or fulfill ourselves. The only way to find ourselves, to "be given," is to receive ourselves from Christ. It is to-be-given-as-a-gift-from Him! We are to set ourselves before him and say, "Show me reality. Who am I to you? Who am I before you? Who am I to be? Why do you love me? What is there within me that keeps you faithful to me when I am so unfaithful to you?"

This is never easy because these questions are dealing with the Truth on a highly personal and forward basis, and that is the Truth in person, Christ the Lord. We are asking to know ourselves. That inevitably means we must be ready to know that we are broken, hurting, insufficient, etc... Yet, he does not love us because he has promised and so therefore, he stands by his promise. No, that is far too human a way of understanding him. He is passionate! He sees into our souls and he is set on fire! He wishes to be near us, yearns to hold us in his arms, is crying out to draw us close and rock us to sleep. He wants to whisper to us all night long his love, and to teach us all day who he has made us to be. His answer, when we ask, will be "you are mine." More than anything else, that truth and that reality exists on the highest plain and it is there that he draws us to. There are many other parts of us to be worked out as we allow him to bring to our minds the failings we need to work on along with the good things we need to be joyful in, but in the end his words of "remain in me" will echo the longest. This is the resounding beat that turns St. Paul's "resounding gong or a clashing cymbal" into beautiful music - the thrumming of a heart that has your name for it's beat. Those syllables dictate the pace.

So this is the delight of one found empty, because he can write you anew every day. He can edit you and fill you in until your pages are full of verses you never expected you could write and gifts of yourself you didn't even know you had to offer to others. And this is the hope of the one who awaits the new wineskin. Clothed anew as a child of God, you are free to take up his yoke of love and find that all the work and service and sacrifice of your every day life is actually part of a glorious love song that is working on filling the world until it's over flow has the rocks themselves singing out. You have no limits when you haven't given yourself any! You can discover love that you had no idea existed, and what is more is that you can reveal that love to others who will promptly drop their jaws! "You aren't definable... you aren't meatloaf and you didn't even get into the buffet line! What is it that gives you such freedom?" Jesus has called every soul to this delight of smallness, where the heart is able to climb the highest mountains and swim the widest seas. On the practical level, we all know what it feels like when you have nothing to lose. You aren't afraid of anything. You are particularly dangerous. There is no restriction because it's all been wiped away. This energy or freedom taken into the love of God is the most transforming power imaginable. It is actually unimaginable, and yet real. You allow yourself to lay down all of your thoughts, hopes, fears, dreams, ideals, ponderings, troubles, loved ones, etc... and you give them to him. And you trust. And you wait. And in the silence you let him speak. And you accept those words that he offers you, no matter what, because they are Love itself.

This is how we discover who we are, how Christ reveals to us little by little the perfect image we were created to fill. This is what we hope to encounter daily when we seek the face of Christ.