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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The thing about abysses is...

Merriam-Webster says that the:

Definition of ABYSS

1 : the bottomless gulf, pit, or chaos of the old cosmogonies
2 a : an immeasurably deep gulf or great space b : intellectual or moral depths 

Meanwhile, says that:


1. a deep, immeasurable space, gulf, or cavity; vast chasm.
2. anything profound, unfathomable, or infinite: the abyss of time.
3. (in ancient cosmogony) 
a. the primal chaos before Creation.
b. the infernal regions; hell.
c. a subterranean ocean

So what is it, exactly, that an "abyss" is? A noun? A place? A symbol? A metaphor? 
How about "e. all of the above"?

I'll never forget the day I learned my friend Becca was attempting to make it to another friend's home (one of my favorite places in the world, I might add), and tragically took one turn too early, and ended up driving into the "dark abyss." I empathized with her mistake, because in the early days of going to Kate's house, I too found myself taken in by the "dark abyss." 

Now, in this case, the abyss can be a noun, because it is a title, but it is more a place (which is a noun, I know the definition of a noun, but I mean a geographical and topographical and tangible and intangible thing when I say "place," which requires more definition than simply a name). The "dark abyss" is a road that does NOT lead to Kate's house, but rather, down a long windy road that is poorly lit and suddenly brings to mind the story of Ichabod Crane. It is a place that one ought not to go, and does not wish to go, and yet, somehow, is there. 

Now what about figurative or metaphorical "abysses"? We all have them. The "dark hole" from which we do not wish to resurface when everything has been going absolutely wrong for some time. The "depths of despair" which we prefer to plummet into rather than fight against the strong downward current. The "endless road, stretching on and on in front of us, with no end in sight" which we seem to find just a wee bit more comfortable than the not-so-endless-road-that-doesn't-really-stretch-on-and-on-forever-and-ever-and-ever-but-unfortunately-does-have-an-end-which-requires-more-work-than-the-lame-non-ending-road. 

Whether those abysses for us are personal hurts which we cannot let go of, attachments to unhealthy activities or harmful things which wear us down or enslave us, fears or anxieties which hold us captive or keep us from true freedom, or any other lie that feeds on us and makes us into prey, we all face them. The question is, what then?

Fortunately, abysses don't have to be only negative things. It isn't only infinite regress that comes to mind. On the contrary, infinite goodness also shines forth. Moreover, an abyss of good might very well be the most authentic abyss there is. Evil, with all of its intricacies, manipulations, traps and trickery, seems terribly dull after close evaluation. The same cycles go over and over again, the same patterns wearily displayed. For all of its seeming greatness, evil tends to be stopped short. This is because it exists below or within the power of God. It is of creatures, even if those creatures are intangible or mysterious beings (here implying angels/demons). Likewise, sin and evil enter the world in and through the action of man, and since man is a limited being, evil is in some way limited as well. 

On the other hand, goodness is always surprising us, isn't it? When someone acts out in some evil or aggression, we are certainly horrified, saddened, upset, etc... but we are not necessarily shocked. When someone forgives an aggressor who, in justice, deserves punishment and reproach, we are amazed. This is because goodness (while certainly dwelling within us and being of us and us being of it, for we are created in love in the image and likeness of God) is of God. Goodness is a quality, and more than a quality, of God. Goodness is God's being, in so many ways. He is Love. He is gift. So goodness takes its infinite and limitless and boundless and eternal and abysmal nature from God! 

This is a quote from an Anglican spirituality book, but I think he hits the mark: 
"I am obliged to believe in an abyss of love which is deeper than the abyss of death: I dare not lose faith in that love. I sink into death, eternal death, if I do. I must feel that this love is compassing the universe. More about it I cannot know. I leave myself and all to him."

St. Margaret Mary Alacoque said so beautifully:
“This divine heart is an abyss filled with all blessings, and into the poor should submerge all their needs. It is an abyss of joy in which all of us can immerse our sorrows. It is an abyss of lowliness to counteract our foolishness, an abyss of mercy for the wretched, an abyss of love to meet our every need.”

I don't think I need to explain myself any further. We are going to come upon the "wrong-turn-roads" that lead us nowhere fast (in this case, "nowhere" is a place). We are most certainly privy to turning down those dark roads at times (dare I say, willfully!? or even, obstinately!?), and we are going to suffer the consequences of allowing sin to rule us, rather than love. 

Yet, at the end of the day, we choose our master. It is human nature to lose ourselves in things. We are creatures of passions, of obedience, of commitment, of generosity, and of power. We cannot survive in halfway life. We need, we year, we desire to give ourselves over, to be lost to someone else. The Lord has beautifully bestowed a gift of sensing in our hearts that stirs at the presence of what, and Whom, we wish to serve (and that goes for husbands, wives, priests and sisters as well as ultimately the Lord). We will know, we do know, when we are near abysses. It's just natural. We also know whether those abysses are leading to death or life. 

The triumphant abyss is the one which is a fiery furnace, that burns up all that is not good, and leaves us new and unblemished. 

The thing about abysses is, they can be infinitely good, or finitely bad. We have to decide where we fall.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

No Greater Love

I had one of those evenings yesterday, when you think you know the plan, and then you discover that life had other ideas. Fortunately for me, this unplanned-plan turned out to be something very good.

My sister and I occassionally go to adoration together at a nearby chapel. Last night we ended up arriving just as our Lord was being moved from the adoration chapel into the church. There was a group who had scheduled a "Holy Half an Hour" and so those who were praying in the chapel were invited to go into the church to continue.

Benediction began as usual and I was under the impression I would be able to continue in silent prayer. However, what happened instead was a nice homily from a visiting priest on St. Maria Goretti and what it means to live our faith with heroism, and how important it is that we avoid sin at all costs.

One thought settled inside of me while I was listening to his encouragement, and I felt it needed to be shared. It went something like this:

Do you love yourself?

No, really. Think about the question.

Have you tried to love yourself?

I mean really love. Not just bear with, or accept, or put up with, or half-heartedly like from time to time...



How has that worked for you?

Have you found yourself satisfied by the love you can give yourself?

Have you felt fulfilled?

Father was relating words from 1950 when St. Maria Goretti was canonized (I could not find the original text), and said something like, "God is the greatest lover you could ever know."
Whether in my head or by Father's words I do not recall, but what followed was, "His love is the only love that will ever satisfy."
Of course, Father cited St. Augustine's famous line, "Our hearts were made for you, O Lord, and they are restless until they rest in you."

Yet, there is something to be said for this beyond the "obvious," if it can be called obvious. We are not only yearning for God, or restless for him.

We are seeking to fulfill what we simply cannot fill.

Whether we love ourselves or not (and hopefully you do love yourself to some degree), the love we offer ourselves is simply not adequate. This is why selfishness can be irrational, and why self-centeredness can cause us confusion, doubt, anxiety, frustration and sadness.

It would seem logical to say that you recognize a need (in this case, a fulfillment of self), and you recognize an answer or fulfillment for that need (in this case, love), and you seek to place what will fulfill the need where that need is. It is a simple step by step process. We do this to turn on the computer. Machine is off. There is a power button. We turn on the power and the machine is on. It seems so simple.

Yet, what we forget, or perhaps never know, is that what we recognize as an answer or fulfillment is not actually the proper answer or fulfillment. It is something we do as children. Have  you ever watched a small child struggle to get the shapes of the little blocks into the ball or into the board that has the matching holes for those shapes? They keep on trying to push the star through the square, or the crescent through the circle. It doesn't work, but they see two simple points: that the task is to fill in the empty space. They just are not able to realize that the space requires more than just matter to fill it, it has a shape, and that shape has a meaning.

My friends, I am not a fan of the "God-shaped-hole" in us, so please don't sing that to yourself right now. The analogy is deeper than that, much deeper. We are not all carbon copies of one another who simply need to fit in the "ten minutes of prayer" card or the "church on Sunday" block to make things work. We do not function like machines. We are people. We are human. We are each a marvelous creation, so similar to those around us and yet a completely unique individual. Perhaps this is exactly why we seem to think that only we could love ourselves properly. Yet, this is so childish.

I only know my own heart as intimately as I dare to write here, so I will speak from it alone. I know that those times when I do everything I can to care for myself, make time for me, pamper just a bit, find solace in a treat or in some relaxing activity, I may relax. I may smile. I may feel less tired. I am not fulfilled. I am not happy. I am not happy in the way I intended myself to be after such efforts. I do not have the same joyful rush of laughter and peace that I do when I am spending my energies in other ways.

The irony of the perfect fulfillment of love being a generous gift from a lover we never see is that the best way to take up that gift and give it room to grow and flourish within us is to give of ourselves. Yes, it works. I promise. Haiti, for example, is one of those experiences that dramatizes this truth so well. You go and spend every day trying to make kids laugh, help build things, help clean things, basically just do anything you can to be at the service of those who are already giving their lives in service to those people... and you are happy. Sure, times can be hard. Yet, the love that moves through you to those little, darling faces makes some space inside of you and remains there, as a source of strength and fortitude while you serve.

This is what it comes down to: self-love is a good thing. You need to be grateful for life, and specifically for your life. However, self-love, when taken in the wrong context or to an extent that is not proper, can also be a painful and frustrating thing. ONLY the love of the Lord will be able to fill in and expand within every crevice and hole, every nook and cranny, every lofty ceiling and deep well that exists within your heart. Only that love has the light that can reveal mysteries to you of your own heart. Only that love has the strenth to continue to grow and build and sustain even when the world draws you to your last straw. Only that love has eyes to see into your past and your future and to understand you in all of your intricacies in the present. Only that love will be there tomorrow, when you wake up, and tomorrow, in the afternoon, when you are itching to get out of work. Only that love will be there in ten years, still flourishing, still overwhelming, still rejoicing.

Do you love yourself?

If you do, you will allow yourself to be loved by one who will always love you more than you could possibly have imagined...

This book is a wonderful read if you are interested in considering the Love of God for man more thoroughly: The Love that Satisfies, and this song by Watermark is worth a listen: Captivate Us.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Hold it!

Sometimes the first thing I want to do is close my eyes. Turn off my ears. Hold very still. Listen, but with my other senses. My skin. My heart. The blood pumping in my ears.

What do I learn? What discoveries are made?

There seems to me a rather wide gap between what is selfish and what is self-aware. The bridge that is built between these two needs to be kept by a wise gatekeeper. Yet, I find that it is sometimes much harder to pass to Mnt. Self-Aware than it is to laze on Selfish Island.

There is a bit of wisdom tucked away in the need to be aware of oneself, wisdom that opens some rather challenging doors of self-gift.

It is often remarked upon that the small things within your closest friends or family members that irritate you or draw your disdain are often the very things within yourself that need to be amended. We don't always (or even often) appreciate the truth of our own weaknesses or failures flung in our faces. It is not very consoling to be so reminded of the things we must struggle with.

Yet, how can we be a "one-who-gives," when we are not a "one-who-knows"? You cannot give what you do not have, and you cannot adequately give what you do not know you have.

Let me be more practical for a moment; if I want to be a good soccer player, I must first practice many hours and train so that I know I have the skills to offer to my team or future team. If I wish to sing I must train and stretch myself so that I know what skills I bring to a song. If I want to be a friend, I need to know myself in order to know my own opinions, thoughts, dreams, desires, etc... which I can than offer to my friend.

In essence, we cannot reasonably approach relationship with others if we do not first have an awareness, or a relationship, with ourselves. How can I relate to another if it is not first from myself? Likewise, how could I receive the gift of another (be that a kind word, some good advice, a listening ear, or any other shared experience with a friend) if I do not understand how to receive it, or where to apply it?

I suppose this seems funny, or at least obvious. Yet, I find that our culture is an open invitation to distraction. I have been known from time to time to say that I have ADD tendencies, but I know that is not true. What I do know is that many people struggle to be "present" to day to day tasks, to coworkers, friends, family, shopping, driving, etc... because we do not have the experience of practicing stillness. We do not have endless hours of quiet, or even one hour. We do not have days without entertainment, or even moments. We do not have to wait very long for anything, and when we do, we are either impatient or distracted.

Sometimes I like to imagine what it must have been like for those first American pioneers who settled a bit further west into the country. No electricity, just oil lamps and fire wood. In the winters, especially in the areas where heavy snows are, there must have been little to no venturing out, especially for women and children. A house the size of a small room, with two, three, four, five, or more people sitting inside. For months. Without being able to leave. Can you even stand the feeling that is creeping over you thinking about that? I think I would be crazy in the first few days!

Yet, for whatever struggles and failures and pains that type of living must have been, those who endured it most certainly obtained certain virtues we, as a culture, do not value or posses. For whatever the suffering, those who lived in such simplistic ways certainly had the strength of mind to hold their attention for long periods of time. I can only imagine that they were experts in various skills and trades, for all the time they would have devoted to practice and improvement.

I am not trying to advocate for cutting off water supplies and trying to recreate the 1800s, but I am admiring what I know I need to learn from them.

It is a skill that I find most needed when in prayer, when communication is at it's "least explicit" or at least not the typical form of conversing. I do not get phone calls or skype messages or facebook inboxes or texts from the Lord. I have to find somewhere quiet, peaceful, and secluded when I want to speak with Him. I have to still my mind from it's 6,000 mile and hour runs. I have to breathe. I have to close my eyes to the craziness of life around me and turn off my ears. I have to come to myself, come to know who I am, and I have to be honest with that knowledge before the Lord.

One of the reasons I believe so firmly that this type of stillness needs to be practiced more and not given up or forgotten is because there is so much we still need to discover about ourselves! I never leave a time of prayer and peaceful communication with the Lord and am not surprised by some level of knowledge or insight or confidence in myself that I did not know before. Blessed Pope John Paul II wrote in Gaudium et Spes, "Christ...fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear...[and] that man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself" (22-24). 

This is the integral and immediate point: that when we enter a certain stillness and allow ourselves to be aware, we come to know both the Lord and ourselves much more certainly. Likewise, this knowledge gained enables us to simultaneously love the Lord, our neighbor and ourselves more fully. It is always easier to be patient and sincere with a friend when we know someone else was just patient and sincere with us. It is also always easier to forgive a friend or make great efforts to help a friend when one has done the same for us. And someone has done the same for us, and much more (that is, Jesus Christ).

So if you find that in the mornings you cannot keep your head on straight long enough to remember to pack your lunch before you rush to the car, or you cannot recall to get quarters for doing your laundry because of the laundry list of things you have to do in one day, chill. Stop. Hold it. Relax and breathe. Say a "Hail Mary," or try to imagine the Cross. Picture your idea of heaven. Best of all, find a chapel with Eucharistic Adoration. Stop for ten minutes and just be with Him. Stop for an hour and really pray. Whatever efforts you make, let them be for the stillness. 

When we are bearers of peace in our hearts, the peace that only Jesus gives, we will be amazed at what we learn. We will discover the strength to address our weaknesses that we find so unattractive and to work on them. We will discover the determination to improve what things we find lacking in ourselves. We will discover the patience to endure things which are hard or sorrowful or trying. We will find that others recognize in us a sense of relief and comfort. We will be like miniature safe havens for the very weary in our world. We will be places of peace for them because we will know Who is our peace and where our peaces comes from. We will be able to give what we have, and know what we have to offer. 

The cliche "take time to smell the roses" is just so true. Take time to calm down, and look around. Take time to look around inside yourself. Take time to invite the Holy Spirit to illuminate your heart. Breathe in deeply the fragrance of the Love of God, which is potent and stirring. Do not let the culture of progress, deadlines, noise and distraction leave you alone and unsure of your own self because there was no time for that. Make time for that. Self-reflection leads to self-awareness, and self-awareness means that you can spend more time in the heights and less time trying to make it across that shaky bridge that can lead to selfishness.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Come to me, all you who are burdened...

"Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for your selves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light." -Matt. 11:28-30

I have heard a number of interpretations of this Gospel passage in the past week due to it's repetition in the liturgical calendar as the selected Gospel reading for mass. I do not wish to pass on to you those interpretations, but something that has been growing in my mind and was only reassured and confirmed by these consoling words of Christ's.

There is another Scripture passage that instantly leaps into my mind, 1 John 5:2-5:
"In this way we know that we love the children of God when we love God and obey his commandments.
For the love of God is this, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whoever is begotten by God conquers the world. And the victory that conquers the world is our faith. Who (indeed) is the victor over the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?" (emphasis added)

What strikes me is that the Lord gives commands and asks efforts that literally seem to be impossible at times. "So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect," Matt. 5:48.
Right, Lord, no problem. Perfect, like God... Love my neighbor and all of that. How often do we feel that way? It nearly makes you laugh, because you have to know how very short you are going to fall of that goal. Yet, Jesus does not leave us on our own with these commands.

St. Paul tells us, "For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God. Consider how he endured such opposition from sinners, in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood." Heb. 12:2-4

This is not a task or requirement that Christ gives without first leading the way.

Jesus himself says, "Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me. In my Father's house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be. Where (I) am going you know the way." John 14:1-4

 The faith that is not burdensome for us as children of God is the faith that Christ takes our hands and walks with us on a path he knows well. Even when we cannot see, or cannot hear, or do not have the heart to press on, he guides us, he protects us, and if necessary, he carries us.
The other recounting of the Beatitudes ends with Jesus' words: "Be merciful, just as (also) your Father is merciful," Luke 6:36.

Perhaps this is the key to understanding how, in faith, we are to strive to be "perfect." God is love, and his love is mercy. To be like him, first and foremost we are to be charitable. The life of the Holy Spirit within us is meant to be this indwelling and filling up of charity that will not stay still. We are to be motivated, moved by, this charity so that it flows freely from us. And so praise should be ever on our lips, and love ever in our hearts.

Of course that is not the way we live each day, or at least, certainly not all the time. Yet, this is why St. Paul tells us we are to continue to struggle against sin. Further in chapter 12 of Hebrews he says, "So strengthen your drooping hands and your weak knees. Make straight paths for your feet, that what is lame may not be dislocated but healed," (12-13). 

To learn to be merciful, to love God and neighbor in truth and charity, we must understand that the process of loving begins first within ourselves before it can move out towards others. It is first a gift given to us, and then a gift we give. Before we can show mercy to others, or even to ourselves, we must first know the mercy we have received and are receiving from the Lord. We must know that we need healed.

This requires humility on our parts, a humility that is unafraid. We must know that the more we work, the harder we strive, the longer we fight, the more our weaknesses will come before us. Yes, our weaknesses, not our strengths. The life of faith is similar to a muscle, needing to be stretched and pushed beyond its limits bit by bit, until it develops enough strength to move further. Yet, this isn't a muscle that grows quickly, at least not for most. It takes time, and when we relax for a while and stop resisting, it loses ground or grows slack.

Therefore, we must not lose our zeal, and we cannot accept mediocre faith. If we are facing dry periods or great temptations or interior struggles or deep wounds, these are the weaknesses that are to be our avenues for greater mercy and love. We become sensitive to all that the Lord has seen in us, and all of the times we have rejected his love. We realize how stupid and selfish, how tiresome we are. We see how we burden others unnecessarily and weigh them down with our weakness and sin. We become aware of the situations that increase our temptations and lessen our faith. In light of that, we seek mercy for ourselves.

Understanding that God's love is so infinite, so unconditional, we go begging to be held. No, not just pet on the head and acknowledged, we want to be held. We want to be caught up in his arms, kissed and tickled, smiled at and understood. We want to be so imbued with his mercy that forgets sins, that we let go of them ourselves. We want to be healed, and made new. We know, in all honesty, that we may make those same mistakes again, and perhaps very soon. Yet, we also know in all honesty that we love God more, and desire his commands more, and believe in the sacrifice and cross of Christ more.

It is always going to be a weird struggle and a strange contradiction, how we love and yet fail to love. Yet, look at us in our humanity. It is exactly how we relate to others; exactly how we love those closest to us. We love our families, our parents, our sisters and brothers, our husbands or wives, or boyfriends or girlfriends, our children, our dearest friends... yet, we let them down. We find them irritating. We irritate them. We pick fights and hold on to petty issues. We fail to understand their hurts, fail to see into their hearts and know the pains that trouble them. We fail to force ourselves past our own injuries of the day to look into their hearts and help them through theirs. This is the journey I referred to at the beginning. Christ is here, when we cannot see what we need to see, or hear what they need us to hear. Christ is here, when we just can't get it right, and those we love suffer because of it. This is the weakness that he can heal, that he can make strong.

So much of the liturgy of late has spoken of faith in Christ, and how great our faith is. If we know how great our burdens are, we must know, far more than that, how great Christ's love is. His power is unlimited. His mercy is unbounded. His readiness to give us what we need is unhindered. We need to learn the humility to acknowledge our failings and injuries, and the courage and confidence in faith to seek forgiveness and grace.

Frequent the Sacrament of Confession. Try every two weeks, or every week. It will amaze you, how much you learn of your failings. It will also amaze you, how much you learn of mercy. It is hard to hold back forgiveness from another, no matter what they have done to you, when your own apology and receipt of mercy is fresh in your mind.