Tuesday, August 30, 2011

My Heart Like A Fire

Jeremiah's Complaint:  "O Lord, you duped me, and I was deceived; you overpowered me and prevailed. I am ridiculed all day long; everyone mocks me. Whenever I speak, I cry out, proclaiming violence and destruction. So the word of the Lord has brought me insult and reproach all day long. But if I say, 'I will not mention Him or speak any more in His name', His word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot." [Jeremiah 20: 7-9]

When I was about 3, my parents had me baptized as a Christian. My family had deep suspicions of  religion and looked down on people of faith. But they brought me to this church as a place to meet the Right People. To them, it was a sort of Spiritual Charm School. A place to learn right from wrong. They did not necessarily take me to church for the right reasons, but it planted the seed. I give them credit for that.

When I was in grade school, my grandmother would mind my brother and me from time to time. Unbeknownst to my mother, her mother insisted that we kneel at our beds every night and recite the Lord's Prayer. Years later, when I was an adult, I recounted this memory to my mother. She was aghast.

When I was 13, I was confirmed and received my First Communion, all on the same day. This is how it was done in my church in those days. It was an overwhelmingly special day for me.

Then, when I was 14, my grandmother died suddenly, tragically. Just as abruptly, we stopped going to church. If I asked to go, I was told, 'We don't do that any longer.' I had no way to get to our church, which was clear across town. So reluctantly, I quit church. I had no choice.

A girl of 14 is not a child, but still, in my child's logic, I had a perplexed view of faith. I thought that if your family takes church away, and if church is a place where you learn your faith, then my mother was essentially taking my faith away.

After my grandmother died, I wanted so badly to ask to speak to a priest, because I had so many questions about death and the afterlife. But I did not dare ask. I knew that I would be shushed and told to forget about it.

I learned to push my faith deep inside me. It became like a tiny flame. It was still there, but it was invisible. This is how I protected my faith from the onslaught of the Unbelievers.

If my mother said something about America and the Almighty Dollar, I whispered to myself, "You mean 'Almighty God.' " I did not dare speak The Lord's name or praise Him aloud. But silently, I was desperately trying to neutralize my mother's words, so they would have no power over me.

If I suggested to my family that we give to charity, I was mocked for being too naive and idealistic. I was told, 'Oh, no! You do not give to charity! You keep your money for yourself!'

When I got out of university, I met the man who would become my husband.  In retrospect, I find no better proof of God's sense of humor than the fact that my husband is Catholic. Except that it wasn't funny at the time; in fact, my family was beside themselves. Planning my wedding was a series of skirmishes over the number in the bridal party, the color of the bridesmaid's dresses, the date and time of the ceremony etc. I quickly understood that the real battle was not over the wedding, it was over the marriage.

I did stand up to my parents and marry this wonderful man. I even had a church wedding, before God, and before all my friends and extended family. But then, my parents refused to stand in the receiving line at the reception.

This was a Religious War of sorts and apparently, I was not winning. After I got married, my husband gave me a beautiful gold cross necklace as a gift. At gatherings with my family, I took to wearing the cross under my shirt collar. I could not face their backtalk, their dirty looks.

A few years ago, my father died suddenly. My mother, who had become elderly and in failing health, came to live near me and my family. It was then that God called me to convert. That was it, I had had it with this Religious War! I had even had it with God's so-called sense of humor. I despaired, 'God, HOW can you ask me to convert now?!' What He was asking was not funny, it was impossible.

Finally, I  dipped my toe into the conversion process. I began meditating, praying and studying books. But when my mother came over, I hid the books and my Bible upstairs where she did not go.

The point is, God waited very patiently for a long time for me. He did not give up! He gave me a giant hint in sending my dear husband into my life. I still tried to ignore that tiny flame of faith.

But God did go go away. His calls only became more insistent. A wise advisor told me, "You can run but you cannot hide." This advice was both scary and thrilling. His words reminded me of Psalm 139: "Lord, you have probed me, you know me: you know when I sit and stand; you understand my thoughts from afar. . . Behind and before, you encircle me and rest your hand upon me. Where can I hide from your spirit? From your presence, where can I flee?"

I had become like Jeremiah. I was tired of pretending that my faith did not matter to me. I could not hold it in any longer. My tiny faith was growing inside me and, in my burning heart, I longed for God. The turning point came when I was made to see that my faith was not given to me by going to church, or even by what my mother did or did not teach me. It was given to me by God. And it was mine to keep!

Such a precious gift! I cried real tears, of relief, of great joy! God does not want us to lose that faith that He has given us. Psalm 139 goes on to say, "If I ascend to the heavens, You are there. If I fly with the wings of dawn. . . even there Your hand will guide me, Your right hand holds me fast."

He is there if we suffer snubs from our family, overhear ignorant comments from mere acquaintances and even fall victim to extensive persecution. It is not easy to hold onto our faith, to nurture it, to encourage that flame inside us to grow, or to live our faith freely and openly.

Jesus tells us in Matthew 16: 24 to take up our cross and to follow Him. I still have moments of great doubt and even fear over this path. But God's gift of my faith is mine to keep! And at those times that I feel afraid, I pray that God will guide me and hold me in His arms.

God, I love You with my  whole heart! Let my desire to be closer to You deepen my faith and trust in You.

(c) The Spiritual Devotional 2011. All Rights Reserved.


Monday, August 22, 2011

Who Are You?

August 21

"Jesus asked his disciples, 'Who do  you say I am?' Simon Peter answered, 'You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.' Jesus replied, ' Blessed are you, Simon. . . for this was not revealed to you by man but by my Father in heaven. . . .I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.' Then he warned his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ." [Matthew 16: 13-19].

This Reading reminds me of my own conversion. I was a fairly unlikely candidate, despite my 
part- Irish heritage. My parents had deep suspicions of organized religion in general, and genuine dislike of Catholics in particular. Out of a misplaced respect for my parents, I could not even contemplate choosing a church as an adult, certainly not a Catholic one.

Ironically, I married a Catholic. Then, I proceeded to faithfully attend Catholic Mass with my husband.  Every Sunday, I sat on my hands when it was time to go up for the Eucharist. Perhaps some observers thought I was a perpetual visitor to the church. Others may have thought that I was some sort of awful sinner.  The truth was, I was afraid.

If you look at this story so far, you undoubtedly see a young woman who is hopelessly confused about who she is. I was indoctrinated against religion and Catholicism; but then, I married a Catholic man, and attended church weekly for Mass, where I refused to participate.

What was I afraid of? I was afraid to reflect deeply and discover who I really was. I had received so many anti-Christian messages, that I was afraid to admit that I might actually be one!

After many years of this fence-sitting, I told my Irish cousin that I was toying with converting. Her response floored me! She said, "Well, I think you know who you really are!" This opened a flood gate of tears for me. It was as if God saw me, finally, for who I really am.

After that, I could not enter my church without silent tears flowing like a river down my face. All of my layers of defenses, my masks and  personas melted away in the presence of God. If I did not know who I was, surely He did!  My tears were tears of relief that I did not have to pretend any longer. And, in the end, I began to recognize that they were also tears of joy! After all those years of confusion, I could finally begin the process of figuring out who I really was.

But for the longest time, I did not want anyone to know that I was preparing to convert. At the time, my mother was still alive and every time she came over, I hid my Bible and catechism books upstairs.  I did not want her anti-Catholic litanies to steer me off course or deter me from my goal. I also wanted more time to become more sure of my conversion and more secure in who I really was.

I still sometimes wonder why Jesus warned his disciples not to tell anyone that He was the Christ.  I highly doubt that He was afraid, or did not know who He really was. But just maybe, He needed the time and the space, without undue interference, to become fully developed and to fully grasp his identity in His own mind. No doubt, He also wanted his disciples to slowly comprehend who He was, at their own pace, before they were to tell the world. There was danger, real danger of persecution and there was no need to tell everyone, until Jesus had solidified His own ministry.

It is said that we all convert, a little at a time, over our whole lives. This means that day by day, we become closer to God. And closer to being who God meant us to be all along. This is what Jesus had to do, even as the Messiah. This is what I need to be brave enough to do for myself -- to examine what is really in my heart, and to become fully the Self that God discerned in me, before I was even born.

Who are YOU in Christ?

God, I pray that, in becoming closer to You, I perceive Your plan for me. I pray that I become fully who you meant me to be.

(c) The Spiritual Devotional 2011. All Rights Reserved.

A Big Enough Love

" A Canaanite woman came to Jesus, crying out, 'Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly. . . .'  Jesus answered, ' I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.' The woman came and knelt before him, 'Lord, help me!', she said. He replied, 'It is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs.' 'Yes, Lord', she said, ' but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table.' Then Jesus answered, 'Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.' And her daughter was healed from that very hour." [Matthew 15: 21- 28]

There are only a few stories in the Bible that I have felt must be a terrible mistake. This is one of them. HOW, I ask, can Jesus be so callous to a woman who is so obviously in distress over her daughter-- just because this woman is from the "wrong tribe"!  I thought Jesus was so holy! I thought He was purely divine! I thought He was perfect!

How could Jesus have compared this woman to a lowly creature like a dog? And how could this woman be forced to argue with Jesus, even stooping to accept the designation of "dog" so that she may beg for a few scraps from Jesus' table?

I have been re-reading this Scripture, so I can understand, and try to accept, a Jesus so dismissive, so biased, even so angry. As I was reading these verses, I began to feel a sens of outrage.

Then it hit me. Yes, Jesus is divine but he is also human. He errs initially with this woman. Then he comes to see that this woman has such faith in Him and in His healing love, that He can reach out to her and even heal her daughter.

In some ways, this story of Jesus saves me too. This human side of Jesus saves me from entirely hating myself for the times that I have judged others for superficial reasons.

Sadly, it is only too human for us to judge others harshly. The question is, will I allow this bias to become my attitude forever? Will I simply shrug at my humanness and hate myself for this? Or can I learn and grow in love, as Jesus did? Can I remain on watch against this tendency to judge? Can I change like Jesus did?

Recently, I was on holiday in a beach town of approximately 400 residents. There is one Catholic church there, and that is where I attend Mass when I am on vacation. The week of this Reading, there were people from all over the world celebrating Mass together-- families from Canada, the United States, Asia, the Middle East. The irony was not lost on me.

I looked around me, and I heard all of our voices blended together in reciting the Our Father and in singing the hymns. There were low voices, high voices, mens' and womens' voices, even off-key voices. But somehow, all of our voices became one and echoed beautifully against the wooden rafters of the tiny church. We became one in Christ.

And I thought, if Jesus' love was big enough to engage, to welcome and to heal the woman and her daughter from Canaan, why can't my love be big enough too?

God, help me to see all of your children, the world over, as Your children, and as my brothers and sisters.

Love to All!

(c) The Spiritual Devotional 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Our Blessed Mother

August 15/ The Feast of the Assumption of The Blessed Virgin Mary.

" From this day, all generations will call me blessed." [Luke 1: 39]

The Feast of the Asssumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary marks the day that the Blessed Virgin Mary rose, body and soul, to Heaven. To that point, the only other person who had risen, body and soul to Heaven, was Jesus.

The celebration of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin shows the remarkable degree to which Catholics revere Mary.

But why?

If you ask many Catholics about their fascination with Mary, you will get many answers. Some will undoubtedly speak of praying the Hail Mary. In particular, many older women will speak of how close they feel to Mary, and to God, when praying the Rosary.

I have always admired how easily Catholics recite the Hail Mary. It is a short prayer but not so easy to learn. The words are precise, but do not necessarily flow readily. Before I converted, a family member gave me a book of Catholic prayers. I immediately turned to the Hail Mary. Given that I later converted, the fact that this relative gave me a Catholic prayer book seemed prophetic.

As I was converting, my young son helped me to memorize this prayer honoring the mother of Jesus, who is the Blessed Mother of us all. I began to understand better how Mary is an integral part of the fabric of our faith.

But when I think of Mary, I think of a special moment that occurred several years ago. My husband and I waited 15 years to become parents. At a certain point, we had begun sadly accepting that we might never become parents. Then, one night I had a vivid dream.

I dreamed that I was holding a baby. I could feel the softness of the baby's skin against me. The baby's hair was fine and silky. I could even feel the baby's breath, and the weight of the baby against my hip.

When I awoke, I was shocked that there was no baby. It had all been a dream! Right away, I shook my husband awake. I told him that our baby "was coming", that we would not remain childless. My husband protested, "But it's just a dream! How do you know?" I replied, "I just know!"

And one month later, we received the news that we would indeed be parents. After our baby was born, I was stunned to see how, as our baby grew, he came to resemble the baby in the dream.

Many asked me how I could possibly have waited so long for the motherhood that I so desperately desired?  I replied, "Because I had faith!"

How will YOU let Mary into your life?

God, with you, nothing is impossible. I pray that, like Mary, I may have faith and believe.

(c) The Spiritual Devotional 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Walking On Water

" During the fourth watch of the night, Jesus went out to the disciples, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. "It's a ghost", they said, and cried out in fear. But Jesus immediately said to them, 'Take courage! It is I. Do not be afraid.'  'Lord, if it's you,' Peter replied, 'tell me to come to you on the water.' 'Come,' He said.
Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and beginning to sink, cried out, 'Lord, save me!' Immediately, Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. 'You of little faith,' he said, 'why do you doubt?' [Matthew 14: 25-31].

I was given this Scripture to read during my conversion to Catholicism. The exercise was to meditate upon the image of Jesus reaching his hand out to me and saying, "Come".

I dutifully went to meditate and pray in the chapel. I closed my eyes tight and tried with all my might to visualize Jesus in his flowing robes, with his kind eyes and outstretched hand, beckoning me. All I could retrieve was the outline of his hair and robes. There was no face! Even the outline of Jesus seemed hazy and far away.

I tried again over successive days, each time trying to pray differently, trying to squeeze my eyes tighter, or trying to stare at the flame of the perpetual candle, willing Jesus to find me.

Nothing worked.  What was I doing wrong?

I had decided to convert at a time in my life when it seemed everything was falling apart. My father had died abruptly, leaving me in charge of my increasingly frail mother. My best friend had been diagnosed with cancer and was losing the battle. Painful memories of my childhood were coming back. I seemed to need Jesus more than ever. Yet, I could not seem to "will" him into my line of sight.

Despite all the painful and difficult things I had experienced while growing up, against all odds, I had graduated with honors, landed a great job, gotten married, become a mother. Given my dysfunctional family, and my childhood of neglect and rejection, I had "walked on water". I had achieved miraculous things, and they were things that one could not have expected from me, given my history. But I had never given myself the time or the luxury to reflect or to pray. I was too busy doing. I was spending all my energy surviving.

After some time during my conversion, I realized why I could not see Jesus. . . . I was figuratively "looking down". Yes, I had "walked on water", accomplishing the impossible. But the minute I focused on all the obstacles I had faced, when I felt fully the wind and the waves surrounding me, I began to sink!

I needed Jesus, because I was in a thick storm. I was overwhelmed by what I was going through at the time, and by all I had gone through up to that point! The past and the current storms were whirling around me, so that all I could see and feel was the pain and the fear.

Before my conversion, I had neither self-awareness nor a faith life. In short, I was nowhere and sinking fast.

How many times have you collapsed emotionally only AFTER you have accomplished the seemingly impossible? Somehow adrenaline helped you to practically glide your way through a  frightening storm. But when you pause and have time to think, it is only then that the weight of what you have faced causes you to sink. Probably, Jesus was with you all along, but you were too busy conducting triage at the time to notice.

Some would say that proves exactly the danger of "thinking too hard".   Believe me, I have been accused of that plenty of times! People think that if you "dwell on the negative",  that guarantees that you will sink. Typical advice from these well-meaning people is to "do" but not to think too hard. 

Actually, the opposite is true:  I spent most of my life frantically trying to survive, but never reflecting upon what I was fighting. If you are not aware of the storms in your life, you will never fully understand what you face. To battle your enemies, you need to discover who or what they are. To ignore the storms in your life or the evils in the world is to be dangerously naive.

In my young life, I was not aware of my enemies-- of my "storms". I simply bullied my way through life and wondered why I was so miserable-- so afraid, so overwhelmed, so full of doubt. I did not even know enough to identify my obstacles OR to pray about them!

Think of Elijah from this week's second reading. After doing the utmost for God and finding himself a target of  the Israelites, he runs for his life. He hides his face in his cloak and cowers in a cave. The Lord tells him that "the Lord will be passing by". Elijah first sees a strong, heavy wind, then an earthquake, then a fire. But he discerns that the Lord is not in any of those things. You see, the Lord does not bring wind, earthquake or fire. Nor is the Lord IN these things.

Nor does  it work to run for one's life, hide in a cave or pull one's cloak up over one's face.Sooner or later, the winds,  earthquakes and fires of life find us. This reading goes on to say that after the fire came a gentle whisper. THAT is where God -- and Jesus-- are to be found!

During my conversion, I began to reflect and to pray. I began to dwell on the crises and storms that had swamped me my entire life. As I absorbed the impact and true meaning of these trials, I began to sink!

Gradually, I came to see that I needed Jesus more than ever! I finally understood that, as I became more aware of what was threatening me, I needed to deepen my Faith. It was only when I realized that I was not alone, when I reached for the outstretched hand of Jesus, that I was lifted up, that I was saved!

Ignoring the storms in my life would not banish them from my sight. Simply staying positive would not prevent any storms from coming. But if I am aware of the trials I face and if, through Faith, I trust Jesus' aid, I will weather any storms that come my way.

And finding God and Jesus comes from that gentle whisper that I hear when I sit quietly and listen for God's voice!

Jesus, I pray that instead of fearing the times of trouble, I deepen my faith! Jesus, when I become aware, through reflection, of the storms in my life, may I reach out to You!

(c) The Spiritual Devotional 2011. All Rights Reserved.