Monday, November 30, 2015

The One Thing Necessary

My Testimonial... 

If left to me, I will always choose the easy road.  Because, well… it’s easier.  When I stumble across that fork in life’s pathways, I am usually inclined to head toward rainbows, and French fries, and bubble baths- as opposed to hair shirts, sacrificing the butter on my toast, and hard workouts.    But if the endgame is eternal paradise, unfortunately I have to put forth a bit more effort.  I need to grow in grace, and nine times out of ten, that can only happen through sacrifice.  It’s not that I’m going to do anything to earn it, but as everyone knows, some kind of personal relationship with our Savior is going to be essential. 

The snafu arises then when my game plan of easy livin’ meets up with taking on life’s crosses and growing in holiness.  I come to an impasse because while I understand the tremendous value of crosses, I still think they’re yucky.   The good ones are gonna hurt.  As my dear patron St. Teresa of Avila quipped to our Lord:  “With how you treat your friends, it’s no wonder you have so few.”   So how am I going to ride that luxury bus on the road to heaven?  It surely didn’t seem like I was going to sort that out to my satisfaction.  But, for some remarkable reason, Jesus decided to accommodate me when some seventeen years ago He moved us into this particular house in the suburbs.  

You see, it just so happens this home I share with my husband and our youngest, teen-age child now, is situated a stone’s throw from St. Andrews Catholic Church.  I can see the doors that lead to the chapel and the Blessed Sacrament from my kitchen window.  Jesus is practically my next door neighbor. 

I’m a cradle Catholic; I’ve always been on board with having Jesus in my life, but it’s always been this “good enough” relationship.  I checked the box as each day I “did my duty”:  Rosary.  Check.   Prayers before bed.  Check.  Mass on Sunday.  Check.  I could hear that still, small voice from time to time, calling me, calling me to more...  But I’m, as I say, basically looking for the cushy way, and there’s only so much effort I was willing to put forth into that relationship.  I was good enough wasn’t I?  At least compared to everyone else.    

We had been living in this house for a number of years when one day the Blessed Mother decided to take matters into her own hands.  She must have decided I was not living up to my full potential.  Mothers sort of know stuff like that.  So, one day, she picked me up and carried me.  For whatever reason, I can’t even recall, I decided to walk over and visit the Blessed Sacrament.   Ten minutes tops.  Good enough. 

But soon after those initial random visits, my mother started growing more ill with her terminal cancer.  And the relationship with my eldest daughter was strained and becoming more difficult.  And my brother and his wife were threatening divorce…  The weight was getting too heavy for these weak shoulders to muscle on my own.  I was finding that I was spending a little more time in the silent church than just my token ten or fifteen minutes.  The day I found out my daughter had moved in with her boyfriend, I marched right over to that chapel and got “right in Jesus’s face”.  Literally.  I could not even kneel in humble prayer.  I pulled my rosary beads from my pocket, paced that marble floor, and wept as I dumped it all on Him.  

When I was coming to grips with the unbelievably difficult reality that my mother was dying, I came to Him.  I told Him over and over that He was going to have to handle me with kid gloves if He was expecting me to live without my mommy.  I sat there.  I prayed there.  I wept there; right up in His face.  Day after day.  Month after month. 

It’s funny how a relationship can change without your even knowing it.  Grace.  “A good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing” (Luke 6:38) was poured into my lap, and my mind, and my heart as I started going more and more regularly.  Just to be with Him.  The Hound of Heaven was drawing me in, little by little, and I found myself kneeling right beside Him and begging, “Give me this that I ask of You.  That I might love you.” 

Depth of feeling.  I may have brushed the surface from time to time at really centering my attention on God and earnestly praying and adoring.  But my pion brain was forever sidetracked by insignificant nothings- during mass or in my “good enough” prayer time, done so I could neatly check off the box.  But then Jesus would sort of get boring to me.  Been there, done that; and then I was looking to other flashy things that seemed more interesting.  I began to see this huge, dramatic change in me as little by little I have been cooperating more with the grace to stay focused and attentive.  Jesus is no longer the friend I keep at arm’s length.  That still, small voice is growing louder, and I’m finding it harder to resist Him.  I am no longer afraid of a harder road…

I trained for the Boston Marathon in early 2014.  It was my third and last marathon.   I really need some kind of heavy inspiration to get me through the grueling months of training.  A purpose, a kind of “reason to suffer” because if I’m going to voluntarily take on some behemoth cross, there’s got to be a good reason.  One day when they were having Eucharist adoration, I went over, and started praying with a book I have: Visits to the Blessed Sacrament and the Blessed Virgin Mary, written by St. Alphonsus Liguori.  I saw there printed my reasons for running.  They were reasons for a visit to the Blessed Sacrament, but I tweaked them, and came up with my pledge, my Mission Statement, my four reasons to run.  Here, at last, was a little something I could do to let Him know how grateful I am for all that He is giving me.  A special cross- to unite to that perfect heart in the unbelievable sacrament of love.  I typed them up on a paper and taped it by my treadmill, so I could see and think on them every day:
  Why am I doing this…
1.)  In thanksgiving for the great gift of the Blessed Sacrament.
2.)  To make amends to the Sacred Heart for all the outrages committed against the Blessed Sacrament by me, by those I love, and by Your enemies.
3.)  I intend to adore You in all the places on earth where The Holy Eucharist is present and most forgotten and abandoned.
4.)  And I offer it up for all those You have given me to love.

I was once praying before the Blessed Sacrament, just sort of “minding my own business” when out of nowhere my calm was interrupted by images and thoughts very, very dark and disturbing.  It almost made me jump it was so shockingly evil.  Then words came into my head, “How can someone like you, who thinks such evil thoughts, dare to come before God?  You shouldn’t be here.”

I cried and thought of what that would mean to me- this girl who was maybe a step above “lukewarm” normally, who was changing so profoundly.  What would that mean to me to leave this place, the absolute presence of God?  I started to cry and although I know I am nothing but misery I looked at the silent tabernacle and said out loud, “Where could I go, if not here?”  Through amazing grace then, I latched onto His mercy, and thought of the words of St. Peter who spoke similarly to Jesus, “Lord, to whom would we go, for you have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68)  I pleaded with Him in my heart, “Do not take me from You Jesus.  I want to stay with You.”

I recently read the book called: Return: How to Draw Your Child Back to the Church by Brandon Vogt, and in it he talks about creating some of the initial dialog to bridge the gap with your child.  He suggests being able to share why it is that you’re Catholic.  You need to think on it so you can share your story.  I sat back and thought how I would frame that conversation, what I would say.  It’s actually an easy thing for me, and difficult at the same time. 

Easy, because there is not even the slightest doubt.  The Blessed Sacrament.  The source and summit of our Catholic faith- He is the reason I am blessed to be Catholic.  While that wasn’t truthfully always the case with me, it certainly is now.  And it’s difficult because how can I possibly put into words how my life has changed over the last few years?  It didn’t happen all at once, but I am truly in awe at my life now.

So many times… I will go over to that silent chapel area.  Still.  Alone.  And more recently I have been sitting in the main church, as opposed to right up at the Blessed Sacrament kneelers.  I choose a position where I can focus on a number of things- the beautiful wood statue of Our Lady of Grace, the large Divine Mercy portrait, the crucifix…  But lately I have turned my attention to a small section of stained glass that runs along the upper walls, close by the tabernacle.  It is a heart, fused pieces of glass in reds and golds, and in the afternoon, around three o’clock the sun shines through those colors and it shimmers.  There is a white blade in another panel close to it, and the sun illuminates it so much that it is almost blinding.

Then the thoughts come, words not of my own, and I praise Him.  I beg Him to pierce my heart with that blade so that I might love Him.  The tidal wave washes over then of thought after thought- profound gratitude that His mother brought me there to partake in the wellspring of His grace.  I’m amazed that He moved us to this house, so I can live so close.  I am so grateful to understand as much as my tiny mind can, that He is the One Who has supplied the grace for this incredible change in me.  Day after day.  More and more I am focusing my whole life around Him, around time spent with Him. 

I see more clearly that Sacred Heart.  His vulnerability; His sensitivity.  I think on the words He spoke to St. Margaret Mary when He was consumed in His love and said, “I thirst!  I so ardently thirst to be loved by men in the most Blessed Sacrament, that this thirst devours Me,- and yet I find no one who tries to slake My thirst by giving Me some little return of love for love.”  These words reach me now, and I will my heart to comfort Him! 

I close my eyes as I turn my face to the sun, the tabernacle, and beg Him to let me love Him.  I weep and weep.  It’s as if I can barely sit still as thought after thought of His grace, and mercy, and goodness, and profound love wash over me.  I cry, reaching into my pockets so to speak, to give Him something to pay Him back for all He is heaping on me.  It is incredible.  I can’t even think of words to describe it.  But, as always, my pockets are empty.  I have nothing.  I am nothing.  So from Him alone do I understand that I can offer Him, His bursting Heart back to Him.  He provides the grace.  He provides the love. 

It’s important to say it would be wrong to latch onto something just because it makes you feel good.  To use someone so you can feel happy, spending time with them solely for what you are getting out of it.  That is not what is happening in my life.  There are many times I sit with Jesus and practically fall asleep!  As local priest Fr. John Ricardo has said, I am “wasting time with Jesus”.   I am waiting on the Lord.  A beggar.  Whatever He wants to give me or not give me.  I don’t seem to care.  All I want to do is be with Him- and I honestly mean that!  I laugh at these deep thoughts coursing through me all the time, because they most certainly don’t come from me!

But still there are many days when life’s responsibilities fill all the space, and I am unable to walk over the see Him.  Sometimes a few days in a row will stack up, and I marvel at the difference in me.  My thoughts don’t focus on God as much.  I easily fall right back into habits and worldly, lukewarm nonsense.  The Blessed Mother lends a hand again, drawing me back.  Thank God for her!  She picks me up and carries me along that easy road to my purpose.  Sitting with Him again only solidifies the truth in it.  

When I was a little girl, I remember one evening etched in my young mind during the holiday season when my family went to Federals Department Store.   We were there and “what to my wondering eyes” so was Santa.  He had a meager set up; just he and his wingback chair, an endcap along one of the rows of merchandise and my mother said I could go sit on his lap and relay to the jolly old man my Christmas wish list.   Afterwards, we continued shopping.  The store was relatively empty, and all I could think of was him sitting in his chair, alone. 

My mother would shop down another isle and I kept sneaking over to see him.  He was full of wonder and magic in the eyes of an innocent child and I was amazed that no other kids were there.  This was Santa Claus after all!  The big man; and there he was.  So approachable.  So kind.  He would smile at me each time I would shyly poke my head out from around the corner and wave to him. 

For whatever reason, that memory is very vivid to me, and it reminds me of my life now.  Only now I am not longing to see some make-believe hero, but God Himself.  The child’s wonder is alive though as I walk through my house each day and suddenly I will think of Him.  He is waiting there, alone.  And that bead of excitement takes hold, and I know that all I have to do is peak around the corner, and He will be there.  Waiting for me.  Beaconing.  Smiling.  

I know it is hard to believe a round, flat piece of bread could really be God.  I get it.  Often, as I kneel and pledge my whole life to what seems to be only a wafer of wheat, I chuckle at how I would appear to the majority of the world.  I look like a complete fool.  But I so don’t care!  Because I see the truth.  My life now is a walking, talking proof that that bread is actually God.  I see it in myself as I can honestly step back and think that there is no other explanation for this profound “conversion” in me except for this easy road…  Just sitting with Him.  Just sitting there.   

Then I will be sitting in the evening on the couch watching TV with my husband and daughter and from nowhere I will think of Him in the dark, silent church.  Secretly then I will race there in my heart, to be with Him, so He isn’t alone.  It’s like when I was first pregnant and I had this special secret, this life growing in me and my heart would unite with such joy to that motherhood, but no one would know.  To all the world I was nothing special.  But truly I was united to an unbelievable miracle- life growing inside me.  Now, He is growing inside me. 

I go to morning mass often now.  I live so much more with my eyes and mind on eternity and what He is calling me to do to get there, to help others get there.  I’ve struggled with the idea of writing all this stuff down.  I think to myself, “Who am I that anyone would want to hear anything I have to say?  There are already tons of people who write stuff.  It’s enough already.  And besides, I can’t really write well anyway…”  But during mass one morning, during the consecration when I once again am filled with a depth of love that I have never experienced I turned my eyes to the crucifix and told Him, “How could you not expect me to share this?”        

And so, what I want to share is the unbelievable fact that I have found it.  Like the person who finds the treasure in a field, and in their joy goes and sells all they have to buy that field.  (Matthew 13:44)  I have the one thing necessary.   My life is living proof.  But it isn’t just for me, this treasure.  It’s the Pearl of Greatest Value that is actually so incredibly easy to have.  Really and truly.  It starts with just ten minutes.  It’s good enough, you’ll think.  But I guarantee you, if you let Him, He will change your life. 

Friday, November 27, 2015

Hormones and Hair Shirts

There’s no rational explanation why sometimes I will be in a deep, sleeping nirvana, and suddenly, bing, my eyes pop open, at which time my body calls it quits.  All done sleeping.  That’s been the case the last couple of nights.  Hormones.  It’s the menopausal ‘’crazy juice” coursing through my veins and brain that often cause me to operate a tad out of bounds.  I hit fifty and it’s like I’m a crack junkie injecting the stuff from concentrate, on the edge of an overdose. 
So now, the regular routine for this hormonal woman-of-the-night at two a.m. is to head down to the living room and take up residence on the couch, turn the television on low, and hit the station for EWTN.  I fluff up the pillow, grab a throw blanket, and try and convince my body that it would really be advantageous to resume some sweet repose.  I make the futile argument that three hours of sleep is not going to provide the kind of hutzpah I will need to properly carpe’ deum.   
I was lying back, eyes closed, and faking sleep when one of the cats jumped up on me and stretched out to demonstrate how to properly slumber.  Almost like she was bragging.  One of the reasons I leave my bed in the first place is because I don’t want to disturb my husband with all the tossing and turning I do when I wake.  Everything is uncomfortable.  Everything itches.  Clothes are wadded where they shouldn’t be.
On arrival the furry cat padded around my torso searching out that certain “I don’t know what” that would make her the most comfortable.  This was the crease between my shoulder and the back of the couch, inched close enough to my face so the fluffy hair would tickle my neck, and the incessant purring would bore into my sleep-deprived mind like a jackhammer.   The cat solidified my uncomfortable position.  God forbid I shift and cause her to be annoyed.   
Then her sister arrived. Same game plan. She ended up on the outer crease next to my hip.  Between them they pulled my blanket taut, effectively pinning my arms in a calico straightjacket. Then sista two started her subtle growl because she doesn’t really like sista one.  Now I gotta pee.   
I fought it like a trooper; closing my eyes against the claustrophobia, because ain’t it always the way, when you suddenly can’t move, that’s when by golly you really, really want to.  There’s a logjam of the senses, a growing hysteria with all their contented purrs and tickling fur and it made me think of those holy monks who endured hair shirts for the love of God.  Wasn’t this the equivalent? Albeit, much more colorful.  I willed my mind toward distant, sunny meadows where my arms were free to move, and clothes didn’t bind…
Suddenly I was reminded of the wretched souls in hell. 
Every year I read bits from the writings of St. Anthony Mary Claret entitled: “The Pains of Hell” to my eight grade catechism class.  I want them to understand that although evil is often glamorized in movies and such- hell is a horrible reality.  I recalled one of his sobering descriptions as I was lying on my couch:  “A damned person lies in hell forever in the same spot which he was assigned by divine justice, without being able to move, as a prisoner in stocks… In this prison the damned are packed so tightly one on the other like bricks in a kiln…” 
It’s when I gravely contemplate Divine Justice that I tend to step back and regroup.  Reprioritize.  I truly see all these little “nudges” as communications, graces from God and promptings to pray.  They seem to come in an instant, a quick bolt of unexpected lightning and, as it was in this case, I see all the benefit to the little sufferings surrounding me, and all the merit they possess if I would but offer them up. 
Life is short.  We all get the gist of it; but we tend to focus our attentions on what appears to be more demanding temporal things.  Our comfort.  How small really is my discomfort?  It’s in these flashes- lying on the dark couch, the cats acting as the deadweight, beneficial ballast in this sudden call toward holy things that I soberly contemplate my finite attachments and the great need to work for souls.  The tremendous value in our crosses!  
I think it was St. John Vianney who asked an impenitent to hold his hand over a candle, and when he refused asked him how he planned on enduring the pains of hell for all eternity.   What do we have here in this life, and what are we willing to pay for the Kingdom?  These thoughts were still on my mind when I awoke hours later; still having to pee.