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Christian contemplative life and devotion

Close to the heart: The Rule of St. Albert

About 800 years ago, a group of men dedicated to the spiritual life seeking silence, solitude, and community in order to deeply know, love, and serve God, began to gather and live near one another as hermits on Mt. Carmel in Israel. This mountain is where Elijah the prophet, his disciple Elisha and their school of prophets had lived near the spring of Carith. It is where Elijah confronted the false prophets of Baal, and God responded with consuming fire, bringing the people of Israel to their senses and back to the one true God. It is where Elijah experienced the “still small voice of God.”

The hermits called themselves the Brothers of Mary of Mt. Carmel. Each hermit lived in a cave or simple dwelling. There was an oratory in the center where they gathered for daily mass. We can reflect on this arrangement as symbolic of the entire family of the Church, that we too are arranged around Jesus in the Eucharist, around the mass which is at the heart of our faith.

Eventually they sought to have their way of life written as a rule approved by the Church. Sometime between 1206 and 1214 they approached the Patriarch of Jerusalem, St. Albert of Avogadro, to do this for them. The resulting rule of life is the shortest the Church has on record, and most of it is Scripture and references to Scripture. It was approved finally by Pope Innocent IV in 1247.

The Rule of St. Albert does not contain a lot of detail but shows in a more general way the spirit of the Carmelite’s life of prayer on the mountain. Every aspect of their lives was crafted to cultivate a continual awareness of the presence of God within and around them. This prayerful awareness practiced daily came to overflow into all of their activities, inspiring their service and leading them to the heights of prayer. They sought to experience the beauty of the Lord more and more, inspiring them to greater and greater love, until they truly prayed without ceasing and were transformed in character, conduct and consciousness* by their union with the Lord.

Paragraph two of the Rule says

Many and varied are the ways in which our saintly forefathers laid down how everyone, whatever his station or the kind of religious observance he has chosen, should live a life in allegiance to Jesus Christ – how, pure in heart and stout in conscience, he must be unswerving in the service of the Master.

For us lay people today, this can serve as a reminder. All of us whatever our station in life, or our personal religious expression within the Church, whatever ways we pray, are all called to holiness. We share a common purpose of unswerving allegiance to Our Beloved Lord.

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Carmel is a excellent way. I have heard before that there is no Catholic who does not owe something to Carmel. It is a sure way trodden by saints and Doctors of the Church. Carmel’s charism is prayer, and it is a trustworthy school of prayer. I think every Catholic can benefit from Carmelite spirituality in some way.

The joy and love of contemplative life and profound intimacy with God is here for every one of us.

Hopefully something about the Rule of St. Albert will inspire your own prayer life.

These men had a very simple life free of worry about possessions, property, social obligations and engagements. Their calendars were pretty clear.

All things were held in common and distributed by the Prior according to each ones’ needs.

They didn’t have to wonder what to do. Very little planning was necessary. The rhythm of their lives was basically the same every day.

All this freed them to also have calm, quiet but rich inner lives.

Living as they did may be too much for us. But their dedicated example can encourage us to simplify our own lives and find time for silence and solitude.

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So what was a day in the life of an early Carmelite hermit like?

He would be up very early like most people who live close to nature, to light lamps, care for animals, take care of chores.

He would have prayed Morning Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours..
a collection of Psalms, canticles, a New testament reading, various prayers and antiphons, intercessions composed by the Church, a Gospel canticle from Luke, an Our Father, and a closing prayer composed by the Church. The Liturgy of the Hours is still prayed by clergy, religious and lay people all over the world today. A free online resource for this is Universalis if you would like to tune in to the official public prayer of the Church, weave Scripture into your day, and find a great way to sanctify time. It is also a good way to order your daily life toward prayer.

Our hermit then would have gathered with the others for mass at the chapel of Our Lady of Mt.Carmel.

images.jpg Ruins of the chapel still on Mt. Carmel

He would have then followed his compatriots to breakfast, which would have been meatless, home grown or donated food.

The Rule specifies that they were to eat whatever was given to them. I think one way to translate this for our lay lives is a quote from St. Elizabeth of the Trinity “Let us lovingly eat the bread of the will of God.” In our lay Christian lives, we could take this as a profound example of reliance on God’s providence and a deep acceptance of his will in our lives as it presents itself each day.

At all meals they tried to listen attentively while someone read aloud from the Scriptures as they ate.

Our hermit would have gone on with his day of work and prayer, “keeping Scripture as an accompaniment with all [he did.] “

How did he do that? In some of the desert communities (the prototypes of Christian monasticism starting in the third century in Egypt) the Psalms were chanted while work was done. However the rule states that Carmelites were to do their work in silence. Perhaps this Scriptural accompaniment was done by pondering the Scripture in his heart and mind as he worked.

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When I worked at the Eagle Newspaper in the Press Room, my job was manual labor in nature. The rolling of the press was as loud as an a jet during takeoff. During a “run” there was little conversation, only what was necessary to get the job done, speaking over a head set. I found myself doing exactly what the Rule recommends; working in silence, pondering over the Scriptures and praying as I worked.

One of the crew members and I used to give one another Scripture to memorize so I always had a verse or two in the pocket of my uniform that I was working on committing to memory. Perhaps the Carmelites prayed like that as they went about chopping wood, carrying water, working in the garden, caring for their animals.

The Rule says that the hermit of Carmel was supposed to stay in his cell or nearby when he wasn’t working, “keeping watch in prayer” and “pondering the law of God day and night.” This law is generally understood to mean the Scriptures. I also think that according to Jesus the law of God is love.

O God, we meditate on your unfailing love. Psalm 48:9b

How wonderful to ponder continuously the law of God which is love, and God Himself whom we know is Love.

As St. Teresa was to say hundreds of years later, “Prayer is making time to be alone with the Friend who we know loves us.”

How they must have lived in love!

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On Sundays our hermit would have attended a community meeting where various issues were discussed and the brothers were to lovingly correct one another’s faults. This does not sound so fun. But we do know that spiritual community and spiritual friendships are indispensable in the life of prayer. We need others to walk, pray, and talk about spiritual things with. We need people who love us to help us stay on track, helping us to discern God’s will, and inspiring us in the love of Christ. Our soul friends help us grow.

At times our hermit may have gone down the mountain to teach, preach, beg food for the community, or be of service to others in some way. When we are people of prayer, our prayer will inspire service and sharing of our faith. St. Teresa said the perfected spiritual human being will be the perfect mix of Mary and Martha: prayer and service.

Our hermit’s dinner would have been much like his breakfast; eaten in silence with his brothers as one of them read aloud from Scripture.

He would have prayed Evening Prayer, attended to any evening duties.

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At about 9 O’Clock he would have prayed Night Prayer.

I expect he would have gone to bed early.

And so ended his day, well arranged around prayer, leading to an entire life of prayer and intimacy with God.

After Night Prayer the Carmelites kept a rule of silence until after Morning Prayer the next day. The rule states that “silence is the way to cultivate holiness” and urges them that even during times the hermits could speak with one another that they avoid pointless chatter.

Most of can see how avoiding pointless chatter and guarding our speech would improve our spiritual lives. We can make an effort to be kindly in speech and to experiment with silence. So often people feel loved when we are more quiet and can listen to them. I am sure God feels similarly! When we are quiet we naturally turn inward where God lives.

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Back to this staying in the cell thing:

Carmelite spirituality is driven by the belief expressed so well by our St.Teresa of Avila:

“God is within us and we should not leave him there alone.”

Colossians 11:27 says

To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.

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So you could think of this cell as your heart where Jesus, as we are repeatedly told by Scripture, truly lives.

We could read “Stay in your cell” as “stay in your heart, and when you’re working stay close to your heart, keeping watch in prayer. ”

How did the hermits actually pray?

Early Chrisitian contemplative prayer was very much grounded in Scripture. The Carmelite hermits, similar to the Desert Fathers, would have spent a lot of time memorizing Scripture. The method of inner prayer they used was similar, I imagine, to Meditatio Scripturarem, a sustained going over and over a memorized passage as a way to keep continuously focussed on the Lord. That is what I think they were doing. The Hesychasm (a method of “imageless” interior prayer developed in the desert by the monks of the Eastern Church) of the Desert Fathers had not been developed yet and Lectio Divina (literally “holy reading” a way to pray with the Bible in an interactive way with God) of the Western Church had not been formalized into steps. So I am thinking they used the Scripture in a less formal way than was developed later.

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In Carmelite prayer, the important thing, as St.Teresa herself said in general, is a not to think much but to love much. To me that means presence and attentiveness are the main things they would have been trying for.

Active inner prayer is about attention. The words of the Scripture, for this practice, are touch stones of focus.

If you would like to try this early Christian form of interior prayer, I have written about it here.

Carmel is a Marian order but Mary’s name is not mentioned in the rule at all except for the name the Brothers called themselves, the Brothers of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. How is Carmel Marian? Carmelites consider ourselves to be living the life of Mary, her actual spiritual life. The Carmelite strives to continually ponder God’s word in his heart as Mary did, to cherish Jesus within, to be attentive to God’s presence at all times, and to develop a listening and responsive heart. Then, as Mary did, he takes this love and experience of God to others. He prays with and for the Church as Mary is shown to have done.

The Marian devotion of Carmel is primarily imitation of her, reflecting her, mirroring her heart.

I think this is why we often call her not only our Mother and Queen, but also our sister.

Night Prayer ends each day with a prayer, chant or song to Mary.

Let’s pray one now and ask that she might impart to us her own inner life of prayer and love.

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Reflection questions:

1. In what ways do you (or can you) develop the contemplative dimension of your life?

2. When is your alone time? Think about what you like to do in your alone time with yourself and God? How do you cherish and protect that time?

3. How do you pray best? What kind of prayer are you most drawn to?

4. In order to live an intentionally spiritual life the early Carmelites practiced detachment from possessions and simplicity of life. What might be the value in that? What are some ways we can simplify our lives: our physical space, our time, our days… to make room for calm, for God ?

5. How can we order our own days to find a rhythm and balance of prayer, work, community, contact with Scripture, and service to others? Do you have any ideas for your own rule of life?

* …”transformation of character conduct and consciousness” is a phrase I borrowed from Gandhi.

Note: this is an adaptation of a talk I gave at a women’s retreat recently. Minus my dumb jokes. And only because I can’t remember them.

Blood and Fire: righteous anger in the spiritual life

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I have to think, in these dark times, during this epidemic of heartlessness, that we need to look to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, that we need the refuge and the example of His Heart more than ever.Every day I think we are all having to find ways to decompress from all the hatred, heartlessness, uncertainty, spectacle, and genuine stress we are experiencing in our society right now, in various ways.I made a list and deleted it.  

Who needs that? We are exposed to it almost constantly.

Not only that but some of us have different ideas about what plagues us and whose fault (if anyone’s) it all is, not to mention what should be done. We’re all tired of fighting but fight we still do.

We need hearts. We need Jesus. We need the One who said, “Come to me, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart.”

Moral outrage makes this very difficult to emulate. My mother used to say that righteous anger is the hardest kind to deal with. It’s hard because it’s justified. It’s hard because we need it. It’s hard because we should have it at times. If we didn’t nothing would ever change, nothing bad would be confronted. We need righteous anger to motivate us to take action, to defend the defenseless, to stand for what is right, to move us to sacrifice our own comfort for the lives of others.

But it can get exhausting. It can be directed in ways that are unhelpful, of course, and I am guilty of that as much as anyone.

Taking right action is helpful in mitigating shock and anger and restoring one to equanimity.

My daughter, Roise, says she has always thought that were she present when Jesus was crucified, she would have tried to save Him, she would have done something. She says, “But now there is so much of Jesus being crucified right in front of us, and here I am, not sure what to do about it.”

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There are things to do. St.John of the Cross said, “Where you find no love, put love. And then you will find love.” Take action to relieve the suffering you see. Give others the opportunity to do the same.

When you are tired and sad, take refuge in the Sacred Heart, and remember that Jesus, your love, loves even the people you have the most trouble with, as deeply and intensely as He loves you.

There is injustice. Care passionately. Be angry. It’s appropriate. But let your anger be motivated by love, and use that energy to do good.

If you notice your anger is making it hard to love, hard to pray, hard to serve, calm down and talk to God about what is happening for you. Take a long fast walk repeating the names of Jesus and Mary until you can think and act in line with the Holy Spirit’s desires for you.  Believe me, I have been having to work on this myself.

Always be asking, “What would You have me do? Jesus, give me Your Heart.”

I have learned through hard experience that when you are doing things God has not asked you to do, you will be exhausted, burned out and often upset. When you are doing the will of God, you will get tired, you may feel upset because of your empathy and compassion, but you will have fuel. You will have an inner light, no matter how hard what you are doing is.

Staying on track is hard when one feels helpless, so ask God to show you what His will is for you in a given situation. When a terrible thing happens, and you can’t stop thinking about it, God may be calling you to pray about it in a special way, to make sacrifices, to take action to relieve the suffering, and, yes, to confront wrong doers when necessary. Discernment is needed. But try not to descend into helpless rage.

This is hard stuff. Don’t forget to breath and pray.

“What do we do?” my late husband, Bob used to ask. “We love, we walk on,” he would answer himself.

Love, Christian soul, and walk on. Jesus will give us His Heart and make us strong to love.

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An open window for the outflow of God’s grace: Contemplative prayer is for the Church and the whole world

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“Our Lord has so many enemies and so few friends, I was determined the friends he had should be trusty ones.”

When St. Teresa of Avila wrote those words, she was in great distress for the Church, for the schism happening within it, for the attacks against it, and she wanted to defend it. So she banded together a few like minded women, and they lived in a little convent together and prayed, living outstandingly holy lives of deep prayer and transforming love.

Why would that help the Church? Maybe direct prayers for the defense of the Church would be helpful. But what difference does hidden holiness make? How does it help anyone to go someplace quiet, enter into deep prayer and friendship with Christ, and to grow in silent sanctity?

By today’s individualistic way of thinking, it may tend to the self realization of the one who prays, but little else.  “What a waste,” people might say. How can that be of much use to society or the Church to live a hidden life of devotion?

Everyone who gives herself or himself to prayer becomes a channel for the outflow of the Divine will into this world.* Every heart transfigured in the love of God lifts up the whole Body of Christ.

By the principle of the Communion of Saints, our unity as Church, all that each of us does or experiences has its effect on everyone else, and on the Body as a whole. This is why after we make our confession and are absolved, we also are given a penance. The penance is not just for us, it is for the entire family of Jesus.

It is one thing to say we are sorry, and another to make amends and to repair what has been harmed. We pray our penance to make amends for the spiritual harm we have done to the whole Church by our sins.

In the same way, the contemplative, giving his life to prayer, heals the whole church and brings the rest of us that much closer to perfection and a life of transforming love; for all the Church, and even the whole world.

“Sanctify yourself and you will sanctify society” ~ St. Francis of Assisi

We are here to help each other. When I made my promises in the Teresian Carmel (Secular,) I promised to tend toward perfection in the spirit of the Beatitudes, among other things, and I promised to do this for the glory of God and the good of the Church.

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Entering into prayer, deep prayer of the heart, not only allows us to become channels of grace, it empowers us to do good works, and in our growing intuition of the guidance of the Holy Spirit in prayer, we become better at discerning what good works God wants us to do, and where we are being led.

“Prayer must lead us to good works, my daughters, good works.” ~ St. Teresa of Jesus

To pray is to tap into the full potential of our reason for existing, which, according to the Baltimore Catechism, is “to know, love and serve God, and thereby our neighbor.”

To pray is to come to know God through direct experience, to love Him as He is, to serve Him by the gift of self, and by helping His people with the love and energy God gives in prayer.

That is why St. Teresa founded the convent of St. Joseph’s in Avila, and why she began the Reform that she did within the Order of Carmel. She did it for the glory of God and for the good of the Church. That’s us.

You may be alive today because of a nun in an out of the way convent nearby, praying for you. Maybe you got through a dark time in your life because of an elderly man in a nursing home who takes all day to finish one rosary, but his heart is in Heaven. Nobody knows that he accomplishes more than anyone would dream.

And what about you? Who knows what you might accomplish in prayer?

“Whoever has not begun the practice of prayer, I beg for the love of the Lord, not to go without so great a good. There is nothing to fear, but only something to desire.”~ St. Teresa of Jesus”

Pray pray pray! Until prayer becomes your joy. It is your core gift to the Church and the world.

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* “Make of me a smooth channel for the outflow of Your Divine Will into this world.” Fr. Adrian van Kaam                                          

Spiritual Combat

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I remember coming away from a conversation with a very holy person years ago, feeling thoughtful. I was much inspired to pray. At the same time I felt like cranking up the Led Zepplin in the car for some relief from too much holy.

The friend I was with asked, “What did you think?”
I said, “He talks about Satan too much,”
This cracked my friend up. Her laughter mystified me.
“What?”
“It’s just so funny to hear you say that!”

I do dislike hearing about Satan too much. Who doesn’t?

However, it’s hard to tune in to the news and not think about that guy these days. He seems to be in the world’s face, challenging all people of good will in our very faith in good will.

Be not afraid. (Dt, 31:8) We come from a long line of prophets and saints, and Jesus is present in us as individuals, and in community, and He has already won the spiritual combat. With Him we can do anything, and, since we are all connected, the good we do has its effect in the world. The indulgent encouragement of God makes our little victories BIG with His endless grace, and gives us power to reign with Him both now and forever, because of His great love. We are the light of the world. (Mt. 5:14)

“The gates of hell shall not prevail against the Church,” Jesus said. (Mt. 16:18)

I heard it pointed out once that if you really think about that sentence, it sounds more like it is hell that is on the defensive. Hell’s gates can’t stand against the Church. That’s us. We’re winning. And we will keep on winning.

The Lord is my strength and my shield. Whom shall I fear? (Ps. 27:1)

“[In] a dream I had [as a child.] … I saw … two hideous little devils dancing with surprising agility … in spite of the heavy irons attached to their feet. At first they cast fiery glances at me; then, as though suddenly terrified, [they… threw] themselves down … only to run and hide themselves in the laundry… overcoming my fears, I went to the window. The wretched little creatures were there, running about, …not knowing how to hide themselves from my gaze. From time to time they came nearer, peering through the windows with an uneasy air, then, seeing that I was still there, they began to run about again looking quite desperate. Of course this dream was nothing extraordinary; yet I think Our Lord made use of it to show me that a soul in the state of grace has nothing to fear from the devil, who is a coward, and will even fly from the gaze of a little child.
~St. Therese of Lisieux

Pope Francis calls this present time a “piecemeal World War III.” Every material reality has a spiritual reality. We are also at war spiritually.

“‘Spiritual combat’ is [an] element of life which needs to be taught anew and proposed once more to all Christians today. It is a secret and interior art, an invisible struggle in which (we) engage every day…” ~ Pope St. John Paul II
And we should be clear about who our real enemy is.

” For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly realms.” (Eph 6:12)
The Traditional weapons of the Church against evil in the world are unconventional. But they are the ones Jesus used to ultimately conquer, also we can put to good use the weapons the Church has been given by Our Lord, and artillery the saints used before us. We have quite an arsenal. Here are just a few of these things to help you fight like a soul soldier in the spiritual combat.

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Prayer

“You have only to be still: I myself will fight for you.” (Ex. 4:14) Prayer of the heart, sitting in silent trust, praying the rosary, any way you want to pray and connect with God within you, all these things make your soul a channel for the loving will of God into all that goes unhealed and wretched. Prayer fills us and encloses us with God, purifies our souls, and pours Heavenly grace into the world like an ocean of light.

“…you have found praise to foil the enemy.” (Ps. 8:2b)

Fasting

This is an old fashioned spiritual remedy too often forgotten.

“This kind [of demon] only comes out with prayer and fasting.” (Mt. 17:21)

Bread and water are customary for fasting, and Friday is a traditional day to fast. You can also fast from noise, the Internet, harsh words, even very small things like sugar in your coffee or ketchup on your fries. The fight against evil in the world is mysteriously amplified by fasting and self denial, and it draws the whole person to be centered in God.

Humility

Satan’s great sin is pride. Humility is anathema to him. God, St. Therese used to say, cannot resist a humble soul. Satan can’t face such a person. There is nothing he can do. “Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, and He will lift you up!” (1 Pt. 5:6, Jm 4:10) St. Teresa of Avila said “He who possesses [humility and detachment from self] can safely go out and fight all the united forces of hell… let him fear none for his is the Kingdom of Heaven.”

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Reading the Bible

Reading Scripture every day, assimilating the Word of God, applying it to our lives, arms us with the knowledge of God and the interior grace we need to live a holy life. Even if you don’t understand something, you can be sure the demons understand it fine, and tremble. ( Here I am referring to a passage in The Way of the Pilgrim) The word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two edged sword. (Hb. 4:12) We should always be growing in our understanding and prayer of the Bible.

The Sacraments

A sacramental life in the Church keeps us always in a state of grace, and helps us grow in holiness, especially the reception of the Eucharist, which is to receive Jesus Himself. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. (Jn. 6:56) The Church is the bulwark and the pillar of truth. (1Tim 3:15)

Confession

Monthly confession is advised by most spiritual directors, and not only helps us to the grace won for us by Jesus and given to the Church, it also helps us heal the world as well. Since we are all connected, …in Christ we, though many, form one body and each member belongs to all the others. (Rom. 12:5,) our sins spiritually harm everyone in the Body of Christ In the same way, our confession and penance bring healing, not only to ourselves, but our repentance strengthens the Church in her fight against evil in the world.

Obedience

Satan’s other great sin is disobedience and that was the sin of Adam and Eve. Trust, loving obedience and faithfulness to God, to His Church, to rightful authority makes the enemy flee in disgust. “Submit to God, resist the devil and he will take flight.” (Jm.4:7)

Mercy

Only God knows the heart. (Rom. 2:2) It is so easy to demonize the human opponent, especially a distant, unknown enemy, when we are in conflict. Scripture says this is not what God wants of us. Mercy is God’s greatest attribute. We should practice mercy constantly, keeping our eyes on God, praying for our enemies from the heart.

Forgiveness

“Father forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk. 23:34) is probably one of the most confusing things the evil one ever heard. Our regard for those who harm or threaten us, is to be redemptive and transformative, rather than punitive. It destroys the work of Satan, and wins hearts to love. It disarms Satan and all his retinue to forgive our enemies.

Union with God

Jesus is within us. He really truly is. This is why we can say, “Get thee behind me, Satan!” (Mat 16:23) It is His presence in us that gives us this ability, His grace that gives us that authority. “Whoever hears you, hears me.” (Luke 10:16 )

The Holy Name of Jesus

… at the Name of Jesus, every knee must bow, in Heaven, on earth, and under the earth…(Philip. 2:10) Pray it. Say it. Every day. All the time. Clearly it’s a good thing to do, as the Scriptures and the teachings of so many of the saints also show.

Devotion to Mary

Mary, the new Eve, is in enmity with Satan on the side of her Son as the mother of all who follow Jesus and obey the commandments. (Rev 12:17 ) Even the most cursory glance at the accounts of the approved apparitions of the Mother God, such as those at Fatima and Lourdes, show that this is so to this day. Walk with Mary, pray with Mary, for work the she does. Join her in battle. Ask her to pray for you. Let her be your spiritual mother. At Fatima she said, “In the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph.”

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Offer it up

When you are suffering, offer your suffering with that of Christ on the cross. Doing this is a powerful and redemptive prayer. I am glad when I suffer for you … for I am participating in the sufferings of Christ that continue for His Body, the Church. (Col. 1:24) Offer your suffering in intercessory prayer or in reparation for the horrors and blasphemies committed in the world and in our our own hearts.

Good deeds and helping the poor

The corporal works of mercy, done from the heart, confuse the spiritual forces of darkness, by upending greed and selfishness, injustice and lukewarm-ness. This is part of dethroning the one who is all haughtiness by lifting up the lowly. This is the work of God. (Lk. 1:52)

Speak the truth and live the truth

Don’t cooperate with the Father of Lies by lying. (Jn. 8:44) Don’t give the murderer from the beginning any foot hold by hating- which is murder committed in the heart. Avoid sin. Don’t give the enemy of Christ any ammunition. Whoever hates his brother or sister is a murderer. (1Jn. 3:15)

Love

Put on the armor of light, but especially that of love. Pray with love, serve with love. Do everything with love. Love covers a multitude of sins. (1Pt. 4:8) There is nothing more powerful, for God is love. (1 Jn. 4:8)

The Prayer of St. Francis

“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace; where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy. O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love; for it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.”
If we prayed and lived this prayer, there would be no place left for Satan to plant weeds.

The prayer of St. Michael

“St. Michael, the Archangel, defend us in battle, be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray, and do thou, O Prince of the Heavenly Hosts,by the power of God, thrust into hell Satan, and all the evil spirits who roam the world, seeking the ruin of souls.”
This prayer is by Pope Leo XIII, and is traditionally prayed after mass, or put in at the end of the rosary. But it can be prayed any time, of course. It comes highly recommended for our purpose.

In the spiritual life we are the standard bearers for Christ, our Holy Captain, as St. Teresa of Avila said.

“… [the person of prayer] is carrying the standard, which he must not allow to leave his hands, even if he is cut to pieces. Just so [those who live the life of prayer] have to bear aloft the standard of humility and must suffer all the blows which are aimed at them without striking any themselves. Their duty is to suffer as Christ did, to raise the Cross on high, not to allow it to leave their hands, whatever the perils in which they find themselves, and not to let themselves be found backward in suffering…”

I hope I did not talk about Satan too much.
I would really rather talk about God.

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“May the knowledge of God fill the earth as water fills the sea.” (Hbk. 2:14)

Jesus in the parking lot

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I saw Jesus in the parking lot after mass this evening. He was homeless and schizophrenic.

We had a good conversation.

I gave him my late husbands’ old pancho that I had in the car with me. I don’t think he really wanted it. I think he took it to be kind.

He was lonely and worried. He was elderly with faded blue eyes.

“What’s schizophrenic?” He asked me. “Do you think maybe Jesus was schizophrenic?”

He said, “I bet Jesus had a lot of good jokes.”

His name was John Wilkinson.

He knew the Hail Mary and we prayed it together.

He asked if maybe homeless people were God’s chosen ones. I said I bet they are.

He was tired.

He kept talking I think because he was lonely. He cried when I left. I did too.

Some things I will never understand.

We should do better. We should do better than this.

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Lenten seeds

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I love Lent.I am always happy to hear that I am dust, and that to dust I shall return.When I close my eyes to pray, I can really tell I am dust. In here where I live, it’s quiet and dark. Simple. Nothing to it.  Who am I?

Dust.
Clay.
Nothing.
Everything.
Inwardly quiet and dark,yet full of exploding light in the cave of my heart,just like you.

As St. John of the Cross points out, sometimes what seems like darkness is the over-whelming brilliance of God’s light.Maybe that is why we close our eyes when we pray. Outside what we can see with our senses is wonderful, but only a reflection of the invisible God. When we close our eyes, we are alone in God’s luminous dark within us.

We know there is light in us by faith. We know our being is created in the image of Him who is light.  Even though we rightly experience ourselves as dust, our hearts are secretly bright because of Who lives there.

At this time of year, roots, bulbs, and seeds under the soil that have “fallen to the ground and died,”  all winter have been nourished by the Lord of mystery and love, though we the farmers are unaware.

How did Jesus rise from the dead? We don’t know. We know it happened, and Scripture says we also will rise, “through the power of his spirit dwelling in us.” And this is so real it is a physical truth as well as a spiritual one.In the dark secret of the tomb Jesus physically and spiritually, in divine mystery, rose again.

I want to follow Jesus into the desert and recommit my life to the Father. I want to share the Passover with Him and the family of the Church, I want to accompany the Lord on the Way of the Cross. I want to wait quietly in the dark simplicity and trust of the grave.

I am dust returning to dust, but my Christian soul is empowered by Him to do and be all these Christly mysteries.

So let us return to be fearlessly this dust in desert wind, this Way of the Cross, this dark quiet of faith, this soil seeded with mystery.

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At the same time as we traditionally renew our commitment to Jesus and his mission, to His Church, to the poor and marginalized, to fasting, penance, and to prayer as we know it, let us also re-consecrate ourselves in silence, and holy solitude, resting in the starry night of expectation.

As children of God we know that darkness also brings forth love, unfurls light, and floods our souls with renewed grace during this sacred time we are given that is Lent.We surrender to this Lord of mysterious rising. We consecrate our souls to His purposes in ourselves and what He wants us to bloom into for Him, for this world, for the sake of His Kingdom. We step into this night of Lent consciously.

We can remember this intention in our moments of stillness and waiting. We can take a little time each day also to purposely  rest in quiet love and allow ourselves to be prepared for Spring in secret. Let us make Lent a secret retreat into our hearts. It only takes faith, hope, and love and God will pour over us the brightness of his invisible light.

Let this Lent be a time for seeds, for dark, shining mysteries at work in we who believe… until the morning star rises in our hearts.

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Warning: God is a creative genius and anything can happen when we surrender to Him completely. We might emerge from Lent new creatures in the power of His Resurrection. Let’s expect it!

Inspiration here: https://youtu.be/eDA8rmUP5ZM

An interview with Sister Celestina Menin about spiritual direction

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I asked Sister Celestina if enthusiasm for spirituality in young adult Catholics is the norm she experiences in her work at St. Mary’s Student Center.She says, “Yes! These kids have a great thirst!”That is why so many spiritual directors are needed at St. Mary’s. The three Sister Apostles of the Interior Life are here, three lay spiritual directors, several priests, deacons, as well as the priests and religious who come in and do spiritual direction every week, and at other times. “It is still not enough!”She explains to me, for those who don’t know, what spiritual direction is. Here she begins to speak passionately.

She tells me that the “Gospel icon, if you will,” of the charism of her order, The Apostles of the Interior Life, is the encounter of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus seeks her out, though she has gone to draw water at a time nobody would be expected to be there, as if she were avoiding others. But Jesus finds her. “She is shown her truth as a daughter, and she goes out to share with others.”

“Jesus is very determined and also tender. He comes very close to her wounds.” He shows our identity is not a sum total of our sins or wounds, but in our belonging to Him as children of God.

“Jesus comes close to [people’s] wounds in a very determined way, but not like a moralistic teacher. He is tender.”

To Sister Celestina, this describes the goal of spiritual direction and evangelization. “We bring people to encounter.God did not send down a book. He sent His Son- into relationship, and that is what we do.”

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One must not “think of the other person as an empty container that you have to fill with truth, but as a brother or sister. So you take interest in their lives.Every human being you encounter thirsts for more because they are each made in the image of God. They thirst. There is a thirst in these students. I think it is important to allow the Holy Spirit to awaken their desires.” That is the approach she takes as a spiritual director.

For spiritual direction, “there are a lot of requests.” There is an intake form on the Aggie Catholic website and the requests for spiritual direction are coordinated by a campus ministry intern at the Student Center.

The goal of spiritual direction is for the directee to grow in holiness, she says. The real spiritual director is the Holy Spirit. She often tells her directees, “It is not just you and me, it is you and me and the Holy Spirit.

“The goal is to discover God’s will and inspirations, to learn how to listen, to discern what is coming from the Holy Spirit and what is not. Another goal is helping to remove obstacles to growth, learning to pray or growing in prayer. Guidance and support are needed “to know what to do with the consolations and desolations of the spiritual life.”

She says  that it is very important to develop what she calls a “double channel of listening”. She tries to listen deeply to the person talking to her and to pay close attention to the Holy Spirit speaking in her heart at the same time. “If we are relaxed and open, and not too worried about what we need to respond, the Holy Spirit will help us see how we can help that person.”

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“Every topic is welcome,” she says, “because all of life must be penetrated by the Holy Spirit, and God is part of all that we do. ”

“The more open you are in spiritual direction the more fruitful it will be. When you are open, you are humble, but this is a freeing experience that you are loved as you are. The moment you bring things to the light, they are already being healed.”

I asked her if she works with non Catholics also. She said she can and she has. “I would need to be attentive and delicate, but still be transparent about who I am.” Her goal would be to “simply place them more and more under the influence of the Holy Spirit.”

She tells me about some of the other things the sisters do at St. Mary’s.They sponsor Samuel’s Group, a program about discernment. She calls discernment, “making decisions with God in the picture.”  

By discernment she also means “the discernment of spirits.” This tradition of discernment of spirits goes back to the desert fathers. It is very important, she says, to “become aware of your interior movements, since God speaks to us in our thoughts and feelings and desires.” It is important to learn to distinguish the authentic inner voice that is the leading of God, from other influences inside us and outside us that can be misleading or harmful.

A spiritual director  can help one learn and refine that skill of discernment.

“You come to recognize the movement of God through your soul like the vibration of guitar strings after they have been touched.”

“Jesus himself had to practice this discernment of spirits in the desert,” she points out. “Discernment of spirits is a fundamental teaching of the spiritual life.It isn’t just do it yourself. It is always with God; with God, and the people God places in our lives. Always, it is in the context of relationship,” that we listen for God.

“The work we do is relational.” She says.

The sisters open their house for what they call, “A night at the convent,” and also for a movie night a few times a semester, just to share their life with the students. They like to cook for the students. “Sharing food is such an important part of loving.”

They have had up to forty people in their living room, and they see new faces all the time, Catholics and non Catholics alike. They also hold Holy Hours at the convent, and these are always crowded.

“It’s a beautiful time in their life for formation,” she says, “because of the particular gifts of that age group; the enthusiasm, flexibility, the energy, the dreams, the ability to take risks, the capacity of jumping, leaping into new things.”

She says that what they do at St. Mary’s is facilitate encounter with Christ which forms disciples, and then disciples “automatically become Apostles, and they go out,” bringing with them the tender and determined love of Christ and the truth of their experience with His transforming love- “into the lunch line, into the class room, into the whole world.”

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*”We, the Apostles of the Interior Life… testify … that the interior life is the real and transforming source of joy for the world. We are a community of consecrated women… reaching out to men and women through evangelization and friendship with a family-like style and a spirit of initiative and of personal relationship that can foster spiritual generation and growth. We accomplish this mission specifically through spiritual direction and formation in the area of prayer. “~  from Recipes for the Interior Life by the Apostles of the Interior Life

Nostra Aetate over shisha: a conversation about inter-religious experience

We are sitting on cushions at a low table, enjoying shisha from a shared hookah in the corner of a light, airy building in a shopping center in Central Texas. There is country music on the radio, and a minty, fruity smoke rising around us in the late afternoon sun.

Frank, (or as I call him,”Frankly,”) is my first late husband’s oldest brother. Our families have remained close over the years. He and his wife, Karin, are visiting from their home in Oak Creek, Wisconsin (Milwaukee area.)

Today, I have set out to interview Frank about his experiences of inter-religious dialogue. I have been reflecting on Nostra Aetate, the Vatican II document on the relationship of the Catholic Church with non-Christian religions. It seems to me that our own Frank is a living example of what respectful friendship between the faiths could look like if taken seriously and personally, lived out in individual relationships and respectful, curious overtures, even shared prayer.

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Frank agreed to talk about his journey, though his natural state is somewhat taciturn. It takes him a while to warm up sometimes… so I’ll wait.

Right now Frank is not sure what he thinks of this hookah business, a hobby that I and his son, Hans have taken up from time to time. He stares at the plastic sanitary tip of the hose we have handed him, unsure of what to do with it.

“?”

While he figures this hookah thing out, I will give you some details to confuse you about Frank. (I say confuse because some of the facts about him are not usually found together in one person.)

Introducing Francis K. Pauc, West Point graduate, Army veteran (helicopter pilot) peace activist, father of an Iraq war veteran (Hans, mentioned above.) He is also a volunteer at the local V.A. hospital, an avid defender of immigrants’ rights, friend of Dominican Sisters, assister of people in the Catholic Worker movement (which was founded by Dorothy Day), and writer of many letters to the editor on issues of import.

He has written a book, available on Amazon Kindle, and in paper back, called Father at War. He is a recently retired dock foreman of a shipping company, a devout cradle Catholic with a long and distinguished history of being active in his parish, St. Stephen’s.  He has been twenty years a lector, a past RCIA teacher, and past parish council member, among other activities.

He is also the token Catholic at the Buddhist Sangha at Milwaukee Zen Center, frequent attender of the Orthodox Jewish synagogue in his area, and he now and then hangs out at the local mosque. He is a regular pray-er/visitor at the Sikh temple in his neighborhood.

Frank is the father of three adult children, long time husband to Karin, who he met and married while stationed in Germany as a young man.

He is of Slovenian heritage but is sometimes mistaken to be Turkish. Lately he has grown a long beard and looks very Orthodox Jewish. On that last long peace walk his beard became a bit dred-lock-ish.

I have known Frank since the late eighties when I started dating brother # 6 in the Pauc family of seven boys, Marc Blaze.

Frank is starting to be amused with the hookah experience. I can tell he is comfortable enough I can ask him questions now.

Fortunately, besides his big, German village wedding, his journey learning about other faiths is his favorite subject.

His habitually taciturn, crabby look becomes a warm, soft- eyed lucidity now as I begin to ask how all this started for him. When did he first learn about other religions, I ask, blowing out my delicious smoke.

Frank says his first real look at another religion was learning about Islam in the Army, since he had to learn Arabic. Then he took a refresher course in Arabic with someone from work, years later, at a Muslim culture center. He made more friends there. They didn’t necessarily talk about faith all of the time. They moved from learning Arabic to talking about their kids, their wives, their work, their daily lives.

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After 9/11, Frank wanted to do something personal to cross the widening divide in our country between non-Muslim Americans and Muslim Americans. He ended up going by the mosque. He found the front locked so he went around back to the kitchen. “I thought you guys might need friends.”

“Are you Muslim?”

“No. I am a Catholic.”

Frank is the only person I know who would show up to an unfamiliar place of worship and ask, “Anybody want to talk about God?”

Frank observes that the prohibition on images in Muslim art has created a very masculine looking art form of geometric shapes and calligraphy, which is beautiful, but, to him, missing something. He thinks it’s a conception of the feminine side of the Divine that is absent. This gave him a new appreciation of our knowledge of the the Holy Spirit, the Giver of Life, “Creator Blessed,” and of our Mother Mary exemplifying and reflecting this to us. He thinks our ability to be spoken to by God through images is related to conscious contact with the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary through whom the Incarnation was accomplished. The Incarnation puts us in touch with how God communicates through what we can see and touch. It’s why, he theorizes, Catholic art is so glorious. It’s because we have Mary, and we are very in touch with that creative motherly energy and imagery.

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He talks about how sad it is that so many Christians have lost their mother. Their art is not as cool as ours, either, he thinks. “There’s got to be a connection here.”

He really did love the Dome of the Rock, though when he went to the Holy Land. “That was awesome.”

But we digress. We smoke in silence a while… listening to the pleasant bubbling sound of the water in the hookah’s base. 

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Years ago, Frank says, he became curious about the Sikh Temple in his neighborhood. He smiles when he remembers his visits there. “You have to eat. They always feed you. You never leave without eating.”

He adds that the music is great. Like a cross between our best praise and worship, and the coolest Indian music ever. Frank likes to find someone and ask them questions like, “Do you think God loves you?” and go from there.

The Sikh Temple he liked to visit was the same one where there was a shooting in 2012 . Frank knew one of the people who was killed. He was among those who offered support. He still likes to drop by and pray.

Sometimes he meets interesting people of other religions in his work as a peace activist. He met a Buddhist monk named Senji on a long peace walk he went on to protest drone warfare. The next year, he, his wife Karin, and his son, Stefan, went to visit Senji in his monastery in Oregon. They had a great time, and found a lot in common, especially in the social justice work the monks engaged in, and their quiet, dedicated life.

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The desire for contemplative prayer was what got Frank to visit the Zen Center in the first place. He and Karin had tried to find a place to learn forms of Christian contemplative prayer and practice in a group and had not found one. (They have now.) So Frank and Karin went and sat with the Buddhists. Karin always took her rosary and prayed that. Frank started hanging around all the time and being part of the life of the Sangha, even though there are some things that as a Catholic he can’t do, of course.

He decided to learn more, and he loved hanging around. They appreciated his thoughts. When he thought something was stupid, he always said so, (he always does, regardless of the company,) and he also gave his thoughts as a Christian. They came to appreciate this.  He liked sitting in silence with them.

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Going to “Zen practice” regularly brought visible changes to Frank.

I remember seeing these changes in him. He became much more playful and open and calm. Less “‘onry.” I think he really did find peace. I could see it in his face and hear it in his speech. I could tell by  his kinder  attitude, and even the way he carried himself. He still can be found at the Milwaukee Zen Center on a Saturday morning if he’s not volunteering, or traveling somewhere.

He says getting to know his friends at the Zen Center helped him delve into his own faith and prayer traditions all the more.

“It’s made me a better Catholic.”

Learning to sit quietly in what was consciously a form of trusting, un-knowing prayer, for him, brought him nearer to God, and God blessed him with a sense of open-ness and peace. It seems the Lord continued to lead Frank on his unique travels through the spiritual world and to teach him that learning about how other people love and understand God is an act of love.

It is worth remembering that Thomas Merton, a great American Catholic admired by Pope Francis, also got to know Buddhism very well, made friends with Buddhist monks, and found ways to share silence and spiritual practice with them that enriched his own faith.

I asked him what lead him to choose to start showing up at the Orthodox synagogue, rather than Reformed. “Is it because of being Catholic and therefore more into deep, rooted, more ritualistic and mystical worship? ” He said no, that it was because that was the closest synagogue to his house. “What made you want to learn more about Judaism?” One of his more rare expressions crosses his face; an innocent, child like look. “Because I wanted to understand.”

He says he became very close with the Rabbi there and began to take Hebrew lessons. He was often invited to dinner at the Rabbi’s house, and even to Passover. He says he doesn’t think anyone can have the fullest appreciation for their Christianity if they don’t get to know Judaism. He said attending their liturgies changed him as a lector. He grew in his appreciation of the Scripture and reading the Old Testament at mass was a more profound experience for him after seeing the very solemn and reverent way it is read in the synagogue.

He remembers a funny conversation he had with he Rabbi who said, “Oh, you Christians, always forgetting Satan isn’t anything close to equal with God,” when Frank was worried about something.

He still likes going to the Synagogue regularly.

Frank remarks that Jesus was a good Jew, and that he thinks of Jesus as his older brother. I smile, remembering that is what John Paul II said about the Jewish people and the Church. They are our older brother.

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I say that it strikes me that his inter-religious ministry and journey seems to be about making personal connections, about being a friend. He agrees with that, though he says he is less conscious of that than just wanting to understand others and share with them. He feels compelled about this.

He says he is most impressed by the people who are deeply and “completely sold” on their religion. He respects the most those who have “their faith woven into he fabric of their every day life. When it’s just who they are.” Those are the people it’s easiest to talk to, and who return the interest he gives to them about their faith.

At times he has wondered if he should stop hanging around Buddhists and the Orthodox Jews.  They were quick to say they needed him around, and enjoyed what he had to say. They felt spiritually up lifted by their token Catholic.

At one time in his life, following a series of crises and being simultaneously very wounded by some in his own parish,  he actually struggled about whether to remain Catholic or not.  It was his friends at the Zen Center and the synagogue, who said, “Whatever you do, don’t leave the Catholic Church.” They cared more than anyone else, he said.

Now that he is newly retired, he can spend more time volunteering, working for peace, and walking into temples, synagogues and mosques asking about God and giving the gift of a listening heart to anyone willing to share their faith.

Frank seems to have been aptly named after the great St. Francis of Assisi, who said, “Preach he Gospel at all times. Use words when necessary.”

Frank and Karin are off to their next stop on their summer adventures; a Catholic Worker farm, then a Youth Hostel, a Benedictine guest house, and then on to Mt. Bly in Oregon to visit my off the grid daughter, Maire, and her little family.

I mention, as we get up to leave the cafe, that we’ve actually been talking Nostra Aetate over our shisha. Frank says, “Yeah. That pretty much rocks.”

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Read Nostra Aetate

Hookah: a waterpipe
Mu‘assel, or shisha tobacco: the molasses-based tobacco concoction smoked in a hookah; often comes in various flavors such as rose, lemon, mint, etc.
Hookah lounge, or shisha bar: an establishment where patrons share shisha

Travel by heart

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness…  wholesome, charitable views… cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner …”
~Mark Twain

This is true. However,  one can travel without leaving town.  Consider the borders of social and economic boundaries,  roles we occupy that keep us from knowing one another, our self protective measures in the face of suffering.  To brush aside convention and fear in favor of love and adventure; this is travel by heart. I don’t know about you, but without it, I tend to create my own world and risk losing sight of the Gospel.

The rule of this travel is: Anything that softens your heart is a good thing. Anything that hardens the heart should be avoided. Cultivate a receptive heart to be a well -rounded traveler. Learn to ignore what doesn’t matter to go places no one has ever been before.

Get to know a “Welfare Mom.”

Be friends with an “illegal” human being.

Hold someone who is dying.

Breath deeply of another’s world.  

Sometimes I am still embarrassed, scared or don’t know what to say, but I have tried walking through the doors when I see them,  making a pilgrimage to the holy shrine of human encounter.

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It’s kind of a crazy place.

Once, an elderly lady I was obediently and routinely spoon- feeding,  smiled, picked up her spoon, and started feeding me! We looked at each other and laughed.

Moments like this happen all the time in life. What if you made a habit of paying attention to their opportunities every day? You would be a seasoned back packer through worlds unknown. Maybe you already are.

Sometimes you will not want to make the trip.

Tradition dictated I invite “all” my “friends, neighbors and family” to my house blessing. I thought, “Not the druggie guys next door.” But I did invite them. They looked great, all smiles, clean and dressed up, obviously totally honored to have been invited. That was humbling. Being humbled feels great.

Make the trip.

 I met a young mom who had to scramble to find a house to clean or a lawn to mow to get dinner on the table for her kids at times when her meager supply of food stamps ran out. LeAnn became a good friend. I would have missed knowing a true poet, missed a beautiful friendship, if she and I had maintained the customary boundaries between “helper and helped.” She would have missed me too.

An elderly man I met during my CNA training enchanted me with his serene playfulness, his big blue eyes. We had fun together while I changed his sheets. “I’ve never met anyone like you before!” he exclaimed. “I’ve never met anybody like you either!” I said. “I think I want to marry you!” “I want to marry you too!” We didn’t get married. But we remain good friends years later. Jim is an extraordinary and inspiring person. To think I could have changed the sheets and walked out of his life!

The mother of one of my daughter’s friends, who is very ill, allowed me to do a few, small acts of service for her. Her courage, humor and kindness have inspired me. She has put a human face on the term, “Illegal immigrant,” for me. Coming to know her has taught me that only what God sees matters. Only His will, His law, which is always, love, matters at all.

Early in my care giving job, talking to my boss, Gretchen, suddenly it seemed I was seeing how lovely she is to God. It was magical, a holy moment, a total gift.  Now I know by experience that she really is lovely, and, fortunately for me, she is a world class traveler! She saw past my brokenness, past the employer-employee relationship, to let me try even when it was scary for her to do.  Her trust helped me grow.

A tendency to travel by heart can help you stay close to someone you love very much even when his journey becomes painful and frightening.

I held my husband, Bob, as he died. I went with him as far as I could until he was gone. All I or anyone else there felt was the overpowering presence of Love. As anyone who has done this can tell you, you can experience love and joy even when death comes, if you just let your heart be there. All that is left is love and you’re not scared anymore.

Habitual focus on what is human and real made me able to connect with my mom in new ways and walk with her through her dementia. It sounds crazy but we had a really good time. It was grace.

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Love is its own wisdom, and God Himself IS love. Love covers all the territory. By love, you learn that the universe resides in each human heart, even your own, and that the journey never ends.

That is the kind of trip I love most, because of the peace, transformation, and joy it brings- a trip across borders God does not acknowledge, to that place where the last is first and the first is last and neither even thinks about it because only one thing matters.

So don’t be afraid to cross the borders. Explore, and love. The fence is imaginary and God is on the other side.

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