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Catholic contemplative life and devotion

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spirituality

Christian love: what (really) and how

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What is Christian love? After my conversion to Catholicism (quite a leap from the way I was raised which was without religion,) my family had adjusting to do. My brother was the person I was closest to. We were symbiotic and as my mom said, “joined at the hip.” For me to make such a radical change in my world view seemed like a kind of betrayal by me. In the beginning we argued. I would say I loved him, which wasn’t especially well received when he was mad. Once he said, “I don’t want your ‘Christian love.‘ I just want you and YOUR love.” This upset me. I thought “What’s the difference?”

Pondering this interaction on the drive home, I realized what he meant and what his fear was. When we were kids my parents were very young, idealistic and nonconformist. We looked different. Our Hippie family was ill treated in the small Texas town my parents had moved to for school in 1968. It was a college town, yes, but unbelievably conservative. They did not allow women into the University unless they were married to a male student until 1972.

A lot of people who said they were Christian didn’t let us play with their kids, talked mess about our parents right in front of us, were harsh and cold with my brother and me and we didn’t understand why. We saw them as alienating people with fake smiles, and vacant eyes who were prone to heartlessness. When they said anything about loving us for Jesus’ sake it just sounded like they didn’t want to “love us” (whatever that meant) but Jesus wanted them to play nice. Which they didn’t.

My brother was afraid I would now love him in some generalized fake way, judging him as a person the whole time. It took him time and experience with me as a Catholic to disabuse him of that notion.

What does Christian love really mean? What does it mean to love someone for Jesus’ sake? I do think sometimes people don’t go very far with this. Maybe sometimes we do think it means to play nice.

Someone on social media told me he was tired of the Church being “the Church of nice.” I said I knew we weren’t supposed to be “the Church of Nice.” No we are supposed to be the Church of radical love.

I’m still working this out. All of us are, as my granny used to say, “full of prunes.” We don’t know what we’re talking about and we think we do. We think better of ourselves sometimes than we really are. We can wake up feeling like we love everybody and we hate everybody by 2 O’clock, or at least we hate several people. Some people. I’m no different. Sometimes I tell Jesus, “I know I’m not allowed to hate that guy. I know you love him, I know.” I tell him all about it. Then there is a glimmer, a hint, of what Jesus feels for that person, and I can’t go on with my tirade or hot headed attitude. I can perceive my self both as the fool I am and the affection and love God has for me. Most of the time peace comes to me pretty quickly if I’m willing. Life is so hard and I don’t know why it has to be so hard. It just is.

In that glimmer of understanding and touch of peace, I think lies the answer of the beginning of Christian love, real love, personal love for a unique and unrepeatable human being we may not know as well as we could, or a transformed love for someone we know as we know ourselves.

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He has put into my heart a marvelous love

– Psalm 16:3a

Christian love comes from union with Christ, the transforming love of “putting on the new self.” (Eph. 4:24. This is how we begin to love others as Jesus loves us. (See Jn. 13:34.) I don’t think this ability comes from baptism alone. I think it comes from prayer and time spent consciously in God’s presence. It is prayer that taught me how to love more fully, to examine my inner motivations and attitudes toward others and myself. Prayer and fledgling love of God inspired me to own up to my character defects and wrongheaded, prideful or selfish way of loving- even my brother.

With prayer and being with God we receive a new clarity and freedom of heart. This doesn’t happen right away. It takes so much time that often I get frustrated with myself. I have to remember that God will “complete the good work he has begun in [me.]”

For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will complete it by the day of Christ Jesus.

Philippians 1:6

Teresa of Avila wrote about detachment in relationships, especially in Chapter 7 on spiritual friendship in her book The Way of Perfection. “Detachment” sounds cold to us today. Based on my own experience I think I know what she means a little bit that we can apply here. This doesn’t mean less love for someone! It really means a detachment from self, from selfishness in our relationships.

How do we do that? Admittedly I don’t have this figured out yet. However, there is a lot of mystery involved so I don’t blame myself for that!

Similar to our efforts and experience of prayer there is an active part to this new kind of human love, and a mystical part.

The active part is more obvious. We decide to be more self aware to notice what to let go of in our ways of relating. Some of this is simple. Let’s have a look at my brother and me. When he went to rehab at age 16, we learned from the staff there how to better communicate. At first we felt silly like we had to learn to talk all over again and we would get tired of it sometimes and revert to old ways. Or we lost our tempers and had outbursts. We talked about this. We decided to see our progress. The progress was we noticed what we were doing wrong. Then with practice we got where we noticed even before we were mean and stopped ourselves. Then later, we didn’t even think about being mean anymore. Or controlling. Or selfish anymore. This is basic stuff for some people but to us it was a whole new fish bowl.

In the mean time I was learning to pray. I must have been quite an emergency to God because he set about teaching me what real love felt like right away. It was the way he loved me, and the way I learned to love him back. His love is simple and tender and clear. It stops the thoughts and worries running through your mind and you don’t even think “Hey I’m being loved.” It just is.

My own love started to simplify itself, both my love for God and my love and regard for other people. I learned to listen to people in the same way I was learning to listen to God. This took work and came from an urging I think was from him, that I do so. But the transformation took time.

My brother decided I was still me and that he didn’t have to worry about me turning into someone else or loving him in some impersonal creepily fake way. He noticed me growing as a person and that he could translate my new language of spirituality into his own understandings about life and his pragmatic view of spiritual things. He noticed I judged him less, not more. Sometimes, like his early sober days, we reverted to old fears in our relationship, both of us afraid of not being accepted as were were. We both learned, we both grew. We learned to accept one another.

And that’s how it is. What do you know? When we are able to love someone in a Christly way, they don’t just experience Jesus through us, we experience Jesus through them as well, whether they are Christian or not. We want to know a person better when we meet them and we know that every one of them belongs. We may not know how we know, but we know.

And pretty soon the whole thing gets out of control and our way of loving grows a new dimension. The world opens up and the possibilities are endless.

What does God say about this?

Beloved,
we are God’s children now.
What we shall be
has not yet been revealed.
However, we do know that when he appears
we shall be like him,
for we shall see him as he really is.

1John 3:2

Applied to learning to love others, I take this to mean in this case that we are already God’s children, but we ourselves are a mystery unfolding, known only to God. The closer we get to the Lord, the more we are transformed as we come to know him and love him as he is, which is for himself; the way he loves us. We will not be perfect at this in this life. However we can cultivate God’s kind of love through prayer, self awareness, God awareness, and the service he inspires. In his mysterious way he will work his beautiful will in us all our lives more and more in pathways of love.

And then we have so much to look forward to: the absolute fullness of love, the fullness of God and union with him.

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The Sacred Humanity of the Risen Lord

All Easter day Jesus was playing hide and seek, surprising different disciples in different places and in different ways, all of these encounters beyond anything they ever thought they would see and know.  It had been an overwhelming day, a world inside out day. 

They had denied, laughed, and no doubt cried. They experienced impossible things they could hardly process. It was too astonishing to make sense. 

By Easter evening, they were settled for the time being, and they said, “Stay with us Lord, for evening draws near.” (Lk. 24:29)

They got to be with him for forty more undoubtedly beautiful days. 

It must have been hard to stop looking at him, hard to stop hugging him, hard to calm down and just be with him. Maybe it was easier in the glow of the fire to relax in his presence, to enjoy his tenderness and love for them, to truly believe in his reality.  

 He had shown the disciples his wounds, invited them to touch him, eat and drink with him. He wanted them to know he wasn’t a ghost, of course. But I also think he wanted to reiterate something of the utmost importance in the spiritual life of a Christian; that Our Lord is a real person. After the resurrection, he is still as real as before, the same man they experienced and traveled with during his ministry… except for that walking through locked doors thing, and that rising from the dead part… still their same holy Friend. 

His disciples are not having a vision, but actual contact. 

There is always the temptation among people of prayer over the centuries of Christianity, to relate to Jesus as only spirit. St. Teresa of Jesus (Avila) saw this and the Doctor of Prayer made sure we understood that the only way to true intimacy with the Lord is through his Sacred Humanity. We are not angel spirits, but human beings, and that is our way to him who became incarnate for us. 

He still is incarnate for us. 

It is amazing to me that this Teacher who tended to buck religious regulations, customs and rituals if they got in the way of necessity, or especially,  the obedience of the love of God and the pre-eminence of charity, to suddenly, at the end of his earthly life, give us the Eucharist and make it a permanent ritual sacrament for all time. In the Eucharist, we will always have his physical presence with us as well as his divine presence. We will always be able to eat and drink with him (and of him) at mass. 

We can sit with him in Adoration in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, as a real and accessible person.

He said, “I will be with you always until the end of the age.” Mtt. 28:20

Sometimes we forget the Treasure we have in the Eucharist.  

Because he is a real person, but also divine, we can take him home with us, too, and say, “Stay with us, Lord.” 

He said, “On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.” (Jn. 14:20) This isn’t just a nice thought. His presence in us is so real that that is exactly how our bodies will rise from death on the last day. 

“If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit who dwells in you. (Rom. 8:11) How real can he get? 

And also, St. Paul asks, “Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you?” (2 Cor. 13:5b)

Jesus is real and he is within us as real. 

St. Teresa would add “and we should not leave him there alone!” 

He said, “No longer do I call you servants but friends.” (Jn. 15:15a)

We can’t be friends with an idea. We can’t fall in love with a vision or a ghost. 

But Jesus with his dirty feet and rough calloused hands, Jesus the real person, we definitely can. 

We can love him and see him the way he wants to be seen and loved: as real! (Jn. 20:27)  

St. Teresa said that interior prayer and being with Jesus is “nothing else but falling in love with Christ, frequently conversing in secret with him who we know loves us.” (translation, Fr. Otillio Rodrigues, O.C.D.) 

The Christian life is a life of friendship with Jesus in his Sacred Humanity, with a real and accessible, truly present and incomprehensibly humble Lord who is truly in and with us.  

We too should look at him, touch him, peek in at him when he is sleeping to make sure he is still there, hear his voice as alive and active, ask him, “Stay with us Lord.” 

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Wake up! It’s Easter!

Some types of darkness are so complete I wonder what I was calling darkness before. Fiddling with the scree at the bottom of the cave floor I am sitting on, my hand bumps into the most unlikely thing in the world… flowers? They are not dried flowers but living ones. I can feel their soft petals. I sense him smiling in the dark. 

“What are we doing?” I ask Jesus. He doesn’t say anything so I take his cue and don’t say anything either. 

It never occurred to me that the Risen Lord might have wanted to sit and reflect before he came out of the tomb but it makes sense.  Before I take a big step that turns the world upside down that is what I do too. 

And then I think that it would have been possible for him not to tell anyone that he had risen from the dead. He could have just done it in the secret of the tomb and ascended without an audience. The victory would still have been won. But Jesus isn’t like that. He wants to bring us all in, share everything with us. He wants us to choose him and engage with him in life. Even the work of bringing all the world in on this most mind boggling gift he doesn’t keep to himself. 

He wants us to share in the power flowing from his resurrection and to shine out for everyone. 

He wanted us to know what he was doing for us not when we got to Heaven but right away, and to act on it in this life. 

I wonder what he is thinking about over there.

I want to be closer to him so I start edging toward where I think I may have heard him scratching around.  I keep bumping into waxy plants of some kind. Going over them with my hands I realize they are lilies. They smell like lilies; that mild, sweet fragrance they have. 

“What are you thinking about?” I ask him. “Everything,” he says, and I am at his side.

 “Things that have happened? Things that will happen?” I ask. 

He chuckles which makes me laugh too, so glad to be in this moment with him. 

We stand together and I do my best to follow him. It must be time. 

We pause and I feel a roundish jagged rock in front of me. It is so strange that it is covered with a wild tangle of roses. I know they are roses because of their beautiful and unmistakable scent. 

I never know what is going to happen around him but I do know it will always be life, life  and more life! 

I am almost giggling thinking of how surprised Mary Magdalene is going to be when she sees him. I am so happy I will get to see this. 

“Are you ready?” he asks. “This is where things get really crazy.”. 

I don’t know what to say. Why is he asking me if I’m ready? 

“I’ve been waiting for you, Lord.” I say. 

“For me?” he asks. 

Something about the way he says it causes my understanding to shift. With amazement  I realize this is my tomb, not his.  It is I who am about to rise with him and go out from here as something or someone I am not sure I will recognize. Also he said things were about to get crazy so … I hesitate. 

He seems to think this is great fun however, and I can’t help but be infected with his joyous excitement; his happiness because he loves me and he came that I might live, and live to the full and forever with him.  

I embrace Jesus and I tell him I am ready. We step back and we count together, “1…. 2….3!” 

And what about you? 

Hey, COME OUT OF THERE! 

“Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” Ephesians 5:14

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Going to things: my project for Lent

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“Turn not to the easiest, but to the most difficult,” wrote St. John of the Cross. This principle has been my inspiration for my project for Lent 2022. 

By nature I am somewhat reclusive. Solitude, prayer, and reflection come far more easily to me than leaving the house. Leaving the house requires an urgent duty such as work, the request of someone who needs me, or maybe a crowbar. 

When people ask me to go to events I usually say no. Sometimes  I say maybe and then don’t go. Even events I want to go to I start to dread as the time draws near, and I wish there was a way out of them. 

St. Teresa of Avila wrote that the perfect soul is a sublime balance between Mary of Bethany who listened at Jesus’ feet and her sister Martha who served his needs. (See Luke 10:38-42) This soul would be an ellipse dedicated to both prayer and service. If we don’t serve, then have we prayed in a way that allowed Christ to transform us? How can we keep what we have with Jesus if we don’t give it away? How can we grow if we don’t change? Well we can’t. 

St. Teresa said the life of prayer should always lead us to “good works, my daughters, good works.” I don’t mind “good works,” and in spite of my love of solitude, I have a full and busy life. 

When I am with someone they are the only person in the world to me. However, group interaction with people I don’t know tends to overwhelm me. Make it something official like a meeting for an organization and I am automatically miserable and feel socially inept. 

For Jesus this Lent I have been trying to show up anyway, go against my natural inclinations, and expand into new territory. Doing this I have found new dreams and new vistas where Jesus is leading me. I am even on the board now of a new organization to help those in need in our community. (More on that new endeavor at another time.) I have never been on the board of anything and would never have thought that I would be competent to do so. I’m still uncertain but am trying anyway. 

In the past I have helped people in a “vigilante” kind of way, just on my own. I thought this was because organizations have so many of what I considered “annoying rules” such as “don’t let random people you help into your car or home, and avoid getting involved in their lives,” etc. I like to be free to let someone take a shower at my house if they need to. I have wanted to be a friend more than to feel like an agent of some kind. I don’t want to have to fill out forms or be impersonal with someone in any way. At least this is what I thought my disinclination was about. It was partly that. 

However, through this Lenten project of “going to things” like meetings for charitable concerns, I have come to see that some of my aversion to rules and organizations comes also from the fact that I am willful and kind of flakey, or I have been in the past. I didn’t want to be accountable. I didn’t want to have to help every day or on a schedule. I liked to do whatever I wanted when I wanted and the way I wanted, mostly as opportunities to help naturally came my way.  Well that is a new insight into my selfish nature I had not looked at before. 

What I am learning now by experience is that collaboration with other people and organizations on behalf of a person or people in need, is one of the most powerful forces for change in the world. You probably already knew that but I didn’t. I am continually surprised how much can be done when people put their heads together to do something good. 

I am learning that showing up makes even my home life and my prayer life more fruitful and creative. I feel inspired. I even feel like my life has taken a turn down a new path and all I did was go to things. While there, I tried to keep an honest, open and willing heart even if I was nervous and uncomfortable.  Maybe the Martha and Mary parts of my soul are influencing one another and working together in new ways. Maybe they can be friends. 

I’m still a hermit type. I’m still nervous at meetings and I still wish I could stay home. But I’m excited too that Jesus is doing something new with me even though it is still somewhat unknown. For me, following him into this new adventure is a big step.  

And what about you? What are you doing or what can you do that may be new or come less easily for you? Where might Jesus be taking you? 

Whether your journey with the Lord this Lent is inward or out into the world, may the same love of Christ urge us on. 

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The power of Lent in these troubled times

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As we prepare for this Lent of 2022, it seems to me the timing is good. With Russia invading Ukraine before the eyes of the world and as we watch and pray, deeply affected, this period of intensifying our prayer comes particularly welcome. Lent is the perfect time to remember our ability to heal the world and touch others with the power and love of God as we draw nearer to him on the path toward Easter that is Lent.  

People Francis has said, 

“I would like to appeal to everyone, believers and non-believers alike. Jesus taught us that the diabolical evil of violence is answered with the weapons of God, with prayer and fasting. 

I invite everyone to make next March 2, Ash Wednesday, a day of fasting for peace. I encourage believers in a special way to devote themselves intensely to prayer and fasting on that day. May the Queen of Peace preserve the world from the madness of war.” 

I am reminded that the disciplines we take up for Lent are not just for ourselves and our personal relationship with Jesus or merely for our own improvement and transformation. We aren’t going to the spiritual beauty shop or to the gym of souls for a virtues workout for our own peace of mind about ourselves. No. This is not only about ourselves. 

Not only are we accompanying our beloved Lord into the desert to pray and be with him. No.  When we  accompany him, we accompany his brothers and sisters who suffer as well. 

There is yet another aspect of our Lenten practices of prayer, fasting and alms giving, which is that these things we do can change the world. 

As Catholics we know that everything we do affects everyone everywhere because we are all connected. This is why after Confession we don’t simply walk away free but we first do penance for our sins. Usually our penance is to remain in the church a while for prayer and reflection in some way that the priest suggests. Why do we do that? Fr. Greg McLaughlin explained it to me this way: when we have done something to harm someone else, it is best not only to apologize but to make amends as well. Because we are all connected to one another our sins, even our personal ones we think only hurt ourselves, harm everyone else on a spiritual level. So we make spiritual amends to repair the damage we have done. 

When we pray, fast and make personal sacrifices in union with Jesus and his own sacrifice, he shares his salvific power with us. This is one of the ways we already reign with Christ. 

As St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) put it: 

“The world is in flames. Are you impelled to put

them out? Look at the cross. From the open heart

gushes the blood of the Savior. This extinguishes the

flames of hell. Make your heart free by [your commitment to God]; then the flood of divine

love will be poured into your heart until it overflows

and becomes fruitful to all the ends of the earth. Do

you hear the groans of the wounded on the 

battlefields in the west and the east? You are not a

physician and not a nurse and cannot bind up the

wounds. You … cannot get

to them. Do you hear the anguish of the dying? You

would like to be a priest and comfort them. Does the

lament of the widows and orphans distress you? You

would like to be an angel of mercy and help them.

Look at the Crucified. If you are…bound to

Him…your being is precious blood. Bound to Him,

you are omnipresent as He is. You cannot help here

and there like the physician, the nurse, the priest.

You can be at all fronts, wherever there is grief,

in the power of the cross. Your compassionate

love takes you everywhere, this love from the

Divine Heart. Its Precious Blood is poured

everywhere, soothing, healing, saving. The eyes of

the Crucified look down on you asking, probing.

Will you make your covenant with the Crucified

anew in all seriousness? What will you answer

Him? Lord, where shall we go? You have the words

of eternal life.”

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Whatever you undertake for Lent, whatever prayers,  commitments, holy reading, various forms of fasting and self denial, do it intentionally and dedicate your actions, reflections and prayers for the good of the world, for peace, for all who suffer. When you receive Our Lord in the Holy Eucharist, you can offer your Communion for peace. 

Remember that united to the Heart of God, you can set out in the Spirit across the world with Jesus, with Mary, and touch every face. 

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How a St. Francis statue changed my life

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I was 19, and living back home with my family for a while, when, coming in one evening, I found everyone very bemused with me.

“We got a call from the Christian book store that the book you ordered is in…….?” My mom queried.

“OK.”

“We thought it might be a wrong number……?”

“No, that’s the book I ordered about St. Francis.”

They all looked at each other.

As I headed down the hall to my room, I heard my brother ask, “What? Did you hear that?”

My step dad said, “Well… you never know what Shawn is going to do.”

At that time I was getting ready to go to Corpus Christi to spend some time with my Granny.

I planned to re-paint the St. Francis statue she had in her back yard while I was there.

Someone had given it to her in the distant past, to set at the grave of a beloved family dog who had died long ago. The worn, concrete statue was of a serene faced man in a tattered habit, a hood drawn over his head. He is holding a small, trusting bird against his chest, his eyes closed in prayer, or perhaps gazing down tenderly.

This statue had stood under the cottonwood tree year after year. It was a marvel of Granny’s household, having survived three major hurricanes without tipping over, even though it was a knee high concrete statue anyone could lift.

One night, however, the St. Francis’ face had been vandalized; spray painted an ugly red and black. I planned to fix that.

None of us knew much about St. Francis the person.

How a st. francis statue changed my life

We had heard he had been known to communicate with animals.

Granny was in the habit of adopting injured, stray and abandoned animals to the point her house was filled with them. (It’s a good thing she cleaned all the time!) Most of her grocery bill was for pet food, and the veterinarian down the road heard from her often.

Generally Granny had a rough, colorful personality. However, she would break down sobbing over the suffering or death of an animal.

She had a special love for birds, and daily fed the ones who frequented her back yard. Crowds of them weighed down the branches of the giant oleanders, and sang in the orange and mulberry trees around her garage each evening. A few sea gulls usually circled above. She would hear their “racket,” and go out to her waiting admirers.

She would raise an old metal trash can lid, turned up and filled with birdseed high above her head, and a whirl wind of wings would surround her. Some of the birds settled on her shoulders, or even in the palm of her hand. It looked like magic.

She had the quaint habit of talking to animals seriously, as if they were people, and they seemed to listen to her.

A saint who could commune with animals would naturally interest her. I had only recently begun to believe in God, and to learn to pray and meditate a little. I was not open to religion.

I thought it would be nice, however, to learn about St. Francis while I worked on his statue.

So we would put on a pot of coffee now and then each day, and as she worked her trade of re-weaving,*  I sat on the floor by her work table. As I had done since I was a little girl, I read aloud to her.

francesco-7p

I don’t know what I expected, but The Way of St. Francis by Fr. Murray Bodo, was a very reflective book. Reflective Christianity was a new experience for me.

I was impressed with the author’s depth, warmth, humility, and spirituality.

St. Francis surprised me, too. His Christian faith made him more authentic rather than less so. His unabashed love for Jesus led him to embrace people and ideas he had always been afraid of, and to renounce social acceptability when it got in the way of going where God, where love, was leading him.

Because he wanted to be a faithful Christian, he practiced radical inclusiveness, and unconditional love.

Because He loved God, He loved the created world for His sake.

He did delightfully crazy things.

He was charming and challenging.

He was adventurous and full of joy, love, and humility, ready for anything.

I had never heard of living simply, in solidarity with the poor, out of love for “the poor Christ,” or of voluntary poverty as a spiritual discipline.

It was healing for me that he did not seem to trample on other people’s feelings or their sense of self. Instead, they were won over by his kindness and love, his respect, his happiness, and by the fact that he really did visibly live what he believed in, even down to his love and obedience toward Church authority.

He knew suffering, but he found inner joy from knowing God, and from loving with abandon.

I felt very impressed with the beautiful, joyful life of love St. Francis lived.

As I sanded the statue, and carefully painted it in calming shades of blue and gray, I found myself thinking about him and smiling.

images

I had not known it was possible to listen for the voice of God in one’s heart, and to actually be inspired be that.

Striving for a certain type of life was also a new idea for me.

I loved learning about Francis’ soul friend, St. Clare. I had never heard of contemplative Christianity before. What a deep, poetic, courageous woman. She was the first of many women mystics I would read from or about in the years ahead, opening my heart, a little more at a time, to God and prayer.

images-3

Granny and I both loved the stories about St. Francis. Of course she really liked hearing that he had preached to the birds, and tamed the wolf of Gubio. My favorite was the surprising story of Francis and the Damietta prostitute. 

I was inspired to memorize the St. Francis prayer, and to use it as a point of meditation for years to come. Later, Granny sent me a prayer card of it that I still have.

Over the next several years, I would sand down and re-paint the statue on my lone visits to Granny. It became a kind of ritual for me.

Granny started to talk to St. Francis over her morning coffee on the back porch before she got to her work, and at other times during the day, and to pray more often.

I earnestly tried to begin to live a spiritual life and to learn to love, little by little.

I don’t know if all of my attempts were directly inspired by St. Francis, but I think he and his example had a lot to do with it.

I tried several things that changed the way I lived and saw the world.

I began to try to reach out and connect with people even though that was hard for me, and to try to see the good in everyone.

I got over my embarrassment and started to talk to homeless people whenever I saw them, to give them what I could, to hug them if it was OK with them.

I attempted to smile from the heart at every human being I saw. I still try to do that.

I became more interested in prayer.

I made conscious efforts to live more simply, as a spiritual practice, and so that I could share more with others.

I recognized joy, love, and humility, as virtues to respect, to look for and see in others, to hope for, for myself.

I rediscovered my childhood connection to nature and to animals. I saw beauty more and more, and learned how to drink it in and enjoy it.

I started to notice my hardness of heart and to try to become more open and loving.

I was not about to become a Christian, (so I thought.) But getting to know St. Francis began to give me new ideas about life and about God.

Many things happened over time that drew me slowly into the Catholic Church, and inspired me to live the faith as fully as possible. Maybe my friend, St. Francis was helping me along.

Eventually, my granny was baptized and confirmed as a Catholic. She chose the name Francis at her Confirmation.

When she was asked, “Ruth, what do you ask of God’s Church?” She unconsciously went “off script” and answered from the heart, “I want to love and to be loved.” Everyone smiled.

That St. Francis statue stands faithfully at my grandmother’s grave today. It is even more worn by the weather now, into a wonderful blend of shades and textures from years of being outside, and from my different loving restorations of it. Since I set it there beside her head stone, I have chosen not to repaint it anymore. It is beautiful just as it is.

How a St. Francis statue changed my life

*Re-weaving was the trade of re-weaving cloth that had holes, flaws or tears in it, making it look new. My grandmother was the last re-weaver in Texas.

Choosing a method of Contemplative Prayer

And the one who searches hearts knows what is the intention of the Spirit, because it intercedes for the holy ones according to God’s will.
Romans 8:27

No matter the method of meditation, each one employs some kind of anchor to help us master our thoughts during prayer;a scripture passage, a set prayer, a holy word or phrase help us return again and again when the mind wants to do its busy work. In Christian Meditation, this anchor will also be a way to root us in our intention of prayer, openness and presence to the Beloved

There is often a format, a structure that helps us to make our prayer a process, a movement, a conversation, an exchange of love.

The basis of all Christian prayer, including holy meditation, is Jesus.

Moreover it is our intent to connect to this Lord that makes our meditation prayer rather than a mental exercise.

Please don’t worry too much about whether a method is what you think it should be or whether other people should be using it. Use discernment in your choice, but know it is not as if doing the “wrong” one is going to make your or anyone else’s prayer go down the wrong pipe and not to God. That’s just plain silly.

To me prayer is about love and my will to be with God, no matter what technique I use to learn to be ready for an encounter with the Friend. Prayer is less about me and more about God. In my experience, when I seek his will he responds and when I am open and willing to be corrected, he will correct me. This seems to run true for others as well. “If I am wrong, Lord, change my heart.”

The author of the Christian classic The Cloud of Unknowing ( the “cloud” representing the fact that our intellect cannot reach God sufficiently) tells us to use our anchor in meditative prayer as a spark or arrow of love, to pierce through the “cloud of unknowing” straight to the Heart of God. That is a beautiful way to think of it, and it also rings true.

If a certain technique confuses you or you feel you aren’t making good progress with it, make adjustments and carry on. Yes there are pot holes on the road of prayer. I think I have fallen into them all along the way, though I eventually overcame, thanks be to God and God willing, I will continue to.

I am concerned that a lot of people seem to be overly cautious about Christian Meditation or about this or that method. Don’t do anything that makes you uncomfortable, but don’t freak out. Just move on if something you try isn’t right for you. Be free about this. I am. So far liberality of spirit has born great fruit for me,

If you are striving to grow, and you are guided by love of God, faithful in practice, doing your best to conquer sin, if you are living a sacramental life,loving more, then I think you are fine to set out on the Royal Road of contemplative prayer, or to stay on it,wearing the shoes that fit you best.

In short,

don’t be scared,

pray and be cool.

woman in red dress
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Love in a time of fear and uncertainty

My late husband, Bob Chapman, was diagnosed with Stage 4 Glioblastoma Multiforme, an aggressive Brain Cancer, in February 2010 while we were still engaged and dreaming about our wedding. We married in May that year just after he finished his initial treatment, a period of simultaneous radiation and chemotherapy.

He lived 2 ½ years. The course of his illness was hands down the most terrifying thing I have ever had to go through. If you know me, you know this is saying a lot.

However it was also the most beautiful time of all my life. He said the same for himself too. My daughters remember it as the happiest of times for them.

We had to make a daily decision not to live in fear and sorrow every minute. This does not mean we didn’t cry sometimes, or that we pretended not to be afraid. We were scared to death. Of course we were. But who wants to live like that? We decided to live happily as long as we could, and to “lovingly eat the bread of the will of God,” as St. Elizabeth of the Trinity expressed holy acceptance.

We thought if we did go down, we would go down swinging. We did all we could as enthusiastically as we could to fight cancer. We strove to leave the rest up to God. It was empowering.

We knew that things might not work out the way we wanted which was a horrifying prospect. We also knew that sometimes people did survive it. We ignored the statistics and tried to live in the hope; not with false expectations, but real hope. We knew that Bob would not be taken from this world without God’s permission. We decided remaining positive but without stifling our feelings when we were sad, angry or afraid seemed best. And we looked to God. As Bob said to me the week he died, “God is IT!”

We decided to love and to serve as much as we could. After a frightening MRI result we were really scared. All we could do for a while was hold one another. When he was ready to talk, he said. “Well, what do we do? We love, we walk on.”

And we did.

We learned to allow others to love and serve us. We grew in our appreciation of community.

We grew to understand that each day could be seen as an entire life -time, being born in the morning and dying in the Father’s arms at night. Getting dressed for work one morning, Bob said, “I’m alive today. That’s all anybody’s got.”

Living like this begins to bring out the beauty in all things. Life becomes more vivid. Connection with people and all living things becomes profound. The heart expands.

When we were overwhelmed we had a designated spot we pretended was our “clubhouse” where cancer could not go. We needed to take time out in that spot sometimes.

As a family we learned that almost anything is funny. Bob had speech problems that came and went for a long time. They were hilarious! One of his more famous utterances then was when he said, “What time do we eat the kids? 6:30?”

Trying to talk to someone on the phone about a bill, he explained to her, “My voice is broken but my THINK is fine!”

At M.D. Anderson, the staff seemed horrified that I kept laughing at Bob’s speech mistakes. I told one of them, “Hey we can laugh all day or we could cry all the time!” And anyway, he was laughing too! “What!?” he would say, “I speak the King’s English!”

We tried to make scary things fun. Bob took his guitar to the hospital with him and played it from his bed. The nurses loved it.

One time he went to a scary appointment with half his mustache and half his beard shaved so he had a perfect half and half face. The doctor did such a double take! It was so funny!

At chemotherapy we used to sit and blow bubbles together in the treatment room. He brought his guitar there too and played for everyone with the I.V. in his arm.

Bob was a do-er. He was always moving. One month almost to the day before his death he was mowing the lawn, pushing his crazy big mower uphill. I took a picture. Well that was Bob. He was unstoppable. Bob was into helping. Even when we went out to eat he would end up fixing the cook’s car in the parking lot or something like that. Once he saw a young woman having to put back her purchases at the grocery store so he went behind her putting the same items in his own basket. He bought them all for her and sent me to give them to her outside.

He fixed things for the elderly he saw struggling with something. He was all about service and not creating hardship or work for others. He called this his “skin religion.”

He brought me breakfast in bed on Saturdays and put on Bugs Bunny for me. He did everything he could for all of us for as long as he could.

Being able to serve was important to him as a person.

Eventually, he began to be paralized on one side. Still he dragged himself by one arm horizontally out the back door to work on a drainage project. Sometimes he got tired and had to lay down in the grass for a while.

He was a do-er and he was tenacious. We called him “The Atomic Bob.”

He was an artist but he began to lose his ability to paint. He couldn’t play guitar. He started dropping dishes so he couldn’t do them for me anymore. He got where any speaking at all was very difficult. He had trouble at work and finally took that extended sick leave he had not taken yet. He could no longer play guitar.

He was confined to his chair for a lot of the day. One afternoon he called me to him and said,
“Shawn! I can’t DO anymore.” I nodded, tears in my eyes. Then he said, “I can’t DO!” Here he put his hand on his heart, sobbing, “but I STILL LOVE!”

I knew what he meant.

He realized his love, doing or not, was valuable. He was reaching out to everyone, loving them, and that in his very inactivity, his great big heart was active and spreading love on a whole new level. “Hey,” I told him, between kisses, “you’re speaking like the great mystics of the Church now!”

We are such do-ers in this world and often this is a great thing. Through the history of our faith, though, some Christians have felt called to withdraw into holy seclusion to live a hermits’ life and to pray.

To us this looks like not helping, not doing. But as Servant of God Catherine Doherty wrote, “Look at the Man on the Cross. He is not doing anything because He is crucified.” Ah but He was doing EVERYTHING, wasn’t He?

Our family found humor and beauty, mindfulness, joy in service, acceptance, courage, tenacity, renewed faith, a closer bond, community and the spiritual gift of understanding right in our crisis. In the midst of sorrow, loss of control, uncertainty and intense fear we found the Kingdom of Heaven. When the situation was “down to the wire,” we found the true power of love.

God is with us. There are jewels in the rubble that are there for us to find and to share as we deal with Covid-19 as a community. If we seek this treasure we will find all we need and more. It is there for every one of us.

This is my husband’s painting of us praying together during his fight with Brain Cancer. He called it “Miracle.”

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* This piece originally ran as my column in The Bryan College Station Eagle

“Be the first to love” at the grocery store

Where you find no love, put love, and then you will find love.” ~ St, John of the Cross

I had a birthday cake to make on March 12. My eldest daughter, Maire was turning 27 the next day. This is her first birthday home in Texas again in years and she is so glad to be here.

I planned to make a Mexican Chocolate Cake (dense chocolate with a little kick from a pinch of hot pepper powder.)

I wanted a yellow rose (the Yellow Rose of Texas, of course) for a little cake top arrangement as well.

I had heard news of emptied out grocery stores in other places, and even a couple of local complaints. I tend to resist getting caught up in that sort of thing so I didn’t really pay attention too much.

The emotional climate in the store was distressing. People seemed angry and upset, even banging their shopping carts around. Almost everyone I saw seemed scared, furtive even. No one was making even passing eye contact.

Workers looked exhausted and rushed.

Young people in particular looked dazed, some standing and staring at the place where something they had been looking for was supposed to be.

I thought of my Focolare friend, Julia, who had been looking for ways to be useful during the Corona Virus outbreak. She and some others had some great ideas. I felt unsure of how to be useful and I still do.

The Focolare have a saying, “Be the first to love.”

“Jesus what can I do?”

The first thing I could think of was to smile at people if I did happen to catch their eyes. This was encouraging exercise because I could see some visibly relax and several smiled back. It was a Jesus smile I think because then they smiled at others too.

Some of the things I needed for the cake were hard to find. Sugar was in very short supply. I did find some raw sugar eventually. I tried to joke with a couple of people and it went well. They were ready to laugh. We laughed about how crazy it all was.

There was no salt. There were a lot of empty shelves. It made me kind of scared too, to see that. I had never seen that before.

When I saw young people staring at things and looking confused I tried to help them find what they were looking for. At first I was stupid and picked up the item when I found it and they probably thought, “No thanks since you touched it, Stranger, and that was the last one too!” Oh yeah. I did better the next time.

I saw tired children looking around wide eyed as their flustered parents negotiated the crowds. I tend to feel overstimulated and anxious in crowds myself. I told one kid, “Hey you are being really good in the store! My youngest is 22 and she isn’t as good in the store as you are!” If a child was crying I tried to give a sympathetic look.

I finally had everything I needed, thank goodness.

I went ahead and got some beans and rice which, as a vegan, I kind of have to have. They were almost completely out. I took one small bag of each. My pay day is not for a few more days so I can imagine other people having to wait until pay day too and then everything would be gone. I didn’t want to do that to anyone else. Lots of reasons not to take more than I needed.

I tried to notice when other people were attempting to reach for things I was reaching for too and let them go first. That’s hard for me since I usually don’t notice things like that. But I tried.

I had intended to pay in cash as I usually do but I didn’t because the cashiers would have to touch that.

I felt so sorry for the young women at the register. They looked exhausted; flushed, sweaty and scared. I found out one of them was from some other department but had to come help and neither of them had gotten off work hours ago when they were supposed to be off. I thanked them so much for being there and I said I was sorry for what they were going through. They seemed to appreciate it a little bit.

I told Jesus on my way out, “Those poor girls! Please protect them and give them strength.”

On the way home people drove crazy. It made me sad. But I felt lifted up just a little bit and I had a sense of peace beneath the worry. Maybe some of the people in the store did too.

That brief experience made me think that if we can try to connect even for a second in the little ways that we can, and smile a little bit sometimes, it might lift us all up just that much more. We could use that right about now.

Maybe the reason you find love when you invest love is that it isn’t really that your love comes back to you but that Jesus is there whenever we try to give love even just that little bit, in a tough situation and he multiplies the love just as he multiplied the loaves and fishes.

We are all going to need a lot of love.

Jesus walk among us and help us remember love even a little bit in the days ahead, and to see you multiply our smallest investments.

dandelion nature sunlight
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