Saturday, November 5, 2016

What Pilgrimage Made Grow: I didn't see this coming

One of the outcroppings of my pilgrimage which I did not at all see coming while I was in Poland was a certain practical shifting in my prayer focus. It continues to surprise me, though "surprise" isn't exactly the right word for something that I find having taken root in my soul.

Because it is the Year of Mercy, works of mercy came through as a theme at various World Youth Day events. And during that time, the spiritual works of mercy in particular sort of hummed with an attention-getting sort of resonance with me. But upon returning home, I found myself drawn powerfully to pray specifically for those in addictions, for those working in sex trafficking (pimps and prostitutes), and for those suffering violent abuse, whether physical or emotional.

It isn't that I have never prayed before for these needs, but since returning from Poland, this occupies a front and center place in my heart. There are no personal relationships informing this, but anyone who knows my hometown realizes that I am describing a hefty but hidden population here in the town. I am beginning to truly know myself called as a missionary right where I live.

There are complex intertwinings here, of course.

For one thing, I was invited to teach the Bible to children in an after school club downtown. I've known of this club for about six months, but this was nowhere on my radar screen while in Poland. But I am quickly finding it to be one of the biggest joys of my week. That's a surprise to me, too. Most if not all of these kids come from families or at least neighborhoods marked by the evils mentioned above. Several have never read the Bible, and some are not quite sure of why we bother talking about Jesus, and what he has to do with God. I have been teaching from the gospels connected to the mysteries of the rosary, beginning with the joyful mysteries. In taking this approach, one thing I'm looking for for myself (if I can say it this way) is to "watch" how Mary interacts with children such as these. And one thing that has become obvious is that, as a friend put it to me recently, Christianity is not a middle-class religion. God brings joy because he enters our human condition, our longing, our misery, and he shares it out of tremendous, mind-blowing love and desire for us.

Another complexity that is becoming simpler for me is a false dichotomy that has irritated me in various ways since my early days as a Catholic, with roots established earlier. Again, I'm not sure how to say this, but in my childhood I was firmly taught that the "social gospel" (which was said to be primarily, though not entirely, a byproduct of Catholicism) was a falsehood that is opposed to the true gospel, which was all about the eternal salvation of souls in heaven. That social gospel was about doing good works (essentially the corporal works of mercy) and advancing human progress, and about pretending that this was the reason Jesus died on the cross. I'll leave aside, for the moment, the puzzlement of how and why this was the deposit Lutheranism left with me. It simply was.

But when I became Catholic, this trouble did not quickly clear for me. If anything, I was left with a deeper kind of confusion. Theological troubles of the role of good works cleared more easily than did my wrestling with what I saw touted as the good works Catholics were encouraged to be about. Because of the era and place of my entry into the Church, I subconsciously realized the Catholic social gospel arena was heavily politicized. Conservatives had their issues; liberals had their issues. There were lots of axes grinding. I rarely saw anything promoted that seemed to directly help actual people. I was a conservative and worked with my people (literally; I worked for a pro-life group), and learned distrust of and despaired over the efforts of other camps.

And meanwhile, Jesus patiently tried to teach me that he meant it when he said "Inasmuch as you've done it to the least of these my brothers, you have done it unto me."

This topic is really complex enough for several of its own posts, but for now I will say that theologically or practically separating love of God and love of neighbor destroys both. St. John and St. James made it clear that we lie if we say we love God but do not love our neighbor in practical, active terms. Likewise, if we seek to love our neighbor based on personal power and agenda that omits surrendering Lordship to Jesus, it is not love in which we deal, but corruption.

God's love in us impels us outward to others. All of our social gospel problems boil down to a privation of love in us.

And a third intertwining point, connected here, is that love, the pure love of God in us, brings us holy death. We resist this with all our energy. What God wants most deeply from us all is to let Him love us. Once He has this, He can move. We cannot induce this "letting" in anyone; each door must be unlocked from within the heart.

Some of those kids in my Bible club have already spoken to me of painful realities in their lives. But they do it in an innocent and childlike way, simply as facts that they own. If we can look up into the Father's face with our misery like that, or if we can come to Mary and ask her to help us find the God we don't know... oh my gosh... what an abundance of grace and mercy awaits us.

God is so powerfully good and is so on our side. He can undo the most complex difficulties in response to such a cry for mercy. He wants to do it.

And so I am praying daily for breakthroughs of His mercy.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Learning to Expect Jesus

It has been two and a half months now since returning from pilgrimage, and from this vantage point, key lessons and peak points suggest themselves both more generally and more plainly all the time. It's one of these that I have on my mind today.

I associate this particular piece with a time of prayer during the Diocesan Days in Wroclaw; this was about the second week that we were in Poland. We had had our "easy, pleasant" first pass through Wroclaw, then our journey to Czestochowa. Warsaw had happened. We visited Niepokalanow. And I think I had already had my culture shock of meeting other Americans there in Wroclaw. So, quite a lot had passed through my soul up to that point. From the vantage point of time passed, I think of the pilgrimage up to that point as "the easy stuff."

During that prayer time that day in that church, I looked back upon who I was when I set out on pilgrimage, and who it seemed I was becoming along the way. And I was struck by how hard I try, how much effort I put into everything. I have a definite choleric side to me, and working, competence, and effort are all things I value. At the same time, I am a person open-ended to the potential of every circumstance and situation, and I am not very goal-oriented. Bite-size goals seem paltry, boring, and unnecessary, so I usually skip setting any. Often I work hard all day, and at the end of it, I feel lazy and unaccomplished. I am inspired by huge, life-time-sized goals. And I am also inspired to express love for others, including God, by working hard. These things create a dynamic that often sends me into an intense, driven fury to DO.

And I found that this dynamic was at work in my spiritual life as well, of course. I want to do what I can do to draw near to God, so I will take up penance (and tell my kids to do the same) and persevere in prayer to the letter of the law of how I am obliged to do it, and I will be somewhat stringent about things that are typical for me but not required by God nor Church.

Even as I type, the image that comes to mind is someone hunkered down over her work. And that day, as I prayed in that church, I realized that hunkered down had become my spiritual posture.

And that image makes me think of two things: being cold, and not expecting anyone or anything to happen.

It happens when I'm left with just me. I'm kind of all I've got. And I'm giving it all I've got, in part so that I don't get stuck in that other aspect of my personality: the melancholic. Because I might go there if I just stopped and said to myself, "I'm alone."

I work, sometimes, so that I'm not lonely.

But that day in the church, I realized this was not necessary, nor was it good, this bent interior posture I had developed without noticing. I was working as if everything depended on me. But I was not pursuing the fire of God's love, or was I living expectantly. I was leaving God out of our relationship, maybe thinking I had to leave Him an "out," you know, in case He really didn't want to be there.

I remember a dinner I made years ago for guests. All day I anticipated their coming. It was part of me. When the time came for their arrival, even though I was in the kitchen, every ounce of me was set on the street, on the gate, on the door, on the doorbell. I was with them long before they were with me. When I set the table, I was paying attention to them. When I stirred the food, I was paying attention to them. I was so not hunkered down. In fact, I do have an opposite setting, where I become almost uncontrollably flighty because I am so filled with expectation or flooded with someone's presence that my social function goes haywire.

But what God was calling me to that day was none of my own personality excesses. He was lifting my head, the same way a certain deacon always manages to do, whenever he offers me the Host. I am a good several inches taller than he, but he raises the Host far above both of our eye levels, so that I have to stand tall and lift my head up. There is something in this posture that requires me to go beyond myself, and expect Jesus.

Work is good, but our work does not command God. I can produce work. I cannot produce love. I respond to the love given me; God's love precedes me in everything. His love fills me, and then I can love. Then my doing is not self-protection. It is self-giving.

There is something of Thérèse in what God was teaching me here. Rather than pursuing a path that is supposed to lead me to feel competent and powerful and effective (yeaahhh, but somehow never quite makes it), God calls me to look up, run to the arms of the Father, and be lifted up as in an elevator. I don't need to show God how hard I've tried. I need to learn to bury my face in Him and say "Regardless of what I've done, love me, purify me, hold me, pick me up! For you are so good!"

I have the same temperament; that's not going to change. But rather than become frustrated with how little I feel I can do, or worse yet, admiringly self-congratulatory, I can recall that everything I do strains to expect Jesus. The work all falls into its place when the One Who is Love takes center stage.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

To Delight in God's Will

I thought I had written all that I would write, here. Perhaps I am not completely finished yet.

A few days ago I stumbled across a prayer I had written out (something I seldom do) just a few weeks before heading off on the pilgrimage. It goes like this:

Oh Lord, give me discernment between my passionate desires for good and holy things, my imagination of what your will could be, and the clear revelation of what your will actually is. Give me the faith and trust that my wildest imagination could never match the pure joy you actually desire to give me. Give me the detachment from even my holy passions, that makes me read to say Yes, Fiat, to the revelation of your will in which is ALL my delight.

God has acted on this prayer, it seems. The farther I move in time from the pilgrimage, it isn't as if anything is lost, but it is as if the main treasures stand out in stark relief. God's will for me is to love everyone. That is so simple, yet so profound, and even more amazing is that what He equips those He calls. In a daily being-conformed to Christ in His dying and rising, my heart expands. What else is life for?

Sunday, October 9, 2016

It Is (Never) Finished

At this writing, I've been back from Poland for not quite two months. It feels like a much, much longer time. For the last month, my processing of things has been more like soaking than sorting through. I am aware of tremendous changes that have happened in my heart, and even around me in the circumstances of my life. None of these could I have anticipated, but all of them demonstrate to me God's faithfulness and the fact that relationship with Him is never static, but is always dynamic, and that dynamic is not something supplied on my end of the relationship.

I am remembering one day early in the pilgrimage. I attempted to engage my Carmelite commitment of 30 minutes of mental prayer on our bus as we traveled somewhere. On this particular day, my prayer was largely liquid. In other words, I cried a lot. If I could translate what was happening interiorly into words, it would be something along the lines of offering myself to the Lord to be emptied out, but not so much because of it being my desire to do so. Rather, it wasn't my initiative, but I was responding to the Lord's call and the reality in front of me. I sensed, though, the Lord near me, encouraging me that I should not shrink back from the call or be afraid of it, because He was excited about the infilling that He intended after the emptying stage cycled through.

You know how that is when someone you love is excited about something, when you aren't? Doesn't it help you to keep in step with them? It does for me.

There is that moment of great cost, though. Jesus shows us God's pattern in dealing with us here. On Mount Tabor, Jesus was faced in advance with discussion of His exodus, in a glory moment with Moses and Elijah. God doesn't give glory moments as candy; He gives them as signs and as strength. The moment of great cost for Jesus came in his passion, when humanly speaking, everything became dark. God led me through that bit, too. But even in that moment on the bus, He seemed to be suggesting that this dark moment was not going to be so awful. Walking by faith is the made more painful the more we resist purification. Our resistance aggravates the pain. The more deeply we say yes to purification, the shorter and more bearable the moment of great cost will be. But willingness does not do away with the cost. This is another cycle we go through again and again in following Jesus.

It is safe to say that this pilgrimage  has been a life-changing experience for me. But it is better to live a changed life than it is to try to explain it. My heart has stretched, is stretching. I had some broken notions of love which, like mechanisms held together with duct tape, spit, and desperation, I tried to function with. God has exposed these and replaced them with His reality, and now I have the surprise of learning how they work. Most importantly, I know that God is real, and reality is trustworthy.

I can't recommend the experience of pilgrimage highly enough. I can't recommend relationship with the living God highly enough! I can't recommend penance as a means of seeking this God highly enough. Give God your willingness to meet Him and to jettison whatever is revealed as not-God in your life. With this willingness offered, God will meet you and lead you. Every difficulty on the journey is by every means worth it.

With this, I will probably close writing new posts on this blog. I'll integrate further reflections on my long-standing blog Naru Hodo, and invite you over there.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Why Are We Doing This?

During our first day hiking in the Tatra mountains, my daughter (who is 11) made an honest comment: I don't understand why we are doing this.

Her mental approach is not unlike my own, and so I find this a very useful observation. She was not making a thinly-veiled complaint (Why am I doing this? I don't want to.) but rather was searching for understanding of what use this was.

Because, let's face it, climbing up that mountain we were bathed in sweat, carrying backpacks, straining muscles, panting, getting sore, traveling mostly in silence for sheer lack of breath, and various other discomforts -- all with the point of climbing to an unseen destination an unknown distance away. And then we'd turn and go back down again. What's the point?

Metaphorically, this question can be applied to pilgrimage in general. We invested a lot of work, a lot of stress, a lot of money, a lot of time, a lot of effort, all to go to a destination that offered constant unknown, surprises, discomforts, trials.

Why? Why do this?

The Christian conception of pilgrimage, as I have now experienced it, boils down to this: Love calls and awakens a desire in the beloved for Himself. That desire compels us, and eventually propels us past what we actually bargained for. We do not seek difficulties. We do not seek thrills. We do not seek challenges. We seek God. God will be found by any heart that is determined to seek. It is the will that keeps on after the feeling of desire gives out.

Determination happens inside one's soul. St. Teresa of Avila says determination is the fruit of Christian daring. You cannot borrow someone else's determination; you cannot put it on like a jacket. Endurance can push you through difficulties, but determination means the will faces the difficulty and goes forward, regardless of feeling. We dare to seek the face of God, and God rewards us with grace that unites us to Him more profoundly.

I generally find graces to be shocking. Better territory than I ever expect, but always surprising, costly, humbling, and ennobling.

For me, I see that God is dead serious about me being a Carmelite. Frankly, it comes as a bit of a surprise just how serious God is about me at all. I haven't always taken myself very seriously. I'm just a doot, a basically meaningless person. Who cares. I've thought this attitude was humility.

But it isn't. God is Totally Awesome, and I exist in order to live in union with Him, making me an agent of bearing Totally Awesome into this world where vast, heart-breaking numbers of people basically want to die because all they know is pain, pain, and pain. Repeatedly, I have been the recipient of love either dripping from or flowing from another (depending upon how much I could handle without being suffocated by it all). God does not give to me so that I can sit on a couch and hug myself and think about myself. He gives to me so that I can give every ounce of my little soul to Him, so that I can love and pray -- not because I am great and have great things to give, but because He is great and has great things to give through me. I ain't got nothin'! But He's got everything, and I have Him!

We go to this place of stripping because we follow Jesus who accepted the way of the cross. We follow other believers who, in following Jesus have climbed mountains and entered churches and shrines and gathered and prayed and sought Him. We join where others have led. We call to others to follow, even if they aren't exactly sure Who they will find. As St. John of the Cross famously said, when a soul is seeking God, his Beloved is already seeking that soul all the more ardently.

We climb the mountain and we go on pilgrimage to be found. In being found by God, we discover who we are. We are His sons and daughters. We are His mother, bringing Him to birth again in this world, for the salvation of souls and the glory of Blessed Trinity.

We live and move and have our being in the Totally Awesome.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Polish Liturgies

We were privileged to have Holy Mass almost every day during our pilgrimage, and several of these were in English, or partially so, or with translation. And when it was none of the above, I usually had my Word Among Us along so that I could follow the readings in English. Sometimes I followed the Mass parts, too, to help me focus.

So many interesting observations here.

First of all, I loved that when our Polish friends spoke English, they almost always used the term "Holy Mass," not just "Mass" as most English speakers I know are accustomed to say. It simply strikes me as a term of endearment, an expression of love. I wonder, though, too, why I don't use it, and it also strikes me that for me, being so language oriented, it could easily become a matter of scrupulosity or pedantry -- and God help us free from that with everything connected with liturgy! Amen!

Many of our Masses were not typical parish Masses, either because of World Youth Day or the Days in the Dioceses events, or because of the Hallelujah community or specially organized liturgies, or because we were at shrines and holy places, or simply because of all of the lingering-about pilgrims. And when they were typical parish Masses, they were of course entirely in Polish, so I can hardly report on the feel of them from any sense that involves understanding language.

One detail that threw me a bit at first is that the congregation kneels for a shorter time than in the US. I wondered about this, but then during the Mass at Czestochowa, when we knelt in a squashing crowd in dripping heat on a marble floor... I thought just maybe scenes like this have influenced the Bishops of Poland to decree kneeling only in the heart of the consecration prayer. I don't know.

And speaking of squashing crowds, this happened more than once. Those churches with Gothic style floor plans (one narrow seating area down the middle) are wonderful for having multiple Masses happening at once when they are huge, but they are not so great when they are mini-versions and you have hordes of people to pack in. But then again, no one seemed to find it odd to pack into every available space, sitting around side altars, standing in the aisles, the doorways, even outside in the yards when no one could enter the building. No one was having a conniption fit about fire regulations. That was refreshing.

Our last Sunday Mass (a parish Mass) was a strange hybrid of a homily-less Mass with adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and Benediction at the end, still clocking in at about an hour. I was there early to hear the devotional prayers being sung before Mass. Obviously everyone knew everything because this had happened for always. It was the only time I saw (not necessarily the only time it happened) a church filled with elderly-ish women each dressed in their pretty, colorful scarves. I guess they all come early, maybe not only to pray, but to make sure they have a seat.

I'm remembering now my non-Catholic friend who visited a Mass in Poland last year asking me if it was a common thing for people to basically ignore you at the sign of peace. And I'm chuckling to myself. It really is a strange feeling, and I suppose an even stranger feeling for a non-Catholic, to offer a hearty American handshake and greeting at the sign of peace and be turned down. I probably scared a few babushkas. The other day I was at our local Greek church to buy food and saw how the priest greeted all his parishoners with a hug and a kiss on both cheeks. I'll have to brace myself on the other end of the spectrum if I ever want to visit Greece, I guess.

One valuable exercise throughout the whole pilgrimage was the intensity of concentration I found myself giving to what was actually happening in the Mass. Even when the Masses were in English, they were almost never in American English, so there was always an effort required to understand what was being said. I found myself squeezing the words I did understand, sucking them dry, and fixing my mind on what I read when something else was being spoken around me. Occasionally I knew that the reading I had in my book was not what was being read from the ambo (because of a special feast day or votive Mass or whatnot), and then, like straining to see in a dark room I tried to make out a piece of the reading to give a clue as to its whole. Same with the Liturgy of the Eucharist. I knew what was happening, but it is a different practice to unite yourself with the action by a means other than words, for me at least, because I am so verbally oriented. I worked my will very hard in those moments.

And you know what? It was freeing. I wasn't aware if the priest had a sing-songy voice or if the lector stumbled over words or mispronounced them, if the sermon was boring or missing the point. I was freed, in an uncomfortable yet real way, from needing language to pray. My prayer was a lot more basic and I missed 95% of the nuances I might normally find in Mass, but I sucked that 5% dry.

And when I came back home, I was relieved to not have to work so hard, and is much, much easier to get distracted and to nit-pick. There is less "thanksgiving" involved.

I served as impromptu cantor a few times, sometimes in English and sometimes in Latin. During one of those Masses during the Diocesan Days in Wroclaw, the music team didn't show and our Encounter group was called on six minutes before the beginning of Mass in a huge church, packed to the gills. My job was Mass parts. Fine. I was mentally prepared because of cantoring for eight years and doing all the music for Masses on Saturday mornings for three years. Everything... except that Gospel Acclamation (which the lector does at my parish on Saturdays). So that moment in the Mass came, and in a split second I realized I hadn't thought of anything. At that moment, I was grateful that my training kicked in my liturgical-auto pilot! I started singing "Alleluia," though it was only as I was singing that I was asking myself What melody is this coming out of my mouth, and how in the world does it end?! So glad for the choir training I carried inside me at that moment, though. The most important thing about leading is to look and sound confident, even when your brain is scrambling!

And though it wasn't a liturgy, the very last outing my daughter and I did the night before we left was to attend a prayer service at our host family's parish. The idea was to spiritually unite with pilgrims who were walking to Czestochowa. Arriving late, we entered one of the only modern parishes I saw there, aptly (for the pilgrimage) named Divine Mercy. A young priest was leading a small group of mostly older women in singing some peppy song that had hand motions. I'm not always that kind of person, but that night I just dove right in. I gather we were singing about walking and praising and praying, and stuff. There were a variety of prayers, I think a decade of the rosary, I think the Bogurodzica, an ancient hymn to the Mother of God. And then, suddenly we were gathering  in a circle and dancing the Hava Nagila. I mean, not all the old women were putting too much energy into it, but we were moving pretty well. I simply could not wipe the smile off my face. It felt so incredibly bizarre, and I kept saying to myself "I'm in Poland dancing with old ladies in a church." I think I probably made the whole room smile because it was like my whole body was laughing with the joy of Divine Mercy. Not to mention my flip-flop had come off so I was dancing with one shoe. It was a perfect way to leave the last Polish parish I entered.

Thursday, September 8, 2016


This post is not about events I experienced in Poland, but it touches on what I have essentially gleaned, or rather, that I'm starting to glean, from having gone. This is from the book Poustinia by Servant of God Catherine de Hueck Doherty, from a final section of the book entitled "The Heart of the Poustinia."

"Poustinia" is a Russian concept that translates to "hermitage," but while there is a physical aspect to what her community lives in Combermere, Ontario, spiritually it is about something one experiences interiorly. Every Christian is called to this by baptism, but as with all vocations, for some this interior "poustinia" is a stronger call than some other universal aspect.

She wrote this is 1973, 12 years before her death. (Long excerpts, followed by other comments):

"...I was surprised on the way back from Barry's Bay (after seeing a movie about the tsar and tsarina) to Madonna House. Such a feeling of total loneliness took hold of me that I was really astonished I am lonely. I have been lonely many, many times. But this time it was a sort of strange loneliness, a loneliness that held me like a vise and shook me.

"I looked at the road. It was like any other Russian road. The trees were like the trees at home. The hills were very similar to what I remembered I had left. I don't know about other people's experience, but suddenly I realized with a most extraordinary realization that I was a stranger in a strange country...

"When we returned home all I wanted to do was to get to my poustinia. I collected my things, went in, and closed the door.

"Now I began to realize something that I hadn't known before: the poustinia, the desert (for that is what it is) brings back memories, memories of a thousand things which we think we have completely forgotten.


"But the realization that was overwhelming me most of all -- like a sea in which I was drowning, now surfacing, now overcome by it again, now surfacing -- the overwhelming wave or remembrance tonight was that I was a stranger in a strange land. There was no denying it. I lived with values different from other people. I was beginning to understand more deeply the darkness of which St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila speak. In such a darkness there is only one light, and that light is God. Unless you hold on to him, you become enmeshed in the meshes of the devil. For the first time since I have started coming to my poustinia, I knew that I was being tempted by self-pity. I also knew that the temptation was well directed because ever since I came to Canada I have been lonely, lonely with a cosmic loneliness of a refugee whom nobody understands or wishes to, and who perhaps was only understood after a long and arduous fight.

"Yes, I knew I was being tempted in the area where it hurts the most. The night became darker...

"I fell asleep after a rough night, and the day was a little better.... The key is very simple. I am a stranger in this land, in this world, by the gift of God. He has called me from my youth as he called Jesus his Son to go to Egypt. Christ was also a refugee, and so were his mother and foster-father...

"The whole panorama of my journey unfolded itself before my eyes... I was a pilgrim. I was a solitary. I was a poustinik, and I never knew it.

"...Ever since I left Russia I have been a poustinik, a pilgrim. I have been fasting from the food of my language and of my people. I have been mortifying myself by adapting myself to the ways and manners of other people. And always I walked in solitude. That was my true vocation -- and I never understood it! I did not understand that it was the vocation of loneliness, that God had invited me to share his loneliness because this was to be the vocation of many. Many people don't realize that their loneliness is an invitation to share the loneliness of God.

"I sat in my poustinia dumbfounded, and wondered why I had not seen the whole pattern of my vocation...


"Yes, today I have clarified something very important to myself -- the essence of my vocation...

"And so you entered a strange land, and you were given silence. You were also given solitude. You were given the type of solitude which is spent in the midst of people. Like so many other Eastern notions, this also seems a bit incomprehensible to the Western world in which you now live -- but it will eventually be understood because God wants it to be understood.

"Yes, he wants it to be understood. Solitude in the midst of people is the Jesus Prayer, the prayer of the presence of God. It is the holding on to God in what may sometimes be a land of total despair, a real poustinia, a real desert...

"...But what has all this to do with you, you the staff workers of Madonna House?...

"...Many of you were solitaries in your heart. You yearned for something bigger than yourselves. You did not know that this was solitude. You were sort of different from the people around you... And so ,,, you arose, seeking what was not there...

"God now extends the same invitation to you as he extended to me. To you also he says, 'I am lonely.' That's what you were, weren't you? Didn't you really start out on your pilgrimage because you were lonely? Now he invites you too to Gethsemane, there to sweat out your struggle with him. He invites you to stand before the High Priest, that is to say, before all those who will in some way or other laugh at you, jeer at you, maybe even persecute you.

"When all this has taken place, he will invite you to come with him to Pontius Pilate, into that terrible solitude, into that totally strange land that man must enter before he dies, that predeath land, the last pilgrimage, where strangers will examine you...

"Finally, he will take yoou by the hand and lead you to Golgotha to be crucified on the other side of his cross. If you follow him all the way into this poustinia which (I'm almost afraid to say these words) he has brought me to the West to reveal, he will bring you to Golgotha so as to give you the complete, infinite, incredible joy of his resurrection. This joy will be your guide into the new land where there is no solitude, no silence, to strangeness. It will be the final pilgrimage of love toward love, if pilgrimage it can be called. This crucifixion you will undergo with alleluias, because now yu will know what it is all about.

"This joy is not only for the hereafter. No. It will be yours, now, dearly beloved, this very minute, tomorrow, the day after, as soon as we accept solitude, silence, strange lands, pilgrimages with Christ. When we accept these things we have accepted loneliness, which is none other than the loneliness of Christ. If we can do this, God will give us tools to bring a rich harvest to him and his Church."


Catherine's vocation resonates in my soul, and though I still chafe at the huge paradigm shift of embracing loneliness rather than reckoning it my enemy, I have to say that it is my chafing that makes no sense in that equation, not the reality that this is where the Lord waits to meet me. Knowing what not to fight is a big step forward.

And I want that joy! I believe in that joy! I believe in the resurrection. Ain't nobody really wants to do the program that gets you there, but maybe more than anything I don't like to waste a thing, and I most certainly do not want to waste a single grace the Lord has given me as a pilgrim.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The End, Before the Beginning

It is every bit as difficult for me to process my crush-and-crumble stage of the pilgrimage as it was to experience it in the first place. How do I even go about trying to pick this up, let alone get a grip on it?

We went to the mountains, because it is what Poles do, what Europeans do. It's what Pope John Paul did. We rested, but to be honest, I don't remember that. Endometriosis was raging against me as we rested. And then, we went hiking.

It was beautiful, and it was exhausting. When it wasn't miles of rocky steps like this, it was worse. I prayed hard while I could, and when focusing on breathing and mere perseverance became all-consuming work, I just united my efforts to my intentions. One of the only ways that I recall that I was surrounded by beauty is that I took a few pictures, and they remind me when I look at them. I was drenched in sweat, puffing, exhausted, and soon enough, every inch of me began to hurt. On the first day of hiking, on one particular step down, I felt something go "ouch" in my right knee.

The next day we were to go again. Many of our number decided to do the more extreme version of rock climbing and left at 3am. Several others opted simply to stay back in our little village cottages. Because I am earnest and did not wish to be disappointing, I decided to go again.

It was not a terrible walk up, although there were patches that required all my attention because there was a sheer drop off one side. We met up with the early morning adventurers and then started back, taking generous rests on the way. But miles from the park's end, that knee that had gone "ouch" the day before all but gave out on me. Soon both right and left steps were painful as my body desperately tried to find a way to compensate for all the pressure. It hurt like the dickens, but I've been glad for that pain, especially since I've returned (and went to the chiropractor). Because of it, I had a chance at one last glimpse of my friend's soul as I have come to know it.

Iwona came upon me sitting on the rocks somewhere, wincing. She asked if I wanted her to carry my packback, but, too far gone for that to help, I laughingly told her, "I want you to carry me!" Well, she propped me up and helped me all the way down. And it wasn't only my broken body, but my crushed spirit that almost stayed on top of that mountain. I was trying to hard to deal, but had almost nothing left. There is that between friends that gives life, that keeps one alive. And I stayed alive that day.

But after that a dark curtain fell in my soul.

I was physically drained, I cried at the drop of a hat, feeling no ability or even interest in restraining myself. Circumstances evoked fierce anger in me towards the same friend who had propped up my life a few days before. It was confusing, because I don't at all get angry easily. I knew it was thinly-veiled heartbreak at the inevitable Goodbye which left me feeling smaller than small, crumpled up and tossed aside like yesterday's trash, which I so fiercely did not wish to become.

And then I had a good long meditation on death. Sunday afternoon I lay on the mountainside alone, and thought about how all that is beautiful comes to an end. Even mountains erode to nothing, and finally, all meets death. St. John of the Cross echoed in my mind... nada. It was not a bitter meditation, but it was sobering. The Lord showed me the danger of stewing in these thoughts, though, and mercifully provided me with a way out of that.

On the day we left the mountains, we traveled to Wadowice, to St. John Paul's home town. One theme stuck with me there:

It says "Time flies; eternity awaits." This clock on the wall of the Church of the Presentation in Wadowice was directly in eye shot from JPII's childhood home. He, no doubt, meditated frequently on the fleetingness of life and on the importance of living for eternity. God was speaking to me of this, too. Everything we experience on earth passes so quickly and is gone. The eternity we experience beginning now is where we must fix our focus.

And then, we went to Auschwitz. Millions of people had no choices whatsoever about their lives being ripped from them, about loved ones being ripped from them. There is so much pain in the world. And to this place came St. Maximilian Kolbe, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, and others I don't know. Love was present here, by these people choosing to love.

We went to our host families that night, before what was to be our last whole day in Poland. That black curtain was still hanging down, even while mysteriously my heart swelled with joy at talking with our new hosts. If this had not all been graced, I would have wanted nothing more than to shut myself in a room alone and wallow.

Grace can take the form of one feeling bewildered, confused, and so very deeply not in control. Come to think of it, this is a more realistic view of my life as it stands before God than I normally have!

If you have not already read it (or even if you have!), the blog post Carmelite on a Journey fits here chronologically, after the conclusion of this one. Truth be told, I really needed to tell that story early, out of order, in order to have the strength to tell the rest.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Praying With My Spirit

And behold. we went to the very chapel where St. Faustina conversed with Jesus and which held the original image of Divine Mercy, in the Year of Mercy, but the Lord was not in the chapel. And after the chapel, we went to the Saint John Paul II Sanctuary, but the Lord was not in the sanctuary. And after the sanctuary, the Wawel Cathedral, but the Lord was not in the cathedral.

And after all these, there was a prayer meeting in the mountains.

A prayer meeting that I only went to because Iwona told us we were expected to go. A prayer meeting where I understood almost nothing that was happening. And even though I am using this Scriptural reference as a literary device, if I ponder it deeply I did hear that question being put to me during that prayer meeting like it was to Elijah in the still, small voice: "Marie, what are you doing here?"

We arrived in the little village of Murzasichle in the mountains for the week after World Youth Day with assorted Poles connected to the Hallelujah community. They were there on retreat; I was there, apparently, to have the stuffing knocked out of me.

But early in that time was this evening prayer meeting. I was feeling very small, but at that point I still had the interior resources to face that respectably well. My normal way with just about anything is to give 110% of my focus to what is happening when someone is speaking, or praying. I am by nature a very earnest person. I noticed this, for example, whenever we had a tour guide. I sucked in every word being said and gave my attention thoroughly. It also became evident that by the end of most tours, the guide was looking only at me when speaking, because I think I was the only one "left standing," still paying rapt attention. It is just my way.

But this prayer meeting could not be that way. Almost everything that was said or sung was in Polish or maybe in tongues -- I had that much of a clue! I could not give my attention to any person. But I was profoundly aware that I trusted these friends of my friend -- more than that -- I trusted these fellow Catholic believers. Rather than mentally tracking deeply with what was happening, or working up an affinity in my heart for the person I was listening to, I united the heart of my prayer with whatever they were praying. I put my heart with them. On purpose. I joined with whatever they were praying, and I followed where the Holy Spirit led me interiorly, my attention being held only there.

This is a purifying sort of thing. One of the reasons, I think, that I pay attention to things so hard is that I sometimes want to be in communion with someone so ardently that I bust my butt, for lack of a more eloquent phrase, to give all my energy into hopes for that communion.

And while it is good to give one's energies, there comes a point when one's energies just don't cut it to bring about the communion for which we are made. Flesh gives birth to flesh; spirit gives birth to spirit.

So on that night, I had to admit that I was there not to engage my mental, emotional, or social abilities, but simply to inwardly unite myself in prayer with the Lord, and to spiritually unite myself with my brothers and sisters.

If there is anything I've faced since returning that is hard for me to deal with, it is that the Lord wants me to keep going straight to Him, this way.

Probably I will understand this more in the future, but any kind of striving to maintain relationships that make me feel safe, including my own vision of myself, including striving in my relationship with the Lord, gets a resounding buzzer sounding in my spirit. I can't help but feel that this is a negative, like a chastisement, but the slightest bit of thought on the matter shows me that the Lord is calling me to Himself in a greater way. The problem with the Lord calling our souls is that it always seems painful, because of our sin and attachments that need to be cleared out. Although it sounds ridiculous, it feels a little lonely to pursue only God, and to let my striving stop. It is a death. Death is scary.

But, I am a Christian, and I believe dying in Christ brings about life in abundance.

Monday, September 5, 2016

What World Youth Day was Really Like

As I process the interior stuff of this pilgrimage, I'm going to take a leap right into World Youth Day itself. It isn't that I've said everything that I could say about the Days in the Diocese and the earlier portions, but I'll hold on other observations for now and resume tracking this one aspect of the journey.

Someone commented to me recently how being "right there" during World Youth Day must have been "so powerful," such an "incredible experience of the Holy Spirit" overflowing everything. 

Well, I don't know what you associate with words like powerful, incredible, and Holy Spirit overflowing, but I will tell you that the actual events of World Youth Day were in one way the most draining for me of the whole pilgrimage. The following week won the prize for breaking me to pieces and tearing me to shreds, but World Youth Day is where I had most of the vitality drained out of me. This, too, is part of the pilgrimage process.

The "Days in the Diocese" week in Wroclaw was a blessing. I connected hard and fast with our host family hostess, whose open heart took me right in. We were able to talk almost instantly about matters of real significance, and that was something I dearly needed at that point. So when we had to part ways to go to Krakow, it was a sad portent to me of things to come. 

We arrived in Krakow late at night and I was sleep deprived. Our first day was actually a respite to my soul, because we went to the Wieliczka salt mine, but that story will need to wait for another theme. We were volunteers with the International Center of Evangelization, but we found that the tasks for which our help was sought were usually about directing foot traffic, and that the organization of events was lax to say the least. We ate our meals outside in all weather and slept on the floor of a gym. I felt like I lived on bread and pasta, things I try earnestly to avoid for the difficulties they give me. Mostly, the bulk of every day was about the enormous amount of time it took to move hundreds of thousands of people from one place to another. The evening gatherings with the Pope meant blocking out hours to navigate there and back, to keep in contact with our group, and to manage the basic necessities of life like food, water, and bathrooms. We strained to listen to translations on radio; sometimes it was clear, sometimes I couldn't get it at all, and once my hand cramped hard from holding the radio just so for over an hour.  I also got sick early in the week with a cold and something like a fever, and once again I remembered that I have a tendency to push myself until I am so disconnected with what is happening with my body that I can't tell that I'm sick until I am ready to drop.

But you have to understand, I'm not complaining about any of it.

At this point in the pilgrimage, I knew this is part of how we pray.

It is part of being reduced down to what is really important, and accepting all of these things for the sake of what is really important, which was to pray for the intentions I came there with (even though I hardly felt powerful). It is also to learn to offer to God a heart that wants only Him, and my own basic needs for His sake, so as to be able to serve.

It is also about learning what it means to belong to each other. One of the most absorbing tasks in those gigantic crowds was to try to not lose anyone. The other person's need became my need. It slowed everyone down, but there was nothing for us to hurry towards.

I truly felt my age. I normally feel like a young 48, but during World Youth Day I commented more than once that I needed World Geriatric Day. A teenager, I am not. And there is nothing wrong with accepting this reality, startling as it was.

During the trip to the Saturday Vigil, I was with a group of the sort of old and the youngest who took the train as far as we could go. The stalwart older teens walked the whole way. But even with that train trip, we still had quite a trek in the hot sun. What was really beautiful was the number of Poles who lined the roads to spray hoses on us, or offering drinks, candies, or buckets of water to splash our faces with. A German man, who had come to World Youth Day all by himself because his group had bailed on him, joined us and talked on the way. My son offered to carry backpacks for several people including myself, simply because he wanted to make it easier for us. Mercy really was flowing.

We faced a kind of crisis once we arrived at the site, however. Each of us had a food voucher that was good for a large bag of food, covering our dinner that night, and breakfast and lunch the next day. Distribution, from boxes on semi trucks, was a logistics nightmare. One woman commented accurately that it looked like something out of a Third World news report, and frankly many of the pilgrims seemed accordingly triggered. Until we re-grouped, all of our group stood in a crushing crowd where one could hardly fit a piece of paper between you and the next person. I was fearing for my short daughter with asthma, whether she was going to be able to keep breathing.

We decided eventually to back out and give all our vouchers to my son and another boy who would grapple through the crowd for the food. We had waited one hour; they waited another two. As we tried to verify where they were in the process, we simultaneously heard that all the food was gone and we had to walk a few miles to another distribution point, and then saw the boys with the food bags. They reported people shoving them, and knocking them over to try to get to the food. The boys were our heroes of the hour.

Oddly, they received 13 bags for 10 people. I was a bit frustrated with these boys for moving off with extras under these circumstances, but I think something of the scavenging beast mentality had come over me, so I didn't do much more than bark about it once as we went into the field to find our place. But as we went in, a woman on her own approached the boy with the extra bags and asked where she was supposed to find the food, since the near-by distribution point had run out. He simply handed her an extra. Our three-hour wait made her expression of gratitude all the more profound in my eyes. Shortly thereafter, we met up with two other members of our group who also had not been able to get food. And I learned to simply trust that God provides even through teenage boys.

We slept outside, and it was nice. My daughter woke with a nose bleed in a pool of blood, but we were near the medical tent and they cleaned her up and we were able to get a little more sleep. For once, it did not rain over night. The blazing hot sun gave way to torrential downpours as we walked to the train ride home, safely out of the dirt field.

I read what the Pope said on-line and saw some of the video coverage later on. And strangely enough, I learned what he said not by listening to him it but by living it. It sticks with you better that way.

So, yes, it was powerful, and it was an incredible experience of the Holy Spirit. But it was a hot, sweaty, draining, exhausting, frustrating, tedious path that left me feeling old, weak, and disoriented. Maybe we forget the Holy Spirit likes to use those means to reach into our souls.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Shocked by the Americans

During the events of World Youth Day and the Diocesan Days leading up to World Youth Day I had a few experiences that served to open my eyes to glaring weaknesses common to my fellow Americans. And here, I'm not speaking of my fellow 30-day pilgrims, because we had occasion to mingle with a variety of other American groups.

Let me preface this by saying that one of the most valuable components of our group's preparation was the ICE training on how to prepare a testimony. I have given my testimony, especially of my conversion to Catholicism, many, many times informally, and in writing several times as well. But this training was still valuable to me in making me really grapple with the power of a testimony, with Biblical examples of testimony, and practical aspects like ideal length and the most efficient focus to keep it focused on Christ as the Savior that you are inviting people to meet. Clearly, I love to tell stories, but I needed the reminder that a testimony needs to point to Jesus present in my life to change my life, and then I need to extend the invitation to a seeker to take a step closer.

I was rather shocked by hearing several Americans present testimonies in one particular setting. I am not saying that I might not have done exactly what they did at some other time in my life. But it was eye-opening to me. The stories revolved around powerful emotional experiences. These were connected with nature, with other people, with achievements, with risks they took. They shared their experience, then sort of leapt to an ending of "and it was all because of God. I hope it happens to you. Thank you."

I didn't hear one of these "testimonies" make a connection with Christ and the gospel.

I'm sure it was there, somehow, for the person presenting. But they never dug deep enough to share it with us. There was no clear articulation of what truths they met, what choices they had to make, what difference turning to Jesus Christ made for them. The upshot was always something like "Wow! It was so cool!" And I think that was supposed to mean that it impacted them spiritually, but I left unconvinced that even they knew how that had happened.

I'm happy to say that when it was turn for our group to share, Iwona preached a great evangelistic message, and our pilgrims gave effective testimonies. It made me happy, but also grumpy that Encounter. as a community had already met its demise even as I was seeing what actually needs to happen among us.

A second moment among an even broader group made me scratch my head again.

Quite a large group of us went to one location, a ministry run by a religious order, to  help the Sisters clean up their property after a storm had left branches scattered everywhere. There were also a few larger logs that needed to be moved to a brush pile. The work was announced, and people set to it. I noticed many of the Americans cheering each other, shouting, and taking selfies as they worked. And then, after about 15 minutes, they stopped. For the next who knows how long, a large crowd of them stood off to the side and talked.

The rest of us, including the kids from my group, worked diligently. At one point, I overheard two Europeans saying to each other in English, "Hmm. It seems the Americans don't want to work!" It was probably a solid hour later that the rest of us declared our work completed enough to show great improvement. But it made me consider that just as soon as the "Wow! This is so cool!" wore off for the Americans, so did their interest. Are there connections we can draw about how young adults leave the Church?

I had the feeling that the American youth ministers spent a lot of energy constantly trying to fish for the kids to like them. It almost gave me the impression they had to make up for a very boring and dull God who was not enough to captivate teens.

Now, I may have thought similarly about other groups if I had visited and/or been able to understand the nuances of everything that was being said. But, I heard and saw what I heard and saw. And it leaves me with great concern for the state of youth ministry among American Catholics.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Interior Pilgrimage

I am finally in the groove of writing about the right pilgrimage.

The whole premise of a pilgrimage is that while one is physically traveling from place to place, one is also open to God who encounters you with an interior journey to undergo. Our physical travel was meticulously planned out; however, we had to discover the invitation and the itinerary of the interior journey as we went along. Some of us, I think, dreamed with happy sighs about the locations we would see in Poland for months and years. And I probably was not the only one who met with some of the interior journey with frustrated, angry refusal. For a time.

This is part of what makes processing the fruit of a pilgrimage such a challenge. Some had to wrestle beforehand with the question Do I really want to go to Poland? I have found myself with a little tussle over how to respond to that interior journey that happened. Do I really want this? What now?
It brings to mind again something I've often pondered in the healing stories of Jesus. The blind who were healed, or the man with the withered hand, or the lepers -- what kind of upheaval did they face over the following weeks and months and years as the only life they had known for quite some time was suddenly and permanently changed? How did they learn to cope with grace?!

Another aspect of processing this pilgrimage for me is that I have felt a significant piece of my life's puzzle go click into place. In the Constitutions of the Secular Order of Carmel, one of the chapter headings calls Carmelites "witnesses to the experience of God." The first time I was explicitly taught to do this (to tell others how God had personally manifested Himself to me) and I obediently followed through, it changed my life and set it on a path that has been a little bit like a flame chasing gasoline since then. In fact, it was the first step that led me to embrace my Carmelite vocation. It also led me to no little suffering eventually. Even so, I have felt the urgent need to bear witness. It is one of the reasons why I blog and why I share my experiences in a publicly-accessible format. I've fought myself over why I bother sticking my heart out there. But now it goes "click." It is part of my vocation to Carmel to be ready to bear witness to the experience of God in the world.

Our experiences of God tend to be most vivid where our misery is most felt most keenly. This is what makes it hard to give testimony, because it requires a great deal of vulnerable honesty -- with oneself, first, and then with others. But where we don't spend energy on honesty we tend to spend energy on hiding and denial. I'd rather spend energy on what will end in rest, which is hauling my sorry self before the Lord, instead of on an inescapable, escalating program of trying harder and harder to manage the universe until I am one crispy critter.

It seems the Lord's theme for His encounters with me was my heart and His love. By the grace of God, I, who once formally defined myself as a misanthrope (a hater of mankind), am actually capable of loving another human being. Early in the trip I was given the grace to see the history of my heart clearly. From baptism, it seems, in the innermost place of my heart I have believed that I am deeply loved. The problem entered in (quickly) when my experiences of the world did not match this "interior truth." I was so shocked and confused by not experiencing love coming to me from the outside that I stopped going out of myself. I then had two lives: interior and exterior. God's program of redemption of my life has been this matter of dismantling my walls and blockages, and of giving me the courage to simply walk away from them. Like Adam, I hid because I was afraid. I was afraid to love people whose response to me was not, or did not look to me to be, love.

In the midst of the pilgrimage, I had to face the reality of my friend who was about to move away, as I have mentioned. Changes are hard, but changes also tend to dredge up unresolved stuff from every other change that rhymes. So I wasn't simply dealing with one concrete matter of life. I was dealing with a category of fear and pain. But this is sometimes how God is able to reach a whole lotta life through one event.

I was complaining to the Lord in prayer one day that my friend was going to stretch my heart all the way to California. I asked Him just how I was supposed to deal with that.

A few days later He showed me that His heart stretches from eternity and wraps around all space and all time. He refocused my attention away from my pain and on to His heart. And He told me I was called to love everyone.

Hey, Lord, one person is a miracle for me, ya know.

Yeah, but you live in Me, and I've called you to be love in the heart of the Church.*

Shortly after that, during the Diocesan Days in Wroclaw, a friend beckoned me over to a prayer team, and three young Polish women offered to pray for me. They prayed for me mostly in Polish, but then one phrase came through in English: "cause her to love everyone."

There is more, of course, but it is time for this pilgrim to sit down and rest a bit now.

(*Not an actual dialogue; just a paraphrase using St. Therese's discovery/definition of the vocation of a Carmelite: to be love in the heart of the Church.)

Monday, August 29, 2016

Vulnerability (Or, Warsaw, Part II)

In the last post I outlined some of the concrete factors of our visit to Warsaw. Poking around at these experiences and noting my reaction prompts me to realize I'm hardly done paying attention to what was important there.

The word "vulnerability" stands out as the key. Two years ago my annual retreat revolved around this theme (see "The Gift of Vulnerability"). At that point, I had learned to move out of a place of absolute dread of the sound of that word to a healthy respect for its necessary role in the spiritual life. But in Warsaw (and during the whole pilgrimage, really) it was not a time for me to learn about, pray through, or explore vulnerability conceptually. It was a time of raw experience, generally with little chance to catch my breath or feel any sense of control over it. That's really the point of pilgrimage. It is success. Strange, Christian success.

The first way I was conscious of this vulnerability in Warsaw was in terms of how vulnerable I am to sin. While I don't mind making a personal confession, I'm not saying this so much as a personal confession as I am saying that this is the human condition, for all of us. There is a certain type of person that I can meet who has the potential to tempt my soul to trade my neediness (key component of becoming vulnerable) for comfort that requires, well, you know, at least a mental denial of God, but who's really looking after all, and hey, that comfort looks really good, and I deserve it, and it's really nothing. Except a soul snare. A sin! And I met this type of person as we arrived in Warsaw. And while I was aware of the battle that ensued, I was even more aware that God's grace for me to win the battle was present and stronger. It was what first put me on high alert that it was by no means a moment to forget we have an enemy, poised to steal and destroy.

Another factor in vulnerability is how we feel small. Few people like feeling small, because when we are small we have little control and little power. Most of us have memories of damage done to us under those conditions. I noticed again and again that my daughter and some of the teens, and even some of the adults at times, would ask questions about what was happening, what we were supposed to do or where we were supposed to go, when there was no way I could have known any more about the situation than they. Sometimes those questions were not really the pursuit of facts, I think, as much as they were a search of a way out of feeling so vulnerable, so keenly aware of being needy and dependent. Especially with my daughter, I felt that sometimes I was breaking hard news to her that her mother whom she trusted to show her the way in life in general simply had no answers for her. I hope I did it with enough peace and patience in my voice to convey that it really is OK to be in this vulnerable situation. We were in it together, and we would find a way through together.

Personally one of the hardest things about foreign travel, something that makes me feel most vulnerable, is not understanding the language, and listening to other people conversing around me and having an infant's understanding. My time in Japan wore me down in that regard. Because of that, I had more patience and peace with hearing Polish, but still, it was difficult. In Warsaw, I was speaking with one new Polish friend about my gratitude for her speaking English to me, and I again started weeping. We had heard a homily about hospitality around that time, and to me, the combination of being at the mercy of another person -- a person who has power to welcome me with a gesture of love, or who can leave me standing separate, feeling discarded -- and having that person make what for her was a simple, easy act of mercy... it just meant the world to me. I think of an account of a local homeless woman who wept at receiving the gift of brand new underwear in the packaging from the store. Sometimes we just have no idea how a simple gesture can affirm another's human dignity in an area where they feel deeply vulnerable. That was me, crying in front of the portajohn, thanking my friend for speaking to me in English.

Then there is the whole vulnerability of Poland itself in its history, and of the Jewish people. I can't even adequately comment here. When we left the Popiełuszko museum that I spoke of in my last post, I told the aforementioned new friend that my gut reaction was that "it is such a waste if you (Poles) don't all become saints." That was perhaps not very eloquently stated, but here's how I understand my gut reaction right now: There is a typical human reaction to evil, and it is to question where God is and why He would allow these things to happen. That can appear either as depression or as anger, or both. I've been down that road of rage at God, and of even momentarily setting aside the possibility that there even is a God, and thinking instead that life is meaningless. But at this point in my life, the response of my heart is drastically different. I know that God is Love. And I know that He witnesses the atrocities of our choices for evil. He bore in Himself the atrocities of our choices for evil, and gave to those who receive Him His victory over death and sin. 

We are never so vulnerable as when we love. It is true, from one perspective. But when our love is God's love purging us and coursing through us, we are never so powerful as when we love. We are powerful to gain according to the kingdom of God. The real question is whether in the face of the tests of life, we actually want Love, or if we will choose a soul anesthesia that will take the question off our radar screens. 

Human evil made me want to flee to Love. Love says "I have overcome, and I will make you an overcomer, my way, if you want it."

It seems the Christian response to our human vulnerability is to band together, turn our faces to the Lord, and say, "Yes, Lord. I want that transformation."

Sunday, August 28, 2016


Ok, I'll try chronological order again, however I know I can never capture every place or detail.

We spent a few days in and around Warsaw and started to experience the first part of "Days in the Diocese" there with other groups of pilgrims who had arrived a week early from around the world for World Youth Day. (We did the bulk of that experience back in Wroclaw.) Among those we met were a group from Zambia. We shared a bus for a few days and traveled together to some of these locations.

These days were really the beginning of my heart being expanded. I can't explain what all these things mean; all I can really do is relay what happened. Spiritually I felt myself on high alert, as if my spiritual "antennae" were picking up a lot more than usual, or much louder, or more deeply. The Lord began to show me my heart would be dug out more deeply. Part of this, I knew, was because I would be saying goodbye to my friend Iwona and her family after this pilgrimage as they move away from here and on to other ministry. It was a long time in coming in my anticipation. And you know, one can expect something, be prepared, be in agreement, be supportive... but when the reality kicks in and one needs to have the actual heart excavation of saying goodbye, it still is an excavation. But the Lord was showing me that His mind was on the fullness, the in-filling, He saw after this excavation my heart would undergo. The Lord and I have been through enough that I know He is no ogre; He does not "take away," but He does require us to walk in faith and not see how things will turn out. I know especially we will never regret anything, any sacrifice, we offer Him in love.

So in a state of vulnerability and high spiritual sensitivity, I went to Warsaw.

My fellow pilgrims will have to excuse me if my middle-aged brain does not get all the chronology of our visiting correct. When I say "the first" thing we experienced, what I really mean is the first

                              Bl. Jerzy 

thing that struck my soul very hard. And that was visiting the grave and the museum of Bl. Jerzy Popieluszko. He was a young priest who was assassinated in 1984. This video gives a brief synopsis of his life, and his deep faith in the face of communism. I can not give adequate commentary on Catholic life under communism in Poland, nor of the depth of Catholic response in face of this oppression. But what I can tell you is that I wept, and wept, and wept in this museum. I left with a love for Bl. Jerzy in my heart that even right now I can't explain, but that burns when I think about it.

We also went to the Polish Uprising Museum. The Polish Uprising was a quickly organized effort by Polish Resistance fighters against the Nazis in 1944. For 63 days, the Poles fought with everything they had to resist being conquered by the Nazis, while Russia waited across the river. The accounts of horrendous suffering were overwhelming to me. In the end, 90% of Warsaw was reduced to rubble. Tens of thousands who were not among the 150,000-200,000 killed, were taken to concentration or labor camps.

A later tour was of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. This was also fascinating to me. In particular I was struck by the exhibit of the reconstructed synagogue and its bimah. This picture is from the BBC, but it is from this museum:

I also cannot explain the intensity with which this hit me, but I was reminded by the old song by Petra called Bema Seat. It was explained to us that the bimah is the place where the Scriptures were read. The song Bema Seat was about the final judgment (read lyrics here). The two things connecting in my head were like live wires touching: the judgment of the world is the Word of God spoken forth. It is Jesus. It is the Word Incarnate.

After all of the beautiful history, there were of course the stories of the Jewish population of Warsaw, once at 45% of the city, being exterminated. We hear of these things in history books, but museums exist so that you see names and faces. You feel the lives. And you feel the loss. And I wept some more.

Returning to the hosting parish for a time of relaxation and evening Mass, I made a bee-line into the church. After being washed over by so much history of suffering, I had an urgent need and desire to spiritually at least crawl into the tabernacle and ask Jesus to hold me there. So much pain. So much suffering. So much faith. How can we not give all of our hearts to Love so that more love can enter this world?

On the way home from Mass this particular evening, God gave my daughter a particular gift, and also showed me something. She currently loves hedgehogs. And I mean, they are absolutely her favorite thing. She was excited to know that they exist in Poland. But that night, just up the road from our host family's home, a hedgehog waddled into the road. She got out, took a video, petted the hedgehog (yes, she cut her hand on the spines, but didn't mind), and essentially loved on it for quite a while. The kids of the host family enjoyed it, too. This was like a dream come true for my daughter, and made her so genuinely happy.

To be honest, I find it too exhausting to find something to say right now about the juxtaposition of the immense suffering of war and the happiness of a young girl, my daughter, over a hedgehog. All I will say is that I know God is ever-present to all people. Contemplating God's heart is a mind-blowing endeavor.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Carmelite on a Journey

Ok, yes, I know I said I was going to write about matters in chronological order, but I'm jumping out of that track for the moment. My Secular Carmelite meeting is approaching this weekend, and before I talk with them I want to work through my experience from that specific perspective.

The pilgrimage spanned two major Carmelite feast days (Our Lady of Mount Carmel and Elijah), and I visited the ancient Carmelite church in Krakow as well as the St. Joseph friary and church in St. John Paul's home town, Wadowice. And, as is somewhat to be expected, I found images of St. Therese everywhere, including at the replicated office of St. Maximilian Kolbe at Niepokalanów.

But the apex of the entire pilgrimage for me was the feast of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Edith Stein. It was August 9, our last full day in Poland. We were in Wroclaw, which was the saint's hometown, known to her by the German name of Breslau. My body, my soul, my emotions, my spirit -- everything I had -- had been through an extensive work out by that point, and I was feeling peeled to the core. But what I encountered was astounding.

The day began with Mass at St. Michael the Archangel church, which was Edith's parish where she attended Mass during her Catholic years in her hometown, and in which is a chapel dedicated to her honor. It is noteworthy that it was a feast day, because she is a patroness of Europe. Even for Carmelites in the United States, the day is only celebrated as a memorial, and in a non-Carmelite parish her feast is generally not observed at all. So this was an exceptional thing for me already. I should also mention that I chose my Carmelite name, Elijah Benedicta of the Incarnate Word, in part in honor of her and because of the impact she has already had on my life, part of which I'm about to mention.

The Mass was entirely in Polish, but by that time, I had adjusted to distilling the essence of the movement of the offering of Mass and some theme to wrap my heart around from the readings, despite not being able to pray with language. (Again, my training from Japan bore fruit.)

Two things were riveting my attention. The first was interior, and it wasn't so much something that went through my mind as a general sense that welled up in me powerfully from my own memory. It was an experience in prayer that I had had in 2013 on the same feast day. In fact, I wrote about it here in a blog post entitled "Pondering God's Dark Speech." The part that was resonating so strongly within me was a quote from St. Augustine from the Office of Readings: "You are seated at a great table. Observe carefully all that is set before you, for you also must prepare such a banquet."

The second thing riveting my attention was a painting of the saint at the front of the church. It was

simply the most beautiful image of her I have ever seen. Beauty is not exactly an attribute that comes to mind when I think of Edith Stein. Most photos of her capture an almost frightening seriousness. After the Mass concluded I knelt before the picture and found myself immersed, enveloped in a powerful awareness that the beauty that I found in the painting was actually the beauty of God's love in her soul. The afternoon before I had stood in Auschwitz-Birkenau. On August 1, 1942, Edith and many other Hebrew Catholics residing in Holland were rounded up and sent by cattle car to die there. Reports of eye witnesses and messages she was able to send out testify to the fact that during this final novena of her life, until her execution on August 9, she prayed with calm, rock-like faith, and attended lovingly to her fellow captives. She had intuited and accepted some time before that she would one day offer her life in expiation for the inhuman destruction perpetrated by her own nation against her own people.

It simply is not within any human capacity I know anything about to love in the face of sheer evil hatred and destruction. But God does it. And He does it through those transformed into Him by grace. That is sanctity.

I knelt and was overwhelmed for a good long time. One simple thing God had impressed upon me earlier in the pilgrimage is that He calls me to love everyone with His heart. I was not exactly thinking about that at this moment, for I was not exactly thinking at all. I was just overwhelmed at the beauty that I saw in the soul of a real human being, a saint.

After Mass, our group walked to the nearby Edith Stein house, her home for 23 years.

As the man who was working there presented the basic information about Edith's life and details about her Jewish family, her home, and her death, my heart was overwhelmed again as if I were listening to Jesus Himself speaking of the gift of her life He had given to the world. I had to fight the urge to hug him afterwards, but I did speak to him about Edith's great beauty and I thanked him and told him God had indeed spoken through him to me.

The long view of the room which had been Edith's home.
After that visit was complete, the task for everyone was to coordinate their free afternoon. Emotionally, I was stretched further than I imagined remotely possible. I had no interest at all in taking in the sights where others were headed, but simply felt a raw need to connect with one friend. It didn't seem that could happen. Then I realized what I needed to do about that was to go and pray for my friend. Carmelites pray, you know.

I walked the path I had come to know over the month towards the city center. I ate my lunch, and when I was fueled up for some serious prayer, I stepped into the church I had visited several times over the month, Holy Name of Jesus. I was totally unprepared for what I found inside.

Hidden off in a rear side chapel was a string quartet playing the most exquisitely beautiful music I have ever heard. God often has used music to disarm me and speak into the depths of my being, but this was staggering. At first, I simply sat near the entrance to get over the shock. When I was able to recover myself to pray, I moved to the front of the church, the acoustics causing the music to swell perfectly throughout. For at least 90 minutes my prayer and that music wove around each other as both seemed really to flow from God to me. To pray for another person, this weaving taught me, is to participate in the incredible, overflowing, immense, and so-very-close flood of the love of God which is so peaceful, so restful, so life-giving, so creature-honoring, so personal, so intimate. To be an intercessor for another is to be emptied in order to enter this fullness and then to bring everyone who is in my heart to this fullness, plunging into this mercy.

For almost a week before this, I had been prone to bursts of tears, because that is what a pilgrimage does to you. It breaks you to the core and makes you raw. It brings you to a kind of death, and I was there. No doubt. But this experience left me radiant with joy. It isn't that the things that make you raw go away. It is that God who is super-abundant shows Himself as bigger than the pain.

I will remember this year's feast of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross for many years to come. It seems clear to me that God is showing me that I am indeed seated at a banquet, and I am to offer a banquet. No one comes to Carmel for herself. We come to Carmel for the Church. We give ourselves to God not as an escape from the world or for our own pleasure or gain, but to please God alone, to love Him alone, and to love our neighbor. Carmel can seem terribly austere, all about detachment, death, and the hard way. But really, Carmel is about love. That love is worth every austerity, detachment from everything, and death to self. Love is all. In Love, we have all.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Our Lady of Czestochowa

On Saturday, July 16, we went to Jasna Gora in Czestochowa. That day is the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, so it was a particularly fitting day for me to be in one of the famous Marian shrines in the world, and certainly the Marian heart of Poland.

We were guided by a blunt and funny priest who had lived in the US for several years who looked a lot like my late spiritual director, Fr. John Campbell, S. J.

Here he is with Iwona and Keith. Keith made him re-tell the old joke about how to make holy water several times to get it on video. Maybe it was the Polish accent that made it so funny.

A better historical and pictorial summary than I want to delve in to can be found here. The few observations I'll make about the place are these: The black wood surrounding the famous icon, which I saw in other churches in Poland as well, reminds me of the Buddhist altars I saw in Japan. It is beautiful and striking, and I don't recall seeing black wood in any church in the US except in Doylestown at the American Czestochowa.

Second, this was the only time in Poland that the "Amens" of the liturgy were sung according to the Roman Missal style, which is the way my parish sings them, but almost no other parish I've experienced uses this style. That, in case you are wondering, looks like this:

Mass at the shrine was, I think, my first experience of a Polish crowd during the pilgrimage. Think hot, sweaty, sardines, kneeling to worship God. Pews are for the elderly, the infirm, and maybe those who insist on oxygen. Marble floor for the rest of us. I did not dislike the experience. It did make me wonder how many people would be taken out by one person fainting, though.

What I want to actually think about in this post is relationship with Mary. It is safe to say that the image of Our Lady of Czestochowa elicits on complex response in the souls of Poles. Citizens of the Protestant/secular United States have no equivalent to this "Madonna of Poland," and no equivalent response of soul -- I think it is quite safe to say that, too. Even Catholic Americans really have no one image of Mary that evokes any unified sense of identity or spiritual heritage. At best, we borrow Our Lady of Guadalupe from Mexico, but unless we are Latino, I think it really feels like borrowing.

It is what it is, our American thing, or lack of thing. It is simply different from the Polish experience, and from that of a lot of other ethnic groups.

My Protestant upbringing did not provide me with any emotional response to an image of Mary except that of something like disgust and pity. My study, conversion, and spiritual experience changed my mind and my gut response. As a Secular Carmelite, I belong to Mary's order. On my last retreat, the Friar told us "You are Mary's gift to her Son; don't ever forget that." She has taught me spiritual truths. She has demonstrated to me her loving care and accompaniment. But with all that said, I do not normally have any emotional movement within me in response an image of Mary.

On the one hand, I think it is beautiful to have a human response to a rich heritage. On the other hand, there can be the possibility that one loves an image ideologically, but the spiritual image is not impressed onto the soul. When Mary's image is impressed on the soul, it is about total self-offering to the Trinity in love for God and love of neighbor. It is about humility and spiritual power, hiddenness and the glory of God revealed. It is about constant meditation on the Word and constant intercessory presence before the Father. If Catholics exhibited the image of Mary in our souls to the world, I think far fewer non-Catholic Christians would be confused about why we honor her so much.

At best, we keep both hands. We need both hands. I was reminded frequently of the custom to pray or sing a Marian antiphon at 9 pm each evening. The United States has never seen such a thing. Could you imagine?! Some of our Polish friends also told us that the practice of the faith is dropping off there in droves as people can relate only to the shell of tradition, which they then decide is not modern, is devoid of meaning, and so is not necessary.

To pray the rosary together fruitfully, we need to come around Mary with the heart of Mary. Mary's heart is in perfect union with God's, and perfectly open to all people, even when that openness brings pain because of their sin. She prays powerfully for God's will of love to be done in our lives. We need to come in the same way: hearts open to moving into ever-deepening union with the Trinity, and hearts open to all people, including their pain and their sin, which we lift to God for His grace and mercy. All the while, of course, soaking in the words and events and power of Scripture. While saying the words together. Hearts, hands, voices. The external and the internal. These must never be torn apart, because we are human and we need all of it.

Monday, August 22, 2016

A Visit with L'Arche

One of the highlights for me from our first stay in Wroclaw was visiting the L'Arche community there.

L'Arche was founded by Jean Vanier in the 1960s in France, and communities have spread around the world. A L'Arche community is a home, a dwelling, for those with intellectual disabilities and those without, living together and working together.

In this video, Vanier describes his vision for L'Arche. In a world that eliminates people in order to eliminate pain, he says we should instead work to overcome the pain. In the process we discover that God Himself is all about calling people into relationship, about forming community.

After getting a general introduction to L'Arche as an international movement, we split into small groups and visited with the people living there. Later we regathered for a very fun time playing games with parachutes.

In the video, Vanier talks about how he learned that the people he met with disabilities craved relationship. I was struck by two people I met there. One was a woman who sat near me while we played with the parachutes. She spoke to me in slow, simple English, and after we were done there, she invited me to see the room where she lives. I went with her, and she showed me her pictures of flowers and plants that gave her joy, her new purse, photos of her in gardens -- all of her joys. All the while she spoke to me in English. Throughout the trip, I had a profound appreciation for anyone who spoke to me in English, but this woman in particular was putting forth what seemed to be her greatest effort of the day in order to speak with me. It was a gift that left me struggling to know how to worthily receive it, but I knew the answer was simply to receive it with the same joy with which it was offered to me.

The other person was a man who liked to stand close to people. It has happened to me more than once when I am in a setting like this that a man with some intellectual disability will simply come straight up to me and tell me I am beautiful. This man was speaking in Polish, but he communicated by picking up my hair and admiring it, and following me closely. One of his L'Arche housemates helped him find a more socially acceptable distance. While again for a moment I was not exactly sure how to respond, down deep there is something about that frankness that I love, in a world that is so much about posturing and self-reproof and trying to make ourselves acceptable to others.

I don't want to make trite, patronizing conclusions. I do want to observe that it is very difficult for people to truly stay with each other as peers in pain, not caretakers nor the cared-for merely, but truly knowing our pain and the pain of the other.  This is why, I believe, that throughout history as societies have grown dark, greedy, and selfish, the only real hope for salvation has been the love of God expressed through Christians living their lives together in this type of community that has experienced God calling into relationship with Him, and also knowing how to extend that invitation to hearts desperately longing for love, acceptance, belonging, and life.

Right now, right here, we need this more than ever.