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.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Wroclaw, Take One

We flew into the Wroclaw and spent our first four days there, and returned to it twice. Psychologically, it was so wonderful to learn my way around a bit and then return there after other adventures and feel that something was familiar and known.

I was not in high picture-taking gear yet during this time. These are views from inside the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist.

These are views of the city from the bell tower.

A short video of the Cathedral bells in action. No, I never claimed videography as one of my skills.
We were shown the Cathedral and surrounding buildings and monuments by a great guide, the first of several we met throughout the month. It struck me that usually these guides were also witnesses to the faith that inspired the buildings, their history, and everything about what we saw. It was their witness of faith that really made the places come alive for me. Generally speaking, they were not telling us simply about architecture, famous people, and historical dates. But even these spoke to me. Every time I stepped into yet another church that had stood for six or eight or nine centuries, I thought of how many believers in how many circumstances had stepped where I then stood. Coming from a culture where we have little history, and even less Catholic history, it was a profound reminder of the universality of the Church throughout time, not only lands and cultures.

The paths the first guide took us through I memorized by repeated walks. Like I said, that felt very good.

We also went to this Jesuit church, which will reappear again prominently towards the end of the pilgrimage.

Beginning at the Beginning

Processing this pilgrimage is frankly taking a turn for me that is more difficult than I expected. A pilgrimage isn't just about wonderful things seen and a new culture experienced. It is about seeking God, with carrying in one's heart all of the people and all their need during that process of seeking God, and about being open to whatever transformation comes from that.

But there's a really important part of pilgrimage, and that is coming home. It is also about seeking God, carrying needs, and being open to transformation, and learning to live the graces God has already given.

And it's harder than I thought.

So I'm adjusting my approach to a more systematic progression because I feel it might be more helpful.

If I go way back to the beginning of my participation in this pilgrimage, I'd remember the day in 2013 after it had been announced that it would be in Poland and Iwona had already said (probably instantaneously) that she would go. I told Iwona about a dream I had that she introduced me to her mother, and that Poland was her mother. She looked at me, walked away, and said "Do you have any idea how much can happen in three years?"

I didn't jump on the pilgrimage bandwagon early on. My son was the first one to want to go, and subsequently the one who waffled the hardest afterwards. My daughter was very keen on the idea of travel, and I knew if he would go, she would want to go, and if either of them would go, I would have to go. And it just didn't seem financially feasible, so I mostly wrote off the idea. But every time we visited with my mother-in-law, the topic resurfaced for family discussion because she had caught wind of my son's initial intention to go.

Finally after one gathering in May of 2015 where Iwona and another friend were discussing the trip, I started to think perhaps I should seriously ask the Lord what He thought. My prayer went, "Lord, if you want me to do this, it's simple: just send money."

I mentioned publicly twice, I think, that I was open to fundraising for Poland. By mid-summer, my basement was packed with books and garage sale items people had donated for me to sell and my normal side business I had had for years shot through the roof. My Vietnamese friend volunteered a huge amount of work, matched by that of many others, for an already tested out fundraiser selling eggrolls, which, this time, brought in such a huge amount in sales and donations that it matched what was then the projected cost of the trip for one person.

I took these things as the Lord's answer that He wanted the three of us to go. So many people's generosity made it possible. That's the first thing I learned about pilgrimage: there are a huge number of people involved on many levels. Each one is vital and God somehow knits us spiritually together to share in one good thing.

The immediate preparations for leaving I thought would be my death. There was an incredible amount of stress. Not only the lists and the packing and the myriad of details, and all the normal activities of my life like church music, but also the fact that I dutifully tried to shift my sleep schedule to wake earlier, which may have been a good idea, but I did not actually get to bed earlier, which was a very bad thing. On top of that was my sort of role as stress-absorber for other pilgrims, including the Majors who just happened to choose that time to also pack up their house in preparation for moving. The night before our last day in Steubenville I packed their still-lived-in kitchen. Just before going to bed for a bit of sleep before we left for the airport, the very kind grandmother of one of our pilgrims (who was staying overnight at our house) asked if I could stop by and pick up some food she had made for us. I told her at that moment I was so tired I could cry. It was maybe only then that I realized that I was in shreds.

I left my house at 5am, which is 11am Poland time, on Monday the 11th of July. After we arrived in Poland, I also dutifully resisted the desire to sleep, because I was told it would ruin me for days if I didn't stay awake until bedtime. So when at 7pm Poland time on the 12th I arrived at our "welcome picnic," I was beyond being a basket case. I had not slept except on the one hour flight from Germany to Poland. I took a few bites of food, and someone asked me if perhaps I wanted to lay down on a blanket. I collapsed on it, recognizing several minutes later that I had food in my mouth I had not chewed. It started to rain, so one of the pilgrims scooped me up and brought me inside the house, where I proceeded to lose it, to cry from the sheer stress of exhaustion, and then to hyperventilate from not being able to breath. Someone told me, "Oh, you shouldn't have come; you should have stayed with your host family." I thought: "It's a pilgrimage. Am I really going to start by saying, "Opting out. Thanks."

I lived. I slept in the next morning and then only felt tired instead of dead.

But I don't recommend to anyone that you start a pilgrimage in that severe of a stress overload.