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 PopieĹ‚uszko 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.