St. Paul: Conversion and Transformation

This past week we celebrated the feast of St. Paul’s conversion. This was truly an astonishing event which ultimately led to the conversion of uncountable numbers of people over the last 2000 years. We honor and thank St. Paul for his responding to God’s great gift to him that opened the path of holiness to nations outside of Israel.

Maybe you and I wonder why God would choose this man for such an extraordinary mission. For this same man, first known as Saul, not only witnessed but approved of the execution of St. Stephen, ardent follower and defendant of the “Nazarene”, and celebrated as the first Christian martyr: Now Saul was consenting to [Stephen’s] execution. (Acts 8:1)

Furthermore, Saul was a ruthless man who breathed murderous threats against the disciples of the Lord (Acts 9:1). He was on his way to Damascus to ferret out men and women of “The Way” and bring them back in chains to be immediately dispatched. What could possibly change the heart of this merciless man? Such a radical turnaround leaves us gaping with astonishment.

Now, I’m not surprised that God can do all things, even to the point of converting this bloodthirsty man, but why would he choose an outspoken enemy of Christ for a mission totally different from his cruel ways? Why didn’t he choose someone like gentle Stephen who was so good, and who taught Christ with such staunch devotion?

In short, why doesn’t God do things the way I would do them???

Here’s my theory. God, who knows us through and through, knew very well the temperament he gave Paul. Ruthless? Yes. But once touched by the divine hand, once he literally saw the light, that ruthlessness was transformed into a relentless zeal. To be apostle to the gentiles, to face and persuade total strangers, required this kind of radical and unstoppable ardor. In one direction, it was used for intolerance and cruelty. In the other, it was used for conversion to a Way of love.

This is at the crux of how God creates. He gives us by birth and culture exactly what he wants us to have. He then subtly but persistently draws us to opportunities where, in our free will, we can use those gifts either to come closer to him, or to ignore his invitations and use our talents for worthless – even evil – purposes. We are given many enticements to good in the course of our life but only hear them if we’re open and willing to listen.

I often hear people bemoan some aspects of their temperament. I’m too this; I’m not enough that. As if God is a shoddy workman! It’s not a case of our too-muchness or not-enoughness, but rather that we haven’t yet learned to use our unique gifts for the love of God and service to his people, our neighbor.

conversion-of-pauThat brilliantly blinding flash of light Paul experienced was Christ’s irresistible invitation. Christ spoke to Paul not cursing or condemning him, but asking him what he was about, and why. Ironically, Paul’s spiritual blindness had preceded his physical blindness. All it took was one personal experience with Christ to wake him up to a different, loving, and dedicated way of life.

Paul’s letters overflow with his passionate love for Christ: how Christ is truly within us, how he rescues us from a life of selfishness. Paul became all things to all men, recognizing that  gentiles needed and would welcome the Christian Way, even though they had lived so differently from the chosen people. His new powers of vision saw how the love of Christ extends over all kinds of people, and how ripe was the harvest. Without Paul’s “ruthless” persistence enduring shipwrecks, imprisonments, beatings, and disgrace, we would not be writing or reading of his miraculous conversion today.

Because of St. Paul’s conversion we know that even our most seemingly unlovable traits can be transformed into a loving service to Christ. All we need to do is listen.

The Muse shows up

It happened again.

Write, write, write. Edit, edit, edit. Think, think, think.

Whenever a post goes like this, I know it won’t make it past my office. So, ready to head out to Mass this morning, out of the blue I get a headache. Maybe I shouldn’t go. Maybe I should. Can’t win that argument. Instead, I pop a Tylenol, grab the gloves and keys, and drive the 1 ¾ miles to church. I’m hoping that the Spirit will show up as Muse.

I’m rewarded with some of my favorite Scriptures assigned for this Sunday. (I find myself saying that rather frequently.) The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone. (Isaiah 8 )

A land of gloom. Well, there has been a paucity of sunshine this past week. (Literally and figuratively.)

Then my favorite (again) Psalm 27: One thing I ask of the Lord; this I seek: to dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life . . . Wait for the Lord with courage; be stouthearted, and wait for the Lord.

Next, one of those “God moments” where St. Paul says just the right thing for us today: It has been reported to me that there are rivalries among you. (1 Corinthians)

Gloom and rivalries, as the church of Corinth is splitting off in an un-Christian display of childish divisiveness: “My leader’s better than your leader!”

Well might Jesus have prayed the night before his execution: I pray that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me. (John 17:21) For the hallmark of Christianity is Unity.

Coincidentally, our national motto is virtually the same: One out of many (E pluribus unum).

Not conformity, but unity. Not necessarily agreement, but love, patience, and hope, reflecting the command of Christ not to return evil with evil; not to return violence with violence.

calling-the-fishermenThen the Gospel where Jesus invites his first followers to join him in his sacred mission. (Matthew 4) After the arrest of John the Baptist, Christ is spurred into the urgent need to teach the lessons of the Kingdom. He calls the first members of his cadre, two sets of brothers who, also immediately, respond to the call. (Choose me! I say to myself. I want to be on this team!)

The only way out of gloom is through the brilliantly lit passage of Hope and Love, which is Christ. I think of a song we frequently sing in church: Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.

When I can do what I say, I’ll know I’m a disciple.

The Light Grows

A few weeks have passed since the winter solstice. While our days of light are lengthening, so too do I welcome the growth of Christ in us as the Light of the World. This is especially important as sometimes we feel a post-holiday letdown.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve often felt worried and discouraged that in spite of Christ having come and lived among us, in spite of his teaching us about the kingdom of God, I wonder why there is still such misery around and within us. Before you know it, I’m sliding down into the “slough of despondency,” as the Pilgrim’s Progress describes it.

Little by little, as I allow myself to be taught by our divine Teacher (and one or two earthly ones), I’m given the grace to understand that such unhealthy doubts, fears, concerns about salvation or the afterlife, are definitely not from God, but from whatever we call “the evil one.”  With enormous relief, I realize that God does not wish anything for us but joy and peace.

Unfortunately, some of us have an incomplete understanding of what constitutes joy and peace. We think it is something like La La Land, nothing but fun and games. Such a simplistic kind of pleasure indicates that we have not yet learned to digest spiritual “meat,” but are still feeding on the “milk” of spiritual infants (See post of November 28, Advent and Our Life in Christ).
magdalene2Not that we can, by ourselves, counteract fears, doubts, and all the other demons that love to attack us.
There are many accounts of Jesus driving out demons. He is said to have freed Mary Magdalene (my patroness) of seven demons. Totally liberated, how could she not become entirely devoted to him?

By persisting in prayer, God’s joy and peace will enable us to rise above the flood of negativity where we’re helplessly (but not hopelessly) mired. With the Holy Spirit’s strength, we can gradually learn to develop a more constructive viewpoint and more positive habits. I once discovered that many of my negative thoughts started with “D” as in Demon. Here’s my list — many more than Magdalene’s seven:

Demons [D-mons]
Dejection
Depression
Desperation
Disappointment
Discouragement
Dissatisfaction
Dread
Dreariness
Dullness
Drudgery

Yet for every Demon, God has shown me an effective counterweight: God’s Delights. You can probably come up with your own, but here again is my list:

D-lights:
Dedication
Decisiveness
Devotion
Determination
Desire
Delight
Deliverance
Daring
Deliberation
Divinity

Thinking about these gifts helps, but for me the best of all cures is contacting a friend who may need encouragement even more than I do. This reaching out unfailingly provides the life-preserver both of us need: the love of friend for friend. St. John was right:
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

May the Light of Christ continue to grow within us.

Resolutions: A Sequel

Yes, I know I just posted something on New Year’s Resolutions. So here it is, just a few days later, and what? Have I added more resolutions? Or have I given up on the three I spoke of, oh so eloquently? I know that if I try hard enough and vow to continue, I’ll make progress toward my goal. Right?

No. The truth is simply that in so short a space of time I’ve been given a new understanding about my “noble” efforts. Those resolutions, useful as they might be, are incomplete because:

Unless the LORD build the house,
they labor in vain who build. . .

It is vain for you to rise early
and put off your rest at night,
To eat bread earned by hard toil—
all this God gives to his beloved in sleep.    (Psalm 127: 1a-2)

As hard as we work at it, holiness is not up to us. It is not by our efforts that we become holy, but by grace, the free gift of God. Not that we do nothing. The point made by the Psalmist is that whatever our efforts, it is finally God who achieves the results, and not ourselves. Holiness is God’s territory.

Jesus’ parable in Mark (4:26-29) speaks of the same truth:

He said, “This is how it is with the kingdom of God; it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land and would sleep and rise night and day and the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how. Of its own accord the land yields fruit.”

 I know of a few spiritual directors who tell their directees, “Don’t work so hard!!” What ever can they mean by that? Of course, I have to work hard! How else can I reach my goal?

Oh, that bold, stark, over confident, aggressive-looking letter, capital I! It stands all by itself, as I do when I think I‘m accomplishing so much all by myself when all along, it will be God causing the growth. Holiness is, after all, God’s turf.

Our responsibility consists in preparing the soil, accepting the seed, and harvesting the growth. The soil is our spirit, our heart, which we cultivate by prayer and loving deeds, feeding it persistently by habits of study, receptivity and trust. These nourish the seeds of faith. The time of harvest comes when we discover that some good things have grown within us. Then we’re enabled to spring into action, using those God-given gifts to share with others in a ministry especially suited to us. The little that we are capable of, we do, but then leave the rest to God.

I’m going to continue with my resolutions to practice Silence, Mindfulness, and Trust, but with a new perspective. It is God, not little i who guarantees the end results. Deo gratias!

New Year’s Resolutions

resolutions-sI was never able to keep New Year’s Resolutions for more moments that it took to speak them.

Much more useful are the resolutions I’ve been making for the last few years, aimed at hopefully nurturing my spiritual life. At my age, I find that the simpler the better, so I limit the number of resolutions to three, and also prefer that they be in the form of ONE word only. Any more than that and I’d tend to forget them. Just three words can be easily remembered and repeated, very much like a mantra.

The three words I chose at the beginning of 2016 are:

  • Silence
  • Mindfulness
  • Trust.

I find these so important and so difficult that I’m keeping them for 2017. Also, as I meditate on these practices to write this Post, I discover how interrelated one is to the other.

Silence.
This doesn’t mean wearing earplugs or keeping the radio off. Actually, listening to music has the effect of shutting off other noise that might be keeping my mind and spirit spinning. By noise, I mean thoughts that whirl around in my head, most often having to do with relationships, such as conversations with others that haven’t gone very well. Or thoughts related to world events that I can’t do anything about – except to pray for the healing of the cruelty, greed and selfishness rampant in the world. I’d do much better to let those prayers enter my head, rather than to continue to want to fix all these problems or to stay angry that I can’t.

Silence also means letting the other person do the talking while I listen. I don’t mean simply nod my head now and then to give the illusion of listening. I mean really listening. I mean not butting in every two sentences to offer my opinion or advice. I mean listening in a supportive way, letting the other person vent, and letting myself be the ventee, rather than the ventor. This practice also serves the Benedictine principle of hospitality, since we are welcoming fully the person speaking to us.

As I practice this kind of Silence, I realize that it is related to No. 2 on the list: Mindfulness.

Mindfulness simply means paying attention to what we’re doing or saying. This includes paying attention to what you’re hearing while you’re being Silent (back to hospitality again). It also means paying full attention to what you’re doing, focusing on each step and not hurrying. Forget about multi-tasking. 

Oddly enough and contrary to what the word seems to say, Mindfulness doesn’t fill our minds. Because it requires focusing on one thing at a time, and that one thing is in the present moment, it results in an emptying of the mind, or at least the removal of mental clutter.

I tried mindfulness recently while I was baking. I had promised to bring two pies and a cake to a family gathering. In the past, I would have scrambled around, concocting all kinds of ways to be most efficient and to finish as quickly as possible. (And by the way, what was I going to do with all the time I saved?? Play computer games?) Scurrying around usually ended in dropping utensils and making a mess that took longer to clean up. This time, practicing mindfulness, I very deliberately completed each step in turn. Though it felt a little like being in a slow motion film, I was actually able  to complete the project in record time and with minimal if any gratuitous mess. Furthermore,  I had been able to remain calm and contented, enjoying the thought of the pleasure I’d be giving to the family.

What does mindful baking have to do with my spiritual life? And why, for heaven’s sake, do I think such tasks are different from my spiritual life? Focusing on the present moment, I am able to keep myself in the presence of God who is present everywhere and in every moment. Thus, even menial activities become prayer, that is, they unite us to God. (For more on this topic, look up the powerful little book by Jean-Pierre de Caussade: The Sacrament of the Present Moment, and Google the Carmelite monk Brother Lawrence whose mindfulness enabled him to remain in the presence of God while performing his kitchen duties. Here’s a link: http://thepracticeofthepresenceofgod.com/onlinetext/)

The practice of Mindfulness is similar to the practice of Silence. Both keep the mind and spirit uncluttered, focused, and more ready to approach everyday tasks in a spirit of prayer. All of us have menial tasks to perform just to get through our days in some kind of order and peacefulness. We frequently complain about them because they’re “boring” and keep us from “prayer time.” Mindfulness allows us not just to perform tasks, but to transform them from the worldly to the transcendent. It allows us to make a prayer of what we thought was just plain boring. Try it. You’ll see what I mean.

The last resolution is perhaps the most difficult: Trust.

Our whole life has been spent trying to increase our mastery over so many things. We work hard to acquire the skills that will give us mastery over an art form, over knowledge and maybe most often, over other people. We even work to gain an illusory  mastery over our prayer life, and try to “do it right,” as if it’s a job and we’re in charge of it.

Trusting in God bolsters our spiritual immune system. Trust is like a spiritual antibiotic: it cures debilitating ills such as fear, anxiety, helplessness, pride, depression, and a whole host of related bad habits. Trust is simply admitting to God that He’s the one in charge, and being thankful that this is so. He’s the only one who knows the true outcome of what we fret over, what we’re afraid might happen. 

It’s very easy to talk about how wonderful Trust is, but quite another thing to practice it continually. This is why I’m keeping Trust on my list for another year. In fact, I need to keep it until death do us part.

Resolutions, like our spiritual life, are unique to each of us. I suggest taking a few quiet moments with the Lord, asking him to help us select a few habits we might want his help in acquiring (or dropping). He loves us, and will love this request. I’m guessing we’ll be given what we need.

Happy New Year!