Twenty Years Blessed

You seduced me, Lord, and I let myself be seduced;
you were too strong for me, and you prevailed. (Jeremiah 20:7a)

 The place was Santa Fe, the city of Holy Faith. It was Sunday morning. I was downtown and wanted to see the interior of the small Spanish style Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis, but it was closed. . .

After a Catholic education stretching from Kindergarten through college; after youthful aspirations to be a missionary or a cloistered Carmelite; after a failed marriage and a remarriage to another “lapsed” Catholic, the time had come. In the 21st year of this second marriage outside the Church, as we struggled to adjust to the changes of retirement, I took off on a vacation visit to my daughter in the city of Holy Faith, Santa Fe.

Touring the downtown, I wanted to see the interior of the little Basilica. Finding it closed, I returned a few days later. “Aha!” I thought. “Since it’s Sunday it’ll surely be open.”

cathedral-santa-feI entered just in time for the noon Mass. And what a Mass! It was October 4, 1998 (the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, one of my favorites) and the 400th anniversary of the founding of the Franciscan diocese in New Mexico. The Mass was celebrated as only Latinos know how: with exuberant song. I was bowled over. The Lord knows us inside out, and knew I would find this passionate, musical experience totally irresistible. You seduced me, Lord!

I was lifted out of 21 years of secular existence and firmly replanted as a follower of Christ, along with the gift of determination to remain there forever.

When I got home, the biggest surprise was that my husband too had decided come back. Sponsored by my former pastor, I went through the annulment process and we were married in a quiet ceremony in our new Corning parish. The 10 years that followed were by far the happiest in an already good marriage.

I wished I could go out on street corners or in parks — like Hyde Park in London where passionate speakers used to draw crowds to hear their message. I wished I could expound on the beauty of the Gospel! Would I ever be able to do this?

I say I will not mention him, I will no longer speak in his name.
But then it is as if fire is burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones;
I grow weary holding back, I cannot!
       (Jeremiah 20:9)

Like many a new convert, I threw myself wholeheartedly into my restored faith. I volunteered as a lector and Eucharistic minister, and for other parish activities: organized the St. Pat’s celebration; revived a faded ministry to newcomers; set up ministry fairs; served as secretary to the parish council. I also started attending daily Mass.

Step by step, each attempt at outreach finally led to today’s effort to express, through this blog, what God has done for me. That there’s just a handful or possibly a crowd who read these reflections doesn’t really matter. I cannot hold back! The words I’m given do not come from my mind or mouth. Whatever they produce, whatever the result, is not my concern but the Spirit’s, the Muse who moves me to ponder and write.

Once lured back to our spiritual roots, it becomes clear that true conversion doesn’t happen just once. Rather, it leads to continuous conversion, renewed day after day from within the events specific to that day.

This is my hope, my determination and my prayer.

There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance.
(Luke 15:7)

Let the Children Come

(Written on the feast of Thérèse of Lisieux)

“Let the children come to me, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matthew 19:14)

How can children – or the child-like – have such a ready entrance into the Kingdom? To merit the Kingdom, don’t we have to learn countless behaviors, obey countless rules, accept countless beliefs and doctrines? And we understand hardly any of it. This is surely not child’s play!

I’ve been re-reading Michael Casey’s commentary on St. Benedict’s prologue to the Rule, The Road to Eternal Life. [Casey is a Trappist monk who has written several books on Benedictine spirituality.] I read it with a fellow Oblate about a year ago, but many passages strike me as brand new, now that I’m in a different place. Casey writes:

The Gospel is fundamentally a proclamation of the Good News; it is something that excites, motivates, and encourages us. It is more than the dreary listing of a series of moral precepts. It is the promise of power that comes down from on high to give us the wisdom, understanding, and fortitude to put those impossible precepts into practice. . . .

To be guided by the Gospel is to be liberated from the tyranny of law and superego and to allow our lives to be more and more marked by the simplicity of love. It does not mean extracting moral precepts from the words of Jesus and erecting them into a code or canon of behavior. It means living as Jesus lived by moving toward the fullness of self-giving love that he manifested during his time on earth.

The French mystic and poet, Charles Péguy, tells the adult who is satiated with many possessions and opinions: “Go to school, children, and learn to unlearn.”

It is their humble status and attitude of simplicity that Jesus recognizes and loves in children. It is what Thérèse of Lisieux discovered in her “little way:” the child-like acceptance of God’s love as Jesus taught in his Good News. 13-Therese as Joan.jpg

You see, we’ve been taught about all the things we must do to “get into Heaven,” all the prayers we must say, all the rules we must strictly follow, the spiritual and intellectual hoops we must jump through.  Thérèse, doctor of simplicity, was shown a way where one simply goes along with the parent in total trust. It has to be the way to a good place, for where else would a loving parent take him?  The child is happily amazed at everything it sees: it’s all new and splendid! For the child, everything is a kind of mystery, yet not imponderable, for the parent will explain all as they take the same path together, hand-in-hand. Being with the parent “excites, motivates, and encourages” the child. Simply having that loving attention is an incomparable delight.

The spiritual child does not need to understand complex theology that calculates how many angels can dance on the head of a pin; does not need to impose difficult penances on herself; doesn’t fret unendingly on mistakes made; doesn’t need big, impressive words in speaking to the parent.

The child-like simply accepts that there are others on this same path and is happy to take the last place, since it’s by the parent’s side. Let the others run off to chase useless things! The blessed are content to grasp only one thing in their hand: the hand of God.

Yes, we know that this “spiritual” child may be a tad idealized, relative to the children we actually parent. The main point is that the child really has nothing of “value,” by worldly standards, to give the parent. It’s the other way around: the parent (or grandparent) takes delight in spoiling the child with a variety of gifts presented at every opportunity, reasonable or not. When we keep our eyes open and look up at our divine parent with expectation, hope and love, are we ever disappointed?

As years are added to my life-span, I’m taught new things. One gift is to see the importance of receiving. Yes, there are always things we do and give. But then, you see, it’s so easy to feel proud of ourselves. When we allow God to give, every day can be very much like a child’s Christmas. Gifts often come even frequently throughout the day. If now and then we’re given gifts that puzzle us, we’ll certainly be shown how they work and in time will come to appreciate them.

Being at the receiving end is especially important for those of us at the ageing part of life, because doing is getting more and more tricky. We have to learn how to accept help and care from others. We have to learn to ignore their look of exasperation as we ask them the same question for the umpteenth time. And when we tell them the same story for the third time in 10 minutes, maybe they have to learn how to pretend that they’re hearing it for the first time. Compassion is needed now, as those in their second childhood require the same patience we needed with our young ones.

Let all children come to Me.

Conversion

I write this on the feast of St. Paul’s conversion, January 25. And what a conversion was that!

It’s my opinion, produced by experience, that I am repeatedly called to conversion. For me, there was one very big one, so big that I remember the date, place and hour. It was October 4, 1998, in Santa Fe (Holy Faith) at the noon Mass being celebrated at the Diocesan cathedral of Saint Francis. It was the fourth centenary of the Franciscans in the New World. The large number of Latinos at this Mass guaranteed that the liturgy’s music would indeed be celebratory. The contagious joy and enthusiasm of the parishioners acted upon me like Paul’s blinding light: powerfully and instantly converting me, bringing me back to the Faith that I had abandoned 21 years earlier.

Let me say it again: we are repeatedly called to conversion — not necessarily in a grand fashion, but in small doses, mini lights that invite us to make Gospel decisions.

  • Shall I respond harshly to this person to let her know I don’t appreciate her criticism of me?
  • Shall I turn a punishing frown at the guy who practically knocks me over with his shopping cart?
  • Shall I get out of bed for weekday Mass, tired as I am from staying up late to watch a movie?
  • Shall I give in to the “sadness of the noonday devil,”* or will I accept the call to bravery in performing those uninspiring tasks that wait for no one but me to finish?

These are the little conversions, the tiny steps that follow at a great distance from the footsteps of Christ. These are the mustard seeds, the tiniest available, that I’m invited to plant and tend carefully and steadily until they explode into trees, housing flocks of birds.

The Gospel call of the Apostles has always intrigued me. I used to lament that I was not around to be called to discipleship (not that as a woman I’d have been called anyway). There was a kind of magnificence to being called, to being lifted out of the drab dullness of daily drudgery to follow this great healer, preacher, teacher; to view the wonderment of the crowds and to be so intimately connected with the greatness of this man! For me, discipleship represented the best kind of greatness.

Before his call, Saul too had a kind of greatness. He was a leader in the gradual but persistent elimination of heretics who arrogantly claimed fellowship with a blasphemous criminal (as if this were something to be proud of!). Saul’s task: bring them back in chains, let them imitate their master, even to submitting to the same end and manner of execution.

Given his powerful personality, this saint-in-the-making required a proportionately powerful show of God’s great mercy. A mere hint or two wouldn’t be enough. Saul needed a blinding light, a certitude that would impel him to undertake the most trying conditions. In spite of all his sufferings – he recounts shipwrecks, imprisonments, beatings – he considered them as nothing, and himself as the least of the Apostles. Indeed, his new name – Paul – means poor and small. Only in his acceptance of this smallness and the cross could he find true glory.

No wonder “little” Thérèse’s doctrine set the world on fire. Goodness, even holiness, was now presented to the hoi polloi as readily available even to the least of us. This young woman, formally educated only to the sixth-grade level, was named a Doctor of the Church for having taught this humble approach to God. Her longing to be a missionary, even to be a priest, was far beyond the possibilities of her circumstances. She recognized that all God wanted of her was fidelity to what was right in front of her: undramatic daily chores; crabby people; simple prayer which she often slept through. Each choice brought her one step closer to the One she loved “madly!”

How simple are my choices! Not easy, and certainly no longer grandiose as I grow slowly but surely into the reality of insignificance. All that remains is to be totally focused on the desire for the one thing necessary and a dogged determination to live the Gospel.


acedia.jpg* The “sadness of the noonday devil,” a spiritual condition called acedia is a gloomy combination of weariness, sadness, and a lack of purposefulness. It robs a person of his capacity for joy and leaves him feeling empty, or void of meaning.

“Copy Cat”

I’m the youngest of six siblings. I vividly remember one of my brothers, five years my senior, being seriously annoyed that I was copying his every activity. He would be constructing a house of cards, for example, and I’d attempt to do likewise. He would sing a particular song, and I’d soon be humming it too. He’d disdainfully chant, “Copy cat, copy cat!” My mother tried to convince him that imitation is the highest form of flattery, but he’d have none of it.

I can also remember imitating my mother: how she walked with a dignified step; the hat and gloves she wore to go downtown; how she composed her features in a ladylike way.

Other family habits and traits also influenced me – some, indeed, that I needed to shed later on, but others stood me in good stead: how the older sibs would retreat to their rooms after supper to spend a couple of hours on their homework. They never had to be sent there either. No wonder they did so well at school!

Copying others is how all of us learn, right from infancy. Our babbling baby talk is our elementary effort that ultimately leads (we hope) to conversations of substance.

If we were blessed to have constant good example, it was natural and even easy to copy it. Of course, the same thing is true for those subjected daily to bad examples.

And so it is in our spiritual life.

We who were blessed with a parochial school upbringing, were routinely presented with the examples of saints of every personality and walk of life. I can remember being very excited hearing about their lives: such remarkable people! If the story told of a missionary, I wanted to become a missionary too. If it was about a founder of a teaching order, I wanted to join. Even learning about a cloistered contemplative like Thérèse moved me to desire that life, though I had no idea what “contemplative” meant.

Sometimes I think that the best way to teach youngsters about our faith is not through the various dogmas and beliefs (head), but first through the passionate idealism of saints (heart). The rest could follow as necessary.

Jesus drew people to himself by teaching them about his Father’s attributes, especially his infinite love and forgiveness. Imitating these gives us happiness and entry into the Kingdom of God.

Look, this is what your Father does: when one of his children goes off course, leaves home, squanders his youth and fortune on prostitutes and drunken companions, the father simply watches for him every day, patiently waiting to welcome him home with a party and new clothes to replace his rags.

Look, this is what your Father does: if a stranger or even an enemy is injured, he picks him up, tends his wounds, and sees him through to a total recovery.

Look, this is what your Father does: he doesn’t hate those who hate and disrespect him, but loves them no matter what; he loves sinners into holiness.

“For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same?”

Ultimately, Christ pointed to himself for us to imitate:

Love one another as I have loved you . . .

By copying Jesus, we grow into his very likeness and show ourselves to be true children of the Father, as he is.

“. . . I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good. So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5)

And twice blessed are we if we’re given a human face of goodness to see, study, love and imitate.

 

Two Saints: a Perfect Blend

September 4 is the feast day of my patron saint, Rosalia. Not too many people in this country have that name and even fewer know her as a saint. Because she was also somewhat connected to the Benedictines, I thought I should tell you something about her.

Sources tell us that Rosalia was born in Sicily of Norman nobility and was perhaps a descendant of Charlemagne. In spite of this aristocratic background, she was drawn to live as a hermit and spent most of her life in a cave on Mount Pellegrino, a short distance from Palermo. Benedictines in a nearby monastery witnessed and admired Rosalia’s life of prayer, solitude and penance. Along with these monastics, many local people climbed the mountain to come close to Rosalia, attracted by her reputation for holiness. Rosalia died in 1160 at the age of 35.

A few hundred years later Palermo was threatened by the plague. Ardent prayers to Rosalia were believed to have spared the city and gave birth to an enduring devotion to the  “Dear Little Saint,” or “La Santuzza,” as she was affectionately called in the dialect.

Bringing Rosalia closer to home, my eldest brother’s birthday falls on her feast day. His age this year: 92! Following the tradition of being named after the paternal grandmother, two of my cousins were also named Rosalie; one of them (my favorite) lived to be 93. It doesn’t hurt to be connected to such longevity!

As I’ve noted in earlier posts, when I became a Benedictine Oblate I chose Mary Magdalene for my second patron. She is known as the Apostle to the Apostles because Jesus commissioned her to tell the other apostles of his Resurrection. We don’t know anything about her apostolic activities after that, though legend has it that she spent time evangelizing in France. Last year, Pope Francis elevated her feast day to the same level as the Twelve.

Rosalia and Magdalene together add up to give me a perfect model for my spiritual life: solitary prayer and spreading the word of Christ. St. Ignatius refers to these combined traits as being a “contemplative in action.” This is such a sound teaching, compared to the divided concept of being either a Martha or a Mary. Quiet prayer inspires us to serve Christ and then it supports us in that service.

Traditions eventually do change. Not too many children today are named “after” anyone in their family or even in the family of saints. I guess the theory is they must make their own glory.

As happens so often with young children, I didn’t care much for my given name. As I recall, the main reason was that the capital “R” was difficult to write in script! The other reason was that it was so “different.” There were not very many children of my ethnicity in my school. Instead, I was surrounded by Mary Pats, Susans, JoAnnes, etc. Back then, I didn’t know anything about La Santuzza, and certainly nothing about Mary Magdalene except for her wrongful association with the Gospel’s women of ill repute.

Once I began to learn more about these wonderful women, I came to appreciate the power of their example. Before I even knew that St. Rosalia had been a hermit, it seems that some of her spiritual genes had been passed on to me in my fascination with the eremitic life. And I deeply loved the passionate devotion of Mary Magdalene as she stood by the cross and later clung to Jesus in her joy and relief at seeing him after the Resurrection.

I often pray to these saints and would be happy to imitate them in their love and devotion to Christ. Through this brief post at the very least, I hope to bring honor to their names.