The Divine Romance

I sing of faithful love . . .
Oh when will you come to me? (Psalm 101)

 The romantic comedy, “When Harry Met Sally,” has snippets of fictitious interviews with couples who have been married for many years. They are covered in smiles as they recall how they first met and how their love blossomed. Often the romance had shaky beginnings but ultimately (and we breathe a sigh of relief) the couple managed to work through these uncertainties to a happy union.

Who doesn’t love these romances!

Some of you may have happily discovered (as I have) that your relationship with God shares some common ground with your earthly romance. In addition to my own conversion experience (see last week’s post), I hear it from directees who speak of how their life changed when they realized that God had caught up with them. I hear it from them because when we finally connect with God we have this compulsion to speak of it, to share the wonder of it with any sympathetic listener we can collar.

Often the Divine Romance starts after a realization that something important is missing from life. Eventually there is that magic and miraculous  moment when the One standing at the door and knocking, has finally been let inside. Life changes. There is hope. There’s the chance that maybe, after all, I am lovable. This has certainly been my story, and I know I’m not unique. Having been a “lapsed Catholic” for 21 years and then brought back, I know whereof I speak.

How can I refer to this experience as a Divine Romance? Isn’t this some kind of blasphemy?

There are all kinds of references in the Bible to the divine love affair. Typically the lovers are metaphorical,  where the “husband” is God and the “wife” or “bride” is Israel, as in the book of the prophet Hosea (2:16; 21-22 ) :

I will allure her now;
I will lead her into the wilderness and speak persuasively to her. . .
I will betroth you to me forever:
I will betroth you to me with loyalty and with compassion;
I will betroth you to me with fidelity.

In these biblical situations God takes the beloved out of this world into a desert or away from the “city”, symbol of earthbound desires. She feels totally different from “normal” human beings, a stranger to the city (to use Michael Casey’s book title). There are things going on inside her that make her uneasy, uncertain of where she is going, wandering for ages like the chosen people in the desert. Difficult as this is, the beloved wants nothing else.

The most blatantly romantic book of the Old Testament is the “Song of Songs” which is usually explained as an allegory of the spiritual life, probably to hide its sensual character. Here, we find the couple in a playful hide-and-seek which turns serious as the Bride loses sight of the Bridegroom (3: 1-3):

On my bed at night I sought him whom my soul loves—
I sought him but I did not find him.
“Let me rise then and go about the city, through the streets and squares;
Let me seek him whom my soul loves.”
I sought him but I did not find him.

The Bride’s search reflects the typical spiritual journey with its ups and downs, its crushing moments when the soul feels abandoned by the beloved. At moments like this, we need to hear the Lord speaking these comforting words through Pascal, French scientist and religious writer:
          “Be of good cheer–you would not seek Me if you had not found Me.” (Pensées/Thoughts)

Or in the words of St. Augustine:
          “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee!

Spanish mystic, John of the Cross, writes passionate lyrical poetry about the soul seeking the Beloved in the obscurity of faith,  a night “more brilliant than the light,” because that is where the Beloved is hidden and where it is the lover’s happy destiny (dichosa ventura!) to find Him.

In more recent days we read the beautiful advice of the late Jesuit Father General, Pedro Arrupe, describing how Love, Divine Love, truly makes the world go ‘round.

Falling in Love

Nothing is more practical than finding God,
That is, than Falling in Love
in a quiet, absolute, final way.

What you are in love with,
What seizes your imagination,
Will affect everything.

It will decide what will get you out of bed
in the morning,
What you do with your evenings,
How you spend your weekends,

What you read, Who you know,
What breaks your heart,
And what amazes you with Joy and Gratitude.

Fall in love,
Stay in love
And it will decide Everything.

valentines-heartHappy Valentine’s Day!

Another Conversion Story

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.  I was downtown and wanted to see the interior of the Spanish style Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis. My interest was solely as a tourist.cathedral-santa-fe

After a Catholic education spanning from Kindergarten through college, after youthful aspirations to religious life; after a failed marriage and a remarriage to another “lapsed” Catholic, the time had come. In the 21st year of our marriage, I took off to visit my daughter in Santa Fe. Touring the downtown, I wanted to see the interior of the Cathedral of St. Francis, but it was closed.

I returned a few days later. It was Sunday morning, October 4, the feast of St. Francis of Assisi. Aha! I thought. Since it’s Sunday it will surely be open. I entered just in time for the noon Mass. And what a Mass! It was 1998 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 singing. I was bowled over. The Lord knows us inside out, and knew this moment of joyful music would be irresistible to me: You seduced me, Lord!

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

With a convert’s zeal, I threw myself wholeheartedly into my restored faith. I volunteered as a Eucharistic minister, lector, and for other parish activities such as reviving a ministry to newcomers, coordinating ministry fairs, and serving as secretary to the parish council. Most importantly, I also started attending Mass during the week. But there was something missing. I needed to communicate the riches of Christianity, but lacked the appropriate opportunity. Obviously I couldn’t go out on street corners to expound on the beauty of the Gospel! This was deeply frustrating, so I said to myself:

. . . 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)

Who could have known that technology would come to the rescue?

For as you can see if you’re reading this post, the opportunity has finally been given to me. Step by step, each attempt at outreach has finally led to today’s effort to express what God has done for me. Whether there’s a crowd or only a handful who read these reflections, is only for God to decide. As for me, I cannot hold back!

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

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.

Obedience 101

Ages ago as a teen, I used to read one of those advice columns that every newspaper has. I think I ended the practice when I read a letter from a teen and its response. They went something like this:

Teen:
Dear Smart Adult: I’m so tired of having to jump to every order my parents give me: clean your room; do your homework; pick up your clothes; go to bed! I can’t wait until I’m 21 and married so I’ll be the one giving orders to my kids and making them obey ME!!! (Signed) Sick and tired

Smart Adult:
Dear Sick and tired: I’m really sorry for your troubles, but what makes you think that just turning 21 will forever release you from the need to obey? Here are some of the examples where you’ll find that strict obedience will always be required: your boss at work (providing you haven’t yet been fired for not following the rules); the local, state and federal tax collectors (unless you’ve ended up in jail for non-payment); your spouse who may have the audacity to expect you to get out of bed and to work on time so you can support your disobedient children . . . and so forth.

This was the kiss of death. I would never be in charge of anything or anybody! Now you know why I never forgot this incident from my youth. What Ms. Know-it-all said was that Obedience is an ever-present reality. The only change is in who’s giving the orders. I’d soon find out that I’m not in charge of anything, much less anybody. (More about that, God willing, in another post.)

I also remember my teachers, members of a religious order, telling us that the vow of obedience was the most difficult of the three they were required to make. Obedience required leaving their ego behind and adhering strictly to the judgment of another person. Moreover, the superior might be lacking in the personal qualities that make obedience easy, such as being (a) older/wiser; (b) better educated/smarter; (c) gentle and tactful.

St. Benedict makes obedience the very foundation of his Rule as he writes in the Prologue:

Listen carefully, my child, to your master’s precepts, and incline the ear of your heart (Prov. 4:20).

In these few words he tells us not only to obey (“listen”), but to go more deeply into the heart level. But whom do we lay Oblates, living outside of a monastic community, obey?

10-commandmentsObviously we must first start with The Law, specifically the Ten Commandments and the Commandments of the Church. Most of us feel we’re quite all right in that department until we’re told by Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:20-22), to go beyond the letter of the law:

I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven. You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, “You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.” But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.

Jesus did not stop even there. He gave us his own person to imitate as he saved the most important commandment for the last. At the Last Supper he washed the feet of his disciples, showing them that their first duty as a disciple is to serve others. Perhaps because Jesus knew he didn’t have enough time to unravel the mysteries regarding the question of law and obedience, he created one single new commandment, one which is the clearest and the most difficult of all: Love one another as I have loved you.

How did Christ love us? He served, consoled, healed and forgave. He repeatedly referred to how he obeyed the Father. He could hear the Father through his intense prayer and his constant willingness to obey. Whatever the Father revealed to him in prayer, Jesus heard and understood. What he learned, he taught and also modeled. In his final act of obedience to the divine mission, he laid down his life for us.

There is so much more to say about the virtue of Obedience, especially as to how it relates to hearing the Lord. I welcome your thoughts, and pray that we can continue this discussion together.

Here I am, Lord: I come to do your will!