Archive for June, 2008

Woo hoo!

On a personal note, I found out today that I have been accepted to Fuller Theological Seminary for this Fall; I will be starting my M.Div. degree. We were hoping that this would be the case, but this is the confirmation. I’m very excited! Thank you, Jesus!

“…in suspense and incomplete”

These words from a prayer by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin have always spoken deeply to my sense of restlessness. Many have very eloquently written and spoken of this inner restlessness, but none have quite captured it in the hues and tones that resonate so perfectly with my silent self. The idea of being in suspense, of being held in tension, and forced to face daily our imperfect and incomplete nature is something that I think will always keep me both humble and frustrated.

Alanis Morisette recently came out with a song that addresses the struggle with accepting a journey- oriented spirituality: “I have been running so sweaty my whole life/ Urgent for a finish line/ And I have been missing the rapture this whole time/Of being forever incomplete…Ever unfolding/ Ever expanding/ Ever adventurous and torturous/ But never done.”

I think that in our current culture, we are spinning toward an increasingly destination-oriented perspective. Everything is measured by the end result, and little is relished in the efforts that it takes to get there. A diet’s success is measured by the final number on the scale, rather than the slow moving acceptance of the woman’s control over her own demons; her pant size is emphasized instead of the evolution of her self-understanding and ability to listen and respond to her body’s beautiful rhythms and cues. A young man’s education is measured by the letters that will follow his name, rather than the hard work, dedication, sacrifice, and life lessons that brought him to the moment of graduation.  A person’s success in business is the salary they can pronounce in bold numbers on the tax form the following year. We are a people who need the finality of some arbitrary goal in order to feel worthy–or, albeit falsely, to feel “complete.”

How does one stay in the tension, in the joy of the journey, without being fixated on the end result? Grace. Yet do not misunderstand; while grace is not some magical panacea for inner restlessness, it is also not borne from our own efforts. Grace is the gift God gives us that enables us to live presently, live wholly, live in both the “here” and “not yet” of the Kingdom of God. Such grace can only come when we offer both the journey and the destination to God with open hands, for hands clenched shut are inept at holding such sacred tension.

“Above all, trust in the slow work of God. We are quite naturally impatient in everything, to reach the end without delay. We should like to skip the intermediate stages. We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new…Give our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.” -Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ

The Precious

One of the most striking images from J.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is the concept of Gollum’s attachment to the ring. He names it his “Precious,” and is fixated on either worshipping it when it is with him or obsessively chasing it when it is not. This is an interesting reflection on human attachment; each of us has some sort of “Precious,” and I’m sure many of us have several. Most of us fall in love with stuff–not just material stuff, but also ideas, hopes, fears–things that we cling to tightly, for fear of losing our very selves if we let go, or even loosen up.

The Ignatian notion of detachment has always been both appealing and distressing to me in my studies. It has been appealing because I believe it certainly is a way for one to enhance and deepen one’s relationship with God. Yet it is distressing because I relate to the parable of the rich man who went away sad: am I really willing to give away my Precious? Some people count their wealth by their net worth, but I think most of us count our riches by our attachments. I find myself attached to certain notions of myself: a future PhD candidate, a cantor, a perfect wife, an athlete. Yet what would it mean to let go of my Precious–to let God throw the Ring of Power into the fire? I begin to understand why Gollum was so fearful of this; then again, the burden does get awfully heavy sometimes.

Faith Like a Cat

Anyone who knows me knows I have a deep love for animals. While this has, to an extent, fueled my own decision to be a vegetarian, I’m not one of those blood-tossing PETA types; rather, I find that my sense of spirituality and relationship to God is enhanced by my relationship with the living things of the world. The call of stewardship over creation in Genesis helps me to find God in caring for living creatures in the best way I can and know how.

That being said, I found myself reflecting today on my relationship with my cats, and my cats to me. My husband and I have two cats–two siblings, full of mischief, that I have had since I took them home from the pound in a yellow cab, eight weeks old, weighing about 2 pounds each, with upper respiratory and eye infections, and scared to death at the slightest movement. This was my first shot at really caring for something, of feeding and worrying and doing my best to keep them comfortable. I found that I really grew to love my cats, and through my relationship with them began to find that I recognized their unique personalities, likes, dislikes, pains, comforts. It sparked a love and concern for living creatures I had never even considered to be worthy of my thoughts before, let alone my concern and social commitment.

As my cats grew, I made sure to always let them know how much I loved them. I wanted these little lives, though some would say they are “less worthy” than humans and others would say they are just “dumb animals,” I wanted these little lives to know that someone in this world found them worthy of love. After all…isn’t that what we all hope for, somewhere deep inside of us? Isn’t that the longing we all feel?

An interesting thing happened over time. I found that my cats didn’t fall into the normal characterization of cats–aloof, silent, hiding under beds, only allowing themselves to be pet when they decided it was okay. No, these cats became companions on the journey. My husband and I often find it interesting that the cats go to whatever room in the house we are in, simply to be near us. If I am on the couch, one of them wants to be on the couch. If I am taking a shower, one of them sits nearby, waiting for me to finish. I’ve told my husband before that our cats just seem to express love for us constantly. Our male cat curls up next to us on the bed, like he is a third spouse in the mix, taking his rightful place. But it is obvious that he is doing it because he loves being next to us, not because he feels obligated or is hoping we’ll feed him tomorrow. Our female cat will often sit on my lap as I write or read, but it is without any need for reciprocal affection; she just loves to be near me in her peacefulness. Nothing we do with their feeding schedule or type of food changes this behavior; it’s not some Pavlovian reaction. No, I believe they just want us to know that they love us back.

And we do love them. We dote on them, we give them special treats from time to time. We get up in the middle of the night to make sure they are okay if we hear a strange meow or hear them fighting with each other. Believe me–there have been nights when, despite our deep love, frustration has reigned because our male cat is feeling talkative at 2:00am, or the two of them have decided to get their midnight exercise by chasing each other around the house, over our bed, down the stairs and back again. But we love them still.

Today I was thinking about my own faith, and thinking that perhaps I have a thing or two to learn from my cats. Is my relationship with God so different? Most of the time, I just want to be close to God. I just want God to know that I love God, even though I might frustrate God with my antics, or I may be a little too vocal about my wants when it clearly isn’t the right time for such things. Perhaps I should be more content just to curl up in the lap of God, knowing that God loves me, and will always love me, and that is enough.

Do we make our relationships with God too conditional? Do we only feel close to God when we feel satisfied with what we are getting out of it? Are we aloof, except when we want something? I hope that I can step outside these notions, and have faith like my cats have love. They love me just because I am me. They want to be with me, whatever I am doing. This is how it should be with God. I want to love God just because…well, God is God. And God will love me–even when I can’t stop chattering in the middle of the night.

The Kingdom of God…here, there, and everywhere

This past weekend, the Gospel centered around the notion of the “Kingdom of God” being “at hand.” As I listened to our priest during his homily, I reflected on the fact that I have never really been able to wrap my mind around what, exactly, I believed this to mean. I had a vague notion of what I believed the Kingdom of God to be; I think I viewed it somewhat like the possibility of a type of Heaven on earth. This place, of course, was the idealized notion of what earth could be, with all of the typical Gospel-message activities: the hungry being fed, the sick being tended to, the imprisoned being visited. Basically,  I thought of it as an all-around agape fest, with everyone doing what they were doing out of charity and love for one another. Yet as I reflected on that somewhat spiritually immature notion during Mass, I realized a few things: 1) That certainly isn’t the majority of daily activity in our current world; 2) I had never really thought about the meaning of the “Kingdom of God” past my childhood Catholic school education; and 3) I had no idea what “at hand” really meant in this context.

Therefore I have done some reflection on this topic and would like to share my thoughts with you fine readers–realizing, of course, that by opening the door to my own theological reflection in this realm could be like letting myself into the lion’s den. However, I think there are some important aspects of this notion to think about, and if anything, I welcome the respectful dialogue if your thoughts are different than mine.

First, the notion of the “Kingdom of God.” What is a kingdom? A kingdom is a place where a king reigns. Thus, the Kingdom of God is the place where God reigns. Okay, easy enough–but I wanted to go deeper than that. What happens within a kingdom? From an idealized perspective, one might say that within a kingdom, the subjects honor the king and bow to his laws and decrees. However, if one were to take a more realistic point of view, one would have to acknowledge that a kingdom, made up of human beings, will have human flaws. People will break the laws. People will disagree with the king and his decisions. People will make bad choices with how to spend their money and then neglect to pay their taxes. These things happen, because human beings make human decisions.

Thus, let’s think of the Kingdom of God at work on earth. Jesus came to tell us that God, in fact, does reign. Some knew that already, and some didn’t, but the message was nonetheless clear. Yet humans will still make human choices. And this is the wonder of free will: even though God is King, we won’t always follow His laws, or live out our lives in the way He hopes for His kingdom. But we are free to make those choices, just as we are free to live out the consequences of our decisions. And in this sense I don’t mean the consequences of fire and brimstone, but rather the consequences of furthering ourselves from an active relationship with God based on the decisions we make. Here’s the catch: just because God reigns doesn’t mean that things are perfect. Why? Because we’re not slaves. God is not a dictator, nor are we forced to carry out a completely sinless, worship-filled, love-driven existence. God has gifted us with free will, and because of that, God’s reign on earth will never be “perfect” in the sense that nothing goes wrong. The Kingdom of God, therefore, is the world in which God reigns over creation, but within that reign, the subjects still have the freedom to share and rejoice in the beauty of the Kingdom or ignore it and live in the consequences of their choices.

But there is still another piece to the puzzle–what does the term “at hand” mean? This was problematic for me because it always seemed just ambiguous enough to be confusing. Did it mean that the Kingdom of God “is here”? Did it mean that the Kingdom was “very close”? Or “going to come soon”? I had no idea. Yet as I was contemplating this term and its relationship to my new understanding of the Kingdom of God, I realized that it could mean all of that and more. In my theological studies I have heard that the Kingdom of God is “both now and not yet.”  But what does that mean for the lay person hearing the Gospel at church one Sunday? I tried to put it in different terms. What if the term “at hand” was just a fancy way of showing us our own potential? We have the potential to rejoice in the joy of God’s reign now, on earth, in this life–if we only make the choices that support and fulfill that potential. Yet we also have the potential to experience God’s ultimate reign in Heaven, a “place” where we no longer need to struggle with earthly decision but rather can simply bask in God’s immediate light and presence. “At hand” can be both now and not yet, because the potential for our life in God’s reign exists in both an earthly and a heavenly sense.

Could Jesus have been saying to us, “You have the potential to experience God’s reign in its fullest–you have but to choose it”? Perhaps; but because that means the choice falls to us, it becomes one of the hardest things to experience on earth. Especially when we’re all depending on each other to help fulfill that potential.

Musings on the Flute

I know that the purpose of my life is to be a flute for God. How great a gift, but how difficult to accept—the grace to simply be. A flute, an instrument, I must be content to be the tool through which the master musician brings forth the masterpiece. I am not the music, nor am I the player, but rather I am the means through which the music of the player can be experienced by others. My only responsibility is to be still enough to let the Breath flow through me, and to be pliant enough in my will to let the song be formed by the One who knows every note to come.

Yet this is not as easy as it seems! Too often, I must curb my own will so that I do not demand that the notes of my desires be played—when that is the case, I restrict the passageway of the Breath and the result is a cacophonous clash of wills. What is the source of my rigidity? Why the demand to create a song which a greater Creator has already composed? I am but a flute in the orchestra of creation, and a symphony being played. Why do I not trust myself to let my part be played, to allow it to come and fill the space, joining with the other instruments in a larger orchestration that is greater than I could have ever accomplished of my own will, let alone with my solitary instrument?

I know that in my heart I falter with moments of doubt. The deep spaces within my heart already know the song, a song it’s never heard but always known, and at times can even hum the melody with an uncanny familiarity. Yet I doubt myself, assuring myself that perhaps I am just guessing luckily at a melody or even convincing myself that I have never heard music before at all. Sometimes I don’t trust the song or the dissonance. I find myself wanting to resolve the chord. I strain against the dissonance, pleading for a happier tone, yet aching with the beauty of it.

So I find myself musing on two questions: 1) how do I let myself be open when my will fights against it? 2) How do I become more comfortable bathing in the dissonance….in the waiting for resolution of the chord? How do I enjoy the journey of the music, without anticipating the climactic moment of the movement throughout every note?

I do not have the answers to these questions. I simply know that my prayer is to remain open, to understand my role as the instrument, not the Musician, and to enjoy the song, as long as it lasts.

Whether or not the fear will consume

I have a secret that very few people in my life know. I am terrified of singing in front of people.

Why is that such a big deal, you might ask? Well, for one, I am a  cantor at a weekly Saturday evening Mass. I have cantored for about six years now, and in that time I have cantored up to 4 Masses each weekend on a regular basis. I have sung at a Mass with 13,000 people at it; I have sung at a Bishop’s ordination with 5,000 people at it. I have sung at so many weddings and funerals that I can’t even count. And yet…about four years ago, I developed such an intense stage fright that I almost cannot breathe before singing in front of others. The one exception is my weekly Saturday night Mass, although I don’t know why pyschologically that makes any difference.

Wierd voices get in my head when I start singing at a wedding or a funeral–you know, the kind that say, “You’re no good,” and “You’re going to let everyone down, and then they’ll feel like you ruined the whole day.” My husband asked recently why I make myself so important, but I don’t feel that I am that important; I just feel that I am entrusted to help people experience God in a deeper way, and I don’t want to be a distraction to that. Yet, this has become so much more than that. It has become one of the things I am most terrified of in my whole life. I dread getting calls to sing or the possibility of getting a solo in my choir. True or not, I imagine everyone judging me, thinking, “What a shame. That poor girl thinks she can sing well.” It paralyzes me.

It has become such a problem that I have stopped agreeing to sing at weddings and funerals, and I have actively requested that my choir director not give me solos. Yet I am so distressed by this; I feel that I am hiding my light under a bowl, and yet I also feel that I am physically incapable of getting over my nerves. I have prayed for God’s help, I have said the name of Jesus over and over, I have told the evil spirit to depart, I have asked for God’s humility that I may not make myself more than I am, I have done everything I can think of…and yet the nerves still affect me so deeply that the voice that comes out is not my own, but a constricted and meek voice.

I am writing this now because I have agreed to sing at a funeral tomorrow, and I feel the nerves returning. How do I keep myself from the paralysis of fear? Is it a choice? I don’t believe it is, but perhaps it could be. Is it avoidable? I have no idea how.

Thus, tonight my prayer is this: God, if the nerves and the fear serves me any purpose, then let the purpose be fulfilled and help me to accept it. If not, then please take them away. Please give me the strength to release them. Please be my courage.