Friday, March 30, 2012

Teddy Bear Jesus

I imaginatively named my very first teddy bear - Bear Bear
I was eight when my youngest sister Mary was born. She was the first girl in my family to have blond hair and blue eyes like me and that contributed to me imagining myself as her surrogate mother. Whenever I got the chance, I carried her around, dressed her, fed her, scolded her, and basically was up in her face 24-7. 

Did this have anything to do with her moving across the ocean to Spain as an adult? 

I'll admit there's a possibility.

As Mary got older, she started to demonstrate the basic human desire for autonomy and personal space. She would squirm out of my fierce hugs and run around the house screaming, "I am NOT your teddy bear!" (My Mom coached her to say this to me, and I am not sure I have forgiven her yet.)

The past few Gospel readings this Lent have portrayed a courageous Jesus who speaks the truth, even though he is really ticking people off. Jesus knows his claims to divinity are going to be the death of him, but he keeps speaking.

The theme that kept popping out at me in these recent readings was that of Jesus hiding:

Again they tried to arrest him, but he escaped from their grasp. - John 10:39 
So they took up stones to throw at him; but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple. - John 8:59 
So from that day on they took counsel how to put him to death. Jesus therefore no longer went about openly among the Jews. - John 11:53-4 

As I read these readings, I thought at first, "How strange that the King of the Universe would run and hide!" But then as I pondered further, I realized that it shows that Jesus died on his own terms. 

There are many things in Scripture that show us that Jesus was not caught off guard by his death. He began prophesying it very soon after his ministry began and he realized that his message was going to be rejected by most. Jesus knew that his death was imminent, but he also knew how he was meant to die. Jesus did not know this because he could always predict the future. Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine, which means that he did not have super powers. Jesus was limited by his humanity. 

However, I believe Jesus had a sense of how he was going to die because he knew the Word of God. Jesus is always concerned about the fulfillment of Scripture. He is constantly saying, "In order to fulfill Scripture..." So, it makes sense that Jesus knew that his death was meant to fulfill Scripture in a way that was unexpected and surprisingly, but nonetheless consistent with how God had revealed Himself throughout salvation history. So, like a good Jew, concerned with fulfilling Scripture properly, Jesus runs and hides until the right time. 

As I thought about the image of Jesus hiding, I realized that this is sometimes true in our prayer lives. We try to chase Jesus down but he is not always within our grasp. He is always right near us, but sometimes he disappears when we try to grasp him and control him.

Jesus is not a teddy bear.   

In my recent discernment for moving on to novitiate I have made many demands on Jesus, trying to control him and force him to work within my timetable. Jesus doesn't run and hide from me, he just silently hopes I will try another tactic. But, I have trouble with other tactics. I just keep chasing him around the house with my arms outstretched saying, "Come here right now buddy!" But I am quickly finding out that when I try to grasp and force God into a box, it just doesn't work. 

God cannot be controlled. God cannot be forced. God can only be trusted. 

So this Lent, if you are feeling like God is hiding from you, maybe it is time to look for him in another place. Or maybe it's just time to try another tactic.

Jesus, help us to love you with the intimacy that a child loves its teddy bear, but please help us when we try to grasp and control. Like little children, we want a God who we can govern. We think we know so much. Jesus, help us to trust you and to rest like little children in your arms as this Lent comes to an end.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Rend Your Heart, Not Your Garments

Let's start tearing it up.
Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the LORD, your God. - Joel 2:13

This Lent, I decided that I was going to focus more on internal penance while not forgoing externals. I simply felt called to put more emphasis on charity and regulating my internal state of being, rather than external penances. 

Little did I know that this Lent would be one big roller coaster ride of travel, family emergencies, illness, and discernment hysteria. Yes, I said hysteria. (God always gives us a bit more than we think we can deal with during Lent. And in my experience, I always freak out a bit more than necessary too.)

I officially have about one month and two weeks to determine if I am going to be moving on to novitiate - the next phase of "nun training." Some may say, "You have had two years to discern, how can you not know by now - what's your problem?" And I would say, "Right you are bucko - maybe you can ask God that question." 

Of course, I cannot really blame God. I am stubborn, deaf and blind when it comes to vocational discernment. I demand signs but really my knees are shaking and I'd rather just stay in postulancy for an indeterminate amount of time. A ten year postulancy is starting to sound nice to me.

When I was in the Holy Land last year, we visited the Church of the Annunciation, the spot in Nazareth where the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary to announce that she, a virgin, would give birth to Jesus, the Son of God.

I was scheduled to be a lector, or reader, for another Mass but I fortuitously ended up doing the reading at the Church of the Annunciation. I read from the letter of Isaiah in which the Lord says to King Ahaz, "Ask for a sign from the LORD, your God; let it be deep as Sheol, or high as the sky!" Ahaz responds and says, "I will not ask! I will not tempt the LORD!” And the reading ends, as many of you may know, with the Lord giving Ahaz a sign anyway, (which is a prophecy of the future birth of Jesus).

After I finished reading at the Mass, I stumbled to my seat in a daze. I knew God was saying something big to me about my vocational discernment, but I had no idea what. Should Ahaz have asked for a sign? It seemed to me that his response was pretty pious, basically "Oh Lord, I trust you enough, I will not ask for a sign." And I recalled parts of Scripture where Jesus seems pretty fed up with people asking for signs (i.e. Mk 8:11-12). Yet, God gave Ahaz a sign anyway - what did that mean? Was God telling me I should ask for a sign or that I should not ask for a sign? So, I did what any person would do, at least one desperate for some kind of direction from above - I started frantically looking up every Biblical commentary on this reading I could find.

What I found was surprising. It seems that Ahaz was not the pious man I assumed him to be. When God offers him a sign, Ahaz basically brushes Him off because he has already entered into negotiations with the king of Assyria. In fact, he has even begun despoiling the Temple of gold and silver to offer to Assyria. King Ahaz already had his ducks in a row and he didn't want God messing with his plans. He did not want to see a visible sign of the power of the God of Israel, because then it may require him to follow God's will. And Ahaz seemed pretty satisfied depending on his own craftiness.

The grotto where the angel Gabriel
appeared to Mary in Nazareth
Ok, so I figured I didn't want to be like Ahaz so I started begging for signs. And I want to make it clear - to God more than you dear readers - that I am not asking for little nudges, or whispering, gentle breezes. I need a big, divine kick in the bum. 

But so far, no lightning bolts from heaven.

The thing is, I am beginning to realize that if I ask God for signs, I have to be ready for what they mean for my life. That is, after all, why Ahaz refused to ask for a sign. He didn't want a sign messing with his pretty little plans with Assyria.
So, as my deadline approaches, I ask God both for a sign and for the courage to follow whatever that sign means for my life. And I ask, with the desperation of someone who likes to know her future at least a couple weeks in advance, for the prayers of anyone who reads my blog - friends and strangers alike. Please pray for both Cheryl (my co-postulant) and I, as we discern our next step in our journey with God.

Dear Jesus, this Lent please give all of us the courage to follow you in whatever way you ask. Help us to both have the faith to ask for signs and the courage to follow through with what your signs indicate we need to do. Amen.

Monday, March 12, 2012

This Lent, Leave Your Water Jar Behind

Refreshing water - this is what God is for our soul.
The woman left her water jar and went into the town and said to the people, “Come see a man who told me everything I have done. Could he possibly be the Messiah?" - John 4: 28-29

Sometimes we are so familiar with a Bible story that we miss out on the gems meant just for us at a certain moment in our lives. We read quickly or listen half-heartedly and assume because we know the plot that we know what God is trying to communicate. This Sunday's Gospel story of the Samaritan woman who meets Jesus at the well is one with which many of us are familiar.

As I meditated on the Gospel reading, I was struck by a sentence that I had never noticed before.

The woman left her water jar...

These words stayed with me throughout the day on Sunday as I chewed on their meaning for my life. I thought of what I knew about this Samaritan woman. She probably walked quite far to get to the well outside of her town. She was drawing water in the middle of the day, which may indicate that she was trying to avoid meeting the other women in the town, (perhaps some of her five husbands had belonged to someone else?) And yet, after her conversation with Jesus, she completely forgets why she made the trip out to the well in the first place. She leaves her water jar and rushes to the town.

When Jesus meets the woman at the well, the ancient reader of Scripture would have immediately thought of Jacob meeting his wife Rachel at a well or when Eliezer found a wife for Isaac at a well.  In Scripture, the well is a symbol of marriage.  You may wonder, what does it mean then that Jesus, a celibate man, met this woman with five husbands at a well? Where does the symbolism of marriage belong in this story? The answer lies in the fact that her soul, and all our souls, are made for divine union. Human marriage is a symbol of the union with God in heaven for which our souls are created. In a sense, the Samaritan woman is meeting her spouse, God, the spouse of her soul.

Can you watch my water jar while I run into town?
This is why the Samaritan woman leaves her water jar, her worries about earthly needs erased from her mind, as she rushes to tell others of the treasure she has found. Her soul knows that she has met her Creator, the being for whom she is created to love. Like the scene in the Gospel of Matthew, when Peter and Andrew leave their fishing nets behind, this woman is leaving her old life behind. She has become a follower of Christ.

Of course, this does not mean that after we decide to follow Jesus we will not have any doubts, or feel fear or anxiety. Even as the woman runs into town, she can hardly believe that she has met the Messiah. She says to the people in wonder, "Could he possibly be the Messiah?" Doubts are still swimming in her head. And yet, she leaves her water jar behind.

What basic, "necessary" things do we need to leave behind this Lent to become better followers of Christ?

Jesus, give us the grace to leave our water jars behind with you at the well. You know what we need and you want to give it to us. Help us to trust that you will take care of both our earthly and spiritual needs. Give us the courage to leave our water jars behind and give our entire lives to you, the being for whom we are created. 

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Proud to Be a Cretin: Justice Scalia & the Foolishness of Christianity

Here we are, fools for Christ's sake – 1 Corinthians 4:10

At the Living the Catholic Faith Conference this past weekend in Denver Colorado, I had the opportunity to hear Justice Scalia address a crowd of over 500 enthusiastic Catholics. I was not sure what to expect from one of the most influential Catholics in the country. Scalia has a son who is a priest, so I assumed his faith would be alive. But I wondered if it would be the dry faith of a powerful intellectual or a faith that would inspire. It turned out to be the latter.

Scalia began his talk by considering the etymology of the word cretin and pointing out that the origins of the word may have derived from the French word for Christian, chretien. And truly, Scalia pointed out, members of Christianity, from the beginning of its history, have been considered fools for believing such things as miracles, particularly the miracle of the Resurrection. But Scalia retorted that it isn’t irrational to accept the testimony of eyewitnesses to miracles. “What is irrational,” he said, “is to reject a priori, with no investigation, the possibility of miracles in general and of Jesus Christ’s resurrection in particular — which is, of course, precisely what the worldly wise do.”

Jefferson believed he was the Fifth Evangelist
Scalia then went on to discuss the roots of this scorn for deep faith, even in the United States, a country that is widely considered to be deeply Christian from its very beginning. But Scalia pointed out that even among our Founding Fathers, this scorn for anything without sound rational basis (in their opinion) was evident. Thomas Jefferson, a son of the Enlightenment, once revised the Gospels to “remove the gold from the dross.” Jefferson was convinced that the Gospels had some worthy information and some information that was added later by his superstitious “biographers.” Jefferson’s version of the life of Jesus removed the miracles, included some of Jesus’ ethical teachings but then ended abruptly with Jesus’ death and the stone rolling over the tomb.

Scalia then went on to talk about a more modern example of the blindness of rationalism gone too far. A priest near his home in DC was discovered to have the stigmata and statues would weep when he was near them. A Washington Post reporter witnessed the statue weeping and could only say, “There’s gotta be a trick here.” Scalia asked the crowded room why non-believers don’t flock to places like this to verify for themselves. The answer is obvious he said, “The wise do not investigate such silliness.”

The wise do not investigate such things as the Resurrection or miracles because they believe they are informed enough about the world to know that such things are impossible. Therefore, they assume that people who actually believe in such things are foolish and peasant-like. But they base their beliefs, not on investigation, but on flat out rejection of the possibility.

I can certainly relate to this arrogance. When I was not a Christian, I disdained Christianity and believed that Christians were ignorant just because their views did not fit in with my world view. This type of thinking is rampant in our society and is only too evident with discussion regarding such things as the Catholic view of contraception or Christian beliefs regarding homosexuality. The point of view of the wise is that only bigoted idiots would believe the things we believe. There can be no other explanation in the minds of the worldly wise. The Christian point of view warrants no investigation, and absolutely no further thought. To even suggest to someone that they read what the Church writes on these subjects is seen as kindly suggesting that they consider becoming a homophobic, women-hater. Our point of view is not even thought of as rational enough to be considered.

Scalia ended by talking about St. Thomas More, a man who died to defend a corrupt Church and papacy, considered by many, including his wife, to be a fool for accepting martyrdom. More gave his life because he refused to sign an oath that disparaged the pope and Henry VII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Scalia pointed out that the pope during the time of More was one of the least reputable popes in history and yet, More saw beyond the current circumstances and believed in the permanence of the Church that Jesus established.

As Scalia’s talk came to a close, he said to the crowded room, “I hope to impart to you the courage to have your wisdom regarded as stupidity.”  Of all the people to impart this message, perhaps it was best imparted by one of the most brilliant, powerful Catholics in the United States. As Scalia left the room, followed by several Secret Service agents, the pride in the room was palpable. We were all ready to accept derision and scorn for our Christian faith. 

We were ready to be fools for Christ.

As this Lent continues, we pray to Jesus that we may have the courage to stand up for the Church’s unpopular stances. And if we do not agree with some of the Church’s teachings, we ask Jesus for the humility to openly investigate and try to understand why the Church teaches what She teaches. Help us to understand the Church’s teachings on every subject –justice for the poor, respect for life from conception to natural death, the priesthood, family and every teaching that will help us to be better Christians.

The worldy wise have only been alive for the past century or less, (usually much less). 

The Church has been alive for over 2,000 years.

Help us Lord to cling to the wisdom of the Church even in the stormy times of derision and scorn.