Category Archives: Uncategorized

What I feel

What do I feel right now? Truthfully, not much of anything.

Oh, surely there is something. Well, there’s that oddly familiar twinge of pain that occasionally shoots up the right side of my torso. Probably associated with the vaguely sick feeling in my stomach.

And I feel really tired inside my head. Perhaps mildly irritable too – why do the neighbors let their dog bark?

But mostly I feel rather flat and lifeless. Perhaps the best descriptor would be that well-worn phrase: “I don’t care.”

I see things, simple things, that need to be done – and I don’t care. I have family and friends and patients but I feel no caring within. (No offense intended to any family, friends or patients who are reading this – it is nothing personal.)

I look at my art materials or projects I’ve been wanting to do. Nope. Don’t care.

Of course, there is God in all of His goodness and the call to pray to Him. But again, there are no feelings stirring in my stony heart.

Some of you may be getting concerned by now. “Wow. She sounds really depressed. Is she alright?”

Rest assured. This is nothing new. It is called “Migraine: Day 2”.

I don’t feel like myself. I don’t even really feel like a person. I feel like someone could crumple up my body, stuff it in a trash bag, toss it in a dumpster and there would be no great loss.

But I’ve been down this road enough times that it is very familiar to me. I expect it will pass. So far, it always has.

+++

We know that feelings are extremely fickle. What I feel (or don’t feel) at this moment may well be gone tomorrow.

It may be replaced with something I find more comfortable. Or taking its place may be some inner state that I find even more unpleasant.

I should like to think that I have some control or at least choice over what I feel. But is this actually the case?

I’m sorry. I’m too tired to continue. I need to rest or do something different…

+++

I resume writing, though briefly since I am at work. It is a day later than when I began this post.

I do not feel much today either. My head is hurting again, though not severely. I am tired inside my head, despite sleeping well.

My brain does not feel like it belongs to me. There is a fuzzball in my head where it used to reside.

But I am here at work because I know that, ultimately, it doesn’t matter all that much how I feel. I often think that it does – and I can spend a great deal of time pondering what I feel or how I might try to change it. But, in truth, it is a minor thing.

God can make use of me even when I am in this state. In fact, He may be able to make better use of me because I am in a state of weakness.

I know now how much I need Him. Helpless as I am, I don’t have the energy to get in the way of what He wants to accomplish through me.

As the Lord said to St. Paul in his struggle,

My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.

(2 Corinthians: 12:9)

I may not feel like I care about anything. But I know that I do. At any given moment, there is a much deeper reality at work than what I feel.

+++

Another day has passed (so, technically, we are on Migraine: Day 4).

I woke up this Friday morning to find that my brain is back! I am so grateful – though I haven’t totally emerged from the fog.

I had suspected last night, despite the head still hurting, that things were getting better. On the way home from work, as I was praying Evening Prayer, I heard the following excerpt from the first chapter of James:

My brothers and sisters, count it pure joy when you are involved in every sort of trial. Realize that when your faith is tested this makes for endurance. Let endurance come to its perfection so that you may be fully mature and lacking in nothing.

(James 1: 2-4)

I found myself feeling a bit encouraged. Yes – I felt something.

My Friday evening is typically “art with God night”. I fast from the Internet and God and I spend the evening together – praying, reading, making art – whatever.

I read and prayed a bit last evening but was very tired, my head still hurting.

And then it occurred to me, “Now is the time to paint my socks!” (See previous post for context). It was the perfect thing for God and I to do together because it would absorb my attention but was not at all artistically complex.

And so we did. I wasn’t ready to hear any sounds that I didn’t have to so, rather than putting on music, I just sort of hummed random tones while we chose and mixed colors of ink to splash upon my socks.

It was kind of fun. By the time we were finished, bedtime was right around the corner. Prayers were said out of my still-scrambled brain. But I suspect the real prayer had already taken place – in the time spent together as God allowed color to awaken my soul.

+++

Praying this morning was different than it has been for the last several days. I felt present. I felt human. I felt grateful.

Breakfast settled comfortably in my stomach, the torso pains and vague nausea having vanished overnight.

While driving to work, a fresh wave of fatigue hit me. I had been up for three hours. I have come to expect this as well – or at least not be surprised by it.

With fatigue and a slight headache appearing and disappearing throughout much of the day, I undertook the process of catching up. There are many things I didn’t do, back when the feeling of “I don’t care” reigned.

And so I must work and get back to you later…

+++

It is now Sunday and I am alive. And I feel alive.

During Liturgy this morning, I wanted to sing and dance – and I did, though I kept the movements of my feet and the swaying of my body very subtle. (I wanted God to know that I was dancing for Him but no one else need notice…)

I want to write and paint and do a few things in my garden today. In fact, I want to do more things than I will reasonably be able to do. I feel good.

But I must watch this sensation with some caution. The feeling of release from a migraine attack is sometimes so pleasant that I feel a bit euphoric.

While we all like euphoria, I have learned to be careful with it. Sometimes it is part of the prodrome of the next migraine. Does it cause the attack? Or is it simply a warning sign? I do not know – but I prefer not to test it.

In any event, I have not written here to tell the tired old tale of what my migraine attacks are like. (Anyone wanting to learn more about migraine will find an abundance of information at migraine.com.)

Rather, I am writing about feelings, those fickle, frightening, fascinating vicissitudes of my inner state that often challenge me in my emotional and spiritual journey.

I suspect my journal-like entries above address the question I posed at the onset – whether I have any control or choice in how I feel.

Apparently, quite often, I do not.

+++

Not too long ago, I wrote a rather lengthy post about feelings – or perhaps, more accurately, about emotions (see Strange bedfellows.)

What I write about now is not so much the emotions themselves (anger, fear, happiness, sadness, etc.) but how the absence or distortion of normal feelings may confuse us in our faith.

How do I pray, how do I relate to others, how do I live, when I find myself passing through such a desert – regardless of how or why I came to be there?

I do not know. But I return to the letter of James. I am called to endure and to allow that endurance to come to perfection.

What does it mean to endure?

On the most fundamental level, it means to survive – to stay in existence. Certainly important. However, it has a deeper meaning as well: to suffer patiently.

As I enter further into this reflection, I ask myself, “and what does that mean?”

Suffering, or experiencing discomfort in body, mind or soul, comes to us whether we want it to or not. It is a fact of our human existence – and one that we don’t like and cannot readily understand.

Certainly I didn’t ask for my migraine episode. I would have much preferred an easier path.

But for me to suffer patiently or to endure involves learning acceptance of whatever God allows to come to me. To accept it without becoming angry or fearful or despairing.

I do not banish these emotions should they arise as part of my experience. But I do not become them.

I cannot help what I feel (or don’t feel). But I can know deep within me that I belong to God, regardless of what is happening to my body or even my brain.

I may not feel Him with me. Quite probably I won’t – at least during the more severe challenges. But I know that I am His.

A dear and holy patient of mine (who has since gone home to God) told me something years ago that stuck with me. She had passed through a profound depression that lasted a very long time (months? years? I no longer remember). It was so deep that she could not work, she could not keep track of her bills or property, she could not think clearly.

Much later, when the depression had eased considerably, she told me that she hadn’t known where she was then except that it had been a place of great darkness. She didn’t remember being able to pray or feel God’s presence but, “I knew He knew where I was.”

There was link. He knew. He had not forgotten her. And so she could hold on and endure.

My little migraine episode is nothing compared to that.

But it is part of the same process – a necessary process, I believe, that God uses to purify us, to make us “fully mature”.

+++

The holy people of several spiritual traditions tell us the same thing: we are to welcome and accept equally the pleasant and unpleasant experiences of life – for they come to us carrying a message or a lesson.

While God may or may not be the one who sends the lessons, He allows them to come. He wants us to learn and grow.

Part of my daily prayer is to ask God to purify my heart for Him alone. Had I thought He would accomplish this for me pain-free?

Perhaps, naively, I had. But He is teaching me.

He teaches me that to follow Him is to walk the way of the Cross.

Not the way of the shiny cross that fashion hangs from a chain around my neck. Not the way of the painted or sculpted cross that hangs safely in our museums and churches. Not even the way of the cross observed in song or prayer.

No, to follow Him to the Cross is to walk the way of suffering.

But “why?” we might ask. Why is suffering so important? Does God love suffering?

+++

Most certainly He does not.

Yet two things have been made clear to me in this regard.

My preoccupation with “what I feel” keeps ME on center stage – and I do not let go of this easily. Indeed, for my heart to be purified, the “contaminants” that pride has sown there must be rent away. This, inevitably, is painful. (For a wonderful illustration of this, see The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, by C. S. Lewis, where Aslan “un-dragons” Eustace.)

If I wish to pass my time on earth with God as just one small part of my life, I can do this. I can go to church now and then, say a few prayers and call myself a Christian. And little or no rending will occur.

I will not have freed myself from all suffering, of course. None of us can do that. But, without purification, I will not have walked the Way of suffering or entered the Cross of Christ.

The suffering that does come to me will have no meaning. I will be apart from Him and left with only me. Perhaps the best description of hell I can imagine.

And this leads us to the second thing made clear to me.

Lived in union with the Savior, my suffering is no longer pointless misery. When I stop clinging to the self-idolatry of “what I feel”, it is no longer about me.

My suffering is transformed into sacrifice. My life becomes part of His holy sacrifice.  

When patiently enduring my trial for the sake of the Gospel, the love of Christ Jesus is poured forth in me and through me.

And whether I am feeling good or bad or nothing at all – none of this is important – so long as I give myself back to Him in love.

+++

But I don’t know how to do this.

I don’t know how to patiently endure. And what trials of mine could possibly be worthy of being joined to His holy Cross?

It is here that the Gospel becomes surprisingly simple. If I return to “the little way” of my friend, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, I learn that any trial may be given to Jesus as long as it is given in love.

While it may be something as major as a serious physical or mental illness, it may also be as small as routine day-to-day disappointments or annoyance. No trial is too small to offer as part of the Way of Love.

And it is true that I do not know how to patiently endure. But that is why the lessons come. How else will I learn?

I must admit that I am not a very good student. Yes, I’m good at studying books and answering questions on tests – but I am not at all good at accepting my weakness.

In the end, it is His grace that will lead me.

May I follow, no longer having a “will of my own”. A priceless thing that shall be…

Amen.

What I expect

This week, someone had occasion to remind me that I am human.

Off and on in the course of my life, people who cared about me and were trying to be of help have issued similar reminders.

I have often found this curious. I have never had any doubts about my status as part of the group called homo sapiens. Is there something that parents failed to tell me?

As best as I can discern, these loving individuals were actually trying to communicate a concern about how much I expect of myself – with the implication that my expectations were perhaps a bit high.

While I certainly cannot fault these compassionate people for making such an observation, there is something paradoxical about considering any expectation “too high” in the realm of the Spirit.

What self-expectation can be considered excessive, when the Lord Christ Himself commanded us, “…be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5: 48)?

Are the issuers of these reminders encouraging me to accept as inevitable that I can be nothing more than a half-hearted Christian?

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Of course not.

Whether they were consciously thinking of it in these terms or not, what these kind people were actually doing was gently pointing out my sinfulness and need to repent.

What they could see (and I could not) was that my expectations of myself were built on a foundation of pride.

There is something subtle enough here that it merits further discussion.

Let’s suppose that someone has dealt me an offensive blow in the course of my professional life. And let’s suppose I feel really, really angry with this person and the systems or individuals who have turned a blind eye to this injustice.

Let us further imagine (since this a hypothetical scenario) that I am versed in the Gospel and call to mind Christ’s command that we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (see Matthew 5: 44).

I take seriously this clear instruction from the Lord but I am faced with a dilemma. How can I possibly love these “enemies” whom I recently discovered I have? Or even pray for them – when I cannot stop my mind from reviewing over and over how wrongly they behaved?

At first glance, it may seem that I have only two options: either I suppress my anger and rage, hiding them beneath a cloak of piety, or I give in to it, acknowledging that I cannot love this enemy, for I am “only human”.

The former course is likely to make me ill, emotionally, physically and spiritually. In fact, it has done so in the past.

The latter course seems to suggest that it is all right for me to disregard the Lord’s instructions in some circumstances because, after all, I am human. I cannot expect so much of myself.

It is, indeed, a good thing that there exists a third path.

+++

Both of the options above contain an element of truth.

In the first case, I am recognizing an essential tenet of the Faith and making an effort not to let my anger run amok.

In the second case, I am accepting that I am weak and cannot carry out the Lord’s directives on my own.

In the third option, these truths come together.

My human weakness can never be an excuse to disregard the teachings of Christ. He would not instruct us to do something that is impossible for us.

On the other hand, nowhere does Jesus say or even suggest that it will be through our own strength or virtue alone that we will be able to carry out His directives.

In fact, He tells us quite the opposite. Let us listen in as Jesus gives His final discourse to the apostles before His death.

Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these, because I am going to the Father. And whatever you ask in my name, I will do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything of me in my name, I will do it.

If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, which the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows it. But you know it, because it remains with you, and will be in you. I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you. (John 14: 12-18)

The Lord Jesus promised His followers then and promises us now all the support we could possibly need: the Advocate. He knows that we are neither strong enough nor wise enough to even remember His instructions, much less carry them out without the Spirit of truth among us.

For me to try to do otherwise is, quite simply, one more dimension of the pride that so often infects my soul.

+++

So what does this mean for me if I am to embrace both the Gospel and my humanness? What do I expect of myself lest I fall into one trap or the other?

St. Paul gives witness to what he was told by the Lord when he was faced with a similar dilemma:

Therefore, that I might not become too elated, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from being too elated.

Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. (2 Corinthians 12: 7-9)

And so I expect myself to be weak.

This is not permission to sin or disregard any aspect of the Gospel. Rather, it is an expectation that I accept the truth about myself.

This is the very heart of humility. And, ironically, part of this acceptance of my weakness is the knowledge that I cannot even become humble without the intervention of God’s grace.

Yet I also know that my Savior never forces His help upon me.

So I also expect myself to be obedient and to pray for His help. (Knowing, of course, that I can be neither obedient nor prayerful without the aid of His divine mercy.)

Is there anything else I expect?

Yes. Yes, indeed, there is…

+++

I expect myself to stumble and fall. I expect myself to make mistakes. I expect myself to lose control. I even expect myself to sin.

I expect myself to fear and to question and to doubt. I expect that some days I will hear not a whisper from the heavens and my heart will feel like a heavy stone lodged in my body.

I expect that some days I will not want to pray  – or that I will forget – or that I will pray mechanically as my mind wanders to everything from troubles to trivia. And I will feel helpless as it does so.

I also expect that, at other times, I will feel hopeful and joyous and very good about myself and my life – only to discover that I have once again fallen into self-admiration rather than having truly turned my heart God-wards.

I expect myself in times of hurt or heartbreak to cry, to sob, to wail. To pound on the floor, with tears streaming down my face, as I scream “Why?” at the ceiling.

Then I expect myself to fall in a heap at the foot of the Cross and beg Him to forgive me, to be merciful, to help me.

And then I expect that He will come to me, wrapping me in His love and mercy, wiping my tears away…

And then, I expect we will repeat this process many, many times over as He purifies my heart for love alone.

+++

Knowing who and what I am, I cannot expect that He will succeed. This can never be an “expectation”.

But I can trust. I can trust that, in the end, His love will be far stronger and more powerful than any weakness or sin that I can lay before Him.

And so it shall be.

All praise to Him, Father, Son and Spirit…

What I want

For starters, I want my head to stop hurting.

I want to pit the cherries in my refrigerator, cook them into a gooey mess and then eat them with some Greek yogurt. Warm and cool in my mouth at the same time. Sweet and tart together. Mmm…

I want to paint my socks. (I don’t have time now but it’s on the list.)

I want to sleep long and deep tonight.

I want to get up tomorrow feeling refreshed and having energy.

I want just enough rain in the morning to water my garden and fill my rain barrels. Then I want the sun to come out and make everything sparkle.

I want to get my work done tomorrow. See a few patients – but not too many. I want a restful day. I want my paycheck to come in the mail so I can get my banking done.

And I want desperately to visit my dear friend who isn’t well but not yet ready for visitors.

As this post has been gestating over the past few days, I have observed quite a few of these “I want…” statements in my mind. In fact, they seem to pop up as fast as weeds in my garden when I’m not watching.

There isn’t anything inherently wrong with “wanting” things. We are, after all, hardwired to want what feels pleasant and to avoid the painful.

Yet all of these “wants” can be more than a little problematic for my spiritual growth. As I listen to them forming in my mind, the most concerning part is how much the word “I” is present in my daily thoughts.

My continual reference point seems to be…well, me.

Having just written two posts on asceticism, it seems rather apparent that I am much better at writing about it than I am at living it.

But perhaps this is what the “struggle” in asceticism is all about. It is much the same with repentance.

The former is not about uprooting all enjoyment in life. The latter is not about lashing myself for my faults and weaknesses.

No, I sense they are both much more concerned with orientation, i.e. getting myself properly oriented in a universe that does not have “me” at its center.

As I become oriented, He will come into focus as my (false) self fades away. And, ironically, this will ultimately lead me away from suffering toward a joy much greater than any I can now imagine – the joy of being fully alive.

+++

To get properly oriented, I must turn. I am not facing the right direction if what I see most of the time is me.

At one time, I thought it rather silly that some Christians make an issue about facing east when praying. After all, God isn’t any less in the west than He is in the east. It is simply a human tradition to think this way.

I cannot say that I have really changed this opinion. I still believe God is everywhere and in all things. And He hears me, regardless of the direction I am facing when I pray.

It wasn’t my opinion that changed. It was something deeper within. Something that led me to set up icons on the east wall of my house and pray facing them first thing in the morning and last thing at night.

My icons, it might be noted, include both Catholic and Orthodox saints, as well as the Virgin and Christ Himself.

Something moved me to do this.

This movement, I sense, came both from me and from beyond me.

If I had acted alone, one might readily think, “Ah, she is just going through a phase. She’s imitating the Orthodox now. Soon it will be something else.”

There is always that danger with movement, I suppose, a danger that I am allowing myself to be re-directed by a false or evil spirit.

But I do not suspect that is the case now.

I believe there is One moving me as I most long to be moved – but in a direction I cannot find on my own.

It is much more complex than simply finding east – for it is movement away from myself and into the infinity of God.

When I am facing “me”, it would be like my life constantly looking in a mirror. At first, it would become boring. In time, it would come to be repugnant.

Facing Him, on the other hand, is like spending eternity being a mirror, knowing His light and allowing it to reflect from me wherever, whenever, however He wills.

And His will is my delight – a much greater delight than any of those I concoct for myself on a daily basis.

+++

It is now about 24 hours after the time I began this post. Let’s see what has occurred.

Interestingly, only a couple of the “wants” I listed above have been fulfilled during the interim.

I am grateful for the gift of a head that no longer hurts. Also, that I was able to see a few patients today (but not too many), making for a relatively restful day.

Those other wants? Well, they will happen at some later time – or perhaps not at all. It is not for me to know or dictate.

What is most clear is that “what I want” at any given moment is really of very little significance in the grand scheme of things. While this may be readily apparent with the wish to paint my socks, it is far from obvious with my desire to visit my ailing friend.

I have discovered that perhaps one of the most profound fasts to which one can be called is the fast from another who is loved so very much.

Seldom do we choose to fast from someone we love. Why would we? Though I imagine that we might do so if one has something important to do and the other cannot join in, this sort of fast typically has a known beginning and end date.

We are just as unlikely to choose to fast from health or security – for to do so is like fasting from our sense of control over what feels most essential to our being.

But there are times when God chooses a fast for us. He does not do this because He relishes our suffering or wishes to control us, but because He alone knows what we need to pass through in order to be completely and utterly His.

I do not know how to turn to make this happen. I cannot find the direction by myself.

And this I believe is at the heart of true asceticism: the struggle to trust – not myself – but Him. To trust that when He leads me to the brink of what appears to me to be wrong or confusing, painful or frightening, it is indeed the only way home.

For this is the Cross, the Cross that I both fear and long for, the Cross of my Savior.

+++

To say that I do not want the Cross would be an understatement of massive proportions. On a human level, even Christ did not “want” it at all.

Like the Lord Jesus in the garden of His agony, I fear it. And I would probably fear the Cross even more if I truly understood what it entails.

How then can I long for it?

Every one of my wants, those listed and those not, direct my being toward something transitory. Yes, even my friendship of many years is not endless, though we both hope to one day share the eternal life we have been promised.

My longing, my very deepest longing, is to be taken beyond my false self, that odd collection of wants, weaknesses and abilities that I have come to think of as “me”, and become one with Christ in eternal love.

And there is only one way this deep longing of mine can be fulfilled: I must follow Him to the Cross where I willingly and lovingly learn to surrender my very self.

With Him, I will say, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” and, at that moment, my life will no longer belong to me – but to Love.

+++

All of my little wants – there is nothing wrong with them. They are not bad anymore than flowers or butterflies, peaches or puppies are bad.

They are just very small and transitory. I love them and enjoy them but I know not to cling to them because they cannot last.

I love and embrace them with open hands. They may rest in my hands for short moments or long before slipping through my fingers like water into the pool of life.

I cannot lie. I will suffer. In my humanness, there will be times when I will cry out in pain, most especially for the human loves that bless my life. Yet this too is part of the Cross, the surrender of self.

This – this is sacrifice – the very heart of eternal love: to grasp nothing and give up all, everything that I know and want, so that all of the small loves may come to the fullness of life in God.

May He name be praised forever.

Asceticism and enjoyment

I just ate a piece of chocolate. It was good.

This evening, on and off, I was craving sweets and that craving started to center on the bar of chocolate that has been lurking on my kitchen counter for weeks now.

Quite some time ago, I made a conscious choice to minimize my consumption of refined sugar. As a result, I seldom crave it. But every now and then I get a taste for chocolate. And so I nibble away at this bar of chocolate, breaking off one square at a time.

Perhaps tonight’s craving was the result of a busier and more intensive work day than usual. Or maybe my body is low on some substance contained in chocolate. Who knows?

What is interesting about this, however, is that I found myself trying to resist the craving and not eat the chocolate. And then I stopped to consider this further. Why was I acting like I should not eat it?

Thankfully, I do not have any health conditions that the preclude the consumption of chocolate. I am blessed with a normal blood sugar, a lipid panel well within parameters, a healthy blood pressure and so on. I am not allergic to chocolate and I have determined that it does not trigger migraines in me as it does in some people.

The chocolate in question was 70% cocoa, meaning it was a dark chocolate – which purportedly has a number of health benefits.

The chocolate was also labeled “fair trade” chocolate. While labels are not always true, the promise is that a grower in a developing country was paid a fair price and that no slave labor was involved in its production.

This was socially just chocolate.

So what possible rationale could there be for resisting such a lovely treat?

When I stopped to consider this automatic reaction, I realized that it was fueled by wrong thinking. More specifically, by wrong thinking inculcated by my early religious training.

Some of you may be thinking, “What?! I grew up Catholic (or Orthodox) and no one ever told me that it was wrong to eat chocolate!”

And there may even be a few of you closet chocolate addicts that wish you had internalized such a value so that your struggle with this particular passion might be made easier.

But, of course, no one taught me this specifically. It was something else.

Allow me to explain.

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In my young adult days, I remember a friend showing me a poster with the photo of a rather stern schoolmarm bearing the caption, “If it feels good, don’t do it!”

And this, of course, was meant to be funny.

The poster reflected the sentiments of a generation of young people who had begun to question the mores of their culture, many of which had their roots in the Catholic (Christian) Church.

Okay, “question” is too mild a term. It would be more accurate to say that this generation growing up in the 1960’s and early 1970’s cast off the shackles of the abstinence-oriented teachings of the Church and culture.

The message of the poster was to suggest that we had been taught to equate pleasure with sin.

And the humor of the caption lie in an unspoken understanding that such an association was now to be considered absurd.

Against this background, my early values were formed, shaped and reshaped.

I received my earliest religious instruction in Catholic school and it was of the traditional sort:

“Who made you?” the Baltimore Catechism drilled. “God made me,” I rotely replied.

“Why did God make you?” it continued. “To know Him, love Him and serve Him in this world and be happy with Him in the next”.

Fascinating, isn’t it, that I remember the exact words, despite not having seen them in over 50 years?

I believe I was in third grade (or was it fourth?) when there started to be a significant emphasis on avoiding impure thoughts. Of course, I had no idea what an impure thought was. I just had to fight them because they were “an occasion of sin”.

Also during this period in my life, I encountered the Seven Deadly Sins. I have written elsewhere about the confusion this exposure engendered in my developing conscience.

It seemed that the most deadly of sins (as I interpreted them at that age) were behaviors that naturally evoked good feelings.

Some of them I couldn’t relate to at all. For example, I was too young to understand lust. Good little girls of that era hadn’t a clue about what sex was – unless, sadly, they had been abused.

But from what I could make out, gluttony was about eating too much. Though I never had a large appetite, I enjoyed food, especially sweets. When we could get away with it, my brother and I would eat a whole package of cookies on a Saturday morning while watching cartoons and the Little Rascals. What fun!

Pride was about feeling good about something I did well. I got good grades and some teachers thought I had talent in art. I liked the feeling I got when I brought home A’s. When someone admired my artwork, I really liked that feeling because my father was artistic. I loved my daddy and wanted to be like him.

Greed was about wanting things. I liked getting presents for my birthday and Christmas. The more the better!

Did you notice that how my “voice” changed as I started writing about my earliest experiences with the “deadly sins”?

The words and tone in my writing became those of the little child I was, delighting and taking pleasure in what felt good.

And these things that felt good – these were the worst sins of all.

No one had to say directly, “it’s wrong to feel pleasure”. The meaning was internalized and became part of the very fabric of my soul.

So much so, in fact, that it would be decades before I would even recognize that this unspoken belief was hidden beneath my more rationally held values.

+++

The times I grew up in were indeed turbulent, both in the culture around me and in my developing identity.

Who was I?

Would I be one of those who cast off the shackles of my repressive, guilt-inducing religion, as did so many young people of my generation?

Or would I remain with the faith of my family and my Church?

Would I continue my journey to know, love and serve God? Or would I become cynical and discount His existence?

Perhaps I would remake Him into a more “comfortable” God, one who accommodated my wants and weaknesses. Maybe the true God really didn’t mind if I felt pleasure…

Why, after all, would He give us so very many enjoyable experiences, only to say, “Don’t touch!”?

And so went the conflicts of my early years…

+++

I began this post by noting that my “automatic response” to resist the urge to eat chocolate was based on wrong thinking.

The wrong thinking involved is not only the distortion that equates pleasure with sin. It is perhaps something even more insidious than that.

And this is the notion that God delights in my self-deprivation, or worse, that He is pleased by my suffering.

This permutation is particularly dangerous because, if God is pleased by my suffering, how can I possibly imagine that He wants me to be happy?

Not only does this give rise to a false asceticism, i.e. one devoid of love, it also leads many to view God as cruel rather than loving.

Bad enough that He required His only Son to suffer and die. Now He wants the rest of us to suffer too?

Given the choice between suffering to please a sadistic God and trying to create one’s own happiness through life’s pleasures, it is not surprising that so many have opted to pursue the latter.

+++

Oh my. I have created quite a dilemma for myself here, haven’t I?

In my last post, I made a rather sound argument for asceticism, including fasting, as central in our struggle to follow Christ.

Yet in this post, I have made argument that depriving ourselves of enjoyment or causing ourselves suffering are not what our loving God asks of us.

How do I reconcile these two trains of thought?

Asceticism is about spiritual training the purpose of which is to help me grow in love.

And growing in love is not easy.

Because our ancestral sin implants in us a bias toward pleasing ourselves first and foremost, the innocent pleasures God bestowed upon us have been corrupted.

To truly love, we must struggle against this corruption. This struggle is called asceticism and Christ has led the way.

We are to follow Him – not just for a moment but with the totality of our lives.

Yet is there never a moment when I can let down my guard in this struggle? A moment in which I can say, “I’ve struggled enough for now. I think I’ll just kick back and enjoy myself for a while”?

The obsessive nature of this question should be evident.

Can I ever say, “Now I know well enough how to love. I don’t have to be watchful for temptation”? Certainly, I cannot.

Yet if I cannot say this, how can I allow myself to enjoy anything in this life? Of course, a bit of chocolate is of little import. But where then does one draw the line?

Besides the impossibly obsessive nature of this line of reasoning, it contains one vital flaw.

It bypasses perhaps the most central truth about our life in Christ.

When I become so wrapped up in trying to show my love for God, I lose my awareness of how much God has loved me.

When I’m preoccupied with trying to please God, it does not occur to me that God wants to please me.

The notions of asceticism, struggle and fasting too often raise specters of ordeals to be endured. Certainly they are not regarded as causes for joy.

But this is a false image based on a false asceticism.

For the struggle of love, when shared with Christ, is perhaps the most joyous experience a human being can have.

+++

I write slowly and so a couple of days have passed since the chocolate was consumed. Of course, there is still some on the kitchen counter but now is not the time for more.

I wonder if what I have written about asceticism and love make sense at all outside of my own head. Probably not.

But I want to share with you my experience of that evening of chocolate-eating. It was so profoundly beautiful, even if a bit fanciful, that I cannot keep it to myself.

It is a sort of vision of my life with Christ. Not a mystical vision, of course, just a story of sorts…

Sometimes it feels like we’re an old married couple, the Lord and I, though I suppose it sounds odd to say so.

It feels like we’ve been together forever, for better or for worse. (His better, naturally, my worse…)

I cannot say that I feel this way most of the time or even often. But it is one of my favorite ways to feel.

It is no longer about “You” and “me” in our relationship – it is a “we” or “us” that flows off the tongue without a second thought.

We sit in companionable silence.

“What shall we do this evening?” I ask. “Shall we write a bit? Or perhaps we might paint?”

Naturally, He reminds me that there are dishes to be done. I know that He is the head and I defer to His decisions. (Or at least I tell myself I will…)

Still, He is so sweet, always trying to please me, that often we end up doing something I want to do  –  and we get to the dishes later.

We have been together so long that He doesn’t have to ask what makes me happy. He knows to send butterflies and He knows just when to send them. He sees how I love them and He delights in my delight.

He has always spoiled me, I suppose. While I know deep within me what pleases Him, just as well as He knows what pleases me, He is patient when I am slow to act.

“Come on”, He cajoles, “Don’t be so afraid to give and to love. Let go. It’s fun – we’ll do it together.”

Naturally, His idea of “fun” is very different from the world’s. But He is right. Doing it together makes all the difference. 

And when I try to do something special for Him, some little sacrifice He hasn’t asked for, I end up feeling so happy that it almost feels like it shouldn’t count.

“I don’t think I suffered enough,” I confess to Him sheepishly.

He just laughs. “It’s not your suffering I want!” Then He explains most seriously. “It’s your love. It’s your mercy. That is what makes Me happy. And it pleases Me because it’s something we do together.”

I ponder a moment and know that His words are true. Whatever I’m doing, I am only happy when I am doing it with Him. It doesn’t matter if I’m working or playing, painting or doing dishes.

And the thought of having to do anything apart from Him terrifies me. 

“Please stay in my heart forever,” I plead. “Don’t ever leave me. And don’t ever let me leave You.”

I look up at Him with tears in my eyes and see that He is smiling…

+++

Yes, we enjoyed eating that chocolate, the Lord and I. And the real joy was experiencing it together.

Only one thing could have made our joy even greater. And that would be if you had been here with us. We would have broken off a piece for you too and all savored its sweetness together…

Asceticism for the Postmodern Sinner

I can’t believe that I was so easily taken in. I never expected this sort of thing to happen to me.

It all began so innocently. When a coworker left our psychology practice a while ago, I was told that I might do some basic cognitive rehabilitation with some of my patients who already had started this work with her.

I knew that games are sometimes used as “homework” when someone is trying to recover or strengthen cognitive skills that have suffered because of strokes or other brain injuries.

Recalling a website I had visited years ago, I searched for it again to see if it might be a resource. With its generous offering of games that tapped into a variety of cognitive skills, I thought I might allow some of my patients to peruse the site, given that there is a fee for full access.

So far so good.

Naturally, I needed to try out some of the games myself first. Many new games had been added in the years since I had last been to the website – and I recognized a couple of old favorites.

Some of them, I found, were not so easy for this aging brain of mine.

“I bet I can do better if I just play it again,” I told myself after a disappointing first performance on one such game.

And, of course, that was true. Understanding the task better, practicing it and developing new strategies improved my scores across the board.

The website offers an opportunity to view your stats and how they compare with others your age who are part of their large community of players. Given that no data are provided regarding the abilities or disabilities of the other players, such comparisons are essentially meaningless. Still, I found it kind of fun.

Though a bit discouraged at first with my rather mediocre percentiles comparing me to agemates, there was some enjoyment watching myself climb higher as I practiced the games more.

This was my first real warning sign. But I did not see it as such.

Or perhaps I didn’t want to see it as such.

After all, especially for someone my age, brain exercise is as healthy a practice as physical exercise. So I’m doing a good thing, right?

Perhaps I was spending a bit more time on it than I should. But it was not as though I spent hours on it every day.

Yet on those days when I spent more time on the games than I intended, particularly when I had more important things to do, this little voice inside would nag, “What have you really accomplished here?”

But I would shrug it off. After all, I was exercising my brain and that is a good thing. And I was decompressing from work, also a good thing.

Nothing wrong with that.

Then why am I writing about it? (And what does this have to do with asceticism?)

+++

I have noticed, as you may have, that God has had me on sabbatical from writing here. Longer gaps between posts, wanting to write for Him but hearing few promptings from within.

And then there were promptings that were never pursued because I was tired, busy or just not in the right place mentally or spiritually to write.

I haven’t felt “in trouble” spiritually. I have persisted with prayer and spiritual reading. Despite my dullness, I have observed God continuing to work in me and through me.

But during these unscheduled sabbaticals, I often wonder why – why has God pulled me off the writing circuit? And, more nervously, I wonder if one of these times (perhaps this time?) He is not going to return me to writing at all.

Of course, He is in charge. Should He say, “Stop writing”, I would stop. Without question or delay. I know I cannot write without HIm.

By myself, there is nothing worth writing. Disobedience cannot even been considered on this matter.

However, it occurred to me in the last couple of weeks that perhaps God had pressed me into compositional silence because there were things He knew I needed to learn.

Yet, if I didn’t know what those things were, what was I to do?

Well, for one, I had to assume my rightful role as student, not pretending to be a teacher. In addition, I had to pray – and then wait for Him to show me what He wanted me to see.

And last night, He did. I had just settled into the spot on the floor where I go to pray in the dark – and there it was.

I am addicted to those stupid games.

+++

I realize that this may sound like an exaggeration. What, I’m playing some brain exercise games for a half an hour or so every day? Hardly the making of an “addiction”.

I know, I know. But stay with me and I think you will understand what I mean.

For I realized last night, while sitting before my God in the dark, that it is not the games themselves that draw me to waste my time with them. They are not that much fun.

Yet, in recent weeks, I have found myself looking forward to them with a certain excitement every day. If I didn’t get to them, I felt as though I had missed something. Why?

Interestingly, I decided in the last week or two, for reasons not clearly formed in my mind, that I was going to fast from them on Fridays. The decision felt surprisingly difficult. And I wondered why I felt a need to fast from them.

God was laying the groundwork for me to see what I didn’t want to see.

No, it was not the games themselves that were addicting. It was the numbers.

From the beginning, it wasn’t just my previous score I had to beat. It was those other 60-64 year olds who also played, unseen by me, reflected in the percentiles.

I was addicted to trying to prove that I was smarter than they were. (Ugh. No wonder I didn’t want to see this in myself.)

As I reflected on this inner revelation, I realized that this is the stuff of addiction. Whether it is the next drink, the next drug high, the next sexual escapade, the next meal or the next wager, there is a common pattern: a heightening tension in the approach, followed by a release at attaining the sought-after pleasure.

Unless, of course, you don’t attain it – in which case you must try again. And, of course, if you did attain it, you must try to sustain or exceed the previous high.

And so my sense of excited anticipation to play games, followed by the pleasure of watching myself rise in the percentiles. Even if I had work to do. Even if I was tired and needed to go to bed.

It doesn’t take that long. It’s good exercise for my brain, right?

There’s no sin in that, is there?

+++

Well, actually…

This is not the place for public confession, of course. But it is a place for sharing lessons.

I often forget how crafty our adversary can be, taking something that is neutral or even of positive value, and leading us into corruption without us even recognizing that it has happened.

Before my eyes were opened, something inside (I suspect it was the Holy Spirit ) whispered to me that I needed to fast from this seemingly innocuous game-playing.

And the very fact that the fast felt difficult was telling.

“Is there any person, experience or possession that I would not give up for you, O my Savior?”

I like to imagine that I can say no – no, there is nothing I would not give up for Him. Nothing is or ever can be more important to me than Him.

This is readily proclaimed in the abstraction of prayerful inquiry, safely hypothetical because nothing has been demanded, no struggle or true sacrifice has been required.

Like the rich young man in the Gospel, I may tell myself that I have been completely faithful – and believe it – until the critical moment comes and I actually have to relinquish what I have been secretly clinging to.

It may be food, pride, sex, wealth – any of the passions. The passions themselves are not inherently evil, of course. And the enemy makes sure to remind of us this.

It is only when I cling to my passions and make excuses for them that they become like massive boulders obstructing the path. The path between my heart and God.

+++

The postmodern world we live in is one that rejects the notion of any objective or universal Truth – all is relative. We are a collection of individuals, each seeking and finding our own truths.

Whatever truths we find ought to be respected in this culture-constructed world of ours. What is true for me may not be true for you and thus I must not “impose” my views on anyone else.

While there is some wisdom in the tolerance thus professed, the term “postmodern Christianity” is oxymoronic.

We who know Christ know Truth – and He is One, not many.

It is not for us to decide for ourselves the nature and boundaries of Truth. These have been revealed to us.

And this is good, for we know our own ideas have been infected by our passions and, left to our own devices, we will (and do) invent all sorts of excuses and accommodations for them.

Some who count themselves nonbelievers consider Christianity to be the source of all of our troubles – the intolerance, the hate, the disconnect between our beautiful universe and its inhabitants.

In their postmodern thinking, sin is only an invention of one of the world’s religions, developed to control people through guilt. According to this manner of thinking, sin is but a construct designed to justify judging others, often while hypocritically engaging in acts that are as bad or worse.

But we who have received Truth, read the Word of Truth, consumed the Flesh and Blood of Truth, know sin to be very real. It is not a cultural construct or a personal belief.

Sin is born of the passions that rise up in all people and, while Christians still fall victim to them, neither God nor the Church invented them.

No, they were among us from the beginning, innocent at first as were we, But then, under the influence of the tempter, we sought to make ourselves gods and they were innocent no longer.

+++

So here I am, a sinner living in a postmodern world that strives to convince me that my corrupted desires for self-gratification and self-glorification are normal and of no consequence – as long as I don’t bother anyone else.

Take away the negative labels and this is really not so hard to believe. After all, who did I hurt by my “addiction” to the brain games? No one even knew of it until I revealed it here.

The other 60-64 year olds who were playing the same games knew nothing of my existence nor of my striving to prove myself smarter than them. How could they be hurt?

(This, of course, is one of the more clever ways in which the evil one disguises his agenda: if I don’t see anyone being hurt, then no one is hurt. And if no one is hurt by an action or an attitude, there is nothing wrong with it.)

But, as a Christian sinner living in a postmodern world, I know otherwise.

The passions, if allowed to rule me, separate me from God. Apart from God, the Source of all life, I am headed toward death.

At the very least, I have hurt myself and grievously.

But can I realistically imagine that it stops here? That permitting the passions to dominate me in one way does not impact thoughts and actions that eventually bring harm to others?

Even quantum physics teaches us that we are more interconnected than that. We simply are more than a collection of individuals. Much more.

My seemingly minor “addiction” affects the whole – and in ways beyond my comprehension.

+++

It is no wonder that postmodernism is so readily embraced in today’s world. Having at our disposal the technology to learn of virtually every mode of evil and suffering occurring across the globe, to face our personal contributions to this is more than overwhelming.

And it would remain so, had we not been given the antidote.

When we come to know the One Who is the Way, the Truth, the Life, yes, we come to recognize the reality of sin. But we are also set on the only path that can free us from it.

The Lord Christ tells us that all we need do is believe in Him and the One Who sent Him. And thus it is so.

But what does it mean to believe?

Common usage (not to mention faith vs. works controversies) might lead us to regard it as a mere assent of the intellect. “Yes, this is true. I believe it.”

But when it comes to believing in Him, it must mean a great deal more. It is not just an idea or theory I choose to give credence to.

It is a person – no, the Person, the One Who embodies the one Truth that leads us from darkness into light, from death into life.

To believe in Him is to follow Him, to live His life, the life He gave us.

In one sense, this is very simple – for He lived a human life that we can follow and realistically imitate.

In another sense, however, to follow involves great struggle – for the passions are deeply imbedded in us and carefully disguised by our adversary.

As long as they rule, we must struggle, both for ourselves and for our world.

+++

The word “asceticism” has its origins in the Greek word, askesis, originally meaning simply “exercise”. It later carried the meanings of “a given way of life” or an “occupation”.

As the meaning of the word evolved, it came to be associated with monasticism and thus was regarded as a sort of “spiritual exercise” or “spiritual training”.

An ascetic is one who struggles. A fighter.*

In all of my years as a believer, I do not recall ever hearing anyone describe the Lord Jesus as an ascetic.  Perhaps, since we know the end of the story, we do not want to imagine Him having to undergo spiritual training or struggle against the passions.

But this is a disconnect on our part. Surely Scripture is replete with examples of the profound asceticism of the Christ.

Immediately after His baptism, He began His exercise, His training in the desert: a fast of 40 days and 40 nights. Jesus struggled as the adversary tried to stir His human passions. “Wouldn’t you like some bread?” he whispered to our hungry Lord.

“I can give you power and glory so easily”, he suggested, “just worship me and there will be no crucifixion required”, he implied. “Get the angels to come and rescue you from this suffering,” he tempted. (See Luke 4: 1-11)

Having thus entered His active ministry, Jesus states, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.” (Matthew 8: 20)

Thus, to believe, to follow, to live the life of Christ, necessarily involves living an asceticism after the way of His.

And what is this Way of His asceticism? Must we starve ourselves and become homeless?

To assume this would be to miss the point entirely.

+++

The Way of Christ is the way of love.

Any self-imposed deprivations or sufferings not motivated by love are useless. They may even serve to further separate us from Him.

If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13: 3.)

The precise nature of our “exercise” is not prescribed by Scripture. While it may seem obvious that I need the most training in the areas where I am most weak, this is not necessarily where I ought to begin.

Certainly the struggle is greater with the passions that most frequently entrap me. And struggle with them I must.

Yet we should all begin with a fast from food at least a little, at least occasionally, unless specifically instructed otherwise by our spiritual father/mother/director. The Lord’s fast in the desert was His first victory and we must honor it by imitation (though not in literal detail). This is the teaching of the Church.

Essential to this remembrance is an awareness that the primary purpose of my fast is not to overcome gluttony (or any other passion). Rather, I fast because love beckons me to follow Him and to do as He did.

As I begin to fast out of love, He will indeed lead me to other “fasts”, other types of struggles to train me in the way of love.

This is what I believe occurred when the Spirit prompted me to fast from that which indulged my pride, though I did not understand it at the time. Before my conscious mind would acknowledge its sin, He was already saving me, pulling me back onto the path.

+++

Our postmodern world cannot comprehend this sort of fast.

A local religious ritual is understood and tolerated. An attempt to improve myself is well within bounds.

Were I to fast in an effort to purge my body of toxins and thus improve my health, the world would nod its approval. If I were to join a gym to get in shape, no one would look askance.

But my fast, the fast of the Church, is not simply to improve my lifestyle or even to purify my soul, though both may be secondary effects and beneficial to me.

To follow the Savior, to fast out of love for Him, is to be transformed by His life and made like Him.

And becoming like Him, we learn the way of love which pours out self for all.

We enter Eucharist, the ultimate fast that feeds others with His Love. We embrace the Cross, spreading our arms, opening our hands, holding onto nothing for ourselves.

+++

No, the world does not understand this – and neither do I.

So lost is my soul that the simplest little appeal to my ego has me wandering down trails unfit for a follower of our Savior.

But the Lord is gracious and merciful. He saves me from myself, taking me by the hand and drawing me back to His heart.

And now, in His goodness, He has permitted me to write and share with you what I have learned.

All glory and praise to Him forever. Amen.

+++

*See The Struggle For Virtue: Asceticism in a Modern Secular Society, by Archbishop Averky (Taushev).

A Sacred Heart

Is it possible that the immensity of God’s love could fit into a human heart?

Although the very idea sounds absurd, we recognize that it is not only possible but a central truth of our faith.

When the Word became flesh, the infinite God whose very being is love enabled this miracle of miracles to become reality. A human heart that beats just like yours and mine became the vessel of His infinite mercy and compassion in time and space.

Some might object, “Surely you are not referring to the bodily organ we call the heart? You must be using that term to represent something else.”

Well, yes and no.

As with any time we refer to the heart in the spiritual life, we are including both the physical and the spiritual realities. How could we ever separate them?

If, for example, I am to love God with my whole heart, I am to love Him from the depths, from the core of my being. My “heart” seems to represent my very soul.

On the other hand, the physical organ responsible for pumping blood to all the living tissues of my body is very much involved in the action of complete and perfect love.

Indeed, I am proclaiming that I am willing to die for my Beloved when I love with my whole heart. I am giving, I am offering, that which keeps me alive.

The One who has my heart has my life. There is no greater love.

The reality, however, is that I am not the one who has made such an offering; it is God Himself who gives His heart.

Through the flesh and blood of Christ our Savior, the One who created all things demonstrated His willingness to die out of love for His children.

We, the beloved children, have come to know this total giving of His heart as an event in human history. The Lord of Glory voluntarily gave Himself up to the lowest of deaths – abandonment, ridicule, crucifixion.

But unlike all other human gifts of the heart, this gift is eternal. In Resurrection, death has no more power to destroy it. In Eucharist, we consume and are consumed by a holy Love beyond comprehension.

Only a Heart this sacred could love us so profoundly as to transform us, to enable our hearts to beat with the very same Love as His.

+++

No image can portray Him. No artist’s rendering can express the divine Love that filled His human heart and now overflows into eternity.

But I share with you one unique portrayal I came across as I contemplated this solemn feast: “Sacred Heart”, by French painter Odilon Redon.

Perhaps no one will ever know what moved Redon to create this image of our Savior. And yet with us it remains, ever to awaken in us a vision of His glorious Love.

May it be so.

Learning by heart

I just returned from spending a couple of days at the hermitage that I frequent for brief retreats into the solitary life.

Every time is different from the time before – but always beautiful – as God’s abundant love overflows into me. Even the terrain varies from one Memorial Day weekend to the next, as Nature extravagantly reinvents spring every year.

I do not enter the hermitage with a plan – or at least not a well-formed one. I pack enough for a week, though only staying for two days. Extra socks because of the unseen puddles that always seem to find me. Food enough to nourish this non-faster for a couple of days. A book or two for prayer and reflection; my Kindle Fire loaded with more books – just in case. Usually some art supplies come along or perhaps some sewing to do by hand.

And, of course, camera must come along – just in case there are butterflies.

With ever-changing nature surrounding me and raw materials at hand, things happen. God draws me to Him, near to His heart, that I might listen and learn. I never know how He is going to do it – only that He will.

A couple of weeks before I left, a half-remembered prayer from long ago kept coming to mind. I had had a copy of it back in college –  but where it was among my belongings I did not know. It wasn’t the sort of thing I would have thrown away…

“I’ll have to look that up one of these days,” I told myself. Yet, as is often the case, I kept forgetting to search for it when sitting at the computer. I remembered a phrase or two from the prayer – probably enough to turn it up. So much easier than digging through dusty boxes.

Forgetting as often as I did, one day shortly before I left, I finally remembered. And, without difficulty, I found the prayer online and printed it so that I could have it close at hand.

As I started packing my things, a little voice within instructed me to take the prayer with me to the hermitage.

And so I did.

Many things happen every time I go to the hermitage, some delightful and some not so easy or pleasant. But there is always growth in this holy place of God’s love.

Soon after I arrived, I became aware that I was to learn this prayer by heart. I do not often try to memorize things anymore. I am grateful not to be in school, with exams always around the corner. Looking up information when I need it works well these days.

And my aging brain is grateful – for it has become much more effortful to commit things to memory than it used to be.

(I discovered this a few months ago when it occurred to me that I didn’t know the names of the twelve apostles. I was a bit disturbed to realize that, as a lifelong Christian, I couldn’t list them. So I set out to memorize the twelve names. It’s a little embarrassing to say how long it took to get them all reliably into my long-term memory…)

In any event, I discovered a copy of the prayer at worldprayers.org and it was broken into stanzas. So I began my labor, one stanza at a time. At various intervals during the day, I would repeat the words of the stanza I was on, checking to make sure that I had the wording just right.

It’s funny how something so seemingly simple can be such a challenge. I might be in the middle of reciting it to myself when I would stop and wonder, was it “shall” or “will”? And so on, with each little turn of phrase, thinking I had it correct, only to discover that I was off by a word or two.

But this was good. Because I knew what God was up to.

Some sources say that the origin of the idiom, to “learn by heart”, stems from the ancients’ confusion about which body organ involves learning. Because the heart is such a vital and central organ, it was assumed to be the center of knowledge.

Of course, science now tells us that the brain, not the heart, is the organ that stores data for us. This is indisputable.

But God was using this exercise of my brain to teach my heart. Relentlessly, He was pressing me to learn this prayer, not only with my mind but with the depths of my being.

He is calling me to make this prayer part of who I am.

The prayer, “Radiating Christ”, was composed by John Henry Cardinal Newman but is probably best known for being a favorite of St. Teresa of Calcutta (Mother Teresa).

I have transcribed the prayer for you below, from memory, correcting a few small errors. Every time I think I have it, I find that one or two little words were not recalled just right.

It is good to be so humbled. For as my heart continues its learning of the prayer, surely many, many more errors will need correcting.

May it be so, by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

+

Radiating Christ

(by John Henry Cardinal Newman)

 

Dear Jesus, help me to spread Your fragrance everywhere I go.

Flood my soul with Your spirit and life.

Penetrate and possess my whole being so utterly,

That my life may only be a radiance of Yours.

 

Shine through me and be so in me

That every soul I come in contact with 

May feel Your presence in my soul.

Let them look up and see no longer me, but only Jesus!

 

Stay with me and then I shall begin to shine as You shine,

So to shine as to be a light to others;

The light, O Jesus, will be all from You; none of it will be mine.

It will be You, shining on others through me.

 

Let me thus praise You the way You love best, by shining on those around me.

Let me preach You without preaching, not by words but by my example,

By the catching force of the sympathetic influence of what I do,

The evident fullness of the love my heart bears to You.

 

Amen.