Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Personal Postscript

I got the call when I was at work. I'd never realized before the wisdom behind making sure that someone's sitting down first. She didn't make sure. She just told me: he's dead. My knees went weak, but fortunately I managed to wobble to a stool behind me.
      On my way home, in shock and sadness, I asked the Lord why He hadn't given us any sign. We had been praying for this dear relative—an agnostic but very ethical man—for years...for decades. My childhood was spent in the charismatic movement, followed by reading lots of saints' biographies. Signs were par for the course. I was hoping for a clear-cut conversion, but fully expecting at least some sort of sign that he'd had some encounter with the Lord.
      I often ask the Lord “why?” and other questions, but don't usually get an answer. Sometimes, upon reflection, I have an insight, the truth of which makes me think it's the Holy Spirit who gave it to me. Sometimes the insight doesn't come for a very long time. But this was one of those rare times when I felt that He answered me: words came into my mind as if from outside me. “Because if I had, then you wouldn't keep praying for him. Not enough.”
      A wonderful realization struck me then (that I later confirmed with a knowledgeable priest). It wasn't too late to pray for his dying hour. God is outside of time. At the hour of my loved one's death, the Lord could look into the future and see me praying and praying for my dear one's dying hour, and answer those prayers. Obviously, one can't pray about past events that have clearly happened: I can't pray now that World War II didn't happen. But the mysterious state of someone's soul, wrapped in the secrecy that only God can penetrate—even if it's in the past—is not beyond the reach of our prayers in the present.
      So I prayed. And had Masses said. And offered up little sacrifices for his dying hour and for his soul, possibly in Purgatory. And I remembered that no prayers are ever wasted.
       Then, a few years later I had a dream.
       I was looking out my front window and I saw him. He was standing in the street, just setting down two suitcases. He was younger than I had ever known him, and full of joy, with the biggest smile I'd ever seen.
      Now since my father-in-law and my best friend died nearly twenty years ago, my husband and I have both noticed that when we dream of either of them, they are alive in the dream—they might be very ill or the report of their death was a mistake, but they'd be alive. This dream was different. I kept saying to the others in the room, “That's So-and-so, and he's dead!”
       Two blocks up from that house, on the real street, was a cemetery at the top of a hill. By the time the street reached my house, the hill had subsided into a slight decline. It left the small neighborhood behind and led to the wider world, especially to an enormous park. But in the dream the street was sloping up instead of slightly down. He was on his way somewhere, going upward, and he'd stopped to see me first. I felt that he wanted me to know that he was on his way and how happy he was and to thank me.
       He stood there in the middle of the street, with that huge grin, and waved and waved at me. He who in life had been such a dignified stoic.
      Anyone else can say, of course, that that was just a dream. But I believe it was more. It was so different from my usual dreams, and it came with such a sense of peace and joy. And even now, years later, whenever I think of him, that peace returns. I believe it was my sign at last.
       And you know what? The Lord was right. (No big surprise there.) Though I do still pray for my beloved relative, just in case he still needs my prayers or it was just a dream, I must admit, I don't pray as fervently or frequently as I did before. 
     Praise you, Lord, for your wisdom and mercy.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Revamping Purgatory's Reputation

Does anyone remember that creepy chant: "Pray for the dead, and the dead will pray for you"?  The eerie and mock-solemnic tone we kids used to adopt when singing that (while leaning into another child's face) reflects the misconceptions and repugnance surrounding the idea of Purgatory.
     In November, the Catholic Church not only celebrates All Souls' Day on the 2nd, but dedicates the whole month to the souls in Purgatory. Now I’m not going to tackle the whole question of the existence of Purgatory, which most Protestants dispute and even a good number of Catholics either question or misunderstand. To do the topic justice would require a long chapter if not a book. But I will touch on some points that help me to understand it.
C.S. Lewis, who was not a Catholic, believed in Purgatory. He remarked:

Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, ”It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy”? Should we not reply, “With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first.” “It may hurt, you know”—“Even so, sir.”1

Another way to understand Purgatory is to remember that here as in so many other areas of the spiritual life, there is needed something both from God and from us. Two perennial temptations are to rely too heavily on one or the other. We can no more expect God to do it all for us in the area of our sins than in the area of providing for us—in the latter, we can trust in Him and know that He is the One who gives us everything, but we still have to go out and try to find a job. On the other hand, it is as fruitless and foolish to rely solely on ourselves and our own efforts in the former as in any other area. He did his part already: paying the eternal debt for our sins on the cross. But we need to do something too. Our sins have not only offended God, but hurt our brothers and sisters. A common explanation likens sin to hammering a nail into a fine piece of furniture: Christ’s sacrifice for us removes the nail. But a hole is still left behind, and it is up to us to repair it.
      If we don’t make reparation for our sins now, then we will still owe the relatively puny part of the debt that the Lord left for us to pay ourselves. Jesus warns us to prepare for the day of our judgment when he says: “Make friends quickly with your accuser, while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison; truly, I say to you, you will never get out till you have paid the last penny.” We might think this prison must be hell, where the debtor will be held forever, for how can you pay a debt if you’re in prison? But the debtor’s prison of Jesus’ day resembled that of Dickens’, in which a debtor did stay until his family or friends could pay the debt for him. This is precisely what the Catholic Church teaches: that the souls in Purgatory owe a debt and can do nothing for themselves; they rely on our prayers and sacrifices for them.
      We Catholics, if we think of Purgatory at all, too often think it will be over soon and won’t be too bad. St. Francis of Assisi, however, reportedly chose three days of suffering on earth over one day in Purgatory when a heavenly vision offered him this choice on his deathbed. Not only does this testify at least to St. Francis’ view of the pangs of Purgatory, it should also give us pause. If someone as holy and ascetic as St. Francis still required even a day in Purgatory, what will the rest of us need? All too often these days,

we tend to ‘”canonize” our … loved ones immediately after their death. Father Frederick Faber tells us, “We are apt to leave off too soon praying for [them], imagining with a foolish and unenlightened esteem ... that they are freed from purgatory much sooner than they really are.”2

We needn’t fear that our departed loved ones will be insulted if we pray for them in case they might be in Purgatory. Believe me, they will be grateful, not insulted! And even if they are in heaven, no prayer is ever wasted. God can and will apply our prayers to another soul in need.
      The following prayer of St. Gertrude has traditionally been held to be very powerful:

Eternal Father, I offer Thee the most precious Blood of Thy divine Son, Jesus, in union with the Masses said throughout the world today, for all the holy souls in Purgatory, sinners everywhere, sinners in the universal Church, those in my own home and within my family. Amen.

      And of course, the most powerful prayer of all is the Mass.

1 C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (San Diego, New York, London: Harvest/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1964), pp. 108-9.
2 Susan Tassone, Thirty-Day Devotions for the Holy Souls (Huntington, Ind.: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing, 2004), p. 76.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Meditation Commendation

I’ve been writing about prayer here a good bit, which leads to practical questions such as, What prayers should I be praying? How do I pray?
      While the Church offers us a whole banquet of prayers and types of prayer, I'd like to put in a plug for meditation.
      Many saints strongly emphasize how crucial meditation is to the spiritual life. St. Teresa of Avila saw it as so vital as to be effectively the difference between heaven and hell: “He who neglects mental prayer needs no devil to carry him to hell, but he brings himself there...” But on the other hand, “The devil knows that he has lost the soul that perseveringly practices mental prayer.” St. Alphonsus of Liguori explains: “It is impossible for him who perseveres in mental prayer to continue in sin: he will either give up meditation or renounce sin.”
I suspect another strength of mental prayer (or what today is more commonly called “meditation”) is that it is much less prone to Pharisaism than are other types of prayer. One can say a dozen devotions, three Rosaries, and attend Mass each day, but not have one's mind engaged or heart involved. One can become so complacent or proud that one no longer tries to be present interiorly as well as exteriorly; then the graces roll off like water off a duck’s back. In such cases, one can not only fool one's neighbors with one's apparent piety, but can even fool oneself. I suppose it is theoretically possible to do the same with meditation, but it’s much harder. This is because meditation is a one-on-one conversation with God. It requires me to speak my own words, and—far more difficult—it requires me to listen. That's pretty hard to fake.
If a teenage son meets all his father's minimum rules, like coming to Sunday dinner and basically staying out of trouble, but never talks to his father other than to ask for a raise in his allowance or the latest new gizmo, what kind of relationship is that? How well will they know each other? And how long the son will continue in his minimal obedience? Our heavenly Father wants a real, personal relationship with each of us. We can't build that only through rote or group prayer.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not at all disparaging vocal prayer or the Mass, both of which are very important and effective. Vocal prayers (those written by someone else) are fundamental—many are the first we learn and the last we forget. They are so helpful too when we don't know what to say or our own words seem so inadequate. And there can be no doubt that the Mass is the most powerful prayer. It is the prayer of Jesus; it is the re-presentation to the Father of Christ's sacrifice. It is the prayer par excellence.
Nor am I saying that if our minds wander during any of these forms of prayer that our prayers are therefore worthless. If that were so, then I, Maj. Space Cadet, would be in big trouble. The crux of the matter is our intention and our efforts. If we want to pray from the heart, and keep trying to, the Lord will care more for that than for our success, which ultimately is a gift from Him anyway.
Rather, I am merely striving to echo St. Teresa of Avila, who wrote: “It is then of the utmost importance to bear this truth in mind, that our Lord is within us, and that we ought to strive to be there with him.”
...And St. Alphonsus of Liguori: “Mental prayer is the blessed furnace in which souls are inflamed with the love of God. All the saints have become saints by mental prayer.”
...And Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, who said of mental prayer: “Holiness is impossible without it.”

How to Meditate

What if you want to meditate, but you don't know how? Here's one method. (A good time goal, by the way, is fifteen minutes.)

  1. Put yourself in the presence of God. Of course, He is always with us, but we need to become aware of His presence. 

    A.The ideal place is to be in His physical presence, in a church or chapel with the Blessed Sacrament. This is not practical for most of us much of the time, however; so if possible, find a quiet corner or try to create a sacred space at home. This helps cut down on distractions.

    B. Acknowledge His presence by confirming your faith, hope, and love for Him; by worshipping Him and by thanking Him for all He has done for you. It's tempting to gloss over this step and do it quickly, but if done well, it can lead to real closeness to Him. It's a potent reminder of God's greatness and our littleness, our need of Him and all we owe Him. 
  2. Invoke the Holy Spirit either through the traditional Come Holy Spirit prayer or in your own words. Open your heart and mind to Him. You don't want to sit and have a conversation with yourself, or mistake the voice of the world, the flesh, or the devil for His.

  3. Read a text you've chosen in advance, preferably a passage from Scripture or the writing of a saint or trustworthy spiritual writer on a fruitful topic, such as a virtue you need to grow in or something on the current liturgical season. Occasionally, the best “text” will be an occurrence in your own life, which you feel the Lord is calling you to reflect on.

  4. Reflect on the text and what it means to you. Talk to God about it. Ask Him what He is trying to tell you through this. Ask Him to help you to be silent and open to Him and truly listen. (This is hard, but don't give up. Keep trying.)

  5. Optional: If practical/possible, write down any insights you gained during this prayer time.

  6. Make a resolution. Our prayer life, to be effective, must spill over and change the rest of our life. Try to think of something concrete that you can do that day to put into practice what the Lord is saying to you. (Examples: pay a visit to the Blessed Sacrament; compliment a coworker you find difficult; refrain from complaining and offer it up instead; find something to praise your child for rather than noticing only the things that need correcting.)

  7. Thank the Lord for this time together (we so often think we're doing Him a favor by praying) and ask Him to help you serve Him and love Him better each day.

    P.S. If any ads show up in a sidebar on "how to meditate" they don't have any endorsement from me. Some might be okay; I don't know.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Rendezvous with a god?

One day in fourth grade, I lifted my desk lid to gather my books, only to discover—of all things!—a love-note. It was the most thrilling moment of my young life.

A few seconds later, however, I was filled with doubt. Could this be some sort of cruel prank? I had been picked on since second grade by my former best friend and her followers.

But then I heard that my friend and neighbor, a new girl, had also received a love note, in a different hand. What was going on?

After we each had received several notes, we came to the conclusion that they were for real. I began to keep mine in a box marked “Precious”.

Then one day our secret admirers invited us to a rendezvous. (The plot thickens!) We were to meet them at an overgrown spot on our block. The boys would be on the other side of the fence, behind the bushes. We were not to try to find out who they were; it was just a chance to talk.

My friend and I duly came, and after a little while, we began to wonder again if this was a prank, because nothing seemed to happen. We felt like fools, standing there talking to some bushes. We began to suspect that no one was really there. At last, when we threatened to leave, we heard some rustling, assuring us that indeed there was someone (or two) unseen listening to us. I can't remember now if they ever did say anything, but if so, I'm sure it was in a whisper.

This memory came back to me a year ago when I was asked to give a talk on prayer. If prayer is conversation with God, many times it is like my fourth-grade experience. He claims to loves us and invites us to meet Him, but then He hides Himself from us and often doesn’t say anything. We can feel as silly talking to Him, who makes no sign of His presence, as I felt that day on the sidewalk.

If we’re not careful, we can fall into the fallacy that led to poor Pscyhe's troubles in the ancient Greek myth. She was married to one who said he was a god, but who would never let her see his face. She lived in his palace, surrounded by luxury, but he would come to her only in the dead of night, and forbade her ever to light a lamp. Her jealous sisters said this must be because he was not really a god but a hideous monster. She didn’t want to believe them, but when taunted that she was afraid they were right, she caved in and agreed to find out. The next night, after her husband was asleep, she lit a candle. What she saw entranced her: the gloriously handsome god of love.

Perhaps some light on this mystery can be found in the many fairy tales in which a king hides his identity to see who his real friends are. I tell my children that Jesus is a King who hides Himself in the Eucharist and waits in the tabernacle to see who loves Him enough and believes His word enough to come and visit Him.

The one who invites us to meet Him is indeed the God of Love. Fortunately, He doesn’t always leave us in the dark. After we’ve proved our faithfulness by standing on the sidewalk apparently talking to some bushes, if we persevere, He will rustle a branch or whisper the sweet somethings we need to hear.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

St. Steve?

I was herding my flock of little children to the door after Mass at our new parish one Sunday when a man in his fifties approached, hand out, saying, "Hi, I'm Steve. I'm a victim soul."

Being familiar with this term—"victim soul"—I didn't find this quite as bizarre as it might have been otherwise, but it still struck me as an odd way to introduce oneself. But then I'm a little odd myself. So we got to know each other a bit and chatted much longer than my restless children would have preferred. Thus began my friendship with my first official victim soul.

All Saints' Day was this past week, which is held in honor of the hosts of people who made it to heaven without their names appearing on the Church calendar. They are the ones who loved and followed the Lord and who made an impact on their little corner of the world, without having an order or followers with the knowledge, time, documentation, etc. to see them through the long canonization process.

Upon reflection, I bet many of us can think of people in our lives who fit this description. Steve is one in mine.

Steve had had rickets in childhood, which stunted his growth, leaving him with a slight limp and a torso somewhat disproportionately long in relation to his legs. Some might describe him as a plain man, not appealing from a worldly point of view, certainly not fashionable, but the joy and love and peace that shone through his eyes and smile made him captivating.

He continued to suffer chronic health problems as an adult, which prevented him from having a regular job. So whenever his health permitted, he threw himself into volunteer work for the Church instead. Both of us being church-hoppers—that is, going to daily Mass at whatever parish happened to be most convenient that day—I used to see Steve quite often at various places in the city. I'd also see him at talks and pro-life events, and of course at our parish, where he volunteered quite a bit.

After some time, however, I realized that I hadn't seen him for a while, and heard that he'd been having health problems. Then we heard that he had had major back surgery, which hadn't gone well. I don't recall now if it was that the surgery was an attempt to correct a condition and failed or that it was a botched surgery that caused the ensuing condition. At any rate, he was left paralyzed from the neck down in terms of movement, but not in terms of sensation. Instead, he was in constant pain. He had the worst of both worlds.

Before I tell you the remarkable way he lived up to his self-identification as a victim soul, I must say that he was human. His condition was not easy for him to accept. Once in a while he would cry out, "Lord, why are you letting this happen?" Like Job or the Psalmist who asked "Why?" and "How long, O Lord?" these cries of anguish did not represent any bitterness on his part, but the honest bewilderment of a son, still faithful and devoted to his Father. He also shared with my husband not only his desire to live but a normal fear of death.

The hardest cross for Steve was not the pain, nor the feeling that his nurses lacked compassion and were slow to bring him his pain medication, nor the paralysisthough all of these were difficultit was the loneliness. He was a friendly, gregarious people-person. And now he was spending day after day, week after week, month after month, and eventually year after year, mostly alone in a hospital room.

He did have a few consolations. After a little while, he regained partial use of his left hand. His family outfitted him with a phone on a cord around his neck, which he could operate with that clumsy hand. This relieved a small part of the loneliness. He also had visitors—not so many that he still didn't have many empty hoursbut family and friends who would come when they could. (It wasn't always easy to manage: for instance, I had to choose between bringing along the kids, as we did one Christmas, or go by myself in the evening to a hospital in a bad part of town.) Fortunately, Steve also had a handful of regulars, who faithfully visited him frequently. My husband was one of these.

But Steve did not waste those lonely hours, nor his pain nor his frustration. He had long seen himself as a victim soul—someone to whom God sent more suffering than to most people, knowing that they would turn that suffering into a sacrifice and offer it back to Him as a prayer for someone else. Now that perspective of viewing his suffering as a vocation was put to the greatest test. And he passed. He offered it all up. And he did it systematically and lovingly. 

He would ask us if we had any intentions for which we'd like him to pray. And unlike most people, who use "How are you?" as a greeting not a genuine question, he wanted to know the details. I remember his even telling me what time he was going to devote to our family's petitions. He had it all mapped out: he would pray for us at such-and such a time; next he'd pray for the Missionaries of Charity; then at the next time slot for some specific requests from his volunteer friends at EWTN, etc.

And he really cared. It still brings tears to my eyes to remember how this man, who was suffering so much at every hour, could have compassion on us, whose sufferings were nothing compared with his. He'd remember what our intentions had been and ask if they had been answered. At one point, my husband was unemployed, a situation that dragged on much longer than we had anticipated. And Steve would cry out on our behalf, "Lord! Why are you letting this happen? You've got to help them!"

During the four or so years that Steve was bed-ridden, there were a few occasions when he'd get sick and be at death's door. His loved ones, though we knew we'd miss him, almost hoped he would pass on to his reward—he'd suffered so much already! But he wasn't ready. He was a fighter, and again and again he'd escape death's embrace. But as time went on, he eventually came to lose his fear of death, and he peacefully accepted it when it came to him at last.

I consider it an honor to have known this holy man, and we still rely on his prayers for us from heaven.