In Spite of Everything

“One important challenge is to show that the solution will never be found in fleeing from a personal and committed relationship with God which at the same time commits us to serving others. This happens frequently nowadays, as believers seek to hide or keep apart from others, or quietly flit from one place to another or from one task to another, without creating deep and stable bonds. “Imaginatio locorum et mutatio multos fefellit.” This is a false remedy which cripples the heart” (91).

 

“How good it does us to love one another, in spite of everything. Yes, in spite of everything!” (101).

 

-Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium [emphasis mine]

Yesterday the leaders in my young adult ministry gathered for an afternoon of encouragement and prayer. We spent several hours in a friary up in Harlem, first listening to one of the brothers speak on the Pope’s apostolic exhortation, quoted above, and then in an hour of Eucharistic adoration in their small, homely chapel. Though I had been having an emotionally difficult week, I had a sense of hope that the Lord would give me something yesterday–and indeed, he did. There were tiny, ridiculously kind things, like being given the quote I had been looking for from Lumen Gentium for several days. But there were also much bigger things, including the sense of conviction I felt when reading the first quote above.

The Latin is from Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ, and translated means: “Imagination and change of places has deceived many.” During the roller coaster of the previous week, there were several times when I thought, “Maybe I should just leave.” For where or for what, of course, remained murky. How often we shirk the work before us in favor of some imaginary future, a cross that is not ours, a more ideal situation that may never exist! A helpful mantra I picked up from a talk I heard several years ago in Montreal was: “God is now here.” Say it to yourself, in prayer, during your workday, while you’re brushing your teeth in the morning. It’s always true. The present is invaluable because it is where we can connect with God, where we can honestly speak to him what is in our hearts. Don’t show him a picture of what you hope to be; don’t ask him to wait until you’ve achieved what you’ve set out to do. Show him you, now. “He sleeps not nor slumbers, Israel’s guard” (Psalm 121:4). He knows us in this moment, and so we must not cast it off as worthless. He asks that we work hard for his kingdom so that we may love him all the more when he brings about his victory.

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The Chaos of Control

Hear me, coastlands,

listen, distant peoples.

Before birth the LORD called me,

from my mother’s womb he gave me my name.

He made my mouth like a sharp-edged sword,

concealed me, shielded by his hand.

He made me a sharpened arrow,

in his quiver he hid me.

He said to me, You are my servant,

in you, Israel, I show my glory.

Though I thought I had toiled in vain,

for nothing and for naught spent my strength,

Yet my right is with the LORD,

my recompense is with my God.

Isaiah 49:1-4

I have never identified as a charismatic. I use the term “charismatic” here specifically in the context of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, which has been acknowledged and approved of by our most recent popes. I’ve seen and experienced enough at this point to say that there are indeed supernatural Gifts of the Spirit, listed by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 12. Whether as many people have them as claim to and how important they are, I’m not able to say. And despite the fact that I might not have any of these gifts, I have been asked by the leaders of my young adult ministry to participate in what are called “prayer teams” or “pray-overs,” an intense vocalized group prayer for a specific person’s intentions, usually done, as the name indicates, with one’s hands placed over or on the person being prayed for.

I’ve found that the least helpful thing to do is to attempt to predict what will happen or what the person will need or want to hear. Going on a fuzzy “feeling” or “sense” of what one should say can also be misleading, at least in my experience. This form of prayer is most simply a presenting of a person to his heavenly Father. One tries, in a sense, to stay out of the way, to allow the person to experience God’s love and to ask that he experience it more deeply than ever before.

And does it “work”? Again, I can’t say. I know it leaves many people feeling consoled, because they hear other Christians acknowledging their son- or daughter-ship out loud, and that’s no small thing. But even trying to evaluate prayer’s efficacy in this way seems like an imposition of control. At the end of the night on Sunday, I didn’t really know if I’d helped anyone. God didn’t send me an image or a word. I didn’t feel warm or lightheaded; if anything I was simply in pain for most of it, the dark stone floor wearing me down as I knelt and stood and knelt. On slips of paper we’d written our New Year’s resolutions, torn them up, and put them in a basket in front of the Blessed Sacrament, as a reminder that we relied completely on God to fulfill our goals. I’d written on mine, “Look for opportunities to be generous”–a pious, sickly sweet resolution I thought I ought to write. As I prayed over my peers I thought, what is more generous than trust? To go out into the dark, completely unknowing? How often my prayers feel like this! Trust is my unforced response to not understanding how my prayers will work, to trying to figure out what will be most pleasing to God.

“I believe that my desire to please you does in fact please you,” wrote Thomas Merton. And that is because this desire, like prayer, comes from God himself, the source of every good gift.

Who Gave You Your Heart?

I am filled with love
As a great tree with the wind,
As a sponge with the ocean,
As a great life with suffering,
As time with death.

-Anna Swir

Oh, the feels. I remember once saying to a priest who wanted me to tell him “what was wrong” how exhausted love had made me. I could feel the need for love emanating from every one of my acquaintances, even strangers, and it had drawn every bit of strength I possessed. He told me to be courageous, and I didn’t really understand how that applied to my situation, but he insisted: “Make little acts of courage, even if it’s just smiling at someone or being unnecessarily kind. And pray for courage at every moment.”

Last night I walked into St. Vincent Ferrer with a mighty case of the feels–over a disappointing set of circumstances that left me frustrated and confused. And once again I brought to God my long-standing complaint: why am I so sensitive, why can’t I just brush things off, why do I feel things so quickly and so much?

The reply, which came loudly, quickly, out of the blue, said, “Who gave you your heart? I made your heart this way! And I have already promised that I will fill it; it will overflow with love.” You, Lord, protected me from my youth, nurtured me in a family that was very loving despite all its flaws, protected me from impurity even in my ignorance. And the times when I have failed you, when I have worshiped idols, you have dragged me, often kicking and screaming, back to the font of your endless mercy.

I can’t use my faith to cushion harsh blows; I can’t lie to myself and say that I feel no pain. And yet last night I was given a glimpse of something I have been promised all along, someone who waits for me. In this long, very cold winter, Jesus still comes, the Lord is coming, the Lord of hearts and wise men and fools. You’ve made me a tinderbox, your very own, and to what heights you will allow the flames to reach I have yet to see.