Wednesday, November 30, 2011

An Advent Question: How Do You Wait?

"How do you wait?" the priest asked us at Mass this Sunday. He reminded us that we've just begun Advent -- the liturgical cycle of waiting for the coming of the Christ Child.

I've been known to fall asleep during sermons. I never sleep when Father Tom gives the homily. He began this Sunday's homily by telling us that he was taking a group of students to Disney World. Having done so in the past, he knew that long lines for rides were part of the Disney experience. While waiting on one of those very long lines, he'd been struck by the different "waiting" behaviors of those on line with him. Some griped loudly and made their displeasure obvious. Others chatted amiably. Some even laughed.  They didn't seem to mind waiting.

Most of us spend a great deal of time waiting. We wait on lines at the grocery store, we wait to get into theaters, stadiums, restaurants, buses, subways, we wait --seemingly without end -- in the doctor's office. We spend much of our time in the car: waiting for our children, for the light to change, for the almost inevitable traffic jam to clear up. I remember once telling my spiritual director how painful that morning's drive to work had been. Road repairs on an exit ramp created a bottle-neck that took over an hour to clear.

"Oh, I love traffic jams," she laughed. "There's nothing you can do about them but you can use them. I look on the time spent driving as a mini-vacation. A time for me." Her words turned me into, while not exactly a line lover, a person who could greet time spent waiting as a gift. A time to slow down. A reminder to stop the rushing and simply be.

While "waiting," I can reconnect with the inner self I might have lost on the way. I can greet God and spend time listening. I can pray for the the people waiting in line with me. I can check the color of the tiles on the supermarket floor if I want, notice the dust motes in the air, observe the way sunlight strikes the cashier's hair.  The things I can do while waiting are limited only by my imagination. For the times my imagination fails, I usually have a book in my purse. And, because I'm a writer, a notebook and pen.

We can waste our time waiting, just as we can let Advent which is all about waiting, slip past without noticing, without participating, without longing for its apex. Why should we yearn for something that happened thousands of years ago? While we're at it, why should we wait  during Advent anyway. Are we waiting for that special gift under the Christmas tree? Do we wait for the excitement of the celebration itself? The family gathered together? The joy of giving to others? The arrival of Santa Claus? Is that why we wait? Yes to all those things but Advent is so much more. Advent is a time to come to life. It is God's reminder of His Gift to us: the fathomless love that sent Jesus to show us the way to Love. And to Life.

Our experience of Advent depends on our response to God's gift. The Church makes it easier to live Advent through the liturgies that comprise this season. Advent's scriptural readings capture the age-long yearning for a savior, it's hymns lift our hearts, it's ceremonies move us. Advent prepares us to respond to God's gift of Love. Advent comes round year after year, to remind us of  God's unfathomable love for us. And if we are listening, our hearts will break open to receive this Love. This Advent, I hope to participate as fully as I can, to experience the full meaning of its liturgies, to prepare my heart to open wide to greet the Christ Child.

I'm glad I'm good at waiting. I just have to work on Advent.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

God's Besotted Love

During one of our Benedictine Oblate meetings at St. Scholastica Monastery in Duluth, Sister Edith handed us sample copies of a new publication from the Liturgical Press. “Give Us This Day: Daily Prayer for Today’s Catholic” is a treasure for those of us seeking to live a deeper life of prayer.  Morning and Evening prayers include Scripture and intercessory prayer and features models of holy living in a daily reading called “Blessed Among Us.” Mass texts include reflections by well-known spiritual writers.

Today, the reflection for the mass was taken from “God, Christ and Us by Father Herbert McCabe, an English Dominican, theologian, philosopher and preacher:

You do not have to be good before God will love you; you do not have to try to be good before God will forgive you; you do not have to repent before you will be absolved by God. It is the other way around. If you are good, it is because God’s love has already made you so; if you want to try to be good, that is because God is loving you; if you want to be forgiven, that is because God is forgiving you.”

I was especially moved by the words: “You do not have to try to be good before God will forgive you . . . if you want to be forgiven, that is because God is forgiving you.” It brought me back to the day I saw my daughter Francesca for the last time. When Francesca came to see me that day, it was September 11, 2001 and the attack on the World Trade Towers in NY had just hit the news. She’d called to tell me she was on her way from Minneapolis to our home on Minnesota’s North Shore of Lake Superior. “I need you, Mommy,” she said. “I need to be with you.”

Francesca was a wildly loving, intensely vulnerable, and tormented young woman whose lifestyle placed her at great risk. When she came to see me on September 11, it was to tell me how much she loved me and agonized over all the pain and worry she’d given me. When I pulled her into my arms and told her I’d loved her through all her choices, she asked about God and God’s forgiveness.  

“What about God, Mommy. Can God forgive me for the way I’ve lived my life?”

“Oh Fran, honey,” I reassured her, “God has already forgiven you; you’ve always had God’s forgiveness; even in your darkest hours God’s been there, loving you”

I hope Francesca believed me for on September 18, one week later, my lovely girl – all of 24 years old -- was shot and killed. I pray that Francesca died knowing how greatly she was loved  . . . and forgiven. Seeing Father McCabe’s words this morning brought me to tears. This was the message I’d hoped to give my daughter. That is the message I hope to take into this day and the rest of my life. The knowledge of and belief in God’s “besotted”[i] love for us.

[i] Roberta Bondi, In Ordinary Time, Nashville, Abingdon Press, (1996) pp 22-23

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Scruples and Teresa of Avila?

This week, I began reading Saint Teresa of Avila: Collected Works translated by Kieran Kavanaugh OCD and Otilio Rodriques CD starting with “The Book of Her Life.” 

I'd looked forward to connecting with this great lady. My first reaction, however, was one of irritation. Why did Teresa continually insist that her actions were so sinful? Wasn't this just a case of scruples? The Catholic Encyclopedia defines scruples as "An unfounded apprehension and consequently unwarranted fear that something is a sin, which, as a matter of fact, is not.

Her vagueness about her so called “sins,” bothered me. To what loose and dangerous activities did she allude, save for some hints at friendships that were perhaps more secular than spiritual. Yet how were these friendships sinful when she was always trying to encourage these persons to a life of prayer?  What could be sinful in that, save that perhaps she sought some degree of personal glory in the attentions and love of these persons?

Then I remembered that saints do not view their behavior the way we do. Aware of God’s tremendous love for them, they view anything that might distract them from God, as sinful. While we might deem these “sins”  simply as distractions due to our humanity, saints view everything through the lens of love – God’s love for them and their feeble response to that love. I remember once having tried to become a saint and remember how the sense of sin tainted everything, even my efforts at prayer, so aware was I of wanting to excel.

During the intervening years, I've had to come to terms with my "sinfulness." While once shame had me praying while hiding my face in shame, I now view sin -- not as something deserving punishment but as something we do to ourselves.By choosing to ignore the movement of grace we block the door to the gift God brings us. My spiritual director once suggested that rather than berate myself for my failures of grace, why not celebrate the times I did respond. Why not view our failures as reminders that God is waiting to assist us. They force us to acknowledge our helplessness and dependence on our constantly loving creator.

Teresa (thanks to that infinitely loving God she remembers to praise constantly throughout her autobiography) speaks much the same way. She asks how God can work within us if we avoid opening ourselves to that loving presence because we are ashamed of our imperfections. If we take the time to turn to God, she reminds us, God will shower his graces upon us. 

Whether or not Teresa suffered from a surfeit of scrupulosity, no longer troubles me. Her efforts, despite her reluctance (and even repugnance), to live a life of prayer provide us with a mirror in which to observe our own unwillingness to pursue a similar course. “Don’t give up,” I hear her telling us. "Yes. You’ve been a miserable failure thus far, but keep turning toward God. That’s all that’s necessary. God will guide you the rest of the way.”

Pastel by Beryl: Fall on a Lake Superior back road

About Me

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Beryl is the author of The Scent of God: A Memoir published by Counterpoint NY in 2006 and A View of the Lake published by Lake Superior Port Cities Inc. in 2001. She’s been living on Lake Superior for seventeen wonderful years, and spent 10 years writing two popular columns for the Cook County News Herald: Newcomer Notes and Putting Down Roots. Beryl is past president of the Schroeder Area Historical Society and a long-time chair of its Oral History and Marketing committees. She is a past board member of the Violence Prevention Center in Grand Marais and committee member for the Grand Marais Art Colony’s first ever annual North Shore Reader and Writers Festival. She’s been published in the Sun Magazine, Minnesota Monthly, Lake Superior Magazine, and The Trenton Times and in the anthologies, Surviving Ophelia published by Perseus Publications in 2001 and The New Writer's Handbook, Vol. 2, published by Scarletta Press in 2008 and was named Best of Minnesota Writers by the Minneapolis Star Tribune. She is currently working on her third memoir: the sequel to The Scent of God.