Feeeelings

This week for the Fulfillment of All Desire book study, we read and discussed “Trials and Temptations.” As always, what stood out for me in private reflection was not necessarily what came up in the group discussion, so instead of having well thought-out considerations to strut out, I babbled something semi-coherent and jumbled. Thank you, God, for the lesson in humility. It wasn’t until after I got home that I realized the two points (private and public) actually had a common theme: feelings. (Nothing more than feeeeelings….)

1. The first point (my private reflection) came from a section of the chapter about St. Thérèse of Lisieux. I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with her, in part because I often identify with her. As one example, reading between the lines, she struggled much of her life with being easily irritated by small things: someone clicking rosary beads while praying in the chapel, the sister who carelessly splashed her when they were working in the laundry. I so get that! But unlike me, Therese was able (rather early in her young life) to not only accept the irritations that came her way, but to be grateful for them. I should be inspired by this. Some days I am. Other days, she makes me want to grind my teeth, because it’s as though she’s silently asking, “What’s your excuse?” Get off my back!

There was a quote in the book on this subject which struck me (especially the bit I’ve underlined):

There is in the Community a Sister who has the faculty of displeasing me in everything, in her ways, her words, her character, everything seems very disagreeable to me. And still, she is a holy religious who must be very pleasing to God. Not wishing to give in to the natural antipathy I was experiencing I told myself that charity must not consist in feelings but in works; then I set myself to doing for this Sister what I would do for the person I loved the most.

We all encounter people in life who rub us the wrong way, intentionally or unintentionally. We all encounter people who are, at least on an emotional level, unloveable to us, even loathsome. Guess what? We’re called to love them anyway! Fortunately we have help. Here’s another quote from the often irritatingly correct St. Thérèse of Lisieux:

Lord, I know you don’t command the impossible. You know better than I do my weaknesses and imperfection; You know very well that never would I be able to love my Sisters as You love them, unless You, O my Jesus, loved them in me….

2. The second point, which came up during the group discussion: we can have a tendency to look for “consolations” in our prayer and religious experience. We want prayer or the Mass to make us feel good, feel happy, feel excited. We live in a society that makes this emotional fulfillment a primary focus for church families: people shop around, looking for churches that give them this charge. Feelings are made truth: if a church makes you feel good, it must be a good one, it must have the right message.

Compare this with the wisdom of the saints. St Francis de Sales:

I hold that devotion does not consist in the sweetness, delight, consolation, and sensible tenderness of heart that move us to tears and sighs and bring us a certain pleasant, relishful satisfaction when we perform various spiritual exercises….Many souls experience these tender, consoling feelings but still remain very vicious. Consequently, they do not have true love of God, much less true devotion.

He goes on a little later:

The good feelings they experience are no better than spiritual mushrooms. Not only are they not true devotion, but very often they are tricks played by the enemy….True devotion consists in a constant, resolute, prompt, and active will to do whatever we know is pleasing to God.

St. Thérèse again:

I do not hold in contempt beautiful thoughts which nourish the soul and unite it with God; but for a long time I have understood that we must not depend on them and even make perfection consist in receiving many spiritual lights. The most beautiful thoughts are nothing without good works.

If prayer on a given day lifts you to the heights, brings you to tears, makes you smile–that’s a grace. But on days when it doesn’t, when you feel bored or alone or distracted, it doesn’t mean your prayer is useless or that you are doing something wrong. It certainly doesn’t mean you should give up, decide you’re just not cut out for a close relationship with God. In fact, it could be that you don’t feel him because he’s pulled back a little in order to ready you for the next stage of the journey, like a parent who steps back so their child can learn to ride a bike without a guiding hand holding them up.

Feelings and emotions aren’t a bad thing. They are, after all, a big part of being human. There’s a reason so many sci-fi movies about robots and cyborgs make them one of the distinctions between a mere machine and a true artificial intelligence.

But we are–well, more than a feeling. Yes, there are days when everyone and everything tick me off, or when I feel like I’m ticking everyone and everything off. There are days when I feel blank or sad. There are days when I’m distracted. No matter where my moods are on a given day, I’m still called to love in Jesus, and through that love, to serve others and grow in my relationship with God.

Powerful

My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth. PSALMS 121:2

The above was our responsorial psalm this past Sunday, and it stuck with me. I’ve heard that verse how many hundreds of times? But this Sunday the import of that second part hit me full force: “who made heaven and earth.”

Think of that kind of power: the ability to make everything in heaven and earth. And that’s our help? “Of whom should we be afraid,” indeed!

I started pondering where I could use some help. How can avail myself of God’s help?

You may well laugh at this, but do you know what my greatest cross is? I’m a lousy housekeeper. I’ve joked about it before, but I’m quite serious. Beside more compelling challenges like, say, facial deformity or the loss of a child, it’s really a pitiful cross. It’s worthy of derision, even disgust. “Your cross is that you have a decent place to live, and you can’t seem to keep your carpets clean, your dishes done, and your laundry folded? And you don’t even have children? How pathetic.”

Nonetheless, it is my cross. St. Therese of Lisieux would likely tell me to rejoice in how little and ugly a cross it is. I’m trying. I’m trying.

But speaking of trying, I don’t seem to be getting that far carrying it all on my own. I don’t ask that God take this cross away from me, but maybe he can help me make a little forward progress if I struggle along with his help instead of merely under my own power? Help me keep this place in at least decent enough order that I don’t have nightmares (literally) about someone visiting when I’m not home? Enough that I can have friends or family to visit without days of preparation?

I’m pretty sure He’s up to the challenge.

Entertaining Jesus

Recently I’ve been participating in a weekly study group centered around Ralph Martin’s wonderful book, The Fulfillment of All Desire. I love this book: he breaks down the writing of many of the greatest Doctors of the Church (St. Augustine, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Catherine of Sienna, St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Francis de Sales and St. Therese of Lisieux), with commentary to help make them all approachable and easy to understand. He also has a way of bringing out their human side: I’m enjoying St. Teresa of Avila’s droll, dry wit, for example, which comes across despite centuries of separation, not to mention translations. And Francis de Sales is such a gentle, supportive father–I just love him. I could go on, and may do so in future posts.

This week, we concentrated on the subject of prayer: the chapters “The Importance of Prayer,” and “Growing in Prayer” from the book, and the accompanying video for the former from EWTN. We discussed methods of prayer and when and how to find time to pray, etc., etc. But it was something small and simple that most stood out for me: this little paragraph from St. Teresa of Avila, to be exact.

The soul can place itself in the presence of Christ and grow accustomed to being inflamed with love for His sacred humanity. It can keep Him ever present and speak with Him, asking for its needs and complaining of its labors, being glad with Him in its enjoyments and not forgetting Him because of them, trying to speak to Him, not through written prayers but with words that confirm to its desires and needs. This is an excellent way of making progress, and in a very short time. I consider that soul advanced who strives to remain in this precious company, and to profit very much by it, and who truly comes to love this Lord to whom we owe so much.

What a great little summary of “praying always,” growing in the awareness of God’s presence in all facets of our lives!

In my own life, I’ll often pray when I’m in the car, on the way to gatherings or to work: I ask for help with patience when I get there, ask that I may be charitable with those I’ll be spending time with. If I’m headed out to play music with friends, sometimes I’ll ask to play well if it’s God’s will, or to accept mistakes with humility if I’m gonna have an off night. But…”being glad with Him in its enjoyments and not forgetting Him because of them?” That’s taking things to another level.

I guess I forget sometimes that it isn’t as though He drops me off at the door. Jesus is with me even in the midst of mundane chores (and I’m better off complaining to him than I am whining to the dog or to coworkers), and He’s also beside me when I’m in the midst of chaos at a family party or a jam.

May I become a more attentive companion!

Not As Man Sees

“…the LORD sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” 1 SAMUEL 16:7

The other Sunday I was sitting in the pew waiting for Mass to begin, to some extent trying to focus myself, but also half unconsciously taking note of all the people filing in: all shapes and sizes, all ages, all levels of dressed up. And it struck me how I was responding to each “type.”

We can tend to make judgements based on appearances: “Look at that woman, all dolled up and in her fancy expensive clothes…is she just here to show off?” “Look at that man in worn-out jeans and a t-shirt. Doesn’t he have any respect for where he is?” “Those teenagers, always whispering during Mass! Why do they bother even coming if they aren’t going to pay attention?” “That woman and all her over-the-top bowing and kneeling and clacking rosary beads–I bet she’s judging the rest of us and finding us wanting.”

I imagined what the congregation might look like viewed with some sort of God-view infrared: the holiest people shining with bright white light, others dimmer, some even in darkness. I could make a few guesses as to possible shining lights, but there would be many humbling surprises, I’d warrant. And I know I have a lot of work to do–a lot of cooperating with God’s work in me–before my own little light shines out.