Friday, October 31, 2014

Removing Our Masks this Halloween and Beyond

JMJT! Praise be Jesus Christ! Now and Forever!

Halloween is once again upon, a day which often brings to surface a variety of contradictory emotions.  In the secular world, children love it because they are encouraged to get all dressed up and collect candy bars by the dozens. Adults may enjoy seeing those dear little goblins at their doorstep and greeting these masked munchkins with 'oohs and aahs'.  Others cringe at the over the top treatment of Halloween especially by adults seemingly looking for a party and excuse to wear risque clothing as symptomatic of our narcissistic culture. Spiritually, Catholics are aware that Halloween is the Eve of the Feast of All Saints — which used to be called All Hallows. It is a time to prepare our hearts and minds towards greater and eternal things and open our hearts to the continued intercession and prayers of the Communion of Saints. It is usually a time of great spiritual warfare as those attracted to darker spiritual forces often make themselves known. It is in indeed a time for increased prayer for this reason and in order to receive the graces Our Lord wishes to confer on us on All Saint's Day. 
But today I want to focus on the spiritual components of masks that we often wear and are tempted to place over our faces in order to protect ourselves and prevent vulnerability and others from truly knowing who we are.  St. Teresa of Avila continually stressed that in order to know God, we must know ourselves and vice-versa. We also cannot learn to love others until we love ourselves, warts and all. In our culture, it is counter cultural to sit quietly and get to 'know oneself'. I mean, really? Don't you have anything better to do, goes the parlance of the day. But, truly St. Teresa recognized that the only way to enter the Interior Castle of one's soul in prayer is through the first room of self-knowledge. That is because it leads to humility. It can be scary to know oneself, because then our brokenness and sinful inclinations become increasingly obvious. But this is not the end of the story. Self-knowledge brings with it great freedom to rest in the bosom of the Lord, since He created us and knows us better than we know ourselves! Once we allow ourselves and others to truly know who we are and to work and operate in the treasury of our God-give gifts as well as our wounds, we are on our way to greater intimacy in our relationships with Our Lord and with others.     

This is why St. Teresa insisted upon it, not just in the First Mansions, but up until the very last mansion. She stressed that, "self-knowledge is of such consequence that I would not have you careless of it, though you may be lifted to heaven in prayer, becausewhile on earth nothing is more needful than humility. Therefore, I repeat, not only a good way, but the best of all ways, is to endeavour to enter first by the room where humility is practised, which is far better than at once rushing on to the others. This is the right road;—if we know how easy and safe it is to walk by it, why ask for wings with which to fly? Let us rather try to learn how to advance quickly. I believe we shall never learn to know ourselves except by endeavouring to know God, for, beholding His greatness we are struck by our own baseness, His purity shows our foulness, and by meditating on His humility we find how very far we are from being humble."  

St. John of the Cross insisted that self-knowledge is a core passageway through which we must travel to deepen our relationship with God. It is often so painful as to be experienced during the initial stages of the dark night of the senses. He explained it as follows: "This is the first and principle benefit caused by this arid and dark night of contemplation: the knowledge of oneself and of one’s miseries . . . which in the time of its prosperity it was unable to see. . . . So we have now arrived at this, that from this arid night there first of all comes self-knowledge, whence, as from a foundation, rises this other knowledge of God. For which cause Saint Augustine said to God: Let me know myself, Lord, and I shall know Thee. For, as the philosophers say, one extreme can be known by another. (St. John of the Cross, 1584/1990, p. 80)

This is the moment when one understands interiorly what Jesus proclaimed to his followers before his Death and Resurrection, "I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing."  [Jn 15:5] This is not meant to be bad news! Again, this gives each of us incredible holy freedom to decide for love, obedience, and to surrender our human will over to the Divine Will.

As an example of this, when we remember what Jesus said about Nathaniel, we rejoice. Let's review this story of the call of Nathaniel:

45Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one about whom Moses wrote in the law, and also the prophets, Jesus son of Joseph, from Nazareth.” 46 But Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, “Here is a true Israelite. There is no duplicity in him.”

48Nathanael said to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered and said to him, “Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree.” 49Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.” 50Jesus answered and said to him, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than this.” 51And he said to him, “Amen, amen, I say to you, you will see the sky opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” Jn 1:45-51
Nathaniel is small and says exactly what he means. Before ever meeting Jesus, he initially voices his doubts that 'anything good can come from Nazareth." And as a result of being completely open and small in his own eyes, Jesus praises him profusely. Because of his littleness, upon coming into contact with Our Lord, he immediately believes that Jesus is the Christ without any doubt. His eyes and heart are open to receive. This is what self-knowledge and humility do for us.

I have a Nathaniel in my life. His name is Michael and he is the bagger at the grocery store down the street. Michael has mild Down's syndrome. He is quite functional and always friendly. He is so open and pure that every time I see Michael, or speak to him I thank God as there is 'no duplicity in him.' No one on this earth needs to worry about Michael using them, having ulterior motives, not being authentic, being fake to gain favors or trying to be somebody he is not. He is who he is. A child of God. It is so refreshing to interact and converse with Michael that it leaves me feeling very hopeful and positive. As a result, I have no doubt that his access to God is pure and open.

This is what God wants of all of us. He wants us to dare to remove the fig leaves and to open up to him and to ourselves. He wants to bring to light what is hidden. He wants us to strive for self knowledge and disclosure in order to recognize His beautiful plans and will for us. With such transparency with ourselves, God and others, the Holy Spirit leads us to refreshing waters of healing, mercy, love, forgiveness, truth, humility, and great intimacy.

In closing, Bl. Mary of Jesus Crucified cried out in ecstasy that the Lord told her, "Even if a man has all kinds of good qualities, if he does not possess an upright heart and a humbled spirit I shall not be there in his house. If a man has all kinds of faulty but has an upright heart and a humbled spirit, I shall certainly be there in his house..."

'He who does not have an upright heart is afraid of men; he is always on guard and in fear of human opinion. The upright heart has fear of the Lord and not of men; his eyes are fixed on God alone. He who fears the Lord does not fear men, and he who is afraid of men does not fear the Lord. [ecstasy] The upright man is loved by God and even if he commits all kinds of wrongdoing, God will give him the light to convert. But the 'double-faced' man is not pleasing to God He turns his face away from him. Even if he has all the appearances of sanctity he will not be as pleasing to God as the upright man with all his imperfections." [Thoughts: Bl. Mary of Jesus Crucified, 1997, p. 79-80]

Let us them remember as St. Paul exhorts us, that 11When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things.12For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known.' [1 Cor 13: 11-12] 

Let us remove any masks that haunt us and keep us from knowing true intimacy with God and others. Let us remove the masks for ourselves and embrace who we are as God's children. From this, will come true freedom, peace and inner healing and the eventual gazing upon the Countenance of God face to face, without any masks. Amen.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

St. Teresa's Butterflies

JMJT! Praise be Jesus Christ! Now and Forever!

Happy Feast Day of St. Teresa of Jesus, Our Foundress! There are many things to celebrate as we think of this holy and yet down to earth saint who lived nearly 500 years ago.  St. Teresa was brilliant despite being fairly uneducated, but more importantly she loved much and had a 'determined determination' that she would please God in all ways and attain to divine union with her Beloved, which she did achieve through His grace and her fiat. One of the great beauties of St. Teresa's legacy is that she is accessible. She uses images that everyone understands and can relate to, most especially in her Medieval time, with her use of castles, kings, water wells, diamonds, trees, and other objects found in nature and among the pots and pans. When we read her metaphors, we get it. 

One metaphor that captivates me is her use of the butterfly. Perhaps one of her most memorable passages in Interior Castle is when she likens the change in the prayer of a soul from meditative to contemplative as to when a silk worm transforms into a lovely butterfly. She describes this process in a most eloquent way as follows, 

"The silkworm symbolizes the soul which begins to live when, kindled by the Holy Spirit, it commences using the ordinary aids given by God to all, and applies the remedies left by Him in His Church, such as regular confession, religious hooks, and sermons; these are the cure for a soul dead in its negligence and sins and liable to fall into temptation. Then it comes to life and continues nourishing itself on this food and on devout meditation until it has attained full vigour, which is the essential point, p. 131 for I attach no importance to the rest. When the silkworm is full-grown as I told you in the first part of this chapter, it begins to spin silk and to build the house wherein it must die. By this house, when speaking of the soul, I mean Christ. 

5. Forward then, my daughters! hasten over your work and build the little cocoon. Let us renounce

p. 132 self-love and self-will, 3 care for nothing earthly, do penance, pray, mortify ourselves, be obedient, and perform all the other good works of which you know. Act up to your light; you have been taught your duties. Die! die as the silkworm does when it has fulfilled the office of its creation, and you will see God and be immersed in His greatness, as the little silkworm is enveloped in its cocoon. Understand that when I say 'you will see God,' I mean in the manner described, in which He manifests Himself in this kind of union.

6. Now let us see what becomes of the 'silkworm,' for all I have been saying leads to this. As soon as, by means of this prayer, the soul has become entirely dead to the world, it comes forth like a lovely little white butterfly! 4 Oh, how great God is! How beautiful is the soul after having been immersed in God's grandeur and united closely to Him for but a short time! Indeed, I do not think it is ever as long as half an hour. 5 Truly, the spirit does not recognize itself, being as different from what it was as is the white butterfly from the repulsive caterpillar. It does not know how it can have merited so great a good, or rather, whence this grace came 6 which it well knows it merits not. The soul desires to praise our Lord God and longs to sacrifice itself and die a thousand deaths for Him. It feels an unconquerable desire for great p. 133 crosses and would like to perform the most severe penances; it sighs for solitude and would have all men know God, while it is bitterly grieved at seeing them offend Him... Oh, to see the restlessness of this charming little butterfly, although never in its life has it been more tranquil and at peace! May God be praised! It knows not where to stay nor take its rest; everything on earth disgusts it after what it has experienced, particularly when God has often given it this wine which leaves fresh graces behind it at every draught." [Interior Castle, Mansion V, Ch. 2] See

It is appropriate that St. Teresa refers to her favorite nuns as her 'butterflies' in several of her letters. [See Vol. I, Letters 119, 121, 147, & 154]. This was a code name that she used to describe her Discalced Carmelite nuns during the various times of tumult in establishing her reformed order and separating from the Calced or the Ancient Observance. It was a term she used with endearment and to symbolize the sweetness of prayer and union that she saw within her own order. To me, the butterfly also symbolizes true freedom in Christ. Once caged by its cocoon and unable to move or fly, the silkworm is transformed during his time of transformation into a beautiful creature who can freely travel and move from one flower to another. So it is with us. We sometimes experience imprisonment of body and/or spirit in which we are immobile and perhaps even paralyzed. Sometimes this is due to our own decisions and prisons that we make, whereas other times God allows it or captures us and puts us in a place where we can grow and experience a metamorphosis interiorly. During these times we must trust and seek metanoia, or a change within our hearts from a silkworm to a butterfly. We must listen and trust God during these moments in the cocoon of our souls.

St. Paul assures us in his Letter to the Galatians that "in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. [Galatians 3:26-29]

He further expands upon this idea in the 4th and 5th chapters of Galatians when he explains, What I am saying is that as long as an heir is underage, he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate. The heir is subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father. So also, when we were underage, we were in slavery under the elemental spiritual forces[a] of the world. But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.[b] Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba,[c] Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir." and again, "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery...13 You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh[a]; rather, serve one another humbly in love. 14 For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as ourself.”[b] [Galatians 5:12-14]
So let us be free and embrace the daily opportunity to love God and our neighbor. Rich or poor, healthy or ill, male or female, black or white, we can all choose this. We have the holy freedom to do so, and can decide for or against it. St. Teresa reminds us that we are God's butterflies and He rejoices in us and seeks to have us alight on the one and only true vine, our Lord Jesus Christ. 

Image taken from 

In truth there is only one freedom - the holy freedom of Christ, whereby He freed us from sin, from evil, from the devil. It binds us to God. All other freedoms are illusory, false, that is to say, they are all, in fact, slavery. 
(St. Justin Popovich, Ascetical and Theological Chapters, II.36) 43.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

St. Teresa Teaches us How to Laugh

JMJT! Praise be Jesus Christ! Now and Forever!

On this eve before the Feast day of Our Madre, St. Teresa of Avila, there is a plethora of insights, virtues, and prayer 'how to's' that we can focus on as major contributions this great saint has given to Carmelite spirituality as well as Western mysticism. Her humility and love for Our Lord and others plumbs the depths of our imaginations and showcases how God can overcome every stumbling block the world can throw at us [i.e. the Inquisition, political infighting, possible imprisonment, brutal calumnies, etc.] when we are meek, humble, and say 'yes' to His Will in trust and surrender as she did.  But as we prepare for this special day as Carmelites, I wish to focus on another core feature of our Foundress' personality which is humor and the necessity to laugh in difficult situations. I certainly think most people in the world want something to laugh about right now as we daily seem to watch the world seemingly become more and more unraveled and filled with strife and affliction.

For starters, St. Teresa prayed, "God save us from gloomy saints."  She understood that people yearn for true joy in life which comes only from God and continually encouraged her nuns to be affable and attractive to others in a way that would draw them to God instead of repelling them with sourness. While reading her personal letters this formation year, I repeatedly encounter St. Teresa's sense of humor in the little murmerings and comments she makes about herself and various situations that are seemingly impossible and beyond her control. 

To Padre Ambrosio Mariano who has left her in the middle of a crisis with one of her houses she is trying to acquire for her nuns in Seville she writes, "Oh God help me, how apt is your temperament to lead me into temptations. I tell you my virtue has to be great in order to write you this letter. And what is worse, I fear that something of your temperament will stick to mi padre, Licentitate Padilla- may God forgive you both- since he does not write me or even send regards...When I consider the embroilment you left me with and how unaware you are of everything, I don't know what to think except 'accursed the man, et cetera. But since evil is to be repaid with good, I wanted to write you this so that you will know that in the feast of St. James we will take possession of this house." {Vol I, Letter 106, p. 272] 

In another letter to a dear family friend, Don Alvaro de Mendora, St. Teresa's self-deprecating humor further illustrates her true humility and ability to laugh at herself and see who she really is before God and others. She writes, "Now, since you have many saints there, you are beginning to recognize those who are not, and so you are forgetting me. Nonetheless, I believe that in heaven you will see that you owe the sinner more than you do them." (Vol. I, Letter 60, p. 153-154]

St. Teresa even saw laughter as an excellent weapon against the attempts of the enemy to rob us of our peace. She penned, "The devil will try to upset you by accusing you of being unworthy of the blessings that you have received. Simply remain cheerful and do your best to ignore the devil's nagging. If need be even laugh at the absurdity of the situation. Satan, the epitome of sin itself, accuses you of unworthiness! When the devil reminds you of your past, remind him of his future." St. Teresa would contend that once we know ourselves through quiet prayer and the whispering of the Holy Spirit, we are not surprised anymore at how weak we are or the weaknesses of those around us. Laughter is a means of disarming difficulties, the enemy, and not taking ourselves too seriously, as we are dependent children of God and can do nothing without Him anyway. 

I have had a couple of very humorous incidents in the last couple of weeks that have taken me out of my serious and somber mood, and brought me to a place of refreshment and seeing God's loving care. While visiting San Francisco last week for our kids' Fall break, my teenage children and I found ourselves walking back to North Beach from Chinatown to meet my husband and head down to Silicon Valley where he frequently works. I had just been praying at Mass that morning, 'Lord, help me to stop talking and to start listening to you. Speak Lord, for your servant is listening. I am really ready to listen." As we were navigating the various cross walks, I spied a dear man who appeared to have every possession he owned either on his back or in his little cart. He was muttering to himself, and my guess was that he suffered from mental illness as so many homeless people do in our cities. We came to a 'DO Not Walk' sign and all of us were waiting at the curb for the frenzy of traffic to pass by. As we stood there, I felt this man's warm breath on the back of my neck saying, "You know with every fiber of my being, I want you to listen to me. I desire that you listen and hear what it is I am saying." WHOA! He had my attention! I had just prayed that I would be a better listener. Then he continued, "You know. You really are a very good listener. Everyone says so. They do." OK. Well, I was just shaking my head in wonder and started having another dialogue with Our Lord.  I told him that this man, his beloved child living on the streets, was a far better listener than I and marveled and chuckled that He used this stranger to communicate with me at that moment!

The second story involved my 16 year old son, Rhodes, AKA 'RJ'. RJ's best friend at school is Jewish. The two of them have enjoyed learning about each other's faiths immensely. As a result of their two different Sabbaths, they often cannot see each other socially on weekends, unless a lot of pre-planning is done. RJ informed me on Friday that he was going to meet Avery at his Synagogue after we went to Mass on Saturday morning.

After returning home, RJ recounted his whole experience. He related to me that after he met Avery's entire family at temple for prayers, they had returned to his friend's home where many other members of their synagogue were gathered and enjoying fellowship and food. As soon as RJ walked in the door, a dog he had never seen before began barking and growling at him and following him around. RJ got away from the dog and helped himself to a plate of food and subsequently sat down. As soon as he sat down, this same dog found him and began to sniff all around him for a long time. This dog did so for a few seconds, paused, put his snout up in the air and then began to howl! RJ's friend Avery turned to him and said, "Not a Jew."  Well, we laughed until tears were streaming down our face.

It is good to laugh. We need laughter, Yes, life is serious and we seek to follow St. Teresa on the Way of Perfection and amidst the mansions of the Interior Castle. But, we do so with joy in our hearts amidst the troubles and with an ability to laugh, even at ourselves! Whatever God gives us, be it  consolations, the Cross, a particular grace to develop or perfect a virtue, or comic relief, it is all a gift. Laughter is something we need, and St. Teresa knew it.