Have you heard the Maasai Creed?

The truth is, no matter how much we believe what we recite at Mass, it’s rare that the old, familiar words stand out as fresh and powerful.

It’s all too easy to let habit and familiarity take over, and to stop hearing what they have to say. We don’t even realize we’ve stopped listening; our brains just say, “Oh, this old thing again” and check out.

Sometimes the best way to deal with this is to deliberately, firmly take your attention in hand and direct it toward the old, familiar thing.

Whatever else you can say about Catholics, you can’t accuse us of despising something just because it’s old! The words of the Mass are very rich, and if we’re open to it, we can often perceive something brand new, or newly exciting, springing up from that ancient soil.

But it’s also legitimate to strive to hear that same old, ancient thing in a slightly new way, to remind you how confounding it really is. This is what happened to me the other day, when I stumbled across the Maasai Creed.

As the name suggests, it was written by and for the African Maasai people, with a group known as the Congregation of the Holy Spirit in 1960. It is essentially the same as the one that we recite every week . . . and yet just different enough that it knocked me flat.

I believe I’m going to print it out and hang it in my house, so the kids can see it, too, because even in their tender youth, they’re probably already allowing repetition to dull their ears when we say the creed.

Our relationship with God shouldn’t require constant thrills and novelties. He values fidelity through the dull valleys of our faith.

But when He does put something fresh and interesting in our paths, it behooves us to stop and enjoy it!

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

 
Image by Nicola Stockton from Pixabay

Non-scale victories for your spiritual life

Like half the country, I would like to shed a bit of weight. Before you send me a V.I.P. discount code for your amazing protein shake, let me assure you: I do know how to lose weight. I have done it many times before. There was the time I ate only coffee, ice, lettuce and horrible pre-mixed whiskey cocktails from the gas station. The pounds melted off, and I was an emotional wreck. Then there was the plan where I spent countless hours on the StairMaster while reading Wordsworth and crying. I know they say you cannot lose weight by exercise alone, but what if you are too dizzy to eat? You just have to know how to work it.

With this glory-free history of hitting my goal number on the scale, I am fairly content to be what I am now, which is fat but more or less happy. If I am neither wasting away nor in danger of knocking out close friends when my arteries violently explode, then I feel like I am doing all right (and so does my doctor).

Here is what I have discovered: I have a much better shot of keeping my weight in reasonable check without losing my mind if I think less about the scale and more about “non-scale victories.” Instead of focusing solely on numbers, I accept credit for achieving things that are harder to quantify but are worth so much more—things like reaching the top of the stairs without wheezing, shopping for clothes without sobbing, or finding out the garlic bread is all gone without flying into a rage.

A non-scale victory is when I painfully resist a second helping and realizing once I have cleared my plate that I really am already full. Or when I give into temptation and scarf down far, far more cheese than any sensible being should ingest—but the next day I simply start over with my target plan, rather than spiraling into a black vortex of self-loathing.

What makes these victories both poignant and powerful is they do not reduce me to a clinical number, but instead they acknowledge and rejoice in the specifics of everyday life. Yes, the number on the scale matters, but I am more than a number. And when I see myself as a whole, worthy person with some flaws, rather than as a giant, walking flaw, it is easier to build on what is good.

So let us imagine, for a moment, that my problem is not that I am overweight but that my spiritual life has gone rather flabby. Imagine I look into the mirror of my soul, and I really do not like what I see. What to do?

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Letter from a soul in mortal sin

I didn’t see the curability of it all. It seemed like what you could offer us, with your sacraments and your elaborate covenants, was an answer to a question that no one asked. Salvation from what? I couldn’t see it.

But we have been together for a long time, off and on. We’ve been together long enough that I know that losing you is not only a loss, it is THE loss, the loss I can’t survive.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image of praying skeleton by Bixentro via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Give God your radishes

Probably I will never know what became of that offering I made. It’s not really my business, any more than it’s my business what a beggar does with my donation or a bride does with the toaster I give her on her wedding day. A gift is a gift! All I know is I gave what I have, and I will forever be glad that I made that gift. Once you put something in God’s hands with sincerity and trust, you are praising God. That is never a waste.

Read the rest of my latest at The Catholic Weekly

Image via MaxPixel (Public Domain)

 

Other people is where God is

“I hate being here,” I snarled at Jesus.

I was in adoration, for my appointed hour. This is what I get for shouting far and wide how wonderful adoration is, how marvelous, how life-changing, how all-but-essential: I sign up for a slot . . . and so does this other guy. 

This other guy, who barges into the tiny, dim, sacred, space humming and whistling, grunting and wheezing comfortably, like he’s meeting his pals at the VA bar. He plonks his stuff down on the floor, and sometimes taps out a jazzy little rhythm on his thighs. If he spots someone he knows, he’ll gab about the weather or his sore hip. Right out loud, right in front of the monstrance! Finally, preliminaries over, he’s ready to act like he’s in a chapel, and so he drags out a rattling sheaf of prayer booklets and begins to pray . . . out loud. In a whisper, technically, but loud enough that you can hear every single word.

This is bullshit. I want to be with Jesus, to lay my turmoil and agitation at His feet, and reconnect with Him, who brings peace. I want to read my Ratzinger book, which is helping me know Christ better. I want to make the most out of this one measly hour, because I knew this is where Jesus wants me to be. But none of that is going to happen, thanks to Mr. Oblivious who won’t get out of the way. Yes, friend-o, we all pray. Yes, we’re big fans of the rosary here. But what the HELL makes you think it’s okay to monopolize the entire room with your own personal devotions? I could barely hear myself think, let alone pray.

And I have misophonia, which makes it almost physically painful to hear mouth noises, especially in a small, enclosed space. Smacking and slurping and snorting engender irrational rage and panic that I haven’t figured out how to overcome in four decades. How and why a man could smack, slurp, and snort his way through five decades of a rosary, I do not know, but I am your witness: It can be done. 

“I hate it here,” I told Jesus. “I don’t want to be here.” 

Now you think this is going to be a story where I learn to drop my spiritual pretensions and come to understand that we do not meet God only in silent, spiritually elegant moments, but that God speaks to us in the rattling, baaing, shambling herd of our fellow sheep.  It may not be edifying and it may not look well on a gilded holy card, but it’s so much more satisfyingly real. 

Heck, I thought it was going to be that kind of story, myself. I remembered hearing that St. Theresa (I forget which one) was driven batty by one of her fellow sisters rattling her rosary chains in the chapel. But she was a saint, so apparently you could use even annoying people to get closer to God. Right, Lord? That seems like something saints do. No one’s going to be the insurmountable obstacle that keeps me from getting to God, not even some kind of psychopath who doesn’t know how to behave in adoration. 

Wait, he’s done with his rosary! Maybe he’ll quiet–

Nope. “Sakeuvissorrafapassion, mercyonusss, onnahoworld. . . sakeuvissorrafapassion, mercyonusss, onnahoworld . . .”

I put my fingers in my ears, discreetly. Then I put my fingers in my ears indiscreetly. I even turned around twice and (I’m not proud of this. Any of this) administered a fleeting Adoration Stinkeye. I stewed. I sighed. I wrestled with true red-brain rage. And I prayed. I prayed most earnestly to God for aid, that He would help me tune these disruptions out, that I could overcome the things that were distracting me from having a good and fruitful experience with Him.

And He says to me, He says: “That man isn’t being distracting. You’re being distracting.”

Okay. 

I hope I can convey to you how different this was from what I was expecting. I guess I was expecting for God to somehow arrange it so that I could be alone with Him, even despite everyone else in the chapel. That I would not hear, or not care, or not have to deal with the distraction of other people. I was quite convinced that being alone with God was the goal we both wanted. That’s what adoration is for! Isn’t it?

But instead, I saw very clearly that this desire to be alone with the Lord — this desire to have the experience that seemed fruitful to me — this desire to get what I came for — the desire to be in control, even to bring about something objectively good — that was the distraction, and I was carrying it in front of me like a shield; a shield between me and Christ.

If that man had not been there, and if I had come in and knelt down and read quietly and prayed what I wanted to pray, I would have come and gone still carrying that shield. I just wouldn’t have known it.

I’m always carrying that shield. I don’t like other people. I want them to leave me alone so I can accomplish what I think is fruitful. I want them to be quiet. I want them to behave to accommodate me. Not only in the dim, sacred space of the adoration chapel, but everywhere, at all times. It’s not that I have some pietistic fantasy of aesthetic loveliness in my prayer life. It’s that I want it to go my way, every time. I want to be able to yell at Him, alone. I want to tell Him I love Him, alone. I want to be able to have ugly prayers, alone. But I am always disrupted from doing what I want to do because I am always distracted by other people. And I clutch that distraction firmly to my breast, because it protects me. It shields me from God, even as I complain to Him that we never get to be together. I saw the shield, almost with my actual eyes. My fingers ached from clutching it so hard.

And I looked at Christ, in the monstrance. No shield there. Just a willingness to be with all comers. 

So what did I do?  Ever gracious, I shouted “FINE!” at Jesus, and went ahead and dove headfirst into being with other people, if apparently that’s SO GREAT and WHAT GOD WANTS, apparently. I started to pray along with the prayers Mr. Annoying was praying. “You give me this man?” I said. “Fine, then he can be my FUCKING RETREAT LEADER sorry.” And I started shambling and sputtering and mumbling alone with him. What he prayed, I prayed. I leaned right in. Never mind the important things I needed to pray through. Never mind the illuminating truths that were waiting for me in the next pages of my book. Never mind. NEVER MIND, apparently! Have mercy on us, and on the whole world, apparently! Have mercy on us, and on the whole world!

Have mercy on us.

Have mercy on us, and on the whole world. 

Have mercy. On us.

US.

Would you believe it, my rage drained away, and it did not come back. What rushed into its place, I’m not ready to name; but it felt like the presence of God. 

Because, apparently, other people is where God is. You don’t get past other people to get to God. You don’t use people to get closer to God. You can’t use people at all, if you want to be close to God. All you can do is be with people, and . . . that’s where God is. I don’t know what that means, but it sure is what happened to me today. I wanted to be in the chapel because that’s where God is; and guess who was also there? Other people. Sometimes the obvious answer is the answer. Other people is where God is. 

I’m not going to lie: I hope that man isn’t there next week. He really was terribly annoying, and I know enough not to hope I can somehow replicate this experience next time around. And I know better than to hope I’m somehow transformed from now on. But I do want to remember this: Other people is where God is. The world is full of people, and people is where God is. Have mercy on us, on us, on us, on the whole world.  

***
Image: “Harmonie” by Alexandre Cabanel [Public domain]

Giving thanks sets our hearts straight

He delights and is glad to hear us thank Him, but it doesn’t encourage Him to give us good things, any more a stream is encouraged to keep on flowing when a deer stops to drink in it. Flowing is what the stream is for, and it’s not going to pack itself up and leave in a huff if the deer isn’t properly grateful.

The deer, however, may suffer if it can’t linger long enough to enjoy having its thirst quenched.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Turkey photo by Alison Marras on Unsplash

Learning to pray, again

How strange that it’s still so hard to pray. How strange that I have to learn it over and over again. Maybe some people take to it more naturally, but I constantly find myself coming to it like a rank amateur, making silly mistakes, sheepishly repenting, and starting over again.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Image: detail of photo by By Chris Creagh (Creative Commons)

You are a cup

It’s a task like no other, this task of merely being present at the edge of a fathomless immensity of love. But that is what you were made for: You are a cup, and you are here to be filled.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

What do we Catholics do now?

By the time I’m done writing this, there will be a new crop of sad or enraging or just plain bizarre headlines about who did what, who knew what, who claims he never knew, who didn’t act and why that was someone else’s fault, and why we should all just relax and trust the hierarchy to do the right thing, starting any minute now.

And of course more and more of our fellow Catholics will burrow even more deeply into their comforting narratives of blame, to shelter them. When we’re confronted with calamity, the easiest thing in the world is to cry, “This is all their fault!” — “they” being the ones whose fault it always is and always has been. This response is worse than useless, but it’s understandable. We want coherence and intelligibility, but right now, it’s so hard to see, in this dim light of calamity. What to do?

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Image via Pixabay (Creative Commons)

But what if I don’t love God?

They really, really loved God, enough to willingly die for Him, enough to renounce their families for Him, enough to cheerfully surrender their riches and beauty and power for Him, enough to praise Him with their last dying breaths.

And I? I didn’t love God. I didn’t even like Him.

That worried me.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.