Each one, as a good manager of God's different gifts, must use for the good of others the special gift he has received from God. (1 Peter 4:10)

Archive for May, 2022

It’s a Long Story, And a Good One

Psalm 66, continued….

Verses for May 5, 2022:

Bless our God, you peoples,
loudly sound his praise;
He has given life to our souls,
and has not let our feet slip.
Hear now, all you who fear God, while I declare
what he has done for me.
When I appealed to him in words,
praise was on the tip of my tongue.
Blessed be God who refused me not
my prayer or his kindness!

            When was the last time I loudly sounded God’s praise? When have I spoken aloud, even conversationally, about what God has done for me?

            Let me think of this another way: what is stopping me from praising God out loud, from speaking about what He has done for me? If I think of this on a human level, I don’t know a single person, including myself, who does not enjoy being praised when they do things for others. Even if we protest, even if we deflect the praise, we’d be lying if we said we didn’t like it. On this human level, praise provides validation for something well done; perhaps it encourages us to repeat the behavior that led to the praise. Praise makes us feel good about ourselves and about our actions.

            When we praise God, we are not adding anything to Him, of course. I think that God does not need our praise to know that He is good, and in His absolute love for us He will always take care of us. During the long stretch of my life when I was separated from any active practice of faith, when praising God was definitely not a part of my days, He still looked out for me and protected me. With very little searching, I could offer countless examples of His loving care for me during that time.

            If God does not need to be reminded of His goodness, and if our praise adds nothing to Him, then why are we called to praise Him?

            I think the answer is that this is yet another way that He looks out for us. In praising God, we remind ourselves of who God is. We remind ourselves of how glorious He is. We remind ourselves of the amazing fact of creation and the continued existence of God’s creation. We remind ourselves of the wonderful things He has done for us – of His goodness. When we worship Him, we remind ourselves of His glory, the glory that we seek to see in person at the end of our lives. When we recount all of the good things He has put in our lives, we are reminded that even though we are powerless to achieve salvation on our own, God has seen to it for us.

            “Hear now, all you who fear God, while I declare what he has done for me.” When we praise God, we witness to others how good and powerful and glorious He is; it’s a way of evangelizing, really. This line, and the words following it: “When I appealed to him in words, praise was on the tip of my tongue” are at the heart of a healthy prayer life.

            If I add nothing to God by my praise of Him, I also take nothing away from myself when I acknowledge and praise Him as the source of all that is good in my life, in my world. When I recognize that God is the giver of all good gifts, I am drawn out of myself, out of this shell of self-sufficiency that my ego builds, and I am drawn in faith to Jesus and through Him to the Father. This promise is in today’s gospel reading: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draw him, and I will raise him on the last day….Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from him comes to me.” (John 6:44-46)

            These verses from Ps. 66 have me remembering some of the times in my life when I had taken myself about as far from God as was possible, and yet God protected me. During a time when my promiscuous behavior put me at risk for not only disease, but personal harm and even death, not one hair of my head was harmed. I look back on that time in wonder. The AIDS epidemic was in full rage, and at least one serial killer was active where I lived. I’m convinced that my survival, and that I survived largely unscathed, was through no virtue of my own. I’m as sure as I can be of anything in life that God my Father commissioned my guardian angel to keep protecting me, to keep steering me – sometimes yanking me – out of harm’s way, and finally to prompt me to listen when the Holy Spirit was telling me it was time to stop.

            Although I stopped the risky behavior, I didn’t recognize God’s hand in the change, and I didn’t turn back to Him, not for a long time. And so God did what God does: He stepped up His quest for my soul.

            What amazes me, when I look back on those times, is that even as I chose to remain separated from God, I felt perfectly free to call on Him when I needed something. There was no bargaining, no promise to change my ways if He would give me what I asked for. My prayers were those of a recalcitrant child who knows deep down that her parent loves her regardless of her bad behavior. And God did what God does: He answered those prayers.

            In the end, as I like to say, He chased me until I caught Him. My encounters with God during the last few days of my husband’s life were filled with a kind of light that I can’t describe. I knew that I was on my way back to God, and that I would be where God wanted me to be. I trusted God completely in those days and hours, and I entrusted my beloved Tom to Him.

            It never occurred to me that God might not listen to my prayers or that I might not deserve to be heard. I never once felt anything but a sense of welcome and joy. I walked back into God’s arms, and it was like I’d never been away….but it was also much more than that. My relationship with God took on a new intensity, and it grew by leaps and bounds.

            I love God.

            I love God, and I say so publicly. As I write this, I think initially, “But I don’t love Him enough or say it enough.” But I think that is not the point that God wants me to understand. I think what He wants me to understand is that I love Him, and my love for Him is growing. I say so publicly, and I’m learning to do so more openly and more often and with less fear of the reactions it may get.

            This, I think, is the thing about praising God that makes it the heart of our prayer life. It is that this is a life of “and,” not “but.” I love God, and my love for Him is growing. I pray daily, and God answers my prayers in ways I don’t expect. I offer praise to God, and doing so reminds me of Who we both are. I “sin and fall short of the glory of God,” and He is ready with forgiveness, mercy, and new grace when I come to Him sorry and repentant. I take baby steps along the way to following Him, and He is there with His light, holding out His hand so I won’t lose the path.

            Listen, while I tell you about all the great things God has done for me. I hope you have lots of time, because it’s a very long story.

Prayer, Praise, and Place

Psalm 66

Verses for May 4, 2022, Responsorial Psalm:

Shout joyfully to God, all the earth,
sing praise to the glory of his name;

proclaim his glorious praise.

Say to God, How tremendous are your deeds!”

“Let all on earth worship and sing praise to you,
sing praise to your name!”

Come and see the works of God,
his tremendous deeds among the children of Adam.

He has changed the sea into dry land;
through the river they passed on foot;
therefore let us rejoice in him.

He rules by his might forever.

            Today’s psalm presents a strange and interesting juxtaposition to the first reading, from Acts 8:1b-8. In that first reading, we hear of “severe persecution” of the fledgling Church after Steven is martyred by stoning. We hear of Saul (not yet Paul) persecuting the church and personally handing over men and women to imprisonment for their belief in Jesus Christ.

            The reading from Acts also reaches into the heart of the psalm, though, reporting that in the midst of the persecution, disciples escaped and carried their preaching far and wide. They were not scattered like leftover scraps; rather, they were scattered like seeds, to take root and grow in new places. For this, “Let all the earth cry out to God with joy!”

            I don’t know that the earth, or the people on it, spend enough time or even very much time crying out to God with joy, or proclaiming “his glorious praise.” I don’t see us, the people God created for His own, answering the invitation to “Come and see the works of God, his tremendous deeds among the children of Adam.”

            No, we are much better at complaining about the sea that impedes us, rather than praising God for giving us the dry land in its midst to walk on. We are far more willing to pick at what we see wrong in our lives and our world and ask God to fix it, change it, take it out of our way, than we are to seek an understanding of how God wants to make us stronger so that we can walk amidst these obstacles with courage.

            The verses from Psalm 66 are a lesson in prayer, a call to communicate with God in a different way than we are accustomed to do.

            Growing up as a cradle Catholic, I experienced prayer as a series of prescribed words and forms. My mother taught me the basic prayers of our faith – the Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be, Guardian Angel prayer, and Apostle’s Creed. In Catechism class I learned others – Hail, Holy Queen, Memorare, Nicene Creed. The Mass, back then, was prayed in Latin with minimal participation from the laity in the pews. The Rosary was prayed often, and not uncommonly in silence while Mass was being offered in a language we neither understood well nor spoke. We said those certain prayers at certain times, and they rounded out our weekly and daily ritual. Our priests offered Mass on our behalf, and we understood the Mass and those prayers we recited to be beneficial to our souls simply by virtue of being said. We were, if not actively discouraged from it, certainly not encouraged to read the Bible. The priest would provide what we needed to know of scripture.

            That was the Church I left in 1967. When I returned in 2012, I returned to a Church that encouraged individual and group Bible study. I returned to a Church where Mass was almost exclusively prayed in the vernacular of the congregation and where praying the Mass “ad orientam” (the priest’s back to the congregation) was viewed with suspicion by many, and while permitted, not encouraged.

            While the vernacular Mass had become prevalent just before I left the Church, I had not had time to get used to it, and it made for an amazing experience when I returned. But what I found even more amazing, and sometimes disconcerting and even vaguely disturbing, was the prevalence of what I thought of as “ad lib” or spontaneous prayer. I’d heard plenty of this kind of prayer in my years attending Protestant churches, and I had come to think of it as the province of Protestants, for after all, we Catholics had our own prayers that covered everything, right?

            The biggest discomfort, then, in my return to the Church, was not my first confession in 45 years. It wasn’t wondering if I’d get it right when I received Holy Communion in the hand for the first time. It wasn’t getting used to the fullness of participation in the Mass.

            My biggest discomfort was getting used to, and learning, this wellspring of spontaneous prayer that I saw everywhere around me. And one of the great blessings of those early days of my return was my attendance at a group study which outlined ways to pray spontaneously, to communicate with God individually about our own wants and needs and to build our own personal relationship with Him in this way.

            It was no longer as simple as saying an Our Father, a Hail Mary, and a Glory Be as bedtime prayer. And although the Rosary was still regarded as a beautiful centerpiece of Catholic prayer, the reflections and meditations took on a new flavor; there were even five new Mysteries to pray!

            I had, of course, had some experience with this sort of “direct” prayer as I had often prayed during my husband’s final illness, carrying on a sort of conversation with God about what I wanted from Him in that time.

            Still, it was a new experience to have group meetings and Bible studies and all kinds of gatherings, both formal and informal, begin and end with the leader’s spontaneous prayers. Just as I began to discern a pattern in those prayers, I attended that group study, which offered a guide to keeping our spontaneous prayers, our conversations with God, on track. And this guide involved first giving thanks, praise, or adoration to God; then acknowledging our sinfulness and asking for forgiveness; then asking God for those things we wanted from Him; and finally, placing ourselves in acceptance of and obedience to His will. It seemed that you could assign an acronym to your chosen prayer formula as an aid to remembering and staying on track with it.

            I’d like to say that what I learned about prayer in that study group changed my prayer life instantly and forever, but it didn’t. Instead, this new approach took quite some getting used to. Still, as my relationship with God developed along new and unexpected paths, so did my prayer life. And when I learned, a few years ago, that I had been given a charism of intercessory prayer, that brought a new awareness of the importance of this aspect of my relationship with the Lord.

            All of this is leading up to an admission: To this day, the “praise and adoration” part of prayer – what the Psalmist is talking about here in these verses from Ps. 66 – is the most challenging part of prayer for me. When I begin to pray, I have no trouble finding things to express gratitude for. My life is truly full of such things.

            But what am I meant to praise God for? And why? My praise for the things He has done don’t make those things any greater, nor do they make God greater. What does He want from me, then, in this call to praise Him and adore Him?

            Psalm 66 offers a hint: “Say to God, ‘How tremendous are your deeds!’” When I begin to think about His deeds – beginning with the Creation, culminating in the Redemption of mankind, and everything that goes on in the world, really – it gives greater meaning to the line, “Come and see the works of God….” And I begin to think about ways that I can start to view the world as the works of God, and something begins to dawn in my mind.

            When I think of all that surrounds me as works of God, that draws me away from dwelling on my own role in it. When I see everything as coming from God, Who is good, I see everything in a different light. And when I offer my words of praise to God, He doesn’t see that as silly or useless. He sees it, I think, as my turning to Him rather than relying on myself and other human invention and intervention. When God sees me focused on Him, I think He has me right where He wants me.

            In opening my prayers, indeed in beginning all of my days and all of my enterprises, with thanks and praise to God who created me and everything I will encounter and use in my day, I am recognizing Who God is, and in turn recognizing who I am to Him: His beloved creation whose love in return He desires.

            When I praise God for the wonders of His creation, for His own glory, and for all of the great things He has done for His people, I am not telling Him anything that He does not know. Rather, I am reminding myself of Who it is that I worship and serve.

Prayer becomes more than a ritual or a rote exercise. It becomes an active way of participating in my relationship with God. Prayer becomes a response to the gift of faith God has given me.

To praise God is to claim my place as His creation. To praise and give thanks to Him is to put myself where I belong – not as the master of all I survey, but as the beloved child and servant of the God who made all I survey.

            Indeed, I can live with that.

Looking for a Little Humility….

            Today, May 2, I’m taking a break from reflections on the daily Psalms to write about humility. I can say with certainty that it is a subject in which I lack expertise. I know this because of how often I need lessons in it. If that isn’t evidence enough, I can consider my own amazement when I’m granted an insight into what it really means.

            It takes a special kind of courage to pray for humility, especially if you really mean it. It’s rather impressive and, well, humbling when God is willing to answer such prayers. My first reaction is always – not usually, but always – “Why me, Lord? Why is this happening to me?”

            The realization that whatever I’m moping about is really a lesson in humility can be a bit of a shock. It also has its own kind of beauty.

            All of this came home to me in a single package when I heard the most wonderful homily on May 1, the third Sunday of Easter, in a little campus chapel that’s part of a parish in a town near my daughter and son-in-law’s lake house. (It’s officially called ‘the Retreat,” but I suspect it will always be the lake house to me.) When we arrived a couple of minutes early for Mass, Father was still on the steps greeting people as they entered. There were some pleasantries about the weather, and then he looked at me, smiled, and said, “Keep praying.”

            When you have a charism for intercessory prayer, that phrase has special meaning. And coming on the heels of recent times of spiritual darkness, it had even more meaning for me. Sure, he might have been talking about the weather. But the Holy Spirit has been quite busy with me just lately, and I heard Him in that moment.

            Father Jegar Fickel is the pastor of the combined St. Mary-St. Paul Catholic Community there in Big Rapids. I don’t know that he’ll ever read this blog, but I can’t write what I need to write without calling him by name. If I heard the Holy Spirit in that pre-Mass greeting, I felt Him wrap up my heart and soul in the homily Father Jegar gave yesterday.

            I’ve often heard the phrase “breaking open” or “unpacking” the Scriptures, and I have to admit I’m not especially fond of it; it seems a little precious, in the way that metaphors of that sort often do to me. But Father Jegar absolutely broke open the story of Jesus’ third appearance to the disciples after His resurrection (John 21:1-19), and in his telling of it, he reached right into my heart and broke it open too.

            Line by line, he did it, and I don’t think I’ve ever been more completely captivated by a homily. He talked about the tenderness with which Jesus loved Peter, all the while knowing, as only Jesus could, how flawed Peter was. He drew parallels between this story and the day Jesus first called Peter. Then he explained how Jesus first asked Peter whether he loved Him in the sense of “agape” – a love that lays down its life for the beloved — and he drew a parallel between this question and Peter’s three-fold denial of Jesus. Hearing it, one’s heart would break at what Peter must have felt in this moment, when the response of his heart was that he indeed loved Jesus – as a dear friend. Just as on the night he denied Jesus, Peter was not yet so sure that he would lay down his life for Jesus.

Peter. In that moment, he was not the rock on which Jesus would build His church. In that moment, he saw himself as he was: a weak, sinful man who could not give Jesus the fullness of love that He wanted and deserved.

Sitting there listening to Fr. Jegar, I heard this gospel story as though for the first time. He said that when Jesus asked Peter the third time, “Do you love me?” he asked in words that meant love as a friend. As Father said, “Jesus lowered the bar,” wanting Peter’s love but knowing the man’s limitations and meeting him where he was so that He could lead him deeper into that love. Tradition and history tell us that Peter indeed laid down his life for Jesus, martyred by crucifixion, and that he always recognized his own weakness, asking to be crucified head-down because he was unworthy to die in the same position as Jesus had.

Father Jegar brought the homily to a close, applying the lessons of this gospel story to our own lives, and I have not been able to stop thinking about it.

We love to think about Jesus loving us tenderly, yet I think we do not stop to consider what that really means. Jesus is the Word by which all creation was made, and He loves us as His own creation – not because we are perfect, but because we are His creation. He loves us in our weakness and sinfulness. He lowers the bar for us – yes, He does. Rather than requiring our perfection, He keeps offering us a way back to Him through the Sacraments.

He keeps loving us in His “agape” way of loving, even though we are barely capable of the kind of “friendship” love that Peter expressed. And sometimes our own pride gets in the way of letting ourselves be loved this way. We want to be loved for our good qualities, the way we expect to be loved by other people. We aren’t ready to be loved despite our lack of such qualities. We aren’t ready to be loved so deeply and absolutely in our state of utter imperfection that we have no choice but to respond by reaching for something better in ourselves.

Now, there is a humbling thought if I have ever entertained one.

Am I willing to be loved by Jesus the way He loves me, deeply and utterly and absolutely, and to be responsive to His call to be open to loving Him more and more completely?

This is the question that these recent weeks of spiritual discontent have been leading me to. It took a visit to a tiny chapel in a little town some distance from home, and a homily from a priest I’d never met before, to bring me to this question.

And I need to answer the question, because if I am truly open to being loved by Jesus in this way, then His grace, carried by His Holy Spirit, can find its way in. I think it’s not that God’s grace is unable to find its way in when we are stubbornly locked into our own limited way of loving; rather, it’s that God finds ways to soften us up for it. That’s what all the tears and fears and stubbornness of these past weeks have been about.

I’ve prayed for humility. At first, I prayed boldly without knowing what I was asking for. When God began to answer my prayer, it was kind of a shock, and I think I retreated without realizing what I was doing. He went to work on softening me up, and I began to understand better what I’m asking for when I pray for humility. More importantly, I am beginning to see a greater willingness in myself to accept the humility that God wants me to know.

I won’t claim that I felt the earth shift beneath my feet, exactly, with these realizations. But there is no question that the earth feels just a little different under my feet today, and there’s a peace and a calm in my soul that was missing for awhile. Please, Lord, please, let me keep listening, and keep me strong enough to keep praying for humility.

Because I can live with that.

%d bloggers like this: