Saturday, December 26, 2009


Soon after my conversion, I was flabbergasted at a mass to hear a visiting priest state unequivocally that God only loves Catholics. (Hopefully, I misunderstood him, but at the time that is what he seemed to be saying quite clearly.) After the mass, I fumed up and down the blackberry-lined path that runs behind our mission. On the one hand, who was I to judge the priest? On the other hand, did not God send his disciples to Jews and Gentiles? And then there are atheists like I was. I have pretty strong evidence that during my decades of atheism God loved me in spite of myself. It seems to me, then, that God loves all of His children, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, religious denomination (i.e. whether they get all the pieces of spirituality "right" or not), and, seemingly, even the nonbelievers. Now that is ubiquitous love. So, how could the priest state that only Catholics are worthy of God's love? Have we not progressed at all in 21 centuries? Hating those who hate you doesn’t make the world a better place, any more than hating your personal “enemy” makes your own life any better. When will people ever understand that God’s message is about love and inclusion, not about power and position and territory and domination and one way of doing things and exclusion? I saw in the priest’s attitude and words tonight the things that had kept me away from organized religion all these years: the “righteous” people (like abusive my mother and my molesting grandfather who were held up as role models by members of the church and community while committing vile atrocities behind closed doors). Yet, I now know that one cannot judge God by those who claim to be His people. Yet, that tendency is ever present, isn't it?

I had gone to the Saturday mass with my youngest son, Doah, who was staying with us that weekend. Doah, although severely mentally challenged, has always had strong faith; he usually attends a Mexican church, so this service was a little different for him, but then my childhood experience is Protestant, so some of the Catholic liturgy is unfamiliar to me, too. Sitting in the church, I realized with a deep sense of regret that this was the first time I have ever attended a church service with one of my children.

I was so distraught, though, that I sent Doah home after mass, and I spent more than an hour walking along the path that parallels EL Camino Real – I did not want to be near anyone – talking to God.

I kept asking, “Where are you?”

And the answer kept coming, “I am with you.”

But I did not feel God with me, perhaps because of the invasion of negative emotions that came from my reaction to the visiting priest's homily. So, I repeated the question with some frustration, "Where are You?"

And again I heard the same quiet response, "I am with you."

Still, I felt nothing. So, I wailed, "I don't feel You with me!"

At that moment, a near-blinding light enveloped the blackberry bushes, the path, me, and seemingly the entire world. Time stopped as in a science fiction movie except that it was real, or at least real to me. For perhaps 30 seconds, I was totally immobilized by this overwhelming light that carried within itself a sense of tremendous power. At the same time, I understood that this was just a fraction of the potential power that could have been directed at me. I immediately decided never to ask for that kind of proof again, and I am now very careful in general as to what I ask for (because I often get it). I am clearly in over my head with God; there is so much for me to learn.

When the light "released" me, I asked for an explanation of the priest’s commentary, but none come. I picked and ate the blackberries along the path that used to be the primary road, El Camino Real (The King’s Highway), from San Diego to Palo Alto, without paying much attention to what I was doing, until my hands were stained purple on both sides and somewhat torn by thorns. At one point, I sat down in the brambles, out of sight, and kept praying for an explanation. None came. (But I did later end up with a very bad case of poison oak, not having noticed the different kinds of leaves mixed in with the blackberries.)

Finally, I walked on, and there was light streaming across a field with the mountains in the background. I heard a voice say, “Stop and listen to the music.” I listened, but all I could hear were the sounds of life: the rustle of grass, the scratching of branch against branch, the whooshing of the wind, the loud hum of a plane, human voices wafting on the breeze, the soft crowing of sleepy roosters, the sawing of crickets – a cacophony of sound.

“I cannot hear any music,” I said.

“You are not listening,” came the answer.

I listened again to the cacophony and realized the problem. “I hear the sounds, the orchestra, but there is no theme!”

“There can be no theme where there is free will,” came the answer.

I knew I was being given a message and perhaps even an answer to my question about that day's homily, but I just could not make sense of it. And then the voice said again, “I am with you.”

I walked on and up over the hill, and at last, as I walked, I realized some of what I was being told, what I started out knowing but had ended up questioning, that God cannot be judged by the words or behaviors of people. The rest of the message I am still processing, but I don’t require a full explanation right now because I am at peace with the most important part of the message, which I did, finally, understand. I stopped in the shadow of one of the other churches in town, where a Spanish mass was being celebrated, and, at last, was able to answer, “It is enough that You are with me.”
(reposted March 6 2010, with more details, found in a letter written to a friend that same day)

Saturday, November 14, 2009


I post here on Modern Mysticism far less frequently than on my other blogs, especially Blest Atheist, which I try to keep up with near daily. Here, unless I feel an external compulsion, I hesitate to add a post because I often feel that I am in over my head. I don't completely understand the mystic phenomena that I experience or live within, nearly always being surrounded by a diaphanous cloud that is, to me, the Presence of God. I feel like I need to reflect upon what happens, but reflection does not take me very far. The more I try to understand, the more I simply get pulled into the diaphanous ether without explanation but with such a warm feeling of love, of being "home"," of safety, and of mutual desire, that I instinctively stop thinking and just start "being." I try to learn more through reading, but it appears that God reacts with each author and each person differently so I have not, to date, found a complete match. I talk to the people in my spiritual circles -- God has blessed me with many -- but most think I need to be medicated (and these are spiritual people; if I were to mention these experiences to the rank-and-file on the street, I probably would be hauled off and medicated). I occasionally come across individuals who have had similar experiences (but not identical; as with the authors I read, it appears that God more often prefers unique, rather than common, experiences, at least with me and the people I know). I do thank God for putting these folks (whom I had not known earlier) in my life. It is enough, then, for me not to pronounce myself definitively crazy.

Just to make sure, I suppose, because I am such a hard-headed person, God gave me a couple of very special priests, with whom I can discuss mystic events and be taken seriously, even helped, in some cases, to determine authenticity, which is a very important thing to me. I also read and re-read and re-read both St. Theresa of Avila's works on authenticity and Fr. Thomas Dubay's wonderful book by the same title, Authenticity. Fr. Thomas Dubay's book helped me understand that I was not rejecting God by seeking to determine whether what I experience is real or not real. In fact, he suggests that all mystic happenings be treated as questionable until they can be examined together with a priest. Thank God, I have two who will do that with me, one of whom, Fr. Barry, is local and ready to listen and reflect at any time, the other of whom, Fr. Kevin, is a bit of a drive away but conducts the contemplative prayer sessions that I find so mathemagenic and formative.

I was in the midst of contemplative prayer, albeit more distracted than usual, this morning when I felt compelled to write this post. I thought (moment of distraction during the prayer) that I would write it after the 20 minutes that I had set aside for contemplation had passed. (Whoa! Note the arrogance! I had decided how much time I would spend in contemplation with God. Should it not have been the other way around? I mean, I do have to plan around a busy life, don't I? Ah, there is that arrogance again -- I should not be too busy for God; I should be grateful that God is never too busy for me. This is the second time this week this lesson has been dropped into my head, and I probably should heed it.)

Anyway, the more I tried to stay within a contemplative frame, the more I felt compelled to write this post. Finally, I decided that perhaps God was sending a message to his hard-headed lover and that I should just get up and obey. (If it was not a message, then no harm done, either.)

The topic I felt compelled to discuss is "intimacy" -- not intimacy with other people, but intimacy with God, a concept I would have laughed at a few years ago before my conversion. I have since met many people who would laugh at it now. I do not laugh at it now because I have experienced it. Describing it, though, is something for which I fear I do not have adequate words. Simply put, I experience it as the Presence Without joining the Presence Within. It is as if I am surrounded by a Diaphanous Cloud that all of a sudden I realize is no longer outside me but within and throughout and all around me, sort of like walking into a big, penetrating bubble, but I did not do the moving. At the risk of raising some eyebrows at my choice of comparative metaphor, I would say that this experience for me approximates the intimacy of sex without the involvement of the sexual organs but rather reflects those aspects that for one brief moment in time allow two people to become one. I wish I could describe this gift of intimacy in a purer fashion because it is a purer experience than I am describing here, perhaps than I am capable of describing.

Since I cannot do better at description than the above, I am going to retire from this post to read more and to research more. Oh, and to give God access to me whenever He wants it!

And you?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


During mass, I usually sit in the last section of pews, even sometimes in the very last pew. Contrary to what one might think, I am not far from God there. In fact, I find God’s presence to be very strong in our Old Mission Church, so strong that when I approach the altar, I involuntarily tremble. Deep within me and simultaneously all around me and spread throughout the church but epicentered at the altar is a power so immense that it exceeds the ability to comprehend. In the back of the church, I am free to bask quietly in the radiant presence of God’s love. Sometimes, in the basking, I do not know where I stop and God begins, a continuum that I experience in greater intensity during contemplative prayer.

All the same, there is a part of me that feels unworthy, having spent so many decades as an atheist, to approach the altar, that awesome place of divine glory, and so I sit, appropriately in my consideration, in the remoter pews in our large church. When I look around me and especially in front of me, I see people who have spent their entire lives worshiping God, and then I begin to feel like an interloper even though I know that God wants me there. Especially difficult for me were daily masses the winter before last when the only warm place in our unheated church during an unusually cold spell was around the altar, where chairs were placed for the few of us who attended daily mass. I would shake throughout the entire mass. It was not from the cold but from the overwhelming sense of God's powerful presence.

There was a time, however, when I was impelled to approach this glorious presence. A visiting friend, Julie, preferred to sit in the front section of pews. I described to her my reaction whenever I came close to the altar, so we compromised on the last row of the front section. She had not experienced such a reaction, but she was a cradle Catholic who knows much more than I do about God and His church. Most of my "knowing" comes from experiencing God although I do read voraciously. Most of her knowing came from catechism lessons and a lifetime of church activity. She was, however, to have an experience similar to ones I have periodically.

As she was getting on the plane to return home, she heard a very clear voice say, "Tell Beth to come closer." She immediately knew that this referred to my reluctance to approach the altar. Surprisingly, she never questioned what she had heard. As soon as she arrived home, she called and told me.

"I don't know, Julie, if I can do that," I told her. "I am afraid."

"Well, I think you better at least try," she responded. I knew she was right, but I really was nervous about it. I also knew that if I shared this nervousness with anyone else in the congregation, they would consider me odd. And if I told them what Julie had heard, they would likely consider both of us delusional. So, I said nothing, but I knew I would obey. Since my conversion, I always obey, which is quite strange considering that I had previously always been considered a rebel.

At vespers the following Saturday after receiving the host, I paused nervously at the altar railing, silently stating, "Okay, Lord, here I am; I came all the way to the front and instead of quickly passing on to the cup and returning to the last pew, I am still here."

"Not enough; come alone" was the response. Alone? Alone was even more frightening! Alone, in fact, was highly frightening! But alone it would be.

Our mission church is considered a tourist attraction. Therefore, it is open all day every day. Nonetheless, there are times that it is empty, and I know when those times are. So, I came back -- alone, as ordered.

As I knelt alone at the altar railing, I saw what looked like heat waves rising from the altar. As I watched, the height of the waves grew higher and higher. Concerned that my eyes were playing tricks on me, I pulled my driving glasses out of my purse and donned them. Once again, the waves started as a thin layer on top of the altar and grew higher and higher. And then I heard the words: "Do not be afraid to come all the way to Me."

I do not know how long I knelt there. I could not immediately move. I did not want to move.

I am still sorting out what this experience means and why God graced me with it. Maybe I will never know the answer to either question. Maybe it is not meant for me to know. If I am supposed to know, God will send someone or another experience to teach me that which He would have me understand.

Meanwhile, I continue to sit in the back of the church where I do feel God's presence. I still feel less worthy than others to sit farther forward. I am no longer afraid, however, to come all the way to Him, to experience the awe of His divine glory, or to allow Him full access to every fiber of my being during contemplative prayer.

I would love to know if others have had similar experiences and how that experience was interpreted. What do you know about such things?

Friday, October 16, 2009


I am not qualified to write about anything theological. I am neither a theologian nor a religious. Nor am I learned in the ways of God. (I wish!) I am writing only in obedience to a perceived prompting. If I am wrong, then I will be writing nonsense. If I am right, then perhaps I will write something of value to someone.

My knowledge of prayer has grown in the few years since I became a believer and converted to Catholicism. I now understand that most theologians consider that facility in "ordinary" prayer said aloud or silently (repentance, petition, thanksgiving, and praise) precedes the development of meditation which precedes the development of contemplation. In other words, over a long period of time we work toward ever greater intimacy with God in our prayer life. Weird (and perhaps unbelievable) as it may be, my prayer life began with contemplation – two full weeks of nearly nonstop contemplation, actually, thrust upon me. That was all I knew about prayer until I joined the Catholic Church and learned that most other people’s experiences with prayer significantly differed from mine. Well, that’s God for you. He does not necessarily feel bound to follow any particular rules or to interact with two different people in the same way.

Perhaps because I began with contemplation, I am most comfortable with that form of prayer. I have never been able to learn how to meditate, and perhaps that really is not necessary, given that it is considered a step toward contemplation. I have learned the more ordinary forms of prayer, but even now, given the passage of more than three years (yeah, I know, not much in the grander scheme of things), I prefer to “be still” with God and let God direct the communication (that communication is much wiser and more satisfying). When I don’t, when I start chattering away, I sometimes feel a divine finger against my lips, and of course I immediately hush so that a communication of greater value can transpire.

Recently, I joined a contemplative prayer group that meets once a month. It is directed by a priest (yes, another priest in my priest-panoplied life – they each seem to bring something different and important, and I would not give up a relationship with any of them). At one meeting, however, the contemplative prayer priest was not present, but someone quite special was: a homeless-looking lady whom we all initially thought had wandered into our meeting by mistake, who later revealed to me in a paired discussion that she was dying of cancer, took on the features of Christ during our contemplative prayer (I suppose she was simply reflecting that God-seed that is in all of us), and then walked out (whispering to me to pray for her).

As I said in the beginning, I am the last person who should be writing about prayer. I am not wise. I am not a long-time believer. I am not a theologian or otherwise educated in religious matters. I know little more than what I learn through direct experience, reading (e.g., Authenticity by Fr. Dubay, the works of St. Theresa of Avila, and the Book of Privy Counseling), research, interactions with other believers, formation for my upcoming profession in the Secular Franciscan Order, and preparatory study as a catechist teaching questioning teenagers. Taken all together, it is only a minute fraction of what I would like to know, of what I thirst to learn. So, being in such a great state of unknowing, is it any wonder that contemplative prayer would appeal to me more than any other kind of prayer? It is through contemplative prayer that God can teach me the most, through union (even when it is only partial -- whatever God deigns at a given moment to gift me with) that I can develop a more perfect trust, through an accompanying directiveness that I can sense what I am supposed to understand and feel, through a washing in love that I can accept who I am with all my imperfections, through implanted thought that I can learn lessons and receive taskings, and through the Divine Presence wrapped around me that I can release all my stress and worries into Him and gather into myself a reservoir of love that I can splash onto others as needed later. Contemplative prayer starts my day and ends my day. If only I could spend the entire day in it! During the day, I resort to ordinary prayer, and that tides me over until the evening surf throws me on the shore at God’s feet and I can once again rest in His being.

What has been your experience? What is your understanding of such matters? Let's learn from each other.