Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Contemplation III

Nighttime is the sweetest part of the day for me. I fall into a delicious bed after a supercharged day and let the battery totally drain. Time for prayer! That is the reason for the sweetness. Not that I haven't prayed throughout the day. Indeed, I have. Some days I pray very consciously. Other days I "pray" more frequently simply by taking notice of God's presence and sharing my life and experiences of the moment with Him as one would with Someone who is one's best friend, parent, and lover all rolled into one Entity.

At night, as in the early morning, though, my attention is undivided. Also, unlike during the day when I alternate please for guidance with exclamations of gratitude, I have little to say at night.

In fact, I usually feel like I am cheating in some way. Instead of a litany of formal prayers that I have yet to learn well enough to pronounce all by myself, I simply enunciate words of gratitude, ask for grace and mercy for those for whom I have promised (or feel prompted) to pray, beg briefly for my dreams to center only on good and on God, and then fall silent, relaxing in God's pervasive presence, sinking into His soft love, like a long-married couple gently swinging together on the porch as the night settles around them.

From that quick-to-arrive point of profound comfort, I turn all communication and its direction over to God. I become a listener.

As much as I would like to stay awake forever, held in that merciful and loving embrace, I inexorably drift into sleep like a gently rocked baby immersed in a lullaby.

Yes, I do feel like I am cheating. I don't intone any mantra to induce a state of meditation but slip easily into a contemplative state by letting God do all the work. I don't sit in the "right" position that I have been taught; typically, I don't sit at all. I don't spend specific amounts of time doing specific things or saying specific prayers. Proper or not, the end of my day has arrived, and with my battery (and duties) discharged, I don't want to be in control of anything, even myself. So whether or not I am cheating, not following "the system" or "breaking the rules," on some level I don't care. If God wants me to follow the rules, I assume He will let me know what those rules are. Until He does, I intend selfishly to let God do all the work and just rest/sleep at His feet.

Is that really cheating? Am I too presumptious of the love and mercy that God gives regardless of my deserving it? (I guess that is what grace is all about.) Should I, though, be doing more? Oh, the unanswered questions!

(In a moment of contemplation, I felt led to write this post. I wonder if I will find out why -- or if I have written well enough to find out why. Or if it was an exercise to get me to consider these thoughts. Oh, the unanswered questions!)

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


I generally do not remember my dreams. I do not often remember even having them. I do remember having had a couple of nightmares. I only recall ever getting two of them, and I don't remember the story lines; rather, I remember only the fact that I got them and that I would wake up shaking. They showed up right after my conversion. Ever since, I have turned to God every night for protection from this kind of evil toying with my unconscious mind, and no nightmare has again appeared.

Although I do not generally remember my dreams, I know I must have them. I fall easily into deep sleep, and that means I am dreaming. Without REM sleep, one cannot renew one's body on a daily basis and becomes sleep deprived in spite of having slept. I am not sleep-deprived. I am almost immediately in REM sleep and can wake up fully refreshed after few hours than most.

In all, there are only three dreams that I can remember. Two arefrom bygone days; both hysterically funny, which is probably why I remember them since in both cases I woke myself up laughing. I also remember the one I had last night, a serious and insightful one, something more than a simple dream I think. I will let you judge.

For reasons I do not now recall, I was driving along our crooked, hilly, Maine-woods, farm road that travels the edge of the White Mountains far from anywhere, anything, and anybody. Suddenly, I saw a young girl walking the road, dressed in black clothes, with a cowl over he head, carrying a bundle. I called her over and asked if she needed help. She said yes and pulled back a corner of the wrapping of the bundle, revealing what seemed to be a mass of bloody flesh, telling me that it was a baby although I could see no head and hear no sound. "Give me a ride to the hospital," she said in a demanding voice.

The scene seemed very strange: miles from nowhere, covered in black, a face I could barely see, bloody flesh wrapped in a black shroud. My instinctive caution kicked in. Stop! Go no further! If I let her into the car, who knows what might happen. What would she really do with and on this ride?

I told her to stay put, that I would be back in 15 minutes. Then, I turned the car around and drove the five minutes back to the farmhouse I had just left, the place where I grew up (not only in the dream but also in reality). I forced Donnie, my husband, to leave the table where he was eating with the rest of the family, explaining what I had seen, and insisting that he come with me to help this girl, spooky as she might be. Shane, my grown son, also at the table, put into the some "weapons" of the tire iron type.

With Donnie at the wheel, we zoomed back to where I had left the girl in black, but she was not there. So, we turned back and went to the hospital. (Yes, that means we would have had to go past the hospital on the way to picking her up, but in the dream there was no hospital on the way to pick her up but there was one along the same road when we turned back). When we reached the hospital, we learned that her story, which I had doubted, was true. No one had picked her up; she had walked all the way there; the bloody bundle of flesh was a baby, who was doing fine as was the mother. When I went to her room, she was with a friend. Nonetheless, I entered.

I tried to hide my identity, again for reasons I do not recall, that made sense at the time of the dream but not now (as so many things in a dream do). However, she told me that she knew who I was because she had just found me on Internet. (I know not all these dream elements make sense since she had just delivered a baby and would not have been up and about using the Internet; one does not have computer connections, at least not yet, in hospital rooms; and all she had to go on was my face so she would have had to google a mental image, obviously an impossibility. Nonetheless, in the dream it all made sense.) Both she and her friend, it turns out, worked as junior-level specialists in my professional field and, therefore, after googling me, she understood who it was who had refused her a ride.

I felt very guilty about not picking her up. I felt guilty about my desire to check things out before doing the task before me: giving her a ride to the hospital. I felt guilty about my feelings of reservation. I felt guilty about not returning on time. I especially felt guilty about being afraid -- of what, a newborn baby and a young mother in need?

The rest of the dream occurred synoptically, with many years rolled into a few flashed images. As a result of my feelings of guilt, I became the godmother to her son. Over time, I helped her with him as he developed as well as in their daily life. (There seems to have been no father involved.) I became her emotional support and physical helper whenever there was a need. The relationship was not peer friendship. It was more one of mothering. And suddenly I awoke.

I don't think that this was an unprovoked dream, nor do I think it was provoked by me. Last night, like every night, I asked God to prevent Evil from taking over my unconscious mind and send instead dreams about Him, so I was not expecting this kind of weird dream.

I also do not think that it is a prophetic dream; that is, I don't think that something like this is going to happen. There will be no lady carrying a new-born baby down our old farm road where I will be driving past. The likelihood of my driving our old farm road is preposterous. I rarely go to Maine, and when I do, I don't go to that part. Once in the past 42 years since leaving there, I have driven past the farmhouse because I was nearby and wondered how it looked. Especially nonsensical is the idea of Donnie and Shane eating breakfast at our old farmhouse. They have not taken a trip together since hiking the Appalachian Trail in 1987. Donnie's leisure schedule has never coincided with adult Shane's. Moreover, the nearest hospital is 13 miles away and located in a nearby city; hospitals in the USA are not, for pragmatic reasons, located along isolated winding roads in farm country. So, for practical reasons, I don't think this is a prophetic dream.

I do think it is an intentional dream, a lesson that I have probably needed to be taught for a long time. I have no idea if my interpretation is correct, but I do have an interpretation. It goes something like the following:

(1) If someone is in my path, like the cowled lady, I should help immediately. I have not always done so; I have often hesitated.

(2) I should not delay in order to run for help in determining the authenticity of the task (the command to take her and something that I was unsure was really a baby to the hospital), evoked by the image of running for Donnie just as I run to a priest for confirmation of a locution and simply wait for more confirmation if no priest who takes locutions seriously is available.

(3) It is not of my concern whether the person will use the help appropriately; I have occasionally hesitated when approached by panhandlers.

(4) Doing the task with lack of alacrity may result in someone else being sent to help (the friend who was in the room with the cowled girl) and/or the ultimate assistance is less powerful or requires more complicated intervention than when I jump right on it (the cowled girl ended up walking a distance that she could have avoided).

(5) My safety was not at issue; this raises the question whether I am too self-protective physically or, more likely, emotionally at times when it comes to taskings.

All those "feelings of guilt" in the dream, I interpret as showing me my weaknesses, with the intent of the dream being to educate me. In the dream, I felt guilty about those weaknesses (and ultimately "made up" for them). In real life, I should trust God enough for me to move on out with any divinely imposed tasking without hesitation rather than waiting and repenting for the wait.

The authenticity piece troubled me initially. Fr. Thomas Dubay in his book, Authenticity, the book that has become second most helpful to me after the combined volumes of The Cloud of Unknowing and the Book of Privy Counseling, says to check with a priest (my preference always) and, if that is not possible and there is no immediate way of confirming the authenticity of a locution, to wait. I interpret this dream as saying the opposite. I would love to hear what he would have to say about the dream. Maybe I will write and ask him. In the interim, I will continue to check with a priest where I can do that quickly. Otherwise, if the prompting/tasking is not in contradiction to Scripture (so far, nothing has been), I will simply do as Fr. Barry once suggested after questioning (make that, grilling) me about a locution: do it and see what happens.

Does anyone have other insights? Has anyone received instructions through a dream? This is a first time for me; I don't want to over-interpret the dream. (Hm, there I go hesitating again!)

Monday, April 26, 2010


As promised, with an apology for the long delay, here is the follow-up to the previous post (Tasked) and the decision that I thought was finally able to make when I wrote that post. But, as you will see below, I have had to add a question mark to the title.

To backtrack briefly, I had been in formation for the Secular Franciscan Order for three years when the I received what seemed to be a tasking to take on Goliath (the subject of the previous post, in which I refer to Goliath as G), who seemed to have introduced Evil into our local SFO, if not into the regional organization. With God's help, the SFO Council took some remarkable steps to curtail G, steps I reported in the previous post. So, my tasking was complete, or so I thought.

I have not yet professed, thank God, because I think the outcome of this experience may be the decision to leave the Franciscans. The decision is only in part a result of my experience with G and Evil; it is in greater part a result of a long-term period of discernment. The question is when I might leave. I had thought the answer was "now," but after the last SFO meeting, I think that perhaps I am supposed to wait a little longer.

But I entice you without providing sufficient details for you to follow my line of reasoning. So, here are the details, at least those that I remember as of this morning. Three things lead me to believe that perhaps the SFO is not where I should end up. they are:

(1) A strong feeling that I am being called perhaps toward an association with Carmelites rather than Franciscans. While my lifestyle is very Franciscan, my spiritual experiences (especially the locutions) are not in keeping with what is accepted by leaders at the regional level of our organization and not in keeping with the experiences of most of the local fraternity. While I have developed close friendships locally and know that several of the newer people have latched onto me as someone willing to help them (not necessarily in SFO-related ways but in life-related matters), I have been feeling a growing contentment with the idea of leaving, a contentment that is stronger than the idea of staying, and a burning curiosity to learn more about Carmelite spirituality, which on the surface seems closer to my experiences. (I have for some time used St. Theresa's works and tests for authenticity as a guide.)

(2) I have prayed considerably for help in discernment. At one point, when I picked up the only Tau cross I own, planning to wear it to the SFO meeting that day, it broke into two pieces in my hands although I had put no pressure on it. I never know how to interpret such happenings, as signs or coincidences. I think they can be either. I truly miss having Fr. Barry around for guidance. For three years, this highly experienced, 80-year-old Franciscan priest served as my spiritual director (at least, de facto). However, the regional organization has chased him away to a location 100 miles distant. (Chased is the appropriate lexical choice in spite of the emotional loading of that word not being intended, but I cannot explain any of that without a much longer post.)

(3) As a result of #1, I felt the need to learn more about the Carmelites. I tracked down one nearby group, but it turns out that the only name I could find had a phone number that no longer works. Then, on a business trip to Ohio with a colleague, a peer who heads one of the four local directorates of our organization (I also head one), we stumbled into a discussion of Catholicism and our Catholic experiences. I have known her since 1983. I had no idea she was Catholic; she had no idea I was Catholic. The more we talked, the more fascinating everything became, including the fact that we had serendipitously stumbled (or been guided?) into this particular conversation, which is quite far from our everyday work and typical conversations. I took the plunge and shared with her some of my spiritual experiences, including a couple of the locutions. She did not bat an eye, which surprised me. Then she suggested I consider getting together with some Carmelites. I told her I had considered that, but I could not find a local group. Amazed by all this, she informed me that she herself is the formation director of the local group! So, I will be attending a meeting on Saturday. I am not making any premature judgments now or even at or after that meeting. I will do as Fr. Barry has taught me -- if the received "guidance/tasking" meets basic tests of authenticity, do as asked for a while and see what happens.

Meanwhile, I attended the April SFO meeting, and clarity turned to the proverbial/Biblical seeing through a mirror darkly. "Clearly," not everything is settled yet. "Clearly," the Council is making a stand against G and Evil; G at the meeting made no effort to lead the group in any direction but sat quietly distant, with vacant eyes. Just as clearly, the Council members feel unsupported. If I walk away before their work is finished, they might give up: I learned, confidentially, that two of them have been talking privately about resigning from the SFO in an effort to make regional understand their abhorrence over how Evil has infiltrated the organization. (Yet, if Evil has infiltrated regional, their resignation will bring delight, not shame or regret.) Alternatively, they might give in: G still receives strong regional support, using the basis of which he tries to influence Council meetings. The local fraternity has been without a spiritual advisor for almost a year, a fact that allows G and his regional supporters to ride roughshod over the local Council, promoting the Evil that still accompanies G. When I wonder where I fit in all of this at the current moment, having, I thought, completed my tasking, I remember E's earlier prayer about this situation and his rush to come by my house and tell me that I am supposed to see this situation through. Apparently, it is not through yet although I had hoped it would be and even thought it might be. Some days, I would like not to see it through. Then I consider that Jesus had to see something far more difficult and painful through, so I should and can be however patient I need to be and do whatever needs to be done to see this through.

N and I are now working on the next step, which I will relay in another post once it has occurred. We strongly believe that the Council needs to find a spiritual advisor, especially one who can counteract the Evil of G, support the Council members in their efforts to guide the local fraternity, and remove any reason for regional to continue stepping in to provide near-mandatory direction (direction that supports G in seeming obliviousness to the Evil that surrounds him and pervades his behavior). Sometimes I wonder if this is all a matter of politics. Then, I recount for my logical self that occasionally questions my spiritual self that God does not play politics; God counters Evil, turning bad into good. (To need a logical argument is to give partiality to my Western being. How strange Western culture is -- we can readily believe in atoms that we cannot see but cannot believe in Good and Evil that we can sometimes actually see!) The effort that God has made to help me understand what He wants me to do should be sufficient to know that this is more than politics. It is Evil in God's family -- and He wants it out of there! Sometimes I think (but who am I to "think") that everything might have been resolved already had God selected a more competent and experienced person. All I am is someone willing to do whatever God asks of me. I wonder if that is enough, but if God considers it to be enough, then it is enough. I will just have to keep trying to do as He asks and trying to discern exactly what it is that He is asking.

This then is my confession, folks. In spite of waiting for more than two weeks to prepare the promised post about a "forthcoming decision," I have no decision to report. That's the way it goes for me with discernment and with God's taskings. I think I have everything figured out and then learn that I either have it figured out wrong or have nothing figured out.

I make few decisions all by myself anymore. Although people at work think of me as decisive, I always ask for guidance before making decisions. When possible, I close my door for a minute of prayer. Where not possible, I take a minute to pray silently right where I am rooted. People often think I am reflecting before speaking, but I am not. I am praying before speaking. After all, these are God's people who work for me, including the atheists among them, and I want to know what God wants for each of them and how God wants me to treat each of them. Then I can decide how to handle each matter.

So, in the matter of Goliath and Elizabeth, no decision. Not yet. For now, I live with the question mark.

(This is #2 in a longer thread that began with Tasked.)

Friday, April 9, 2010


I considered labeling this post Voice ## (whatever # I am up to now). However, there is so much more to what I am about to relate, "tasked" is definitely a better label for the overall experience. ("Evil" would not have been a bad label, either.) Here is the story:

Much time had passed after hearing the Voice in Bahrain. God must be on silent running, I presumed. I was now almost painfully aware of the fact that the people with whom I normally associated, no matter how strong their faith, did not talk to God and expect an out-loud answer.

Recently, though, I have had reason to hear the Voice again. This time I asked for it! That was not something I had ever imagined myself doing because every time I hear the Voice, I am startled by the sound and unnerved by the content. My plea did not come easily, then, but as a result of this tugodum (Russian for dunderhead or dimwit, literally being a reference to a "dead-ended thinker") not being able to make sense of more subtle forms of input, input that seemed to be very important.

Let me go back to the beginning and collect all the details. I wish I could omit some, but I cannot. They all work together. So, I apologize for the short-story (vs normal-post) length that this post will require.

About a year ago, the Council of the local Secular Franciscan Order with which I have been associated for more than three years appointed a new Formation Director. (Later -- and this turns out to be important in understanding the overall situation -- I learned that he had actually appointed himself.) I shall call him G, as in Goliath, for it seems that little Beth was going to end up pitted against big Goliath although I did not know it at the time.

As a candidate in the SFO, I welcomed G. I hoped to learn much from him. I even opened my home to formation meetings since the majority of the candidates live much closer to me than to G. In the style into which the Russians and Arabs have trained me, I provided snacks for meetings.

At the first meeting, it became clear that truly spiritual discussions, particularly anything that smacked of mysticism, was out. G was soft-spoken and considered himself a good listener although in reality he listens but does not hear. His cognitive deafness was less troublesome than his eyes. He would look at me with vacant eyes; I would almost have to call them dead. While that disturbed me on some subconscious level, a level that usually is sensitive to evil and recoils from it, in the beginning, I paid scant attention, even waved away any negative reaction. After all, this was Goliath, someone the SFO considered capable of being our formation director. (Remember, I was unaware that he had appointed himself.) Moreover, he was in training to be a deacon. Are not all deacons the chosen of God? How could there be evil inside the church?

After a number of formation meetings, those of us who had been coming to the SFO gatherings for three years started comparing notes. It seems that all of us had been perturbed by the same aspects of our formation meetings: formulaic prayer in limited amounts as if God's presence was not really wanted; a sense of God's absence; a feeling of uneasiness; a shared sense of G as condescending and arrogant. Moreover, G had moved our meetings to Salts, where he lived, the travel to which put a strain on the finances of the poorer among us.

At about this time, the third-year candidates began coming to me individually. Perhaps they sensed that as a manager in my professional life, I could provide some leadership skills they needed in dealing with what we started to call the G situation. Perhaps it was all divinely motivated. I don't know, and I imagine that I will never know. Knowing, as I have learned with time, is not important.

The first to come was E. He scrambles to make a living and taking time off for our formation meetings meant time without pay. The trip to and from Salts meant a full additional hour without pay. He accepted that he needed to make that sacrifice, but I felt it was unfair. His concern was the arbitrary and arrogant behavior of G, G's obvious condescension toward E (one can only guess at the reason - because E is poor? because E is Hispanic? because E is simple and naive, much like one might imagine some of the early Franciscans to have been?), and G's shying away from spiritual discussions. E wanted me to go with him to talk to Fr. Barry, de facto spiritual advisor/director for both of us, about some of these issues, but Fr. Barry (1) although Franciscan and at the time the director of the St. Francis Retreat Center, was not directly connected with the SFO, and, more important, (2) was out of town for a considerable period of time. So, life went on without what would surely have been a helpful consultation.

The next meeting E was unable to attend. Ditto for N. So, O and I were the only ones in the car to Salts. (I always drove the other three because none of them could afford the gas.) The absence of E and N prompted some comments from O. O, also openly disdained by G, likely because O is a recovering alcoholic and still suffers from some aspects of schizophrenia, insisted that I bring up the financial and time issues with G and ask him to move the meetings back to San Ignatio. He also felt that the other issues should be broached, as well, at least from the point of view of lack of related spiritual growth in nearly a year of meetings.

Unsure of how best to approach the situation, I pulled over and called a senior member of the SFO whom I know quite well. He, too, felt that I should raise the concerns to G, that G should be given the benefit of a doubt and a chance to rectify the problems. So, near the end of the meeting, I brought up our concerns. The result shocked me. G insisted that it was his right as formation director to have the meetings at a time and place that was convenient to him regardless of how difficult it was for others. He was the most important person in the group he stated over and over, and then he implied that if we did not like it, we could leave. When I voiced his implication explicitly, he recommended overtly that we leave until we were ready to do things his way. Well, there we had something to mull over. At least, E, O, and I did. N had not been involved.

A couple of days later, N called me to find out what had happened at the meeting. Before I could tell her about the awkward discussion about the quality of our sessions, she volunteered that she had not come not because of being tied up, the excuse she had given me earlier, but because she was so uneasy being around G. "Would you let your daughter go into his house?" she asked.

It was that question that coalesced the emotions that I had been feeling whenever I approached G's house into a definition: spiritual rape. (Having been sexually abused on many occasions as a child, I recognize a form of rape when I see it.) Practicing the presence of God (a la Brother Lawrence) is something I do all the time. However, I now realized the source of the uneasiness felt by all of us third-year candidates: God was not with us in G's house. In fact, I lost the sense of God's presence when I opened the door to go into G's house and regained it when I walked out of G's house. What I was feeling while there, what I was labeling a sense of spiritual rape, what N did not want to expose her daughter to was evil, pure and simple. There was evil in G's house. I don't want to say that G is evil, but it certainly seemed that G was controlled by evil -- his spooky way of speaking in a soft, flat monotone, his empty eyes, his avoidance of spiritual discussion (substituting for it discussions of "rules," "religious requirements," and worldly experiences). N and I discussed whether or not to continue exposing ourselves to this unhealthy environment.

Following this discussion with N, I prayed for direction. Continue or not continue? I was surprised and puzzled by the response. A sharp image appeared before me: Jesus overturning the tables in the temple. What was that supposed to mean? I prayed again. The image repeated. I left the question unresolved for several days, when once again I turned to God for help. Once again, that same image appeared. I did not know how to interpret it, and the one person to whom I could have turned, Fr. Barry, was still out of town. I shared it with the same senior person I had called earlier, but he did not know how to interpret the image, either.

That image brought not only puzzlement but also feelings of anger. They did not seem to be my initial feelings but rather something that bubbled out of seeing that image. Meanwhile, none of us were planning to go to the next meeting.

Another prayer brought another experience of the same image and a sense of needing to do something. After all, the picture was of Jesus doing something. So, I sent an e-note to G, asking, perhaps too stridently as a result of those feelings coming from the image, to move the meetings to San Ignatio for compassionate reasons, to have a helper come in since he was inexperienced at faith formation, and to alter the content of the sessions. He responded by calling all the others in a divide-and-conquer power play that only drove them to me for help in combating what they had perceived as condescension and manipulation. I wrote again and repeated, more stridently, my earlier requests and forthrightly told him of our concerns with his leadership (or lack thereof) but hesitated to mention the sense of evil that surrounded him (perhaps I should have). He refused to put anything into writing and asked for a phone call so that he could help me understand how formation works. I countered by agreeing to discuss matters with him but only with all concerned present. He demurred.

So, as a group we decided to write a letter about our concerns to the Council. Again, I prayed about the situation. Again, I got the same image. Understanding by now that this was some kind of tasking being given to me but not understanding what the task was supposed to be was driving me nuts, and still Fr. Barry was out of town. So, N and I wrote the letter, trying to keep it objective, non-accusatory, and focused on resolution of the issues that were troubling us -- all except the issue of evil, which probably was the core of the problem. We were hesitant to commit that to paper, but we knew we had to bring it up at some point. So, we asked for a meeting with the Council to discuss details "more fully."

G, knowing about the letter to the Council, preempted their action by going directly to the regional leadership and presenting a rather biased case of what was going on. Regional told the Council to support G and suggested barring us from professing. So, there was no meeting, and I was still getting the same image. N and I talked about giving up and walking away, but that action did not seem to be the kind of response that the image I was receiving would prompt.

Then, N ran into a member of the Council in a bookstore in another city. (None of us can convince ourselves that this meeting was coincidental.) Out tumbled N's concerns, minus a discussion of perceived evil, and the Council member (L) told N the history: G was not their choice but there were no others who had volunteered, G had forced himself on them through the intervention of the regional organization, and the regional leadership had insisted that the Council support him against any criticism. However, L continued, the Council was as uncomfortable in G's presence as we were! Here was news!

L asked N to convince me to call her. I did -- from Washington, where I happened to be at the time. Since we could not meet, we talked by phone for more than an hour. Encouraged, I told L everything up to that point, including my sense of being spiritually raped in G's house and even the image of Jesus overturning tables in the temple, wailing that I just could not make any sense of the image other than the feeling that I was supposed to do something related to it. L had an interesting interpretation: "I think it means that God does not like evil infiltrating His organization." That was the first that the word "evil" had been spoken.

After I hung up with her, I complained to God: "Lord, You know that I am a verbal learner; I need words, not pictures, to understand. I am sorry that I am a tugodum, but I think that's no surprise to you. I will try to grow in the ways you seem to want me to, but in this case, I really need verbal input. I suppose You know that. I just want to mention it in case you might think that I am smarter than I really am."

Then I drew bath water, nothing else having distracted me from the rituals of the day. As the water filled the tub, I debated whether to take into the tub with me a book that I was partway through reading or the Bible.

"My Word." Out of nowhere came the Voice, startling me as usual.

So, the Bible it was. I haphazardly opened it and found myself staring at a passage I had never read before: Ezekial 30, to be precise. As I read through the chapter, a lament for Egypt and God's promise/threat of destruction, I saw many parallels to the situation I was in, including experiencing as I read the same feelings of anger that the image of Jesus overturning tables in the temple brought. Once again, a prayer had been answered. I had words, not an image.

...except, uh-oh, as I read, I became less certain of my interpretation. Here was told of arrogance punished. Certainly, G's arrogance deserved to be punished, but the adjective used in the verse was "her," referring to a nation. Now, G was definitely a "he," and I am definitely a "she." So, confusion appeared anew.

Once again, I cried out for help in exasperation at myself for not being able to understand what was apparently supposed to be obvious. "So, Lord, whom do You see as arrogant? Me or G?"

And then, once again, I heard that Voice, which I have come to love, trust, and rely on, yet which causes me to jump out of my skin nearly literally whenever I hear it and which always sets me to scurrying off to a spiritual director to confirm authenticity. Only this time, I was far away from home and from anyone who could help. But I did get an answer to my question: "Let G know that he cannot treat My people this way." As with other locutions, those words are forever seared into my memory.

Yes, now that I had what seemed to be clarity, I would definitely let G know. Whatever were to happen to me or my reputation (people tend to think you are nuts if you tell them that you experience locutions), I would carry out any tasking that so much effort had gone into making clear. Although I sincerely wished I did not have to do this, it would be, as the Russians say, skazano, sdelano (lit., said-done, i.e. no sooner said than done.) "Skazano, sdelano, Lord," I promised. "Just, please, stay by my side and ensure that no one else gets hurt in the process of taming Goliath."

When I returned, E, laboring under the assumption that I might continue along the path that N and I had talked about earlier, i.e. leaving, asked to speak to me urgently. (I had come home only for a day before leaving on another business trip.) E told me that he had been praying about the situation and was certain that I was not supposed to leave but to stay. For some reason, E thought it meant I should stay and be professed, but I understood it to mean that I was supposed to see the tasking through to its finish: discuss the question of evil with the Council.

Interestingly, the morning of the meeting with the Council about which I was understandably nervous knowing that I would have to talk about things mystical and not knowing whether the other Council members would be as accepting of them as L had been, N and I attended the same Mass. There, the person leading the choir made a mistake (or was it a mistake?) and gave the wrong page number for the last hymn we were to sing. The song we ended up singing was "Be Not Afraid." N asked me after Mass if I had picked up on the mistake and its possible significance. Of course!

I found that once we were at the meeting with the Council, with G present as well, I was not afraid. I felt not alone. It was the first time in G's presence that I also felt God's presence. I methodically explained everything that had occurred: the discussions among ourselves, the purpose of the letters, and the image I had been seeing in response to prayers. Then, I paused to take a breath and told the Council I had something difficult to say (difficult for me to say because they might well consider me nuts and difficult for G to hear). Looking G in his still-dead eyes, I said, "G, you cannot treat God's people this way. I have been tasked to tell you this." Wow, there was absolute silence for a few seconds.

In that silence, a strange thing happened. G's face went through multiple distortions. I am not talking about him changing his expressions. Rather, his physical face distorted in ways that one sometimes sees in movies about possession, like Evil cornered. I wondered if perhaps I really was nuts after all. However, after G had left, L stayed behind along with another member of the Council, and all four of us immediately began talking about the ways in which G's face had morphed so fluidly and distinctly. We took comfort in the fact that we had all observed this seemingly impossible phenomenon. (No, I do not think that G is possessed. I do think, though, that he is so strongly caught in the grip of evil that he can neither see it nor, should he manage to glimpse it, extricate himself.)

The outcome was definitely worth the fight. I realized that our Council does accept mystical experiences as a way that God chooses for communication with some people. The Council exempted N and me from formation meetings. G is now conducting the meetings in San Ignatio, and several professed SFO members, including a member of the Council, are present at all formation sessions. I suppose N and I could return, given those favorable conditions.

There are moments, though, when I question whether I was I right or wrong in my interpretations, understanding of being tasked, and manner of accomplishing the task. To this day, I wish I had had the opportunity to take this to Fr. Barry, to get his insights and to let him "test" the authenticity of what I saw, read, and heard. In the end, everything seemed compellingly clear, but I suppose that could itself be a deception. Others agreed with my ultimate interpretation, but again that could be a deception. If evil can parade around the church in the clothing of a deacon (admittedly, this is still a personal discernment not an evidenced fact), can it not take nearly any guise, including self-delusion and a seeming tasking from God?

It is all sometimes more than a tugodum like I can manage! I thank God that I have those who can help me, but I also bemoan the reality that I cannot always appeal to them for help because of urgency and/or availability.

Now this experience has led to something more: a major decision that I will relate in the next post. I am afraid that I may already have lost the attentional patience of anyone reading this post. So, I will save the follow-up decision for a follow-up post.

Note: Illustration from A Portrait of Jesus website.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Contemplation II

For the past year or more, I have been attending a contemplative prayer group in San Jose, directed by Fr. Kevin Joyce. It is a considerable drive (nearly an hour one way) but well worth the time and effort. I take a friend with me from our local Old Mission prayer group, so the to-and-fro time is pleasantly passed.

Last year, when Fr. Kevin was at Santa Clara University, there were only a handful of us. This year, though, he has become parish priest at St. Lucy's in Campbell, and that has yielded an attendance at times of 60-100 people. Once, there were so many of us, we had to use the church instead of one of the religious education rooms. What amazes me is Fr. Kevin's ability to create silence and reverence in such a large group of people. He combines prayer itself with study. (Yes, it is possible to be contemplative in a very large group; after all, God, who is stranger than we can possibly imagine and whom we are not required, fortunately, to understand fully, is quite able to interact with individuals individually throughout the whole world simultaneously. Now, there's something that is very difficult to get a human mind wrapped around!) What we study with Fr. Kevin are the mystics and the history of mysticism. All of this has been very educational for me, yet there is much I still do not understand, seemingly really important things that, in my personal experience, stray from the historical path as we know it.

Perhaps it might help to understand my mindset if I were to share that the very first spiritual book I read (even before getting involved in Bible reading and study) was a one-volume combined set of The Cloud of Unknowing and The Book of Privy Counseling. I loved those two books, the second even more than the first. I carried the volume with me. I read and re-read it. It explained so much of what had been happening to me. It also let me know that it was okay not to understand everything; in fact, that there was no need to seek to understand everything. For someone with a Ph.D., not needing to understand everything was counterintuitive. For someone with a flair for foreign languages -- I have studied 17, but I can communicate in (or at least understand) a far larger number than that, my life's focus having been on understanding foreign cultures, foreign words, foreign behaviors -- not needing to understand everything was counterintuitive. As a former teacher, where my goal was to teach others to understand, not needing to understand everything was counterintuitive. Having been raised in the West, where the emphasis is on reason (maybe even I should write that with a capital R, since we seem to worship Reason), not needing to understand everything was counterintuitive. So, it was very difficult for me to push aside my attachment to logic and accept the idea that it is okay not to understand. I carried around The Cloud of Unknowing and The Book of Privy Counseling as a security blanket for more than a year after my conversion. They are still my favorite spiritual books, especially the latter, although I have now read many more and realize that I probably chose those among the most difficult as my entré to spiritual reading. (The volume just fell under my hand, as the Russians say, so it could be that the books chose me and not the other way around.)

In any event, the experiences that led me to conversion and those that followed me during the immediate weeks and months after conversion reflected in the most minute detail those experiences described in The Book of Privy Counseling. Over time, I have come to realize that my experiences are not common among my peers (at least, the local ones) in the 21st century, and I have begun seeking out others who do have them. (Actually, that search prompted this blog site.) With time, I have been rewarded in that search, finding others who share those experiences and a priest, my beloved Fr. Barry (unfortunately, recently transferred to an assignment 100 miles away), who can help me interpret what I consider unusual experiences but which he, at the age of 82, has seen more than once. (There is no question in my mind that God plunked me down at Old Mission Church in part precisely because I would need Fr. Barry.)

Now, back to Fr. Kevin. As a mechanism for initiating a contemplative state, Fr. Keving taught us the Jesus prayer. Up until that time, I had not used (or needed) any "mantra" for connecting to God. It just happened. God made it happen. In The Cloud of Unknowing and especially in The Book of Privy Counseling, the unknown author (I love the fact that the author is also "unknown") tells that the old mystics, the Egyptian desert fathers, would sometimes repeat "God," "Lord," or a similar word to initiate contemplation, so I understood why Fr. Kevin taught us the Jesus prayer. However, for me it felt odd because I had never needed to call. (My friend, Omar, poet of spiritual and philosophical verse in Arabic and English, professor of political science, and Sufi mystic, has repeatedly told me, "God spoils you." Usually, he is referring to some problem that God has whisked away, but in the case of contemplation, I think God also spoils me. In any moment of quiet, there I have nearly always found God in an overwhelmingly present way.)

However "odd" it might have been for me personally, I dutifully followed Fr. Kevin's instructions the next morning, which I began with some time in contemplation as I begin every morning. Contemplation is less a choice for me than something that just happens seemingly often without deliberate volition. So, I began the Jesus prayer and was immediately startled (locutions never fail to startle me) by the words, "Why do you call me? I am here."

Oh, my, yes, I know that God is with me. I feel it throughout the day from morning to night -- more deeply when I take time for prayer or contemplation, but always at least peripherally in my senses as a comfortable companion and guide, except for those times that I focus intently on some activity that excludes God. (Sometimes, admittedly, I exclude God deliberately, at least subconsciously so, because I want to do what I am doing and don't want to think that maybe God would want me to do something else or do it differently -- that kind of behavior keeps me going to confession!)

So, following the locution that morning, I am back to being confused. If I know that God is with me, if I can feel His presence in every fiber of my being and the expansive atmosphere around me, why, indeed, do I need to call Him? Well, there's a question for Fr. Kevin after our next meeting, with whom I have not before sought personal contact because he lives too far away for me to "drop by." I could bring up the question during our sessions but cannot bring myself to share publicly with a group of 60 people, most of whom I do not know or barely know. I hope that Fr. Kevin will not be mobbed by people (my country girl origins make me instinctively shy away from crowds) or have to serve Mass after our next meeting since the last four months have been that way, and the last four months I have remained in a state of confusion. On the other hand, confusion is becoming a comfortable state for me -- I don't know whether that is good or bad; it just is.

So, folks, what do you think? Any answers or thoughts for me before May 2, which is the next time I will see Fr. Kevin?