Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Humility V

God gifted me when he conked me on the head, a conk that resulted in my conversion. From that moment, God has often allowed me to see how He uses me and even tasks me. There is joy in the knowing that God flows good, help, justice, and mercy to others through me. At the same time, I realized that He had always done that, had often used me even as an atheist. Because He is God, he can use anyone, good or bad, for His good. And perhaps He used me in the old days because using an imperfect, flawed person (that part has not changed much) who is unaware of His presence makes His presence more obvious to those who are receiving His support. That realization resulted in my writing Blest Atheist.

For a long while after conversion, I begged to continue being used. There is incredible, unbounded joy in being God's instrument, and the knowing of it has truly been a gift. But, as I have matured in faith, as slowly as that may have been or may be, I have come to understand the value and wonder of not knowing. Now I ask God to use me as He wills and can, without the need for me to know what or how He may be using me, just to let His love, mercy, aid, and justice flow through me like water through the cracks of a broken vessel. If there is deep, boundless joy in knowing that God has bent down and picked me up to use as an instrument of His great or small endeavors, then there is far greater joy in not knowing this, joy that is securely bounded by the unbreakable bond of God's love for man, for His creation.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Sabbath #2

Fr. Christian Mathis (Blessed Is the Kingdom) has made the suggestion that we "rest" on the Sabbath by taking a break from our normal blogging and sharing an older post of which we are particularly fond. Rest? Gladly! I don't get to do that very often, but now, thanks to Fr. Christian, I get to do it at least once a week -- and it gives me more time to spend with God, which is a wonderful gift.

For this week, I went back to the second post of this blog, Awe. It seemed fitting because, insha Allah, I will post a follow-up of sorts (an experience I had this past week) in the next few days.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


Sometimes (frequently, actually), I wonder why God pushed me in the door of the Catholic church as opposed to a mosque (I was living in the Middle East just weeks before my conversion), a synagogue (well, there is that ethnic thing), the Orthodox church (the only church in which I had spent any time due to the spiritual events in the lives of the scads of friends, colleagues, and employees in my world who are Russian Orthodox), or a Protestant church (considering that I was born into and grew up in an exclusively WASP community).

Over time, I have learned that God is pretty smart. He knew exactly what I needed: mystic spirituality and spiritual discipline. Both are pervasive attributes of the Catholic church that I have come to appreciate.

Only with increasing experience have I learned how blessed I was that my beloved Fr. Barry, then-director of our local St. Francis Retreat Center, was simultaneously serving as the interim priest at Old Mission church when I began RCIA. The combination of Franciscan spirituality and 50 years of priesthood gave him the perspective needed to help me accept and begin to understand my repeated mystical experiences. (Full understanding is not likely ever to come, not as long as God remains a mystery, and I am willing to accept that.)

The second attribute, discipline, has turned out to be equally important for this free-spirit product of the '60s. First, there is a centuries-old history of exegesis, mysticism, spirituality, and role-modeling of the walk with God. Although we may rebel against the catechesis of the church where it does not match our own precepts or makes us uncomfortable about some aspects of our lives (e.g., see my post on Anne Rice, Recooked on 100th Lamb), but we cannot but admit that they are carefully considered tenets, worked out by many faithful believers over many centuries and based on the principles that Jesus gave us at the beginning of the Common Era, the years of which those of schooled before the 21st century counted as anno domini. Over time, the Catholic church has put an order to the days and to the hours of our spiritual lives that I find refreshing and comforting. It is indeed a healthy discipline. Would that I could find time to allow myself to be disciplined more often!

One of the great blessings of Catholic discipline for me has been the daily Mass. Although I am always greedy for as much time as possible with God since I missed out on so many decades, I cannot attend every day. Work requirements preclude that. I do attend whenever I have a day off from work, and I mark Wednesday and Friday noon hours, the days that Mass is celebrated at a chapel near my office, as "do not schedule" on my calendar. My admin assistant tries carefully to keep those times sacred. She succeeds 80% of the time, and my afternoons on those days have a special feel to them as I bring the Presence that is in the Host and after the Eucharist within me back to the office.

Yes, indeed, God knew what He was doing when He pushed me in the door of the Catholic church. I am and eternally will be grateful.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Humility IV

I have posted on humility before. It is a subject that intrigues me, in part because I have a widespread reputation for being humble, yet I know that I am far from exhibiting the kind of humility that Mike Mansfield evidenced, let alone the kind of humility that Jesus modeled for us. It sometimes seems like an impossibly deep and difficult conversion, and it does not help when people praise me for having reached a state of humility when I know that there are layers of pride still to peel away. (I do not believe that humility is something that one achieves through effort or that one reaches as the goal of a journey. It is something different, at least in my experience of it. It is rather a state of being, one that comes from an ongoing conversion process.)

I suppose I have been thinking about humility a lot recently because of one of my most talented employees who has encountered jealousy and hostility from the people who work with him. Those emotions have taken him by surprise, and his response has swung between the poles of ignoring his peers and continuing to produce exceptional work that grabs the attention of my superiors, bringing him kudos and further irritating his peers, and becoming highly self-defensive and jousting with them over one idea or another or one project or another. I recently counseled him about his own behavior. He considers me a mentor, so the fact that I lay some of the responsibility for the fragmented team atmosphere in his unit on him made him uncomfortable. He also felt it was unfair because the others were "picking on" him and not vice versus. I tried to explain to him that it did not matter who started it. It did not matter who was right. As a member of the team, he needed to be able to forgive them if he truly felt that they had wounded him and continue to work for the common good. He told me that he could not do that yet, so I asked him to stay in my office (I had plenty of computer work to do) until he felt that he could at least try to forgive them. He stayed, and after twenty minutes, he announced that he was ready to forgive them. The peace lasted a few days, and then war broke out again. While humility is perhaps a rather strange thing to discuss with an employee (although perhaps no more strange than the topic of forgiveness), I pointed out that his problem seemed to be one of lack of humility. He immediately launched into a litany of all the ways in which he exhibited low self-esteem and did not consider himself the equal of his peers. That was rather insightful but not in the way he thought. He thought that by citing low self-esteem he was describing his own humility, but I don't think so. I think he was simply describing, if true, his sense of insecurity that has led to ego protection that others look at as arrogance. Humility requires healthy self-esteem, not low self-esteem. Low self-esteem is an ego problem. Healthy self-esteem is not. Nor is it egotistical. Although I am no psychologist, I have mentored hundreds of future managers, and self-esteem issues are often the reason for dysfunctional teams. So, I did not hesitate to share my thinking with this employee. Well, within a couple of days he sent me a note, describing his plan for developing humility. He listed several steps that he was going to take to achieve it and how he was going to measure it himself. Again, I talked to him, this time about the fact that he would not be able to measure his own "progress" in "achieving" humility, that others must measure us and provide honest feedback on their perceptions of us. Really, only God knows our hearts, but I have not gotten that far into the discussion with him yet (another discussion that would be unusual in the work place). From what I can see (and I may well be wrong), we convert to a growing deeper state of humility through the grace God imparts to us when we put God first, others second, and ourselves outside the importance meter.

This must be the week for thinking about humility because yesterday afternoon another employee, this one from our training unit came to me, frustrated because one of our managers was sending a couple of trainers from a different division to our Korean branch to do something that this trainer felt was her turf. I explained that we don't have turf, that the other division is a pure training division whereas we just have a few trainers assigned to one of our centers, and that being territorial is often the antithesis of being professional. She agreed with me in principle but said that the trainers from the other division, which maintains a mild rivalry with our division (this is from their side only -- I don't do rivalry for it is counterproductive), taunted her about not being as good as they are. It took quite a long discussion to help her reach the point that she could dismiss their taunts. Once again, it was pride, insecurity, and the wrong kind of self-esteem that threatened to turn her from a confident, contributing employee to a jealous and dysfunctional one. Once again, we were dancing around the issue of humility.

As for me, well, as much as I might mentor, counsel, guide, advise, help (choose the word you like) others, I am no exemplary role model. I yearn to experience a state of untainted humility, the kind of humility exhibited by Mike Mansfield, by St. Francis, by Jesus. (If anyone wants to read a great book, try Ilia Delio's The Humility of God -- think about the ways in which God has always put His creations first and the ways in which He has forgiven them their prideful maltreatment of Him.) Many are the times I think to take greater steps toward reaching greater humility when it hits me that there is nothing that I can do. There is no achievement to reach and no journey to take. Rather, it is for God to peel away my layers of pride; I can do no more than let Him. It is the letting of Him that is the most difficult and yet the most necessary and desired.

Sunday, August 15, 2010


Fr. Christian Mathis (Blessed Is the Kingdom) has made the suggestion that we "rest" on the Sabbath by taking a break from our normal blogging and sharing an older post of which we are particularly fond. Rest? Gladly! I don't get to do that very often, but now, thanks to Fr. Christian, I get to do it at least once a week -- and it gives me more time to spend with God, which is a wonderful gift.

I have been observing the Sabbath on all my blogs, but I have not actually posted that information and and old post anywhere else except on 100th Lamb. However, it seems like perhaps a good idea to share that thought -- of taking the Sabbath off for God -- on all my blogs. Herewith, I am attaching an older post, in fact my very first past, on Modern Mysticism: Contemplation. Reading it, the sense of how hesitant I was to address a centuries old theme, along with aspects of theophanies and hierophanies, is clear. The readers of this blog, in sharing their own thoughts and experiences, have made me a bit braver in the sharing of these special experiences. In several cases, they have also helped me to understand them better and even to accept them with less trepidation and greater gratitude.

Have a restful and peaceful Sabbath!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Tasked III

Ever since coming to faith and seeing my past in a new light as someone who had unknowingly been an instrument of God on a number of occasions (details galore can be found in my book, Blest Atheist), I have been grappling with the question, why would God use an atheist. And why would I, the least knowledgeable Catholic around (I peer into the depths of my lack of knowledge every time I teach a catechism class) be tasked to do anything, represent anything, or share my thinking on anything? As I stumble around in the “cloud of unknowing,” a place where I am increasingly comfortable and from where I do not want to leave, people, especially writers I encounter, shine inspired rays here and there into my tucha (Russian: a dark rain cloud, through which the sun cannot penetrate), momentarily turning the expanse immediately before me into an oblako (Russian: a light cloud, through which the sun does shine). Two such rays have illuminated my question as to why God would use an atheist for His purposes.

The first ray came from The Book of Privy Counseling. The answer there was quite simple: God uses atheists and flawed people in general “because He can.” I loved that explanation. It allowed me to accept not knowing and to keep on accepting new tasks, the latter having already become a habitualized response but the former having been earlier disquieting.

Recently, though, in reading Fr. Richard Rohr’s Things Hidden, I came across a suggestion, the second ray, that seemed to explain even better the possible reason for my sundry taskings. “Usually, in fact,” writes Fr. Richard, “they [those tasked or used as instruments] are quite flawed or at least ordinary people, so it is clear that their power is not their own.” Now that makes a lot of sense to me, at last in my current stage of spiritual undevelopment. Certainly, the events that led to saving the life of Shura, a talented child artist from Siberia, about whom I have posted on both 100th Lamb and Clan of Mahlou, were well beyond my own power,

I think there may be another reason, too. If an atheist like I was could be used so extensively that some called me “God’s agent in Jordan” (only to become highly confused when they found out I was an atheist), anyone can be used. Perhaps that is an underlying message: God can and will use anyone and everyone if they just permit it. After all, in spite of how the situation confused so many, I probably was God’s agent in Jordan. The message speaks volumes about the power, love, and creativity of God, who can and will achieve divine ends to help His people (all people being His) through anyone, even an outspoken atheist.

Hah! I made my own ray of illumination here! The actual situation, though, is that I still don’t know a definitive answer. These are just my ruminations of today. Maybe I will be given to know more and maybe not. Whether or not I ever learn more no longer matters to me here in my “Cloud of Unknowing” comfort zone, where I am a part of the droplets that form its endless expanse and they are part of me. I feel that I am loved. Knowledge beyond that is unessential.

Double-posted on 100th Lamb and Modern Mysticism.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Promises II

I had planned to upload this post much earlier, back in June, when I posted some information along this line on my 100th Lamb site. Somehow, though, this particular posting got waylaid, and it has been lurking in my "edit posts" box ever since. Perhaps that is all well and good because my understanding of the situation has improved in the past month, and more "stuff" has happened in the past month so, clearly, I can update information at the same time as I relate it. In essence, what this post is about and why its essence changes with time is that the job God put me in seems to be going away. Well, not going away, but changing dramatically. The proposal going before the Board of Directors is to dissect it into a number of pieces (see my post, The Price of Success), give away to other division heads whole departments that have been highly successful and grown tremendously in size, and give me a new chain through which to report (equidistant from the big muckety-muck but not through my current boss).

Needless to say, all this reorganization and proposed reorganization has created a lot of stress for everyone involved. I want a stress-free, happy job, one that is focused on me and my needs, perhaps. That would be a change, for sure. I keep getting indications, though, which I stubbornly try to ignore, that indicate that God wants me focused on others and that it is not important if anything at all in my job focuses on me. Currently, I cannot point out one thing or one person who puts me, my wants, my interests, or my needs [not that I could state any of those, anyway] at the center of anything. Rather, my bosses throws tasks at me, expecting me to support them, and my employees are used to a servant leadership approach, also expecting me to support them. (Since I enjoy my current job for the most part, I don't think that deep down I really care where I fit in. I focus on mission and the people needed to accomplish the mission. When the mission is accomplished well and the people are happy, I am pleased.) But with the whole nature of my job changing over the next two years, if plans are implemented, I foresee potential mission failure and definite unhappiness among my employees, which will leave me displeased and ill at ease.

With all this weighing on me on one of those late-June days, I finished the work day rather discouraged and before coming home opened one of our trade journals. There I found advertised a good job, for which I could easily qualify, for 125% of my current salary. It was located in Portland, Maine, not far from family and where I grew up. An international job, it would have been a perfect fit for me. However, I know better than to consider a seeming match like this to be some kind of sign. I've been through that before, and I have been wrong before. I have to admit that Mme. Stubborn (i.e. yours truly) considered very strongly applying for the job even though I know that God wants me in the one I have. Most of the way home, I dwelled on the thought of escaping to greener pastures (the proverbial other side of the fence, which I do know is not really greener). And then I heard the compelling words, Come Walk with Me.

The last time I was tugged outside for a walk was with the ice halo. Then it was a gesture of love and made me feel humble (humility, I admit, is not my strongest trait as much as I would like it to be and as much as many others, including most of my employees, think it is; they simply don't know my heart as I do). This time, too, the walk was a gesture of love but in a different way: it served as a time and place to provide gentle, overt guidance. That is what I was asking for, but I did not expect to get it so concretely, so openly, and so lovingly. But I get ahead of myself.

Before taking that walk, I dropped by the Post Office, as I do every evening on the way home, San Ignatio being too impoverished to afford home delivery of mail and too small to need it. There was good news all around. Every letter I opened contained something positive. "You spoil me," I whispered, marveling that God does spoil me. I don't ask why God spoils me. I just accept the kindnesses and care with gratitude.

After reading the mail, I put on a light jacket as protection from the cool, somewhat blustery (even in the summer), evening winds, literally dropped everything, and went out for the walk I had been called to take. There I encountered peace from merely being in the Presence. That alone would have been a loving gift. God, however, is lavish in His love, and so I received more than that. I received guidance. I complained that I had spent four years building a division that someone from the national office would now lead with my assistance and would have the authority to tear apart or move into new directions with which I disagreed. Ah, right! That was pride speaking. Hm, a little more humility might be in order here. I was beginning to comprehend, but imperfectly. Then, in a way that only God can manage and that I can never explain, I realized that the question of where I should be and what is happening to my job is not about me at all. It is about the people for whom I am responsible. What will happen will be as difficult for them as it will be for me, and they will need someone to shepherd them along the new path and out into the new fields. That someone can only be me. I did not want this to be the case, but it is what it is, and that is something I can accept in spite of my stubborn tendency to fight against what I want not to be the case or what I understand only in part.

Abruptly, the wind changed from harsh to caressing, maybe because of the trees in its path or maybe because the evening had waned on or maybe just because. And there in the soft evening breeze and fading light, stubbornness met unreproving love. I would have stayed wrapped in the comfort of that love for hours, but soon I felt a little push, "Now go; you have work to do. I will be with you." There was something more, too: a promise.

So, I left the field and returned to the house. I sat down and looked at the briefing that would be given in the early morning by my boss's boss to the highest local muckety-muck, who would soon be presenting it to our national muckety-mucks. Instead of thinking about my role in the new organization, I thought about how the reorganization would affect those who work for me. One group of nearly 100 people would severely suffer. I would not be able to help them because under the new plan, they would not be working for me nor would they be working as a group but rather scattered among many teams in order to share the expertise they had gained. Suddenly, from out of nowhere (nowhere? really?) into my mind popped a "scathingly brilliant idea," to use Hayley Mills' The Trouble with Angels' character's words that always preceded some kind of momentous plan that would shake up her staid school and land her in the kitchen doing dishes for punishment. My idea was scathingly brilliant: it would shake up my organization's plan, and, since the plans had all been finalized and, more important, completely power-pointed, there was a risk in presenting a significant change right before the morning's presentation that I would probably be pushed aside with annoyance at best and angrily reprimanded at worst (but not required to do any dishes). Nonetheless, I sketched out how the changes I envisioned could be charted, and early the next month drew my boss aside and made my pitch. None of my fears came to fruition. My boss, who would normally have been strongly opposed to my suggestion, accepted my changes and quickly re-did the power points. (I think that had to do with the part about "I will be with you" from the night before.)

I still understand only in part and only imperfectly. I will, however, some day understand why God put me in this job at this time. That was the promise made in the night. It is enough.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Confession II

Recently, a retreat I had been attending included the opportunity for confession on Saturday evening. There were four priests, one of whom had been ordained 45 days earlier. It was into the hands of this latter priest that I fell.

The confession I brought to him is one I should have taken to my parish priest. However, both he and I had been out of town for two months. The confession I was bringing was weighty, included circumstances well beyond my control, and had serious implications for the future. This, I thought, would be a challenge for a new priest, and, as I spoke, I could see in his eyes a reflection of the overwhelming nature of what I was bringing to him. I began to feel sorry for bringing it, when suddenly his demeanor changed. So did mine. We were not alone.

I remember being frustrated at my first confession because the priest had limited English and was partially deaf. Certain that he had not understood much of what I had said, I complained to God, “He wasn’t listening.” Then, I heard so distinctly as to never again question the sacrament of confession, “I listen.”

So, here I sat with this new priest. I had presented my confession and the reality that lay behind it, and now we were not alone. We were so not alone that I felt like I was talking with God Himself. Maybe I was. If I had had any lingering doubt bout God being present through the priest in the sacrament of confession (I did not -- not after the "I listen" locution), this experience would have extirpated any root of disbelief.

The priest did not give me a penance. He gave ma task. Now, that's exactly what God would do! The task pulled me back onto the path I needed to be on. I guess deep down, no matter how I try to become a Mary, I remain a Martha. The priest did not know that, but God did.

Monday, August 2, 2010


The key to my conversion was God's presence, thrust upon me without warning, without any expectation that any Divine Power really existed, through a door that was not intentionally opened. I often wondered why God would do that. It seemed unbelievable to me that God would reveal Himself to an unholy person rather than exclusively to holy ones. Then I read Richard Rohr's book, Things Hidden. I love to listen to Fr. Richard's -- I have been blessed to attend two of his lectures and to meet him, briefly, in person once -- and I read everything of his that I can lay my hands on.

There, in Things Hidden, I found the long-elusive explanation. "Strangely enough," writes Fr. Richard, "it's often imperfect people and people in quite secular settings who encounter the Presence." Fr. Richard goes on to state that this pattern is clear throughout the Bible. Say what? I have some reading to do!

Next Fr. Richard points out the answer to the question I pose in my book, Blest Atheist: Why would God use an atheist to accomplish the good He wished for others? One answer I suggested in my book is quite convincing (for me) in its simplicity and comes from one of my two favorite books, The Cloud of Unknowing (the other being very similar in content, The Book of Privy Counseling). The answer posed there to the question why God uses sinners to carry out His work overpoweringly simple: "because He can." Fr. Richard points out that as with God's revelation of Himself to unbelievers, God has used the most unlikely and sinful people to do His bidding. The Bible tells of these, too: Samson the seductee, Paul the killer of Christians, and a host of others we could all name.

Let's see: imperfect, sinner, secular, unbeliever, a straying sheep delighting in cavorting in bramble bushes... I am starting to understand. I was a pretty good candidate for God to show up and say, "Whoa, there! Here I am! Follow Me!"

Who can say "no" to that? Now, instead of gaily cavorting in the bramble bushes, I find myself scrambling over difficult terrain along a very narrow path, trying to keep up with those giant-sized footsteps I agreed to follow. Although I no longer determine my own direction, the journey is somehow far more meaningful and pleasurable. I especially like the part about not running about alone: "Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of time [Matthew 28:20]."