Thursday, September 30, 2010

Contemplation V

Long before I knew anything about God, during my prime days of atheism, I learned how to empty myself in ways that would one day open me up for being filled by God through infused contemplation. What caused this learning to happen? Migraines! Seriously!

In 1980, I broke my back. How that occurred was far from exotic, in fact, about as mundane a happening as it could possibly be: while hurrying to get a pair of socks for my three-year-old son Shane in order to get him dressed and to day care on time, I fell down a flight of stairs. The drama of getting to the hospital instead of going to work that day would take an entire post or maybe even more than one installment so I shall leave that information for another day and another venue. Instead, I will explain what happened afterward.

Once I was out of the body brace and back to work, I found myself plagued my migraines. Debilitating headaches, usually preceded by an aura of approaching illness that I could not avoid, they forced me into bed sometimes for more than a day. With four children, a job, and graduate school, not to mention my volunteer activities as an outdoors counselor for the Girl Scouts, I simply could not afford this much time away from life. Yet, the more I forced myself to move beyond them, the more they pulled me back.

I sought help from a doctor who was surprised, given my history of motion sickness stemming from infancy, that I had not experienced migraines much earlier. The onset of the migraines at this time he considered to be post-traumatic; they were intensified, I found through monitoring my daily behavior, by one of my favorite self-rewards, a chocolate bar. I gave up chocolate, which would nearly immediately produce a migraine and still does, but the migraines continued to plague me. Chocolate simply made them appear for certain. The doctor came up with some medicine that was supposed to be effective post-aura. However, I suddenly did not need it.
Before taking in the prescription, I had a few more mirgraines and noticed something peculiar about them. The more I tried to ignore them, the stronger they became. The more I thought about them, the stronger they became. The more I tried to work through and past them, the stronger they became. On the other hand, the more I gave in to them, embraced them, accepted them, and stopped thinking about anything at all, just relaxing into the migraine, the weaker they became. Perhaps “relaxing” is not the precise word any more than it is the most appropriate word to describe “relaxing” into labor pains or the pain that accompanies root canals without anesthesia. But you get the picture – one goes with the pain in these cases, not against it.

As one migraine came after another, the time I needed to give in to each became shorter. I noticed that as I was giving into the pain, I was not thinking about much of anything. I was simply in a state of being; the pain was around me, I was in it and part of it but not doing much about it. Eventually, quickly actually, I learned how to put myself into that being, not-doing, not-thinking state instantly upon the first threat of an aura; I did not have to wait for the migraine to appear. Within seconds, the aura would disappear and the migraine would not come. The doctor called it biofeedback. I called it emptying my mind. Shutting down my thinking and just being in the moment has given me 30 migraine-free years. The momentary shutdown is never noticed by anyone I am with at the time because it literally requires less than two seconds to rebalance my system – I am no doctor but I have studied the research available on migraines and believe that what is happening is that normal blood flow is restored by my autonomous system during those couple seconds.
Similarly, I stumbled upon a wonderful application of this ability to empty my mind to contemplation. When my mind is empty, there is room for God to enter completely, fully, infusively. I cannot meditate; I have tried. Meditation fills my mind, and no sooner than I start trying to fill it than I feel removed from God. So, my soul, which seems at times to operate independently of my brain, takes over and shuts down my mind, allowing me to enter that non-thinking, non-acting, just-being state where I can simply “relax” into God and God can “relax” into me. There is no pain in this kind of relaxing into another state, just peace and comfort. I think this is what the mystics have labeled contemplation. At least, it is what happens when I take time out for contemplation.

Contemplation is a special kind of mind emptying for me. I suppose it is nigh onto sacrilegious to compare contemplation with migraine-reduction, but the experience of one did give me an understanding of the experience of the other. For that reason, I hope God will forgive me my dollop of sacrilege. With the migraine-related mind emptying, I experience only emptiness and after a few seconds re-emerge into a state of action, i.e. my daily life, which is more attractive than the empty state. In periods of contemplation, I experience fullness and even after many minutes, and, where I have the luxury of time, an hour or more, I avoid re-emergence into a state of action, which is less attractive than the empty-but-filled-and-fulfilled state. The first kind of emptying brings me relief, and every experience is reliably the same; the second kind of emptying brings bliss and its nature (and even sometimes its occurrence) is dependent on God and not upon me and differs each time.

I feel the insufficiency of my words to concretize the attributes of an extraordinary state that defies ordinary description. The mystics have tried and have certainly done a better job than I, but still when one talks with friends ab out contemplation, those who set aside daily time for contemplation, there is something so unique about each incident that the telling of it is different.

Jesus told his disciples not to tell of some of the out-of-the-ordinary things they experienced. I think the agreement by Biblical scholars is that if they told, they would not be understood and moreover they might misinterpret the experience. I worry about that whenever I write down the word, contemplation, whenever I consider preparing a post on that topic. I am past the point of concern that others might consider me insane, but I doubt that I will ever be past the point of concern that writing down my experience somehow vulgarizes and trivializes it. I write for my own sanity and recall and because, like David, I simply must sing God's praises in the only way I know how, using the gift He has given me: the written word.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Sad News

I have mentioned Fr. Thomas Dubay's publications a number of times on this blog, and they are in my recommended reading list. For me, his works have been my sanity checks and mainstay when it comes to dealing with the mystical experiences that have come my way. About two years ago, after a string of locutions and having just finished his book, Authenticity, I wrote to Fr. Thomas to tell him how helpful I had found that book (probably not one of his most popular because it is directed to those people who have experienced sound, voice, touch, and, as I have found over the past four years, they are not found in every pew in the church). I also told him of some of my experiences, of the details of my quest to determine their authenticity, and of some of my questions and concerns. I did not ask for a response and did not expect one. Nonetheless, a few weeks later, I received handwritten comments on my letter from Fr. Thomas, who apologized for the format but said that he had just arrived from another trip, was tired, and wanted nonetheless to respond to my note immediately. He told me that he thought that my experiences, as described, were likely authentic and why, commented on my comments, and suggested some answers to my questions. His letter gave me greater confidence in moving more deeply into contemplation and not pulling away from God at the most intimate moments.

Fr. Thomas passed away this weekend, and his passing feels like a personal loss. I will now treasure those handwritten notes even more. If you have not read Fr. Thomas's books, please find some time to do so. They are, for me, second only to The Cloud of Unknowing/The Book of Privy Counseling on my list of books to which I am addicted.

The following is from the Little Sisters of the Poor in Washington, D.C., who cared for Father Dubay during his final days; I have blatantly "stolen" (borrowed?) this information from his publisher and am certain that the publisher will be happy to have the word spread.
Rev Thomas Dubay, SM
RIP September 26, 2010

From Washington, DC:
This morning at 4:45, the Lord welcomed into His Kingdom Rev Thomas Dubay, SM, after suffering kidney failure and massive bleeding in the brain. Father’s frail health had been declining ever since his admission to the Little Sisters of the Poor home in Washington more than a year ago, but his suffering was even more noticeable in recent months. Despite this fact, Fr Dubay was just as witty as ever.

When Father’s superior, Fr. Bruce Lery, SM, called the Little Sisters on Sunday morning to tell them, he said, "We have a saint in heaven" –how true! Fr. Dubay was hospitalized about a month ago and then transferred to a rehabilitation facility for specialized treatments but his health was steadily declining. Yesterday he was re-admitted to the hospital with bleeding in the brain, and he was put in coronary intensive care. Although the ventilator was removed, he continued to breathe on his own.

Although he suffered from his loss of independence, he was happy to concelebrate Mass almost every day in the chapel of the Little Sisters Home in the shadow of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in our nation’s capital.

The Marist priests and brothers visited him almost daily, and Father depended very much on his superior, Fr. Bruce, who was always there for him. In a few words, Fr. Dubay literally practiced what he preached! Father was happy to give weekly classes to the Little Sister postulants –classes which he enjoyed as much as they! From his room, Father continued his spiritual direction with many persons who called on him and this also was extended to letter writing.

We can render prayers of thanksgiving for the wonderful support Father gave to religious communities spending a good part of his life giving conferences and retreats. Although his preaching and spiritual direction was delivered to contemplative communities, his teaching was not for them alone. Religious the world over benefitted of his spiritual wisdom and guidance for years. He will be sorely missed. May he rest in peace after leading so many souls to true spiritual peace during his lifetime! The opening prayer of today’s liturgy says it all: “Help us hurry toward the Eternal Life you promise and come to share in the joys of your kingdom”.

For more about Fr. Dubay's writings and work, see his author page at Ignatius Insight.
My note: Many have said that Fr. Thomas Dubay is one of the greatest spiritual directors and writers of our day. I believe it.

Saturday, September 25, 2010


My mind boggles over the ways in which God can grow a loving relationship. I think I will never know or be able to understand the depths of God's love or anticipate new directions in which God will sometimes lead, sometimes push me tomorrow or the next day, whether those be directions of action or directions of emotion. Waking up this morning in God's embrace, I realized just how paltry are the understandings and set of emotions which I have developed over a lifetime, just how limited I am in the Presence of a limitless God, and just how wonderful it is to be loved by God. Well, maybe I don't yet know just wonderful that is because every waking with Him is more wonderful than the one before.

Every time that I fall sleep in contemplative union (or near union), always have asked for Presence during any dreams I might have (a petition that has recently replaced my earlier petition for Him to protect me from attacks of Evil, which in my early post-conversion days twice attacked me and from which I fled to God's protection), I do experience God's Presence in my dreams (at least, those I can remember in part when I wake up -- those I cannot remember, I assume have not been filled with Evil attacks, i.e. were not nightmares, because I did not wake up during the night and did not wake up disturbed but refreshed, which only the Presence of God could bring about). Something more happens on the mornings that follow the nights when I fall asleep still in contemplative union, which I have mentioned briefly in an earlier post: I wake up still embraced, as I did this morning, in an indescribably unbearable love.

That love is indescribable for it has no counterpart in my experience. It is the love for my children, spouse, parents, spouse, pets, friends, even self, all of which are different kinds of love, rolled up into one. And more. It is deeper, sweeter, and gentler than any love I have known or am able to give. It is a kind of special love for which human language (at least, the 17 human languages I know) have no words.

That love is unbearable because it is undeserved. I can think of dozens of ways in which I don't deserve that love, yet I deeply, deeply want this intimacy that goes beyond anything I have experienced on a human level, an intimacy that unnerves me for we react to human situations and feel greater or lesser comfort with them in accordance with cumulative experiences; those experiences prepare us for new variations on old themes. This intimacy, this level of love, this kind of love, though, is a new theme, not a variation on an old theme, and so I feel as confused as would a child encountering alone a new experience for the first time. Even though the occurrence of waking up wrapped in God's love has been becoming more frequent, each experience is still as the first time, so special is that love.

As a result, I strive to remain in that love; I will do anything for that love (perhaps that is why I get tasked sometimes, that and the fact that I often, perhaps because of my travels, am in the right place at the right time to provide the right help to the right person/people and just happen to be wiling to do that).

I am occasionally late to work (just by a few minutes) because it is so difficult to break away from such extraordinary. I do know that if I lock my office door and spend some time sitting with God at work, the love will be there again; really, it is with me constantly but all too often I am too preocuppied with being busy to notice it. So, knowing what lies ahead for the day, I sometimes selfishly take a few extra moments to stay embraced by God in the early morning before stepping out of bed and risk the consequences of arriving at work five or ten minutes late. Fortunately, no one has ever asked me why I am late. I am not sure how my explanation would be received!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Relationship II

I recently posted "Goodnight, God" on 100th Lamb and am relating some of that post here as an example of an interesting, sincere, and very pure relationship with God. In that post, I told how Doah had been sleeping on our couch while we were waiting to find a new group home for him. (Thank God, it did not take long, and he is now situated in a wonderful home, which is owned and run by a father and daughter team from Russia; once I get settled back in from my trip to Korea, we plan to get together for lunch or dinner and swap stories of our experiences of Russia, they as natives and I as someone who has spent a considerable amount of time there, especially in my university years when I completed my PhD at Pushkin Institute in Moscow and attended graduated courses at the University of Moscow.)

In that post, I described how I spent time one weekend night on the couch beside Doah, perseverating on computer work until the wee hours of the morning, unlike on the weekday nights when I usually tumbled into bed before Doah went to sleep because I have to get up early and go to work -- and, of course, at that time, he did not.

It had been years since I have watched Doah go to sleep. As a child, he would make a nest of blankets under my desk and sleep there. As a mentally challenged child, he did not think of the world in the same terms as those around him, and I always wondered what his teachers thought of us as parents if he told them that he slept in a nest!

Since Doah was right beside me, I could see him drifting off to sleep as his breathing slowed and became regular. Right before he totally zonked out, I heard him whisper, "Good night, God." Then he was unwakeably asleep for the rest of the night.

Once he no longer slept in a nest, I no longer observed him falling asleep -- and it has been years since his nesting days. So, I was unaware that he always says goodnight to God.

As I watched him, I realized how much we can learn from the simplicity of mentally challenged individuals. It is as if he has a direct link to God; there is no barrier evident -- you know, the kinds of barriers we throw up between ourselves and God so that we can avoid getting too close. Close is okay. Too close is nervous-making. Right?

So many times Doah will say, "God told me this, or God told me that." I take it at face value. I do not know how otherwise to react to it. When the nurse told him very solemnly at his post-rape medical examination, "the most important thing is to remember that it is not your fault," he responded equally sincerely, "I know; God tell me it not my fault, I no blame." I believe that this is the source of his ability to rebound from what is a highly personal violation from which more mentally complex individuals often have difficulty recovering.

I remember Doah's reaction when I first moved to San Ignatio, where one feels that the town itself is holy. (One of my Russian Orthodox friends, a very devout believer, turned to me on her first visit as we were walking around town and said, "Beth, eto mesto namolein," the closest translation of which would be "this town is soaked in prayer.") Doah stood at my stoop, looked around, turned around a time or two, then faced me, and announced, "God here."

In all our efforts of prayer, our attempts to live with God, to live as God would have us live, to open ourselves to union, to spend time in contemplation, and to spend time in reading theology (whether meant for theologians or for lay readers), I wonder if we ever consider that developing a relationship with God might be as simple as Doah sees it -- just allowing oneself to be together with God as one would be together with a friend, noticing that "God here," and remembering to say "good night, God."

I now say "good night, God" every night when I feel myself drifting off to sleep, following a period of contemplative prayer. As important, every morning upon rising, my first words now are "Good morning, God."

It does make a difference. After all, how can we grow in our relationship with anyone -- God, friends, family -- if we persevere in our daily activities without acknowledging the presence that is with us? Those activities, while we often must do them, become more enjoyable and meaningful when shared with God in the doing of them.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Humility VI

After all the animals were created, many decisions had to be made. One of these decisions involved who would be entrusted with carrying an amazing substance called 'honey'. The animals started to argue amongst each other, each trying to prove why it should be selected for this special task. The angels arranged for a competition to resolve this dispute.

First, the elephant stepped forward. "I am clearly the most qualified. Not only do I have an enormous belly where all the honey can be kept, but I also have a trunk that is perfectly designed for the task of inserting the honey into containers."

Next came the lion. He roared a few times and then said: "Honey needs to be protected and who is more qualified to protect it than the king of the jungle?"

Then the horse stepped forward:

"Honey", the horse proclaimed, "needs to be transported quickly and reliably. There is no one more qualified for this task than me".

As the animals were arguing their cases, one of the angels noticed that the bee was flying away from the scene. The angel inquired:

"Where are you going? Aren't you going to participate in the competition?"
The bee responded: "You must be kidding, how can I possibly participate in such a competition? I am completely and utterly unqualified to carry such an amazing substance. I am nothing but an insignificant insect".

At that very moment the decision was made: "Honey will be entrusted to the bee because it posses the most important quality of all. Not a large container. Not strength. Not speed. Humility."

The above story is excerpted from a book, Metaphors of Islamic Humanism, by my dear friend, Dr. Omar Imady, copyright 2005. I find the Sufism of Omar to be very close to Catholic mysticism, in some ways closer than mainstream Catholic thought and practice. Considering the interest in the previous posts on humility, I thought, as I posted this particular excerpt from Omar's book to Mahlou Musings, that the story, which comes from a Sufi cleric, would be particularly fitting to the continuation of the discussions from those posts.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Presence II

I had planned to write this post right before Doah ran smack into his current tribulation, so it got shelved in the wake of that trauma. We are now coming back to life, and so I thought it was time to share this rather unique experience, unique for me, anyway. The experience is a couple of weeks old now, had never happened to me before, and is still as fresh in my memory as if it happened only last night. As for the meaning, reason, or purpose of what happened, I have absolutely no idea. I will let you judge that. Personally, I think it was just a gift. At least, I accepted it as a gift because it was such an especially pleasant experience.

A couple of weeks ago, Donnie and I decided to go to the theater -- a very infrequent activity for us -- to watch the raved-about Inception, which did turn out to be an interesting and entertaining movie. Donnie bought the typical snack foods; I picked up a hot dog because I had not had a chance to eat earlier that day. I added to that order an icee. That was my nourishment for the day -- perhaps not the best, but at least not the worst that I could have chosen.

We settled into our seats, which were the best in the house. That was not a surprise since there were only a handful of people there, an unfortunate sign of our difficult economic times. The trailers of upcoming movies played through, and Inception started. By then, I had already finished my meal. I had been hungry enough to gulp down the icee and finish the hot dogs in three bites. I put down the empty containers and prepared to watch the movie.

As the movie progressed, I realized that I was only half-watching. For some reason, the longer I sat there, the stronger the presence of God became until, in spite of all the ambient noise around me, the movie by that time fuzzing out and turning into semi-ambient noise although I was following the plot. It seemed like we had a third person in the theater with us, and it remained that way throughout. It was the loveliest, most comforting feeling.

Although movies of this type usually get my adrenaline rushing, as they are meant to do, I felt nothing of the sort with this one. The longer I sat there together with God, the calmer I became even as the suspense and action in the movie was reaching a crescendo.

When we left the theater, I was very relaxed and calm, almost in a stupor. Like in the case of contemplative prayer, with which this experience had much in common, I did not want to leave, but, of course, I had to. The emotion of the experience remains with me, though. It was as if I was in two places at the same time, doing two things at the same time. It was contemplation (this sitting together with God) and action (the thrills of the movie) at the same time.

For me, the experience underscored that God is always with me; just sometimes I can sense God's presence more than other times. Perhaps it was meant to be a lesson to always have that in mind and now that even in the busiest moment I can communicate with God if I want to. Or perhaps it was simply a gift. I like to think that God just wants to give me a present of Himself upon occasion.

What do you think? Have you had similar experiences?

Thursday, September 2, 2010


I ask the indulgence and prayers of readers of all my blogs. Other than for an occasional, already-written post or the Monday Morning Meditation (I never miss an "appointment" with God and right now that is especially important to me), I will be taking a week or so off to quander (ponder a quandary).

Donnie received a shocking call today from the work place of Doah, our youngest son, who lives in a group home from the mentally challenged, and immediately called me: Doah had been raped. I immediately left work, and we headed north. We met with the sheriff's department, the folks from Doah's workplace in whom Doah had confided, doctors and nurses, an advocate for victims of violent crimes, and Doah himself. Doah went through five hours of medical tests and over an hour of interrogation from the sheriff's department. The medical staff said that Doah inspired them with his obviously deep faith that gave him an extraordinary resilience. The deputy told Doah that he was the best crime victim he had ever met -- Doah was straightforward and explicit, got the details right, and did not back down from uncomfortable truth. By the time the evening was over, the deputies had tracked down the rapist, an illegal alien without documents who seemed to have disappeared according to everyone who knew him, and had him behind bars. Impressive! So was the orderly procedure and all the help made available to us.

Nonetheless, this event has thrown our lives out of kilter, and I need some time to put things back together. We have brought Doah home with us until we can find another group home for him. We have to decide on any legal action we wish to take against the group home -- a difficult decision because I am suit-averse by nature. There is also more testing to do and results of testing to receive: hepatitis, gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis, HIV/AIDS. The latter is very frightening and very possible. I am asking all our friends to pray that Doah passes through this terrible experience without contracting HIV/AIDS as a permanent reminder and life-threatening consequence.

Thank you for your understanding and any prayers you are willing to say for Doah (or candles you are willing to light). God bless you until I am up and running regularly again.