Thursday, December 9, 2010

no such thing as progress

Do I rant more because it's December?

Well, anyway, this one is intended to be short. I am trying to work on this whole "having faith" thing. In the goodness of God - I'm not trending toward heresy, I believe intellectually, it's just being-in-relationship that seems bizarre, pointless, and impossible. (Rotten timing, what with Christmas coming and all.) So I have started reading I Believe in Love by Fr. Jean C.J. d'Elbee. It's a "retreat" on the writings of St. Therese of Lisieux. It's good so far.

But I have problems with the spiritual life in general...this book simply provides an example. And I swear I'm not trying to pick it to death just for the sake of finding fault. But somebody give me an actual, not just theoretical (i.e., would work in a hypothetical universe not consisting of the people who actually inhabit this one) explanation of the following.

Pages 17-18:

Love is life; it is the sun, the light, a divine warmth over our whole life. Without this love, you live a shallow life; you vegetate. Externally you do spiritual exercises, fulfill the duties of your state in life, but if your heart is not there, life is not there. Without love, everything is painful, everything is tiring, everything is burdensome. The Cross, taken up hesitantly, is crushing; taken smilingly, by free will, and with love, it will carry you much more than you carry it. . . . Louis Veuillot wrote, "Dry duty is a cold and hard master who does not console anyone and who is terribly boring. Speak to me of loving God, that I may fulfill with joy the duty He assigns to me, and keep the great joy of love which is sacrifice."

(I'm still on board at this point.)

Page 20:

How often have I heard the objection, "I tell Jesus that I love Him, but I don't feel it. It seems to me that I'm not being sincere." Not to doubt that you love Him when you feel demands great faith, the forgetting of yourself, and a true understanding of sanctity. The greatest saints passed through the dark night of the soul, painful periods of dryness. . . . Love is not sensible piety. Never forget this distinction. Holiness is a disposition of the soul, of the heart, and above all, of the will, toward God; the senses may play a role, but that is not necessary.
So, to clarify: if you exercise your will to perform all acts of piety (prayer, charity, avoiding wrong and doing good), but do so without "love" (not yet defined), your life will be "dry," "cold," and "hard," with no "consolation." If you have "love," you may nevertheless find that life is "dark," "dry," and "painful." But you will know that you love anyway, because of . . . a disposition of the will toward God. (I understand a disposition of the will to mean that you use your discipline to cause yourself to do the things that are good, or right, to do. If I'm mistaken, let me know.) In the first example, you do all the right things, but don't "love" - consequently, life is unpleasant. In the second example, you know that you have "love," despite life being unpleasant in more or less exactly the same way, because . . . you chose to do all the right things.

This is a logical mess. Unless I am missing a trick with the basic definitions, someone with a perfectly rational brain (better than mine) could, I suspect, cross off bits on both sides of the equation until it boiled down to: the difference between living a good life without love for God and living a good life with love for God is saying that you love God, whether you feel that to be true or not, and whether or not it affects any aspect of either your conduct or your lived experience of anything.

I have no problem with the idea that I will never, ever feel close to God, or experience anything that gives me confidence that He considers me other than a disappointment, that my salvation is other than questionable, or that my life is better than worthless. That's how I felt when I was praying three hours a day, going to Mass every day, filling my time with charitable works, doing without valuable possessions and other pleasures, and wasn't dealing with infertility or a husband who is losing (has lost?) his faith - the man who is supposed to be the spiritual head of my family.

Now, of course, I am living an objectively far less pious life, so I have more objective evidence that my salvation is questionable and my life is worth little. But I don't have a verdict now and I didn't then, so the outcome is no more certain. I felt distant from God then, and doubted constantly that anything I could do, or receive, or experience, would mean that I loved Him; I thought it might be unattainable. Now I feel...more distant, but I care less, so usually, it hurts less. That actually seems like an improvement.

I'm not in this case arguing that the goals we're supposed to attain are difficult or costly or not worthwhile; I'm more concerned that they logically are incapable of existing at all. The rational distillation of Fr. d'Elbee's writing is that love is a word. A word (other than the Word, Who is actually a person - let's not start there) is not "life," "the sun," and "the light."

My catechesis and my natural disposition require me to try; I don't know how to give up entirely. But let's be honest: how hard will I be trying when I believe beforehand that the goal actually doesn't exist?


  1. I can offer you no good explanation of that passage. It (to me) is essentially saying what we already know: that loving (following) God can be really great, but it can also really suck. Ha! And that is the worst (unexplainable) contradiction ever, in my book.

  2. Hm. I know logically what I should be doing - attending mass, being a faithful Catholic (instead of a backslidden, nonpracticing one). Yet, because I don't see the point of pretending what I don't feel...yeah, it seems pointless. And still on some level I know it's not, but can I really just go through the motions because I know it's right?
    I remember reading some book in HS that said that anything you do wholeheartedly for a year will be your new reality (or something like that). So I committed to being as faithful a Catholic as possible - never missed mass, prayed often, and LIVED as a Catholic. didn't work. At the end...there was nothing.
    Um, so the point of my comment is that I sort of understand what you're getting at...I wish I could respond more eloquently.

  3. hmm...I've read that book and remember puzzling over the same thing. I *think* the thing is that Christianity isn't a way of life, that we can't think of it has a "program" for life that we follow because it is the right thing to do. It can be so easy to do that, especially being Catholic, what with all the "mandates" and what not. But we have to remember that those mandates are only there to foster our own intimacy with Jesus. They are not to be done for their own sakes, or so that we can pat ourselves on the back about how spiritually accomplished we are.
    No, the real issue, and the love that I *think* the author is talking about is loving Jesus, the person, the man, the God. Knowing Jesus, seeing Jesus, and letting Him see us...and being in love with Him, that is where it is at. And that CAN be painful and dark and dry...just like truly loving ANYONE can be that way. But it isn't "dry cold and hard" as accomplishing pious acts for the own sake would be.
    I don't know if that makes sense, or if I am even on the mark! But alas, I have grappled with this very issue, and this is what I have come up with...though I feel I communicated it poorly. Sorry.

    As far as when you said, "...experience anything that gives me confidence that He considers me other than a disappointment, that my salvation is other than questionable, or that my life is better than worthless. That's how I felt when I was praying three hours a day, going to Mass every day, filling my time with charitable works..." --that is very alarming! That is some pretty harsh stuff to feel about yourself in relation to God before ever going through IF and what have you. Have you told your spiritual director you felt this way even before infertility? I would be interested to hear what he would say about that. I myself don't know what to make of it. Maybe I am misunderstanding something, though.

    I have to say that I totally commend you for pushing forward with your faith despite such dismissal experiences. I think out of weariness I would have given up long ago...but you are obviously a fighter. You honor God greatly by not giving up, and I am sure you are very dear to His Sacred Heart.

  4. Isn't it simply the difference between doing the right thing just because you are obligated to (it can be done with no love for God at all), vs. aligning your will to God's because you do love Him? Both things are an act of the will, but the latter seems more like a commitment to loving a Person. Neither one may have actual "good feelings" attached. And you may not "feel" the love you are giving to God. But one (the latter) is truly love.

    I know that you know that love is an act of the will. But not an act of the will due to habit or obligation only. It's an act of the will because somewhere in your heart you love God and want to do His will.

    Was that redundant? Sorry.

    I am reading something by St. Maximilian Kolbe. He speaks of total devotion to Mary, and he says that as long as you have willed your life to align with hers and God's, then you don't have to be aware of it, or think on it after that. Mary knows, God knows. Commit out of love (if you love God) and He will take care of the rest. No feelings may come around, but feelings are not necessary to love.

    Wow, does that make any sense?? Sorry.

    I guess to sum it up: Find out if you do love God. If you do, then it may feel miserable, or like nothing, but if you align your will to His, He knows it's love and you are united with Him.

    That's all I've got. And as I re-read, it ain't much!! Sorry!

  5. I been thinking and puzzling over this since you published it ... and I'm afraid this will be a long response, though I don't know if it will actually be helpful or not. (note I am breaking it into parts so it will fit – wow!)

    First - the fact that you wanted a spiritual director, that you meet with him, that you are trying to find these answers - to me, that shows that there is something within you that is reaching for God in some way. That God is calling you, loving you - and that you are wanting and loving Him back. You want to know Him better, you want something more from Him, you are being true to a call in your heart. And by saying what you feel honestly, you are also being true to where you are in your relationship – putting the doubts, disappointment and bad feelings out there too. If you want to build a healthy relationship with someone, don’t you have to be honest (although of course with another human person, we need to be careful how we do that), and don’t you have to do your part in reaching out and being willing to hear from them? To me, this is evidence of love, or at least, the desire to love and know God. (and my understanding is that the stance of the Catholic church is something like “all those who seek God with a sincere heart are saved (or may be saved??) “ even if that path is not what we expect – so the seeking is very important!)

    Second – all the observances you discuss – yes, they can be ways to deepen our relationship with God. But they don’t work like magic. I know people who have felt that the Catholic faith was not the one for them because this way of praying, and the practice of having statues in the church, etc. for them got in the way of prayer and of being free with God. So the Catholic path did not feel true to them. Just because they are not helpful to you, or not helpful at a particular time in your life, doesn’t mean they don’t have some value – but it may just not be the path that is right for you at that time.

  6. Part 2
    Third – I know there’s a quote somewhere in the Bible about rain falling on the good and bad alike. All of us are going to go through difficult times in our lives. If one is on the journey of being in relationship to God, there will be times where one is coasting with joy and all is going well, or at least the trials of life seem very manageable – times of consolation. There will be times when God feels far away, when everything is a struggle, dry and unfulfilling. When there are trials in life also it’s even harder to push through. This time of desolation may happen because it’s part of our growth in relation to God – developing our muscle of perseverance or whatever – or it may happen because we’ve somehow closed ourselves off from being open to Him and we aren’t hearing Him. Either way it is hard. But it doesn’t mean we are not loved or valued.

    Fourth – For me personally, lectio divina is a way of prayer that helps me be close to God , to be honest and emotional and to grow. I don’t know if it is for everyone. It might be worth talking to your spiritual director about it? If you are interested to try, the basic idea is:
    1) Set aside some quiet time and space and get comfortable, breathe deeply etc. Maybe set a timer for 30 – 60 min, whatever is manageable for you.
    2) Pray to God, asking Him for a grace you hope to receive. Ex. “Lord, I wish I wanted to love you. Right now I am just angry at you. But I desire to desire to love you. I ask the grace of this desire from you. Please send me your Spirit to direct me in my prayer today.”
    3) Read the passage of the Bible you have been directed to or you have chosen, out loud, slowly. Pause for a moment to feel if anything in that passage really drew your attention.
    4) Read the passage again, out loud and slowly. Pause over the parts (if any) that really call to you (that gives you an emotional reaction, good or bad, or that piques your interest).
    5) Read it a third time, perhaps just the part that seems to be sticking out to you.
    6) Put aside the Bible and let yourself sit quietly with what you have just read. Don’t try to pray the way you think you should, or to force yourself in any way – just be open to the flow of where you may go. Breathe.
    7) When the timer goes off, say a thank-you or good-bye or whatever prayer to God.
    8) Journal about your prayer time.

  7. Part 3
    So, what usually happens, at least for me, is I feel drawn into the scene. I may experience it from the point of view of the person being healed, or the point of view of Jesus, or even I may be a tree on the side of the road observing the scene ... you just never know where you’ll be drawn to. I may have a conversation with Jesus , or with someone just healed, or Mary or Joseph. Ex. lately I’ve been praying with the blind beggar story, the one who starts calling out when he hears Jesus is nearby and everyone tells him to hush, but Jesus asks him “what do you want?” As you can imagine, I’ve had lots to say and ask Jesus given all the turmoil going on for me right now.

    I don’t mean to suggest that lectio divina is magic either ... there are times I sit the whole 30-60 minutes and nothing really happens. Very frustrating!

    If you are at all inclined to try this whole process, a passage that I would like to suggest to you is Luke 13:10-13 – the healing of the bent-over woman. Or you may have something else that seems to call to you.

    And fifth – I believe that every single one of us is loved passionately. We are each special and precious in a way that we can’t even fathom. Of course this means that our “enemies” are also loved without reserve, as hard as that may be to imagine. None of us are “worthy” and we all make bad decisions and hurt each other, but at our core we are amazing beings and unbelievably valued. That is what I have come to understand anyway.

    I hope there is something in this incredibly long response that is of value to you, and I hope nothing in here is offensive or disrespectful in any way.

    Know that I am thinking of you and praying for you!


  8. Ditto what K said.
    A rule of the spiritual life is that Gift preceeds Task. I.e., We can't give what we don't have. That's not a very helpful dictum if we don't know how to get what we need. Its not like we can go to Walmart or Target & buy "love" etc.

    Since you're reading about St Therese, maybe you're aware of a thought that she repeats several times: God wouldn't inspire me with desires that can't be fulfilled. From that statement by a Doctor of the Church, we can deduce that 1) God knows me. 2) God inspires me. 3) God fulfills me.

    We can spend a whole retreat on any one of these points but the bottom line is that the spiritual life is just like the physical life: We can't walk until we crawl (usually!). So we need to start where we're at: God Knows Me. May I respectfully suggest that, like a flower opening to the sun on a summer morning, you might start there & think of God (who you seem to believe in) looking at you like the sun "looks" at a flower. Just sit there with that. No need to go any further. Yes, there are a ton of devotional aides that might help but usually something as simple as a line of scripture (e.g., "We have come to know & to believe in the love God has for us." John's 1st letter...or Jn 3:16 etc.) is all that the Holy Spirit needs.

    That said, there are a couple of other quick initial points: He also usually needs time & he needs a repentant (prepared) heart. So don't rush it...I usually allow at least an hour for prayer...and, if there's any sin you're aware of, confess it & move on.

    After that, the ball's in his court. Children that we are, he knows that without him we can do just be open & wait. As St Clare said, "He will sooner tire of waiting for me than I for Him." The reason for that is because His love is so much greater, He can't help Himself. He's constrained himself by his own love for you.
    In the meantime, I pledge to pray. Nobody's a 'misfit' to Him!

  9. If I may add a PS:
    Maybe the post by this Jesuit will help more than my previous comment did, at least I hope so: