Courting God

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How long do you think a love affair could last between two people if one of them insisted to the other again and again and again, that they were unloveable?

It’s amazing that we can see so quickly it would never work when the question is framed like that.  It seems that so much of the courtship and wooing that goes into finding that “forever mate” is a dance where we show each other just how lovable we can be.

Why do we insist on making our courtship with God so differently?

Those were my thoughts as I read my devotional by Henri Nouwen this week:

God is saying, “I have always loved you and I love you now.  I want you to receive my love.”  And you are saying, “You can’t love me, God, because I’m so bad.  By thinking about my past I will prove to you that I am beyond forgiveness.”

What kind of person would ever put up with that kind of message again and again and again?

None that I know of.

So how can we explain why God would put up with this?

The only answer I have is so trite it seems to lose meaning over time, but it is still so true it needs to be said again.

Because our God?

Our God is an awesome God!

Amen.

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Sacred Cows

As you already know, my Lenten journey this year is about “giving up” my excuses. The first excuse that came to my awareness was in regards to my overall health. I realized I could no longer “cheat” my way to good health knowing full well what every American is taught from birth  (but many, like me, continue to deny in the “land of plenty”):  that in order to lose weight I must make smart food choices (diet) and I must move my body more (exercise).

So I had to take a personal inventory: Did I really want to change? Yes. Was I willing to change?  Yes. Was I willing to let go of old habits? Um…I think so…where are we going here?  Was I willing to let go of my idols? Wait….what? How did this get religious all of a sudden? I thought I was trying to look like a super model. Or at least a local ad model. Or at least the best looking girl in the room (when I’m the only one it). How did this get to be about idols?

But my heart knew.  And it did what it always does.  It waited.  It waited for my head to catch up. And eventually my head did.   I realized that if I looked at the past three or four years, I’d worked out pretty consistently in some way or other for all those years,  but, I’d also successfully lost and then gained and then lost and then gained.  Could idols have something to do with it?  In all those years there was ONE thing I could think of that I had absolutely refused to give up.  That ONE THING was now on my heart, and in my head, so I knew it was time for me to let go.  It was the “sacred cow” I’d never been able to let go of  in all my other attempts to get healthy.

And its name is Diet Coke.

And it pours most deliciously from a fountain out of any McDonald’s restaurant.

And it only costs $1 (a dollar!) regardless of how big or small you want it.

(Large, please!)

And I have been addicted to it for over a decade.

ADDICTED.

I know it may seem laughable that I would think that giving up Diet Coke (it’s Diet, for crying out loud!  ONE CALORIE!) would  be a significant step towards good health.  (Though there are lots of articles to say it is a significant step).   The truth is, an addict is an addict. It really doesn’t matter what we’re addicted to. Sure, some things are arguably much more harmful than others, but the behavior is really the same.  In fact, I would argue that the behavior itself is the most harmful of all!  When you look at the definition of an addict: to devote or surrender (oneself) to something habitually or obsessively, you can see right there that anything we’re addicted to, other than God, is breaking the first commandment.  I had been addicted for years.

So…with a deep breath, much prayer, a hard look at my lifestyle, (and the reality of having just turned 40), I decided that I needed to stop drinking Diet Coke.  I knew it was my “sacred cow.”

You see, when I think of  “sacred cows,” what I think of are false idols.  And I realized that not only was Diet Coke  a “sacred cow” for me  in the figurative sense —something immune from question or criticism–every time I’d tried to get serious about my health before, but it was also a sacred cow in the Biblical sense, something that takes your focus off of God.  I specifically think of the Biblical story of Moses and Aaron. Remember that one?  Where Moses went up the mountain to talk to God and receive the commandments, while Aaron, his brother, stayed down with the people who grew increasingly doubtful and impatient, so he built them a cow out of gold to worship?  (Exodus 32: 1-35)

Yeah.  It seems so ridiculous in its ancient context that it’s easy to think it has no meaning for us to today.  I mean worshipping a golden cow?  Laughable!

Until you realize that Diet Coke is your golden cow, and you’re a Diet Coke junkie.

Then it’s not so funny.

Then climbing that mountain for God seems really, really hard.

I can finally write about this because it’s been over a month now since I’ve had a Diet Coke or soda of any sort.  And while that may seem like no time at all, those who know me know what a lo-o-o-ong time that is.

And no one is more surprised that I could do it than me.

Even more surprising to me is the fact that I really don’t miss it.

Or at least very rarely.

I have made some other changes, too.  I’m doing this awesome Jillian Michaels workout every day, and out of respect to my last year’s Lenten sacrifice, I eat with more self-respect, consciously making better choices (most of the time).

I wish I had more news than that. You know, something real impressive like, I lost 10 pounds as a result!  But, as of right now, I haven’t.  (An unimpressive 3 pounds?  Yes.  An inspiring 10 pounds?  Not so much).

Even so, something else has changed. Something even more important, I think, and that is this: I’m focusing on the change, and I’m letting the results be whatever they’re going to be.  I trust they will come.  Not in my time frame, but in God’s.

So why am I telling you all this? Is it because I think you should feel guilty for going to McDonald’s or drinking Diet Coke? Of course not.

But I do think you need to look at any “sacred cows” that may be getting in the way of something you say you really want.   (Exodus 24:3)

And then take another look at just what’s stopping you from getting there.

Because no matter how hard you try?

You cannot climb the mountain while holding on to your sacred cow.

My 12-Step Lenten Journey

Despite living all of my 40 years on earth as a Catholic, I tend not to “give up” things for Lent.

You may have noticed that whenever I talk about what I “gave up” for Lent I always put “give up” in these cute little quotation marks like this: “give up “, see?   That’s because my Lenten prayer is not just about a 40 day fast.  At least not anymore.   Sure, for years it was like that.  I’d give up candy, or soda, or a favorite dessert for 40 days…or as long as I could stand…or until I forgot.  But that’s not how I “do” Lent anymore.

Four years ago, I listened to my priest as he encouraged us to not just “give up” some THING for Lent, but to make it matter.  He said that if we were going to “give up” something for Lent, the best thing to “give up” was our sins!  Right then and there, my Lenten prayer changed from my telling myself what I would (try to) “give up” to my asking God what he would like to see changed in me.  In that moment, Lent was changed forever from my “giving up” my favorite things, to my offering God my willingness to change.  And what a difference it has made!

By that count, I can tell you what my last 4 Lents have involved “giving up”:

2010:  Pride

2011:  Judgment and Jealousy

2012:  Negative self-talk/image (i.e. Loving myself)

2013: Excuses

Looking at this  list, you’d think I’d be just about near-perfect by now,  wouldn’t you?  (Ha!)

Of course, through this process, I quickly learned (SPOILER ALERT!) that “giving up” my sins  really needed to be more than a 40 day undertaking.

Now, as a result, Lent is less about spending 40 days in the desert and more about beginning the process that every “12-stepper” already knows.  It means admitting that  I,  myself,  am powerless over the very things I attempt to “give up.” 

Yep.

Pow.Er.Less.

That’s so much nearer the truth!  I have no more power over my pride now that I did in 2010, no more power over my judgments and jealousy now that I did in 2011, no more power over my negative self-talk/image than I did in 2012, and no more power over my own excuses (for doing things I shouldn’t and not doing things I should) than I did when Lent began this year.

So, why bother then? you may be thinking.  Great question!  And the answer is this:  because while I don’t have power, I DO have awareness.

Awareness of how I am weak.  Awareness of how I am imperfect.  Awareness of how I.am.not.God.

And, though it may not sound like it…that is Good News!

The even better news is that, for those who are able to take that “first step” and are fully honest with themselves  about their powerlessness, there is a second step.  And that step is that with my new (and usually painful) awareness:  I came to believe that a Power greater than myself could restore me to sanity.  (Because, trust me, as soon as you get honest enough with yourself to see all that exists inside of you that you cannot control…you would quickly be headed for the loony bin, if it weren’t for this second step!)  And  that sanity comes for me in the form of compassion, which God readily puts on my heart, for those who “suffer” the same weakness.

The best way I can think of to describe this process of awareness and compassion is like a river gently washing away the roughest edges of a stone.   Over time, as the “waters” of God’s mercy flow over me,  I find myself, bit by bit, letting go.  And then I take the next step.  And then the next.  And then the next. Until finally you can use your experience to help others in the best possible way:  you can say, I understand what you’re going through.  I struggle with it, too.  I’m here for you.

That’s the best example I can find of what Lent is for me: a lifelong 12-step program whereby God shows me the places in my heart where I need to improve, and I do my best to follow.  And, just like the washed-out drunk who has the courage to get real honest about their weakness with alcohol,  I’ve come to understand that while my journey may begin by my “giving up” something, it’s a decision I have to continue to make day after day after day for the rest.of.my.life.

To be clear, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with fasting from, say, Diet Coke or M&M’s for 40 days to help yourself experience some of what Jesus suffered in the desert.  I’m just saying that, to my understanding, it wasn’t just suffering for 40 days with no food and water that changed Jesus.

It was his choosing not to succumb to his temptations.

And doing that didn’t just change him for 40 days.

It changed him forever.

21 Days

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By this midpoint of Lent, I hope you’re finding your Lenten journey has been fruitful!  It is amazing the things that can be revealed to us, as we sit quietly in the desert of our hearts.

I’ve had a bit of a startling realization myself this morning.  Although, to be honest it really shouldn’t be that startling, because it’s almost always the same realization, shown to me in a new way:  the realization that I have a real knack for getting in God’s way.

This morning’s realization came to me after finally writing out in my journal exactly what I’d hoped to accomplish when I began this blog last Lent.  And when I wrote out those memories of what I’d hoped to achieve, I had to face the reality of what was wrong now.

Here’s what I remember about my reasons for the launching of The Mystic Mom:

1.  To share with “the world” (which at that time consisted of my mom, my mother-in-law, and a few friends of mine–Hi, Faithful Readers!), how I “see” God working in my life all the time.  Since I felt that the “mud had been wiped from my eyes” after reading several books by and about mystics (in various faiths…not just Christianity) I wanted to share how the Being that I call God really is a very ordinary and real part of our everyday lives.

And that’s it!  That was the start and end of my list at that time for starting this blog.

But, here’s where I get in the way.  Because as soon as I hit that “publish” button for the first time, a whole new list of thoughts began to form.  You know, those sneaky little thoughts that you try not to even entertain, but somehow seep into your being and attach themselves to the other, simpler, intention?  Thoughts like:

  1. Maybe someone would tell me how much my writing has changed their life.
  2. Maybe that person will tell some other people and one of those people will be a publisher.
  3. Maybe that publisher will want me to write a book.
  4. Maybe I won’t have an idea for a book, and my one chance for ever writing one will be gone!
  5. On the other hand, maybe I will have an idea for a book and it will be published, but not sell.
  6. Or, maybe that book will be a New York Times best seller!
  7. Maybe I will become famous for that best seller.
  8. Maybe I will have to travel the country promoting my book.
  9. Maybe I’ll have to travel the world!
  10. Who is going to watch my children while I’m traveling the world?
  11. Will my husband be jealous that I’m now traveling the world and the kids are more his responsibility than ever?
  12. Will our marriage survive this jealousy?
  13. What will we do with all the money, too?  Will we give it to charity, or hoard it for ourselves and become all focused on riches and wealth and forget all about God?
  14.  OK, Reality check.  The book will never get written.  The world doesn’t need another book.  Especially a book by me.
  15.  I’ll just blog sometimes.  For fun.
  16. Or , when I have something really important to say.   And that I know is coming from God.
  17. And also if I have the time to blog. If I don’t have the time that’s OK, too.  God will surely understand that.  I mean, he blessed me with motherhood three times over.  Surely he knows how busy I am!
  18. God probably doesn’t really need me to say anything anyway.  He’s got a whole slew of angels to deliver his messages.
  19. Plus, there are lots of better messengers than me.  More gifted.  More talented.  Just…better.
  20.  Why am I doing this again?

Do you see what happened there?  Over the course of the past year, I’ve drifted away from my original intention of taking my enthusiasm for understanding God through mysticism to “the world” and convinced myself that I should fear failure, and success, and just about everything in between.  So the posts have dwindled, the keyboard was broken, and The Mystic Mom was silenced.

And in that silence, God was able to be heard.

So this morning, when I  asked God to walk me through this whole process again and show me what it is HE intended (if anything) for me on this whole blogging journey, he very conveniently pointed out how far I’d strayed from my original intention.

Then he very conveniently also pointed out the one thing I’d promised to “give up” this Lent…my excuses.

And I know from experience, that excuses can only be extinguished with actions.  If I begin to act, then the excuses disappear.  This type of action is called discipline (from the word disciple), and it takes a lot of effort–especially in the beginning–to follow, and trust, and allow yourself to be transformed in the being God intended you to be.

For me, the act of discipline is, in most cases, the same thing as forming new habits.  I’ve heard it said that forming a habit takes only 21 days. I hope that’s true.  That’s why I’m announcing today that I will now be forming the habit of publishing a blog post every Monday, Wednesday and Friday through the end of Lent.  I will also tweet and post some other encouraging words on my Facebook page five days a week. 

It’s a start.  I don’t promise my posts will be good.  And I’ll probably surely fail the schedule at least a few times.  But, I promise I’ll get up again, when I do.   Also, in the beginning at least, I’ll probably be doing a lot of sharing of other people’s writings and words instead of my own.  But it’s the action of writing every day that I need in order to get rid of the excuses.

I learned a long time ago that what the Catholic church calls “sacraments” are really actions, not things.  They are actions of God for people.  We call them visible signs of invisible grace.    They are not “received” by us, so much as they are “celebrated” by us.  Because God is always everywhere, so is His grace ever-present.  Sacraments are the principal action through which Christ gives his Spirit to Christians and makes us a holy people.  We celebrate by affirming, honoring and praising our life in Christ through the sacraments.

With that reminder, I am now keenly aware that my writing…this blog, my journal, (a book?), whatever…is my sacrament.

My only real “job” here is to TAKE the experiences God gives me, BLESS them with a grateful heart, BREAK them into a lesson, and GIVE that lesson to others.

Why would I want to make an excuse for that?

A Technology Fast… I’ll Call Him John

For a little over a week now, I’ve been taking what I believe is a Lenten fast from technology.

To be fair, I can still browse using technology  without much difficulty.  But, this has a bit of a one-way mirror effect for me.  I can browse out in Bloggyville and throughout cyberspace, but I’m almost forced to abstain from corresponding with it, or sharing my thoughts.   In effect, I’ve been the equivalent of “struck mute” in the technological arena. In other words…I can really only “listen” to you, and can’t really “say” much in reply.

Perhaps, not surprisingly, this fast has NOT been voluntary.

Regrettably, a family member (who shall remain nameless) spilled apple juice on our laptop over a week ago.  This resulted in keys that very inconveniently now type two letters at a time (and sometimes even perform random functions!) with the touch of only one key.  Were it not for our family Christmas gift of an iPad (or some serious patience with editing, I’d not be able to write you at all).

Ju6st so you6 know what I+’m talki=ng abou6t, I+’ll leave thi=s sentence u6nedi=ted.

See what I mean?

And for added fun, when I try to delete something, I get this:  33333

Currently, we are working on trying to figure out the best way to replace the keyboard.    Until we can figure out the most cost-effective cure for us (yes, we are even running the old keyboard through the dishwasher),  I am mostly silent in cyberspace.  I trust there is a reason for this, though I find it incredibly frustrating to have been rendered “mute” in the season of Lent.  I think of Zechariah and his being struck mute until his wife, Elizabeth, gave birth to and named their son John (the Baptist), as God directed.

Right now, I’m not sure what this forced “silence” is trying to tell me, but when I figure it out, I promise I’ll share it with you.

In the meantime, until my technological “voice” is returned to me, I ask that you head on over and visit  my good friend, Anne at Making Room for God.  She has been kind enough to share her insights and observations with all of us daily as a Lenten Reflection.  So, please go on over and visit her, and I’ll be sure to let you know when all my technical difficulties finally cease.

Until then, I promise you all that if I give birth to anything new in the days to come, I’ll share the news.

And, of course, I’ll name the newborn John.

2013: Simplify

Happy New Year!

It’s obviously been awhile since I’ve posted.   And the problem with not writing for a while is the same problem as anything else you like to do that is good for you, but is also lots of work:  the longer you stay away from it, the more difficult it is to start up again.

But, I’ll tell you this much.  I had a great time while I wasn’t writing.

I had a very relaxing Christmas with my family.  We took a road trip to Florida and hung out and did all kinds of  fun stuff while we were there.  All our worries, and troubles were left behind.

All too soon, of course, I found myself back wading through waist-high piles of laundry, and sorting through endless emails and junk mail.  Hard as I tried to stay in the frame of mind from that vacation, it didn’t take long to feel overwhelmed by life’s chores and duties.   There was a scene from Finding Nemo  that kept playing through my mind.  (Probably because we played it in the car about four different times in both of our 17 hour drives).  You know the scene where Marlin and Dory are all caught up in the peaceful feeling of staring at the phosphorescence emitted from the angler fish that’s luring them closer, until finally Marlin notices (almost too late) that the light that’s making them feel so good is coming from a fish that is about to devour them and he says, “Good feeling gone!”?

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Yep.  That’s about how I felt:   good feeling gone.

I was back to making list after list of chores that needed to be finished.  Volunteer work that needed to be completed.  Kids appointments and activity arrangements.  Errands that needed to be done.  Odds and ends that needed to be completed around the house, and of course, the then looming task of coming up with some resolutions for the New Year.

Buried under all these lists and plans, I thought back to the last day of our trip.  On that day, we were going to spend the day at Busch Gardens in Tampa and I was determined to plan and plot out the day, so we could get all the things we (mostly me) wanted to see and do crossed off the TO DO list before we had to return home.  So I was marking maps and taking surveys from the family wanting to know everybody’s TOP 3 THINGS THEY WANT TO SEE AND DO AT BUSCH GARDENS.  And I tried to plan them out.  Then, I panicked with the realization that there were eight of us on this trip and that would result in 24 things to see and do in one day with a wide area of interests since we ranged in age from 7 – 66.  So, I went back to the drawing board, and re-surveyed everybody asking them OF THEIR TOP THREE THINGS THEY WANTED TO SEE AND DO AT BUSCH GARDENS WHAT IS THEIR NUMBER 1?

That was better.  It narrowed our list to only 8 things to HAVE to do, which felt much more doable.  Then, I only needed to plan out lunch times, and locations, times of some of the things that were scheduled events people wanted to see/do, etc.

Even in that moment I could feel myself beginning to go a little crazy with the need to control and plan and plot our move down to every last detail, but it will all be worth it, I told myself.

That’s when my brother, who is every bit as prone to nervousness and worry about controlling time as a Zen monk in deep meditation,  piped up and said, “How about we not plan anything and just go to the park and see what happens?”

I looked at him confused.

What was he suggesting, exactly?  That we just show up haphazard and leave a day at an amusement park to chance?

I thought about it a bit.  If we did that, it would certainly mean I could just “stand down” the rest of that evening.  I wouldn’t have to do anything else but go to bed, wake up the next morning and head out the door to the park.  (Well, I am a mother of three, so it’s not quite THAT easy, but you know what I mean).  It was certainly a different approach than anything I was used to.

So (with some reluctance) I agreed and that’s what we did.  Left our day to chance.

And you know what?  We ended up getting into a really short line for a big roller coaster, and we saw an animal theater show that hadn’t made it onto ANY of our LISTS OF THINGS TO DO AND SEE, but we all agreed afterwards it was a highlight of the whole day.  We also ended up walking past a BBQ chicken stand right as it opened, so we were at the front of the line that quickly grew longer behind us.

Whaddya know?  I had to ask myself at the end of that day, maybe NOT planning isn’t such a bad thing after all. 

But still, I thought as I starting organizing and listing all the things that I was resolving I would do and get right this year, that was vacation.  REAL LIFE doesn’t work that way.  If you want to change, you need to plan.

Clearly, I hadn’t yet learned the breadth of the genius lifestyle my brother has always known.

Suddenly as I began listing improvements in the sixth area of my life (yes, six areas, one per page with 12 points to work on in each area, one for each month…makes sense, right? :))  that I was resolving to improve in the coming year, I realized I  was growing so tired from the list, I was pretty sure I’d not even have the energy to ring in a New Year let alone make changes in one.  Overwhelmed yet again, my brother’s words came back to me.  “How about we just show up and see what happens?”

But this isn’t a vacation, I thought.  This is LIFEThere’s a difference.

Then I thought of my brother, who, in the best possible way has made his entire LIFE a vacation.

That’s when I realized that maybe vacation isn’t really a trip you take to get away from everything, but rather, a state of mind.

I know I’m still a long way from being able to approach life with the same kind of open-ended questions as my brother, but I can make an effort to try it out more often.  And around the same time I was thinking that, is when this little  word popped into my head:

SIMPLIFY

And I began to think, what if I only made ONE resolution for this year…and it was this word ?   Could it work?   Would I get results?

I have no idea.  But, I’m sure if I asked my brother he’d say, “Let’s find out.”

So, I am.

And with that,  I give you my entire list of resolutions for 2013:  Simplify.

I hope you’ll join me!

“Do Not Judge!” (Oh,But I Do…)

The older I get, the more I understand that any rule I am given out of concern for my own well-being, is worth taking a second look at.  Especially because such rules, at first glance, are ridiculously easy to understand, (i.e., go on green, stop on red), but many more, while just as easy to comprehend are far more difficult to carry out  (i.e., while I understand a speed limit of 55 mph means that 55 mph should be my maximum speed for the safety of myself and those around me, I very often go 60 mph because that is the speed that I deem will keep me “safe” from getting a speeding ticket).   Such rules, then, as we grow more confident and comfortable with the intention of them, quickly become something we dub to be “rules of thumb” rather than “hard and fast” rules (i.e., don’t drink and drive).

Many of the rules that Jesus gives us can begin the same way:   easy to understand, but difficult to follow.  Most recently, I came across this passage in my Bible study class on the Gospel of Matthew:  “Do not judge” (Mt 7:1).  And upon reading this, I was hit with two thoughts:  Yikes!  That sounds impossible!   and almost at the same time:   Thank goodness I don’t judge people as much as some people I know!  (Read that sentence again if you missed the irony of it).

The truth is that both of my reactions to this rule are just that:  reactions.  And reactions,  by their very nature, don’t take into account the larger picture of the reason for the rule.  Reactions don’t cast light on the myriad of ways in which we judge others, ourselves, and even God.   In fact, because I was so busy reacting, it wasn’t until I read the passage a second time that I was even able to comprehend the rest of the sentence–the part that  explains WHY we shouldn’t judge– “so that you may not be judged.” (Mt 7:1)

I was reminded then of how, years earlier, I’d made a Lenten promise to “give up” my sins of judgment and jealousy.  Now, I knew this would be a challenge, but I thought I could at least go a day or two before I would really be tested in the process of “giving them up.”  Much as He always does, though, God had other plans.

Ash Wednesday morning, (a.k.a. the FIRST DAY of Lent), I had a petty thought about a friend of mine:  I immediately “predicted” she would fail to “properly observe” the Holy Day by wiping off the ashes on her forehead after attending morning Mass.  (As Catholics, we are taught from a young age that doing so is a big “no-no”).  I’m embarrassed for having entertained this thought now on so many levels, but at the time, I didn’t see my “prediction” as a judgment at all.   I merely saw it as a “logical prediction of future behavior based on past behavior” and all but accepted it as “fact.”   Later that day, when I bumped into my friend,  I was shocked to see the ashes still on her forehead.   Shocked only because I’d been proven wrong.

After some introspection, (a.k.a. an inner tantrum-throwing fit whereby I attempted to vehemently defend my inexcusable judgment of my friend to God), I was able to be grateful for the gift of having been shown my fault.  If my friend had behaved as I’d expected, I would likely have been able to go the course of the entire day patting myself on the back for having successfully “given up” my sins by having made no judgments at all.  It was only in being proven wrong, that my eyes were opened to the fact that I’d judged my friend.

To this day, I think that being wrong about such a “prediction”  of my friend’s behavior on the first day of Lent was one of the best things that ever happened to me.  I shudder to think about how long it may have taken me to realize that I was judging someone else if my “prediction” had been “right.”

The Five Books That Most Shaped My Mystic Mind, Day 5

I sincerely apologize for my long overdue reveal of the Number 1 book on my list to date.  Sometimes, despite my best intentions, I get sidetracked from this “job” in Blogville, that I enjoy so much.  For me, the past two weeks have been full of other volunteer duties, as well as the traditional duties that fall under that grandest of job descriptions commonly referred to as “mom.”  While I regret none of the time spent on my other projects and activities, I do regret that the trade-off ended up being time spent away from this blog and YOU.

With that, please know that it is with great pleasure that I  pick up today where I last left off–with the one book that I’ve most recently read that has shaped my mystic mind!  This particular book is one that I stumbled upon in my parish library last spring.  In it, I was introduced to the desert fathers of the early church.  This introduction into the desert fathers is largely responsible for the progression of this blog.  With the simplest of lifestyles, these desert fathers (and, as I discovered in other books… desert mothers!) seem to have developed a deep, deep wisdom from spending time alone (with God) in the desert.  It is amazing to me how, like the wisdom of so many holy men and women, the truths of what they learned still have relevance in the 21st Century.

While I’ve read several books on the desert fathers and mothers since last spring, the first book that introduced me to them is the one that I will never forget, as it is the book responsible for opening the door for me into their way of life:

1.  Heaven Begins Within You by Anselm Gruen

Without question, for me, it was the title that first intrigued me.  The idea that heaven–that often thought of far-off place where we hope to reside upon our earthly death–begins within me, was so intriguing a thought, I simply had to read on.

Like all the great mysteries of life, I often find it difficult–even forget completely sometimes–what I’ve learned about “heaven” from reading this book.  That being said, I do have a much better awareness of “heaven” in my life, when I experience it.  It comes as a surprise to me, both in the ways in which God brings tastes of heaven to me here and now, and in my own willingness to see it.  And perhaps that is what this book has opened me to the most, the idea that our relationship with God is really about two distinct relationships that depend on each other:  1.  our relationship with “God” –that vast and endless being we can neither see, nor properly define– and 2.  our relationship with “self,” which is really no less vast nor easily defined.

This book draws that picture quite clearly from the get-go when it brings up the words of Evagrius, a desert father and early church monastic, who boldly states from the first pages, “If you want to know God, learn to know yourself first!”  Since first reading these words last Spring, I’ve continued to scratch away at these two relationships.  The two relationships that the mystic Frances of Assisi stated simply as two prayerful questions, “Who are you, God?  And who am I?”

I find it simultaneously embarrassing and comforting to tell you that most of what I’m left with by asking these questions about God and self is really…more questions!  But, the comforting part is that each of those questions call me deeper and deeper into their respective relationships with self and God.  And that leads me to the only “answer” I can seem to find:   that in both of these relationships we are required to accept an unfathomable expanse of uncertainty.  By this, I don’t mean the hand-wringing, gut-wrenching uncertainty that accompanies us when we are in a state of doubt.  I mean the uncertainty that we knew as children, when we were free to wonder, and ponder, and hold in awe the possibility of what is yet to come.

And that is where I am now:  comforted by the realization that as I approach the BIG 4-0, I have  been released from the bonds of needing to know everything.  Worries, while still present, are more quickly eased.  Doubt, which still tempts me, is more readily extinguished.  And fear, which still grips me from time to time, is eased with the balm of that which I know for sure:  I always have a choice.

I can choose to become consumed with worry about the things I desperately want to control, but can’t, or I can choose to accept worry as a natural reaction of my all-consuming self and then–just as freely–choose to let it go.

I can choose to be swallowed up by doubts, or I can choose to accept doubt as a natural stepping stone in the process of faith, by remembering that doubt’s opposite–certainty– has no part of faith either.   Because that which we already know, has no need for us to “believe.”

I can choose to become gripped with fear about everything from getting my Christmas cards out on time to my own untimely death, or I can choose to accept that fear is a side effect of my fallen human state and that while understandable, is hardly effective in helping me deal with the Divine Reality that IS.

And there it is.

Those last three paragraphs that I just typed right there.

Did you see it?  Did you feel it?

As best I can describe, it is in those moments of awareness in my own ability to choose (free will)  that I see how God is both in control, and has given me control.  It is how God is both present in all that I do, but not micro-managing me.  It is how I  grow in both self-knowledge and in Divine Wisdom.

For that reason, I urge you to continue  your own journey.  The journey within you, and the journey into the Divine. The journey into your Truest Self, and the journey into the Ultimate Being.

And while I confess that I forget it much of the time, through those journeys I’ve experienced the surprising realization every once in a while– like the shock of static received from innocently dragging my stockinged feet across a carpet–that in probing  these two relationships, I am really not on two journeys at all, but One Great Journey.

Along the way, there have been moments when I’ve experienced the Absolute Truth where my Deepest Self and the Divine Being that I call God intersect.   When that happens, it is like an ancient gong has sounded the eternal cry:  “the truth [has] set you free.” (John 8:32)

And I don’t know about you, but I can think of no better word to describe that experience than “heaven.”

The Five Books That Most Shaped My Mystic Mind, Day 4

I know.  I’m a big fat liar.

“Read about my top five books in the next five days,”  I bragged.  (As if it really is a habit of mine to post EVERY day.)

*sigh*

Well,  you can take the procrastination out of the girl, but you can’t take the girl out of the….

Eh. Never mind.  I’ll tell you another time.

For now– RIGHT now– I’d like to go ahead and reveal that book that’s been waiting at my #2 spot since last Thursday or so.  Because this one took the Word of God (a.k.a. Scripture, a.k.a the Bible) and just broke it WIDE OPEN for me.  And I do mean WIDE.  And OPEN.

Because after reading this book I FINALLY got what so many of you had long since understood:  that the words in the Bible are about God.  And me.  And God in me.  And you.  And God in you.  And God in you and me.  And you and me in God.

And not 2000+ years ago when he walked the earth as Jesus, but right now.  Here.  Today.  Everything still applies.  Especially when you do what the title of this book commands and enter the story

2.  Enter the Story: Biblical Metaphors for Our Lives by Fran Ferder

This book and what it holds within its pages is more difficult for me to write about than the rest.  Mostly, because it is the book that I feel is responsible for helping me to “see” Biblical moments when I live them.  Ferder brings so much of these stories to the here and now of our lives that all I feel I can do is encourage you to read it, too.

And let it change you.

Let your eyes open because of it.

For me, personally, what happened after reading this book is that I now have an awareness of these Biblical “moments of grace” as they are happening.  And it nearly takes my breath away.  And I’ll show why.

In this book I walked  each step with Mary as she traveled to Bethlehem for the birth of her child.  A child she had no part in creating (She was a virgin, after all).  A child she only felt the first flutterings of in her heart, opened herself to the possibility of giving birth to, and raising.  Simultaneously relishing and fearing the love, sweat and tears it would entail to raise it.  How daunting that God would ask her– HER– of all people, to do this.  Why her?  Why there?  Why then?  The answers to those questions were not hers to know.  It would require a great amount of trust on her part.  And a great amount of courage.  So much could go wrong.  But when “the angel of the Lord” appeared and made it undeniable that she was being asked to give birth to the child that would be the Word of God made flesh.  All she could do was say, “Yes.”

In my own life I walked these steps with Mary, but it looked like this:  I found myself near to bursting (you might even say “pregnant”) with a desire to write.  Write about God, about life, and about God in my life.  I was full of worry and doubt and fear, and I had no real hand in creating this desire or the ability to carry it out.  But I  knew what I had to do.  Or wanted to do.  Or both.  And then despite all my fears and doubts and worries, I was suddenly hit with a moment of peace.  A moment of calm.  Though I saw no angel, I was so calm that if one had appeared at that moment I swear it wouldn’t have unnerved me.  I would have just been like, “Hey, Gabriel, how’s it going?”  Because I knew.  I knew what Mary knew.  I knew that there was no room for fear because when it comes to matters of the heart like these,  you find that despite all “common sense,”  all “reason,” all the so-called facts, you still must say yes.   Even if the thing you love is certain to fall short of everyone’s expectations (including your own), or even die a slow, painful death, saying yes is still (and always) worth it.

So I looked to the heavens and I said YES right then and there.

It was the first day of Lent.

I put down Ferder’s book…and I gave birth to this blog.

The Five Books That Most Shaped My Mystic Mind, Day 3

*This week I will be posting each day about a book that stands out in my memory as having helped shape my thinking–specifically regarding my relationship with God.  I will start with the first book that stands out in my memory and work my way up to more recent books, and for that reason they will be numbered in reverse order from 5 to 1.   If you feel inclined to read them, you are, of course, free to read them in whatever order you see fit.

So here it is (a day late, with my apologies).  It’s a bit daunting finding the words to introduce the one book that more than any of the others on this list “washed the mud from my eyes.” (John 9:13-15)  So, for once in my life, I won’t even try.

Drumroll, please…

3.  The Naked Now:  Learning to See as the Mystics See by Richard Rohr

To date, this book  is one of the most life-changing books I’ve read.

Did you hear me?  I said

THE.

MOST.

LIFE-CHANGING.

This book brought to light much of what I’d learned in the previously two mentioned books, but more importantly it finally gave me answers to the nagging thoughts and questions I still had after reading them.  In this book, once and for all, I became aware of the polarizing way in which our minds are shaped from a young age about right/wrong, left/right, either/or thinking.   And here, Fr. Rohr shared what he calls “nondualistic” or, more simply “both/and” thinking.  It is this type of mindset– this type of heartfelt contemplation– that is the mystical way of greeting the world.  It is also what I think Dr. Phil means when he asks his famous question, “Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?”

It truly was life-changing to suddenly realize how sticking to what we believe is “right” is a great way to stay sedentary in our thoughts and in life itself.   Happiness doesn’t come from being right all the time.   That kind of happiness– when we have to fight and grind and bully our way into changing someone else’s  thought processes so that we can celebrate our personal victories –is self-serving and short-lived.  Happiness comes from choosing happiness.  In everything.  Finding joy in pain.  Noticing our own shadows in the light.  Being present in each moment we are given.  Rohr states in his introduction to the book,

“The early, but learned pattern of dualistic thinking can only get us so far; so all religions at the more mature levels [my emphasis] have discovered another “software” for processing the really big questions, like death, love, infinity, suffering, and God.  Many of us call this access “contemplation.”  It is a nondualistic way of seeing the moment.  Originally, the word was simply “prayer.”

It is living in the naked now, the “sacrament of the present moment,” that will teach us how to actually experience our experiences, whether good, bad or ugly, and how to let them transform us.  Words by themselves will invariably divide the moment; pure presence lets it be what it is, as it is.

When you can be present you will know The Real Presence.  I promise you this is true.

And it is almost that simple.”

And to think this is only the introduction!

What happened for me in this book, was that almost from the beginning  (but most definitely by the end), a peace came to my heart about so many things I’d struggled with (specifically in regards to religion, but it’s applicable to everything) over the years.  Suddenly, I didn’t have to change my religion to be “right.”  And I didn’t have to insist that someone else change theirs to be “right” either.  Because no single one of us (or group of us) is “right.”   ALL OF US are “right” when we allow ourselves to be lifted to those more mature levels of religion where we are (again and again) transformed by God.   That’s when we’re free to move about within–and paradoxically beyond–the boundaries and paramenters of our various religions into the realm of  simply knowing God.   “Without this balance, religion invariably becomes arrogant, exclusionary, and even violent,” says Rohr.

It’s no wonder we, in our various religious traditions for countless centuries now, insist on these so-called “holy” wars.  We are so busy insisting to “the others” that they need to know and love God the same way we do, we seldom stop to hear what it is they know and think and feel about God.

This thinking about religion and transformation and mysticism brought to my mind an image.  I pictured people we all know who are surely examples of people living (or who lived) at the “more mature levels” of their respective religious traditions sitting around the same table:  Mother Teresa.  Gandhi.  The Dalai Lama.  Bishop Desmond Tutu.

Hold that image for a moment.

What do you see?

As hard as I tried, I couldn’t see them getting into fights or stomping off mad and insistent that one of their experiences of God/Love/Truth/Divinity was better than the others.  And they certainly didn’t rally their followers into starting a war.

And suddenly with that image, I knew WHO I was meant to be in this world, and HOW I was meant to be in this world.

I realized that like them, we’re all meant to share the same space together in a peaceful, relaxed, respectful and truly loving way–and I don’t mean loving in the sentimental way that we say in cards and poems with little hearts and rainbows.  I mean loving in its truest sense.   That purest of loves that exists in the quiet energy of our being.   That place where we are so content and secure with God-in-us, that the only thing we could actively will on another is a desire to see God-in-them and to allow it to look differently than we may expect.

After that, it seems, the rest is just details.