Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Dangers of Perpetual Discernment

I often find myself in situations such as the following. It is a Saturday and I had planned to use my day off to pray more of the Divine Office including the Midday Prayer. However, when midday comes along I feel strangely drawn to read a certain spiritual book instead. I feel fairly certain that this inclination is not a temptation away from prayer but it is a divine call. Afraid to use this valuable time unwisely, I try to 'discern' which activity is more efficacious. It seems to me that prayer is always more beneficial to the soul than spiritual reading. However, I realize that one cannot force prayer beyond what God gives, and to do so is wrong. Also, I feel that the Holy Spirit may be inspiring me to read the book for a specific purpose. I agonize over the decision for quite a while, until there is hardly any time left to pray or read. Finally, I decide on spiritual reading. After spending time reading this spiritual book I may or may not feel as though I have benefitted, and for quite some time I find myself questioning the decision. However, deep down I feel like it was the right thing to do.

Why waste so much time mulling over details in order to discern God's will when my heart feels as though it already knows what to do? Because I have a preconceived notion of what holiness looks like and how one obtains it. At this moment, reading instead of praying did not agree with my plan. This is a reliance on self rather than God. When my inclination does not agree with my expectation, I want to understand what God is asking me to do and know by my own reason that it is right. I don't want to risk making a mistake.

"What we really want to do is restrict His work so that it conforms to the rules and boundaries that our limited reason considers suitable."
--Jean-Pierre de Caussade, Abandonment to Divine Providence

St. Francis of Assisi never would have been accused of relying on his own reason instead of the Holy Spirit. God asked him to rebuild the Church and he started collecting stones. He felt called to the Holy Land and threw himself into the first ship he saw (which turned out to be the wrong ship and brought him right back to the port). He didn't know which path to take so he flipped a coin (actually a stick because he was so poor). God would work everything out. There was no time or reason for Francis to 'figure things out'.

However, upon mentioning this type of situation to certain people and sharing my opinion on the matter--"I should have just read the book!"--they often have a knee jerk reaction against such abandonment and encourage me to continue in my original attitude of 'discernment'. One does not want to become complacent and neglectful of one's prayer life!

And so the next time I'm in this sort of situation I'm thrown into inner turmoil. Say I have planned to make a Holy Hour one afternoon and then a friend asks me to go to a movie at the same time and I sense that it's very important that I meet her for that movie. However, it seems to me that spending an hour in front of the Eucharist is surely more spiritually beneficial than watching some secular movie so I scold myself for considering the latter option. However, I can't shake the feeling that for some reason it would be good for me to attend the movie. And so I fall into obsessive reasoning and no matter what is the final decision I will be plagued with feelings of doubt and guilt.

What I should have done in this case, upon feeling drawn to attend the movie, is take a very brief moment to place myself in the presence of God and confirm that I am not drawn to the movie for purely selfish reasons and that the movie will not lead me into temptation or sin (e.g. it's not profane or perverse) and then accept the inclination with a prayer of abandonment. "Lord, you alone know what is good for my soul and the souls of others. I believe that I am following the guidance of the Holy Spirit and I trust you to redirect me if I have gone astray." In this case I should even dare to trust that the Lord will supply me with all of the graces that I would have obtained during the planned Holy Hour.

When acting in this manner, with abandonment to the Providence of God, I'm free, no longer a slave to reason and self-reliance but leaving everything in the hands of God.

It would seem that many spiritual directors are used to directees who tend to rationalize their way out of spiritual activities or lack even the slightest bit of discernment. (Surely that's not true, but that's what it seems like.) Thus many people are encouraged to 'discern' everything in a way that unfortunately results in relying on one's reason more than the promptings of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus told Peter to walk on water and he did. He was impulsive and didn't think about how he would be able to do it. And he WAS doing it. But then he saw all of the waves and turbulence on the water and was afraid. He didn't understand how he could withstand them. He relied on himself rather than God, and it got him nowhere. When relying on our own reason we end up like Peter, simply treading water.

I know of many men between the ages of 20-50 who are engaged in vocational discernment, continually asking God whether they are called to the priesthood or marriage (or neither). It may be clear that God is not going to answer that question right now; however, they keep asking lest a man miss his vocation by neglecting to hound the Lord on the matter. Persistence in prayer is good, but surely, if we are listening, God knows exactly how loudly He needs to speak in order for us to hear Him. Jesus did not nag his Father to reveal to Him exactly when the Passion would begin. He waited patiently and recognized it when it came.

In other cases, it may be equally clear that God has already answered the question several times before. I know a man who has been discerning whether or not he is called to the priesthood for the last TWENTY years! He is fairly certain that the answer is no, but wants to be sure. Feeling mostly called to marriage, he continues to form relationships with wonderful women and yet eventually turns his back on them due to the vague feeling of uncertainty in the matter. He is still waiting for God to appear in a cloud and proclaim: THIS IS MY BELOVED SON, WHOM I CALL TO THE SACRAMENT OF MARRIAGE! Fear of commitment, perhaps?

This type of desperate discernment tends to result in hyper-analysis. We must do everything we can to avoid obsessive introspection. I know so many poor souls, myself included, who have fallen into trying to 'read the tea leaves', looking for signs and assurances that God is calling me in X direction. We scrutinize everything from external circumstances to the most fleeting thoughts. It certainly doesn't help that there are endless examples of God providing others with such signs and wonders. Signs are good as confirmation, but an obsession with signs is not true discernment. It is a Pagan attempt to learn one's fate, and is blatantly un-Christian. In the above video, Thomas Merton explains quite well the difference between the Pagan and Christian views. Lord, protect us from spending decades of our lives in Perpetual Discernment!

There is no peace in reading the tea leaves. We endlessly try to cram together pieces that do not belong to the same puzzle, picking up new pieces along the way, thinking that if only we can collect all of the pieces the puzzle will finally come together. And so I'd like to encourage everyone to STOP working on the puzzle. Throw away the puzzle! If we would just look up from the puzzle we would see the picture that is right there in front of us.

Um, no. No, it's not.

Instead, we should place ourselves in the current of God's grace and allow ourselves to float. The Holy Spirit will move us in whatever direction we need to go. With good will, we prayerfully do our best to give way to the Holy Spirit in every given moment. We don't need to know where we are going. We don't need to figure out what shape God wants our lives to take and rigidly conform to it. We need to remain pliable at all times and allow God to shape us and reshape us into whatever we need to be.
Do you not see that you are gauging everything by the senses, and by reason, not by faith the only true standard; and that when you read the word of God in the sacred Scriptures with the eye of faith, you do wrong to make use only of your reason in reading the word in His marvelous operations. 
The soul loves the divine action and finds it equally sanctifying under whatever shape it presents itself. It does not reason about the way it acts; it suffices for its approval that whatever comes is from this source. 
--Jean-Pierre de Caussade, Abandonment to Divine Providence--

Friday, July 25, 2014

7 QT: The Tao of Cats, Redneck tips, and useless trivia.

In which I share some wisdom from the Tao of Cats, plus some practical and not-so-practical knowledge that I've come by over the last couple of years.

--- 1 ---
Chillin' with Etta in Upstate New York.

A while ago, I stumbled across a blog recommending that I be like a cat. The author provides three examples of how I should be like a cat. Her first example is: "Cats are comfortable everywhere." This is not a passive submission but rather a healthy acceptance of the current situation and a desire to live this moment with purpose and peace. It is an act of the will. It is a choice to accept the situation rather than futilely struggling against it and causing ourselves unnecessary suffering. In Steven Pressfield's book The War of Art, he reveals the many obstacles that can keep us from embracing the present moment and bearing fruit. Seize the day!

--- 2 ---

"When cats are focused, they're INCREDIBLY focused." St. Paul said in Romans 12:2, "Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect." In order to discern the will of God, one needs a mind that is focused on God rather than the world. This requires disciplining the mind to achieve interior quiet. Otherwise, as Jesus said, it is as though "some seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it."

In my last set of Quick Takes, I mentioned my attempt to act more slowly and deliberately, to avoid rushing, and to be recollected. In order to work toward this, I've started praying the Jesus Prayer which is a common practice in the Orthodox Church in hopes of attaining the Prayer of the Heart. It is literally 15 minutes of this (see YouTube video) but without the babbling brook and nature scenes. In fact, the instructions I'm using encourage one to pray in a quiet place with closed eyes. The point is not to meditate. In fact, it's not a meditative prayer at all. But it is an ascetic practice, as one should focus attention on the words of the prayer and draw the mind back whenever it wanders. I don't know if I'm doing it right but I do think it has helped me to focus better and reject unhealthy thoughts. "Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." [Philippians 4:8]

--- 3 ---

This week I finished listening to a life changing book called Abandonment to Divine Providence (check out the free audiobook). At one point I was reminded of the third admirable cat behavior mentioned: "When cats fall, they don't brace for that fall, but meet the ground with their most relaxed body." So much suffering comes from bracing ourselves, in any given situation, for the worst possible outcome when normally the actual outcome is far better. However, we can learn from the cats that, even in the worst case, the best response is one of abandonment. "The passive part of sanctity is still more easy since it only consists in accepting that which we very often have no power to prevent, and in suffering lovingly, that is to say with sweetness and consolation, those things that too often cause weariness and disgust." "Resistance, often unnoticed, is the source of all our trouble." This abandonment is not apathy, but rather a discerning acceptance of Divine Providence. When God sends trials, be like a cat!

--- 4 ---

Public Service Announcement! I'm probably the last person in the world to learn this ingenious method of cooking corn on the cob, but I tried it last night and it was so perfect that I had to share it here! I microwaved mine for 4 minutes but I would imagine it depends on wattage.

--- 5 ---

Way back during the furlough, LMC Albert showed me how the Missionaries of Charity Sisters dry their Ziploc bags after washing them for reuse. Conveniently, the bags will stick right to the wall and you can hang them upside down to dry overnight. It looks a little redneck but that's fine by me. I'm sure there are plenty of studies that suggest that washing and reusing plastic bags can give you cancer… but the Bible says that I can eat poison and live, so I'm not too worried about it.

--- 6 ---

I hesitate to post a video that begins with a plane crash landing, even if it is that miraculous safe landing in the Hudson River. However, this video stars my friend Jeremy who is now in seminary, and it is quite educational. Who knew that snarge is a word? (Apparently not Google's spell checker!) Apparently snarge is the Smithsonian's term for the bloody and feathery mess left behind after an airplane strikes a bird. I asked Jeremy if the term snarge applies to automobile bird strikes and if there are other types (like squirrel snarge), but he wasn't sure. I'll have to remember these questions if I ever visit the Feather Identification Lab.

--- 7 ---

A year or so ago, I was sharing my knowledge of useless trivia with a coworker. He was convinced that the Giant Panda is a bear. Poor gullible fool, he assumed that because it is called the Panda Bear it is actually a member of the bear family! Anyone who paid attention in elementary school knows that the Giant Panda is a member of the raccoon family. However, he would not back down. Much to my dismay, his fancy smart phone brought up an onslaught of articles exposing the scandal that for years students were fed the lie that the Giant Panda is really a raccoon. Scientists have since determined that, as common sense would suggest, the Giant Panda is and always has been a bear. Now I learn that the tongue map concept (that salty, sweet, sour, and bitter tastes register in four distinct regions of the tongue) was disproved in 1974 (one wonders why it took so long). The tongue map idea was always hard for me to swallow since it never held true for my own tongue. However, I do remember being taught the tongue map more than a decade beyond 1974. Next thing you know they'll be telling me that dinosaurs (i.e. terrible lizards) are not actually lizards… oh, wait.

For more Quick Takes, visit Conversion Diary!

Friday, July 4, 2014

7 QT: Back to business as usual

I have been on a wild ride over the last few months, starting with spending every waking moment building and testing an instrument for a CubeSat project, punctuated with brief trips to New England to visit my grandmother who was dying of cancer. The instrument shipped and gramma passed away very peacefully followed by a really wonderful funeral service. I spent about one week recovering, attended a pilgrimage day with my friend Becky, and then traveled to Portsmouth VA for a science conference. When I got back I attended the Ordination Mass in Baltimore and then left for science conference #2 in Seattle WA. The next weekend I chaperoned a youth group trip to a Steubenville Youth Conference. After a few days back at work, I'm now back in New England visiting for the Independence Day weekend. So yeah… pretty wild.

--- 1 ---

My friend Becky and I went to the annual pilgrimage day at the Shrine of St. Anthony in Ellicott City. We heard some great talks by Ralph Martin and prayed the stations of the cross and the rosary. Becky chose to go to confession during the rosary and encountered a priest with the gift of prophecy! He knew what intentions she had been praying for and whether or not God had answered them. Supposedly all Baptized persons have been given the gift of prophecy and need only to develop it.

--- 2 ---

My examination of conscience often reveals that I say and do things without thinking about them ahead of time, simply reacting to external circumstances. I have struggled to become more aware of my behaviors in order to be in control of my actions, but it is a slow process. In addition, I have been conscious of the fact that I am not very recollected and can go for hours focused on wordly distractions, only to realize later that I had not once thought of God. After reading the book Practicing the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence, I made some valiant attempts at drawing my mind back to God whenever I noticed it straying. But that doesn't help during these hour long stretches. One has to notice the problem in order to correct it.

--- 3 ---

The weather during our first meeting in Portsmouth VA was hot and humid. No surprises there. Although the conference center was heavily air conditioned, the heat drove people indoors. And because I was staying at a hotel a few blocks away, my socializing was kept to a minimum. However, this private time was great for meditation and I began to notice how rushed I am in all of my actions. I realized that I will never be recollected enough to practice the presence of God or aware enough to be deliberate in my actions until I SLOW DOWN! Making a conscious effort to slow down immediately freed me from a sense of underlying anxiety that I had never noticed until it was gone. In preparing these Quick Takes I came across this article called Letting Go of the Rushed Life by a man who seems rather 'spiritual but not religious' but has some helpful advice. I'm considering adopting his Seven Silent Prayers, including "Refuse to defend yourself when anyone else wrongly accuses you." On the surface this seems scandalous and counterproductive, but many Saints have said the same.

--- 4 ---

On June 21 I went to the Ordination Mass in Baltimore. There is an amazing slideshow HERE. Five men were ordained to the priesthood and two are close friends of my buddy seminarian Jeremy. I got to received communion from freshly ordained Fr. Andy and was way more excited than I expected to be for these friends-of-a-friend. So I can't imagine what it will be like when there is only one degree of separation. Or would it be zero degrees?? Anyway, when an actual friend becomes a priest.

--- 5 ---

In Seattle I was staying just a couple blocks away from an amazing Dominican parish called Blessed Sacrament. They have windows depicting Dominican Saints including St. Albert the Great, one of the Patron Saints of Scientists. This parish has eucharistic adoration and chanting of the Divine Office before each weekday Mass and confession every Thursday. The priest gave a homily on Matthew 7:18 which says, "A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a rotten tree bear good fruit." He said that this statement is often confusing to people since our actions are always a mixture of good and bad. So he suggested that we think about it in terms of ideology and lifestyle. A bad ideology does not bear good fruit. And if our way of life is producing bad fruit then we should change it as soon as possible.

--- 6 ---

The Steubenville Youth Conference was fun. Franciscan University is unabashedly charismatic in worship style so there were a lot of hands raised, tears, youths resting in the spirit, etc. During a four hour eucharistic procession I learned just how pathetic I am when it comes to kneeling. Another chaperone told me that her friend who is in formation with the Capuchin Franciscans says the key is not shifting or moving at all once kneeling. Apparently, if one kneels without moving the knees go numb so that he can stay down for much longer.

--- 7 ---

This Independence Day weekend I went to the Shrine of the North American Martyrs while mom was working. The main building, called the colosseum, is a huge circular enclosure with a high ceiling and park bench-type pews. Although sheltered from the elements it gives a sense of being outdoors and it was not hard to imagine the Jesuit missionaries offering Mass on a makeshift altar in the wilderness. The shrine museum exhibit says that they often used overturned birchbark canoes as altars. Currently a huge fundraising effort is underway to cover some much needed repairs to be completed before next year in hopes that Pope Francis will stop by during his 2015 trip to USA. An invitation has been extended.

For more Quick Takes, visit Conversion Diary!