Sunday, October 11, 2015

Compunction: the gift of tears.

Stemming originally from bitter repentance, weeping develops into tears of rapture with Divine love.  And this is a sign that our prayer is heard and through its action we are led into new imperishable life. (Coniaris, “Philokalia: Bible of Orthodox Spirituality”, 175).

We know that the English language is very limited in some ways. Think, for example, of the word love. In Christianity, one of these over used words is gift. Sometimes we use the word gift to refer only to the seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit mentioned in Isaiah 11:2-3. Other times we use the word gift to refer to the charisms discussed by St. Paul in his letters (e.g. the gifts of tongues, interpretation of tongues, prophecy, healing and discernment of spirits). And often we use the word gift for the various blessings that the Lord has given us.

At Catholic Charismatic Renewal events, one often hears of the gift of tears. I suspect that this term is borrowed from the Pentecostal tradition, perhaps without enough scrutiny. Charismatic Christians will often include the gift of tears in the list of possible charisms, although this term won't be found in Scripture. However, we know that the Holy Spirit gives various charisms to various people and that St. Paul's list of charisms is not complete. (Consider, for example, Padre Pio's supposed gift of bilocation.) The Holy Spirit is infinitely creative. So the fact that I can't find a certain charism in Scripture doesn't necessarily mean that it's bogus. But St. Paul does say that the charisms are given for the building up and the edification of the Church (Ephesians 4:12, 1 Corinthians 14:5), which means they can be used in service of the rest of the community. I haven't been able to think of a way that my tears, which may be useful for my own edification, can be used to support the rest of the community.

However, if one were to say that the Holy Spirit gives to some individuals the special grace of healing tears (or better yet healing through tears) then I would say there is a basis for this gift in both Scripture and Tradition. We need only to look to the woman who bathed Jesus' feet with her tears to better understand this grace, which has traditionally been referred to as tears of compunction. (Luke 7:36-38, 44-47). (A far better discussion of this topic is available HERE. In fact, please please please read it. I found it after writing most of this post and it's AWESOME!)
One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house, and took his place at table. And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment. […] Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house, you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.”

I have been to charismatic events with many stoic people (myself included), emotion bottlers who don't know how to experience emotions in a healthy way. Maybe as a small child someone was repeatedly told "if you don't stop crying you're going to get a spanking" (I don't remember that happening to me…) and learned at a very young age that negative emotions are something to be ashamed of and to hide and ignore. Whatever the reason, many of us while growing up in this culture underwent a certain hardening of the heart. This can cause all kinds of problems including a lack of compassion for others who are suffering. Even many secular psychologists say that those bottled up emotions are not gone, but rather still present in the bottle and waiting for something to open that bottle so that they can be dealt with. Until those emotions are handled in a healthy way the person may suffer from anxiety and other emotional problems. When finally addressing the situation very intense emotions are felt and, although the process can be painful, it brings inner healing. At charismatic renewal events the Holy Spirit often opens this bottle and begins the process of softening the heart.

It's certainly possible to have such an experience of softening in silence and solitude. But for whatever reason, for many of the stoics I know, the initial trigger was the charismatic renewal. Often I have seen a friend open his/her heart a tiny bit and experience, for the very first time, an emotional connection with God. This is why the charismatic renewal boasts of helping people have a personal relationship with God, because so many people are feeling that relationship for the very first time and such an experience transforms a person's spiritual life, from an intellectual faith to a living faith. For the stoics I know, this healing has always been accompanied by a flood of tears. I'm no expert, but experientially I know that the shedding of tears greatly enhances the healing that I experience. And it's a beautiful thing, since we are washed clean by water in Baptism.

But what does this have to do with tears of compunction? I believe this flood of tears is a precursor to the true tears of compunction. Note that compunction is the healthy feeling of guilt that comes from the Holy Spirit. It might better be understood as sorrow for one's sins and the collective sins of the world. The Blessed Virgin Mary, who we believe never committed any sins, has the greatest sorrow for sin. And so we see that as a person grows in holiness his/her compunction only increases. But for us beginners, it makes sense to me that the Lord would preferentially give this grace of supernatural sorrow to those who have difficulty processing emotions in their natural life.

This compunction is very different from the anxious and neurotic guilt that we often feel, which comes from pride. Because so many of us suffer from neurotic guilt, which is actually sinful, we are sometimes encouraged to refuse to feel guilty about previous sins once they have been confessed. It's true we should realize that God has completely forgiven them and we will no longer be charged with them on judgement day. God is so merciful! But unless we have the grace of perfect contrition for our sins, we're still marked with the stain of sin and will need to be cleansed of this stain through temporal punishment*. Back in the Baltimore Catechism days, penitents confessing venial sins were encouraged to call to mind some previous (and already confessed!) mortal sins in order to stir up greater contrition for the cleansing of the remaining stain of sin.

St. Anthony the Great and St. Paul of Thebes
of the Desert Fathers

Compunction also strengthens our faith. In the book The Noonday Devil, written on the topic of acedia which is spiritual boredom or despair, there is a section on the Desert Fathers. The book describes one particular incidence in which a young hermit asked his spiritual director what to do about his horrible spiritual desolation. He just wanted to give up and go back to the world. His spiritual director's advice was to "go back to your cell and weep for your sins". Shedding tears of compunction is an act of hope, the antidote to acedia, and an act of praise of God's mercy. It's a paradoxical experience of joy-filled sorrow. In fact, according to St. John Chrisostom: "These tears do not bring sorrow; they bring more joy than all the laughter of the world can gain for you." It is a sweet sort of suffering. This ability to go to my room and weep for my sins is certainly a gift that only God can give. Without a special grace, I will simply beat myself up about previous sins and fuel my low self-esteem which, ironically, is a type of pride.

In conclusion, we all need this gift of tears and should ask for it. Compunction will heal our hardness of heart, stir up in us true contrition and facilitate our complete union with God. In Don Ruotolo's book Come, O Holy Spirit! he shares the following prayer 'to obtain the gift of tears' which was supposedly printed in a Missal:
Omnipotent and gentle God who, to slake the thirst of thy people, didst make a fountain of living water gush forth from the rock, draw from our hard hearts tears of compunction, that we might weep for our sins and, by thy mercy, merit to gain their forgiveness. 
Kindly pour into our hearts, Lord God, the grace of the Holy Spirit which, with cries and tears, will blot out the stain of our sins and, by thy generosity, obtain for us their long sot pardon. Through Christ our Lord.

*Some people will be uncomfortable with my use of the word punishment. Why would we be punished for a sin that has been forgiven?? Ok, perhaps a better word is purification or purgation. The sin has been forgiven but whatever defect that allowed the sin to happen in the first place is still present unless I have perfect contrition. I need to be freed from that defect in order to be perfect like my Heavenly Father is perfect. My mother always said "If you were really sorry, you wouldn't do it anymore!" She was both right and wrong about that. She was right because, if I truly understood the wrong that I was doing (i.e. perfect contrition) and, therefore, was truly sorry for doing it, then I would not do that thing anymore. However, my mother was wrong in the sense that we are fallen human beings with imperfect contrition and therefore I never truly see the evil and fully turn from it until the day that the Lord gives me perfect contrition. And, hopefully, that will be the moment that the Lord takes me from this life!

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Healing of families.

A couple of weeks ago I attended a one day retreat with some friends. This was led by Fr. Philip Scott who founded the Family of Jesus community. Above is a link to a talk by Fr. Philip that covers some of the material he mentioned that day. It was extremely helpful to me and, since I took lots of notes, I have included my summary here. Of course this is just a sketch of what he actually said, but retreat DVDs are available HERE.

Father Philip's retreat focused on father/mother wounds from growing up under less than ideal family circumstances. Since my father was totally absent growing up, Father Philip and many other spiritual leaders and psychologists would say that certain developmental issues were virtually inevitable. Unfortunately, a mother cannot impart a father's blessing and a father cannot impart a mother's blessing. The complete lack of a father/mother's blessing also weakens the blessing of the remaining parent who is now almost inevitably emotionally wounded and physically/mentally taxed by single parenthood. Also, Fr. Philip says there is something special about the biological connection between father/mother and child. Other male and female role models can certainly have a tremendously positive impact on a child's development, but cannot completely protect the child from suffering the lack of the biological father/mother's blessing. This is not so hard for me to believe, considering that in so many cases, even the most loving and understanding adoptive parents can't relieve their children of the desire to be known and loved by their biological parents.

The mother's blessing has the greatest impact on our social interactions, i.e. nurturing. The father's blessing is most important for stability, courage, self confidence (i.e. protecting and providing).

The father/mother wound comes from an absence of the father/mother's blessing in the child's life. With the blessing, the heart of the child knows that it is loved. Without the blessing, the child is faced with two primary challenges:

1.) The one who has not received the blessing feels that he has to be strong.

This often manifests in stoicism, a coldness and inability/fear of showing emotions externally, suppression of emotions, independence and insistence that I can take care of everything on my own and don't need help from anybody else. The problem is that we are weak. Life gives us plenty of opportunities to discover that we are not actually in control of external situations or even in control of our own feelings. The person who has not received the blessing often gets angry and/or discouraged easily and feels intense shame when things go wrong. "When they sin, the world falls apart. They may confess, but continue to feel guilty."

2.) The one who has not received the blessing does not have a clear sense of his own identity.

The person who has not received the blessing creates his own identity. He has to invent who he is because he does not know who he is. This can manifest itself in eccentricity, rebelliousness, lack of direction or motivation, depression and feeling that life has no meaning, a lack of understanding of one's mission and purpose in life.

One who has not received the blessing struggles intensely with loneliness. He compares himself with others, feels frustrated, powerless and lacks peace. He has a lot of noise inside his head, negative self-talk.

According to Fr. Philip, there are 5 necessary components of the father/mother blessing.

1.) Touch
This is especially important for children because they don't understand concepts. Children touch everything, put everything they can into their mouths!, and need to feel things to know that they are real. Touch that conveys love is necessary for the child to feel loved. A child that does not receive this aspect of the blessing continues to need that love as he/she transitions into adolescence and adulthood and usually seeks it in the wrong places, through sexual experiences.

2.) Words
Love also needs to be expressed in words. Time and again I would hear from the men in prison something along the lines of: "I don't care if my father is still an alcoholic and making all the wrong decisions. I just wish that at least once in his life he would tell me that he loves me." Words have power and the blessing builds up the child. Words spoken in anger kill love. A person who has not received this component of the blessing, or has experienced the father/mother's curse, is often hypersensitive. Some families don't share their feelings at all. The parents' inability to express feelings in a healthy way is transmitted to the children who feel that they are not free to express feelings. There are often a lot of secrets in families that do not communicate openly.

3.) Time
Parents need to show their love by spending time with children. Not only should the parents be around, but time should be spent entering into the child's world and communicating at the child's level. It is important to make the effort to really know the child, that he may feel understood. Again, "in a healthy family you are allowed to have feelings and to share them".

4.) If my mom and dad really knew me, they could help me discover my calling.
An important way in which the father/mother blesses the child is to help him discover his unique identity as a child of God and the path to which the Lord is calling him. Without this the child has a poor sense of identity and feels he is facing life alone.

5.) Discipline
The father/mother loves the child even when disciplining him when these occasions of stress are treated as teaching moments. The parents again enter the child's world to understand why he is behaving in such a way and to help the child feel loved, accepted, and understood.

Men who have not received the blessing typically try to impress (e.g. blaring radios from jacked up cars with monster truck tires). Women who have not received the blessing tend to dress immodestly in order to attract attention.

With God there is a way out!
It is necessary to realize we are weak. God will send us plenty of opportunities to acknowledge this. In order to avoid despair upon realizing that we are weak, we must call upon God to be our strength. We must leave every problem in His hands to resolve as He sees fit. (This is the basis of the 12 step programs.)

It is necessary to feel our feelings! And therefore it is necessary to go back and feel the feelings that we did not allow ourselves to feel before (suppressed emotions). This time we go back knowing that Jesus is there with us. As we progress along this path of healing, God will begin to help us see the reality of our situation, so that we can distinguish our true selves from the selves we have invented. We will be adopted into the perfect family of the Holy Trinity where we know without a doubt that we are completely understood and completely loved.

Note that feelings in and of themselves are a natural human response to the circumstances of our lives and therefore are not sinful. So we should not try to ignore and control our emotions but rather allow ourselves to recognize them. It is the way that we behave in response to our emotions that can be sinful. Attempting to smother our feelings often can make them grow stronger. For example, trying to smother anger can increase it and cause our angry outburst to become even more violent. Instead, we must immediately acknowledge the feeling of anger and that we are blinded by it (strong emotions impair our ability to reason), call upon God to handle the situation, and enter into prayer. Fr. Philip recommended praying the name of Jesus on the rosary beads.

I plan to watch the DVDs and look forward to learning more about the healing process. We got a detailed overview of the problem but kind of ran out of time toward the end of the day. I got the message that we need to accept the fact that we are weak and depend on God instead. And we need healing of memories and to stop smothering our emotions. That's enough to work on for now!

The day after the retreat I was at Mass and listening to our priest's homily. He said that in our society we are taught jealousy from a very young age and that our materialistic society with all of our advertising trains us to covet our neighbors' goods. If our neighbors have a nicer house or car or phone, we wish we had something better. We feel driven to succeed and have the highest paying job so that we can have the most and the best goods, everything that money can provide. We are also taught to be ambitious. This is a less obvious danger because it is a good thing to be motivated. However, we're taught that we need to accomplish more and more things, bigger and better than ever before. In school we should be getting the highest grades, in our workplace we should be making the highest salary. We are very accomplishment driven. At high school and college graduations, speakers exhort us to go out and save the world and make our mark on history. Many of us are now SO exhausted by trying to move mountains. I feel this also happens in the spiritual life. At the very beginning of the spiritual life, when turning away from the world, exhortations to bigger and better acts of charity can be useful to get us off of our butts and into ministry opportunities. However, eventually these same exhortations can make a person spiritually ambitious in a way that is exhausting. God needs to teach us that even in our spiritual lives we are weak. Like Sister Nirmala said and Fr. Philip was explaining, the proper spiritual perspective is that of littleness and spiritual childhood, total weakness and dependence on God, recognizing that He is the one who saves the world and anything that I can do is the tiniest drop in the bucket.