Thursday, April 28, 2016

On the Benefit of Guidelines: How *Too Much* Freedom Can Stifle Creativity and Productivity

When I came out of Carmel, I was overwhelmed-- by everything. At the infinite amount of choices to be made for daily functioning that I had become unaccustomed to having to make for myself in religious community life. In fact, taking the burden of a million little time-, energy-, and thought-sucking concerns off one's shoulders is one of the major benefits that religious life provides in allowing the religious to be all about the Father's business. Of course, the burden must be assumed by somebody: the "Mother," but not the "children." The children are free to be children-- to grow and develop by being wholly present to their being-in-the-world, to things in themselves, as they experience them. This freedom is so liberating-- because religious know what they're about; they know in what their mission consists.

"In the world," as the outside of a cloister is commonly referred to within cloister walls, I experienced my new-found freedom in making personal autonomous choices as overwhelming. I couldn't decide what to order-- anywhere-- at a restaurant, at a coffee shop, etc. Even what to purchase at a gas station if I wanted a drink or a snack. I forgot how to WANT specific things. How to entertain natural preferences and inclinations for licit pleasures.

Four months post-Carmel, I was living in Ave Maria, FL, and had developed pneumonia. I was *cloistered* in a hospital for days and didn't know what to do with my ill self except watch movies, including The Great Gatsby. The line that struck me as completely applicable to my current state was: “I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.”

When people have infinite possibilities, it can be experienced as stifling, in so far as one does not know which option to choose. In Carmel, I always longed for more freedom. When the Lord gave it back to me, I didn't want it. An example is when I offered to help with Religious Education at a parish in Naples. They asked if I would be the Catechist for second graders on Sunday mornings, and prepare them for the Sacraments of First Reconciliation and Communion. Great, I thought, I have such a devotion to the Eucharist and (an ambivalent) love for Confession, only to find out I'd be on my own and receiving no instruction on how to be a Catechist, what to do, how to structure a class, even what to teach (although I was given materials.) That would be a lot of people's dream-- to be given free reign. In normal circumstances it would probably be mine too. But not at that time-- it was simply too overwhelming. In that scenario, guidelines were deeply desirable.
When it comes to granting freedom, the key to creativity is giving people autonomy concerning the means—that is, concerning process—but not necessarily the ends. People will be more creative, in other words, if you give them freedom to decide how to climb a particular mountain. You needn’t let them choose which mountain to climb. In fact, clearly specified strategic goals often enhance people’s creativity.
Life gives us plenty of guidelines without us really needing to ask for them. But in certain cases, and for free-spirited, spontaneous people like myself, it can be very helpful to create some self-imposed guidelines, not to  limit yourself, but in order to truly let yourself free-- free to move and take action in a creative way-- to really live, creatively, instead of making sure no one ever puts constraints on your ability to live. G.K. Chesterton put it this way:
Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground. [...] We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff's edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased.
I can apply this to my current state: engaged to be married. Getting engaged-- committing to marry one person for life-- was not constricting, but liberating for Ryan and I. We finally felt free to really be in relationship with each other, now that we knew which mountain we were climbing-- the vocation of marriage, and with whom we'll be climbing.

Preparation for Marriage has been an opportunity for us to consider some priorities and goals for our life together. We don't really like planning and decisions and writing things in stone-- we prefer the seat-of-our pants style openness to whatever God throws at us kind of existence. But in claiming to be free for Divine Providence in this laissez-faire way, we may actually be stifling our ability to enter into the specific tasks that the Lord is asking of us. If I may quote a certain musician who I sort of hate to love: "Everything happens for a reason, is no reason not to ask yourself if you are living it right."

So, let's remember to pray for each other-- that we are given the grace of discernment and courage to make decisions that may seem to be constrictive in the short term, but actually set us free to live out creatively and productively the plan the God has for our lives.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

This is an adventure

When Ryan and I first started dating, we experienced a phenomenon that often accompanies euphoria: a desire for the moment to endure. It's like asking time to stand still that you may revel in your happiness forever. Following the lead of C.S. Lewis, we call this the encore. In his book of Letters to Malcom: Chiefly on Prayer, Lewis talks about the necessity of not grasping onto the golden moments in a way that prevents us from being open to receiving the new blessings that God wants to give us. In this respect, a grateful bravo full of wonder and awe is a more appropriate value response than demanding an encore. Lewis asks: "How should the Infinite repeat Himself? All space and time are too little for Him to utter Himself in them once." But what a challenge it is for us to trust.

This seems to parallel Peter's experience on Mount Tabor. When Jesus was transfigured and Moses and Elijah appeared, the glory of the moment drew from Peter a bravo: "It is good that we are here." He also said he'd be happy to make accommodations for the prolongation of this event. I think it's safe to say that this is an understandable desire for an encore. But what came next? The voice of the Father exhorting the disciples to obey His Son, and they fell on their faces in wonder and awe. When Jesus told them to “Rise, and have no fear” a new task lay ahead of them: to come down from the mountain. 

The glory that they experienced-- what transpired on that mountain-- was real, and they'll take that with them and live from that reality in the nitty gritty of their daily lives. We too need to be docile to the will of God in whatever way it is made manifest to us-- not pitting the valley and the heights against each other, but embracing the challenge to live integrally-- always ready to listen for His voice and obey as best we can. 

On my first day working for Ave Maria University, Dr. Catherine Pakaluk quoted a line from the Russian film The Island. The plot includes a young monk who is antagonistic towards the strange ways of his brother monk, Father Anatoli. But when Father Anatoli was near death and his sanctity had become more evident, the young monk asked him "How should I live?" To which the holy fool replied with the wise words that life is hard; live the way you can. Far from being a license for mediocrity, this speaks to the inescapable reality of the cross, and to the unique manner in which it is to be carried by each one of us. Every person is unique and unrepeatable, and our stories can't be copied from the lives of others, but only lived by us in authenticity. This is a life-long process of continual discernment.

Mr. Brady and I began this week with Sunday Mass where we heard the Gospel story of the Transfiguration. During the homily the priest exhorted us to transfigure our desires. I asked my genius and linguistically gifted fiancé what the difference between transfigure and transform is: they're essentially the same. So I began rethinking transformation, the aspiration so near and dear to my heart while I was discerning a religious vocation.

Our desires are transfigured with every Mount Tabor experience. And we pray for the grace to keep growing in love. The heights are awesome, and left to ourselves we'd want to stay their forever. But love must remain in motion-- it can't be held on to, only given away. And only through a sincere gift of self do we truly find ourselves. The hermeneutics of the gift-- understanding life as a gift to be given-- and living according to that law, does not negate our nature but ennobles it. 

The universal call to holiness and the demands it puts upon us does not require a diminishment of personal identity and all of the hopes and desires that go along with it, but demands a robust subjectivity which is open to transcendence. Realizing your vocation will not alienate you from yourself or draw you away from God or others. Your personal subjectivity is intrinsically connected to others due to your contingency as a creature and our nature as persons made in the image and likeness of God. But your desires will become most true to who you are if you allow them to be penetrated and transformed. Our prayers don't change things, prayer changes us. By means of communion we become most fully ourselves. This is scary and exciting. Life is an adventure, but one that we don't walk alone. 

Mr. Brady and I will be joined in the sacrament of marriage on August 6th, 2016, which providentially is the Feast of the Transfiguration. It's true, we'd be thrilled with any day, and know it would be the occasion of a golden moment. But we look for meaning, and find it everywhere. We can't help but experience this as a confirmation of our desire to embark on this mountain scaling adventure together, as husband and wife. And we pray for the blessing of little ones with whom to share our love. 

On what was to be the night of our engagement, Mr. Brady wanted to take me to Naples, but I told him there was a Humanae Vitae conference which I'd like to attend. My beloved graciously acquiesced. His favorite take-away from the talks was an idea of the family to which we can aspire: that our domestic church may be a creative minority from which the Light shines as a witness to all. Whereas formerly this ideal took the form of justified PDA-- because they'll know we're Christians by our love ;) Now our witness is manifested in a public engagement-- revealing our intention to commit ourselves in marriage. 

Like my friend C.S. Lewis, we too have be surprised by joy. Thanks for sharing it with us.


Monday, December 14, 2015

For unto us aZélie is born!

Saint John of the Cross used the story of Tobias and Sarah as an analogy in the Ascent of Mount Carmel. He describes three ways in which faith is experienced as a dark night, and compares them to the three nights of prayer that Tobias had to undergo before consummating his marriage to Sarah (an aspect of the story found in Saint Jerome's version of the book of Tobit.)

We can offer three reasons for calling this journey toward union with God a night. The first has to do with the point of departure, because individuals must deprive themselves of their appetites for worldly possessions. This denial and privation is like a night for all one's senses. The second reason refers to the means or the road along which a person travels to this union. Now this road is faith, and for the intellect faith is also like a dark night. The third reason pertains to the point of arrival, namely God. And God is also a dark night to the soul in this life. These three nights pass through a soul, or better, the soul passes through them in order to reach union with God. 
They are represented in the Book of Tobias [Tb. 6:18-22], where we read that the angel ordered the young Tobias to wait three nights before any union with his bride. On the first night he was to burn the fish heart in the fire. That heart signified the human heart that is attached to worldly things. To undertake the journey to God the heart must be burned with the fire of divine love and purified of all creatures. Such a purgation puts the devil to flight, for he has power over people through their attachment to temporal and bodily things. Tobias, on the second night, as the angel told him, was to be admitted into the society of the holy patriarchs, the fathers of the faith. After passing through the first night (the privation of all sensible objects), a person enters the second night by living in faith alone; not in a faith that is exclusive of charity but a faith that excludes other intellectual knowledge, as we shall explain later, for faith does not fall into the province of the senses. The angel told Tobias that on the third night he would obtain the blessing, which is God. God, by means of faith, which is the second night, communicates himself so secretly and intimately that he becomes another night for the soul. This communication of God is a night much darker than those other two nights, as we will soon point out. When this third night (God's communication to the spirit, which usually occurs in extreme darkness of soul) has passed, a union with the bride, who is the Wisdom of God, then follows. Tobias was also told by the angel that, after the third night had come to an end, he would be joined to his bride in the fear of the Lord. Now when the fear of God is perfect, love is also perfect, which means that the transformation of the soul in God through love is accomplished.

Saint John of the Cross was the Co-Founder of the Discalced Nuns of the Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel. One of his most famous spiritual daughters and heir to his spirituality was Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. Thérèse Martin was born of holy parents, the recently canonized Saints Louis and Zélie Martin.

As a souvenir of their marriage (at midnight between July 12 and July 13, 1858), Louis Martin designed a medallion as a gift for Zélie.  At the moment they exchanged their vows, the priest blessed the medallion.  Louis slipped the wedding ring on the finger of Zélie's right hand, and then placed the medallion in her left hand, saying "Receive the symbol of our wedding promises."  Louis chose the Biblical figures of Sarah and Tobias for this souvenir. Below are photographs of both sides of the original medallion, now located at the bishopric of the diocese of Sees, in which Zélie was born.

Last year my dear friends got married.

In their beautiful Wedding Mass, the reading they chose was from the Book of Tobit:

Tobias arose from bed and said to his wife, “My love, get up. Let us pray and beg our Lord to have mercy on us and to grant us deliverance.” She got up, and they started to pray and beg that deliverance might be theirs. He began with these words:
“Blessed are you, O God of our fathers; praised be your name forever and ever. Let the heavens and all your creation praise you forever. You made Adam and you gave him his wife Eve to be his help and support; and from these two the human race descended. You said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone; let us make him a partner like himself.’ Now, Lord, you know that I take this wife of mine not because of lust, but for a noble purpose. Call down your mercy on me and on her, and allow us to live together to a happy old age.” They said together, “Amen, amen,” and went to bed for the night.

And today, on the Feast of Saint John of the Cross, to this dear couple a child was born, and they named her Zélie.

When a woman is in travail she has sorrow, because her hour has come; but when she is delivered of the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a child is born into the world. -John 16:21
All my prayers and love today go out to my dear friends and their new bundle of JOY.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Assent to Gratitude, Descend for Others

“May you be for ever blessed for that moment of bliss and happiness which you gave to another lonely and grateful heart. Isn’t such a moment sufficient for the whole of one’s life?” 
--Fyodor Dostoyevsky, White Nights, 1848

The Will to Meaning- Finding purpose in relation to the Other

Getting trapped within yourself is the definition of hell, right? My professor recently tried to explain to me that for Kant, nothing exists outside of his own mind. When I suggested that Kant just wanted to be in heaven, he corrected me by saying "No, he wants to be in hell!" I think this is what happens to us when we get consumed in our own thoughts, worries, and cares.

I believe in a will to meaning (Frankl), as opposed to Nietzsche's will to power and Freud's will to pleasure. Everyone needs to know that their life has meaning, and I would say that this can only be found in relationship. In isolation, nothing seems worth it. When you bring others into the picture, it can elicit within us the noblest of ideals.

This is an evangelical principle. The conviction that you have a responsibility to others, that you have something to offer them even as a mere instrument or conduit of truth and love-- to which I think the individual does make a unique contribution in the transmitting process, but even without that, the value of the person for another remains-- brings with it a sense of purpose. It brings you out of yourself, which is the definition of ecstasy, right? So the pleasure of joy in doing God's will is a by-product of being a gift to another.

And thus happiness, bliss, eudaimonia, or beatitude cannot efficaciously be sought for one's own sake-- it's only at the moment that you leave it aside that it comes to you. And it comes to you precisely in fulfilling your purpose. God has created you in community, for others. Mother Teresa is oft quoted as saying charity begins at home. It's easy to claim that you love humanity as a whole, that you're pro-immigrant, when you won't invite that obnoxious "stray cat" (to use my father's term) in your life over for Thanksgiving.

Arthur Brooks addressed an important issue, per usual for him, in the New York Times last week. He was looking at the role of emotions in acts of thanksgiving. Must one feel grateful in order to give thanks-- in order to be true to yourself? No, he says. Utilize your will to choose your attitude and perform mental acts of gratitude, and this active habit will elicit the corresponding emotions. Don't wait to be grateful, give thanks anyway.

Now don't get me wrong-- I'm in the heart camp. I'm a big fan of emotions, and I have a lot of them. I think eros is absolutely essential in love. But eros, longing or desire, is what brings you out of yourself. John Paul II describes it as a step on a staircase, and my professor reminded me that this is not a one-way flight of stairs, but one that as Pope Benedict would often remind us, we are continually ascending and descending-- being filled, going out in charity, returning to God, and pouring ourselves back out in service.

So ascend the mountain as you prepare for Thanksgiving. Receive from God the grace He wants to pour out on you. Make acts of thanksgiving for the people in your lives. Ask for the grace to be truly grateful for them in all their imperfections. And then descend the mountain to serve them. Be ready and fortified to give Him to Others, and the joy will come.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Charity vs. Philanthropy

When I tried to pin the First Things book review CHARITY OR PHILANTHROPY? by Ian Tuttle on my 'Murica Pinterest board, my description exceeded the allowed number of words. This is as good an impetus as any for a blog post, right? Here goes:

I love the implied exhortation in this article- but it's easier said than done.

The instersubjectivity essential to charity (and absent in philanthropy) makes real demands on the person beyond the mere act of giving. It necessitates a reciprocal relationship, creating a vulnerability that is lacking in the role of a mere provider.

A literary illustration of this phenomena is contained in the novel Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig, where the protagonist's act of "charity" ultimately entangles him in a web of disaster.

At the same time, love cannot expect anything in return. For example, it is laudable that the Godfather refuses to perform acts of philanthropy divorced from a personal relationship. He holds family in high esteem, and thus if he's going to take care of you, it will be as a member of the family. This relationship, however, comes at a price that he will determine at a future date and you must accept in order for the relationship to be sustained. These are relationships that resemble that of a master and slave more than a father and son. They are bereft of mercy and forgiveness.

The Corleones, the Sons of Anarchy, and all such family-like associations of organized crime, while making the positive contribution of community in a culture of individualism, also create their own moral code aligned with their own idea of justice.

Philanthropy commits the same error. Only true charity, as a humble participation in the love of Christ, truly connects you to your brother and sister and acquires merit for the salvation of souls. Anything less misses the mark and becomes vanity of vanities.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Theology of the Wound: Teresa, Frodo, and SOA

Today is the feast day of St. Teresa of Avila. She is my spiritual mother. Not that she is my favorite saint, or I have the greatest attraction or feel closest to her. Love for a mother is something quite different than mere friendship. I would venture to describe my relationship to her as one of filial respect, a certain indebtedness to her for forming me as her spiritual daughter.

Childhood is not a bed of roses. In fact it sucks being a child, in a very different way from the hardship of adulthood. Learning, growing, and maturing are exhausting, painful, and humiliating. Although this process never ends in this valley of tears, it takes on a different form after leaving your parent's home—the point at which you become “independent.” This line is probably blurred in many instances, but I'm sure parents recognize stages at which their role as a parent changes in relation to their child. The "adult-child” is given more space, if you will, more liberty and autonomy.

But the child, always under a watchful eye, experiences, at least in hindsight, a gratitude for that security that they knew under their parents’ roof and protection. As they grow in self-knowledge, they may recognize the impact and influence that their mother has had on them. This has definitely been my experience. 

Accompanied by these reflections there may exist a certain nostalgia—a longing for the past, with all its innocence and naivety. There are ways in which mothers shield and prepare their children for the evils of the world. But they can’t take them away for good—they must let their children go and find their way.

The looking back in itself may be painful, as memories often are. At the same time that I experience joy on this feast day, I feel a wound. When I left Carmel, I had just read and watched The Lord of the Rings. It was a dramatic time for me, and I related all too closely with Frodo on his difficult journey and return home:
"Are you in pain, Frodo?" . . . . 
"Well, yes I am," said Frodo. "It is my shoulder. The wound aches, and the memory of darkness is heavy on me. It was a year ago today." 
"Alas! There are some wounds that cannot be wholly cured," said Gandalf. 
"I fear that it may be so with mine," said Frodo. "There is no real going back. Though I may come to the Shire, it will not seem the same; for I shall not be the same. I am wounded with knife, sting, and tooth, and a long burden. Where shall I find rest?" [967]
All the saints know this pain. All of humanity does too, whether they realize its significance or not.
"The malady from which he suffered, we all, who are of Adam's seed, suffer from the same. Such a malady has befallen us, as Esaias says, It is not a wound, nor a bruise, nor an inflamed sore; it is not possible to apply a mollifying ointment, nor oil, nor to make bandages? Thus were we wounded with an incurable wound; the Lord alone could heal it. For this reason He came in His own person; because none of the ancients, nor the law itself, nor the prophets, were able to heal this wound. He alone by His coming healed that sore of the soul, that incurable sore" -St. Macarius
Though we have been redeemed, the wound will keep hurting until we reach the “Undying Lands.”

Monday, March 9, 2015

All the single ladies

I entrusted my vocation to Saint Joseph upon entering Carmel, and I don't think his intercessory power is limited by cloister walls. He's protector of virgins, but maybe more commonly sought after by women waiting for husbands. 

This is for all my single ladies out there, who I will be recommending to the intercession of dear Saint Joseph.

Saint Joseph Novena Prayer
(March 10-18)

Heavenly Father, You gave St. Joseph a share in Your Fatherhood and placed him as a father to Jesus on earth. Help us to be obedient to Your will as he was. Teach us the way of prayer that we may enjoy the friendship of Mary and Jesus as did St. Joseph. During this life's hardships, give us courage to walk with those who need us that we may be enriched by their gifts. Carry us through sufferings and trials with St. Joseph at our side. And may we look to him at the final hour of death. We ask this through Your Son, Jesus. Amen.